Monday, February 23, 2009

Another Slow Idea

The March 2009 National Geographic magazine includes an article on reducing energy consumption at home, which I read yesterday afternoon. One of the suggestions was to turn off your computer when you aren't using it. In fact, turn off any electrical appliance you are not using, including chargers. I thought, sure, why not? So I turned off our computer and then, for good measure, went into our TV room and turned off the power center for the room, which includes our cable modem and wireless network hub.

I decided I would only turn them on when either Elly or I wanted to use the computer.

Three or four times today I thought, I'll go check my email, or I'll look something up on the Internet, and then each time it occurred to me the whole schmear was turned off so I skipped it. And then it dawned on me, Hey! This isn't such a bad thing!

In addition to saving energy, it also reduces distraction. I mean, leaving your computer on all the time isn't quite the same thing as running your television for background noise (you know who you are), but it makes it WAY too simple (tempting) to drop anything you are doing to just have a quick peek at something on the computer. We all know what happens next: two hours later you are wondering where all the time went. Instead of leaving the computer on, why not decide exactly when, and how much time you will spend on the computer, blocking out a specific period for computer stuff, and then leave it turned off and don't use it any other time of the day?

I certainly liked what happened today. I'm going to keep this up for a while and see how it goes.

BTW, one afternoon Elly and I spent some time mulling over what things make life more hectic. We easily came up with a list of four items, and then spent the rest of our time pondering how and why they have the effect they do. These are, in no particular order:

  • Cell phones

  • Television

  • Cars

  • Personal computers

The argument here isn't to do with out these things -- we're not Luddites -- but to manage them to improve the quality of our lives instead of running us ragged.

We turned off broadcast television years ago. We still watch movies and serial programming, but only what is available on DVD (through Netflix), with VERY rare exceptions like Presidential elections. No broadcast TV, cable, or dish. The result has been wonderful. It was not a difficult transition at all, and it removed perhaps the major source of stress from our lives.

Cars have a similar, though perhaps less insidious effect, as computers. It is simply too easy to hop in the car and spend your day running around. When was the last time you had a "car-free" day. That is, when you did not get in a car at all for a 24 hour period? Staying home is a great way to slow down and enjoy life more. And save money and the environment at the same time too. It takes a little planning, but not that much.

Thoughts about these four technologies will be regular features in my slowing down posts.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Journals, Fountain Pens, and the Life Less Hectic

I have been meaning to start a series of posts on slowing down, on living the life less hectic, and finally have gotten around to writing one. Books about slowing down aren't too helpful in actually figuring out how to do it. They tend to analyse the reasons why slowing down is a good idea, or point out how hectic our lives have become, but they are weak on advice or help in making changes to do less and to enjoy more.

Carl Honore's In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed is a typical example of the problem. Honore is a journalist, and the book reads more like a series of superficial magazine articles than the comprehensive report promised on the jacket copy. Most of the chapters center on some visit or experience Honore has exploring this or that group's "slow" activity or orientation. Meanwhile, he maintains a wink and nod subtext letting the reader know he is too sophisticated to take all this "slowness" stuff seriously. In the chapter on slow food, for example, he brags about liking to eat at McDonalds. In the chapter on slowing down on the road, he mentions various speeding tickets he receives. In more than one instance, he actually sneers at attempts to live life in the slow lane -- British couples moving to the countryside from London, for example. He goes to 10-day meditation retreat, but only stays for three days. Readers turning to the book for help in slowing down won't find much help, unfortunately.

I would be happy to hear about any book you have read on this subject, which you think is more helpful.

Anyway, my idea for this serious of posts, which I'm going to tag with the label "slowing down", is to talk about actual things Elly and I have done to slow down and enjoy ourselves more, which gets to the title of this post. (You were wondering about that, weren't you?) BTW, if you have skipped ahead to find the main subject, you should slow down, go back, and read the post from the beginning. This will help you. :-)

For those who aren't heavily into blogging, "labels" (also called categories) are a way to organize blog posts so visitors can find posts about a subject that interests them. On the left side of this blog is a section titled "Labels." Clicking any of the items will display the posts on that subject. The number in parenthesis is the number of matching posts.

