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I’m grateful for finishing this fun puzzle of Carmel, with all its miniature businesses, restaurants, shops, and homes, little people in windows, giant garden gnomes, and myriad other tiny details. It was challenging in a different way than the birds puzzle, and easier but not much. I’m grateful for puzzling friends and sharing puzzles.

I’m grateful for podcasts, of which I listen to quite a few when I’m puzzling. I listen to Lions Roar podcast, Upaya Zen Center podcast, NPR’s “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me”, Catherine Ingram’s “In the Deep,” and several others, including random recommendations from trusted friends, and one I stumbled upon the other day, The Brain Health Revolution podcast. This particular episode is a marvelous overview of research from 2022 including correlations between napping and dementia, cannabis use and cognitive impairment, and evidence that some people in a coma may be conscious–followed by a lively discussion of how we don’t even know what consciousness is. It’s a couple of neurologists, Drs. Dean and Ayesha Sherzai, with an easy way together, sharing their enthusiasm about the research in their fascinating field.

I’m grateful for the technology that allows me to have the world at my fingertips, from the laser cutters at Liberty Puzzles, to the digital opportunities for learning and growth.

The States Project

I’m grateful for a simple, delicious, white bean and artichoke heart dish garnished with feta, parsley, and paprika.

I’m grateful for the States Project. Their motto is “EVERYTHING WE CARE ABOUT STARTS IN THE STATES.” We tend to think that policies and laws that affects our daily lives happen in the federal government, but it’s just not true. The most important policies and laws are enacted at the state level, and the States Project works effectively to get candidates elected in critical state legislatures to protect human rights, the environment, and democracy. I was grateful tonight to zoom with my goddaughter Melody and her mother, one of my oldest friends, and the States Project came up in our conversation. Mel’s good friend Melissa Walker, a children’s book author, leads the Giving Circle arm of the group, and their data-based strategy successfully held or flipped several state legislatures in favor of the people of those states rather than rightwing extremists and conspiracy theorists. I was glad to be reminded of this powerful tool at our disposal going into the next election cycle, and encourage everyone to check out and contribute to their proven winning strategy.

Writing

In addition to being grateful for peaceful proximity of siblings, I’m grateful for attending an online writing retreat today with my dear friend and mentor, Sarah Juniper Rabkin. I’m so grateful that I met Sarah half our lives ago when she visited Dinosaur National Monument where I was an interpretive ranger for a few seasons. It was one of those rare, random soul meetings, but also I realized later, characteristic of Sarah who greets the world with an open heart and enthusiastic curiosity. We hit it off and have cultivated a long-distance friendship fortified with a few visits through the years. From playing in the mud on the banks of the Green River to writing in the desert, sharing letters and emails and mutual readings of our projects, I’m grateful for knowing Sarah, and for her unequivocal support of my creative endeavors.

Sarah gently juggling the aspirations and egos of sixteen writers through a day of provocative prompts.

Today, she skillfully led sixteen people through a dozen writing prompts, and gracefully encouraged us to share some of our words. It was great to devote the better part of a day to a practice I’ve been neglecting. Over the course of the day in my writings I explored my past, present, and future, through memories, insights, and motivations. It was exhausting! I’m glad I had nothing pressing to do between sessions, though I did manage some housecleaning and laundry, as well as baking the thank-you loaf for the neighbor.

I am definitely getting the hang of this recipe, and am also grateful that I got to share it and support the Bad Dogs through baking their first loaf. So simple, so delicious! And flexible, too. You can bake one loaf, or two loaves, or as I did today, one large loaf and one roll, inspired by the empathetic joy of my most loyal reader. For dinner I enjoyed the warm roll, half with butter and Havarti, and half with butter and homemade chokecherry jelly.

Good Neighbors

Wednesday morning

You saw this picture Wednesday night. This driveway is drifted a foot deep in places, after a two-inch snow accompanied by strong winds for hours. Because of its south-north orientation, and prevailing west winds, with no windbreak to the west, only a forty-acre field, it’s a perfect equation for drifts. I’m grateful for the opportunity to observe and learn first-hand about the powerful phenomenon of drifting snow. It’s amazing how wind packs and sculpts this delicate substance. I understand better than some when I hear weather reports about blizzards closing highways, or other snow drama. I’m even more grateful for the kindness of neighbors, and the first-hand experience of interdependence.

