Thursday, June 30, 2011

Thursday Think 'n' Share 3.6

As I mentioned the first time around, this is a sort of "getting to know you" game that I hope my readers  will join me in playing each week. The short of it is that I pull three random question from one of various decks of The Ungame and answer them. Readers are encouraged to post their own answers either in the comment box or on their own blog (or Facebook page). If you're not doing it in the comment box, do let me know where I can find them, because I'd like to get to know my readers better at the same time they're getting to know me. You can be as serious or as silly as you feel like being on any given day for any particular question.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

One of my strengths is that I can see many different sides to a person or a problem, an idea or an institution. The flip side of that is "analysis paralysis." I can't make a decision, I can't move forward, because I'm too busy defining the situation or because I don't want to make the wrong decision. Similarly, I have a lot of interests--as the header says, I've been described as a Renaissance man--but I don't make the commitment or don't have the drive to focus exclusively on an interest to be truly exceptional at it. So it's that indecision.

Or maybe it's something else... ;)

Say something about ghosts.

I shared an apartment for some months with a girl who was absolutely convinced that the house she'd grown up in was haunted, that on multiple occasions she'd seen ghosts. She seemed sincere, and there's a certain power to hearing someone talk about first-hand experience, but I nevertheless remained--and remain--skeptical. It's not impossible, but the evidence doesn't seem great to me.

Finish this sentence: "The best thing about today is..."

that I didn't have much of anything I had to do. That was good for me, considering that we went to the drive-in last night, seeing Transformers 3, which stretched past midnight, followed by Super 8, getting us home on the far side of a quarter after three. Lauren took our daughter to her nanny's house for the day, so I was able to nap a bit while still getting a bookcase painted (two coats!), doing a few things around the house, and getting a wee bit of composing done.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Book Review: Under Heaven

A number of my Goodreads friends, including an author I really like, are very high on Guy Gavriel Kay's work, so I've been meaning to check out his work. I picked up Under Heaven both because it stands alone and because it was the only GGK work available as an audiobook (which seem like the only kind I can find time to finish right now!). There were some elements that I really liked about Under Heaven, but on the whole I found it to be uneven work.

The story, set in a fantasy China (Kitai), revolves around the three oldest children of a renowned general. Our central figure, Shen Tai, the second son, has taken upon himself the task of living in a haunted valley where his father won an important victory, and burying some of the thousands of dead from both sides. He plans to spend the entire two year mourning period burying the dead, and his time is drawing to a close as the novel opens. During his time in this valley, which borders Kitai and one of its long-time enemies, both empires have honored Shen Tai's work by sending regular supplies to him. At the start of the novel, he is honored beyond such utilitarian aid when the Empress of the Taguran empire bestows upon him an extravagant gift of 250 Sardian horses, in a world where even one or two such horses would be a princely gift. At the same time, Shen Tai survives an assassination attempt. In other words, his life just got a whole lot more complicated.

All that happens early in the novel, so I don't feel like I'm spoiling anything. To talk about the roles of his older brother and younger sister, I would have to start spoiling, so instead I'll get to the review.

The good: I loved the sense of culture in the novel. Our characters live in a poetic culture: they quote poetry, they write poetry, and as he follows them, Kay's prose frequently rises to the poetic. I appreciated the sense of a culture that Kay establishes, their ways of seeing the world. Much of the plot revolves around court intrigue and the political implications of this gift--it both elevates Shen Tai and puts him in a difficult position as others try to manipulate or eliminate him to claim the gift for their own purposes.

The less-good: The pacing was very uneven. At times, Shen Tai's story moved awfully slowly (his sister's story moved along a bit better). Related to this, Kay shifted perspectives at times from a novelistic perspective written in the present tense to a world-historic perspective from some time in the future, distancing us from the action. This played a big role in making the ending of the novel feel rushed. What also happened, though, is that it seemed like the promise of the novel was revoked by the end. We tend to assume that our protagonists will make the decisions and play the roles that are decisive in the plot, but in a number of ways this wasn't the case in Under Heaven. Shen Tai's story--as well as his sister's--gets swept aside in the rush of larger events, and it's the decisions of others that make the difference. Our protagonists all become fairly passive at the crucial juncture, which is unsatisfying. We want to see our characters solve their own problems rather than having them resolved for them.

All in all, I'm glad I read Under Heaven, but it's not overly impressive. I haven't yet fallen in love with Kay's work.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Review: True Grit (2010)

At the risk of offending some, I will say up front that I think the Coen brothers’ re-make of True Grit is, in virtually every way, superior to the original.

Perhaps the most vivid illustration I can give is a comparison of the opening scenes of each. In the original, we start with a cheesy musical theme followed by an opening scene at the Ross farm, where we see a capable young girl handling the family’s finances, we see her loving father, and we see the latter leave with the hired man, Tom Chaney, who will soon kill him. Our heroine Mattie Ross voices her distrust of Chaney as they ride off. Then we see a scene in a bar—Chaney is drunk and losing at cards, he starts making violent accusations of cheating, but Mr. Ross pulls him away from the table and outside before violence can erupt. After a brief confrontation, it does, with Chaney shooting Ross, stealing some money from him, and making his escape as men come out of the bar, drawn by gunshots.

