Friday, November 30, 2012

Chocolate Cherry Rum Cake

As I continue playing with various rum cake recipes, I find variation after variation each time I look at ingredients in my pantry. I like to keep an eclectic mix of items around to foster my creativity.

The chocolate cherry mix is nothing new, but the rum soak ads a nice kick each time one comes across a chewy cherry in the cake.

The recipe:



1 box chocolate cake mix

1 box (4 serving) vanilla instant pudding

½ cup water

½ cup rum

½ cup oil (I use olive)

4 eggs

1 cup dried tart cherries soaked in rum



¼ cup butter

½ cup sugar

¼ cup water

¼ cup rum

1 tsp almond extract

1 tsp chocolate extract


Preheat oven to 325°.  Pour the rum off the soaked cherries, reserve to use in the cake and in the glaze (if there is enough). In a large bowl, combine cake mix, pudding mix, water, oil, eggs, rum, and soaked cherries. Beat until combined. Grease and flour a bundt pan. Spread nuts around the bottom then pour in the batter. Bake for 50-60 minutes.


When the cake comes out of the oven, leave in pan. Boil butter, sugar, water, and allspice glaze ingredients for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in rum, almond extract, and chocolate extract.


With the cake still in the pan, poke holes in the cake – I use a chopstick. Pour hot glaze over the cake. Allow the glaze to soak into the cake before turning it out onto a plate (about 5 minutes).


Thursday, November 29, 2012

Another Month of Writing

         For several years, I have participated in NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month) in November. Though there are now themes for every month of the year since BlogHer has taken over the coordination, my hectic schedule does not allow me to write something post-worthy every day in multiple months of the year (some could argue I never write anything post-worthy). I look forward to the challenge and in the months leading up to November, begin to map out themes I can use for each day of the week and then map out my writing strategy for the month.

         The daily themes give me a writing boost when I have my composition book, or my computer before me with a blank page, they do not bind me. I write based on whatever inspiration strikes me and frequently that has nothing to do with the daily topic. Freedom to write whatever I want to write makes the process much more fun and this month has been particularly fun for me as I discovered topics I truly enjoyed. Some posts took days to write, and some took minutes, but all were fun.

         Probably the aspect of NaBloPoMo I enjoy most is that if forces me to get in a writing mode and demands that I pay attention to at least one of my three blogs. There were a few days that I actually had three or more posts go up. Taking a month dedicated to writing helps strengthen my writing habits and refine my daily habit to include writing creatively.

         I do write on a daily basis, but most of my regular writing focuses on professional topics and does not lend itself to blog posts. I do have a professional blog for some of my other writing and while the blog format is appropriate for increasing communication (for those willing to comment and read the comments), not all the writing fits the blog format.

The daily themes I plan for the month do sometime take precedence, which is why I am posting my reflection on the month a day before the month is over – Fridays have had a food theme and the recipe coming tomorrow deserves its proper place. As NaBloPoMo wraps up for me, on this blog, for this yea, Advent has just begun, so yet another of my blogs now demands daily care through Epiphany.


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Lottery Bonanza

         In order to avoid as much holiday traffic as possible, I took the country-road route, as much as possible, back to Austin. The lack of traffic let my mind wander as I drove through pastoral landscapes. While taking in the beauty of undeveloped land, I merged fantasies of that landscape with the news that no one won the previous Powerball Lottery drawing. What would I do if I won $425+ million dollars?

         All my thoughts of luxurious, hedonistic living kept returning to trucks, tractors, and cows. If I won the lottery I would buy a ranch and spend the rest of my life working on it. As much as my mind could imagine, all I wanted was land, and cows, and big motorized toys. The more I thought about it, the nicer it sounded.

         I could work in the pasture all day letting my mind wander as it would, then come home in the evening and write. My best writing always comes following physical labor. Phrases and sentences simmer in the thought soup that bubbles away while my body labors at tasks that do not require much mental attention. Particularly good ones I jot down as they occur; others, I let refine.

         Of course, I love my career in education, so it would be hard for me to leave the students behind. With the lottery money, I would not really have to work for pay. I could just go into the local school and teach writing workshops. I enjoyed teaching writing much more than literature anyway. Experiencing the creativity of others is as rewarding as coming across my own perfect phrase to end the paragraph being composed.

         On my trip to see my family I listened to a series of stories based on Americans in the artist colony of Paris in the early parts of the twentieth century. Thoughts of those stories expanded my ranch vision. Beyond baling hay and raising cattle, I would host parties. With $425 million I could afford some guest quarters. They always had room for passers-by on Bonanza: I surely could too. The question I could not resolve was, “extra rooms in the big house, or separate guest houses?”

         I like my privacy. I will probably go with separate guest houses.

         And if my ranch is in Texas, I will need a Cadillac for driving to the big city so I can leave my truck out on the ranch.

         The more I considered the implications, the more I realized that winning the lottery is expensive. I do not know if I want to spend $2 on a ticket or not.


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Remembering Spring

Late enough in fall that the tree had lost all its leaves, I noticed the bird's nest still perched securely in the limbs.

Where there was nothing spectacular about the nest in and of itself, it reminded me of spring and the energy that comes with the season. Though it was cool at the time of the photo, I looked around to see if there was any chance the fledglings that came from the nest were in the area. Of course they were not, but given our climate, I doubted they had gone too far - unless the cat that was trailing me had his way with them long ago.


Monday, November 26, 2012

Sanitizing the Game

         During the time the NFL officials (they are not all referees – there is only one referee in each game – every official has a specific assignment) were locked out due to a contract dispute, I grew increasingly worried each week due to the increasingly blatant major violations going uncalled in the games. The safety of every player on the field was at risk with each call that was not made.

         Scientific discoveries in the last decade, spurred more by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than professional football, have cast light on the permanent damage head injuries such as concussions have on those who experience them. Historically the “minor” head injuries, such as concussions have been considered healed as soon as the symptoms disappeared. We now know that is not true.

