In Praise of the Kitchen Timer

February 26, 2010

Be it digital or mechanical, the humble kitchen timer is one of my favorite tools. Of course it helps me prepare meals without burning them (simmering rice or roasting a chicken doesn’t mix well with absentmindedness). But in addition to timing boiling pasta or baking pies, I also use a timer in several other useful ways.

I use it to:

Keep myself from getting sucked into the black hole of email.

Practice sketching.

Complete an Imaginary Trip to the Beach assignment.

Tuesday's assignment

Start a project I really don’t want to do. I tell myself I’ll only do the Unpleasant Task for 15 minutes and then I can quit. Most times, I will continue on after the timer goes off, and occasionally find that the U.T. didn’t even take the full 15 minutes!

Focus on a chore, like dusting for example, that I take too much time doing because I’m easily distractible. (“This magazine doesn’t belong here. Let me move it to the magazine holder in the family room. Oh look, there’s that bill I need to file in the office. While I’m in here, I think I’ll check my email…” See the problem?)

I'd rather be dusting... (ha)

And, less happily, I’ll even sometimes use the timer while I’m taking a break during the day to read or do some other fun thing. The ringing of the timer reminds me that it’s time to go back to work.

So in a world full of iPhones and BlackBerries, here I sit with my kitchen timer. Never mind...whatever tool does the job.

What about you?  Do you have any low-tech tools you can't live without?  Do share!


Book Junkie

February 23, 2010

I confess. I’m a book junkie. In this electronic age, I’m utterly and completely addicted to books: reading them, buying them, browsing through them in a bookstore or library. When I inhale the smell of a bookstore, especially a used bookstore, my heart flutters and adrenaline surges through me.

Libraries also give me a rush. All those books waiting to be opened—and they’re free. I know my 14-digit library card number by heart, and I adore searching the online catalog and putting books on hold. With one click of a mouse, I can feed my habit with books from libraries all over my county.

And buying books online? While it lacks the sensuality of the bookstore, online book buying gives me an additional fix: endless titles and both familiar and obscure-but-fascinating authors to explore. I can spend hours wandering through Amazon or Abe Books or Not only is there the thrill of finding a bargain book (May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude for a penny!), but the additional pleasure of anticipating the arrival of that book in the mail.

My addiction is such that I read at every opportunity, and in every type of surrounding. Along with more traditional places, such as doctors’ waiting rooms or the bathtub, I read while in the gas station car wash (and once while pumping gas), while in line at the drive through at the pharmacy or bank, while blow drying my hair, while nursing my baby in the middle of the night, and between halves at that baby’s football games (he’s 15 now). I once tried to read in a Jacuzzi spa, but found the jets splashed too much water on the book.

Oh, yes, I'd read here...

I usually read at least three books at one time—fiction, non-fiction, self-help, humor, spirituality…I’ve got a book for every mood. I read books about books (one of my favorites was aptly titled Leave Me Alone I’m Reading) and keep a log of the books I read each year. Once, I made a New Year’s resolution to read less. When I pack for a vacation, I choose what books to take as carefully as I choose my clothing.

I confess that I feed my husband’s addiction as well. Aside from the pleasure I know reading gives him, if he doesn’t have something good to read, then I won’t be able to…he’ll need conversation or meals or (ahem) “marital attention” when I want to read. (Does that make me a pusher?)

I like to blame my mother for my dilemma. I inherited my love of reading from her, but she may have just the slightest addiction problem herself. (She once got a traffic ticket for reading while sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic. She had opened a book on the seat beside her, snatching sentences while the traffic remained at a standstill. The motorcycle cop who ticketed her did not approve.)

Books started out as my innocent companions—my solace in a rather lonely childhood, their characters my friends and comforters. Coming home to an empty house after school wasn’t quite so bad when I could roam the fields and woods of Prince Edward Island with Anne of Green Gables or feel the wind on my face as Alec raced with the Black Stallion. Books taught me about everything from puberty to how to bake brownies. My desire to travel was first awakened by reading James Herriot’s Yorkshire.

