Friday, August 31, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment: Hens Dancing

Hens Dancing, by Rafaella Barker--a recommendation by fellow C'ville blogger Becky--is the perfect comfort read.  It's like a Bridget Jones' Diary for mothers.  The heroine, Venetia, is recently divorced with two young sons and a charming infant daughter referred to as "The Beauty." They live in Norfolk.  I found myself surprisingly affected by certain scenes, such as the one when the heroine, Venetia's, ex-husband and his evil girlfriend arrive to take Venetia's infant away for the weekend.  There are also many funny parts about the usual things that we mothers find irritating:  a friend's bratty children, smug, perfect mothers of classmates, household messes and pets, and her eccentric mother.  Hens Dancing is a fun book to escape into.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Patience's Kitchen of Despair

Prompted by the arrival of Jon's brother, his wife, and their four children, my aspiring-chef son Seamus and I happily planned a feast of stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates, garlicky, cashew chicken, yogurt-curry rice, sauteed local vegetables, and homemade chocolate eclairs.

We got off to an efficient start by preparing the ground cashew-garlic-lime juice-cilantro-jalapeno paste for the chicken the night before, so it could marinate overnight.  Our enthusiasm had diminished by Friday afternoon, and in the cold light of a kitchen in which no one had remembered to run the dishwasher, the meal seemed a tad ambitious for a workday.

Seamus assembled the dates and started on the eclairs.  I have made profiteroles several times, from a recipe we found on  They have always turned out perfect, but this time I chose the eclairs recipe from the New York Times Cookbook, which I was sure would be better than the Profiteroles for Proles--it makes you separate the eggs, which I feel is an indication of a superior baked good.

The eclairs puffed up beautifully in the oven, but once on the cooling rack, they deflated into the most pathetic pastry ever seen.  For consolation, I poured myself a healthy amount of vodka, disguised in lemon soda.   No time to feel sorry for ourselves, our guests had arrived and we had to get the dates on the grill.  I hurriedly gulped the last of my vodka in order to partake of wine with the rest of the adults.

Twenty minutes later, Seamus and I were beating the flames out of the bacon-wrapped dates, which were burned to cinders.  I tried to console Seamus by saying that burned things are sometimes delicious, but the truth is, they were inedible.

Meanwhile, we were struggling with the custard that was supposed to be the filling for the eclairs.  I have made custards many times and never had a problem, but this custard had the taste, consistency, and color of boiled hooves.  Up to this point our guests had consumed nothing but wine and a small packet of Thai-lime potato chips.

Seamus turned his attention to the chicken, while I started the rice.  I hadn't bothered to read the recipe because, how hard is it to make rice?  Again, (you may be detecting a theme here) I have made rice hundreds of times and never had a problem.  The rice was cheerfully boiling, while I mixed yogurt, lime juice and curry powder.  I glanced at the recipe:

Wrap a clean kitchen towel around the pot lid so it completely covers the the inside of the lid; gather the corners on top so they do not fall anywhere near the heat, and place the lid on the pot, sealing it tightly...Cook undisturbed for about 30 minutes.

First of all, my kitchen towels, even when "clean" are in a shocking condition and should not come into contact with food.  Second, it seemed like a mighty tricky maneuver with the towel, which I would certainly drop into the rice.  And third, thirty more minutes?  For rice that was already mostly cooked?

I ignored the cookbook,  turned the heat under the rice to high, and started on the vegetables....and discovered that the fresh, local zucchini I'd bought the day before was rotten through the middle.  I seriously considered chucking the whole meal and ordering pizza.  But this was "move in weekend" when every street, sidewalk, restaurant, and parking lot is crammed with people from out of town who don't know what the hell they are doing.  My mental health was too fragile to face the crowds, so we soldiered on.

The chicken--every time I've made this chicken in the past it was spicy and garlicky and delicious--was as bland as if we'd grilled it with no marinade at all.  It was also, in contrast with the dates, ever-so-slighly underdone, although no reports of salmonella as of yet. The rice, despite being cooked without the benefit of the kitchen towel, was the only part of the meal that turned out OK.  Jon's brother and family insisted that everything was delicious, but they must have been trying to be tactful.  At least the wine was nice.

