Observant: My #OneWord365 for 2020

Observant: My #OneWord365 for 2020

My parents were the first to observe just how unobservant I am.  There’s a reasonable chance that, when my mom said, “Look quick! Did you see the [bear, deer, flying monkeys, velociraptor]?” it was just a feeble attempt to startle my nose out of a good book, so that I would not miss the endless mile markers as they raced backwards through the tempered glass windows of our VW. I imagined the slow respiration of stalwart trees pumping oxygen into the shimmering air as it rose in heat waves from the asphalt. Jarred so abruptly from the pages of other worlds as they took solid form in my head, it’s hard not to notice the sudden nausea brought on from reading in the car. “You’ll get carsick if you keep reading that, you know.” I did notice things, but I may have missed a beady-eyed crow as it flew faster to our destination than vulcanized rubber tires could carry us.

I think I’d had one or two dates with my husband before I noticed whether or not he wore glasses, or sported a mustache. I did notice his intelligence, his kindness, his trustworthiness – those things that matter most, but would hardly count at all in a police line-up. My mother laughed at me, perhaps relieved that I could not mentally reconstruct the tickle of hair against my upper lip. I doubt that I will ever put Sherlock Holmes to shame, but I think I have done, and can do, better than that.

It’s not just that writers need to be able to pick the purloiners of letters from a line-up; writers need to restock the bits and bobs that build imaginary worlds and all the actors in them. They don’t spring up from the void, fully formed; they are lovingly crafted from snippets of conversation; flashes of memory; wiggly things found under rocks; wisps of nightmares. The imagination must be restocked through keen observation and refilled like a muddy trout pond after years of drought and neglect. Laser focus on particular and pragmatic projects can lead to lack of energetic interest and observation when it comes to everything else.

There is another sense of the word observant: that of being diligently attentive to principles. In a sense, that brings me full circle to 2015, when I first discovered this insidious concept of choosing a single word to guide me in the coming year. In “Just ONE Word? You’re Kidding, Right?” I chose the word, “commit.” Last year’s word was, “limitless.” Did I observe time slipping, stealthy, from year to year, while commitment wavered and limits were, more often than not, self-imposed?

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

from Macbeth, William Shakespeare

Corinne Rodrigues writes, in “Is The Word Of The Year Practice Stressful?” that it’s meant to be “a visualization of what you want to be during the year. No pressure. No guilt.”  In my mind’s eye, I am hiding behind winter coats in a closet, clutching a dictionary to my chest, silently rocking back and forth. I want it all, I whisper. I don’t want a word. I want a paragraph. Then another, and another. If we’re talking about aspirational goals, and if I could choose more than one word, I’d keep both of those and add a new one: “observant.”

Life is short, and I want to live it, observant; I want to drink in the details, and wrestle loose from ordinary experience the elusive, recalcitrant words. At the end, I don’t want a tombstone with a handful of clichés carved into stone; some day, I want to fly – a billion dust motes sparkling like snow in sunshine, drifting onto the warm waves of the Atlantic Ocean as laughter rains up from a sandy beach into the endless blue sky. There are no words.

Meanwhile, in the interstices between that inevitable “some day” and the experiences of tomorrow and today, there are all the words.


Culmination of the Quest: Search for the Perfect Hot and Sour Soup

Culmination of the Quest: Search for the Perfect Hot and Sour Soup

Honolulu. 1980. As the plane landed, I felt the first symptoms of a cold. Nooooo, not right now, not at the start of a tropical vacation! I had plans to meet up with a local friend for dinner, when all I really wanted to do was curl up in my hotel room and die. He took me to a Chinese restaurant and ordered us a huge bowl of hot and sour soup. I had not, yet, built up the tolerance to spicy peppers that I have, today, and I was convinced he was trying to kill me. Twenty-four hours later, I realized he’d saved my vacation; my cold was cured.

That’s not normal. The normal progression of a cold is a steady, predictable building from scratchy throat and stuffy nose to full blown misery lasting 3-7 days, and in my case, usually climaxing with the double-whammy of bronchitis and a ten-day course of antibiotics. That’s normal. This was about six hours of misery knocked flat on it’s backside by a bowl of hot and sour soup. I felt terrific, the next day.

