Monday, October 31, 2011

All Hallows

Halloween:  the one holiday for which I am not required to cook something.  Well, I do need to make the hot dog mummies for tonight's dinner, but that requires almost zero effort, although I'm always a little afraid to open the tube of crescent roll dough.  They explode with such force.

My kids are just about past the trick-or-treating age.  As far as I'm concerned, if you're polite and you've made some effort with your costume, I don't care how old you are.  A few years ago, we encountered a group of teenage girls who were trick or treating.  They were all dressed in vintage 1950's outfits, with bouffant wigs and they were adorable.  I don't see anything wrong with that.

Anyway, Seamus and Grace both declared themselves too old for trick-or-treating, but then last night changed their minds and wanted costumes.  Grace, indeed, expected me to make a special trip to Target so that she could buy a costume.  Seamus, meanwhile, was asking permission to cut up a pair of jeans for his chosen costume as a "homeless person."  I am usually a pushover with my kids--I let Ian make moonshine in my kitchen for crying out loud--but I draw the LINE at a last minute trip to Target for a $19.99 polyester costume, and "homeless person" is NOT A VALID HALLOWEEN COSTUME.

There was no trip to Target.  Seamus rummaged through the recycling bin and made himself an excellent  mask from cardboard and yellow construction paper.  Grace has the entire contents of my fabric basket, art supply drawer and wardrobe at her disposal.  I'm sure she can come up with something far superior to anything sold at Target if she applies herself.

To honor the day, my desktop background at work is a picture of Edgar Allen Poe carved into a pumpkin.


We don't get many trick-or-treaters at our house.  Kids don't seem to want to walk across the park, and they also seem to shy away from our long driveway, which is too bad because Jon usually dresses up and plays scary music and we have the porch decorated with jack-o-lanterns and candles.  We usually conclude the evening by drinking wine with the neighbors.

Wow, this entry is really lame. I apologize. Later this week, look for my rant about Charlottesville's worst parking lots, and the Friday Reading Assignment. Oh, I could tell you about how we had our first "snow" on Friday night. Snow is snow, even if it is invisible, or nearly so. Everyone said to expect it only on the mountain, but on a Saturday morning drive to the dump for hazardous waste amnesty day (hurrah!) we saw plenty of snow on the ground on our side of the mountain, in Ivy. At the dump--Charlottesville must have the most beautiful dump in the world--the Blue Ridge Mountains loomed overhead, snow covered, with what remains of their autumn leaves as a colorful contrast. And I unloaded a quantity of spoiled gasoline, two cfl lightbulbs (HOW are they better for the environment if they contain mercury, I effing hate them) and assorted cans of old paint. A most satisfactory morning.


Snow before Halloween is unusual for Virginia. Even in Buffalo, where I grew up, it was uncommon, although not unprecedented. The ONE day of the year that kids hate snow is Halloween. The year I was eight, my mother cut down an old party dress of pink organza and tulle to make me a fairy princess costume. It was an awesome costume and I won first prize in the costume contest at the Home School Association party--my prize was a Charlie Brown Halloween puzzle. The next day was Halloween and we got a foot of snow and my mother made me squeeze the costume on over a snowsuit and boots for trick-or-treating. I was furious.

Speaking of Charlie Brown, Seamus had a friend over who's from Japan and had never seen A Charlie Brown Halloween. That situation was quickly rectified.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Friday Reading Assignment

It's non-fiction for this week's Friday reading assignment:  The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough.  Published in 1968, it is his first book and not as well known as his later, acclaimed biographies of Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John Adams.  I am dying to read The Great Bridge, his history of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The Johnstown Flood of 1889 is one of the worst natural disasters in US History, and is unquestionably the worst flood in our history, with a death toll of 2,200 people.  Johnstown is a small industrial city in mountainous central Pennsylvania.  It sits in a valley, on the Little Conemaugh River.  At the time of the flood, there was a lake, about fourteen miles upstream. It was held together with an earthen dam and created for the use of an exclusive club that served rich industrial magnates of Pittsburgh.  Johnstown was already prone to flooding and the lake was its sword of Demosthenes.  Residents even made uneasy jokes about the dam failing. One day, during a long period of heavy rain, the dam did fail and the entire lake--it was large enough for sailing--drained away down the valley and obliterated Johnstown.

