The importance and difficulty of clocking out on time

I had a long chat the other night with a younger tech journalist about work/life balance. I suspect this person was hoping to learn that I had found this one weird trick to regain control of when the job can cede priority to the things that the job pays for, but I had to admit that I had not.

Clocking outThat’s because experience, at least in my case, has not changed this basic conflict in journalism: As long as praise (financial or otherwise) for good work outweighs compliments for filing early, you’re motivated to keep noodling away at a story until about 30 seconds before your editor sends an “are you filing?” message. And even if you don’t, filing ahead of schedule typically guarantees that your editor’s attention will immediately get hijacked by breaking news.

As a work-from-home freelancer, I should be in a better position to log off at a normal time because I’m immune to many of the usual newsroom distractions. My editing software is faster to boot up and less likely to crash than many newsroom CMSes, I don’t get dragged into random meetings, and I don’t have to worry about the time to commute home.

Plus, if a client wants an extra story, that will usually mean an extra payment instead of another revolution of the newsroom hamster wheel.

But I’m also disconnected from the usual boss-management mechanisms. I can’t look up from my desk to see if somebody else is occupying my editor’s attention and/or office, or if I should hurry up and file the damn thing already. I can’t tell just by listening to the collective din of keyboards how busy the news day has become. Writer-editor occupational banter in chat-room apps like HipChat amounts to an inexact substitute.

What I told my younger counterpart was that you have to remember that not every story requires the same intense attention to capturing the finer points of an issue–that it also feels pretty great to crank out solid copy, clear on the outlines of a topic, in half an hour and then be done with it. That’s also a skill you need to keep current, because you won’t always have the luxury of an entire afternoon to futz with the language of a post. Give yourself a fake deadline if you must, but try to make putting down your tools at a time certain a part of the exercise.

That’s why I set a timer on my phone to ensure I’d finish up this post and get started on cooking dinner. It went off… oh, about 15 minutes ago.

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Things I have learned from life on the cold front

The coldest January Washington’s seen in almost 20 years is finally coming to a close, and it may even crack 50 degrees over the weekend. That makes this a good time to go over some lessons learned over the past few weeks of polar vortex-level chill.

Cold thermometer• Pipes can and do freeze in these conditions. If you’re really lucky, the burst pipe is almost directly over the sump pump, the plumber lives in your neighborhood, the repairs only run $600 and change, and your power tools still work after being rained upon indoors.

• Even after living nine and a half years in a 94-year-old house, you can still discover new leaks that let cold air seep into the basement.

• It’s easier to spy the biggest of those gaps from inside the basement when the ground is paved with snow and the sun’s shining down on it.

• Your mother was on to something when she told you to wear a hat any time you go outside in the winter.

• Thermal underwear generate a crazy amount of static electricity that, when layered under khakis, causes them to wrinkle in weird ways. Which I am okay with, given the circumstances.

• The less-than-stylish flannel or fleece-lined pants you can get from L.L. Bean and elsewhere are a good thing to have bought before this month. 

• Capital Bikeshare still works in the cold–and since biking provides more exercise than walking, you can warm up a little in the process. But fitting a helmet over a warm hat is difficult.

X-country skis• Cross-country skis work even better–and when it’s this cold, the snow makes a delightful sort of squeak. (Pity the roughly four inches we got on the 21st only allowed me to do laps in a nearby park instead of, say, skiing across the Key Bridge like I did after the “snowpocalypse” of 2010.)

• The Potomac River frozen over is a beautiful sight. Try not to miss it.

• Working from home when it’s below 15 degrees outside constitutes an excellent excuse to make a grilled-cheese sandwich for lunch (jazz it up with a little caramelized onions or sautéed apple slices) and wash that down with hot chocolate.

My 2013 gardening report card

The forecast calls for below-freezing temperature tonight, so I officially put this year’s gardening season in the books by plucking the last few, still-green plum tomatoes off their dying vines. That also means it’s time to assess how growing my own food worked this year, as I did in 2011 and 2012.

plum tomatoes

Tomatoes: B+

The removal of a tree that had cast too much shade on one raised bed and, I guess,  better luck made a huge difference: We’ve had a good selection of plum tomatoes since about the middle of the summer–even while the other two plants yielded next to nothing. It was nice being able to skip buying plum tomatoes at the farmers’ market.

