Thoughtful Thursday: The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea

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Written in 1963, this book is about a small band of boys and their belief in the idea of “objectivity,” of rejecting the adult world as mere foolishness and sentimentality, and the savage acts this belief led them to. Yukio Mishima is one of Japan’s weirdest and most interesting writers. This book is very macabre, yet strangely beautiful and unique. Kind of like the Japanese Lord of the Flies. Even after the book is translated to English, Mishima’s metaphors are still striking. Interestingly, the author was born into a samurai family and imbued with the code of complete control over mind and body, and loyalty to the emperor– the same code that produced the austerity and self-sacrifice of Zen. In 1970, Mishima committed seppuku (ritual suicide) at the age of 45.

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World Travel Wednesday: Prague

I am back to blogging today with a renewed dedication to posting regularly. I’ve missed about a week. Life happened, and I had to go deal with some personal issues. But everything is great now, so hopefully I won’t be missing posting that much again any time soon. Today’s travel topic is one of my all-time favorite places on earth: Prague, Czech Republic. I would love to go back there one day. It’s so beautiful, historic, culturally interesting. I love the way the Czech language sounds — like skiing. I know that is a strange thing to say, but to me it sounds like skiing. Or maybe ice skating. Something fast, icy, and slippery.

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Located on the Vltava River, Prague has been the political, cultural, and economic center of the Czech state for more than 1100 years. The city proper is home to more than 1.2 million people.

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Old Town Square dates back to the 12th century and is surrounded by beautiful architecture. In the center of the square is a statue of Jan Hus, whose religious teachings influenced the Moravians (local Winston-Salem connection). Hus was considered a heretic by the Roman Catholic Church, and he was excommunicated and burned at the stake for his beliefs in 1415. I find it significant that Jan Hus is still considered a national hero in the Czech Republic. They are in general a very strong-willed, philosophical, and strongly principled people who believe fervently in freedom and individuality. I find that I am particularly drawn to people who could be described that way, and maybe that’s one reason I felt so at home there. The country only gained independence as recently as 1993, and joined the European Union in 2004. I love how they continue to overcome centuries of oppression.

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There is also a really awesome multi-dialed astronomical clock from 1410 in Old Town Square. It is supposed to display the current state of the universe, a concept I find endlessly fascinating. I’ll tell you a huge secret here: one day I’m going to write a book about this clock and its history. The clockmaker’s eyes were gouged out to prevent him from making a second one for another country, and he died while touching it. After which it remained unrepairable for many years. In addition to all the dials and scientific information it reports, it’s a thing of beauty and a true work of art. One of my favorite elements is four figures flanking it which represent four things that were most despised at the time of its construction: vanity, greed, death, and infidelity. The thing has been shot up by the Germans and repaired countless times…and it is still ticking, 600 years later. How’s that for inspiring?

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One of the most beautiful sights in Prague is the Charles Bridge. The Old Town bridge tower is often considered to be one of the most astonishing civil gothic-style buildings in the world. The bridge is decorated by a continuous alley of 30 statues and statuaries, most of them baroque-style, erected around 1700. During the night Charles Bridge is a quiet, serene, foggy, mystical place. But during the day it’s full of painters, kiosks, and other traders alongside numerous tourists crossing the bridge.

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If you make it to Prague, be sure to take a bus to the countryside one day. My friend Stepan’s family has a summer house in the village of Predborice, which is very small and rural and actually reminds me of the landscape of the North Carolina foothills with fewer trees. This is the region of Bohemia, which I had to visit because of my affinity for “bohemians” of all sorts. This is where the best beer in the world has been made since the 1100’s. Yes, it’s only my opinion. But the Czechs know what they are doing with the beer brewing. They have the highest per capita beer consumption of any country in the world. That’s right folks, the Czechs drink more beer than the Germans. My theory is that it’s because theirs is so much tastier. The Czechs invented pilsners and a type of beer called budweiser that is now better known as a brand which has nothing to do with the beer it’s named after. In Predborice, we walked beside a cow down a dirt road, to a bar that was a former schoolhouse with blackboards still on the walls. It was dark and cool and ancient. And the pilsner was hands down the best beer I’ve ever tasted. Ah, good memories.

