My crowded recipe box

April 27th, 2013 by kara

So my recipe box is getting crowded. A few years ago, after I’d experienced this same problem with my sticky, tatty metal recipe file box inherited from my mum, I went out and bought a very nice dark-walnut stained wooden recipe box (very grown-up looking!), and I sorted through my recipes, making tidier copies of some of the scribbled ones, and getting rid of the recipes I had never used, but had looked good when I’d bothered to add them to my collection.

The new box is getting crowded again, though, and when I was looking for my peanut butter cookie recipe, I discovered that I’d left old copies of my favorite recipes in with the newer, tidier copies. “Sheesh, can’t believe I was so stupid to leave those in there,” I muttered to myself, and sorted through the cookie recipes to find six duplicates.

I prepared to throw out the old, untidy copies, and recalled that most of those had been scribbled when I was in high school, or even grade school. Swamped by this wave of nostalgia for the younger, foolish-er me, I hesitated to put the old copies in the recycling bin.

Does nostalgia for my silly, loopy handwriting from high school and grade school make these copies worth keeping? Or is their age and provenance of value? When I was originally going through my recipe cards, I had several that belonged to my mother and grandmother, and to see their handwriting and know that they touched those recipe cards made me feel closer to both of them. I had split them up and divided them between myself and my sisters, copying the cards I thought I’d actually use and sending them on for my sisters to enjoy.

But for recipes I’d written for myself, I don’t have anyone to pass them down to, so does my own historical handwriting have value to anyone but me? Are they really worth keeping, for that glimpse of the person I used to be? I’m still wrestling with that idea, but the old copies are getting closer to the recycling bin.

Something else I’m wrestling with in my recipe box are the recipes that I’ve copied because they LOOKED good, but which I’ve never actually made. I hate making new foods because I don’t know how the recipe will turn out. If it’s an awful recipe, I really resent wasting the time and the food to make it and then just turn around and throw it away, so many times I will just copy something that looks appealing but then tuck it away into that wooden box to languish.

Take banana oatmeal cookies as an example. They’ve always sounded sooo gooood to me, but I hadn’t made them because with many recipes, there’s no way to tell how something will turn out–or how you can screw it up. I found FOUR DIFFERENT banana oatmeal cookie recipes in my recipe box today, but when I finally made the darned things for the first time last week, I used a completely different recipe I found on the web. (Oh, and by the way, I screwed that up by not using the right type of oatmeal the first time I made THEM, but the recipe was so lovely even after I’d ruined the cookies that I gave it a second try yesterday–works so much better when you use the quick-cooking oats the recipe calls for, instead of old-fashioned oats which require four hours of cooking–thanks,!)

Because I’m a tad OCD, I treasure things like a tidy recipe box with uniformly-sized cards. No, I don’t go so far as to use the same colour ink when I’m writing a new card, and I’m not going to make a new card if I get something on it while cooking or baking. The different stains and battle scars on a recipe card add to its appeal, and serve as a rating system–the more battered a recipe is, the more often I’ve used it successfully.

But it is nice to be able to flip through all the recipes in a section and not have smallish bits of paper escaping to flutter to the floor, or not being able to find the recipe you need only to discover that it had been left behind in its respective slot because it’s so much smaller than the other cards.

I’ve made a resolution, just now:  From now on, I will only write out a recipe card for recipes which I’ve actually made and liked. I will make notes ON THE CARD about changes that I’ve found useful, and I’ll actually keep track of where the recipe came from. No more wondering where I got the recipe for divinity, or trying to recognize handwriting that’s not my own, my sisters’, my mother’s, or my grandmother’s.

Now, what should I do with all the recipes I’ve already copied and filed because they looked good? Shall I retire them to a “recipe limbo” from which I’ll randomly pluck one to try it out?  And if it turns out to taste as good as it “read,” then it will earn a permanent place in my recipe box? I think that’s what I’ll do from now on, but I’ll go through the rest of the recipes later. Right now, I have to go make some peanut butter cookies.

Not sellin’ anything but consciousness here

December 23rd, 2012 by admin

So I have all reader comments to my blog posts moderated, because I DO NOT WANT TO SELL SOMEONE ELSE’S VIAGRA. For Pete’s sake.

Today I noticed six new comments on older posts which required moderation. While reading all these posts peppered with links for Cialis, Levitra, Viagra, and Louboutin shoes nestled amid nonsense text, I guess I would be helping ‘online retailers’ immensely if I quit moderating comments.

And for Pete’s sake, people, do you really expect your comments to be APPROVED after I’ve read them? Do us both a favor, save us each a tremendous amount of aggravation, and don’t even try to spam my blog.

But even though they’re blatant attempts at marketing questionable drugs and faux designer accessories, there’s a corner of my mind that whispers “Hey, people are still reading you even though you haven’t written anything for ages!” In order to spam me, they’ve got to FIND me, after all. Is it pitiful of me to hope that these spammers are at least glancing through the posts they’ve ‘commented’ on? It is, isn’t it?