Books have enriched my life more than I can say—but somehow, I crossed the line from relaxing hobby to addiction. For years, I kidded myself, denying I had a problem—until we recently remodeled our bedroom closet and my addiction became something I could no longer ignore. On a free-standing bookcase in our closet, I had stored my stash of purchased-but-not-yet-read books. When I moved them to make room for the new closet system, I found I had 52 unread books. That’s a whole year’s worth if I manage to read one a week!

A small section of the to-read stack...

So now I’m in rehab. I can’t buy any more books and I must curtail my library habit until I read some of the ones I actually own. I’ve sifted through the books in the closet and made the hard decision to get rid of a few. As they’ve lingered in the stack, I’ve realized that I’m just not going to read some of them. (Henry James’ The Golden Bowl comes to mind. I’ve begun that book three times and haven’t been able to make it out of the first chapter.)

It’s been several months since I confronted my problem. I haven’t been completely successful in reining in my book habit, but the unread books in my closet now number only 28. Hey, it’s a start.


Olympic Fever

February 18, 2010

We’ve been watching the Winter Olympics in Vancouver every night this week. The guys like the skiing and snowboarding, but barely put up with the figure skating (after I’ve watched multiple luge runs and qualifying heats in speed skating, I feel entitled to watch a little on-ice artistry). We’ve even watched curling! (Have you seen the Norwegian team’s pants?) I love watching people do things they’re really good at, things they’ve trained and sacrificed for, and I always get misty-eyed over an exceptional performance or a touching human interest story. The history of the Olympics is pretty interesting, too, and I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned:
  • The first Olympic Games can be traced back to 776 B.C.
  • The first Olympic “Games” were running, long jump, shot put, javelin, boxing, pankration (a primitive form of martial art, combining wrestling and boxing), horse races and chariot races.
  • Any free, male Greek citizen could participate, regardless of social position.
  • The games were dedicated to Zeus and women were not allowed to participate or to watch the games, except for the priestess of Demeter who was expected to attend. Women were first allowed to participate in 1900, at the second modern Olympic Games.
  • Winter games were first held in 1924, and took place in the same year as the summer games but in a different city. In 1994, the winter and summer games were separated, and began to be held two years apart.
  • The procession of athletes in the opening ceremonies is always led by the Greek team. All other teams follow, in alphabetical order in the language of the hosting country, except for the hosting country’s team, which is always the last to enter.
  • The flame originated with the ancient Olympics, where it burned throughout the Games. It symbolized the death and rebirth of Greek heroes. Today, a new flame is kindled for each Olympics at Olympia, Greece, site of the original Games, by using a parabolic mirror to focus the rays of the sun.
The Olympic Flame is kindled here

Things have changed a great deal on the Olympic scene since the first Olympians stripped naked and ran a footrace in a dirt stadium. Now we have high-tech this and private that—not to mention athletes who are clothed. But the current athletes still compete to the best of their ability, still inspire their home cities and countries and still try to live up to the Olympic motto, “Swifter, higher, stronger.”

Site of the first Olympics


For the Birds

February 15, 2010

Today is the last day of the annual “Backyard Bird Count” sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, with Canadian partner Bird Studies Canada and sponsorship from Wild Birds Unlimited. According to the Web site, “The Great Backyard Bird Count is an annual four-day event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of where the birds are across the continent. Anyone can participate, from beginning bird watchers to experts. It takes as little as 15 minutes on one day, or you can count for as long as you like each day of the event.”

This was the second year I participated, and I’ve been looking forward to doing so very much. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate, so I ended up being limited to about 20 minutes in my backyard yesterday! Even though I didn’t spend much time, I still learned some things, just like last year. (And I still might make it out one more time today.)

I was able to identify tufted titmice, a cardinal and two doves. After scrutinizing the doves with the binoculars, I realized they are mourning doves, not common ground doves as I had thought. I also saw two other little birds flitting through the yard, and while I’m not sure what they were (those buggers were quick), I think one was a Carolina wren and one was a yellow-throated warbler, both of which I’ve seen in our yard before. Other birds I saw yesterday while on a walk and not “officially counting”: vultures (circling overhead, so not sure which type), some white ibis, and what I think was a common loon. (I need a better bird book…)

I also learned, by flipping through that bird book while I was waiting for more action around the birdfeeder, that the little waterfowl I see in our retention pond are hooded mergansers. I am definitely a bird novice, and I’d never heard of these birds before! It’s so much fun to learn new things about the creatures that share my environment.

