an expensive product fail

Terry and I wanted to do something memorable for Christmas dinner, since Terry’s sister Julie and Julie’s adopted mother-in-law, Laura, would be joining us. Terry ordered prime rib from a specialty meat shop in a town about half an hour to the southwest. It was pricey. At about six pounds, it cost over a hundred dollars, but we thought it would be worth it.

prime ribI seasoned it with Jeff Mauro’s marvelous Dino Rib Rub and we put it in the oven using the roast setting. We said grace, sat down to eat, and… It was tough. Tough! I said nothing until Terry and I were cleaning up and I whispered my thoughts. Terry agreed. Julie and Laura were polite and gracious, not saying anything. Julie even took some of the prime rib home with her. We still had plenty left over, which Terry sealed up with our FoodSaver and put in the freezer.

We’ll use the leftovers for beef stew, tacos, and such. But prime rib for stew and tacos? Prime rib for which we paid three figures? Really?

There’s something very wrong here.

Searching for Sunday

Searching for Sunday coverSearching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church
Rachel Held Evans
read by the author
Thomas Nelson, April 21, 2015
$20.96 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

I had long known of Rachel Held Evans when I read of her hospitalization in 2019 with a strange infection, and was, like so many others, saddened by her subsequent death at a time when we needed her wisdom and insight. I had, however, not read any of her work.

I was interested, therefore, to learn of the posthumous publication of a new book entitled Wholehearted Faith. Her husband discovered she left behind extensive notes and unfinished writing on her computer, so he called on her writing collaborator, Jeff Chu, to craft what was there into one final book. When looking at her books, however, I was attracted by an earlier work of hers, Searching for Sunday. She writes about her own spiritual path; it seemed to me to have parallels to my own.

She divides the book into seven sections, corresponding to the seven sacraments: baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing the sick, and marriage. (The Episcopal Church considers communion and marriage to be sacraments, while it calls the remainder sacramental rites.) Within each section she writes both about her spiritual path and her reflections on church and society. A couple of the chapters amount to her own liturgical litanies.

She writes about growing up at the evangelical Grace Bible Church in Tennessee and being baptized there as a teenager. The pastor at Grace later presided Rachel and her husband’s wedding, and they attended the church until leaving when the doctrine there became incompatible with their own beliefs. The members of their church and others in their small town made this a topic of conversation. When someone emailed Rachel telling her she had heard that Rachel had become a Buddhist, Rachel responded, “I’m not disciplined enough to be a Buddhist!”

She and her husband did some halfhearted church seeking, but she admits that on many Sundays they ended up television binge-watching. When the former youth pastor at Grace decided to form a mission church in Dayton Rachel and her husband joined in. The mission didn’t last, and after its closure she and her husband didn’t spend a lot of time in church search. Rachel’s weekends were busy meeting with church groups and attending conferences resulting from the popularity of her first two books. (I’m sorry to say that her California hosts could not convince her of the sacred nature of the In-n-Out burger.) She writes about a stay at a monastic retreat house, where the guestmaster was completely accepting and her lunch table-mate was taken aback that Rachel had doubts (and that she wasn’t Catholic). Ultimately, Rachel and her husband found an Episcopal church a half hour away from their home which they attended semi-regularly.

It was delightful listening to Rachel tell her story in her light Tennessee accent. She makes you think she is the kind of person with whom you would like to have a long after-dinner conversation. Not that everything is upbeat and pleasant about the church for Rachel. She suggests that the church should be a place where a person feels safe but not necessarily comfortable.

It is a tragedy that Rachel Held Evans is no longer with us, but if you have ever had doubts about your own spiritual path get the audiobook and listen to Rachel’s comforting voice. You will feel better about your own struggles.

Honoring Simeon

It’s been more than ten years since the Episcopal Church adopted the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for use in worship, replacing the lectionary found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The Episcopal Church does deviate from the RCL a couple of times during the year, however. One of those times is the two Sundays after Christmas. (We have two Sundays after Christmas this year; that’s not the case every year.) For the First Sunday after Christmas the Episcopal Church uses the prologue to the Gospel of John for the gospel reading. This does not make me happy. First, John really annoys me for a number of reasons, which I won’t go into here. Second, I like hearing the story of Simeon and his song on the First Sunday after Christmas. (You’ll find Simeon in Luke 2:22-35.)