True Grit (2010) begins in silence and darkness, the camera not quite focusing on some small source of light near the middle of the screen. As we come into focus, we hear Mattie Ross narrating what will ultimately be a slightly more concise version of what I’ve just related. What we finally see are two lights on the outside of a bar and the dead body of her father on the ground. Finally, Tom Chaney gallops by, though except for his legs, the horse’s legs, and some of its back, Chaney is out of the frame, unseen.

What we have in the comparison is a darker, starker world in the latter film, a bit more mystery and menace from our villain who is never seen, and Mattie Ross has been established from the beginning as our narrator and protagonist. And what a protagonist she is! Hailee Steinfeld just has that much more intensity, intelligence and grit than her predecessor. In a real sense, the original was John Wayne’s movie—this is Hailee Steinfeld’s movie, and that’s no small feat sharing the screen with Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon (and, for that matter, a number of other talented actors). All of which brings me to a second point of comparison: I think that the overall level of acting is higher in the new version, where every bit part and supporting player is more or less perfect. When I say that this is Hailee Steinfeld’s movie, I acknowledge that these other actors gave it to her—not because their own performances are sub-par, but because it’s her story and it’s supposed to be that way.Although it's a slightly different flavor, Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn is just as good as Wayne's, and Matt Damon improves the role of Le Boeuf considerably. JohThe supporting players, too, were uniformly excellent.
Another element that the remake offers that the original didn’t is a pervasive—usually dark—humor. There were quite a few very funny moments in the film, though they didn’t detract or distract from the film’s dark seriousness—if anything, they enhanced it. It felt more real, which I think is also a mark of the evolution of the film Western. 

All in all, an excellent movie and an excellent re-make.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Thursday Think 'n' Share 3.5

As I mentioned the first time around, this is a sort of "getting to know you" game that I hope my readers  will join me in playing each week. The short of it is that I pull three random question from one of various decks of The Ungame and answer them. Readers are encouraged to post their own answers either in the comment box or on their own blog (or Facebook page). If you're not doing it in the comment box, do let me know where I can find them, because I'd like to get to know my readers better at the same time they're getting to know me. You can be as serious or as silly as you feel like being on any given day for any particular question.

Who in your family has the best sense of humor?

Me, of course. And if my wife tries to tell you otherwise, it's clearly just jealousy about how clever and funny I am. Actually, it might be our 18-month-old daughter, as she is always laughing. Except when she's crying. And sometimes even then.

Say something about dreaming at night.

Fortunately, it is night, because otherwise I would have to wait until tomorrow morning and it wouldn't be a Thursday Think 'n' Share. Actually, I don't tend to remember a lot of my dreams unless I'm not sleeping well, and when that's the case, they tend to be weird ones.

What are 3 things you would like to be doing in three years?

I'd like for us to be well-established out on our land, living there one way or another (and not having just arrived three years from now). I'd like to be raising a happy, healthy, beautiful, brilliant 4-and-a-half-year-old (and maybe another to boot?) along with a happy, healthy, beautiful, and brilliant wife--in other words, maintain the status quo, just move it up three years! And I will have just seen this year's freshman graduate, so I hope to be the Counselor to a happy, healthy, beautiful, and brilliant bunch of guys who will all have been working with me for their whole high school careers.

And you?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Book Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora

With his debut novel, Lynch offered up a fairly slick caper-fantasy. Our setting is the gritty city of Camorr, a fantasy version of Venice, ruled by its Duke on the one hand and its crime boss, "Capa" Barsavi on the other. Barsavi has brought a certain equilibrium to the city through his "secret peace" that ensures that the nobility allow a certain amount of crime to go unpunished while the criminals avoid getting too greedy. Locke Lamora is a natural-born liar and thief, molded by his mentor, the false priest Father Chains, to be the Thorn of Camorr, pulling off long cons that break the Secret Peace and target the wealthy. And technically, Father Chains is an actual priest, but his patron god is the unacknowledged 13th god, patron of thieves, not the god that he professes to the public, but that's beside the point just now.

Lynch weaves together two basic timelines, a "present" story and a past story showing how Locke and the other Gentleman Bastards--Jean, the brothers Calo and Galdo, and the group's apprentice member, Bug--grew up together under Chains's tutelage and became the characters we see before us. The Gentleman Bastards are running a big con against a wealthy noble, but all this is hampered by other happenings in the city: the mysterious Grey King has entered the scene and seems intent on displacing Capa Barsavi. Locke and his Bastards are inevitably drawn into this struggle and forced to play both sides while looking for a way out.

The novel seemed to me to invite comparison with Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos series, and while The Lies of Locke Lamora kept my interest, neither the novel as a whole nor the characters seemed quite up to that standard. Locke is supposed to be some kind of thieving genius, but far too often he seemed over-matched and a bit passive. He doesn't have the panache of Vlad (nor of most other Brust characters) nor, ultimately, the same genius. Or self-control. But then, I do need to be careful: despite obvious points of comparison, I should remind myself that Lynch is not trying to create a clone of Brust's protagonist and I should work more to appreciate Locke for who he is.

One thing I'll give Lynch credit for (big-time spoiler alert--skip to the next paragraph if you're skittish about such things): he doesn't seem to hold his characters sacred. I mean, it's a bloodbath as he kills off the majority of the Gentleman Bastards. Not knowing initially that this was the first in a series, I half-suspected that this was a one-off with Locke dying at the end. That wouldn't have been a bad thing, per se, and it's to Lynch's credit that he raised the stakes that high, that he was able to generate that kind of dramatic tension.

