Sunday, June 30, 2013

No Longer Set

For years now, I have played the daily Set puzzle on line.  You can find it here.  Among other things, it allows me to keep track of the time it takes me to solve the daily puzzle.  I find this satisfying and I like to keep track of my best times, which I report in my monthly "About Me" updates.  All of this is really to amuse myself, so you can stop reading now if you don't need to know about my first world troubles.

A few months ago, I went over to the daily Set puzzle in the morning to find a new format and a puzzle that doesn't work.  I tried a different browser but it was a no go.  Soon after that, the puzzle page noted that they were fixing the improvements.  It hasn't been a quick fix and though I faithfully visit the website every day, most days it isn't working in any sort of timely fashion.

I've faith that the folks at Set will figure it out some day.  And I own a deck of Set cards so I can play the old-fashioned way (and I do!).   But until the problem is fixed, my best Set time will no longer be reported in the monthly About Me.  I trust you can pick up the shattered remains of your world and move on.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Real Life Texts with T: Doing Right edition

The backstory: JT and I are often surprised at the degree to which men in this state opt to go shirtless.  I feel that some of them should reconsider (i.e., must I see your hairy, white, beer belly?), but our approach has been rejected.  Among the shirtless is my kind-hearted neighbor R.  To be fair, he pulls it off without an assault to our eyes or his personal dignity, and thus earns a pass on our condemnation.  The other day my 16 year old mower died and R loaned me his so I could cut the grass before it became it became a pasture.  I texted T to give her the news.

S:  I went out to mow and the mower would not start.  R loaned me his so I mowed shirtless.

T:  R's mower has high standards; you did the right thing.

JT and I may need to adjust our standards.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Food Friday: Simple Syrup for Mint Iced Tea

In the summer time, there is always a pitcher of iced tea ready to pour in my kitchen.  It's the house wine of Sassafras House and I drink it all day long.  Mostly, I drink unsweetened tea but sometimes the day calls for a little sweet tea.  I'm not a fan of stirring the sugar in after the tea is made because it just doesn't dissolve very well.  Rather than make a whole new pitcher of sweet tea, I just keep a jar of simple syrup in the the fridge.

Mixed into a glass of tea, simple syrup dissolves easily.  Lately, the simple syrup I am stirring up has mint in it, which means sweet tea with mint or a mint julep is an option at the end of the hot day.

To make simple syrup, mix 1 part water with 1 part sugar and bring it to a boil on medium high heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves.  I usually make two cups of simple syrup at a time, so that entails 2 cups of sugar and 2 cups of cold water.
Let the syrup cool a bit and then pour it into a clean mason jar to store.  The syrup will keep for a few weeks.  You'll see some sugar begin to crystallize by the mouth of the jar, but it's nothing to fret about.
To make mint simple syrup, add a handful of washed mint leaves to the pot when the syrup is being boiled, muddle them a bit to encourage the release of the mint flavor.  Strain out the leaves before storing the syrup in the fridge.

With this syrup on hand, there's always a cold glass of sweet tea at your fingertips.  If that doesn't make summer sweeter, I don't know what does.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Summer Time

In my corner of the world, Summer arrived with a heat wave determined to stick around for the week.  The yard is green and lush and everything is growing.
In the twilight, lightening bugs emerge to blink a greeting.  From the back deck, the yard beckons.
The hostas are full and getting ready to send forth their blooms.
The livin' is easy.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Marking Justice Scalia's Words

Ten years ago this very day, in his dissent from the ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, Justice Scalia issued a "mark my words" warning: the gays will want marriage next, he said (well, in so many words).  Justice Scalia was right, of course, as gay Americans were already maneuvering a series of marriage lawsuits back in 2003.

Today, gays affirmed that Justice Scalia was right.  And we did it with the help of the Supreme Court, who struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), characterizing it as an act discrimination motived by "animus."  The Court invoked equal protection matters (the same argument used to strike down the Texas Homosexual Conduct law).  The Court also ground its ruling in an understanding of federalism that permits states to make their own marriage laws.

Wow.  This is a really big deal.  I'll have a lot more to say soon enough.  But for now, I'll be out celebrating my equality under the law.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Supremely Anticipated

Per its habit in recent years, the Supreme Court has waited to the last week of its current session to issue a host of big-ticket decisions, four of them in total.  The Court typically offers opinions on Monday or Thursday, though they can issue opinions whenever they damn well please (including waiting until the next session if they choose).  But most Court observers think it will be this week.

