Keeping Busy

Every time I sat down to blog during the month of April, something drew me away from my computer.

A strawberry and starfruit salad.

There was a solid week of both Starkitten and Sunfilly needing my attention with every waking moment, because they missed their father and their old home in Dallas.  I’d also had a few job interviews to survive, my best friend’s wedding to attend, and I picked up a temporary legal job called document review (which ended on Cinco de Mayo) in Dallas.  I had started running/walking a 5k with the kids and my brother during the times I was in East Texas.  I rejoiced in the rainstorms that quenched a Texas still recovering from a nightmarish drought, and I rejoiced even more when I learned that the 15 tornadoes that touched down in Dallas claimed not even a single human life.  I explored downtown Little Rock and became reacquainted with downtown Dallas.  I have been tending my little flowerpot garden.  I colored eggs with the kids for Easter and made fruit salads with strange new fruits like starfruits and pommelos and had a few heart attacks from Sunfilly’s daredevil stunts (and even an ER visit).  And I wrote 40,000 words in a fiction novel I started when I arrived here in a flurry of depression-turned-to art; I think it took about three weeks to churn out that much that quickly.

So, needless to say, April was a pretty busy month.

Divorce is a Lot Like Being in College  

Downtown Dallas seen from Reunion Tower

Downtown Dallas seen from Reunion Tower (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I laughed when I realized this.

The day before I had to start on my document review project (a term which lawyers often shorten to “doc review”), I stopped at a Wal-Mart to pick up non-perishable lunch and snack items and cheap portable toiletries. So I filled up my shopping cart with Easy Mac, cups of ramen, trail mix, and other sure-to-give-you-cancer fare.  I was wearing a shirt I’d picked up at my 10-year high school reunion.  Both the cashier and the man behind me in the grocery line asked whether I was in college.

Since I no longer had my cute little condo in Dallas, I slept on a friend’s couch while I was working doc review.  I had no car, so I took the bus or hitched a ride with my friend, who worked a couple blocks away from where I did.  I worked 12- to 15-hour days.  My iPod became the key component to my sanity.  I kept a book in my purse… just in case I had 5 minutes to read.  Happy hour was a must, when I had time for it.  It really felt like I was back in college.  (In case you were wondering, my parents were watching the kids while I was in Dallas).

I realized that divorce is also a lot like being in college in that it’s a period in a person’s  life when she turns a new leaf or “finds herself.”  Divorce is muddling through the painful end of a relationship that went south for whatever reason.  It’s her swearing that she’ll never love again, but secretly hoping that she still has a shot at that “happily ever after.”

Tales from the Trail

Some friendly cows. The local rancher raises dairy and beef cows without hormones or antibiotics and will humanely butcher and sell the beef to interested buyers.

Since my parents’ home is out in the middle of nowhere, it’s easy to feel isolated.  But sometimes the solitude that comes with living in the country is the best medicine for a broken heart and/or broken spirits.  The little road here runs through an idyllic countryside.  It’s tree-lined and it has the perfect blend of cozy little houses and vast expanses of pasture.  It flows with the land, rising and falling, curving around hills, crossing creeks at their most melodic points.  About 1.75 miles down the road from the house you can find a trailer where an elderly Mexican woman sells some of the best tacos I’ve ever had.  So my brother, the kids, and I began walking/jogging down the country road.  We’d stop at the little store for tacos and gatorades and then head back.

Ripening fruit of a Dewberry (Rubus) plant.

Ripening fruit of a Dewberry (Rubus) plant. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As usual, I tried to make it educational for the kids.  I taught them to recognize certain birds by their calls.  How to tell a young horse from an older one, or how to tell a milk cow from a beef cow.  We’d catch lizards along the road, learn their names, and set them free.  We’d see how many different wildflowers we could find, or forage for wild dewberries.  We’d count slider turtles sunning themselves on logs in the creeks.  We’d count cows, goats, and puppies.

We became acquainted with people whose homes are along the little road, people whom my parents never got to know in their eight years of living in this house.

The funny thing about this community in East Texas, I learned, is that it defies the stereotypes about this region.  The East Texas stereotype is that people are ignorant, hateful towards those of different faiths (even Catholics are persecuted), in favor of Jim Crow laws and segregation, xenophobic, and trigger-happy.  In some cases, that is true.  In this community, people are much more welcoming, open to new things, and embrace a live-and-let live ideology.  I learned that, although there are only a handful of black families here, the children were never labeled or singled out; in fact, two of them were valedictorians in their classes and one was a student body president (if you knew the kind of community I grew up in in Louisiana–where classes were still pretty much segregated at the turn of the millennium–you’d understand why this is really a big deal to me).  The gay and lesbian kids and the atheists are also not singled out or harassed, not really.  I learned that one transgendered boy (meaning s/he identified as a girl) was allowed to put her name on the ballot for homecoming queen–and nobody cared.

And this is the heart of East Texas.  So much for stereotypes!

My Best Friend’s Wedding

Flaunting our pedicures at the entry to Dizzy’s Gypsy Bistro.

I actually have two really good friends who share the title of best friend.  We’ve known each other since our first year of college and eventually became roomates/suitemates.  We were the Trinity (I’m Jesus), the Three Musketeers (I’m Porthos), Kirk/Spock/McCoy (I’m Kirk), Harry/Ron/Hermione (I think I was Ron), and any other famous trio.  Well one of the trio, whom we’d endearingly refer to as “Sparky the Holy Spirit,” tied the knot last month in a beautiful wedding in Little Rock.  The reception was at a posh hotel.  The bachelorette “party” was really a mani/pedi spa day, followed by lunch at a restaurant in Downtown Little Rock called Dizzy’s Gypsy Bistro (I had the black truffle ravioli and it was out of this world).  During that weekend I also learned that downtown Little Rock has a fabulous little farmer’s market on its riverfront and a “natural” playground for kids, since it is the “Natural State.”  The park is made up of local rocks, arranged so that there are walls to climb and tunnels to explore; it was a great way to wear out the kids.

Starkitten was the flower girl at the wedding, and she was certainly adorable in her little dress.  Despite being very shy, she walked down the aisle perfectly, only hiding her face once she was near the front and noticed all the cameras snapping.  Sunfilly, who wore an identical dress, decided that she was a princess and the church was her castle.  The comments she made regarding this were incredibly entertaining.

I also learned that toddlers can be masters at terrible timing.  At the reception, when the other part of the trinity, who served as the maid of honor, was about to give her speech, Starkitten told me she had to go potty… now.  So I was forced to miss the one speech I’d been waiting to hear, but I heard later that it was a moving speech, all the same.

A New Family Member

Two days ago, the neighbors discovered a litter of shepherd puppies in the creek that runs through their property.  This creek flows along the local highway before it turns into their property, and so, by the looks of things, it appears that someone dumped off the puppies at the side of the road (as what happens with tragic frequency in the country) and they got washed down the creek in the rain.  The puppies didn’t seem that harmed by the water, but when the neighbors found them, they were being eaten by coyotes, so the neighbors chased off the coyotes and rescued the puppies.

Yesterday, my parents went next door and adopted the little female, as female pups have a harder time finding a forever home and she was the spunkiest and had the brightest eyes.  My girls were very excited to have a new puppy in the house, but my chihuahua, Skeeter, and my parents’ Australian shepherd mix, Myrtle, were none too happy about it and proceeded to sulk for the rest of the day.  When we tried to name the little puppy, Starkitten vetoed every name we suggested, including:  Ingrid, Astrid, Priscilla, Anastasia, Eunice, Princess, Duchess, and Baby (we do have a fondness for old-fashioned names for our dogs).

The one name that Starkitten liked, and the puppy immediately responded to, was Drusilla (a name shared by both one of the wicked stepsisters in “Cinderella” and a psychotic vampire from “Buffy.”)

Drusilla, it turns out, has chosen Starkitten as her human.  She gets so excited whenever she sees Starkitten and follows her around the house everywhere.  And she was apparently very distraught that Starkitten did not accompany her to the first veterinarian visit.  The vet told my mother that Drusilla had worms, but otherwise a clean bill of health.  He estimated that she was about six weeks old.  We also discovered that Drusilla is, for the most part, housebroken–she cries when she wants to go outside, but when she is too busy playing, she won’t say anything.

I’ve been charged with Drusilla’s training, with help from my mother, who is used to shepherd mixes.  And Starkitten and Sunfilly are charged with running around outside with her.

I intend to post pictures of little Dru as soon as I get a camera working again (I was using my camera phone, but that cell phone has since died).  And then you can all bask in the adorableness that is Drusilla.

