Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Gratitude in 2010

As you can tell from the time I submitted my last post, I have been rather occupied with school.  It was a demanding but rewarding year for me.  I acquired invaluable experiences from my classes; time spent with family taught me numerous lessons.
Mike is thrilled to meet the other Michael.
 My analysis of the events this year are the following:
  1.  Let your husband or significant other pursue his or her passions.  Michael has been a contented person thanks to his cooking hobby.  Is it really a hobby?  I am not sure it is.  His cooking pursuits are more like an obsession and I refuse to prevent him from chasing after them.  He had such a lovely time at Michael Symon's cooking class learning how to make summer squash salad, grilled lamb and keftedes or Greek meatballs.  Plus I get the benefit of tasting his experiences.

Diane is smiling because of visiting one of her favorite cities, Chicago.
 2.  It is essential to take a family vacation away from your home town.  No other experience can substitute a family trip.  Our children appreciated the opportunity to encounter different people, foods and past-times while in Chicago this year.  We would be hard pressed to match that experience while staying in Akron.  A big city is a great laboratory for the human experience.  The children got the chance to see Chinatown, eat bao or Asian buns and visit world-class museums.  I reveled in watching their excitement while trying out new activities.

Natalie and Tim are hanging out at Scooter's Dawg House.
 3.  Siblings need to share their summer activities together.  It is tempting to let the kids go their separate ways during summer break.  Ben will always find a friend that he can hang out with.  However, Mike and I made sure that we hiked, swam or shared a meal as a family.  This connectedness is the glue that helps maintain family homeostasis during stressful times.  It was without a doubt, a trying time for the family with me in school at night.  Michael was the "single parent" for three out of five nights.  I believe the children were more considerate towards each other because of the family ties we established up till this point.  The kids realize that they have each other to rely on along with their parents.

Ben is proud wearing Dayne Crist's jersey from Notre Dame.
 4.  Children need to find recreation that they are enthusiastic about.  Ben couldn't make up his mind this year about what was his favorite pursuit.  Although, he really discovered football this year.  He started pouring over football stats once his grandfather introduced him to preseason, college football magazines.  Now he pays attention to the sports pages and asks Mike about Notre Dame, the Cavaliers and the Cleveland Browns.  Ben is indubitably learning how to endure cheering for a losing team.  Mike and Ben have been faithfully watching the up and down, Cleveland Browns.  

5.  I and my family benefit by continually learning new ideas.  My field experience in the classroom was a real eye opener to how education takes place.  Yes, it was demanding devising lesson plans for high school students.  Despite that, it was worth the effort making sense of how adolescents learn.  My appreciation for intellectual enlightenment has increased a thousand fold.  I am a more humble and patient person because of my experiences.  I am more compassionate parent because I am more aware of the struggles that my children and husband face.

Yes, this year has been a formidable year for us, but it has been most satisfying.  Michael, the children and I have thrived with appreciable experiences.  I actually look forward to additional challenges next year because I know they will pay dividends to our family growth.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

An Unnatural Animal Alliance

I was at the Cleveland Regional Council of  Science Teachers Conference a week ago at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.  It was a great location for the conference since many sessions were concerned with animal science. We, as a human species are at a crossroads with animals.

Diane's teacher conference includes topics like exotic animal release and the new elephant exhibit at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

 We have made considerable strides in our treatment of animals.  Our government enacted the Animal Welfare Act in 1966 to guide the treatment and care of animals used in research, for exhibit or sale.  Scientist today employ animals in an ethical and pain free manner.  Likewise zoos consider every aspect of an animal's needs before exhibiting those animals.  In addition, dealers produce records of an animal's care before selling that animal.

However, our relationship with animals has taken a deleterious divergence.  Exotic pets have become the  latest fad in domesticated animals.  Unfortunately, the state of Ohio has some of the most lax laws with regulating the sale and ownership of exotic pets.  Why are suburban home owners allowed to raise and care for dangerous predators like bears, tigers and wolves?  If I had a neighbor who was raising a chimpanzee, I would consider moving.

What motivates exotic pet owners to care for unpredictable predators?  Unfortunately it is due to TV shows with people like Steve Irwin, Austin Stevens and Jeff Corwin.  These animal exploiters depict wild animals in sensational and inhumane settings.  Steve routinely teases the crocodiles or snakes on camera by picking them up by the tail or forcing them to strike him.  In addition, many of the crocodiles seen on his shows are zoo-fed or sedated.  This gives viewers an unrealistic impression of animal behavior in the wild and furthers animal cruelty.

Animal Planet has begun to air a new show called Fatal Attraction.   This show will only incite suburbanites to become exotic pet owners.  Exotic pet owners believe that they are conservationists since the animal's natural habitat is being encroached by humans.  This is an honorable endeavor but many exotic pet owners don't realize that they are endangering nearby residents.  Many exotic pet owners are unaware of the aggressiveness of chimpanzees as they age; or how a bite from an iguana is laden with salmonella (a stitched bite runs the risk of infection if not properly treated with antibiotics).

The keynote speaker at the CRCST conference was Tim Harrison, an exotic animal activist.  For almost ten years, he has been assisting in the recovery of exotic animals that have been released into the environment.  Whenever exotic pet owners become frustrated or unable to continue care for their animals, they liberate the animals in parks, fields or uninhabited spaces hoping for the best.  Tim drives hundreds of miles to rescue these animals because first responders like police or fire personnel are often unprepared to capture these exotic pets.  Moreover, exotic pets can escape like the chimp in Kansas City.  These lost exotic pets become a public nuisance and potentially a menace to humans.  Tim knows first hand how dangerous it is to coral a wild boar piglet, a six foot alligator or a capuchin monkey.

Tim wants educators and parents to know about the misperception that animal TV shows are propagating.  Exotic pets are not meant for domestication like cats and dogs.  They are unpredictable, strong and lethal.  Tim hopes that his movie, The Elephant in the Room brings this message across.

