Sunday, October 17, 2010

When in Rome (2010)

Kristen Bell, the star of the TV show Veronica Mars (which I love), is the main character in this movie. Unfortunately, it's pretty stupid. If I ignore the story, there are some amusing characters and funny lines, but it's hard to ignore the story. Oh, well. Watched it streaming on Netflix.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

College Without High School: A Teenager's Guide to Skipping High School and Going to College by Blake Boles

We home school our kids. There was a year or so when we sent the three oldest boys to a private school for a few hours a week and this year, Zed is enrolled in a few classes at the high school (choir; driver's ed; seminary, which doesn't count as public school in my opinion; and band, which he is kind of auditing). But they are basically home schooled. I plan to send them to college as home schooled kids, with a few extra classes from the high school under their belts. I've skimmed a couple of books on home schooling teenagers but hadn't found anything particularly inspiring until this book, which is fantastic. I loved it!

Except for a brief introduction intended for parents, Boles addresses teenagers directly and assumes they're interested in making their own decisions and following their dreams. In fact, while the information in the book is helpful to those who are already home schooled, he's openly trying to persuade high school kids to leave school and forge their own college prep paths. It's inspiring stuff, even to a 40-year-old mom whose days of formal education are mostly behind her. (Am I really 40? That just seems crazy.)

Boles attended Berkley and made it halfway through an astrophysics degree before discovering the alternative education stuff that later became his self-designed major. His book suggests lots of ways teenagers can explore their passions while at the same time preparing to go to college. There's practical information about applying to college without high school transcripts (most private colleges don't require a high school diploma and have information specific to home schooled students on their websites) and inspiring stuff about how to have adventures and turn those adventures into application fodder. He uses real-life examples of unschooled students who've done exciting things instead of going to high school and gotten into Ivy-league universities like Princeton.

My kids will definitely be reading this when they're 13 or 14. I'd like them to read it and then create their own plan for their pre-college years. As my kids get older, I'm feeling the pressure to get them ready for college. (So far they all say they want to go to college.) Our home schooling style has been different from almost everyone I've met and read about, so it has been somewhat experimental up until now—will the kids do well on standardized tests? will they be able to write well? will they learn math? will they learn to manage their time effectively? or will they end up in our basement playing video games and unable to hold a job? We're just beginning to get some of those questions answered. For example, Zed did well at Startalk this summer, and we had him take the PSAT just this morning. We'll see how he does. In the meantime, I'll have him finish this book and then I'll make Jacob read it.

Next on my To Be Read list: The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn. And I'll read it during down time at work (I accompany the high school choirs) to be a little bit subversive. :)

Believing Christ: The Parable of the Bicycle and other Good News by Stephen E. Robinson

This is kind of a famous book in the Mormon community--probably everyone has heard the parable of the bicycle--but I don't read a lot of LDS books, so I hadn't read it until now. Its reputation is well-deserved--it's excellent. Carefully and clearly written, with plenty of scriptural support and some good stories, It's not difficult reading at all, but profound concepts are well-explained. I'm adding it to my Required Reading list (which only exists in my head, but maybe I'll write it down someday).

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Veronica Mars (2004–2007)

I loved, loved, loved this TV show. The best thing about it is the character of Veronica. I think she's 17 in the beginning episodes of the show (maybe even 16), and she's one of the smartest TV characters I've ever seen. She's not just private eye smart (she's the daughter of the local P.I./former sheriff and does her own sleuthing on the side); she's also relationship smart. And when was the last time you saw a TV show character who wasn't a total idiot about relationships? I finally stopped watching Grey's Anatomy because I couldn't stand the retardation of pretty much every character. (oops! I accidentally slept with so-and-so! i must do everything possible to keep what's-her-name from finding out! that is the best thing for our relationship!) There's a reason I don't watch daytime soaps. (And mostly that reason is that the plots proceed at a snail's pace, but also, it's the stupid relationship stuff.)

I'm not saying that Veronica never makes a mistake or does something stupid, but when she does, she takes steps to correct it. She's honest and seems to actually have some principles. I know Buffy is another strong, smart, young female lead, but Veronica is even better: she battles the bad guys (and they're just regular, non-supernatural bad guys, which is nice), she does well in school, she helps out the unpopular kids, she gets along with her dad (of course, her dad is another excellent character). She's not perfect, but she's a great person.

The story is good, too. The first season has one overarching mystery throughout, with one-episode P.I. jobs along the way. The second and third seasons have shorter, multiple-episode mysteries. There's good writing and decent acting. I fully intend to make Jon watch it with me someday.

The disclaimer: As the parent of teenagers and a former naive teenager myself (at least to some degree), I didn't like all the drinking and drugs and mean people and sex in the show, but I know from other, more experienced people that it all really happens, at least for some kids. Just thought I'd warn anyone who's interested: there is plenty of bad stuff.

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole (2010)

There is no way I'm going to remember the title of this. I'm just calling it the Owl movie. Anyway, I wasn't excited to see this, but it was the choice of my three youngest. Turned out to be in 3D, so it was our first 3D movie in a theater! I'm actually kind of impressed with the 3D stuff, although it's a pain to wear the 3D glasses over my regular glasses.

