Monday, December 8, 2014

things that change lives

I seem to have blundered into a reflective phase.  (Don't worry, I'll snap out of it.) 


For whatever reason, the other day the question popped into my head: what books have I read that have had the biggest impact on my life?  Let's say, ten most influential books so far, for me personally.  I'm 32. 


If you'd asked me in college, I would have said The Story of a Soul, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and The Imitation of Christ, while I thought about the next seven spots.  While I stand by the first one, I've spent the intervening decade or so trying to remedy the damage of the latter two.  (Not that I have anything personal against Thomas a Kempis or Joshua Harris, per se.  Just that I think the world - or at minimum a number of its people - would have been a better place had they tossed the manuscripts in the fire.) 


So I'm keeping The Story of a Soul.  I'm adding Gordon Korman's Son of Interflux, because.  If you'd read it twenty times, as I have, you'd know why. 


Keeping a wary eye on my college experience, and therefore considering that I might need some years to mull candidates over before I can fairly judge, I wonder whether I haven't read three of the top ten in just the past year.  That would be Susie Orbach's Bodies, Sherry Weddell's Forming Intentional Disciples, and Conrad Baars's Feeling and Healing Your Emotions.  Is it interesting that all three are non-fiction?  I guess that was true of my first three, too.  And I claim to read only fiction. 


So from my current vantage, that's five total.  But I'm having trouble with the next five.  I've read lots of books, but which are really the most influential?  I'm inclined toward those I reach to for a quote on a constant basis because they most perfectly capture some idea that is inextricably part of how I view the world - in short, of course, because they are the place I found some notion that has become part of how I view the world.  But in some cases I can't remember the book's title, though the idea is indelible.  The good ideas are funny that way. 


Would love to hear what books others have found to leave a stamp on their lives. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

must-read

This is essential, necessary, life-changing reading.  Great suffering with great love - and a reminder to me of what the next decades of living a holy life as a Catholic woman are supposed to look like (while I fail miserably at the current phase). 


I know that through these pages I have met some of you who have watched your children suffer and die with faith and love, an experience I cannot even imagine.  I am humbled. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

I gave up; chocolate

I gave up, and I'm not sorry. 

In theory it would have been easy to write 31 posts about comfort food.  I have so many ideas.  In fact, it would have been easy to write three or four posts a day and have them pre-scheduled to appear - for example, during the weekend we're traveling to a friend's wedding.  (Note that that has not happened yet.) 

But these good intentions were displaced when I realized that I have ebola I apparently just don't care enough. 

There's no point making elaborate apologies for my failures to post things on this blog.  It's not like I have a giant readership that would be really sad if I stopped writing.  Heck, people who do have a significant readership go into radio silence for far longer than I have.  Granted I was supposed to write 31 of them, but I've already published, what, eight posts this month?  That's not bad!  Especially if you want to read about food.  (It's not necessary to respond to that.) 

But, I do have a (very small) consolation prize. 

Remember when I wrote that I (accidentally) discovered a way to make super-dark chocolate ice cream that didn't even require an ice cream maker for churning? 

That was really good ice cream.  If you recall, the point was basically that it was so thick it was a solid at refrigerator temperature; therefore, it could not be churned.  And that viscosity came from the extremely high fat content, so it was fairly creamy when frozen.  However, churning does add a certain je ne sais quoi to the texture of ice cream - specifically, it makes it creamier.  (OK, so, I do know quoi.) 

Since that time, I have been on a bit of a mission to figure out how to make ice cream that has the same flavor (namely, uses Baker's chocolate instead of semi-sweet or even dark chocolate), but doesn't come out so thick it can't be churned.  I was concerned that dropping the fat content too low would take me back into the low-budget ice cream territory where it's no problem to churn the stuff, but it isn't entirely worth eating anyway, because it's more like ice milk.  (No offense, but that's an inferior product.  No point making something that costs $10-12 per half gallon in ingredients if it's not totally decadent.) 

Anyway, I've done some (tasty) trial and error, and I think I have the proportions down. 

So without further ado...a super-outrageously-chocolate-y ice cream recipe you can actually get into the ice cream maker. 

Start with

2 4-ounce bars of Baker's chocolate (the zero-sugar baking chocolate stuff)

and beat them persistently with a hammer before ever removing them from the package.  Pour out of the package into a Pyrex-type bowl and add

1 cup of heavy whipping cream

and put the bowl in the microwave for two minutes on high (YMicrowaveMV).  Meanwhile, pour two cups of 2% milk into a 2-quart (or similar) saucepan and put it on low heat.  Then, separate

6 egg yolks

(reserving the whites for another recipe) and mix them with

1 1/4 cups of sugar

with a fork.  Fetch the chocolate out of the microwave and stir gently with a spatula until homogenous.  Turn off the heat under the milk before it gets to (let alone past) simmering.  Add portions of first the chocolate and then the milk to the eggs, stirring thoroughly after each addition, until entirely combined. 

Pour the entire mixture back into the saucepan and set over low heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture has a ring of tiny bubbles and begins to steam visibly (it will also noticeably thicken).  Then add

1-2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Stir, then put the whole mixture in the fridge for 8 hours or until it has become well and truly as cold as the refrigerator.  At that time, you can feed it through your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.  Note that my ice cream maker (the KitchenAid attachment) requires freezing the "freeze bowl" for at least 15 hours before use, so if yours is similarly picky you actually want to start that part of the process first.  After churning, put the mixture in the freezer for about three hours before first serving.  Enjoy! 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

apple goodness

Before we moved to the DC area, some delightful friends (whom we miss!) gave us a lovely and thoughtful going-away present, which included this beautiful piece of pottery: 


On the bottom, it has a somewhat unusual stamp:


My fastest apple dessert recipe, and just as tasty as the fancy pies. Enjoy.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

roast beast

Almost as much as hearty soups and homemade bread, dropping temperatures put me in the mood to toss a giant hunk of meat in the oven. There are lots of delicious things to roast.

You could roast a leg of lamb (mmmm...lamb).

You could roast a chicken (though I'm lousy at that).

You could roast a duck (I've done it, but it's definitely not an everyday occurrence).

You could roast a whole fish (haven't done that - I find it easier to broil fish, but then again I've never bought a whole one).

But I want to talk about roasting that's EASY.  In my experience, there are two things that are really easy to roast.

The first is pork loin. Specifically, a half boneless pork loin. All of those attributes are important: if you want an easy task, you want a boneless cut. You want a loin, not a tenderloin; tenderloin is delicious (and I love it for the grill), but it's much smaller, and more expensive. And you want half the loin: the whole thing is nearly three feet long and a pain in the neck to work with - even if you're feeding a huge crowd, you might find it easier to work with two half loins than a whole one. (Obviously, if you want to feed lots of people and use two half loins, you could cut a whole one in half. But if you want to buy it ahead of time, you better have a ton of space in your freezer!)

I stumbled upon this easy-roasting project when I found half pork loins on great sales during my student days. In the intervening years I've learned a few things about making it easy.

First of all, you want a piece of even diameter so it cooks evenly. Secondly, you want almost no fat on it EXCEPT that you want a nice even fat cap, about 1/8" thick, completely covering one side. When you roast it, that will be the top; and as it roasts, the fat will slowly melt and baste the meat, so although it's a fairly lean cut, it will be very moist.

Now, about how to roast it. You want to roast meat with a marinade, of which there are three essential components. The first is FAT. A coating of fat will seal in the meat's moisture as the outside cooks. This could be olive oil, melted butter, duck fat - whatever. The second is ACID. The acid will help to start breaking down the meat a bit. You could use vinegar, lemon juice (or another citrus), or even a very tart yogurt. Finally, you want any seasonings you'd like to start infusing into your meat. (At this stage, salt is optional - I would say it's better to wait to add salt until the very end.) So, at the simplest level, the marinade could include just oil and vinegar - that would be effective, but it wouldn't add any extra flavor. And remember, I go for more is more. Of course, that doesn't have to mean more work. If you think about it, salad dressing has all the ingredients (fat, acid, and seasonings). I consider golden Caesar dressing a go-to marinade for all applications - it somehow pairs perfectly with beef, pork, chicken, fish, AND vegetables. I always have a bottle on hand. If you have a few extra minutes, you can make a marinade from scratch. My go-to marinade consists of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, minced garlic, and freshly-ground black pepper and rosemary. (If you don't have a mortar and pestle, you can chop up the pepper and rosemary with a chef knife.)

I also have a variation on marinade for pork loin specifically: just a rub of oil and herbes de Provence, or even dried oregano and oil. Simple, but delicious.

The traditional method of roasting meat is to start by browning all sides in a skillet in some fat. This searing locks the juices in and prevents the whole piece of meat from drying out during the roasting time, because once the outside is cooked, it won't bleed its juices any more (unless it is cut). But as is foreshadowed in my insistence on a fat-containing marinade, I take a different approach to that. I no longer remember where I read this tip, but I follow it religiously: whatever the rest of the roasting instructions, I start every roast with 15 minutes in an oven preheated to 500F. Then I drop the temperature to the regular roasting temperature (generally 325 or 350 degrees), and give it the rest of its time. About 22 minutes a pound is standard for pork loin (though those first 15 minutes are really equivalent to 22 minutes in view of the higher temperature).

Probably you should use the USDA guidelines on internal temperature to make sure the pork is done, but I'll be honest: I go exclusively by color (which requires either guessing that the meat is done until after it's rested, or cutting it to check doneness BEFORE it's rested, which is a no-no: a roast should sit ten minutes at least after coming out of the oven so that the juices can re-absorb and don't all just run out when it's cut. But I do it anyway, and then smoosh the meat back together to re-close the gash). For a pork loin roast, I want the center to be MOSTLY greige, but in the very middle, I want to see a blush color. Once the whole roast is greige, it's too dry.

So one day I got to thinking: it's too bad that there's not a cut of beef with the virtues of the pork loin. Something without a ton of tough connective tissue that requires long cooking. And without a lot of fat ribbons that need trimming - with the whole diameter of the roast just plain meat. With a nice fat cap for self-basting. Not with a lot of fine marbling to keep it tender, since that's really expensive beef - just a plain, not-super-tough cut with a moderate diameter, so it roasts fairly quickly and doesn't get tough.

