Thursday, March 31, 2011

Less is Less

So far this week our home has been invaded by landscapers, carpet cleaners, and window washers.  Tomorrow the crew comes to drain and sandblast the pool.  A little more cleaning and furniture arranging and the house will be ready to sell.

Barry thinks it looks better than it ever did, but I think it looks a little sad.  All our books, personal photos, non-generic decorative items, and furniture considered to be nonessential by the stager are in storage.  The great room is arranged to make the living room area look as big as possible, which means the sofa is too far from the TV for comfortable viewing.  The counters in the kitchen and bathrooms are unnaturally bare.  And, of course, the cat and all her worldly goods are missing.

I hope the house sells quickly.  I don't think I can bear to live in its sterile shell for very long, constantly alert for any tracked-in dirt, minor spills, or crookedly hanging towels that might mar its perfection.  I never had any trouble selling a fully decorated home before; in my heart of hearts, I don't really believe the house needed to be quite this empty to appeal to potential buyers.  Still, as Barry keeps saying, "They're the experts."  I guess I'll do whatever I need to so I can move on to the next slightly untidy place, filled with books, cat fur, photos of my loved ones, and the aroma of whatever politically incorrect dinner I'm making for myself on a particular night.

"A house that does not have one worn, comfy chair in it is soulless."  ~May Sarton

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Captain's Wife

For the last few years my sister has belonged to a book club that meets monthly, and she recently invited me to join.  My first meeting is tomorrow night; the book they are currently reading - one she suggested - is The Captain's Wife by Douglas Kelley.

I was excited to find that the book is a novel based on the real life of Mary Anne Patten.  I had read a one-paragraph version of her life in one of the Barbara Michaels books - I think maybe it was The Crying Child - and thought she sounded like a fascinating person.  Although the novel is of course fiction, it was well-researched and sticks as closely as possible to the known facts.  I enjoyed it immensely.

In 1856 Mary Anne Patten was 19 years old and married to Joshua Patten, captain of the clipper ship Neptune's Car, which left New York with both Pattens on board, headed for San Francisco via Cape Horn.  Mary had previously sailed around the world with Joshua on the same ship and expected a relatively uneventful passage to California.  Instead, the trip became a horrifying ordeal as the first mate turned mutinous and Joshua fell mysteriously ill just as the ship began the voyage around Cape Horn.  With Joshua unconscious and the first mate in the brig, petite Mary (newly pregnant and suffering from morning sickness) was the only person on board capable of navigating the vessel around the Cape in the teeth of some of the worst weather in recorded history.  This was in an era when women were considered useless aboard ships; the story of how she became the de facto captain (and doctor) of Neptune's Car is astonishing.

If the book has a fault, it's that some passages are a little too well-researched.  A few of Kelley's descriptions of exactly how the sailors adjusted the sails in response to the weather made my eyes glaze over, but anyone interested in how tall ships were actually sailed would probably find those details riveting.

The epilogue of the book concludes that Mary Anne Patten died very young.  What a waste.  What amazing things this woman might have done had she lived to a ripe old age.

"With that modesty which generally distinguishes true merit, Mrs. Patten begged to be excused from speaking about herself.  She said that she had done no more than her duty..." ~Interview in the New York Daily Tribune, quoted in the epilogue of The Captain's Wife.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Life at the Kitty Spa

Today the movers took the furniture our realtor's stager didn't want plus all my books and a lot of other miscellaneous boxes to the storage unit we rented to use while our house is being shown.  To be sure that my cat Rusty wasn't underfoot, I moved her to my parents' house last night.

This was a more involved project than you might think.  I had to pack Rusty's litter box, scratching pad, food, dishes, toys, and favorite napping blanket without her noticing; we've moved enough so that she understands what stacks of brown boxes mean, and she's been edgy for days.  She actually caught me moving her toys and crouched next to them defensively for about an hour before giving up and collapsing in her cat bed.  At the last minute I picked her up and cuddled her all the way into the kitchen where I stuffed her into her carrier.  (Barry followed with the bed.)  She howled about my betrayal for the entire 10 miles to Mom and Dad's place.

Once we arrived I unpacked her things and she sulked under the bed for most of the evening.  My mother finally got her to come out by offering her a dish of tuna juice which she deigned to accept.  I  slept over last night and will again tonight to make her feel more secure.

Surprisingly, Mom and Dad said that she was quiet and well-behaved today, spending most of the afternoon in their screened-in porch watching the quail and the bunnies in their backyard.  No howling.  No scratching the carpet.  No tossing of hairballs.  Amazing.

That tuna juice and the porch must have tipped her off to what my sister and I have known for years - our parents' house is the ultimate Kitty Spa, where cats go to be spoiled rotten.  I only hope Rusty is willing to come with me when I find my next place.

“Cats are connoisseurs of comfort.” ~James Herriot

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Disgusting Sign of Spring

Much as I love my cat Rusty, I do not look forward to the period each year during which she sheds her winter coat. I hate the thick coat of cat hair on all the furniture, the cat hair tumbleweeds rolling down the hallways, and the giant "dust bunnies" lurking in the corners of the closets. Not by chance does the color scheme in my house coordinate with the color of Rusty's fur.

