Friday, June 1, 2012

Moussaka and Mangoes

To usher the best month of the year, June, I hosted a dinner party last night. With the extra free times sans teaching, grading, and planning, I had the intention of truly creating a made-from-scratch meal.  Settling on four courses, I ventured out to my friendly, neighborhood Hy-Vee with an epic grocery list to make hummus(whole wheat pitas already hand-made earlier), a summer salad, vegetarian moussaka, and finally strawberry and rhubarb crisp.  Sadly, I found that Hy-Vee, even in all its excellence, didn't have rhubarb or tahini; therefore, I picked up pre-made hummus and canned peaches and headed home.  Five hours later, countless pans washed, 50 Clorox wipes used, dinner was ready.

  Moussaka has to be one of he most complicated dishes I've ever made.  From slicing up eggplants and zucchini then broiling them , boiling potatoes, mashing up chick peas, making a made from scratch tomato sauce, it seemed like an ancient culinary curse from the Greek gods; however, nothing compared to making a bechamel sauce.  I've never made a white sauce before, so it was a unique experience.  For those who haven't made it, Bechamel requires constants attention, from making a rue, whisking in warm milk then eggs yolks, then watching constantly to make sure it didn't burn as it thickens.  I wasn't sure how thick the sauce was supposed to be; as a result, I decided smother the pre-assembled layers to veggie goodness with the white flood, creating an Greek island surrounded in a French sea.  Hoping for some sort of congealing and browning, I opened the oven 45 minutes later, and it turned out decent although I'm sure I made some French cuisine faux paus along the way.   I'm ready to round 2....some day.

I also learned to always check your mangoes.  The salad I made required mangoes.  Eager to add the tropical flavor to usher in the long day of June, I picked up the first mango I saw in the colorful display.  Unfortunately, as I sliced into it a home, a gooey effusion of pulp and syrup burst out; however, instead when life gives you a crappy mango, dump it into salad regardless.  Also, I cooked my own black eyed peas, but they turned into a mush as well.  Perhaps, I could've gone with the canned instead.

In general, while making a made-from-scratch is challenging and while I won't undertake something was laborious every week, it made me appreciate how what we eat used to be: completely natural and personal.    I've undertaken a summer experiment not to eat out at all and not drinking any soda, partially to see how much money I save but also in attempt to have even more control about what I put in my body.    Culture and food have done an intricate tango over the centuries, and fast food reflects a culture of accessibility, artificiality, and instant gratification.   I'm not condemning those those eat fast food as I know I will make a run to Jimmy John's and Subway occasionally once school starts; nevertheless, I feel like cooking like I did last night let's my get to know intimately what I took for granted for many years.  Cooking is truly an art, a way to express part of who you are at your core in a concrete way for you and others to enjoy.  --I reduced the butter to one stick :P.

Monday, May 28, 2012

If These Stones Could Speak

Author's Note:  This is part of what I hope to be a longer piece on family history/reflection.  It's very raw right now, so any comments suggestions would be welcome.

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenour of their way.

Yet e'en these bones from insult to protect
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck'd,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

Their name, their years, spelt by th' unletter'd Muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.

I normally have a strong aversion to rhyming poetry and mostly find the British Romantics' poetry to be banal and predictable, yet I was drawn to these lines from Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard" when reflecting on Memorial Day.  Elevating and celebrating the lives of simple, hardworking farmers, Gray encourages his readers to reflect on how they lived their lives, away from fame, power, and complexity.  While it may be an oversimplification of what rural life is like, Gray touched a note with me as I looked a photographs I took this past Saturday at the cemetery in Edgar, Nebraska. 

 Settled on the flat farmland of Southeastern Clay County, Edgar, like many small Nebraska towns, has had its population dwindle and average age rise as agriculture becomes more and more mechanized and automated.  A glimmer of hope, The Sugar Shack Candle Company has expanded its business to multiple buildings in 'downtown' Edgar, distributing a new 'cash crop' of fragrant and colorful candles and soap all over the Midwest, far removed from the more masculine corn, beans, and cows most rural areas produce.  Also like most small Nebraska towns, Edgar  grew up along the railroad, a vital artery for transportation and commerce in the late 19th century.  Interestingly, Edgar is part of what was called the 'ABC Railroad', stretching through Alexandria, Belvidere, Carleton, Davenport, Edgar, Fairfield, Glenvil, through Hastings. 

