31 December 2008

An end has a start - 2008 edition

What a long, strange ride this one has been.

Last year I wrote: "It was the best of years and while I can't honestly say it was the worst of years, we had some pretty awful moments. But who doesn't?"

2008 was an even better year, and a far, far worse year, though the better was very personal, and the worse was more global.

I am so very aware of how unbelievably blessed my little family is: we are surrounded by loving family and good friends; we are driven to do well and do right; and we try to make use of the opportunities given to us. We also have the amazing fortune to wake up in the morning to relative good health, sheltered, fed and safe. I truly wish that each individual could say as much every day.

What is life, indeed? I looked that over a little more than a year ago in the wake of finding a set of notecards I'd filled out as a sort of parlor game in college. While I still have 11-1/2 hours to go without dying in a car crash (you think I'd forgotten about that?! It did make me feel a little better every time I got on a plane this year...), if I've learned nothing else, I've learned to cherish all aspects of my life, from youthful eccentricities to full-fledged "I Am Middle-Aged Woman; Watch Me Run Amok!"

And run amok I did.

April: Puerto Rico and Oklahoma
May: Arizona, Illinois and Minnesota
June: Missouri
July: New Hampshire, England, Norway, Iceland, Greenland
August: Shetland Islands, Scotland, and the Netherlands

And while I was running amok, I was collecting my own personal best:

SINGLE MOST AWE-INSPIRING MOMENT OF THE YEAR:

Sailing through a field of icebergs at Cape Farewell. Awe-inspiring, though, isn't always something positive, so second place would go to surveying the breached levees along the Mississippi in June from the air because the flooding was simply incomprehensible. And third? Paddling in a kayak in the middle of an Icelandic fjord and stopping to realize that I was sitting in a freaking kayak in the middle of an Icelandic fjord. Awesome.

SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT THING I'D LIKE EVERYONE TO CONSIDER DOING IN 2009:

Join the National Marrow Donor Program Registry. I am asking you in memory of Erica Murray, who lost her battle with leukemia earlier this month; I am asking you in hope for a boy named Nico, who is currently undergoing treatment for leukemia and needs a donor; and I'm asking you in honor of my friend C's son, who has been in remission for several years after a generous person made a marrow transplant possible for him.

BEST BOOK I READ THAT WAS ACTUALLY PUBLISHED IN 2008:

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson. Atkinson has long been one of my favorite writers, and her stories are horrifying and sad and violent, and yet, hopeful. And oddly enough, funny. And always well-written.

I read a couple of other note worthy books as well, though neither of them were published this year: Lori Lansens The Girls, a beautifully told story of conjoined twins; and Maggie O'Farrell's first novel, After You'd Gone. Both are well worth checking out.

BEST ALBUMS I BOUGHT THIS YEAR:

Cloud Cult's Feel Good Ghosts. A friend gave me this album for my birthday, and there is a quality to it that is quite charming. I also like the sense of innocence in the way it treats the journey to grace from loss.

Coldplay's Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends. It's been interesting to watch Coldplay morph from Parachutes to this latest album, and while there's a lot that's overdone on this one, I've gotten a lot of fun from it. At least up until the point that I started hearing "Viva la Vida" all the time. And hearing "Violet Hill" on the stereo in the lobby of a horse farm outside of Reykjavik almost qualified as the year's most bizarre moment.

REM's Accelerate. Plenty of people don't like REM and that's fine. It's one of only a couple of bands that have been on heavy rotation throughout my late teens and adulthood. This album really took the band back to its roots and it will always hold a special place in my heart.

Rush's Snakes and Arrows Live. Flat out, it rocks. Hard. Loud. Some of the best memories, ever.

BEST PLACE I STAYED WHEN I WAS AWAY FROM HOME:

The Skirvin Hilton Oklahoma City. Elegant as can be and the nicest staff ever, including the dearest man who brought me a case of bottled water at about 1 am.

The Radisson on John Deere Commons-Moline was an unexpected pleasure, with lovely grounds right along the Mississippi River. After an absolutely lunatic day of flying all over the Midwest, nothing was nicer than to don my running shoes and take off along the river path for a brief but very relaxing trek in a very beautiful area.

SINGLE MOST BIZARRE MOMENT OF THE YEAR:

Being referred to as a blogger. Moi? Got to admit that I really don't think of myself as such.

And I can't overlook the vast number of people who visited my blog to look at the photo of my Birkenstocks. Honestly, I don't want to know.

BEST CONCERT I SAW THIS YEAR:

Well, yeah, of course it was Rush, but definitely a tie:

Rush, Ford Center, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, April 26th.
Rush, iWireless Center, Moline, Illinois, May 20.

And a close second: Trans-Siberian Orchestra, the Pond (or whatever they're calling it these days), Anaheim, California, November 21.

MY FAVORITE PHOTO OF THE YEAR:






















I don't like having my photo taken. But this one just spoke volumes.

I can go on and on, you know. I can talk about my best recipe, the most exciting thing that happened in the garden, the most stunning thing the son did, the most outlandish thing the daughter said, or the rap I launched into today when the spouse asked me if I really wanted to be in the position of having to testify at a trial if I didn't stop being such a pain in the rear.

I can talk about the families that I worked with this year, and how I have the uncomfortable feeling that advocating for these kids might become a more formal sort of thing.

I can talk about the fear I felt watching the world implode this autumn, and how I'm clinging to hope.

But perhaps, as the year is finally drawing to a close, the thing to do is to thank you. I appreciate your kind and useful comments and emails, your enthusiasm and support. And to those of you who just quietly show up to read, I appreciate that, too. And thank you as well to those of you I've met in the real world who've been complimentary about what you've read here.

We none of us know what the future might bring. I'm holding on to hope, and my wish for everyone is that we all find a way to weather the difficult times and come out shining on the other side.

Be safe, be good and remember to eat your black-eyed peas.

...with hope in your hands
and air to breathe


Go listen to some good music: "An End Has a Start" from the album An End Has a Start by Editors.

29 December 2008

On the fifth day of Christmas...

I am on the third day of the nasty cold my father-in-law gave me (may I just add that I was very insistent on no gifts).

Christmas Eve dinner went off without a hitch and everyone had a nice Christmas. The daughter is beyond overjoyed with her Swiss Army knife and stilts. The son is still beaming over his books and games.

There has been no shopping of any sort. Though I'll probably have to go buy some milk tomorrow.

The spouse has completed his book chapter, and I've had my date with Bingham plastics and viscosity and modeling the way things fall down. I do take pleasure in my editing jobs.

Now yodeling my way through Rock Band 2. We just unlocked Montreal.

Yay, us.

Go listen to some good music: "The Twelve Days of Christmas." This song has been recorded by many artists, and I could not find any information on who wrote it.

23 December 2008

Another Christmas song

The manger's on fire...

So, last night, I'm doing kitchen things, and I've set the dishwasher to run, and the washing machine has been going all day, and then I notice that the kitchen sink doesn't appear to be draining.

So I run some hot water in the drain, and it doesn't drain very fast. I check the laundry room sink and there is water standing in that drain too.

I really wanted to start screaming. But lovely Rescue Rooter Ron showed up at 9 am, and fixed the problem. He was perplexed because he said my drains were very clean. I suspect sourdough starter. Remember making flour and water paste in kindergarten? Yeah, me too.

I'm a bit calmer now, though in the overall scheme of things, this probably wasn't as bad as the Christmas Eve I had a house full of people, it was pouring rain, and the septic tank overflowed into the street.

Nothing says Christmas like plumbing problems.


Christmas Eve Dinner Menu

Crudités with Green Goddess Dressing
Bacon-wrapped Shrimp
Brie en Croûte with Cherries and Pistachios

Champagne


Prime Rib with Rosemary Gravy

Roast Goose with Gravy and Apple Stuffing

Garlic Mashed Potatoes
Green Bean Casserole
Steamed Petite Brussels Sprouts
Cloverleaf Rolls
Cranberry Orange Relish

Petite Syrah
Alsatian Riesling


Yule Log
Stilton with Fresh Pears
Coffee, Port, assorted liqueurs

Go listen to some music: "Another Christmas Song" from the album A Colbert Christmas by Stephen Colbert. Because I decreed there will be no bashing of one particular dinner guest, I can't actually discuss what will be the biggest nightmare tomorrow night, but really I'm trying to live the spirit of the season. I am not winning that particular battle. Please pray to the God of Beef that I don't mess up the prime rib.

