My First Meaningful Project

Browsing through old photographs and found this one from 2000 of hope for the future.

showing No. 1 Daughter a bookstore

Her mother took the photograph. We were in Colonial Williamsburg, probably at Mermaid Books, because chief among the things I like are books, old brick, and boxwoods. No. 1 Daughter was three months old at the time. Some days it’s hard to believe that she’s almost done with secondary school. There is one semester left.

On the days when I feel I haven’t done enough as a parent, I pretend a benign neglect is sometimes best. The next step is hers.

Envy

Looking at my résumé, I feel like I have to justify the decisions I’ve made. It’s not the curriculum vitae I thought I’d have. At each step along the way, each fork in the road I took made sense. Looking back, there’s some regret — and envy. Regret that I didn’t see opportunities, not of my decisions. Envy of those with different luck, who happened to be in the right place at the right time. And envy of my children, who have a long road still ahead of them, full of possibility.

I, on the other hand, often feel hedged about by my past, such that I’m lost, and almost paralyzed by expectations.

Which way do I go?

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

MIDWAY upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Need-Blind

The ocean of the Internet tosses up interesting flotsam, and then it sinks below the surface again. I read some passing reference, perhaps by Niall Ferguson, to the British Empire needing a lot of clerks to do the computing, and thus schools to train them in the essentials of empire: completing and processing forms, and thus neat handwriting and arithmetic. (I’d like a citation.) We’ve since invented mechanical computers to tabulate and process the forms, and outsourced the completion of the forms themselves to the end-users.

In this otherwise excellent discussion of AT&T’s Workforce 2020 program, an employee training initiative intending to re-skill 100,000 employees in the next three years, Randall Stephenson makes a throwaway comment that, of course, the student has to learn the new skills on his own time. Because, we’ll help you help yourself, but only if you’re interested in keeping up with the changing world. (My experience of layoffs at AT&T has been that when jobs are eliminated, the people are generally given the opportunity to apply for any remaining jobs.) The coursework that Mr. Stephenson mentions is available at Udacity and Georgia Tech. It’s an exciting program. These are, for the most part, skills that didn’t exist less than a decade ago, using tools that were pooh-poohed by big companies like AT&T. But what about general purpose skills? What about the world beyond the virtual?

I spent today assisting with completing the FAFSA and TAP and PROFILE and now I’m tired and wondering what would be the harm in disregarding parental ability to pay and considering only the student’s assets, if those. Though I suppose then colleges, trade schools, and such might either lower their fees in order to attract students, turn elsewhere for funding, and go out of business. Is it really optimal for adolescents to guess what the labor market might demand in four years rather than for an employer to train an employee to do what needs being done now or in the relatively near future? It’s unreasonable to expect any student to take on debt based on the assumption of future earning potential. One, they’re not in any position to make an accurate assessment of their prospects; and, two, robots. In four years 9.5 million truckers will be looking for new work. Meanwhile there’s a shitload of clerical work that’s purely inefficiency — healthcare billing, for example — and doesn’t require a college education in order to complete, though one might consider lawyers essentially to be clerical help of a particularly specialized kind, not to mention the skilled trades. What’s wrong with apprenticeship? Besides, many adolescents are impatient: they are ready to go and do. They are done with waiting.

If college is to prepare one for a job, then why is the student paying for it instead of the employer? And if it’s not necessarily to prepare one for a job, but rather to work together to enhance our understanding of ourselves, of this world and the next, then why would we limit who can undertake that quest to those who’ve won the parental lottery? Or, to be frank, given the existential threat that robots pose to humanity, why would we limit learning at all, since increasing understanding is the only thing we will be for (maybe not even that)? Perhaps we need to ask, where else is there a community of scholars but at college?

Anyway, apply first and meet all the deadlines. You will have no idea what college will cost until three months after all the forms have been filled out.

In Living Memory

Number One Daughter got her first college acceptance today, from Wells College on the shore of beautiful Cayuga Lake. I need to get that FAFSA submitted. Some of its assumptions are annoying, but one is correct: She is heading to college directly from high school, at least for purposes of this form. However, Inside Higher Ednotes that almost half of college students are “non-traditional,” meaning that they don’t come along to college directly after high school and between the ages of 18 and 24. It almost makes one wonder if perhaps there’s some disconnect between what’s assumed to be normal and what is, or some lack of understanding of how traditions change over time — the traditional student may not be the normal student, nor even traditional.  We’ve been misled by the past fixed in our memory, pretending to be inflexible. But it makes sense that institutions which pride themselves on traditions might see everything from that perspective, though one might expect them to use a more accurate label, such as “young adult,” instead of “traditional.”