So, it's a nice-looking movie and the story's okay, though there are elements of other famous movies therein, like the mentor's voice telling the main character to "use his gizzard" (I'm not kidding) in pretty much exactly the same way Obi Wan tells Luke to use the force. And at least once, flying owls looked and sounded like those famous battle ships from Star Wars. But for a kid movie that features owls, it was pretty good. Also, the owls looked very much like owls, with several different species represented, in spite of their human expressions. I'm considering having the kids look up different owl species as a follow-up school assignment.

I'd also like to acknowledge that there was a song by Owl City featured. Get it? Ha ha! Owl City! Singing in a movie about owls! Maybe it was irresistible. To the movie's credit, though, there was a pretty cool scene that featured The Host of Seraphim by Dead Can Dance. Okay, so there are lots of movies with Lisa Gerrard's incredible vocals these days, but that doesn't mean I want it to stop. (The video I linked to is kind of hokey--and not by Dead Can Dance--but you don't have to watch; just listen.)

Oh, and the closing credits were quite beautiful.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Yes, I watched the TV show The Incredible Hulk when I was a kid, and I liked it. I didn't have high hopes for the movie, but I was still kinda disappointed. It was great seeing Lou Ferrigno in a cameo, and there was one scene where Bruce Banner is sitting by a tree while the original, melancholy theme song played, which I enjoyed. But seriously, how are we supposed to empathize with a giant, computer-generated Hulk? No thanks. Lou Ferrigno in his green paint and weird contacts was sympathetic, but a big cartoon is not. Edward Norton is a pretty good actor, though. And it was fun to see the Lie to Me guy, Tim Roth, as the bad guy, although his super muscular torso in one scene was obviously make-up.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Korean Dramas

Several months ago, I went through a new and different phase. I'll call it my Korean Drama phase because that's what it was. My friend Veronica wrote to me on Facebook and said, "You should try a Korean drama. They're usually only about 20 episodes long and like a Spanish-language soap opera, but clean." This sounded weird to me--I had never watched a Spanish soap opera and I had no interest in anything Asian--but I was a fan of Hulu and it turns out there are several Korean dramas (subtitled in English) available there. Veronica recommended I start with a show called Pasta, and thus it began.

Pasta is about a girl who works in the kitchen of a high-end Italian restaurant. There are some fun cooking scenes and assistant chefs yelling, "Yes, Chef!" There are also some quirky, funny characters. It's mostly a romance, though. I'll warn you that, according to wikipedia and this show, it's typical for Korean dramas to feature a sweet girl falling in love with a guy who treats her badly, in this case because he's her boss and he treats everyone badly, and, you know, he's trying to help her become a real chef. It's a fun show. The romance is sweet and old-fashioned--this is, I suppose, traditional Korea, where holding hands is a big deal. I think it's still my favorite.

My Lovely Sam Soon. This one has some elements of Bridget Jones's Diary, like imaginary scenes of heroism on the part of the main character that contrast hilariously with her real life. Sam Soon is apparently a very old-fashioned and ridiculous name in Korea, akin to something like "Bertha" might be here. She hates her name, is slightly overweight (although she looks great to me), and her mother thinks she's an old maid. There's romance, pretended and eventually real. It's funny. I liked it quite a bit.

Boys Before Flowers. Yes, it's true that some of the titles don't translate very well. This one was about a group of super rich high school boys and the daughter of a dry cleaner they eventually befriend. Apparently, feathered hair and tight clothes are popular for guys in Korea. In spite of the odd fashion choices of the rich boys, I enjoyed this one, too. It was silly sometimes, but also funny and sweet. This is another one where the girl goes for the guy who's meanest to her, and I kind of wanted her to end up with someone else.

Bad Love. This one is a little racier than the others, at least in subject matter. There's an affair, I think. I can't remember this one very well, actually. What I remember is that the girl started out as a cellist but because of some injury had to stop playing. It was too long. I still enjoyed it, though.

It was delightful to find during this phase of mine that a friend of mine also enjoys Korean dramas. Her husband went on an LDS mission to Korea, which piqued her interest. She watches them with her daughters, though, which is selfless and family-oriented of her. Anyway, I stopped watching them so I could go back to knitting while watching TV. I did manage to do some knitting while watching and reading the subtitles, but it wasn't very fun. From what I've read, Korean historical dramas are supposed to be pretty good, too. I imagine I'll watch more someday. I thought they were fun--fun to hear Korean and fun to be intrigued by Korean culture and food. Also, they were generally quite a bit cleaner than American TV.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Bare Bones by Kathy Reichs

I would like so much to enjoy the Temperance Brennan novels as much as I do the TV show, but I don't. I can't even remember what Bare Bones was about, except that it's not the one about the motorcycle gang. I think. Anyway. I found it entertaining, but just barely.

