Friday, December 30, 2011

Friday Reading Assignment 12/30/11

Remember the nineties?  That glorious time of a shit economy and nothing to do but hang out with your friends and bitterly criticize the baby boomers who were hogging all the jobs and why couldn't they just die already?  The nineties live on in today's assignment, The Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn.  I chose it because it's the time of year when people contemplate making a fresh start, and the Christmas credit card bills are arriving and we are just becoming dimly aware that soon we will have to pay taxes again.

The general vibe in the early nineties was one of tightening belts, of making do, of going without.  People were concerned about the environment, but the emphasis then was on using less, not on consuming more as it is now.   (If your cruelty-free sunscreen comes in a plastic bottle, it's not exactly eco-friendly. Sorry.)

One cold winter day in 1993 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where Jon was in grad school for comparative religion(!) I was watching Phil Donohue.  The guest was Amy Dacyczyn, sharing her tips for frugal living.  Phil's mouth-breathing audience was giving her a hard time.  They could scarcely believe the deprived environment she had created for her children in which they were never taken to McDonald's and wore clothes she bought at yard sales.  When she described how she used a cheese grater to scrape the burned layer off of cookies the audience all but stoned her.  I admired how Amy handled their horror with aplomb.  A cookie is a cookie, motherfuckers.  This was a woman I could learn from and I immediately bought her book which is really a compliation of issues of the frugal newsletter she published from her house in Maine.

My pressing concern at that time was how on earth we would afford two babies in diapers.  I had a diaper service for Ian, but diaper service for two was beyond our budget.  Amy Dacyczyn has six children, so there is a LOT of information about diapers in The Tightwad Gazette.  When I read that the Tightwad solution to diapers was to wash them yourself, I realized my diaper problem was solved. It had never occurred to me that I could wash diapers myself.  We didn't own a washing machine, but if Amy could take her kids' diapers to the laundromat, (which she did) then so could I.   (This was, by the way, long before the advent of trendy super-expensive cloth diapers.)

Diapers aside, the driving force behind The Tightwad Gazette was Dacyczyn's refusal to conform to the notion that it is impossible to raise a family on one income.  Not only did the Dacyczyn family want to raise their family on one income, they wanted a large family and they wanted to buy a farmhouse with attached barn in Maine.  They were successful because they made such a stellar effort to spend less and save more. Furthermore, their lifestyle seemed fun, not deprived.

I'm no stranger to thrift--my parents were thrifty and drilled their habits into my head, but there's always more to learn. From The Tightwad Gazette I  picked up a  mindset that allows me to creatively come up with my own money-saving ideas.  For example, I wondered if I could set my dishwasher to do a "top rack" wash with dishes in the bottom rack.  I discovered that dishes on the bottom rack WILL get clean during a top-rack only wash, as long as you load it lightly.  The top rack wash cycle runs for 38 minutes and uses less water than the regular cycle, which runs for over 70 minutes.

But you're saying, "Patience, I have money to BURN.  I don't need to read about washing and reusing zip lock bags."  That's fine, but what sets The Tightwad Gazette apart from other frugal lifestyle books is that it's so entertaining, particularly the letters from readers.  Nothing beats  a New England yankee for parsimony and most of the letters come from New Englanders.  There's also the environmental factor, since a frugal lifestyle is kind to the environment and here you will find a wealth of information on reducing your footprint and none of it involves buying expensive organic products.

When our economy turned sour in 2008, I hoped that there'd be a silver lining:  that people would return to thrift and decreased consumption, but that doesn't seem to be the case.  Or maybe I've become so affluent I've lost touch. I no longer need to make homemade baby wipes out of paper towels and baby shampoo, but I reread The Tightwad Gazette every so often to give myself a reality check. I think it's time.

Monday, December 26, 2011

On fait le Christmas Pyramid

And so it came to pass that another Christmas happened in which we did our annual Christmas pyramid, a tradition that dates all the way back to 2004 or thereabouts. Here is this year's movie, which you should watch if only to hear my sister's famous laugh.  It's so infectious that two companies have actually tried to buy it from her.  Once, she was yukking it up in a bar in Buffalo, NY when she heard, "That laugh!  Take me to that laugh," and so found herself being introduced to Frank Gorshin who played the Riddler in the Batman television show.  If the Riddler thinks you have a great laugh, you really have something going on.  But that is my sister's adventure, not mine.

We edited out a LOT of arguement and discussion, unlike last year when I posted a full three minutes of drivel.  You would think that after six years, we'd have mastered this thing, but you would be wrong.

My sister and her husband are still here, and since we have exhausted everything Charlottesville has to offer the girls are going to take a little trip to Richmond while the boys go for a hike in the Blue Ridge.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

In which: Jonukkah

Tis the season to do a blog post about your Christmas decorations.  Friend Jen on the Edge puts together a holiday homes tour every year which I didn't participate in because I judge my house to be not worthy.  However, it is fun to see what other people have done.  My own style can best be described as slapdash.

But what the hell?  Why not post a few pictures? I also can't resist linking back to the story of one of my favorite absurd predicaments.  Here's how we got a free Christmas tree and erroneously believed we had committed a crime on the property of James Monroe, the fifth US president.

Our tree.  

This year, I bought the tree at Whole Foods, after buying groceries.  Being too inept to tie it to the roof of the car, I stuffed the whole thing into the back of my little scion, along with the groceries (and Seamus).  The back door wouldn't close, and as we drove away, some of my groceries fell out of the back of the car into the middle of Hydraulic Rd. where I couldn't retrieve them without getting killed.  Another Christmas tree fail. 

 We gave up on the family trip to get a tree years ago.  After the fiasco linked above, we returned to Ashlawn the following year.  No crimes were committed but just when we were in the middle of the pasture carrying a heavy tree, a herd of cows appeared. All the cows I've ever seen have been behaving placidly, but these cows were actually galloping, as if they were pursued by the hounds of satan and we were the corn of salvation.  It was disconcerting, to say the least, but then the farmer appeared with a cart full of feed and they thundered past us to tear at the feed.  Those cows were hungry, and I swear--herbivores or not--if that feed cart hadn't appeared, they would have eaten us.  The next year, we drove out to a farm in Nelson county and the effing tree fell off the roof of the car when we were still a good twenty miles from home.  We had to retie it with bits of whatever--mostly shoelaces.  After that, our trees came from catalogs and grocery stores.

The mantle.

I like shiny glass ornaments, like this  friendly duck.

I made this treetop angel, back when I was an at-home mother and actually had free time.

Our house doesn't look quite so trashy after dark. 

But Bubbles feels right at home. 

You don't know Bubbles?  Watch Trailer Park Boys

What is this Jonukkah referenced in the title?  It's a special holiday, invented by Jon (get it--Jon/JONukkah) for those of us who have no self control can't wait until Christmas.  Such people are allowed to open presents that have been sent by out of town relatives.  By the time Jonukkah is over (Christmas Eve) Ian, Jon, and Grace have no presents left.  Brigid has ALL of hers and Seamus and I are somewhere in the middle.

