Thursday, September 30, 2010

Let Me Eat Cake

For almost a year, Barry and I have been eating a low-fat, low-salt, low-sugar diet.  By now we’re so used to the taste of healthier food that on the rare occasions we eat something really fatty or sweet it tastes disgusting.  And yet – today I’m sitting here jonesing for a piece of cake.

I’ve never really had a sweet tooth.  I do sometimes crave chocolate, but I prefer the dark, bittersweet varieties.  Today, though, I want cake.  A big wedge of sweet white cake thickly plastered with white buttercream frosting, topped with shell piping and a few pink sugar roses.

I blame Cake Wrecks.

For the past few days I’ve been browsing their archives in my spare time, and even though many of the cakes they feature look totally inedible, the urge to slice one up and devour it by myself has been growing by leaps and bounds.  I’m not quite ready to sell my soul to satisfy the craving, but I’d be willing to crash a wedding or mug a birthday child.

The grocery stores near my home sell individual cupcakes, but they use so much food coloring in their frosting that it leaves the eater’s tongue, teeth, lips and fingers bright orange (or teal or shocking pink) for two or three days - the dieter’s version of the Scarlet Letter. 

Today, though, I’m at an office in an industrial park on the other side of the valley.  I don’t know of any supermarkets in the area, but with the help of my trusty computer (really, I’m sorry I dissed you yesterday, I don’t know what came over me) I’m sure I can find one.  I’m hoping they’ll have at least one plain white cupcake with simple white frosting.
image of sprinkles cupcake

What do you suppose I should eat afterward so I don’t go home with sugar on my breath?

"I don't exactly know what it means to be ready. A cake when the oven timer goes off? Am I fully baked, or only half-baked?" - Jessica Savitch

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Does HP Stand for "Hardly Performing" or "Highly Problematic?"

I bought my first computer almost 20 years ago.  It was slower and had less memory than my current cell phone.  Taking a screen shot and pasting it into a document crashed the system.  My current laptop is so much faster and more powerful that I should be ashamed to complain about it – but I’m going to anyway.

My first laptop was a Dell.  By the time the Dell was three and a half years old its hard drive was completely full.  I axed all optional software and stored every possible data file on an external hard drive, but big graphics still froze everything.  In retrospect, I should just have bought a bigger hard drive and some memory, but no.  I was a web and graphics professional.  I needed MORE!  This time I bought an HP, partly because I’ve always had good luck with their printers, but mainly because it was cheap.

Note the word “cheap.”  Originally I would have said “more affordable,” but “cheap” is the correct terminology.

Less than a month after its one-year warranty expired, the laptop started acting up.  The graphics card overheats and the system shuts down to protect itself.  To fix this I would have to ship the laptop to HP to have the entire motherboard replaced.  As a stopgap I purchased a cooling pad to use any time I’m going to be on the computer for more than an hour.

Now the battery has failed (the one on the Dell lasted five years) and the screen mysteriously cracked while the laptop was sitting quietly in its case in my office.  The built-in wireless receiver also constantly drops network connections, even when the router is less than 6 feet away.  This is not acceptable performance for a computer less than two years old.

image of angry person jumping on a laptop computerI really can’t afford a new computer with the power I need, but the shipping and repair costs for this one would probably rival the cost of a new machine.  I can’t cadge a loan from Barry because he blew his budget for the year on the monster TV.  I can limp along with the HP for a little while longer, but I have to replace it before it dies completely; after all, without a good computer I can’t do either of my jobs, and I do enjoy regular meals.  I just need to decide whether Dell or Sony will have the honor of melting down my credit card.

"Computers are like Old Testament gods; lots of rules and no mercy."  ~Joseph Campbell

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Not Really "Fall"

One of my grade school teachers told us that autumn is called "fall" because that's when the leaves fall from the trees. Later on, when Daylight Savings Time was instituted, so was the saying that our clocks should spring forward in the spring and fall back in the fall.

Now I live in the Phoenix area where the leaves stay on the trees year-round and we don't have Daylight Savings Time (we have so much sunshine that we don't need to save it). Despite the date on the calendar, this doesn't really seem like "fall" to me.

Signs of Autumn

Up North
Unpack hats, coats, gloves, boots, heavy sweaters, corduroy pants, thermal underwear
Unpack a sweater, just in case
Add antifreeze; put blanket, shovel, bag of sand and emergency kit in trunk
Pack a book for snowbird-induced gridlock on the highway
Turn on furnace
Turn off air conditioning
Drain and cover
Test heater
Rake leaves
Rake rocks
Choose costume for warmth
Choose costume for ventilation

Ah, well, one thing remains constant - I'm going to buy twice as much chocolate as I actually need for trick-or-treaters, just to be sure we have leftovers.

"No man can taste the fruits of autumn while he is delighting his scent with the flowers of spring."  - Samuel Johnson

Monday, September 27, 2010

Ourselves Under Pressure

I mentioned in one of my early posts that I started blogging to bleed off a backlog of frustration and sarcasm before my head exploded.  The good news: It seems to be working; I feel much better, thank you very much.  The bad news: Relieving this built-up pressure has apparently also impaired my sense of humor.

