Monday, December 27, 2010

We do silly things

I hope everyone had a lovely holiday. Ours was nice, thank you very much, and I fully recovered from my illness on the 23rd. Our best present, aside from health and family, was Brigid getting an acceptance letter to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Then, on Christmas Eve, they sent her a second letter awarding her a $44,000 dollar merit scholarship.

The tradition of our family Christmas pyramid started way back in the mists of time when cell phones with cameras were a novelty and sending pictures via phone was the cutting edge of technology. Remember this? We called them "camera phones" and we were duly impressed. A phone that can take pictures? What will they think of next? That Christmas Eve, we were in Virginia with my sister and her husband and all the rest of the family were in far away Buffalo, NY. We sent them a picture. They responded with a picture of their own. Soon the pictures were flying back and forth and each time we wanted to pose in a more outrageous way, so the Christmas pyramid was born. Here is a movie of the 2010 version.

We don't just make pyramids. We also dance. Here is one of my all-time favorite Christmas dance movies from two or three years ago. It's short but it will probably make you laugh.

This year, we didn't film ourselves dancing, but I do have some static photos of us doing rock and roll hair tosses. That's my sister Margaret and Brigid and Grace in the first photo, and I'm on the end in the second one.

Seamus, looking cool in some new Christmas clothes.

Oh! An update on the bear story. A full week after the bear was seen in our neighborhood, Grace and her friends spotted a large bear track in the snow on the downtown mall.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Better living through slacking

Having teenage children has certain benefits. For example, they no longer believe in Santa. When Grace asked me if she could wrap the Christmas presents for her siblings, I thought, "Why not?" So Grace wrapped Ian, Brigid, and Seamus's presents, and then Brigid wrapped Grace's presents. Guess who won't be wrapping a heap of presents at midnight on Christmas Eve this year.

The teens were bugging me to put up the tree, something I usually do with Jon's help, but Jon was out of town, so we managed without him. We dispensed with "making a fresh cut in the trunk" and I also dispensed with putting any water in the tree stand.

Q: But Patience, won't your tree turn into a dried out stick and drop needles everywhere?

A: It turns into a dried out stick and drops needles everywhere even if I do water it, and now I won't slop water everywhere when I drag the tree out of the house next week. And I didn't have to wrestle with a tree saw and a six-inch diameter trunk that won't stay still. Awesome!

Yesterday, December 23, was the day I had designated to do my grocery shopping for the big Christmas Eve and Christmas dinners, which I am cooking for guests. But I woke up with a headache and rapidly felt worse and worse until I could hardly lift my head off my pillow. After napping for a few hours, I managed to achieve a vertical position, and still feeling rotten, went off to Whole Foods with Grace, her friend Sophie, and Seamus. It had been my plan to get there at 08:00 and beat the crowd, but due to feeling so sick, we didn't get there until after 11:00.

During the drive, I started feeling worse. "Feliz Navidad" was playing on the radio--the worst Christmas song of all time. I used to think "Grandma got Run Over by a Reindeer" was the worst Christmas song, but no, it is definitely "Feliz Navidad." Especially where he sings, "I wanna wish you a merry Christmas." I felt outraged, insulted, even. Why can't he go ahead and wish her a merry Christmas instead of whining about 'I wanna.'

Whole Foods was a zoo, of course, and I was feeling so sick that I thought I should just turn the car around and forget about shopping. But then Grace suggested that she and Sophie go into the store and do all my shopping for me and I could just show up at the last minute to pay for everything. Seamus, meanwhile, would keep me company and be in touch with the girls via cell phone to answer any questions. An excellent plan!

My shopping list was sophisticated and I had to explain the meaning of several items. Sophie said, "It's so exciting to go shopping by ourselves!" (Oh honey, just wait until you are married with kids.) Soon after the girls left, I felt worse and worse and worse and then threw up into a beer bottle carrier bag--the only receptacle in the car. I threw up three times. A car alarm went off right next to me, and at first I thought, "really?" but I was too sick to be truly indignant.

Q: Wow, wasn't that embarrassing, throwing up in public, in your car, in the Whole Foods parking lot, of all places?

A: Surprisingly, no. Being sick enough to actually vomit is like being in childbirth. You just don't care.

I felt much better after that, and then I remembered that we needed more wine and that it would probably be frowned on for two fourteen year old girls to be unsupervised and pushing a shopping cart full of wine, so I braved Whole Foods. I spotted Grace in the produce department deep in conversation with a complete stranger. This was a very surprising sight. "Who was that man?" I asked. He was helping her find the chives. She had asked him if scallions were chives and he had told her, no, they weren't although they were in the same family, and then he actually found the chives and gave her a package of them. It turns out my sophisticated list and the pushing crowds were a bit much for the girls and Grace coped by saying, "My mom is sick in the car and we're doing her shopping for her, " and then several people helped her. Christmas brings out the best and worst in people. Thank you to the anonymous scallion/chive man in Whole Foods yesterday and the other people who helped Grace & Sophie.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Attack of the coffee table

Should have sprung for the white glove delivery.

My new coffee table was delivered last Monday. LOOK AT THIS FABULOUS COFFEE TABLE!
This image is from the catalog.  It's allegedly a French industrial factory table. The delivery man gets here, he's all, "I just started this job, I don't know what I'm doing, blah blah blah." I lived in Buffalo, NY for most of my life and I am an expert on wind chills and the wind chill on coffee table day was about five degrees Fahrenheit. So I'm standing there in the five degree windchill watching this guy fumble with the back of the truck, which was too big to back down our steep driveway so consequently was parked up in the street. The lift from the ground to the level of the truck bed went up very reluctantly and the driver confided that the battery was about to die and he sure hoped it would last through this, his last delivery of the day. It took multiple micro adjustments of the coffee table, the pallet it was strapped to, and the dolly to fit them onto the lift. Slowly, slowly, slowly, the lift descended. Then came some difficult maneuvers to get the whole package off the lift and onto the ground, at which point the whole thing wanted to roll rapidly down the hill and crush the delivery man.

Meanwhile, I was stamping my feet and jumping up and down and squeezing my hands under my armpits and doing all the other things people do when they are about to die of exposure. I hadn't quite gotten to the stage where I become delirious and tear off all my clothes and dive into the bushes, but it was coming.

The coffee table got stuck on a rock halfway down the driveway and nowhere near the house. "That's OK," I said. "Just leave it, my husband and I can get it from here." The delivery man was worried. Was I sure? Oh, I was sure. I felt that if I ever got warm again, I would be able to do anything. He said, "I sure hope that lift goes up," and I said, "Me too," and I sprinted for the house and once inside, twirled about and held my hands against the heat register and stamped my feet and tried to restore motion to my frozen cheek muscles.

Seamus said, "Mom, the delivery man is at the door." The battery on the lift had died for good. It wouldn't go up, and apparently, you can't drive a truck with a metal lift dragging on the ground behind it. He said, "I called my boss and asked them to send someone to get me, but they want me to see if I can just get a jump start here. Do you happen to have jumper cables?"  REALLY? REALLY?  I said I thought we might have jumper cables and I walked back out into the freezing wind to my car, ridiculously peering in the back seat window--like I was unfamiliar with my own car and wouldn't already know if there were jumper cables in the passenger area, which of course there weren't. I did find cables in the back. The truck had been completely blocking the driveway, but he pulled it up into the street a bit and I was just able to squeeze my car between his truck and the neighbor's hedge. I couldn't even open my door and had to climb across to the passenger side to get out of the car, which I had to do because the little stick that holds the hood up is broken. I had to stand there and hold the hood up with my bare hands (facing into the wind, naturally) during the entire jumping procedure.

I did not have a lot of confidence in this delivery man, who was a bit of a bumbler. Still, I could appreciate how utterly mortifying this must have been for him, so I tried to be a good sport. "Are you sure you know what you're doing?" I asked and he assured me he did, but I used the hood of my car to shield my face, just in case the battery exploded. I am a nurse on a trauma floor at a level 1 trauma center, and believe me, there is no limit to the type of freak accidents that happen to people. The battery didn't explode and the lift went back up and the delivery driver departed and now there was just the little matter of my new coffee table, stuck on a rock, far from the house.

