Saturday, April 30, 2011

My Life as a Charwoman

My parents saved from the time I was born to send their children to college.  One of my first memories is getting my allowance (five cents a week at the time) and putting three cents of it into my piggy bank for my college fund.  My sister qualified for a full-tuition engineering scholarship when she was ready to go, but I paid my way with our accumulated savings and a series of part-time jobs.  One year I was the cleaning lady for the basement of the commons for my dorm block.  That meant dusting, vacuuming, removing fingerprints from the plate glass doors, and cleaning the bathrooms.  I was utterly revolted by the disgusting condition that the men's bathroom seemed to reach every single day.  I was overjoyed when someone vandalized it so badly that it had to be closed for a month for reconstruction.  (Had I known it would take so long to repair, I might have vandalized it myself.  Repeatedly.)  I believe my dust allergy dates back to those dark days.

I was having bad flashbacks to that time during my efforts to get our house ready to sell.  Every time I thought it was clean enough, another clump of cat hair or smear of grime would leap out at me and demand attention.  I was relieved when the house finally reached the point where only occasional maintenance was necessary.  Then my sister decided to sell her house.

Sue bought a beat-up house in a retirement community about two years ago and she and my father had been rehabbing it ever since while she continued to live in her fully functional home.  A couple of months ago she declared the rehab project officially finished.  She will be legally old enough to live in the house by the middle of May, so last week she moved all her stuff there and has been trying to get her previous residence ready to sell ever since.  Today I helped her clean.  We finished the garage, the laundry room, the closets, the master bedroom, and the hallway.  She'd already done most of the rest of the house; tomorrow she (and probably I) will tackle the bathrooms and the weeds in the yard and that should do it.

I was sitting with my feet up tonight contemplating tomorrow's day of progressive cleaning (first my house, then my sister's) when the phone rang.  Barry and I have an offer on our house.  The main thing in favor of accepting it?  Not having to continue the cleaning marathon.

"Don't cook.  Don't clean.  No man will ever make love to a woman because she waxed the linoleum - 'My God, the floor's immaculate.  Lie down, you hot bitch.'''"  ~Joan Rivers

Friday, April 29, 2011

Not the Cruelest Month in Arizona

"Spring is nature's way of saying, 'Let's party!'" ~Robin Williams

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Heading North

Shortly before Rusty and I invaded their home, my parents returned their satellite dish to its true owners and resumed watching only those TV channels that could be accessed via rabbit ears.  They now spend many evenings with my mother nodding over a book in the living room and my father playing computer games in his home office.  I'm getting through a lot of reading material myself; thank goodness for the local public library.

I just finished a book I picked up there on a whim: Finding Your Own North Star by Martha Beck, a local "life coach" and one of Oprah's buddies.  The subtitle is "claiming the life you were meant to live," and I figured that I could use a little good advice in that area. Much of the author's work is based on Eastern philosophy, her writing style is far more humorous than that of most self-help gurus, and she doesn't believe that one path to happiness fits all.  I enjoyed the book even though I didn't agree with all of it.

Finding Your Own North Star discusses how to let your body and your emotions, rather than your brain, guide you toward achieving your deepest desires.  I'm a little skeptical about that, since the biggest mistakes in my life have all been emotionally-based decisions that my brain had serious reservations about, but I agree that my best choices (like my move to New York) were those where every part of me - body, mind, and emotions - screamed "YES!" in unison.  I also enjoyed the know-thyself exercises and the discussion of the change cycle, which helped me to better understand why I've been on an emotional roller coaster lately.  However, I found the advice to avoid making major changes during times of crisis impractical.  Now that my relationship has foundered, for instance, I must find a new home and possibly a new job; continuing my old life is simply not possible.  I believe most major crises bring a similar cascade of largely involuntary life-altering changes in their train.

Nevertheless, the exercises in the book did reveal what I've suspected for a long time - that although I was a good manager and enjoyed some parts of my 20 years in management immensely, I'm happier doing work myself rather than directing others to do it for me.  When I'm at the office now, time flies much more quickly than it did when I was working in insurance.  As one of those annoying credit card commercials might say, "Spending the entire day in your right brain - priceless."

"At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want. " ~Lao Tzu

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Who Said Oatmeal Is Bland?