One thing worth mentioning is the language: it's very contemporary and very coarse. I was ambivalent about it: at times, it felt jarringly modern in a fantasy setting; at times, it felt jarring just because I got tired of hearing the f-word so much (and I did hear it: I was listening to the audiobook version). At the same time, it's not as though I don't hear the same language in films without batting an eye, and I've said all such words at one time or another, so it's not a squeamishness on my part. One nit to pick is that I would have liked to have had more of a sense of language differentiation: a big part of the story revolves around disguises, but I felt like everyone talked with roughly the same level of diction, no class differences or even personal quirks. There was at times some creative swearing, but that was more Lynch showing off than anything particularly individual to a character or class.

In the end, I enjoyed it enough to see it through to the end and I enjoyed it enough to pick up the next novel in the series, but it won't go down as one of my favorites or as a novel I'd class among the best that the fantasy genre has to offer.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Book Review: The Name of the Wind

I'd heard a lot of buzz for this novel as it was read by one of the book clubs I follow on Goodreads. Other than that, I didn't know much about it when I saw that I could check it out as an audiobook from my library. So, I did, and passed quite a few hours in the world Rotfuss created, with his hero/narrator, Kvothe.

There were a lot of things that I liked about this novel. First, I liked Kvothe. He's a hero rather in the mold of an Orson Scott Card hero: brilliant from a young age, destined for greatness, with a solid core of goodness. At the same time, Rothfuss avoids Card's preachiness and over-narration, while also giving him a bit of a darker streak that isn't (as it necessarily would be in a Card novel) mended.

The overall story is a bildungsroman, which is a snooty way of saying it's a coming-of-age story. [Warning: Lots of Spoilers Ahead] It's framed like this: our hero Kvothe is a legend in his own time--he's done great deeds that are known throughout the world--but he has, at what's still a relatively young age, retired from the world to a life of anonymity. A man known as Chronicler, who's made it his life work to seek out legends and suss out the truth of them, has found where Kvothe is hiding and seeks to get him to tell his true story, to reveal the man behind the legend. Oh yeah, and the sleepy little village where Kvothe hides begins early in the novel to be attacked by strange, dark forces.

All this, though, is a framing device. Although we get occasional "interludes" set in the present, the bulk of this novel deals with Kvothe's early life among the Edema Ruh (read: gypsies), the loss of his family, his hard life alone on the streets of a nasty city, and his entry into a university devoted to the study of magic in its various forms.

All in all, it was an engaging story. Many of the characters teetered on the edge of being flat and a bit generic--certainly, none of them has the vividness that Kvothe gets, though we do get hints of individuality and interest, at least from some of them.

A few things bothered me. First, although I like the idea of all the very literary things Rothfuss is doing--the framing narrative, his poetic opening that's echoed in the ending, some of his asides about "fairy stories" (read: simplistic fantasy), none of them quite seemed to click for me. One problem with the framing narrative is that, naturally enough, it lowers the tension on the main story being told. We know that Kvothe survives and thrives, because he's telling his own story and throughout the novel he hasn't yet done most of the things that will make him legendary. Indeed, all the suspense is in the "present" story, where we have sinister forces very active in the world and where we have what we soon enough realize is a broken hero: why has he withdrawn from the world, why has he apparently lost a good bit of his power and ability, and will he rise to the new threat (the one that actually does have suspense and interest on its side)?

The story that is the focus of the novel isn't nearly wrapped up. This isn't a surprise, really, given what we're told in the framing story, but it's still unsatisfying. It just kind of stops. Because the narrator is tired and it's time to stop for the night. Are some plot threads wrapped up? Sure. He calls the name of the wind, he avoids being expelled, and he even gets promoted to a higher level of student. But in so many other ways, it didn't seem like the right end to the story. Rothfuss has a poetic bit about a silence in three parts--the same thing he used to open the book, though it's a bit different by the end (of course). It serves to offer a sort of formal closure, the sort of thing that might work well enough in a song (appropriate enough, since Kvothe is, among other things, a musician), but the overall unsatisfying point at which he's left off the story can't be smoothed over by a formal trick--it just didn't work for me.

Still, the plot, the characters, and the telling of the novel were all good enough that I will be listening to the next book of the series before too long.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Food Friday: Cubed Steak Fajitas

I put out a call recently for recipes to help me use some of the cuts of meat in our freezer whose usage doesn't come naturally to me. Over on Facebook, my friend Liz offered a recipe that I modified to make Cubed Steak Fajitas. They turned out pretty well, even if I did feel like I was basically throwing ingredients at a food processor to see what would stick. These numbers no doubt bear only a vague resemblance to what I actually used.

