Friday, November 30, 2007

Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman

I picked up Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman, by Elizabeth Buchan, in a thrift store, because at $2, if it isn't any good, I don't mind getting rid of it. But I enjoyed it thoroughly, and it has a permanent place in my library now. It is well written, with solid characters and a calm voice throughout the emotional turmoil endured by the middle-aged woman, Rose.

Although the book is about the end of a marriage, it is in large measure a paean to the steady pleasures of married life, in contrast to the stimulation of change and variety. The revenge of the title comes from the idea that living well is the best revenge; Rose is a surprisingly unvengeful person who is simply trying to do her best to get through a difficult patch. Even though her life is thrown into disarray when her middle-aged husband leaves her for a younger woman, she firmly belives in marriage and the value of the effort to keep one intact. She loved the consistency, reliability, and habit of a long marriage, the knowledge of the other person that comes with decades of co-existence. Towards the end of the book, when she has found stability as a newly-single woman, Rose tells her daughter, newly-married to a man who turns out to be far different than she thought, that she needs to make the marriage work instead of giving up and running home. And Rose tells the young woman who replaced her (in both marriage and work), "You set this up, now you make it work." Her marriage may not have worked, but marriage in general is worth working at.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Why Weather?

Talking about the weather is a traditional staple of small talk, but in Montana, it is a central topic of conversation. There are probably several reasons for this.
  • Montana is an agricultural state and most of our crops depend on moisture from snowpack or rain. Even in Bozeman, which farmers and ranchers would say isn't very rural any more, agricultural concerns are still recognized - especially by all the people who care about local food. So when the summer is long and dry, town people still note that the crops are hard hit by the lack of rain; in the winter, a good snowpack leads to plenty of irrigation water next summer.
  • A good snowpack also makes for better winter recreation, whether you ski downhill or crosscountry, snowshoe, or ride a snowmobile. Even many summer recreations depend on good snowpack, or at least plentiful spring rains: water skiing, rafting, and the local economic mainstay, fly-fishing.
  • Dry summers lead to wildfires, which are hard to ignore when the skies are full of smoke and occasionally ash. So the amount of rain we are or aren't getting is a popular topic all summer.
  • Because so much of the state is open, neither developed in tall buildings nor covered with trees, the sky is not just visible, it is a large percentage of the view. We have a lot of sunny days, too, so the weather fluctuations aren't hidden by persistent cloud cover. It is easy to see the storm clouds moving in across the valley; the weather is part of the daily environment.
And when all else fails, there is always the fact that our weather swings so much, from 40 degrees below zero in January to over 100 degrees in July, from hot sunny days to storms that fill the air with snow. Most Montanans spend time in the outdoors every week, so the weather becomes a familiar companion. And, as everywhere, it is a safe topic of conversation.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Waxwing Encore

The cedar waxwings are back today, in a lull between snowy days, their clean lines crisp against the white backdrop. They are landing on the crabapple tree by the dozens at a time and picking at the fruit - although more accurately, they are mostly knocking the crabapples off the tree. The crabapples show up crimson on the new snow, where other waxwings land to feast on them, pecking at them or eating them whole. In a short period, the birds have cleaned off the upper branches farthest from the house, leaving stems bristling on the branches; it will be nearly spring before the lowest branches next to the house are stripped.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Ponderosa Pines

It took me a long time to understand why I dislike conifers in landscaping: in the Gallatin Valley, pine trees grow on the mountain slopes, not the valley floor. In part, this is probably due to farming, but I think it is also due to organic reasons. Regardless, I have never liked pine trees in town or yards.

The one tree that makes me change my mind (sometimes) is one that isn't even native to the valley; the ponderosa pine is native to nearly all of the northern Rockies except this valley. It is a bushy, open tree that is missing the dark heaviness that I associate with conifers; it looks cheerful instead of depressed. We have one in our yard - the only conifer we have - but to really appreciate them, you have to spend time in a grove of them, where you can listen to "the whispered plain-song of this elemental congregation." (Donald Culross Peattie, in A Natural History of Western Trees, an excellent book if you are interested in trees.) One of the things I love about our trips to Lewistown is the chance to listen to the wind in the ponderosas, somehow different from any other pines.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Slow Food Indulgences

Another letter to the editor in November's ODE magazine responded to an article on the Slow Food movement by saying, in part, "I don't think encouraging our society to focus even more on our own pleasure is what we need at all. In fact, it is precisely our own selfish attachments ... that make us turn our eyes from how each of us personally contributes to the world's problems and what each might do to remedy them." If you view the Slow Food movement as an exercise in indulgence - as it is undoubtedly is for some people - then the "selfish" label makes sense. And some of the items on the Slow Food site lend themselves to this view: an article on the new Presidium for Fire Roasted Mesquite of the Seri or one on the first Michelin review of Tokyo.

But for many adherents, Slow Food goes far beyond selfish indulgence. On a personal level, Slow Food encourages paying attention to details, savoring the moment, valuing quality over quantity. These attributes are likely to lend more awareness of the world and how individual actions affect it; and to a calm, centered individual who can act on that awareness.

On a community or political level, the belief that a tomato is just a tomato - a round, red globe without identifiable taste, importable from anywhere in the world - leads to industrial agriculture and food that travels halfway around the world before it is eaten. Valuing a local, fresh tomato then has many economic, environmental, and political ramifications: Supporting small-scale farmers strengthens rural economies. Encouraging the sustainable agriculture that Slow Foodies treasure leads to lower levels of artificial fertilizers (hence less petroleum imported from the Middle East), less toxic run-off to poison rivers and the Gulf of Mexico, less use of pesticides that reduce biodiversity and destroy habitat for wild animals, and fewer road miles as food no longer needs to be brought by trucks, ships, and planes from far corners of the world. Preserving heirloom or heritage breeds of livestock and food plants retains biodiversity and genetic options for future needs, and fuels the fight against genetically modified foods. That's a pretty good list for an indulgence.

