Sunday, January 29, 2023

We're nearly halfway to the light.


Lynne Cantwell 2023
Alert hearth/myth readers know about my penchant for liminal times and liminal spaces -- those borderlands between this day and the next or this place and another. A lot of my stories take place in a liminal space of one sort or another.

I thought you'd be glad to know that we're creeping up on one of these transition times. On Imbolc -- which some know as Candlemas and most know as Groundhog Day -- we'll be halfway from the winter solstice to the spring equinox. In other words, my friends, spring is on its way.

I attended an online class about Imbolc this week. The hosts asked the participants whether they'd seen any signs that spring is coming. Some folks talked about seeing plants beginning to green up. I don't know where those folks live, but it ain't here in Santa Fe -- my porch still looks like this photo that I took near sunset a few days ago.

That little tree is the fake birch tree I mentioned in October.  It's supposed to be winter holiday decor, but I've been keeping it up longer and longer every year. Last year, I left it up on the porch through Imbolc -- and maybe even another week or so, through the end of the state legislature's annual session. Last year, we had a 30-day session. This year, we're doing a 60-day session (in New Mexico, the legislature alternates between 30- and 60-day sessions), and I may just leave the tree up until it's over on March 18th. That's just a couple of days before Ostara, a.k.a. the spring equinox, on March 20th.

Working the session is like living in liminal time for two solid months. Have I explained about this before? We work seven days a week, with slightly shorter hours on Saturdays and a half day off on Sundays. (Yes, it's legal. State legislatures are exempt from federal wage and hour laws -- I looked it up.)  For me, it's a little like going into a trance the weekend before Martin Luther King Day and waking up when spring has sprung. There is not much time to buy groceries and clean out Tigs's litter box, let alone have a life. So a little twinkling beacon of hope to light the darkness isn't such a bad thing.

And lighting the darkness is appropriate for Imbolc, one of Paganism's fire festivals. As I've mentioned before, Brigid was a goddess long before the Catholic church appropriated her as a saint, and over the years since, goddess and saint have become conflated. On the grounds of the cathedral in Kildare in Ireland, you can visit the foundation of Brigid's fire temple, and just down the lane is Solas Bhríde, where the Brigidine sisters have kept St. Brigid's perpetual flame burning since 1993. I received a very warm welcome there when I visited Kildare several years ago. I recommend a stop, if you're ever in the area.

Lynne Cantwell 2016
A little further on from Solas Bhríde is this lovely shrine to Brigid, together with one of the many wells throughout Ireland that are dedicated to her.

This Imbolc is a big deal. It's the first time ever that St. Brigid's Day (in Irish: Lá Fhéile Bríde) will be observed as a national holiday in Ireland. The official day is February 1st, although the bank holiday will be Monday, February 6th (the Irish, like Americans, prefer to schedule their holidays near a weekend. Why not Friday the 3rd, then? Go ask the Irish government). According to the Solas Bhríde website, the centre will be hosting a bunch of events throughout the weekend, including a ramble on the Curragh

What is the Curragh, you ask? Well, thereby hangs a tale

Back in ancient times, the goddess Brigid (or maybe it was St. Brigid) petitioned the King of Leinster for a bit of land to build a monastery for herself and her followers. The king laughed and said no -- he needed all of his land for himself. Then Brigid made him an offer: what if he gave her just the land she could cover with her cloak? The king laughed again and agreed. And so Brigid and her followers set to unfurling her cloak -- which of course was magical (or miraculous, if you prefer). Before they were done, they'd covered 5,000 acres of pastureland near Kildare. The king realized he'd been had, but he stuck to his word. The Curragh belonged to Brigid.

Today, it's owned by the government of Ireland. There's a famous horse breeding facility and racecourse on the outskirts, and a military camp on the grounds. The big battle scene in the movie Braveheart was shot on the Curragh.

Anyway, here in America, there's no holiday for Brigid, so I will be working on Imbolc. But I'll keep my tree lit for her -- and I'll be grateful that we're halfway to spring.


These moments of magical blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Hail, Brigid!

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Too Poe to be true.

Before I get into this week's main topic, I'm going to revisit a thing that has consumed this blog (pardon the pun) for the past couple of weeks: bread. This isn't about low-carb bread, though -- it's more of a news-you-can-use thing.

I was looking at low-carb breads at the grocery store today as an employee stocked the shelves. We fell to talking (this would never happen in DC!) and he told me that some of the "fresh" bread they sell is actually shipped to the store frozen. As an example, he showed me the best-by date on a loaf of ThinSlim bread: it was sometime in October. I am not even kidding. So the bread was baked who-knows-when, then frozen and put on a truck. Somewhere along the line it thawed. Then it got put on the shelf. 