Today our families gather to be together and give thanks, on a holiday which is either a celebration of survival or of death, depending on whom one asks. Once a day of fasting and reflection, Thanksgiving has become almost a celebration of gluttony — though to my mind that’s tomorrow. Odd that until the coming of mass media, Thanksgiving was somber. But my experience of what other families do is entirely from stories told in the movies. Have I read a novel set at Thanksiving? Is there one?

some of the pies

What I recall is more recent than my childhood. Earlier both Thanksgiving and Christmas blend together: black walnuts, pumpkin pie, ham, green beans almondine, and congealed salad. I spent most of any party alone, reading. (Family holidays at my in-laws’ were a bit more explosive.) Today we had remembered receipts and conversations about family origins. Dad told the story of a young John Bell who ran away to western Virginia with his Cherokee wife instead of heading off on the Trail of Tears. It puts some context on the 23andMe results:

Traditions change with time. They aren’t fixed. Each iteration offers something new. But is it not a bit odd that gratitude for plenty becomes gorging to excess?

Our society appears to place great stock in buying, in consumption. They talk about it on the news a lot. The advertisements tell us there’s lots more to buy. But I’m not sure where the money to buy things comes from. (Actually, I am sure where it comes from, but it’s unevenly distributed.) Spend the time with your family. Buy nothing. Let the rich trickle down their purchases.

Impropriety

News of the world is daily maddening, full of pointless cruelty. We must take our moments of joy where we find them. My sons are in the bell choir at Trinity United Methodist Church. Before the service, the congregation sings hymns as randomly suggested by the congregants. Number Two Son had been looking through the hymnal and apparently found a song he liked: Angels We Have Heard on High. He confidently raised his tiny hand. “It’s too early for Christmas songs,” I whispered. He slowly lowered his hand, and we sang some other song.

After the song finished, the choirmaster asked for one more. One of the congregants had noticed the little hand, and pointed him out.

“Yes? What number?”

He spoke loudly and clearly, “Number 238.”

I couldn’t sing along very well overcome with emotion.

Missing

Like the rest of the postcards received by PostSecret, this one reveals an anonymous sentiment, one perhaps more common than not, and surprising.

My 8 year old son's pillow. So I can touch it and whisper goodnight to him. Divorce is HELL on Earth. (I'm the Dad.)

Why should that be?

It’s a simple image: A well-made bed, pillows neatly tucked; a typed caption describing the scene; a comment.

All normal, except the handwritten note: “I’m the Dad.”

Why does this surprise us?

Attention Must Be Paid

My work — the employment for which I’m paid, that is — is invisible. Nothing to see here; move along. Long ago, the company asked us to let undergraduates, prospective employees who were interested in the field, shadow us for a day so they could get a sense of the job. Instead of an internship, looking over my shoulder while I type. Had they seen Office Space? Do we really need to impress on the young how accurate Waiting for Godot is? At least Kafka has a giant cockroach.

Number Two Son is nine, about the age at which I began playing Dungeons & Dragons. He wasn’t feeling well and stayed home from school today. After waking and breakfast, he asked me to read with him, but I was working. He read to himself a bit then puttered around with math and the slack line while waiting. Then at lunch we read The Lorax.

He asked questions a lot while he was puttering. I was inattentive at first, but wasn’t getting anything done. It took me a while to remember that he was there with me in real life, a real person; that today was special because he wasn’t normally at home during the week. Then I took the time and gave him my attention.

As we chatted at the lunch table after reading, I wondered what about my work could be interesting to him. Or, if not that, what about what I’m thinking about anything. When he asks, “what are you doing?” and I answer only, “work,” what does that say? I’m not writing video games: It’s not like he can see how moving a semi-colon changes a syntax error into a functioning for loop, or a comma changes meaning. And he’s not reading what I write, so my rants online about whatever don’t register — that may be a good thing. But how can I say he learned anything at his father’s knee if I don’t talk to him? My work is invisible; he can’t watch.

What if we tried talking to our children as if they are people and interesting, instead of waiting for them to leave home first?

What if we gave them the time of day?

Maybe tomorrow we can talk about how The Lorax is a tragedy not a comedy.

Publish, or Die Trying

My father is a Presbyterian minister, and has been for fifty years. Sometimes I hear rumors that he’s retired, but it’s a working retirement. His labor is a calling. Each week is a new sermon. I remember Saturdays reading on the couch in his study while he wrote, first long-hand and then on the Smith-Corona. I didn’t read the sermons; they were performance pieces, meant to be heard, not read. The churches recorded the sermons, so those who couldn’t come on Sunday could hear the Word of the Lord. I doubt any of those recordings still exist, though perhaps they do in a basement somewhere. Once he mentioned that some preachers didn’t write their own sermons: they bought them from a catalog. Publish yours, I said. Perhaps, he demurred, but not for preaching. Each has a place and a time.