You may have noticed that I never complain about the clients I build websites for.  That's not because I don't have harrowing tales to tell; it's because no one wants to hire a designer who says:
  • "You display the color sense of a tragically near-sighted aardvark."
  • "This font choice would be appropriate for a website targeting vision-impaired preschoolers."
  • "After reviewing your proposed content, I am convinced that your high school diploma is a forgery."
  • "The only taste you have is in your mouth."
...whether the criticism is face-to-face or behind the back.  Some days, however, are more trying than others, and on one of them recently I ordered the poster version of this page:

How a Website Design Goes Straight to Hell by The Oatmeal

I plan to hang it prominently on the wall of my next home office.

“I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres.”
~ William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Spanish Gothic

Last night I finished reading our book club's latest selection, Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.  I'm still not sure how I feel about it.

The story starts in Barcelona shortly after the close of the Spanish Civil War, although the narrative skips back to the late nineteenth century, forward to the late 1950s, and in between to various points of interest. The plot is fairly simple.  Daniel, the narrator of most of the novel, discovers an obscure book named Shadow of the Wind, written by an equally obscure author, Julian Carax.  He tries to locate the author's other works and is told that they have been systematically destroyed by a sinister character who tracked them down and burned them.  The rest of the novel is the story of Daniel's attempts to find Carax and unravel his past.

The bare outline of the plot, however, does not convey the atmosphere of the book.  It is rife with the trappings of a potboiler romance - forbidden love, illegitimate children, mysterious villains, improbable coincidences - but the language (even in translation from the original Spanish) is often beautiful, by turns lush description and astringent commentary.  Both qualities make it the spiritual descendant of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

Had I read this book in high school, at the time I was first discovering the Bronte sisters, I would have adored it.  In mid-life, in the middle of a disintegrating relationship, I figured out at least two of the plot's would-be surprise twists in advance and am a little impatient with the characters' obsessive love affairs.  Shadow of the Wind was a bestseller in its native Spain;  I will be interested to hear the other book club members' opinions.

"Part detective story, part boy's adventure, part romance, fantasy, and gothic horror, the intricate plot is urged on by extravagant foreshadowing and nail-nibbling tension. This is rich, lavish storytelling, very much in the tradition of Ross King's Ex Libris (2001)."  ~Keir Graff, Copyright © American Library Association

Monday, April 25, 2011

...Before They're Hatched

After we got home from Easter dinner at my cousin's house, with its conversation about the Iowan baby eagles, my parents started talking about their childhood experiences with chicks and ducklings.

Both of them grew up (at least partly) on farms that raised chickens and ducks.  Mom's family also raised geese and turkeys.  To this day she has a deep-seated disdain for the mental capacity of the domestic turkey that dates back to an incident in which several young turkeys drowned while staring cluelessly upward at a torrential downpour with their beaks open.  Both Mom and Dad were promoted to Chief Egg Wrangler when old enough for the responsibility.  One year Dad made enough money from his ducklings to buy himself a sheepskin coat for the winter.  Mom's best year enabled her to purchase her own bicycle.

Both families employed incubators that were heated by kerosene lanterns instead of allowing the eggs to be hatched by their mothers.  On one occasion, the lanterns in the incubator owned by Dad's family malfunctioned and the internal temperature of the incubator soared before the problem was discovered.  Grandma was so sure that all the poor little chicks had been roasted in their shells that she burst into tears, but my grandfather told her not to give up so easily.  They removed the eggs from the incubator, cooled everything down, and put the eggs back in.  The very next day all the eggs hatched at the same time, fuzzy little chicken heads popping up so fast that Dad says it looked like popcorn popping.

That makes perfect sense to me.  I have a clear mental image of all those chicks waking from their snug pre-natal slumber thinking, "Holy crap!  It's like an oven in here!  I need AIR!" and jackhammering away at the shell with twice the speed and vigor of a normal baby chicken.

“We can see a thousand miracles around us every day. What is more supernatural than an egg yolk turning into a chicken?” ~ S. Parkes Cadman


Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Different Kind of Peep Show

When I was living in New York, one of the big companies (I think the gas company) used to hatch chicks and ducks in the windows of their Manhattan headquarters every year at Easter time.  They were adorable, especially the little ducks, which started swimming in the fake pond within a day or so of their birth.  Of course, to see them required shoving through and occasionally trampling some of the children ranged six feet deep around the show, but why should grade-schoolers have all the fun?

