This Week’s Muffin: Basic Banana

Almost this green.

Almost this green.

Bananas have a very thin zone of palatability in our house. They must be slightly green, with no spots yet. What most people call a ripe banana activates the gag reflex in the kids (and in me, though I can usually choke down a peanut butter-banana sandwich on race mornings). We may get two breakfasts’ worth out of a bunch, but that’s pushing it.

Thankfully bananas freeze well and are great in smoothies, and of course muffins. Here’s a good garden-variety banana muffin recipe.

Adapted from The Ultimate Muffin Book. I made 16 with this recipe.


2 cups flour (I use half all-purpose and half white whole wheat)
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 stick butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
3 large ripe bananas
2 tablespoons milk or half-and-half
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon white vinegar


  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees and prepare muffin pan(s) with cooking spray or liners.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon.
  3. In another medium/large bowl, cream butter and sugar with a hand mixer until fluffy. Add eggs, beating until incorporated.
  4. Slice ripe bananas into sugar mixture and beat with mixer. Add milk, vanilla and vinegar and combine.
  5. Mix dry ingredients into wet ingredients with a spoon until just combined.
  6. Bake at 400 for 18-20 minutes or until nicely browned and a toothpick comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 10 minutes before removing from pan.


photo credit: Banana cluster via photopin (license)

Salvation at the Grocery Store

My brother posted on Facebook today:

I sometimes feel like a juggler who is barely keeping up, but is constantly having bowling pins thrown at him. Or perhaps they’re chainsaws.

I wrote about that sense of overwhelm (yes, that’s a verb that needed to be nouned) in a recent post, Failure to Adult. Yesterday I had yet another minor freakout about some stressful things going on–I won’t bore you with them, because they’re mundane. But I realized that I was in dire need of some perspective: my basic needs are being met, my family is healthy, I have gratifying work and a loving family.

Perspective comes in all kinds of ways… like this sign:




In case you’re having trouble reading it, it’s a sign alerting people with nut allergies to the fact that chestnuts would be displayed in open bins. This sign went up in early December–the “holiday season” in question–and was still on display as of May 20 at 11:30 a.m. when I snapped this picture like some weird grocery-store stalker. Unless chestnuts are the hot new Memorial Day item, this sign is five months out of date.

Barbara Brown Taylor likes to ask groups she speaks to, “What’s saving your life right now?” What’s saving my life right now is that dang sign–or at least, what the sign represents. This is the grocery-store equivalent of having your Christmas decorations up until spring. Or it’s like the friend of mine who dropped off her kids at school today and saw other kids piling up supplies for an upcoming event on a table and realizing she’d completely forgotten.

I’ve decided that pretty much 100% of people feel this way–and apparently, some local businesses too.

I find it oddly comforting that, whether consciously or unconsciously, the various store personnel who pass this sign every day have determined there are more important things to worry about than getting the sign down. It’s not hurting business. It’s not in the way. And hey, come November they’ll be ahead of the game.

We are all such individual and collective messes.


Solving the “Trouble with Hubble” — An Exercise in #Improv

The Hubble Space Telescope in a picture snapped by a Servicing Mission 4 crewmember just after the Space Shuttle Atlantis captured Hubble with its robotic arm on May 13, 2009, beginning the mission to upgrade and repair the telescope. The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute conducts Hubble science operations. Goddard is responsible for HST project management, including mission and science operations, servicing missions, and all associated development activities.

The Hubble Space Telescope in a picture snapped by a Servicing Mission 4 crewmember just after the Space Shuttle Atlantis captured Hubble with its robotic arm on May 13, 2009, beginning the mission to upgrade and repair the telescope.

Our family’s Sunday night tradition is pizza in the basement and a TV show together. We mix it up between Mythbusters, So You Think You Can Dance, Dirty Jobs, and nature/science shows. Sunday it was NOVA’s episode “Invisible Universe Revealed,” commemorating the Hubble Space Telescope on its 25th birthday.

I had no idea how much scientific knowledge I take for granted was made possible by Hubble: the age of the universe (13.7 billion years), for example, or the fact that black holes lie at the center of galaxies.

I remember the Hubble debacle. It didn’t work when it was first placed in space–the images were blurry and useless. I also recall lots of self-satisfied comments about how it just goes to show that “the government can’t do anything right.” According to the NOVA program, however, it was a government contractor, a private company, that made the flawed mirror, that did not let NASA view their manufacturing process since it was proprietary, and that certified the mirror as flawless and ready for installation on Hubble. That’s not what this post is about, but ahem.

Anyway, I was struck once again how much improvisation is at the center of problem-solving. (We think of improv as something musicians or actors do, but see the movie Apollo 11 for a master class on improv in engineering.)

