Thursday, March 26, 2020

My Apocalypse Kitchen: Eating Well Helps

Food is one of my love languages, so here in our time of crisis, I've turned to my kitchen to prepare comforts for myself and my family. Even though I didn't learn to cook until I was in my thirties, I've become a pretty decent and adventurous home cook in the intervening years. I never would have expected to take so much pleasure in preparing food for my family, but I really really do.

I don't always get to cook the way I want to. We're busy people, and often have to plan a meal based more on speed of preparation and facility of reheating than on taste or nutritional value. Since I teach for a living, the amount of standing time is usually a factor, too--I can't handle something that requires too much on-my-feet-time when I've just been on my feet for eight hours already. I'm getting old, y'all. The feet can't take it!

But without commutes and evening commitments, we have more time. Teaching from home is *way* easier on my poor little feet, too.

I've collected a fair amount of ambitious kitchen equipment that doesn't usually sees much use in the hurly burly of my lightspeed life. Standing mixer, fancy blender, food processor, insta pot, etc. Now I finally have time to play with all my kitchen toys!

We also have a good collection of spices and herbs, bought a jar at a time over the past few years as we tried out culinary experiments. And we managed to get our deep freeze and pantry stocked with meats and other useful things before the crisis hit.

All this together means that we're eating well during the Corona Crisis!

Here's what we've been having:

Week One: The Dinner Plan: We comforted ourselves with current favorites, mostly from The Dinner Plan cookbook by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion. I've been a devotee of this cookbook for a year or so, ever since taking a class with one of the authors at A Southern Season (a fancy kitchen store near us that recently closed). 

It's a great recipe book for a busy household. Recipes are categorized and tagged with helpful headers like "staggered" (for meals that can be served in shifts without loss of taste), "make ahead" (for when you can't cook tomorrow, but you still want to eat), "one dish" (when mess matters as much as taste), and "extra fast" (when speed is your top priority).

We also love this one because the dishes are diverse and interesting enough to please my husband and me, but not so fancy or alien that the picky twelve-year-old won't eat them.

Sheet-Pan Fajitas, Japanese-Style Fried Chicken, Turkey Meatballs with Yogurt Sauce, Crunchy Pork Cutlets, and Beef Stew in a Hurry found their way to our dinner table in the first week of school from home and work from home.

Each can be prepared in a half hour or so (though it always takes me longer the first time I make a new recipe). Even after a year, there are still some wonderful sounding meals in these pages that I haven't yet tried making, and we've only had one or two that didn't have the family excited.

Week Two: Curry and Experiments:  When we moved into the second week, I pulled out 660 curries by Raghavan Iyer, a cookbook I bought shortly after I married my husband and found out that he loves Indian food. Even though that's "been a minute" now, I haven't made even a third of the recipes in this book yet. 

Our youngest, as mentioned, is picky. So, in the past, we've mostly made curries on "just us two"
nights--which didn't happen all that often. I made Yogurt-Almond Chicken, something I make a couple of times of year and never fails to please us. We were prepared to give the kiddo a frozen pizza or something if she didn't like it, but she surprised us by enjoying it, too.

A plus side of making curry is how wonderful it makes the whole house smell. It's high prep, requiring grinding of spices and blending of marinades, but well worth it!

I have come to enjoy making something more complicated. On top of pleasing our palates, it gives me a feeling of accomplishment and pride in my kitchen skills. Indian dishes often have me reaching for seldom used kitchen equipment as well, which is like getting to play with new toys.

Because trying new things is part of how I stay interested in cooking, I pulled out Keepers by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion, the same authors who put together The Dinner Plan. I bought it at the same time, but hadn't yet used any of the recipes inside. They always looked just a little too fancy for the youngest Bryant, or too long in prep time for a week night.

But my parameters have changed! So, we've now tried the Chicken Pot Pie recipe (delish!), Miso-Lime Chicken Lettuce Wraps (tasty, if less wow-ing), Asian Pork Sliders with Magic Miso-Mayo (the kiddo LOVED these), and Sausage and White Bean Gratin (a new favorite for the adults).

