Candle Tins!

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Candle fans, I’m test-marketing a batch of my soy candles in travel tins during Bouchercon. If I keep them, they’ll be a bit more expensive on the website (plus shipping.) So, if you want to leave Bouchercon with some yummy soy candles in little travel tins (great for freshening a funky hotel room and small enough to fit in the suitcase or box you’re taking books home in), help me pick the scents to bring.

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I’m making three sizes (4oz, 6oz, and 8oz), two of each scent in each size. So, the top twelve scents below get made. Here’s your chance to pick the scents (up to twelve). Ready? GO!

Book Review: DEADLY DEBUT

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DEADLY DEBUT is an anthology of short stories written by some terribly murderous residents of NY. You should, honestly, just pick it up because it’s seven stories by great writers for less than three bucks. That’s less than most of the coffee drinks at Starbucks and will keep you entertained longer than finish one-seven venti-mocha-frappa-soy-latte-whipped whatevers depending on how fast you read/drink.

Just in case there’s even one of you out there thinking “Two-ninety-nine?! That’s too much to pay for a book! Only seven stories! Ha! Never!”…let me just start with, “Don’t say those things out loud, please. Especially while you’re holding a six-dollar coffee. Art takes time and energy to create — far longer than that beverage — so treat it well.” Beyond that, let’s break this down and consider that 2.99 divided by seven is just under 43 cents a story. Now, imagine the author in front of you, offering to entertain you for a few pages, to tell you a story of a little kid’s lie that left a lasting, life-long weight or about a dutiful daughter who uses her P.I. skills to help out her dad’s friend or a just-sober guy who finds a body in his closet only to have it disappear before he can figure out what to do about it. Now, realize that if you’re like me you haven’t even seen vending machine soda for fifty cents in years, much less forty-three. Isn’t it worth 42.7 cents to find out who murdered the belly dancer in the locked room? Or who stole the test out from under the flustered newish professor’s nose? Or how Edgar Allan Poe managed to kill a boy in 1961?

Besides, somewhere in these pages is the only other female Davis I know of besides the one in my own fiction, so go make with the clicky and find her. (She’s just as tough, but far less damaged than mine.)

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Kobo

iTunes

 

Travel Planners

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So, I may have made some inserts for our trip binder for Bouchercon. My desk generally looks like a tornado hit a stationery store, but on extended trips  (especially those with multiple stops or drastic weather changes) I like to have a discbound notebook with tabs for each day, maps, forecasts, reservations, notes, etc. Along the way, I’ll use my portable punch and add brochures, receipts, and other paper flotsam, and when I get home, I pull it all out and put it in a folder. 20141013_142455

If you’d like your own sheets to help you pack up before Bouchercon (or anything else), the PDFs are below. They’re all 8.5 x 11 because that’s the size notebook I use for trip planning.

Packing List

Travel Journal

Outfit Planner

Daily Snapshot Planner

Office Depot & the Terrible, Very Bad, No Good Product Release

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I’ve been a big fan of the Levenger Circa discbound system for a while now. I like that I can add and rearrange pages. I like that it’s a cross between wirebound notebooks (of which, I still love the Mirquelrius stuff both for the variety of covers and the quality/lines of the paper) and a binder (of which I appreciate the flexibility and hate everything else).

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Now, if we’re gonna get all disclaimer-y about things, I worked for Office Depot many years ago and while working around that many office supplies should have been awesome, I often just felt dismayed by choices the buyers would make. Back then, they regularly rotated merchandising interns around and moved other staff for various petty reasons that didn’t seem to have anything to do with how well those people knew the product lines or their attachment to them. A lot of years have gone by, so let’s hope they’ve wise up, but the introduction of their “foray” into the discbound notebook market doesn’t make me believe it.

Various office supply aficionados, stationery addicts, notebook fans, and pen freaks blogged about the possibility of an Office Depot entry into the market and included a few reviews when they could get their hands on the product. That last bit points out one of the biggest problems. You can’t sell a product you don’t have — Kickstarter tech ideas aside, because Office Depot is hardly launching a the next big iAccessory here. I tried three stores locally and never found any hint of the system besides the punch hidden on a mid-aisle rack at the back of the store, sandwiched in between some markers and discontinued breakroom cups. I have no idea if they plan to re-introduce this system at any point in the future or if they decided the “test” failed. If it’s the later, these are some pretty good reasons why:

1) The name. I get that most people aren’t going to choose to buy or not buy based on that, but “REVOLUTION” is flat out presumptuous and stupid when you’re coming along on the heels of Rollabind, Circa, Myndology, Martha Stewart, and Arc (at Staples).