It was actually the palette to which the table was strapped that was stuck on the rock. I cut away the packaging to expose the table. Here was the problem: French industrial factory tables are heavy. I thought, "I'll take out the drawers. That will lighten it up." The drawers each weigh about three pounds, so I'd effectively reduced the table's weight from 600 pounds to 594 pounds. From the picture, you can see that the table is on wheels, but at delivery, the wheels were packed neatly into the drawers. There was also the matter of the wind--my coffee table lust had blunted my suffering from the cold--but a neighbor spotted me chasing down bits of packing material that were blowing about and he helped me gather them and also helped me carry the table as far as the front porch.

Why didn't I just wait for Jon? Because Jon was on his way home from a trip to Buffalo and do you think he'd want to arrive after a nine-hour drive to be told, "You need to help me with this 600 pound coffee table." Grace and I managed to drag it into the house. There was one scary moment when it seemed it was not going to fit through the door, but we managed slide it in with about 1/8" clearance on each side. Next, the assembly. The directions say, " the [coffee table] on a raised surface so that all the four corners are on air for the castors to be fitted." First of all, where am I supposed to find a "raised surface" just the right size to support the coffee table with all four of its corners hanging over the edge and secondly, how am I supposed to lift a 600 pound table onto it? Grace and I improvised and we had the table fully assembled by the time Jon got back from Buffalo. It's a gorgeous coffee table, but it caused me more suffering than of any of my other furniture--and I've assembled bunk beds from Ikea.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Bear Went Over the Mountain

There we were, settling down to watch the Christmas episode of The Office. Just as Dwight was pummeling Jim with snowballs, I heard a soft whump outside. It sounded like a drunk beggar falling into one of our porch posts--an event not inconsistent with this neighborhood. I glanced at the front door, expecting to see a bleary-eyed face peering in at us, but there was nothing there and the dogs seemed unconcerned so I turned my attention back to The Office. Soon I was distracted by an odd play of lights outside in the street and then I noticed a car pulling down the driveway--a cop car. "Ah," I thought, "Now the whump will be explained."

Jon had barely started out the door to talk to the cops, when the phone rang. It was the next-door neighbors. The usual method of communication with the neighbors is text message or facebook. An actual call to our home phone + cop car in the driveway meant something very serious indeed and I answered the phone fully expecting to hear about rape, murder, or fire. Not even a robbery would warrant this much excitement. My neighbor said, "Patience, there is a bear outside." I thought, "How strange. She must have said 'rapist' only I heard 'bear'." I asked her to repeat herself and this time there was no mistaking the word "bear." An actual bear, a big black bear was not only in the neighborhood, but had been seen going down our driveway.

Beehive, who lives at the corner, saw the bear at the bus stop, and the cops were already there. Meanwhile, the next-door neighbor stepped outside to see what the cops were up to and just about ran into the bear who was now headed down our driveway after which he may or may not have approached the porch and banged into something (the whump) before blundering through our other neighbor's back yard and damaging a fence after which he took to the streets again. The cops' strategy seemed to be to use their lights to shoo the bear back to the mountains, although all they succeeded in doing was to drive him further into town. The bear was last seen outside a fancy pants restaurant in the "downtown" section of my neighborhood. Where the bear went after that is anybody's guess. He was never caught and I suspect he just wanted a night on the town and maybe a little tapas. There are, in Charlottesville, enough wooded areas to conceal a bear for a good long time.

As you can see from my photos--one is of my street, the other the view out my bathroom window--the mountains are close to this side of town. On the other hand, we do live in the city and while this isn't the first time a bear has found his way to the city, it's still very unusual.

In a way, it's a lame story: a bear passed my house, made a whump that I didn't even bother to investigate because I was absorbed in a TV show and I never even saw him with my own eyes. The funny part is the collective tizzy into which it sent the neighborhood. All our cell phones started buzzing simultaneously, while the house phone rang as everybody called everybody else to warn each other. Facebook lit up like a firecracker as everyone who was adjacent to the bear that night posted a status update about it.

Beehive was stellar. The next morning, at the school bus stop, she stopped every single car that passed the corner and warned them about the bear. When the school bus came, she got into the bus and warned the driver and she posted this sign in the bus stop.

So don't say you weren't warned.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Everyday absurdities

The Smart Chicken

Today I purchased a chicken that wore a sticker announcing that it came from an "enriched environment." Indeed, all the chickens that are privileged to be sold at Whole Foods now come from the gifted & talented chicken track. What do you suppose "enriched environment" means in the context of chickens? Do they go to Waldorf school? Have Suzuki violin lessons? Geometry tutors? Does someone recite Shakespeare into a megaphone over the incubators? Is classical music piped into the nesting area? Are there root-word flash cards glued to the bottom of the feed pans?

No Pizza for You

My son Ian ordered a pizza to be delivered to his dorm. A campus public safety officer decided the pizza delivery man was suspicious, pulled him over, searched his car, and then arrested him. Ian, meanwhile is standing at the dorm entrance, observing all this, and just wanting his pizza. Here's the thing: the public safety officer would not allow Ian to have the pizza. The pizzeria had to supply a new pizza, along with a different driver. The original pizza was confiscated for some dark purpose of campus security.

Credit card-less at the holidays

The day before Thanksgiving my credit card was denied when I was buying gas, a disconcerting and somewhat embarrassing event. Of course I immediately went home and called the credit card company while simultaneously logging into my account online so I could look for suspicious purchases. There were none. My balance was nowhere near the credit limit. There was a note saying that I should call customer service immediately and that a new card was already on its way. The customer service representative I spoke to went over all my purchases for the past day or so before the card was canceled. I verified that all were valid. She agreed that there appeared to be no problem with my card and that she would fix the problem immediately so that I could use it. Later, at the grocery store, guess what? Denied again!

It was my only credit card. I used to have a Visa, but I accidentally shredded it in grief-induced confusion when George-the-bunny died last April. At that time, I didn't bother to send for a new Visa, since I could just use my master card. But now I didn't have either and it was time to start Christmas shopping. That was November 24th and the last fifteen days have been such a freaking pain in the ASS. Jon and I use our credit cards for practically everything and then pay the bill in full each month. Now I had to procure these strange green papers and use them to make purchases. Sometimes I used my debit card. This involves keeping track of all purchases in my check book, i.e. it's a pain in the ass. Worst of all, I couldn't buy anything online except with paypal which is just like using a debit card, i.e. a pain in the ass.

My new credit card arrived today--it took fifteen long days. I do have the satisfaction of knowing that all the presents I've bought so far are already paid for, but I never want to live without a credit card again.

I never did figure out why the company canceled my card in the first place. It's true that I had bought a number of things, including an amtrak ticket for Grace and upgrades to all our cell phones, not to mention stocking up on wine for the holidays. Still, if the credit card company is going to issue me a credit limit large enough to buy a new car, for crying out loud, they shouldn't freak out when I spend a little money.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Soda Statement

I hate to be "that mom" but I volunteered to bring two bottles of soda to Seamus' orchestra concert tonight. I had to go to Whole Foods anyway, so I thought I'd get the soda there. Naturally, Whole Foods does not carry plastic, two-liter bottles of unwholesome soda. They have lots of interesting drinks in glass bottles, and for a minute I was tempted--plastic is so bad for the environment! But I knew that if I showed up with something European and fancy in glass bottles I wouldn't be "that mom," I'd be "who does she think she is?". I settled on some organic lemonade. What was I supposed to do? Make a separate trip to a different grocery store just so that I could show up with unpretentious drinks? Another mom might deliberately go to Whole Foods just to be seen donating European-fancy-glass-bottle soda or organic lemonade because she wants to make the statement that she is all perfect like that, whereas I felt I should make the statement that I don't use donated eatables to appear holier-than-thou. Yet much of our food comes from Whole Foods anyway! Maybe I AM that mom. Maybe I am the only mom who even thinks about the statement she is making when buying beverages. (I doubt that, actually.) What crazy contortions we put ourselves through over the stupidest things. Maybe what society needs is a nuclear winter or a plague so people like me will stop attaching massive significance to bottles of soda.

Speaking of plague, Seamus' pox are percolating ( I hope) and we should see a rash by Sunday. I realize--vaccine/no vaccine issues aside--that deliberately exposing an 11 year old child to a disease is not without some ethical issues. It's one thing with a two-year old, who doesn't understand what is happening, but when I told Seamus I had arranged for him to get chicken pox, his peculiar facial expression showed that he was thinking, "Hey--wait a minute!-- my mom is deliberately making me sick." In nursing school, we learned that the age of medical consent for children is really young--8 or thereabouts.