Gut instinct and gambling on new recipes

December 6th, 2011 by kara

The Pumpkin and I have been working toward cooking all of our own food, for frugality and health. I say that we are ‘working toward it’ because let’s face it, there is a place in our world for Wanchai Ferry dinner kits and Jet’s Pizza. But we are trying.

We’ve collected tried-and-true recipes that we enjoy and that make it into the weekly menu rotation on a regular basis, but lately we’ve been branching out and trying something different. So when we see a recipe that looks appealing, we clip it from the newspaper/scribble a new recipe card and magnet it to the fridge.

Like my mother did, I enjoy reading new recipes, and then collecting them, but  hadn’t actually made any real effort to try them out. And until you actually try the recipe, you don’t know if it will turn out well. Sometimes a recipe that looks good in print just doesn’t make it in real life/the pan/slow cooker.

We have been spanked by recipes that seemed like a good idea at the time, and having been burned, we’re a little shy about trying new stuff. A recipe that fails is a waste of time and food, and wasting money on food is especially heinous. Then on top of that, one must scramble to put something on the table in lieu of the experiment.

Back when Rick and I first got together, I was determined to be a good little homemaker, and to that end I bought a set of recipe cards (plus handy filing box, only $29.95 plus shipping!) that were named something similar to “Lite and Fit American Favorites!” The idea behind the collection was to substitute lower-fat seasonings and ingredients for those pesky-but-tasty staples that make us corpulent. (The lesson here is unrelated but simple, something similar to ‘don’t buy recipe cards that are oddly shaped and require their own special recipe box, because the author’s conscious effort to be different with the cards and recipes themselves will result in cooking sorrow.’)

One of the recipes was for a version of tuna noodle casserole that should have been a hit. After all, who DOESN’T like tuna noodle casserole? That’s pretty impossible to mess up, right?

Yeah, no. In my determination to be the good little homemaker, I indulged my OCD urge to follow the recipe to the letter, and in doing so, I ignored my gut instinct to leave out the tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce that was hanging on to the tail end of the ingredient list, like some cut-and-paste mistake or afterthought.

WHY would one want Worcestershire sauce in tuna noodle casserole? It just didn’t make sense, and my cooking instincts were screaming “Don’t do it! It’ll just be a mess!” But no, I had to follow the recipe to its bitter end, and as I dumped the tablespoon of savory liquid into the casserole, it showed me immediately how wrong it was by turning the entire casserole battleship grey.

Okay, so it wasn’t a pretty casserole any longer, but it might taste good (or maybe just okay), right? That was a lot of food to throw out just because it wasn’t visually appealing, so I gritted my teeth and put the casserole on a cutting board in the middle of the table.

But nothing can bring a dish back from battleship grey, not even garnishing it with buttered breadcrumbs and baking it for the proper length of time.

Rick stared at the casserole for a minute, peeking between the appealing breadcrumbs to the unappealing noodles and cream sauce underneath.

“What IS it?” he asked me, finally.

“Tuna noodle casserole, silly!” I was trying to brazen it out, reaching for the spoon and plopping a healthy portion onto my own plate. The Worcestershire even muted the spring-green of the peas to a colour closer to death than springtime.

“What’s wrong with it?” Rick asked, still measuring the risk with his eyeballs.

“Nothing is ‘wrong’ with it. I followed the recipe to the letter!” I explained, as though complete compliance could protect us from untasty food.

He hesitantly followed my lead, cursing his plate with a spoonful of the greyish glop. We both forked up a bite at the same time…and shuddered, pushing our plates away. Just as it might be difficult to explain what Worcestershire sauce tastes like, it was difficult to explain exactly how it polluted the casserole. Maybe ‘metallic’ is the right word to describe the taste…eh, let’s just say that it put both of us off tuna noodle casserole and Worcestershire sauce for a while.

To this day, he is scarred by the Worcestershire sauce in that casserole, and delights in reminding me.

Another recipe ‘fail’ came from our local newspaper a few months back. This potato-and-zucchini soup recipe read like a champ, containing cheap seasonal ingredients and spices that I thought we’d like.  Rick saw it first, and clipped the recipe, so it got added to our weekly menu rotation. Again, I followed the recipe as closely as I could, my only substitution being Mrs. Dash seasoning in place of the rosemary–but Mrs. Dash has rosemary IN it, so that should have worked, right?

Meh. Even with the EXTRA seasoning from adding more Mrs. Dash than the recipe called for, the resulting glop was tasteless and hunched ponderously in the stomach, like a wad of plaster threatening to set permanently in the shape of one’s gullet.

Yet another fail comes from a menu/shopping planner service called E-mealz. The good folks at E-mealz produce a weekly menu and shopping list for subscribers, helping busy people manage their food budget and saving them time, while putting healthy meals on the table. This is a useful, frugal idea, and I highly recommend it. I enjoy being able to turn over menu planning to E-mealz. Most of the time, that is.