But wait. The RCL does not specify the Simeon passage for every year. The only time the Song of Simeon is designated is for Christmas 1 for year B, the year of Mark. (For those of you who are not liturgically inclined, we began Year C, the year of Luke, on the First Sunday of Advent this year.)

The Song of Simeon is one of my two favorite passages in the New Testament (the other being the Emmaus story). Simeon has inspired many great works of music. Simeon’s song begins, “Now Lord, let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled.” The Latin “nunc dimittis” means “You now dismiss (your servant)” and many of the works use the Latin.

Since we don’t find Simeon in the lectionary today I’ll share one of those musical pieces with you.

Rants from the Hill

Rants from the Hill coverRants from the Hill: On Packrats, Bobcats, Wildfires, Curmudgeons, a Drunken Mary Kay Lady, and Other Encounters with the Wild in the High Desert
Michael P. Branch
Roost Books (June 6, 2017), 233 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon paperback $10.57

Jennifer Cognard-Black offers many examples of skilled essay writers in her Great Courses lecture series Becoming a Great Essayist. One example she provides is the work of Michael P. Branch. She states that Branch’s work originally appeared in a blog when, in fact, it appeared in the online edition of High Country News, so the work is more curated and edited than she suggested.

Rants from the Hill is one collection of those essays and the book proves Cognard-Black correct: Branch knows how to write an essay.

Branch and his wife built a house off the grid on a plot of land at the top of a hill in northwest Nevada, next to Bureau of Land Management territory. This collection centers on his experience in and around the property.

The author writes about finding a douser to help him decide where to drill their well. He writes about deciding to walk a thousand miles a year. Branch describes his wife insisting on his getting a cell phone because of those long walks. He points out that there was only one spot on his walks where there was cell coverage.

Branch describes the extremes in the weather in their part of Nevada and how in the spring their long driveway becomes impassable in the mud. He tells the story of an intoxicated Mary Kay representative coming up the driveway in her pink Cadillac, losing control and ending up on the side of the driveway on a tree stump. She calls someone (presumably her husband) who arrives on the horse and takes her home. The pink Cadillac stayed there until later in the spring when the driveway became passable. Branch doesn’t explain how she got cell phone reception there.

A different time of the year brings the Washoe Zephyr, Branch’s depiction of which exemplifies his skill at description and his ability to turn a phrase:

quoteCalling our ripping Washoe wind a zephyr is a triumph of the sort of ironic understatement that is essential to the American tall-tale tradition. The droll implication of the Washoe Zephyr’s name is that out here in the desert West the landscape is so vast and intense that our version of a gentle breeze is a blast that carries off lumber yards, wheelbarrows, children, and vacant lots.

We read about Branch’s two daughters. They were so pleased with their first daughter, who was so calm and well-behaved, that they considered themselves exemplary parents. So much so that they decided to have another. This one turned out to be the rebellious wild child. Branch writes about having to put his faithful dog down and the sappy poem in the condolence card sent by the vet suggesting that pets would be in some sort of doggy purgatory until their owner arrived to be with them again. He recounts getting a new dog who turned out to be not at all what he expected. (That’s what happens when you pay a breeder rather than getting a rescue.)

Alcohol plays a big part in this book. Branch constantly mentions IPA and whiskey. He obviously assumes that his readers know what IPA is. I didn’t. I needed Google to tell me that he has a fondness for India Pale Ale. He refers to a specific kind of whiskey perhaps one time, so I presume he doesn’t share my fondness for Scotch. In one essay he admits to running his writing through a word cloud, which provides a visual depiction as to how frequently words are used (similar to the category map on your right). His daughters pointed out that their names appeared in much smaller type that “IPA” and “whiskey.” Branch writes that he attempted to remedy that for the version of the essays that appear in this book. Without running the book through a word cloud I will say that I believe he did.

In one essay, which Cognard-Black reads in her lecture series, Branch writes about the American lawn, which for all kinds of reasons is ecologically unfriendly (to say the least). He states that while sustainable native plants surround most of his house, he does have one small patch of lawn, mostly for his daughters.

