about bliss

Saturday, May 30, 2009

daily bliss: bagel bliss

Day One: Saturday

My foodie bloggie friends Cathy, Nancy, and Wendy have joined yet another baking group, and are working their way through Peter Reinhart's tome The Bread Baker's Apprentice. Somehow, I found the restraint to *not* join them, though I was sorely tempted. However, I think I'll dip in from time to time, learning from their wisdom and making my own way.

Since good bagels are a thing of fantasy here in my corner of the world, having the ability to bake them myself would be invaluable. And so, I found a copy of the recipe over at smitten kitchen (isn't smitten such a swell word, really?) and set about ordering provisions for my bagel baking adventure. When the UPS man delivered my box of goodies from King Arthur flour earlier this week, on a cool and rainy day, I was giddy with thoughts of bread baking.

bagel making supplies

As I boldly declared to anyone who would listen that I was going to make bagels this weekend, my confidence increased. As I kneaded the recalcitrant bagel dough for an inordinate amount of time early this afternoon, I cursed myself and the dough. Is it possible to overknead? If it is, then I probably did it, in my quest for a perfect windowpane effect. Clearly I have much to learn about yeast baking.

bagel sponge

To form the bagels, I tried both the rolling method (make long ropes, and form them into circles) and the poke method (make balls of dough and poke a hole in the center), preferring the poke method for ease.

My bagels look a little uneven and misshapen, but that makes them all the more lovable, yes? They're resting in the refrigerator overnight...

Day Two: Sunday

I awoke at 7:30 this morning, flipped on Weekend All Things Considered just in time to hear the weekly word puzzle (yay!), and then made my way to the kitchen to start the coffee, heat the milk, crank up the oven to 500 degrees, and bring a huge pot of water, laced with baking soda and barley malt powder, to a boil.

Bagel time. (why am I now conjuring up M.C. Hammer?)

boil, toil, bubble, trouble

I dropped three bagels at a time in the roiling water, and allowed them to cook for two minutes on each side. Then, I removed them from the water, smeared the tops with egg wash, and then dipped them into one of my four toppings:

poppy seeds, cinnamon sugar, maldon sea salt, and parmesan peppercorn

Next, I baked them in the searing hot oven, five minutes and rotate pan, then five minutes more. I opened the oven door, set off the smoke alarm, and removed the very first bagels from the oven, as I finished the production of the remaining yeasty treats.

When the last batch was in the oven, I went out on the deck, leaned over the railing and called down to landlady/friend B to tell her the bagels were ready.

I gathered butter, strawberry jam (my penultimate jar from last summer!), peanut butter, havarti, and piave cheeses for possible toppings.

As I cut into the first poppy seed bagel, I noticed a light blistering on the golden exterior, and heard a lovely crunch as the knife slid through the outer crust. The interior looked lightly holey (hee! sunday morning holiness!), and I anxiously awaited B's verdict. Well, after I first took her plate away and turned off the overhead light in order to photograph the bagel.

"Oh, wow, these are good! You did a great job!"

I cut into one myself, spread it with butter, and took the first bite. Chewy. Flavorful. Bagel-ey!!!

I jumped up and down as B laughed.

We savored our bagels, coffee, and conversation, and B helped me arrange the bagels for their photo shoot on the deck. Look at this bountious bowl of breads!

There's a certain pride in taking on a task that seems challenging--a four page recipe with notes, is, after all, quite an undertaking. To be able to create something so beautiful *and* delicious, well, makes me beyond happy.

daily bliss: laziness

Some days are made for loafing: days of weather just on the edge of perfection--an azure sky, bright sun, and a breeze that hints of cool nights. Days with no plans other than to let the moments unfurl. Days when lace curtains billow around open windows, when lilacs burst into bloom, and when a quasi-nap in the sun allows rest if not sleep. Days when brothers call to chat *twice* because they're bored. Days for talking with Mom while wrangling bagel dough, and Grandpa when sitting on the deck. Days for eating a farmers' market lunch al fresco, buying flowers to plant on the porch, and planning wine nights. Days for sleepy satisfaction.

Days like today.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

daily bliss: serendipity

Shortly after I posted about my day of über-interiority, my friend J called to see if I wanted to come work in the garden and eat dinner with her and T. I changed into my old jeans and shoes, grabbed a bandanna to keep bugs out of my hair, and headed out into the now sunny, blue sky early evening.

Tonight's task was transplanting baby lettuces out of a big patch of greens into rows where they can breathe, grow, and form delicate heads. We worked for a good hour and a half before heading indoors with a huge bowl of fresh lettuces and--brace yourselves--arugula--for a delicious salad. J's sister and her young daughter stopped by, and we all enjoyed a fabulous feast of huge green salads, crusty bread, cheese, wine (Layer Cake Shiraz, so lush and jammy I want some at my house now!), Italian salami, soup, spinach with bacon dressing, and yogurt with canned plums. Almost everything we ate was food that T and J made, or their friends had grown/raised/made, including the meats.

Which I tasted.

And, oh, oh, oh, were they good (i could veer off into analogies here, but tonight, it's enough to say they were *good*). The salami. Mmmm. The little lardons of bacon that T smoked himself, from a friend's pig, mmm.

I told him that come summertime, when tomatoes are ripe, I want a completely homemade BLT. And I will eat it. And I will love it.

Will I still call myself a vegetarian?!?

My brother L calls me a "vegetarian who eats bacon."

The evening was just the antidote to all the interiority of my writing projects and the last few rainy days that left me stuck inside. Between the splendid food and fellowship, and the honest work of tending to baby plants, well, it was a swell evening. They sent me home with a tub of yogurt, a bunch of paperwhite narcissus, and a drawing that V. made, which I've tacked to my refrigerator. Inspiration.

daily bliss: sun salutation

Surya Namaskar, sun salutation, is the foundation of many yogic practices, and has certain, formulaic steps, though different schools of yoga improvise on this classic sequence. I'm used to a vigorous, hop-filled variation popular with vinyasa styles of yoga. My teacher at the local gym prefers a less "bouncy" style, including simple steps back rather than hops.

Today she planned a 90 minute class in celebration of her 50th birthday, and, unbeknownst to me (but not others in the class), the class would include five sets of ten sun salutations, a kind of steadying and purifying ritual.

I closed my eyes as we entered the first round of sun salutations and tried to focus on my breathing: slow, steady, and so unlike how it is most of the time. I trusted my body, my muscle memory, to find the right spot for my feet, to not overstep, to not fall. With my eyes closed, I was tunneling inward, trying to find that still, quiet place inside. It worked throughout most of the sequences, but as I started to tire, my arms shaking as I pushed into chaturanga, my mind was back to flitting all about. By the time we reached savasana, the most relaxing pose of all, my concentration was lost. I could feel the floor vibrating from the air conditioning, and hear the people next to me breathing. I was thinking, thinking, thinking a constant stream of thoughts: spiraling, looping, fleeting, persisting.


I'm all about living the contemplative life, and have waxed poetic about my "free" summers, with long expanses of time to read, write, think, create, etc. And I'm not really complaining. The only problem is that when *all* activities have this overarching interiority, it's easy to be stuck inside my own head, and that's not always a great place to be stuck, you know?

My daily yoga and walks, on the other hand, could force me to focus a little bit more on the physical world around me, and to move outside of myself. Granted, doing sun salutations with eyes closed, and walks with my iPod on also tend to turn the gaze more inward.

Somehow, I need to a) come to terms with the internal landscape and b) find better ways of bridging interiority and exteriority. I'm realizing just how difficult it is to be in any given moment without judgment or anxiety, and I'm realizing just how disconnected I am from my inner world during the school year, all wrapped up in external concerns and projecting a certain air of mastery or confidence. What happens when the daily concerns include language lessons, writing, reading, cooking, exercising? Each of these activities is an exercise in spiritual discipline--not a transcendence of the inner world, but rather an acceptance of each moment as it unfolds.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

perfect scoop: chocolate ice cream, philadelphia style

this would look better if i hadn't taken the photograph at 10:30 p.m...