One E-mealz sandwich recipe called for pastrami and ciabatta rolls, along with a can of SHOEPEG CORN. That was one recipe that just screamed “wrong” to me, but we’re game, so we tried it in hopes of experiencing something really different and good.

The sandwich would have been enjoyable had it NOT been for the shoepeg corn, which added a weird aftertaste to the sandwich ingredients. Though I was hungry (seriously hungry!) I was unable to finish my sandwich, even after scraping off the corn.

But another recipe from E-mealz, called Greek Style Skillet Supper, was an unconditional win. It incorporated several ingredients that I’d never put together on a whim, but combined into a savory, interesting dish that’s one of my current favorites. This cheap and easy dish combines ground beef, onion, oregano, cinnamon (yes, cinnamon!), garlic, beef broth, tomato paste, penne pasta, spinach and feta cheese into a meal which is very easy to overeat.

Sometimes you can look at a recipe and have an idea how it will taste when it’s all put together, like the recipe for Thai Peanut Noodles that came recently from E-mealz: Angel hair pasta, peanut butter, lime juice, soy sauce, red pepper flakes, chicken broth, chopped/cooked chicken breast, and chopped almonds combine to create an appealing, protein-rich main dish that satisfies sweet and savory cravings alike.

Or consider this recipe for Sausage and Lentil Stew from Stephanie O’Dea’s blog, A Year of Slow Cooking. I can skim through this ingredient list and actually taste how this stew will turn out, and know that we will enjoy it.

Sometimes a recipe is a gamble, nothing more and nothing less, and we just have to cast the dice and see what happens.

I guess the best practise is to try to know each ingredient individually, so that we can accurately imagine it in partnership with other ingredients in the recipe. And, of course, to listen to our gut instincts even when a recipe reads well, but sets our teeth on edge. But even with losses of time and groceries from dinnertime fails, it still pays to take chances now and then–our food world would be awfully small otherwise.

MinuteRant™: Turn off your recirculation feature

October 11th, 2011 by admin

It’s a beautiful, rainy fall day here in East Tennessee, sort of cool-ish, and it drives me up the wall that so many people don’t understand what their “recirc” buttons in their cars do for them.

Lots of people are turning on their windshield defrosters to cope with condensation inside the car on this rainy, somewhat cool day. But if the number of people I see driving around with COMPLETELY fogged-up windows is any indication, very few know how to use their heating/cooling systems in their car properly. It’s dangerous to drive when you can’t see out your windows, people. And if you use your defroster (or heater, or air conditioner) with the recirculate feature enabled, that means your car is only going to pull air from inside the cabin to heat or cool it.

Don’t get me wrong, ‘recirc’ is a great feature when you’re trying to cool off the interior of your car or warm it up quicker. But please realize that when you recirculate the air in the car’s interior many times, you’re also recirculating moisture from your breath, from your sweat, and from your rain-dampened hair. So that super-humidified air, while lovely for plants and for your skin, makes for poor driving visibility, vis-á-vis those foggy windows.

So if you have a button on your car’s dashboard that has a little arrow chasing itself around in a circle, please make sure that button is NOT in use all the time. K, thanx, bai.

Burning the split-pea-with-ham soup

October 2nd, 2011 by admin

I like to make food from scratch, partially to prove to myself that I can, but mostly to save some money. Today I put a pot of split pea soup on the stove, with garlic and onions and carrots and a wonderful, meaty hambone that I’d saved from our Christmas ham last year. Mmmm.

This should have resulted in enough satisfying food to last us for at least two meals. And because the ham bone was essentially ‘free’, the split peas were purchased on clearance for 50 cents a pound, and carrots, garlic and onions are not terrifically expensive, this really should have been a mondo-affordable meal.

I had everything set up and simmering, and because I wanted it to reduce a little bit, I turned the burner up to medium instead of medium low; I then proceeded to the Batcave, where I became engrossed in Facebook. Bad idea. The peas were already cooked by then, and everything was starting to thicken more than I thought, so without me there to stir it every several minutes a layer of ham chunks and peas scorched themselves to the bottom of the stockpot.

Several minutes later I was pulled out of my computer stupor by the barest whiff of burning; I hurried out to the kitchen, and (gasp) saw wisps of smoke (not steam) spiraling up from the surface of the soup. I hurriedly ladled off the bulk of the soup, and hoped I was in time–there was only a seven-inch scorched spot in the middle of the pot–but it was too late. Even though it looked wonderful, the soup was permeated with burnt-ness. Sigh.

Like the kids on Hell’s Kitchen, I tried to brazen it out; I hoped it wasn’t really that badly burnt. Unable to tell if the burning smell was from my nose or from my tongue, I tried it out on the Pumpkin, but after a few spoonfuls I had to admit that it tasted primarily of scorch.

