Quarterly Book Report: Fall 2015

This past fall was a bit of a rough time for me, and I escaped into books with abandon. I got way behind on podcasts and local news on the radio because every time I was in the car, I was listening to a book on Audible. But there are definitely worse vices than reading, so I'm not apologizing for having eight books to report!

Euphoria
Lily King

"I've always been able to see the savageness beneath the veneer of society. It's not so very far beneath the surface, no matter where you go."

Delving into the emotional strife of three anthropologists battling their own demons as well as each others’, King’s historical novel set in 1930s New Guinea gave insight into a time and place that had been previously unknown - unthought of, even - by me. I was intrigued by the particularities of their lives - the trunks of books carried by boat onto remote islands, the tiny incestuous circle of fellow anthropologists, the divorcing from “traditional” society, and the drive for notoriety and that one big discovery. But I also found the triangle of behavior between the three main characters deeply disturbing, and not in a way that felt titillating and made me want to read more. Rather, I plodded through, hoping that each reading session might reveal some hidden meaning. But in the end, the book, ironically, left me feeling empty and sad. 

The Miseducation of Cameron Post*
Emily M. Danforth

"I still didn't have any of the right words. 'It's more like maybe I do know and I'm still confused too, at the same time. Does that make sense? I mean, it's like how you noticed this thing about me tonight, you saw it, and you already knew it - it's there. But that doesn't mean it's not confusing or whatever.'"

When Cameron, a middle school girl in rural Montana in the mid-90s, kisses her best girl friend the night that her parents die in a car crash, those two events - her secret shame and her parents’ death - become so inextricably linked in her head and her heart that she must spend the next half a decade - and perhaps longer - trying to pull them apart. One of the must frustrating elements of the book is one of Danforth’s biggest strengths: inhabiting the confused, ashamed, and grief-stricken mind of a teenager. I found myself begging her to be rational, to say what she thinks, to stand up to people who were harming her. But I was forced to remember my own teenage self, my own inability to know, much less say aloud, what I needed. Cameron’s eventual expulsion to a gay conversion camp is heartbreaking but also holds a place of compassion for those who believe they’re doing the right thing. A compelling young adult novel. Note: I enjoyed this book in spite of the narration on audible - the narrator's tone sounded like a high class 40 year old rather than a middle school/high school kid. 

Ask the Passengers*
A.S. King

"Look, this is a loan. I don't know if love is something I'll run out of one day. I don't know if I should be giving it to all you guys or not. Today, I feel like I should have kept some for myself for days when no one else loves me."

I wanted to love this book, and I did appreciate the concept - a young girl attempting to come to terms with not only her sexuality but also her feeling of teenage isolation talks to the passengers on the planes flying overhead in an attempt to find connection in the world. But, as much as I wanted that idea to take off, I thought the dialogue was often stilted or didn't ring true, and the plot felt forced. While King worked to develop the emotional life of her main character, the others in the book were archetypes of family villains or high school mean kids. Unless you’re a despondent teenager looking for an LGBT book, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Why Not Me?*
Mindy Kaling

"When you are entitled, you are the most insufferable person ever. If you are entitled and hardworking, which I am, you are still pretty insufferable, but at least you somewhat earned your entitled behavior." 

I love Mindy Kaling, so when I didn’t love her first book, I was a bit disappointed. When Why Not Me? Came out, I decided to listen on Audible so that I’d hear the book in her voice and perhaps increase my enjoyment. While I wish this one had been a bit longer, I absolutely enjoyed it more than her first book. Some of my greater appreciation was due, I’m sure, to listening to her reading it. But I think Kaling opened up a bit more in her second book, with essays that touched closer to her personal life and emotions. There were a few sections that really struck me. She talks about her body image issues in a way that made me want to pull over on the side of the road (I was listening while driving) and applaud and then cry. The section on her alter ego’s life in New York City as a teacher that’s just trying to make friends was so delightful I wished it were its own audiobook. And her final bit on confidence really got me thinking about how I want to spend my time (spoiler alert: working hard at the things I want to feel confident in).

Her Royal Spyness*
Rhys Bowen

"Of course, I was more than a little curious to know why I was being summoned.... In truth, I felt as Anne Boleyn must have done when Henry VIII asked her to drop in for a flagon of ale, and not to wear anything with a high neckline."

It’s 1932, and Lady Georgiana, 34th in line to the English throne, must find some way to support herself now that meager times have forced her brother to cut off her allowance. Enter a dead body, a dashing young Irishman, and demands from the queen, and you’ve got yourself a smart little murder mystery, a la Sherlock Holmes meets Murder She Wrote meets Downton Abbey. Bowen creates a world of vibrant and memorable characters that I could see as I read. Mysteries have not traditionally been my genre of choice, but I got a hankering to read some in the historical/chick lit vein. This one captured my interest, completely held my attention, and often had me laughing at the characters’ delightful turn of phrase. I will note that I listened to this one on Audible, and the narrator is FAN-FREAKING-TASTIC. If you are able to listen, do it.

Fangirl*
Rainbow Rowell

"'What's the plan?' she asked. He grinned. 'My plan is to do things that make you want to hang out with me again tomorrow. What's your plan?' 'I'm going to try not to make an ass of myself.' He grinned. 'So we're all set.'"

Oh Rainbow Rowell. I feel as though I should be ashamed, at least a little bit, of how deeply I fall in love with the questioning glances and the hand-holding and the impossibly perfect young loves in Rowell’s books, but I’m not. She knows exactly what she’s doing, and she does it perfectly. I was initially put-off with Cath's (the main character) hatred for…well, for all things. But, page by page, Rowell pulls the reader into Cath’s inner world, that confusing first-year-of-college world, so that you begin to understand why she hides her fears and insecurities behind a mask of indifference and judgment. And in comes Levi, all tall and gangly and as perfect as any 21 year old boy has ever been, and even a grown lesbian can’t help herself from swooning. I can’t give any bigger recommendation than to say that I listened to the second half of this book twice. Just because I wanted to hear it again.

Shine On, Bright & Dangerous Object
Laurie Colwin

"We discussed these things in short takes, over a long time. But the rest of the time we put our hands over our eyes, with only a space between our fingers to see the other. Both of those stances, we felt, were right. We would have been silly if we had not been so serious, so dedicated to caution, so careful to see if we were right, since we both felt our position to be risky and assailable."

More a beautiful character study than a plot-driven novel, Shine On is worth reading simply for hours spent with Colwin’s exquisite descriptions of the physical and emotional world. Her words hold the appeal of an earlier literary style where prose flowed more like poetry, and I found myself highlighting (on my Kindle) passages every other page. Through the internal journey the main character takes in the months following the sudden death of her husband and her young widowhood, Colwin shares the depths of marriage and what draws us to another person. That being said, the descriptions did start to wear on me as I began to want more plot and action and fewer epiphanies over the nature of love. Her language is gorgeous, and had the ratio of action to description been switched, I’d probably count this among my favorite books.

Killing and Dying
Adriane Tomine

"I had not thought ahead to that moment somehow. Standing there alone, I wanted to be invisible, to evaporate."

I should begin by saying that I’ve never read a graphic novel or graphic short stories, and this seemed like a big leap into the genre.  The stories were dark, filled with characters who, for the most part, seemed to embody the worst of human nature and the human experience. And, if any of my above reviews didn’t make it clear, I’m mostly in a not-dark place in my literary desires at the moment. Also, I had to remind myself to focus on the pictures, since my inclination was to just rush through the words, so I’m sure I didn’t absorb the full impact of the book. 

*Listened on Audible

p.s. Check here for my other 2015 book reports:
Winter 2015
Spring 2015
Summer 2015

Project Pie: Pear Cranberry Pie

Project Pie: I'll be baking 24 pies before Pi Day 2016 to get over my fear of baking pies. And to eat delicious things. You can join me by posting about your pies in the comments or tagging your twitter, instagram, or facebook posts with #projectpie. Make something scrumptious and gooey!

I was pretty worried as I walked out of the house with the sticky pie plate, setting it gingerly on a towel in the passenger seat. The pie looked okay, but I could see whole cranberries poking through the top, and I was concerned they hadn't squished down and mixed with the pears while it cooked. What if they weren't sweet? What if the whole thing tasted like crap, and here I was bringing it to a big Friendsgiving potluck? 

I was first at the dessert table after I'd finished my meal, anxious to test a piece out before anyone else got to it. I had a notion that if it wasn't any good, I'd just grab the pie plate and walk it out to my car before anyone else had a chance to eat any. 