This is reasonable, if you think about it for a moment.  When life sucks because I've lost my wallet and found an extra 10 pounds, satire is easy.  When everything is flowing smoothly, I start thinking happy thoughts about cream-colored ponies frolicking under a rainbow in clover-scented meadows, and what's funny about that?  For those among you who do think ponies are funny, here are some additional examples:

Bad Times - FUNNY
Good Times - NOT AS FUNNY
Losing 13 right-handed mittens and one left-handed glove during a single winter
Moving to Arizona so I’ll never need mittens or gloves again
Accidentally washing one of the red napkins in the white load, permanently tinting the best tablecloth and all the underwear bright pink
Investing in paper napkins and plastic tablecloths which never need to be laundered
Forgetting baked beans in the pressure cooker until it blows, leaving the kitchen looking like a victim of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre
Buying Bush’s beans and a can-opener
Breaking out in head-to-toe hives at a professional conference after receiving a penicillin shot
Having the last word with the doctor who said, “It probably won’t kill you.”
Nightmares of being chased through the streets of post-apocalypse Manhattan by giant moaning credit cards
Dreams in which the noise of Barry’s CPAP machine becomes the roar of the Caribbean pounding a white sand beach

I guess I'll just have to wait for disaster to strike again; based on past experience, I shouldn't have to wait very long.

I busted a mirror and got seven years bad luck, but my lawyer thinks he can get me five. ~ Stephen Wright

Update: Back in the Soup

Although I haven't posted anything about it since I talked about making nabe, my giant box of Japanese soup stock and I have not been idle. I've been experimenting with variations on our old favorite, miso soup.

As part of our commitment to eating better, Barry and I usually start dinner with a large green salad or a bowl of low-calorie soup.  This helps fill us up so we're less likely to pig out on the more calorie-dense main course.  Low-sodium miso soup is one of our regular choices, but until our trip to Lee-Lee Asian Market, we were stuck with the instant version.

The dehydrated miso soup in our local supermarkets contains miniscule pieces of dried tofu, green onion, and seaweed.  According to Naomi Moriyama, though, miso soup really only must contain dashi (the bonito-flavored soup stock) and miso; beyond that, the cook can be as inventive as he or she wishes.  Here are some of the things I've been combining, a few at a time:
  • Wakame or nori (dried seaweed) - unfurling from little dried shreds to big green squares
  • Diced tofu, regular or fried
  • Mushrooms (shitake, enoki, or crimini)
  • Daikon (Japanese radish, sweeter than regular radishes) or sliced red radishes
  • Bonito flakes (as a garnish)
  • Green onions
  • Fresh spinach
Normally Barry will taste whatever soup I give him and pronounce, "This is good."  Since I've started serving my miso experiments, he's been repeating "This is really good" several times during the soup course. I think I'm on the right track.

Now, would it be heresy to serve Naomi's Japanese Country Power Breakfast soup for dinner?

"Beautiful Soup!  Who cares for fish,
 Game or any other dish?
 Who would not give all else for two p
 ennyworth only of beautiful Soup?
 Pennyworth only of beautiful Soup?
      Beau--ootiful Soo--oop!
      Beau--ootiful Soo--oop!

 Soo--oop of the e--e--evening,
 Beautiful, beauti--FUL SOUP!"

-Lewis Carroll, second verse of the Mock-Turtle's song from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Tag, I'm It

I've been so verbose this month that my faithful followers are probably starting to hope I'll develop writer's block.  Unfortunately for them, this no longer happens since I learned to write first and edit later.  I picked up this technique and many others from Henriette Anne Klauser's Writing on Both Sides of the Brain, which earns my vote for Most Useful Book On Writing Ever.

Even before I encountered Henriette, though, I could usually kick-start the writing portion of my brain.  As an English major in college I frequently had to produce a paper or more every day, so writer's block was just not an option.  My favorite method, however, couldn't be used for class assignments because it integrated the work of two different authors; it was the literary equivalent of "tag, you're it."

My best friend in college was also an English major.  She had an unfettered imagination and a wicked sense of humor and we wrote several things (including an entire science fiction novel) together.  One of us would draft the first paragraph, page, or scene and pass the manuscript to the other.  We would write alternate passages until the entire first draft was done, and then we would edit.  This sounds as if it would produce a rather patchwork narrative, but after it was typed we ourselves often couldn't tell where the seams had originally been.

When we were working on something serious, each of us tried to make the hand-off to the other as smooth as possible, with no dropping of the compositional baton.  When we were writing for fun, though, we tended to end the sections with peculiar dead-end sentences like "I've been experimenting with making liquor from pole beans."  Trying to craft a cohesive narrative around these literary landmines was like taking a master class in free association.

(Hmm...that would make a great business card: Have Thesaurus, Will Write.  Quill pen salient.)

Now that I'm writing on my own I have to find other ways to prime the creativity pump, and I'm usually successful, but I miss the fun I had trying to stump my friend with a hopeless cliffhanger, or waiting to see what horrible dilemma she'd left me with in our latest epic.  Ah, well, I'll just have to tell myself that writing a longer work now is exactly the same, except I'm always "it."

“I love talking about nothing. It is the only thing I know anything about.” Oscar Wilde

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Quirkiness is All

Yesterday I listed the 10 books I would keep if forced to get rid of all the rest.  The novels on today's list missed the cut, but belong to perhaps my favorite reading category - "quirky."  Regardless of genre, they have these things in common:
  • The narrative is first or limited third person, by turns funny, ironic, and thoughtful.
  • The characters are convincingly real, and people I would like to have for friends.
  • The setting is either firmly grounded in historical fact or solidly visualized by an imaginative author.
  • The language sweeps the reader along.
  • Somewhere in the plot or the characterization is an unusual, unexpected, quirky twist.

