Self-Care

A light hike

Quite a year we’re having, hm? And just over a year since my last post. The lapse was unintentional, though not surprising. This has been the most tumultuous, stressful year I can recall.

As I began writing this, Little Bear (or T, I should say, now that babyhood is behind him) was passed out in exhaustion after his fourth stomach bug of the year. M and I were catching up on housework and wondering if 7:30 p.m. was too early to go to bed ourselves. Essentially, it was a fairly normal night for recent life.

We’re hardly new to adulthood, but so many challenges have coincided during the past year or so, we have reached a whole new level of mental, emotional, and even physical struggle. I realized I was starting to see self-care as a luxury, something to do after attending to my family, our home, our work, or even useless time wasting. I reject that now. I remind myself to prioritize efforts to keep the stress, frustration, and fatigue at tolerable levels. Here: some of the biggest hurdles and most helpful activities for me.

THE TRIALS

Little Batman

Parenting a threenager

If you’ve not heard the term, “threenager” refers to the fact that whoever coined the phrase “terrible twos” was just trolling parents. Two is a breeze. Three is parenting on Hard Mode. It is the grueling dress rehearsal for the teen years, and it is a constant struggle to stay centered and seek joy.

On the one hand, T’s increasing articulation, creativity, and physicality are a marvel to behold. He tells stories, loves to paint with watercolors, and climbs on everything. He can be delightfully insightful, funny, and sweet.

On the other hand, he is willful, heavily into independence, and often shockingly lacking in empathy. All of these are normal toddler traits, things he needs to adjust to on his own or by learning from our example. Reacting to them is a fantastic exercise in emotional growth, mindfulness, and resilience. But it is not easy. It would be difficult even if we were perfectly healthy and well-rested.

Sleep

We are not. Because my work schedule and M’s do not align, our family time most days is reduced to the dinner hour, and T reacts by trying to sleep in our bed at least once a night. I go to bed (but rarely sleep) after midnight, and I’m up with T just 6 or 7 hours later. Mornings are generally rough for all of us. This translates into diminished immune systems and fragile emotional control. Tempers flare more easily than they used to, and dealing with all of the other trials becomes more and more difficult. But for financial and mental reasons, it is important that I hold a job, too.

Work

When M was laid off, we agreed that we had to be ready to change, to keep our options as open as possible. He accepted an offered job in Oregon, so I quit my job in Massachusetts. I wasn’t worried about my future as a whole, and I was interested in the new avenues that might open. But I confess that, deep inside, I knew that I might be permanently leaving the career I’d been building, and I am still wrestling with that.

It may seem defeatist, but it is pragmatism that has me questioning whether I will ever be a librarian (let alone a rare books specialist) again. Though Portland doesn’t have a local library school churning out graduates, it also does not have New England’s density of repositories. Weeks go by before I see any posted job to which I could reasonably commute, let alone one that also fits my skills and goals. Even then, Portland is an Attraction. People want to move here or (if native) stay here. There are already plenty of qualified librarians on staff patiently waiting to move up the ranks. Hiring from within is the norm (so is using volunteers to accomplish much of the work). Breaking in from outside can be incredibly difficult, and sometimes I fear that it is impossible.

I am still exploring my options and generally enjoying the process. Right now, I am experimenting with the other side of the book world (i.e., selling), and it is fascinating. I will be happy continuing there, though I hope I can get a less punishing schedule soon. Really, the only big problem with my career at the moment is my lingering reluctance to leave the path I was on before. That reluctance creates uncertainty, and there is too much of that going around right now.

Current events

I have to refer to the endless, repellent United States election. I know I am not the only one feeling serious stress about this year’s surreal political situation. As I sit here typing, I feel physically cowed and slightly sick to my stomach. I am terrified of what our country could become and how people could be treated. I still feel occasional disbelief that we have come to this. But current events in general have been an onslaught.

The occupation of the Malheur reservation occurred a few months after we arrived. Despite being miles away, it produced a sense of uneasiness. We were new to Oregon and had no idea how the rest of the state would react. Would the armed anger spread? The relatively peaceful resolution was a relief. The recent verdict was not.

Brexit was a blow to this UK-ophile. It made it painfully obvious that not only is the UK not a viable dream home for our family, but the swelling tide of hatred, fear-mongering, and rejection of truth is depressingly global.

In my worst moments, I look at the world and feel utter despair. Where can you go? What is left? “What can men do against such reckless hate?” In these divisive times, what is honestly the point?

But I am not good at staying low. I’ve spent more time in the dumps this past year than during my life previously. But I float back up, even if now it takes an effort sometimes. That effort is worth it.

THE TREATMENTS

Giving in to Witcher 3

Meaningful distraction This has been more difficult than I’d like to admit. I am certainly prone to mindless Internet cruising, and it is remarkably easy to slip into when you’re exhausted, just want a minute to relax, and have a smartphone at hand. You would think that the luxury of being at home would make me dive into reading, crafts, and other hobbies. The desire is certainly there, but the discipline has been sorely lacking.

My favorite reads this autumn

Lately, though, that has been changing. I find myself reaching for my calligraphy pens, baking ingredients, or even the video game controller. Thanks to the Pacific Northwest climate, I am able to garden whenever I choose. At the very least, I can sit on the balcony and enjoy a cup of coffee and the sound of rain on the roof.

