Friday, December 30, 2011

Life 101–Settling into an exercise routine

Ben and I have finally settled into an exercise routine. Last year we worked at it for months, but never really lost any of our winter storage. This year we’re already progressing in our program faster and with more stamina than last year, though we got behind and lazy on our workouts during the holiday buildup leading to Christmas.

We started back at it on Monday and this week have worked our way through all five workout DVDs we bought last year. Yes, we’re stiff and sore, but tired enough of our storage tanks that we’re determined to tough it out and stick to the program.

Tomorrow we’re planning on going to soak in the hot springs at White Sulphur Springs. Ahhh! Time for a little reward.

The Writing Life

I’ve been working on an essay about the attempt I made trying to take care of my parents by taking them to their home of thirty three years rather than leaving them in the nursing  home. I had been working on a sci-fi short story connected to the novels I have mapped out for writing in the future, but the short story had too much depth and the characters were too complex to write all I needed to say in a short story without making the whole story seem trivial and superstitious. So I set that aside and started on the essay.

Personal experience essays, when as emotionally charged as this one is, are difficult to get down without sounding like a big whine. I’m still sorting some things out from the ordeal, but all that I need for this essay has passed. Trying to tell more would require a lot more paper. It’s not that I’m still emotionally wound up about what I consider a failed attempt to care for mom and dad (I’m not), but I am still figuring out how my story fits together to make it all seem logical.

I’m nearly done with the first draft. It’s taking a lot of mental energy working through the rough outlines and notes; adding and deleting what does and doesn’t belong in this essay gives me a headache. I keep wanting to tell other details, but that only confuses what this particular essay is about. I plan on finishing it this weekend, or by Monday at the latest.

When I write, I have to start out sitting away from the computer and writing out my notes; then, also with pencil and paper, I map out an outline. Then, still by hand, I write a rough draft. Finally, I revise it as I’m typing it on the computer, ending up with a first draft. Lately, I’ve been reworking the first draft a couple of times, then print it out and go over it again, making notes with a pencil. I repeat this a couple of times, then I get someone else to read it for clarity, flow and tone. I’m hoping that when I get this essay that far I can finalize it with the suggestions from my readers and start sending it off.

I need to get quicker, though. It takes me far too long to get something out.

So, off I go, back to work.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Life 101–Keys to Happiness

What drives us as individuals (what brings us happiness, satisfaction and contentment) is making progress, improving our selves and our lives. The best way to destroy hope and happiness is to prevent progress through rules, regulations and social norms. Certainly preventing progress conserves things as they are in a boxed-in, comfortable sort of way, but it destroys the human soul. People focus entirely on life after living, hoping for golden streets of happiness, but if we’re not allowed, by law or social stigma, to make life on earth filled with “golden streets of happiness,” then how can we expect to realize that in what comes after this? How can our reward be that when we’ve so strictly prevented it among our fellow earthly beings?

Thursday, December 22, 2011


Ah, the holiday season.

It helps to bring in the long, cold winter without so much dread: the storing of fat to be burned off next spring (and summer and fall), the parties and gatherings with family and friends to celebrate, the bright lights and cheery packages being exchanged.

But my favorite part of this season is the solstice, which promises the light will come back and with it, my energy level and ambition. I left the tree lights on last night and will do so again tonight to help quell the dark of the shortest day of the year. Today brings with it the promise that longer days, more energy and ambition will help me accomplish more. It’s all an illusion, of course. There are no more hours in a day, just more light hours. The diet will begin in a few days, so I’ll be fighting against my body’s desire to continue packing on the fat. And it will be months before the daylight hours will make enough of a difference to truly note it.

But it is a new beginning with real meaning.

I have long wondered why the new year doesn’t correlate with the solstice. The timing of the new year has nothing to do with anything tangible besides a paper calendar. Our lives revolve around the sun just as our planet does.

So, I guess the calendar doesn’t really matter. What matters right now is that the days will no longer continue to be shorter, the nights longer. Today is the bottom of the cycle and this year it is mostly sunny and beautiful in spite of being so cold this morning that the old, blind rooster didn’t rouse when I reached in to give him food and fresh, warm water. Now, midmorning already, the sun is above the mountains and warming the world around me. The magnificence of this world is gleaming in the light of the shortest day of the year. And (no, I’m not ignoring what the rest of the winter will bring) it can only get better from here.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Life 101–Genetics in Motion

Years ago we planted a pair of twin lodgepole pines outside the studio window where I sit each winter morning beside the wood stove with my first cup of coffee. From that window I have watched the trees grow taller and wider every year since they were tall enough to see from my winter morning perch. I don’t recall what year we planted them nor that we had deliberately planted two trees together and it was several years before I realized they were two separate trees, but their growth patterns are very different. Despite growing side by side, one is bushy with needles that cling for years, the other has bunches of needles on the ends of the branches with only two years’ growth by this time of year. The third year needles fall off during autumn.

