Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Closer I Cling to My King (Original Poem)

Yesterday was an exhausting day. I didn't feel well (dealing with headaches still, as well as issues with my neuropathy) and my daughter was sick with a terrible cold and sore throat and fever.  It was just an overwhelming day on all sides, which left me feeling beat up and discouraged.

As I've been sorting through piles of papers and books, I've been gathering up many of my old journals. I even finally found the journal I was writing in this past spring when I was going through chemo. One of the entries I re-read from late April, just a week or so after my last chemo treatment, included some reflections I wrote about trying to stay steady in my heart and in touch with joy when I was so exhausted and ill. It was good for me to read those words yesterday when I was dealing with exhaustion again. It's so hard to deal with illness that hangs on for so long. And one of the lines which particularly caught my attention was "that is what I am holding onto in my heart right now -- that the closer I cling to my King, the more I remember I am his daughter and the less I will fall into despair."

The "closer I cling to my King" line kept playing through my mind. And this is the little poem that came together this morning.

The closer I cling
to my King,
the more songs
he gives me to sing.
With my heart I am
able to bring
all the pain that I
feel I can fling
at his feet. Now
his love forms a ring
round my sapling
hope, and gives
my lame prayers wing.
The closer I cling
to my King,
the more songs
he gives me to sing.

(EMP, 9/29/16)

Friday, September 23, 2016

Great British Bake Off Series Seven, Episode 5: Pastry Week (Recap With Spoilers)

There may be weeks of the GBBO that I can actually envision myself participating in, but when they get to pastry week, I'm always humbled and amazed. I've never spent much time making pastry from scratch, and it seems to be one of the hardest baking tasks. I'm pretty sure that the eight remaining bakers in this year's bake off would agree with me.

This week's three challenges all proved quite challenging! They included:

  • The signature bake of twenty-four danishes, 12 each of two different kinds
  • The technical, which was a bakewell tart (shortcrust pastry shell with layers of jam and frangipane topped with icing)
  • The showstopper, which called for 48 filo pastries called amuse-bouches (tiny, bite-sized filo dough pastries, 24 each of two different flavors)
The eight remaining bakers this week were evenly divided along gender lines, with four men and four women left. All eight of them tried to get a good jump in the signature, because danish dough needs a good deal of proving, which means they needed to get them mixed quickly.  One of the trickier parts of making danish pastries turns out to the the folding of a great deal of butter into the dough. If you don't do it right, then it sometimes comes oozing out in the oven and can make your bake quite dry or not flavorful enough.

Some of the flavors chosen for this bake sounded delicious. Jane flavored one of her doughs with cinnamon; Andrew (who laughingly attempted careful measurements that reflected his engineer background) used spiced dates; Benjamina decided on candied bacon. Candice surprised everyone by opting for savory danishes that used cheese and mushrooms. Selasi pulled on his Ghanian background and utilised tropical fruits, while Tom tried to go for a healthy approach and used granola rolled into his danish spirals.  That last bit turned out not to be the best choice for Tom, who managed a dozen danishes too dry and another dozen undercooked. Andrew's flavors worked but he made the danishes too thin. Val's seemed good and buttery but were too pale and a bit underdone. In fact, a lot of them struggled with doneness in one degree or another. In the end, Jane and Candice did the best by far, with Jane's danishes lauded for their flavor and nice bake even though they were a tad overfilled, and Candice delighting everyone with her savory danishes as well as a dozen made with pretty apple roses.

Judge Mary Berry informed the bakers that they needed to keep their cool during the technical, while Mel and Sue just kept reminding the bakers that bakewell tarts should be baked well and not badly. After a handful of mostly unfamiliar technical bakes, they all seemed somewhat relieved to get a more familiar recipe, though Selasi chuckled and surmised that the bakers who would do best on this challenge would be the "aged" bakers, since bakewell tarts apparently were more popular years ago. He must have been right: Benjamina called them retro, Jane called them "classic and classy," older contestant Val swore that she makes them once a week, and Candice pulled on her grandmother's influence to make hers.

Sue blithely cautioned the bakers not to get into a "frangi-panic," a terrific pun that I think they all enjoyed although poor Andrew came close to actual panic because he forgot to turn his oven on for the first fifteen minutes of the bake, which is what netted him sixth place. Poor Val, so familiar with this recipe, seemed to lose her focus as well as the second page of the minimal instructions they'd been given; by the time she figured out that there was a second page, she'd already mixed up her dough in a very different manner, leading to a very thick pastry shell that didn't bake well and led to the infamous "soggy bottom." Poor Rav's shell collapsed and his filling got all gooey, which landed him solidly in last place in the technical...for the third week in a row. You could tell that Mary and Paul were definitely leaning toward sending Rav home unless he pulled off something awesome in the showstopper. Jane won the technical (proving Selasi's point that age helped). Candice and Selasi came in second and third.

The showstopper was creative and fun this week, with the bakers having to make wafer-thin, see-through filo dough (really hard to do!) and then flavor two sets of their bite-sized amuse-bouches, one sweet and one savory.  Andrew and Tom both attempted wetter doughs than the rest, which didn't work out as well as it could. Val used a broom handle to roll her dough (after using dental cut her signature danishes) but seemed almost near tears when she mismanaged her time and didn't get her mincemeat pastries baked enough. Rav pulled out all the stops and made delicious Chinese prawns and white chocolate and hazelnut pastries, surprising the judges with spot on savory and sweet bakes after his terrible day the day before. Candice used a pasta roller to get her pastry sheets super thin, a smart idea that worked well and seemed to allow her more time to put together each delicate bite with butter between the layers. Hers looked beautiful and apparently also tasted delicious. Benjamina pulled on her Nigerian heritage and made fried plantain and spinach pastries. Jane made gorgeous looking cherry and chocolate cone shaped bites (which were apparently yummy but too big) and her savory bites contained roquefurt cheese and figs. She was pressed for time at the end, and Selasi, sweet man that he is, helped her get her pastries out of the pan because he was already done with his coffee/praline and asparagus, parm ham and cheese bites.

