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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

Monday, August 03, 2009

In which Sancho has the worst day of his life

De-fleaing the house was like a day trip to purgatory. We meant to do most of the work--picking everything up off the floor and vacuuming the whole house--the day before, but we frittered the day away, and I kept thinking we'd have a burst of efficiency in the evening, but Jon had a "meeting" with one of his bosses, in a bar, at 4:30 and ran into some friends and went to a different bar, where I joined him and we didn't get home until late and so got almost nothing done.

We were grumpy on Thursday morning, and, truth be told, had a terrible fight. It was such a bad fight that Jon started bellowing about where are the suitcases (naturally he wouldn't be able to find them on his own even thought we JUST got back from a vacation) and I helpfully pointed out their location in the far back of the closet under the stairs. In the midst of stacking all our belongings on top of tables and counters, he's tearing through this closet, and actually extricated a suitcase which he carried to the bedroom and dramatically began to pack. I was all, "Really? He's leaving me in the middle of a flea extermination?" And he was all, "You said you never wanted to see me again!" (What I'd SAID was that I never wanted to see his face again.)

I supposed that exterminators are people who usually have good stories and I thought of asking ours how many marriages he knew of that had been ruined by fleas.

At any rate, the fight sort of fizzled after that and the suitcase was quietly unpacked and put away and we did manage to be ready in time for the flea guy, but only just. Poor Sancho, one of our dogs, is a neurotic and timid sort of dog who doesn't handle change well. He has already been upset about me repainting the living room, so Thursday's fighting and furniture rearranging got him really rattled and he hid under the azalea in the front yard, which is where he goes when life is overwhelming, and refused to come out, and it was like the day we got the Christmas tree all over again. When the flea guy came, Sancho decided that he was responsible for this disturbing change in our domestic routine, and he barked a tad too aggressively. Luckily, the flea guy is one of those people who is good with dogs, so I don't think there are any hard feelings. Poor Sancho's troubles weren't over, though. Jon gave him a bath in the backyard and he detests baths above all things. Luna, our other dog, is more laid back, and since we've had her for ten years, she is used to periodic eruptions of chaos. She will even placidly endure a bath.

George the bunny, on the other hand, had a wonderful day. The girls carried his cage over to our neighbor's fenced-in yard and he had a lovely romp in the grass.

Applying the flea product only took about 15 minutes and afterward the exterminator regaled me with flea lore. Did you know that after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the fleas continued to hatch because not even a nuclear bomb can harm their eggs? I never asked about the flea/divorce connection.

The new bed did not arrive during the de-fleaing, as I feared it would, but it did come the next day, adding to Sancho's trouble. He hadn't yet recovered from the ordeal of Thursday, and then he had to deal with the UPS man on the porch and the delivery of three huge packages and even more dismantling and moving of furniture. If there was ever a dog who needs a script for xanax, it is Sancho.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Domestic chaos

The current chaos of my domestic environment can not be exaggerated. The project to sister-in-law proof my house is well under way. That's a good thing, right? Yes, except I ordered a new bed for myself and Jon, with the plan to give my old bed to my daughters, and in anticipation of that, and since they were painting their bedroom anyway, I took down their horrible old bunk bed, which is now stacked in the grass on the side of the house until such time as I schedule a large trash pick-up, which ordinarily I would do immediately, only the mattress situation is complicated and I want to wait until I know for sure how many mattresses, if any, we will be throwing away and in order to know that I need my new bed, for which I've been waiting for over two weeks, and also possibly to drive to Ikea and buy a new bunk bed for the boys.

So the girls are sleeping on two twin futon mattresses that are on the floor of their room, which isn't all that chaotic except that our house has become overrun with fleas and the exterminator is coming tomorrow which means we have to take everything up off all the floors of the entire house. Not only that, I've been painting the living room, because of the sister-in-law visit, so a lot of stuff that ordinarily wouldn't be on the floor is on the floor, such as all the books from the bookcase. When you consider that I have pretty much devoted my life to having a minimum of possessions, there is a lot of stuff on our floors. I tend to shove things in the tiny space between furniture and walls and I'm finding all sorts of things--bits of woodwork trim, a flag pole, an exercise mat, roles of wrapping paper, a sawzall, and many other things that need to be stacked somewhere off the floor, not to mention the smaller pieces of furniture like chairs and the printer stand.