Here without further ado are the quirky books I regularly re-read:

  • Bride of the Rat God, Barbara Hambly.  A fantasy novel set in Prohibition-era Hollywood.  Ancient Chinese magic, bootleg liquor, Pekingese dogs, mah-jongg, silent film-making, and coping with emotional loss.
  • The Tightrope Walker, Dorothy Gilman.  A very unusual heroine who owns a second-hand shop finds a note in an antique hurdy-gurdy written by a woman who says she's about to be murdered, and follows the trail to its source.  Handwriting analysis, politics, girlie calendars and various mostly-useless 1970's methods for finding oneself all figure into the plot.
  • Very Far Away from Anywhere Else, Ursula K. LeGuin.  This is my favorite coming-of-age novel.  Although written by a famous author of science fiction and fantasy, this books contains neither.  Anyone who has ever felt like an outsider in his or her own family will identify with and root for Owen, the protagonist, struggling through his last year of high school.  The quirkiness in this book centers on his relationship with Natalie, a classmate and budding composer whose life has the focus Owen's lacks.
  • Tea with the Black Dragon, R.A. MacAvoy.  Winner of the John W. Campbell award, this fantasy/mystery hybrid features among its characters a classically trained musician who now plays Renaissance festivals and sits zazen every morning, several 80's-era computer geeks, and an Asian gentleman who started life as a five-toed imperial dragon.
  • Thus Was Adonis Murdered, Sarah Caudwell.  An English barrister becomes embroiled in murder while on an Art Lover's Holiday in Italy and must be rescued by the other members of her firm.  Julia, the brilliant, attractive, and hopelessly absent-minded suspect, tells part of the story through a series of hysterically funny letters which are presented with dry commentary by the main narrator, a pompous co-worker.
  • A Cluster of Separate Sparks, Joan Aiken.  This book is a clever parody of the formulaic romantic suspense novel.  The heroine is hired to teach at the hilltop castle of an eccentric Greek millionaire, and the ensuing dangers include killer bees, Russian spies, and bad taste.
  • Bellwether, Connie Willis.  Set in the near future, this fantasy novel makes gentle fun of Starbucks, Barbie, self-help books and mindless trend-followers while the main characters study chaos theory, the root causes of fads, and sheep.
Since some of these books are now rather elderly they may only be available used, but every one of them is worth the search.  And yes, I know I'm supposed to be eliminating books, but if you have any enchantingly quirky favorites I didn't mention, please tell me about them.  After all, once I finish the weeding process, I should have quite a bit of empty space on my bookshelves!

"If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all." - Oscar Wilde 

Friday, September 24, 2010

Read Me First!

I mentioned in an earlier post that I've started to get rid of books I'll never read again.  I'm not proceeding at a very rapid rate because I keep getting sidetracked by old favorites.  Today someone I'd mentioned the project to asked which books I'd keep if I could only save ten.  Well, that completely derailed me, but here they are for your reading pleasure: 
  • How to Cook without a Book, Pam Anderson.  The title says it all.  This is the book I would give any young person (or older person) who wants to do more than heat frozen dinners in the microwave.
  • Logo, Font & Lettering Bible, Leslie Cabarga.  I learned more about lettering, principles of design, and using graphics software from this one book than from any other five on my bookshelf put together.
  • A Woman’s Life in the Court of the Sun King.  My favorite in the biography/autobiography/diary/historical letters category.  See my “Historical Voyeurism” post for details.
  • A Year in Provence, Peter Mayle.  Food, travel, home remodeling, living among the French, and non-stop good humor – never a dull moment in this classic.
  • The Borrowers, Mary Norton.  My favorite children’s book, this is the story of a very small family that lived under the hall clock in an Edwardian mansion.  The recent movie didn’t do it justice, but may keep it alive for a new generation of readers, which is a Good Thing.
  • Rifles for Watie, Harold Keith.  Winner in the young adult category.  The story of a young man who fights on both sides during the Civil War, this book is packed with historically accurate details and human interest.  When originally published, this novel won a Newbery award for excellence.
  •  Crocodile on the Sandbank, Elizabeth Peters.  I love everything Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels/Barbara Mertz has ever written, but I think this is her best book.  It’s hard to categorize: historical novel?  Egyptology?  Mystery?  Romance?  Comedy?  Feminist manifesto?  It’s all that and more.  Read this and you will never look at an umbrella the same way again.
  • Sorcerer’s Son, Phyllis Eisenstein.  This book beat out many more famous candidates as my favorite fantasy novel because of the beauty of the language.  Although the bulk of the book is an action adventure comprising the hero’s coming of age and magical apprenticeship, the backstory is a hauntingly unusual romance, and the ending ties all the pieces together in an unexpected and satisfying way.
  • Shards of Honor, Lois McMaster Bujold.  Another hard-to-categorize book.  Ostensibly science fiction, this book is also about finding your own center and trusting your own judgment.  Sorry, guys, it also contains an unusual love story and more than a little feminism.
  • The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare.  This is probably cheating, since it includes all the poetry and plays in one binding.  One of my college professors claimed that every educated person’s bookshelf should include Shakespeare, Milton, and the King James version of the Bible.  I’d jettison Milton and King James, but not my Shakespeare.
Some of these books are still in print; others can be purchased used through and its ilk.


