Monday, February 26, 2007

Blizzard, part the second

How to dig yourself out of a blizzard in 10 easy steps:

1. Marvel at the strangeness of seeing lightning and hearing thunder while watching snow fall from the sky.

2. Notice that the deck, which was completely clear a few hours ago, has another several inches of snow on it. Mutter curses.

3. Attempt to open the back door. Notice that door is blocked by heavy, wet snow. Spend three minutes kicking enough snow out of the way just to get outside. Mutter curses.

4. Start shoveling snow off the deck, notice that shoveling the wet, heavy snow is back-breaking work. Curse a little louder while only clearing off a narrow path between the door and the steps.

5. Spend 10 minutes clearing off the car to move it out of the way for the snow plow. Express desire for a garage.

6. Ponder the irony of spending 5 minutes almost getting stuck in the pile of snow at the end of the driveway while trying to get out of the way for the snow plow.

7. Dig a path in the back yard. Happily pose for wife so she can take a picture "for the blog."



8. Notice that since you've started the whole digging process, it has snowed another inch. Give up on cursing.

9. Marvel at the new mountain range created at the end of the driveway.



10. Make some hot chocolate. Throw in an ounce or so of vodka just to see what it's like. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Blizzard, part the first

We woke up with seven brand new inches of snow on the ground. We're expecting another foot or so tonight. The NWS issued a warning that ended like this: "This will be a very dangerous situation. If you leave the safety of indoors... you are putting your life at risk. Travel is not recommended tonight and Sunday."

Here's a path we dug in the back yard to the shed.



Here are some poor, dead, dried-up sunflowers that I never pulled up at the end of the summer (you might call it "lazy gardening" and I might call it "the natural beauty of dried plants"), bravely poking through the snow in the front yard.



One loner off to the side I wrapped up in a scarf I recently made, so it wouldn't feel too cold and lonely...



...though on second thought, it looks better on the birch tree.

Friday, February 23, 2007

If I Were Rich...

Tagged by Pam!

I have a confession to make: Stuart and I play the lottery. By this I mean we buy a $1 Powerball ticket once every three or four months. It's hardly breaking the bank and far from qualifying as a gambling problem. But it's fun to hold that little slip of paper, waiting for the numbers to come up, and fantasize about what we're going to do with our millions once we win. Of course, we never actually win, and we're never actually disappointed when we don't. It's just fun to be goofy once in a while.

So here's what I would do if I had a lot of money (after the obvious boring stuff like paying off the mortgage and putting enough in a savings account for our child(ren) to attend a 4-year private college.)

1. I would build the coolest green friendly house ever with solar panels and geo-thermal heating and cooling and a rain water collection system, and it would have a huge sunny yard for a garden and maybe a goat and some chickens.

2. I would purchase a nice grand piano to put in it.

3. I just might spring for nice French wine every once in a while instead of 3-buck Chuck.

4. I would make it my personal mission to keep every local yarn store in business.

5. I would give some money to the UW School of Music so they could buy some really good Baroque string instruments. Yup, I would really do that.

6. I would buy myself a pair of bad-ass Doc Martens, the kind that are boots.

7. I would travel all over the world and learn at least two new languages. Heck, maybe three.

8. I would pay someone to invent a car that runs on compost.

9. I would buy Stuart some new corduroy pants, since all of his are nearly worn through in the knees. I'll probably do this even if we don't win the lottery.

10. I would buy Pam some new socks :)

11. I would buy the entire "Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century" series of recordings. I don't even know how many CDs that is, but it's a lot, more than 50.

12. I would get my hair cut at the kind of fancy salon where you get a scalp massage with your shampoo.

Anyone else care to do this? You're it!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ignaz is kicking my butt

I know I shouldn't let Daniel nap on my lap, but it's the only way I get any computer time these days, because lately his favorite time to sleep is when the babysitter's here and I'm not. Grr.

I was in Kansas last weekend, where I was actually invited to play a concert at my old college as part of their teaching academy's tenth anniversary celebration. I was honored to be asked, and for some reason, I was also eager to show the folks there how far I've come as a musician since starting grad school. It's not exactly that I have to prove anything to anybody...well, okay, yeah, I do.

I'm what you might call a late bloomer. It took me a few years of grad school to figure out just where my niche is, for one thing. I started out in pedagogy and solo performance, but realized that practicing alone in a little room five hours a day and then teaching "Yankee Doodle" and "Crazy Clown" to boogery little kids just wasn't for me. Not full-time, anyway. So I got a second masters in Collaborative Piano (that's PC for "accompanying") and liked it so much I kept going for the doctorate.

