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My crowded recipe box

Saturday, 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, DivasCanCook.com!)

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.

Gut instinct and gambling on new recipes

Tuesday, 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.

Jenga with recyclables

Friday, 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.

Crispy elastic and other secrets of the underwear drawer

Friday, 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

Friday, 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

Sunday, 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.

Women and men and preconceived sexual role traits

Thursday, April 14th, 2011 by kara

In the course of my new job, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about traditional societal sexual roles and how they can colour our expectations of the people we meet on a daily basis.

In one instance, my co-workers and I were talking about women in nontraditional fields of employment. One co-worker is ex-military, and explained why he would be reluctant to have females serving alongside him on the battlefield. He talked about how difficult it would be for him to ‘allow’ a woman to be in harm’s way, because he has been programmed since childhood to protect the ‘weaker sex.’

He said that he would be distracted with worry over the fate of the delicate flower next to him in the trench, and that would probably cause him to fight less effectively.

I said “Wait a minute–if there’s a woman next to you, she’s undergone the same combat training as you, has the same weapons and the same capability to defend herself and cause the enemy serious harm as you do.  She also has the same equal responsibility to look after YOU that you have to look after her. And you’re telling me that you can’t overcome the instinct to protect her? You can’t treat her as a teammate and let her do her job, while you do yours?”

He said that no, he couldn’t, at which I replied something rude about evolution evidently not catching him up, and him thinking with his male sexual organ instead of his brain.

Another day, a coworker and I were talking about love interests and dating. She commented that men just naturally have a wandering eye, and that because of their penis and men-ness, are expected to wander. “They can’t help it, they’re men,” she said, shrugging. “That’s what men do, right?”

And again, I said “Wait a minute. Just because they’re men, they’re expected to be unfaithful, and they’re held to a different standard of fidelity?! That’s HOOEY.”  Except I didn’t say ‘hooey’, I said something else much more descriptive.

This co-worker is an intelligent woman, much younger than I, an attractive, engaging woman who I thought had a higher level of self-esteem. I was saddened and shocked to find that she truly believes these antiquated stereotypes of expected behavior for men.

Come ON, people!  Just because men have penises, that doesn’t mean they have no self-control! Let’s all agree that men are rational, evolved beings who do not need to think with their hoglegs, and who can overcome the programmed knee-jerk reaction to ‘save the wimmenfolk’ and then jump their bones.

Although…if one IS a man, arguing that one “just can’t help it, I’m a man, you know what animals we can become” could be a very handy cop-out. How many will take that easy way out, even though they know it isn’t true?

Knife sharpening kit saves money, makes cutting safer

Friday, April 8th, 2011 by kara

My trusty old Olfa Touch-Knife, plus brand new edge, courtesy of the Spyderco Triangle Sharpmaker 204.

So I came down with some type of lung crud and can’t muster up a lot of energy to do anything today, but I did manage to get my hair-cutting shears sharpened in preparation for our fuzzies’ weekly grooming session. Everyone will get the hairs between their toes trimmed THIS SUNDAY, whether they like it or whether they don’t, so I got out my Spyderco Triangle Sharpmaker 204 Kit and went to town.

And as long as I had the kit out, I decided I might as well sharpen EVERYDARNTHING in the drawer. Now our chef’s knives, Grandpa Plagens’ meat carving knife, all the paring knives, and even the fershlugginer vegetable peelers are all sharp and fresh! Joy!

Everybody who uses a cutting implement of any type will tell you that a sharp knife is easier and safer to use, because you don’t have to apply as much force to cut successfully, so there’s less risk of fumbling the cutting implement and losing control–along with a limb or eye or something else equally useful. Sharpening is something that should be done on a regular basis.

In the beginning I didn’t sharpen my knives regularly, though. Sharpening knives used to be very intimidating for me, because I didn’t want to do it wrong and ruin the edge.  Yes, I knew that if I screwed it up, I could always take it to a professional and have a little snack of crow while they fix my mistake. But you gotta remember that I don’t like to screw up in the first place. Hence, I never tried.