“It’s got a smoky flavor,” The Pumpkin said thoughtfully, after rolling a spoonful around on his tongue. He’s such a good guy.

I replied, “Yeah, it’s smoky, but it’s smoky in a bad way, like ‘Who’s burning leftover construction material scraps in their leaf pile?’, not a good smoky-ham taste.” So I devoted a half-hour to flushing this big batch of soup down the toilet. It takes quite a while to flush three quarts of soup, ya know.

It’s probably not as big a deal as I make it out to be. After all, what was I out, maybe two or three bucks for the electricity for the range, and the veggies, and the 50-cent-bag of split peas? My time is another matter, but I’m incapable of calculating the cost of that, so I won’t include it.

I think the greatest disappointment is not having two wonderful meals of soup, from that beautiful, meaty ham bone, and the loss of having two meals which cost us next-to-nothing. When you’ve been working really hard to be frugal and save money, one of the things that can make you feel cosseted and indulged is a tasty meal, and if you make a lot of food from scratch, it’s possible to have wonderfully satisfying, nutritious sustenance for very little. So the more food I can make for the least money, the greater ‘kick’ I get.

Except this time, I gave myself a kick right in the seat of my pants. Dangit.

Jenga with recyclables

September 16th, 2011 by kara

So the Pumpkin and I recycle. Not as much as we could do, but we make an effort to rinse and flatten containers, disassemble boxes and put the newspapers into a paper bag for easier handling.

Only problem is, both of us are equally lazy with regard to putting the recyclables down into their respective bins in the garage, and then getting the bins to the recycling center when they’re full.

It was so easy and convenient to recycle in Saline. The city provided recycling service along with garbage pickup, and it wasn’t even necessary to sort the recyclables! You just put your appropriately-managed recycling materials in a bin at the curb along with your trash can. If there was something in the bin that wasn’t cleaned properly, or if the materials weren’t all truly recyclable, they’d leave the bin and its contents, along with a big sticky note explaining why you sucked at recycling. Sufficiently chastened, you would never make that mistake again.

Here in Knoxville, we could have that same convenience, but we’d have to pay for it. I hate having to pay for something that I think should be available as a given service, so instead of subscribing to our waste hauler for recyclable pickup, we maintain our own bins and take a trip to the recycling center every so often.

Everybody’s got different ways of handling their recyclables. We used to have a really cool basket which was just the right size for stacking newspapers and other paper in; this basket had a big brother which was the ideal size for about a week’s worth of glass/metal/plastic recyclables. These baskets sat on the kitchen floor by the trash can, and they worked beautifully for us for a long time.

Even though we rinsed everything really thoroughly (don’t worry, we don’t waste a lot of water rinsing recyclables–used dishwater performs this task remarkably well), Belle and the other fuzzies would occasionally dip into the recycling basket and pull out the plastic cap from the half & half bottle, and chew on it.

We didn’t think this was a problem, as our dogs didn’t often go to the recyclable basket to find a new “toy.” But when we discovered Belle had swallowed a chunk of half & half lid that was larger than a quarter in diameter and jagged on the edges, we stopped using the basket. It wasn’t secure, and it was just too big a pain in the pants to put it up out of their reach when we left the house.

‘No problem,’ I thought. ‘We’ll just have to make a daily trip down to the garage with the recycling stuff. It will force us to be more conscious of the recyclables.’  Yeah. No, that’s not what happened.

Instead of taking one or two pieces of plastic down each day, Rick and I fell into the habit of rinsing and squashing the containers, and then leaving them sitting on top of the toaster oven. It’s kind of like playing a sadistic version of Jenga, in which the base is the slightly-uneven top of the toaster oven, and instead of smoothly-machined pieces of tree, the playing pieces are irregularly-shaped and made of lots of different materials.

The challenge begins when every square centimeter of the toaster oven is occupied with a recyclable. Then we must begin to carefully stack squashed two-liter soda bottles and rinsed Castlebury’s chili cans on top of the initial layer. The game continues until it’s no longer possible to add another piece to the pile.

The loser of this game is the one who contributes the ‘toppling piece’, the straw (or gallon milk jug) that breaks the toaster oven’s back. The loser must then gather up all the recyclables and take them to the garage to then be Jenga’d up on the bins down there, a punishment worse than death.

(Didja see that? I just made a word! Or maybe not, because Jenga’s been around for a while. I would imagine lots of families Jenga many things in their everyday lives, from library books to unsorted junk mail to cookware, etc.)

Why is it so hard for us to make a daily trip to the garage to take the recycling down, and then to make the trip to the recycling center every couple weeks? The garage isn’t very far (unless my knees are hurting, then going up & down two flights of stairs makes it seem like it’s miles away), and it’s not a scary or threatening place, unless the recyclables are really out-of-hand–then one might be caught in an avalanche, but it would be an avalanche of plastics, because we put metal and glass in the lower bins. So that threat is disproved quite easily, too.