Arugula: B

Unlike the last two years, I couldn’t get a fall crop started in time (I blame travel and a failure to focus when I was in town, followed by the stores near me removing seeds from their shelves), and the spring crop didn’t yield as much as before either. Even so, I’ll repeat my prior endorsements: This stuff practically grows itself, yo

Lettuce: B-

I love being able to step outside, grab some lettuce leaves, wash them off and put them on a sandwich or a burger. But without a fall crop (see above), that pleasure ended sometime in June.

Bell peppers: B-

These were late starters but came around over the last two months. Considering what red bell peppers cost in the store, they’ve definitely earned a spot in next year’s garden.

Green beans: C

Once again, I didn’t plant enough in the spring–I could pick enough beans off the plants to make a side dish for one, not so much for two and certainly not for four. And then a dry August put a stop to the whole enterprise.

Herbs: D

These did much worse than I expected, and I can only guess it’s because I took too long to enrich the soil around them with compost. The mint was its usual bulletproof self (it’s in a separate pot to stop it from overrunning the entire back yard), but cilantro was a no-show, and rosemary, sage and thyme died on me more than once. And the basil never yielded enough for a batch of pesto: How pathetic is that?

Strawberries: D

The pot on the back patio yielded fruit more often than last year, but I still haven’t figured out how to avoid having the squirrels make off with too much of it.

Cucumbers: D-

This was not the complete failure of last year, only a nearly-complete one. That leaves me even more confused as to how this vegetable could have grown so well two years ago and not since.

Also worth noting: Not through any effort on my part, I had a butternut squash vine grow on its own in one of the raised beds and give me exactly one squash.

Our weekly bread (among other recipes)

For an allegedly digital individual, I revert to analog ways more often than you might guess. I live in a 93-year-old house, dry clothes on a line in the summer, own a manual typewriter, and like to get my hands dirty gardening. And I haven’t bought sandwich bread since 2005 or so, because I bake my own.

I came across this recipe–after many years in which I couldn’t get sandwich bread to work–about eight years ago in the Post’s Food section. Rose Levy Beranbaum’s article, headlined “The Lazy Loaf,” promised bread in under four hours, and her instructions lived up to that advance billing. (In the spring of 2010, I was delighted to see Beranbaum post a few comments on my own blog.)

I’ve since made a few tweaks to the recipe, including variations for hot dog and sandwich buns as well as English muffins. I’m still seeing if I can get the hang of bagels.

FYI, I posted a version of this on my Facebook page in February of 2011. But the visibility of old Facebook notes is minimal, and I’d like to think that many of you missed this the first time around.

Sandwich bread

Our Weekly Bread

Makes a 9-inch sandwich loaf

  • 1 1/4 cup hot water out of the tap
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons yeast (one standard packet, although I measure it out of a Costco-size bag)
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 3 1/2 cups flour: I usually combine 2 1/2 c all-purpose unbleached white flour with 1 c whole-wheat flour, but I’ll use as much as 2 c and as little as 1/2 c of the latter, and sometimes I’ll mix in some rye or flaxseed flour for a heartier flavor.
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 vitamin C tablet, ground in a mortar and pestle (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon of herbes de provence, Italian seasoning or dried oregano (optional, but recommended if you’re using all or mostly white flour).
  • 1/4 cup olive oil, plus additional for the bowl

Add yeast and honey to the hot water and whisk together. Let stand for 10 minutes, until the yeast foams.

In a mixing bowl, whisk together the flours and the ground-up tablet (I can’t find the link I’d read a while back that the ascorbic acid in it can ward off mold; skip it for bread that you’ll store in a freezer or eat right away). Mix in the salt and, if using, any dried herbs. Pour in the water/yeast/honey mixture, then the oil.

Use a standing mixer’s dough hook to knead the dough until smooth and springy, about 7 minutes (the original recipe says you can knead by hand for 10 minutes, but I’ve never tried that). The dough should be soft and cling slightly to your fingers, not the bowl. Shape the dough into a ball, kneading a few times by hand.

Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and place in a warm spot. Set aside to rise until the dough has doubled in size, from 1.5 to 2 hours, depending on the temperature.

Butter a loaf pan. Turn the dough onto a work surface, such as a clean countertop dusted with flour, shape it into a rectangle and roll that up tightly, pinching the seam with your fingers to seal it. Place the roll, seam-side down, in the pan, then cover with plastic wrap. Let it rise until almost doubled, from 45 minutes to as long as an hour and 45 minutes depending on temperature. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees about 30 minutes into that second rise, longer if it seems to be going slowly; if you let the pan rest on top of the oven, the residual warmth will help the yeast do its job. Bake at 375 degrees for 40 minutes.

Remove the bread from the pan and let it cool on a rack for at least an hour, preferably two.

