Friday, November 2, 2012

New Blog!

Thanks for reading Jen's Write Side! For more snarky humor, head over to my new blog, "Snark on the Side." You'll need to update your feed reader if you would like to receive updates about new content and quirky thoughts from yours truly. 

All the best,

Friday, October 5, 2012

Locavino: Cellar 4201

It’s a gorgeous Friday afternoon in October. After a week of rain, the sky is a clear blue with a white tint on the edges of the horizon. I’m sitting on the patio of Cellar 4201, a small boutique winery in the Yadkin Valley AVA of North Carolina, surrounded by crape myrtles, ferns, and bright yellow hibiscus flowers; the whole area pock-marked with two-seater cast iron tables sporting sun umbrellas in vibrant shades of yellow and orange.

I’ve just finished a tasting with one of the owners, Greg, and have settled down to work while sipping a glass of their Cherokee Red, an oak-aged blend of Merlot, Cabernet, and Sangiovese. The nose is soft and full, with hints of cedar, chocolate, and coffee that mimic the espresso bean chocolate I tasted with the wine. The mouthfeel is pleasantly round, demonstrating rich plum and blackcurrant, with notes of raspberry and chocolate on the back end. The finish is smooth; the tannins, gentle but present.

I meet the winery mascot, a thirteen-year-old beagle named Buttercup, and spend a few minutes talking to the other owner, Donna. The patio is still wet from a hosing-down before tomorrow's fundraising event for the horse rescue operations at Hidden K Stables, so we chat about upcoming wine events in the Yadkin Valley.

Meanwhile, the poplar trees at the edge of the property are going through their own form of veraison, shading from green to yellow at the tops. It’s been an odd year for weather, Greg confirms: late freeze; spotty hot summer; rainy fall; and early, slim harvest. By now, his five-and-a-quarter acres are all safely bestowed in steel and oak inside the rustic brick winery to my right. The 2012 barrel-aged Chardonnay looks particularly promising, he says.

Cellar 4201 sells two Chardonnays (oaked and steel), a reserve Merlot, a Cabernet, the Cherokee Red, and a semi-sweet red blend called Sweet Native. All of the wines are reasonably priced at under $20 a bottle. Most are sold right here at the winery, and for good reason. I can think of few better ways to spend a Friday afternoon than with friendly people, lovely scenery, and a glass of red wine to make the hours speed by.

Thanks, Cellar 4201!

Monday, October 1, 2012

October's Child

“He is outside of everything, and alien everywhere. He is an aesthetic solitary. His beautiful, light imagination is the wing that on the autumn evening just brushes the dusky window.” - Henry James 
 That's the way October makes me feel. The air yields a crisp bite like that from a juicy apple, and the golden light of evening becomes at once more beautiful and more ephemeral. Life, full life, presses itself against your senses and threatens to vanish if you move too quickly.

Compounding this sense of fragility is the designation of October as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I come from a family of breast cancer survivors, so efforts to battle this disease strike particularly close to home, and it feels right that I should do my part not only to raise awareness, but also to model prevention in my own life.

Perhaps for that reason, it seems appropriate that I marked October 1 by getting my first screening mammogram. By most standards, I'm too young for this procedure, but my doctor recommended that I establish a baseline scan now because my family history renders me "at risk". So, on a drizzly, rainy Monday, I made my way to the Comprehensive Cancer Center at my local hospital.

The hospital is a labyrinth of parking decks, hallways, and long, sterile corridors with frosted glass windows and purple-tinted trashcans. I am at least twenty years younger than everyone else in the fourth-floor waiting room, and I feel out-of-place immediately. I'm sitting next to a hardy plant, distinguished from a fake only by the browning scars where anxious fingernails have scratched or pinched off the tips of the leaves. It's better than biting your fingernails, right?

The news murmurs in the background, but my head is buzzing louder. Remember: you parked in lot B, green level. Take a left. Ride the elevator from the hallway on the purple level (marked "M" in the elevator) to the green level (marked "B").

Who is here because they are dying? What an absurd but natural question to be thinking right here, right now. Who here is in pain? I am the only one not wearing tennis shoes.

The outside of the hospital is under construction, and it's an eery sound. I don't want to mistake those machines for the ones inside. I'm glad I know a little bit about what to expect. Thank you, private web browsing and a phone call to Mom. Why is it so difficult to talk about a clump of cells that have been gone for twenty-five years?

"Have a seat at the second desk on the right." It's like taking a standardized test, only not. No cell phones. Put your pencils down. But here they Scantron your body, not your paper, looking for bubbles that shouldn't be filled with cells.

It's been thirty minutes now. I think about the GRE again, showing ID and being shown to a locker. But now, "Keep your personal belongings, leave your clothes."



One hour and forty-five minutes have passed, but the test itself took only fifteen. I should have used the waiting time to cram my brain full of medical terminology, so I could understand what the technician was saying.

"No cause for concern."  I understood that much, at least. I'm free to go?

Lot B; Green Level.

Green is good. Green means "Go."

And yet, I'm one of the lucky ones. For so many women (and some men), October is full of yellows and reds. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

On Lying in Bed

G.K. Chesterton, sometimes you just get it right.
Lying in bed would be an altogether perfect and supreme experience if only one had a colored pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling. This, however, is not generally a part of the domestic apparatus on the premises. [...]

Misers get up early in the morning; and burglars, I am informed, get up the night before. A man's minor actions and arrangements ought to be free, flexible, creative; the things that should be unchangeable are his principles, his ideals. But with us the reverse is true; our views change constantly; but our lunch does not change. Now, I should like men to have strong and rooted conceptions, but as for their lunch, let them have it sometimes in the garden, sometimes in bed, sometimes on the roof, sometimes in the top of a tree. Let them argue from the same first principles, but let them do it in a bed, or a boat, or a balloon. [...]

For those who study the great art of lying in bed there is one emphatic caution to be added. Even for those who can do their work in bed (like journalists), still more for those whose work cannot be done in bed (as, for example, the professional harpooners of whales), it is obvious that the indulgence must be very occasional. But that is not the caution I mean. The caution is this: if you do lie in bed, be sure you do it without any reason or justification at all. I do not speak, of course, of the seriously sick. But if a healthy man lies in bed, let him do it without a rag of excuse; then he will get up a healthy man. If he does it for some secondary hygienic reason, if he has some scientific explanation, he may get up a hypochondriac.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Movie Preview, 2012

So many good movies to anticipate! Ahhh!

-The Hobbit, part 1
-Les Miserables
-Life of Pi
-Wuthering Heights
-Anna Karenina
-The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Making autumn soup while I work (one of the perks of working from home).

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Dream a Little Dream of Me

The mental health experts would have a field day with this one... 

Scenario: The dear cat of the house encounters the crazy about 5:30 a.m. and begins running suicides across the house, ending each one by slamming against my bedroom door.