I changed my tack. I said that if it was alright with him, he would play with this chicken pox child, and after two weeks he'd feel a bit sick and have an itchy rash that he mustn't scratch and that as the rash cleared up he'd look scabby but would eventually look perfectly normal again. I pointed out that the disease was likely to pop up during his last week of school before Christmas break, thus extending his vacation to three glorious weeks and wouldn't that be fun? And he would get to take lots of lovely baths! And eat his favorite foods and generally be coddled and treated like a prince.

He consented, and I have stocked up on Tylenol. Watch him not get sick after all.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Road to Oxiana

I assumed, when I got this book that "Oxiana" was some sort of allusion to the classical world, or maybe Oxford, so I thought that The Road to Oxiana would be an Oxford man's account of his travels in Greece, or possibly Turkey. Surprise, surprise, "Oxiana" means the geographical area roughly contingent with Afghanistan and bits of Iran and Robert Byron's diary of his journey there in the 1930's is considered one of the classics of travel literature.

I'm not really recommending that you all go out and read it, because then you will think that everything I read is impossible and you will never take my book reviews seriously ever again. Still, in between long, dry, (yet edifying) passages about Persian architecture are some gems. It is Robert Byron who came up with the "glucose doormat" description of carob that so tickled me last week.

Then there's this, after he first arrives in Persia:

Here we changed cars, since Persia and Irak refuse admission to one another's chauffeurs. Otherwise our reception was hospitable: the Persian officials offered us their sympathy in this disgusting business of customs, and kept us three hours. When I paid duty on some films and medicines, they took the money with eyes averted, as a duchess collects for charity.

I remarked to Christopher on the indignity of the people's clothes: "Why does the Shah make them wear those hats?"
"Sh. You mustn't mention the Shah out loud. Call him Mr. Smith."
"I always call Mussolini Mr. Smith in Italy."
"Well, Mr. Brown."
"No, that's Stalin's name in Russia."
"Mr. Jones then."
"Jones is no good either. Hitler has to have it now that Primo de Rivera is dead. And anyhow I get confused with these ordinary names. We had better call him Marjoribanks, if we want to remember whom we mean."

For the rest of the book, the Shah of Iran is written as "Marjoribanks" which is pronounced "Marshbanks" if I am not mistaken, and if I am, perhaps a British reader could enlighten me.

The thing about this book is that it shows how absolutely amazingly beautiful Iran and Afghanistan are. Of course, tourism in those countries is impossible now, and probably much of what Byron saw there has been bombed into rubble. Did you know that there was an artistic and architectural renaissance in Afghanistan in the 1400's?

I've read a number of travel books about Afghanistan--the most recent written in the 1960's by Dervla Murphy who rode a bicycle from Ireland to India. It seems it has always been a very dangerous place and the wonderful movie, The Man Who Would be King (based on a Rudyard Kipling story) bears that out. I doubt that travel there will be possible in my lifetime.

Generally, when picking travel destinations, I gravitate toward the safe: Italy, Ireland, Iceland, Canada. If I were to ever plan an adventure destination, I think it would have to be Afghanistan. If you could travel somewhere dangerous, where would you go?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Alternative Holiday Weekend

Good Morning. I hope all my dear readers had a happy Thanksgiving. We had our Thanksgiving on Friday because I worked on the actual holiday. With two nurses in the house, the Friday Thanksgiving has almost become the norm for us. Friday Thanksgivings rock for several reasons:
  • All businesses are open, so if you discover that you need more wine, or forgot to buy something, it's no problem. (It's funny how Americans, myself included, feel a tiny bit panicky at the prospect of going even ONE DAY without unlimited access to a grocery store despite the fact that our pantries are crammed full. The horror of wanting half-and-half for one's coffee and not being able to buy it.)
  • You have an excuse not to get caught up in the Black Friday hysteria.
  • It's more relaxed, and friends who otherwise wouldn't be able to come over because they have to do their Thanksgiving with their own families, will stop by and help you eat up all your excess dessert.
  • There's mail delivery. I like to get my mail.
  • There's no stupid football.
Our dear friends came to visit for the weekend and we all celebrated together, along with a random assortment of teenage friends of my kids and neighbors. The friends, I found out, get story fodder from the sometimes-outrageous behavior of Charlottesvillians, to share with their friends in the big city, who were actually asking them to retell stories about a big party we had a few years ago, at which someone got hit in the face with a biscuit, and some C'ville moms' parenting style provided amusement.

I attempted the "Salt Roasted" turkey that's featured on the cover of the November, 2010 Bon appetit magazine. The procedure is to rub the turkey with a mixture of coarse salt, lemon zest and herbs and let it sit for twenty four hours. Then you rinse off the salt, stuff the turkey with chopped lemons and celery, brush it with a lemon juice/olive oil combo and roast. The result was certainly attractive, but the taste was not appreciably different from any other turkey I've ever roasted. I don't think the salt-lemon hoopla was worth the effort.

Fresh home from work on the "real" Thanksgiving.


Monday, November 22, 2010

Three things


Why am I walking like one of my patients? Because I started a new workout routine. I've been a runner since I was 18--with a few breaks for pregnancy and injury and impossible Buffalo weather. I've realized that running is now just a default thing that helps me maintain a certain level of cardiovascular fitness, but otherwise isn't doing much to help me look fabulous as I approach a certain age. (Maybe I already am a "certain age." No one ever defines what the certain age is.)

I don't watch The Biggest Loser and I had never heard of Jillian Michaels, but now I find myself in possession of her "30 Day Shred" workout. I am determined to do it for thirty days and see what happens to my body. Today is day three. I can't lift my arms above my head. I am reduced to shuffling rather than walking. When I am in a hurry, I look like an 80 year old woman with stress incontinence, searching for a bathroom at a shopping mall. Getting into and out of chairs is agony--and this is after the ibuprofen has taken effect. How I am supposed to get to work tomorrow is a mystery.

The workout is divided into three six-minute cycles which contain three minutes of strength training, two minutes of cardio, and one minute of abs. The cardio and abs are easy--it's my practice to go for my usual run as a "warm up" and then do this workout--but the strength training is KILLING me. Which shows I was correct in thinking that my usual routine favored cardio over strength.


Dave Matthews came to town this weekend. It was the check out girl at Foods of All Nations who informed me of Mr. Matthews holy presence. I remarked that I had better pay closer attention to the news and that at least now I knew why the traffic was so impossible. "Oh yes," she said. "Whenever people know he's here, they line up outside just to see him." She made it sound like Dave Matthews was actually in the store at that moment which made sense because if Dave Matthews was going to buy groceries in Charlottesville, he'd probably go to Foods of All Nations. I tried to remember if I'd seen any spectacular cars in the parking lot, and I wished I had smartened myself up a bit before leaving the house. Then again, on that day I was tracking down the ingredients for a particularly complicated curry and if Dave Matthews had given me a big kiss on the lips, I probably would have asked him if he knew where I could find tamarind paste. (Which I never found, by the way, and the curry was another FAIL on my extensive record of cooking disasters.)


I am reading The Road to Oxiana by Robery Byron. Travel diary-- classic upper-class Englishman bemused at non-English peoples in other countries, which in this case are Cyprus and the Middle East. He notes that carob is an important crop on Cyprus and then likens its flavor to a "glucose doormat." I can't tell you how many times I have tried to come up with a phrase that describes carob, and it turns out that "glucose doormat" is the very phrase I have been searching for! There was a time in my life, when I subscribed to a more natural life style than I do now, when I would actually buy carob and use it as a substitute for chocolate. It didn't take me too long to realize that this was a path to madness and I restored chocolate to its rightful place in the pantry.

Thursday, November 11, 2010



I don't like to admit what I'm cooking for dinner. Oh sure, if the answer to the question "What's for dinner?" is "take-out" or "pizza" I can say it out loud with pride. Usually I say, "Food," but that doesn't fool anyone because if we were having something good, I would have said, "take out" or "pizza." I have a weakness for experimenting with new recipes. Have you noticed how many recipes there are that look interesting on paper and are absolute trash when cooked? The very worst--from back when I was a vegetarian--was "baked squash with tofu sauce" which has a nice ring to it--say it out loud-- that does not translate to the table. Jon, who has never made it a priority to model adult behavior for our children, lifted a ladle of tofu sauce to his mouth, and then "vomited" it back into the pot while making loud retching noises. One can not skulk forever, nor hide behind euphemisms like "a recipe I found in a magazine." The other night I decided to proclaim our dinner. I said, "Spinach-lentil-fish-curry." The house did not fall down. Indeed, small portions of spinach-lentil-fish-curry were consumed by all, and if the kids tactlessly baked themselves a batch of peanut butter cookies after dinner, and I will be stuck eating spinach-lentil-fish-curry leftovers for lunch for days, it's OK. I owned that dinner.


