Monday, December 31, 2012

Moving Day

Parents, you think the worst is behind you once you're past nighttime feedings and diapers, but just when you've sent your kids out on their own, a new responsibility appears:  helping them move.  During the college years, your child is likely to move once a year.  For me, that means sixteen possible moves. Ian has moved four times in two years.  This weekend was Brigid's third move in 18 months.  She was escaping a toxic mold situation in the apartment she and a roommate rented in August.

It was icing and sleeting as we left for Richmond on Saturday morning.  If it is moving day, it's moving day and you have to suck it up and go through with it no matter what the weather.  The ice turned to snow, and then rain.

I felt about 100 years old, especially when sitting in the U-haul, between the two young men who were to do most of the heavy lifting.  One of them came equipped with a green-painted hand and a two-liter bottle of Dr. Pepper.  The old apartment was accessed from an impossibly rickety wooden outdoor staircase.  The steps  wobbled crazily with every ascent and descent. Brigid and I carried the lighter things and I spent most of my time arranging everything as tightly as possible into the truck which was like doing a jigsaw puzzle with eighty-pound pieces.

The world's most dangerous deck.


Old apartment--it had charm.  It's too bad that the mold took hold.

New apartment.

It seemed like the longest day ever, but looking back, it was done efficiently.  By 4:00pm, every last 1/4 full ketchup bottle and stray sock was in the new apartment and the old one was clean with freshly-shampooed carpets.

One thing we've learned since our kids went to college: there's a breed of landlords who specifically prey on students. Now the old landlady has put up a "For Rent" sign in front of a house that ought to be condemned.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment: The Red and the Black

I read Stendahl's The Red and the Black as part of the fifty classics project.  This was published in 1830. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I didn't realize it would be so sensational.  Sex! Seductions!  A beheading!  If Stendahl had been English it probably would never have been published, but he was French.

Julien Sorel is the son of a carpenter in a provincial French town.  He has a reputation for being bookish and is hired by the mayor to be a tutor for his children.  Julien is 19 years old and gorgeous. The mayor's wife is young and pretty her husband is a big old bore.  She and Julien are in bed together before you can say, "You know, it might not be such a great idea to seduce your boss's wife."  The affair ends, predictably, and there's a boring bit in a seminary, because Julien is going to be a priest. (WHY?)  Never mind, he leaves the seminary to be a secretary to one Marquis de la Mole, in Paris.  He's the provincial boy in Paris, but quickly learns the ropes and seduces the Marquis' daughter.  And so the story proceeds to its tragic end.

What's interesting are the manipulations Julien and his lovers put themselves through in order to gain control of each other.  Does Julien love these women?  Sometimes it seems he does, but his actions show a desire to dominate.  If you want to take on the new year with a classic, this might be a good choice.

There does seem to be something lost in translation, or maybe my library's copy is not a good one.  There's a lot of cliched language ("His joy knew no bounds") which I assume is a consequence of translation.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Mince Pies Galore

When I wrote my last post on mincemeat, I had no idea that I was following a trend.  A local historian hosted a mincemeat making class, using three historic American recipes that use bear meat and venison.  She wrote a post about the event and a C'ville blogging friend of mine who attended also wrote about it. "Mincemeat is the new oatmeal," she quipped.

Due to circumstances too boring to relate here, the removable bottoms to my brand-new mini pie tin went out to the curb with the paper recycling on Friday.  I discovered their absence on Saturday, to my great dismay.  Yesterday, I noticed a bit of flotsam at the end of the driveway where trash collects after garbage day.  I went to pick it up and there were my pie tin bottoms, all four of them, dented but perfectly useable. A mincemeat miracle!

You start with a pie crust.  We don't need to go over that, do we?  If you haven't learned to make a pie crust, I encourage you to try.  A novice homemade crust is still far superior to a purchased one.  Flour, salt, fat, water, done. I prefer Jeffrey Steingarten's recipe which can be found in his hilarious book The Man Who Ate Everything.

Pies assembled and ready to go into the oven.

Unfortunately, the cutting guide that came with my mini pie tin got thrown out too and was not kindly deposited in the street for me to find, so I had to estimate the size of my dough circles.  As a result my pies are a little sloppy.  I opened my small jar of mincemeat, fearful it might have gone off after sitting for two weeks at room temperature, but it smelt pleasantly of brandy.  I baked a few in muffin tins, with no top crust.

The finished pies had an appealing apple aroma.  Seamus and I each ate one of the tiny ones.  Delicious!  Much better than purchased mincemeat.  My pies were mildly sweet, with apple flavor dominating. The suet made everything crispy. Think deep-fried apple pie with raisins and brandy.

All these pies didn't even consume my smallest jar of mincemeat.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Merry Pinterest Christmas

This post is my contribution to Jen on the Edge's Holiday Homes tour, as well as real-life results of a few Pinterest holiday crafts I attempted this year.

I wondered where to put the 20' of pine garland, and finally draped it over the triple window in our little sunroom.  I apologize for the shitty picture.  The fuse has already blown on the lights on the left half of the garland and I can't change it.  So sorry, so fat-fingered.

These are my children's christening cups, each topped with a moss ball.  I like how each cup shows the taste of each set of godparents.

Kali looks askance at a Santa I made years ago.