In hindsight, the soup itself had been quite tasty. Sure, my tastebuds were traumatized and blistered, but the flavor was more complex than my initial “burns the lips off a chicken” reaction. I set out on a quest to find the perfect hot and sour soup on the mainland. I came close, at a little restaurant in Canton, OH. But by then, I was living in Oklahoma. I don’t recall the name of the restaurant, and I think the place closed, years ago. Nothing, since then, has even come close.

My main complaint is that all restaurant hot and sour soup seems to have been “dumbed down for the tourists.” I get it; I go to Thai restaurants and order “4.5” on a spicy scale of 1-5. That’s my coded message to the cook: “I’m serious about loving hot and spicy things, but I’m not native Thai, please don’t kill me.” People talk a good fight, but when push comes to shove, a few drops of Tabasco Sauce pack too much heat for most people. I’ve tried ghost pepper, and I draw the line far, far down the Scoville Scale. Past a certain point, it’s just a contest to see who’s the dumbest masochist on the planet. Raw Serrano heat is my happy place – somewhere high above jalapeño, but well below Carolina Reaper. Restaurant hot and sour is more mild than a third of a jalapeño, with the ribs and seeds removed. But that’s not the biggest problem with it; the biggest problem is the cornstarch. Restaurant hot and sour soup is thick.

I wondered if my memory were failing me, and if the soup I fell in love with, in Honolulu, wasn’t authentic hot and sour soup at all.

One Last Ditch Effort

So it’s been nearly 40 years, and I was about ready to give up the quest. In one last act of desperation, I started searching for things like “hot and sour soup that’s not full of cornstarch” and “hot and sour soup that’s actually HOT” and “ffs can’t anyone make a decent hot and sour” and “is hot and sour actually SUPPOSED to be like this?” at which point I found, “The Food Lab: This is How Hot and Sour Soup Should Taste,” by J. KENJI LÓPEZ-ALT. When I read the following passages, I knew I had to give this a try before giving up for good:

Here’s the fact: Most restaurant hot and sour soup stinks. …

In certain Chinese traditions, hot and sour soup is thickened with blood from either a chicken or a pig. Not only is blood not easy to come by in the US, it’s also not high on most folks’ lists of “things I love to eat,” including mine. Instead, hot and sour soup in the U.S. is more often than not thickened with cornstarch.

Some writers and eaters—probably those that have been scarred by years of eating the steam-table glop—insist on using no thickener at all. I personally like to use just a hair—enough to add some body to the soup and help the solid elements stay suspended, but not so much that it becomes mouth-coatingly slick.


First, I went to Hong Kong Market. It’s my new favorite grocery store, but it’s not walking distance like my local Kroger’s and I’d never been there before. Armed with a shopping list the length of my arm, full of things I couldn’t properly pronounce and had never heard of, I started wandering the aisles, just to get my bearings. I quickly found the chicken feet.

You can’t be squeamish if you’re going to cook chicken feet. They look a little too much like a cross between lizard and four-fingered, elegant, old-lady human hands. The recipe also calls for “chicken carcass.” Isn’t that just…whole chicken? Apparently not. One thing you can easily find at the Asian market that you won’t likely find in a U.S. grocery chain is random chicken parts, hacked to bits for stock. I was relieved, because I wasn’t looking forward to this part of the instructions:

Hack your chicken carcasses to bits before making stock. Not only will it make you feel like a medieval viking-style badass, but it’ll also make your broth come together much faster. The more finely you chop the bones, the more surface area they have, and the more channels for proteins, minerals, and other goodies to get extracted into the broth.

Not that I don’t relish the idea of being a medieval viking-style badass, whatever that is, but I have been voted “Most Likely to Hack Her Own Hand Off with a Meat Cleaver.” I have sliced and stabbed myself and even needed stitches, that’s how poor my knife skills are. I’m sure my fingers in there would add a certain “richness” to the broth.

I also found a lovely pork tenderloin, lean and on sale. Jinhua ham? Nope. That was the one substitution I ended up resorting to, using the prosciutto, as recommended in the recipe.

In other news, I know, now, where to find duck tongues, pork arseholes, chicken “testides,” and tripe. I really need a recipe for duck tongues; those look interesting. I think chickens’ “testides” are bigger than their brains.

