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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Who Is Smart?

First of all, for those who are wondering how the ongoing battle with the squirrels is going:

Sorry I didn't get a closer shot. Zoom in; it is definitely worth it.
Now that we have that out of the way . . . .

The best gift is one that the recipient didn’t realize she wanted, one that she never thought she needed and never would have bought for herself but that, once given, becomes an integral part of her life. I’m not sure that I have ever given a gift like this, but I have received at least two. The first was a Kindle, given to me by my parents at Christmas when we lived in Switzerland. English-language books are expensive to purchase there and not readily available at libraries. In addition, the Kindle is easier to travel with – and move – than stacks of books. Once we purchased a case with a light, it also was easier to read in the car (as a passenger, of course!), on airplanes, or in a hotel room with sleeping kids. Now every member of the family has a Kindle (though somehow we seem to have only one charger).
 The second surprise necessity was a birthday gift that Eric gave me about four years ago. It was a Garmin Forerunner GPS watch. It would tell me how far I was running, how fast, and, when I connected it to my computer, it gave me a map with my route, elevation, and pace at different points on the run. The watch was pink, which was supposed to keep the male members of the family from stealing it. That didn’t work, and so I never achieved my own records for fastest mile, 5K, or 10K. I did, however, still hold the record for longest run, since that was back in the days before some of my children became 50-mile-a-week runners and I became a runner who is delighted if I can hit 20 in a seven-day span.
The first thing I realized when I started wearing the watch is that I was running much slower than I had thought. Geneva is hilly, and without a running partner to push me, I was kind of lollygagging through those grape arbors. The watch quickly became essential to my runs. I needed to know my pace and mileage. I needed to see my route and feel virtuous about the elevation chart. So a few years later, when the watch died, I got on eBay and ordered a refurbished one (orange, this time). By this time, Johanna had become as hooked on the Forerunner as I was, so we justified the expense by saying that we were sharing. Then she went to college, so she used some of her graduation money to purchase very own lime-green model.
Right about the time Johanna left for college, the orange Forerunner began to show signs of age. It told me I had run an 11-minute mile (certainly possible, though I hope not my usual pace) followed by a 6-minute mile (not possible this side of Paradise). It couldn’t find a signal in the woods, and its battery drained in the course of a 5-mile run. By this time, Eric and Drew both had purchased way cooler Garmins, ones that linked to their cell phones and told them the weather. The watches had a sleek design, so the guys could wear them for life – not just running. I liked the idea of always knowing what time it is, so I decided it was time for me to make the leap to the next level of fitness tech. I drove to Bob Roncker’s Running Spot and plunked down the cash for my very own Garmin Vivoactive Smart Watch.
I do a Social Media and Internet unit with my basic writing class. We read about, discuss, monitor, and write about our involvement with these technologies. At the end of the unit, we try to come to some conclusions. Last spring, I had a student named Cristian, who loved computers and everything about them. Despite his enthusiasm for tech (it was so overt that his classmates called him “Apple”), his embrace of internet-linked devices was not uncritical. “People are smart, not phones,” he would say. “We need to control our devices, rather than letting them control us.”
I was not thinking about his advice when I transitioned from a regular GPS watch to a full-fledged Smart Watch. The Vivoactive thinks it is my mom – or at least my coach. If I sit for more than 30 minutes, it buzzes at me to “Move!” It greets me in the morning with the depressing news that I have taken zero steps and that the last six hours of sleeping has only burned about 268 calories. If I linked it to my cell phone, it would buzz peremptorily at me every time I got a text (I haven’t given it that kind of control yet – mostly because I haven’t taken the time to figure out how). The Vivoactive isn’t a nice, encouraging coach. It’s the demanding, impossible-to satisfy variety, the kind who says things like, “If you’re not throwing up at the end of a run, you didn’t go fast enough.” When I run with friends who have a GPS watch, their watches invariably tell them they have run more miles, faster, than my watch tells me. At first, we thought this was perhaps due to an error in the settings, and it is true that the watch thought I was male, 4 foot 10, and weighed 150 pounds. But even after correcting that, I still feel like it cheats me on every run. Further, it refuses to count any exercise I do that doesn’t involve steps. If I spend 20 minutes doing an ab workout, the calorie count doesn’t move any more than if I spend 20 minutes lying on the floor. And the watch gives credit only for speed. So after I struggle the half-mile up Mount Storm, the Vivoactive sees only the slow pace of the climb, not the high level of the exertion. I know that these watches are designed as a motivational tool for fitness. But I am not trying to lose weight or exercise more; all I really want is to be able to see how far I run, when I run, and keep track of the time of day, when I don’t. I don’t need a constant critic on my wrist. I need to listen to Cristian and not feel bullied or shamed by a piece of metal and plastic that has no ability to know or care what I’m doing.
But right now, the Vivoactive is buzzing and I need to take a run.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Feeder Wars