Of Texas and Rebirth

Jump to Arroz con Pollo

With all this beautiful weather, the girls and I have been spending most of our time outside.  My parents live out in the country–it takes twenty minutes to get to the nearest town and we could walk to a large cattle ranch no matter which way we went down our road.  The road that their property abuts is fairly quiet, shaded by very old trees.  It’s so peaceful.  The girls and I walk down the road for about a mile on lazy afternoons.

I scrounged up some flower pots in my mother’s shed and bought some soil and seeds.  I decided to go with local flowers–bluebonnets, cockscomb, daisies, and cacti–in the hopes that eventually I will find a job and begin anew with a new apartment or house with a yard or patio in which to plant these flowers.  It was a lot of fun to plant the seeds with the girls, albeit rather messy.  We also planted the verbs and veggies we’d need for salsa.

By the time we were done, the girls thought it was a fabulous idea to roll and jump in the mud.  But such is the life of a parent.

We also caught a caterpillar munching on my mother’s roses.  I put it in a jar with a bunch of leaves, punched holes in the lid, and we watched the little guy munch away.  We also got to see what caterpillar feces look like.  Sadly, though, it seems the little caterpillar has passed away.  The girls wanted me to catch another one for them, but I didn’t want to negligently take another life.

"Ostara" (1901) by Johannes Gehrts. ...

"Ostara" (1901) by Johannes Gehrts. The goddess Ēostre/*Ostara flies through the heavens surrounded by Roman-inspired putti, beams of light, and animals. Germanic peoples look up at the goddess from the realm below. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since I was to mixed up in my own depression, the girls missed out on Ostara and Holi this year.  So I’ve been trying very hard to make sure they get to enjoy Easter.  We still did some pagan things–coloring eggs, having an egg hunt, and talking about rebirth–but I also explained to the girls that some people celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter.

And here, I must admit, it’s been difficult instructing the girls in two faiths.  They see similarities with Jesus and the Green Man, which makes sense to me as well.  But I do worry if it will make it difficult for them to understand what Jesus means to Christians.  Or maybe I’m just not explaining it right?

I’m finding symbols of crawling out of a destructive situation popping up in my life lately.

Picture of Hindu Goddess Kali. This photograph...

Picture of Hindu Goddess Kali. This photograph was taken during Kali Puja at Naihati, a town in West Bengal, India. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve had dreams where the Hindu goddess Kali, normally associated with death and destruction, has talked to me.  Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve been leery of talking to “dark goddesses,” mostly because their destructive power is not something to trifle with.  But Kali was not telling me to go out and to destroy things.  In one dream, she was warning me about a great evil–a random guy I was having a conversation with in the dream.  In another, we were having tea at some random coffee shop, like a pair of old friends, and she was telling me how my situation (the husband/divorce issue, joblessness, isolation) is only temporary, like most things in this world.  Kali has appeared like a grandmother figure, as well.  After talking to some Hindu and pagan friends (and an anthropologist friend) about these dreams, which at first confused me, and doing my own contemplative introspection, I think Kali is telling me that some things must end for good things to begin.

Icon of the Resurrection

Icon of the Resurrection (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ostara and Easter are both about death and rebirth.  Ostara is a Germanic goddess who is associated with the spring equinox.  She symbolizes the rebirth of nature after its death (winter).  Easter is literally about the death and resurrection of a god (Jesus).  Holi is also about the death and rebirth of the Hindu god of love, Kamadeva, who helped Parvati (of whom Kali is an incarnation) to marry Shiva (god of destruction and rebirth) at the cost of his life.


Arroz con Pollo

I grew up eating what my father refers to as “Texican cuisine,” or what many people call “Tex-Mex.”  One of my mother’s favorite dishes to cook was arroz con pollo.  I cooked it for myself during college, but stopped after about my third year of marriage because my husband wasn’t a fan.  Arroz con pollo, which means “rice with chicken” in Spanish, is pretty popular in Latino cooking and, like most Latino cooking, varies widely from culture to culture and family to family.

Arroz con pollo is one of those dishes that you can whip up to feed many people, and it requires very little work.  As with most of my family recipes, this is my best attempts to measure the palmfuls or shakes of the spice jar, so you may want to adjust the spices to suit your palette.

Ingredients

  • 4 chicken leg quarters
  • 2 tablespoons cooking oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped finely
  • 1/2 bell pepper, diced
  • 1 small tomato, diced
  • 1 cube tomato bouillon
  • 1 cup rice
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon cumin (more or less, to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder (more or less, to taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder (more or less, to taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper (more or less, to taste)

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a large frying pan.  Add the chicken and fry it until it is completely brown on the outside.
  2. Remove the chicken to a bowl, set aside.  (Note, the chicken is still raw and blood may drip, so you want it in a bowl you can easily sterilize.)
  3. Fry the rice in the chicken grease.  Add the onion and bell pepper.  Fry, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender.  Add the tomato and fry a little bit more.
  4. Add the water, tomato bouillon, and spices.  Stir thoroughly.
  5. Cover and let simmer until the chicken is thoroughly cooked (about an hour).  The rice will cook before the chicken does, but it will not burn.  Stir occasionally while it is cooking.

Arroz con pollo goes very well with a fresh vegetable composition, like black bean salad, and homemade iced tea or horchata (or margaritas).

Plastic-eating fungi found in Amazon may solve landfill problems

Today a friend of mine shared an article from Digital Journal that I found exciting and fascinating.  It was too cool to not share with others:  http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/320986

For anyone with environmental concerns, there is now hope for our landfill and plastic waste problems:  a fungus known as Pestalotiopsis microspora.

One of Dryden, Ontario's Landfill's. This one ...

One of Dryden, Ontario's Landfill's. This one is located in Barclay. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The article explains:

The group brought back a new fungus with a voracious appetite for polyurethane, which is a common plastic used for many modern purposes, including shoes, garden hoses and other non-degenerating items.

The fungi, Pestalotiopsis microspora, is able to survive on a steady diet of polyurethane alone and, which is even more surprising can do this in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment. Perfect for conditions at the bottom of a landfill.

I’m curious to know whether it eats other things, as well, or if other things eat it, in case the Pestalotiopsis microspora population gets out of control.  We don’t want to turn from one environmental crisis to another.

Still, this is very exciting!

Spring is Summer and Tarantulas for Teaching

Springtime in Texas doesn’t really exist.  “Winter” doesn’t, really, either.  But there is a rather obvious span of chilly, wet months which people who live in Texas call “winter” because it happens during that time of the year so named by the rest of the Northern Hemisphere.  As I’ve mentioned before, the intermediary seasons of springtime and autumn don’t seem to exist in the South, and so the transition from “winter” to what is mildly named “summer” is rather abrupt.

List of U.S. state flowers

Bluebonnets (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

March 20 for those of us living in the South, then, was really the “first day of summer.”

Texas Paintbrush

Texas Paintbrush (Photo credit: Knomad)

The chilly nights are now gone.  Days warm up to the mid-80s ˚F.  Garage sales and yard sales abound.  Children–including my own–play outside as much as possible: coloring with chalk on the sidewalk and driveway, blowing bubbles, tossing around a ball, digging for dinosaur bones in the sandbox, picking wildflowers, chasing butterflies.  I sit and enjoy watching their playtime, smelling the neighbors’ barbecuing, listening to distant tractors, or simply soaking up the warm sun.

Summer came in less than a week.  One day, the trees are all dead and bare, the grass still brownish and starved-looking.  Then after a week of rain, suddenly daffodils and dandelions and redbuds and my parents’ plum trees were all abloom.  They added some color to a gray world, much like a 1930s lithograph.  Then little green shoots began to dot most of the trees, and other flowers–wisterias and bluebonnets and Texas paintbrushes and dogwoods and primroses and oxalis and random yellow wildflower–made the landscape seem alive.  And, by the end of that week, the trees were all covered with leaves.

Early spring narcissus

Narcissus (Photo credit: mobilene)

On nice days, one of my brothers or my parents would walk down the quiet country road with the children and me.  We’d observe the world waking up from dormancy, counting cows and horses and goats.

During this time, my youngest brother returned from Texas Tech on spring break, bringing what I’ve dubbed the “Panhandle Plague” (a rather nasty cold) with him.  Combine this with a week of rainy weather (forcing everyone to stay inside) and you have a good petri dish for germs.  After he went back to school, we all came down with it, and most are still recovering.  But that hasn’t stopped me from enjoying the outdoors (and fortunately the kids bounced back the fastest, so it didn’t faze them much).

Mourning Doves will perch for safety but eat o...