2) The test. I understand the concept of test markets and that’s all fine and well, but if no one can find your product, you failed the test immediately. If people ask employees in stores your website said would have it have never heard of it, you’ve failed the test. If you wanted a limited-run test, you’d have been better off sending a few samples to all those discbound/stationery bloggers to try out and pimp rather than tossing the samples into the mess that is Back-to-School.

3) The timing. Which leads me to this point. BTS, or back-to-school, is a huge profit boost for the office supply industry. I get that. And I get that companies start prepping for it before kids have even gotten out of school and nothing is bigger, not even the winter holidays since the margins are higher on markers and notebook paper than on TVs and computers. Still, expecting parents, already bitching about how much they have to spend, to spring for things that aren’t on the class lists is, again, presumptuous and stupid. And the number of teens who are going to spend their own money on funky looking notebooks isn’t all that high.

If, however, this had been marketed well to college students (especially grad school and returning adults), and was at a price point they could afford along with books and housing and food, this might actually do pretty well. The system makes organizing class handouts and notes easy, is more portable than a binder, and can be reused each semester or stored away as future reference.

4) The product. With the selection they released, Office Depot seemed to be aiming for the teen/tween market or the young-at-hearts. All that’s fine and well, but if you’re looking to sell specialty notebooks, you might want to offer a few things appropriate for use in offices — in other words funky stuff AND business casual stuff. They already have a “Jane” line and could have easily worked those design elements in. At the same time, all the “Revolution” items I saw online looked fairly “girly.” Granted, there was some black and gray, but it was mixed in with flowers and pinks. No primary colors, nothing “professional,” and yet no skulls or other fun, but gender-neutral designs.

About this, I want to be clear because my husband and I both have a fair amount of Circa and Arc stuff that we’ve combined and blended with other stuff to make our own notebooks. We have “professional” looking notebooks that wouldn’t look out of place on job interviews or in high-powered meetings. We have a set of discs holding a chopped and punched folder full of accounting files. We have translucent covers with cardstock flyleaf paper. We have our vacation plans in a Circa notebook. I have a manuscript I need to edit in one.  I have some “fun” and “pretty” discs and I have a bunch of black discs because they’re cheaper and easy and go with everything. In other words, variety is key, and gender-neutral or enough variety for “girly” fans and everyone else.

Office Depot already offers professional-looking padfolios in several colors (I took a picture of the teal because I’m a little obsessed with that color, but they also had black and at least one other). The texture’s nice and the design isn’t bad. Modified slightly as a discbound cover (and at prices more comparable to the Foray padfolio instead of the Levenger executives-are-made-of-money line), I’d be all over that. Especially since the Foray padfolio looks nice without being leather. (HEY, hint to Staples, if OD is going to utterly drop the ball here, could you offer a faux leather notebook for less than the $59 Levenger wants? Because I don’t really need a dead cow to protect my notes.)

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6) The discs. I’m making this a separate item even though it’s technically a subset of the product because the discs are SO important. They’re the most important part of the system, and some of the reviews have said the Foray/OD discs aren’t so smooth. Seriously, Office Depot, you cannot have a discbound system without good quality discs. I’m not sure if your store-planning department has pointed this out, but the only place you compete head-to-head with Staples is online. In-store, people are closer to one or the other and will generally gravitate either to the closest or the one more likely to carry what they need. Which means, you don’t have to be cheaper than Arc if it means cutting quality. You just have to be cheaper than Levenger. (Only diehards have ever heard of Rollabind, so don’t worry about them so much.)

 

The Simpsons & the One-Trick Pony

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So last night was the the hyped Simpsons-Family Guy crossover show. The husband wanted to watch it, so I paused my writing and we settled in on the couch. I mean, we’ve been watching The Simpsons off and on for our entire marriage and, well, for more than half our lives. The Simpsons first came on when I was in middle school. And, yeah, some episodes weren’t all that great, some were funnier than others, but oddly enough, even though the characters haven’t aged, they’re grown and changed over the years while remaining true enough to their original sketches. Lisa Simpson is bossy and smart, but she’s insecure and caring. Bart Simpson is a bully sometimes who is also bullied, who’s not so bright in class, but he’s clever in his schemes and the problems that arise from his and the family’s adventures. Homer is the king of saying dumb things, but he almost always figures out when he’s hurt someone and tries to fix it–the episode when he has to come to terms with Lisa’s vegetarianism (and her coming to terms with her dad’s meat-eating) comes to mind.

