Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Small Fish Steals My Heart

Death-defying Alpha
Meet Alpha. Who, two years after the very tragic deaths of Frank and Andy the goldfish, now resides in the bowl that was their home. Who last Friday was, for all intents and purposes, knocking on Death's door himself (after only a week of being in his new home!). Lying sideways on the bottom of the bowl. Very obviously gasping his last breaths. My colleagues saying, "Ummm, yeah. He's not long for this world." But I wasn't about to give up on him. No. Not this time. Not Alpha. So I put warm water in a smaller container and transferred Alpha to it. I put food in the container. You know, just in case he made it and was hungry. I set him on the heater in a colleague's office. And we left campus for the weekend, all of us thinking we would return on Monday to face a sad scene.

Monday morning, my colleague came to me when I arrived to work, and said, "Alpha lives!"

Stunned, I followed her to her office. I peered into the container. Seeing Alpha swimming around made my heart swell.

I have since put a heater in Alpha's bowl, and each day now, I enjoy his graceful and elegant presence.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Taking Advantage of Warmer Days

The weather improved enough during the last week, with temps reaching the upper 30's during the day, the sun shining on and off, melting most of the snow and ice, that the possibility of getting out for a ride became reality Friday and yesterday. I get all giddy thinking about riding, and once I'm on the bike, I revel in the wind against my cheeks, the warmth of the scarf around my neck, and the strength of my legs as I pedal. Even this morning, as I stood looking out over the back deck, watching the rain come down, my thoughts went to riding later today, in the rain. I want to feel the rain, listen to it splatter up, spit high into the air as the tires of my bike roll along the road.

I was rolling along all happy Friday morning. I'd not ridden my commuter to work since reporting back three weeks ago, first because the temperatures were in the single digits and the real feel was in the negative double digits, then because we had a good snow that covered the roads, turned to slush, froze, and stayed that way. I'm not a fan of cycling on snow that has been packed down until it is a thick sheet of slickness, so grumpily and grudgingly, I drove to work.

Friday, though, the temps were in the upper 30's, the wind was light, and the roads were completely clear. No meetings on the calendar meant I didn't have to leave out early. I took my sweet time, finally heading to work around 8:30. I passed by the elementary school and waved at the crossing guard who always tells me I'm in danger of speeding in a school zone. I came to a stop at the four-way and waited my turn to go. I made my way carefully past some parked cars, hoping no one was going to open a door and nail me as I cycled by. While passing the university soccer field, I heard a car coming from behind. It slowed, so I looked over. The passenger side window was down. Then I heard, "Sidewalk!" and the car drove on. I smiled and nodded, figuring the driver was most likely watching my reaction in the rearview mirror, but more because the moment the driver yelled at me, we were passing a Share the Road sign. Ummm, yeah, that's a bright one for ya. I rode on, going to the coffee shop for a cup of Irish Creme coffee and a lemon poppy seed muffin before actually making my way to work.

Yesterday's ride was lovely. I left out mid-afternoon, the sun shining bright from a blue sky. My goal was 20 miles and no hurry. With so few warm, sunny days, I wasn't about to rush through the ride.  Even if I wanted to, I'm not sure I could rush at this point; I've not ridden any mileage to speak of since October, so my endurance is at a low point right now. With this in mind, I moseyed along, enjoying the warmth of the sun, not having to wear my neoprene booties over my shoes, and the ease of the new gears on my bike. I enjoyed the piebald faced horse lying down to enjoy the sun, the two hawks sitting together on a utility pole, the three beagles looking out at me from their cage in the back of a pickup truck, and the four shaggy-coated Shetland ponies munching on what little grass there is available in late January.

While I truly wanted to ride today, almost as soon as I sat down and began writing this, the rain turned to snow and the wind came up, blowing out of the east. Sure, I could still ride, but the elements call for my neoprene booties and my balaclava. Unfortunately, I have no idea where my balaclava is. I think it became one of those items I loaned to a certain someone and that certain someone didn't put it back with the rest of my cycling gear. So, I am inside for the day. Maybe this calls for making oatmeal-raisin cookies. And hot chocolate. With marshmallows.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Grocery Buying Blues

Whenever Hubby and go grocery shopping, I feel like I'm living Groundhog Day as soon as we walk through the automatic doors. I pick up organic onions and Hubby says, "Those are a dollar more a pound than the regular onions. Why can't you just get the cheaper ones?" I pick up organic potatoes, and hear Hubby say, "Geez, those are expensive." And so it goes for the entire shopping trip. By the time we reach the check out, I'm exhausted from trying to explain why I buy organic when I can. After paying the bill, I get to hear about how we're paying too much for groceries because I insist on buying organic. Yesterday, before even reaching the check out lane, I had arrived at the point of just being tired of hearing it. Hubby and I definitely part ways when it comes to food. I'm deeply concerned about how our fruits and veggies are grown. I'm just as concerned with how animals are treated before their lives end so that we can eat.

