Monday, January 31, 2011

January progress

Today was the last night of skating lessons and I just must say that I have NEVER been so glad to see the end of lessons in my life. Between the frantic dash after work to get home, pick up the kids, eat something, stuff Helen into her snowpants and gloves (which usually entailed dragging said snowpants and gloves out of their hiding place in the winter clothes bag), and convince both kids that yes, the lessons were still on and YES, we really are going, yes, even you, now get GOING, I would start dreading it three days in advance and it would kind of mar my weekend.

On the plus side, between skating, basketball, and run of the mill busyness, January passed quickly by and here we are on the brink of February. It's time for a little assessment of the resolution situation. Let's see. I resolved to read a TBR book a month, watch a moonrise, take the kids to nature and eat more wild food.

Let's start with the wild food:

Berries of the Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) growing in our backyard (it TOTALLY counts.)

Pork roast studded with juniper berries.

Waiting to eat the pork roast. And the chocolate-pecan torte (mmmm). And the roasted potatoes and steamed carrots & snow peas. (Can you tell I'm a little happy to have a kitchen back?)

I'm not totally sure that I detected the flavor of juniper berries in the pork--I mean, basically it tasted like pork, right?--but oh, I felt downright self-sustaining and virulently virtuous, collecting the berries that were scattered in huge heaps in our yard (we have a very fecund juniper). Next I'm going to try roasting the berries and using them to infuse milk for ice cream. I'll let you know how that goes.

Book: I read Tender at the Bone. Okay, fine, it had been sitting on my TBR pile for all of about 14 days when I picked it up, but still: off the list. I have to admit that the book made me quizzically jealous--so, wait, she just sort of stumbled into this dreamy life as a food writer? In which she got to, say, decide on the spur of the moment to travel to France to learn about wines? Some essential piece of this puzzle seemed left out. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book immensely, drooling as I read (lots of recipes).

Moon: well. January 15, the night of the full moon, was totally socked-in snowing. The next day Helen had her kindergarten program during the moon rise, and the days after that I sort of forgot (but did happen to be walking the dog shortly after the moon rise). Fun fact: the January full moon is called the Wolf Moon.

Nature: took the kids and a friend down to the creek at the bottom of the street. The friend fell in; Si and Helen also got suspiciously soaked. They also had to be dragged away from the creek, despite it being a) twenty degrees out; b) getting dark and c) a sopping-wet clothes situation. So I'll rate that one a success.

Next: February!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Ahh, the bowl fight

Yesterday our builder hooked up the kitchen faucet, which means that except for the really actually minor items like caulking and grout, the kitchen part of our house is D-O-N-E and we celebrated by baking a batch of cookies, which we haven't done since 1984. I mean, August. Helen was beside herself with chit-chattery excitement, spinning from mixing bowl to counter to oven and back again with a constant running commentary: "Aretheydoneyet?WhencanIlickthebowl? But Silas can't lick the bowl, right, because he wasn't here? What's that for? Are they done yet? Did you do the next batch? When you do the next one can I lick the bowl? Just me? I'm going to get a spoon. Just for licking, right, ma? What are these spoons for? Can I lick the spoon? But Silas can't, right? Are we going to have parties now? Whoa."

Meanwhile M and I were trying to have a conversation about how great it was to finally stand in the kitchen and have a conversation, Costi was trying to make the point that we hadn't fed her her after-dinner snack yet, and the birds (oh, the birds) were back in the living area, making their happy-to-be-here noises, and it was all so cheerful and noisy and warm that there was really no excuse for feeling tired and irritated, even though that's what I was mostly feeling.

Life is creeping back toward normal, in other words. Hurray. This was really brought home by the kids who, immediately after the celebration cookie baking, got into a fight over who got to lick the bowl (note: they BOTH get to lick the bowl. For Pete's sake.)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Dog Ambition

Said an expert about the border collie, Chaser, whose owner taught her to recognize, nose, paw or fetch 1,022 different objects: "It is not necessarily Chaser or Rico who is exceptional; it is the attention lavished on them."

