Winter Bicycling

Last week we got forcefully reminded that winter doesn’t end until the equinox.  Monday night into Tuesday it finally snowed, although I’m not sure “snow” is the right word for the almost three inches of frozen, wet, sloppy concrete that covered the ground.  I knew that biking on Tuesday would have been ill-advised, so made my way to work on public transportation.  It worked really well, probably because the bus I took followed a snow route rather than its usual path, which involves a very steep, winding incline.

Wednesday, though, I thought I’d be able to make it in on bike.  The day dawned clear and bright, but still sub-freezing.  It took me about 20 minutes to go a mile and a half or so.  I was doing more walking than biking, and the wind was starting to kick up.  My relatively narrow tires just didn’t have the traction to go over the snow concrete that now had a foundation of ice under it.  I swallowed my pride and headed back home so I could take public transportation again.  Thursday as well I took the bus and Metro because the sidewalks near home were still pretty slick in spots.  Friday was good biking weather, though.

Even though it was an abandoned attempt at biking in the snow and ice, I did get to refresh my memory on how to tackle winter weather.  The first tip is to go slowly, but confidently.  You don’t want to trip yourself up by going too slow over the ice, but you also can’t go tearing down the path like it’s dry.  Second is to keep your wheel as straight as possible–I’ve only ever skidded and fallen when making a turn or going around a curve (however slight).  This translates into some wide turns, but a gentle wide turn that makes you look like a goofball is better than a crash, if you ask me.  Third is to avoid ruts–you want to maintain control of where your front wheel goes.  Even though things were largely cleared off on Friday, there were still a couple of patches of ice, including one that had several ruts going across it.  Rather than try to navigate that and get sucked into a rut, I opted to dismount and walk it.

So, lucky me, I got to refresh my winter bike skills just in time for Spring to actually start.  With any luck this will make next winter a bit less of a shock to the system.

Benson Lounging Around

Sunbeam for Benson

With the change in the seasons, the sunbeams move around a bit.  Our kitchen/dining room has a west facing window that lets in some nice afternoon light.  Now that we’re entering spring, the sunbeam persists for longer and longer, and falls right across our table.  The issue is we do not allow the cats to lounge on the table.  As any cat owner knows, it is nearly impossible to keep a cat from a sunbeam, especially one that falls on a nice, flat, empty surface.  Lavash gets nudged off the table regularly.  Benson, however, seems to have found an alternative location.

Note that he is decidedly NOT on the table.

He’s not on the table, but he is directly in front of the sink.  Not only does he get to enjoy the sun, he can try to intercept any interesting food scraps on their way to the disposal or the garbage can (which is under the sink).  Double win for the cat, but annoying side for the cook, especially since prime sunbeam time is right when dinner prep starts.  Such is life with cats.

Enough With the Wind Already

Yep, March is coming in like a lion.  As the NOAA forecast discussion has said, early March is often a battle between air masses.  The biggest issue is that it started in mid-February.

A couple of weeks ago on my way in to work, the wind was blowing from the north and gusting into the 40mph range.  This meant I had a headwind all the way in, except for crossing the Potomac.  For that, I had a nasty cross-wind that threatened to blow me off my bike and into traffic.  Rather than get slammed into a fence, I decided to walk across the bridge.  Probably a good choice, since that meant I was able to hold the bike at a 45 degree angle and not turn into a sailboat.

Things calmed down for a week, but have kicked back up recently.  Last week, I had a headwind to work most days.  Heading home wasn’t bad, and some days I had a tailwind, except for Thursday, when I had headwinds both ways thanks to the wind shifting at around noon.  I hate it when that happens.

On the other hand, the windiness has gotten me thinking about how to rig a sail to my bicycle to take advantage of March’s roars.  I wonder if PVC would be strong enough to take the force of the wind.  Also, the bike path isn’t all that wide so it would be lots of micro zigging and zagging to tack and make use of the wind.  Hmmmmmm….things to ponder while getting blown along.

Pre-Lent Fried Foods

I don’t really have plans to fry food every day before Wednesday, but we did have doughnuts yesterday and falafel today.  Yum.  I wanted to try out a tip I read that if you use refined coconut oil to fry, your house doesn’t smell like, well, like you’ve been frying food.  The old oil smell gets tiresome after a day or so.  I’m happy to report that the coconut oil seems to have done the trick–the house doesn’t smell like I fried twice in the past 48 hours.  Maybe that’s me being delusional, but I’m going to go with it.