22 December 2008

Saturn return

This is the time of year when my brain goes all retrospective, and I start to think about what has gone before, and the question always presents itself: "How exactly did I arrive here at this moment in time, in this particular incarnation that I very much wasn't last year?"

How?

Exactly?

Just a year ago, the son had complex knee reconstruction surgery, and now is back to playing basketball at school. There are times when nothing is harder than being a mother.

Slightly less than a year ago, I bought tickets to Puerto Rico, and here I am, eight months out from that adventure. There are times when nothing is harder than being myself.

Endings and beginnings.

In the last year, I've learned the power of my own words. Oh, I know that I'm quite good with words, and when I write Very Important Things that then must go and be read by the intended audience, I'm fine. Care with language, with words, has always been a responsibility in my work: facts must be correct, meaning must be precise, logic has to be impeccable. But even here, in a more casual setting, I feel an intense responsibility to take care with my words, to be conscientious and scrupulous, to be very certain that I mean what I say, that I mean what I do.

From D. (which made me laugh, but oh, how true), after she read last night's entry: "You are SUCH a Gemini. You run away as much as you run straightaway into the fray."

And here I stand, right in the very middle of the fray, with the knowledge that at some point, my writing experiment took on a life of its own. At some point, rather than just fiddling with point of view, rather than just forcing myself to write with the internal editor off--sometimes with the external editor off!-- at some point, rather than just writing as an exercise, I began to talk to you.

"Who is the 'you' you're talking to?" the son asked me so long ago.

Simply, it is you.

And you.

You, too.

Most definitely you.

And yes, sometimes I am talking to myself.

You are everyone and no one. You are universal. You are the world.

It's true that sometimes, I am talking to someone in particular. Sometimes when I can't get the words right, I think, ok, if I were sitting on a bench by the beach and you were there, how would I tell this story? When I consider those conversations, sometimes the other person is one of my friends, perhaps a family member, sometimes someone I don't know. For reasons I can't exactly fathom, people in the real world do just talk to me, suddenly strike up conversations in the frozen food aisle or when I am walking down the street, in a queue at a bookstore, and these impromptu exchanges can be hilarious, instructive, and sometimes, touching.

So if I can talk to them, certainly, I can talk to you.

How do I get through to you? By deciding I want to get through to you. By deciding I'll take the chance on you. Because you intrigue me.

I get through to you by choosing love over fear.

I would give you anything. I would give you food to eat and clothes to wear. I would give you a shoulder for support and advice if you asked for it. Most are content with that; it is sufficient and meets their needs.

But you. You wanted my heart. You wanted what I wouldn't give to anyone: myself.

Just for a moment, I gave you what you wanted. I pushed the button and let it go.

You looked again.

I talked about the weather.

I transcribed a recipe.

I sought same. I knew what I'd said, wondered why I'd said it. It was a little easier to be lazy, easier not to make decisions.

One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just isn't the same.

I do not-the-same much better.

I don't remember how long ago I discovered that I could climb on the roof of the house in which I grew up. Station wagon bumper to station wagon roof to top of carport. I crept across the flat wooden carport roof to a ledge where the carport met the roof of the house. I would lie flat on that ledge and watch the sky revolve over my head, night after night. Orion and Cassiopeia shifting, the drift of the Leonids, the Geminids, the Perseids, raining over me, black night alive with falling fire. And I would dream.

Sometimes that enormous velvet darkness seemed limitless, and my body would thrill to the sense that I could do anything, that everything was possible, that I only needed to choose the path. Other times, that black void was overwhelming and I felt so small and inconsequential and powerless. Helpless.

I stood on a mountain a few weeks back, and I watched a star shoot through the sky. Possibility rested in my hands.

I don't believe in fate; I believe that we make our own luck and that magic can live within us. I don't believe in coincidence; I believe that everything happens for a reason, but that we choose the meaning. We choose the door we walk through.

I believe there is a chance that we can touch the sky. I don't believe in the future, but I believe in the moment that I first saw you--on a muddy road, on a distant mountain, in a place where we were both strangers, in words on a page. You sat across the aisle. You chose the desk next to mine. I met you years ago. I met you last week.

You. You wanted my heart.

And that is how I arrived at this moment in time, in this particular incarnation.

For a moment, I forgot fear.

Go listen to some good music: "Saturn Return" from the album Reveal by REM. The joy of having everyone off for the holidays is that it takes me two days to write a post that, if I'm lucky, is marginally coherent!

19 December 2008

Follow you follow me

I don't read too many blogs, but one of my favorites is that of author Neil Gaiman. I love his writing style, but his blogging style is superb: the right amount of chatty (you are likely to learn as much about his beehives as you are about the dog he rescued), the right amount of information (what he's working on, where he is), and links to anything.

(And if you've somehow missed reading Neil Gaiman, go get yourself a copy of Neverwhere. When in London last summer, the son and I kept elbowing each other: "Look! Shepherd's Bush! Earl's Court!" And that kid couldn't wait to get on the Underground...).

Mostly via his blog, the kids and I have been following the progress of the movie being made from his book Coraline (the audio version tends to be on heavy rotation on the daughter's CD player). The filmmakers have been sending out boxes to the blogs they have been following, and it's one of the coolest promotion/appreciations I've seen.

There is a lot of talk about the effect of blogging and other forms social media on the flow of information, the effects on brands and what not. I get a wee bit paranoid when I see the crawlers for social media monitoring companies in my feed...my first thought is always 'what are you reading? I don't say anything!' And it's true. I largely avoid naming brands and I seriously avoid certain names that are search terms. And I have reasons that go beyond the general joy I get from being a thorn in the side of those who would try to stick me in a neat little slot somewhere.

But back to the subject at hand: I have to say those boxes are one of the most positive outcomes of monitoring social media. What a spiff idea! Well played, Coraline people.

It also says something about not knowing who might be reading your blog. I've had a couple of startling moments when people have put me and this together. Or someone has seen this and then sent me an email saying, "Hey, I met you at..." I've learned to like the fact that people read my blog, I think; there can be a sense of reciprocity about it that is satisfying, but occasionally the realization that someone is going to read this shocks me into silence.

Go listen to some good music: "Follow You Follow Me" from the album Turn It On Again by Genesis. And with the sudden increase in feed subscriptions, welcome new readers. You can click through to the blog to comment, or email me at OutOfTh3Kitchen at gmail dot com.

17 December 2008

Tiny little fractures

It is pouring and cold again today. The tree guy has cancelled for tomorrow because of the weather, which has taken a bit of panic of the I-HAVE-TO-GO-TO-THE-GROCERY-STORE-BECAUSE-I'M-HAVING-A-DINNER-PARTY-IN-A-WEEK-AAAAAGGGGHH! variety off me. Now I can go tomorrow when I might actually have a list of what I need and it won't be raining quite so much.

However, I'm having a dinner party in a week, and trying to get my house ready (read: who cares about my soul, those toilets better get clean now!) Having just waved goodbye to five 33-gallon garbage bags of clothes and stuff that doesn't get used as it was put on the back of a charity's truck, I'm tackling one of the worst jobs: the books that are constantly strewn all over the house.

We are a family of readers, and one wall in the living room is completely covered in mahogany bookshelves. Which are filled beyond capacity, books double shelved, sharing space with the decorative items in the display areas, holding up the 500 record albums crammed onto the bottom shelves, stacked along the top (the cat loves to run behind the line of books up there. It's nine feet off the ground and if he can knock only half the books off at 3 am, SCORE!). You can't discount that the children each have large bookcases in their bedrooms, and there are frightening piles in our bedroom as well.

We read our books, and they trail after us like debris flows. Books are everywhere.

Visitors love our books. We have rare ancient copies of Mary Roberts Rinehart, a dilapidated set of the complete works of the Brontes from the 1800s, a totally random tiny Croatian dictionary. Rare Earth cheek by jowl with The Hot Zone. Peeling calculus texts alongside the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules, 2nd edition. Strunk & White (still one of the best style texts ever) and the other tools of my trade jostling for space next to books on pioneer medical women, and books on plague and malaria (also mine). Everything ever written on the Battle of Jutland, Jane's Warships, and tomes by Dorothy Sayers and Robertson Davies. A real encyclopedia. More dictionaries in Russian, German and Spanish, even English. An enormous collection of ghost stories, and another on the space program. More geology than anyone should be able to digest in a lifetime, and texts on neurology and engineering. Misty of Chincoteague, Winnie the Pooh, Brighty of the Grand Canyon, The Lotus Caves, some of the very few books I was able to save from my childhood.