Football (though hardly the only sport) has long been known as a sport whose participants frequently experienced concussions. Big men traveling at high speeds colliding with one another tended to have that effect on the anatomy. As new information has been discovered, the NFL has been responsive by creating rules and equipment designed to protect the safety of the players. They have attempted to sanitize the game as much as a notoriously violent game can be sanitized.

         What frustrates me are the people seeking to hold the NFL responsible for injuries that occurred prior to the knowledge we have now. They are like the people suing companies for using asbestos in the 1950’s. Knowledge of the harm of the product did not exist at that time. Since the 1970’s, with the widespread use of computers and the exponential growth of knowledge, we find it easy to forget that all we know now has not always been known. In many cases, the means to know did even not exist.

         I am a football fan and applaud the efforts of the NFL to make the game safer for the players. Rules the NFL implements trickle down to college, high school, and pee-wee leagues. However, I do not want new rules to be seen as an admission to prior knowledge. While ample internal documents exist that confirm the cigarette industry knew the harm smoking did to smokers while they continued to market smoking as healthy, to date, no internal documents indicate that the NFL knew the lifetime impact a head injury could have on a player.

         I am proud to live in a world that is making such amazing progress regarding human health. I cannot, however, support any of the litigants who sue over the “should have known” argument. As an educator, it would take me minutes to construct a test anyone would fail, but should have passed because the knowledge society has gained since they left school changed what they were taught.

         We live in extraordinary times (compared to other eras in history) regarding the acquisition of knowledge. There have been bursts of knowledge in historical periods, but nothing that remotely compares to the exponential growth we see today. We need as much common sense in the application of knowledge as we see acquisition of knowledge. Knowledge and understanding are worthless without a viable application of that knowledge. If we cannot use it, archive it. Do not litigate it.

         One reason I am a fan of professional (and college) football is the hand-to-hand combat between the warriors on the field. I enjoy the strategy in the game and variance in performance between players from week to week. No one can have their “best game ever” every week. Even the underdog sometimes wins; that is why we play the games. We have replaced gladiator-style battles with rule-bound sports: it meets a societal need. All of humanity has a degree of competition even as our talents fall in different areas.

         I applaud leading football organizations for adapting the rules to protect the players and the integrity of the game as new knowledge has become available. As much as we want everything to be made right in the world, we cannot retroactively correct historical wrongs; with new knowledge we can, and should, prevent future wrongs. Unfortunately knowledge is fluid and justice based on that knowledge is equally fluid. Instead of attacking organizations/institutions that adapt to the knowledge available to them, celebrate them for the responsive work they are doing. Justice and fairness are not the same and only the most naïve pretend they are.


Sunday, November 25, 2012

Adventing Advent

         I grew up in a Southern Baptist church that never taught the liturgical seasons practiced by many Christian denominations around the world. As an adult, when I first worshipped with churches that followed the liturgical calendar I became fascinated with Advent and Lent in particular. Both seasons carry such weight in the mission of the church. Both seasons have so much meaning and symbolism that shapes the world – even the secular world.

         Advent, as the start of the liturgical year, focuses on hope and so has been my favorite season of the year. With the Advent calendars and the daily focus on something to do in the anticipation of the coming Christ, I have always had something to focus on in the month before Christmas that is not commercially centered.

         Last year I started a separate blog to daily post my reflection on the Advent calendar. It turned into a weekly Bible study blog that connected me with a new dear friend and helped me find a focus for my spirituality. In anticipation of the daily blog posts that would require, I started adventing Advent in August this year.

         Yes – Advent means so much to me in my spiritual journey that I began planning for it in August.

         Advent starts this week and I am ready. Scriptures have been gathered, notes have been taken and drafts of scripture reflections have been made. Now it is time to finalize them and prepare myself, not only for Advent, but for Christmas and all it means to us.


Saturday, November 24, 2012

Gone to the Dogs

         The National Dog Show came on as I was sitting in my recliner in near turkey-coma. My dog sat looking up at me wondering why he could not have the things I had eaten (too many jalapenos in the dressing). With all the treats the dogs were getting from their handlers, he was probably wondering why I was not slipping him a treat every time he moved.

         Nothing about the dog show interested me. The extreme to which dogs have been bred to specific purposes has created some genuinely ugly dogs. The announcers kept pointing out that the viewer needed to “imagine the dog doing what it was bred to do when judging from home.” I could not imagine some of the dogs, especially some of the terriers, being bred to do anything but scare rats and tasteful tourists out of the village.

         Seeing these coiffed canines made me happy with my mutt. A bath now and then, a few toys from the discount store and we are set. You will find no special products or handlers around here.

         As much as I was not interested, I could not turn away. Much like NASCAR, which is most fun when wrecks disrupt the race, I kept waiting for the Rottweilers, Dobermans, and German Shepherds to get into it - or for the Great Dane to snap up that ugly toy breed winner for a snack. I could not turn away. Alas, these dogs are too well trained and the choke chains the handlers use keep them under control. No fights. No inappropriate sniffing. Nothing exciting.

         Just calm voices talking about how wonderful each breed is for what it does.  And there were many commercials for pet food and pet toys. One feature even advocated taking dogs to work. My energetic dog would cause chaos. There were no ads for animal tranquilizers.

         Instead of calm, knowledgeable voices, I want Fred Willard, in character from Best in Show, to analyze the proceedings. That hilariously inappropriate chatter coupled with the behind-the-scenes antics of the various dog owners/handlers fills the imagination with what might actually be happening in the parts of the show edited out so that the show ends just in time to cut to the football game.

         I must confess, this is at least the third year in a row I have watched the show. As much as I wish NBC would take a cue from the movie and broaden the antics of the show, I doubt they will. However, I will likely keep watching from year to year – hoping sometime life will imitate art.


Friday, November 23, 2012

Thanksgiving Menu 2012

         For the last few years, I have spent the week of Thanksgiving preparing food to cover 30 people. I seriously do not know how to cook for one. I simply cannot imagine food on that miniscule scale. This year, though I consciously scaled back the menu: I only planned to feed myself and my roommate. Still, few traditional Thanksgiving dishes can be prepared for only one or two people – and I do traditional (at least according to my family) each year.

