Monday, December 15, 2014


Sleep, unfortunately, is not something our family is very good at. For myself, after the age of 3 or 4, I didn't really go in for naps. I recall afternoons being told to go nap in my room; I would go to my room and play quietly. My wife and I both grew up hiding flashlights in our rooms so we could read under the covers after we were supposed to be asleep. In college, I had a semester during which I slept between 3 and 4 1/2 hours every weeknight and didn't really do much to "catch up" on the  weekend. It was almost a badge of honor, particularly since it was a semester during which I pulled a 4.0 average while taking an overload of classes. So I flattered myself that I didn't really need sleep.

As I've gotten older, I've learned about the importance of sleep, but knowing and doing are two very different things, especially when your nights are subject to the whims of toddlers.

Typical Nights (Summer 2014)

The truth is, my wife and I are not very committed to establishing consistent and reasonable bedtimes for our daughters, aged 4 and 2. When one of us--usually the me of us--tries to put the younger one to bed, it's usually around 9 pm. Or 10 pm. Or 11:00 at the latest... by which I mean that if it gets to be 11:00, I figure why bother? and let her fall asleep on her own. Lauren swears that our 2-year-old can be put to bed by just laying down with her in a dark room, but I think that reconnaissance is obsolete at best, if not downright naive. If I lay down with her--which I do try sometimes--she tends to just wriggle around in a way calculated to drive me nuts. So usually I put her in my arms so her head can rest on my shoulder and then walk back and forth singing lullaby-like songs until she falls asleep or I get tired.

Meanwhile, there's our older daughter, on whom we've more or less given up the idea of consistent and reasonable bedtimes. She's either running amok or gradually falling asleep by snuggling up to her mother downstairs, where mama is working on grad school homework on her laptop, or not doing grad school work on her laptop, or just watching TV. Our 4-year-old has a tendency to go from wired to out in the blink of an eye. At that point, we've got to carry her upstairs, and we have a decision to make: do we make her go potty or let her sleep. If it's been too long since she pottied, we pretty much have to half-wake her and just hope she goes right back to sleep. Which, to be fair, she usually does, though sometimes she doesn't wake up enough to actually pee. If she doesn't do her business, she's likely to give us the business in a few hours: she'll wake up weeping and wailing with no idea what's wrong with her. Even though this happens almost nightly, she has no idea what's distressing her, so one of her parents has to go to her room and take her to the bathroom. At this point, there's at least a 50-50 chance she'll balk at going back to her room for the rest of the night. And even if she does, or if she doesn't wake up needing to potty, there's a good chance that she'll wake up at some point and infiltrate our bed. If she's really good, we won't wake up until she's firmly entrenched. And once she gets into our bed, it's guaranteed that we won't sleep very well, because she tends to snuggle up to one--or, inexplicably, both of us--compromising our rest.

And although in general our 2-year-old is our good sleeper, every so often--usually when her older sister is in the process of actually sleeping through the night--she'll wake up screaming. Maybe she wants milk, maybe she needs a diaper change, maybe she needs her legs rubbed, or maybe it's just existential angst that can only be answered by one parent or the other holding her. It's almost certainly not the same thing it was the last time.

So yeah: there's not really such a thing as a typical night, except that however much time we try to sleep, it's guaranteed that we won't actually get all of that, and what we get won't be the best sleep of our lives. That's typical.

Let's Go Camping!

In the summer, on our way out to vacation at the Outer Banks, we decided to camp. In part, this was because $18 for a tent site was a lot cheaper than any motel between Indiana and North Carolina, and in part it was because we kind of wanted to go camping. Our daughters have been indoctrinated by cartoons to think that camping is lots of fun, so they were on board, even if they weren't really clear about the details.

We set up the tent, took the girls and the dog on a walk around the campground, then cooked some hot dogs on a skillet on a propane stove. And then we did s'mores on the open flame of the same propane stove (sorry kids, we're not buying firewood and going to the trouble of lighting it up). It actually turned out that neither of our girls liked s'mores, though they love all of the constituent parts. Go figure.

Then Lauren and I read books while the girls ran around our camp site. When the skeeters started sampling us, we retreated to our tent and read until it was too dark outside to continue, maybe 9:30. And then we all went to sleep. Sure, our four-year-old was a little wriggly, our two-year-old was threatened with being thrown out into the night with the bears if she didn't stop being so fussy and restless, and our dog was jostling for position too. But soon enough, everyone settled down and went to sleep.

And, okay, our 4-year-old woke me up, without knowing why, because she needed me to carry her through the woods to the bathroom. And then she fussed and flailed around because pretty much everything hurt. We couldn't reason with her--no, we can't drive somewhere to get children's Tylenol--and no amount of rubbing her legs, her feet, her back, her arms would settle her... but she finally did fall back to sleep.

And despite that, unlike a usual night, we woke up with the dawn and felt great. Seriously: didn't feel a need for coffee, felt totally refreshed and awesome. It's amazing what sleeping and waking with natural cycles will do.

Lesson Learned?

Like I said, I already know that sleep is important. When we're sleep-deprived, especially chronically sleep-deprived, our brain function is lowered. And since it's lowered, we're not really well aware of our own level of impairment. We also age faster. We don't recover as well from exercise. We have a harder time losing weight or maintaining a healthy body weight. Seriously: all kinds of things go wrong when we don't sleep enough. It would be fantastic if every day we went to bed with the sun and woke up with the sun.

But the reality is that we won't. The days are so packed that our only "me time" seems to be in the evenings, so we resist going to sleep, we resist putting our children to bed, and next thing we know, we're all tired and cranky. Every so often, we do manage to go to bed a bit earlier, and maybe some day we'll really get it down.

It's nice to think so, anyway.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Fantasy Football

I've been playing fantasy football for 15 years now, and as any of you who play fantasy football know, this is the first week of playoffs. I'm in three leagues this year, one was a total disaster (I blame the fact that my internet went out in a storm right as the draft started). In the other two, I've had very good seasons. In one league--the league I've been playing in for 15 years, the league I've never won the championship of--I finished the regular season in first place, with the most total points 2049, more than 100 more than the next highest. And thanks to 0 TD days from Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers, I appear destined to lose in the first round of the playoffs.

In the other league, thanks to the fact that it has two divisions, I didn't get a bye in the first round of the playoffs despite having the highest point total--2746, almost 200 more than the next highest--and the 2nd best record. I crushed the league's commissioner last week, and then we play each other again this week and it looks I'm going to lose in that league too. I'll have to blame Aaron Rodgers yet again.

It's unbelievable bad luck, though, that on paper I should have such good teams and then they both crap out in the first round of the playoffs. I guess I should just be glad that there's no money riding on any of these leagues. And the pro team that I root for did win today, in pretty convincing fashion, so that's something too.

Don't Let Go, Do Lego

 Originally, we planned to go to Ohio this weekend, where I had a ticket to the Browns-Bengals game awaiting me (I'm a Bengals fan, my father-in-law has season tickets to the Browns--thanks Pop-pop!). But late in the week, I realized belatedly that I couldn't possibly go to Cleveland this weekend, because of a performance at school. How I didn't put two and two together sooner, I can't explain. Wishful thinking combined with chronic fatigue, I'll posit.

Our second idea was to go up to Chicago and see all the Christmasy stuff downtown. But then Lauren had a better idea: Legoland, out in Schaumburg, plus do a little shopping at Ikea and Trader Joe's, which are a big deal to those of us living in the hinterlands.

The first room at Legoland was a Chicago cityscape, which as you can see, had my girls fascinated and excited. The level of detail was great--really beautiful work. The cityscape also included the lights gradually dimming and brightening to show us night and day in Chicago. I was hoping for icy winds whipping through the Lego city, with mingled scents of exhaust and pizza wafting about.

From the steel jungle of Chicago, we went to a literal jungle, where we got to see a Bengal tiger, the closest I will get to the game I originally planned to attend this weekend, since local TV is broadcasting Green Bay vs. Buffalo. We had a safari guide and Indiana Jones to lead us through.

