Saturday, December 19, 2009

My life as a romantic comedy

It wasn't very sporting of the recycling men to come two hours earlier than they ever have yesterday. Our bottles and cans were out, but alas, not the paper. It took me a few minutes to absorb the fact that the recycling truck was actually in front of our house at 6:45am and by the time I found a pair of shoes and rushed out of the house, they were gone. What with all the packages arriving and the fact that trash day will be delayed for Christmas next week, the paper/cardboard situation in our house is dire.

So yesterday when I left work, it was snowing. It was a long, slippery walk to the bus stop and a long wet wait for the bus. As I stood on the sidewalk, getting covered with snow, I heard a muttered exclamation and suddenly a man thrust his umbrella over my head--a handsome man, a quite handsome and acceptable man, a handsome, man who gallantly shares umbrellas with snow-covered ladies in distress. Wasn't I JUST YESTERDAY writing about the romance of the bus? It developed we were headed for the same neighborhood and we rode the same bus downtown and then he escorted me, under his umbrella, as far as Spudnuts, where our paths diverged and he went home to his girlfriend and I to my husband. It was like something that would happen in a movie starring Jennifer Aniston and Jude Law.

If my life were a romantic comedy, the moments under the umbrella would be the opening scene and we would both be single, of course. The chase after the recycling men would happen the next morning, only as I stood forlornly at the end of the driveway, charmingly disheveled and holding an overflowing bin of cardboard, Umbrella Man would just happen to drive by in a Smart Car. He would stop and I would blurt out an embarrassing comment, something like, "I guess YOU don't have to compensate for anything," but then his large fluffy golden retriever would jump out of the car and knock me down, thus obliterating any awkwardness, and later, I'd tell the story to my wacky sidekick friend and she would box me about the shoulders and scream, "How could you have said that?" Meanwhile, Umbrella Man would tell the same story to his wacky sidekick who would say, "Duuuude." "Compensating for what?"

Umbrella Man would offer to take me and my recyclables to the drop off center, and since in my Romantic Comedy life, things like getting to work on time (or, for that matter, how to fit two adults, a fluffy golden retriever and a large bin into a Smart Car) are of little significance, so off we'd go and I would be saved from a dire paper/cardboard situation.

In my Romantic Comedy life I'd still be a nurse, although one who apparently collects a paycheck without ever having to show up for work. There might be a short scene in which I prance about in scrubs doing media-nursey things like putting a bandaid in the knee of an adorable toddler and fending off the advances of a cloddish doctor. Umbrella Man would appear with a minor gash in his forehead--perhaps he too got knocked down by the fluffy golden retriever, or the fruitcake his grandma mailed him fell off the top of the fridge and hit him in the head--so I tenderly bandage the cut while the doctor comes in and acts like an ass and when he leaves, I say something like, "God, what a tool." I think that my past history in this life includes a bad breakup with a doctor.

Umbrella Man suggests we go out for a drink and it's conveniently the end of my shift, so we leave together without me ever having to give report or check on my other patients or anything. The rest of the movie would be fabulous outfits and ridiculous scrapes involving dogs and Smart Cars and city buses, and maybe an oaf of a doctor trying to derail our True Romance while our wacky sidekick friends try to help, but only hinder, or perhaps try to hinder but only help. In the end love would win and the last scene would be us walking home together past the spot where formerly our paths diverged.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Tales of the bus


Charlottesville people with an empty afternoon and a desire for a mild adventure could do worse than take a ride on the number 3 bus through Belmont. Chances are, it will take you through parts of the city you never knew existed and, as the bus drags itself, gasping, up the steep hills, around the tight corners and through the trailer parks of the Hogwaller before plunging down the big hill into Belmont proper, you feel a little like you're on an amusement park ride--especially if you sit in the elevated section at the back of the bus.

I noticed that the Charlottesville Transit Service website has a poetry contest listed. Isn't that so completely in character for Charlottesville? For a moment I felt inspired to write a poem about the number 3 bus and its pootling little route, but then I noticed the deadline expired November 30--and it had already been extended for an extra month. What? No rush of C'ville citizens submitting poetry about the romance of the bus?


Mr. McP, as I have ranted before, is taking DARE at school right now. It's taught by the guidance counseler, who in the grand tradition of guidance counselors everywhere, is completely off her rocker. The other day, the teacher rewarded the class with candy canes. According the Mr. McP, one child refused a candy cane. Here is his description of the conversation that ensued.

Child: No thanks, I don't want a candy cane.
DARE teacher: Oh, come on, you earned it! Take one.
Child: No, I'm really not supposed to eat candy.
DARE teacher: You can have one, it's OK.
Child: No, really, I can't.
DARE teacher: This is just between you and the candy cane.

Um, mixed messages much? What if you crossed out candy cane and inserted, I don't know, CRACK?


We noticed this sign, posted on neighbor Beehive's lawn.

Awesome. Totally awesome. This is why I don't ever want to live in a neighborhood with a Homeowner's Association. But I am disappointed that my photograph cuts out most of the tiny American flag she stuck into the top of the sign.

Speaking of Beehive, she called my house the other day and spoke to Mad Scientist. She told him that she saw a man sitting in a parked car, and that this was suspicious and that she had called the police. She was "concerned," you see, because this man may have been a pedophile and since I let Mr. McP walk all the way home from the bus by himself--he will be 11 in February-- she felt it her duty to let me know about the danger he was exposed to. She meant well, but the sting in her concern was the implication that I am a bad mother for letting my ten year old son walk half a block home from the bus stop with no supervision.  When I was ten, I was babysitting my younger siblings and cooking the family dinner with no adult help.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Their tongues were sharper than the chorizo

Isn't it curious how people who don't have children always know best how to raise them? I went to a party the other night, where these two women ganged up on me to such an extent that I was tempted to fake a headache and go home.

I was going to write out my theory about why these women don't like me, but it is a tedious tale. Suffice it to say that despite what you may have heard in the popular media, it is possible to be Catholic and accepting of homosexuals. Anyway, my theory was validated when one of the women made a snipe about how I probably "make" Jon go to mass, (which I don't).

I had hardly got my coat off before it started: One of the women started a discussion of the deficiencies of the people from ""upstate." (New York) She once had to wait in a hospital waiting room in Albany and there were toothless people! And once she drove across New York State and the poverty was UNBELIEVABLE. And there are reputed to be upstate people who are politically CONSERVATIVE, if you can believe it. So unlike Manhattan. (I am from "upstate.")

Then we talked about nursing, in which the one woman, a nurse, explained to her partner about how her patients are "sick as shit" but by the time they get to the floor, well, I mean, really, floor nursing? Ew. What's the point of even caring for someone who is only acutely ill rather than critically ill? (I am a floor nurse.)

Next came the requisite "How are the kids?" And so we got onto the topic of Mad Scientist and his college plans. I mentioned that University of Virginia is his first choice and that Mad had said he'd prefer to live at home if he goes there. They started moaning about how will he ever grow up, he simply has to move out, no college-bound child should live with his parents, he NEEDS to get away from me. One of the women looked at me earnestly and said, "You really need to talk to him." Well, thank you, kind ladies, thank you very much indeed for being so sure in your knowledge of the needs of a boy YOU HAVE NEVER MET, and for not hesitating to share your opinions with me. I realize that "going away" to college and living in the dorms are the social norm, but plenty of kids commute to college from home and somehow manage to become independent, productive adults. If Mad Scientist chooses to move out, then he is welcome to do so, but I am not about to kick him out of the house against his will. Not at age 17, anyway.

That was the point at which I contemplated playing hooky from the party, but there didn't seem to be a way to make a graceful exit without appearing to be petulant, so I drank more wine and sought a different conversation.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Mama's singin' you to sleep With a moonshine lullaby

When Mad Scientist told me he was going to make moonshine at home, I realized I had two options:
1. Freak out and forbid it.
2. Allow it, with the knowledge that he would probably not be successful.

I usually choose the path of least resistance, so I went with option number two. While not encouraging the moonshine hobby, I voiced only the mildest of objections: (But how will you build a still? Where will we put it? Isn't it illegal? Do you promise not to blow up the house? If you're not planning to drink it, what will you do with it?)

One morning I got up to get ready for work and discovered the kitchen counters, and indeed most flat surfaces were mysteriously sticky. The sink was cluttered with sticky measuring cups and spoons, there were circular stains on the stovetop and the whole kitchen had an aura of feverish activity only recently abandoned, though it was 5:30am. I knew that Mad Scientist was responsible for the mess but did not connect it with the moonshine business until I got home from work that night and he revealed assorted recycled containers--including plastic milk jugs which he claimed he'd "sterilized"-- filled to the brim with homemade "mash" that he had filed away in the drawer of a filing cabinet in his bedroom--the original contents of which he had transferred to his backpack (and probably the space under his bed and who knows where else--they were Jon's papers he relocated, not his own.) The room had an unpleasant yeasty smell, and Mr. McP, who shares the room with Mad Scientist complained vociferously.

There followed several very uncomfortable days. The yeasty smell pervaded the upstairs, and the rest of the house as Mad Scientist moved the containers about, trying to find the ideal warm spot for his mash to ferment. You never knew where you'd encounter the reeking jugs--wrapped in towels and stacked on the dresser in the bathroom, resting on the heating ducts in the living room, in the sink, which was plugged and filled part way with hot water. There were dribbles of spilled mash everywhere and Mr. McP refused to sleep in his room because of the smell.