And yes, now that I’m working on Saturdays, that throws a monkey wrench into the weekly chore schedule. Saturdays used to be our marketing/library/recyclable/housework day, and it just lacks a lot of appeal when there’s only one of us working on that stuff then.

We might have to bring the pretty baskets back up out of the garage; maybe if we can keep the kitchen table cleared off, that will make it easier to put them up while the dogs are unsupervised. Maybe it would even be worth paying the extra money to have our garbage company pick up recycling materials…nah, that’s definitely not the solution.

I’m not alone in living with Sjögren’s Syndrome

September 2nd, 2011 by admin

Last February I was diagnosed as having Sjögren’s Syndrome, a chronic autoimmune disease in which my body attacks moisture-producing tissues like tear ducts and saliva glands. Hadn’t ever heard of this disease before then, but I guess I wouldn’t have without knowing someone who has it–I’m not a doctor, after all. Don’t even play one on TV.

Since my diagnosis however, I’ve come upon some more people who have it. This feels kind of like when you finally choose your new car, feeling as though it’s unique and wonderful, and then you begin noticing many more of the same car on the road, in the neighborhood/parking lot/drive through. My friend Dannette, who lives in Arizona, knows someone who was just diagnosed with Sjögren’s a few months ago, and now of course, there’s tennis player Venus Williams, who was diagnosed just two weeks ago. I’m not feeling very special or unique anymore, dangit (pouting). Since better than 4,000,000 Americans have Sjögren’s, I guess I was never alone to begin with. It’s one of the most-common autoimmune disorders, and 9 of 10 patients are women.

Sjögren’s causes a collection of symptoms which include dry eyes and mouth, and can cause muscle and joint pain and lack of stamina and energy (which Venus and I both share, so I feel closer to her already!), as well as damage to the tissues of the eyes, mouth, stomach/digestive tract, kidneys, central nervous system and lungs.

Due to a shortage of saliva Sjögren’s patients will have difficulty chewing and swallowing at times, and low saliva production also makes dental problems commonplace. We’re also more susceptible to lymphoma. Also, a piece of dust or a hair in our eye isn’t just a temporary discomfort; tears help flush impurities and foreign objects out of the eye, helping prevent injury and infection, but Sjögren’s patients don’t have that built-in ‘flushing’ capability anymore. So a piece of dust may carry bacteria into our eye, and scratch the cornea when our eyelids scrape it back and forth over the surface. I carry eye drops, mouth spray and now nasal saline spray to mitigate the symptoms.

It’s not unusual for a Sjögren’s diagnosis to take 6 1/2 to 7 years, because the individual symptoms are easily mistaken for something else, like asthma. In fact, Venus had been misdiagnosed four years ago with exercise-induced asthma, but the asthma medications never helped her. It was only after unsuccessful treatment for asthma, combined with her enlarged and painful joints and extreme fatigue, that her doctors put them all together and discovered she has Sjögren’s.

I have no idea how long I’ve had Sjögren’s, and I’ll probably never know. I’ve been hurting and dragging my sorry, tired ass around for years, but my diagnosis back in February was the result of a very pointed problem with my parotid salivary glands: They were extraordinarily painful, and so swollen that I looked like a short John Goodman in drag.

If I saw something I wanted to eat, my parotid salivary glands would of course try to do their job and flood my mouth with saliva–and that resulted in stinging, twinge-y pain, truly a reverse-Pavlovian experience. Having had a gallstone before, I compared the sensation to the pain of a gallstone attack and guessed that I had ‘stones’ which would occasionally obstruct my salivary glands. Granted, this twinge was on either side of my jawbone, and the other was in my gut, but somehow it felt similar.

I couldn’t have imagined the pain and inflammation was due to my own white blood cells trying to kill my salivary glands.

I visited my regular doctor, who saw my unusually-square jaw and said “Oh my gosh, I’m going to get you to a specialist TODAY.” That was on a Friday, but amazingly by the end of the day I was being seen by an ear, nose & throat doctor who worked me in to her busy schedule.

She examined my mouth and said my parotid salivary glands were not obstructed, nor were they oozing pus as they would if infected (thank GOD and all that is holy). On the medical history form I’d filled out, she noted that I’m hypothyroid due to Hashimoto’s Syndrome, which is an autoimmune malfunction where my body attacked and killed my thyroid. She said she was ordering blood draws to check for Sjögren’s Syndrome, another autoimmune malfunction, and sent me home with prednisone and an antibiotic, just in case.

I went Monday for the blood draw. The lab tech, a kindly woman who’s drawn blood for me many times before to monitor my thyroid and cholesterol levels, had a bit of trouble entering the test coding; when she saw what the draw was for, she clucked and told me she was sorry. At that point, I was a bit dismayed at her reaction because I didn’t feel critically ill and had no idea what a diagnosis of Sjögren’s would mean.

