Monday, December 29, 2014

Holiday recap

I hope all of you had a lovely holiday.  My sister and her husband came down from Washington DC and all of my children were here.  We had a wonderful time together.  Still, sometimes I feel wistful about the big family parties in Buffalo that we are missing.  We haven't been home for Christmas since 1999--an epically disastrous trip in which Brigid and I came down with the flu.  We had to race home ahead of a snowstorm with Jon driving the entire nine hours because I was too sick, so that he could report for work at 07:00 on New Year's Day.  Good times.

Brigid, Grace, my sister, me

This year, no one had the flu, thank goodness.  We did have some good eats.  I usually make clam chowder for Christmas Eve, but I just wasn't feeling it this year, so when I saw the suggestion of gnocchi for Christmas Eve in the December issue of Bon Appetit, I changed our menu.  Seamus made the gnocchi and it was superb.  I served it with bottled, locally made, tomato sauce, and the pulled pork from the Good and Cheap cookbook.  My sister contributed a cauliflower and black pepper puree, which was wonderful with the pork.

For Christmas, we had the rack of lamb with fennel/pomegranate glaze, from the December Bon Appetit.  The fennel dominated and you could hardly taste the pomegranate, which was a little disappointing because I love pomegranate.  I made buttermilk potato dinner rolls to go with it, along with seared brussels sprouts and my sister's ginger-broccoli puree.  For dessert, we had devil's food cake with black pepper boiled icing.  Black pepper icing?  That is so 2011.  I'm not sure what the point of the pepper is, since it was indetectable, but the cake was very nice, just the same.

Everything was delicious, but Jon was less than thrilled with the lamb/broccoli/cauliflower/pulled pork pot pie I made for dinner last night.  I topped it with the stale, leftover rolls, which were nicely refreshed in the oven.  I feel bloated and over-indulged.  It will be a relief to return to thrift and clean eating.

Brigid made this ceramic model of Jon's head and gave it to him for
Christmas.  (Ivy wreathe, glasses and cigarette added by Jon.)

Monday, December 22, 2014

Ho ho ho

"Are you ready for Christmas?"  Everyone asks this, as if it is the yearly apocalypse.  Which I suppose it is.  I have never been "ready" for Christmas.  There is always a gift I didn't get around to buying or a craft I bought the supplies for, but didn't attempt.  Right now, the foam ball that was to have become a kissing ball sits reproachfully on the kitchen bench.  Maybe next year.

I tried again with the disco balls.  Last year, the effect of the disco balls on our dark, north-facing porch was unsatisfactory, so this year I hung them under the azalea bush, hoping for a sort of Christmas fairy garden.  For about three minutes each day, the setting sun hits the disco balls and I get the sparkles I wanted.

At night

By day

You know what else is underwhelming?  A glittered pomegranate, an idea I got from a "green Christmas" book.  The glitter was basically invisible.  I don't have a picture to share, because nothing could be more pointless.  Besides, we ate it.

I did manage to cut some holly and ivy and made this wreathe, which I affixed to the mailbox.

100% biodegradable

At Halloween, I bought a white gourd, which I felt looked elegant on our black desk.  I tried giving it the glitter treatment, and that also was a massive fail, but I kind of like how it looks with the gold NOEL in front of it. And, as I predicted in the Christmas decorating post I wrote last year, I found the missing "N" at the back of the closet when I was putting the decorations away.

Christ.  Everything we own is so battered.  I didn't even notice that sugar skull until I looked at the photograph.

Nutcracker stands guard in the corner

New ornament: needle felted ball from the City Market

Christmas tree skirt in its rightful position
Brigid brought her cat home for the holidays.  For now, she's mostly living in Seamus' room.  I suppose we'll attempt to introduce her to the dogs at some point, but judging from the way Phoebe and Sancho react when a cat crosses our property, it's best if they all remain ignorant of each other for a while.

Speaking of Phoebe, we've gotten into the habit of taking nighttime walks in search of Christmas lights.  Every night, we have to go further and further afield to find lights we haven't seen yet.  She loves it, and she really seems to show an interest in the houses that are lit up, especially if there's an inflated character to bark at.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Friday reading assignment: Holiday indulgences

I'm reading War and Peace right now, and having a hard time getting into it.  As the title suggests, the action shifts from the battlefield to the drawing rooms of St. Petersburg and Moscow.  It's the battlefield scenes I'm having difficulty with.  So I went to the library and got something different to read over the holidays.  If it's Christmas, I ought to be able to read something comfortable and fun, right?

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken.  Yes, a children's book, and one of my favorites.  I'm re-reading it and then I'll read the others in this series, which I have never read.  I picked this book off the library shelf at random, when I was ten years old.  It was around Christmas time and my family had just moved.  I *hated* my new school and was generally miserable, so this book about a girl who is sent to a horrible, abusive boarding school was perfect.

Getting it Right by Elizabeth Jane Howard.  The first sentence of the blurb: "Gavin Lamb is a thirty-one year old virgin hairdresser who lives in London...."  How could that not turn out to be awesome?

The Cranford Chronicles by Elizabeth Gaskell.  SO excited to read this.  I have seen all the excellent BBC movies made from Elizabeth Gaskell Novels (Cranford, Wives and Daughters, and North and South) and I've been dying to read her for ages.

Not continuing to struggle with War and Peace until after the holidays is my Christmas present to myself.  Are you planning any fun reads for the holidays?

Friday, December 12, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: The Greenlanders

There was a meme going around a few weeks ago about "books that have stuck with you" and I wish I'd remembered to include The Greenlanders by  the incomparable Jane Smiley on my list.  I read it a long time ago (it was published in 1988) and since Grace recently wrote a paper about the Norse colonization of Greenland, I was reminded of this book.  It has been so long that I can't remember the characters' names, or any plot details but the novel's stark feeling has stuck with me.

The medieval colony on Greenland gradually became more and more isolated as the Little Ice Age took hold and their winters became longer and harsher.  One major drawback of Greenland is that it lacks trees, so as the original settlers' ships rotted and visitors from Denmark dwindled, they were literally stranded.  In the novel, there's talk of a few hardy folks making the dangerous sea voyage to Vinland (Labrador) where there are trees and they can build a ship, but it never works out.  It's this unrelenting bleakness that has stuck with me all these years: each winter harsher than the last, the livestock herds growing smaller, the growing season shortening.

I read the Amazon customer reviews, (affiliate link, yo) to jog my memory, so I can tell you that The Greenlanders was written in the style of a saga (I had forgotten that) and that the plot centers on an unhappy marriage.  Mostly what I remember is people tucking themselves into their Scandinavian built-in beds, for the duration of the winter, which is pretty much what I would like to do right now.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Made: Christmas tree skirt

As soon as Christmas was over last year, I started knitting a Christmas tree skirt.  It turned out to be an enormous undertaking. I spent nearly every night knitting, while I watched eleven seasons of Frasier reruns.  Now, nearly a year later, I am almost finished.  After searching for a free pattern online, I settled on this one because I liked the stark gray and white palette and I didn't want to do a cliched red and green skirt.

Over the year, as the skirt grew, it was hard to imagine anything less like a Christmas tree skirt than the shapeless, heavy mass of dark gray wool that hung from my circular needle.  It looked like something colonial Americans might have used to transport dead game.  By Labor Day, the body of of the skirt was finished and I could start knitting the lace, and slowly, one stitch for every two rows of lace, release the skirt from the circular needle.

It was only after I'd knit quite a lot of the lace that I realized I'd been knitting it onto the skirt inside-out.

A close up of the catastrophe

Gillian suggested I knit an i-cord to cover the mistake, which was a brilliant idea.  There's a tiny bit of i-cord still to knit, but I wanted to take the picture before the light faded.  