Jon's present to me:  he hired a piano tuner to come to the house and fix and tune my piano. It was all done secretly while I was at work.  One of the hammers in the piano broke off, so I have had no F sharp, in the first octave for the right hand for TEN years!   The piano used to be my grandparents, then my mom's, and she left it to me when she died.  The tuner who came the other day showed Jon the 20 watt bulb inside the piano's innards and the electric cord that had been hidden--for over fifty years!--with which to plug it in and keep the piano warm and dry.  The whole concept that my piano is supposed to be plugged in, and the fact that the fifty year old lightbulb still works,  is more surprising than the gift of the tuning and repair, lovely as it was.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Literary Meme

I can't resist a good literary meme.  I got this one from Mad Housewife.
1. What author do you own the most books by?
Barbara Pym, if I discount books that belong to the same series.
2. What book do you own the most copies of?
None right now, but I used to own multiple copies of Anne of Green Gables and Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright.
3. Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?
4. What fictional character are you secretly in love with?
I have to pick just one?  My top literary hotties are Lord Peter Wimsey, Lucius Malfoy, Frank Greystoke from The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope, Almanzo Wilder, Aragorn, Captain James Aubrey from Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, and Harry Flashman.
5. What book have you read the most times in your life (excluding picture books read to children, i.e. Goodnight Moon does not count)?
Little House on the Prairie
6. What was your favorite book when you were ten years old?
Ten was a tough year for me.  We moved to a new town just before Christmas and I was miserable at my new school and our new house was ice cold all the time (we discovered 10 years later that the heating ducts had never been connected to my bedroom) and I couldn't master long division.  I was drawn to books about lonely girls who hated their schools.  The one that stands out is The Secret Language by Ursula Nordstrom.  Also The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnet.  
7. What is the worst book you’ve read in the past year?
The Mists of Avalon by Zimmer Bradley.  Another huge best-seller that is total crap.  It's the story of King Arthur told from the women's perspective--Morgaine and her crowd.  A heavier, more humorless book you will not find anywhere.  
8. If you could force everyone to read one book, what would it be?
The Evolution Man or: How I Ate my Father by Roy Lewis.  This is one of the funniest books I've ever read.  When I finished it, I felt a strong urge to go out on the streets and press copies of it into people's hands.
9. Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for Literature?
I have no idea.  
10. What book would you most like to see made into a movie?
The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope.
11. What book would you least like to see made into a movie?
The Flashman novels would be disastrous as films.  Once you edit out everything that's offensive, there's nothing fun left.
12. Describe your weirdest dream involving a writer, book, or literary character.
I read The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner all in one day, cramming for an exam in college.  I had weird dreams that night.
13. What is the most lowbrow book you’ve read as an adult?
Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor
14. What is the most difficult book you’ve ever read?
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
15. What is the most obscure Shakespeare play you’ve seen?
Alas, I've only seen well-known Shakespeare.

16. Do you prefer the French or the Russians?
The Russians.  In high school, our AP English teacher was a Russian.  This was at an all-girls' school that had just two other men on the staff: the American history teacher and the janitor.  So along comes Mr. Roman the Russian with his mournful, vodka-soaked Russian accent, and we were all in love within the first five minutes of our first class.  The entire curriculum that year was Russian literature, except for a brief, brain-killing detour through the works of James Joyce.
17. Roth or Updike?
I am embarrassed to admit I've never read any Roth.  He's on my list, I swear it!  So I will have to go with Updike.
18. David Sedaris or Dave Eggers?
I must be the only person in the US who has never read David Sedaris.  I know that some serious literary people sneer at A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but I liked it.  His descriptions of his mother's illness and death are very similar to what I experienced when my own mother died.  And I could relate to his encounters with the pretentious parents of Berkley--he calls them the "Berkley parentiscenti" and they sound an awful lot like a some Charlottesville parents I know (and wish I didn't).  I'm giving this one to Eggers. 

19. Shakespeare, Milton or Chaucer?
20. Austen or Eliot?
Austen but I also like Eliot.
21. What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?
I don't think I've read even one book that was published in the last two years.
22. What is your favorite novel?
Who could ever have one favorite novel?  If I want something delicious and cozy: Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann.   If I want to laugh:  My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.  If I'm gently melancholy:  Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor.  If I'm in a pre-war state of mind:  Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood.  If I want to be miserable:  Dubliners by James Joyce. If I want to feel better about getting older:  The Diaries of Jane Somers by Doris Lessing.  If I am feeling wicked: anything by Iris Murdoch or Flannery O'Connor.  If I want romance: The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning.

23. Play?
Reading plays is unnatural.  If I HAVE to pick one, then let it be The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde.
24. Poem?
Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
25. Essay?
"The Crackup" by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
26. Short story?
"Revelation" by Flannery O'Connor.

27. Work of nonfiction?
Again, it's hard to pick just one, but since I just finished reading it and it was excellent, I'll go with London: the Biography by Peter Ackroyd.

28. Who is your favorite writer?
This is just like asking me to name a favorite novel.
29. Who is the most overrated writer alive today?
John Grisham.  
30. What is your desert island book?
Buddenbrooks, maybe?  Or The Complete Short Stories of Flannery O'Connor.
31. And…what are you reading right now?
Flashman and the Dragon by George MacDonald Fraser

Friday, December 16, 2011

Friday Reading Assignment 12/16/11: Christmas

I don't read much holiday themed literature, but here is a list of my favorites, such as it is.  Most of these are children's books.

The Doll's Christmas by Tasha Tudor.  I have always been in love with Tasha Tudor's illustrations and I love this sweet little book in which two girls and their dolls enjoy a Christmas party.

Becky's Christmas by Tasha Tudor.  Tudor's "Becky" books are charming and I used to love reading this one (and The Doll's Christmas) out loud to my children.  This is a nostalgic look at a traditional American country Christmas, greatly enhanced by Tudor's delicate illustrations.

The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden.  An orphan, an unwanted doll and a childless couple come together in this story that would be awfully sentimental if it weren't written by Rumer Godden, whose other doll books I loved as a child, especially The Doll's House and Impunity Jane.  Excellent illustrations by Barbara Cooney.

The Christmas books of Miss Read.  I believe all the titles are Christmas at Thrush Green, No Holly for Miss Quinn, Village Christmas, The Christmas Mouse.  I don't know if I've actually read all of these, but I started reading Miss Read during a dark period of my life in which our move to Virginia followed hard on the heels of my mother's death.  Miss Read, whose real name is Dora Saint, writes gentle stories of life in country villages in England.  When we first moved to Virginia, while I was still relying on Miss Read for comfort lit, I was indignant to find that Miss Read's books were shelved at the Charlottesville library under "R" for Read instead "M" for Miss as they were in Buffalo.  I took this as a sign of a backward society.  (That, and the appalling discovery that the public libraries here use the Dewey decimal system instead of Library of Congress.)  Yes, I am a nerd, but I worked in a library in high school and all through college and my grandmother was a librarian, so I take these things more seriously than most people.

What are your favorite holiday books?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Pride & Prejudice movie showdown.

Get your Jane Austen geek on because here is a guide to the Pride & Prejudice movies.

1940: Pride and Prejudice starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson.