Mourning Dove (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes I just sit on the front porch and watch the cars race down the distant highway.  Life here in East Texas is slow, so it’s easy to just sit and soak up the world around me.  I’ve learned to recognize the calls of the local red-tailed hawk and know which trees it likes to roost in at night.  I’ve noticed that mourning doves really only coo early in the morning and in the evening.  I let the crickets and frogs serenade me (but I’m still unsettled by coyotes–probably because I’ve overheard them killing some hapless critter too many times in the past).  I can spot all the trees and shrubs in our area that were killed by last year’s vicious summer heat and drought (and that sometimes makes me wonder if climate change is pushing the Texas scrublands eastwards).

Oxalis triangularis

Oxalis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve taken to walking around the yard barefoot as much as possible.  It’s therapeutic, letting me feel like I’m reconnecting with the earth.  A neopagan mentor of mine once advised me that walking barefoot in the dirt is important spiritually (at the time, I was living in Dallas and finding myself getting sucked into the selfish materialism that plagues the “Beverly Hills of the South”).  I must admit I didn’t do that very much–not even in Ohio–until recently.

But lately, feeling the lush blades of grass between my toes is revitalizing.  Digging my toes into the clay soil is soothing.  I’ve learned that I can tell how warm it will be during the day by feeling the temperature of the morning dew under my feet.  Sometimes I feel like I’m getting back in tune with Mother Earth, and so when I’m at my lowest points emotionally, I try to go outside and dig my feet into the grass and just let the world surround me.  I suck at meditating, but I do have these moments where I just lose all thought and almost feel a part of the living things around me, instead of a separate body.

Maybe one day I’ll get the hang of it.

Tarantulas for Teaching

Texas Brown Tarantula

Texas Brown Tarantula (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we have the stretches of rainy days, the girls get bored because they have to remain indoors.  So I wind up being creative in the things I do to keep them occupied.  One of the games we play is “name things that start with this letter.”  One day, we were playing with Letter T.  The kids quickly ran out of things that began with ‘T.’  So, I suggested “tarantula.”  Naturally, they asked me what a tarantula was.  I decided it was time to give the kids the foundations for learning to gather their own information.

First, I took them to my parents’ encyclopedia shelves.  There, we looked for the first ‘T’ volume and I opened it to the entry on tarantulas.  I showed them a picture of the big, hairy spider in the encyclopedia and read aloud some of the details about it.

Then I explained that you can also use the internet to find information.  I took them to Wikipedia and showed them that you can type in “tarantula” and find an entry.  We compared the physical encyclopedia to the electronic one and noted that the information was about the same (Wikipedia actually had more details).  I also showed them that one could do an internet search for tarantulas, or even just pictures of tarantulas.

Similarly, on a later day, Starkitten and I had a discussion about doctors issuing shots and how getting shots (or any other probing that doctors do) is not meant to harm the patient.

I explained, “The doctor gives you a shot, or puts the stick on your tongue, or shines the light in your eyes to make sure that you are healthy.”

“What is healthy?” Starkitten asked.

“Let’s go look it up.”

So I proceeded to take her (and Sunfilly followed) to the encyclopedia shelves again.  This time, we pulled out the dictionary, determined through phonics that “healthy” starts with the Letter H, and I helped them find the entry for “healthy” in the dictionary, which I read to them.

Then I showed them, once again, that they could also use the internet for more information.  I have a dictionary widget on my laptop (incredibly useful for anyone who loves to write) and showed the girls that I could type in “healthy” and get a definition, a list of words with similar meanings (and opposite meanings), and an explanation of how the word itself came to be.

Hopefully, this will plant the seeds for a thirst for knowledge.

Jobitis

I’m still suffering from, as my sister so wonderfully coined, “jobitis.”  It came about during a discussion in which I lamented that for all the interviews I’ve had in the last two years–and the exponentially greater number of resumes and applications I’d sent out–the way employers rejected me you’d think they believed they would contract the Black Death if they hired me.  People who have shared such an experience, whose unemployment makes them feel like a social leper, have jobitis.

But that hasn’t stopped me from applying for jobs.  My law degree pushes me into the legal job market, which is incredibly brutal.  Jobification as a lawyer typically requires a level of schmoozing and ass-kissing I’m incapable of doing.  This is especially true in East Texas, where, like North Louisiana (where I grew up), securing a job has very little to do with one’s actual ability to perform the tasks at hand and more to do with who your father is and what part of town you’re from… and sometimes which church you attend (if at all).  And so, while law school was relatively a piece of cake, I lack the charm and golf finesse and fancy wardrobe required to actually work for a law firm (and that’s kind of a tough case to pitch to one’s student loan servicers).

I’m not limiting my job search to East Texas, but since it’s the part of the state in which I currently reside, it’s where I’ve placed a good portion of my efforts.

My law degree has also made me “overqualified” for any other kind of work.  I faced this problem in Ohio and Dallas, as well.  Even the kind of work I once did (call center) is now unattainable simply because I’m too damn educated.  In all this time, I’d only had one interview scheduled, and it was a phone interview at that, and the company flaked on me.

I have seriously considered standing in front of the courthouse of any of the major Texas cities holding a sign that read, “Will draft pleadings for food.”  Or even just a busy high-rise, holding a sign that read, “Will oppress the masses for food.”  Or even just start rejecting the rejection letters potential employers send me (which others have done before).  And if my jobitis proves to be chronic, I may very well have to.

I could go off on a soapbox tangent here about how my law school still insists most of our class is now gainfully employed, making an average of $100,000 a year, when that is far from the truth (many are in my position or worse), so that they can dupe another couple hundred cash cows into a lifetime of debt (unless they came from a wealthy family–and even then it’s arguable at this point whether a job will be waiting for them when they graduate, and their parents’ money not simply wasted).  Or how unemployment numbers don’t count those who’ve graduated and haven’t found work, whose unemployment benefits have expired, who were denied benefits, or who simply just gave up looking.

I could also admit that sometimes I do get a little jealous when I look at my Facebook feed and it’s filled with people I care about getting awesome jobs, going on fantastic trips, finding their happily ever after, getting the house with the picket fence… and my life is falling apart.  It’s not to say that I’m not happy for them, because I am, but sometimes it makes me feel like a buzzkill when I need to talk about a problem because I don’t want to rain on a friend’s parade.  And sometimes I’ve wondered if there’s something wrong with me for failing at life.  I realize now that these are also normal human sentiments that we all feel at some point (hopefully not multiple points) in our lives, but when those moments hit me, it’s hard to not beat myself up.

So I make light of my situation by over-generalizing it:  “I’m an overweight 30-year-old who lives with my parents and plays World of Warcraft.”  Few outside observers would care for the details, as it’s all about the stereotypes.

Or I crack jobitis jokes to myself.

I am pleased to say that my husband has signed up for AA and has taken up cross-country running again (he was a star in college) to help keep his mind off the booze.  Hopefully, for his sake and the kids’ sake, he will follow through with it, as the girls need a sober father in their lives.  For the most part, he is cooperative with me.  We have had our bitter exchanges via email or over the phone, but I also understand that this is pretty much a normal cycle for divorcing couples.

He is also mailing me a box of things I’d forgotten or couldn’t fit in the car when I left, including the cord for my camera, so that I can upload photos again.

I find myself also borrowing the “Serenity Prayer” from my Christian friends to keep myself from panicking about all the troubles I must grapple with.  The prayer says:

God/dess, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

I still have my existential moments, and even had my “Why does every man think I’m ugly and horrible?  I wanted to be treated like a queen!” moment.  Thanks to good friends and countless virtual monsters needing slaying and beautiful starry nights at which to gaze in silent awe, I’ve muddled through each of them, feeling a little stronger after each one.  And each time, I say that prayer to remind myself that there are some things I cannot change, and worrying over them will only do me more harm.

In the meantime, while waiting to jobify, I’ll sun myself like a turtle on a log while the kids play outside, before it gets too hot for that.  And I’ll masochistically level my noobish retribution paladin on a PvP realm.  And I’ll keep writing my fiction.

And try to appreciate all the things I’d hurried past before.  Maybe I’d missed something important along the way.

Picking up the Pieces

Around the time I was due for my last blog post, I was faced with a difficult life change:  my husband got drunk and hit me.  It was not the first time he’d hurt me, but I vowed it would be my last.

I left my husband on Valentine’s Day, with the help of some very dear friends, taking the girls and the dog and as much of our things as we could cram into the car.  It was freezing in Ohio and snowed six inches by the time we left (with more falling).  When we arrived a day later at my parents’ house in East Texas, it was 72 ˚F and sunny.  The actual journey was an adventure in and of itself (including bald tires, frequent potty breaks for Starkitten, lots and lots of energy drinks, stereotypes about Louisiana, and car-hopping), but the kids and I were safely back in a familiar place.

