A Little Healthy Competition

A number of years ago, I was playing a card game with an acquaintance of mine who described me as competitive. Me? Competitive? Me, the one who absolutely loves to play board games and has always thought she never really cared if she won or lost, that she just wanted to play? I mean, I’m a third child. It was forever before I played anything with one of my older sisters that I managed to win. These days, I usually play board games with Bob, and winning can’t possibly be very important to me, because it’s the rare occasion that I manage to beat him at anything.

I could ignore my acquaintance who described me as competitive, because, quite obviously, she just didn’t know me that well. But then, earlier this month, I was with my college roommate, a woman who has known me well for over 30 years, and she described me as competitive. We were harking back to our college days when our procrastination tool of choice was a Backgammon set, and we whiled away many an hour that should’ve been spent studying, sitting on one of our beds, rolling dice and moving tokens (BTW, is there anything more tactile-ly satisfying than a nice Backgammon set?). She said I always played to win. Maybe she’s right, or maybe it’s just that I was busy teaching a lot of novices how to play a game that my sisters and father had been beating me at for years, and I was merely relishing in the fact that (granted, since they were novices, it was sort of like a full-grown wolf beating chihuahua puppies, but still, it was a new feeling) I could actually win.

This gave me pause. Am I competitive? I certainly don’t want to be one of those people who sees myself one way, never considering the possibility that everyone else in the world sees me another way. But competitive? I hate competition. Never went in for sports (okay, I was never good at any sports, but still). I’m the one drifting through life tossing out her peace, love, and understanding flowers, hating it when people fight. I remember back in the days when my friends and I were all young and getting married, one of my friends had just been to the Caribbean with her fiancé. She was busy relating to me some story whose details I’ve forgotten but that had something to do with their competing for elbow space on the armrest between their airplane seats. I remember wondering (to myself, not out loud to her, of course), “Is this a good thing that you’re so competitive with him? Should marriage involve such competition?”

Fast forward 20+ years or so, and enter the Fitbit age. In case you don’t know what a Fitbit is, here you go. Basically, it’s a wearable monitor that syncs with your computer to track your activity, a glorified (read “expensive”) pedometer (but more fun than that, because, well, flashing lights and a vibrating wristband and smiley faces on your Smartphone!), if you will. You set goals for yourself (typically at least 10,000 steps and 30 active minutes a day), and then you try to meet those goals. Earlier this year, I decided to get one for Bob and one for me (ironically, I ordered our Fitbits on a Sunday, and that week, before we even got them, this hilarious article by David Sedaris, appeared in The New Yorker). Truth be told, I got one for myself because I just seem to keep gaining weight, and I’d heard from those who have them that they really do encourage you to be more active. The main reason I got it for Bob (who doesn’t need to lose any weight)? I thought he’d enjoy having it for his hikes when we go to Maine. Also, I was hoping it would inspire him to walk Clare, our dachshund, a little more often, since she’d recently begun to gain weight, and our vet told us she needed to lose it (great. Now not only must we worry about our own unwanted pounds that we never seem to be able to shed, but we also must worry about the unwanted pounds our vets want our dachshunds to shed). I knew if he had a goal to meet, he’d meet it, and maybe I wouldn’t get stuck walking Clare so often.

Our Fitbits arrived, and I began wearing mine immediately. I instantly empathized with David Sedaris. I suddenly found myself having to squash the urge to park my car in the next town over when I went to the grocery store, or marching in place while I took a shower, or walking around the house for fifteen minutes before I went to bed. I also suddenly decided I didn’t want Bob to walk Clare. At all. Not even the one time a day he typically walked her. I wanted to walk her at least three times a day, preferably four, whether she wanted it or not, and she had to walk fast enough for me to add to my active minutes, no dawdling around to sniff blades of grass or eat bugs. I’d drag her keep her trotting — if necessary, I’d carry her, especially since, for some reason, I soon discovered that even if my watch said I’d been dragging her around walking her for ten minutes, my Fitbit would only acknowledge 3 of those minutes. None of this was a problem before Bob donned his Fitbit. He was a bit skeptical of this whole Fitbit thing, was busy with work, and was happy to let me walk Clare as much as I wanted.

Then, we went to Maine. He finally charged his Fibit, synced it, and began to wear it. And this is when I began to realize that maybe there’s a competitive streak in me that I’m just not able to see. He obsessively checked his stats and informed me where he was. Up until then, I’d mostly relied on the blinking lights that track steps, not bothering to sync for all my stats more than once or twice a day. Suddenly, I was syncing as often as he was. He’d tell me he’d hit 10,567 steps, and I’d have to hit 10,568 steps. He’d get 40 active minutes, and I’d work to get at least 41. Beating the number of miles he’d gone (due to his longer strides) or calories burned (due to his weight) was nearly impossible, but I could do it, sometimes, if I got up earlier than he did, walked up and down the driveway a few times, and went to bed later than he did. Then, we went for the hike in which I fell and hurt my knee. Horrors! That meant at least a week of his being able to rack up steps and active minutes and miles out on the trails, while I gingerly walked slowly around, hoping to get at least 5000 steps without doing any more damage to my injury.