And still I didn't get mad. No, I didn't get mad until I realized that he had used almost an entire 1-pound package of SAF instant yeast for his mash. Instant yeast is about three times stronger than regular baking yeast. I have to order it specially. The amount he used was probably a six month supply for me, and I bake a lot. By a conservative estimate, Mad Scientist used enough yeast, in his mash, to bake 75 pizzas.

Then he started asking me to buy him materials with which to make a still. I didn't recall, in not specifically forbidding the moonshine, to agreeing to buy my son a still. I was trying to be all Zen Mom about the whole thing so I told him to put the items on his Christmas list. My last drop of Zen dried up when the Christmas list specified a six-gallon kettle and twenty feet of copper tubing. Twenty feet of copper tubing?! This is a 1600 sq foot house with two adults, three teen-agers, one admitedly slim ten year old--but he comes with fencing equipment-- and three pets. George-the-bunny took up our last remaining spare square inches of living space. We do not have room for twenty feet of sunbeams delivered personally by the Angel Gabriel, let alone twenty feet of illegal still tubing. Suddenly, I wasn't Zen Mom. I was Mom-Whose-Mug-Shot-is-Displayed-on-the-Evening-News.

Meanwhile, Mad Scientist would step away from the computer, where he was shopping for the best buys in Still Supplies and I would find on it unsettling pictures of grimy home stoves holding enormous makeshift stills--the one Mad seemed to favor involved a pot lid that was held down with a load of bricks. I was so worried about space, tidiness and legality, it didn't even occur to me to wonder why the bricks were necessary, but clearly things blowing up is a potential hazard of the home lickker making biznes.

But Zen prevailed. Mad Scientist could not find a satisfactory connector or fitting that he needed, and announced abruptly that he was abandoning the whole project. Well not quite abandoning. There was still all that mash, which he said he would like to taste. I knew I had two options:
1. Freak out and force him to flush the whole mess down the toilet.
2. Say nothing because one sip would be disgusting enough to prompt him to throw it away on his own.

He did drink wine while we were in Italy. It is just expected there that kids his age will drink with dinner, so would a taste of poorly-fermented and probably non-alcoholic sugar, yeast & water really hurt him other than to make him puke, an outcome he deserved anyway after subjecting us all to the smell?

I went with number two. The outcome? I am proven right again.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Drug pusher, North Face hater

Mr. McP's timing, interviewing me about my job for a DARE project, a few minutes after I got home from a frustrating day at work, could have been better. You are familiar with DARE, no? The bullshit, proven-ineffective-by-research-so-why-are-we-still-teaching-it-in-the-schools anti-drug education program?
Here's how the interview went:

Mr. McP: What do you do at your job?
Me: I push narcotics.

I made sure he spelled "narcotics" correctly.  The DARE people can bit me. And it's true, I do push narcotics, push as in IV push.

Why does everybody--everybody--wear a North Face jacket? Am I missing something? To me, they are dull and devoid of style. I want no part of them. Do they offer super-warmth? Superpowers? Even the homeless woman in front of me in line at the post office today was wearing a North Face jacket.

I know I am being offensive, but just indulge me today.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Donuts for sissies

If you apply yourself, you can really get a lot of Christmas shopping done in one day. I guess my problem up to now is that I have never applied myself, so to speak, in the realm of Christmas shopping, so that even when I start my shopping early, I am still one of those people buying gifts at the last minute. I applied myself so much yesterday that I had to stop and give my credit card a rest. It's not that the little plastic rectangle needed the rest, but I'm sure that the credit card elves, who watch over my purchases and call me at home when my spending breaks out of its usual patterns, appreciated it.

I shun the mall and try to shop at locally owned boutiques, or online. That's so elitist, I know, but Charlottesville has a craptastic mall. The stores are the usual suspects, but their merchandise is pared down, probably because so many people here are elitist boutique shoppers like me, so the guys in corporate see that nothing is selling in their stores here and stock them accordingly with last year's rejects or whatever. Shopping at Charlottesville's "Fashion Square Mall"--I can hardly write the name without wincing--is like being transported to the Ukraine for the day, only with gangfights in the common areas.

I went to one boutique that stocks lovely things imported from France: Provencal table linens, pottery, these sweet French guinea hens I have been coveting for years and other fun stuff.

I saw one thing there, a golf ball wine stopper, perfect for my mother-in-law who likes golf, and wine. A bottle stopper is a small thing and I thought it would be a good gift garnish--you know, the little extra gift you tape to the outside of the package, only it cost $32. Even my inner elitist was shocked. Come on, people. It's a golf ball glued to a cork.

My inner elitist turns a blind eye to my use of Amazon as my go-to site for just about everything. Google any random thing you'd like to buy: SHOE STORAGE SYSTEM, CRAMPON BAG, RANDOM ORBIT SANDER, BRA BALL, MAXIMUM THE HORMONE, HEADSTONE DECORATIONS, COFFIN CASE, PANTIES FOR SISSIES, RIDICULOUS SEXUAL MISADVENTURES, and Amazon will have a product for you.

I'm sorry, but it has just come to my attention that our local yellow pages has two headings for doughnuts: "DONUTS" and "DOUGHNUTS." Really? Not only that, the one business listed under DOUGHNUTS spells its product "donuts." There is a different business listed under DONUTS. The two headings are not cross referenced, so people who want doughnuts are directed to one business and people who want donuts are directed to a completely different one. We usually buy "doughnuts" from a place called Spudnuts, which isn't even listed in the yellow pages, but it is closed on Sundays, so we will have to buy some "donuts."

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Rant of the day

As of yesterday, smoking is banned in all Virginia restaurants, a law that puts us into cultural alignment with much of the rest of the US. It always amused me to see the shocked reaction of my family, who visit from New York and Florida, to the sight of people smoking in restaurants here in Charlottesville. Most restaurants had already instituted their own smoking bans anyway, but there were a few holdouts.

I'm ambivalent about the ban, actually. I don't smoke and I agree that restaurant employees deserve a healthy work environment as much as anyone, but Jon smokes, as do several of his friends, and when we go out I'm usually relieved if it's to a place that allows smoking because otherwise our evenings out are punctuated by annoying smoking breaks.

I'm sure there are people who can relate to this scenario: you are out with a group of friends and someone suggests going out for a cigarette and suddenly most of your party has left the restaurant, and you are stranded, sometimes alone, but usually with the least congenial member of the group. You sit there pensively peeling the label off your beer bottle, watching your smoking friends laughing it up outside. They're having such a great time that often their cigarettes are long consumed before they bother to come back inside. Oh sure, you can go outside with them, but then your table is abandoned and the waitstaff think you've all gone, or else it's freezing or raining or whatever.

This behavior is RUDE. It's also unchivalrous. I'm especially annoyed that my own husband is one of the worst offenders. With the smoking ban in effect, there will be ever more of us non-smoking wallflowers, while all the real partying will happen outside the bar.

Q: But who even smokes anymore, anyway?
A: Lots of people, believe me.

That said, the smell of cigarette smoke doesn't usually bother me too much, or so I thought. A few weeks ago, I was walking down the street and a woman walking in front of me lit up a cigarette and as the smell of it reached me, I was overcome with rage. It surprised me because I have never reacted this way to smoke before, but I was unhappy about other things and the smoke was the last straw. I wanted to catch up to her and demand that she put her cigarette out. "How dare you," I wanted to say. "How dare you just walk down the street, heedless of the smoke you are blowing back at me?" I didn't confront the woman--I'm not very big on confrontation--but maybe my rage was displaced and the real smoker I wanted to say "How dare you," to is Jon for leaving me socially stranded, again and again.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Et tu, Willams-Sonoma?

I don't enjoy cooking, ordinarily, but when the holidays arrive I get all excited about the recipes that are presented in the foodie magazines and catalogs. Indeed, as I paused last Wednesday to allow a line of shiny Mercedes, groaning under their weight of groceries, lumber out of the Foods of all Nations parking lot, I felt suffused with good will toward all mankind. It was time to cook!

This year for Thanksgiving I decided to try a new stuffing, which, in the scheme of our Thanksgiving tradition, is like committing to wearing a wig for the rest of one's life. I have always made the stuffing from the Tasha Tudor cookbook, which is identical to my Aunt Mimi's stuffing, and only slightly different from my mother's stuffing. It isn't very sophisticated, but we love it. The chestnut-sausage-mushroom-fennel stuffing featured in the Williams-Sonoma catalog seemed like a step toward a more adult fare. I had to visit three different stores to collect the ingredients--hence the trip to Foods of All Nations which carries the peeled, roasted chestnuts that I couldn't find anywhere else (except the Williams-Sonoma catalog).

I also had to buy some sherry. What is sherry, anyway? The only people I have ever known to drink it were my mother--when she was alive--and prim ladies in Barbara Pym novels and Masterpiece Theater dramas. I found a $6.99 bottle. "Excellent for cooking" the label said, which is code for UNDRINKABLE. It's a one liter bottle and I used 1/4 cup. The chestnuts cost $13. This was turning out to be the most expensive stuffing in the world and I hoped that it would be worth it. I won't bore you with the details of the cooking, only that it required considerably more effort than my nursery-level Tasha Tudor recipe. In the end, the flavors that dominated were chicken broth + bread, the same as in any other stuffing. It tasted fine, although the lumps of chestnut were a little scary, but it was hardly the height of sophisticated dining.

