Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A delicious solution to the summer berry problem (if "problem" is the right word)

Since we seem to be getting all Suzy Homemaker over here, maybe it's time to share a recipe.

I generally don't make impulse purchases at the grocery store checkout lane, but the other day I was looking at a magazine I'd never seen before called Sift, published by the King Arthur Flour Company. Because my husband's former bread-baking business relied heavily on King Arthur Flour, we get their catalogs all the time, and I love their recipes. So I grabbed the magazine and threw it on the conveyor belt without looking at the price. ($12.95!!!! When did magazines get so pricey? But it's stuffed full of great recipes so I'm considering it the equivalent of a cookbook purchase.)

Anyway: I tried this recipe and made one modification to create a spectacular summer-berry treat. It's easy and different and I'd make it again in a heartbeat. The cornmeal gives it a slight crunch and a muffiny texture, and the berries just melt into wonderfulness. Yum.

Cornmeal and Ricotta Cake with Fresh Berries

1 1/4 all-purpose flour
2/3 cup medium-ground yellow cornmeal
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
10 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup whole milk ricotta, room temperature
1 tsp orange zest
1 tsp lemon zest
1 1/4 cups (about 6 ounces) summer berries (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries) 
confectioners sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 350. Butter an 8" springform pan or 8" cake pan. Line with parchment paper and butter that too. Dust lightly with flour.

Combine flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Add ricotta and zests and mix. Stir in the flour mixture by hand just until combined, and then add the berries.

Fill prepared pan with batter and smooth the top. Bake until cake tester inserted in center comes out clean, about 45 to 55 minutes. cool 15 minutes before removing from pan. Dust top with confectioners sugar.

My variation: I found blueberries on sale and bought more than the cake required. Since I'd taken the zest from an orange and didn't want the rest of it to go to waste, I juiced the orange and combined the orange juice with the extra blueberries and just a few spoonfuls of sugar. I mashed the blueberries slightly just to bring out the juice, and when the cake was cool, I served it with the berry mixture spooned on top. Really delicious and a great way to take advantage of an abundance of berries.

Now I want to try some other recipes from the magazine. Raspberry frozen yogurt? Raspberry cream cheese scones? Sign me up!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Losing sleep over bedding

All I want is a new comforter for my bed, something in a color that coordinates with the room's decor, a fabric that isn't scratchy, and a price that won't require sacrifice of my firstborn. Is that too much to ask? 

Apparently it is. I've been looking at comforters in stores and online for weeks now without finding what I want, and I think the problem is that I want both too much and too little.

Let's handle the "too little" first: seriously, all I want is a comforter. I don't need sheets, a bed skirt, two or five or seven pillow shams, and whatever else is included in the 24-piece comforter sets I've been seeing online. The comforter set I'm looking for will include exactly one piece--a comforter--or, if the color doesn't coordinate with my perfectly good bedskirt, then perhaps two pieces--a comforter and bedskirt. So quit already with the 7-piece or 12-piece or 24-piece comforter sets.

I'm fairly flexible on color as long as it coordinates with the barn-red-and-brown color scheme of the room. In the past we've had comforters that are mostly brown or mostly red with gold accents or black accents or beige accents. I could accept an off-white comforter with the right kinds of accent colors, but I don't need anything purple or lime green or midnight blue. In that room, an eggplant-colored comforter is going to make my eyeballs explode, which doesn't lead to restful sleep. That solid sand-colored comforter I saw certainly felt plush and would coordinate with everything, but when I want to sleep on a vast expanse of something the color of sand, I'll go to the beach. 

And can we talk about fabric for a moment? The word comforter suggests a certain level of comfort, but too many of the comforters I've seen have that rough, nubbly texture suggesting recycled plastic bottles. I believe in recycling but I don't want to sleep in the recycling bin, and if I ever want to sleep on something that feels like indoor-outdoor carpeting, I'll take a nap at a Putt-Putt course. Cotton is fine. I don't demand satin or silk, although I wouldn't reject it if it were affordable.