Yesterday, my breaking point with the conversation came when Hubby complained about how much we spent on groceries last week--$165. What he doesn't realize is when that number is broken down, our daily food expense was around $23. He further doesn't realize that when the $23 is broken down, the cost per person came in under $6. If I take it one more step, I could break that $6 down by three meals per day, which has each member of the family consuming $2 worth of food per meal. Maybe I'm figuring this all wrong, and if I am, please show me where I'm messing up the equation, but in the event that I'm not, I'm thinking $2 per person per meal each day is cheap.

Granted, our grocery bill yesterday was about $55 more than last week's. This happened because I bought several bottles of wine to use when cooking, and I bought grass-fed ground lamb, bacon that came from pastured pigs, and a frozen free-range chicken. The wine will last nearly a month, maybe longer, so we won't have that cost for several weeks now. With the chicken, yeah it was twice the cost of the conventional chicken available, but I have peace of mind knowing the chicken I bought wasn't trapped in a cage where it wasn't able to move, and it wasn't pumped full of growth hormones so it grew faster than is normal. When Hubby saw the price of the chicken, he went on about how much more expensive it was than the conventional chicken. What Hubby doesn't get is from that chicken I was able to make nearly 20 cups of stock that I'll use when cooking. Those twenty cups equal about $30 if bought at the grocery store. Also from that chicken was our meal for this evening, and there was plenty left over to make chicken noodle soup later in the week. So the $18 I paid for that chicken? Nominal when it's all said and done.

Because Hubby was complaining so loudly yesterday, I did some investigating. What we are paying per week on groceries most often falls between what is considered a thrifty plan ($146) and a low-cost plan ($191) (info taken from "Latest Statistics," USAToday, May 1, 2013). We definitely would be paying less if I didn't buy the organic produce and the grass-fed meats. We could buy more processed foods, bringing our grocery bills down even further. But I can't and won't live that way.

Another issue Hubby wasn't addressing yesterday was how often we were eating take-out through November and December. Just about every evening. I was thankful at the time to not have to worry about cooking as that was when I was going through a bit of a rough spot. After work, I wasn't feeling up to cooking, so coming home to dinner already taken care of helped. The problem that occurred, however, was the increase to our weekly grocery bill. Then, we were typically spending around $130 a week for groceries. Add in all that take-out we were consuming, and the weekly cost was easily anywhere from $280-$300. Funny, I didn't hear any complaining then. Hmmmmm.

In the end yesterday, my solution to our disagreement over the kinds of groceries we buy is I will buy for myself and the boys, and Hubby can buy for himself. I will fix meals for myself and the boys, and Hubby can fix his own meals. Not a great solution by any means, but really, I don't want to be caught up in Groundhog Day any longer. It's not fun.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Eating Well

Since January 1, I've cooked each evening except one, and that night was a "everyone is on his/her own night." Each evening, I worked to include herbs and spices, and each meal save one was given the thumbs up. The save one meal didn't get a thumbs down; it received a sideways thumb, and I think that was because I didn't get the black beans pureed the way they needed to be for the black bean soup to be creamy. I tried to puree the beans while they were too hot, and well, putting hot food into a blender then turning it on just isn't a good idea. Even though I was pressing down on the lid to prevent it launching to the ceiling, it still popped off. Black beans spewed everywhere. As if the first try wasn't enough, I made a second attempt. Yeah, not a smart move. The lid took off like a rocket, allowing black beans to splatter across cabinet doors, my sweatshirt, this computer, and my exposed wrist, which burned and now sports a nice red welt. It was carnage. So, the soup leaned more to the chunky side; however, the flavor made up for the lack of creaminess. It really was good. Angel Baby found dipping tortilla chips in it made for another way to enjoy it. I found adding some avocado gave it further dimension. I'm thinking now the sideways thumb was a bit harsh, especially given the damage incurred while making it.

This evening, I roasted jicama. I've never eaten jicama before and had no idea how to prepare it. I have since learned jicama is a taproot and can be eaten raw or cooked. I decided to cut the jicama into cubes and roast it in the oven with olive oil, onions, garlic, thyme, and rosemary. Part of me was a little afraid the boys wouldn't like it, but when dinner was over, no one had any jicama remaining. Its crispy texture and slightly sweet flavor blended nicely with the onions and herbs, and the dish went well with the pork chops.