The worst part of the shedding season, though, is the hairballs. You know what I mean - the gagging noises in the middle of the night, the horrible moment of stepping barefoot on a wet roll of cat hair marinated in semi-digested cat food, and the futile attempts to lift the remains from the carpet. (I chose carpet for the bedrooms in a color close to that of semi-digested cat food for this very reason.)

Tonight poor Rusty hacked up the first hairball of the spring, but she either did it quietly for a change or when neither of us was around. Unfortunately, Barry found it by stepping on it. Under the circumstances, it's just as well that Rusty is leaving tomorrow for a little vacation at my parents' house, where she will live in pampered luxury while our house is being sold. (Their cat died about a year and a half ago and they still really miss her.) I'm just keeping my fingers crossed that she doesn't have a hairball attack on their beige living room carpet.

"The cat does not offer services. The cat offers itself. Of course he wants care and shelter. You don't buy love for nothing. Like all pure creatures, cats are practical." ~William Seward Burroughs

Friday, March 25, 2011

Boxes of Books

Moving - don't you love it?

As I expected, our real estate agent's stager was not pleased by the wall-to-wall bookshelves in our house, so I've been packing my books for the last few days.  This will be the fifteenth time I've moved in my life (not counting shuttling back and forth in college), so I'm resigned to going through the following stages:

Stage 1: The Good
Since I have a touch of OCD, my books are arranged on their shelves by genre, by author, with the series in chronological order.  As I start packing I am determined to keep them in order so I can unpack as quickly and easily as possible.  I carefully insert them in the cardboard boxes exactly as they come off the shelves and label each carton by author.

Step 2: The Bad
M-Day (when the movers will be coming) has been set and is getting uncomfortably close.  I need to speed up the whole packing process.  I throw vaguely related books into boxes and label them by genre.

Step 3: The Ugly (or, who cares about the unpacking - get these suckers moved)
I toss whatever is left into cartons labeled "Misc. Books."

Movers are coming on Monday to move the books, the shelves, and the other furniture the stager didn't like to a storage unit, so I'm on the verge of  Stage 3.  Too bad I didn't finish the project to thin the books out when I intended to - I'd have at least a few less boxes for Stage 4: The Resurrection.

"Books are not made for furniture, but there is nothing else that so beautifully furnishes a house."  ~Henry Ward Beecher

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Driving Ms. Danger

Over the last few weeks we've watched three related films: The Transporter, Transporter 2, and Transporter 3.  Frank Martin (played by Jason Statham) makes his living anonymously transporting dangerous cargo for hire.  The hook: Martin is ex-Special Forces and equipped to deliver regardless of the perils he encounters en route.  These movies cover three of his jobs that go wrong and what he does to salvage them and his reputation for 100% success.

These are fairly standard action adventure films with a few redeeming characteristics.  Statham is a buff martial arts expert; his acting is laconic, but he does most of the fight scenes shirtless with his gorgeous upper body on display.  The foil to Statham's Frank Martin is French police Inspector Tarconi (Francois Berleand), who has all of the charm and humor that Martin lacks.  Many of the computer-enhanced special effects are really over the top, the women are strong, unusual characters, and the soundtracks incorporate interesting pop and jazz.  My personal favorite was Transporter 3, probably because the heroine spends a lot of time obsessing about good food and wine; Statham's reactions to her fantasy menus are about the only time he ever smiles.  It also has some interesting continuity errors for those who like finding flaws.

All three are worth a look if you're tired of watching reruns of the Terminator films and the oeuvre of Steven Seagal.  The rumor mill hints that Transporter 4 may be coming soon to a theater near you.

"Inspector Tarconi: It's a good thing that we French have such a highly developed sense of humor.
Frank Martin: With all due respect, the French think that Jerry Lewis is a genius.
Inspector Tarconi: Jerry Lewis is a genius.
Frank Martin: Dean was the genius.
Inspector Tarconi: No. Dean just stood there with a drink and a cigarette.
Frank Martin: My point exactly. Anyone can fall down and get a laugh. But how many people can do it standing still with a drink and a cigarette?"

~Transporter 3

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Random Snippets

  • This morning I looked out the bedroom window and saw a bunny in the backyard washing his face.  Then he grabbed one of his ears with both paws and pulled it down so he could lick the inside with his tongue.  My first thought was, "That's so cute!"  My second thought was, "Eeuww, ear wax!"
  • Why have singers and the makers of radio commercials started using emergency vehicle sirens as background noise in so many of their offerings?  Every time I hear one of those sirens when I'm driving, my heart leaps into my throat and I start looking frantically around.  Was that a fire truck or an ambulance?  Where is it now and what direction is it traveling in?  Do I have to pull over?  I do the same thing whether it's the first time I've heard that particular song or ad or the 50th time.  Pavlov's Driver.
  • Feeding money to the vending machine in our office is like playing the slots.  Some of the keys on the keypad stick, so you never know whether you'll get the item you wanted to order or something completely different.  Today I tried to buy something healthy and ended up with a bag of peanut butter M&Ms.  I took this as a clear sign that I was meant to ease the stress in my life with chocolate.
  • My boss recently sent us all this link for our amusement.  It may not be quite as funny if you aren't a designer yourself, but if you've ever been in any kind of service industry you'll probably find at least one of your business associates in here:

Happy Hump Day!