Finally, my knee healed enough to begin walking and working out. By then, we’d left Maine. Clare, no longer hiking trails in Maine, needed to be walked again. Bob, who now understood that when he was home and working (like so many of us, unless it’s Sunday morning, working tends to mean sitting at a computer or sitting down and talking to others), meeting his goals was a bit more challenging. He decided he needed to walk Clare more often. Wait a minute. Walking Clare had always been my job. He walked her if it was dark, but this was the middle of the summer, when darkness wasn’t a factor. How dare he steal some of my 10,000 steps by insisting on walking her? He began saying things to me like, “While you finish eating lunch, I’ll walk Clare.” He began walking her while I was at work. Worse still, he began joining me when I was walking her, so I could never enjoy my meditative, quiet walks with her get more steps in than he did.

Then, we went to the doctor for our annual physicals. Despite the fact I haven’t yet lost the weight I want to lose, we’re both in better shape (according to our blood work and our blood pressure checks) than either of us were last year. So, maybe I’m competitive. Maybe I was a little too judgmental with my friend and her fiancé when they returned from their Caribbean vacation. Maybe a little healthy competition is a good thing for a marriage.

 

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An Evening with Anne Lamott

IMG_0157Anne Lamott came to Lancaster Saturday night, and I was fortunate enough to get to go see her at the sold-out event. I find it kind of sad that authors have to tour like rock stars in order to make any money these days. It must be so hard for so many of them since writers tend to be shy and introverted. I mean, we write because we want people to hear what we have to say, but we don’t want to get up in front of crowds of people and speak, right? Nevertheless, I’m glad they do tour, because it means that in the past three years, I’ve gotten to see three authors I adore: David Sedaris, Sarah Blake, and now Anne Lamott.

I haven’t read all of Lamott’s books, only five of them, but she’s like comfort food (forget those facile “chicken soup” books. This is the real deal). I know I can go to her and never be disappointed. I can count on her to tell it like it is, to make me think, to see old things in new ways, and to laugh. I tell people who are interested in writing to forget all other writing guides, because there are only two books they really need to read to inspire them to write. One is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (the other is Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write). Anne Lamott knows you, the aspiring writer, knows you so well and will make you feel so much better about all your insecurities, all the ways in which you hesitate. She attacks your “what-ifs”, gives you practical techniques to try that have worked for her, and she inspires you. I dare you to read that book and not to want to sit down for an hour and write. In other words, she hears you and says, “Me too.”

And that’s one of the things she talked about Saturday night (in her lovely, frank, down-to-earth, I’m-just-having-a-cup-of-coffee-with-you-and-chatting, but also very passionate and compassionate way), that human need to go to others when you are in the depth of despair, and to sit with them, to have them listen, and to have them say “Me too.” Isn’t that so true? Isn’t that what connects us as human beings, that feeling that we’re not alone? We’re not weird to be feeling this way, because there’s someone else out there who can listen to us spill our guts, listen to us cry, listen to us tell them we think we’re crazy, and they will turn to us and say, “Me too.” And if you manage to find someone who will not only say “me too”, but will also make you laugh, the way Lamott does, well, hold on to that person. He or she is special.

One of the “me too”s she said to me was when she talked about her reaction to Newtown and the Sandy Hook school shootings. We’re coming up on the two year anniversary of that horrific day when I sat at my computer, waiting and waiting for more news, more responses to my phone calls and emails, desperately worried about everyone I knew in my former home town. I was a mess (and, truth be told, still am when I think too much about it), but I got the feeling that many people thought I was crazy, that I was making too big a deal out of it. Someone actually said, “How much do we have to hear about Newtown?”, so I stopped talking about it with most people. You can’t imagine how it made me feel when Anne Lamott, an author I so admire, stood up on that stage and told us how devastated she was by the Newtown shootings. This woman who lives all the way on the other side of the country, who probably doesn’t even know anyone who lives in Newtown, was saying to me “Me too”, and I suddenly felt, “No, I’m not crazy to be so emotional about this still. Maybe the crazy ones are the ones who made me feel crazy.”

Anne Lamott is the goddess of “me too”, really. I think that’s why those of us who are her fans love her so much. She laughs at herself and, in laughing at herself, helps us laugh at ourselves. For those of you who don’t know her, she’s a recovering addict who’s been in 12-step programs for over 20 years. She was raised by atheists but became involved in what sounds like a wonderful Presbyterian church out in Marin County, CA, and she often writes about her faith struggles. She tells you how taking a walk with a dying friend is maddening, because it forces you to stop focusing on your physical flaws and to focus on what’s important in life, and you laugh. She tells you about her issues with control, calls herself a “recovering higher power”, and you laugh. She tells you how she has to edit her work by taking out the lies, and you laugh. Meanwhile, she interrupts herself to tell you why her scarf doesn’t match her sweater, and you laugh.

She walked out on that stage, and I felt a small sense of awe. I know she’s just a human being, but she seems to be such a special one, despite all the flaws she’ll happily point out to you. It was a mesmerizing evening. If you ever get the chance to see her, I highly recommend you do so.

Classic!

classicsclubBoy, (why did I ever?) disappear from the blogosphere for a while, and you miss a few cool things, like the fact that there is a Classics Club that was created two years ago to inspire people to read and write about classic books. I found out about it over at BooksPlease, so thank you not only to the Classics Club but also to BooksPlease. I am, of course (I mean, talk about “no-brainer” even if you’ve come to despise that hideous term), joining the Classics Club, and I’ve created a page on this blog specifically for it, so if you’re curious to see what books I’m going to read, go here, please.