I've been reading Thich Nhat Hanh's How to Eat since I've enjoyed his The Heart of Buddha's Teachings so much. The one idea from How to Eat that has stayed with me and has become a part of the meal preparation routine is considering where the different parts of the meal came from. Really thinking about what went into creating the green beans, the strawberries, the venison roast. When I think about the role the sun played, along with the soil and water, as I'm cutting the tops off the carrots, or how the cow meandered through pastures, munching on grass then maybe drinking from a stream flowing through the pastures, I find a whole new appreciation for what the family is about to eat. I never used to think about my food beyond making a list before going to the grocery store then trying to find a foolproof recipe so everyone would like the meal. Now, as I walk through the fruits and vegetables section, I touch the different produce to feel their textures, pick them up to inhale their scent. At the meats, I look over the different offerings, knowing most of the animals didn't have a great life, and I try to choose only those meats that come from free-ranging, grass fed animals. Giving more thought to the foods I'm purchasing and then consuming has made eating a much more enjoyable activity.

Tomorrow I'll be making chicken stock to put in the freezer. I bought a free-range whole chicken and will boil it. The chicken will become chicken salad for dinner, and the stock will be used for whatever needs stock in the upcoming week. Preparing my own stock has become one of my favorite things to do, and I'd like to branch out to make beef stock soon, but I haven't figured out where to get bones from a healthy source. Once I do, I'm definitely going to add beef broth to my freezer, which in turn will add another element to the way I cook. I'm looking forward to this moment. Very much.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Care of all Creatures

As I was standing in the kitchen this morning, putting together the ingredients for a dark rum, dark chocolate chip banana bread, I heard Hubby begin talking to me from the living room. He was telling me about California passing a law concerning how chickens are caged. Chicken farmers there now have to make sure the cage in which a chicken is kept be big enough for the chicken to stretch its wings. I could tell by the tone of Hubby's voice that he thought this new law ridiculous, and as he continued, bringing up how the farmers are going to have to spend a lot of money to make the required changes, how the price of eggs is going to go up, and how there will be an egg shortage because of this new law, I could feel myself becoming annoyed. Right in front of me were the lovely brown shells of two eggs I had just used in the banana bread batter. Those eggs came from hens that run free, that greet us when we step from our car, that I've watched chase bugs across the yard. Happy hens. Thinking about hens that cannot even stretch their wings makes me incredibly sad.

Then Hubby asked me what I thought of this new law. By this point, my annoyance and sadness had combined to become anger. I could hear the terseness in my response, that I thought the law was necessary to ensure a better, more comfortable life to those creatures that give to us. We are the caretakers, I said, and we should show some compassion. Hubby then says something like (I know this isn't word for word, but it does capture the essence of what he said), "Just as Temple Grandin said, animals wouldn't have been put here unless it was for us to eat them." I'm a huge Temple Grandin fan, and I know this isn't what she said. Not even close. My response to Hubby indicated he was mistaken, that while Temple Grandin doesn't see an ethical issue with eating meat, she does believe animals deserve respect. This respect includes the way they are housed, the way they are treated, and especially how they meet their death. Not to allow hens to stretch their wings is disrespectful of a basic physical function. I can't imagine the discomfort they must feel.

The conversation pretty much ended there, but I've been thinking about it since. I've been entertaining the idea of building a small coop behind the house, near the beehive, and now I want to do so even more. I want to create a space in which two or three hens can live a happy, comfortable life. I want to be a steward, living mindfully and purposefully, my actions creating a peaceful and happy environment. I don't want to be the kind of person who accepts without further thought the idea that eggs just appear in the grocery store for my consumption, without acknowledging the lives of the creatures that produced those eggs. Those creatures are more then "just" chickens. They are a part of the whole. They provide something another part of the whole takes, uses, enjoys. As such, they should receive something in return, even if it's simply a larger cage in which they can spread their wings.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Hello 2015

I'm starting off the New Year with a very, very, very rough draft of my short story collection finally completed. The last story of the collection took me three years to write. I started over writing it four times as the first three attempts just didn't capture what I was hoping for. Months between starts and stops passed by. Then, recently, just before the end of the semester, as I was calculating grades for one of my classes, the way to write the story presented itself to me. I started writing it the first day of break. 
Today, putting the last period in place on that story was one of the most satisfying feelings I've ever experienced. I still have a lot of rewriting to do to get everything right, I still need to find someone who will read the entire manuscript and give honest, no-holding-back advice, and I definitely have a lot of leg work to do to find a publisher who is willing to give it a chance. But, the skeleton is in place.
For now, just for a little bit, I'm going to enjoy simply sitting here and looking at my first book-length manuscript.