"I'm always trolling for trivia. " ~Lynn Abbey

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Cutting the Commute

I’ve ranted before about the length and stress of my daily commute, so you won’t be surprised that my blood pressure spiked this morning when I discovered the speed limit on virtually the entire stretch of highway I take to work has been lowered from 65 mph to 55 mph. Apparently the state of Arizona is adding an HOV lane to that section of the 101. Good news for the environment. Not so good for my mental health.

Not all the drive time news is bad, though. As the end of March approaches, more and more snowbirds are packing their bags and leaving the state. The congestion on the roads has already noticeably lessened. Maybe I won’t need my shields and photon torpedoes after all.

In addition, I’m looking for a new home in the area where I lived before meeting Barry. Although it’s only 10 miles closer to the office where I work three days a week, that 20 miles a day will save me thousands of miles a year of wear and tear on the car and hundreds of dollars in gas. It will also chop off the surface road section of the drive; on a good day that will cut my commuting time in half, and even when the highway is a mess I should save an hour a day.

Now if only I could telecommute one of those days…I have to start thinking of strategies to convince my boss that I could work better in the peace and quiet of my (soon-to-be) own home.

"A city that outdistances man's walking powers is a trap for man." ~Arnold Toynbee

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Different Desserts

Normally when I'm stressed my automatic reaction is to eat for comfort.  I can't afford to "outgrow" my clothes at the moment, though, so when I have a craving for something sweet I'm going to try to stick to things like these:

Fruit Cup

Combine one of the following in a medium bowl.  Drizzle with orange juice, fruit-flavored liqueur (Triple Sec, apricot brandy, kirsch, etc.), balsamic vinegar, or a very small amount of sugar.  Let sit for at least half an hour to macerate.  Serve cold in a dessert bowl or margarita glass.  If desired, top with Grape-Nuts, granola, or yogurt.
  • Fresh mixed berries and cherries or frozen Dole Mixed Berries with Pomegranate (strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, and pomegranate)
  • Green grapes, sliced kiwi fruit, and honeydew melon balls
  • Sliced banana, cubed mango and papaya
  • Apples, oranges, and walnuts

Fruit Parfait

Layer sliced strawberries and peaches or blueberries and sliced kiwi fruit with low-fat plain or vanilla yogurt in a parfait or wine glass.

"In the wintertime, in the snow country, citrus fruit was so rare, and if you got one, it was better than ambrosia. ~James Earl Jones

Saturday, March 19, 2011

It's All About Me

Today while packing things I found a document I had totally forgotten.  Some time ago - like several years ago - I checked out a book from the library on dressing to fit one's personality.  (Sorry, I don't remember the name.)  As a start, the author asked the reader to complete some personal style exercises, because how can you dress according to your personal style if you don't know what it is?  I didn't finish them all - too much work - but I did answer the first two questions.  For lack of anything more interesting, I share those answers with you now:

What things do I love and feel passionately about?

1) Work that engages me.  Often this is creative work (building websites, photo manipulation in Photoshop, writing) done by myself on a computer.

   Why?  I love using my hands and brain together to create something unique and uniquely mine.  It also helps that is doesn't involve sweating.

  What does this say about me?  Probably affirms that I would rather work primarily with my mind instead of my body, and that I am happiest spacing out in my right brain, which only happens when I am by myself and relatively free of distractions.

2) Food.  Eating out a new places or old favorites, cooking (especially challenging new foods or things I know others really like), shopping for food, eating popcorn at the movies, etc. etc.  Reading recipes and food lit.

   Why?  The taste, the smell, the texture.  Creative work (related to the previous item) or being waited on.  Anticipating the experience.  I just find food very sensual.

   What does this say about me?  It helps explain why I have a weight problem.  I may also be channeling my body awareness into this area rather than exercise, although I do have a passion for...

3) Dancing, especially ballroom and aerobic dancing.  This is the main exception to my unwillingness to sweat, and my preference for solitary activity.  I also enjoy watching others dance on TV or in old movies, at the ballet, etc.  Some day I would like to see live modern dance.  Because of this passion I once let myself be sucked into serving as a dance club officer against my better judgment (committee work, oh, no!!).

   Why?  I like music, but I like moving to music much better than making music or listening to it passively.  I also like exercising to music much better than doing it in silence.  I like feeling energized and graceful.

   What does this say about me?  I guess that I'm not a total couch potato but need to be inspired in order to exercise.

4) Travel.  Seeing new things, eating new food, learning, taking photographs, conquering logistical challenges, speaking what I can of foreign languages.

   Why?  I love learning and experiencing new things.  I love seeing art , historic homes, famous landmarks, etc. in person rather than just reading about them in books.  I love feeling adventurous and competent.

   What does this say about me?  I am the Elephant's Child.

5) Reading.  Virtually anything.

   Why?  Magic carpet rid to other times and places.  Learning new things.  Stretching my imagination.

   What does this say about me?  Probably that I'm an armchair explorer as well as a real one and not content with staying static.

What is my personal style statement?

I present an image of calm elegance with a sense of humor.  [Actually, Faithful Reader, that's more an aspiration than an achievement, but I'm working on it!!]

“A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous.” ~Coco Chanel

Friday, March 18, 2011

One Last Grumble

One last self-indulgent post about The Breakup and then the pity party will officially be over.

