Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Confused Plants, Happy Bees

The rose bush is not the only plant in my yard confused by the recent warm weather.  Most of my citrus trees have started blooming in the mistaken belief that spring has arrived.  I hope we don't have a hard freeze in February that causes a blossom drop.  At least the bees are ecstatic.  Note to self: pick fruit with extreme caution.

"When the flower blooms, the bees come uninvited." ~Ramakrishna

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Going Greener

My programmable thermostat is already helping me to save on my electric bill.  The heat pump now runs from 8AM to noon and then doesn't run again until the next morning.  My "smart meter" transmits my energy use information to the electric company, which publishes it on their website so I can track my progress.  In the two weeks since I installed the new thermostat, my overall energy use has gone down and my use of electricity during peak hours has almost completely stopped.  This has encouraged me to go even further.

This weekend I had the ductwork in my heating and cooling system sealed and a solar-powered water heater installed (Arizona is the perfect place to put in solar).  Tax credits and rebates should pay for about half the cost, and I expect to save the rest within the next four years.

I can already feel more air coming from the registers and it's warmer than it used to be; the difference should be even more marked during the summer.  In addition, the duct sealing should cut down on the allergens entering the house, allowing me to cut back on the use of my effective but noisy and electricity-guzzling air purifier.  I'm also looking forward to having more hot water available all winter.

Of course all this energy conservation should be good for the environment, too, but I doubt I would have made the investment if the payoff had been 20 years down the road.  It's great to be able to feel that I'm doing good and will also be saving money in the foreseeable future.  I wonder why Kermit the Frog says it's not easy being green?

"The use of solar energy has not been opened up because the oil industry does not own the sun." ~Ralph Nader

Saturday, January 28, 2012

When Disaster Strikes

This month three of my friends are facing terrible losses - a mastectomy, a death in the family, and extreme financial distress, respectively.

As someone who's suffered serious illness and lost a husband to cancer, I know that many people's response to disasters like these is, "Please let me know if I can do anything for you."  Unfortunately, what I really needed in times of extreme stress was a shoulder to cry on, and I'm pretty sure that most of the friends and relatives who extended vague offers were thinking more in terms of tuna casserole.  I was hesitant to make them uncomfortable by asking for a level of help I wasn't sure they were willing or able to give.  The hospice organization that oversaw Tom's care at the end of his life had group grief counseling available, but I didn't want to share my pain with strangers or listen to theirs.

I was touched and relieved when I broke up with Barry that a good friend and one of my cousins both explicitly offered emotional support.  As my friend said, "Sometimes you just need to talk and know it won't go anywhere."

People in distress shouldn't have to ask for help.  If someone you know suffers a loss, don't make them beg; please permanently retire "Let me know if I can do anything for you" from your vocabulary.  Make a concrete offer - even if it is for tuna casserole.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Really Rich Brownies

Last week I saw an episode of America's Test Kitchen that featured a brownie tasting on the streets of Boston.  About half of the public testers preferred the made-from-scratch brownies because of their intense chocolate flavor, but the others liked the from-a-mix brownies better because of the chewy texture.  That really surprised me.  The recipe I use produces brownies that aren't particularly chewy, but I've never served them to anyone who didn't prefer them to the box mixes.

This is another of my mother's recipes, original source lost in the mists of time.

Cream Cheese Brownies

4 oz sweet chocolate
3 Tblsp + 2Tblsp butter
3 oz cream cheese
1/4 c + 3/4 c sugar
3 eggs
1Tblsp + 1/2 cup flour
1/2 tsp + 1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp almond extract
1/2 cup chopped nuts (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Melt the chocolate and 3 Tblsp butter over very low heat or in a microwave; stir, set aside to cool.

Cream the cream cheese with the rest of the butter.  Gradually add 1/4 cup of the sugar, creaming until fluffy.  Blend in one egg, 1 Tblsp flour, and 1/2 tsp of the vanilla.  Set aside.

Beat the remaining two eggs until light-colored.  Slowly add the remaining 3/4 cup sugar; beat until thickened.  Add the baking powder, the rest of the flour, and the salt.  Blend in the cooled chocolate mixture, the rest of the vanilla, the almond extract, and the nuts if you are using them.