I’ve been a reader since I learned how, and an aspiring writer. It might have something to do with being surrounded by words and books — and procrastination. You know the difference between an aspiring writer and a writer? A writer writes. I’ve written, but what I’ve written has been small works of little discipline: e-mails, pithy blog posts, the occasional technical documentation. None of these match my ideal of a writer. (Nor did writing copy for the inside of a book jacket, which is probably why I only lasted a day as an editorial intern.) I should stay away from Platonic ideals.

This next month is November; that is, NaNoWriMo. I’m not inclined to write a novel, but writing something each day is a start.

I Wish I Could Go Back to College

No. 1 Daughter is a junior in high school this year. My how time flies. Her next act on the world stage approaches. Last year, to be helpful, because she was really not interested, and didn’t take the PSAT, I signed her up for the mailing lists of a couple of colleges. Specifically, I signed her up for those which I was interested in when I was looking at schools.

That’s not wrong, right?

Not all of them, though. I didn’t put her on the mailing list for Deep Springs or Hamden-Sydney because she’s, ahem, female. Or for Stamford, since this isn’t about me: it’s about getting her interested in the possibilities.

Yeah. Right.

Maybe I could visit her far too many times if she chose Bard (or, better yet, Simon’s Rock) or Vassar or Fordham, or even just a few too many for a modicum amount of comfort if she chose Mary Baldwin or St. John’s College. Perhaps the better choice, beyond a semester at sea, is something far away, like Oxford.

A community college is right out. I’ll be there every day.

Great Scientists

A friend of mine posted a Carl Sagan quote that reminded me of something.

Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.

A few years back we saw Fourth of July fireworks from the causeway across Lake Carmel. I think the Big Sister and the Little Sister were four and two, respectively. We had a conversation that went something like this.

Big Sister: Why don’t the sounds match the fireworks?

Me: Why do you think?

Big Sister: I think the light is faster than the sound.

That’s my girl!

Grandmother’s Bread

By way of my sister’s recipe box, comes this memory.

Scald all together and set aside to cool:

  • 2 c. milk
  • 2/3 c. shortening*
  • 5 tbsp. sugar
  • 2 tbsp salt

Add 2 cups water to above mixture.

  • 1 cake yeast**
  • 1/4 c. water
  • 13-14 c. flour (approx, depending on flour)

Crumble yeast into water to soften. Sift flour into large bowl; shape a hole in the middle and gradually add milk mixture and yeast, beating constantly to keep mixture smooth. Mix until a medium stiff dough is formed. Knead on a floured board until smooth. Place in a greased bowl and brush with melted shortening.

Cover and let rise in warm place until doubled in bulk (about 1 1/2 hours). Punch down and let rise again, then shape into 3 or 4 loaves (depending on size of pans). Place in greased bread pans; let rise again until double in bulk on top of pan. Bake in hot oven (425) for 10 minutes, then reduce temperature to moderately hot oven (375) and bake 25-30 minutes longer. Large loaves take a little longer. Remove from pans and brush crusts with butter. Put on a rack or cloth to cool.

* shortening, known in some circles as lard and in others as Crisco.

** fresh yeast = compressed yeast = active fresh yeast = cake yeast = baker’s compressed yeast = wet yeast Equivalents: 2-ounce cake = 3 X 0.6-ounce cakes Notes: This form of yeast usually comes in 0.6-ounce or 2-ounce foil-wrapped cakes. It works faster and longer than active dry yeast, but it’s very perishable and loses potency a few weeks after it’s packed. It’s popular among commercial bakers, who can keep ahead of the expiration dates, but home bakers usually prefer dry yeast. To use, soften the cake in a liquid that’s 70° – 80° F. Store fresh yeast in the refrigerator, well wrapped, or in the freezer, where it will keep for up to four months. If you freeze it, defrost it for a day in the refrigerator before using. Substitutes: active dry yeast (Substitute one package or 2 1/4 teaspoons for each .6-ounce cake of compressed yeast) OR instant yeast (Substitute one package or 2 1/4 teaspoons for each cake of compressed yeast) OR bread machine yeast (Substitute 2 1/4 teaspoons for each cake of compressed yeast) [I’m still deciphering this paragraph.]