In the meantime, the Classics Club has also provided us with a fun meme, The 50 Question Survey. Back in the day, I was dubbed “The Queen o’ Memes”, so how could I possibly refuse participation? For a few of the questions, I had to adjust it a bit, because, of course, I’ve not yet begun to read the classics on my list, but by participating in the 50 Club Questions, I hope to give you an idea of some of the classics I’ve read before becoming a member of the club. Here you go:

50 Club Questions:

1. Share a link to your club list.

In case you missed it in the first paragraph, here it is again.

2. When did you join The Classics Club? How many titles have you read for the club?

Well, that’s easy, I joined on Nov. 21, 2014. Technically, I’ve read 2 1/2 as you’ll see from my list, because I’m rereading 2 1/2. Oh, and I’ve also, now that I see the next question, realized that I’ve read 40 pages of another.

3. What are you currently reading?

The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James

4. Original Question: What did you just finish reading and what did you think of it? Adapted to: What classic have you read most recently and what did you think of it?

Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson. I thought it dragged in places, was a bit unoriginal, but I still liked it, for some reason I can’t quite pinpoint

5. What are you reading next? Why?

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare, because I was going to read it last Christmas and never got around to it, and now it’s on my club list which means I’m more likely to get around to it this Christmas

6. Original: Best book you’ve read so far with the club, and why? Adapted: Best classic you’ve read in the last 2 years and why?

Time and Again by Jack Finney (which was a reread), because there’s time travel and mystery and romance all rolled into one book, and I like the ending

7. Book you most anticipate (or, anticipated) on your club list?

The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain, because I just know it’ll make me laugh

8. Book on your club list you’ve been avoiding, if any? Why?

I haven’t yet, but my guess is I’ll eventually end up avoiding The Forsyte Saga by Galsworthy just because it’ll be a huge time commitment (which is why Le Miserable didn’t make the list, even though I want to read it)

9. First classic you ever read?

This probably means from my club list, but I’m going to name one of the first classics I ever read in my life, which was probably Ferdinand the Bull by Munro Leaf. If it wasn’t, it should have been.

10. Toughest classic you ever read?

Again, in my lifetime, probably parts of the Bible. For instance, I love The Book of Job, but the first time I read it, with no guidance from anyone, it was tough because it seemed so unfair. The Book of Numbers is just plain tedious.

11. Classic that inspired you? or scared you? made you cry? made you angry?

So many in my lifetime, but the first one ever to make me cry, impressing thirteen-year-old me (who was busy babysitting at the time, and was lounging on the couch, eating Oreo cookies once the kids were in bed) greatly, was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

12. Longest classic you’ve read? Longest classic left on your club list?

In my lifetime, I’m not sure. Which is longer War and Peace or Don Quixote? Longest on my list is the aforementioned Forsyte Saga

13. Oldest classic you’ve read? Oldest classic left on your list?

Again, in my lifetime, my guess is The Bible. Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare is, of course, the oldest one left on my list.

14. Favorite biography about a classic author you’ve read — or, the biography on a classic author you most want to read, if any?

Ross Macdonald: A Biography by Tom Nolan, which was fascinating and was where I first discovered that Macdonald and Eudora Welty had been such good friends

15. Which classic do you think EVERYONE should read? Why?

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, because people who haven’t read it have no idea how very sad it is. It’s scary, yes (not in a supernatural, Hollywood way, but, rather, in a humans-playing-god way), but it’s much sadder than it is scary

16. Favorite edition of a classic you own, if any?

I love the Penguin Classics hard cover edition of Jane Austen’s Emma that my friend Marcy gave me.

17. Favorite movie adaptation of a classic?

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca

18. Classic which hasn’t been adapted yet (that you know of) which you very much wish would be adapted to film.

It’s a tie between Time and Again by Jack Finney and What Makes Sammy Run? by Bud Schulberg

19. Least favorite classic? Why?

Moby Dick by Herman Melville. I’ve tried to read it three times, every time hoping I’d finally get it, because I know quite a few people whose reading tastes I respect who love it

20. Name five authors you haven’t read yet whom you cannot wait to read.

From my club list: Sherwood Anderson, Carson McCullers, James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, Stanley Milgram

21. Which title by one of the five you’ve listed above most excites you and why?

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, because I’m sure I’m going to be able to relate to misfits living in a small town. I certainly did when I read Main Street by Sinclair Lewis a number of years ago

22. Have you read a classic you disliked on first read that you tried again and respected, appreciated, or even ended up loving?

Yes, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. I was way too young to appreciate it the first time I read it, in high school (relying heavily on the Cliff Notes and still not getting it). A few years later, having studied behavioral science and seen the movie, I thought it was brilliant (and still do).

23. Which classic character can’t you get out of your head?

Tom Ripley of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Can anyone who’s read that book get him out of his/her head?

24. Which classic character most reminds you of yourself?

Well, certainly not Tom Ripley, since he empathizes with no one but himself, and I empathize even with inanimate objects. Which classic character does that? Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, maybe?

25. Which character do you most wish you could be like?

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, so frank and honest and far ahead of her time

26. Which classic character reminds you of your best friend?

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, of course.

27. If a sudden announcement were made that 500 more pages had been discovered after the original “THE END” of a classic title you read and loved, which title would you most want to keep reading? Or would you avoid the augmented manuscript in favor of the original? Why?