For consolation, we had the pathetic eclairs.  Seamus thought they could be re-inflated with pastry-bag action, which he loaded with the boiled hooves.  I abandoned the New York Times recipe and made a chocolate glaze that I know I can depend on (bittersweet chocolate chips melted in a little half-and-half).  And so our guests were treated to limp, hoof-filled pastry coated in a delicious chocolate glaze.

Tell me:  have you ever had a dinner party fail?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The most awful time of the year

Nothing makes me crankier than the start of the school year.  There's a myth that mothers across the land rejoice at the first day of school, but I am convinced that this is mostly bullshit.  For the next nine months, I will be prey to the demands of the school system:  sign this, buy this, bake this, bring this, supervise this, attend this mandatory meeting, make sure your kid is at this mandatory out-of-school activity-that-we-scheduled-at-an-impossibly-inconvenient-time.  Seamus will come home from school today with a thick packet of paper forms which I must fill out, with the identical information that I put on the same paper forms last year.  I will have to sign insulting parent "contracts" about promising to make sure my child shows up for school on time every day, and does his homework, etc.

I say "child" because this year, we have just one child in the public school system.  Grace has asked to be homeschooled--something I had been seriously considering anyway.  "Public school is bad for me," she said, stating what I have been thinking for years.  Last night, I gave her some assignments to work on and she told me she was excited about actually learning something this year.

One of my many complaints about our school system is the dogged belief--despite zero supporting evidence-- that exposing kids to electronics will somehow make them better prepared for a competitive job market.   As a result, ridiculous off-brand tablets were distributed to every student in grades 5-12.  These were going to make learning fun and prepare kids for careers.  All testing would take place on the tablets, homework would be submitted wirelessly (despite significant student population with no home internet access) and we would move together into a glorious new future.

The tablets were mostly a big headache, and both Grace and Seamus reported that they didn't use them very often, because their teachers didn't like them.   That didn't stop the schools from releasing a PR "news" story* several months after the tablets were distributed about how great they were.  Included in the list of accomplishments that kids had mastered was "performing google searches."  The article included an enthusiastic quote from a "technology coordinator" but no remarks from actual teachers.  Meanwhile, the technology director--the guy responsible for acquiring the tablets-- for the city schools resigned.  A friend told me about this after the high school open house the other day.  I don't have a link to support it, but I did look him up on Linkedin and his profile shows that he is now working as an independent consultant.

I'm not a luddite.  I program software, for crying out loud.  Part of my job involves supporting physicians who are having trouble using an electronic medical record.  Believe me, you can be very successful and have no clue how to use a computer.  Indeed, I was hired for my current job even though I had no experience with configuring software.  A general familiarity with Microsoft Word is handy, but it's ridiculous to claim that constant use of a tablet computer will somehow give anyone an edge, and the electronic distraction almost certainly does more harm than good.

I seem to have gone off on a tangent, when I meant to write about the first day of school.  Seamus is now up and nearly ready to go.  I had to dissuade him from bringing his ipod, as it would certainly be stolen.

*I am trying to provide a link directly to the article, but the Daily Progress website seems to be down right now.  I've instead entered a link to a discussion about the story, with a link to the exact article.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment: Evolution

The Evolution Man: Or, How I Ate my Father by Roy Lewis is one book that, after I finished it, caused an urge to go out into the streets and give copies to strangers.  It's that funny.  Or, at least I thought it was that funny.  It's about a family of proto-humans at the point when fire has first been discovered.  What makes this book hilarious is that the characters, despite their status as neanderthals, talk with plummy, upper-class British vocabulary and phrasing.   It's as if PG Wodehouse had written a novel set in prehistoric times.

I can't remember much about what actually happens in this novel, except for an amusing caper when they kidnap some girls from a neighboring tribe--one of them is named "Prunella."  The title gives the ending away anyway.  This is the sort of book you shouldn't read in public because if you do, you will laugh out loud and make an ass of yourself.