On the other hand, the maple cranberry cheesecake--recipe from the December issue of Bon Appetit--was fabulous, so fabulous that I am going to make it again for Christmas. It has a graham craker crust, which 10 year old Mr. McP made for me, and the cheese filling is flavored with a maple syrup reduction. Then there's a brilliant sauce made from maple syrup, fresh + dried cranberries and a little brown sugar cooked together. This is an expensive cheesecake, what with all the maple syrup, but it is totally worth it.

That's our Thanksgiving in a nutshell. We had to celebrate it on Friday because Jon and I both had to work on Thanksgiving, and it made me very unhappy to leave our children alone. I agreed to work holidays, because that is just part of being a nurse, but I didn't agree not to be depressed about it. I had to work Black Friday too but Jon had the day off to roast the turkey.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Laundry 101

Congratulations on taking an interest in the fine art of clotheskeeping! Here is a brief summary of our three day course.
Day 1: Laundry Basics
Day 2: Sorting Colors
Day 3: Review class and quiz

Laundry basics.

A washing machine is a wonderful thing, but it can not work miracles. For example, a washing machine is a finite space. There is a limit to the number of clothes you can fit into it at one time. If you find that you are standing in your machine in order to cram in more clothes, chances are you have a load that is too large. Another thing: it is customary to start the water running first, then add the detergent, and THEN start adding clothes. Yes, there IS a "right" way to do laundry. Using the empty washing machine as a laundry hamper is a bad, bad habit that must be stopped immediately. Take note of the "wash size" dial on the machine's console. You must select a size that is appropriate to your load. We have already discussed how overloading the machine is a bad thing. Overloading it, and then doing the wash set on "small" is an even worse thing. How do you expect your clothes to get even partially clean if you wash seven tons of laundry with three gallons of water? Conversely, washing two pairs of socks, with "large" load selected is also very bad and guaranteed to make your wife mutter under her breath and close doors more firmly than strictly necessary.

Like the washing machine, the dryer can not work miracles. It is not a bottomless pit. It is customary to dry one load at a time. Cleaning the lint trap is MANDATORY.

Sorting colors.

As far as laundry is concerned, there are three types of colors: darks, lights, and whites. Examples of dark colors: black, navy blue, charcoal, brown. Examples of light colors: baby pink, sky blue, butter yellow. Examples of whites: white. It is usually acceptable to wash light colors with whites. It is NEVER acceptable to wash your wife's pastel pink blouse with a load of black pants and blue jeans. Remember, modern laundry sorting is not the equivalent of the Jim Crow South. You can't just designate "coloreds" and "whites" and think you have done even a remotely satisfactory job of sorting your laundry. This WILL be on the quiz.


We have covered some basic topics: not overloading your machines, and recognizing the fact that there are several color variations. Do you have any questions? No? Good. You have thirty minutes to complete your quiz. If you score less than 100%, you will be required to retake this class before you will be allowed access to your washing machine. Laundry 101 is a prerequisite for Laundry 102, in which we will study advanced topics like water temperature, detergents and bleach, delicates, pockets, and buttons and zippers.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

You poor, base, rascally, cheating, lack-linen

After this, I promise to shut up about the Arctic. I finally finished The Arctic Grail by Pierre Berton and I am bursting with knowledge. Did you know that the North Pole and the North Magnetic Pole are not the same thing? I have always assumed that Earth's magnetic poles are located at its geographic poles, when in fact, the North (and South) magnetic poles are located nowhere near the geographic poles, and they do not maintain a constant position. According to Wikipedia, the North Magnetic Pole is currently located on Ellesmere Island, but when it was first was discovered, by James Clark Ross, in 1831, it was on the Boothia Penninsula--both locations hundreds of miles south of the geographic North Pole and hundreds of miles distant from each other.

Then there's the Peary/Cook controversy. Did either one reach the North Pole? Cook has been discredited, although you can't help rooting for him because Peary is so unlikeable. I, in my colossal ignorance, had Robert Edward Peary--who claims to have been the first to reach the North Pole--confused with Oliver Hazard Perry, who beat the British in the Battle of Lake Erie, near Buffalo during the War of 1812. I did think it odd that a War of 1812 hero also conquered the Pole, and now I am straight on that mystery, much to my own satisfaction. Then there's Edward Parry--another important Arctic explorer, and of the War of 1812 era (although British), so you can excuse my confusion.

While helping Miss G write a poem for school, I discovered an amusing little web tool: Shakespeare Search. You type a word into the search bar and you will get every line from any of Shakespeare's plays that uses that word. Fresh from my Arctic research, I typed in "scurvy" and got a wealth of amusing insults: "What a pied ninny's this! thou scurvy patch!" (The Tempest III ii) I tried "whoreson": "You peasant swain! you whoreson malt-horse drudge! (The Taming of the Shrew IV i). Wench: "Marry, sir, she's the kitchen wench and all grease." (The Comedy of Errors III ii)

Elizabethan English had a rich collection of insults, most of which, sadly, have fallen out of use. Take this line from Henry VIII: "Bless me, what a fry of fornication is at the door." Or take this line from All's Well that Ends Well: "Drunkenness is his best virtue, for he will be swine drunk, and in his sleep he does little harm, save to his bedclothes about him." There's a great scene in the academic satire I'm reading now, in which two professors engage in a duel of insults taken from Shakespeare. I read Forever Amber a while back and was impressed, indeed almost slack-jawed with amazement, at the glorious insults Amber uses against her many detractors. Forever Amber may not be taken seriously as a work of literature, but Kathleen Winsor did an impressive job of resurrecting the colorful dialogue of the 17th century.

English today has a pathetic collection of insults: asshole, douchebag--what else? I can't think of anything beyond these tepid examples.

Friday, November 13, 2009

She was so preppy was she?

Of the many irrational things I have done, encouraging Mr. McP to take up the bass is the one that is currently plaguing. The bass! What was I thinking? He is only big enough for a 1/4 size bass, but even so it takes up fully half of the back of my van. What we will do when he grows into a full size, I don't know. It towers over Drama Queen's full-size cello, and the bridge sticks out a mile. Luckily, he doesn't have to take it to school every day, since they keep one at school for him, but for rehearsals and concerts, he is expected to bring it. The other morning, we stood on the stage, attempting to unpack it, while the orchestra director looked on, and it must have been obvious that the bass spends most of its time at our house, standing in a corner, unplayed. It is so unwieldy that just getting it out of and back into its case is a project and a half, and Mr. McP's little armsare simply not strong enough to carry it.

Miss G, who plays the viola, was given first chair and a solo for her concert. I have been waiting for seven years for one of my kids to get first chair, and what happens? She arrived at class a little late, wasn't quite prepared to start playing when the director told them to, and for that, the director bumped her back to second chair and took away her solo. Thanks, Mr. Middle School Orchestra director. Thanks a lot.

Miss G and I have been scouring the city for black pants that she must wear to this now-ruined-for-us concert. Charlottesville generally sucks for shopping. There are nice boutiques, but when you need something basic like a pair of girl's black pants, size 0 long, you won't find them.
Gap: nothing.
J. Crew: nothing.
Belk: nothing.
Target: less than nothing.

I know a lot of people like Target, and maybe they do have nice housewares, but the clothes at Target are the most pathetic, shit-bag crap I have ever seen. Unwearable! In desperation, we went to J.C. Penny. It just never occurs to me to shop there, but I must say, their selection is far superior to Target's and we did, in fact, buy the very last pair of size 0 long girl's dress pants (black) in all Charlottesville. Sorry, other orchestra mothers who left their shopping too late. Next year, at least, she will get the concert dress provided by the high school and we won't have to do this again.

Speaking of shopping, Drama Queen needs winter boots. Would you like to see the boots she selected as appropriate for snow-and-ice wear?

Wait for it.

She really really really wants those tweedy clog boots. They cost $248. I finally persuaded her to accept something more sensible, but she is complaining that the boots we did buy are too preppy. When I was in high school, preppy was a good thing. I was so preppy, my collars impeded the range of motion in my neck. I was so preppy, I was virtually sexless. I was so preppy, I appeared to have a sock allergy. But today's teens follow a different path, apparently. How preppy were you?

Monday, November 09, 2009

Scurvy knave

Mr. McP was in a tizzy this morning because I was supposed to sign his report card. I assumed signing was unnecessary, since the signature acknowledges that I, the parent have received it, and in this case, his report card had been handed to me personally, by his teachers, and we had discussed it. He INSISTED that has teacher said that I had to sign it. Why not just sign it then and let the poor kid stop worrying? Because I had already lost it, and now, I'd have to write a note, saying I'd seen the report card, and the note--scrawled on a scrap taken from the recycling--would be proof of my carelessness. No, I don't save my kids' report cards. Isn't that what the transcrips are for? Actually, I do make an effort to save the last report card of the year, since it has the full year's grades on it. This is one of the many idiotic public school policies that make me nostalgic for our homeschooling days.