Genetics. Our genes regulate not only how we look, but how we intuit certain outside stimuli. Ben and I watched a documentary film a couple of nights ago about the differences of three sons in a single family. The oldest boy had been adopted, so he had different genes than the other two. That boy had grown up with a propensity for being the center of attention; he made several movies with his parents’ camera and was always the star of the show. And though he didn’t know how to play the piano, couldn’t read music, he was able to sit down and play beautiful tunes.

During the period of time covered in the documentary, the oldest son found out who his birth mother was. She had died, but he discovered that she was the offspring of two famous actors. He also found out that his great grandmother had been a pianist.

Many kinds of animals on the earth have what we term genetic imprints. These imprints, or what scientists believe are imprints, are different than instincts and can lead some animals to follow established migratory routes even though they were never led by their parents.

We don’t like to believe that we humans could be regulated by genes, but we know our genetics affect many aspects of our humanity. We don’t want to believe we have any sort of regulatory imprints and we have fought for generations to vanquish instincts that every other animal on earth has. No matter how much we want to believe otherwise, we are deeply affected by our genetic heritage.

But what I don’t believe is that we cannot overrule traits or tendencies that are undesirable, destructive, or lack benefit to us or our loved ones. We have one trait that most other animals don’t have: reason. It’s the most powerful genetic trait that we have, but is also the one we use the least. Through reason we can benefit not only those around us, but ourselves. We can override destructive traits and develop beneficial ones.

So why don’t we more fully access our reason? It’s not the easy way to live; it’s a lot of hard work and self-discipline. And it takes a lot of concentration which many people believe is better used to make a lavish living. And so many of the undesirable traits serve people well in establishing that lavish living.

But another thing I know is that letting those traits fly free, we cannot find true happiness. We may be able to find riches and status, but not joy, not love, and not spiritual freedom. And, yet, we can still develop lavish living without those traits. Just as we can make use of hard work to overcome undesirable traits, we can use hard work to develop desirable traits which will bring wealth and prestige if that’s what we truly want. In short, we can earn it and earning it brings a rich, full happiness on it’s own.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Life 101–The Mystery of Holiday Cheer

It’s the biggest and brightest holiday season of the year. Lots of love and good cheer, hugs and kisses, and presents are being freely exchanged. But what I’m wondering is why all that great stuff is so harshly limited to this time of year. Would we not all be better off if maybe we scaled back a little every December and spread the goodness out over the rest of the year?

I’m not talking about New Year’s resolutions. I just mean that maybe we could all behave a little more December-like all year rather than just in December.

If we can’t loosen up and spread that kind of cheer out over the year, does it mean we’re really just putting on a false persona in December because it’s the popular thing to do?

I hope not. Maybe we could start a revolution.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Life 101–Enjoying the Holidays

Yesterday Ben and I went to the mountain to get a tree for the holidays. There were some really nice small trees less than twenty yards from where we parked, but it was a beautiful and sunny day so we hiked into the woods to find a tree there. We always choose a tree growing right next to another one – it’s usually a little lopsided, but Ben figures we save space that way since it will sit closer to the wall – so that when we remove one little tree, the other one will have more resources and grow up stronger and healthier. We found a pretty little lodgepole pine tree about a quarter of a mile from the car, so we had a nice little hike that burned off some of the extra calories we’ve been stocking up on.

The days are still growing shorter, of course, but I was actually shocked, or maybe just dismayed, to figure out that we actually have less than eight hours of sunlight a day. So, for us, the lighted tree is more of a celebration of the return of  the longer daylight hours. Longer days means more ambition to use more of those stocked up calories.

We had the beef bourguignon on Saturday, then yesterday (Sunday) we went to Ursula and DeeDee’s for a terrific pot luck. Everyone invited was an exceptional cook, so everything was really delicious. Ben and I took chocolate mousse, which we all ate as we sat around watching a slide show of Ursula and DeeDee’s trip to Turkey. What a great time: good company, good food and good entertainment.