McCullough does an excellent job of describing this lake: at once a menace and a thing of beauty.  He writes about the rich, powerful men who founded the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club and built the lake and he writes about the people of Johnstown, including one who raised concerns about the dam long before it actually failed.  He describes the flood from the vantage point of the club--imagine where once there had been a lake, was suddenly a floor of mud with fish flopping about.  According to the New York Times article published at the time, the lake was eight miles long and three miles wide.  According to the wikepedia page, it took just forty minutes for all that water to drain away. There are numerous eyewitness accounts of all views of this disaster so McCullough was able to create a rich and fascinating description of the flood as it passed down the valley, carrying entire villages along with it and ultimately slamming into Johnstown. Also discussed are the societal issues relating to the disaster, specifically the class struggle between the industrial magnates and the ordinary people.  I may be remembering wrong, but I believe the Johnstown Flood was a pivotal event in making people start actively speaking against corporate giants and their abusive ways.  Read it and become angry.



I read this book years ago and to refresh my memory, I read on-line descriptions of the tragedy and literally had heart palpitations.  I've read other books about natural disasters, such as the Galveston hurricane, but The Johnstown Flood is the one that really left an impression on me.

This book is:  tragic, suspenseful.
Time it will take to read:  about a week.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

For Gentlemen: a cautionary tale

Last night, we had guests visiting from Wisconsin, and after dinner, as we were talking--I was mid-sentence, actually--Jon blurted out urgently (and somewhat rudely), "Patience, I may have burned a hole through your car seat."  We stared at him and I was having furious thoughts about cigarette burns in the upholstery of my new car.  He revealed to us that the entire crotch of his pants was burned away, something he had apparently just noticed.

How did this happen?  His motorcycle battery was dead--again with the motorcycle--so he'd removed it from the bike and driven it to a mechanic to have it looked at.  Worried that acid would slosh out of the battery, he stabilized it by holding it between his thighs for the drive to the mechanic.  A motorcycle battery, in case you didn't know, is almost identical to a car battery.  My car is a stick shift, so he was gripping a great big battery between his thighs while also managing clutch, gas, and brake pedals.  A healthy dose of battery acid to the crotch might be considered a harsh punishment for his good intentions, but it could have been worse.  As Jon noted, "Thank God I was wearing underwear." 

He walked around for hours, oblivious to the giant hole in his pants--indeed sat through our appointment with the marriage counselor like this.  My car seat is miraculously intact.

One good thing is that he was wearing a pair of pants I particularly hate which are now destroyed.  They're green military pants with cargo pockets.  They used to have ridiculous straps hanging off the the legs, but I made Jon cut them off, pointing out that all they were going to accomplish was to get him stuck in elevator doors and that as an urban professional when did he ever need to suspend items from his pants legs.  It is the heavy-duty nature of the pants' fabric that saved his balls, so I suppose they served their purpose in the end.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Friday Reading Assignment

Today's Friday reading assignment is another oldie-but-a-goodie, as what I'm reading right now is not quite up to Reading Assignment Standards.  I present for your enjoyment, one of my favorite books of all time:  My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.  You may have read this, as it's quite famous.  Raise your hand if you've read it!  Share with my other readers how it made you laugh until you wet yourself!  My entire family loves this book.  When my mother was dying, she left something special for me and each of my siblings.  To my brother, she left her copy of My Family and Other Animals, along with the other books in the series:  Birds, Beasts, and Relatives, and Fauna and Family.

This is the true-ish story of the Durrell family, narrated by the youngest son, Gerald who is ten years old. It's the 1930s, and sick of England, they move to the island of Corfu (Greece) where their eccentricities can run unfettered.  The family's single-minded devotion to their obsessions--particularly Gerry's with animals-- leads to catastrophes, embarrassing incidents, and the funniest of dialogue of any work of English literature.

Gerald Durrell grew up to be the host of a nature show on TV as well as the author of many books.

The movie made from this book is excellent, with Imelda Staunton as the mother, Matthew Goode as Larry,  and the incomparable Omid Djalili as Spiro, the family's Greek guide.  It's clear that whoever made the movie not only read the book, but loved it.

Gerald Durrell as a boy on Corfu


This book is: funny
Time it will take to read: less than a week.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Speaking of

I discovered pinterest--yet another thing to suck up all my time. It is so much fun. On the heels of pinterest I discovered polyvore, and I'm afraid I will get nothing productive done until I have exhausted its possibilities. Which could be never. I used to think that bloggers who threw up things like this (below--taken from Sparrow and Whistle because, sadly, polyvore won't work on my office computer) had some sort super powers. Now I know their secret, and it's so easy an infant could put together a stylish outfit.


Speaking of outfits, in the interest of developing a sense of style, as well as learning to be more comfortable in front of the camera, I'm putting up "what I wore" posts on my "patience crabstick" facebook page. I'm using the page instead of the blog so my content doesn't become diluted with images. So if you want to see them, you have to "like" my page. :) One thing I can't stand are blogs that are nothing but images. It's one thing if you say, "Look! I made this/wore this/bought this/like this." Images tied to meaningful content are fine, but blogs that are literally nothing but perfectly styled pictures are just cold. Or maybe I am just jealous of these bloggers' superior photography skills. Yet I love pinterest which is all images. Maybe this is because pinterest is straight up "look at the pretties." With a blog, it is reasonable to expect a few, you know, words here and there.