Grandmother’s Lemonade

The hot days of Summer call for a cool drink, shade, and a lazy breeze through the apple trees. If my taste memory serves, this is Grandmother’s Lemonade.

  • 3/4 c. sugar
  • 1 c. lemon juice
  • 2 qt. minus 1 c. water

Cover the bottom of a half-gallon glass Tropicana Orange Juice bottle with sugar. Squeeze lemons until the sugar is covered and begins to melt. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Add water and ice to fill the remainder, about two quarts.

Harvest Punch

We typically host Christmas Day dinner at our house, after my brother-in-law and his wife host the Feast of the Seven Fishes at his. Christmas Day is a more subdued affair, with fewer guests, and more flexibility in the menu. This year we had turkey, and this year I thought I’d serve a punch.

Finding a punch recipe was harder than I thought it would be. There are so many options, and so many of the options require liqueurs and other ingredients that I don’t yet have in my cabinet. Some I considered were Philadelphia Fish House Punch, Garrick Club Punch, Planter’s Punch, Chatham Artillery Punch, and those in this month’s issue of Imbibe Magazine. I settled on this Harvest Punch from Mutineer Magazine. The picture is pretty.

The spirits in the recipe are the fine products of Philadelphia Distilling: Bluecoat Gin and Vieux Carré Absinthe Supérieure. Unfortunately, none of the shops around sells Vieux Carré, and the absinthe varieties they do have seem to insist on using artificial food colorings. I should have decided earlier; I could have ordered by mail. Fortunately, a nearby shop does sell Bluecoat Gin.

As a result of the lack of absinthe I substituted Romana Sambuca. The punch lost, I’m sure, some complexity, but I wouldn’t know: I’ve not had absinthe. I also left out the cranberry bitters.

I’ve reduced this to serve the eight adults at our Christmas dinner, and still had a quart left over. This recipe can be prepared in the punch bowl or in a mixing bowl beforehand. I used a mixing bowl. I did find that the cranberry in the punch is quite strong, and mellows substantially if it rests overnight.

Harvest Punch

  • 375 ml Bluecoat Gin
  • 4 oz Romana Sambuca
  • 4 oz lemon juice
  • 8 oz cranberry juice
  • 20 oz apple cider
  • 6 toasted cardamom pods
  • 2 toasted star anise
  • 1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
  • 16 oz. sparkling water
  • 5 dashes Fee Brothers Cranberry bitters
  • 5 dashes Angostura bitters
  • Mint sprigs
  • Orange wheels
  • 6 oz. cranberries

Freeze a thin layer of water and cranberries in a bundt pan, filling about a quarter of the pan.

Toast the cardamom pods and star anise over a medium flame. While waiting for them to toast, squeeze the lemons. In a larger mixing bowl, mix the confectioner’s sugar with the lemon juice until dissolved. Add the gin and sambuca, mix until thoroughly combined with the lemon juice and sugar, then add the remaining ingredients, save the sparkling water and the garnish. Stir well.

At this point you may wish to sample the punch to see if needs adjustment. Bear in mind that the punch will be diluted later by sparkling water and ice. I increased the apple cider ration from 16 oz. to 20 oz. to cut the bitterness of the cranberries.

Combine with sparkling water over ice in a punch bowl. Garnish with cranberries, orange wheels, and mint.

Replacing the Oxygen Sensor on a 2002 Honda CR-V

In order to pass the New York State vehicle inspection, all emissions control components must work. For example, if the oxygen sensors fail, they must be replaced. If you ever need to replace an oxygen sensor, these instructions from the CR-V Owner’s Club help.

I bought the DENSO part 2349005 {#36531PLE003} OE-TYPE OXYGEN SENSOR from Rock Auto, after pricing the same part elsewhere. Denso is the original equipment manufacturer, so this is the same part you’ll get from Honda, for $150 to $300 less. The Honda dealer who read the code from the on-board computer wanted an arm and a leg for the part, $450, plus another $80 to change it.

However, the sensor was in so tight, and I was unable to get any leverage on it, that I ended up taking it to a shop just to get the old one removed. The mechanic there had it out, and replaced, in a jiffy, for only $25.

Grandmother’s Creamed Tomatoes

From my younger sister, Grandmother Cox’s recipe for Creamed Tomatoes

  • 1 pint whole tomatoes
  • pinch of baking soda
  • 1/3 cup flour
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 3 Tbsp butter

Empty tomatoes into saucepan and crush them. Add pinch of baking soda (prevents milk from curdling) and stir. Put over medium heat. While tomatoes are heating, whisk together in a bowl, flour and milk (or shake in a jar). Add milk mixture to warm tomatoes. Heat until starting to bubble. Stir in butter, salt and pepper. Serve over buttered toast.

