Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The healthy workplace

I got one of those random solicitations from someone who wanted me to write about how I keep my workplace healthy and to link to their website. Usually I ignore these offers, but this one sounded interesting.  It turns out they wanted me to conceal the fact that they'd contacted me directly.  They said only a "select group" of bloggers had been asked and they didn't want anyone to feel left out.

 I don't like to be deceptive, so I'm not going to link to their website.  However, I think that creating a healthy workplace is an interesting topic.  In my current office environment there are four challenges to being healthy: lack of natural light, being sedentary, stress, and nutrition.

Sad cube is sad

I'm convinced that spending all day under artificial light is unhealthy.  Our building is tightly wedged between two other buildings, so the only windows are those that face the street and the light doesn't penetrate as far as my cube near the back of the building.  I've had mild psoriasis for years, but after a working for a year in my current building, it became much worse.  At first, it didn't occur to me that my workplace might be to blame, but after a year, I started to get suspicious, blaming work stress and the allergens I'm inhaling in our dank, moldy building. I didn't realize at the time that psoriasis is linked to vitamin D deficiency, which can be caused by lack of exposure to sunlight.  I started taking vitamin D supplements and within a few days, the rash was less itchy.  Last summer, I continued to take vitamin D and on the weekends, spent half an hour a day in the sun, and the rash improved a lot. Unfortunately, I became less diligent about taking my vitamin D, and with the coming of winter, it got worse again--but not as bad as it was the year before.  I'm hopeful that getting back on track with the vitamin D will help.

I've heard that being sedentary is as unhealthy as smoking, which is pretty alarming.  Even more scary, exercising doesn't cancel out the bad health effects of sitting at a desk all day.  I walk to and from work every day--four miles round trip, or twenty miles a week.  I'm also at the gym five days a week, so it's a bit discouraging that all this is useless in the face of my desk job.  I tried an improvised standing desk, but my mouse/wrist angle was so uncomfortable, I wanted to simultaneously burst into tears and punch someone in the face.  I took it all down and bought a fitness disk, which is supposed to help engage your core while you are sitting on it.  It's a bit uncomfortable, so I can't sit on it for more than twenty minutes at a time, but I've learned I can use it for mini resistance workouts at my desk. I'm also trying to remember to take standing breaks on the even hours throughout the day. On days when I have a lot of meetings scheduled, I have the opportunity to walk quite a bit during the day.  Other days, my butt barely leaves my chair.  In nice weather, I'll sometimes take a quick walk around the block.  More than once, if I haven't been able to get something to work, the solution has come to me after I got away from my desk and walked a bit.

Stress is my toughest challenge.  Work stress gives me chest pain, disturbs my sleep, and inhibits my ability to enjoy other activities.  I think it's partially responsible for my psoriasis.  Whenever things are particularly stressful, the urge to scratch is overwhelming.  Scratching the psoriasis rash seems to relieve an itch in my brain. Walking to work helps the stress, somewhat, but the walk home is a major stressor itself because of the cars.  Drivers are more sedate and considerate in the morning.  On Mondays, I take a 6:15 cycling class at my gym and then go straight to work.  It isn't easy to pack a towel and toiletries and lug all my work clothes to the gym at 06:15, but when the workout is done, I have the satisfaction of knowing I've just completed the most difficult thing I'll have to do all week, which is a nice psychological boost. Otherwise, Monday is a "treat day" meaning I don't cook dinner unless I feel like it,  and allow myself to climb into bed straight after work.  What with the gym and the "treat day" concept, I don't mind Mondays.  Tuesday is the day that sucks.

Nutrition is relatively easy.  I pack all my meals and rarely go out, not even for coffee. I leave my wallet at home, so I won't be tempted by the nearby coffee houses and restaurants.  My cube food favorites are carrot sticks, clementines, hard boiled eggs, sardines, and smoothies.  I have tried and failed to come up with a green smoothie that doesn't taste horrible.  A major disadvantage of green smoothies in the workplace is that you risk getting bits of green in your teeth. Beets are a better choice, and they pair really well with strawberries. Before work, I'll blend  unsweetened almond milk, half of a raw grated beet, frozen strawberries, and half a scoop of vega one protein powder and carry it to work in a mason jar.  I've started drinking kombucha at work, for its supposed health benefits. I've learned to like the taste and it has only thirty calories per serving.

What about you?  What do you do to make your workplace more healthy?  If you're a blogger, do you get sketchy offers?