How does this movie annoy me?  Let me count the ways.  The ditzy chickens in the hen house soundtrack is one clue that Jane Austen is turning in her grave.  I am not the first person to observe that the costumes are from the wrong time period but good Christ, the gaudy fabrics and appalling bonnets are caricatures of an uninformed mixture of styles from the 1830's through the 1860's.   It's like they hired Chris March and instructed him to design a "fantasy" Pride & Prejudice.

Jane Austen was hardly a feminist, and 1940's Hollywood certainly didn't make it a priority to portray women as anything but sex objects, but in this Pride and Prejudice, the irritating music the chatter, the giggling, the absurd costumes, the bows, ruffles and ringlets, the appalling behavior (such as the carriage race between Lady Lucas and Mrs Bennet, both in a rush to make their husbands call on Mr. Bingley first) all send the clear message that women are very, very silly creatures indeed with no object in life other than to catch a man.  Even Lizzie, who is supposed to be sensible, is only distinguished by being rather less ditzy than the other women.  Austen's works are known for lampooning the faults of human nature, but she always presents a dichotomy:  the sensible vs the idiots.  Here, all are idiots.

Laurence Olivier's D'arcy is the most genial, the least haughty of the D'arcys.  His appearance is close to how one imagines D'arcy should look.  As for Greer Garson in the role of Elizabeth, I can't get past her over-tweezed 1940's eyebrows and false freaking eyelashes.  She looks wrong and while she tries to exude the sparkling personality of the literary character, I think she mostly fails.  I just can't warm to her.   Edward Ashley as Wickham and Melville Cooper as Mr. Collins are both competent in their roles although both are too old, and it is a stretch to consider Wickham as handsome.  Lady Catherine De Burg is a horse-faced monster.  Charles Bingley gets about three seconds of screen time, and Frieda Inescort as Caroline Bingley is perhaps the strongest performance of the entire cast.

This movie does have its moments, such as the "ball" at Netherfield (a ghastly imitation of the big party at Twin Oaks in Gone with the Wind) where Elizabeth Bennet and Caroline Bingley insult each other so effectively.

1980:  Pride and Prejudice starring Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul

The typical low-budget BBC film.  You wonder why they bothered, until you remember that when this movie was made, it had been forty years since the last adaptation.  This film is not visually exciting.  The houses are not much to look at--the Bennet's house, with its Palladian windows looks like something you'd see in an American cul-de-sac.  The costumes are uninspired and cheap.  David Rintoul way overplays Mr. D'arcy's haughtiness and seems to be always cradling a little pile of pebbles on his tongue.  Elizabeth Garvie is a likeable Lizzie, but she can't save this film.  The rest of the cast left no impression on me so we will have to conclude that their performances were forgettable.

1995:  Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle

This is the movie generally held up as the best adaptation.  It is certainly very well done and the entire cast is excellent, although I can't say I love Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth.  She's too heavy, somehow, and I don't mean fat, just a tad ponderous for someone who is supposed to be lively and playful.  Colin Firth plays Darcy as a smoldering hunk of repressed lust which is very effective, I must say.

This six-hour miniseries follows the book closely and with great accuracy.  Some of my all-time favorite scenes in movie history are here:  Sourpuss Caroline Bingley facing the horrors of Cheapside, Mr. Bennett saying, "And yet I am unmoved" in response to Mrs. Bennett's declaration that a little sea-bathing would set her up forever.  Mrs. Bennett shrieking about wedding clothes at the news of Lydia's elopement,  dimwitted Lydia asking “Where is everybody?” as she is marched up the steps of the church to her wedding, Mary informing her sisters that the loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable,  the piano scene at Pemberly, and Eliza and Darcy dancing at the ball.

Alison Steadman is the Mrs. Bennet and plays the part with comic brilliance.  No one else can touch her in this role, with her nerves, her flutterings, her scheming, her facial expressions, and a voice that drills itself into your eardrums.  Every time she opens her mouth, she says something hilarious and she manages to steal the scene even when she's just in the background..  Indeed, without her, this movie would be altogether too serious for what is supposed to be a comedy.  Benjamin Whitrow is the best Mr. Bennet of the bunch as well.  David Bamber as Mr. Collins is funny but also far creepier than I think Austen intended him to be.  Lucy Scott exerts a presence as Charlotte Lucas and Anthony Calf is charming in the small role of Colonel Fitzwilliam.  Adrian Lukis as Mr. Wickham is not handsome enough and appears shady from the beginning, which is all wrong

2005:  Pride and Prejudice, starring Kiera Knightly and Matthew Macfadyen

This is the most visually stunning of all the movies.  Everything:  the costumes, the sets, the landscapes, is gorgeous.  I love the Bennet's house in this film, which looks truly lived in.  The colors, the clutter, the laundry hanging in the back yard, the enormous pig, and the geese are all perfect.  The costumes are the best of all the P&P movies.  Some of you may say that Elizabeth's clothes are drab--and she does spend too much time bundled into a shabby old coat--but the details, the delicate prints, the simplicity are all lovely. There are no bountiful bosoms unlike the 1995 version, in which everyone displays a deep decolletage except for poor, pimpled Mary.  In this age of Victoria's Secret, birth control pills and breast implants, it's expected that all women have enormous breasts.  I'm glad no one was artificially enhanced for this movie.

A movie like this will always be judged according to how closely it follows the book, but as I watched this  P&P, I realized that if the producers had tried to create an exact retelling of Austen's novel, it would have come out as a bad imitation of the feted BBC version. This movie is a skillfully unique production. It doesn't try to live up to the BBC version, in which nearly every line comes verbatim from the book. Also, where authenticity is concerned, the Kiera Knightly version, I think, gives a more accurate picture of life in the early 1800s. The 18th century, with it's freer manners and moral standards, had barely ended when P&P takes place, and this is apparent in the new movie, both in the fashions—the young girls wear empire gowns, but the older ladies cling to the tight bodices and big hair of their own youths--and the behaviors. Yes, the manners are formal, but when Caroline Bingley wonders, at the ball, if they will all be forced to chase a piglet, you can see why she asks.  I loved the apr├ęs-ball scene, in which the Bennett family is clearly hung-over.

The cast is good too.  Brenda Blethyn is a more motherly, anxious Mrs. Bennet.  She's not as funny as Amanda Steadman, but she's more sympathetic.  Donald Sutherland is a grave and serious Mr. Bennet.  Rosamund Pike is my favorite Jane.  Jena Malone and Carey Mulligan as Lydia and Kitty look like the very young girls they're supposed to be---you can see why it is so shocking for Wickham to pick Lydia to run away with. In the BBC movie, Lydia looks more adult, and with her confident manner, it's more like she's the one taking advantage of Wickham, rather than the other way around. I'm glad Mary was allowed to be pretty in this movie--why should being bookish mean you must be ugly?  When I read the book for the first time, I was younger than any of the Bennet girls, Mary and Kitty were the characters who fascinated me, because they were peripheral to the story and thus an unknown quantity. Rupert Friend plays Wickham--a handsome Wickham at last!  Unfortunately, he's in barely three scenes.  Simon Woods is the most appealing Mr. Bingley. Tom Hollander was a good choice for Mr. Collins, who, in the book, is described as being twenty-five years old.  Why all the other movies had to make him middle aged is beyond me.  The young Mr. Collins here is perfectly ridiculous, but not creepy like David Bamber.  Kiera Knightly is not my favorite Elizabeth.  She reminds me of Winona Ryder trying to be Jo in Little Women.  (Knightly's not that bad, and she's good in the other historic roles she plays, but she just doesn't seem like a Lizzie to me.)  Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy never seems truly haughty, but instead just shy and sensitive. At the movie's opening, I thought he was all wrong, but his D'Arcy becomes more appealing as the movie progressed.  This movie has the best Elizabeth/Darcy sexual chemistry.