Two of the expected decisions have to do with same-sex marriage and two others deal with race, the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action, respectively.  Full analysis of the issues in the cases (and the decisions when they become available) can be found at the Scotus blog website, which is really the best source for quick information about the decisions that is solid, plain-spoken, legally rigorous, fact-based analysis.  Unlike the hyperbolic mainstream media, Scotus blog is careful to get things right.

I figured it would be fun to make a few predictions about the same-sex marriage cases and to do so in public, so here are my thumbnail predictions.  In Windsor v. U.S., the case which challenges the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), I predict the court will strike DOMA down, arguing that it is a violation of states' rights in our system of federalism.  The federal government allows states to set conditions for marriage and therefore will be told by the Court to live by this standard consistently.  This won't mean that gays can marry everywhere, but it will mean that in the twelve states that permit gays to legally marry, those same-sex married couples will have federal marriage rights as well.

The second same-sex marriage case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, is about the constitutionality of California's 2008 Proposition 8, a state constitutional amendment that banned same sex marriage in the Golden State.  The Proposition followed on the heels of a California Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage.  Because it was a state Constitutional amendment, it trumped the California Supreme Court ruling.  This case is a morass of confusion because the state of California refused to defend its law, making it possible that the Supreme Court will reject the case for lack of standing (the right to appear before the Court).  If the Supreme Court does issue a ruling, I think that it will hinge on the position that the Court took in Colorado's Amendment 2 in a 1996 case called Romer v. Evans.  In that case, the Court advised Colorado that amending its constitution to specifically limit the rights of specific groups (in this case, gays) was a violation of the 14th amendment equal protection clause.  This precedent could be applied to California's Proposition 8, should the Court elect to offer an opinion in the case.  I think that is what the Court will do.

In both cases, then, supporters of same-sex marriage will enjoy a victory that reflects the shifting public opinion on the issue of same sex marriage.  Call me an optimist, but I think it's going to be a good week for gays.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Herd Mentality

Last year, the CDC began to recommend that adolescent boys receive the HPV vaccination in order to protect themselves and their future sexual partners from the human papilloma virus.  HPV causes cervical cancer, a hard to treat and fatal disease, so this is no small deal.  It can cause throat cancer in men; a serious disease that is far more likely than cervical cancer to be detected and treated.  But still, it's cancer and should be avoided.

The CDC made the recommendation to vaccinate boys after noting the degree to which parents of teenage girls were reluctant to vaccinate their daughters.   That some of these parents are driven to avoid the vaccine out of a misguided fear that it would induce their daughters to be sexually active is disturbing.  So the recommendation to vaccinate boys came out specifically because so few girls were being vaccinated.  Men can transmit the disease from one sexual partner to another, but boys were considered secondary recipients of the vaccine when it first came out because vaccinating girls would mostly do the trick.  That is, until parents failed to vaccinate their daughters.

We are talking about a vaccine that will prevent our daughters from getting a fatal cancer.  But American parents are worried that it will provide tacit permission for adolescent sexual activity.  WHAT?  

This past week, the CDC revealed results of a recent study of HPV vaccine that demonstrated that the vaccine is even more successful at preventing cancer than researchers already believed.  Despite this, vaccination rates for adolescent girls remain low.  Toward the end of the summer, JT will have his yearly check-up.  I intend to have him vaccinated for HPV.  In appropriate terms, I will explain to him that when he one day has sex, the vaccine will keep he and his partners from contracting cancer.  The vaccine requires three doses, so we'll need to swing by the physician's office two more times for the follow up inoculations.  I'm hoping that recent CDC recommendations will encourage other parents to do the same.  We have a responsibility to protect the herd, folks.   Shots aren't fun and this one is a mild inconvenience.  But compared to cancer, it's a walk in the park.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Real Life Observations of JT: The Party is Over edition

The backstory:  11 years ago when I moved to New Jersey, the house I moved into had an old fridge the previous owners had left behind.  I had brought my comparatively newer fridge from Nebraska.  Two fridges seemed like a bonus.  So the inherited fridge was designated the party fridge and in it we stored soda, beer, and other bulk-buy items.  It came with me to Sassafras House in 2005 and lived in the basement.  In 2011, the party fridge died after Hurricane Irene flooded the basement.  When I got a large new upstairs fridge that fall, the Nebraska fridge went downstairs to the basement to be the new party fridge.

Still following?