This weekend, my kids and a friend from the neighborhood went into the park across the street and raked themselves a huge pile of leaves. A random dad who was in the park with his small child joined in, and my kids welcomed him, and they were all planning to have a grand time jumping in their pile. Then other parents arrived, who, not understanding the spirit of the leaf pile, acted put out that my children were playing in it. Their plaintive requests: "Can my child have a turn now?" implying that they were somehow entitled to it. I know it's a public park, and I know that leaves are free, but, judging from my children's description of the encounters, it seems these parents thought the leaf pile had been provided by the city, much like the other playground equipment and that my children, in wanting to jump in the pile they had raked themselves, were being selfish. My children, having been brought up to be polite, deferred to the other parents and hardly had any time to enjoy the fruit of their labor. Am I being petty here? It's too much, perhaps, to say, "Go rake your OWN leaf pile." My kids didn't mind the dad who helped, and then let his kid jump, but I don't think they're wrong for being annoyed at seeing their pile destroyed by others who didn't even have the courtesy to thank them.

I'm still reading The Arctic Grail by Pierre Berton. Much of it is devoted to John Franklin's tragic1846 expedition. His orders were to find the elusive Northwest Passage. He and his entire crew died, most likely of scurvy, and the British navy (and later some Americans) searched for twelve years before finding conclusive evidence of the crew's fate.

If scurvy was the primary cause of their deaths, a secondary cause was snobbery--not of John Franklin personally, but of the British Admiralty in general whose attitude influenced most arctic explorers of the period. A handful of explorers realized that the diet of arctic natives--fresh meat and blubber--was what prevented scurvy, but most refused to eat the native diet, and granted, it does sound singularly unappealing. Another problem was the navy's refusal to listen to arctic whaling captains, who were more competant with ice, but, since whalers had lesser social status, and were not British Navy officers, their expertise was rejected. Inexplicably, none of the explorers had the least idea of how to hunt and had no intention of learning. Instead, they lugged mountains of provisions through areas that had plenty of wild game. Sometimes they hired natives to hunt for them. Sometimes they were forced to resort to cannibalism. They also refused to use dogsleds. Instead, they built massive sledges designed to be hauled by men. Indeed, the explorers of the time actually believed that man-hauled sledges were somehow nobler, and that using dogs was a form of cheating. The result of this attitude was men who were completely worn out and taken by scurvy all the quicker. On the one hand, we had men who endured unimaginable hardship in order to map the arctic and contribute knowlege of the region--and they made many important contributions. On the other hand, The Arctic Grail is, among other things, a catalog of stupendous incompetance.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009


I started blogging in 2005, and yesterday I went through my archives and deleted a ton of posts. It felt good to weed the mental baggage: the memes, the "today I did this," the "bitching about my co-workers" posts. There are, however, a some posts that I deemed worth saving: most of my book and movie reviews, for example, the chronicle of the winter we spent building the addition onto our house, some other things. The original bunk bed story is pretty funny, though I say it myself. There was the time my nipples accidentally ruined one of Creigh Deed's campaign ads. There are some good Mad Scientist stories: the time we were in Sears and he thought we were in the Gap, the time he hacked through the security on the library's computer and got a stern tap on the shoulder from the librarian, the time he and his friend were giggling over a paperback book that I assumed was obscene that turned out to be short stories by Isaac Asimov, the time he used Celtic Runes to spell out the message "JESUS, YOU'RE AN IDIOT" to his science teacher and she translated it. There is also my post about Adele Davis and how I suffered because my mom followed her nutrition philosophy. That entry, written in 2005, brings multiple visitors to my site, daily, and is still generating comments. Indeed, just yesterday, someone claiming to be Adele Davis' son contacted me. His message was somewhat incomprehensible and I didn't understand why he mentioned cowboys until I realized he was referencing my profile picture. Ick.

All of that is on my old blog at a different hosting site. I don't back up my blog entries. Is that what most people do?

One series of posts I might republish is a recap of the novel Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. Clarissa is the longest work of literature in English. Written in 1748, it tells the story of a young woman's determination not to give in to the man who goes to great lengths to have her. The themes of Clarissa are so foreign to modern sensibilities, and the plot is so ridiculous, it comes across as a farce, although I gather that eighteenth century readers took it seriously. It was also made into a movie, starring Sean Bean as Lovelace, the wicked man who's after Clarissa, and a forgettable actress in the title role. I'm considering rereading it and writing an improved snarky recap, but the thought of devoting months to rereading a book that drove me crazy isn't appealing right now. On the other hand, some people who read my recap liked it enough that they bought Clarissa so they could read it themselves.

Speaking of lengthy books, I am currently reading The Arctic Grail by Pierre Berton--631 pages, but well worth the effort. Many non-fiction historical accounts are very dry. I sometimes read them like medicine; good for me, but so hard to get down. The Arctic Grail isn't like that. If it isn't the most entertaining and readable work of history I've ever read, it's definitely in the top five. The title sums up the subject matter: the 19th century quest for the Northwest Passage, and later, the North Pole. Highly recommended.

I'm also reading A Lecturer's Tale by James Hynes. A standard academic satire. Why are academic satires always set in English departments in the Midwest? Is it because writers are most comfortable with English, or is it because English departments are guilty of the worst crimes of puffed up, deconstructionist, post-modern, academic nonsense? Still, Hynes is a good writer, and his satires are more entertaining than some I've read, and at the very least it makes me glad I didn't choose that career path.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

House of plague

Mr. McP has returned to school but now Miss G is glassy-eyed and feverish, and Drama Queen and Mad Scientist are complaining of sore throats and cough. I think we're lucky to get this thing over with early in the season, although I worry about my girls because they have asthma. Drama Queen got pneumonia last winter after having the flu, but there was not a lot I could have done to prevent them getting it, since the vaccine takes two weeks to provide protection, I've been told, and the schools were supposed to start distributing after my kids were already exposed, and anyway, I've learned that they have run out.

As I said, I'm not too worried, and I'm glad that the people who commented on yesterday's entry feel more or less as I do. Let's hear it for common sense! Then again, I was thinking about my great-great-grandmother who lost four of her five children in the same week in an epidemic. Ironically, her surviving child, my great-grandfather, died at age 38 during the 1918 flu pandemic.

I feel well. Perhaps I'm immune. I was seven years old during the earlier swine flu outbreak in the 1970s, and maybe I caught it then, although they're saying it doesn't necessarily confer immunity for this outbreak. I don't remember being sick, but I do remember hearing about it on the news, so I imagine the coverage must have been frequent and obsessive, because what seven-year old pays attention to current events?

That's my handsome husband in the photo, btw.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Corn phone, H1N1, and Nursing Students

We got the phone situation cleared up. After being totally frustrated by the Sprint store, we went elsewhere. I am not a big fan of Best Buy, but this can be said of them: they will sell you a phone and not barricade themselves behind invisible fortresses and/or pretend that logging into their computers is a process that takes fifteen minutes of unbroken concentration. While being ignored at Sprint, we browsed among their phones and found a cute one that is made of corn. Everything is made of corn nowadays. When we went out to dinner the other night, our "plastic" cups were made of corn. I think the expansion they're building onto my hospital is made of corn. So at Best Buy, when the salesman asked which phone we wanted, I said, "I'd like that stout, squat one that's made of corn." (And it does have a square profile, so "squat" is an appropriate adjective. I don't remember saying "stout" but Drama Queen and Miss G both insist that I did.) Apparently the Best Buy guys aren't educated about their products because our guy clearly thought I was crazy, but he was polite about it and he sold me a phone anyway, because, you know, it's his JOB. Equally important, I now have proof of being fabulously modern and enlightened since we buy phones made of corn now.

H1N1 has invaded my family, via Mr. McP who developed a fever of 101.8 and other classic flu symptoms. Several of his classmates had confirmed H1N1. He is now recovering, and so far no one else in our house has gotten sick. It really wasn't too bad and he was far sicker when he had the seasonal flu last winter. Everyone I talk to in person about H1N1 seems to have the same attitude I do--some mild concern but nothing approaching panic. Then the TV news does stories implying that our entire nation is in the grip of mass hysteria. One segment--I forget on which network--showed people lining up for hours to get the vaccine. They all talked about how frightened they were and how they would endure any hardship, just so long as they could get vaccinated. They interviewed one mouth breathing meathead who bellowed, "The side-effect of not getting this shot is DEATH!" Really? Consider this, Mr. Meathead: A "side-effect" of getting in your car and driving to your Swine Flu Vaccine Fiesta is also DEATH. (Potentially.) It amazes me how Americans freak out about any imagined threat, and yet blithely hop into their cars fifty times a day without a second thought.

Nursing students. I often felt out-of-place and unwelcome as a nursing student in hospital units, so I was looking forward to being helpful and supportive of any nursing students I encountered. The ones on my floor are first years, and some of them are terrified. I guided one through assessing our patient, something I always wished one of my co-assigned RNs would do with me.

