Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Reason of the Season (or complete lack thereof)

It is that time of year. I went in to pay my property taxes, which of course increased over last year. And for that increase I get a Governor who wants to slash all funding for the Arts (which I value) and health care services (which I value) and huge cuts to public schools (which I value) all while giving tax breaks to large corporations who reward We The People by relocating jobs to Mexico or China and giving their executives huge bonuses. Feel free to work from the assumption that I am not a fan of the current Governor. Let's recall him, shall we?


While downtown, I visited my local bank (which pays its taxes unlike Associated or M&I) and then stopped in to the state Capitol to witness the annual non-religious display of "holiday" decorations - because Christians are so marginalized in today's society. (Yes, that was sarcasm.)


Therein I found a 36' tall Christmas tree, clearly labeled as such. And lest one think that was an affront to separation of Church and State, the tree was dedicated to Veterans. After all, how unpatriotic would it be to criticize a state-sponsored religious icon in the state Capitol if it is dedicated to veterans? Yes, I am well aware that "Christmas Trees" are actually an ancient Pagan tradition co-opted by Christianity. But try and tell that to them.) One floor up was this, one of several "alternative view" presentations:


Nothing says separation of Church and State like a nativity scene! There was also a menorah, but since it was in the midst of a Red Cross blood drive (OK, that was cool) I could not see if there was a sign with it.

As a direct response to the religious pandering of our state government, the Freedom From Religion foundation has also placed a sign for the past decade or so.


The first few years it was routinely vandalized by "good Christians". It is not enough that churches are exempt from taxes while clearly involving themselves in the political sphere, they need to be certain that it is only Christianity that is advocated and all other beliefs (or facts) be marginalized. While it is true that there are many Christians who do not behave this way, they do little to quell the static from their brethren, and thus get lumped in with the noisy jerks. Too bad, really. There is room for us all, and no one's religious beliefs need be publicly displayed in the center of our state Capitol and thereby marginalizing all others. It can, and should, remain in your church, your yard, and your mind.

Happy new year!

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Loss, and Gain

I had an interesting experience today. I met family members I never knew existed. Sort of.

It starts with a death in the family.


My dad had a million siblings - OK, not a million, but enough to be confusing when one is the youngest son in a large family whose father was the youngest in an even larger family. Most of my cousins are almost old enough to be my parents, and those closest in age to me are their kids, my second cousins. So my dad's sister passed recently, aged well into her nineties. My dad died at 53 back in the Seventies when I was eleven, and I sort of lose track of his side of the family.

Two of my sisters and I were at the memorial service today where we expected to offer condolences to our cousin Steve and Dad's last remaining sister. Imagine our surprise to read in the obit that our aunt was "survived by her son Steve, daughter Lee, and granddaughter Octavia". *blink-blink* Who?

It turns out my aunt had a close companion, friend, and caregiver who was with her through thick and thin for more than 15 years. Like a daughter she was, and her daughter, in turn, became a de facto granddaughter. They are both lovely people and we were baffled that we were unaware of them. We all made our introductions, swapped information, and I expect we will be hearing from them again. I hope so.

After the memorial my sisters and I went to lunch and talked some more about information we had gleaned. It seems my aunt had not shared info about her chosen daughter and granddaughter with the family because they are African American and some of the family is, umm, less accepting. As I said, I do not know them (my relatives) well enough to make any harsh judgement, and the root might lie less in familial racism and more in more simple sibling antipathy between my aunts.

Today I lost an aunt and gained a cousin and a second cousin. Interesting day...

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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Just because they wanted too

I partook of the usual seasonal activity today: I went shopping. I took Reena to work downtown and figured I would hit State Street, our local seven-block long pedestrian shopping/restaurant district. I hate the malls with their big-box department stores and try-too-hard kiosks. If I want to be like everyone else, I go to the mall. I was looking for a specific something for Reena, and I was pretty sure I would find it at one of the quirky shops on State. I was also supposed to find a little something for myself and tell Reena about it. I succeeded at the first task and failed at the second. What do I want? I have plenty of *stuff* so I do not want to request just any old thing. Well, I guess I have to keep thinking about it.