This was followed by a great Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope room--there was a detailed Tatooine thing with various scenes from the movie, which had buttons that allowed you to animate the scene or hear some of the accompanying dialog. There were life-sized R2D2 and Darth Vader figures, a dueling Vader and Obi-Wan, a Death Star with a stupid  game that didn't seem to work and a bunch more scenes. It was particularly cool for the adults who have seen the films. Our kids were a little less wowed by the whole thing, but what are you going to do?

Not to worry, there were plenty more activities for the kids, including an indoor playground, a couple different rides, and a lot of opportunities to build with Legos. There was a track with a challenge to build a vehicle that could jump off the ramp and hit a target. I spent a lot of time, made many test runs, and did not, ultimately, solve the design challenge. A seven-year-old may have just walked up, dropped a giant wheel, and hit the target on the first try.

Lauren, the physicist, gave up on the car challenge before I did with similar success rates, but she went on to put her time to better use:
At the end of the day, as the picture below shows, I was left with boundless energy and enthusiasm.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Christmas Dream Gift

Today's Prompt: Many of the December holidays are marked with gifting. What is the one thing you really wish you could get as a gift this year (doesn't have to be a physical item)? 

Well, I've got quite a list of books on my Wishlist on Amazon, not to mention books I've flagged on Goodreads as things I'd like to read some day, and books are the things that spring most quickly to mind.

However, that's not really what I want, because as it stands, I can look over at my bookcase and quickly see several dozen books that I already own that I would like to read. I don't lack books. What I lack is the time and energy to read them. So what I really want, since the prompt did say, after all, that it didn't have to be a physical item, is the time and energy to read the books I want to read (and, for that matter, to write the things I want to write).

So I need my children to sleep through the night. In their own darned beds, not crawling in with us in the middle of the night. Then, I might have the energy for sustained attention, assuming we could also get them to go to bed at a decent our. And assuming I could discipline myself to go to bed at a decent hour.

Then I would actually need the time that wasn't constrained by work or family obligations or anything else, just free time.

So yeah, there's no Santa Claus on earth who could give me all that any of that, but I guess that's life.  And even if it's a life that doesn't have all those things--at this moment in time--it's still an awfully good life, filled with joys of its own. That's not to say I wouldn't appreciate having a break from work that was like the break from college junior year when I read Moby Dick 8 hours each day until it was finished, but you can't go back, can you?

No, I'm pretty sure you can't, so I'm prepared to live within the constraints of, you know, reality. And really, at Christmas--and any other time of year--it's best to appreciate what you've got. Like right now, as I try to bang out this blog post, I've got the cutest little 32-month-old all over my lap, getting in my way, sticking her fingers in my ears and eyes, and pulling me back and forth between annoyance and laughter, telling me what all the numbers and letters on my keyboard are, hunting and pecking them to extinction even while I try to type. And she's a total sweetheart, and if I didn't get a single present for Christmas this year, that would be okay too, because life is pretty darned good. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Favorite Holiday Songs

Holidailies prompts us today to consider our favorite holiday song. I would have a hard time narrowing it down, in particular because it's a question of listening to music on the one hand and performing music on the other.

I'm sure I probably sang it in church before then, but I feel like I "discovered" the hymn "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" my freshman year of college. One of my fellow freshmen invited me to sing in a barbershop quartet, which I did, and as Christmas approached, he had us preparing a number of Christmas carols arranged in a barbershop style (well, sort of--not nearly as many dominant seventh chords as barbershop is usually known for), and going around to all the dorms caroling in four-part harmony. "Lo, How a Rose..." quickly became my favorite for its beautiful simplicity combined with the rhythmic complexity of the cadences that end three of the four phrases. Even though our barbershop quartet did not survive all four years, we did get together a group of male voices every year to go around caroling. And every year, I would get this carol in as many of our stops as I could. (For what it's worth, the barbershop arrangement of "Angels We Have Heard On High" was a close second, and I can remember loving that all the back to elementary school.

At my first high school teaching job, where one of my duties was directing the choirs, I started a tradition with the "double quartet" group of going around campus before Christmas break and caroling with the same carols I did in college. And, yes, "Lo How a Rose" was still my favorite over the six years that I taught at that school. I hope the boys I worked with remember that experience as fondly as I do.

And now, at my current school, I work with a student-led a cappella group, and this year for the first time we will be performing at the school's annual Vespers service, which is basically a whole lot of musical performance, readings of the relevant Biblical passages, and congregational carol singing. So what are we singing? I'm sure you've guessed. Tonight, we had a run-through of the program to handle logistics, and afterward my group had probably it's only chance to rehearse in the chapel.

And it was gorgeous. I'm not claiming any special powers as a music teacher--this is really just a song that, as long as you get it in tune, pretty much sells itself. Beautiful, as always. And I suppose that's part of why it's my favorite carol to perform.

Now, when it comes to listening, well, that's a different story. It's hard for me to pick just one. I have a soft spot in my heart for Bing Crosby, because when I was growing up we always listened to records of White Christmas and some other Crosby Christmas stuff. But I think I'm going to go in a different direction entirely: Tim Minchin's "White Wine in the Sun."

I really like Christmas.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


As Goodreads likes to remind me every time they send me an update, I am currently reading four different books. That's... probably not a good idea, all in all. And I expect that I'll soon be starting a fifth book, still without finishing the other four, because at this point, why not?

So, what am I "currently reading"?

In early November, I started reading Bauchelain and Korbal Broach by Steven Erikson because it's been on my shelf for a while and I thought it might be some inspiration for my own novel writing. Of course, time spent reading is not time spent writing, so that wasn't really sustainable.

In mid-to-late November, I realized that one of the book clubs on Goodreads was reading To Ride Hell's Chasm by Janny Wurts, and besides the usual discussion, they had Janny involved, answering questions. I really like her Wars of Light and Shadow series and like her as an author, so I wanted to join in the discussion. But, of course, November was devoted to writing, not reading. I listened to the first three chapters, which were available on a podcast, and I like it so far... but then the discussion and author Q&A was over. And, as you'll see, other books elbowed their way in.

While driving to Thanksgiving, Lauren and I started listening to an audiobook, Ken Follett's Fall of Giants. We both enjoyed his Pillars of the Earth and World Without End, and as a bonus I've been listening to an awesome podcast called Hardcore History, specifically I've been listening to the series on World War I. Fall of Giants, then, has been a very good fit. So when it comes to listening to something, it's been this one. Reading without reading.

Another Goodreads book club, it turns out, is reading Steven Erikson's Forge of Darkness this month. So, in a way, it comes full circle, reading what's sort of Erikson's equivalent to Tolkien's Silmarillion, rather than my initial selection of stories contemporaneous to Erikson's landmark Malazan Book of the Fallen series.

But it turns out that I'm kind of a bad person, at least if you look down on things like buying a book for someone as a Christmas present and reading it before giving it away. Somewhere in the mail, I have headed to me a book for a friend that I also want to read, so I'll probably blitz through that so I can get it in the mail in time for Christmas. It is Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion by Sam Harris. As detailed in this post I have a longstanding interest in meditation and yoga, but both of those practices can have a tendency toward woo-woo mushy thinking. I'm interested, then, in "spirituality" or "spiritual practice" that's grounded in science and a certain skepticism.

But I'm really going to have to read it quickly. And then I can get to the other four books.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Daily Movement Practices

Yesterday I blogged about meditation, a practice that I recognize would benefit me greatly if I did it more often than sporadically. Today, I would like to add a few more things that I do do, and wish I did even more often.

You've probably heard by now that, as a society, our health is basically screwed because of all the routine practices we have. Spend most of your life commuting in a car? You're going to die young. Sit at a desk all day long? You're going to die young and fat. Probably with diabetes and cancer. Yeah, yeah, I'm exaggerating, but I'm sure you've heard all about it too. Even if you get yourself some kind of awesome standing desk (like I have), it turns out you're still up a creek, because it's not just sitting that's bad for you, it's not moving around. And the research is pointing toward it being the case that just going and exercising isn't enough to make up for all the movement you're not doing throughout any given day.