Keeping a daily journal is a great way to slow down, I have found. You don't have to write pages and pages each day. Writing as little as one paragraph makes a difference. It is important to date each entry. I write the day of the week, followed by the month, day, and year like this: Saturday, February 21, 2009, spelling out the day and the month. Wouldn't it be faster just to write 2/21/09? Yep. I mean, later, if you want to, you can always look up the day of the week on your computer. BUT, the point is to slow down, right? Take your time. Not be in so much of a hurry. And, trust me on this, months or years later, you will appreciate having the day of the week right there.

What do you write about? Anything you want. The point is simply to take a few minutes, or ten or fifteen, and just reflect on your day. Maybe write about something that happened which you truly enjoyed. Or about taking the time to do something you wouldn't ordinarily do. Or comment about a book you are reading. Write about birds you have seen in your yard. About a new wine you have tried. About a recipe you are cooking. About the antics of a pet. Really, anything you want. And a nice aspect of your journal, compared with a blog, for instance, is that you don't really need to worry about other people reading what you have written. This isn't about keeping secrets. It's about relaxing on your own and not giving any concern to what others might think, not worrying about incomplete sentences, or explaining context, or misspelling words, or skipping here and there on a whim.

Soon you may notice something interesting. How many times has someone asked you what day it is and you have to stop and think. "What day is it??" What day of the week. What date. I mean, talk about an indication that our lives are too hectic! If you start writing in your journal each day, before long you won't have to think about what day of the week it is, or what the date is. You will know off the top of your head. And if you find yourself thinking, "Gee, this week has just flown by, what did I spend my time doing" all you need to do is flip through the pages of your journal to recover that time.

Why write with a fountain pen? First, don't worry about getting a fountain pen before starting your journal. Any pen will do to begin with. I started messing around with fountain pens for sketching. Kansas City has a great pen store, called the Pen Place, where I got my first (and second) fountain pens. I chose Lamy pens. These are the best quality, reasonably priced fountain pens available. The resin (plastic) versions cost about $30. (The matte finish versions are particularly good for carrying about in your pocket -- the shiny version starts looking scratched up pretty quickly.) The Pen Place person added what is called a converter, which cost another $4. It is a little piston device that enables you to fill the pen from an ink bottle instead of using cartridges -- much more economical.

Frankly, I thought fountain pens would be fussy and not great to write with. In fact, they are easy to use and write a beautiful, flowing line that is pure pleasure. One thing you will need, though, is good quality paper to write on, and one of the first things I realized is that Moleskin notebooks now have very cheap paper that doesn't work well for fountain pens. (They are made in China, now.) I've been writing in lovely journals I found at the Nelson-Atkins Museum Store (shown in the picture above). They are lined (I wish they weren't, actually) and have wonderfully smooth and high-quality paper.

Writing with a fountain pen encourages you to slow down. A good thing. We're not talking about crawling across the page, but for whatever reason, fountain pens work best with a light tough and a steady smooth cadence. And something about these pens encourages that sort of writing. It's a sort of reflective pace that lends itself well to mulling things over and contemplation. One thing that helps is to pause occasionally and tap the barrel of the pen with your forefinger three times. This sounds kooky, I know, but it causes your grip to relax and loosen up. Holding the pen (any pen) with a vice-like "death grip" causes cramped and unpleasant writing. It happens almost all the time, too, if you don't pay attention to how your holding a pen. At least it did to me.

Another great thing about fountain pens is that they conserve on natural resources. They last for years and years. That is many, MANY disposable pens you won't consume.

Will keeping a journal and writing with a fountain pen really help you slow down? Honestly, I didn't start doing it to slow down, but the truth is, somewhat unexpectedly, it really does help. The effect becomes more and more noticeable over time.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Basie's First Week at Home

We brought Basie home on Friday, February 6, just over a week ago. Elly took a week off from work, and I am between jobs, so we both got to spend the week with the new puppy. We've taken about a zillion pictures, of course. I've uploaded some nice ones to this Picassa album. Lots of captions.

Basie met Dr. Byers at Westside Animal Hospital on Tuesday, where everyone made a big fuss over the new puppy. Dr. B was impressed with how healthy he is and all the health certifications Susanna Joy had gotten for each puppy.

Basie has been the center of attention at home for the first week, needless to say. He has had a lot of firsts, learning to sleep in his kennel and spend time in it during the day when we are too busy to play with him or keep a close eye on his activity. Basie has razor sharp little teeth and can chew things up in a surprisingly few seconds. The kennel is a great solution. He is wearing a collar now and has gone for several walks. We're going to start him in a puppy class (to help socialize him with other dogs) as soon as possible.