We as humans have made appreciable advancement in the care and treatment of animals used in research and education.  Now, we need to carry that success to the animals found in the wild.  They deserve to have our respect, understanding and to remain undomesticated.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sweet Science

Tim and I usually try to do an activity in the morning before school.  He tends to pick a holiday craft but lately I've been promoting science experiments.  No, he's not looking for a cure for cancer or solving global warming.  I just try to find easy but educational activities that stretch his current understanding of the natural world.
This mason jar contains a ghoulishly purple syrup for rock candy.
Initially when I asked him if he wanted to make rock candy, he asked me when he could eat it.  When I told him it would be a week, he said "skip it."  Undeterred, I decided to start making the sugar syrup to see if I could grab his attention.  Sure enough, he was asking me what I was doing while I was rounding up ingredients.

Most recipes for rock candy have you boiling water in a pan and then adding sugar little by little.  I decided that we would make ours in the microwave.  The only challenge would be to not let the syrup boil over while it was in the oven.  I avoided that by heating the sugar water in minute increments.

While I was heating the cup of water before adding the sugar, I had Tim cut string in twelve inch lengths.  He did an outstanding job using the ruler and clipping the string into the desired length.  We decided to use butcher's twine because of the rough surface which would give our sugar crystals a place to grow.

Once Tim cut six pieces of string, we tied them onto a pencil and let the twelve tails dangle into a quart mason jar.  Meanwhile, I heated the cup of water in the microwave until it was almost boiling.  Then Tim added a cup of sugar to the water and stirred it until dissolved.  It was interesting listening to his dialogue about the syrup.  He like seeing the bubbles in the syrup and enjoyed watching the sugar change from white to clear.  Tim has considerable observational skills and is wonderful at describing his experiences.

Next, I added another cup of water to the mixture and heated the syrup till almost boiling.  Then Tim added a second cup of sugar.  He kept asking me "I wonder what this will taste like?"  I appreciated the fact that he was curious and was thinking ahead to the end product.  After the sugar was dissolved, I cautiously heated the syrup (one minute at a time on high power) because I didn't want the mixture to froth over.

For me, the fascinating part of the activity is making a saturated solution.  The syrup needs a longer time to heat up after you add the third cup of sugar.  The sucrose molecules are occupying close quarters and have less water around themselves to stay dissolved.  Tim noticed by the fourth cup of sugar, that the mixture was thick, more opaque and full of bubbles.

Tim's favorite part of the recipe was adding the food coloring.  He kept flip-flopping between orange and purple (probably because of Halloween this month).  When he chose purple, the sugar syrup ended up looking more like royal blue than a true purple.

Once the syrup was colored we poured it carefully into the quart mason jar without letting the syrup touch the pencil or strings.  Unfortunately, the light weight of the strings caused them to float rather than stay submerged in the syrup.  If we had weighted down the twine, the strings might have remained immersed in the sugar water.  I tried to poke them down with a knife unsuccessfully.

Needless to say, I put a sign on the jar to discourage curious persons from picking it up and shaking the contents.  Saturated sugar solutions will crystalize with any possible disturbance (change in heat, change in movement) so quality rock candy needs to sit for about a week.  This gives the sucrose molecules the opportunity to join together and form monclinic crystals.

The chunky confection takes about a week to form.
It was challenging for Tim to wait the full week for his rock candy.  Although, each day he would look at it and wonder what was happening inside that jar.  I thought it was a great exercise in using his reasoning skills.  When the seventh day came, Tim was thrilled to taste his confection.

It took me a while to get the strings of candy separated from the block of sugar that formed on the bottom of the jar.  Once I did, Tim gobbled up the candy on the first string within seconds.  I think next time we make this recipe, we're going to add some flavoring.  Pure sugar, to me is too cloying.  Sugar needs a little enhancement like cinnamon or the traditional anise.

Our experiment was a sweet success.  Tim got to see some authentic science with sucrose crystals.  He was able to observe and ask thought provoking questions. Yet, most of all, his patience was rewarded with a scrumptious sugary delight.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Northern Exposure

No, I'm not going to write about the infamous TV show, Northern Exposure.  Instead, I want to talk about my dilemma with the adverse growing conditions I experience this summer.  After doing some investigation online, I found out that Akron, Ohio had it's 6th hottest summer this year.  We in addition are experiencing drought conditions.  It's no wonder why I had to water my garden almost every two days this summer.

Another challenge with our garden was its northerly location.  We sometimes only get six hours of sunshine per day.  I wanted to optimize our sun exposure so I moved our vegetable beds this spring.  I was grateful that I did because I got a better harvest this year.  My greatest success was with the grape tomatoes.  I collected about a handful of tomatoes each day and would put them in my salad.  The vines are still producing even with last night's overnight temperature of 45 degrees.  It wont be long before I will have to bring the green ones inside soon.  Check out Iowa State University Extension description on how to ripen tomatoes inside for future use.

Our garden produced numerous grape tomatoes this summer.
Unfortunately, I can't match a garden that faces south like my brother-in-law, Matt.  I envy his garden and have resigned myself to the fact I will never equal it unless we pack up, sell the house and buy a lot across the street.  How about a $200,000 tomato?  That's probably what it would cost me to get the bountiful harvest that south-facing gardeners get.

I still won't give up on my northern exposed garden.  Thankfully, I have convinced Michael that we need to rearrange our plans for a future patio attached to our deck.  I persuaded him to select the western side of the backyard for his charcoal grill.  I want to sway him so that I can use the ground that is under his current grill location.  My master plan is to put in two more garden beds that face east.  Hopefully the eastern side of the backyard encounters enough sun to support potatoes, carrots and swiss chard.  Now I know what it is like to be growing crops under northern exposure.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

How To Be a Wizard Wordsmith

I came across an excellent book the other day that I believe every literate person should read.  You may ask yourself, what is it?  Ulysses?  Crime and Punishment?   No, it's The Glamour of Grammar by Roy Peter Clark.