Subsequently, I have a vivid, memorable dream that I am attempting to recoup, among other things, a dozen or more loaves of sliced white bread, and I am being attacked by a gang of middle school boys brandishing sticks.

I win.

Look out, ALN.  :)

Thursday, September 6, 2012

All in the Rhetoric

Last night, I watched Michelle Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention, and I was frankly captivated. What a compelling speaker she is. My next thought was that I would love to use her speech as an example for rhetorical devices and oratory in general.

The more I dig in to curriculum writing, and the more time I spend getting fired up about speeches, politics, tutoring, and even marketing, the more I wonder if I might not find my passion better met in Rhetoric and Composition. Not this year, but maybe down the road...

I'm getting back a little of my fire back, y'all. And it feels great.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

This is August, Y'all

So...the beach photos? They like to drag their feet. Walking in sand, you know, is very slow going.

However, this happened:

Then I had a brief love affair with a bag of potato chips. Or several. (The relationship may have been polygamous.)

Returning, I became an at-home professional in a new "office":

The world ended.

Just kidding. It's August, y'all. I'm not in school. This is weird.

That's all.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

This is August

I'm back.
This is me.

(This is also an open letter of apology to any human being who encounters me today.)

My beverage of the morning is a venti dark roast from Starbucks. Black.

Kindly ignore the fact that I haven't shaved my legs. I moved yesterday.

My nose is blue, and I'm not a Smurf, nor am I being abused. I play Ultimate Frisbee. The sequence of a committed, if unsuccessful, dive is this: knees, hips, elbows, nose. My injuries correspond.

I spent the evening listening to Bon Iver and alphabetizing my books. That's how I unwind. (English major.)

So buy wine from me today. The wine will be excellent. My ability to form a cohesive sentence about it may not be. Have pity.

Thank you.

Beach photos to follow.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Today's Quote

Briefly back, and currently loving this poem by St. Augustine. Pretty smart dude.

I praise the dance, 
for it frees people from the heaviness of matter 
and binds the isolated to community. 

I praise the dance, 
which demands everything: 
health and a clear spirit and a buoyant soul. 

Dance is a transformation of space, of time, of people, 
who are in constant danger of becoming all brain, 
will, or feeling. 

Dancing demands a whole person, 
one who is firmly anchored in the center of his life, 
who is not obsessed by lust for people and things 
and the demon of isolation in his own ego. 

Dancing demands a freed person, 
one who vibrates with the equipoise of all his powers. 

I praise the dance. 
O man, learn to dance, 
or else the angels in heaven will not know 
what to do with you.

Regular posting to return in August. Probably.  :)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Blogging Hiatus

Apologies, blogging friends, for the recent dearth of posts. In all likelihood, I will return to the blogging world in August, full of random ruminations on the raucous risibility of all things beach-related.

Until then, I leave you with this reminiscent sonnet by dear W.S.

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown'd,
Crooked elipses 'gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty's brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature's truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:
And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand. (Sonnet LX)

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy 4th!

Now read Who Sings the Nation State? by Gayatri Spivak and Judith Butler...

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

In Shakespeare’s Company

I’m sitting in a narrow hallway outside a coffee shop and bookstore called Shakespeare & Company. The door of this coffee/beer/wine/book/cooking supply shop has not one but five Christmas jingle bells hanging from the knob, to be certain the proprietors don’t miss a guest’s approach. (The bells’ effectiveness is undermined somewhat by the fact that the other half of the double doors is propped open.) They needn't have worried.

This endearing spot is located in Kernersville, North Carolina, in a delightfully confusing building that once housed the Hooker Furniture Factory. The outside of the complex (so named in a most literal sense) is rustic, variegated brickwork with cast iron balconies, climbing vines, and a selection of succulent bushes lining the base. A fountain, surrounded by white rose bushes, trickles over moss-covered stone in the center of a small courtyard paved in meandering circular patterns.

The inside combines industrial brick and heavy steel supports with renovated woodwork and matte cast iron. Vague signs direct you to one boutique shop after another, with descriptive names like Not Just Teapots, Splurges, and Paper Sassy. Sadly, for every occupied storefront there are four empty ones: some actively under construction and giving off a powerful odor of sawdust and hot drill bits, others dark and quiet.

But for the music playing in the eerily empty halls, I would expect to see Scooby Doo and the gang sneaking around a corner in pursuit of a masked villain. The scene before me has the same muted palate of colors that characterized the old-school version of the cartoons I watched as a child. The low-ceilinged hallways and odd assortment of levels, staircases, and exits only adds to the air of mystery about the place.

In the time that I’ve been sitting here, I have seen perhaps three or four people pass by, each with the same wondering look in their eyes. Like me, they are explorers venturing into the unknown: somewhat baffled in the absence of a map, oddly reverent of the echoing corridors, and generally uncertain what they will find around the next corner.

Granted, it is 1:30 on a Wednesday afternoon. Not everyone has the freedom to carry her job with her. Besides, this isn’t really a place for laptops and power cords, WiFi hotspots and Bluetooth. Here, there should be nothing but battered paperbacks, poetry recitations, craft classes, and farmers’ markets.

I sit back and take another sip of my Midsummer’s Frap (caramel, hazelnut, and cinnamon)* as I turn to page seventy-five of Metalogicon, John of Salisbury’s twelfth-century treatise on logic. He’s quoting Vergil now, from the Georgics: “Happiness comes from understanding the causes of things, / And nonchalantly treading under foot all fears”. Treading under foot all fears. I like the sound of that.

The more I think about it, the more the combination seems appropriate. Shakespeare’s formal education, what there was of it, would likely have been informed by John’s ideas about classical learning, Latin, and logic. As the saying goes, it’s all connected.

After a brief and self-satisfied pause in honor of my own epiphany, I wander downstairs to a dimly lit wine shop affiliated with a local North Carolina winery. While I sample Semillon and Malbec, the manager and I chat for an hour about viticulture, wine judging, economics, the job market, age discrimination, retail service, grape varieties, merchandizing politics, education, and health care. We don’t resolve any of the world’s problems, but when I leave I feel the sense of pensive well being that only comes from establishing a genuine connection with another human being.

All in all, a productive afternoon? Perhaps not. A soul-satisfying one? Without a doubt.

*The cinnamon must be Puck’s doing; the first sip of reddish powder sends me into a coughing fit from which it takes a good ten minutes to recover.

Monday, June 18, 2012

And the Green Grass Grows

You know it's time to mow the lawn when two separate lawn services companies, hired by two different neighbors across the street, come to your house by mistake.  Within a three-day period.



Sorry, aesthetically conscious neighbors. I will get around to it eventually.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

45 Minutes of Airtime Later

Point 1: Don't tell Viki, but she is being replaced.

Point 2: "Free", my foot.