It’s not too late! You can still participate in the bird count today. (That’s right: go ahead, drop everything and go out and count birds!) Deadline for submitting your observations is March 1. (You can enter them online at Those who submit reports will be eligible for bird-related prizes.)

Happy birding!


The Fun Will Come Out Tomorrow

February 11, 2010

Does your to-do list look like this?

  • Workout
  • Clean out guest room closet
  • Return library books
  • Take dog to vet
  • Laundry
  • Clean oven
That’s what mine often looks like. Did you notice anything particularly fun on that list? Me either.

My husband and I recently marked our 22nd anniversary. We usually plan a weekend getaway to celebrate, but have we made any hotel reservations? No. My father-in-law gave us a gift certificate to an excellent local restaurant—have we made reservations there? No.

What is wrong with us? Sure, we’re busy, but not unbelievably so. Why are we procrastinating fun?

I’ve also been putting off starting “artist dates,” an exercise recommended by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way. (An artist date is a block of time set aside each week for an excursion you take all by yourself, to someplace that will nurture your inner artist. This might be a secondhand store, the beach, an art gallery, even a movie you go to by yourself.) I know I need down time, time to putter around, time to refill my creative well, and yet I don’t take it. Artist dates would be particularly good for me in my goal of being open in 2010, but I feel guilty about taking any more time away from my responsibilities.
Apparently, putting off fun is common for many of us. A Dec. 28, 2009 New York Times column discussed research that indicates that people put off until later pleasurable things, like visiting local landmarks, using frequent flyer points for travel or using gift cards received as presents, that could be enjoyed right now. Somehow, we always think we will have more time for enjoyment tomorrow.
Why not put at least one or two strictly pleasurable things on that daily to-do list today? Adding fun to daily life doesn’t have to cost money, and many fun things require only modest amounts of time. We could:
  • Watch the birds on the bird feeder.
  • Cuddle the dog or cat.
  • Eat some chocolate.
  • Listen to music.
  • Walk in the park.
  • Browse the books, magazines and DVDs at the library and take some home to enjoy.
  • Do a crossword puzzle.
  • Call or email a good friend.
  • Soak in a bubble bath by candlelight.
  • Look at family photos.
  • Work on a hobby—drawing, knitting, cross stitch—whatever we enjoy.
  • Do a jigsaw puzzle.
The point is that we shouldn’t be so compulsively responsible that every item on the to-do list is a chore. Our work will still be there after we take 15 minutes to read a book or sketch in a journal. Who knows? Taking time every day to inject a little pleasure may help us to move on to bigger goals, like learning to scuba dive or traveling to Italy. That’s right—our long-term goals should also include some things that are just for fun. (Repainting the house does NOT count.)

What pleasure are you postponing?


Would You Like Some Queso Dip With Your Epiphany?

February 08, 2010

Today while I was folding one of the 15 trillion loads of laundry I do every week, I reflected on the very pleasant weekend we just had. My mother-in-law was with us for a visit, and we watched movies and talked and generally carried on with ice cream and scotch and wine, each to her own. She’s my surrogate mom while my own mom is so very far away in California, and I’m grateful to have her only an hour away.

On Sunday, we watched the Super Bowl—and found ourselves invaded. It’s been a tradition this football season to make queso dip for consumption during football games, and it’s also become a tradition for our son’s friends to come over on Sunday and scarf it down. (My husband and I are lucky to get 10 chips between us—but that’s OK. We don’t really need them anyway.) This Sunday was no different. We made the queso, and added a slow cooker full of Little Smokies in BBQ sauce, and suddenly we had a party. At one point, we had five teenage boys in the kitchen, and two of them brought snacks! Somehow, our son had managed to arrange his very own Super Bowl party. Larry’s mom leaned over to me and said, “You’ll really miss this when he’s gone.” I looked back at her, a little wild-eyed, and realized that I will. Despite the chaos and noise and incredible amount of food consumption (and the Sprite can in the palm tree), I will miss those boys. They’re good kids, they have a lot of fun together, and they are growing up fast. Soon they’ll be off to college and jobs and life.