Jane showed her sweetness too by whispering a laudatory "star baker!" accolade to Candice as she headed back from the judges' table. Candice dimpled but still didn't seem so sure of herself. I thought it was especially kind of Jane because really Jane was the only baker who stayed close to Candice's level this week -- the two of them seemed definitely at the head of the class. It turned out that Jane was right about the star baker call, and Candice became the first season seven baker to take home that designation for the second time, making her the favorite for now.

Rav's wobbly performance the first day was saved by his amazing showstopper which meant that it was time to say good-bye to good-natured Val. Her baking has been up and down and all over the place the entire season, but everyone loved her pleasant attitude and sweet-natured delight and she will be missed by both her fellow contestants and by the audience. She said she thought she had done all she could, and added that she always tries to bake with love. Aww, Val...those kinds of sentiments are what will make you so missable.

With Candice and Jane in the top tier at the moment, Benjamina, Selasi, and Andrew seem firmly in the middle, with Rav and Tom struggling with enough inconsistency that I think it will likely be one of them that goes home next (though they can both pull off great things sometimes, and I'm not convinced it won't be relaxed Selasi who will get the chop next).

It's hard to fathom what might happen though as next week is a unique, first-time bake off week described as "botanical." It looks like they will be dealing with herbs and flowers and will need to make pie, bread, and cake. (This would have been an awesome challenge for season six Ian.) For some reason, I've got a good feeling about Benjamina going into next week, despite the fact that she struggled this one. Stay tuned....

Friday, September 16, 2016

So Do Not Fear, For I Am With You (Isaiah 41:10)

A few minutes ago, a friend posted this verse on FB. It's one of my favorites, and has been for a long time:

"So do not fear, for I am with you;
    do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand."

I pasted it here in the New International Version (NIV) because that's the version I learned via this wonderful music setting of the verse from Seeds Family Worship.  

Of course, this will now be in my head all day long. Somehow I think that's probably a good thing!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Great British Bake Off Series 7, Episode 4: Batter Up! (Recap with Spoilers)

The big news from the GBBO this week had nothing to do with series 7 or the new episode, but everything to do with the bumpy road ahead for the show. The BBC, home to the show for its entire seven year run so far, got outbid by another network. If that wasn't surprising and sad enough, Mel and Sue have already announced, in their charmingly snarky way, that they won't "follow the dough" -- they have no plans to return to the show as announcers for the eighth series. That's almost a death knell all by itself; if Paul and Mary decide to quit as judges, which is rumored to be likely, it's hard to imagine what the newly staffed GBBO will look or feel like next year.

So we now know that the episodes left in this series are all that's left of the show in its splendid, original glory. I thought I'd feel mournful, and underneath it all I do, but once the episode started I got caught up in the cheerful, slightly zany feel of the baking tent the way I always do (mostly thanks to Mel and Sue, who started this week singing and cracking jokes just like always).

It was batter week, a brand new theme, and the nine remaining bakers had to handle the following three challenges:

  • The signature bake was twenty-four identical Yorkshire puddings, with savory fillings
  • A technical bake where the bakers had to create a dozen lacy heart-shaped pancakes
  • A show-stopper where they created churros, essentially Spanish-inspired doughnuts 
All three bakes had batter as the common base. Yorkshire puddings, it turns out (I've heard of them in plenty of English books, but never really knew what they were) are essentially well-shaped popovers that are traditionally stuffed with meat and gravy. The bakers in the challenge this week opted for a variety of fillings that defied tradition, and not all of them were terrifically good at making the popovers. Apparently living in Britain means that you're familiar with the puddings and have tried to make them before, but that doesn't necessarily mean you've succeeded. Jane nervously admitted she was no good at Yorkshire puddings, Val (actually from Yorkshire) worried that if she messed up they'd never let her back into Yorkshire again, and Tom opted to try different kinds of flour than normal, including a chickpea flour. It turned out that all three of them ended up starting over when their first batch of batter failed them in the oven, and I think Candice might have ended up needing to try a second batch as well.

In the end, Val, Jane, and Candice managed to do pretty well -- their puddings may not have been perfect, but they had things to commend them and tasted good at least. (My favorite cheeky line from Sue this week was probably "there's a pud in the hud and it smells gud.") Val heaved a sigh of relief that she had made Yorkshire proud after all. Tom looked devastated that his popovers turned into flat, biscuit-like discs, even after the second attempt. Mary spoke to him kindly about the challenges with his choice of flours, but he still looked really down, which is understandable since he was last week's star baker. Kate's Christmas flavors were commended, but she didn't get enough rise. Andrew, Benjamina, Rav, and Selasi all did especially well, with Selasi, despite too much variance in the sizes of the popovers, getting a handshake from Paul because his pork and pork crackling fillings tasted "amazing" and the texture of the popovers were pronounced light and fluffy. Paul was also highly complimentary about Rav's unconventional filling, made from curried tofu: he had admitted he wasn't overly fond of tofu, but found Rav's flavors so spicy and good that he actually said he would gladly eat another one.

The signature was highly unusual in that the bakers had to make light, lacy pancakes. My husband would have been right at home in this challenge, as he can make some of the most unusual and artistic pancakes and would have thrived on this project. The bakers had a tough time as they were given very minimal pancake batter recipes and were told they had to make identical lacy heart-shaped pancakes (apparently an idea Paul got from a cookbook in the 1600s). They were only allowed one "model" pancake (which they could toss) before making 12 in a row that they had to turn in, although some of them wisely piped their batter onto paper to try different patterns before they piped the one test pancake they were allowed into their pans. The biggest questions surrounding the challenge seemed to be how how much of the sugar they were given they should use, how thick to make the batter so it wouldn't spread too thin (and would cook consistently) and how hot they should make their pans.

