31 December 2009

An end has a start...and fortunately, an end

I don't know anyone who is sad to see this year go. I'm sure that for someone out there it was a great year. I hope so.

Despite everything, I am profoundly grateful for all that my family does have: jobs, generally good health, great kids, a roof over our heads, food on the table, friends and family. No matter how psychologically draining or devastating this last 15 or so months has been, no matter how difficult the work has been, no matter how much sheer ick I've had to wade through, we count our blessings.

Which doesn't mean we want to do it again.

Right now, there is a lovely full moon rising through the sky on this last night of the year, lighting up the winter air and turning the dew on the grass into diamonds. It's gorgeous. So, I think I'll look on the bright side of life:


My feisty, then 11-year-old daughter winning 1st place in the geography bee against contenders 3 years older than she was. And coming back from a nasty virus to take a 1st place medal in literature in the county Pentathlon. This is the kid everyone else treats as a lesser version of her brother. Guess again. I know my daughter.


Rethink what goes into your mouth. Reevaluate how you feed your body. Consider the chemicals and unprescribed medications you are ingesting when you eat meat that's been farmed in standard fashion. Educate yourself about the antibiotics that are stuffed into the animals you eat. Educate yourself about the antibiotics that are being stuffed into you. I'm not advocating that you stop eating meat or stop taking medication, but know what you are doing and the consequences thereof. Consume but be an educated consumer. Talk to your grocery. Talk to your doctor. If you're reading this online, there are plenty of resources right at your fingertips.

{soapbox} off {/soapbox}


I really enjoyed Nick Hornby's Juliet, Naked, because it made me laugh, and I needed to laugh. Honors also to Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, which is a YA book, but is a lovely, well-written and inventive story. I liked Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry as well, and it almost seemed a companion to The Graveyard Book.


Porcupine Tree's The Incident. Which may actually have been the only new album I bought this year.


I didn't travel nearly so much this year, but if you were inclined to travel (I was) and had the time (I didn't, dammit), there were incredible bargains to be had. Best place? The Willard in Washington, D.C., hands down. Excellent service, beautiful surroundings right in the heart of where I wanted to be, and I was able to reserve two lovely and enormous rooms for our stay at a very competitive price.

Unfortunately, I haven't much call to visit Phoenix, but I'd definitely stay at the Arizona Biltmore again just because it's beautiful and peaceful.


The lead singer for an opening band fussing about his Mellotron. Also the Spinal Tap-like performance of said band. Really, it only lacked the miniature Stonehenge. When I got home that night and tried to describe the whole thing to the spouse and the son, I was laughing so hard I couldn't breathe. The son, not having ever seen me actually collapse in laughter, thought I was ill.


Porcupine Tree at Club Nokia, September 19, for crystal sound and great music. Love the rumors that they'll be back in the spring. I'd definitely see them again.

Coldplay at Irvine Meadows, July 19, for sheer ebullience and good nature. And I like a lot of their music, too. Of course, watching my preteen daughter beam with joy when she caught sight of Chris Martin was priceless.


I don't read a lot of blogs. I don't have time. But there are some that are unexpected pleasures, that I try not to miss. I'm only going to name one, though, because if I try to name them all, I will invariably leave someone out. That's always bad.

I don't remember exactly how I found Kyle Cassidy, but I love his photographs, his wife's cool dresses, and his cats. But I especially love how he exhorts his readers to "go be awesome." He makes me smile.

We none of us know what the future might bring. Last year, I said I was holding on to hope. Forget that. I intend to live life beautifully, and I will steamroll anyone who tries to stop me. Doesn't that sound so much more like me?

My wish for everyone is that we come out shining on the other side, and I hope that you find a way to live your life beautifully, too. Thank you for spending time with me.

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.

30 December 2009

Feelin' the future

It's been quiet of necessity these last 10 days, but I've been stir crazy for a year, so what's 10 days? More and more, amongst friends and family, I see the same coping strategy I've employed: if I can only get through...

I know it's fantasy to think the flip of a calendar page will change my life. It won't. But the changes have come, large and small, over the last seven or eight years in particular. My health waned this year, my faith in myself waned this year, but the changes were true.

It was just a year.

Well, a year and a little more.

And now the sense of something done.

Yesterday, I made the spouse walk for his lunch after we got through the morning drama of Is That Thing Infected? He is angry with this disability, but his very crankiness tells me that things are improving. He enjoyed his walk and the pear cider that waited at the end of it.

Today, as promised, I took everyone to see Avatar. Predictably, it is predictable, almost to the point that I could anticipate what the characters would say next (thank god, thank god, no "come with me if you want to live." GAH!). But it is beautiful, not just as filmmaking but in the imagination that went into rendering the world of the film (I agree with most of what Joe Morgenstern had to say about the movie in his Wall St. Journal review, though I'm younger and got less Vietnam from it. I can certainly see the parallels, however). The detail was amazing, even if the spouse and I both had a couple of scientific quibbles (the same ones, which was funny).

(For those of you who know me, I did not fall asleep during the explosions.)

I was told don't fail to see it in 3-D. I agree. It's worth the few extra dollars to see Avatar in 3-D. The whole family thought so, too.

I was interested to note that most of the previews prior to the movie had the theme "we're looking for a savior." (The notable exception was the trailer for Salt, which just looked like a yawn.) Unsurprising subject matter, I suppose, given all that has gone on.

Though I'm not superstitious, I'm fine with the idea of maximizing my luck. So it'll be black-eyed peas on my New Year's dinner table. Okay, the truth is that I like black-eyed peas (the legumes, not the group), so eating them is not a hardship. You can buy them canned or frozen or dried. I like the dried best, and I start them to soak the night before. They don't even really need much seasoning: my preference is to eat them hot from the pot with a little salt and pepper, though you can also cook them with salt pork or a ham bone (a convenient way to use the one from your Christmas dinner if you didn't cook a goose). They're simple and nutritious, and maybe they're even lucky.

