Friday, June 17, 2011

Hit the Road, Jack (and John, and Mara)

This is just a quick post to bid my faithful readers (all ten of them) adieu before we head to California.  One week from tomorrow John will be hoofing his way through the mountains somewhere between Squaw Valley and Auburn (assuming we survive two more flights with Jack between now and then; I bought Jack his very own "smart phone" toy for the plane.  It has fake apps, people - I'm not messing around).  We should be able to follow John's progress via Facebook, so hopefully you'll have some idea of where he's at throughout the race.  In the meantime, please wish him luck and pray he has a good race.  We'll all be paying for it if he doesn't.

I'm not sure what computer access will be like this week, so I may not update the blog until I return.  But you can expect a big fat Western States 100 posting when I do.  John and I are also very excited to spend three nights in Squaw Valley sans Jack.  I was really looking forward to lounging by the pool, but since the pityriasis rosea is STILL HERE (it's been six weeks!) I'm not sure it's going to happen.  Here's hoping it looks slightly less hideous by then.

Alright, better get packing while the child is sleeping.  More later!  Western States here we come!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Weekly Inspiration: The Muse

Perhaps it's a little bit odd to do an inspiration post on inspiration itself, but lately I've been thinking a lot about the concept of "the muse."

Muse auf Pegasus by Odilon Redon

In her recent blog post about fitting into one publishing category, author Edie Claire described her muse as a woman, "Betty the Bumblehead," who can't seem to lead the author into one particular genre.  I love the notion of the muse as trickster, a source of inspiration, but not necessarily the inspiration we think we're looking for.  My current muse, if she does in fact exist, is an elusive little sprite who only makes an appearance about five minutes before Jack decides to wake up from his nap (they're clearly in cahoots).  She's misguided at times, convincing me an idea is brilliant, then rudely informing me that the idea is, in fact, terrible.  She appears when least expected, and often when least needed.  And of course, she has been known to vanish when I need her most. 

I search for inspiration every day, on design blogs, author blogs, in books, magazines, movies, the people I know and the places I see.  Some days, I find more inspiration than I know what to do with, and on others, I have to force myself to work on my novel, or even to write in this blog.  My muse is sensitive - she has been known to go into hiding for weeks when I receive a particularly painful rejection - and she is easily discouraged, not a particularly flattering trait for a muse to possess.

But for some reason, I continue to have faith in my muse.  Hopefully one day she will reveal the secret to my success.  For right now, since she is nowhere to be found, it looks like I'm going to have to be the one to force myself into the basement to work.

Then again, maybe she'll decide to make an appearance once I start.  That's the thing about my muse - you never know when she's going to show up.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Western States 100: Why I Seem to be More Nervous Than John

As many of you know, John is less than two weeks away from his third annual 100-mile race, the Western States 100.  John has been trying to get into Western States for several years now, and finally, thanks to his sponsor, he has secured a spot amongst the 415 runners competing in the 2011 event.  Here's a little description from the website:

"The Run is conducted along the Western States Trail starting at Squaw Valley, California, and ending in Auburn, California, a total of 100 miles. The trail ascends from the Squaw Valley floor (elevation 6,200 feet) to Emigrant Pass (elevation 8,750 feet), a climb of 2,550 vertical feet in the first 4½ miles. From the pass, following the original trails used by the gold and silver miners of the 1850’s, runners travel west, climbing another 15,540 feet and descending 22,970 feet before reaching Auburn.
Most of the trail passes through remote and rugged territory, accessible only to hikers, horses and helicopters."

Sounds like your kind of fun on a Saturday morning, doesn't it?

John's first 100-miler was three years ago in Vermont.  As I discussed in a previous post, I crewed the race (at 17 weeks pregnant), along with John's brother, Mike.  There were parts of the race where I was crewing alone, trying to make my way through the mountains on tiny dirt roads in the middle of the night.  It was incredibly stressful, feeling completely responsible for John's upkeep and well-being.  This year, I won't be alone.  I will have our good friends Mike and Alexis and Nathan and Jackie along for the ride, and Mike and Nathan will be running 20 miles each with John.  I am responsible for the last two miles.  I think I can handle that.

John and Mike post-training race (aka, a marathon).