Which takes us to the final point: I'm not spending a thousand dollars on a comforter, or even $500 or $300. We're too rough on bedding to treat it as a luxury purchase--but on the other hand, I don't want to spend $69 on those comforters at Big Lots that are so thin you can read the fine print on your mattress tags through them. I don't need imported goose down hand-stuffed by nuns into a silk duvet cover. Just a regular, ordinary, comforter for everyday use in a house where everything we own eventually ends up looking as if it's been gnawed by rabid wolverines.

But I can't find it--and the search is wearing me out. Maybe that's what the bedding manufacturers are hoping for: keep throwing bizarre and ridiculous and uncomfortable options at shoppers until we're too exhausted to think straight. 

If I come home one of these days carting a 24-piece comforter set made of recycled plastic bottles in an eggplant-and-lime-green print, you'll know they've won.


Monday, June 27, 2016

Nurturing the fearless imagination

While her mom and I had a meeting, the 9-year-old girl sat quietly drawing and writing on blank copy paper. "I'm writing a book," she said, but when I asked to see it, she covered it up. "It's not done," she said.

"That's okay," I said. "Sometimes writers need to keep their ideas under wraps until they're ready to share." Then we had a little talk about what it's like to be a writer at the tender age of 9.

I don't encounter a lot of preadolescent writers, but when I find one, I feel the need to encourage her, especially when I'm aware of what's waiting on the road ahead. I used to judge some regional Power of the Pen writing competitions, and I always enjoyed reading work produced by preadolescents. The younger students' writing skills may be relatively unsophisticated, but their imaginations remain free and untrammeled by social convention, with a fearlessness that feels as if it could change the world.

Something happens when the adolescent hormones kick in, though, as if those swirling chemicals drain confidence and combine with social pressure to squeeze the imagination into certain set patterns. Instead of bold, original, fearless writing, suddenly there's a stack studded with vampire romance, Game of Thrones fanfiction, or adolescent revenge fantasy.

Of course not all writers follow this path, and those who do may find a way to recover the freshness and fearlessness they once knew. If I could find a way to bottle those characteristics, I'd be rich, but instead I do my part to encourage budding writers wherever I find them. 

"Someday when you're ready to share, I'd love to see your work," I told my friend's daughter this morning, "but even if you don't want to share, you should keep writing. Because that's what writers do."

Friday, June 24, 2016

Great(ish) moments in birding

There I was practicing my Ornithological Glide, moving slowly and smoothly closer to the edge of the wetland, pausing to take photos of the green heron I was stalking, taking another slow, smooth, steady step, when all of a sudden a pickup truck went zooming past and startled the green heron into flight.

That's one way to get a great flight photo.

I've been practicing my patience in the front yard lately as I stake out hummingbird feeders in hopes of getting the zippy little guys to hang around long enough to pose for pictures, but they've been scarce. Suddenly they've entered Guardian Stage: a hummingbird (usually male) will perch on a limb or a telephone line near one of the feeders and then swoop in to chase away any encroaching hummies. With three feeders scattered about, this makes for high drama, with hummies chasing each other all over the place, moving so quickly that they're really hard to catch on camera.

But sometimes patience pays off.

That's how birding works: long periods of slow, steady, silent gliding or sitting followed by a whizz and a flap and they're off! The camera prefers those moments of drama, but me? I am birding: watch me glide--see me sit.


Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Summer grumblings

Monday was the longest day of the year so naturally on Tuesday morning my adorable husband felt the need to inform me that the days are starting to get shorter already. GAAAAH! Don't remind me! We're almost done with June and what have I accomplished? I mean, aside from attending to my mother's final days and welcoming my new grandson into the world? It would be easier to account for what I have not accomplished so far this summer.

I submitted a short humor piece to a publication but haven't done more than a few hours of writing on my big scholarly project. I've read a few academic books but haven't found any really interesting or original ideas; instead, I've been getting increasingly annoyed with the poor copyediting running rampant through books published by highly reputable presses. Obsessing over other scholars' writing flaws isn't going to get my project any closer to completion.

I've been canoeing exactly once, but we'll go out again tomorrow if weather permits. How did I end up with so many meetings on my schedule in the middle of summer? And why do they have to be spread out over so many days? I need a few uninterrupted writing days, but where are they?