Monday, August 13, 2012

New York: The final story

The bus service, which, by the way, has offered me a full refund and a free trip, picks you up in the meat packing district at 5:30pm for the trip back to C'ville.  We had all been called and given a description of the bus and the driver--not the same driver we had for the trip up, thank goodness.  The bus arrived in good time.  It was a small, twenty-five seat bus, with a working air conditioner this time.  We all boarded without incident and waited to depart.  And waited.  And waited.

The woman in front of me, who takes this bus service frequently, said it was very unusual for it not to depart on time.  The other passengers included several young women, and an elderly man and woman who are of a type common in Charlottesville:  highly educated folks who make earnest speeches at city council meetings in favor of helping the homeless or keeping poisons out of the drinking water or making the roads more bicycle-friendly.  They were not traveling together, but they knew each other and had a laughing conversation about a literary critic they had both read that day.

It developed that there was a missing passenger, prompting the driver to have anxious phone calls with his boss.  The driver was a young guy who said he was from Connecticut.  He was wearing a shirt embroidered with:  City of Harrisonburg Department of Transportation.  This was deeply confusing, unless there is a Harrisonburg, Connecticut.  (There isn't.)

The woman in front of me grumbled with me a bit.  We both had to be at work at 8:00 the next morning.  Even an on-time arrival at 11:30pm meant an inadequate night's sleep.  If the driver had made a good faith effort to contact the passenger and he/she still didn't show, we felt it was reasonable to leave.  Suddenly, the missing passenger was revealed and the woman in front of me groaned, "She's been standing there the whole time!"  Indeed.  The passenger had kept us all waiting because apparently, she was too dim (or drunk, as it happens) to realize that when you're standing at the designated spot where a bus is supposed to pick you up, and then an actual bus pulls up to the very spot where it's supposed to, and people with suitcases start boarding, maybe you should investigate the possibility that this might be YOUR bus.

At any rate, she boarded.  Every row had at least one person in it, so to be nice and prevent her from having to sit with a stranger, I signaled to Seamus to vacate his seat and squeeze in next to me.  So now she had two seats to herself.  She plopped her bag down and promptly fell fast asleep.  Seamus passed me a note:  A thank you would have been NICE.

The driver-from-Connecticut did not know his way around Manhattan, but he at least knew how to use GPS and the earnest-elderly-educated Charlottesville man was able to direct him to the Lincoln tunnel.

Somewhere deep into New Jersey, the late-arriving passenger jerked awake and walked up to the front of the bus to ask the driver to stop because she had to go to the bathroom.  The earnest, educated Charlottesvillian piped up about how this bus always stops once, at the halfway point in Maryland.  The woman turned to him and screamed, "And are YOU the arbiter of where this bus gets to stop?"  A scene like this, in a small, twenty-five seat bus like this one is very uncomfortable indeed.  I was mortified.  I had also been relying on public bathrooms in NYC since 9:00 that morning.  As far as I was concerned, this woman could suck it up and STFU.

But no, we made a special stop.  There was a long line to use the ladies room, and the woman for whom we made the special stop made a face and left the line.  Was she going to demand that we drive to another rest stop that didn't have a line?  A few minutes later,  while we were still waiting for the ladies, Seamus came bursting out of the men's room, positively blushing, and told us that the rude woman had used the men's room.  Of course we were catty.  It was funny how quickly a line was drawn between the respectable females and the outcast female.

Most of us bought food and were back on the bus.  But wait!  One passenger was missing.  Can you guess which one?  She was the first one out of the bathroom, yet was the last to emerge from the rest stop, walking slowly, as if she had all the time in the world, with a piece of pizza and a smoothie.  She asked the driver if we could just wait a few more minutes and then sat on the curb next to the bus and ate her pizza, while those of us on the bus had a collective stroke.  She finished her pizza and smoked a cigarette, dragging on it so hard that the insides of her cheeks must have been touching, and at last deigned to get back on the bus so we could be on our way.  This is the kind of person I absolutely can't stand.  She couldn't wait her turn to use the bathroom, but had no problem keeping a busload of people waiting while she took forever to order food and eat and smoke.

There was a traffic jam in Delaware, and a worse one on I-66, outside of Washington.  It was now very late and impossible to sleep.  I amused myself by picking out little landmarks--a telephone pole, or a building--and breathlessly waiting for us to pass it at which point I'd pick a new landmark, twenty feet down the road, and watch for ten minutes until we passed it, and so on until the traffic began to move again.