Point 3: Mumbled Customer Service lines designed to inspire confidence:
  • "If this screen would just quit wobbling around..."
  • "Where's the continue button? There it is. Finally."
  • "You'll just hear some brief silence..."
  • "And that will be...let's see...two and forty-nine..."
  • "I knew it was going to do that. I knew it would."

Point 4: If you need to reach me, leave a message on my personal Morse telegraph key.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Her Logic Is Undeniable

I've put this off for a long time, but I think it's time to introduce you to my phone. No matter how short-lived her remaining days may be, she's starting to act a great deal like Marvin and Linus, a fact which entitles her to be anthropomorphized.

She's like a grouchy great-aunt who is staying with you for the holidays and glares at you for talking on the phone, however quietly, for more than fifteen minutes at a time in any place wherein your face is visible to any other human, then peremptorily walks over, snatches the phone, and hangs up without waiting for you to finish your conversation. 

To begin with, she has recently instituted a ten-minute phone conversation limit unless I am restricted to the length of a charger power cord. Furthermore, she decides (arbitrarily and with finality) which text messages I am allowed to receive and discards others at will or confiscates them indefinitely.

She's quite a charmer.

I named her Viki. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Salad FTW

I haven't been cooking as much as I ought, lately, but tonight's salad definitely earned a place in the "make again" category. Simple to make:
  • Spinach
  • Onions (farmers' market)
  • Boiled beets, lightly salted (farmers' market)
  • Pecan pieces
  • Sliced pear
  • Vidalia onion dressing
  Delicious. (And pretty.)

Next time, I would substitute red onions for white and slice them a little thinner, then add Parmesan cheese and perhaps some dried cranberries to the top. All in all, though, great texture, flavors, and colors as is. Serve with fresh bread and a crisp white wine or a dry rosé. 

When you're stuck with a day that's gray and lonely, I highly recommend it.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Favorite Things

Friends. Flowers. Guitar chords. Candles. Poetry. Ice cream.

I like these things.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Poetry for the Day

From the Book of Hours by Rainer Maria Rilke (Tran. Barrows & Macy).
No one lives his life.

Disguised since childhood,
haphazardly assembled
from voices and fears and little pleasures,
we come of age as masks.

Our true face never speaks.

Somewhere there must be storehouses
where all these lives are laid away
like suits of armor or old carriages
or clothes hanging limply on the walls.

Maybe all paths lead there,
to the repository of unlived things.
--II, 11 (partial)

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Alas, the Flame


A flame is always a double-edged sword.


When putting out the ember of multiple candles by pinching the wicks between two damp fingers,  the first candle may leave soot on one's forefinger and thumb, encouraging the use of an alternate, clean finger for subsequent candles. However, the structure of the human hand is such that the thumb is uniquely necessary to the motion of pinching. These facts being what they are, an uncompromising individual who does not wish to imbibe soot may consider it viable to dampen only the clean middle finger while reusing the sooty (dry) thumb. Unfortunately, embers are not single-edged; both sides of the wick are equally capable of burning human skin.


Although the burning glow of the wick may be extinguished, the unlucky thumb will continue to register protest until it is placed in contact with an ice cube.

Lesson learned, proverb. Lesson learned.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Wrinkles and Laugh Lines

It's hard to believe that it has been a full year since I graduated with my master's degree. Looking back at my recent posts this weekend, I've realized that I write far fewer funny entries than I did in the early stages of this blog, or even last year. 

If you started reading when I was regularly turning out poetic commentaries on my filmmaker-nemesis, writing New Year's UN-resolutions, raving about the misbehavior of my computer Marvin, developing software to increase grad student productivity, anthropomorphizing my thesis, rapping about my thesis defense, or pondering alternative careers for grad students, you might find this version of Jen's Write Side a little more "Debbie Downer" than you expected.

I tell myself that one reason is the dearth of readily-available comic material: I'm not in grad school surrounded by sleep-deprived twenty-somethings, my computer functions relatively well (knock on wood), and I'm not writing a 150-page document about obscure topics from the 1500s.

Then again, if I were looking for those moments, I suspect I would still find plenty of them. David Lynch had one thing right at least: life is full of absurdity.  When I encounter it, instead of taking the time to write about it, which involves some analytical processing as well as the rhetorical canons of invention and arrangement, I take the easier alternative and post a brief comment on Facebook or Twitter. The problem, then, is not lack of content; it is lack of motivation on the writer's end.

As I continue to transition away from my longstanding linear track to a Ph.D. and into a scatter plot of lives unled that may or may not produce a valid regression line (Andrew Miller and statistics: what a combination!), I think the truth is that I'm not wearing my quirky writer glasses all that often. They don't fit as well as they did before. They need new frames, and the lenses have gotten scratched a few times. 

I like to think I'll get new ones eventually.

By re-posting some of my favorite comedic entries (I know, the subliminal message encouraging you to read those posts is thinly veiled at best), I'm trying to remind myself that I can do funny---have done it in the past and will do it again in the future. 

My hope, if I may be corny for a moment, is that the ornery wrinkles that have sprung up around my eyes this year will eventually be overwritten by laugh lines, whether that happens this coming year, or the following year, or the year after that. I don't think that's too much to wish for.

Happy Anniversary, graduate friends. See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Telling Stories About My Story

It's kind of meta. 

Today, I finished reading an excellent book: The Queen of Palmyra (2010), by Minrose Gwin. Besides being a professor of English literature (check!) in my home state (check!), Gwin documents the research behind her novel in a solid bibliography that testifies to her dedication to truth-seeking stories.

The cover blurb says, "Here it is, the most powerful and lyrical novel about race, racism, and denial in the American South since To Kill a Mockingbird." The cover of the 2009 novel The Help makes a similar claim: "This could be one of the most important pieces of fiction since To Kill a Mockingbird." I read The Help earlier this year and was disappointed by it (read a review here), but placing the two books in conversation made me appreciate Gwin's novel all the more.

Summer school course I will teach someday---a literature elective course that reads only three novels: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Help, and The Queen of Palmyra, using them to open a dialogue about narrative authority, the Bildungsroman, and the role of memory, writing, and accumulating /retelling /revising stories in making sense of race relations in the twentieth-century South. I would love to take that course, if it existed, just for the discussions---especially if I could drag some of my M.A. classmates in with me.

Unfortunately, as I thought about these ideas and began impulsively to underline passages that link the three novels together, I started to feel sad all over again about my decision not to begin graduate school this fall. This is the excitement and enthusiasm that was missing when I made my decision. This is the part of literary studies that I love and already miss. This is the sense of purpose that I wish I could maintain and channel into my daily routine.

I would be oversimplifying the matter if I ignored the weariness and anxiety that often accompany my teaching or tutoring. At the same time, being a literary scholar is still very much a part of my identity. For now, at least in a formal context, I've set that part of me aside. 