2008:  Lost in Austen starring Jemima Rooper and Elliott Cowan.

In this movie, Amanda Price lives in modern London, has a dull job, an oafish boyfriend and a cynical mother. Her idea of a good evening is one spent curled up on the couch with a glass of wine and a Jane Austen novel.  One day she finds Elizabeth Bennett in her bathroom, where the door behind the pipes turns out to be a conduit to the Bennett household, which Amanda enters just as Netherfield Park has been let at last.  Elizabeth stays in the 21st century, and Amanda is trapped with the Bennetts, where no one behaves quite like they do in the novel and the plot unravels in an alarming way.

I love this movie.  It's the funniest of all the P&P's and it's certainly the only Jane Austen movie you'll ever see with a reference to a pubic topiary.  Since the story goes all awry you are dying to see how it turns out--another novelty in a Jane Austen movie.  Jemima Rooper is hilarious as Amanda Price, although you can't help wondering how she maintains her artfully straightened hairstyle while living in the 19th century.  Gemma Arterton looks the most like how I imagined Elizabeth Bennet does in the novel, but since she spends most of the movie in Amanda's world, we hardly see her.  We have another superb Mrs. Bennett in Alex Kingston and Tom Riley is the best Mr. Wickham in Pride & Prejudice movie history.   The Bennet sisters are all delightful, especially Ruby Bentall as Mary. Guy Henry as Mr. Collins takes the role from creepy to straight up pervert. The only disappointment is Elliott Cowan as Mr. Darcy who is appears to be wearing wooden underwear and who has zero chemistry with the character who is supposed to be his love interest.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Friday Reading Assignment 12/9/11: Gritty

This week's assignment, A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews, belongs to the Grit Lit genre, which means (as I understand it) painfully realistic, darkly comic literature, set in the American south.  A Feast of Snakes has it all:  sex, violence, crime, murder, and high school football.  It's set in the town of Mystic, Georgia, which is about to host its annual event, the Rattlesnake Roundup.  Readers may have difficulty with the misogyny and the violence--I found the abuse of pit bulls and their fights to be particularly upsetting.  Nevertheless, it was this sort of lit--Flannery O'Connor's writing is a precursor of the style--that made me think I might be able to tolerate living in the South.  In college, I was an ardent admirer of southern lit.  I actually felt that I needed to live in the south to become a better writer.  It's still my opinion that the south has a richer literary tradition than the north.   A Feast of Snakes is a tragicomic white trash opera.  I love it because of its unashamed declaration that people are bastards.

Monday, December 05, 2011


I have a pretty poor track record when it comes to crafts.  Whenever I attempt a project, even if I follow the instructions carefully, the result is usually a fail.  Take, for example some Christmas cookies I saw in a magazine a few years ago.

These are the cookies as presented in the magazine.

This is what happened when I tried to bake them.

The other day, I saw these cookies on Pinterest and I was tempted to leave a comment about my experience with it, but I decided against it.  There are some things people need to learn for themselves and anyway, the Pinterest crowd doesn't seem to be very interested in reality.

 Pinterest is where I saw this Advent calendar.

I liked its clean red and white pallet. How hard could it be to paint a bunch of clothespins and glue them to a board?

For years I have wanted to make an Advent calendar.  Upscale catalogs have nice ones but they're usually things you could make yourself with fabric or yarn scraps and it's ridiculous to pay $98 for twenty-four tiny mittens on a string at Garnet Hill.

I've tried to knit my own tiny mittens, and always got bored before finishing even the first one.  This time I was determined to succeed.  I found twenty-five clothespins and gave them to Seamus to paint while I went out to buy the rest of the materials.  I did some calculations:  twenty-five clothespins spaced three and a half inches apart meant I needed an eighty-seven inch board.  That's more than seven feet.  For some reason, the Pinterest photo had led me to believe that the Advent calendar would be small and manageable, you know, like the size of a photograph on pinterest.  Now it appeared I was making the world's largest Advent calendar.

No doubt I amused the Lowe's shoppers who saw me attempting to scan the end of an eight food board at the self scanner and nearly take a guy out by the ankles.  I also smacked it into the top of the doorway when leaving the store.  At home, Seamus had painted ALL the clothespins red even though I had told him that we needed to paint half of them white.  I will spare you all the painful details, but in the end, I didn't even have a wall long enough to hang it on and had to resort to the space over a doorway.

Jon was not happy with the hooks I bought to hang it with as he felt they would work themselves off of the nails and the calendar would fall on the unlucky head of someone walking through the doorway.  I like excitement, but not that much excitement, and allowed him to improvise a way to hang the thing with leather thongs.  Leather thongs don't exactly say Christmas, but neither does an Advent calendar that doubles as a guillotine.

The finished product.  Not only is it long, it is heavy.  See my left hand, straining to hold it up in this picture?

There aren't packages hanging from all the clothespins.  That's because wrapping twenty-five tiny presents is HARD.  Hanging them is hard too, when you've accidentally painted the clothespins shut. Don't worry, I got them all wrapped and hanging eventually.  Note that the gifts are out of reach of the children.

After all that work, I read about how to make a clever Advent calendar from rolled-up pages from the Anthropologie catalog.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Friday Reading Assignment 12/2/11

I don't read many best sellers, but one popular author I love is Bill Bryson.  He never fails to make me laugh and if you haven't read any of his books yet, what are you waiting for?   This week's assignment is one of his earlier, less well-known books, The Lost Continent:  Travels in Small Town America.  Starting in his hometown in Iowa, Bryson makes a road trip through much of the United States, specifically looking for the ideal American small town.  Bryson hadn't quite reached his writing stride when he wrote this, but it is worth reading, nevertheless.

Bryson is mostly disappointed.  He envisions a small friendly place with a green courthouse square, useful shops along Main St., a centrally located post office, movie house, library, and residential neighborhoods within walking distance of downtown.  What he finds are mostly dreary towns whose businesses have succumbed to competition from big box stores on the outskirts of town.  It sounds grim, but Bryson has a talent for becoming embroiled in ridiculous situations, some of which are even to be found in the index.

Bryson City, North Carolina 87-91
            panty shields incident in A&P, 90-91

Before I owned a copy of this book I used to read the library's copy and someone wrote elegant little margin notes refuting some of Bryson's assertions.  I think I may have left my own elegant little margin note on the page where he declares Lake Erie "dead."  Since Bryson's writing is less mature than it is in his later books, he indulges in a few cringeworthy judgements, but mostly I join him in being appalled at the disintegration of the American small town.  And road trip books are awesome.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

For Better or for Worse

Yesterday was our twentieth anniversary.  We celebrated by going to a very fancy restaurant and we did enjoy it but I'll be honest, this has not been a good year for our marriage.  Below is a picture of us shortly before our wedding. We were so happy!

