Monday, December 1, 2014

Things I have encountered this week that I would like to share. (Part III)

Back when my blog was on MySpace * (not to mention, back when I actually blogged...) I would occasionally throw a list of cool stuff up with the title Things I have encountered this week that I would like to share. I'm pretty sure I had a bunch of them, but it looks like I only transferred two over here. It was basically a way for me to say "Hey! Look at this stuff, it's pretty cool."

It's been about a year and a half since I last posted on this blog, and almost eight years since I last posted one of these. So I have no idea why the idea of doing another one popped into my head tonight. But first I thought, "Hey, this is a great book! Everybody should read this book." And then I thought, "Hey, these are great pickles. Everybody should eat these pickles." And here we are.

So here are the things I think you should try. You know you want to.

The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell

This was on my to-read list before Deborah Mitford died in September, but it did move up the list considerably because of it. (Warning: the link leads to her obituary, which I suppose you could view as a spoiler for the book, because it details the most memorable events of a family that specialized in memorable events.)

The book is well-written. The family is fascinating. I knew the broad strokes: two sisters were Nazis, one was a communist. There were affairs and elopements and imprisonment and best-selling authors. Everyone did outrageous things--some things that were outrageous only by the standards of the time, but others that would be outrageous today as well. My favorite line from the book (so far) quotes their mother as saying, "Whenever I see a headline beginning with 'Peer's Daughter' I know one of you children has been in trouble."

The family itself is incredibly compelling, but the thing that I'm finding absolutely fascinating is to read about the family's interactions with Hitler while also knowing how that story ends. I'm about halfway through the book. World War II has not yet started. And these women--who are cousins of Winston Churchill's--are having tea with Adolf Hitler and talking to him about the nutritional values of bread. (seriously.)

Most people hear the name Hitler and immediately think "monster," for the very reasonable reason that he was clearly a monster. But it's easy to forget that people didn't always know that, that some people of the time--both inside and outside Germany--agreed with him, and that he was reportedly a fairly charismatic person, particularly during speeches. Reading about people interacting with him as a normal human being is jarring, to say the least. But because I know what happens next, I'm fascinated to see it through that lens--and how they react as the situation changes.

In short, this was a family of deeply flawed, but wildly interesting people. Lovell has done a great job of making the reader care about them, even when they're doing reprehensible things.

Shorter version: Read this book.

Lancaster Pickle Company Horseradish Pickles

When we walked into Central Market on Saturday, my sister said that she wanted to buy some pickles. So I followed her over to the Lancaster Pickle Company stand. And after I spent awhile chowing down on their free samples, I felt like I really needed to buy something, so I bought a pint of their horseradish pickles. And--don't get me wrong, they were good--I just assumed that I'd bring them home, stick them in my refrigerator, then find them behind the leftovers in three months and throw them away. When I think "snack," I don't usually think "pickles," so I figured I'd forget about them.

The first time I took them out of the refrigerator, it was Sunday afternoon, I'd been away for three days and I hadn't been to the grocery store yet. I didn't have a lot of snack options. But the second, third and fourth time...look, these are really good pickles. And therein lies my problem. The pickles are half gone. And I can't get any more until I go back to Pennsylvania. And I can't stop eating them. It's tragic, really.

So if you live near York (or, presumably, Lancaster) go get some pickles. But don't tell me about it, because jealousy stinks.

* Writing this sentence made me feel SO. OLD.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

In which my crafty side comes out.

A couple of years ago, my parents bought me a die cutter for Christmas. I asked for it because it would be useful at work--I can't tell you how often I need to cut out some random shape like a train for a lesson or a bulletin board. I got a Silhouette, because it doesn't require buying expensive cartridges--you just buy individual designs for $.99 each.

I've used it sporadically, but not for anything particularly interesting. Then my friend Jackie got pregnant, and I lost my mind.

Several of us were planning Jackie's baby shower, and I volunteered to do the invitations. Any normal (sane) person would have gone to Target and bought a couple of packages of invitations, but I decided to try to make them. ...And, they were adorable.