I have walked a lot but have not met even the fairly low bar of 12 miles per week except for maybe twice. I worked on updating some syllabi early in the summer but I haven't done a lick of work on the brand-new course I'm teaching this fall except to try, in vain, to find a time to meet with my team-teaching partner. He's available only when I'm out of town, and vice versa.

Is my house a mess? Yes. Have I kept up with the birdfeeders, the mowing, and the little sewing project? Not a bit of it. When was the last time I walked up to the butterfly meadow to look for indigo buntings and yellowthroats? Don't remember. What have I been doing to fill my time? Don't know.

At this point what I need to do is spend the month of July doing nothing but work work work. Except for that canoe trip. And the family reunion. And the baseball game. And some birding outings. And visits with friends. And meetings. 

Maybe it's time to give up this summer as a lost cause.   

Friday, June 17, 2016

A tale of two stupids

Same store, same day, two different kinds of stupid--only one of them performed by me.

I'm standing in line at the photo counter at Wal-Mart--and it's not as if I can go anywhere else to pick up my photos, so I'm stuck--behind a young man who's trying very hard to do two things at once but failing badly. He's engaged in a heated conversation on his cell phone when the cashier asks him for seven dollars and some change, but he can't find the money while talking on the phone. He flails about, patting first this pocket and then that one, switching the phone to the other hand, trying the first pocket again, back to the conversation, oh here's the money but he can't count out the bills with one hand so he flails about some more until I can hear everyone in line silently beaming him commands to for heaven's sake PUT DOWN THE PHONE, but finally he's done and gone and the customers in line heave a sigh of relief while the cashier just rolls her eyes. She knows better than to say "Stupid" but the word is definitely in the air.

Later at the other end of the same store I ring up my few purchases at the self-serve checkout counter, ask for cash back from my debit card, press all the right buttons, gather my receipt and my purchases, and head out the door, but only 20 minutes later do I realize that I never picked up my cash. How long would a loose $20 bill last at a busy checkout counter at WalMart? Stupid stupid stupid, I tell myself, but then I consider another perspective: my stupidity didn't inconvenience anyone else and in fact probably made someone's day, maybe an overworked-but-underpaid WalMart employee or a customer who needs money for food or diapers. That's what I'm telling myself, anyway. 

Or maybe not. But if I must do something stupid, I prefer the kind that doesn't harm anyone except myself.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Songs and silence

grasshopper sparrow
I've discovered the best birding accessory ever: a hybrid car--or a friend with a hybrid car. Yesterday I went with my birding-and-botanizing buddy to creep silently along country roads near The Wilds in search of bobolinks, grasshopper sparrows, henslow's sparrows, and other birds, and nothing makes silent country-road-creeping so successful as a hybrid car.

We didn't see any bobolinks, alas, and we heard but did not see henslow's sparrows. However, the grasshopper sparrows were out in force, perching on fenceposts and singing their little hearts out, and we also saw meadowlarks, common yellowthroats, cedar waxwings, and a flock of at least 30 turkey vultures all gathered together in a parliament of fowls.

The oddest thing we noticed was a pair of brown thrashers perched on the low branches of a bush and looking with obvious distress at something on the ground beneath them. Periodically, one of the thrashers would jump down and peck at something and then hop hastily back up out of reach of whatever it was, but the grass was too tall to allow us to see. We guessed that a snake might be raiding their nest, but who knows? Another of nature's mysteries.

At a roadside park we checked for barn swallow nests where we saw them last year, and sure enough we saw two nests full of juveniles ready to fledge. They opened their mouths wide awaiting feeding, but the adults were reluctant to approach while we were so close, so we went away to let them feed in peace.

All in all, it was a very relaxing and rewarding day, full of long soothing silences punctured by birdsong. But now I keep thinking: those three barn swallows on the nest would make a great plush hand puppet. Someone stop me before I start sewing!

Turkey vultures guard the road

juvenile orchard oriole

some sort of flycatcher--maybe willow?

cedar waxwing


a pair of ospreys on the nest

What is this osprey carrying?

brown thrashers, very concerned

three little barn swallows waiting to be fed

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Am I blue?

