Flying blind in the peace and quiet

I was late to the cell phone scene.

For years I resisted getting the cell phone offered by my employer because I didn’t want to be that accessible. I also didn’t want brain cancer. I remembered having written a newspaper story about a widow convinced her husband’s shoebox-sized cell phone from the early ’80s had caused his death.

I didn’t need radio waves zapping through my noggin any more than I needed to hear my boss bark orders after hours.

By the time I finally succumbed and acquired a flip phone in circa 2004, no one was talking about brain cancer. It was all about coverage areas and international calling plans and this new fangled way of communicating called “texting.”

Ah, the good ol’ days.

Though I remembered my Lemon Zest Luna bar and my Chobani Raspberry Lemon Greek yogurt as I was flying out the door this morning intending to consume my breakfast at every traffic light between here and the Chicago fringe, I managed to forget my cell phone.

I forgot my security blanket.

No checking email.

No logging my calories in my fitness app.

No checking in on Facebook.

No Googling the hours of the office supply store.

No checking in with my Beloved (oh yeah, phones are for phone calls).

It was a weird day.

But I managed to get along without being that accessible. And I should probably leave my phone behind more often. Not only do I reduce my chances of brain cancer, but I increased my serenity tenfold.

                                                                     

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A way to keep track of time and a way to savor it

I bought a 2015 wall calendar today.

What’s up with that? It’s practically April!

I know, crazy, right?

Amazon was selling some of its 2015 calendars at full price (as ridiculous as shopping for a calendar three months after the year begins). But I found a discounted one I liked which had nice big numbers for each day (we’re as old as we’re slow around here). Besides being affordable and readable, it evokes thoughts of happy hour.

With images of wine.

Old grapes (aka raisins) inspire couscous dish

I distinctly remember when I discovered couscous.

The year was 1990, and I was a harried reporter for the Middletown Journal who spent more time at fast food joints than in the kitchen (when I was in the kitchen, I used a lot of Ragu and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese). I ran across a very vegetably Moroccan recipe that called for couscous in some magazine (the recipe also included cinnamon — how novel! — and harissa, a spicy sauce I’d never heard of either). I thought it might be a good way to eat more vegetables, so I searched high and low at Krogers and found Israeli couscous. (Also known as pearl couscous, Israeli couscous is chewier than the tiny-grained couscous commonly found in the pasta aisle nowadays).

The dish was delicious (and a lot healthier than a Rally’s cheeseburger and fries).

Couscous is kind of like a cross between pasta and rice, and I love its versatility and texture. Couscous has become a lot more popular and available in the past quarter century, but not everyone is as big a fan as I am.

My Beloved won’t eat it, and I tried serving it once to my mother-in-law. She was polite (as you might expect), but when I asked her if she liked it, she said, “It’s not my favorite.”

I dined alone for lunch the other day so I had no one to please but myself. I wanted to use up a bunch of past-their-prime red grapes by roasting them and decided to create a spicy dish with couscous. It turned out to be a delicious mix of sweet and savory.

If you’re a fan of couscous, you might like it, too.

Begin by roasting your grapes. Roasting grapes brings out their sweetness. Think: Warm raisins. It’s a great way to salvage a bunch that’s been sitting in your fridge a few days longer than you’d like. I also used cherry tomatoes and garlic.

couscous tomatoes and grapes

While they’re roasting, I prepared my couscous. All I had on hand was plain whole wheat couscous, so I made my own “spice packet” with smoked paprika, cumin, coriander, parsley and red pepper flakes to jazz it up. (In retrospect, a dash of cinnamon might have been nice, too.)

couscous spices

I tried a Rice-a-Roni trick and toasted the couscous before cooking it. (Also, everything is better with butter, right?)

couscous butter

I wanted a little protein for this vegetarian dish, so I chopped up a few pistachios.

couscous pistachios

A dash of leftover feta in the fridge caught my eye, so I added that, too (feta is Greek, right? And Greece is close to the Middle East, right?)

In the end, the dish was satisfying with just enough “weird” to make me feel creative.

 couscous plated

Roasted Tomato & Grape Couscous

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1 cup red grapes, halved
  • 2 or 3 garlic cloves, smashed
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon dried parsley from your mother’s garden (or, if your mother is neither a green thumb or as generous as mine, from your own garden. Or the supermarket.)
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon coriander
  • 1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1/8 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat couscous
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 tablespoon pistachios, roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon feta cheese

Directions: 

  1. Pile tomatoes, grapes and garlic on a baking sheet and douse with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper and toss to coat.
  2. Roast tomatoes, grapes and garlic on the top rake of 400-degree oven for about 30 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, measure spices and combine in a cup.
  4. Melt butter over medium high heat on stove top. Toast dry couscous for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add spices and toast for another 30 seconds or until fragrant.
  5. Add 1/2 cup water, cover and remove from heat. Let stand about 5 minutes.
  6. To serve, mound couscous on plate and spoon tomatoes and grapes over the top. Be sure to scrape all those yummy juices from baking sheet. Top with pistachios and feta. Serves 1.

couscous closeup

Two books: One documents the history of a swamp, the other navigates a quagmire of grief

My favorite assignment in English composition in high school was writing compare-and-contrast papers.