1 pkg cubed steak
1/4 c. olive oil
1/4 c. tequila
2 T lime juice
handful of cilantro
handful of parsley
3 cloves garlic
1 T. chilis in adobo sauce
a little olive oil
2 onions, sliced
1 green pepper, sliced
tortillas, preferably whole-grain, low-carb
avocado slices or guacamole (optional)
yogurt or sour cream (optional)
salsa (optional)

Slice the steak very thinly. In a food processor, combine next 7 ingredients, and blend. Pour this over the meat, mix, and let marinade for several hours. When ready, saute the onions and peppers on med. heat until softened. On high heat, stir fry the steak. Pile the meat and veggies into warm tortilla shells, add optional ingredients (note: plain, non-fat yogurt makes a great low-fat substitute for sour cream. Avocado is just plain yummy, and salsa is closer to a necessity than an option. Cheese, tomatoes, even cabbage could apparently be added to this--go nuts with it.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Thursday Think 'n' Share 3.4

Well, this is coming a little late, but better late than never. As I mentioned the first time around, this is a sort of "getting to know you" game that I hope my readers  will join me in playing each week. The short of it is that I pull three random question from one of various decks of The Ungame and answer them. Readers are encouraged to post their own answers either in the comment box or on their own blog (or Facebook page). If you're not doing it in the comment box, do let me know where I can find them, because I'd like to get to know my readers better at the same time they're getting to know me. You can be as serious or as silly as you feel like being on any given day for any particular question.

What is your favorite magazine or reading material?

I don't really read magazines regularly, but I do occasionally enjoy the Sports Illustrated that my mother gave me a subscription to. I also enjoy The New Yorker, which a student of mine passes on to me--I love the articles, which are diverse and typically so well written, so thorough and deep. My favorite reading material, though, are fantasy novels.

Would you say you are moody? Explain.

No. One ex-girlfriend characterized my emotions as "robotic," and though that's even less accurate now than it was then, it's still true that I don't have big mood swings. I'm sure my wife can tell you all about my moods though....

Complete the sentence: "My favorite time of day is..."

the edges. As long as I've gotten enough sleep, I love to get up early--it's my favorite time to work out. But I've also long been a night owl. Parenting has pushed me closer to "early to bed, early to rise," but parenting also helps me appreciate the night as time when our daughter's asleep and doesn't need anything from us.  

And you?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


I don't know who has the power to decide such things (I suspect the answer is "anyone"), but I saw today that June is "Audiobook Month." That "fact" won't change what I've been doing with regards to audiobooks, but it does give me ample excuse for writing about them. Which is convenient, since it's 11 p.m., I want to go to bed but can't come up with anything more substantive for a topic.

For me, this could well be the year of the audiobook. I've consumed the words in a mere 14 books so far this year, but fully ten of those have been audiobooks. To some extent, this is because we've done a fair amount of driving this year, from visiting my mom in Ohio when she was in the hospital to the regular sorts of trips that come up, but that's only half the story. The other half comes down to sheer availability.

When I lived in Providence, RI, I naturally had a library card. One perk of a Providence Public Library card was that I could check out audiobooks by downloading them onto my computer and from there either burning CDs or just putting them onto an iPod or mp3 player. In theory, the books expire after the lending period is up, but if one listens to them on CDs or an mp3 player, there appears to be no way for the library to enforce that. In any case, this service gave me access to quite a number of fiction and non-fiction works, and now Indiana's Evergreen system of libraries is offering the same kind of arrangement. And did I mention that I've continued using my Providence library card for the past 3 years even though I don't exactly live within the Providence city limits any more?

I don't just listen to audiobooks in the car, and this has caused occasional friction at home. I like, for instance, to listen to books while I'm doing household chores like cooking or washing dishes, walking the dog or doing laundry or picking up around the house. Probably 95% of the time, this is not a problem, but for the 5% of those times when my wife is trying to speak to me, well, she gets frustrated when I don't answer or have to fumble around with iPod controls, and even more so when I have to wash and dry my hands before fumbling around with iPod controls, or when I only mentally "surface" briefly enough to answer whatever question I'm being asked and then dive back into the waters of my audiobook.

Her response is, of course, understandable, as is my desire to fill the time when I'm doing tasks that don't require much mental attention. I've tried to be more judicious in my listening, but I've probably failed. When I'm all on my own, at any rate, is a perfect time to listen to audiobooks, including but not limited to the time when I'm out using my chainsaw. I have noise-dampening headphones to block out my power-tool-generated decibels, and they also let me listen to an mp3 player.

I've also discovered that, although I may miss out on some of the nuance that the voice actors have been paid to provide, I can set my iPod to play audiobooks at 2x speed and take it all in just fine. At least, I can with fiction--non-fiction might demand more time to ponder. But for someone who craves stories, audiobooks have been a good way to satisfy that desire.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Meeting the neighbors

Pretty much since the first day we bought our land, over a year ago, I've been thinking about meeting the neighbors. Being a rural kid myself, I know that neighbors can make or break the experience of living in the country, even--or perhaps especially--as isolated as our land is. When we got our deed, there were names attached to some of the fields around us, and I tried to figure out who those people actually were, but so far the only neighbor I met was when I had to go begging at an old farmer's door for help getting my truck out of a snow drift--not exactly one of the textbook ways to win friends and influence people.

This week, my first week of summer, I've been spending a couple hours each day out at our land using my shiny new chainsaw to slice and dice trees that storms took down last summer. That's been a good learning experience--for instance, I learned yesterday how to flood the engine and more or less learned how to recover from that mistake. I also learned how hard I actually need to pull back on the chain break to disengage it, which is to say, harder than I thought before I talked to the guy at the shop (he will probably shake his head in wonder every time he sees me coming for the next decade).

This morning, when I went out to spend some quality time with my Echo, I was surprised to see a small tractor parked on my land since, you know, it is my land but it isn't my tractor. But I wasn't particularly worried about it because it's not like that part of the land is getting any better use. I pulled the truck further back onto our lot and started to get my things out when a pickup pulled up, dropped off one guy to go into the field, and then pulled up and parked near the tractor. This seemed like as good a time as any to meet one of my neighbors.