On top of that, Slow Food looks to people who can't afford the fancy foods that are often associated with it. On World Food Day, Roberto Burdese, the president of Slow Food Italy, addressed the Right to Food in a speech. "The Right to Food is the right of every person to have regular access to sufficient, nutritionally adequate and culturally acceptable food for an active healthy life. It is the right to feed oneself in dignity, rather than the right to be fed." This certainly sounds like the beginning of a remedy to me, especially if it is acted on. It is certainly a far cry from a selfish attachment to one's own pleasure.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

What Cities Have to Offer

I was reading the November issue of ODE magazine and came across a letter to the editor in response to an article about how people fulfill their dreams in cities. The letter said, in part, "cities are unsustainable living areas, as they swallow up resources without being able to offer anything in return." The age-old bargain of civilization is that the countryside supplies the city with natural resources and in return, the city offers culture: art, literature, theater, architecture, philosophy, religion, even government. Cities still do that. Natural resources may hold more appeal for the letter writer than culture, but it is wrong to say that cities offer nothing in return.

I've never seen any statistics, but I suspect that on a per capita basis, cities swallow fewer resources than rural areas. Cities have more expensive roads, but far fewer of them for each thousand people; mass transit and walkable distances reduce the amount of gasoline used by each person; community waste water plants are easier to keep from polluting water than dispersed septic tanks. Urban areas certainly generate more wealth than rural areas (which is why so many people throng to the cities), so if the per-capita resource use is the same, cities show a better return on investment.

Besides, if everyone were evenly distributed over rural areas, there wouldn't be much room for resource extraction, or even agriculture. Getting rid of the cities wouldn't automatically make the countryside any better off; it would probably be a case of a lowering tide dropping all boats, since there would no longer be the wealth-generating cities to buy the countryside's produce, meat, and resources.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Hunting

I have a hard time with killing animals just because they are annoying. I understand why farmers kill gophers but I still dislike it (why can't they let the coyotes have the gophers?). I even tend to move bugs outside rather than kill them - except mosquitos, I admit. But oddly enough, I don't have any problems with hunting; I think the difference is in the intent.

Humans are animals, and carnivorous ones at that (actually omniverous, but that includes carnivorous meals). So it is in our make-up to eat meat, which means that someone has to kill it first; since we aren't generally scavengers, that means humans have to kill other animals to eat them, just as lions and wolves do. But we are also human, which means that we shouldn't kill mindlessly; we need to respect the animal that is giving its life so that we can eat it. This philosophy means that hunting an animal, with respect and in a fair chase, is morally acceptable to me; and yes, fair chase means what it says: we miss far, far more pheasants than we hit each fall. It also means that raising animals for meat is fine as long as the animals have some kind of natural life (cattle eat grass in open pastures, chickens scratch for grain, etc.) that respects their instincts, and are killed humanely. This is part of the natural cycle.

Respectfully eating animals that have been raised and killed humanely is much more morally acceptable than ignoring the whole issue, pretending that meat comes from some kind of plant before it is wrapped in plastic in the grocery store. This is why I want my kids to know where their meat comes from, whether that means helping brand cattle in the spring or hunting for pheasants in the fall. I want them to know that an animal has given its life for their dinner, so that they appreciate the animal and the food, rather than taking it for granted. If an animal is going to die, it should be honored at the meal. (For that matter, all food should be appreciated and honored, which is one reason we pickle vegetables and bake bread and make yogurt.)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Things I am Thankful For

Of course I am thankful for the usual suspects: family, friends, my health, living in a place I love. But what I tend to notice are the smaller things to be thankful for:
  • My husband's appreciation of my cooking - even when it doesn't come out the way I expected it to.
  • My stylish daughter's recognition of my clothing style and her ability to tell me what it is, in positive terms.
  • A sister who agrees with me when I rant about people who find which guitar they want at a local store with very good, knowledgable service, then buy online to save a few dollars.
  • A father who always helps out when needed.
  • A son who is young enough to tell me he loves me and still small enough to cuddle.
  • A son who is now old enough to tell me he loves me again.
  • Friends who encourage me when I decide to start freelancing in technical writing and editing, and are willing to hand out business cards for me.
  • A mother who helps me write letters introducing myself to potential clients - she is much better at that language than I am.
  • Having my new-college son back with us for Thanksgiving, in Lewistown where he doesn't have to split his time between us and his friends.
  • My children's cooking ability; they cooked the turkey today and made many of the sauces.
  • A friend who always understands that when I complain about my family, I don't really mean it.
  • The ponderosa pine tree in our backyard, which we planted for father's day a dozen years ago and which is now about 40' tall.
  • Fresh snow in November.
  • Pheasants, especially the roosters that fall out of the sky when my sons shoot at them and taste so good for dinner.
  • A hug from a good friend to brighten my day.
  • Actors who go out of their way to welcome an aspiring one.
  • Meals on Wheels, which lets me volunteer in a way that fits my schedule, and the people who smile when I deliver their meals.
  • The Community Food Bank, which has provided a place for my son to belong and grow for 5 years.
  • Deep massage from hands that know my body - and the friend who has them.
  • The fresh, local food at the Monday mini-market, and the friendly faces who sell it.
  • Friends who help me raise my kids, either directly or with advice and comfort.
  • The public library, which provides a safe haven for my daughter.
  • My sons' friends, whom I enjoy having in my house.
  • Old friends that I see only occasionally - they always make me smile and remind me of who I have been.
  • Cranberry bagels with cream cheese and ham.
  • Books that present an argument in a coherent and readable form, whether or not I agree with it.
  • Bookshelves. And more bookshelves.
  • Homeschooling and the opportunity it gives me to continue learning.
  • Lots of time with my kids, through the good and the bad days.
  • My youngest son's giggle.
  • Friday-night dates with my husband.
  • A reliable vehicle that I can pack with kids and dogs for trips to Lewistown.
  • A comfortable bed.
  • Turkey leftovers.