Carolers on State Street (DS3_1763)

One of the pleasant distractions of the day was a group of carolers singing Christmas songs. They were pretty good, too, so I suspect they were part of a choir somewhere, likely at a local church. They were having a lot of fun - smiles all around - and were not soliciting donations or anything. Just singing because they could and because they wanted too. I listened for a song or two, then continued on with a smile on my face.

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Friday, December 16, 2011



What do you say that enhances a photo like that?

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Sous Vide For Cheapskates (Like Me)

If you have dined at a fine restaurant in the past year or so, you may have encountered the idea of sous vide ("soo veed") cooking for meat. The general idea is to slow cook the meat in a hot water bath that uniformly brings the meat up to the desired temperature. It does all the same things as cooking meat in more conventional ways except browning. Supposedly the meat comes out more flavorful and tender. Being self-employed, I have not been dining in fine restaurants for the last couple of years. And a boné fide sous vide cooker that keeps the water circulating at a precise temperature runs $300-500. Too rich for my blood. Enter the DIY mindset.

Cheaper cuts of meat

Articles on this topic that I read suggested buying a cheaper cut of meat. It seems that the more expensive steaks are cut for tenderness rather than flavor, so less expensive cuts like hanger, arm, or flatiron which are tougher but more flavorful were desired. I like that. My local grocery only had arm cut so that is what I bought. Some reading about the "cooker" pointed at a simpler solution. A picnic cooler is nothing more/less than an insulated box. If it is effective at keeping things cold, then it should be as effective at keeping things hot. Off to the thrift store!


'Fran' had donated her lunch box cooler to the local Salvation Army store. I bought it for $2.09 and scrubbed and bleached it. Cooking meat doesn't require a high temperature. For rare, it needs to come up over 120 degrees. Medium-rare - my preference - is 130. My tap water tested out at 125 degrees (F) so it was nearly hot enough to do the cooking job.


I brought a kettle of water to a boil to bump the tap water temperature above 130. In the meantime I individually bagged each steak. The real method is to vacuum seal the meat, but I made do with a zip seal bag. I read somewhere that 'Ziploc' brand is a smart choice because the plastic did not contain/release BPAs. I used what I had on hand. If I become a devotee of the process, I will buy Ziploc bags. I dunked the bag in the hot water before sealing it because it softened the plastic and let me get closer to vacuum sealed.

Ready to cook!

The time to cook meat this way is much longer than grilling or broiling. What I read led me to believe that a minimum cook time was 45 minutes to bring chilled steak to a consistent 130 degrees. I brought the water in the cooler to 125 from the tap, then used the boiling water from the kettle to bring the temp to about 135 figuring that it would slowly drop over the cook time. And it did. Quickly. We keep our house at 64 degrees (F) this time of year, and so when I checked after 15 minutes the water had cooled to 125. I added more boiling water. I had to add water three times over the cooking time. A better cooler or perhaps an insulated wrap would make it more effective. There is no possibility of overcooking the meat using this sous vide method as the meat cannot come above the water temperature. Longer cook times (a few hours) are apparently desirable as the meat gets more tender.

I have things to do, so I did not fuss with the cooking for hours. I left the steaks in for about an hour, then prepared my side dish and salad. I did a quick check with Reena about 'serve as is' or do a quick sear when the meat was ready to be served. Color of the meat is still reddish because there is no high temperature to brown or char the surface. It looks ... not right. I opted to do a fast, very hot sear in a cast iron skillet with an oil suitable for high heat (not olive). 15-30 seconds per side was all it took to give the meat a more normal appearance (and texture).

I have to say the meat tasted excellent. It was very moist (only 4% moisture is lost this way at this temperature) and mostly tender. This cut of meat had some very tough gristle running through one edge that had to be cut away while we ate, but everything else was superb. I will do it again, and add some aromatics to the bag to enhance the meat while it cooks. Possibilities include salt, pepper, garlic, or perhaps a herb medley such as Penzey's Bonnes Herbes 'Parisian'.