I cut myself a slice and took a bite. 

You guys.

It's hard to pick favorites among the 18 pies I've made so far. Can I really compare the flavors of something I ate this weekend to something I ate six months ago?

Probably not, but even so, this pie is my favorite. 

The distinct sweetness of the pears, thinly sliced and perfectly soft, combined with the slightly tart pop of a cranberry, combined with the buttery, flaky crust? It's the closest to perfection I've come in the pie-making process. 

It tastes like a cozy fall afternoon and a fresh spring day at the same time. I want to eat this pie forever and always. 

Pear Cranberry Pie (with spelt crust)
Adapted from The Joy of Cooking

Crust:
2 1/2 cups white spelt flour (or sub all purpose)
1 teaspoon white sugar
1 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
1/2 cup shortening, room temperature
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon ice water
egg or milk + sugar for glaze

1. Quickly mix the flour, sugar, and salt together in a large bowl. 
2. Break the shortening into large chunks and cut your butter (from the freezer) into small pieces. Add the butter and shortening to the flour mixture. Cut it into the dry ingredients by chopping vigorously with a pastry blender or cutting it with two knives. Work quickly so the butter does not melt. Make sure you are getting all the flour off the bottom of the bowl. Stop when the mixture has some pea-sized pieces and is mostly a consistency of dry, coarse crumbs, like cornmeal. 
3. Drizzle the ice water over the top. Using the blade side of a rubber spatula, cut into the mixture until it is evenly moistened and small balls begin to form. If balls of dough stick together, you're done. If they don't, drizzle 1-2 more tablespoons of water over the top. 
4. Press the dough together until it forms a ball. It should be rough, not smooth. Divide the dough in half and press each into a flat, round disk. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. You can refrigerate for up to several days. 

Cranberry Pear Filling:
5 barlett pears, peeled and sliced thinly
1 1/2 cups whole cranberries
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons lemon juice

1. Combine all ingredients and let stand for 15 minutes.

Putting it together:
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. 
2. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface, beginning in the center and rolling out from all directions. Roll the dough about 3-4 inches wider than your pie pan.
3. Transfer the dough into your pie pan by rolling it loosely around your rolling pin and then unrolling it into the pie pan. Press the dough over the bottom and into the corners of your pan. Trim the edges of the dough, leaving a 3/4 inch overhang, and then tuck that overhang underneath itself.  (If you're able to eat eggs, do an egg wash over the bottom crust to seal it from the pie filling.)
4. Put the bottom crust into the refrigerator (preferably for at least 30 minutes). Roll out the top crust in the same way, though a little smaller. Pour your filling into the bottom crust and top with the top crust. Cut steam vents in the middle. Crimp the rim with a fork or make a decorative edge. 
5. Place the pie pan on a large baking sheet and place in the oven. Bake for 30 minutes.
6. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake 25-30 minutes or until bubbles juice through the vent. 
7. Let cool completely on a rack (this step is important so that all the juices don't just flow out when you cut the first piece).

p.s. I can't even decide on a runner up in the sweet category. Maybe the blueberry pie?

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My Hard Drive, My Heart

A few weeks ago, my external hard drive broke. I suppose I broke my external hard drive is a more accurate way to say it, but I'm still not sure exactly how. Not thinking, I picked up my laptop with the hard drive attached, and the little box swung on its cable. It didn't hit anything, but I suppose the whiplash-like movement of swinging back and forth was too much for it. A few minutes later I noticed a tinny whirring sound and then a clicking, and that's when I started to panic. 

Even then, I didn't realize how bad things were until the glib guy behind the counter at the computer store gave me a brochure for a place in California where I could send it, telling me there was a good chance it couldn't be fixed but that if it could be, it would likely cost "in the thousands." 

I sat in the parking lot and called the number on the brochure, sure that the computer guy was wrong. But my phone conversation suggested the opposite - clicking means mechanical failure, possible scratching off of data with every click, it has to be opened in a "clean room" to avoid destroying the data on the tiny little discs, and the minimum for the place on the brochure is $700 (with a max of $2700). 

I balked, ran to Facebook to ask questions of people who know about these things, started researching online, called friends. No one had a magic solution that sounded any better. 

Several people did report good experiences with the Geek Squad at Best Buy, so I decided to try there (with a minimum of $250) rather than jumping straight to the more expensive solution. 

You know what they say about getting what you pay for. I got the call a few days ago that they couldn't retrieve the data on the hard drive without sending it to their clean room, with a minimum price tag of $1400. Since I thought that's what they had already been doing these last 2 weeks while I waited anxiously, I asked them to send it back so I can send it to Drive Savers (the place in California), which is what I should have done in the first place. 

I'm waiting.

I feel like a part of me is missing. Or rather, many parts of me. Some I remember, some I don't.

The post I was hashing out, the several stories I'd been revising, the ideas that were just paragraphs of drivel waiting for something more, the photos - thousands and thousands of photos from the last ten years, my entire iPhoto library, our trip to the Grand Canyon, my mom's wedding, our vacation to Guatemala and Costa Rica, the random shots that didn't make it to Instagram, the pictures of flowers and autumn leaves and Jammer and us and nothing and everything. 

I can't bring myself to believe that they might be gone forever, that I might not ever have those things back. The thought makes my chest and my stomach tighten into little knots. 

I think back over and over again to how I didn't upgrade to the Dropbox pro account where I was storing blog photos when I ran out of space. In my mind, I see the pop-up box telling me my account is full, and I will my former self to take action as if I could turn back time with the strength of my desire. 

People lose things everyday. Their keys, their mittens, their wallets, their dogs, their friends, their babies, their husbands, their wives, their parents. A decade of photos and writing is small, infinitesimal really, against the backdrop of real lives, real loss. 

And yet that hard drive is filled with my real life, with the life I have been working to make, one filled with words and images, one where I am an artist, a writer, a creator. I feel frozen in the wake of its loss. I don't know how to start again. 

I am plagued by a sense that my greatest creativity, my greatest ideas were in those drafts. A self-indulgent fear, I suppose. And yet there it sits, in my chest and in my stomach and in my tear ducts. 

I wait. And I write. And I practice beginning again in the hope that I don't actually have to.

p.s. In a moment of what I now consider pure genius, I moved the novel I have been working on since November 2013 to Google Drive. Praise be.

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Project Pie: Apple Raspberry Pie (Vegan + Whole Wheat)

After the struggle I've been having with my pie crusts lately, I decided to go back to the basics. Nothing fancy for this pie - just some fruit in a regular whole wheat crust. 

But it seems that this weekend my brain was turned off while I was cooking. I burned an entire pan of granola because I thought Hey, it would be great to bake it along with the pie! and then totally didn't think about the fact that I normally bake granola at 250 degrees and pie at 375 degrees. And man is it disappointing to waste all those granola ingredients. 

I thought that was the only kitchen snafu until I sat down to write this post and hopped back over to the pie crust recipe I was using from my old potato and zucchini pie post. There I saw the ingredient list, including 8 tablespoons of Earth Balance from the freezer. And my mind flashed to the half stick of Earth Balance I cut into little squares before dropping into my flour. 4 tablespoons, not 8. I'd been contemplating only making half the recipe and not having a top crust and then changed my mind but forgot to change the Earth Balance amount.

That's the mystery of baking, and especially pie crusts. 

Everyone can talk about how precise you need to be with the ingredients, and then you can put in half of one of the most critical ones and end up with a pretty delicious crust. I looked back at what I said about the pie crust in that old post and realized I'd talked about how it was sticky and hard to work with, which I had totally forgotten. This time, with my Earth Balance mess-up, I had a not-sticky crust that I could roll out and put into my pie plate and that tastes pretty darn good. Maybe a little dry to work with, so I might play around with the proportion of Earth Balance, but I won't go back up to 8 tablespoons again. Obviously that's just too much for a whole wheat crust. 

And I never would have known if I hadn't totally goofed. 

I look at some people in my life and think things would be so much better for me if I could just be more like them - more organized, in control, disciplined. They seem to have it all together. And then something like this happens, where my frazzled brain leads to a discovery in the midst of a messy kitchen and a burning pan of granola - my accidental 4 tablespoons works better than the recipe's 8 tablespoons. 

I guess I'll take the discoveries where I can find them and continue trying to accept that "having it all together" isn't always the best option. 