Sometimes, like tonight, I feel its absence pretty keenly.

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Limits of Your Longing

This poem: "Go to the Limits of Your Longing" (Rilke).  Beautiful.  I need to read more poetry.

Friday, April 27, 2012

I Lied About the Vertigo

Road trips abound in opportunities to contemplate identity. 

The right music helps: Antje Duvekot's "Vertigo", John Gorka's "Broken Place," and Sarah Jarosz's "Edge of a Dream."

"oh the view from this height
high above the ferriswheel lights
might cause me to sway
but i am teaching myself to be brave"

"That beautiful broken place
you could not outshine your twilight
your demons were not outpaced"

"Smiling face, that no one really knows
Singin' bout the passion in my soul
Playin' it safe, move in time with the beat
Take a chance, learn a new dance"

If that isn't enough, you can contemplate the unlikely coincidence of traveling for two out of six hours while neatly closeted on a two-lane road behind one or more dump trucks. The view doesn't change much behind one of these guys. Seeing what lies ahead is all but impossible, and instead of glorying in the mountain scenery, you find yourself fixating on the grimy brown shade of the truck's back panel and wishing that it would move faster. 

Road trips also reveal unmistakeable truths about your shifting identity.*

A simple license plate is enough to strip you of Bible Belt citizenship and reaffirm your status as a penniless student. Like a red-green color blindness test, the way you interpret cryptic vanity plates produces a more accurate representation of your psyche than does a Meyers-Briggs typology. Eight characters: 4EVRAMEN. The Bible Belt citizen reads, "Forever Amen!" and gives a pious nod. The penniless student sees the word "Ramen" and ignores the rest, suddenly seized with an intense craving for that 33-cent delicacy.**

There is no limit to the powers of self-discovery unleashed by acceleration. Lighting out for the territories is sounding better every day...

*Even if you drive an automatic. :)
**On second thought, the Jesus fish, family-sized van, and location near Lynchburg, VA ought to have been a giveaway.  Just saying. Ramen. You cannot escape its magnetism.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Out of Rhythm

Every small town has its flavor, points of interest, rhythm of life. Even a corner gas station, linked to a major national chain, evinces this fact. Whether it's the two-for-three dollars sale on two-liter cokes, the individually plastic-wrapped chocolate bars on discount at the counter, or the few endlessly hamster-wheeling hot dogs at the grill station, they all keep pace with some inaudible metronome. 

Two sisters in the ladies' room follow suit: wearing bright-colored shirts, high-waisted shorts, and straight hair in rumpled ponytails, drawling in accents with a surplus of "a" "o" and "w" sounds, they demonstrate the resourcefulness of an older sister who can instruct her junior in a calm tone martyred by repetition to crawl under the locked bathroom door (watch, I'll show you), remind her that she's NOT too big to fit beneath (scrunch up your knees), and then demand that she wash her hands WITH SOAP (but only two pumps, silly).

They belong here, alongside the cashier with teased hair and bright pink lipstick who is giving out free smiles to a tattooed regular, in a way that I, with my peripatetic after-work ways, never could. And, what's more, they all know it. No wonder the elderly man standing in his carport across the street stares at me, arms crossed over his plaid shirt, as I slowly turn back onto the main road.

The winding country roads and their small-town synapses are full of memories and untold stories. None of them, however, answer the question most prominent on my mind: if not here, then where? If not this, now, then what? when?

After much hesitation, doubt, and over-thinking, I decided not to accept my one offer of admission to a PhD program. As I keep telling myself, "not now" does not mean "never." I know I made the right decision. But, having said that, I will admit I'm left feeling a little lost. A little weary. A lot uncertain. Making a decision without a backup plan is scary. Closing the one open door that stands between you and the future is frankly terrifying.

So please don't ask me what comes next. I know that's a logical question. Believe me, I've thought about it. I still don't have an answer. Respectfully, I suggest that you pose the question to instead.

Or, if you must ask, please be prepared to join me when I light out for the territories. I'll bring the two-liter cokes.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

New Spices, New Beginnings

Tropical Blast Chicken (serves 2)

Start with approximately 1/2 lb of chicken thighs, thawed and cleaned, with excess fat trimmed.

1 tsp fresh grated gingerroot
1 clove fresh garlic, minced
1 tbsp vegetable or olive oil
1/4 cup lime juice
A dash of fresh ground black pepper

Whisk together the marinade and pour over the chicken in a large plastic bag. Marinade for 45 min. to 1 hour, turning occasionally.

2 tsp fresh grated gingerroot
1 large clove fresh garlic, minced
2 tbsp vegetable or olive oil
1/4 cup lime juice
1 tbsp brown sugar
Fresh ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup raw pecans, roughly chopped.

Whisk the sauce ingredients together and set aside. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Peel two large sweet potatoes and cut them into cubes. Arrange the potatoes in a shallow glass baking dish, and place the chicken in the middle. Coat with the sauce. (Add more oil if needed to baste all of the potatoes.) Bake for 35 minutes, until the chicken is no longer pink in the middle.

Remove pan from the oven and cut the chicken into large pieces. Toss with the sweet potatoes and return dish to the oven. Bake for 25 minutes longer, or until the sweet potatoes are soft and the entire dish is beginning to brown. Serve with steamed sugar snap peas, brown rice, and an acidic white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc.


Verdict: I love the flavors in the sauce, but to bump it up a notch, I might add pineapple chunks for the last 20 minutes of roasting. This could also be a vegetarian dish; it would be equally delicious without the chicken.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Life, Easter, and the Music

It may not be the most traditional Easter music (no sunrise service or long rows of brass this year), but I love the rhythm and emotion of this song.

It may not be my most traditional Easter morning either, but life keeps catching me by surprise.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Multiple Smiley Faces

I think -- I think this is exciting. Can I let myself get excited now? Is it okay?

I received an email acceptance to the University of Wisconsin-Madison yesterday afternoon, and I have to admit, the statements above simulate my initial response pretty well.

After months of waiting and trying to keep my expectations low in light of repeated disappointments, I faced the good news without the ability to celebrate. Where the Jen whom I imagined might have danced around the house in giddy exuberance, the real Jen stared at the computer screen and started calculating pros and cons, all the while trying to muster an appropriate level of enthusiasm with which to share the news.

(Based on my repeated failure to hone a believable poker face, I doubt it was very convincing.)

It was in this moment when I remembered the downside of being a reserved, careful person, someone who is terrified of being hurt or vulnerable, who attempts to monitor and regulate all expressions of emotion. Not only emotions perceived as negative -- anger, fear, sadness -- but also positive emotions like happiness, excitement, and delight are difficult to express freely. I can just about number and name the instances when I've felt and expressed strong emotion of either type in the last few years.

