Frame of Mind

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I was listening to NPR this morning and tuned in halfway through a story about a famous photographer. One photo assignment that she would give to her students was for them to bring in a picture of the place that they lived. By that, she didn’t mean for them to bring in a picture of the physical place where they resided, but instead, she was asking them to reflect on their frame of mind.

This got me thinking, where do each of us live? I have to say that for the most part, my life is about order and peace and the inside of my head feels like this.
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Tranquility reigns supreme and as a rule, I don’t sweat the small stuff. I feel so lucky in life to have a healthy little boy, both of my parents still alive and a job that I love. I generally don’t get my feathers ruffled. With that said, I’m far from a Buddhist monk and at this point in the semester, I start to feel a bit like this.
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It feels like I’m barely keeping head above water and that the work is piling up faster than I can get it done. It’s that slightly panicky feeling of impending doom. The house gets a bit messy. My hair gets a bit messy. And I generally spend the last weeks of the semester with a slightly feral look in my eyes. Silly in the long run of course, but there you have it.
Usually on the heels of the impending doom, I feel like this.
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I crave the open road and freedom. I have always been a ‘pedal to the metal’ kind of girl and when I feel everything coming to a head, I just want to hop in the car and drive. In my mind, I don’t care what my destination is so long as there’s an open road in front of me and a full tank of gas. At this point, I usually check out of the world. I skip my voicemails and texts and generally duck into my proverbial cave and wait for the storm to blow over.
But, this is reality and not Oz, which means that my work and other obligations aren’t just going to go away. So, I put my big girl pants on and I fix this imagine in my head.
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And slowly, I remind myself what matters. I stop hiding from my deadlines and resolve to get them done and before you know it, I’ve regained control, harnessed my inner chi and in no time at all, I’ve found my way back to this.
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Peace at last…for now.

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Hit A Plateau? Ramp Up Your F.I.T.

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If you’ve been working out consistently, let me be the first to say – way to go! Consistency is probably the biggest issue for people beginning a new workout plan and who frequently get on and off the workout wagon. Frankly, it’s probably the most important variable for initially seeing results. In those first few weeks and months, people are generally focus on just getting to the gym and are not overly concerned about the quality of their workouts.

But invariably, once you’ve mastered consistency, there will come a time where the dreaded plateau hits. There is nothing worse than putting in the time and not seeing any movement on that scale when you know you’ve got at least 10 lbs. left to go. What gives?

Well, from a physiological standpoint, what usually happens is that we get into a routine and initially, that routine challenges our muscles for about 4-6 months. However, our bodies are smart and they get more efficient at doing the exercises that they’ve become accustomed to doing. So, the same amount of work no longer produces the same results.

Solution: switch it up using the F.I.T. principle. F.I.T. stands for three things –

F = frequency. If you’re in a rut, increase the frequency of your workouts. Kick it up from hitting the gym 3 days a week to 4 and you’ll see improvements.

I = intensity. Run faster, cycle harder, lift heavier weights. By increasing the intensity of your workouts, you’re shocking your body into action.

T = time (or duration). If you’ve been riding the elliptical for 30 minutes, bump your time up to 45 minutes.

As you level of fitness increases, you can mix up the different variables above (for example, increasing both your intensity and time) to maximize the time you spend working out. While it’s definitely a simple concept, it’s a surefire way to jump start your progress again. So go ahead and challenge yourself, you have nothing to lose…but weight!

Strawberry Muffins

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On Sunday, we took our regular family trip to the neighboring WalMart in Waynesville, NC – perhaps the largest one in existence. Seriously, the store is huge with isles twice the normal width and a selection of “green” products that we don’t have in our local WalMart. But enough about our ginormous and well-stocked WalMart, I don’t want to make you any more jealous that you already are about our great shopping options in the North Carolina mountains. Who knew 5 years ago that I would be ranking WalMarts? Anyways, while we normally don’t buy produce during our trip, I couldn’t help but notice that strawberries were $1 a pint. So, I bought 6 pints. And thus my strawberry cooking fest began.

These strawberry muffins are a modification of my blueberry muffin recipe. Since I happen to love the combination of angel food cake and strawberries, I switched out the oil with applesauce, which gives them a light and airy consistency. Also, I replace the skim milk with vanilla soy milk to make them more Parker friendly and since the soy milk is sweetened, I can use less sugar in the recipe.