Vegan + Whole Wheat Apple Raspberry Pie

Crust:

2 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons cold Earth Balance (or other non-dairy butter)
1/2 cup shortening, room temperature
1/2 cup ice water

1. Quickly mix the flour, sugar, and salt together in a large bowl. 
2. Break the shortening into large chunks and cut your butter (from the freezer) into small pieces. Add the butter and shortening to the flour mixture. Cut it into the dry ingredients by chopping vigorously with a pastry blender or cutting it with two knives. Work quickly so the butter does not melt. Make sure you are getting all the flour off the bottom of the bowl. Stop when the mixture has some pea-sized pieces and is mostly a consistency of dry, coarse crumbs, like cornmeal. 
3. Drizzle the ice water over the top. Using the blade side of a rubber spatula, cut into the mixture until it is evenly moistened and small balls begin to form. If balls of dough stick together, you're done. If they don't, drizzle 1-2 more tablespoons of water over the top. 
4. Press the dough together until it forms a ball. It should be rough, not smooth. Divide the dough in half and press each into a flat, round disk. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. You can refrigerate for up to several days. 

Apple Raspberry Filling:

5-6 apples (I used Macoun)
3 cups fresh or frozen raspberries (I used frozen)
2 tablespoons whole wheat flour (I used white whole wheat)
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons coconut palm sugar
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice

1. Peel and cut up the apples - I used a simple corer/slicer and then cut each slice into four chunks.
2. Put the apples (plus the raspberries, if frozen) into a microwave-safe bowl and microwave for 5-6 minutes. 
3. Drain the liquid from the apples and add in the rest of the ingredients and mix until incorporated. 

Putting it together:

1. Pour the apple raspberry mixture into your chilled pie crust. 
2. Roll out your second chunk of dough until it's about 1/8 inch thick and use a sharp un-serrated knife to cut the dough into a chevron shape.
3. Place the chevrons onto your pie crust and crimp the edges. 
4. Bake the pie at 375 degrees for 1 hour. If the edges start to brown or burn, use tin foil to cover them and continue cooking. 
5. Serve warm. 

p.s. Kind of like how messiness is connected to creativity, at least for me. 

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My Very Perfect Magical Sunshine Job Description

This photo is totally unrelated to this post, but I think the people at Fletch would like it.

This photo is totally unrelated to this post, but I think the people at Fletch would like it.

I'm not job hunting, but I got the silly idea the other day to create a my perfect job ad. I'm not talking about the job ad your career counselor has you write so you can figure out what keywords to click on Monster.com. I'm talking about the fantastical job ad that would make you gasp out loud because could this actually be a job? was I stalked and secretly monitored so this job would be just for me? 

No, it can't actually be a job because this is total fantasy, but I had such a good time coming up with it that I'm totally okay with that. And I have all these other ideas now for other perfect job ads (because you can obviously have more than one perfect fantastical job). 

So here it is: my very perfect magical sunshine job ad from my very perfect magical sunshine made-up company.

Fletch
Director of Communications and Audience Engagement

Overview

The Director of Communications and Audience Engagement will work closely with the CEO to create, curate, and market an expansive collection of film clips (full episodes and movies as well as short clips) focused on bringing light escapist pleasure to the (mostly female) masses. The ideal candidate will have a strong working knowledge of 80s and 90s television, including shows like Murder She Wrote and Cheers; a deep understanding of a variety of romantic comedies; and a love for WWC (watching while crafting).

The Director of Communications and Audience Engagement is primarily a teleworking position. However, the Director will be expected to attend certain office functions, such as Little House on the Prairie marathon watch parties, company writing retreats, the annual knit-a-long, volunteer work days, and the holiday dessert potluck and cream puff eating competition. 

Primary Duties

  • Screen television shows and movies for inclusion in the film database
  • Draft compelling copy describing clip highlights as well as suitability for WWC (watching while crafting)
  • Develop material for and run weekly podcast with interviews of actors, writers, crafters, and highly engaged fans
  • Serve as editor of the quarterly Cheesy FanFic Review, showcasing the best fanfiction about 80s and 90s television shows, primarily Matlock and Murder She Wrote-style mysteries
  • Monitor virtual watch-and-craft-a-thons, using social media to drive interest and showcase examples of exceptional WWC skills 
  • Maintain a personal writing practice and seek publication outside Fletch, preferably on topics of interest to a similar demographic

Desired Skills and Qualifications

  • Multiple degrees in a variety of (perhaps unrelated) fields, indicating a zest for life and learning
  • Expertise in marathon-ing television shows while crafting
  • Experience writing about television shows and movies from a fangirl perspective 
  • Experience with social media platforms, including Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, and Pinterest 
  • Ability to craft a compelling story
  • Passion for our mission: personal joy through cheesy television and crafting
  • Ability to quickly and effectively answer the questions, "Which Golden Girl are you?" "Which Designing Woman are you?" "What is your favorite Meg Ryan film?"  "Who is your favorite romantic comedy lead?" "Sheriff Tupper or Sheriff Metzger?" etc
  • Kind and thoughtful communication with colleagues, audience members, and guests

I would so kill this interview. 

Please please tell me what your very perfect magical sunshine job description would be! It's super fun, and I want to know!

p.s. I've talked about Murder She Wrote seven times on this blog. Little House on the Prairie? 13 times.

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Not Writing

All last week I looked forward to Sunday. My wife had to work for a few hours, and I was going to spend that time writing - some for the blog, some for a few other pieces I'm working on, some for fiction. I was going to sit down with my computer and a cup of tea and access all that creativity that's been pinned up inside. 

Things I did Sunday instead of write:

1. Go to Costco. I mean, the price of organic frozen fruit at the grocery store is bananas, and how can we live without our smoothies? What else could I possibly eat for breakfast?
2. Make a huge vat of homemade pizza sauce from the tomatoes I froze during the summer. Honestly, I bill myself as this Little House on the Prairie-loving gardener-type. What would people think if I didn't make a big batch of something and can it? 
3. Make homemade pizza dough. There is absolutely no store-bought pizza dough that's 100% whole wheat and doesn't add sugar, and how else are we going to eat the pizza sauce?
4. Wash dishes and load the dishwasher. All that cooking makes so many dirty dishes, and I can't just leave them there, can I?
5. Create a spreadsheet analysis of the different options for consolidating/refinancing my student loans. Okay, that's totally legit. They're out of control. 

I will spend hours thinking about how I want to write. I will listen to writing podcasts as I drive to and from work. I will bemoan the lack of time for writing, and then when I could write, I will not write. All these other things pop up that I "need" to do. And what's frustrating is that, in the moment, I really do think I "need" to do them.

Why is it so hard to set aside time for writing? 

I keep thinking that there's a deep psychological reason I haven't figured out yet, some key that will surface when I put the correct puzzle pieces together. But I never seem to find the right ones. 

When I'm able to get up early in the morning, I have the most success at getting words on the page. Aside from sleeping, there's nothing else to interfere at 5:00 am. I'm not going to get out of bed and start making strawberry jam. And yet, though it is 5:22 am, and I'm here on the couch putting words into this machine, the early morning routine feels tenuous. I had it for so many months, and then I lost it. I have missed it, that quiet time just for me. And yet missing it has not made it easier to get out of bed in the morning. 

I can't tell you how many times I've set the alarm for 4:30 or 5:00 and then woken up at 3:15 to turn over or go to the bathroom and thought Oh hell no. I am TIRED, and opened up my phone to turn off the alarm. 

And it wouldn't matter - writing doesn't have to happen first thing in the morning - except that I will apparently do almost anything else during the day than sit down and write. It doesn't make a lick of sense because I long to write all the time. I think about writing. I come up with little snippets of dialogue or story lines or themes. 

Don't even get me started about all the times I plan to write when I get home from work. At 10 am, when I'm thinking about an article idea while sitting in a meeting, that sounds perfect. At 7 pm when I pull into the driveway? All I want is to watch The Mysteries of Laura and eat a giant bowl of pasta.

I'm reaching out here for serious, folks: Are there things you love to do that you somehow never find time to do? Or, are you amazing at finding/making time to do the things you love to do? Tell me your secret. (I know it's not a secret. It's just making time to do it. But pretend it's a secret so I'll feel better!)

p.s. I spilled coffee in my J.B. Fletcher tote bag this week. Total fail.

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Weaving, Passion, and Perfectionism

image.jpg

I'm not going to talk about the fact that the big diamond in the middle of my weaving is a little bit wonky or that the little diamonds at the bottom aren't all shaped perfectly or that the stripes at the top are wavy instead of straight. 

Nope. Not going to talk about those things because I'm learning (always, slowly and imperfectly) to let go of perfectionism, especially when it's totally unreasonable. 

