Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Gormenghast review

I'm not generally a fan of fantasy fiction. If I do read fantasy, it's mainstream fantasy like the Lord of the Rings trilogy or the Narnia books. I thought that by having read those two series, I had pretty much covered the must-reads of the fantasy genre. So it was with surprise that I heard that some people consider Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy to be the best fantasy fiction ever written. I had barely heard of it. The only time it ever crossed my path was when I saw the DVD at the movie store, and, since the movie is made by the BBC, I knew it was probably based on a book.
I hate to be tiresome, but if you are going to read Gormenghast, it's best to start at the beginning and read Titus Groan first and then progress to Gormenghast. The third book in the series, Titus Alone, I haven't read yet, but the amazon customer reviewers—that wondrous body of literary information—say that it isn't as good as the other books.
So. Gormenghast castle is the home of the Groans, an ancient noble family with an unbroken line of descent for over seventy generations. Titus Groan begins with the birth of the titular character, the seventy-seventh Earl of Groan. And off we go. The Groans, after seventy-seven generations of rule have become so ritual-bound they can hardly function.
The genius of Peake's writing is in his descriptions. I don't think I've read better descriptive language anywhere. Peake is particularly skilled at describing the play of light and color throughout the vast and ancient Gormenghast castle. The characters of Gormenghast are often physically grotesque, or at least, odd-looking, with complex natures that are hard to pin down. The villain, Steerpike—a kitchen boy determined to take control of all Gormenghast-- is strangely compelling and you find yourself rooting for him when you know you shouldn't. I love the names Peake chose for his characters: Steerpike, Prunesquallor, Sourdust, Barquentine, Sepulchrave.
These are not comic novels, but they are funny at times. The reader soon becomes aware that one of Peake's pet peeves must have been thin women who go around thrusting their sharp hip bones out for all the world to admire. Indeed, Irma Prunesquallor provides excellent comic relief for both books.
Are these the best fantasy books of all time? I don't know. They're not as cuddly as LOTR or the Narnia books, but I do feel like I will want to read them again someday and I'm definitely going to rent the movie.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Lowe's and Weimar Wheelbarrows

I hear that our economic stimulus packages are being sent out early. Also, that they're sending them out according to the last two digits of our social security numbers, so people whose last two digits range from 0-20 will get theirs first. The last two digits of my ss# are 98. Damn. Also concerning, the new focus that these payments will help Americans deal with the rising cost of food and gas. Somewhat ominous, wouldn't you say? Considering that just a few months ago, Americans were expected to use their payments to buy appliances, plane tickets, furniture, computer games and tchotkes . And if the price of food is really going to spiral out of the reach of the average American, then $600 per couple and $300 per child is going to do precious little. Mad Scientist, who is 15, could eat $300 worth of food in a week.

But who wants to contemplate scary things like food riots and Weimar wheelbarrows? The tile apprentice came back today to do the grouting. He did a great job. I had no idea that grout is such an integral part of tile aesthetics. It was unfortunate that when I bought the grout, at Lowe's, I was advised to buy the wrong kind. I came home from school today to find apprentice having a worried phone conversation with his boss about how the grout for the shower was all wrong. So I had to go straight to Lowe's--a good 15 minute drive from my house--to get the right grout. Off I went to and when I got home, Apprentice Boy was gone because he discovered, in my absence, that the floor grout I'd bought was wrong too, and since I'd neglected to bring my cell phone with me, no one could call me to tell me. Apprentice Boy appeared soon after with a bag of the right grout, and all is well and the tiling is done and I will share pictures once it cures and I can take the barrier out of the doorway.

During all this Apprentice Boy and I had a stimulating conversation about how much Lowe's sucks. I'm not saying that all Lowe's employees are useless, because some of them can be helpful, but finding a helpful employee at Lowe's is definitely a challenge. Not to mention the atmosphere. Lowe's has just about the worst vibe of any store I've shopped in. I used to think that all Lowe's customers were assholes and hence, the source of the bad vibe, but that's not really fair because I am a Lowe's customer. I think the vibe is actually the frustrated energy left behind by dissatisfied customers which mixes with the toxic funk of new plastic and building materials and combines into a horrifying miasma that sucks all the joy out of you. When J.K. Rowling came up with the concept of the Dementor, she must have been shopping at Lowe's.