New Year's Day Dinner Menu

Braised greens
Black-eyed peas
Corn bread muffins

Greens are one of those things susceptible to a million variations, and everyone who eats them seems to have a recipe that's been handed down for generations. This is a very simple way to prepare greens as a side dish, and even the picky spouse likes them. To make a complete meal, chop up a pound of fully-cooked smoked sausage or ham and add it before you add the broth.

Braised greens

1 Tbl. olive oil
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 lbs. of any combination of kale, chard, collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens, spinach, washed, stemmed and chopped
2 c. to 1 quart low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth

In a large pot, saute onion and garlic in olive oil over medium heat until soft. Add chopped greens and saute until starting to wilt. Add broth, using more if you prefer to serve greens with more pot liquor, which is how my family likes it. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat. Simmer about 30 minutes, until greens are tender. Season to taste. Serves 4-6.

Go listen to some good music: "Feelin' the Future" from the album Keep Color by Republic Tigers. One of the things I love about my blog is the way in which its general messiness does not resemble my own incredibly logical thought processes. The other thing I love about it is the way in which it reflects the way that I think, which is everything, all the time.

27 December 2009

Better now (2009 edition)

In memory, the room was so much larger: vast, cavernous, an endless sea of chairs populated by the worried and tired. In truth, it was near empty at 7:30 am, small and unimposing, with only a few people milling about.

What I'd remembered accurately was the freezing gale blowing in from the automatic doors exiting to the parking structure.

"Sit here," I instructed the daughter, who insisted that she'd joined me to give me "moral support," but was in reality the one requiring support, while simultaneously hoping for coffee and pastries in the cafeteria downstairs.

Within a few minutes, the spouse was called away.

"Family in 30 minutes," the elderly volunteer told me.

Two years ago, I'd been in the same place with the son, but because he was a minor, I was with him every moment up until he was wheeled into surgery. Now, I just got to look after the daughter, plugged into a cassette recorder with a book-on-tape, pushed into my arm for comfort.

When we were called back, the spouse was lying on a bed in a hospital gown, IV attached, looking annoyed.

"Nice flour sack," I commented picking up the edge of the blanket that covered him with my finger nails.

"My feet are cold," he replied querulously.

The daughter sat on the one of the chairs, wide-eyed.

"Glad no one's shaved your head," I told the spouse, conversationally.

A nurse who was inputting information at the computer next to the spouse's bed looked up, concerned. "Why would we do that?"

The spouse replied, "My grandfather went in for stomach surgery, and when my father went to see him before the operation, the nurses had prepped my grandfather for brain surgery by mistake."

"Ohhhhhh," the nurse shuddered.

"So I promised him," I nodded toward the spouse, "that I'd make sure everyone had properly autographed his shoulder."

When the son had knee reconstruction two years earlier, even I'd had to sign his knee cap.

Pre-op things continued, and more nurses and doctors wandered in. I liked this anesthesiologist better than the last one I'd met here. I asked the orthopedic surgeon a few salient questions when he came by. Everyone shook hands like opposing teams and we left the playing field as the spouse was rolled away down the corridor, shoulder autographed and glowing yellow with iodine.

I pulled my jacket around me in the freezing lobby and took the daughter for her promised coffee. The waiting had begun.

Once the daughter was sated, we returned to the lobby. People came and went. To my right an entire extended family was fretting loudly about Grandma, while to my right, a woman sat, looking nervous and jittery. Another family group, dragging a screaming and crying girl, paraded through.

Time passed. The spouse's OR nurse passed came through the door in the distance and smiled at me as she walked by, which was reassuring. Shortly thereafter, I saw the anesthesiologist walk toward the pre-op rooms. Eventually, the orthopedic surgeon came out to talk to me.

"No surprises," he told me. "Very straightforward."

Then he started talking about staples and removing dressings, and my stomach turned a little. I've been stapled and taped more than once, and coping with my own is one thing. Someone else's are a level of responsibility that sits uneasily with me.

(It was the same when my children were very young. Always the fear that I would miss the key symptom, the indicator that something was truly wrong.)

We were called back to recovery and the spouse was awake, looking unhappy. I checked his vitals on the monitor above his head, reading the level of stress and pain there. But it was nice to see that his heart rate dropped significantly with our appearance, that the very presence of the daughter and me was a relief for him, despite his cranky demeanor.

Talking with nurses, getting him water to relieve post-surgical cotton-mouth, filling prescriptions. As I had after the son's surgery, I got disoriented in the morass of twisting corridors in the recovery unit. A nurse saw me staring with confusion at the signs pointing all directions, and said, "That way!"

I looked into her face, and we smiled at each other.

"I recognized the name on the chart," she said.

"It's my husband. But you cared for my son when he was here!" I exclaimed. She was the sweet nurse who had been so good to him. "He's done well since his surgery."

"I saw you and your daughter in the lobby," she told me. "She's gotten so tall."

"I'm starting to feel like I live here," I laughed a little.

Suddenly, she threw her arms around me.

"It will be all right," she said.

Go listen to some good music: "Better Now" from the album Youth by Collective Soul. And that was how I got through last Monday.

25 December 2009

God rest ye merry, gentlemen

Years back, Before Children, I got the spouse tickets to see Patrick Stewart in his one man performance of A Christmas Carol at Caltech. It was a lovely and memorable show, and when I found it was available on tape, I picked up a copy that we always listened to at Christmas.

Enter the son, who became wholly fascinated with Mr. Stewart's performance and by the age of 4, was quoting huge portions of the tapes, accent, intonation and all.

We read him Dickens' A Christmas Carol and he was thrilled. We purchased the Alastair Sim film version, and he watched with an intent sort of glee. Then came the moment of truth.

"Mama, will you make goose for Christmas dinner? I want to know what it's like."

(Yes, the kid is my son. Through and through.)

And given my own fascination with the marriage of literature and food, language and food, culture and food, I decided that I'd give the kid a whole Victorian Christmas dinner, down to the plum pudding and sugarplums.

Epic Fail.

It looked beautiful. It smelled wonderful. The son loved it. Everyone loved it. My mother-in-law, who hadn't had roast goose since her girlhood in Germany, waxed rhapsodic.

In short, I was doomed.