It Is About the Food

A letter to the editor the other day bemoaned how people get so caught up in the food and logistics of Thanksgiving that they forget the point of the day. I can sympathize with the point about logistics, which can be overwhelming for people traveling or hosting large gatherings. But really, the whole point of Thanksgiving IS the food. Thanksgiving is a harvest festival, after all, a chance to give thanks for nature's bounty. By late November, all the garden produce has been harvested and put up for the winter, animals have been butchered and preserved for the long, cold months (so they don't compete for scarce food), and with luck, enough food has been put by to last until early next summer. This is a reason to celebrate, especially if you are the one doing the harvesting and preserving. Thanksgiving is a chance to use up the last of the year's fresh food, before it goes bad, in a feast (just as Mardi Gras provides a chance to use up the last of the winter's stores of preserved food before the long fast of Lent); it is a time to gather with friends and family, and to express gratitude for the food we eat.

It is a sign of how far removed we are from our food sources that we no longer know this intuitively.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Winter Dusk

In spite of my plan to leave Bozeman this morning, it was early afternoon before we got out of town. We headed north from Lewistown just as the sun set, about 4:30. It is cold and yesterday's snow is still light; the ice crystals gave the air a frosty look and softened the distance. When the sun set, the entire 360 degrees of horizon turned pink; fifteen minutes later, it faded to lavendar which rose up the sky and was replaced on the horizon by a pure sapphire blue. The tree-covered hills of the Judith Mountains were dark green, almost black, and frosted with snow. Finally, all the color faded to night and the stars started coming out.

Appetizers for Turkey Dinner

We are going out of town for Thanskgiving, so I have to pack up the entire turkey feast, plus food for three more days. Last night, I had fun putting together some simple items that will make our meals tastier; none of them took more than ten minutes, and most of them are better for being made ahead. Best of all, there will be less work on Thanksgiving day.

For a dip to eat with veggies and pita slices at lunch, I blended:
Half a small head of garlic (about 3-4 cloves)
1 jar of roasted red peppers, including the oil
4 oz of feta cheese

For appetizers before the turkey, I have learned to serve things like dill beans and olives, instead of rich cheeses. I made up marinated olives, by draining the juice off a container of kalamata olives and adding:
1 bay leaf
Some dried rosemary
2 parts red wine
1 part olive oil
I will let it marinate until Thursday, then pour it into a baking dish and heat at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes.

Another appetizer I will serve is marinated goat cheese:
Slice a log of goat cheese into 1/2" disks, or cube. Layer in a jar with a selection of herbs and peppercorns; I used preserved lemon slices, garlic, and peppercorns this time, but I have used rosemary and bay leaves in the past. Fill the jar with olive oil and refrigerate at least 24 hours, then serve with crackers. The left-over olive oil is tasty in salad dressings.

For Friday night, I am serving a New York roast with blue-cheese butter. To make the butter, blend 1 stick of warm butter, 4 oz of warm blue cheese, and 1 tsp of Worchestershire sauce together. Form into a log shape on tin foil, roll, and refrigerate overnight. To serve, slice into disks and place on slices of beef or piles of mashed potatoes. Or both.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Magazine Recycling

The holiday magazine onslaught is in full swing. I get a minimum of half a dozen a day, and I order hardly anything from them, so I can only imagine how many other people get; today I got two different catalogs from Restoration Hardware, which has never tempted me to place an order. All of my catalogs go straight into the recycling box, which is only marginally better than the garbage can; at least with newspapers, there are ways to reuse them before recycling (packing material, soaking up oil from frying corn tortillas, etc). I wonder how many trees we could save each year if we put more emphasis on the first priority, Reduce, and restricted catalog companies to, say, one catalog a quarter per address. And how happy the Post Office could make consumers if it doubled the cost of mailing catalogs while reducing the cost of sending real mail. The Post Office could even set up the rate structure so that the first magazine in a quarter was inexpensive, with each subsequent mailing getting progressively and aggressively more expensive, increasing revenue and/or reducing repetitive catalog mailings. That would give my recycling box a break; now I just need to figure out a way to get rid of all the garbage in the newspaper.

Snow

Snow. Nothing dramatic at first, colder temperatures and fine flakes drifting out of the grey sky. Snow on cooling roads makes for slick driving; police and wreckers busy with accidents; long lines at the tire-changing places. Fine, light flakes accumulate slowly at first, faster after dark; by 10 pm, there is nearly 8" on the picnic table. Snow makes ski nuts crave skiing, even if they have to hike for it. Snow comes from the southeast, not the usual southwest; horses stand in the lee of trees, tails to the storm. Snow keeps coming all night, 13" on the picnic table by morning, cars push the snow when they drive on unplowed roads. Snow dims skylights, bends trees, hides rocks, covers gardens, ices roads. Snow still falls as night does. Snow is here.

