Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David's throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this.
(Isaiah 9:6-7)

Christian Vocation vs. Globalism

I have been reading some of Walter Mosley's non-fiction. In Life out of Context, Mosely, who is
African American, soliloquizes on how he came to find deeper meaning in his life by helping Black people world-wide to find freedom from oppression.

I have not finished the book, but it got me thinking about several things, one being how the Biblical concept of vocation differs from the current societal trend toward globalism. Globalism says we have to think big. We must see ourselves as part of a bigger societal, economic, ecological structure.

When followed to it's natural conclusion, that idea leads toward less freedom and more socialism. We are taught to think of our place in the world and how everything we do effects the entire world. What a burden to put on people!

Kind of like your mom telling you to eat your dinner because the kids are starving in China. As if our eating it will somehow help the starving masses.

But Biblically speaking, we are exhorted to firstly care for our own spiritual needs. Hear God's Word and partake of His Holy Sacraments.

Next we are to care for our familial needs. Then the needs of our neighbors (anyone with whom we come in contact). And then at the tail end of that is our care for world needs.

Is that selfish? God gives everyone different lives. Different situations. Different interests and abilities. God uses us to further His purposes in whatever "spot" he has placed us. This is our Christian vocation. Using our place in this world and the person God has created us to be to further His work in the world. Both temporal work and spiritual labors.

If we focus on and worry about "great things" to the extent that we neglect the local part of His plan for us, we will add needless stress to our lives. God will take care of results when we faithfully perform daily the things He puts before us.

Sometimes these are big world influencing occupations. But those occupations that involve feeding our kids and keeping them clean and clothed; or putting on a coverall and working on Cars; or assembly line work; or whatever various jobs God may ask each of us to do each day; These are truly great and noble deeds.

Friday, December 21, 2007

A Stella Antic

I guess kids learn what they see. Stella is my two year old. I hope that she learned the following from my nearing adolescent daughters and not from me. Not that I want my daughters to react like this, but I know it happens; and I really don't like to think that I may act this same way. Keep in mind that Stella can not say her "f" sound so it comes out like an "h" instead.

Stella had been trying to set the table for breakfast and chose to put paper plates around. I had gathered them up and put them away on the closet shelf. She persisted in telling me we needed them until I showed her the cereal bowls and said, "How about these?" Stella gave a big resigned kind of sigh and said, "Oohhh, hine."

Clara, my almost eight year old, and I just looked at each other and cracked up. Probably not the best reaction either, but Stella's big sigh combined with her two year old pronunciation just ticked our fancy, I guess.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

An Author's Voice

I have been reading a book by bestselling author, Janet Evanovich, How I Write. She says in the preface that the book is written for a duel audience, both aspiring authors and the fans of her Stephanie Plum books. I think if you are willing to put up with the Stephanie Plum fan club "Yoo, Rah, Rah!," stuff it is a great resource for anyone who wants to improve their own writing. There is tons of good information, tossed out in Evanovich's colorful style.

Which brings me to the point of this post, an author's style or voice. Evanovich had a section in the book in which she discusses an author's personal writing style, which she calls "voice." Now first off, it's difficult for me to use the term, voice, in that way because I think of voice as referring to active or passive. But apparently in the world of writing it means something else.

When Evanovich discusses this topic, she asserts that a good writer will, with practice, get to a point in their writing in which he or she will find a voice that suits them. A style, tone, personality that comes out in their writing.

Now I know from my own reading and the high school and college lit classes I took that many authors do have a certain style. Jane Austin, for example. Yes, her many books are much the same. I have read all of them, and can say this first hand. Are they still enjoyable? Yes. Did they have the staying power to last through the ages? So far, yes. No signs of being consigned to the trash heap of forgotten literature.

William Faulkner. Yeah, he also has a style. I mostly think of his with regard to those books that are all set in that MO county. I am going to expose the holes in my own education here, so bear with me. I can't even remember the name of the county. Prof. Morton Schroeder would not be happy. But I can say that at least that set of Faulkner's books are much the same stylistically. But they are kind of a series, so they don't really count. I don't know whether Faulkner wrote other things that fit the same mold.

Ernest Hemingway? I recently read For Whom the Bell Tolls. I also read one for a class at some point and only remember that it was a downer. I can't even remember which one it was. I think Farewell to Arms. But from what I do remember, I would go out on a limb and say that they are both books written by someone without hope. They are both sad, but compelling. But I am currently reading a book by a MN author, The Legacy by Mark Munger. There have been several times when I have wondered whether he was being intentionally Hemmingway-esque. So there must be something in that makes a Hemingway novel a Hemingway.