This Easter my cousin Lola told us about a different kind of chick she's been watching lately.  Some intrepid soul positioned a camera near an eagle's nest in Decorah, Iowa, and has been streaming video of the eagles as they hatched and have been raising their latest brood of eaglets.  This year they have three babies, although Lola fears for the health of the smallest chick, which doesn't seem to be getting as much food as its older, more aggressive siblings.

Of course, this nest invasion has revealed grittier things than the New York company's Easter incubators; the adult eagles stockpile large fish and dead rabbits to feed their brood.  On the other hand, we get to watch the parents taking loving care of their young - something those poor orphaned chicks and ducklings never experienced.

“And little eagles wave their wings in gold.” ~Alexander Pope

Friday, April 22, 2011

More Random Snippets

  • My annual eye exam was today.  My optometrist says my vision is improving.  Another side effect of our better eating habits, or one of the rare benefits of getting older?
  • Rusty and I are both having a good time watching the wildlife in my parents' backyard.  The funniest creature is a dove that Mom and Dad have named "Humpy."  The nickname is partly because he hunches his shoulders in a funny way when he walks and partly because he seems to be in perpetual rut.  We've seen him pursue other doves, quail, and even the occasional rabbit.  Maybe he needs to see his optometrist.
  • Earlier this week a headhunter called me about a possible job and yesterday I went to his office for a preliminary interview.  It was the first time in months I've worn a suit, which was a little weird, since for years I wore one five or more times a week.  Must find more comfortable shoes to wear with it if I may be re-entering corporate America; I almost crippled myself between the parking garage and the office.  I don't remember having trouble with this pair of heels before; maybe my feet have spread out after three years in flip-flops.
  • I finally got my paws on a copy of the book we're supposed to be reading for the next book club meeting (all seven copies owned by the Maricopa County library system have been checked out seemingly forever).  I will try to get through it this weekend so I can pass it on to Sue, but it's 458 pages long; she may have to place a rush order with, or hope someone else at our end of the valley checks another copy back into his or her branch library.
  • We're having Easter dinner this year at my cousin Lola's house.  Since I am temporarily living in exile from my kitchen, I cravenly offered to bring the rolls.  I'm also bringing Barry, probably for the last time, since he likes my family and didn't want to sit home alone on Easter.  Fortunately my extended family doesn't know what's going on yet, so it won't be too tense (I hope).
Have a Hoppy Easter.

"I'm a little hoarse tonight. I've been living in Chicago for the past two months, and you know how it is, yelling for help on the way home every night. Things are so tough in Chicago that at Easter time, for bunnies the little kids use porcupines." ~ Fred Allen

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Redefining Poor

As part of gearing up to move, I've been rereading my dog-eared copy of Ernest Callenbach's Living Poor with Style.  This fat little book was originally published in 1972 when flower children were in bloom, and it covers an amazing number of topics in a thorough, matter-of-fact way.  The author discusses the obvious aspects of living cheaply - growing your own food, cooking at home instead of eating out, buying used items instead of new, using barter instead of money, etc. - and some more esoteric ideas - like how to get cheap legal advice - but the part of Living Poor that I most enjoy is its philosophical basis.  Callenbach is pretty clear on the difference between wanting something and actually needing it, and he tries to pass that on to his readers.  He believes that "poor" is a state of mind, and that the lack of money should be no bar to a comfortable, stylish life.  Of course, some of his numbers are woefully dated and his idea of style has a definite counterculture tilt, but his advice is sound even if it's almost 40 years old.  I'm reading the book again to remind myself how rich I am in most of the things that really matter.

"You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you might find
You get what you need."

~Rolling Stones, You Can't Always Get What You Want

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Back to the Chair

Well, today I bit the bullet and went to the dentist for a checkup and cleaning.  I hadn't been for a year, so I was expecting reproaches - the hygienist really thinks everyone should have a cleaning every three months - but everyone was polite and positive.  Maybe they're afraid that criticism would scare me off - as if I'd ever forsake Dr. Stevens.

My dentist is so high-tech that appointments with him are by far the most pleasant experiences I've ever had in a dental chair.  The digital X-ray camera is smaller and less uncomfortable than the old folded cardboard film holders; the automated cleaning tools are faster and more efficient than scraping tools; and if my gag reflex kicks in (as is all too likely), I get to rinse my mouth with something that slightly numbs it and we are able to finish the cleaning without any unpleasant incidents.

Today was good because my teeth were OK, my gums had actually improved (probably due to our new eating habits), and my account had enough credit so that I only had to pay $5.  Whew.  Another year without a new filling or crown anywhere; outstanding!

