Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Larder

     'Tis the season to eat up what's in the larder. Today I started planning my garden, and that's got me a tiny bit scared that I won't make it through everything in the pantry and freezer before more vegetables come pouring in.
     I have been doing my best - I hardly every buy vegetables, and I try to make sure that one of the two fruits I eat every day comes from my stash. Here are some rather delicious examples of stored fruits I've eaten recently:
Rum-soaked cherries, served with madeleines. I'm not sure this even counts as fruit, because each cherry is little rum-bomb. But they are delicious.

Blackberry ice cream. Next year I'm procuring more blueberries, and fewer blackberries. Blackberries are tasty, but they are not twice as tasty as blueberries, which is what I require when they cost twice as much. Before I get concerned emails about my dessert intake, I should note that most of the fruit I've frozen goes into breakfast yogurt shakes.
     I have also started to gift jars of pickles to people. I need to eat a quart a month to get through them, and apparently that's too large of a ration for me. Thus, I'm also reconsidering whether to make pickles this year.
     Lastly, let's talk zucchini. Zucchini is delicious when fresh and easy to grow. It is also watery and bland when frozen. Since I freeze a lot of produce, this summer my motto will be, "Less zucchini, more green beans."

Sunday, January 25, 2015

DIY failures

     If you've read my blog for a while, you'll have noticed that I like to make my own food. There isn't a lot that intimidates me: pasta, yogurt, and bread are things I've mastered. However, there are at least two arenas in which I consistently fail: mozzarella cheese and vinegar. The mozzarella cheese (learn how here) is explainable, I think, because I don't have access to milk that has been pasteurized at a high heat.
     The vinegar, though, is more confusing. First I tried making red wine vinegar by a method in which I attracted the requisite bacteria by exposing wine to air. Cheesecloth protected it from fruit flies, but all I got was moldy wine. Then I ordered some wine bacteria online, and introduced that into wine. (The bacteria is called mother of vinegar.) Alas, that also molded, and the mother died. This fall, I read that you could submerge your apple peelings in water and they would become vinegar. I especially liked this idea, because I had peels leftover from apple sauce, and it wouldn't require me to risk much money or time. I'm happy about that low investment, because tonight I remembered to look in my jam pantry. There I found the jars - filled with vinegar, topped with mold, and crawling with fruit flies. I have resigned myself to purchased vinegar from now on.

auf Deutsch

     Suddenly, I am trying to remember and refresh all the German language knowledge that is stored up in my long-term memory. I have six weeks to pull together as much as I can remember, because I'm got a trip to Germany planned and I want to be able to talk to people coherently.
     My uncle and aunt periodically plan these great trips abroad. They rent a large house in a European country, in a region that carefully chosen for its rich history and architecture. Then they invite friends and family to come along. There is time for individual sightseeing trips during the day, and together time during evening meals at home. Andrew and I went on the Spain trip a few years ago and loved it. They're planning another one, but this year I decided it was out of my price range, because I wouldn't be splitting the costs with a partner.
     It got me thinking, though, about how much I value travel and I decided to plan a trip that would fit within my budget. This is my first vacation, without friends or family, that I'll make without Andrew. Lots of firsts after a death hurt a bit more, so I picked a location that I know well and that wouldn't tax my ability to navigate - and that means Germany.
     Thus, I've loaded my podcast player with German podcasts, my blog feed with German blogs, and I'll be watching some German television next month. I have also contemplated talking to the dog and cat solely auf Deutsch. After all, it's not like the cat listens to anything I say anyway.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Sweet potatoes