Often people ask me what I *do* with all of the baked goods I make, since it may not appear that I eat many:

a) sharing

My job is perfect for this, though some might believe it gives me an unfair advantage with students when I promise baked goods on the first day of class. I see it as a fair counterpoint to my (supposedly) harsh grading rubric.

b) balance

For example, I knew that tonight I would want some of this delicious, decadent chocolate ice cream alongside yet another chipster brownie (which i've shamefully been nibbling on all.day.long because it's gray and cold outside.) Therefore, I ate vegan lunch AND dinner. Now, I'm not a vegan, though I admire those who are. Actually, I'm pretty sure it's illegal to be vegan in America's Dairyland. The half-eaten block of havarti in my fridge, conversations with my closest friends and family, and my twice daily cafe au laits, would illustrate my non-adherence to a vegan diet. But, when I know I'm going to enjoy a dairy extravaganza, I'll make my main meals vegan to balance everything out. So far it's working.

But I digress.

Historically, I haven't been a fan of chocolate ice cream. It always seemed too much of something that I can't quite name. Maybe too much sweetness? Too little depth? (rather like poorly written novels...or movies like a certain popular Nicholas Sparks adaptation that I cannot stand...)

And then my Mom introduced me to Palazzola's triple chocolate gelato. Rich, deep chocolate base. Intense fudge swirl. Chocolate curls that seem to flake in your mouth. Complexity. Surprise. Contrast.

I wondered if homemade chocolate ice cream could approximate this melange of flavors and as Newman famously stated on Seinfeld, "dizzying array of textures." I wanted to start with a basic chocolate recipe and then start experimenting, so I began with David Lebovitz's Philadelphia Style Chocolate Ice Cream. I like the Philly style ice creams for several reasons:

a) they're lighter, and allow intense flavors to shine
b) i'm still afraid of making custard, which more classic, French style ice creams require

I made a few alterations to Lebovitz's stellar recipe--namely, I used 1% Organic Valley milk instead of whole milk. I worried that the texture would be noticeably icier...and yet, this ice cream is the smoothest, lushest ice cream I've ever made. I used my favorite Valrhona cocoa powder, and a combination of unsweetened Ghiradelli bar chocolate and the 72% special chocolate discs, also from Ghiradelli. I can imagine all sorts of fun playing with chocolate brands and percentages...and I'll mix it up next time. And, I'll figure out how to add a fudge swirl and chocolate flakes.

If you're at all interested in Ice Cream making, you should own The Perfect Scoop. I won't be posting the recipes unless I make substantial changes in order to encourage you to support David by purchasing his book:)

Also, I'm planning a weekly ice cream feature throughout the summer--it won't be organized on a specific day, but one day a week I'll make a different kind of ice cream and blog about it. If you'd like to join me, leave a comment, tweet, or email, and we can compare ice creams!

twd: chipster topped brownies

Brownies and chocolate chip cookies seem to be pure Americana--those ubiquitous desserts that appear at every potluck, bake sale, or meeting I've attended. Imagine combining the two into one dessert--essentially a cookie topped brownie! An instant crowd pleaser! A chocolate extravaganza!

I was curious to see how these flavors would marry, and how the textures would balance. I decided to bake them Sunday night, not sure who I would share them with, but a post-parade social with B and her son M, and an impromptu Memorial day cookout at K and C's house, proved to be the perfect Americana events for these bars.

Usually I'm in Michigan for the Memorial Day holiday, going to the parade with my parents, and then sitting on the porch drinking iced tea and chatting and/or reading most of the afternoon. This year, I stayed in Wisconsin and attempted to organize the chaos a bit. I heard talk of a big Memorial Day parade and decided to check it out. With an East wind blowing across the still frigid lake, I walked West towards the parade route. I met up with some friends and settled in with my travel mug of coffee.

This parade was similar to my hometown parade in the array of veterans, fire, and police officers. There were fewer marching bands (the Catholic middle school band closing down the parade with a half-hearted version of Europe's "The Final Countdown"), more motorcycles, and a bevy of Lutherans. Miss M- County, a former student, and the Mayor, also a former student, waved. I scared off an overzealous Senate candidate of different political persuasion by flashing my Obama 08 tee-shirt. I ignored the TEA protesters, and received coupons from girl scouts.

B, M, and I walked back to my house where I served them the chipster topped brownies and chocolate ice cream, all before lunch. They were delicious, but I was still so chilled from the parade I couldn't thoroughly enjoy them. After a lazy afternoon of reading and trying to warm up, I brought a tray of the brownies to K and C's house for a little holiday cookout. We ate chips, drank beer, and chatted, while their son K swiped brownies without a word. I left the rest for them, and came home to brew decaf coffee and cut myself a tiny square.Twenty-four hours after the brownies were made, the layers have fully melded and it's difficult to tell where one chocolate ends and another begins. I like the contrast between the crisp cookie topping and the soft give of the brownie layer, and the overarching chocolateyness is, of course, wonderful.

These bars were fairly simply to make. I prepared the brownie layer using Blossom, and the cookie layer using my hand mixer. I took my time crafting this dessert, and felt somehow subversive about mixing up such classic Americana while listening to, nay, singing along with Poison's "Talk Dirty to Me" on my new Spring 2009 playlist.

Thanks to Beth of Supplicious for choosing this delicious, fun, and practical recipe. Not sure whether to make cookies or brownies for the next potluck? Now you can make both:)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

daily bliss: beach day

the boat that bridges my two homes

Growing up two miles from Lake Michigan, I always looked forward to long, endless days at the beach, digging my toes into the sand, splashing in the waves, and reading an engrossing novel. Trouble was, once it was truly warm enough to spend such days at the beach, it was also warm enough for the acres upon acres of blueberries on the family farm to need picking and cleaning and packing. Such days were treasures reserved for weekends, or hurried trips in the evening after long days of working in the hot sun and dusty fields.

Living less than a mile from Lake Michigan now, I still look forward to the same pleasures of being at the beach, and my summers are surprisingly freer than they were when I was a child. (another benefit of my profession:) After spending some of Friday, much of yesterday, and all of this morning working on revising my study, I was ready for a change of pace. The breeze blowing in the open windows felt warm-ish, and the sky and lake both sparkled sapphire. I layered on warmer clothes, packed a small daypack, and headed East. I passed many others on the trail wearing considerably less clothing than myself, but I knew that the temperature would depend a great deal upon the wind direction and speed, something that can change the closer you are to the water. I settled into my favorite sandy spot, spread out my blanket, unlaced my shoes, and wriggled my toes into the surprisingly warm sand. I took off my wind-proof fleece jacket. I was comfortable! I was not cold! I did not need my fleece headband! Granted, I was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and sorta fleecy pants, but I was warm.

I stretched into a few sun salutations; dug my toes into the sand, finding purchase for a near-perfect half moon pose facing the lake; sipped some steaming cafe au lait from my insulated travel mug; and read a few pages of Jenny Crusie's novel Faking It. Then, I reclined and, a la Annie Dillard, observed the world around me.

all the world in a blade of grass

I watched the car ferry, trailing clouds of black coal smoke, wend its way back to Michigan, and disappear over the horizon.

I watched a paddler push off a kayak into the small but steady waves, and I longed to be back at Lake Superior paddling from the mainland to Sand Island.

I watched a sea gull float and fly above the waves, "free fall[in'] out into nothin'" to pluck a fish from the icy water and struggle aloft with the fish firmly held in its beak before gulping it down, reminding me of Dillard's observations of a weasel carcass affixed to a flying eagle...