I hung my completed weaving in my office, directly across from me, so I can look at it all day and remind myself that there is a creator inside me. A creator of words, a creator of images, a creator of meals, a creator of tapestries, a creator of beauty. 

Many days I feel so removed from that side of myself - days when I leave the house in a hurry, sit at my desk and make decisions and answer emails and talk on the phone and go to meetings, and then drive home to throw something totally uninspired together for dinner before falling asleep scrolling through Instagram. The creator in me starves on those days, and the more often days turn to weeks, the harder it is for me to find that person inside me that runs yarn through warp strings or creates characters or sews quilts. 

The perfectionism is worse then, when I'm operating from a place of scarcity, when I'm afraid I might have lost my connection to my creator self. This might be my last chance, I think. I must create not only the perfect thing, but the perfect experience of creating the perfect thing. This creation must be the one that re-awakens me. 

Because it's fun to compare myself to Elizabeth Gilbert, I've been remembering an article I read where she talked about losing her passion for writing, an experience that terrified her. She turned to gardening as a way to continue engaging her curiosity and ultimately found her way back to her writing desk. 

I'm taking solace in her words, trying to find a sense of curiosity for all the little pieces of my life, trying to believe that the passion has not abandoned me entirely, that shoving perfectionism onto my creative pursuits will not help, that my passion will re-ignite when it is ready.

And until then, I carry on.

p.s. Reminds me a little of my interview with Elise Blaha Cripe!

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Project Pie: Vegan Pumpkin Pie

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Project Pie: I'll be baking 24 pies before Pi Day 2016 to get over my fear of baking pies. And to eat delicious things. You can join me by posting about your pies in the comments or tagging your twitter, instagram, or facebook posts with #projectpie. Make something scrumptious and gooey!

You're probably not surprised to learn that I am such a delight to be around that I rarely do anything that bothers my wife. 

It's true. She is especially not bothered by the way I always choose to make a complex, brand new recipe right before we have guests coming for dinner and then freak out about whether it will be any good at all, while simultaneously freaking out about the inevitable mess I've made. Obviously, delightful. And she's not bothered by how I decide to throw something in the oven that needs to bake for, say, 30 minutes when we need to be walking out the door with it for a potluck in, say, 25 minutes. Again, delightful. 

And, I mean, can you blame her? Who wouldn't love those things about me?

Sigh.

Luckily we didn't have to bring this pie to a potluck, and we weren't serving it to guests. (Though I did make us late for a dinner date because I forgot the pumpkins were in the oven, and we had to drive back and take them out and, you know, turn off the oven.)

But this step of my 24-pie journey has me thinking about how I like to keep things exciting in the kitchen. When I started Project Pie, I envisioned each pie in my future getting progressively more delicious, more beautiful, more restaurant/cover of a magazine-worthy. I imagined taking a bite of pie, my eyes lifting slightly before I shut them, my head bowing in a tiny prayer, my mouth chewing slowly before opening and saying in a hushed whisper, "Voila. I have done it. A vegan whole wheat pie crust for the masses!" 

I have weird fantasies. 

If you've been following along, you know that's not how it has happened. Not at all. 

For starters, I rarely make the same thing twice. And when I do, I'm hardly precise about it. It's difficult to perfect a pie crust you've only made once, but I'm always ready to try something new, check out a different variation, substitute this fat for that one because I forgot to buy the one the recipe calls for. 

When the new crust is falling apart or sticky or won't come out of the pie plate, I curse and promise myself I'll use the trusty ol' standby recipe next time. And then next time rolls around, and I find a new one with coconut oil and spelt flour, and I'm off to the races. 

I never seem to learn. 

But, you know, we haven't once thrown away a pie. Or even a slice (except for that one piece of peach ginger pie that molded as a lesson in how stupid self restraint is). 

Because, hello-o. It's pie. 

And pie is delicious even if the crust is a little crumbly or the filling leaks all over the pie plate when you cut it. 

I'm not going to re-post the recipe here because I followed Angela's almost note for note. The big difference is that I used half white spelt and half whole wheat flour and subbed in coconut palm sugar. My crust was...less than stellar. In the end, it tasted fine, but it definitely did not roll out. I basically smushed it into the pie plate and hoped for the best. The filling on the other hand? Delicimous. 

So, eyes closed, low whisper, "Voila! I made a pumpkin pie! It was yummy!"

The end. 

p.s. Opting out. (Like opting out of perfection when it comes to pies)

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Quarterly Book Report: October 2015

The last few months have been busy with work and life and visitors and mini-vacations where I wanted to read a lot but barely picked up a book. I'm also partway through about 5 different books that I can't seem to finish (probably because I won't just focus on one of them).

So this book report covers just four books. Though I should say that two of them were a combined 1600 pages (or 70 hours, if you listened to them like I did). 

Gilead
Marilynne Robinson

"People talk about how wonderful the world seems to children, and that's true enough. But children think they will grow into it and understand it, and I know very well that I will not, and would not if I had a dozen lives."

This quiet story of an elderly preacher's coming to terms with his life and the lives of his fathers - from the Civil War to the twentieth century - is told with such intimacy that it can be painful in its beauty. John Ames's voice is warm and humble and one of the most resounding tributes to a life of honest faith I've ever encountered. This is one to be read slowly, letting each word sink into your head and your heart.  

The Name of the Wind*
Patrick Rothfuss

"To deem us simply enemies is to lose the true flavor of our relationship. It was more like the two of us entered into a business partnership in order to more efficiently pursue our mutual interest of hating each other."

Patrick Rothfuss's debut novel about Kvothe, a young boy who grows to be a legend, is compelling and beautifully written. The book is fantasy, and there is magic at the heart of it, but I hesitate to call it fantasy, knowing that there are those who write the genre off automatically. I am not generally drawn to it myself, but after having the book recommended to me by two of my favorite people, I gave it a try. This book is not truly fantastical (though totally cool if that's your thing). It reads like historical fiction from another civilization - one very similar to ours but with a different set of rules. 

I had minor quibbles with Rothfuss as I read, but on the whole, this book devoured me. That's right. It devoured me, not the other way around. I couldn't think of anything else. All I wanted was to get back to the story. I fell in love with this world and these characters. I highly recommend it.

The Wise Man's Fear*
Patrick Rothfuss

"It had flaws, but what does that matter when it comes to matters of the heart? We love what we love. Reason does not enter into it. In many ways, unwise love is the truest love. Anyone can love a thing because. That's as easy as putting a penny in your pocket. But to love something despite. To know the flaws and love them too. That is rare and pure and perfect."

I'd barely finished the last sentence of The Name of the Wind before I was downloading A Wise Man's Fear. Much of my thoughts on Rothfuss's first book carry through to his second, though I thought it was slow at times and wasn't quite as strong on the plot front. Of course, because the books are part of a trilogy, there was absolutely no way I wasn't going to read it. Be forewarned: the third book is not out yet. You can cry with me. 

All the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr

"It strikes Werner just then as wondrously futile to build splendid buildings, to make music, to sing songs, to print huge books full of colorful birds in the face of the seismic, engulfing indifference of the world - what pretensions humans have!"

Doerr's story of Parisian Marie-Laure and German orphan Werner during World War II is exquisite and masterful and heartbreaking. The structure of the novel - jumping back and forth through time and from the perspectives of three different characters - had me applauding Doerr's skill (and wishing I had a little of it) while I read. The suspense of a particular moment, carried across chapters where we learn bits and pieces of the past, was perfection. And his portrayal of the ultimate tragedy of war took my breath away. If it weren't so painful, I'd read the book again just for it's beauty.

*Listened on Audible.com

p.s. You can check out my other book reports here. 

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Tapestry Weaving with April Rhodes

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I started noticing the tapestry weaving trend almost three years ago when Elise Blaha Cripe posted one of her experiments with it on her blog. At the time I was kind of meh about it. 

Little by little, I saw more and more weavings showing up in the craft blogosphere. I became more intrigued and noticed ones I liked. I tried my hand at it with a little cardboard loom I made myself. The tapestry itself is pretty shoddy work, but I loved making it. Within a few days, I was obsessed. My weaving pinterest board ballooned. I found the superstars of the tapestry weaving word and fell in love. 

Most folks who have dipped even the tiniest of toes in the weaving waters have heard of Maryanne Moodie. Her bold, brightly-colored, geometric pieces are stunning (this one is my favorite). And then there is Natalie Miller, with pieces like this (deep swoon). And Hannah Waldron, in a whole different stratosphere. And Rose Jensen Holm

I started looking at tapestries from places like Oaxaco, Mexico. And every pattern in the world could be incorporated into a weaving. 