However, there are also moments that fall outside the grid. The pure, spontaneous, unadulterated joy of dancing at high speed, running barefoot in the grass, or watching the stars emerge at night while singing at the top of my lungs: these things push back against a sense of control or reserve. In those moments, it is difficult to keep away the kind of smile that might be called more accurately a silly grin. If only I could channel that feeling of freedom into the opportunities and milestones that punctuate my daily life.

But maybe it is not impossible. By the end of the day yesterday, I was able to borrow some genuine enthusiasm from the people around me. Their excitement gave me permission to feel the same way. I could set aside, for a little while, the weight of the decision I now have to make. I could celebrate an accomplishment without tracking out its long-term implications. It felt pretty good.

Sometimes, holding emotions in reserve serves me well; sometimes, not at all. The trick, I guess, is learning how to distinguish between the two.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Forceful Advertising

Come on, Sheetz. You had a clever thing going. There are so many (better) things you could have done with the Force. This one frustrates me a bit.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Hope Springs

I don't know why, but as I went on my weekly walk this morning, my vision was clearer and more attentive than usual. Maybe it was the sharpness of the air, reminding me that this is March, not June. Perhaps it was the profusion of natural color. (We associate spring with pastels, but these colors are too vivid and saturated to be represented by the watery, simpering colors given that name in paint and clothing.) Then again, maybe it was a scientific result of the endorphins produced by my pituitary gland, and nothing more.

Whatever the reason, I spent an hour and a half noticing things: two little blond sisters racing ahead of me on scooter and on foot, the younger turning to look back and veering, bumper-car style, into the fence bordering the sidewalk before bouncing back unperturbed; a homeless man wearing a university sweatshirt and walking in long serpentine loops through the parking lot to keep moving until the neighborhood bookstore opened its doors; the slight stoop of the shoulders and downward sweep of the eyes that indicated that an approaching passerby was a dog-lover and might stop to say hello; and throughout, the rich hues of the greenery and blossoms that pushed aside winter's husks.

A dripping nose, sleepy eyes, and creaking knees are the payback for these early morning walks, but sometimes even those well-earned discomforts are precisely what I need to start the day.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Everyday Jug

I am much too alone in this world, yet not alone
to truly consecrate the hour.
I am much too small in this world, yet not small
to be to you just object and thing,
dark and smart.

I want my free will and want it accompanying
the path which leads to action;
and want during times that beg questions,
where something is up,
to be among those in the know,
or else be alone.

I want to mirror your image to its fullest perfection,
never be blind or too old
to uphold your weighty wavering reflection.
I want to unfold.
Nowhere I wish to stay crooked, bent;
for there I would be dishonest, untrue.

I want my conscience to be
true before you;
want to describe myself like a picture I observed
for a long time, one close up,
like a new word I learned and embraced,
like the everday jug,
like my mother's face,
like a ship that carried me along
through the deadliest storm.
--Ranier Maria Rilke,
"I Am Much Too Alone in This World, Yet Not Alone"

Sunday, March 18, 2012

It's Not Over 'Til It's Over

...but it's getting pretty close to over.

Just a few more weeks to go.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Story of Mankind

Only in the twisted world that is graduate school applications does the potential to receive a rejection letter constitute cause for wild celebration.

What a weird world it is.

Also a little frightening.

Over the weekend, I logged on to check the status of my remaining application. When I did, I discovered a secondary financial aid application that I had not completed prior to the December deadline. Instead of waiting to verify that I had in fact ruined my chances of admission, I panicked, choosing to believe the worst.

Receiving a rejection is one thing; sabotaging your own efforts by making a careless mistake is something else entirely. It would be the understatement of the year to say that I handled the "news" badly. In so many ways.

Today, I called to confirm the information, only to find that I was most likely mistaken. According to the individuals with whom I spoke, the financial aid application should not affect the admissions decision. Consequently, although I may receive a rejection letter in the mail today, it should not be the result of my absentmindedness (cover letter typo withstanding).

That knowledge should be tremendously freeing, and in part, it is.

At the same time, the situation forces me to look closely at the kind of person I become when I fail or am disappointed or make mistakes. (Having been privy for fifteen years to my own bad sportsmanship when I lose on the field, I should know already.) Yes, there is a lot at stake in this application process, so perhaps my frustration is understandable. These are my future plans, after all. Then again, is that really an excuse? If nothing else, I think this weekend has been something of a wake-up call about how much of my identity and sense of self-worth I attach to my career plans.

Appropriately, it was a work of literature that captured my feelings particularly well.

I'm currently reading Steinbeck's East of Eden. Somehow I missed it in high school, but I think I'm glad of that fact. I can appreciate its six hundred pages so much more now. Today, I read an exchange about humanity's obsession with two Bible stories: the Fall, and Cain and Abel. Attempting to explain this fascination, Lee says, "No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true and true of us. What a great burden of guilt men have! ... We gather our arms full of guilt as though it were precious stuff. It must be that we want it that way."

He goes on, "The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. I think everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt--and there is the story of mankind."

Ah, yep. Mine too.

To be fair, I haven't finished the book yet, and I suspect, knowing Steinbeck, that it will get even more complicated. Likewise, I know myself well enough to be aware that this momentary epiphany will not "fix" my insecurities in the least.

Having said that, in this particular moment, I am taking some measure of comfort from Lee's subsequent statement: "It isn't simple at all ... It's desperately complicated. But at the end there's light."

Monday, March 12, 2012

Distance Vision

Sometimes, seeing beyond the moment takes a little external prompting.

This worked pretty well.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Waiting and Winded

The grad school application process is winding down. April 15th is barely a month away, but I'm still waiting and trying to figure out how to proceed wisely.

Tonight, I have to take a step back and admit that I'm feeling overwhelmed. I don't really know what comes next. I'm not even sure what I hope will come next. But there you have it: the waiting game. The punchline of a joke that I would make if I were a little less tired. C'est la vie.

Maybe tomorrow.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Sour News Coffee Cake

Tonight's recipe brought to you by unplanned futures, anticipated rejection letters, and impending expiration dates.**

Sour News Coffee Cake


  • 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped walnuts
  • 3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 tsp baking powder
  • 3/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 3 tbsp butter, softened
  • 3/4 tsp vanilla
  • 2 large eggs
  • 3/4 cup sour cream

Heat oven to 350F. Grease bottom and side of a 9x5-inch loaf pan. You will need three medium-sized bowls. In one, stir together the filling ingredients. Set aside. In a second, stir together the flour, baking power, baking soda, and salt. Set aside. In the third, cream together the granulated sugar and butter. Add the vanilla and eggs and beat until smooth and fluffy. (The recipe calls for a mixer, but using a spoon is a much better way to work off frustration.)

In alternating thirds, beat in the flour mixture and the sour cream. When the batter is smooth, pour half of it into the loaf pan. Top with half of the filling, then repeat. (Hint: dropping the batter in evenly-spaced dollops makes it easier to spread.)

