Sunday, January 17, 2021

Wish for a crust of bread, be handed a banquet

I'm writing a thing, and it took a turn I didn't expect. (Several, actually.) First, it wanted to be a short story. Then, it kept going, and picked up two additional viewpoint characters. I thought I finally had a sequel on my hands, but it turned out I had written the first three chapters of a novel, and at least one needs rewriting to a different point of view. 

F*ck It, Drive On, as they say. I kept writing. Well, the problem with a military POV is that the guy in question is going to go off and do military things, independently of the rest of the cast (though they will matter to the plot later.) And those military things will include assaulting a terrorist compound. 

I'm not military. I will never claim to have been such. What's a girl to do in a situation like this?

If you belong to the North Texas Writers, Pilots, and Shooters Association, you spend a while grumbling on a mapping program, then print out a topo chart on a piece of the earth whose terrain matches kinds sorta what was in your head, and take it to dinner.

And then the guys decry your choice of both compound site and nearby town location, and move them, and then proceed to wargame the heck out of it. 

I am very grateful I have Calmer Half to provide love, support, direction, and I'm sure that was a snicker when I stomped to the tea kettle grumbling "The Appalachians are all folded the wrong way!"

I am also grateful for LawDog, "Your insertion site needs to be back here, and then hike at military crest... you are aware that's not ridgeline... to observation points here, here, and here..."

And Old NFO "You are not moving the LZ. Wheat fields were made for landing!" 

And Aepilot Jim "You're gonna have the mortar guy carry his equipment four klicks? What kind of second lieutenant plan is this?"

And Jon Laforce for the "Yeah, no, pack weight is now that much for regular soldiers." And 155m howitzers' guy viewpoint.

And John Van Stry for encouragement and chocolate cake, and Monalisa Foster for sympathy at the "where did that come from?" characters and POV recommendations...

And last but not least, Alma Boykin for geology help, and commiserating via text afterward on being assigned homework prior to next week's meeting. And laughing at me. 

Truly, I am blessed in subject matter experts, who also make great food. Now I just have to write the thing, to standards high enough to pass beta reading...

Old NFO's take here:

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Bad timing

 Some days, I have all my ducks in a row. Some days, I don't even know where my ducks are, and they might have been shot and are already being plucked by a happy hunter by the time I notice they're missing. 

Like yesterday. I headed out to the kitchen at 4pm to start cooking, only to find the leg of lamb I'd pulled out of the deep freezer to finally cook had not thawed, and I'd underestimated just how many pounds it was.

"Hey, hon?" I looked at Calmer Half through a haze of exhaustion due to piling doctor's appointment on top of being ambitious at the gym that morning. "Can you check my math?"

"Yes?" He looked up from his computer, with a patient "I was in the middle of something but you need help" look. 

"Thirty minutes per pound, for six pounds, is three hours, right?"


"And if we add half an hour of resting afterward, and thirty minutes for prep, that's four. And the directions say the roast should be at room temperature when it goes in the oven, but it's still semi-frozen despite being pulled out at noon, so that's at least two more..."

"You're up to six hours." He was still smiling, with the 'and this is why we have backup plans' sort of laughter in his eye.

"So it'd be ten o'clock before dinner's ready... how do you feel about going out to Mexican?"

He didn't miss a beat. "I'll drive. Let me know when you're ready to go."

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Background information

One of the difficult - but often entertaining - things about eating and conversing in public places is that I find it hard to mentally filter out the conversations that are taking place near me. (This is also why I don't like a tv on in the background.) 

This means I get to hear a lot of conversations whether I want to or not. And while it's certainly helped flesh out minor characters in stories, it also provides a very interesting glimpse into the tenor of places and times. Life has a rhythm to it, and there's a certain set of pitches and tones that come with places, an expected range of conversational topics that define normal. 

This weekend, Calmer Half and I went on a road trip. About noon, we found ourselves in a county seat, on the courthouse square. Not an especially big county or population for Texas, but not by any means one of the smallest, either. As I was desperately under-coffeed, we stopped in a nice coffee bar that we'd been in before. Lovely place, even if it'd be hard to get more hipster outside of Austin or Portland. 