It looks like what Icelandic flamenco dancers might wear

I wandered around the yarn shop for ages one evening, trying to pick the right yarn for the i-cord.  Originally, I thought a sparkly silver yarn would work, but all the silver yarn was much too fine for this bulky skirt (made from local wool).  I think the red was a good choice.  It's not sparkly, but it has a subtle pearled quality.

So that's it.  Over twenty years of wrapping an old Christmas tablecloth around my tree, I now have a proper tree skirt.  And you?  Any epic holiday crafts completed for this year?

Friday, December 05, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is another one from the fifty classics project.  I dreaded reading it.  One day when I was young, my grandfather said, "Sherlock Holmes is all very well, but one must read his historical novels."  So a copy of The White Company was produced for me to read, and I dutifully read it, found it to be a bit of a slog and concluded that Sherlock Holmes was probably a big bore as well.

It turned out not to be a bore, but instead a quick, entertaining read.  The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is not the collected works about Holmes, (which is what I assumed before reading it) but is the first collection of short stories about him, published in 1892 after A Study in Scarlett and The Sign of Four.  Most of the cases in this collection are about people playing malicious tricks or manipulating others, not actual crimes.  Holmes himself is as quirky as Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of him, and indulges in cocaine now and then, which was a surprise.  But who can blame him?

Gratuitous picture of Benedict Cumberbatch

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Big Feast

It has been my practice to leave work early on the day before Thanksgiving,  so I was dismayed to learn that this year I'm on call which means I have to stay at work until at least 5:00pm.

In the face of this calamity, I am planning the shit out of this Thanksgiving.  I made the cranberry sauce on Saturday and the pie crusts on Sunday.  I ordered the turkey last Friday, and picked it up on my way home from work yesterday.  (If you're local, I hope you didn't see me staggering down Monticello Ave, clutching a 20 pound turkey to my chest.)  Last night I cleaned the turkey and stuffed it with lint-free towels, as my mother taught me, to soak up the excess blood.  I also made the stuffing and cooked and pureed the giblets for the dogs' Thanksgiving treat.  They LOVE giblet gravy on their dog food. Seamus will finish the desserts for me on Wednesday while I'm at work.  I'm in better shape now than I was last year on Wednesday night, when I went to bed weeping because there was still so much to do.

As for recipes, I've departed a little from our usual and am trying a few new recipes I've found on blogs and pinterest. (Linked below in the menu list.) The cranberry sauce is Graceful Fitness' kickin' cranberry sauce.  I'm not usually motivated to make our Thanksgiving food healthier, but it does bother me a little to drown fresh cranberries in white sugar.  This recipe is sweetened with dried dates plush fresh apple and pear and flavored with fresh ginger.  The sauce turned out pretty tart, so I added about two tablespoons of maple syrup.  I considered, then rejected the kale gratin from this month's Country Living.  (Beware recipes published in decorating magazines; they are often terrible.) I'm going to make broccoli-mandarin salad from Mel's Kitchen Cafe.

I don't do anything special to our turkey--just slap a bunch of butter on it and perhaps push some whole garlic cloves under the skin.  We also like ordinary bread stuffing that is devoid of wild rice or chestnuts or prunes or any of the other things that some people like to use.

I have always made Tasha Tudor's rolls for special occasions, but this year I'm trying the buttermilk potato rolls from Mel's Kitchen Cafe because they seem less fussy and I love potato bread.  Pumpkin pie from my great-grandmother's recipe is a must, but I always add an alternate dessert.  This year it's a Guinness chocolate cheesecake from a recipe I found on pinterest.  The blogger is unknown to me, so this is risky.  I've read the recipe and I think it will be OK.  I've seen some blogger recipes with such half-assed proportions that there is no way they've been tested thoroughly.  And frankly, if you're getting paid or sponsored to create a recipe, you owe it to your readers to measure your ingredients exactly and test the recipe carefully before publishing.

Our menu

Cranberry Sauce
Yam Gratin with chipotle cream (from The New York Times Cookbook)
Broccoli salad with mandarin oranges
Fluffy buttermilk potato rolls

Pumpkin Pie
Guinness chocolate cheesecake

What's on your Thanksgiving menu this year?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Ankle Deep

I stumbled on Angela Thirkell by accident while looking for something else at the Alderman Library.  I could tell just by how they looked on the shelf that these were books I was likely to enjoy.  I selected a book at random and saw something in the blurb about how Thirkell's books are a continuation of the Barsetshire chronicles and that she is the new Anthony Trollope and I realized I had stumbled onto something wonderful.  I selected Wild Strawberries, which you can read about here, and added all of Thirkell's novels to my book list.

I read August Folly while I was in Cape Town, but didn't feel inspired to write a post about it.  Ankle Deep is Thirkell's first novel (published in 1933) and it's probably fair to say it's an immature example of her work.

Fanny Turner is one of those annoying people who thinks her misbehavior is cute.  Impulsive, exacting, childish, demanding; one of her favorite activities is finding girlfriends for an old friend, Valentine Esnor.  Fanny herself is comfortably married with several sons, conveniently away at boarding school. Fanny hosts a weekend house party and among the guests is Aurea, an old flame of Fanny's husband.  Aurea is married and lives in Canada but is visiting her parents in England.  Fanny, whose motive is her own amusement and to cause as much irritation as possible, encourages Valentine to spend time with Aurea, while simultaneously throwing Aurea in front of her husband.

Aurea's marriage is unhappy; she is, as  her father states, one of those unfortunate women who has outgrown her husband.  Her husband is described as a basically inoffensive though unimpressive guy, but Aurea clearly loathes him, and so is ripe to fall in love with Valentine, which she does.  Valentine obligingly returns her feelings and what follows is a tortured description of a relationship between two people who love eachother but won't touch eachother.  To be honest, it got a bit tedious.

I didn't really like any of the characters in this book.  Fanny needs a good smackdown.  Her husband Arthur doesn't come into the story much except to roll his eyes at Fanny and pointlessly fall in love with Aurea too. Aurea is a wishy-washy damp washcloth,  has no sense of humor, and is obviously no fun to be around.  I don't know what Valentine sees in her.  Valentine himself is pretty one-dimensional.  Some of the writing is really irritating.  There's one excruciating scene that goes on for pages and pages in which they won't stop talking about how they're going to be late for dinner, and must still dress for dinner.  THEN GO UPSTAIRS AND DRESS FOR DINNER.  That said, Thirkell does a good job of describing (through dark hints) the murky waters of long standing marriages gone wrong.  It was also nice to read a romance about people my own age.  I'm committed to reading all of Thirkell's works, and as I progress, it will be interesting to see how her writing matured.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Another weekend

I feel like every week has four days rather than seven.  Monday/Tuesday is really one massive day, Wednesday kind of hangs out by itself, Thursday through Friday afternoon is another day, and then Friday afternoon through Sunday evening is the fourth.  In case anyone is interested, here's what I did on the fourth day of last week.  Friday, Jon and I went to Brookville for dinner.  I really wanted to try it, but I was also a bit anxious, assuming it would be snooty. It turned out to be friendly, with an interesting menu.  We shared some small plates: collards cooked in bacon with a lovely soft-cooked egg swimming in the pot liquor, a plate of small sausages with maple syrup and a creamy mustard sauce, fried oysters, and an enormous biscuit filled with goat cheese and red pepper jelly.  Our table was by the window, overlooking the skating rink, so it was like sitting next to a giant music box, with all the skaters perpetually circling.  Overall an enjoyable evening, though we went to Harris-Teeter after and did the week's grocery shopping.