They weren't difficult--I bought the complete pattern from Silhouette's website--but they were time-consuming to put together. In fact, when Jackie first saw them, she said to her husband, "Are you sure Kate made that? She doesn't have time to do that. She has a life!" But I did it, and I was ridiculously proud of myself. 

So, when someone needed to make the favors, I was nominated with the statement, "Well, you're so crafty, Kate..." which is flattering if totally untrue. But I was excited to do it, and in true me form left it till the last minute. I had a concept: small jar with candy and a tag of some sort, but no real ideas of how to make it work.

But work it did.

The jars were from World Market, which is an unbelievably awesome store. They were only $.99 each,  (though on the website you can only buy them in sets of 6) and I was looking for something that could potentially be useful to people in the future. There's nothing I hate more than people giving me useless crap, and these jars are the perfect size for any number of applications in the kitchen, and plenty of other places besides.

The ribbon was from Michaels (or possibly AC Moore? I went to both in a period of a couple days, and I don't remember.) and I bought the Jelly Bellies at Candy World at Arundel Mills.

The tags are double-sided--I used the onesie pattern from the card to create one side, then a simple label and date on the other. I used the Silhouette to cut out the circles, but it would have probably been far easier to just use a circle punch. I didn't have one with me since I waited till the last minute, but I actually have two at work for random projects. I have to cut out a surprising number of circles in my everyday life.

I made extra tags for the prize bags, though I had nothing to do with the games or prizes themselves.

And finally, I used a bigger version of the onesie pattern to make some decorations. It's hard to see in the pictures, but there are tiny (too tiny!) little clothespins on each onesie. They're taped onto the twine--the clothespins are just for show. Next time I'll use slightly bigger ones.

I actually had a ton of fun with this. Maybe one day I'll be that person who throws the perfectly coordinated theme parties or has the unique handmade invitations. Or...most likely not. But I'd love to do this again. It gave me a creative outlet that I don't usually have.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Culinary Adventures of Brian and Kate: Creamed Chipped Beef

It all started with the chicken pot pie.

Last fall, my friend Brian and I went to Colonel Brooks Tavern the week before it closed. In the course of our conversation, we began rhapsodizing about Pennsylvania Dutch chicken pot pie. (Spoiler: unless you have lived in PA Dutch country, this is not anything like what you think it is. More on that another day.) Both of us spent some of our formative years living in central Pennsylvania--in fact, our parents only live about 45 minutes apart--and both of us really miss this dish.

We started talking about all kinds of dishes we remembered from our childhoods, and just like that a project was born.

We badgered our parents and grandparents for ideas and recipes...and ran into problem number one, which was that none of these people cook with recipes. But we persevered. Armed with ingredients and a sketchy outline of a recipe, we embarked on our first culinary adventure: creamed chipped beef.

This meal basically defines my childhood memories of my grandparents' house. Grandma was Southern, and she cooked like it. Every single thing she made was absolutely delicious and absolutely terrible for you. She could just throw ingredients into a dish and make it amazing. She started taking a few shortcuts as she got older, but when my mother was young she remembers that Grandma always made everything from scratch-nothing out of a box, a bag or a can.

Weekend mornings at Grandma's house always meant a huge breakfast, and more often than not, creamed chipped beef was on the menu. As I got older, she started to modify the recipe to accommodate the vegetarians and vegans in the family (Grandma could veganize a recipe like nobody's business) but what I wanted to make was the original recipe. Grandma died a few months before we started our project, so ironically it was my mom, a vegan, who walked us through making it.

And really, how can you go wrong with a recipe whose first instruction is to fry a pound of bacon? You don't need the bacon itself, although it's bacon. It'll get eaten. What you really need is the bacon grease. (You can also use olive oil--that's how my mom does it. But it's not nearly as delicious.) We made this in a cast-iron skillet that originally belonged to my grandmother, which I thought was a nice touch. She cooked everything in those things.

Once you've finished the bacon, remove it from the pan, leaving the grease. Slowly add flour to form a roux. Here, we ran into the first problem, which was that my mom's instruction was to make sure the roux was very brown but not burned. I wish I was kidding when I say there were at least three phone calls to mom to clarify details during this recipe, and the first one had to do with how brown very brown is.