Family Guy on the other hand, I find…just not funny and mostly downright unpleasant. When it comes on, I find my face automatically assuming that expression you make when you bite into something terrible — like a diarrhea sandwich. It’s had a few moments — always between Brian and Stewie as their adventures are about the only time Stewie isn’t actively promoting matricide or threatening his sister or some other random female character — but overall, it just feels tired and dated. It feels like the same kind of “domestic abuse is funny” mentality that fueled jokes in The Honeymooners and various sixties and seventies sitcoms. Every episode is an endless parade of rape jokes (there’s a whole character that’s a rapist played for laughs), anti-women jokes, matricide jokes, and healthy number of race jokes, handicap jokes, and child rape jokes.

The crossover episode put the husband to sleep. It left me feeling like I’d spent an hour watching Seth MacFarlane’s therapy session. And I felt like I should send him an invoice and a list of suggestions for better handling his insecurities. The whole thing starts out with Peter writing comics labeling dead women as broken dishwashers and being run out of town for being a misogynist. The outrage against this comic is presented as a joke — who’d take such things seriously, ha ha ha? — except that that mentality is what makes certain people think it’s okay to abuse women as objects, like sex toys or dishwashers. (I think frequently the outrage isn’t so much against a joke or a comic itself, but against the culture that perpetuates the idea of the joke, that stamps it as not only “funny” but “acceptable” and “normal.” I just don’t think the outrage is always good at expressing that difference.)

From there, it’s a series of various levels of rape jokes, “look how clever we are for making fun of crossover episode” jokes, and jabs at The Simpsons for being old and stale and having more Emmy awards. What really stood out — and I’m fairly certain it was supposed to but I’m not sure why anyone thought it’d be a good idea to highlight it — was the difference between Lisa and Meg. Lisa (who over the years has sometimes been mocked by her father until he grasps that the things that are important to her need to be important to him, too because she’s important to him) attempts to prop up Meg’s self esteem only to witness the verbal abuse that is her father’s sole form of communication with her.

It’s also worth nothing that Chris has so little characterization of his own that he apparently couldn’t stand up to Bart and had to hang out with Brian the whole episode to give him a reason to exist and that even “bad boy” Bart Simpson came to see Stewie as a dangerous sociopath. I mean, maybe this is supposed to illustrate how out of touch the “stodgy” Simpsons family has become compared to the levels of modern violence we’re capable of inflicting, but since the ads for the news following the show kept highlighting the shooting of fifteen teenagers at an all-ages club, maybe Bart’s slingshot isn’t such a bad thing.

 

On Expectations and Hypocrisies and Footwear

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It’s back to school season, but I won’t be heading back into a classroom this year. I have a lot of thoughts swirling in my head in connection to that statement, that fact, but I can’t find one that’s regret. Not even a small one, hidden under a pile of the others. Or maybe blown up under one of the eaves of my mind.

I know, in our judgmental, “do it for the kids” society, I sound like a monster. Teachers are supposed to care. They’re supposed to nurture and support and they’re always supposed to want to keep coming back for more.

But teachers are also supposed to just keep taking it. Because they’re all lazy and greedy. Because they just want to hoard supplies and take the summers off. They need to be watched and constantly assessed and graded and monitored like prisoners. And Star Lord help them if they complain because they’re the ones who signed up for the job, right? They could have been doctors or lawyers or engineers or stock brokers, but “those who can’t do, teach, ha ha ha.” Amiright?

They’re Joan of Arc with a nuclear death cannon.

I sometimes feel like having “teacher” on my resume is a little like admitting my past job was with the mafia. Perhaps that might even make me a little more attractive to certain industries. “Oh, it says here you managed money laundering. Just so happens we’re looking for a new branch manager here at Bank of America.” Whereas teachers now occupy some twisted social realm between martyr and supervillain. They’re Joan of Arc with a nuclear death cannon.

So, if I’ll never be able to get another job without first joining the mob, why am I not going back to school? What kind of lazy, entitled bootstrap-less monster am I?