Went back to see the ENT with my Pumpkin in tow, and we laughed and joked while waiting for her in the examining room. Yes, my blood showed the antigens for Sjögren’s, and also for rheumatoid arthritis. No ‘cure’ for it, just treatment of the symptoms and therapy to mitigate the disease’s effects, which of course included prednisone.

It was truly and actually a relief to know that there was something truly wrong with me. I’ve been feeling like walking garbage for a long time now, but each of my symptoms seemed commonplace and explainable by everyday causes. I attributed all my aches and pains to osteoarthritis, and my dry mouth to my relatively new job in a call center–essentially, I talked for eight hours a day, so whose mouth wouldn’t be dry?

During her Good Morning America interview a couple days ago, Venus also said that after suffering for so long and not knowing why, her Sjögren’s diagnosis was a relief. Now she can concentrate on treating her Sjögren’s effectively, and recovering from it as much as possible. I can identify with that relief.

But what then? Because now that we know what we have, we can rest easy knowing that we’re not crazy or hypochondriac; medicines can help us manage the symptoms, and we know that there will be times when we can’t do the things we used to do.

But the fact remains that we’re no longer functioning the way we used to, that there IS something wrong with us. With that knowledge comes an consciousness that we are finite and mortal and when that realization finally hits, it is a sobering, sad day–or at least, it was for me. I don’t know how Venus feels, but I can imagine that the pride and confidence she once had in her amazing body and athletic talent has taken a blow.

Sjögren’s doesn’t mean that we can’t be physically fit and happy and healthy otherwise, but it means that we will have to change some behaviors and ideas to accommodate our new physical status. I hate to use the phrase “suffering” to describe my experience because it seems lurid and hyperbolic, but that’s what’s happening: I am ‘suffering’ with this syndrome, and so is Venus, and so are the other 4,000,000 of us in the U.S. So in order to thrive again, we must learn to adapt.

Crispy elastic and other secrets of the underwear drawer

August 5th, 2011 by kara

For quite a while, I’ve acknowledged that my biggest housekeeping hangup is hanging on to too much “stuff.”  “Stuff” can be anything from cookware, kitchen gear in general, linens (towels, sheets, blankets, pillows), note pads (I’m staring right now at a paper grocery bag full of legal-size notepads and notebooks, which is sitting on the floor next to my desk simply because I’ve no other place to put it) and clothes.

As I learned while we were selling our first two homes, it’s astonishingly easier to keep the place clean and tidy when there is a place for everything, and everything is in its place. In order to display our houses to their best advantage during the tense process of showing, the Pumpkin and I actually rented storage to squirrel away excess furniture, file boxes filled with I-don’t-know-what-all, and extra “stuff” that we weren’t using at the time.

When we first met both the Pumpkin and I were budding hoarders; that knowledge should give you an idea of the contents of most of those exiled boxes and bins. Cleaning the house became almost effortless, when it wasn’t fraught with moving boxes and piles of “stuff” from one place to another.

While we were selling, we had to be ready to show the house at any given point. That meant that every morning before we went to work, the bed was made, all dishes were either in the dishwasher ready to run or in the process of running, and I had at least traveled through the house to see if it was necessary to vacuum quickly. Nothing smelly was left in the garbage and bathrooms were always spotless. There were a few times when I’d cooked something odorous (Spanish rice, anybody?) or only had enough time to jerk the bedspread up over the unmade bedding before we were out the door, but for the most part the house was immaculate.

It sounds fussy and stressful (and it truly IS stressful to worry about what strangers think of your housekeeping skills, let alone the assumptions they’re making about YOU as they tour your personal refuge from the world), but because we weren’t wrestling with extra detritus from our combined previous lives it wasn’t as tough as I imagined it.

In fact, I kind of enjoyed it. Wow, I really DID enjoy coming home to a clean house. Why was that so enjoyable for me? A heroine of mine, Cheryl Mendelson, explains it beautifully in her book Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House: She tells us that home is where we go to heal and restore ourselves from the stressful outside world, and that in order to truly relax and recover there, we need to make home a clean, comfortable, healthy place that doesn’t challenge us physiologically or psychologically.

Think about it: You’ve just come home from a stressful day at work or school, you’ve fought to get through horrendous traffic and worked to keep your job, all the while making sure you don’t lose your keys or allow someone to steal your wallet. When you arrive home, you don’t want to encounter additional challenges, like having to wash dishes before you make dinner, or even worse, not having anything to fix for dinner. This is why it’s so enjoyable to have a tidy, orderly household.

(At this point in your reading, you’re rolling your eyes and saying ‘Yes, yes, Kara, I understand that this is important, but what’s it got to DO with underwear?’ Because after all, it was the ‘underwear’ that really pulled you in to this blog entry. It’s relevant, stick with me for just a little bit longer, please.)

