Monday, January 30, 2012

Music Monday/Lyric Lundi

The soundtrack to my childhood is rife with the likes of Elton John, Simon and Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, Three Dog Night, Steppenwolf... I could go on and on. It seems we always had music playing in our house. During the day, it was mostly what we kids played on the record players in our bedrooms. At night, it was the classical music that wafted upstairs from the stereo in the living room, which my parents still referred to as the "victrola" (one of those old console units I'm sure many of you remember that was a piece of furniture in and of itself). I didn't know this until we were all adults (I thought I was the only one who did it), but all my siblings and I used to lie awake listening to my father's music and conducting our own symphonies, imitating what we'd seen him do many times, before we drifted off to sleep at night.

My parents, especially my father, shared an enthusiasm for much of the pop/rock we kids enjoyed. We kids, however, often had violent disagreements over what was and wasn't good. To this day, my guess is that you could play anything that appeared in Billboard's "Top 40" from the 1970s, and we could all tell you who had and hadn't liked what. I'm sure that today, my siblings would tell you that my memory is all wrong, that there is no way we all liked one performer, one who often sang such "sappy" songs, but I can distinctly remember our all agreeing that we liked John Denver, or, at least, that we liked a good number of his songs. Even my mother, who was typically more of a show-tune-and-waltzes kind of a gal, liked John Denver.

Although I still love all of John Denver (call me sappy. I don't care), one song in particular brings back especially fond memories. For some reason, my father particularly liked this one, and I can still remember all of us singing to it on the car whenever it came on the radio. It's a classic love song. Do people still write such things as "Annie's Song" in this oh-so-cynical age?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

My Food and Me or Why I Eat What I do

I figure if I'm going to be writing about food and giving you recipes on a regular basis, I ought to provide you, my readers, with a little bit of information about what I eat and why I eat what I do. First off, I am an omnivore, not really by choice. If I could choose, I wouldn't eat meat, because I don't at all relish the idea of eating animals I so love. However, one thing I've learned over the years is that, no matter what the FDA would have us believe, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all nutrition guideline. Everybody's body is different, and some (lucky dogs) can thrive on a vegetarian diet. Some can thrive on a vegan diet. I, unfortunately, can't. My body needs animal fat and protein, which, actually makes sense, if you look at me: super pale, from head to toe. My ancestors obviously lived in cold climes where there wasn't a lot of sun. Foraging was probably difficult in such a climate, and they probably had to hunt quite a bit, needing fat and protein to sustain them. I know I don't do well without meat, because every Lent, for years, Bob and I have given up meat, and I just don't feel very well during that period.

That being said, I've read three books that have influenced me greatly over the years. One is Mark Bittman's (I love Mark Bittman. He can do no wrong) Food Matters. This is the book that most convinced me to focus on eating organic and locally grown food in season, as much as I possibly can (I'm not perfect. Sorry, but I'm not giving up salads 9 months of the year, because lettuce isn't in season where I live. Nor am I willing to give up things like avocados, bananas, and citrus fruit because they aren't grown locally. I do think, though, that I do better in this regard than about 90% of Americans, which is fine with me). He eats this way, and it makes sense to me, so I've pretty much adopted it: one vegan meal a day, one vegetarian meal a day, and one "anything goes" meal a day. Some days, that means I still don't eat any meat or seafood at all, but most days I eat a little.

The second is Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon. This is the book that convinced me to stop eating white pasta (in fact, to stop eating anything made with white flour) and to cut down drastically on my sugar consumption. I'm not perfect in this regard. I may not keep white flour and tons of sugar and candy in my house, but deliver a chocolate cake to my door, or present me with a table laden with luscious desserts, and I'm not going to turn them down. Still, I try to eat very little sugar and white flour. Fallon was also the one who convinced me it was okay to drink (preferably raw) milk from grass-fed cows (in fact, better than okay, good for me) and to eat grass-fed red meat.