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . .

Okay, actually this all happened fairly recently in Clifton, which I do know seems to some people like a faraway galaxy, but is actually quite conveniently located (so drop by sometime).  Nevertheless, in the spirit of George Lucas, we are pleased to bring you . . .

Feeder Wars (you’ll have to imagine the music)

Episode I: The Phantom Menace

The attentive reader will recall from the previous post that all my efforts to fix the bird feeder had been, as they say, for naught. So I called in the heavy artillery, which in this case was Eric and his credit card. He took a trip to Lowe’s and returned bearing two large feeders, two bags of seed, and a shepherd’s hook. We left the little feeder in the tree and put the hook with two large feeders outside the kitchen window so we could see the birds (and so we could fill the feeders without major mishap). We filled the feeders, hung them up, and happily observed the little darlings snacking to their heart’s content.
The next morning, the largest feeder, which must hold about 8 pounds of seed, was nearly empty.
            Could our cute little birds be such pigs? We pictured an enormous flock of nocturnal fowl descending on our yard and shamelessly hoovering up all our seed. Also odd, however, was that the second feeder, hanging from the same hook, was virtually untouched. We filled the feeder again, to the same result. The third night, Eric figured out the culprit: Deer. Because the feeder has a large tray at the bottom, the deer had easy access to the seed. And they could bump it with their noses to shake out more seed, quickly cleaning us out.
            We like deer as well as the next suburban homeowner (interpret that as you will). So we moved the vulnerable feeder to the back tree and the little feeder to the front hook.

Episode II: Attack of the Squirrel

            The scene opens on a large feeder, filled with gleaming sunflower seeds, peacefully suspended from a tree branch. Cardinals, purple finch, and chickadees flit about, every now and then swooping down to daintily pluck a seed. But wait, what is this menacing gray figure entering stage left? Birds scatter in dread as a squirrel crouches silhouetted against the black bark. He gages the distance. He leaps. He hangs, spread-eagled against the wildly swinging feeder, gorging himself on someone else’s lunch.

Episode III: Revenge of the Rodent

            The squirrel was jumping from a split in the main trunk of the tree, so we decided that if we scooted the feeder out farther, he wouldn’t be able to make the leap. (Incidentally, I do realize that I am using the masculine pronoun for a squirrel of whose sex I have no clue. I realize that God made girl squirrels. I also realize that “it” is often the preferred first-person singular when referring to animals. I have made an authorial choice to use “he” because “it” is far too impersonal for the battle that the squirrel and I are waging. And, well, he kind of seems like a guy.) So we scooted the feeder farther out on the branch.
            I don’t know if the squirrel could have made the longer leap, but he didn’t have to. Turns out, he could climb right down the rope from which the feeder was hanging. It wasn’t even a challenge.

Episode IV: A New Hope

            It was time to put some greater expertise (and cash) behind this problem. I turned to my computer, and in a flash of keys and a click of buttons, help was on the way.
            It took the squirrel baffle two days to arrive. During that time, I let the squirrel feed in peace, figuring his fun would soon come an end.  When the box came, I eagerly opened it and hung the baffle, which is a clear dome that covers the top of the feeder, blocking rodential access.

Episode V: Return of the Scurry (A “scurry,” by the way, is one name for a group of squirrels. One challenge this blog is presenting is that there are really just not that many synonyms for “squirrel.” I apologize for the repetition.)