Here are the ingredients:

  • 1.5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2-2/3 cup white sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil (or applesauce)

  • 1 egg, beaten

  • 1/3 cup vanilla soy milk

  • 1 cup sliced strawberries

These come together simply. Combine the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Combine the wet ingredients in a separate bowl. Once you’ve stirred the wet ingredients together, pour them into the dry ingredients and combine thoroughly. Pour the batter into a greased muffin pan or use muffin liners and bake at 400 degrees for about 20-25 minutes.

*If you use the applesauce instead of the oil, go ahead and spray the muffin tins with Baker’s Joy or something similar or they’ll stick a bit when you try to remove the paper.

And that’s it – so go forth, take advantage of the uber cheap strawberries this season and bake away. Muffins freeze wonderfully.

Greening Up The Mountains Festival

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The Greening Up The Mountains event is a street festival in our little town. It’s purpose is to celebrate the arrival of spring and the name comes from the fact that as the trees start to regrow their leaves, you can literally see the tree line inching up the mountains with each passing day until this part of the country regains its lush green appearance.

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The festival features live local music and plenty of local artisans selling their craft. There are also plenty of things for the kiddos to do. They had sandboxes set up…

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…and water tables…

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…and bouncy slides…

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…and freaky costumed mascots, which Parker still loves…

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…and a basketball hoop – watch out for the future NBA Star! Check out his form…

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…and there were lots of people so I kept a death grip on the kids (we were there with Parker’s best friend and his family)…

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…as you can tell, Parker wanted to run free. Oh, and he was afraid that his pink balloon would fly away. Yup, there was lots of fun to be had (for the non-agoraphobic people in our group), but I finally relaxed when we find a church playground that was entirely fenced and had no one else in it.

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See, I can be loads of fun!

Stuffed Shells

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This stuffed shell recipe is a variation of my favorite lasagna recipe, which highlights spinach and a three cheese blend of ricotta, Parmesan and mozzarella. For the boys, I’ll often add in sweet Italian sausage, but truly, they love it either way. Contrary to popular belief, stuffed shells are neither time nor labor intensive. Once you get the first couple knocked out, the process moves really quickly. As a bonus, you can bake half and freeze half for a future dinner. Not that half a pan would last around here, but I always prefer stuff that freezes well.
Alright, here are our ingredients:
1 pkg. jumbo pasta shells
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1/2 lb. sweet Italian sausage (optional)
2 cloves garlic, minced
15 oz. part-skim ricotta cheese
10 oz. chopped frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
1 cup shredded mozzarella
1 jar tomato sauce
1 tsp. oregano
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cook your shells according to package directions, but leave them a bit al dente since they will cook further in the oven. Once the shells are done, rinse them briefly with cold water to stop the cooking process and drain them well.
While the shells are cooking, saute your onion in a bit of olive oil. If you want to add the sausage, throw that in with the onion and cook until it’s no longer pink. If you’re omitting the sausage, skip that step, but in either case, add the garlic and cook for an additional minute.
In a separate bowl, combine 3/4 cup mozzarella, 1/4 cup grated Parm and your ricotta. Add in your drained spinach, your beaten egg and your oregano. Also, add salt and pepper liberally (but use less salt if you’ve added the sausage). There’s nothing worse than under-seasoned pasta dishes. Okay, so maybe world hunger and global warming are worse things, but you get the point.
Add your saute mixture to the cheese and spinach mixture and mix well. Now, you’re ready to assemble the shells. Pour about 1 cup of pasta sauce in the bottom of your baking dish. Next, grab a shell, hold it open and using a spoon (or your hands) add in the filling until it’s full. Rocket science, right? Then, just put it in the dish and continue to the next one. Nestle the shells close together so that they all stand upright.
Once they’re all full and happily sitting in the baking dish, pour the rest of the pasta sauce over the top making sure to coat the shells. Then, wrap the baking dish tightly in foil and bake for 30 minutes. Once the 30 minutes are up, remove the foil and sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup of Parm and 1/4 cup of mozzarella over the top and pop it back in the oven for 15 minutes.
The smell of these shells baking is amazing. By the time that it’s almost ready, the Irishman is hovering in the kitchen waiting for dinner. Once they’re done, let them cool for about 5-10 minutes so that there are no scalded tongues and then enjoy.
Oh, and the best thing about stuffed shells is that nobody in my house minds eating them two days in a row, so tonight, I get to kick back with a beer and enjoy the fruits of my (minimal) labor.