I lay on my fleece blanket, my face tilted towards the sun, suspended between wakefulness and sleep, in that glorious in-between space where the mind moves untethered, lilts and tilts, and doesn't settle but roams.

I sat up in a daze, grabbed pen and paper, hearing Harleys roar and children squeal, and jotted down these notes to take back with me.

I thought about chocolate ice cream and cookie topped brownies and felt the edges of hunger nudging me out my trance and back on the trail towards home.

daily bliss: revised spaces

I have big plans for this summer. In the next three months I will (among other fun pursuits):

1. Learn French via Rosetta Stone (I was awarded a grant from my university to purchase the program) in order to converse with Parisians and convince students/participants I'm not an unqualified imposter when I co-teach a class on American Ex-pat Writers in Paris next May.

2. Read Vampire literature in preparation for my Women and Popular Culture class this fall.

3. Write an article on Jenny Crusie's use of food in her novels, to a) present at RWA in July and b) publish in a collection of essays on Crusie's work.

4. Work on book project I'm co-editing with S; the collection of essays will be about the evolution of the novel in the digital age (calling all twovelers and podcast novelers and cell-phone novelers to submit!)

5. Decide what kind of book I really want to write: academic, novel, writing/teaching advice.

6. Journal and blog nearly daily.

7. Write short, creative non-fiction pieces for local-ish/regional magazines.

Uh-oh. This looks impossible. And I'm sure it is way too ambitious, given my propensity for frolicing in the sun, sand, and surf when summer beckons.

But, to encourage me to stay indoors at least part of the day to work on said projects, I spent a good portion of this weekend revising my study/guest room. (and because Revisionista asked me to, and because I'm trying to convince her to come visit me, I'm posting all kinds of photos of my revised study/guest room:)

First, I painted the room Tutu, a pale pink from the Martha Stewart Collection at Lowe's, covering up the pre-existing two toned canary and celery (I should ask landlady/friend/downstairs neighbor B if that was some kind of tribute to the Pack...). Now, the room is a vision of sheer, utter PINK girliness. It's perfect for a study/guest room--it's rather too much for my own bedroom, but for this room, well, it's perfect.

Then, I swapped out the bed coverings to lighten the room.

I reorganized my book shelves.

Soon, I will organize the piles of folders and papers hiding in one side of my little closet/desk area.

(will not include photo of that area of shame:)

And, I hope to find a larger desk. I really want a vintage wicker desk, but I know that will be a) difficult to find and b) potentially expensive. In the meantime, I'd like to find a sturdy table I could paint a fun color and cover with decoupage or with nifty quotes.

Oh, and find more inspirational/thought provoking/humorous photos, quotes, and such to hang on my bulletin board above my desk.

For now, though, this space makes me happy, and I'm looking forward to spending my mornings studying le Francaise and writing, writing, writing.

Friday, May 22, 2009

book review: tolstoy lied

Thursday morning I headed out to my friends' house to help in their large garden. They grow delicious, organic produce for the local farmers' market, and the task is becoming increasingly arduous, so I volunteered to help in exchange for some goodies. It took a little convincing T- that I'm not a fancy city girl, but someone who at one point in her life owned her very own pair of rubber shit kickers for potting and planting blueberries on the family farm. I'm a study in contradictions, I suppose, something that many people fail to recognize (because they're not really paying attention, I think. Or because I adapt to circumstances fairly well).

Who should show up to help out but N, the woman from the coffee shop who recommended that I read Rachel Kadish's novel Tolstoy Lied. I love it when my circles overlap as such. And so, under a hot sun and cerulean sky, T, N, and I chatted about this particular novel, among other things.


In attempting to write a book review, I'm honestly not sure how to proceed. I could very easily write a one paragraph summary; or a literary analysis of certain themes and/or characters; or apply some seemingly obfuscating literary, cultural, and/or philosophical theory to the narrative using pretentious jargon, but like Tracy, the protagonist/heroine of Tolstoy Lied, "I made a private vow never to say 'simulacrum' if 'cheap imitation' will suffice" (5). (although, having consumed a large-ish glass of pink prosecco left over from the aforementioned sorbet experiment, the classic vocabulary/alcohol ratio may be evidenced tonight).

My point is that I've never written a true book review. And I don't think this will be one, really. I think it will wind up being a pseudo-academic ramble with a heavy dose of personal connection. You've been warned...


I loved this novel. I loved reading it with that jolt of recognition that brings laughter, tears, pain, and pondering. At one moment in the book (I'm not going to tell you which one because, well, sometimes reading and recognition is intensely private), I had to set the book down for a good five minutes, a stunned look on my face and a epiphany racing through my being. It was that good.

The novel, subtitled "A Love Story," features Tracy Farber, a single, thirty-three year old Professor of American Literature at a prestigious Manhattan university who is in her tenure semester. Basically, this means that Tracy should be freaking out about whether she'll earn tenure (a mixed-blessing system of six year (!) apprenticeship) and be safe and settled in her career, or whether she'll be denied tenure and forced back on to the grueling job market. Tracy seems fairly comfortable with her tenure prospects, but is blindsided when she meets George. The novel tracks both her quest for tenure and her relationship with George.

Tolstoy Lied is predicated on the opening line of Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." (full disclosure: I've never managed to read Anna Karenina. I blame my crappy Signet edition, with the tiny pages and tinier font. Then again, I have never finished a Russian Realist novel, though I have started many...the problem must be me.). After earning tenure, Tracy plans on taking Tolstoy to task for what she perceives to be a lie. Rather, Tracy believes that happiness is not monolithic, but is various and individual. She plans on studying most all of literature to find proof of this thesis, an undertaking that in turns angers, mystifies, and delights her colleagues.

The career plot is intricate in the way that academic intrigue and suspense is--hushed meetings in closed-door offices, scowling colleagues who resent your happiness, and unbalanced graduate students pushed over the edge. I've seen them all during my twelve years in the not-so-Ivory-Tower. The relationship plot is full and richly layered--a realistic romance with George, strong relationships with work friends and those outside of work. The ideological plot is well-drawn--the conflicts between second and third wave feminists, the tugs-of-war between religious families and secular individuals.


A few scenes that made me love this book:

Tracy talking to George: "'Dealing with academic politics,' I say, 'is like reading a book while walking in a rainstorm. You crane your neck like hell to anchor the umbrella's stem while you turn pages. Step over puddles while trying to keep your eyes on the printed words. And pray you're not about to put your foot in it'" (45)

Tracy dressing for date with George: "Being a proponent of difference feminism rather than equality feminism, I am not in principle alarmed by miniskirts. But I'm accustomed to seeing a scholar in the mirror, not a pair of legs [...] I add a gauzy black scarf, which produces a more brooding, dramatic look than I'd intended; the effect, a little more Edna St. Vincent Millay than my usual, is definitely bold. On the other hand, sexual boldness didn't exactly guarantee her happiness. I exchange miniskirt and scarf for a pair of black jeans. If I were a postmodernist, I'd say Edna St. Vincent Millay never had a chance at what she wanted..." (62).

Tracy talking about her project with graduate student Elizabeth
: "It's as if our whole literary tradition, which has been unsparing on the subjects of death, war, poverty, et cetera, has agreed to keep the gloves on where happiness is concerned. And no one has addressed it. I mean, shame on us all--readers, critics, writers. Anybody who tries to take happiness seriously is belittled. [...] Or worse, they're called 'romance writers'--the literary world's highest insult. [...] People talk about culture wars over sexuality and race. But we're in a culture war over the nature and feasibility of happiness. And no one even acknowledges it" (160).


