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A Worthy Opponent

 

 

There’s something about us humans that makes us appreciate a challenge. It’s one of our most stimulating occupations.

Nowhere is this more true than in games. We want to win. Yes, of course. But not every time.

Our opposition, the degree of difficulty, must be just enough to stretch our capabilities to the limit. Just enough to keep us from winning every time.

Thomas Middleton is a worthy opponent for me. He’s a cruciverbalist who composes acrostic puzzles (much tougher than crosswords), and he’s puzzle editor for Simon and Schuster. I’ve been battling it out with him for years, and I’ve found him a most worthy opponent. I always finish his acrostic puzzles, but I am not always the winner.

You see, I have my own rules for doing these puzzles. First, I go through the clues and jot down any possible answers that come to my head. If I have seven or eight, I’ll take a pass through the puzzle to see if I can get a word or two. If I can, I inch my way along, one letter at a time.

If I do not have enough for a start, I check my Franklin Thesaurus for possible synonyms. Or, if I on my computer, I will allow myself to look up a few (not too many) answers in an online encyclopedia, the bible, in literary references, or Google.

Sometimes, if stumped, I will ask Ed for an assist. If he can give me two or three right answers, that’s usually enough to allow me to finish the puzzle.

In a very difficult case (“Saint, leader at First Council of Nicaea,”) or some scientific name, I will be unable to complete the puzzle without looking at the answer in the back. In such a case, clearly, Middleton has won.

When I can do a whole puzzle without any assists from reference books or friends, that is a knock out (full count) win for me.

The others are all gradient decisions, with no clear, obvious victories. If I have to look up too much, get too many answers elsewhere, I know that the win goes to Thomas. Better luck next time.

I get better over time. I’m getting to know my opponent. (Thomas, that’s the second time this week that you’ve used escritoire for secretary or a writing desk. Getting a little hard up for “E” words, are you?) As I learn all of his favorite “E” words, I win a little more often.

But I still have to look up quite often. I still have to get help.

He’s tough enough that I can win only some of the time–and even then I’m often quite bloodied after the battle.

That must be just the way I like it.

 

© Ruth Minshull   27 July 2016

 

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CHOICES

CHOICES
by Ruth Minshull

There are many levels of freedom. The obvious ones include our numerous rights as citizens of a free country.  As individuals and families we can choose where we will live and work and nest. Given a reasonable amount of intelligence, we can select the economic level and the lifestyle we wish.

On a completely personal plane, we have more choices than we usually acknowledge. For one thing, we can have any opinion on any subject. Some people insist on believing that you are either in or you’re out. You like it or you don’t. To them, it’s an either-or world. Actually we have more choices than that. We can choose (in most cases) either, both or neither. That’s four choices. Furthermore, we can change our minds.

For instance, I’m not an animal rights activist; sometimes these people seem to be pretty crazy to me. On the other hand, I’m often in complete agreement with their efforts. I certainly never favor needless cruelty or killing of any creatures. I’m an environmentalist most of the time, but not necessarily on every single issue.

I’m neither a conservative nor a liberal. Sometimes I’m a bit of both; sometimes I’m neither.
To me, one of the greatest freedoms is the right to have no opinion at all on a given subject–to keep options open, or simply remain indifferent. For instance, if there would be a movement to save the endangered triple-fanged tarantula, I might be indifferent to that effort. (Well, actually, I might pay money to the hit man who could ensure their extinction.)

A man once asked me, “Do you like modern art?” He was perplexed when I replied, “I don’t have an opinion on the subject.” We constrict our lives so much when we try to form an opinion about an entire block of life at once. I could have said, “Which art?” There’s no way to determine how much pleasure we forfeit when we pre-decide that we like all modern art, or that we dislike all of it. For some people there is, apparently, a certain security in pre-fabricated opinions. It’s lazy, but it’s safe.