In other words, around the world there are millions of border collies languishing in undeveloped desperation, just waiting for their owners to get with the program and start spending four to five hours a day training them.

....Now? NOW? ....How about now?

Monday, January 17, 2011


I spent my weekend in productive manual labor. Between the shop vac, the mop, the dust rags, and my lungs, GRUG, I carted about 20 pounds of accumulated dust out of the basement.

These are days I love to hate. Ugh, I might say, flopping down on the couch, ALL I did today was clean the basement. I didn’t get anything DONE. I ignored my children, neglected my mind, cooked hurriedly and without relish. I was indoors all afternoon under less-than-salubrious conditions. A life can get sucked into this sort of absorption, and all kinds of better priorities can get misplaced. I vaguely mourn the books unread, the lush and incisive paragraphs unwritten, the complex soups unsimmered.

Still. There is a higher dimension to this type of labor. The very little I know of Zen Buddhism reminds me that sweeping, scrubbing, and similar tasks are considered spiritual exercises. Maybe it’s metaphorical: tackling a minute corner of the world’s mess (even though all I really did was rearrange it, sending the dust bucket by bucket into the flower beds outside and the trash out to the landfill on the prairie). Maybe it’s more direct: straighten and clean the exterior, and something internal straightens and settles down, too.

All I know for sure is that there are few things in life as satisfying as an object cleaned (with the exception of objects constructed, an activity that I engage in far less frequently and with much more mixed results). Yesterday morning when I finished up my coffee, the basement was a toxic mess of 40-year-old cobwebs, drywall remnants, sawdust, reverse drain residue and lingering insulation fibers. By the time I sat down to dinner, half was clean and usable. I spent my evening nipping over to the basement stairs to admire the well-wiped surfaces and dust-free toys. I went to bed feeling satisfied and tired.

The best thing of all about cleaning the basement, though? Once it's done, it'll be done for a good long time.

Friday, January 14, 2011


During the 20 or so years of my adult life, I have been accustomed to thinking of myself as an expert. Generally there has been very little evidence to support this stance, although I have made ambitious beginnings in a wide range of subjects. I believe my self-assessment comes in large part from periodically rubbing academic or professional elbows with people who either were at the time or who later became, through dint of perseverance and attention, experts.

For example, during high school I devoted myself almost exclusively to music and British literature. To this day I experience an agony of inarticulate familiarity when I listen to the radio: "Hey!" I'll cry to family members, "I've played this piece! We must have worked on this exact section about thirty times--it's really hard to play in tune!" What I won't be able to recall, however, is the name of the piece or who composed it. Likewise, I have a solid grounding in the classics of English literature, although after 20 years my actual knowledge of the contents of these classics has become very dim (Macbeth is about...a man who murders someone? With the help of his wife? Who gets blood on her hands and has a hard time washing it off? Out, out, damned spot!)

Or...during one very focused semester in college I read every historic document pertaining to the pre-20th century Ojibwa, or at least all the documents that had been published and then purchased by the Columbia University library system. I can't even remember what these documents are, just what they looked like and where, generally, they were found within the library.

Or...for several summers in my twenties I could name every bird that bred between 6,500 and 9,000 feet in the Colorado mountains, and identify them by song or call. I could also identify most of the plants.

Therefore, it has come as a rather rude surprise to reach age forty (or thereabouts) and be most accurately defined as a dilettante. I engage in most pursuits "sporadically, superficially, or frivolously;" I lack real commitment or knowledge of most subjects (and the subjects to which I am committed to are somewhat stunning in their triviality--the catalogs of which sidewalks in the neighborhood are most likely to be icy two weeks after a big snow; the state of my children's teeth; the proper usage of a comma according to the AP Style Guide).