Autumn is red and green

Elevating sensory experiences is the small way that I currently explore mindfulness. I stop and do yoga or tai chi in the middle of the day, just to feel my body move. I spend a few minutes methodically making tea, watching the steam curl in the air, feeling it on my skin. I bury my face in my toddler’s mop of hair, nuzzle his (somehow always slightly sticky) cheek, let him clamber over me like I’m a jungle gym. Even shopping from the bulk bins at the grocery store has become an oddly soothing experience. Something about being closer to the beautiful reality of food, the possibility of what the components could become. Through handfuls of oats and azuki beans and flour, I reach for the reality that now seems warped, the possibilities that sometimes seem so distant.

Star Trek

The idea of possibility leads me, usually, to science fiction. In past times of political turmoil, I would find solace in that liberal stalwart, The West Wing. Not now. These days, I want true escapism, idealistic escapism. I want to be far from United States (or, frankly, most real world) politics. I want to think about the possibilities that could come with progress.

There is a line in, ironically, West Wing about raising the level of public debate in the country. With this election, we are down to debating whether the very foundations of democracy remain intact. Idealism is far away. We seem to just be hoping that most of us still belong to a common humanity. It is disheartening, disappointing, and not enough. I want to remember what we used to dream about, so I turn to Star Trek.

I never watched the Original Series, so I’m mainly talking about The Next Generation. Voyager was my childhood standby, but I find myself drawn now to Jean-Luc Picard and his crew. I marvel at their approach to the issues they encountered.

They prioritized diplomacy, curiosity, multiculturalism, and knowledge. They tackled problems with reason, thoughtful discussion, and careful experimentation (even when it made for boring TV). Sure, it had some notable flops (usually related to it being a TV show about advanced civilization in an industry that is often less than enlightened). But overall, I continue to be inspired by the vision of a future driven by exploration, diplomacy, and a firm acceptance of truth.

And on the lighter side, Worf always makes me laugh, and everything sounds better said by Patrick Stewart.

Choose kind

Watching words

I could write a whole series of posts about words. Words, their tone, the intention behind them, and their omission have been at the forefront of my mind. Following current events, moving to a new place and getting to know new people, accompanying a toddler through his early language acquisition: all of these have been major challenges and opportunities to think about how I use words and why. One big reason I haven’t posted on my blog is that I have been extremely hesitant about what (and whether) to say.

I have started myriad drafts. From current events to parenting, I started writing my reactions to many things (even those pseudo-Victorians). But I always hesitated, faltered, and wrote in my diary instead. I just couldn’t bring myself to add to (or detract from) any discourse.

That didn’t stop the words from coming. I delight in language, the way words fit together, the way they feel when you speak them, how they look on a page. So I kept scribbling or typing notes, collecting the words but corralling them. I finally signed up for NaNoWriMo just to give myself another place to put them. (Never mind that it’s eight days in, and I’ve written more words in this blog post than in my novel.)

Then there’s speech. Young T is at a critical juncture. He repeats the most horrifying slips made by me or M. He latches on to the worst lines in movies or TV shows or video games. He went through a phase where he called us “silly dumb” if we said something he thought was wrong. Of all the colorful and devastating insults slung into the conversation this year, a three-year-old’s sandbox taunt should provoke giggles. But you know what? It stung.

The words were mild. But the tone was, somehow, scornful. Whether he realized it or not, it conveyed disrespect. I have to assume he picked it up at daycare. M and I are not in the habit of insulting each other or our son. We worked very quickly to quash this development. We explained as best we could that words can hurt like fists, or more, since the damage can last far beyond what a bandage can heal. It took a few days, but that contemptuous tone left his voice and “silly dumb” faded away, replaced by “thank you” after almost everything.

I am proud of my son’s polite manners and increasing grasp of basic social courtesies. But I am after more than just preparing him to get through a dinner party. I am trying to cultivate in him a deep understanding of what these “word-actions” mean and how their impact can last. It sounds silly to emphasize manners when etiquette doesn’t even come up in the ongoing violent rhetoric. But I look at it as the beginning of the social contract.

My son interacts with a diverse group of little peers (which is pleasantly surprising in Portland). He doesn’t yet know that the differences between them are given meaning in some places and with some people. Before he becomes aware of that, I want him to have a concrete habit of approaching everyone with respect and civility. I want him to treat people as human beings, full stop, and choose words based on truth and compassion, not innuendo and stereotype. The thought of him using words to isolate, or manipulate, or bring harm to others makes me feel sick. The vicious power of language has been just overwhelming this year. I have to keep him clear.

Books about books shelfie

Practicality and productivity

When all else fails, when my head and heart hurt too much for reading or calligraphy or spinning stories, I reach for housework. We pick up the toys and put books back in order. I hand T the duster and sort the laundry and focus as best I can on the absolute basics. Scrub the plate. Rinse. Dry. Next.

Little by little, a sense of assurance grows. For the most part, I cannot control my son, my job prospects, or the bizarro state of the world right now. But I can damn well make sure the laundry is washed and folded and stored neatly in the drawer. That tiny bit of certainty helps keep me afloat on the wild river that is life these days.

These are the efforts that are (mostly) working for me in this year of trials. I hope that you are coping, too. What is bothering you? What is helping you through your troubles? I am always open to new ideas!

BOS, PDX, and a Rich Chocolate Pudding

Fishing

A long, long time ago, this was a different post. It felt so good to write again with that last post that I immediately started drafting three others. I am a person who writes, and when the need builds too high, it has to be addressed. So I stuck with the spirit of doing things and did a lot of writing, and this post talked about doing that writing and other things. It situated that action in the relentless apprehension of the Layoff Life grind, especially how I was hitting the point of really missing financial security and really wishing for some certainty.

Unexpectedly, that state is no longer in effect. M has been offered a job, one that is right up his alley but far from our current home. So in a month, we will become residents of Oregon.