The driver, who in all other respects was perfectly nice, was an engine gunner.  We'd be driving along, quite fast, and then he would suddenly gun the engine as if we were being pursued by demons from hell.  He'd relax on the gas pedal for a few minutes, then gun the engine again.  I resigned myself to just not sleeping until we got home.  The rude woman was lying on her back on the bus seat, with her legs straight up in the air, propped up against the window.  She was wearing a dress, by the way.

But now a new worry presented itself.  The driver had a heavy foot--would we get through notorious Greene County without a speeding ticket?  True story:  I once got a speeding ticket in Canada, and when the cop saw my address on my license, he started laughing and said he'd gotten a speeding ticket in Greene  County, Virginia.  The Arbiter of the Bus, as I couldn't help nicknaming him, had been stellar up to this point about advising the driver when he knew an exit was coming.  I wondered if he would alert the driver about Greene County cops, but he didn't.  At any rate, we didn't get a speeding ticket.

We were in Albemarle County at last, and here, the Arbiter of the Bus and his female counterpart failed us, for they did not know how to get to the downtown drop-off spot.  They seemed to be really nice people, but it just confirmed the type I had pegged them as, that they knew their way around Manhattan better than they did around their own hometown.  The woman in front of me took over giving directions, while I helped out with a few feeble shouts.  I was trapped in my seat by Seamus, who had fallen asleep against my arm.  Our arrival time was about 1:30--two hours late.  By the time I was settled in bed it was after 2:00am.  And yes, I did make it to work on time the next morning.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

A very boring post unless you are a history geek

The New York saga continues.  Directly after breakfast on Sunday, I hurried Seamus to the subway.  We were going up to Harlem to visit Alexander Hamilton's house.  I have been dying to see it for years.  I've always been interested in early American history, and Alexander Hamilton is one of my favorite people of that period. 

Two years before his early death in a duel against Aaron Burr, Hamilton built a house in the country (now Harlem) for his large family.  The house sat nearly derelict for years.  The last time I was in New York I looked it up and saw that it was closed to the public.  Before this latest trip with Seamus, I hopefully looked it up again, and discovered that not only is it open to the public, it is newly renovated and fabulous.

The house sits on a hill in the northwest corner of St. Nicholas park.  A friendly ranger told us that a tour would start in twenty minutes and we amused ourselves in the meantime with walking around the outside of the house and admiring the view.

Dejected...Seamus does not want to tour Alexander Hamilton's house.

I thought we were going to get the tour all to ourselves, but just before it was supposed to start, a group of people from Denver arrived. The best part of the tour is the story of how the house got to be where it is.  Originally built a short distance from where it now stands, the city of New York planned to run a road through it in the late 1800s.  A church bought the house and moved it about a block away.  The lot where the church parked the house was narrow, so the side porches were sliced off and the whole house turned sideways, with a new entrance situated in what was once the side of the house.  And there it sat for over 100 years until the house was donated to the National Parks Service and moved to its new location.

The Hamilton House before being moved and renovated.

The problem with moving the house this time was that it was blocked in by the porch roof of the church next door.  The entire house had to be jacked up to clear the roof and then was rolled to its current location.  Someone had the sense to film this operation, and we got to see the film as part of the tour.  Ordinarily, I don't like to be shown movies on historic tours, but I actually got a little verklept watching this, contemplating how close this beautiful house came to being destroyed.

The people from Colorado wanted to know how much everything cost, and our guide hedged by saying "a lot," or "too much."  At any rate, the cost of buying a piece of a city park on which to place the house, plus moving and restoring it left little money for furnishings.  Most of the furniture is reproduction, with three original pieces, donated by the Hamilton family.  There's wall-to-wall carpeting on the floor in a "period pattern" and you can't tour the bedrooms.  Still, they accomplished a lot just getting the house to where it is.  The renovation was complete and the house opened to the public only a few months ago.  I was really impressed.

I also liked the mirrored panes in the dining room doors--for reflecting candlelight.  The guide told us that originally, the Hudson was visible from the dining room windows and that the candlelight would have reflected off the water.  It must have been magical.