The book has captivated me because it pushes my writing in unfamiliar directions.  As you can tell from my previous blogs, I love to learn new things.  Clark's book improves my word usage like never before.  He cultivates language utilization by emboldening writers to take chances on sentence structure.  His volume, furthermore, assists writers in developing enchanting language and bewitching grammar.

I remember in sixth grade when my teacher, Sister Flo had us diagraming sentences by the boat load.  They were ugly devices that sometimes resembled voodoo dolls with pins sticking out in various orientations.  I realize that she was trying to make us aware of the parts of speech.  For example, subjects needed predicates in order to be a clear statement.  Equally, she taught to craft sentences with both direct and indirect objects.

Unfortunately, I still committed numerous sins of the English language after Sister Flo's class.  Diagramming sentences didn't give me the confidence I needed to become a higher quality writer.  Instead it took me another twenty years to acquire a command of words to want to write for pleasure.   I now know if I want to master writing I am required to draft, edit and polish my writing continuously.  It takes me a while to perfect this process but I am patient and pertinacious.

How does Clark get people to be spunky about syntax?  Ha, ha!  By bending the rules a tiny bit.  I was so pleased to read that.  I love to stretch standards and fashion them according to my fancies (see pg. 35).  That is grampowerment to me (see pg. 40).  I like that Clark considers words to be tools that writers use to convey their meanings and it is a liberating message to hear.

I hope you check out Clark's book after reading this post.  It will rescue your shabby sentence structure from your memory's dustheap.  In addition, his manual will give you ready refinement to the significance of your sentences.  Yet, most of all, let Clark's book unearth the magic of your writing within the confines of the English language.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Flatbread Heaven 4

It's hard to believe that summer only has less than two weeks remaining.  The weather has turned towards fall but my thoughts are still occupied with summer.  That is why I had to grill some more flatbread.

I was watching Mark Bittman from the New York Time demonstrate his Grilled Lebanese Pita Bread recipe.  It looked inherently easy and delicious.  His recipe called for all-purpose flour and za'atar spice mix.  I decided to improvise a whole wheat recipe with my own spice mix.

I like this recipe because it has more flavor than chapati.  Chapati is unleavened bread and this recipe has a tablespoon of yeast to help the dough rise.  You will be amazed, with a little advanced preparation, how simple and delicious this flatbread is.

Natalie was my videographer again, so if you hear heavy breathing on the video, you know who that is.  Likewise, Michael was my consultant in this recipe.  He helped me figure out how to mimic the za'atar spice mix.  Ben and Tim just watched and waited until it was time to eat.

Here is my version of grilled pita bread:

1 cup filtered water, room temperature
2 tsp table salt
1 tsp granulated sugar
1 tbsp yeast

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
olive oil for brushing dough

1.  Combine water, salt, sugar and yeast in a large bowl.  Stir and let sit for five minutes.
2.  Add flour mixture and stir.  Use hands to combine lingering flour.  The dough will be somewhat dry. You can add a tablespoon of water at a time to combine all of the flour.  Cover bowl and let sit in a warm place for an hour.
3.  Preheat grill for fifteen minutes.  Turn out rested dough onto a floured counter.  Knead dough by hand for five minutes until soft and pliable.
4.  Cut dough into 8 pieces and roll each piece into a ball.  With rolling pin and more flour, roll out each piece into a 6 inch diameter circle.  Place each disc onto a sheet pan with parchment paper.  Brush each pita disc with olive oil.  Prepare spice mix* listed below.
5.  Scrape off grill with cleaning brush.  Turn grill down to medium heat and brush grill grates with cooking oil.  Place pita discs onto grill, olive oil side down and cook for about a minute.
6.  Brush uncooked side with more olive oil.  Turn pita bread over when bubbles are visible and grill marks are present underneath.  Cook second side for about a minute.   Sprinkle spice mixture on top of pita while cooking second side.  Pita bread is done when second side shows browning and grill marks.

*Diane's spice mix

sea salt
black pepper
1/8 tsp ground cumin
couple sprigs of fresh thyme

Friday, September 3, 2010

Our American Toad

It was sizzling last Monday and I decided to pull the hose and sprinkler out for Timmy to enjoy.  Much to my surprise, a toad had hopped out from under our hose cart.  I didn't realize before then that we had an amphibian living in our backyard.
The Vrobel's American Toad is fond of shelter under the hose cart.
The next time I saw him (assuming the toad is a male), was Tuesday night after opening the garage door.  Luckily, he wasn't squished by the car but continued sitting smack dab on the driveway.  I had to caution the kids not to step on him.

It makes me feel good to know our backyard is in good health and can support the American Toad.  After reading up on the reptile's background, I discovered that he is doing us a favor.  He is our natural bug zapper.  Our garden plants can grow pest free thanks to the American Toad.

The other fascinating tidbit that I learned is that amphibians are sensitive to increases in acid rain or heavy metals.  Likewise, there have been reports of frogs and toads with missing limbs because of chemical exposure.  Oregon State University found that frog exposure to low levels of nitrate and nitrites (found in commercial garden or yard fertilizer) can affect amphibian development.  Thankfully, our lawn has been chemical-free for the last three years.

It is satisfying finding thought-provoking wildlife in our backyard.  I feel good knowing we are being good stewards with our quarter acre plot of land.  I just hope our American Toad likes his digs enough to stay.

