Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day

Happy Labor Day, everyone!  Regular posting will resume Wednesday.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Friday Life: Special Occasion Chocolate Raspberry Genoise (part 2)

Now that you have a lovely cool cake, it's time to prep for assembly.  Genoise is a dry cake compared to most American-style cakes; I've heard that the difference between American and European cake moistness has something to do with the relative amounts of protein in American and European flours, but I'm sure it's also got something to do with taste.  In any case, because genoise is dry and spongy, you can fill it full of flavored syrup (in this case, raspberry) to create a deliciously moist, light cake.

Raspberry Syrup
1/3 c white sugar
1/3 c water
1/3 c raspberry eau de vie or Chambord

My recipe calls to raspberry eau de vie, but I traditionally make this cake with Chambord, as it is more readily available.  I have on occasion left out the syrup altogether when the cake has been available for children to consume, and while it was still tasty I would recommend at least making the syrup to soak the cake even if you leave out the alcohol.

Dissolve the sugar in the water in a saucepan over medium heat and simmer a couple of minutes.  Remove from heat and add the alcohol (you can add to taste, but I find that 1/3 c is a good balance.)  Let cool.

Slice your genoise into two even layers.  (You can try for three if you're a master with the knife.)  Set the bottom layer onto a flat cake plate (alternatively, into a springform pan) and moisten with about half of the raspberry syrup.  Moisten the bottom of the top layer with half of the remaining syrup.

Next time: filling options and assembling the cake!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Wednesday Culture: Writing for Love and Money

Yesterday, I read an article in the Telegraph entitled "Whatever Happened to Writing for Love, Not Money?"

It's the same old arts-undermining BS that pops up from time to time by someone who either wants to make a splash or who misunderstands or is ignorant of the role of arts in society.  I've seen it and heard it a hundred times over.  The arts, after all, don't provide food or shelter or clothing; they don't give society military might or wealth; and they don't produce tangible, practical goods.  It's easy to look at the arts and see them purely as entertainment, something that can be abandoned as soon as real needs crop up.

But the arts are deeply and inextricably entwined with the so-called "real" needs of society, and they have been for thousands of years.  The arts speak to a human need as deep as the need for food and shelter - self-expression, definition of identity, and connection.  Perhaps they don't create tangible, practical goods, but the effect of the arts on the mind is both powerful and wide-reaching.  Arts education has shown to contribute to both academic achievement and personal development:

"Arts education, on the other hand, does solve problems. Years of research show that it's closely linked to almost everything that we as a nation say we want for our children and demand from our schools: academic achievement, social and emotional development, civic engagement, and equitable opportunity.

Involvement in the arts is associated with gains in math, reading, cognitive ability, critical thinking, and verbal skill. Arts learning can also improve motivation, concentration, confidence, and teamwork. A 2005 report by the Rand Corporation about the visual arts
 argues that the intrinsic pleasures and stimulation of the art experience do more than sweeten an individual's life -- according to the report, they "can connect people more deeply to the world and open them to new ways of seeing," creating the foundation to forge social bonds and community cohesion."

-Edutopia, 2009

“With this study of the Learning Through Art program, we are pleased to demonstrate that arts education helps develop the skills necessary to persistently and adaptively work through problems,” said Kim Kanatani, Deputy Director and Gail Engelberg Director of Education, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. “By asking students to think like artists, we are imparting 21st-century skills in encouraging them to approach problems with creativity and analytic thought rather than just recitation of facts.”, 2010

Perhaps the arts don't offer military strength, but they do define the soul of a nation and provide a sense of national pride:

"In his first annual message, President George Washington told Congress he was ''persuaded that you will agree with me in opinion that there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature.'' A third of a century later, President John Quincy Adams called for laws promoting ''the cultivation and encouragement of the mechanic and of the elegant arts, the advancement of literature, and the progress of the sciences.'' In the third year of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln ordered that construction of the Capitol dome be completed. When critics objected to the diversion of labor and money from the prosecution of the war, President Lincoln said, ''If people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign that we intend this Union shall go on.''

