Friday, December 7, 2012

The Happiness of Hats

Did you see the photo of my sister Sue in front of the Hotel Villa San Pio in Rome?  If so, you probably noticed that she was wearing a hat.

I've mentioned before that we grew up in the era prior to the invention of SPF, when the little Coppertone Girl was dark brown and lifeguards had white stripes down their noses.  Both of our parents and various other relatives have had to have multiple skin cancers removed, and Sue and I would rather not go down that road.  For our late summer cruise to the eastern Mediterranean, therefore, we packed our SPF 45 sunscreen, lightweight but long-sleeved shirts and jackets, and hats.

Finding the right hats to take was more difficult than you might think.  We both have smallish heads and Sue's hair is extremely short, so "one size fits all" hats don't fit us.  At times Sue has even had to resort to "youth" hats, which tend to come in one style: the bucket.  Fortunately, through the magic of the Internet, we were able to locate the Wallaroo Hat Company, which sells ADJUSTABLE hats with an Ultraviolet Protection Factor of 50+.

On the first couple of shore excursions we took, we were almost the only people wearing hats.  Everywhere we went on the cruise, however, hat vendors abounded, and they all did a brisk business as the sun beat down on us day after day.  By the last shore excursion, over half of those along were wearing hats purchased en route.  Did they fit as well as ours?  Did THEY have UPF 50+?  I think not.

"Wallaroo Hat Company is committed to the elimination of skin cancer. The Wallaroo Sun Protection is a promise that each year, we will donate 1% of our profits to skin cancer research, education and prevention in the United States." ~

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Visiting the Vatican

Sue and I knew from previous experience that virtually all of France goes on vacation during the month of August.  We had assumed most of the French go to the beach then.  It turns out, however, that a goodly number of them visit Rome – at least, we heard almost as much French there as Italian, and saw a couple of French tourists melt down when they discovered the Metro branch leading to the Vatican City was closed for repairs.  The city was running extra buses in that direction, but didn’t really have enough to cope with everyone who wanted to go there.  Can you spell “sardine cans?”

We signed up for a tour of the Vatican Museum so we could skip the ticket counter lines AND take the shortcut to St. Peter’s at the end of the tour.  (If you go through the museum by yourself, you have to walk all the way back through the museum to where you started and around to St. Peter’s on the outside of the buildings.)  The guide also saved us from having to try to elbow our way through the crowds to read the captions telling us what the exhibits were.

Since the Vatican is holy territory, bare knees and shoulders are not allowed inside, even in the museum; this means the approaches to the buildings are clogged with vendors selling scarves large enough to serve as a shawl or sarong for anyone attempting to enter in a tank top or shorts.  (Most of them are printed with the word “Rome” in Latinesque type.)  Head coverings are no longer required, but many of the older women we saw there wore them anyway.

The Vatican Museum itself was incredible – the result of hundreds of years of treasure-gathering by acquisitive Popes and their staff.  Some of the collectors had better taste than others, so some of the artifacts were exquisite and others were just, um, gaudy, but the overall effect was of unbelievable wealth.  It was also a quickie tour of the history of art.  Our guide kept saying things like, “This statue was the first attempt ever to show the human body in a realistic pose, rather than just standing still.”  Amazing.

Note to potential visitors: Neither the museum nor St. Peter’s has been retrofitted with air conditioning.  If you plan to visit, you may not want to do it at the end of August.  If you are there during the summer, take a large bottle of drinking water with you – you’ll need it.  And remember, no shorts or sleeveless tops, unless you WANT to buy a cheesy Vatican-themed scarf to cover up with.

Of course the tour ended in the Sistine Chapel, where we were not allowed to take pictures.  Surprisingly, the cleaned and restored paintings there were even lighter in color than I had expected from the photographs I’ve seen of the restoration, and more beautiful.  Interesting fact: The Sistine Chapel was the first thing Michelangelo ever painted – he was strictly an architect and sculptor before the Pope made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

The high point of St. Peter’s, also courtesy of Michelangelo, was the Pieta, behind glass since it was attacked.  Fortunately the repairs are not noticeable.

Here are some of my photos from the areas that did allow (non-flash) photography.

"The Vatican Museums is one of those places that everyone should visit at least once in his life."

Monday, December 3, 2012

Where to Stay in Rome

And now for some long-overdue information about our trip to Europe…

Flying from Arizona to Italy involves at least one connection, and missing that connection generally means waiting a day for another flight, so we planned a day in Rome into our schedule as a “just in case” buffer.  After a grueling day and a half in transit, we took the train into the city to a stop only a few blocks from our hotel.  Alas, the elevator and escalator in the station were both nonfunctional, and the “few blocks” were all uphill.  By the time we dragged ourselves and our luggage to the hotel through the incredible heat and humidity of Rome in August, we were literally drenched in perspiration.  (I actually sweated through my jeans AND a heavy leather belt.)  However, we were clearly not the first travelers to arrive at our destination in this condition.  The bellhop met us at the reception desk with iced orange juice – the first indication that the hotel was a real jewel.

We stayed at the Hotel Villa San Pio, conveniently located within walking or Metro distance of most of the city’s central sightseeing attractions, on the recommendation of an acquaintance who lives in Rome.  This beautiful, traditionally decorated hotel is one of several adjoining former private residences now operated as bed-and-breakfast establishments by a local family.  The reception staff spoke perfect English and willingly made restaurant suggestions as well as taxi reservations for the trip to the ship.  Our spacious room was equipped with a modern private bathroom, a small balcony perfect for an evening glass of wine among the treetops (we were on the second floor), an Internet connection, a flatscreen TV, and lovely high ceilings.  The buffet breakfast was served in a glass-walled garden room and adjoining outdoor patio with a couple of hungry cats underfoot and small green parrots flying overhead.  The price was about half the cost of the chain hotel we stayed in after the cruise ended.  If I ever return to Rome, the first thing I will do is make a reservation at the Hotel Villa San Pio.
My sister Sue after the "Rome Death March"

The Hotel Villa San Pio

The Breakfast Room and Patio

One of the "Breakfast Cats"

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Charlie is my darling

I think I've mentioned that my sister is an adoption counselor at the Arizona Humane Society.  In the Cat Room.  That means that she's an aggressive cat pusher.  She thinks everyone should have cats.  Plural.  She has two cats herself and is seriously considering a third. So poor Rusty had barely been gathered to her forecats when Sue started asking me what kind of replacement cat I would be looking for.  I finally told her that I would like a male cat between 9 months and two years of age, preferably affectionate and either yellow tabby or some other lightish color that would not stand out too distinctly on my carpet and upholstery.  Sue told her fellow counselors (also women) that I was looking for a cuddly young blond, and one of them said, "Aren't we all?"

Anyway, a few weeks ago I got The Call on a Sunday: "Would you consider a lynx-point Siamese/snowshoe mix?"  (Translation: looks a lot like a Siamese but with brown-striped face, tail, and legs and white toes.  Big Blue Eyes.)  I went to see him and fell in love the minute he turned into a purring ball of love in my lap.

Charlie is about a year old and was surrendered by his previous owners when they moved.  I don't know what they were thinking of when they named him Charlie - Charlie Chan? Charlie Chaplin? Charlie Brown?? - but he actually answers to the name so I guess we'll have to keep it.

Poor Charlie had a cold when I got him and spent most of the first week under the bed recovering, but he's spending every evening now doing his Lap Cat thing while we watch TV together.  On Saturdays he takes a nap on my desk or the top level of his cat condo (next to the desk) while I grade papers.  He's even started to meet me at the door when I come home from work, although that's probably what the English call "cupboard love" (he knows dinner is imminent).

At any rate, he's a cutie and very well behaved.  What's not to love?

"Charlie is my darling, 
My darling, my darling,
Charlie is my darling,
The young Chevalier."