Then one day in the grocery store I noticed eye of round roast on sale and realized that I am an idiot. It's beef straight through (no fat to trim out of the middle). It's not too big around. It's not all marbled like a pricey rib eye - but it's a light red color, not too tough (compared to, say, the dark red of a chuck roast, which has to be cooked for hours to be tender).  And while eye of round roasts are cut less uniformly than than pork loin roasts, you can find one of fairly even diameter and with a nice even fat cap. One caveat: if you like your beef well done, this cut may be too tough by the time it's finished. I eat my beef medium-rare, and this roast cones out perfectly. (Not as tender as a rib eye, say, but plenty tender to be delicious!)

I'm not sure this comes through, given the length of my musings on this topic, but you could make either of these with less time actually working than it takes to read this post. A few minutes to slather the roast with marinade and pop it in a roasting pan (while the oven preheats); a few seconds to change the temperature from 500F and then reset the timer. It's ridiculously easy.

And if you want the rest of the meal to be equally easy, you can skip the roasting rack by setting your roast on a pile of winter vegetables (in fact, any vegetable that can handle a long cooking time). I recommend small cubes of potato (3/4"); large cubes of onion (1.5"), NOT slices (onions burn a LOT faster than potatoes); halved Brussels sprouts; and cubes of squash, turnips, or carrots (or all of those). Add a drizzle of oil and salt and pepper. I buy bags of frozen butternut squash, turnips, and Brussels sprouts, so this is barely more complicated than pouring bags into the bottom of a large roasting pan. I'd ballpark it at a pound of veggies per pound of meat, but if you like lots of veggies you could make a separate potato dish (or another starch - or no starch) and just fill the bottom of the roasting pan with the other veggies.

Oh by the way - I know marinade is technically something you soak meat in over time, not something you just slather on meat right before it goes on the heat (the sense in which I've been using the word).  But I think you get what I'm saying, yes?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

it's time for squash bisque

It's soup season. It's also winter squash season. Best not to fight it.

This is one of many recipes I consider easy not because it takes ten minutes to make, but because all of the steps can easily be fit in around other things - a bit done tonight and some more tomorrow; a step while you're going the dishes and another while you turn over the laundry. I recommend approaching such recipes (including most of my soup recipes, curry, sauces from scratch, etc.) this way - it makes them fairly effortless, but if you try to get them all done at one go it will take hours and you won't get maximum efficiency out of that time.

So there's a lot of little projects; assemble them as convenient for you.

One project: split a butternut squash (or perhaps two acorn squash) down the middle. Put them cut-side down on a foil-lined baking pan, and pop them in the oven at 350 for 45 minutes, or until they're the texture of mashed potatoes and you can remove the seeds from the inside and the skin from the outside with gentle pressure from a spoon. (As to the opposite of gentle pressure - I found it's easiest to split squash with serious force from a meat cleaver, but you can also make a starting incision with the point of a knife and then drop it from a decent height until it splits all the way, if you don't have a cleaver.

Another project: meat is definitely optional in squash bisque, but I recently made a batch with chicken that I really liked. You could also try bacon; beef; or maybe some canned lump crab? (I tried salmon at one point and the salmon flavor was totally lost - not at all how it tasted in my head.) So, prepare your meat. I find that if you're going to put meat in soup, it needs to be 90-95% cooked when it goes in UNLESS the cooking period for the soup is multiple hours, in which case the meat could go in raw. (For example, you could put raw chicken and raw squash in the slow cooker overnight; I think the texture would be less nice, but it would be fewer steps.) Assuming you're using my puttering-around-the-kitchen method rather than a crock pot, you might bake two chicken breasts (with a little oil or salad dressing so they don't dry out) and then cut them into cubes.

The main project: cut 1 large or 2 small onions into large dice. Saute them in butter or oil until clear. Toss in a teaspoon of minced garlic and saute briefly. Add the flesh of the baked squash. Next I added a quarter cup of white wine (optional). You need about two cups of liquid. Chicken broth or water and chicken bouillon are solid options. Most recently I used a pint of heavy cream, which was delicious. Of course, two cups of milk (or a combination of milk and chicken broth) would also work. Stir up the whole mess. You also want to add a REALLY big handful of fresh herbs. I used basil, lemon thyme, and oregano, since that's what I've been growing. Any of those by themselves would probably work, too, and dried oregano would also work. I think the flavor of rosemary would also be great - but not the texture. If you want to grind your rosemary, though, sure. And a bunch of fresh or frozen (thawed) spinach would be good too. Wait to put in your herbs until the squash and liquid have gotten hot; then, after you stir them in, take an immersion blender to the works. (That way you don't really have to cut the herbs.) Stop pureeing when it looks attractive to you. If your meat is 90-95% done, add it now. If you cooked it completely, season first.

Taste: it will probably need salt (or soy sauce) and pepper, and it will need acid. Lemon juice or balsamic vinegar both work well; if you want to keep the crazy orange color, avoid the balsamic (and the soy sauce). A whole pot of soup will really soak up seasonings, so add a decent amount, taste, then add more. Now, if you've done chicken broth and no dairy up to this point, you need dairy (IMHO). I like to add some sharp cheddar and a handful of bleu cheese - enough to really taste it. (I LOVE bleu cheese, and the squash can really handle the flavor.) I did not add any cheese to my latest batch, since it already had all that heavy cream. You can stop there, but you can also turn up the heat, in a variety of directions and degrees according to your taste. I'd say at least a moderate amount of paprika is a conservative choice. You could go for cayenne pepper instead if you want serious heat. And you could aim for curry (or garam masala), for an eastern flavor; or cumin, for something a little more Mexican; or Cajun seasoning, if that's your favorite. Feel free to put your nose in the spices and ponder which direction you'd like to go. Whichever way you go, keep tasting and adding more - you'll be surprised how much it takes to make a pronounced difference. Once you're happy with the flavor, add your meat if you cooked it fully to begin with. Then put the lid on your pot, turn the heat to low, and let it commune with itself for 20 minutes or so. By then, your ability to fend off the swarm of hungry people will be wearing thin, and you might as well eat it.

Even better with fresh homemade bread - more on that later.

And I suppose I should mention here that my sister contends I overcomplicate things, and her squash soup is easier and healthier with just a few ingredients - I believe she uses just the onions, the garlic, the chicken broth, and the squash, and salt and pepper. To which I say: if less is more, imagine how much more more must be.   

Monday, October 6, 2014

delicious beverages

I don't drink alcohol. But that does not mean I fail to appreciate the delightfulness of a special treat in liquid form. My variations just tend to involve a bit more sugar :). 

Since we've just had our first few actually cold days, and I'm about to start laying in a supply of whipped cream for the season, it seems like a good time to share some of my favorites. I take particular comfort in enjoying things special to each season. In the summer I consume my body weight in lemonade (preferrably pink), and for a special treat, I'll mix up my own strawberry lemonade (a half-gallon of Minute Maid lemonade, the yellow kind this time, plus a third of a pound of strawberries, washed and trimmed, and go after it with an immersion blender). 

But this time of year, hot beverages are definitely the ticket. 

The stores all have cider in (and on sale!), and that probably is my favorite hot beverage of all. It seems impossible to believe that all that deliciousness is pretty darn healthy, too. But then again, all food is good for you, in the proper context. 

I have a few other seasonal favorites I like to fix up as well. Starting in the morning: my version of a chai latte. First you get the water boiling for tea. Then you take your chai tea bag (my favorite is the Twinings one in the red box, but that's a grocery-store brand - if you have access to an authentic imported one, don't let me stop you). Pour just an inch of boiling water into the cup - just enough to cover the leaves in the tea bag. Then find yourself something to fill five minutes (putting away the dishes?  Fixing some cereal?) while it steeps until it's nice and dark. Then, fill the cup with milk. (I buy 2%, so I use that. Whole milk would be nice, too. I think skim would be pretty weak, especially since there's already water in it.)  Then I microwave it until it's good and hot (with the tea bag still in) - two minutes, in my microwave. 

Feel free to get distracted by another bit of puttering in the kitchen and let the tea bag steep for a few more minutes in the milk. When it's starting to get some color, get it out of the microwave, remove the tea bag, and stir in a teaspoon of brown sugar - whether scant, level, or heaping is up to you. Top with a nice head of whipped cream (the canned stuff is actually dairy, and though it's hardly all-natural, I'm not ready to whip tiny batches of heavy cream for each beverage), and a sprinkle of cinnamon. Perfection!  

Then there's the evening option (at least, in my kitchen). Fill a mug with milk and pop it in the microwave for one minute. Once it's warm, add a wee spoonful (a quarter teaspoon?  More than a small amount is difficult to dissolve unless you want to break out a saucepan) of cocoa powder, and stir vigorously. Stir in half a teaspoon of sugar, and check to see whether you need more. Then comes the secret ingredient: just 1-2 drops of Mexican vanilla (so good, and easily four times as strong as the American vanilla extract that baking recipes are based on - adjust accordingly).  Then another minute in the microwave, and then, of course, cover with whipped cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon. 

I confess, while I used to make cocoa from scratch almost daily, two winters ago I became totally spoiled by Trader Joe's mint hot cocoa. So delicious!  A little under-sweet if you ask me (I add sugar - and, of course, whipped cream), but the perfect balance of chocolate and mint. It seems exorbitant at $5 a can, but the fact that a single cup of cocoa at a coffee shop costs almost that much really puts it in perspective. 

And I can't discuss the topic of comforting hot beverages without mentioning my favorite tea on the planet: Loyd's plum and cinnamon. We get it at an imported food store that I visit anyway to get kabanos (I sound like a crazy grocery spender in this post, so I have to add that I buy almost everything on sale and refuse to pay for organic. These are a few little indulgences, true, but my grocery budget is pretty strict, I swear). I have no idea where a normal person could buy this (I have never seen it anywhere else), but if you find it, try it. You won't regret it (unless you hate tea, in which case, I really can't help you). 