The Hope for Change

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For eight long years, I have felt silenced from voicing my political viewpoint. People who did so experienced terrible repercussions. Arrest. Detainment. Spying. I freely admit that I am not the type of person who will speak out no matter what. I learned that lesson after being fired for essentially voicing dissent in an extremely conservative work environment. Being crippled by the loss of a paycheck was enough incentive to me to shut up for a few years. That makes me admire even more what people in Nazi Germany went through to give a voice to the unheard masses. If you haven’t seen it, the movie Sophie Scholl: The Final Days is worth watching. Like all movies about that era in history, it is a bit of a downer. But it will make you think about what you would be willing to stand up for. And under what circumstances, and facing which consequences.

Today is Inauguration Day for Barack Obama, and I finally feel like I can speak freely again. I have observed other people stepping back into embracing their First Amendment rights again. Today at my office, the IT guy dared to mention what was happening today politically in our country. He said to me, “If he manages to accomplish even one thing on his agenda, the world will be a better place.” He had no idea what my political views were. We’ve all been so careful for so long about not talking about it, not causing rifts, not inciting conflict, that we have lost sight of the knowledge that those of us who feel that we can only improve at this point are not alone.

I didn’t get to see much of the festivities because I was working, but since I’ve been home tonight I’ve been watching our public TV station’s coverage of the inaugural events. I will admit to you that I am so embittered by years of corrupt and ridiculous politicians that I still retain a fraction of skepticism about Obama, simply because he has chosen dirty politics as his path in life. I have never really bought into the whole “Change” marketing scheme. I think that was an excellent way to win. I have no idea what he will actually do now that he has won. But a woman I saw interviewed at the Inauguration today drove something home from me that I had been missing about hope and change.

As a non-racist white person, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal that we’ve elected a black president for the first time ever. What difference does that make to me? Not much, I don’t think. Eugenia Peke, who went to the Inauguration in Washington from Texas, told someone at UNC-TV this: “I have a son. And now I know he can be anything. And he knows he can be anything he wants to be. He doesn’t just have to be a rapper or play professional sports. He can be anything he wants to be.” While Obama’s election did not make this so, because it has been so for a long while, his election has hit home the idea to a huge segment of our population that we can be something that no one thinks we can be. Until I heard this woman’s teary interview, I really had no idea how much this event has meant to the black community. I mean, I’m white. I don’t pretend to understand anything that affects the black community, really. And when you get right down to it, what holds most of us back in life is our perception of what we can or cannot accomplish. If he has changed that for people, he was worth electing. In my opinion.

I feel like a cloud has lifted. I feel like a positive force is occupying the most important office in our country for the first time in decades. After months and months of resistance and skepticism, I feel hopeful today. And I think that positivity and hopefulness is exactly what we need right now to make some really important changes in our country. I hope Obama is up to the challenge, and I hope he doesn’t succumb to dirty politics now that he has been sworn in to the elite club. When I look at him, I see depth, sincerity, drive, and intelligence. I see a kind spirit. I’m grateful that we’ve reached this point as a nation, and I hope our country accomplishes some great things under his leadership. I have reason to hope that might happen now.

*You can purchase the photo above here.

Tasty Tuesday: Stuffed Zucchini

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Whenever I make this recipe, I always think about my best friend from childhood. Not because she loved zucchini, but because she refused to eat anything green. She might eat one green bean to make her dad stop teasing her. Otherwise, she held fast to her personal theory that if a food is green, then it will not taste good. I’m pretty sure she eats vegetables now that she is grown up. At least, I hope she does. Even for those who are not big fans of veggies, this has always been a big hit when I’ve made it. It’s light, but filling and has a nice balance of flavors.

Stuffed Zucchini

4 small-medium zucchinis
1/2 cup feta cheese
1/4 cup mozzarella or cheddar, grated
1 egg
1 cup bacon pieces, cooked
1/4 cup fresh dill, chopped or 1/4 cup fresh mint, finely chopped (sometimes I use both)
1/4 or 1/2 cup flat leaf parsley (fresh), finely chopped
1/2 tsp black pepper
red pepper flakes
salt (depending on feta you are using)
olive oil, approximately 1 tbsp or less