Lava field

To say that I’m terrified is a bit of an understatement. It is not to say, however, that I’m pessimistic about this change. I love the Pacific Northwest, and a relocation seems refreshing at the moment. The major hurdle for me is going to be the abrupt halt of my current career trajectory. I’ve been enjoying the hell out of my work lately, and I feel a frisson of panic at the thought of not having it to keep my brain occupied. Of course, becoming a sudden (if temporary) stay-at-home mom is going to challenge me. But it will be temporary, and it will be sweet to spend more time with our Little Bear, who is funnier and more articulate every day.

Besides, M and I both felt, upon hearing of the impending layoff, that good things were in store. M has found his, and now I get to seek mine.

Driftwood and mist

And in the meantime, I get to explore all the Portland/Oregon wonders I’ve heard about for years. Ice cream! Wasabi! Swedish food! But not doughnuts. At least not the big V. They just don’t appeal to me at all. I’d rather get a pan (finally) and hit up the farmers’ markets and local groceries and try my own.

Weeping tree

Speaking of cooking, there is pudding in this post. In the original version, there was plenty of context leading up to the recipe, discussing foundations that I feel are missing from my repertoire and the need I feel to distract myself from the rest of our stress. Now, all that has faded from my mind, leaving just chocolate. The pudding was great, so here is how I made it. It might be my last homemade dessert on the East Coast…

Rich Chocolate Pudding

Rich Chocolate Pudding

Adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Tenth Anniversary Edition

Until I tasted the final product, this was simply “Chocolate Pudding.” I added the “Rich” for a reason. I used one of the toddler’s little bowls for my serving, and I think I could have been satisfied with a single spoonful.

Ingredients for Rich Chocolate Pudding

  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • scant ⅔ cup cane sugar
  • pinch fine sea salt
  • ½ cup whole milk
  • 3 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste

In a 1-quart or similar-sized saucepan, whisk together the heavy cream, sugar, and salt over medium-low heat. Cook, whisking occasionally, until the mixture begins to steam.

In a small bowl, whisk together the whole milk and cornstarch until completely smooth. Add to the cream mixture and whisk until smooth. Cook until the mixture is thickening and just begins to boil, whisking occasionally (paying particular attention to the corners of the pan).

Add the chocolate and stir until homogenous. Reduce heat to low and cook for another 5 minutes or so, stirring. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla bean paste.

Immediately pour the pudding through a fine-mesh sieve into a 1-quart glass dish. Scrape it through gently but don’t push lumps through. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the pudding to prevent a skin forming. Refrigerate until chilled. When ready to serve, stir until smooth and spoon into smaller dishes. Feel free to sprinkle with fleur de sel or (as here) finely shredded coconut, or drizzle with raspberry syrup or honey.

Doing Things

Trio

Sometimes life gets in the way of things you intend to do. In this case, I intended to write blog posts a lot more frequently than has happened lately. Happily, life only got in the way in the best ways, so I let it.

Snuggling with Mama's mama

Some of the things have been social. After my sister’s lovely visit a few weeks ago, my mom came to stay for a few days. My family is so geographically scattered that M (let alone Little Bear) hasn’t even met them all yet, so these two occasions were unusual and precious.

We also recently took a quick road trip to Maine for M’s cousin’s graduation. That was eventful, as everything seemed to be scheduled for Bear’s nap times, but it was so nice to see family. (And to hear bagpipes. Oh, Scotland.)

Graduation party

Pond and a wisp of cloud

Some of the things have been experiential. We have, at the ides of May, finally emerged from the dull weight of endless winter to remember that spring still happens. M in particular has taken to outdoor excursions with a vengeance. He walks with LB every day, and I join them on weekends for trips to the beach or the woods. The Japanese term shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing”) has become a mantra for us, though we do need an equivalent for time spent with sand and salty air.

Moon over dunes

Ham and mushroom quiche

Finally, some of the things have been actions.

I’ve always been more of a dreamer than a doer. I mean, I want to do all the things, but first I want to read all about the history and procedure of each thing, figure out the best tools for doing the thing, and get inspiration on different approaches. It’s unfortunately rare for me to progress to the actual doing of said thing, but it has become easier to follow through the last few years as I’ve settled into a few certain areas of interest.

Baby lettuces

One of those is cooking and baking. One is writing, both the intellectual creation of works and the physical act involving paper and ink and pen or brush. One is gardening, or maybe just attempting to keep plants alive. And one is needlework.

Specifically, I like to sew (including embroidery, if we’re getting specific). I love needles, thread, and fabric. I do not love my sewing machine. I bought one an embarrassingly long time ago and remained terrified of and baffled by it until my mom’s visit brought a chance to move past the fear stage. So I hauled out the machine, set it up per the manual (this was more complicated than it should have been; do manual-writers not sit in front of the machines about which they are writing?), and let my mom guide me.

This episode was an important turnabout in our educational relationship. When my mother has a tech problem, she calls me. Trying to get my brain to step back to the point of pure computer basics is difficult and often frustrating. But I had to sympathize when she was trying to teach me how to sew with a machine. I finally had to remind her: “Mom, you know how I sometimes have to explain the difference between a file and folder? Take this back to a similar level.” We got there in the end, and I got a new handmade napkin out of the process.

Trying my hand at machine sewing

After the flush of that first triumph, I set aside the other three napkins to finish on my own. Several weeks later, I finally picked them up again, and it didn’t start all that well. I recognized one issue, called my mom regarding another, and had a minor frustration fit when it still stuttered. In my younger years, I would’ve flown into a full temper at this point, blamed my sewing machine, and left it alone to rot. But I am older now and (somewhat) wiser and recognize that tantrum-ing is not going to accomplish my goal. Also, it will feel so good when I work over the hurdles and achieve what I want through effort.