It is not unusual for me to find a missing guest perusing the shelves or comfortably ensconced in a chair, reading.

Everyone's favorite? A collection of science fiction stories entitled Alien S*x. I can't even remember how we ended up with that, but everyone seems to gravitate toward it.

My book on the Greenland mummies is also there with PV Glob's The Bog People (not a horror story, except in the real sense, but the true story of the discoveries of well-preserved Iron Age bodies found in peat bogs) and a coffee table book of Greene and Greene houses and another on Frank Lloyd Wright's stained glass. Planting your own cottage garden. Sibley's guide to North American birds.

Freud. Jung. Religion and Sexism. Women from the Greeks to the French Revolution. Physical chemistry. Stephen Jay Gould. Jared Diamond. Alice Thomas Ellis. John McPhee. Margaret Atwood. From the Beast to the Blonde. Rabelais.

Books signed by astronauts.

(Years ago, we went to a signing by Buzz Aldrin. The son was very young, perhaps a bit more than 2. Mr. Aldrin had a Buzz Lightyear toy beside him, which the son, of course recognized, and wanted to discuss with the gentleman in question. Mr. Aldrin was far more interested in talking to the son than to us, which I still find wildly amusing).

Kate Atkinson. C.S. Lewis. Mark Twain. Mikhail Gorbachev. Galileo's Daughter. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The collected works of Winston Churchill.

It's like a treasure hunt, those shelves.

A white book of portraits, including me in a white dress, 20 years ago today, rain in my veil, mud on my hem. Trying not to make faces at the photographer.

Stuff authored by the spouse. Stuff authored by me.

"Are you still working?" CB asked me Saturday night.

"Erm," I replied. "Technically I'm freelancing, but since I'm not actually looking for work at the moment..."

Which means if work finds me, fine. But I'm not actively in pursuit.

"Is that yes or no?"

I said hurriedly, "I traveled the last year. A lot. I amassed notebooks full of information, full of stuff, full of words. I may or may not do something with it. So yes, I'm still working."

I was working the whole time I was gone, even if I didn't always recognize it.

I've weaseled my way into doing some editing in the early part of the year. I have...projects in the works, one that requires more research. Maybe. I have ideas for a couple of magazine articles, but enough to shop those. Maybe. This is a twist from the sort of work I usually do and definitely different from the way I normally do it. But it's still maybe.

Maybe I'll just be lazy.

I have refused my call, but it keeps yelling. Weird things happen, little alarms that remind me of who is, improbably enough, part of my life, that I have a place in the world, even if I keep trying to hide behind the scenery.

There is more travel in my future, but different from last year. I probably will have to take a weekend in Oakland next month (not my choice), and then I'm heading to New York for a few days. Initially, that was a reaction to the spouse taking off with the old boy geologists and going to Death Valley the first weekend of December. "Fine!" I announced. "I'm going to New York!"

"Oh," he said, looking faintly alarmed. "You're bored."

"Yes!"

"Oh God," and when he said it, I think it was a prayer.

Later, if I follow along with a project that feels right, Maine, South Dakota, and then, parts north. But we'll wait to see what develops.

Could be another book for the shelf.

Go listen to some good music: "Tiny Little Fractures" from the album Final Straw by Snow Patrol.

What do you mean I don't love you
I was standing there, wasn't I?

15 December 2008

It's raining, it's pouring















This is what we woke to a few hours ago.

We've had so little rain in recent years that the ground doesn't even know what to do with all this water, so streets are running like rivers. Then too, in the burn areas, fire changed the physical and chemical properties of the soil so it becomes hydrophobic on the surface and less able to absorb water.

But we really need the rain. Even as I watch, ash and dirt are pouring out of my gutters, and I know my enormous pine tree needs a good bath to eliminate all the filth that's accumulated on it, especially in the last couple of months.

I'm not sure I've ever seen quite so many alerts at one time, though. The spouse had The Weather Channel on this morning and it was blaring the NWS watches and warnings at regular intervals. The noise and flashing red freaked the kids out a bit. Of course, Southern California born and bred, they've never really comprehended that their mother grew up with a snowsuit in her wardrobe, and 45F seems near freezing to them.

So yeah, exciting times in old SoCal.

Right now, car accidents are occurring on the freeway at the rate of 1 every 2 minutes. So, after spending all last week out shopping, I think I'll stay home today, since really, other motorists are a greater threat than the rain. I've just brewed a pot of Peet's Winter Solstice tea, and I have a date with the exercise bike (sigh). Then maybe I'll bake. Or decorate. Or get serious about the Christmas Eve dinner menu.

Or maybe I'll just light a fire in the living room, and the cat and I can curl up in my big red chair and read.

As if.

Go listen to some music: "It's Raining, It's Pouring" is a traditional nursery rhyme.

14 December 2008

Promises to keep

Last night: the progressive party. All day yesterday and the day before: a neighborhood aquiver with excitement. "Are you going?" neighbors called to each other. "What are you bringing?"

The first time we attended this do was 11 years ago. We'd bought the house in the 'hood in November, and the real estate agent told us, "The neighborhood has asked that you attend the party. I think you should."

I'll admit, it put my back up. We specifically didn't buy in a "community" because I wasn't going to live in one of those gated monstrosities with cookie cutter abodes. I bristle at being told what color to paint my house, how many shrubs and what sort I can plant in my yard.

We'd liked the looks of this neighborhood. The houses were well kept and the kids were playing in the street. On a sunny November afternoon, people were talking to each other and working in their yards.

But to be ordered to a party...I'd just had a baby, sold my LA County house in an hour, and had two weeks to pack up a life and move it south while providing Christmas for my family.

It was ok, in the end. They got to eyeball us, we eyeballed them, everyone had some time to chat, and when, the next month, we moved in and it was pouring rain, we got offers of help from the houses around us.

No one told us what color to paint the house or how many shrubs to plant.

Last night, standing in the L family's living room, MH regaled me with the stories of delivering gifts to the old folks' home yesterday. I'd bought and wrapped a pile of bathrobes for her to take, and she had a great story about a lady who got one of the robes and was so pleased with it. MH was one of the people who offered to help us carry things through the rain 10 years ago, and I said to her after a bit, "You know M., we've lived here for almost 11 years now. I still feel like one of the new families, but we're one of the old families."

"I know!" she exclaimed. "It's so amazing that we now have little KM over there getting ready to have her second baby, and my youngest who was 6 months old when we moved in is going to be 17 next month."

"L. celebrated her first birthday in our house," I told her.

At that moment, C. came over. "Moby Dick!" she said. "I thought Moby Dick" and she held her fingers a half-inch apart.

"Oh, no," I told her. "Moby Dick" and I held my fingers six inches apart.

And we both laughed. C. and I trade books on a regular basis, and I'd just given her Ahab's Wife to read, and she asked if I had a copy of Moby Dick she could borrow since she'd never read that. I dug out my copy of Moby Dick on Friday, and laughed at my marginalia.

"Your notes in it are interesting," she commented.

"I'd just taken a class in literary theory," I laughed, "so everything was subtext."

R. appeared.

"I brought eggrolls for you, A. Go eat one of my eggrolls. I miss you!"

"Let's go see a movie over Christmas," I suggested.

"I won't be back until January," she grumped. She and her husband are taking their daughter on a college tour.

"Okay, then first thing in January," I suggested.

She grumped again.

I talked for a bit with KD and PD, an older couple who I see nearly every day.

"Well, we get to actually talk to you about twice a year and catch up," said KD.

"Yeah, but we all wave at each other every day. That counts for something!"

I left for a bit to go and whip cream. I produced 50 buttercream frosting shots, and an almond cake layered with whipped cream. It turned out to be a good thing that I did two desserts because half the dessert people didn't show up this year.