Plus, I hate to pay someone to do something for me that I should be able to do myself. Having the kit at home means that I can (and should) sharpen my knives myself on a regular basis. Along with saving money on medical care for accidental knife wounds, this saves money by letting me keep the very good quality knives I’ve selected and not purchasing new ones to replace them merely because they’re dull.

I’ve really got no excuse for avoiding this task. I’ve got that amazing sharpening kit, sitting right at the back of the knife drawer, of which I can’t speak highly enough. The Spyderco Triangle Sharpmaker base holds two brass safety rods and the triangular ceramic sharpening rods at exactly the correct angle (35 or 40 or 12 degrees, depending on what you’re sharpening) and it comes with a comprehensive manual and even a DVD for Pete’s sake. One would truly have to have a glass eye and wooden banana (in the words of my sainted mother, Norma) to screw it up with the 204.

And you can use the kit to sharpen just about anything that has an edge or functional sharp point. Have a wood plane that needs some refining?  You can use the 204 to sharpen that blade–just be careful, because the brass safety rods don’t deploy for the configuration to sharpen a plane blade. Does your ice pick, awl, or upholstery needle need a new point? It’ll do that as well, along with thinning and pinking shears, and my little Olfa Touch-Knife craft cutter. Honestly, I think I bought that darn thing when I was in high school, and I still have it–I just use the 204 to put the edge back on it every once in a while, and it’s ready to help me clip coupons every Sunday.

Plus, it is such a joy to use a sharp implement. Makes me want to go back out to the kitchen and cut cauliflower and broccoli and cucumbers for broccoli salad, and maybe find some fish to fillet, maybe a roast to trim. Eh, maybe after my nap.

My body betrays me

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011 by kara

For the most part I’ve always considered myself healthy. Yeah, I have exercise-induced asthma, but I’ve overcome that by avoiding exercise (grinning). I have a sensitive stomach, but everybody in my family is that way, so I just use a lot of over-the-counter antacids and anti-diarrhea medications, and don’t eat the day before a really important or stressful event.

I am usually in pain somewhere on my body, but I’ve always attributed that to my foolish youthful years when I engaged in behaviors like body building (trust me, ladies, even if you can leg press 450 pounds, that doesn’t mean you SHOULD), mountain biking (my friend Dawnn went with me off-road ONCE and refused to go again, stating that I was ‘crazy’) and firefighting (to this day, all I have to do is press on my right shoulder and I remember so clearly helping to lift a grass rig pump back onto a truck and feeling something ‘rip’ inside it). That shite all catches up with you eventually, so try to take care of yourselves, Dear Readers.

And if you look back a few posts, you can read about how I tend to faint pretty easily in the face of bodily insult, even though I don’t consider myself to be a ‘tightly-laced’ and fragile woman.  I’m hypothyroid due to an autoimmune malfunction, and just recently I was diagnosed with Sjögren’s Syndrome, another autoimmune disease in which my immune system attacks my moisture-producing glands.  It causes dry eyes, dry mouth, dry you-know, and general low-level misery.

Oh, and I’m also extraordinarily lazy and overweight, both of which may be either causal or resultant, depending on what type of mood I’m in that day. And don’t forget my history of depression, and a bunch of other stuff that has happened along the way: Carpal tunnel syndrome, gallstones, tonsillectomy…you get the picture.

I’ve always just dealt with things that come up by either a.) Ignoring them, or b.) Taking massive doses of over-the-counter meds to alleviate symptoms and making token efforts to improve my general health. There have been many bottles of vitamins purchased and discarded years after their expiration dates, having languished unswallered in the fridge.

Huh. (Counting on fingers, moving to toes.) All things considered…I guess I’m not very healthy. But I’ve never thought of myself as sickly.  At least, not until the Sjögren’s diagnosis.