Barry and I met through  He made the first move based on my photo, but I was interested because he had a PhD (smart), liked to dance (fun), and supposedly matched my personality and likes by 90%.  I was ecstatic.  However, our high matching score was due to all the untrue answers that Barry had given based on his erroneous view of himself.  Here is a selection.  (Some answers below paraphrased as I no longer have the original printout.)

Topic: Age
What Barry said: 59
What he should have said: 61

Topic: Relationship status
What Barry said: Recently divorced
What he should have said: Three ex-wives were unable to live with me.

Topic: Travel
What Barry said: My next adventure will be skiing in the Alps at a point where three countries intersect.
What he should have said: Travel is a nightmare of lost luggage, missed connections, noise and confusion.  I would love to ski in the Alps if I could be magically and instantaneously transported there.  Otherwise, no thanks.

Topic: Eating out
What Barry said: Love Asian restaurants of all types.
What he should have said: Hate the wait, the noise, the prices, and the waitstaff.  I will never sit in a chair that faces the kitchen or the restrooms or is in a spot where I can hear someone at another table speak. When I eat at home, I always have the best seat in the house.  Did I mention that you'll be doing all the cooking?

Topic: Entertainment
What Barry said: Movies, theater, concerts, opera
What he should have said: Do I have to travel more than a mile from home?  Will it cost more than $5?  I won't drive or be driven after dark.

Topic: Alcohol use
What Barry said: Social drinker
What he should have said: My father was an abusive alcoholic, so I'm a militant teetotaler.

Topic: What are you looking for in a relationship?
What Barry said: Someone to hang out with
What he should have said: I was brainwashed as a child by too many hours of watching Ozzie and Harriet.  If we sleep together we'll have to get married and I'll expect you to do the housework in high heels and pearls.  That's all the housework - Ozzie never had to help around the home.

The correct answer to any of these questions would have kept me from meeting him for even a single date.  Too bad I didn't know they were the correct answers until after I had given up my whole previous life to move in with him.  Had he really been the person he thought he was, I'd probably still have my cushy job and we would both be living in our original houses but spending every spare moment together planning our next trip to the opera in Milan or Vienna.

“If only. Those must be the two saddest words in the world"  ~Mercedes Lackey

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Pulling the Plug

Well, today Barry and I took our relationship off life support.  He called the Cabana Boys to come drain and descale the pool and I have spent the day cleaning and decluttering the house so the real estate agent can come tomorrow.  In a way, this is saying goodbye to the house - as if I were dressing it up to leave it on the steps of the orphanage - and I keep having to stop and wipe the tears from my eyes.

Sadly, the house is a symbol of everything that went wrong between us.  Barry insisted that we sell both our previous houses and jointly buy a new one.  That made sense, since his house was too small for both of us and he didn't want to live in the home I had shared with Tom.  The one we built was a compromise, though - smaller than he wanted, bigger than I did.  (It was at the upper limit of what I thought we could afford after I quit working full time.  It was actually just past that limit, contributing regularly to the financial stress of our situation.)  He was never happy that it wasn't a huge mass of wasted space located on a golf course, and he insisted on putting in a pool.  Unfortunately, over my protests, he chose a pool builder who couldn't start until after we took possession.

This is the first new house I have ever lived in, and I was so excited at the prospect of moving in.  The layout of the model we chose was great, I argued Barry into Corian counters in the kitchen, and the whole thing was so bright and shiny that I was thoroughly infatuated with it.  Until the first night, when Barry decided the location was too noisy and we should move back to his old house.  The landscapers starting work at dawn the next day didn't help, either.  I bought a white-noise-emitting humidifier to block the (actually very minimal) noise from the street and after a month or so Barry became reconciled to the location.  By then, though, my pleasure in the house had greatly diminished and never completely returned.

In retrospect, I think Barry was reacting not to the noise but to the change.  At that point we didn't know that he had Asperger's and he thought (I can't imagine why) that he was the most flexible and adaptable person on the planet.  In reality, of course, the stress of the move alone (although I did 90% of the packing and all of the unpacking) was enough to totally disorient him, even without the new surroundings.

So, poor unwanted and unloved house, I hope you are adopted by someone who loves you for my kitchen and Barry's pool and the fact that you are within walking distance of the rec center.  You deserve much more affection than you've received for the last six years.  So do I.

“We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.” ~Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Seven Year Itch

I have a finite amount of energy, patience, and enthusiasm.  Unfortunately, so do my relationships, and I'm afraid mine and Barry's may be approaching the end of its shelf life.

When we first met, I had been widowed for a year, and Barry seemed to be the very image of  my perfect man.  He was tall and smart and sexy, and he thought I was brilliant and gorgeous.  The course of true love ran smoothly for about four months, after which he pressured me to move in with him and sell my house.  I was reluctant to do so, but afraid to lose him, so that's what I did - and that's when his Mr. Hyde (aka Asperger) side appeared.  He didn't want me to keep anything that might possibly remind me of my late husband - photos, furniture, or souvenirs of our travels.  He demanded that I cut my ties with Tom's family.  He never wanted me to mention that I had lived in New York or traveled anywhere that he hadn't.  He pressured me to give up my job - the most enjoyable and one of the best-paying jobs I had ever had.  He even insisted that we lie about being married, although I refused to marry him because we couldn't afford to give up the remains of Tom's pension and health insurance.  Barry assured me that he had never acted this way with anyone else and that it wasn't his true self, and I wanted so badly to believe him that I did.  I also gave in to most of his demands, hoping that he would be happy when they were met.  Hah.