"Dentist: a prestidigitator who, putting metal into your mouth, pulls coin out of your pocket."  ~Ambrose Bierce

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Not That Kind Of Cat Allergy

I've complained before about my allergies, but I haven't said much about my cat's.

Rusty was still fairly young when she developed nasty black patches on the underside of her chin.  I rushed her to the vet, who suggested it was a plastic allergy and told me to buy her ceramic food and water dishes.  This sounded pretty bogus to me, but I bought the dishes and her chin cleared up.  Hmm.

Then we moved to Arizona.  Up until that time she had been an inside cat in New York apartments where the windows were always closed (we were afraid she might try to fly).  In Arizona, though, we had screened windows and we left them open whenever the weather was nice.  Enter dust, mold, and pollen.  Before I knew it, poor Rusty's eyes were always full of crud and she was emitting explosive kitty sneezes when exposed to "fresh" air.

Now that we've moved to the Kitty Spa, though, her eyes have cleared up and she hasn't sneezed for about a week.  She must feel a lot better; she's been much more friendly and active since the relocation.  Apparently she's allergic to the pollen of some plant that flourished near our former home but not here.  Just another reason to look for housing in this area instead.

"Every season can be an allergy season, depending on what you're allergic to." ~ Clara Chung

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Buying History

Today I accompanied my parents on one of their favorite weekend activities - prowling the local estate sales.

The west side of the greater Phoenix area is dotted with retirement (aka "active adult") communities - Sun City, Sun City West, Sun Village, Sun City Grand, Festival, Arizona Traditions, etc., etc.  Of course the mortality rate in a senior community is fairly high, and practically every weekend the local papers are full of notices for estate sales.

If you aren't familiar with an estate sale, it's like a garage or rummage sale, but virtually everything the deceased person owned has a price tag on it.  They usually run for two or three days and on the last day everything is half its already low price.  Estate sales are great places to pick up reasonably priced small appliances, odds and ends of flatware, and miscellaneous tools.  I've bought everything from coasters to a teak buffet at estate sales; you just have to take cash and be willing to snatch desirable objects from under the noses of the other shoppers.

I like estate sales but I also find them a little sad.  Many of them display the evidence of their owner's increasing infirmity - canes, walkers, and adult-sized potty chairs.  The worst sales, though, are the ones that sell pet beds, dishes, and carriers.  What happened to the resident dog or cat when his or her owner died?  If a kindly neighbor, friend, or relative stepped in, wouldn't Woofie's things have gone along with him?  I always hope that Spot or Fluffy went to an animal shelter for adoption and not euthanasia.

Sometimes I wonder what people will think when I'm gone and they're picking through the detritus I've left behind.  I'll bet a lot of them will be thinking, "Did she really read all these books?"

"Like everyone else who makes the mistake of getting older, I begin each day with coffee and obituaries."  ~Bill Cosby

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

On the Hunt

Well, our house is officially on the market.  It's scheduled for two open houses this weekend and a realtor's tour next Tuesday, so I expect it to sell soon.  This means I need to ramp up my search for a new home.

Here's my wish list:
  • Two bedrooms; one should be able to hold my bookshelves and a desk.
  • A great room or connected living and dining rooms that can hold a table for 9-12 people the one time a year I host dinner for my extended family.
  • A kitchen with an efficient floorplan.
  • One bathroom with shower.
  • Covered parking for my car.
  • Low-maintenance yard.

Nice to have but optional:
  • A garage instead of a carport.
  • A screened porch for Rusty.

If you're interested, click here to see the virtual tour of our current house.  (Be sure to stay long enough to see the back yard.)  Re Barry's fear that his next place will be worse: yes, I'd say that's a foregone conclusion.

"A man builds a house in England with the expectation of living in it and leaving it to his children; we shed our houses in America as easily as a snail does his shell. " ~Harriet Beecher Stowe

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Cultural Cooperation

I talked yesterday about last weekend's performance of The Abduction from the Seraglio by the Arizona Opera.  What I didn't mention is that after most of their afternoon matinees the opera company holds a "Talkback" session where the audience can interact with the director, the conductor, and some of the performers.  We didn't stay for the Talkback this time, but we did hang around after The Pirates of Penzance back in October.

The most interesting thing we learned was that Arizona Opera belongs to a group of opera companies that borrow sets and costumes from each other.  That makes a lot of sense; not only are sets and costumes expensive, but they also take up a lot of storage space.  Why not keep them circulating around the country until they are needed again by their owners?