Speaking of being comfortable in front of a camera, I am horrendously unphotogenic. Seriously. I will look at myself in a mirror, be pleased enough with what I see, take a picture, and am a washed-out hag. I was watching "America's Next Top Model"--or whatever that show is called--and Naomi Campbell--or whatever model is the host, I can't quite remember--admonished the contestants: "Your job as a model is to look better in a picture than you do in real life." And that's when I realized that I am the opposite of a model. It's comforting to realize that I look better in real life than I do in pictures.
 
Speaking of nothing apropos, can we talk about sharing the road? My issues with the dysfunctional ways that pedestrians, cyclists and drivers use the roads are myriad, so today I'll touch on one thing: pedestrians--mostly runners-- in the bike lane. OK pedestrians, here's the thing: when you are in the bike lane and refuse to yield to a cyclist, you are forcing cyclists to swerve out into traffic to avoid you. That's not cool. I'm a runner too, so I understand that you prefer to run on blacktop rather than concrete. I get it that sidewalks are bumpy--I have fallen twice over the same sidewalk bump on 9th St. while running. Nevertheless, if you see a bicycle coming at you, please step to the side. It's not hard, and you have more maneuverability on your feet than I do on my bike. Also, don't plunge out into the crosswalk in front of a cyclist. On a bicyle, it's not easy to stop suddenly without the risk of falling and possibly getting crushed by a car. And frankly, since we are both using non-greenhouse gas-producing methods of transportation, aren't we allies that ought to look out for one another?  It's us against the cars, you know.  You don't want to see me get killed by a car, do you, nice pedestrian?  Of course not. 
 
In boating, craft with the least maneuverability have the right of way over others so a sailboat has the right of way over a motorboat and a canoe has the right of way over a sailboat. As a pedestrian, consider yourself to be a sailboat, cyclists as canoes, and cars as motorboats. Doesn't that clear things up? Thank you.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Let's talk about fashion!

Once upon a time, I was thin and worked in a job that I had to dress up for but then nursing school happened and I gained weight along with a sloppy student wardrobe. As a nurse I wore scrubs every day and I gained more weight. Now, my nice wardrobe of yore is old and most of it doesn't fit but I have a job I have to dress up for. (Sort of.) Our dress code merely dictates no jeans, no tee-shirts, no sandals. There's probably an unwritten rule against nudity. They took away our casual Fridays, which doesn't bother me so much as I don't find jeans to be any more comfortable or easy to wear than other types of pants. Alas, the workplace isn't ready for "yoga pants Fridays."


I've had a lifelong, mostly thwarted, desire to be fashionable. I wore a school uniform right through high school, but as anyone who has worn a uniform can tell you, there are ways to assert your stylishness, even within the confines of a plaid skirt and maroon blazer: your shoes, the quality of your white cotton button down, even your socks. For a while, at my high school, it was the fashion to wear one's boyfriend's thermal long underwear under your skirt, like leggings, (or if you didn't have a boyfriend, your father's or brother's) but the nuns put a stop to it.

The consequence of the school uniform is that I had never really had to dress myself until college, hence a long personal history of fashion disasters. I was continuously pregnant for almost the entire decade of my twenties and there are photos of me in the most appalling outfits. There was a brief period between the births of Brigid and Grace that I achieved slimness and cuteness, and even a modest degree of stylishness, but mostly I looked awful. My chief fashion goal during that period was to find a cute sundress that allowed nursing access. I never found one.  I had this one pair of pants that I bought between Grace and Seamus--a pair of Gap high waisted khakis that closed with a side zip. (Oh God!) These, I would pair with oversized knit shirts handed down from teenaged nephews. Then came the denim overalls phase. Overalls with tank tops, overalls with heavy sweaters, overalls all the time.

My thirties were my fashion renaissance, but I made mistakes. I have a habit of disorganized shopping--buying a skirt here, a shirt there--so I have a wardrobe of random pieces that don't go together. I have a large collection of Anthropologie dresses of the sort one wears for drinks in downtown bars. I had an idea that I need to accessorize more, so I bought some belts and scarves in the same haphazard manner that I bought my other clothes. Jewelry bores me and I actively resent the misogynist stereotype that all women are crazy for diamonds. Shoes--I refuse to wear cheap shoes--but since I can't afford a wardrobe of good shoes, I have become one of those women who wear their Dansko clogs with everything. And I mean everything--skirts, sundresses, anything. I am not alone in this, at least in Charlottesville, where there is a class of women who exude a sort of chic confidence while clomping around in clodhopper shoes.