Grease an 8"x8" or 9"x9" baking pan.  Spread half of the chocolate mixture in the pan.  Top with the cream cheese mixture.  Spoon the rest of the chocolate batter over the top.  Zigzag a knife through the batter to marbelize it.  Bake for 35-40 minutes and cool before cutting into squares and serving.

"If you want cakey, eat chocolate cake. Brownies should be dense and moist and fudgy." ~Houghton Mifflin

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Planting the Limon Tree

A couple of years ago Barry and I bought some small lemon and lime trees that we kept in decorative pots in the backyard.  Most of them died, though, in a hard freeze last winter.  Barry (who did most of their watering and upkeep) was sure the one that lived was a lime.

When we put the house up for sale last spring, the stager told us to get rid of the survivor because it registered as "clutter."  I took it with me to my parents' house and then to my new place.  The poor tree originally had five fruits this year, but by the time it arrived here only one was left.  I had no clue when it would be ready to harvest, so I just left the tree in its pot on the barbeque pad out back and ignored it between waterings.

Lo and behold, about a month ago the "lime" at the top of the tree suddenly turned bright yellow.  Apparently my tree was one of our lemon trees rather than one of the limes - which is fine, because I don't think any of my established trees is a lemon (although the mystery tree could surprise me yet).

My father thinks this is really funny and has been referring to it as the "limon tree."  That's OK, though, since today he helped me plant it.  This was more work than it sounds like because (1) the soil here is caliche, which is a real bugger to excavate, and (2) we had to extend the in-ground sprinkler system to reach the tree's new location.  The whole project took us about three hours and two trips to Ace Hardware, but it's done and the tree is much less likely to suffer damage if we have a bad freeze this winter.

Of course, this still leaves me without a lime tree, which I really wanted.  The big question - can I convince Dad to help me plant another one?  And if I can't, will it take six hours to do by myself?

“When life gives you lemons, squirt someone in the eye.”  ~Cathy Guisewite

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Rose that Blooms in Winter

Even in the Valley of the Sun the rose bushes normally go dormant during the winter, so I was very surprised when one of the roses I planted this fall started blooming again this week.  Some of the flowers are a little ragged around the edges due to the cold nights when they were buds, but it's still a brave effort.  The hummingbirds in my neighborhood are very appreciative; I'll try to get a photo the next time one of them visits.

Sadly, I lost the label so I don't know the name of the variety.

"God gave us our memories so that we might have roses in December." ~ J. M. Barrie

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Getting Happier

Earlier this week I mentioned that our book club is reading Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project this month, but I hadn't finished the book yet then so I didn't review it.

Basically, this is the story of one woman's year-long project to increase the happiness in her life and the lives of those around her.  Rubin covers some excellent topics in this memoir-cum-inspirational book: How do you know whether you are happy?  What are the foundations of happiness?  How can each of us be happier in the lives we have now?  She also provides tools for starting your own Happiness Project and a list of further reading materials.

Rubin admits that she liked the idea of a Happiness Project better than she liked some of the things she did as part of it.  I liked the idea of a Happiness Project book better than I liked the actual book.  I give the author points for trying to be totally honest with her readers, but I still found many of her stories to be whiny and annoying.  Part of the problem, I suspect, is that she and I have totally different senses of humor; I would have been much more tolerant of the "what I needed to fix" sections of narrative had they been what I considered witty.  OK, my bad.  I'm probably also slightly jealous - how dare she say she cared more about one bad book review than about an earlier book hitting the bestseller list?  Does she know how many would-be writers would give anything to be published, let alone give birth to a bestseller?

If you would like to check out Rubin's writing or the Happiness Project concept for yourself, I suggest you visit the blog she started as part of her Happiness Project and has kept up since then: http://www.happiness-project.com/

"Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” ~Buddha

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Know anything about SOPA?

Today is American Censorship Day, when many Internet sites will be blacked out in protest against proposed new censorship legislation.  Instead of going dark, I am asking my readers to view this short video by Fight for the Future:

PROTECT IP / SOPA Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

If this concerns you, please let your Congressional representatives know.

"The fact is that censorship always defeats its own purpose, for it creates, in the end, the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion." ~Henry Steele Commager

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Picking Party Is On

I've been writing lately about the size of my impending citrus harvest.  If you thought I was kidding, think again.  Here are a couple of pictures from the back yard that illustrate the problem pretty well:

Navel Oranges
I floated the idea of a fruit-picking party past my friend Jo today and she thought it sounded like a winner, so I've invited as many friends as my house can reasonably hold for wine, cheese, and all the oranges and grapefruit they can carry away. I set the date for next Friday so with luck I can finish uprooting all the ugly myoporum from the back flower beds before everyone gets here. (Nothing like a firm deadline to spur me to finish distasteful projects.)