Saturday morning, to mix things up, I skipped Barre class and walked to the gym for TRX instead.  Are you familiar with this?  You hang from long straps attached to the wall and use your own body weight as resistance through various moves.  It was definitely a good core workout, and more upper body than I usually get. "Hang" makes it sound scary, but you always have either both feet or both hands on the ground.

I jogged/walked home and emptied out the pantry and found the source of the moths that have been plaguing us; a forgotten bag of rye flour at the far back of a shelf.  I made an inventory of everything before I put the items back--a tip I learned from The Frugal Queen.  I feel like a dolt for not figuring this out on my own, but I definitely waste money buying things we already have because the pantry is such a mess and I never know what's in it.  Now I can plan meals around all the random bags of black eyed peas and other stray items AND find a use for the two cans of sweetened, condensed milk that have been lurking back there for who knows how long.  And that was quite enough activity for one day.  I spent the rest of Saturday knitting and reading Ankle Deep by Angela Thirkell.

Sunday, fearful I'd have another confrontation with the self-appointed squeaky machine monitor, I skipped the gym and went for a run instead.  I rarely run these days.  I had become such a slave to my running schedule that it wasn't fun anymore.  This time, I took a camera and stopped to take pictures along the way, and didn't berate myself for walking breaks. I got to the railroad crossing just as a train was approaching. I love it when that happens, as long as I can get to the other side in time.

I ran into Riverview Cemetary and back, and took a lot of not-very good pictures.  At home, I made Kimchee.  It won't be ready to eat for a few days.  I've been reading about the benefits of fermented foods and I attended the Kimchee-making demonstration at the Charlottesville Vegetarian Festival a few weeks ago.  It's a pretty simple process and I needed a use for the big bag of hot pepper powder leftover from Seamus' Korean cooking kick. More knitting and reading, and now here we are on the backside of Monday/Tuesday with another weekend to look forward to.
How was your weekend?

Friday, November 14, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Milking the Moon

I had never heard of Eugene Walter, but Becky recommended that I read his memoir, Milking the Moon, and I added it to my list and now here we are.  It turns out that Eugene Walter was an absolutely fascinating person, and his memoir, "as told to" Katherine Clark, reads as if you are having a conversation with one of the most fabulous and entertaining people ever.

Who was Eugene Walter?  As far as the arts are concerned, he seemed to have done a little of everything: he wrote poetry and fiction, did theater set design, was an actor, and designer, literary journal editor, a fantastic cook and supreme party-thrower.  He was born in Mobile, Alabama in the 1920s, and his descriptions of that city make me want to get on a plane and visit, immediately.  He refers to the gulf coast south as "North Haiti." After a stint as a code breaker during WW II (he was stationed in Alaska) he got a job in a bookstore in Manhattan, developed quite a knack for meeting the right people, and his literary career inched forward from there.  (He also may have invented performance art after an elaborate tableau he and his friends put on in the cafe at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which enraged the staff but was talked about for decades.)

Walter never really warmed to New York and impulsively moved to Paris in the early fifties, around the time he turned thirty.  Once again, he seems to have fallen bass-ackwards into friendships with rising stars of the literary and arts world.  He helped found The Paris Review and after several years in Paris, moved to Rome to edit Bottegh Oscure, a literary magazine run by Princess di Bassiano Caetani--and it is just like Eugene Walter to work for a princess.  It was in Rome where his film career began.  He acted in two of Fellini's films, and many other films besides, and wrote the song "What is a Youth" for Franco Zeffrelli's Romeo and Juliet.  I was stunned to learn that because it's one of my favorite songs from a film.  (If you have never seen Zeffrelli's Romeo and Juliet, you must call in sick to work and watch it right now.)

Eugene Walter is hilarious and it must have been a lot of fun to have been his friend or attend his parties, which seem to have been legendary.  Milking the Moon reads like a conversation and Walter is really good at depicting scenes and images.  I particularly liked the chapters set in Rome, especially when he described his first apartment there, in Trastevere (of course he lived in Trastevere).  This apartment was located at the top of an endless staircase--the same staircase located around the corner from our apartment in Rome which we climed the day we went looking for views from the top of Janiculum. It was kind of thrilling to relive Rome through Eugene Walter's eyes.  Milking the Moon is truly amusing from start to finish.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Squeaky Wheel

There's a squeaky elliptical at my gym.  It happens to be my favorite elliptical because it's at the end of the row and next to a window.  The faster you go, the more it squeaks, and I go pretty fast.  It has been squeaking for months.  It squeaks for me and it squeaks for everyone else who uses it.  I kind of assumed we were all used to it.  It's a gym, not a courtroom and pretty much everyone is wearing headphones anyway.

So Sunday, I finished my elliptical workout and I noticed a woman trying to get my attention.  I couldn't imagine what she wanted from me and I was trying to remember if I'd seen her somewhere before, when she said, "Could you please be more aware of the squeaking noise you're making."  I stood there gaping at her as the realization hit me that I was being publicly chastised for thoughtlessness.  I was perfectly aware that my elliptical was squeaky and I had chosen to ignore it.  To use the elliptical in such a way that it doesn't squeak would mean to barely use it at all and I'm not sure one gym goer has the right to ask another to reduce the intensity of her workout.  After stammering for a second, I told the woman that I would ask "them" to fix it, hoping that would convey to her the fact that  the squeaky elliptical is outside of my control and not my responsibility.

How I wish I'd responded

Usually, I stretch after a workout, but I was so upset I could hardly see straight, plus I sensed that others in the gym were embarrassed and were trying to avoid looking at me.  Were they sympathetizing with me or with her?  I couldn't tell.  Suddenly, I seemed to be in everyone's way.  So I left, but I stopped at the front desk and told them that someone had complained about the squeaky elliptical.  They said that a part deep inside the machine was squeaking, that there was nothing they could do about it now, and that a new part had been ordered.  I felt better, knowing that the gym people knew it was broken, but hadn't felt the squeaking warrented preventing people from using it.

It is deeply upsetting to be scolded in public, especially when you are totally unconscious that you have been doing anything wrong.  Not that I'm convinced that I was in the wrong.  I understand that it's rude to make a lot of noise in public, but since this noise was something outside of my control, and a gym is already a somewhat noisy place, it never occurred to me that it might be seen as rude by someone else.

Do you chastise strangers?  Has a complete stranger ever scolded you in public?

Friday, November 07, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Mary Russel Mitford and her Surroundings

I had never heard of Mary Russell Mitford until I read Virginia Woolf's thoughts about her in A Common Reader.  Mary Russell Mitford (1787-1855) led a sort of charmed life, and as I recall, the chapter of A Common Reader that mentions her is themed something like "people who lived unfairly idyllic lives."  (The fabulously leisured clergyman James Woodforde is also featured in this chapter.)

Woolf says,
Speaking truthfully, Mary Russell Mitford and her Surroundings is not a good book. It neither enlarges the mind nor purifies the heart. There is nothing in it about Prime Ministers and not very much about Miss Mitford. Yet, as one is setting out to speak the truth, one must own that there are certain books which can be read without the mind and without the heart, but still with considerable enjoyment.

Charmed life?  Maybe I am being obtuse.  It's not Mary Russell Mitford's fault that when she was ten years old, her father prompted her to buy a lottery ticket on a whim and she won 20,000 pounds (over three million dollars in modern US currency) and saved her father from financial ruin.  It's not her fault that she was intelligent and charming and a good conversationalist and correspondent and always lived in picturesque places and everybody loved her.  And it's certainly not her fault that Constance Hill may have chosen to gloss over the less pleasant aspects of her life when she wrote this book.  Virginia Woolf says,

It is in many ways a great convenience to have a subject who can be trusted to live a long life without once raising her voice.