Additional information on amphibian health and organic lawn care:
Homeowner's Guide to Protecting Frogs
Lawns: Pesticides Use and Alternatives

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Another Piece of Pleasure

If you read my post on happiness, you learned about my insight into consumer happiness.  Today I would like to write to you about universal happiness.  I realize it is a condition that everyone is seeking including myself.
Diane's pleasure is her harvest of new potatoes, a sweet hungarian pepper, bush beans and pink tomatoes.
Lately I have been contemplating joyfulness.  I am aware bliss doesn't occur when we want it to but it can happen in short bursts throughout the day.  I can be cheerful watching a butterfly flit by the kitchen window even though my children are dragging their feet while cleaning up the table.  Happiness always partners with some unpleasantness.

I believe that is why I am fond of bittersweet (sweet with a bitter aftertaste).  It is one of my most favorite words to use and I love the flavor.  I can't resist eating dark chocolate,  drinking a caffe latte, or sipping a Belgian beer.  Delight in all things bittersweet has taught me to accept exceptional experiences with imperfect times.

Likewise, I can accept the bittersweet parts of life.  Monday was taxing because it was my first day back to college after having a only month off from studying.  Initially, I was stoked about starting school since I passed my grueling Praxis exam.  However, I learned in my first class that I could expect about 15 hours of observation at a local high school (how I could fulfill this with three small children to take care of, I did not know).  This requirement was on top of my regular homework assignments.  I hadn't even attended my other two classes and I felt a wave of crushing defeat hit me.

The former Diane would have tried to find a way to avoid the feelings of frustration, anger and sadness generated by this considerable school assignment.  Instead, the alternative Diane decided to bear these
emotions without dodging them.  Why, you might ask.

Carlin Flora in her article, The Pursuit of Happiness writes that "happiness is not your reward for escaping pain."  Many of us run into problems when we avoid suffering.  We may fall into harmful habits that unwittingly help us avoid distressing occurrences.  Instead, we need to face discomfort in order to fully experience contentment.

I have to agree with this.  By encountering the disagreeable thoughts of new homework assignments,  I could feel the unpleasantness and move on to more positive feelings.  Another consideration to this dilemma would be to have a more zen-like approach.  By not judging the feelings we are experiencing at a certain moment as good or bad, rather seeing the emotions as a necessary part of life, we can accept the obstacles and try to decipher what they mean to us.

Yes, life is demanding (as I found out this week at school), but it also is gratifying.  I just pulled an assortment of vegetables from my garden and they look delicious.  I am going to sit out on my patio and have a sun ripened tomato, my piece of pleasure.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Time to Smash a Pumpkin

Michael butchered our home grown pumpkin yesterday.  He put pumpkin soup on the menu because the gourd was ripe and ready to eat.  I snagged the pumpkin seeds before he tossed them into the compost heap.   I know it's early but I wanted to make toasted pumpkin seeds.
This is a modest amount of pumpkin seeds from our five pound pumpkin.
 I thought it would be easy to find a recipe for toasted pumpkin seeds.  After a five minute internet search, I found about a dozen different recipes.  Directions varied from soaking the seeds overnight to boiling them first before roasting the seeds in the oven.  I wanted a simple but scrumptious recipe.  Therefore, I decided to make my own.
Pumpkin seeds need to be towel dried before mixing with butter and spices.
 After gutting the pumpkin, I sorted the seeds and removed the excess flesh.  I then rinsed the seeds in a mesh strainer and dumped them onto a sheet pan with paper towels.  After towel drying the seeds, I started work on the spice mixture.

Roasted pumpkin seeds taste great with butter, nutmeg, sugar, cinnamon and salt.
 When ever I make roasted nut snacks, I prefer a sweet but salty flavor.  A lot of the recipes had incorporated salt and some type of oil.  Very few cooking instructions included spices.  I felt that because  pumpkin is always associated with pie, I had to add cinnamon and a little nutmeg.

I combined melted butter, salt, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg in a bowl.  Meanwhile, I spread the seeds on a Silpat (silicone pad) in a half sheet baking pan.  The seeds were piled on the Silpat and the oven was set to 350 degrees.  I poured the butter mixture onto the seeds and mixed it with the seeds by hand.  Then I spread the seeds out onto the pan in a single layer.

Most recipes I viewed said to roast the seeds in the oven for ten to fifteen minutes.  I ended up toasting the seeds for twenty.  I would just keep on eye on the seeds and look for browning after fifteen minutes.  It probably depends on how wet your seeds are.

This is Diane's home grown toasted and tasty pumpkin seeds.
Let me tell you, Michael and I ate up all these seeds.  They were delicious.  The kids probably had one each.  Hopefully some day they will appreciate the sweet and savory seeds.

Diane's Toasted and Tasty Pumpkin Seeds

*per 1 cup of pumpkin seeds

1  tbs melted butter
1  tsp granulated sugar
1  tsp salt
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp cinnamon

1.  Set oven to 350 degrees.  Rinse seeds and remove excess pumpkin flesh.  Drain in fine mesh colander.  Dry with paper towels.

2. Melt butter and place in a small bowl.  Add sugar, salt, nutmeg and cinnamon.  Combine.

3.  Place seeds on parchment paper or silicone pad on sheet pan.  Pile seeds onto sheet pan.  Add butter mixture.  Throughly mix seeds with butter mixture by hand.  Spread seeds out into single layer.

4.  Place sheet pan in oven.  Check in fifteen minutes for browning of seeds and smell of cinnamon.  Remove and let cool.


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

My Own Slice of Bliss

I came across a New York Times article last week about consumer happiness.  Stephanie Rosenbloom wrote about the current economic recession and how it moved some people to change their approach to purchasing goods.   People are buying less, but it is ingrained in our culture to find happiness through possessions.  Does this mean we are less content?  Is there a alternative way to locate elation?

One of my simple pleasures is finding a new butterfly in the backyard, a variegated fritillary.
In Rosenbloom's article, she writes about a couple of people that have opted out of the shopping treadmill.  One woman gave up her job as a project manager to become a freelance writer.  She and her husband pared their belongings down to 100 items and now live in a 400 sq. foot apartment.  Another person, a filmmaker downsized from a posh home in San Francisco to a trailer park in Malibu.  He wanted to be closer to the surf action.  Both groups of people have shed materialism to find a happier life.