In reading around the internet, I stumbled on a variety of reviews, many of which described the book as "chick lit," that ubiquitous genre of city girls making strides in their careers and lookin for love whilst garbed in name brand luxury. Such novels are generally pink or purple hued objects of conspicuous consumption and feature shoes or handbags on the cover. If we were to judge Tolstoy Lied by the cover, and chick lit by the cover, this novel would *not* be categorized as such. The cover features a pretty but unadorned female face half hidden by a stack of drab colored library books (inexplicable, with the titles erased).

If the genre is defined instead by narrative qualities, we would expect a single protagonist, who tells her story through a confessional first-person persona. Romance will be an important theme and plot in the novel, but may not be the main focus. A close knit circle of friends, career trials, and an urban setting are typical qualities. As such, Tolstoy Lied definitely matches the genre.

Michael Dirda of the Washington Post begins his review with a bit of elitist snark: "Any genre, no matter how seemingly common or commercial, may serve as the foundation for a work of art. Perhaps even chick-lit." His review considers the chick-litty elements of Kadish's novel, and, by the end, suggests, rather tongue in cheek, that as a man he just might be missing the point: " When a man opens a novel so clearly oriented to women readers, he can't help but wonder if he's missing the point. Perhaps my view of Tolstoy Lied as an attempt to "transcend" the chick-lit genre is simply an aggressive, masculinist misreading."

At this point, I would refer readers back to the third of my favorite quotes in the previous section of this blog post. Dirda IS missing the point. Many points. First, that a man cannot possibly read and understand fiction coded "female." Second, that chick lit is a genre to be transcended. This is an old, old line of critique, best represented by one Nathaniel Hawthorne who bemoaned the "damned mob of scribbling women" who were outselling him at every turn. (confession: I love me some Hawthorne.)

To me, Tolstoy Lied exhibits the best that chick lit has to offer--which is the wonderful hybridity of the genre, which tries, above all, to show the chaos that ensues when women try to live out the dream of having it all. My favorite chick lit heroines, Ally McBeal and Bridget Jones, with their penchant for miniskirts and tendency towards neuroticism, do so with humor and shamelessness. Tracy Farber, though too academic stereotypey to wear a miniskirt, and too seemingly rational to be neurotic, gives another face to what might be seen as the contemporary version of The Woman Question: how to keep it all together when trying to a) decide what all you want and b) live out what all you want.


And so, I conclude this verbose and way too professorial blog entry wondering about Tracy Farber. Would she be a good colleague? Would we be friends if she worked at my University? (realizing, of course, that she is after all a fiction character, and this is a moot point. Still it helps to determine if the characters ring true.) We would certainly have interesting conversations *and* a shared conviction that happiness is not some naive emotion to be scoffed at, but rather that "happiness is the ability to live well alongside trouble," and that love, whether of literature, life, and/or another person, is "the willingness to be changed" (325). I'm sure she'd be scandalized by my fashionista ways and my tendency towards silliness. I think, though, that she'd get the discipline and the pleasure in seeking bliss:)

Works Cited

Kadish, Rachel. Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story. New York: Mariner Books, 2006.
Dirda, Michael. Review. Tolstoy Lied. The Washington Post. 10 Sept. 2006: BW15. The Washington Post Online. 22 May 2009.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

perfect scoop: citrus and pink prosecco sorbet

My bloggie friend/tweep Wendy is always crafting an exquisite ice cream from David Lebovitz's seminal tome The Perfect Scoop. (consider following David out on twitter--his tweets are hi-larious). I checked the book out from the local library a few weeks ago to review. Should I add this specialty cookbook to my collection?

The verdict: a resounding yes.

Lebovitz's book contains classics and inspired creations in ice creams, sorbets, sherbets, and frozen yogurt.

This afternoon I sat inside gazing at the gorgeous spring day outside, moved to my deck with my journal and a book, and promptly returned indoors as the lake breeze was a little too cold. I pondered what to do next. Should I start moving books and furniture out of my study in preparation for the painting project? Read? Work on my Spring 2009 Commemorative Mix CD?

The ice cream book beckoned, and I settled on a pink grapefruit and champagne sorbet. I raided my fridge--2 pink grapefruits, 1 lime, 1 lemon, and a bottle of pink prosecco. My ice cream canister was in the freezer. My next move was decided.

Sorbet is a snap to make. Basically, you start with a sugar syrup. In this case, you cook half of the wine with sugar just until the sugar is dissolved, add the rest of the wine and the fruit juice, set in the fridge for a few hours to cool, and then pour in the ice cream maker.

Here's my version of David's recipe

Citrus and Pink Prosecco Sorbet
adapted from David Lebovitz

1 1/3 cup pink prosecco
1 c sugar
2 1/2 c citrus juices (2 grapefruits, 1 lemon, 1 lime, and a splash of orange juice)

Heat half of wine and sugar on stovetop until sugar is dissolved. Add remaining liquids. Refrigerate until cool. Place in ice cream maker and follow directions. Freeze.

Enjoy plain, as a prosecco float, or with crisp vanilla cookies. The sorbet is light, refreshing, tangy, tart, and not at all too sweet.

I gleaned the last streams of natural light for this photo, bringing my frozen treat onto the deck to celebrate the summery-ish feeling, if not temperature.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

daily bliss: being myself

A hush falls over H- Hall. I hear Br- sneeze, a door whoosh open and closed, and footsteps move down the hallway. I look outside at an azure sky and gleaming sunshine, turn up the volume on my computer so I feel not so alone as Liz Phair croons that she's extraordinary, and return to the task before me: cleaning my office at the end of another school year.

I tweet Be- and tell her to come to my office and chat because it's too quiet.

We plan Summer of Fun events, and I show her funny things I find in the piles of papers on my desk. She leaves to go give an exam.

B stops by to thank me for teaching him, tells me I'm a great professor, shares his plans for the future, shakes my hand, and leaves.

More footsteps, and happy voices.

"Dr. J? Will you do us a big favor? Will you have your picture taken with all your students?"

"All my students?"

"Well, just your favorite ones," they laugh.

I swipe on a little MAC plum-tastic lipstick and head down the hallway. We gather in a big group, and, snap, the moment is saved.

All the papers are in their proper places: recycling bin, filing cabinet, bags to take home. I rearrange my bookshelf. I wipe down my desk. If my office was always this clean, perhaps work would be a little less stressful.

I close down the computer, walk down the now abandoned hallway, and head home, feeling blue.


I go for a walk through my favorite neighborhood and head down to the lake and think about perspective, since I don't need to think about what I'm going to do in class tomorrow or how many papers I have yet to grade.

In the middle of winter, it's hard to imagine that the icebergs will ever melt, that the snow will stop, that warm temperatures will return.

In the middle of the semester, it's hard to imagine that we'll ever make it through the syllabus, that the papers will stop needing to be graded, that I'll have time to revel in the pleasures of the written word.

While I'm most definitely not mourning the passing of winter, I'm mourning the end of the school year. I'm already missing the students who will graduate on Thursday night--students who began their matriculation in Fall 2007 when I started my current position.


Some people like to critique teachers and professors for their easy jobs, with three months of "vacation" in the summer. While I readily admit that my job provides many advantages--foremostly a flexible schedule--these three months of "vacation" are absolutely essential. (and, really, at least one month of that time is filled with class prep for the following semester, not to mention professional development projects, and various campus projects).

When I first decided to continue on to graduate school, back when I was young senior in college, I envisioned a life spent in a book-lined office, chatting with students about my favorite works of literature, reading said works, and swapping ideas with colleagues. I didn't think about the actual work of teaching and how it would demand me to be someone other than who I was: someone willing to not only stand up in front of groups of people, but talk to them, lead them, teach them, engage them, and, yes, entertain them. This, from the quiet bookish girl.