Choosing something to wear to work, or even just making oneself semi-presentable for a trip to the grocery store can be a monumental challenge at times. It would be nice to look stylish and pulled-together, and some days I think I achieve that. There are, however, days when I get to work, catch a glimpse of myself in the full length mirror in the bathroom, and am just grateful that I'm decently covered.

Various famous people have stated that it's disgraceful when a woman appears in public without having made any effort to look good. I used to think this was harsh, but the other day there was this woman at Target. She was obviously a mom. Her hair was scraped back from her face in bun and her bangs looked like she trimmed them herself. She was wearing a slumpy red sweatshirt, blue sweatpants and bright, white sneakers. On her backside was a smear of dirt, as if someone wearing a dusty boot had kicked her in the bum. I wanted to put my arm around her and say, "Oh honey." It's not that I felt critical of or superior to this woman, but I did feel a bit angry with her husband and children who apparently amused themselves by kicking her in the backside and were undoubtably benefiting from the fact that she sacrificed her own needs for theirs. It's not necessary to be stylish for a trip to Target, but if you are walking around with dirt on your ass, you just look sad.

I don't have a well-defined personal style and I'm attracted to all sorts of disparate garments. I read a few style blogs, such as alreadypretty, which has thoughtful content and looksandbooks, which combines literature and fashion.  I love tomandlorenzo, especially their hilarious recaps of "Project Rungay," as they call it.  TLo may call a girl out for appearing on the red carpet in something hideous, but they're never nasty about body types. I recently discovered wardrobeoxygen. It's nice to see a not-skinny woman rocking her outfits.  (How distorted has our image of the ideal body become, that "skinny" is a compliment?)  For a local perspective, there's Cville Fashion and Style. I like blogs that show ordinary women, and except for TLo, am not really into celebrity fashion or stuff that's coming down the runway because all that is way out of my reach.  And it's amusing to see the outfits that a woman like myself would put together.

I've considered doing an occasional "what I wore" post, but I wouldn't want that to become the focus of my blog and I am hardly someone you would look to for style advice.  One Christmas when my extremely stylish sister was visiting, we arranged to meet for a hike.  I pulled on a pair of yoga pants that had a sizable rip on the front of the thigh.  I didn't want to change the pants so I slapped a piece of duct tape over the rip.  When I met my sister, I saw her looking askance at my alternative mending job and I explained what happened.  She said, "So you think this is a good look for you?"  Duct tape on your pants: is that worse than dirt on your ass?  I'm warning you, that was a rhetorical question.

Anyway, I have a couple of outfit shots that I've taken over the last several weeks, partly to illustrate mistakes and partly to get a handle on what my style is, if it exists.
Weekend grocery shopping (Oh God, I am regretting the short hair already.  Dammit.)
Hoodie: Gap, striped shirt: Urban Outfitters.  Jeans: AG .Belt:  J. Crew (2009)

One of my outfit mistakes at work
Hoodie:  Gap. Dress: J. Crew

WANTED:
for the fashion crime of wearing Dansko clogs with this dress.
Dress: Prana  Belt: Lands End Canvas

Alas, I know that pictures were taken on the day of the duct tape hike, but I can't find them.

Do you feel you have a fashion style that you stick to consistently, or do you go into shops and say, "Oh, a pretty!" and buy without thinking?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Black Bean Soup

Just a little business to finish for the weekend.  First of all, fellow blogger bythelbs requested my black bean soup recipe.  It's not "my" black bean soup recipe, we got it from Teen Cuisine by Matthew Locricchio, an excellent book that Seamus and I have had a lot of fun with.  Almost every recipe we've tried has been delicious, particularly the Chicago deep dish pizza and the tomato soup.

Start by taking a pound of black beans, rinse thoroughly and pick over for stones.  Put in large pot and cover with water--water level should be about an inch higher than the beans.  Add 1 chopped onion, three chopped cloves of garlic, two tablespoons of peanut or vegetable oil.  Bring to boil, then simmer until tender, about 1.5-2 hours.  Add two teaspoons of salt and cook for another 15 minutes.  Drain the beans.

You now have more than you will actually need for the soup, but these beans are delicious and you can use them for chili or put them on nachos, or use them in a myriad of other ways.

For the soup you will need two cups of the cooked black beans, two cups water or chicken broth, 1 hard-boiled egg (or possibly two, if your family likes them) 1 bunch cilantro, 4-5 slices of bacon, 1.5 teaspoons salt.