         This year’s menu included a smallish turkey (under 20 lbs), cornbread dressing, cranberry salad, sweet potato casserole, green bean casserole (tradition with my roommate’s family),and sun-dried tomato corn muffins. Desert included pumpkin cheesecake and a double layer pumpkin pie.

         Since I learned how to brine a turkey a few years ago, it has become my standard practice to load the turkey into several garbage bags (NEW, not used) then covered with a salt/citrus brine. I stuff fresh citrus fruits and an onion into the turkey to flavor it during cooking. The other dishes are pulled together with my supernatural nose – I know when the dish smells right (particularly the dressing). It makes it almost impossible to ever share a recipe.

         Now that Thanksgiving is done, it is time to start planning for the New Year’s feast – good luck foods from around the world.



Thursday, November 22, 2012

What's Right in My World

         I am easily amused by the humor I find in human foible (resulting in “warning” labels on packaging because of lawsuits stemming from a lack of common sense). Those labels and other silliness bring a bit of happiness to me and to my friends. Focusing on such triviality comes easily in most of our lives. On Thanksgiving, though, we take the time to reflect on what we value in our lives, what means more than a quick chuckle.

         I am blessed that my life is filled with joy sustained by the important people and things in my life.

         I am blessed by a small group of valued friends. We do not talk to each other or see each other nearly as much as I would like to, but I know they are there when I need them.

         I am blessed to have a career that truly matters to me. Waking up every day knowing I get to do something I love and interact with co-workers who are equally passionate about their work keeps me energized.

         I am blessed by family, near and far, who love me and who have made me the person I am today.

         I am blessed by an internalized faith that keeps me grounded no matter how frazzled I get by the chaotic world around me. Having a spiritual retreat against stress of the world allows me peace.

         I am wishing everyone who stumbles up my simple reflection a Happy Thanksgiving, and I send you off with a prayer: May your life be filled with every blessing you need.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Holiday Minimalism

         As Thanksgiving approaches, whether to decorate for Christmas or not has reentered my internal discussion. I have a miniature tree I decorated a few years ago that I stick in the closet each year on Epiphany and pull out sometime after Thanksgiving. I used to decorate each room (including each bathroom) with a theme/color for that room. Lately, I have considered such effort a waste of time and resources.

         One miniature fake tree.

         One stocking.

         That has been all. I went from excess to extreme minimalism.

         I do not throw a huge holiday party (since someone squeezed my toothpaste – totally another story). Not many people come through my house during the holiday season, so little reason exists for me to go to the effort of decorating to any extreme. I do not enjoy the decorations personally; they are just too energetic for my personality.

         I am that bland.

         This year, though, I have a roommate and maybe I should do something more festive to make him feel better about his first year away from his family at the holidays. After all, I have boxes of goodies for decoration in storage in my garage.

         Unfortunately, I would have to take it down later.

         Even though the work involved takes time I do not have, something about this holiday season has me looking forward to it. In years past I truly enjoyed getting into all the decorations and that spark in the back of my mind flickers now and then.

         I just hope that the giant snake that sometimes crawls around my garage has not bedded up in any of the decoration boxes for the winter.




Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Dutchman's Pipe

While walking around my parent's yard, I stumbled across a new flower I had never seen before.

I plucked the open blossom and my mother identified it as a Dutchman's pipe, a flower she remembered from her childhood. She had not seen the flower since her childhood, so was excited when she came across one at a flower show.
I did not reallize it on first seeing it, but after closer inspection, I realized that the flower was a carnivorous one. None of my lenses let me focus in close enought to truly show the fibers in the throat that would let a bug crawl down, but never let it out of the container in the back.

Prior to opening the bud appears as a liver-veined bladder on the vines.
Thought is it mid-fall, the plant is just now fully recovering from the drought.  There are a number of bulbs growing in one part of the vine. I am looking forward to seeing just what they turn into after blooming and whether catching a bug makes a difference in the post-bloom response.



Monday, November 19, 2012

Tradition: UT-vs-A&M (and TCU)

         For decades, a highlight of the football season in Texas is the Thanksgiving week matchup of the University of Texas Longhorn and the Texas A&M Aggies. Almost everyone in Texas takes a side in the game. For 118 years, it was the game that captured the attention of a state.

         When A&M moved to the SEC, the annual rivalry went with them.

         Rivalries play such an integral part of the sports. From high school, to college, to professional sports, rivalries provide a focus of the season – even a bad season. No matter how lop-sided the odds going into the game, fans pin hopes for the entire season on the one game. The winning side, not only the team, gets a full year of bragging rights to utter domination (no matter how close the score). Any winning margin is utter domination.

         The Texas-vs-A&M rivalry was so great, legend had the winning team getting a trip to the Chicken Ranch. Only Marvin Zindler (and a few hundred former football players) know the truth.

         Beyond bragging rights and non-NCAA sanctioned rewards, rivalries build communities like few other events other than disasters. Unlike disasters, the rivalry comes on a regular basis and only brings woe to the losing foe. With the UT and A&M rivalry, someone else wearing burnt-orange became an instant ally while those in anything else maroon became an instant foe. While some rivalries turn nasty, in most cases the taunting of friend and co-workers (and strangers on the street) who root for the wrong team (any team other than yours) is more jovial than serious.

         You do not REALLY want that to happen to their mother.

         With the flight of A&M to another conference, UT has to replace the Thanksgiving game with relative upstart TCU. TCU has had several very strong seasons, coming close to a national championship game; however, their overall history has not qualified them for big-league football. Though they joined the Big Twelve as a replacement for A&M, they are still not quite there.

         I guess if Baylor can be in the Big Twelve, then TCU can too.

         It will be a few years before the burnt-orange-vs-purple rivalry is as fierce as the burnt-orange-vs-maroon rivalry grew to be. At least in the interim we continue to have the Red River Rivalry between UT and OU. It creates its share of enthusiasm as an interstate rivalry, but never the passion within Texas as the intrastate game held.