For the last ten years, save perhaps one, Christmas dinner has been goose. Neither the son nor the daughter will budge on this point. Tonight, eating her third helping of roast goose with goose gravy, the daughter murmured appreciatively:

"Goose pie, goose soup, goose sandwiches..."

I raised an eyebrow. That was a new one.

"Okay, maybe not," she conceded.

"Don't forget goose fajitas," the son chimed in.

(Yes. We've had goose fajitas.)

There never was such a goose.

Go sing a good song: "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," a traditional English carol.

24 December 2009

...and to all a good night

When my brother and I were small, our preparations for Christmas included buying new spatulas for our mother or tie tacks for our father. They also frequently involved elaborate plans to sneak out to the Christmas tree in the middle of the night and to possibly catch Santa in action.

When we got a little older--probably 5 and 6--our plans were sufficiently elaborate that they required we draw maps. Always necessary in a two-bedroom house with a sum total of 900 square feet. Who knows where we might have gotten lost.

The house, built in the early 1940s, was a little funky in design, so there was an oddball door that led from the hallway outside our bedroom and directly into the kitchen. When we were misbehaving, we could run an endless loop around the center of the tiny house, going kitchen, dining room, living room, hall and kitchen again. I've no doubt I ran my first mile going that route.

But this design oddity was significant in our map creation because it gave us two routes to attack the tree: directly from the hallway outside our bedroom, which also happened to be directly outside our parents' bedroom, or via the kitchen and dining room, which was perilous in being a longer way around. We finessed our plans by adding a route through the cooler ducts, though we couldn't reach the vent opening, and I also assured my brother that there were whirling fan blades and axes up there waiting for unwary children to blunder into them. These were depicted on our map with loving care and small drops of cautionary blood.

Our map also included our younger sister's crib which was parked in the corner of our bedroom. She was little more than a year old at that point, but stood as a significant obstacle in that she was incredibly interested in everything we did. And in making noise about it.

So it was that Christmas Eve arrived. We broke out my brother's little construction hat with the real headlamp in the front, and prepared for battle. It was early yet, but my brother is one of those guys who falls asleep instantly and can sleep through anything. We had to make our move while he was still awake.

Stealthily, we slid from our beds and crawled commando style across the cold linoleum floor. Our sister rolled over in her crib, making an interrogative sound.

"Ssshhh!" I hissed sternly, at which she sat up and started to laugh.

"Stop fooling around back there," my mother hollered from the living room. My brother and I ducked back into the shadows of our beds. We could hear all sorts of activity from the parents' room, though it never dawned on us that they were dragging presents from their closet to put under the tree.

We sat quietly for a few moments, and our sister, bored with our inaction, settled back down in her crib.

"Let's go," I whispered almost soundlessly to my brother.

"I'm tired," he murmured.

"Alright, then you take the hall. I'll go through the kitchen," I told him.

We carefully examined our map in the faint light cast by the headlamp on his hat. The parents were quiet in the living room, and we could hear faint noise from the TV. We crawled carefully out the bedroom door and I pointed down the hall to the doorway that led to the living room. Inch by inch, my brother traversed the linoleum squares as I turned left into the kitchen. I was nearly to the door leading from the kitchen to the dining room when I heard a tremendous metallic bang from behind me. My brother had somehow just careened into the wall heater.

"YOU KIDS GET BACK INTO BED RIGHT NOW!" my father bellowed, and I stood and ran back to the bedroom, almost colliding with my giggling brother, as we both dove headfirst into our beds, pulling the covers over our heads just as the large silhouette of a parent appeared in the doorway, breathing heavily with annoyance. My brother let out the tiniest and most delicate snore to demonstrate that we were sleeping the sleep of the innocent. I bit my hand hard to stifle the laughter that was rising in my throat. The parent remained in the doorway for a few moments longer to be certain that we were quiet, and then departed.

I lay quietly a few more minutes, trying to regulate my wildly beating heart.

"I guess we could wait until they go to bed," I finally whispered to my brother. I was answered only by his slow and regular breathing. He'd fallen asleep.

"Or we wait until next year," I murmured into the darkness.

Go read a good poem: "A Visit From Saint Nicholas," the authorship of which is generally attributed to Clement C. Moore.

21 December 2009

Just another manic Monday

I needed to get through Monday. I got through Monday.

We all got through Monday.

Assuming Tuesday follows on, onward.

Go listen to some music: "Manic Monday" from the album by The Bangles. Yeah, there is a story.

18 December 2009

You know I've done it before...

The spouse: "...and the guy told these engineers, 'Put something together; give 'em a show.' So they got some PVC and some liquid nitrogen..."

Me, raising an eyebrow: "PVC pipe and liquid nitrogen?"

The spouse: "Yup. Filled the pipe, increased the pressure..."

Me, rolling my eyes while toying with a piece of enchilada: "How many fire trucks showed up?"

The spouse, laughing: "I don't know, but there were two huge plumes of vapor, the PVC turned to dust, and they cracked the lab floor. Outta hand."

Me, turning to the daughter: "Hey kid, I've got a science fair project for you for next year..."

Go listen to some good music: "Tick Tick Boom" from the album The Black and White Album by The Hives. Party's done. Now I just have to get through Monday.

17 December 2009

The wave inside

Today I have:

Baked and decorated 5 dozen sugar cookies for the daughter's holiday party tomorrow

Baked a dozen mini breads as gifts for teachers and staff (pumpkin streusel and cranberry orange)

Cleaned up after all that baking and decorating (Royal icing, folks. They use it to stick gingerbread houses together for a reason...)

Wrapped same

Planted flowers

Was generally awesome to my family, like I always am

Counted my frequent flyer and hotel miles

If I can just get through tomorrow.

Go listen to some good music: "Outside" from the album Here at Home by Tribe. I'll hide my smile.

16 December 2009

Dream a dream

I did dream last night. I don't remember what. Usually my dreams are vivid enough to stay with me, but this time, I woke with nothing more than the memory that I was happy for the first time in so long.

Things are not happy here. They are frenetic.

Years ago, when I was recovering from one of the interminable orthopedic injuries my body is subject to, I had to learn to walk again. When you next get up, think for a moment about the act of walking. Think about all those muscles and bones, all the tiny little connections of sinew and nerve. Think about what goes into each step you take. Think of how much you take that involuntary act for granted.