            At first, things seemed to be going well. Shortly after I hung the baffle, the squirrel tried to take his usual route down the rope to the feeder. He stepped on the baffle, it tipped, and he went sliding to the ground below. Apparently unhurt, he gave it another try and landed again on his furry little squirrel bottom. Finally, he was experiencing the same kind of frustration I had been feeling for days. All was peaceful as I watched the birds again flock to the seed. A woodpecker even stopped by.
            But my adversary was not to be so easily foiled. Again he appeared at the crook in the tree trunk, eyeing the treats, considering the jump. His tail was jittering back and forth. I have no idea if that was for balance or if that’s what he does when he’s thinking. After a moment, he leapt, flew gracefully through the air, hit his nose on the baffle, and plunged to the earth. I actually experienced a small pang of pity; I was starting to feel a little bit like Mr. McGregor.
            Apparently, though, a fall of five or so feet is not a big deal for a squirrel, and his nose didn’t seem to be bothering him either. His next jump was successful, and it was only my exasperated knocking on the window that scared him away from his prize.

Episode VI: Return of the Baffle

            It was becoming clear to me that nowhere on the tree was going to be safe from this bandit. So with duct tape, a bungee cord, and another shepherd’s hook, I constructed an alternate setup on the back porch. I moved it away from the tree and propped it up an a recycle bin to raise it high enough above the railing that the squirrel couldn’t jump up.
            Or so I thought. It took about an hour for me to discover that the leap from the railing to the feeder was no problem for this gymnastically talented beast. My friend told me, via email, that she and her husband have just given up on feeding birds only and are feeding squirrels, foxes, deer, and whomever else shows up. I, however, was not ready to capitulate. In the basement, I found an old mesh cover for a cheese plate. It actually has never served its intended purpose; I bought it to strain quince for jelly back when we lived in Geneva (there’s a post about that in 2012). Now, it would be Baffle #2. Using Christmas ribbon, I hung it under the feeder, with the idea that it would block the squirrel on his leap up from the railing.
            Things seemed to be going well. The squirrel sat in the tree, tail pumping. He ran along branches, eyes darting. He stood on the railing, nose twitching in eagerness to reach the feeder. But he did not jump.

Episode VII: The Force Awakens

            This blissful state lasted until Eric walked in the door. I drew him eagerly toward the window to show him my brilliant invention. What he saw was my handmade baffle swinging harmlessly below the feeder, which was occupied by a munching squirrel.
            We called a conference. We discussed infra-red perimeter heat sensors, Klieg lights, air horns, force fields, and other security measures. A suggestion of equipping the railing with iron spikes gave Drew an idea.

Episode VIII: The Last Squirrel

            It didn’t work.


I also tried spraying the feeder with apple cider vinegar and lacing the seed with cayenne. The squirrel apparently loves both those natural repellents. At one point, I moved the shepherd’s hook higher on the porch. I didn’t secure it well, though, which led to its falling, breaking the real baffle (my makeshift one is less destructible). I also tried putting the feeder back on the shepherd’s hook in the yard, figuring we could work with the deer. But the squirrel can climb a pole of less than an inch in diameter.
So what have we learned from this adventure?
I think my main takeaway is that Angela Duckworth is missing out on an amazing object lesson in her lectures. I have never seen such innovation, determination, and evidence of a growth mindset as I see in my squirrel. He is grit in a fur coat.
And I probably should have listened to Mr. Rogers: “I like to take my time. I mean that when I want to do a thing, I like to take my time to do it right.” Maybe if my desire to keep the food from the squirrel were as strong as his desire to reach the food, and maybe if I had just used a little more duct tape, one of my creations would have worked.
Or maybe I just need to order the Perky Pet Squirrel Be Gone II Country Feeder.