It feels like this all started back in December, when I started bloating after I ate anything. Remember that I’ve had periodic instances of really bad stomach pain before, but a course of OTC omeprazole usually takes care of that. But the bloating…mygod. It’s difficult to BREATHE when one’s stomach is distended fully by whatever’s fermenting in there. My regular doctor advised cutting out dairy to see if the bloating was caused by lactose intolerance, but that didn’t make much difference, so I went to see a gastroenterologist.

Way back when I was 11 years old, I had really bad stomach pains which my doctor diagnosed by treatment–he said I had gastric ulcers, handed me a little bottle of Maalox and told me to drink some whenever my stomach hurt. At my first appointment in December 2010, my new gastroenterologist told me that this is not a valid method of diagnosis, that only an endoscopy can confirm stomach ulcers.  Okay, it’s not my fault that my childhood doctor didn’t scope me 31 YEARS AGO, and that I was not bright enough to insist on a visual examination of my digestive tract to confirm the diagnosis, so let’s move on to the present day, shall we? My new gastrodoc said we’d start with a nuclear study of my gastric emptying function, and if nothing was wrong there, we’d move on to scoping. That test was done mid-January, and showed nothing out-of-the ordinary.

In the meantime, I’d been having twinges, like little excruciating muscle cramps, in my parotid salivary glands. Whenever I’d see something appealing, I’d salivate, and then I’d feel sharp pain in my saliva glands. Weird, kind of reverse Pavlovian response. I pretty much lost my appetite due to the pain, but my saliva glands kept swelling and I kept chewing a lot of gum at work, because my mouth was so dry. (But don’t worry, Gentle Readers, I found my appetite again. Dangit.) I suspected a stone or stones blocking my salivary glands, kind of like what happened in my gall bladder, but on a much smaller scale. I didn’t put the swollen parotid glands together with dry mouth, dry eyes, fatigue, and all-over general pain.

On February 17, my glands were so swollen that I couldn’t see my earlobes when I looked in the mirror. I had a big square-jawed face like John Goodman, and wearing my headset at work or even turning my head hurt enough to make me pout. I visited my regular doctor the next day (Friday), and she somehow got me an appointment that same afternoon with an ear, nose and throat specialist, who picked out my type of thyroiditis and guessed Sjögren’s. Blood testing that following Monday confirmed I had both the Sjögren’s and rheumatoid antibodies.

So there actually IS something wrong with me. Oddly enough, hearing this diagnosis didn’t bring me down; it was actually a relief to know there was a reason I had been feeling so universally crappy.  My ENT put me on prednisone to manage the symptoms and I had my first appointment with a rheumatoid specialist on March 30.  Learned a lot about Sjögren’s and how I can get rid of the prednisone eventually, using other medications to manage the troubling symptoms.

My gut issues may or may not be related to Sjögren’s, but I’m addressing those as well.  Colonoscopy and endoscopy are scheduled for tomorrow (I’m making light of it by saying it’ll be like when they dug the Chunnel, because they’ll meet in my middle) so hopefully my gastrodoc will find out what mutant goodness resides there.

There is no cure for Sjögren’s Syndrome, but I can’t picture it changing my life very much. After all, I’m not a competitive sportsman or working as a volunteer firefighter anymore, so I don’t have to have a tremendous amount of stamina or physical capability. (I am very glad, however, that I got my eyes LASEK’ed back in 2007, because I probably wouldn’t have qualified for the surgery now with decreased tear production.)

It’s just really…disappointing, for lack of a better term, to find out that I have this weakness. It feels like my body has betrayed me. I don’t trust it anymore, especially now that I know there’s actually something wrong, and every little twinge, ache or oddity I experience is now suspect. Last night, for instance, I had a 10 ounce bottle of citrate of magnesium as part of the scope prep, and after I drank it, I had a deep ache in my back, between my shoulder blades. I couldn’t help thinking about how women can experience back pain as a symptom of heart attack, and I wondered if I was having a heart attack (foolish idea!) or the citrate of magnesium was tweaking my kidneys. And DAMMIT, I do NOT want to have to worry about stuff like this.