President Franklin D. Roosevelt recalled this story in 1941 when, in a world ablaze with war, he dedicated the National Gallery of Art in Washington. And President John F. Kennedy recalled both these stories when he urged public support for the arts in 1962. Both Lincoln and Roosevelt, Kennedy said, ''understood that the life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is very close to the center of a nation's purpose - and is a test of the quality of a nation's civilization.'' The policy of Federal support is an expression of the value the Republic places on the arts, a symbol of the role assigned to the arts in our national life."

The New York Times, 1985

And perhaps the arts don't satisfy basic needs like food or shelter, but they have been shown to provide social benefits not just in education but in healthcare, the economy, and the community.

"Arts & Economic Prosperity: The Economic Impact of Nonprofit Arts Organizations and Their Audiences, was released on June 10, 2002 by American for the Arts. It reveals that America's nonprofit arts industry generates $134 billion in economic activity every year, including $24.4 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenues. 

The $134 billion in total economic activity has a significant national impact, generating the following:
  • 4.85 million full-time equivalent jobs
  • $89.4 billion in household income
  • $6.6 billion in local government tax revenues
  • $7.3 billion in state government tax revenues
  • $10.5 billion in federal income tax revenues" (from Americans for the Arts

"Arts & Economic Prosperity IV is our fourth study of the nonprofit arts and culture industry's impact on the economy. The most comprehensive study of its kind ever conducted, it gives us a quantifiable economic impact of nonprofit arts and culture organizations and their audiences. Using findings from 182 regions representing all 50 states and the District of Columbia, an input-output economic model is able to deliver national estimates.

Quick Facts

Nationally, the industry generated $135.2 billion of economic activity$61.1 billion by the nation's nonprofit arts and culture organizations in addition to $74.1 billion in event-related expenditures by their audiences. This economic activity supports 4.13 million full-time jobs and generates $86.68 billion in resident household income. Our industry also generates$22.3 billion in revenue to local, state, and federal governments every year—a yield well beyond their collective $4 billion in arts allocations....


In 2010, nonprofit arts and culture organizations pumped an estimated $61.1 billion into the economy. Nonprofit arts and culture organizations are employers, producers, consumers, and key promoters of their cities and regions. Most of all the are valuable contributors to the business community."

-Americans for the Arts, 2011

"In one study undertaken...., researchers looked at data from the city health department on the well-being of children 15 years of age and under. They found a strong relationship between the presence of cultural resources in neighborhoods and a much lower level of social stress in the children, even controlling for income. Another study used data from Philadelphia’s Human Relations Commission to establish that there are lower incidents of racial and ethnic harassment in neighborhoods that have a significant number of cultural resources."

-Penn Current, 2011

"Incorporating the arts into health-care settings has multiple benefits for patients and may reduce health-care expenses, a new study says.

Benefits from arts programming include shorter hospital stays, less need for medication, and a boost for job satisfaction and employee retention."                                                     "Arts in Health Care Seen Yielding Benefits"
-Philanthropy Journal, 2009

"Many organizations find arts therapies can yield significant improvements in patients' functioning and systematically incorporate them within other therapeutic programs, particularly behavioral health. For example, the PeaceHealth Medical Group relies on an art therapist, a dance therapist and a poetry therapist to support the Sacred Heart inpatient psychiatric hospital in Eugene, Ore.

"Our focus here is on recovery," says Dale Smith, director of behavioral health for the region. "Over the years, we have learned that when people feel closed off due to an illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, it is very difficult for them to express what they are experiencing. Since they can't express it clearly, they often act out in ways that are misunderstood or even dangerous."

Poetry and art have been particularly valuable in the unit, she says, since so many clients are troubled by a thought disorder or auditory hallucination, and find it difficult to speak openly. Poetry, for example, gives them a way to focus and form their words and thoughts."