At one point, a nursing student told me my patient had a question about a non-urgent matter. I was just going into that patient's room, but was addressing her more pressing issue, pain, so I forgot about the non-urgent question. Later, the nursing student reminded me, and I told her I'd forgotten but that I'd follow up with the patient in a few minutes, which I did. A little later, I noticed the nursing student had written in the chart: "Again, reminded co-assigned RN, Patience, to address patient's question about the [non urgent matter]." The "again" is a nice touch, no? It's more funny than annoying.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Stoopid cell phones

Cell phones themselves are nice to have, but everything connected to them is a pain in the ass of the highest order. Can you tell I've been having a frustrating day? I'm working night shift this week, and it isn't agreeing with me. Daytime sleep feels so unwholesome, like I've been drugged, and it gives me nightmares. Then, since yesterday was my day off, I slept until 3:00pm, having worked all night the night before thinking I'd have to stay up late to stay on a night shift schedule, but I ended up falling asleep at 11:30pm and sleeping all night, so now I'm back on a "day" schedule, but I have to work all night tonight.

Anyway, last January we became a modern, technological family with cell phones for all, and it has been an endless headache. Everywhere, there are receptacles of water--the dogs' bowls, toilets--in which my children have dropped their phones, which causes the phones to act funny or die entirely. Not only that, they're buzzing and lighting up constantly, and I mean constantly. Our first bill showed we'd sent and received 50,000 texts. FIFTY THOUSAND TEXTS. And this month's bill had an extra $92 charge for "data" because Mad Scientist wasn't aware that it's not free to connect to the internet with your phone.

Now, Miss G's phone has died, mysteriously--no water involved--and we went to the Sprint store to see what we could do about it. Only we never got to actually talk to anyone because the associates were helping other customers, but when a customer finally left, the associate who had been helping him, and who had told us someone would be assisting us soon, disappeared. The other customer was having a very long and complex interaction with her Sprint associate, so long and complex that her pregnancy became visibly more advanced while I waited for her to finish. A different Sprint associate appeared on the floor and busily logged onto her computer, but she put up such a strong "don't approach me" vibe, she might as well have erected a force field around herself. It is not an exaggeration to say it was impossible to approach her. When I realized we had been waiting for nearly half an hour, I walked out. The same thing happened the last time we went to the Sprint store too.

Remember when all you did to get a phone was call the phone company? It would take about a day for them to set it up, and then you would call your friends and tell them your new number and they'd write it down in their address books. Remember when phones served solely as a means of communication and not as a device for storing information so no one fussed about losing their contacts, or needing "wireless backup" or whatever to be able to preserve their contacts because everybody had a HANDWRITTEN ADDRESS BOOK? As you did yourself. Remember that?

A while back I heard a story on NPR about how the practice of saving all your numbers on your cell phone means that you no longer bother to memorize important phone numbers, and that this is becoming a problem for people who are arrested because when it's time to make their one phone call, and they don't know the number because they didn't memorize it because it was saved on their cell phone. I am sure that is a useful lesson for us all.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Politician's book club

Election Day will be so anticlimactic, compared to last year. Be that as it may, we are preparing to vote in our local elections here in Charlottesville and people are fired up about various local issues. I like the intimacy of local elections, when the candidate himself (or herself) will turn up on your doorstep, or you bump into him at a neighbor's party, or your kids' school's open house, and you exchange the URLs of your respective blogs. Charlottesville is small enough that the local politicians are truly accessible to the people.

Anyway, our weekly paper does a mini interview of each candidate, and I was happy to see that one question they asked each person was "What are you reading now?" I love to hear what other people are reading--or in this case--what they want us to think they are reading. But who knows, maybe these books are what they are actually reading, although I noticed that no one admitted to Three Nights of Sin by Anne Mallory or even something by John Grisham (who lives here).

I tend to judge people by what they are reading. It's not that I can't forgive the occasional mindless book--I like brain candy as much as anyone--but there are some books it is best to distance yourself from. For example, this same paper once interviewed a man who, at the time, was the principal of Charlottesville's only public high school. He was asked to name his favorite book of all time, and what did he say? The Bridges of Madison County. Eee gads. Of all the books in the world, he picked that one? He couldn't have said the Bible, or War and Peace or even freaking Pride and Prejudice? Luckily, he was no longer principal by the time my kids got there.

So, what are Charlottesville's political candidates reading now? I present a list:

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
Rant: An Oral Biography of of Buster Casey by Chuck Palahniuk
Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement by Patricia Sullivan
The One Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard
The Bible
Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Race to the Moon by Dan Parry
Thomas Jefferson on Leadership by Coy Barefoot
The Facebook Era by Clara Shih
The Steel Wave by Jeff Shaara
Biographies of Cicero and Winston Churchill
Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train: Errant Economists, Shameful Spenders, and a Plan to Stop them by Brian Czech
Keeping the Faith by Richard McKinney
The Lost Symbal by Dan Brown
The Lords of Finance by Liaquat Ahamed
A biography of Stonewal Jackson
The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed
Game Plans: Sports Strategies for Business by Robert Keidel.
The Restorative Practices Handbook: Building a Culture of Community Schools by Costello & Ben Wachtel
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
Leaderless Jihad, Terror Networks in the 21st Century by Marc Sageman
Five Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Heavy on the non-fiction and a lot of dull business books, but maybe this is what we want our politicians to read. I'm not even sure what use I am getting out of this information. At least no one is reading The Bridges of Madison County. Wouldn't it be fun if Obama had an online book club?

What am I reading?
The Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation by Peter Bernstein
and The Wild Colonial Boy by James Hynes, which is about the IRA.

The Erie Canal book is good, although I realized--and this fact actually kept me awake for a considerable time the other night--that I have never really seen the Erie canal. This would be excusable if I were from Kansas, but since I'm from Buffalo, it is not. Oh, I've seen it from the New York State Thruway, whizzing past at 65 mph, and when I did crew we used to row down the Black Rock Canal, which I always assumed was the Erie Canal, but I I'm not sure if that's correct. Part of the book's interest for me was the rivalry between the two small villages of Buffalo and Black Rock, NY, each of whom wanted their town to be the terminus of the canal. Buffalo won, and became a great shipping city, and Black Rock was eventually absorbed by the city. My brother lives there. It's a gritty neighborhood of 19th century cottages, railroad tracks, drawbridges, abandoned shopping carts, and weedy sidewalks. The sort of place where you can be pregnant and smoke publicly, and no one will bat an eye.

That's part of the Black Rock canal in this picture. I used to love rowing under that drawbridge when it was up. It's kind of exciting to be in a skinny shell, with a lake barge looming over you.

Anyway, one of the most impressive parts of the Erie Canal, according to Wedding of the Waters, is in Lockport, NY where a series of five steep locks haul boats up the cliff down which Niagara Falls plunges. I grew up thirteen miles south of Lockport and I have never been there. According to Bernstein, these locks are still functioning today, much as they did 200 years ago. I think that may be a project for next summer: to take my kids to Lockport and view the locks. Maybe we can take a cruise down the canal, and I can bore my children to death by rhapsodizing about western and central New York.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

For lack of anything else

I am eating a meatloaf sandwich. The only excuse for meatloaf, really, is that its leftovers can be consumed in sandwiches, with lots of mayonnaise.

Later, I will go running. I've been running the same route through downtown Charlottesville for the past ten years, only recently I've been running a mountain trail once a week. It's a trail that starts at the foot of Monticello, and ascends, gently but relentlessly--350 feet-- for two miles to the Monticello Visitor's Center parking lot. Then you get to run the whole way back, downhill, but even running downhill takes a considerable amount of energy.

The trail is very crowded on weekends, because it was built for the use of adventurous tourists who might like to hike to Monticello instead of drive, and lots of local people use it for exercise too or take their out-of-town guests there. I prefer weekday mornings on the trail when the only other people you encounter are serious exercisers and everyone is courteous. On the weekend, many of the trail users seem to have agreed beforehand to waddle five abreast and turn to glare reproachfully at anyone who attempts to pass them. And if they're not waddling, they're sneering. What's it to you, oh Northface-clad People of the Mountain, if my running clothes are sloppy and not of the Best Brand Name?

Now that I am full of all this meatloaf, I will probably have a bad run, anyway.

People wanted to see my new boots and dress, so here they are.

I love the Donna Reed retro look of the dress but I don't have any occasion to wear it to. I'm sure one will present itself eventually. It's a bit too "notice me" for the grocery store.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


The Good:
  • My new Frye boots came today.
  • Retail therapy at Anthropologie this morning.
  • First paycheck last Friday
  • Am eager to get back to work and try again, despite new-nurse stress
  • Biking to work is going great
The Bad
  • Not as much time for writing
  • New-nurse stress
  • Drivers who don't want to share the road

The Ugly
  • There's not a lot that's ugly and certainly not my new Frye boots. Nor my new orange shirt dress.
That's it in a nutshell. My first week on the bike, I focused on riding in a straight line and not getting hit by a car. My second week, I felt more confident and worked on being speedy. I suppose the learning curve in nursing is similar, although it progresses more slowly. It's not like I didn't know it would be hard. I knew it would be hard, but it's still a big adjustment--not just to being a nurse, but to working full-time. School was a full-time occupation, but it was in short bursts of a few hours at a time, and I did much of my work at home. Being out of the house for twelve hours at a time is something you have to get used to. So far, the kids have really stepped up about getting themselves off to school, and helping around the house.