The short answer is that I couldn’t. The long answer takes us through the recent tragedy of Robin Williams and the hundred thousand posts about depression with a detour through episode six of The Mindful Creator podcast.

My first few years teaching, I worked tirelessly to find creative ways to reach students who were not only non-traditional, but were locked up — literally incarcerated — during the time they were in my classroom. Some students I saw off and on for years until they aged out of the system. Some I saw once, for a few days or weeks, and never again. Some students went to programs and thrived only to fall apart again once back on the streets. Some may have made it. I’ll never know.

I’ve known teachers who worked in correctional and/or alternative education for years, sometimes whole careers. I worked with several of them. The light and effort in their eyes slowly died during the time that I knew them, though they still did as much as they could, or were allowed. These are teachers who have memorized stacks of supplemental workbooks and materials because they either don’t have enough textbooks, don’t have the right textbooks, or aren’t allowed to use the textbooks (for a number of reasons). They can design a month of lessons adapting mid-year algebra concepts so kids tenth graders with barely-third-grade math skills can understand them. Teachers who can get murderers and gang leaders to carry on an intelligent discussion on Of Mice and Men or get excited about They Iliad.

But the last three years I worked with them, I watched them die a little inside every day. New standards, unreasonable expectations, requests that compromised safety and security, a revolving door in facilities that left classrooms unsafe, the constant insecurity of the staff that remained, rumors, teachers moved across the county in the middle of a semester… It wore on them. And they stopped talking and joking in hallways and around the copier in the morning. They started counting down the days until retirement or retired early or just went home each night to drink until they passed out.

For many years I did a good enough job of compartmentalizing. My coworkers and I made the sort of terrible jokes you hear from cops and firefighters and EMTs and coroners. We found the humor because it’s how you cope with being surrounded by darkness. And having a never-ending stream of children who rape and steal and kill; who abuse drugs to dull their pain or who molest little brothers the way someone molested them; who sell weed for their grandparents or steal pills from their grandparents or beat the crap out of their grandparents; who climb on furniture and scream or tear their hair out at the root and laugh; who interrupt lessons to ask if it’s okay that their boyfriend is forty-five or to explain how that the problem with crack isn’t that it might lead you to being nearly killed by a John you stole from but that it ruins your looks; who want to stay clean so the state won’t take their next baby or who need their GED already so they’ll be done with high school before the next baby comes…. You know, that kind of thing. So much of it is common stories in schools these days. But like police officers and firefighters and EMTs, you need to know your coworkers have your back. And if you know they don’t, it’s a level of stress that makes the job unbearable.

We’re a country obsessed with the idea of “manning up” and some level of personal responsibility and survival-ship that assumes life must be, not a daring adventure as Helen Keller once suggested, but an arduous battle. If one is not at constant war with sloth (while yet somehow celebrating by binge-watching on Netflix and eating anything with the phrase “meat stack” in it) and privilege, one is doomed to be entitled and whiny, a “pussy.” (Because to be feminine is to be weak, we’re told, which might be why so many hate teachers as their clipart image is a wizened crone of a woman, not “hot” enough to still have use, but that’s another kettle of ranty fish.)

Yet we’re also a country devastated by the loss of Robin Williams (and countless other actors and musicians and artists in general who have fallen prey to mental illness, something damn near impossible to battle alone forever). So we’ll tell each other “you’re not alone” and post the suicide prevention number on all our Facebook statuses. And we’ll turn and bite the head off a blogger who suggested people pick up the bigger pack of markers for their kid’s teacher. (Seriously, the comments in that post explain a lot about how we, as a nation, view our teachers.) We’ll scream to send refugee children back across dangerous borders to near-certain death. We’ll tell young mothers to “get a job” and decry food subsidies (even for the working poor) and we’ll threaten succession and revolution over the idea of supplying citizenry with basic health care. Which tells me what we really mean is: Why didn’t you get help, famous person I was entertained by, but please just go die quietly, anonymous poor person I don’t know.

Let me reiterate that one.
What we basically say to one another, collectively is this:

Why didn’t you get help, famous person I was entertained by?

Please, just go die quietly, anonymous poor person I don’t know.

This is the message we put out there. If we don’t mean it, we need to change it. Collectively. Starting now.