~ Robert Burns

Friday, October 26, 2012

The LONG Vacation

For those of you who've been wondering where I've been:
  • First my sister and I went on our long-awaited cruise to the Greek islands.  Fabulous time, but the onboard Internet charges were pretty fabulous, too; I only used the minutes I absolutely had to for checking my email.  Pictures to follow...many, many pictures.
  • The minute we got home we discovered that our parents had moved up the date of their relocation to assisted living and put me in charge of arrangements for the sale of their possessions and their house.  We moved the furniture, clothing, etc. that my parents designated the next week and I have spent most of the time since (aided on weekends by Sue and sporadically by Dad) going through all of the stuff they've accumulated in 80+ years of living.  When I tell you we found Dad's grade school report cards and two large-ish boxes of photos of people no one could identify, you'll get some idea of what we were up against.  Fortunately the estate sale people start pricing things on Monday and the sale itself is next weekend.  After that we can have the carpets cleaned, finish patching the nail holes in the walls, etc., and actually list the house.  (BTW, I already cleaned the carpets once myself because the neighbor wanted to show the house to a friend from California who was in town last weekend.)
  • I mentioned last spring that I would have to give up singing in the church choir due to the contract job I was taking, but the director asked me to keep showing up on Sundays even if I couldn't attend the weekly practice sessions - revealing a touching but misplaced confidence in my ability to sight-sing.  Now she's asked me to sing a solo (this Sunday) and repeat the performance at a reception for clergy at one of the local hospitals next week.  I agreed, but I have NEVER sung alone in public before, so I am terrified.  Over the last three weeks I have practiced the first verse of "You Raise Me Up" so many times that I'm probably singing it in my sleep.  I trust this means my vocal chords will channel my inner Josh Groban on automatic pilot even if the rest of me freezes.
  • The contract job that was supposed to only last for three months was renewed and just finished in mid-September.  Almost immediately a friend of mine offered me a full-time marketing job, which I started as soon as the home-excavation project was more or less under control.  So far, so good.  But busy.
  • Still teaching online classes - in Week 3 of the current session - and handling website maintenance projects for all my regular clients.
  • In what little spare time has remained to me I've been catching up on several long-overdue projects in the yard and the house, including finishing a needlepoint pillow I started 20 years ago.  Now I just have to finish the bedroom curtains...

"Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings." ~Jane Austen

Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Vicarious Tour of the Mediterranean

Next week my sister and I leave for our cruise around the Mediterranean.  It starts and ends in Rome and we're also stopping in Croatia, Sicily, Athens, and several of the Greek islands.

Normally when I'm going on a major vacation I stock up on guidebooks and phrasebooks months before I leave, and do my best to plot out what I'm going to see and learn at least a few words of the language if I don't already speak it.  This time, though, Sue and I made our cruise reservations only about six weeks in advance, and those six weeks and the preceding month were crammed with activity and anxiety over my cat, my job(s), and our parents.  We finally agreed to take one of the cruise line's shore excursions at practically every stop, which greatly reduced the need to plan what to see or to add to my small Italian and Greek vocabulary.  Instead, in my scraps of spare time, I've been re-reading my favorite books set in Italy and Greece.  Some of them are so old that the country in which they took place has probably altered all out of recognition, but the fact remains that these are the stories which originally made me want to visit Rome and Athens and the Greek islands.

  • The Greek novels of Mary Stewart.  These are the books which convinced a teenager from South Dakota (which had NO Greek restaurants at the time) that some day she had to try roast lamb, Greek salad, feta cheese, retsina, and ouzo.  (Love the food and the retsina; can take or leave the ouzo.)  Tightly plotted, great characters, atmosphere that breathes from every page.  My Brother Michael (Delphi); The Moonspinners (Crete, and much better than the movie with Hailey Mills), and This Rough Magic (Corfu).
  • Two books by Barbara Mertz: The Sea King's Daughter (as Barbara Michaels, set on the Greek island of Thera) and The Street of Five Moons (as Elizabeth Peters, set in Rome and the nearby countryside).  Barbara Mertz is an archaeologist, and many of her books reflect that.  The heroine of The Sea King's Daughter manages to explain a lot about underwater archaeology and the history of the Minoan civilization while being chased around the island by a local cult, and the plot of The Street of Five Moons centers around the forgery of historical art objects and takes us through a number of museums, historic homes, and quaint Roman shopping venues along the way.  Nobody else can make a dangerous situation seem quite as funny as "Elizabeth Peters" does.
  • A Cluster of Separate Sparks by Joan Aiken.  Set on the Greek island of Dendros, this is a parody of the traditional romantic suspense novel.  The heroine is hired as a teacher by a Greek millionaire, and at that point the book diverges wildly from its supposed genre - not least in its extremely unusual leading man.
  • We're not going to Venice, but I had to re-read Thus Was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell anyway.  In the classic epistolary tradition of Camilla, this story is told almost entirely in the form of letters from Julia Larwood, a London barrister on an Art Lover's Holiday in Italy.  Venice, art, love, murder, and quite possibly the most hapless and absent-minded heroine ever conceived - one of my very favorite books.
  • Under the Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany by Frances Mayle.  No, we're not going to Tuscany, either, but the descriptions of the food, the landscape, and the Italian people still make these better reading than any dry guidebook to Italy.  Again, Under the Tuscan Sun is much better than the movie of the same name.
I will be buying a block of Internet minutes from the cruise company in order to stay in touch with my clients, my sister's office, and the cousin who will be looking out for our parents while we're gone, but I may be too busy to blog.  In any case, I should have enough photos and stories from this trip to keep you amused for weeks after our return.

“I want to see the Parthenon by moonlight." ~Daphne du Maurier, Echoes from the Macabre: Selected Stories

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Preview of Coming Disasters

No, faithful readers, I have not dropped off the edge of the earth, but it's been a very busy month.  My mother's memory problems have escalated to the point where Dad finally admitted she can't be left alone if anything happens to him.  They've put down a deposit on an apartment in a facility with assisted living and memory care options and are scheduled to move there at the end of September.  My sister and I are touring the facility today so we can help them decide what to keep and what to eliminate, and then we're going to their house to start the sorting and weeding.  My mother in particular is overwhelmed by the logistics of moving, but we keep telling her that we'll do all the work and she can just sit back and direct traffic.

And, indeed, I have been doing some of the work already - notifying family members, hooking Dad up with a realtor, reassuring Mom, discussing with Dad which of his possessions (like his van, his golf clubs, and many of his tools) are welcome to live in the empty half of my garage.  Before this situation blew up, my sister and I had paid for a cruise - not the one in November we had originally looked at, but one for the last week of this month and the first week of next month - so I'm having dinner this week with one of my cousins and his wife to give them a copy of my parents' keys so they can be the go-to folks if anything goes wrong while Sue and I are gone.  I also have a date with my lawyer this week to take my parents off my living will, medical power of attorney, etc., and replace them with the same cousin.

Fortunately the contract job I've been working in downtown Phoenix will be over on September 14 and my next online class doesn't start until October, so I'll have a couple of weeks to help my parents pretty much full time with the final flurry of moving.  My cousin's wife went through a similar process a few years ago and I think I'm going to adopt her "day of the move" strategy: she sent her parents off for a nice lunch while she supervised the movers, unpacked all their stuff and put most of it away, and got rid of all the packing materials so they could just walk in and feel at home.  As someone who moved a year ago myself, I understand how depressing a huge heap of boxes in the middle of the living room can be.

Well, time to go pick up my sister and visit "The Home."

Getting old really isn't for sissies.

“Keeping up the appearance of having all your marbles is hard work, but important.”
~ Sara Gruen,
Water for Elephants

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Love in the Afternoon

When I first moved into my house a year ago, a pair of jackrabbits used to hang out in the back yard.  They were obviously a couple; they would play games or snuggle side by side.

Then one of them disappeared, and the other rabbit appeared very depressed, drooping around and hiding under bushes.  At first I thought that perhaps they had had little rabbits and the mama bunny was staying home with them, but as the months went on I knew that some horrible fate had befallen the missing one.

Today I looked out the back door and saw TWO jackrabbits again.  Hares are quite territorial, so I doubt that these are trespassers.  It looks as if my Big Bun has found a new Honey Bun.  (Sorry for the fuzziness, I had to shoot through the sliding glass door and the porch screen to avoid alarming them.)  Ah, love...

"Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen."  ~John Steinbeck

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Death in the Desert

Earlier this week I glanced out the kitchen door and was startled to see this right outside my screened-in porch:

In case you can't tell, that's a cottontail disappearing pretty much whole down the gullet of one of the local coyotes.  I hadn't realized they ate their prey fur, toenails, and everything, but this particular coyote certainly wolfed it all down and left nothing behind.

I felt a little sorry for the bunny, but when the coyote turned and walked away I realized that she was a nursing female and painfully thin.  I didn't exactly start humming "The Circle of Life," but I did feel that at least the rabbit hadn't died in vain.

“Coyotes, by nature, typically avoid human contact.” ~Warner Johnston  [I doubt Warner ever lived in Arizona, where they don't seem particularly bothered by it.]

Friday, June 29, 2012


Wednesday, at the vet’s, after a long illness.