I’d probably avoid it in favor of the original. If the author and editor chose not to include what amounts to a sequel, there must be a reason. Having said that, if there were some undiscovered sequel found to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, well, I’d love to know what happened to Scout when she grew up.

28. Favorite children’s classic?

The Phantom Toll Booth by Norton Juster. A fantasy with word play? What’s not to love? I still remember the magic feeling of reading it for the first time, so magical that unlike many of my other childhood favorites, I didn’t read it over and over again. Just one or two more times. I’ve read it three times as an adult, because it holds up beautifully. In fact, maybe it’s time for a reread soon.

29. Who recommended your first classic?

No one recommended the first classic on my list (well, except, you know, in a general sense from all those I know who adore Shakespeare). The classic I’m currently reading wasn’t exactly recommended by anyone, but it was mentioned in Barbara Ehrenreich’s latest book Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth, and what she said about it piqued my interest.

30. Who’s advice do you always take when it comes to literature?

My siblings’ advice, my husband’s advice, and my friend Gary’s advice.

31. Favorite memory with a classic?

When I was thirteen years old (definitely not your typical age for being read stories before bed), I lay in my parents’ bed with my mother every night until we were done and read over her shoulder while she read aloud to me a wonderfully illustrated edition of Little Women and Good Wives. I also have great memories of my father, when I was a younger age, reading me stories from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and reading me Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.

32. Classic author you’ve read the most books by?

Hmmm, probably William Shakespeare.

33. Classic author who has the most works on your club list?

None. I didn’t repeat any authors.

34. Classic author you own the most books by?

Probably Charles Dickens (due to inheriting books from my grandmother, not because I’ve read a lot of Dickens)

35. Classic title(s) that didn’t make it to your club list that you wish you’d included? 

I really toyed with Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, which I started on vacation last year and LOVED but came home to a life that was too busy to make the time and space for something that really requires attention and thought, so I put it down. I’d like to get back to it, but I need about three weeks of vacation to do so, and that ain’t happening any time soon. If my life circumstances change, though, I will edit my list and add it.

36. If you could explore one author’s literary career from first publication to last — meaning you have never read this author and want to explore him or her by reading what s/he wrote in order of publication — who would you explore? Obviously this should be an author you haven’t yet read, since you can’t do this experiment on an author you’re already familiar with. 🙂 Or, which author’s work you are familiar with might it have been fun to approach this way?

Carson Mccullers. I can maybe do that with her novels, since I’m starting with her first.

37. How many rereads are on your club list? If none, why? If some, which are you most looking forward to, or did you most enjoy?list? If none, why? If some, which are you most looking forward to, or did you most enjoy?

2 1/2, and I have one that’s a bit of a question mark (Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier. The year my family lived in England, when I was fifteen, I read everything I could get my hands on by her, but I don’t know which titles those were, so it might be a reread). I’m most lookig forward to rereading the first half of  Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and reading the second half for the first time. I loved it while I was reading it and have heard so many good things about it.

38. Has there been a classic title you simply could not finish?

It isn’t that I couldn’t. It’s just that, for some reason (probably because it was another book begun while on a vacation), I didn’t, and then, again, for some reason, the idea of doing so became so daunting that I just gave up. I’d like to revisit it one day, because it wasn’t like I didn’t enjoy it: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray.

39. Has there been a classic title you expected to dislike and ended up loving?

That describes, roughly, 85% of all classics I’ve read. I mean, who expects to love reading something one feels one must read? One of the most surprising was the Bible, though, which I initially read in its entirety, because, since so much of the literature that’s come since is based on stories from it, I decided I couldn’t consider myself literate without having read the whole thing. I never expected to love it (not all of it, of course, as mentioned previously, but taken as a whole), nor did I expect my husband, who read it through the same year I did, to decide to go to seminary, but I did, and he did.

40. Five things you’re looking forward to next year in classic literature?

1. Being a part of this club

2. Reading some books that have been in my TBR tome longer than I care to admit

3. Feeding my brain

4. Writing about great stuff

5. Hearing what others have to say about the stuff I review

41. Classic you are DEFINITELY GOING TO MAKE HAPPEN next year?

Soldier’s Pay by William Falukner, because it’s been over 20 years since I’ve read any Faulkner and, of course, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

42. Classic you are NOT GOING TO MAKE HAPPEN next year?

Wow, I haven’t decided yet. Probably, though, The Name of the Rose. Unless I decide to read both 20th-century Italian literature titles in my first year, I really think I ought to start with the first one.

43. Favorite thing about being a member of the Classics Club?

Don’t know yet, but I imagine it will be the satisfaction that comes from reading books I’ve been meaning to read for years, along with discovering new bloggers and hearing what others have to say about the books I read.

44. List five fellow clubbers whose blogs you frequent. What makes you love their blogs?

I’ll answer this question next year.

45. Favorite post you’ve read by a fellow clubber?

Ditto answer to 44.

46. If  you’ve ever participated in a readalong on a classic, tell about the experience. If you’ve participated in more than one, what’s the very best experience? the best title you’ve completed? a fond memory? a good friend made?

I’ve been tempted to do this at times, but I’m pretty sure (unless my memory fails me. Always a possibility at my age, as well as for someone who’s been wandering around the lit blog world for 8+ years), I’ve never done it. If any longtime blog friends remember that I did, please remind me.