These pancakes took a lot of intuition and artistic sensibility, and some of the bakers found them more nerve-wracking than I expected. Kate joked it was a "heart breaking" challenge (get it? since the pancakes were heart-shaped and sometimes broke easily) and Val laughed over her designs, which she claimed were Jackson Pollock inspired. In the end, there were issues with a lot of the cakes, from too dry to not sweet enough to not elaborate enough patterns (Paul thought Selasi's looked more like alien faces than hearts). Benjamina and Candice outdistanced everyone, with their pancakes coming in at numbers one and two respectively. Benajmina's were the most lovely to look at by far, with an elaborate design that reminded me a bit of a jeweled filigree.

Kate looked highly worried at the end of the day, standing under her umbrella during a rainy interview. The cinematographer gave us a nice shot of a moonlit night and then a sunny morning hillside filled with black sheep as we ambled into the showstopper.

The only reason I knew churros (a Spanish street food that usually look like ridged straight doughnuts) is that I've seen them made on the American Food Network. Once again, the bakers had to focus on making batter, which this time around needed to be dropped into a fryer filled with hot oil. Paul said they were looking for churros that were brown and crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. What I couldn't quite figure is how they would get turned into showstopper bakes, which are usually known for their unique decorative touches and amazing flavors.

Andrew attempted one of the most creative showstoppers this time around, shaping his churros to look like flowers and putting them in a chocolate soil filled window box. He covered them in pistachio dust, and for some reason that just sounded yummy. Jane also made yummy sounding pistachio flavored churros with a white chocolate cream piped inside. Val's flavors also sounded delicious: she made the batter with orange zest and then added orange flavoring as well to her chocolate sauce, which she also piped inside the traditionally shaped churros (which sort of look like long fingers). Benjamina made hers with coconut oil and then shaped them into graceful curves which could be dipped into her passion fruit and mango dipping sauces for a very tropical feel overall.

Selasi's lemon, anise, and raspberry flavors sounded terrific but he used an odd technique whereby he froze the batter before he fried it, which didn't work well (they burned on the outside and stayed raw on the inside). Rav seemed to be gaining confidence, especially with flavors, and attempted some unusual Japanese flavors that unfortunately didn't work; neither did Tom's fennel flavors (too savory), and his batter was overcooked and dry, though his idea to make the churros look like snakes in the grass was very creative. Stressed looking Kate attempted churros shaped like rabbit heads and flavored with ginger and nutmeg, but they somehow got a bit smushed (Paul said they looked like run-over bunnies) and they got way too soaked in oil. I felt for Kate when she said simply "It's just a bad bake."

At the end of the day, it was poor Kate who got sent home from the tent, a move that surprised me a great deal as I had placed her in the top tier of the remaining bakers last week. I think Paul knew the audience would likely be surprised; he went out of his way to say that Kate was not one of the poorest bakers overall, but that this weekend she had been, and that's why they had to tell her good-bye. Rav and Tom, who both struggled hard all weekend too, looked relieved to have dodged elimination.

I was happy to see Benjamina take home star baker this week, something I think she richly deserved as she was consistent through all three bakes. Candice and Andrew were not far behind her, but wobbled more than she did. Selasi, Val, and Jane seemed firmly in the middle.

It's been an interesting series so far because in these first four episodes, no one has yet repeated the star baker designation (unlike series 6, where Ian got off to a fast start with three early star baker weeks). However, also unlike some other series, no one who has won star baker so far (Jane, Candice, Tom, Benjamina) has been sent home yet. We're down to eight bakers, half of whom have made it to the top. Will one of those four repeat next week, or will we see one of the other four (Selasi, Rav, Val, Andrew) manage their first rise to the top? Andrew feels overdue for the accolades, but Benjamina and Candice, the most emotional bakers in the tent thus far, seem to be gaining a great deal of confidence.

On to pastry week!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Llama, Llama Red Pajama: In Memory of Anna Dewdney

The literary world was saddened this month to lose author and illustrator Anna Dewdney. Our household was saddened too.

Dewdney was the beloved author and illustrator of the Llama, Llama books for preschoolers. We discovered the original book, Llama, Llama Red Pajama not long after it was first published in 2005. Our daughter was the perfect age for the book then, and our family read it over and over, delighting in both its pictures and its rhymes.

I love what Dewdney once said: “A good children’s book can be read by an adult to a child, and experienced genuinely by both… A good children’s book is like a performance. I don’t feel my world really exists until an adult has read it to a child.”

There is great joy, as a parent, in helping your child discover the power and beauty of a classic book that has been around for many years before they were born, but there is also joy in discovering a brand new classic-in-the-making right alongside your child. That’s always how it felt when I would bring out Llama, Llama.

In honor of Ms. Dewdney’s life and work, I thought I would pull my October 2006 review of Llama, Llama from my archives and re-post it here. It was fun to revisit the delight our family found in the book when our daughter, now a teenager, was just four years old. 

Below is the slightly touched up version of that ten year old review.

We love books that make us laugh! Ever since my now four year old daughter was an infant, we've enjoyed discovering books that make her smile, grin, or chortle. Those stories that inspire soft giggles? Even better.

But what's really fun is when we find a book that causes all those things and then some. Llama, Llama Red Pajama is just such a book. It doesn't just make her smile. It causes her to erupt in side-splitting shouts of laughter! And between the enjoyment we get from hearing our little girl laugh so hard, and the humor that ensues from repeated parental readings of tongue-twisty rhymes involving the phrase "Mama Llama," we laugh right along with her.

Be warned. Llama, Llama Red Pajama is a habit forming phrase. Once you've read this book -- and if you have a 2-6 year old in your house, you will likely be asked to read it at least a dozen more times -- you will find yourselves repeating this phrase, not only when you read together, but just at random and for fun.

That’s because the prhase is a fun rhyme in a book full of great rhymes accompanied by truly funny pictures. Llama, Llama Red Pajama is a young male llama who has trouble settling down to sleep at bedtime. Throughout most of the story, he's in bed cuddling his stuffed baby llama. He's wearing bright red pajamas, of course. Mama Llama in a blue dress, apron and pearls (looking for all the world like a llama version of Donna Reed) tucks him in, kisses him good-night, and heads downstairs to do the supper dishes.