Fast forward almost seven years and three couples counselors.  I know now that between Barry's Asperger's and the abuse he suffered as a child, he will never be able to love or trust me in ways that I believe are essential to a good relationship.  Worse, when I am with him, I am not the person I want to be.  Seven years ago I would have told you that I was a calm, mature person without much of a temper.  Sadly, an argument with Barry can reduce me to a bratty five-year-old in the blink of an eye.  I have yelled more in anger since meeting him than in my entire 49 previous years combined - some kind of a record, no doubt, but not a good one.  I WILL NOT be this person for the rest of my life.

Last night Barry had a meltdown because I religiously followed what had previously been one of his hard and fast rules.  THIS time he wanted me to do something different.

I am so tired.  I still love him but I don't think I can continue to inhabit the same house.  Life is too short to live with someone who criticizes everything I do and apparently no longer finds me physically attractive to boot.

After Tom's death I jokingly told his sons that their father had been the most expensive hobby I'd ever had (he took early retirement shortly after our marriage).  Well, going along with all of Barry's demands has probably cost me upwards of half a million dollars, making him the official most expensive Ken doll in my personal experience.  Too bad I can't sell him to the highest bidder to recoup some of my financial and emotional losses.

To be continued.

“The quality of your life is the quality of your relationships.” ~Anthony Robbins

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tsunami Damage in Hawaii

Although the tsunami damage in Hawaii this week pales in comparison to the devastation in Japan, the islands were not unscathed.  The house in this video was swept off its foundations into Napoopoo Bay, where the debris is threatening the coral reef:

"Coral reefs are home to over 25% of all marine life and are among the world's most fragile and endangered ecosystems.  In the last few decades, mankind has destroyed over 35 million acres of coral reefs...If the present rate of destruction continues, 70% of the world's coral reefs will be killed within our lifetimes." ~ The Coral Reef Alliance

Monday, March 14, 2011

Last Call

One last biscotti recipe.  As I mentioned before, the dried apricot and pistachio cookies at Zinc Bistro were the impetus for my biscotti experiments; here's my version of that variation.  Unlike the ZB recipe, though, mine incorporates some whole wheat flour for a little extra color and flavor.

Skinny Biscotti

Variation 4 - Apricot and Pistachio

4 egg whites
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup dried apricots, roughly chopped*
1/4 cup pistachio meats (roasted but not salted)
1 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

*If the dried apricots are not particularly soft, partly rehydrate them by soaking in liquid.  I suggest orange juice, apricot nectar, triple sec, or apricot brandy.  Don't chop them too finely or they may burn during the second baking.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Line a loaf pan with aluminum foil or parchment paper and set it aside.

Beat the egg whites with an electric mixer until they start to hold stiff peaks.  Gradually beat in the two types of sugar until the resulting meringue holds stiff, glossy peaks.  Fold in the remaining ingredients gently until thoroughly blended.

Spoon the mixture into the pan, smoothing the top, and bake 25-30 minutes or until golden.  Cool the loaf in the pan on a rack for 15 minutes; while it's cooling, reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees.

After 15 minutes, while the loaf is still slightly warm, gently turn it out of the pan and remove the foil or paper.  Use a serrated knife to cut the loaf crosswise into 1/8" thick slices.  Arrange them on greased cookie sheets.  Bake each sheet of cookies for 20 minutes.  The edges should be golden and starting to crisp.  Cool the cookies on racks; they will become crisper as they cool.  Store in an airtight container.

"Then their father Israel said to them, 'If it must be, then do this: Put some of the best products of the land in your bags and take them down to the man as a gift—a little balm and a little honey, some spices and myrrh, some pistachio nuts and almonds.'"  ~Genesis 43:11

Sunday, March 13, 2011

When Only Chocolate Will Do

I used to make Toll House cookies for Barry, but these are much lower in fat and calories.

Skinny Biscotti

Variation 3 - Chocolate Chip and Walnut

4 egg whites
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup chocolate chips (I use Ghirardelli semi-sweet)
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Line a loaf pan with aluminum foil or parchment paper and set it aside.

Beat the egg whites with an electric mixer until they start to hold stiff peaks.  Gradually beat in the two types of sugar until the resulting meringue holds stiff, glossy peaks.  Fold in the remaining ingredients gently until thoroughly blended.

Spoon the mixture into the pan, smoothing the top, and bake 25-30 minutes or until golden.  Cool the loaf in the pan on a rack for 15 minutes; while it's cooling, reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees.

After 15 minutes, while the loaf is still slightly warm, gently turn it out of the pan and remove the foil or paper.  Use a serrated knife to cut the loaf crosswise into 1/8" thick slices.  Arrange them on greased cookie sheets.  Bake each sheet of cookies for 20 minutes.  The edges should be golden and starting to crisp.  Cool the cookies on racks; they will become crisper as they cool.  Store in an airtight container.

"Research tells us fourteen out of any ten individuals likes chocolate."  ~Sandra Boynton

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Biscotti Redux

Adventures in biscotti baking, Part 2.  The ingredients for this version are slightly different but the method is exactly the same.