So when Berni Xiong talks about walking away from her corporate job because she wanted more, because she felt she had something else to offer, but that it left her full of doubt because she broke free without a trust fund or a venture capitalist or a reality show backing her up… I find part of me nodding and part of me horrified. I know too well about walking away from a “sure thing” I know was killing me. I know, too, there’s no such thing as a “sure thing” anymore, whether it’s in teaching or corporate sales, that we’re all on shaky ground. And maybe it was the shaking ground that made me step away without a solid road map.

I stepped away because I was surrounded by broken, paranoid, drowning people who would pull me down with them if I stayed. Because it’s just too hard to wage a war on all fronts at one time. I stepped away because I was allergic to my antidepressants and I wasn’t getting enough exercise and I left each day so exhausted from bad* stress that it was a struggle to get through basic chores and errands. I stepped away because I had to.

See, I’m actually very good at a lot of things. I’m no expert. My interests are too varied to be an expert. I have a degree in business and a degree in criminology. I’m still certified to teach both math and English and I’m qualified to teach martial arts, too. I write. I make and sell candles. I shoot photos and, after almost twenty years of trying to talk me into it, the husband convinced me to mat and sell some of those, too. I paint when the mood strikes. And one soon, I’m going to finish sewing those dresses I started.

It’s easy to forget you’re good at things when people tell you daily how terrible you are at existing. Anyone who didn’t make the superlatives list in high school can probably understand that. And, of course, if you have previous experience with being told you’re not good, it gets easier to believe.

For now, I’m going to go knock out some of my to-do list.

And if my bootstrap pulling isn’t up to your standards, well, it’s because I mostly wear flip flops.

 

 

 

*Note that I distinguished “bad” stress because it’s quite different to spend a day busy doing something you care about or that holds meaning and spending days being degraded by administrators, literally threatened by students, the subject of a rumor mill among some coworkers, and a sounding board for other distressed coworkers. When my job was filled with the “good” or “normal” stress of finding the best materials and methods to reach my students, of remembering all the accommodations for each new kid and adapting to each new mood swing from the students, I felt energized.

Review: Thomas Pluck’s BLADE OF DISHONOR

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It’s been a while since I did a review (that isn’t on Criminal Element).
It’s been a while since I read this book, so…parallels. *twirls in chair, gets dizzy*

Blade of Dishonor is riotous good fun and it has a little bit for nearly everyone. Plus ninja.

Pluck expertly weaves men’s action adventure pulp from the days of dime paperbacks, a modern love story complete with a competent and compassionate female who needs more help than she’d ask for (& gives as good as she gets), gritty WWII historical fiction, and ninjas.

It has a little romance, but not enough to get steamy about and if you’re looking for the sort of dry, literary tome you can hold over your hipster friends’ heads at the next raw-vegan pot luck at your rich friend’s loft that’s been decorated with thrift store cast-offs and road finds by a professional decorator, this isn’t it.

If you’re looking for a good beach read, airport companion to keep you awake while you wait for Delta to find your plane, something to hide under your keyboard at work and keep you entertained when you’re supposed to be making spreadsheets… This is your book.

Pros: Fun, not-demeaning pulp that passes the Bechdel Test, kicks ass, includes a fascinating subplot/parallel story about WWII. Ninja. Samurai. Explosions. It’s like Kill Bill sort of. (Who am I kidding. I still haven’t seen that. Just read the damn book.)

Cons: Probably won’t impress your lit snob friends quite the same way as reading obscure Taiwanese poets in the original language.

Bottom Line: Why are you still here?

Pay for Performance

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We talk in this country a lot about “pay for performance” like it’s a thing we actually do and like it’s a perfect system.

Mostly, what we do is pay people what they’ll be desperate enough to accept in exchange for their labor, but that’s not completely accurate either.

We act like contracts are a terrific thing for people like basketball players and CEOs, but they’re a terrible, evil thing when they’re for people like teachers and city engineers. Those, “lesser” people should be judged on their “performance,” often some arbitrary test or scoring system. We don’t mind contracts for artists like musicians and writers, but we want them to settle for the least possible and we still kind of begrudge them a little for “selling out” instead of “staying true” to their art or “doing it for the passion” or some other hokey nonsense.

You know, I caught part of the NBA finals game last night. None of the commentators I heard suggested the players get out there for free out of love for the sport. (Though, plenty of people think the players in the NCAA should do it for free and eat the cost of any resulting health care. Don’t even get me started on health care, but I will say this: a very dear friend is alive today because of “Obamacare” so you bad mouth her having insurance, you’re cut off.) And, given that the first half of the game, the Heat played like a high school team who’d eaten too many pot brownies, if that was the arbitrary test we judged their performance with, they’d have all been fired and replaced with cheaper workers from Indonesia or at the very least some kids fresh out of college who have nothing on their resumes but school projects.