Wash zucchinis and boil them until tender but firm, about 15 minutes. Let cool down. You can speed the process by dunking them in a cold water bath for a few minutes. Cut them in halves lengthwise to make boats. Using a small spoon, scoop out the seedy part and save about three-quarters of it to use for stuffing. Be very careful when scooping not to tear the outsides. You need to leave about a quarter inch of meat in the shell so they don’t fall apart. Put the seedy part of the zucchinis that you scooped out into a food processor and pulse a few times to smooth it out. You don’t want it to be too runny, but just creamy. In a bowl, mix egg, feta, mozzarella or cheddar, dill parsley, black pepper, bacon, and the seedy part of the zucchinis until creamy. Load zucchini boats with the stuffing. Sprinkle a couple of drops of olive oil and red pepper flakes on each. You can top with some extra cheese if you want. Bake in a preheated oven at 350degrees F for 10 to 15 minutes until cheese melts. Then broil for a couple of minutes to have a crispy top. I’m usually not a big fan of leftovers, but these are almost better the next day.

Musical Monday: Ryan Montbleau Band

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My friend Jen and her lovely husband, Taper Nerd, introduced me to this band a few months ago after seeing them live several times. They are from Massachusetts and are often compared musically to Martin Sexton. Ryan’s voice reminds me of Gavin DeGraw. When I told Taper Nerd this, he said, “Gavin Who?” Waaay too mainstream for these people. So perhaps Ryan Montbleau is the Gavin DeGraw for the anti-mainstream set. They bring a lot of different styles into their music, so it would be unfair to say, “Well, they’re a jam band,” or “They play zydeco,” or “Folksy singer-songwriter stuff.” It’s jazzy, bluesy, bluegrassy, jammy, funky, and soulful all rolled into one. This is music that’s appropriate for all occasions, from ping pong night with the guys to wine and gossip with the girls, a long road trip or a lazy afternoon. It’s fun, and they don’t take themselves so seriously, like that douche John Mayer. They have a song about breakfast, for Pete’s sake. I love pleasant surprises, and this band definitely qualifies.

You can download some shows for free here. Or you can leave a comment and I’ll try to get you a copy from Taper Nerd.

Film Fest Friday: Burn After Reading

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The latest film from the celebrated directorial duo of Joel and Ethan Cohen got great reviews, but I thought the previews looked awful. Then, Coocatchoo and Bee Cee saw it in the theater and came home completely bummed when they did not “get it.” So I didn’t go into this viewing with high hopes. Well, I did in that Fargo and The Big Lebowski are two of my all-time favorite films, and I wanted the Cohen Brothers to wow me again. But I was not going to be too surprised if it didn’t happen.

While watching, I could totally understand why you might be confused and think you were not understanding why everyone else was laughing, when the characters are all either being murdered and/or leading desperately sad lives. But it’s a farce, and it’s hysterical when you stop to ponder just how ridiculous the whole thing is. And so is each and every thing that happens along the way.

I’m typically not a huge fan of Brad Pitt and George Clooney’s choices of movies. I was pleasantly surprised at both of their performances here. I might say, though, playing an airhead seemed to be just a little too easy for Brad. Maybe it’s just that even mediocre actors can be made to shine when surrounded by an outstanding supporting cast that includes greats like Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, and Tilda Swinton.

This is a must-see! If you find yourself wondering why it’s supposed to be so great, just remember — it’s meant to be funny.

Thoughtful Thursday: The Secret History

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This following is straight from Wikipedia: “The Secret History, the first novel by Mississippi-born writer Donna Tartt, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1992. A 75,000 print order was made for the first edition (as opposed to the usual 10,000 order for a debut novel), and the book became a bestseller.

“Set in New England, The Secret History tells the story of a closely knit group of six classics students at a small, elite Vermont college, similar in many respects to Bennington College (in Bennington, Vermont) where Tartt was a student from 1982 to 1986. Tartt’s tale has certain parallels with the unsolved case of Bennington art student Paula Jean Welden who vanished while hiking near the college in 1946.

“One of the six students is the story’s narrator, Richard Papen, who reflects, years later, on the situation that led to a murder within the group, implying such at the outset but otherwise revealing events sequentially. In the opening chapter, as the reader is introduced to Papen, the death of student Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran is revealed, although few details are given initially. The novel undertakes to explore the circumstances and lasting effects of his murder on an academically and socially isolated group of students attending Hampden College in Vermont.