So, roux. Very brown. Rip the chipped beef into small pieces and add them to the pan. Continue to brown.

In a measuring cup, combine water and milk at a ratio of 2/3 milk to 1/3 water. (I use soy milk, because ugh, lactose. Brian swore this was sacrilege. He's probably right.) Slowly add the mixture to the skillet, stirring constantly. You want to cook this down to get rid of the flour taste, and the nice thing is you can cook it down over and over again if you screw something up. This is the hardest part for me to describe, and the hardest for us to figure out on our own. You don't want it to be too runny, and you don't want it too thick, and you don't want it to taste like flour. 

That's it. Serve it over biscuits or toast; I neglected to take a picture of the assembled dish, but that's ok because my biscuits turned out to be freaks of nature. Serve with the aforementioned bacon, if any has survived to the end of the process. (Not likely.)

Brian, being Brian.

This was a tough one for me, because it wasn't like Grandma's. But then, nobody cooks like Grandma. Even my mom's chipped beef isn't quite the same, and she's been making it for ages though she now makes it vegan, which isn't nearly as good. (For the record, to veganize this dish, use olive oil instead of bacon fat, use soy milk instead of regular milk, and omit the chipped beef.)

It was a passable attempt, but like anything else I'll get better at it as I make it more often. (Not that often. My arteries can't handle it.) I'll probably never make it as good as Grandma's was, but I should be able to match my mom's.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars. We could have used cooking it down a little bit more, but this was a close enough facsimile to make me happy, and a good base to work on to make it better.

Brian's rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Book Log 2013 - The Year So Far

This year, the one resolution that I've been able to keep has been to keep a list of all of the books I read. I've always been curious about how much I actually read in a year, so I decided to find out. Earlier tonight, I tweeted that I have read 54 books so far this year, at an average rate of one book every 1.9 days. A couple of people asked me what I've been reading, so I figured I'd post it here. I have to admit, this list makes my tastes look somewhat less than sophisticated, but so be it. I'm enjoying myself. ...and my new Kindle. (Thanks, Mom!)

A few notes: This list includes children's and young adult novels that I've read, but not picture books. #6, #7 and #36 are for elementary school kids. #2 and #27 are for high school, more or less. (In reality, #2 is for no one. It was the most nauseatingly terrible piece of trash I've ever inflicted on myself.)

Also, I included a couple of novellas that I read. Cheating? Perhaps. But even without them, I've read 51.

  1. Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese
  2. The Vampire Diaries: The Return, Volume I - L.J. Smith
  3. Storm Front - Jim Butcher
  4. Naked Heat - Richard Castle
  5. Heat Rises - Richard Castle
  6. Benjamin Franklinstein Lives! - Matthew McElligott
  7. The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon - S.S. Taylor
  8. Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion - Janet Reitman
  9. Fool Moon - Jim Butcher
  10. The Custom of the Army (Novella) - Diana Gabaldon
  11. A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows (Novella) - Diana Gabaldon
  12. Club Dead - Charlaine Harris
  13. Dead to the World - Charlaine Harris
  14. Dead as a Doornail - Charlaine Harris
  15. Definitely Dead - Charlaine Harris
  16. All Together Dead - Charlaine Harris
  17. From Dead to Worse - Charlaine Harris
  18. Dead and Gone - Charlaine Harris
  19. Dead Reckoning - Charlaine Harris
  1. Deadlocked - Charlaine Harris
  2. A Touch of Dead - Charlaine Harris
  3. Jesus Freaks - Don Lattin
  4. Frozen Heat - Richard Castle
  5. Baltimore Blues - Laura Lippman
  6. Grave Peril - Jim Butcher
  7. Mormon America - Richard Ostling and Joan Ostling
  8. How to Lead a Life of Crime - Kirsten Miller
  9. Summer Knight - Jim Butcher
  1. Death Masks - Jim Butcher
  2. Blood Rites - Jim Butcher
  3. The Surgeon - Tess Gerritsen
  4. The Apprentice - Tess Gerritsen
  5. Memories of the Future: Volume 1 - Wil Wheaton
  6. Dead Beat - Jim Butcher
  7. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin - Erik Larson
  8. Fourth Grade Rats - Jerry Spinelli
  9. Irish History for Dummies - Mike Cronin
  10. The Sinner - Tess Gerritsen
  11. Body Double - Tess Gerritsen
  12. Vanish - Tess Gerritsen
  13. The Mephisto Club - Tess Gerritsen
  14. The Keepsake - Tess Gerritsen
  15. Ice Cold - Tess Gerritsen
  16. The Silent Girl - Tess Gerritsen
  17. Last to Die - Tess Gerritsen
  1. Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life - Gretchen Rubin
  2. Proven Guilty - Jim Butcher
  3. White Night - Jim Butcher
  4. A Brewing Storm (novella) - Richard Castle
  5. Small Favor - Jim Butcher
  6. Turn Coat - Jim Butcher
  7. Changes - Jim Butcher
  8. Ghost Story - Jim Butcher
  9. Cold Days - Jim Butcher