Did You Hear About the Morgans? (2009)

Here's another movie that got lame reviews that I liked pretty well. Of course, the Wyoming characters were stereotypes, but there was some familiar stuff that made me chuckle. For example, it's true that in small towns, a lot of people work several jobs. Also, it's a nice story about a married couple figuring out how to get past their troubles and mistakes, and for once, the mistakes and troubles seem realistic instead of completely retarded and baffling. I liked it.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

New in Town (2009)

Seems like this got generally bad reviews, but I liked it. For one thing, it's almost entirely clean. One point. For another, it's not set in New York City. Two points. Third, it's set somewhere crazy cold just like Teton Valley, Idaho. Three points. It really is different living in a place where snow and ice rule for half the year, and I thought this movie captured it pretty well. Sure, the story was pretty formulaic, but the setting and characters made it fun. (And no, I don't actually have a grand point scheme for movies.)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Born Round: A Story of Family, Food, and a Ferocious Appetite by Frank Bruni

I picked up this memoir of a former restaurant critic on a whim at the library. Much of it is detailed, self-centered reminiscences about the author's relationship with food and his weight throughout his life, probably only interesting as far as you can relate directly to his struggles (many of which I could not). Probably good that it's out there for some readers. There is great stuff about his mother's cooking habits that I related to: if there are four baked potatoes left after a huge meal for extended family, does that mean some people didn't take one because they thought there weren't enough to go around? Must make more next time!

My favorite part of the book is the last part, after Bruni has settled at a good weight (through plenty of exercise and portion control). He becomes the restaurant critic for the New York Times, and his account of what that job entails is fascinating.

The Invention of Lying (2009)

Ivy told me this was not a good movie, but we watched it anyway. There are some very funny parts. Very funny. The idea of a world where nobody lies is interesting and provides some great humor. But that kind of world would look so much different than the one we know, and how it might be different isn't well-explored. There are a couple of stabs at it, but they don't make any sense to me. (Why would total honesty produce a bunch of people who value genetically ideal mates? Or is it supposed to be our society if suddenly everyone told nothing but the truth? No, that's not it, either.) Anyway, definitely some hilarity, but I'm not sure it's worth the time.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Inception (2010)

It's well worth seeing Inception in a theater, and if there were any IMAX theaters 'round these parts, I'd go see it again in one of those. (Is it worth a trip to Salt Lake, do you think? Hmmm... something to think about.) The cinematography and special effects are gorgeous, and there's a little Fun with M.C. Escher that was delightful. As far as I know, nobody's messed with M.C. Escher in a movie before, but that's only as far as I know, which isn't very far. Also, it's nice to see a movie that makes you think a little.

Monday, August 16, 2010

1991 Soviet словарь used Microsoft Word

My dad gave me a great gift a few days ago. At the Deseret Industries second-hand store he found this English-Russian and Russian-English dictionary (словарь = something like "wordery") published 1991 in Moscow, just before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and he picked it up for me:

(Click on the photos to see a larger version.)

I have a few books in Russian but don't have an English/Russian dictionary, so just on that account it's nice to have. But there are a few other interesting features to note:

Above you can see that it has an ISBN (5-200-01121-3), something I don't remember seeing often in east-bloc publications. Maybe dictionaries like this were more likely since they may've been sold internationally more often than other books.

It's also funny to see that the library cataloging information abbreviates Moscow as merely "M."

But here was the biggest surprise for me:

Halfway down the right-hand page, see:

оригинал-макет изготовлен ... использованием программы WORD® Microsoft.

That is roughly: "Original model by [3 names] and made using the program WORD® Microsoft." Wow! I guess Microsoft Word was being used in the Soviet Union in 1991. That's a surprise. It seems most likely that would've been the MS-DOS version, before Windows 3.0. Perhaps Word had better support for mixing Russian and English than other word processors of the time? Anyway, that was a fun surprise.

Thanks, Dad!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Startalk 2010

So, my mom wanted me to write about this on here. Yeah. Anyways, I went to a camp at BYU called Startalk that was really awesome. It was a 3-week long Arabic language camp equivalent to a year of high school Arabic or a semester of college Arabic. It was really cool. There were about 27 students, I think, and they had us stay at the Heritage Halls dorms there. So our days went like this usually: wake up at 8 or so, get dressed and stuff. then we had class from 8:30 to 11:30. After that we had lunch at the Canon Center. At 1:00 we had class again until 3:00. Then it was Language Lab until 4:00, in which we did homework and DVD stuff. After that, we had Language Recreation for another hour. That was playing games with Arabic words and stuff. Then we had dinner, which was made by our counselors. Then Fun With Arabic, which was like soccer and stuff until 7:30. After that we had Study Hall (oh joy!) for TWO WHOLE HOURS until bed. We had a TON of homework. But I'm not complaining! We learned a freaking ton in just three weeks. Anyways, on Thursdays, we had field trips to a restaurant. Then on Saturdays we had no class and a field trip all day to either a lake or river and we had dinner there. On Sunday we pretty much could do whatever after church. There were a lot of non-LDS people there. I thought that was kinda funny, since it was BYU. The first three days we learned the alphabet and greetings and stuff like that. After that it was new verbs, nouns, and grammar stuff. It's all really cool! Anyway, here's some Arabic for you. اهلا ازايك انا كؤايس جدنز انا اسكؤن في المدينة درجز That says, roughly: Hi!, How are you? I'm very good. I live in the city of Driggs. I can say a lot more than that, but I don't know how to spell most of it, and I probably spelled most of that wrong anyways. I'm gonna go now. My mom will probably make me write more later, but Im' done for now. It was awesome!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Robin Hood (2010)