Rolled out and circles cut


Cutting holes…with a 1/2 Tablespoon measure


Back:  Oil about right, but dough too wet.  Middle:  Oil too cold, dough still too wet.  Front:  Oil nearly right, but dough too dry.

I tried to do old-fashioned sour cream doughnuts.  The recipe turned out a very, very wet dough that stuck to the parchment paper I used to roll it out and the doughnuts were a pain to put in the oil.  While wrestling with it, the oil got a little on the cold side so the second batch turned out not so great. Tasty, but not as crispy as they should be.  I got frustrated and tried to add more flour.  The result is that the doughnuts fried up OK and didn’t stick, but lacked the crannies and other irregularities that are the hallmark of an old-fashioned.  Still tasted good, though.

No pictures of the falafel, but I adapted this recipe from Serious Eats.  Instead of parsley, I used kale.  Really, really good, and, as long as you plan ahead and soak the chickpeas, relatively quick to pull together.  Frying, of course, does take some time, but it was worth it.

Now that I’ve taken care of pre-Lent indulgence, I just need to figure out what exactly it is I’m doing for Lent this year.  The good news is I’ve still got a couple of days left!

Observing Birds

This was an interesting week for observing birds.  Not that I’m a bird watcher, and, in fact need to get smarter on the birds that live here in Northern Virginia.  I’m referring more to watching avian activities as they cope with late winter/early spring.

The week started with some serious wind.  Biking to work was a serious adventure.  At least it wasn’t too cold, but the 30 or so mph gusts made things interesting to say the least.  It was so has, it looked like the gulls near Gravely Point were flying backwards.  Geese in the tidal basin appeared to be paddling for dear life just to stay in one place.

Mid week, I saw gulls doing an impression of a herd of wild giant badminton shuttlecocks in a parking lot. They were all hunched up, so it was hard to tell what they were at first.  With their beaks all pointed into the wind, they really did look like a batch of giant shuttlecocks carefully arranged on the ground.  Maybe they were tired from flying into the wind earlier in the week.

Finally, the cardinals are back.  I have two confirmed sightings this week, ßo we mus5 be getting close to spring. Either that, or the wind blew them in.

Fitting in PVC Furniture

We’re not really in a tiny house, but…a 1940s era town home, built for railroad construction workers is not exactly spacious, especially by modern definitions.  I’m sure it was rather practical at the time it was built, and the subsequent renovation(s?) have helped, but there’s still a mismatch between furniture you can buy now and the furniture you could by when the house was built.  Put another way, we have some spots where there’s dead space that I’d really like to use, and others where some additional dividers would make the space a little more functional.

PVC pipe to the rescue!

It’s a lot cheaper than wood, and, in my opinion, a little more fun to work with.  Sort of like tinker toys, but on a larger scale.

My first project was a garment rack for some of the twins’ clothes.  Did I mention the house is 1940s era?  That translates into very little closet space.  I think we’re lucky we even have a couple of clothes closets.  We put a day bed in a room to capitalize on the space, but it left about a foot between the end of the bed and the wall.


Just barely wide enough for a child-sized hanger.  It also just barely fits a pop-up hamper.  Our solution?  A rolling PVC pipe garment rack with a bottom shelf to hold the hamper and a couple of additional boxes.  dsc04151

When I first built it, I neglected to research PVC casters well enough–they only make the attachment plugs in 3/4″, but I built it out of 1/2″.  Solution?  Reducer fittings.  It works pretty well, and the twins can roll it out on their own if they need to.

Second is a screen to block off the computer station from the rest of the open basement.  This way, people can walk by to the bathroom without disrupting someone working at the computer, especially if there’s a video conference or skype call going on.

dsc04156This is version 2, once I got the 45 degree elbows.  Version 1 had a 90 degree bend in it, which made it less stable and it didn’t cover as much space.  This one works incredibly well and seems to be sturdier.  While a fitted sheet goes over it pretty well for a neutral background, the frame also works well to display our Tajik suzani.dsc04157

I’m considering a rack of some sort for fabric, or maybe a frame to hold a laundry bag as a makeshift hamper to fit in yet another small, awkward space.

Just Because You Know the Tune…

…doesn’t mean you know the song.