Here we are on Thanksgiving.  I was pissed at him for something and am elbowing him away from me.

Our marriage is not one that's all sunshine and rainbows and saccharine facebook statuses. Those lovey-hubby posts always irritate me anyway.  On the other hand, this is no Kardashian marriage.  When we stood before the priest and vowed "for better or for worse" we didn't know how much "worse" we were in for.  A lot, it turned out.

We spent our honeymoon driving to Michigan where Jon was in graduate school and had to return to class.  We didn't care that we weren't getting a proper honeymoon.  We were in love!  We'd have a honeymoon someday.  (Hasn't happened yet.)  Our first anniversary was spent driving from Buffalo to Michigan in a snow storm with a crying baby.  We got to our ice cold house late in the evening and--I remember this particularly--ate vegetarian hot dogs that looked like scalded human fingers and freezer burned wedding cake.  I was already pregnant again.  Our second anniversary was the day of Jon's brother's funeral.  He died tragically young of a brain tumor.  We had two babies by then.

And so it went, an opera of mishaps both comic and tragic:  home renovations, deaths, illness, road trips, DIY carpentry, hurricanes, blizzards, leaky roofs, being robbed, shitty landlords, mice, rats, squirrels, birds, ants, fleas, poverty, broken down cars, puppies, the occasionally appalling behavior of our children and much much more.  Much of this blog is a catalog of our more comic disasters.  To give one example, here's the story of how I had to help him find the suitcases so he could leave me.

Lately we've been facing a new crisis and seeing a counselor.  She gave us an assignment for the night:  to go out to dinner and discuss what we'll be doing twenty years from now.  It's always fun to make plans for the future and the exercise served its purpose--for us to visualize ourselves together.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Black Friday in Charlottesville

Our Thanksgiving was lovely, although if you saw my panicked Facebook and twitter updates, you might have gotten the impression I've never cooked a Thanksgiving dinner before.  It has actually been my responsibility every year since I was in my twenties and my mother died.

This year, the main difficulty was I had no time to do much advance preparation.  Add to that the fact that I overslept by two hours on Thanksgiving, and the cooking got off to a very late start indeed.  It seemed we wouldn't be sitting down until midnight, but in the end, dinner was served at 8:00pm.  The menu:  roast turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, rolls, mashed potatoes, "golden winter puree," bacon-wrapped green beans, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, maple cheesecake with maple-cranberry compote.  All of this was made 100% from scratch, with the help of Seamus.  After all that, we sat down at the table and Jon said, "Where's the gravy?"  I could have punched him.  The problem with gravy is that you have to make it after the turkey is finished.  You're tired, you feel like this meal should be done already, but OH NO, you have to stand over the roasting pan and labor over a revolting concoction of fat and meat juices.

At least we were all together for the holiday.  That's Seamus in front, on Brigid's lap.  The back row is me, Grace, Jon, & Ian.

I actually shopped a little on Black Friday.  I went downtown, which was crowded with out-of-towners.  How could I tell they were from out of town? Charlottesville people, surely you too are able to immediately identify who is local and who is not.  Perhaps because local people don't tend to stand like statues in front of crosswalk buttons.  And we're not likely to exclaim,  "Oh look!  They have...." while gazing slack-jawed in shop windows.  I shouldn't be uncharitable, after all I have been a tourist myself in many places, but it would be NICE to be able to go downtown on the weekend without it being overrun with people who are here because they read in The Washington Post that C'ville is a good place for a day trip.  You just want to buy stamps or pick up a prescription and you have to run an obstacle course of people who want to stop and take photographs directly in front of you and who take up ALL the restaurant tables.  I know there are advantages to living in a place that attracts people, but it's irritating all the same.  At any rate, I did officially buy two Christmas presents at local businesses.  Every year I think I will start shopping early and I never manage to buy gift one until after Thanksgiving, and sometimes I don't start shopping until well into the middle of December.

Yesterday I put Ian on a plane back to New York.  At the airport was another college student and his parents who were literally weeping as he left them.  I felt like crying a little too, even though Ian will be back home in three weeks for the Christmas break.  Later I drove Brigid to her school in Richmond. And so our holiday weekend has come to an end.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Friday Reading Assignment: Books to be Grateful For

Since yesterday was Thanksgiving, I'm going to copycat Looks & Books and list the books I'm grateful for.

Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Believe it or not, I had trouble learning to read and at the end of first grade, was still struggling.  At the start of the summer vacation, I picked up my mother's old copy of Little House in the Big Woods and was immediately engrossed and in the space of ten minutes, mastered reading utterly.  I read the entire Little House series that summer, along with most of the Betsy-Tacy series, and several other books.   Over the course of my life, I've reread the books countless times and read them aloud to my children.  Laura's character--her fearlessness and independence--hugely influenced my own.  This is one of those series in which the illustrations are as much a part of the book as the words.  I can't imagine these stories without the beautiful illustrations by Garth Williams.

Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery

Of all the characters I've encountered in literature, Anne is the most real.  The books are alternately funny and tragic.  It's hilarious when Anne accidentally gets Diana drunk, but I always cry when Matthew dies.  I love the entire series, which concludes when Anne is in her forties and her children are grown.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Another book I read that summer after first grade.  Mary Lennox, raised in India, is sent to England to live with her uncle after her parents die of cholera.  She has been ignored by her parents, allowed to tyrannize her nanny, and at age 10 is as spoiled a brat as you will ever see in literature but her new life in England, where no one is willing to spoil her, effects a marvelous transformation on her character. The Tasha Tudor illustrations are essential.  The Secret Garden was another important piece of the phalanx of comfort literature with which I armed myself in childhood. It was my mother's too.  When she learned she was dying, she called me and asked me to bring her copy of The Secret Garden to her in the hospital.

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

This is the book that made me want to be a writer.  I know, everybody says that, but it's true.  At any rate, it must only inspire people who are already inclined to be writers.  My kids have all read it and none of them say it made them want to be writers.  Anyway, it's not just about writing, it's about a girl who unwittingly causes her nanny to be fired and suddenly finds herself rejected by her peers.  I read Harriet when I was seven and immediately started my own spy notebook. I still have it.  My seven-year old observations of my siblings, parents, neighbors, and the shopkeepers of Eggertsville, NY are hilarious.  My mother observed me with my spy notebook and gave me a diary for my 8th birthday and I have been keeping a handwritten journal ever since.

The Diary of Anne Frank.

I read this book twice before I turned ten and was too young to understand it.  I didn't fully comprehend the horror of the holocaust, I was appalled at Anne's crush on Peter, but I immediately grasped the concept of diary as confidante.  Now I am grateful to Anne Frank for writing--I believe this is the last line in the diary before she and her family were discovered by the Nazis-- "I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart."

The Wizard of Oz books by L. Frank Baum

If you are familiar only with the famous first book in this series, then you are deprived because there are fourteen books in the series and The Wizard of Oz is not the best.  I am partial to The Road to Oz and Ozma of Oz and we owned the entire series--they had been my mother's when she was a child-- and she read them all out loud to us.  It seems like it took my entire childhood to get through every book, but we loved them. I loved reading them to my own kids.  I'm grateful to Baum for creating these fantasies as a vehicle to cheerfully mock American society.