During my search for the ham, I ran into two very cheerful, helpful, and determined staff members who were easily enlisted in my quest. Laura was particularly kind and at least as doggedly determined to succeed in my grocery scavenger hunt as I was. Together, and with help from another customer, we located day lilies next to the black fungus. So many types of black fungus. We found extra firm tofu, hidden amongst the silken, soft, medium, and firm varieties. With fifty different types of sesame oil, we didn’t find toasted sesame oil. When I got home, armed with sesame seeds for toasting, I found out that the sesame oil I already had at home was toasted!

After the gingerbread fiasco, I was ready for a win. I decided to make the broth today, and finish the soup on Saturday. I blanched the chicken carcass and feet, then put them into my slow-cooker, along with the prosciutto, ginger, onion, scallions, and smashed garlic.  I threw about two handfuls of dried red chili peppers in there for good measure.

After simmering all those ingredients for hours, the whole house smells heavenly! I’ve strained and put aside the broth, in the refrigerator, for Saturday’s lunch, and will write later this weekend to let you know if the quest has truly been completed, or if I’ve just found a tasty, but very different, soup to enjoy. Either way, I have no doubt it will be delicious.

Soup’s On!

Oh, my sweet Lord, that’s good. I couldn’t wait till Saturday – I swiped two cups’ worth of broth to experiment on before subjecting my husband to the finished hot and sour soup this Saturday. My first attempt is not flaming-surface-of-the-sun hot, like I remember that first bowl being, something that’s bound to bring a sigh of relief to my husband’s lips. It may not cure the common cold, but it would sure bring some comfort to the sick.  it’s as close to “the perfect hot and sour soup” as I’ve been able to find in 40 years. I intend to practice this until I can whip up a batch of it in my sleep, it’s that good.  What more can I say? My long quest has finally come to an end, I’ve found a new grocery store to love, and all that’s left is to perfect my execution of the recipe.

Next Time, I Buy a Pre-Fab House!

Next Time, I Buy a Pre-Fab House!

Gingerbread House, that is. Walking through H.E.B. this afternoon on a quest for pasteurized egg whites with which to make royal icing “cement” for my gingerbread house, my heart sank. There, at the front of the store – for $14 and change – a giant wall of boxed “make your own” gingerbread house kits. I should have thrown in the towel, then and there, and bought one of those kits. But I’m stubborn. If you’re feeling stubborn, bored, or just craving frustration this holiday season, you can give it a go – here is the recipe and template I used: Gingerbread House Recipe (Recipe & Template)

Apparently, there are a lot of us out here who are determined to make our own gingerbread houses, villages, office complexes, whatever, from scratch. Some businesses even use it as a team-building activity! Just look at these lovely gingerbread houses and scenes from the Dallas/Fort Worth Marriott Hotel & Golf Club at Champions Circle:

I remember doing this, at work, years ago – a chef provided all the walls and roof slabs, we had only to glue them together with royal icing and decorate them. This gave me a false sense of how easy it was. The first time I tried it on my own, it turned out okay, but I mixed up the walls and the roof slabs and had skylights instead of windows. That may be where I went right, last time. The walls are smaller and lighter, less likely to fall in on the interior. But it looked more modern than the traditional gingerbread chalet – it had more of a Frank Lloyd Wright thing going on.

And just try finding meringue powder, this time of year! Even Amazon won’t ship till after Christmas. Someone suggested I try Hobby Lobby, and that’s when I discovered you can just use egg whites, instead. I could have just used egg whites from the half-dozen eggs in my refrigerator, because we all know that royal icing is inedible, and nobody eats the house till it’s gone bad, anyway. The salmonella risk was infinitesimal. But no, at 2:30 this afternoon, I was still determined to do it “right,” and “right” meant food safety and pasteurized egg whites. My next-door neighbor, Kroger’s, didn’t have them. H.E.B., thank goodness, did. I was so determined, at that point, I’d have driven to San Antonio for the damned things.