Rusty Mabee-Armstrong always refused to talk about her kittenhood, but she was born in New York City in mid-1996, mistreated by an early owner, and then cast out to make her own way on the streets of Manhattan.  Her life improved dramatically after she was found by a rescue organization and subsequently adopted by Beth Mabee and Tom Armstrong, who gave her her name and spoiled her so badly that she was known within the family as “The Princesse.”

Rusty was quite well-traveled for a house cat, having lived in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and several locations in Arizona.  She was beautiful but reserved, preferring to be admired from afar; she was pleased that several readers of her mother’s blog admitted to being more interested in her activities than her person’s.  She did have an unexpected possessive streak, and more than once expressed a willingness to take on a large dog or coyote that wandered into her yard.

Rusty’s hobbies included bird-watching, catnapping, racing down long hallways, watching TV with her parents, and hanging out with her best friend, Boo-Boo the Big Blue [catnip] Mouse.  Although she didn’t know her exact birthday, she usually celebrated it on the Fourth of July so she could pretend that the fireworks were in her honor.  She was looking forward to turning 16 next week, but her spirit was stronger than her body, which just couldn’t hold out.

She was preceded in death by her adoptive father, and will be sorely missed by her mother and her stepfather Barry.  She asked that in lieu of an expensive burial in the local pet cemetery, a donation be made in her name to a no-kill animal shelter.

"If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve the man, but it would deteriorate the cat." ~Mark Twain

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Back in the Bubble

From the things I've said about my late husband Tom, those of you who have been reading this blog for a while may think that I view his memory through rose-colored glasses.  That's not the case; I'm well aware of his flaws.  Remind me some time to tell you about the unholy tax mess he left behind when he died.  However, in one way he was the ideal partner for me. 

Looking back, I can see that my life before I met him was extremely goal- and future-oriented.  Some of my earliest memories are of my parents (particularly my mother) explaining that my sister and I had to go to college when we grew up and learn to support ourselves.  Our family did not nurture "princess waiting to be rescued" fantasies; in fact, I do not remember either parent ever suggesting that some day Sue or I would marry and have children, or even want to.  Over the years I've wondered a lot about that.  Cinderella isn't a particularly good role model, but surely my parents went a little overboard in the opposite direction.  At any rate, the brainwashing worked; my sister earned a full-ride college scholarship and became a respected electrical engineer, and at the height of my career I was the chief underwriting officer of a New York City insurance company.  However, my parents have no biological grandchildren to brighten their declining years, just two single daughters with control issues.  Ants R Us.

Tom, on the other hand, was one of life's grasshoppers.  He was better than anyone I've ever met at enjoying the present moment without worrying about the future or dwelling on issues from the past.  He was also the only person ever in my life who loved me without wanting to change me.  He didn't always approve of my choices but he supported them anyway.  The years with him inevitably had their stresses, frequently work-related, but they also contained little bubbles of pure happiness.  Yes, he spent money too recklessly, but if we'd been more saving we wouldn't have had all those magical vacations and he would still be dead.  This way we'll always have Paris - and Aruba, and Napa Valley, and many other special times and places.

I'm bringing this up because this week, for the first time in the eight years since he died, I've been having unexpected jolts of the same peaceful, grounded joy that I felt with him.  I'm not really sure why, and frankly I'm a little afraid to examine the phenomenon too closely for fear it will pop like a balloon under pressure.  I only know that whatever the cause, I wouldn't be feeling it now had I not learned from Tom how to relax into the moment and cherish the present.

"Find ecstasy in life; the mere sense of living is joy enough."  ~Emily Dickenson

Friday, June 8, 2012

Leaping Backward

This has been fund-raising week at our local PBS station, so none of the shows I usually record to watch in the evening has been on.  As a result, I’ve been channel-surfing for alternate entertainment.  I was pleased a few nights ago to stumble across a station that every night airs two episodes of the late 80s/early 90s show Quantum Leap.

The hero of Quantum Leap, Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula), tried to build a time machine, but when he used it he unexpectedly leaped into another person in the past.  (His personality did, anyway.)  The first time that person had lived through the events in the episode, something terrible happened.  Through Sam’s intervention, this time around disaster was averted, and as soon as that was a certainty (during the last 5 minutes of the program), Sam leaped into another individual in distress.  During the 5 years the show ran, Sam leaped into men, women, children, people of other races, and a vet who had lost both legs in Vietnam.  Every episode had the same basic plot – people in trouble, people saved, Sam leaps on – but the writers were a seemingly inexhaustible font of distressing situations and ingenious resolutions, and Scott Bakula was funny and endearing as the displaced scientist.

Because the show had a new cast every week, practically every not-yet star in Hollywood appeared on it sooner or later.  One of the shows I watched last night, in fact, featured the pre-Friends Jennifer Aniston with her original nose and bouncy brown hair, while the other starred the young Brooke Shields.  Talk about a time machine...

I didn’t get to watch Quantum Leap very often when it was originally on because I was in grad school for most of that period, with very little time for television of any sort, so I’m going to enjoy the back episodes for at least a few weeks.  A little nostalgia every now and then never hurt anyone.

"Trapped in the past, Doctor Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, putting things right that once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home." ~from the intro to Quantum Leap 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Still Struggling With Moderation

Last night I stopped on the way home at the Farmer's Market in Glendale to pick up some fresh produce.  I bought baby eggplant, zucchini, pattypan squash, and an heirloom tomato.  So far, so good.  Then I made the mistake of stopping by the booth of Dr. Hummus for some free samples.

Dr. Hummus (actually the Tunisien-born Sabeur Rouin) sells pita bread, pita chips, and an astounding array of things to eat on and with the chips - guacamole, tabouli, two kinds of tapenade, several types of pesto, and more varieties of hummus than you would believe.  He's always generous with the free tastes, and I always get carried away by them.  The ingredients are fresh.  Most of the offerings are nut-free and many are dairy-free; the outstanding spinach and onion dip, for instance, is made with silken tofu rather than dairy, but you can't tell from the taste or the unctuous mouth-feel that it doesn't contain full-fat cream cheese.  The hummus products are also tahini-free, so they are much lower in calories than many of their commercially processed relatives.

Yesterday I was sucked in by the sun-dried tomato pesto and the jalapeno and cilantro hummus.  I had some of the hummus with chips last night at dinner and some of the pesto scrambled with eggs for breakfast.  The pesto, by the way, lived up to its billing as "the best friggin' pesto you ever ate!"  Alas, it's so delicious that I have a hard time not scarfing the entire plastic tub of goodness in one sitting.

"Doctor Hummus products can be found at most of the metro area farmers markets as well as Whole Foods, New Frontiers, AJ's, Luci's Healthy Market Place, Phoenix Public Market - Urban Grocery and Wine Bar, Langley's Country Market, Tempe Farmers Market and Bashas in Carefree, Sedona, Scottsdale, and Payson." ~ Dr.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Kissing and Telling - or Not

The members of our book club are busy people, so we generally limit the size of the books we choose to be sure that as many of us as possible can finish them before the discussion.  This month, however, we picked a longer work than usual (about 500 words in paperback), and only about half of us finished it.  I really had to push myself to get it all read, not because of the length, but because by 2/3 of the way through I was so disgusted with the characters that I really didn’t care what happened to any of them.

The book was The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver, and it’s actually two books in one.  The protagonist is Irina McGovern, an American graphic artist living in London with her long-time lover, a think-tank wonk specializing in terrorism.  Early in the book Irina is tempted to kiss a British friend on his birthday; the rest of the novel follows Irina through two alternate futures, one in which she gives way to temptation and one in which she does not.

This is one of those books that none of us actually enjoyed reading, but that generated a very lively discussion.  Sometimes directly and sometimes obliquely, the author examines what attracts us to members of the opposite sex; what constitutes true intimacy; how tradeoffs between talent, money, and power can enhance or destroy a relationship; and whether trying to change one’s real self for someone else can ever be successful.  In the end, although Irina is beautiful, talented, and desperate to please the man she’s with, both of her possible futures end bleakly, at least in her eyes.  That wasn’t particularly surprising, since no matter how well things went for Irina during the course of the story(s), she never cheered up.

My main quibble with this book, in fact, is that the tone throughout is one of grim irony.  The bitter discussions between the main characters would have been easier to slog through with an occasional leavening of fun. (That's FUN, Lionel, not just sex - got it?)  After all, these characters were reasonably well and well-off members of the middle class who supposedly loved one another; surely they would have had a few laughs during the years covered by the novel.  One would think that a female author capable of changing her name from Mary Ann to Lionel must have a sense of humor tucked away somewhere, but perhaps that choice was also informed by irony instead.