Then there's the whole issue of what to do during the de-fleaing, because we, and our pets, have to be out of the house for three hours. And the new bed, which I was assured would come either today or tomorrow, will most certainly come tomorrow, since it's already 3:10pm and I haven't seen it, and you have to admit that a major furniture delivery in the middle of a flea bombing is not the best timing.

Possibly most problematic of all is what to do with the bunny while we are out of the house. The dogs, at least can stay in the yard, although they will certainly bark at the mailman and attack the exterminator's truck, and possibly frighten the bed delivery people. But wherever we go, we have to take the bunny with us, although we do not have a suitable carrier. I imagine spending the three hours posing the bunny in improbable spots, like propped up at a laptop in a coffee shop, but Jon will probably want to do something boring like shop for mattresses. And anyway, George would probably not be welcome in coffee shops, due to the fact that he isn't exactly house trained. He does use a litter box, but you can't walk into a coffee shop, or any public place, with a bunny in one arm and his litter box in the other. My brother suggested we set up a pat the bunny stand in the park, but I don't think George would like that very much.

For those of you who are not my friends on facebook (and if not, why not?) I can announce that I passed the NCLEX exam and am now a registered nurse in the state of Virginia. My nursing license arrived in the mail yesterday, although I found out I passed a few days earlier, online. Now I have to find a job, although I seem to be suffering from inertia as far as job-hunting goes. I don't think I can handle a round of interviews and rejections in an ever widening circle of rural hospitals--at least that is how I picture the job hunt going.

Monday, July 20, 2009

How to strip paint: a primer for the responsible homeowner

Stripping paint is one of those experiences, like childbirth, that is so traumatic that once it's over, you develop amnesia. For that reason and my perpetual desire to be of assistance to my fellow humans, I am recording a step-by-step manual so that no one need ever begin this procedure unprepared.

1. Receive call from your sister-in-law--the one who has never been to your house, but whose only comment, when she saw a picture of it was, "So that's your house, huh," in the same tone that might be used to discuss a clogged toilet or a dead animal in the road. She is coming for a weekend visit six weeks hence.

2. Realize that of all your house's imperfections, the most glaring might be the half-stripped living room windows, a project you began and then abandoned a full year ago.

3. Because you are that paragon of American good citizenship and rectitude, the responsible homeowner, you protect the floor with canvas drop cloth and wonder why it is you used newspapers last year.

4. Apply stripper to window woodwork with a brush. Be prepared for large gobs of it to be flung about the room, entirely missing your carefully placed drop cloth.

5. Carefully cut pieces of specially patented stripper paper to cover your handiwork. You will need to be creative because the Peel-away people never send enough paper to last with an entire bucket of stripper, so you have to order more, but then you will have extra paper and will have to order more stripper, and never, never do you end up covering your last drop of stripper with your last bit of paper.

6. Go about your usual business for twenty-four hours.

7. Examine your woodwork and discover that the paint is now agreeably ruffled--not unlike those ruffled diaper covers that parents like to put on their female babies. You can't wait to start peeling.

8. Pull back the patented Peel-away paper. In theory, the paint will adhere to it and all the paint will come off in one easy-to-dispose-of strip. In reality, some of the paint will adhere to the paper, but much of it--now converted to oily, slippery, yet sticky bits--will fall to the floor. Aren't you glad you laid down a drop cloth?

9. Look down and observe that your dog has decided that now would be a good time to lie at your feet and take a nap and that you have decorated her fur with a fiesta of sticky-yet-oily paint bits. While you area gazing at her with mild dismay and wondering what to do, she will get up and wander away, giving herself an extravagant shake as she does so, and all the sticky, oily paint bits go SPROING! and fling themselves to the far corners of the living room.

10. Continue to scrape at the paint and realize that the reason your window trim looks distorted is not because of multiple layers of paint but because some previous owner broke the trim at the corner and stuck it back together with wood putty. Your house has had 187 previous owners and each of them left his mark somewhere.