The harvest is not actually as plentiful as it could have been because the trees weren't really getting enough water this summer while the house was for sale. If this party goes well, maybe I can make it an annual event; once the trees get used to being properly watered and fertilized, I should really see some bumper crops.

“So far I've always kept my diet secret but now I might as well tell everyone what it is. Lots of grapefruit throughout the day and plenty of virile young men at night."  ~Angie Dickinson

Monday, January 16, 2012

Winter Wonderland

No, it isn't snowing in Phoenix.  Here, belatedly, are some of the pictures from our trip to Palm Springs on the day Sue and I took the tram ride.

"When snow falls, nature listens." ~Antoinette van Kleeff

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Happiness and the Grilled Cheese Sandwich

This month our book club is reading Gretchen Ruben's The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun.  Half autobiography, half self-help book, The Happiness Project starts with a discussion of what happiness is and why the author wanted more of it; the remainder of the book documents her efforts to boost her natural happiness quota to its maximum limit.

When I first met Barry, he told me that I was the happiest person he had ever met.  At the time I was incredulous, but now that I have reverted to many of my pre-Barry habits I understand why he thought that.  I find myself dancing while dusting and singing while grading papers.  I am usually the first (sometimes the only) person in the movie theater laughing at the ironic parts.  When I try something new that works out well, I am triumphant; if it doesn't, I consider it fodder for future funny stories.  I have always been the person plucked from the audience to be the magician's assistant, due no doubt to the gormless expression of wonder and enjoyment on my face.  I like myself and have very few regrets about my past life.  Yes, I am a happy person.

According to Ruben, this is 50% genetic.  I am lucky that I take after my positive and happy paternal grandmother rather than the gloomy Russian forebears on the other side of my family.  Another chunk of happiness is due to circumstances, and here too I am lucky.  I am doing work that I enjoy and live in a comfortable house in a beautiful location, in touch with many wonderful friends and family members.  The final aspect of happiness is due to how we perceive ourselves and our surroundings.  Again, in a bizarre way, I have been lucky.  The day after the car accident that smashed both legs I woke up almost hysterically happy, thinking, "I'm ALIVE!!"  Because I could so easily not have been, and no matter how wonderful heaven may be, I doubt that it features film noir, paperback science fiction, and grilled cheese sandwiches, and I wasn't (and still am not) ready to give them up.  And I've never lost that perspective.  BUT...

IMHO, too much self-help literature focuses on changing the internal self in response to external stress.  Sometimes this is the correct path.  When Gretchen Ruben started her Happiness Project, for instance, she was not depressed or even really unhappy, just not as lighthearted as she wanted to be.  For many people, though, a Happiness Project that focuses on learning to stop and smell the roses is not enough.  Many of us actually do need to make material changes in the external aspects of our lives - seeking treatment for a medical condition, abandoning a debilitating job, shedding abusive relationships - in order to be truly happy.  As unsettled as I was during the breakup, I could never have been this happy had I stayed with Barry; I am just not resilient enough - or resilient enough in the right way - to shrug off the stresses of living with a victim of Aspergers.

For the time being, though, I don't need even a minor Happiness Project - just the occasional TCM movie, paperback space opera, or grilled cheese sandwich.

"Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy." ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Friday, January 13, 2012

Electronic Dementia

This has been a tough week - watching one of my loved ones slipping deeper and deeper into senility, and helpless to prevent it.  Which loved one, you ask?  My cable box.

First it started to forget to record my regular programs.  Then it started wiping out already recorded shows well before their expiration date.  Next it prematurely terminated recordings I'd manually programmed, stopping halfway through the plot.  Finally it denied knowing how to access live TV.  For most of the week I was able to bring it back by rebooting, but last night even that didn't work.  My little buddy had apparently stroked out.

I called my cable provider, worked through the automated menu (which told me to do all the things I'd already done), and finally got a live person, who rebooted the box remotely.  No improvement.

Today a repair person came to check out the situation and confirmed my diagnosis - the box had lost a good portion of its tiny mind.  She left a new box and took my old friend away.