Anyway, I've been trying to incorporate more movement and mobility work into my everyday activities at work. What I'm going for here is not to add another workout to my week; the point is to have some little things that I can add, that just take a minute or two here and there, but that add up to big improvements in flexibility, strength, what have you.

One of the most basic things I've added is the deep squat. I just hang out there for a while. Not surprisingly, this is easier to do on Sundays--the day before my workout that includes back squats--than it is on Monday (or Tuesday).

I started doing deep squats even before I saw this article, and since it recommended squats along with three other movements, I was pretty sure it was legit. So to squats I added glute contraction, a hamstring stretch, and something called the crucifix stretch, which is almost as much fun as it sounds (good for the chest, shoulders, and back, anyway).

For a while, I was really into Kelly Starrett's Mobility WOD (Workout of the Day). I started with episode 1 and for a while there I was doing every stretch in the first four or five daily, but in retrospect that probably wasn't sustainable. I did feel pretty good when I was doing it, though.

The real magic that I've found, though, is something called shoulder dislocates. Which sounds almost as good as a crucifix stretch, I know, but it's done great things for me. Specifically, the last couple years, I've had elbow pain when I play tennis. So you might think it's some kind of repetitive stress thing, like, you know, "tennis elbow," but it turned out, as I tracked this problem to its source, the source was my shoulder. You see, a couple years ago I injured my right shoulder in the weight room. What stupid thing I was attempting to do isn't important, but between the injury and the time off to recover, I lost a good deal of mobility in my shoulder without realizing it. Then when I played tennis, to compensate for poor shoulder mobility, I would--unknowingly--put my elbow in a compromised position. I started doing shoulder dislocates regularly, improved shoulder mobility, and the elbow pain disappeared. Cue the choirs of angels.

I really liked the idea of hanging as being a good thing. For that matter, I like the idea of doing chin-ups or pull-ups or what-have-you more or less every day. Outside of the gym, however, my options are limited. Living in an old farmhouse, we literally have no doors that will fit a standard pull-up bar. My office door at work is perfect for a pull-up bar, but... I feel kind of awkward doing chin-ups in my jacket and tie any time anyone walks into the building. And it's pretty much a guaranteed thing that as soon as I hang up the bar and start to hang or do chin-ups, someone's coming into the building, even if it's been dead quiet for the previous hour.

But then, all of these are things that I feel like I could/should/would do more of, otherwise they wouldn't have made this blog post, so in that regard there's nothing special about hanging or chin-ups.

What do you think, gentle readers? Do any of these things appeal to you? Are there little things that you'd like to put into practice in your own life?

Monday, December 8, 2014


Today's Holidailies prompt:

Today is Bodhi Day, a Buddhist holiday that commemorates the day that Buddha experienced enlightenment. Tell us about a time when you felt truly enlightened.
Um, I can't say that I've "felt truly enlightened." At least, not in a way that made a lasting change in my life, which it seems to me like "enlightenment" would have to do in order to qualify. So instead, I'll talk about my experience with a practice associated both with Buddhism and with his experience of enlightenment: meditation.

I think I first encountered meditation from two directions in high school: there was sophomore year world history, where we talked about Buddhism and the Buddha, and then there was... the International Thespian Conference, in the early summer after that year. One of the sessions they had was on using yoga for relaxation, to improve theater performance. Intrigued, I came back to small-town Ohio and checked out every book our library had on yoga, which I'm pretty sure was two.

It's probably fair to say that you can't learn physical skills through reading, but that didn't stop me with yoga (or tennis). Ironically, I've gone on to teach both of them in one way or another. But I digress.

I've been more and less into yoga over the years, but as anyone who's ever done yoga would probably attest, the best part of the whole thing is "corpse pose," the last thing you do, which as the name implies is basically laying there like you're dead. It's meant, of course, for meditation, not for falling into an exhausted sleep.

Aside from that meditation, I've also had an interest in other forms of meditation, gravitating most toward the sort where you observe and/or control your breath. I did this even before I connected it to music, but there's a natural fit. Breath control is an important technique for singing and for playing a wind instrument, and I've done both in my time. I suppose music is a meditation in and of itself.

Although I've been acquainted with meditation for over 20 years, I'm afraid I can't say that I've built a really consistent practice in that time, though I've done enough to have moments of--oh yeah--enlightenment in which I realize that life would be better if I did have that kind of practice.

I've become in some ways reacquainted with meditation through the health and fitness communities that I've participated in, which have moved beyond nutrition and exercise into broader areas of one's lifestyle, including sleep and stress management, particularly meditation. I skimmed through 8 Minute Meditation in roughly 8 minutes (spoiler alert: the book is too long to actually read in 8 minutes), and mostly what I got out of it was nothing new, just the idea of setting a timer for eight minutes and, you know, meditating.

I've had a few times in the last few months where I've hit a wall in the middle of the afternoon, where I felt tired and unfocused and just generally unlikely to get any productive work done. Sometimes I go get coffee. Sometimes I end up wasting time. But sometimes, I set the timer and meditate. I turn off the light, close the blinds, lock my door, lie down and meditate. And two things seem to happen: first, I hit my 8 minutes and it's so good that I just set the timer to do another 8--but then almost exactly 4 minutes in someone knocks on my door. It's uncanny, like 12 minutes is how long the universe decrees that I should meditate. The second thing that happens is that I feel fantastic and have no problem getting to work and being super productive.

Seriously, why don't I do that every day? I guess that's what I meant at the beginning of the post when I said I hadn't really found enlightenment.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

A dream, 12/5/14

As a postscript to my earlier post, after falling asleep with my girls, I had a rare dream about my father. He's been gone almost 23 years now, but in my dream, which seemed to be now, he was alive and well. I can't remember most of the dream, though it seemed like he was there for a while. 

Brief digression by way of explanation: my wife and I sometimes take our young children by their two hands and lift them into the air, helping them make a big jump. Sometimes Lauren and I do it between us and sometimes one parent will do it alone. I'd imagine lots of parents do it, though I don't remember that from my own childhood. Of course, by the time we're forming lasting memories, we're a bit big for that kind of thing, I guess.

In my dream, my father took my hands and lifted me up, just like I do my girls. For a moment, I was flying, a sensation that's exactly as amazing as you would think. And I said to myself "You need to appreciate this. He won't always be around." I meant it as though he was still alive, as he was in the dream, but almost immediately I knew it was a dream, and I knew that he was already gone. 

Either still in the dream or waking up just a bit, I found myself in tears. It's amazing that a dream can produce such strong emotions, but there it was. 

Saturday, December 6, 2014

In the midst of feeling lousy, frustrated, and unhappy

When you can't get quality sleep, I guess you go for the next best thing: a greater quantity of sleep. Anyway, that was my approach last night, when we spent 10+ hours in or around the bed.

The evening's progress had made it clear that good sleep would not be in the cards. Lauren is away for most of the weekend, so it was just me and our two girls (and the dog and guinea pig). Our almost-5-year-old, T, is in the middle of a cold, and our 2 1/2 year-old, A, is in the midst of non-napping and destructo-tot phases. And whereas Thursday night seemed to prove that children's sudafed does, in fact, need to be taken precisely every four hours, Friday evening was apparently demonstrating just how quickly drug tolerance can develop, because just an hour or two in, T seemed miserable. So T was fussing and crying, while A was trying to destroy one or more Christmas trees, or maybe my computer, or the TV, or... whatever was close at hand. Meanwhile, I seem to be picking up T's headache, which despite adult sudafed seemed intent on giving me a sinus headache.

Yeah, it was that kind of night.