(Only a writer would put “writing a paper” in a favorite things list.)

I like puzzles, and I enjoyed figuring how two pieces of writing were similar or different.

Today on Minnesota Transplant, we shall compare and contrast the two books I finished reading this week: “a book with more than 500 pages” and “a book you can finish in a day,” two check marks in my 2015 Reading Challenge by PopSugar.

The SwampIt took me about a month to read author Michael Grunwald’s The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise (if I’m being honest, the book has only 458 pages, and that includes 81 pages of footnotes I didn’t read, but this my challenge, and I’m rounding up, OK?). I picked it up because I spent a month in Chokoloskee, Florida, in the heart of the Everglades.

If you think Florida is overrun with traffic, people, gated communities and Mickey Mouse, spend a little time in Chokoloskee. It’s quiet, rugged and close to nature.

I’ll be honest with you: It was nice to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.

Grunwald would probably be happy to hear that. His book is an impressively researched history of the Everglades beginning 300 million years ago and concluding with a complicated pact to “save the Everglades” in 2000 (with a few notes bringing readers up to date in 2006). His premise is that developers, Big Sugar, government and especially the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have ruined the Everglades, and that the River of Grass — the only place like it in the world — would be best preserved in a completely natural state.

Its natural state is a swamp, rife with bugs and crocodiles and perpetual flooding.

Listen, I appreciate birds and clean water as much as the next person, but I have to confess I’m also a fan of supermarkets and paved roadways. I like green spaces, but I guess I think groomed landscaping can be pretty, too.

I learned a lot about the ecology of this unique chunk of land, but the politics, backroom deals, big money and big egos described in the book were far more sickening to me than the loss of thousands of acres of crocodile breeding grounds. I came away from Grunwald’s tome thinking, “Is development so bad?”

Walking Through the ShadowsMeanwhile, I finished Karen Todd Scarpulla’s Walking Through the Shadows: The Year After while traveling from the heart of Florida to Alabama.

Scarpulla tells the story of a single year — the year after her ex-husband died — and how she, her teenage children and those around him coped with his passing. She picks up the pieces after spending a year caring for him as he dies of cancer so their son and daughter can get to know him better. Like the Everglades’ crocodiles and money-grubbing developers, Walking Through the Shadows has a few prickly characters and deceitful twists. Hers is a story of forgiveness and making the best of a bad situation (maybe some environmentalists mourning the death of the Everglades could take notes).

Like most memoirs, Walking Through the Shadows tells one person’s perspective, unlike The Swamp, which covers pretty much every angle. Because it reads more like a memoir, I’ll share a full review of Scarpulla’s book tomorrow on my writing blog.

Environmentalists and anyone who visits Florida (isn’t that pretty much all Americans?) would appreciate The Swamp while memoir fans and anyone caring for someone dying of cancer (unfortunately, that might be a lot of Americans, too) would benefit from Walking Through the Shadows. Bottomline, I liked both books because I learned something from each of them.

Fences make good dogs

My Beloved often says, “A dog is only as smart as her owner.”

My dog is not very bright.

Hmm.

She’s the prettiest girl with a beard around, but she perches on the back of the couch like a cat, she tugs on her leash like an obstinate cow and she acts like a princess.

A little schizophrenic.

Almost every time I take her for a walk in a new place, someone tells me I have the cutest dog (yes, I do, thank you very much). But then she’s barking so much, I can’t hear anything after that.

She not very well-behaved in public, and I have only myself to blame. Someone with a more refined pooch walks by, and my 8-pound miniature schnauzer makes so much noise, I feel like the mom with the screaming toddler in Wal-Mart.

My little sweetheart was attacked once, and I’m still traumatized. What if the dog we meet bites her? What does that menacing growl mean? Can the leash on that other dog be trusted? I’m sure my dog picks up on my hesitation, and so she defends her ground with her only weapon — her piercing voice.

I know I’m supposed to let them smell each other’s hind ends while the other owner and I coo about the beauty of each other’s dogs, but I just scoop up my dog, mumble some sort of apologetic, “oh, be quiet, that dog isn’t barking like you!” and move the heck on down the road.

A dog park? Heavens, no. My worst nightmare.

It’s highly ironic I’m embarrassed by my dog’s behavior because I’ve secretly thought I would never be so enmeshed with a child that I would let him or her embarrass me. “Embarrass yourself!” I would smugly think of my imaginary willful child.

Well, I never bore a child to test this theory and perhaps my dog proves I’m not above common social mores.

Let’s just say I’m smart enough to be looking forward to returning to the neatly fenced back yard void of unfamiliar canines that I’ve been away from these past several weeks.

Small wall, big background

wall

Kudos to the campground maintenance guy (or girl) in Alabama who chose to paint the bathhouse wall with a beach scene.

As well intentioned as might be, God’s artistry at dusk shines brighter in the background.

A day at the beach

blog sandy toes