Thursday, June 30, 2011

Snippets Again

Tonight Barry and I went to dinner at the house of friends who just returned from a trip to Italy.  By the time we had eaten and seen their photos and I had dropped Barry off and driven back to my parents' house, it was 10:15 and Mom and Dad had probably been in bed for an hour.  The place was like a tomb; even Rusty had to wake up in order to greet me.  I felt like I did back in college, sneaking in after an evening of carousing - only then it was a couple of hours after midnight, not before.

The inspection of the house I'm trying to buy took place yesterday.  It was pretty good except the place apparently needs a new roof.  My realtor suggested to the sellers' realtor that they talk to their insurance company, since the damage is probably due to the big hail storm that went through here this winter.  I'm beginning to think I wasn't meant to own this house.

Even though I don't have anywhere to move to yet, the closing on the house we're selling is in just two weeks.  Packing kicks into high gear as of this Saturday.  Fortunately I am reaping the benefit of all the cleaning I did at my sister's house; she's offered to come over and help me throw things into boxes.  I didn't turn her down.

The critter watching in the back yard has been exceptional this week.  The most startling performance was by a critter I've been calling Jujitsu Rabbit.  Two lizards were having a fight in the neighbor's yard, charging each other and scrimmaging, when a bunny bystander hopped up, grabbed one of the lizards (with its mouth) by the tail, and flung it back and forth a couple of times in moves reminiscent of judo throws.  Then it hopped away again, leaving the unmolested lizard to beat the crap out of its dazed competitor.

And that's all the news that's fit to print - for now, at least.

"If God had wanted us to be concerned for the plight of the toads [and lizards], he would have made them cute and furry. "  ~ Dave Barry

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

More Happy Cooking

I've already mentioned that Jacques Pepin is my all-time favorite TV chef.  I love his wry sense of humor, his lightening-fast knife work, and the magical way he can transform traditional recipes into easier and healthier versions that still taste delicious.  I thought I had seen every PBS series he ever filmed (most of them more than once), but last week I discovered the companion book to a season of shows that I hadn't known existed.  Apparently they were from that period in the 1990's when I was working 70 hours a week and sometimes went for a month without ever turning on the television.

The book is Today's Gourmet: Light and Healthy Cooking for the 90's, and I like it so well that I'm going to buy a copy for myself.  The book starts with a chapter of menus for various occasions.  The central section consists of the recipes featured in the menus, arranged by courses.  The Postscripts section contains a wealth of nutritional information including a chart showing the calorie, protein, carbohydrate, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium counts for all of the recipes.  The food tends to be French inflected - poulet au pot, mussels with fries, creme caramel - but with a twist.  The Floating Island dessert is flavored with pistachio and served with blackcurrent sauce.  The Leek Soup is thickened with oatmeal.  Tabasco sauce enlivened several of the recipes.  The instructions are clear and simple, with helpful procedural notes in the sidebars and suggestions for ingredient substitutions, and the colored photographs throughout make the food look fabulous.

I was probably silly to check out a "food porn" book when I don't yet have a kitchen to try any of the recipes in, but has new copies available for $4.00 each, and if I order one now it will be here in time for the move to my new place (now scheduled for July 22, YAY!).  Even better, KQED recently announced that Jacques has just finished taping a new series called Essential Pepin that will air this fall.  More great food and amazing culinary technique - I can hardly wait!

“What shall we say of the hundreds of cooks who, for several centuries now, leave France every year to exploit the appetites of other lands?” ~Jean-Antheleme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), ‘The Physiology of Taste’ (1825)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Making Up for Past Mistakes

I've already mentioned that my parents encouraged my sister and me to save for our college education from an early age.  We never questioned that we were college-bound; it seemed inevitable.  The savings process, however, was occasionally painful.  Starting in junior high and continuing through high school and college, I worked a string of sometimes odd and usually low-paying jobs to build up my education fund.  I babysat children, took care of pets for people on vacation, detassled corn (don't ask), scraped dirty plates in a cafeteria, rolled pie crusts and frosted cakes, waited tables in a bar, and yes, worked as a cleaning lady.  One of my most memorable jobs, however, was a summer gig as an Avon Lady.

Back then selling for Avon was almost entirely a matter of door-to-door cold-calling, which involved a lot of rejection, and the heat that summer was brutal as I dragged my sample case up and down the streets of my territory.  The training I received was not very helpful, either, focusing on product features rather than customer needs.  I finished the summer with a little money, some discounted makeup and jewelry, and a sense of wonder that anyone could consider doing that for a living.