The kind of place where conversations often are about designer this and coding that, about somebody's book club or what the article in the New York Times said. Or how terrible it is to be in such a small town compared to the action elsewhere, but cant be helped. Solar this, wind that, the unfortunate reality of oil revenues, always absinthe never whiskey...

There was something wrong to the atmosphere, and it wasn't the baristas being in monogrammed masks. No, that wasn't unexpected, nor were the overly-artisan sweets (that were delicious. They do great food and coffee.) It was the subtle change in body language among the people sitting at the tables. It was in the lowered pitch in the conversational hum, the startling absence of the hipster nasal whine in the background noise. 

It was the backpack slung on the seat near me when I sat down was pure military. In fact, the young man sitting next to his backpack was well muscled, ramrod straight spine, haircut clipped so closely I could see the scalp underneath below the ridiculous bowler hat that must have fit back before he gained 75 pounds of muscle. 

Across the table sat two weedy late teenagers... they might have been very early twenties. And conversation was clearly that one of the gang had Gotten Out Of This Place via the military, and was catching up with his hometown buddies. The kind of kids you expect to see working gas stations and pizza delivery and trying to figure out what they want to do with their life. Indeed, one was contemplating joining the military like his buddy. 

I sat, trying to be lost in my coffee, but pulled away from my conversation with Calmer Half by phrases that kept catching my attention.
"Man, the price of .223 is insane! I used to be able to find it for..."
"We're stockpiling supplies in case..."
"Yeah, she broke up with him, and you know how much it costs to get rid of the tattoo?"
"...against the principles of the constitution!"

If the hair on the back of my neck weren't already on end from the things leaking past the heavily censored and carefully curated national pravda, it would be now. Never, in my adult life, has the hipster nasal whine disappeared from a full coffee shop. And never has a low angry hum replaced it...

The last time I heard a crowd hit this low tone, they were on the verge of going from a mob to a riot, and I don't mean anything near as cuddly as the mostly peaceful protestors in DC. And this wasn't a crowd with any point or purpose beyond coffee on a weekend morning.

Stay safe out there, and I don't mean wearing any damn masks. I mean carry, and keep your head on a swivel.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Body Language of Competent Men

 Over coffee with a friend last week, we were discussing unfortunate mistakes in males in our pasts, and what she wants to find in the future. (Me, I found a man who's better than I deserve! I hope she may yet find such happiness for herself.) But one thing that came up was how we judge men upon first impressions, including their body language. 

And I realized that while she'd learned the hard way that what the media presents as "strong man who can protect you" generally actually represents "arrogant asshole with control issues", she didn't yet really grok what body language she should be looking for. She had no military background or experience, so most of my explanations were falling far short for lack of common ground.

Thankfully, we live in the age of the internet! I queued up two interviews of Highly Interesting men who'd been there and done that for a living - a retired Chief Warrant 4 who'd been a seal before joining 160th SOAR, and a retired Command Sergeant Major who'd been Delta. And while the content of said interviews was highly interesting (to me, at least, which is why I remembered them), all I really wanted her to do was to see their build and watch the body language. Because if I'm going to be showing examples, go for extremes so it's more obvious, eh?

Very few of the interesting men I've met were heavily muscled - most interesting gents are all whipcord. They range from thin and wiry to built solid, but not obviously heavily muscled (unless you notice that the neck is roughly the same circumference as their head.) The bodybuilder muscles-on-their-muscles look is far less common than the wiry rock-climber or very symmetrical compact swimmer build. 

And as for body language, unlike the macho, arms akimbo, chest puffed out body stance with the aggressive undertones you see in the movies, these two gentlemen were relaxed. Very relaxed. Not slouched, but there was nothing rigid or aggressive in their stances - almost hilariously so in one case, compared to the young army kid doing the interviewing. Both very relaxed, very calm gentlemen were still sitting with their feet positioned in a way that meant they could be out of their seats in a fraction of a second... But relaxed.