Inspired by Pinterest, I'm wrapping our presents in newspapers this year.  Here's how it looks on Pinterest:

Here's how it looks in real life:

I kind of like the result, actually.  It's a use for the million-yard spool of baker's twine I bought and the newspaper is easier to work with than the brown kraft paper I used last year.  Still, your hands end up filthy, and it's surprising how many pages in a newspaper are unsuitable for wrapping, due to colored ink.  The entire Sunday New York Times yielded enough paper for six or seven presents presents. (Yes, we read it first.)

This project involves decoupaging "vintage German papers" onto ornament balls.

As it happens, we're fresh out of vintage German papers, but pages torn out of an old paperback copy of Shogun worked fine.  I can't say I'm blown away by the finished project, but it isn't exactly awful either.

Acorns are plentiful and can be made into a number of decorations.
Source: via Aileen on Pinterest

I went out to collect acorns and discovered that the squirrels had eaten them all.  Still, I gathered up some acorn caps, thinking they could be made into a garland, or a different pinterest project, such as the one pictured below.
Source: via Aileen on Pinterest

Here's what I have now.  I am already bored with this project.  These will probably end up in the trash. When it comes down to it, acorn caps are just not that interesting.

Is it wrong of me to covet the cutters that made these cookies?  (Pinned from Belgian Waffle's twitter.)

Source: via Aileen on Pinterest

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Mrs. Beeton's Mincemeat Pie

When someone offers you a mincemeat pie, is it your instinct to flee?  Mine too, which is why I have decided to make this dessert myself and discover why it is so beloved in the British Isles.  My own Irish family always ate mince and pumpkin pies for Christmas and Thanksgiving, or "pince and mumpkin" as was our corny family joke.  We kids hated it, of course, and wondered why it was called mincemeat when it didn't even have meat in it.  My mother explained that long ago, mincemeat pie was made with meat.

Actually, not all that long ago.  I have a handwritten mincemeat pie recipe from my grandmother that instructs you to buy mincemeat at the butcher shop, doctor it up with apples, leftover jam or apple butter, and then douse the pie with rum or brandy.

I doubt you can waltz into a butcher shop and ask for mincemeat nowadays, and anyway, I wanted to make it from scratch, so I used Mrs. Beeton's recipe, which is included in Jane Grigson's English Food.  Mrs. Beeton published her Book of Household Management in 1861 and it became the English household Bible for generations.

The players.

The suet came all the way from London, and yes, that's an actual hunk of meat.  The process isn't all that exciting.  You mince the meat and mix it with the mountain of raisins and currants, pictured above. I had to use my very largest mixing bowl.

Here's Seamus mincing.

And we've added the suet.

You add candied peel, nutmeg, apples, lemon juice, lemon rind, a generous amount of brandy.  Here's the finished product. The meat in proportion to the other ingredients is such a small quantity, you can see why people stopped bothering with it.

 Then you pack it into jars and let it sit for a "fortnight."

I'm not so sure about this although Jane Grigson says that the brandy preserves everything nicely and I think Jane Grigson can be trusted.  At any rate, this isn't intended to be canning and the ingredients are 95% dried fruit.

There was a little mincemeat leftover, so I baked a few crustless "mince muffins" just to see how the suet would behave in the oven.  It melts and essentially deep fries all the other filling ingredients. It tasted pretty good, actually.  Deep fried raisins, anyone?

Tune in  a fortnight hence when we bake the pies.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment: A Room of One's Own

I know it's a cliche, but I am afraid of Virginia Woolf.  Her fiction is so intimidating.  I don't think I've ever finished one of her novels.  Last year I read A Common Reader, which isn't exactly easy, but did introduce me to some fantastic books, including two unfinished novels by Jane Austen that I'd never heard of. (Lady Susan and The Watsons--my review here.)

So anyway, I tackled A Room of One's Own, which has been on my to-do list for over twenty years.  I suppose it's lucky I didn't read it when I was twenty, or I might have gotten some particularly poignant line from it tattooed somewhere onto my body.

What does a woman need to be a writer?  She needs money and a room of her own.  These are precisely the things that women lacked, all through history, hence the great silence of women in literature, up to the early 19th century.   It's not like I was unaware that women in history are all but invisible, but Woolf has such a way of putting it, particularly her description of Shakespeare's imaginary brilliant sister. 

This is definitely a book to read and re-read.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Weekend Report, or I can't believe I ate that.

My sister and her husband came to town, and after meeting their train, we went to Bang for martinis.  I had the espressotini, which I have been looking forward to.  You are asked if you want it with cream or without, and I chose without.  I would have preferred the cream, but a fear of calories held me back.  This martini tastes like an iced coffee and is garnished with floating coffee beans.  It's not very strong, but sometimes you want a drink that doesn't knock you on your ass.

Here's my sister and me with our martinis.  She had the "bangarita."

We went to a different restaurant for dinner, which was excellent, although in the morning I woke up with symptoms very suspicious of food poisoning.  I inventoried what I'd eaten the night before and came up with an appalling parade of suspects: oysters, four kinds of sushi, and a cod liver pate. Or maybe it was the turkey salad I'd eaten for lunch, made from leftover Thanksgiving turkey, that I suddenly realized would have been eight days old.  I imagined myself sitting in a doctor's office, rattling off this list of potentially toxic foods and being told that my eating privileges were being revoked for criminal stupidity.   At any rate, there was no need for a doctor, the symptoms were short-lived, and I was up and around by mid-morning.