At the W family's house, five people asked me for the cake recipe, and everyone laughed over the idea of the buttercream frosting in tiny papers. By the time I left an hour later, there were about ten left. Neighbor B, he of the appletinis and cosmos, allowed he was disappointed that I didn't think to put some alcohol in the frosting. I promised that next year, I'd whip up a batch of drunken frosting just for him.

"Here," I told R. "Frosting. Just for you."

"Oh no," she said. "I'm on a diet."

I plopped a paper in her hand. "Eat it! I made it just for you."

She tentatively took a forkful. "Umm. It's very sweet."

I laughed out loud. "You bet it is."

The spouse and I made our way out the door, and stopped for a few minutes to chat with TH and his new wife A. We shivered in the 40F temps, and laughed and talked about how gorgeous and crisp the moon and stars, and A. sweetly told me I was pretty in my lipstick, and I snickered and remarked how it's certainly a change from my mangy sweat pants. We talked about the joys of cold weather, having babies, the relative merits of dressing up or not.

As she and TH headed home, she suddenly hugged me hard and said, "I'm so glad we finally got a chance to talk."

I hugged her back, and said, "Me, too."

It was one of those moments of coming full circle, holiday party to holiday party, new family to old family.

We specifically didn't buy in a "community," one of those artificial constructs. We bought into a neighborhood, a place where, if there were an emergency, my kids could find safe haven at any house, and I can provide the same for others. When the son did his science project last year and needed volunteers for testing, the neighborhood rallied with glee, showed up to help him out and followed his progress to the state event with pride. As neighbors, we help each other out when necessary, and play together because we can. Our values are similar, though not always the same, sometimes we agree to disagree, and our approaches to life and the world vary, but we know the problems of the world can at least be discussed over a bottle of wine.

It is what community is really meant to be.

Go listen to some music: "Promises to Keep" from the album Christmas Eve and Other Stories by Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

12 December 2008

Window to the world

The daughter: "Mommy, I got into the geography bee."

Me: "Cool."

The daughter: "You'll never believe what my question was."

Me: "Hmm?"

The daughter: "What is the Canadian province separated by a river from Michigan?"

Me, laughing: "You're kidding. That was your question?"

The daughter: "And I thought, 'Ok, where is it Mommy is always going?' And first I thought, 'Toronto.' And then it was 'no, no, no, that's a city.' So I wrote 'Ontario' on my card and hoped it was the right province."

Me: "Was Mr. H. surprised you knew the answer?"

The daughter, beaming because she adores young Mr. H.: "He smiled at me."

Me: "Did anyone else know the answer?"

The daughter, in tones of high dudgeon: "AC just wrote 'Canada.' And JL! She said 'Minnesota!'"

Me: "JL doesn't know that Minnesota is in the U.S.?"

The son: "At least she didn't say 'The Yukon'."

The daughter, snarkily: "That's by Alaska. EVERYONE knows that."

Me: "Well, I'm glad that you knew the right answer."

The daughter, grabbing a cookie: "Only because you're always going there."

Amazing what travel can do.

Go listen to some music: "Window to the World" from the album My Favorite Headache by Geddy Lee.

10 December 2008

Diamonds are a girl's best friend

I grump to the spouse that my lead on finding the South African chardonnay that we'd tried and liked over the summer had fizzled out.

The spouse: "Hey, NPR announced they're giving away a trip to the Kimberley district, of all places."

Me, grousing through my stuffed nose: "Only if they're throwing in a kimberlite pipe full of gem-quality diamonds."

The spouse stares at me for a moment: "That is serious geologic esoterica."

Me: "And you're surprised I knew it?"

Go listen to some music: "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" from the album The Magic of Marilyn by Marilyn Monroe.

08 December 2008

Love and peace or else

It was probably about the time that I realized I needed to send my sister a birthday card that it hit me with the force of a 500-lb. bomb: it is indeed December.

Let's face it, the stores have been decorated since October, which doesn't exactly inspire a sense of Christmas reality. The son has been vibrating for about that long, too. The daughter is rather more sanguine, and just getting a list of what she wants has been like pulling teeth out of a chicken. Because, of course, she knows she isn't getting what she's asked for: Swiss army knife, stilts, tool kit. My daughter, the survivalist. (No, I have no idea what the stilts are all about. To retrieve GI Joe when she tosses him up into the tree with his homemade parachute? And no, she's still not getting a chainsaw.)

Christmas is not my favorite holiday. The parts I like are the Christmas tree, especially the fresh woodsy smell, and decorating it and the magpie joy of lights and glittery decorations. I like making cookies and hot chocolate. I like the general sense of generosity. I like the music and the fire in the fireplace, even if it's 80F outside. I like the memories that we make, even though I'm the butt of one of the favorites: the year I dropped the Yule Log cake on the dining room floor.

(I asked my mother-in-law to contribute another Yule Log "that I can drop on the floor" for our Christmas Eve festivities).

I don't like the inflated expectations pushed harder and harder by advertisers and the companies that make little pieces of disposable junk that we're all supposed to covet.

Sure, I do get my family gifts, the kids in particular, but I know the best gift I can give them every year is what we do together, the stories that they can tell and recreate for their own families someday: listening to Patrick Stewart's A Christmas Carol; the Christmas goose I cook every holiday I'm not cooking roast beef with Yorkshire pudding; the Christmas breakfast no one will ever eat because they're stuffed with chocolate already; the cat pulling down the Christmas tree, eating the Christmas tree, puking up the Christmas tree; the dog running in to grab her present from under the tree and running off with it; the toddler daughter on a mission to find Baby Jesus at San Juan Capistrano. That is the stuff of Christmas dreams.

I don't like to admit that I've long since ceased to worry about putting together the perfect holiday. I know it will be perfect, whatever happens, even when the rickety back fence fell down during Christmas breakfast no one was eating in a torrent of termites in the midst of a supersonic windstorm, and we had to run out to prevent our dog from eating the face of the dog in the neighbors' yard, and the neighbor was so drunk at 9am that we knew we'd have to have the conversation about replacing the fence another day. Even the year that influenza hit me so hard and fast that I suddenly had a fever of 103 halfway through making dinner. Especially the year that neighbors B & J got the neighborhood sloshed on cosmopolitans and appletinis in our backyard during the progressive party--they looked so pretty!!

Our family and friends make it perfect.

That's all I want for Christmas.

Well, and for the world to come to its senses, and start playing nice.

I don't ask for much.

Go listen to some music: "Love and Peace or Else" from the album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb by U2. Or else what? My children have learned not to ask. That's the power of "or else."

07 December 2008

Sunrise






















Orange County
November 2008

Go listen to some music: "Sunrise" from the album Takin' It Easy by Seals & Crofts. I haven't heard this song in 25 years, but 25 years ago, I heard it a lot. It was the music to the dance that was basically our showcase one year. We performed it everywhere. EVERYWHERE. Our costumes were varying shades of peach and orange, and we joked that we all looked like pumpkins. The scariest part? I still remember at least half the choreography.

05 December 2008

Reckoner

The son and the daughter are watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

In Japanese.

There are advantages to having a computer monitor as big as a TV screen; I have my DVD on in another window. I've had no time to watch it (being bored does not equate to having nothing to do), and now I'm bouncing along in my seat as I write.

Sitting still is rarely in my vocabulary, and there are a lot of good memories there.

It's going to be a long weekend, and likely not a terribly pleasant one.

Sitting still is rarely in my vocabulary, and I'm thinking...New York. January or February. When it's really cold and no one else is there. I have no reason. But I'll figure one out.

The way out is the way in.

Go listen to some good music: "Reckoner" from the album In Rainbows by Radiohead. Why New York? The daughter has been listening to The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler again, and I realized I've not spent enough time at MMA. Or in New York for that matter. And not in a very long time. So barring complications...barring ennui...

03 December 2008

Square one

I went out and looked at the world.

I changed.

The world didn't change with me.

My world didn't change with me.

I no longer fit into my own life.

Life is full of cycles and upheavals. Those cycles often require that we redefine ourselves, remake ourselves in the wake of new context. I'm no stranger to this phenomenon, but I don't necessarily like it. Marriage and motherhood hit me the hardest. I didn't want to assimilate a new identity, I resisted the idea of redefinition, was uneasy with the context, with the responsibility. I take commitment and responsibility so very seriously.

But this time, I sought change. I saw possibility and chased after it. Chased it, embraced it, got scared, took a step back and wondered what the hell was I doing.