I'm a Stranger Here Myself by Bill Bryson

This is the first book by Bill Bryson I read.  Its daft cover photograph, looming down on me from a high shelf at the library attracted me at once.  Bryson, an American, lived in England for twenty years, then returned to the US with his family and this book is a collection of essays about the contrast between our cultures.  It's the sort of book that makes you laugh out loud in public, and I'm grateful to it because it led me to look up Bryson's other books, and these are now firmly entrenched in my collection of books I read when I need cheering up.

Flannery O'Connor:  The Complete Stories

I read this in college and loved it so much, I used it as a template for my own writing.  My early short stories are identifiably O'Connor-like.  They make me laugh, even while I am cringing.  I'm grateful to have found Flannery O'Connor to be my muse because there's so much worse I could have found.  That sounds like damning with faint praise, but these stories are really, really excellent, and the supreme example of the darkest of dark humor.  I think even now, there's a bit of O'Connor's influence in my writing.

In the Land of Dreamy Dreams by Ellen Gilchrist

Another collection of short stories that influenced my writing and made me want to be a southerner.  Once you've been introduced to "Rhoda" you never forget her.

This post is getting very long and I'm thinking of more and more books to be grateful for.  Barchester TowersExcellent WomenCollected Stories of Eudora WeltyMary PoppinsTowers of Trebizond!  The Lord of the Rings series!  I will stop here.  What books are you grateful for?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Weekends to remember

This weekend I encountered a domestic crisis of a peculiarly distressing nature.  I thought I had pretty much seen it all, as far as domestic crises are concerned. For example, in one ill-fated weekend in 1999,  the dining room ceiling collapsed on us and our house guests, and we were thus forced to shut off the water to the upstairs toilet, after which I and one of our guests promptly came down with an intestinal virus--all this during a time when we had a five-week old puppy (Luna) and an infant (Seamus).  Not to mention that in that very same weekend Jon carelessly backed into our guests' car and tore the entire bumper off our Volvo.  These are the sorts of incidents that punctuate my life.

I am sorry to be coy, but I am not going to describe this weekend's crisis.  Let's just say it has led me to suspect I may be living in a Dickens novel.  Or perhaps a Camus novel. It has also forced me to confront the fact that until now, my understanding of the habits of rodents comes from Charlotte's Web.  Yes, I have been allowing a children's book that features talking animals to be a guiding principal in my actions about pest management.

But let us avert our eyes from this sordid scene.  What else happened this weekend?  A friend of Jon's announced that she has a litter of puppies to give away. The puppies are a Beagle/Rottweiler mix and  Jon became convinced that what we really, really need right now is a new puppy.  You know, because it would be so sensible to get a THIRD dog when we're both working full time and have two kids in college and can't possibly take on the expense or the time commitment that a freaking PUPPY would require.  Today he called me from work to say that there was only one puppy left and couldn't we please, please, please get it?  I put my foot down.  We are NOT adopting a puppy.  There will always be more cute puppies.

Ian came home from school for Thanksgiving break.  He'll be here for an entire week, and since he hasn't been home since March and I haven't seen him since July (and then only a bit because he was working full time) it is most exciting.  He came home with a suitcase full of laundry--his apartment has no washer and he's developed an appalling method of washing his clothes.  If you are a fan of Trailer Park Boys, think of Bubbles and his hockey stick.   It's truly a pleasure to get his clothes cleaned and sorted, to toss the hole-y socks and buy new ones, to cook his favorite foods.  Brigid comes home Wednesday and I am cooking a bang up Thanksgiving dinner.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Friday Reading Assignment 11/18/11

I've always been interested in the ways that place molds us.  With that in mind, The Horizontal World:  Growing up in the Middle of Nowhere by Debra Marquart (2006) is this week's Friday reading assignment. Would I be a different person today if I hadn't spent the first twenty-eight years of my life in Buffalo, NY, a land defined by boundaries: canals and bridges, a river, two huge lakes and an international border?  Now my children are being raised away from the water in a place hemmed in by mountains, defined by trees.  How will it shape their characters and world view?

The prairie is one landscape I'm unfamiliar with. I was driven across Nebraska by my parents on a long-ago family trip to the Rocky Mountains, but that is my only experience with it.  Of all the books I've ever read, the Little House on the Prairie series--many of which are set in South Dakota-- had the most profound effect on me.  Laura Ingalls Wilder references again and again the beauty of the wide, clean space and its overpowering silence.  The prairie comes with hardships: blizzards, droughts, suffocating heat, intolerable cold, dust, and a non-stop wind from which there is no shelter.  In a way, the prairie, a dry, flat place with no boundaries is the opposite of the landscape I come from.  I like uncluttered landscapes.  I think I might like the prairie. One of these days I'll take a trip out west and really see it for myself.

Debra Marquart was raised in North Dakota and The Horizontal World is her memoir about growing up on a farm, yearning to get away, escaping, but ultimately being unable to escape.  She tells of the hardship of the farmer's life, her teenage rebellion, departure, and her mystical connection to the land she tries so hard to flee.

This book is: engrossing, sad.
Time it will take to read:  less than a week

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sunday morning detritus

The Sunday morning streets are quiet, but they hold clues to the excesses of the night before:  students passed out on porch roofs, cars abandoned in odd places with one or more tires over the curb, broken beer bottles in the street, slicks of vomit on the sidewalk, and at my house, the Sunday morning procession past our kitchen window of unkempt men, trudging up the long Avon St. hill,  after being released from the drunk tank in the local jail that's about a mile down the road.

Sometimes, however, we hear the evidence of awful proceedings in the street below, and in the morning see no trace of what happened.  Our house sits on a hill overlooking a somewhat notorious corner.  It looks like an ordinary intersection, where a small side street exits to a busy, two-lane road on a steep grade.  Jon and I have witnessed many car accidents at this corner.  It's so notorious that the garbage truck drivers, hurtling down the hill on their way back to their base, always honk loudly as they approach.  One night I awoke to the sound of metal coming into contact with an unyielding substance:  tree or stone or more metal.  There was the most horrid grinding sound.  If a vehicle was a living thing that could be tortured, this is what it would sound like, as the driver worked to extricate his vehicle--it sounded like a truck-- from whatever it was stuck on at that corner.  The engine died,  then restarted, coughing and gurgling.  With a drawn out screeching scream of metal on stone, the truck freed itself and drove slowly away, dragging injured parts of itself behind.  In the morning, there was not the slightest bit of evidence that anything had happened there at all.

The corner is also a spot where crime seems to happen.  It's not a bad neighborhood, but it used to be and like ghosts, the criminals haunt it.  The house right at the corner was long a source of crime.  We've seen a succession of tenants deal drugs, neglect their dogs, have loud domestic disputes, pace up and down the sidewalk talking angrily into their cell phones, and eventually pack up and leave in the middle of the night. Our kitchen window, looking down from our house's lofty place on the hill gave us an excellent view of what we called White Trash Theater.    Then the house was sold and renovated and is rented to quieter tenants.  But crime still happens there.