I have spent the last 12 years of teaching working on this incongruity. When I "created" Dr. J, things began to work really well. I fool my students, who tell me I'm so outgoing and bubbly. I amuse them with painful, awkward stories about middle school. I emphasize that my college sorority was stereotyped as the nerd group on campus (we consistently had the highest grade point averages of ANY group on campus). They shake their heads, and either think I'm lying or that I have some kind of multiple personality disorder.

Being Dr. J has been good for me, helping me be more patient, more compassionate, but also firmer and more direct (sometimes). And, indeed, helping me be more outgoing and bubbly outside of work.

Being Dr. J, however, is absolutely exhausting. By the end of a semester, I need to not be her for awhile.

And yet, tonight, I sit here, with only one more "appearance" left for the semester--graduation--and am at a loss for how to return to the slower rhythms of life as Jessica.

Gone is April's utter desperation (I can't possibly make it to the end of the semester, I can't, I can't!)

Gone is last week's giddiness (celebrated a little unwisely to too many extremes).

Instead, I'm in reflective mode. What worked this year. What didn't. How to manage the everyday stresses of working at a small campus with strong personalities and ingrained quirks; how to be more compassionate yet demanding of students; how to create a better balance of whole living.

As I write a few pages in my journal, catch up on my blog reading, watch new episodes of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and select the next book to read out of the towering stack in my living room, I think I'm beginning to remember how to be myself.

And I think I'm really going to like it:)

twd: unauthorized rewind: hidden berry cream cheese torte

crust + jam

This week's TWD recipe, Mango Bread, chosen by Kelly of Baking with the Boys, did not appeal to me. I'm not a huge fan of mangoes (though now I'm having a flashback to the character Mango of old SNL days...) and I've been trying to avoid tropical fruits because of their food miles...(I'm really missing fresh pineapple!)

Not wanting to go a week without some Dorie magic, I decided to bake one of the recipes the group completed before I joined. I deliberated between snickery squares and hidden berry cream cheese torte, asked a few of my TWD tweeps for their input, and settled on the torte.

This was actually a perfect dessert to bring to this month's wine club, since the theme was Wisconsin wines. Now, if you don't know much about Wisconsin, you probably know that we're famous for cheese. And so the torte matched the local flavor theme and provided a not-too-sweet foil for the cloying wines.

I made quite a few changes to the recipe. I used the standard sweet tart dough recipe instead of the crust listed with the torte, partly because I had just made it for the lemon tart and it was sooo good. I also planned on making the torte in a 9 inch tart pan rather than a springform pan and i realized I would have excess crust with the other recipe.

Change two was to use ricotta cheese instead of cottage cheese. All of the cottage cheeses at the market were loaded with gums and other additives, and I try to avoid those when at all possible.

For my berry layer, I selected a jar of whole cherry jam from Door County, one of the outdoor jewels of this great state.

hiking the eagle trail at Door County's Peninsula State Park

The torte is simple to make and very delicious--the texture is a little grainier than a traditional cheesecake, in part because of the ricotta substitution. The torte was a hit at wine club. A raved about the crust, and the slim slices disappeared quickly.

bad lighting, but tasty torte

I ate the two pieces I brought home over the next few days, and I found the flavors and textures improved as the torte rested. The crust stayed crisp, the cherries melted into the cheese, and the subtle sweetness was a perfect pairing with a cup of darjeeling tea.

Monday, May 18, 2009

daily bliss: new books

Two weeks ago I went on an online book buying binge, anticipating this week when classes would be over, afternoons would linger, and I could relax into another world.

These books are a mix of business and pleasure (why does this suddenly remind me of mullets? perhaps because my friends and I have been talking about them all week. don't ask.):

* Two Jenny Crusie novels, Faking It and Manhunting, that I've already read, to re-read for my RWA presentation in July and article for the Crusie essay collection.

* Bram Stoker's Dracula, to establish my vampire mythology for the vampire romance class I'm teaching next fall.

* Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance Novels by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan, to add to my romance scholarship collection and to hold my own in online conversations with other romance scholars.

* Rachel Kadish's novel Tolstoy Lied, which features a 33 year old American Literature Professor as the protagonist.

* The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz, all ice cream recipes for Summer of Creativity/Summer of Fun projects.

I also checked out another stack of books from the school library...and will hit the public library in the next day or so. I may review some of the books here...I'm debating whether that would be too much of a departure from my usual blog entries...stay tuned.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

daily bliss: wisconsin wine tasting

Wisconsin excels in many categories:



Sausage (so I'm told).

The Wisconsin Idea (though currently tarnished and kicked around a bit).

Diverse landscapes.

Outdoor recreation.

Tavern culture.

Other categories need a little work. Tonight I'll focus on Wine.

Last night my friends and I observed our monthly gathering of the illustrious wine club. This month, hosts J and H chose Wisconsin wines as their theme, a great nod to the locavore movement. We enjoyed local eats too--cream puffs, cheeses, and a door county cherry cheese torte (baked by yours truly--look for that post on Tuesday).

When selecting my bottle of wine, I avoided the tasty Prairie Fume, certain someone else would bring it (no one did because everyone thought the same thing), and instead went for total kitsch:

Von Stiehl winery's Naughty Girl. Here's the description from their website: "Elegant yet sassy, she dances on your palate with the grace of a full-bodied red and the racy excitement of fresh raspberries. Layers of dark fruit and curvaceous tannins lead into a smooth and exquisite finish."

The bottle prose is much more suggestive, and much more anthropomorphizing.

My friends M and K were also amused by the name and the prose; instead of just one Naughty Girl, we had three.

Besides a Parallel 44 Cabernet Sauvignon, all of the wines are very sweet, to my taste cloyingly so. Many include layers of other fruits. Naughty Girl, for example includes raspberries, and there was also a Blackberry Merlot.

Wine, like so many things in life, is a matter of taste. The only sweet wines I like are certain semi-dry Rieslings, Moscatos, and demi-sec sparkling wines.

I like my wines floral or flinty, bright or fruit-forward. But not sweet.

As always, wine club provided endless amusement, from K's encyclopedic knowledge of disco tunes, to B's heartfelt high school tapes, to J's awesome dance moves.

I'm hosting next month--yay!--and think I'll choose my favorite summer wine. Guess which one!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

daily bliss: chartreuse

backyard, leafing

I love these liminal days of early Spring, where each day reveals a new leaf, a young blossom, and everything shivers and shimmers with the promise of life. I love the shades of green--a true chartreuse--that are achingly new. None of summer's overblown fecundity, but instead a stage of possibility.

This morning I braved an arctic blast of air--20+mph winds whipping off the lake--to visit the first farmers' market of the season. Only a handful of vendors were there, with limited wares, but the familiar faces, all bundled up, bespoke a springtime happiness and a survivor's pride. There's a certain moral quality to surviving a long, arduous, frigid winter. Having lived on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, I can say that there's *not* the same moral quality to surviving a long, arduous, sweaty summer. (but I'm open to argument).

I chatted with my "summer friends"--the others on the farmers' market board of directors with me, my farmer friends--and made plans to go work out at T and J's farm (we have an agreement based upon labor/food exchange). I'm ready to trade in my mostly intellectual labor for something a little more physical. It looks like I'll be laying irrigation pipe and plastic, caging baby tomato plants, and hauling straw in the next few weeks, as spring slides into summer.

roseate geranium blooms

fresh, local spinach and asparagus

Everything on the edge of mystery, this moment so beautiful in its transcience.

Nothing Gold Can Stay, by Robert Frost

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief.
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Friday, May 15, 2009

daily bliss: vanilla hot chocolate

Another hot chocolate post? Seriously? Isn't it spring? Season of lighter, cooler nightcaps?

So it would seem.