My default setting is silence. My default setting is reticence.

I changed the setting. I am resisting the impulse to push the button that says "default." I am resisting a return to silence.

I am not shy, but I shy away from contact. Contact is commitment and responsibility, and I fear it as much as I want it. But I find I'm willing to negotiate terms. That's new.

I want the luxury of conversation; I want the luxury of shared laughter; I want that perfect moment of connection, of accord.

Don't we all?

I hold myself back, but others hold on to me, too. Their intentions are good, but sometimes I drown in the weight of their need. It is my responsibility and I take it seriously, so I won't say no when I've already said yes. This is my dilemma because I know that my life is good.

I didn't take back that other yes, either, even if it looked like it. I backed up but I came back. I am trying to reconcile what I want, what I need, with what I have.

Free lance, free agent. There are ways in which I am free, ways in which I am not. I think this is by my own choice. But I find I'm willing to negotiate terms.

I know that only I can save myself. But I need a compass, draw me a map. I've never been afraid to ask for directions, but I'm not sure I've ever admitted that I'm lost.

And I'm lost in more ways than one.

Go listen to some good music: "Square One" from the album X & Y by Coldplay. Ok, so here's the test: Do you actually read this part of the blog? Because up there, that's all writing, you know? And this is me. Well, that's me too, but that's me being boring, and wrangling with what has been driving me crazy for...oh, I don't know. Awhile. In a literary sort of way. Down here, I could start talking about listening to this album or the 70-odd parrots that flew by this morning. You just never know.

30 November 2008

Catch a falling star

I stood in the freezing cold, staring up at the night sky. Over head, a thousand thousand stars flickered and glowed as I watched, and I traced the Milky Way and myriad constellations across the dark. As my gaze traveled the road of light toward the north, I saw one star flare and drop toward the horizon with a trail of fire and dust.

I made a wish.

The briefest of times passed and I got what I asked for. It was the simplest of wishes, and was answered with the simplest of actions, just a tiny moment, but I caught it, like a falling star.

Sometimes we are fortunate enough to share a bond with another person, a connection. But often we fail to recognize the small miracle that is that bond, the connection that comes through blood, through an elbow in the side that results in hilarity, through a smile, through a spontaneous sing along, through a shared moment of happiness, through what we call love. So often we take the easy way out of that connection, whether from fear or disinterest, turn away from it, turn it aside, sometimes with angry words and hateful deeds.

Our connection to one another is a little miracle, though, and like a falling star that lights up the night sky, we should cherish it and never let it fade away.




So, this is it: the end of November.

Thank you, once again, to those of you who went the distance with me this month. I think I surpassed myself in terms of sheer inanity. But you might have gotten a good recipe out of the whole exercise.

Or not.

For the sake of continuity (and because it's my last day to help blow up the Internet), I give you

The Official Last Post of NaBloPoMo Shoe Photos:
















We start with what the not-so-fashionable woman wears to a rock concert when she needs to run. Privos! This pair visited San Juan, Phoenix and...lord, where else did I go? St. Louis, possibly. Otherwise, it was those Dansko boots from last year. Admittedly, the boots are sooooo 2007, but actually, more comfortable. Just harder to run in.
















Next, hiking boots. Because I have a sense of humor. Also because the spouse says I am so cute in hiking boots (especially with my spiffy sage Smartwool half-zip. I may be less than fashionable at a rock concert, but I burn up the great outdoors with my style). And yup, I see there's still mud from Moro Rock. Appalling.
















I long ago decided that it didn't matter if I tower over the rest of world. I do it barefoot, so why should I forego high heels? Besides, these are called Annabel. How appropriate is that?

Tomorrow's a new month; aren't you happy?

I am!

Go listen to some good music: "Catch a Falling Star" from the album Platinum & Gold Collection: Perry Como by Perry Como.

29 November 2008

Let it snow

Thursday morning, we woke to snow.

A white Thanksgiving.

Of course, it didn't feel like Thanksgiving because I wasn't cooking anything. I was sitting in the lodge dining room, looking out on white-frosted pines, eating oatmeal, a roaring fire keeping us all a little too warm.

We'd driven up to Sequoia National Park on Wednesday in horrendous weather. By the time we left, fairly early in the morning, we'd gotten nearly 2 inches of rain at our house. I worried about the drive through the Grapevine; weather there is capricious at best and CHP tends to close the freeway if a snowflake is spotted. Traffic through the Grapevine is usually bad anytime, but all bets are off the day before a holiday. While we only had to contend with rain, the traffic lived up to my worst expectations, and we saw no fewer than 3 accidents as we traversed it, one involving a Jeep precariously perched atop a K-rail, and pointed the wrong direction.

Although the expected 3 feet of snow didn't materialize, Sequoia was beautiful. As I looked out the window of our room in the Stewart building, I spotted a coyote that had just spotted something interesting (and probably edible) in the snow near the parking lot. We watched with great amusement as Wile E. leaped and dug for whatever had caught its attention.





















After breakfast, we took off to explore. In Wolverton, as the sun briefly peeked out, the pines and shrubs glittered and flashed with the snowmelt hanging from their branches. There was just enough snow on the ground for the daughter to make a tiny snow person.





















We headed down to the museum, where there are several trail heads. Since it was early in the winter season, a lot of trails were still open. Usually, we visit the park later in the winter, when everything is snow covered and iced over. Since the trail was accessible and reasonably easy, we decided to do the 3-mile round trip to Moro Rock. The trail was quiet, and we saw no one but hungry deer. We kept our distance, giving them plenty of room to wander past us. It began to rain just as we hit the final approach to the rock, and we decided to forego the actual climb up to the top of the dome since it was completely shrouded in cloud and hiked back to the museum where we had an arctic picnic at the car.





















Thanksgiving dinner was back at Wuksachi Lodge's dining room, where they served up turkey and gravy and all the proper stuff. Everyone agreed that it didn't taste quite right because I hadn't cooked it (canned cranberry sauce. Horrors!), but the family decided it was ok that I have one Thanksgiving off.

(I will be cooking a proper turkey and all the real stuff tomorrow.)

We spent yesterday exploring a bit of Kings Canyon, and then today, after we'd packed up and checked out, in glorious sun, we decided to climb Moro Rock.

While the elevation gain is only 300 feet, at that elevation, it feels more like 3000 feet, but the view from the top was spectacular and more than worth the small climb.






















From below, it was hard to believe that only an hour earlier, we'd been on top of the world.





















Go listen to some good music: "Let It Snow," lyrics by Sammy Cahn, composed by Jule Styne.

28 November 2008

...and suddenly

The world opened again.

Simple enough.

But suddenly.

And suddenly
It lifts the roof off the place
It puts a vault in my step
And a grin on my face

It can't contain me
But you'll need an army
To get me back in my box
Or snap the branches off me


It's what I've been saying all along, except I don't always believe what I say.

There's never been any going back.

Possibility. Even when the world is running down.

Hope.

Time to jump.

Go listen to some good music: "Disaster Button" from the album A Hundred Million Suns by Snow Patrol.

27 November 2008

Over the river and through the woods

















Well, she does live over a river, but definitely not in the woods. And there's certainly no snow. And we're not going to her house anyway--or to anyone's house, for that matter. Really, it's just a festive picture, and if you're celebrating today, have a good one. And if you're not celebrating today, have a good one.

Sequoia National Park
February 2005

"Over the River and Through the Woods" was written by Lydia Maria Child.

26 November 2008

Mystic rhythms

And then...satisfaction.

But not mincemeat.

DVD.

If ever there were any question as to why I felt the pressing need to see this show 16 times, it's right there in 3 discs. I've only had time to watch two songs, but oh man...

...I was nailed to my seat...

Go listen to some good music: "Mystic Rhythms" from the album Power Windows by Rush.

25 November 2008

(I can't get no) Satisfaction

Mincemeat.

I cannot find mincemeat anywhere.

Off to find a recipe for the meat-free variety, I suppose.

(Waiting impatiently for USPS to deliver the package they were supposed to deliver yesterday, which, incidentally, does not contain mincemeat.)

Go listen to some good music: "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" from the album Hot Rocks 1964-1971 by The Rolling Stones.