I was feeling a little glum yesterday while driving home from my daughter’s house, partly because I was driving away from my adorable daughter and son-in-law and granddaughter and grandson and all their joyful energy and laughter and partly because I was driving through a lot of radio coverage of the Orlando massacre, which made me sad not just because I have friends and family members in and around Orlando and because the first gay people I ever knew well lived there but because the word “Orlando” will forever stand for unspeakable evil, just like Sandy Hook or Aurora or 9/11, which is an awful thing to happen to a fine town, and also because I can't think about Orlando without recalling my mother’s collapse after her second round of chemotherapy, a misguided and mistaken course of treatment that would not have ever been attempted if her doctors had been aware of the living will she wrote while she was an RN on an oncology floor and knew everything horrible that chemotherapy could do to a person and elected not to have it done to her if she should ever suffer from terminal cancer, but then the doctors’ unwillingness to use the word “terminal” and my mother’s increasing dementia and our lack of ready access to her living will and who knows what other inexorable factors led to my mother’s receiving chemotherapy that may not have hastened her death but surely made it less pleasant, and where was I going with this?

Oh yes: the drive home sunk me in increasing glumness so that I had to turn the radio away from the news and hit "scan" and the first place it stopped was on that Lukas Graham song “Seven Years” which I love even though it’s a little cheesy but then it struck me that the only part of the song that applies to me now is “Soon I’ll be 60 years old, / will I think the world is cold / or will I have a lot of children who can warm me,” which means I’ve got more verses behind me than ahead of me, if that makes any sense, and I wanted to step backward into the youthful enthusiasm and hopefulness of my 20s and 30s, but only if I could take along with me the wisdom that comes with age so that I’d avoid all the stupid mistakes I made in my 20s and 30s, but that felt like wishing away the present, some parts of which I would be happy to discard (violent massacres, joint pain, uncivil public discourse) while I’d really like to hold on to others (brilliant adult children, adorable grandchildren, my dog, my home, tenure), so the music wasn’t helping at all, and then I got home and found that the phone in the living room wasn’t working and the laundry detergent bottle had sprung a leak and dripped all over the laundry room and some small critter, probably a mouse, was scampering around in the bedroom and my husband is at a conference so I was going to have to handle all this by myself, which seemed too much to pile on top of the  fact that I’m far from my grandchildren and many people are dead in Orlando, including my mother, and even though her death is totally separate from the Orlando massacre and certainly didn’t merit so much news coverage, it still hurts.

So I took myself out on the back deck to sit and chill and listen to the cicadas buzzing in the treetops, a sound notably less intense than it was a week ago, when being outside any time of day made me wish for noise-cancelling earplugs, but now the decline in volume suggests that all those cicadas so intently bent on sex are moving on to the next verse of the song, so that the buzzing from the trees that sounded at first like “LifeLifeLifeLifeLife” will soon herald death in massive numbers, which is not at all likely to relieve my glumness except that the buzzing has become oddly soothing, and then I stretched my legs out in front of me and saw my sparkly blue toenails, which made me smile when I remembered my granddaughter's exuberance when she begged to paint her mommy’s toenails but Mommy was busy feeding baby brother so I said “do mine instead,” and she did mine, her very first attempt at toenail-painting, which she executed with a level of concentration suggesting a strong commitment to excellence combined with a youthful insouciance unwilling to be hampered by artificial boundaries, and she enjoyed it so much that she then painted my daughter’s toenails sparkly silver, so that we have similarly adorned toenails that might make strangers in a grocery store wonder whether we’ve been doing pedicures in our sleep but that to my eyes scream of youthful joy and energy, and then later just before bed (in the room where there may be a mouse I can’t locate or I may be suffering from auditory hallucinations) I put some lotion on my feet, some wonderfully light and silky lotion with just a hint of scent that I can’t quite pin down but I love so much that I stole it from my parents’ house, although it’s not really stealing because it’s entirely possible that I sent that lotion to my mother as a gift but she never used it and then she died and she wasn’t going to need it in the grave, and my dad kept trying to get me to take some of my mother’s things but she was much more petite than I am and wore a lot of pastels so her clothes wouldn’t work for me and her shoes made my shoes look like clown shoes and I don’t wear much jewelry (but I took some of hers for my daughter, who does, but kept a lovely silver scarf pin for myself) so if nothing else I was happy to take this wonderful lotion, which is called Joyful Garden Morning Song, which describes my mother to a T since she was never happier than when she was puttering around with her roses and making her begonias grow.

