And Now For Something Completely Different!

Between wedding gifts and the holidays, we’ve recently acquired a few really cool things – cookbooks, housewares, and assorted other gadgets worth telling you about.  This is not our usual blog fare, but after the umpteenth time of telling Shane “wow, I really love _________”, I figured it’d be worth the occasional mention here.  In that spirit, I would like to introduce you to what we call “Spaceship”.

Shane picked this guy up when he was in Philadelphia in November, and it’s safe to say that our cats are obsessed with it. If you go anywhere near Spaceship or the canister of treats, Basil starts dancing around on his tippy-toes, chirping and shaking his tail with excitement. Basically, Spaceship is the best thing since sliced bread – or, for Basil, kibble.

So what’s the big deal?  Basically, Spaceship – or, more properly the FunKitty Twist N Treat – is a treat-dispensing toy.  You screw the two halves apart, add a handful of treats, and then screw the halves back together so that treats fall out when the cats play with it.  Low tech, but effective!

Basil’s strategy for retrieving treats seems to involve a solid smack and drag on the top of Spaceship, which, if he’s lucky, results in a treat popping out in his direction.  Mina – usually the first to figure out any possible way to get more food – doesn’t seem to have figured out how it works.  Instead, she monitors Basil’s play, waiting to skim off any treats that Basil misses.  So I ask you – who is the smarter cat?  The one who figured it out, or the one who figured out how to avoid work?


Shredding, Week 2

This afternoon I knocked out day 10 of the 30 Day Shred.  Since we last talked about this, I’ve gotten into a four day rotation: three days of shredding, then a day off.  I’ve spent the off days groaning about my soreness and/or going on increasingly long runs, which is an unexpected and pretty fantastic side effect of this process.  For the last few months, my runs were consistently 2-3 miles, but very rarely more than that.  I’ve run outside in my new shoes four times, and three of those – including the two this week – were over four miles.  Easily over four miles.  Comfortably over four miles.  Easily and comfortably to the point that I would’ve gone further if I hadn’t had to finish my runs going uphill into the snow while running on the slushy streets in the growing dark.

Let’s just say that if I wasn’t before, I am now a 30DS convert.  I’ve increased my weights and doubled my pushups in the strength intervals.  I’m a lot less sore than I was a week ago.  I’ve felt great on my runs – minimal soreness and improved stamina, which makes a huge difference when running in these conditions.  I’ve also lost 2.4 pounds and 2.5 inches.  Some of that is almost certainly the receding holiday bloat and the normal shifts during my cycle, but still!  Inches don’t lie.  Neither does the slinky stretchy dress I wore to dinner last night.

I’ve been feeling pretty guilty (and hung over) for most of today because last night was full of all sorts of (delicious gooey melty boozey) excess, but apart from that, I’ve been feeling pretty damned fantastic.  I’m turning 31 tomorrow, and I’m in very nearly the best shape of my life.  I’ll drink to that, though not tonight. 🙂

12 Books, 12 Months: Month 4 Round Up

I’m running late on this month’s round up. I’m sorry. It’s just that I’m getting ready to teach my first class, and between that and shredding and baking bread, I don’t have much mental (or physical, for that matter) energy left. Today I’m as tired as I’ve ever been, but I have a tomato keeping me on task, so no more excuses!

I’m starting to wonder if a certain amount of disappointment is inherent in the nature of To Read lists.  If you’ve been meaning to read something forever, there’s obviously something preventing you from getting to it, right? Take, for example, Amber, who vowed to take on Infinite Jest. 1104 pages are a serious commitment, which is why I’ve been putting it off for the better part of a decade. While Amber enjoyed that the book “manages to say a lot of interesting things about the human experience – particularly with regard to entertainment and addiction”, she closes by acknowledging a fear I have about the book:  “I have to be honest: I think some of the applause for this book is really in part self-congratulatory applause, for those who managed to get through it.” I’ll be interested to see the feedback this review receives, especially amongst the DFW aficionados participating in the 12 Books challenge.