Basie is a smart puppy and is learning to do his business in an area set aside for that purpose in our backyard. Several times when we have been playing with him outside he has stopped to run over to his pottie area to relieve himself. He has also learned to run to the back door and pat it with his paw when he needs to go out.

He is eating three meals a day (3/4 cup per meal) until he is three months old, when we will shift down to two meals a day. We've noticed that Basie goes into a "power squat" stance when he is eating. I included a picture of this in the Picassa album. Basie is one of the largest puppies from his litter and learned he could push other puppies out of his way to get more food. He has let us know in no uncertain terms that 3/4s of a cup is not as much as he would like to eat. He tries to jump up on the box where the dog food is kept after finishing what is in his bowl. Also, he tends to be more aggressive after meals.

Surprisingly, for as cute and sweet as he looks in his pictures, Basie is a much more aggressive dog than our Rottweiler, Samba, was. Samba looked intimidating, but the truth is he wasn't overly confident and wasn't very aggressive. He had a very strong protective instinct, but when he was away from home he was usually a quiet dog. Basie is much more confident, which is a good thing, and we have enough experience raising puppies to respond properly to his temper tantrums. We pointed this out to Dr. B, who couldn't help rolling his eyes. It is true, though. One thing that contributed to Basie's dominant behavior pattern, we suspect, is that the one male puppy in his litter who was more aggressive than Basie, had a mild inflammation problem and had to be separated from the rest of the litter. After that, we suspect Basie more or less got to take over and it really went to his head so to speak.

An advantage of having lots of toys for new puppies like Basie is the toys are a convenient distraction from things they shouldn't be chewing on, including us. Basie was used to rough-housing with his litter mates, which included biting naturally. This is part of normal puppy development. When a new puppy comes home and is away from its litter mates for the first time, it's natural to transfer the behaviour to the new family. This involves lots of playing, of course, but the puppy has to learn it isn't acceptable to bite his or her new family members and that certain rules must be followed. The trick is to help a puppy learn this without being overbearing and overusing the "no" word and other strong corrections. It is easier to do with a puppy like Samba, who we could basically correct with a stern glance. Basie's attitude is more like "I'm having fun -- screw you!" This isn't a bad thing. Basie's confidence will enable him to be more relaxed in new situations and around people and dogs he doesn't know. At present, however, he does need a loving, firm hand.

Basie likes to have lots of toys in his kennel. too. At first, I thought it would be too hot and crowded for him. But he was obviously upset to be in a nearly barren kennel so we tossed in lots of toys and a small sleeping mattress and he settled down immediately. We think it reminds him of sleeping with nine other puppies. He also likes to sleep on our feet and our laps. Especially Elly's.

Somewhat surprisingly, at nine weeks Basie has no problem sleeping through the night. We take him out during the night if he whines, but he hasn't done that too much since the first few nights. We're consistent about when he goes in his kennel for the night and when he gets up in the morning. The kennel is in our bedroom (where he will sleep when he is full grown). The important thing for the happiness of pets (dogs and cats, especially) is to have a regular, predictable routine so they know what to expect and can establish a regular pattern of behavior.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Common Redpoll

Elly and I have been keeping a close watch on our Niger feeder since Mark McKellar at the Backyard Bird Center told me cold weather up north has driven many birds down into our area that are somewhat unusual here. Large numbers of goldfinches have been frequenting the feeder. So many, in fact, we plan to put up a few more feeders. Some of the northern visitors like to mingle with goldfinch flocks.

We were rewarded today with the appearance of a Common Redpoll, mixed right in with the goldfinches as predicted by Mr. McKellar. He showed up about 11:40 am. Definitely a male from the coloring. I got a few pictures. No great shots but the bird can be readily identified. Their tails are proportionately longer than those of goldfinches, and, as can be seen in the second image, much more deeply forked. This is the first Redpoll we have seen in our yard, so we get to add another bird to our yard list.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Basie At Last

Last week Susanna decided which puppy would come home with us. We were so pleased with her choice. Sunday was our first visit when we knew for sure which puppy is Basie. He is on the right in this picture with one of his brothers. Sunday was also the first time we got to go outside with the puppies. And Basie is coming home this Friday -- one do sooner than we had expected.

This is a picture of the whole family. We worked hard for this! :-) In fact, we got a whole series of pictures before the final success. All of those pictures, plus more of the puppies (especially Basie) can be viewed in our first Basie Picasa album.