But I haven't even told you who she was.  Mary Russell Mitford was a writer; probably best known for Our Village, a series of sketches about the quaint country village she lived in for many years.  She was also a successful playwrite and her books were beloved both in England and the United States.  Mary Russell Mitford and her Surroundings, by Constance Hill, is a charming sketch of her life.  I found this book to be a good comfort read. It's like biography lite, and now that I've discovered Mary Russell Mitford, I'll have to read her books.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Some Incidents of Late

At the gym yesterday, the most appalling movie was playing on the TV that faced my elliptical machine.  It was about this deranged teacher who HAD SEX WITH HER STUDENTS and had a baby with one of them, that was taken away, so she  STOLE A BABY and shot the baby's mother.  The remote was somewhere, but I was too much into a zone to get off the elliptical and find it, so I had no choice but to watch this deranged lady, who stole not just any baby but a SICK BABY THAT NEEDED HIS MEDICINE.  At one point, a woman came into the gym and stared hard at the deranged baby-stealing lady movie and I stared hard at the back of her head, willing her to find the remote and change the channel to one of the usual soothing Sunday morning shows like Househunters, but then she shrugged and got onto a treadmill and I noticed she selected a nature show for the tiny screen on her treadmill.  THANKS LADY.  But I had the satisfaction of watching the deranged baby-stealer get shot by the cops and do some fake-looking "oh-I've-been-shot" body spasms before crumpling to the ground.  Even with closed captioning, you could tell the acting was terrible.

At the deli counter at Whole Foods, a woman was trying to select a cheese.  She had many, many questions about the cheese she was considering, which she related to the deli counter personnel, who answered them patiently. There was only one person working the deli counter.  Then there was the cheese-buying lady, a man whose turn was next, and me.  The cheese-buying lady was oblivious.  It was very, very important that she be as fully informed as possible about this cheese she was considering.  At one point, she and the deli person left the deli counter and walked to a different part of the store. To look at wine?  Crackers?  Who the fuck knows.  The man whose turn was next was visibly irritated.  This pleased me because sometimes I worry that I am just a sourpuss and that everybody else is perfectly content to let self-absorbed people like the cheese lady take full, full advantage of the services of the hapless people at the Whole Foods deli counter.  Everybody else in the world is thinking, "Take your time; I'm in no hurry," while I'm inwardly screaming, "It's CHEESE.  This is a SUPERMARKET. Get OVER yourself."  So the two ladies came back from wherever they had gone and the cheese was purchased and the irritated man got to place his order.  But then the self-absorbed cheese-buying lady returned and interrupted the irritated man's transaction.  (He groaned audibly. He actually groaned.  Thank you, irritated man, for restoring my faith in humanity.)  The self-absorbed lady wanted to thank the deli person because she was so very pleased and certain that she had made the right decision in choosing this cheese, of all cheeses.  CONGRATULATIONS.

I have been trying so hard not to spend money, and I really haven't bought much beyond basic necessities for the past few months.  But now it is time to start Christmas shopping and I am TERRIBLE at Christmas shopping, because I will go into shops and become bewitched by the clever displays that practically force you to buy things and I will buy lots of things, thinking they are awesome gifts and then I will get home and realize THESE PRESENTS SUCK and I will have to go out and buy MORE things.  So yesterday, I started Christmas shopping.  I went to one of those downtown shops that sell nothing but useless items.  I was browsing among the hideous jewelry and tchotchkes when I saw a SOLAR POWERED POPE.  And I could immediately think of twenty people who need a solar powered pope.  A solar-powered pope is a GODDAMNED NECESSITY.  You see?  Marketing.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: The Dirty Life

The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball is what I read to reward myself after finishing The Brothers Karamazov.  I was expecting a hilarious book about farming neophytes who don't know an udder from a testicle, but The Dirty Life is something different.  Kristin Kimball is a farming neophyte, who leaves Manhattan to farm in the North Country of New York.  Her husband, however, is an experienced farmer and knows what he's doing.  His vision is to go beyond the CSA concept and provide an entire diet, not just fruits and vegetables, for their subscribers.  The fact that within one year, the two of them took the neglected five hundred acre parcel and using only horse-powered tools, turned it into an organic farm, providing meat, dairy, eggs, vegetables, fruit, and maple syrup for their subscribers is downright miraculous.

Kimball is clear about just how difficult this was.  It took multiple tries to master milking their one cow and getting the milk to land in the bucket rather than soaking her own sleeves.  She had to learn to butcher and can and make maple syrup, butter, and cheese, and care for pigs and chickens and harness their enormous draft horses to the plow. They are in a constant race against the weather, especially in the spring, when everything must be planted on time to maximize the short growing season.  It also wasn't easy on their relationship--they're engaged when they first get to the farm and sometimes it seems like they won't make it to the altar.

I appreciated Kimball's honesty.  Sometimes I think this is what I would like to do--chuck it all and buy a farm-- above all a farm in the North Country, which is Almanzo Wilder territory, and one of my favorite places on earth.  Despite the hard work, there must be real contentment in such a life.  But then I remember how utterly hopeless I am with plants and gardening and manual labor in general.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Good and Cheap

As I mentioned in a previous post, I've been motivated lately to spend less and save more and I've had a little success.  When a friend of mine shared a link to a cookbook designed for those who are trying to live on a food stamp budget, I knew I had to try it out.  I know what you're thinking:  ANOTHER PRIVILEGED WHITE LADY TRIES TO LIVE ON A FOOD STAMP BUDGET.  SHE WILL SHOW THE FATTIES HOW IT'S DONE.  Except we didn't try to live on a food stamp budget;  I just downloaded the free Good and Cheap cookbook and stuck to its recipes for most of our meals for several weeks.

The NPR story is about Leanne Brown, a food studies student, who wrote a cookbook designed to help people eat well for little money.  This is not your typical thrift cookbook.  There's beautiful photography, and nary a casserole or a rice-and-beans recipe in sight.  What makes this cookbook different is that it gives you permission to serve humble meals with pride and that it elevates humble foods to an art form.  I'm no stranger to thrifty cooking, but the chapter "Things on Toast" was kind of a revelation to me.  Why NOT just cook up a bunch of collards and beans, or broccoli and anchovies (a delicious combination) and serve it on toast and call it a day?

Many of the recipes in Good and Cheap are vegetarian.  A key way to save money on food is to eat less meat.  We had already been eating at least one or two vegetarian dinners each week, but now we've increased that number to four or five.

At this point we have tried many of the recipes in Good and Cheap, and the only failure was the broiled eggplant salad, because none of us really like eggplant, although we keep trying.  I started with the lentil soup.  Lentils have to be the ultimate cheap food and my usual lentil soup recipe is Elizabeth David's sophisticated lemon-spiked version.  The Good and Cheap lentil soup is flavored with fresh ginger, cumin and mustard seeds, and turmeric.  Served with whole wheat flat bread, it was delicious and filling.

A surprise success was the roasted cauliflower tacos.  My kids were outraged at the idea of this recipe and didn't want me to make it, but I'd already bought the ingredients, so I put my foot down and cooked it anyway.  After dinner Seamus told me that he'd always hated cauliflower, but he now he liked it, as long as it was prepared the way I'd done for the cauliflower tacos.

The biggest hit from this cookbook was the pulled pork--which I don't necessarily think of as thrifty, but Brown says this is a special occasion recipe, and pork butt was on sale at Harris-Teeter.  This turned out to be the best pulled pork I have ever eaten.  Brown suggests that you cook it overnight, which I did, putting it in a Dutch oven into a 200 degree oven for twelve hours.  In the morning, I shredded the pork and put it in the fridge, and that evening, all I had to do was shred a little cabbage for a quick slaw and the meal was done.  This recipe makes a ton and I froze some, to use in tacos in a future dinner.