“The impact on the students is ultimately destructive, and the potential promise of many young lives is lost to circumstance. It mirrors, in many ways, the notion of a Greek tragedy with fate playing a large part in dictating the very circumstances that lead to an escalation of already fermenting issues.”

This book is part Lord of the Flies, part Greek tragedy, part Talented Mr. Ripley. My favorite review by Michiko Kakutani  of The New York Times, said “In The Secret History, Ms. Tartt managed to make… melodramatic and bizarre events (involving Dionysian rites and intimations of satanic power) seem entirely plausible.”

World Travel Wednesday: St. John, USVI

I’m still working on finding all my photos from some of my great trips, so today I’m going to tell you about another place that I came thisclose to working at for the summer a few years ago, until I decided to go to South America instead. I’m still going to go here sometime, though.

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St. John is the smallest and least inhabited of the three US Virgin Islands. (The others are St. Thomas and St. Croix.) It doesn’t have an airport or a cruise ship terminal. You have to take a ferry over from St. Thomas. Two-thirds of the island is protected National Park land, along with about 5,000 acres of coral reef.

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No matter what your budget is, or your taste in accomodations, there’s something for everyone on this island. Primitive tent camping on the beach from $30 a night. Ultra-luxe resorts with $8,000 a night cottages. An eco-resort with facilities on two different sides of the island.

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That’s where I want to go. I was accepted to do a work-exchange program at Maho one summer, and as I mentioned my travel plans changed. I’m a huge fan of places where there are more trees than people and more protected environment than unprotected. Maho has four different types of lodging, so you can vacation fairly primitively in a fabric-walled tent cabin or in a studio apartment type setting if you are not into roughing it. As for me, camping with framed walls (and an actual mattress) sounds just about right.

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Tasty Tuesday: Homemade Dog Treats

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This past Christmas, I partnered with Coocatchoo to make our own homemade, organic dog treats for unsuspecting friends and neighbors. What a hit! Technically, you could eat these too. I tried one. It tasted like peanut butter-flavored cardboard to me. But everyone’s dogs have been going crazy for them!

One batch makes a lot, so it’s a money-saver. And with all the craziness that’s been happening in the world of dog foods and such, I’m paranoid about giving my dog much of anything if I don’t know exactly what’s in it and how it’s going to affect her. She has a delicate constitution, you know. 🙂

Peanut Butter Dog Treats

1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour (organic)
1 1/2 cups white flour (organic, unbleached)
1/2 cup peanut butter (all-natural or organic — avoid additives like salt or molasses)
1 cup water
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (organic)*

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Combine oil, peanut butter and water. Add flour, one cup at a time, forming a dough. Knead dough into firm ball and roll to 1/4 inch thickness. Cut into 3 to 4 inch pieces. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees F for 20 minutes. Makes 2 1/2 dozen cookies.

*You could also use flax seed oil, vegetable oil, or whatever you like that’s healthy.

We got the cute dog bone shaped cookie cutters at AC Moore, which is a craft supply store. If you give these as gifts, include the ingredients so your dog-owner friends know exactly what they’re feeding their pups, and so they don’t feel bad giving treats because they’re healthy!

Seven Weird Things

I don’t ever really get tagged by other bloggers, but I was on this exercise and also am required to not reveal the source of the tag. It was a friend who wanted to help me with blogger’s block. So, here you have Seven Weird Things About Me. I could come up with way more than seven, but this is all I am allowed today.

1) When I read Rolling Stone magazine, I take notes. Literally.

2) When I play guitar alone, I don’t have to sing because I can hear it in my head. I’m sure my neighbors get tired of endless chord progressions, but inside my brain it’s music.

3) I always compliment people if I have that inclination, even if it is not entirely appropriate. Like…someone else’s boyfriend or something. I think everyone deserves positivity.

4) I struggle with being an animal rights proponent and also really enjoying the sensation of touching fur pelts.

5) I hate grooming and bathing. I like the way I feel afterwards, but I hate the process.

6) I am very affected by the sound of other people’s voices, both positively and negatively.

7) I have a heightened ability to pick up on people’s unspoken moods. If you are having a bad day, I can tell, even if you didn’t really say that or act that way.

I’m tagging Jenny, Lucy, and Jessica. Good luck, girls!

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