I took Brigid to National Portfolio Day at VCU in Richmond. National Portfolio Day is like American Idol of the art school world. Representatives from the country's best art schools were there and what you do is stand in line--you stand in line for hours--to show your portfolio to the schools you are hoping to get into. People travel from all over to attend and the line to get into the building stretched down the street and around the block. Once the doors opened, people scattered to the schools of their choice, but there was still a lot of standing around. Brigid had been warned that the art school reps are usually pissed-off grad students who will tell you that your portfolio sucks simply because they feel put-upon and want to spread the misery, but that was not our experience at all. We only got to see three schools--School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Pratt Institute, and Cooper Union--but she got great feedback and positive response to her art. She started a portfolio blog, if anyone is interested in taking a peek.


I saw an book at the library the other day and I had to have it. I stick so doggedly to my written book list (to which I continuously add) that it takes an enormous effort of will to read something that isn't officially on the list. I also enjoy changing the font color of each book after I've read it. I have a color coded system that tells me how much I liked each book, and if I want to read more by that particular author, I highlight his or her name in pink. A bit rigid and obsessive, I know, but my book list is a harmless eccentricity, although I do have a vague feeling that if I ever get to the point where I've read every book, I might actually die. But anyway, the book that tempted me away from my list is The Maples Stories by John Updike. It's an exquisite little volume--I DO judge books by their covers--the kind that comes with its own cloth bookmark. It wasn't just the cover design or the bookmark that got me, it's also the fact that I like John Updike and this volume is a collection of short stories he wrote about the same married couple, starting in 1956 and ending in the seventies. (This is both when the stories were first published and the time period in which they are set.) It is a compelling portrait of a marriage. I haven't finished reading it yet, but I've read enough to tell you that it's awesome. Beautifully written, wryly funny, touching, sad--it's like looking at my own marriage, although this patently isn't my marriage. But some of the emotions are the same.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Emma, Emma, Emma, Emma

I think I will never tire of film adaptations of Jane Austen novels. No matter how many are made, it will always be my pleasure to watch and compare in the manner of a Leonard Nemoy-obsessed Trekkie. Of Austen's novels, Pride & Prejudice and Emma have the most movies made of them. There are four Emmas, and five Pride & Prejudices. I have recently watched each of the Emma movies and here is a brief comparison.

Emma: 1972

This low budget BBC adaptation seems awful at first, but if you stick with it, your patience is rewarded. I don't know what was going on at the BBC in the 1970s, but they seem to almost have made it a policy to employ unattractive actors. Doran Godwin, as Emma, is prim, sour-faced, and as rigid as a statue. I know from her bio that she was only twenty-two when this movie was made, but bad lighting, an unflattering hairstyle and an assortment of dreadful bonnets contrive to make her look closer to forty. She is also living proof that it is possible to be too thin. Debbie Bowen, who plays the hapless Harriet Smith, is more suitably girlish but over the course of six hours, her only line is to say "Oh, Miss Woodhouse!" in various states of breathy excitement or dismay. Ellen Dryden is a motherly and pleasant Mrs. Weston and Ania Marson is agreeable as Jane Fairfax. Constance Chapman performs admirably as Miss Bates in one of the most comic roles in this film. Of the ladies, Fiona Walker steals the show as Mrs. Elton. My main complaint about all the Emma movies, except this one, is that they cut Mrs. Elton's role down to a minimum, but this film gives full range to her role as the interfering, vulgar, loquacious bride of the odious Mr. Elton.

Of the gentlemen, the only one who makes an impression is Donald Eccles as Mr. Woodhouse, who is perfect as the fussy old man. John Carson as Mr. Knightly is probably the best the BBC could scrape up, considering their apparent dearth of attractive actors. Ditto for Robert East as Frank Churchill and Timothy Peters as Mr. Elton—who Jane Austen must have intended to have some qualities of a hottie or why would Emma and Harriet twitter over him so? They all turn in competent performances except for Robert "Frank Churchill" East who is so falsely genial you suspect his face might crack.

Overall, the cheap sets, polyester costumes, and cast that look nothing like you'd imagined them may make you want to stop watching, but by the time Mr. Elton returns to Highbury with his bride, you find you are hooked on the story and want to watch it to the end. The Emma character unbends considerably as Mrs. Elton provokes her temper.

A scene from this Emma--that's Miss Bates, with Jane Fairfax and Mr. Knightly and Emma, with her back to us.

One-sentence summation: Only for diehards.

Emma: 1996 (I)

The Gwyneth Paltrow Emma is a good effort, for Hollywood. Of all the Emma films, there's the best Emma-Mr. Knightly chemistry between Paltrow and Jeremy Northam. Ewan McGregor is foppish as Mr. Churchill and Polly Walker's Jane Fairfax is as dull as Emma says she is. I love Sophie Thompson as Miss Bates and Juliet Stevenson's Mrs. Elton has a hilarious way of savoring the phrase "Lord Suckling" in almost every line she utters. I admire Juliet Stevenson, but Mrs. Elton's part is the briefest in this film, which is disappointing, although they do let her chatter through the closing credits. Toni Collette is another actress I admire, but she is not right as Harriet Smith who is supposed to be pretty and charming, not plain and awkward. Alan Cumming performs admirably as Mr. Elton.

One-sentence summation: Good light entertainment.

Emma: 1996 (II)

The Kate Beckinsale Emma was overshadowed by the more glamorous Gwyneth Paltrow version, but this movie is well worth seeing. The Harriet-Mr. Elton "courtship" is dispatched speedily here and we move quickly to the weightier story of the Frank Churchill-Jane Fairfax-Emma love triangle. I like it that this movie gave more footage to some minor characters, such as Mr. Knightley's brother, who bitches mightily about having to leave the comfort of Hartfield for a Christmas party at the Weston's. This movie also does full justice to the strawberry picking party and the excursion to Box Hill, which I seem to recall are treated as one event in some of the other Emmas. Kate Beckinsale is a wonderful Emma, likeable yet faulty. Mark Strong is an angry Mr. Knightly and Bernard Hepton is so adorable as Mr. Woodhouse, that I want to put him in my pocket and take him with me everywhere. Prunella Scales (of Fawlty Towers) puts a lot of personality into the Miss Bates role. She appears to be really enjoying herself. Raymond Coultard is a glamorous Frank Churchill and Samantha Morton plays Harriet Smith well, although she has the odd look of having only just lost her baby teeth. Olivia Williams is Jane Fairfax and she is the only "Jane" you can believe actually being in love with anybody. This movie has the best Jane-Frank Churchill chemistry. Lucy Robinson is hilarious as Mrs. Elton. (If she looks familiar, it's because she played the snobbish Mrs. Hurst in the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle Pride & Prejudice.) I liked the dialogue in this film—I haven't read Emma in ages, but it seems closest to the book.

One-sentence summation: The brainy choice.

Emma: 2009

This is the Romola Garai version and at first I was turned off by how the story starts in the infancies of Emma, Frank Churchill, and Jane Fairfax, with a narrator telling us that the three of them are somehow "bound together." What a load of claptrap! After a while, however, this film grew on me. This movie boasts the hottest Mr. Elton—Blake Ritson is dreamy. Romola Garai is certainly lovely and is a pettishly selfish Emma, although I may be confusing her a bit with the character she plays in Daniel Deronda, which I also saw recently. I like Louise Dylan's portrayal of Harriet Smith—she is the closest to how I imagined Harriet when I read the book-- and Michael Gambon is wonderful in everything he does, so he makes a nice Mr. Woodhouse. Johnny Lee Miller is too boyish to be Mr. Knightly, which is a shame because I loved him in Byron. Tamsin Grieg plays Miss Bates and she seems to be modeling her performance on Sophie Thompson's. She looks nearsighted and vulnerable and is the unhappiest-appearing Miss Bates of the four. I know Tamsin Grieg as the wine-swilling and hilarious "Fran" of the TV show Black Books, so it's hard for me to reconcile her in this role. (Incidentally, Black Books—the only TV show that appeals specifically to bookish, antisocial people such as myself-- is my all-time favorite show.) Christina Cole as Mrs. Elton is more bitchy than funny, and too young. You could argue that a new bride was supposed to be very young, but Mrs. Elton of the book is so pushy and forward and set in her opinions, that you imagine her as mature. Laura Pyper and Rupert Evans did not make much of an impression as Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill. This is a four-part BBC miniseries, so there's time for more details than you'll see in the previous two Emmas. One-sentence summation: A fabulous Emma extravaganza.