I once knew a man who had sat down at some time or other and figured out how he felt about everything–philosophical questions as well as all matters of taste. After that, he never again looked at things anew. When any subject came up, he simply pulled out a ready-made opinion. You couldn’t actually converse with him. You listened to a monologue. In a very short time, I found him pretty boring.

Another very profound choice is how we feel about something–how we will react to life around us at any given time. Many times we try to disown this choice, but nevertheless, it is ours.
Love is a good example. People like to pretend that love is sort of a disembodied force that comes out of nowhere and grabs us in the gut and then either fills us with ecstasy or rips us to pieces, depending the course of events. We like to say, “I couldn’t help it. I fell in love.” We get on a roller coaster and then sit back and become effect of the sensations, good and bad. We don’t want to admit that we’re in charge of the roller coaster. I guess we think it’s more fun to disown our own creation.

Strangely, however, when we withdraw our loyalty or affection or love we are more willing to take responsibility. We know we can turn it off. We will decided I didn’t want to belong to that group any more.” “I didn’t want him for a friend any more.” Even, “I realized that I didn’t love him any more.” When it no longer seems like a good idea, we simply change our minds.

I know a young man who falls in and out of love about as often as some people change their socks. He always endows the first meeting with mystic reverence; he’s quite hopelessly romantic. He’s now going to ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after. But the next time I see him, he is saying, “Oh, I’m not seeing her any more. I decided that….”

In other words, we fall into love with our emotions, but we fall out of love with our heads.
There are other choices we make. We can choose how we will respond in any given situation–how we will feel, what we will think. We do have emotions come in on us unbidden, of course, but if we can’t turn them off, we can still decide whether or not to take them seriously.

We all know certain people who specialize in making underhanded jabs at others. When someone says or does something in an attempt to hurt us, we can choose our response. We can be mad; we can be crushed; best of all, we can let it roll right off. We can detach ourselves from the situation knowing the other person is the one with the problem.

Lastly, our whole attitude about life is actually our own choice. We can decide that the news is depressing, the weather is horrible, people are terrible–so naturally we feel miserable. Some people have an insatiable thirst for drama. They insist that everything happens to them. Even though they have about the same grab bag of experiences that the rest of us have, they play out each occurrence with full histrionics. Give them an orchestral background and they’d have a “reality” soap opera. They love to confound you with the complexity of their problems, the unsolvability of their unique situations. They choose to be neurotic because they think it makes them interesting.

In the end the rest of us usually choose to leave such people behind.

Life can be anything from horrible to wonderful. Naturally, we can’t always control what comes our way. But we can control how we respond to it.

© Ruth Minshull 2015

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THE BEAT GOES ON
By
Ruth Minshull

Today I was wishing that I didn’t always feel driven to do something. Driven to work on the site. Driven to write a piece. Driven to do some exercising. Driven to keep up with all the day-to-day mundane tasks.
I asked the stillness of the morning: Won’t there ever come a time when I can wake up and find that there is simply nothing to do? .
I would have every choice in the world. I could do nothing. I could do anything. I could take the blank canvas of the day and paint it with any picture I wished.
Would I paint my day with bustling comings and goings, people entering and leaving in a blur of activity, phones ringing, beeping, chirping and tinkling melodically?
Would this artificial “action” make me feel that I was living life in the fast lane?
I think not.
I believe we all create our days-our lives-just the way we want them to be. Just enough action, just enough noise, just enough quiet, just enough players in the scene, just enough drama to satisfy, just enough difficulty to require a bit of fretting, just enough outrageousness to witness and cluck over. Enough good to enrich us; enough evil to astound us.

If I could wake up and paint the canvas of the day just the way I wanted it, I would do just what I’m doing right now. Work a little, write a little, loaf a little. Mewl and grouse a little.

And feel fortunate that I’m alive to experience all this
© Ruth Minshull 2013.

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The Christmas Pudding

THE CHRISTMAS PUDDING

By Ruth Minshull

 

My mother-in-law (who came over from England as a teenager) prepared many delicious family dishes that had been handed down for generations–but the recipes were not written down; they were all in her head.