First, the woman who helped spearhead the project, Nancy Grace Roman, the so-called Mother of the Hubble, wasn’t even supposed to be on that project. She began her career in academia, and as a woman in the 1950s, couldn’t get tenure. Instead, “In 1959 when NASA was formed, one of the men there asked whether I knew anyone who would like to set up a program in space astronomy. And I decided the idea of influencing space astronomy for 50 years was just more than I could resist, so I took the job.”

What Roman demonstrates is what theologian Samuel Wells has called overaccepting—of taking what is offered and adding to it. Instead of beating her head against the wall of academia to try to get tenure, or accepting the crumbs from their table in the form of less prestigious positions, she pivots. She pursues a job at NASA… and the rest is history.

Nancy Roman, now 89 years old. Respect!

Nancy Roman, now 89 years old. Respect!

What I like about improv as a metaphor is it doesn’t fall back on some chintzy-cheap theology that says “See?! It’s a good thing she didn’t get tenure, otherwise she wouldn’t have gotten a job at NASA! It was all meant to be.” Sorry, sexism in the academy is not and was never “meant to be.” After listening to this interview, I have no doubt she would have kicked butt and taken names in a university setting, because that’s the kind of woman she is. Instead, what Roman demonstrates is a posture of overaccepting one’s circumstances (aka saying “yes-and”), even if they aren’t ones we might have chosen. Just because we say yes to something doesn’t mean we like it. It means we’ve faced reality and refused to let it be a “No” that defeats us.

Second: There’s an improv game I’ve done as both a participant and as a leader, called “What Else Could This Be?” The premise is simple: you pass around an object–a pool noodle, or an eggbeater–and ask people to pantomime another use for it. (The pool noodle can be a set of horns; the eggbeater, a very tiny unicycle.) Indeed the church I used to serve turned its underutilized sanctuary balcony into a worship space for children because we asked the question “what else could this be?”

I was reminded of this game when optical engineer James Crocker described a breakthrough–THE breakthrough–in fixing Hubble. They had discussed all kinds of scenarios and solutions, most of which stunk, and the ones that didn’t stink weren’t feasible because of the logistics of working in orbit, which means they stunk in a different way. After a long discouraging day in meetings, Crocker went back to the hotel to take a shower–and noticed one of these:


The shower head can be raised and lowered on a bar. And that’s where the idea came from to put corrective mirrors on robotic arms that could be extended into the telescope and retracted again.

That story is so amazing, it may be too good to be true. But in any case, it’s a great twist on “what else could this be?”

Third: Improv is a process of letting go and taking risks–which may be the same thing when you get down to it. Astronaut Mike Massimino was one of those charged with giving Hubble some final tweaks in 2009. Unfortunately, a handrail got in the way of some of their repairs, and they realized they’d have to pry it off. Folks back home did a simulation, and the astronauts on the Shuttle did what they could to cut down on the number of shards that would fly when they removed it, and then… they let ‘er rip.

The handrail had to go, but what a chance they took! But it was their only option.

It should also be said–improv is not the same as spontaneity. Astronaut Story Musgrave (what a name!) and the team that did the original Hubble repair spent 20 months preparing for their mission, including 400 hours underwater simulating zero-G. Musgrave called their process choreography, a “ballet.” But that, too, is part of improv, and life. You prepare, you do your work, you think through different scenarios, and you practice, not because you expect everything to go according to plan, but because you know it won’t, and you’d better be ready.


For more writings on improvisation, click here.


Hubble photo credit: Hubble Space Telescope via photopin (license)

This Week’s Muffin: Granola Blueberry, with Bonus Recipe

7223119808_685da574bdFor those of you keeping count, this is Muffin Maven’s third, yes third, blueberry muffin recipe in recent weeks. What can I say… each offers something a little different. These are wheaty, not too sweet, and are filled and topped with hearty granola.

We’ve been making granola from scratch the last few weeks, using a recipe from Brown Eyed Baker… which turns out to come from Cook’s Illustrated, our favorite source for all things culinary. That recipe is a bonus link below.

Muffin recipe from Taste of Home.


1-1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup granola without raisins, divided
1 egg
1 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup canola oil
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup fresh or frozen unsweetened blueberries


  1. Preheat oven to 400° and grease/line 12 muffin cups. In a small bowl, whisk flours, brown sugar, baking powder, salt and baking soda. Stir in 1/2 cup granola.
  2. In another bowl, whisk egg, buttermilk, oil and juices until blended. Add to flour mixture; stir just until moistened. Fold in blueberries.
  3. Fill muffin cups three-fourths full; sprinkle remaining granola over batter. Bake 12-15 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 5 minutes before removing from pan to a wire rack.

Bonus Recipe: My friend Keith turned me on to this granola, so it’s listed in My Fitness Pal as Keith’s Granola. But it’s actually called Maple Almond Granola and it’s fantastic.

By the way: Pinterest users, you can access all the muffin recipes I’ve collected here.


photo credit: 2n via photopin (license)

Good Morning, #Baltimore

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 1.00.03 PM

My middle child sings this little bit from Hairspray every time we go to Charm City—our most recent visit was just three days ago. Our family knows Baltimore primarily as tourists and day-trippers, and I’ve visited there in a professional capacity many times. So while it’s not our city, and there’s a lot of it we’ve never seen, we have a lot of affection for it.

