Saturday, January 30, 2010

Live graciously and well

Note to self: When a recipe suggests that a bigger container would be best for rising bread, either buy or find a bigger container.

I tried a new recipe for almost no-knead French baguettes. It's a simple recipe: water, flour, yeast and salt. There's very little kneading needed, but kneading with a dough hook is part of the process. I used the dough hooks on my hand mixer for the first time (it's a sticky dough) and got the exact result described in the recipe. It poured out of the mixing bowl into the oiled rising bowl pretty easily, but I also discovered why you add the flour to the water instead of the water to the flour in this kind of process; it's so all the flour is incorporated. Okay, so that went well. I covered the rising bowl, the biggest bowl I own, with plastic wrap and set the hole thing to rise on the stove for two hours. Since it's out of my usual line of sight, and I didn't think it was anything to worry about, I let it sit for two hours and came back. Boy, howdy, did the dough rise dramatically. It had spilled out of the bowl and down the sides, spilling over onto the burners and down the front of the stove. Lovely. I scraped the drying dough and tossed it down the sink and replaced the plastic wrap and put the whole thing into the refrigerator -- that was the next step in the process. The dough rests, and droops dramatically, in the cold temperature of the fridge and will keep there for a whole week, longer if its frozen at this stage. In a little while I'll quarter the dough and freeze two pieces, shaping the other two pieces into baguettes that will rise in two hours and soon bake into a fragrant, crusty outside and tender inside French baguette made in my own little American kitchen. So far, everything has worked out just the way the recipe detailed and it should taste just as good since I plan to make asparagus and eggs Benedict over toasted baguette pieces for breakfast tomorrow morning. I may even make a cassoulet tomorrow afternoon for dinner.

I was in a baking mood yesterday. It's all part of my relaxation program to de-stress from the work day. Baking and cooking relax me. I usually bake when I'm depressed and I cook massive quantities when I'm stressed. Cooking and baking are my version of therapy. Anger means I bake bread, the kind that needs to be kneaded, so I can take out my aggressive tendencies on the dough, so this almost no-knead bread works out pretty well since there's no one I felt like hitting yesterday. Kneading is also good exercise and I was on my feet enough yesterday and didn't need to pound dough.

Anyway, back to baking. I also baked Madeleines, with rose water since I didn't have any orange flower water on hand, for afternoon tea. That's another part of my relaxation program. The British have a good idea with afternoon tea. A cup of tea and baked goods, especially when they're home baked, are like a great big sigh after holding my breath all day. Just exhale -- bake, brew tea, sit down and enjoy.

Oh, Madeleines are tender little scallop shell shaped cakes that are golden brown on the outside and moist and tender on the inside. They're simple to make and the trick is in thoroughly beating eggs, a small amount of sugar and the flower water until it is light and quadrupled in volume. After that flour is folded in, just one cup of cake flour or organic soft red wheat flour, and four tablespoons of butter. The pan looks like scallop shells and it's buttered thickly (helps with the golden crust) and the batter is spooned into the molds. Bake in a 400-degree oven for 12 minutes and turn out onto a cooling rack, dust with confectioners' sugar and eat while warm. With a cup of Earl Grey tea, they are just the right touch for slowing down and exhaling. I've only made Madeleines once, that was yesterday, and they were wonderful -- even if I do say so myself.

It all comes down to gracious living. Gracious living doesn't necessarily mean expensive or ostentatious, but living well, treating yourself like royalty and taking the time to just sit down and enjoy a cup of tea and a few Madeleines, scones, crumpets or a gourmet meal. Gourmet can be as simple as cornbread and beans simmered all day with a bit of salt pork or bacon with a glass of ice cold buttermilk or as lavish and cassoulet or a prime rib dinner with a glass of wine and a decadent dessert. Even poached eggs, steamed asparagus, toasted baguette and Hollandaise sauce can be an elegant meal. It's all about attitude and using the best ingredients available, quality over quantity.

Well, it's time to divide the dough and get the loaves ready for baking. I'm looking forward to a sandwich on home baked bread.

Friday, January 29, 2010

To clone or not to clone

Yesterday the subject of cloning came up in a conversation with my mother. To understand the context, a little background is necessary.

My mother is one of those people who have had so many health problems, she should be dead. She isn't. Even her brother and sister-in-law said they were sure she'd die before Dad. She didn't. She's still here. It's probably my fault because I've always said that when the bomb is dropped and humanity is eradicated all that will be left will be cockroaches, moths and Mom. That's where the cloning discussion comes in.