I’m not sure why I still felt determined to do this at all, let alone “right.” Already, I’d stayed up till midnight re-cutting and baking a second set of walls. Uneaten gingerbread is one thing; inedible is something else, entirely. The first set was more like a thin, toasted, ginger cracker that had lost what little flavor it started with, while languishing in the oven. In hindsight, those tasteless ginger crackers might have been lighter, stronger, and better for construction. But it was also strangely lopsided. Fortunately, I’d made a double batch of gingerbread dough. Hours later, I had two large slabs for the roof, and these lovely, windowed walls:

The second batch (above) turned out edible, but in the end, unsuitable for construction. Those deep furrows give the walls character, I think; they’re the result of rolling out the dough between sheets of parchment paper. But they also represent weak points. You can either have a strong house that even the wolf at the door won’t eat, or a yummy house that might keep the wolf too full and too busy to eat you. Only professional chefs and super talented people should attempt to make a gingerbread house from scratch, unless they have a large amount of liquor on hand and a wicked sense of humor. Mine ended up looking like a small cathedral that had burned down, with fire-retardant foam still clinging to the walls. Don’t believe me?

The only thing that turned out right was the stained glass windows and they could have been better. What I mean is that they could have tasted better, after the whole roof caved in and took the rest of the structure with it. If ever I do this again (and that’s unlikely), I might try creating stained glass designs with colored sugar instead of hard candies. Like I said, no one’s going to eat them, anyway. I would have liked to put a flashlight or LED candle inside, turn down the lights, and watch it the soft, colorful glow through those windows.

At least the non-structurally sound gingerbread was tasty enough to repurpose as “dessert” over the next week or so. Paired with tea or milk, it’s a bit of a consolation prize.

After throwing in the towel and laughing off my stubborn, but blessedly brief, urge to start all over again, I consoled myself with lamb pan-seared with olive oil, crushed garlic cloves, parsley, rosemary, and sea salt; wilted arugula and spinach; and crisp, cold tomatoes. I can cook, I just don’t have much of a future as a baker. 

This reminds me of one of my favorite memes: “Women belong in the kitchen. Men belong in the kitchen. Everyone belongs in the kitchen; kitchen has FOOD.”

Stay tuned: The next culinary “experiment” is in the works, and already smells more promising than the gingerbread house.

Southern Sweet Tea or Sugar Coma Lollipops?

Southern Sweet Tea or Sugar Coma Lollipops?

Can’t Complain

Don’t get me wrong: I love Popeye’s Chicken. I don’t love it when my neighborhood Popeyes restaurant gets my drive-thru order wrong, which they do about 70% of the time. It’s rarely so wrong it’s worth calling to complain or driving back to the store while the rest of the meal gets cold, but it’s not a great customer experience.

It was fairly late when I pulled up to the drive-thru. Definitely not rush hour.  I ordered a three-piece combo with unsweet tea. You have to say “unsweet” down here in the south, and clearly enunciate the “UN” – because “sweet tea” is the regional drink (debatably, it’s “Coke-Cola” or Southern Comfort, but nowhere else in the world do you have to say “Iced tea, no sugar!”) I should have tasted the tea the second they handed it to me, but the order-taker had confirmed over the speaker: “UN-sweet?” I took his understanding on faith.

The chicken was good, but not especially hot or flavorful. The corn overcooked; a bit chewy. And the “unsweet” tea – well, I’m not sure they could’ve dissolved another spoonful of sugar in it. Granted, southern sweet tea probably always tastes like that, and connoisseurs of the stuff can’t imagine drinking it any other way. Expecting unsweet tea, though, and getting a mouthful of slightly tea-flavored sugar water was a shock.

Popeyes Pops!

I wondered if I could make candy out of my iced tea. My husband suggested I use the lollipop molds I got last spring. Research suggests that a normal sized lollipop would contain about two or three teaspoons of sugar. I wondered what the yield would be from a single 20-oz Popeyes sweet tea.

I dumped the tea, ice and all, into a small sauce pot and turned the heat on high.

I let it boil while I ate my dinner. In the name of science, I added nothing at all to the sweet tea in the pot. After a while, it came to a boil and started to darken, slightly.

I am no expert at candy-making. I did not let it boil much past the soft ball stage, and I did not bother using a candy thermometer. I just let it go until I could rake the spatula across the bottom of the pot and see the thick, sugary syrup slowly fill in the gap.