There are so many ways to be inspired - my mind has been exploding with the beauty. So when, for my birthday this year, my sweet wife got me a day-long tapestry weaving class with fabric designer and weaver April Rhodes, I was beside myself with excitement. I counted down the days. 

The class itself was wonderful. April was a complete delight, and it was so fun and creativity-affirming to spend 8 hours with other crafty women weaving our yarn in and out of the warp thread on our looms. 

It was also, as so many things are, a learning experience on a deeper level. I went in with a design, prepared to incorporate some of the Mexican weaving images I had seen and to weave something beautiful enough to hang alongside Maryanne Moodie's pieces. My first time weaving on a real lap loom. Because that's totally reasonable. 

My perfectionist self was running around my brain like a maniac for much of the day. The shapes I'd envisioned were not quite as simple to make as I'd anticipated (shocker). Though April tried to gently encourage me away from them, I forged ahead. And while I did make the shapes, I didn't finish my piece and I understood why she had suggested something different for my first real weaving. I spent much of the time frustrated and tense, trying to get all the stitches to line up exactly. (Also, I did math! On purpose!)

The woman sitting next to me kept saying "I love this! I'm having so much fun!" 

"Me too," I would reply, through clenched teeth.

I love the look of what I'm making, and I cannot wait to finish it, but when I got home and allowed the yoga practice I've been cultivating to seep its way into my weaving, I realized I needed to breath a little, to set it aside and remember why I enjoyed weaving that first time on my little cardboard loom when I didn't know what it was "supposed" to look like. 

This is just the first one. There will be many others, and if I want to, I can get better each time. I could also decide that getting better isn't what it's about. I could decide it's about the moving meditation of yarn through thread, of my hands moving across the textured stitches. 

Knowing me, I probably won't. 

But I could.

And who knows. I'm learning every day.

p.s. My previous weaving. All those warp threads showing! Eek! :)

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Project Pie: Banoffee Pie

Project Pie: I'll be baking 24 pies before Pi Day 2016 to get over my fear of baking pies. And to eat delicious things. You can join me by posting about your pies in the comments or tagging your twitter, instagram, or facebook posts with #projectpie. Make something scrumptious and gooey!

Sometimes it is 9:00 on a Saturday night, and you're using a vegetable peeler to shave chocolate onto a pie that has taken you entirely too long to make for your neighbors because they are so nice and help you out when you can't get the oil filter off the riding lawn mower and tell you what to do when your carbon monoxide monitor is going off and you can't figure out why and walk the dog when you get home later than you thought and are simply your surrogate parents up here in the (rural suburban) wilds of Vermont, and you are rushing out the door with a freshly topped pie so that you don't get to their house later than is acceptable to drop off a fresh pie on a Saturday night, and you realize that it's gotten dark since you started this endeavor and you haven't taken any photos of the finished pie, and though the pie was created as a thank you, it is also part of your pie project and you must take photos of it, and so you slap it down on the dining room table and take a couple terrible photos and run out the door into your car because walking the 0.2 miles to your neighbors' house would take too long, so you drive, holding the pie in one hand while steering with the other, and for a moment you wonder if this is completely ridiculous, if anyone actually makes pies for their neighbors anymore, and then you see the look of surprise and delight on your neighbor's face and you get a hug and you realize this is why you wanted to live in a neighborhood in the first place, and you drive home and make yourself a little snack out of the leftover ingredients and eat it over the sink. 

Because sometimes that's how pie-making goes.

Banoffee Pie
Adapted from First Prize Pies

Crust

6 full sheets of graham crackers
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1. Crush up the graham crackers in a plastic bag with a rolling pin or whirl them in the food processor until they are finely ground. 
2. Pour in the melted butter and mix with your hands.
3. Press the mixture into a 9-inch pie pan and chill in the fridge.

Filling

1 can (14 oz) sweetened condensed milk

1. Remove the label from the can of sweetened condensed milk. 
2. Place the unopened can on its side in a pot of water deep enough to cover the can with at least 2 inches of water. 
3. Bring the water to a boil and allow the can to boil for 2-3 hours. IMPORTANT: Do not let the water level fall below the can. The can must remain submerged or it could burst.
4. Remove the can from the water with tongs and allow the can to cool COMPLETELY before opening (or it could shoot hot dulce de leche at you). 

Putting it Together

3 bananas
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup sugar
Shaved dark chocolate (optional)

1. Into the chilled graham cracker crust, spread the now-cooled dulce de leche (made from the condensed milk).
2. Top with rounds of the bananas. 
3. With a mixer, whip the cream with the sugar until stiff peaks form. Spread on top of the bananas.
4. Top with shaved chocolate.

Keep in the refrigerator. Best eaten within 2-3 days. 

Though I didn't have a piece of the pie, my neighbors reported good things, and my little snack made up of the components was divine. Also, all I want to do all the time now is make my own dulce de leche and eat it out of the can. 

Lessons from the Garden: 2015

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1. Creation is ruthless. 

I killed slugs en masse this year, though I love the slimy little things. I killed them with my bare hands, dropping them into soapy water and trying to pretend I was doing something else. I killed them like a coward, by sprinkling deadly Sluggo onto the ground to do the dirty work while I slept. I killed cabbage worms, though they are the most lovely shade of green and remind me of the caterpillars I collected and kept as pets when I was in elementary school. I killed Japanese Beetles and sometimes even earth worms by accidentally maiming them with a trowel. I thought unkind thoughts about rabbits.

But I lifted my chin and continued on. For the sake of creation. For the sake of the vegetables, folks.

2. Cute does not necessarily equal delicious.

Man am I susceptible to adorableness. If you tell me that a plant will grow cherry tomatoes that look like itty bitty yellow pears, I will snap that pot up faster than you can finish your sentence. I will jump and clap my hands when the first one shows up, and I will run inside with my treasure. And then I will shake my head in disappointment every. single. time. I bite into their mealy, tasteless flesh. 

3. Memory is for fools. 

If you want to remember which type of seed you used, or which variety of heirloom tomato start you bought from that little local farm sale, write that sh*t down.

4. Try, Try Again. 

My wife said to give up on tomatoes entirely after our last two unsuccessful years resulted in pounds of green tomatoes but nary a red one. But I wanted just one more try. We moved the bed we were using, bought giant sturdy starts from a few different places, and got them in the ground in mid-May, thanks to an early Spring.

Now I can hardly fit anything else into the freezer for the amount of frozen tomatoes we have ready to make into sauce. So many tomatoes. It was really a bumper crop, and I think we know how to recreate it next year.  Of course...

5. Failure is inevitable. 

Gardening is nothing if not a lesson in non-attachment. Do Buddhists garden? They should because I'm constantly being reminded of how little control I have even over the things in my very own front yard. I could list all of the plants that just haven't worked out - melons (two years running), peppers, eggplant, cucumbers the last two years, brussels sprouts. There are more, but you get the picture. I'm always disappointed when something doesn't work out, but I'm slowly coming to accept the garden as an experiment, where some plants will grow beautifully and others will not. I try to build on what I've learned in previous years, but even then, the weather will be weird or different pests will show up. Or a plant will fail for reasons that defy my understanding. I carry on.

6. Nothing is sacred. 

If you lean into the wild mass of green bean vines to snag the perfect bean hanging inside, a Daddy Longlegs will climb into your hair. You will not notice immediately, and when you do, you will scream and drop all of your lovingly-picked vegetables onto the ground and step on a perfect, tiny cherry tomato. Be warned. 

7. Murphy's Law lives. 

I spent countless hours googling and ruminating over exactly what type of irrigation system to put into the garden this year in the hopes of avoiding squash mold and getting better results from all the plants. I went to several different hardware stores to get the different pieces I needed and then spent most of a weekend installing it into the garden. I used it that week with poor results and re-worked it to only cover half the garden. Then no more than 2 days went by for the entire summer without a hefty amount of rain, and I never turned on the hose again. 

8. Dirt is good for the soul. 

Even with all the pests that plagued the garden this year, I still loved walking around among the beds, pulling out weeds and tearing off dead leaves. Washing an afternoon of digging in the ground off my hands feels like being clean and alive in a way I am at no other time. Those plants teach me gratitude and patience and forgiveness. They are of the sweet earth, and they are wise. 

p.s. To see all my garden updates, click here. 

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What We Have and What We Want

"Do you ever think maybe we're not cut out for this?" I asked my wife this weekend as we stood outside our shed. 