Put on something snuggly, and take a minute to sip and savor something delicious!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

the little dipper

I seem to have missed yesterday. Oops. I will make up the day - 31 posts, I promise!

I wanted to share another favorite dip recipe. I pretty much make this one every time we host a party (along with a pan of brownies!) and it usually gets finished (and when it doesn't, I have the leftovers as a snack). It's super-easy. I may even have shared it here before, but it definitely merits inclusion in the month of comfort food.

You will need:

-package of frozen chopped spinach
-brick of cream cheese
-medium onion
-shredded cheese
-package of imitation crab or salad (teeny) shrimp

Mostly thaw 8-10 ounces of frozen chopped spinach in a deep-dish pie plate in the microwave. Meanwhile, mince a medium-sized white onion. Dump the onion in with the spinach (once it's thawed). Chop up 4 ounces of imitation crab (which is not really crab - but it is really fish!), or, if you want to be FANCY, 4 ounces of salad shrimp - spending money on larger shrimp is pointless, you want them in small pieces).

Put the chopped fishies and the brick of cream cheese into the pie plate with the spinach and onions and mash together with a fork. (You could also add a dash of Old Bay if it makes you happy.) Sprinkle about four ounces of shredded cheese (I usually use something mild, like Monterey Jack) on the top, and pop it in the oven. Half an hour at 350 degrees is about right, but the recipe isn't fussy - if you already have the oven on for something else, you can bake the dip at whatever temperature. Just remove it when the cheese on top has turned gold.

Serve with tortilla rounds (since they're sturdy - the big "restaurant-style" tortillas will break if you try to scoop the dip with them), sturdy crackers, pita chips, or baguette rounds. Gluten-free, low-carb, and contains all the food groups (except carbohydrates)! But most importantly - easy to make, and seriously delicious. Perfect for throwing together for a football party.

(I came up with this modest "recipe"  all by myself, but I'm sure someone else had already thought of it!)

Friday, October 3, 2014

an extraordinary ordinary sandwich

Today I'm going to tell you how to make something you don't need anyone to tell you how to make - except that you do, actually need someone to tell you this, and you don't even realize it.

Some of you make this sandwich (or a similar sandwich) regularly, and you know exactly what I mean - the extraordinary poetry of this entirely prosaic thing.  Some of you probably remember this sandwich (or a close analog) from childhood, and you think you've outgrown it, and that I've taken leave of my senses.  I haven't.  On this point, at least.  Listen closely.

If you're like me, you have a great appreciation for a good sandwich.  In an ordinary week, you might eat quite a few sandwiches.  Many of them might even be good.  But it will be much less regularly that you experience the sandwich at the peak of its existence - the telos for which the form sandwich was created, if you will.  The end toward which it strives.

And that is the toasted sandwich.  Crispy on the outside, faintly buttery, warm on the inside, and gooey with just the right amount of cheese.  The grilled cheese sandwich is a classic in this genre.  The grilled ham and cheese is an absolute standby (and a staple in my household - my dear husband is a grown-up person, and still seems to find a particular happiness in having me make him a nice toasty warm grilled ham and cheese sandwich.  I think I could make a gourmet meal that was less thoroughly appreciated).

But particularly extraordinary - and particularly underappreciated by today's aspiring home gourmet - is that staple of yesteryear: the tuna melt.

I know what you're thinking.  Tuna salad sandwiches and tuna noodle casserole and suchlike fare were a cross you bore in the name of your mother's grocery thriftiness during your childhood, and you aren't going back there any more than you're going to force your family to drink powdered milk.  But I must exhort you to reconsider. I tell you, you don't know what you're missing.

First of all, my family was on a tight budget too, and therefore my mother, like yours, probably bought the cheapest tuna available.  This is a mistake you must avoid.  Of course I only buy canned tuna on sale, but if I am patient (and buy a bunch when there is a sale), I can get all of it for $1 a can.  But I will not compromise on one point: it has to be solid white (or albacore) tuna.  This kind:


Because I'm afraid everything else just tastes like a tin can.  I should also note that Julia Child has something or other to say about canned tuna in water being totally inferior to tuna in oil, and the woman usually knows what she's talking about, but I think tuna in oil is totally gross (I might have had it once as a child by accident), so I only ever buy it in water.  Your mileage may vary.  So you have to start there.

Now, in case you've spent your entire adult life boycotting tuna due to some misbegotten manifestation of childhood trauma telling you that it's anything other than absolutely delicious, I will remind you how to make tuna salad.  You need to cut up some onions.  If you're using white or yellow onions, remember that they're very sharp when raw, and mince them fine, unless you have asbestos-mouth, in which case, go ahead and eat a whole onion as a snack - knock yourself out.  (Red onions and scallions are somewhat less hot.)  You don't need a lot of onion for a single can of tuna:


And, as you see, you don't need a lot of mayonnaise, either.  If I were making an ordinary tuna salad sandwich, I would use more than that, but I short it a little when I'm making the grilled version, because the heat tends to make the tuna salad a bit melty. (Celery is also a classic ingredient, but I try to keep it simple. But by all means add more vegetables.) These photos are way too poor to get a good look, but the final mix is a little on the dry side:


But there's no risk of the sandwich being dry, because it will have all sorts of yummy melted cheese.  Now, before you mix your tuna salad, you drain the tuna water into the dog's (or the cat's) food bowl, and said animal goes nuts.  Here's Bailey, who polished off the tuna-infused kibble in about ten seconds, and is assiduously polishing the empty bowl in case she missed any:


She would be mortally offended to hear that there's anyone who turns his nose up at tuna.

The next step is important: you have to meticulously administer butter (or margarine - I use the spreadable stuff so I don't gouge holes in my bread when I use it at refrigerator temperature) equally to each and every molecule of the bread:


And you will notice that I flipped them so that they were mirror images, and would align perfectly once I got the sandwich assembled.  This is not overkill.


By the way, you'll notice that I'm using bread that was hand stone ground by illiterate native women who practice tribal religion from 100% organic high-fiber extra-virgin gravel fermented in the gullet of free-range chicken, in order to accomplish a colonic cleanse under the guise of having dinner.  Like so:


Uhhhhh no.  I've had the whole colonic cleanse thing (and anyone who clicks a link with that name has no right to complain about what it leads to, for the record), and I find it to be about as far from comfort food - or comfort, or food - as imaginable.  I eat vegetables (not pictured here), and lots of dairy, try to keep a reasonable limit on the junk food, and avoid anything allegedly edible that tastes like construction material.  That is healthy enough. The above bread is my go-to bread and pretty much the only one I buy (though I also make bread from scratch reasonably often), for one simple reason: it makes the very best sandwiches, period.

What other qualification could be relevant?

Anyway, depending on your stove, you may also want to pre-heat the pan.  My usual grilled sandwich pan is a Calphalon one, which, on the one hand, never sticks; on the other hand, it is very slow to heat on my stove, but then suddenly overheats.  You have to watch it like a hawk or it will burn your grilled sandwich.  This is probably because it's a snooty millenial pan that only wants to be used for egg-white omelets.  On this most recent occasion I used a lovely copper pan from the thrift store, which heats beautifully, and you can even tell when it's done heating because it smells hot.  The old ways are always better.

Anyway, once your pan is hot and your bread is buttered and your tuna salad is mixed, you put down one slice, butter-side down; then you carefully cover it with a single layer of Swiss cheese.  You could also use another highly flavorful cheese, like extra-sharp cheddar, or maybe Havarti, but absolutely nothing bland (as a snack I like Muenster and Monterey Jack and mozzarella, but you don't want any namby-pamby cheeses for a grilled sandwich. You need something with serious personality).  Then you carefully spread your tuna salad over the cheese.  Half the mixture you prepared will make one perfectly fine sandwich (and surely you know someone else who would love to rediscover this magical goodness with you!), but if you're really hungry, you can pile the whole bowl on just one sandwich, and make sure to eat with a napkin on your lap.  Also, wash your hands first so you can lick your fingers with impunity.  (You're welcome.)

Then, of course, the second slice goes on top.  Here you may be able to see that the cheese is just starting to melt:


Turning it is where the real precision work comes in.  Depending on your stove and how high you have the heat, it will take from two to five minutes on a side.  You'll be able to smell when it's overdone (unless you like your grilled sandwiches slightly black, in which case wait to turn it until you can smell a faint burning), but it's ready to be turned when you slide a spatula under the corner and it easily lifts up because the bread has become crisp.  Before that, it will start to collapse if you try to turn it, so if you see the collapsing, give it another minute and try again.  I managed this one perfectly, if I do say so myself:


The second side is a bit mangled, but you don't need to see that.  So there you have it - the tuna melt you didn't know you'd been missing all these years.

I made one of these for my mother-in-law (and one for me) the last time she visited; I don't often get to share them, because my husband (like my FIL, in fact) doesn't like seafood in general, or tuna salad in particular.  So it was a real treat to get to sit down and enjoy my gooey tuna melt with someone else.  She said it was "luscious," because, of course, she has excellent taste.  Really, it almost seems too indulgent to be food for a Friday, but we're Catholic, and by golly, it's tradition.

I hope you love it, too.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

perfect box brownies

I felt silly even as I wrote the title of this post.  I am claiming to have 31 days' worth of great ideas/recipes/suggestions for comfort food, and the second day I want to talk about how to make something that already comes pre-mixed

And I see that point. 

But here's the thing.  Although I am an enthusiastic baker, and I make some very labor-intensive things when I have time (such as, oh, let's see, the truffle recipe that takes 14 hours), probably the thing I bake the most often is brownies.  Truffles and truffle torte are maybe more delicious depending on my mood.  But for a truly comforting (and also extremely delicious) dessert, in my opinion, brownies and chocolate chip cookies are tied for first place, and brownies are more versatile and faster.  So if you make dessert, you have to master brownies. 

And for many years, I confess to you, I had not.  I was the sad person who at work pot-lucks would scarf down the brownies made by others, ooh-ing and ah-ing over their moistness, their denseness, their fudgy-ness.  I followed the directions on the box faithfully, and my brownies were a crumbly, dried-out, crusty-edged mess.  They were inadequately delicious. 