I have now seen this twice and I really like it. Jon and I saw it first and then I made my three oldest boys (ages 11, 13, and 14) study up on King Richard the Lionheart, King John, and Robin Hood, and then I took them to see it on Monday. It was fun to do some reading in advance of my second viewing. I learned some stuff! Hopefully the boys did, too.

I love the relationship between Robin and Marion. It's sweet and slow, a nice change from the usual Hollywood fare, even though the circumstances created in the script might have justified the usual quick leap into bed. (She's been without her husband for ten years! He's been fighting wars for ten years! And they're supposed to be acting like husband and wife!) Also, I like Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett.

Grand Teton Music Festival: Pardon our French

  • Paul Dukas, Fanfare pour La Peri
  • Francis Poulenc, Sonata for Horn, Trumpet, and Trombone
  • Claude Debussy, Prelude No. 8, La fille aux cheveux lin
  • Maurice Ravel, Selections from, Ma mère l'oye
  • Darius Milhaud, La crèation du monde, Op. 81

This was the first of GTMF's free "Inside the Music" Tuesday concerts this summer. It was fabulous, of course. These events are hosted by the very funny Roger Oyster, principal trombonist of the Kansas City Symphony, who usually tells a little something about the composer and/or the piece. The concerts are about 75 minutes long and the music is generally varied and accessible.

I was especially eager to hear "La fille aux cheveux lin" ("The girl with the flaxen hair") because I've played it on the piano. I thought maybe they'd be playing an arrangement for a small group, but it was the original piano piece, and it was played beautifully by Deborah Moriarty. She was doing amazing stuff with the pedal that I've never even tried to do. I loved it.

My other favorite piece was Ma mère l'oye (Mother Goose). This was originally written as a piano duet and Ravel later orchestrated it. But this performance was an arrangement for string quartet and piano, and it was stunning. I'd like to find a recording somewhere, but I'm not sure where I'd find it. Might be worth learning the piano duet with my son, though it sounds hard.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Grand Teton Music Festival: open rehearsal, 2 July 2010

I took Phin and Lillian to the Jackson Hole Symphony's open rehearsal ($10 for adults, free for kids 6 to 18, or something like that) on Friday. Here's what they performed:

  • Tragic Overture, Op. 81, by Johannes Brahms
  • Violin Concerto by Alban Berg
  • Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 by Ludwig van Beethoven

They started by playing the National Anthem, because they would be playing it for the 4th of July, and then they went through each piece, only short-changing Beethoven's 5th towards the end, because they were running out of time. They would play through the entire piece and then go back to certain places in the piece at the direction of the director ('cause, you know, he directs). There was a guest violinist for the concerto (Akiko Suwanai, playing a 1714 Stradivarius called "Dolphin"), which was a 20th century piece, not super easy to listen to.

The rehearsal lasted about three hours, and this is what I learned:

  • I like Beethoven's 5th very much. Of course everyone is familiar with the beginning, but I don't think I'd ever listened to the whole thing, or if I have, I wasn't paying attention. Unfortunately, I think they skipped parts of it during the rehearsal.
  • It was too long for kids! Although Phin and Lillian did pretty well.
  • I loved watching the rehearsal--it's cool to watch and hear a group that actually listens to and responds to their director--but it's very different from watching a performance, and I felt kind of frustrated that I wouldn't be seeing the performance later that night.
  • But tickets are $52 for the weekend symphony performances. $10 for students, though! Which makes me want to send my kids in without me.

Grand Teton Music Festival has free events every Tuesday night for the duration of the festival (end of June to August 14), though, and my goal is to go to every one that I'm capable of attending. I'll blog about those, too.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A few mysteries I done read

In an earlier post, I speculated that maybe I was about to enter a Mystery phase, a phase I've never experienced before. So I gave it a go. I don't think it really took, but it was kind of fun.

The Cat Who Went Underground by Lilian Jackson Braun. These are well-known, but I'd never read one before. I liked the main character pretty well, but the cats were uninteresting. I'm not really a cat person, unless the cat is asking for a cheeseburger. (Don't be mad, cat-lovers! I'm not a dog person, either. Or a pet person. Or even a kid person, actually.) Also, does it always take so long to get to the mystery part?

B is for Burglar by Sue Grafton. Another famous mystery writer. This was pretty good. There was plenty happening and the characters were fun. I liked it pretty well.