11. Realize that the reason you used newspaper to protect the floor last year rather than a canvas drop cloth is that you can roll up the newspaper and throw it away whereas you will now have to clean all the paint bits off your drop cloth.

12. Attempt to shake the oily, sticky paint bits into the garbage can. Pretend you don't see a good portion of them dropping into the no-mans land between your driveway and your neighbor's property.

Other than a fire, I can think of nothing that causes more localized destruction than a do-it-yourself paint stripping job.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Rome X: The journey home

Why does travel always make me feel so dirty? Is it the public restrooms? The carefully selected "traveling outfit" that gets impossibly rumpled five minutes after I leave the house? All I know is, we hadn't even taken off from Fiumicino in Rome and I already felt like I hadn't showered in two days. Oh, but maybe that's because I hadn't showered in two days. And had thrown my toothbrush in the trash, since I suspected our plumber of unwittingly spraying it with toilet water.

The good news is that Mad Scientist stopped puking long before it was time to go and none of the other kids took up the practice. We sat, with our bags packed, awaiting our cab. The landlady stopped by to embrace us all. "Prossimo anno," (next year) our new Italian acquaintances in the neighborhood said to us. Mr. McP ran down to our favorite bar to say arrividerci to my hottie cafe man, who gave him a bottle of juice and a pastry. I took a last walk around the Piazza di Santa Maria.

The taxi actually arrived early and delivered us at the airport in plenty of time. Once we got through the bag drop and security--which was chaotic, why oh why can't there be a system, or at least some understanding, for large families at airport security?--it was time to find some breakfast. Fiumicino has numerous shops where one can buy quality handbags, paper products and other duty-free items. There is, however, just one cafe. There was no one shopping for Gucci bags at 9:00am, but there were about 5,000 people in the cafe, all clamoring for coffee in ten different languages. This being Italy, there was no orderly queue, just people milling about, waving Euros. With the help of Mr. McP and Mad Scientist, I eventually succeeded in obtaining three cappuccinos and six chocolate pastries to go. We hadn't even boarded the plane and I felt like we'd been traveling for days.

The flights were uneventful, and I'll just take a moment to say that British Airways is an excellent airline. My flight requirements are basic: I want to arrive without dying or disfiguring burns, and don't want to be treated like a beast by the crew. British Airways succeeds admirably on both counts and is, I believe, one of the last airlines to offer free alcoholic beverages to coach passengers. They make a decent cup of tea, too.

We had a layover at Heathrow, which is clean, quiet, and oddly empty of people. Every few minutes, a recorded announcement reminded us that "unattended baggage will be removed and destroyed." We bought some snacks at Boots and were childishly amused at the pounds and pence we got as change for our Euros. Jon talked me into going with him to the bar, and I wondered wildly if unattended children would be removed and destroyed. They weren't.

Soon after we took off from London, our individual TV screens lit up with a "Welcome to America" film. It was so delightfully cheesy, so American. First came a quick montage of the glories of the United States: Mount Rushmore, professional football, amber waves of grain, accompanied by the sort of sanitized-all-instrumental-lite-pop music you hear in locally-produced TV commercials that air during the 11:00 PM news. Then we were all introduced to the Byzantine world of US customs and immigration. "If you have a VISA or a green card, please fill in the white, W289 form. If you don't have a VISA or a green card, please fill in the green W128 form. If you have something else altogether, fill in the blue W78 form. If you are a US or Canadian citizen, please disregard all instructions. Failure to fill out these forms correctly will lead delays at your destination and to the possible sale of your first born child into slavery." God Bless America!

It turned out that the customs people at the Philadelphia airport were really nice, which was a surprise, because my main experience with US Customs is at the US/Canadian border in Buffalo, where the US customs officers are THE biggest assholes in the known universe.