Such was the case with the wonderful plum pudding–a rich, moist dessert that she served with every Christmas dinner.

One year, I decided I should learn how to make it, so I followed her around the kitchen as she prepared the pudding.  Unfortunately, she was a handfuls-and-pinches cook.  “I don’t really have a recipe,” she explained.  “I just make enough for the pan that fits into my steamer.”

“Oh,” I murmured, as she grabbed a handful of flour–and then another, and another.  How many handfuls are in a cup? I wondered.  Of course, her hands were much smaller than mine.  My head reeled.

“The spicing is important,” she advised, adding a pinch (or two or three) from several different containers.  Was that cloves?  Ginger?  How many pinches make a teaspoon?

“It’s a good idea to plump the raisins and currents,” she said dumping part of a boxful of each into a bowl of warm water.  Would that be a cup?  A half-cup?

I gave up the whole idea when she produced a bowl from the refrigerator.  “I usually grind up the suet the day before.  It saves time.”

“Suet?”  Do people really eat that stuff?

“Yes, of course,” she said, mixing it in with the indeterminate amount of flour, sugar and the unknown spices.  “In fact, they called this ‘suet pudding’ at home.  It was the poor people’s version of plum pudding.  Well-to-do people made theirs with dried fruit,nuts and brandy.”

Whatever they called the concoction, I knew I wouldn’t be making it.  This was long before fat had acquired the bad name it suffers today, so that didn’t worry me so much, but I was intimidated by the prospect of plumping and grinding–not to mention the blur of pinches and handfuls.

Some years later, after his parents were gone, my husband confessed that, as the holidays neared, he had a longing for his mother’s pudding.

Well, I experimented with making one.  It was a dismal culinary failure.  Even the dog wouldn’t eat it.  For several holidays I tried different variations, and produced more flops.  Then one year, with the yuletide season approaching, I was browsing through my pressure cooker book, when I found a recipe for steamed cherry pudding.  What if I omit the cherries, add in raisins and currents (plumped, of course) and suet.  I tried these substitutions, and was thrilled to find that I had produced the desired spongy texture, but the flavor wasn’t right.  Back to the drawing board (well, the spice cabinet).  After several more unsuccessful trials, finally with a bit of tweaking here and there I was satisfied that I had duplicated the essence of the original pudding.

My husband proclaimed it “just as good as Mother’s pudding–maybe even better.”

(Since there was none left to offer the dog, I knew I had a hit.)  This became our holiday dessert:  my very own version of the plum pudding.

Years went by, and the tradition continued.  Eventually, my husband and I divorced, the children grew up and moved across the country.  I continued to make the puddings, which were eaten when the family gathered for the holiday, or mailed when we did not.  (I even sent one to my ex-husband every year.)

Then the no-fat phase began to dominate the American diet.  One-by-one, we all conceded that we wouldn’t, couldn’t (or shouldn’t!) continue to eat that suet-laden dessert any more.

Holidays came and went, celebrated with pumpkin pies, mincemeat pies and cookies.  That old rich, fat thing (what was its name?) was forgotten.

That is, I thought it was.

Then one year, my sons and their families came to spend Thanksgiving weekend with me in Florida where I was spending the winter.  As the twelve of us sat around the table enjoying pumpkin pie, my oldest son said, “Mother, there’s only one thing I want from you for Christmas.”

“Yes?”

“A plum pudding.  For years, I’ve been ordering bread pudding in restaurants all over the country–looking for something that tastes like that pudding.  But I can’t find it anywhere.  Nothing comes close.  Will you make one for me?”

“Well, OK” I said.

My other son said, “Hey!  I want one too.”

“All right.”

My daughter-in-law gasped, “I can’t believe you agreed to that–so much fat!”

“I know, I know, but it’s just one day of the year.”