And I did find that I've been spending less at the grocery store, although I'm still spending more than I'd like.  We seem to spend a lot on snacks and breakfast foods.  Also, food prices seem to be really high in Charlottesville--a sort of affluence tax.  Cville people:  do you remember around the year 2001 or thereabouts, when there was a discount grocery store in the Vinegar Hill shopping center near downtown, and it was somehow forced out of business (lease not renewed or similar tactic) because a discount grocery store was not upscale enough for exquisite downtown Charlottesville and it gave the tourists the wrong idea.  What tourist-approved business went into its place?  Staples.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: The Brothers Karamazov

I feel like I deserve to rest on my laurels for a while and read nothing but Angela Thirkell and  D. E. Stephenson after finishing Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, which I read for the fifty classics project.  Are you tired of hearing about the fifty classics?  Don't worry, I am nearly halfway through the project, and I seem to be reading all the more difficult works on my list first.  There is some fun stuff coming up, I promise.

The Brothers Karamazov is kind of sexy, which I wasn't expecting. The main plot is the sort that attracts filmmakers, but as far as I can tell, it has been made into a movie only one time, in 1958, starring Yul Brenner, and billed as a "drama" and "romance."  (Is it possible that it's a muscial?)

So, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov is a right bastard who fathers one son, Dmitri, with his first wife, and two more sons, Ivan and Alexei with his second wife.  He also has an illigitimate son, Pavel, who works as a servant in the household.  Dmitri ("Mitya"), Ivan, and Alexei are all motherless and raised away from home because their father didn't take any interest in them.  When the novel opens, all three brothers are young men and have returned home to their father.  (Alexei ("Alyosha") actually lives in the local monastery.)  Mitya is a drinking, whoring, hell-raising kind of guy.  Ivan is the tortured intellectual, and Alyosha is a monk in training.  Mitya is engaged to a young lady, Katerina Ivanova Verkhovtseva, but he falls in love with the town Jezebel, Agrafena Alexandrovna Svetlova ("Grushenka").  Fyodor is also in love with Grushenka, and the love triangle between father, son, and this woman is the vehicle for much of the plot.  Meanwhile, Ivan is in love with Mitya's fiancee, Katerina.  Alyosha isn't really in love with anyone, but a young girl in the town is very much in love with him.  It's obvious that all three brothers are supreme hotties. See? Sexy.

That's the basic framework.  There are several subplots, and lots of details I'm leaving out, not to mention the philosophical and religious themes, but it's an 800-page book, so I can't go into all of it.  I was intrigued with Ivan's "poem," The Grand Inquisitor, in which Jesus Himself returns to earth during the time of the Spanish Inquisition, and is condemned to death, though the Grand Inquisitor knows perfectly well who he is, and elegantly explains his reasoning for sending Jesus to the stake.  Ivan's deeply cynical view of religion contrasts with Alyosha's faith.

What a difference a good translation makes!  My copy was translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and this is THE translation.  There are no lame attempts to substitute English colloquialisms for Russian ones, no sense of missed meaning such as I experienced with Crime and Punishment.  This translation of The Brothers Karamazov is so well-done, you'd think it was originally written in English.  If these two had translated Crime and Punishment, I'd read it again, but they haven't.  They have translated The Idiot, War and Peace, and Anna Karenina.  I will be reading War and Peace soon and I intend to seek out their translation.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Old Man Goriot

I am just tearing into my list of fifty classics lately.  Old Man Goriot, by Honore de Balzac, was written in 1835 and set in the year 1819.  It's a look at the excruciatingly competitive Paris society of the era.  Think Mean Girls to the 20th power.

Of the inhabitants of Madame Vaquer's Paris boarding house are Monsieur Goriot and Eugene de Rastignac, a young law student.  Goriot is a once-prosperous pasta dealer and Rastignac's family is of modest means, but they have high-society connections in Paris.  Rastignac becomes infatuated with Goriot's younger daughter, who is married to a rich banker, and already has a lover.  She sees Rastignac's social connections as her chance to get into the highest circle of society.  Which is really what this book is about: the machinations people perform, the debt they accumulate, and the private hell they experience simply to be accepted by the cool crowd.  Also an interesting look at the vastly different attitude about marriage in France at that time.  It was pretty much expected that all married people had extra-marital affairs.  One's husband was more like a business partner, so it was necessary to have a lover as well.

I found this to be a pretty depressing novel.  Goriot loves his daughters more than anything, but they reject him because of his humble background as a pasta dealer.  Even so, he funnels all of his money to them, which they waste on gambling and fripperies, while he lives in ever greater poverty.  Even when he is on his deathbed, neither daughter will come to see him; the older because she is negotiating her future financial arrangements with her husband, and the younger because she is hungover and needs to sleep in.  Read it if you want to wallow in your misery.

There will probably be no post next Friday because I am reading The Brothers Karamazov and there is no chance I'll be finished in time to write something.  When I first started writing these book suggestions, I would choose favorite books I'd read in the past, but I'm finding it difficult to remember enough details about these books to write a decent post about them.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Patience is so freakin' excited

So, getting the new circuit breaker box turned out to be less about maintaining the status quo and more about majorly unfucking our electricity, which was so, so fucked and we didn't even know it.  I really had no idea what replacing a breaker box entailed, but at one point I surreptitiously peeked out the kitchen window and saw the electrician grappling with a cable the size of a python.

But at the end, when the electrician proudly showed me our new breaker box, I was quite pleased.  And then he showed me all the ways that our electricity had been fucked.  The connection between the big cable from outside and the box itself was so corroded they had difficulty getting them apart.  The breakers themselves were totally rusted.  Apparently, it's a miracle we had any power at all.  He showed me how someone had stuffed a rag into gaps in the brick foundation behind the connection to keep the water out.  A RAG.  Now I'm pretty sure our breaker box's problems weren't caused by the brief drenching it got when the kitchen pipe burst, but from water seeping in from outside through the rag for the past thirty or so years. I'm not sure how old the box was or if our house even had electricity when it was built originally and who knows when it was wired and then rewired?  We didn't have a ground wire either, but the electricians added one.  The power company still needs to come and inspect it, but we don't need to be at home for that.

I worked from  home, which was lovely, only I had to clock out while the power was out, which was even lovelier.  So I did some general unfucking around the house (i.e. cleaning) and read The Brothers Karamazov until my eyes were bugging out of my head.  And then, to crown what was already a stellar day, our NEW DOORMATS arrived. 

When Phoebe was still a little puppy, she had quite a few accidents on the doormat.  Is that disgusting?  What were we supposed to do, buy a new doormat every time Phoebe peed on it?  So the old doormat was pretty gross and Phoebe is now fully housebroken, so I ordered new doormats, for both inside and outside the front door.  These are no ordinary doormats, these are LL Bean's famed "waterhog" doormats, which allegedly suck every drop of mud and wet from the paws and feet of all who enter.  They were expensive but I think they are going to be LIFE CHANGING DOORMATS. 

Monday, October 06, 2014

Inconvenient Truths

  • It is impossible to reason with someone who doesn't understand computers.
  • The most delectable-looking dessert recipes on Pinterest always turn out to be written in Polish.
  • You can go to Trader Joe's on a Sunday or you can keep your sanity. 
  • The people who design those impossibly detailed Jack-o-lantern patterns are sadists.
  • Benedict Cumberbatch is never going to fall in love with me.

Tomorrow we are having our circuit-breaker box replaced, which doesn't seem to fit in neatly with the list above, except that it is true and it IS inconvenient.  There's nothing like spending a metric ton of money and getting a permit from the city and a fire department inspection just to maintain the status quo.  It's not like our electricity is malfunctioning.  It works fine, except for the one outlet that trips the breaker if we try to plug the vaccuum cleaner into it.