Now that I'm older and have a degree in marketing I realize that my approach that summer was all wrong.  When a potential customer invited me in, I should have looked around to see what her clothing and her house could tell me about her.  What colors did she like and wear?  Was she a knick-knack lover who might be in the market for some of our tchotchkes?  Did she wear perfume around the house?  I could have looked for family pictures; maybe she had a mother-in-law or teenagers to buy presents for.  I should have asked questions about her preferences and her lifestyle.  Had I known then what I know now, I might not have had to scrape quite so many plates the following school year.

I may have a chance soon to test some of my latter-day theories on how to connect with makeup buyers.  After weeks of fruitlessly applying for jobs I've finally landed an interview for a part-time position at the cosmetics counter of a department store within easy commuting distance of the house I'm trying to buy.  I hope the interviewers are impressed enough by my appearance to give me a chance.  I am already a faithful customer of the store, the working conditions are much better than schlepping a suitcase from house to house, and I definitely know how NOT to do the job.

"It is said that no star is a heroine to her makeup artist." ~Richard Corliss

Saturday, June 25, 2011

For the Birds

In addition to putting out vegetable peelings and stale bread for the birds and the bunnies, my mother keeps a dish filled with water in the back yard.  It's one of those small oval baking dishes sometimes used for individual portions of lasagna or creme brulee.

Today at lunchtime I looked out the kitchen window and saw a large black grackle standing right in the middle of the water dish.  I pointed him out to my parents and Dad said, "If you'd been walking across that gravel in the 106 degree heat, you'd want to soak your feet, too."

I don't know; my bet is that the stupid bird was thinking, "Wow - this is the smallest bird bath I've ever visited."

"I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries, and very frankly give them fruit for their songs." ~Joseph Addison, The Spectator

Friday, June 24, 2011

A Bean Feast to Remember

I see in looking back over this month's posts that I have forgotten to talk about the restaurant where we held our last book club meeting.  It was Sophie's Bistro, a few blocks south of the Biltmore Fashion Square, and I hope to go back there soon.

Sophie's menu is full of old-style French fare: onion soup, escargot, mussels, duck confit salad, coq au vin, and steak with pommes frites.  They also offer some interesting specialties such as an organic salmon salad, "Le Artisan Burger" on foccacia, and rainbow trout with tarragon and shitake mushroom cream sauce.  Everything we tried was excellent and the prices were very reasonable given the quality of the food and the size of the servings.  I had the cassoulet, a bean dish which is almost impossible to find in this part of the world; it contained an entire duck leg rather than just a few shreds of anonymous fowl.

The restaurant itself is charming; it's apparently a converted home, with wooden floors, bright prints on the walls, and separate bar and dining rooms.  Equally charming was the service.  The waiters were attentive to our needs but we felt no pressure to finish and go, despite the fact that our large group tied up the center of the dining room for almost three hours.  The effect was very much that of a European dining experience.

I won't be able to afford a trip to France for a while, but if I save my pennies I'll be able to return to Sophie's for lobster bisque and magret de canard.  I can hardly wait.

"Cassoulet, that best of bean feasts, is everyday fare for a peasant but ambrosia for a gastronome, though its ideal consumer is a 300-pound blocking back who has been splitting firewood nonstop for the last twelve hours on a subzero day in Manitoba." ~Julia Child

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Hot Enough For You?

Summer officially started this week, and that's obvious here in the Phoenix area.  Our high today was 111 degrees.  Temperatures this week may reach the "heat alert" level.  For those not familiar with Arizona-speak, that means 113 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.  At the same time we're experiencing record-low humidity and high winds.  No wonder the state seems to be engulfed in wildfires.

In other parts of the country, people may take cold showers to cool off in hot weather.  That's not an option here; the ground through which our water pipes run is so warm in the summer that our faucets put out hot water even when "Cold" is turned all the way on.  Newcomers regularly assume their plumbing has been installed incorrectly, but no - the only cold water here for the next few months will come from our refrigerators.

We depend on our air conditioners during worst of the heat.  For small children, the elderly, and the ill, air conditioning may be literally a life-saver.  If the electricity goes out in part of the Valley of the Sun, residents flee to the chilly malls and movie theaters in other neighborhoods.  Fortunately two separate electric companies with plenty of redundancy serve the greater Phoenix area, so complete loss of power to the Valley is almost impossible.  If the inconceivable happened and the electrical grid here went down many of us would probably leap into our (air-conditioned) cars and head en masse for California like steel-clad lemmings.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not really complaining.  As wearing as the heat can be, it's a fair trade for never having to shovel snow or drive on black ice.

"But at least it's a dry heat." ~Arizonan truism

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

He Can See Clearly Now (Almost)

Today Barry had the cataract removed from his left eye.  I had agreed to drive him to the clinic and home again.  I have to admit, I know virtually nothing about cataract surgery and was a little curious about the procedure.  We checked in, Barry vanished behind a door that released clouds of disinfectant into the waiting room, and I spent an hour and a half reading the book I brought along before he reappeared with his left eye taped shut.