I'm devastated.  It wasn't just a cable box - it was a cable box containing Ratatouille, Up, the latest Masterpiece Classic, and 40 episodes of French in Action.  Maybe it's time to invest in an external hard drive for backup.

"Defect-free software does not exist."  ~Wietse Venema

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Creamsicle in a Glass

Back when my parents owned half of a camper trailer, and later when they had a pickup camper, we frequently spent three-day holiday weekends or sometimes an entire week in the summer fishing at Big Stone Lake, on the border between South Dakota and Minnesota.  Sometimes we went with friends or other family members; other times it was just the four of us.  As you might expect, many of my sharpest memories of those expeditions center around the food - the crispy fried perch, the wild chokecherries and grapes we picked (probably illegally) for my aunt to make into jelly or wine, the fresh pastries from the bakery in nearby Milbank, and of course the junk food available at Schmidt's Landing, where we usually rented a boat.  Although we rarely got ice cream at home, the rules were relaxed when we were on vacation, and a trip to Big Stone was not complete without at least one Orange Push-Up or Creamsicle.

This smoothie tastes a lot like an Orange Creamsicle but it doesn't contain as much sugar - and drinking these for breakfast or lunch should help me use up this year's orange harvest.

Creamsicle Smoothie

1 cup orange juice (if you can't get fresh, try Simply Orange medium pulp with calcium)
½ cup low-fat or fat-free unflavored yogurt
1 scoop vanilla-flavored whey-based protein powder (my favorite is made by Body Fortress)

Pulse on "ice crush" in a blender until slushy.  Variation: For fewer calories, omit the protein powder and use vanilla-flavored yogurt or a splash of vanilla extract.

“Orange is the happiest color.” ~ Frank Sinatra

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Hoping for Insomnia

I truly enjoy our book club, but I do have one peeve related to it.  Not all the selections are widely available at a reasonable price.  Before suggesting a book, I try to make sure that the county library system owns several copies and that it can be purchased in paperback or used online.  I for one can't afford to buy a new hardcover every month.  However, not everyone in the group seems to check.

This fall, for instance, one of the newer novels was so hard to get that I finally downloaded the Nook app for my smartphone and bought the e-version.  Alas, the screen on my smartphone is so small that I could only see about a paragraph at a time and gave up in disgust.  Now that I own a real Nook, though, I was finally able to finish the book - Before I Go to Sleep by S. J. Watson - and I'm glad I did.

Christine Lucas suffered severe head trauma in her late 20's.  Now 47, she wakes every morning with no memory of her life since the injury and only spotty recollections from before it occurred.  Her husband, Ben, has taped labeled photos in the bathroom for her reference and uses a scrapbook to explain their life to her every day.  Every night, sleep erases what she has relearned until Christine is contacted by Dr. Nash, a neuropsychologist specializing in brain disorders, who suggests that she keep her own journal to write down the things she does remember and the things she's been told.  Over the course of the book, the journal and her conversations with those around her start to rebuild some of her shattered memories.

Unfortunately, as her memories and sense of self grow stronger, so does Christine's unease.  Why does Ben lie to her about the existence of their son?  Why doesn't he want her to contact her old friends or seek further treatment?  And just what caused those head injuries, anyway - could Christine still be in danger?

This is one of the most unusual mysteries I have ever read, and I loved it.  Partly inspired by Forever Today: A Memoir of Love and Amnesia, Deborah Wearing's memoir of her amnesiac husband Clive, Before I Go to Sleep is far more immediate and realistic than the usual "hit on the head amnesia" novel.  I'm even over my snit at having to pay retail for it.

"I was born tomorrow
today I live
yesterday killed me."
~ Parvis Owsia, Epigraph (quoted at the beginning of Before I Go to Sleep)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Save-A-Bucks Strike Again

When my sister first moved to Phoenix, she bought her house from a man named Ed.  Ed quickly became known to our family as "Save-A-Buck Ed" because he had obviously cut every possible corner - and a few we would have believed impossible - in the maintenance and repair of his home, to its long-term detriment.  He was the ultimate Un-handyman.  Sue (and my Dad, during the winters) spent years re-fixing Ed's improbable DIY improvisations.

In a post-Barry resolve to be kinder and less sarcastic I said that I would refrain from complaining about the previous owners of my new house, but this week's adventures with the heat pump have only confirmed what I already knew - they were Mr. and Mrs. Save-A-Buck, spiritual heirs of Save-A-Buck Ed.