Blake Ritsen

The Official Patience Crabstick Emma Awards.

Best Emma: (tie) Romola Garai and Kate Beckinsale

Best Mr. Knightly: Jeremy Northam

Best Harriet Smith: Louise Dylan

Best Mr. Elton: Blake Ritsen

Best Jane Fairfax: Olivia Williams

Best Frank Churchill: Raymond Coultard

Best Mrs. Elton: (tie) Fiona Walker and Lucy Robinson

Best Mr. Woodhouse: Bernard Hepton

Best Miss Bates: Prunella Scales

Best Costumes: Emma, 2009

It's hard to say which film is best overall since each has its strengths and weaknesses, but I am partial to the Romola Garai and the Kate Beckinsale versions.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Everyday life

Things I've had to scream at my kids lately:


DON'T PICK UP THE BATHTUB! (This, to Seamus, when I noticed out of the corner of my eye that the back legs of the tub were two inches off the floor. The thing must weigh 400 pounds. What was he thinking?)

YOU ARE GOING TO THE ACADEMY OF ST. MARTIN IN THE FIELDS CONCERT! (This, I wish my mother had been present to hear, since she was a big fan of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and now they are coming to Charlottesville and Grace thinks her Friday night is better spent at a football game. She can think again.)

Seamus, at least, won't be able to lift the bathtub for a while since he broke his arm. Which isn't all that remarkable, since what 11 year old boy doesn't climb trees? I was at the store and after falling out of a tree in Belmont Park, Seamus picked himself up and found Jon at a neighbor's house, only Jon's years of experience in emergency medicine have made it impossible to impress him with an injury. As far as Jon is concerned, if you are breathing, you're fine. Poor little Seamus took himself home alone, managed to open a bottle of Advil all by himself (there were pills spilled everywhere) splinted his arm against a pillow, and waited for someone to rescue him. It wasn't too long before I arrived and I could tell from the bloated look of his arm that it was broken. This was Halloween afternoon, but I figured we could get him into the ER and get his arm splinted and be out of there in time to go trick-or-treating, which is exactly what happened. Seamus broke his right radius and ulna and was more concerned about losing the ability to text than about how much it would hurt for the doctor to push the bones back into place, which did hurt a lot, but my boy is tough. It was actually a pretty good day for Seamus. The friend he'd been tree climbing with was a girl, and he'd been about to ask her out when he fell. After he got home from the hospital, he called her and asked her out and she said yes, because what girl can resist a boy in a cast? So he got a new girlfriend, tons of attention, he didn't miss the trick-or-treating--and some people gave him extra candy for his broken arm, and others gave him extra candy because they liked his Dwight Schrute costume. And he can still text! But he's excused from gym and doesn't have to write! Or practice his bass! And he gets to have many new shirts because we've had to cut his sleeves to fit his splint! It's like all the forces of good combined to push my kid out of that tree.

Freshly discharged, ready for trick-or-treating

Dwight K. Shrute

Monday, October 25, 2010

Hopelessness for all: a book review

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates is one of the bleakest novels I've ever read. Most of you are familiar with the movie, no doubt. I'm told it got bad reviews, but I liked it and immediately added the book to my reading list.

Frank and April Wheeler live in the Connecticut suburbs of New York. Frank works for a company that sells business machines. April, who studied dramatics in college, keeps house and cares for two young children. The Wheelers know their lives are as colorless as a blancmange. They scorn the suburbs and mock people who have nothing better to discuss than their barbecue pits, yet for all their awareness, are they any better than their neighbors?

Revolutionary Road hurts worst the people who are most likely to read it: people like myself who turn up our noses at the suburbs and conformity. How many times have I made a denigrating comment about the suburbs, shuddered while driving through a new development, waxed nostalgic about our boho lives on Buffalo's West Side (now called "Elmwood Village" by realtors trying to capitalize on upscale America's distaste for the suburbs), felt smug about my 100 year old house that's within walking distance of downtown? Charlottesville itself is a repository of Revolutionary Road types: a place of people who want to live "in the city" where every scrap of urbanity is celebrated, painted photographed, and written up by The Washington Post. A place where the middle bit of Main St. has been designated "Midtown" and where signs direct tourists to a "Warehouse District." Charlottesville is like a suburb of the suburbs, where people flee from all over the US to be seen at the farmer's market or sipping coffee in little cafes. (Not Starbucks, never Starbucks. Tourists or people from the suburbs who don't know any better go to Starbucks.) The carefully staged urban "lifestyle" of Charlottesville is even more artificial than the suburbs its residents sneer at.

So I squirmed a bit, reading Revolutionary Road, but then I realized that Richard Yates is not so much condemning these people as he is pitying them. Would April and Frank's life had gotten any better if they had actually gone to Paris or would the same humdrum annoyances of marriage and family life pursue them there? If they'd moved to Park Avenue instead of Connecticut, would their lives have been brilliant and interesting, or would they have been caught up in a social round of people as dull, in their own way, as the suburbanites with their lawnmowers and barbecue pits?

The suburbs aren't the problem, life itself is the problem. People say words that mean nothing, obey the conventions of society and never, ever reveal what they really think about anything. The only honest person in the book, John Givings, the realtor's son, has been diagnosed clinically insane. Most people, such as Helen Givings the realtor, have their little ways of fooling themselves. Her platitudes: "Isn't this cozy? It's wonderful just to let yourself unwind after a hard day," cover a misery that is possibly even deeper even than April and Frank's. The irony of Richard Yates' world is that the people who have the wit to recognize the soul-numbing quality of conventional society, are the ones who are most miserable. The only person in the book who might claim to be content is Mr. Givings who can turn his hearing aid off and be unaware of the world.

Friday, October 22, 2010

New York Highlights

Brigid in our hotel.

The Strand Book Store. It's Mecca at the corner of Broadway & 12th. Unfortunately, I was so dehydrated from the train trip and exhausted from having worked night shift two nights prior, I didn't enjoy it as much as I would have otherwise, and couldn't remember any of the titles I had planned to look for.

The Pratt Institute. This is one school we came to see. It's in Brooklyn, and I'd never been to Brooklyn before. It was three subway transfers from our hotel in Chelsea, but we got there with no problem. Brooklyn looked very Brooklyn-y and Brigid and I were both impressed with Pratt, especially the library with the Tiffany glass floors and hanging shelves.

I realized that to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge was my earliest ambition, one conceived when I was about four or five and read The Lonely Doll. Hence, Brigid and I took that route back to Manhattan.

We took lots of cheesy tourist pictures.

Now, I simply must read David McCullough's The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Since we ended up in lower Manhattan, I insisted we visit the grave of Alexander Hamilton at Trinity Church. Alexander Hamilton is one of my favorite people of early US history. I would have liked to visit his house in Harlem, but it isn't open to the public right now.

Afternoon coffee at Cafe Reggio, which we stumbled into by chance. I didn't realize it is "the" original coffee shop of the village.

At Bloomingdale's we tried on expensive dresses. Then we went to the much cheaper Urban Outfitters across the street. Charlottesville has it's own Urban Outfitters, but our store doesn't have the furniture.

We made it to St. Patrick's cathedral in time for the 5:30 mass. I lit a candle to St. Anthony, in the hope that I will be able to find all the things I absentmindedly misplace.

After mass, a little more shopping. We had difficulty finding the subway station and stepped out of the crowd to consult my map. A man asked us what we were trying to find. I told him we needed the V train. "There's no more goddamn V train!" He was literally shouting, as if the V train, or its disappearance had personally offended him. "The M train replaces the V train!" He was still shouting. "Now what did I just say?" he demanded and I rolled my eyes skyward and recited, "There's. No. More. God. Damn. V. Train." "Very good," he said and pointed us in the direction of the station. Later that night, we went back to the Strand and I bought an excellent small street atlas of Manhattan and the first thing I did was look at the subway map, and what did I see? The goddamn V train!

A friend of mine recommended an Indian restaurant in the East Village. Here is what google maps came up with when I asked it to direct me from our hotel to E. 6th St.