An interesting book, but not one that I’ll be reading again.

"...the author is more interested in raising questions about love and fidelity than in pat moralizing." ~Kirkus Review on The Post-Birthday World (quoted on the dust jacket)

Monday, June 4, 2012

Van Gogh Writ Large

During the years I lived in New York the airfare to France was frequently cheaper than to anywhere in the United States, so Tom and I spent several vacations in Paris  During one we went on a day trip to Giverny and Auvers-sur-Oise  At Giverny we toured Monet’s house and garden; in Auvers we saw the room where Vincent van Gogh stayed, the church he painted, the field where he shot himself, and his grave.  In the garden at Giverny, viewing the green bridge surrounded by flowers and arching over the pond of waterlilies, I could squint and see what Monet had seen.   In Auvers, however, it seemed to me that only Van Gogh could have looked at the humdrum landscape and interpreted it as a magical whirl of color and movement.

Van Gogh’s singular vision of reality has been on unique display at the Arizona Science Center for the last couple of months, and I finally saw the exhibit last weekend.  “Van Gogh Alive: The Experience” was developed by Grande Exhibitions in Australia.  Giant photos of Van Gogh’s works and quotations from his writings (thoughtfully translated into English) are projected on the walls of several rooms to the sounds of classical music carefully chosen to coordinate with the images.  Some of the art is displayed by theme – at various points, one is surrounded by an array of enormous sunflowers, or the progression of Van Gogh’s increasingly abstract and unhappy self-portraits – but it is also in roughly chronological order, ending with his final painting of that desolate field in Auvers.

The projections of course did not accurately reproduce the tactile effect of Van Gogh’s work, with its vigorous brush strokes and frequently thick application of paint, and some of the more abstract works dissolved almost into pointillism when blown up to room size.  On the other hand, this was a fabulous opportunity to experience the evolution of his style, to learn more about his theories of art, and to bathe in the glorious colors he used.  It was also the closest most of us will ever get to some of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings, now in private hands and rarely accessible to the public.

We stayed through several showings of the program, moving from place to place in order to see all of the pictures.  Overall it was an amazing experience, and I hope that someday Grande Exhibitions will do the same for Monet; the already enormous waterlily paintings in the basement of the Orangerie in Paris, for instance, would look awesome projected all the way around a room.

"Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I see before me, I make more arbitrary use of color to express myself more forcefully." Vincent van Gogh (Letter to Theo van Gogh, 11 August 1888

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Herding Frankenquail

My plan to encourage Barry to cook more, especially for me, is working; he invited me over for dinner on Sunday night, and served baby bell peppers stuffed with ground lamb, rice, and onions – really yummy.  Before we were able to eat, though, we had to engage in a little quail wrangling.

Ever since Barry moved into his present house, he’s been throwing out stale bread and crackers for the birds and bunnies in his backyard.  This worked well and provided him with a lot of free entertainment until the last couple of weeks, when the latest batches of baby quail started hatching.  Some of the parent quail are apparently at their wits’ end as to how to feed all these hungry little mouths, and they’ve started pecking on Barry’s glass patio door to demand more crumbs, leading him to announce, “I’ve created Frankenquail!”

Anyway, Sunday evening he and I wandered out onto the back patio before dinner, and while we were returning to the house one of the quail chicks (a little smaller than a ping-pong ball with legs) skittered inside with us and took refuge under the kitchen stove.

I immediately suggested moving the stove but Barry was afraid that the stove 1) was too heavy for us to move without injury to ourselves, and 2) would squish the quail as well.  After a quarter of an hour of hand-wringing, however, he decided that he would worry all night if he just left the bird there – and who knows where it would have ended up if it had come out later on its own? – so we dragged the stove away from the wall and herded the chick into a plastic pitcher.  I rushed it outside and deposited it under a sheltering bush.  A few minutes later I saw it run at top speed (its legs only a blur) in the direction its family had previously taken.

I hope he (or she) caught up with the rest of the brood.  I think it was pretty careless of the parent quail to move on without one of their children.  Still, I can understand their problem – herding 10 or so clueless but fast-moving quail chicks must be even worse than trying to herd cats.  Plus, quail apparently don’t actually like living in groups; the temptation to lose at least some of the kids may occasionally be pretty strong:

"The Quail is generally a solitary animal meaning they don’t really care for the company of other birds.  Sometimes if this bird is in a gregarious mood then they will socialize with one other Quail.  With that said, everything changes once mating season rolls around.  During this time, different family groups will come together and form flocks as large as 100 individuals.  I can just imagine how cranky these introvert birds are after a few days with such a large flock.” ~Wild Facts

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Saying Goodbye

Well, Rusty and I have an appointment with the vet on Monday morning, and it's looking as if one of us won't be coming home again.

She's started to exhibit what the vet said would be signs of almost total kidney failure - constant drinking, nearly constant urination - and she's almost entirely stopped eating.  She follows me around, wailing to be held (this from a cat who always hated to be picked up).  When she's not in my lap or trying to get there, she's hiding under the bed.

I haven't even taken her on The Big Trip yet, and already I feel like a murderer, but she's obviously suffering and I hate to see that, too.  Of course every time I'm sure she's doomed, she perks up and looks great the next day, but the overall trajectory is definitely headed in a downward direction.

To be continued...

"Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depths of love."  ~George Eliot

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Cinco de Margarita

I don't know this for a fact, but I suspect that my husband Tom tasted his first margarita shortly after meeting me, and he instantly fell in love with it.  From then on, he was on a quest to find the perfect margarita - frozen, with salt.  He didn't like them overly sweet, nor reeking of an excess of tequila, but well-balanced and preferably with fresh-squeezed lime juice.

On balmy Friday evenings we would park ourselves in an outdoor cafe (frequently the one in Manhattan's Bryant Park, behind the main library), or the outdoor tables of one of our usually interior haunts, and greet the weekend with chips, guacamole, and margaritas.  The entire family knew of this obsession; one year he received two (matching, amazingly enough) sets of margarita glasses for his birthday, and kept them both.  Brian, his older son, inevitably took us to our first Margaritaville restaurant when we visited him in Hawaii.  When we moved to Arizona, Tom's younger daughter-in-law accused him of doing so in order to be closer to tequila country; she gave him a shotglass shaped like a squatty saguaro cactus as a going-away present.

That same daughter-in-law had earlier introduced us to the the delights of the frozen margarita bucket.  A relative from Georgia had brought her a bucket of On The Border's margarita mix; one adds tequila, mixes, and places the bucket in the freezer.  Voila, frozen margaritas on demand!  Add friends and it's an instant party.  Tom was thrilled to find both the buckets and the mother lode (actual On The Border restaurants) in the Phoenix area.  We also found what we thought was the perfect guacamole in a small Glendale restaurant named Lily's; the owner used his Mexican grandmother's recipe, containing nothing but avocados, onions, lime juice and a little salt.  Fabulous.

Of course Tom is gone now, and Lily's also died during road construction that cut off almost all access to the restaurant, but a bucket of frozen margaritas still lives in the freezer section of my refrigerator.  Tonight is Cinco de Mayo, and although I'm a little fuzzy as to what it's all about, I'll gladly celebrate any holiday that allows me to pull out the margaritas, chips, and Wholly Guacamole.

"If life gives you limes, make margaritas." ~Jimmy Buffett

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Enjoying Julia

Between the new job, the old jobs, tax season and my ailing cat, it's been a long hard month, so today I treated myself to a little break.  In between the housecleaning and the laundry I watched Julia Child: The French Chef, a 3-DVD set I checked out from the library.

The DVD sleeve says "includes 12 original episodes of the French Chef," so I thought that's all it was, but the first disc in the set is the PBS American Masters episode "Julia Child: America's Favorite Chef," a lovely biography with extensive information about her early life and also about her relationship with her husband.  The biography includes a fascinating video clip of the young Julia as bridesmaid in a gigantic picture hat, towering over everyone else in the wedding party, and the news that early in her adult life she turned down an offer of marriage from the heir to an "enormous" publishing fortune.  I was also unaware that it was the attack on Pearl Harbor which sent her to Washington and from there to Ceylon, where she was to meet the amazing Paul Child.

The other discs were in their own way even more fun, especially if you cook.  I couldn't help but laugh during the petit fours episode, when Julia kept assuring us that her fondant would reach the correct consistency "any minute now," and it stubbornly refused to harden.  In the days of live television, something like that must have messed up the timing for the entire show.  I also wondered how they flagged her about mistakes before the advent of teleprompter machines and in-ear microphones; in one show she erroneously stated that the recipe contained a half cup of almond extract; after a few minutes she looked startled, apologized, and said that the amount should be only a quarter of a teaspoon.  I visualized someone (perhaps Paul) frantically waving a chalkboard off camera. 