Friday, March 27, 2015

In which I am defeated by War and Peace

Will you think less of me because I struggled with War and Peace?  I started reading it well before Christmas and I'm still not quite finished with this 1200+ page novel.  (Fewer than ninety pages to go!)

I read somewhere that War and Peace is considered the best novel of all time.  (The same list put Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain as the second best.)  It's a book one must read, and I added it to my list for the fifty classics project.  (I read The Magic Mountain too, a long time ago and I can't really say that I enjoyed it all that much, although I did learn an awful lot about early treatments for tuberculosis.)

Anyway, what can I say about War and Peace that won't sound completely idiotic and ignorant?  I thought it was going to be a little like Jane Austen, only with fur hats.  Not that I'm disappointed!  It's just that it's a very complex novel.  As the title implies, the action shifts between the battlefield and the drawing room.  I'm an absolute blockhead where military tactics are concerned and I struggled whenever the focus was on the war.  Aside from the war, the novel centers on three families: the Rostovs, the Bolkonskys, and the illegitimate count, Pierre Bezukhov and their stories are absorbing, particularly that of the love between Natasha Rostov and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky.

Vladimir Nabokov said, "Curiously, one cannot read a book, one can only reread it. "  This is especially true of War and Peace.  For a novel as complex as this one, an initial reading is necessary so that when you read it again, you are better able to understand and appreciate it.

Have you read it?  Thoughts?

Monday, March 23, 2015

Sewing in Miniature

I was the type of girl who was obsessed with dolls--their clothes especially.  I started sewing when I was six because I wanted to make doll clothes.  My grandmother was a kindred spirit and she used to make the most wonderful doll clothes for me and my sister and our cousins, including fantastically styled, retro Barbie doll outfits.  (I inherited her 1960's magazine of Barbie patterns and it is awesome.)

As an adult, I didn't lose my interest in sewing for dolls, so Grace and Brigid had pretty nice doll wardrobes, and I dabbled in doll making as well.  I had a standard rag doll pattern and I used to sell or donate them or give them as gifts.

My "standard" rag doll--not sure where the forehead stain came from.  
Anyway, this is all a long preamble to say that I haven't had any time to make dolls in years, but recently, I was going through my box of patterns and found an unfinished doll, not one of my standard rag dolls, but a doll from a kit designed by Gail Wilson for her Early American Doll series.

I had two kits, actually.  The kit for the doll itself and another for a Shaker outfit.  The doll was faceless and with no arms or legs.  So I finished the doll and made the Shaker outfit.  It was a fun project and not particularly difficult, although sewing in miniature can be fiddly and the straw bonnet was a bitch--partly because the glue that came with the kit was dried out and I substituted Martha Steward glitter paste, which is too stiff.  (The glue itself isn't glittery, it's intended to affix glitter to things.)

I had difficulty with the facial antiquing.
The paints and varnish had dried out and reconstituting them with water wasn't entirely successful.
Painted on shoes.  The feet are filled with sand to give them heft.
Shaker dress and apron

Shaker bertha

Straw bonnet

The bonnet barely fits over the hair, so I hung it from her neck by the strings and it looks like she's hauling a covered wagon on her back.  I wouldn't have chosen all that brown myself, but it's what came in the kit.

Now that the doll is finished, I have no idea what to do with it.  For now, she's sitting on top of the pantry shelves, guarding our staples.

Pantry Goddess

Friday, March 20, 2015

Friday reading assignment: books that are traumatic

Last semester, Grace's English teacher distributed a list of books from which each student was supposed to pick one for an assignment.  Grace asked me to help her make a selection.  From the list, I gave her three or four choices which I thought she would like the best.  Of these, she chose Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.  I haven't read Blood Meridian, (or, obviously, seen or read much about the movie) but I have read All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing, which I liked, so I figured Cormac McCarthy would be a good choice.  Blood Meridian turned out to be disturbingly violent: murdered babies and drowned puppies and the like. I feel like an ignorant ass for recommending it. I don't remember being upset by All the Pretty Horses or The Crossing, although I do remember that those novels are violent.  There's violence and violence--some kinds are disturbing, others are less so.  Over the years, my children have been assigned some very disturbing literature at school.  Night by Elie Wiesel comes to mind.  I don't want to be THAT parent, and I would never get up a censorship campaign, so I've said nothing to the schools and just advised my kids to talk to their teachers about the disturbing content.