I decided that "Why are you parking your tractor on my land?" was a lousy conversational gambit, even if I had been dissatisfied with its parking place. Instead I just introduced myself and made his acquaintance. This man, perhaps in his 60s or 50s, farms the land across the road from us--or, rather, he and his brother do. We made a bit of small talk and he--no doubt noticing how quickly the wilderness is working to reclaim land that I claimed to want to build a house upon--asked if I wanted the land mowed. Hell yes I did! But I was rather more noncommittal than that, because I wasn't really looking to pay someone to do it. Though it could come to that. In any case, he said his brother might be interested in mowing it for hay. "He wouldn't pay you for it," he added, which at least also sounded like he wouldn't charge me for it, which was good enough for me. I gave him my phone number and counted it a good day, having met a neighbor.

I lugged my saw back into the woods and, naturally enough, the cursed thing wouldn't start for me. Ugh. So I walked back through the woods toward my truck, just as a jeep pulled up next to it, honking its horn. Which I probably wouldn't have heard if I'd have been sawing wood. This was the man's brother. We chatted a bit, he pointed out a nasty weed to me (for which he recommended Roundup), pointed out his family's house and barn, where they'd lived since the 1800s, I talked about my own roots in Ohio, talked about my plans to build a house, and finally mentioned that I worked at the nearby school--turned out his wife just retired from our admissions department. I don't know if it's a small world, but it's a small community, anyway.

At the end of the day, I met two neighbors and I'll be getting my grass mowed in a couple weeks. Oh, and the chainsaw started right up after that and was good for a couple hours of cutting.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A survey of our meats and a call for help

Today, I asked our butler to conduct a survey of our larder and apprise me of the meats contained therein. Upon realizing we had neither a butler, a steward, nor even a manservant (or, for that matter, a larder), I went to the basement myself, opened up the chest freezer, and counted everything myself.

In the days right after receiving all the meat of our share of a cow or a pig, cooking is easy--if I want to cook something, well, I just go get the meat and cook it. Of course we have it: we have everything! Many of the most desirable cuts, of course, get eaten quickly, and now we're getting down to it, my friends. Which is good, since we'll be getting another split side of beef and another half-pig in just a few months. Now, though, the task before me is to figure out how best to prepare the meat that we still have.

Come with me and have a look at the meat ledger (one package unless otherwise noted):

T-bone steaks
Not T-bones, but labeled as such: 2
Cubed steaks: 5
Neck bones
Round steaks: 2
Beef steak for Swissing
Roasts: 9
Beef heart
Hamburger: 42 lbs
Pork hocks: 2
Pork neckbones
Pork spare ribs
Pork chops: 3
Pork steaks: 4
Ham shank
Smoked ham: 2
Bacon: 10 lbs
Sausage: 14 lbs
Chickens: 5
Chicken broth: 19 2-cup containers

And there you have it. Some of these things are easily dealt with. We'll cook a bunch of pork steaks just as soon as my in-laws come to visit, as they're from Missouri, which apparently is the land of the pork steak. The T-bones could very well be our anniversary celebration, and the chickens get eaten right along, at least one each week (we'll be getting more throughout the summer).

Some of these items, though, are rather mysterious to me. I've eaten my fair share of cubed steak throughout my life (after all, my parents always bought beef by the cow), but I've had very few good ones. Oxtails? Heart? And how do I Swiss my steak?

What I would love to do is to find enough excellent recipes so that we can eat all of this meat without ever having the same dish twice and always having an excellent gustatory experience. Dear readers, can you help me out? If you have great recipes or cooking techniques for the cuts of meat I've listed, please (please, please, please) send them to me. I would be grateful. I would blog about it. I would credit you as the source. I would probably even invite you over for dinner, especially if you live far enough away that you couldn't possibly accept. What more enticement do I need to offer? Leave a recipe in the comments or drop me an e-mail. Please.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Summer Cinema

Recently, two movies we'd ordered from Netflix kept each other company for three months or so. Although I haven't done a cost-benefit analysis, something tells me that providing semi-permanent decorations for the top of our entertainment center is probably not the best use we could be making of our Netflix subscription.

That, of course, was during the school year. Now that we have two months of summer stretching out before us, we may be able to make up for lost time and, indeed, we've started that process, aided and abetted by a purchase I made back in the spring for the benefit of the cadets in my barrack. One of my fellow Counselors had suggested the Epson MovieMate projector/DVD player, and it turned out to be a very popular purchase. With a bit of clear wall space or a hung sheet, my boys can have big-screen experiences in the lounge or their own rooms, watching DVDs, movies from their computer, or hooking up their game systems for big-screen tournaments. All very well and good, but now it's summer and the projector needs a home. It's like the class hamster: somebody has to take care of it over vacation (and it cannot be flushed if care is not provided). So it's up to me to bear that burden.

Last night we watched Pandorum on our own big screen, streamed from Netflix without even getting a DVD in the mail. Between our two DVD allotment and the ability to watch many movies and TV shows instantly, I suspect we will be making up for lost time this summer, especially since I'm not working at a job as such and the research Lauren's doing up at Notre Dame is something she can leave behind at the end of the day. Now, if we can just get our girl to bed at a reasonable hour each night....