Little did I realize how hard this assignment would be.  First, I couldn’t find the recipe.  I thought they were all on my computer, but the pudding recipe simply wasn’t there.  I must have erased it!  After so many years, there was no way I could remember all the details.

I fretted for several days until I finally had an inspiration.  The recipe might still be in my old card file back in Michigan.  I called some friends at home and asked for their help.  I told them where to get a house key and what to look for.

To my great relief they found the recipe.  They e-mailed it to me and I went to work.

First I needed containers that would fit into my pressure cooker (which was tall but had a narrow opening).  Finally, after searching department stores, kitchen stores and grocery stores, I bought several one-pound cans of coffee.  The empty cans fit perfectly.

With time running short, I went in search of the ingredients.  That was not easy either.  I could no longer walk into any butcher shop or supermarket and buy a package of suet.  People didn’t use the stuff any more.  Eventually I was able to persuade a butcher to save some for me the next time he was cutting up a side of beef.

Meanwhile I was searching in vain for currents.  I worried that there might be none left in the state of Florida.  Are they fattening too? I wondered.  Or were they on some endangered list?  I was almost ready to give up when I discovered a couple of boxes in a little grocery store.  Although I suspected that they might be left over from the Civil War days, I grabbed them up.

I made the puddings and some sauce to go with them and, with time running out, I sent them off by Fed-X.

They were happily received, but I knew they would now be expected annually, and (comfort food or not) I didn’t feel that I should continue to commit this dietary sin against my sons.

Perhaps I could devise a new version of the recipe, I mused.  But what could I use in place of the suet?  It was vital to the consistency, if not the flavor.  There had to be another way.  I’d seen applesauce recommended in some cookbooks (as a substitute for fat) so I tried it.  Yuk!  (I no longer had a dog, but I knew no self-respecting dog would have gone near this unsavory concoction.)

Now what?  I needed something that would retain the flavor, but would give me the moist density that was the basic characteristic of the pudding.  Well, I thought, there’s a similar density in carrot cake.  What if I used carrots?

It seemed like a rather bizarre idea, but I tried it.  To my amazement, it worked.

The fatless version was joyously accepted–and a new tradition was born.  For several years now I have continued to send puddings to both of my sons and to my former husband as well.

I wouldn’t exactly call it a “health food”.  I probably can’t call it a plum pudding (which never did have any plums, by the way).  And it’s certainly no longer the old suet pudding.

I guess you could call this thing–that was imported, lost, recreated, abandoned, lost again, found, recreated, modified, Americanized and reincarnated–My Christmas Pudding Lite.

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CONFESSIONS OF A COMPULSIVE BIBLIOPHILE

by Ruth Minshull

 

There’s an old joke about the guy who went to a psychiatrist and when the doctor asked him “What’s the problem?” the man said, “Well, I’m very fond of pancakes.”

“That’s not so bad,” the psychiatrist replied, “I’m fond of pancakes myself.”

“Oh really?” said the man, “I keep mine in a trunk.  Where do you keep yours?”

Well, I like books.  I don’t keep them in a trunk, but you’ll find then just about everywhere else in my house.  If people scanned over all the volumes in my collection they might assume that I’m an authority on several subjects, if not a complete genius.  But then, they’d be assuming that I had read every one of the books.  I haven’t.

I have a strange affliction:  I must own books.  They’re irresistible to me.  But I don’t always finish reading them.  At this very moment I have seven half-read books beside my bed.  I want to finish them all–at least I think I do–but I don’t know if I will.  Such books usually get moved away to make room for new arrivals.  This starts them on a slow migration to the living room book shelves where they join the dozens of brethren who met the same fate.

I have diet books, probably six or seven, and countless health books.  If I finished reading them all I’d probably qualify for an MD.  At the very least I should learn the secret to eternal youth.

There’s no doubt I would have been a master jeweler if I had absorbed the information in all of the jewelry-making books I used to own.

I have books on writing and marketing of everything from fillers to romances.  I own 4 dictionaries, 2 slang dictionaries, two thesauri, 3 usage dictionaries, 3 spelling dictionaries and several books of quotations.