That’s what’s so great about this time of year. We get together with friends and family to eat lots of really great food.

As I’ve said before, my mother wasn’t much of a cook. She hated cooking and never really tried to learn how to cook much besides fudge, which she made exceptionally well. Because she couldn’t cook, eating was not much more than a survival activity until I met Ben and then it became enjoyable. Yesterday, however, as I was rubbing my over-filled belly, I was thinking about all the good things I’m learning to cook and how much I’m enjoying learning to cook and how I’ve learned to enjoy eating even more. And then I realized I’ve become a foodie! It’s really showing around my middle and by my wardrobe, which now consists of summer wear and winter wear, designated by the size the garment rather than the color or style.

I can just hear the younger generations, after I’ve died, remembering how old Uncle Steve got so chubby when he got older. Yikes, back to the exercise routine . . .

Cooking 101–Beef Bourguignon

Honestly, it’s not difficult to prepare. It’s takes a lot of time, but it is worth it. Julia said, in essence, that it’s one of the most delicious beef recipes ever. I disagree. However, I would agree that it’s one of the most delicious beef and bacon recipes ever. It’s truly a fantastic dish.
Here’s the way I made it:
1/2 pound thick-sliced bacon
into one inch pieces. Boil for ten minutes, drain, rinse then and sauté in a cast-iron Dutch oven with
2 Tablespoons canola oil
until lightly browned. Remove from oil and set aside. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Brown
3 pounds stew meat cut into one inch chunks
in the bacon fat and oil a large handful at a time. If you try too much beef at a time, it will put too much water in the oil and won’t brown properly. Set the browned beef aside with the bacon and then brown
1 large sliced carrot
1/4 cup diced, dried onion
in the same oil. After I browned the beef, there wasn’t any oil left, so I put the bacon back in the Dutch oven to cook out a bit more of the bacon fat. It didn’t provide enough to finish browning the vegetables, so I added a little water and cooked them for a few minutes then threw the beef and bacon back into the Dutch oven and added
One regular sized bottle of good red wine
2 cups water
2 teaspoons beef bullion
3 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 garlic cloves diced fine
1/2 teaspoon fresh rosemary
1 bay leaf
Bring the mix to a boil, then put into the oven on the second rack level from the bottom. Check occasionally to be sure the liquids are simmering slowly; check for tenderness after about 2 1/2 to three hours.
1 diced onion with
1 pound mushrooms
Put the mushrooms and onions into a small serving dish;  remove the beef and bacon from the Dutch oven into a serving bowl. Simmer the sauce for a few minutes and if any fat floats to the top, skim it off. Pour the sauce into a gravy boat or sauce pot. Serve the beef over
Steamed rice
top with the onions and mushrooms and cover with the sauce. Serve
as a side dish, and red wine if you wish.
As I said, this is an incredibly delicious dish. It is heavy, so you don’t need a whole lot more, in my opinion, but the salad does add a nice touch.
For desert Ben made a peach upside-down cake. This was an excellent finish for a grand meal.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Zen Continues

I thought I had a common cold and was on the mend, but it turns out I have the flu. My head won’t clear and my lungs hurt, so I may have another week of this. I can work briefly, though I tire out quickly, but at least I can get some things done.

I am not sleeping as much during the day as I was last week, but my mind fatigues more easily, so I can’t read as much this week. Therefore, I have more time to just sit, and think . . .


My musings at the moment are not news, but I need to get something off my normally quiet chest to relieve some of the pressure and the pain, because there are those among us who don’t have the slightest concern for what happens to anyone but themselves. A great deal of our modern day culture is based on the philosophy of those people, for their personal gain: we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, never accept “charity,”  depend upon no one but ourselves, and pick ourselves up to dust ourselves off and climb back on that wild horse because it’s a cause worth dying for . . . There are too many clichés for me to list here that describe our ‘fierce independence,’ our lack of tolerance for living among people we might come to depend upon or, worse (and here’s the key) who might come to depend upon us.

I do not count myself as  innocent in this way of living. I have been as guilty as anyone else in my quest for independent living, in striving to live indebted to no one.