Central Prison – Home of North Carolina’s Death Row

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Yesterday, I took my students to Central Prison located in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was my second trip to that particular prison. My second trip to North Carolina’s death row. Since most people won’t get the opportunity to tour a maximum security facility, I thought I would share my experiences with you and give you a glimpse of what life inside looks like to an outsider.

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When you first pull up, Central Prison is an imposing facility. A building of solid brick, encircled by thick barb wires…

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…and four guard towers with armed guards. They have both a rifle as well as a handgun available to them.

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When you enter the front doors of the facility, there’s a spacious lobby with administrative offices off to the left and a staff break room off to the right. Pictures of the history of the prison decorate the walls and it has the general feeling of a government building. The only difference is that the individuals you see cleaning around the front room and changing the trash are wearing the white shirts and khaki colored pants that denote them as prison trustees – inmates who are trusted with working all of the various jobs around the facility.

We’re greeting by the correctional officer who is there to guide up on our tour. He, like so many other officers, has a blunt manner and a gruff exterior. He, quite frankly, was not happy to see us. Tour groups such as ours pose a security risk and every time a group enters a maximum security facility, that security is breached. My students shifted from foot to foot uncomfortably. I tried to prepare them for the experience, but they’re young and didn’t quite grasp the idea that the world of prisons is a world unto it’s own. Different rules and different norms apply here.

That’s exactly why we’re there. Experiencing the inside of a facility is much different than discussing it in comfort of our classroom.

Next, a second correctional officer brings out a shadow box filled with inmate-made weapons. There are shanks (sharp pieces of metal) and toothbrushes filed to points; hypodermic needles and razors attached to sticks. Yes, these weapons were confiscated and yes, inmates inside probably still have a number of them which haven’t been found yet. In fact, I can guarantee it.

More nervous shuffling among the students. I’m certain that half of them were second guessing their decision to come. Of course, all of the officer’s words up to that point were meant to convey one message: use caution on the inside. I think the kiddos got the point.

After our welcoming speech, it was time to clear the metal detectors and head into the facility. Everyone made it through and we headed straight to the elevators to head upstairs to the death house, which is located at the front of the facility. Upon entering the large elevator, one of my students commented on the fact that there were no buttons to push for 1st floor, 2nd floor, etc… The officer pointed to a speaker and camera in the ceiling and loudly said, “1st floor please!” As a security measure, the elevators are operated by the control station up front. In fact, every single design decision in this facility is about control and security.

As we exited the elevators, we turned to corner and entered the death watch area….

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…except that instead of being empty, there were 10 very large correctional officers in full riot gear standing there looking at us. I think one of my students peed herself. They were practicing cell extractions (getting an inmate out of a cell when he was an unwilling participant in the process) and because there was no one currently awaiting execution, the death watch area was a good place to practice this.

Death watch is the area where inmates are taken 24 hours to one week prior to their execution. This is where they eat their last meal, consult with a religious leader and get to visit with their loved ones on the day of their execution. There’s a guard stationed outside of the cell to make sure that the inmate doesn’t attempt suicide in the days leading up to the execution.

We turned the corner from the death watch area and headed down to the execution room.

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In the picture above, the gurney used for lethal injections is set up as it would be if an actual execution was taking place. The glass on the other side of the gurney is the viewing area. Both rooms are small. Very small.

The execution room itself has been used for that purpose for quite some time. The floor is hollow and there’s a large vent in the ceiling. Both of those features were installed when the room was used as a gas chamber. There’s also what looks like a small steering wheel on the outside of the room that was used to control the flow of gas into the room.

There is also a huge, covered outlet in the middle of the floor, which is where the electric chair was previously plugged in. This is what the room looked like with the electric chair in it.

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That chair is now in a museum in Raleigh, but the outlet is there as a reminder of the changing methods of execution that were employed. Finally, there was the gurney. The needles are inserted into the inmates arms in a separate, small room off to the side of the execution chamber and the individual who compresses the syringes that release the cocktail of drugs is concealed behind the second curtain.

After all of this was explained to my students, all 16 of which were sandwiched into the small execution chamber, they were practically tripping over one another to get out of there. Regardless of your personal beliefs, that is an incredibly uncomfortable room to be in, period.