And yet today felt cold most of the day. Grey and dreary, damp and chilly. This could be mysteriously linked to my foolhardy plan to turn OFF the heat this morning.

Now, it's back on, and I have a mug of hot chocolate, the LAST of the season. No matter how cold it may be after this. I promise.

I decided to make the farewell mug of cool-weather elixir extra special.

Vanilla Hot Chocolate
1 serving

1 TBS cocoa powder (tonight I chose the top shelf Valrhona for it's mahogany hue and complex flavor)
2 tsp sugar
6-8 oz. skim milk
1 TBS vanilla vodka (I made my own a few months ago by sticking a vanilla bean in 1/3 bottle of Smirnoff 100 proof.)
1 TBS whipped cream
chocolate shavings

Combine cocoa powder and sugar in a small saucepan. Add a little milk to make a paste; stir in the rest of the milk. Cook over medium heat until steaming and desired temperature. Meanwhile, add vodka to a mug. Add hot chocolate mixture and stir. Add dollop of whipped cream and chocolate shavings.

Send chilly days and cool nights off with style. Think of warm weather ways to use vanilla vodka, which is really tasty and rather potent.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

daily bliss: celebrations

I'm deviating from my usual food-centric blogs to focus on more academic affairs...fear not, the food will return. But for now, although it's the end of the semester, I have work on my mind.

We're a campus of certain traditions, one of which is the annual trek to a local watering hole adjacent to campus, sometime after the last day of class.

Without the usual stresses of class preparation, committee work, and student crises, and away from our tiny campus, we kick back, order a few beverages, crank up the jukebox, and enjoy one another's company.


The place is no-frills, saturated with years of smoke, the walls lined with beer signs and video games.

Now, I may come across as some kind of elitist-arugula-eating-latte-sipping-ivory tower princess.

I do love arugula.

I was sipping a latte when we left campus for the bar. (I set the cup on the trunk of my car).

I know how fortunate I am to have this job, and to be paid to, among other things, read and write. And yet, my campus is anything but the idealized, rarefied, ivoried halls of academia. We're an open enrollment campus, providing a liberal arts education at a bargain basement price to many students who might not otherwise go to college. I spend more time wrangling over punctuation and why citation is important than having deep conversations about, oh, the ethical significance of literature, post-modern theories of narrative and identity, or feminist implications of romance fiction. And that's okay.

And yet, despite these cliched tendencies (arugula-latte-professorness), in many ways I'm still that overly bookish first generation college student. I'm the girl who grew up in the country on a blueberry farm. The girl whose first car was a 1973 Chevy Nova, and every car thereafter a General Motors classic (my grandpa is a GM retiree).

My point is, I can fit in most anywhere. One weekend I'm sipping fruity "martinis" at the poshest bar in town and the next weekend I'm at the beer joint.

Though I don't usual drink beer, I decided to sip a few Champagne of Beers (lite).

My role was to keep the digital jukebox stocked with fun tunes:

First Set: following up on last week's trip back to the aching, heartfelt years of power ballads and hair metal, I selected a variety of classics:
when I see you smile; finally found the love of a lifetime; more than words; talk dirty to me

Second Set: chosen along with friends B and B, including two hits by B's mancrush, JT:
rock your body; sexyback; single ladies; it's the end of the world as we know it; add it up; sabotage

Third Set: chosen along with J and C
billie jean; mr. brightside; and some other songs I don't remember...

Now, our sets were intermittently interrupted by the choices of other patrons, including curtis lowe, poker face, and, inexplicably, paradise by the dashboard light (a song to which i know a choreographed dance. and which i may have, kind of, danced).

Our conversation flowed, and we left the cares and worries of work behind. It felt good to laugh, to sing, to dance a little. We talked to one of the other patrons, who wondered exactly what professors do, and gave us the thumbs up and the devil sign after we told him we teach. Towards the end of the night, the bartender played a rather nasty Nickelback (seriously?) song and told B and I we should listen to the words because "It has a good message." Um, yeah. If you don't mind a little misogyny.

I have many incriminating photos of my friends, but I vow not to out anyone else on my little blog space.

My work is all over but the grading. I'm officially off contract (and therefore no longer being paid) on the 26th. It's almost time to attend to those other, more esoteric interests that are part of the professor life--reading and writing academic scholarship; reading for fun; writing for fun; planning new classes; learning French. It's almost time to allow each day to take shape organically, to frolic, to enjoy long walks and fresh meals, to read all day long if I so choose.

I can't wait.

And yet... I already miss my colleagues, nay, my friends. We scatter over the summer, our daily contact and routines reduced to sporadic EVENTS. I miss my students, who have left me kind notes and pleasant surprises all week: a bar of handcrafted soap, an amnesty international pin, a paper hat.

It sounds trite, but I really love my work. Most of the time, but especially now, when the year comes full circle, and I reflect on the stories and setbacks, the tales and triumphs, before starting all over again.

wearing my professor glasses and my "reading is sexy" tee

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

daily bliss: last day of class

About a month ago, I had a major melt-down, brought on by lingering winter, bureaucratic hoops, and dysfunctional work dynamics. I thought about the day in the not-so-distant future when snow would truly be a memory, and Spring semester would come to an end. I would be *free* to read and write and create and dream at leisure...

Today is *almost* that day: pollen and lake flies whirl through the air instead of snow, and at work it's all over except for finals, grading, and graduation.

Despite my visible giddiness at the end of classes, as usual, my emotions are more complex, tinged with bittersweet sadness. Classes form certain communities, and the better communities have a harder time saying goodbye. Two of my four classes formed strong bonds this semester, keeping me thoroughly entertained, amused, and anxious throughout the semester. And so today we met for the last time to share a few laughs and last bits of writing advice (read and write daily. ask questions. think about your audience, purpose, persona, and message).

The in-jokes and asides, the frenetic and chaotic energy, are now firmly lodged in the past, a reminder that transience trumps permanency, even if the past, as Faulkner states, is never truly past.

(more on said *freedom* soon)

twd: tartest lemon tart: or, beware of multi-tasking, and loving twitter

I was skeptical of this tart--whole lemons? Pith and all? Whirled together with sugar and cream and eggs and butter in the blender? Poured into a partially baked sweet tart crust and baked?

I almost didn't make it, but I wanted to bring a special mother's day dessert to my Mom, and she does like lemon, and so I made the tart.

On Friday. When I was also:

a) participating in a clean-up at a local park with a student club I advise
b) overseeing a cook-out after the aforementioned clean-up
c) packing for my week-end trip to Michigan
d) filling my car with gas
e) filling the bag-o-money for Illinois and Indiana toll roads
f) rooting around in my closet for something fun to wear for the campus end-of-year party
g) grading research essays
h) going to the store for tart making supplies
i) going out for cocktails with my friend B
j) attending aforementioned party

The tart baking went relatively smoothly, all things, and massive to-do list, considered. I omitted nuts from the crust, since my brother doesn't like them. I used only *some* of the lemon pith after reading comments from other TWD bakers who found the tart too bitter. I failed to read the directions carefully, and had to wait for my butter to melt and cool after I had already started dumping the other ingredients into the blender. Oh, and while the tart shell pre-baked because I forgot to do so before starting the filling.

Despite such baker-error, the tart came out of the oven all gorgeous, with a golden crust and sugary, shimmery lemon filling. I let it cool, popped it into my cake transporter, and went out for the night.

Saturday morning, I grabbed my bags and the container and drove five and a half hour drive to Saugatuck, a short distance from my parents' house, where I met my brother L at my favorite coffee shop. Our plan was to drive the last 15 miles in his car to increase the surprise factor. I transferred my bags and the tart to his car, and we drove the rest of the way, catching up whilst dodging Tulip Time tourists poorly navigating the roads in Holland.