In addition to all this time in gradual school figuring out just what it is in music that I want to do, it's taken me just as long to build enough technique and confidence to feel like I'm a decent pianist. Not a great pianist, but decent. I think most musicians feel inadequate most of the time, and that's not always a bad thing. It's motivation to practice, for starters. My current teacher once said to me after I played something rather poorly in a lesson, "Susan, I don't get it. You're so competent and independent and together in every other aspect of your life, and yet at the piano, you're still inconsistent." The truth can be harsh, but she was totally right. I said, "I don't know. I guess this is the thing I feel like I need to conquer. This is the thing I have to work the hardest to be good at." And I didn't realize how true that was until I said it.

Don't get me wrong. This isn't just some grueling strive for perfectionism for perfectionism's sake, or to prove once and for all that I'm not a quitter. I am a musician because I love music and I wouldn't feel whole without it. I've also done well enough times by now that I can say with a certain amount of confidence that I don't suck.

But dudes, it's hard.

The performance in Kansas went very, very well. I brought my duet partner, E, from my doctoral recital in October, and we did the exact same program. Despite some exhausting travel issues (our suitcase arrived a whole day after we did, and E arrived a day late because of bad weather in Chicago), we pulled it off. In fact, I would say there were some moments that kicked ass, the Poulenc 2-piano sonata, for instance. I felt good about it, she felt good about it, the audience loved it, and my former teacher was very pleased.

But now I'm home, dealing with a child who's still recovering from all the sleep disruption, and frantically trying to prepare for the next thing: a woodwind/piano competition next weekend. I'm playing with a bassoonist who chose some very difficult music, including an obscure piece by Ignaz Moscheles that's like a piano concerto with a little bassoon sprinkled in for flair. We played it for her studio class yesterday and I managed to mess up just about every scale in the damn thing, and believe me, there are a lot.

This is just how it goes. Up and down. Feeling elated after a good performance, discouraged after a bad one. Wondering if it's ever going to be easy (nope). Occasionally wishing I'd chosen something less emotionally taxing, or at least more straightforward. Like medical school.

Friday, February 16, 2007

TMI

Dear United Airlines,

Thanks so much for losing our suitcase yesterday. Since you delayed our flight from Chicago to Wichita, I would have thought you'd have had plenty of time to toss our bag into the luggage compartment. Judging from the long line at the ticket counter of people claiming lost bags, and the no-nonsense efficient manner of the United employee working there, I had the impression you put bags on the wrong plane all the time. You know, it's been a while since I've gone without deodorant, worn my underwear inside out, left my armpits unshaved, bummed a toothbrush from my in-laws and dressed my kid in his pajamas for two days straight. I want to thank you for this oppportunity.

Sincerely,
One mildly disgruntled, slightly smelly, greasy United customer

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Happy Jerk Appreciation Day

If Stuart gave me flowers or chocolate on the 14th of February, I would take his temperature and ask him those standard questions you get asked after a car wreck. You know, like "When's your birthday?" and "Who's the president?" and "Does your head hurt?"

Valentine's Day doesn't hold that much appeal for me, not in the Hallmark Card sense. It might have something to do with a particularly memorable Valentine's Day date that didn't start well and ended worse (we had an argument and then later the fella in question - not Stu - got food poisoning; nothing like sitting in a skanky dorm listening to a guy puke for four hours). It might also have something to do with a friend of mine and Stu's who re-named V-day "Jerk Appreciation Day." The logic goes something like this:

1. There are a lot of guys out there who are jerks.
2. There are plenty of gals out there who date those jerks and know they are jerks.
3. Valentine's Day gives those jerks the opportunity to buy expensive gifts, for which they are forgiven for being jerks and treated like kings.
4. Ergo, Valentine's Day is really Jerk Appreciation Day.
5. And if #4 is true, it follows logically that acknowledging Valentine's Day in any way automatically means you're a jerk. At least, this has been Stuart's justification for blowing off the holiday altogether.

Frankly, I don't mind. I am certainly not the type of person to whom feelings are proved one way or the other by the purchase of flowers or candy (not that I would ever turn down good chocolate) or some contrived romantic evening. I didn't even think about today being Valentine's Day at all until I read this post on the Yarn Harlot's blog about the nature of love and the skewed emphasis our society places on "you complete me" relationships and how we need to combat that by celebrating deeper love, like what you have (hopefully) for your family, the lasting kind of love. That's the kind of love worth celebrating.