It's exam week. The last two tests of the semester are done, and now I have two final exams, both cumulative. Passing is not an issue, but I would like to get A's. To maintain my A average, I need to get at least an 82 on the med-surg exam, and a 72 on the pharmacology exam. That should be doable.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Apprentice

When you live in a house built before the advent of indoor plumbing, you develop working relationships with a whole host of contractors. Along with contractors come apprentices. Apprentices tend to be high spirited and as such they do and say a lot of silly things. This is to be expected, since most apprentices are about nineteen years old. I hope nobody thinks I am hating on apprentices because nothing could be further from the truth. Apprentices are fun, and anyway, I'm sure I said and did a lot of silly things when I was nineteen.

When we put the addition on our house, and there was one nineteen year old carpenter who my children nicknamed Pumpkin. He was so young, he would direct most of his remarks to the kids, as if he still felt like he was one of them rather than one of the grown ups. He kept us endlessly entertained. He would do things like lay down a thick bead of glue and then accidentally put his fingers in it thus gluing his hand to the framing. During the course of the workday, the foreman would keep the radio set to NPR, at a discreet volume, but when he left for the day—leaving Pumpkin to do the cleaning —the radio would be switched to a country music station, at a volume somewhat more than discreet. But that was OK, because we thought Pumpkin was utterly charming. Especially when he danced to the country music as he swept up the rubble. My ten year old daughter said, “Mama, when Pumpkin smiles at me I feel happy.” I know how she felt.

Alas, we haven't seen Pumpkin in a long time, but the tile guy brought an apprentice along the other day. That morning, I got a tearful phone call from Mr. McP, asking me to deliver his forgotten homework to him at school. The tile guy hadn't arrived yet, but I left the door open for him. I couldn't have been gone more than fifteen minutes, but when I got home, the tile guy greeted me in the hall with a concerned look and mentioned something about a leak, and did I know where the water shut off valve was.

My first thought was to feel guilty. Maybe this is because I am Catholic, but I immediately assumed that if we'd sprung a leak, it was my own fault for having an old and crappy house with crappy pipes and why would any contractor want to work on a house that is so crappy and owned by someone who is obviously a complete idiot. So we got the water shut off and once that was done, I noticed the apprentice sponging up what appeared to be Lake Erie in my bathroom. That's an exaggeration. It wasn't Lake Erie, but it was rather more water than is good for the subfloor. Somehow the toilet supply pipe had been cut, below the level of the shut off valve. Still feeling like an inadequate and irresponsible homeowner, I said something about how it was no big deal, and how we were going to need a plumber to reattach the toilet anyway. The apprentice sat back on his heels and announced cheerfully, “It was all my fault.” Awesome. “We can fix it. Plumbers are stupid,” he assured me.

So, they did fix the leak, and cleaned up the water, and I didn't really mind the mishap, what with being so happy that there was nothing to feel guilty about, and after all, what you don't know about your subfloor won't hurt you.

You're probably wondering why the tile guy didn't head to the basement and find the shut off valve himself. I'm sure he would have done just that if our basement weren't accessible only from the outside of the house, through a door that is padlocked and to which he didn't have the key.

I am not ready to share pictures. For one thing, they haven't applied the grout yet, so the whole job looks unfinished. Also, I am still a long way from my Bathroom of Perfection. The walls, for example. They didn't look bad compared to the old shower and the rotted framing and the scabrous mix of plywood and vinyl that had been the floor, but now, lined up against spanking new tile floor and shower their awfulness is emphasized in a new and terrible way. What are we trying to say here? Hovel? No.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Down with Assholes

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” When I first heard that I thought it was extremely useful advice; the sort of thing I ought to make myself remember when others were trampling on my feelings. No doubt ER meant to empower people, but lately it occurs to me that this advice smacks of blaming the victim. “You feel inferior because YOU let her make you feel inferior.” Well, thanks, now I feel even more inferior. I propose the following as an update of ER's wisdom: Down with Assholes.

A classmate approached me recently and asked me for information about the fall semester classes. The nursing program made some changes and had given each student an information sheet with explanations, a list of our class options, and other useful information. I referred to my information page and answered her question. “Can I borrow that?” she asked, adding imperiously, “because of course, you have already registered.” I told her that, in fact, I hadn't registered yet, but she snatched the page out of my hands, saying she thought she could quickly register before class started, that she would return my paper, and off she went. This particular classmate is famous for her rudeness, indeed, she has the audacity to cut to the head of the bathroom line during break, so it was a sinking feeling that I entered my classroom, a feeling that sank even more when she returned and did not give me my paper.