Of course, “but they came back to within seven.” And “but they just had a bad night, you gotta look at the whole season.” (Kind of the same argument teachers gave when everyone wanted to judge their whole “season” on one test three-quarters in that could be affected by roughly 1800 variables per kid. “But, they came closer than they ever have.” “Several of the kids were kept up by a shooting and manhunt in their apartment complex last night.” “Almost half my students are homeless; they’re stressed about other things!” “Look at all the progress and learning we did all year!”)

Now, CEOs you can get rid of on a whim after a bad earnings report or a failure to fire enough workers or whatever. And maybe the bad earnings was due to an excessively snowy winter, which kept more people in and decreased their discretionary budgets. Or maybe the bad earnings was due to a housing bubble burst or a student loan bubble growing.

And so all the pundits dissect the whys and you shake your head and oust the guy. Who has time for excuses, right? Just get rid of them and find another cheaper — oh, wait you plan to pay the next guy MORE? What are you doing? This isn’t how things are done. At least we won’t have to pay this guy anymore. Oh, you mean we have to pay him a massive golden parachute for screwing up? It’s in his contract. Oh, well then. It must be done.

Besides, he’s a CEO so he’s being paid for his prior performance. Or his being special. At any rate, there’s surely some reason the talking trolls on CNBC can come up with that explains why this guy was worth more than the combined salaries of everyone he fired plus a yacht.

We might need that yacht because if we don’t drown from the rising sea levels, we’re certainly going to drown in our own hypocrisy.

Recipe: Fettuccine with Pink Sauce & Garlic Bread & Asparagus

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I got super-hungry at the dojo and all I could think about was pasta. Luckily, I wasn’t supposed to be teaching or learning, just standing there so Sensei could film himself doing the yellow-belt moves for a big documentation project he’s doing for his 5th degree. Thus, in between takes, I googled alfredo and vodka sauces.

I ended up starting with this recipe from Vegansaurus. Now, because I A) didn’t have a fresh bulb of garlic — I have no idea where it went — or a red onion, but I did have a bunch of crimini mushrooms and fresh basil and B) I’m terrible at following directions, I ended up slightly modifying all this.

My version:

  • Jar of “classic herb” marinara (from Whole Foods)
  • Leftover quarter box of chopped tomatoes from the last time I used some (I keep them in old sauce jars for up to a week)
  • Approximately 1-1/2 cups of cashew cream (you can use Vegansaurus’s version if you want — I again went rogue)
  • Nutritional yeast — let’s estimate 3/4 of a cup
  • 1/2 cup vodka (Not a big vodka person so all I could find was Three Olives Lemon or Skyy Vanilla so I went with the Lemon)
  • 1/4 cup wine
  • About 5 basil leaves
  • Maybe 10 crimini mushrooms
  • Garlic powder
  • Oregano
  • Red pepper flakes
  • Olive oil

I started with the sauce and tomatoes and vodka and wine in the pot on low while I cut up the mushrooms and soaked the cashews (I used about 3/4 of a cup). Other recipes I’d seen suggested soaking the cashews for a half hour as opposed to six, so mine ended up soaking about forty minutes because I got distracted along the way. I have a pretty good food processor, so if you don’t, you may want to soak longer.)

Distraction the First: Asparagus

I rinsed the asparagus, trimmed the ends, and put it in a pan with olive oil and a “salt-free Italian Seasoning” I got from Whole Foods one day when I was feeling lazy. Oddly, I have all the seasonings in it already taking up space in the cabinet, but…whatever. I put said asparagus in the oven on maybe 300 and nearly forgot about it.

Distraction the Second: Bread.

You can make your own or you can buy a baguette. Or you can skip the bread. Hubby wanted bread, so I hacked up a handful of the basil leaves (not the ones in the list above) and put them in one bowl with some garlic powder and olive oil. (Yes, I know it should have been fresh. I have no idea where the bulb went. Blame the cats.) In another bowl, I put some more garlic powder, a crapton of parsley, and a little rosemary in more olive oil.

Distraction the Third: Mushrooms

I washed them and cut them.