My first inkling that this might be so was the pre-purchase inspection report.  Replacement faucets had been plumbed backward (the "hot" control actually controlled the cold water and vice versa).  Electrical outlets had been wired with reverse polarity.  The hot water heater relief was plumbed to code but unsafely.  The garage door opening mechanism was installed too low so the door doesn't open properly.  When I demanded that the most critical of these items plus the roof be fixed, they hired unlicensed contractors to do the work (NOT what I had asked for).  Their main criterion for hiring repair people appears to have been whether they belonged to the same church, closely followed by "are they inexpensive?"

When Dad installed the thermostat this week and the fan ran but the compressor apparently didn't, I called in a professional who climbed up on the roof and announced that the heat pump (replaced during the previous owners' tenure) had been wired incorrectly from the get-go.  I was not particularly surprised.  The Save-A-Bucks strike again.

This afternoon Dad is coming over and we are going to raise the garage door mechanism by a couple of notches.  That should finish the repairs due to the Save-A-Bucks' stinginess, with one possible exception.  They bumped out one side of the kitchen to make an eating nook, and the tile over the join with the rest of the room is cracking ominously.  Eventually I plan to replace all the tile anyway, since it's only a year old but already badly chipped (can you spell CHEAP?); I just hope the breakfast nook doesn't fall off the house in the meantime.

The cheapness of man is every day's tragedy ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Pumping Heat (or Maybe Not)

Back in September I talked about buying a programmable thermostat.  Three months later I actually got around to doing it.

What took me so long?  Well, mainly it was trying to decide what kind of thermostat to get.  I needed one for a heat pump, but was my heat pump a single stage or mult-stage unit?  I didn't know.  The previous owners didn't leave me a manual, and the heat pump itself is on the roof, where I DID NOT want to go.

I spent a lot of time looking at HVAC forums online and finally concluded that my heat pump was probably single stage, so I ordered a simple 5/2 digital programmable thermostat (one setting for weekdays, one for weekends) for a single stage heat pump.  It arrived this week, and today Dad and I tackled the installation.

Everything went fairly smoothly until we were finished and the heat kicked on - except we were getting cold air from the registers, which didn't seem right to Dad.  I told him that the "heated" air from the registers always feels cold to me, but he was sure the heat pump wasn't working correctly.  He was worried enough to eventually reinstall the old thermostat.  Heat kicked on.  Cold air from the registers.

I went online and checked around until I found documentation that said the heated air from a heat pump is only about 90 degrees Fahrenheit so it will usually feel cool compared to the temperature of a human body.  This convinced Dad to reinstall the new thermostat and leave.

After he was gone, though, I started second-guessing myself.  What if I ordered the wrong thermostat after all?

Finally, with EXTREME CAUTION, I crawled up onto the roof and checked the model number on the heat pump.  Back down the ladder, back onto the Internet.  Of course this particular model is no longer available from the manufacturer, but after some creative searching I found (and downloaded for future reference) an archived technical manual for it.  According to the manual, the new thermostat is the correct type AND the air from the heat pump on the Heat setting is significantly cooler than the heated air from a traditional furnace.

So here I sit, listening to the heat pump cycling on and off and waiting to see whether the new thermostat maintains the temperature it's set at.  If not, I guess I can switch on my space heater overnight and think about putting the old thermostat back on tomorrow.

"A man builds a fine house; and now he has a master, and a task for life; he is to furnish, watch, show it, and keep it in repair, the rest of his days."~Ralph Waldo Emerson, Society and Solitude

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Start of the Fruit Harvest

Many different types of citrus trees grow in the Valley of the Sun.  I have a whole row behind the house I bought this summer, and I've been waiting for the fruit to ripen so that I'll know what they are.  It now appears that I have three orange trees, a grapefruit, and a lemon.  I also have one mystery tree that didn't fruit this year, so I'll have to wait until next year to find out what that one is.

Two of the orange trees are navels, of one of the later-ripening varieties.  They are just getting sweet enough to eat.  Navels are wonderful eating oranges but only good for juice if you drink it immediately; when it's stored, it becomes bitter.  I don't know what I'm going to do with the fruit from two entire navel orange trees, but I'm considering holding a party and encouraging my friends who don't have orange trees to come and pick all they want.  Fortunately the third orange tree is some other variety that looks as if the fruit won't be ripe for another month or two.