I asked him about the experience over lunch but he didn't remember anything other than receiving the anesthesia, which I suppose is a good thing.  I hung around for the unveiling of the eye and helped him put his eyedrops in.  His immediate reaction was dismay; he was seeing double and his left eye was seeing things tilted.  The nurse at the clinic had warned him that this would probably happen, but he hadn't realized it would make him dizzy.  He spent the rest of the afternoon in his recliner trying to watch Kung Fu Panda.

Once he was no longer bothered by the dizziness he realized that the vision in his left eye has changed significantly.  Lights are brighter, colors are more vibrant, and he can see longer distances more clearly.  Of course he's grumbling that his glasses are now the wrong prescription, but so what?  Maybe when the other eye is done he'll be able to watch TV without wearing his glasses at all - and what a boon if he's again able to drive after dark.

The only real downside to the whole experience is that I have to get up quite a bit earlier than usual tomorrow to take him in for his follow-up appointment.

"The challenge lies in the limitations of human vision. No amount of training can, or will, overcome the shortcomings of our eyesight. Technology remains the solitary solution to this extremely complex problem." ~ Steven Lancaster

Monday, June 20, 2011

Whither Spenser?

When I'm in the mood for a fast read with witty dialogue, I frequently turn to one of Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels.  You may remember Spenser for Hire, the '80s TV series loosely based on the early books in the series.  Spenser (no first name) is a wise-cracking tough-guy private detective living in Boston. The author, who died last year, was  a former English professor whose PhD dissertation discussed the detective fiction of Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald, and Spenser was clearly the spiritual descendent of characters like Sam Spade and Lew Archer.

Spenser's character evolved throughout the 30+ books in the series.  He always appreciated good food, great literature, and beautiful women, but his woodcarving hobby vanished early on.  His biography also morphed over time.  In one of the early books he tells a dinner guest the salad dressing is his mother's recipe, implying that he learned it from her, but about halfway through the series he claims to have been posthumously delivered by C-section and raised in an all-male home.  Apparently Parker couldn't just leave well enough alone.  Frequently he would write two very different versions of the same basic storyline, as if he couldn't stop tinkering with it.  God Save the Child and Early Autumn, for instance, both deal with an endangered young boy from a dysfunctional home; Spenser rescues them in very different ways.  

My favorite Spenser books are the early volumes centered around the protagonist, his significant other Susan, his best friend Hawk (a studly and slightly sinister black ex-fighter), and a few peripheral characters.  They are more tightly written and less stylized than the later novels, and Parker had not yet adopted the sometimes irritating habit of including a parade of guest characters from other books.  The best of the Spenser novels are well-plotted, suspenseful, and crackling with great dialogue, with an intriguing moral dilemma or two thrown in as a bonus.  Try Mortal Stakes, A Savage Place, or Early Autumn as a starter.

I recently read that Parker's widow and two sons have decided to have another author continue the Spenser series.  I only hope he doesn't muck up the job as thoroughly as the writer doing the James Bond sequels has.

"Sure, I have advice for people starting to write. Don't. I don't need the competition." ~Robert B. Parker

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Not Just a Puppet on a String

When I was a teen, the art room under Miss Smith was a haven from the general hell of my junior high school years.  Miss Smith was a practical, supportive woman with a wry sense of humor, and she let us dabble in everything from op art lettering to ceramic ash trays.  One of my favorite projects, though, was constructing a marionette with a wooden body and papier mache head.  My puppet looked pretty good when I was done with her, but I was never able to make her do much more than a clumsy walk.

Knowing how hard even simple puppeteering can be, I was blown away when one of my friends sent me this link to a YouTube video of an amazing marionette performance:

The video focuses on the marionette rather than the guy manipulating the strings, but either the puppeteer is amazingly dexterous or he has some extremely sophisticated controls.  This marionette has facial expressions, and he's grimacing and rolling his eyes at the same time he's playing the piano, waving to the audience, and backhanding his handler for perceived incompetence.  The puppet actually reminded me a little of Fats, the ventriloquist's dummy who takes over Anthony Hopkins' life in Magic.  Let's hope he's less vindictive, for the puppeteer's sake.

"If you're doing a large, complicated character with radio controls, it might take a number of people several months to make it and if you're talking about a quick little hand puppet, it could be made in 2 days, so there's enormous range there, and no real easy generalities." ~Jim Henson

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Buddy, Can You Spare a Donut?

My first husband and I were married for about five minutes after we graduated from college.  When we parted, I was so anxious to leave that I let him keep the house we'd totally renovated as the price of my freedom.  I moved into a rental apartment and a period of intense financial anxiety.