At break time, she didn't return my paper, and now I was anxious to register myself, so I followed her to the computer lab and sat two computers away from her. I asked her if I could have my paper back and she acted surprised, almost as if she thought I had no right to it anymore. I noticed she had written all over it and circled her own class choices. Now I was really mad, and with the irrational behavior of the angry, I gave her back my paper and registered without it, but not having the paper to refer to caused me to screw up my class schedule and get sucked into a computer vortex in which I couldn't do anything. And now break was over. I returned to class and saw Ms. Classmate folding my paper into tiny squares and tucking it into her purse. I wanted to disrupt the whole class, and throttle this chick until she gave me back my paper, but I was not raised to go around throttling people, so I sat helpless with tears of rage and frustration starting in my eyes. I couldn't concentrate on the lecture, so I walked out and marched down to the nursing office where the secretary got me registered properly, only by this time, the Med-surg class I wanted had closed and I had to register for one that is inconvenient for me.

I realize, of course, how ridiculously hysterical I sound. “She took my piece of paper and she wrote on it and she didn't give it back! I was inconvenienced!” I was mad at her for flattening my feeble resistance. I was mad at myself for not being more assertive. Why didn't I just say, “I'm sorry but I need my paper.” It would have been so simple, and yet for me, nearly impossible to say. And why does no one ever say anything when she sails into the bathroom and grabs the next available toilet, ahead of everyone else who has been waiting? Is it because everybody hates a scene? Is it because she acts like she has the right to cut to the head of the line? Does she have superpowers? If I ever tried to do the same thing, a shower of vigorous protests would rain upon my head. Do we all have a built-in sense of who we can mess with and who we can't?

According to Eleanor Roosevelt, I consented to this person's taking advantage of me, but is not she equally culpable for being an asshole? “The meek will inherit the earth” is a useless platitude. What people like me need is the ability to recognize and effectively manage assholes. Without becoming assholes ourselves.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

How to become popular

Jon and I are working hard to achieve status of Most Popular Family in the Neighborhood. This is what we've achieved so far:
1. Two large dogs that bark excessively.
2. One of our cars is permanently out of commission. It's parked in a hidden corner of our weird lot, half buried under an avalanche of grape vines. When people ask, I tell them I'm trying to compost it.
3. A scruffy teenage son with a scruffy friend who is here all the time.
4. A toilet sitting on the back deck.

And today--today--Jon bought a motorcycle. It replaces the scooter that was stolen last December. All we need is an RV and a boat and we'll be voted co-presidents of the neighborhood association.

At least we live in Belmont, where people are relatively laid back about scruffy teens, toilets as lawn art and motorcycles.

So, last night, I think I almost died. It was about 2:00am, and we were sitting on our porch, drinking wine with a couple of friends. It was raining lightly, and there had been a little lightening earlier, but we hadn't seen any for at least forty-five minutes. Suddenly, there was the most massive flash of lightening you can imagine--the kind that causes you to feel a zing in your heart and makes you think your hair is standing on end. Immediately following the lightening was a deafening crash of thunder. I don't know what got struck, but whatever it was was close. The weird thing is, we had been talking about electrocution and unfortunate accidents involving aluminum ladders and electric wires, and then we were all nearly electrocuted ourselves.

I suppose another item in our favor for neighborhood popularity is the having of parties that spill out onto the porch and last until after 2:00am. We didn't get to bed until 3:00.

Was today National Dogwalking Day or something? Driving down Preston Ave this afternoon, I saw several groups of people walking, all with several dogs. A little while later, I drove down West Main and saw lots and lots of people walking energetically, all wearing matching t-shirts of the sort you see when fundraising is happening. These people, however, did not have dogs. I felt very much like a slacker, driving along, with that hungover feeling you get from staying up too late, while all these t-shirted people were Raising Awareness or Finding a Cure or Helping the Kids, or whatever. Oh well. I've never been one for walk-a-thons.