47. If you could appeal for a readalong with others for any classic title, which title would you name? Why?

I’d love to read Plato’s Republic with others, because I’ve never read it; have always felt an affinity for, and, thus, have been fond of Plato; and feel I’d need a little hand-holding from others who might be more philosophically knowledgable than I

48. How long have you been reading classic literature?

All my life.

49. Share up to five posts you’ve written that tell a bit about your reading story. Reviews, journal entries, posts on novels you loved or didn’t love, lists, etc.

These are posts I’ve written on the blog I keep for the library where I work:

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday

11/22/63 by Stephen King

And here’s one classic: 1984 by George Orwell

One to grow on, because I mentioned it in this post: The Phantom Toll Booth by Norton Juster

50. Question you wish was on this questionnaire? (Ask and answer it!) 

Question: Which classic did you read on your honeymoon/do you think you might consider reading on your honeymoon?

Answer: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Long, yes, but such love! Such passion! Perfect reading on a Hawaiian beach during daylight hours, and who knows what might happen when the sun sets?

Emily Simply Cooks: Creamy Red Potato Soup

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This is the time of year (I don’t know about where you are, but it turned frigid and howling-windy here yesterday) when I just love to make soup, and it’s also the time of year when I can get plenty of potatoes. Who doesn’t love a good, creamy potato soup on a cold day? I used red potatoes when I made this last night, because that’s what I had, but you can actually use any kind of potato (even sweet potatoes are good). I like simple recipes (and by simple, I mean simple, not something that claims to be simple and then requires you to find some obscure ingredient or to mince seven different types of vegetables before cracking open a coconut to get both its milk and its meat), and this one is incredibly so, because basically all you do is cut up a bunch of things, throw them in water, heat them, forget about them for a while, and then purée them. The worst part (for me) is peeling the potatoes (does anyone else find that they often drop potatoes while trying to peel them?)

If you’re the sort of person who’s worried about things like glycemic indexes and saturated fat, this isn’t the recipe for you. It is vegetarian, though (not vegan, however), and if you’re concerned about gluten, this is a gluten-free recipe (I know a lot of potato soup recipes I’ve found call for flour, but I’ve found I don’t need that). I’m not someone who tends to eat heavy meals, so having this with a nice salad that includes nuts and cheese to add a little protein is enough for me. Others might want to have a salad and some sort of whole grain (preferably homemade) bread with it.

If you decide to try it, I’d love to get feedback from you.

Creamy Red Potato Soup

Ingredients

2 T butter (divided)

One large white onion, peeled and thinly sliced

2 large cloves garlic, peeled and halved

8 cups water

2 lb red potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks

2 celery stalks, including leaves, cut up

2 T sea salt

1/2 cup half and half

Garnish of choice

Melt 1 T of butter in large soup pot over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté until both are soft and golden. Add the water, potatoes, celery, the other T of butter, and salt. Stir to mix well. Increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Decrease heat to medium low (it’s medium low on my stove. Your burner might heat a little hotter than mine and need to be put on low to keep a steady simmer going, so you may need to experiment a bit), bring to a simmer, and cover.

At this point you can go off to do whatever you want for at least an hour, leaving it unattended. I’ve been known to let it simmer for as long as 3 hours with no ill effects, so you know, go finish that book, write a blog post, workout, watch a couple of reruns of Frasier, or enjoy a few cocktails with a friend. Then, turn it off, take it off that burner, and let it cool down.

Once it’s cool, purée it until it’s thick and smooth. I use an immersion blender, but you can also purée it in batches in a food processor or blender. I hate puréeing soups in blenders and food processors, because I always seem to spill some or become impatient, not letting it cool long enough, so it’s too hot and explodes. Also, it creates more dishes to do. But if you’re less clumsy than I, or have the patience of Job, or love doing dishes — or you just don’t happen to have an immersion blender, which I didn’t until my lovely husband bought me one a few years ago — by all means, purée it in your blender or food processor.

Return it to the burner on medium heat and slowly add the half and half. Heat and whisk until it’s heated through. Make sure it doesn’t boil, or you’ll have a curdled mess.

Last night, I garnished mine with cilantro and freshly ground pepper. However, I know that many people in this world hate cilantro. I’m also a rosemary, thyme, and parsley lover (sorry, Simon and Garfunkel, no sage), so I’ve been known to garnish it with these herbs when I have them. The only thing I’d say is that you want to use fresh, not dried herbs for real flavor. You could also put a dollop of yogurt or sour cream and some chopped chives or scallions. Grated parmesan is yummy, too. Really, just about anything that strikes your fancy will work. After all, you’re the one eating it, so use what you like best.

Note: You can make this soup in warmer weather, refrigerate it, and serve it cold. Then you don’t have to worry about the half and half curdling (and, really, the less worrying, the better, right?), because you just purée and swirl in the cream without reheating.

The Good Old Days

I started blogging way back in 2006 (not long before, but) before Facebook was available to the general public. I’d been encouraged to do so by three people. One was one of my former bosses, who never blogged (that I know of) but who has always encouraged me to write. The other was my brother Ian, who blogged back then, and (much to everyone who ever read his blog’s disappointment) no longer blogs. The third was my former colleague (and now dear friend) Danny, who also had a blog I read religiously but who no longer blogs there (although he’s still very active in other blogging ways). It may sound weird to talk about the good old days of blogging, after only 8 years, but I’m here to do just that.