Here is one more picture of Basie with his (very happy) new Mom.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Eggplant Tasting Club

The first annual meeting of the Dahl Metters Eggplant Tasting Club was held on January 20, 2009 to general acclaim from all participants, including Dahl. Dahl has always maintained that while he does not hate eggplant, he likes everything else more. George Arnold, a good friend who happens to be on Dahl's team at work and loves to cook, and I decided we needed to do something to expand Dahl's culinary horizons and came up with the club.

Dahl is shown here throwing caution to the wind and leading by example!

George did most of the work in putting this event together, coming up with a location, printing signs and neat eggplant handouts, and preparing two wonderful dishes -- eggplant lasgna and eggplant rollups. Many thanks to the other participants who contributed dishes as well: Anusha brought an eggplant curry and Chandra and Diwakar brought delicious eggplant puffs which we should have cut in half so everyone would have had the chance to try them. I brought Baba Ghanouj, described in my previous post.

Inspired by Dahl's courage, even the most culinarily faint-hearted lept into the fray...

And the moment of truth!

Everyone had a great time. Dahl, who confided to me he hadn't eaten eggplant for decades, went back for seconds! George and I plan to make sure Dahl won't have to wait decades to enjoy delicious eggplant cuisine again. We're already planning the second annual meeting of the Dahl Metters Eggplant Tasting Club in January 2010.

Baba Ghanouj

Baba Ghanouj (pronounced ganoosh) is a sort of Middle Eastern dip made from eggplant that is wonderful on grilled wedges of pita bread. Elly has slightly modified a recipe for this from Nava Atlas's Vegetarian Celebrations, and the result is simply delicious. Better, in fact, than we have found in restaurants or from grocery stores. The cookbook is out-of-print but is readily available on Advanced Book Exchange or you might be able to check it out from the library. Elly recently made a batch (with a small amount of help from Moi) for the first annual meeting of the Dahl Metters Eggplant Tasting Club, more on which in my next post.

The first step is to roast two whole eggplants (about three pounds) in a 500 degree oven for 40 minutes. These are the big purple kind found in most grocery stores. The eggplants must be pierced first with a fork so they don't explode. Elly recommends puncturing each egg plant about 16 times -- four lengthwise rows of punctures distributed around the eggplant. Smaller eggplants might need less time but this isn't too critical. You might also need three eggplants if they're smaller. Just make sure the total weight is about three pounds. I helped by puncturing the eggplants. Sorry, I don't have a picture of this or of roasting them in the oven. Atlas's recipe calls for roasting them on broil, but baking at high temp is more reliable. Also, the eggplants only need to be turned once (after about 20 minutes). Keep baking them until they collapse inward. It doesn't matter if the skins get charred because they will be discarded anyway. An alternative approach, which adds a pleasing smokiness to the dish is to grill them on a barbecue grill. They must be turned during this process so they char up evenly. Again, keeping grilling until they collapse.

After the eggplant is roasted or grilled, set it aside to cool. While the eggplant is roasting (or cooling, you'll have plenty of time) saute one heaping cup of chopped yellow onions and four gloves of minced garlic in one table spoon of olive oil over moderate heat until translucent. Hint: start the onions sauteing before adding the garlic to prevent the garlic from getting too brown.

You will also need 1/4 cup of tahini (sesame paste). The texture is a little like thick peanut butter. The Krinos brand is available at many grocery stores and is consistently good in our experience. Also, the juice of one lemon (use fresh!) and 1 teaspoon of ground cumin.

Once the eggplant is cool enough to handle, slit them open lengthwise and scoop out the insides with a spoon. This looks pretty scary. Just keep your courage up and don't worry! :-) Hint: if your friends or family are squeamish about eggplant, don't let them see you make this dish!

Glop the eggplant, sauteed onions and garlic, and the rest of the ingredients into your food processor. It will look even scarier than the eggplant by itself. Don't worry, be happy! Do do do do do do do...

Slap the lid on and press the button. Continue until it looks like this. Don't over do it. You want the baba ghanouj to have a little texture.

I'm sorry I don't have a picture of the finished dip in a serving dish. Elly makes a lovely presentation by swirling the dip with a spoon so there are a few circular grooves, drizzling some olive oil on top (it will settle into the grooves), and the adding a light sprinkle of Cayenne pepper. Serve the dip at room temperature. It will hold in the refrigerator for several days, but allow it to warm up to room temp before serving for the best flavor.