"Lord! when you sell a man a book you don't sell just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue - you sell him a whole new life.  Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night - there's all heaven and earth in a book, a real book."  ~Christopher Morley

Flirting with DID

You've been asking yourself a lot of questions in this blog.  Why is that?
I think I've been watching too many mockumentaries.  We rented Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman, and the original Spinal Tap movie last month; maybe the spurious Q&A format imprinted itself on my subconscious.  The other possibility is that the disparate parts of my personality have started to separate.  I can only hope they don't decide to divorce; I can't afford the alimony.

What's the advantage of the mock interview in humorous writing?
I get to talk about several different topics in a single post without even pretending to link them together logically.  Scrapping transitions significantly speeds up the writing process.  If I can just get over my unreasonable attachment to grammar and spelling, too, I'll be able to really increase my output.

Why don't you include illustrations with all of your postings?
I'm a slow artist; my illustrated posts generally take much longer to produce.  Besides, I can't always think of an appropriate picture for a specific article.  This one, for instance; I suppose I could slap a face on a giant puffy question mark, but would it really add anything to the text?  I don't think I'm meant to be a cartoonist.  I can write and I can doodle, but I'm not mentally coordinated enough to do both at the same time.  The left and right halves of my brain don't play well together.

Does it bother you that they don't?
Only when they start throwing dishes at each other.
image of cartoon question mark with face

[Update: OK, here's the puffy question mark.  You be the judge: witty and debonair addition to the post, or stupid waste of space?]

“One advantage of talking to yourself is that you know at least somebody's listening.” Franklin P. Jones

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Seasonal Road Rage

Several days a week I drive 40 miles each way to an office on the other side of the Phoenix metropolitan area.  I’d rather work from home, but the boss wants to stare over our shoulders while we’re designing (can you say “control freak?”) and I generally only telecommute when I’m sick.

I don’t actually mind the commute during the summer.  It gives me an hour to wake up in the morning and an hour to put work behind me at night.  I sing along with the radio or talk to myself or mentally compose entries for this blog.  Unfortunately, today is the first official day of fall, and I know that starting October 1 the snowbirds will be flooding back.

Don’t get me wrong; winter visitors bring considerable economic benefits to our area, and many of them are perfectly nice people.  I don’t object to seasonal residents per se; I object to them as drivers.  I don’t think they should be allowed to bring their vehicles with them, or to rent cars once they’re here.  These are people with a lot of leisure time, after all; let them walk wherever they want to go.

Why do I want to deprive them of their automobiles?  Because their numbers are legion and their driving habits are unpredictable.  In New York, you know the drivers are aggressive; in parts of the Midwest, you can expect men in seed caps to drive as if they just got off their tractors; but drivers here are from all over the country and half of Canada, and at any moment they may unexpectedly slam on the brakes, change lanes without looking, or attempt to break the sound barrier while slaloming around the other cars on the road.  The Phoenix area has heavy traffic even in the summer, and in the winter some sections of our highways are gridlocked for hours at a time.  One accident on the northern loop of the 101 can change my drive home from one hour to three, and the incidence of those accidents soars as soon as our temperatures drop.  I may need to stock my car with emergency rations and a few good books.

I know the state will never take their cars away from our migratory neighbors – but I can dream, can’t I?

“I represent what is left of a vanishing race, and that is the pedestrian.... That I am still able to be here, I owe to a keen eye and a nimble pair of legs.  But I know they'll get me someday.” ~Will Rogers

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Waiting for Tom Bergeron

You mentioned Dancing with the Stars in an earlier post.  Are you a big fan of the show?
Yes, I’d like to compete on Dancing with the Stars myself.  I think a mirror-ball trophy would look good on our entertainment center, probably to the left of the monster TV.

Do you think they would ever ask you to be on the show?
I’m sure they’ll be beating my door down as soon as I have 10 steady readers.

Since you’ve had many years of dance lessons, wouldn’t you have an unfair advantage over the other celebrities?
Certainly not.  Although I’ve had 10 years of ballroom dance lessons, they’ve really been more like one year repeated 10 times, and with my coordination I need that much of a head start.  Have you ever watched this show?  Way too many of the stars are professional athletes.  Talk about an unfair advantage – they can move their arms and legs at the same time!  Some of them even have energy left over to smile at the audience - that's amazing!  I’m sure I can dance better than most of the comedians and professional models they’ve had on in the past, but that isn’t saying much.  My cat has more rhythm than Penn [of Penn and Teller – he was very briefly on Dancing with the Stars].

What’s your favorite thing about dancing?
The word “Terpsichore.”  Try to say that three times real fast.

Which are your favorite ballroom dances?
To watch, the tango – so cool and sexy.  To dance myself, the waltz.  In addition to being very romantic, the waltz has the strongest beat and the simplest footwork; if the guy can lead well, the woman just has to allow herself to be swept away.

“Thousands of emotions well up inside me throughout the day. They are released when I dance.” - Abraham Lincoln

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Getting Ready to Kick Another Bucket

When I was five, my kindergarten teacher horrified my mother by telling her that I was poorly coordinated.  Our family doctor suggested dance lessons as a remedy.  The next thing I knew, I was wearing tap shoes and learning to kick-ball-change. The nadir of my performing career came during a recital when, dancing around a plastic bucket to the strains of "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair," I backed into the bucket and kicked it across the gym.

Despite this inauspicious beginning, I graduated from tap to aerobics to ballroom dancing, but until I met Barry I often went for years at a time without a dance partner.  The first few years we were together we danced at least twice a week, either in lessons or at ballroom dances.  Sometimes we danced four or five nights in a row.  We even occasionally participated in dance formations; fortunately, no buckets were harmed during the performances.