Finally.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Here Comes Winter

OK, now I know why the waxwings were gorging on the crabapples this morning: winter was on its way. The temperature is lower today than it was yesterday, and feels more like winter. Around noon, snow started sifting gently out of the sky, and it has kept falling all day, slow but steady. It took the snow a while to start accumulating, because the ground was so warm – which means that the roads are slick now that the temperature is dropping.

Crabapples and Waxwings

The crabapple tree outside our bedroom is a decorative variety, so the apples taste inedible (to humans). One of the best features about the tree is that the apples don’t fall off when they are ripe; they hang on the tree all winter, like cherries. Well, not all winter; the birds feast on them until nearly spring, leaving the branches bare and ready for a new crop.

This morning, nearly a hundred cedar waxwings congregated at the tree to eat the apples. They would hang out in the Rocky Mountain maple nearby, waiting until the dogs and other threats were gone; then one by one, they would transfer to the crabapple and start pecking at the apples. The waxwings are beautiful birds, with their yellow tail tips, red and black/white-checked wing edges, and the distinguished little horn on the top of their heads. It was fun to see them so close to the window, where I could get a good look at them.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Dante's Inferno

My second son is a slow but steady reader, so literature isn’t his favorite subject. And medieval literature, this year’s variety, isn’t the easiest to read, so getting him through his reading can be a challenge. This week, he suddenly asked me if The Inferno was on the approved-reading list. Yes, it is, although I didn’t really expect anyone to read it. It’s also on my “I’m going to read someday” list, so I couldn’t tell him much about it; I send him to a reference book to check on it before he started it, sure that he would change his mind.

But no, he wanted to read The Inferno. I didn’t figure he would get very far before bogging down. Instead, he has kept at it steadily, and says he likes it better than The Canterbury Tales, which was boring. (Dante is better than Chaucer’s bawdy stories?!? Whose kid is this?) It probably helps that the edition I had includes a summary before each chapter and a gloss on the odd terms and constructions at the end. But still, I’m impressed. And reminded, once again, that I should never underestimate my kids.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Teaching vs. Learning

I love to organize the school material for my kids, get the information all laid out so that it is logical and tells a coherent story, both within a topic and between topics; I love to include intersubject topics that connect history with literature, science with history. I can spend hours getting things just right, getting all the points I want to get made in just the right place. This is part of what I enjoy about homeschooling.

But no matter how much I organize what I teach to my kids, I can’t organize how they learn. Often my favorite topics don’t excite them at all (although they are polite when they know I am excited), and my carefully-crafted organization doesn’t always (ok, often) translate into brilliance. But just when I get down about it, one of them will do or say something that reminds me that they are always learning – they just don’t always put the emphasis where I do. Somewhere along the line, my teenager learned his multiplication tables very well, although I know I didn’t teach it to him, he can answer nearly any geography question I put to him, and he knows more about WWII than I ever taught him. My daughter has picked up all kinds of historical tidbits that come in handy at odd times, and she is way ahead of me at that age when it comes to inter- and intrapersonal awareness. My youngest son knows more about machines than I will ever care to know and can explain how they work in great detail. It doesn’t have anything to do with what I have so carefully crafted for their enjoyment – but it’s important learning nonetheless.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Be the Pack Leader

A friend who breeds Brittany spaniels recommended that I read Be the Pack Leader, by Cesar Millan. It's a useful book, and what Millan says makes sense for handling dogs; but unless you also watch his show, The Dog Whisperer, it's a little hard to figure out some of what he says (at least I assume watching the show would help). My favorite quote came from the introduction, when he posits the dog's credo as "I am here to live every moment to the fullest; to fulfill my own life and to help fulfill everybody else about me." I like the balance of self and other, not focused on one or the other, but both.

What struck me the most about what he says, though, is how aptly it applies to raising kids. His basic formula for raising happy, healthy dogs is Exercise, Discipline, and Affection (in that order). The same applies to kids, although the order might be reversed. Kids need affection; they need to know that they are loved for who they are, not what they do. They need discipline - not "showing them who's boss", but consistent, reliable "rules, boundaries, and limitations". And they need plenty of exercise to discharge the energy that will otherwise get them into trouble. Millan is a big advocate of psychological challenges for dogs, and giving them a job; kids also do better if their brains are engaged, and if they have a job to do in the household, a way to contribute. Kids need to know that their parents (or the adults around them) are in charge, leading the way, keeping them out of trouble. And kids do best if the adults can maintain a calm, assertive (but not aggressive) energy, confident that they know what needs to happen next, willing to stand up for themselves without picking a fight, gently keeping the kids in their place (which, unlike dogs, changes as they get older). So if you can raise a dog Cesar's way, you can probably do a pretty good job of raising a kid.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Kids Growing Up

Reasons I appreciate my kids growing up:
1. I left behind the diapers and the bathroom dashes.
2. They eat real food, on more-or-less normal schedules (except my teens, but they can fake it).
3. They ask more interesting questions.
4. They can follow directions better, and the directions can be more complicated.
5. They can move around town without me, get themselves between activities.
6. They can better entertain themselves.
7. They can clean their own rooms (mostly, if reminded forcefully enough).
8. Their sense of humor move away from potty humor and toward something more sophisticated (ok, so it's puns, but that beats potty jokes).
9. I can actually follow their conversations, and some of them are really interesting.