E. 6th St. turned out to have many Indian restaurants: the "Taj" the "Raj" the "Taj Mahal,"etc. We wanted the "Raj Mahal" which was a slightly dingy below-street-level place, but there we had one of the top ten best meals of my life. Cheap, too. When we were finished eating, but bus boy took our plates and fussily scraped the crumbs off the tablecloth and dropped a dainty napkin over the stains we had made. We wondered why there was so much ceremony when all we wanted was to pay our bill and leave, but then we were each given a complimentary dessert. At the beginning of the meal, I had told Brigid that we would not order dessert because I hate Indian desserts, so we thought our little bowls of mango-jello-coconut-pudding-thing were hilarious. But the night was not over. The sitar player left his post, the proprietor turned on a flashing orange siren light, changed up the music to Happy Birthday, although not "Happy Birthday" as we know it, but a windy, dancy, Happy Birthday. The staff gathered around the table across the way from us and executed a neat birthday dance, twirling and clapping for the birthday boy at that table.

After dinner, we barely made it to the Strand before their 10:30pm closing time and I hastily scooped up some souvenirs for Jon and Seamus as well as my new street atlas.

In the morning we walked around NYU, and then the West Village, envying the houses, and did some more shopping.

We had some difficulty getting back to Penn Station the next day, partly because our bags were so much heavier and partly because I saw a sign at the 6th Ave. subway that said we could catch the "1" train there, but it turned out to be a subterranean passage between 6th and 7th Aves which didn't save any time, and in fact, caused us great difficulty because we were forced to climb and descend several sets of stairs with our bags. Once at Penn Station, I couldn't find the Amtrak area and thought for sure we would miss our train. At Amtrak, you have to stand and watch a giant screen which doesn't announce your track number until the train is ready to board. There were loads of people staring at that screen and I knew they were all waiting for the same train we were, which was headed for Philadelphia and Washington, because who is going to take a train to the Jersey Shore, or Niagara Falls on a Wednesday in October? When our train was finally announced, all 5,000 of us had to file down a single narrow escalator and show our tickets to the solitary Amtrak employee at its head. We had barely boarded before the train started to move, and of course finding two seats together was out of the question. We couldn't even find two seats in the same car. For this reason, I do not recommend taking Amtrak with small children.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Part 1: Getting there

1. Most of the time, I'm a sensible adult woman but where trains are concerned, I'm a three year old boy. No matter what I'm doing, if a train passes, I have to stop and watch it. If, on my morning run, I happen to be on the Belmont Bridge at the exact moment that a freight train engine is rumbling underneath, I consider that the height of excitement. This doesn't happen very often, but during one memorable week, it happened three times.

2. I've been toying with the idea of a trip to New York for a long time.

3. Brigid is planning to apply to some art schools in New York.


We packed light: one small carry on bag plus one small backpack for the two of us. The Charlottesville platform was crowded. I hadn't realized just how popular train travel is until a few weeks ago when I drove Brigid to the station in Lynchburg where she was meeting friends for a Gov School reunion. I was expecting a deserted shed with pigeons roosting in the rafters. Instead, it was like a scene from a 1940's movie when the troops come home from the war: a cobblestone street, a quaint little station, hundreds of people milling about, joyful reunions, stacks of baggage all over the platform, and the train sliding silently away with the uniformed conductors standing in the cars' doorways. It was all very romantic and I was highly impressed. I immediately bought Brigid a ticket to Charlottesville ($15) so I would not have to drive all the way to Lynchburg to get her after her weekend away.

In Charlottesville, we waited on the platform and I noticed a woman whose back pack was actually a small pet carrier. A little dog was visible through a mesh screen in the side. Even if my dogs were small enough to fit in a backpack, I can't imagine taking them on a train. Luna would be liberally and continuously train sick and Sancho would bark hysterically every time someone walked up the aisle and would eventually chew a way out of the bag and start biting people's pant legs. This dog seemed content to peer quietly out of his little mesh window. When the train came, the dog woman sat across the aisle from us. She took up all the available space around her with her large suitcase, her snacks, her books, and her dog, as if that Amtrak seat were to be her home for the rest of her life.

I was mesmerized by the the view, which is totally different from what you see from a road: back yards and laundry lines, houses deep in the woods with fifteen junked cars piled on the lawn, and farmers' back pastures. In Culpeper, two countrified gentlemen with hee-haw accents got on and sat directly behind us. They were going to Boston to visit one man's daughter, who may have been feeling ambivalent about her father's visit. At least, when the man spoke to her on his cell phone he had to ask her three times to tell him her exact address. They were adorable and giggled like two boy scouts off on their first adventure.

In Washington, a woman wearing a sari sat in the seat in front of us and immediately embarked on a long and indignant conversation in a language I didn't recognize. After a long spell of almost unbroken speech, she paused and said in English, "That's what I mean," before continuing in her original language. I noticed her tone now changed from indignant to instructive. The Dog Woman made periodic visits to the bathroom, with the dog. Had she trained it to use a toilet?

In Philadelphia, the train filled up and the aisles were crammed with disconsolate people, dragging their bags and looking for seats. Dog Woman refused to move her bags and whenever anyone asked to sit next to her, she would tell them to find a seat in the next car. I was tempted to lean across the aisle and ask in a loud voice if she'd bought a ticket for her DOG. We were deep into New Jersey before everyone was seated and the man who sat next to the woman in the sari in front of us began to aggressively proselytize her. She told him politely and firmly that she believed in tolerance for all religions and that she had her own beliefs and wasn't about to change them, but he would not let up. He took on a condescendingly gentle tone, imploring the woman to please feel free to contact him if she had any questions about what he was telling her. He said he would feel much better if she would accept Jesus Christ as her savior and then he said that he was anxious about being able to meet her in heaven one day. At that point I would have put my fist in his face but this woman had a remarkable supply of self control. It finally ended with the man saying he would pray for her, and the woman saying, "Yes, we all pray for everybody."

If only the proselytizer had sat next to the dog woman! That would have been a scene I might have enjoyed.

We arrived at Penn Station in New York after about six hours on the train, and blundered about trying to find the metro, which we did, eventually, but not without difficulty. It isn't much fun taking a suitcase--even a small one--on a crowded subway, but I remembered the subways in Rome where you'd be literally pressed against six people with hardly room to bend your wrist and someone would still try to stuff their way on with a baby stroller or a tuba.

Our hotel was in Chelsea, we got there with no trouble and were soon settled in a room that was precisely the width of a double bed, plus two inches. We literally had to vault over the bed to look out the window but it was clean enough and surely what we didn't know about the carpet stains wouldn't hurt us.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Martha Stewart vs. Laurie Colwin

Reading Laurie Colwin's two food books, Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, is like having a comfortable chat with your best friend. I read Home Cooking a few years ago and knew straight away that this was writing I liked a lot. Here was a woman who understood that grilling is a pain in the ass and that girls don't read Nancy Drew because they want a strong female role model but because they want to vicariously don sheath dresses with pumps and lunch in tea rooms.

It took me a while to get my hands on More Home Cooking because no library near me has it and I finally broke down and bought it. Like its predecessor, it's a collection of essays about food with recipes interspersed. She offers a fresh point of view--an essay about the liberation of cooking in a rented house, for example. Did you ever attempt to cook a meal in a rented house and discover that your only kitchen implements were a battered aluminum pot, two spoons, a lemon juicer, a chipped enamel strainer, a toast rack, a flour sifter with a wooden crank, and an electric griddle that was past its prime during the Eisenhower administration? And didn't you manage spectacular results? These are the things Laurie Colwin understands. She recognizes that one might thirst for elegance, but one also does not want to make a fuss. She gives a recipe for a cake that takes "four seconds" to prepare but then she tells you that making a proper chicken sandwich takes several hours. (You have to roast the chicken. You have to bake the right loaf of bread. You have to make your own mayonnaise.) She explains that the seemingly innocent turkey comes pre-stuffed with holiday angst.

Laurie Colwin presents cooking as a way to make people happy or nourish those who are suffering from a delicate condition such as jet lag. She wants food to be delicious but she doesn't want us to slave in the kitchen for it. She also shares her favorite cookbooks and I can't wait to track some of them down. I haven't yet tried any of the recipes in More Home Cooking, but if Laurie Colwin says they are delicious, I will take her word for it. Laurie Colwin is a sort of anti-Martha. She's funny, she's friendly, and if you have to substitute potatoes for parsnips or you omit the raisins because you hate them, well don't worry about it. Reading More Home Cooking is also very sad when you realize that Laurie Colwin died suddenly at the age of 48, shortly before this book was published. Its last line is: "I assure you that if you keep it simple, everything will turn out just fine."