This summer, though, we've been on hiatus.  One of our dance instructors only teaches in our area during part of the year; another no longer teaches at the venue closest to us; I'm working days; and Barry doesn't like driving (or being driven) very far at night.  Barry has been playing pickleball and working out at the gym and with our Wii to stay in shape.  I've just been slowly turning to suet in front of my computer.

However, even as I type, we're watching the first show of this season's Dancing With the Stars, and it's all I can do to stay in my seat.  I feel the need to dance rising like maple sap in the spring.  Luckily, our fall lessons start a week from Monday.  This time we'll be taking foxtrot and swing; another chance to pretend we're Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or maybe Derek Hough and Cheryl Burke.  I'm still not really well-coordinated, but I no longer care.

Damn the buckets - full speed ahead!

"Stifling an urge to dance is bad for your health - it rusts your spirit and your hips."  ~Terri Guillemets

Monday, September 20, 2010

Doing the Turkey Trot

Here’s how I prefer to cook:
  • Determine menu in advance; write checklist of dishes in the order they must be prepared.
  • Look up recipes; list any missing ingredients.
  • Shop for missing ingredients.
  • Set up all ingredients, cooking utensils, and recipe sources needed for meal.
  • Cook magnificently, checking off items on list as completed.
 Normally, though, I end up cooking like I did tonight:
  • Significant Other spots frozen turkey breast on sale and buys it.
  • Turkey breast thaws in fridge;  I play Scarlett: “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”
  • When tomorrow arrives, SO asks, “Can we have the turkey tonight?”  I say, “Sure,” having no idea what to do with it.
  • Mayhem ensues.

Part 1: The Prep

Committed to turkey breast, I immediately panic. My traditional turkey recipe is practically guaranteed to dry out a solitary breast.  Several hours before we usually eat I go to and find a possibility with good reviews, Turkey with Chardonnay and Herbs:

Although the original produces a kind of boned turkey roll, several reviewers cooked breast alone with good results.  Two of them said this required an hour of cooking time rather than the hour and forty-five minutes needed for an entire bird.  I think I have everything the recipe calls for.  However, I see the marinade should sit for an hour before it’s applied to the turkey.  I combine the olive oil and herbs, cutting the quantities in half because I’m only doing a breast.  Then I pull the onion and celery from the vegetable drawer.

Setback 1: I can’t find the carrots.

I grab a yam instead and start chopping, happy that I have about an hour to finish the prep work.

Setback 2: Barry hears me banging in the kitchen, and two hours before we usually eat yells, “How soon can we eat? I’m hungry now.

The real answer, of course, is how the hell do I know?, but I yell back, “The turkey takes about an hour,” turn the oven on to pre-heat, and speed up my chopping.

I spread the vegetables in the bottom of the roaster, set the turkey breast on top of them, and rub the breast with the herb-infused oil.  The oil hasn’t set for an hour, but the herbs have more or less dissolved into it; the turkey looks as if it’s been showered with tobacco expectorant.  I add the chicken stock to the pan.

Setback 3: We drank the chardonnay this weekend.

We have one bottle of chardonnay left, but it’s the expensive one I’ve been saving for a special occasion and I’m not going to waste it on a turkey.  I scan the wine rack, and remembering one reviewer’s suggestion that a sweeter wine worked as well if not better, pull out a bottle of pinot grigio flavored with pear.

Setback 4: While opening the wine, I spill part of it on the tile floor, where it’s immediately absorbed by the grout.

I decide to consider this a libation to the kitchen gods and hope they will keep me from slicing off a thumb during the carving process.  Fortunately I still have the three cups of wine needed for the bird, with about two tablespoons to spare.  I pour the three cups into the pan and chug the rest from the bottle.  On the advice of another reviewer I put aluminum foil over the turkey so I won’t have to baste it and slide it into the oven.  It is now an hour and forty-five minutes before we usually eat.

I go back to the vegetable drawer for salad fixings.  NOW I spot the carrots.  I hastily chop two and add them to the turkey pan.

Part 2: The Roasting

Setback 5: Forty-five minutes later, inflamed by the fumes of roasting turkey floating through the house, Barry is waiting to be fed.

I offer him a snack; he declines.  I point out that the tossed salad is ready and suggest he eat that while the turkey (and the rice on the stovetop) finish up.  He eats the salad and waits impatiently.  At last the timer goes off.  I dish up the rice and set it on the table.  Then I open the oven, remove the foil, insert the meat thermometer into the turkey, and...

Setback 6: The internal temperature is still so low it doesn’t even register on the thermometer.

Although the outer layers of the turkey breast had appeared adequately thawed, the interior must still have been frozen like the Antarctic.  In addition, due no doubt to the foil, the skin is still pallid and tobacco-stained.
I snatch the pan from the oven, carve off several slices, remove the disgusting skin, and microwave them for two minutes.  Meanwhile, I scoop out some of the vegetables – which are nicely cooked – turn up the oven temp, and put the remaining mess back in the oven where it remains for a total of two and a half hours before finally emerging as the brown and juicy thing of beauty it was meant to be.

Part 3: The Denoument
image of wild turkey
Setback 7:  “Where are the cranberries?”

That would be on the supermarket shelf where we left them. 

"The best way to thaw a frozen turkey? Blow in its ear." 
— Johnny Carson

Screaming Video

My sister is an electrical engineer.  I am NOT.