At the time I was working for an employer who paid us once a month.  I was making barely more than minimum wage and had a couple of years of car payments stretching ahead of me.  Some months I was so strapped for cash during the last few days before payday that I had to feed my cat cheese or my only freezer-burned hot dog while I ate pickles smeared with the last of the peanut butter or tomato soup made from ketchup and hot water.  (I wasn't carrying any extra weight in those days.)  The one thing that kept me going was the knowledge that the paycheck would arrive when scheduled.

Life as an independent contractor these last few years has been fraught with occasional anxiety over cash flow, but Barry's income was always there as a backstop.  Now it won't be.  I like the two part-time jobs I have now but I like eating well even better, and I feel the specter of watery tomato soup looming. 

My instinctive reaction to anxiety is always to eat, but this time I've decided to channel my nervous energy into a job search instead.  I've applied for every computer- and insurance-related job in the greater Phoenix area that I'm remotely qualified for, plus jobs cleaning hospital rooms, running the cash register at the local drugstore, and making coffee at the refreshment kiosk in our neighborhood supermarket.  I'd consider selling pencils on the street corner, but hardly anyone uses pencils any more. 

Of course, if all else fails, maybe I can write a book.  I can see it now - The Condiment Diet: Hold the Hamburger!

"From the gut comes the strut, and where hunger reigns, strength abstains. " ~Francois Rabelais

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Move Update

This time the sale of our house is apparently going through.  The buyers have a loan and we're mopping up the odds and ends from the inspection.  The closing is set for July 15 so I hope to be settled by the beginning of August.

The house I originally tried to buy is officially no longer on the market, but the real estate agent grapevine says the owners would entertain an offer, so I plan to make one tomorrow or Monday.  The floor plan looks like this, but reversed and with a double garage rather than a carport.  The kitchen is also pushed out into the utility room space for a breakfast nook, leaving room for a small island in the kitchen proper.

Barry is now thinking of moving to Nebraska to be near his older daughter and her two children.  I was startled when he told me but didn't pursue it.  I guess this means he's given up on the idea that we should get back together; I'm not terribly surprised about that because he wanted it to happen immediately and I told him it couldn't because I need time to get over the anger that's built up over the last several years.  I'm a little sad that he will be leaving his latest psychiatrist, who's been very good for him, but it's no longer any of my business.

I'm also continuing to look for another job but haven't found anything so far.  Part of the problem is that people are reluctant to hire someone for part-time or low-paying positions who's held high-paying jobs in the past.  If all else fails, maybe I can get work with a cleaning service by pretending that I have no experience except as a housekeeper - full circle back to the job I had in college.

"All changes are more or less tinged with melancholy, for what we are leaving behind is part of ourselves. " ~Amelia Barr

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

It's Not Easy Eating Greens

Eating healthy seems to get more confusing every day.  Certainly listening to the news doesn't help.
  • The government's new MyPlate guidelines recommend eating more fruits and vegetables.  Nutritionists have always said that if the fruit and vegetable skins are edible we should eat those, too, since the highest concentration of nutrients is right under the skin and peeling will probably remove them.
  • Locally we are having an extremely dry year and the radio and TV stations are telling us to conserve water by washing fruits and vegetables in a basin of water rather than under running water from the faucet.
  • The Environmental Working Group just did a study of the "dirtiest" fruits and vegetables and says that pesticide residues are not removed even by 10 seconds of washing under running water, so there's a good chance that swishing them around in a basin will just redistribute the contaminants.  EWG's suggestion?  Buy organic - which leads us to our last new story...
  • The deadly E. coli outbreak in Europe, which has now been traced to organic produce.
What to do, what to do?  Frankly, those fast-food burgers are looking better all the time; hold the tomatoes and lettuce, please.

"I don't want any vegetables, thank you. I paid for the cow to eat them for me. " ~Doug Coupland

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Dying Art

Earlier this week ABC News ran an item on the death of cursive writing. Apparently 41 of the 50 states no longer require children to learn to read and write cursive; those lessons have been "quietly" replaced by lessons in keyboarding.  Feelings run high on both sides of this debate.  Proponents of cursive think its elimination is the first step in a speedy slide into barbarism.  Those in favor of eliminating it simply believe it's no longer necessary. 

I have mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, most cursive is easier to read than printing and at its best it is a beautiful, elegant art form.  On the other hand, the vast majority of us no longer write long documents by hand.  What would be lost if we printed our greeting cards and shopping lists?  Sure, we'd lose all those illegible prescriptions and the science of handwriting analysis, but would that be so bad?  Even our cursive signatures could be replaced by fancy printing, electronic signatures, or fingerprints.  After all, Xs used to be accepted as legal signatures for the illiterate, and I've been electronically signing the documents related to the sale of our house.  Cursive is time-consuming and difficult to learn, especially for those of us who are left-handed.  Why not skip it?