The third is Cure Tooth Decay by Ramiel Nagel. Despite the fact that I take meticulous care of my teeth (brushing, flossing, and gargling), I've had all kinds of trouble with them over the years. Finally, because I'm convinced foods are drugs, many with healing properties and many that are bad for us, I decided to turn to diet as a way of caring for my teeth. This book reinforced the need to raw milk from grass-fed cows, to eat eggs from free-range, grass-fed chickens (actually, the first one to convince me to do that was Andrew Weil), and to eat grass-fed meats. It also introduced me to the idea of fermenting grains (almost all the bread I eat now is sour dough, and when I eat oatmeal, I make it myself and soak it with a little yogurt overnight to ferment it), which has not only benefited my teeth (I think), but has also benefited my intestines, because I suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (or, I should say, I used to suffer from irritable bowel syndrome. Once I discovered that mine is not improved, but rather made much worse, by the standard prescribed diet: lots of whole grains and other high-fiber foods, I haven't had much trouble with it).

Basically, then, here's how I eat:

Very few foods are off-limits. The only thing I absolutely avoid like the plague are trans-fats (not the kind that can be found in small doses and naturally in butter, but the kind that used to be in manufactured margarine and all kinds of other manufactured foods) and high fructose corn syrup.

I eat organic whenever possible, bought locally and in season most of the time, and I don't eat factory-farmed meat. In fact, I don't eat any meat that isn't grass-fed or free range, and I eat so little of it, that mostly what I eat is beef and chicken. I also eat sustainable sea food.

I buy raw milk from grass-fed cows and free-range eggs right off my Amish friends' farm. I know raw milk has gotten all kinds of bad press -- a good deal of it originating with the dairy industry -- but that mostly comes from the days in which people were not so meticulous about cleanliness. The barn where I pick up my eggs and milk is cleaner than my house a good deal of the time. I highly doubt I'm going to get sick from drinking this milk. I also buy butter and whole-fat yogurt from grass-fed cows, and I buy raw cheeses.

So, you can see, I'm not exactly on the low-fat, plenty of grains, and avoid red meat diet that is what so many nutritionists recommend. Nonetheless, I have low cholesterol levels (plenty of the "good" kind); my blood pressure is normal; and my IBS is under control. It works for me. It may not work for you, because your body isn't mine, and for any recipes I include, I will, when possible, let you know how you can substitute lower fat ingredients (if that's what you want to do) or even make some of them vegan (there are vegan options for a lot of what I make). I also will label my recipes for you: ominvore, vegetarian, vegan, so you can skip those you won't make.

Finally, I probably ought to tell you that one of the reasons I've been so reluctant over the years to publish my recipes is that I cook so much by taste. Measuring cups and spoons are for baking, in my book, but cooking is done by experimenting with a little of this and a little of that until it tastes "right" (i.e. is something both Bob and I will love). I've realized, lately, though, that plenty of recipes call for, say, "red hot pepper flakes to taste," so I will measure as best I can, but please forgive me if I often rely on letting you figure out what tastes best to you. I consider most recipes to be guidelines, and so, you should consider mine to be such as well.

I hope we have fun with this new adventure. I'm off to figure out which recipe I'll give you-all first. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

1984 by George Orwell

Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Signet Classics, 1984.

I'm about halfway into 1984 by George Orwell for November's Autumn Classics Challenge. It's a book that I'm having to discipline myself to read very, very slowly, because it's so terrifying and such a nail-biter that I want to race through it to see what happens next, but it's so meaty that it deserves to be chewed and digested bit by bit -- so much insight and wisdom on every. single. page. Why has it taken me so long to read such a brilliant work? (I now know I couldn't possibly have read it before, despite thinking for years that I may have read it in college. It would certainly have stuck with me the way other great classics I read back then have).

If you've never read it and think you couldn't possibly like it, you might want to re-think that thought. In many ways, it reads like the best of spy thrillers. The reader is constantly worried that the characters are going to get caught: have they made a mistake? Have they trusted someone who can't be trusted? I don't have the answers yet, since I haven't finished reading the book, but I'm hoping everyone, thus far, is what he or she seems to be and can be trusted. Since it's a dystopia, though, I'm guessing that horrible things (as if things can get much more horrible than living in this world in which a good idea -- socialism/communism -- has, in the hands of the wrong sorts of leaders, turned into a horrible reality, a totalitarian world in which no one is free and everyone is kept in oppressive roles) are yet to come.