Such fun.  I'm inspired to spend tomorrow cooking wonderful things that I can eat during the rest of the week.

"If I can do it, you can do it...and here's how to do it!" ~Julia Child

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Smiling All the Way Home

Website design is one of the few professions that requires its followers to move back and forth quickly and easily between their left and right brains.  This is necessary because a successful design should be both aesthetically pleasing and technically sound.  Of the website designers I've met, most were either techies who searched for their inner artists as an afterthought, or photographers or illustrators who had decided to use the Internet as a marketing tool and then struggled with the technology.  Almost none grew up equally comfortable with art and science.

Although I enjoyed drawing and painting when I was younger, I didn't become seriously interested in commercial design until after I finished my master's degree in IT.  Once I decided to try to make a living as a designer I embarked on a crash self-study course in the principles of design.  I spent two years reading everything I could get my hands on about layouts, typography, color theory, and sub-categories like icon design and accessibility, and practicing with Photoshop, Illustrator, Dreamweaver and a graphics tablet.  By the time I did an internship with a real web design firm I was a fairly competent journeyman designer, but I was blown away by the artistic talent of some of the other interns.  Fortunately I was able to trade technical tips for design criticism, and I've continued to learn and improve ever since.

My main strength as a designer has been the ability to really listen to my clients' wishes.  One of my proudest moments was when a woman told me the logo I designed for her firm "spoke to her soul."  However, the client who gave me the bulk of my work over the last few years was a very critical person, and rarely satisfied with my designs even when his clients loved them.  I suppose this kept me humble (and prevented me from asking for a raise), but it left me totally unprepared for my current contract.  So far all of the design work I've done at my new workplace has been greeted with unadulterated praise.  Even when someone has asked for a design to be tweaked, he or she has hastened to assure me that what I've already done is great.  One associate said I have a real designer's eye.  Yesterday three of my client coworkers descended on my cubicle to tell me that the latest project I did for them was "awesome."  To be on the receiving end of this kind of feedback on a daily basis is a novel and pleasant sensation. 

I really hope this company considers hanging on to me for the long term.  I'm getting to spend all day every day doing work I thoroughly enjoy, getting paid well for it, and being patted on the back to boot.  I am self-motivated enough to jump through hoops for any employer, but I'll jump through flames for unconditional praise.

"There is no charge for awesomeness..." Po in Kung Fu Panda

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Bring on the Pho

One of the perils of my new job is that it's located in the heart of an area full of good places to eat.  Many of them, like the restaurants in San Francisco's Gourmet Ghetto, are small, converted historic homes serving fabulous food. I may need to start letting out my clothes.

Our book club ate at one of the local places this week.  Rice Paper, on 7th Street between Central and McDowell, is Vietnamese, specializing (as the name implies) in a variety of exotic spring rolls.  Our group had the spicy firecracker shrimp and the crispy calamari as appetizers.  The calamari, served with aioli and puffy rice cakes about a thousand times better than anything from Quaker, was particularly good.  Three of our party ordered bowls of pho, Vietnamese noodle soup; the portions looked more like vats than mere bowls and they all took some home, raving about the taste.  For the main course I had the Spider roll, a fresh (non-fried) spring roll which contained tempura soft-shell crab, mango, and avocado - yum.  Because our group was so large, we ate outside at a picnic bench in the courtyard, but the inside looked serene and beautifully decorated.  The women who visited the restroom assured the rest of us that it was a very Zen experience.  The prices were extremely reasonable for the high quality of the food and the friendly, attentive service.

I think Rice Paper is just a little too far from my office to fit into my half-hour lunch break, but it's conveniently situated for swinging by after work.  The only drawback to eating dinner there is the limited parking, but surely the early birds get the parking spaces - wouldn't you think?

"Pho bo is a Vietnamese beef and noodle soup which is often eaten for breakfast, but also makes a satisfying lunch or light dinner. The boiling stock, fragrant with spices and sauces, is poured over the noodles, bean sprouts and scallions, and it poaches the paper-thin slices of raw beef just before serving." ~

Monday, April 9, 2012

Hanging Uncle Guido

Since neither my mother nor my sister really likes antiques, I ended up with most of our family heirlooms, including a gallery of Victorian-era photos in their original frames. When Tom and I moved to Arizona most of the antiques ended up in our bedroom, so I hung the photos there, too.

About a year later we were browsing through a "stuff" store in Glendale when Tom spotted a photo in a frame almost identical to the one surrounding my great-grandparents. (Here's a picture of the frame and its original contents; the owners of the shop had labeled him "Uncle Guido.") Tom immediately bought the picture for the frame, intending to blow up his parents' wedding picture and add it to our rogue's gallery. However, he died before finding someone to do the work, and his parents' photo went back to his family.

Last fall, after moving into my new house and once more hanging up the ancestors, I was trying to decide what to do with Uncle Guido's frame.  I asked my Dad which of our small family photos he thought I should have enlarged for it.  Dad said that Uncle Guido is better-looking than any of our real relatives, so I should just hang him up and pretend he's related.

And I did.  He adds a little class to the central hallway in my house.  I can't help but wonder, though - who was he really?  I doubt very much that he was the shopkeepers' uncle, any more than he's mine.  He does look, though, as if he might have been Italian.  Wouldn't it be a hoot if he really was a Guido?

"If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance." ~George Bernard Shaw

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Assimilating Easter

When asked about my ethnic background, I usually say something like "mutt" or "Heinz 57," because my forbears on both sides of the family came from all over Europe.  Melting Pot R Us.

My mother's father's family was originally German Swiss, but they moved to Russia in the mid-19th century and stayed there for a couple of generations, intermarrying with the locals and copying their recipes, before moving on to America in the dead of night under assumed names (this was to avoid having the oldest son drafted by the Tsar).  As a result, much of the food that came down to us from them is an odd mix of German and Russian.  Some of the dishes are basically German but with Russian flourishes of sour cream sauce.  Some of them are Russian cuisine with new German names.  One of my favorite Easter traditions falls into that latter category.

Traditional Russian families used to (and may still) bake a special Easter bread called Kulich that's supposed to look like a domed Russian Orthodox church, and they have it blessed by a priest before eating it.  My mother's family called it Osterbuske and, as good Congregationalists, skipped the blessing.  It's halfway between roll dough and bread dough and usually includes cinnamon and raisins, with frosting drizzled on the top.  Some families add nuts and candied fruit.  I understand that special Kulich pans are available, but my family baked them in metal coffee cans; the "dome" comes from the dough puffing up over the top of the can.  My mother always served her Osterbuskes on a bed of green-dyed coconut, surrounded by jelly beans and those little bunnies made of the same stuff as candy corn.  After everyone had oohed and aahed, she sliced it into rounds and briefly toasted it under the broiler - VERY briefly, so the frosting wouldn't all melt off.

This was the first year ever that neither my mother nor my aunt Lu made Osterbuskes.  It didn't really feel like Easter today without them; even when I lived in New York, my mother would make a miniature version in a baked bean can and express mail it to me.  I guess I'll have to pump her for the recipe and next year take up the mantle of chief family baker myself.

"I lied on my Weight Watchers list.  I put down that I had 3 eggs... but they were Cadbury chocolate eggs."  ~Caroline Rhea

Saturday, April 7, 2012

WAITing for Mr. Right

Last weekend I knew I wouldn't have much time for reading due to my new job, so the e-books I borrowed from the library were things I could skim through in a hurry.  My favorite of the lot was The Inner Bitch: Guide to Men, Relationships, Dating, Etc. by Elizabeth Hilts.  At only 92 pages, many of them cartoons and every one full of humorous good advice, it was the perfect antidote to commuting stress.

This is actually the sequel to an earlier Inner Bitch book, which I have not read but will look for.  The first book apparently proposed the theory that many women's problems in life are caused by Toxic Niceness, or saying "yes" to others' demands when we really mean "no, no, a thousand times NO!"  (Been there, done that.)  Hilts believes the best way to avoid a life burdened by Toxic Niceness is for each of us to unleash her Inner Bitch.  This does not, as the word "Bitch" may imply, mean that we become selfish, surly curmudgeons in our dealings with others; it simply means that instead of automatically saying "yes" when asked to do something, we ask ourselves "What Am I Thinking [WAIT]?"  If the Inner Bitch is thinking, "I would rather smear my body with honey and lie on a fire ant hill," then she says "no" instead of "yes."  Politely, but firmly.