After that, we headed to the pods where the condemned offenders were housed.

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The tables that you see in the center of the room serve as the “day room” area, where the inmates can watch TV or play cards and all of the cells behind the day room area are single man cells. With the exception of count time (where the inmates are officially counted 4 times a day) and sleep time, the inmates on death row can hang out in the day room area. If they want to watch TV, they have to wear their headphones that they check out of the recreation area and the schedule is predetermined by a member of the staff.

Count cleared while we were touring the death row pods (meaning all inmates were accounted for), but they kept the inmates in their cells until we were done. As we were leaving the pods, we turned the corner and walked right into two inmates wearing the bring red jumpsuits that marked them as condemned. The inmates had been out to medical and were waiting to go back into the pods. I think this made the biggest impression on the students. They were just two guys, not behind bars, who smiled politely and waited for us to pass. I heard a number of them exhale as we made our way further down the hall.

After that, we went through the solitary confinement wing, where inmates were in shackles every second that they weren’t in their rooms (even when they showered) and finally we went to the trustees pods, where inmates were milling everywhere. The interesting thing about prison is that the students initially feel weird about entering the facility because they don’t want to feel like they are staring at the inmates. They soon realize that they are the object of interest instead of the other way around and what ends up happening is that the students try to look everywhere except at the inmates while the inmates all stare quite openly at this new group of strangers in their mist. If the students were feeling casual and confident before, they were now huddled together like startled sheep.

They all looked to me for reassurance and I, of course, smiled and chatted as I normally would, offering smiles and a slight nod for the inmates who passed by our group. For me, visiting prison is kind of like going back to your old high school a number of years after you’ve graduated. While I don’t know any of the inmates who were there at that time, the setting is familiar to me and most of the usual characters are still in attendance – the ornery correctional officers, the bustling administrators, the harried medical staff. Yup, it’s only a matter of time before I work in another facility because I feel as if my character is missing – the passionate young professor who will be damned if we loose all of these individuals to the streets. There must be at least a handful who can be helped and I will find them.

After that, we headed back out to the parking lot and we drove the 5 miles back to campus. Some of the students will push this experience out of their heads and go back to business as usual, but some of them will be changed forever. Prison, even visiting for one day, can do that to you.

*All of the pictures of the outside of the facility are my own, but the ones from the inside were taken from the North Carolina Department of Corrections website.

Bread Pudding

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Before we moved to Western North Carolina, we took a scouting trip to the area and stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast in Asheville. My absolute favorite part of my stay was the decadent smells of breakfast that would work their way up to our room as we were getting ready to head down to the dining room. As we settled into our seats at the communal tables with anticipation, the innkeeper would bring in a parade of items, from brioche french toast to cajun seasoned home fries to fresh fruit and whipped cream. It was a heavenly way to start the day…and something that I reserve only for vacations.
That’s partly why I love having overnight guests. It gives me an excuse to make large breakfasts and to try new, hearty recipes. So, with the memory of that brioche french toast, I decided to give bread pudding a try. I must admit that prior to last week, I had never before even had bread pudding. I had no idea what I was missing. It is sweet, moist and delicious – almost like a baked french toast.
As you may recall, I had an extra loaf of tsoureki (a sweet Greek bread) after Easter and I had been planning all kinds of deliciousness with it. That’s when the bread pudding experiment first came to mind, so I started searching for recipes (keeping in mind the contents of my pantry) and finally settled on this one.
Ingredients:

  • 16 slices bread, cubed
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 2 (12 fluid ounce) cans Evaporated Milk
  • 4 large eggs, beaten
  • 4 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 Tablespoon brandy or whiskey (optional)

Put cubed bread and raisins into a large bowl. In a separate bowl, combine the rest of the ingredients and whisk together until thoroughly combined. Pour the wet ingredients on top of the bread cubes. Mix it well and pour it into one or two baking dishes. Allow it to sit and soak up the sweet goodness for 15-30 minutes. Then, just pop it in an oven preheated to 350 degrees for 35-45 minutes, or until the top is golden.

Then, take it out of the oven, allow it to cool and breathe deeply to take in the sweet smells of the baked bread. I made a half batch of the recipe above because I wasn’t sure exactly how it would come out…and the Irishman and I finished the entire amount in one sitting. In other words, it was good. And tasty. And you should seriously consider making this…or just plan on visiting us. There are always rooms open at the inn.