I am not a patient patient. I cannot stand to be on crutches; I dislike the clumsiness of the whole operation, and I don't like the sense of vulnerability medical appliances carry with them. So of course, when I was told not to bear weight on my ankle for 6 weeks, I'd had enough of hopping around in less than six days, tossed the crutches and was off. The injury didn't heal properly as a result, and every step was searing pain from nerves and muscles that were really displeased.

So I had to retrain the muscles, hope there wasn't permanent nerve damage in the foot I couldn't always feel. I paid excruciating attention to what I'd never really considered: the proper placement of my foot through each incremental part of a step.

Walking was part of the therapy. I could hobble a few steps, and then I'd have to stop, stretch the burning muscles. I began to count my steps: 10 steps, then stretch. Eventually 12 steps until I had to stretch, and on and on for months until I could walk a mile without stopping.

I coached myself along: I only have to get 20 steps. If I can just make it through 40 steps. I realized as I swayed down the street, grabbing a telephone pole when the pain became too much to bear, when I could no longer touch foot to ground, that this was the model for how I'd always run my life: I just have to get through Wednesday, then everything will be alright. Then I can make it until Friday. Then finals are over, or the paper is written, or the documents have been sent to court. Then I start over again.

I just need to get through Monday. If Monday goes off without a hitch, I am in the clear. Then I just need to get through Friday. And a week later, it will be January.

It will be a new year.

If I can get through Monday.

Go listen to some music: "Dream a Dream" from the album iTunes Holiday Sampler by Charlotte Church. This was playing while I was writing, and it was strikingly appropriate. I want to believe that in the new year, nothing will stop me. Especially me.

12 December 2009


Bright and early this morning (10 am, actually), I started putting together the artichoke dip (12 hours late; it's supposed to sit overnight so the 97 garlic cloves in there can do their garlicky thing). It's a pretty easy project, but the artichoke heart chopping takes a little while (ease of preparation note: I use a garlic press, rather than mincing the garlic, and throw in an extra clove for good measure). Usually, I use the canned artichokes, but out of curiosity had picked up a couple of bags of fresh frozen as well. I felt the need to rinse them after defrosting, and while they were draining, I was assembling the other necessities. The cat always wants to know what I'm up to when there is food involved, and he was sitting on his perch above the kitchen sink, alternately watching me and the hummingbird that was attacking the camellia flowers in the rain. He was awfully cute, and I turned to get my camera because there simply aren't enough photos of cute cats in the world, especially mine.

You can see above what I caught.

He not only grabbed an entire quarter artichoke heart, but when I yelled, he ran with it, and then scarfed it down as fast as he could. Okra last night, artichoke this morning, god only knows what delights will await me in the cat box.

Go listen to some music: "Artichoke" from the album Viva! La Woman by Cibo Matta. One of the...benefits?...of always using songs and lyrics for titles is that I find new music. This was an interesting find, to say the least.

11 December 2009

Jambalaya, crawfish pie and filé gumbo

I often tell you of my cooking triumphs, or at the least, I'm serene about what I've served for dinner. So what of the disasters?

Well, this wasn't a disaster so much as a disappointment. I was making Indian food tonight, and I'd recently come across an article about Gujarati dishes. The spouse spent some time in Gujarat after the big earthquake in 2001, and has often spoken fondly of some of the food he ate. The easiest of the things in the article was a recipe for an okra curry, and I thought "why not?"

Well, why not because I happen to dislike okra. In fact, I despise the slimy stuff. But I thought, well, maybe here is an opportunity to find a way to like okra. And the recipe was spicy. Even okra might be palatable spicy. I was well pleased with my wholly adult attitude.

The curry made with the last of the turkey was delicious. The green beans were fabulous. The okra curry resembled curdled reddish...slime. And it mostly tasted like...watery slime. To be completely fair, this wasn't entirely the fault of the okra or the recipe. I thought I'd gotten a packet of hot paprika, but it was regular paprika. And it wasn't even very good regular paprika. So despite masses of turmeric and garlic, and heaven help us, okra...meh.

The family was largely polite about the whole fiasco, even agreeing that with the addition of spice, it might be palatable (the daughter and I ended up pouring significant amounts of Tabasco on our portions). Only one family member loved the okra.

Milton, the cat who eats everything.

I sadly contemplated the remains of the curry (most of it) and wondered what to do with it. I really dislike wasting food, and it didn't seem a particularly good idea to let the cat eat all of it.

Then a light bulb went off.

"I have to take an appetizer to the party tomorrow night," I told the spouse. "Maybe I could just mix in some cheese and more Tabasco and bake it all together and serve it with crackers or something."

The spouse blanched. "Really?" he asked.

The children just sat there and giggled.

Go listen to some music: "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)" from the album Honky Tonkin', by Hank Williams. No, of course I'm not serving leftover okra stuff! It'll be the usual baked artichoke dip.

09 December 2009

Come and listen to a story...

I had to? got to? help with some field work in Beverly Hills today, which took the better part of the entire morning, what with traffic on the freeway and the painfully slow parade of traffic lights on Sunset and the marching around in the mud. But it was a pretty day, if only in the 50s, and at the end of the work (and a small tour of Downtown), there were taquitos for lunch at one of the little stalls at Olvera Street. Then to another counter to pick up some sweets and walk in the sun admiring the serapes and hats and belts that have not changed a bit in the 20-odd years I've been visiting Olvera Street.

Las Posadas, the annual celebration of Mary and Joseph's trip to Bethlehem and search for a place to stay, begins in about a week. It's been years since I've gone, but it's a lovely reenactment, and the decorations, including a really impressive manger scene, were already starting to appear in the square. As you can see from the photo I took this afternoon, Baby Jesus is already in residence.

The daughter would be pleased.

Go listen to some music: "The Ballad of Jed Clampett," the theme from the TV show The Beverly Hillbillies, performed by Jerry Scoggins and Flatt and Scruggs.