     I need to get that depressing post off of the top of my blog. Things are looking better: my work trip to Michigan went well, I have a root canal scheduled for next week, and I like the endodontist. For those as clueless as I was a week ago, an endodontist is a dentist who specializes in root canals. I pondered this, as I waited for him in the dental chair. What causes someone to choose that profession? At least when I teach physics (which plenty of people have told me they hate), I know that I like physics, and that I may possibly convince some of my students that physics is fun and/or useful. But if you conduct root canals, one of the most feared dental procedures, you would always be associated with dread and pain. It makes me happy to be a physicist, I guess.
      I have finally found a satisfactory way to eat the box of sweet potatoes resting under my bed. While I like growing sweet potatoes (beautiful, easy to grow, store well during the winter), I'm not always keen to eat them. Mainly, I'm not a big fan of sweet main courses. But in my efforts to work through them, I discovered several new ways to use the: in nachos, in smoothies, and in potato latkes. I'll admit, I made the nachos first, and haven't even tried the other recipes. In fact, I've made the nachos about six times in the last month. That would be shameful, if they weren't so healthy. Sure, I use a ton of cheese, but the chips are sweet potatoes!
     The picture on top has nothing to do with this post except that it makes me happy. My niece and nephew drew cat pictures at Christmas, and they are now hanging in my office. The one of the left appears to be an intellectual, as he is wearing a pince-nez, reading the book The BFG, and has a reading lamp. On the right is my cat Phi, helpfully labeled.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Renee Michelle and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day*

     This is going to start out full of complaints, so if you're already grumpy or annoyed, skip this part of my post and go straight to the cheerful pictures at the end.
     It was a rough week. First, as you know, I was sick. That left me tired and a bit behind at work with my preparations for an upcoming conference. (Not good.) An extra, urgent project got dropped on me yesterday, and I was so stressed by the extra work that I only slept a few hours last night. (Bad.) Although I had a lot to do today, I also had a dentist appointment to get a cavity filled. (Worse.) But upon closer inspection the dentist decided I didn't need a filling, I need a root canal. (I felt like I'd been kicked in the gut.)
     I'm always filled with trepidation when going to the dentist. Although my teeth never hurt, for the past decade, many different dentist have all agreed that I have terrible teeth, and if I get lots of special treatment/ surgeries/ orthodontics, the teeth will, probably, stay in my mouth and do their job. In other words, I have very high maintenance teeth.
     I've gone with the usual comforts this evening - ice cream, wine, and a sad phone call to my mother. I'm sure I will have more perspective in a few days, but for now - blech.
     I've been meaning to post pictures from the wedding in New York last fall. I can sum it up: Getting married at the Manhattan Marriage Bureau is awesome. The happy couple is surrounded by their little posse of friends and family, and also a hundred other deliriously happy couples getting married that morning. Add in an extremely hospitable Indian family, and this wedding guest had a delightful time.

*with proper acknowledgment of Voirst's book.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Out sick

I've turned into a cat. That is, I spend 16 hours a day sleeping, napping, or laying quietly in bed watching the world go by. I've been out sick for the past two days, which has meant forgoing fun dinner parties and work. I'm lucky, I think, that when I get sick my body just shuts down. I don't often suffer from hacking coughs, or upset stomachs. My body just shows the equivalent of the Microsoft Blue Screen of Death, I reboot for a few days, and then I'm better. I'm hoping that's the case this time, too, because I have a lot of meetings tomorrow that I'd prefer not to miss.

Sunday, January 04, 2015


Sometimes my work requires that I go to downtown DC, or meet with deans and provosts, and these occasions mean that I need a suit. I've been wearing a lovely actually-vintage suit that is, sadly, beginning to show its 70 years of age. My in-laws got me this delightful suit for Christmas. It's made from a vintage pattern with new materials, which means it'll last a long time (and it's machine washable!). 