And most relevantly today:
10. I almost never have to clean vomit from carpet, bed, and kid in the middle of the night. That has to be my absolute least favorite parental job, especially since the child needs me to be patient while they feel miserable.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Winter Fire

Winter may be here, but the fire season isn't over yet. A fire started north of Big Timber on Monday, and the strong winds, gusting to 80 mph, whipped it into a serious burn; the U.S. Forest Service estimates the total is at least 20,000 acres. The fire burned an area 20 miles long by five miles wide, from the ignition point in the foothills of the Crazy Mountains to US Highway 191 along the valley floor, before Tuesday's precipitation put it mostly out. The small town of Melville was burned, although most of the occupied houses were saved, and burned power poles took out the electricity when they fell; one bridge burned, closing the highway. Crews are already working on the bridge and power lines, but the burned pastures and haystacks will be hurting ranchers for months to come; in many cases, it would have been their winter pasture and feed for cattle and sheep.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Winter Arrives

It has been years since we had a November so warm and mild; we have been running around in shirt sleeves or light jackets, enjoying the last of the fall sunshine. All that changed last night, when winter finally arrived with high winds (Livingston had gusts to 80 mph) and 3-4 inches of heavy wet snow. This morning was warming and the snow was melting nicely, but this afternoon a cold wind came up and it got much nastier than the coat I was wearing was good for; the snow streaming off the roofs looked like snow coming off the ridge in January. I doubt this snow is here to stay, but winter has finally shown up.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Ceviche Salad

I went to the Co-op yesterday, looking for something to finish dinner. I knew I was making lemon-pepper chicken and brown rice, but had no idea what was going with it. But as usual, the Co-op provided some inspiration. I ended up with the ingredients for bruschetta appetizers and ceviche salad, which I based on the ceviche that my kids love, and it all worked well (except that we still haven't adjusted to how long the rice steamer takes, and we ended up having a baguette instead of the rice).

Simple Bruschetta:
Slice a baguette thin and spread each slice with a mild soft cheese - I used a goat mozzeralla from a local producer. Top with a small dollop of pesto and half a kalamata olive. Place on a cooling rack and stick under the broiler until the bread just starts to toast. Eat quickly, before it disappears.

Ceviche Salad (for 5-6 people):
Whisk together:
1/2 C olive oil
1/2 C lime juice
1/2 a moderate head of garlic (3-6 cloves, depending on size)
1/2 tsp salt

Add 1/2 pound of cooked shrimp and let sit for half an hour.
Toss a medium red onion, diced fine, and 8 Roma tomatoes, diced, together with the shrimp and dressing. Serve with baguette to soak up the dressing.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Chicken Philosophy

This came from a friend and was created by David Saum. I'm relieved to say that I haven't read all the philosophers and authors mentioned.

WHY DID THE CHICKEN CROSS THE ROAD???

Plato: For the greater good.

Aristotle: To fulfill its nature on the other side.

Karl Marx: It was a historical inevitability.

Machiavelli: So that its subjects will view it with admiration, as a chicken which has the daring and courage to boldly cross the road, but also with fear, for whom among them has the strength to contend with such a paragon of avian virtue? In such a manner is the princely chicken's dominion maintained.

Hippocrates: Because of an excess of light pink gooey stuff in its pancreas.

Jacques Derrida: Any number of contending discourses may be discovered within the act of the chicken crossing the road, and each interpretation is equally valid as the authorial intent can never be discerned, because structuralism is DEAD, DAMMIT, DEAD!

Thomas de Torquemada: Give me ten minutes with the chicken and I'll find out.

Timothy Leary: Because that's the only kind of trip the Establishment would let it take.

Douglas Adams: Forty-two.

Nietzsche: Because if you gaze too long across the Road, the Road gazes also across you.

Oliver North: National Security was at stake.

B.F. Skinner: Because the external influences which had pervaded its sensorium from birth had caused it to develop in such a fashion that it would tend to cross roads, even while believing these actions to be of its own free will.

Carl Jung: The confluence of events in the cultural gestalt necessitated that individual chickens cross roads at this historical juncture, and therefore synchronicitously brought such occurrences into being.

Jean-Paul Sartre: In order to act in good faith and be true to itself, the chicken found it necessary to cross the road.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The possibility of "crossing" was encoded into the objects "chicken" and "road", and circumstances came into being which caused the actualization of this potential occurrence.

Albert Einstein: Whether the chicken crossed the road or the road crossed the chicken depends upon your frame of reference.

Aristotle: To actualize its potential.

Buddha: If you ask this question, you deny your own chicken-nature.

Howard Cosell: It may very well have been one of the most astonishing events to grace the annals of history. An historic, unprecedented avian biped with the temerity to attempt such an herculean achievement formerly relegated to homo sapien pedestrians is truly a remarkable occurence.

Salvador Dali: The Fish.

Darwin: It was the logical next step after coming down from the trees.

Emily Dickinson: Because it could not stop for death.

Epicurus: For fun.

Ralph Waldo Emerson: It didn't cross the road; it transcended it.

Johann Friedrich von Goethe: The eternal hen-principle made it do it.

Ernest Hemingway: To die. In the rain.

Werner Heisenberg: We are not sure which side of the road the chicken was on, but it was moving very fast.

David Hume: Out of custom and habit.

Saddam Hussein: This was an unprovoked act of rebellion and we were quite justified in dropping 50 tons of nerve gas on it.

Jack Nicholson: 'Cause it (censored) wanted to. That's the (censored) reason.

Pyrrho the Skeptic: What road?