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Homebrewing economics

Wednesday night, I observed Repeal Day by opening the first bottle of a batch of homebrewed beer–the fifth I’ve done since getting into this hobby last year.

HomebrewWhat I didn’t realize until doing the math today, however, was that the almost five gallons of lightly hopped winter ale now  sitting in bottles in my basement also represent a break-even point. My expenses on homebrewing equipment and supplies now about equal what I would have spent to buy the same volume of beer at a store.

I didn’t quite think that would be possible, but the numbers line up. I’ve spent a total of $273.91 at the local homebew shop (called, surprisingly enough, My Local Home Brew Shop), for an average cost of $54.78 for each five-gallon batch. Each yielded about 50 bottles’ worth, or just over two cases.

(Five gallons actually equals just over 53 12-ounce bottles, but I usually pour a little more than 12 ounces into each bottle. Plus, you can’t get everything out of the bottom of a fermenting or bottling bucket–and if you’ve ever seen what collects there, you’ll know why you shouldn’t try.)

My retail alternative, as a beer snob, would be picking up cases of a good, reasonably hoppy ale. You do pay for quality; the cheapest options I could find in a little searching online today were Redhook IPA at $25.99 a case and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale for $28.99. The former might be barely cheaper than my homebrew habit (were I repetitive enough to stick with the same beer over a year and change), the latter more expensive.

Homebrewing hardwareAnd from here on out, I could be in the black: The recipe kits I buy–with the grains, malt extracts, hops, yeast, priming sugar and bottle caps all in one box–average around $40. The equation could change if I start buying ingredients separately, something I’ve been thinking of doing. (The White House’s honey ale recipe is apparently pretty good.)

It’s true that I had the advantage of getting three necessary pieces of hardware for free: A five-gallon pot came from my brother as a gift, a friend who had given up homebrewing gave me a fermenting bucket, and I’ve been borrowing a capper from a homebrewing neighbor down the street. And the candy thermometer we got years ago suffices to check the temperature of the wort during the stovetop stage of homebrewing.

But I also probably could have saved money buying the equipment online instead of in a store. (Beyond those three items, you need a long paddle to stir the wort while it’s boiling on the stovetop, an airlock to let carbon dioxide escape from the fermenting bucket, a bottling bucket with a spout to pour the beer into bottles, a siphon to transfer the beer from the fermenting bucket to the bottling bucket, and a test jar and hydrometer to measure the specific gravity before and after fermenting, without which you can’t get an alcohol by volume estimate.)

Sure, if you want to factor in the time homebrewing can take up–about four hours on brewing day, then an hour and change on bottling day–the math might not look so positive. It’s also possible that I’m more likely to pop open a bottle of beer when I’ve got the equivalent of two cases downstairs, much as buying skis and boots eliminates the cost of rentals but then costs you money by leading you to ski more often.

But there’s also this intangible: the look of pleased surprise on friends’ faces when you hand them an unlabeled bottle of beer and they realize who made it.

Pumpkin pie, from scratch

One lesser-known fact about me is how analog I get in the kitchen. One example: For the past 10 years or so, I’ve been making pumpkin pie from scratch–no pumpkin from a can, no pie crust from the freezer case.

See after the jump for the routine I’ve settled on. It started with Epicurious’s “Spiced Pumpkin Pie,” then folded in a Post recipe for pumpkin puree and Mark Bittman’s flaky pie crust from How To Cook Everything, my usual go-to cookbook. (The pie crust is the easiest part–seriously, if you have a food processor, never buy frozen pie crust again–and the recipe needs no alteration, so I left that out of the instructions below. Update, 11/24: After making this pie crust without a food processor on Thursday, I realized that Bittman’s recipe doesn’t address that situation and that I had also departed from it in a few minor ways, so I added my take on it, plus two photos from Thursday’s production.) Lessons learned from mistakes led to the rest of my pie procedure, although further mistakes may change it again.
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The 2011 gardening report card

As I’ve mentioned before, I like to garden, and not just for show. Growing my own vegetables provides food that I know is fresh and offers the prospect of saving money. And this year, those efforts took off in a major way, thanks to the effort I sank into building two large raised beds during last summer’s paternity leave.

My growing season isn’t quite over–I picked some arugula earlier today–but it’s time to assess how things went.

Arugula: A+ 

Meet my new favorite crop. I didn’t have to buy lettuce for two months straight in the spring–and I had enough left over to be throwing arugula into risotto and tomato-sauce recipes. I was a little slow to seed a second crop, but as I just wrote, it’s apparently outlasted the first frost here. I’m hoping this reseeded itself, but even if that doesn’t happen I can’t think of a more profitable expenditure of $2 and change on a packet of seeds.