I guess given how much trashy food, Diet Coke and alcohol I’ve consumed, toxins I’ve exposed myself to, and all the late nights and hard work I’ve inflicted on my body, that it really doesn’t owe me much in terms of fidelity. And I’m trying to eat better and treat it more kindly now, but I guess I should have been doing that all along, eh?

Alternative to no-calorie sweeteners?

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011 by kara

Recently I was diagnosed with Sjögren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder which screws with my moisture-producing glands. Quick-and-dirty version is that my body is trying to kill any tissue in itself that produces saliva or tears or mucus or digestive fluid or the like. More on that particular joy later.

My stomach is also giving me grief, and whether this is related to the Sjögren’s or not, I’ve had to make some changes in my intake. It seems that I can no longer tolerate either the carbonation or the artificial sweeteners in the gallons of Diet Coke or Coke Zero which I used to drink on a daily basis, so I must move to uncarbonated beverages which do not contain aspartame or sucralose. Given that I absolutely detest the “sugar mouth” bad-breath aftertaste I get after drinking beverages sweetened with sugar, I must then move to either an unsweetened beverage, or one that’s sweetened with stevia, which was recommended by my rheumatoid specialist.

Just to add to all this fun, I have also found it necessary to drastically cut down on my caffeine intake so that my freaking heart does not break out of my sternum and gallop off without me. Apparently this must mean my days of being able to chew No-Doz for faster absorption without any undesirable side effects are also behind me. Gettin’ old, fallin’ apart…

The obvious successor to Diet Coke/Coke Zero is iced tea, which is readily available unsweetened commercially, both in fountain and bottled versions; but what is NOT so readily available is DECAFFEINATED unsweetened iced tea. Top that off with the fact that I’ve become a bit of a tea snob, and I’ve become really difficult to quench.

So when I know I’ll be away from home, I provision myself with home-brewed, unsweetened, decaffeinated iced tea.  I’ll fill up my 32-ounce Speedy-Q travel mug with ice, wedge a straw in there, and fill the negative space with freshly-brewed decaff iced tea. I’ll fill up a metal Sigg-like bottle with the same, and the travel mug helps retain the ice cubes, so that during an eight-hour work day I might have to get just a little more ice from the machine at work. I try to avoid the water and ice at work, however, because it tastes to me like PCBs and carcinogens. Yes, I know I’m probably being foolish, but I can’t help the image of dumping industrial waste down my throat, and with the Sjögren’s I’m drinking quite a lot of whatever.

“But Kara,” you ask, “Why don’t you just drink water or fruit juice?” Good question.  I do drink water, and if it’s from my refrigerator (in-line filter + very cold) or from a Brita filter (very well-filtered + very cold) or from a refrigerated bottle, I drink a lot of it. But sometimes you want something with a little more flavor, like Coke Zero…mmm…no.  NO. NOT like Coke Zero.  Like orange juice, or water with lime twist, or…tea. Only problem with fruit juice is that a lot of it isn’t JUICE, it’s high-fructose corn syrup, and why would I want to drink a ‘fruit cocktail-style beverage’ that has more sweetener than a Pop-Tart? I’m trying to take care of my pancreas, here. Adult-onset diabetes is common in my family, and I’m really not wanting to hasten that at all, at all.

So I’m drinking more water, and experimenting now with things like iced mint tea sweetened with honey. I’m still working on where to get stevia in sufficient bulk quantities so we can experiment with mixing up a gallon of Kool-Aid to see if that will work. Yeah, I know, it’s kind of blasphemous to mix a health food with Kool-Aid, but my 12-year-old palate MUST have sweet. I’ll let y’all know how THAT goes.