The electricity project, by the way, has nothing to do with my facebook page drama from yesterday, in which I called 911 on the men who showed up at our house, claiming they were there to work on the gutters.  I was at work, but Grace called me to tell me that she was home alone and there were three strange men on the roof so I called Jon and he hadn't hired anyone to work on the gutters, so I freaked out and called 911.  And then the police came and the gutter men had an actual work order and it turned out that our painting contractor from LAST YEAR sent them, which he neglected to tell us.  So that was lovely and everybody was mad at me for not intuiting the situation.

I regret the misunderstanding, but it really was not my fault.  I assumed the gutter guys were running some sort of scam--claiming we'd hired them and then forcing us to pay or something like that, like those guys who won't take no for an answer when they want to shovel your driveway or rake your leaves.  I once had a terrifying encounter with a deranged man who tried to kill my sister and me with a shovel because we refused to hire him, so I think I had a legitimate reason to call for assistance.

    Friday, October 03, 2014

    Friday Reading Assignment: Servants

    Here's some non fiction for a change!  Servants by Lucy Lethbridge is one of those not-too-scholarly social history books intended for the general public.  Downton Abbey fans especially will appreciate it. It covers the history of domestic service in Great Britain, from the late Victorian period to today, with the bulk of the material focused on the Edwardian era.

    And there's so much fascinating material!  I think most of us have seen either Downton Abbey or Gosford Park or similar movies that portray the upstairs/downstairs life.  Downton Abbey definitely glosses over the more unpleasant realities of service, such as the expectation that servants turn their faces to the wall whenver their employers were in the room. Lethbridge includes extracts from the memoires of servants of the day, which show that servant/employer relations varied greatly from family to family.  Also, there was a big difference between serving in the country estate of an aristocratic family and serving for a middle class family.  According to Lethbridge, the middle classes, who had less money and more insecurity, were more likely to treat their servants shabbily.

    The period right before World War I seems to have been they heyday of households with legions of servants: scullery maids, housemaids, parlourmaids, ladies' maids, footmen.  The closer you worked to the family areas of the house, the more presentable you had to be.  Footmen and parlourmaids were often hired for their appearance.  One duke insisted that all his housemaids be at least 5' 10".

    The war threw a wrench into the system as those who had worked in service found opportunities elsewhere, and after the war were reluctant to return to it. This brought about the great handwringing over the "servant problem."  If you read British novels that are set any time after World War I, there are usually references to the servant problem, or else a touchy servant character who does her work poorly and with ill grace but whose employers are comically terrified that she will leave.  The 1930's saw a resurgence of the traditional domestic service system, but World War II, and the advent of labor-saving technology pretty much killed it forever.

    Non-fiction can be tough going sometimes, but Servants is engaging enough to read in bed at the end of a long day.  I now intend to read some of the memoires that Lethbridge refers to.

    Friday, September 26, 2014

    Friday Reading Assignment: Sharpshooter Blues

    Lewis Nordan's novels aren't the type I usually choose, but when I do actually read something of his, I'm always impressed.  The Sharpshooter Blues is another novel about the little town of Arrow Catcher, Mississippi.  The same characters pop up in several of Nordan's novels and stories, and by now, I've read enough of his novels that they're like old friends.

    The Sharpshooter Blues centers on a violent robbery in the William Tell grocery store, during which "two lovely children" are shot to death by "Hydro" Raney (so called because he was born with hydrocephalus) who works in the store.  I know I'd read about this incident in a different work of Nordan's, but can't pinpoint which one.  I think it was one of his short stories and in The Sharpshooter Blues, the incident is expanded into a novel.

    Every time I read something by Lewis Nordan, I'm blown away by the quality of the writing.  He is a writer's writer.  The Sharpshooter Blues is tragic and heartbreaking and disturbing, but also hopeful.

    Good choice for those who enjoy Southern gothic and dark comedy.

    Tuesday, September 23, 2014

    The Week in Review

    I have really hit a brick wall, as far as blog content is concerned.  In an attempt to keep this dying blog alive, I'll share the highlights of the past week.  What I can remember of them, anyway.

    Sunday:  Horribly overcooked my supply of hard boiled eggs for the week.  I am that person who eats hard boiled eggs in her cube, but honestly, our building has such an overpowering fug of mold and damp, I doubt anyone notices the occasional egg.

    Monday: "Enjoyed" breakfast egg that had the texture of a car tire, while sitting in cube of dispair and plowing through emails.  I have realized that email is the scourge of the modern workplace.  The amount of time we spend composing, deciphering, discussing,  fuming about, and waiting for replies that never come could be well spent doing something else.

    Tuesday: Hostile stare down against driver who refused to reduce his spped when I was in the crosswalk.  One of these days, I am just going to stand still in the middle of the street and see what they do.  After years of commuting on foot, my suppressed rage at Charlottesville drivers has reached critical mass.

    Wednesday:  Brilliant morning because I scheduled time off to take Seamus to the orthodontist, which meant I had time to walk to the early morning spin class at the gym and then I ran home from spin class and spent the rest of the day cloaked in virtue.

    Thursday: Usual tedious Thursday meetings cancelled due to conference at Epic headquarters.  Also, payday.  Followed the Scottish referendum in a desultory way via twitter.  Saw horrifying "giraffe cake roll" on Pinterest.  If we were meant to eat disembodied giraffe haunch, we would be lions.

    Who in their right mind would eat this?

    Friday: Went out to dinner with Jon.  I know I'm trying to save money, but by Friday evening, we are both literally desperate for a treat.  We went to Mas Tapas and ate dates wrapped in bacon and filled with apple butter, a phallus-shaped piece of steak served on a flat bread with some rich, unidentifiable sauce, a pumpkin-filled empanada, a sort of Spanish mini Reuben sandwich, and pomegranate margaritas, which almost made up for indignities of the workplace.

    Saturday: Several people attended barre class, thank fuck, because for the previous two weeks, it was just me and the teacher.  Washed the dog couch, which involved carrying staggeringly heavy basket full of pillows and slipcovers to the laundromat.  Are the dogs even grateful?  No they are not.

    Aside from these things, I spent the whole week obsessing over the disappearance of Hannah Graham. I'm praying that there is another break in this case, and also for solace for Hannah's family.

    Friday, September 19, 2014

    Friday Reading Assignment: The Moonstone

    Another book completed for the Fifty Classics project!  You may recall that I recently read The Woman in White, a Gothic tale of murder and madness by Wilkie Collins.  The Moonstone is more of a detective novel than a Gothic horror story.

    A valuable diamond is stolen from a shrine in India by a blackguard British soldier, who, many years later, leaves it to his niece in his will.  The niece, one Rachel Verinder, receives The Moonstone at her 18th birthday party.  It's stolen in the night and the rest of the novel is devoted to unraveling the mystery, with a few melodramatic plot twists to keep things interesting.  Collins skillfully aims the blame at different characters, which keeps you guessing well into the story.  That said, I had trouble engaging with this novel and finally had to put aside all my other books and just power through it.  Some of the characters had really irritating quirks: the butler who is obsessed with Robinson Crusoe, or the crack detective who hums a few bars of "The Last Rose of Summer" every time he finds a clue.  On the other hand, there is the evangelical spinster, Miss Clack, who narrates a good portion of the story and who Collins is clearly mocking.  Perhaps he was also mocking the butler and the detective?  Or mocking other detective novels of the time?  It is hard to tell.

    If you were to rank The Woman in White and The Moonstone on their literary value alone, The Moonstone would win.  Collins' writing is more mature and restrained in the later novel, and yet there is still some melodramatic silliness, and if the person who witnessed the crime had behaved the way any sensible person would have, there wouldn't have been any mystery at all.