This book extends the WAIT technique to dealings with men.  You are attracted to a gorgeous guy already in a committed relationship?  WAIT.  You are tempted to totally remake yourself in order to fit the fantasies of the man you are dating?  WAIT.  The fellow you've dated for a month wants to move in together so you can both save money?  WAIT.  You've spent 10 years of married life as your husband's lackey and are now ready to bean him with a cast-iron skillet?  WAIT.

Most of the advice in this book is the same advice you would get from your best friend or your older sister - when in crisis, take a deep breath and really think about the situation - but advice like that is easier to take when the giver has no emotional stake in your life and throws in plenty of apropos jokes and cartoons.  If you are ready to laugh about every bad relationship you've ever experienced, want to avoid ever being in one again, or both, this is the book for you.

"[Toxic Niceness] leads to doing things you don't really want to do, which in turn leads to resentment, which tends to leak out in all manner of bizarre ways: snappish behavior, smashed dinnerware, prolonged periods of pouting...This is not a pretty picture." ~Elizabeth Hilts, The Inner Bitch: Guide...

Friday, April 6, 2012

In the Market for a Tank

OK, so I've been a Very Bad Blogger for the last couple of weeks.  I landed the contract job I applied for and have been working 40-hour weeks at the client's site with an hour-long commute in each direction.  The job is actually a lot of fun but I've gotten used to playing hooky in the middle of the day, and working straight through is pretty tiring, not to mention the hideous drive home up Grand Avenue, aka US 60.

Advantages of this job: enjoyable work; friendly co-workers; no more cabin fever; the chance of long-term employment; funny work-related stories (remind me to tell you about the non-fire non-drill we had on Monday); and as much income in a week as my former largest client paid me in a month.  At least temporarily I can afford to eat out occasionally and maybe hire a professional cleaning service to muck out my poor neglected home.

Disadvantages: the commute, the commute, the commute.

If I survive the 3-month contract period, there's a chance that I could be hired as a permanent employee with the possibility of flex-time, telecommuting, and (as a government employee) free use of public transit - yay!  Because after two weeks of driving into and out of downtown Phoenix during rush hour, I'm thinking I should stop wishing for fictional force shields and photon torpedoes and invest in a used tank.

"A commuter tie-up consists of you - and people who for some reason won't use public transit."  ~Robert Brault

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Button Day, Big Time

When I was working full-time in insurance, every couple of months I scheduled a "Button Day" to go through my closet and pull out anything that needed dry cleaning, alterations, or repairs.  The little repairs, like shining shoes and sewing fallen buttons back on, I handled myself; I dropped off more serious cases at the dry cleaners, shoe repair shop, or tailor, as appropriate.

Since I've spent the last year working from home, I haven't bothered with Button Day.  Who cared whether my T-shirts were spotted or my jeans held closed with a safety pin when no one saw me for days at a time except the cat?  I managed to pull myself together occasionally to run errands in public places or meet clients face-to-face, but my wardrobe was starting to look like the poster child for deferred maintenance.

However, on Monday I'm starting a three-month contract position working 5 days a week at the clients' office, with a chance they may eventually hire me for a permanent full-time job.  Showing up as Raggedy Ann's mother is not an option, so I've spent the last several days shining and sewing and ferrying stained pants and creased jackets to the cleaners.  I've done some personal maintenance, too, since I was way overdue for a professional haircut, root touch-up, and pedicure.  Tomorrow I'll have my car washed, vacuumed, and filled with gas and I should be good to go, for a while anyway.

Better schedule next month's Button Day now for the items I snag, scuff, or drop food on between today and then.

“The first thing any comedian does on getting an unscheduled laugh is to verify the state of his buttons.” ~W. C. Fields

Friday, March 23, 2012

Senorita Bandita

Last week I checked out an e-book from the library that appeared, from the description and the cover art, to be a Kathleen Woodiwiss-like bodice-ripper.  I was in the mood for a little light historical romance, but that's not what I got.  Bandit Queen by Jane Candia Coleman is the fictionalized autobiography of Pearl Hart, the only woman known to have held up a stagecoach, and "light" is definitely not the appropriate adjective for it.  Gritty, maybe.

Pearl left her well-to-do Ohio family to elope with Frank Hart, an abusive professional gambler.  She ran away from him once - all the way to Arizona - but he eventually found her and she didn't escape again until after she had given birth to two children.  Her life as a single mother in the Wild West grew progressively harder.  Eventually she parked her son and daughter with her widowed mother in Ohio, and when her mother and both children fell ill, she agreed to help a friend rob the stage so she could afford to return home to help them.  The feminist diatribe she delivered at her trial in her own defense is a matter of record, and one of the reasons the author decided to write this book. Pearl was the first woman incarcerated in the Yuma penitentiary, where she was raped by a guard and used the incident (and the ensuing pregnancy) to blackmail her way out.

This is the story of a woman who made one bad decision after another - not romanticized, not apologetic.  Well-researched and sadly believable, it was a good read, but not a happy one.  I suppose this could be considered an object lesson for anyone in a bad relationship, but my advice would be not to read it if you are already a little depressed.

"The world perishes not from bandits and fires, but from hatred, hostility, and all these petty squabbles." ~Anton Chekhov

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Damn Those Trade-offs!

A major project I've been working on for one of my clients is winding down, and with it a good chunk of my income, so I've spent the last couple of weeks prospecting for another job, and (if I pass the background check), I've just landed one.  It's a 3-6 month contract with the possibility of permanent employment.  The downside: a 40-hour work week, with all the work to be done at the client's office.

This is a fairly significant downside.  I will have to give up dance lessons, singing in the choir, working out with my sister, and helping my parents with transportation and various projects except on the weekends.  No occasional afternoon naps with the cat, either.

On the other hand, I will be able to cut back to teaching one online class at a time; afford a landscaping service for the overdue trimming of my fruit trees; eat out much more often; and possibly hire a professional cleaning service once or twice during the contract.  Best of all, I will be able to enjoy the cruise this fall without agonizing over every extra cent I spend; I may even be able to take a break from teaching while we're gone.  A real vacation - what a concept!

That's assuming, of course, that my prospective employers aren't deterred by the two supposed closed tax liens on my credit record - one lien that was filed in error, twice, for money the IRS agrees I didn't owe.  Sigh.  I miss the good old days when it was possible to get a job without having my credit history and urine analyzed.  Note to self: avoid poppyseed bagels for the foreseeable future.

"Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing." ~ Theodore Roosevelt

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Sanctifying Leftovers

I was amused earlier this year by a restaurant menu entry for shepherd's pie that ranted about the difference between REAL shepherd's pie (with lamb) and COTTAGE pie (with beef).  It reminded me of other foodie fights I've seen over what types of fish must be included in bouillabaisse, whether duck or goose is necessary for a bean dish to qualify as cassoulet, and if the inclusion of raisins in Irish soda bread mysteriously transforms it into "tea cake."  In all cases, at least one side of the argument states categorically that members of the group which invented the food in question always cook it THEIR way.

Maybe, maybe not.  Perhaps shepherd's pie got its name because someone used lamb in it, and Irish cooks without access to raisins made their soda bread without them, but I know many people born and raised and taught to cook in Ireland who always make their shepherd's pie with ground beef and their soda bread with dried fruit.  I've also eaten several very different versions of cassoulet and bouillabaisse prepared by native French cooks who learned to make the dishes while growing up in their native terroir.

Here's my theory as to what has happened:

Back in the days when most people's access to cooking equipment and ingredients was limited and standardized recipes were not yet even a gleam in Mrs. Beeton's eye, they made do with what they had.  They learned to cook by watching others and by experimenting.  Soups and stews - including the sacred bouillabaisse - undoubtedly started when someone threw all the leftovers lying around the house into a single pot and then added some seasonings to meld the flavors together.  Over time, people grew used to certain combinations and started to believe they were the only proper versions ("That's how Mom used to make it!"), overlooking the fact that the village down the road did things a little differently.  The divergence undoubtedly grew greater as the access to ingredients expanded.  Baked goods probably underwent a similar process.  Italian bread, for instance, traditionally didn't contain salt, but that wasn't because Italian bakers didn't like the taste of salt in their bread; it's because salt was in very short supply.  I'm sure some Italian bread now does contain salt for the flavor, the longer shelf-life, and the ease with which salt can currently be obtained.  Does that make it no longer Italian bread?  Even when it's made by Italians in Italy??

