Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Yeah, I'm 40...and?

I have never given 40 much thought.    Not in the way I thought about 27, though my fascination with that age was pretty much about the fact that I knew it was how old I would be when the calendar flipped from 1999 to 2000.  One month later I was 28, an age I had no particular attachment to.  Two years later I turned 30 without a whole lot of fanfare (I chose to spend the day alone eating cheese on the couch and yes, it was truly awesome).  Ten years have followed since and I now find myself on the edge of 40. 

While I may not have given the age of 40 much thought it seems a lot of other folks have.  I’ve been asked multiple times how I feel about turning 40 and my answer has been that I feel the same about turning 40 as I did about turning 39: It’s my birthday, which means someone should be buying me dinner and a drink! It’s my BIRTHDAY!  Woooooo!

Yes. Yes, Jane.  We know you love your birthday.  It’s that day that’s all yours, you get to do whatever you like and people let you get away with it, blah, blah, blah. But seriously, 40 IS kind of a big deal, you had to think about it at least a little bit...

Alright, party planning and good times aside the truth is that I have thought about it some.  It is, after all, one of those milestone birthdays.  At 40 one is statistically beyond the half way point of the average American life expectancy and for most of us it means we have now been living on our own away from the shelter of our parents for longer than we lived with them.  Basically 40 means that for better or worse you are, undeniably, an adult. 

Ok, legally I’ve been adult for 22 years, ever since the day I turned 18, and I’ve lived on my own since the day I graduated high school but the me that I was at 18 and the me I am now are worlds apart.   I think most us of enter adulthood thinking we pretty much have things figured out, and perhaps if our worlds never got any bigger, if we never had a single other new experience, and if we never found ourselves in a place where our deepest core beliefs were challenged, we would have everything figured out, but life happens and twenty plus years later…well, one might find oneself writing a blog post about just how mistaken we really were.

Actually there is quite a bit about me that hasn’t changed.  I’m still a creative person who is constantly swept off her feet by ideas for new creations.  I can still lose myself for hours in writing or painting, or dance.  My favorite way to spend an evening will likely always be to surround myself with friends to share food and conversation.  I still want to taste, see, hear, smell and touch as much of the world as I can in however many years I may have left.  And yes, many of those aforementioned beliefs are still around too, the ones that have been tested and found to be worth keeping.

What has changed?  If I had to put it into bullet points it would look something like this:

Things Spinster Jane has Learned in Her 22 Years of Adulthood

  • There is no one who will see the world in exactly the same way that I do, and as much as it might frustrate, annoy, and sometimes piss me off, in the end it is okay.

  • Sometimes it’s best to just be quiet and listen.

  • The only person I have any control over whatsoever is me.

  • Life is a very temporary thing and there is nothing, no pain, no love, no grief, no joy, no loss, nor any gain that lasts forever.  I take great comfort in this.

  • I am not perfect, I don’t know everything and I am quite capable of being totally, completely and utterly wrong…even about this.

(Yep, I’m saying that there was a time when I thought I knew it all, that it was possible to change just about anybody if you tried hard enough and what the rest of the world really needed was a heavy dose of my advice…)

What does all of this have to do with turning 40?  Well other than the mathematics of the look back not much.  I could have likely written a very similar post at 30 and possibly could do so again 10 or 20 years from now; I hope that I do.  I hope that at 50 or 60 I can look back and say that I’ve learned even more about the world and about myself, even if it turns out I’m wrong or mistaken about certain things, because if I can then it will mean that I’ve not stopped or stagnated, but instead continued to learn, experience, discover and grow.  And while there may or may not be a point to this experience between birth and death that we call our lives, I really don’t think it’s about the numbers.

Now…who’s taking me out to dinner?  

Saturday, January 28, 2012

But I'm Tiiiiiiiiiiiiired....

My blog posts have been scant these past few weeks.  It isn’t that I’ve been busier than usual; though my life is generally very full I’ve always been able to make the time to write.  The reason I’ve not posted is because I’ve been exhausted. 

I’d been fighting fatigue since early December. Thinking it was just that I was doing too much or not getting enough sleep I tried just about everything to bring myself to a place of feeling rested.  I cut way back on caffeine.  I stopped having that after dinner glass of wine.  I made myself go to bed early enough to get a full night of sleep.  I cut back on extra activities, even scaled back my social life.  Nothing helped.  In fact the feelings of fatigue and exhaustion only became worse.

This past week even my daily activities have left me feeling wiped out. Walking to the store left me feeling like I’d just worked out for an hour and sitting on the couch to just rest a minute would turn into a two hour nap.  Finally I’d had enough, I decided that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life napping, and I went to see my doctor on Tuesday. 

After talking with her, having a multitude of blood tests and a couple of days of angst while waiting for results we are pretty sure that the problem and its solution have been found.  I’m not going to share the details here until enough time has passed to see if the treatment that I have started is actually working but I’m feeling fairly positive about the chances of success. 

In the meantime, I will do my best to keep posting…

Monday, January 23, 2012

"Do you play basketball?"

As a six foot tall woman I have heard just about every one of these.  Enjoy...