They also kept their hands centered and close to their chests when gesturing, and, as my friend noted, they were extremely calm, humble, and understated when talking about being truly interesting places and doing incredibly tough things. I was catching more dry humour than she was due to familiarity with the military, but she caught some of the jokes - and the way that a brief squint of the eyes and tiny lift of the mouth was their version of a broad, teeth-baring grin. And those eyes? They never stopped moving, scanning the environment between checking in with the person they're talking to. 

Because she was watching so closely, she caught the nervous tell on one - and turned to me in amazement. "He's more disturbed by retiring and entering the civilian world than combat?!?!?"

"Well, yeah. Transitioning out of everything you've known into a lack of structure is really tough, and scary." She boggled a little that something so familiar and everyday to her could be scary to someone who's been shot at with malice aforethought, and kept watching.

A minute or two after we'd paused the videos to talk over the astounding difference in what actual men who are tough and competent and protective are like versus the media portrayal, my husband came over and to ask me about something unrelated. As he and I talked, I saw her looking at my Calmer Half as if she'd never really seen him before.

As if she had just noticed for the first time that my darling gent is always very calm, very relaxed. Very. Relaxed. And he's quiet, and humble, and has a very dry, understated sense of humour, and his hands almost always stay centered around his chest even when he's gesturing, and his eyes never stop scanning the environment...

And she looked at me. 

And I smiled. 

Monday, October 26, 2020

Seize the moment

 Kili Cat is no longer a young kitten. To be fair, she wasn't a kitten when she became our secondhand cat, and that was 8 years ago. Lately, white has been appearing on her muzzle where there was no white before, and she walks stiff-legged on days when we're hobbling as well. What she has lost in youth and enthusiasm, she has made up for with old age and treachery, and sheer low cunning.

For example, on this particular cold day, it's 34 degree and raining outside. This is a day when nobody in this household wants to move much, as the damp aches all the way down to the bones. My husband built a fire, and I? I moved out to the couch right by it, and took my laptop with. 

And Kili? She waited until the microsecond between putting the laptop aside and getting up, and my lap was filled with a cat, flowing up and turning around, settling down in a ball that just happened to stick cold toe beans into my warm inner thigh. As she settled, my lap vibrated to the purr of a happy cat. 

I settled back down on the couch, and once her toes were warm, she re-arranged herself with a fresh wave of purring that slowly tapered off as her eyes closed and she sank into a boneless doze. The paralyzing purr had struck again...

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Cat fur transmogrification

 Today, I went to the laundromat to wash the comforter, as it's too big for my washer and dryer. This involves removing roughly an adult cat's volume of fur from the comforter, as well as any skin oils from us, all the dust west Texas could blow here, etc. 

Washing the comforter was entirely normal. However, drying it? When I came back to transfer it to the dryer, I ran into a lovely woman who was keeping an eye on her smallest child while looking at another parent showing pictures of his kid being entirely too cute and utterly kid. As we chatted, it came up that the very small child there had just lost her cat to coyotes... and there had been kittens sighted nearby, and one had come right up to small child, though it hadn't come near mom. 

I know those kittens are ferals and strays, and allowed as how they were free to a good home if they could be rounded up. 

Which is how the three of us ended up going for a walk down an alleyway after picking up one emaciated little wheezing kitten with its eyes matted shut, searching for its feistier (and slightly less emaciated) littermate. The lady turned out to have been a vet tech, and much more able at wrangling small kittens than me! On the other hand, when she was casting about for a way to wrangle kittens while going and acquiring/buying a box, I looked around, popped open a dumpster, rummaged a bit, and came up with two boxes for her choosing. So, not completely useless. 

So, you know. I washed away roughly the same weight of cat fur as... the two kittens that went off to a good home. There's some sort of cosmic balance going on here, isn't there?