Sunday we put up the Christmas tree.  There are still some decorating decisions to be made.  What to do with the twenty feet of pine garland that was a free gift with purchase of our tree.  Festoon the porch?  Wrap it around something?  What thing?  I would like to do another Christmas craft, as last year's advent guillotine was such a smashing success.

This year's tree--not much different from last year's tree. Ever since the year we accidentally brought home a two-story tree, we put it up in the hall.

I like colorful glass baubles and whenever I see 1950's ornaments in antique shops, I buy them.

This Santa was my great-grandmother's.

Sancho uses body language to show he disapproves of Christmas trees.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment: Marking Time

I was so bowled over by Elizabeth Jane Howard's The Light Years, that I had to go out immediately and get the sequel:  Marking Time.  It is every bit as good as its predecessor,  and may even be better.  The Light Years serves to introduce the family, and Marking Time solidifies the reader's relationship with them.  There's a sense that the real story has now begun, as has World War II.  While the first book gave a voice to many characters, Marking Time focuses more on the three girls of the Cazalet family: Louise, Polly, and Clary, who are in their teens.  Louise, who is slightly older, goes off to acting school, while Polly and Clary live at the family compound in the country under the supervision of a gentle governess.  The governess herself is a tragicomic figure.  The few bits of the story told from her perspective are especially well done, and the bracing little pep talks she gives herself make her seem more tragic, less comic, but one of those characters you'll remember long after you've read the book. 

I'm so glad I found this series, but I want to make the pleasure last longer, so probably will wait a bit before reading the last two books.  Next in line are The Red and the Black by Stendhal.  Also, a book called Trilby which was listed on my book list as Trilby--DuMaurier, so I was expecting a nice, comfortable romance by Daphne DuMaurier, but it turns out that Trilby was written by one George DuMaurier, which is a bit of a disappointment.  I feel very ignorant.  Has anyone heard of him?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

One Girl, Forty Martinis

The martini consumption continues apace.  Here's the latest crop.

The Circus Act: An apple martini with a drizzle of caramel sauce. You get the caramel apple taste without the nasty caramel apple texture.  Plus, it's pretty.

The Diva: White grape juice, Absolut Citron and champagne.  This one is on the tart side.  Comes sprinkled with little white flecks.  I think they were tiny edible flowers, but couldn't be sure.

The Dreamsicle:  Cointreau, vanilla vodka, orange juice and cream.  Consumed on a dessert run with the kids.  I've never been a fan of citrus combined with dairy.  My mother once told me that a reliable way to feign sickness was to drink a glass of orange juice mixed with milk, a combination guaranteed to make you throw up.  I never tried this trick myself and I am certainly not saying that the dreamsicle made me feel sick.  It's probably a good choice if you are starving and there's a long wait for a table. Or for dessert, but not combined with cheesecake, as mine was. Oy.

The Eclipse:  A wedding cocktail.  To me, it tasted like punch, frothy and sweet, with undetectable alcohol that sneaks up on you and makes you drunker than drunk.  Jon insisted it tasted like fruity pebbles.  What do I know?  My mother never bought us sugary cereals.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment: Absalom Absalom

I read this as part of the Fifty Classics project. I can't honestly say that I have finished Absalom, Absalom, because there are still thirty-two pages to go, but I can honestly say that it is highly unlikely that those final thirty-two pages will help me understand this book any better. And this is the second time I've read it.  Pathetic. 

So it's about this guy, Thomas Sutpen, who behaves badly, and is a big black blot on the psyche of the more sensitive denizens of Yoknapatawpha county, Mississippi, including Quentin Compson who narrates Sutpen's story to his college roommate forty years after most of it happened and kills himself a few months later, although in a different book.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I will say that I am grateful I am nearly finished with Absalom, Absalom.  We can conclude that I am Too Stupid for Faulkner.  Which author are you too stupid for?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Just life.

It sucks to waste an entire Saturday being sick, but I seem to have caught the virus that is going around my office.  I forced myself out to do the shopping, but was overcome near the fish and had to leave the store in a hurry, reminiscent of the terrible Christmas Eve two years ago, when I sat in the car in the Whole Foods parking lot, throwing up into a leaky nylon beer bottle carrier, while fourteen-year old Grace and her friend Sophie did all the Christmas grocery shopping for me.  After the store Saturday I went straight to bed and stayed there for hours, starting to feel human again by dinnertime.

Yesterday I felt much better and to prove it I cleaned the refrigerator and climbed a ladder and cleaned the bird shit off the kitchen window.  Now my refrigerator is a shining receptacle for a big bloody turkey that will no doubt leak all over the lettuce and my kitchen window is satisfyingly shit free.

Window cleaning preparations:  It is a challenge to prop a ladder anywhere on our property, but I wedged a shoebox under the ladder feet.

Jon was at work, lest you think he was lolling on the couch while I was up ladders.

Meanwhile, despite the disastrous appraisal, our refinance went through.  We closed last Wednesday.  This means we will be paying off our mortgage nine years early and will be going ahead with the urban courtyard of excellence, so it's happy times at the Crabsticks'.