Note: we will need to go to the drive-in at least once this summer, to see a certain movie that comes out July 15.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Saturday at the Animal Park

We don't have to drive an hour for a decent park, but we do if we want to see monkeys and tigers and anteaters and tortoises and their friends.

A few weeks ago, Lauren bought us a family pass to our nearest zoo, the Potawatomi Zoo in South Bend. It's good for a year, and there are at least two great things about this pass: first, we don't feel rushed to see things at the zoo, because we can always go back; second, it gets us in free to a number of other zoos, including the ones in Toledo and Cleveland. Today was our first visit to the zoo.

Granted, the Potawatomi Zoo, at least from what we've seen, is far from the most impressive zoo either of us has ever been to. Really, it's like a nice park with an assortment of animals to see. Some are exotic and some are not--we could see better horses than the pony that's there for a pony ride in a 5 minute walk from our house, and cows and goats aren't exactly something we have to seek out either. Even alpacas are easy if you know where to look. But red pandas, tigers, a leopard, an anteater, tortoises, otters, the pig-like peccary, toucans, and diana monkeys? Not so easy to spot on a casual stroll. And there were lots of animals that we didn't see that are rumored to live there as well. It was a very nice place to walk around and a perfect day for it--sunny but not too hot, and there were enough places there for us to get out of the sun.

Thea seemed to have a good time, at least until she got cranky (nap time), and even then she found things to get excited about. We also enjoyed ourselves, with the time passing very quickly. We're already looking forward to our next trip to the Potawatomi Zoo (maybe we'll see the lions next time!). If we can get there early--members can enter at 8 am, before the rabble general public are allowed in at 10--we could easily spend a few hours and then hit the nearby farmer's market and get home before the nap-needing meltdown.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Food Friday: Pulled Beef

I've found what is quite possibly a new favorite way to cook a roast (or two): Pulled Beef. I don't know about anyone else, but I tend to think "pulled pork" before pulled beef, but it's really an ideal cooking method, especially for the leaner grass-fed beef that we prefer--low heat for several (in this case, six) hours. I like the fact that we can make up a bunch and save it for later, eating it either has sandwiches or in all its naked, beefy gloriousness. It's also nice that the recipe is relatively light on sugar or fat.

I started mine this morning before I left for our last day of meetings before summer starts, and it just came out a half hour ago, so I've sampled it and made sure that it's fit to publish. I've made a few modifications from the original, so I'll post my version here (I'm sure the recipe linked above would also be very good if I would just stick to what it says):

4 lb roast (bone-in or otherwise--a 6-lb roast would also be fine) or two 2-lb roasts
1 med onion, chopped
3/4 c. ketchup (may substitute catsup)
3 T vinegar (I like red wine vinegar, but cider vinegar or plain old white vinegar would all be fine)
1 T Worcestershire sauce
1 T salt
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp chili powder
1 1/2 c. water

Mix all ingredients. except the roast. Pour a bit of the mixture into the bottom of the pan, add the roast, and cover with remainder of mixture. For my part, I had two 2-lb roasts and put some of the sauce between them and the rest over the top. Cook at 300F for 6 hours (or more). When done, remove any bones and obvious chunks of fat. Use two forks to pull apart the beef, mixing with the sauce.
You know what I really need? Great recipes for using cubed steak. It's my least favorite cut, so naturally it's the thing I have the most of in my freezer right now, barring (perhaps) hamburger.Ideas, dear readers?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Thursday Think 'n' Share 3.3

As I mentioned the first time around, this is a sort of "getting to know you" game that I hope my readers  will join me in playing each week. The short of it is that I pull three random question from one of various decks of The Ungame and answer them. Readers are encouraged to post their own answers either in the comment box or on their own blog (or Facebook page). If you're not doing it in the comment box, do let me know where I can find them, because I'd like to get to know my readers better at the same time they're getting to know me. You can be as serious or as silly as you feel like being on any given day for any particular question.

Give your definition of the "perfect party." 

I feel old writing this, but I think my perfect party is a small, intimate gathering with friends, probably over a meal, in which we have discussion that slides between fun or humorous exchanges and serious conversation easily and naturally. It's the kind of party that you look up and suddenly, without anyone noticing, the hour has grown late--later than anyone intended--yet no one can quite bring themselves to end the evening.

Talk about your temper and what you do when you lose it.

I'm pretty even-keeled, for the most part. When I do lose my temper, I tend to make cutting remarks or be short with people more than I tend to yell, though if I've lost my temper, I will probably escalate any yelling that is begun. When I've lost my temper, though, I tend to find it relatively quickly--in fairly short order I feel badly for losing my temper, start to see both sides of the issue, and try to move on.

How do you act when you want to avoid doing something?

I guess it depends on the something, but in most cases I find other things to do. Sometimes those are other things that also need to be done, although they may not be as important as what I'm avoiding. Sometimes they are completely unimportant things, total time-wasters, like games or surfing the internet, checking to see if anything new or interesting is on Facebook, that kind of thing.
So... what about you? Tell me about parties, tempers, and avoidance.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Choices, Virtues, the Mind

"Think of a reasonably consequential decision or choice you made recently. Tell yourself why you made that choice."