By the time we'd collected our bags, cleared customs, caught a shuttle to the distant "economy" parking lot, and found the car, it was well after 9:00pm. We were exhausted, but our dog-and-bunny sitter would be leaving this evening so we had to get home. Philly to Charlottesville isn't all that far, really. Except when you've been awake for God-knows how long, and it's dark, and you miss an exit in Washington DC (the SAME exit 495/I66) we missed on the way to Philadelphia) and then the engine light comes on in your car, oddly, in the very same spot where your car had been acting strangely on the outward journey, and also at the spot where you miss your exit and are temporarily lost in suburban Washington at midnight. I think I will draw the big, black curtain of forgetfulness over that drive, although I won't soon forget the guy who hit on me in the gas station outside Washington at 1:00am. Suffice it to say, we got home and collapsed into our beds and didn't stir until the middle of the next day.

I am grateful for the safe return home, and all our possessions made it intact, except, mysteriously, my contact lenses--last seen in security at Heathrow. I picture them, sitting innocently in a bomb-proof box and then incinerated into nothingness. It's just as well, I have no idea what microscopic horror the plumbers sprayed on the case while we were out and I was probably going to throw them out anyway.

Oh, and a few days later, when I took my car to the shop to find out why the engine light came on, the reason turned out to be that the catalytic converter is "funtioning at less than optimal efficiency." Not broken, you understand, just FUNCTIONING at less than optimal efficiency.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Rome IX: Bernini and plumbers

Our last real day in Rome. It really sucks that it was marred with plumbing problems, but that’s the way it was, and we dealt with it. I discovered that my favorite bar—Italians eat breakfast in bars; you order a coffee and a pastry and eat it standing up, or if you’re feeling extravagant, you sit at a table, but pay a bit more—had free wireless. The guy who works at this café is really, really nice, and, I must admit, something of a hottie. He would sometimes give me free drinks and between his limited English and my terrible Italian, we could chat. He told me that Michael Jackson died, which was the first news I’d had out of the States. He assumed I was from Los Angeles, and had never heard of Virginia. I told him we lived near Washington, DC, which I guess is true from a global perspective. I noticed his tee-shirt had “Lynchburg” printed across the front, but my Italian was not equal to pointing out that he was wearing the name of a city in my state, which he’d never heard of. I stayed at the café for ages, drinking two cappuccinos, and then the café guy made me a special farewell drink, a chocolate iced coffee, served in a martini glass.

The day before, I had noticed a barber shop near our Laundromat and got the idea of taking Seamus for a haircut, an idea he enthusiastically approved of. I memorized the Italian for “A haircut please” and off we went. The barber considered Seamus's hair carefully, running his hand through it and watching how it lay and where the cowlicks were. I have always taken Seamus to the Belmont Barber Shop and asked for a “regular” haircut, which is a wham-bam, thank you ma’am affair with rapid and liberal use of electric clippers. Seamus has been loudly and insistently displeased with these haircuts, ever since he has been old enough to care about his looks. In Rome, he looked like he had a haystack on his head, but by the time the Roman barber had finished with him, he looked like he was being sent off to Eton and not Walker Upper Elementary.

Seamus, post-haircut

We spent much of the rest of the day in restaurants—because restaurants have toilets. Our plumbing problems were manifestly not fixed.

We had an Italian phrase book with us that boasts that it covers “every travel related situation.” Indeed, it is quite adequate if you wish to say, “I am studying the Slavic languages,” or “Would you please put the film in the camera for me?” or “I’d like to send an urgent telegram. How much do ten words cost?” If, while in Italy, you need to have a boil lanced, this book will help you. It provides the vocabulary necessary for hooking up with someone special you might meet: “Make love” and dealing with the consequences: “Vaginal discharge.” Regrettably, there was nothing to help us say, “Every time we flush the toilet, water backs up into the kitchen sink.” Which is odd, because I thought Americans were famous for having issues with European toileting facilities. (The book also wouldn't go amiss to include, in its next edition, the Italian for, “My son locked himself in your bathroom.”)
Since the language barrier was a real problem in dealing with the plumbers, Jon drew a clever picture diagnosing what he thought was the problem—a clog in the main drain leading out of the house. I’m sure Jon’s diagnosis is correct, but the plumbers thought otherwise and spent hours pouring chemicals down the drains and at one point extracted something that looked like a grey wig.