That's when the fun ensues. As any young child knows, sometimes when your Mama closes that door at night and disappears, you start to wonder. Where is she? Is she coming back? What's she doing without me? You start to get lonely. You start to see things in the dark. You start to wonder if you need to go to the bathroom or get a drink.

Lllama, Llama Red Pajama (one wonders if that's his full name on his birth certificate!) begins to wonder all those things. In rollicking rhyme, we learn:

Lllama llama
red pajama
feels alone
without his mama.

Baby llama wants a drink.
Mama's at the kitchen sink.

And later on:

Llama llama
red pajama
waiting waiting
for his mama.

Mama isn't
coming yet.
Baby llama
starts to fret.

The book wonderfully captures the night-time insecurities and impatience of a young child, but in such a fun way that it creatively defuses them. First time author-illustrator Anna Dewdney captures those childish feelings just perfectly, right down to the fact that "Llama, llama" keeps attributing his feelings and the subsequent behavior (hollering, wailing, pouting, even jumping on the bed!) to his stuffed toy llama, much as a child might say it was her doll who needed a drink of water or an extra kiss good-night.

I appreciate it that this is not a story about deep, dark night-time fears. Many picture books want to deal with fears about monsters under the bed or in the closet. Those might be helpful if you need to find ways to creatively discuss a specific fear, but if your child hasn't struggled with those, you certainly don't want to introduce the specific fearful thoughts into her mind! Instead, this book is more about general night-time anxieties that all children can relate to, as well as the need that all toddlers and preschoolers feel from time to time for just a little bit of extra attention.

I certainly don't want my daughter emulating Llama lama's worst behavior, but I appreciate how she relates to his feelings. And it's worth nothing that she hasn't copied his behavior, perhaps in part because of its over-the-top silliness, and also because now that she's a big four year old she can feel mildly superior and amused about such fussy tantrums! This book has helped her to realize she's growing up. Gently laughing over such kinds of behavior is a backhanded way of defusing the anxieties themselves. It's a creative way of saying "see? Llama llama didn't need to worry. His Mama was right there all the time, and she came as soon as she could...she was just on the phone for a while!" The great thing is, you don't have to say that, because the story says it for you:

Little llama,
don't you know?
Mama llama
loves you so?

Mama Llama's
always near,
even if she's
not right here.

As much as we love the rhymes, the illustrations are what really make this story. I'm delighted you can see the cover which shows the wide-eyed little llama in bed. Every expression on his face, as well as his Mama's, is delightful. In fact the pictures are so expressive that you'd probably get the story (and even laugh a lot!) without the text at all. Dewdney claims that all the facial expressions she draws in her books are inspired by her own. All I can say is, she must be one expressive lady!

My daughter's favorite spread is actually the only one without any text. Llama llama finally works himself up into a "tizzy" (as Mama later calls it) and wails so loudly that Mama hangs up the phone and goes rushing up the stairs. There's a wonderful sequence of four pictures across two pages where you see her running, her own furry face crinkled with maternal worry, until she bursts into his room. Only to realize, of course, that he's fine.

I love that spread too, but I'm especially partial to the illustration of Llama, llama with his quilt pulled up over his nose. All you can see are his two huge eyes, his little hooves, and his long, floppy ears!

I will warn you that this book is not the most "settling" of bedtime reads, since it inspires so much laughter. If your child needs help calming down before bedtime (and what child doesn't from time to time?) you may want to choose a quieter story to follow. But sometimes a book of this tone is just right – especially if you want to help your child expend a bit of energy right before bedtime.

Llama, Llama Red Pajama is handsomely designed in bright colors, especially red and blue. The colorful, expressive pictures and the short stanzas of silly rhyming text combine to make this book one of our family's very favorite funny reads! 


Review slightly revised and re-posted in loving memory of Anna Dewdney
(December 25, 1965-September 3, 2016).

Friday, September 09, 2016

A Decade of Homeschooling

The past couple of weeks have been so busy that I've neglected to post anything about the beginning of our school year. Actually, part of the reason the past two weeks have been so busy has been precisely for that reason -- we're schooling again!

I was happy and relieved to kick off our tenth year of homeschooling at the end of August. There were a lot of months last spring, and even some time this summer, when I wasn't entirely sure I was going to have the energy to teach again. But I continue to feel called to do so, and for now it still seems like the right thing for our family to do.

I poured a lot of time into this year's course syllabi for several reasons. The first is that my call to keep homeschooling the sweet girl feels stronger than usual because my energies are so limited. I knew if we were going to do this, and do it well, it was going to take most of my focus and creativity this year. But one of the things I think the Lord is telling me is that it's important that I pour a lot into our dear daughter's life and learning, as much as I can.

Then there is the fact that our daughter is now in 9th grade. As in, you know, HIGH SCHOOL. This just flabbergasts me, because part of me thinks I've still got one foot in the delight of planning kindergarten, but seriously, here we are in year ten of the learning journey. Course designs need to be appropriately challenging.

Thankfully, because I had to spend a lot of the summer still resting and not being out and about or over committed to other things, I had a lot of time to lesson plan in June, July, and August.

Here's what coursework looks like for our high schooler this fall:

English 9: Literature, Writing, and Grammar
Algebra 1
Earth Science
Modern History
Spanish 1
Physical Education

The English course is an original course I spent a ton of time designing and pacing, and so far I am really happy with it. Literature is focused on modern novels, to tie into history studies (we're doing Animal Farm first) and the creative writing focus this semester is on poetry. We're exploring poetry some within academic writing as well. Today we had an awesome time scanning stanzas in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and talking about its rhyme scheme and meter.

Algebra 1 is partly a repeat from last year. Cancer derailed math as it did so many other things in our household, and she never finished the work for the year. The stress of my hospitalization and treatments and sporadic tutoring times all added up to her feeling very stressed about her studies. We've switched to Teaching Textbooks this year (which she can do almost completely independently with their online tutoring/teaching feature) and she is having a great time easing back into the subject and enjoying math again. Since her last curriculum was more advanced and she got midway through the course, she's getting some review this year, but quite honestly, she needs it. Her math skills will be the better for our slow down and course correction here.