08 December 2009

O come, o come, Emmanuel

I don't re-run posts very often, but I am finding that the daughter at 12 years, 7.5 months, is not so very different from the daughter of 20 months. She is still enraged that she missed the first basketball game of the season because her mother scheduled her flu shot appointment for this afternoon. Of course, the appointment was made well before I ever got a basketball schedule.


I need to get pictures of the kids for holiday cards. Since it was the first Christmas we were celebrating in our more southerly Southern California house, I had the bright idea to drive down to San Juan Capistrano and take pictures at the mission.

It's one of those brilliant winter days, the light is terrible for outdoor photography, and San Juan Capistrano is abloom and beautiful. I snap a few photos, and inevitably, someone has to go to the bathroom. The spouse whisks the son off to the restroom, and the daughter, who is 20 months old, disappears around a corner. I pursue the girl, only to find her climbing through the barrier designed to keep people out of the life-sized creche. She is standing in front of plastic Mary, looking into the empty hay-filled bed.

"Baby Jesus?" she questions emphatically, pointing. Every fiber in her little body says, "Where the hell is Baby Jesus? I know he's supposed to be THERE!"

"Not until Christmas," I tell her. "Come on out."


This is a command. Since Mama is apparently ineffectual, she begins hunting in the creche for the lost baby herself.

Of course, a priest shows up, tall and sere in his long brown Franciscan robes. He looks at the daughter; he looks at me. I know he is thinking that the daughter is an undisciplined devil baby, and I'm the mother-from-hell.

"She's looking for Baby Jesus," I tell him wearily.

"Christmas," he tells the daughter. She gives him what can only be described as a sneer.

"Baby Jesus," she says again, with strained patience, pointing at the empty bed.

The priest gives me a significant look, and strides away.

Go listen to some good music: "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" from the album Joy to the World by The Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

07 December 2009

When the rain rain rain came down down down

I woke at 5 am to the sound of water pounding on the roof and rushing through the downspout. About half the time that they predict rain for SoCal, it doesn't materialize. Especially if they use aggressive terms like chance of rain: 90%.

But there it was.

More to the point, though, the cat was out of food.

Milton injured his kidneys when he was a kitten and has been on a special prescription diet ever since. Yes, it's expensive, but taking him to the vet and having all the tests done when he's ill is a lot more expensive, so I stick with the special diet. It's getting the stuff that's the hard part. Okay, well, the smell is something we could all live without, too.

Some years ago, the vet contracted with an online outfit to deliver the stuff by the case. In those days, it was free shipping and a little discount for having a standing order et voila! Cat food at my door!

Then the online outfit started charging for shipping and now it's a lot cheaper to go down to the vet to pick the stuff up. Not that I really wanted to do it in the pounding rain, but the cat tends to start chewing on people's feet when he doesn't get his food. I was also precarious on milk, bread, dinner, lunch...you know, people food.

So out into the pounding rain I went.

How pounding? We'd gotten an 1.25" by 10:30 this morning.

The freeways were chaos, of course. Most of the people who live in SoCal are transplants, so you'd think they'd have some idea of how to behave in a car in actual weather. No such luck. They're either running red lights (why?) or crawling across the intersection (why?). Visibility was bad, but not that bad.

So I drove to the grocery, and the groceries and I got soaked. Then I drove to the vet, but rather than going to the vet right away (heh. Called in advance. They were holding the precious cat food for me.), I sloshed through enormous lakes to get into the Italian market that's almost next door. Housemade meatballs in the freezer, sub sandwiches made fresh, but most importantly (so far as the kids are concerned) containers of homemade Fancy Italian Cookies. Not that the Italians have a corner on spritz or sugar cookies, but some of these things are pretty good, and I'm no fan of balls of dough covered in powdered sugar. The market was decorated for Christmas, and the bakery display was filled with pretty cakes.

And I was dripping on the floor, but no one seemed to mind.

I stashed that treasure in my car, and picked up the case of food at the vet, then drove home in the pouring rain, satisfied that all resident feet would now be safe from the cat's hungry wrath.

This has been a cold storm by SoCal standards, and a warm and hearty meal seemed to fit the bill for dinner. Bon Appétit had a recipe that sounded good this month: Barley Stew with Leeks, Mushrooms and Greens. I rarely make anything according to the recipe as written, and in this case, I used an extra clove of garlic, 8 cups of mushroom broth rather than 4 of vegetable broth, chard rather than kale, 1 tsp of dried rosemary instead of fresh, and I threw in a 1/2 cup of red wine for good measure. The stew (mine was closer to soup, as my family prefers) was inexpensive (about $1.50 per serving), delicious, healthy and warm and filling when served with cornbread muffins. Perfect meal for a chilly night.

Go listen to some good music: "The Rain Rain Rain Came Down Down Down" written by Robert & Richard Sherman from the featurette Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. We actually had the entire audio of the featurette on a Disney record as children, and my mother would put it on the record player when we went to bed. Amusingly enough, the video of the short became a huge hit around here when my children were little, and this is one song I frequently had to sing when they went to bed at night.

06 December 2009

Flirtin' with disaster

Hmm. This entry makes 600 posts.

("But are you a good witch? Or a bad witch?")

Today, holiday lunch with the spouse's parental units. We had a nice time together, and then, because they live that way, drove past the burn area. Looking at it, it's not hard to believe that the Station fire burned over 250 square miles in the San Gabriel mountains.

And right now, the National Weather Service is predicting that it's going to rain like hell for the next five days. We desperately need the rain, but knowing what it's likely to do the denuded hillsides fills is really distressing. And those denuded hillsides include those down here that were ravaged in the fires last fall and in 2007.

(The Weather Channel announcer just said in a voice filled with good cheer, "A high wind watch is in effect for our area!" with "Wizards in Winter" playing giddily in the background.)

It's going to be a long week.

Go listen to some good music: "Flirtin' with Disaster" from the album Molly Hatchett: Greatest Hits by Molly Hatchett. For those who have only recently joined us here, I frequently work on landslide cases. It can be very distressing.

05 December 2009

All seem to say "throw cares away"

The holiday crazy is in full swing.

I'm not crazy about the holidays.