Anyway, I've got prompts to answer for the challenge, and even though there are different levels, depending on how far the reader is into the book, I'm going to take a stab at answering all three prompts. It will be interesting to see if I change my mind by the time I reach the end of the book, and I'll let you know if I do.

Level 1
Who is the author? What does he look like? When was he born? Where did he live? What does his handwriting look like? What are some other novels he's written? What is an interesting and random fact about his life?

George Orwell was born Eric Blair in 1903 in India. I've posted his picture above. I think he looks intelligent (probably that large forehead makes me think that) and kindly (the look in his eyes and the way he's holding his mouth). He lived in India, England, and Spain (the latter because he had volunteered to fight for the Republicans against Franco's Nationalist uprising). I thought I might have a hard time finding a sample of his handwriting, but I eventually found one here. I'm glad to see that his writing, like mine, isn't exactly the neatest or the easiest to read. I wonder if he suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome, too (which is why my writing, which used to be quite neat, has gone way down hill over the years. I think that may be a problem for all those of us who've spent long hours writing ever since we learned how to grab a pen and get to it). He also wrote Animal Farm, which I haven't read, either. During his lifetime, though, he was better known as an essayist. An interesting fact about him is that, during WWII, he wrote propaganda for the BBC (they called it "programs") to gain East Asian and Indian support for the British war effort. He knew exactly what he was doing and said he felt like "an orange that's been trodden on by a dirty boot." It didn't take him long (2 years) to decide the pay wasn't worth it, and he resigned.

Level 2 What do you think of his writing style? What do you like about it? Or what would have made you more inclined to like it? Is there a particular quote that has stood out for you?

Orwell's writing style is crisp and clean without being fragmented or disjointed, and it's seamless. I'm not aware of an author who is desperately trying to write, to get his stitches straight, and to weave in awkward symbolism to make me think. Orwell just glides along like a well-oiled sewing machine, making me think, and I can disappear into his story without worrying about odd stitching. This seamlessness is what I like about it (I am always drawn to seamless writing). There are numerous good quotes, but here's a nice example of one:

'They can't get inside you. If you can feel that staying human is worth while, even when it can't have any result whatever, you've beaten them.' (p. 138)

Level 3
Why do you think he wrote this novel? How did his contemporaries view both the author and the novel?

I think he wrote this novel to portray the dangers of any political system if put into the hands of the wrong man. He'd fought and had been wounded in Spain and had seen what totalitarian socialist and communist dictators like Franco and Stalin could do. He was a "democratic socialist" himself, but he was able to imagine how someone (or a group of "someones") could twist and pound ideologies, using them to fulfill selfish goals and ambitions, to the detriment of those living under them. Again, I come back to the word "brilliant" to describe this work. I imagine his contemporaries who were pro-democratic and anti-communist probably also thought he was brilliant, while communist sympathizers probably loathed him. I found this bit of information here:

In 1949 Orwell was approached by a friend, Celia Kirwan, who had just started working for a Foreign Office unit, the Information Research Department, which had been set up by the Labour government to publish pro-democratic and anti-communist propaganda. He gave her a list of 37 writers and artists he considered to be unsuitable as IRD authors because of their pro-communist leanings. The list, not published until 2003, consists mainly of journalists (among them the editor of the New Statesman, Kingsley Martin) but also includes the actors Michael Redgrave and Charlie Chaplin. Orwell's motives for handing over the list are unclear, but the most likely explanantion is the simplest: that he was helping out a friend in a cause - anti-Stalinism - that both supported. There is no indication that Orwell ever abandoned the democratic socialism that he consistently promoted in his later writings - or that he believed the writers he named should be suppressed. Orwell's list was also accurate: the people on it had all at one time or another made pro-Soviet or pro-communist public pronouncements.

You can see why I've been led to believe that probably many of his contemporaries despised him.