Then one day I decided that I would not be a victim of inadequately delicious brownies.  In the great dessert crisis of our time, I could no longer remain passive.  Never again would I withdraw from the oven a pan of sad, flat, dried-out brownies.  It was time to fight back. 

First I undertook a meditation on my brownie priorities.  After reflection, I concluded that a good brownie is very moist; very thick; and almost raw in the very center.  (I understand that there are people who prefer the crustier "edge" brownies, and I try not to let it disturb me.) 

Then I made a searching and fearless culinary inventory of my errors to date.  I had baked the brownies in a pan roughly similar to that described on the package.  I had used a standard Teflon-coated metal pan, as I believed other home bakers did.  I had attempted to decrease the baking time in order to make the brownies more moist, and ended up with slop.  I had failed.  And the definition of insanity would be to continue these efforts and hope for a spontaneously improved result. 

I extended my reflections to baking triumphs and losses past.  In one memorable experiment in my teen years, I had decided that chocolate and peanut butter cookies would be the best kind of cookie, and the rest of the world must simply have overlooked that fact until I came on the scene.  So I found a chocolate cookie recipe in one of my mother's cookbooks, and added what I considered to be a suitable amount of peanut butter.  She came along when I'd got them in the oven, and politely inquired as to my methods.  She did not have a particular talent for allowing her children to learn from their mistakes; but in this case she employed the Socratic method masterfully, encouraging me to spell out what I did and didn't change from the recipe, and what I expected to happen.  I was very proud of my restraint: I had only added peanut butter.  She opined that I should therefore have subtracted almost an equal amount of margarine; otherwise, the cookie would never bake at all.  I professed this to be absolute nonsense - I had never witnessed a cookie that would never bake; perhaps the time would simply be longer - and I didn't believe in this fairy-tale unbakeable cookie. 

I probably don't have to tell you that my mother was right.  I was a stubborn child, and I finally gave in at about four times the recommended baking time.  At that point the cookies were still liquid - but as soon as they cooled they fused with the pan.  We spent the next several days chipping off shards of them with a butter knife for a snack (we were poor children, and not likely to turn down sweets, even if in a peculiar form), and I'm not sure my mother was ever able to use that cookie sheet again. 

There are several lessons here, but for purposes of brownie wisdom, the important one is that if you increase the amount of fat in a baked good, it takes longer to set; if you decrease the fat, it sets faster. 

My major problem was that by the time I had gotten the brownies to set (no longer leave streaks on a cake tester), they were overcooked. 

Another factor I knew would be relevant was the amount of water in the recipe.  Even if the amount of oil was decreased to allow the batter to finish baking faster, excess water would leave it soupy.  If I wanted to shorten the baking time, I was going to have to decrease the water too. 

Finally, my brownies were too flat.  The simplest explanation was that I was using a pan of too large a surface area, and I decided to try fixing that first. 

And, thus fortified by the fruits of my reflections, I embarked fearlessly on the Great Brownie Experiments.  I attempted various alterations of the oil and water levels.  I tried a few different pans.  I altered the cooking time and, on one occasion, the temperature.  I went through at least four ovens, though that is another story.  I even tried different brands of boxed brownies, because obviously, the most important factor in selecting a brownie mix is which one is on sale. 

I have arrived at what I consider to be the basic commandments of perfect box brownies; this was not a short or an easy road, but it is my obligation for the good of humanity to share the fruits of my journey with you here, that you may be spared some of this hardship yourself.  Your strength may then be devoted to other challenges, that the cause of the race may be advanced.  You're welcome. 

For perfect box brownies:
  1. Betty Crocker makes an excellent mix, but Pillsbury's is slightly better.  Duncan Hines's is inferior, and Ghirardelli is useless (I bought that one once because of the beautiful picture, and it didn't turn out.  Never again). 
  2. The only acceptable mix is the dark chocolate/fudge/darkest-and-richest-flavor as described by the particular brand.  The milk chocolate is inferior and shall not be used. 
  3. The classic large-sized clear glass Pyrex pan is the correct baking vessel for two full recipes (i.e., two boxes and attendant eggs, oil, and water).  For a single recipe, the correct baking vessel is the large circular "French white" Corningware baking dish with the tuxedo stripes that everyone who got married in the last decade or so registered for as part of a baking-dish-set (and I note that when you receive this set you should immediately open it and check that all the provided lids are the correct sizes, because they frequently aren't). 
  4. It is not necessary to oil the baking dish.  If the brownies are adequately moist they will be easy to remove.  Any residue that is not eaten by you with a fork the next day can be soaked in water briefly and then very easily removed with a sponge.  Also, Teflon is the devil. 
  5. The other reason not to oil the baking dish is because you can mix the entire recipe in the baking dish with a fork (you then lick off the excess from the fork, wash the fork, and use it to test for doneness after baking).  This takes box brownies from "very easy" to "embarrassingly easy."   
  6. Do not add an extra egg in hopes that the directions on the box offer an attractive alternative.  I don't know what "cakey brownies" is supposed to mean.  It should just say "bad brownies." 
  7. To get the correct texture, you do not need to change the oven temperature from that which is recommended.  (Using the "convect bake" option on a convection oven also doesn't require you to change the temperature, although I think my oven is sneakily doing that behind my back.)  You need to short the oil by about 10% (just eyeball this) and the water by about 20% (also eyeballed). 
  8. You do need to short the cooking time.  If your oven is accurate or cool, set the timer for five minutes before the shortest time listed on the box.  (If your oven is over-hot, make whatever time adjustment you usually need to, and then subtract an additional five minutes.)  Test with a fork every two minutes starting at the alarm.  Remove from the oven when the fork is almost but not quite clean of brownie. 
This precious knowledge forms the foundation of a competent home-baking enterprise. 

And I must make one final note on the superiority of box brownies as opposed to non-box brownies.  It's like Aquinas's view on the best form of government: scratch brownies are the best form of brownies when the recipe is exceptionally virtuous, and the worst form of brownies when the recipe is bad.  And the recipe is not good most of the time: most scratch brownies are not nearly chocolate-y enough. 

I have identified one exception to this (there may well be others).  After eating the surpassingly delicious brownie at Le Pain Quotidien, I was convinced I had found the key to a scratch brownie recipe that would actually be better than the box mix.  I just had to find the recipe that Le Pain uses.  (No problem, right?)  I found one on the internet that professed to be said recipe, and it is, indeed, as magical as Le Pain's.  It is, therefore, better than box brownies.  But the ingredients are also more costly; the process is far more involved (if only because box brownies are so extremely easy); and the finished product is somewhat fragile and difficult to serve.  So for those occasions when one needs an even-better brownie, I make that recipe.  For all other brownie-warranting occasions, the not-quite-best box brownie, executed perfectly (as described above), is in fact the perfect brownie. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Comfort Food, Day 1: AMAZING DIP (GF)

So I decided that I would participate in the 31 Days challenge this year, as I mentioned.  (More information on the challenge, and lots more people's reflections to read, here.) 

I decided that I would write about comfort food.  Now, you may be thinking - the misfit is not a food blogger.  She doesn't even have any formal training in cooking!  It's true.  So let me offer you my qualifications.

I love to eat.  I guess that's actually my principal qualification.  I also love to cook and bake, but eating is definitely first :).  While I have developed somewhat more "expensive taste" as I age, and some of the recipes I make are actually quite involved, my real love - both to eat and to make - is the hearty and simple stuff.  (Not everything I mention will take five minutes, but none of it will require special chef-only skills, because I don't have those myself.) 

So obviously you'll have to form your own opinion about whether any of these ideas are worth trying in your kitchen.  I'll just tell you what I love - you can take it from there.  Which brings us to...

THE BEST DIP EVER

Today I decided to start with a recipe that, in my view, is magical.  Someone brought it to our work Christmas party last year and I think I had six helpings.  There were easily fifty different sweets and treats to choose from and they were all tasty, but I just found myself wandering back to this crock pot every few minutes.  I could tell the stuff was heavy and should be eaten in moderation, but I couldn't help myself.  And yes, of course, by that night I felt distinctly unwell.  That may not sound like an endorsement, but I think it gives you an idea of the deliciousness involved.  Of course any sensible person looking at the finished product could see that this is something to eat by the ounce, not the pound.  I have eaten it many times since, with some degree of restraint, and been fine.  That's the method I recommend. 

It has only three ingredients:

1 lb. ground pork sausage
1 10-oz. can diced tomatoes with green chilies
1 8-oz. package of cream cheese

First, make sure all your ingredients are thawed!  (I keep ground sausage and cream cheese in the freezer at all times for various reasons, including this recipe.)  Then, brown the sausage on the stove and drain the fat. 
Then, dump the sausage, the cream cheese, and the can of tomatoes (with their juice) into the crock pot.  It takes probably 90 minutes on low or 30 minutes on high for it to get all melted.  Stir it with a  wooden spoon once and you're in business.  Serve with tortilla chips or whatever you prefer (pita chips, bread, etc.).  With corn tortillas, it's gluten-free, of course. 
A few thoughts:

  • I have the smaller crock pot (the three-quart one that's round, not oval), and this fills it halfway.  Obviously double the recipe to fill the crock pot, or triple it for a bigger crock pot.  But one recipe is quite a bit of dip. 
  • I use savory (not hot) ground sausage, but if you like dips really spicy, you could use hot.  It has plenty of flavor even with the savory, though. 
  • I've substituted salsa for the canned tomatoes and that works fine.  You could also add heat with extra-hot salsa. 
  • I recently found Greek yogurt cream cheese and that's very nice in this, plus maybe a little healthier. 
  • Last time I made this, I added a can of (drained) black beans - just as delicious, and a little more nutritious! 

Of course, I received this recipe from a coworker (and I don't know where she got it).  But my goal this month is not the publication of original recipes.  (I have very few of those.)  I aim simply to let people know about food that's already out there, and is too good to miss.  And since football season is ramping up and the weather's getting colder, I figured this would be a perfect way to start October.  I hope you enjoy it! 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

other things I have been up to

I am behind on blogging - I have a bunch of half-formed things I've been meaning to write about.  And I have made the probably lunatic decision that I'd like to participate in the "31 days" challenge again this year, so that will only get worse, perhaps. 