Then there's being a nurse itself, which can be crazy. I'm continually haunted by a fear that I've forgotten to do, or chart, something vital. Then again, it's never boring. The way I feel about nursing right now is the way I felt about climbing ladders when Jon broke his rib and I had to finish painting the house all by myself. I was terrified to climb the ladder, and yet each time I did it successfully, I wanted to do it again, and again, until by the end of the summer I was able to be three stories up, and feel OK. At the end of each work day, despite the stress, I feel that I want to return and try again.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

In which Bono uses the "C" word

I haven't been to a U2 concert since the 1987 Joshua Tree tour, where I saw them in a muddy football field in Rochester, NY. It was not a good show--Bono had just broken his arm and can probably be forgiven for not really being into it. The highlight of the day was when I successfully swerved to avoid the vomit spewing from the mouth of a drunk girl near us, who had spent much of the concert sitting on her boyfriend's shoulders, directly in front of me. So it's understandable that I never made much effort to see them again, but our dear, dear friends called us back in March to arrange that we all attend the U2 concert here in Charlottesville, and I decided I could give them a second chance.

I'm glad I did because the show was fabulous. Muse opened, and they were awesome too. Isn't it a beautiful symmetry that the best and worst concerts I've seen were by the same band?

Charlottesville is a tough crowd. I know that well, from my twelve years of social interactions here, and now U2 knows it too because the concert crowd was pretty lame. Yes, they cheered, but it all seemed lukewarm. Early in the show, Bono asked if Mr. Jefferson was in the house, and this was the only time that the crowd really went wild. Charlottesville is a college town and the show was held at the University's football stadium, but when Bono referenced the "campus" the crowd gave a collective gasp. I could almost hear the mutterings: What does he think this is, the University of Oklahoma? 'Campus' indeed.

At the University of Virginia, we do not say "campus," we say "grounds" and we don't say "quad," we say "lawn." I'm not even a UVA person, (and frankly, some of them can be insufferable) having gone to college in New York, but I've lived here long enough that I couldn't help wincing every time Bono said "campus." Still, how was he supposed to know? Maybe I'm misreading things, but it seemed to me that the rest of the crowd wasn't as willing to forgive him for "campus" as I was.

Monday, September 28, 2009

I am a camera

TV shows will sometimes use the device of allowing the camera to be the eyes of a particular character. It seems this technique is commonly used on hospital shows, so it was fitting that today at work I had the feeling that I was a camera. My new colleagues bustled about, paying me no attention--not out of rudeness, but because they were doing their jobs--so I felt invisible which is a not unpleasant feeling, really. I was a tiny bit disconcerted by the two nurse's aides who look exactly alike. At first, I was like, "Oh, wait, I thought she was wearing a pink top, not a flowered one. Oh, there she is again in pink. What the...?" I even surreptitiously looked at their ID badges, which have different last names, but that doesn't mean much since they could be married. No two people who look that much alike could be unrelated. What am I supposed to do, say: "Oh, just to satisfy my own curiosity, could you tell me if you two are twins?" *

Then there's the bike riding. I did go out an buy myself a bike. They say you never forget to ride a bike, but I'm not so sure of that. I mean, I can ride a bike, if my demented careening can be called that, but my skills seem to have degenerated since the last time I sat in the saddle, which was, oh, about 1991. I did, however, successfully bike to work today, although not without mishap. I couldn't figure out how to unlock my U-lock (oh, off to a great start) and then I couldn't figure out how to attach it to the special holder the bike shop guys installed for me, and when I got the the hospital, windblown and breathless, the bike racks were gone! I found them eventually--they'd been moved across the street--and in my intense relief at locating them I blundered across the street in a clumsy manner and almost got hit by a bus. But I was right about biking to work being less tiring than walking, if somewhat more exciting. I have to exert myself a few times to get up the hills, but I do a lot of coasting as well.

*I found out later that they are identical twins, both working as nurses' aides on the unit.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Working, and a book review

I guess there really is such as thing as too much time on one's hands. With four kids in school and no job, I found myself jealously guarding my free time, falling into sloth mode, where accomplishing a few basic household tasks meant that it was time for a coffee "break." Then I was cranky about spending the evenings picking the kids up from their various activities. And for the first time since Mad Scientist was an infant, I actually looked forward to cooking dinner. Because I was so bored, bored, bored.

Now I've started working and, strange as it may seem, I feel content with less time for myself. This is just orientation week: sitting in a class room with a group of other new hires, hour-long lunches, and dismissal at 5:00pm, or earlier. I may be singing a different tune after next week. I get just one day off (Saturday) and begin 12-hour shifts on my unit on Sunday.

I think I am going to invest in a bicycle. I've been walking to and from work--it's about a 25 minute walk and up a fierce hill--but the parking situation is so bad, that if I drove, it would take even longer to get to work. My assigned parking lot is past the hospital--a fifteen-minute drive, then you wait for a shuttle bus--another six minutes if you've just missed one--and then the slow drive back to the hospital, which can take twenty minutes. But walking every day is somewhat tedious, and I know that after a 12-hour shift on my feet, I am not going to want to walk home. I used to ride my bike everywhere, when we lived in Buffalo, but Charlottesville is an intimidating city for bikers because of the hills, the narrow streets and accompanying dangerous traffic. I will have to bike a long way around if I want to avoid the fierce hill, but even so, I will probably be able to get there in fifteen minutes, and the bike racks are right near the front entrance.

One tiny book review: The Diaries of Jane Somers by Doris Lessing. Doris Lessing, who won the nobel prize for literature--there's a hilarious youtube of her reaction to it when reporters accost her on the steps of her house--wrote these books (Diaries is two novels bound together) under a pseudonym to illustrate the difficulties that new writers have in getting published. Her regular publisher rejected the novels. They tell the story of Jane Somers, who lives what must be many women's fantasy perfect life. She's an editor at a fashion magazine, has an elegant flat in London, and beautiful clothes. Jane Somers has probably never been a burden to anyone, but she hasn't been much use either, at least where there are serious emotional needs. It's not that she's uncaring, just clueless. Then she meets Maudie, a poor elderly woman living in a filthy basement flat. Jane gets ever more involved in Maudie's life, buying her groceries, cleaning her flat, emptying the commode, bathing her. Maudie survived a difficult life at a time when there were no social safety nets for the poor. She is distrustful of the modern British services now available to her so she lives in filth rather than allow "them" to "take" her to a "home." The Maudie/Jane relationship is beautifully written, and is the main subject of the first novel in this volume. In the second, Maudie has died, and Jane deals with an impossible neice who moves in, uninvited. She also falls in love. Doris Lessing's writing is just superb. You can read her as a writer and just be in awe of her gifts, and you can read this book for its story and be enthralled.

Monday, September 14, 2009


I was listening to "Science Friday" on NPR a couple of weeks ago and they were interviewing Richard Wrangham, author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human. The premise is that digesting raw foods requires more energy from the body, so the discovery of cooking led to greater caloric intake, and somehow bigger brains, humanity, yada yada.

Naturally, my thoughts turned to the raw food crowd, a group I have privately mocked even though what other people eat isn't really any of my business. Still, I sat there feeling smug and wondered if the raw foodies were gradually degenerating into neanderthals and wouldn't it be hilarious if the crowd that shops at Whole Foods developed sloping foreheads and knee-grazing knuckles. Of course, the very first caller asked Mr. Wrangham about the raw foods diet. I expected Wrangham to pooh-pooh raw food, but instead he explained that while eating raw isn't so great if you're a cave man and have to forage and hunt for everything you eat, in this day of abundance, it might be better since so many people are overweight. The caller said she'd lost weight since incorporating more raw foods into her diet, and I was all ears.

At the library, I selected two books: The Raw Food Gourmet: Going Raw for Total Well-Being by Gabrielle Chavez, and Celebrating our Raw Nature: Plant-Based Living Cuisine. (No author credited for that one, but it is described as being "with" Dorit.) I figured if I ate one entirely raw meal each day, I'd have the body of a model in about six weeks. The secrets of weight loss revealed to me at last! I could hardly wait to get started.

Unfortunately, it took about ten seconds of browsing these books to kill my enthusiasm. Did I really want to try a recipe that ends with the instruction, "Remove from the dehydrator and serve." Or one that speaks of creating a "slurry" or which has as its main ingredient the pulp left over from making your own nut milk. My urge to mock came roaring back to life like a hurricane traveling over open ocean.

And there is so much to mock. A raw food diet is the 21st century equivalent of wearing a hair shirt. You'd think it would be easy--just eat a bunch of fruits, vegetables and nuts, maybe some sushi and raw milk, and you're set, but no. You have to make your own milk out of your own raw almonds. Everything needs to be soaked, usually overnight, before it can be eaten. You need a dehydrator and a juicer and a food processor. Celebrating Our Raw Nature insists that you must use ceramic knives, but, irritatingly, doesn't tell you why they are superior to ordinary knives. You need to sprout things, such as your raw nuts. (When I told my friend that you're supposed to eat sprouted nuts, she screamed, "WHY?" aghast.) The books caution you that nuts labeled "raw" at the store are not really raw, so you need to buy them from a special provider. You need to buy preposterously hard-to-find foods like "Incan berries" and "kuzu root." You need to buy supplements, such as E3AFA, or "invisible flower of the water," which is "...the Refractance-Window dried crystal flake form of the AFA." I confess I am not up to speed on refractance-window technology.

