Saturday, January 31, 2009

Hot August Night

I just spent an hour of time that I might characterize as equal parts frustrating and fabulous. I made good use of Amazon's 'listen to samples' feature for this and two other Neil Diamond albums, headphones in place, music blasting into every cell of my aging body. Frustrating because they only play a few bars of each song -- just enough to hook you in and leave you begging for more. Fabulous because I didn't realize how much I missed this music that I probably hadn't heard for 20 or more years. Didn't I outgrow Hot August Night a really long time ago? There was a time when it was an anthem - played loudly and incessantly. I was pretty sure that time was past. The grin on my face while I was listening said otherwise.

You can blame this renaissance on a man who may be my very dearest friend in the whole world. Mind you, this is a man I've known on a fairly intimate level for about 5 years and I thought I knew him pretty well. But I gotta tell you, I would about as much have expected him to fly to the moon as to ask me to turn up the volume when a Neil Diamond song was playing, then proceed to enter into an enthusiastic and knowledgeable discussion of Hot August Night. That happened a few weeks ago, and he's managed to surprise me even more with other revelations since then, but that's not a topic for this post. Neither is the fact that I'm going to miss him like hell when I move to Georgia. I expect that to be roughly on a par with say, severing part of my soul on a permanent basis. But I digress.

Cut to the chase, and I ordered a digitally remastered and expanded version of this Hot August Night album, plus a much later Hot August Night II album, which has many of Neil Diamond's later hits plus a few crossovers. They won't arrive before I leave for Georgia, but they'll be at the office waiting when I return. I can't wait.

Now -- maybe I need a little more of that Red, Red Wine -- or not.

Friday, January 30, 2009

On CNN!!

OK, my ego is at work here, mea culpa. I often upload photos to's IReport section, in response to their requests for various subjects. Last weekend they asked for Rocky Mountain travel photos, so I uploaded a few from my 1983 bike trip through the Colorado Rockies. This one is included in today's weekly travel snapshots feature! To find it, click on the travel link on the lower left, and look for Travel Snapshots. I think they stay up for the whole week. Yes, they got the year wrong, but that's my fault. And yes, I know, my ego is still at work.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Yes We Did!

I don't have words to adequately describe what this day means to me, so 'hope' will have to do -- however inadequately.

As a child of the deep south who grew up with separate water fountains, stores, schools, and everything else that could separate whites and blacks, I really didn't think I'd see this day in my lifetime.

I couldn't be happier. Somehow, and thankfully, I never bought into that racism and when this brilliant, visionary young man entered the national political scene a few years ago I heard his message. When he formally ran for president, he again spoke to me and for me and my being simply vibrated with a sense that he is exactly what this country needs at this particular moment.

I'm tired of divisiveness in our government. We are not red states or blue states, we are The United States of America and we need to pull together as one country, not two. There should be no hatred simply because one person holds beliefs that differ from ours. There should be no labels that define who is a 'real American'. We are all real Americans, and while we may all have different priorities and see different paths that might be followed, we all love this country and in the end, we all want the same things: peace, prosperity, happiness and safety. We want our kids to inherit a better world than we did. These are universal needs and desires and they apply to each and every one of us, regardless of how we may have voted in this election.

I am proud of every small effort I made over the last two years to help us reach this day with this man. My hope is that we let go of anger and divisiveness long enough to give him a chance to be the president I deeply believe he can be.

But remember -- he can't do it alone. Government can't do it alone. Your country needs you. Serve your country. Help your neighbors. Build your community. Support American jobs and industry by spending your money on American-made products. Stop complaining, stop hating, and become part of the solution.

Yes We Did, and Yes We Can!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sunday Dinner. Yum!

Roast chicken, wilted spinach with garlic, brown rice cooked in chicken stock that's been simmering for two days now.

Life in the budget lane doesn't need to suffer. Safeway had nice, locally-grown chickens on sale for $.99 per pound, so I bought two. One was poached and frozen, then its carcass along with one from the freezer were used to make stock which, along with the poached chicken, will be used for soup next weekend. Bagged fresh baby spinach from Safeway, bulk brown rice from Kiva [my fav local organic grocery].

For the chicken, I made a paste of about a tablespoon of sweet butter, garlic [lots!] cayenne pepper, salt, and black pepper along with the juice from 1/2 large lime. I poked that under the skin of the breasts and legs, then brushed the whole thing with olive oil and topped it with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Roasted at 350 degrees until it was done when poked with my instant thermometer. It may sound like I use a lot of salt, but I use sea salt, which is much healthier than the boxed variety.