My mom's family ventured west from Indiana around 1880 for reasons unknown to us, perhaps the prospect of cheap and fertile land.  We do know that, in 1882, Henry Frank King officially homesteaded a parcel land in southeast of Edgar in Northeastern Nuckolls County, a piece of land that has been plowed, cultivated, grazed, and lived upon for the past 130 years.  Through those 13 decades, my family name of King disseminated outward to Schlictmans, Kruegers, Chards, and Greers, yet all are buried in the the Edgar cemetery due that one decision by H.F. King to move outward.  I am where I am today due to a long line of cause-effects chains but H.F. King is definitely a big part of it; in fact, each person buried under the sod has their own story.

1st Generation


 Above is the grave of my great great grandparents Phebe and Henry Frank King.  Before reaching a quarter century, they had already traveled across the Midwest, settled in a new land, and convinced other members of the family to come with them, even Henry Frank's father, John, born in 1835; He too is buried in the cemetery.  While Grandma had few stories to tell about her grandfather that I remember, pictures of him reveal he was an average built man, with a moustache and slightly unkempt hair; obviously, keeping up appearances were the least of his worries, tempting  to make a living on land that could be unforgiving.  In the decades before, the Northeastern Nuckolls county was semi-tamed with sporadic Native American-settler disputes, Pony Express riders, and Oregon Trail voyagers.   As I reread Old Jules last year, I imagined how my own ancestors must've gone through similar trials, natural and man made. 

Surviving her husband by nearly two decades, Phebe King was much more prominent in the mind of my grandmother; in fact, a small black and white photograph shows her, born pre-Civil, holding my newly mother in a hospital, generations a century apart tied together in one snap shot.  Genealogical records show she was born in Long Island, New York.  In a photograph I assume is her in her twenties, she appears strong, confident, yet feminine, her hand resting on some stock piece of furniture from a photography studio.  She raised four children on the newly gotten farmstead, encountering with both the mundane and the singular on the frontier; for example, on baking days of the week, she soon found out she had unintended fans of her bread, as Indians would catch a waft of the baking and ride up asking for an extra.  Not knowing their intentions, Phebe capitulated to their request.  After many decades on the farm, she moved into town where she positioned herself as the family matriarch, tending to countless houseplants as well as overseeing family events. She became a role model for my grandmother after losing her own mother before the age of 13.  She died at the age of 95, after living a life that spanned geographical, cultural, and technological barriers. We still lay flowers on their graves, a signifier of the impact they had on future generations.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Lessons Learned 1-5

Last week, I asked my English 10 classes, my S'Mores, to create a project telling me and the rest of the class ten concepts/skills/lessons they learned over the year.  In an attempt to appeal to Gardner's Multiple Intelligences, I told them they could make a drawing, song, skit, or a simple power point as long as they showed me what they learned, using in-depth thought and critical.  Dragging because of May or lack the creative spark, most opted to make a power point.    Sitting back and listening to the presentation, some insightful and reflective, other banal and elementary, I decided what my next blog entry should be.  In the spirit of practicing what I appreciate, I share my first half of my top 10 Lessons Learned this school year. 

1.  I discovered the Fountain of Youth-- When John Golka first told me I was teaching sixth grade, I wondered if I should be allowed to be around them.  After all, they're so tiny; What happens if I drop them and one of them breaks?  When I was in sixth grade, I was still in elementary school, does that mean I have to put up colorful bulletin boards given my utilitarian sense of decor?  Nevertheless, I embarked upon teaching sixth grade, and it has been an adventure from giving reassuring nods and words of encouraging to quiet, wide eyed and scared middle school newbies to trying  to quell a sudden upswing of bravado late in the year in some soon to be seventh graders.  As Mr. John Howard said, "they have spunk and pep."  Well, that's not exactly what his exact words are, but this is a family blog.  Teaching 12, 11, and yes even some 10 years olds renews my love of learning.  From seeing a kid understand the intricacies of compound sentences to witnessing the light bulb moment of realizing better words exist than 'stuff' or 'things',  I find enjoy in helping kids develop the foundations of life long language skills.  As Steve Zissou says on The Life Aquatic, "That's(11 1/2) always been my favorite age."