My two raw food books each used a different approach to introducing this diet. Celebrating Our Raw Nature plays up the advantages: you won't feel the heat, you won't feel the cold, you appreciate what nature has in store for you. And yet, it hints at difficult times: "If there are times while practicing the art of raw that we find ourselves eating a slice of whole grain bread or cooked soup in the depths of a chilly winter frost, we refrain from condemning ourselves or others." (Gee, how magnanimous.) "Instead, we practice acceptance and gratitude, and eat the cooked food mindfully and with enjoyment, perhaps adding some raw sprouts, green leaves, or E3Live to the dish."

The Raw Food Gourmet tries to be realistic about the challenges of the raw diet, namely, you'll be starving all the time and you won't have any friends. The author suggests that the way to combat this last problem is to preach the raw lifestyle to all your friends and make them to convert. Good luck with that.

Then there are the recipes themselves, many of them tortuous manipulations of raw food masquerading as cooked food: Ume-Kuzu Digestive Drink, a "cake" made of dehydrated fruit and nuts, Avocado cake frosting, "living" fudge, a drink called the "morning mover" which is "known to assist in moving the bowels." I realized I couldn't last a day, an hour on this diet. And yet, I was tempted to try. I was dying to see what the Avocado Cake Frosting tasted like. So I made a couple of raw smoothies, not that you need a special raw cookbook to puree almond milk and fruit. They were OK, but nothing to write home about. The Avocado Frosting is supposed to be a mix of avocado, raw honey, and carob. I have three words to say about carob: No Effing Way, so I substituted cocoa. The finished frosting looks like chocolate pudding, but tastes like brown avocado. Drama Queen said it tasted like "sour cream meat sauce." I couldn't resist displaying it to Mr. McP and telling him it was chocolate pudding. He tasted it and was not amused. I do like to have my little prank, now and then.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Free time

Right now I have more free time than I ever have in my life, (except for summer vacations when I was a child) and yet I seem to have no time to write. Or perhaps just nothing to write about. I am no longer unemployed, but am not working either. I have been offered a job as a nurse on an acute care unit at a major teaching hospital--my dream job!--and I start in a couple of weeks. I guess you could say I am "pre-employed."

In the meantime I spend long hours reading novels and catching up on "The Tudors" on DVD. I clean my house and I cook. The kids have gone back to school. I had forgotten how easy it is to send your kids to school when you are not in school yourself. For the last three years I have inwardly raged at what I saw as the unreasonable demands of the school system: Forms to fill out! Supplies to buy! Meetings to attend! Homework to supervise! Science fair! Agenda books that must be signed! (Last year I tried to teach Mr. McP to forge my signature in his agenda book, just in case, but he would have none of it.)

Now it is all so easy. I attended "back to school night" at the various schools. I decided that Mr. McP's math teacher was my favorite because he's a lot of fun and he told us he spent years working in the corporate world and then became a teacher. I like it when teachers have a background in something other than education. At Miss G's school, her science teacher announced that he plans to make science fair optional, and he rocketed past the cool math teacher to take his place as my favorite teacher of the year. In other kid/school news, Mad Scientist is a semi-finalist in the National Merit Scholarship competition. They sent us a super-intimidating form to fill out. He has to write an essay and get a faculty recommendation. I have to procure signatures from an "appropriate" school official and we have to have his SAT scores sent. Out of 1.5 million kids who take the PSAT, 16,000 make it to semi-finalist and a much smaller number become finalists, and of them, a yet smaller number actually win a scholarship.

I baked an apple pie yesterday, following Jeffrey Steingarten's recipe. I am a big fan of Jeffrey Steingarten, who was (perhaps still is?) the food writer for Vogue. In writing about apple pie he presented a strong case for not adding cinnamon. He quite ranted about cinnamon, calling it a nasty, bitter spice that had no place in something as sacred as apple pie. I wasn't so sure. To me, omitting cinnamon from apple pie is the culinary equivalent of eliminating the Book of Luke from the gospels, but Jeffrey Steingarten has never steered me wrong before. This is a guy who tried to bake a pizza with his oven set to "self clean" in order to achieve pizza oven temperatures. It didn't work, but the essay he wrote about it is so funny that it made me laugh until I had an asthma attack, and I don't even have asthma. So I baked the pie without cinnamon. It was delicious. The apples somehow melted together--I hate nasty apple chunks in a pie--and were delicately redolent of vanilla. I am a convert to the cinnamon-free apple pie.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Cheese-free travel

A few weekends ago, I did something I have never done in the history of my marriage, or even in the history of my life: I took a road trip by myself. Not only was it my first solitary road trip, it was the first time I'd ever traveled away from Jon and the kids. (There was one trip, nine years ago, but it was to a funeral and I took Mr. McP with me because he was still nursing, so that hardly counts as a getaway.)

My brother in Buffalo called me to tell me about a party, given by people we used to hang around with before I started going out with Jon. It was going to be big deal and even my cousin who lives in Egypt would be there, as well as my sister who lives in Florida. "Why don't you come?" he said. Why not indeed. It took me about fifteen seconds to realize that Jon and the kids can manage without me just fine. So I rented a car and I went to Buffalo by myself.

The rental car was a Prius with Massachusetts plates. I felt like I was incognito as a Taxachussetts liberal. I always thought it would be fun to take a road trip by myself. I am the veteran of many road trips with children, and also experience quite a few myself when I was a child. In the area of road trips, I have pretty much seen it all and traveling with children makes the whole experience a lot messier and louder than it needs to be.

My father will sometimes drive down to see us, by himself, and I always marvel at the tidyness of solitary travel. There will be a single suitcase, rather than bags and coolers packed up high enough to block the rear window. He'll have a modest bag of trash--a lone coffee cup, perhaps, or the wrappings of a sandwich. His car will be spotless, his clothes unrumpled.

I am a thrifty traveler, and always eschew roadside restaurants in favor of packed lunches. I detest pre-packed, homemade sandwiches--because of the trauma of my childhood car trips in which I would have to eat bologna and ketchup sandwiches that my mom made, while my brother sat beside me being car sick. I used to crack my window and methodically tear those sandwiches into tiny pieces and toss them out of the car. It would take about fifty miles of travel to discretely dispose of one sandwich. Now that I'm in charge of the menu, I pack crackers, cheese and a knife (among other things) and it is Jon's job to slice the cheese and pair it with crackers and hand it back to the kids. I do most of the driving. Our families are always impressed with this: "WOW, you drove the WHOLE WAY?" and they think Jon is a big slacker, but the truth is I prefer to drive because then I don't have to deal with the kids and pass out those damn cheese and crackers.

One time, we drove to Buffalo for my sister's wedding. We had one of those ancient Volvo station wagons with the third seat installed in the back so that all four kids could fit in the car. (We didn't upgrade to a minivan until Mr. McP was six.) The rehearsal dinner was at a chi-chi restaurant in the city and when I was surrendering the car to the valet, I noticed a big block of cheddar on the floor of the back seat--it wasn't even wrapped, it was a big BARE block of cheese sitting smack on the filthy, crumb-strewn floor of my car--and when I lifted my eyes from that mortifying sight, I caught the eye of the valet and realized that he had been staring at it too. Elephant in the room? For us it's the block of cheese in the car.

Anyway, for my solo trip, I broke a hunk off a baguette, and put a bunch of grapes in a baggie. I stopped at a Starbucks along the way and bought myself a large frothy drink, the sort I could never get away with if my kids were with me because they'd all want one too.

The purpose of the trip was to see my family and attend this party, and all that was really fun. I especially liked the tiny, cozy guest room at my brother's house, where the trains lulled me to sleep every night. And it was fabulous to hang out with people I love, but this is one trip in which the journey was almost as much fun. I ate my tidy little lunch and drank my coffee. I listened to "Sugarlumps" by Flight of the Conchords thirty-seven times in a row and no one complained. I stopped for rest whenever I wanted, ended up with the same tiny bag of trash that my dad usually does, and not once did someone ask, "Are we there yet?"

Monday, August 24, 2009

Book reviews

I've been on a run of good books lately.

In Pale Battalions by Paul Goddard. This novel, set mostly during World War I is chock full of dark secrets and skeletons in the family closet. One Amazon reviewer described it as "overwrought," a fair assessment. It could almost be an Oprah book, but the writing is good enough to stop any eye rolling that might happen if someone less skilled had written this story.

Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy. This novel rotates viewpoints between twelve people who experience World War II in different ways, from a young French-Jewish girl who gets involved in the Resistance, to a female WASP pilot, to an American writer of cheesy romance stories. It's really well done, particularly the story of the Resistance girl, and her younger sister, who is transported to safety in Detroit. I'd had a vague notion that Marge Piercy wrote the sort of made-for-the-masses bestsellers that I abhor, but maybe I confused her with someone else. I could see this book being a best-seller, but there's enough depth to satisfy the discerning reader.