         And I have yet to come up with a good anti-frog chant. Beat the frogs sounds more like a down under pest-control technique than a football cheer.

         And any reference to horny-toads just hearkens back to Chicken Ranch days.

         Maybe with enough anything-but-beer during the game all will be fine.



Sunday, November 18, 2012

Joy that Matters

         The World English Dictionary defines joy as “a deep feeling of happiness or contentment.” I use that definition over the American standard definition of joy as a synonym for happiness. Happiness, though, comes from a surprise or something in life that delights being present: it is short term. Both life experiences and my faith have lead me to the more solid definition grounded in the words, “a deep feeling.”

         Unfortunately, as a counselor, I see too many people coming into my office with fast food emotions: they are fleeting, here now and different in a moment. Emotions are not valued and very often people do not invest in them the effort it takes to make them meaningful. Emotions exert great influence on our daily lives. Days can be ruined (or made) by those fleeting experiences to which no one else gave the least thought.

         For the last 20 years, since I came to understand that joy, real joy, cannot exist as a fleeting experience, I have sought to live my life in a search for joy. It has been both a personal and a spiritual journey to find out what it means for me. Living in joy does not mean I am happy all the time; very often I am cranky about something. Smiling does not come naturally to me; it never has. Frowning, or a non-happy expression on my face, is normal it does not mean I am unhappy or upset about something. It means I am being me. No matter my expression, my driving core emotion is joy.

         Living a life in joy means making decisions about career, relationships, faith, and budget that impact daily quality of life. My career (and the specific job I have now) reflects my personal values of social justice and social responsibility: as an educator, I have impact. I confine my relationships (friendships) to people who add value to my life – even if we disagree on key issues. My faith guides my personal values (particularly those that shape my career) and it determines my religious affiliation. How I spend my money shapes my happiness. Though I am a self-described tech-geek, I do not purchase every new toy that comes out: I have what I need. The decisions I make lead to that deep feeling of contentment with my life. I lay down at night with few regrets and wake up each morning excited about the opportunities in the day. Consciously making decisions with such a goal in mind impacts everything.

         The concept of joy in the Christian church comes from the direct connection to God. Nothing in that connection is temporal which is what makes joy different. The Old Testament and the Gospels and Epistles list joy as a characteristic of believers. Believers gain joy by having a personal connection to God that leads to the eternal promises that come with their belief. The connection to God presents itself daily.

         In the fast paced world with changes taking place faster than we can track them, contentment and joy seem like antiquated ideas. Joy, real joy, keeps us grounded like no other emotion and gives us a way to navigate the turmoil around us.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Other Me

         I just read an article about the fake names celebrities give when checking into hotels and it made me want to be famous enough to need a fake name.

         I guess I could give a fake one without being famous, but it would not be as much fun.

         For years, when I traveled professionally, I, along with my co-workers selected an alternate identity we would give the authorities if we were ever arrested. None of us ever expected to be, but just in case we did not want our name in the paper. I chose the name of another administrator in the district about my size and build (though much-much older) and who grew up in the same geographic area as I did.

         If I were ever arrested in another city, I would insist my name was Kent Ewing.

         We (with a Napoleon complex) stick together (whether he knew it or not). Of course, now that he is retired, his name does me no good.

         I need to start stalking district administrative meetings to find my next alias. And if I cannot find a good doppelganger, I will just have to go with Stormy Strudel.

         First though, I have to become famous.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Salisbury Steak

Another comfort food that I enjoy from time to time is Salisbury steak. I had actually forgotten about it until I saw a mention of it a few weeks ago on a cooking show. When I came across cubed steak at the store yesterday, it inspired me to try it out. The relatively few ingredients and ease of preparations makes these older recipes favorites. With a few new ingredients, they can be as current as anything else with a regular rotation through my kitchen.


6 cube steaks




1 Can diced tomatoes with green chilies


½ cup diced onion

½ cup diced green pepper



Mix flour, salt, and pepper together and coat cube steaks. Fry on each side in a little oil (enough that it does not stick). Spread about ½ the diced tomatoes, onion, and green pepper in the bottom of a Dutch oven or similar baking dish. Spread the fried steaks over the vegetables, doubling them over one another if necessary. Cover with remaining tomatoes, peppers, and onion, add a little water. Bake at 350° until the steaks are fork tender.

In addition to being remarkably simple to make, Salisbury steak is one that has been much maligned because it uses such cheap and basic ingredients. While cube steak is often one of the cheaper cuts run through a tenderizer a few times, it can still be challenging to even the best of teeth. Cooked long enough with the liquid, just like slow-cooking a roast leads to tender, flavorful meat. With the colorful vegetables in the mix, it is also nice to see on the plate.



Thursday, November 15, 2012

Change and Such

         I have heard that only babies like change.
         I do not believe that.
         Ask anyone and they will likely provide a list of things they want to change – about themselves, about their work, about the people around them. The status quo gets boring. The longer we do the same thing, the more likely we are to find ways to do it better – change what we are doing. Regularly we are changing things around us.
         Yet when change comes from the outside, the chorus of “why can’t we leave it the way it was” rises quickly, and often most loudly, and from those people calling for change. Law, policy, new information directs change from many directions. Some of them questionable. Some of them worthy. Change happens and is a force in all we do. Our lives are stressful – or not depending on how we handle the changes that come.
         Years ago Holmes and Rahe developed a scale on how much stress a person has in their life. The scale calculated stress based on life-changes a person experienced in a year’s time. Whenever I ask someone to look at it, they are shocked to see that even positive changes create stress in life.
         Deaths (of family or friends) are stressful.
         Relationship troubles are stressful.
         Getting fired is stressful.
         Yes, even getting a raise is stressful.
         So is a vacation.
         Every change we have in our life is stressful. When the stress points total 150 points in a year, the person has a 50% chance of developing an illness. When the points total 300, the person has a 90% chance of developing illness or some other kind of blow-up.
         While Holmes and Rahe provide a guide to change stress, perhaps most important about change is how we approach it. Change and such happens around us on a daily basis. What matters is how we go about approaching it. We can resist and fight all change, increasing the stress that comes with it. We can take the opposite tactic and go with the flow to reduce the stress (Wrong! Going with it when we disagree with it is just as stressful as, or even more stressful than, fighting it).
         Or we can select our battles. Accept that change happens around us and let some change go unchallenged because it is part of the environment in which we work/live, but challenge those things that matter most about us. The energy that stress requires can be turned to something positive. Prescribed change challenges even the most resilient person, but the better we learn to manage that change and our reaction to it, the healthier we will be. We cannot prevent change, but we can control our response to it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Elegance of Numbers