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Thre's no recipe for this

 The point of most recipes is two-fold: one, to be able to re-create the dish. Two, to provide a template for how the dish could be, so a cook has something to refer to when making a variation. 

Okay, three, sometimes a recipe is there to tell a story, and to also recreate the dish associated with the story. Which can be delightful - I was tickled pink the first time I read MCA Hogarth's Mindtouch, and she included the recipe for kerinne in the back of the book.

I'm going to ignore four for signal virtue, as experienced cooks look at the ingredient list and preparation method, and go "This person has no idea how to cook, or what they're trying to make. They just wanted to splash organic heirloom locavore non-GMO cruelty-free cage-free grass-fed blah blah blah buzzword all over the page." Because the travesty of some trendeigh idiot trying to virtue signal a recipe for gumbo without a roux or the full holy trinity was an offense unto food. 

But back to one and two - I often post recipes here because they're an amalgam of several other recipes, and I want to remember later how to re-create the dish. Unfortunately, today's dish would be impossible to recreate. So I present it only for the value of making you laugh.

Scalloped Turnips a la clean out the fridge

2 old, large turnips, one of which started to sprout in the fridge. (I forgot they were there!)
the end of a wedge of whisky-aged cheddar, grated
a wedge of "Oh, right, I got this to try and never did" mild blue Mornay cheese, grated
about 2 oz of cream cheese maybe, cut in chunks
a knob of butter - what was left on the butter dish
the almost-half a red onion on the cutting board that needed used up, sliced thin
a yellow onion, sliced thin
a palm-full of dried thyme, since it's getting old and I figure I need more to get the same flavour
a palm-full of dried parsley
a generous shake of mesquite-smoked salt
a few shakes of red pepper

Chop the ends off the turnips, peel, cut into manageable-sized chunks, and slice thin on the grater, ideally without adding any knuckle via the grater. Chop the onions in half, then slice thinly.

In a heavy-bottomed cast iron (I used my enameled cast iron braiser), melt butter. Add onions and salt, and let cook until starting to caramelize. 

Meanwhile, in a tea kettle, boil a liter of water. Dump turnips in large microwaveable bowl, cover with boiling water. Microwave for two minutes, because that's probably what you punched in when the cat distracted you by jumping on the counter and heading for the cream cheese. 

Remove cat from counter. Rescue cheese to cutting board. Stir the onions so they don't burn. Grate the cheese. Pause between cheeses to stir onions, and add thyme and parsely, and tell the cat he'd better not be paws-on-helping-cat on the cutting board. 

Cat will reply with insouciance and a tail wrap. Do not trip.

Finish grating cheese, turn on oven to 375 like you meant to do and forgot earlier, stir onion. Throw in cream cheese, stir so it starts melting. Pull the bowl of parboiled turnip slices out of microwave, careful not to splash hot water. And not to trip over helpful cat who is helping. Drain turnip slices somewhat successfully.

Stir onions and cream cheese and herbs, then add turnip slices on top, using the water that didn't completely drain to deglaze the pan. Sigh wistfully over how you should have opened a bottle of white wine to use for deglazing instead, and use for a glass for the cook. 

Once pan is deglazed, add the grated cheese in. Remember to turn off the burner. Stir until everything is evenly distributed melted gooey mess, smooth flat. Stick in oven that's still preheating, set timer to 30 minutes.

...yeah, there's no way to recreate that recipe. For one, you'd have to start by acquiring a paws-on helping cat, and much as I'd like to give you all 17 pounds of mine right now, my husband would object. For another, I'd have to remember who makes and where we got the whiskey cheddar to try, and I think the mornay was a seasonal item. And measurements? What measurements?

So, I really do not recommend forgetting turnips in your fridge. Really, you should get what you plan to use and enjoy it, right? But hey, my fridge is now cleaner and emptier, my stomach is happy with a nice meal, my brain is happy because it now knows parboiling is a perfectly viable method to make large turnips no longer crunchy, as well as less pungently turnip.

And if you laughed at the recipe, well, my goal for posting it here has been met!