Earth Science comes to us courtesy of Novare. I like their materials a lot. The text I chose is one that can be used in middle school, but I've had email exchanges with the author about using it in a high school context, and he wholeheartedly endorsed my use of it in this way. Their stuff tends to be challenging and sets the bar high, and we're making sure to get in the lab work and add in some supplements. It's solid material and she's having to spend quite a bit of time reading and writing in science this year, which is good.

Her dad has designed her modern history course. They intended to do modern history all of last year, but again, my illness slowed things down. They actually soldiered on through it all, but focus just wasn't there for either of them, and they really wanted to give it another semester and more attention. They'd gotten right up to World War I, so that's pretty much where they picked up this term. D has tweaked some of the assignments so S has more reading to do, but terms, timelines, maps, and creative projects continue. I especially love that he has her engaging a popular song, an iconic photograph, and a political cartoon in each decade.

We've switched gears in Spanish. S mostly completed two years in Spanish for Children (everything but the final two or three weeks in year B) and was ready to dive into a more challenging and immersive language program. We're using Breaking the Barrier for a high school level challenge. She's struggling to find the time she needs to get the work done since her four main courses are taking more time and energy than she's used to, but I think she'll get into the swing of things. We're taking it a relatively slow pace so we can also get in a little bit of Latin American geography and cooking. Each main chapter of the Spanish text provides a profile of a different Spanish speaking area of the world.

Physical education is really a combination of her Irish dance and martial arts studies, both continued from last year. She has her same dance teacher this year, which thrilled her (she loves studying with Maveen). Martial arts is not her favorite commitment, but she enjoys the time with her dad, and it provides excellent exercise and discipline. When you put the two together, she's getting pretty good workouts weekly.

And so am I, just of another sort! We'll see how my own stamina holds up. Following introductory stuff for all courses, I've been happy that she mostly needs my attention and teaching in English (where I've crafted the materials) and Science (where we have periodic learning check-ins and discussions) along with overall guidance in helping her learn to pace her days and weeks to find the right balance she needs to get the work done. With D taking on the bulk of history teaching and Spanish and Algebra being more independent, I can usually find the breaks I need during the day to rest. Learning balance and pace is important for me too, especially as I continue on with treatment and other things I need to do in my ongoing healing journey.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Great British Bake Off Series 7, Episode 3 (Recap With Spoilers)

I know, you're beginning to think I can't blog about anything but bake off! But this week, following a long day of medical tests and evaluations yesterday, I needed to relax early with the newest episode.

It was bread week in the tent this week, always one of my favorite weeks. Emcee Sue was back to her regular job of co-hosting with Mel. Paul and Mary were in their usual challenging form as judges, with Paul seeming like he'd gotten out of the wrong side of the bed on day one. Mary chastised him for grumpiness, and he made contestants cry, bite their lips, sigh, look anxious, and sometimes just laugh rather helplessly. Bread is his specialty and seems to bring out an extra layer of arrogance in Paul. I honestly thought some of his harsher comments were unnecessary, but then I much prefer Mary's honest but usually thoughtful critiques.

The week's three challenges included:

  • The signature bake, which was to create any kind of chocolate bread they wanted (they were given two and a half hours)
  • The technical bake: the creation of a dozen dampfnudel (plural apparently dampfnudeln), which are steamed German dumplings (they also had to make plum sauce and vanilla custard to go with them)
  • The showstopper bake: plaited bread centerpieces that used three different kinds of flour
I mentioned the time limit on the signature bake because it seemed to me that every single baker could have used an extra half hour. I understand the time limits are there to test them, but when you set ten good bakers a task that most of them can't seem to complete with much success because their breads are "underbaked" or "just need a few more minutes," then I'm not sure it's entirely fair. The one who seemed smartest was ginger haired Andrew, who chose a simpler bread recipe than everyone else and only had to proof it once (proofing, or proving, means to let the bread rise). Everyone else had a two proof bake which resulted in underbaked loaves; Paul kept throwing the word "raw" around, which seemed to make most of them twitch in annoyance or embarrassment.

In fact, he made Candice cry by refusing to even eat her chocolate and salted caramel brioche.To be fair, one he realized he'd made her cry, he backpedaled and tried to be encouraging, but it was a bit too little too late. I appreciated that Rav came over and gave Candice a hug after that. Paul glared at the smallness of Rav's cardamom, chocolate, and hazelnut loaf, but ended up complimenting him in the end (it was small enough that it actually baked through, unlike some of his fellow competitors' loaves). Paul actually got into an argument with Benjamina, who was making what she called a babka with what sounded like a great flavor combination of dark chocolate, almond, and tahini. Paul insisted that what she was making was not a babka but a couronne, but she wouldn't back down. No matter, she underbaked it and he stayed so grumpy when he tried it that he actually told her that its consistency was like wallpaper paste.

Paul likewise seemed initially unhappy that Andrew was only proving his chocolate chip barmbrack (a traditional Irish bread) once, but in the end he decided it had been a smart choice and approved both the taste and texture. He and Mary both liked Tom's bake too, especially his flavors -- chocolate, orange, and chili. Tom has definitely moved out in front as the baker who knows his flavors and isn't afraid to experiment. Michael tried putting chili with his chocolate too, but the balance was off and they thought it was too strong. Jane, who seemed tired and worried for much of the first day, made a couronne (a crown shaped loaf of bread) but spread her yummy looking chocolate mixture a little too thickly. Once again, it was declared underbaked.

If it seems like the name Paul has come up a lot, it has! It was definitely a Paul focused week, which continued into the technical, where he chose the bake they had to do. This week it was an odd but interesting one: steamed German dumplings called dampfnudel, which none of them had ever heard of (me either). It's worth watching the historic segment in this section, where Mel travels to Germany to learn about the bread's history. It's also worth watching to see lovably goofy Val, who has not had a consistent series, rise to the top (pun intended) and win the technical. She's the oldest baker left in the tent, and made a laughing and gracious comment about having had more years to learn to make dumplings than any of the rest of the them. Andrew continued his solidity by coming in second, red-lipsticked Candice redeemed the collapsed loaf and tears of the morning by coming in third, and Tom continued his strong day by coming in fourth. Selasi, who seemed a little off all weekend, finished fifth.