In the meantime I'm looking at all my orange and orange juice-containing recipes for inspiration.  This morning I had orange toast for breakfast; this is something I learned to make as a Brownie in grade school, and it still tastes as good as it did then.  I don't know whether it's an official Girl Scout recipe or just something our troop leader (name long forgotten) came up with.

Orange Toast

two pieces bread (I use whole wheat)
2-3 Tbl brown sugar
one orange

Lightly toast the bread in a toaster.  Peel the orange and slice it horizontally (slices should be about 1/4" thick).  Place the toasted bread on a cookie sheet or in a broiler-safe pan.  Sprinkle the brown sugar evenly over the bread.  Top with a layer of orange slices.  Broil on high for about 5 minutes - watch to be sure the toast doesn't burn.  The juice from the oranges and the brown sugar will melt together into a slightly syrupy layer between the toast and the hot orange slices.

"And every day when I've been good, I get an orange after food." ~ Robert Louis Stevenson

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Not Getting the Message

When I was in my 30's, I dated a man whose young wife had died of cancer just a year before I met him.  He was initially attracted to me because I superficially resembled "Rachel," and as time went on he started to pressure me to be more and more like her in other ways.  At one point I lost my temper and told him that I couldn't be Rachel for him.  He agreed, and after that he stopped trying to make me into her clone, but eventually we both admitted that he wasn't ready to move on - or at least not with me.

Fast forward to tonight, when I finally got around to watching the movie version of Message in a Bottle.  If you, too, missed it in the theaters, this is the story of Theresa (Robin Wright), a woman who finds a bottle on the beach that contains a love letter to "Catherine," the writer's lost love.  Theresa is captivated by the writer's eloquence and the depth of his feelings for Catherine, and tracks him down.

This is the point at which, had I been one of Theresa's friends, I would have started screaming, "Don't do it, sweetie!!  There's nothing here for you!!"  And, indeed, that's what much of the rest of the movie is about.

The book on which the movie was based was a best-seller, so a lot of people (presumably mostly women) bought into the romance of the "tragic lost love" plot; four members of the cast (including Wright, Kevin Costner as the sorrowing husband, and Paul Newman as his father) were nominated for Blockbuster Entertainment acting awards; and the sets and cinematography were beautiful.  But...

Take it from someone who's been there, with a man this hung up on his dearly departed, the ending just wasn't very likely.

"The hottest love has the coldest end." ~Socrates

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Buddy System

Several times in my life I've had to take a battery of personality tests - usually for school or because I was being considered for a different job - and they always show that I'm so introverted I make hermits look sociable.  That all changes, though, when it's time for me to work out.  Then I need at least one other sufferer to keep me company.

The best workout buddy I ever had was my friend Lisa.  She and I met during our grad school orientation, and had quite a few classes together over the years.  More importantly, we worked out together twice a week before, between, or after our evening classes, and we usually got together on Saturdays for a workout, a sauna, and lunch at a nearby vegetarian restaurant.  Each of us showed up faithfully on the appointed days, gym bag at the ready, because neither one wanted to leave the other person in the lurch.

I've tried telling myself that failing to work out alone is the same as leaving myself in the lurch, but that's not a very effective motivator.  Fortunately, about the time those extra holiday-season pounds were making my jeans difficult to zip, my sister started moaning about having to resume her sessions with Mr. Treadmill.  I gritted my teeth and asked if I could join her.

So far we've spent two weeks working out together on the equipment in our local gym, and to my surprise I'm feeling that the sessions have been too short.  If I had been alone, I would have finished each session with about 20 minutes on a stationary bike.

Of course, if I'd been by myself I probably wouldn't have gone in the first place, which was my whole reason for adopting a new treadmill buddy.  Maybe I can gradually work my way up to a day or two a week of exercising without her.  If not, I still have at least two or three days when I will force myself to hit the gym despite fatigue, general malaise, or the common cold - and that has to be a good thing, even without any time on the bike.

"That's not sweat; it's my body crying." ~Anonymous

Monday, January 2, 2012

Teaching a Man to Cook

I'm sure you've heard the old saying, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."  That's only true if the man knows how to cook fish.