When I was ten, I checked Julie of the Wolves out of my school library and I absolutely loved it until I got to the attempted rape scene, which was such a shock, I could hardly process it.  I actually felt betrayed.  My mother didn't believe in censoring our reading, and I certainly would have resented any attempt to restrict my reading, but that freedom led me to believe that any book I chose would be "safe."  To this day, I can barely look at the cover of Julie of the Wolves, and, while I don't censor my children's reading, I never went out of my way to introduce them to Julie of the Wolves.

This was the cover art of the copy at my school library

Since starting to think about this, I've realized that ever since the Julie of the Wolves incident, I've avoided any book that I thought might upset me.  I won't ever read Lord of the Flies, or A Clockwork Orange or The Lovely Bones, for example.  (In college, just listening to a classmate's presentation about A Clockwork Orange upset me.)  And yet, Lord of the Flies and Clockwork Orange were the very books that Seamus wanted to read last summer.  I had to stand by my no-censorship principles, but I did warn Seamus that they might upset him.  So he read them and was fine.  (He liked A Clockwork Orange so much, we gave him a tee shirt with a screen print of the cover for Christmas.)

And then, browsing in a book shop for a Christmas present for Seamus, All the Pretty Horses caught my eye.  So I bought it, and he loved it.  Loved it so much, that he's been reading through all of McCarthy's novels.  He hasn't gotten to Blood Meridian yet, but he did read The Road, which sounds GRIM.  I'm not sure if I could handle reading The Road.  It just goes to show, we all have a different level of tolerance for disturbing material.

Have you ever been traumatized by a book?  Do you try to shelter your children from disturbing material or do you take a hands-off approach when your kids are choosing books?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Melon Mincemeat in March

At Christmas, Becky gave me a pint of the mincemeat she made from an heirloom citron melon.  I intended to make it into a pie right away, but it turns out I couldn't face making another pie crust at that time, so the mincemeat sat until this Saturday, which turned out to be pi day.  Is it cliched to make a pie on pi day?  I thought it might be, but NOT baking a pie simply to avoid being a cliche seemed even worse.  I guess you can't win where pi day is concerned.

Even three months after Christmas, I still couldn't face making another pie crust, so I bought puff pastry.  I wasn't so sure about this, but then I saw that the puff pastry method is sanctioned by My Irish Table, by Cathal Armstrong, which is the cookbook I've been reading lately.  It worked very well.  My mini pie pan makes four pies and I had enough pastry and mincemeat for six, so I used wide-mouth mason jar lids for the final two pies.  This is a technique I saw on Pinterest, and thought was highly suspect, since it involved something as trendy as mason jars.  Surprise, surprise, it actually worked well, although probably because mincemeat is fairly firm.  I wouldn't attempt mason jar lid pies with a runny pie filling.

Fresh out of the oven

I brought the pies to our neighbor's barbecue and then felt self-conscious because, mincemeat in March?

But it was yummy! The mincemeat had a mellow flavor and the heirloom citron melon is aptly named because it really did have the taste and texture of candied citron.  Is there some law that spiced fruit may only be consumed at the holidays?

Off to the party
Did you celebrate pi day?

Friday, March 13, 2015

In which Mr. March is as big of a dick as we always suspected.

Little Women is one of my favorite books, but I never really warmed to Mr. March.  I thought he was a tyrant in a gentle disguise, the way he wouldn't let Marmee lose her temper and enjoined the girls to be his "little women."  Still, when I heard about March, by Geraldine Brooks, I had to add it to my book list. March won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize and tells the story of Peter March, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy's father in Little Women.

The novel takes place during March's stint as a Civil War chaplain, with flashbacks to his early adulthood.  We hear about his life as a traveling peddler, in which he's a guest for a while at a Virginia plantation and befriends Grace, one of the slaves.  Events later in the novel revolve around his time at the plantation and relationship with Grace.  We see how he meets and marries Marmee, and the early life of affluence hinted at in Little Women. (They lose all their money because March "invested" it in John Brown.)  Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy are mostly only mentioned in passing.  Between flashbacks, we see what's happening in the present, with March working as a teacher on a captured plantation in the deep south, his illness and his time in the hospital in Washington and Marmee coming to nurse him there.