I woke this morning in the midst of a semi-nightmare. I was in a huge store, and the lights were so dim that I couldn't make out the size tags on the shirts I was looking at. Then I realized I couldn't even tell what color they were.

My phone rang as I was trying to sort through the shirts, but as soon as I picked it up, the screen showed "Missed Call." I knew I was supposed to meet my brother in another store on the other side of this enormous mall, and we had little time to do what we needed to. I couldn't afford to be late. There was no time.

I realized that although I hadn't completed any shopping, I was carrying innumerable bags, one of which held a laptop, another an iPhone the size of a netbook, and yet another which held my phone and wallet. I tried to text my brother, but couldn't get through. I gathered up my bags and set off out the door to try again, at which point I found I'd lost my wallet.

Exasperated, I began to run across the outdoor square toward the store where I was supposed to meet my brother, but all the entrances were blocked by people waiting in lines. I got a garbled call which only increased my sense of urgency and I looked around the outside of the buildings until I finally found a service door, and slipped inside. At which point, I found myself in a very high-end men's store, falling over a chain that was blocking entrance to a room...

Go listen to some good music: "Carol of the Bells" from the album Joy to the World by The Mormon Tabernacle Choir. At one time or another, I've been called upon to sing every vocal part in this song. Figures, doesn't it?

03 December 2009

Christmas canon

Tonight, Trans-Siberian Orchestra. The kids had so much fun last year, they were anxious to go again (funny, they've never asked to sit through Handel's Messiah a second time...)

But what's not to love about a Christmas program with generous lashings of heavy metal, classical and pyro? Joe Walsh made a surprise appearance, and my 12-year-old daughter shushed the obnoxious woman behind us.

A good time was had by all!

Go listen to some good music: "Christmas Canon" from the album The Christmas Attic by Trans-Siberian Orchestra. I told the daughter that part of the fun of seeing concerts in L.A. is never knowing who might show up on stage: we saw Jack Black join Rush on stage, and years ago, I saw Warren Zevon get on stage with REM for several songs at the Greek Theater. Others, too. The other thing that struck me as funny is that the first and, I think only, time I'd seen Joe Walsh live was with the Eagles...when I was the daughter's age.

01 December 2009

Count your blessings (instead of sheep)

Eden Kennedy, the mastermind behind NaBloPoMo, also runs a monthly blogging challenge and sends out an email every month with a theme that you can follow or not if you choose to blog for yet another month (dream on, at this point, though I've done it in the past). The themes are often pretty interesting, and the one for December was no exception:

"the theme for December is MITZVAH and it comes with a challenge: to give something, to someone, every day of the month, and then blog about it. The goal is to act with kindness, obviously -- I don't want to be responsible for people giving each other black eyes..."

Of course, I was intrigued. I try to act with kindness every day, and usually fail, unable to resist the opportunity to give a single finger salute to some car that is trying to hit me when I have the right of way in a crosswalk. In the last six months, it's taken very little to set me off into a firestorm of rage, and ironically, it's usually others' petty meannesses and selfishnesses that cause me to erupt into my own petty meannesses. Honestly, how difficult is it to hold the door for someone instead of letting it slam in his/her face while you're busy yammering on your cell phone? How difficult is it to cede to a pedestrian or bicyclist, particularly when they have the right of way? How hard is it to offer a polite response to someone who is helping you in a store? How hard is it to teach your child basic manners?

(...and she's off...)


But realistically, I thought, the daily grind in impolite So Cal aside, how likely is it that I would be able to do something like this when there are days that I pretty much don't leave the house because I'm working here?

(Also, she who was named Christian of the Year by her peers in eighth grade--and has never gotten over the humiliation thereof--prefers to keep her good deeds to herself, whilst freely talking about how horrible she is. Kick vans much when they turn in front you, lady? Yeah, done that.)


Tuesday mornings are early mornings around here. The son needs to be at the bus stop at his usual 7 am, and the daughter has her student government meeting before school, so leaves with me when I take the son. Generally, this makes Tuesdays slightly stressful trying to push them both out the door, doubly so when I get it into my head to be nice and get up at the crack of dawn to make them muffins for breakfast. Today was no exception, and the son was running back at the last minute because he forgot his PE clothes and the daughter was shivering, and I'd only managed a single cup of coffee since getting out of bed. So we'd finally gotten within sight of our destination, and were preparing to cross the street (at the crosswalk! Talking myself out of throwing things at cars making illegal turns!), when I witnessed a car making a radical maneuver out of the left turn lane, then turn left in the middle of the intersection. This is always a bad intersection, and it's not unusual for people to run the red light, refuse to wait for the turn arrow, and my pet peeve, make illegal right hand turns.

After watching this and murmuring to myself in slightly profane disbelief, a woman approached me at the corner, talking fast, a little panicky. Turns out her SUV died in the left turn lane (hence the other car's radical maneuver), she was afraid it would cause an accident, would I please help her push her car to the side of the road?

(I swear to you, there's a sign on me somewhere: Pushes cars out of traffic! Speaks multiple languages and can give directions! Will explain the fat content on ground beef!)

The son, of course, bless his heart, wanted to help. "You have a bus to catch," I told him.

The daughter wanted to watch. "No," I told her, not bothering to explain that Good Samaritans tend to get killed with frightening regularity in So Cal.

I told the woman I'd be happy to help her once I got my kids out of the way.

After getting them situated, I met her at her car, we talked over what we'd do, then I pushed and once the car was moving, she steered, and then I ran with it (literally. Thank God the SUV was heading down hill) and we got her over to the opposite curb without incident. Once I ascertained that she had additional assistance on the way, I left her, and went back across the street, where the daughter was beaming.

"You were running!" she said.

"You weren't supposed to be watching," I retorted severely.

She hugged me, and I headed home.

All in all, I considered, not a bad morning's work on a single cup of coffee.

Go listen to some good music: "Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep)" from the album Christmas Songs by Diana Krall. One of my favorite Shirley Jackson stories is called "An Ordinary Day with Peanuts," and in it a man and his wife take turns being angel and devil out in the world. I feel like both most days.

30 November 2009

More than the blues

Thirty posts in thirty days.