    It was made into a BBC movie starring Keely Hawes, which I haven't seen and which I suspect is pretty terrible.  Has anyone seen it?  In searching for a good cover image, I came across a whole blog post devoted to bad Moonstone covers, of which the one pictured above is my favorite.

    Friday, September 12, 2014

    Friday Reading Assignment: Ten Books

    I was tagged on facebook by two friends to share ten books that have "stayed with" me.  I can't resist a book-related meme, so here is my list.  Naturally, many of the books that have stayed with me are ones I read as a child, but for this list, I included only adult books. So, in no particular order:

    1. Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym.  Because maybe having disappointed dreams isn't so bad after all.
    2. The Last Samurai by Helen Dewitt.  This novel about a single mother raising her profoundly gifted son has seeped into my consciousness.  The main character's habit of saying to herself, "Let's think about this rationally..." at the start of every crisis has become my own habit.
    3. My Search for Warren Harding by Robert Plunkett.  Hilarious story of a young man's quest to seize valuable papers once belonging to Warren Harding.
    4. English Passengers by Matthew Kneale.  The story of how the aborigines of Tazmania were made extinct because of how they were treated by colonists.  Parallel story of a group of religious fanatics who think the Garden of Eden was located on Tazmania.
    5. The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay.  On a superficial level, this is a funny novel about eccentric Brits, traveling in Turkey.  Also contains one of the most compelling arguments for religion that I've ever encountered.
    6. Lord of the Rings Trilogy.  Because Aragorn is such a hottie.
    7. Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell.  Actually, this academic satire has stuck with me because I hated it when I was expecting to love it, so it was a massive disappointment.  It also made me feel stupid because I'd understood it was a funny book and I didn't see what was so funny.  Allegedly, one of the main characters is meant to represent Mary McCarthy.
    8. The Seige of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell.  Fictionalized account of the sepoy mutiny in India in the 1850s.  I'm convinced that J.G. Farrell was one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.
    9. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I was expecting to be underwhelmed and was blown away by this beautiful novel.  Also, my first exposure to magical realism. 
    10. The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning.  Fantastic series about a young British couple living in Bucharest near the start of World War II.  Has stuck with me because one of the recurring themes is what it's like to be a mousy woman, married to a charismatic man, which I can relate to.

    Monday, September 08, 2014

    Money Matters

    I used to keep track of our spending on tediously hand-lettered sheets of graph paper, which accumulated into a dusty pile, stored under my dresser.  It was a lot of work, but I derived great satisfaction in plotting each month's income and expenditures on a master graph.

    Then I entered the workforce full time, and tracking our spending became less of a priority.  I had a general idea of what we could "afford" and our expenses always seemed to fall into that range, so I didn't worry about it, and the stack of graph papers became increasingly dusty and were eventually thrown away.

    Over the past several months, I've become dissatisfied with the direction in which my life is headed.  Am I really going to slave away in a cube, in exchange for financial stability, but have nothing to show for it at the end of my life except a giant pile of wine corks and a "Thanks for all your years of service" certificate?  I realized that I didn't even know what our monthly living expenses really were, so couldn't effectively set a savings goal.

    Since the end of June, I've been tracking our spending (on spreadsheets this time, not graph paper) and I finally have a grasp of what we spend for variable expenses like food, clothes, household supplies, the dogs, etc.  (A lot.)  Now that I know what we spend, I can get a better handle on where we can cut back--food for sure, and how to save more.

    We are always poor in September because of tuition bills and other school-related expenses, and we have some major maintenence expenses looming over us right now.  Remember when my kitchen sink pipe burst on Easter Sunday and leaked water all over the breaker box?  Yeah, me neither, until our A/C kept tripping the breaker and we called an electrician who discovered that the breakers have been quietly corroding ever since.  We need to replace the entire breaker box. We also need an arborist to come over and assess the walnut tree that looms so menacingly over the house and which dropped a massive limb on our roof during the derecho two years ago.  If it's healthy, it will need some serious pruning, and if it's not, the whole tree will need to come down.

    Then there's the problem of identifying a goal.  It's much easier to stick to a savings plan if you have a concrete goal.  I would like to do some serious traveling, but that is a bit vague.  Stay tuned, as there will probably be more frugal lifestyle-related posts coming as I try to sort through this.

    Monday, August 25, 2014

    Made: Amy Butler Barcelona Skirt

    I finished my new skirt!  I'm pleased with the fit and construction, (considering it is my first attempt at an adult garment in many years) but I think I made a poor fabric choice.  I was going for the whimsical look of a skirt from Boden, but this reminds me of a hospital gown or a baby blanket or a duvet cover.  It's lined, so the skirt has some heft, even though the fabric is a lightweight cotton.

    Phoebe would NOT get out of the way

    I'm not sure what I was thinking when I decided that I needed to make the large size, but it turned out to be enormous.  I hate tight clothing and tend to buy things a little oversized, but there is relaxed, and there is ridiculous, and the large skirt made me look like a dustbowl farmwife.  I had to rip out the zipper and remake the whole skirt as a medium.  It was a pain at the time, but when I look back at the things I've sewed and crafted over the years, there has never been an instance in which I regretted ripping out and re-doing my work.  As my dear great aunt, Sister Ellen used to say, "All good knitters rip."  The same applies to seamstresses.

    I've already started a muslin for a bias-cut plaid version of this skirt.  I've been wanting a bias-cut plaid skirt for ages.  I used plaid scraps from my fabric basket for my practice version of this skirt.  Wool is expensive and matching plaid just right is intimidating.

    I used Amy Butler's Barcelona Skirt pattern, which you can see here.  Or search for the hashtag #barcelonaskirt on instagram to see what other people have done with this pattern.

    Friday, August 22, 2014

    Friday Reading Assignment: The Mystery of Edwin Drood

    The Mystery of Edwin Drood is Charles Dickens' last novel.  He died before he finished writing it.  I included it in my list for the Fifty Classics project because it was suggested that I read it before I attempt to read Drood by Dan Simmons.

    I have to say, I really struggled with this novel.  It's not a jolly romp full of interesting characters, like Pickwick Papers or David Copperfield.  The opening scene is in an opium den full of strung-out people.  Is this Dickens or Sid and Nancy?

    The novel takes place in the fictional cathedral town of Cloisterham.  Edwin Drood is a young man who is betrothed to a local heiress-orphan unfortunately named Rosa Bud, and even more unfortunately nicknamed "Pussy." Edwin's uncle, John Jaspar, also a young man, is a regular visitor to the opium den and is creepily obsessed with Rosa, who hates him.  The engagement of Rosa and Edwin was arranged for them, and neither one of them particularly wants to marry the other.

    Enter Neville Landless and his sister Helena, orphans who were raised on Ceylon.  They arrive in Cloisterham to finish their education and Neville and Edwin take an instant dislike to each other.  There's a drunken fight and a bottle is thrown, which scandalizes the town. Edwin and Rosa amicably break up, and then Edwin disappears late one night after a party.  He was last seen with Neville Landless, and the recovery of two of his prized possessions leads the town to suppose he was murdered.  Meanwhile, creeper Jasper moves in on Rosa, who flees to her guardian in London.  And there the story ends.  All clues point to Jaspar as the murderer (if Edwin was actually murdered).  Although he professed great affection for his nephew, he may have wanted to get him out of the way so he could marry Rosa himself.  He's also the loudest accuser of Neville. 

    Thus ended Dickens' writing career. I've now learned (from a google image search) that Edwin Drood was adapted for the stage, and also appears to have been made into a BBC movie.  I will have to look for the movie.  It is not on netflix.