This book was sadly disappointing. Brooks' Peter March is even more insufferable than Louisa May Alcott's.  I guess he's supposed to be a good person.  He holds all the liberal ideals of the modern thinking person; racial equality, feminism, environmentalism, and yet he is a seriously irritating person.  Example: he's invited to stay at a plantation to which he had just wandered as a traveling peddler.  Dinner is served.  These are Peter March's thoughts:

A Negro glided in with a silver salver, upon which stood a slab of sanguinary beef swaddled in a blanket of glistening yellow fat.  The drippings from this joint had contaminated the potatoes so as to render them inedible to me.  Next, he proffered a dish of greens, and I accepted a liberal serving. But as I brought a forkful to my mouth I caught the stench of pork grease and had to lay it down.

In eighteen-fucking-forty, he expects the world to accommodate his vegetarianism?   Is this Concord or is it Portlandia? He nobly assures us that the conversation was as fulfilling as the meal would have been.  Now we know who invented the humble brag.

Petty things aside, March's well-intentioned but thoughtless behavior causes grievous harm to the very people he wants to help.  Even more frustrating, these same people praise him as a good and kind man.  Grace, the slave with whom he has a semi-illicit relationship, is a pretty impressive person, but to me, she's also suspect because she staunchly defends this weak, ineffectual, whining man.  It's like the Seinfeld episode in which Jerry has a great girlfriend and then finds out she dated Newman.

Marmee narrates the chapter in which March is ill, and my irritation turned to rage. Like her husband, she's whiny and entitled.  When she and Brook are trying to find lodging in DC, she tells us that any "covered corner" will do, but once she's actually installed in a bed, she's pissed because she can hear the bargemens' yells from the canal. At the hospital, Marmee isn't happy with the care her husband is getting and confronts a nurse, who is hostile and tells Marmee she has been busy with other patients.  Marmee sees this as justification to throw a bowl of soup into the nurse's face.  Of course the nurse is described as fat and beady-eyed, and it turns out she wasn't really busy with other patients, but makes the convalescents do all the work for her.  I ought to know better than to take fiction so personally, but I was really angry about this scene.  As a nurse, I often found myself juggling more patients than I could handle and family members who were annoyed because they had to wait for non-urgent things.

With the exception of Nabakov, I don't think I've ever developed a personal dislike for a writer based on his or her fiction, but I found myself thinking that Geraldine Brooks is not someone I'd want to spend any time with. I don't understand her intention.  Are March and Marmee supposed to be sympathetic characters, or did she intend that we despise them?  I read a snippet of an interview with her, in which she says she wanted to explore taking an idealistic person like March and testing him with the realities of war.  That doesn't tell me what I want to know: did she deliberately portray these two people as assholes or not?

Then there's the language.  March and Marmee both speak with the fulsome language of their time, but it reads as a trite re-hash of every B-class Victorian novel you've ever read, with references to "snowy linen," "simple repasts,""unseemly behavior," and other phrases of that ilk.  I'm just not seeing how March managed to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Have you read March?  What did you think?

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Battle of the Shepherd's Pie

While searching for dinner recipes a couple of  weeks ago, I found two shepherd's pie recipes and they both looked so good I couldn't choose between them, so I decided to have a shepherd's pie tasting weekend and make one pie each night and ask my family for their opinions.  Boy, do we know how to have fun.

One dish meals are my jam and Shepherd's pie, in one form or another has been one of my dinner staples for years.  Back when we were poor hippie vegetarians, I made Mollie Katzen's version at least three times a month.  (Eggplant, mushrooms and other vegetables, with yogurt mixed into the mashed potato crust.)  Shepherd's pie is a great thrifty meal, since you can make use of whatever you happen to have on hand.  Traditional shepherd's pie is made with lamb, but I don't think I have ever used lamb.

Food in my Beard's chicken tikka masala sheperd's pie was the contender on Saturday night.  Made with boneless chicken thighs cooked in crushed tomatoes, garlic, ginger, jalapenos and Indian spices.  The crust is a combination of mashed potatoes and mashed roasted cauliflower. It was delicious.  The recipe calls for five jalapenos, so I worried it would be unbearably spicy, but the bit of Greek yogurt stirred into the dish cuts the heat just enough.  The chicken was tender and the cauliflower, which was roasted in a hot oven before before being mashed with the potatoes added an earthy, smoky flavor.

The "meat" of this pie

With the crust added

Mel's Kitchen Cafe's Shepherd's pie was Sunday's dinner.  It's made with ground beef and vegetables in a broth-based sauce.  The mashed potato topping has a lot of cheese and there's an egg yolk stirred in for extra richness. "Rich" is an apt word for this pie.  Jon and the kids preferred this one to the chicken pie, but I preferred the chicken one because it seemed healthier (higher quality vegetables and no cheese) and had a more interesting flavor.  Not to say that Mel's recipe is bad!  It was tasty, satisfying, and a bit decadent.