We met Dad near the end of the long driveway, and headed to the house after he told us Mom was on the phone with Grandma. We opened the door and peeked around the entryway into the kitchen and fully surprised Mom. She threw down the phone and shook her head in disbelief. L and I then explained our brilliant plan and our worries that Dad would spill the news before our arrival.

Eventually, I retrieved my bags and the tart from L's car. I set the container on the kitchen counter and set forth enjoying my visit.

On Sunday morning, it occurred to me that the tart *probably* should have been refrigerated. It had now been out in the admittedly tepid world for a good 36 hours. And, of course, I didn't have Dorie's book with me to check her storage suggestions. I did *not* want my lovely tart to cause massive gastrointestinal distress, but I didn't want to immediately relegate the tart to the garbage.

I tweeted my Central/East Coast baking blogger friends, and they promptly returned the news. While Dorie doesn't explicitly mentioned refrigeration, she equivocates: *if* you want to consume at room temperature, make it the same day you plan on serving it. Both Nancy and Cathy had chilled their tarts. And I trust their baking judgment implicitly.

I thoroughly verbally castigated myself, and gazed longingly at the tart. I took it outside for a photo shoot.

"Do you think we can cut off some of that crust?" Mom asked.

We did.

And we sampled a tiny bit of the filling.

It was splendid.

But potentially spoiled.

I took the tart out to the compost pile and said farewell.

That night, after a delicious Mother's Day meal that Mom and I cooked together (she: roasted chicken, sweet potatoes, local asparagus. me: risotto primavera), we ate Palazzolo's triple chocolate gelato with crumbled brownie bits instead.

It too was luscious.

But it wasn't the tartest lemon tart.

Thanks, Barb, of Babette Feasts, for selecting this delicious, and, for me, didactic, dessert. I vow not to multi-task whilst baking, as I never want to throw away another fine dessert...

Monday, May 11, 2009

daily bliss: spring at the homestead

looking up the driveway at the house, nestled amidst blooming trees and long shadows...

morel mushrooms peeking through the leaves...

lilacs slowly blooming...

Friday, May 08, 2009

daily bliss: outside of the classroom

I don't teach on Fridays, so I usually spend the day catching up on grading, cleaning my house, and recovering from the previous four days of teaching. Today, however, the Multi-Cultural student club I advise hosted a clean-up of a park adjacent to our campus. The group of 15 hiked the meandering trails, collecting an array of typical and disgusting items from the hillsides and lakeshore. Afterwards, we gathered on the patio, soaking up sunshine, catching cool Lake Michigan breezes, eating lunch, and generally having a good time.

Tonight was the annual end-of-the-year party, and my friend B and I dressed up and joined the students to dance away the stress of looming papers and finals (every one they write or take, we have to grade. ugh). We left when the music became incomprehensible and bad. I love music of all genres, and I can dance to Britney Spears and Sir Mix-a-Lot, but I will no longer do the Macarena...

Although my stack of grading didn't diminish, I felt like I was *really* doing my job today. Connecting with students. Showing up. Caring. Making our community a cleaner place. Celebrating another academic year.

While I'm exhausted from being "Dr. J" and not just my more natural self (upcoming post about that) and worried about how the state budget will alter my job next year, today I was happy to be where I am, working with the students and colleagues I have.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

daily bliss: blossoming

“Wow--you’re a builder?” Lily said with admiration.
“So to speak,” Sam said quietly, trying to hide his excitement at doing a real building project, however small. Building things out of wood, with his own hands and carefully selected and cared for tools, was Sam’s untapped passion.

Ugh. BAD.

In my defense, I wrote this cliched dialog and character info in 2003.

In my defense, I've written much better scenes, which I'll share with you another day.

I'm now trying to decide if I can salvage anything from this 213 page silly story, Surprise Developments, and craft a compelling manuscript. Will this long and rambling seed of a story blossom into something real and good? Only time--and many hours collaging, drafting, and revising--will tell.

Back on St. Patrick's day I wrote about my geranium, which was sending up spindly branches, reaching for the weak sunlight of those late winter days.

As the one spot of growing green inside my house (the lucky bamboo is fairly static these days), the geranium has captured my attention. Every day I check to see if it needs water, if it needs to be turned around for more even exposure to the sun. Such careful tending and constant affection have resulted in a plant that has filled out and is beginning to blossom indoors.

It's about time to start hardening the plant off, setting it outside during the warm, sun-drenched days, and bringing it inside during the frost-flirting nights, but somehow I can't send it outdoors before the first flowers come into bloom.

And so each morning I check the buds, and each morning they're one step closer to full flowering. This is not a task for the impatient. My geranium, perhaps feeling comfortable and safe inside (yes, I realize I'm anthropomorphizing), is in no hurry to bloom. Perhaps it will flourish even more when set outside. There's a certain risk at this liminal stage, nicely expressed by obsessive diarist and fascinating writer Anaïs Nin:


And then the day came,
when the risk
to remain tight
in a bud
was more painful
than the risk
it took
to Blossom.

It's kind of like writing. And kind of like life.

As cliche as it is to wax poetic about the magical transformation of Spring, every year I'm struck with wonder once again: the dull, barren landscape slowly wakes up, shakes off survival mode, and thrives with a steady diet of sun and rain. We--plants, humans and other animals--take those risks to blossom out of our comfortable, winter-worn interiority into something more beautiful and whole.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

haiku: early spring

quiet grey drizzle
trees spill forth chartreuse splendor
waiting for something

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

twd: tiramisu cupcakes

Yesterday morning I checked my email before heading into work and saw a message from our Dean labeled "Turkey Attack." Apparently, an errant turkey slammed through the window and into my friend K's office, located next to my office! The turkey floundered around in the office, generally making a mess, and, in the words of the Dean, leaving "organic artwork."

When I traipsed into work around noon, carrying my covered 9 x 13 pan filled with tiramisu cupcakes, the first person I saw was K.

"You need a cupcake," I declared. He looked grateful as he selected the first mini-cake from the pan.

B. looked on, and quipped, "So, I need a bird in my office in order to get cupcakes? That's all you have to do?"

I gave him one too.

We stood in the hall outside K's office surveying the damage. The custodial staff miraculously cleaned up all evidence and smell, except for the tell-tale plywood in the window, and the random turkey feathers in the hallway.

I walked through the halls and continued distributing my cupcakes to friends and random colleagues, until they were all gone. Then, I set about my "real work" of returning emails and preparing for class, happy that I had shared a little "pick me up."

A traditional tiramisu contains crisp Italian ladyfingers, soaked in coffee or espresso, and filled with a light marscapone filling, and dusted with chocolate. I've made several variations before, playing around a bit here and there. If going the traditional route, the crisp cookies are a must.

For Dorie's recipe, a butter cake is the base upon which the light and airy confection is built. After reading through some of the comments on the TWD website, I decided to make cupcakes, because I was feeling whimsical and cutesy, and what's better in that kind of mood than a messy cupcake?

While I was mixing up the various syrups and fillings, my best friend S. called, and we hadn't talked in a month, so I chatted with her while doing everything but creaming the butter and sugar and making the cake. This worked out well for the syrup and filling making, but became a little tense as I mixed together the dry ingredients for the cake. Somehow I managed to hold onto the thread of conversation while halving the recipe, searching in Regan Daley's In the Sweet Kitchen for substitutions for baking powder when I discovered my can nearly empty, and sifting together the dry ingredients. This may have something to do with the weird texture of the cakes.

No worries, though, since the lavish cream filling and frosting, as well as chunks of chocolate, provide enough competing textural interest that no one even mentioned the composition of the cakes.