Meghan was also underwhelmed by both of her reads this month: The Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories and The Book of Lost Things [review].  She enjoyed the “sultry and innocent” “winding and fun to unravel” writing in the former, but found herself boring easily and struggling to finish the stories [review].  The high point of the latter was the epilogue, which she describes as “a really great short essay” attached to “not such a great full novel.”

So if it takes a challenge like 12 Books to get us to read books from our lists, are they really worth reading? Anj read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle hoping to learn a few new things about food and farming, but came away with the impression – from both the book and the audiobook – of good content being toned down [review].  Jenny was hoping for some interesting pop science from Flotsametrics and the Floating World, but wound up with autobiography and hard science, neither of which left her with “a good grasp or ability to guess why a certain type of object goes to which beach” [review].  Heidi read Midwives because a coworker gave it to her and because she’s interested in “the alternative birth community,” but found it a little too carefully written and in need of a good edit. [review]

Now that we’re a few months in, a few of us have realized that we don’t actually own (or perhaps want to read) books on our original lists.  I happily scrapped one of my books in favor of At Home: A Short History of Private Life, which I loved from start to finish.  It’s packed with fun and interesting facts, as are most of his books, except with the added bonus of many of these facts relating to your everyday life.  Seriously, I highly recommend it [review].  Grace read two books: Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman, which was on her list, and Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave, which replaced a volume she couldn’t find.  Dangerous Woman was surprisingly effective in the graphic format, while also being “informative, entertaining, and nearly impossible to put down” [review].  While a few of the personal essays in Bad Girls fell flat, a few were “the kind of bad [she could] sink [her] teeth into–not really salacious, and not hurting anybody, but just…naughty”[review].

On the other hand, Mary experienced no such disappointment with The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution, which depicted the events of the Boston Tea Party in a whole new light.  The book does an excellent job of exploring “where history comes from, who writes history, and what things are included, and what are left out”, which seems like a thought-provoking in these turbulent times [review].  Angel read Nuestra historia aun se esta escribiendo, La historia de tres generales cubano-chinos en la Revolucion Cubana, which tells the story of three Cuban generals of Chinese descent.  I know very little about Cuban history – an artifact of our continued embargo of both trade and culture – so I was interested to learn about Castro’s implementation of anti-racism legislation, which in part resulted in these generals seeing “themselves as Cubans first who just so happen to have Chinese descent”  [review].

Jill picked up The Ginger Tree because the cover seemed to promise a certain “saga-ness”, a “Calgon take me away type experience” in the form of a sweeping novel set in turn of the century Japan.  Aspects of the novel – particularly the main character’s persistent sense (or perhaps state) of being simultaneously foreign and at home – resonated with Jill,while others – including the narrative devices of diaries and letters – were frustrating, as it made it seem like the main character was constantly reacting to events, rather than acting [review].  Rebekah read Room, which was more constrained in geography but not in the imagination of the narrator, a young boy named Jack who has lived his entire life in captivity with his mother.  Room has gotten a lot of press, which Rebekah notes in her review, but her reflections on Ma’s parenting and on the way Jack’s narration conveys his sense of un/reality made me even more curious to read the book.

Mark was an overachiever and read three books this month – he’s more than half done with his list!  First, he felt that Reading and Writing the Electronic Book could serve as a “gateway to the assorted literature(s) of studies on ebooks,” but it has fallen out of date since being published in 2010 and is fraught with serious omissions and typos [review].   Second, Seven Nights , a “slim volume of essays based on seven lectures Borges gave in Buenos Aires between June and August 1977,” was interesting and provided contextual and historical information on a variety of topics [review].  Finally, he read Buddhism without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening , which “rejects the religion of Buddhism…in favor of the actions of Buddhism.  It also remains agnostic on the more metaphysical aspects, such as karma and rebirth.”  He liked that the “four ennobling truths – anguish, its origins, its cessation, and the path” – are interpreted as challenges to act, rather than tenets of belief, which I found intriguing [review].