Though age 32 is kinda late to be learning these lessons, it’s better late than never. And when I eventually finished those napkins? It really did feel great, and I still grin when I see them on the kitchen table.

This one's for you, Mom

The Grumps

Hear no evil

Winter, or something, is wearing me down. I am a little off lately. Despite things going relatively well and being utterly fascinated at work and winter showing (very) tentative signs of abating, I am not the happiest of campers. I catch myself griping and pouting and generally feeling low. In our toddler-based vocabulary, I am definitely “grumping.” I know the reason, even though I was trying mightily to avoid exactly this.

Life with layoff started surprisingly easily, but the severance honeymoon has ended, and it is tough. I feel the shift. We’re still busier than ever and charging ahead full-steam, but an underlying tension has crept in. We are constantly aware of numbers and paperwork and the amorphous deadline driven by money. I expect spring’s arrival to help combat this, but it is sure being lazy about showing up. In the meantime, I’m trying to find other ways to keep my spirits up.

I started a series about my work in rare books and special collections libraries, and I expect the first real post for that to go up soon. At work, I’ve written two recent blog posts (yes, the general theme there will resurface here), and I have another on the way. I love writing, and having more than one outlet for that is really making me happy.

Fifteen down, 2,121 to go

In conjunction with my work and general Japan obsession interest, I’ve been taking tiny steps into learning the language. I hit a definite wall at work in terms of not knowing how to read materials, so I have to step it up. I don’t have time for a full course, so I’m trying TextFugu and other self-study options for now. In general, I have a knack for languages, so hopefully this works for awhile. I’m fighting a tiny when-do-I-use-which-writing-system terror right now, but I love the newness of the characters as opposed to Latin letters.

That being said, I’m also working out my rusty fingers on Western handwriting. I let it drop a bit late last year as things got busy, but I surprised myself by picking up a Zig this past weekend. I only followed along worksheet-style with some pages from Italic Letters and The Italic Way to Beautiful Handwriting, but it served to get the ink flowing. I like changing up my daily handwriting too much to switch permanently to Italic, but it is so nice as a “special occasion” script. Little Bear sees it differently.

Scribbles

Cozy with Aunt Kate

I was able to slow down enough to pick up a pen thanks to my sister, who visited for the weekend. She was on spring break from PT school and had a limited time frame, but even those couple of days were really, really nice. We hardly see each other in person anymore (ours is a FaceTime family), so I treasured this rare visit. She hadn’t seen the kid since he was three months old, and the difference must have been shocking. From total immobility to full sentences is quite a change. She also visited me at work, and I got a kick out of showing off some treasures. Since we’re in such divergent fields, I know that we each glaze over a bit as the other talks shop, but I think she liked the show-and-tell.

Secretary hand

One other distraction is holding my attention. I have not done much in the kitchen the past couple of months. My love of winter cooking went into hibernation shortly after the first storm, and all I’ve wanted to do on weekends is get ahead on the life stuff. Recently, however, an insistent little voice in my head has been prodding me to bake. With matcha all over my favorite boards and blogs lately, I couldn’t resist the urge. I even tempted fate by trying two completely new recipes, and I don’t care at all that the result was homely. It was baking for the sake of it, and thus utterly fulfilling. So I triple my yoga time, pick up a pen, and bust out the baking pans. If the tension persists, I remind myself that we can handle this. It is merely the experience that we are currently having.

Strawberry-Swirl Tartlets on Matcha and Chocolate

Strawberry-swirl tartlets on chocolate or matcha

This is not fancy pastry. I am a green tea fan, but M prefers chocolate. I kept the pastry cream simple. And I wanted another flavor, so I just swirled in some strawberry preserves. No straining, no excess cooking, no fuss. Obviously, I want to make them again with plenty of fuss, but this worked so well for what it was.

For the pastry cream (adapted from Alice Medrich‘s New Vanilla Pastry Cream)

  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon white rice flour (not glutinous)
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • ¾ teaspoon vanilla bean paste

For the crusts (adapted from Sur La Table‘s Easy Chocolate Press-In Dough)

  • ½ cup unsalted butter, softened
  • ⅓ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour, divided
  • 1½ tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1¼ tablespoons matcha

To finish

  • ¼ cup strawberry preserves
  • 1 tablespoon water

For the filling: Place a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl near the stove. Whisk together the sugar and rice flour in a small, heavy saucepan. Whisk in a bit of the milk until you have a paste. Whisk in the egg yolks until smooth, then whisk in the rest of the milk. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, scraping all around the pan (sides, bottom, and corners) frequently.

When the filling begins to simmer, cook and stir for 5 more minutes, turning the heat down if necessary. You want to maintain the simmer.

As soon as 5 minutes are up, pour the filling into the strainer. Gently scrape the custard through, but don’t push through any cooked eggs bits. Once the filling is through, scrape the remainder from the bottom of the strainer. Stir in the vanilla paste. Let the mixture cool for about a half an hour, then press a piece of plastic directly onto the surface and up the sides of the bowl to prevent a skin, and refrigerate until chilled (up to 3 days).

For the crusts: Beat the butter and sugar in a medium mixing bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer) until creamy, smooth, and well-blended. Add the egg yolk and beat until smooth.