So a day that started in the joyful presence of my grandchildren and then took a long detour through a tunnel of glumness ended with my great big clown feet sparkling with blue nail polish and soothed by my mother’s Joyful Garden Morning Song lotion and I felt surrounded by love. We’re all going to die, some peacefully and some violently and some, like the cicadas, without every really knowing they’ve lived, but if I have to live in a world full of pain, I’d rather do it soothed by the love of my elders and sparkling with the joy of my offspring. So my toenails may be blue, but my heart is happy.



Saturday, June 11, 2016

Baby steps

I've put the books aside this week to spend time studying my grandson's face, which is very expressive. If only he had words to explain those little grimaces and grins! His face is a little wider than his big sister's but he has deep blue eyes like hers along with my husband's cleft chin and my dark hair, which shows incipient signs of curl. The long piano-player fingers are common on both sides of the family but at the moment he makes music by inspiring everyone around him to say Awwwwww.

Little E was excited to help get the house ready for baby brother's homecoming yesterday, and even more excited to have Mommy and Daddy back home too. Grandma is fun, but Daddy helps her bake cookies and Mommy gives the best hugs. Little E is definitely the most energetic person in the room, probably because she's the only one in the house getting a good night's sleep.

Today's goal is to get baby outside for a little while, maybe take a walk at a nearby park. My daughter is still pretty sore and weak, but a gentle walk with plenty of places to stop and rest would do her some good. Baby steps! That's the best we can do right now, but it's enough.


Wednesday, June 08, 2016

We have liftoff!

It took us a while to get the kite off the ground this morning, and then it kept doing loop-de-loops in the sky before nosediving back to earth. My husband decided that the kite needed more weight to provide stability in gusty winds, so he tied his cell-phone case to the kite's tail and then let it loose. You should have seen that kite rise straight up into the sky! Little E let out all the line and then had to hold tight so the kite wouldn't take her into orbit.

I felt my heart achieve liftoff later in the day when we took little E to the hospital to welcome her baby brother to the world. He took his sweet time arriving--41 weeks and many hours of labor--but he finally arrived with a healthy howl and a growing-boy appetite. When he wailed, little E looked alarmed and said "I don't know how to help him!" How long before that wail becomes another joyful note in the background music of our lives?

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Seeing the forest for the trees

"Let's go through the woods," she said, and I said, "What will we see in the woods?"

"We might see trees," she said, so we walked through the woods and sure enough, we saw trees. We also saw birds and squirrels and people walking dogs, but there's no denying that those woods are full of trees.

This is just one of the adventures I've been enjoying alongside a three-year-old perpetual motion machine. We have walked around a pond and fed the fish, and I watched her climb to the top of the climbing wall and call out, "I'm the king of the castle!"  

We have played in the sandbox and pulled weeds from the flower beds and waved at cedar waxwings. We have picked strawberries and squashed strawberries and eaten strawberries, and little E grated some lemon zest and stirred the batter for lemon bars.  

This evening we're mostly waiting and resting while her mommy works--or, more precisely, labors--to produce a new leaf on the family tree. Pretty soon little E will be a big sister and she'll have a chance to teach her baby brother so many important things, like where to find strawberries and how to be a king and what's the best place to find trees, but first we're learning how to wait, some of us more patiently than others. 

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Why did the slug cross the road?

What do you call a group of slugs? A herd? A flock? A slither? I don't know, and neither do I know why so many slugs were crossing one small stretch of my road this morning. I didn't see any clear difference between the two sides of the road, but there they were, slugging their way across. Why?