So, the courtyard--we had Miss Utility over to map for us the things we don't want to destroy with a backhoe.  Is Miss Utility a Virginia thing, or does everybody have her?  At any rate, Miss Utility drew a line of yellow spray paint to denote the gas line, sprayed a blob of blue paint on the water meter, refused to identify the mystery pipe in the front yard, and condescendingly informed me that the phone and electric lines are located overhead.

Jon had an idea.  As long as the gas line is going to be exposed we could buy gas lamps, connect them to the lines (pre-meter, of course) and have lovely gas lighting for our driveway.  "Where are we going to buy gas lamps?" I jeered.  "Gas lights dot com?"  Still, having come from a place where gas lights are standard and not horrible electric ones like Charlottesville has, the idea attracted me.  Don't worry, we are not going to steal gas from the city to power our very own outdoor lighting, I promise, although the idea has a certain naughty brilliance.

Meanwhile, Contractor Kyle came over and dug around the mystery pipe, in an attempt to identify it. He dug for over an hour and never reached the point at which the pipe branched off to go anywhere but down.

I am convinced it is a portal to the Underworld.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment

I have a treat for you this week:  The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard.  THIS BOOK IS AWESOME.  It's the first of The Cazalet Chronicle series, which was also a BBC television mini-series.  (I haven't seen it yet.)

It's England in 1938 and the Cazelets are a rich middle class extended family.  The story is told from the perspective of most of the family members, including the children and servants.  It's like Upstairs Downstairs merged with Downton Abbey and The Camomile Lawn.

The Light Years is the sort of book you can't wait to return to after a long, dreary day.  Like real life, it's funny and tragic and awful.  I can't wait to read the remaining books in the series.

I'm a little embarrasssed about my inability to write a decent book review:  "This book is awesome.  It is about a family.  It reminds me of these other three books, one of which is not even a book, but a wildly popular TV show."

After I wrote the above, I thought of something more articulate that I could write about this book and then I forgot it, so we will have to settle for "THIS BOOK IS AWESOME!"

Monday, November 12, 2012

In which I injure a rabbit and save a dog.

The title is a bit of an exaggeration.  The rabbit was uninjured, and I didn't actually save the dog, although I thought I was saving it at the time.

I was having a cleaning tantrum.  Every item of clutter had become a personal insult.  Lately, for reasons too boring to explain here, our house has been overrun with poor-quality apples.  There was an apple on the desk in the front hall, two apples on the sunroom windowsill, another in my antique yellowware mixing bowl.  I tossed an apple off the back porch, where it hit our pergola and exploded in an unsatisfactory manner, all over the deck.  Even more angry, I took a second apple and hurled it with all my strength.  It cleared the pergola, sailed the length of the back yard and hit a peacefully grazing rabbit right on the ass.  I was mortified, but the rabbit gave me an irritated glance and continued eating as if nothing had happened.

Early the next morning, I went out for a walk.  I had hardly left the house, when I realized I was being followed by a dog.  She stuck with me for blocks, and in the end, followed me all the way home. At one point we passed a woman walking her dog on a leash and I worried there'd be a confrontation, but "my" dog sensibly crossed to the other side of the street.  At home,  I put bowls of food and water on the porch. I didn't want to bring her in because Sancho is aggressive with other dogs.

The dog had a skin condition. Patches on its hind legs were red and raw, its tail oddly swollen at the base, where it had lost most of its fur.  What fur it had was dusted with dry skin flakes.   I called animal control, but there is no animal control on Sundays.  I called the SPCA, but they didn't open until noon. I put a picture of the dog on twitter but no one responded.

Eventually, we let Luna out, since she is the sort of dog to take other creatures under her wing and organize them.  I resolved to take the stray to the SPCA as soon as they opened.  The skin condition (and lack of collar) led me to believe she'd been on her own for a long time, but her behavior showed that she was accustomed to kind treatment from humans.  I decided she'd gotten separated from a loving family and never found her way home.  As sweet as she was, I couldn't take a third dog into our already overcrowded house.

The dog had shown no signs of wanting to leave, when I saw a man walking past the house.  I could tell by the alert way that Luna was standing in the driveway, that our dog had gone.  I went out to the street, but both man and dog had disappeared.  I assumed the stray had decided to try her luck with this new man.  He'd looked like a nice man and I hoped she would fare well with him.

Two hours later, our stray returned.  I got an old leash and collar, the dog followed me trustingly into the car, and we headed for the SPCA where they exclaimed, "that dog was here last week!"  They also knew that the skin condition was caused by allergies.  They got the owner on the phone, but she was on her way home from out of town, so the dog stayed at the SPCA until her owner came that evening to collect her.

Later, through the C'ville gossip web, I learned that my picture had been spotted on twitter and the dog belongs to a classmate of my kids.  I've never met the parents, but at least now I know which house to take her to if she wanders our way again.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment: Greater Britain

In 1866, Charles Dilke, a British politician, traveled around the world to visit most countries which had been or were colonies of Great Britain. He published the story of his travels in Greater Britain, a rather dense book of over 500 pages.

The journey starts in Virginia which was reeling from the Civil War.  Dilke traveled extensively in the United States, dipped briefly into Canada, crossed the North American continent in a stage coach, as the railroads did not yet extend to the Pacific.  From California, he traveled the Pacific islands and New Zealand.  From New Zealand he sailed to Australia and visited each state there--no simple task in such a large country with very little infrastructure.  The last leg of the journey is in India.