This is how one of the presenters at the previously-referenced faculty development day began her portion of a presentation. She went on to cite research that I'd read in another forum explaining how our decision are often, in fact, influenced by factors in our environment that we may not even be consciously aware of. As she said, "We are good at inventing stories or explanations to describe how we arrived at a certain decision, but actually have little sense of what really went on." For instance, she gave the example of performing some kind of charitable act. We may tell ourselves that we performed some act of kindness because that's the kind of person we are--someone who does good things. The research suggests, however, that we're more likely to be good to others when, for instance, we've just had something good happen to us. Or when we're in a nice environment (for instance, outside a bakery from which wonderful smells are emanating). Likewise, we may not help someone in need because we're in a bad mood, or because we're in a hurry or because we're in an ugly, smelly part of town.

I'd previously read research along these lines, so this wasn't a surprise to me. It's really just an extension of a long history of research going back at least as far as the Milgram experiment, all suggesting that our ethics and behavior are more than a little circumstantial, as opposed to be merely an extension of our "character."

At least, that is, as we commonly think of character. As the presenter noted, our ordinary conception of character seems to be certain characteristics (often thought of in terms of virtues and vices) that we "have" that we then act on. For instance, I am generous, so I give things freely to other people. I am honest, so I tell the truth. I am lazy, so I sit around eating Cheetos and putting off my work. It turns out that it's more complicated than that.

I think Aristotle, over 2300 years ago, had some handle on this, or at least helps point the way.

Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.
In other words, these "characteristics" are simply ways that we characteristically react, ways that we respond more often than not (at least in view of the person judging us to be so). It is, though, too simplistic to say, simply because environmental factors play a role, that decision making--moral or otherwise--is merely a matter of context. Even in the original studies, there are people who go against the statistical tendencies, who behave a particular way despite their circumstances. We can't discount the effect that environment can have. As educators, for instance, we should be keenly aware of the kind of environment we are creating for our students both inside and outside the classroom. Part of what we are doing, I suspect, if we're doing things right, is creating an environment where students will build habits of excellence or virtue (along these lines, I think I need to read more about the Habits of Mind). We should also be educating our students to be more conscious of the subtle influences can alter their behavior away from what they would want their behavior to be. Of course, we adults need to cultivate the same consciousness.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

High-stakes testing

Interesting not-yet-published study of the day:

Researchers looked at high-stakes testing and found that kids with higher IQs tend to under-perform on them--more so, in fact, than "average" students. However, if the students were asked to journal for 10 minutes before the tests, their results were in the higher range that would be expected.

The idea is that under stressful conditions, the brain tends to revert to a more emotional response rather than engaging the centers of reason and logic. By writing in a journal first, the kids were able to settle themselves and get in a better frame of mind before commencing.

I would bet that some kind of relaxation / breathing / meditation could serve a similar function.But it got me thinking back to my days teaching English. Most days, I would have students start by writing in journals, either writing about something we'd be discussing or writing in response to some writing prompt (they were also free to free write if they had something on their mind). I wonder if this helped class discussions to go better, not only because they had organized their thoughts (if writing about the topic we'd be discussing) but also because it settled them into a less-stressed frame of mind?

In other news, I enjoyed our professional development workshops today.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Bells of Mindfulness

In Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hahn talks about literal and metaphorical "Bells of Mindfulness," and says
In my tradition, we use the temple bells to remind us to come back to the present moment. Every time we hear the bell, we stop talking, stop our thinking, and return to ourselves, breathing in and out, and smiling. Whatever we are doing, we pause for a moment and just enjoy our breathing. Sometimes we also recite this verse:
Listen, listen.
This wonderful sound brings me back to my true self.
 He goes on to discuss the idea that just about anything can serve as a "bell of mindfulness," particularly here in America where church bells are less common. I was thinking of this last weekend when I was at my college choir's reunion, because one of the many distinctive features of our campus is the set of bells in the bell tower, which not only toll out the hours and the quarter-hour increments between them, but are also pealed by students for an hour each Friday after classes have ended.

While I was there, I used my iPod to record the bells on Sunday morning as they struck the 9 o'clock hour, and after I returned home, I edited the file so that it could toll any of the hours during the work day, as well as the quarter hours. Then I scheduled my computer to play those files at the appropriate time and--voila!--bells of mindfulness.

Of course, the campus on which I live and work actually has its own bell tower with an even more impressive set of bells. However, I never seem to hear them in my office. This way, I will hear bells. It's also nice that each sound clip starts with the gentle sound of the breeze and the chirping of birds and fades out into the same. Lovely, really.

But there's more to it than that, because the bells also take me out of the present moment, somewhat, and take me to the past and to another place, to Kenyon College. It's the place I spent four nostalgia-burnished years of my life, some of my favorite to recall. It's the place where I proposed to my wife four years ago (very close, in fact, to where I stood to record the bells) and where we married three years ago (pretty close to the same site). I've returned there over and over. Lauren and I both love the place so much that she was jealous of the fact that I got to return last weekend and she couldn't. We decided that we would take a vacation to just hang out there when we have a long weekend in the fall. That's how much we love it.

More than that, it's a place that helped form "my true self," my best self. I think of it all rather like the way that Wordsworth thinks of his spot of wild country written about in "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey":

                                These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man's eye;
But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration: --feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure; such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man's life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened: --that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on --
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul;
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
 My bells from Kenyon are not exactly what the Buddhist monk had in mind, nor are they quite what Wordsworth was getting at, but hearing them is a way of bringing into the present moment peace and joy and perhaps a sort of recollection of my best self.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Food Friday: Healthy Banana-Oat Muffins

The other day, I was in the kitchen when I spot some browning bananas staring at me. Their little brown eyes pleaded with me to end their misery, as they knew they would not last long enough for another smoothie. Thus did I find myself adapting a recipe I found to make Banana Muffins.