And yet.  Yesterday, Mike, John, and I sat down to discuss John's plan for the race.  I think I sort of annoyed Mike and John, who are both ultra athletes and consider this sort of thing to be "normal."  But even now, after several years of this nonsense, I still don't consider it normal.  When John told me his plan to spend two minutes at each aid station, I sort of freaked out.  In Vermont, John spent 10-15 minutes at each aid station, eating grilled cheese sandwiches while I refilled water bottles and checked his vital signs.  Two minutes is nothing.  It's the amount of time it takes me to apply mascara.  To one eye.  It's the amount of time it takes me to change a diaper.  How on earth am I going to take care of John in two minutes!  I'm not a Nascar pit crew for God's sake!  AAAAHHHH!

Okay, so perhaps I over-reacted.  Perhaps I was a little too focused on things like backup plans in the case of serious injury (you know, since most of the trail isn't accessible by motor vehicle), instead of things like how many baby food squishers John is planning on consuming at mile 73.  I know John is prepared for this race; I know that he knows his body inside and out; I know that Mike and Nathan are serious athletes who will take care of John for the hours where I won't see him.

But perhaps the most comforting thought of all?  I know that I'll have the wives of two more ultra athletes with me, ready to commiserate about the ridiculousness of our husbands' "hobbies" and the complete and total non-normalcy of the whole endeavor, for at least nineteen crazy hours. 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Weekly Inspiration: Coconut Cake at the Majestic

Considering how much John and I love food, and desserts in particular, I don't write about it nearly enough on this blog.  For some reason, I have been craving a slice of coconut cake from The Majestic recently.  Actually, the reason is pretty obvious: it's the most heavenly slice of cake on planet earth.

Photo by Chris Leaman
In fact, it may be my favorite cake of all time, which is quite a feat, especially considering I don't even like coconut that much.  But there's just something about those three coconut milk-infused cake layers separated by a fluffy vanilla-coconut whipped cream concoction, topped with cream cheese frosting and a sprinkle of coconut shavings and served with a side of creme anglaise.  The cake is massive - well worth the $8.50 - and definitely enough for two people (even John and me, and that's saying something).  I have had it for my birthday cake for the past two years and intend to continue the tradition!

Here is the (rather complicated) recipe, courtesy of The Washingtonian:

Makes one nine-inch, three-layer cake.

Make the filling:

2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1¼ cups whipping cream
½ cup sugar
4 ounces unsalted butter
2¼ cups sweetened flaked coconut
¼ cup sour cream

Stir the cornstarch, water, and vanilla in a small bowl to dissolve the cornstarch. In a heavy saucepan set over medium-high heat, bring the cream, sugar, and butter to a boil. Add the cornstarch mixture and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in coconut.
Cool the mixture completely. Mix in sour cream, cover, and refrigerate overnight.

Make the cake:

3½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the pans
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ tsp salt
2¼ cups sugar
12 ounces unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing the pans
5 large eggs
11⁄3 cups whipping cream
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
½ cup coconut milk

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter and flour 3 9-inch round cake pans.

In a large bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt until blended. In a stand mixer, beat the sugar and butter until blended. Add the eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the cream and vanilla, then the coconut milk. Stir the flour mixture into the butter mixture. Divide the batter equally among the 3 pans. Bake until a tester (such as a knife or skewer) inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Let cool.

Make the frosting:

2 8-ounce packages cream cheese, at room temperature
4 ounces unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups confectioner’s sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups sweetened flaked coconut, toasted

In a stand mixer, beat the cream cheese and butter to blend. Beat in the confectioner’s sugar and vanilla extract. Fold in the toasted coconut.

Assemble the cake:

2 cups sweetened flaked coconut, toasted
½ 13½-ounce can coconut milk mixed with 2 cups simple syrup

Place 1 cake round on a plate. Brush with the coconut-milk mixture, then top with half of the filling. Place a second cake layer atop the filling, brush with the coconut milk/syrup, and top with the remaining filling. Place the third cake layer atop the filling and spread frosting over the top and sides of the cake. Pat the toasted coconut on the top and sides of the cake, pressing gently so it sticks. Cover and refrigerate.

Let the cake stand 3 hours at room temperature before serving.