Thursday morning

I couldn’t have lived here thirty years without the support, friendship, and cooperation of neighbors. Thirty years! I can’t believe it. This summer it will be thirty years at the end of this driveway. I’m grateful I’ve learned to open my heart and my mind, to communicate with and accept differences, and to focus on the shared values of the people I live among. One of those values is perseverance, demonstrated above by the truck tracks (subsequently drifted again in the west track along the fenceline) left by my courageous friends on Wednesday morning determined to get food to me. Food that I didn’t really need and I’m so glad they didn’t get stuck delivering a luxury.

Another value is cooperation, demonstrated below by the plow and tractor tracks made today by a neighbor whom I asked for help. We’re not close, but I’m grateful that he’s often willing to help when needed; as I know he’s grateful for access across my north forty, and its occasional use for his horses. I’ll bake some bread to show my appreciation. I’m grateful for the ideal of good neighbors, and for being surrounded by so many of them. I’m even more grateful that some of them are my dearest friends.

Friday morning

First World Problems

I led a meditation this morning that began with inviting everyone to share a ‘first world problem,’ and ended with some time to ponder gratitude, impermanence, and perspective. The theme occurred to me as I was telling a friend before the meditation started that I had to drink tea instead of coffee because I was out of decaf. Three days in a row I’ve enjoyed full-strength coffee, but this body can’t handle it, so I brewed a weak pot of Earl Grey. Even that gave me indigestion, but that’s beside the point. I laughed as I ‘complained’ about this, and said “First world problems,” then told her about the first time I heard that phrase.

It was in Moonrise Espresso a hundred years ago, a cozy neighborhood coffee shop. I walked in and was complaining to someone about something inconsequential, and a guy I’d never seen before looked up from his laptop and said, “First world problem, huh?” I was speechless, then laughed out loud. I understood instantly what he meant, and it was a moment of awakening. Perspective! But it took awhile for that insight to really sink in, and inform my entire way of being. Practicing mindfulness, one of the first things we learn is to be grateful for the many blessings in our lives. I wake each day in a bed with a roof over my head, turn on a tap to get water, and have a choice between coffee and tea, both of which come from faraway lands. I’m in reasonably good health, and am content with my life. In the context of starvation, climate displacement, war, and countless other desperate human conditions, I really have nothing to complain about.

This doesn’t mean that everything is always peachy and I have no right to complain, or be unhappy or scared if real trouble arises, or wish things to be other than they are. It simply means that I can keep things in perspective, and not waste energy fretting the small stuff. It means that a momentary frustration is just that, momentary, and losing the internet for a couple hours, or a clogged drain, or any other inconvenience, isn’t going to ruin my day or even my mood. It also means that I’m aware of great suffering in the world, holding compassion for those suffering and wanting to help where I can. And it means that I can bring compassion to myself also, recognizing when things are really hard and not just annoying, and be more supportive and caring for myself and others, and more resilient in challenging situations. I’m grateful for the perspective of ‘first world problems.’

Getting snowed in at the end of a quarter mile driveway could also be seen as a first world problem. That I even have a driveway that long is an enormous privilege, for which I’m immensely grateful. That I even have a driveway. I’m grateful for friends with big trucks! I didn’t get back out to take a picture after the Bad Dogs dropped off groceries, but am sure grateful they were able to punch through the drifts to get down here.

Little Tiny loves the snow, but not when it’s up to her shoulders. It’s the first time we’ve been out that she has jumped on me to pick her up and carry her home. I’m also grateful to be making progress on the puzzle, enjoying the warm sunny view while the fire warms and lights the house inside, even as clouds and wind blow outside.

Relaxing

Wren is as happy to see Dr. Leigh as I am. I’m grateful she works on a Sunday. Town was empty; there was no one at the gas station so it was easy to fill up. I’m grateful I can afford to fill up, and that I have a car to fill up…

I was so grateful when I first learned that relaxation is a skill that we need to practice. I’m grateful to have various means available to facilitate my relaxation practice, including a gentle chiropractor with a magic touch.