I threw the soaked and drained cashews in the food processor with about a half-cup of water and a half-cup of almond milk (all water would work, too) and about a half-cup of nutritional yeast, some more garlic powder, and the five basil leaves. Now, the basil leaves make the cashew cream very, um, green, obviously. That’s on you if you want to add them or not. I just happened to have a LOT of basil handy.

I added the cashew cream, the other quarter-cup of nutritional yeasts, red pepper, oregano, olive oil, and probably more garlic powder to the red sauce and turned up the heat a little. Then, I split the sauce in two because the husband hates mushrooms. One pot got all the mushrooms and a lid.

Clearly, there’s no mention of pasta except in the title because I assume you can choose your own pasta and follow the boiling instructions. I used fettuccine. You could use penne or linguine or fafalle or I suppose even alphabets if you’re into that sort of thing, though the sauce might be a bit heavy for that.

While the mushrooms cooked down and the other one got creamier, I spooned some of the olive oil and herb mixtures on sliced bread and popped them in the oven. Then I remembered I had a tomato I needed to eat, so I sliced that up and added it to the basil-topped bread while it was in the oven.

I served the pasta with the plain sauce on it in a big bowl and left the mushroom version off in its own bowl, but I’m glad I made the mushroom version, too because yum.

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The Great Testing (or Why Martial Arts is Harder than Grad School)

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(Note, this is not about Joelle Charbonneau’s terrific YA book The Testing, but it’s good, so if you’re into Hunger Games and Divergent and The Giver and that general idea of kids in a world turned dangerous by the downfall of our current social-media-based society, you should go read it.)

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Tomorrow is the first black belt test at my dojo. As one of the earlier students, (I might be the longest-running adult student by a month or two), I’m proud of the school and my Sensei and the other candidates, all of whom reached brown belt before I did, even if just by a few weeks. It’s been almost two and a half years. I’m a slow learner when it comes to this sort of thing, physical things. The guy who showed up a few months after me got to brown belt several months ahead of me. It’s not a race, but he definitely has not only an inherent talent and athleticism I envy, but he lacks a lot of the other life obligations that kept me from practicing as much as he did, too. (I don’t so much envy that. It sounds kind of lonely and I’m glad he has his dojo family for support.)

I’ve never been much for announcing my future tests and hurdles. Not the real ones anyway. I don’t think I told anyone but the husband about the big essay test I had to take in lieu of the thesis (that fell apart due to a lack of quality data) to get my master’s degree. Not until after it was done, I’d passed, and it was over. And the master’s degree was honestly easier, to me, than getting to brown belt — never mind whatever happens tomorrow. (I’m sure my athletic dojo buddy would disagree since reading a stack of criminology theory books, a bazillion articles about restorative justice and the school-to-prison pipeline, social justice, and advanced statistics for the social sciences doesn’t really seem like his thing.)

But that’s the thing. There’s this theory that women who grew up being praised for high achievement that comes from “talent” (as opposed to trying hard or practicing) tend to shy away from things that are challenging, things they might get less-than-perfect scores in. This is held up an excuse or explanation (frankly, I prefer explanation over excuse because I find “excuse” fraught with judgement, but I’m nuts, so…) as to why so many young women opt out of STEM classes and majors. I don’t know how much truth is in that theory. It’s a theory of human behavior, which is held to less rigorous standards than theories in the “hard sciences.” Theories of human behavior are based on aggregated data, but acknowledge exceptions at both ends of their own bell curves, along with the myriad of possibilities they couldn’t or didn’t test. Scientific theories are essentially truths as we know them, tested and retested until the majority of scientists believe it, baring some undiscovered thing that negates the theory.

Certainly, I was one of those little girls who was praised for the things I did well, that I had a natural aptitude for, that I got straight As in. And as a lazy little human, I tended to drift toward the things I was good at. I liked gymnastics until I got tossed out for being too tall being the only one they had to adjust all the equipment for. Being too tall would have held me back from progressing too far, so there’s that. No amount of practice would make me shorter. A lot more practice might have made me a better dancer when my parents signed me up for that. Instead, I felt like a dog on the first day of obedience training. People wanted me to do things, but I couldn’t figure out what. There was yelling and hand gestures and miming and none of it made any sense. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be a dancer. (Most of them are short, too; makes them easier to toss around.) I kind of wanted to do karate, but little girls back then didn’t do that and, to be fair, I’d have probably quit that, too, at the time because I lacked coordination for almost anything but hanging upside down like a bat and dropping.