One of the things that had been getting me down was my husband’s alcoholism.  As long as he is sober, he really is the most wonderful person in the world.  When he gets drunk, however, he turns into something scary.  And the more stressed out that work and other things made him, the more he sought comfort in alcohol.  I have tried for years to be supportive of him as he struggled to overcome this, but there is only so much a person can take, especially with impressionable young children in the mix.  I did not want the girls growing up thinking that it was okay for their significant others to use violence on them.

Add to it that the move to Ohio wasn’t as beneficial for our family’s finances as we’d originally thought–I couldn’t find work and my husband was not being compensated nearly as well as he was under the impression he would be–and we found ourselves in a financial black hole.  That gave me one more set of nightmares to deal with, on top of everything else on my plate.

I spent my first week back in Texas in a mix of conflicting emotions.  A part of me was still in shock, a part of me was worrying over everything I had to deal with (to the point that the worrying would make me start to shake), a part of me was getting lost in the kids and the warm sunny Texas weather I had so dearly missed, and a part of me was feeling unworthy of the outpouring of support I’d been receiving from my friends.  I didn’t want to handle any of it, so I found myself escaping–to books, to baking (until my mother reminded me that my father now has diabetes and I shouldn’t be making so many sweets that he cannot enjoy), to World of Warcraft, and to just sitting on the front porch like a proper Southerner and watching a dead world give birth to spring.

But escapism, like drinking, is not a solution to one’s problems.  Although I couldn’t emotionally handle everything at once, I began to tackle some of my challenges.  A phone call here, an email there, and what felt like half a million job applications.

At some point during all this, my husband stopped denying that he had a problem and became cooperative.  He understands that I am not going back to him and we have begun sorting out the details.  He calls every day to talk to the kids.  So even though divorce is imminent, at least we can be civil.  As sad as that sounds, it makes grappling with everything else a little easier.

Since my life is in a state of upheaval, I don’t know what I should do with this blog.  My posts will be intermittent until I can get into a routine (and hopefully a job), and probably not about cooking (trying to get my father to eat healthy food has been a challenge).  I’m open to suggestions on that, as I want to write (it helps me to keep my sanity).  I could talk about my return to World of Warcraft, or the depressing job market, my battle with existentialism, springtime in East Texas, games I play with the kids to teach them something, or how sometimes grandparents undermine their own kids’ parenting when they constantly interfere.  What do you think?

Please, Sir, May I Have Some More?

Jump to Butter Rolls Recipe

Several things happened since my last blog post.  It got colder in Ohio, I’ve discovered that I have not outgrown my dependency on caffeine to be creative, the Super Bowl had the more-sexist-than-usual commercials, Charles Dickens‘ 200th birthday was a pretty big deal, and Starkitten demonstrated that she can write all her capital letters.

And since I’m currently caffeinated (so that I can try to churn another 3,000 words of creative prose in a few hours after posting this), I apologize if my post is too meandering.

The Super Bowl

I admit I do have a seething contempt for the New England Patriots and I hate the New York Giants as a matter of principle (but I also don’t let it get in the way of my personal relationships, so long as they are not playing the Saints).  But, even if I dislike the teams playing, I still watch the Super Bowl.  It’s one of the Great American holidays, right up there with Thanksgiving Day and Buy-Me-Expensive-Things (and maybe celebrate the birth of a God) Day.  I watch because the commercials are supposed to be entertaining and the halftime shows are always either extremely awesome or so terrible that it’s fun.  I think that’s why most Americans watch the Super Bowl, actually.

There were some hilarious commercials, but there were also a few political ones.  What really galled me were the growing number of sexist Super Bowl commercials.

Speed-dating babies?  Hyper-sexualized “naked” M&Ms (as if the Green M&M wasn’t enough)?  Those were sickening, certainly.  But they were nothing compared to the many women-as-nothing-but-sex-objects commercials.

There were the naked models (I have no earthly idea what a naked woman has to do with selling web space) and the cars-as-sexy-women–and that its okay to sexually harass a woman if she is beautiful–and the implication that a woman’s love is only physical in nature and can only be bought with overpriced flowers and perpetuating the social expectation that teenage girls have eating disorders.  These flowers, by the way, are grown in countries where the workers (usually women) develop diseases from pesticide exposure (including miscarriages), get raped by their superiors, and are fired, attacked, or even killed if they complain or try to organize a labor union.  This doesn’t just happen in South America, but also in Kenya (and maybe other countries).  I suppose here I’ll throw in my two cents about how much I hate cut flowers, and not just because they are a sign that the relationship is meant to wither and die.  If you want to get your significant other something for Valentine’s Day, don’t buy cut flowers.

But the sexism of the Super Bowl commercials this year was more insulting than usual.  Do the advertisers forget that women watch the Super Bowl, too?  Do they forget that women buy cars, trade on the stock market, manage websites, and, you know, do all sorts intelligent things?  I promise you, O Mighty Advertisers, the gray stuff between our ears does function.

I really loved the analysis of the commercials given on Jezebel.  The author’s conclusion says best all the things that are wrong with these commercials:

What’s striking about these ads isn’t their offensiveness, necessarily — let’s be honest, we’ve all seen worse. Especially in the case of Teleflora and Fiat, it’s their misguidedness, their commitment to appealing to a bro aesthetic even when studies make clear that this aesthetic dominates neither Super Bowl viewership nor purchasing. Leaving sexism aside, these ads were lazy, and they were boring, and they were outdated. Advertisers need to wake up and recognize that women are watching the game, and we don’t want more commercials about yogurt. We just want to be treated like who we are, which is actual people with actual brains who sometimes buy shit. While they’re at it, maybe advertisers should treat men like this too.

And that’s not even going into all the commercials celebrating only one kind of masculinity: that of barbaric, hulking, violent rage.  Do people realize that children see this stuff and it gets into their heads that this kind of behavior is okay (or that girls should all be straight women who marry this kind of man)?

I can only hope that enough buzz on the web about this kind of nonsense will eventually permeate the powers that be in the advertising industry and they’ll start making more intelligent ads.  And they can.

For instance, the Baby Darth Vader commercial appealed to the nerd in me.  But my absolute favorite was the Fat Dog commercial with the Tatooine cantina attache at the end (which references the Baby Darth Vader)–it won me with a great blend of self-improvement, cuddly dogginess, and geekdom.  You can’t go wrong there.

Charles Dickens Celebrates His 200th…  Only He’s Too Dead to Care

English: Detail from photographic portrait of ...

Charles Dickens - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

So why do we celebrate Charles Dickens?  Because he is one of those authors whose work is timeless.  Because he wrote on social conditions and the great Human Condition without being sanctimonious or pedantic.  And he is celebrated.  Pretty much everyone in the English-speaking world has heard of him or is at least familiar with his characters: Pip, Ebeneezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Oliver Twist, and others.  Pop culture references them all the time.

The web has also been abuzz with commemorations of Dickens’ birthday.  There was a Google doodle in his honor.  The royal family in the United Kingdom made a formal celebration of his contributions to the literary world and social thought.

I suppose, as so many have said, the attraction to Dickens today is that, despite progress we humans have made in terms of social and political reform and technology, things haven’t really changed.  Most people can identify with Bob Cratchit in “A Christmas Carol,” for instance.  Or have a skeptical view of the legal system such as Dickens portrayed in “Bleak House.”

Dickens was also a powerful advocate for education.  He believed that with literacy and education, people would be able to rise out of poverty and society would be all the better for it.  He was, however, not perfect.  By the tone of his writings, he was apparently intolerant of other ethnicites.  The classic example is Fagin, the Jew from “Oliver Twist.”  A lesser known fact is that he did change his attitude when called out on it, at least for the anti-Semitism.  Because of this, not everyone is a fan of his works.

But Dickens, like the Super Bowl, has a way of bringing people together.  Except on an intellectual level as opposed to an athletic/raw entertainment level.

Soaking up the Increasing Sun

The days have been chilly lately, but they were still sunny.  In the mornings, I’d pull up the blinds of the east-facing windows and open the inner front door, which also faces east.  I did this because I hate mornings, but something about the sunlight making everything feel warmer and brighter really did help my spirits.

And my Chihuahua seemed to appreciate it: he sunned himself like a cat all morning, each morning.  He became so spoiled that when we had our first gloomy day (yesterday, because it was going to snow that evening), he followed me around and kept scratching at my legs and trying to draw me to the windows.  I tried explaining to him that there was no warm sun that day, but he persisted.  When I opened the blinds for him, he glared at me like I ate the sun or something, and then snorted and walked away to hide in his bed.