Part of what I like about old, traditional hymns is that you can sing the melody without needing to be a professional musician. Usually, these hymns are in a limited, and comfortable range for most voices, and don’t hop any difficult intervals. They’re usually pretty simple rhythmically, and follow a pretty easy pattern. In short, really easy to use and you can fit lots of different lyrics to them. And people most certainly have. Many hymnals have an index of tune names and an index of first lines of the hymn. In these cases, there are fewer tunes than hymns, so you know that some hymns use the same tune. You also have cases where the same hymn can use different tunes, which gets to be fun, exciting, and can be confusing if you move between different regions of the country or world.

Our parish is pretty traditional. OK, really traditional—two masses in Latin a week, plus one on the first Sunday of the month, hours and hours of confession, many of the English masses said ad Orientem, and so on. The music it very traditional as well: hymns are only used for the processional (prior to the chanted introit) and recessional (not in the middle parts of the mass-the schola chants the propers, and will sometimes sing a piece of polyphony during communion) and there’s lots and lots of time for sacred silence. Needless to say, the hymns that we do sing are of the traditional variety, and use the traditional tunes.

Last week, the organ began the recessional and I hadn’t gotten to the page in the hymnal when the first verse began. I recognized the tune, Slane, and started singing (softly, since there are reasons I play the bagpipes), but realized about half-way through the verse that I wasn’t singing the same hymn. Of course, the schola was singing “Be Thou My Vision,” and I had started “Make Us True Servants.” Oops. I almost made a similar mistake this week, with the processional. The organ started Dix and I started thinking “As with gladness men of old…” but knew that probably wasn’t right since we’re out of Christmas/Epiphany. Sure enough, it was a different hymn, but with a tune like Dix you know you need to be careful. Worse is Old One Hundredth—there have to be at least a hundred hymns associated with that one.

So, lesson learned—always check the hymnal before you begin singing, even if you know the tune.

Seeking God through the Beatitudes

Our “in residence” priest (helping out at the parish in return for housing while he attends classes at the JPII Center (I think that’s where he is)) homed in on the first line of the first reading (Zep 2:3, 3:12-13) for today’s homily:  “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the earth…”  He suggested that today’s readings tell us how to seek the God–not through being high and mighty, or influential, or rich and famous, but through being humble and focusing on our individual calling.  Really, only through living the way God has planned for us can we see Him.

The thread runs through the second reading (1 Cor 1:26-31), which ends with the famous line, “Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord.”  In this reading, St. Paul is reminding the people of Corinth that only through Jesus’ redemptive suffering that we can come before God.  [Although not mentioned in the homily, the lines about God using the foolish to shame the wise and so on call to mind Isaiah and the stone which the builders rejected passages.]  Our priest noted that St. Paul was underscoring for the Corinthians that, as Christians, they would need to live contrary to the prevailing morals of the world, and possibly die for it.

Following the theme into the Gospel (Mt 5:1-12a), we have the beatitudes:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…”  The point of the homily was that Jesus picks up on Zephaniah’s call for the humble to seek God, and elaborates upon it.  Our priest went on to note that it doesn’t rule out accumulating wealth, what the beatitudes do warn against is being too comfortable, and giving up our morals to make a way in the world.  It is better to be poor in spirit, to mourn, to be meek, to be merciful, and so on (that is, conformed to God’s will) rather than following the prevailing “wisdom” of the world and going against God just to be comfortable, wealthy, or influential in the eyes of the world.

What this brought to my mind (probably not entirely keeping with the intention of the homily, but…) is that we in the U.S. put too much faith in our politicians and political system, rather than putting faith in God.  Case in point:  the current and previous presidents.  President Obama came in on a wave of high-minded rhetoric, and people believed he would save the country (from what it is unclear, but from something).  President Trump has come in appealing to a population that has felt excluded from the political system for a long time (I grew up in a flyover part of a flyover state, so I get being ignored and discounted by politicians), and they think he will fix everything.  The problem is, the government’s job is decidedly not to save us or to fix everything (that goes double for the person of the president).  It’s our job to respond to God’s call faithfully, and if that means “fixing” something, then so be it.  Most likely, our response to that call is going to result in ridicule, ostracism, and (at least for the early Christians) possibly death.  But that’s OK because we do have our reward for conforming our will to God’s, which is the only way we can ever actually seek, and find, Him.

One Way the Affordable Care Act Went Wrong

OK, there are probably lots and lots of ways that the ACA went wrong, but since I’m not an expert at designing health care systems, I need to limit the scope some.  Also, I blame TXRed and Joseph Moore for both putting up posts about health insurance/the ACA this week.  Finally, the standard disclaimer about this being me ranting about an issue, rather than speaking on behalf of my employer, applies.