The new upstairs fridge is quite fancy and features both ice and water in the door.  This feature, which JT thought could only be had in a fridge from California, endears us to the fridge.  It also explains why we call call it the California fridge.  When you are a two fridge household, the appliances in question need names.

Unfortunately, the party ended sometime last week when the party fridge abruptly gave up the ghost.  Cold soda and beer is now warm and the last pot of freezer jam is now defunct.

JT, concerned about this development, announced that we should move the soda and beer upstairs to "...make a party in the Cali fridge."  

That is the sort of innovative, forward thinking that can only be learned at prep school.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Food Friday: Grilled Cheese Trifecta

Last weekend, I set out to make sandwiches that all three of us would enjoy.  Grilled cheese is easy to adjust for picky eaters (ahem, JT) and comes together quickly.  Plus: it's buttered bread and melted cheese, so what's not to like?
JT had an old favorite: grilled provolone on sourdough bread.
T got pepper ham and American cheese on wheat bread.
I tried out this recipe for blue buffalo grilled cheese.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

My Government Mule

JT, now 13 and sporting a height of 5 foot 6, the makings of a mustache, and a deepening voice, still moves around the house as if he is 50 pounds of 6 years old.  That he is not his mama's little boy anymore means that each morning when he rolls out of bed (or otherwise navigates the house), it sounds like a large wild animal has thundered across the floor.  

He eats like a beast uncertain of his next meal.  It's not unusual for JT to sit down for breakfast and then grill me about what I'll be serving for his lunch and supper.  He's big, he's loud, and he's strong.

Time to put him to work.
At some point in the last year, I realized that living with a son who is taller and stronger than me can be quite handy.  Case in point: mulch day in the garden.  I can certainly load up and carry the bags of mulch needed to keep the garden in good shape for the hot summer.  But why should I when I have my own beast of burden in house?
I am not sure where I first heard the phrase, "working like a government mule" but I am sure that I like it.  The boy made quick work of all the bags of mulch, allowing me to preserve my energy for spreading it around.
But that's a story for another day.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Endless Sky

One of the things I loved about living in Nebraska was the endless sky.  The prairie horizon is immense and when I lived under that sky there were times when I would just stop and admire the beauty of all that space.

In New Jersey, the hills and trees (not to mention the dense population) mean that views of an endless horizon are rare.  That sense of space everywhere is just not present here, not in the daily way that I would see it on the prairie.  Last week, JT had baseball practice at a school with large fields and I realized that the sky was lovely in the evening light.  So I got out my camera and enjoyed the horizon.
And the sense of abundant space.
I love the light at the twilight hour, especially in the early summer when the trees and grass are still a lush green.  And all this space, so rare to see in New Jersey, made it more lovely.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Settling In

The first week of summer vacation typically includes final meetings at school and other type of "wrapping things up" activities.  Among other things, for me this year that included packing up my classroom.  That meant obligations, however pleasant, were still on our horizon last week.

This week, our obligations are much reduced.  Alarm clocks may be turned off and I don't feel the frantic panic of tasks left undone come Sunday evening.  I will be completing a good amount of work related to my new job this summer, but much it can be done at home.  There is no need for ironed clothes or getting-going in the morning.  There is time to read an extra chapter of my book and enjoy one more leisurely cup of coffee.  With the summer stretched before me, prospects seem endless.  I love this part of summer vacation and feel practically giddy at the prospect of it all.  This morning, rocking on the front porch and reading my book I was reminded of how very lucky and blessed I am.  That's happy.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

No Longer Welcome in Public

When T and I make our monthly income transfer at Target, we roam the store like a couple of unsupervised kids.  We check out the canning supplies and the garden section.  I like to look at linens and scarves and she tolerates this nonsense.  Invariably we pass by a display with those horrible produced music CDs.  At that moment, T snaps to life, scanning the display for the most dreadful of the selections.  At our last trip, she stopped before the display, announced that she hated kid's music and then quickly pressed the button to play said kid's music.
It says a lot about me that I find this charming.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Front Porch

When I first moved into Sassafras House eight years ago, the old-fashioned spacious front porch quickly became one of my favorite parts of the house.  In good weather, I spend a lot of time sitting outside on the porch.  In addition, the porch and front door are how we enter and leave the house each day.  So a homey, welcoming porch is a nice touch.    
Some time ago, I placed on my Life List the goal of a porch lovely enough to be on the cover of Country Living magazine.   I've since decided that the porch needn't be quite so perfect, but now that summer has arrived, I've gotten busy making our porch even more welcoming for leisurely summer enjoyment.  This bunny print, a gift from T, is my inspiration.
I've a cheerful flag, a large table, an old-fashioned rocker, and a handful of flower pots on the porch already.  In the coming weeks, I plan to spruce it up even more and I'll post some pictures when the happy project is complete.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Change in the Air