Another great month, you guys!  In four months, we’ve collectively read 71 works from our lists – as well as a fair number of other things.  Based on the reviews that have been posted since I started working on this last week, I’m already looking forward to next month’s round up.

CAPRICORN (Dec. 22-Jan. 19): “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past,” said comedian Lily Tomlin. I recommend that you make this a keynote during the next six months. According to my understanding of the astrological omens, you will have the best opportunity you’ve had in a long time to put some of your unsettling memories to sleep for good. This is your big chance to graduate from old anxieties that can never be resolved. You’re finally ready to declare your independence from messy burdens and maddening riddles that have haunted you.

I’m not sure what exactly Free Will Astrology is trying to tell me, but it seems like the cosmos wants me to be broken wide open and, like, deep down in my vulnerabilities, struggles, and fears in 2011. I’m not sure I’m ready for that.

What I am ready – or really want to be ready – for is to find some kind of peace with all of the things in my life over which I have no control. I was thinking about this last night as I was trying so hard to fall asleep after two restless nights. I don’t know where that peace comes from, but I’d like a generous helping of it for my birthday. Also ice cream.

Winter is On Notice

40% oppressive black cloud of poor sleep, heavy snow, and full-body soreness
40% exceptional productivity thanks to Pomodoro, which I will no doubt talk about at great length soon
5% eating giant pastry from Graeter’s
5% rescuing Shane and Julian when they got locked out of Julian’s car

The oppressive cloud finally broke about 25 minutes ago, or 5 minutes into my shred.  It is remarkable the difference that exercise makes once I can force myself to do it.  Tonight that forcing involved the promise of a glass of wine and a hot bath, which is good because despite 30 minutes of jumping around in the basement, I still can’t really feel my toes from my venture out in the cold.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll get around to the 12 Books round up, or maybe I’ll tell you about Pomodoro, or maybe I’ll bring you up to date on my first week of shredding.  For now, though: bath, wine, and zines.  Stat.

24 Loaves: Basic Boule

So tonight I made this sauce.  Except that instead of velvet buttery goodness after 45 minutes, after an hour and a half the sauce was still chunky and would not reduce.  I spooned a cup or so of sauce over a leftover chicken breast and warmed them together in the oven, hoping and hoping that the rest of the sauce would reduce.  Um, nope.  Are you sensing a theme to this week?  Oh well, it was still tasty, and after another hour and a half on the stove, it’s finally getting impossibly rich.  Too bad we ate dinner an hour ago.


But that wasn’t what I came here to tell you about today. Today is all about the bread.

Blessed Boule

One of my resolutions this year was to learn to bake different kinds of bread: 24 loaves, to be precise. While I’ve made pita bread and English muffins since embracing this challenge, this was technically my first loaf of 2011. The Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day method relies on a slow ferment – like the No Knead Bread recipe that failed me (or I it). I started with the basic recipe, which makes enough for four one pound loaves.

First, mix everything up in a lidded (but not air-tight) vessel large enough to handle the rise:

Rising Bucket

After two hours in the warm kitchen, the dough more than doubled in size:

2 Hours Later

At this point, you could scoop out a pound of dough and bake yourself a beautiful loaf – or you could stick the bucket in the fridge to continue to ferment. Here’s where this recipe is different from the No-Knead Bread. The cold rise does something wonderful to the dough: it allows the good bacteria to ferment and the long-chain starches to break down into sugars.

When you’re ready to bake, you scoop out and shape a beautiful boule, then let it rise 40 minutes at room temperature while your oven warms up. 30 minutes in the oven, and you’ve got this:

Look at that!

We ate the whole damned thing before the steam stopped rising. And I can’t wait to bake another loaf, except that I might need to run a few more miles before I do.

Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter from Smitten Kitchen
Artisan Breads in Five Minutes a Day from the book of the same title, by way of Alexandra’s Kitchen