This Saturday night, about 12:30, I woke to loud voices in the street.  This is not terribly unusual and I went back to sleep only to be awakened again by the sound of sirens.  From far away, I heard a second set of sirens, approaching rapidly and then a third, coming from a different direction all converging on that corner.  Silence for a few minutes, then voices, then a man screaming "FUCK!" over and over, then silence.  The cops were gone, we went back to sleep only to be awakened again by one of those mysterious happenings that is outside your consciousness.  I heard a muffled report at the corner below our window.  A gunshot?  Surely I'd dreamed it in my half awake state, but then Jon said, "Did you hear that?"  We waited and once again the sound of sirens approaching from across the dark city.  Voices, three or four more gun shots, silence.   Jon watched an ambulance arrive then the duty chief's car.  He could see little in the darkness other than the fact that the driver of the duty chief's car is someone we know.  After a while, the ambulance left, driving slowly with its lights on.

In the morning,  we checked the local news outlets and found no mention of a shooting in the night.  I looked out onto the corner and there was no trace of the Saturday night drama.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Friday reading assignment

I have the most delightful book for you this week:  The Diary of a Country Parson 1758-1802, by James Woodforde.  James Woodforde, (1740-1803) was an 18th century British clergyman.  The diary begins when he is eighteen and a student at Oxford, with references to drinking, and an incident in which he is locked out of his rooms, naked.  They consumed astonishing amounts of alcohol in the 18th century, and our little parson, while despairing at the drunken behavior of his brothers, at one point describing his brother John as being "much disguised in beer" is certainly no slouch himeself when it comes to imbibing, as we will soon see.

More than forty years pass with not much happening as Mr. Woodforde settles in to a country parish in Norfolk.  He never marries, but lives with his niece Nancy as housekeeper.  The servants are a source of drama in the Woodforde household as the girls, a succession of Nannys, Bettys, Sallys, and Mollys, have a naughty tendency to get pregnant out of wedlock and the boys are given to drink, impudence and diseases of a "venereal nature."  Mr. Woodforde is tolerant of their flaws, except for one poor girl, Sally Dunnell, described as a "fine, strapping wench" who is fired after only one day for incompetence.  Nancy the niece is "saucy." She hurts the parson's feelings by giving him the slip when some younger relatives come to visit and sulks about her small gambling debts.  Animals populate the pages with horses named Phyllis and Punch, a cow named Polly, several greyhounds, and a succession of unnamed fat "piggs."  Year follows year in the same soothing pattern.  Mr. Woodforde hands out pennies to children on Valentine's day, buys tea, gin, and rum,  from smugglers, oversees his harvest, hunts for rabbits, collects his tithes, distributes shillings and pence to the needy and invites the poor men of his parish to dinner every Christmas.

Most of the excitement in Parson Woodforde's life comes from small dramas:  "Poor Mrs. Collyer coming in at my Kitchen Door an old Nail caught hold of her Apron, a very fine Muslin one with a deal of work on it, and rent it in a most shocking manner indeed.  We were all very much concerned about it."

What the diary is best known for is its descriptions of what the household ate for dinner.  "..a very genteel dinner, Soals and Lobster Sauce, Spring Chicken boiled and a Tongue, a Piece of rost Beef, Soup, a Fillet of Veal rosted with Morells and Trufles, and Pigeon Pye for the first course--Sweetbreads, a green Goose and Peas, Apricot Pye, Cheesecakes, Stewed Mushrooms and Trifle."  Or, "We had for Dinner a nice boiled Leg of Lamb, a very nice small rosting Pigg, Apricot and Gooseberry Tarts Oranges and Nutts by way of dessert.  Soon after Coffee and Tea..."  And, "We gave them for Dinner a Couple of boiled Chicken and Pigs Face, very good Peas Soup, a boiled Rump of Beef very fine, a prodigious fine, large and very fat Cock-Turkey rosted, Maccaroni, Batter Custard Pudding with Jelly, Apple Fritters, Tarts and Raspberry Puffs.  Desert, baked Apples, nice Nonpareils, brandy Cherries and Filberts.  Wines, Port & Sherries, Malt Liquors, Strong Beer, bottled Porter &c."

James Woodforde lived to the age of 62.  He held quaint notions about health:  "The young Ladies looked but poorly as did Master John--they have been too free with fruit I shd. suspect." He seems to have been healthy, and when he does complain of being unwell, a dose of rhubarb, which I know from uncomfortable personal experience is a purgative, seems to fix him right up.  His health began to break down in his fifties, and the diary entries refer to gout (surprise, surprise), a recurring ankle infection, "epilectic fits" and complaints of weakness, dizziness, shortness of breath and swollen legs, which makes me suspect congestive heart failure or "dropsy" as it was called then to be the cause of his death.

Image from the book's wikepedia page.

A note on the edition:  the full diary contains several volumes, not easily accesible to the public.  UVA has it, but only in their special collections, which I don't really have access to.  Actually, I do have access to special collections, and Ivy Stacks, but only for work related purposes.  Let us pause and have a sad at all the books I can not get my hands on.  And I've tried, believe me, and even succeeded on my first attempt, when Martin Boyd's Outbreak of Love somehow slipped past their work-only net.  I suppose the word "outbreak" in the title fooled whoever it is that manages requests from health sciences employees.  Since then I've had an encounter with a librarian who asked me pointedly if Six Months in the Sandwich Islands by Isabella Bird was work-related and I had to admit that it wasn't, and so was denied it.  Anyway, in the 1920s, a shortened version of the diary was published (and mentioned by Virginia Woolf in The Common Reader, which is how I heard about it).  At 622 pages, it's not exactly short, but it makes for quick reading.

This book is:  the ultimate comfort literature.
Time it will take to read:  three to four weeks

Friday, November 04, 2011

Friday Reading Assignment

Let's travel to the 18th century for this week's Friday Reading Assignment. Aristocrats by Stella Tillyard is a biography/history of the Lennox sisters, great-granddaughters of Charles II and daughters of the 2nd Duke of Richmond. I watched the BBC miniseries by the same title and immediately rushed out to get the book from the library. This was a couple of years ago, but last week I watched the miniseries again because it is one of my favorites.

The sisters, Caroline, Emily, Louisa, Sarah, and Cecelia grew up in the 18th century and lived what I suppose are typical lives of people at the highest echelon of society. Marriage was their only possible life choice, but within the strict confines of a woman's life at that time, they were able to assert their will. Caroline eloped with the famous politician Henry Fox and was mother to the even more famous politician Charles James Fox. From what I recall of the book, her house became a salon for the era's personalities. Emily married the Irish Lord Kildare--who may or may not have had a foot fetish-- and pretty much gave birth continuously thereafter, but still had time to take a lover. One of her children was the Irish revolutionary Edward Fitzgerald. Louisa, the "good" sister married well and lived an exemplary life. The Prince of Wales, later George III,  fell in love with Sarah but married someone else, and Sarah went on to cause scandal with her unhappy marriage and lovers.

I love the 18th century. I've heard of people who identify with a certain time in the past, to the point of feeling like they lived a past life in that time. If I've ever had a past life, it was probably in the 1700's. I also love the fashions, but the wigs, not so much.

The miniseries is excellent too if you like historic costume dramas.

This book is: engrossing

Time it will take to read: about two weeks

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Parking Lots of Doom

Let's discuss the parking lots of Charlottesville!  This post may not be of much use to people who don't live here, but you too may visit as a tourist some day.