When Barry and I originally moved into this house, I spent three days with my head inside the entertainment center connecting the TV, cable box/DVR, tuner/receiver, DVD, VHS, CD jukebox, tape player, and two sets of speakers with an Escheresque cat's cradle of wiring.  Over the years we added an HDMI switcher, TV Ears, and a Wii to the mix.  Everything worked together, and the Wii also talked to the transmitter for our wireless computing network.  We could back up stuff from one medium to another, listen to cable TV music channels without turning on the TV, and stream Netflix movies via our Wii.  I kept a diagram of all the connections stored in a safe place, hoping devoutly that I would never have to use it again.

Then Barry bought the giant new TV.

The plan was to move the old TV and the Wii into the front bedroom, which would be transformed from a haven for guests into a scantily-furnished exercise room.  This meant Barry wouldn't be able to stream video to his new Gigantor, but he was OK with that - at the time.

My heart sank at the thought of disassembling my wiring masterwork, but I carefully labeled both ends of all the cords as I pulled everything apart.  This time, aided by the labels, my diagram, and one angry call to the TV manufacturer's customer service line, I needed only two days to connect the equipment remaining in the living room, and life was good.  For about 15 minutes.

As soon as he was seated in front of his almost-movie-sized plasma screen, however, Barry started lusting for actual movies on it.  He set the DVR to record TCM virtually nonstop for the coming week, and then, with impeccable timing, the marketing geniuses at Netflix sent us a flyer about a (brand name omitted for reasons that will become obvious) box for streaming video that cost roughly half as much as another Wii.  Barry did some quick Internet research, decided The Box was a good deal, and ordered it.  Soon streaming video would again be ours!  Bigger!  Better!  BIGGER!!

The Box came, with one of those pictures-worth-less-than-nothing assembly diagrams.  (NO text.)  Fortunately, an instructional DVD was also included.  Unfortunately, the fine print on the DVD informed us that our new Box was not, as the Netflix literature had implied, wireless - it was wireless-ready.  Which meant it needed a USB wireless adapter.  Not, of course, included.  (Our cable modem and wireless transmitter are in the next room, so physical cabling was not an option.)

At this point Barry was ready to send The Box back, but I convinced him to go online to the manufacturer's website first.  Eventually he located a short list of adapters that would allegedly work with The Box.  I verified that one was available at the largest electronics store in our area and drove 30 miles each way to pick it up.  (Of course, this added $40 plus gas to the amount spent for the video device.)  Triumphantly I connected The Box and the adapter and turned everything on.  And, the TV still couldn't see The Box.

Back to the fine print.  The adapter was actually designed to work with conventional computers and came with a DVD full of drivers, but The Box could not use DVDs.  Because we were outside regular business hours and couldn't call customer service, I sent the manufacturer of The Box an email asking how to install the adapter drivers.  (This was not as easy as it sounds.  Their website is cleverly designed to prevent users from sending emails to customer support.)  Two days later I received a snotty reply saying no drivers were necessary, but that the firmware version for the adapter had to be exactly the same as the firmware version the manufacturer had tested The Box with in order for everything to function correctly.

The adapter I bought was the exact model alleged to work with The Box.  No "firmware" version was listed either on the manufacturer's list of compatible adapters, in the support person's email, or in the documentation for the adapter itself, so how were we supposed to know whether the version we had was the correct one, or fix it if it wasn't??

I'm stubborn but not completely devoid of reason.  Barry mailed The Box back to the manufacturer this weekend and I plan to return the wireless adapter on my way to work tomorrow.  I believe I see a second Wii in our not-too-distant future.

"User, n.  The word computer professionals use when they mean 'idiot.'"  ~Dave Barry

Sunday, September 19, 2010

OAQs, Part 2

 More Occasionally Asked Questions

Why did you decide to start blogging?
To keep my head from exploding.  See the post entitled "Thar She Blows!"

Why did you decide to call your blog "Continually Surprised?"
Because I am.  Also because I live in Surprise, Arizona.  Is that too cutesy?  Yeah, I thought it might be.  Too late now.

Why did you adopt the onion with the pencil as the mascot for your blog?
I had some fuzzy idea that I would be writing about food and writing and grumpiness, so I thought a vegetable with a writing implement would cover two out of the three.

But why an onion?  Is it meant to imply that you are a complicated personality with many layers?
No, it's because the onion is the easiest vegetable to draw - a circle, a few shadowy stripes...I guess a cherry tomato might be even easier, but the onion fits in better with the whole crankiness theme.  A cherry tomato would be too cheery, if you see what I mean.

How did you decide on the design for the header?
I was originally going to post a photo of myself, but I decided I would rather use a cartoon, because even though it looks like Betty Boop's less-sexy older sister, some deluded reader may still have a mental image of me as tall, svelte, and mysteriously attractive.  A photo would remove the mystery by revealing that I actually do look like Betty Boop's less-sexy older sister.

Now that you have a little blogging under your belt, do you plan to change the focus of your blog?
I didn't know that random thoughts could be considered a focus.  I'm not really planning anything at this point - I'm just relying on the Internet as a cheap substitute for therapy.

“Sometimes I lie awake at night, and ask, 'Where have I gone wrong?' Then a voice says to me, 'This is going to take more than one night.'” - Charles M. Schulz

Saturday, September 18, 2010


Occasionally Asked Questions (I don’t have enough readers to have Frequently Asked Questions)

How long have you been writing?
Since I could almost spell.  I remember having to recite one of my sixth-grade poems in a school program.  It was very deep.  None of the parents understood it, but they clapped politely anyway.