Garnish the plate with toasted coconut and, if desired, crème anglaise.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A Quick Demonstration: How to Clean Your Toddler

As mentioned yesterday, I'm still working out a few kinks in this little adventure called Motherhood.  One thing I have down to a science, however, is cleaning Jack up post-meal.  It's not always pretty, but within a few minutes, I have a child clean enough to be allowed near upholstered furniture.  I thought a little tutorial might be of use for any future parents out there (and also for John, who still hasn't mastered the process).


Here we have Exhibit A.  Jack is covered in a lovely combination of mango-spinach puree and almond butter with roasted flax seeds, which I'd smeared on a whole wheat toaster waffle. Somehow the puree has made it into his eyebrows, and the almond butter (which is filled with little flecks of what I can only assume is almond skin) has somehow made its way into every crevice on Jack's arms and hands.

I call this a three-paper towel meal, because, as you might have guessed from the name, it requires three paper towels to adequately handle the aftermath.  The three towels, which should be separated from each other, are thoroughly doused with warm water and then wrung out.  Don't worry if they stick together - one good shake and they'll separate.  Whenever I ask John to procure the paper towels, he takes one towel, folds it twice, gets it soaking wet in the middle, and then hands it to me.  That is an example of how NOT to do things.  (No offense, honey.)

Next, take the first paper towel and grab hold of the nearest baby appendage (in this case, Jack's left hand).  Clean it thoroughly with the towel, making sure to get into all the aforementioned baby crevices.  As soon as you have cleaned this hand, quickly remove the tray with your other hand, before the child has a chance to re-slime the clean hand, and the bib, which is also covered in filth at this point.  In one deft move, grab a hold of the remaining dirty hand, and repeat with the second paper towel.  Finally, use the third towel on the child's face (assuming you can find it under all the slime).


And here we have Exhibit B.  Jack is clean and happy, reading the new puppy book I bought him this morning after he got a hold of one of my "grown up" books about greyhounds.

Footnotes: It's worth noting that I have a clear plastic "splat mat" under Jack's highchair to protect John's Afghan rug (affectionately known in our house as "Neck of the Sheep" because - you guessed it! - it's made from wool from the neck of the sheep; we have a real knack for naming things, eh?).  I also keep Jack's tray shoved up against his ever-growing belly, so it's harder for him to drop things onto the seat.  The tray, along with the sippy cup and the bib, goes straight to the sink for a thorough washing.

Happy baby cleaning!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Nursery Ryhmes: Not Just For Children

Before Jack was born, I had a lot of fears about motherhood, many of them unfounded.  These included what pregnancy would do to my body (not much, fortunately), if I'd really think my baby was cute just because he was mine (this is one of those baby cliches that is actually true), if I would be able to give up my freedom after so many years of coming and going as I pleased (still working on that one).  But my biggest fear, and one that was probably based on legitimate concerns, was whether or not I'd have the patience to be a good mother. 

The short answer is: yes.  Jack and I are both still alive and well, so apparently I'm doing okay.
But the long answer isn't quite that simple.

As John will attest, I have a short fuse.  Oh sure, I may come across as sweet and even-tempered and absolutely lovely to be around most of the time (sarcasm intended), but in reality I can be a little ... well ... let's just say "testy."  I tend to lose patience over the smallest, least significant things: missing puzzle pieces, a messy house, torn pages in a book, Jack's insistence on playing with anything in the house that is quite clearly NOT a toy.  But what really irks me, what really chaps my proverbial hide, is when Jack flops around like a fish out of water on the changing table, especially when I'm trying to change a diaper filled with the aftermath of the large quantities of fruit and spinach John has fed Jack the day before.  I feel like a cowboy trying to wrestle a steer to the ground, desperately clinging to Jack's legs with one hand while I try to wield a baby wipe with the other.
Would it really be so bad if I hogtied Jack?  Just for a few minutes?  No?

All the while Jack is happily chatting about his "pee pee" (thanks goes once again to Daddy for that one) and waving his surprisingly heavy legs around like an upturned insect.  The only thing that manages to calm both myself and Jack down in such manic moments?

The Itsy Bitsy Spider.

I don't know why that song in particular is the most effective (I suspect it has to do with the fact that it requires hand movements), but even when it fails to quell Jack's flopping, it somehow eases my frayed nerves and reduces my blood pressure from the boiling point to a gentle simmer in a matter of seconds.  My temper under control, I find myself able to finish the task at hand, despite the fact that my left arm has been reduced to a quivering noodle and my brow is beaded with sweat.