Cucumbers: A

A new crop for me, these were almost as prolific as arugula. The only reason I didn’t wind up pickling a bunch was because I have three or four different cucumber-salad recipes and at least two for cucumber soup. And as I learned from the cuisine at a rest stop on a bike tour, you can make a tremendous sandwich out of cucumbers and tomatoes.

Bell peppers: B+

Another first-time crop, these had a slow start but took off in August and September. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize how many of my pepper plants were of the “OMG hot!” variety; there’s only so much you can do with them.

Herbs: B

This is a collective grade, covering basil, parsley, mint, oregano, sage, thyme, rosemary and cilantro. Mint and parsley were the most consistent; although I had to reseed the latter halfway through the summer, those plants still look great. Basil got going slower than in prior years, delaying pesto-sauce season until late August. The sage did a little better than I’m used to; oregano and thyme, a lot better. Part of the rosemary plant died off, but the rest did fine. And for once, I got cilantro to grow in both the spring and fall.

Lettuce: B-

This was good in the spring–especially compared to prior years, which speaks to the benefits of amending dirt with peat moss and compost–but the fall crop has barely yielded enough for two sandwiches.

Green beans: C-

For the amount I planted, you’d think I would have been able to collect more than a single handful of beans each time. But they did taste good, and I know I neglected to pick some once the tomato, pepper and cucumber plants got in the way. In the bargain, my lame legumes fixed nitrogen in the soil for next year’s vegetables… or so I hope.

Strawberries: D

The plants I stuck in a large clay pot (and shielded with plastic netting to avoid providing a banquet for the squirrels) would have done better had I watered them more consistently and checked for new fruit more often. Too bad, since strawberries can be bland at the supermarket and rarely last long from the farmer’s market.

Tomatoes: D-

This pains me: I’m from New Jersey, where we named a whole family of tomatoes after the state, and as an American of Italian ancestry I take great pride in my ability to cook tomato sauce from scratch (not to mention gazpacho). But this is the fourth year in a row of woeful results. Once again, I had far more foliage than fruit. And although I planned to prevent the local squirrels from snacking on half-green tomatoes (they always seem to do this the day before I plan on picking them) by draping plastic netting over the entire bed and anchoring it to its walls, I left enough of a gap for one or two of these varmints to eat half of the single most promising tomato. A dry May and June, followed by a thoroughly soaked August, don’t seem to have helped matters. And by the time these plants mounted a comeback in the fall, they weren’t getting enough sunlight to yield anything bigger than the sad specimen you see at right. Can somebody please tell me what I’m doing wrong here?

Post-Labor Day reflections

The calendar says summer runs through Sept. 23, but in the working world it ends on the Tuesday after Labor Day, when kids go back to school and most adults either return to their work or return their full attention to their work.

Things have been a little different for me this year. I started this summer by exiting the working world, and I have not quite rushed to return to it. I needed time off, more than I realized in April.

It took a good month after my departure from the Post for me to realize the absence of the accumulated stress I’d been working under. It wasn’t just the volume of work, it wasn’t just the pressure to write up tech rumors of dubious long-term relevance, it wasn’t just the increasing anxiety of hearing each new crack in the ice under my position–it was the combination of all that.

Having that weight lifted from my back was a blessing. So was the chance to catch up on many of the things I’d been missing. Among them: growing enough lettuce and cucumbers to be able to stop buying either for two months (please don’t ask about the tomatoes and green beans); trying a round of new recipes to use up those crops; brewing beer at home; turning a few unproductive patches of lawn into beds of perennials more compatible with my erratic groundskeeping; witnessing the space shuttle launch in May and again in July; swimming in the Atlantic and the Pacific; exploring my expanded freedom to speak more directly on Twitter; arriving somewhat on time for weeknight events instead of showing up 90 minutes late.

Best of all, I’ve watched my daughter taking her first steps.

(I should also note things I’ve left undone: reading Ulysses, or even finishing the books I got two Christmases ago; resuming my fitful attempts to learn Spanish; getting rid of most of the junk in the basement.)

But now it’s back-to-work time for me as well. Blogging twice a week for Discovery News has left room in my schedule, but I’m about to start a second weekly gig and am looking at one or two other possible regular arrangements. I’ve also been picking up one-time assignments–within the next few weeks, I owe various third parties two magazine articles and at least one blog post. Under these circumstances, I don’t mind being busy again.