John Sununu: The Air Force was only too happy to provide the transportation, so quite understandably the chicken availed himself of the opportunity.

The Sphinx: You tell me.

Henry David Thoreau: To live deliberately ... and suck all the marrow out of life.

Mark Twain: The news of its crossing has been greatly exaggerated.

Mishima: For the beauty of it. The chicken's extension of its sinuous legs sent shivers of a dark despair into the souls not only of the silently watching hens but also the roosters, who felt a sudden sexual desire for their exquisite comrade. The dark courage of the chicken was as beautiful as drops of dew upon jade at midnight, struck by a partial moon, its light filtered through clouds. One of the deeply aroused roosters could stand the intensity of the moment no more and bit off the head of the beautiful, courageous chicken-hero, whose wine blood was deliciously drunken by the road, and he died.

Johnny Cochran: The chicken didn't cross the road. Some chicken-hating, genocidal, lying public official moved the road right under the chicken's feet while he was practicing his golf swing and thinking about his family.

Camus: The chicken's mother had just died. But this did not really upset him, as any number of witnesses can attest. In fact, he crossed just because the sun got in his eyes.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Too Busy

It seems like everyone I talk to is "too busy". We all race around like chickens with our heads cut off, scrambling to get everything done, doing very little of it well, and often enjoying less of it. But why? There are a few people (single moms supporting their kids come to mind) who really don't have many options; they really do have to race from work to homework to bed. But for most of us, we have made a choice to be too busy. We have chosen to take on too many tasks - all good, but too many. We deprive ourselves of down time, of contemplation, of flexibility, of time to be present and enjoy our life. Even our friendships are scheduled now.

Most of us don't really want to have made these choices, but it is hard not to in this culture, which values so highly the efficient multi-tasker who gets things done. People who don't get things done tend to be viewed as slackers; we no longer honor our wisemen unless they have long, impressive resumes. It is hard to turn down the plethora of good opportunities so we can sit quietly - and harder to turn down the books to just sit; it is easy to feel guilty that we aren't doing something "productive". It is one of the hidden disadvantages of living in a culture with so many options.

So how do I quit being "too busy"? How do I learn to say no, to balance calm against active, to value wisdom over information? I guess recognizing that I've made a choice is the first step - then I have a chance to make a different choice.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Pilgrimages

Tourism seems like such a modern habit, but it actually started in the Middle Ages, with the development of the pilgrimage routes. Pilgrimage was a popular aspect of medieval religion – and a way to see more of the world, in an age when many people never made it farther than the next town. Although the destination was religious and many pilgrims were motivated by piety, there was also an element of tourism involved, as pilgrims saw new lands and new cultures. Pilgrimages ranged in length from a short trip to visit the nearest shrine to a trip of several years to the Holy Lands; popular destinations included Canterbury (England), Santiago (Saint James, in Spain), and Jerusalem, giving medieval tourists a range of choices, depending on the size of their purse and committments at home. As the popularity of pilgrimages grew, the major routes developed a tourist infrastructure, including hostels at regular intervals, food service, and even souvenir sellers; Santiago was famous for its cockleshell badges. The Canterbury Tales tells of a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, and all the characters on pilgrimage can still be found in a modern tour group, from the matron with the earthy sense of humor to the pious prig to the legalistic quibbler. We use buses and airplanes instead of horses and donkeys, but the basics of pleasure travel hasn't changed in over 600 years.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Homemade Yogurt

Jenny Sabo, of Sabo Family Farm, told me how to make my own yogurt; her version is much simpler than anything I have found on the internet, and less intimidating. I've made it once now, and it turned out runnier than the store-bought version, but tasty enough that my kids drink it for breakfast. They particularly like the batches we added raspberries to - it is a ready-made smoothie that covers all the things I require them to eat for breakfast, without any thought on their part. We added chokecherry syrup to one batch and maple syrup another; I'm planning to use some of the plain yogurt to make a dill-yogurt dip for smoked salmon. I'm looking forward to trying other flavorings in future batches, especially some odd ones like candied ginger.

Jenny's Easy Yogurt:
Warm 1 gallon of milk, preferably unhomogenized, on the stove until you can just leave your finger in the milk for a count of 10 seconds (this comes out to 110 degrees). Remove half a cup of milk and mix 2-3 tablespoons of a plain yogurt you like into it (the yogurt works as a culture to start the fermentation). Pour the milk and yogurt into the pot and stir well to mix completely. Place the pot in a cooler, wrap the cooler in blankets, and let set for 24 hours. The yogurt can then be spooned out into containers and stored for a week or two; add flavoring now so it doesn't interfere with the setting up.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Yards

The problem with homeowners' associations is that there are two kinds of people: those who think a yard is for looking at and those who think a yard is for using. People who like to look at yards understandably like them to be neat and pretty, uncluttered, fully landscaped, and think that all the yards they can see should meet the same criteria. These are generally calm adults who use their house for sleeping and eating; the rest of their life happens elsewhere. This aesthetic appeals to the hyper-hygenic, orderly, even sterile tastes of the (aspiring) upper middle class, so it tends to be imposed on other people in the newer subdivisions.