On the face of it, no big deal, yeah? Except when you're trying not to dial the posts in, and find that, indeed, you are using a hand-crank phone.

In a sense, I've gotten too good at this blogging business. I can toss a post off without thinking too hard about it, and for me, that was never the point.

I'm not sure that I rediscovered the point this month. For the last year, I've had the uneasy sense that I really need to stop doing this, that it no longer serves a purpose. But the last year has been pretty wretched in many regards, and it's likely that's coloring my perspective more than I'd like to admit.

But this is no time for introspection! It's the last day of NaBloPoMo! (It's also the end of NaNoWriMo. Two hundred words this year? Hmmm. Update: I actually wrote 659 words. Yay me. Think I can get in another 49,341 before bed? Yeah, me neither.) At any rate, I posted for thirty straight days.

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:

New November, new pair of Birkenstocks! With jewels. These have no story behind them, nor have they met anyone special. I just needed a new pair of sandals, and with a torn arch, these are pretty much my only choice. Hideous and uncomfortable. That's how I like my sandals.

Now these are more like it. Party shoes. And surprisingly comfortable for all they have 3-1/2" heels. Remember, tall women: just because you're tall doesn't mean you can't be taller!

Alright, enough silliness. I'm supposed to be paying bills and inventing dinner.

Many thanks to those of you who went the distance with me as readers this month, inanity notwithstanding, and to those of you who joined in for the first time. This is the first month I've ever seen feed readership actually double, which freaks me out just enough to keep me going.

Tomorrow's a new month.

Aren't you happy?!

Go listen to some good music: "More Than the Blues" from the album Scarlet and Other Stories by All About Eve.

29 November 2009

Pleasant Valley Sunday

We usually put up the Christmas lights and outdoor decorations the weekend after Thanksgiving. The lights are pretty and festive, and it's nice to admire them for the month, though I'm a stickler for not putting up the tree until the weekend before Christmas.

Yesterday, after mowing and blowing, I wandered off to the nursery to get new flowers for the front flower beds. I haven't replanted them since March, and they're quite scraggly. Because they were on sale, I also got some poinsettias for the area around the front door. You know: pretty and festive.

A bit of weather moved through on Saturday, bringing us clouds and the mountains a little snow. Then the weather people promised us wild wind, set to begin this morning at 3 am. So the poinsettias went into the garage because the wind would make instant hash of them, and then naturally, the wind didn't materialize until later in the day, for which I am infinitely grateful because I don't like the wind anyway.

My day commenced to disappear and around 3:30 pm, the spouse announced that it was time to put up the outdoor lights. Since he's still nursing a torn biceps, this meant that I would be putting up the lights, which isn't unusual because he's just as likely to be in Venezuela as is he to be here to put up the lights.

Home Despot announced a few weeks ago that they'd give a coupon for LED Christmas lights for every incandescent string turned in, and the spouse duly went off and turned in five strings of C-7s and purchased, with coupons, LED strings. Also a gadget to attach said lights to the eaves of the house, rather than use the gadgets that attach the lights to the gutter.

With some ceremony, the spouse brought forth the new lights. It's true that the old strings really needed to go. They vaguely resembled something out of A Christmas Story, and probably a good quarter of the sockets has ceased to work. Still there was something about their soft glow, interspersed with the occasional blinking light that definitely calls to mind Christmas. The LED lights are frankly unattractive, giving off a somewhat garish and neon light, but I unfurled them and prepared to put them up nonetheless. I lost patience with the gadget in about five minutes when it turned out that only one of every five plastic anchors didn't break when I attempted to attach it to the eaves. So up the ladder I went, light string in hand.

While engaged in this labor, I came to the unfortunate conclusion that the house needs to be repainted. And that someone--hopefully not us--has termites.

It also didn't take long to come to the unfortunate conclusion that the five strings of LED lights only covered half of the linear footage previously covered by the strings of incandescent lights.

So, I'll be looking for more tomorrow to finish the job.

Or I may just settle on the poinsettias for pretty and festive.

Go listen to some good music: "Pleasant Valley Sunday" from the album The Best of the Monkees by The Monkees. And tomorrow is the end of NaBloPoMo. YAY!

28 November 2009

You light up my life

Whilst taking a break from AMC's The Prisoner to eat pie:

The son: "Wow, those writers must have been on LCD!"

Me, amused: "LCD? Really?"

The spouse faked a cough to cover a laugh.

The daughter, confused: "Liquid crystal display?"

The son, realizing his error: "I mean...I MEAN..."

The daughter: "K! Your face is PINK!"

Later, while we were watching the next episode:

The son: "This is so...so...so...psychological!"

Me: "Nah, it's all the LCD you're taking."

Son, with an audible sigh: "You're not going to let me forget that are you?"

Me, ruffling his hair: "Not EVER!"

Go listen to some music: "You Light Up My Life" from the album You Light Up My Life by Debby Boone.

27 November 2009

Glaciers melting in the dead of night


Has a ring, doesn't it? I'm not sure who coined it, but it would be funny if it weren't so predictable.

You are free to draw your own conclusions on climate change, and actually, I encourage you to do so. Read *all* the available information out there, pro and con, and don't just digest the gospel that an "expert" chooses to force feed you. Personally, I've never subscribed to the "science" that this climate stuff has been based upon but that's because I've been around the scientific publishing and peer review process far too long. I've also been around the geologic record for too long, and what the climate scientists preach really doesn't mesh with what's writ on Mother Earth's face.

But it's not politic to say so.

What is possibly most disturbing to me, is this quote from an opinion piece published in Wall St. Journal today:

'"What they've done is search through stolen personal emails—confidential between colleagues who often speak in a language they understand and is often foreign to the outside world," Penn State's Michael Mann told Reuters Wednesday. Mr. Mann added that this has made "something innocent into something nefarious."'

What I find most distasteful here is the ego. "You don't understand the language we speak because we're--SCIENTISTS!"