So anyway, in the spirit of "Whole Wheat sort of love" (if you read her post, you'd know what I'm talking about), I made whole wheat sourdough bread. Not terribly festive, but practical and delicious. I also decided to bake something festive, something fun, something I'd never tried before, something fancy-pants and French-sounding. Something like "Heart Shaped Peanut Butter Chocolates with Ganache," the recipe on the package of a Williams-Sonoma flexible baking thingy that was a Christmas present.

Something about trying new recipes makes me messier than usual in the kitchen. It's like I can't contain myself. This time was no different. I dropped an egg on the floor, I spilled cream on the table, I poured melted chocolate and peanut butter on the counter in a moment of absent-mindedness when I was trying to transfer it to a bowl, I dropped chocolate shavings on the floor, I spattered the egg-sugar-vanilla mixture as I furiously whipped it into a light, frothy state. I'm surprised none of this stuff got in my hair or up my sleeve or down my pants (it's happened, people.)

The result was totally worth it:



Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Why You Shouldn't Do Business at US Bank

I read this post over at Blooming Yaya yesterday and was appalled, though sadly not too surprised, at the way this woman was treated when she dared walk into a bank with her small children.

You know, a whole LOT of us are mothers and have to - gasp! - go out in public with our children. You might think treating a mother with no respect in a place of business may not come back to haunt you because you might think mothers have little or no real economic power in this society. You might want to think again. Mothers talk. We also blog. A lot of us are smart and supportive of each other. And we certainly take into account the way we are treated when we decide where we take our business.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Beans 'n Rice

I've got a crazy week ahead of me. We're flying to Kansas for the weekend so I can do a recital at my ol' stomping ground. It's a big deal to me because I haven't performed there in a few years, and while I won't go into details about why, I feel the need to prove that I've got piano chops. In addition to that, I'm preparing for a competition in March with a bassoonist and we're trying to rehearse a lot, but the weather is so crappy (snowsnowsnowsnowsnowsnow URG I'm sick of it!) we've had to re-schedule and Stu and I are juggling the use of our one car in ways that would be so much less complicated if he and I could just bike everywhere like we're used to. Alas, slippery, snowy roads and stupid drivers make biking too dangerous.

But you're not here to endure my whining. You're here because, presumably, I have something funny or interesting or helpful to share with you. Tell you what...you keep reading this blog, and I'll give you a delicious recipe for beans and rice that I made up last week. (Because no matter how crazy busy our lives get, I always find time to make good food.)

Ingredients:
3 T. canola or olive oil
1 med. onion, chopped
1 green or red bell pepper, chopped
as much garlic as you can handle, chopped (I like 3 or 4 cloves myself)
2 cups raw butternut or other winter squash, peeled and chopped into 1/2" cubes
2 cans or 3.5 cups cooked black beans
1 can or 2 cups chopped tomatoes
1 t. salt
1/2 t. cumin
1/2 t. coriander
1 t. dried oregano (fresh is better if it's summer time)
1 T. brown sugar
generous dose of hot chili powder - I use up to 2 T. but that's too much for some folks
water, as needed
cooked basmati or brown rice, to serve
shredded cheese, to serve...Jack, White Cheddar, Cotija are all good options

1. Sauté the onions and peppers in the oil for several minutes, until they're soft.
2. Add the garlic and spices and cook for about a minute; don't let the garlic burn.
3. Add the chopped squash and about 1/2 c. of water, just enough to let it simmer without scorching the bottom.
4. When the squash is about half-cooked, add the beans, tomatoes, salt and oregano and sugar and let the whole thing simmer for 15 minutes or so.
5. Serve over rice with shredded cheese. Be sure to compliment the cook.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Hoorah for the Birthday Boy

As I recall, that's one of the choruses in "Pirates of Penzance"...

One year ago at 11:53p.m., Daniel was born. Rather than doing a long, involved birth story full of TMI and details that, really, no one cares about, I'll share some of the highlights:

1. My due date was Feb. 6. I was completely miserable the last six weeks of pregnancy, and my pessimistic self was fully expecting this baby to be two weeks late. You can imagine my surprise when my water broke at Target at 4:00 that afternoon.

2. I did my shopping anyway (we really needed toilet paper.) When I got home, before I even called Stuart at work, I took a shower. I just, you know, felt a little grimy.

3. Contractions started 2 hours later, we were checked in the hospital by 10p.m., and cheerfully expected to have a baby sometime in the middle of the night. My, were we wrong about that.

4. I endured 20 hours of back labor before I started begging for relief. Back labor, for the less informed in these matters, is when the baby is turned "sunny-side up," and pressing on your back, so you feel the contractions the mostly in your lower back, rather than just the abdomen. It's not pleasant.