-Managed Health Care Executive, 2010

"In fact, although arts therapy has been used clinically for more than a century28 and has been recognized as a profession since 1991,29 much of the published work is theoretical in nature, with little discussion of specific outcomes.13,30 Only in recent years have systematic and controlled studies examined the therapeutic effects and benefits of the arts and healing.31

Nevertheless, we have seen positive outcomes for the potential of using art to promote healing in our 4 primary areas of focus."
-American Journal for Public Health, 2010

The arts are vital in any society - which means that artists must be too.  Despite popular perception, arts careers are legitimate careers, and artists do work very hard to both master their field and find a way to support themselves while doing so.  Asking an artist to create "just for the love of it" makes about as much sense as asking a surgeon to perform your surgery "for the love of it"or a barista to make your coffee for free because she must obviously love to make coffee if she finds herself working as a barista.  That's not the way our society works; we are a capitalist, money-based society, and if you want great art and great artists, they have to be financially supported.  If we insist that artists create art as a side hobby rather than a full-time job, we devalue art and its role in our society, and we miss all the benefits that art has to offer.  

Monday, August 25, 2014

Monday Writing: Deep Breath

I had the opportunity to catch the new Doctor Who episode over the weekend and while as a fan I am delighted by Peter Capaldi's Doctor, as a writer I found the episode itself somewhat weak.

There were many things about "Deep Breath" that are very promising - a great Doctor, a return to the humor that has been missing of late, some very good underlying themes and questions - but on the whole the episode felt scattered.  In terms of the focal point of the story, there's been a shift of late from the Doctor to the companion; where Eccleston and much of Tennant's Doctors explored their identities, moralities, and what it meant to be the Doctor, during Smith's reign much of the character development and lynchpin of the stories shifted to Amy and Clara.  That continues in "Deep Breath," where the question isn't so much about the Doctor's identity as Clara's struggle with it.

The shift in and of itself isn't a bad thing, but I think it misses the point a little.  (To be fair, I have also never connected with Clara; she comes across as pert but without personality.)  The companions are supposed to be the introduction into the Doctor's world, but the reason I watch is for the Doctor.  I want to see him struggle to define himself and interact with the world around him through his loneliness and fear and sense of responsibility.  I don't want a funny raggedy man; I want a living, breathing, flawed hero who does his best but it's not always enough.  In other words, I want a character, not a caricature.

And on that note, I also want good thematic follow-through.  The Doctor's regeneration is always a great opportunity for an exploration of self and identity, and that was definitely fumbled in this episode. There are a number of great moments with the Doctor trying to adjust to his new body, but at the end, when he's facing a villain who has been replacing parts of himself for years, the Doctor brushes off a "Ship of Theseus" reference and moves swiftly on to the question of who will be killing who.  I could have seen Nine or Ten recognizing something of themselves in the villain, but that opportunity was missed here.

That being said, I thought Capaldi's Doctor was masterful, and if the writing will permit him I think he could be one of my favorites.  He's got the depth that Matt Smith lacked, and the ability to flip from terrifying to outright silly within moments.  His Doctor is less connected to humanity than any of the previous three, and I am interested to see if he continues in that direction.

What did you think of the new Doctor?

Friday, August 22, 2014

Friday Life: Frozen Banana "Ice Cream"

This recipe comes, as (some) good things do, from Pinterest.  I'll admit I was skeptical at first; I like bananas, but I'm not a huge fan of strongly banana flavored things, and the idea of frozen banana puree didn't sound even a little bit like ice cream.  But I had some bananas lying around that needed to be used up and I was craving something cool and sweet, so I gave it a shot.  And wow - it really is (kind of) like ice cream!  There is a definite banana taste, but it was milder than I had expected, despite my rather old bananas, and the texture was in fact just like soft-serve ice cream.  I added some cocoa powder and it was delicious - no sugar needed.

Frozen Banana "Ice Cream"

Take some bananas.  I approximate one banana per serving, but you might want to freeze more so that you have them readily available.  Slice the bananas and freeze for two hours (longer is better!).  I strongly recommend putting wax paper in the bottom of your tupperware or glass rubbermaid freezing container so that when it comes time to remove the bananas you can just lift them out without having to pry them up with a fork first.

Dump frozen banana pieces into a food processor or blender.  (Remind self to thank aunt who got you said awesome blender.) Blend.  Your bananas will initially form large crumb-like chunks; push them down with a spatula and keep blending.  Eventually it will start to look like pureed banana - keep blending.  What you want is a thick, smooth substance that moves with the blender.  You will be able to tell when it hits this stage, so if you're not sure, keep blending.