I have decided my topic will be "comfort food" even though that probably has been done in the past and actually someone else may be doing it this year (I have no idea who's doing what yet).  I know, I'm not a food blogger - it would be fair even to be skeptical that I can cook.  (I can.)  But please note that I am not doing "31 days of gourmet," OK?  Know thyself. 


I have to do a post eventually on the third bedroom re-redo.  But right now my sister is living there, so I can't easily shove everything around and decide what still needs to be tweaked, because there is her stuff and an extra bookshelf and oh also a human being in there.  But I will get on that eventually.  Maybe I will post my adorable stool tutorial (with very important "learn from my mistakes" lessons) before I get the room finished. 


Also I left a teaser regarding the HSN item I purchased (possibly I had not even purchased it yet when I posted that video).  That project has moved considerably further along and I owe you all some more "learn from my mistakes" tips, photos of the finished product, realistic assessments of how much time it takes to use the concrete form, an update on my plans for redoing the 900SF paved area, and what I decided to use the form for instead (that's kind of a spoiler alert, if people were likely to have any idea what I am talking about).  But I'm not going to explain any of these things now.  Maybe later.  Possibly by then I will actually be finished with all related projects. 


I did a mini-redo of my bedroom (many hours of work to look almost exactly the same but better.  A specific example: I ripped all the wallpaper off my feature wall because it was irreparably damaged, redid the entire wall using a stencil with a similar pattern and paint in a similar-but-not-the-same color, and tweaked several other things, and my DH came home [of course I did this in a week when he was away], squinted at the wall, and said, "Did you get a new headboard?"  I didn't).  That sounds like a totally pointless task - something I might have taken on without realizing how much work it would be for how little result - but this is not so.  I knew how much work it would be and how subtle the changes would be and I am delighted with the results.  (I would like to note here that I spent almost nothing - $30 for a stencil I can use again, $15 for a second Ikea sconce, and maybe $2 for some wall anchors.)  I needed to get the room to correct rather than kludged and now I think it's there.  I mean, maybe I still need new sheets and of course I swept four times and there are still dust bunnies the size of badgers, but whatever.  I actually have pictures of this process (yes!  I took before and during pictures!) but I am not sharing them now either because. 


These paragraphs seem to have been getting longer and they were not supposed to. 


Finally: some friends just got an offer accepted on a house in our neighborhood (well - in the really nice historic neighborhood on the other side of the tracks from our much more modest historic neighborhood).  They bought a home that is architecturally stunning but a fixer.  It may have some serious problems (I have been kindly invited to attend the inspection tomorrow during my lunch, and you can bet that I will be there with a tape measure and a camera - I haven't gotten to see the inside of it in person yet, but I have stared at the kitchen photos online until I could draw the floor plan from memory, including what I suspect are pretty accurate estimated measurements.  But I have not told them this because they might be frightened). 


I am going to let the inspector sort out whether the wiring, plumbing, or joists need to be repaired or replaced (though I will watch him with a skeptical eye, as I wish another old-house owner would have done for me during my inspection), but I have already - as above noted - focused like a laser on their kitchen.  Let me just say that it makes my original kitchen - the 1970s monstrosity we started with - look updated, attractive, and well laid out.  I truly did not think that was possible.  I honestly don't know how they saw beyond that, since most people cannot - although the turret and the wrap-around porch may have had something to do with it.  I am guessing, given what I know of their temperaments and what I have observed about the kitchen, that they are in utter denial and have simply chosen to think of the space as "something we'll fix up," hand-waving away the expensiveness of kitchens and also the necessity of having a kitchen to use before (and during) a kitchen renovation.  With four children.  Ahem. 


This, I feel, is where I come in.  They sent my DH a text message last week saying, "Tell [the misfit] to get ready for some renovations," and a suggestion that Napoleon prepare himself for a bit of sightseeing could not have been more dangerously miscalculated.  I have already picked out tile for their backsplash (don't make that face.  I am planning to propose two options!).  My husband has gotten some inkling of what I have in mind (of course I haven't told him about the tile), and is visibly alarmed.  I have only two friends who have not (at least briefly) discontinued speaking to me after they casually asked whether I might like to help them shop for something house-related and I did.  He is concerned that they might actually get a restraining order, which would be inconvenient since they will only live a mile away. 


I look at it like this.  For whatever reason they have chosen to buy a house that is both a fixer-upper and at the top of their budget, thus violating the First and Third Commandments of Shopping for Houses (the first is that you always buy less than you can afford).  My familiarity with the local real estate market suggests to me that unless there is a sinkhole in the basement they are getting a good value for money and I hope I am right, but that is cold comfort if you are house-poor, especially if you are house-poor and need to gut your kitchen.  They have some good connections to tradespeople and they have good taste (with which I have carefully familiarized myself over the years - thus my confidence in the tile selection), but they have not renovated a kitchen before and they don't know what they're getting into, nor how to make their budget work as hard for them as possible - and they will need it to. 


So in my view the logic of the thing is simple: even if they didn't want my help, they would need it.  I have a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the historic-kitchen-appropriate items that may be had in the area - local professional designers know more, but their knowledge focuses on rather more expensive things.  Also, those designers probably don't themselves know how to hang cabinets and restore floors.  I do, and as time permits I will help for free.  My fear is that they will go for white Ikea cabinets, and while these are handsome and not a bad value for new cabinets, you could get lovelier, better-made, and cheaper things at salvage - particularly if you were willing to do an "unfitted" kitchen, which would be appropriate in a house of this age.  But I am trying very hard to be a little amateur designer here (though they haven't asked - yet), and that means helping the people get what they want, not telling them to do what I want them to do.  It turns out that it's really not that difficult to fully realize your own taste in your own home (if you have a bit of money); helping someone else to realize their taste fully is a great deal more challenging.  But several years of an absolutely insatiable appetite for all kitchen-related information has, I think, given me the tools to be a help rather than a hindrance, if they want my help. 


And that's the tricky part.  As I say, they need my help - rarely have I seen a kitchen in which fewer of the existing pieces could be saved or used in any way.  (If I were asked, my advice would be to throw out everything by Christmas except the stove, and give that another year.  And I like to save things.)  Not only are the contents both ugly and poorly made, but the layout is abominable and this obviously is true because the room's architecture (doors, windows, and water and gas lines) is placed almost impossibly for modern kitchen expectations (i.e., 30" stove, 24" dishwasher, full-sized refrigerator, sink - I'm not setting the bar high).  As I said, I can now nearly draw the floor plan exactly.  And I have yet to come up with a way to lay out the existing space optimally (even assuming sink, cabinets, and counters are all replaced).  I suspect something will come to me, but I thought my kitchen was difficult - this one is harder. 


But as I am hinting, I must prepare myself mentally for the possibility that they will not want my help.  I will have to use all my powers to make it clear that they should give no thought to inconveniencing me by asking - without making them feel uncomfortable that I will be overbearing or fail to respect their opinions, budget, or schedule.  This will not be an easy balance to strike.  But even if I do, they may still not want help, or they may want to wait an unacceptable length of time (such as ten minutes) before starting this project.  So I have to be prepared to manage my reaction if this is the case, because they are friends and some would argue that friendship is more important than having a good kitchen.  After much thought, I have arrived at the only possible solution: should they exhibit such unimaginable folly as not to enlist my assistance, while they redo their kitchen in real life, I will redo it on my blog.  I will create a 3D rendering and a budget and a complete design plan and parse out the cost of everything and detail how each and every step should be done, and demonstrate, to my own satisfaction, that I would have done it better. 


Then I will feel OK about it, and also entertain the three people who occasionally read this blog.  But that is only in case I hear the tragic news that they do not want me involved.  Until that day, I shall hold fast to the hope that I can use the fruits of my small obsession in the service of their cause, and work on giving another historic home an appropriate kitchen.  And since it's not my house and I haven't asked them about it, unless they actually do tell me they don't want me involved, I don't think I'll post pictures of their kitchen on the internet. 


Because that would be creepy. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

women and bodies

I have been reading Susie Orbach's Bodies.  She is also the author of the 1968 (I believe) book Fat is a Feminist Issue, which is, I understand it, considered to be the seminal (ha!) feminist work on women's bodies.  I happened upon reference to that book in an online article about...something I found interesting at the time (?), and recognized the title, and thought, "I might like to read that."  The next weekend I found myself at my local public library and found that Bodies was on the shelf, and checked it out.  I have found it absolutely fascinating

Digression: I am now working on a theory that one of the themes of my thirties is that for the first time, and unexpectedly, I find myself interested in non-fiction reading for fun.  Or at least, for my own edification.  Which I find is fun.  Who knew? 

Anyway, I will share with you a long-ish excerpt (fair use, I hope), to spare my poor attempts to convey to you the brilliance that is her thesis, and to show you what I am so enthusiastic about - this being the most direct way either to impel you to read it yourself (if you find it similarly persuasive) or to conclude that despite my enthusiasm, the book wouldn't interest you.  Ready? 

Until recently, we've taken our bodies for granted.  We've hoped that we would be blessed with good health and, especially if we are female, good looks.  Those who saw their body as their temple, or became magnificent athletes or iconic beauties, were the exception.  We didn't expect to be like them.  Like gifted scientists, historians, writers, directors, explorers or cooks, their talents extended and enhanced the world we lived in, but we didn't expect this beauty, prowess or brainpower of ourselves. 

But as I've shown, over the past thirty years the new grammar of visual culture, the notion of the consumer as empowered, the workings of the diet, pharmaceutical, food, cosmetic surgery and style industries, and the democratization of aspiration have made us view the body we live in as a body we can, must and should perfect. 

The clash between the new imperative to be beautiful and the limited and limiting aesthetic of beauty we imbibe means that bodies in our time are constantly in need of attention.  They have become less where we live from and more what we can personally manufacture. . . . Remaking the body, whether through exercise, spiritual endeavour, food regimens, genetic counseling or cosmetic surgery (and one gets the sense that all options should really be pursued), is tinged with moral entreaty. 