Deadly Décisions by Kathy Reichs. I love, love, love the TV show Bones, and since it's gone for the summer, I thought I'd try to get my fix this way, since the show is loosely based on Kathy Reichs and her books. (Kathy Reichs is a forensic anthropologist who writes novels about a forensic anthropologist named Temperance Brennan, and Bones is about forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan who writes books about the fictional character Kathy Reichs! That's just the kind of silly, clever trick that I love.) There's not enough similarity between book and show to get me my fix, but I liked it pretty well and I might read more of them. I guess it might not technically qualify as a mystery.

Friday, June 18, 2010

I have good intentions ...

and yes, I know which road is paved therewith. But I'm pretty sure failing to act on my good intentions of posting on this blog won't lead there. Anyway...

It's time to play catch up again. So here are a bunch of movies I've seen in the last several months:

White Teeth (2002). This was a British miniseries and was pretty good. Of course, I loved the book, and this couldn't reach the complexity that I loved about that, but it was worth watching. Disclaimer: I'm not advocating that everyone go watch it, though. The book is racy and so is the movie. It's foreign, and not rated like our American stuff. It's not terrible, but there's some stuff in it. Just so you know.

Leon the Pig Farmer (1992). I saw this on Hulu (don't know if it's still there). There's plenty of delightful Jewish humor here (a Jewish man discovers that his real father is a pig farmer, and that's pretty funny), but it's a little slow-moving. It may be that it's just showing its age. Movies were slower way back in the early '90s.

Emma (2009). No, we'll never get tired of film adaptations of Jane Austen's novels. Emma was probably my least favorite novel to read, but this is a nice adaptation. Jonny Lee Miller is Mr. Knightley and I approve. I still get uncomfortable at the idea that the older and wiser Mr. Knightley is raising up his perfect bride by chastising and guiding her, but in principle, I don't necessarily have a problem with that. Also, Emma is annoying! But she was supposed to be. But now I'm writing about the book. She's not that annoying in this PBS mini-series.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010). They changed the story quite a bit for the movie, and I don't know why, but it was a lot of fun. We took the whole family for someone's birthday, and everyone enjoyed it, even Jon.

The Blind Side (2009). Very, very good. A great story and very good acting and I love seeing pictures of the real people at the end of the movie.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009). I wanted to like this, and I guess I didn't hate it while I was actually watching it, but it was weird and kind of irritating. Although I did like Mr. T as the cop ("This contact lens represents you! And my eye represents my eye! I've got my eye on you!"). Oh, but I just looked up that quote and saw some other quotes from the movie and I have to rethink my overall impression. And here it is: the end ruined it. There are some really funny lines in this movie (maybe a little too SNL-esque, but funny), but the end was so dumb. I love the book, by the way!

The Interpreter (2005). It hasn't been that long since we watched this, and I'm struggling to remember details from it. Now I remember, and it was entertaining but not memorable. How 'bout that?

Gentlemen Broncos (2009). Oh my. Oh my. I'm not sure what to say about this latest from Jared and Jerusha Hess, the writers of Napoleon Dynamite (brilliant!) and Nacho Libre (not as brilliant but still pretty funny). Gentlemen Broncos is by turn hilarious, disgusting, insane, brilliant, and offensive. I could probably come up with more adjectives. If you are a reader or watcher of science fiction, you should prolly see it. If you have a sense of humor about it, anyway.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Songs that I used to hate and have grown to like

I've been thinking about starting this list for a while. When I was a teenager, I was pretty loyal to a certain kind of music, and I was definitely a little uppity about only liking alternative music, which at the time was called New Wave. Or something. Most of what I listened to seemed electronic at the time. I say "seemed" because I didn't have a very clear idea of what produced various sounds, and I thought I was mostly listening to synthesizers. (I didn't know, okay!). Now I know better, for the most part. But anyway, here are a few songs that I've grown to appreciate as I grew up, mostly in the last few years. (Maybe the years from age 38 to 40 aren't typically considered growing up years, but it would be depressing if I didn't think I was still growing up.)

"Rock the Casbah" by the Clash. I've never been a big fan of The Clash, and I especially hated "Should I Stay or Should I Go." (He should go! Clearly!) But this cover is awesome. And this cover is pretty good. And now I even like the original, which turns out to have interesting lyrics and a terrific bass line.

"Thriller" by Michael Jackson. If I had to hear this more than once a year or so, I wouldn't like it, but it's fun to hear around Halloween.

"Thunderstruck" by AC/DC. I can't explain this. It's ridiculous, but it has that great guitar riff, and Angus Young's insane vocals make me smile and/or laugh. I probably should have liked it as a teenager, but I had my standards, and they were generally anti-guitars. (Again, I didn't know that New Order and Cocteau Twins used guitars. I was dumb!)

As a bonus, here's the video of AC/DC's "It's a Long Way to the Top If You Wanna Rock and Roll," which features bagpipes. I didn't know this song when I was young, so I can't include it in the list. But I love the bagpipes with the guitar. That is cool.