Have you always wanted to be an author?
No, originally I wanted to be a veterinarian, which was totally unrealistic for someone who faints at the sight of blood.  I was an English major in college mainly so I could earn course credits for reading instead of being accused of wasting time with books.

Have you ever considered writing a novel?
I’ve written several, but I haven’t been able to sell them.  This must mean I’m a bad writer or a bad marketer or both.  That’s pretty unfortunate, since I have a degree in English and another in marketing.

When did you learn to draw?
I hope to start on that some time real soon.  

No, really, when did you learn to draw?
Seriously, I can’t.  When I told my high school art teacher that I was planning to minor in art at college, he visibly winced and said I had a good sense of color.  I do all my artwork on the computer with software like Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop or Corel Painter.  I have a Wacom tablet and stylus, but I don’t use them for anything a traditional artist would consider drawing.

Does Barry read your posts before you publish them?
Heck, no.  He wouldn’t think they were funny, which would suck the life out of my desire to publish them.  As it is, I’m not sure he even knows I have a blog, which is just the way I like it.

Didn’t you tell him you were starting a blog?
Yes, but I don’t know if he heard/understood/remembers.  He never looks at my other website unless I force him to do so.

Aren’t you worried he’ll be offended by things you’ve said about him?
I have three readers – who’s going to tell him?  Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Do you have anything you’d like to say to your readers?
Yes, I do.  Thank you for reading, and please tell your friends about this blog.  I have no hope that it will go viral, but if all three of you tell somebody else, we may be able to work up a mild sniffle.

"You mustn't always believe what I say. Questions tempt you to tell lies, particularly when there is no answer." - Pablo Picasso 

Hoarding: Buried in Books

When I was a small child, my father read to me and my sister every night before we went to bed.  He re-read our favorite books so often that I started recognizing words and reading on my own when I was about four, and I've been a compulsive reader ever since.  I got my first library card when I was five, and I've had one everywhere I've lived.  I've always thought of books as my friends.

I started buying books when I was in junior high.  One of the English teachers ran a small paperback book kiosk, presumably to encourage student literacy, and I bought a new book every week or two.  I could hardly wait to get home, climb up into the neighbors' tree house, and dive into the latest adventure.  I still have many of those early purchases. 

I've moved an average of every three and a half years during my life, and every time I've moved I've shed more possessions, but one thing has remained constant - I've moved more boxes of books than anything else.  Actually, I've moved more boxes of books than everything else.  I think at their height I owned about 4000 books.  When Barry and I met, he suggested that we get rid of all our previous possessions and jointly buy new things.  I drew the line at the cat, some of my family heirlooms, and the books.  I gave away about half of them, but I couldn't jettison them all.

Lately I've been watching TV shows like "Hoarders" and "Clean House," where people whose houses are overrun with stuff are asked to confront the source of their hoarding compulsions, and I've started to wonder about mine.  I can definitely envision a future where my friends and relatives stage a book-hoarding intervention.  My books are neatly arranged on shelves rather than lying in drifts of debris, but we have them in every room of the house except the bathrooms, where we have magazine racks instead.  Obviously they are some sort of security blanket for me, but I'm not sure why I need one.  Maybe all that moving is to blame; I just don't know.

I live near a new branch library that doesn't stock many older books, so hanging on to favorites unavailable without an inter-library loan makes sense, but not every book on my shelves is a favorite.  I've been saying I would re-read them before deciding which ones can be tossed or donated, but that's not realistic.  I have so many that I know I will never re-read them all, especially since I do frequently re-read the ones I love.

In the past when the books overflowed the shelves I would acquire more shelves.  I don't want to do that any more.  Last month I got rid of a stack of outdated technical books.  Since then I've been skimming novels I haven't read in a long time and setting aside those I know I'll never read again for donation.  This is very difficult because once I start reading I always feel the urge to finish the book.  I'm  determined to stay on track, though.  I want to finish this project by the end of the year.  I doubt I'll ever reach a level of book ownership that other people would consider reasonable, but at least I won't end up like the Collyer brothers.
image of a person reading a book

“The most discouraging feature of the mania for book-collecting is, that it grows by what it feeds on, and becomes the more insatiable the more it is gratified.”  William Mathews

Friday, September 17, 2010

Don't Pie for Me, Argentina

Tonight we're having people for dinner.

Let me rephrase that. Tonight, four of Barry's friends from pickleball are joining us for dinner.  For those of you unfamiliar with pickleball, it's the bastard child of tennis and ping pong and very popular in our neighborhood.  I don't play it because I have bad knees and the equivalent of a job and a half.  Anyway, having bonded with these folks, Barry asked whether he could ask them to dinner and I foolishly said yes.

I say "foolishly" because entertaining entails a frenzy of should-have-done-it-before housecleaning, agony over whether we have enough vaguely matching and undamaged tableware, and a tug-of-war over what we should eat and who should cook it.  For this occasion, I firmly vetoed the idea of store-bought cake for dessert and said that I would make a lemon tart.  From scratch.

(Ominous music in the background.)

This was not as momentous as it may sound to some of you.  I have a reliable lemon tart recipe that I've made many times over the years without a hitch  (from The French Recipe Cookbook by Carole Clements and Elizabeth Wolf-Cohen, an excellent resource).  I didn't anticipate any problems this time.  Last night I made the dough.  I even went a little overboard, using the low-gluten cake flour the recipe calls for rather than the unbleached all-purpose flour I usually use.   I rubbed in the butter (real butter) by hand.  I rolled the whole thing in plastic wrap and let in rest in the refrigerator overnight.