A very different cookbook is Dinner at Home: 52 Quick Meals to Cook for Family and Friends by Martha Stewart. Martha is not very funny and not very friendly. If you think you can get away with substituting brandy for Cointreau, you can think again. Dinner at Home has several nice features. It's beautifully photographed. It's organized by season. It's presented as complete menus, a concept I find irresistible. Every menu comes with a time line, telling you what to prepare first and how to proceed. These are not the sort of meals you prepare for a family every night, but perhaps once a week when you have the day off and have time to really cook. The word "quick" in the title is deceptive. No single dish takes long to prepare, but I know from bitter experience that pulling together an entire menu takes at least an hour and a half and will use every bowl and pan you own.

The first menu I tried was the "Pancetta Cheeseburgers, Balsamic Mushrooms, Tomato, Basil, and White Bean Salad." It was only after I bought all the ingredients and started preparing this meal that I realized I was making tarted up bacon cheeseburgers. Martha's version calls for pancetta and fontina cheese. Please do not ever put pancetta on a hamburger. It is a ridiculous affectation and I can tell you with confidence that a burger topped with pancetta and fontina tastes no better than one topped with ordinary bacon and humble American cheese.

We tried several other menus and everything tasted good. My family enjoyed being served complete meals with side dishes and dessert rather than my usual dinner fare which Seamus labels generically "Casserole Surprise." (Or "Puke in a Pan" if he is feeling grumpy.) A particular hit were the cheese flautas--corn tortillas spread with a cilantro-pumpkin seed pesto, stuffed with grated cheese, rolled and fried. Since this is Martha, you have to buy "pepitas" which I assumed are pumpkin seeds, although she never enlightens you. I chose the tamari roasted pumpkin seeds from Integral Yoga and that pesto really had a zing. Almost every recipe calls for something special that you can't find at a regular supermarket.

I plan to return the book to the library today and last night we finished our spate of Martha meals with "Pasta Shards with Fresh Herbs, Poached Eggs with Brown Butter, Arugula and Avocado Salad, Tiramisu." Poached eggs and pasta, how easy is that? Not so easy, it turns out. By the time dinner was ready, my kitchen looked like I'd been conducting a cooking class for trolls. First the tiramisu, which I decided to make at the last minute, while I was at Target. Does Target carry mascarpone cheese? Does Target carry lady fingers? No and no. Martha says: "The Italian form of ladyfingers (called savoiardi) are only slightly sweet and fairly dry, so they are the best choice for this recipe." What kind of degraded society am I living in where I can't find mascarpone and savoiardi at my local Target? I decided to substitute cream cheese and little sugar cookie sticks, which worked out fine by the way--although I had dirtied a mixer bowl, a loaf pan, a casserole dish and a shallow bowl for dipping the cookies and I hadn't even started the dinner.

I had to make the brown butter which involved cooking some butter until it turned brown. ("What is that, moose saliva?" Brigid asked.) Setting the butter aside, I started a pot boiling for the pasta and another for the poached eggs. Slipping the eggs into the simmering water, I felt like I was making progress now. It became apparent that my kids had never seen poached eggs before. This was shocking to me. When I was growing up, you ate poached eggs on Sunday and that was the way it was. How could I have been so remiss in not passing this tradition on to my children? Anyway, eggs done, (Martha says, "...trim away rough edges with kitchen shears.") I transferred them to two platters lined with paper towels.

There was the problem of the pasta. For this recipe you are supposed to take lasagna noodles and break them into pieces. I only had the "no boil" variety of lasagna, and after consulting my facebook friends, decided that I had better not risk boiling it, so I went with regular ziti instead. In the photograph, the poached eggs look so lovely nestled in the lasagna bits, it killed me to use ziti. Trust Martha to invent a recipe for "pasta shards." Not unlike the shards from her stone cold heart.

Anyway, it was time to pay attention to the salad. The first step was to "combine oil and pine nuts in a medium skillet and cook over medium heat, tossing occasionally until nuts are golden brown..." Oh arse, I'd forgotten to buy the pine nuts. We could just skip the nuts. Moving on, it was now well after 7:00pm and we were starving. I tossed the arugula into a bowl, I shredded a carrot over it. I diced some red onion and threw that in too. My avocado had mysteriously frozen in the vegetable bin. I don't know, my fridge freezes vegetables sometimes. It's very annoying. I tossed the avocado in the trash. It was time to drain the pasta and then drizzle it with oil and hot pepper flakes and snip fresh herbs over it. That done, I put the finishing touch on the salad, which was to use a vegetable peeler and shave bits of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese over it. I was supposed to make the dressing too, which involved the oil from the toasted pine nuts so I substituted something from a bottle.

At last, dinner was ready. All that remained was to gently reheat the poached eggs in the brown butter, only now the fragile eggs were stuck to the paper towels. I loaded each plate with pasta and salad. I coaxed the poached eggs, (not without breaking some yolks) two at a time into the brown butter and swirled them for a minute and scooped them out onto each person's pasta. My kids thought pasta and eggs was a crazy combination, but it turned out to be delicious.

The dish count:
1 mixer bowl + 1 beater + 1 spatula + 1 measuring cup
1 shallow dish, for dipping cookies into espresso, 1 espresso pot
1 loaf pan, which turned out to be the wrong size, forcing me to also use 1 small square casserole dish.
1 skillet for the brown butter
1 pan for the pasta
1 pan for the eggs + 1 slotted spoon + two small platters lined with paper towels (for 8 eggs)
1 large bowl for the salad
1 knife, 1 pair kitchen shears
1 vegetable peeler washed and used three times: to shred chocolate for the tiramisu, to shred the carrot, to shred the cheese for the salad
1 cutting board
assorted serving spoons

All for fucking pasta and eggs and salad.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Channeling my mom

I guess it's unusual to travel 500 miles to attend a bridal shower, but now that I work part time, I can do this sort of thing. And it gave me an excuse to visit Ian, who is well, although frustrated by a roommate who watches TV constantly.

Here is something that happened to Ian and me in Buffalo: We tried to get him a public library card-- something I thought would be simple and straightforward but turned out to be a process of Byzantine complexity. Oh sure, he can use the library at his school, but the Buffalo & Erie County Libraries is an excellent system. My chief amusement when we lived in Buffalo was to visit the downtown library every Saturday and stagger home with more books than I could carry. One memorable winter day when I was hugely pregnant with Grace, I was browsing in the new fiction when two-year old Brigid pointed a fat finger at a bald, bespectacled, big-nosed man and screamed, "MOMMY! MOMMY! I SEE GANDHI!"

Anyway, Ian and I presented ourselves at the circulation desk of the main library downtown with his student ID and his passport (he doesn't have a driver's license yet). The young man at the desk looked worried. He disappeared to consult his supervisor. "Student cards," he told us helpfully, "are the most complicated." We would need to provide a receipt for Ian's tuition. (Proof that we had "done business" in Erie County.) We would need to provide a copy of his current class schedule. (Proof that he really is a current student.) We would need to provide a copy of his dorm assignment. (Proof of a local address.) This is the modern age, all these documents were accessible on-line and this library doesn't require that you have a library card in order to use their computers. It took a little while to find a computer that was free and I had trouble with the printer,  and I accidentally wasted $0.10 making a photocopy of nothing, but eventually we were able to return to the circulation desk with all the proofs they required.

This time, we were called to the desk by a different employee. I said, "My son is a student at Canisius College but his permanent address is in Virginia. He would like a library card. Here is his student ID. Here is is passport. Here is proof that we paid his tuition. Here is a copy of his class schedule. Here is a copy of his dorm assignment." I laid each of these documents on the desk in front of her as I named them. She said, "Who told you that this was how you could get a library card?" I pointed to the young man who'd served us originally. "Oh, him," she said. "He's a newbie." Then she disappeared to consult her supervisor.

When she came out she said, "Is his permanent address listed on his passport?" Doh! We realized that passports do not list one's address. "But I have my driver's license," I said. "It has our current address on it. He lives with me." She said, "Is he 18?"  When I affirmed that he is, she said, "Sorry, no good." She went back to consult the supervisor again. It looked like we actually were going to be DENIED a library card.