This chicken will provide meals for the entire week, and the carcass will hit the freezer for future stock.

Forgive the awful photo. Bad color, out of focus -- but it's too late to make another! This looks like a lot of spinach, but once it wilts down, it translates into the amount that is on my plate, above. For this, I put a light film of olive oil in the pan, toss in the spinach, sprinkle on a little salt and a lot of fresh chopped garlic, then toss over medium heat until it's nicely wilted and dark green. This only takes a few moments and seems to preserve the taste of the spinach and no doubt preserves more of the vitamins, too.

Bon appetit!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Living on Less

I've never suffered any illusions regarding the difficulties I would face when I decided to retire, so the reality of how little money I will have in a few short months comes as no surprise.

With retirement drawing ever nearer, I decided a few weeks ago to ease the transition a bit by cutting my food budget way back, right now. An added benefit is more money in savings to use for all those costs of moving and settling in. I don't even want to think about those right now!

Fortunately, I've lived with a similar budget for a good portion of the last 13 years, so I am familiar with the drill despite my recent profligate ways. The first rule is, no more debit card. Once a week I withdraw $50 in cash, and that's what I live on for the week. I've also started watching the weekly supermarket sales flyers, clipping coupons and paying attention to sale items on the store shelves, all of which have helped me save a rather astonishing amount. A new and different mind-set has also been a major plus.

Admittedly, the first week was a bit of a shock and major readjustment to my food shopping habits. I'd reach for something on a shelf and then stop and ask myself 'do I need this today?'. Most often, the answer was 'no' and as often as not the item in question was one of my lovely, pricey herbal tea blends. Now, I walk into a store with an awareness of how much cash I have, and keep a running total in my head so I won't go over (or spend it all at once without getting the necessities for the week). I leave with everything I need, some of what I want, and that warm feeling of cash still in my pocket. My food budget, by the way, includes whatever I buy at the grocery store -- cleaning items, toiletries and such, as well as food.

After that first week, thankfully, I relaxed and realized that I could indeed survive on that amount in comfort and even have enough leftover for other things. Last week, for example, I bought some luscious salami and cheese from my favorite deli to share with a friend who provided a bottle of wine. I also used $11.50 to FedEx some checks to my real estate agent in Georgia, AND I had $2 left at the end of the week. This week is almost over, I have all the necessities, I spent $8.20 at the post office today on a book of stamps, and I still have at least $25 left.

If you're wondering how I do that -- am I eating ramen noodles, for example -- I promise you I eat a tasty,healthy diet and don't feel in the least deprived. One of my secrets goes back to my childhood, when my mother often had nothing more to feed me than pinto beans and cornbread. My dad was a career army sergeant and I used to quote the refrain "the navy gets the gravy and the army gets the beans" when I was tired of that diet. I hadn't yet learned to be grateful to my mother for putting an essentially nutritious meal on my table against some unpleasant odds.

I don't know whether it's the draw to save money, or my southern roots making themselves known, but I've returned to those staples which, as an adult, I love. With a little effort, I've finally managed to cook the beans so they taste like the last ones I remember my mother making. The cornbread is easy and has become second nature and there's not much of anything better than buttermilk cornbread hot out of the oven. Both keep well and reheat well, I eat them for lunch or dinner almost every day and I'm not tired of them yet. I eat plenty of other things too -- but these have become the heart of my diet.

I thought I'd share the recipes with you.

Buttermilk Cornbread
Adapted from the Mingus Mill in the Great Smoky Mountains

Hot out of the oven
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
2 large eggs
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 cups stoneground cornmeal
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup healthy, non-hydrogenated vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 425. Coat bottom of 9-inch cast iron skillet with a generous bit of oil, place in oven to heat. You can use another baking pan, but an iron skillet is the quintessential cornbread pan and it just doesn't taste the same baked in anything else.

Sift the dry ingredients to mix thoroughly. Make a well in the center, add the buttermilk, eggs and oil, stir together thoroughly to blend fully. Pour into hot skillet, return to oven, bake about 30 minutes until toasty brown on top. Eat hot!

Mama's Pinto Beans

This is a really loose recipe, so use quantities that work for your needs.