3/4 c. whole wheat flour
3/4 c. bread flour
1 cup rolled oats
1/4 c. Stevia
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 c. maple syrup
1 egg
3/4 c. milk
1/3 c. apple sauce
1 T. oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 large, very ripe bananas

Preheat oven to 400 F.

Combine flours, oats, Stevia, baking powder, soda, and salt.

In a large bowl, beat the egg lightly and stir in maple syrup, milk, apple sauce, oil, and vanilla extract. Mash the bananas and combine with the wet mixture.

Combine the flour mixture and the wet mixture until just combined. Divide the batter among 18 (or 17) greased muffin tin cups or in the paper baking cups. Bake 18 to 20 minutes.

Each muffin is 3 Weight Watchers Points+ points (or 3 is 8). Plus they're pretty tasty.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Thursday Think 'n' Share 3.2

As I mentioned the first time around, this is a sort of "getting to know you" game that I hope my readers  will join me in playing each week. The short of it is that I pull three random question from one of various decks of The Ungame and answer them. Readers are encouraged to post their own answers either in the comment box or on their own blog (or Facebook page). If you're not doing it in the comment box, do let me know where I can find them, because I'd like to get to know my readers better at the same time they're getting to know me. You can be as serious or as silly as you feel like being on any given day for any particular question.

How are you affected by the news as reported in radio, tv, and in the newspapers?

I've hardly been paying attention to any news, lately. It's sort of an experiment, and I haven't really felt like I'm missing out yet. I used to enjoy getting the news and perspectives offered by certain NPR programs, because I felt like a knowledgeable, thoughtful citizen, but I'm just as happy--and have just as much effect--not knowing anything unless it's important enough that people are talking about it in daily life.

And although I wouldn't claim that it's my source for news, I do enjoy catching episodes of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, which don't so much report on the news of the day so much as they report on the reporting of the news. It fosters a certain cynicism about how news is reported, because it seems so often reported poorly and with a narrowly limited perspective.

How do you feel about guns?

Sun's out, guns out.

How do you feel about the way you spend your day?

While it would be nice to work less (especially now at this time of year when the avalanche has just about reached full speed at the bottom of the mountain), I feel overall like I have found something like a decent balance.

Typical day looks like this: up at 5:30 to exercise, walk to work around 8. Spend my day dealing with students and teachers in various settings. The word day is flexible enough that I can sometime run errands, pick up a workout I missed, run home, or do other things as needed. Most days, I have lunch with Lauren, either at the dining hall or at our home. I see our daughter briefly a time or two during the day and then usually spend a half hour to an hour alone with her, depending on whether it's a sports season that I'm coaching. Sometimes I have evening duties for my job, most of the time not. We tend to fall asleep by 9 or 10 o'clock if we're lucky (we haven't been lucky this week).

So yeah. I spend time every day exercising, I enjoy my work, I have time to cook most days and get to see my family both during the day and after work, though not always as much as we would like. There's room for improvement, but I'm in the ballpark.

I'll have to see how I do when summer comes and I have a lot more discretionary time.

Well--how about you?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Happiness: commitments, chasing dreams

Recently, I  blogged about the "pursuit" of happiness and the problematic nature of that pursuit. And now, it's graduation season.
If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture.
But, of course, this mantra misleads on nearly every front. -- David Brooks, "It's Not About You
Brooks is considering a different problem, but I think he has some interesting things to say on the same subject that I was writing about some days ago. He continues:

College grads are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities. But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to. The successful young adult is beginning to make sacred commitments — to a spouse, a community and calling — yet mostly hears about freedom and autonomy.
 I was struck by this formulation of what adulthood is really about and it struck a chord in me. Perhaps because of "expressive individualism" we are resistant to this, to being "tied down," yet historically speaking that has been precisely the way that humans have constructed meaning for their lives--through the webs of their interpersonal relationships, through their relations to a community, as well as through their achievements. 

All of this, however, is not necessarily and either/or prospect. The point of life is not simply to tie ourselves to commitments and, mule-like, slog them through our three score years and ten, whether we like it or not. There is an art to choosing our commitments, not to mention revising our commitments, de-committing, moving on. 

Nonetheless, I do think that if we buy into the ideas of expressive individualism too uncritically, it leads us to unhappiness. We chafe too easily at our commitments, we desire freedom and change for their own sake, rather than because our situation really needs them. We are, to go back to the way I put it in my other post, chasing happiness instead of chasing the other ends that offer significance to our lives. 

There is a balance to be struck here, and it is not the same balance for everyone. Some people really do need to march to the beat of their own drummer, chase their dreams, etc. I suspect that's been the case with most of our great artists, musicians, writers, our innovators, our movers and shakers. And it's not just them, of course: all of us need that at times, and some more than others. The important thing, I think, is that we have to spend some time thinking about these matters to find what works for us, the balance between freedom and commitment, between self and others, and whatever other poles we could define these issues around. If we don't give it serious thought, we are likely to follow too slavishly a path not of our own choosing or to be pulled from the path on which we could find happiness by the voices whispering to us of some other way of living that we dimly believe even if we shouldn't.