Meanwhile, while I have restlessly skipped from subject to subject, my former peers have doggedly persisted in acquiring the depth and breadth of knowledge I have always admired, often imitated, and never really achieved. Former classmates whom I used to (shamefully) consider lacking in ability, or application, or the sheer imaginative passion necessary to really dive into a subject and make it one's own have become, shockingly, experts. In my current job, as the editor of academic manuscripts for a technical journal, this fact makes itself known to me on a daily basis. My email inbox is filled with messages from men and women whose grasp of the technical requirements of separating gangue rock from valuable ore, or designing an underground ventilation system that is both efficient and effective, or quickly suppressing a spot fire on a conveyor belt system, is vastly superior to mine--and (here's the rub, because I can't say I lie awake nights regretting my inability to match the proper teeter bed hydroseparator to the specific rock type found in a particular seam) the larger physical, chemical, economic, geologic and even political context for any and all of these specialized endeavors. If you had asked me at age 22 if I had any interest in becoming a civil engineer I would have thrown back my head and laughed. Yet if you'd asked if I wanted to gain a thorough knowledge of the structural, social, scientific implications of building a bridge--and, further, to develop an acquaintance with all of the varied people involved in such a project, and an understanding of the specific political climate surrounding the endeavor--well, I would have said yes. Definitely yes, just as soon as I finish trying (and failing) to teach myself Navajo.

Here's the thing, though: do I care? Most of the time, not too awfully much, although that's usually the low-grade exhaustion talking (sure I'm bummed that I never got around to writing the Definitive Guide to Native American Linguistic Evolution--but hey, who's up for a nap?)

Sometimes, though, I grow melancholic. I'll read the obituary of someone who made it his well-appreciated but completely unpaid business to drive all over the state and catalog every single Paleoindian site in the Rocky Mountains, and I'll think that sounds so cooool. I'll read an article about someone who devoted ten years to discovering and eating the root crops of the world, or became the state's unofficial expert on bats, or who wrote a book on a subject I briefly took a shine to and read two or three books about, and I'll get mopey for days, thinking that should have been me.

Whom do you envy? ask career counseling experts. It's a swift way to figure out what you want in life, or what you think is missing.

Well. What "whom do you envy?" doesn't help you answer is the next question, which is, "what are you going to do about it?"

I really don't know. For now, nothing. Embrace my inner dilettante, I suppose, while trying to stay the course on the project I started about nine and a half years ago, which is raising two kids with a reasonable amount of stability and attention. And dream of a day when I can, and hopefully will, hop into my car and call in sick whenever I hear of a great new...something, somewhere in the state.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Late-breaking resolution

On this blissfully wintry day in January, I have an additional 2011 resolution to add: I'm going to (informally, and with the rules changed to suit my own purposes) be joining Roof Beam Reader's 2011 TBR Pile Challenge.

The goal of the TBR Pile Challenge is, in Roof Beam Reader's words, to finally read 12 books from your "to be read" pile, within 12 months. One of the rules of the official contest is that all of the books have to have been on my TBR pile for at least one full year, but I'm changing that because I got a lot of nice books for Christmas. No point in sending those to next year's TBR pile! However, I have plenty (PLEHENTY) of older books that can help round out this challenge. The key to the challenge is to post the list of 12 in advance, along with two alternates (in the event of a book starting to feel like punishment).

My list:

1. Tender at the Bone, Ruth Reichl
2. At Home, Bill Bryson
3. Dr. Zhivago, Boris Pasternak, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
4. Collected Short Stories of Raymond Carver
5. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
6. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
7. A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace
8. Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion
9. Little Heathens, Mildred Armstrong Kalish
10. Aeneid, Virgil, translated by Robert Fagles
11. Of Wolves and Men, Barry Lopez
12. The Story Behind the Story (various)

Raw Edges, Phyllis Barber
The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiesen

You know what I love when it gets so cold, like it has been for the past few days? The way the mountains and foothills never seem to wake up. The snow on the trees and rock cliffs doesn't melt, so that white, closed look of wintry dawn lasts all day.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


Attention: we are now cooking with gas.