Put one cup of beans plus one cup chicken broth in the blender and give it a good whirl--doesn't have to be perfectly smooth.  Dump it in a soup pot and repeat the blender process with the second cup of beans and a second cup of broth.  Heat the blended beans over medium heat.  Add the salt and bring to a simmer, skimming off any foam.  Let cook gently for thirty five minutes.  Meanwhile, cook the bacon slices until crisp, crumble it and set aside.   If you haven't already done so, hard-cook the egg(s), then peel and chop them, and wash and chop the cilantro.  When the soup has cooked for 35 minutes, ladle into bowls and garnish with bacon, chopped egg, and cilantro.


In other news, I got my hair cut short for the first time in a long, long time, which is kind of a big deal for me.  My stylist cut it exactly as I asked him to, and I think I like it, but such a big change needs some getting used to.

Before:



After:

Friday, October 14, 2011

Friday Reading Assignment

The very funny Belgian Waffle asked her readers to describe a fantasy career and I commented that I'd like to have a job making book recommendations. She shot a comment right back saying "Patience Crabstick, literary concierge." I like the sound of that, and with the dual purpose of bringing a focus to my blog as well as doing what I love, I'm instituting the Friday Reading Assignment. Don't panic, there will be no quiz on Monday although if anyone actually does read one of these books, I would love it if you'd leave a comment and tell me what you thought. Naturally, "reading assignment" is used facetiously here. I am not seriously ordering anyone to read something you don't want to. On the other hand, if you're looking for something to read, my Friday posts might be a good resource. There aren't really any rules about the books I'll put up. What you won't see are the books that everybody else is reading. It's not going to be very enlightening if I list books that you can easily find for yourself on the best sellers lists. Besides, I like to give a boost to obscure books that are in danger of being removed from library shelves because they're never checked out.


This first post is difficult, since last week I already discussed what I've been reading. I'm still plugging away at The Four Gated City, by the way. For this Friday, I've decided to feature the first published novel of one of my favorite authors: Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym. Barbara Pym is a British writer who died in 1980. Her books are mostly set in the the 1930's, 40's and '50s and are often (but not always) about quiet spinsters who lead rather dull lives. Small events--the vicar coming to tea--are hugely significant. What's great about Pym's novels is her focus on the tiny details and absurdities of life. I also like them because they are about outwardly dull people who lead fascinating inner lives. In Some Tame Gazelle, two unmarried, middle-aged sisters, Belinda and Harriet Bede, live together in a quiet country village. Harriet is a sort of hilarious church lady/cougar, but the novel centers on Belinda, who has had an unrequited love for the archdeacon for thirty years. The archdeacon, Henry Hoclceave, a man one might describe as "difficult" is married to a rather grand and formidable lady and it is Belinda's fate to toil as a church volunteer, while managing the little social dramas of village life--how not to offend the dressmaker, for example.

That's the plot in a nutshell. There's a handsome young curate for Harriet to flirt with, and a collection of touchy spinster ladies. Pym has been compared to Jane Austen because of her sharp and witty observations about human nature.

Barbara Pym


The bare facts.

This book is: funny, comfort literature.
Time it will take to read: Less than a week.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Much ado about washing machines

Remember when I said Paul Curreri borrowed Jon's old motorcycle for a music video?  Here it is.  "A four-cylinder roman candle"--that about sums it up.



The "poor little motorbike" is for sale!  A bargain at $800, which is, coincidentally, the same price as a new washing machine.

Speaking of washing machines. If you are my friend on facebook, you may have noticed all my whining about my washing machine. I made a fuss, it's true, but it really does suck to start a load of laundry and then sit down at your desk and see water dripping from the ceiling. Envisioning holes in the ceiling, four-figure plumber's bills, weekends patching drywall, I may have sounded a little panicky when describing the catastrophe to our plumber. He was all, "Whoa, Nellie. Don't start swinging the sledge hammer until I can get over there and assess the situation." He diagnosed a rotten washing machine. Our washer is eighteen years old and I knew that it didn't have an unlimited lifespan but was distressing to see it go in such a dramatic and sudden way.


My mom bought it for me when Brigid was an infant, and it was state of the art, for 1993. Before that, we had no washer or dryer, and I had two infants in cloth diapers. We lived in an old, old, second floor flat in Kalamazoo, Michigan and at least twice a week, I would drag the two babies (or, at first, one baby plus my pregnant self), the diaper pail and the family laundry to the laundromat. Once the laundry was done, I would have to carry it all out of the laundromat to the car, and at home, out of the car, across the yard and up the stairs to our apartment--over several trips. I did that for a year and a half. Disposable diapers? Please. Even if I didn't consider them the most disgusting invention of the twentieth century, we couldn't afford them. Anyway, we moved to Buffalo and my kind mother bought us a washer and dryer and for eighteen years, I haven't stopped feeling grateful or aware of what a luxury it is to just toss your dirty clothes into a machine and walk away.