My school is a pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade school.  We call grades 9-12 the Upper School, to distinguish from grade Pre K through 4th (the Lower School) and grades 5-8 (the Middle School).  On the last Friday in May, I finished teaching my History and Government classes in the Upper School.  Last week, I gave my final exams and turned in final grades.  This week, I've been to the last meetings of the year.  The 2012-2013 school year, my 11th year in the Upper School, is now complete.  It's hard to wrap my mind around the fact that I've been here eleven years because the time has truly flown by.  I love what I do and this school has been a happy home for me.  

And so it seems strange to write that I am making a change.  I'm not changing schools but I am changing divisions.  In September, as I begin my 12th year of teaching in New Jersey, I'll be teaching 6th grade history and serving as the Middle School's Assistant Principal.  Just the invocation of the words Assistant Principal make me leery…..I picture the protagonist of many a John Hughes film, the self-important administrator with toilet paper stuck to his heel.  I have no intention of being that person.  

In my new capacity, I'll be handling Middle School academic matters and teaching a bit of Middle School myself.  All of the administrators at our school teach (including the Headmaster), and that part of the job is equal parts thrilling and terrifying.  It's thrilling because the History curriculum is coordinated from the 6th through 12th grades, so I already know the material very well.  The opportunity to see where it starts is exciting.  Figuring out lessons and activities for 6th graders is a challenge and will move me into doing something new with the ideas about History that roam around in my head.

Taking a break from teaching American Government is a more difficult notion to embrace, though it's likely time for me to do so as it's gotten harder and harder to justify the uselessness of Congress to teenagers.  I've been teaching Intro to American Government in one form or another for more than 20 years and it's time for a break.  I'll miss teaching U.S. History, but JT will be studying it in the 8th grade so I expect at least a few conversations on the topic will happen in my world.

I wasn't looking for a change when the prospect came up in January and I took the position this Spring after a lot of thinking about what I do and who I am.  In the end, I decided that trying something new was a good idea because I should stretch myself.  In this case, the risk involved is low as the Headmaster promised that I can always return to my old job if I like.  So it's not like the default option here isn't pretty awesome.   My new boss, the new principal of the Middle School, is one of those colleagues who knows our school and its virtues and defects very well.  His judgment is trustworthy and always motivated by what's best for the child in question.  He has a great sense of humor and the perspective that the school is about kids first and foremost, a view I share.  I like and respect him and know that I will enjoy working with him.  I stand to learn a lot in the process, of course.  The chance to participate in the organization side of the academic venture that is a K-12 school is exciting.   I have some ideas about how to make that process a greater success and I'm looking forward to working on them.  

So I will try something new next fall and my summer will be filled with the sort of relaxation that will allow me to identify the prospects in my new job.  It's change and so it is exciting, thrilling and scary all at once.  But it's worth a try and I'm all in.  

Monday, June 10, 2013

Big Brother & His Big Data Collection

As FISA-related panic has exploded in the last week, I have watched and listened with a certain horror.  Most of it is reserved for my fellow citizens, people who seem startled to learn that the government is listening, despite the fact that the Patriot Act, the law that authorized all of this monitoring of our communication, has been on the books for nearly 12 years.

In the aftermath of September 11, Americans were all too willing to sacrifice their freedom in exchange for unrealistic promises of order and safety.  Very few of us objected in 2001 when the Bush Administration sought broad powers to monitor our communication and banking via the Patriot Act.  Those of us who did object were scorned as naive and irresponsible; willing to risk innocent lives for such elusive notions as freedom and privacy.  So the Patriot Act was successfully sold to the nation as a way to protect our collective lives and Congress cheerfully passed it into law.  Most of us didn't object 12 years ago.  Today's objections are too little, too late.  They also miss an even larger point, which is that data mining is big business these days.  And it is everywhere, not just in the hands of the government.