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby. Superb travel writing. Newby abruptly gave up his career in the fashion industry, in England in the 1950s, and went off on a mad hike through the mountains of Afghanistan, after taking a four-day hiking course in Wales. Funny stuff, although Newby, unlike Bill Bryson and other popular travel writers of today, does not load his prose with funny commentary or metaphors. He describes his adventures--an appalling transaction with a Persian car mechanic, being detained for manslaughter somewhere in Armenia, the irritating qualities of the Nuristani tribes he encounters--with a spareness that leaves the reader to decide if the incident is supposed to be funny or tragic. I would love to travel in that part of the world--every account I've read about Afghanistan has made it seem compelling and gorgeous, but, obviously, it's not a tourist destination these days. Maybe within my lifetime. Also, this book has the best last line I've ever read, anywhere.

My Search for Warren Harding by Robert Plunkett. I'm still reading this one, but by the time I'd got to page seventy and I'd laughed out loud at least three times, so it deserves special mention. Remember Warren Harding? The US president held up to American school children as our most corrupt, due to something called the "Teapot Dome?" (Whatever that was.) Warren Harding had a mistress with whom he fathered a child, and this book is about a young scholar from New York who rents the alleged mistress's pool house in Hollywood and dates her granddaughter in an attempt to dig up the dirt so he can write a book about her. Funny stuff.

Published in 1983 and set some time between 1977 and that year, it's charmingly dated. There's one scene where the protagonist puts together a bag of fake garbage, and later, an LA cop empties the whole bag before his eyes. My twenty-first century sensibilities were agog at this scene. First of all, the garbage bag: a brown paper grocery bag! Doesn't he know those things are like gold? Then, the garbage itself: glass bottles, a cardboard cookie box, a newspaper, a pornographic magazine. The protagonist is mortified when the cop exposes his Bound and Gagged magazine (he claims he found it in a telephone booth) but the modern reader sees the porn as a lesser sin compared to putting recyclables in the trash. And in California no less! Is there no limit to this man's depravity? I bet he doesn't even eat free-range eggs.

I don't know how My Search for Warren Harding ends yet (although a probable conclusion is pretty obvious) what matters is what happens to the guy, (one Elliott Weiner) along the way. This book has catapulted itself into a place among the books I reread when I need cheering up.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Scenes from modern life

  • in Gamestop with Mr. McP, where he trades in and acquires new games and the cashier said, "Have you switched to the Wii, or do you still have the gamecube, or...?" Yes, we "still" have a gamecube, something I barely tolerate, so don't think we'll be upgrading to anything soon, other than a life free of all game playing apparatus, if my kids don't stop fighting over this one.
  • in Harris-Teeter, at the deli a woman came up behind me and squealed, "Hey! How are ya doin?" She was wearing a white apron and a cap, so I knew she worked at the store, but from her manner, I decided that she knew me from somewhere and as my brain groped for a clue as to who she could be, I said hello and that I was doing well, thank you. "We're celebrating," she said, "that Harris-Teeter now carries Boar's Head meat products!" Ah, that explained the guy dressed like a chicken, also lurking near the deli, although wouldn't a boar have made more sense? I said something non-committal and ordered some cold cuts but she wasn't finished with me yet. "You've ordered Boar's Head pastrami! Good job!" the woman told me. Maybe I am uptight, but I don't like to be congratulated about the food I buy. I feel patronized. I tried to ignore her, but she had to give me my reward for buying Boar's Head: a little sample pack of mustards. Were we done yet? No, she was anxiously peering into my cart. "I see you haven't bought any cheese! Do you need some Boar's Head sliced swiss?" "I'm OK for Swiss," I said firmly and steered the cart away, but the chicken guy followed me out of the deli and I had to outmaneuver him by the tostada stand.
  • Also in Harris-Teeter that same day, a woman from corporate, dressed in a pantsuit, harassing the lower level managers. "What concerns me," I heard her say, "is all these people just standing around." Later, I saw her giving a pep talk to the wine managers about selling more wine.
  • Today, in Barnes & Noble, the guy pressuring me to buy a membership card. I told him no, but he had to press: "Are you sure? Wouldn't you just like to try it out for a year?" I've ranted about these membership cards before so I won't repeat myself other than to say the whole concept stinks. The blogging community is my witness: I will never shop at Barnes & Noble again. There's a perfectly good independent book store downtown, and I didn't go there because it's 97 degrees today, so too hot for a walk downtown, and also too hot to patrol the streets for a parking space.
  • the whole reason I was in a book store in the first place was to buy the summer reading assignment for Drama Queen. The library has the books, but since every 11th grader in C'ville has to read them, they are checked out and on hold for the duration of the summer. Of the four required books, three were on the best sellers list this year. (The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and Peace Like a River by Lief Enger.) I don't know, for all I know they are wonderful books, but when I took AP English, we read Chekov and Tolstoy and Joyce. Then again, it is the *summer* reading assignment, so maybe they purposefully avoided classics. The fourth book is Black Boy by Richard Wright--the only one we were able to get at the library. Then again, Drama Queen did have to write an essay on one of the stories from Dubliners in order to be accepted into AP English. Maybe I need to lighten up, and I realize my prejudice against best-sellers is narrow-minded.
  • Speaking of books, I bought a guidebook to Iceland, because that is where I want to take my kids next, probably in June, around solstice so we can experience the midnight sun. Everyone thinks we are crazy to go to Iceland, but then, everyone thought we were crazy to go to Italy and not spend any time in Tuscany.

Friday, August 07, 2009

In which I blather about my house

I know I write an awful lot about my house. It is a subject that is endlessly fascinating to me, although I realize, probably not as fascinating to others. But here I go anyway.

When we got home from Rome, I announced that studying for NCLEX was my number one priority to which all my usual chores would be sacrificed. I can't honestly say I devoted all that much time to studying, but I was fantastically successful at not cleaning. Then my sister-in-law announced a visit, and I passed the NCLEX and now I'm trying to take care of all the things I neglected during two long years of nursing school.

I finished stripping the windows and I repainted them white. I painted the living room blue-gray. Formerly it was yellow, which was fine, but I really like the blue. For one thing, it's so clean, and it looks fabulous against the newly painted windows and baseboards.

We used to have a wood burning stove in the living room that took up way too much floor space and that was messy, and not at all efficient, so we took it out, but then we were left with the piece of stovepipe that stuck out of the wall, like a horrible black umbilicus. We could not figure out how to remove it, as it was firmly attached to a metal liner that went all the way to the top of the chimney and all our tugging and twisting was useless. The other day I persuaded Jon to take his sawzall and slice through the pipe so at least it would be flush with the wall. After he had sawed about halfway through, the whole pipe popped out of the liner, as easy as anything, along with a shower of soot. Now, of course, there's a giant hole in the wall, but we're not going to repair it because we're undecided about whether we should expose the old bricks or not. There may have been a fireplace at one time.

The bedrooms finally look decent. My new bed is fabulous and the girls are comfortably installed in our old one. I bought a new bunk bed at Ikea for the boys, replacing a haphazard thing that Jon built for them. When we bought our house, the owners were amazed that we were moving in with four kids, since they, with just two children, considered the house too small. Mr. McP was an infant then, so he slept in our room, and we squeezed the other three kids into the big bedroom, leaving the small bedroom to be Jon's study.

The small bedroom is one peculiar to the vernacular house style of Charlottesville. Charlottesville readers who live in old houses, particularly in Belmont, will know what I'm talking about: the tiny mystery room upstairs that forces many owners to list their houses as "two bedroom" because this room can't be considered a bedroom by modern standards. What is it supposed to be? Nursery? Study? Our upstairs bathroom is twice the size of this room.

As Mr. McP grew, we got really cramped. We gave Mad Scientist the small room, but Mr. McP was sleeping on an air mattress in the girls' room, an arrangement that was highly unsatisfactory to everyone. I envisioned bumping into the attic to create a fabulous sleeping loft. We actually consulted an architect, but she discouraged us with dire tales of the roof spreading and collapsing onto the house. Her idea was a massive two story addition to the back of the house. "Wouldn't that be expensive?" I asked. She waved her hand dismissively. "They'll lend you as much money as you want," she said, as if our ability to pay it back was of no consequence, which, in fact, it wasn't, since this was the height of the real estate boom. I told my friend about all this and she said, "Why would you spend all that money on a bedroom when Mad Scientist will be moving out in five years?" That brought me to my senses. In the end, we did a major renovation with a modest addition, but no extra bedroom.

To manage the kids' sleeping needs, Jon built a bunk bed. Why didn't we just buy one? I have no idea. All I know is that one day Jon drove away in the minivan and came home with it loaded down with lumber. He then proceded to build a "bunk bed" in the middle of the living room, which we then had to disassemble and rebuild in what was now the boys' bedroom. I blogged about it at the time and made many trenchant observations, the most important being that to criticize one's husband's carpentry is like telling him his penis is too small. The bed was massive, but swayed like a ship in a heavy sea. I don't have a picture, but imagine what sort of bed your husband would build if he'd bought a random collection of lumber and designed one out of his head with no instructions.

At any rate, the boys complained about the swaying, and about the inadequate support for their mattresses: problems we tried to solve by applying more wood. So I went to Ikea--my first, and probably my last visit there. Jon says the new bed looks like a prison cot--I prefer "military"--but it is neat, compact, safe, and the both boys say it is much more comfortable. It looks a million times better than the old one. The lumber has been stowed in the basement. Maybe someday it will be repurposed as a chicken coop?

Yesterday I lugged all our assorted large trash--the girls' old bed and carpet and many other things that I found in the basement--and a huge dump truck came and hauled it all away.