Monday, January 27, 2014

“My God, but you are hard to love." - Ayana Mathis

I finished The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis. More on that in a bit.

On Saturday night, we watched the movie Captain Phillips. It was good, but mostly forgettable. But there was one scene, at the end of the movie, that really stuck with me. Tom Hanks as Captain Phillips has just been rescued, and is being looked over by a medic. He's visibly stunned by the change in situation that's occurred in a matter of moments - from the terror of impending death by Somali kidnappers in a hijacked lifeboat, to the brightly-lit rigidity of a military rescue ship.The emotion Hanks displays is so incredibly real and moving. He conveys fear, confusion, gratitude, joy and horror all in just a couple of moments, with very few words. He's great, that guy.

I should rewatch The Money Pit again.

On Sunday, we got up bright and early and headed to the Hunt Midwest SubTropolis to participate in the 32nd annual Children's TLC Groundhog Run 5K. Children’s TLC works with young children with disabilities, developmental delays, and fragile medical conditions to provide educational and therapeutic services in an environment that fosters their independence and celebrates their successes.

The race was incredibly well-organized. We parked at the casino across the street, and school buses shuttled us back and forth to the race site. Inside the caves, the temperature stays around 67 degrees year-round, and with no wind or weather to contend with, and a flat course, we both thought that this race would be a breeze. Turns out, not so much, and neither of us really knows why. All we know is that we both struggled cardio-wise with this one, and neither of us posted a personal record time.

That said, our times were very respectable for each of us, and now we know we need to push it just a little bit more if we want to improve at a faster rate.

We had to line up in waves, based on how long we thought it would take each of us to finish the race. Mr. Awesome was in the Blue wave, meaning he expected to finish in 25 to 30 minutes. I was in the Orange wave, expecting to finish in 35 to 40 minutes. Both of our times fell into the expected windows.

The course was predictably flat, and there was a good mix of turns and long straightaways. We don't know if it was the air in the cave, or the people, or that we haven't been running much (we've been doing elliptical, mostly) in the last month, but both of us got pretty winded and struggled to maintain a good pace. I'm sure it was the lack of actual running, which is why we're going to start adding a mile run around the gym track to our regular workout schedule.

Mr. Awesome's stats:

Time: 25:05

Age group place: 28th out of 93

238 out of 1801

My stats:

Time: 37:08

Age group place: 97 out of 146

1223 out of 1801

Not bad, but we've both done better. Which is why the quote I chose from The Twelve Tribes of Hattie as a title of this post is fitting - races where the race fights back sure make running hard to love. But I guess that's what makes the ones we do well at that much more rewarding.

As for the book...

Books that are filled with struggles, sadness, oppression and all that aren't easy to love. But they aren't easy to forget, either.

Mathis spends each chapter in the book telling about one or more of Hattie's children, from the first twins she loses to pneumonia as a young mother of seventeen, to the granddaughter she inherits as an old woman of seventy-one. Each child's story like a glimpse through a dusty window into a moment of their lives, be they infants, or teenagers, or adults - we get just enough of a view to have an impression, but we can't really know the whole story. Hattie's children love and hate her, just as she loves and hates her circumstances. Nothing is easy for any of them, and love is expressed in a multitude of ways, with varying degrees of success.

The storytelling is like looking through a book of photographs - here's a little bit here, there's something in the background there that colors the next photo a few pages later. By the end, we don't really know Hattie or her children, but we get a sense of who they are and can imagine their legacies. There is a feeling, at the end of the book, of hopefulness and the possibility of new beginnings, which helps smooth over some of the rough parts.

I haven't picked a next book yet... it will probably be a GRE study guide.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

“I wanted to quit and to do this forever..." - Bill Bryson

I finished A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson last weekend.

Two summers ago, when hiking in the Rocky Mountain National Forest, Mr. Awesome and I found ourselves on a rather secluded, wooded trail about 2 miles in any direction from another person. The scenery was incredibly beautiful: tall pines and aspens, a carpet of discarded pine needles blanketing the path, making the trail soft and noiseless.

The air was so clean, the smell so pure... we were so far removed from everything but nature. For about an hour and half, we were alone in the wilderness. The experience was awe-inspiring and a little bit terrifying. I want to do it again, and I never want to do it again. Which is exactly how Bill Bryson described his experience on the Appalachian Trail:
“I wanted to quit and to do this forever, sleep in a bed and in a tent, see what was over the next hill and never see a hill again. All of this all at once, every moment, on the trail or off.”
I get it. Or, the gist, anyway.

I don't like sleeping in tents. I did so once about 5 years ago, and it was awful. I woke up freezing and sweating at the same time, until I realized the "sweat" was uninvited dew, like I was a plant or tree trunk or rock. I like hiking, I like campfires, I like s'mores and all the trappings that go along with the camp experience except the actual business of living in nature. I need indoor plumbing and a comfortable mattress, thankyouverymuch.