    As for the fifty classics project, in which I am supposed to read fifty classics within five years, I am lagging behind.  I am nearly halfway through the five-year period, and I have read only eighteen classics. I have just started The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins.

    Tuesday, August 19, 2014

    Playing Hooky

    I scheduled a day off yesterday so I could take Seamus to get his braces off and accomplish other things and OH MY GOD it was the most exhausting day ever.  On the weekend, I'm very protective of my time and am willing to spend only a minimum amount of time doing things I don't want to, but on Mondays all bets are off.

    I started the day with an athletic conditioning class at the city gym.  I had never taken athletic conditioning before and I was a little apprehensive.  Turns out it's just like going back to gym class.  We started with two laps of the basketball gym, and other cardio activities like jump roping, and holy shit, that was just the warm up.  Then we rotated between different stations; lifting weights or lunging or jumping onto things or running up and down the stairs.  Another torture cardio stint in the gym and then another circuit of the stations.  I was DYING.  I guess my thrice-weekly death march on the stairmaster hasn't been as beneficial as I thought.

    I dropped Seamus at the orthodontist and ran a load of wet clothes up to the laundromat (our dryer is still broken) and picked up a replacement electrical plug at Meadowbook Hardware.  The braces were off by this time and I showed Seamus how to replace a an appliance plug.  This was for this fantastic vintage box fan I bought at The Gilded Flea in Harper's Ferry, where we spent the weekend with our dear friends. It is intended for Seamus' bedroom, and the new plug is perfect.

    The logo says "Frosti-aire" Check the boss on/off toggle.
    Someone named "Elaine Knight" labeled the top of the fan with her label maker.

    We were expecting Jon's brother and his wife and kids for dinner.  The last time they came to our house was the disastrous dinner party at which we ruined every single dish.  I was determined that this dinner be a success, so Seamus and I settled on homemade pizzas for dinner, which I can make in my sleep.  (Actually, Seamus made the pizzas for this party.)  I went into CLEAN ALL THE THINGS mode and moved the stove so as to clean behind and under it, and scrubbed toilets and washed the kitchen floor and changed the sheets on my bed and vacuumed and scrubbed sinks and paid the bills and performed the financial gymnastics necessary to pay the college tuition and did all the other things I wouldn't want to waste time on over a weekend.

    I tried to work on my skirt--it was my goal to get the zipper sewed in, but the instructions are incomprehensible.  This isn't my first time at the rodeo, people, and I might just sew in the zipper the way that I know, because Amy Butler's method is needlessly complicated.  I also read over sixty pages of The Mystery of Edwin Drood because the only way to deal with this book is to power through it. And then it was back to the orthodontist to get Seamus' retainer.

    The dinner was delicious and not a catastrophe like last time and Phoebe only disgraced herself once. It's almost a relief to go back to work today so I can rest.

    Friday, August 15, 2014

    Friday Reading Assignment: Something in Disguise

    More Elizabeth Jane Howard!  (She of the fantastic Cazalet Chronicles.)  I think Something in Disguise is my favorite, so far, of all of her non-Cazalet novels.  It's set in the mid-sixties, in London.  Elizabeth an Oliver are siblings, and their mother, May, married Herbert after the death of Elizabeth and Oliver's father.  Herbert has a daughter, Alice, from his first marriage.

    I don't usually think of Elizabeth Jane Howard as a funny writer, but this book is funny, in a muted way.  The novel opens with Oliver telling Elizabeth that she looks like an "elongated Shirley Temple" in her bridesmaid dress.  Their step-sister Alice is about to marry a crashing bore with an appalling family.  After the wedding Oliver and Elizabeth scamper off to London and live like hipsters, while May becomes involved with "the League" which is suspiciously akin to a cult.  Alice is miserable and Herbert is a stereotypical xenophobic boor.  There's also Claude, Alice's cat.  I love it when animals in novels are developed characters, and Claude makes only a few appearances, but he steals the scene every time.

    There is some pleasing plot tightness.  Why is May so ill?  Is the League slowly poisoning her while bullying her to leave them her house in their will?  Will Oliver ever find a source of income?  Will Alice and Claude ever be reunited? If you have read the Cazalet Chronicles and want more of EJH, Something in Disguise is the perfect choice.  It's lighter  than The Sea Change and funnier than After Julius.

    Monday, August 11, 2014

    Large and in Charge

    I'm trying to be more mindful about my clothing, part of which involves starting to sew my own clothes.  At last count, I owned seventeen skirts, (some of which need to die in a fire) and yet, now I am sewing myself another one.  I used to sew most of my children's clothes, but it is much more difficult to make a decent-looking garment for an adult than for a child, so I've been a bit apprehensive.

    I chose Amy Butler's Barcelona skirt pattern for my first attempt because it is so versatile.  There's a basic A-line pattern, and a second version made up of tiered fabric. This weekend, I sewed the muslin of the tiered version, and I'm really glad I took that step to work out some fit and other issues.  Sewing pattern sizes have not kept up with vanity sizing.  After applying the paper pattern to my hips, I realized that I would need to make the size large.  Large!

    For some reason, my sewing machine made unspeakable puckerings in the fabric, and I realized that attempting to turn under the fabric on the underside of the tiers completely ruined the look of the skirt, and also the large size did turn out to be too large, although probably not enough to justify downsizing to the medium.

    View from the side.  There is a giant piece missing out of the back because I didn't have enough muslin, and all I really needed to see is the fit around the hips.  It's a bit longer than the real skirt will be.  A lot of people make it up with only three tiers, for a shorter length, and I might try that for a winter version of this skirt that I can wear with tights.

    Not sure what's going on with the ass wrinkles

    This is the fabric I chose for the real skirt.  Giant green polka dots?  I know.  I spent about an hour in Les Fabriques, getting more and more overwhelmed.  I went with this because this skirt works best as a print, and I didn't want florals or stripes or plaid.  

    Eventually, I hope to use my Barcelona pattern to make this skirt, which I first saw on Pinterest.  (Photo came from here.)

    What else happened this weekend?  I was on call night and day, which limits one's ability to have any fun at all.  During the week, this is my life, every day.

    1. Walk to work
    2. Sit in dolorous cubicle of despair
    3. Walk home
    4. Cook dinner
    5. Go to gym
    6. Watch Frazier reruns on netflix
    7. Read
    8. Sleep
    On a really ambitious day, I might stock up on dog food or fold the laundry or clean something.  As you can see, I have nothing to blog about but the weekends.

    Anyway, the city Parks & Rec department is sponsoring Shakespeare in the Park, and this weekend there was a performance every night in Belmont Park of Much Ado About Nothing.  I went to the Saturday performance.

    Of course an event like this calls for cocktails, and I made Thug Kitchen's blueberry-basil gin & tonics. I splurged on Hendrick's gin which mildly scandalized Ian, who explained it is too good to mix with other things.  It feels odd to be educated about spirits by someone you gave birth to and used to dress in John John suits.  Also splurged on high class tonic (or "quinine water" as my father calls it) and these G&T's were dope ass drinks, as Thug Kitchen would say.

    It isn't really kosher to carry a glass of alcholic beverage into a public park, but I settled myself unobtrusively near the back, on a blanket, but then one of the organizer ladies noticed me and insisted that I move to the front.  I demurred, but it was hopeless, and then my drink caused a flurry in the audience.  "THAT LOOKS DELICIOUS. WHAT ARE YOU DRINKING?"  So much for trying to be inconspicuous.  But then I saw the woman next to me spike her drink from a whiskey bottle, concealed in her Whole Foods shopping bag.  I remembered with dismay that I was on call, which is why I sat in the back in the first place, and I had to spend the play checking my phone every few minutes like one of those phone-obsessed philistines that everybody deplores.  But the play was funny and I never did get paged.