I did take a lot of science classes in high school, possibly because by then my form of teen rebellion involved sleeping through classes — hard and easy — so I had a reason my grades were average (or slightly above, but usually by accident). If you’re pushing back against the perfectionism of your AP class peers (even if you’re not totally aware that’s what you’re doing), you’re not likely to give a shit if your science and math grades aren’t all 100s. By not attempting perfection, and by mostly sleeping, though, I silenced myself as effectively as the other students did by deciding I was unpopular. I could actually go whole days at school without saying anything, unless I muttered to myself.

Women often find themselves in spaces were they are silenced, either overtly or subversively. And, even if one doesn’t “buy in” consciously, it becomes a learned behavior. In companies, offices, and other workplaces, there’s often a hierarchy of women who are allowed to speak or speak out and there are numerous unwritten rules about what they’re allowed to say and when. Maybe because I slept through that period of school when you’re supposed to learn all these social cues or maybe because I didn’t have enough friends to teach me or maybe because I was rebelling against my mother’s perceived silence, I had a bad habit of breaking all those little taboos. I’d point out illogical strategies and offer suggestions and ask too many questions. And I’d inevitably be deemed least-likely-to-advance-beyond-smallest-cubicle.

Education, further taught me that no one wants my opinions, thoughts, research, or ideas. No one wants facts or data that isn’t supplied by testing companies and the DOE. No one wants creative thinking even if they ask for it constantly. They want all “out-of-the-box” thinking done in a smaller box next to the big one. Even my friends over the years, have implored me to “just shut up,” “don’t say anything,” “be quiet and pretend they’re right,” and “just play along.” And I still suck at it, but the more I tried to be silent, the worse I felt about myself.

What the hell does all that have to do with martial arts?

Well, I took up “karate” at the ripe old age of 35. Most of the women my age who show up there are dropping or or picking up their kids. (Karate’s in quotes because the particular style I ended up finding and liking isn’t just “karate” but that seems to be American shorthand for “martial arts.”) It was something I’d wanted to do and I found a school and a style that I liked. (It’s a blend of Kempo Karate and Gung Fu, so it merges the hard and the soft and it shares lineage with Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do.) I found people who, so far, accept my eccentricities. And my questions get answers. (Still trying to find the will to scream and shout things when punching and kicking. Seems all those years of attempted silence mostly affected the little kid in me who thought screaming was the MOST FUNNEST THING EVER!)

I have some doubts about my ability to do this. (Apparently my “bitchy resting face” isn’t aggressive enough, so I need to work on a “angry beaver face” or something before tomorrow.) I’m the oldest of the candidates by five years. And he’s ten years older than the next oldest. Of the three adults, I’m the lightest. Good for being thrown. Harder to do the throwing. I have to be twice as fast and twice as flexible to overcome the lack of bulk-derived power. Reminding myself to yell when executing moves means I have fewer brain cells left to remember the damn move.

And I’ve developed some sort of performance anxiety that’s related to the public, physical aspects of it. Write thirty pages of essays on criminology in the comfort of your home office? Sure. Stand in front of a group of people and perform complicated hand gestures. AGH! *freezes, cries, scratches arm off* I’ve always hated public speaking. High school drama class, college public speaking class, and eight years of teaching didn’t do anything to assuage that. Weird, but true. Plus, that old pre-school perfectionism has reared its ugly little head. I find if I can’t remember the precise sequence of things, I tend to freeze and do nothing–on tests or when being watched. When practicing, I have no problem with just doing some random thing that seems to work and then acknowledging that I fucked it up.

So, tomorrow:

  • Make angry face
  • Yell
  • DO Something even if it’s wrong
  • Try to do the not wrong thing
  • Breathe

I’m pretty sure there will be crying. Either way the test goes, I’m pretty sure there will be crying. (It’s the easiest way to put a release valve on all this anxiety, plus I might be a little PMSy if my math is right.) There you go. That’s my “scary face.” Weakness, please. Nothing scarier than a screaming, crying, angry woman with ninja weapons.

Also, if the idea of “ninja weapons” excites you, you should read this while I freak out. And I think if I’m still a brown belt on Sunday, I might actually be more okay with it than my Sensei, who seems to think I’m prepared enough to put me in front of the 10th degree Shodai. No pressure. Right?

Epilogue: I passed and I’ve never done anything harder. 

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