Sift ½ cup of the flour and the cocoa into a small mixing bowl. Scrape in half of the butter-sugar-egg mixture. Sift the other ½ cup of the flour and the matcha over the remaining butter mixture. Mix each until moist and uniform in color. Incorporate any patches of flour or lumps of butter, but don’t go beyond that. If you beat it until it becomes batter-like, chill the dough until it firms up.

Lightly butter 4 tartlet pans and place on a rimmed baking pan. Divide the cocoa dough mixture in two and press into two pans. Make sure the thickness is even, with maybe a little more in the corners for structure. Repeat with the matcha dough mixture. Put the baking pan in the fridge and chill the tartlet shells for an hour.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Bake the tartlet shells for 10 minutes, then rotate and bake another 5-8 minutes. It can be difficult to tell when they’re done, but a light golden color and slightly drier look are good indicators. Move the tartlet pans to a rack to cool.

To assemble: Stir together the strawberry preserves and the water in a small heatproof bowl. Warm in the microwave until smooth and pourable, about 20 seconds. Fill each tartlet shell with ¼ of the pastry cream. Dollop a spoonful or two of the preserves on top of each and swirl through with a skewer or table knife. Chill until set, about 10 minutes.

You can make the crusts and pastry cream ahead of time. If you’re not going to eat all the tartlets right away, I recommend filling only what you need. Fill the rest when you’re ready to eat them. Alternatively, you can create a barrier to keep the pastry cream from soggying up the crust. Melt a little semisweet or white chocolate and spread on the crust. Chill until set, then fill with pastry cream, etc.

Darkness and Light

Foster Pond sunset

During my blogging absence, another year began, and it began busily.

The holidays were a mess of one- and two-day work weeks, interspersed with a last-minute vacation week for me. All three of us had a bad cold that week, and then, unhappily, my aunt passed away. This lent a melancholy feeling to the holiday, exacerbated by the fact that, thanks to airline heartlessness, my mother then had to cancel her trip to spend Christmas with us.

Tree trimming

We did manage to have a wonderful time, though. It started with the solstice. Because Christmas day is always scheduled with family, M and I started celebrating the solstice as our own holiday. I love the family time of Christmas, but every year I get less and less enthused about the “holiday” of it; solstice fills the void. For me, it’s become a holiday on its own, and one that isn’t saddled with any baggage of commercialism or other trappings. It is a pure expression of winter joy, and I look forward to it every year.

Pumpkin-pecan bread

Pomander

We don’t make a splashy deal of it. We make sure to cook good food, always watch the same episode of “Little Bear” (yes, seriously), and light some candles. As I get less and less into Christmas, which was never a religious holiday for me anyway, I get more and more into the elemental quality of the solstice. It’s all about pine and fire and snow and being cozy on cold nights. This year, I explained a little bit to Little Bear about it being the longest night and how some cultures celebrate with candles or bonfires to symbolize the sun being reborn. Maybe next year I’ll risk putting out the goat.

Skinning hazelnuts

Homemade Nutella

Things progressed quickly after the solstice. Christmas was full and lovely. LB seemed to get it more than last year, of course, but he didn’t so much realize that presents were for him, per se. He loved playing “Santa’s helper” and handing out packages to everyone (“Can you give this to Mémé? No, Mémé. Mémé!”). He himself received a number of beautiful (and quiet!) wooden and/or building toys that he continues to enjoy daily. He is very into blocks and trains and nesting toys. It’s fascinating to watch.

Crêpe for the baby

In a blessing/curse way, we get more chances to observe him at play these days. Shortly after a quiet New Year’s (M and I made it to 11:30 this year!), M got the news we’d been dreading, and the big L-A-Y-O-F-F word became reality. Though we’d been expecting it, there was little we could do beyond lay out the few steps we would take when it actually happened. Now we’re still trying to deal with those steps, and things are terrifying, frustrating, and sometimes a little depressing. Little Bear is home with M during the day now, and we’re both having to squeeze in job applications. I’d love to believe that M will quickly find another position right in the area, but I know that I need to be prepared for the other thing.

Reader

Oddly enough, despite the obsessive monitoring of our bank accounts, the hair-tearingly-frustrating health insurance process, and the uncomfortable familiarity of the library-school-graduate-saturated New England market, we are both feeling good. I love my work and am happy at my job, but M was ready for something new. And though it is very scary to be a one-nonprofit-salary household in an expensive area, we feel strangely, buoyantly optimistic. There is a persistent sense that this is the next step and good things are soon to follow.

Yin Yu Tang near sunset

Obviously, we hope they follow really soon, but we’re doing the best we can to bring them about. There are plenty of options on the table. Information science is a vast and flexible field. I’m a little sad-in-advance, though. I love working in special collections, but jobs in the subfield are scarcer even than general library jobs. I know full well that, if I need to change jobs, I may have to move to a different professional area. I can only cross that bridge if I come to it, so instead I think about geography. My sister moved to Oregon after college, and ever since visiting her some years ago, I’ve felt the lure of the Pacific Northwest. So part of my brain is going, hey, if we have to move, why not move out there…?

Driftwood and mist

Long story short, there is a lot up in the air right now. I have always preferred to pin things down as quickly as I can, and that is just not possible in this situation. It’s an exercise in mindfulness, patience, and time management, and it’s actually kind of… fun. The level of fun is directly proportional to the balance of our savings account, though, so I channel the enjoyment into as much practical work as possible. Life is quite busy, but Little Bear (when he’s not proving himself quite a toddler) provides lovely little moments of joy and quiet. This is an interesting time in our lives, scary and cash-strapped, but clarifying and decluttering. We are certain that we’ll emerge from it stronger, clearer-headed, and with purpose. I keep smelling spring in the air, and I’m going to ride that high to our next stage.