Dry pinto beans, picked through and well-washed
Serrano and/or jalapeno peppers
Coarse Kosher salt

Put the beans in a container large enough to hold the beans along with enough water to cover by 3-4 inches. Place in your refrigerator to soak overnight. When ready to cook, put beans and water into dutch oven or saucepan, adding water as necessary to cover generously. Dice peppers in small pieces, add to the pan in quantities that suit your personal heat tolerance. I like it pretty hot! Bring to a boil, turn to a low simmer and cook for several hours until beans are tender and soft. Add salt to taste, cool for a few moments, stir and serve. Do NOT put salt into the beans at an earlier stage, as this tends to make them tough. Beans should be soupy with plenty of liquid -- you gotta sop that up with some cornbread!


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Patterns -- or, Things Aren't Always What They Seem

One idea that has always fascinated me in photography is what I call 'patterns'. These are bits of nature that I like to look at with a different eye -- an eye for the natural patterns that are formed by nature if we choose to see them.

I find that life is that way too. Something I've learned through studying Buddhism is that whatever it is we seek, we often already have in our lives. The trick is that we have to open our eyes and heart and mind and look at that object, or emotion, or state of mind with a different eye. We can go for days, weeks, years looking everywhere for something we already have. Often, we never open our eyes enough to see what is before us -- or if we do, it's too late. The time has passed.

These photographs represent that same scenario to me. There is a beauty and symmetry in nature that is unsurpassed. None of these photos are staged, all are scenes I've found simply by being out in nature with an open mind and eye. The creeks and logs and lakes and such are always there. What makes them special in one fleeting moment is the changing nature of all things -- lighting, rainfall, seasons -- and an eye that was open to seeing.

This photo was taken in one of my favorite places on earth -- the Slickrock/Joyce Kilmer Wilderness in North Carolina. I hope to see it again soon. This was simply a short bit of fallen log spanning a tiny rivulet. It wasn't more than one or two steps across, but the lighting caught my eye, along with the colors, and then nature provided more interest with the fast-moving water.

I don't remember specifically where this photo was taken, although it was definitely in Georgia or North Carolina. It's just a tiny, lichen-covered twig fallen upon fresh, spring-green ferns in the forest. It was the colors, contrasts and patterns that appealed to me here. Nature's beauty doesn't have to be large to be spectacular. We simply need to look deeper.

I do remember where I took this one! There is a trail in Northeast Georgia that leads to the exact place where Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina meet, deep in the woods. I was there on a rainy spring day and found this very large natural wall, richly and deeply covered with green moss and simply dripping with rivulets of water. This is a tiny section of the wall -- I really do like close-up photography!

This is one of my favorites, although it rarely seems to speak to others. I was hiking with a group in the Sierra Nevada and found a small, still lake that reflected the sky and trees and blended nicely with the lilipads and old stump.

Next time you're seeking something -- whatever it is -- try looking at what's before you with a different eye, and you just may discover that what you seek has been right in front of you all along.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Principles versus Economy

As I look to retirement on a very low budget I find myself torn between my budget and my needs to be a good steward of this earth we live upon and our nation as a whole. For years now I've lived as sustainably as possible and tried very hard to limit my purchases to things made in the USA.

I avoid plastics and non-natural materials, particularly products produced from petrochemicals. I try to buy organic -- food, linens, clothing, whatever I can find -- not so much because I think it's going to extend my life that much longer, but because chemicals in our soils and our homes are not good for the earth, the flora and fauna, the air, our pets, our children or ourselves. It takes effort and it costs more and I already miss my $5/dozen farmer's market eggs. They really do taste better than the supermarket variety.

I try to buy USA-made products because I feel we need to support industry in this country over industry in other countries, keep our dollars here. It's not easy. Finding products made in the USA takes a lot of effort and when you find what you want, it costs more, generally. To take that even further, I try to buy locally whenever possible in order to support my community and the small merchants who wage war with the WalMarts of the world.

I've been happy to spend the extra money. No complaints there. But now that my income is going to be cut by about 2/3, I can't afford to be quite so generous and I'm having a hard time making that transition. I've already cut out those farmer's market eggs and organic milk. When I ran out of Bio-Kleen laundry detergent, I bought Tide again (fragrance and dye free, thank you). I'm back to Cascade instead of Seventh Generation dishwasher detergent. I'm resigned to change, but I still resist total change; disregard for the environment and buying WalMart really go against the core of who I am. How do I balance my principles versus my budget?