So, tidy house equals dreamy housekeeping due to lack of excess “stuff” sitting around. Even relaxing was easier, because I could plop my lazy bottom on the sofa with a book, and not feel as though there was something, somewhere that I should be cleaning or organizing. And then when we’d move into the new next house, cleaning prior to moving in was almost effortless. It’s so much easier to wash walls and scrub floors when there’s no furniture or “stuff” in the way! We’d clean, and then bring all our “stuff” home to settle in and relax. BIG sigh. Ease of cleaning was then over, thanks to the reappearance of our “stuff.”

The Pumpkin and I have moved together several times, and we’ve learned a great deal about doing that efficiently. We’ve learned many useful things, such as ‘the larger the box, the fewer books you should put into it,’ and ‘just because we’ve moved it twice before, doesn’t mean we should move it again.’

One big thing we’ve learned is how to get rid of extra “stuff” and we’re doing a really good job at winnowing out the chaff. Now all our “stuff” is with us here in the Knoxville house; once we opened boxes which were moved several times without being unpacked, it was easy to make the decision to toss/shred/recycle many things. But now we’ve progressed to the point that the chaff is not immediately recognizable. It’s a little tougher to sort through what’s remaining, to discard what we don’t use and leave only the essential items for which we have storage space. We haven’t made a whole lot of progress in the past few months.

Last week, however, I took a HUGE step forward for me: I purged my underwear drawer.

Recently I watched my Pumpkin go through HIS underwear drawer. It was pretty straightforward: He has undershirts and briefs, and he got rid of the too-short, shrunken, or discoloured shirts.  The underpants were a tad more complicated. He found briefs he didn’t wear because they were the wrong size or oddly cut, so he got rid of anything that was uncomfortable or weird, leaving only the comfortable unders of which he can grab a pair without any in-depth analysis.

His heroic action inspired me to take a look at my own delicates. My experience was a tad more involved than his, though. You wouldn’t think that panties take up that much room, but it’s not just panties lurking in the back of the drawer. Women’s underwear is more…complex…and expensive than men’s underwear. It takes up more room. For many years I’ve had to fold my panties and bras carefully, and then use a combination of violence and agility to cram them into the drawer so that they all fit. And then for the next couple of days after laundry day, it’s a challenge to get one fresh set of underwear without letting the rest of it burst from its confinement.

“That’s just stupid,” I thought to myself. “We should never have so much underwear that there’s no room to put it all away.” After all, how many pairs of panties and how many bras do I need? Ideally, I should be able to get by with seven of each; I do laundry once a week, and shouldn’t really need many more than a week’s supply. I began digging through my underwear drawer, and found that I had several pairs of panties which I’d bought and then discovered they didn’t fit quite “right,” so I never wore them again. I also found old, old panties that I was ashamed to wear (even though no one SEES them) because they were faded or otherwise, and the elastic on those was so exhausted it CRUNCHED when I stretched them experimentally. Note: Elastic should never be crispy enough to crunch when it’s tested.

I also renewed my acquaintance with several “foundation” pieces, i.e. torturous contraptions purchased for ‘special occasions’ and worn only once, but which were hellishly expensive. As expensive as they were, I couldn’t throw those away, no matter how uncomfortable they are or how unlikely it is that I’ll ever wear them (willingly) again. Then there were slips, chemises, and other types of smoothing garments which guarantee modesty and make skirts and dresses skim gracefully over the lumps and bumps of the body. (Why has it fallen out of fashion to wear a slip?! This is something that can only HELP you, ladies! We don’t really want to be able to see the outlines of your bodies when you walk between us and the light! And it’s NOT pretty when you stand up, and your skirt gets trapped between your thighs. Some things really should be kept a secret!)

Well, I finally bit the bullet and tossed everything I wasn’t wearing. All the old panties with the crispy elastic, all the ‘perfectly good’ panties which just didn’t fit right, all the jog bras which are just a smidge too small or a tad too big (and therefore unable to perform adequately), exhausted slips and the sadistic, underwired body armor that cost altogether too much, all went into the trash.

This does still leave me with a sizable amount of underwear. I still have underwire bras that I wear when I’m pretending to be a grown up, and better than three times that quantity of comfy jog bras, as well as enough panties to last me for a three-week vacation. But now that I’ve purged all the wrong-sized, worn-out, unused pieces, I actually have enough room to put everything away in one drawer without resorting to sleight-of-hand to close the drawer. It’s a small accomplishment in terms of space, but it’s a huge shift in my thinking, and I’m really enjoying how easy it is to put the laundry away now.

All I have to do to finish up our home now is apply this same thinking to the bedding, cookware, furniture…

Pressing the bedsheets

June 24th, 2011 by kara

I just pressed a flat sheet and two pillowcases. But before you pooh-pooh me as an overachiever, please know that a.) being an overachiever is NOT something that anyone would accuse me of being, and b.) since I’ve had these sheets for years and years, and have never pressed them before, this pressing was quite overdue.