[and]

Now birthing, illness and ageing, while part of the ordinary cycle of life, are also events that can be interrupted or altered by personal endeavour in which one harnesses the medical advances and surgical restructurings on offer.  Our body is judged as our individual production.  We can fashion it through artifice, through the naturalistic routes of bio-organic products or through a combination of these, but whatever the means, our body is our calling card, vested with showing the results of our hard work and watchfulness or, alternatively, our failure and sloth. 

And as you may imagine, I have thoughts about all of these things.  First of all, I will note that I consider myself in no sense a feminist.  I avoided feminist writing categorically in college, when I would have had the easiest opportunity to study it, because the incursions of that discipline into my other courses made clear to me that the texts presented would be of the religion-is-evil/blame-the-patriarchy/all-sex-is-rape theme, and that I find simply objectionable.  I am, however, interested in the study of womanhood qua womanhood, as being an obvious avenue for inquiry into my own identity as a woman, which I think is an important project for the Christian (of either gender): discovering our created nature is part of the path of growing to know God.  With respect to reading feminist writing, without the harassment of a rabid professor, I have the leisure as an adult to select what titles I like, read such portions of them as I find edifying, and make the ideas my own as I consider appropriate.  And Susie Orbach in particular has now spent many decades counseling emotionally troubled women (and men), and frankly, I find people with hard-earned wisdom about human experience (whatever their political bent) far more compelling than people who don't really know what they're talking about (even if they happen to agree with my values). 

That said, I will offer a note for those interested that Ms. Orbach does not conform to the Catholic Church's ideas about the nature of the human person (as will become readily obvious), though I find her ideas agree at a deep level far more often than I expected; and that the amusingly-named chapter "And So To Sex" is, of course, explicit, and you might want to avoid it if you don't prefer that.  (I read it and found it extremely valuable, in fact.  Some things are inherently explicit; witnesseth, for example, the IF blogosphere!) 

So now, to my thoughts about her thesis, with reference to my quotes above.  To start with, I will simply gush: I am bowled over by how brilliant this is.  Its brilliance is of that most precious character - not the discovery of some dubious and inaccessible thing that nobody else has proclaimed because it is basically untrue, nor of some trite and obvious thing that everybody always knew anyway, but of some compellingly obvious thing that is absolutely staring everyone in the face and nobody has been able to recognize or describe properly before, but which, once described, is inescapably and obviously true.  It's that right, and that important to say. 

And to the details: the more thoughtful among us (IF-blogging set) often complain that topics that obviously bear strongly on our experience are explored "thoroughly" without mention of us, the invisible infertiles.  Not so here.  While she devotes no extensive discussion to the topic of infertility alone, she repeatedly mentions in her litany of increasingly-popular bodily modifications the fact of women's resort to artificial reproductive technology (such as freezing eggs, above).  She also mentions the culture's awkward treatment of the issues of women's sexuality as contrasted with women's fertility.  And she offers a general discussion of how things once expected and accepted - individual health problems, the overall deterioration of health with age - are now things we are expected to combat and, indeed, overcome.  This message should be proclaimed, loud and long, with respect to fertility treatment in particular. 

Possibly this sentence made the greatest impression on me: "Remaking the body, whether through exercise, spiritual endeavour, food regimens, genetic counseling or cosmetic surgery (and one gets the sense that all options should really be pursued), is tinged with moral entreaty."  If I didn't get the impression with respect to fertility treatment "that all options really should be pursued," I'll be a monkey's uncle.  And I am sure I am not the only one.  Caring secular friends - when they dare to broach the topic - are most concerned (clearly, compassionately concerned) with my failure to avail myself of ART.  As time allows, I will gently explain to each of them that "I can't because I'm Catholic" is only the shortest answer, and that while I believe ART is contrary to the right of a child to be conceived as part of the loving union of his parents, and particularly frightening when it results in the mistreatment or even destruction of "spare" human beings (both concerns important to Catholics), as far as I can tell it is contrary to the health of mother, child, donors, and all other involved persons on any analysis.  (I note that this does not mean that the humanity of a child thus conceived is in any way diminished, any more than that of a child conceived through rape, a premarital relationship, or a marriage of people who don't really love each other - but that is another topic altogether.) 

What I find more troubling is that faithful Catholics (those who know something about fertility treatment - that would generally mean infertiles themselves) are not only concerned if I have not pursued every available form of treatment sanctioned by the Church, but they rapidly make the leap to my not having conceived because I did not want a child badly enough (as evidenced by my failure to check a few boxes on the "available treatments" list), and, of course, it is from there but a small step to conclude that I don't have a baby because I don't deserve one.  The ardor of one's desire to be a Mommy, in the orthodox Catholic community, is a direct measure of one's holiness - apparently.  (What the Mother of God would say about this matter I can scarcely imagine.) 

As I've gotten a safer distance from my in-treatment years, and the emotions have abated enough to allow for reflection, I have become increasingly convinced that the impulse to pursue all options available was a profoundly destructive one, which probably did not reflect my true desires (as opposed to what I believed my desires should have been), and which caused me significant psychological harm.  It is absolutely beyond question that my imprudent pursuit of fertility treatment caused me permanent medical harm; right now, the question is only whether I'll dodge the hysterectomy bullet by going into menopause ten to twenty years early (!). 

In reality, I can blame no one for this but myself; I am supposed to have good values and a well-formed conscience and an ability to disagree with prevailing opinion if I believe that appropriate (which I have now done on this issue).  But I do think that, in a culture that (as Ms. Orbach so perceptively notes) is already steeped in the conviction that the natural capacity of one's body is merely a starting point, a young woman grappling with difficult questions about what is appropriate in one of the central projects of adult life is at a serious disadvantage in making healthy decisions about where to draw the lines.  (And while I certainly agree with the view that it is couples and not women who have fertility or infertility, the reality is that most of the weight of these difficult decisions falls on women's shoulders, not men's.)  Infertility commentators outside the Catholic world specifically (and here I'm thinking first of Pamela Tsigidnos at Silent Sorority, though there are others) have pointed out for some time now that the breadth of fertility treatments available is at first glance a blessing, but ultimately a curse - because it is impossible ever to be done.  Categorical failure might at least mean peace; in today's world, we have to define that failure for ourselves - the last bitter task on a generally bitter journey. 

Of course, there's so much more here than infertility.  She also observes that we are now (at least in the West) largely a world of knowledge-workers whose strivings for physical fitness require our extracurricular time.  Indeed, pronounced musculature used to be the defining feature of the laboring classes, while the leisured classes were not specially fit because their activities didn't result in as much muscle use.  Of course, now that "fitness" has become a bourgeois luxury rather than a natural product of one's daily duties, we demand of ourselves BMIs and six-packs and other achievements far in excess of what people typically had who were physically fit through hard work (by which I mean, for example, farming - not "hard work" on the treadmill). 

I find so many "a-ha!" moments here.  I was only really a laborer as a teenager (when I worked in a greenhouse for a summer), but I can easily draw the line between the "healthy" phase of my life and the "unhealthy" phase.  When I was in law school (not hard labor, and believe me, I know), I was busy, but I had time to cook all my meals (and could rarely afford restaurants), my schedule allowed me to be outside in daylight almost every day, and I often walked to school.  I was fortunate to get a desk job right after I graduated, but that was the end of being effortlessly and naturally active - probably until I retire.  Every year since then has been a battle with my remaining willpower (already taxed to keep me in my chair through boring assignments and deal with life's other challenges, IF not least among them) to get myself outside to run - after a full day of work when it is already dark - and to turn down the snacks I am inclined to consider a fair reward for drudgery (and, yes, this is the career I wanted). 

The problem, of course, is that desk work is wearing enough to make you both tired and bored, but not enough to burn off brownies, even when it seems it has earned them.  And of course, this is only a "problem" for me (and doubtless others) because I'm not OK with carrying 15 pounds more than I did when I graduated, which I claim is my personal preference (everyone has a favorite size for their bodies and that's mine - and I defend it on the grounds that it was a natural healthy size for my body when my daily rhythm was natural and healthy.  Which is absolutely true, but that is no longer how my days go, and it might be reasonable to take that into account when setting goals).  But if all the women around me - and I am not innocent here! - maintained a weight that was natural for their genetics and daily responsibilities, rather than constantly complaining about whatever they do weigh and aiming for some arbitrary number or body shape more consistent with what they think other people expect them to look like, then those extra pounds might not seem so important to me, either. 

What I find for myself is that, more and more, the most satisfying part of my week is doing things that seem to have no inherent romance - pulling weeds, painting walls, washing dishes, cooking, doing laundry, making beds (not mine - I never make mine), fixing things that are broken.  My hands become lost in the activity and I feel at peace.  I try to counsel myself to find achievement in the paid work I do, but it seems empty.  I have an unstudied conviction that my washing the dishes will be good for humanity.  I find that hard to believe about even the attorney work I do that anybody could easily tell you is supposed to be good for humanity (and, yes, some of it is).  Ms. Orbach's reflections give me something to tie that feeling to: namely, the benefit of returning to a more natural state of being not just in an economic or possibly spiritual sense, but in a physical sense (which seems to go further to explain the groundedness I feel in working with my hands). 

Her main thesis is that our current view of bodies as projects and as changeable has undermined our ability to be "at home in our bodies" or to allow our bodies to exist "as a body," phrases she uses repeatedly.  This certainly sounds right to me.  I don't have a strong felt sense that it is right, probably because I don't have any adult experience of actually feeling at home in my body that I can think back to (meaning she is very definitely right in my case, but I have a long way to go to make use of that knowledge).  I can, however, congratulate myself in a little way for my reflection (in a prior post) of learning to see my body in a different way. 