I have read all the Stephanie Plum books. Because I enjoyed them, I read a few other Evanovich books. OK, most of the other Evanovich books. (I read hardly any contemporary adult novels, so this has been kind of a different thing for me. I usually read classics and non-fiction interspersed with my kids' school assigned novels for my lazy reading. There is lots and lots of great junior and young adult literature out there.)

Anyway, Evanovich has a new series, so far two are out, I don't know if she will do more. The first is Metro Girl, which is followed by Motor Mouth. But the thing that struck me about these books is that they seemed to be Stephanie Plum dressed up in new characters and a new setting. Otherwise the books are boring. As a reader, I don't enjoy it when an author seems to be always the same.

Think of Tom Cruise compared to Daniel Day-Lewis. Who's the better actor? Tom Cruise is perhaps a more prolific entertainer. He can entertain and has drawn big bucks at the box office. He is always in the spotlight. But his roles are mostly the same. Especially his earlier years. During my late high school and college years, I don't think he ever played a new character.

But Daniel Day-Lewis is different in every role he does. Whether it is Cecil Vyse in A Room with a View, or Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans, or yet another of his many roles, he is new. And so he is the better actor. He has the ability to pretend to be many different things.

And so with an author. And author ought not to become too comfortable with a successful style. readers will get tired of the sameness.

Now, perhaps, just as Tom Cruise has more notoriety and probably has made more money from his films than Daniel Day-Lewis, if an author is after only notoriety and money, one ought to find a voice. But if one wants to truly write well, each new book needs to have a new voice. Or at least more than just new characters and setting.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

From Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

I am currently reading Angela's Ashes. It is the first part of Frank McCourt's memoir of growing up poor in Ireland during the 30s. The story continues in 'Tis.

I am not going to enter the entire section I want to share with you, because it goes for several pages. But it is worth reading in its entirety, if you ever get a chance.

McCourt's father is a drunkard. The family lives on a combination of Government Aid and St. Vincent De Paul charity. The father routinely "drinks the dole money" and then comes home late and makes his sons get out of bed and promise to "die for Ireland" when called upon to do so.

McCourt is telling the reader about his complex relationship with his father. He spends a page or so telling about the time they spend together in the morning. His father gets him up early enough before school to fix young Frank's breakfast and read the paper and talk to his son about the world's news. MCCourt's father teaches him about Hitler and Mussolini and Franco; about the problems in Ireland with the English; about the hedge schools the Catholics held in secret during the days of English oppression; and so on.

McCourt then spends around a page telling the reader about the time spent with his father at bedtime. His father is a great story teller, regaling his sons with tales of the Irish folk hero, Cuchulain; with fantasy stories of polar bears in Australia and Zulus and motor cars and upside down worlds. The father taught his sons to kneel down at their bedside and pray all the necessary Catholic daily prayers.

Then he finishes off with this.

I think my father is like the Holy Trinity with three people in him, the one in the morning with the paper, the one at night with the stories and the prayers, and then the one who does the bad thing and comes home with the smell of whiskey and wants us to die for Ireland.

I feel sad over the bad thing but I can't back away from him because the one in the morning is my real father and if I were in America I could say, I love you, Dad, the way they do in films, but you can't say that in Limerick for fear you might be laughed at. You're allowed to say you love God and babies and horses that win but anything else is a softness in the head.
This is a poignant reminder to me of the difficulties faced routinely by those affected by loved one's addiction .

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Livin' off the Land

There was a time when I liked to imagine living off the land. I read stories of America's early settlers. I admire their courage and fortitude. Part of me is drawn to the simplicity of their lifestyle. Not simple, as in easy work; but uncluttered by outside influences.

Families stuck together. They had to! Children learned to work hard because even their young efforts effected how much food the family would have during the coming winter. The family's schedule centered around home, not sports and lessons and jobs and committees and so on.

Church was important, first of all because when a persons very life was so dependent upon God's grace, it was much easier to remember His providence. It is much more difficult now, when all one needs is a paycheck and a grocery store.

And secondly church was the social center of the community. When a family had to choose just one time a week to leave home, church was it. I wonder what kind of choices Americans would make today, if given that choice. "You can only leave your property once all week. What's it going to be?"

There are many things about those times that appeal to me. But I no longer glamorize them. I can't even get a garden to grow, let alone provide vegetables for an entire year for my family!