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

On Social Awkwardness.

I took a class today at a museum. It was a teacher education class about teaching using the museum's resources, and everything was going along swimmingly until I heard "This is Lisa, our drama expert. We're going to be doing some theatre exercises!"

It was about then that I started looking around for the bathroom.

I've had the same conversation a couple of different times in the past few months. I make some comment about being socially awkward. The person I'm talking to looks at me oddly. "You're not socially awkward at all," they say. "You're good with people."

Ha. No. No, I'm not.

Let me be clear-I am not in general an anxious person. My social anxiety comes out in very specific circumstances only. All of these people who have told me with no doubt that I'm not socially awkward are people who I'm not awkward around. They're family members, close friends, coworkers--in some cases, people I've known my whole life. They've either never seen me in those situations, or they've not noticed what was going on when they did.

And, even at its worst, it's mostly internal. A sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. An inability to figure out what to do with my hands. A fake "Nothing wrong over here!" smile. And the voice in my head screaming "Get out! Get out!" That's usually when I hide in the bathroom.

This, by the way, is my reaction to being at some sort of social event where I either don't know anyone, or the people I do know are otherwise engaged. That, more than anything else, triggers a flight response in me. It's not having a purpose that does it, I think. If I know someone there, my purpose is to talk to them. If I have a job or task, my purpose is to complete it. Standing around with nothing to do in a social setting freaks me out. I can hide it--I'm fairly good at appearing fine even when I'm absolutely not--but that doesn't change the fact that internally, I'm a mess.

Over the years, I've learned some solid rules for coping:
1. Don't go somewhere where I don't know anybody.
2. The corollary: Don't go somewhere where I only know one person and they're going to be busy.
3. Don't sign up for any sort of volunteer activity that requires approaching and/or calling people I don't know.
4. Don't stand out. If every other person in the room is in Renaissance Faire garb, by God, put on a bodice.
5. Don't perform an ambush setup. I have enough trouble acting normal under the best of circumstances. Figuring out that you invited Dave from Accounting because we'd be perfect together is not the best of circumstances.
6. Don't put myself in situations that violate rules 1-5 because I think that's what I should want to do.

There are some surprising things about this. I'm fine one on one. First dates, blind dates, job interviews--they don't stress me out any more than they do other people, I think. I call my students' parents whenever necessary. I'm usually fine in small groups. Public speaking doesn't bother me. In fact, I'm quite good at it, even if I have no prep time whatsoever. Any situation where I'm in a position of power--for instance, people coming into my library at work, or when I'm teaching someone how to do something--is fine. In fact, it's pretty rare that I have any work-related social anxiety at all. And none of this applies if I'm dealing with kids. They don't bother me.