Dark stone lantern

Pics are a montage from the past two months and a years-ago trip to Portland.

Productivity of Necessity, and a Recipe

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The past month has been a building whirlwind, though obviously not on the blogging front. I like this time of year, but man, it can be exhausting. This year, the buildup to the holidays has seemed coincidental to all the other things going on. That doesn’t make it all less crazy, though.

It also doesn’t negate the impact some recent illness has had on our growing to-do lists. I was just pondering my PTO accumulation, but apparently I tempted fate. An early-season daycare bug quickly swept to Little Bear and home, and I used up sick days in rapid succession.

The unforeseen upside to that, however, was that I suddenly became a productivity machine. I am not one of those people who claims to work best under pressure. The idea of cramming for tests or speed-writing papers still makes me cringe, years after school. But one thing I am good at is buckling down when I simply have no other choice. And so it has been recently (hence the blog-radio silence).

So what have we been up to?

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M carved pumpkins.

His m.o. since we moved to this place (okay, so just the last two Halloweens) has been to carve while handing out the candy. Since he telecommutes, he’s out on the porch promptly as trick-or-treat starts, so he multitasks until I get home with Little Bear. It’s turned into a fun little two-year tradition that I think we might just continue.

This year’s main pumpkin was, as you can see, Minecraft themed. This was a big hit, particularly with the kids dressed in similar style. I was bemused by the mother who suggested that we must have some Minecraft-loving kids. Some people really do feel that games are not for adults, I guess.

Kabuki faces

I went to work.

The last couple weeks have included sick time and holidays but also work events and tons of checked-off tasks. Our director retired last month, but he continues as director emeritus, and we hosted some of his fellow Grolier Club members during the recent antiquarian book fair. It’s always fun to show off collection highlights, and our guests, booklovers all, were appreciative and interesting.

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I’m especially enthusiastic about showing off materials lately, because I’ve been having a blast with our collections myself. I even finally finished a post for our library blog, and I’m planning my next draft. My current fascinations lean heavily toward book history and East Asia, so I’ve been hunting for great examples to support these themes. I took a little detour into Japanese maps, and I’m not sorry.

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I even dragged Little Bear into the fun. My office’s proximity to his doctor means that he gets to accompany me occasionally. Now that he’s toddling, he’ll be reshelving in no time. He’s growing so fast, he will certainly be tall enough!

Training

Embroidery ready

Outside of work, I happily headed home for some domestic bliss.

I have finally, finally reached the end of the hand-stitching the quilt I’m making for Little Bear. I don’t mean that to sound bitter. I actually prefer hand sewing to machine, and it’s been a nice meditative way to end nights. It has simply taken so much longer than I originally intended. Now I’m preparing to add a little decoration in the form of French knots, and I’m looking forward to learning a bit of embroidery.

Cooking shrimp and baby bok choy

Aside from that, and all the housekeeping catch-up, I’ve been in the kitchen. Cookies, pancakes, and chili rolled out as we got over our bugs, and then I finally made soba with shrimp. I’ve been planning a dish made of these two components for weeks, and I made it now because I find soba noodles very comforting. They remain so in this recipe.

Soba with Baby Bok Choy and Shrimp

Shrimp and baby bok choy on soba

I aimed for light but warm, bright and nourishing. I adore baby bok choy, and the shrimp revived my strength after days of on-and-off illness and fatigue. I’m getting more confident at improvising Japanese food, and I considered this meal a success. Note that the sauce measurements are approximated and adjust to your liking. I’m a big fan of the Japanese seasoning blend of shichimi togarashi, but red pepper flakes and toasted sesame seeds would add the spice and crunch, too.

  • 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons mirin
  • ¼ cup soy sauce
  • 1½ tablespoons minced ginger (I used ginger paste)
  • 1½ tablespoons crushed garlic
  • pinch of sugar
  • 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
  • 1 heaping tablespoon cornstarch
  • 3 bundles of soba noodles
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil, or more as needed
  • 2 pounds baby bok choy, trimmed, halved, washed, and dried
  • 1 pound shelled shrimp, tails removed (I used thawed precooked shrimp because it was on hand but prefer raw)
  • shichimi togarashi

Whisk together the rice vinegar, mirin, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, sugar, and sesame oil. Taste and adjust as necessary, then whisk in the cornstarch until smooth. Set aside.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the soba noodles and cook until al dente, just a few minutes. Pour into a colander to drain, rinsing a bit to separate if necessary.

Place a wok over medium heat. When hot, add the canola oil and the baby bok choy and toss. Cook, stirring frequently, until stems soften a little and leaves wilt. Add the shrimp and cook until barely opaque, stirring frequently. Add the sauce, stir, and cook until bok choy retain just a bit of crunch and sauce has thickened, stirring regularly.

Divide the noodles among four bowls and top evenly with the shrimp and bok choy (and plenty of sauce). Sprinkle with shichimi togarashi to taste. Pick up your chopsticks and enjoy.

Miscellany: The Marks We Make

Priorities

I am an information geek. I cannot get enough of it. Lately, that obsession interest is stronger than ever, and I am reading and writing with a fierceness that surprises me. About what, you ask? I’ll tell you!

A colleague inquired after letters a few weeks ago, and it sparked a major obsession on my part. How has the folding evolved? What’s up with that filing system? How do you preserve wax seals? What is the subtle etiquette of salutation and signing-off? How did letters travel before the postal system? Most of the resources I want to read are academic tomes like this one, so I may be attempting some ILLs if I want to pursue this fascination.