So we went to bed as early as I could bring myself to give T another dose of sudafed before the 4 hours was up. For some reason, A wanted us all to lay in her sister's bed--a twin bed--and got really upset when I said no, we would sleep in mommy and daddy's bed. There I lay, T snuggled in the crook of my right arm, A in the crook of my left arm. T crying and fussing and coughing in my right ear, A crying and fussing in my left ear. I tried singing our tried and true lullabyes, and I may have "tried" losing my temper. All the while, my headache was building.

And then, I just took a deep, meditative breath, and decided to reframe it all in my head. I have a headache, but it's just a sinus headache, just a symptom of a cold; it's not a brain tumor or a cerebral aneurysm. My daughter was upset and difficult to comfort because of a sore throat, stuffy nose, and the aches and pains of a cold; how much harder would it be to comfort her if she suffered from leukemia or cystic fibrosis or any number of fatal diseases? It can be hard on nights like this to be alone with the girls, but besides the fact that my wife has also had to do when I've been gone somewhere, I considered the people who have to be single parents all the time, or the people who are separated or divorced and don't have the opportunity to be with their children as often as they would like.

And I felt gratitude. I was able to give myself a little perspective, to remind myself of how lucky I really am, even in the midst of circumstances that moments before made me feel lousy and frustrated and unhappy. That's not to say that my headache disappeared--it didn't, lingering through the next several times I woke up during the night. That's not to say that my children instantly quieted down, but they did quiet down before too long. Giving myself a new perspective wasn't magic, it didn't make a single problem go away, it just made them easier to deal with them. It gave me a core of serenity that served me well.


“It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, this is the highest of arts.”-- Henry David Thoreau

Friday, December 5, 2014

Pain and Discomfort

Wednesday, uncharacteristically, my almost-5-year-old asked to go to bed early. She wanted me to put her to bed, so I laid down and snuggled with her. She snuggled in the crook of my arm, her head on my shoulder.

And it hurt, mostly because I was still sore from my bench press workout a couple days before. Which got me thinking about pain. First, there's your response to it. We have a natural aversion to pain (uh, duh). Even a little bit of pain sets my little girls off, screaming and fussing. Yet as we get older, we learn to put up with it. For instance, I was happy enough to put up with this pain, because it seemed to serve a purpose. If I pushed my daughter off my shoulder, denied her the snuggling embrace, I would set back the going-to-sleep process. So even though it was uncomfortable, and a bit painful, I endured it.

For that matter, this pain came, in the first place, from exercise, which itself is a form of enduring discomfort. Whether one is lifting weights or running or doing yoga, there are always--if you're doing it right--moments when you become uncomfortable and you would like to quit. However, you endure that pain, you push through it, and you do more of the exercise in question. You get another rep, you rest a little do another set, you run another minute, another ten minutes, another mile, you hold a pose that much longer. We do it to make ourselves better: stronger, faster, with more endurance. We embrace the pain of the moment, we even embrace the pain that comes in the days afterward, may come to enjoy it because we know the benefits it ultimately brings.

All this, of course, goes against our natural instincts. Young children don't do this--they stop running when it becomes uncomfortable. They don't even seem to know how to "push through." Many people who start exercising for the first time, they encounter the pain and they can't push through it. They encounter the post-workout pain and they decide this isn't for them. We have to learn how, and we can only learn by doing it, by stretching our boundaries.

We all do this to some extent, of course. It turned out, I discovered in the middle of Wednesday night, that my daughter was coming down with a cold. She had a miserable night, which meant that my wife and I had a miserable night. Adults, we have developed a certain stoicism. A cold is lousy, we all know that. But we don't tend to fuss and cry and make everyone around us miserable too. We keep it to ourselves, we manage as best we can.

Now, all of this can be carried to extremes. We probably all know people who won't go see a doctor no matter how sick, how miserable they are. The only way they get to a hospital is by ambulance or carried there by someone else. In the exercise world, there are people who take the maxim "no pain, no gain" to the extreme... and end up injured as a result. There's a certain truth to the phase, but it's only in the way I described earlier: we have to endure some discomfort, push past it. Real pain, in this context, is a bad thing. If you tweak your knee or injure your shoulder while lifting weights, for instance, and you keep on exercising because, you know, "no pain, no gain," you're actually just going to further injure yourself, which will keep you out of the gym longer, which will limit your gains. Likewise, while it may be appropriate in your run-of-the-mill illness to "don't be such a baby," to keep a stiff upper lip and keep working through it or avoid burdening your family or friends with your complaints, we can also make things worse if we don't treat an illness.

In the end, it all comes down to moderation, and the wisdom to find it.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

NaNoWriMo Reflections

As readers may or may not be aware, November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The basic idea is writing 50,000 words of a novel in one month. This is technically my third year doing NaNoWriMo, but really my second. The first time around, I reached my 50k goal, was enjoying my novel... and haven't touched it since. I'd gotten to a tricky part in the plot and had no idea where it was going. Plus it was the end of the month. So that just sort of fell apart.

This year, I have once again reached my 50k target, on a different novel, and here early in Holidailies seemed like a good time to reflect on this year's project.

1) There's something beautiful about just getting started. I decided to write a fantasy novel this year. I've had some of the ideas for this novel and for the larger world for a solid decade or two. I've wanted to write it, but I've also avoided writing it, because I wanted it to be perfect. I wanted to outline the plot, I wanted to spend more time creating the details of the world. And the truth is: I could probably have spent the next 50 years putting off writing this novel, assuming I live that long. So yes: there's something beautiful about just getting started.

2) Going along with #1, once you get started, it's wonderful the way that imagination fills in the details between the broad strokes of what you already knew. Part of this magic, though, I think, came from the devotion that I gave the work, the way that kept my focus on the novel. Part of my normal daily pattern is to listen to podcasts. I love podcasts! I listen to them while walking the dog, working out, driving, just about anything that might be "down time." Instead, for most of the month, I refrained from listening to podcasts, and instead thought about my novel. And one result, particularly during the first half of the month, was that I was able to very efficient with my writing time, because I already knew most or all of what I wanted to write when I sat down to write--the plot, the characters, the scenes, even in some cases the particular words I wanted to use. That was the magic of focusing my attention so thoroughly on one end.

3) All the trackers and stuff are really motivating. There's just something about having a website where I go and log my progress, a website that tells me what my average per day is, a website that's visible to other people (who, granted, don't actually care whether I finish or not)... it really helps keep me focused. Reinforcing this point: in the four days since, I haven't written a word on my novel. Which is unfortunate, because I'm pretty sure that 50k only puts me about a quarter of the way through. So, I would need three more months of that level of focus to finish the novel. ::Sigh::

4) The community is and is not motivating. In past years, the on-line community has been more active. This year, not so much. And yet, I got through. On the other hand, I did benefit from a real-life writing group that met a few Sundays throughout the month. And that was helpful both for the way that it scheduled a block of time and, I don't know, kind of gave me permission to spend three hours writing on a Sunday.

All in all, it was a good month. Now I've just got to get myself sorted out to finish what I've started. By the way, in case it isn't obvious, even when I get to, say, 200k, that's just going to be 200k of a rough--very rough, no doubt--draft. Then it will be time to re-write, write some more... so yeah. It's a big commitment writing a doorstopper of a fantasy novel. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Great Debate: Is there a God?

Tonight, our high school's spiritual life department hosted its annual debate: "Is there a God?" This is at least the third or fourth year now that they've had this debate, though I still haven't been able to attend and see what all the fuss was about. I like to imagine that one of our handful of Hindu students might be sitting there wondering "How about the debate 'are there gods?'" but that's really a digression on my part.

I just like the fact that our spiritual life department--which, after all, is made up of protestant and Catholic ministers--is committed to this event, to raising the question. The debate participants are all teachers, so there's a sense in which no matter what the actual content of the debate is, one of the messages is that there are intelligent, thoughtful, nice people on both sides of the issue--or perhaps I should say all sides because I gather at least one person on the panel answered the question as basically a believing agnostic or a deist. And a related implicit message is that it's possible to disagree about something that's fundamental to one's outlook and to still be civil and even friendly.