All my life I have been a word man. For as long as I can remember I have taken great pleasure in reading and writing. Whether or not anyone else cares, words through stories, essays, poetry, and scripts have captured my imagination whether they were the creation of my imagination or that of others. Words constructed the images that shaped my life.

Over the course of my life, I have written far more words than have ever been seen by anyone. That’s fine. I write much more for me than for anyone. Honestly, all three blogs I maintain are about me.

It is what it is.

In the last few weeks, though, numbers keep striking me with an elegance that I have never noticed.

Maybe it comes from the primary focus of my job being data collection and distribution. I have spent more time playing with Excel in the last six months than I have in the previous 45 years. (Yes, I know Excel has not been around 45 years, but spreadsheets have been.)

The numbers that have struck me though have had nothing to do with my job.

The roundness of the “6’s” when my odometer reached the 58666 mile point was only surpassed by the 58888 mile point.

And there was the anticipation between 59999 and 60000. I noted both mile points but missed the transition as I was in bumper-to-bumper traffic and preferred to avoid a collision rather than monitor the odometer.

Perhaps it is thanks to digitization of numbers rather than simple analog and handwritten numerals that create the esthetic nature. I never noticed mile markers, time, or patterns when numbers were written by hand or ticked over on plastic rolls.

Perhaps it is that I spend hours each day looking at numerals. Each one represents a student or group of students. The numbers are personal instead of a value. These are numbers that matter.

Whatever has happened, the simple elegance of numbers has overwhelmed me in recent months. The beauty of the patterns, the lines, the curves, have all captured my imagination. They encapsulate a beauty of which I was never aware.

Every time I see a group of numbers, I am struck by a beauty in them I have never noticed before. My brain has changed.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Good Deer Year

Every year when fall approaches we start to check out the oak trees to see how many acorns they are putting on. The more acorns and the earlier they fall, the better it will be for deer hunters - deer thrive on acorns and put on weight rapidly when eating them.

This year is a good deer year as far as acorns are concerned.


 The narrow snouts and nimble tongues of the white-tailed deer are perfect for picking up the acorns scattered under the broad live oak trees.  Because they can so rapidly gather the acorns from the usually sandy ground, they gain weight and go into the winter with a healthy store of fat, though in South Texas some kinds of greenery are almost always growing because winter usually lasts about two days in February.


It is not such a good year in South Texas for cows though. With their broad snouts and thick tongues, the cows pick up more dirt than acorn and end up going into the winter rail thin. Ranchers dread the years when cows start chasing acorns because it leads to financial losses for them. The less a cow weighs, the less it is worth at market. The shade from the evergreen live oak tree tends to keep the ground underneath sparsely grown with grass, so there is much dirt for the cows to lick up.

Just like everything else in life. What works for one does not work for another - and so it is with acorns. What is not a good year for ranchers, is a good year for hunters.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Long After Lance

         A few weeks ago Lance Armstrong experienced a particularly rough span with allegations, which he decided to stop fighting, coming on particularly strong from many directions. My first inclination was to believe him, and the harsh comments the judge made regarding the case bicycling’s governing body made supported my inclination. But the more that comes to light about the scope of doping Armstrong did across the years, the more I suspect USADA wanted to bring it all out in the hearing.

         As the charges continue to roll out and damage Armstrong beyond the race route, the more I wonder what the fallout will be to other athletes as more doping charges will surely emerge. From the loss of the race titles to the damage to his namesake foundation, Armstrong faces threats far beyond a suspension or denial of a hall of fame; a life’s-work could be wiped out.

         Modern athletes transcend the sporting venue and have become more brand than athletic performer. As a result, performance in the sporting venue becomes even more important as it advertises the brand.  Such pressure tempts the use of performance enhancing drugs and it increases the risk of using them. To cheat or not to cheat?

         While Armstrong raced in an era of doping so rampant that the agencies governing international bicycle racing refused to do anything more than leave the record books blank for the years of which his title was stripped, it does not in any way diminish the degree to which his doping damaged the sport. He regularly chimes that he was the most tested athlete in history. To go to the lengths necessary to circumvent the system that Armstrong had to do magnifies the level of deceit he perpetrated against the sport.

         Even though I wanted to believe he was telling the truth, that Armstrong will be recorded as a cheat and a liar in sports comes as no surprise to me. Having lived in Austin twelve years now – and moving to Austin in the middle of Armstrong hype – the community has been filled with story after story about his generally nasty, self-absorbed personality. A co-worker served on the jury trying a driver who nearly hit Armstrong. After his testimony, they wished the driver had hit him, backed up, and hit him again. While the superficial celebrates a winner, the larger undercurrent celebrates the skinned knees.

         The revelation of doping only confirms the underlying character. Armstrong gave hope to millions of people with cancer. Now we know it was a misguided hope. He did not do it on his own; he knowingly and intentionally manipulated the system to promote the image he holds of himself. Unfortunately, his self-image conflicts with reality. He presents an unfair image to those millions.

         Hope is a powerful tool.

         Hope changes even the most dire circumstance.

         Dashed hope, in this case is deadly.

         I cannot help but resent Armstrong for the damage he did to those cancer patients who clung to his story as a motivation for their own success. For the donors to his foundation who ask for their money back, I feel for you. You fell for a lie.