The sunny mornings (and afternoons) were inspiring.  And not just for me.  The girls, who usually sit for maybe 15 minutes at a time to do something educational, would sit for an hour with me.  I worked with Sunfilly on learning to color in the lines.  Starkitten learned to write her capital letters and (I should have taken a picture of it) decorated a sheet of paper and wrote “I LOVE YOU” (I spelled it for her and the letters were jumbled together, but it was cute).  We then mailed it to her grandparents in Texas.

I think Dickens would have been proud.

Butter Rolls Recipe

Because it’s been cold, I’ve been trying to save on the gas bill by baking.  Baking serves two purposes: it makes food and it makes the house warm so the heater doesn’t have to kick on.  And electricity is much cheaper than natural gas here (I never used natural gas in the South, so I have no clue if the same relationship is true there).  I’ve baked enchiladas, fish, and breads.

I finally tried my hand at a rolls recipe that my little brother has been perfecting since before Starkitten was born.  He found it in one of our mother’s old cookbooks and tweaked the recipe over the years.  It’s simple, it’s buttery, and is just the kind if recipe Paula Deen would plagiarize (I am not implying that she has).  Here’s another interesting tidbit:  when we had that infernal (pun intended) heat wave in Texas this summer, he would cover the dough and let it sit in the sun outside to rise.  Those rolls, by the way, were the best he ever made.

Some tips to making yeast breads properly:

The yeast as it bubbles up. This is about as much as you'll want it to bubble before adding it to the dough. If it gets any more frothy, you've wasted your yeast.

  1. Don’t let the yeast sit too long in the prep bowl.  If it bubbles up too much before you mix it in with the bread, the yeast will have used up all its energy beforehand and won’t rise in the bread at all.  The bread will turn out hard and flat.
  2. Don’t let the bread over-rise.  It will loose some flavor.
  3. Yeast needs warmth to grow.  So if you’re in a cold house, turn on the oven before baking and make the kitchen warm and, preferably, set the bowl by a sunny window. Also, some ovens have a yeast-rise setting; if yours does, take advantage of it.

    The dough after it's been properly kneaded

  4. Knead thoroughly.  The kneading actually kick-starts the little yeast organisms by mixing them around and getting them access to new food so that they keep reproducing, which makes the dough grow.  Kneading also makes sure everything is mixed well and the bread will look and taste better.

Ingredients

  • 1-1/4cup of warm water
  • 1 package of yeast
  • 3 cups flour
  • 2 tablespoons shortening
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 4 tablespoons butter

Here are before and after photos of the rolls when set for their second rise, so that you get an idea of how much they will grow.

Directions

  1. Mix the yeast, sugar, and water in a large mixing bowl.  Add in shortening, salt, and two cups of the flour.  Mix until it’s smooth and you can see the little bubbles forming inside the dough.  Remember to scrape the side of the bowl frequently.
  2. Put in another cup of flour.  You must do the mixing and kneading by hand, as the dough will be too thick for the average mixing machine to handle.  Add more flour once it’s all mixed if it’s still a little gooey, 1/2 cup at a time; the idea is to put enough flour in that the dough no longer sticks to your hands.
  3. Cover the dough and let stand 40 minutes.
  4. Grease a glass pan or something similar.  Take off pieces of the dough and roll them into sphere of roughly half the size you want the rolls to be.  Melt 2 tablespoons of butter and brush it onto the rolls.
  5. When finished, cover and let rise again for another 40 minutes.  Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter and brush it onto the rolls again.
  6. Preheat oven to 375 ˚F.  Bake for 30-35 minutes or until golden brown on top.

If you want to go all-out with the artery clogging, slice these babies open and stuff them with more butter when you eat them.  You can use this same recipe to make homemade hamburger buns; just make larger sized rolls.

These rolls also go great in the morning with some jelly and a cup of coffee.

The rolls fresh out of the oven and slathered in butter. Yummy!

Giving Birth to Light Part 2: Brigid’s Day

Jump  to Composed Couscous and Corn Salad

After enjoying five days of lovely weather (temperatures in the low 50s–that’s in Fahrenheit), and considering how I haven’t really adjusted to real “winter,” I must say I was excited to see an early spring in the forecast for Ohio.  And then I read that Punxsutawney Phil, the famous groundhog, saw his shadow, indicating another six weeks of winter.

Closeup groundhog (Marmota monax)

A groundhog - Image by Eifelle via Wikipedia

I scoffed at the groundhog.  Surely, a professional meteorologist, like the ones predicting an early spring (thank you, global warming!), and who has gone through years of school and training in the natural sciences, would more accurately predict the weather than a two-hundred-year-old rodent that whispers to a man wearing a top hat.

Well, science be damned!

As I sit and type this, the sky is dumping confectioner’s sugar onto the countryside.  At least two inches of that cold white stuff that so enthralls my girls has fallen, and by the looks of things, it won’t be stopping anytime soon.  Even more annoying (and equally amusing), the local forecast for the rest of February has–you guessed it!–changed to six more weeks of winter.

I’ve been tempted to be the Southern redneck stereotype (which I do sometimes become in moments like this) and go out and shoot me a groundhog and cook it out of spite.  It would make for an amusing blog post, certainly, but it’s not very nice.  So instead, I just shake my fist at the squirrels dancing around in the snow, mocking me and my dreams of spring.

Well, we enjoyed the lovely spring-like weather while it lasted.

I hiked with the kids on the nature trail.  My husband took them fishing.  I was able to spend two warm, sunny afternoons sitting in the grass, writing.

Since Vasant Panchami and Imbolc, I must admit, I feel like I have been channeling the creativity goddesses.  Between writing and coming up with creative projects for the rest of the year (I have a fantastic king cake idea, if I can find the supplies I need), my mind has been churning along at warp speed.

Imbolc falls on February 1 or 2, depending on the Gaelic or neopagan tradition.  It comes from the Gaelic word meaning “in the womb,” as it refers to the start of the lambing season.  Imbolc traditionally honors the Celtic goddess Brigid (or Brigit), who is the patron of poets, blacksmiths, and healing.  In some traditions, she is also associated with apple blossoms.  She is also the goddess of wisdom, physical and intellectual uplifting (like mountains and learning or prophecy), and the home and hearth.  She also is the protectress of newborns; Celtic women used to hang crosses fashioned from apple or rowan branches over their babies’ cradles to invoke Brigid to protect their babies from harm.  In Irish mythology, she was also seen as a warfare goddess.

Fire-bearers circle figures of The Green Man f...

Another way Celt descendants celebrate Imbolc: Fire-bearers circle figures of The Green Man fighting Jack Frost. Imbolc celebration in Marsden, West Yorkshre, February 2007. - Image by Steven Earnshaw via Wikipedia

Brigid was so important to the Celtic peoples that, upon their conquest and subsequent Christianization, the Roman Catholic Church came up with Saint Brigid, who still possesses some of the qualities of her pagan counterpart.

One side of her face was that of an ugly old hag, and the other was that of a beautiful young maiden.  This was to signify her role in the transformation of winter and death into life and spring.  In the pagan Wheel of the Year, Imbolc complements Samhain and signifies the lengthening days and nearness of spring.  Brigid is a personification of that.

Some traditions also referred to her as the Corn Bride or Barley Bride (“corn” in this case is the archaic word that really means “wheat” or any “grain,” as corn did not come to mean the yellow grain from North America until Europeans began to colonize it).  It was a reference to her role as a fertility goddess.  Additionally, since Imbolc falls at the end of the dark half of the Wheel of the Year (when the days are shorter, basically), the lunar month in which Imbolc falls is referred to as the Chaste Moon or Bride Moon (because the next lunar month is when spring starts and is associated with birth).

Imbolc altar

A neopagan Imbolc altar - Image by Christina's Play Place

I’m not sure how the ancient Celts celebrated Imbolc, but many Wiccans and neopagans generally celebrate by dressing a sheaf of wheat, corn, or barley in white lace and ribbons (like a bridal dress), laying it in a basket, and treating it like a baby or a doll bride.  At the end of the festival, they usually burn the sheaf for prophetic purposes.

I must admit that I have not done this, pretty much for lack of a ceremonial sheaf.  My tradition, instead, is to cook something where grains play a prominent role, to honor the Corn Bride, and usually with something white (like potatoes or fish or turkey), to honor the Chaste Moon.  I’d also prepare something that hints at warmer months ahead.  And, instead of invoking Brigid for prophecy, I usually invoke her for creativity (and when I was in college and law school, I’d also invoke her for educational purposes).  This I’d do by lighting candles during the dark of night and burning some incense that would remind me of the coming spring (like lavender, my favorite herb).