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Spinster in the Kitchen Guest Post: One Mother of a Sweet Potato Bread

This month's Spinster in the Kitchen post is a guest post by one of my favorite solo living ladies, my mother!  That's right folks, I did not burst forth onto this earth fully formed in all my spinsterific glory nor was I raised in the wild by a secret tribe of spinster wolves...I had parents. 

Though my mother may have insisted that my brother and I both learned how to cook before we left home to find our way out into the wide and wild world for practical reasons (everyone should know how to feed themselves), her kitchen lessons planted in me the seeds of what became a life long love of cooking.  The knowledge she shared has served me, and those who have shared my table, quite well over the years and I am grateful for it. 

Today she shares her Sweet Potato Bread with you...

One Mother of a Sweet Potato Bread

"How can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?"  --Julia Child

According to the website Foodies.com  http://www.foodies.com/ “On the curriculum vitae of a foodie, ‘eating’ is listed as a hobby.”  I would add “cooking” to that definition.  So, when someone asks me “Why do something as complicated and time consuming as baking bread when you live alone?” the answer is simple – cooking and eating are my hobbies.  Making bread is one of my favorite creative activities and  eating a slice of my homemade bread still hot from the oven slathered with butter is one of my greatest gastronomic pleasures  (it has to be butter – no margarine allowed – yes, I can tell the difference and it is really easy for me to “believe it’s not butter.”)    With that rationale out of the way, let me tell you about my most recent bread endeavor.

I discovered a recipe for Potato Bread in Deborah Madison’s, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (p. 664 if you’re interested).   I made it twice, loved it and received rave reviews from folks with whom I shared it.  While discussing the merits of this bread with my sister, we agreed that the mashed potato could be replaced by mashed sweet potato (or squash or pumpkin).   I had already substituted whole wheat flour for part of the white flour in the recipe and this new possibility sounded too good to not try.   So let me show you how I make Sweet Potato Bread.

Sweet Potato Bread the Basic Recipe
¼ cup warm water
2 ¼ tsp active dry yeast (1 package)
½ tsp maple syrup or molasses
1 ½ cups hot water
1 ½ cups buttermilk
3 tbl softened butter
2 tsp salt
1 cup mashed sweet potato*
4 cups white flour
3 cups whole wheat flour

*Mashed Sweet Potato – You have a couple of options here.  You can buy a can of sweet potatoes and puree them.  Make sure they are bare naked sweet potatoes – not sweetened or flavored with anything.  I prefer baking couple of sweet potatoes, peeling them and pureeing them.  I use my nifty Braun stick and the end result appears in the photo to the right.

I also like to have everything “mise en place” (French for “everything in its place) before I start to cook.

The butter & ¼ cup water are in the microwave
softening and warming respectively.
 A brief caveat:  For those of you who have never made bread before, this is not a primer on how to do so – I’m just telling a story here. Get someone to teach you the basics before trying this recipe.   Now on to the yeast.

Yeast is just plain amazing!  I mean really, anything that gives you beer, wine, bread and blue cheese has to be great!  For purposes of bread baking mix the maple syrup or molasses in the ¼ cup warm water in a small bowl/cup and add the yeast.  Cover the bowl with a towel to give it privacy and the yeast will procreate like crazy – don’t get too excited there is no sex involved, just mitosis.

While the yeast is growing mix the liquid ingredients (hot water, buttermilk & butter) and sweet potato in a big bowl and mix well.  Stir in the yeast mixture. 

How much flour?

How much flour to use when making bread is often dependent on temperature, humidity, air pressure and the kind of flour you’re using.  I usually start with the amount listed in the recipe and make adjustments as I go – it’s an intuitive thing.  The whole wheat flour goes in first along with the salt and I whisk it until it’s smooth. 

It looks muddy and smells yeasty - like this:


Then I mix in white flour until the dough stiff enough to be dumped on the lightly floured counter and kneaded.  Kneading is my second favorite part of making bread – eating the finished product is my first.

Kneading is an art and a science.  You can find videos on Youtube that will demonstrate how to do it but it is the feel of the bread that is the best indicator of when you are done kneading  - it should be smooth and silky.  This particular bread is heavier and moister than bread without potato so it is a bit denser and wetter after kneading – a tad sticky.

Before kneading
During kneading
After kneading

So when all the criteria mentioned above (density, wetness, etc) have been met it’s time for the yeast to earn its keep.

The ball of dough goes into a large slightly oiled bowl, is covered by plastic and towels (remember, the yeast likes its privacy) and put in a warm place – a warm closet, near a warm stove, on the hot water heater (I warm a rice bag in the microwave, put it under the bowl and cover the whole affair with towels ((see below))).
Let the yeasties grow until the ball of dough is twice its original size – about one hour.

It’s not magic, it’s just biology.

I use this time to watch an episode of something mindless on Netflix, sync  my phone, read, take a shower, play 60 games of Bejeweld Blitz (not really)  and oil two bread pans.