People who like to use their yards think that pretty is nice but that uncluttered ain't gonna happen; yards are for playing and working in, not just looking at. Yards hold on-going projects, bike and ski jumps, toys, and anything too big for the house. In our immediate neighborhood, we are the only house with kids and the only ones who apparently make use of their yards; in addition to the relatively non-offensive compost heap, we have forts made of old fence rails, bike jumps, occasional obstacle courses, and, in the summer, a tent trailer for guests (since we don't have a guest room). Luckily, our immediate neighbors enjoy seeing the kids out playing, so we don't have a problem. We also have a pretty tolerant set of covenants, much more accepting of yard activities than many I heard about; at least we can have home-built forts, patches of unmowed field, and a woven-wire fence to keep our dogs in. But in many places, the clean-yard brigades have won the covenant battles and people who want to use their yards are out of luck.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Female Brain, Redux

I finished reading The Female Brain, and it has earned its place next to You Just Don't Understand. I have recommended it to every woman I know who works with women or is raising a daughter - and would put it on the reading list of every woman who is curious about how she perceives reality. I spent much of the book thinking, "Oh, that explains something!", whether the something explained was my own history, my adolescent daughter's reactions to the world, or observed differences between men and women. Brizendine does a great job of explaining 30 years worth of research in non-technical language without dumbing it down, in very readable language, with enough examples so I could see how her research applied to real life. I've already handed it to my daughter to read, so she can understand better what she is going through now - and why her father and brothers seem to have such a different reality than she does. Now if Brizendine would just write The Male Brain!

Monday, November 5, 2007

What a Mom Says to Her Kids

This video, of all the things a mom says to her child during the day, set to the William Tell Overture, has been making the email rounds, and for a good reason: it is very funny if you have kids. The funniest thing is that, with the exception of a few phrases such as "No texting at the table", all the things that we say to our kids is identical to the things that our parents said to us - and probably pretty much the same as what our grandparents told our parents. Parenting doesn't seem to change all that much, in spite of the apparent changes between generations.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Kids and Vegetables

In her website for Deceptively Delicious, Seinfeld says that her oldest child is "turning seven next month", which means that she gave up on feeding her children vegetables when they were maybe 3 and 5 years old. That is awfully early to be giving up. Most pre-schoolers don't like strong flavors like spinach and beets, so if that is what she was trying to feed her "picky eaters", no wonder she had trouble getting them to eat. Rather than try to feed toddlers and pre-schoolers a "full" range of vegetables, aim for a variety of colors and start with things they will like, such as carrots or mashed yams for oranges, cherry tomatoes for red, romaine lettuce or green beans for greens; jicama (a starchy white-fleshed root) is great for kids, because it is almost sweet, is eaten raw, and can be cut into sticks to eat with fingers. Fill in with fruits, which come in all colors of the rainbow and are almost universally liked by kids; puree them in a smoothie with yogurt, and you can get a whole day's worth of healthy servings into them at once. Strong flavors, like beets, spinach, brussel sprouts, even broccoli, should wait until the kids are a little older.

Scientists who study these things are now saying that a new food has to be introduced up to 10 times before a child will actually start eating it regularly. So start small, think like a kid, and be patient. Finger foods are always better than fork foods until kids are well into elementary school, so cut up yellow, red, and orange bell peppers into strips and serve them raw, maybe with ranch dressing. Give kids small amounts of raw broccoli, in small "trees", to eat as finger food with a dip; don't cook it and bring out its stronger flavors until kids are older and used to broccoli (and then cook only lightly or you ruin it). Do a whole platter of finger foods with dip and let them choose what to eat. Try an artichoke with lemon butter; the whole process of tearing the artichoke apart and eating something so improbable tends to intrigue kids (at least if the adults at the table are enthusiastic). Serve a mango/onion salsa on grilled beef. Add tomatoes or some spring spinach to tacos. Make spaghetti squash with butter or spaghetti sauce. Try a mild hummus (made with chickpeas) and crackers. Play with vegetables, have some fun with them - they don't have to be so serious.

Finally, when kids are maybe 7 or 8 (depending on how the adults in the house eat), start feeding them small amounts of the stronger vegetables such as large-leaf spinach, mushrooms, beets, or brussel sprouts, preferably mixed into something else that they will like. My family (including me) learned to eat beets when I started dicing them fine and putting them in a salad with grated carrots, hearts of palm, and plenty of vinegar; the early-season beets are milder than the dark red fall beets. Sautee some mushrooms in lots of butter and serve it with steak. There are some people who are super-tasters, and they still won't like the stronger vegetables no matter how often they try them, but there are lots of ways around the strong flavors that are still healthy; if they don't like broccoli, serve lettuce. Rather than fixing on any one vegetable as critical, serve your child a wide variety of vegetables in a range of colors and find out which ones they like; as long as they cover the rainbow, they will be healthy.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Harry Potter VII

My daughter read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows within 48 hours of its release - and then started going nuts because I hadn't read it and she couldn't talk about it without spoiling the story for me. She has been after me ever since to read it, even switching the dust jacket on another, equally fat book she knew I was reading. I was waiting until I could take a full day and read it all in one go, and it took a while to get that day, between kids' activities and trips to Lewistown. But today, I finally got a full day, and my husband agreed to do all the kid-driving so I could stay in my chair and read; my daughter even made dinner for me. I read it in 12 hours start to finish.