Parts of this book are boring and I admit that I skimmed here and there.  There is, however, much of interest.  I liked the musings on place names, the comparisons of geography, climate, the looks and habits of the people--both native and colonists.  He has some interesting things to say, such as his observation that the more abusive a society is to its women, the more unpleasant, savage, and generally backward they are.  But then he lost me at the end, concluding that the "cheaper races" are threatening the good English stock in many of these countries.  By "cheaper races" he meant the Irish, displaying that curious mental block among the Victorians in which they could at least express (if not practice) enlightened views (for their time) about the people they've conquered and in the next breath declare the Irish to be subhuman.  Doubly curious because the Irish and the English are both descended from the same Celtic and Scandinavian invaders.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Christmas comes but every 24 months

My children have designated one particular day as the Holy of Holies; so special it only happens every two years and requires months of advance planning.  I am referring to the day that our cell phone contract expires.  This day is tomorrow and has even eclipsed Halloween as a day of excitement.  Ladies and gentlemen, it looks like we're switching to a data plan.

We're probably the last household in the US that doesn't have smart phones. (Except for Grace, who is Ms. Moneybags and unable to wait for the Day of Cell Phone Reckoning, bought her own iphone and her own cell phone contract which she pays herself with her own online billpay from her own checking account.  It's adorable.)

Myself, I don't even have a phone on our family plan and use my work-issued phone.

Behold: the world's most embarrassing phone

I used to actually be ashamed to be seen with this phone, then I was a little pugnacious: "you wanna sneer at my PHONE?" but now I'm like whatever, I don't care, so what if my phone resembles a tiny hand grenade?  I own this phone, people. (But not really.) I have gotten adept at texting on the number pad and feel like I am preserving a lost art whenever I do so.  Since this is a work-issued phone, I have inherited my predecessor's saved texting vocabulary: 4real, GENERATOR, DRUNK, and other words unrelated to medical software.  Actually, "DRUNK" might be mine, texted to Jon in the middle of the night when he wasn't home yet.  But I only used it once and now it wants to populate whenever I enter a "D."

So anyway, I did not do the months of advance planning, despite my children's constant reminders and now have 24 hours in which to research the confounding world of cell phone plans.  Could they make them any more confusing?

Friday, October 26, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont is one of my favorite books.  It contains all the essential elements:  British, gently funny, sometimes ludicrous, poignant, similar to Barbara Pym's novels.  It was written in 1971 by Elizabeth Taylor.  Mrs. Palfrey is an elderly widow who moves into a residential hotel in London.  She has an overbearing daughter who lives some distance away and a grandson in London who she hopes will visit her.  The other residents of the hotel are a nosy bunch, and in an attempt to fit in and impress them, Mrs. Palfrey tells them about her grandson, who never materializes.  But then she has an encounter with a random young man, Ludo.  They become friends and Mrs. Palfrey passes him off as her grandson to the hotel residents while also adjusting to the petty social hierarchy within the Claremont hotel. Therein lies the comedy of this book, which is essentially a sweet, funny, and sad novel about aging.

Right after I read it, the book came out as a movie starring Joan Plowright and the beautiful Rupert Friend.  It was astonishing that an obscure book that probably hadn't moved off my library shelf for years before I checked it out, was suddenly a major movie.  It's a very good movie.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

One girl, forty martinis, IV

We took the whole family to Bang, which is when I ordered the "Banghattan" a drink I was dreading.  The Manhattan and I have a long, troubled relationship.  It was the preferred drink of the nuns in my family, and were in evidence at all of our parties.  To me, the name evoked sophistication, the maraschino cherry implied innocence. The preferred cocktail of nuns, I was sure it would be delicious. When I finally got my chance to sneak a taste, I was bitterly disappointed.  You won't find too many ten year old girls with a taste for whiskey.

The "Banghattan" took me straight back to that childhood taste.  I'm sure it was a competently prepared cocktail, but I am so not into that dusty thrift store dresser drawer taste.  I made Jon eat the cherry because I was afraid of a whiskey explosion.

On a different occasion, I ordered the Battletoad.  This is a bright blue tequila-based drink, garnished with a salt rim and a pink plastic toad.

I liked this drink very much, which I realize is not a very helpful assessment, but it has been awhile and I can't remember exactly what it tasted like.  If you like margaritas and brightly colored tropical drinks, you will probably like the Battletoad.

A week later, I ordered the Black Cherry Cosmo.  I wish I'd taken a picture of it, because it was a lovely shade of pink, garnished with a lime wedge.  The taste was like a cosmopolitan (duh) with an extra layer of depth and flavor from the black cherry vodka.

Then this weekend (Friday nights at Bang is becoming a thing) I had the Boutineer, Bang's version of an Old Fashioned.  I'd never had an Old Fashioned before, but people always seem to order them in old movies and novels, so I was curious.  It tastes like a Manhattan, only sweeter.  Even my ridiculously childish palate was able to swallow it without shuddering.  Or maybe I am learning to like whiskey.  One thing about the Boutineer:  it will make you very drunk--even if you nurse it over five courses of tapas.