And on we go to the showstopper. The rainy first day gave way to what looked like a bright and sunny spring day...the cinematographer got in a lovely Wordsworthian shot of yellow daffodils before we got down to business with plaited loaf centerpieces. Happily, most of the bakers did well (or at least better) than they had the day before, with some of them turning out really lovely bakes. My favorite by far was Kate's gorgeous braided angel loaf -- if she had managed a better first day, I don't think anything could have stopped her from winning star baker. Andrew made an incredibly cool looking rye basket with a braided handle, which apparently also tasted good.

Tom made a very weird looking thing that was supposed to be Thor's hammer and featured all sorts of odd but apparently bold and once again delicious flavors, including the use of seaweed. He knocked it out of the park texture wise. Michael tried to draw on his Cypriot heritage in serving up plaited breads featuring olives (the breads were shapes that symbolized the flag of Cyprus) but apparently both taste and texture were all off. 

Jane's pesto infused plaited bread was beautiful and apparently scrumptious. Val fell flat with a creative idea for a Noah's ark with animals. The animals were apparently hard to tell apart; in fact, Mary wasn't sure where the ark ended and the animals started, and Paul once again declared it raw, though he conceded it smelled amazing. Benjamina won back Paul's respect with wonderfully designed bread whose flavors of herbs and onions and well baked texture won her the accolade of "gorgeous" in triplicate. I loved the lovely smile of relief and delight that spread over her face when she heard that! Selasi's breads were hit or miss (some got "well dones" and others not) and they weren't pleased with the overall design or plaiting. Similarly, Candice was told one of her loaves was good and the other was a complete mess, leaving her absolutely sure she was the baker heading home.

But in point of fact, it wasn't Candice who got the boot this was Michael, the youngest baker in the tent. His struggles throughout the weekend really seemed to culminate in the showstopper, over which Paul and Mary couldn't seem to find one good thing to say. Star baker went to Tom, which surprised me a little (though I'm not sure why, as he'd been solid all weekend) but not as much as it surprised him. He seemed downright shocked, and of course thoroughly pleased.

What do I think will happen next? I'm not sure. Val keeps managing to slip through to the next round despite inconsistencies. She's such a likable lady that I can't help feeling glad, but I keep thinking the next week could be the week she doesn't make it. Likewise, I've not been hugely impressed in the past couple of weeks with Selasi. He's such a nice, relaxed man, but his relaxation doesn't always seem to serve him well when it comes to details. Rav impressed me a lot more this week than he did last, so I think I'd put him safely in the middle for now. Candice has it in her to do excellent things, but she is so hard on herself that I'm not sure how far she'll make it.

My favorite bakers currently are Andrew, Kate, Benjamina, and Jane, probably in that order. I would have awarded Andrew star baker this week. Tom's bakes keep not impressing me visually as much as some of the others, but apparently they taste amazing, so I think he needs to stay in the top tier. Plus as Paul reminded us in this episode, in every series so far, the star baker from bread week has ended up in the final. So there is that to consider.

On to batter week! That's a new one for the bake off and I'm not sure what to expect. Among other things, it looks like they will be making pancakes and using oil fryers in the showstopper. It should be fun. Then again, it always is. 

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Great British Bake Off, Series Seven Episode 2 (Recap with Spoilers)

The GBBO continued on its merry (or should I say berry?) way this week. Judges Mary and Paul were in fine form, though presenter Mel had to carry the whole presenting load minus her faithful sidekick Sue, who missed the filming due to a death in the family. Mel did a great job on her own, and Sue did some voice-over work and an historic tidbit, so we didn't miss her entirely, but I'll be glad when they're working in tandem again.

Since Pastor Lee made his exit in week 1, we were down to eleven bakers. The theme of the week was biscuits. Before any fellow American viewers begin to salivate about honey, butter, or gravy, I should remind you that biscuit is the British term for cookie.

And cookies (or biscuits, as I will hereafter refer to them) were everywhere in the tent this week, including the floor as Louise accidentally knocked over one of her batches while removing them from the oven. Or was that Val? It might have been both. Obviously pressure is still getting to folks inside the bunting decorated baking tent.

The three challenges for this week were as follows:
  •  Signature bake: make two dozen biscuits, uniform in their shape and size, and iced
  • Technical bake: make a dozen Viennese whirls (a recipe from judge Mary Berry, which you can see here)
  • Showstopper: make a "gingerbread story" -- essentially a gingerbread structure, at least 30 cm high, which had to contain 8 figures or objects also made out of gingerbread. The entire scene had to tell some kind of story that meant something to the baker
I don't often feel the "oh, I could do that" with any of the bakeoff challenges, but I confess I did feel that way with the signature. It didn't seem like it should be too hard to make two dozen good looking, good tasting biscuits, and then get them decorated and iced nicely within the time allotted. I must have been wrong about that, however, because lots of the bakers had trouble.

For sheer style, I don't think anything beat Andrew's hexagon shaped biscuits iced with yellow icing and decorated with bees piped on freehand. They were adorable, and I agreed with Andrew that Paul's judgment that they tasted "stale" seemed a little harsh. Andrew just went for a softer biscuit, a shortbread kind of thing, which seemed allowable, only Paul was into wanting crispy biscuits that snapped when you broke them or made cool little clinking sounds when you tapped them on a china plate (prelude to dunking them....apparently Paul thinks most baked goods should be dunkable).