Before the crust is added

With the crust
Do you ever ask your family to participate in taste tests?

Friday, March 06, 2015

Friday Reading Assignment: Pioneer Girl

I think I've read every existing biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, as well as her writing outside the Little House books, such as her travel journals and her newspaper columns for the Missouri Ruralist. I've also read Ghost in the Little House by William Holtz, a biography of Rose Wilder Lane, Laura's daughter, and the entire Rocky Ridge series, by Roger Lea MacBride as well as some of Rose Wilder Lane's fiction, which she based on material from her mother's autobiography.  When I heard that an annotated autobiography of LIW was about to be published, I planned to read it, but I didn't think it would cover any new ground.   After all,  I wasn't one of those uneducated donkeys who thought the TV series was an accurate depiction of Wilder's life.  I had read ALL THE BOOKS.

I was pleasantly surprised, because Pioneer Girl does offer a fresh perspective on LIW.  In the 1930's, Wilder wrote out her life story in a series of notebooks, and called it Pioneer Girl.  Her daughter Rose tried to help her get it published and the original version was edited into three other versions.  None were published, but Wilder mined Pioneer Girl for material for her Little House series.  The Annotated Autobiography is the original Pioneer Girl, fleshed out with footnotes that give a lot of background material both about LIW's world, the people in it, and also about how the Little House series evolved from this material and her collaboration with Rose Wilder Lane.  The autobiography gives new insight into the characters of Wilder's family members.  For example, the real "Ma" seems more human, less prim than her fictional counterpart.  There are also incidents in Pioneer Girl that weren't mentioned in the biographies I've read.

There have been some unkind suggestions that LIW had no writing ability whatsoever and that her Little House series was actually written by Rose Wilder Lane. A recent article in The New Yorker concludes: "Some critics...have charged that Laura Ingalls Wilder could not write.  One has to agree with them."  That is outrageous.

The basis for these suggestions is that Wilder's earlier writing, including Pioneer Girl, does not resemble the writing in the Little House series.  Pamela Smith Hill points out that LIW's original writing stint was as a newspaper columnist.  She wrote about set topics with a limit on her number of words.  Naturally, this would have had an effect on the style of the original Pioneer Girl.  It was only as LIW wrote Pioneer Girl, her ability to write fiction started to develop.  As I progressed through Pioneer Girl, I could see Wilder's voice emerging.  Some of the descriptive passages are very good, but she didn't intend Pioneer Girl to be fiction, so it doesn't read like fiction.  For people to take this as a sign that LIW couldn't write seems grossly unfair.  I'll be honest--at the outset of Pioneer Girl, I thought Pamela Smith Hill comes across as an apologist for LIW, but by the time I had gotten halfway through the autobiography, I didn't need convincing.  LIW had the ability to create fiction.  It has never been a secret that RWL edited her books, but that doesn't mean she ghost wrote them.

LIW had a vision for how she wanted her fictional family to appear and when her real life clashed with her vision, she re-arranged the facts.  Rose didn't always agree with her mother's decisions, but it seems that LIW won most debates.  For example, Rose didn't think Mary's blindness should be included in the novels, because it was too depressing for young readers, but LIW insisted on it.  Independence is one of the main themes of the Little House series and LIW crafted her fiction to make the Ingalls family appear as self-sufficient as possible.  I didn't realize that Mary's college for the blind was a public school.  Since the Dakota Territory didn't have its own school for the blind, they sent their students to the one in Vinton, Iowa.  Mary was identified as an eligible student and the territory paid her tuition, although the family had to come up with her traveling expenses, books, clothes, and spending money, which would have been a stretch, considering their circumstances.

Pioneer Girl is a must-read for anyone who loved the Little House books.  Myself, I think it is time to start planning my LIW pilgrimage. I would  like to take a long road trip, first to Mansfield, MO and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society.  From there, I'd drive to DeSmet, SD (if LIW's twitter persona can be considered a reliable source, it is overrun with tourists in the summer). From DeSmet, I'd drive to Malone, NY and Almanzo Wilder's house.  Malone is in northern NY, near the St. Laurence river.  My family drove through the town every summer on our way to Vermont, but we never stopped at Wilder's house.  I'm thinking either fall, 2015 or summer, 2016.