When I met Barry he could grill and microwave.  Almost every day he ate the same cereal for breakfast, SlimFast for lunch, and a green salad, Bush's beans, and steak for dinner.  Sometimes he'd have a pork chop instead of steak.  Once in a while he'd order pizza.  If he was feeling really wild and crazy he'd make stir-fry and rice.  After I moved in he seriously suggested that we eat out all the time so he wouldn't ever have to consume anything outside his comfort zone.  I now realize that this was a symptom of his Asperger love of rigid routine, but at the time I was very upset; having the time to cook complicated favorite foods and experiment with new ones was supposed to be one of my compensations for giving up my good-paying job.  Plus, after I quit working in insurance we couldn't afford to constantly eat at restaurants.

Eventually Barry became reconciled to variety in his diet and when we committed to healthier eating he started to research different foods and suggest that we try things (like quinoa) we'd never eaten before.  However, he never actually learned to prepare any of those items; he just agreed to eat them when I cooked.

Once we separated, Barry returned to his old diet.  This fall, though, he's been complaining about being tired of eating the same things all the time.  (Talk about "I never thought I'd see the day..."!!)  Occasionally I break down and invite him over for dinner, but my long-term strategy is to teach him to cook more things himself.  Last week, for instance, we baked a ham together and I showed him how to make deviled eggs, and for Christmas I gave him two cookbooks.

Originally I considered giving him a "learn from scratch" cookbook like the one I gave a friend last year, but Barry already knows many of the basics of cooking; he just needs to learn how to put them together in a healthy way.  And, oh, yes, have I mentioned that he doesn't have any patience?

Here are the two books I finally bought for him:

More Fast Food My Way by Jacques Pepin.  You already know that I think Jacques is the greatest teaching chef ever, and these recipes are relatively healthy and practically goof-proof.  The accompanying TV show is also still in reruns on the local PBS station so Barry can see the techniques in action if he so desires.

Now Eat This!:150 of America's Favorite Comfort Foods, All Under 350 Calories by Rocco DiSpirito.  When I lived in New York, Rocco was the executive chef at Union Pacific Cafe, where the food was fabulous.  Since then he's become a triathlete and jumped on the healthy eating bandwagon.  He was the consulting chef for several seasons of The Biggest Loser.  These recipes drastically cut the fat, sugar, and bad carbs from standard recipes while maintaining or (in many cases) improving their flavor.  Not quite as easy as the Pepin recipes, and some searching for unusual ingredients may be necessary, but a great starting point for anyone who wants to learn to make healthier versions of old favorites.

With luck, Barry will learn to make more than steak and stir-fry for himself, and I may get a few free meals out of it, too.

"Anybody who believes that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach flunked geography."  ~Robert Byrne

Sunday, January 1, 2012


Last year about this time I blogged about not being ready to buy myself an e-reader.  I'm still not really eager to embrace virtual books, but they are now being thrust upon me.  In a burst of unexpected generosity, Barry bought me a Nook for Christmas this year.

If you are assuming that I didn't leap upon it with cries of joy, you are correct.  I thanked him politely, plugged it into my computer to charge it up, and wondered what the hell I was going to do with the thing.

By now I've read the user guide, downloaded the app that will let me borrow e-books from the library, and purchased my first virtual book.  I was having a little trouble actually using the thing, though; the shape was awkward and I didn't like either the forward/backward buttons or swiping my finger across the screen to turn the "page." Until yesterday, that is.

It seemed to me that if the Nook were to function as even a partial replacement for my paper books, it would be spending a lot of time bouncing around in my purse or my briefcase, so buying a protective cover for it would be the sensible thing to do.  Yesterday, then, I stopped by one of the local Barnes and Nobles stores and bought a cover.  The one I selected looks like an actual book, about the size of a paperback but covered with bright red leather.  Attractive, durable, more than I planned to spend on a device I hadn't really wanted in the first place.  BUT...

Now that the Nook has been inserted into the cover, it feels right.  It feels like a book.  It falls open in my hands like a paperback would.  In this position, the side buttons for paging forward are just in the right place - no more need to swipe across the entire page with a finger.  In its book-shaped cover, with the typeface adjusted to the perfect size, it may actually be (dare I say it?) a faster read than a book.  Because my cover is real leather, it even smells almost like a real book.

I'm still not giving up on physical books - I love them too much.  But my nifty red cover has convinced me that my Nook and I may after all have a long and happy relationship.

"You cannot open a book without learning something." ~Confucius