Welsh Louise's idea for a flock of sheep biscuits was great, and they looked very cute, though not very uniform -- somehow some of her sheep ended up bigger than others which made for accuracy, I guess, since that's probably true of a real flock of sheep. This was sternly frowned upon in a biscuit flock, however. Michael's beer mug biscuits (yes, seriously, he shaped and decorated them to look like foamy pints of beer) won cute points too, and he did a good job making them all look alike. Apparently they also were spot on for flavor, with orange, chocolate, and malt featuring. Benajmina's biscuits also featured chocolate and orange, and they looked beautiful, sort of paddle shaped bouquets of flowers.

The other biscuits were not so memorable in my mind, except for the fact that they showcased bakers running out of time. First week's star baker, Jane, shaped her biscuits to resemble flowers in pots, but ran out of time icing them so they looked half-done and not very colorful. Charmingly funny Val told a sweet story about her dad not being able to give them ice cream treats very often when they were kids, but making sure they had them in later years at family get togethers. Her ice cream cone shaped biscuits again looked adorable, but weren't fully iced. Rav had this ripping idea to make biscuits shaped like the bunting flags in the tent and decorate them with the Union Jack pattern (veddy, veddy British) but his icing seemed runny and they looked messy. Oh! And I almost forgot, but Selasi made these very cool biscuits shaped like motorbikes and iced in bright red icing. He actually added chilies to these biscuits, which seemed odd but apparently worked out taste-wise.

On to the technical bake, which again didn't seem terribly hard, as long as you could figure out how to pipe wavy, star-like batter to make the little top and bottom rounds. And then have the swirls hold up in the oven. Apparently it helps if you put the batter in the fridge for a bit before baking, but this being the technical, such instructions were not given. Some of the bakers had a hunch the batter would work better cold, but some didn't. These were sandwich biscuits, so in addition to making the biscuits, you also had to be able to whip up buttercream and jam and get those piped inside the sandwich so that the whole effect was tidy and pleasing...apparently not easy to do when bakeoff pressure is on. Last's week's calm, cool, and collected contestant, Selasi, couldn't seem to get these little sandwich biscuits to hold up for anything. His tops lost their swirls while baking and everything just seemed to crumble. Astonishingly, he finished in last place. First place kudos went to brownie master and mum Kate, with Jane and Benjamina not far behind in second and third.

The showstopper was both interesting and messy. Interesting because it was enjoyable to see what scenes the bakers felt could showcase both their talents and a memory or story they loved, and messy because trying to get gingerbread structures to hold up is really hard. Unflappable Jane was actually heard to mutter "I hate gingerbread" (or perhaps it was "I never want to see gingerbread again," but you get the gist). Young Michael told a lovely story about how his gingerbread structure, a replica of Santa's workshop, was inspired by his first visit to Santa when he was a kid. The story held up better than the gingerbread, but then that was also true for bride-to-be Louise, whose church structure completely collapsed in a mess of white icing, and sunny Val, who didn't look so sunny as her New York City landmarks collapsed in what some online commentators have since referred to in post-apocalyptic terms.

The shining examples in the showstopper, in my opinion, came through Selasi's church and Andrew's Cambridge bridge. The latter was especially stunning in its precision and detail and the judges thought it tasted great, which was not the case for Kate's brownie troop outing, which looked lovely but apparently didn't have much taste going for it. Andrew's bridge seemed far and away the best of the lot until it got overshadowed by Candice's pub -- she created a very detailed replica of the pub her family owned when she was growing up, complete with a pool table covered in lime jelly and a sticky ginger carpet. I liked it fine, but the judges seemed completely wowed by it.

Which is why Candice -- surprise! -- took home star baker this week. Which was less surprising than who had to leave the show: Louise. It was definitely down to either Louise or Val getting the boot, and I called Louise before it happened, primarily because they'd both tanked in the first and last bakes, but Val did significantly better than Louise in the technical.

So here's my take on what might happen next and who might be a bit wobbly going into week three...

My favorite bakers so far are Benjamina, Andrew, Jane, and Selasi. I think Andrew is due for a star baker designation soon. Selasi is one of my favorites to watch, mostly because he's so kind and generous to other bakers in addition to being cool under fire. He reminds me a bit of Tamal in that regard -- can you tell I still miss the season 6 bakers? Benjamina is also delightful to watch. I would enjoy seeing her zoom to the top and maybe win the whole thing.

I would still put Candice in the second tier, along with Tom, Kate, and Michael. I honestly keep forgetting about Michael, maybe because he's so quiet, but I think he could surprise some folks and stick around a while. Candice reminds me a lot of Flora at this point, not in her looks (hard to imagine Flora wearing fuchsia lipstick) but in the ways she worries and makes bakes more complicated than they need to be. I think she could stick around a good bit too. I can't quite figure out Tom -- he seems to always be trying odd and unusual things, which could either push him to the forefront or cause him to crash.

I think Rav and Val are on the bottom level at this point. Val has established herself as the contestant who has trouble with timing, and if she has another week as challenging as this one, I think she's gone. Rav hasn't done anything truly awful, but neither has he done anything terribly solid. His work this past week just looked lackluster, right down to the fact that he burned his gingerbread.

But you never can tell. Bread week is just around the corner, one of my favorite weeks! Someone we're not expecting might step up and shine. That's the beauty of bakeoff.

P.S. Cinematographer got in a great shot of a pine bough with a drop of rain this week.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Reading With Cancer

I hardly ever used to read articles or blog posts dealing with cancer. It wasn't that I set out to actively avoid the topic, though I admit to a vague feeling of uneasiness sometimes when reading about it. Although I felt compassion for those who suffered from cancer, having had some friends and family members go through it over the years, I just didn't feel a deep, personal connection with the word or the subject. Of course, that completely changed when I got diagnosed in February.

I think most big life events change us as readers. I don't just mean how we read, though that's a big part of it, but what we read. We tend to gravitate toward reflections that connect in some way with who we are at the core. I read differently because I know Jesus, because I'm married, because I'm a mom, because I've lost a parent.

(Note: I put the first one first there, because knowing Jesus affects everything I do and see and think about most deeply. I am thinking here of C.S. Lewis' quote: "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.")