If you enjoy a well-written essay or if you like reading about life in the deserts of the American West, take a look at Rants from the Hill.

a new FoodSaver

I have written here many times about our FoodSaver, which we use to vacuum seal leftovers to store in the freezer. The earliest blog entry that I can find dates to September 2011, and that was just a mention in passing. I have had it longer than that. The user guide has a copyright date of 2008, so if I bought it in 2009, which is entirely possible, that is twelve years. That’s a long life for an electronic appliance, and the FoodSaver has a lot of electronics.

I have kept it going by buying replacement parts such as the bag detection tray and the gaskets. I sourced wherever I could, including Jarden, the company that makes the FoodSaver, Amazon, and eBay. But this year the replacement parts simply weren’t there. And in recent weeks my FoodSaver became more recalcitrant and unwilling to seal up bags. At the height of its efficiency you had to hold your mouth just right as you slipped the open end of the bag into the narrow slot, coaxing the FoodSaver to seal the bag. However, it then reached the point of being downright obstinate, and Terry would hear cursing and swearing coming from the kitchen.

Time for a new FoodSaver.

FoodSaverI did some research on Amazon and settled on the FoodSaver model FM2100-000. So far I’m happy. It is a more compact design, and when you seal the bottom of the bag (when making a bag from a roll of plastic) it wastes less space beneath the seal than did my previous FoodSaver. It has a lid that opens so there’s no more coaxing the top of the bag into that thin slit. It’s easy to put the top of the bag in the proper spot and close the lid.

The first couple of times we tried to seal something our new FoodSaver did not cooperate. It didn’t create a vacuum and it didn’t seal. So we went back and read the instructions more carefully. Reading the instructions is always a good idea. It turns out that you need to put the open end of the bag inside the drip tray. This was a new concept for me, as on my old model the only function of the drip tray was to catch overflow liquids that the FoodSaver vacuumed out before sealing the bag. Once we made that correction it worked beautifully.

Sealing up leftovers in the FoodSaver is an essential part of our cooking routine, and we would be lost without it. I’m delighted to have a new one that is much easier to use, and I hope it lasts another twelve years. However long it lasts there will be a lot less cursing and swearing coming out of the kitchen.

Judaism for the World

Judaism for the World coverJudaism for the World: Reflections on God, Life, and Love
Arthur Green
Yale University Press (September 22, 2020), 481 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $25.99

I have long felt that my religious inclinations are closer to modern Rabbinic Judaism than to Christianity. That is odd, since I’m a practicing Episcopalian, but it’s true. I’ve never been able to wrap my mind around the Trinity and I’ve been told I don’t understand it. I like the idea of a direct relationship with God, and I’m not sure why we need a Son to facilitate that.

In fact, if things had been slightly different I might have converted to Judaism. My first wife, Ruth, was Jewish and the rabbi at the local reform synagogue married us in our backyard. We were members of the synagogue and attended Friday night sabbath services, which I loved. One year I had the privilege of attending the Erev Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service, which I found deeply moving. I felt a real resonance with the liturgy.

At one Friday sabbath service, however, the rabbi came down strong and hard against new age practitioners in his sermon. This was a bit of an issue in that Ruth was a new age practitioner. His comments, understandably, seriously ticked her off. I tried to defuse the situation, but without success. The conversation went something like this.

Me: “He was just trying to say…”
Ruth: “No!”
Me: “He was only making the point that…”
Ruth: “No!”
Me: “He simply wanted to suggest that…”
Ruth: “No!”

As you can imagine, we did not return to Friday evening services. But I had a strong affinity for Judaism long before I met Ruth and I have maintained that affinity in the decades after her untimely death.

It’s no surprise, then, that when I saw Judaism for the World reviewed it got my attention. Arthur Green is a rabbi and a trainer of rabbis. He has had a long career and Judaism for the World includes a variety of his writing over a period of years. He is a student of Gershom Scholem, and as such takes a mystical approach to his religion. He is conversant with Kabbalah and its primary written work, the Zohar, as well as the teachings of the Hasidic rebbes. He is also a scholar and well-versed in the Law.

Green takes seriously the history of the Jewish people having been slaves in Egypt and is therefore critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Green is highly ecumenical in his approach and respects the validity of other religions. He writes, “Religions acting together, in common quest for God—or the One, or Being, or the great Nothing—and fulfillment of the divine purpose in existence, can be a great force for good.”