Lost in Austen (2008)

After I got over the initial shock of Wait! You're Messing with Pride and Prejudice!, I loved this British mini-series. I think Jane Austen would love it, too. Mr. Bennet, whose first name turns out to be Claude, has the funniest and best lines, for the most part, but there's a lot of good stuff here. As I mentioned, though, if you're a Pride and Prejudice fan, you must be prepared for irreverence and chaos with beloved characters, but things turn out all right in the end. It's fun and refreshing to have something new happen in the story.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

My homemade bread recipe

I've given this recipe to a lot of people, so I decided to do a post about it, so I can just refer to it in the future. Although it occurs to me that I haven't verified that the people to whom I've given the recipe actually like it. But whatever. It works for me, so here it is:

  • 6 cups whole wheat flour (or 5 cups whole wheat flour and 1 cup white flour or any combination you desire)
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 1/4 teaspoon yeast (one package, if you're buying those little packages)
  • 2 1/2 cups water (about 110°, like a pretty warm bath)
  • about 2 tablespoons oil (vegetable or olive oil or whatever)
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons honey (I don't like bread overly sweet, so I stick to the lower amount. I think. I don't usually measure)

Mix all the dry ingredients in a stand mixer. (I have a Kitchenaid and use the dough hook for this bread, although I usually mix the dry ingredients with a wooden spoon first. Also, I almost never proof my yeast. I've never had it fail me. If you want to proof your yeast, just add it to 1/2 cup of the warm water and 1/2 teaspoon of sugar and stir well before you do anything else. It should be foaming by the time you get around to adding the liquids later. And don't forget that you've already used 1/2 cup of the water, so you'd only need 2 more cups.)

Combine the liquids and make sure they're the right temperature. I usually measure warm water first (just from the tap) and add the honey and oil, but if it's not warm enough, I'll use the microwave in small intervals. Yeast needs warmth to be happy, and extreme temperatures both hot and cold will kill it. The liquids should be warm but not hot enough to burn you.

Turn the mixer on to the lowest speed and add the liquids very slowly. I use a glass Pyrex measuring cup that has one of those little lips for pouring stuff. And I mean slowly! It should take you a few minutes to get it all in, and the liquids should incorporate slowly into the dry stuff, without creating big puddles slopping all over the place. (Of course, I've added it too fast, and it's fixable, but it's so much easier if you just add it slowly!) Then let the mixer go for about ten minutes. Keep an eye on the dough and if you want to, you can test it by turning off the mixer and touching it. It should be slightly sticky, but not sticky enough to stick to your finger. That's the perfect bread dough, in my opinion. However, if it's too sticky, you can always add a little flour as it's mixing, or even later.

After ten minutes of mixing, generously flour your counter and dump the dough out. I usually have to scrape the dough out of the bowl with a wooden spoon. If you're making bread with all white flour, the dough is often this beautiful, smooth piece of dough that plops out without any stickiness, but whole wheat flour makes a stickier mess. Don't be afraid. Get all the dough on that counter, and do some hand kneading. If it's annoyingly sticky, just keep adding a little flour, but you want it to be somewhat sticky. (I'm overusing the word "sticky" here, but I can't think of any other good words.)

Knead a few times and then place it in an oiled (or sprayed with that evil Pam stuff) bowl. Cover it with a damp towel or with plastic wrap (also oiled or sprayed) and let it rise until double, usually about an hour. Then punch it down, divide the dough into two equal parts, and form loaves. I use a rolling pin (or my hands when I'm lazy and don't want to get the rolling pin out) to form them into roughly rectangular shapes, the short side about the length of the bread pan. Then I roll them up and put them in the oiled or sprayed bread pans, seam side down. (If the dough is being difficult and won't stay in the shape you're trying to get it in, just cover it and let it rest for 15 minutes or so, and then try again.)

Cover with the same towel or plastic wrap and let rise again. And the following tip is from Deborah Madison's book Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, which is my original favorite cookbook (I've had others since, but it's my first love and taught me so much about cooking and baking): when the tops of the loaves are just rising above the level of the pans, turn the oven to 375°, and when the oven is finished preheating, stick them in. (Uncover them first, of course.) Bake for 40 to 45 minutes and turn them out onto a wire rack to cool right when you take them out.

Wait for 15 to 30 minutes to cut into it! I know fresh-from-the-oven bread is amazing and yummy, but it will cut so much better if you wait a little bit and it will still be warm enough to melt butter.

Now I'll confess that 1)my bread doesn't always turn out perfectly and 2)I mess around with this recipe a lot. Sometimes I add powdered milk to the dry ingredients (enough to make about 1 cup of milk). Sometimes I use brown sugar instead of honey. Sometimes I use half white, half whole wheat. I have been known to use gluten and/or dough conditioners, but I think using 1/2 to 1 cup of white flour and the rest whole wheat does the trick just as well, and I like recipes with fewer ingredients. But I've also added oats to this recipe, and it was good. I think it'd be good with the larger amount of honey and with raisins and cinnamon, but I haven't tried that yet. I've left out the oil entirely, and it still seems okay. And I've made it entirely by hand, too, with no electricity involved. Sometimes I've had whole wheat flour that didn't rise as well as it should have, but everyone ate the bread anyway (and maybe the thing to do with wheat like that is to use it with more white flour). Sometimes my bread is a little too risen and it kind of falls over when you slice it, but the kids never care. (I think that happens when I let it rise too much before I put it in the oven.)