24 November 2008

Underneath the bunker

Sauveur is hands down my favorite cooking magazine. I've gleaned so many wonderful recipes from it over the years, and just reading it is pure joy (but you must realize that I'm someone who gets enjoyment from reading cookbooks. And if I can actually be said to collect anything, I collect cookbooks. And right about now, I probably have 15-20 linear feet of cooking magazines. Those will be the next thing subject to the household purge in which I'm currently engaged).

Tonight, in anticipation of our first official STORMWATCH!--that annual California festival in which everyone suddenly behaves as though s/he has never seen water falling from the sky EVER--I made Sausages with French Green Lentils, though of course my lentils were whatever green lentils I found at the grocery, and I sincerely doubt they had any sort of pedigree, let alone "French." Still, it was a hearty and warming meal, and everyone, including the teen and preteen voted it "make again." And for what it's worth, I cooked the sausages in Sauvignon Blanc, even though we ended up finishing a bottle of Riesling with the meal (which was actually quite good). It was also a reasonably unfussy meal for a week when we're all going to be cooking too much anyway.

The storm that is en route keeps strengthening, and right now, the weather folks are anticipating we will receive 2.5 inches of rain here in our lovely foothills. I'm holding a good thought for those poor souls in the burn areas who are presently sandbagging like crazy. This is the terrible part--mud and debris flows after the fires.

So, only six more days of this daily blogging escapade. And that's a good thing because you really don't want to hear about thousands of empty Bionicle canisters I removed from the son's closet today. Really, you just don't.

Go listen to some good music: "Underneath the Bunker" from the album Life's Rich Pageant by REM.

23 November 2008

Give a little bit (the holiday edition)

As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving in the US next week, I can't help but think of the many blessings I have, and those who aren't so fortunate as I am. While we've all seen difficulty in recent months, many are facing very rough times right now--especially those who have lost their jobs, and here, the hundreds of families who lost their homes in last week's fires. Already appeals well beyond those we usually see are coming in. The son and I have already packed up food boxes for a local charity; the daughter has brought home appeals for both the Heart Association and toy collection for a local children's hospital; and our neighborhood is supporting a local rescue mission, Toys for Tots and a nursing home. I know that I will also be picking up gift cards for kids at the nearby foster home because I can't bear to think of a child who is already dealing with abuse or neglect feeling as though s/he has been completely forgotten.

Charitable giving doesn't have to be elaborate or even costly. Even in the years right after I graduated from college and only made enough money to cover the basics with a bit left over to go into savings, I'd buy a few boxes of pasta or other non-perishables that were on sale during the holidays to put in the collection bins for Second Harvest Food Bank. It was a tangible reminder that even though I was far from wealthy, I had a great deal for which to be thankful, and could still help someone out.

Right now, many food pantries are facing a crisis as they try to accomodate tremendous increases in demand for their services in the wake of layoffs and increased grocery prices.

And every little bit--whether it's a donation of goods or time--helps.

Go listen to some good music: "Give a Little Bit" from the album Even in the Quietest Moments by Supertramp.

22 November 2008

Saturday night






















Stirling Castle
August 2008

Go listen to some music: "Saturday Night" from the album The Bay City Rollers by The Bay City Rollers.

21 November 2008

Wizards in winter

***


***


***

(that is the sound of me not breaching one of the many confidentiality agreements I've signed.)

***


***


***

Okay, enough with the silent whining. Dinner, then off to see Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

Update 11:55pm:

Ouch!

It's time to put on that wonderfully romantic outfit, rather than your usual attire of black and more black. You may also decide to take off your dark glasses, and remove that stony smile from your face, which makes it hard to tell whether you are happy or have a problem with some part of your anatomy. For once just be in love!

Okay, well, I am a little bit in love with the world and others today. Does that count? And it was forest green, not black...

(I wear red. A lot!)

Anyway, TSO was totally fun. And loud. And moving. But really, really fun. Talk about a light show! And pyro! I looked over at one point and the son was just grinning ear to ear. And, holy mackerel, gave a new meaning to "all ages show." Toddlers to 80-somethings.

Totally fun.

Go listen to some good music: "Wizards in Winter" from the album The Lost Christmas Eve by Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

20 November 2008

Whip it

Scene: Breakfast, this morning

The spouse: "Did the son tell you about the calculator?"

Me: "What calculator?"

The spouse: "The one he needs for school."

Me: "What?"

The spouse: "Yeah, a TI-83. It's a graphing calculator. He needs it for a Trig test tomorrow."

Me: "What?"

The spouse: "Look, I only heard about it this morning."

Me: "I've never even heard of a graphing calculator. Where am I supposed to find that on such short notice."

The spouse: "I don't know."

So I start searching online. One hundred dollars for a calculator described as perfect for high school and lower level college math classes. Great. The kid is already taking a lower level college math class.

Store A: Not available in store.

Store B: Not available at all.

Finally, I find a website that lists one, and miracle of miracles, the store is only a few miles away. And I have a coupon.

But I don't trust these guys. A couple of weeks ago, I tried to buy a laptop at the same store, and it turned out that only the Garden Grove and Long Beach store had the laptop I wanted. So, I call them.

Grumpy man: "OfficeSupplyChainStorehelpyou?"

Me: "Do you have a TI-83 calculator in stock at that store?"

Grumpy man: "I don't know."

I wait silently.

Grumpy man: "But I can check."

Me, crisply: "Would you please? Thank you."

I can outgrump anyone at 7:50 am.

My punishment is, of course, listening to horrifying blaring advertisements for Office Supply Chain Store for 10 minutes.

Grumpy man, finally: "Yeahwehaveit."

Me: "You have a TI-83 calculator in stock at that store?"

Grumpy man: "Yeah."

Me: "Thank you for checking."

Later in the morning, I set out for Office Supply Chain Store, making sure I have my coupon and my wallet. I've read all the fine print on the coupon, and everything seems to be in order. The brand is not excluded; it's not a computer or TV or camera. Once I get to the store, I find what I need relatively quickly (Grumpy walks past me three times and does not offer to help and I'm just as happy. I'm already in the mood to bite someone's head off). I also pick up a new powerstrip and a packet of Sharpies since my black Sharpies are always disappearing (courtesy of the daughter, I suspect, who loves all things office supply).

I go to the cash register armed with credit card, and coupon. Exchange pleasantries with the cashier who immediately tries to sell me some kind of extended warranty for the calculator at 10% of it's cost.

"No thanks, he'll have grown out of this in a year," I tell her.

"We send you a gift card in the mail for the full purchase price," she tells me.

"No thanks." Yeah, with stores closing and going bankrupt left and right? I don't think so.

The manager immediately shows up. "Did she tell you about our extended plan?"

"Yes, she did," I reply wearily.

"So you're going to get it?"

"No thanks," I tell him.

"Accidental damage, we replace it," he says.

"Accidental damage, he replaces it," I say.

"So you want it?"

"NO!"

The cashier rings up the purchase and scans the coupon. "It's not taking it," she tells me.

"I read the thing. It should be fine," I reply.

She starts reading the exclusions. "Oh," she says, "No technology."

"A calculator is not 'technology!'" I reply. "Technology is a laptop."

"I'm sorry," she says.

"So what, you're going to tell me an abacus is technology? Counting on my fingers?" I was on a roll.

"I'm sorry," she says.

By the time I finished with a salvo about stores that issue unusable coupons (seriously, read the list of exclusions on some of these things. You will save on $75 worth of cardboard, nothing else), I think she was pretty sorry I'd ever walked in the store.

Once out of the store, I call the spouse, and relate the whole sorry story to him.

"I can see the black cloud from here," he tells me.

"And the worst part is," I fume, "the worst part is what good is this thing anyway? I did just fine with a TI-30 when I took College Algebra and Trig. We had to draw our own graphs!"

"Yeah!" the spouse says.

We are both silent for a moment.

"You know," I venture. "We sound like the people who told us, 'I did just fine with a slide rule.'"

"Yup," the spouse sighs. "We do."

Go listen to some music: "Whip It" from the album Greatest Hits by Devo.

19 November 2008

Deck the halls

So here I was congratulating myself on having made dinner (Potato and Leek Soup, green salad and fresh French bread), put together the kids' lunches for tomorrow, and cleaned toilets all day (my soul is presently clean enough, I guess), and I was going to settle in for a nice session with the new Doctor Who DVD, when I suddenly realized I hadn't written a blog entry.