One of the most interesting passages in the book is Green’s recounting of his own spiritual path. His mother died when he was eleven, and his father was an atheist. However, Green found a great deal of meaning in the small synagogue his maternal grandparents attended. His father sent him to Hebrew school to prepare for his bar mitzvah. The bar mitzvah was not something the father wanted but agreed to it in order to make Grandmother happy. He told the young Green that he could drop out if he didn’t like it. Much to his father’s consternation Green loved Hebrew school and was delighted to receive his bar mitzvah. As a college graduate he nearly declined to be ordained as a rabbi, citing inconsistency and hypocrisy in the religion. Ultimately he realized he could do more good from the inside than from the outside. The rest is… Well, you’ll see what the rest is from the essays and speeches in this book.

Judaism for the World reinforced for me my understanding that part of me is quite Jewish.

life with Alexa

We bought our first Amazon Echo in February of this year for the bedroom. We quickly followed with a second Echo for the dining room/kitchen. When I learned that my legacy internet radio was about to be obsoleted I bought an Echo Show for my office.

I had thought about buying a current-generation internet radio for my office, but I decided it made sense to have consistency throughout the house. And besides, with my Echo Show (since I subscribe to Amazon Music) I can say, “Alexa, play the Broadway cast recording of Rent” and Alexa will do just that. Can’t do that with an internet radio.

Echo Show with a photoOf course Alexa gets confused sometimes. In trying to get the movie soundtrack to Cabaret she insisted on playing the revival Broadway cast recording, which is a tad different. Alexa was having trouble understanding my instructions to play the Los Angeles classical music radio station KMZT and kept coming up with other stations. So I set up a routine on my iPhone Alexa app specifying the exact radio station along with its source (TuneIn Radio). The command is “Alexa, play Mount Wilson classical.” (This also to avoid confusion. Mount Wilson FM Broadcasters, Inc. owns KMZT.) However, unless I carefully pronounce “Mount” Alexa wants to play classic Matt Wilson songs from Amazon Music.

Sometimes Alexa responds differently to the same command. I have a routine that has Alexa turn on the light in the dining room and play the jazz radio station KCSM. The command is, “Alexa, it’s dinner time.” Usually Alexa handles this fine, but every so often she responds with the comment “Bon appétit!” in a proper Julia Child voice. That’s why I have an alternative routine with the command, “Alexa, we’re sitting down to dinner.”

My routine, “Alexa, good morning” used to give me an “on this day” trivia fact and the moon phase for the day, but I discovered that the moon phase was off by a day. So now I get the trivia fact and the day’s weather forecast. Sometimes, though, Alexa does some very odd things. When I ask my Echo Show, “Alexa, what is the moon phase?” Alexa responds, “There are no moon phases for this date.” Now that’s scary. (Did you ever read the Arthur C. Clarke short story, “The Nine Billion Names of God”?)

My fourth generation Echo in the bedroom and my Echo Dot in the kitchen/dining area just sit quietly when not in use. However, the Echo Show in my office always displays something if I am in the room and I am not listening to audio. It used to just display my photos, but now it displays all kinds of suggestions. It prompts me to ask Alexa to find the nearest Starbucks or wants me to have Alexa tell a joke. I get around town. I know where all the Starbucks are. And I don’t need Alexa telling me a joke. Fortunately, the remedy to that is to simply tell Alexa to display my photos.

And there is a lot that Alexa does well. We listen to KCSM in the evenings. On Wednesdays at 9:00 p.m. a program comes on that we don’t especially like. Fridays at the same time longtime KCSM host Kathleen Lawton broadcasts her program “Crazy About the Blues.” Neither Terry nor I are crazy about the blues. It’s easy to say, “Alexa, play KSDS,” or “Alexa, play KKJZ” (the San Diego and Los Angeles jazz stations, respectively). That’s convenient.

Alexa has certainly integrated herself into our lives.

Places of Mind

Places of Mind coverPlaces of Mind: A Life of Edward Said
Timothy Brennan
read by Timothy Andrés Pabon
Tantor Audio (March 23, 2021)
print edition published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$21.43 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

Edward Said (pronounced saī-eed) was a major figure in the intellectual life of the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. This book offers a comprehensive biography.