I started questioning how this could fit in my own circumstances.  Before I pondered this, I wanted to learn more about happiness.  If you look in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, happiness is defined as a state of well-being and contentment.   Likewise,  Wikipedia lists happiness as a state of mind that has origins in biology, physiology, religion and/or philosophy.  It seems that contentment is manifested in many different ways.

Now I will tell you I started reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin earlier in the year.  I confess I didn't finish the book.  It wasn't a quick read.  I do intend to go back and complete it.  From what I did read, Rubin had some interesting suggestions for well-being like getting to sleep earlier and exercising more frequently.  I am doing those things already, but I sometimes struggle with finding happiness.  In spite of that, I give her a lot of credit with using different approaches to locate her bliss.  Rubin's book shows us that happiness is not elusive, we just need to track it down.

I continued further with my investigation of happiness and found a few more tidbits.  In Psychology Today, Carlin Flora writes about The Pursuit of Happiness which is a discourse about the latest trend in popular psychology.  Why are Americans still struggling with finding bliss?  Flora states that some of us are stuck in a self-indulgent pattern of acquiring the latest gadgets or securing social upgrades.  These are only quick fixes with no lasting happiness.  However, a person can seek true contentment by detaching from the "hedonistic treadmill" and look for pursuits that are lively and not instantly boring.

What does this mean?  For myself, going back to school has been pleasurable.  I have found it to be full of challenges, forcing me to meet new people and helping me a learn new skills.   Likewise, another source of happiness has been home improvement projects.  I moved my vegetable gardens this spring and have been reaping the rewards of having daily fresh tomatoes this summer.  In addition, I recently stained our backyard deck.  It was four days of patient, sweaty labor but now I can watch butterflies to my heart's content on our newly restored deck.

Getting back to the New York Times article, Rosenbloom spoke with a number of psychology experts and found happiness to be firmly rooted in experiences and not material goods.  One expert, Dr. Diener suggested that Americans need to strive against "hedonic adaptation."  The excitement over a new purchase quickly declines in order to maintain homeostasis.  This means that money is better spent on a trip to the beach than acquiring a new car.

I have to agree with Dr. Diener.  Tim and I had a lovely time at the Medina County Fair a couple of weeks ago.  We are still talking about our encounter with all the fascinating farm animals and produce at the fair.  Having said that, you can ask me what I purchased recently and I struggle to remember.  Maybe  I got a book and some skin cream.  Whoop-de-do.  It just goes to show that I have an easier time remembering what I did than what I bought.

Needless to say, I learned a lot about consumer happiness in a short week.  I can be contented with less belongings and more pursuits.  It doesn't mean I will stop spending money.  It just means I will be more selective in what I do with my money.  I wonder how many people have figured that out.  Hopefully you are one of the lucky few who know the rewards with experiences rather than owning more stuff.  Oh well, live and learn.  And don't worry, be happy!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Diane's Uncelebrity Playlist

While I was walking daily on my vacation, I listened to a number of iTunes Celebrity Playlist podcasts.  It was fascinating listening to people like Jewel, the Edge, Mick Jagger and Slash put on their favorite records.  There was always hidden surprises to their playlists and I liked hearing their reason for choosing the various tracks.
Diane is listening to her beloved tunes on her iPhone 4.
I thought I would entertain you with my digital selections.  You might find some tucked away music you haven't discovered yet.  Or my tunes may call to mind a sweet musical memory.  Without further ado, here is my summer playlist.

The first number on my playlist has to be a catchy song with drama and can withstand repeated listenings.  I have been leaning slightly towards alternative country/folk.  I also need music that is peppy and full of acoustic guitar.   And It Spread by the Avett Brothers fits the bill.  They have a nice mix of vocal harmonies, poignant lyrics and hummable melodies.  I feel like I am sitting on their porch during a lazy afternoon listening to their little vignettes.

The next song I have to bring out is a Cleveland band that I heard on my local public radio station, 91.3 the Summit.  Love and Misery is a haunting song by the Modern Electric.  It is sung by Garrett Komyati who reminds me of male Janis Joplin.  We all have been in tormented relationships and I think this tune sums up the feelings very well.  The keyboards are brilliant on this song too.

In that same vein, I downloaded another local artist, Kate Tucker and the Sons of Sweden.  She was born in Ohio and moved to form her band in Seattle.  I like her music because it is guitar-driven and evocative.  Saturday Night is my favorite track off the album.  The song has a haunting melody and expresses the frustration of being under someone's influence.  By the way,  she will be in the area for Concert on the Square on September 3rd.

Now to lighten the mood, I have to put the latest popular summer song on my playlist.  Train's Save Me, San Francisco is a funny but plaintive plea for the band's hometown.  I like how the lyrics weave different musical metaphors to describe the band's historical transformation.  They touch on everything from disco to calypso.  What a rhyming way to describe the rough road to stardom.

After sharing a few current numbers, I have to include an older song to awaken some good summer memories.  Every time I hear this melody, I have to smile to myself.  Al Green has a serious gift for soul music.  I know I will have critics countering me but Let's Stay Together is his best work.  The strings, the beat and Al's velvet voice are mind-blowing.   I always think of a warm sunny place with my sweetie while listening to this track.

Although you must forgive me for experiencing my formative years during the disco era.  I have to include Got To Get You Into My Life in my playlist or it would be a serious omission.  Earth, Wind and Fire always fascinated me with their whole Egyptian getup.  I loved the costumes they wore for each performance (and this was back before music videos).  Granted they were a African-American R&B, Jazz band and not real Egyptian musicians.  If you ignore that, the band sultry presence with Phillip Bailey on vocals is stellar with killer horns!