To the woman ABC interviewed who stated she will fight to retain cursive so that her children can read the letters from their grandparents: it's a losing battle, honey.  Even if you teach your kids cursive, they won't use it when writing to their grandchildren.  Who knows - by then keyboarding may be obsolete and everyone communicating via telepathy.

If your handwriting is barely legible, it makes them think that you are not really an organized person. That you are writing too fast, and you are not thinking about it. ~ Adam Levinson

Monday, June 13, 2011

Heated Memories

I don't normally like celebrity tell-all books, but Some Like It Hot is one of my all-time favorite movies, so when I saw Tony Curtis's The Making of Some Like It Hot in the local library I decided to give it a try.

The book had some of the anticipated drawbacks.  Curtis wrote the book about 50 years after filming the movie, with the help of a writer named Mark Vieira who researched the parts Curtis had allegedly forgotten.  Curtis quotes and requotes ad nauseum Billy Wilder's statement that he chose Curtis for the part because he was the handsomest kid in Hollywood at the time.  And although Curtis never wanted to be considered just another pretty face and apparently spent years in therapy, most of the book is surface observations.  ("I don't know why Marilyn was so insecure...")

Despite these issues, however, I found the stories behind the movie fascinating.  I've always thought, for instance, that despite all the makeup Jack Lemmon's face did not look at all like a woman's, but Curtis claims that when Lemmon had his picture taken in drag next to his mother, they could have been sisters.  Who knew?  The film, like most movies, was shot out of sequence, and the process dragged on so long that the costume and continuity people had a devil of a time making it all look right despite Marilyn Monroe's advancing pregnancy.  Lemmon and Orry-Kelly, the dress designer, were furious when Monroe appropriated a black dress meant for Lemmon at the start of the shoot.  Curtis's stories about Billy Wilder are respectful; his comments about Monroe's then-husband, Arthur Miller, are much less so.

On balance, though, I rather wish I hadn't read the book.  I feel a little like Dorothy must have felt when Toto grabbed the curtain and revealed the real Wizard of Oz.  I was too young when Marilyn Monroe died to know much about her troubled life.  As interesting as many of the anecdotes about her were, I'll never be able to watch the movie again without thinking of the agonizing work involved in getting her performance on film.  I would have preferred to go on thinking that she got as much enjoyment out of making Some Like It Hot as I've always had watching it.

"Will you look at that! Look how she moves! It's like Jell-O on springs. Must have some sort of built-in motor or something. I tell you, it's a whole different sex!" ~Jerry [Jack Lemmon's character], Some Like It Hot

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Better Frame of Reference

Osteoporosis runs in my mother's family.  So far I haven't had any trouble with bone loss, but my sister started having stress fractures in her feet when she was still in her early 30's.  She's under orders from her doctor to lift weights several times a week.  In fact, she told me shortly after joining a gym, "Mr. Treadmill is my new best friend."

Unfortunately she hadn't belonged to the gym very long before she started cheating on Mr. Treadmill.  The other habitues of the workout facility were college students and a sprinkling of late-20-somethings.  Watching their toned young bodies (especially the toned young female bodies) blithely racing through exercise routines that would have killed her depressed her immensely.

Now that she's moved to the side of the Valley of the Sun most noted for its senior communities, she's working out at a facility frequented almost entirely by toned but wizened men in their 70's and up.  Suddenly she is once again (by comparison) young and beautiful, and she and her new Mr. Treadmill are seeing a lot of each other.

A friend of mine is fond of saying, "Framing is everything."  It may not be everything, but in this case it's made me ready to join her new gym myself.

"Those who think they have not time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness."  ~Edward Stanley

Friday, June 10, 2011

Home Sale, Take Two

Last week someone else finally made an offer on our house, but for much less than Barry and I think it's worth.  After a week of counteroffers we have finally reached an agreement.  Now if only:
  • The house passes the inspection;
  • The buyers get their loan;
  • The bank appraises the house for the selling price; and
  • The Lord is willing and the creek don't rise,
...we can start packing the rest of our belongings.

The house I had previously tried to buy has been taken off the market, but I asked my realtor to check on the status; if it's definitely no longer available, we'll be back on the hunt for a new home on Monday.

If everything works out right, Rusty and I could be moving around August 1 - not the ideal time to move in Arizona, but better than moving in winter up in snow country.  I can hardly wait to be back in a place of my own.  Oops, pardon me, Rusty - a place of OUR own.

"Private ownership of property is vital to both our freedom and our prosperity. " ~Cathy McMorris

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Big Red

It happened again yesterday; a man passed me in the parking lot as I was getting into my car and yelled, "Nice car!  Want to trade for a Mustang convertible?"