We left the house key with Rosella and went out. Why should we spend the last day of our vacation sitting around with plumbers? Jon went to the Scholar’s Lounge, an Irish-owned pub, and I took the kids on a guided walk described in one of my guidebooks. It was a tour of Bernini’s Rome, and we took the metro to the furthest spot on the route and walked our way toward home.

As is often the case with the Roman metro and bus stops, we were let off at a busy traffic circle, with about ten streets leading from it, and no way to tell which street was the one we wanted. In Rome, the names of streets are carved into marble tablets and placed on the walls of buildings at the corners, and it is impossible to read them unless you are standing right underneath. We made a few false starts down wrong streets, but finally got on our way. The first stop was Santa Maria della Vittoria which contains Bernini’s famous sculpture Ecstasy of St. Theresa (1646). Then we walked to the Piazza Barberini and looked at Triton’s fountain, and then up a hill to an intersection with a fountain at each corner. We popped into a tiny church, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (St. Carlo of the four fountains) which is exquisite because of its tininess and oval dome. It was built by Bernini’s rival, Borromini.

Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Theresa

San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

Inside San Carlo
Oval dome of San Carlo's
Oval dome of San Carlo
The next stop was one of Bernini’s best churches, Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, but alas, alas, we could not get in because our shoulders were uncovered. Of course we know that you are supposed to have your knees and shoulders covered when in a church, but this rule is constantly disregarded. We saw tank tops and shorts in churches everywhere, except St. Peter’s, where they are strict. But on this day, we’d forgotten our sweaters, which did not raise any eyebrows in the first two churches we saw, but at Sant’ Andrea, a man told us, very nicely, that we could not enter. There was nothing to do but leave and hope that we’ll return to Rome some day and see it then.

We walked past the president of Italy’s house and down into a maze of tiny streets that led to the Trevi fountain, and then on to the Pantheon, with a detour to the Piazza della Minerva so we could see Bernini’s elephant obelisk. Behind the obelisk is a square white building, something like the back end of a bus terminal. Imagine our surprise in discovering it is the only gothic church in Rome. I’ve never seen a building with a greater disparity between the interior and exterior. We also passed Santa Maria in Via, a church I really wanted to see because it has a holy well, where a miracle was said to have happened in the 13th century, but they were in the middle of mass, so we didn’t go inside. I couldn’t even get a decent picture of the outside, due to the clutter of newsstands and gelato carts in front of it.

Palazzo Quirinale--I think the president lives here

Alley near the Trevi Fountain

Santa Maria in Via

Bernini's elephant obelisk with Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in background

Inside Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
Back home, we discovered that the World’s Messiest Plumbers had finished up for the day. There was water everywhere: on the dining room table, the kitchen counter located farthest from the sink, the freaking fireplace mantle for crying out loud. My flight itinerary for the next day was soaked, our flight information an indecipherable blur. A loaf of bread sagged, waterlogged, across the top of the microwave. The rosaries we bought at the Vatican, my Italian language CD, our playing cards, were all soaked. Upstairs, the bathroom floor was decorated with assorted puddles and chunks of plaster. There were muddy footprints everywhere. Realizing that there was probably undetectable residue of God-knows-what on everything in the bathroom, I threw our toothbrushes away.

We decided we deserved a treat, and ate dinner at the fanciest restaurant in the piazza and drank a lot of wine. And helped ourselves to its bathrooms. I dragged Jon to our favorite bar and made him order a beer so that I could use their wifi and check in for our flight and reacquaint myself with our flight information. We tried to get to bed early, but didn’t manage until well after midnight. About 3:00am, I was awakened by the sound of loud vomiting, which at first, I thought was coming from the street because there were still many drunk tourists about. But then I realized the sound was coming from inside the house. It was Mad Scientist, doing his utmost to tax our frail plumbing to the point of total failure. It was just as well. If our last night had been one of perfect bliss, I would have had a hard time leaving. As things were, I felt really, really, ready to be reunited with American plumbing.
Jon, saying goodbye to our landlady, and one of the neighbors

Rosella grabbed Jon's ass as I took this picture. 

Jon with Bruno and Cosimo, our parking lot friends.