Street theater on this night provided by the couple in the monster-sized Chevy suburban with a Romney bumpersticker.  This was no ordinary suburban.  It was some suburban XXL that I've never never seen before.  We watched them pull into the South St. parking lot and then pull out again, having failed to find a spot they could fit their car into.  Thereafter we watched them mournfully circling the streets--like you could ever parallel park a behemoth like that.  Later, we saw them park in a private lot, taking up two spaces, of COURSE.  When people buy a massive car like this, do they ever think about how they will be able to park it?

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Camping Trip

It was unfortunate that right before embarking on the only camping trip of my entire life, I had been reading The Scramble for Africa:  White Man's Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912 by Thomas Pakenham.  I told myself that if David Livingston could explore vast areas of Africa before nylon was ever invented,  I did not need to purchase any special gear for a weekend at a campground in eastern Pennsylvania.  We had a tent, a teapot, a box of granola bars.  Surely nothing else would be required.

I did not grow up in a camping family, and I sometimes felt a little wistful when other kids talked about their camping trips.  My family's idea of roughing it was when my father pre-mixed martinis in jam jars for picnics at Fort Niagara.

It was a meet-up of friends from all up and down the east coast.  Jon was working so I went alone with the four kids.  This was about eight years ago when they were 12,11, 8, and 5.  It was immediately apparent that our tent was somewhat lacking, compared to those of my friends.  They had ground tarps, air mattresses, camping stoves and clever collapsing dishes.

Our tent smelled horrible.  It had been stored in various basements, unused, for approximately thirteen years.  I laid out our sleeping bags and hoped that by bedtime the smell would have dissipated.  It hadn't, although by bedtime we had other worries, such as the fact that it was pouring rain and Grace had tripped on a tent peg and gashed her head on a rock.  We were soaked and freezing and our tent was uninhabitable, although it smelled so bad I was almost relieved to have an excuse to sleep in the car.

There were hot showers and flush toilets just down the road,  so the five of us piled into my old Volvo wagon and drove 1/4 mile down the hill to the showers, which turned out to be coin-operated.  I had never in all my life heard of coin operated showers, and of course I didn't have enough coins for five showers.  We consoled ourselves by changing into dry clothes and taking advantage of the flush toilets. Back at the campground, Grace managed to slam the car door on Ian's hand before we all settled in to sleep upright for the night.

The next morning was sunny and after a hot cup of tea, my friends persuaded me to stay another night.  And we did have fun that day, and one friend suggested laundering the tent at the camp laundromat, which lessened the smell but did not entirely eliminate it.  Our sleeping bags were soaked, but I dried them on a clothesline.

Things were definitely looking up, until dinnertime, when one of my kids complained of a stomach ache and crawled into the tent early, looking distinctly pale and clammy.  Later, I had just dropped off to sleep when the sick child announced a need to throw up.  I struggled helplessly with the two sets of zippers which sealed our tent's entrance while said child was copiously sick all over the tent floor and his sleeping bag.  He dragged his body forward and lay with his head just over the tent threshold, retching, while I alternated between sobbing and begging him not to throw up in my shoes.

It was long past midnight, my child was covered in puke, had no clean clothes and the running water was 1/4 mile away.  The other children slept as a foul lake of vomit slowly seeped into their bedding.  I stumbled through the dark to the car and groped in the roof rack and found our last remaining item of clean clothing:  a pair of too-small boxer shorts.  These, combined with a towel, were what my son had to wear for the rest of the night.

Sleep was impossible now and I stalked the campsite with a lantern, snatching our clothes and bathing suits off the clotheslines and tossing them willy-nilly into the roof rack, determined to leave immediately until I remembered that my car was nearly out of gas.  I herded the other children to the car for another night in the Volvo.  About 4:00am, Seamus said he felt sick and I got him out of the car just in time to throw up on the ground between my feet.

We were ready to leave as the rest of the camp was just beginning to stir.  For the road, the sick child wore his bathing suit, which was at least dry, and not underwear.  On the way out, I backed the car smartly into a tree and stove the bumper in.  The tent was ruined and I threw it away as we left the campground, taking some small satisfaction imagining a future conversation in which Jon would ask, "Hey, where's my tent?"  and I would say, "In a dumpster in eastern Pennsylvania."  One of the other kids now announced that she felt sick and spent the four hour drive throwing up into a succession of plastic grocery bags.  The only one of us who didn't get sick was the one child who hadn't eaten a hot dog for lunch the day before.

What is the point of this story?  Maybe it is a lesson that it is not a good idea to read books about explorers before going camping.  We would at least have had a ground tarp otherwise, and Jon, to give him credit, had advised me to get one and I didn't listen to him, all because of David Farking Livingston.  It's also a cautionary tale about how one shouldn't trust hot dogs that have been stored in a cooler for 24 hours.  And finally, it is an illustration of how children can be counted on to choose the most inconvenient moment possible to develop a vomiting sickness.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Walk Safely and Carry a Big Stick

Friday, Grace was--very lightly, you must understand--hit by a car.  "Brushed" by a car is more accurate and she is not injured, thank God.  Still, it is very upsetting to get a phone call from your daughter telling you that a car actually came into contact with her person when she was in a crosswalk. I can feel my heart rate increase as I write this, two days later.