One of the things I like best about JK Rowling's writing is that she makes Harry act and think like a kid instead of a short adult. In the first books, his view of the world is pretty simple and her writing reflects this; as he gets older, his view and the writing both get more complex. In the last book, he acts just like a 17 year old, complete with self-absorption and a one-sided view of the world; it is only at the end that he gains real maturity and realizes that other people have reasons of their own for what they do, reasons that may have absolutely no connection to him. Her insights into how kids think makes the books much more interesting as Harry and his friends evolve through adolescence.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Deceptively Delicious

A friend asked me if I had read Deceptively Delicious, by Jessica Seinfeld, yet. I hadn't, but since kids and food are always an interest, I looked it up on the internet. I don't think I will be buying this book. I suppose that the book fills a niche (especially since Seinfeld lists three other books with the same idea that have been published in the last two years), and I can certainly sympathize with a frazzled mom trying to get her kids to eat, but still... the whole idea seems to violate the integrity of the food she serves. Some of her combinations are pretty normal - I thought everyone put carrots in meatloaf. But some of the dishes she touts on her website go beyond odd: Chicken Nuggets (with Broccoli or Spinach or Sweet Potato or Beet), Chocolate Cake (with Beets), Blueberry Oatmeal Bars (with Spinach), Brownies (with Carrot and Spinach), and worst of all, Scrambled Eggs (with Cauliflower). In these cases, the vegetable puree seems to fight the food it is inserted in rather than complementing it.

To her credit, Seinfeld recognizes that this isn't the most honest way to teach kids to eat vegetables: "I am also aware that some parents disagree with the concept of hiding vegetables in meals for their kids. Certainly, every parent needs to make the best decisions and adopt the right approach for her or his own family. For myself, I would have much preferred that my two picky eaters had accepted vegetables in their natural form from day-one, but after years of alternatively battling and conceding to them, I knew I had to come up with another approach. I chose a safe and tasty alternative to whole vegetables that made sense for them - and it worked for my entire family as well. But best of all, the hidden veggie approach has helped them acquire a taste for the real thing." And she appears to be open with her kids about what she is doing; she is deceiving taste buds rather than kids.

I find it interesting that of the nine dishes Seinfeld showcases on her website, only the meatloaf and the scrambled eggs even begin to look healthy. All the rest are high in sugar and/or fat. So what she is really trying to do is insert healthy vegetables into a basically unhealthy diet. No wonder her kids don't like the authentic flavors of food, if they are used to a diet of cheese, pancakes, chicken nuggets, and desserts. Even if the chicken nuggets are baked instead of fried, the chicken origin is obliterated until the food is anonymous - it could be made of anything, and adding some vegetables probably doesn't make any difference.

I guess what really bugs me is that brownies with spinach puree reminds me of the way I wrap my dog's pills in bacon grease to get her to eat them. Food should be enjoyed for what it is, not taken as medicine; American food thinking tends to emphasize the nutrition aspect and ignore the aesthetic aspect, which is why we have such a weird relationship with food, and why we tolerate such garbage under the heading “snack food”. We bounce from one nutrition recommendation to the next, turning each into a fad but making no lasting changes to our diet. People are told to eat squash because it is good for them, rather than reminded that winter squash, yams, and sweet potatoes taste best in the fall and winter, when green vegetables are scarce, and that they are warming foods with which to enjoy cold weather. We get prescriptions instead of celebrations, but, since people will always choose something enjoyable over something commendable, we forget to take our medicine after a while.

American kids are treated no better. They are told to eat their broccoli if they want dessert - as if broccoli is cod-liver oil, something that no adult would willingly eat. And if adults won't eat something, no self-respecting kid will. On the other hand, children who learn (by watching their parents) that food is enjoyable, interesting to talk about, fun to explore will try new foods more or less readily. Of course they will have their favorites: my kids will eat spinach salad willingly enough but not cooked spinach. But if they are served a wide variety of foods, many of which are vegetables, then it won't matter much if they refuse to eat one or two of them.

Children crave adult food and will generally eat whatever their parents prefer to eat, but they are smart enough to recognize frauds. So what it comes down to is that if kids are going to eat vegetables, maybe the parents should learn to enjoy real food first so they can set a good example. Eat local food in season. Cook from scratch regularly - it is often faster than using packaged foods. Don't disguise food. Explore the vast number of options of interesting ingredients out there. Go to the farmers' market with your child and let them choose a vegetable to try - and if you haven't ever eaten it, so much the better (just ask the vendor how to cook it before you leave). Avoid anything with an ingredients list that is mostly unpronounceable. Start enjoying a wide variety of good food, and you won't have to worry about the latest prescription - or puree beets to put in brownies.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Plenty

After finding the website for the 100-Mile Diet, I ended up getting their book, Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally, by Alisa Smith and JB MacKinnon. I enjoyed reading it; it goes through many of the same issues that Gary Nabhan and Barbara Kingsolver cover in their books, but in the Pacific Northwest instead of the Southwest or Southeast. One thing I've noticed, though, is that nearly all of the people attempting the challenge to eat exclusively local foods are adults without young children in the household; Kingsolver is the only one I've read who has children to contend with. And lucky for her, her teenage daughter was interested in food and health, and was willing to go along with it; if I tried it, my biggest challenges would be with my teenagers, who are old enough to have developed a taste for junk food and energy drinks. I make a real effort to eat local foods (defined as coming from anywhere in the state of Montana) as often as possible, but I'm not willing to require my kids to give up on their treats - that makes food a power struggle instead of an exploration.

Having said that, it would be easier in one way to eat local in Montana than in Vancouver: we at least have local wheat and flour. We have an abundance of good potatoes, beef, pork, and lamb, but vegetables are fewer and seafood isn't an option. Salt is tough. Local beers are easy to find, including some brewed in Bozeman, wine is more difficult; there are some wine growers in the Flathead Valley, but I haven't tried their wine yet (and it is outside the 100-mile limit). Once my kids are out of the house, I can see our diet getting more local; I'm not hard-core enough to make it exclusive, but I do enjoy the inspiration of reading about people who are.