Now, that said, I heard some of my students talking about the debate--which, I would reiterate, I have never been able to attend--and one of them was particularly vehement about his dissatisfaction with the debate. As he said, there's nothing new, both sides just made the same arguments they always make. As I probed a bit more, there seemed to be a strong sense in what he was saying that there wasn't a lot of engagement between the two sides. One of the science teachers basically said that the scientific evidence is against God, or makes God an unnecessary hypothesis, or whatever he actually said, and the pro-God response was basically you can't prove God doesn't exist and I feel God's presence. Again, I'm paraphrasing from a 17-year-old's not-totally-coherent account of this debate. So any commentary I'm about to make--and I'm about to make some--is poorly informed. There's a good argument here for avoiding speculation until I have more information, but to meet my Holidailies obligation, I need to get something out and I've already got this much written, so....

My suspicion here is that one of the very strengths I cited earlier--the civil nature of the debate--also defangs both sides to some extent and makes for a less interesting, less convincing debate. You can argue in fairly abstract, non-confrontational terms, but when it comes down to it, the more compelling arguments are also significantly more threatening, in the sense of calling strongly into question a person's deep-held beliefs (and, for that matter, those of the student's parent, you might not appreciate a teacher precipitating a crisis of faith for their son/daughter). Also, if participants were to argue in the strongest terms, students might feel as though a teacher who is arguing the other side from what they believe is unsympathetic or even hostile to them and not just to their belief system. So I suspect it's a challenging line to walk for the participants, to make a case, but to do it in a way that tends more toward interesting than to threatening or uncomfortable.

For my part, I've always had considerable tolerance for strong argument on both sides of this subject, because I've always felt that truth was important. Weird, I know. Hearing the best arguments, the strongest arguments of people on the other side of the issue from me always seemed like an important exercise, because either result seemed positive: either I would be convinced and change my mind, presumably moving closer to the truth--whatever that is--than I was before, or else I would feel that I had refuted the opposing arguments and thus had even better reason than before to believe what I already believed. Of course, this places a lot of trust in my own judgment. The alternative--turning over responsibility for one's beliefs to someone else--seems very problematic to me (even though I could argue in the abstract that it's possible that one could be better off relying on the judgment of someone else). But I have a hard time really believing that argument.

All right, this entry has been a bit scattered and it's not really ending with much of a bang or with a bow on top, but there it is. I welcome your thoughts on any of the matters raised.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Giving thanks for food, connecting to food

Growing up in America, "meat" is often just that: a cut of meat, something you get from the supermarket in a neatly wrapped package, perhaps epitomized by the ubiquitous boneless, skinless chicken breasts. "Boneless" and "skinless," of course, they are disconnected from almost any sense that they were ever part of an actual animal that lived and died to become your food (though I suspect the chicken--wrapped in skin and supported by bones--probably looked at its life a bit differently).

Over the past several years, I've gotten somewhat closer to my food. The majority of the meat our family eats comes from a local farmer. Each year, we get a quarter of a cow, a half a hog, twenty chickens, and a turkey at Thanksgiving. The Thanksgiving turkey, of course, is the one time of year that many Americans do, in fact, see their food in a way that reminds them that it was once, you know, an actual animal. For us, getting 20 chickens each year (and usually buying a few more on top of our "farm share") I've had a lot of opportunities to prepare whole chickens rather than chicken parts (surprising no one, it's a lot of work to turn a whole chicken into chicken parts vs. roasting it whole). This preparation has made me more aware of the meat I eat as an animal, since you spend time putting spices under the skinning and jamming it's chest cavity full of onions, apples, or beer cans.

I had an interesting opportunity this year to further deepen my understanding of where my food comes from, and my connection to it. Earlier this fall, when I went to pick up my score of chickens, I was talking to the farmer about an addition they were making to their one building, an addition that would allow them to process their own chickens and turkeys. Talking about it, he invited me out to help with the turkeys.

And who doesn't want to help with the turkeys?

Thus, the Monday before Thanksgiving I found myself out at the farm bright and early, helping process 27 turkeys. I told one of my students, later, that I had processed these turkeys, and he kind of looked at me blankly. Processed? What does that mean? So to be clear: we took the turkeys from alive and ornery to table-ready. I even brought home and cooked our turkey that afternoon, so I had the whole cycle in one day. If you're interested in the gory details, I'll put them in the next paragraph. If stories of poultry death and dismemberment bother you, you might want to skip this paragraph (it is, after all, fowl stuff).

Okay, but seriously, it was neither macabre nor hilariously funny. Our farmer is a part-time minister, so perhaps not surprisingly we started the whole thing with a prayer, which set the tone as one of respect for the animals that were becoming food for us and others. Turkeys had to be caught from the trailer they were in, then they were brought to the first room, where they were placed in an inverted cone, upside down, so their heads and necks hung down. This calms them. At this point, someone finds what amounts to the chin, and a deep cut kills the turkey and bleeds it out. It took a while, and it probably wasn't totally painless, but I'm sure it could have been a lot worse. We've all heard stories of chickens or turkeys flopping around with their heads cut off, but this was not that. When the turkey was dead and done bleeding, it went into a hot water bath to loosen up the feathers. From there, it went into a round machine (kind of like a cotton candy machine, if that helps you visualize it) with rubber "fingers" all around the edge. The machine spins the turkeys around and the "fingers" remove the feathers. I think it also washed them at the same time. From there, the now-naked turkeys went to the next room, separated by a window and a sheet of plastic. We worked assembly-line style, so the first person in this room cut off the head and feet. The next person checked the skin for any bits of feather that might be left--they were looking for little nubs that were basically under the skin and had to be worked out. The next person removed the anus and anal glands. From there, it went to me, where I reached into the chest cavity and removed the gizzard. Then I reached in again to remove the guts. From this delightful mass, I separated the liver (which was still attached to the gall bladder) and then carefully removed the gall bladder, trying not to pop it, which would ruin pretty much anything the bile got on (I had a 100% success rate!). From there, the turkey carcass went to someone who got the lungs out, though a number of times I overzealously got the lungs out along with everything else I was grabbing. She might have had some other job too--I got caught up in my own job. The next guy removed something from the neck and also did most of the processing of the gizzards that I was taking out: they had to be cut open, all of the rocks and grass within had to be dumped out, and then an internal membrane removed. I think that was pretty much it. The giblets all went on ice in a bucket, while the turkeys went into a different bucket with ice and then into an ice bath, since they have to be cooled fairly quickly.

Just a generation or two ago, this kind of thing was probably far more common. Both of my parents had stories from their childhood: my father's family getting together with other farmers to butcher hogs (and "use everything but the oink"), my maternal grandmother killing chickens in the back yard for Sunday dinner. These things seem almost gruesome to us now, because they are outside of our experience, but they are a very real part of the food we eat, and one that we've become disconnected from. I appreciated that this Thanksgiving allowed me to deepen my own connection just a little more.

There was also an interesting fellowship that developed between all of us who were doing the work. Most of them had done it before, either at that farm or at their own farm, but at least two of us were new to it--myself and a man in his 20s who works as a cook at a nice restaurant. It was very companionable to be standing around this metal table, sharing this work. You'd sometimes talk about the work, but mostly we were getting to know one another, since most of us didn't already. I'm noticing it more now that a friend of mine has pointed it out, but there's something to be said for the companionship of shared work and the social aspect of that. We often think of "social occasions" as parties, as things we prepare for and work hard to make sure everyone has a good time, but there's something to be said for inviting people--or being invited by people--to share in some work together. It's more productive than just doing it yourself, it's more enjoyable, and there's an interesting social aspect to it. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Introductions, 2014 (Holidailies)

I'm a blogger. Wait, no I'm not. I used to be a blogger. One of those blog-every-day hell-or-high-water types. I went a year or two at a stretch without missing a day. Now, with the exception of Decembers, I can almost go a year at a stretch without blogging a day. It's like the evil twin of my former blogging self.