She had been crossing at a light at a small intersection in downtown Charlottesville (7th & Market, for interested locals).  She had a walk sign and she was in the crosswalk, when a car that was turning left from Market onto 7th sideswiped her.  Grace stumbled and just missed getting her foot run over. There was an instant of startled eye contact between the driver and Grace, then the driver continued driving and Grace continued walking.

I called the police because I had to do something.  I realize there is no chance the driver will be caught, but I felt that the incident should be reported, so at least the city can maintain accurate records of the number of pedestrians who are hit by cars.  We made arrangements to meet a police officer at the scene.

While we waited, we watched two women crossing Market St--they were in the crosswalk, they had a walk sign--and a turning car nearly plowed into them.  The driver's facial expression showed total perplexity.  You mean there might be people?  Crossing the street?  People who have the SAME GREEN LIGHT THAT YOU DO?

The police officer arrived, and as he walked to us, a driver who was backing up to parallel park nearly ran him over.  The upshot is that nothing is going to happen.  I explained to the officer my concern for statistics, and he rattled off a list of recent pedestrian vs car incidents, including one in which the driver was going 45 mph.  He said the report was likely to get "kicked out" because there was no injury, but we agreed that he would file the report, and that if Grace felt any delayed effects of the impact, we were to seek medical attention and call him.

I've been ranting about pedestrian issues for ages, and the turning-vehicle thing is a big problem.  A turning vehicle must yield to oncoming cars so why is it so hard to understand that they must also yield to pedestrians?  At some Charlottesville crosswalks, the actual walk sign is visible very briefly and then there's a countdown of seconds telling you how much time you have to get to the other side.  This is useful information for pedestrians, but some drivers seem to think that unless the sign actually says "WALK" they are justified to run you over.  The city has posted signs on traffic lights stating that turning vehicles must yield to pedestrians, and I see many drivers who respect this, but I see many others who don't.

One day, I was crossing Roosevelt Brown Blvd, at W. Main St.  The crosswalk was doing its flashing countdown and I had plenty of time.  I was nearly mowed down by a turning car and when I pointed at the walk sign, she indicated to me that I had no right to be in the crosswalk because it didn't actually say "walk."  She was wrong.  She was also a bitch.  Drivers, please disabuse yourselves of the notion that the only time a pedestrian may be in the crosswalk is when there is an active walk sign.  If you've ever actually crossed a street yourself, you would know that the walk signal doesn't last nearly long enough to get all the way across the street--not even for a fast walking person such as myself.

I also see a lot of stupid pedestrian behavior.  For a while--forgive me--I concluded that there are a lot of awfully stupid people in this town.  Then I realized that it's not stupidity but ignorance.  People no longer know how to cross the street.  We're so used to driving everywhere, that crossing the street has become a lost skill.  If pedestrians behave unpredictably, drivers will not know what to do.  So I realize that there is responsibility on both sides, but in a car/body collision, the car will always win, so the driver has the bigger responsibility.  Don't you remember being told in driver's ed to "look at the big picture"?  This means that when you are at a traffic light,  drivers are responsible for checking to see if there are pedestrians trying to cross before turning.

The most infuriating thing about a near miss with a car is the lack of acknowledgement.  You feel about as significant as a piece of litter.  On one day, I had two near-misses with cars.  In one instance, the driver sped on, apparently unaware or uncaring of the fact that he or she had nearly maimed a human.  In the other instance, the driver paused, waved, apologized.  That made all the difference.  That simple acknowledgement dissolved my rage and I saw a human who had made a mistake, rather than a faceless driver.

When Jon heard about Grace he was upset too, naturally, and suggested walking with a big stick to pound on cars that get too close.  I have to admit that I'm so upset that I think violence of this kind could be justified.  How much violence has been done to pedestrians by drivers?  You don't like the idea of a heavy stick cracking down on your hood?  Maybe I don't like it when your bumper barely misses my pelvis.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Butterflies and Ghosts

We went to Harper's Ferry for the weekend to visit our dear friends.  This is a delightful little town and less than three hours from C'ville, so a handy place to take your children for extracurricular history lessons disguised as a "vacation."

Saturday's activity was a hike, up Maryland Heights.  We all walked down the hill to the lower town.

Harper's Ferry, West Virginia

We crossed the railroad bridge to Maryland and walked along the tow path next to the Potomac until we reached the trail, where we were greeted with this.

So, we're expected to hike without alcohol?  We suffered, but the view is spectacular.  That's Virginia to the left, West Virginia is the point between the two rivers, (Shenandoah and Potomac) and we were in Maryland.

The top was occupied by a group of reckless Asian youth.  The very first thing I saw once emerging from the trail was a girl clinging to the brink, laughing as if this were the must amusing thing that had ever happened to her.  Others in their group launched themselves down the cliff face, which was a sheer drop.  Some of them had difficulty dragging themselves back up the cliff and had to be shoved by their friends.  We maintained a more circumspect distance from the edge, but I took pictures of the Asians.