We have plans to try Chicken and Rice with Ginger-Scallion Sauce and Japanese Style "Meat and Potatoes" in the next few days, assuming our next foraging trip to the grocery store can fill in a few ingredients.

A lot of things are hard about staying at home, even for a group of introverts like us.

I'm so grateful to have this way of taking care of myself and my family. When the house smells of cooking spices, we know that happiness follows.

What are you eating during this time at home? Were you already a cook? Are you learning? Do you lean toward easy comforts or daring experiments when you need comfort and distraction?

I'd love to hear about your apocalypse kitchen in the comments!

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Plus Sides to the Pandemic at la Casa Bryant

I lean towards optimism in most circumstances, trusting that time and energy spent can improve most situations. At least I believe that nothing gets any better if you don't try something.

Looking at our leadership in my country right now, holding onto that optimism has been harder. But at least I'm in this with an intelligent and thoughtful partner, who has a very useful skillset for managing an isolationist life for a while.

And we're lucky, truly, on a lot of fronts. We're all still healthy. Both adults are able to work from home and are still being paid. The kiddo at home is introverted and digitally connected to her friends, so is handling social distancing pretty well for someone her age. The dog is old enough to appreciate a slow life.

So, looking to the sunny side: here are some plus sides to the pandemic at our house.

1. We're playing with our toys. Over the years, we've collected a lot of them: video games, board games, legos, musical instruments, books, craft supplies, DIY project tools, recipe books, etc. An embarrassment of riches really: more than we can realistically use.

But with extra time at home, we're digging into all these wonderful things and enjoying them. Go past us! For buying things even though we didn't have time for them? At least we're occupied now, without having to shop while we're money worried.

2. We're getting out in nature more. I'm a walker. If you follow me on Instagram, you'll see that my feed is full of pictures of beauty I spot on my daily nature walks. It's my main stress relief.

Because I'm a teacher and my hours are early, even during the winter months, I can usually make it to a trail with a little daylight left to burn. But, my daughter is not so much a walker, and my husband isn't usually home in daylight, so it's usually just me and the pup.

But, without commutes to worry about and with the kiddo legit needing a stretch of the legs, we're able to get out into the woods together. It's a real joy to me to share this love with my people (and still the pupper).

3. Lots of family time. My husband and I have been feeling the rush of time whooshing past us in recent years, as our baby turns into a teenager and our older child becomes an adult.

We've struggled to arrange our days so that we get time together as a family, time for each of us with our daughters, time for just the two of us, etc. all while still holding down demanding day jobs and handling the business of the household.

It's been lovely to be right there for our daughter when she hits a bump in completing her school-from-home assignments, to help her problem solve or just be amazed by how well she does this on her own.

We're playing games and watching shows together. We're really in tune with how everyone is feeling and doing a good job balancing the needs of each of us.

I think we'll miss this part when the speed of life picks back up.

4. The house is getting cleaner and better organized. When it's time to "take a break" from our work from home situations, we're each handling household tasks: cleaning up messes that have been allowed to linger, changing out loads of laundry, running the dishwasher, re-organizing storage situations, sorting things, etc.  It gets us moving and clears mental space as well by making our surroundings more pleasant.

It's lovely to slip these tasks into down moments of the work day, instead of struggling to do them *after* work when we're exhausted and wanting some relaxation and more playful togetherness.

We're even making progress on our giant attic project (building an entire new room up there for game storage). The supplies were mostly already purchased, and now we can repurpose that commuting time for mudding, sanding, and (hopefully soon) painting!

5. We're eating better. We're planner-aheaders, the sort of people who usually have a deep freeze full of meats and boxes and cans lining the shelves waiting for use. So, without panic shopping or hoarding, we've stayed pretty well supplied.