To my mind, one way the ACA went wrong, actually, the fundamental way the ACA went wrong is that it confused means and ends.  This is exactly what Joseph Moore at Yard Sale of the Mind is getting at in his post:  if you want affordable health care, you should design your means to reach that end.  The ACA, in spite of its title, seems to me more of a health insurance law, rather than a health care law, which is TXRed’s point.  Health care and health insurance are not, actually, synonymous, even though most people, including, it seems, our legislators, think it is.  Health care is what doctors and nurses do.  Health insurance is what actuaries (and their support staff, and their management, and so on) administer to help you pay for said health care.  Or at least, that’s the idea, or what I thought was the idea.  Instead, health insurance is now more about someone in another industry entirely second guessing your medical provider to decide whether or not you really need that blood test to make sure a medication you’re on isn’t killing your liver.  Just be glad they decided to pay for the medication.

I can see why health insurance regulation might have needed some adjustment.  Rather than requiring everyone to buy it, and dictating what needed to be included, it probably should have gone the other way to get insurance companies out of the doctor-patient relationship.  A while back, we found a doctor who didn’t take insurance.  Any, at all.  He was a one-man practice, so didn’t have the back office staff to file the claims.  Instead, he’d take payment (much cheaper than you’d otherwise find) and give you the receipt with the treatment code on it so you could file for reimbursement with your insurance company.  It worked great for us, since our health insurance is used to getting claims for reimbursement (usually from overseas, but the processing path is the same) rather than always being directly billed by the provider.  If we didn’t like what the doctor did, or wanted a second opinion, we could get one–we weren’t tied to the practice by an immense bureaucracy that dictated which providers were allowed and which weren’t.  Also, since we had to pay upfront and wait for reimbursement, we were careful to make sure we actually needed the check-up or treatment, rather than the doctor ordering lots of CYA procedures for legal and insurance purposes.  Fewer unnecessary procedures keeps costs down all the way around.

Getting the insurance out of the medical relationship would also force insurance companies to compete on their customer service, rather than on their network of providers.  If a company routinely turned down requests for reimbursement for legitimate and cost-effective treatments, they would quickly go out of business.  Likewise, if the company approved too many, they would go bankrupt in short order.  The remainder would have to compete based on how well they treated people when they denied a claim–do you get a cogent answer?  Is it one you can live with, even if you don’t completely agree?  Do you still feel like a valued customer?  If so, fine, you may want to keep your insurance company.  If not, there would likely be several other companies waiting to pitch their services to you.

Everyone wins, and, most of all, I suspect that the quality of care would go up, while prices for medical care went down.  You’d still have to do something for catastrophic coverage (not too hard to sort out since it’s been around for a while) and handle existing conditions (much, much harder, and I haven’t a clue how, beyond maybe niche insurance companies coming into existence that handled particular conditions, or a suite of conditions), but I’m not sure it would be much worse than what we have to deal with now.


The 2016 Christmas Dress

dsc04137I actually finished it time for Yakum to wear to midnight mass.  OK, I was finishing it at about 9:00pm (timing went out, broke a needle, had to re-wind a bobbin, everything that could go wrong when you’re trying to finish a project at the last minute), but it got done.

dsc04138A simple dress with a bodice out of a stretch white cotton with an embroidered eyelet overlay, and sleeves and an ankle-length quarter-circle skirt out of dark green crepe-back satin.  My initial plan had been to do the eyelet over the sleeves and a partial overskirt.  Once I had it together, my wife pointed out that the matte bodice looked a little odd against the satin, and thought the eyelet would go better over the bodice, rather than the sleeves.  She was right, of course.

dsc04140This was my first time putting in an invisible zipper.  It was surprisingly easy.  You just have to stop and think through how it will look once it’s closed, and pin accordingly.  I did it without a specialized foot, since the one in my cheap set of multiple feet didn’t want to work with this zipper.

Yes, I dsc04141messed it up at the very bottom and should probably go back and hand stitch that small gap closed better so it doesn’t show.


It was also my first time doing a bias binding on the collar.  Not too terribly hard, even with trying to make a point in the middle.

dsc04142The white thread on the rolled hems (skirt and sleeves) is, in fact, intentional.  It was either that or use a green that just would not blend in.  Given the options, I went with the white, which suggests rime on evergreen boughs (maybe if you squint a little, but I’m going with it).

Overall, I’m happy with it, and so is Yakum.  There are a couple of other little details that went wrong, but the overall effect is pretty good.

Now for my next project, jeans for Ikinji.