Sprouting Garlic

I was in a creative writing frenzy yesterday after my husband came home from work, but, naturally I took breaks for coffee and snuggle time.  During one such break, I noticed one of my globes of garlic had sprouted.  I took it as a sign from Brigid:  the white papery outside of the globe is like a bridal veil, and here is new life–hope–sprouting from within.  I’m not sure what it might be a sign of, but it was refreshing to see while happily writing.

Composed Couscous and Corn Salad

Since I’ve been experimenting various recipes from the newest addition to my cookbook library, The Vegetarian Family Cookbook by Nava Atlas (and, by the way, after testing so many recipes, I have found that I love this book!), I decided to try something that involves wheat and/or corn as a primary ingredient for my Imbolc dish.  I decided to go with this recipe, because it involves wheat (in the form of couscous) and corn.  It really serves 6, but since I was cooking it as a feast (translate:  I wanted leftovers for the next day), I was cooking it alongside some simple baked chicken.

The ingredients of this dish are more summery in flavor, but I wanted something that made me think of warm days (and, to be honest, I sorely miss Louisiana springtimes, which start in February and are sunny and florid).  What I love about this recipe is that it can be dressed up for any occasion.  In fact, I plan to make it for the Super Bowl, but I’ll be adding various cheese slices to the spread.  It looks fancy, so is a great dish for entertaining.  This can also be an eat-with-your-hands group dish.

Ingredients

  • 4 medium potatoes, any variety, or 2 medium-large sweet potatoes
  • Ranch dressing or vinaigrette
  • 3/4 cup couscous
  • 2 cups cooked fresh corn kernels (from 2 to 3 medium ears) or frozen corn kernels, thawed
  • 1 tablespoon light olive oil
  • salt to taste
  • minced fresh parsley for topping (optional)
  • 1 red or green bell pepper (or half of each), cut into narrow strips (I diced mine, as my kids prefer them that way)
  • 1 cup baby carrots, or to taste
  • 1/2 cup black olives, preferably cured and pitted (I omitted these, as my kids are not fond of them; in my opinion, kalamata olives would work equally well)
  • 1 cup red or yellow cherry tomatoes, halved (or 1 medium red tomato, diced)

Directions

Cutting the Potatoes

  1. Bake the potatoes until done but still firm.  When cool enough to handle, peel and cut into bite-size chunks and place in a small mixing bowl.  Toss with enough dressing or vinaigrette to moisten.
  2. Pour 1-1/2 cups boiling water over the couscous in a heatproof container.  Cover and let stand for 10 minutes, then fluff with a fork.
  3. Combine the couscous with the corn in a mixing bowl.  Drizzle in the oil and toss well.  Season gently with salt.
  4. Mound the couscous mixture in the center of a large platter.  Sprinkle with minced fresh parsley, if desired.
  5. Arrange alternating piles of potatoes, bell pepper, baby carrots, olives, and tomatoes around the couscous mixture.
  6. Each person can make up his or her own plate.  Serve additional dressing or vinaigrette to drizzle on the raw vegetables as desired.

As you can see, it’s a fairly simple recipe.  The longest part is the baking of the potatoes, but you can shorten that time by opting to nuke them in the microwave.

Composed Couscous and Corn Salad

So my review on Nava Atlas’ cookbook is a stellar one.  Most of the recipes involve ingredients that are inexpensive and easy to find, even when you take into consideration that I live in rural Ohio, where eating tofu is equated with godless fascist hippie communism (I wish I were exaggerating).  The recipes are very simple, and she gives options and alternatives to many of the recipes, if you want to kick it up a notch.  She also writes to those who are new to vegetarian cuisine, sharing recipes and tips for adjusting away from meat.  And, as I have demonstrated in this and some of my other recent posts, it’s easy to build upon her recipes to add your own personal flair to them.

Dragon Hunting with a Side of Vegetarian Steakburgers

Jump to Portobello Burgers

Starkitten’s favorite game, since moving to Ohio, is dragon hunting.

When the weather is warm enough, we go outside with sticks in hand and bandanas on our head (Sunfilly calls them “pirate hats” and believes this is necessary attire for dragon hunting) and look for dragons.  We usually do a few ninja kicks and make some war cries, but sometimes we walk around wielding Lego-made lasers instead of walking sticks.  And sometimes we have shields made from toy box lids.

Starkitten usually tells us what dragons she sees or hears and whether they are good or bad.  For instance, Kitty Dragons are apparently very kind dragons.  Sun Dragons are good because they kill the Rain Dragons and Snow Dragons, which want to eat the house.  There are also Alien-Zombie Dragons, but Starkitten has apparently only seen them on moonless nights, and by the way she talks about them, I suspect they must be pretty scary.

Sometimes, if we are near a body of water, we also go hunting for murlocs.  This is especially true if we are fishing.  A murloc, in case you did not know, is essentially a fish-like humanoid from World of Warcraft, and not to be confused with H.G. WellsMorlocks (although in a critical analysis of each one’s mythos you could probably draw a few similarities, but that would be its own blog post).  Usually players in World of Warcraft kill murlocs to fulfill some kind of quest, and so they are seen as enemies.  Startkitten’s murlocs, however, are all good, and vary dramatically in colors, and so the hunting is more of an effort to catch one to play with.

I usually try to ask Starkitten to give detailed descriptions of the fantastic creatures she sees.  Was it large or small?  What color was it?  What color were its eyes?  Did it have any stripes, spots, or other markings?  Did it breathe fire or some other breath weapon?  Does it talk?  What does it like to eat?  And so on, fueling her active imagination.

While stargazing tonight, Starkitten told me she saw a Star Dragon in the sky.  It was so black that you could only see it for a brief moment against the velvet sky, and only then if you were using the telescope.  Its eyes looked like stars.  Apparently, this Star Dragon was a baby dragon.  And a baby murloc, also nighttime black and with starry eyes, was riding it.

Starkitten informed me that they were friendly and that she wanted to catch them to keep as pets.

“If you catch the baby dragon and the baby murloc,” I told her, “then they won’t be with their mommies.  They will be sad, and their mommies will be sad, too.”

Starkitten sat pensively for a moment, and then said, “Okay.  I want to play with them.  Then they can go to Dragon House and Murloc House and play with their mommies.”

“Let’s see if we can find some bad dragons to hunt instead,” I told her.  “Do you have your laser ready?”

“Yes.”  She showed me her Lego-made laser.

“See this telescope?  It’s also a special laser for shooting Alien-Zombie Dragons.”

By the time we came back inside, Starkitten was excitedly telling my husband how she and the baby Star Dragon and the baby murloc vanquished ten of those nasty Alien-Zombie Dragons.  I was, apparently, useless (as usual) when it came to dragon hunting.  I’d been eaten three times.

I love her imagination.


Portobello Burgers

The inside of the portobello gets a little hollow after it's been grilled, making it great for filling with something flavorful.

Speaking of fighting imaginary monsters and making imaginary friends, I recently experienced the wonders of a Vegetarian Steakburger.

One of my vegan friends once commented that portobello mushrooms are to vegans and vegetarians what steaks are to carnivores and omnivores.  So lately I’ve been eager to try some of this “vegetarian steak.”  I knew that people would grill portobello mushrooms for burgers, and so I decided to give that a try.  I made up the recipe below, influenced heavily by Louisiana cuisine.  The recipe calls for Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning, which is a pretty ubiquitous spice blend in the Deep South.  You could probably find it easily in a grocery store or online, but if you cannot find it, you can mix something close to the same blend by following the instructions from his cookbook here.

Ingredients for the Filling

Grilling the filling in a frying pan.

  • 1 medium yellow onion, sliced into thin strips
  • 1 red bell pepper, sliced into thin strips or small cubes
  • 1 cup of frozen sweet corn
  • 1 tablespoon Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning (add more or less, to taste)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Ingredients for the Portobellos

  • 4 large portobello mushrooms, stems removed
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • water
  • salt and pepper to taste

Directions

Grilling the portobello mushroom on a skillet.