2. It looked so good on paper- I'll sometimes have 11:30 PM teaching epiphanies, sitting on my couch, watching Annie dreaming of chasing elusive rodents.  I'll think to myself, "ahh hahh, that'll grab their interest!  That assignment will make them see the value of what we're doing  This lesson will change their world view and perhaps cure cancer!"  Convinced of the efficacy of my ingenious idea, I'll introduce to what I think will be the wondrous eyes of students who'll latch onto the concept like a Muskie on a lure, only to find that my idea does a Hindenburg crash.  Initially infallible, my idea succumbed to the harsh reality of high school students.  My limited preparation of the wondrous idea didn't let me see the pitfalls; however, I'll put the lesson in the instructional ICU for a year to recuperate, do reconstructive surgery, and let rise from the ashed to next year's class.

3. We Happy Few, We Band of Seniors-  Less is more definitely was the lesson I came to appreciate with my small but might Composition class 1st Mod each day.  Starting off with four first semester then expanding to a formidable six, we truly became a community where we could intimately discuss complex works of literature like Brave New World, honestly give in-depth feedback on each others' writing, and truly have a lax learning environment.  It reminded me of my small writing group of Robert, Brenda, and Judy and our hour meetings under the gingko tree by Morrill Hall during the Nebraska Writing Project a couple summer.  Under ideal circumstances, I truly believe these cadres are where learning happens most. In my experience, it's impossible to create that type of supportive, nurturing, honest, and open environment that elicits the best discussion and feedback in a class of 25; nevertheless, budget constraints and logistics make my 1 to 6 ratio an anomaly rather than the standard.  I will always cherish my year with Karley, Kevin, Fernando, Ashley, Danny, and Kathy.

4. I love Google Documents-  Leaving a O'Neill High, an Apple Distinguished school known to as flagship to technological innovation, I definitely had to revert back to class where computers weren't at every students' fingertips 24/7; however, to some students' chagrin, I embraced Google Docs as one vestige of my former school.  From making collaborative power points to giving feedback some rough drafts, I preached the Google Gospel, gaining a few converts by the end of the year.  If you haven't tried Google Docs, give it a try!

5.   The Teary Eye Moments Make It All Worth It-  Once told I'd make more money driving a beer truck than a first year teacher, I've always known I'll never make six figures a year teaching at any high school, public or private.    While the reasons I teach are numerous, some of the moments I savor are the 'teary eye' moments.   Tears when the kid who's been the nail digging into your foot says something profound, tears when the kid whose been struggling all semester finally gets it, tear when you read a paper where a kid unbars their hearts in their words, tears when that speaker you've coached  finally breaks through their performance, tears when your student does not need you any more, and and tears when you get that surprise thank you letter.  Those tears make all the sacrifices a teacher makes, monetary or otherwise, all worth it.  Those tears keep you going on the rough days, knowing that you were called to do this and that no other vocation gets the same 'teary eyes'. After all, what hedge fund manager gets to experience those type of tears?