I'm a writer. Wait, am I? I don't know. I thought I was, but except for NaNoWriMo and Holidailies, I don't really show it. I did manage 50k of a novel last month, and I have high hopes of finishing what's probably about 1/3 finished at 50k over the next few months. And I'm committing to blogging here. But am I a writer? I guess we'll see. Time will tell and all that, since a writer isn't a state of being so much as a state of doing. You write or you don't, and right now I am. Good enough, right?

I'm a father. No, seriously, I am. It's still a little unbelievable, even though my oldest is almost five. But I think they've aged me ten years in five, so yes, I'm a father. They've also completely redefined so many things for me. I'm not sure I really knew what love was until I had children. There's a song that says "I'm gonna need a second heart for all this love," and it's not just the quantity, it's the whole experience. I couldn't have understood it until it happened. Maybe I still don't.

I'm an educator. I'm not, technically, a teacher any more: after 10 years in the classroom and the rehearsal room, 10 years teaching music and English, I've spent that past five working in student life at a boarding school. I'm still teaching, though: social skills, academic skills, leadership skills, resilience, and--let's hope--just plain human being skills. I loved the classroom, I miss it sometimes, but I feel like I'm doing good work in this role, too.

I'm a jock. No I'm not. Wait, what does that even mean? I'm 37, and a year or two ago another adult prefaced some remark or other by saying "Of course, you're a jock, so..." And I'm thinking: are you kidding me? The kid who, in elementary school, collapsed dramatically rather than finish the mile run for the Presidential Fitness Test, since he was 1) the only one still running and 2) not getting a medal with zero pull-ups and laughable numbers on the other events, he's a jock? The kid whose favorite part of junior high track--indeed, the only bright spot--was walking from the junior high to the high school, which took us into a gas station where we loaded up on candy, that little butterball is a jock? The kid whose high school activities revolved around band, drama, choir, quiz bowl (if you don't know what it is, trust me, it's as nerdy as it sounds), writing, and--finally, in my junior and senior years--tennis, he's a jock? And yet, it's true that in the last decade or so I've taken a more or less strong interest in health and fitness--I lift weights religiously, I educate myself about exercise and fitness, and apparently it's all paid off by adding "jock" to my list of nerd credentials.

I'm an amateur cook and something of a foodie. The kid who, growing up, was just about the pickiest eater ever--the kid who gagged on peas and broccoli, avoided raisins and bananas, wouldn't eat apple dumplings even though he separately liked both apples and dumplings (and, come one, they're apple dumplings!), that kid grew into an adult who loves all kinds of foods, domestic and exotic, and does virtually all the cooking for his family. I won't say I identify as "Paleo," and I certainly don't follow that kind of eating template religiously, but I've been influenced by the principles (which is a shame, because I make some awesome breads, cakes, cookies, and pies).

I'm a player. A game player, I mean. Growing up, my family played a ton of board and card games. The big game in our family was called Five Hundred, which at the end of the day is basically Bridge. But we also played Pinochle, Canasta, Spades, Hearts, and Euchre. We played other card games like Rook, Flinch, Touring (a knock-off of Mille Bornes, which we also played), and Uno. We played all the regular board games you would expect of a kid growing up in the 80s and 90s, and probably a few you wouldn't expect. And then, in the 2000s, I discovered real board games, the German and European games and the ones they influenced: games that were more complicated or interesting than mere roll the dice and move around the board types, games with interesting mechanics and deeper strategy. Things like the gateway games Settlers of Catan and Carcassone, Blokus and Rumis, and from there to games like Agricola, Ricochet Robots, Power Grid, Diplomacy... okay, I don't want to turn this into a boring list for those who don't know the games. But if there's a board game and it's awesome, then I've probably at least heard of it.

I'm a Renaissance man. Or maybe it's a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none. Somewhere on that continuum. I've never been good at limiting myself or my interests: I was a double-major (English and music) in college. I went to graduate school for music and majored in choral conducting and composition, because I couldn't choose just one. Teaching in boarding schools for most of my working life has been good: I've gotten lots of opportunities to learn new things through the years. My blog kind of follows the same clear lack of a clear plan, which is one of the reasons for its name. When I blog at all--which, as we've already established, is pretty much only in December--I blog about all kinds of things. I guess the upside there is that if you don't like what I'm blogging about one day, come back the next day, since it will probably be something completely different tomorrow.

And that's me.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Paleo Baklava Bars

This is definitely a treat, not an everyday food: fair warning. But I was thinking about homemade Larabars, couldn't find any dried dates in our pantry, and it occurred to me that, minus the phyllo dough, baklava is basically just nuts and honey, right? What could be more paleo than that? I made a small batch, but this could easily be scaled up. It probably would still be very good with considerably less honey, as this mixture was pretty sweet. But I was going for something pretty sweet and succeeded.

4 oz mixed nuts (I used pistachios, walnuts, pecans, and almonds)
1/4 c. grass-fed butter (I used clarified butter)
1/4 c. raw honey
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp lemon juice

Put nuts in your handy-dandy food processor and process the heck--by which I mean all the large chunks--out of them. Add remaining ingredients and process until you have a nice smooth mixture. It will still be kind of wet (perhaps another argument for less honey), but you can either eat it by the spoonful or get all serious about it and scoop it out onto wax paper in little balls (we've got a scoop that's perfect for this... if you don't, I pity you, but I'm sure you can make do with something else). Flatten the balls and place in the freezer for a half hour (or as long as you can stand to wait).

The recipe above made a mere 5 mini-pucks of baklava goodness, plus some to be licked out of the pan. Which was fine, since I ate them all yesterday afternoon and couldn't have eaten more than that.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Chinese Chicken Salad

Tonight, we had the first harvest from our garden: lettuce. We planted a lettuce mixture and had big salads for dinner. It was simple to throw together, and probably could have easily been even more awesome with a couple tweaks, which I'll offer as options.

It's hard to see, but in the left box, at the bottom (and the middle), that's the lettuce we still have after cutting three big plates full (also pictured: peas, carrots, onions, strawberries, tomatoes, some other stuff, and a squash plant).

1/4 c. light olive oil
1-2 green onions, chopped
1 T. coconut aminos (or soy sauce, if that's your thing).
1/2 T. ground ginger (or fresh, if that's your thing)
4 chicken thighs or breasts (or more)
a whole lotta lettuce
mandarin oranges (optional)
sliced almonds (optional)

First, make your dressing to allow the flavors to blend. You can do this several hours in advance, but if you don't, just make sure it's the first thing you do. Combine the oil, green onions, coconut aminos, and ginger in a small bowl or salad dressing mixer. Mix with a fork or whisk (or, obviously, the mixing part of the dressing mixer).

Put your chicken in a steamer with water in the bottom. I like to oil the steamer so the chicken doesn't stick and it makes less mess. Bacon grease works just fine for this, at least for me. Cover and turn your burner to high. Set timer for 20 minutes and let time and temperature do their thing.

Plate your lettuce. Cut as much of the chicken as you want into bite-sized pieces, and put it on top of the lettuce. Mix the dressing again, because it's probably settled.
Seriously, you let it sit for 5 seconds and it settles out.

I didn't think about mandarin oranges or almonds until I was done, but I'm sure they would be great. Truthfully, the salad's just fine without adding fruit or nuts to it, so don't feel like you need them to have a good salad.

And there it is: from garden to table! Here's to many more meals from our own back yard (note: okay, you caught me--most of the meal did not come from our back yard. We're not growing olives to press for oil, I don't have ginger growing, or coconuts. I don't even have chickens roaming the yard, and I didn't get my own green onions from the garden either. I'm basically a big foodie fraud.)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Sweet Life: Home Chocolate Making

We saw a commercial for Hershey's several months ago, and the tagline was something like "the taste of life" (my apologies to the Hershey's corporation if I have misquoted them). And Lauren and I were like "Life tastes waxy?" (No apologies to Hershey's for calling it like I taste it).