Like many women, I started out dabbling in anorexia in high school and college, which I imagine Ms. Orbach would agree is a surefire way to erode any authentic body sense even if you had one before that (I probably didn't.  One of my most pronounced traits in childhood and adolescence was being physically uncoordinated to the point that I walked into large obvious objects.  I was almost pathologically poor at sports and incredibly awkward and uncomfortable with anyone looking at me doing anything.  Even now that idea is still paralyzing at times.  Where something other than my body is concerned - speaking in public, for example - I am very confident and don't shrink from attention, so it's not shyness generally.  It's specifically physical.  And the awkwardness is not in my head - other people can plainly see it, and on occasion I'll see myself on a video of something and realize that I visibly appear far more awkward than I even feel). 

So by now I probably resemble the patients she describes in having no proper body "boundaries" (that doesn't mean you smack people; she means not having a comfortable sense of what your body is and an ability to live within that).  That no doubt made it easy to see my body as "other," an object, when it turned out not to accede readily to fertility treatments, and ultimately to feel that it was a useless failure (and I with it) when treatment continued unsuccessful.  Starting to do manual labor in the past few years has significantly redeemed my view of my body as I started to view it as capable, the opposite of failing.  More than that, physical work has given me many moments - even hours - when I am not busy thinking about my body as something that is wrong (not thin enough, not shaped right, infertile, etc.) because I am busy working with and within my body and I need to rely on it as the means of accomplishing whatever it is I am doing. 

Like most American women, I have become accustomed to being acutely aware of how I am sitting, how I am standing, what my hair is doing, how my clothes look, who is around who might be looking at me - at all times.  (In fact, I think I'm actually less aware of this than a lot of other women, but I am becoming more constantly aware over time.)  When I am weeding the garden or stenciling a wall, I actually don't notice what my body is doing; I only notice what I'm working on.  (I know this specifically because I will often wake up incredibly sore the next day unable to figure out what could have caused the strain, until I piece together that I was in a crouched position for a straight hour because I was too focused on painting to shift position and sit down - strange, but true.)  I don't think at all about how it might look to get myself into a 45-degree angle to shove something; I am only thinking of what leverage I need and how to get it.  I have even had the (BRIEF) thought that it's fortunate I now weigh 25 pounds more than in high school! 

Obviously what I'm getting at is that I should spend more of my time gardening and less at work :).  That will have to be a long-term project, but it's worth considering its value. 

I'll make one last comment before ending this ponderous reflection.  I mentioned that Ms. Orbach has a chapter (as, of course, she must) addressing the erosion of "body sense" or "body boundaries" as this pertains to sexuality.  She makes the point that, in a world in which we no longer comfortably live our bodies, and in which the body is sort of created for public approval rather than simply being allowed to exist as it is, we have trouble being natural in our sexuality - rather than our behavior in sexual interactions being a spontaneous reflection of our feelings, it is a performance of what we understand are generally considered to be appropriate sexual gestures.  ("What looks sexy from that movie?" or what-have-you - or, if you try not to watch those movies, it might be something you read or heard or overheard.)  Sparing you details you're not interested in - of course I do this.  I have no inclination toward exhibitionism, but darned if I haven't an imaginary jury in my head, telling me about what people think is sexy instead of - what I might spontaneously think is a good idea, utterly regardless of whether any other person in human history has ever behaved in that way?  I'm not sure it ever even occurred to me that a person could behave that way. 

And really, that's the most needful wake-up call of all - not the one that says, "Hey, you're doing X," but the one that says, "Of course you know you've always done X - but did you know that there is actually another way?"  I'm still digesting it all (and actually I have a few pages still to read), but I found her reflections extraordinarily eye-opening.  There are a few points on which I simply disagree, but on the whole, the book is extremely thought-provoking and one I clearly needed to read.  If these topics interest you, I heartily recommend it. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Stuff I Did While I Wasn't Here

First of all, Susan at Between Naps on the Porch has a cute style quiz up, and I find everyone's responses so charming.  (Mine are under "the misfit," of course.)  Go over and participate! 

(That counts as something I did while I wasn't here, by the way.) 

So what else did I do?  Well, as I may have mentioned, I am trying to embrace a "do it now" philosophy with the house.  In other words - the proper answer to, "Some day, I should fix the edge on that sink counter" is, yes, "Do it now."  Of course there's the caveat that I can only do a certain number of things at a time, so there's a "do it next" version of this, too.  Lately I'm running a master to-do list and a sub-to-do list for just the current weekend on my phone.  Things like "laundry" and "grocery shopping" are there every weekend, of course, but it gives me such pleasure to get to deploy a check mark next to something (that I previously was doing anyway, but without the reward of a nice check mark).

Anyway, speaking of that sink:


Obviously, that is an old picture, because that is my old stove.  The sink sat on top of a cabinet I had built with 2x4s (to take the weight of the sink), skinned with luaun, and covered with a 1/2" thick sheet of MDF and then tiled with 6"x6" tumbled Carrara marble tiles.  (I would have preferred honed to tumbled, but the tumbled were at the ReStore for a song, so there you go.  In fact, if I had it all to do again, I'd buy a remnant slab, because I now realize it would not be that hard to cut it to fit that style of sink as I thought at the time.) 

In any case, the front edge was fairly raw - you could see the front edge of the MDF and the front edge of the tiles.  Both are pretty finished edges; they're not rough, but they're both thin where they show:


(I'm afraid that's the best "before" picture I have of that spot.  Silly me.)  It just didn't have a substantial look to it. More importantly, I made the door flush with the edge of the countertop. I knew that countertops usually extend 1" out from the cabinets below, but it was easier to build this one flush and I didn't see the standard practice as useful for any reason, so I took the easy route. After using the sink for a while, I realized that having the countertop sit further out prevents water running off the counter from running straight down the cabinets. Of course this counter gets spills, because it's next to the sink - and the dripping was ruining the wood on the cabinet door.  So I needed to fix the door, but I also needed to do something about the water running off.  And I did this:


I added 12" long pieces of marble wainscoting trim to the edge of the counter.  They're attached with grout/adhesive, and before I attached them, I nailed in some painted oak trim to help support them (and stabilize them while the adhesive dried).  My original goal had been to use thinner trim tile and a piece of wooden trim all the way across, but I didn't pay enough attention to the dimensions of the tile when I ordered it, and it was too thick to fit trim underneath without blocking the door.  (I was disappointed that I couldn't see the marble in-store before I bought it; I like to pick out my own pieces of everything, and the pieces I was shipped are allegedly Carrara but don't look like Carrara to me at all - no veining!  I know I just got some peculiar pieces, but I would never have chosen them in person.)  I set the tiles a smidge higher than the edge of the existing surface, so they will trap water behind them and I can mop it up before it runs down the cabinet (not sure whether you can tell): 


Also, I need to learn to splash less when I wash dishes.  (When I worked in food service, I would be soaked from shoulders to knees after doing a big batch of dishes.)  And, as you may be able to see in the photo above, I did an extremely bad job sawing the left-hand piece to length (though I do have the correct blade for this).  It's badly chipped, and much more noticeable than I was hoping it would be:

  
I will have to find some way to patch that.  Oddly, that project took over a week to complete.  Then there was the clothes line:


The previous owners built it.  The end posts are set in concrete, which is pretty hardcore for a clothesline IMHO.  I like being able to dry things out there occasionally, but I don't use it often.  And I thought of a way to make it more regularly useful but still (perhaps) usable for drying my shower curtains:


There are two sixteen-foot pressure-treated 2x4s spanning the original clothes poles now, with 1x2 strips of pressure-treated lumber crossing them every foot.  I stupidly neglected to "sight" the lumber before I attached it - the left-hand sixteen-footer (further away from the camera in the photo above) has a natural downward curve in the middle.  This is not atypical for wood, but the point is that you face the curve counter to gravity so that it straightens with time.  I did the opposite.  Fortunately all it's holding is its own weight, some relatively light cross-pieces, and (eventually) a climbing hydrangea (you can see it in the lower left-hand corner of the picture above - it seems very healthy, but it is not growing at all.  Maybe next year). 

But then I decided that I wasn't quite satisfied with the arrangement.  For one thing, I wanted the weight of the trellis supported by more than just the T-bars on the original clothes line - those sixteen-footers are quite heavy.  For another, I wanted to separate the load of the hammock from the load of the trellis.  With them separate, the odds of both collapsing at once (i.e., with someone in the hammock) are nearly zero.  With them both resting on the same support, if there were a collapse, everything would come down at once (i.e., hammock falls and the trellis lands on the person in the hammock, who can't duck out of the way because he is busy falling - albeit not very far).  That would be bad.  Also, the hammock rapidly became less attractive when the mosquitoes returned for the year.  Solutions:


Eeeeeeexcellent.  The new 4x4s were about $8 each (I compaced the soil beneat them before setting them in and screwing them to the rest of the trellis, but no concrete), the mosquito net was $15 on Amazon, and the hammock stand was a steal at $25 on craigslist.  And here is the view from the other side, with my garden in the background:


It just so happens to be next to the flower garden, and have a motion-sensing nighttime spotlight trained on it (those were added prior to the hammock), and be under the shade of a giant live oak during much of the day.  I love when things work out like that.  (And yes, I know the oak tree is one reason the hydrangea isn't growing.  But the hydrangea tag wouldn't proclaim "sun-loving" quite so boldly if it knew it were going to live in the DC sauna.  It will thank me later.) 

Speaking of the garden, it's been going crazy lately:


ALL OF THAT GREW IN MY YARD.  I am so pleased.  It had wilted within hours (I think we keep the house too warm - I put ice cubes in the vase and refreshed the water every couple of days, so I was trying), but I think it looked nice for its close-up :). 

I had also been planning to capitalize on a fortuitous arrangement between our property line fence and the roofline of the sun porch and add some lovely outdoor lights.  (This is what we call making a virtue of a necessity.  If your house is further than ten feet from your property line, and therefore further than twenty feet from your neighor's house, you won't be able to pull this one off for $20 in lights and socket adaptors like I did.  You poor baby.)  I told my DH of this idea last year and he was highly skeptical.  So I shelved it for a bit.  Ultimately I decided he was obviously wrong, so I did it anyway.  I absolutely love it:


I think it makes a feature out of an overlooked/unattractive spot on the property.  And I love outdoor lights.  Here it is from the other side:


To my DH's credit, it wasn't a failure of imagination.  He's not sold on it now that he sees it in person, either.  But don't worry.  It's staying.  (The lights are powered by a socket/lightbulb adaptor I added to the floodlight - which is the bright spot in the very center of the picture - that was already on the house.  Because the floodlight has a light sensor, that means that both the floods and the decorative lights come on only at dusk.  I feel that I got a little luxury feature in there for $0.)  By the way, that's the aforementioned live oak in the background of that shot. 