Since I'm not coming home from school emotionally and physically exhausted from managing 160 children across the day, our dinners have become more luxuriant affairs, rather than the "what can I make in 30 minutes that is palatable?" trick we'd mastered so well.

So, new recipes, and old favorites that "take too long" for a school night. Cooking together because we're all there. Dancing to music while the potato pancakes fry. I'm enjoying the prep time as much as the eating.

What's a plus side to isolation time for you and yours? Anything you'd like to hold onto when life returns to something more like normal? I'd love to hear from you in the comments.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Disney+ Project, Part 8: the 1970s

More Disney! (See our earlier thoughts herehereherehereherehere, and here)

Welcome to the 1970s in Disney animation. We've finally reached films that were made during my lifetime. While Disney has often echoed its earlier work, using the same voice actors or animators or a similar style, that seemed especially obvious in these films, which is something my daughter and I both enjoyed. 

We delighted in hearing Phil Harris (Baloo of Jungle Book) as Thomas O'Malley and Little John; Eva Gabor as Duchess and Bianca; Pat Buttram as Napoleon, the Sheriff of Nottingham, and Luke the Swamp Mouse; Sterling Holloway whom we'd already admired as Mr. Stork, Flower, The Cheshire Cat, and Kaa, returning in the 1970s as Roquefort and Winnie the Pooh. 

My daughter is interested in voice acting as a possible future career, so we make special note of those performances and these voice actors were so much a part of the soundtrack of my childhood that I feel that warm and gushy rush of nostalgia whenever and I hear them. 

We also saw a lot of visual echoes, with familiar animal shapes in chase scenes from Robin Hood and the Rescuers, and Cruella de Vil's seeming cousin Madame Medusa. 

Three of our four selections had couples that crossed "class" barriers: Duchess and Thomas, Robin and Maid Marian (in Disney's version, there's no mention of Robin being nobility--he's just some guy), and Bianca and Bernard. 

The music of the Aristocats is similar to the tunes from Jungle Book in the jazz influence, too. My daughter and I enjoyed that "Easter egg" feeling that spotting these connections and echoes gave us. 

In case, you haven't read the other posts, the basic project is that my 12 year old daughter and I are watching all the Disney animated features in chronological order since Dad got us Disney plus this winter. We're using the wikipedia list and so far there have been only a few that weren't available on Disney Plus: Academy Award Review of Walt Disney Cartoons, Victory Through Air Power, Make Mine Music, Song of the South, So Dear to My Heart, and The Sword and the Stone (which we found from another source and watched). So, we've watched 23 films so far.

So how do the 70s stack up?

Story-wise, we found these less problematic. While Duchess was a bit of a damsel in distress, Marian and Bianca have serious backbone and a sense of adventure.

The films were mostly free of "ick" moments of leering men and voluptuous women or racial stereotyping or outright offensive portrayals as we'd found in earlier films. They still play well to twenty-first century women like us. We weren't pulled out by outmoded references or outdated humor like we sometimes were with earlier flicks.

Animation-wise, production seemed a little less careful. Thomas O'Malley in the Aristocats looked like a completely different cat in some scenes, especially when he was supposed to be frightened. He changed shape and size throughout. We were pretty sure we spotted some repeated footage in Robin Hood and the Rescuers, like you might see in a Hanna Barbera production, a sign of cost-cutting.

In contrast Winnie the Pooh was highly creative with its use of the text of the books as part of the animation and breaking of the fourth wall as characters interacted directly with the narrator and seemed to know they were in a story.

So far as animation sequences, we loved Tigger sliding down the words on the page when the narrator shook him out of his tree and the opening sequence where a book is opened and all the drawings begin to move. Or when Pooh Bear bounced on lines of text. It was fun how this feature in particular kept reminding you that it was really a storybook.

Even though, she came in to this one expecting she might be "too old" for it, my daughter really enjoyed the sweet stories and fun characters. She thought a lot of the denizens of the Hundred Acre Woods reminded her of her own friends. It's a low stress cartoon that feels very soothing, in the same way that Totoro has been for her throughout her childhood: something you watch when you want something calm.