Friday, January 27, 2017

Feed the Birds

Earlier this week, Lucas told me that he wanted to go downtown to have breakfast with a woman he had met before Christmas. This woman sells alternative newspapers near Fountain Square as part of a program designed to combat homelessness in Cincinnati. This woman had been homeless, Lucas said, until this program and another one, called Excel, helped her find housing and earn a little money. Lucas has been excited about sharing the gospel with people downtown, and is discovering the fact that, in order to do that with any kind of effectiveness, you have to get to know a person. So he had talked to this woman on a couple of other occasions and he and a two friends had taken her out to lunch. Now, apparently, she had suggested breakfast.
Of course I think it’s fantastic that Luc wants to share God’s love with people and that he cares about getting to know them, but the mom in me is nervous. Luc is young, I don’t know this woman at all, and I imagine all kinds of situations in which he could get himself embroiled. And the older person in me is reluctant, too, because I know that really getting to know people is way messier than handing out a tract and a granola bar. And getting to know people who are very different from us can be even messier. I told Luc about situations in my life when I started out wanting to help someone and ended up feeling grumpy, taken advantage of, and not sure I had been even a little bit helpful. He listened politely. This brings me to our bird feeder.
One of the really wonderful things about Cincinnati is how the city has consciously tried to preserve not only green space, but wooded and wild space. Thus, though we live minutes from downtown, we also live surrounded by Edgewood Grove Park, Mount Storm Park, and Rawson Woods Nature Preserve. And thus, we have birds. My parents and grandparents have always been dedicated feeders and watchers of birds. Inspired by my heritage, I purchased Eric a bird feeder for Christmas, deciding that we should become similarly dedicated to the welfare of our feathered friends.
            After Christmas, Lucas filled the feeder with sunflower seeds and hung it outside the family room window. Pretty soon, a male cardinal showed up. He was followed by the female and several small, nondescript, greyish birds. (We have since gotten a bird book so we can identify these guys. We have not, however, made any progress in actually identifying them.) Sitting on the couch watching the birds was every bit as delightful as I had hoped it would be. Within hours, the feeder was empty. After a few days of multiple feeder fillings, each of which required Luc to stand precariously on the porch railing to rehang the feeder, my parents visited and gave us the brilliant advice that we should get a larger feeder. We got online, ordered one, and by the miracle of Amazon, were filling the new feeder within 24 hours.
            Of course, a larger feeder is also a heavier feeder. As any ignoramus should know, a bird feeder than holds 11 pounds of seed is going to weigh at least 11 pounds. We, of course, did not take that into account, being a special breed of ignoramus. After a sub-par suspension job and an unusually windy night, we awoke to find the feeder on the ground, broken, surrounded by about $10 worth of Kaytee Black Oil Sunflower Wild Bird Food and a troupe of happy squirrels.
            Thankfully, several seasons of the original MacGyver series have not left us without recourse. A trip to Ace Hardware, some wire, and some duct tape later, the feeder was jury-rigged back to functionality. Meanwhile, being a lexiphile as well as a MacGyver fan, I looked up whether I was jury- or jerry-rigging the bird feeder. Turns out I was jury-rigging it (a little-used definition of “jury” is “designed for temporary use”), although jerry-rig is apparently such a well-established misspelling that it is included in many dictionaries.
            I didn’t hang the feeder that day because it was raining, and though my love for birds is budding, it is still pretty anemic. The next morning, I filled the feeder and went out to hang it -- a job for which, it turns out, I am too short. Instead of getting a stepladder or waiting for a taller person, I attempted to support the feeder with one hand while throwing the rope over the tree branch with the other, all the while jumping to get closer to the branch. As any ignoramus could have predicted, I dropped the feeder and came very close to uttering an imprecation as I looked down at the twice-broken feeder, surrounded by $10 worth of Farmer’s Delight Wild Bird Seed.
I wanted to do something nice for the birds. I wanted them to be a part of my life and I wanted to be a part of theirs. I wanted to sit in comfort on the couch and watch the grateful birds eat the seed that I had kindly provided. Instead, I got a broken feeder and wasted seed. I consoled myself with the thought that reality is messy, but I can still do some good for the birds.
            Bloody but unbowed, I scooped as much bird seed as I could into a bowl, put the feeder back together as best I could (adding more duct tape), and refilled it.
This time I was smarter, though; I waited for Lucas to help me hang it. So this is how that went:
            “The hook is slipping out of the bird feeder; lower it a little. Okay; that’s good. You can let go. Really. You can let it go.”
            And the feeder crashed to the ground, in five pieces, surrounded by all our remaining bird seed.
            It is a cliché to say that I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. In addition, that’s a silly dilemma. If it’s a toss-up between laughing and crying, the answer is clear. I leaned on Lucas looked at the mess, and laughed. Only it did sound a little like crying. My unconquerable soul was feeling a little bruised.
            Right after the bird feeder succumbed to the fell clutch of circumstance, I drove downtown with Lucas to meet his friend for breakfast. Before we got out of the car, he suggested that we pray. Oh, right. Good idea. Let’s get a little help from God up in here before we go in and Do. Some. Good. Luc bowed his head and prayed:
            “God, we know that in our own strength, we can do nothing.”