Friday, April 18, 2008


A friend of ours who moved away is back in town, and it has somehow developed that we are going to have a casual get-together in her honor. I've been longing to throw a proper party--we've been more or less partyless for two years--but the hair-raising state of our downstairs bathroom has made us reluctant to invite people over. We are making progress, at last, but with all big projects you have to create more chaos before things come together.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that our toilet, in its current location, is of little use to us or our guests.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Patience's Day of Leisure

Today was an unexpected day off. Ordinarily, I spend Tuesdays preparing for clinicals, which involves writing, pretty much the whole day, but today my instructor called and said that since tomorrow is our very last day of clinicals, she was excusing us from doing any preparation.

A whole empty day stretched in front of me. I went straight back to bed, taking a biography of Ulysses S. Grant with me. After reading for a while, about the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson, and Grant's subsequent election to the presidency, I went grocery shopping.

It's been a long time since I shopped at Harris-Teeter on a weekday morning. Usually I go at night, when the parking lot is clogged with assholes stealing free parking for UVA events, and not shopping at HT at all. So aggravating! But at 10:30am, the parking lot was agreeably empty, and so was the store. I was able to browse the aisles in peace, until I got to the dairy, which is always congested.

In dairy, my cart and I got trapped behind two other carts which were blocking the aisle, while their shoppers were elsewhere. What is the etiquette here? I think it's bad manners to park your cart in such a way that others can't get by, but I hesitated about what to do, and stood there helplessly, and watched a slim young man with a hand basket deftly squeeze through the gap. Along came another shopper, a purposeful looking man in his fifties, who quickly mastered the situation by moving one of the offending carts out of the way. The cart's owner drifted over, at this point, and did not seem perturbed about the fact that his cart had been moved.

The managers at Harris-Teeter don't like to see customers standing in line, and perform a sort of aggressive crowd control, shepherding shoppers to other lanes in order to get the flow moving. This is a good thing, overall, because most people don't like standing in lines. I don't particularly like standing in line, although sometimes I enjoy the grocery checkout line because of the magazines. I had been trying to decide whether I should read about Britney's latest relapse or Paula Deane's favorite family recipes, when I was jarred out of my thoughts by a manager directing me to an open lane. So I never got to read about Britney, or Paula Deane--not that I would ever read about either of them in any place but a grocery store check out lane. But now I am being elitist. And yet, sometimes elitism can be a good thing, as my brother is fond of reminding me. (Hear that, Hilary?)

Anyway, the managers at Harris-Teeter get really, really excited if they see you trying to bag your own groceries. They do not approve of customers who bag their own groceries. No sooner do you start, then someone will swoop down on you and take over. Why is this? For "safety"? Because only Harris-Teeter associates are "qualified" to bag groceries? It seems silly to stand there like a dummy while someone else puts your food into bags. And I am particular about bags, in that I try to use as few as possible. No, I don't want my milk in a bag, and it makes me batshit crazy when baggers put a sixpack of beer in a bag. It has a handle! Why does it need to be in a bag? It also drives me crazy when they double bag heavy items. I know, I should just get reusable bags and shut up. I'll get on that.

In addition to H-T, I bought a dozen bagels at Bodo's and some asparagus and goji berries at I-Y. Because I try to be local like that. Do you think if I eat enough goji berries, I will recover the face I had at 21? Did you know the serving size for goji berries is five--five--tablespoons? I can maybe choke down two berries at a single sitting.

Once home, I hung out some laundry, drank some coffee, did a little desultory weeding in the garden. Tonight Mr. McP and I are going to see the Richmond ballet.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Books, movies, food


I've been reading The Housebreaker of Shady Hill, a collection of short stories by John Cheever. It's all life in an affluent suburb of New York, back in the day when the maid fed the children and tucked them away in bed while the parents drank martinis and went to parties. These stories are more evocative of the life my grandparents lived rather than my own, but they are also familiar, and though they raise the sort of themes that disturb the complacent middle class, they're still comfortable in an odd sort of way. Now reading My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart, a sort of romance novel for the thinking woman. It's brain candy, yes, but more like 85% organic cacao rather than a Hershey bar.


We watched PBS's Masterpiece remake of A Room With a View. A disaster! I had been looking forward to this movie, and now I'm wondering how I could ever have thought it would be good, when the original Merchant & Ivory production featured the talents of Daniel Day Lewis, Helena Bonham-Carter, Simon Callow, Maggie Smith, and Judi Dench. How could anyone be expected to top, or even meet their performances? Not only was the new Room With a View rushed, insipid, and not particularly pretty to look at--except for the scene when they first get to Rome-- but we saw more of Mr. Weasley we ever wanted to. Even the costumes sucked.