I have to include one more oldie but goodie and it's all because of Natalie.  We were listening to it the other day and she was grooving with me.  If a seven year old likes a mature pop song, it must be a first-class number.  Thriller reminds me of summer drive in movies that were scary but fun.  What a timeless song.   I realize that Michael Jackson may have had a questionable personal life but the man had imposing talent.  

Back to the present, I want to submit The Outsiders  by Needtobreathe for my playlist.  It is a plucky anthem that talks about standing your ground.  I like the harmonies and banjo on this track.  It make me feel like I'm in a rural southern town listening to Bear Rinehart's supplication.

My second last entry of Diane's Uncelebrity Playlist has to be Just Breathe  by Pearl Jam.  The song has a quiet ballad vibe without being pretentious.  I like the open honest confession that Eddie Vedder makes to his loved ones.  The lyrics are just beautiful.

The final recording in my playlist has to be The Blackest Lily by Corinne Bailey Rae.  I like the song because it has a retro feel to it.  When I heard her iTunes Celebrity Playlist, she only had time-honored music.  I was impressed with how gracious she was towards the greats like Jimi Hendrix or Ray Charles.  Her song echos the funk scene and describes the buzz a person can get from a love affair.  

Well, I hope you enjoyed Diane's Uncelebrity Playlist.  You may have discovered some new tunes or unearthed a nostalgic remembrance.  In any event, may your summer be filled with many days of musical enjoyment.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

It's a Pumpkin!

While I was vacationing by breathtaking Lake Erie, my garden was up to mischief.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, Mother Nature's activity is hard to predict.  A gardener never knows what Mother Nature will bestow.

Here is the mystery summer squash that is actually a pumpkin.
 When I arrived back home, I had to survey the garden.  I found out I wrongly labeled the mystery plant.  Our summer squash turned out to be a pumpkin.   Timmy must have planned this.  He's always wanted to grow a pumpkin from a seed and now he's gotten his wish.
I located genuine summer squash in our garden.
 Much to my surprise, in the same vegetable garden, we have another summer squash plant.  Mike and I love summer squash.  Hopefully you have checked out Mike's recipe for summer squash and tasted some.  It's our new favorite dish this summer, by the way.
This cuke is growing outside the box, literally. 
 I also found a cucumber fruit growing outside the chicken wire which is our safety zone.  We have a plethora of rabbits living in the neighborhood.  The cuke has probably been growing for the last two weeks so maybe rabbits don't like them.  I won't try to protect it so we'll see if it survives to maturity.
We have been getting numerous grape tomatoes from the upside down tomato bucket.
 We have had no shortage of tomatoes since we've been back from vacation.  It's best part of summer.  Every other day, I have been able to go out my back door and pick tomatoes.  I've had grape, cherry and cherokee purple tomatoes.  I don't know if I have a favorite fruit right now.  I have to admit, the cherokee tomatoes have a juiciness that the grape and cherry tomatoes don't have.  Home grown tomatoes are the best!
This is Ben's lowly Rudbeckia that has survived bunny munching.
In the front yard we've had a couple of revelations.  The bunnies have been actively eating our hostas, violets, an ironweed plant and Ben's poor rudbeckia.  When I could, I would spray those plants with hot pepper wax to discourage the snacking.  Amazingly, Ben's black-eyed susan flowered after being chewed down to a couple of inches.  I can't believe how resolute plants are to stay alive and reproduce.
The mexican sunflowers are much loved by bees, butterflies and goldfinches.
The last wonderment I witnessed was the pair of mexican sunflower plants that have thrived in our front garden beds.  The bees and butterflies just love, love, love the plants.  One afternoon while reading a book, I counted twenty some visits by the Eastern Tiger Swallowtails.  I have seen both the yellow male and female along with the female dark morph.

I am so grateful to witness the changes that take place in a garden.  Nature has a sublime way to dazzle and delight anyone who observes it.  I hope you get a chance to marvel at your garden's changes this summer.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

How Does Your Garden Grow?

We just got back from Chicago.  Whenever I get back from vacation, I like to observe the changes that have occurred while we were gone.  How much mail accumulated?  Have the ants taken over the kitchen?  How untamed are the gardens?
I found  the beginnings of a summer squash when I got back from vacation.

While we were gone, I had a neighbor girl water the potted plants and vegetable gardens.  Thankfully I told her to do it every other day.  It was in the 90s while we were out of town and the plants would have shriveled up without the extra watering.  I believe her watering aided in the skyrocketing growth of our vegetable gardens.

At the bottom of the blue bucket are soon to be red cherry tomatoes.

I first checked my upside down tomato plant.  I was afraid it would be upended from a nasty storm.  I was relieved to see it has a slew of green tomatoes.  I can't wait to taste the cherry tomatoes when they ripen.  Not bad for a $4 bucket, a tomato plant and some soil.

This is our baby watermelon.

Here hangs a adolescent cucumber which will be ready to eat soon.

Next I inspected our three vegetable gardens.  There was another nice surprise. I found amongst all the vines a baby watermelon and a bunch of tiny cukes.   Yippee!  I am so excited is because of my lack of success with growing watermelons.  My garden last year was in the shade too much so I moved two of the gardens this spring.  Currently they see sun on a six hour basis.  Tim and Natalie will be so happy when we cut into the first fully grown watermelon.  As for the cucumbers, I'll be happy with whatever yield we get.  This is my first year growing them on the trellis.  They appear to be blossoming well and I have four fruits forming on one of the plants.

The mysterious summer squash is climbing up the butterfly bush towards our deck railing.
A third amazement that I found was the presence of summer squash.  I didn't plant it.  Timmy must have snuck in some seeds while I wasn't looking.  The plant is taking over all available space within its vicinity.  The summer squash has decided to wrap around from the side of the chicken wire to the trellis and further reach to join our butterfly bush on the deck.  I love how vines find a way to continue their journey.  There are a number of immature summer squash right now.  You may ask yourself, how do you prepare summer squash?  Well, Mike has an excellent answer to that question.  See DadCooksDinner next week for that recipe.