My car is a bright red Dodge Charger, and men automatically assume that it's a muscle car with a Hemi engine.  Not so; given my substantial commute at the time I bought it, I went for the smallest, most fuel-efficient engine available.  It still has plenty of zip when I'm driving by myself, but adding even one passenger slows it down noticeably.

I like the car because it drives well, has comfortable seats and a big trunk, and is easy to find in parking lots.  It's also had no mechanical problems during the two years I've owned it.  I didn't realize that it was going to be a Dude Magnet, but that certainly doesn't hurt.

"Drive-in banks were established so most of the cars today could see their real owners. " ~E. Joseph Cossman

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Fractured French

When I was in my late 30's I decided that I wanted to learn French.  I bought (and used) tapes, CDs, DVDs, and even a couple of college courses but never got to the point where I could understand a native French person speaking at normal conversational speed.  I can read menus and ask simple questions but that's about it.  My sister Sue also took several French classes, with much the same results.

Several years later Sue and I went on a river cruise through (mostly) Provence.  The boat was small but comfortable with an English-speaking international crew, gourmet food, and wonderful local wines.  We passed wild horses, fighting bulls, and the bridge at Avignon.  We saw mussels and lavender being raised.  We stood on the spot in Arles where Van Gogh painted "Starry Night."  We tasted Chateauneuf du Pape in its native terroir.  We enjoyed the boat, the history-haunted country we traveled through, and our fellow travelers.  One of them, a witty guy about our age named Dave, let us use his camera battery charger and in return pumped us for French vocabulary.

One day as we cruised along, we saw a ramshackle home on the bank; it looked as if a gypsy wagon had exploded in the front yard.  Dave studied it, turned to me, and asked, "What's the French phrase for 'white trash'?" Of course I didn't know, but I told him that the French word for a garbage can is "poubelle" (pronounced poo-bell).  He verified with the captain that poubelle is the word for trash, and for the rest of the trip described anything tacky as "poubelle blanche."

I hadn't thought about that phrase for years.  Last night, though, since I was early for our book club meeting, I killed the extra time by wandering around one of the most upscale malls in Phoenix, where I felt distinctly under-dressed.  While getting ready I had aimed for "neat and clean" rather than "affluent," and as I walked past an expensive restaurant the sentence "I hope I don't look too poubelle blanche" wandered through my brain.  Why?  I have no idea, but I was glad to be reminded of one of my best vacations ever.

“To enjoy life, we must touch much of it lightly” ~Voltaire

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Mother Knows Best

Two news items in the last week have been particularly relevant for those of us interested in healthy eating: The United States Department of Agriculture retired the venerable Food Pyramid, and U.S. News and World Report announced its picks for the best diet plans.

The USDA started recommending "the four food groups" to Americans in the 1950's.  The Food Pyramid was invented in Sweden in the 1970's and a revised version was adopted by the USDA in 1992.  A stylized, updated MyPyramid was implemented in 2005, and on May 31 this year MyPyramid was replaced by MyPlate.

MyPlate places greater emphasis on vegetables than the previous plans and urges smaller portion sizes.  Better yet, by showing how much of each food type should actually occupy a dinner plate, it makes meal planning much simpler.  Unlike the "pyramid schemes," even a small child can understand the graphics.

The diet picked by U.S. News and World Report as the best diet overall is the DASH diet, whose recommendations are very similar to the MyPlate model.  The writers acknowledge, however, that the best diet for each person is the one that he or she can stick to, and they provide advice on finding the diet that's most workable for you.

In the end, though, the evidence seems to boil down to the same thing our mothers told us when we were small: "Eat your vegetables!!"

“Life expectancy would grow by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon.” ~Doug Larson (English runner and gold medalist at the 1924 Olympic Games)

Sunday, June 5, 2011

More Fowl News

When we're not watching quail or rabbits in my parents' backyard, we're generally watching doves.  Two types of doves frequent this area: the standard mourning dove and the white-winged dove, which is larger and a key player in the reproduction of saguaro cacti.  Until recently a few of each stopped by on a regular basis to see what scraps my mother had thrown out and fight over the items they deemed edible.  Then one of the white-winged doves decided to take up residence and built a nest on the air conditioner that cools the laundry room addition.

My father is a little steamed about this because he had just had the innards of the air conditioner professionally cleaned, and he's sure it's now full of nest-making fallout.  My mother also won't let him run the air conditioner while the dove family (parents and two chicks) are still in residence.  In fact, she made him take their camera out and photograph the mama dove and her two now-adolescent offspring crowded together in their happy home.  None of this went over well.