Bake for 45-50 minutes, or until a thin knife or toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes, then remove from pan. Slice warm, or cool for 30 minutes before serving. The recipe recommends a glaze, but I prefer the crusty top.

In retrospect, as the coffee cake turned out a trifle bland, I would swirl on a thin layer of cherry pie filling or berry compote before the second layer of batter.


**Modified from Betty Crocker. The bit about the impending expiration dates is mine.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

In Retrospect

Reason #4731 not to re-read the personal statement that you submitted to a school at which you have been rejected: discovering a typo in the final sentence.

Good job, self.

I could be the first subject for a slightly-misleading-as-to-its-actual-purpose-but-catchy series of video advertisements with the following slogan:

...should have gone to the Writing Center...

I'm picturing a spinoff of this delightful British campaign for Specsavers:

It would be a huge hit, trust me. And, even better, my fee is no higher than a Ph.D. application fee! (My agent will be standing by to take your calls.)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

You Win Some; You Don't Dare Lose

If we don't win the last game of the Series, they'll dismiss us. ...I know these guys. I know the way they think, and they will erase us. And everything we've done here, none of it'll matter.
This quote, spoken by Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), is played as one of the solemn, vulnerable moments in the Oscar-nominated film Moneyball.

Watching the movie tonight, I was grudgingly impressed. I thought the writing was strong (yes, Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing, The Social Network, and A Few Good Men worked on the screenplay). Although I couldn't forget that I was watching Brad Pitt in the role, I was drawn in by his character.

As I reflect on the movie, however, I am struck most by that one quote.

It expresses the source of tension in every successful sports film. The team hits a turning point mid-season, but none of their efforts matter unless they win the final game. In a movie, it provides a convenient and triumphant ending. (Biopics tend to conclude with a victory, even if it means excising part of the true story.)

The equation is simple. The competition has to have high stakes in order to draw viewers and generate buzz.

As one who gets frustrated by losing Monopoly or pick-up soccer, this type of competitiveness makes a great deal of sense to me. When it carries over to other pursuits, it becomes slightly more problematic.

The problem is that we cannot stop time after reaching a desired plateau of success. Life fails to conform to the dramatic arc of a film. (Read more about Beane's continuing story.) We are left with a discrepancy between the reality that everyone fails and loses and the mantra that a winner is always in danger of being erased.

In my experiences as a student and as a tutor, I have found that a great deal of anxiety surrounds the writing process because we are taught to think of writing, as well as most other academic work, as a similarly one-shot, high-stakes endeavor. Rather than making revision a natural part of the writing process, it becomes punitive. The paper has to be perfect the first time. End of story.

Don't get me wrong. I think the ability to handle pressure and seek excellence is vital. As an example, careers such as medicine and military service are imbued with responsibility that leaves little room for error.

But what happens when the high-stakes mindset becomes the default setting? In this model, there are no second chances. All previous accomplishments can be nullified by a single mistake. As a result, criticism and failure are devastating. Rest is impossible. The pressure builds and builds because no accomplishment is safe or can protect us from the inevitable failure that will someday follow.

This type of performance anxiety seems frankly unsustainable, and yet I buy into this mentality more often than I would like to admit. The irony is that my best tutoring moments and most candid conversations spring from weakness and struggle. When I give up on perfection, I am in a better position to focus on the other human who brings his or her own set of fears to our encounter.

But the drive to succeed remains, and I can't help wondering if this is a tension I will just have to learn to live with. You might even say, with all proper caveats inserted, that it is a tension as American as apple pie or -- dare I say it -- as American as baseball.

Rainy Sunday Soup

(Disclaimer: I actually made this soup last week. Today, although similarly chilly, was a grits-for-brunch kind of day.)

You Better Not Hate Butternut (Squash Soup)

Makes: 2 servings


-1 tbsp butter
-1/2 of a butternut squash: gutted, peeled, and cubed
-approximately 32 ounces of water
- 1/2 onion, diced
-1 clove garlic, minced
-1/4 tsp fresh-ground black pepper
-ground red pepper
-4 oz sour cream


In a medium saucepan, stir together the garlic, onion, black pepper, and about 16 oz of water. Bring these ingredients to a boil and stir periodically until onion becomes transparent. Add the squash, another 16 oz of water, a few dashes of nutmeg, and a dash of salt. Maintain high heat until the mixture returns to a boil, then reduce heat to low/medium-low and simmer for about 45 minutes, stirring periodically.

When the squash is soft, use a potato masher or the back of a spoon to mash the squash to a smooth consistency. Add a few dashes of ground red pepper (to taste); then turn off the burner and remove the pot from the heat.

When the soup has cooled down (about 15 minutes), stir in the sour cream. (Cooling the soup first minimizes separation of the cream.) Return the soup to the burner. Over medium heat, slowly raise the temperature while continuing to stir. When the soup is hot, it's ready to eat.

Perfect with fresh sourdough bread and cucumber salad. Enjoy!

To use an entire squash and container of sour cream, just double the recipe. Refrigerate the leftovers; soup reheats well.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Like Petey in Remember the Titans

Okay, grad schools. Let's have a 50%-off chocolate heart to heart.

I am deeply appreciative of your consideration in not "breaking up with me" over Valentine's Day.

That being said, the stores are now making way for Cadbury Eggs.

Any day now would be fine.

Email is great.

Snail mail is fine.

I would even take a phone call.

You can tell me.

I can handle it.

I just gotta know.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Yet and Now

By virtue of a rare Saturday off, I have time to be in a pensive mood today.

Fridays are turning into rejection-letter days, and the second rejection letter of the season felt worse than I thought it would. In both cases, the schools said my application was very strong and they were sorry not to offer me admission.

Rather than feeling excited that I almost made the cut (again), proving that I am a competitive applicant this year, my brain immediately began to rant, "You're just not quite good enough. In a close contest, you don't have the 'spark' that sets others apart. You're not unique. No matter how hard you try, it's never enough. You'll never be quite good enough."

Come on, brain. That's not helpful. Let's rewind.

The last time I went through this process, I wrote a post called "Hello, 'Yet.'" I re-read it today. At the time, I was applying to doctoral programs with only a bachelor's degree. Looking back, I know how vastly unprepared I was for that level of work, but in that moment the rejections stung. This is what I wrote:
I got another rejection letter - three just last week, to be precise, bringing my total number of acceptances into a PhD program to - you guessed it - zero. In my tongue-in-cheek-but-not-really response on this blog, I wrote "Jen is not PhD-program caliber." And then I paused.

Am I really not? As in ever? Boy, that's depressing.
Well obviously I'm not, because they rejected me.
Um, I think there's a flaw in the logic here somewhere.
No, really.
Don't be silly.
No, really.

