Archive | April 2018

The Best Dish in the World

Sometimes you try something for the first time, whether it’s a new experience, learning a new skill, or eating new foods, and you think: This is awesome, how did I ever exist without this thing in my life? This can happen when meeting people, too, but in this instance I am referring to food.

Being a Korean Drama fan, I’ve been into kimchi for awhile.  Kimchi is a spicy fermented cabbage and radish dish that is a staple of Korea. It’s sort of like sauerkraut, but more flavorful and very spicy.

Anyway, the other day I realized that I’d never tried kimchi fried rice, which isn’t actually that hard to make. I had almost reached the bottom of a kimchi jar that was soon to expire and decided to go ahead and try to make it to use the rest of the kimchi up.

What can I say about kimchi fried rice?  It is like mac and cheese or pancakes. Kimchi fried rice is a dish you make when you want to be reminded of home. It’s a dish you’d share with family and close friends. It’s a communal dish around which people would talk, tell stories, shoot the breeze, and just be together. This dish makes the room a place where all secrets can be shared, all fears laid bare, and all wishes known, after which everyone is duly punished with good-ribbed joking. With kimchi fried rice, one can laugh until their stomach hurts, cry until their aren’t any tears left, and eat until you get sick–but that’s not recommended because leftovers can always be saved for breakfast.

Do I exaggerate? Can a cooked fermented dish really be so healing?  Kimchi friend rice is going to be a staple in my life. I’m determined and don’t know how I lived without it before. Keep in mind, I didn’t even follow the recipe properly: I didn’t add the red pepper paste (I can only handle so much spice), I added shredded carrots, I sadly had no bacon, and I’m pretty sure the fried egg on top was overcooked.  Oh, and I mixed in plain yogurt at the end like I do with most spicy food. Nonetheless, eating it felt like coming home and those nights when you and your family or friend pull out the board games and the beer and talk and eat and drink until dawn.

Here is a link to the recipe I used. It’s a great video and the cook is easy on the eyes, which is something all cooks should aspire to be.  I aspire to being an easy-on-the-eyes cook myself, though, I usually don’t have an audience while cooking. The key is finding the right apron, I think,  and mine’s rather plain, so I’ll have to work on that.

Book Review: The Blithedale Romance

Upon finishing this strange, voyeuristic tale by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the single, burning desire I had was to reread the first few chapters.  I did, and it was if a veil had been yanked away, so different was my perspective after knowing the whole story.

Hawthorne, known by most because they had to read The Scarlet Letter in high school, is one of those authors that I’ve really come to love through his short stories. He fits into this sort of gothic colonial genre along with Washington Irving of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow fame. They make America into this wild, untamed place of both delight and horror.

Hawthorne’s sort of like O. Henry, too.  Although his endings are not complete twists, there’s a sense of irony pervading everything. “The Birthmark” is my favorite short story of Hawthorne’s and is about a scientist who marries a beautiful woman who has a birthmark on her cheek. The scientist becomes obsessed with removing the birthmark, trying experiment after experiment, and for love of him, his wife suffers through it.  I won’t spoil the ending, but you can probably guess that it’s not happy.

The Blithedale Romance does indeed have romance in it as well as other themes and topics.  It deals a bit with the Transcendental movement of the time and the search for utopia–basically the idea that with enough brain power and ingenuity humans can make themselves and the earth perfect. I was surprised to find that Hawthorne himself took part in one of these commune schemes because he’s always seemed to be someone practical about the limits and foibles of human nature. Contrasted with this Walden Pond-ish scheme for getting back to nature, is the Spiritualist movement. Table turning, magicians, and veiled ladies were all the craze at the time as well, and the first clue we have that the narrator and main character, Miles Coverdale, is not very serious about “going to the woods and living deliberately” is that he attends a magician’s show featuring a veiled lady right at the beginning. Coverdale is a man in search of an epoch in his life, especially one that will give him a purpose.

As both a narrator and a character, I don’t really like Miles Coverdale, perhaps because I see some of the same annoying traits in myself. Coverdale is an observer, not a man of action, and he overthinks everything. The second clue that he’s not too serious about this striving for utopia is that he falls extremely ill the day they are to begin work and takes what feels like decades to recover, sitting and musing in his room, when it is clear he’d be a lot better off outside in the sun and getting exercise.