So I settled in for a nice session with "Voyage of the Damned" from the new Doctor Who DVD.

And now here I am.

I'm not cooking Thanksgiving dinner this year, and though it's generally one of my favorite meals to make, I'm fine with giving it a miss next week. Instead, I've begun to plan Christmas Eve dinner, which will be our big holiday event. We'll have a number of guests this year, and the grandparents are spending the night so as to be here for morning festivities, so Christmas Eve and Christmas breakfast are the meals I have to focus on.

(Because of family tradition--not one that I started, mind you. This one is on the spouse's parents--Christmas breakfast frequently revolves around a box of See's Candies.)

While pedaling away on the exercise bike, I started mentally ticking off necessities like china, silver and crystal, working out a seating plan for the table, considering wines and starters and sides and desserts, and I suddenly realized that I'm looking forward to the holidays this year.

Go listen to some music: "Deck the Halls" from the album Joy to the World by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

18 November 2008

Soul kitchen

Yesterday, in between rounds with the router and making computers talk to it, I was baking bread (natch. Soon, I will be breaking out the sewing machine so that I can make the daughter's black skirt for the upcoming strings and woodwinds concert. Why don't I just get a few sheep and card my own wool? I already know how to weave...)

Anyway.

I returned to baking our daily bread a few months back, and I go through eye-popping amounts of flour these days. I baked three batches over the weekend (sourdough, French and honey wheat), so I ought to be good for the next month in the bread department.

I have some reasonably reliable bread recipes (still searching for the ultimate sourdough), but I needed to find a good and fairly soft whole wheat. Without weird things like instant mashed potato flakes.

Check! This one is great. It uses sourdough starter for leavening, but the sourdough taste is non-existent. It has a beautiful crumb, and a soft crust (bad joints = no hard crust. I am, after all, the one who dislocated her jaw last month with a forbidden piece of bubble gum. It was very much not worth it).

Honey Wheat Bread
Adapted from The Artistry of Sourdough Cooking, Jedediah's House, Jackson Hole, WY.

1 c. very warm water
1 tsp. honey
1 package dry yeast

Combine and set aside until it is frothy, about 10 minutes.

2 large eggs
2 c. sourdough starter
1/2 c. honey
1/4 c. canola oil
2 tsp. salt
2 c. whole wheat flour
1 c. white whole wheat flour

Combine in a large bowl or mixer, mixing well. Add yeast mixture. Mix in approximately 2-1/2 cups additional whole wheat flour, adding a small amount at a time, kneading until the dough is fairly stiff. It will still be rather sticky, but it should be workable and should not be sticking much to your hands or the bowl. Place dough in a lightly oiled bowl. Cover and let rise in a warm place for 45 minutes.

Punch down and knead again.

Form two loaves and place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Let rise until the loaves have doubled in size, about 30 minutes.

Bake in the center of a preheated oven at 400F for 10 minutes, then reduced heat to 375F and continue baking for 20-25 minutes, until bread is well browned and sounds hollow when tapped.

Notes: I use my big Kitchen Aid mixer for the whole operation, and finish kneading by hand for just a couple of minutes prior to the first rising. I prefer to bake the bread on a tray that is lined with baking parchment instead of greasing the tray. Keep a close eye on the bread as it bakes because the crust is prone to over brown if the loaves are too high or low in the oven.

Go listen to some music: "Soul Kitchen" from the album Los Angeles by X.

17 November 2008

Dry bones

...the neck bone connected to the head bone...

I am currently setting up a wireless network (sigh), and I believe my head is going to explode.

At least I seem to have encrypted the damned thing.

Go listen to some music: "Dry Bones" is a traditional spiritual based on Ezekiel 37:1-14; melody composed by James Weldon Johnson. For what it's worth, I learned it as "Dem Bones." Now hear the word of the Lord!

16 November 2008

Peace of mind






















Akureyri, Iceland
July 2008

Go listen to some music: "Peace of Mind" from the album Boston by Boston.

15 November 2008

California burnin'

Well, I'm not going to let such a little thing as thousands of acres on fire keep me from finishing NaBloPoMo this year. I haven't lost power or Internet yet but because power stations have been burned up, we're under conservation orders and subject to rolling blackouts.

Oh yeah, it's hot, too. Nearly 90F, as it was yesterday.

Yay.

Last night, just after dinner, the phone suddenly rang. It was a recording that identified itself as "alertoc." My heart stopped (in my case, that's actually pretty literal), but it finally went on to tell me that it was a test. Oh. They were testing the telephone emergency alert system.

Then, we got a call from a friend a couple of hours ago that there was a significant fire within 2 miles, right around the place that OCFD stopped the Santiago Canyon fire on our end last year. We've never been able to work out if there actually was a fire there; we think he saw the smoke from Yorba Linda, about 10 miles north. And in Yorba Linda, it's bad, burning so fast, it went from nasty plume to major firestorm in a couple of short hours.















But Sylmar is simply ungodly. It's very hard to watch firefighters tear up when they're being interviewed.

Even as I sit here typing this, the Yorba Linda fire has jumped the 91 freeway at the 241 toll road. The son was supposed to go hang with friends tonight and play on the Xbox. I just checked the friend's address on the map; his home is sitting right in the middle of the newest evacuation area announced.

Go listen to some music: "California Dreamin'" from the album If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears by The Mamas and the Papas.

14 November 2008

Listen to the wind blow

I had already been up for an hour when the daughter staggered out this morning.

"We're on fire alert," she said blearily.

"No. High wind warning. Fire weather. Red flag," I corrected.

(insert obligatory "I hate the wind" comment here)

At 5:30, it was already gusting sufficiently that the ficus over our bedroom was merrily dropping little seed balls on to the roof. That was what woke me.

"Damn wind," I muttered to the spouse.

This is the time of year when good California gardeners are out doing clean up because winter is really our planting season. Because we were gone for a month over the summer, I have had more clean up than usual, and lying there in bed this morning, I thought...wind, fire, must remove 8-ft. tall dead shrub by back wall.

It was a victim of the nitwit landscaper we hired in 2004, who not only didn't plant it properly, but planted a full sun plant in the shade. It shot straight up to nearly 10 ft., and then developed root rot, and slowly perished, despite my efforts to save it.

Telling thoughts because when I appeared to gather my morning coffee, the son said, "Santa Barbara burned up."

"What?" I asked.

"Yeah, Montecito," said the spouse.

"What do you mean burned up?"

100 houses gone overnight.

On the upside, as I yanked and cut and sawed, I discovered that my avocado tree actually produced FOUR avocados this year. I knew I had three, but discovered the fourth today. They are still ripening on the tree.

On the downside, I ended up with biggest stinking splinter I've ever had, so deeply embedded in my little finger that it required blood, guts and medical instruments to get it out.

Go listen to some music: "The Chain" from the album Rumours by Fleetwood Mac.

13 November 2008

Harmony

I could actually continue to post recipes here until Kingdom Come, but no. Bored now. Out of nearly 400 posts, relatively few have anything to do with the kitchen, though, I do, indeed, live in mine.

This morning the spouse woke me at 4:30 to say good-bye; he had a day full of meetings in NoCal, and it only belatedly occurred to me that I should have gone with him and spent the day in San Francisco. I would have been home in time to pick up the kids from school.

But no. I dozed a bit longer, falling prey to spinning thoughts, as I'm wont to do at that hour. I took everyone to school. The daughter was off on a field trip, the son just to school, and I had plenty to do, including making the chicken enchiladas I'd been promising the spouse for dinner.

(Recipe? Here. Except I make mine flat, more Sonoran style, than rolled.)

I am reading Moloka'i by Alan Brennert, historical fiction, that is historically interesting, though not especially well written fiction.

It was a supremely boring day. Sometimes, that's better than interesting, though uninspiring. The kids got home from school, the spouse was back by 4:30, and dinner was served on time.

Sometimes, that's enough.

Go listen to some music: "Harmony" from the album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John.

12 November 2008

...And called it macaroni

Our neighborhood really is a neighborhood, and when a family has an emergency, everyone tends to pitch in to help them out. On a few occasions, everyone has organized to provide dinner for a few weeks for families that have had to deal with medical emergencies. One of my nights on the rota the last time this occurred, I made macaroni and cheese and took it over along with a side of veg and cupcakes for dessert (I spared them talk of pyroclastic flows, of course).