Tired of arguing with myself, which is just a little weird, I capitulated and typed "at this point," because "at this point" leaves more room for self-pity than "yet." Not quite sure why, but it does; trust me.

"Yet" is inherently optimistic. Maybe because it sounds a little like "yes." It also implies that the statement that is not presently true will/can someday be true.
That was three years ago.

Now, when I receive letters of regret from high-caliber schools like Northwestern and Vanderbilt (both of whom rejected me that year with no more than a 'Your admission status is now available'), I should be encouraged to be reminded of something I think I already know: Jen is PhD-program caliber now.

Even if I'm not accepted this year -- the odds of 7/450 or 1/64 or 1.562% are, after all, enormous -- I've come a long way toward my goal.

I guess you could say this is me attempting to practice cognitive restructuring, because in this moment my brain is much more cynical, and the emotional feeling of failure outweighs the logical interpretation I've just posited. Psychology. Gotta love it.

I think that's why tea, chocolate, whiny text messages, and Saturdays still exist. It's a good thing, too.

If This Keeps Up...

...I will have to re-title my blog: Perennially Penultimate Ponderings

(that still didn't make the final cut)

(or even the wait list [who knew they had a wait list once removed?])

(but will have no final closure until April 15th)

Womp, womp.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

PSA: A Truth Universally Acknowledged

Contact: Jen, Public Liaison
Phone: 704-255-1887
Night line: 828-859-2905

Begin Jan. 1
End April 15


It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a graduate applicant in the period of waiting must NOT be in need of extraneous emails from the admissions department of graduate schools to which she has applied.

Unless the email contains or links to an admissions decision, admissions representatives are encouraged to think carefully before clicking "send."

According to recent research, 95 percent of applicants have already determined from GradCafe, Facebook, and school websites (which they have memorized) that the school will be making its decision within the next month. This information, while important, does not need to be repeated via email.

If, however, you must communicate with applicants, please observe one simple rule. Begin the title of all emails with the following phrase, in capital letters:


Acceptable substitute phrases include:

  • and if all else fails, DO NOT PANIC

The mental health of the graduate student and prospective graduate student community, already tenuous at best, depends on your cooperation.

For more information, please contact the public liaison for the Graduate Student Support Group at 704-255-1887. Thank you.


Saturday, February 4, 2012

Beautiful Words for Overthinkers Like Me

“Does it break my heart, of course, every moment of every day, into more pieces than my heart was made of, I never thought of myself as quiet, much less silent, I never thought about things at all, everything changed, the distance that wedged itself between me and my happiness wasn't the world, it wasn't the bombs and burning buildings, it was me, my thinking, the cancer of never letting go, is ignorance bliss, I don't know, but it's so painful to think, and tell me, what did thinking ever do for me, to what great place did thinking ever bring me? I think and think and think, I've thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it.”

--Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Movie aside, I love this book. So much.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Waiting Redux

If my life were a film, this scene would be shot in slow motion, with a sudden silence in the soundtrack.

::opens email inbox::


Northwestern University Application Decision Available

::gut drops::


Oh wait. That's the one I already received.


The waiting continues.

Friday, January 27, 2012


Serves me right for writing that last post.

Rejection #1 of 2012.



Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Ultimate Alternative Career

As the impatience to hear the outcome of my graduate applications builds, I'm happy to announce that I have discovered the perfect alternative career should my academic aspirations fail to materialize.

How, you may ask, did I achieve this gargantuan feat?

I began by cataloging my demonstrable skills and passions:

  • Researching obscure and esoteric facts.
  • Correcting others' errors.
  • Assisting with organization and planning.
  • Debating unimportant details and rules.
  • Taking instructions.
  • Remembering details about people, past conversations, and hypothetical plans.
  • Reading aloud.
  • Being introverted, and just listening until directly addressed.
  • Acting as a sounding board for others' ideas.
  • Figuring out what people want/need to hear in a given situation.
  • Misinterpreting nonverbal cues.
  • Providing snarky retorts to non sequitur comments.
  • Falling down at inopportune moments.

Before long, the only possible conclusion became clear.

I'm sure you know what I mean.

It's obvious, right?

If I don't get into grad school, there is only one thing left to do.





I shall become Siri.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Campaign Jokes

"The pundits have asked, 'Is this all some joke?' [...] If they are calling being allowed to form a Super PAC, and collecting unlimited and untraceable amounts of money from individuals, unions, and corporations, and spend that money on political ads and for personal enrichment, and then surrender that Super PAC to one of my closest friends while I explore a run for office...If that is a joke, then they are saying our entire campaign finance system is a joke. And I don't know about you, but I have been paid to be offended by that. [...] If corporations are people, people with a constitutional right to influence our elections, then I promise you that government of those people, by those people, and for those people, shall not perish from the earth."
--Stephen Colbert (rally, South Carolina)

Saturday, January 21, 2012


weltschmerz • \VELT-shmairts\ • noun, often capitalized
1 : mental depression or apathy caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state 2 : a mood of sentimental sadness.
This was yesterday's "word of the day" from Merriam-Webster. Besides being appropriate to the evening, it might be my new favorite word.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Proof Is in the Music

I absolutely, positively have not started thinking about my applications. I mean it.

So maybe I lied.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Blackout Notes

I wonder, sometimes, if the only people practically capable of effecting change are those willing to replace complexity with simplicity as a means to an end. Witness yesterday's Internet blackout by prominent sites such as Wikipedia and Reddit to protest the above bills. In consequence, representatives' websites were crashing, NPR was describing alternative ways to access Wikipedia content using Google's caching system, and (I can imagine) students all over the U.S. were praying that their research papers would not be due today. The solidarity was impressive.

And yet.

Disclaimer: I've only skimmed the two bills in question, and I would need to read more closely with a better knowledge of legal terminology to fully understand what is at stake. To my untrained eyes, however, while the language of the bills is ambiguous and in places troubling, it is by no means the simple "censor the Internet" message that has produced such enormous response. That slogan is far more compelling and accessible to the general public. It prompts action. It calls up negative associations. It creates buzz.

And yet.

I have a difficult time watching political debates for the same reason. On one hand, I'm stirred by the appeal to more jobs, lower taxes, and greater freedom. I want to argue back in short witty phrases and biting remarks against the candidates with whom I disagree or whose rhetoric seems to me to be especially short-sighted. I can play that game too.

And yet.

When we set aside the competition, the "winners-and-losers" denomination, the rhetoric itself is ambiguous, vague, and has little in common with the complexity that marks individuals' day-to-day lives. That conversation, which is missing from the public political arena, doesn't fit in thirty seconds of air time. It doesn't spur immediate response. It doesn't win elections. It doesn't stop the passage of a bill.

And yet.

Winning elections is our nation's way of choosing new leaders. Speaking out against restrictive laws and censorship creates the very space that allows me to muse about these things. Sometimes immediacy has to be a priority.