Back when people still had attention spans (i.e. pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre-everyone-owns-a-Smartphone-and-texts days), people used to write long, thoughtful blog posts. I (surprise! surprise!) managed to find myself in a bookish blogging community, and it really was great fun. I couldn’t wait to go through my blog roll each day and see what my blogging friends had to say. And they truly did become friends. We supported each other, encouraged each other, shared books and life’s ups-and-downs with each other. My oldest blog is a wonderful record of how others supported me through such things as the death of my father-in-law, the death of our dog, the ups-and-downs of my feelings about moving to a place in Pennsylvania I’d never been until Bob had an interview there, my lay-off from a job I adored, etc.

It was a great time. The Golden Years of Blogging. I nicknamed my blogging friends. I met some of them in real life, and we became real life friends. I even arranged a blogger meet-up in New York City when one of our “gang” traveled from Germany to celebrate her fortieth birthday. I’ll never forget that exciting drive from Pennsylvania to New York, anticipating our day. Where did we wind up? The Strand. But, of course!

We created (book-themed) challenges for each other. If you don’t know what that is, here’s an example: “Read 12 classics you’ve never read during the next 12 months and write blog posts about them. (Yes, “write blog posts”. We were a bit snobbish. You didn’t “blog”. “Blog” was not a verb. It was a noun that stood for “web log.” No one “web logged”. They “wrote blog posts”. Only those who didn’t know what they were doing “blogged”.) Some were fancier than others, creating their own sites and buttons and everything, but all were legitimate, and we participated in memes that were far more thoughtful and fun than what one finds on Facebook today.

There were, of course, problems in those good old days of blogging. For instance, when I first began, there were no buttons for italicizing, bolding, or crossing out type. You had to go into html view and add formatting commands if you wanted them. We had fewer blog templates, and they were more difficult to customize, so I just didn’t. Adding and moving photos around was nowhere near as easy as it is today. I was sometimes frustrated when I couldn’t figure out how to do what I wanted to do. Nonetheless, the satisfaction I got from blogging far outweighed those frustrations.

Fast forward 8+ years. I haven’t blogged (yes, the snobby blogger in me now accepts the verb form, because the editor in me knows about evolving vernacular) much at all for the past 2+ years. I’ve created a few new blogs and have redesigned my original blog with the hopes that I would, but, well, I just haven’t spent much time in the blogosphere (that term still exists, right?). I’ve missed it, though, so I decided I’d get back to it. I could’ve just tried, yet again, to breathe new life into my old blog, but that blog was anonymous, and I’d rather it remained so. That means I’d never link to it on my Facebook page, which I’d like to be able to do.

What to do but to start a new blog, right? Well, much easier said than done. Since 2006, popular blog sites have been bought out by major companies like Google and Yahoo. It’s very hard to start a new blog without linking it to any old blogs you might have out there, especially if you don’t want to delete your old blogs. My first idea was to try a new blogging site altogether. I was hoping that maybe, since so many others are free, Typepad would now offer free service but no such luck. Next, I decided to try Weebly — supposedly really easy but not the least bit intuitive, even for someone like me who’s been blogging for years. Tumblr seemed like anther natural choice. Again, I couldn’t figure out how to do what I wanted. As with everything else in life these days, the “help” features were impossibly unhelpful, written to explain the obvious while ignoring what I really needed and wanted to know. “Frustrated” doesn’t begin to describe how I felt. How could it be that creating a new blog had become not easier, it seemed, but, rather more difficult than it had been back in 2006?

Finally, I said “$%&! it” and just decided to go with WordPress. WordPress has its faults, but at least I basically know how to use it. I’m not too keen on the fact that it’s linked to Gravitar, where I have a few identities, one of which links to my old blog and seems to be its default, but I’ve managed to get around that. It took me a while to figure out some of the features of adding photos, and I’m not sure that I won’t eventually want to customize its appearance, but for the most part, I’m very happy to be back in the blogosphere again, visiting old friends and meeting new ones.

Such Hatred for Those We Don’t Know

Maya AngelouI’m married to a Presbyterian minister. We call ourselves “Christians”. To me, that means that we try to live life the way Christ taught us to live it. Granted, we have no writings from Christ himself. We are dependent on what others  recorded, claiming to quote Christ. Interestingly enough, though, despite a few differences and contradictions in details, the one message that rings loud and clear, from all the writings others have given us about Christ, is that Christians should love. Love with abandon. Love foolishly, even (at least in the eyes of “the world”). And not only should we love, but we should also forgive. We should forgive over and over, because we are all human and, as such, all make the exact same mistakes. Not only is love Christ’s message, but it also happens to be the message of all great prophets, despite the all-too-human need to distort whatever any prophet had to say, in order to fulfill one’s own dreams of monetary gain and power (I’m interested in reading Karen Armstrong’s new book. From what I gather, she explores this fact).

Not only are love and forgiveness stressed in religions, but they are also stressed in 21st-century psychology (I always maintain that Jesus was the first great psychologist, long before the discipline had been “invented”, which is what drew me back to Christianity after I’d abandoned it for years.) Any psychologist worth his or her salt will tell you that in order to be healthy, you need a strong social network (which is impossible without love) and you need to examine the things you find it most hard to forgive  in others, because, quite often, they are the very things you do, or the very traits you possess. You can’t be at peace, find psychological balance, if you don’t forgive. Harboring grudges does damage to you, not to those against whom you harbor those grudges.