Just yesterday I walked over to a couple of my favorite stores looking specifically for a small cast iron skillet the right size for baking a half recipe of cornbread. I didn't have much luck with that, but I found other things: bamboo desk accessories and kitchen items, locally-made spice shelves crafted of solid Oregon hardwood, beautiful hemp area rugs, a microfiber dust/wet mop with washable heads (essential in a house with wood floors throughout!), and plenty of other earth-friendly stuff I'd love to buy for my new home. Problem is, all these things cost more than their more plebian counterparts. I can get metal desk accessories for a lot less at Office Depot, cheaper spice racks from China made of who knows what, synthetic area rugs and disposable dust mops. Somewhere in there I must find a balance, because I simply can't accept such an enormous change in my principles. I can live with the metal/wire desk accessories, but I have a feeling the other items will make their way to Georgia with me.

I have the same issues with buying larger items for my new home. I'll need to buy a new refrigerator, washer and dryer (I'll dry outside when weather permits) and I'd love to buy Energy Star models but I just can't seem to justify the extra cost based on the limited budget I have to spend. Maybe I'll find them on sale when I get to Georgia -- I can hope. I also want a big, L- or U-shaped desk for my genealogy research. I could put a few boards over some metal file cabinets, but that doesn't satisfy my need to have a certain amount of beauty mixed with practicality. Staples has inexpensive modular systems, undoubtedly made from particle board and certainly not made in the USA. I will look for a local craftsman who can build something from local hardwoods or recycled wood, but it's unlikely that will be within my budget. At the moment, that leaves me with IKEA, which has solid wood tops and metal legs that I can mix and match to suit my needs at a reasonable price -- but of course, not made in the USA.

Balance is the answer, but I struggle to find a balance that fits both my principles and my budget. One thing I do know is that I won't go down without a fight. I'll take the time to research every last item and only then will I make a choice -- one that fits both needs to the extent possible. My home will be as earth-friendly, green and healthy as possible.

Friday, January 2, 2009

2008 Retrospective

I feel almost guilty writing about what a great year 2008 was for me, when so many others suffered and continue to suffer from an economy in melt-down.

My abundance, however, came more from within. All the books I've read, all the Buddhist meditation retreats I've attended, all the hours of meditation, all the lessons learned seemed to coalesce during this year to leave me a whole human being, no longer fractured.

I subscribe to daily Buddha quotes from a great outfit called Pariyatti. One of my favorite quotes is "Let go of the past, let go of the future, let go of the present, and cross over to the farther shore of existence. With mind wholly liberated, you shall come no more to birth and death."

To me, what this means is letting go of past events in my life that caused turmoil, letting go of trying to control the present and certainly letting go of trying to control the future. All are futile, and I was more than a little guilty of each and every one. That's probably why that particular quote resonated so much with me. Part of the philosophy as I have learned to apply it in my life is that life brings us what we need every day, if we are able to see it. It's uncanny how often I turn on my computer in the morning and read the daily quote and realize it applies exactly to whatever is going on inside me at that very moment. Recently, I realized that I have, at last, let go of the past and the future. I'm still working on letting go of the present, but making good strides in the right direction. I make no claims to being 'wholly liberated'.

I've let go of anger, resentment and a whole host of similar emotions. Cravings and aversions also seem to have left, for the most part. Part of the Buddha's philosophy is that all of our earthly ills are caused by these two emotions. We're either always wanting something we don't have, or unhappy about something we do have. The goal is acceptance, and for the most part I have reached that very peaceful stage. I continue to qualify in that way because I make no effort to delude either myself or others that I've learned all I have to learn. Every day brings lessons, new things to learn, reminders of my human failings.

At my advanced age I finally learned to 'play well with others' over this past year. I chose to use the people I work with and the workplace itself to achieve this goal, and the difference is palpable inside me -- I don't know how much my co-workers see, but I'm sure they sense the peace even if they never give a second thought to why that peace exists. It's not something we talk about.

I am literally a different person than I was one year ago. I'm a better person, I believe, and I'm definitely happier. Letting go is difficult, but the rewards are great. I'm looking forward to even more work and more rewards as this new year of 2009 begins.

All of this could just be a bubble that will burst tomorrow or the next day. I don't know, and I'm not worrying about it. I am letting the future take care of itself. I will see how each day unfolds and follow the path of least resistance as the doors continue to open.

I am very grateful.