         But for those cancer patients, the world is filled with cancer survivors who do AMAZING feats without cheating, without misleading everyone. One person’s dishonest conspiracy should in no-way diminish your hope because the truth is there are far more who have survived gracefully with their own force of character. They just do not have a publicity machine pumping out the story. They survived for themselves. Ultimately, everyone lives for themself.

         Still, after following the Armstrong story for years I wonder what lessons will be learned from his grandeur fall. History says no. Those who perform at the very highest levels eventually believe the myth that they are unshakable no matter the fall of those before them. 



Sunday, November 11, 2012

And Justice for All

         Each year at Veteran’s Day, we reflect on the sacrifices made by those who served in our armed forces to preserve the freedoms we value so highly as a nation. We remember those who died and honor those who returned. We celebrate that we live in a country whose ideals have survived wars, social change, political upheaval, expansionism and isolationism. No matter the prevailing winds, the commitment to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and “liberty and justice for all” reign in each philosophy though we have many different ideas about how to get there and what those phrases exactly mean. Nevertheless, we celebrate them unquestioningly.

         In the last decade, and most vociferously in the latest election, debate raged over what these things mean in the scope of the government and the church. Labels like “socialist” and “bigot” flew from both sides toward anyone who believed differently than the insulter. Rather than examine the beliefs of the other, name calling became the easier tack. Anyone who understands what either of the terms means, knows that they were grossly misused, thus meaningless except for the sting of insult and serve to hurt the Christian image on both sides.

         It is no wonder the fastest growing religious group, is the group of people affiliated with no church whatsoever. The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Albert Mohler, Jr., noted that their message had gotten out to the public, but that it was rejected. The polls finding that more people were turning away from the church are doing so because of the judgmental attitudes of those who proclaim Christian morals.

         This is exactly where the Church gets it wrong. From the books of the law through the prophets, Gospels, and epistles, acting with justice toward all overwhelms every other direction given to God’s people in the Bible. The Bible is equally explicit that God will be the judge, not us. As long as we spend our time fighting over who is or is not a Christian, both sides are being equally unchristian. We only regain Christian when we turn our faith into action by doing what Jesus commands.

Let’s be absolutely clear. Christian social justice, be it church or state originated, is far removed from Socialism. Social justice, from the Christian perspective, means removing barriers to equality for all people and caring for those, who, in times of need, are incapable of caring for themselves. Removing barriers involves guaranteeing that the justice and financial systems do not lock people into a lifetime of need, but that even the poorest can work their way out. Caring for others includes making certain people have the food, shelter, and medical care needed to overcome whatever situation makes them incapable of caring for themselves. Social justice means elimination of barriers keeping people from equal access. No one should be trapped in a lifetime of poverty or need due to confinement of social systems.

Likewise, social justice does not mean a lifetime of support from church and state systems. When the barriers are eliminated and the basic needs met, one is expected to leave the situation behind, move forward, and then help others who are needy as they become able. Some, through illness (including mental illness) or injury may need a lifetime of support, but it is not the norm.

         The central Gospel in New Testament social justice comes in Matthew 25, though it is hardly the start or end of the social justice message. The other Gospels include teachings from Jesus regarding wealth and the poor. Acts and the Epistles offer examples of how the church cared for the needy, the orphans, and the widows. Jesus brought all the law and prophets down to two commandments in Matthew 22:37-40. Love God wholly and love your neighbor as yourself: the laws about treatment of the disenfranchised continue into the New Covenant.

         While there is no doubt and little disagreement about what the Bible tells the church and Christians to do regarding the needy, much debate rages about the state role in social justice. Here too, the Bible makes it clear, that nationally, we are responsible to those in need. The law for Israel demanded that the nation care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the traveler: it was a national responsibility. Verses across the prophets describe the judgment of God on the nation coming because the nation refused to take care of all its residents. Nationally, we are responsible to make certain our social systems (legal, financial, medical) do not protract the length of time anyone spends in need.

         Unfortunately, the churches are spending too much time fighting over theology to meet those temporary needs for most, so nationally we are responsible to minimize the need within our boundaries if we are to call ourselves a Christian nation.  If every church lived their theology as much as they publicized it, there would be little need for the government to do social work beyond education. We, who call ourselves Christian, must do, not just believe. The doing is much harder than the believing, but it is what makes us Christian. If we believe it then we must do it. If we do not do it and shift the responsibility to the state, then we have no right to call anyone who advocates for state programs socialist or liberal.

         We, Christians, abdicated the responsibility and likewise relinquished any authority for name calling. The last election showed that the majority of the country do not buy fundamentalist social arguments, divisive rhetoric, or scare tactics over religious liberty and it is killing the (big C) Church. The only way left for the Church to regain credibility is for the Church to start being church and doing those things necessary to act on the mission of Christ.

         I am the first to admit that there are missions I have never been able to do. I have tried, but cannot bring myself to work with the homeless. As a trained counselor, I see too much mental illness among the homeless in the times I experiences I have had with homeless populations. I feel the need to “counsel” and help, but the opportunity to do meaningful counseling does not exist within any current structure. As an educator, though, I have ample opportunity to make a difference with that population and that is part of my ministry.

         My counselor training says not to use words like “must” and “should,” but as a Christian, the Bible directs us to the “musts” and “shoulds” any follower of Christ is to do. For me, God surpasses counseling philosophers. No matter where one looks in the Bible, social justice is the directing philosophy. The church will always lose the argument on social justice when its words, rather than its actions, dominate the headlines. We, people of the church, have been even farther behind at some points in history. We, people of the church, have overcome at some points in history to guide state policy.

         It was done with action, not words. Listen to the prophets. Live the Gospel. Love God wholly. Love your neighbor as yourself. That is social justice. That will change the world.



Saturday, November 10, 2012

I See You Seeing Me

While walking through my parent's property recently, I came across a game camera near a deer feeder along one of my regular walking trails. I could not resist, so I took a picture of the camera taking a picture of me.


I cannot wait for the hunter to come up on that picture! I have no idea who he is, but I want him to send me that picture when he comes across it.