Barrack's Road:  Where to begin?  The little lanes and side roads created by the islands of shops so that there always seem to be cars coming at you from twenty different directions?  The poor visibility? The fact that if you have to park in the section close to Emmet St, it's impossible to cross that busy road within the parking lot?  The odd bit that dead-ends into a dumpster? The intersections with three-way stops at which you can never remember which side (it is never your side) doesn't have the stop sign?  With stop signs the size of index cards?  The intersection with the light, leading out onto Emmet St, where cars coming from the side can pull right up to the front of the line and there's no clear direction as to who has the right of way?  Assholes who park there for UVA events?  The fact that you can't walk from some parts of the shopping center to others?  For example:  you've just been to Harris-Teeter and now you'd like to go to Chipotle for lunch.  Can you walk from one to the other?  It's unthinkable!  No, you have to get in your car and drive 100 feet and park again.  The whole thing is a giant clusterfuck, and, I am realizing, has become a symbol to me of everything that is wrong with Charlottesville.

North Barracks Road:  this is an oddly-shaped, long, narrow lot.  It could be a mess--it seems they like to change the direction of the roads--but it mostly works.  After Anthropologie opened, they mysteriously painted a white striped box of nothingness in the middle of the parking area.

"Old" Whole Foods:  Oy, how I used to hate this parking lot!  It's a textbook example of bad engineering, from the confusing way you're immediately shunted into a left-turn only lane on entering from 29N, to the always-irritating three-way stop right at the entrance. HATE.

"New" Whole Foods:  Some people are going to disagree, but I think this parking lot works well.  Here is the secret to managing the new Whole Foods parking lot. On entering, take the FIRST left turn into the lot.  Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to drive through the pedestrian crosswalk.  So now you are in the furthest lane to the left, simply drive all the way to the end, turn right, and you have easy access to all the rows of parking.  I score a sweet spot every time, even on weekends.  Exiting is easy, as long as you use the driveway at the back of the lot that takes you up to that other driveway between WF and K-Mart.  Unless you are very foolish, you will not attempt to leave the parking lot through the driveway everyone enters from, or from the little one-way drive that shoots you directly onto Hydraulic Ave.

Fashion Square:  Again with the three-way stop intersections.  How many accidents do these cause? People who are not accustomed to our ways are likely to get T-boned. Plus, there's the vaguely punative nature of having to stop when you are leaving the mall, while those who are arriving get to blow past everybody. "Come and spend money!  We won't even put a stop sign in your way!"

Seminole Square:  It has issues, such as the inexplicable one-way exits.  That whole shopping center is a spread-out mess in which you are forced to drive from one business to another, similar to but worse than the situation at Barracks Rd.  It does have the bonus of the K-Mart cut-through for easier access.

Albemarle Square:  Generally inoffensive, except for the area by the theater.  Lots of stupid drivers queued up at the Rio Rd exit.  Jumbo-sized pedestrian crosswalk in front of the library and yet I still see cars that don't yield.

Pantops:  Does anyone even shop there anymore?  Extremely annoying speed bumps in front of Food Lion.

Giant shopping center (top of Pantops):  Meh.  No major complaints, and at least there is a FOUR WAY stop and a nice view of the Blue Ridge.

Main St. Market:  Christ.  I once carried an eighteen pound roast of beef and a bottle of whiskey far, far down W. Main just to avoid parking here.  It's like there's a cosmic vortex that sucks every entitled asshole in a supersized vehicle to this one place.  IT'S A PARKING LOT THE SIZE OF A HALF BATH.  WHY ARE YOU TRYING TO STUFF YOUR FORD EXCURSION IN HERE?  Particularly heinous at the holidays.  Oh my GOD.  Avoid.  Avoid at all costs.

South St:  Jon likes to park here when we are downtown.  I do not, mainly because at any given time, there are ten cars circling, ready to do battle for the first spot that opens up.

Beer Run:  Be sure to drive a tiny, precious car so that you can fit it into their tiny, precious lot and drink their precious beers.

Amtrak:  This parking lot got a lot of public attention because of its crater-like pot holes and extremely dusty gravel. It was finally paved, to everyone's satisfaction, I presume. I've looked down onto it as I pass by on W. Main St., but I have not parked there since they paved it and turned it into a life-sized pinball machine.  I confess I am fond of this lot, simply because I taught my nephew how to drive a stick shift here.  We went around and around the oval until he got the hang of it and no one bothered us or seemed to care that we were using the lot as our personal driving school. The pot holes were not as deep then and there was no guy with a clip board, wanting to know your business.

Aqui es Mexico:  This gets my nomination for the absolute worst parking lot in all Charlottesville. You enter on a steep incline and will scrape the bottom of your car if you're not careful.  There are parking spaces around the perimeter of the lot, plus an area in the middle that isn't really big enough for a double row of cars, but is generously sized for a single row.  The parking lot people addressed this issue by painting a row of extra-long white slashes and leaving it up to the drivers to decide how to proceed.  I have seen every possible permutation of double and single parking in this area.  If there is any conceivable hint of a space that might fit a car, someone will be trying to stuff their vehicle into it.  It doesn't help matters that the little driving lane is always full of cars, circling or waiting for someone to leave so they can park or that sometimes the line of cars trying to get into the lot extends backwards into Carleton Rd.  One cold winter night, I was helplessly trapped here until the troglogyte  who'd blocked me in appeared--at his own convenience--and moved his car.  Another evening, we got partially blocked in and Jon, who is genius for making a bad situation worse, stuck his head out of our car window and called the offending driver a puta. (The users of this lot are mostly hispanic.)

Buford Middle School: not technically a public parking lot, but I mention it here because I've had a child at Buford almost continuously for years, and so have several hundred other Charlottesville citizens. This parking lot was adequate until they built the new Boys & Girls club and pool which took away half the spaces in the Buford main lot. I was a Buford parent during the entire time of the construction, and not once did any communication go home to parents about the parking lot, nor do there appear to have been any plans made for dealing with the loss of spaces. It's not an issue during the day, but school events such as concerts have become a nightmare because there is not enough parking. Why did no one address this issue? Even a note or an email alerting parents to the new dearth of parking with encouragement to car pool would have been better than nothing. I have solved this problem for myself by parking along 9th St SW, but other people are probably not willing to do so as the neighorhood has a bad reputation and it is a long, dark walk to the Buford back entrance.  Myself, I would rather be mugged than expose myself to the parental mayhem in the Buford lot.

I would be remiss not to mention the Corner Parking Lot, but as I have never parked there myself,  I can't comment on its design.  It's the only parking lot I know of that is the subject of a critically acclaimed movie, which I highly recommend, even if you've never been to or plan to visit Charlottesville.  Indeed, if I had the power to make people do my bidding, one thing I would make them do is watch The Parking Lot Movie.  It's available for streaming through netflix.  My favorite part of the movie is the story of the attendent who eventually married a woman who parked in the lot.  What attracted him to her?  She was a good parker.

Below is awesome clip about the insanity of suv's in parking lots.

If someone were conducting a poll, and asked you which was the worst parking lot in Charlottesville, which one would you choose?