I'd like to end this post with one more observation. I don't know why on earth any student would be made to read this book in high school, as many have been through the years. It's one of those books that people need to read after they've lived a while, have observed human nature and emotions in ways most teenagers haven't, and who have a pretty good understanding of different sorts of political states. (Having said that, I know that Bob taught it to high school students, and my guess is that he made it come alive.)

Friday, January 20, 2012

The New and Improved Telecommuter Talk

It's been over a month since I posted anything on this blog, and I haven't been reading any blogs, either. Some of this is due to the fact that 2011 -- a year that will be memorable for not being one of the best in the Barton household -- went out with a bang (our car broke down on the way to Maine and what should have been a relaxing vacation, after an exhausting Thanksgiving and Christmas season, instead became an exhausting vacation dealing with what to do with it and, ultimately, buying a new car -- the Prius v, Prius's new station wagon, which is proving to be a fabulous car so far). That happened during the week of December 26th, and we got back to Pennsylvania on January 3, though, so I can't really blame it for my disappearance from the blogosphere for all of January as well. I can say, however, that because I didn't have the relaxing vacation I'd planned, in which I was going to spend the majority of my days reading in front of a fire, I came back with three long books to read for our One Book, One Community committee (I'm serving on that to choose the book our three counties will be reading for 2013). I had to spend every spare minute reading them. Then again, that meeting was a week ago, so I can't really use it as an excuse anymore. Finally, I've decided that I was just a little bit bored with my blog, but I don't want to give up on blogging altogether. After 5 1/2 years, I just needed to tweak it a bit.

First up: a face lift. I've changed the design template (Blogger has much more to offer in this regard than they did when I first came on board with them). I hope you like it. I'm way too much of a Luddite to design my own look, but this one caught my eye.

Secondly, I've decided to be more purposeful in my posting. Those of you who've been with me since the beginning know that I started this blog with the intent of writing about my experiences as a telecommuter. I quickly ran out of content and started writing about any and everything. My blog's title now seems like false advertising; I don't even telecommute anymore; but I like it (I'm a huge fan of alliteration), so I'm going to keep it. How to be more purposeful? I started thinking about my passions, and I came up with three:

1. Books
2. Food
3. Music

I'm not at all original in my passions, huh? I'm passionate about other things: animals (especially frogs), for instance, but I don't particularly like reading and writing about them. I mean, there are only so many fascinating facts about frogs that I would care to share with my readers and only so many pictures I could take of new additions to the frog collection I've had since I was five. Books, food, and music, though, are passions that lend themselves well to blog posts. After all, I've already been blogging about books and music for years. I recently realized that, although I talk about loving food and cooking, I rarely ever post anything about my adventures in the kitchen (kind of like I talk about writing a novel and a collection of ghost stories and never seem to finish them -- but I am. I promise! It's just taking much longer than I'd like). I think it's about time I did.

With these three passions in mind, I've come up with a weekly game plan for the blog, as follows:

One post a week will be focused on books. This won't necessarily be a book review, although I hope to include plenty of those, but it will always be about books or authors or publishing or libraries or some such thing.

One post a week will be focused on music. Again, it may be more than a favorite song (which I've been doing for years on Music Monday), and I do still plan to share favorite songs, but I want to broaden this category and write about groups or composers or types of music, etc. And I hope to stop being so lazy, giving you something a little more substantial than mere links to YouTube videos.

One post a week will be about food. Same thing. I hope to share original recipes with you, but I also want to share other aspects of food that interest me, like nutrition and the celebrity chef phenomenon, etc.

Finally, one post a week will be a free-for-all. This is where all the other stuff I like to ponder will appear.

I'm not going to assign days of the week to these posts, although Music Monday seems like it ought to remain on Mondays (lovely alliteration yet again), so it probably will. My goal is to be more purposeful but not more anal: no need to assign specific days of the week to specific types of posts. I'm going to start using the label function, so if you're not interested, say, in reading about music, you can skip that post and spend your time reading what does interest you.

So, Happy New Year, everyone, and Happy New Telecommuter Talk (I hope)!