Still no sink, running water, or counters, but the end is in SIGHT.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Resolve: Not Just for Cleaning Anymore

I love New Year's resolutions! Other people's, my own, my kids' (fun fact: Silas announced his NY's resolution last week, which was to eat at McDonald's no more than three times--"or four. Four times OR LESS"--which revealed a logistical flaw in the concept of kid resolutions, because it's not as though he jets off to McDonald's any old time he wants. In order to fill his resolution, he's going to have to convince an adult to take him to McDonald's, and then convince said adult NOT to take him, a conversation which will probably result in a Certain Relative feeling the need to warn us again about the dangers of getting reported to CPS due to not letting our kids enjoy junk food, or some such.)

ANYWAY. My 2010 resolutions were:

1. To read a 2009-published work of fiction each month.

Done. See list below.

2. To hike at least once a month.

Done. Although the court would like to point out the "uh...barely" nature of the November "hike" (1/8th of a mile up a forest road during a run). Again, see list below.

3. To ride my bike to work at least once.


4. To take some early mornings in May and June and go birding.

Fail. May/June turned out to be way too fraught to take time to do anything.

I hereby announce my 2011 Resolutions:

1. Take the kids out into nature at least once a month.

(The creek at the bottom of the hill counts. Don't even get me started on the social forces that compel this to be an Outing, rather than an injunctive issued while I sit at home and do boring grownup things.)

2. Eat more wild food.

(By which I mean food of a gathered nature, not that I'm going to go out and invest in a hunting license. Also, weeds in my own yard count as wild.)

3. Watch the moon rise at least once a month.

4. Hike once a month.

Lots of activity-of-the-month action in this list, which tends to lead to a busy 30th, but so it goes.

2010 recap:

The hikes I took:

January: Frisco-Breckenridge Bike Path, 1.5 miles; Swallow & Coyote Song trails, 2 miles
February: Coyote Song Trail, 1 mile
March: Carpenter Peak Trail, 6.4 miles; Fountain Valley trail, 2 miles
April: Duluth waterfront, Lake Superior, 2 miles; Swallow Trail, 1 mile
May: Glendale Farm Open Space, 2 miles; Swallow and Coyote Song Trails, 2 miles; Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield, 1.2 miles
June: Meadowlark and Plymouth Creek Trails, 3.5 miles
July: Mt Bierstadt Trail, 4 miles; Caribou Pass and Columbine Lake trails, 6 miles
August: East Canyon Loop, 4 miles
September: Coyote Song and Swallow Trails, 2 miles
October: Coyote Song and Swallow Trails; Lyons Back Trail; 3 miles; Chatfield park trails, 6 miles
November: Vasquez Road, app. 1/4 mile.
December: Coronado National Forest, on and off-trail, 9 miles; Matthew Winters and Morrison Slide trails, 4 miles

The books I read (as part of my 2009 fiction project):

1. Amateur Barbarians, Robert Cohen
2. The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters
3. Chronic City, Jonathan Lethem
4. A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore
5. Tinkers, Paul Harding
6. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Daniyal Mueenuddin
7. Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann
8. The Help, Katheryn Stocket
9. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
10. Family Album, Penelope Lively
11. Await Your Reply, Dan Chaon
12. Too Much Happiness, Alice Munro

Ten novels, two books of short stories. The one that kept me reading past bedtime the longest was The Help; the one that I was sorriest to have end was Wolf Hall; the one I found most exasperating was Chronic City (though I have to say it's stuck with me longer than many other books I enojyed more). The book that seemed to be teaching me the most about an unknown part of the world was In Other Rooms, Other Wonders.

Overall, although I often felt constrained by the rules of the reading project, and sighed disontentedly at the library when I wanted to chose a book written in some other year, or wanted to pursue some new reading adventure that had caught my fancy, this project introduced me to books and authors I was grateful to find, and whom I probably wouldn't have read for many years to come. In other words: success. However, I don't think I'll repeat it for 2011.