What else did I do?  Oh yes.  Well, the extra support posts I added to the hammock/trellis arrangement were originally eight feet long, so I had two feet of extra from each.  I figured a pair of these sunk halfway into the ground (well, actually, I also had some concrete leftover in the garage, so I set them in that.  Then it refused to cure, so we're going to say that I set them into the dirt, which is similar to uncured concrete) would make good supports for the little archway I've been planning to put over our front walk.  Originally, I had planned to keep an eye out for a great sale on a sturdy wooden archway, or maybe an antique wrought iron one.  They can be very expensive, and I hadn't found one yet.  I was also contemplating the cost (and difficulty of construction) of making one myself from scratch.  Then my two big beautiful fig trees died over the cold winter (they're regrowing, but from the ground up - it will be several years before I get any fruit), and I knew I needed to cut them down, but I didn't have the heart - I couldn't just put them in the burn pile.  And then I had an inspiration, so I went to houzz, where inspiration properly lives:

And concluded that, yes, I could make an arch out of my fig trees.  So after I sulked for a couple of days about the concrete that wasn't curing, I got myself some green landscaping wire and made myself an archway out of fig trees:

I screwed the big pieces of tree into the pieces of 4x4 sticking out at the bottom (you can just see them in the photo above).  This might better show how I attached everything:


I just wired every piece to the previous pieces in several places (and then tightened the twisted ends of wire with pliers).  Here's a closer shot of the top:


It kind of has a flock-of-seagulls haircut.  I could trim that, of course (with a ladder - I put together a little over half of it while it was lying on the ground, then attached it to the supports and kept adding more.  I made the inside of the arch over seven feet high in the middle, so that everyone can safely walk under it.  But my reach on tiptoe is just a bit over seven feet).  But I haven't decided whether I want to keep it unruly.  Obviously, my inspiration photo is a lot neater, but then that's probably not made of fig tree.  I'm also planning to train a climbing rose on it (I planted a little one in spring, and my husband promptly killed it with the lawnmower.  It's the most expensive plant I've ever bought, and after a suitable period of mourning, I decided I was jolly well going to buy another one to plant in the fall, and put a stake by it to keep the lawnmower at bay).  So it has not yet achieved its intended appearance.  The last thing I need to do is soak it in wood sealer (I have tons left over from another project - I just need a cheap spray bottle to apply it with), in hopes that it doesn't rot.  By the way, I trimmed the hedges this spring.  I am going to do them again.  But I want you to know I'm not lazy.  I just live in a swamp. 

While I was fussing with the outside of the house, trying to stick to my "beautiful and useful" goal (thank you, William Morris), it crossed my mind that we have a fabulous antique doorbell (the kind you crank) on the front door, which can be heard throughout the house - but nobody comes to the front door.  Meanwhile, friends sometimes come to the back door and we don't realize they're there if we're not downstairs.  Sure, Bailey, the living doorbell, is usually on the case, but she needs to learn a bark for "a friend is visiting" versus "the neighbor just pulled into his driveway."  Or maybe I need to learn bark better.  So, I decided, I would keep an eye out for an antique bell I could hang.  Then about a week later I realized I am not actually that patient (as I imagine this post attests, yes?), and found a new patinated iron one on Amazon for about $20.  I think it looks awesome:


Contra one of the reviewers, there is not a directional limitation on ringing, the interior bolt is not finnicky, and the entire thing took me about ninety seconds to assemble correctly.  Also, it's true that it doesn't come with mounting screws, but anyone without a giant jar of slightly-rusty wood screws should not be buying an aged-looking bell in the first place.  I'm just saying.  Oh, and it has a lovely full ringing tone - and is so loud my DH insisted I wear ear plugs when I tested to see whether you could hear it from the living room with both exterior doors closed (yes).  Here it is from further away:


OK, stupid $20 bell.  Makes me happy.  Whatever.  What else did I do?  Well...I had most of a $25-gets-you-$50 coupon from one of those local coupon deals that just so happened to be for my favorite junk shop and was about to expire.  For months they hadn't had any antiques or anything, and I had been very disappointed.  Then I popped in a week before the coupon expired and found this for $50:


That's it hanging from my tree.  Absolutely love it.  It's actually comfortable, believe it or not.  And that unassuming-looking rope is jute-colored nylon rated to hold 700 pounds: 


Don't let the pretty fool you - we mean business around here.  I also finally got real sheers for my living room windows (instead of the white vinyl roller shades).  When I saw them for $10 for the pair at Ikea, I knew it was time.  Unfortunately, they really emphasized the high-water length on the curtains (also from Ikea). So I picked up a yard and a half of upholstery-weight velvet on clearance at the fancy fabric store to make trim that would add four inches of length. (I had originally been looking for a peacock blue, after seeing Ikea velvet curtains in that color. I didn't find that, but I did find a gray that coordinated with the curtain color.). I think the trim turned out well:


Oh, and I also shortened the sheers. I only did one window, since that's the only one you can see :).  Here's the whole window: 


We have company next weekend, so I wanted to get the visible part in order - I'm telling myself I'll have more time afterward, but realistically, I'll probably do them when we replace the sectional with a sofa that doesn't cover the other two windows.

I also bought a second sconce for our room, and a revamp of the headboard wall will soon be underway.  And, of course, I'm working on the third bedroom - made some progress on that this week, and will be able to share a full roster of changes soon, I think. 

But my biggest project for 2014 was always going to be resurfacing a 900SF section of asphalt in front of the carriage house.  The sheer size of the area has made almost every option cost-prohibitive - it is a purely cosmetic change, after all; the asphalt functions fine - but I think I have finally figured out how to do it.  The first step is going to be demolishing 300SF of the asphalt (to reduce the cost of resurfacing, and because it's bigger than it needs to be and I can easily sod a portion and merge it with the grassy area behind it), which will be miserable hard labor, but also much-needed exercise.  As for how I'll get to the final product - here's a hint:


And - last on the "stuff I did" (sort of) - I know this is bragging and maybe obnoxious (in which case, so is this whole post).  But recently I had an utterly unimpressive realization.  A few months ago, I was being somewhat disciplined about eating and getting regular exercise and my clothes were fitting better and my weight was dropping (finally!) - but it just wouldn't dip into the range I wanted.  It was extremely frustrating.  (Then I started eating worse and getting less regular exercise and that problem has become academic.  I am working on it.)  It took me literally months to realize - I can lift twice what I could a few years ago.  I don't lift at the gym (apart from a few PE class requirements, I never have).  All the muscle I have built - which is visibly obvious; I've always had little twig arms, regardless of my weight, so you can really see the difference - I have earned the old-fashioned way.  I've been gardening, working with power tools, carrying drywall and lumber (and soil and mulch and concrete), and building things. 

And because the change in my body stems from actually living my life, rather than from some appearance-driven diet or exercise plan, I didn't actually understand that it was happening.  I didn't understand that even if I got myself into my historically smallest adult dress size (which I am still hoping to do this year), I would weigh a good five pounds more than last time I wore that size.  I dabbled in anorexia in college, and the scale has a disproportionate power over my thinking.  But this point is so obvious a child would understand it; it should not have surprised me.  This has made me realize that I view my body, not as the source of strength and vitality that's supposed to carry me through life and help me accomplish all the things I will want to do, but as a blank canvas for my vanity and insecurities.  I see my arms not as things that carry lumber, but as things that wear clothes.  I do sit-ups in hopes of a flatter stomach - I don't spare a thought for the fact that they're necessary to prevent back injury.  I look enviously at teeny girls on the metro and remember when I looked like that - and forget that when I looked like that I couldn't sprint the escalator or carry drywall or use a circular saw properly. 

Probably by the time most women in America reach adulthood, they see their bodies as the, well, embodiment of failure to meet a host of standards that are frequently self-contradictory and should never be applied generally anyway.  (It's fine for some people to be very thin, but not everyone has the same body type.  Everyone needs good food and exercise - but not to be skinny.  And these days a lot of people get and stay skinny by avoiding good food and healthy exercise.  It seems too obvious to say, but we all need to hear it more - me included: that's not healthy.)  By the time most infertile women get a few years into treatment, they see their bodies as miserable, defective failures, with shortcomings that undermine their fundamental sense of their value as human beings.  And that's to say nothing of the fact that their bodies are physically harmed by infertility treatment - from pain and surgical scars to bloating, weight gain, nausea, the expansion of cysts and adhesions, and hormonal instability (and worse problems, like cancer, ruptured fallopian tubes, and miscarriages). 

I am no exception.  And as I walk down the street I hear the accustomed refrain in my head, that I'm pretty sure we all hear - you're not as pretty as she is.  You're  not as thin as she is.  You could never wear that.  You don't have her posture.  You're not as young as she is any more.  Your hair will never look that good.  Those people will look right past you because you're old and out of shape and unattractive.  And then I climb to the top of a ladder and I hear a voice I'm not accustomed to at all: Everyone knows you're clumsy, but you never fall when you're doing this work, and you never break your expensive supplies and tools.  It's a good thing you have really long arms - most women couldn't reach that.  You just read a blog where someone said she hired a professional to do a wiring job like this, but you learned how to do it yourself.  You know, that's a lot heavier than you realized - you couldn't have lifted it a few years ago.  You're doing manual labor in the heat and you didn't realize an hour just passed.  In fact, you're about to finish this job and start another.  A lot of people would be exhausted right now, but if you pause and think about it, you're not even sore.  You actually feel good

I don't know what to do with that voice yet, but I don't think my life or my body is a waste.  Maybe at some point that will really sink in.