Skinny Biscotti

Variation 2 - Lemon-Poppy Seed

4 egg whites
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons grated fresh lemon peel
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon poppy seeds

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Line a loaf pan with aluminum foil or parchment paper and set it aside.

Beat the egg whites with an electric mixer until they start to hold stiff peaks.  Gradually beat in the sugar until the resulting meringue holds stiff, glossy peaks.  Fold in the remaining ingredients gently until thoroughly blended.

Spoon the mixture into the pan, smoothing the top, and bake 25-30 minutes or until golden.  Cool the loaf in the pan on a rack for 15 minutes; while it's cooling, reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees.

After 15 minutes, while the loaf is still slightly warm, gently turn it out of the pan and remove the foil or paper.  Use a serrated knife to cut the loaf crosswise into 1/8" thick slices.  Arrange them on greased cookie sheets.  Bake each sheet of cookies for 20 minutes.  The edges should be golden and starting to crisp.  Cool the cookies on racks; they will become crisper as they cool.  Store in an airtight container.

“A balanced diet is a cookie in each hand.” ~Anonymous

Friday, March 11, 2011

You Say Biscuits, I Say Biscotti

Some years ago, one of my sister's friends proudly served expensive imported Italian biscotti to her Midwestern parents.  Her father, catching sight of the price on the tin and mentally dividing by the number of cookies inside, yelped in disbelief: "A buck apiece for dog biscuits?"

Biscotti aren't for everyone.  As cookies go, they're not exceptionally sweet, and unless they're soaked in a softening liquid, the traditional 1/2" thick versions can give the jaw muscles a real workout.  I've always liked them, though, and when I tasted the exceptional thin dried apricot and pistachio biscotti at Zinc Bistro in Scottsdale I wondered whether I could bake something similar.

After experimenting for a while with a variety of recipes I developed a low-fat pseudo-biscotto that won't break the teeth or torpedo the waistline.  It's based on this recipe from with less sugar and a lot of substitutions.  Here's the first of three variations, in response to Barry's request for cookies containing nutmeg and cinnamon. 

Skinny Biscotti

Variation 1 - Raisins and Spice

4 egg whites
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/3 cup golden raisins
1 tablespoon brandy (optional)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Line a loaf pan with aluminum foil or parchment paper and set it aside.

Beat the egg whites with an electric mixer until they start to hold stiff peaks.  Gradually beat in the two types of sugar until the resulting meringue holds stiff, glossy peaks.  Fold in the remaining ingredients gently until thoroughly blended.

Spoon the mixture into the pan, smoothing the top, and bake 25-30 minutes or until golden.  Cool the loaf in the pan on a rack for 15 minutes; while it's cooling, reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees.

After 15 minutes, while the loaf is still slightly warm, gently turn it out of the pan and remove the foil or paper.  Use a serrated knife to cut the loaf crosswise into 1/8" thick slices.  Arrange them on greased cookie sheets.  Bake each sheet of cookies for 20 minutes.  The edges should be golden and starting to crisp.  Cool the cookies on racks; they will become crisper as they cool.  Store in an airtight container.

"I've got a biscotti and I'm not afraid to use it." ~An Extremely Goofy Movie

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Poetry in Stop Action

Our local cable provider had a major outage this week.  For some reason our television service was out for about five minutes but our Internet service wasn't restored for a day and a half.  Oh, well, we're back online now.

Last night Barry and I watched See Them Dance, an absorbing documentary on PBS about Steven Caras.  Caras studied ballet despite his ex-military father's disapproval and became first a member of George Balanchine's American Ballet Theater and then their official photographer.  The story of his journey is recounted by Caras, his friends, family, and co-workers, and illustrated with still photos and video clips from his childhood and both careers.  We are also treated to much of Caras's best work; his sense of composition and his ability to stop action at the moment of maximum impact are absolutely astonishing. 

Caras speaks as though he was lucky to have been given two great talents and two professions he loves, but he obviously worked like a demon for his chances and seized them with both hands when they arrived.  This is a fascinating film for anyone interested in dancing, photographing the human form, or forging one's own destiny.  Since this is fundraising week on PBS it will probably air again soon; check your local schedule to see whether it will be available in your area.  If not, check out some of his work here.

"Steven Caras’s critically acclaimed photo archive is one of the most important dance image collections of all time. How it came to be is a chronicle of the birth and rebirth of the artistic spirit, and of the physical and emotional hurdles all professional dancers face." ~review of See Them Dance on

Monday, March 7, 2011

Bubba Would Approve

In the past I usually made sausage jambalaya for Mardi Gras, but this year I'm going to cut back on the fat and salt by serving shrimp soup instead.  This meal in a bowl was inspired by a chowder recipe in Jasper White’s 50 Chowders: One Pot Meals – Clam, Corn & Beyond.  Our reduced-fat, vegetable-heavy version lacks most of the cream-based richness of the original, but it’s still delicious.