We picked up the new washer Monday. It is a high efficiency machine, and I am so excited about it. I've been acutely aware of the huge amounts of water my old machine used ever since the big drought of 2003. Remember that one, C'ville people? Remember obsessing about resevoir levels and a certain city councilor--cough Meredith Richards cough-- suggesting seriously that water to all households be shut off and we would have to queue up for a daily water ration at designated water stations?

Washing machine technology has changed a LOT in eighteen years. I've never been intimidated by a washing machine before (except one time in a laundromat in Rome). We have to use new, special soap. It's expensive, but a tiny amount washes an entire load. There's no more central agitating pole. There are twelve cycles to chose from including cycles for baby wear, "sports clothes," and wool. There's a specially enhanced cold water wash. Seamus and I tossed in some clothes, added soap to the dispenser, closed the lid and turned it on--another plus, no more need to wait for the machine to fill before adding clothes. The tub whirled thoughfully. It shook from side to side. It whirled in the opposite direction. The floor of the tub did its own, independent vibration, tossing the clothes into the air a few inches. Seamus and I both peered down through the glass lid in order to see what it would do next. How utterly charming that it occurred to someone that people might want to watch the workings of the machine. It seems totally frivolous, but I realized it's the only way customers can see for themselves that they're using less water. The machine finished "sensing" the load and the tub began to fill with water. From eyeballing it, I would say the new washer uses half the water of the old one. I was anxious about the spin cycle, because I had heard these new machines spin with excessive violence. Our old washer vibrated enough to shake my bedroom wall and, more disconcertingly, the ceiling of the room below it. I was half afraid we'd end up with the new washing machine crashing through to the floor below, but it actually vibrates much less than the old one.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Little le Creuset that Could

After I got married one thing I perpetually coveted and could never afford was a le Creuset enameled cast iron dutch oven. I was enamored with their bright colors, their versatility, their Frenchness. After my mother died and we all came down with the flu, my aunt brought us chicken soup in her enormous old blue le Creuset. Soup plus pot must have weighed a good thirty pounds and how she carried it up the stairs to our apartment, with her bad hip is a mystery to me.


I wanted one and wanted one, but since we had a serviceable set of pans, and one smallish le Creuset costs over $100, it was an extravagance. Then, after years of being a stay-at-home mother and then a student, I had my own income and, of all the extravagant things I have coveted over the years, the le Creuset was the one thing that stuck with me. I could afford it, but I kept putting it off. I was unhappy in my job as a nurse and the le Creuset became the carrot for my donkey:  I kept telling myself that if I could survive just one more pay period, I would buy myself the pan and then I could quit, my material needs complete. Pay period followed pay period for nearly two years and I never bought my le Creuset although I did visit the snootiest cooking store in town--the one on Main St. where the staff ignore me and I always leave in a rage without buying anything. The snooty store only had Staub enameled cast iron, probably because Staub is, in some subtle, insignificant, only-known-to-insiders way superior to le Creuset, like that the Staub color palatte is more sophisticated and only a juvenile troll would want the bright colors of le Creuset. I left in a rage, without buying anything, thinking indignantly, "I have MONEY TO SPEND and I will spend it ELSEWHERE."

Then one day last summer, shopping in Richmond with my daughters, I noticed that le Creuset dutch ovens were on sale at Williams Sonoma and I finally bought one, a blue one. Not as huge as my aunt's, but big enough. It seemed important that I buy it with my nursing money and it did happen to be my last pay period as a nurse. Has any piece of cookware ever been purchased after so much anguish? Oh, and the Williams Sonoma staff were NOT SNOOTY AT ALL. I'm all for shopping local, but not at local shops staffed by assholes.

The new pan sat in the cupboard, unused, for weeks. It was summer and too hot for cassoulets and stews and soups. I wondered if I would ever use it at all. Cool weather came and I used my new pan for something--I can't remember what--and now I use it almost every night. You can put it on the stove, you can put it in the oven, it's an attractive serving dish, and it stores leftovers. I can't think how I got along without it all these years.

Last night, Grace and Seamus, as is their wont, both invited friends to sleep over. Grace invited two friends. I had planned to make dinner for four people, and now suddenly we were having seven. What to do? Make black bean soup and lots and lots of bread. The soup, cooked in the le Creuset, using real beans, not canned, was delicious and the kids loved it.