The photo shoot had one interesting result, though; apparently it made the mother bird paranoid enough so that she's been frantically building a new nest in the nearby lemon tree.  Since she's been flying back and forth with twigs almost non-stop for the last few days we're assuming she must be done or close to it; we haven't seen her on the old nest for quite a while.  The young doves, on the other hand, are still hanging out there and almost completely filling it.

On second thought, maybe their mother wasn't upset by the picture-taking; maybe she's just tired of their crowded living conditions and decided that she wants a room of her own.

"I hope you love birds too.   It is economical.  It saves going to heaven."
~Emily Dickinson

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Transporting A Feline Across State Lines

Nine years ago this week Tom and I bought our house in Arizona and eight years ago on June 1 my parents moved into their current house, so Mom and Dad and I have been swapping moving stories for the last couple of days.  The moving memory most indelibly etched in my mind is of our final trip here from New York - the flight on which we transported poor Rusty to her new home.

Our only previous experience with taking her somewhere other than the vet was when we moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn.  Tom's sister drove us in her car and Rusty howled non-stop the entire way.  We would have liked to ship her to Phoenix as cargo, but the airlines won't carry animals to hot places in the summer except in the passenger compartment.  We were afraid she would wail for the whole five hours - Not A Good Thing - and asked the vet to sedate her for the trip.  The good news: the injection knocked her out before we got to the airport.  The bad news: before passing out she threw up all over the inside of the cat carrier.  Alas, we were in the cab at the time with no way to clean it up.

This was less than a year after 9/11, so security at the airport was tight and we were asked to take Rusty out of the carrier so it could be X-rayed separately.  I hauled my poor limp, vomit-smeared cat out of her carry-on bag.  "Spread it," the security guard said.  "Pardon me?" I said, thinking I couldn't have heard him correctly.  "Spread the animal out," he ordered.  (I guess they were supposed to check for bombs strapped to her stomach.)  I tried to obey.  Poor Rusty's eyes were rolled back in her head and her tongue was sticking slightly out of the side of her mouth; the guard's expression turned from stern to uneasy and he asked, "Is something wrong with that cat?" "She got a little carsick on the way here," I said glibly, hoping he wouldn't pull me aside on suspicion of using a helpless animal as a heroin mule.

As soon as we escaped from security I rushed to the nearest women's room to wash the worst of the mess off Rusty.  It had a diaper-changing table where I was able to lay her out, but the paper towel dispensers were all empty.  I hauled all of the Kleenex I had with me out of my purse and wiped her down as well as I could; in the meantime, a seemingly endless procession of women filed past behind us on their way to the stalls, most of them shying violently at the sight of the crazy lady dabbing at her dead cat.  I finally abandoned the cleanup as a lost cause, stuffed Rusty back in the bag, and headed for the boarding gate.

The first four hours of the flight were uneventful except for the increasingly ripe aroma coming from the bag under my feet; I wanted to apologize to the person sitting directly in front of me, but if he hadn't deduced the source of the odor I wasn't going to give it away.  Then, an hour from Phoenix, the carrier started to thrash violently.

I was certain that Rusty was having a seizure.  I yanked the carrier out from under the seat and unzipped part of the top.  Rusty's head popped out, bright-eyed and curious.  Apparently the thrashing had been her waking up, sniffing, and thinking "Good God, I need a bath!!"  I was immensely relieved.

Tom, on the other hand, panicked.  "Stuff her back in!  Stuff her back in!  What if she gets loose?"  Rusty and I both stared at him coldly, but when he persisted I zipped the bag up and she resumed bathing.  By the time my sister picked us up at the Phoenix airport both Rusty and Tom had recovered from the rigors of the trip, but the carrier was so smelly that Sue almost made us take a cab to her house.

And that is why Rusty and I will never move anywhere more than a day's drive outside the greater Phoenix metro area.

"Remember the Old Traveler’s Saying: 'You may lose your money and your health and your sanity and some important organs, but they can't take away your travel memories unless they hit you hard on the head.'” ~Dave Barry, Dave Barry's Only Travel Guide You'll Ever Need

Friday, June 3, 2011

Burglary by the Book

One of the advantages of living in New York was the opportunity to attend frequent book signings by famous or would-be famous authors.  I always went out of my way to attend signings (and the accompanying lectures) by Lawrence Block.  Block is a hilarious speaker and a prolific and accomplished author; one of my favorite books about the craft of writing is his Telling Lies for Fun and Profit.  Among his works of fiction, however, I am most enamored of his Bernie Rhodenbarr series, ten highly unusual crime novels.

Bernie, you see, is a burglar.  A burglar with scruples; he never carries a gun and he steals only from those who can afford the loss.  Bernie is not Robin Hood; he usually disposes of his ill-gotten gains for his own benefit.  Bernie is a highly skilled burglar and would probably never have to worry about the long arm of the law except for one thing: his unfortunate tendency to stumble across recently dead bodies and become embroiled in the ensuing investigations.