Add to that certain realities about our real level of privacy and I am even more confused by the current hand-wringing.  Cell phone conversations, like cordless phone conversations, use radio waves and so they have never been particularly private.  The government and our neighbors can listen without warrants and without our permission.  All of those "discount" cards we use at grocery stores and big box retailers are also data-tracking systems that we voluntarily permit when we sign up for the cards.  So-called "free" Internet sites (Facebook, of course, but also your Google mail, your Yahoo fantasy football team, and countless others) are only "free" because the companies are mining our data and sending us targeted adverts.  In short, we are being watched.  And, in fact, we have chosen this status for ourselves.  It turns out that our privacy is sacrosanct until Target offers us a 5% discount and then we sell our souls along with the knowledge of what kind of dish detergent we use.

It's time for a reality check: the ship has sailed on our data privacy.  Private corporations are mining our data for money-making opportunities.  The government is mining our data to find security breaches.   Both of these activities are troubling in their own ways, of course.  But is seems particularly disingenuous to wring our hands and make noble claims about freedom because we have just now begun to pay attention and we realize that the government is among those who are watching.   I'd welcome a serious national conversation on this matter, of course, but I fear that it is too little, too late.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Summer Beckons

I've just a few more school-related chores to complete and then I will be footloose and fancy-free for the summer.  My grocery list for the week features foods for the grill and I've turned my mind to the pickles and jams that T and I will preserve later this month.  I picture more plates like this in my immediate future.
The livin' is about to get real easy.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Food Friday: Corn, Avocado & Black Bean Salsa

Come warm weather season, I like to have crisp and cool foods in my fridge.  I've plenty of recipes for just such items, but I'm always thinking about a new innovation.  A few weeks ago, I found it in the form of a corn and black bean salsa of my own devising.

The ingredients are simple and, conveniently, are the sorts of things I tend to have in my pantry.  The salsa keeps fresh for at least a few days, though the avocado may get a bit mushy (it stays fresher than you think thanks to the presence of the lime juice).  In any case, it's not likely to last that long.
The Ingredients
one can of black beans, drained and rinsed
one can of corn, drained 
half of a jalapeno, seeded and diced 
3 green onions, diced
5-6 radishes, finely diced
1/2 cup of cilantro, chopped fine (add more if you like the taste)
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
juice of 1/2 of a lime
one avocado, diced 
Mix the first 6 ingredients (black beans through cilantro) until it's well-mixed.  Then add the cumin, salt, and lime juice and mix again.  Just before serving, mix the diced avocado in.
Serve with tortilla chips or scoop Fritos.  Or quesadillas.  Heck, it could be a side dish with grilled burgers or chicken.  I ate a bowl of it as a snack after a baseball game.  This here is a win-win recipe.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Heaps of Junk

Over the weekend there was a town-wide garage sale in Sassafras Town.  Some people even had bright helium balloons out in their yards which read "Garage Sale."   I don't wish to spoil anyone's festive decor, but don't you think that the heap of crap you've just piled in your front yard pretty much tells us what we need to know about what's going on?
Other signs of impending garage sale madness can also be identified.   Look for people squealing around the corner and pulling their cars to an abrupt halt wherever they can (traffic patterns be damned!), spilling out into the streets and wandering around to check out other people's trash. 
Oh, New Jersey.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

A Rosy Outlook

I love flowers and derive great satisfaction from walking out to the garden to cut a fresh bouquet.  Each Spring when I plant my garden, I sow several rows of zinnia seeds.  I pick different varieties and, come July, I have enough for bouquets throughout the house.  I enjoy growing zinnias because they are cheerful and easy to grow, with a seemingly endless array of varieties. As cut flowers, they are durable and bright and make terrific casual bouquets.

To me, roses are considerably more elegant and serene in contrast to the bolder cheer of zinnias.  When I lived in Nebraska, I grew several types of roses in my hot and sunny backyard; they thrive in such conditions and mine did well.  I've not had rose bushes in my yard here and last summer, I decided to try my hand at roses again.  I bought one bush on sale at the garden store in the mid-summer.  I planted it and added some water and fertilizer and let nature take its course.  The rose bush thrived.  
This year, with the garden expansion, I have added two more roses to my flock.  One is pink and the other is coral.  They are planted next to the red rose from last year's experiment.

The best part of gardening is the business of trying new things and learning the lessons contained therein.  I'll enjoy watching these roses grow and change this summer.  And with some sun and good luck, there will be cut flowers to enjoy.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Front Yard Flowerbed: June 1

June arrived on the crest of a heatwave and now it feels like summer around here.
The peony plant that replaced the dead lilac has some sweet flowers.
The rhododendron has finished blooming and the daylilies are getting ready to bloom.  The grass is lush and green.
Summer vacation is just around the corner and that means that around my corner of the world, the living is about to get real easy.