 We thought it would be sensible to start our return hike ahead of the Asians but no sooner had we gotten on our way, when we saw them coming behind us.  It was at that moment that Seamus got a stone in his shoe, and my friend noticed an injured butterfly on the path.  We stopped for shoe adjustments and to assist the butterfly.  The Asians were getting closer, they were nearly upon us and Seamus was having difficulty getting his shoe back on and the butterfly did not seem to realize that it was being assisted and not harassed.  At the very last second, Seamus got his foot back into his shoe and the recalcitrant butterfly was deposited safely out of danger of tramping feet.  We sprinted up the trail, laughing.  It was exactly like one of those tense chase scenes in a movie, where the hero falls or gets caught up on something or has to stop to save his weaker friend, while the evil villain with the flame thrower gets closer and closer.

The mountain from the bottom.  You might see specks of color where people are standing at the overlook.

The Asians were close behind us for a little while and then abruptly disappeared.  We stopped for lunch in town and detoured through the Catholic church on the way home to view the scary Jesus.  I was expecting an Infant of Prague sort of thing, like those mummified saints' bodies in Italian churches, but this was a nude wax figure, covered from head to toe with oozing bloody wounds in addition to being crucified.  The effect was more a bad case of chicken pox than "He suffered for YOUR sins," but I couldn't bear to take a picture.

I did take a picture of the ruined Episcopal church and a house of controversy which was built without approval and contains tacky non-historic windows.

That night I took Seamus and his friend to the Harper's Ferry ghost tour.  Harper's Ferry was a violent place during the Civil War and is a haunted place.  Our guide pointed out numerous apartments in which it is impossible to keep tenants.  Below is pictured the most haunted house in Harper's Ferry.  When the National Parks Service bought it, they planned to use it as a residence for long-term guests like visiting scholars, but the ghosts made it impossible for anyone to stay there for long.  Today it's used as offices, and our guide noted that there is never anyone in that building at night.

It's the white building on the far right--about 200 years old, but the ghosts seem to date from the 1860s.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment: books that suck

I'm not happy with what I'm reading right now, and while I never intended my "reading assignments" to be about the book I'm reading at the moment, I thought we could talk about books that irritate us and why we keep reading them.

I'm reading Penmarric by Susan Howatch, which is one of those "sweeping family sagas" set in Cornwall.  Sex, money, property, bastards, etc.  The blurb compares it to Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca.  Um, no.

Why am I reading this drivel?  Because Michael Korda told me to.  Not exactly, but in his book about his career at Simon & Schuster (Another Life) he mentions Penmarric as a book that came across his desk that seemed really different and special.  So I added it to my book list and now I am saying, "WHY, MICHAEL WHY?"

Who knows, maybe in the 1970s it was different and special to use 500 words when twenty-five would suffice.  Here, a bridegroom approaches his wife on their wedding night:

I lit a cigarette, walked over to the railings of the esplanade and watched the moonlight glittering on the dark waters.  The sea was calm; I felt at peace...Faint strains of music reached my ears from the dining room; the murmur of conversation floated to meet me from the drawing room...I mounted the stairs, my feet sinking into the thick carpet, and moved without hesitation down the cooridor to the door of our suite.
She was ready for bed.  She wore some pale floating garment and as I entered the room I could see her reflection in the dressing table mirror.  Her hair, thick and luxuriant, cascaded over her shoulders...

Then she wipes some lipstick off her mouth and he freaks out and is suddenly remembering every tragic thing that ever happened to him.

I was back among the worst memories of my life, back amidst all the blood and violence and suffering I'd tried so hard to forget.  I'd thought I'd never have to live through those memories again, but I was wrong.  Time had been displaced, the clock put back.
And I was there.

It's supposed to be dramatic, but it's really just boring and infuriating.  I hope I don't come across as a snob. Good and bad writing cut across all levels of literature and I enjoy all kinds of books.  Indeed, if there's anything more irritating than a poorly-written best seller, it's a badly written novel with pretensions to being great literature.

So why am I reading it?  I don't always continue with awful books.  Recently, a book's "thrilling" language irritated me so much I quit reading after twenty pages.  I was so exceptionally annoyed I returned it to the library immediately as if it was too much to even have it in the house with me.  The one thing worthwhile thing about Penmarric is that Susan Howatch parallels the Penmar family's story with that of the Plantagenets:  Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and their children.  It's an interesting idea and the book could have been really good if someone had forced her to remove the manufactured drama.

What sorts of books irritate you?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


The results of the appraisal were disappointing.  Doubly so because we found inaccuracies in the report:  it says our house has two bedrooms, when it very obviously has three.  The report also says our house has vinyl windows, which it does not.  Some of the windows are the original, 100-year old wooden windows with wavy glass panes, and we saved up for top quality wood architect series windows for those that we needed to replace.  So now I have to email them and correct the errors.  Who knows, maybe we'll see an increase of $10 or so.  Or maybe they'll deduct value as a whining penalty.

Have our lives changed in any significant way because someone assigned a number to our house?  No, but trust me, it really sticks in your craw when some stranger walks through the house you've loved for over ten years and pronounces it ("the subject") a pile of shite.  The urban courtyard of excellence doesn't seem like such a worthy project anymore, although it may still be possible for the refinance to go through.  I have no idea what the loan-to-value ratio is supposed to be.  No doubt someone will tell us.  In the meantime, we'll consider moving a herd of goats into the living room and squatting here until the house falls down around us.

On the bright side, our house looked really cute in all the pictures taken by the appraiser.  Also, I got home from work Monday and found that Jon had strategically place a bathmat to hide a damaged spot on the bathroom floor.

That doesn't look suspicious AT ALL.