The bread was a whole wheat beer cheese bread. We didn't have any beer and I walked to the corner deli to buy some. Ordinarily, buying beer isn't a problem, but Jon has lately given up drinking. I didn't want to buy an entire six pack and leave temptation in the house for him. I contemplated the beer fridge for some minutes, wondering what to do. Next to me was a couple examining the big 40 ounce beers. They thought that $2.69 was an outrageous price for a single, enormous beer and were deciding if they should give up their bus fare in order to buy one. I needed eighteen ounces of beer for my bread and I thought, "Hey, I could buy a 40 ouncer and just dump what I don't use." I don't know about you, but I have certain prejudices about buying forty ounce beers at the corner deli. Call me a snob, but to me, it goes along with spending the other half of your paycheck on lottery tickets and drinking in bus shelters out of brown paper bags. So I was embarrased to be buying this giant beer at my neighborhood store. Which is ridiculous, but humor me.

I put the beer on the counter at the register, and idiotically said, "It's for a recipe." The clerk took a step back and squinted at me.

"For real?"

"Yes," I said.

"What kind of recipe?"

"Beer-wheat-cheese bread," I said, mortified. The clerk turned to the woman at the other register.

"Hey," she said, "this beer is for her 'recipe.'"

"What kind of recipe?"

"Beer-wheat-cheese bread," I whispered, tempted to flee the store and never, ever return.

"What’s in it?" they demanded.

"Wheat and cheese and beer."

"That sounds good," they said. "Don't you eat too much or you'll get drunk." The clerks thought that was hilarious and repeated it a few times. Drunk on bread! Great day! They asked me if I wanted a bag and I said no because that is my reflex answer to that question, so I had to walk home carrying a forty ounce beer that was not even decently covered with a brown paper bag. The bread was delicious.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Book talk for a Friday

I'm afraid it's time to discuss books again. The whole reason I started blogging in the first place was to generate conversation about books I was reading. Unfortunately, hardly anyone ever reads the same books I do, but I still like to throw up a book post once in a while.


You can see from my sidebar some of the books I've read lately. If you know any of them, feel free to tell me what you thought. Right now I am struggling with The Four Gated City by Doris Lessing. One feels one ought to read it--she won the nobel prize for literature, and was so marvelously cranky about it when reporters accosted her on her doorstep to tell her the news--I love how onions and an artichoke play a supporting role in that scene, which I command you to watch. There's The Golden Notebook, which I read in college after a friend of mine told me it was her all-time favorite book. The Golden Notebook turned out to be horribly difficult and not at all what I had in mind for a little light reading for the summer vacation. I finished it, but retained little: something about color coded diaries and Africa. This is what you get for taking book recommendations from someone who goes to Yale. So I avoided Doris Lessing for a long time, and then I read The Diaries of Jane Somers, which I loved, and I thought, "Hey, Doris Lessing isn't so bad after all," so I wasn't particularly fearful about starting The Four Gated City until I picked it up from the libaray and saw with dismay that it is over 600 densely packed pages of mental gymnastics. So far, it's all an angst-ridden woman wandering around post WWII London but I am only to page 62. I googled "I can't get through The Four Gated City" and found a lecture about how yes, it's difficult, but the intellectual rewards make it worth the effort. If it were badly written, if there were even the slightest whiff of the cheap literary tricks that I despise, I would stop reading it instantly, but this is masterful writing. It's lucky I checked it out of the university library and don't have to return it until May. Who has read Doris Lessing? Thoughts?
 
I just finished Coot Club by Arthur Ransome, book five of the Swallows and Amazons series. I love children's literature. The Swallows and Amazons series is about a group of sailing-mad English kids in the 1920's or '30s. They spend summers at a lake and are allowed an astonishing amount of freedom to have adventures. The other books are set in the Lake District of England but Coot Club takes place in Norfolk and it's my favorite book in the series so far, partly because of the setting, which Arthur Ransome describes so charmingly. I have had my fill of mountains. I think I could be happy in a flat, watery land. The story itself is about the children's encounter with a group of rude people with a large cruiser who moor their boat in a way that is harmful to a nest of coot's eggs and refuse to move it. A small crime is committed to save the nest and the children become "outlaws," ever evading the rude people, with a final, satisfying confrontation-- especially satisfying to those who know what it is to deal with rude boaters.


I also started another children's book, Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt. I am so impressed with this book. It's about four children, abandoned by their mother in a shopping mall parking lot, far from home. Dicey, the oldest sister, sets out to walk across Connecticut to find the house of an aunt they've never met, who might take them in. Her resourcefullness and intelligence make her a very compelling literary character. Parents, if you have a reluctant reader you're trying to tempt with that One Book that will get him hooked on reading, Homecoming may be the one.