I've been musing about this today because I'm making myself shepherd's pie tonight in honor of St. Patrick's Day, and although I did splurge on ground lamb for it, I normally make my shepherd's pie with extra-lean ground turkey to reduce the fat content.  Does that mean I'm going to start calling what I usually make "turkey-herd's pie?"  I think not.  And let's not even start on what vegetables should or shouldn't be included.  Any purists reading this will just have to agree that we disagree and turn the other way while I dump a few leftovers into the pot.

"When baking, follow directions.  When cooking, go by your own taste."  ~Laiko Bahrs

Friday, March 16, 2012

Best Soda Bread EVER

My husband Tom was very proud of the fact that both his parents were Irish immigrants.  He regularly visited the aunts, uncles, and cousins who still lived in Ireland and actually started the process of applying for dual citizenship, although he died before it was completed.  Naturally we always made a big deal out of St. Patrick's Day.  We had soda bread for breakfast, attended the local parade and/or an Irish music concert, and scarfed down shepherd's pie or corned beef and cabbage for dinner.  (The parade here in Phoenix, by the way, is a real hoot because half of the marchers are dogs from the local Kennel and rescue clubs.)

For the first few years we were together I made the soda bread from his Aunt Alice's recipe, which was good but tricky - if I wasn't extremely careful, it was more like a raisin-studded rock than a real food.  Then my friend Kathleen Batkiewicz brought some of her Irish mother's soda bread to work and I begged for the recipe.  This is the best soda bread I've ever tasted - so good that I've never been tempted to fiddle with it in any way.  So here is the one, the only, the original recipe for:

Mama Hession's Soda Bread

4 c. flour
1/2 c. sugar
1 tsp. salt
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 c. raisins
1 Tbsp. caraway seeds
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 c. buttermilk

Butter and flour a 9" square cake pan (1 1/2" or 2" high).  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix all dry ingredients; add buttermilk and eggs.  Grease your hands with cooking oil and use them to mix everything thoroughly.  Pour the batter into the pan and bake for one hour; if the top starts to brown too rapidly, cover with aluminum foil.

CRUCIAL FINAL STEP: Store with aluminum foil and a wet towel on top to keep the bread moist.

I'll be making a batch this evening.  The only question - should I share this with anyone else in honor of the holiday, or just live off yummy soda bread by myself for the next two days?

"The immigrant's heart marches to the beat of two quite different drums, one from the old homeland and the other from the new. The immigrant has to bridge these two worlds, living comfortably in the new and bringing the best of his or her ancient identity and heritage to bear on life in an adopted homeland." ~Irish President McAleese

Friday, March 9, 2012

Spring Has Sprung

Spring may not officially begin for another 11 days, but we made it through February without a killing frost and practically every flowering plant in the greater Phoenix area is already in bloom.  My neighborhood is permeated with the smell of citrus blossoms, and the oleanders in my yard are looking good:

"The flowers of late winter and early spring occupy places in our hearts well out of proportion to their size." ~Gertrude S. Wister

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Counterfeit Chicken

Since my first attempts at modifying the KFC Original recipe were not entirely successful, I've been trying different tweaks and think I finally have a good end product.  To cut down on the fat and sodium I'm baking the chicken, reducing the salt, substituting Egg Beaters for eggs in the dredge, and eliminating the brining and the MSG.  To add some of the extra umame that the MSG provided in the original recipe, I increased the amounts of herbs and added a little thyme to the list that Todd Wilbur used.  Here's the result:

Faux Fried Chicken

Vegetable oil spray 
1 1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp ground black pepper (preferably tellicherry)
1/2 tsp dried savory
1/2 tsp rubbed dried sage
1/4 tsp white pepper
1/4 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp dried marjoram
1/4 tsp ground thyme
1/4 tsp onion powder (NOT onion salt)
1/8 tsp garlic powder (NOT garlic salt)
1/16 tsp cayenne pepper
1 cup whole wheat panko crumbs
1/2 cup Egg Beaters egg substitute
4 boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees and spray a rimmed cookie sheet or shallow baking pan with vegetable oil.  In a small bowl, mix the herbs and spices.  Use a mortar and pestle or spice grinder to pulverize the mixture.  Pour into a gallon sealable plastic bag; add the crumbs and shake until thoroughly blended.

Pour the Egg Beaters into a shallow pan.  Pat the chicken pieces dry.  Roll one piece of chicken in the Egg Beaters and then shake it in the bag of crumbs.  When it's coated with seasoned crumbs, place it on the prepared pan.  Repeat with the other pieces of chicken, one at a time.  Bake.

After 10 minutes, check to see whether the crumbs are getting too brown; if so, cover loosely with aluminum foil.  Continue to bake until an instant-read food thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the chicken reads 165 degrees (the temperature will go up another 5 degrees or so after you take the chicken out of the oven); how long this will take depends on how large the pieces are, but start checking when they've been baking for 15 minutes.

Let rest for 5-10 minutes before serving.

"What is sauce for the goose may be sauce for the gander but is not necessarily sauce for the chicken, the duck, the turkey or the guinea hen. " ~Alice B. Toklas

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Paris Pastime

You already know I'm a sucker for stories about time travel and alternate universes, so I'm not sure how I managed to miss the release of Woody Allen's 2011 film Midnight in Paris.  I finally got to see it on DVD last night.

Owen Wilson stars as Gil Pender, a successful screenwriter working on his first novel.  He and his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdam) tag along with her parents on her father's business trip to Paris.  Gil is in love with the city even before he arrives; apparently he read Hemingway's A Moveable Feast and had the same reaction to it that I did - wanting to visit via time machine.  He is swept away by its charm and historic associations.  Inez, on the other hand, is more interested in the shopping, partying, and an old friend (a self-proclaimed expert on practically everything) who is a visiting lecturer at the Sorbonne.  As Inez goes dancing without him, Gil roams the streets at night looking for inspiration for his book, until he discovers an amazing secret: at midnight in Paris, for anyone who wants badly enough to visit the past, magical transportation is available.

Barry, who told me about this movie, complained that it was a rehash of Purple Rose of Cairo, and it's true that one of the main themes of both films is "the grass is always greener..."  Purple Rose, though, was more of a straight comedy; Midnight in Paris is a love letter to a wonderful city and its unique history.  If you've never been to Paris, the little cinematographic travelogue at the beginning may be enough to convince you that you should see it in person at least once before you die.  Even if it doesn't, the story was entertaining enough to win Allen a Best Original Screenplay Oscar.  If you haven't seen it yet, check it out soon.

"That Paris exists and anyone could choose to live anywhere else in the world will always be a mystery to me."  ~Adrianna, a character in Midnight in Paris

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Shroom Soup

Until I was, say, 30 or so, I ate a lot of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup (aka "CrofMush").  Not by itself - it was used in the upper Midwest where I grew up as a kind of culinary mucilage to glue together the other ingredients in the infamous local hot dishes.  Chicken and rice, corned beef and noodles, tuna and bread crumbs, green beans and fried onions - all these and more benefited from the addition of an undiluted can of CrofMush.  Then I tasted Pepperidge Farm's mushroom soup and realized it could be a stand-alone food.

Pepperidge Farm no longer makes soup, alas, so these days I have to look elsewhere when I want mushroom soup for lunch or as the first course of dinner.  If I'm really in a hurry I use Imagine Portobello Mushroom soup, but I prefer to take my time and make my own from scratch.

Cream Optional Mushroom Soup

cooking oil spray (like Pam)
1/2 large yellow onion, roughly chopped
8 oz cremini (brown) mushrooms, sliced
2 teaspoons brandy (or balsamic vinegar, if you prefer)
2 cups beef stock or bouillon
salt and pepper to taste

Spray a large non-stick saute or fry pan with the oil and place it on medium-high heat.  Add the chopped onion and sliced mushrooms; season lightly with salt and pepper.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms have given up their excess moisture and the onions are just starting to brown.  Turn down the heat and continue to cook until the mushrooms and onions are turning golden.  Add the brandy and cook for another five minutes or so, stirring more frequently.

Add some of the stock to the pan and deglaze the bottom.  If you have room, add the rest of the stock; otherwise, pour the onion and mushroom mixture into a large saucepan and add the remaining stock.  Heat on medium high to a simmer.

Remove from heat and use an immersion blender to puree, being careful not to splash the hot liquid.  Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

If you would like this to be a cream soup, add a little milk, plain soy milk, or low-fat unflavored yogurt at this point and return to the heat until the soup starts to steam.  Serve immediately.   Makes 2 lunch or 4 appetizer-sized servings.