Shrimp Soup

1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp minced garlic
½ pound small raw fresh or defrosted frozen shrimp; peel them and save the shells
1 large bulb fennel
1 cup dry white wine
4 cups water
Vegetable oil spray
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped celery
½ tsp crushed fennel seeds
½ tsp crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
4 ounces turkey bacon, microwaved and chopped
½ pound diced potatoes
1 can fire-roasted tomatoes
½ cup half-and-half
Black pepper and (if necessary) salt to taste

Cook the olive oil, half of the garlic, and the shrimp shells (not the shrimp!) in a large Dutch oven or heavy saucepan over medium-high heat until the shrimp shells turn red.  Meanwhile, separate the tops and tough outer layers of the fennel from the core.  Chop the core and set it aside.  Chop the trimmings and add them with the wine and the water to the pot and simmer for about 20 minutes; then strain the resulting stock into a bowl and discard the solids.  Dry the pot and spray with vegetable oil.  Add the onion, chopped fennel core, celery, fennel seeds, red pepper, and the rest of the garlic; sauté until the vegetables soften.  Add the bacon, potatoes, and shrimp stock.  Increase the heat and bring to a boil.  Cover the pot and cook for 5-8 minutes, or until the potatoes are almost done.  Reduce the heat again.  Add the tomatoes and simmer for five minutes; then add the shrimp and cook, stirring, for one minute more.  Take the pot off the stove and stir in the half-and-half; taste; add pepper and salt as needed.  Cover the pot and let the soup rest for 10 minutes (the shrimp will continue to cook).  Makes four servings.

"Anyway, like I was sayin', shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it. Dey's uh, shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There's pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich. That- that's about it." ~Bubba (from Forrest Gump

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Back on Park Avenue

I have a small number of TV shows that I record for viewing when Barry is not around.  Last night I was watching one of them from HGTV when a commercial flashed on for Selling New York, a show I've never seen.  Instead of fast-forwarding through the ad, though, I was riveted by it.  Apparently one of the properties that will be featured this Thursday is in a building Tom and I lived in for two and a half years; from the brief clips shown, it may actually be our former apartment.

When Tom and I started dating, he lived in a rented apartment in New Jersey and I owned a coop apartment in Brooklyn.  Neither place was really big enough for the two of us, let alone all our stuff, and we both worked in Manhattan, so as soon as we were engaged we started house-hunting.  We were lucky to find a gorgeous two-bedroom apartment in an early 1960's building on the corner of 38th Street and Park Avenue.  We were able to rent the apartment below market price because the previous tenants had trashed it and the owner was still renovating.  We moved in as soon as the varnish on the floor had dried and stayed there until the landlord decided the location was really worth $5000 per month; at that point we headed back to Brooklyn.

Living there was great fun while it lasted, though.  We were right below Grand Central Station, where something was always going on.  When Men in Black was being made, we watched from our living room window as the scene where Will Smith jumps onto the top of a bus was filmed.  We were within walking distance of the main public library (and the cafe in Bryant Park), the theater district, Macy's flagship store, and (if we were feeling ambitious) the greenmarket in Union Square.  On the Fourth of July we went up to the roof with most of the other tenants for a first-rate view of the fireworks on the East River.  Between Grand Central and all the buses that stopped on our block, we could go anywhere and do anything.  If we could have afforded it, we (or at least I) would probably be there still.

So why do I think the apartment for sale there now might be the one we lived in?  Because when we were leaving, the landlord was thinking of chopping the living room up to create another bedroom and renting the apartment to a group of singles, and the ad for Selling New York said the featured apartment was in a great location but really beat up.

I've already set my DVR to record the episode.  Even if the show doesn't feature "my" apartment, I'll have fun seeing the building again. 

“I miss New York. I still love how people talk to you on the street - just assault you and tell you what they think of your jacket.” ~Madonna 

Saturday, March 5, 2011

A Mardi Gras Mystery

Some authors are quiet, ordinary people who seem to live vicariously through the exotic characters they write about. Others have led such varied and interesting lives that they could very well be the protagonists in their own books.  Barbara Hambly is one of those writers; to quote the biography in the back of most of her books, "[a]t various times in her life Barbara Hambly has been a high school teacher, a model, a waitress, a technical editor, a professional graduate student, an all-night clerk at a liquor store, and a karate instructor."  She also has a master's degree in medieval history.  Now that's a woman I'd like to meet.

For the time being, though, I'm making do by reading through her enormous literary output.  Much of her earlier work was straight fantasy, but she also writes impressively researched historical fiction.  I particularly enjoy the series featuring Benjamin January.   A Free Man of Color, the first of them (and not to be confused with the recent Broadway play) is perhaps my favorite.

A Free Man of Color begins during Mardi Gras season in 1833.  Benjamin January is a Paris-trained black surgeon and musician who has returned to his mother's home in racially conscious New Orleans to escape the memories of his dead wife that tortured him in France.  His mother and younger half-sister belong to the demimondaine of New Orleans - dependent upon but not publicly acknowledged by their white patrons - and re-entering their milieu quickly enmeshes January in a murder mystery which he must solve in order to avoid becoming the real murderer's scapegoat.  The historical details are intricate and authentic, but they never overwhelm the strong, individual characters or the momentum of the plot.  I was very pleased when Ms. Hambly started to produce sequels.