Now, he did surprise me by eventually doing the hard work (according to himself), but I was shocked by how affronted he is by his friend, Hollingsworth, who seems to be a genuine believer in being able to reform people. Coverdale believes Hollingsworth’s philanthropic desires and plans are leading him straight to the doorway to hell next to the gates of heaven in Pilgrim’s Progress.  As Coverdale tends to overdramatize everything and is not a very reliable narrator, I struggled to understand just what was so awful about Hollingsworth, a man of action who has purpose and a good heart. Now, the saying goes that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and I gather that’s what concerns our narrator, Coverdale. It is also no big revelation to find that Coverdale doesn’t really believe in the whole utopian idea like his friend does. Coverdale’s problem is that he doesn’t believe in anything and has no purpose to his life. He is pretty honest about that by the end of the book, along with his final revelation, which makes his issue with Hollingsworth clear.

I had to go back and reread the first few chapters, because I just plowed away into the book without knowing anything about the story. (I usually don’t read introductions or anything, because they often give away too much of the plot.) The happenings of the first 2-3 chapters, I was thinking, okay that’s nice, veiled lady, maybe a mystery? Scary story? And the farm. Something about the follies of hippie communes?  But The Blithedale Romance actually ended up being about romance, about the clash between men and women in the world, and that I didn’t expect.

The first character Coverdale scrutinizes in the book is a young woman with the stage name of Zenobia. She is necessarily beautiful, vivacious, and is a mover and shaker who appears to be somewhat the head of this group (not sure how many) of people who have come to live at Blithedale to farm and live off the land. Coverdale fancies a love triangle is being played out over the summer among Zenobia, Hollingsworth, and another woman. Our narrator plays at being detached when he’s anything but. Zenobia’s a bit theatrical and takes pride in living unconventionally for a woman at the time. She jokes about how at first the women will take care of the house duties and then move on to sharing the men’s work. She and Hollingsworth argue about her wish to begin or be a part of a women’s liberation movement (something with which Coverdale appears to agree and Hollingsworth disagree), and Coverdale is surprised when Zenobia gives into this philanthropist rather easily and meekly.

Underlying the plot is the theme of women just wanting to be loved aside from or despite age or beauty or riches. The story of the veiled lady that Zenobia orates for her comrades is a peek into her heart. With a mention of Eve near the beginning of the book, the thought of the Biblical curse that God put on women is present, specifically that they will always have a desire for their husband or a husband.  Zenobia is young, beautiful, single, rich, independent, and it’s ultimately not enough. And it’s not enough, because she’s a woman. It is a curse of womanhood, and we see this most clearly at the end of the story as we realize she and Coverdale share the same heartache, yet Coverdale with no purpose except maybe his poetry, is able to move on and be content in middle age.

Zenobia also delivers one of the greatest lines and I don’t want to make fun of it because her character means it in all seriousness, but it’s definitely a line you could use as a joke, too. Coverdale takes her hand and it’s as cold as ice. He says as much to her and she replies: “the extremities die first, they say.” I really got a kick out of that line for some reason–maybe it was the extreme drama from both her and Coverdale.

At the end of the book, Coverdale fancies Hollingsworth to be living in a state of perpetual defeat. All life and purpose seems to have left him. The readers are again made aware of the unreliable and fanciful nature of our narrator as he describes Hollingsworth’s woman as trying to keep Coverdale away from him. Is Hollingsworth truly defeated or has his life found a different purpose? It’s evident in a lot of ways that Coverdale isn’t just the poetic voyeur and analyzer that he pretends to be. I reread the beginning and then fully understood that he may know all of these people a lot better than his narration tells. That this carefully detached man ends up alone in middle age isn’t surprising, his grand ending confession aside. Coverdale reminds me a little bit of the narrator in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, another character who can’t stop overanalyzing everything, and to his own detriment.

The Blithedale Romance will eventually require a second reading for me to really soak in everything going on in the story, and it’s the knowledge of that which really brings to light just what a master Nathaniel Hawthorne was at his craft. That subsequent readings of a work would make the story even better and richer is one of the ultimate goals in writing because you know your work has value that can be experienced again and again.  Now, of course, I need to put The Scarlet Letter on my list of classics that I’m either rereading or reading for the first time.

The Story of Saving

At first, I wanted to title this article, “The Story of Saving Money,” but then I realized that wasn’t quite accurate. Saving money is only the start of being a “saver.” Along with saving money, you save yourself worry, trouble, and stress. You can also save relationships and save time.

I don’t know if it’s the woman in me, but I’ve always been more of a spender than a saver. Part of my attitude probably has something to do with the fact that often when I do save, I end up having to spend the money right away on car repairs or other issues.