Variations: You can also use portabella or reconstituted dry wild mushrooms in this recipe.  If you use portabellas, the gills will make the soup quite dark; if this bothers you, remove and discard the gills before cooking.  I also like to serve this soup with just a sprinkle of crispy fried onions as a garnish.

"To dream of mushrooms denotes fleeting happiness, to dream you are gathering them, fickleness in a lover or consort." ~Richard Folkard in Plant Lore (1884)

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Un-Wearing of the Green

I've talked quite a bit about trying to make my house a greener one, but in one area I've been wanting it to be much, much less green.

The house and its neighbors were built in the 1970's when avocado was a hot decorating color, and the builder apparently got a smoking deal on a load of avocado green brick, because our subdivision is full of it.  Hardly a house in my neighborhood has not been afflicted with at least a little of the horrible blotchy stuff, and mine is no exception.  The right side of the front of the house was faced (or defaced) foundation to roof with it.  (The bricks looked a lot like the ones in this picture.)

I could have lived with the color and pretended it was the currently trendy "sage green" except for one thing: the house has desert landscaping, which means rocks instead of grass, and the rocks in the front yard are also green.  A different, clashing shade of gray-green.

Add to this the yellow paint on three walls of the house, the gray west wall, the nasty rose-taupe trim, and the front door with only part of the molding painted (also in taupe) and you will understand why this weekend I invested in some paint to improve the poor home's curb appeal.

The front door, eaves, and  shutters are now "Slate Green," a greenish gray that goes well with the rocks in the yard.  The part of the front of the house that's covered in siding is "Navajo Sand," an off-white formulated by the manufacturer specifically to go with the slate green.  The formerly green brick was painted with a white base, then rolled with the off-white and dry-brushed with the gray-green.  (It looks pretty good, if I say so myself.)  I also bought new striped cushions for the bistro set on the front porch that incorporate the slate green, another dark green, the off-white, and a brown that goes with the quarry tile on the floor of the porch.

I suppose it was churlish of me to do away with the green just before St. Patrick's Day, but I don't often have two days straight that I can take off completely from working on the computer.  I hope I can squeeze out some more in the near future, though - that's one side of the house painted and three more to go.  I believe the odd gray wall is destined to be the next to go.

"If bad decorating was a hanging offense, there'd be bodies hanging from every tree!" ~Sylvester Stallone

Friday, February 24, 2012

Perfectly Awful

What would you do if you found that your whole life was based on lies?

Julie Metz's husband Henry was 44 years old when he died in her arms of a pulmonary embolism.  Julie had what she (and many others) thought was a perfect life - a 16-year marriage, a beautiful daughter, and a successful career as a graphic artist.  Her book Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal is the story of how she came to terms with the fact that it had been not just imperfect, but perfectly awful.

Henry, a handsome, outgoing bon vivant, had been secretly very insecure and trying to fill the hole in his psyche by chasing (and usually catching) other women.  Julie, who had never suspected his infidelity, was devastated by the extent of it, and by the $40,000 debt Henry had also concealed from her.  Like many women, she had accepted her husband's accusations that she was to blame for their fights and her depression, but after his death she realized that he had been "gaslighting" her to conceal his own guilt.

I think most of us who have lost a spouse wrestle with pain, guilt, and anger in varying degrees; in Metz's case, the anger is supercharged as the truth emerges, and she takes some extraordinary steps to try to discover just what Henry had done and why.  Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction; few novelists would even try to write a story like this for fear that it would be too unbelievable.

This is definitely not the usual uplifting survivor's account of "how I found peace after a year of grief."

"Julie Metz'a memoir of how her marriage unraveled after her mate's death is piercingly honest, haunting, and heartbreaking." ~Susan Shapiro

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Arrowhead Oasis

When I first moved to the west side of the Valley of the Sun from New York, I was dismayed to find very few fine dining establishments there.  Local lore blames this on two factors: the abundance of presumably penny-pinching senior citizens, and the failure of the utility companies to run natural gas lines into many of the subdivisions there.  Fortunately the last few years have seen several excellent restaurants open in this area, and last Sunday Sue and I took our parents to one of them to celebrate Mom's birthday.

Arrowhead Grill is unfortunately located in a strip mall across the street from a giant Wal-Mart/Sam's Club complex, but the interior is sleek and attractive with an in-wall water feature, fresh flowers, and leather and earth-toned decor.  The kitchen is partially open to the main dining room but the noise level is quite low and the servers attentive.  The bread served before each meal is a delicious warm focaccia, and the rest of the food is also wonderful.

On this particular occasion we went for Sunday brunch, but only Dad had Eggs Benedict.  My sister and I had the excellent Shepards [sic] pie, made with ground lamb, and Mom had a cup of French Onion soup and half a Reuben sandwich, which she said were the best she had ever eaten.  On previous trips there I've had a duck sandwich with caramelized onions (a special that day), the Focaccia Chicken Sandwich, and the Lamb Chop Fondue, all of them to die for.  Their wine list ranges from affordable to "splurge."

The Grill opened in 2008 and has apparently had some hard years during the economic downturn.  Sadly (for the owners), every time I've eaten there the dining room is half empty.  I am trying to support them by telling everyone I know about the restaurant and eating there myself whenever I can afford to.  Sue and I are also thinking of joining their wine-tasting club when it starts up again in May.  We don't want to have to go back to driving to Scottsdale for food of this caliber.

"From the Coconut Battered Shrimp to the AG Butter Cake, each mouth-watering menu item has the personal touch of Chef Charles Wade Schwerd, a Valley culinary hot ticket for almost two decades." ~Arrowhead Grill website

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Making a Joyful Noise

One of the things I've always liked most about living alone is that it's a license to be more myself than I can be when living with someone else.  Living alone means I can get up at 3AM and watch old movies with the sound on when I have insomnia.  It means I can have a peanut butter and mashed banana sandwich for dinner if I want to.  If I feel the urge to see Katmandu, I can make the reservations and throw a few things in a carry-on bag.  And if I want to sing at the top of my lungs, only the cat objects.

I don't mean to imply that my singing is horrible.  I can carry a tune.  However, my voice doesn't have much of a range and it's never been trained, and my repertoire leans heavily toward old Protestant hymns, since that's most of what I sang while growing up and during my stint in our church's junior high choir.  Various roommates of both sexes have suggested - politely or not - that I confine my efforts to the shower.  With the bathroom door shut.  (Rusty just howls.)

I haven't been much of a churchgoer since junior high - I actually consider myself to be an agnostic - but my parents' church recently hired me to do the monthly updates for their website, so I've occasionally been attending services to keep the pastor and church staff happy.  A few weeks ago, one of my parents' acquaintances there tried to recruit me for the choir.  I explained that my voice would not be much of an asset to them, but she introduced me to the choir director who said, "It's just about making a joyful noise."  Well, hey, I can do that.

Today I went to my first choir practice and was astonished when the altos and tenors actually squabbled over which section I should join.  Mind you, the average age in this church is hovering around 70, so most of the other voices in the group are probably past their prime, but I was still touched after the practice when the woman standing next to me said I have a beautiful alto.  Well, no, I don't, but being encouraged to sing is a pleasant change.  Now I can warble my head off on Wednesdays and Sundays without antagonizing even the cat.

“He who sings scares away his woes.” ~ Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Alcohol vs. the Cold Germs

When I was growing up, if someone in the family had a cough that wouldn't respond to cough syrup, my father would pour a little hot apricot brandy down the sufferer's throat.  I'm not sure what the basis of this nostrum was - relax the throat to ease the cough?  Put the cold sufferer to sleep with a healthy slug of hot alcohol?  Weaken the cold germs by getting them drunk?  What ever the theory was, my husband Tom's family must have subscribed to it, too - their father dosed them with hot blackberry brandy.

I now know that inebriated germs are not the shortest route through a nasty cold, but a hot drink still does make a sore throat feel better.  I made myself some of this tonight on the strength of that.

Winter Wassail

For each serving:

1/2 cup red wine
1/2 cup apple juice or cider
1/2 cup orange juice
1 Tblsp. Spice Hunter Muilling Spices

Heat until simmering (about 15 minutes); the liquid will reduce significantly.  Strain into a cup and serve.

If you don't have access to pre-mixed mulling spices, use a cinnamon stick, several whole cloves, a little orange peel, and possibly some star anise for a similar effect.

“Then here's to the heartening wassail, Wherever good fellows are found; Be its master instead of its vassal, and order the glasses around.” ~Ogden Nash