Used to hang all my clothes to dry. I had indoor and outdoor clotheslines; I used cloth diapers for my first four children and and some of the time with my fifth. Now I have a clothesline that stands empty most of the year and I am really thankful for disposable diapers.

And I have found out that the older I get the less brave I am about trying new foods. When some of the older folks around here talk about blood sausage and head cheese, tongue and so on, I smile and am thankful I live during a time when we can choose our foods. What a blessing! To have the luxury to make food choices.

Since we moved to this home six years ago, I have gotten used to eating venison and lamb. I have also eaten and not gotten used to goose. But if I was hungry enough, that goose would probably taste really good.

And right now, even as I write, I have two jack rabbits in the crock pot. So tonight I will have rabbit for supper. I am not sure how I feel about that. But I will put on a brave face and maybe even say, "Mmmm," if necessary to set a good example for my children.

The rabbits were shot by Matthew, 13, and Louisa, 11. I now have the comfort of knowing that if something happens to Joe, my children can provide jack rabbits for our dining pleasure.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Potatoe Gnocchi, GF and otherwise

Here's a recipe that turned out great. Gnocchi are Italian dumplings. I will give the original recipe, then a good guess for a Gluten Free conversion, and finally I will tell you what I really did. Since I cook for 8-10 people every meal, I can't be fussy. I rarely follow a recipe as written. Especially since I now must cook GF, I never know how anything will turn out until it is done.

Original recipe from The Joy of Pasta by Joe Famularo and Louise Imperiale
Potato Gnocchi makes enough for 3-4 servings
5 Idaho Potatoes
2 egg yolks, room temperature
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
1/2 c grated parmesan
1 1/2 c all purpose flour

Bake the potatoes in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for 1 hour. Peel and put them through a food mill or mash them.

In a large bowl, mix the egg yolks, salt, nutmeg, and grated cheese; mix well. Add the mashed potatoes, then add flour until a dough forms and holds together. The dough should be soft but firm enough to roll.

On a floured board, roll small amounts of dough into small cylinders about 1 1/2 inches in diameter; cut each into 1/2 inch pieces. Take each piece and press it (and roll it) against a cheese grater. This gives the gnocchi a nice design and texture.

Drop the gnocchi into 4 quarts of boiling salted water, and cook for 5 minutes. Drain, and top the gnocchi with the desired sauce.

Approx. GF conversions
Start with a cup of favorite GF mix. Add 1 tsp xanthan gum with the flour. Add extra flour mix until the dough holds together and can be shaped. If they tend to fall apart after cooking, try adding 1 1/2 tsp xanthan gum next time.

May have to cook longer. Try them after 5 minutes and then add minutes accordingly.

With Fontina
After draining gnocchi place in oven proof dish.

Pre-heat the broiler. In a skillet or small saucepan, heat 6 tbsp butter until slightly brown and pour over gnocchis. Sprinkle 1/2 c freshly grated parmesan, romano, or locatelli cheese over. Add 1/4 lb fontina cheese sliced thin, arranging slices over everything.

Place under the broiler for 1-2 minutes until the fontina is melted and begins to brown. Serve with tomato sauce on the side.

What I did
I had about 6 c of left over mashed potatoes in the fridge; Joe had made these, so they were already fancied up. Besides milk and butter, they probably had cream and grated cheddar cheese and various seasonings. So I omitted the salt and nutmeg. But to the potatoes I added 4 egg yolks and about 4 cups of GF mix. Enough flour until the dough held together.

I generously sprinkled white rice flour on my work surface, placed the lump of dough on the floured surface, generously sprinkled the dough and then gently patted it down to about an inch thick. Then I rolled it until it was 1/2 inch thick. After that I took a pizza roller and cut a grid about 1/2 inch by 1 inch. I was able to scoop these squares up with a pancake turner.

I had to boil my gnocchis about 15 minutes. I don't know if it was the GF variant or using pre-mashed potatoes or what, but they took much longer than the original recipe.

We found they kind of clumped together in the colander, so we scooped them out of the water with a slotted spoon and then laid them separately on a cookie sheet until mostly cool. Then we transfered them to a baking dish.

After they were all boiled, I poured about 1 1/2 c cream and 1/2 c half and half over them (I would have used all cream if I had enough; you want to be able see the cream creeping up around the edges of the gnocchis). I sprinkled them with salt, basil and minced dried garlic. Then I put under the broiler until golden, tossed them gently, and repeated this two more times until the cream was starting to thicken.

They turned out very good. It made enough to fill a 9x13 cake pan about 3/4 full.