We'd spent the afternoon doing some of the chores around our house that had been too-long neglected. (There are many.) She was attempting to change the oil filter in our riding lawn mower in the hopes of getting it working again after weeks of trying to charge the battery and having no success and finally revealing (with the help of a hired handyman) that mice had constructed a penthouse apartment and buffet in the engine. I was cleaning the bajillion spider webs off the front porch, a project prompted by an unacceptably large eight-legger dangling wildly from the porch roof and almost hurling itself into Navah's surprised face. I was also cleaning out the side of the garage where I had seen a mouse a few days before, organizing the garden tools and gas cans and sweeping out the mouse droppings. 

After having to call a neighbor to come over and help us figure out the lawn mower's oil filter, Navah got that running and mowed the lawn - first with the riding mower and then with the regular mower in all the places the riding mower can't get. As we prepared to put both into the shed, I used a stick to remove the five large spiders crawling around the edges of the door. 

We stood in the doorway of the shed, and I made one of those inarticulate noises that signifies to anyone nearby to jump and move away from where they are as a mouse ran down the back wall of the shed. But we steeled ourselves and continued to work on getting the mowers into the space. I held the shed door open with my foot (in case of more spiders) while Navah drove the riding mower in. And then I screamed, terrifying the mouse that was attempting to run out of the shed, who instead ran back into the shed, causing Navah to leap up off the seat of the riding mower and join me in my cowering position outside the shed, pondering my question about whether we were cut out for this. 

She raised her eyebrows. "Owning a house or living in the woods?"

"Both?"

"All the time, " she said. "I'm pretty sure we should move into an air-tight, perfectly sealed condominium." 

We laughed, sort of. 

It got me thinking about what we have and what we want. 

We lived in - for all intents and purposes - an air-tight, perfectly sealed condominium. In Washington, DC. We lived on the 9th floor of a nice building, in an apartment with a wall of windows that looked out on the city. I don't remember ever seeing a bug, much less a mouse. We had nothing to care for - the building superintendents took care of it all. 

And for a lot of our time there, we talked mostly about moving to Vermont. About living in the country and communing with nature and how tired we were of the concrete jungle. 

And when we lived in our (mouse-free) apartment in Burlington, where we didn't take care of a yard or handle any maintenance or pay when anything broke, all we wanted was a house of our own with some land in the country. 

So here we are. With our lovely house, and our big yard, and our lawn mowers, and our shed, and our spiders, and our mice. 

The things we have and the things we want. 

Neither of us would trade our house for that apartment back in DC, but there are more than a couple things about it that look awfully good these days. And, of course, we didn't really appreciate them while we were there. We didn't know how nice it is to live in a house not plagued by mice. They'd never been a problem. We didn't know what it meant to deal with appliances breaking and window frames rotting and mailboxes getting blocked by an ice storm. We knew that home-ownership brought responsibility, but we didn't know what that really meant. 

In truth, most of the time, I don't want to live anywhere other than this home. I love that it's ours and that we're friends with our neighbors and have hiking trails around the bend and a garden out front. But I do hate the spiders and the mice and the fear of something breaking and not knowing how to fix it. 

I remember shopping for an Easter dress with my grandmother. I was about 14 years old, and I can still see the two dresses hanging on the wall of the dressing room. One was a flowery pink and the other was navy with white polka dots. They were completely different and totally lovely, and I had the terrible realization as I looked between them that no matter which I picked, I was going to wish it had been the other when I got home. 

I hope that I'm beginning to grow up a bit in my thinking, to recognize that I could always want something more or different, that the good life happens when you want what you have. And not necessarily because you have everything you could ever want. 

The lesson strikes me as a life-long one - something I'll be working towards for the duration. And what a beautiful home from which to contemplate it.

Just don't ask me how it's going after a mouse runs by. 

 

p.s. I don't dislike mice, per se. It's just that they're always a surprise (hence the shrieking), and I know they carry disease and can't be in our home (which was a major issue last year around this time), so they cause me anxiety - in part because they're actually quite cute and I hate to harm them. But this is how I feel about spiders

p.s.s. Reading through this post again has me thinking about all those who live in a state of complete housing insecurity - in shelters or on the street or in fear of eviction - or in dwellings that are not really fit for their health and safety. My brain reminding me to have a little perspective. 

 

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Galette-Style Plum Pie (Whole Wheat + Vegan)

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Project Pie: I'll be baking 24 pies before Pi Day 2016 to get over my fear of baking pies. And to eat delicious things. You can join me by posting about your pies in the comments or tagging your twitter, instagram, or facebook posts with #projectpie. Make something scrumptious and gooey!

I’m supposed to be getting better at this, right? Pie #13 is supposed to roll out more easily, taste more amazing, smell more inviting than Pie #1?

Ah, the infernal “supposed to.”

How many times has it stopped me (you?) in my (your?) tracks? 

This isn’t working the way it’s supposed to, I’ve said. I must be doing it wrong. I must not be the right person for this. This must not be the right time, the right place, the right reason, the right anything.

What would it look like if I could let go of “supposed to”?

If, when this crust was miserably difficult to roll out and stuck to the butcher-block countertop, I had thought, “How funny! Look at what’s happening this time!” and laughed and chalked it up to experience?

In yoga and meditation, teachers always talk about curiosity versus judgment. The idea is to notice what is happening in your body or your mind without placing any value judgments on it. For instance, I might say, I’m not that good at meditating. I always have such a hard time staying focused on what I’m doing. Or, instead, I could say I often have a lot of thoughts while meditating. I wonder why?

One sets me up for a feeling of failure. The other opens the door to more exploration, to trying again.

If I were not committed to making 24 pies, I would likely quit after the last few. I’m having a terrible time with the crusts. They stick. They fall apart. They’re not supposed to.

Or…

I’ve been using a lot of different crust recipes lately, trying things out. Some of them are challenging! When I used a totally new recipe while on vacation in an unfamiliar kitchen and with a wine bottle as a rolling pin, the crust was extra challenging. How interesting. I wonder how it would have been if I’d been making it at home. Or in the food processor?

Anne over at Modern Mrs. Darcy wrote recently about a spirit of experimentation as a way to work through perfectionism.

“When I try an experiment, success is getting an outcome. Any outcome. The goal is to get results, not a win.”

I loved that. I’ve been experimenting with it myself. I often fall back into the “supposed to” of perfectionism (how interesting!), so this conversation about letting go of how I think something should go and noticing how it is going has become a mainstay in my internal dialogue.

This pie was no exception.

The results of my experiment?

Crust: Challenging to roll out; delicious flavor; nice crumble
Filling: Challenging to peel plums; yummy combo of sweet and tart; pleasing texture
Katie: Frustrated with dough and plums; practiced deep breathing; ate whole piece of pie

Success!

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Galette-Style Plum Pie
Adapted from First Prize Pies

Crust

2 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup Earth Balance, frozen and cut into ½ inch pieces
1/4-1/2 cup ice water

1. Mix the flour and salt together in a large bowl. 
2. Add the frozen Earth Balance chunks to the flour mixture. Cut it into the dry ingredients by chopping vigorously with a pastry blender or cutting it with two knives. Work quickly so the butter does not melt. Make sure you are getting all the flour off the bottom of the bowl. Stop when the mixture has some pea-sized pieces and is mostly a consistency of dry, coarse crumbs, like cornmeal. 
3. Drizzle the ice water over the top, starting with ¼ cup. Using the blade side of a rubber spatula, cut into the mixture until it is evenly moistened and small balls begin to form. If balls of dough stick together, you're done. If they don't, drizzle 1-2 more tablespoons of water at a time over the top, cutting with the rubber spatula each time and then testing to see if the dough sticks together. 
4. Press the dough together until it forms a ball. It should be rough, not smooth. Press into a flat, round disk. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. You can refrigerate for up to several days. 

Filling

2-3 pounds ripe plums, pitted, peeled, and sliced
1/4 cup honey
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup coconut palm sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt

1. Bring a large pot of water to boil and prepare a bowl of ice water.
2. With a small knife, make a shallow X in the bottom of each plum.
3. Place the plums in the boiling water for 45-60 seconds or until the skin of the plums begins to pucker and pull away from the X.
4. Remove the plums from the boiling water and place them immediately into the bowl of ice water.
5. When the plums have cooled, peel the skin off with your fingers and slice the plums, removing the pits.
6. In a mixing bowl, mix together the sliced plums, honey, and vanilla.
7. In a separate small bowl, mix together the last three filling ingredients.