            Which is when it hit me. The bird feeder isn’t about me persevering through the bludgeonings of chance to help the birds. Luc reaching out to people isn’t about him helping them. This is God’s show; we are just doing what he asks us to do. It doesn’t matter that we fail, that relationships are more difficult than we anticipated, that our bird seed ends up feeding squirrels and the problem is bigger than a roll of duct tape. As Paul writes to the Corinthian church, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants or he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3: 6-7). All we can do – all we are called to do – is with the love of Christ to love people. And birds.

Coming soon: Feed the Birds Part 2: Squirrel Wars

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Thermodynamic Equilibrium and Me

I never took chemistry in high school, but I have been trying to learn a bit along with Lucas this semester. Last Tuesday, the lecture was on thermodynamic equilibrium. Sal Khan of Khan Academy helpfully explained to us that if a system – he used the example of a cylinder with a rock holding down the moveable lid – is in equilibrium, its macrostate is well-defined. That means that the pressure, volume, and temperature of the system are constant throughout. Then he asked us to imagine that he vaporized half the rock, which we had a good time imagining.

      Or maybe

         Anyway. Vaporizing half the rock, he said, would allow the lid of the cylinder to rise, increasing the volume and decreasing the pressure inside the cylinder. Eventually the system would return to a new state of equilibrium with a well-defined macrostate. This new equilibrium, however, would not happen immediately. There would be a period during which the pressure, volume, and temperature inside the cylinder were not constant, when the macrostate was not well defined. In fact, Sal described this state as “all hell breaking loose.”
         While I always appreciate Sal’s clear explanations of scientific concepts, this time I also appreciated how his explanation applied to life. A few months ago, we were humming along in a state of equilibrium. Nothing major was broken in the house, everyone seemed to be managing the day-to-day homework/laundry/teleconference/yoga stretching responsibilities, the weather was warming to the point where Eric and I could resume our nightly walks, and the kids started taking ballroom dancing lessons. Then, the metaphorical rock partially vaporized, and we learned we’d be leaving Baltimore and moving back to Cincinnati. While this was certainly not uniformly bad news, it did forecast a change. And change is unsettling.
Many life events are more stressful than a move. In fact, the Holmes-Rahe Stress Scale gives a “change in residence” only 20 points. In comparison, pregnancy is 40 points, major illness is 53, and the death of a spouse is 100. (As an interesting side note, divorce — 73 points — is ranked as more stressful than imprisonment — 63 points. I have no idea what that means, but it intrigued me.) To return to the main point, if the death of a spouse would immediately vaporize the whole rock, our move only knocks out a fifth. Nonetheless, I think the principle applies equally well to any change. There’s a period where life in general just does not seem to be, to use the scientific terminology, “well-defined.” 
Chemistry teaches two hopeful things, though. The first is that, eventually, equilibrium will return to the system. If we can embrace that knowledge, it’s very helpful in the chaotic in-between. But for me, the second point is even more helpful. Sal explained that, when the macrostate changes quickly, we can’t plot a smooth course between one state of thermodynamic equilibrium and another. It’s impossible to say anything about the temperature, pressure, and volume in the system as a whole, because they are not uniform and they are constantly changing. But we could choose a single atom or molecule and say useful things about it. What Sal called a “microstate” can be well-defined at any point in time. So, to extrapolate most unscientifically, though my world may be a bit topsy-turvy right now, my soul, my “microstate” can still be stable. Obviously things like eating quinoa instead of jelly beans and taking a walk instead of collapsing in front of the TV can be helpful for one’s microstate. So can the support of friends and family.