Early in the book, before he sets out on his AT adventure, Bryson describes his experience hiking with his son in Luxembourg:
The footpaths we followed spent a lot of time in the woods but also emerged at obliging intervals to take us along sunny back roads and over stiles and through farm fields and hamlets. We were always able at some point each day to call in at a bakery or post office, to hear the tinkle of shop bells and eavesdrop on conversations we couldn't understand. Each night we slept in an inn and ate in a restaurant with other people. We experienced the whole of Luxembourg, not just its trees. It was wonderful, and it was wonderful because the whole charmingly diminutive package was seamlessly and effortlessly integrated.
Now that's my kind of hiking. It sounds positively delightful. Not at all like Bryson's experience hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Bryson and his friend Katz set off on their adventure in 1996, well before the mass adoption of GPS devices, Google Maps, or consumer dehydrated astronaut food. It's two guys with some rudimentary gear and each other for company, although they don't do much talking - just lots, and lots, and LOTS of walking, mostly uphill, in snow.

As with other Bryson books, this one is filled with colorful descriptions of people and places, interesting anecdotes, humor, and just enough tension to keep the reader moving forward. I got a good picture of what hiking in a remote area of the United States must be like - enough to know that I would be interested in summertime day hikes and nothing more.

I'm glad, though, that I had the experience of being in a remote wilderness, if even for just a couple of hours. It made this book that much more enjoyable.

Next up: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis.

Friday, January 10, 2014

“So much better to travel than to arrive.” - Margaret Atwood

I just finished Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin. It's a hard book to describe, because it's so many things - a romance, a mystery, a science-fiction story, a history... so many things in one, and all told with such care. Atwood is a master storyteller and expert at drawing a reader into a world that's *not quite* real, but at the same time so close and familiar. If all my thoughts could be phrased in Atwood's prose, life would be so much more beautiful.

I've deeply enjoyed the three Atwood novels I've read - this one, The Handmaid's Tale, and Alias Grace. Each is so unique and shimmering. There's a comfortable uncomfortableness about them... more experienced and breathed and stretched around in, than read.

The kind of books you're sad to see end, but know the whole time that the end will be a great satisfaction.

A truly excellent way to start off my year of reading more.

Next up - Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Happy New Year!

The last year was full of great experiences:

  • Orlando

  • Colorado

  • Running

  • Eating

  • Laughing

My goals (or should I say intentions?) for 2014 are to have more of the same, with regards to exercise, food and laughter, with a little travel thrown in for spice. There's no telling how the year will ultimately end up, but really, the journey is what's important.

So far, we've been enjoying the journey with great music courtesy of our new Sonos music system. It's a wireless speaker system that is controllable via an iOS app, and can play music from various sources. Our current favorite is Dave Brubeck radio via Pandora. This, coupled with a good book (at this moment mine is Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin and his is Stewart O'Nan's The Odds) and comfortable living room furniture makes for an incredibly relaxing way to spend an evening.

We're also enjoying some great food, like a new recipe we tried for dinner last night, a dish inspired by the crab trofie pasta from Bluestem:

Bluestem-inspired Crab Pasta
Servings: 4
Weight Watchers Points+: 15 per serving

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 large shallots, diced
1/2 fennel bulb, trimmed and diced
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 c. white wine
2 sprigs fresh tarragon
2 c. half and half
1/2 c. 1% milk
12 oz trofie pasta
6 oz fresh crabmeat, picked over for shells and cartilage
1 tsp. dried red pepper flakes
1/2 c. freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
1/4 cup Panko breadcrumbs

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the shallots, fennel, and garlic and cook until the shallots begin to soften, about 2 minutes. Add the wine and tarragon. Continue cooking until the liquid has been reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Add the half and half and milk and turn the head down to medium-low. Continue to cook until the cream sauce is reduced by half, 10-12 minutes. Strain the cream sauce through a fine-mesh sieve and discard the aromatics. Return the cream sauce to the stove in a small saucepan and bring it back to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce the sauce to 1 1/2 cups, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a large stockpot of heavily salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until just tender. Drain the pasta well.

Add the pasta, crab, red pepper flakes, and Parmesan to the cream sauce, stirring until the cheese has melted evenly. Season the sauce with salt and pepper to taste. Divide the pasta among four bowls. Top each portion with 1 tablespoon of panko crumbs and more grated Parmesan.

We cut some fat by replacing what was heavy cream with half and half, and whole milk with 1%. We also eliminated prosciutto from the dish, but seasoned with salt and pepper throughout cooking. The end result was decadent without being too heavy. We served it with roasted broccoli, which has become a favorite side dish in recent months.

This weekend we will be doing our best to stay warm, but will still get out and about for culinary adventures and exercise at the gym. We're running our first 5K of the year at the end of this month (the Children's TLC Groundhog Run) and we're both hoping for good times, in more ways than one!