I poured it into the lollipop molds, and let it cool. (I hastened things along with about 10 minutes in the freezer, so that I could more easily pull the pops out of the silicone mold:

The only thing that surprised me was the yield; I’d expected only about three or four lollipops. My husband guessed four. It might have been as low as four or five, had I let the solution boil a minute or two longer. But that’s still about one tablespoon of sugar per ounce of tea, if we don’t count melting ice.

The lollipops weren’t great, but they weren’t terrible, either. They were reminiscent of molasses. I’d reach for one of those before I’d reach for a full glass of southern sweet tea.

Sorry, Popeyes – it’s not you, it’s me. I don’t drink soda pop, either. But next time someone says “unsweet,” please make sure it’s from the pot that says, “Damned Yankees.”


Teach Me to Fish

Teach Me to Fish

Just Give Me a Logical Reason!

One of my first jobs out of college was to code selection statements that would automate the printing of just a few pages or sections of much larger reports to distribute to individual recipients. This involved using Boolean search operators, much like what you might use in Google, Bing, or Duck Duck Go today, to define specific text located in precise locations on the printed page.

For some strange reason, I enjoyed this. I enjoyed finding needles in haystacks, and made it a personal challenge to sift through as little hay as possible in order to find the needles with gold tips and hooked ends. At one point, I had a complex report defined in a single selection statement that probably ran on for five or six lines. I had parenthetically grouped and nested sets of search criteria and operators – it was a lengthy but precise statement of exactly what I wanted to include in the report, and I was inordinately proud of it. But it didn’t run. It didn’t give any error messages, either. It simply produced nothing.

Where Did That Quote Come From?

“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

If you thought this was a Biblical proverb, you’d be in good company, but incorrect. The fishing allegory is most likely attributable to Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie,  the daughter of the prominent writer William Makepeace Thackeray. The same general idea was expressed by the 12th-century philosopher Maimonides, who wrote about eight degrees in the duty of charity. See Quote Investigator for more details and source citations.


The Occasional Oops!

If you are one of the founding members, you probably got an email, yesterday, with a now-broken link. One or two of you hit that link before I deleted it (or, technically, changed it without benefit of a redirect). That’s because I forgot the cardinal rule: No post may be published before its time!

For my readers who don’t blog, this means:

  • Write the post.
  • Give the post a catchy title and a featured image. If you wonder why some of the featured images here don’t exactly go with the post, it’s because I prefer to create my own. That way, I know I’m not violating anyone else’s copyright. Occasionally, I may use others’ images if they are clearly marked with a Creative Commons license or I have written permission from the photographer or artist.
  • Check that the title and permalink (e.g., the part that says “teach-me-to-fish” right now, in your browser address bar) go together.
  • Choose a Category for the post. Categories are what you see in the menu bar and its subsections.
  • Add a few tags to help people find the post. Tags are like index entries. You can just use the Search function, but tags might give you more conceptual information that isn’t explicitly part of the text within a post.
  • Craft an Excerpt. That’s the little descriptive blurb you see in search engine results and on the front page of this site. If there is no Excerpt, WordPress is set to use the first few words of the post in place of one. Unless you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole to arrive here, you know that the first few words of any post here may not provide the best description of what to expect.
  • Preview the thing to ensure that formatting is correct.

I forgot a step or two, in my haste to respond to yesterday’s poetry challenge from Raven Darkly. I did not mean to drop you into a black hole, but some random numbered permalink would not do, and I decided a dragon was a better Shadowbird than a white heron.


Update on Theme Customization

As mentioned in my first post, I’m using Elegant Themes‘ Divi and the Divi Builder, which is a brand new experience offering many new challenges. As predicted, I broke the blog on Wednesday, but was traveling. I could not fix it and threw caution to the wind: I asked for help.

Back in 2012, I won a Lifetime Membership to Elegant Themes. I loved their cleanly coded, easy to use, easy to customize themes. I moved away from those in 2016, mainly because they appeared to be phasing out all the themes I loved and going all in on their theme and builder combination they called, “Divi,” which I had tried and, frankly, hated. I paid for a different premium theme, called “Fullby,” which I loved, but chose to move away from for two reasons: The developer was not responsive to support requests, and I could see that it was not likely to keep up with the inevitable changes to WordPress–namely, the dreaded Gutenberg block editor. Divi was before its time. I fought that block editor as long as I could, while some raved about how wonderful it was and others wrote plug-ins to disable it and restore lost features of a bygone era. Mainly, I fought it because it did not allow for the easy fine-tuning of alignment between text and graphics. I was ready to hand-code each post in HTML if I had to, just to get those elements to align.