For quite a while now, I've been low-carb and/or Paleo, which means that if I'm going to do chocolate, it has to be dark and it has to be high-quality stuff, without a lot of junk. I've said this before, but when I say "dark chocolate," I'm talking "is there any sugar at all in this, holy cow it's more bitter than my last ex" dark chocolate (that's 85-90%, if you weren't sure). And if it isn't already clear, we're not talking Hershey's "Special Dark" (which is more like 45%--don't ask what the rest is).

Back in October, thanks to this post on Primally Inspired, I started playing around with making my own dark chocolate. This post is the culmination of months of playing around with chocolate.

There are certainly decent dark chocolates out there that are pretty high quality, but you tend to pay like it's high-quality. And anyway, if you're making it yourself, then there's no doubt about the quality ingredients you're putting in. At its heart, making chocolate is pretty darned easy. It's also flexible: you just need some kind of fat, cocoa powder, a sweetener, vanilla, and a bit of salt. And if you forget the vanilla or the salt, or don't have any on hand, that's probably okay too.

Fats: The original recipe called for coconut oil, which is pretty good. But if you go in for grass-fed butter (or clarified grass-fed butter), you can do that. I have, but it wasn't my favorite. My favorite fat source has become lard. There's the high vitamin D content and the great combination of monounsaturated and saturated fats, but the real selling point is the fantastically creamy chocolate it produces (also, lard seems like it's super-cheap: I made my own from fat that would have otherwise been thrown away when I got a half hog, but even if I hadn't, there's an Amish farmer who sells this stuff way cheaper than he sells his grass-fed butter).

Sweeteners: When it comes to sweeteners, honey is the obvious Paleo choice. Even though it's not technically Paleo, I prefer maple syrup. We buy it by the gallon each year, for $45, which is pretty much an unbeatable price. Plus I feel like it mixes in better.

According to Kelly at Primally Inspired, you can approximate various levels of chocolate darkness with sweetener amounts as below:
  • 1 T. = 85% dark
  • 1 1/2 T. = 73% dark
  • 2 T. = 60% dark
I don't know how accurate this is, though when I calculated the nutrition facts of the chocolate I made with 1 T. of sweetener, it came out about the same as 85% dark, so at least that one seems legit. 

Variations: I've experimented with this chocolate in a lot of different ways. I tried out an all-fruit jelly as my sweetener, but the consistency was lousy and the taste wasn't anything special (I think that the consistency could be because of water in the jelly--I'm told that water and cocoa powder don't mix). My wife likes it with craisins and almonds in it. But it's my newest variation that has become my favorite, at least for the time being. The secret: cinnamon. For whatever reason, adding a bit of cinnamon seems to make it better even when the sweetness is lowered to something darker than 85%.

Also, it's no bad thing to double the recipe, except that the temptation to eat more chocolate than you should grows proportionately to how much chocolate you have on hand.

Shaping the chocolate: I recommend getting some kind of silicone cupcake mold--it's a pretty handy way to make a bunch of little bars, and if you can combine that with a food scale, you can easily get perfectly equal bars (and, in my case, perfectly equal bears):

Bear on the bottom right knows what's coming,  which is why he had an accident.
But if you don't have those and don't want to get them, you can pretty much do anything... spread it out on wax paper, put it in those cheap plastic storage containers (I think you'll want something that's flexible enough that you can pop them out).

Here's the recipe for 85% dark chocolate--adjust the sweetness up or down as you prefer:

1/4 c. fat (I like either all-lard or a mixture of lard, clarified butter, and coconut oil)
1 T. (maybe even less) maple syrup
1 tsp (or less) vanilla
a pinch of salt
1 tsp cinnamon (optional)
1/2 c. cocoa powder

Melt the fat gradually in the microwave. Stir in maple syrup, vanilla, and salt. Stir in cinnamon, if using. Gradually add the cocoa powder, stirring thoroughly. I like to make 20g-30g bars. Put in the freezer for at least 30 minutes. Store in freezer or fridge.

Variations: add dried fruit and/or nuts. Non-paleo variation: use PB2 instead of the cocoa to make something like peanut butter fudge. Using ground up nuts instead of cocoa will give you something similar that could be, technically, Paleo, if you want that kind of thing. 

Tips: 1) If you have a glass measuring cup (like Pyrex), melt the fat in there, so you can easily see how much you have, plus you have one less thing to clean up. 2) It's really easy to make a big mess with your cocoa powder. I like to have 2 spoons: 1 to stir the mixture and one to move the cocoa powder from the measuring cup to the mixing bowl (or Pyrex measuring cup). 3) Seriously, just go ahead and double it.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Recipe: Paleo Irish Bacon and Cabbage

Perhaps you didn't know this, but the "traditional" corned beef and cabbage of St. Patrick's Day is not actually all that big of an Irish tradition. From what I understand, they pretty much just bring it out for the tourists. Traditionally, beef was expensive, so pork or bacon was the more commonly-used meat.

And that was convenient, since neither Lauren nor I particularly care for corned beef. We'll leave aside, for the moment, the fact that Lauren doesn't particularly care for cabbage, either.

This simple recipe isn't exactly traditional, but it's a good balance between tradition and a Paleo approach to food. I absolutely loved this, and I think Lauren would have, too, if she didn't hate cabbage.

One nice thing about this recipe is that once you get the sweet potatoes going, the other prep work of cutting and cooking all fit nicely into the time allotted. 

1 large sweet potato, peeled and diced
2-3 T. cooking oil (I used butter and bacon grease), melted
10 oz (or more) bacon, diced
1 can diced tomatoes
1 c. chicken stock (or other stock)
2 c. thinly sliced cabbage
salt and pepper, to taste

Pre-heat oven to 400. Peel and dice the sweet potatoes and melt your cooking fat. Toss the diced sweet potato in the fat and place on an aluminum-foil-lined baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes, stirring halfway through.

Meanwhile, dice the bacon and cook it in a large pot, stirring regularly. When cooked, drain off excess fat and add tomatoes and chicken stock. About this time, the sweet potatoes should be done. Add them to the pot. Cook for 5-10 minutes or longer. Add the cabbage and cook for a couple minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Michael Pollan explains what's wrong with the Paleo Diet?!

A recent article on Mother Jones made the rounds: "Michael Pollan explains what's wrong with the Paleo Diet." The article is, itself, based on almost an hour of podcast interview. I haven't listened to the interview, which I suppose makes me about as guilty of ignorant pontificating as Michael Pollan and Mother Jones's Cynthia Graber are when it comes to Paleo. But what the heck--they started it, so I'll offer a first reaction, which is that this article says almost nothing important about Paleo, because neither Pollan nor Graber seem to understand Paleo in any detail. Unfortunately, getting only the basic gist of something really only qualifies you to tell us what's wrong with the strawman you've created for the purpose of criticism.

First, I think it's important to note that most of the most prominent proponents of Paleo have some reservations about the term "Paleo Diet." Partially, the term is problematic because it puts too great an emphasis on Paleo as a list of rules: eat this, not that, period. And to be fair, a lot of people who are practicing Paleo do view Paleo that way. That's why we have recipes for "Paleo" foods that aren't particularly healthy but that adhere to the letter of the "law" of "The Paleo Diet." But the people who are propagating Paleo at the highest levels (by which I mean the people who have done the most to define and refine it in the years when it's become popular) view it more as a set of principles for figuring out what a person should eat for optimal health. Listen to what Robb Wolf has to say about Paleo--he's about as far from dogmatic as you can be, and he's widely considered to be one of the most prominent proponents of "Paleo." Chris Kresser's ultra-recent Your Personal Paleo Code makes this explicit, the idea that it's less a one-size-fits-all dietary prescription and more a framework for figuring out what's best for any particular person (while I'm linking to books, I would say that Jason Seib's The Paleo Coach also does a great job of laying out the principles rather than prescribing rules). Although early on in the Paleo movement, there were a lot more absolute statements along the lines of "this is what ancient hunter-gatherers ate" or cut-and-dried food prohibitions, this just isn't true of the current versions of Paleo that are central to the movement.