But my realization about my different reading choices and preferences dawns slowly sometimes. In the case of cancer, it's dawned extra slowly, because I had months where I was either too exhausted, or just too mentally preoccupied, to read much of anything, much less anything that had to do with the illness that had invaded.

It's really just been within the last few weeks that I find my glance straying to posts or articles with the word "cancer" in them. I sometimes feel like there's a laser beam connecting me to the word, so that I'm inexorably drawn to whatever has been written about it, whether that's news about funding for or breakthroughs in cancer research, a prayer request for someone who is suffering from cancer, or a reflection by someone who has lost or is losing someone to cancer. I go to whatever is there, and I begin to read, no longer from the vantage point of compassionate outsider, but from the view of someone who has lived through enough that the words in the article reverberate with special meaning and power.

Or perhaps I actually straddle those perspectives. 

In the case of the last type of writing I mentioned, "a reflection by someone who has lost or is losing someone to cancer," I read with such a different orientation now that it feels like the world's axis has a new tilt. When I used to read such reflections, I always primarily connected with the writer/narrator of the story, the person actively living through the loss or potential loss. While that connection still lurks in the background, my bigger connection now is sometimes with the subject of the story, the person who is either still struggling with cancer or who has died. And again, that changes everything.

I thought of all this yesterday when I came across the following post from Ruminate magazine, entitled "The Caring Bridge: Cancer and the Meaning of Battles."

In it, poet and essayist Angela Doll Carlson meditates on losing her friend Debbi to cancer. She reflects on how daily life is filled with interruptions, and on how these interruptions distract us -- distract us from thinking about the news of a friend's struggle (especially in those long periods where there is no news, either good or bad), distract us from being able to find the words we need to describe the heaviness we feel when we think of our loss. I resonated with her words, as a writer, a mom, who has been there in the daily grind, lived through the countless interruptions, tried to think my way through to making sense of love and life and loss.

But I resonated  just as much if not more with the words of her friend Debbi, now passed on. She quoted Debbi from their last visit together.

“The battle is the Lord’s.” Debbi told me this when I finally saw her in person. I had no idea as we sat and talked that day that it would only be a week or so before she died. She scoffed, something I was not used to seeing from her, “I hate that people say it’s a battle. I’m not fighting a battle with cancer. I’m dying.” I nodded my head, and she looked at me pointedly, “because if it’s a battle, what does that mean when I die? Is dying really losing?” I did not know what to say in that moment.

Oh, Debbi, I think, with the tears threatening to well up, I get this. Although I am in a different place in my healing journey right now (and healing journey is what I still call it, instead of cancer journey, and I believe that the writer's friend Debbi was on a healing journey too) I too wrestle with the right words to talk about what is going on with me. As you can probably tell by the parenthetical comment I just felt a need to insert.

Our culture loves to talk about cancer as a battle, and I know dear friends and fellow patients who have embraced the word wholeheartedly. It seems to work for them, and I'm glad it does, but I have never felt much like a warrior when it comes to this disease, and I think that's okay too.

I realized from the very beginning that I had few weapons that could actually combat this disease, and that everything I could think of that felt like a powerful sword would be wielded best by others: the doctors who have an arsenal of compassion, competency, training, and wisdom; the cutting edge medicines that might or might not work and that would likely cause many side effects but that were my only line of physical defense; the pastors and deacons who would come to my home and to my hospital bedside to lay hands on me and to anoint me with healing oil; the family members and friends who would lift me up in prayer every day, especially on those days when I was far too tired to lift up myself, asking God to heal me, help me, and sustain me.

I learned early on that it was my job to "stay on the mat," while others brought me to Jesus, and while that takes patience, courage, and strength, it doesn't feel like warrior kinds of strength. I think this is what Debbi meant when she said "the battle is the Lord's." Of course it is. Ultimately it is always his, not ours, because he is the one with the true strength and power to win it. That is true in my ongoing fight against sin. Why should it be any different in my fight against disease?

But just as the fight against sin requires my ongoing willingness to fight and my participation with what God is doing, so too my fight against cancer.  As I've stayed on the mat, as I've walked the road one shaky step at a time, and as I've faced hard and toxic treatments, I have begun to question whether or not my ultimate problem is with the word "battle" or whether it's with our culture's notion of what constitutes true strength.

Maybe I am -- and maybe Debbi was (may she rest in peace) -- a warrior of a sort that we don't think about too often, the kind of strong and faithful person of love, peace, and prayer that some of the saints we love most have modeled being most truly, and that most of us just keep aspiring to be.

Because it does take courage to keep "fighting" (there's one of those hard words again) when you really have no clue how to fight, when you can't see what you're fighting, when you don't know how the fight will end. But your longing to continue living, loving, and serving others compels you forward, even on days when you feel like giving up. And you trust that however the battle may end, when you are holding onto Jesus, it ultimately ends in healing (hence my term "healing journey") and it ultimately means winning, not losing.

To quote from Carlson's article again:

"If there is indeed a battle that is ours, it is a race to find meaning and purpose. The battle is an attempt to leave a legacy of love and care, a caring bridge and it spans the life we led, the life we leave and the people who will need to continue the long walk ahead. The battle rages as the clock ticks, the days fly by too fast, people leave us too soon, leaving empty spaces where their laughter ought to be."

I find that I do indeed resonate with these words too, that I'm still thinking through what it means (and how) "to leave a legacy of love and care" for those who walk the path around us and behind us. I don't know right now how long I'll have to figure that out and to try to do it faithfully and well. It may be a long time or a short time. But isn't that true for all of us? My cancer diagnosis changes some things, but it doesn't change everything. I'm part of the human race where we're all living on the gift of an unknown amount of time, and where we want to squeeze every last drop of holiness and laughter and love out of that time, be it short or long.

So not everything about my reading has changed. The reading material I gravitate toward has widened to include cancer and all the issues, ideas, and themes that orbit around it. And when I choose to read about cancer now, I read with double lenses. There is the me that continues to "battle" cancer, and the me that continues to think through the daily minutiae that have always mattered to me, like language and loss, and how to live faithfully in the midst of them.