Now I don't claim to be a Gnocchi expert. I made them a few times in the past, but not often and only from following a recipe. I don't know how they are supposed to taste, so don't know how this GF version compares. I have no Italian grandma from whom to solicit advice. But if you really want to know, I found a video of the process you can consult.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Spiced Bananas or Rotten Potatoes?

I grabbed a twelve pack of beer in town the other night. I was in a hurry, but I wanted something different than the usual MGD or Killians Red or Amber Boch. I saw this cool looking box. I noticed it was Samuel Adams and since I like several of their beers, I just grabbed it. It said something like Winter Selection on the outside.

After I got home I realized it was a variety pack.

Joe asked what I wanted and, well, I don't know. So many choices. (Since Joe has Celiac Disease, he does not have that trouble. But he is glad that he can at least get New Grist sorghum beer around here now.)

After some hemming and hawing, I settled on a Cranberry Lambic. Now I am not very educated in the art of beer drinking. I don't know an ale from a lager or a lambic from a weiss. Maybe those aren't even mutually exclusive pairs, I just don't know.

But getting back to the lambic. EEEUUUWW! Yuck! That's some nasty stuff. I was trying to sort out the flavors in order to give Joe an idea of why I did not like it. The closest thing I could get was rotten potatoes. You know that smell emanating from the potato bag in the corner; you know that you're going to have to stick your hand in there to get the good potatoes out; You know that the longer you wait, the more icky ones there will be. Yup, that's the flavor of the Cranberry Lambic.

So just out of curiosity, I went to the Samuel Adams web site. Now, the first thing I find out is this web site is one of those totally annoying ones that move around and do all sorts of fancy things before you can get to the information. You have to choose the beer styles link and than catch the beer bottle you want to know more about as it flies around the screen. All the while this pinging is coming through the speakers as the cursor passes the flying twirling objects.

The second thing I found out is that what I called spoiled potatoes, they called "a flavor rich in fruitiness and reminiscent of cranberries and bananas, cloves and nutmeg."

I guess they can call it what they want; I won't be buying any more Cranberry Lambic. I probably still have a couple in the variety pack. Let me know if you want one. Perhaps a more mature beer drinker would agree with the banana and spice thing. I'm sticking with spoiled potatoes.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Setting Realistic Goals and Finding Pleasure in Baby Steps

When I first started to home school my oldest son I felt overwhelmed with the enormity of task I had undertaken. I sought advice and wisdom from the glut of home school advice books available. One bit of advice really hit home for me. Like all other human wisdom, I had to make it my own. But all said and done, that advice in its various stages of evolution, is one of the most important things I had to accomplish in order to successfully home school.

Really, it is a simple concept that one hears in many different genres of self-help books. The author recommended setting long term, medium term and short term goals. I think the author recommended including not only academic goals, but character goals and spiritual goals for the children. And to this I added the prioritizing of the articulated goals.

The reason for doing this is to help a home educator to keep perspective. Not every day will we fulfill daily goals. Sometimes for months or more at a time we will seem to be wallowing. At times a medical situation or family move or the birth of a new child demand we set our plans aside temporarily. Sometimes we have to shift gears and come up with an entirely new plan. What worked for one kids may not work for another. And so on.

But if we have our goals clearly articulated and prioritized, we have something to fall back upon. We can mentally refer to them and let things slide accordingly. We can easily tweek the schedule when necessary. We can still experience success, even when our daily or weekly or monthly plan goes out the window.

I think first of the long term spiritual goals for my children, which I consider the top priority. If we spent time in God's Word together, or time working on memory work or discussing spiritual issues or training in God's Word, that is a successful day. Period.

Now, I realize that it takes more than that to function as a productive member of society, especially as a citizen of a government that allows participation in various forms as ours does. Our children will need a livelihood, they will need communication skills, and character traits like personal responsibility, fidelity, honesty, and so on.

And that is where the structured, articulated, prioritized long term goals come in handy. As we go about our daily tasks, and as one thing or another comes up to derail our daily plans, we can make decisions based on that formulated set of goals.

Almost any day contains interactions and experiences that count toward long term goals. And with that in mind, every day can be a success.

The Ideal Kitchen

Again from the Stephanie Plum books. This one is from Lean Mean Thirteen.
I went to the stove and stirred the extra sauce cooking in the pan. I love being in my mother's kitchen. It is always warm and steamy and filled with activity. In my mind, I have a kitchen like this. The cabinets are filled with dishes that actually get used. The pots sit out on the stove, waiting for the day's sauces and soups and stews. The cookbook on the counter is dog-eared and splattered with grease and gravy and icing smudges.