The only problem with this philosophy is that we live in societies and cannot possibly, as individuals, produce or generate everything we need to survive in the world of today. The philosophy itself is problematic enough that some people give up before they even get a chance, because they realize they cannot do it all themselves. We have separated ourselves from the very concept of ‘community’ with such a distance that we ‘create’ on-line communities. That sort of group is a wonderful, interactive (albeit impersonal) social outlet for us to seek out like-minded people, but it certainly cannot act as a true community.  It takes, as the saying goes, a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to feed and protect each of us, and to keep us safe and secure. Our very lives depend upon many, many people we will never meet. Whether we admit it or not, we’re tightly connected to all the individuals within our society. The more we strive to segregate ourselves, the more strife we create, sometimes for ourselves, but always for others.

And that’s why I say there are those among us who don’t care about what happens to anyone but themselves. As long as those individuals are comfortable, safe, secure, and well-fed, they believe the world is fine just the way it is. There is an old story of Marie Antoinette who said, when told the peasants were rebelling because they had no bread, “Let them eat cake.” She didn’t have a clue the people were starving because she just didn’t care; after all, she had bread (and cake and meat and . . .). Our society today is run by various incarnations of Marie Antoinette. They see individual rebellions, but they don’t have a clue that people have genuine needs that are not being met, because they just don’t care.

And the reason they don’t care is that they have souls that absorb, rather than emit, light. They take and they take, and they never give unless society forces them to do so; and they have far too many of the rest of us believing that their way is the righteous way to live, despite what our various doctrines tell us.

It will be interesting to see how long it takes us to understand what’s really happening and to make the adjustments we’ll have to make to create a genuine change. America was once far and above the greatest country in the world, but China is quickly overtaking us, buying us out by offering cheap goods, and as long as we insist on segregating ourselves from our fellow Americans in our attempt to go it alone, as long as we continue to refuse to support ourselves and each other we’ll never be able to compete with what China, with its vast wealth of resources and people, is offering us.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Cooking 101–Squash-layered Crepe Mound

I made a crepe mound for Thanksgiving Dinner here on the creek and filled it with a thick version of Ben’s famous Squash Soup recipe. It was a big hit.

So, here’s the recipe for Ben’s Squash Soup


3 cups baked squash

2 tablespoons dried, minced onion

1 teaspoon poultry seasoning

1 teaspoon rosemary

1/2  teaspoon dried garlic granules

1/2 teaspoon celery seed

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

Mix these together thoroughly with just enough water or milk to make the mixture smooth and creamy and let sit in the fridge overnight. Then add:

2 cups milk (if the squash is thick and dry, you may need to add more)

4 tablespoons butter

Bring to low boil on medium heat, stirring often. Simmer for about fifteen minutes, serve with sour cream and chopped pecans, seasoned bread crumbs, or toasted squash seeds.

When I made the Squash-layered Crepe Mound, I put the initial ingredients together, let sit overnight, then layered them cold between the crepes, topped it with cheese sauce and some extra grated cheese, and baked it for about 30 minutes.


Here’s how the crepe mound looked before I put it in the oven


Fresh out of the oven

The Zen of Being Sick

Early in the week I came down with a cold and spent most of the week sleeping. Yesterday I finally woke from a foggy cloud and peered through the haze to finally make my way back into the studio to finish pots I had started a few days earlier.

I hate being sick.

What a waste of time, energy and resources.

What is the Zen message in being sick? No, I mean I’m really asking. I haven’t figured it out and I’m not sure I ever will. I suppose someone on a higher plane than I am could figure it out, but the only good I get out of it is getting caught up on a little reading. Yes, I read when I’m sick – at least when I’m not sleeping. Reading takes my mind off feeling poorly, however temporarily.

Now I’m nearly another week behind where I had hoped to be with everything I’m working on.

Thanksgiving was great, except for getting exposed to a nasty cold virus. Two major pig-outs, one here on the creek with a great group of friends and one with Ben’s family in Wyoming. At both dinners it was great to see so many people we don’t get to see very often. Life is far too hectic and we’re all spread too far apart, both friends and family. It wasn’t enough time, of course, to fully catch up with the events of their lives, but it was still fun to reconnect and cover what we could in the time we had.

Now there’s a Zen message in that, of course: appreciate those precious moments when they’re happening, enjoy the moment in the moment. But getting sick? The only message I get from that is try to take better care of myself when I’m healthy to keep the times of sickness fewer and shorter.

Hey, where did that come from? It’s not exactly Zen, but that’s a pretty good idea. And, gee, I used to do that . . .