  1. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a frying pan.  Add all the onions and saute them until they are starting to get tender.  Then add the red bell pepper and continue to saute until all the vegetables are tender.
  2. Add the corn to the mixture.  Cook until everything is hot.
  3. Remove from heat and set aside.
  4. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil on a skillet.  Add the portobello mushrooms and a few sprinkles of water.  Cover.  The steam should help soften the mushrooms.
  5. Flip the mushrooms over.  While the bottoms are grilling, sprinkle salt and pepper to taste on the tops.  When the mushrooms are tender, they are done.
  6. Remove from heat.  Place mushrooms on a plate, undersides facing up.
  7. Spoon some of the filling into the mushrooms, filling the caps.  Feel free to mound it up a little.  Serve on bread or a hamburger bun, with the same condiments you would use on a burger.  If you want to make homemade hamburger buns, you can try this recipe.

And now I understand why vegans consider portobello mushrooms “vegetarian steak.”  These burgers were absolutely amazing!  I fully intend to make this a regular menu item for our household now.

The finished product, served with cheese, tomatoes, avocados, and lettuce on sliced homemade bread, with a side of spiced pan-fried potato slices.

Giving Birth to Light Part 1: Saraswati’s Day

Jump to Creamy Tofu and Broccoli Skillet

Jump to Punjabi Sweet Rice

Since I’ve been grappling with the “winter blues,” on top of the other stressful things in my life that are not made easier by said affliction, I began scouring the internet for ideas to pull myself out of this funk.  I stumbled upon this interesting article from DivineCaroline, which offered many good suggestions, including light therapy, exercise, and aromatherapy.  I realized that one of the reasons I’d been enjoying cooking beans and tacos is because the smell of these foods is a form of aromatherapy, letting my mind wander off to childhood nostalgia.  I also found that brightening up the house has been helping.

Yesterday had a particularly sunny afternoon.  It was a relief, because it’s been so overcast and gloomy for the past few weeks. I pulled up all the blinds on the west-facing side of the house to let in the light.  I can see a pond from these windows, and the way the sunlight reflected off the pond and bounced into the house just made everything seem warm and cheery.  I played happy music and danced around with the kids.  I let them play with brightly-colored paints and stickers and construction paper and hung their art on the walls to add color to the house.  And it seemed like the sun took forever to set, which was a beautiful feeling.

It gave me energy I hadn’t felt in a couple months.

Suddenly I found myself seriously working on some creative writing–a hobby I had not touched in years, except to flirt with, because law school had literally killed the artist/writer in me (that is, apparently, the sad truth for a lot of lawyers).  Being able to write, to create, again was a beautiful feeling.

Maia 20 Tau in Pleiades

The Pleiades - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

Last night, we had a good half hour of a clear sky, with a very thin slit for a moon, so for the first time since we’d gotten a telescope (my husband received it as a prize from work around the new year), we were able to use it.  We zoomed in on the Pleiades and showed them to the girls.

The experience of stargazing with the girls, appreciating the awesome bigness of the universe, helped me to remember that my problems are so small and temporal in comparison.  After my husband took the kids inside for bed, I remained outside with the telescope, sitting on the frozen grass, listening to honking flocks of geese in their nocturnal southward journey, falling in love all over again with another one of my interests that I’d abandoned over the years.

One of the seven Pleiades in Greek mythology, and the brightest of the seven stars in the cluster, is Maia.  She is a gentle nurturer and mother of Hermes.  In Roman mythology, she became one of the Earth Mother goddesses.  In retrospect, it seemed fitting that I spent so much time admiring Maia as both the star and the goddess, with Saraswati‘s day on the horizon.

English: Painting of the Goddess Saraswati by ...

The Goddess Saraswati - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

Saraswati, in Hinduism, is the goddess of wisdom, knowledge (both scholarly and spiritual), creativity, and the arts (visual, musical, and literary).   She is also the one who gives each person his/her essence of self.  She is the wife of Brahma, the Hindu creator god.  She is gentle, wise, and unmoved by material riches (depictions of her rarely show her wearing more than a couple gold pendants).  White geese and swans are sacred to her, and some Hindus believe that books are one of her embodiments (stepping on or destroying a book is therefore very offensive to Saraswati).  Colors associated with her are white, which symbolizes purity and simplicity, and yellow, the color of rebirth of the sun (the days are getting longer again) and the mustard plants that bloom during her festival.

Today is Vasant Panchami, the Hindu festival that honors Saraswati.  Since yellow is one of her colors, Hindus prepare dishes that are yellow in her honor.  They place books at her altar and academic institutions hold services to venerate her.  Children fly kites, filling the sky with color, bringing vibrant life to the dead winter skies.  Part of the purpose of these celebrations is to surrender oneself to nature, the rebirth of light, and the creativity associated with it.

It’s been way too cold here in Ohio to fly kites (although if we were still in Texas, it’s very likely many people would be flying kites today), with the wind chill being in the teens at best.  Instead, the kids and I focused on Saraswati as a goddess of knowledge and creativity.  We played some more with bright paints and construction paper, I wrote for fun, and then we played learning games.  Fortunately, the girls were already familiar with Saraswati, since she is included in The Book of Goddesses by Kris Waldherr, and the girls refer to her, along with Athena, as “school goddesses.”  And since Starkitten is already insisting that she is ready to go to school (despite being too young by a couple years), taking time to honor the “school goddess” was something she was more than happy to do.

Maia is the eldest of the Pleiades in Greek an...

The Goddess Maia - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

Taking time to honor Saraswati seems to have helped me kick the winter blues.  Her holy day and her role as a goddess are both very similar to the Wiccan holiday that happens about this same time of year: Imbolc (Gaelic for “in the womb,” as this is the time of year when ewes are pregnant), which honors Brigid.  Brigid is a Celtic goddess of the home and the hearth (and fire in particular), but she is also a goddess of creativity–both in writing and in creating things (particularly smithing)–and healing.

It is quite fascinating that, as Diwali and Samhain are close together in time (and of course winter holidays like Christmas, Chanukah, Saturnalia, and Yule share the same general calendar time), so are Vasant Panchami and Imbolc.  Sometimes it makes me wonder if our ancestors were on to some Big Idea that has been lost to the ages as we have advanced technologically.  We get so lost in social obligations and material things that we have forgotten to pause and lose ourselves to nature every now and then: to the lengthening days, the budding leaves, the infinite vastness of the cosmos, the rhythms and cycles of the world around us… and all that they can teach us and inspire within us.

Creamy Tofu and Broccoli Skillet

Even though we are sticking to the “mostly vegetarian” diet, my husband originally suggested that we should still eat something meaty and fun for holidays we observe.  But because Vasant Panchami is a Hindu holy day, and many Hindus are vegetarian as a matter of faith, I decided to make a vegetarian dinner.

I tried my first recipe out of The Vegetarian Family Cookbook by Nava Atlas for this occasion (learning new things for the goddess of knowledge), embellishing it a bit to fit Saraswati’s Day (woohoo for creativity!).  The recipe below is my variation to the recipe in the book.

Ingredients

Frying the vegetables and tofu

  • 1-1/2 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 large bell pepper, cut into short narrow strips
  • 2 large broccoli crowns, cut into bite-size pieces
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons white flour
  • 16 ounces baked tofu, cut into short narrow strips
  • 1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese
  • 1 teaspoon ground mustard
  • 6-8 saffron stems
  • salt and pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a large skillet or frying pan.  Sauté the garlic over medium-low heat until just turning golden.
  2. Add the bell pepper, broccoli, and 1/2 cup water.  Cover and cook over medium heat, until the broccoli is tender-crisp.
  3. Use a little of the milk to dissolve the flour and mustard until it is smooth and flowing.  Stir into the skillet with the remaining milk.
  4. Add the tofu and saffron.  Cook for a few more minutes.
  5. Stir in the cheese and simmer gently until everything is well heated through.
  6. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  7. Serve immediately.  It goes well served over rice or couscous and with a side of corn or sweet potatoes.

Even for a former carnivore, this meal was fantastic.  There were no leftovers.

Creamy Tofu and Broccoli Skillet with Couscous


Punjabi Sweet Rice

For dessert, and so that we’d have an Indian dish to eat for Vasant Panchami, I scoured the internet for something appropriate and easy to prepare.  I found this recipe for Punjabi sweet rice on Food.com and adapted it.

You’re supposed to use basmati rice for this recipe, but we recently used up our last big bag of it that we brought from Dallas (where there is a huge Indian population and you can get basmati rice fairly inexpensively if you know where to look), and so I used standard American rice (I don’t know what kind it is, exactly, but it’s the common kind you can find at most grocery stores).  If you are cooking with something that is not basmati rice, you may need to add more water to the recipe and/or cook the rice longer.  I followed the instructions below, and my rice came out a little al dente.  That was fine for my family, but since others may want softer rice, I wanted to point this out beforehand.