I actually wish I had a game-cam next to his computer so I could capture HIS expression when he sees it.


After seeing some of the pictures from my brother's game-cam, I do know that many of the animals being photographed are well aware that something is going on in that clicking camouflaged box. Too many of them come up to it and lick it or stick their noses up for a good sniff. The hunter should not be too shocked then that a human would try something goofy.


Since the game-cams use a memory card. I should buy a discount one and fill it up with silly pictures around the city and replace it in his camera. He'd certainly wonder how the deer managed to do that grand excursion with his camera. (I'm laughing so hard at that idea that I fear I may get kicked out of the coffee shop - people are trying to study [or so they would have you believe by the annoyed glares in my direction].)


Spending a few hours in the deer blind made me remember how much I enjoy being out in the wild, seeing animals interacting with their natural environment. I need to build a cabin in the woods to escape the electronic world and enjoy a slower time now and again. The different pictures from my brother's own game-cam and the close-up encounters I had in the couple hours in the wild made me long again for that peaceful simplicity.


A game-cam I check (prank) from time to time would only fuel the desire to be in the woods more rather than quench it. Perhaps, I can find a way to have my place and the chance to be close to all the wildlife that abounds in the woods and play with the game camera at the same time. Time to put my imagination to work and see what I can figure out.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Pineapple Upside Down Rum Cake

A couple months ago I got on a kick of making cakes with spiced rum after my roommate brought that home instead of regular rum.  While the standard recipes were good, I knew I could continue to improve the cake with variations. I wanted to make a pina-colada cake, but since my roommate is allergic to coconut, I opted to try the pineapple upside down version and pulled out the maraschino cherries.

To date it is my favorite of the multiple variations.



1 box French vanilla cake mix

1 box (4 serving) vanilla instant pudding

½ cup liquid drained off pineapple (no sugar added preferably)

½ cup spiced rum

½ cup oil (I use olive)

4 eggs

Pineapple chunks or rounds

Maraschino cherries



¼ cup butter

½ cup sugar

¼ cup water

¼ cup spiced rum




Preheat oven to 325°. In a large bowl, combine cake mix, pudding mix, water, oil, eggs, rum, and allspice. Beat until combined. Grease and flour a Bundt pan. Spread pineapple and maraschino cherries around the bottom then pour in the batter. Bake for 50-60 minutes.

When the cake comes out of the oven, leave in pan. Boil butter, sugar, and drained pineapple juice, glaze ingredients for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in spiced rum.

With the cake still in the pan, poke holes in the cake – I use a chopstick. Pour hot glaze over the cake. Allow the glaze to soak into the cake before turning it out onto a plate (about 5 minutes).



Thursday, November 08, 2012

Brain Lapse

         A night after staying up well past my bedtime to watch the election coverage to its finale with the speeches of the presidential candidates, I came home from work ready for and early bedtime. As I finished my dinner and contemplated bedtime, a calendar alert went off on my phone and computer simultaneously reminding me that it was Nature, Nova, and Nova: Science Now – my favorite night of television.

         I stayed awake long enough to find out what each show was about.

         And then I went to sleep for the remainder of each one.

         This normally only happens with mindless sitcoms. But after a night being up four hours beyond my normal time, I did not have the energy to get too educated tonight.

         My brain is full from the elections.

         Maybe that is why I stayed awake for most of TMZ.


Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Thank Goodness for Food Chemistry

         Thank goodness for food chemistry.

         Normally, I am a food purist. I use real butter and never margarine. I use real sugar (or honey or something natural) never corn syrup or saccharine. I use lard, not any vegetable shortening. The natural always wins. But as I sit up watching the election results, my thoughts going into the night were to either take sleeping pills and avoid it altogether or drink energy drinks and watch it all the way through.

         Yay, chemistry!

         Between an (unnamed brand) energy drink and a pot of coffee, I am spending about half the night running to the restroom and the other half trying to keep up with my twitter feed that updates faster than I can read 140 character bites – much less clicking through to any of the lengthier stories. Together, they are keeping me up and functioning.

         Mostly, I am glad the election season is over. Some of the votes are going the way I want them to. Some are not. That tends to happen with elections. In some cases, I am just glad some people voted with common sense.

         As I wait for the concession speeches, I put an extra (unnamed brand) energy drink in the refrigerator for tomorrow. I think I am going to need it.



Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Where Water Was

Texas has spent most of the last decade in drought conditions. Intermittant floods have hidden the fact that despite a massive amount of rain in a short period, the drought has continued. Urban dwellers and those outside the heartland of the United States have a hard time imagining and understanding just how severe this drought has been.

  Limbs, lying on the ground like corpses on CSI, demonstrate the extent of damage to the trees of years of drought. Making my way around my parent's property, I came across countless dead trees. The agriculture department has estimated that 10% of the trees in Texas have died. In the forrested areas of my parent's ranch almost every post oak and pin oak have died. Live oaks that are hundreds of years old are shedding huge limbs - giving up much of the effort they have expended since Columbus landed on the continent.
My brother (and the rest of the family) used this flat-bottomed boat to navigate around the pond when it was at its peak. Now grass and weeds have grown up around it.
The nearest water, compared to where the boat sits, is over 100 yards away, near the treeline in the distance. One-hundred yards. For a pond! That's how bad the drought is.


Monday, November 05, 2012

Football Confession

         I talk – too much perhaps – about how much I watch sports and enjoy them. But it is time for me to come clean. Time for me to be brutally honest with myself and everyone who knows me.

         I have the television on the games every weekend.

         I barely pay attention to it.

         I listen for unusually loud noise and then I look up for the replay.

         While I do genuinely enjoy sports, I find myself too busy doing something else – cooking, cleaning, reading, writing, Facebooking, and tweeting. I think I have lost the ability to focus on any one thing for an extended period of time. It is not that I do not want to , I just have become so used to doing many things simultaneously that my brain flits from task to task.