If humanity were reduced to one individual, then the rise of humanity can only come from cloning -- if, of course, the human in question has the techniques and the skills to clone herself. She'd have to use ova from another source since her reproductive system was cleared out decades ago, but it is possible there would be some fertility clinic or sperm and ova bank still standing with the requisite genetic material available for use. Then again, with all that raw material, there would be sufficient diverse cellular material to use for test tube babies, with a suitable host. Mom's not good with the technical but, for the sake of argument, let's say she could fashion a mechanical womb to grow the cloned fetuses and thus clone herself.

Cloning herself would be necessary since no other human in recorded history, other than my father whose genetic material is now ash, has been able to tolerate Mom for long. A world population comprised of my mother would be a self-limiting species since they would only exist to shop and eat junk food. Once the food stocks are gone, the junk food stocks, the Virginia Annabelle population would be forced to either evolve or die. Without junk food and massive quantities of preservatives to keep them alive, they would die, probably along the lines of the half life of a cesium atom or something similar.

On a more realistic note, it would be possible to rejuvenate the human race, given time and sufficient genetic material, by cloning and thus further advances in that area are necessary -- only in case of nuclear holocaust and the imminent demise of mankind. How do you think we got here in the first place? It's a time-honored tradition that brought us unicorns, centaurs, naiads, nymphs, mermaids/mermen, and assorted half-man, half-animal species.

Is cloning a good idea? It depends on the human being to be cloned. Ira Levin used a cloned Hitler as the basis of The Boys from Brazil and look how that turned out. I think I have shown that, while giving humanity another try, cloning my mother would be a bad idea. However, cloning as a viable option for preservation of species, Jurassic Park notwithstanding, is a good idea and should be pursued. The science is more complicated and less successful than Dolly the sheep seems to illustrate. More information is needed and to get more information, more work must be done. It's doubtful we'd end up with a sociopathic killing machine the likes of Embryo, but when has being wrong ever mattered when it comes down to where the rubber hits the road?

That is all. Disperse.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Beyond the sidewalk

Cold darkness surrounded me all night and getting warm was an elusive dream. The furnace blew overhead and sucked all the moisture out of the air and my body until restlessness turned to counting breaths to fall asleep. Huddled in the meager covers that once were more than enough to cocoon warmth and comfort, sleep played tag with mind and body until the faint light of coming dawn heralded the end of the night. It was a rough night in some ways and not so rough in others with peek-a-boo glimpses of other worlds and lives, some of which were familiar.

Have you ever wandered in dreams and recognized places you returned to over and over? People are often the same and they grow and evolve with time, sometimes a safe haven and other times the pits of nightmare. I spent several years going to a university and graduating on a faraway world that existed as shadows and mirages away from the stone and marble edifices of learning. That's fancy for a misty, barely realized world away from the university buildings, a wash of colors like the shifting radiation of the Aurora Borealis next to the sidewalk. That's the thing about dreams that seem so real, there's always some unreality attached to it. It reminds me of parents who invested all their time, attention and resources into their children without ever realizing that one day the child would leave despite their best efforts and the relationship they ignored -- their marriage -- is suddenly all they have.

One friend and his wife handled the empty nest syndrome by having another child, a girl fast approaching the time when she will be off on her own. They're good people, but their daughter has been a buffer and an excuse for lack of intimacy. In three more years, she will be gone and there will no longer be a buffer or an excuse.

Another friend and his wife only had one child late in life and she has recently gained some freedom by getting her driver's license. She is gone as much as possible, intoxicated by being able to go where she wants almost whenever she wants. Her mother isn't handling it well at all. She lived for her daughter and now her daughter is fighting to get free of her, struggling to become independent. Mom insists that when the time comes for college, the daughter live at home and go to college locally. The daughter isn't having any of that. She can't wait to get away and nothing but shackling her to a stake in the front yard will keep her from bolting for the far horizons. Mom has suddenly been faced with hours of empty time that once were filled with shopping, visiting and watching television together with her daughter and all that's left is her husband who, for the past 17 years has been nothing more than the National Bank of Dad. He was left to his own devices and now he has a pal tagging along after him, following him to his workshop and home office, always wanting to know what he's doing. She invites him to watch TV and sit and talk to her and he's a bit nervous about it all. It's what he wanted, or at least what he said he wanted: having her pay attention to him, to see him. It's not quite what he thought it would be like. It's a bit creepy if truth be told and the glimpse of their life together after so many years of neglect and outright animosity is a bit frightening.