A jar of ghee

The recipe calls for ghee, which is a sort of butter extract.  You may have to look in a specialty grocery store.  If you can’t find any ghee, you can get by with 2 tablespoons of butter.  You can also check here to see a list of other products similar to ghee, in case any of them are available in your area.  For instance, Kenyans make something called mwaita, which is made pretty much the same way as ghee.

Ingredients

  • 1-1/2 cup basmati rice
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 ounce cashews (or a couple handfuls) or some other nuts
  • 1 ounce raisins (or a couple handfuls) or some other dried fruit
  • 1 tablespoon ghee

Directions

Frying the rice in ghee

  1. Warm up the milk and pour in a small bowl.  Add the saffron.  Set aside.
  2. Melt the ghee in a medium saucepan.  Add the rice and fry it.
  3. Add the milk-saffron mixture, sugar, and enough water to cover the rice completely (I’d recommend you get at least 1/4 inch of liquid above the rice).  Cover and cook on low heat for 15-20 minutes.
  4. When all the water is absorbed, remove from heat.
  5. Stir in the nuts and raisins.  Serve hot.  Garnish with more nuts and raisins.

This was a fantastic dessert.  It was a little on the sweet side, but my husband, who generally dislikes sweets, really loved the sweet rice (he loved it so much, in fact, that I had to make a second batch to put in the fridge for him to take with him to work for brunch tomorrow).

Punjabi Sweet Rice

Light in the Tunnel

Jump to Taco Seasoning

I’ve been in a dark place the past couple of weeks.

It’s been the kind of stressful that killed every ounce of creativity in me.  At first, I didn’t want to even bring up to the blogging world that I’ve been stressed out, since it’s a depressing topic, but parenting isn’t always pretty (and neither is life), and since I’d said I was blogging about the good, the bad, and the ugly of parenting (yep, it can feel kind of like a Western film), I might as well be fair about it.

It’s difficult being a good parent when you’re preoccupied with something that’s incredibly stressful.  It’s even more difficult when you’re a stay-at-home parent, and so getting away from work (i.e. taking care of the children) is next to impossible.

A snow-covered world as seen from my back window.

I really miss that about working.  I could leave work and come home to the kids, or leave the kids by going to work.  If one of those was a stressful environment, the other offered respite.   And if both were driving me crazy, I was at least making money and so could afford to occasionally take off for a weekend with friends.

So all I could do was try to keep distracted: playing with the kids, reading something lighthearted, or watching comedies with my family.  Anything that didn’t give me time to myself to think, lest my stress affect me physically.  Of course, it didn’t help that this is the dark time of the year, and apparently I am sensitive to the day length.

At one point, I began to feel hopeless, and so I took time to read excerpts of The Sickness Unto Death by Søren Kierkegaard.  While he is the father of existentialist philosophy (questioning all religion and morality until you come to the conclusion that life is absolutely ridiculous), he basically says, “What the hell.  Take a leap of faith and believe in God.”  (Or, in my case, gods.)  It helped, if for no other reason than reminded me that nothing (not even horrible situations) lasts forever.  It gave me hope.

One night, Sunfilly kept having nightmares, and so I had Starkitten sleep with my husband on our bed and I joined Sunfilly on Starkitten’s twin bed.  Once I finally calmed her down and snuggled her back to sleep, I lay there, admiring how peaceful and angelic she looked.  Her sweet little face–even the way her lips move like she’s sucking an imaginary thumb–reminded me to be strong for her sister and her.

It also helped that, during these past couple weeks, we’d been surprised by small gifts from various friends.  Each one made my eyes well up from gratitude.  Each box was like a small piece of sunlight breaking through a cavern.  It was a cosmic reminder:  We are not alone in this dark path.

And so I found strength.

The Snowstorm

A pair of beautiful swans in the local pond.

A winter storm blew through here last week, bringing biting winds and 5 inches of snowfall.  Right before the storm, I spotted a pair of swans in a nearby pond.  I ran out to take some pictures of them, and then ran back inside just in time to gaze at big, fluffy snowflakes falling from the sky.

At one point, we had a couple days that were so cold we were excited if the highs hit the twenties.  The wind chill was in the negative teens.  I threw on my house slippers and a winter coat and ran out to check the mail (the mailbox is about a football field’s distance away from the house).  By the time I darted back inside the house, my nose, fingers, and feet were so cold they burned.  And so I learned the meaning of the phrase “biting cold.”  And also why people wear scarves.

A bunch of rabbit tracks.

After the storm passed, I made sure to take a few moments to appreciate the beauty of winter (instead of cursing it).  The local pond had frozen to a thickness that supported the weight of an average sized adult.  A couple people were trying to ice fish.  They did not have any luck, and joked that it was because we brought Texas “winter weather” to Ohio (in other words, it’s been too warm for winter fishing and too cold for normal fishing).  The pond was also covered with a thick layer of snow, which was a surreal sight.

Rabbit tracks around the trunk of an oak tree. There are bits of chewed-up acorn.

We took a stroll in a nearby forest and spotted rabbit tracks in the snow.  It looked like they were hopping from tree to tree, either looking for a burrow in which to hide or acorns to dig up (we did spot a few chewed-up acorns on top of the snow).

Here is the pond when it was frozen and covered with snow. For a point of reference, below is the same view of the pond during late summer (I took this photo in mid-September, when we first moved to Ohio).

Taco Seasoning

I love cooking with mixed beans. After I open the bags of various beans to make a batch, I pour the remaining beans into a large jar to make decorative layers like this. I'll mix them together when it's time to cook them.

When a person is depressed, comfort food does a lot for reviving one’s spirits.  Because I grew up with a lot of Mexican food (my father is Mexican and my mother learned to cook for my father), beans are actually one of my comfort foods (which is ironic, considering that beans give me uncomfortable gas).  And since we are eating a mostly vegetarian diet, beans became an easy main dish to prepare.

Beans store easily in the freezer.

I love cooking beans, because you can toss them in a large pot and cook them all day.  Whatever you don’t eat immediately you can divide into 3- or 4-cup portions and freeze neatly to save for later.  They are easy to thaw and can be used in a wide range of dishes (or as a side by themselves).  They are also incredibly inexpensive (cooking your own beans is four times cheaper than buying them canned).

I tended to make bean tacos.  I also made tacos with some leftover Christmas turkey that I’d frozen.  And, for variety, I tried using some Yves Meatless Ground in lieu of ground beef, and it made for some fantastic tacos (it’s also half the price of a pound of ground beef here in Ohio and much lower in its fat count).

I’ve been using the same taco seasoning I gleaned from my Buelita (a diminutive form of the Spanish word“abuela,” for my paternal grandmother).  Learning recipes from her was an experience unto itself.  She did not use measuring tools.  Increments were in palmfuls, or enough to coat two fingers or the food in the frying pan, or a just couple shakes of the bottle.  She just knew how much to put into a dish and relied on smell to get it right.  And I learned how to cook Mexican food from her.

Chicken tacos

NOTE:  I should point out that “Mexican cuisine” is a broad term.  It’s like saying “Indian cuisine” or “Chinese cuisine” or even “American cuisine.”  Mexican food varies between regions and ethnic groups.  Parts of my father’s family came from Veracruz and other parts had lived in Texas from the time when it was still a Spanish territory, and his side of the family is more Spaniard in ethnicity (we come from a line of disinherited nobility) than it is Mayan or any other indigenous tribe (although some indigenous Mexicans are in our family tree all the same).  So I have no clue how to correctly characterize the kind of Mexican food I grew up with (or if it’s just “Tex-Mex”), except to use “Mexican food” in the generic sense.

It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I bothered trying to measure out the spices that I used to make taco seasoning to help a friend learn to make something more authentic.  I’ve used this blend on a variety of taco “meats” (as mentioned above), and my family loves it.  You can always tweak the proportions, depending upon what flavors you want to enhance or subdue.

Ingredients

Yves Meatless Ground (above) and mixed beans (below) being prepared for tacos.

  • 2 tablespoons cumin
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne powder (chipotle power, ancho powder, or any other chile works just as well–increase the amount if you want spicier food, decrease or omit if you want something milder)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground mustard

Directions

  1. Mix the spices together and sprinkle over chicken, beef, beans, or whatever you’re using for taco filling.
  2. It tastes best if you sautee some onions first and add them to the filling, along with some chopped fresh cilantro.

One of the presents I received was The Vegetarian Family Cookbook by Nava Atlas, which is apparently written for people who are transitioning into vegetarianism.  I’ll be trying out a few recipes, so I intend to post a review of that book shortly.

You can use the same blend for taco filling to make chalupas.

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