6-10 next blog

Monday, May 7, 2012

I am an Athlete

I was always 'that kid' in the grade school hierarchical chess match known as 'picking teams'.  Small, uncoordinated, and husky, I had accepted my role as being last picked and acting as extra in the outfield of kickball in the weed choked field behind C.Ray Gates elementary.  While idealistic 6th grade boys listed 'professional basketball player' for future occupation in our flimsy end-of-the-year memory books, I filled out 'archaeologist'.  Even at that naive age of 11, I accepted my non-athletic lineage of being a Mohr.  The annals of my family's athletic feats would be as short as comics section and just as laughable.  From YMCA soccer, summer league softball, C team volleyball, and middle school football, we've been the bench warmers.  Our most exciting moments were my brother Nick's concussion and hair line fractures during football...practice and my sister Katie's sole assist in a JV soccer match.  Seemingly resigned to this 'fact' for most of high school, college, and early on in teacher, I was stagnant as pond water, thinking that walking a few miles was laborious exercise.  My health and weight, however, didn't remain so steady.  Looking back at pictures from five years ago, it's hard to remember what it felt to be in that body and how I thought it was healthy.

One August evening almost three years ago, I made a casual decision that changed my life, cliche as it sounds.  Celebrating my sister Grace's impressive showing at the Hall County 4H Dog Show, Grace, my other sister Katie, and I headed out to Ruby Tuesday's.    I don't remember what exactly sparked the decision, but as we waited for a table, I announced, "I'm going to become a vegetarian."  Giving me a look of incredulity knowing my habit for making bold statements, my sister Katie replied back, "Sure Brian, we know how long this will last."  That one salad bar and almost three years later, I haven't tasted meat once, save for a hamburger bet made with my sadistic speech team of 2011.  Ironically, my once skeptical sister has gone even farther than I have in dietary direction, becoming a vegan.  While I had made the decision to do a 180 with my palate, I scoffed at the idea of identifying myself even in the linguistic vicinity of the word 'athlete' until Facebook post made me reconsider.  A colleague of mine posted she was on Week 3 of Couch to 5K.  Interested in the name, I did a basic Google Search and explored the details of this incremental walking/running program.  I started off with running 100 meters, then 200, then 400, then 800, then 1600 a.k.a. in English measurements as the 'dreaded mile' then 5,000 and to my biggest surprise, not only because of the distance but because of the math I had to do, 20,960.   I just completed my 2nd 20,860 meters along with 6,000 other runners, all on the path winding through the shaded paths and streets of Lincoln for a myriad of reasons.  Why do I run?  I run to live healthy in the present and stay strong for the  future;  I run to unwind and think;  I run to set goals and break them; I run to support others running and not running;  I run because I can't catch or throw well;  I run in hopes it might inspire and motivate others to grab the reins of their health. 

 I learned at the Nebraska Writing Project that "I am a writer" by simply stating those words, so using that same philosophy, I claim ownership of the term 'athlete'.  I might be still be that 'guy' even today, the guy you don't want on your intramural softball team in the outfield to catch the fly ball, yet I am an athlete in every sense of the word and so are you.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

I love maple syrup; its leaves are another matter.

This school year, I've had my students journal for the beginning of each class period, using prompts like songs, pictures, quotations, and questions.  A stress reliever  to some, a creative outlet to a few, a tedium to many, journaling has become part of the routine of 121.  While I do join in putting pen to paper some days, I also use the time to prepare for the next step of the class period or take attendance; however, I decided that I should practice what I preach to my classes, that you become a better writer via practice.  Looking back into the time capsule that is MySpace, I spewed out my mid-20's and early teaching angst sporadically;  Five years later, I've made many changes from losing 75 pounds to going vegetarian to moving back home and buying a house. I've debated if I should make this a theme blog i.e. teaching, running, cooking.  In the end, I decided to just let my mind wonder depending on what's going.  So where's my mind wondering?

The Dreaded Maple Seed-  I love owning a house; it makes me feel responsible and grown up, yet there's one idealized part of home ownership that's not so great: yard work.  I imagined that joys of sculpting the perfect lawn: green carpets of grass, perfectly trimmed hedges, a chromatic array of flowers.  Thanks to Mother Nature, that's easier said than done. I have met the enemy of spring, and it's name is the winged seeds of maples.  I could handle raking up the piles and piles of leaves, but these little harbingers of annoyance are different.  I suppose I'll continue to fight the good fight, and continue long hours of manual labor to achieve the Midwestern ideal of manicured lawns, continuously fight against the will of the wind and tree reproduction.  Here's a picture below  

The Enemy