Eventually the bananas will look like thick soft-serve ice cream.  You should be able to tell by just looking at them, but if you're not sure you can dip a spoon in and taste.  (That's what really sold me!) At this point you can add extra flavors - peanut butter, cocoa powder, vanilla and cinnamon, etc.  I dumped in about a tablespoon of cocoa, stirred it in, and then blended a bit more, and got a really tasty chocolate banana mix.  When your flavor is blended, spoon out into bowls and enjoy!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Wednesday Culture: YA Dystopia and The Giver

In seventh grade I switched schools and was promptly placed into the wrong language arts class for the last two-hour period of the day.  The school remedied this by letting me attend the second hour of the advanced language arts class.  Since the lower class had quiet reading time during the first hour and the upper class had quiet reading time during the second hour, I frequently got two solid hours of reading in at the end of the school day.  As a result, I cannot diagram a sentence, but I have read many wonderful books.

The reason I mention this is that the lower class was studying "The Giver," a book which I nearly memorized before the school moved me to the appropriate class, and since then I have had a soft place in my heart for that book.  It's one of my favorite YA dystopia stories for several reasons: the society is structured in an interesting way, designed to appeal to teenagers trying to figure out who and what they'll be (where would you be assigned?); the dystopia emerges gradually, as Jonas figures out the truth; and events aren't melodramatized.  Jonas experiences some seriously gut-wrenching moments was he's learning the truth about this society and discovers that he can no longer trust his friends and family, but there aren't really any villains out to get him.  There's no malice behind the danger, and indeed, there's a sense that Jonas could have followed in his predecessor's footsteps and lived out a long and peaceful life in the community.

The advantage of this approach is that it eases up on the "us vs. them" mentality that is central to so many YA dystopias.  It's a mentality that is appealing to teenagers, particularly in a sense of young people challenging an older authority because in the midst of the adolescent struggle for independence and self-identity, it's easy to idealize a character that breaks free of adult control.  But one of the great things about "The Giver" is that it invites the reader to pose the question of whether rebellion is a good idea, and how it will harm the people left behind.  What has this society sacrificed to be peaceful and painless?  Is that sacrifice worth it?  What harm will Jonas do when he leaves, and is he right to make the decision to do so?

And that, I suppose, is what I really like about "The Giver" - that it makes you think.  I feel sometimes that YA, particularly YA dystopia and sci-fi, has lost its way a little in providing all flash without substance, and trailers for the recent movie of "The Giver" make me fear that this story has been  stripped of the ambiguity that made it great.

Have you seen "The Giver?"  What did you think?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Monday Writing: Getting To Know Your Characters

I enjoy many things about the writing process - building a world, structuring a satisfying arc, getting into the flow of the plot - but one of my favorite parts of writing is creating a new character.  Sometimes I'll throw a new character in to fill a void, and they'll surprise me by suddenly developing a strong personality and voice of their own.  Sometimes the character is more carefully crafted, with a fleshed-out backstory and complex morality.

There are a lot of exercises out there designed to help you get to know your new characters but honestly I've never had much luck with them.  I have, in writing classes of the past, filled out long questionnaires about what my character had for breakfast or what she considers her favorite color, and emerged at the end with no better picture of who she was.  Over time, I've found that I learn the most about my characters by seeing them in action.  Their personalities come out best when I write and I find out who they are by seeing how they react to different situations.

One of the most valuable character exercises I've ever done was to write an epistolary novel with a friend.  The great thing about co-writing is that you don't necessarily have control over the situations that arise, so when your friend lobs you a stink of magic and a lost kitten, your character charges off to the library to sneak into the forbidden section and you learn that she is both impulsive and believes that sufficient research will answer all questions.

If you lack friends of suitably writerly qualities to do an epistolary novel but who enjoy reading your work, you can get to know your character by writing short stories one section at a time and letting your reader weigh in on where the story should go (or where s/he thinks the story is going; I've altered many a character exploration mid-course when my reader unwittingly gave me a great idea.)  You can also try throwing your character into random situations.  Books of writing prompts are especially good for this - you can flip open a page, pick a prompt, and let your character run wild.  If all else fails, take a look at your story and put your character into other character's shoes; what would s/he do if confronted with this issue?  Would s/he respond in the same way as the character you currently have there, and if not, how?

How do you get to know your characters?