5. So despite my great intentions to deliver a baby without drugs (I'd already had a shot of narcotics 12 hours into labor so I could get some rest, not to mention my husband and my doula), I got an epidural.

6. An epidural is the best thing EVER. Never mind that you're confined to the bed, and you can't feel your legs and you can't even turn on one side without a nurse's aid, and you have to get a catheter and be hooked up to all kinds of monitors and machines. E-p-i-d-u-r-a-l spells r-e-l-i-e-f. Oh, did I mention I recognized the anesthesiologist? His daughter had, at one time, been a piano student of mine. Even though I was naked and sweaty and gasping with pain, this registered with me when he walked in the room. Either I was unrecognizable or he is quite the professional, because it never came up in our conversation (which mainly consisted of him saying "All right, now I'm injecting this needle into your spine...").

7. A full nine hours after the epidural was administered, it was finally time to push. Dudes, I was ready. I had been in labor for 29 hours, seen three shifts' worth of nurses ("Oh, you're still here?"), and my doula said I was approaching her record for length of time spent in the hospital for one labor. So even though I really couldn't feel anything below my sternum, I pushed like it was going out of style, and 45 minutes later, at 9lbs even, 20.5" long, immediately demonstrating his healthy set of lungs, Daniel was born.

Now, just a year later, what can Daniel do? Well, he can walk (he's been quite adept at that for a month already), he can clap and bounce in rhythm to music, he can feed me Cheerios (though he refuses to feed them to himself), he can unscrew lids, he can scrawl on the chalkboard (and the wall and the door and the chair) with chalk, he can correctly identify his belly, his foot and the clock at least 75% of the time, and just yesterday he figured out (accidentally, I think) how to turn on the TV with the remote. He cycled through several channels before settling on Dr. Phil. He can also melt your heart with his 4-tooth smile, a wave of his hand, and a Daniel-sized hug.

Happy Birthday, Daniel. We couldn't be prouder of you.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Bread, cont.

I'm glad to see there was interest in yesterday's Bread 101 post. I urge you to check out the comments, where some questions were asked that tried to answer adequately. Also, I just realized a glaring omission in the ingredients list: yeast! I have fixed that, and I hope it didn't cause too much confusion.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Bread 101, or How to Become a Bread Snob in 8 Easy Steps

My apologies to those of you with dial-up connections; this post has quite a few pictures.

Despite recent evidence to the contrary, I make pretty good bread. I learned from my mother at some point in my childhood or adolescence, and I've always preferred it to anything I could buy in a store or even a bakery. And in case you're wondering, bread made in a bread machine doesn't count; I find it only slightly more tolerable than the stuff from the store. I'm sure if I went to some upper-crust (heh) fancy-pants French-style bakery downtown and was willing to pay $7 per loaf, I could buy some pretty good stuff, but I'd rather make it myself, thank you. Because at least a couple of you have expressed some interest in a tutorial on the how-tos of good bread-making, and because I'm a teacher at heart and just can't say no to anyone who's willing to let me tell him or her what to do, I'm going to devote a series of posts to tutorials on bread-making. Some of you (Steph! Joe!) are already quite adept at this; feel free to give this entry a skip. I don't mind, really.

This is "Bread 101" because it's the simplest method I currently use. There are many, many ways to make yeasted bread (as well as many, many books telling you how), and in the future I'll show you more, but this is a good starting point.

Here's what you need for this recipe.

Equipment:
1. a large bowl or bowl-like object (if all you've got is a big ol' soup kettle, by all means, use it)
2. a stirring implement, such as a wooden spoon or strong rubber spatula
3. measuring cup and spoons (I just eyeball the smaller measurements, but for this recipe, you need the exact amount of flour and water)
4. baking sheet

Seriously, that's it. It helps to have counter-space or table space for kneading the dough, but you can even do that in the bowl on the floor if you live, say, in a tiny apartment with no room!

Ingredients:
1. 4 cups of flour (up to 1 cup can be whole wheat) I use bread flour because it has a higher gluten content (King Arthur brand is a favorite of mine), but all-purpose flour is just fine. Don't use self-rising flour or cake flour or pastry flour.
2. 1 tsp. salt
3. 1 and 1/2 cups warm water
4. About 2 T. oil (I use olive oil, but you could use canola oil or unsalted butter if you like)
5. 1 T. yeast. You ought to be able to get this in packets in the baking aisle of a grocery store, or in bulk in the refrigerated section of a natural foods store.