I bought some marinated Norwegian Salmon at C'ville Market (which persist in calling "Kathy's Produce"). It looks delicious. My daughters made doughnuts at home while I was at work this weekend. They were delicious. When the semester ends, I plan to do some real, proper cooking.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Did somebody say bunny pictures?

I used to think blogs that consisted mainly of pet pictures were really really boring, and now here I am posting pictures of the bunny. So view at your own risk.


Oh my gawd! I can't believe we've had him for a whole year!

Beautiful Belmont.

Drama Queen in mid air.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Patience has a day off

Today was my first day off in two weeks. I slept until 8:30--I can't remember the last time I woke up after the sun had risen. Jon had taken the car to a motorcycle class in Staunton, but it is a relief to be without a vehicle because it gives me an excuse not to have to drive anywhere.

I did walk to the farmer's market downtown, with two of my children. We walked up the west side of Avon St., which has its own beauty, if you know how to look for it. Seen from a car, Avon St. looks ugly and grubby, but when viewed more slowly, as you walk along, you see little secret gardens and a hodgepodge of interesting architecture, much of it either in an attractive state of shabby chic decay, or else newly renovated.

I was hoping to find some asparagus at the farmer's market, but there was none, so we settled for some eggs and a small bag of biscotti. We ran into several people we knew, but I was distressed to see that Two French Hens is going out of business. That has always been my absolute favorite Charlottesville store. I've been browsing, and sometimes buying, there since it was Terracottage and located on West Main St. We checked out the final liquidation sale and spotted a gorgeous 19th century day bed, and I would have bought it, had someone else not bought it right out from under my nose as I contemplated it.

The rest of the day passed in a peaceful mix of reading, studying and domestic chores. It's like Little House on the Prairie around here lately, what with the broken dryer, the lack of a shower, and now, the pilot light on the stove is broken, which means I need to light the burners with a match. We've made major progress on the bathroom, but had to remove the toilet, temporarily until the new floor is installed, so we now have just one toilet for six people, which is not as amusing as you might think.

Photos of bathroom progress.

After. The shower is now ready to be tiled. The subfloor needs to be thickened before we can tile the floor.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Happy Bunniversary!

It was a year ago that we brought George-the-bunny home to live with us. Mr. McP had originally wanted some sort of revolting reptile pet--a turtle or a snake or something like that. I steered his thoughts to mammals, and we somehow settled on a bunny, which I found the most acceptable of the small animals.

Still. I had reservations, mainly because back when I was a kid, I thought a bunny would be the most wonderful pet in the world, but whenever I met a kid who actually had a bunny, it turned out to be a grumpy, neglected creature, huddled in a pile of dirty straw in a chilly hutch back of the garage.

In general, I am averse to animals kept in cages, and I had doubts about how a bunny would fit into our lives, but he has turned out to be the most delightful pet imaginable.

We took this picture the day after we got him. Who could resist that face?

George has turned out to be very affectionate.

He maintains an uneasy detente with our dog, Luna. Our other dog, Sancho, is afraid to go upstairs, and so, over the course of an entire year, has never even seen George-the-bunny.
Bunny tummy!
I am used to dogs, since we have two, and there are many points on which a bunny makes a superior pet to a dog. Bunnies do not steal your roast beef sandwich. Bunnies do not vomit on the doormat. Bunnies do not bark furiously every time a little old lady walks her poodle past the house. Bunnies do not hurl their bodies against the storm door, causing it to warp. Bunnies do not behave like berserkers and tear up one's flower beds. Bunnies do not cause you intense pain by stepping on your feet. Bunnies do not beg for table scraps, or drool, or put muddy paws on your couch.

No. Bunnies live quiet little lives. They like to hide under things, and use their noses to rearrange the items in their cages. They make a quiet, contented buzzing noise as they hop around the house. They can be trained to use a litter box. Indeed, our George loves his litter box and will sit there for minutes on end, thinking his secret bunny thoughts. They have moods. Our bunny is sometimes grumpy, for example, one day I hurriedly cleaned his cage without giving him much time to play about in the room, which is our custom. He got his revenge on me by petulantly overturning his litter box and food dish and scattering their contents all over the cage. When he is grumpy, he will grunt--a sign that it is best not to pick him up. Other times he will cuddle up against you and flop over onto his side, in an attitude of supreme contentment.