But it's not fresh. Fresh bread has a shelf life of about a week before it starts getting moldy. If the bread you're buying has a best-by date that's farther out than about a week, you're buying stale bread. He said some of the stuff they sell in the in-store bakery as fresh comes frozen, too.

So a word to the wise: Check the best-by date on your bread. Now if you've got some at home that's more than a week old and it's not, y'know, green yet, I wouldn't throw it out. (I'm famous for ignoring best-by dates anyway.) But just be aware that something you're buying that's supposed to be fresh might not be.

And I'm gonna stick to making my own bread.


A few nights ago, I watched The Pale Blue Eye on Netflix. The plot, if you haven't seen it: it's the 1830s, and the officials running the brand-new Army officer's academy at West Point hire a retired police detective, Augustus Landor, to solve the gruesome murder of one of their cadets. Another cadet makes himself so useful to Landor that he takes him on as an informal partner in his investigation. The name of this invaluable inside man? Why, Edgar Allan Poe. 

Public Domain

The movie gets pretty fanciful from there. More murders ensue; Poe falls for a pretty young thing and earnestly tells her that she's the subject of his poem "Lenore"; and the wholly implausible denouement has echoes of his short story "The Pit and the Pendulum." 

But...Poe at West Point? Really?

That much, at least, is true.

Not only did Poe undergo officer training, he enlisted before that, and he did pretty well for himself. That's according to Dave Kindy, a freelance journalist who wrote an article about it for the Washington Post. Poe was 18 when he enlisted in 1827, and he quickly rose through the ranks, becoming promoted to sergeant major -- the highest enlisted rank. He was supposed to serve for five years, but the Army released him early, in 1829, so he could undergo officer training at West Point.

Poe thought he'd have to spend only six months at West Point before receiving a commission -- but once he got there, he found out he'd have to undergo the regular four-year program. At that point, he applied himself to the task of getting kicked out; as legend has it, he was once told to show up for a drill "with cross belts and under arms" -- and he did, wearing that and nothing else. 

He got what he wanted. He was court-martialed for disobeying orders and neglecting his duties, and was dismissed from West Point in March 1831. 

From there, of course, he went on to become an icon of American literature, authoring numerous poems and short stories, inventing the detective story, and building a reputation as a well-regarded literary critic. He also warred with his foster father, John Allan -- his parents died when he was a child -- and married his 13-year-old cousin, who later died of tuberculosis. He was likely an alcoholic and chronically broke, and he died under mysterious circumstances in Baltimore in 1849, just 40 years old.

Anyway, Poe was indeed at West Point during the time period in which the movie was set -- but the rest of the story is made up. Some of Poe's fans may be bothered that the plot didn't stick closer to the truth of Poe's life. But as much of a fan as I am, it didn't bother me; Poe's persona, as it has come down to us, is so wrapped up in the macabre that it would be surprising if a story about him did stick to dreary reality.

As to the movie: Christian Bale plays Landor, the retired detective. gives the film three stars and concentrates in its review on Bale's performance, which seems weird to me, given how much of the early part of the film is given over to Poe's part of the story. Harry Melling plays Poe. Apparently I've seen him in a bunch of stuff -- he played Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter movies, and he was one of the chess players in The Queen's Gambit -- but he did a credible enough job in this film that never for a moment did I wonder where I'd seen him before.

The denouement, as I said earlier, is implausible, reeking as it does of the usual satanic tropes, and I wasn't totally sold on the twist at the end. But The Pale Blue Eye is worth a watch -- if only to see how many Poe-related Easter eggs you can spot (I had four of six).


These moments of critical blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Stay safe!

Sunday, January 15, 2023

More on low carbing and such.


Bubble Beanie | Deposit Photos
Before I move on from the topic of low carbing (trust me, I will move on!), I wanted to clear up a few things.

After last week's post, I had a few questions about whether low carb is the same thing as gluten free. Short answer: It's not. Here's why.

Gluten is the thing that holds bread together. It's a protein found in wheat and certain other grains (there's a list at the link). Folks with celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disease, can't eat anything with gluten in it, because their bodies fight back by attacking the lining of the small intestine. Eventually it affects their body's ability to absorb nutrients from the food they eat. The symptoms range from bloating, constipation and diarrhea to migraines to anemia to anxiety. Not everybody gets all of the symptoms, and some folks get none of them. There's a test your doctor can give you to find out whether you have the disease.

Then there are the folks who don't have celiac disease, but they're sensitive to gluten. They feel better when they avoid foods containing it.