These days I can say I enjoy the changes that crop up in a vegetable garden.  It's fun to watch the explosion of fruits and vegetables in our backyard.  Gardening for me satisfies a primal need to be connected to the earth cultivate the growth of nourishing food.   I would say we have success in our vegetable garden.  My question to you is "How does your garden grow?"

Friday, July 2, 2010

Butterfly Fireworks

 Our backyard has been having a Fourth of July fireworks preview.  Butterflies have been exploding onto the scene in our garden.  I have been viewing electrifying reds, oranges and yellows from the different butterflies on display.

A Red Admiral butterfly is feeding  on the top right of this butterfly bush bloom.
Initially I thought our garden only attracted Monarch butterflies.  After watching the plants for a few days, I realized that we have a number of species coming to visit.  It has been a learning experience in our backyard.
On the lower third of the branch is a Monarch butterfly.

Ben had decided a month back to purchase a butterfly kit.  He ordered a batch of American Painted Lady caterpillars.  They dutifully changed into chrysalises within a week and hatched into gorgeous butterflies a week after.

The kids' fascination with butterflies made me realize what a miracle it is to see caterpillars transform into butterflies.  I don't take them for granted anymore.  Butterflies represent true beauty and delicateness.

Situated on the right of the butterfly bush flower is a Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.
After watching our backyard for a few days in a row.  I recognized that our plants attracted Red Admiral, Easter Tiger Swallowtail and Monarch butterflies.  What a feat!  Now I'm thinking about what plants I can add to our backyard so that we can get additional species.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Learn to Crave Exercise!

After forty-three years, I finally figured out how to take care of my body.  It has been a learning process the whole way.  I want to share with you how I convinced myself that exercise is essential to my life.

Here are three very good reasons for my exercise:  Tim, Ben and Natalie.

I exercise six out of seven days for about forty-five minutes a day.  The CDC suggests that adults be moderately active for 150 minutes each week with two or more days for strength training.  That works out to be 25 minutes a day for six days.  I believe Americans can do better than that.  We need to incorporate less siting and more movement during the day.  I carry a pedometer in my pocket and track my steps everywhere I go.  It is recommended that your average American take  10,000 steps a day.  If you take 10,000 steps a day, you are walking the equivalent of 5 miles.

You might ask me, how do you get that many steps in during the course of the day.  I measure the steps I take during my forty-five minutes of exercise.  I also try to incorporate walking when I can.  If I drive to a store, I take a parking spot that is further away from my destination.  I add an evening walk around the neighborhood if I haven't been active enough for the day.  In other words, I try not to sit for long periods of time.

Another approach that has helped me is to exercise right after waking up.  By doing that, I don't procrastinate and find an excuse not to work out.  I have mentally trained myself to expect exercise early in the morning.

Do I feel like working out every day?  No.  Do I enjoy myself every time I exercise?  I struggle some mornings.  Do I think it is a waste of my time?  Definitely not.

I rationalize my physical activity with the belief that exercise staves off heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis to name a few ailments.  I also view physical activity as a way to avoid knee replacement surgery (which has affected a couple of family members already).  In other words, there are ruinous consequences if I don't exercise.  That thought is enough to keep me off the couch.

An additional motivator for exercise is the mental health benefits.  Aerobic activity and weight training are great for relieving stress.  I know that if I haven't exercised, I am crankier, tenser and less relaxed.  Once I have completed my body conditioning for the day, I feel calmer.

A third personal motivator for exercise is my children.  I want to be able to keep up with them as we grow older together.  They are playing soccer, baseball and basketball.  If I didn't exercise on a regular basis, I wouldn't be able to jump, dash or play catch with them.  Both aerobic exercise and strength training have helped me to keep up with the kids.

Yes, exercise can be a pain but the results from it far exceed the short term discomfort.  I avoid sedentary habits by exercising first thing in the morning and walk constantly.  Furthermore,  I can avoid major health problems, be relaxed and stay youthful.  That is why I crave exercise.

Think about fashioning a new active lifestyle.  Consider your motivators and utilize them with your physical routine.  Soon you will be developing a love affair with exercise.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

I'm a Happy Camper

After posting yesterday, the phone gods must have heard me.  AT& T decided to step up their iPhone activation system for the early recipients.  I was able to get my new phone working yesterday evening.

Diane is much happier with her new iPhone 4
The iPhone 4 is all that they promised and more.  I like the new design of the phone.  It is narrower and slightly thinner.  The glass does attract thumbprints galore but the screen is crisp.

After playing Angry Birds, I could tell that the phone was a vast improvement over my old 3G.  The game loaded faster and had crystal clear graphics.  You have to see it to believe it on this tiny screen.

One of my favorite educational apps' Star Walk, shows great pictures of the day with the new phone.  Even Google Earth displays most beautifully.  Apple once again is a leader with graphics.

Probably the most anticipated feature of the iPhone 4 is the software update.  I know you can have multitasking with the earlier phones, but it is lovely to have on the new phone.  Now I can have folders for all my favorite apps.  I made a news folder along with separate movie, educational and games apps' folder.  The multitasking feature is so helpful now.  I can now leave an app open, go to another application and then return to the previous app without reloading it (provided I stay within the folder I created).

Overall, I am a happy camper with my new iPhone 4.  I didn't have to wait in line for three hours in the Apple store to get mine.  It came straight to my house.  If only AT& T had their act together, it would have been a near perfect experience.  

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Got iPhone 4?

Sometimes it is frustrating being an early adopter.  I just got my package from ShenZhen, China around lunch time.  I couldn't believe that FedEx delivered my new iPhone 4 to me a day early.