I seem, naturally, to tend towards love. My guess is that most humans do. I don’t really care much about power (a word that I often find abhorrent), and my feelings about money? As long as I have enough to live comfortably, I’d rather share the rest with others who don’t, than to sit on it or to buy silly things like McMansions and $800 pairs of shoes. I would, literally, be embarrassed if, for some inexplicable reason, I lived in a McMansion and wore $800 pairs of shoes. I’d do everything I could to hide these things from others.

But it’s not always easy to love. To love is to struggle. How am I supposed to love and forgive Adolf Hitler? Idi Amin? Osama Bin Laden? Abu Bakr al-Baghdad?  We can see the everlasting effects of their evil. I struggle with that, and if you put a gun to my head, I’d probably tell you (ashamed as I am to admit my inability to love and forgive them) that I hate people like that, people who seem to have no conscience, who are all about power and greed and their own self-aggrandizement at the expense of others. I understand, perfectly, when others tell me they hate such people, and I am genuinely awed by those who have managed to forgive such people.

So I understand hatred of abhorrent leaders who have no conscience, but what I don’t understand is what seems to be this new culture of hate in America, a culture in which no one is given the benefit of the doubt, and people are willing to believe the most absurd stories about others with no facts or evidence to back up what they believe. Even worse, they seem to be bent on twisting all sorts of petty things into major controversies. I was raised on the principle that in “polite company”– and all company should be polite — you didn’t discuss religion, politics, or money, and if you did, you certainly didn’t get in people’s faces and attack them over these things. If you were polite and loving, your goal was always to make others feel good, to build them up, not to tear them down. All of this is to say that I really don’t understand the vitriol aimed at so many people, it seems, but especially at politicians, people we have never met and really know nothing about except what their voting records are and how the media (and we trust them, those whose interest above everything else is to make money?) spins them.

I can honestly say, although I might have disagreed vehemently with their positions on specific issues, I’ve never hated any of the men who’ve been presidents in my lifetime. That’s going back to Lyndon Johnson, a man who may have done a lot of good as far as the Civil Rights movement is concerned, but who, if you’ve ever read any Robert Caro, was certainly someone who could be hated. He sounds like he was a real bastard, but, I don’t hate him. Why? Because I’ve never met him, and, unlike someone like Hitler or Osama Bin Laden, whom I, of course, have also never met, we have no evidence, zero, that he galvanized others around some sick idea of his to torture and murder countless numbers of innocent people. We have no evidence of any president in my lifetime doing such a thing, so why are people so full of hatred toward them? Why, especially, are people whose lives, for all intents and purposes, haven’t changed at all from one president to the next, so full of hate? Why do they seem to have this need to hate people they don’t know at all?

There isn’t anyone who’s been president with whom I’ve agreed 100% or disagreed 100%. When I look at what they did, what they supported, every one of them did things that make me say “Yea!” as well as things that make me say “Nay!” And I’ve also discovered that sometimes I was dead wrong, believing a president had done something abhorrent and then discovering, after he was no longer president, that I should never have believed whatever source told me he’d done it because numerous other sources have convinced me that it just wasn’t true at all.

All leaders are human beings. They all make mistakes, but unless they are running around torturing and murdering, they deserve to be forgiven for those mistakes, especially when we don’t know them. At. All. I mean, I can understand hating someone who killed your father, but hating someone because you disagree with some policy of his that hasn’t affected you at all? My only question is: Why? I’m not suggesting that every single politician in America is there for  good reasons, or that we shouldn’t fight for the policies in which we believe (because apathy enables evil dictators). I am suggesting that maybe many of our politicians aren’t there solely for selfish reasons, solely for power and prestige. I believe we need to have checks and balances (preferably checks and balances that don’t involve money earned for those doing the checking and balancing), to make sure our leaders are being honest, but (and you can call me naïve if you want), I believe that many of our politicians are there because they care, because they’re hoping they can make a difference, even — gasp! — to try to help people. How do I know this? Because I happen to be the great-granddaughter of a man who served as a congressman for one term, thinking he could make a difference. He became discouraged and left, which maybe points to the fact that there have always been a lot of  “crooks” in Washington, but I like to think that there are, and have always been, others there who are doing their best not to become discouraged, or who have become discouraged but still persevere, and who are fighting for their ideals. Who are we to hate them for that?

And, on that note, I’m headed down to Virginia (home of my great-grandfather) for a few days.

What Do the Amish Read?

Tin TinBecause I work in a library in the middle of Lancaster County, PA, a place where, if there were no tourists, you’d likely see more Amish out and about than those who aren’t, I’m often asked the question, “What do the Amish read?” I’m not quite sure why there’s a fascination with what the Amish read. Maybe people think that all the Amish read are Bibles (or maybe that they can’t read, since they only attend school through 8th grade, but I promise you, they probably read better than most non-Amish 8th-graders), or maybe people have watched too many episodes of The Amish Mafia and think the Amish frequent the library to read up on the likes of Al Capone. Or maybe it’s just part of an overall fascination with the Amish.