Ironing seems to be one of the lost arts, set aside in the modern hubbub of full-time employment and extracurricular activities. It may not even be truly vital anymore, with the advent of wash-and-wear fabrics and commercially-produced wrinkle-release sprays, but it certainly can put a very tidy finish on something like a 100% cotton flat sheet. Not necessary, but very enjoyable. It’s that added element of enjoyment that tops off the benefits of being ‘home.’

It’s a well-known fact that a clean, orderly home is a happy one. Cheryl Mendelson explains why having a tidy home is necessary in one of my favorite books, Home Comforts: The Art & Science of Keeping House. I’ll be brief in paraphrasing Mendelson, but her explanation is well-worth the time it takes to read the introduction and skim through the rest of her book.

Mendelson explains that no matter what our individual housekeeping tastes or techniques may be, a clean and orderly home offers fewer microbes, contaminates and hazards to our health than a messy one, and that our home is where we relax and recharge from our forays into the messy, hazardous world on the other side of our threshold. So in order for us to be as content and healthy as possible, it’s vital that home be a clean and orderly environment which soothes us mentally as well as physically, posing us no additional challenges like an obstacle course of stacked library books, dust mites procreating with abandon in the bedroom, or a search-and-rescue mission for the car keys. In a clean and comfortable atmosphere, we can relax and recuperate from the hazardous outside world to the fullest.

But housekeeping takes time, even with conveniences like precooked meals and vacuum cleaners and disposable dusters; being employed outside the home full-time, we have to pick and choose the elements of housekeeping that are necessary to our health and well being. We may not be able to damp-dust the walls and mopboards every week, but occasional vacuuming of pollen and dirt from the carpets is vital. Likewise, it’s only necessary that the bedding be clean, it’s not really essential that the hems  of the sheets be pressed flat.

But having them pressed flat after many years of bare-essential laundering makes me feel better. It’s very gratifying to spray water on a clean sheet, heat the iron up to the linen setting, and then enjoy the tactile experience of smoothing wrinkles from the clean fabric while the scent of heated cotton rises with the steam. Folding that freshly-pressed sheet is also a joy, being able to match all four corners and edges of the sheet and then hearing the weighty, smooth mass of the folds smacking lightly together as I reduce it in size appeals to my sense of order. Finally, it’s done the right way.

When I was very young, my parents suffered from cardio-pulmonary disorders, and it was essential to their health that the house be as clean as possible, so I learned how to clean extremely thoroughly and spent a lot of time and effort doing that on a regular basis. When I left home and began caring for my own dwelling, I rebelled against such stringent measures, and as a result my home became quite filthy. As home became more and more crowded, untidy and dusty, I became more and more unhappy there. Somehow, I found Mendelson’s book, and she explained why I was unhappy in my dirty home–I was scuttling my own nest. The lightbulb lit up, the pieces clicked, and I began to keep house for myself.  Home Comforts is a great book, a wonderful guide for those learning how to do it all for the first time, and an invaluable resource for seasoned pros needing to refresh their memories.

So don’t hate me for pressing my flat sheet. Instead, find your own metaphorical flat sheet, and go press it. You’ll feel lots better.

MinuteRant: Smokers and public airspace

June 12th, 2011 by kara

I really have got to learn how to calm down and ‘let things go’ but this is something that’s been bugging me for quite a while: Smokers who insist in burning their cigarettes in public airspaces.

I understand that it’s an addiction, and that you need to do it regularly. HOWEVER. Must you smoke immediately outside the ONE DOOR at work through which I must enter? Prevailing winds carry the smoke downwind of the door, so that I have to begin to hold my breath when I’m still 30 feet away from scanning my badge and closing the door on all that smoke. NOT pleasant. And it’s not like I can choose to use another entrance, because trust me, if I could, I would do just that.

And when you’re smoking in your car, can you PLEASE keep the smoke inside your vehicle with YOU? I truly do not want to smell the byproduct of your addiction in my own vehicle, so keep it to yourself. It kills me to see someone light a cigarette, and then dangle the lit cigarette out the damned window, without actually drawing on it. The Pumpkin and I were out doing some errands today, and we saw a woman in her car at a stop light sticking her left hand with a lit cigarette in it out the window, for the entire span of the traffic light. IT’S NOT INCENSE, YOU’RE NOT IMPROVING THE AMBIANCE OF THE ENVIRONMENT AROUND YOU, AND IF YOU WANTED THAT DAMNED THING ENOUGH TO LIGHT IT, THEN STICK IT IN YOUR OWN FACE AND SMOKE THE BLASTED THING. Preferably with your car windows rolled up.

It’s not as big a deal to me as it used to be, now that I have air conditioning in my vehicle and can roll up my own windows, but it still ticks me off when smokers insist on dangling their smouldering cancer sticks out their car windows. If you hate to keep it inside the car with you, what makes you think the rest of us will accept having it out in public with US?

Oh, and don’t throw your damned cigarette butts out the window, either–they take considerably more time to rot and return to nature than something like a banana skin and will stick around considerably longer, so STOP LITTERING.  Endrant.