Anyway, that's my basic bread recipe. I do recommend Deborah Madison's book for a non-threatening, short but thorough tutorial on bread-making. You could just read it while standing in the aisle at Barnes & Noble. (Is that really how you spell "thorough?" Suddenly it looks weird.)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A word about my recent reading habits

So, I haven't been reading much lately. I'm halfway through a novel called Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Helprin, but it's been so long since I picked it up that there's an impressive layer of dust on the front cover. (And I think I've even dusted it once since I opened it last.) It's an entertaining and hilarious novel reminiscent of A Confederacy of Dunces, except that it's about a silly crown prince in England (and later in America) instead of about a misanthropic fat man in New Orleans. I think I will finish it someday, but for now, my reading habits have taken an unfamiliar (to me) turn.

I'm knitting and watching more online TV, although I seem to have finally gotten over the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel obsession. (Thank goodness. But I don't guarantee that it won't return.) And otherwise, I'm reading bits and pieces of many non-fiction books: Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun; 10 Habits that Mess Up a Woman's Diet by Elizabeth Somer; Free-Range Knitter by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee; and many knitting pattern books, interior design books, and the occasional cookbook. That's not an exhaustive list, merely representative. Some of these books I'll finish eventually and some I won't. But apparently I'm avoiding the plot-driven book these days.

However, I'm considering the possibility, what with all the watching of TV shows, with their wrapped-up-in-less-than-an-hour plots, that I might be about to enter a phase of reading mysteries. (I do not include Lost in the genre of TV shows that wrap up plots in an hour. I'm just hoping they wrap up the plot at the end of this, The Final Season. It's getting ridiculous now: so the smoke monster had a mother? And the mother was insane? Boo hoo! Poor smoke monster that looks and acts exactly like but is not Locke!)

Anyway, I've never really liked mysteries all that much, but suddenly they sound pleasant, with logic and clues leading to a satisfying solution. If anyone wants to suggest a good mystery, please do. We can also discuss the possibility that my craving for neatly portrayed stories might be a reaction to My Present Life, which is just getting busier and more full of questions about how to proceed with the kids' education and other pressing matters. Although I'm kind of enjoying Life, even in the face of that feeling that all of our decisions right now will determine whether our children become Lazy Slobs with No Work Ethic Who Tragically Wasted Their Potential or Decent, Talented, Bright People Who Contribute to Society. (I know those aren't the extremes. They could also become Sociopathic Criminals Who (we hope) Languish in Prison or World-Famous Scientists/Doctors Who Cure All of Society's Ills.)

Oh, I just remembered that I actually finished a book recently: The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom by Suze Orman. I did kind of skim the end, though. I liked it!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

All About Steve (2009)

I almost forgot that I saw this movie, but I did and it was even in a theater. And actually, it was rather funny and not your typical romantic comedy. Sandra Bullock is a fine comedic actor. It's not a great movie, but it's entertaining.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Saturday's Warrior (1989)

I have fond memories of the soundtrack to Saturday's Warrior and vague memories of my parents taking me to see a live production when I was little. We watched this 1989 production of the play while we were at my parents' house over Thanksgiving. I think I might be permanently scarred. The combination of cheesiness and 1980s fashion was too much for me. There's probably some pretty interesting psychological stuff I could get into (I used to think that looked cool?), but I'd rather not.

Yes Man (2008)

Yes Man is good! One of Jim Carrey's more thoughtful movies, funny but with something meaningful to say. I always like Zooey Deschanel, too. This movie is at least loosely based on a non-fiction book by Danny Wallace, which I'd like to read. Wallace sounds like the British version of A.J. Jacobs, doing semi-crazy stuff and then writing books about the experience.

The Proposal (2009) and Jersey Girl (1992)

There are a few funny moments in The Proposal. How could there not be with Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock? But there's no reason at all for the two characters to fall in love, except proximity and the fact that they're both nice-looking.

I'll say the same thing about Jersey Girl, which is not the recent Jersey Girl with Liv Tyler and Ben Affleck but an early '90s rom-com with Dylan McDermott and a girl that I recognize but can't name. It's all so unbelievable. Or maybe any girl can force the guy of her dreams to fall in love with her by getting into a car accident with him and then relentlessly and annoyingly pursuing him. Hey, I love Hulu, but their movie selection is limited.

17 Again (2009)

This was so much better than I thought it was going to be. My expectations were fairly low, but it had interesting characters and made me laugh. And the central message was important and relevant and made an impact.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

My first big knitting project without a pattern

Beware of many knitting details below.

For Christmas, I got to give to my brother Colter, who is an artist and musician and one of the coolest people I know. He's interested in found objects and has created a lot of art using stuff he's found, whether it's someone's grocery list or a cardboard box or whatever. So I decided to knit him a sweater vest from already-used yarn. Ideally, I would have found some old sweater at a thrift shop, unraveled it and used that yarn, and I did try to do that. But the first sweater I found had been washed too many times or something and the yarn broke really easily. So my next best idea was to use yarn that I had knitted into part of a baby blanket about six years ago. Here's the beginning of Colter's sweater (on the left) next to a couple of panels of the blanket (on the right) before I unraveled them:

There's nothing quite like unraveling something you've knitted. You just pull and everything comes apart one row at a time. It's nifty and disturbing at the same time, because it's so easy to undo what's been done.