I don’t make a habit of commenting on current events as they’re unfolding. I always feel other people say things so much better than I could. But my next planned post was going to be a muffin recipe, and… no. Just no.

Hugh Hollowell wisely advised well-intentioned people (especially white people) who don’t know what to say to amplify the words of others, especially people of color. So I’m going to amplify the words of Derrick Weston, whose post deserves to be read widely—and judging from Facebook shares, it is:

Violence is what happens when grief has nowhere else to go and black Baltimore is tired of grieving its young men. That is not a justification for violence. At my core, I believe that violence is the ultimate dehumanizing act and yet when individuals and communities have been on the receiving ends of all sorts of violence – physical violence, economic violence, racial violence, psychological violence – those individuals and communities assert their own humanity by declaring they will no longer be trampled. That is what you are seeing in the streets of Baltimore tonight.

I hear his anger and weariness, but also his wisdom in trying to see the big picture. (Read it all.) I often want to ask him what I want to ask LGBT friends who respond graciously to people who hurl the most hateful language at them:

Do you ever get weary of being the bigger person? 

And yet, they are embodying the change they wish to see. I’m thankful for that.

Anyway. If you only have time for one post, stop reading mine immediately and read Derrick’s.

But if you have time for the disjointed thoughts of a white woman 75 minutes south of Baltimore, here goes.

I’m thinking a lot about language. I’m remembering Hurricane Katrina, when a photo of black individuals taking things from an abandoned store was captioned with the word “looting” and a similar photo of white people doing the same thing was captioned “taking.” I’m thinking of the many examples of wanton destruction that take place when one sports team beats another one that get framed in completely different ways than what happened in Baltimore yesterday. (See Black People Riot Over Injustice; White People Riot Over Pumpkins and Football.)

I’m thinking about use of the word “thugs.” Robert told me some stories just the other day about the most disgusting sexism at the highest levels of Silicon Valley. When women would complain, HR would respond “He’s the CEO, he can do what he wants.”  Thanks in part to the culture these executives created, the number of women in high tech is lower than it was just a few years ago. These men operate without any regard for decency, or in many cases the rule of law.

They are thugs.

When we use that term for some people and not for others, it says something about us.

In college at Rice there was a sociology professor, Chad Gordon (may he rest in peace), who taught a popular series of classes that got nicknamed “_________ with Chad.” My husband took TV with Chad, for example. There was also Death with Chad. (Of course the most popular was Sex with Chad.)

He also taught a class on the psychology and sociology of group dynamics, nicknamed Crowds with Chad. I wish I’d taken that class. Perhaps it would help me understand the dynamics of this situation. Protests have gone on for days and have been overwhelmingly peaceful, with police seeking to contain the crowd rather than subdue it. And yet even that peaceful atmosphere could not neutralize a smaller group of primarily young people intent on violence yesterday.

A Crowds with Chad class might help me understand the crowds on the Internet, where people feel free to call people “animals” and say “run ’em over.” It’s a mob mentality out there. I’ve seen it said so many times since #BlackLivesMatter began that if people would just follow police instructions, they’d still be alive today. Since when is resisting arrest or running away from police a capital crime?

A Facebook friend, a Presbyterian church elder in Tennessee, posted the following on Facebook:

#FreddieGray matters.

America, your double standards are showing. This land was looted & its inhabitants murdered or displaced. We have consistently used lethal force to achieve political ends from the onset. Violence is & has been the American way. I am all about the #Peace, but if the youth of Baltimore stop rioting & practice nonviolence as self-defense instead of looting, they would be way more ethical & revolutionary than every role model they have in this messed-up world.

He took it down within hours because the vitriol got completely out of hand. I happen to agree with the sentiment, but even if I didn’t—how does bullying someone into silence on Facebook help anything?

I’ve also been thinking a lot about the two-part series This American Life produced called Cops See It Differently. Please listen to it. It’s an important two hours of audio. It will open your eyes to the many good law-enforcement officers who take their duty seriously to protect and to serve, and the difficult position so many of them are in. (Guess what? Pretty much everybody would rather be taken to the hospital than to jail. Wouldn’t you? Unfortunately that means it’s very difficult to discern which detainees truly “can’t breathe.”)

The show may also leave you feeling very, very discouraged. It did me. The bridge we still need to cross in order to reach one another, or even just understand one another, is just so long… and riddled with bodies, both physical and metaphorical.

By the way, many people have claimed that the police problem is a matter of a “few bad apples.” I hope they are extending the same courtesy of nuance to protesters in Baltimore, most of whom were peaceful, and many of whom are taking the day off to clean up the mess someone else made. They do this because they love their city and want to do their part.

How are we, how am I, being the change we wish to see?