Sunday afternoons will be awfully quiet.


Happy Marmot Day!

February 02, 2010

This just in—Alaska has declared Feb. 2 Marmot Day! Three species of marmot can be found in Alaska (but no groundhogs), and Sen. Linda Menard, R-Wasilla who filed the official bill, hopes that the state will create educational activities around the animal. No weather forecasting duties will be required.

I’m all for any holiday that honors marmots. My family and I came across a number of the cute furry creatures while visiting Yellowstone in 2008, where they are also known as “whistle pigs,” because of a whistling noise they make. A cuddly animal known as a whistle pig? Who could resist?

Punxsutawney Who?



It's So Random

February 01, 2010

I took this meme from Dani Torres’ blog, A Work in Progress. I’m not going to tag anyone, but if you want to jump in, feel free. I love to hear about what everyone else has on their shelves.

Here are the rules:

1. Go to your bookshelves...
2. Close your eyes. If you're feeling really committed, blindfold yourself.
3. Select 10 books at random. Use more than one bookcase, if you have them, or piles by the bed, or...basically, wherever you keep books.
4. Use the books to tell us about yourself—where and when you got them, who got them for your, what the book says about you, etc.
5. Have fun! Be imaginative. Doesn't matter if you've read them or not. Be creative. It might not be easy to start off with, and the links might be a little tenuous, but I think this is a fun way to do this sort of meme.
6. Feel free to cheat a bit, if you need to...

I had fun wandering through my house, closing my eyes and grabbing books from our many shelves. Here are my 10 books in the order I picked them off the shelves.

1. Fodor’s See It New York City. This is a guidebook I bought before my family and I visited New York City at Christmastime two years ago. I usually borrow guidebooks from the library, but I couldn’t resist buying at least one to have in our travel library.

2. What Is My Horse Thinking? (Lesley Bayley). Bought when I first got my horse and I was trying to learn quickly. Focuses on horse body language and what it means.

3. Sleeping at the Starlite Motel (Bailey White). Starlite followed White’s Mama Makes Up Her Mind (which I also have). My introduction to humorous, essay-type writing. I believe I got this through Book-of-the-Month Club years ago.

4. The Franchise Affair (Josephine Tey). Tey is a mystery writer, and I discovered her as a teenager, after I had plowed through all of Agatha Christie’s books. I haunted the used book store until I found all of Tey’s novels. My favorites featured Alan Grant--I had a literary crush on him!

5. An edition that contains Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, An American Childhood and The Writing Life (Annie Dillard). I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in high school, but I have this book on my “To read in 2010” shelf because I want to read The Writing Life.

6. A Pocket Full of Rye (Agatha Christie). I can’t help it. I’m a sucker for Agatha, and I have some type of mystery-induced amnesia, because even though I’ve read each of her books several times, I frequently can’t remember “whodunit.”

7. Uncle Fred in Springtime (P.G. Wodehouse). I love Wodehouse—also discovered him when I was a teenager, and have read many of his 90-some novels. Funny and clever and silly!

8. The Dance of Intimacy (Harriet Lerner). Also on my “to read” bookshelf. I like Lerner’s books, and haven’t read this one yet.

9. Two-Part Invention (Madeleine L’Engle). This book, subtitled “The Story of a Marriage,” chronicles L’Engle’s long marriage to Hugh Franklin, and his death from cancer in 1987. I read it first when I was working as a temp for a company relocating their headquarters. (I had a lot of free time while I waited for phone calls or mail to open and forward.) L’Engle’s most famous book is A Wrinkle in Time, but my favorites of hers are her nonfiction “Crosswicks’ Journals,” of which this is one.

10. The Mismeasure of Woman (Carol Tavris). This book is on my Mother’s/Women’s issues shelf. It examines how men have been treated as the normal standard and women are “abnormal,” and how that affects things like social sciences, medicine, law and history.

There you have it! Hope you’re having a happy, book-filled Monday.