I’m grateful I could come home and relax with a quick pizza, small homemade crust from the freezer and some random toppings. I cooked down a dollop of plain sauce with a mix of dried herbs and garlic slices, sliced some red onion, martini olives, and the last of the summer’s spicy dill pickles, and topped with shredded mozzarella. Baked to perfection! After lunch I enjoyed a nearly perfect homemade creme brûlée, relaxing with a sense of great satisfaction that I finally ticked that recipe off my bucket list.

I spent a little time relaxing outside with the cameraphone, finally managing to get the moon halfway decently with iPhone alone. I’ve figured out the technique, and identified a challenge with rural living. I’m supposed to focus the camera first on a streetlamp, that’s what the tutorial said. My patio light isn’t bright enough or far enough away to lock the exposure and focus accurately to capture the moon when the lens is turned on it. There was a light cloud cover, which helped; the other night it was so bright the camera captured only a blinding white circle. I’m grateful I get to relax both outside and inside my house.

Relaxing after the moon shot with a bitters and soda, garnished with a slice of rangpur lime. I’m grateful this special little citrus fruit made it from Florida to my kitchen to remind me of the tricks our memories can play–you learn something new every day!

Good Neighbors

I’m always grateful to live with good neighbors, human and other people. This handsome mule deer buck is quite at home in my yard, quite likely having grown up here over the years. He’s hanging out with a herd of does and their fawns from this year, and at least once a day they meander through the yarden, browsing and grazing. I watched him rip up some of this broom to his left, then chew on the piece he’d torn off. I’m grateful to him for doing some of my spring pruning early. Then he moved on to check out the ephedra, and the grass under the apricot tree. Topaz, Wren and I watched him and his family from the sunroom windows.

Sharing Recipes

First, get you one of these…

I’m so grateful to readers who want to know more about something I’ve cooked or baked. I love sharing recipes, both directions. A couple of friends wrote to me after receiving their holiday biscottis, saying almost word for word the same thing: “I love biscotti. And this is by far the best I’ve ever had.” One of them added, “Give a woman biscotti and she enjoys bliss for 3 days. Teach a woman to make biscotti and she will have a lifetime of bliss!” I immediately set out to create a biscotti tutorial, and here it is.

First, hightail it to King Arthur and get a biscotti pan. You might find one elsewhere but why not get the best. This takes all the suffering out of forming the initial loaf for baking. Then make sure you have a couple of not-so-usual ingredients, espresso baking powder and candied ginger. Here are the two I use.

I think it’s best to buy espresso powder rather than try to grind your own beans down small enough. This is made from organic beans powdered so finely that they readily dissolve, but if you like a bit of extra crunch you could grind your own.

Here’s my recipe, modified slightly from the original. For one thing, I put all spices in order of amount so that I can just set them all on the counter and run through my measuring spoons, saving the liquids for last of course. It’s simple because you just put all ingredients except the last three into the mixing bowl, mix on low til incorporated, and then whip on high for 90 seconds, which is just enough time to weigh out the flour. I do start by chopping the candied ginger smaller so I have that ready when it’s time to add flour and ginger to the ribbony batter.

The batter gets light and ribbony after whipping for ninety seconds.

Mix in the flour and chopped ginger on low until the flour is just barely incorporated, don’t overmix. The texture is like damp sand, but sticky. Here’s where that biscotti pan pays off. The original directions call for gathering it together with your hands and forming it into a loaf on parchment paper. In my experience with this dough, there is no gathering possible. I line the pan with a sheet of 9×13 parchment paper (and an aside, I used to think it wasteful to pay a little more for pre-cut parchment paper instead of the roll, but it is such a time and frustration saver). Then evenly dump the mixture into the pan…

…and gently press flat with your fingers or a spatula.

Bake in preheated 325℉ oven–and make sure that it’s been preheating through your whole mixing process–for 40-45 minutes. For me perfect is somewhere around 43. If you bake it too long or not long enough it makes it harder to cut later. Don’t turn off the oven! Once the pan is out of the oven, I lift the loaf out of the pan with the paper handles and let it cool on a rack for ten minutes.

Then you slice the loaf diagonally with a serrated knife into ¾” slices. I think it slices easier if you flip the loaf over onto the cutting board and cut across the smooth bottom rather than try to cut across the textured top. See what works for you. You’ll be making this more than once!