Nursery rhymes, as it turns out, aren't just for children.  When Jack wakes up crying from an aching molar or what I can only assume is a nightmare about withheld cookies or a cruel mother who won't allow her child to play with an antique Tibetan prayer bowl, I find we are both soothed by my pitchy and nasal rendition of "Run for the Roses" by Dan Fogelberg.

For some people, counting to ten might be helpful.  Others find their mental happy place and achieve a Zen-like tranquility I may never experience.  But as long as I've got nursery rhymes in my arsenal, I think Jack and I might survive to see another day. 

If not, there's always a nice sturdy rope out back.
Just kidding! 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Weekly Inspiration: Or a Lack Thereof

Hello all.  This is the first week in a long time where I honestly couldn't come up with anything inspiring to write about.  In fact, I couldn't really come up with much to write about period, and I think it's because I'm a little burnt out at the moment.  John was gone for a week, as I mentioned, and it wasn't until yesterday that I got my first break from Jackaroo in eight days.  I REALLY needed it.  I love Jack more than anything, but he's exhausting!

Jack models the fab hat Sarah got me in Mongolia and demonstrates his new skill: opening doors.

Now that I've had some time to clear my head (amazing what five hours - a hair appointment and a movie - can do for one's mental state), I think I can blame my lack of inspiration on several things, including rarely leaving the house (or the presence of a toddler) in over a week; being in a constant state of itch for four weeks (I was seriously considering a post on pityriasis rosea, because it has been such a major presence in my life for over a month now, but then I realized that probably wouldn't make for very pleasant reading); and feeling depressed about the state of my novel.  I got another rejection from one of the three agents with my novel, and while she didn't say anything negative (aside from the fact that she couldn't envision anyone she could sell it to), it wasn't a particularly helpful rejection.  I'm starting to realize that very few of them are.  The worst part is, I don't know if that's because the agents don't have the time to tell me what's wrong with my novel, or if there really isn't anything in particular wrong with it!  The only slightly uplifting news is that I am really excited about my new Young Adult book (thanks to Sarah and Erin for helping me brainstorm all last week), but I haven't had much time to work on it so far.  I also got a request for my old novel, How the Other Half Lives, from one of the agents who rejected The Book Collector, so I'm trying to revise it in the next couple of weeks.  I wrote it in 2007, so a few things are somewhat dated.  Plus I've learned a few things over the past couple of years, and I'm trying to apply those to this novel.  It's a long shot, but it's something.

Meanwhile, John's training weekend went really well.  His coach thinks he could be an "elite" runner and break 19 hours at Western States.  I worry about John pushing himself too hard and blowing up part-way through the run, but he obviously knows his body and its limits very well, so I'm trusting him to follow his instincts.  Of course, his instincts led him into poison oak, a cracked rib, and a bear last week, so maybe I'm giving him more credit than he deserves...
Sarah is home from Mongolia (yay!) and had her own fun adventures to relay.  I'm anxiously awaiting her photographs, because the few she sent me while she was away were amazing.  I'll try to post some of them here when they're ready. 

A trip to River Farm seems like the perfect excuse to break out Jack's overalls!
One of the few inspiring things I DID see last week was River Farm, which is a gorgeous public farm between Old Town and Mount Vernon off of GW Parkway.  I can't believe I've never been before (a friend has been telling me about it for a while but I just never got my butt down there).  Jack really loved running around and exploring, and we had a lovely shady spot where we could sit and watch the kids.  We will definitely be back.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Foreign Service Timeline - Updated

I found my husband hacking into my blog and changing my post re: his Foreign Service Timeline, since it wasn't up to date.

So, courtesy of my husband:

FSOT October 7, 2010
FSOT Results October 28, 2010
PNQ Submitted November 17, 2010
QEP Results January 24, 2011
FSOA March 18, 2011 @ Annex 44 (5.75 Political)
Security Clearance granted April 13, 2011
Medical Clearance May 3, 2011
Final Suitability Review May 10, 2011
Deferred Register until November 1, 2011
Offer to join the 165th A-100 December 12, 2011

He has been warned never to break into my blog again.  I guess that's what I get for having the same password for everything...