And it happened that the family liked it so much that the mom asked me for the recipe. Which I have been forgetting to write down for 18 months or so. For no other reason than I'm old or dopey or something. And because I've been making it so long, the recipe mainly lives in my head, so I actually do have to write it down.

(The daughter watched me making marinara sauce the other night and said, "How do you do that?" I don't know. I just do it.)

By way of penance, I'm now going to share my macaroni and cheese recipe with the world. Then I'm going to print it out and give it to KG. I'm sorry for taking so long! But at least now it's getting cool enough that a nice casserole won't go amiss.

Good Old Fashioned Baked Macaroni and Cheese
Adapted from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, 12th edition.

2 Tbl butter
2 Tbl canola oil
5 Tbl white whole wheat flour or unbleached all-purpose flour
2-1/2 c. skim milk, heated
2 c. grated Cheddar cheese, divided usage
Pinch of cayenne
Salt
Ground pepper

10 oz. macaroni or medium shells, cooked to package directions and drained
1/2 c. bread crumbs (optional)

Preheat oven to 350F. Lightly grease a 1-1/2 qt. casserole and set aside.

Heat butter and oil together in a heavy-bottomed saucepan until butter is melted. Stir in flour and cook over medium heat for about 2 minutes. Do not allow the mixture to brown. Add the hot milk slowly, stirring constantly as the sauce thickens. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and add 1-1/2 c. grated cheese, stirring until all cheese has melted. Add cayenne, then add salt and pepper to taste. Cook for 2-3 minutes.

Put cooked macaroni or shells in casserole and pour cheese sauce over it. Mix gently until the sauce is well distributed, sprinkle grated cheese over top of casserole and spread bread crumbs over the cheese if you so desire. Bake uncovered for 30-35 minutes until the top is golden and the sauce is bubbling.

Serves 4.

Notes: A good medium or sharp cheddar is great in this, depending on your taste, but I've also combined Cheddar with Jack, Dubliner Irish or Cabot. It all depends on what I have on hand. Experiment!

This doesn't have to be served as a casserole. When I'm short on time, I just mix the sauce into the hot macaroni and serve it up. The pasta absorbs some of the sauce while baking, so it's a little more soupy when it's not baked.

Pairs up well with steamed broccoli or a nice green salad for a complete meal.

Go listen to some music: "Yankee Doodle Dandy" is a traditional children's song with lyrics attributed to Richard Shuckburgh.

11 November 2008

Boy (Go)

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy. It really rolls off the tongue, especially that "encephalopathy." It's fun to say!

You'd think I could make cocktail conversation in a more reasonable fashion. "I bake my own bread! My children only get cookies into which I've slipped white whole wheat flour! I use a clothesline! I took weaving and quilting classes!"

No. I'm the one talking about variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.

In a tiny basement bar in West Hollywood.

As I suddenly verbally backed up in some horror (1/2 a glass of wine and I'm talking shop?), the lovely woman with whom I was speaking assured me that such things would be table conversation at her house should she be allowed to speak of them. If she meant that, well, she'd be right at home at our table where we discuss those who happen to have the misfortune to come into contact with a pyroclastic flow. At least until it suddenly dawns on the spouse or me that what we're talking about really doesn't go with macaroni and cheese.

Disaster is my life.

Conversational faux pas aside, last evening was great fun. Living behind the Orange Curtain has left me feeling somewhat provincial these days, and there was a bit of adventure to be had traversing Sunset, haunt of my youth. I read few blogs, and amusingly enough 3 out of the 6 blog authors that I regularly read were at this event. I made the effort to speak with each of them, which I have to admit was no easier for me than leaving comments is, but all of them were pleasant people.

(I seem to veer between two extremes: utter silence and a frank inability to shut up.)

Heather and Jon Armstrong were both generous with their time and chat, although the whole thing was a bit odd what with TV cameras and a boom mike hanging over my head. I find Heather really quite brave in what she does because I know darn well I wouldn't be able to do it. In my case, there are fairly compelling reasons not to be transparent, but I'm also more than willing to admit that I'm happier hiding behind a wall of stachybotrys atra (another great one to rip out in conversation!) and falling mountains.

Because disaster is my life.

Go listen to some good music: "Boy (Go)" from the album Visions of Excess by The Golden Palominos. I saw The Golden Palominos not far from where I was last night. The fire department took exception to something about the venue, and kicked everyone out. Syd Straw, one of the vocalists that night, suggested to all of us standing around outside that we should all go to Canter's. So everyone did.

10 November 2008

Amsterdam














Amsterdam at dawn
August 2008

(Red sky at morning, sailor take warning. It poured the entire day, and we were incredibly late that afternoon leaving Schiphol for London. It was probably not the day I'd have chosen to be stuck in an airport lounge).

Go listen to some good music: "Amsterdam" from the album A Rush of Blood to the Head by Coldplay.

09 November 2008

Arriving somewhere but not here

So, Sundays are usually photo days. Today, however, it's looking like I'm going to have to reinstall Windows...which is putting me, oh, I don't know...in a very bad mood?

All because I uninstalled my antivirus software so I could reinstall the exact same antivirus software package, only it's provided by my ISP as part of my subscription.

Thanks, guys!

Wish me luck.

Go listen to some good music: "Arriving Somewhere but Not Here" from the album Deadwing by Porcupine Tree.

08 November 2008

Sugar, sugar

'Tis the season for all the fa-la-la-la-la to get started. I've already gotten my instructions for the neighborhood progressive dinner, and this year...I make dessert.

Which is a little too bad because it means that I can't serve up the artichoke dip that I can almost make in my sleep. It's very simple, very rich and very good; it also disappears instantly.

I've been thumbing through my old dessert recipes to see what sounds reasonable. I have a great flourless chocolate cake that I've made for years, but it seems so...1987. And usually 3/4 of the desserts are completely chocolate anyway. Last year, I think R.'s Haupia Cake was the only non-chocolate dessert.

I don't remember how many years it's been since I've done dessert for the party. I know that in two of the intervening years, I hosted it, so all I supplied then was the alcohol (8 bottles of wine and untold gallons of cocktails) and the house. I do remember what I made the last time I was assigned dessert: traditional English trifle in my enormous crystal punch bowl.

(I have a thing for complication. I've made real plum pudding, and I've made traditional mincemeat...with the meat. Usually, I only have to do something like this once to convince myself that I don't need to do it again. I also have a thing about not poisoning my neighbors, so there are some things I won't make, like custard pies with uncooked eggs. Of course, the rum cream pie that I used to make probably has enough rum in it to sanitize anything.)

I was rather taken with the whole concept of fairy cakes when we were in London. Some place we stopped to get water had lovely ones, and yes, I know they're only vanilla cupcakes, but these were so pretty, and they looked so good (and I'll probably forever regret not buying a few). But let's face it: cupcakes are so 2007.

(I could do frosting shots! I couldn't believe it when I read about bakeries offering those. I make wicked buttercream frosting. However, I have a thing about my neighbors' health. I make frosting with butter. Lots of butter. And sugar. Even more sugar. Seriously, we're talking instant heart attack in a glass. Still. It would be so easy...)

One of my best desserts ever for the holidays is...I dread even saying it...fruitcake. Now, this isn't the enormous brick of nasty fruit and suspect liquor that so many hold, uh, dear. You know, that scary stuff with enormous chunks of preserved pineapple (preserved in what is the question. Formaldehyde, I suspect). This is actually called Kentucky Whisky Cake. It's a light fruitcake with minimal fruit and some lovely pecans and a bottle bourbon. And a lot of butter and sugar (but you guessed that part, right?). Anyway, it's delicious, and I'm always loathe to share it when I make it because the relative cost is about the same as a bar of gold, especially if you factor in the amount of time it takes to put the thing together.

Finally, whilst hunting, I came across a recipe for Dulce de Leche and Chocolate Chunk Bread Pudding. Hmmm. Sounds like it might be perfect.

But, of course, I need to try it out first.

Go listen to some good music: "Sugar, Sugar" from the album The Archies by The Archies.

Post-script:

Uh-oh. The spouse had never heard of frosting shots. He loves the idea. Green and red buttercream and a few glasses of chocolate buttercream for good measure. Uh-oh...