Picture a bear that hibernates a lot or concentrates on the cub until she wakes up and begins ripping into her mate with sharpened claws and a ravening hunger that sends everyone and everything fleeing before her suddenly without a cub and unable to bear more making nice with her favorite meal. Gives me the shivers just thinking about it. That's where things stand for them now. Mama Bear is baby bearless and Papa Bear will have to do. Just think, the waning years filled with a needy and tetchy Mama Bear while baby bear goes to college and finds a life of her own.

That's the thing about empty nesters, they seldom realize until it's too late that building their lives and dreams around their children is a dead end, especially when they've spent little or no time nurturing the one relationship that will sustain them in the empty nest years -- their marriage. They began together, but somewhere along the way forgot who brought them to the party. In a way, it's funny to watch couples who have grown apart attempting to find some common ground, unaware that time and tide have worn away the connecting edges until there's no connection left.

Single people are a little more prepared because they know what it's like to be left alone. For them, it's a new lease on life and a chance to find someone with whom to spend their late afternoon and twilight years. Being single doesn't look so bad any more, not when couples that seemed solid from the outside turn out to be nothing more than shifting colors and light on a frigid night when sleep is elusive and hard to catch, and icy fingers steal the warmth from the body while the roaring furnace sucks the moisture from the air. It's like walking the halls and sidewalks near the university buildings so solid and sturdy on the marble foundations while the rest of the world exists as a dream beyond the sidewalks.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Just relax

Nothing like spending the morning cataloguing my published works for The Red Room. It's another way to market my novel and my work and there can not be enough of those. The fact that authors like Salman Rushdie and Maya Angelou are members doesn't hurt either. I might even get noticed and sell books and ... well, it's best not to look too far into the future. Focus on the now and leave the later for ... well, later.

Since I'm supposed to relax, I probably shouldn't read the news, especially when it keeps pointing up that all the fear mongering about global warming and melting glaciers is more about winning Nobel Prizes and stealing grant money from charitable organizations. Doesn't hurt that it puts more money in millionaires' pockets and perpetuates more lies like that reported in The Daily Mail in the U.K. It's not a big surprise that the report still hasn't shown up in the U.S., not with the current administration and their ties to the global warming lies. Glaciergate isn't just for Americans now since Indian and Pakistani scientists are getting in the game. Money, money, money. It doesn't take a rocket scientist, or a climatologist, to figure out what's going on. It's one of the first rules of mystery fiction: follow the money. It's an easy trail to follow.

In my quest for relaxation and continuing lack of muscle spasms, I put pencils and pastels to paper and drew my first portrait in years. It turned out pretty well, but I need to work on my pastel chalk technique. My hands got very dirty from shading and holding the chalk; I need a holder. I also need smaller pieces of chalk instead of the big rectangles. I always did like broken pieces of chalk better than the brand new ones. I can't wait for the paints and colored pencils to get here. I have more control with them. In the meantime, I'll work on technique and practice with sketching. The skills and techniques are coming back quickly, so that means I haven't lost everything, and I'm more comfortable with experimentation than I was. With nothing to lose, anything and everything is worth attempting.

I'm actually looking forward to getting back to work tomorrow and catching up on all the correspondence, but I know I need to make time to relax, time when I stretch my creative muscles and do something other than surf the Internet and watch movies. That's not relaxing. Cooking, baking, drawing, sketching, painting and even taking a walk are relaxing, as long as the walking has no goal other than breathing and stretching the legs. When there's a goal, walking isn't quite so relaxing. Walking takes me to the mailbox and the trash container and shopping and the post office and those are chores. Chores are a lot like work and thus not relaxing even when singing is involved. The singing and music just help move things along quicker so there's time to relax. Relaxing is soaking in a garden tub (something I don't have here, hence the vacation to a B&B next month for my birthday) with a cup of hot cocoa or a glass of wine, a good book, some soothing music and plenty of bubbles (the bath salt kind not the methane kind). Wood fires and room service are relaxing. Scenic views and long drives, conversations with friends and kneading dough for crumpets and scones for afternoon tea, those are relaxing. And just breathing in long, slow, deep breaths are relaxing. It's an art and one that I've not practiced nearly enough and the one thing on my new year's resolution list.

I don't do resolutions; they're too much like rules and diets -- made to be broken and left in the dust -- and I'm out of super glue.