To be honest, though, I can only run so many miles before my body reminds me that we are no longer spring chickens around here. And though I build a barricade of kale and chia seeds a mile high, the slings and arrows of life inevitably find their target. Even human love has its limits; we’re dealing with other people in their own chaotic macrostates. There’s really only one guarantee of the health of my soul “though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.” That guarantee is found at the end of Psalm 46: “Be still, and know that I am God.” That’s the point of equilibrium. 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Letter 2015

Admiraal Family
Professor Admiraal
English 101
25 December 2015

Christmas Letter

December is time for lights, evergreens, candy canes, and stockings. For the majority of the Baltimore Admiraals, it is also time for term papers.  An important skill in writing a research paper is being able to integrate quotes smoothly. In case anyone on the Admiraal card list would like examples of this, the members of our family have contributed quotes, and the resident English teacher has skillfully integrated them into the essay below.
To lead off, Lucas Admiraal, who will be 16 before we know it, melds his love of literature and his burgeoning eccentricity with words from the King James Version of the Bible. James explains that one reason we lack is “because Ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because Ye ask amiss” (2080) in order to satisfy our own greed. James, here, seems to be discussing prayer, rather than visits to Santa.
Reading the KJV and waiting in line for Santa can both be difficult. Thus, Johanna’s quote shows the value of challenging oneself. The 17-year-old senior borrowed the words of Anne Lamott to describe the value of doing “uncomfortable things. It’s weight training for life.”
Literal weight training isn’t a big part of Drew’s 19-year-old life, although he does exercise a lot. He embodies the true spirit of this Christmas letter exercise by texting, “I’m not sure what to use. Can you just write it for me?” (Admiraal). Perhaps his own term papers and finals at the end of his first semester at the University of Maryland, College Park, have rendered him too distracted to come up with a quote of his own. Though he kind of did, didn’t he?
Coming up with a quote shouldn’t pose any problem for the Admiraal mom, who reads desperately and who is surrounded by eminently quotable college students. To encourage acceptance of this unusual letter, perhaps a quote from the parenting manual, Different Children, Different Needs, is in order. Author Charles Boyd reminds his readers that, in a family, “Different is not wrong . . . just different” (187). 
Finally, leave it to the head of the household to find the perfect words to conclude this ridiculous Christmas letter with some genuine holiday truth. This is what we’re holding on to — this year and always:
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his 
glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of 
grace and truth. John 1:14 

Works Cited
Admiraal, Andrew J. Message to the author. 2 Dec. 2015. Text.

Boyd, Charles F. Different Children, Different Needs. Sisters, Or.: Multnomah, 1994. Print.

Holman Kings James Version Study Bible. Nashville, Tenn.: Holman Bible, 2012. Print.

John. “John 1:14.” Holy Bible, New International Version. Bible Gateway. Bible Gateway. 3

Dec. 2015. Web. 3 Dec. 2015.

Lamott, Anne. “Plan B Quotes.” Goodreads. Goodreads, Inc. 2015. Web. 3 Dec. 2015.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Food that May Be More Trouble Than it Is Worth