The 70s get a bad rap sometimes artistically as an era of tacky exploitation and low production values, but we felt these films are still well-worth seeing.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Support Operation Underground Railroad by Reading!

Turning over my blog today to the lovely and talented Ayden K. Morgen. Read about her latest project below and consider getting a copy to support this great cause! -SB


20 to 40 million people currently live as slaves. Over 60% are women and children like Faith Donovan in Ayden K. Morgen's new release, Kill for You. To help end human trafficking and slavery, Ayden is donating 100% of release day (March 17th) proceeds from the book to Operation Underground Railroad (@OURRescue), a global nonprofit that rescues child victims of human trafficking and then works to prosecute and convict perpetrators.

Grab the book from your favorite retailer today (March 17th) to help support this incredible cause!

(10% of proceeds after release day will also go to Operation Underground Railroad).

You can also donate directly to Operation Underground Railroad at:

About Kill for You

The last thing Detective Octavio Hernandez expects to find at the scene of a mass gang-related shooting is a brown-eyed angel standing bravely in the midst of the chaos. One look at Faith Donovan and the homicide detective knows there's more to her than meets the eye. She's keeping secrets that just might help bring down Los Zetas, one of the biggest drug cartels in Los Angeles.

He just has to convince her that trusting him is worth the risk.

Forced upon a mother who didn't want her and enslaved by a gang that refuses to let her go without a fight, Faith's life has never been her own. She thought she'd made peace with her fate…until Octavio sweeps in and carries her out of her blood-soaked cage.

Faith trusts no one, but the hardened detective makes it difficult to remember why. The way he cares for her makes her ache for what she never thought she'd find: love and a family of her own. But trusting him when she knows he has an ulterior motive is one of the most difficult things she'll ever do.

He swore to give her the freedom she craves, but when the secrets she holds paint a target on her back, keeping that promise will prove no easy feat.

To secure her freedom and win her heart, this detective will move mountains. And take down anyone standing in his way.

Kill for You is the second book in a series of interconnected full-length novels featuring law enforcement officers willing to do whatever it takes to protect the women who need them most. Each book can be read as a standalone, has no cheating, and a guaranteed HEA.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

What I read: February Round Up

February went by in a blink, even with that extra day. Whoosh! Some of that could be because I spent the first half slowly rebuilding strength from the flu that took me down at the end of January, but I also think that the older I get the faster time moves. See Exhibit A: the grown-up-ness of my eldest daughter!

I did still fit in a few books though:

First was Alone With the Stars by David R. Gillham. I picked this one for two reasons:

1. Audible has been giving me "audible originals" as part of my membership package for months and I keep adding them to my library, but haven't actually read any of them yet.

2. Amelia Earhart.

This book is "inspired by true events" an epitaph that always jangles me a bit because it leaves me wanting to know which bits were true and which were imagined. Since I am interested in Amelia Earhart without actually having read all that much about her directly, I don't know! So, reading this also added her autobiography and poetry to my TBR.

The premise is that a teenaged girl heard Amelia Earhart's last radio calls and tried to save her. I liked the story, and the way the girl and E's stories intertwined. I wasn't fully satisfied by the ending, but then again, I'm not sure a decisive and clear ending is appropriate in a book about a woman who is famous partly because we don't know what happened to her. 

All in all, quite good. Based on this experience, I'll probably try more of those audible originals I've downloaded.

Next was The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi. Bacigalupi is a writer I've heard a fair amount about--he's got some "buzz" as they say--but I hadn't read any of his work. This one is near-future environmental dystopian, focused on the fight for water rights in the American Southwest after severe droughts leave wide swaths of the country deprived.

We see the world through the eyes of three characters: the titular "water knife," a hired thug named Angel; a reporter named Lucy Monroe, and a street kid named Maria Villarosa. It's a good mix of perspectives and shows how motivations shift depending on where you're standing.