Putting it Together

1. Remove the crust dough from the freezer and roll out into a large round disc, about ¼ inch thick and 5-6 inches wider than your pie plate.
2. Place the crust into the pie plate.
3. Mix together the dry cornstarch mix and the plum mixture.
4. Pour the mixture into the crust, and loosely fold over the edges of the pie crust.
5. Place the pie plate on a baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes at 400 degrees, turning once.
6. After 20 minutes, reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake for 35 minutes, or until the crust is golden and the plums are juicy.
7. Allow the pie to cool for at least one hour before serving. 

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Celebrity Tote Bags!

A few weeks ago, A Beautiful Mess put up a simple tutorial for putting images onto a tote bag using iron-on transfer paper. Elsie used a pre-made bag and created a polka dot-style display of young Dolly Parton. The result is adorable a little kitschy in the best possible way. 

The idea got me thinking, especially because my friend Lauren is a Dolly Parton lover and recently got a sewing machine that she's not quite sure how to use. What a perfect opportunity to get to know her machine while making something delightfully adorable. 

Last weekend, Lauren and her machine joined me for a few hours of cutting and stitching and ironing and chatting. Because I wanted to help her with the sewing portion as well, we made simple tote bags first, using this tutorial from The Purl Bee. It's great for a beginner, and we made ours even easier by using very forgiving cotton canvas from a large drop cloth. Drop cloths from your local hardware store are an excellent way to get a huge bunch of fabric for cheap - this one cost me $17, and I could probably make 15 more tote bags out of it. 

After the bags were finished, we printed out our images - hers, Dolly Parton, and mine, Jessica Fletcher from Murder She Wrote (obviously). Once I found images I liked on Google Images, I converted them to black and white in photoshop and then adjusted the lighting (increasing the contrast and the brightness) to create a simpler look that dips just a bit into the pop art realm. We were going to do single large transfers rather than the polka dot style Elsie used, so I reversed the images (since an iron-on creates a mirror effect) and printed them onto iron-on transfer paper using my color printer. 

Here's where we really got some good chatting in - it took forever! The instructions on the transfer paper said to press very firmly with the iron on a hard surface (not an ironing board) for 2 1/2 minutes, let the paper cool completely and then peel the backing off. 

We each ironed for at least 15 minutes before we were able to peel off the backing. For a short while, I was concerned the whole thing was going to be a crafting disaster. The key seemed to be the really hard surface (we switched from a table to an ironing board to my kitchen counter) and a little extra time because we were using a bumpy canvas material that had more difficulty accepting the transfer. 

Ultimately, we prevailed, and Jessica's thumbs up makes me irrationally happy every time I see it. 

So I'm curious. Who would you put on your bag? 

p.s. Easiest Fabric Napkins


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Double Chocolate Whole Wheat Zucchini Bread

So far I have been unable to grow zucchini. I long for that experience others bemoan - the zucchini overload, where everything they make has shreds of the green veggie, where they are bringing armloads to work colleagues or leaving a few each day in unsuspecting neighbors' mailboxes. 

But no. Last year we successfully grew a single zucchini. This year, none. One started, got about the size of my thumb and then died on the vine. I'm at a loss. Squash in general does not appear to be our thing. 

Thankfully we're getting zucchini from our farm share, and I pretended that the one I had left in the refrigerator was so overwhelming that I had no choice but to make a loaf of double chocolate zucchini bread. I mean, what else could I do with that guy??

With all the pies I've been making of late (one had zucchini!), cookies and cakes and other baked goods have been missing from our kitchen. As a pie lover, I wasn't really feeling the loss, but when my wife started making puppy dog eyes at me before a busy week of trial (for her), my mind went straight to that zucchini in the fridge and the container of cocoa powder in the cabinet. 

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Double Chocolate Whole Wheat Zucchini Bread
Adapted from Sally's Baking Addiction

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon instant coffee powder
3/4 cup dark chocolate chips (I use Sunspire Grain Sweetened)
2 eggs
1/4 cup canola oil
1/4 cup plain yogurt (I use lactose-free Green Valley Organics)
1/2 cup coconut palm sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cup shredded zucchini

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease a loaf pan. 
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the first seven ingredients and set aside. 
3. In a separate bowl, whisk together the next five ingredients and then pour the wet ingredients into the dry and mix until just combined. 
4. Fold in the shredded zucchini. 
5. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan, sprinkle a few extra chocolate chips on top, and bake for 40-50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. 
6. Allow to cool before serving (though don't beat yourself up if you can't wait - the smell is divine). 

p.s. Since this bread tastes basically like brownies, if you wanted to be a little crazy, you could bake it in a 9x9 pan (reduce the cooking time slightly) and then slather it with this 4-ingredient chocolate frosting

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A Line Through Time

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Every time I start a new knitting project, I marvel how anyone came up with this plan for turning string into fabric. As the tips of my needles loop through the strand of yarn, I wonder about the first person who realized that this series of knots could be made by needles and would hold together. 

The wikipedia page on the history of knitting is enlightening. Apparently the art of knitting is a descendant of an earlier system of knots called nalebinding (there should be a little circle accent over that a) that dates back to the 3rd century. It was used primarily to make socks and stockings, as knitting ultimately was upon its inception. 

Fragments of some of the earliest knitted socks and stockings have been found in Egypt, believed to be from sometime between the 11th and 14th centuries. By the 13th century, there are examples of silk stockings and cushion covers being knitted in Europe, and the skill slowly became more and more prominent for daily goods. 

Reading about it made my thoughts shift from those who did the knitting to those who did the digging. Can you imagine, after decades of finding only small scraps of knitted materials, uncovering an entire child's wool cap dating back to the 14th century? Can you imagine the feeling of being threaded back through thousands of years to an earlier people? 

As a kid, I fantasized about brushing the dust off a little chip of pottery and turning to my colleagues, a look of sophisticated pleasure on face as I informed them that I'd found the last remaining piece of the oldest pot in the history of the world. I dug around in the backyard hoping to uncover something more than rollie pollies and rocks. Was there any kid who, upon learning what an archaeologist was, didn't want to be one? At least for a little while?

It didn't stick, likely because of my lack of early interest in archaeology's key partner - history. The dates and timelines just swirled around, unlinked in my brain to each other or anything else. Yet the things of history maintained their allure. They always have, and as an adult, I've bemoaned my younger self's inability (or unwillingness?) to learn history. 

I think if I'd been set down in front of a series of pots or fragments of knitted garments or carved jewelry and used those as a timeline, I might have better understood. If I'd held a pot in my hands while we talked about which people had made it, what was happening in Asia or Europe or the Americas when that pot was made, and then on to the next pot and the next, I might now be able to explain some of how our world came to be what it is. Those pots - a tangible symbol of the passage of time - might have served, for the rest of my life, as my frame of reference. 

As it stands, my knowledge of history is woefully lacking. But when I knit, I feel as though I'm connecting to the past, to the person (woman? man?) in Lubeck, Germany who knit a little hat for a child sometime around when Chaucer was taking his first breath in England or the Ottoman Empire was beginning to take hold. I'm a participant in The History of Knitting, choosing to throw in my lot with all those whose hands worked the needles before mine.

p.s. Crochet is a much newer system of knotted wool. 

 

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Project Pie: Peach Ginger Pie (Whole Grain + Vegan)

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Project Pie: I'll be baking 24 pies before Pi Day 2016 to get over my fear of baking pies. And to eat delicious things. You can join me by posting about your pies in the comments or tagging your twitter, instagram, or facebook posts with #projectpie. Make something scrumptious and gooey!

I sat next to my mom on her bed, a box of Cheez-its and a bag of grapes between us, J.B. Fletcher on the television. The glass of wine in my hand was sweet and pink. My parents' recent and surprising divorce had left me, at 21 years old, with the sense that everything I knew about the world up to that point had been wrong, or at the very least, lacking.

I leaned back on the pillows and watched as the maven of Murder She Wrote solved even the most impossible of crimes, proved to the skeptical cop that she was more than a meddling writer, made the killer confess. I fell into the odd happily-ever-after world where even when people are murdered, everything ends with a smile because the right person always pays.

It's the first memory I have of watching the show, and yet there was such a sense of warm, comfortable familiarity that I know I must have seen it many times before.

Thirteen years later, the feisty writer and mystery-solver from Cabot Cove is still my go-to on days that need a little constancy and predictability, when real life is playing a bit too fast and loose with my heart.