Said grew up in Cairo, although he was born in Jerusalem. His mother insisted on giving birth in Jerusalem because she lost a previous child at birth due to incompetent medical care in Cairo. Said’s father was an Arab who attained American citizenship, hence making Said a citizen at birth. His father was in the office equipment business and made a lot of money selling his merchandise to the occupying British government in Egypt.

Said’s parents sent him to school in the United States. He attended private institutions for his high school years, did his undergraduate work at Princeton, and received his doctorate from Harvard. He spent his entire teaching career at Columbia University, though he had regular sabbaticals and spent a lot of time abroad, particularly in the Middle East.

His life was in many ways bifurcated. He spent a good deal of time and energy supporting the Palestinian cause not only with his writing and speaking, but also being actively involved in organizations that supported the Palestinian people. At the same time his academic specialty was Western literature. He wrote his dissertation on Joseph Conrad, and he spent many years studying Jonathan Swift, never publishing the major work he had planned. His early work Beginnings discusses philosophy and intellectual pursuits, drawing on Western philosophy.

The work Said did both in his Palestinian efforts and in academia did not isolate him from popular culture. It seems he liked American network television and enjoyed programs like The Mary Tyler Moore Show. If a family member needed a new stereo he took the lead in making the trip to the electronics store.

Said learned the piano as a child and played it all his life. While early on music was not part of his public persona, later in life he let that part out once he received a cancer diagnosis. He formed a partnership with conductor Daniel Barenboim and they structured an organization to provide music education to Palestinian young people.

Author Timothy Brennan was one of Said’s students at Columbia, but he is straightforward about Said’s faults. Said often treated his family poorly, and his ego could be oversize. While sometimes encouraging students he could also be unnecessarily harsh.

Timothy Andrés Pabon capably reads the book, skillfully navigating the many foreign phrases and names, although sometimes his cadence and rhythm do not seem to match the structure of the sentence. And he slips up here and there. He absolutely clobbers the names of both violinist Yehudi Menuhin and composer Leoš Janáček. In retrospect, given some of the complex philosophical concepts that Brennan discusses along with all the details about Said and those he encountered, it may be that one is better off reading Places of Mind in paper or e-book format.

cooking with plant-based meat substitutes

It’s been a while since I have written about plant-based meat substitutes, but Terry and I still use them regularly.

Cookout Classic packageThe one product we particularly like is the Beyond Meat Cookout Classic burger. I often fix them when I have just made a fresh loaf of bread. The Cookout Classics are frozen and come ten to a box, so it’s easy to pull them out of the freezer when we want that for dinner. Terry says she prefers them to beef burgers now. Unfortunately, that product seems to be currently unavailable. So the last time we had burgers I bought the standard two-pack Beyond Burger. The standard burger was good, but it is slightly larger than the Cookout version, and we both prefer the smaller size.

Beyond Meat Burger packageI also regularly use the Beyond Beef Ground product in chili. The dish comes out just as good as when using beef.

Given the fragile condition of our planet, and the huge carbon footprint that the consumption of beef creates I’m all for greater use of plant-based meat substitutes.

NPR Book Concierge 2021

When I’m looking for my next book to read and it’s getting toward midyear I forget about the NPR Book Concierge. This is a mistake.

The NPR Book Concierge is a cool tool that helps you find books that suit your particular interests and tastes. NPR started it several years ago when the radio network was looking for a way to make its best books of the year list more useful. The editorial staff turned to the engineering staff and those engineers came up with a slick application that is easy and fun to use. The 2021 edition is now available.

NPR editors apply tags to each book that an NPR staffer or contributor reviews during the year. This all goes on to the NPR web site and you can then mix, match, and sort to your heart’s content. For example, you can pick on Staff Picks and Historical Fiction. Or you could sort on Nonfiction and For Music Lovers. Maybe you want to sort on Book Club Ideas and Biography & Memoir. You get the idea. One of my favorite categories is Seriously Great Writing. I love using that category in a variety of combinations.

I have written about the Book Concierge more than once before, but this is such a marvelous tool (OK, toy) for the reader of books that I think it’s worth mentioning when NPR releases the latest version. If you haven’t looked at it before, check it out; it’s a lot of fun.

NPR Book Concierge