One of the few things that has grown in my garden this year.
Watermelon: It’s sweet, hydrating, delightfully crunchy, and packed with vitamin C and lycopene. In fact, I just googled “watermelon” and found that, according to one at least marginally reliable website (they self-proclaim “We Are #1 in the World,” which should count for something), watermelon is one of the world’s healthiest foods. So what’s not to love?
Since you asked . . . how about the hour it takes to open and cut up a watermelon so it’s edible? Now that the fruit comes in seedless varieties, I can’t complain about pits (Eric recently asked me if we couldn’t plant seedless watermelon next year, which is definitely a good question. Also an oxymoron,  for those AP English 12 students working on such things. Or possibly a paradox — we’re a little shaky on the difference between those two over here). But by the time I wrangle that melon into submission, I and the countertop are covered in sticky juice. And woe if it drips on the floor. Those elusive drops of sugar water will evade rag and mop until they’ve collected all the dust in the room. You can feel your foot sticking as you step on them, but you can’t find them with the rag. And if you opt to cut the watermelon into wedges and serve it to teenagers, they will throw the rinds into your bushes, having apparently been schooled in the fact that watermelon rinds are biodegradable. The rinds, however, do not biodegrade before they attract ants. I admit that this littering issue is the fault of the teenagers, not the watermelon, but it is still a pain.
The other annoying thing about watermelon is that there is so much of it. Yesterday I cut up a small watermelon, having first pulled a good-sized glass bowl out of the cupboard to hold the pieces. As I was cutting, I experienced something akin to the miracle of the loaves and fishes, whereby before the watermelon was half-cut, the bowl was overflowing. I gave up and stuck the other half in the fridge, where it is taking up as much space as a milk gallon and dripping sticky juice all over the eggs.
Watermelon may be one of my biggest food annoyances, but there are other foods that seem inordinately challenging to prepare — mangos, pineapple, avocados (unless you are doing guacamole, which requires that you mush the avocado; it ends up mush anyway), even grapefruit. And there are other foods that come in amounts well beyond their usefulness to me. An example is cabbage, although that at least keeps fresh for quite a while. I have been trying to cook my way through a head of cabbage for the past two weeks, and I will admit that we have had several delicious meals out of it, including two Moosewood Cookbook Old County Pies and a tofu and cabbage stir-fry. My family is also a little sick of Indonesian cabbage salad, though I could eat it every day. I still have about a third of the head left. The stuff just expands.
Fresh herbs are like that as well. I cringe when I read a recipe that calls for fresh mint, dill, or especially parsley, because I know that more than half of the bunch will rot in my fridge before I can use it. I do have basil and oregano growing out back, and I tried to grow parsley. For some reason, that last herb went to seed after the first harvest, and I was too dispirited by the fact that the bunnies had eaten the tomatoes and the cabbage moths had eaten the broccoli to try to replant the parsley. Scallions are also a pain. Why does the grocery store not sell scallions by the stem? Recipes usually call for two or four chopped scallions, and I am left with the other half of the bunch turning to slime in the cheese drawer.
I can hear many people’s thoughts as they read this blog, because I am thinking them too. First, why do I not plan my meals better, cooking several recipes that use mint in one week, thereby avoiding waste and annoyance? The answer is that I don’t know. That’s probably a really good idea. I did do it this week with scallions, so I am making progress, maybe. The second obvious question is, if I don’t like difficult fruit and rotting herbs, why do I not use convenience foods — precut fruit and dried herbs? The answer to that one is easier, though pretty silly, when I think about it. I do use some dried herbs, but dried parsley flakes, garlic salt, and onion powder always feel like a cop-out to me, as does pre-cut fruit. Buying them makes me feel like I might be out of the running for supermom of the decade. I can hear the person behind me in line at the grocery store thinking, “I see that prepared pineapple, and I bet you are hiding Lunchables in there, too.” On reflection, that is actually probably my own thoughts I’m hearing. To be clear, my freezer holds mango and pineapple chunks (cut and packaged by some factory that serves Giant grocery stores, not by me), and my spice cupboard has not one, but two jars of parsley flakes, so I’m judgmental and inconsistent. And in the interest of full disclosure, I also buy Cheeze-Its, though I only eat them on long car trips when I’m bored.
Of course, your biggest question, and mine too, should be: Why am I so ungrateful? God made this incredible variety of delicious and healthful food, and put me in a place where I have access to it and money to buy it, and here I am griping about a sticky counter. What in the world is wrong with me? Good question. See Genesis Chapter 3. 

Because I am a basically optimistic person, I hate to end this blog on a down note, so I will conclude with a list of my current favorite ingredients: chick peas, quinoa, kale, sweet potatoes, avocados (you can see I’m a little conflicted about the avocado), and garlic. In fact, I love garlic in recipes so much that I never even complain about having to peel and chop it. It’s even worth having garlicky fingers for the rest of the day. It’s that good.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Does the Shoe Fit?