One original piece is  a marble bust of Hamilton, made by a pesky bust maker--apparently the 18th century equivalent of those guys who knock on your door and try to make you hire them to shovel your driveway.  Hamilton didn't want a bust of himself and refused to buy it when it was finished, but when the sculptor threatened to sell it elsewhere, Hamilton--no doubt worried that Aaron Burr would buy it and scribble a mustache on it with a sharpie marker--heaved a big sigh and bought it himself.

This tour is free and totally worth the subway ride all the way to 145th St.  Tip:  Take the A train or the C train to 145th St.  Walk downhill the long block to 141st St.  For the ride home, don't struggle up the hill.  Continue downhill instead to the 135th St. station.  You'll also get to enjoy pretty St. Nicholas Park, which is surprisingly rugged for an urban park.

Monday, August 06, 2012

A Whirlwind Tour

This was Seamus' first trip to NYC, so we had a tightly-packed schedule for our twenty-five hours in the city.  We checked our bags at the Jane Hotel, in the West Village, a short walk from where the bus dropped us off.

The next stop was Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, a little shop on West 10th St. that is crammed with vintage cookbooks.  The owner helped Seamus pick out some good books on chef's technique and told him he could call her with questions.

Despite the cooler temperatures, I felt the need of some extreme fresh air to wash away the horror of the un-airconditioned bus.  We took the subway to the Staten Island Ferry terminal.  I had never done this before, and it's about as much fun as you can have for free.

There were about 1,000 people waiting to board--virtually everybody riding the Staten Island Ferry on a Saturday afternoon is a tourist--but it was an amazingly swift process getting us all on the boat.  It took about three minutes from the time we were allowed to begin boarding until the ferry pulled away from the dock for the delightful thirty-minute trip.  We climbed to the hurricane deck for the trip home.  It appeared that all the spaces by the rail were taken, but suddenly a stream of passengers started uttering little cries of dismay and returning to the cabin.  It was raining, and a freezing wind had blown up, all the better to cleanse us of the memory of the bus.  Tip:  to see the Statue of Liberty from the Staten Island Ferry, you want to be on the starboard side for the trip out and the port side for the trip back to Manhattan.  The opposite of POSH.

We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge.  I had planned to do a little exploring in Brooklyn, but our late arrival meant having to cut that bit out of our trip.

Back at the hotel, we rested our legs.  I had made a bad choice of subway line after the Brooklyn Bridge and we'd ended up having to walk from 4th Ave all the way across town to 10th Ave.  Now I know why New Yorkers, whenever you tell them you're looking for a particular street, always demand, "East or west?"  Later, I realized we could have just taken the L train nearly all the way to our destination.  Oh well, as they say, walking is very beneficial exercise.

After dinner we went to the Empire State Building.  I had never been before, and it was a little disappointing.  There wasn't a line, thank goodness, and the extremely long maze of cordons showed just how long the lines can be.  But the very lack of a line was disorienting, because without a breadcrumb trail of other people to follow, it isn't obvious where you're supposed to go.  At one point, we were shunted in front of a guy with a camera, forced to stop and pose, then hurried along.  The staff all wear silly uniforms and they had all clearly had enough for one day.  Not that I blame them.  They must have one of the most irritating jobs, ever.  When we finally got to the observation deck, a flash of green lightening appeared out of the clouds and seemed to circle the building.  That was pretty cool, but I think I'll give the Empire State Building a miss next time I'm in New York.

Seamus really, really, really wanted to go to Times Square.  I didn't think I would like Times Square, but I didn't think I would hate it as much as I did.  Times Square is the source of everything that is wrong with the world.  It was absolutely packed with people and misery.  You had to shuffle along with the crowd and I was perpetually scared that I would lose Seamus.  Noxious gasses rose from the subway grates.  The whole area smells like pee and greed.  Why is this place even an attraction?  It's full of chain stores that you can visit in any mall, anywhere.  Why would I go to the "Lids" store in Times Square when I wouldn't want to go to the one at the Galleria mall in Buffalo?  This was Seamus' "Araby," unfortunately.