On Sunday, I snugged my laptop into the corner of the countertop and turned on Netflix as I pulled the ingredients for peach pie from the cabinets.  While I peeled and cut the peaches, Jessica Fletcher saved a wrongly convicted man from another 16 years in jail. As I mixed the dry ingredients and the wet, shuffling around the kitchen looking for just the right utensil, she hobnobbed with the wealthy and got a confession from the jewel thief murderer. I rolled out the pie crusts as Jessica saved a con man from a murder trial, exposing the jealous husband as the real killer. Over the sound of our vegetables sizzling in the pan for dinner, she set a cranky New York detective straight and proved the innocence of her old friend, recently out of prison. I pulled the pie from the oven, the smell of warm peaches and ginger filling the room.

I have guilt sometimes about watching television while I cook. You're not being present, I will tell myself. Sink into the feel of the food on your hands, the smells, the gentle meandering of your thoughts. At least if you are going to interrupt the process, let it be with music, I say.

But some days are not for being present. Some days are for letting the familiar formula wash over you and steal away your thoughts while you peel peaches.

The Dalai Lama and my mindfulness friends would disagree, I suppose, but I'd give them a piece of pie anyway.

 

Peach Ginger Pie
Adapted from First Prize Pies

Cornmeal Crust

1 cup Earth Balance, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and chilled
1/2 cup almond milk (or other non-dairy milk)
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
2 1/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour, chilled
3/4 cup cornmeal, chilled
1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1. Stir together the milk and vinegar and place in the refrigerator until ready to use.
2. Fit the food processor with a metal blade and add the dry ingredients, pulsing once to blend.
3. Take your milk mixture and Earth Balance out of the refrigerator. Pour the Earth Balance into the food processor and turn it on.
4. After a couple seconds, begin slowly pouring the milk mixture through the feed tube of the food processor. Once the mixture has been added, turn off the processor.
5. Pour the dough onto plastic wrap, bind it tightly, and refrigerate for at least an hour. (Note: The dough should come together if pressed but will not have formed a ball on its own in the food processor.)

Filling

2-3 pounds peaches, peeled and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 cup coconut palm sugar
1/4 cup arrowroot powder (or sub cornstarch)
1/4 teaspoon salt
Almond milk, for glaze
Coconut palm sugar, for garnish

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
2. In a large bowl, mix together the peaches and ginger.
3. In a separate bowl, mix together the sugar, arrowroot, and salt. Add this to the peach mixture right before adding the filling to the crust.

Putting it together

1. Remove the crust dough from the refrigerator and split in half. Place one half back into the refrigerator and roll the other half into a circle on parchment paper. Transfer it to a pie plate (I used an 8-inch deep dish) and trim the overhang. Brush the bottom crust with a thin layer of almond milk.
2. Place the pie plate in the refrigerator and take out the other half of the dough. Roll this second half into a circle.
3. Pour the peach mixture (with the arrowroot mixture added in) into the pie pan and top with the second crust. Fold the edges of the top crust under the bottom crust and then seal by pressing them together with your fingers. Brush the top with almond milk and sprinkle with sugar.
4. Place the pie on a baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes, turning once halfway through.
5. Lower the temperature to 375 degrees and bake for 30 minutes more, or until the crust is golden. Cool on a rack at least an hour before serving. 

Note: Earth Balance and nondairy milk are subbed one-for-one for butter and milk in this recipe - feel free to use dairy ingredients if you can.

p.s. I'm halfway there - this is Pie #12! 
Tomato Pie
Strawberry Rhubarb Crumb Pie
Whole Wheat Zucchini Potato Pie
Traditional Blueberry Pie
Strawberry Basil Pie
Vegetarian Taco Pie with Cornbread Topping
Vegan Maple Pecan Pie
Chicken Pot Pie with Herb Crust
Very Berry Mousse Pie
Passover Chocolate Mousse Pie
Whole Wheat Maple Apple Pie
Vegan Shepherd's Pie

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This Week in My Garden: August 19, 2015

In the middle of this heat wave, it's hard to imagine that summer is almost over. But here in Vermont, it is. One of these days, we'll wake up to a cool 50 degree morning and put on jackets to walk the dog or bring the garbage cans out to the curb, and we'll put on jackets again the next day and the day after that, and eventually we'll realize it's Fall. Our light jackets will get replaced with fleece ones on the coat hooks, and we'll try to get a handle on all the leaves. We'll put the garden to bed - if we're on top of things. The threat of snow will give us a sense of urgency.

But for now, it's still summer. There are two fans going in the bedroom, and we're avoiding turning on the oven. Every day, I pick a new tomato or five. I sort through the giant bush of pole bean plants to find a few ripe beans here and there. Though it's silly and most likely too late, I'm hopeful that the tiny little cantaloupe on the vine will grow big enough to eat in these last weeks.   

My fighting spirit has been replaced with resignation, and I just swat away the Japanese Beetles. I suspect there will be no brussels sprouts since the cabbage worms bested me. I've run out of Sluggo and haven't bought a new one. 

After a summer of pulling weeds and fighting off pests, I'm just hauling in the harvest and preparing to say goodbye to my daily walks through these beds. Before long they'll be covered in snow, and I'll dream again of next summer and the beautiful garden I'll create.

p.s. Tomato Pie - if you've got tomatoes coming out of your ears

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35 Things I've Learned After 35 Years

I never understood people who didn't look forward to their birthdays. Adults who moaned, "Ugh, don't even talk about it!" confused me. Don't even talk about it?? That day that everyone celebrates the fact that you're walking on this planet with cake and presents??

But this year, when my wife asked what I wanted to do for my birthday, I cried and said I didn't want to think about it. A difficult year and the sense of being somehow behind on the path of life left me feeling like time was moving forward without me. And my birthday was a very specific representation of that. 

I had a new understanding of all those folks who hate their birthdays. 

I came around eventually and talked to my wife about celebrating, ultimately enjoying the cake she baked and the evening with friends. And I started thinking about all that I've learned in the last 35 years, all the ways I'm not "behind," all the ways I've really got my stuff figured out.

So here they are. 

 

35 Things I've Learned These Past 35 Years

1. An episode of Murder She Wrote is a satisfactory antidote to a bad day at work, though two episodes makes the escape complete.

2. Giving friends a second chance when needed is almost always the best policy. No one is perfect, and most of us have received second chances we didn't even know were second chances. 

3. Sparkly shoes can step in for self-confidence when necessary.

4. No emotion lasts forever, at least not in the same form. 

5. A contagious laugh is way sexier than cleavage.

6. Buying the smaller size because you're going to lose a few pounds is never a good idea.

7. The right shampoo really does make a difference. 

8. Learning to accept love and support from friends may be one of life's greatest struggles. And gifts. 

9. The world is not a fair place. Trying to mend wounds for others feels better than dwelling on what feels unfair to you. 

10. Ratios for water to grain are: rice - 2:1, grits - 4:1, oats - 2:1. 

11. Making things with your hands heals your soul.

12. Use of the Oxford Comma is a point of controversy in the U.S. even though your eleventh grade English teacher beat it into you as the word of God.

13. Your partner cannot read your mind, and their kindness is no less kind because you suggested it. 

14. Friends have love languages too. Learning and accepting the ways friends care and receive care will go a long way toward meaningful relationships.

15. People will disappoint you, and you will disappoint people. That's usually not the end.

16. A non-greasy, non-smelly hand lotion is a thing to be treasured. 

17. Prayer is about what happens inside. 

18. No matter what size you are, you're still you, with all the same gifts and failings.

19. The tension on a sewing machine is a dark and mysterious force that must be honored and feared. 

20. Tending plants in your own vegetable garden is a special kind of wonderful. 

21. Gratitude works. 

22. If you can't find gratitude today, you might tomorrow. (Repeat.)

23. Facebook can make you feel connected or disconnected, depending on how you use it. Commenting and engaging feels better.

24. A Sunday afternoon on the couch with a good book is Heaven. 

25. Avoiding all conflict will result in losing opportunities for closeness. Sometimes fair and honest arguments are the path forward.

26. It is best to get your skis onto the ground before you slide off the lift. 

27. Any day with kitchen dancing is a success.

28. Cheetos will not solve your problems. (See #21).

29. Compassion is more likely to bring about change than judgment - in yourself and others.

30. Fresh flowers on the table make up for a little messiness elsewhere.

31. Any person who can regularly make you laugh until you cry and/or pee just a little in your pants is to be cherished as an angel on Earth.

32. Everybody has shit they're working through and not talking about.

33. Reading the recipe slowly and carefully before beginning a new dish is probably a good idea.

34. Asking for what you need is generally the best way to get what you need.

35. Everything will not be okay. Some things will. Others won't. With time, that will be okay.

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