These cupcakes were fun to make--I peeled the papers bake and sawed the cakes in half, then dipped them in the espresso syrup. I smoothed a dollop of filling on with my trusty offset spatula, sprinkled with chopped Lindt 70% chocolate, and topped them with the top-of-the-cupcake, and added the topping and chocolate dust.

I really like how the filling turns into the frosting--you add more of the espresso extract to make it a lovely shade of cafe au lait, and a little less sweet.

These cakes feel light (though with heavy cream and full-fat marscapone, they really aren't), and are not very sweet. Their beauty lies in subtlety.

Thank you, Megan, of My Baking Adventures, for choosing this delightful recipe. Check out her blog and the other TWD bakers for other variations and improvisations.

Monday, May 04, 2009

daily bliss: book talk

This morning I rolled out of bed and for once didn't have a stack of papers to grade before heading to work. I deviated from my usual breakfast in order to use the tiny amount of milk left in the carton for my daily cafe au lait, only to make the weakest, sweetest, vilest coffee I've tasted in a long time.

I laced up my shoes and set out for a walk down by the lake, queued up Death Cab for Cutie singing "Bixby Canyon Bridge," and headed straight for a little coffee shop a few blocks away, to order my replacement cafe au lait. The woman working there told me I looked familiar, so I told her who I am and what I do, and suddenly, she started talking books. Turns out we have some favorites in common--character driven novels like Kaye Gibbons' Charms for the Easy Life, and Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain. She recommended Rachel Kadish's novel Tolstoy Lied, reviewed here by Michael Dirda of the WashPo, (including annoyingly trite assessment of certain popular genres of literature). I'm moving this one to the top of my must-read-after-the-semester-is-over-and-my-reading-is-sorta-my-own list.

Anyway, my point is that book talk can bring people together and create an interesting, immediate conversation. So often people respond to what I do with some kind of horror that I'm going to start correcting grammar and diagramming sentences. Anyone who knows me well can (hopefully) attest that beyond a few quirks--hatred of the word "got," a predilection for long sentences, and a tendency to use bigger vocabulary words in proportion to the number of drinks I have--I'm not a grammarian or a martinet. In fact, today I reviewed thesis statements with my students by creating the silliest pseudo-argumentative sentences ever, like : "Our University should have a beach party because it's awesome," which I then proceeded to read in a valley girl voice for dramatic effect. Their revision: "Our University should have a beach party to celebrate the end of the school year." Perfect.

Now, back to the original topic: what other books should I read this summer? I like books without too much suspense or violence (despite my current reading of vampire books for a class next fall). I love complex characters, rich prose, human drama. I'm not opposed to happy endings but don't expect them. I don't like literary posturing (I'm talking about you, Jonathan Franzen!)

Sunday, May 03, 2009

daily bliss: tulip time

me and my brother L, circa 1990

On Friday I was at a meeting in Menasha, and one of my friends walked into the room wearing a tissue paper flower on his denim jacket...

The simple beauty took me back to elementary school days, when we'd spend hours making heaping bags full of tissue paper flowers to hand out to tourists watching the Children's parade in Tulip Time, the annual festival in my hometown.

Our music teacher taught us to sing a fun song: "Tulips are blooming in Holland, Michigan/Tulips bright colored and gay/Dance on the scrubbed streets of Holland, Michigan/When tulips bloom in May." And, on parade day, we'd don our costumes and ride the buses (a real treat for me, since I lived kitty-corner from the school) into town for the parade (I lived out in the country, a good 8 miles from downtown).

In middle school, I volunteered to carry the banner for the marching band (I was an orchestra girl, and we don't march) just to be part of the parade.

And, in high school, I became one of the legion of dancers who lined Centennial Park every night during the festival, who danced before, during, and after the three parades. During my senior year, my group was chosen as the Exhibition group, which meant that we showcased the dances around the region, and even in the seemingly exotic city of Atlanta, Georgia.

This time of year, I gaze at my wooden shoes, long retired. The names of the eleven other girls in my group are written in ink on one shoe. My costume is somewhere in Michigan. The girls I danced with are mostly living in Michigan, and are now my friends on facebook.

I look outside and see tulips scattered here and there, but never in huge fields or lining boulevards like they do back home.

I hear the strains of the dutch dance music in my head, and I begin to step-brush-hop and sway.

Part of me longs to be 17 again, a senior in high school, only worried about going away to college and leaving my family and friends behind. I long to slip into that costume, those eight pairs of socks, and those soft wooden shoes, and head downtown to hang out by the marching band and watch the cute boys, to giggle with my friends as we compare our high kicks to the girls from rival high schools (ours were always higher). Mostly, I miss that sheer exuberance of being outside and dancing in the early Spring, when sunshine streamed down and the Lake slowly warmed up, when ice cream shops opened up again after a long winter, when life was deliriously busy yet moving in slow motion.

And yet, I'm happy to be 35 and giddy with the energy of Spring--the flowers pushing through last fall's dried leaves, the rabbits threatening to eat said flowers, the fat robins perching on lawns. The friskiness of my students, no longer able to concentrate on anything as serious as writing a paper or reading a novel. The dance in my step as I slide my feet into sandals, and shimmy into the lightweight clothes that best suit me--airy skirts and dresses, thin cardigans, and denim jackets. The sound of an old spring time song, "I'll stop the world and melt with you" or "Here we are tonight, you and me together, the storm outside, the fire is bright," ringing in my head. The countdown until another semester, another school year ends, and the summertime begins, with writing projects and course revisions paired with drives up and down the lakeshore, and long, languid days.

At the end of the meeting, my friend returned with a basket full of tissue paper flowers for all of us, and I threaded mine onto my pink scarf and wrapped it around myself, happy.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

daily bliss: derby day

You know how some girls are horse girls? Girls like my friend S, who rode all throughout her youth. Like my Aunt B, who always wanted horses as a little girl, and who now has them as an older girl with little horsie girls of her own. And my cousins S and S, who compete in Riding events and for the school Equestrian team.

I was sort of a horsie girl. I had several stuffed horses (one of which I named after my mom. Sorry, mom), and a small collection of Breyer horses. One of my favorite childhood Christmas memories is the stable that my Dad built me, that was set up in front of the Christmas tree, and filled with the aforementioned Breyer horses.

I was much more of a book girl than anything else.

But, there's something charming about celebrating Derby Day. Back in 2003, Derby Day was also my good friends' wedding day. They held a noontime picnic at the University Arboretum, and then we all went home to refresh, and redress for the evening ceremony. My friends S and K came over to my house after the picnic, and I actually watched the Derby for the first time, since S is the same S from paragraph one, and has a deep love for the day. We donned hats and cheered as the horses made their quick lap around the track. Then we helped one another prepare for the event.

I wore a dress I still own, and still adore, the dress I also wore to my Ph.D. graduation later that summer...

And so, today, I watched the derby whilst wearing my grad school sweatshirt over a more informal cotton day dress, a floppy hat on my head, and a hand-crafted julep in my hand. I cheered for all of the horses, and all of the jockeys, and loved the fact that Mine the Bird, an underestimated cheap horse, won.

Mint Julep
prepare the simple syrup:
rub 1/2 cup natural cane sugar and a handful of fresh mint leaves together with your fingers to release the essential oils and perfume the sugar.

then, mix the sugar and mint together with 1/2 cup filtered water in a small saucepan. cook over medium high heat until all of the sugar is dissolved. remove from heat and let sit.

prepare the drink:
wrap glass with a handkerchief, then fill glass with ice (shaved if you have it). add a glug of the strained mint syrup, and a shot of Kentucky Bourbon whiskey. I like Maker's Mark. Stir gently. Top with a mint sprig, and sip away. Adjust the syrup and bourbon amounts to suit your taste.

refrigerate the remaining mint syrup and use in juleps, iced tea, or mojitos.