Armed with this information, I checked the fine print in the program for The Abduction from the Seraglio, and sure enough - there at the bottom of the page showing the schedule were the following paragraphs:

"The scenery for The Abduction from the Seraglio was built by Artefact/Michael Hagen Inc. for L'Opera de Montreal and is owned by Arizona Opera.

"Costumes are owned by the Santa Fe Opera."

Pretty cool.  I wonder where they're going next.

"In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed. " ~ Charles Darwin

Monday, April 11, 2011

An Unexpected Abduction

One of the cultural advantages of living in Arizona is that we have a professional local opera company that performs in both Phoenix and Tucson.  This weekend they presented the last opera of their 2010-2011 season, Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio.  I had never seen Abduction, either in person or on TV,  but reluctantly decided that we couldn't afford to go.  I was overjoyed, therefore, when our good friends Jo and Jim offered us their tickets.  They had just returned from a trip and were too tired to sit through a three-hour performance.  We spent a very enjoyable Sunday afternoon thanks to their generosity.

Mozart wrote Abduction when he was only 26.  If you saw the movie Amadeus, this is the piece of which the Emperor Joseph said, "Too many notes."  The plot of Abduction is pretty simple: Belafonte, a Spanish nobleman, wants to free his fiance, his servant, and the servant's girlfriend from the clutches of Turkish Pasha Selim.  The first act is in fact a little lengthy, but the second and third acts are witty and much faster-moving, and the music is of course Mozart.  The Act II quartet involving the four main characters is particularly fine.

In addition to the musical passages, Abduction contains a fair amount of spoken dialogue.  This production translated the speaking parts into English, while retaining the original German (with surtitles) for the songs.  This was a little disconcerting, although it did make the action much easier to understand. 

At any rate, the principal singers were in good voice, the dancing girls were beautiful, and the period costumes were colorful and attractive.  I'm not sure why this piece is not performed more often;  I think it's a wonderful example of light opera.  It seemed to me to be the spiritual forerunner of Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado and Pirates of Penzance.

"I have always believed that opera is a planet where the muses work together, join hands and celebrate all the arts."  ~Franco Zeffirelli

Sunday, April 10, 2011


I've always been a stomach sleeper.  Occasionally I can sleep on one side or the other, but never on my back - too much post-nasal drip.  So for the past couple of months I haven't been sleeping well at all because suddenly my left hip pains me when I lie on my stomach.  I toss from side to side, trying to find a comfortable position, and eventually fall into an uneasy half-doze.  Nasty.

I think I mentioned that the cat and I both had physicals scheduled for this week.  My doctor says the hip pain is probably bursitis and suggested standing while I work.  Ho.  When did you last see a web designer standing up?  Neither my home office nor my office office is equipped with standing desks.  I suppose I could put my computer on my kitchen counter but...Plan B is taking plenty of Advil before I go to bed.

I have to wait until tomorrow for the results of Rusty's physical.  Her doctor is concerned that she's losing weight and ordered a blood screen for senior cats.  I'm just hoping that she hasn't developed diabetes or a hyperactive thyroid or some other disease that will require medication that I can't afford and probably can't get her to swallow.

At least Rusty has no trouble sleeping on her stomach, or indeed in any other position.

"Cats are rather delicate creatures and they are subject to a good many ailments, but I never heard of one who suffered from insomnia."  ~Joseph Wood Krutch

Friday, April 8, 2011

Fermenting a Plan

My parents were born at the start of the Great Depression, and it shaped the rest of their lives.  They have always worked hard and been amazingly frugal.  They flipped houses before the phrase was invented.  My mother (who had taken tailoring lessons) made most of my clothing and my sister's when we were growing up.  Dad changed the oil and the spark plugs in all of our vehicles.  We mowed our lawn with a push mower and dried our wash on an outdoor clothesline until we moved to the house where squirrels threw black walnut shells at the sheets and permanently stained them.

My parents were possibly the most saving with regard to food.  When I was a small child, we dined in restaurants perhaps two or three times a year on very special occasions.  We always had a garden filled with rhubarb, asparagus, and tomato plants at a minimum; when we had access to more planting space, we also grew zucchini, bush beans, and green bell peppers.  Dad shot a deer or two every hunting season; our steaks, chops, and sausage were all venison.  Mom made her own strawberry jam, rhubarb wine, and (not as successfully) pickles.  Thanks to them, I understand how to make a little grocery money go a very long way.