This year I wanted to try out Dave Ramsey’s savings plan and his every dollar app, because, as he says, I was finally “tired of being sick and tired.” Ramey’s plan begins with budgeting your monthly income to the last dollar and also reaching stepping stones he calls “baby steps.” The baby steps themselves are pretty simple, but it’s been the budgeting every dollar that’s given me some trouble. I’ve learned I’m someone who just likes to have a random amount of money not set aside for any particular use. On the one hand, that can be fine and good, on the other, the sum most often gets used for eating out or buying things I may want, but really don’t need–often, books.

Oh, let me tell you about books! I have bought so many books, thinking the story is going to be awesome and being terribly disappointed when the stories are duds. Using the library to borrow the books instead has been a struggle because I often don’t have time to read the books in the time I’ve checked them out. This can go the same for movies and even music. Often I wonder why I feel compelled to own these things, especially stories that I haven’t even read or seen yet. In using the every dollar app, I made myself really look over my books and saw that I had a whole stack of bought and borrowed books that I hadn’t even read yet.

I admit that like most, I’m not following Ramey’s savings plan to a T, but I am saving. Currently I am on baby step 2, paying off all consumer debt and plan to be done with that by the end of the year. As I watch my every dollar get spent, I’m become more and more conscious of impulse buys (Walgreens is a real trap for me for snacks, as is Kwik Trip). With elation, I realize that I have bought so many clothes over the past five years that I don’t need to buy anything in that regard for quite awhile. Instead of just buying things for my kitchen or office, I am planning out when to buy them and how to save the money. Because I now find Korean dramas more interesting than American ones, I gave up Netflix and watch on cheaper sites like Dramafever or Viki.

At first, this new mindfulness seemed like hard work. I’ve never had trouble paying bills or going over budget, especially as I’m single, but I never made a real effort to keep track of what I was spending on. Using every dollar was strange at first, because that generic lump sum of money was gone and I felt like I had no money. But I do now have money, just in a new category: savings. Part of this interesting financial planning stems from my desire to write more. I wanted to see if it was possible to work less, write more, and still have enough and even still save money. My dream, as most writers’ dream is that one day I can make a steady income from my writing, and I wanted to put more time and energy into striving to make that happen.

Only a couple of months in, I am already seeing the benefits of this lifestyle change. I am not as stressed and have plans if things go wrong. I am eating better and getting more sleep and exercise. Stores and their wares don’t compel me nearly as much and I am spending less without crying over it. My unread books are getting read. In the mornings I have more time to read the Bible, to cook breakfast, and to just enjoy the mornings. I am able to get out in the spring sunshine. I’ve written more in the past few weeks than I did all of last year and have been steadily working on revisions for TfD, season two as well as starting another story.

Along with thinking of saving and following Dave Ramsey, I’ve been watching some other savers on Youtube and they really have some creative ideas. It’s doubtful I will ever be as hardcore as them, but if you want to check out some fascinating perspectives on budgeting and saving money, try these channels: The Dave Ramsey Show, of course; his daughter’s channel, Rachel Cruze, who is very bubbly; Debt Free Dana, who has great tips on how families can save; Beat the Bush, an engineer who quit his job to be on Youtube; Stacey Flowers, also following the Ramey plan and shares great incites on finances but also personal stories that resonate; and, Prepper Princess, whose focus is on prepping and also saving for retirement.

Thinking about saving generally leads one to think about minimizing the stuff one owns and so, although I’d would never do it myself, I’ve been watching a lot of great stories on tiny houses. Many of the people who build and own them are artists and this is their work, some just want a change, and some really are trying to save and/or live minimally. The most upbeat channel I’ve found is Living Big in a Tiny House. The host, Bryce, visits tiny and unusually living spaces all over the world and finds the positive in even the strangest of designs. This could easily be a show on cable, but it’s on Youtube and it’s hard not to be infected with the enthusiasm these people have for mindful living.

The big statement that gets to me from Dave Ramsey is “the borrower is a slave to the lender,” which is a part or paraphrase of Proverbs 22:7: The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender. (NIV). Being in debt isn’t a healthy thing, and I think I first really started to consider that fact when I read Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens, which tells the story of a family living in a debtor’s prison and what it does to them. For the dad, even when he’s able to get financially free, it’s like he’s still in prison. Thank God we don’t have debtors prisons today, but in our society we borrow, and borrow, and borrow without even a thought. Even if our debt can’t legally be passed onto our children, doesn’t it do something to our soul to just die leaving a debt? Someone, even if it is a heartless banker, lost out money because we didn’t pay them back. Shouldn’t we be striving for more?