When the ball of dough has doubled its size punch it down and take it out of the bowl.  Cut it into two pieces and squish the air out of them by flattening them into a rectangle (I use a marble rolling pin) - one edge should be about the length of your bread pan.   This particular dough will not flatten completely.   It’s dense and has lots of potato sugar for the yeast to feast on - the little guys just don’t want to stop growing.  I don’t worry about it.  I flatten a reasonable amount, roll the dough into a loaf shape and put it in the oiled pans.  Repeat the “put in a warm place…” process described above and let it rise until the dough is about even with the tops of the pans – 30 to 40 minutes.
Killing the Yeast.

It’s sad I know but, in order for bread to be edible, the yeast has to die.   It’s quick and, I hope, painless – I’ve never heard them scream so it must be.  They die in a pre-heated 375 degree oven.

A couple of slashes across the top of the loaves before they go into the oven it may prevent them from splitting their sides.  I have had mixed success with this and I honestly don’t care if my bread is a little lopsided so I sometimes slash and sometimes don’t.   If it makes you feel powerful slash away.

Put the bread in the oven and wait patiently……….DON’T OPEN THE OVEN DOOR FOR AT LEAST 30 MINUTES!!!!!  After all that work you don’t want your loaves to collapse and they might if you do.

Cookbooks say that you can tell when bread is done by tapping the bottom of the loaf and listening for a hollow sound rather than a thud.  Clearly, these directions were meant for Yo-Yo Ma or Jerry Garcia and not for those of us with tin ears and no musical talent because I am never sure what I am hearing when I tap the bottom of a loaf of bread.  So, I use my other senses and I check the smell, heft and look of the bread.  This particular bread is done in about 45 minutes.  I check it after 35 minutes and every five minutes until it looks a lovely brown, feels solid but not heavy and smells a little nutty (must be the sweet potato).   Once removed from the oven and pans I coat the tops with butter and cover the loaves with a towel to cool.

When it’s done, it looks like this!

Yes, it is a process that can take half a day and dirty a ton of dishes but the end result, at least for me, is well worth it.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Tears & Pooping (or Wine and a Hatchet)

Thanks to the wonders of the Period Tracker app for my iPhone I have just had the realization that when it comes to my hormonal cycle my bowels and my mindset are very much in sync. Yes my friends, the same day that I get a case of the monthly grumpies that I can’t shake, I generally also find myself bloated and constipated.   Today is that day.  So, not only am I in one of those moods where the right song will likely make me sob or break something (which I’ll then cry about), I’ve also not yet pooped today.

Okay, I’m sure several folks have just rolled their eyes, hit the back button and returned to whatever page linked them here; a few are giggling like slumber party ten year olds telling fart jokes (you said POOP!) and the rest are nodding in solidarity (Oh yes my spinster friend, I’ve soooooo been there too.  Here, have a glass of wine and a hatchet).

I’m not about to launch into one of those annoying ‘oh-how-I-hate-my-girly-parts-and-why-do-they-make-me-suffer-so’ rants.  I’m pretty much at peace with my monthly cycle.  It is what it is, and that thankfully includes a fair amount of predictability.  I know that 24 hours from now, my bowels and my emotions will have returned to some sort of state of, um, regularity. 

In the mean time I am indeed having that offered glass of wine but the hatchet is being substituted with “I Sell the Dead” on Netflix.  Tonight may not end in pooping (heh heh…you said…), but at least it won’t end in tears.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Happy Belated New Year!!!

I started out 2012 dancing myself silly at one of the best New Year’s Eve parties I’ve ever attended.  The wine was abundant, the midnight kisses plentiful and the music played all night long.  I arrived home at about 4:30 in the morning on January 1st, 2012.  I spent the day (after sleeping until nearly noon) on my couch watching Netflix, cuddling with the spinster pride and rehydrating.  It was a great way to kick off the New Year. 

Since then I’ve been struggling to write my first Spinster Jane blog post of 2012.  I didn’t want to it to be just another top ten list of what I accomplished, or what I’m glad to see gone, or what I hope to do in 2012.  Yes, taking stock of where you came from and plotting (spinsters don’t plan, we plot) where you want to go in the coming year are important things, but I really wanted to do something different.  And so I’ve been procrastinating because inspiration wasn’t coming easily.

Yesterday I discovered this wonderful post on suzemuse, a blog which I found via BlogHer.  She writes about how instead of New Year’s resolutions she has adopted the practice of choosing three words to help guide her throughout the new year.  I am really rather diggin’ this idea for a couple of reasons. 

First, I’m really good at making resolutions; I’m not actually so good at remembering what they are.  I do usually write them down in my journal and then never look at them again.  Three words, I think I am much more likely to remember.  Second I can just as easily talk myself out of something as I can into it.  Just as there is always a great a reason to do something, there is just as great reason not to.  The three words idea are not specific tasks I am committing to doing, they are there to serve as guidelines instead of hard and fast rules.  I find guidelines a much more attractive idea as they are by nature flexible.  You don’t break or bend a guideline; you just sort of shift it to one side a little. 

I will of course share my three words here once I have chosen them.  I’m getting close having narrowed it down to about four.  So stay tuned for that dear readers and In the meantime I do recommend checking out suzemuze’s blog. 

Happy New Year!