Saturday, January 03, 2015


     I know that it's easy to break resolutions. I also know there's lots of research about how to build sustainable habits, and habits are are essentially operational resolutions. My friend C is very good at developing habits. Every month she makes 4 or 5 new ones, and it seems like she achieves most of them. She taught me that goals need to be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic, and Time-Bound. From my own reading, I have especially noticed how important the "measurable" and "realistic" parts are. For example, I wanted to move around a bit more at work, so one sustainable habit I developed last year was to spend time doing toe-touches when I was waiting for my tea water to heat up at work. (I give myself a pass if other people are in the kitchen, because there's no reason to look totally bizarre.) I drink a few cups of tea a day, and the machine needs a minute or two to heat up the water. Now my toe touches are pretty much triggered by the sound of the water heating up. The goal was measurable (did I do the stretches or not?) and realistic (it only takes a few minutes, and they are minutes I couldn't be productive in anyway).
     Yearly resolutions seem too big, but a monthly resolution seemed realistic. My neck has been hurting me lately. This is an ongoing problem that I've mitigated previously with acupuncture and swimming. I don't have access to either of these, so I've decided to do some weight-bearing exercises. I made the goal specific - four minutes of exercises while my coffee brews each morning, and I've already found some research-based exercises for those particular muscles and posted the list on the fridge. By the end of the month, I expect this to be automatic. To be fair, I don't really expect that four minutes a day will be enough. But once this small, easily achievable habit is a regular part of my day, then I'll work on increasing the duration, because I know that starting with 20 minutes a day would intimidate me and I'd never get it done.
     There are a few other ways that I've established habits and achieved goals. Buddies help a lot - I've had exercise buddies and job-searching buddies. (In fact, I have another goal for the next few months, and I've got a buddy for that. I'll post on that goal when it's complete.) Rewards are also quite motivating for me. I remember helping a friend structure her thesis-writing efforts; she chose small rewards for working a half an hour, followed by larger rewards for accumulations of work. It took me time to find useful rewards- dessert doesn't work because I'll eat it even if I haven't done the work. Currently,  the New York Times Sunday paper is most useful. I love reading the paper, but the NYT costs $7 on Sundays, so I've quit buying it. If I work a certain number of hours on an assigned project, though, it's my go-to reward.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Elektro the Robot

     All vacation long I'd be waiting for a special museum trip, which took place Monday. And I have to say, the Mansfield Memorial Museum lived up to all my expectations.
     Several friends were going to be in Ohio at the same time, so we did the math and chose to meet in a small town that was roughly equidistant from everyone, in the town of Mansfield. I've never heard of the town, but I figure we could kill an afternoon there, even if it just meant eating a long lunch. However, a little research revealed that the town of 45,000 had several museums. We quickly ruled out the Creationism Museum, but the Mansfield Memorial Museum, a Victorian-era museum with a few updated exhibits, sounded intriguing. The museum is closed in the winter, but when I called, the director was happy to arrange a tour just for me and my four friends. In fact, he personally regaled us with history of the building and the exhibit for an hour and a half.
   The highlight is, without a doubt, the Westinghouse robot Elektro. This robot, featured at the 1939 World's Fair, could walk, talk, smoke, and respond to voice commands. It was extremely sophisticated for the era. I was especially excited, because I had watched the movie "The Middleton Family at the New York World's Fair", in which Elektro had a short cameo*. (He also appeared in "Sex Kittens Go to College". The title says it all.) He had a hole cut in his midriff to demonstrate that there was no one hiding inside, and his back is opened up to show the vacuum tubes and old wiring that made him go.
     The museum is one of those old Victorian museums which was originally animal and plant specimens in fine old wood cases. More recent acquisitions included things like pre-World War I uniforms and 600 model planes. Mansfield was an appliance-manufacturing town, so they also had gems like an early 1950's microwave oven - it cost over $12,000 in today's dollars and was so powerful that later models were water cooled.
     After Elektro, my favorite exhibits were from the Victorian era. In particular, I had not encountered anthropomorphic taxidermy before and I am now a fan. I had to include two photos of this because it is so awesome.
 Dr. Jones, the umbrella-carrying raccoon.

A woodland creature band. The badger leads, and a frog sings a solo.

*If you want to get a glimpse into the mindset of the 1930's and 40's of America, I can't recommend this movie enough. It's got automatic dishwashers and robots - and people looking toward the bright future that today's technology is bringing. The hero is a fresh-faced Westinghouse employee, and the villain is an artist who disdains industrial progress. Need I say more?