These measurements are estimates. My Grandmother didn’t measure and neither do I. In her words when she taught me how to make these, “Sometimes you get them too thick and you have to add milk and sometimes they’re too thin and you have to add flour.”

Cucumbers

D and the children planted a nice garden this year in Gram’s front yard: tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, corn, watermelon, butternut squash, zucchini, and cucumber. We took our first batch of zucchini and cucumber off the vines the weekend of July 17th, and are coming up with some new dishes to eat.

I just happen to have a gin here that claims to taste of cucumber: Hendrick’s. And it does taste of cucumber, if you put a cucumber in the glass with the gin.

First up in the mixing cup was Hendrick’s twist on the martini.

Cucumber Martini

  • 2 1/2 parts Hendrick’s Gin
  • 1/2 part dry vermouth
  • cucumber slice

Stir Hendrick’s Gin and vermouth in a mixing glass with ice. Strain into a chilled martini glass. Finish with a cucumber garnish.

Then in “Ginning Things Up,” Imbibe Magazine (Sept./Oct. 2009), I ran across mention of the Eastside, a variation on the Southside which adds cucumber.

The Eastside

  • 2 oz. gin
  • 1 oz. fresh lime juice
  • 3/4 oz. simple syrup
  • 8 mint leaves
  • 2 slices cucumber
  • Ice cubes
  • Tools: shaker, muddler, strainer
  • Glass: cocktail
  • Garnish: thin slice of cucumber

Using a muddler, lightly crush cucumber and mint leaves in a cocktail shaker. Add liquid ingredients and shake well with ice. Strain into a chilled glass. Float garnish on top of drink.

And the Poughkeepsie Journal just happened to publish a recipe syndicated from McClatchy-Tribune: the Capulet Collins. This is basically the same as the Eastside, but in a Collins glass filled with ice and seltzer water.

Capulet Collins

Mixologist Toby Maloney prefers to make this cocktail with Hendrick’s gin, which has a crisp, cucumberlike flavor note.

  • 3 slices cucumber, each 1/2-inch thick 1 tiny pinch salt
  • 2 mint sprigs
  • 2 ounces gin
  • 1 ounce simple syrup
  • 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
  • 5 drops rose water, optional
  • Soda water

Muddle cucumber and salt thoroughly in cocktail shaker. Add 1 sprig of the mint. Bruise gently. Add remaining ingredients. Add ice. Shake. Strain into a Collins glass over fresh ice. Top with soda water. Garnish with remaining mint sprig

Sangria

We had family and friends over tonight for the 1st Annual Firefly Catching Contest. It was a blast; we’ll certainly have the 2nd Annual one next year.

This was all D’s idea. She made some appetizers, and invited the other families to bring over a dessert around 19:30. I made a sangria based on the recipe from Tertulia Andaluza, and reproduce my modifications here. This is the first sangria I’ve made. The next one will probably avoid using as much citrus: it tasted a bit like grapefruit juice.

Peel one orange and one lemon, and cut them into small pieces. Soak the pieces in their own juice with 2 tsp. sugar. While they soak, squeeze the juice from two oranges, one lemon, and a lime. Mix the juices with a bottle of wine and 150 ml of rum in a wide-mouthed jug or pitcher able to hold about 2 liters. Add the mixed fruit and sugar that was left to soak earlier, and an additional 1/2 cup of confectioners sugar. Mix using a wooden spoon, then dilute to taste with sparkling water. By this point the pitcher should be about three-quarters full. Let it sit in the refrigerator until your guests arrive, then add four scoops of ice, stir again, and serve.

A similar drink was made for the children. Instead of the wine, citrus juices and rum, the punch used 2 cups unfiltered apple juice and 1 cup pomegranate juice.

A Rainy Day

Rain falling from the sky
Slowly sliding off the roof
Dripping down the window panes
Glittering on the spider webs
Gently slipping down the leaves
Making puddles on the ground
The sun shows its royal presence
It pushes the clouds away
The rainbow makes me smile

© 2009, Emily Cox

Selected Spelling Sentences

The Little Sister is in the second grade this year. One of their weekly assignments is to write sentences using the words they are learning to spell. She has quite a way with them.

I don’t really go in the deep side of the water because I might sink.

We do not have a king to rule our country. We have Barack Obama.

When I get water in my eyes I blink.

My favorite drink is Shirley Temple. What’s yours?

Did you know that left wing is in hockey?

My brother wakes up cranky.

I love to go on the swing.

In Anne of Green Gables the word hang was used.