Lots of foods are high in carbs but have zero gluten -- for example, potatoes, tortilla chips, candy*, and regular sodas. Some types of flour are okay for the gluten-free crowd but have too many carbs for a low-carb diet -- for example, cornmeal and rice flour. By the same token, some flours are low carb but bad for the gluten-free crowd; I mentioned last week that vital wheat gluten is one of these. 

It gets crazier, particularly for folks with diabetes, because diabetics are virtually always told to eat whole grains like brown rice and whole wheat bread -- even though brown rice has a glycemic index (how quickly a food will raise your blood sugar, from 0 to 100) of 55 and whole wheat flour's glycemic index is 69.

Cornmeal's glycemic index is 70. Coconut flour, which shows up in a lot of low-carb foods, has a glycemic index of 50.

Now, 50 is supposedly pretty low. But compare it with almond flour's glycemic index of zero. And nuts, of course, have no gluten. So almond flour is a good choice for both folks avoiding carbs and folks avoiding gluten.


A word about the graphic up top: I'd never heard of a paleo AIP diet before, so I looked it up. 

I'd heard of paleo, which is all about eating like our Neanderthal forebears did. You're allowed meat, seafood, eggs, fruits, veggies, and nuts and seeds. Verboten foods include beans and legumes, dairy, refined sugars, grains, any flour, anything fermented, and coffee. I couldn't tell you why some of these foods are off limits -- seems like even a Neanderthal could gather wild grains for porridge or something -- but anyway, that's how the eating plan works.

AIP was a new one on me. It's short for "autoimmune protocol," and it's basically an elimination diet to help reduce inflammation, which is suspected to cause some autoimmune disorders. First you do a version of paleo for a few weeks; then you gradually add back in certain foods and keep track of whether they make your symptoms worse.


Speaking of nuts and diabetes: This past week, the American Academy of Pediatrics made me all kinds of crazy when they issued new guidelines for treating obesity in children. The AAP is now recommending that pediatricians prescribe weight loss drugs for kids as young as 12 and bariatric surgery for kids 13 and up. For the younger set -- maybe as young as six, or even two! -- doctors should embark on an intensive program of lifestyle therapy, including behavioral and nutritional advice, for both the child and the parents.

Do you suppose it's a coincidence that this new, intensive approach has followed so closely on the heels of the Food and Drug Administration's approval of Wegovy (a.k.a. Ozempic, an injectible drug for diabetes) as a weight loss drug for kids as young as 12? Yeah, neither do I.

The AAP says the old approach of waiting to see whether the kid will outgrow the fat isn't working anymore. Too many fat kids are turning into fat teens, the AAP says, with the attendant risks of heart disease and diabetes and yada yada. Okay, but much of the weight loss advice I've received from doctors and dieticians over the years has been simplistic, outdated, and just plain wrong. Do we really want to hand our kids over to Big Pharma and Big Diet? Because it'll be lobbyists from those industries that shape the assistance our kids get, and I don't trust those lobbyists to be helpful to anyone but their investors.

Remember when Big Tobacco promised to 'fess up about how unhealthy and addictive smoking is, and then finessed their way around that promise? If you don't think this thing with kids and obesity is going to go down the same road, you're living in a fantasy world.


*You'd be surprised what manufacturers sneak flour into. Even some candies have flour in them -- caramel creams immediately come to mind. Gotta check the ingredients on everything.


These moments of floury blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Stay safe!

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Low carb bread at high altitude.

So I've been low carbing* for two years now, and it has paid off. As I explained in my year one recap, I didn't start doing it to lose weight; I started doing it to bring my blood glucose down. It has worked so well that this fall, my endocrinologist told me to stop taking my diabetes medications. Go me!

But y'know, sometimes a woman wants a sandwich. And I am here to tell you that the low-carb bread options out there are not only expensive, but also not that great. ThinSlim makes decent bagels and hamburger buns, but I wasn't nuts about their bread. Carbonaut tastes like sawdust to me. Oroweat (Arnold's east of the Mississippi) is decent, but the slices are so small. And they're all crazy expensive. There are other things to wrap around sandwich fillings, but they're not bread, y'know? So basically I've been going without.

And then Dash sent me an email that said they were selling their bread machines super cheap at their website. (Looks like they still are!) So I bought one. And then I set about trying to make low-carb bread at home.

It turns out that making bread at 7,000 feet is as much art as science. Because the air pressure is lower up here, your dough rises faster -- but it's also prone to collapse. Also, Santa Fe is dry, and the lack of moisture messes with the process, too. There are a bunch of ways to tweak your recipe to compensate (King Arthur has a whole list here), but you can't do some of them in a bread machine (i.e., lowering the baking temperature) because the machine only has pre-programmed options. Sure, I could mix the dough in the bread maker and bake it the regular way, but where's the fun in that?