And then I thought, “Fine, I have a Lifetime membership to Elegant Themes, and it seems a shame to waste it. Let’s give Divi another go. I have vacation, plenty of time to waste. I can do this.”

I am grudgingly ready to admit that Divi and I are starting, mostly, to get along. I still half expect it to eat my posts (the main reason I despised it, early on, was that I’d tried it – then switched to a different theme – then switched back, and all my posts were gone).

But this weekend, I broke my blog. I entered a plea for help in Elegant Themes’ chat support. And waited. Nothing happened. I went to bed. In the morning, I had a lovely email from Abd, asking me to enable the support and admin features of Divi. At first I balked: Give someone else admin privileges on my blog? I don’t think so

Then, “Why not? What are they going to do, delete it?” There was nothing here to delete. There are no members but me, and admin me has access to pretty much nothing. So I enabled Support and Admin privileges. Next thing I know, Abd and Vojin from Elegant Themes had gone to work fixing my world.

At first, I thought I broke my blog, but the real problem was not my messing around in the style.css file, trying to change the color of elements not accessible via the Customizer. The real problem was another plug-in.

Instead of the usual, “It’s some crappy plug-in you’re using. Disable them all, then re-enable one at a time to figure it out on your own,” they told me what was wrong and they wrote some code in the Divi theme to work around it. I didn’t have to disable the crappy plug-in. Sweeet!

Then, I asked Vojin how to change the color of the elements I was trying to change. He asked me what color I wanted. I explained that I’d rather understand what I needed to do–that I wanted him to teach me how to fish, not throw me a mackerel and feed me for a day. He got it, and did both, providing a little snippet of .css code to do what I’d wanted.

So now I am back to being a huge fan of Elegant Themes–yes, and Divi–because of their expert and kind support staff. It usually does come down to the people, doesn’t it? I’m willing to put up with a little technical annoyance if the support staff goes above and beyond. It’s why I’ve been a T-Mobile customer since back before their coverage was better than AT&T’s, and why I’ve stayed with them for nearly a decade. And now it’s why I recommend Elegant Themes’ Lifetime Membership, as well.

Oh, and the more I work with Divi, the less “technical annoyance” I’m encountering. It’s just a very different way of working. And now I know that if I get stuck, I am not stuck without the help of some very kind and knowledgeable people.

Craving Answers

The “real systems engineers” and the “real programmers” (I did not consider myself one, at the time) reviewed my logic and syntax and could find no flaws in it. “Just break it down into two or three separate statements,” they suggested.

“Why?” I asked, hoping to understand and learn.

They shrugged. “Because what you’re doing isn’t working? Because if you simplify it, it might?” They really couldn’t – or wouldn’t – give me the logical answer I craved, so I chafed at the idea, but finally relented as there didn’t seem to be any other alternative.

It worked, but I was unsatisfied. I was still telling this story, ten years later, as an example of unsatisfied thirst for knowledge. Until one day, a man overheard me and started laughing as he began to stroll over to where I stood with a few colleagues. “I’ll bet I know what the problem was,” he said.

“Oh?” I was skeptical, but after ten years, I really hoped that he did.

“I used to work for IBM,” he said, asking if I knew whether the mainframe computer’s operating system was a particular version. I wasn’t sure, but it seemed likely. “That operating system only supported nine levels of nested parentheses. I’ll bet you used more than that.”

I could’ve kissed a stranger, that day. “I’m sure I did,” I said. “Thank you for finally giving me a straight answer that makes sense.”

Remember that when children, friends, or colleagues ask, “Why?” it may be easier, and certainly kinder, in the long run, to teach them than to keep doing a thing for them, or worse – ignoring them. I am a big believer in learning to fish, rather than simply hoping for someone to share their catch, and I have appreciated those who took the time to teach me.