When I was in high school Mom briefly went through a sourdough bread phase.  Someone gave her some starter and for a while our meals were enlivened by chewy but tasty homemade sourdough loaves.  I don't know whether she grew tired of the baking or the starter died on its own, but one day the sourdough was gone and never returned.

Once I was out on my own I, too, canned peach preserves and bread-and-butter pickles.  I make my own spaghetti sauce and sometimes my own pizza crust, although I no longer have access to deer sausage.  I've never tackled sourdough, though, and lately I've been craving it.  I have a wonderful book called Ultimate Bread (by Eric Treuilleand  Ursula Ferrigno) which includes some great-looking sourdough recipes and an explanation of how to get a starter going and keep it active.  I think once I'm settled and my cookbooks are unpacked I'm going to give sourdough a try.  Any activity that involves saving money and great-tasting food is bound to be a winner - and I'll be that much better equipped to deal with any future economic downturn.

"All sorrows are less with bread." ~Miguel de Cervantes

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Making a New Ending

This has been an odd week.  I had intended to spend as much time as possible at our house, cleaning, but Barry feels unsettled having me there now that we are no longer a couple, so I've pretty much moved in with my parents.  Doing so has made me realize just how much of my time and energy have been sucked up the last few years by waiting on Barry and coping with his Asperger issues.  Suddenly I'm catching up on everything from the overdue oil change for my car to overdue physicals for myself and the cat.  I'm sleeping better.  I've also set up a new budget.  If the house sells quickly, I will be able to buy a small home outright, settle the rest of my monetary issues, and enjoy being in control of my schedule, my diet, and my finances.  I see a light at the end of the tunnel and it isn't a train.

“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.”
~Maria Robinson

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

More Mardi Gras Murder

One more seasonal reading pick:

Nashville author Sarah Shankman has written seven novels featuring Atlanta journalist Samantha ("Sam") Adams, a recovering alcoholic and amateur detective.  The first two books in the series (First Kill All the Lawyers and Then Hang All the Liars), originally issued under the pen name of Alice Storey, were fairly run-of-the-mill, but the third book took a sharp left turn into Southern gothic.

Now Let's Talk of Graves is set in New Orleans, where Sam has gone to spend Mardi Gras with her old school friend, Kitty Lee.  Unfortunately, Kitty's brother is killed during the festivities by a hit-and-run driver, and Sam suspects foul play.  Her efforts to find the responsible party are hindered by a byzantine web of subplots involving eccentric Southern characters and mores.  A cake-baking evangelist, a bulimic teenager,  a voodoo priestess, a mismatched team of ambulance drivers and a hunky younger love interest keep the storyline lively, if not always entirely believable.  If you missed the actual Mardi Gras celebration this year, make up for it by reading Now Let's Talk of Graves.  You'll experience most of the fun without the discomfort of being jostled in a crowd or hit by flying beads.

"[It is hereby decreed that] melancholy be put to route, and joy unconfined seize our subjects, young and old of all genders and degrees...that the spirit of make-believe descend upon the realm and banish from the land the dull and the humdrum and the commonplace of daily existence." ~Public proclamation, Morgan L. Whitney, King of Carnival (Rex),1967

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Missing Grandma

One of the good things about camping out at my parents' house is that they've been telling me family stories I've never heard before.  Maybe they decided I was finally old enough to hear them.  Or maybe they've just reached the age when they're more interested in the past than the future.

Tonight they were talking about my father's mother.  She died shortly after I graduated from college, so she was an important presence the entire time I was growing up.  Grandma came from a large family; she was the daughter designated to remain single in order to care for her father and uber-demanding mother in their declining years.  (My great-grandmother declined for a very long time; she was apparently one of those professional invalids common in Victorian times.  According to Dad, "deciding to die" was her main hobby).  After dutifully falling in with these plans for many years, Grandma kicked over the traces in her late thirties and married my grandfather, a widower in his 50s with three sons, one only six years old.  Dad (her only child) was born a couple of years later.  When the family lost their farm during the Depression, she waited tables at a cafe, babysat, and hung wallpaper to make ends meet.  She was a warm and cheerful person, always ready to think the best of others.  She had a temper, but with a very long fuse.  Half of the residents of her small town called her Aunt even if she wasn't a real relative.