Some literary series start out with a bang and then fizzle out.  Block's Burglar series does the opposite.  Each book builds on the previous volumes.  Over time Bernie buys a bookstore as a cover for his true profession and accumulates a variety of eccentric and endearing friends.  The jokes also seem to get funnier with each new release; the repartee is reminiscent of the screwball romantic film comedies of the 1940s, if the writers had been masters of free association and not worried about censorship or proving that crime doesn't pay.

Still, the best place to start reading is probably the first book in the series, Burglars Can't Be Choosers. Meet Bernie at the moment he first realizes that in order to remain a successful felon he must also become a successful detective.  You'll be glad that you still have nine even funnier opportunities left to watch him break, enter, and panic.

"I use sheer skintight rubber gloves, the kind doctors wear, and I cut out circles on the palms and backs so my hands won't perspire as much.  As with other skintight rubber things, you don't really lose all that much in the way of sensitivity and you make up for it in peace of mind." ~Bernie Rhodenbarr in Lawrence Block's Burglars Can't Be Choosers

Thursday, June 2, 2011

All This and a Raise In September - YAY!!

Today is a good day, a fine day, an excellent day.  Today I received the students' evaluations from the last programming class I taught.

Not every student completed an evaluation, but when asked to rate "How likely are you to recommend this instructor to other students?," all those who did gave me 10 out of 10 possible points.  Two went further and wrote compliments in the Comments box.  One gave me the nicest tribute I've yet received:

"Best instructor in all of my classes. Insightful, helpful, encouraging and responsible. "

In the faculty forum at the online University where I teach, we often joke about students' references to TOI (The Other Teacher) - the instructor who accepts late work without penalty, overlooks grammar problems, and gives everyone an A.  I am not TOI; I try my best to follow all University policies and I believe I grade fairly but strictly.  On the other hand, I truly want students to learn the material in my classes; I continually refine the syllabus and other course materials to eliminate ambiguities and I will spend whatever time is necessary coaching those who have problems.

This is the teacher I want to be:

On days like today I think I may finally be getting close.

I like a teacher who gives you something to take home to think about besides homework.  ~Lily Tomlin as "Edith Ann"

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

In Search of the Perfect Kitchen

I've mentioned before that I've moved 15 times in my life, not counting interim displacements like the current one, so I've lived with and cooked in a wide variety of kitchens.  In the past I've made do with and made over some pretty dysfunctional layouts and I'm sick of it, so this time I'm not even looking at houses with hopeless kitchens.  I'm resigned to the fact that I'll probably have to do some renovation, but I don't want to fight an unworkable basic footprint.

My worst kitchen ever was a small galley with no room for the refrigerator.  The house had been built in the early part of the last century with a space just inside the back door (down the hall from the kitchen) for the icebox.  Convenient for ice deliveries, no doubt, but a far cry from the ideal work triangle.  The counters in that particular kitchen were also far too low for someone my height.  I ended up gutting it and starting over.

My very best kitchen was the one I designed for our first house in Arizona.  It had cabinets that wrapped around three sides of the room with a lower pastry-making and eating peninsula on the fourth side.  The upper cabinets were only on two walls; the other sides of the kitchen were open to the family room and the dining room.  Unfortunately, this too was the result of a gut renovation.

The best kitchen that I didn't have to reconstruct was also the smallest.  It was the kitchen in my first New York apartment.  When entering, the fridge was to the left and the stove to the right; the dishwasher was straight ahead and cupboards wrapped around the rest of the room.  The open floor area was so small that I had to stand in the hallway to open the oven door.  For a kitchen its size, though, it had an ample amount of storage space, and it was incredibly efficient.  I could stand in the middle of it and reach everything without moving.  (It had a work point rather than a work triangle.)  Its only drawback was that two people couldn't cook in it at the same time, particularly if either one was wielding a knife.

The houses I've been looking at lately seem to have been designed for retirees who no longer cook.  They have very small kitchens with three basic layouts: the L, the galley, and the offset galley.  By offset galley, I mean that the cabinets and stove on the right side of the room face a blank wall (the rear of a bedroom closet) and the refrigerator, sink, and remaining cupboards on the left face an eating area, so the cook is forced to run up and down the length of the room while preparing a meal.  My father suggested that the offset galley could be made workable by stealing space from the bedroom closet behind it, but that sounds like a lot of work and then where would I hang my clothes?

At this point I'm only looking at houses with L kitchens; with the addition of a little custom-designed island, I think one of them would be reasonably efficient.  Not as efficient, though, as my pocket-sized New York kitchen.  I wish I could find one just like it here.

“If you can organize your kitchen, you can organize your life.” ~ Louis Parrish