Instructions:

1. If you have a Little Helper, make sure he or she is sufficiently occupied with some toys, lest he or she find his or her way into the cupboard and start his or her own bakery business right there on your kitchen floor. Ahem.



2. Measure out the flour and put it in the bowl (I used 1 cup of whole wheat bread flour, and 3 cups of white bread flour.) Make three little wells in the flour, one for the salt, one for the yeast, and one for the oil. There's a theory out there that the salt and yeast should not touch one another directly, hence the separation of these ingredients before everything's mixed up. If you see an errant grain of salt or yeast in the wrong territory, don't sweat it. This whole business is fairly inexact.



3. Get yourself 1.5 cups of warm water, either warm from the tap, or heated up a bit in the microwave, and pour right in the middle of the flour mixture. It's very important that the water not be too hot, because it could kill the yeast. There are bread recipes out there that say to heat water to boiling and then let it cool, or heat it to a particular temperature, but I'm telling you there's absolutely no reason to be that fussy about it. If you can't hold your finger in it to the count of 10, it's too hot. Actually, the water could be room temp for all I care, but then it just means the dough takes much longer to rise.



4. With your Stirring Implement, start stirring from the middle, gradually incorporating the flour from the sides. You need a minute or so of stirring the really liquid-y stuff in the middle to properly develop the gluten. This is crucial to good bread. The gluten feeds the yeast and gives bread good texture. You'll know it's going well when the dough is getting niiiiiiiice and strrrrrrrrrrretchy. (Hee hee, I'm so corny.)



5. When it's too stiff to stir with a spoon or spatula, knead the dough by hand for at least five minutes. You can do this in the bowl, or on a counter/tabletop, or both. Whatever floats your boat. Kneading is, in my opinion, the most satisfying part of making bread (besides, of course, eating it). If you have some anger or aggression or stress to work off, take it out on bread dough. I'm not saying it will solve your problems, but you might feel a little better afterwards. There's no right way to knead dough; you can fold it, slap it, massage it, roll it, all of the above and more. I appear to be handling the dough rather gently below, but it's just because I had to stop moving so the pictures wouldn't be all blurry. It's impossible to knead bread dough too much. How do you know when you're done? When it's smooth but not sticky. The beauty of this particular recipe is that the flour and water almost always work out just right so you don't need to add any more of either. (That said, in this example, I had a little too much flour, probably because the it's very cold here and the air is very dry, so a little went to waste.)





6. When you've finished kneading, form the dough into a ball. Admire it for a few seconds, and make a mental note of its approximate size. I put a pencil in the picture for scale because that's what Scientists do, right? Put a very thin layer of oil around it (probably a teaspoon total) and put back in the bowl, covering with a wet towel or plate so it doesn't dry out. Let it rise until it's doubled in size (I am a poet and didn't know it).





How long does it take to rise? Well, that depends. Here, in the dry winter air, it took at least a couple of hours. If it's warm and humid, it might take an hour or less. If you're getting impatient, like if you started this process in the evening, you can do one of two things at this point:
1. Stick it in the fridge and wait until the next day to finish.
2. Warm up the oven just a smidge (turn it on for a minute, then turn it off) and put the bowl in there with a wet towel on top. That usually speeds things up.

6. Punch the sucker down and let it rise again. For some reason, it's really important to let the dough rise twice before you shape it into a loaf. I used to just let it rise once and as often as not, the bread wouldn't turn out right, all shriveled and tough. This is not a good place to cheat. You've been warned.



7. Deflate the dough again and shape it into a loaf on a greased baking pan. If you're feeling particularly Euro-trash, score it a few times with a knife while uttering French, or if you don't speak French, French-like sounds. "Ooh, la la!" and "Oui, oui! J'aime beaucoup le pain!" will do just fine.



8. When the loaf has risen to about twice its size, heat the oven to 400, and bake it until it's nice and crusty and golden all over. For me, this usually takes 30-40 minutes, but I would start checking it when the mouth-watering fumes of fresh-baked bread start permeating your home.



And that's it. Easy, right? I hope you didn't find these instructions too half-baked. Even if you're a little nervous the first time you try it, take a deep breath and try not to crumble under the pressure. If it helps, I'll butter you up by promising another tutorial in the future.

Someone stop me now.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Mourning Molly

The brave, witty, riotous, irreverent Molly Ivins has died at the age of 62 of breast cancer. She was a rare journalist, always seeking the truth, a champion of the People, a patriot, and laugh-out-loud funny. Would that more journalists followed her example of integrity.

My words here can not do justice to her legacy, but there are tributes to her everywhere, most of all in the Texas Observer. Take a moment to read them, and remember her. May she rest in peace.