Slice slowly, smoothly, gently, don’t saw it like you might bread or pieces will break off. If the knife gets sticky from the ginger pieces, you can rinse and dry it partway through. No need to be too precise about the width of the slices, you’ll get about a dozen, plus a few shorter pieces from the diagonals at each end. Naturally, these are too small to give away so you must eat them yourself.

Lay out all your pieces on their sides, on a cookie sheet lined with 12×16″ parchment paper and put them in the oven. They won’t spread any more, so you don’t need to worry about spacing. I like to set the rack one notch above middle. Bake for 7-8 minutes then remove the pan, flip each biscotti onto its other side (except the corners, no need), and bake another 7-10 minutes. The longer these bake here, the crunchier the cookie. During this last bake, I melt the chocolate, but you can do it later. I’ve tried microwaving but did not get the consistency I wanted, so I do as the recipe suggests and melt in a stoneware bowl over simmering water–not boiling, and not touching the bottom of the bowl. You can use any kind of chocolate, but I prefer extra dark; it both melts better and tastes better than semi-sweet chips. Break it into bits and melt til it’s smooth and runny. Once the biscotti are out of the oven you can ice them any time.

Turn the biscotti rightside up on the cooling rack over the parchment paper they cooked on. (This is important, because once the chocolate sets and you put away the biscotti and the rack, you’ll have a bunch of chocolate drops on the paper that you’ll need to clean up. And by clean up, I mean eat.)

Using a teaspoon–the kind you stir ice-tea with–I drip one spoonful over the top of each cookie and let it drip down the sides here and there. Nothing fancy. You can use more or less chocolate than called for. Then, patience. Wait til the chocolate sets solid before doing anything else. This can take some hours, and will depend on the temperature and humidity of your kitchen. I’ve tried setting these out in the cold mudroom to speed up the set, but don’t like the result. You’ll know they’re set when the shine is gone. Best to leave them even longer before boxing, bagging, or tinning them, but certainly you ought to try one with a cuppa something hot at this point. And that, my dear, is how you make the best biscotti ever.

And now, Sandra, here’s the answer to your question, which motivated me to post the biscotti recipe today. Here’s how I made the fried grits.

I tweaked the basic recipe above, incorporating elements from the variations. I used 2 cups water and 1 cup milk, a large pat of butter, salt, and less than a cup of grits but not as little as ¾ cup. I poured the grits in slowly, stirring steadily, before the liquid boiled and stirred constantly after it boiled, for… awhile. More than five minutes, less than 15, until it was thick and smooth. Near the end I stirred in about a quarter cup of broken up white cheddar and cooked a bit longer til there was no crunch left. It was thick but pourable, and I poured out most of it into a glass container a couple inches thick, let it cool to room temp, and put it in the fridge. To fry, I melted butter in a small, non-stick Greenpan skillet, sliced the cold grits ⅝” thick, and fried on both sides til crispy. So simple, so delicious! I use only silicone tools on these expensive-but-worthit pans. Enjoy!

Drag Queens

Bob the Drag Queen, winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 8, performing at a recent ‘Say Gay’ rally in Florida.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m grateful for Drag Queens. Over the past six or seven years they’ve taught me so much about compassion, kindness, authenticity, inclusivity, and shattered so many of the negative biases I was raised to believe. They’ve opened my heart, broadened my mind, and enriched my life immeasurably. My love affair with drag queens started when on a whim I decided to check out RuPaul’s Drag Race on Amazon Prime. For awhile it was an obsession, then merely an addiction, and for the past few years it’s been simply a joy.

The other day I tripped over another drag queen show unexpectedly, ‘We’re Here’ on HBO. I’ve only watched two episodes out of the three seasons currently available. The first was filmed in Grand Junction, Colorado, the closest big city to where I live, and the place I go to see the dermatologist, pick up visitors from the airport, the nearest Natural Grocer, and once upon a time a shopping or restaurant destination when I used to drive up there once a month or so for errands. Just before Covid hit the US, friends had plans to take me to a drag show up there for my birthday present. Oh well. This episode was a consolation prize. The other episode, which I watched tonight, was ‘Florida-Part I’. In the series, three drag queen stars, Shangela, Eureka, and Bob the Drag Queen, travel to small towns in the US mentoring queer people and putting on a drag show starring their mentees.