I found the story compelling, though it lingered a little too lovingly over some of the violence for my taste. I like a lighter hand and will still feel plenty horrified by atrocities that I'm not shown every detail of.

There was a minor character I *loved*--a photographer. In fact, as I read, I kept thinking that I knew this character already, that I'd read a shorter work that included him, but I can't figure out what that might have been. If any of my blog readers know what it was, please tell me!

The last book I finished in February was The Stone Sky by NK Jemisin. It's another science fiction book with environmental themes. I dunno, maybe I was feeling gloomy about earth's prospects?

I've read the other two books in this series, The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, and I recommend that you do the same if you're going to read these. It's a series that works best read in order as one cohesive narrative.

Jemisin was awarded The Hugo three times in a row for these three novels, and it's well deserved. The storytelling is innovative, the characters moving and fully realized, the worldbuilding amazing. All these pieces are fully integrated in a way that is rarely seen.

It was a great ending for the series, with the right notes of necessary sacrifice, hope for the future, and tying up of loose ends. Writing this a couple of weeks later, I still feel wowed.

I nearly finished two other books in February: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (a re-read for me), and The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. But I didn't finish them until March 1st, so I guess I'll save talking about them for my March roundup.

What did you read so far this year that wowed you? Did you read any of these? What did you think? I'd love to hear from you in the comments.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Scattered Focus: IWSG March 2020

Welcome to the first Wednesday of the month. You know what that means! It's time to let our insecurities hang out. Yep, it's the Insecure Writer's Support Group blog hop. If you're a writer at any stage of career, I highly recommend this blog hop as a way to connect with other writers for support, sympathy, ideas, and networking.

If you're a reader, it's a great way to peek behind the curtain of a writing life.

The awesome co-hosts for the March 4 posting of the IWSG are Jacqui Murray, Lisa Buie-Collard, Sarah Foster, Natalie Aguirre, and Shannon Lawrence! I hope you'll check out their blogs as well as some of the others on this blog hop after you see what I have to say.

In some ways, I'm a very disciplined writer. I write every day and have for more than six years now. But as my career has progressed, I feel overwhelmed by commitments and by "shoulds" sometimes to the point that my energy feels completely scattered, so even when I am being very productive, I feel like I'm not, which makes it hard to keep heart.

Currently, I try to:
  • post on instagram daily
  • blog once a week
  • participate in some kind of promotional activity for my published work once a month
  • move forward in the WIP novel every week
  • take advantage of short story opportunities (invitations, interesting open calls) as they arise
  • keep my unpublished work on submission 
  • meet deadlines for work I've got in process (edits, proofreads, submission dates, etc.)
  • keep up with communications (emails, responses to social media)
  • send a newsletter once a month to my subscribers
  • journal or do day pages often enough to let new ideas develop on the back burner
  • track the business end of things to make sure my contracts are followed and royalties are paid
  • play (write things that I don't have solid goals for, but am writing because I want to and enjoy it)
That's a lot to balance. Especially when you consider that I do this alongside a day job (teaching middle school Spanish) and house and family responsibilities. I can generally get 1-2 hours for writing life on a school day and 4-5 on a school holiday. Though I think it would still be a lot to balance if I were a full time writer without other jobs. 

When I talk to other writers about this, I get a lot of sympathetic nods, but not many solutions offered. I know I'm not alone in the struggle to pursue my dreams while still keeping a roof over my head, a car to drive, groceries, and insurance for my family. 

Saying no is scary--refusing opportunities can mean that you don't get a repeat offer or that you miss out on something that might really have served you well. But all the same, I'm learning to use that word more often, to really analyze each blip across my radar and consider whether it's helping or just keeping me from focusing "where it matters." 

I guess that's the real rub: figuring out "where it matters." 

How about all you other creatives out there? How do you choose where to focus your energy? What balls are you juggling to keep your creative life moving in the direction you want? How do you keep heart when it gets overwhelming? Inquiring minds want to know! Tell me in the comments!