So, with that out of the way, let's see "what's wrong with the Paleo Diet." After talking about how much humans love meat, and basically saying that early humans probably would have eaten as much meat as they could get, we get the "criticism" of Paleo:
In any case, says Pollan, today's meat is nothing like that of the hunter-gatherer.
One problem with the paleo diet is that "they're assuming that the options available to our caveman ancestors are still there," he argues. But "unless you're willing to hunt your food, they're not." 
As Pollan explains, the animals bred by modern agriculture—which are fed artificial diets of corn and grains, and beefed up with hormones and antibiotics—have nutritional profiles far from wild game.

Pastured animals, raised on diets of grass and grubs, are closer to their wild relatives; even these, however, are nothing like the lean animals our ancestors ate.
First, is there any Paleo advocate who isn't aware that factory farmed animals are terrible for our health? Is there any Paleo advocate who isn't favoring pastured animals? Second: really? They're "nothing like the lean animals our ancestors ate"? Really? Sure, they're not mastodons, and cattle have certainly evolved through human selection over the centuries and millennia, but just as Paleo practitioners are looking for the diet that's healthiest for human beings, pasturing ruminants like cows is giving them the diet that's healthiest for them, which makes the meat of those animals the healthiest it can be for us. And, I should add, more like what our ancestors would have eaten.

Oh, and let's add one more caveat to the whole Paleo thing: as several Paleo proponents have noted, "Paleo is a logical framework applied to modern humans, not a historical reenactment." To say "we don't really know what Paleolithic people ate," or "Paleolithic people ate different things in different places," or "the foods that Paleolithic people ate have changed so much that they don't really exist any more" all miss the point. They're all true, but so what? The answer isn't "I might as well have bagels and doughnuts for breakfast."

Which kind of leads to the second point in the article: "Humans can live on bread alone." Well, okay, you can "survive" on bread alone. But you're not going to be all that healthy. And if you're going to eat bread, you're definitely better off eating sourdough bread, because the fermentation process breaks down quite a few of the problematic constituents of bread. But the fact is that gluten is still problematic to a lot of people, even beyond the portion of the population that has celiac disease. Some of us tolerate it better than others, but there's still a legitimate critique of grains coming from the Paleo folks. And most people who are still eating bread and grains are not eating sourdough anyway.

"3. Eat more microbes." There is absolutely nothing in here that most Paleo advocates would argue against. Sort of. I mean, Paleo generally advocates fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi, as well as pickles, for the same reason: beneficial microbes for our gut health. Although Paleo starts from a position of skepticism about dairy, proponents often suggest adding in dairy if you tolerate it and seeing how you look, feel and perform when consuming it--and when they do, they generally recommend starting with fermented dairy like yogurt and cheese (preferably from grass-fed animals).

"4. Raw food is for the birds (too much of it, anyway)." Okay, this point really has nothing to do with Paleo. Paleo is certainly distinct from raw-food vegan as a dietary strategy, and Paleo advocates have nothing against cooking food. In fact, a good understanding of Paleo principles (which derive from an understanding of evolution) actually feeds into the importance of cooking certain vegetables that can cause problems if they're not cooked. And why do they cause problems? Because those veggies have evolved defense mechanisms that make them hard on the digestive system, particularly when consumed raw. So yeah, this point has nothing to do with Paleo (and everything to do with Pollan selling his book on cooking). Which is also true of his fifth point.

So, in the end, here's what this article looks like to me: Pollan gives an interview to push his latest book. He makes a few under-informed comments about Paleo, and because Paleo is very popular now, Cynthia Graber cobbles together an article that pits Michael Pollan against the Paleo diet, to drive traffic. And I suppose it worked, but as a critique of Paleo, it's critically flawed.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Praise to the Lard, the Almighty

Saturday, when I wasn't making sauerkraut out of cabbages, spiced with shavings of my thumb--and we're talking after the thumb, here--I made lard.

Earlier in the day, I took the girls and went to pick up our half-hog from the butcher's. It was 2:00, and apparently they closed at noon, as the guy there grudgingly informed me. Every word seemed grudging. He was pretty surly about the 2 minutes I cost him to bring my meat out to my car, but I'm sure glad he did, since it took me, like, an hour and a half to get there. As requested, they also gave me a bag of fat from our pasture-raised pig (or maybe more than one, but I wasn't asking Surly McSlaughterhouse for details).

I was actually inspired by this post from Mack Hill Farm back in December to give lard another try, and Lisa's advice was very helpful. I made lard before (I recommend reading/re-reading that post--it amused me),  but it came out with a bit of a porky taste. This time, I hoped to do better. Nay, I resolved to do better.

I made sure to start making the lard well before Lauren got home, since I knew she would not be thrilled with me rendering pork fat in the house. Following Lisa's advice, I cut the fat into chunks and ran it through the food processor before putting it into the crock pot. I added water and let the teamwork of crock pot, pork fat and water do its collective thing. And then I added more water, so I could let it go overnight.

I wasn't really sure how to know when the water had all boiled off. I mean, it sank to the bottom (right?), because water is more dense than fat. So... yeah, no idea. But I just went ahead and started ladling it out, straining it through a coffee filter, and putting it into pint jars.

I have to say, it turned out great. It was the most beautiful, creamy white color when it cooled (as opposed to the stuff I made three years ago, that had a bit of a brown tinge to it), and it had none of the pork-ish flavor. I ended up with a little over 4 1/2 pints of lard, but that was from only about half of the fat, which means I've got some more rendering in my future.

It's a little crazy to me that I can end up with something like 18 cups of high-quality cooking fat just for the cost of some time. And yes, lard--especially from pastured pigs--is a high-quality fat. It's gotten a bad rep, but it's all kinds of good-for-you. Chris Kresser names it one of the five fats you should be cooking with, but probably aren't. Need I say more? How about The Washington Post? I found several mainstream media outlets that gave lard at least a gentleman's C for health, and the Post article came closest, but most of them miss the point, which is that the evidence for saturated fat being bad for us, the evidence for saturated fat causing heart disease, is extremely weak. So some will say that it has high levels of monounsaturated fat, like olive oil, and less saturated fat than butter, but will caution that it still has quite a bit of saturated fat, which misses the point. It's also the second-most dense source of dietary vitamin D. If it's from pastured pigs--as opposed to feedlot pigs eating corn, soy, and other junk--it has a favorable omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.

All this and it makes things taste better. All in favor, say oink!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Series of Unfortunate Moments


That moment while running cabbage through the mandolin to make sauerkraut when the assessment that I was being "pretty careful" had to be revised to "not quite careful enough."

That moment, moments later, considering how I might manage a trip to the ER to stitch up the tip of my thumb, either getting someone to watch the girls or bundling them into car seats and taking them along. See if our amazing nanny is available on a Saturday? In the midst of a bit of a snowstorm? Our teenaged babysitter? In the snow? The neighbor guy who mows our lawn? Seriously?

That moment where the fact that I'm only halfway through the first of four cabbages is at least as important to me as what I should do about my thumb.

So I staunch the bleeding with a paper towel, douse with hydrogen peroxide, secure some gauze with duct tape, and carry on slicing cabbage. The thumb's probably going to be fine, and there's stuff to do.

Stuff like half-filling this 10-liter crock.
Then there's that moment as I go to sleep when I wonder if the burning sensation in my thumb is just because I tried to shred it into kraut or because I have an infection working its way from my thumb to the rest of my body. I consider that if I die in my sleep, I won't get the chance to blog about the way that I stupidly sliced the tip of my thumb nearly off. There's a moment where that seems like a relevant consideration.


That moment when I bang my injured thumb into a hard surface, and I realize that I haven't look at it yet today to see how it's doing, and now that I may have reopened it... but what am I really going to learn by looking now?
But okay, here it is, just over 24 hours post-mandolin-ing.