DISCLAIMER: After the first (of an account book in my library’s collection), none of these photos have anything to do with the topic at hand. I just liked some of my recent shots from our autumn adventures.

Wet leaves

If I cannot get ahold of those, however, I know I can find books about books. I am a rare books and special collections librarian, and oh, how special the collections! Lately, I’ve been intensely interested in books as objects. Bindings, paper, marginalia, provenance… Give me all the information about the information. The textual content is great, but the physical evidence fleshes it all out. It makes each individual volume unique, and my library has so many unique objects. I’ve been wandering the stacks, pulling here and there to examine the endpapers and title pages. Anything bound in vellum catches my eye, because it immediately screams “old”, and that means a potentially visible history.

Little Bear and leaves

So I’ve been devouring these tomes visually, and then I’ve been researching them madly. I had to create a separate mini wish list for my immediate to-reads, because my “To Read – Information” list was too big to find anything in. [Aside: ALL of my wish lists are too big. I don’t think I could read all those books even if I did nothing but read, sleep, and eat.] Thankfully, I work in a library that holds not only a lot of rare book objects, but a number of excellent resources about rare books. I’m reading about paper and bookbinding and library history, though unfortunately only in brief snatches, because, you know, work.

Alright, fine, here’s one more book-related image. This is a teeny tiny book a colleague and I just discovered in our miniature book collection. (DISCLAIMER THE SECOND: When a librarian/archivist/curator says they “discovered” something, it doesn’t mean it was physically lost, like they found it under a couch cushion. It was simply not known to them. Try as we might, it remains impossible to memorize all holdings of a not-small collection.)

Anyway, all of this leads me to writing. My fountain pen love is still going strong, but now I’m getting restless to dig out my dip pen and attempt more actual calligraphy. That seems exceedingly difficult to fathom right now, as the rambunctious toddler requires frequent wrestling away from forbidden things or wrangling from the chair he somehow got stuck under, etc. But I have to try.

Wet flower

In the meantime, I’ve been writing some letters and notes. One of them is soon to be sent to my great-aunt, the doyenne of our family history, who is so graciously helping me with my genealogy work. (Speaking of, I will be really annoying by saying that the most incredible object I’ve seen lately, which haunts my handwriting dreams, is a bound manuscript genealogy that I can’t share publicly because it’s on deposit. Maybe soon…) I’m making headway on dates and names, and perhaps soon I can start mocking up calligraphy-written family trees.

Or maybe I’ll start collecting wax seals (since ordering a custom one of my own is out of the financial question). Or I’ll delve into bookbinding. Or… or… probably chase a toddler around all day.

Puzzle time at the library

Or maybe I’ll just get some sleep. Somehow, I have thought myself into exhaustion. That sounds so lame that I have no choice but to wrap this up, get some rest, and write some more tomorrow.

Autumn, Suddenly

Fall flowers

Just like that, it’s cooler and crisper and obviously the season has changed. I love this time of year. The transitional times in general are my favorite. Typically, it’s right about now that the long, endless slog of hot summer days has me down, and cooler weather sweeps in to relieve me. This year, however, summer was surprisingly mild, and I actually enjoyed it. That means that not only am I excited by autumn, I’m still energized instead of drained by constant humidity.

Stacking is a pretty big deal these days

Perhaps that’s why I feel a bit restless and eager to tackle some work. I would love to say that means I’m throwing myself into big projects. But I am finding it more satisfying to chip away, little by little, at countless small tasks that have been nagging at me. And, in the midst of the fresh fall housekeeping, I’m swinging back into cooking.

Pizza with blue cheese, arugula, and pear raw

Pizza with arugula, pear, salami, and Brie raw

I have a difficult time with cooking in summer. It’s often too hot, and by the time I get home from work, I am not in the mood to stand and chop things for salads or other cool foods. Fall food is a different story. Fall food seduces me. I make long, lovely lists of produce I want to use and recipes I want to try.

Pizza with blue cheese, arugula, and pear baked

This one is an interpretation of a salad recipe I have stashed in my MacGourmet database. Don’t ask me why I utterly refused to consider making the actual salad. No, it had to be pizza, and boy, am I glad I stuck to that instinct. I kept the main flavor profile for the first pizza, then, why not, we traded in some leftover Brie and salami for the other. Both variations were something of an experiment, and both were good, but we preferred the first. It was a little less salty and a little more nuanced. Even the baby found it to be just the thing to fuel his rapidly-wrinkling brain.

Now if only Little Bear and I weren’t overcome with sniffles. My sinuses started creeping into cold-weather mode a week ago. I’ve had a constant grumpy headache ever since, and it is getting old. I’m so preoccupied with the expectation that a major cold is about to kick in that I cannot enjoy the fact that a major cold has not kicked in. Oh well. At least I can enjoy food like this pizza, or porridge, or chili, or any number of sweet things

Pizza with Blue Cheese, Arugula, and Pear

Inspired by Williams-Sonoma’s Harvest Salad with Blue Cheese and Roasted Pears

  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons golden balsamic vinegar
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • all-purpose flour, for rolling
  • 2 balls of pizza dough, store-bought or homemade
  • honey, any varietal, to taste
  • 1 large shallot, minced
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
  • 4 cups baby arugula leaves, washed and spun dry
  • ½ pound whole-milk mozzarella, grated
  • 1 firm Bosc pear, cored and thinly sliced
  • ½ crumbled blue cheese

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Use a baking stone, or prepare a pizza pan the way you like it.

In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Roll out one ball of dough on a floured work surface. Brush with half the vinaigrette. Drizzle lightly with honey. Sprinkle with half the shallot and tarragon.