Diane is not too excited about her iPhone 4.
I decided not to skip lunch.  Tim and I had a leisurely meal with leftovers.  Boy, I am glad I didn't rush upstairs to activate my phone.

After I opened the package to see a sleek new phone (Apple does an exceptional job on presentation), I thought I would remove my sim card from my old iPhone 3G.  It took me a couple of minutes wrestling with a paper clip and watching a video to get it out.

I thought erroneously that I had to place my old sim card into the new iPhone 4.  After a call to Mike, he cleared up my confusion.  The sim cards are different sizes with the iPhone 3G and 4.  I just waisted another ten minutes doing the wrong thing.

Early adopters do make a number of mistakes trying to figure out how new technology works.  That can be real exasperating.  Especially when you know there is a pot of gold at the end of the technology rainbow.

Mike suggested that I plug in my new iPhone 4 to the computer and let it sync with iTunes.  Supposedly I could activate my new phone this way.  Not!!!!  AT & T has decided that early recipients should wait one more day till all their counterparts receive their new phones.  Why did I have to be awarded this punishment?

It is like getting a Christmas present with no batteries.  Oh and the convenience store is inconveniently closed that Christmas.  Come on AT & T, you can do better.  Why did Apple and FedEx work so hard to exceed expectations while AT & T decided to be average or worse.  If I didn't like my iPhone so much, I probably would be a Verizon customer.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Flatbread Heaven 3

By far, my family's favorite flatbread is pizza. During the summer, grilled pizza is such a satisfying meal. Whenever Mike needs to go somewhere in the evening and can't cook for us, I usually put pizza on the menu.

This recipe is inspired from Cook's Illustrated . I like the fact that the dough is made in a food processor. It makes the task easier and simpler. I can have dough made in less than ten minutes and prepared an hour before dinner time. This really gives me little excuse for calling the pizza delivery guy.

Diane's pizza dough recipe adapted from Cook's Illustrated Pizza Dough (May 1, 1995).

3 cups bread flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 1/4 tsp yeast

1 1/2 table salt
1 3/4 cup filtered water
2 tbsps olive oil

Add all the dry ingredients to the food processor. Process the ingredients until combined. Add the water and oil in the feed tube until the flour mixture is wet with a consistency like play-doh. Let the dough rest in the food processor for two minutes. Reprocess the dough for about a minute after resting.

Turn out the dough into a bowl coated with olive oil. Cover and let rise for one hour (if the room temperature is cool, heat the oven to 200 degrees for ten minutes, shut the heat off and place the bowl in the oven). After rising for one hour, turn the dough out onto a floured counter.

Divide the dough into six to eight balls and let rest covered for fifteen minutes. After fifteen minutes, roll the dough out after lightly dusting with flour. Place pizza discs on sheet pans with parchment paper.

Preheat grill for fifteen minutes. While letting grill preheat, make pizza sauce (1 tbsp olive oil, 1 minced garlic clove, 28 oz. crushed tomatoes and salt and pepper to taste). After preheating grill, brush grill to clean and coat grill grates with oil.

Turn heat down to medium and place pizza discs onto grill carefully and quickly. Cover and cook for two minutes until pizza is puffed with grill marks on bottom. Place uncooked pizza side face down on sheet pan.

Add a thin layer of tomato sauce to grilled side of pizza. In addition, add any meat or condiments to pizza. Sprinkle mozzarella cheese lightly onto the pizza.

Place uncooked side of pizza down on the grill and cook while covered for five minutes. Cheese should be melted and the bottom should have grill marks. Voila!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Flatbread Heaven 2

My family loves flatbread season.  Another go-to recipe in my collection is chapati.  I was introduced to chapati by Marc Bittman of the New York Times.  He published an easy grilling recipe in August 2008 and I have been using it since with some modifications.
 Buckwheat chapati dough can be made in the food processor.
I like his recipe since it starts in the food processor.  This of course makes clean up easy.  Bittman's recipe suggests using whole wheat flour with an addition of all purpose flour.  I decided to use buckwheat because I was out of whole wheat flour.

Once the dough is mixed in the food processor, it's important to let the chapati rest for thirty minutes.  The resting helps to soften the bran in the flour and make it easy to roll out.  I decided to use my tortilla press for making the chapati.
It is easy to use a tortilla press with buckwheat chapati.
Before pressing the dough into discs, I usually preheat the gas grill on high for fifteen minutes.  Feel free to use a charcoal grill if you are cooking additional foods.  Traditional chapati is rolled out on a counter dusted with flour.  I decided to use a tortilla press.   A cut open plastic zip top bag is necessary for this process.  I will warn you that the dough does stick slightly to the plastic after flattening it.  To avoid this, you can sprinkle a little all purpose flour onto the plastic before pressing the dough into chapati discs.

The chapati are layered between parchment paper to keep them from sticking.
Chapatis are usually brushed with ghee (clarified butter) to retain the bread's softness.  I chose to use a thyme butter brush (I used DadCooksDinner for inspiration) for half the bread and olive oil for the remaining half.  My children aren't quite fans of green herbs yet.  I also brought sea salt to the grill to sprinkle on the bread after grilling.
From Left to Right, Clockwise:  Thyme butter, spanish olive oil and French sea salt.
After scraping the grill and brushing the grates with oil,  I turned the burners down to medium heat.  The grilling goes quickly so don't walk away.  After placing about six chapatis on the grill, I cooked them for two minutes while covered.  You may want to check them sooner if your charcoal grill is really hot.  Flip the bread and cook while covered another two minutes,  The bread should be puffy and darkened with grill marks.  Brush each chapati with oil or butter and sprinkle with salt.
Grilled chapati can be enjoyed with your next grilled dinner.
Chapatis are a great accompaniment to grilled chicken, pork or fish.  I make them whenever we need a starch addition to our meal.  It is such an effortless way to make bread without opening the oven door or adding yeast.  Summer is prime time for flatbread!