I have a pair of brown sandals and a pair of black sandals for summer, a pair of black boots and a pair of brown boots for winter, and running shoes in various ages and stages (which is probably another post). I think the last time I bought a shoes to match a particular outfit was for my wedding. And buying fun shoes that would require shopping for an outfit to go around them . . . that seems like the height of irresponsible decadence. When it comes to my relationship with shoes, the best word to describe me is “practical.” 
So when I decided that I needed a pair of walking sandals, my main goal was to find something I could wear with just about anything. Step one was to text a friend who I know hikes in sandals. She told me that she loves her Chacos. Her text read: “We went creek walking and hiking on the Fourth of July, and I could do all of that without changing my shoes. Plus, I’ve worn them to church before, too.” Sounded perfect. REI sells Chaco, so I headed there. The salesman was one of those very fit older guys. His face was brown and lined like he’d been outdoors a lot, and he had a bandana covering his bald head. Clearly, he would know about walking sandals. I asked him to bring me a pair of Chacos and a few other options he thought might be good.
I first tried on a pair of Keens, which made my feet feel fantastic, kind of relaxed and energetic at the same time. Unfortunately, they also made my feet look like they belonged to a giant smurf. 

           Probably one reason that I am not a shoe person is that I have big feet. After size seven, many shoes stop being cute. These Keens were definitely in that category. I then tried the Chacos, which were black and strappy, and actually looked pretty good. I didn’t love the way they fit, though — too high an arch. Maybe I could get used to the feel for the sake of fashion . . . . While I was dithering, the salesman suggested that I try Eccos, saying that both he and his wife had a pair. I tried them, and they were less ugly that the Keens and more comfortable than the Chacos. By this point, I was embarrassed about being a difficult customer, so I bought the Eccos, even though they were about $50 more expensive than the other brands.

This are actually Clarks, not Eccos. They look exactly the same, though, which
is the important thing here, since the photo's purpose is illustrative.

I will digress here and say that for my willingness to spend $130 on a pair of shoes, I have my father to thank. Though not a spendthrift by any means, my dad has always put great stock in buying good shoes. A man’s feet are his . . . I don’t know what, but something even more important than a castle. So I turned over the credit card and took possession of my new, super-outdoorsy sandals.
I was content, but not thrilled, with my purchase. I became even father from thrilled when I showed the Eccos to the family shoe person. To digress, again, let me say that if I didn’t know which member of our family was the shoe person, Drew would be my last guess. Nevertheless, he definitely has the family’s strongest shoe game, consisting largely in a rainbow of Pumas, as well as a pair of running shoes so incredibly cool that he can't wear them anywhere for fear of marring them.

The Under Armour Poison Frog. Would you want to get this dirty?

         So I asked Drew if the thought that the Eccos looked too much like old lady shoes. (This is a wardrobe fear of mine -- accompanied by a fear of trying to look too much like a teenager. Middle-aged fashion is full of land mines.) His response: “Well Mom, if you want comfortable walking shoes, you really can’t avoid old lady shoes.” Translation: “Your feet look 100. At least”
There was a challenge in his statement that I couldn’t resist. I decided that I would find a pair of stylish, comfortable sandals just to show Mr. Shoe Mafia that it was possible. The Old Person Eccos were going back. Fortunately, REI has the world’s best return policy — you can use an item for a year, as much as you want, and they will take it back in whatever condition you bring it. As I had only worn the Eccos around the block a few times, I didn’t feel too bad. In fact, the nice lady at the customer service desk seemed like she didn’t believe I had worn them outside at all. I almost felt guilty that I hadn’t scuffed them more.
After that began my online hunt. I read articles, searched outdoorsy websites, and browsed Zappos and Amazon. Finally, I found it: The holy grail of footwear, cute, comfortable, and appropriate for almost any occasion. Drew might scoff, but I am happy with my Keen Rose Athletic Sandals. 

Okay yes, they would look even cuter in a smaller size,
but we have to work with what we have.

  Besides searching for footwear, my other summer pastime (a favorite of mothers across the country) has been driving kids. This afternoon, I found myself at an outdoor mall with an hour to wait for a late-arriving child, and I decided that it would be fun to take some pictures for this blog. I headed over to DSW, snapped some photos, and still had a while, so I browsed the clearance section. Maybe I am not so practical after all.

. . . and now I have to go shopping for an outfit to go with these beauties.