Scatter half the arugula over the dough evenly. Sprinkle with half the mozzarella. Spread half the pear slices on top. Sprinkle evenly with half the blue cheese. Bake on the stone or prepared pan for 12-15 minutes, until arugula is wilted and cheese and crust are golden brown. Repeat with the other half of ingredients. Serve immediately.

Brie, Salami, and Thyme Variation
Replace the golden balsamic with red wine vinegar. Replace the tarragon with thyme. Replace the blue cheese with Brie. Sprinkle with ¼ cup chopped salami or pancetta.

Pizza with arugula, pear, salami, and Brie baked

Scotland on my mind

Scotland on my mind

I love the UK as an entity, but in its separate parts as well. I cannot imagine having to decide on such an important question. I have many fond memories of Scotland, and I look forward to making more, whether my passport gets stamped in London or Edinburgh. Whatever the outcome, people of Scotland, I wish you the very best today. I am thinking of you and your land.

Miscellany: Sunlight

It’s been awhile since I did a miscellaneous post, and it is exactly the sort of post I need to do right now, when my mind seems to be sparking in a dozen directions.

Speaking of aimlessness, I’ve been going through an unsettled music mood lately. Do you ever have times when you just don’t like any of the music you try to listen to? That’s where I am now. Or was, anyway. Then I put on a playlist of Trio Mediaeval‘s albums. The group is a trio of Scandinavian women who sing (mostly) medieval polyphonic music. I am a fan of that genre anyway, but it’s usually sung by men. Hearing it done by women adds an even more haunting quality.

Speaking of haunting, I’ve had Dinan on the brain. Dinan is a town in Brittany, France, where I spent five days during a study abroad trip in high school. At the time, it was the second half of a two-week trip, so I was getting a little tired, and it was basically another French town. I saw an album of photographs of the town on Flickr the other week, however, and now I am remembering what could have been. Dinan is an old town with beautifully preserved half-timbered buildings, a lovely riverfront, and a quirky steep medieval street called the Rue de Jerzual. We carefully made our way down the latter daily with the daughter and cousin of the family with whom we home-stayed.

This is the part I am kicking myself over. We stayed with a French family in a traditional stone farmhouse outside of town. As it was summer, there were a few relatives in and out, and farmhands occasionally joined us for dinner. We ate outside, on a beautifully set table, enjoying wonderful food and speaking ever more fluently (the patriarch of the house gently insisted that we resort to English only when at an absolute standstill). In the mornings, we drank coffee out of latte bowls and bathed quickly in a tub under the low eaves.

It was, in essence, precisely the sort of envious existence reveled in by American ex-pats in any of a number of recent books. We lived that beautiful life for five days, and I barely remember it now. I certainly didn’t appreciate it fully at the time. It was fun, to be sure, but my primary thrill was how easily my French was improving. Now I find myself craving an almond croissant from the bakery in the medieval town and wanting to stroll along the river. It’s a very odd feeling, given that I haven’t been there in fifteen (!) years. But hey, I have out-of-brain-to-London moments daily, so I suppose it’s not that much of a stretch.

Speaking of traveling to France, I have been playing a lot of Sims 3 lately. (Bear with me, it connects, I promise.) The reviews for Sims 4 are rather troubling, so I will not be spending money on that game anytime soon. However, they have reignited my love for the franchise in general, so I’ve been firing up Sims 3 after dinner and just letting it play on my laptop while I do other things. I check in occasionally to make sure the house isn’t on fire or to send my Sim on a trip. One of the destinations in the World Adventures expansion is “Champs-les-Sims,” a faux French village (see, the tenuous segue!). I’ve had her there exploring tombs and making wine and generally living it up. Now I think it’s time for the next step.

I have played Sims in one edition or another for years, but I was recently reading Carl’s Sims 3 Guide (such a good resource) and realized that I have not been doing Sims 3 to its full potential. Now I’m sort of stuck between keeping it casual so I can leap to chase this guy off furniture or really getting into it and playing. I suspect I’ll do a bit of both. I love playing games, but every so often I hit a TOO MUCH wall and have to pull back. Good thing M has Destiny back starting tomorrow. I can lean back and watch that.

Speaking of things to watch, APPLE EVENT TOMORROW. I am an unapologetic Apple fan (though not opposed to other products – that intriguing new curved-screen Samsung, for example), but this event feels even bigger than most. Part of the anticipation is that I am really tired of my Fitbit. It’s ruining the clothes I clip it to, it’s falling apart, and it gets lost too easily. I’m ready for a wearable that tracks more data while not looking obvious, and I hope that Apple can provide exactly that. I am worried that it won’t work with my aging iPhone model, though. I cannot afford to get both.

Speaking of shopping, I am really looking forward to this ink. Maybe it will prompt me to drag out my dip pens more often.

Speaking of dipping into things (such a stretch; I’ll make this the last thing), I have been reading up on heraldry in my ongoing quest to learn about my family’s history and genealogy. I have no idea if we have any associated arms, but it’s so fun to read about in general. It reminds me that I still have not finished A Game of Thrones, which I was mostly drawn to because of the sigils. But the research I’ve been doing gives such a fascinating look at medieval (and later) history and the way human beings always find a means to craft a self-identity. I’ve been trying to create a personal badge, and the list of elements I have considered and rejected is long. It is surprisingly difficult to distill your entire personality, interests, and allegiances into a few basic symbols. Nevertheless, I keep at it, even just to have a letterhead for stationery.

I hope everyone had a wonderful summer and welcomes the cooler temps as much as I do. Bring on the apple cider doughnuts!