And yet, at what cost?

Call it a signature move of my generation, but I don't have a confident answer. If nothing else, this gave me something to ponder while I waited for Wikipedia to return.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

While You Eat

I am a read-while-you-eat kind of girl. I cook infrequently, and it's a rare meal when I don't have a book open on the table. Tonight, 117 pages away from finishing Wandering Stars, I planned to celebrate a Saturday off of work by enjoying a sit-down meal and finally finishing my book.

My style of cooking might be called "variations on a theme" because I shop in bulk to take advantage of lower prices-per-unit. This week, the theme was pork chops, and I had borrowed a friend's recipe to try something new.

After half an hour, I sat down to a main course of breaded pork chops topped with caramelized onions and melted smoked Gouda cheese, with garden-canned green beans on the side, and a glass of red wine. An instrumental album by Acoustic Eidolon was playing in the background.

I opened my book, took a bite of food, and then closed it again.

Wandering Stars remained closed for the duration of the meal.

At that moment (movie's merits aside), I couldn't help thinking of a line from Kate & Leopold: "But perhaps one'll understand that life is not solely composed of tasks, but tastes."

Tonight, still savoring my glass of wine, I could get behind that sentiment.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

In Honor of Garlic

Sometimes on a gray day, you need to pile on the flavor to liven up your dinner.

Garlic-Apricot Pork Chop Singles


1 boneless pork chop, medium-cut
garlic powder
2 dried leaves of basil, crushed
1/4 cup flour
2 Tbsp oil
1 large or 2 small cloves of garlic
1 Tbsp apricot preserves


In a shallow dish, season the flour with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and basil. Coat the pork chop in the flour mixture, thoroughly covering all sides.

Heat the oil in a small frying pan on medium heat. Mince the fresh garlic. When the oil is hot (just beginning to pop), toss the garlic into the oil and stir fry it until lightly browned (less than a minute). Use a fork to remove the garlic. Set aside in a small bowl.

Place the floured pork chop in the hot oil and cook until browned, about 5 minutes per side. Slice in half to see if the meat is fully cooked in the center. There should still be some liquid around the meat.

Reduce heat to low and stir the apricot preserves and the browned garlic into the pan. Spoon sauce over the meat and continue cooking, turning periodically, until thoroughly glazed and a caramel-colored brown.

Serve with cooked carrots, steamed broccoli or spinach (which I forgot to buy), and whole wheat toast. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Return of SMIOS

Being January, it seemed about time for a re-post: The Phases of Anticipation; or, How to Avoid Snowman SMIOS. So far, I'm right on schedule.

(Please ignore the flagrant typo in the title of the original post.)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Chat with Sidney

Today, for a brief interlude between longer books, I'm continuing an annual tradition of spending some time with the winners of the Sidney Awards, named for philosopher Sidney Hook.

This year, my selections are pretty diverse:
  • Dr. Don: The Life of a Small-Town Druggist, by Peter Hessler in The New Yorker
    • 9/10 - a whimsical, gently told narrative, character-driven and subtly shaped.
  • A Beauty, by Robert Boyers in AGNI Online
    • 5/10 - a bit esoteric and abstract for my taste, but the style is appropriate, given the topic.
  • The Order of Things: What College Rankings Really Tell Us, by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker
    • 6/10 - statistically based, but not to an extreme. The parallel anecdotes are extensive, almost to the point of distraction.
  • The Accidental Universe: Science's Crisis of Faith, by Alan P. Lightman in Harper's Magazine
    • 6/10 - interesting content, but the casual narrative style seems to clash with the more formal statistical explanations at points.
  • The Bitch Is Back, by Sandra Tsing Loh in The Atlantic
    • 6/10 - witty and (I suspect) insightful. I'll have to re-read it in 20 years to be sure.
  • The Epidemic of Mental Illness, Why?, by Marcia Angell in The New York Review of Books
    • 7/10 - weaves together approachable background information with a convincing presentation of the implications. I would pick up any of these three books.
    • Part II of Angell's review is called The Illusions of Psychiatry.
  • The Movie Set that Ate Itself, by Michael Idov in GQ
    • 8/10 - fascinating and slightly unnerving. I would be curious to see the film if it's ever completed and released internationally.

My top pick? At least in this universe, I'll have to go with Dr. Don.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Telling Stories

I wish this story were different. I wish it were more civilized. I wish it showed me in a better light, if not happier, then at least more active, less hesitant, less distracted by trivia. I wish it had more shape. I wish it were about love, or about sudden realizations important to one’s life, or even about sunsets, birds, rainstorms, or snow.

Maybe it is about those things, in a way; but in the meantime there is so much else getting in the way, so much whispering, so much speculation about others, so much gossip that cannot be verified, so many unsaid words, so much creeping about and secrecy. And there is so much time to be endured, time heavy as fried food or thick fog; and then all at once these red events, like explosions, on streets otherwise decorous and matronly and somnambulant.

I’m sorry there is so much pain in this story. I’m sorry it’s in fragments, like a body caught in crossfire or pulled apart by force. But there is nothing I can do to change it.

I’ve tried to put some of the good things in as well. Flowers, for instance, because where would we be without them?

Nevertheless it hurts me to tell it over, over again. Once was enough: wasn’t once enough for me at the time? But I keep on going with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story, because after all I want you to hear it, as I will hear yours too if I ever get the chance, if I meet you or if you escape, in the future or in heaven or in prison or underground, some other place. What they have in common is that they’re not here. By telling you anything at all I’m at least believing in you, I believe you’re there, I believe you into being. Because I’m telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are.

So I will go on. So I will myself to go on.
--The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
So many beautiful passages in this book.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Look Back at 2011...

10...typically causes one to crash into 2012 with unfavorable results.

[and other bits of wisdom I've garnered in the past year]

9...A cough should not last a month; however, repeating the refrain, "I'll get it checked out tomorrow" for 29 days is likely to produce this outcome.

8...Remembering to take a picture of the odometer at 99,999 miles may decrease, rather than increase, the odds of remembering to photograph the odometer at 100,000 miles.

7...Typos happen. They happen even on the first page of a many-times-proofread thesis. They often wait to reveal themselves until the document in question has been published and bound.

6...The Coffee-Drinker's Catch-22: until you've had your morning coffee, it is practically impossible to drink coffee without spilling it down your shirt or splashing it on your computer.

5...Pre-coffee tea drinking does not bypass the Coffee-Drinker's Catch-22. Even if it's caffeinated.

4...Don't mess with the warty pumpkins. They will destroy you, one jot of self-worth at a time.

3...Whether in writing or in life, transitions are a beast.

2...The plague of "lasts" is unavoidable. For that reason...

1...Whether you have two years or only 300 words, make it good.

Goodbye, 2011!
Hello, 2012!!
Happy New Year!!!