Shangela, Drag Race legend, at the central Florida ‘Say Gay’ rally, as seen on ‘We’re Here’ on HBO.

‘Florida-Part I’ was a fabulous representation of the ramifications of the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill popular there now. The episode is culturally and politically relevant, inspiring, moving, and hopeful. The three queens mentor a ten-year-old trans girl whose mother is a schoolteacher now prohibited by law from mentioning ‘gay’ or ‘trans’, a 58-year-old gay man living in conservative bastion The Villages, a 75-year-old recently trans woman and her wife of 50 years, and a Pulse survivor who brought his celebratory party of twenty friends to the club that night where four of them were soon shot to death. Imagine living with that: it was your idea to move the party to the club, and four of your friends died as a result.

Ten-year-old Dempsey has known she was a girl for as long as anyone can remember. From the age of two, she was choosing girls’ toys, girls’ clothes, anything sweet or sparkly. She has been socially transitioning for five years. Her mother is prohibited from speaking about her or others like her at work because guess what? She’s a schoolteacher in Florida. So they take their conversation to the street.

The intolerance, hatred, misrepresentation, and fear that perpetuate tragedies like Pulse, Club Q, and any other culture-wars mass shooting have got to stop. Obviously, me saying that won’t accomplish anything if governor after mayor after governor saying so hasn’t stopped it yet. But all of us saying it, time after time, in our homes, our communities, our churches, and our ballot boxes, can finally make it stop, or at least slow it way the hell down. LGBTQ people are people. We are all people. In my world view, deer, mountain lions, juniper trees, even skunks are people.

Why can’t we live and let live? We are all connected. Whoever you are, someone you love is gay or trans or differently gendered or sexually oriented than you think is ‘normal.’ Anyone who votes for ‘Don’t Say Gay’ legislation is hurting or killing someone they love. This isn’t the time or place to go into it, and also I don’t know enough to proclaim but the research is out there; I do know that throughout human history and across cultures, gender and sexuality have never been purely binary. Let’s learn from the drag queens, and just love each other how we are.

Peppermint Bark

I’m grateful for the Bad Dogs, for so many reasons, including the right candy canes.
A layer of melted bittersweet chocolate on the bottom then chilled, with a silky chocolate ganache layered on next. That took an hour to set, before melted white chocolate could be spread over the top.

This triple chocolate peppermint bark took awhile to get to, and all afternoon yesterday to make, but it is worth it! First there was the abominable cherry candy cane challenge, but I gave those away to the substitute UPS driver who got stuck in my driveway. Once I had the right candy canes, there was promised biscotti to bake and ship, and of course some other things to do like work, vacuum, feed myself and the animals, and so on. One lesson in perspective that I’m beginning to absorb is the shift from “I have to…” to “I get to…” do whatever it may be, like laundry, dishes, meetings. What a life full of opportunities I enjoy! That there are dishes to wash, and a sink and hot water and soap; that I own a vacuum cleaner and power it with the sun; that I’ve never known a day of involuntary hunger in my life. I’m grateful for all these things I get to do. And I’m grateful for the right candy canes, and the time in an afternoon to smash them up.

I tried the old-fashioned way first in a mortar and pestle, but it was long hard work without much satisfaction…

So I took the big pieces that wouldn’t break up and put them in my little garlic grinder; after pausing a few times to shake and dislodge stuck pieces, they finally started to break up. As always, I’m grateful for the right tool for the job–or even one that comes close.

Finally, everything was in place, though the candy cane chips didn’t want to stay there. Somebody was busy cleaning the floor as they fell off the counter. I’m grateful that I could share this candy with some friends to brighten this overcast Christmas Eve day.

I’m grateful for a pretty good loaf of bread, and to give it to friends, but it wasn’t perfect, so I’m grateful I have enough flour and time to try again tomorrow.

And finally, I’m grateful that I finally found the Paradise Tanager just before closing down the puzzle for the night. It’s coming together beautifully, and I might just get it finished tomorrow. I’m grateful for puzzle fans near and far who have shared their enthusiasm for Liberty puzzles, and look forward to writing more about this one tomorrow.