At last we made our way back to the subway and were able to sit for twenty-eight blissful blocks.  Before Times Square, 14th St. had seemed seedy and commercial, but now it was Mayberry in comparison.

Back at the hotel, there was a crowd trying to gain admittance to a private party on the roof.  In the corridor near our room, a man stood talking to the crack around a door that I suspect had recently been slammed in his face. "You motherfucker,  you absolute son of a bitch..." he muttered over and over again. Our room was tiny, but comfortable.  I had been up since 4:00am and it was now well past midnight.  Seamus insisted that I take the top bunk and I don't know when I have had such a satisfying sleep.

We breakfasted at the Jane's little French cafe, checked out, and had nearly a whole day ahead of us until we had to catch the bus home.  What we did immediately after breakfast is going to get its own blog post--please try to contain your excitement--but later in the morning we were in Central Park, which is lovely and full of joggers and cyclists. We wandered around a bit, went to Belvedere  Castle to see the view, then shopped our way down Columbus Ave and ate lunch at a disappointing restaurant with servers who all wore twee aprons in fiestaware colors.

The rest of the day was a lot of wandering.  I really wanted to go to the Museum of American Folk Art while Seamus wanted the Natural History Museum.  In the end, we did neither. Lame, I know, but we had already done a museum-y thing in the morning.  At one point we were in a coffee shop in Greenwhich Village, when a woman walked in and asked the baristas to tell her about their roast.  They gave her some sort of answer that didn't satisfy her because she asked them to tell her about their other roasts, at which point they had to confess the shameful fact that their coffee shop used just one type of coffee.  "Nevermind," said the woman, and walked out.  "Have a great day!" effusively shouted the baristas.  Another woman walked in, a much nicer woman, who engaged in friendly banter with the baristas.  I was very pleased to hear her Buffalo accent.  Buffalo represent!

We were both so tired that we were glad when 5:30 rolled around and it was time to catch the bus home.  The bus ride home, by the way, was eventful enough that it's going to get its own blog entry too.  That is, of course, the saving grace of any misadventure:  you can blog about it.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Friday Reading Assignment: Better Off

When my mother gave me Plain Girl by Virginia Sorensen--my first exposure to the Amish--I was enchanted to learn that people in the modern world continued to emulate the lifestyle of people from the past.  I love my washing machine and my computer, but the simpler life has its attractions.

In Better Off by Eric Brende, he and his wife, Mary move to a community in which the residents reject modern technology for religious reasons.  We're told that the residents are not really Amish, but it sounds like they would at least appear to be Amish to those of us who don't know any better.

Immediately, Brende learns that the ways of this community are not about endless drudgery.  They have their own clever ways to achieve efficiency and to make hard work easier--a water power pump, for example, to bring running water into the house.  In other words, this isn't the story of two city folk (Brende was a grad student at MIT before undertaking this adventure) who fail in the face of hard work.  Instead, they find that they have more leisure time--because work, leisure, and social activities are all intertwined, rather than separated into compartments as they are in our world.

Brende is not condemning technology.  He's making the point that we should control the machines, rather than machines controlling us.  If you think about it, labor saving devices do suck up much of our time.  Take the car:  How much time do you spend searching for a parking space?  Sitting in traffic?  Waiting in line at the gas pump?  Taking care of the little maintenance tasks: inspections, oil changes, tire rotations? Meanwhile, the very fact that we have cars means that people live far from where they work and spend, in some cases, two to three hours a day commuting.  If I were to drive my car to work, I'd have to purchase a parking pass, drive past my office to the employee lot, then wait for a shuttle bus to take me from the parking lot to work.  It's actually faster to walk the whole way. 

Why should we let our gadgets control us?  We recently decided to homeschool our daughter (at her request) and one big reason that I acquiesced to her request is the policy at Charlottesville High School that embraces new technology (tabletgate) and refuses to acknowledge that there can be any downside to giving our kids constant electronic distraction in the classroom.

The Brende's reduced use of technology led to reduced cost of living and less need for a high-pressure job.  They didn't settle permanently in the no-machines community, but they do maintain a low-tech life, and report great satisfaction in their lifestyle.