(More ominous music.)

This morning I dragged myself out of bed half an hour earlier than usual.  I rolled out the dough.  I patted it into my buttered tart pan.  I pricked the bottom with a fork.  And then...

(Music rises to a crescendo.)

I realized that I was out of aluminum foil.

This particular tart recipe involves baking the shell before adding the filling.  It directs one to use the technique called blind baking - weighing down the dough with small objects so it can't bubble up during baking, which looks bad and leaves less room for the filling.  For most of my baking career I used dried beans for this purpose.  A few years ago, however, I invested in a jar of pie weights - little ceramic spheres that can be baked over and over again without coming to any harm.  Pre-pie weights, I would just pour the beans into the tart or pie shell and bake away.  The instructions that came with the pie weights, though, said to line the pie shell with aluminum foil before pouring in the weights.  I assumed this was to make them easier to gather up and remove at the end, but that it was not a critical step in the operation.

(There's that damned "assume" word again.)

So, I blithely poured the pie weights into the tart shell, shoved the pan into the pre-heated oven, and set the timer for 15 minutes.  When the timer went off I raced to the stove, ready to pour out the weights and finish baking the crust.


My pie weights were buried to their chins in half-baked dough.

Pie weights are apparently heavier than dried beans, and dough made from cake flour and real butter is exceptionally soft.  This fatal combination had left the weights embedded like pebbles in asphalt, only not (fortunately) as firmly.  I was able to fish them out, but destroyed the crust in the process.

A new batch of dough is firming up in the refrigerator, and I'm trying to decide how to get the remains of the crust off my pie weights.  I suppose I could just let the dough finish hardening in the air and crumble it off, but that may take a while.  Alternatively, I could dump them into a colander and rinse them.  However, this would entail spreading them out on paper towels and hoping they dry before the guests arrive ("Oh yes, ha ha, just laundering my pie weights...").  Remember, I am a stranger to these people.  I don't want them regarding Barry with awe and pity from now until the end of time.

I am sweating to think what unknown disasters may befall the filling. That store-bought cake is sounding better all the time.

"Seize the moment.  Remember all those women on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart. " ~Erma Bombeck

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Thar She Blows

You may have noticed that the tagline for this blog is "venting random thoughts before they injure my brain."  I'll bet you think that's supposed to be a joke, right? Well, not really.

I used to think I was a pretty funny person.  That was before I met Barry.

Don't get me wrong; Barry has many wonderful qualities.  That's why we've been together for almost 6 years.  However, he has two characteristics that make him an unsatisfactory audience for witty remarks: damaged hearing and Asperger's syndrome.  For those of you not familiar with Asperger's, it's an autism-spectrum disorder; without a lot of work, the sufferers never pick up the social interaction skills that most of us acquire naturally in childhood.  Because of his hearing loss, Barry frequently can't hear my attempts at humor, and because of the Asperger's, when he does hear them, he usually doesn't understand why they're supposed to be funny.  I think his sense of humor stalled at about the third grade. I hadn't known him for very long before I just gave up trying to tell him jokes; few things are more deflating than laughing wildly at your own remarks while your audience stares at you in total bewilderment.

Unfortunately, this is also the first time in my life that I haven't had at least one kindred spirit among my co-workers, or a funny female friend that I spend a lot of time with one-on-one.  This means a huge backlog of sarcasm has been building up inside my head and I've begun to worry that one day soon it will spontaneously erupt and spew forth in a torrent of malice that will ruin my home life or my job or both.  Hence this blog.  Hence my recent frantic spate of daily postings.  Maybe I can bleed off the pressure gradually before my head explodes like Krakatoa.

"Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it."  - E. B. White

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Preparing for Penury

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've been sliding steadily down the scale of financial well-being for the past few years, aided and abetted by the rising cost of my health insurance premiums.  In addition, this year the online institution for which I work cut back on the number of classes instructors are allowed to teach, and the web design firm that also employs me took on a boatload of unpaid interns and slashed their regular workers' hours.  I could have withstood all this had my faithful old car not finally died last fall.  My plan was to buy a solid used replacement, but Barry (I think this is another Guy Thing) insisted that only a new car would assure me of reliable transportation for the foreseeable future.  Ouch.

The Decline and Fall of My Bank Account
Stage 1 (full employment)
Stage 2 (freelancing)
Stage 3 (on the precipice)
New car
Maybe I should trade it in for a scooter
How long will my 40-mile commute take on the bus?
Weekly cleaning service
Of course I can do it myself
A clean house is overrated
Monthly landscape service
Sleeping Beauty’s hedge must have looked like this
Eating out regularly
Cooking was always one of my favorite hobbies
Might be time to try one of those cleansing fasts
Buying retail
Making friends at Goodwill
So I lost 25 pounds and look like a bag lady – I dare you to laugh!
Monthly hair cut and color
Professional cut every two months and color at home
Long hair is supposed to be sexy; I’ll tell everyone the gray streaks are highlights
Professional pedicure every two weeks
DIY pedicure once a month
I have feet??

Fortunately, now that I've replaced my health insurance coverage I can put off premature liquidation of my IRA for a little while longer, but the halcyon days of Stage 1 are gone forever.  Know of any smoking deals on motorscooters?

"Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons."  - Woody Allen