So, the theatre exercises. The problem here is that any time I'm asked to do something that I think is ridiculous, I am extremely uncomfortable. Even if everyone else in the room is doing it, I feel ridiculous, and therefore awkward.* I'm not dramatic. I never know what to do when any sort of improvisation is called for. But I put on my big girl panties, pretended I was an 8-track cassette, and had a conversation in character with someone pretending to be a WWII-era Victory Garden cookbook. I did what I had to do. But do you know what I'm not going to do? I'm not using this technique in my library. Not only does it make me feel ridiculous, but I can guarantee that I have at least a couple of socially awkward kids in each of my classes, and there's no way that I'm going to do this to them.

* This goes double for roleplaying. No, I would NOT like to practice what I'm going to say when I call little Suzy's mother. I'm just going to call her. No, I would NOT like to wait on you like you're a customer. You're not a customer. I know that, you know that, and we both know that you know the menu better than I do.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

...Perhaps there IS such a thing as too many books.

I've been writing my book review column for a couple of months now, and I have to tell you it feels a little like Christmas morning every time I come home and find a box or an envelope from a publisher waiting by my door.

I've been assured that this feeling will pass--overwhelming is the word used most often--but right now it still feels like I'm getting little presents every once in awhile. In other news, my guest room closet is now a bookshelf.

(Not pictured: about six boxes of books that I definitely ruled out.)

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Car Free in DC

DC is not New York. I like it that way. New York is a great place to visit. It's a lot of fun. But I find it overwhelming. The buildings are too tall. There are too many people. After a couple of days, it becomes too much.

DC is small. The height restrictions (which have nothing to do with the height of the Capitol, by the way) keep buildings shorter. There are a lot of people, but the sidewalks aren't ridiculously crowded. Things are closer together.

But one place New York has us beat is mass transit. It's convenient — even easy — to live car-free in New York. In DC, it's doable but more difficult. Metro, for all of its shortcomings, is a pretty decent subway system, and mastering the buses isn't too bad. But there are places even in the city that are really inconvenient to get to without a car. And the suburbs? Forget it. (Obviously, this isn't universally true, but there are wide swaths of the 'burbs that are incredibly difficult to get to by mass transit.)

I've been carless for a week. Not so long in the grand scheme of things, but enough to change my routines and habits considerably. I've been getting up earlier to catch the Metro to work. I've been walking to the grocery store and therefore buying a lot less at a time. And going anywhere outside the Beltway is pretty much off limits.

In a lot of ways, I like it. It's better in terms of willpower as far as shopping. I haven't had fast food in a week, because I can't run through the drive-thru on the way to or from work. I have to be more purposeful in my outings and plan ahead more, which is always a plus for me. And I'm getting a lot more exercise.

There are downsides, though. Thursday at work I was in desperate need of a couple of nine-volt batteries to power a cordless microphone. The closest place to buy them was a CVS a mile away, which is too far to run out at lunchtime if I'm walking. Luckily my incredibly awesome volunteer, A., hopped in her car and picked them up.

This past week I had to cancel a visit to Let's Dish in Columbia with my friend J, because getting to Columbia by bus and Metro would have taken four hours. Then, there was no information for a return trip. We rescheduled for tomorrow. I still don't have a car, so I'm renting one at a not inconsiderable expense.

I've toyed off and on with the idea of giving up my car. It's ancient, it's ugly and I will use it if I have the opportunity. Being without it has forced me to make changes that I've actually wanted to make. But at the same time I don't necessarily live a lifestyle that is conducive to not having access to a car. Of course, Zipcar is an option, and if this little experiment were going to go on longer I would have signed up for a membership, but paying the $25 application fee, the $60 annual fee and the hourly rental fee for one trip to Columbia seemed a little ridiculous.

I'm trying to make the determination as to whether or not mass transit plus Zipcar is at all reasonable and financially sensible. Since it's so old, my car doesn't cost much to insure. Before this recent spate of repairs, it's been incredibly reliable. Gas is pretty expensive, but I also don't tend to drive that far-one tank of gas almost always lasts me more than two weeks. I don't have to pay to park, and street parking is plentiful in my neighborhood.

But if the car is there, I will always sleep the extra twenty minutes instead of getting up for the bus, I will not walk as much and I will eat more crappy fast food.

I've got two more weeks to try this out. I'll let you know how it goes.