The series now also includes (in chronological order) Fever Season, Graveyard Dust, Sold Down the River, Die Upon a Kiss, Wet Grave, Days of the Dead, and Dead Water.  Some are not set in New Orleans but they all feature Benjamin January and a few other core characters plus Ms. Hambly's unique talent for transporting us to another era.  Unfortunately no additional volumes have been added since the publication of Dead Water in 2004; I may just have to go back to A Free Man of Color and read my way through all the existing books one more time.

"Had Cardinal Richelieu not assaulted the Mohican Princess, thrusting her up against the brick wall of the carriageway and forcing her mouth with his kisses, Benjamin January probably wouldn't have noticed anything amiss later on." ~Barbara Hambly, the opening sentence of A Free Man of Color

Friday, March 4, 2011

O Pioneers!

Tonight we watched a recorded episode of No Reservations in which Anthony Bourdain ate his way through the state of Maine.  Excited by Tony's sojourn in the tiny town of Milo, Barry started searching the Internet for cheap real estate in the area.  In our price range he mainly found small, probably uninsulated cabins that sounded remarkably like my grandfather's house.

While I was growing up, Grandpa lived on his farm several miles away from a rural South Dakota town in a house he had built himself from the ruins of two abandoned one-room schoolhouses.  As far back as I can remember he raised sheep, Muscovy ducks and field corn on the farm.

Grandpa had no telephone and refused to allow my mother and Aunt Lu to have one installed.  A primitive pump at the kitchen sink was the only "running water;" he (and his visitors) made do with an outhouse in lieu of a modern toilet.  The indoor "bathroom" was occupied by a bathtub that had to be filled by hand with water pumped and heated in the kitchen.  Grandpa had one electrical outlet from which extension cords snaked throughout the house; he did have a small TV and radio, although reading was his main source of entertainment, and what must have been one of the first electric refrigerators ever manufactured (the compressor squatted on top like a small noisy UFO).  The big black wood-burning cookstove in the kitchen was also the only source of heat in the house.  He thriftily burned corn cobs in the winter.

The farm also contained evidence of even more primitive living conditions - a dilapidated sod hut in the grove of trees behind the house, left behind by some ambitious pioneer.  I've always been sorry that the family didn't try to preserve it as a historical relic; it collapsed when I was in college after a hundred years of hard winter snows and torrential spring rains.

I don't mean to imply that life on Grandpa's farm was unremittingly grim.  I have fond memories of ripe warm mulberries fresh from the trees; corn straight from the field; honey from his own hives; and wonderful homemade whole-wheat bread that he traded for in town.  He also boarded a fat spotted pony on the condition that his grandchildren could ride it, and he always had at least one large, friendly mongrel that he'd trained as a sheepdog.  I loved visiting the farm as a child, and it suited Grandpa perfectly.

Now, though - could I live in the wilds at this point in my life?  I used to like the idea of being snowed into a remote location with my cat and a room full of books, but I'm not sure I could handle being cut off from the Internet any more.  The prospect of Barry suffering from an excess of pent-up energy and cabin fever miles from the nearest neighbor is also pretty scary.

Fortunately Barry also concluded that any house with all the amenities he needs would be unaffordable and dropped the idea.  No roughing it for us this year - or at least not until Anthony Bourdain travels somewhere else primitive and seemingly irresistible.

“They would call it a cabin. Or a cottage. Let me tell you, Charlie, it was a shack. There's no doubt about it.” ~Kenny Salwey

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Gorgonzola Lost

The first few years I lived in New York I owned a garden-level apartment in Brooklyn Heights on Remsen Street, strategically located between the various excellent restaurants on Montague and the Lebanese delights of Atlantic Avenue. A slightly longer walk took me to Cobble Hill and the superlative tortelloni with walnuts in gorgonzola sauce at Caffe Carciofo at the intersection of Court and Kane Streets. Ah, those giant cheese tortelloni, swimming in creamy sauce, with the walnuts and some freshly chopped parsley strewn on top; they replaced mac and cheese as my favorite comfort food the way a Rolls Royce would replace a utilitarian SUV.  Caffe Carciofo later changed hands, went downhill, and ultimately closed, and I've been looking for an adequate replacement for that gorgonzola sauce ever since.

The Italian restaurants near where I live now are all Southern Italian. Only one serves pasta with what alleges to be gorgonzola sauce, but it's barely distinguishable from their other cream-based sauces. Lately my craving for tortelloni with walnuts and gorgonzola has been so bad that I've been surfing the net for recipes, to no avail.

Oh, I don't mean that I haven't found any recipes; I have. Unfortunately, they all seem to consist chiefly of heavy whipping cream. In retrospect, that's probably also the ingredient that made the sauce at Caffe Carciofo so unctuously yummy, but neither Barry nor my gall bladder would thank me for dabbling with it now. Maybe I could try making a gorgonzola-flavored white sauce. Maybe I could experiment with low-fat yogurt and a really strong cheese. Maybe I should just consign the dish to the realm of happy memories and continue eating my pasta with healthy fire-roasted tomato sauce. And yet...

This must be how former smokers feel about tobacco.

"Hunger: One of the few cravings that cannot be appeased with another solution." ~Irwin Van Grove

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Second Sign of Spring

Maybe it's because we've had a little rain lately, but...

...things are starting to bloom!  More to follow!

"As a matter of fact, an ordinary desert supports a much greater variety of plants than does either a forest or a prairie." ~Ellsworth Huntington