I've spent more than 12 years closely observing and studying my surroundings out here in the woods, but I'm struck by how much I still don't know. What was that tiny red lizard I saw this morning and why have I never seen one like it before? Don't know. How does that pesky fly figure out the most annoying possible place to hover, just on the edge of my peripheral vision? It's a mystery. What kind of critter once wore that chunk of fur stuck on the barbed wire? No clue.

The other day (this is true) I saw two cows wandering in the woods where cows don't belong, and I hesitated to report the loose cows to our neighbors because I knew their first question would be "What kind of cows were they?" For years my nearest neighbors have been cows but I still can't answer that question. I can identify dozens of birds by sight or song, but I still can't distinguish a holstein from an angus.

But then again, for every bird song I know, I hear dozens that I don't, and every spring it seems I have to re-teach myself the same common birdcalls. I recognize by sight exactly two types of ferns. A walk through the winter woods is full of mystery because I can't recognize trees without their leaves on. Those colorful rocks all over the cliff face? If it's not slate, it's a stranger.

The things I don't know about my woods could fill up the woods twice over: Mushrooms! Lichens! A zillion different kinds of bugs! I can't even know how much I don't know.

I certainly don't know what made those slugs slither en masse across the road, and if they know, they're not telling.          

Friday, June 03, 2016

A fresh shipment of hope

After being away from campus awhile, I sense something different this week--not just the rhythmic buzzing of cicadas in the trees or the aroma of floor wax in my building but a quality sorely lacking for far too long. Feels like hope.

I hear it in a subtle shift in expression, from "If things ever improve" to "After we get past this rough spot," and I feel it in a new willingness to discuss bold plans for the future. For too long the future has been huddling in the dark with its thumb in its mouth or looming like a meteor about to strike, but suddenly colleagues are speaking about the future as if it's the Wells Fargo wagon delivering a long-awaited shipment of trombones.

What has changed? A few small things I can't talk about yet and one great big thing that's public news: We have a new president! He won't officially take office for another month and many of us know him only from the press release (here), but somehow his hiring has opened the door for hope.

What a relief! We're all aware that recovering from our budget crunch will require a lot of hard work and sacrifice, but a diet of despair is insufficient to sustain such efforts. Give me hope! A niggling voice in the back of my mind warns that this could be false hope, a glimmering mirage designed to inspire us to keep running blindly on the same old hamster wheel, but someone needs to shush that voice. Instead, listen to the trombones! Aren't they glorious?

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Down the slippery slope of "excellence"

I'd like to take a moment to quibble over the meaning of the word excellent.

Excellence may be a highly subjective quality, but if someone (such as, for instance, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources) tells me (on an official map showing boating access points on the Muskingum River) that a particular place (such as Big Bottom State Memorial) offers excellent paddling access, then I expect, at the very least, access.  

If your idea of access is the ability to toss a canoe off a sheer six-foot drop into the river, then Big Bottom State Memorial is the place for you! And if you must tie the boat up afterward, you could always toss a rope around one of the many clumps of poison ivy covering the entire bank.

Right: to the DNR (or whatever branch made this map), excellent paddling access means parking beside the road, dragging a canoe a good distance down a hill, and then flinging it off a steep poison-ivy-covered bank. Good luck getting into the canoe yourself--or getting the canoe up the bank again afterward. If that's excellence, I'd hate to see mediocre paddling access. 

So we decided against putting the canoe in at Big Bottom, which is a pity because it's a beautiful stretch of river distant from dangerous low-head dams. Instead, we headed up to Burr Oak Lake and enjoyed a leisurely paddle in the company of great blue herons, ospreys, dragonflies, and about a million cicadas, which can sing better than they swim. If Big Bottom's paddling access qualifies as excellent, then I would describe those bloated floating cicada bodies as demonstrating excellent swimming skills.

I would generally describe Burr Oak's paddling access as excellent, but if I want to follow the scale of paddling-access excellence established by the DNR, I'd have to label Burr Oak superfantastically outstanding, which seems a bit overdone. So let's ratchet things down a bit: Burr Oak is fine but Big Bottom State Memorial offers wretched to nonexistent paddling access. And cicadas, as it turns out, can't swim for beans.