Because my grandfather was so much older, his oldest son (my uncle Clarence, known for mysterious reasons as "Beanie") was only six years younger than Grandma.  Uncle Beanie never married and lived with Grandma until he died in his early 60s.  For as long as I can remember, he always called Grandma "Ma" and treated her as if she was in fact his mother.  What I hadn't known until tonight was that he and my grandmother were actually in school together; it was a one-room schoolhouse, and Grandma's parents kept her home so often (someone had to do the baking and the laundry) that although she was very bright she wasn't really able to keep up with the others in what should have been her proper grade level.

That started me wondering.  Were Grandma and Uncle Beanie friends when they were young, or did the six-year age gap and Grandma's status as a miniature adult preclude any such thing?  How did my grandparents meet?  What did Beanie think when his father announced his interest in my grandmother?  Was he pleased to have an old acquaintance joining the family?  Upset that his mother was being replaced rather quickly after her death?  Jealous of either or both of my grandparents?  They are all long gone now, so I suppose the answers are lost in the mists of time.

The other thing I hadn't realized until tonight was that Grandma had to drop out of school entirely after the sixth grade.  I never would have known that had Mom not mentioned it.  Although she didn't accumulate books the way I do, Grandma was a reader, too, and kept on reading even when she had to hold the large-print books a few inches from her nose.

I hope that when I am gone, people will remember me at least half as warmly as everyone who knew my grandmother remembers her.

"What children need most are the essentials that grandparents provide in abundance.  They give unconditional love, kindness, patience, humor, comfort, lessons in life.  And, most importantly, cookies."  ~Rudolph Giuliani

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Long and Whining Road

Lowlights of the week:
  • While staying with my parents, I have been reduced to Internet piracy to keep up with my online classes.  One of their neighbors (I have no idea which one) has a wireless network with no security, and I am shamelessly tapping into it.  Well, not actually shamelessly - but my other option is to tether my laptop to my Droid phone and risk the wrath of Verizon by actually using my "unlimited" data plan to the max.
  • I think I'm going to have to give up regular pizza.  We went to a party on Saturday where the pizza was smothered in a blanket of melted cheese, and although it tasted great, for most of today my gallbladder kicked as if it were an infant ready to be born.  Back to Kashi frozen and low-fat homemade pizza for me.
  • After almost six years of complaining about our house, Barry suddenly offered to buy my half of it.  Why?  Because he's afraid his next house will be "worse."  I reminded him that he didn't think he could afford the mortgage before; paying the same amount now without me contributing half of the household expenses would definitely leave him strapped for cash.  I also told him that I'd be a little annoyed if he got to keep the house I loved while I had to settle for something much smaller and less comfortable.  He dropped the idea, finally.
  • Tomorrow the real estate agent and her photographer are coming to take pictures of the house and the plan is to list it on Wednesday.  I hope it sells immediately; as long as it's on the market I will have to keep going over there to pick up after Barry who is 1) the messiest person I ever lived with, and 2) doesn't see dirt even when I point it out to him. (Gnashing of teeth.)
OK.  I feel much better now.  Thank you for letting me vent.

"I tell you the past is a bucket of ashes, so live not in your yesterdays, nor just for tomorrow, but in the here and now. Keep moving and forget the post mortems; and remember, no one can get the jump on the future."  ~Carl Sandburg

Friday, April 1, 2011

Building a Better Biscuit

This week my mom made chicken and biscuits with her favorite baking powder biscuit recipe; I think it's from an old Good Housekeeping cookbook.  Much as I love it (those biscuits are the taste of my childhood), when I make biscuits myself, I now use this adaptation of a recipe originally published on the Stoneyfield Yogurt website.  It's lower in fat, salt, and calories than most baking powder biscuits, and the yogurt makes them extremely moist and tender.  I must admit, though, that I use Mountain High Plain Lowfat Yogurt instead of Stoneyfield.  It's easier to buy in our area, it tastes great, and the only ingredients are milk, pectin, and yogurt cultures - no fillers or preservatives.

Baking Powder Biscuits with Yogurt

1 1/2 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
14 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup oil (I use canola)
1 cup plain lowfat yogurt

Heat the oven to 375 degrees.  Mix all ingredients well; roll out on a floured surface and cut into round or square biscuits.  Bake 10-12 minutes on an ungreased cookie sheet until light golden brown.

"I love cheese and biscuits, the stronger the better."  ~Eric Bristow