The main reason I chose to knit this blanket was to learn how to do cables, which I did, and then I lost interest, probably because its only purpose was learning to do cables, and I wasn't making it for anyone in particular. Anyway, I was happy to use the yarn for something else. (By the way, the yarn is Lion Brand Wool-Ease, 80% acrylic and 20% wool. It's from my earliest knitting days, when I hadn't yet discovered the expensive stuff. Since then, I've gone through a purist phase, when I wouldn't knit with anything that wasn't totally natural and usually expensive, to a more practical phase. Now I try to find yarn that's at least half natural but can still be taken care of relatively easily.)

So here's the finished product, displayed with enthusiasm and good humor by Mira:

I always knit from patterns (unless I'm making a dishcloth) but I almost never use the right yarn and often mess around with the pattern some. I've been fascinated by the idea of knitting something without a pattern for a long time, just to see how it's done. Colter's sweater vest seemed like a good place to start. I used Wendy Bernard's book Custom Knits, which is a great book. There are lots of patterns for beautiful women's sweaters in it, but she also includes directions on customizing patterns and on knitting sweaters from the top down with just measurements, no pattern. Colter's sweater turned out slightly smaller than I would have liked (although Colter claims to like it), but that's a gauge problem that I often have even with patterns.

I love knitting top-down sweaters! It's so nice not to have to sew pieces together at the end, and you can see how it's all coming together right from the beginning. Way fewer seams is also nice. That's how Leah's sweater was knitted, too, and the pattern is from the same book.

Zed is now 14!

Zed's 14th birthday was in January. Here he is wearing the hat I knitted for him:

If all our plans work out, he'll be moving out in about 3 1/2 years. That is just crazy.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Revisited classics

Here are a few movies I've watched again, with or without kids, in the last several months, and I like them all:

Ever After (1998): It's delightful to see the heroine saving the hero and herself from the bad guys. Also, I like da Vinci as a side character.

Legally Blonde (2001): I love this movie! Reese Witherspoon is a great actress. Not that this part is Oscar-worthy drama or anything, but she's hilarious and wonderful in it. And I always like Luke Wilson, too.

Mansfield Park (1999): The script takes many liberties with the story, but this time I noticed in the credits that it's based on the book and Jane Austen's life and/or her Juvenilia (can't remember exactly what it said). So it's not a true adaptation of one of her novels, but I really like it.

Wonder Man (1945): I have many good memories of watching this with my family, among them waiting for my sister Ally, probably about four at the time, to laugh hysterically and predictably at one part in particular. My kids loved it, too. Danny Kaye is delightful.

Last Chance Harvey (2008)

As far as romantic comedies go, this is much better than usual. But maybe it's more drama than rom-com. It's nice to see a romance between older, more believable people. I liked it.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon

I gave this, the seventh novel in the Outlander series, about 100 pages, and then I gave up. I loved the first three or four, felt like I was pushing myself to read the fifth and sixth, and now I guess I'm not willing to slog through the excessive descriptions. They're nicely written, of course, with lovely, historical details. But for now, I can't take it. Maybe someday, when I'm on a long vacation that involves much lying around on a beach. Although, the book is so heavy, I'm not sure that would be very relaxing.

The First Great Train Robbery (1979)

We watched this movie last night with the kids. Based on a Michael Crichton book and directed by him, it's very loosely based on an actual robbery that occurred in 1855 in England. It's a pretty good heist movie, and we enjoyed it, although there's a lot of innuendo that I kept hoping the kids didn't get. Apparently, Sean Connery did his own stunt work on top of a moving train.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination by Helen Fielding

This is total fluff, but I enjoyed it.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Why did it take me so long to read this? It is so funny. I loved the movie, and I think it did a pretty good job of portraying the hilarity of the book, but of course the book has so much more. Loved it!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

It was the trailer for this movie that inspired me to finally read a little of the original Sherlock Holmes works. I'm happy Jon and I could see it in a theater. I loved it. I thought the characters fit very well with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories (as far as I'm acquainted with them, anyway). Of course the action was ridiculously over the top, but that's modern movie-making, isn't it? Anyway, I thought it was a lot of fun.

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)

After all these years, it's still funny. Our kids had never seen it, so we watched it on New Year's Eve. Perfect New-Year's-Eve-with-the-kids fodder.

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

This is one of my all-time favorite movies, and I'm happy that it's still worth watching. Jon and I bought it for ourselves for Christmas on Blu-Ray, which means it will live at his parents' house, but that's okay. All the kids watched it with us, and the older ones liked it a lot. It's tough to follow sometimes, but Jon's dad provided helpful commentary that cleared some stuff up for me, too. (I think he used to work on submarines. Jon can verify or not.)