Whatever the reason for the curiosity, I will attempt to answer the question. You must keep in mind, though, that with any population, it’s difficult to generalize. Some Amish really might be reading up on Al Capone. Others might be reading 50 Shades of Grey. You never know, but there are a few patterns I can share with you, so I thought I’d do that. This is, by no means, a complete list, but it will give you an idea.

Children and Teens (The children and teens read much more than their parents do. Here’s a select list of what you might find in their bags):

The kids love Scooby Doo, anything Scooby Doo will do. We have Scooby Doo chapter books, Scooby Doo picture books, Scooby Doo easy readers. You name it, we’ve got it, and they check these books out by the basketful.

Tintin. This one really surprises me. My American friends probably aren’t all that familiar with Tintin (although maybe since the movies came out, you are), whom I discovered the summer I was five when my family lived in England. All the old Tintin comics have been re-issued in single volumes and collections, and we can’t keep them on the shelves, thanks to the Amish boys.

Matt Christopher (another favorite of the boys). I haven’t actually read any Matt Christopher books myself, but again, anything that has his name on it is bound to look well-read in our library.

The Berenstain Bears. I read them when I was a kid. Who would’ve thought they’d practically be a corporation of their own by 2014? Again, we have everything from easy readers to chapter books, and they fly off the shelves in the hands of Amish children.

Anne of Green Gables, all of L.M. Montgomery’s books are popular with the Amish girls, as are the Little House books. Neither of these surprises me. By the way, the Little House books have all kinds of spin-offs now that tell the stories of other characters like Ma.

Anything by Thornton Burgess. I’m pretty sure the only ones checking out these old-fashioned books, most of which have very plain covers, are the Amish.

In the you-might-be-surprised category: the girls like to read The Babysitters Club books, and the teenage girls like to read Sweet Valley High books. They’re also wild about the Heartland series.

Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys are favorites.

In the not-surprising-at-all category: they like a lot of the series and authors published by “Christian” publishers like The Sugarcreek Gang, Ken Munro’s mysteries, FaithGirlz, Nancy Rue, the Mandie books, and Robin Jones Gunn.

Biographies of sports figures are also very popular with the boys.

Women

Most of the Amish women who come into the library read solely from what we call the “Inspirational fiction” shelves. These are books published by “Christian” publishers, like Zondervan and Bethany House. They often feature Amish or Mennonite characters, but not always, and provide stories with moral messages. Authors include people like Beverly Lewis, Karen Kingsbury, Janette Oke, Lauraine Snelling, Wanda Brunstetter, etc. If you ever visit Lancaster County, you will find all these authors in the book sections of gift shops.

The women also check out books on specific types of gardening, like organic, and natural health and nutrition.

Men

Sometimes the men join their wives or sisters in pulling books from the inspirational shelves. Mostly, though, they head for the westerns. Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey are favorites, as well as whatever westerns they can find on the “inspirational fiction” shelves.

They check out nonfiction books on hunting and building and, sometimes, farming (like organic) techniques.

There you have it, a very generalized list that you should not take literally, thinking that this is absolutely what the Amish read, but it should give you an idea of the sorts of things I find them checking out at our library.

That Sort of Week

It’s been that sort of week. You know what I mean, the kind of week in which you have to have a routine colonoscopy, and then, you have to go to the dentist because you’re pretty sure (having experienced this in the past) that you have a tooth infection, and you’re told you have to have root canal. Yes, that’s right, I said a colonoscopy and the discovery that you need root canal in the same week. Now, I know, that’s not like being hauled off to a POW camp or watching someone stab your spouse to death or being told you only have a week to live or anything, but still, it’s a pretty lousy week.

The good news, is that I got to have anesthesia. Anyone who’s ever had a colonoscopy will tell you that the worst part is the prep you have to endure the day before (which is 100% true, especially for a baby like me who hates any intestinal disturbances). I tried distracting myself that day by watching mindless movies like Something Borrowed and Monster in Law, which worked — sort of. I also decided to get all nostalgic and watch Pretty in Pink, to discover that, yes, I still have a huge crush on Andrew McCarthy as Blaine and that the soundtrack still rocks, but that it’s a pretty lame, predictable plot.

The actual colonoscopy, though? Piece of cake, especially for us insomniacs. I may have managed to live my whole life not the least bit interested in snorting cocaine or dropping acid or injecting myself with heroin, but if anesthesia were a street drug? I’d probably be in the gutter. Oh, to have a little anesthesia angel who would fly down at 3:00 a.m. sometime and hover over me with that IV to put me back to sleep until 7:00 a.m.

Now, if only root canals required anesthesia…

Welcome to Emily’s Brain Works

What does that mean, “Emily’s Brain Works”? Basically, it means that “Emily’s Thoughts” was already taken, at least on one of the other blog sites with which I experimented before deciding I’d go ahead and use WordPress after all, so I had to come up with something else. What are thoughts? They’re brain works, right?

But this is also a place, I hope, to prove that my brain works. I’m hoping that it works not only for me, but also in ways that are interesting enough to attract others — you know, those people who will boost my stats to 5 visits a day, at least.

There’s no theme here. My brain likes to work all over the map. I do read a lot, so I suppose there will be quite a lot here about books and articles (but no promises). Also, there are some things that don’t interest me at all: if you’re into cars, say, or motorcycles, or cake pops (one of the most disappointing desserts ever created. Please skip the unnecessary stick and give me real cake with real icing), you’re not going to find much here to interest you. The rest of you, who knows? Welcome to my brain.