This is a fantasy kitchen, of course. My actual kitchen has dishes, but I eat standing over the sink, paper towel in hand. I have a single pot that is only used for tea when I have a cold. And I don't own a cookbook.
We all go into adulthood with the ideal kitchen tucked somewhere in our sub-conscious. Sometimes even in our conscious mind we know what we want for our home "when we grow up." But sometimes real life comes along with different ideas.

As I grew into womanhood, I also carried with me a version of the ideal kitchen, the ideal home, and the ideal homemaker I wished to become. These ideals were a medley made up of bits and pieces of the lives of various important women God put into my life. And, like the fictional Stephanie Plum, I have had to admit that these are fantasies. Fantasy kitchen, fantasy home, fantasy homemaker.

In real life, I had to learn to cook. I had to learn to keep house and I had to learn to make a home. None of us can do these things instinctively. Even with the training we receive while growing up we still need to figure it out for our own lives and our own homes. From the earliest memories of helping Mama while standing on a chair at the counter, or dusting a coffee table while Mama vacuums to eventually preparing entire meals or keeping up a certain domestic task independently, these are still part of our childhood home.

Some women make that transition to their own home seemingly effortlessly. For others, that transition can be more difficult. For me, it took about 7 years of struggle and guilt to finally let go of the ideal home and focus on the real one. And strangely, I was able to keep a much better home when I gave up trying to be perfect.

As any of my friends will attest, I am not a perfect homemaker. I struggle to get three good meals on each day and to keep up with the laundry. But God is gracious. He gives me the strength and wisdom to get through each day, one day at a time. He allows me to give my children what they most need. To focus on the basics.

The rest will get done eventually. And even amongst my bumbling, my kids will leave home with some sense of the ideal kitchen. It will include bits of mine and bits from other homes they spend time in. And they, too, will have to let go of the ideals and make a real home.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Another colorful excerpt

This is from Bad Boy Brawly Brown by Walter Mosley.
Pfennig's copper-colored hair came out of a wash basin and she probably had been ugly even when she was a child, which was more than forty years earlier. Her long nose had gone awry, like a sapling grown under heavy shade, wavering this way and that in search for the light. Her eyes were a translucent gray. Her skin was gray also, but lusterless and drab.
I love the whole paragraph, but the description of poor Ms Pfeninig's nose is priceless. I have never before thought of someone's nose as "going awry," but now that I have been handed that image, I can think of a few people to whom I might apply it.

I stumbled upon this book in a reduced cart in the aisle of the local grocery store. I noticed it was a detective fiction, which I like; and that it was cheap, which I also like. After getting it home I realized it was by an author I had recently read in an anthology of crime short stories.

Mosley's style kind of reminds me of William Faulkner. Now I chuckle as I say this, because it has been years since I read any Faulkner. And in fact, although I remember enjoying the book we were assigned in my freshman lit class in college, my attempts to read him since have been unfruitful. So I in no way consider myself a Faulkner scholar.

But there is something about the terse and somewhat fragmented style Mosley uses; combined with lots of dialog and a feeling that I better stay alert as a reader or I might find myself in a different place or time from paragraph to paragraph. Somehow this all reminds me of Faulkner. But I don't have to struggle to figure Mosley's writing out. Just stay on my toes a bit.

This book is interesting to me because it is set in the Watts neighborhood of LA in the early 60s, in the flux of the the civil rights era. It paints a picture of what life might have been like for urban African American during this time. I like to read books that can help me understand the experiences of different peoples and this book successfully depicts a culture with which I have very little knowledge.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

GF Donut Cake

This recipe makes a heavy, moist cake similar in consistency to an old fashioned cake donut but more moist. Similar to pound cake. It is definitely not a low-fat recipe, but very yummy. Holds together well. Has a somewhat crusty, flaky top, so it may not frost well. I usually serve it with fruit or sauce and whipped cream.

GF Donut Cake Makes 2 8" round pans or 2 9x5x3" loaf pans.
1 1/2 c butter (softened)
8 oz cream cheese (softened)
6 eggs
2 tsp vanilla powder (yes, this is what the original recipe called for. It is so concentrated, I usually use 1 tsp)
3 c rice flour (or your favorite GF mix)
1/2 tsp salt

Beat butter and cream cheese until smooth. Add sugar and whip for 4 minutes.

Add eggs, vanilla, salt and flour. Beat on low until smooth.

Pour into greased pans and bake until toothpick comes out clean. 25-30 min for round pans; about 40-50 minutes for loaf pans.