         When I try to slow my mind down, I go to sleep. I need to work on correcting this. Just ask my roommate. He wears headphones so he does not have to hear me snoring in my recliner. I do like sports and enjoy seeing athleticism at work on the field. I need to find some way to become better focused at it without sleep overcoming me.



Sunday, November 04, 2012

Food and Spirituality

         Making and eating food are among the most spiritual acts I perform. From gardening, ranching, and hunting in childhood, I have always had a close relationship with much of the food I ate. From the fresh vegetables raised in our garden, to the beef from the calves we raised then sent to slaughter, to the venison and other game meats we hunted, my hands had a role in the processing from beginning to end.

         Living in the city now, I have a modest garden in my back yard that produces more squash and tomatoes than I can eat, but certainly comes nowhere near sustaining me. The back yard definitely will not support a herd of meat animals or even a flock of chickens, so I am forced to rely on the grocery store or meat market for them. Until the time comes for me to slice and cook, I have no connection to most of the food.

         Despite the void between ground/hoof and table, the act of preparation remains spiritual for me. I do not exercise enough. I do not sleep enough. I drink too many high-caffeine drinks. Cooking and eating well prevent my body from going totally to pieces. Cooking and eating well honor who I am. I enjoy it and gain great satisfaction in preparing something delicious from the ingredients I am given.

         The relationship between each part of the meal encourages reflection on the connections between parts of my life. Too much of any one ingredient puts the dish out of balance. Friends, work, family, and God all shape who I am; they are the ingredients to me. Just like a recipe, any one out of proportion alters me and the person that I am. Food connects every aspect of life friends, work, family, and God. At the table, at a restaurant, or even in passing, food offers that moment of connection even if it is in passing.

         Perhaps, at a certain point, my career will allow me the opportunity to live on land again instead of being confined to the small spaces of the city and will allow me the chance to raise the majority of the food I eat. I like that connection, but it is not necessary for food to be a central spiritual aspect of my life. God is present no matter how many hands touch the food and I take solace in that knowledge.



Saturday, November 03, 2012

I Can't Drive 85

         The fastest highway (toll-road) in the United States opened recently a few miles from my house. With a posted speed limit of 85 MPH, it has the fastest allowed speed in the country. The contract for building the road included the enhanced speed limit which coincided with an enhanced toll rate.

During its initial days, they toll authority waived the fees for the road – kind of like a crack dealer gives the first few fixes free. Because it was free and I needed to go that way anyway, I decided to try it out.

I have always had a lead foot, but the reversion to the 70 MPH speed limit on most major highways quite satisfied my need to drive quickly. I had to set the cruise control to maintain 85 MPH on the stretch of road. I kept finding myself drifting back to the accustomed 70 MPH.

All I could think was, “Sammy Hagar would be so ashamed of me.”

The first night the highway was open, though, three cars crashed into wild hogs. Fortunately, no one was injured. Still, this highway runs through rural Texas. We have wild animals in abundance. In Caldwell County (where the wrecks happened), one can earn $2 for bringing in the tail of a wild hog because they do so much damage to crops they are considered a pest. Two dollars provides little solace to those who hit the hogs. Still, anyone who really wants to drive that fast in rural Texas without grill-guard can plan to fork out much more than $2 on the repairs they will likely have.

I had my fix of the accelerated speed limit, so I will stick to the parallel free highway. For $3 to cross six miles, 55 MPH proves quite satisfactory.



Friday, November 02, 2012

Queso Mac and Cheese

         What do you do when you make WAAAAYYYY too much queso for the football game? Turn it into mac and cheese of course. I have not experimented much with mac and cheese in a couple years since I started watching my carbohydrate intake due to an expanding waistline. It remains one of the comfort foods I turn to when I really want home.

         Such a simple dish to make with so many variations possible I keep finding new things I like about it. I have switched to whole grain pasta I rarely endorse a particular brand (because I am cheap and normally stick to generic), but in the last few years, I discovered that the enormous distinction between generic and brand names when it comes to pasta and a few other items. I almost always use Barilla Plus whole grain pastas. They have a wonderful nutty flavor and solid texture that holds up to almost everything I want to do with it.

         In the case of queso mac and cheese, I opted for rotini as the pasta with grilled sausage for some added flavor (and to make it a main dish). Other than the pasta, the entire dish was put together with leftovers from previous cooking events. Putting it together and baking it, altogether, took about 1 ½ hours. The queso and sausage were done. I cooked the rotini to almost done, sliced the sausage. After draining the pasta, I mixed together the queso, pasta, and sausage then poured into a greased 9X13 baking dish (cake pan), covered with foil, and baked in a pre-heated 350° oven until heated through. In the last few minutes, I pulled off the foil and let the top brown.


         As a queso freak, this version of mac and cheese helped satisfy that urge as well as my craving for home food.



Thursday, November 01, 2012

Jury Duty

         I have been called for jury duty for a two month time. Earlier in the year, I received the same notice, but it coincided with the start of school, so I received a postponement until the November-December window.

         This is the first time I have been summoned to the Federal court for the jury duty window. To find out if one is called, one must either go online or call-in Friday and Sunday evening to find out if one must show up Monday morning. For years I have wanted to serve on a jury that settled something more than a traffic ticket. We threw the (ticket) book at her: she was filmed making the illegal turn and then cursing at the police officer. That jury experience was fun, but not exactly challenging. The evidence was clear and justice swiftly done.

         Since I will be doing my service in Federal court this time, I am not going to get to send anyone to the electric chair.

         One day!

         Though I joke around about jury duty, I believe in it. Despite the inconvenience it causes with regular work, I look forward to opportunity to serve my community. If they could text me the testimony and let me text back the verdict, I would be even happier.

         I also have to get over the idea that work won’t work without me. I work with many talented, hardworking people who will carry on quite capably in my absence. I mostly worry about my work that they will have to shoulder. We all work so hard I hate to add any task to their workload.

         Nevertheless, in the coming weeks, I look forward to the possible judicial adventures that lay before me. Of course, if I do get the chance to serve, it will be in silence – at least on here.