The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes us Smarter by Katherine Ellison--I admit I'm skimming through this one. Not that it's not interesting, but she's preaching to the choir as far as I'm concerned. What I thought more interesting than motherhood's effect on the brain was sleep deprivation's effect on the brain. After working two hellish years as a "day/night rotater" on my nursing unit, it was nice to see that maybe I wasn't crazy during that time, and that maybe much of my depression, tearfulness, weight gain, irritability, lack of coping skills and anti-social behavior could be blamed on sleep deprivation. I used to work 7:00am-7:30pm or 7:00pm-7:30am, often (during my first year) switching back and forth multiple times in the space of two weeks and sometimes having just one day off between working night shift and having to start up with day shift and while at work was literally responsible for people's lives. It was hell. And I mean hell. And now here is The Mommy Brain to tell me that this sort of sleep deprivation is the worst sort of all. Also interesting, the findings about neuroplasticity--that it's a fallacy that your brain stops developing at the end of adolescence, and that our neurons are always making new connections and reworking themselves.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

When Life Imitates a Nightmare

Have you ever had that nightmare--I'm assuming it's one common to the human experience--in which you desperately need to accomplish something, but are thwarted at every turn? What you need to accomplish doesn't really matter, indeed it's often something utterly absurd like taking your dog for a manicure or buying a single, perfect daisy for your mother-in-law who is in the hospital and just gave birth to the president of the United States. Sometimes it's simply a matter of finding a toilet. Only, in the dream, no matter how hard you try to accomplish your task, new obstacles pop up: the door is locked, you find a port hole, you crawl through a tunnel, you reach the toilet stall at last only the "toilet" is a giant mushroom.


Yesterday evening, Grace asked me to take her to get a piercing she really, really, really wanted. She didn't have the money for it, but she could pay me back Wednesday with the money from her catsitting job, and could I please please please please just take her? Please. I relented--she had been wearing me down with begging for weeks. The piercing shop is on the "Corner" a busy area of shops and restaurants across the street from the University. I usually avoid doing business here because parking is impossible, although you can find a spot on the street if you apply yourself, which I did, about three blocks from the shop.

At the shop, it turned out they didn't take credit cards, but the guy said he would take a check, despite the "NO CHECKS" sign on the door. My checkbook, it turned out, was empty, as I had carelessly written the last check and forgotten to replace them. I remembered that there was a branch of my credit union across the street from where we'd parked, and I said I'd just quickly run to the ATM and they could get on with the piercing, which I didn't want to watch. I signed the consent, left my ID and hurried away. I got all the way to the credit union when I remembered that this branch doesn't have an ATM, and since it was after 5:00, it was closed. OK, there's an ATM in the hospital cafeteria, a little out of my way, but I'm a fast walker, no worries. You have to cross the railroad tracks to get to the hospital, and wouldn't you know it, there was a train coming, but I managed to get over the tracks, acutely aware that the piercing had probably already been accomplished by this time.

The hospital is undergoing construction, so the "main entrance" is a little door off to the side and then you have to walk a long hallway, which, whenever you are in a hurry, is always crowded with slow-walking groups of hospital visitors, and patients, dragging their IV poles outside so they can smoke cigarettes. I dodged among the slow walkers in the hall, rushed through the lobby, entered a second long hallway, this one crowded with slow-walking physicians. I reached the cafeteria at last--the ATM is in an alcove on the far side behind all the tables--only the area with the tables was roped off for floor cleaning. I took a detour, got to the ATM at last, and someone was using it. After she left, I swiped my card and got the message, "UNABLE TO READ YOUR CARD," but after a couple more swipes, it accepted my card only I accidentally selected "Fash Cash" which doesn't let you customize the amount you're withdrawing. I wanted $60 but my options were $20, $40, and $100. OK, I would just take out $40 and do a second withdrawl for $20, only the machine didn't ask me if I wanted another transaction and logged me out. I tried to initiate a second transaction, but my card was rejected, every time. After several minutes of waiting and swiping and waiting and swiping, I gave up and decided that surely Grace and Seamus--still waiting at the shop--would have a little money, plus I had a couple of one dollar bills.

To exit the cafeteria, I took a shortcut through an outdoor courtyard, became momentarily confused, found a way out of the courtyard into a different long hallway, then accidentally exited to the outside through the door for wheelchairs, which sent me down a ramp going in the wrong direction. I finally got myself sorted out--there was an incident involving tourists cluelessly standing at an intersection and blocking the button you need to press to get a walk signal-- and back up to the Corner, which was crowded with slow-walking UVA students.

Back at the shop, everyone was anxiously awaiting my arrival and the shop guy must have been starting to suspect this was all an elaborate ruse to get a free piercing and abandon my children to his care. I explained, somewhat incoherently, about all that had gone wrong. The charge was $45. I pulled the $40 out of my wallet, plus four one dollar bills. The piercing guy was all, "$44 is fine, don't worry about it," but Seamus manfully produced four quarters from his pocket.