I got so interested in eating that I never took the final photo!

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Green Eyes

Most beautiful. Cat. Ever.

Nala (DS3_1748)

The green eyes
Yeah, the spotlight shines upon you
And how could
Anybody deny you?


The green eyes
You're the one that I wanted to find
And anyone who
Tried to deny you must be out of their mind.

(from "Green Eyes" by Coldplay)

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Monday, December 12, 2011

Sun Stands Still, or, You're Right and I'm Right

Ahh, bringing a tree indoors, decorating it with lights and shiny ornaments, hanging evergreen boughs and wreaths, and of course mistletoe, are clear indicators of the "reason for the season". I refer of course to Yule, the pre-Christian winter solstice celebrations that were absorbed into and co-opted by later Christianity.

The first step was to hunt down the perfect tree:


Being 'tree-hugging dirt worshippers', as detractors frequently call Pagans and other environmentally concerned people, we felled our tree with dignity and respect. The space in our small-footprint home is not large, so we chose a tall, skinny tree. Next we brought it indoors and strung it with lights to remind us of the solstice, the longest night and literally meaning "sun stands still", and the promise of returning Sun. The sun is often represented religiously by the newly (re)born horned God of the hunt, or Christ. For Jews, the proximity of Hanukkah celebrates a different, but magical, experience. Historian Flavius Josephus narrates in his book Jewish Antiquities XII, how the victorious Judas Maccabeus ordered lavish yearly eight-day festivities after rededicating the Temple in Jerusalem that had been profaned by Antiochus IV Epiphanes: "Now Judas Maccabeus celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon; but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them by hymns and psalms."


Magic begins to transform both us and the tree as we carefully unwrap ornaments. Some date back to our early childhood half a century ago, or even earlier in the case of inherited family ornaments. Tales of holidays past warm our hearts and remind us of family and our connection to the past.


And at the same time we forge our own traditions and create our future.


We celebrate with friends - Pagan, Jewish, agnostic/atheist, and Christian - in the true spirit of the season.

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Thursday, December 1, 2011

MY VW Beetle Sneezed Out An Eyeball!

My 2001 VW Beetle sneezed yesterday and blew it's eyeball out!


No, not really. It did blow a headlight bulb though. I had just paid someone to replace the driver's side headlight bulb a couple of weeks ago. One look at a how-to video assured me that "pay the man" was the right solution to that challenge! While having my brakes redone I had them tack on the headlight bulb change for $40 (of which $32 was labor) and I assure you that was a bargain. This one seemed pretty straightforward.


First I identified which bulb I was changing. Smart, but apparently I mistook which one I was replacing and so made it harder on myself. Dumb! As the photo above shows, I first pulled the hard-to-get-to bulb which turned out to be the still-OK high beam. Ah well, five minutes wasted. Swapping the correct one took about two minutes. As you can see in this next pic it was easy to see the difference between the new and old bulbs. Even if it were not chilly outside, the cotton gloves are important because you are advised not to get finger oils on this sort of bulb as it (theoretically) shortens the life of the bulb by creating hot spots.


And, having learned my lesson from prior work like this, I made sure to test the new bulb before replacing the headlight nacelle in the car body!


Right, then. All is well so I buttoned everything back up. Elapsed time was about 20 minutes, but some of that was wasted on going after the wrong bulb.

I changed the wiper blades too at the same time and that was a lot more frustrating. It seems VW does things differently than most car manufacturers. Those who own VW's are nodding and saying, "No kidding!" I am guessing it took just as long to swap the wipers as the headlight bulb. Next year I hope I remember that VW blades pull down where everyone else's pull up to get them out of the arm.

Time spent: Under an hour. Money spent: about $30 for the wipers and bulb. Money saved doing it myself: Over $100. Go me!

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