There are a number of tomes that promise the secret of making a fortune.  Now, you can tell that I haven’t finished those–or else someone was lying.

There are business books.  There’s one for inventors and one that tells how to obtain a patent.  I have a book containing nothing but letterheads.  Why I’m no longer sure.

There are at least a dozen art books–many are third and 4th generation.  Other art books have come and gone before as my interest in the subject waxed and waned.  There are books on art treasures, the works of various painters, how to do oil paintings, pastels, watercolors, cartoons and graphic arts.  Even an art clip book and one full of decorative borders.  There’s a book of African masks, another of symbols.

At least I’ve cut down on the gardening books, although I still have a few.  This makes sense, since I have no place to grow a garden.  Actually I’ve never had a place to grow a garden.

I have a complete set of craft books which I’ve never opened at all.  There’s half a set of encyclopedia of home repair.  There are books on birds, animals, plants, flowers, cats and much more.

I’d like to get rid of some of them (surely Letterheads could go?) but I’m afraid my interest may loop around and come back to a given subject and I’ll desperately need them.

The whole thing–this collection of unread books–is not logical.  It’s not practical and it’s certainly not economical.

But I think I have one of those diseases–you know–like the druggies and alcoholics have.  Or maybe my mother spanked me with a book when I was a child.

Obviously it’s not my fault.

Anyway, I don’t have a single pancake stashed away.

©  Ruth Minshull  2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Believing

BELIEVING
by Ruth Minshull

My friends were visiting me at the Gulf front condo in Florida where I was spending my winter vacation.  We were standing on the deck admiring the glittering emerald green sea and the dazzling white sand, when I told them, “Sometimes we see groups of dolphins go by, right out here in front of the place.” “Really?” the husband responded with interest. “Yes.  They come quite close to the shore too.  There might be just a few of them, but occasionally I’ve seen as many as 40 or 50 spread out over a half-mile or so.” “Amazing.  I wish I could see that,” he said. “Maybe I should call them for you.  They might come by.”

They both laughed.  “It would be nice if we could do such things,” his wife said.

“Well, I try it now and then,” I said, “and I’ve had pretty good luck.  They don’t always show up, but they come just often enough to make me wonder if they could be responding to my thoughts.  I believe I heard somewhere that they might be telepathic.”

“Uh huh,” he murmured.  They were both looking at me as if they thought I had a serious gap in my personal ozone layer.  I could almost hear them thinking, We’d better humor her.  She could be dangerous.

I dropped the subject, which seemed to give them a great deal of relief.  We went in and dressed to go out to dinner and no one mentioned it again.

They left the following morning, and an hour later the dolphins came–a group of ten or fifteen.  I stood on the deck and admired them as they  undulated slowly along the shoreline.  As always, I was thrilled to see these delightful aquatic acrobats–although I was sorry my friends had missed the sight.

I started thinking about my visitors.  Quite religious people, they wouldn’t miss a Sunday service.  But faith is a peculiar business, I realized.  It’s quite selective.

My friends have no trouble believing that they can talk with God–and that He listens.  But they can’t conceive of the idea that I might be able to communicate with the dolphins.  I can’t say I blame them.

There are many notions that require our belief, rather than our acceptance of provable facts (math, science, etc.).  The older I get, the less inclined I am to embrace ideas that demand that I believe in them.  In most cases I simply don’t–notions such as angels, flying saucers, channeling,  honest politicians and diets that work.

But if I were going to believe in intangible, unprovable matters, I would embrace every religion, because we need the sense that there is a grand design, that someone is in charge.

I would believe in reincarnation because it comforts me, because it presumes that I am a spirit (not that I have a spirit), that I am immortal and that only this body is temporary.  And death would not be serious, but merely a pause to change costumes before the next scene begins.

And I would believe that dolphins are telepathic and would come because I called them.
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©  Ruth Minshull 2013

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