It was clear that I needed supernatural help. I decided to channel my mom. My mother died many years ago, but when she was alive, public libraries were her personal cause. When Erie County threatened to close the branches in our town, she formed a grassroots group called "Citizens to Save the Libraries"--made up almost entirely of women-- and they did, indeed save the libraries. That was in the 1970s. If anyone could cut through all this red tape, it was her. I said a prayer to my mom. The library lady returned. She looked at us for a moment, somewhat abashed. Would she turn us away? Would we have to leave the library, defeated, $0.70 the poorer with nothing but a wasted hour and a pile of useless papers? The library lady's facial expression changed. She seemed to have come to a decision. "Well," she said, "I'm not really supposed to do this, but because I like you, I'll let you have a library card."

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hair Apparent

Now I have a stealth ironer in the house. I will attempt to enter the bathroom and find all available space taken up by the fully extended ironing board, the still-warm iron attesting to an effort only recently abandoned. Which one of my family has become averse to wrinkles? Not Jon. He wears what are essentially pajamas to work every day, except Fridays when he gets to swan about in a lab coat which is permanently crumpled and stored somewhere at the hospital. When I ask the kids I get blank stares and shrugs and "I dunno." Perhaps it is one of the other random high school kids who populate my bathroom on weekday mornings, availing themselves of our hair straightener. Maybe one hair straightener is not enough and they are using my iron to straighten their hair. I should make them sign a release when they come over: THE UNDERSIGNED ACKNOWLEDGE THAT PATIENCE CRABSTICK, MR. CRABSTICK AND THEIR HEIRS ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY BURNS SUFFERED ON THE PREMISES.

Speaking of teens and hair, Seamus, my youngest, and the only "real" child in the house, is turning into an adolescent. He's eleven and in sixth grade, and has suddenly become obsessed with his appearance; his hair, in particular. He now demands "boy" shampoo. Boy shampoo, as defined by Seamus, comes in a tube rather than in a bottle. Okay, I can buy shampoo in tubes, although there seems to be a 200% markup on tubed shampoo. Whatever. Seamus even insisted that we provide boy shampoo for Ian at school, even though Ian himself shows zero interest in hair products and would wash his own hair with drano or maple syrup if that was what happened to be in the shower with him. Seamus' current hairstyling system is to mash it all down flat on his forehead with his fingers, turn his head slightly to the left and then sweep it dramatically to the right, causing his hair to swirl about his head a la Justin Bieber. No amount of haranguing will dissuade him from going for the Justin Bieber look. We had this conversation yesterday:

Seamus: Mom, Miss L doesn't like me.

Me: Who's Miss L?

Seamus: She's my English teacher! (Whoops. Bad mother for not already having my children's collective nineteen teachers' names memorized--and that doesn't include Ian's professors.)

Me: How do you know she doesn't like you?

Seamus: Because today I was doing this--demonstration of the hair-mashing, head sweeping thing--and she said, "Seamus! This is English class, not hair class!"

Me: Maybe you shouldn't mess with your hair during class.

Seamus: But we weren't even learning anything!

Monday, September 06, 2010

House, uncensored

I'm ashamed to admit that we have already expanded to fill the space that Ian vacated when he left for school. Not, of course, that he doesn't still have a home here for summers or holidays, or a post-college job hunt, but with almost indecent haste, I threw away most of the clothes he left behind (he told me I could) and listed his unwanted books for sale on Amazon. Seamus (Mr. McP) and I went to the paint store and I let him pick some new paint for his room. He chose a leafy green, a bit intense for my taste, but the color is sanctioned by pottery barn. I thoroughly cleaned the room (and found the last, sticky remnants of the moonshine mash stuck to the floor in a dark corner.) The room is now a crisp green and white and Seamus has moved into the bottom bunk until Ian returns for Christmas. (The school is too far for him to get home for Thanksgiving, so he will spend it with relatives up there.)

I miss Ian horribly, but I don't miss the tortilla chip crumbs in my desk drawer.

Speaking of cleaning, I found pictures of my house on my camera. The kids must have taken them, for whatever reason. It occurred to me that whenever I put a picture of my house on the internet I have picked up any mess so as to give the impression that I live in a clean house. Now, I give you my house, uncensored. If you dare to put up uncensored pics of your own living space, let me know.

Crap all over the floor of sun room + hideous chair that Jon dragged home from thrift shop
My unmade bed, with Jon's hideous Buddhist art thumb tacked to the wall. (I freaking HATE Buddhist "art." Jon stumbled across a Tibetan monk in Rome and now we have the distinction of having brought to America the single ugliest piece of art in all of Italy.)
The girls' unmade bed.
Ian & Seamus' room (before Ian moved out)
We are constantly dropping things over the landing and breaking the lamp that sits on the desk below. We have destroyed at least five desk lamps in this manner.

Shoe disaster.

Kitchen disaster.

Dining room disaster.

Note the classy roll of toilet paper on the computer desk--the desk that is usually full of tortilla chip crumbs.
It looks just like a Pottery Barn catalog, no?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The big move-in

Before I took Ian (Mad Scientist) to college, I had already written in my head a piece about the horrors of college move-in day. Having experienced it on a small scale when I moved Brigid into the dorms at Radford for the Governor's school, not to mention the chaos that descends on Charlottesville when the UVA students come back to town, I felt I knew what I was in for. The Gov School move-in was insane, with parents trying to squeeze their cars into every available space and making multiple trips to the dorms with armloads of stuff--for a one month stay. At least two kids brought refrigerators. OH MY GOD. Ian's school, in an inner city neighborhood with virtually no parking and its dorm end located in a maze of crooked, narrow, one-way streets, would surely have the most nightmarish move-in of all.

I didn't take into account that Canisius College was founded by German Jesuits (in 1870). If anyone can transform a logistical nightmare into an efficient system it is the Germans. We presented ourselves, in our car, on the street we'd been told to use and were directed to get into a long line of cars hugging the left curb. Ian was sent to check in and pick up his key ("Which one of you is the student?" barked the guy directing traffic) while I waited in the car. The line crept forward and when we got to the front, we were directed to one of the parking spaces in front of the dorm and a horde of students descended on us, quickly took everything out of the car and in about three seconds we were standing outside Ian's door, slightly dazed, surrounded by all his personal possessions. An ancient Jesuit, bundled in a black coat, sat drowsing in a chair in the dorm lobby, presiding. The entire process, from the time we first entered the line, took about twenty minutes.

The rest of move-in day was a whirlwind of activities, with everything running so smoothly that we had time to stop in the bookstore and buy all Ian's books, and walk around the neighborhood, and unpack. There was a generous free lunch for all and Ian was introduced to all the "free" services he will enjoy at Canisius--unlimited free use of Buffalo's public transportation, tutoring, counseling, health clinic, etc. Ian was identified as a legacy student and photographed, with me, as such. There was an atmosphere of plushness, of No Expense Spared. Ian's dorm is gorgeous. I have seen plenty of dorm rooms that are little more than prison cells, but Ian's is thoughtfully designed, with a little jog in the wall so that when the boys are in bed they can't see each other, a lovely view, and generous storage. The common area is stunning. My pictures don't do it justice.

When I was a student at Canisius, I thought the modern buildings were hideous but now I see they have a certain retro charm. (The original 1870 school was in downtown Buffalo and moved to its current location in 1901 and expanded considerably in the 1960s.)

The day ended with a "convocation," a pompous ceremony in which the students were officially welcomed with speeches from campus worthies. Dinner followed, but we skipped it and went out to dinner downtown.

I had been anxious about everything, the logistics of move-in, the emotional adjustment of having a child move out, as well as concern for Ian's well-being and it was an enormous relief to see him so comfortably settled. We talk to him daily and he sounds happy, is hanging out with his Buffalo cousins, will be going to the family labor day party at my sister-in-law's house and is planning to apply for a job as an orderly at the hospital down the street--the same hospital where Jon and several of the cousins and uncles worked in college, and where his grandfather was a physician. Classes officially started yesterday and he likes them so far and is enthusiastic about being a classics major.

Now I will bore you with photos.

Waiting in line to move in
The neighborhood. It's not a very safe neighborhood, but there is plentiful campus security and there are shuttles and rides and enough resources so that no student need be walking alone at night.
Neighborhood around Canisius
We like the religious symbols embedded in the building.

Student Center

Ian in front of his dorm

Back end of Christ the King Chapel

Orientation stuff

The priests' house

"Old Main"
Dorm room
Ian's dorm room

Dorm common area
Common area again. I was daft not to get a photo that shows how this common area is actually a balcony open to the common area of the floor below.

If you look through the glass, you can see how the common areas alternate between full floor ones and balconies.

Fabulous retro '60s architecture
Another view

Lyons Hall