Then there's the issue of flour. Almond flour is my go-to for almost everything low-carb, but it doesn't work for yeast bread. So off I went, looking for other options. The first recipe I tried was this low-carb bread recipe adapted for a bread machine, which I adapted further for high altitude (lowered the amount of yeast, dropped the allulose, and increased the salt). It calls for a bunch of crazy flours, which sent me on a grocery store scavenger hunt; the only one I had to order was the oat fiber. 

The loaf looked fabulous in the pan:

Lynne Cantwell 2023

But then I took it out and it fell. 

Lynne Cantwell 2023

It tastes good, though. But it's also pretty moist. I need to play with the recipe a little more.

The other recipe I've used is one that came with my bread machine. I substituted a measure-for-measure keto flour for the regular flour. 

Lynne Cantwell 2023

The kind I see in the stores here is by King Arthur, so I tried it -- and it works great! I added some vital wheat gluten, which is one of those tips and tricks I saw somewhere for high-altitude baking. I didn't get a picture of this loaf after I took it out of the pan, but trust me when I say that it didn't collapse. I was very excited.
Lynne Cantwell 2023
I wish the flour was less expensive, though. I go through about two-thirds of the tiny bag of flour with one loaf. That puts it in the same price range as the store bought kind -- but this tastes better.

So sandwiches are back on the menu here -- which makes Tigs very happy. He's developed a taste for lunchmeat, specifically Black Forest ham. Who am I to deny the little guy his ham, right?


*Low carb is not the same as keto. Keto is a low carb, high fat diet that requires you to keep your body in ketosis, in which it breaks down fat for fuel. A lot of folks do keto to lose weight. But that involves counting carbs, and after several decades of diets on which I counted this and that in order to lose weight, which either didn't work or only worked for a little while, I developed an eating disorder. So no counting stuff for me -- I'm just sticking to low-carb foods. And I don't care what the scale says.


These moments of bready blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Stay safe!

Sunday, January 1, 2023

You mean there's more?

adamson | Deposit Photos
I saw a theory earlier this week (on Facebook, of course -- where else do old farts spend all of their time?) that this coming week is still part of that liminal, time-out-of-time period at the end of every year. This person maintained that if you count twelve days forward from the winter solstice, you arrive at January 6th -- and that period is the true 12 Days of Christmas about which we've heard so much, in which up is down and the Lord of Misrule takes charge and so on. 

The math doesn't work; actually, twelve days from December 21st is today, January 1st. But the solstice is a floating holiday -- next year, the moment of the winter solstice occurs early on December 23rd UTC, which will be sometime on the 22nd for the continental US. Still, that only gets us to January 3rd. 

But I'm embracing the theory anyway. It gives me an excuse to keep to my family-of-origin tradition of leaving the Yule tree up 'til the 6th. We're still in sacred time, people!

Anyway. I know a lot of folks are exhausted by this point in the festive season and are ready to box everything up and shove it back in the closet. And that's fine. You do you. 

For me, today, it's about taking a breath and looking toward the year to come.

Earlier today, while texting with a friend, we talked about how life after retirement seems like a gift. I mentioned that for the first several months after getting out here to Santa Fe, I felt a vague sense of panic that time was continuing on. I had spent so many years straining to get to the point where I could retire and leave DC, and then I did it. I left the job, I made the big move, I reached the goal. Go me!

And then a week went by, and another, and the calendar pages kept flipping, and time just kept going. It's not that I wanted the world to grind to a halt for me or anything -- I'm not that impressed with myself -- but I'd reached the Big Finality, and it wasn't final at all. If I could have voiced my feelings at that point, I would have said, "Wait. You mean there's more?"

So here we are, having just reached our big collective goal: surviving the holidays and ushering the old year out. And the calendar page has turned. Here we are, at the start of a new year. 

You'll get no pep talk from me about making 2023 your year! I have no goals for myself for this coming year, and I'm not about to hector anybody else into planning how to get ahead at work or lose those last ten pounds or whatever. (Sometimes I see headlines for well-meaning articles on these topics and forget for a second that I don't care anymore. Particularly the career advice. What a joy it is to skip right over that stuff.)

That's right -- I have no goals for this year. I mean, there are things I'm looking forward to, as well as skills I'm interested in improving, and I don't intend to ever stop learning. But tonight, I'm looking at the calendar and saying to myself, not with fear or panic, but with joy and wonder: "You mean there's more?"

These moments of bloggy joy and wonder have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Happy New Year!