The WSJ piece goes on to note: "The furor over these documents is not about tone, colloquialisms or whether climatologists are nice people. The real issue is what the messages say about the way the much-ballyhooed scientific consensus on global warming was arrived at, and how a single view of warming and its causes is being enforced......According to this privileged group, only those whose work has been published in select scientific journals, after having gone through the "peer-review" process, can be relied on to critique the science. And sure enough, any challenges from critics outside this clique are dismissed and disparaged."

Of course, only approved reviewers are allowed to review the data, which then is more than likely to only appear in approved journals. What these guys have apparently created is a tidy little clique that supports their view... and their view alone.

This is not a first in the scientific community, and definitely not a first in the earth sciences community. I'm watching a dedicated band of hard-working young Ph.D.'s go head to head with another big ego that's held sway over certain aspects of the geologic community for far too long by quashing research he doesn't like.

Unfortunately, my sense of satisfaction in seeing these climate scientists exposed is tempered by my own certainty of the damage they've done. This is the most discouraging aspect of bad science: when the pendulum swings too far in the opposite direction. It will be tempting to many to say, "ok, global warming is the big lie! Back to business as usual!" rather than recognize that we continue to occupy this planet on borrowed time.

Go listen to some good music: "Supermassive Black Hole" from the album Blackholes and Revelations by Muse. Honest science isn't that which answers an opposing viewpoint with "you don't know what you're talking about." Honest science respectfully engages opposing viewpoints and creates an excellent argument for why its view is better.

26 November 2009

And dream of sheep

The cat is in a food coma. He sat in the kitchen, keeping watch over the 18-lb. turkey roasting in the oven. He was stepped on while I was trying to serve dinner. He certainly received his share of good things, and roused himself briefly to try for some pie. Now he's curled in sleep.

I, too, am ready for sleep, but not because I ate much. I never have much of an appetite when I've spent the day cooking. But watching the daughter launch herself into the leftovers a few moments ago makes it all worth it.

"Turkey sandwich!" she crowed triumphantly.

Wherever you are and whatever you did, I hope your day was good, too.

Go listen to some good music: "And Dream of Sheep" from the album Hounds of Love by Kate Bush.

25 November 2009

Recuerdos de la Alhambra

The house is beginning to fill with the smell of baking. I always make my pies the night before Thanksgiving.

For some reason, my mind keeps straying to the year I spent T-Day alone. I should be clear that my solitude was a matter of choice: I'd politely declined at least 4 invitations to spend the day with friends or colleagues. But that year, much like this, I was so physically and mentally exhausted, I couldn't even conceive of how I might be able to function at a social event. The idea of being completely on my own was sheer relief.

I was just a year out of college, and had been fortunate in getting a new job that paid much better than the work I'd been able to cobble together right after I graduated. What was unfortunate was that the new job required I commute 4 hours round trip every day, by city bus. I got up at 4:30 each morning and was on the road by 5:30, transferring in downtown Los Angeles and arriving at my destination with just enough time to walk to the building where I worked and get myself settled for the day. I started the trip home a little after 5 and arrived back at the inexpensive apartment that I shared with a friend around 7:45. Watching the reflection of my fellow passengers in the darkened bus window every night, I reminded myself that this wouldn't last forever, that I'd be able to save up to find another apartment closer to the university.

(The bus ride alone is quite a tale, and one I'll save for another time. It's easier to play it for comedy--even with two attempted assaults over the course of six months. Of course, it helps that I slugged one would-be assailant with a pipe wrench hidden in the bottom of my bag.)

I'd been at it for four months when Thanksgiving rolled around. My cousin called a few weeks before the holiday, and said he and his wife were going out of town that week, would I be willing to house sit and watch their cat for the time they were gone? Since they lived in Studio City and my job was in Westwood, I said yes, with tremendous gratitude.

I told no one that I planned to spend the holiday alone, but instead let them all believe I was spending it with one of the kind people who'd invited me to dinner. I bought a small turkey, and cranberries and an orange, stuff to make pies, a few potatoes, and on the Thursday, assembled a small feast for the cat and I. I rented a vast selection of movies I'd wanted to see, and together the cat and I ate our meal, watching movies, both of us nearly purring with contentment. I packaged up some of the leftovers for my cousins so they'd return to some home cooked food, and the cat and I ate our way through the remainder during the weekend. I slept like I hadn't slept in months, and when he had enough of my boringness, the cat would bounce on me and gently remind me that breakfast was rapidly turning into lunch. I'd brought music with me, and while I cooked and cleaned, and fed the cat and read, I listened to a few of my favorite albums, over and over, never tiring of dissecting them.

So the days passed, and on the weekend, I ventured out and walked about the area, thinking about how much easier it was to get to work from this place than where I was currently living. I returned to my apartment in east Pasadena refreshed, and hopeful. I'd seen the future and it seemed to be the San Fernando Valley. It was a few more months before I had enough for first and last and security deposit, and I found a place I could afford that was close enough so that I could easily get to work, and safe.

And I was grateful.

Go listen to some good music: "Recuerdos de la Alhambra" by Francisco Tarrega from the album Essential Guitar. I haven't quite worked out who performed the actual piece on the record.

24 November 2009

Welcome to the grand illusion...


This is a blog.

And this is a blog post.

Runs away.

Go listen to some music: "The Grand Illusion" from the album The Grand Illusion by Styx. Did anyone else completely forget that this album existed?

23 November 2009

Oranges and lemons

This isn't a surprise. I was that kid.

You know the one.

She who read far too many history books. And historical novels. She who then had to make plum pudding from scratch. To know what it was like.

(And set it on fire. Because that's what was done.)

Learn how to dip candles. Learn to weave and quilt. Sew by hand. Knit. Crochet. Embroider. Crewel work. Those were the easy things. Card wool? Haven't gotten there yet.

Renaissance Faire? Not quite. But one day, wandering through the Museum of American History, I was collared by a small elderly docent who pronounced me "perfect" and would I model for a demonstration?

(How do they know?)

A little suspiciously, I asked model what? At which point, she whipped out a corset--hearty foundation garment for Revolutionary-era women--and began lacing me into it.

"Hold your breath!" she cried gleefully and putting her foot on a bench where bemused tourists rested, she yanked on the laces until there was no breath left in my lungs. The point of a fainting couch became crystal clear.

So dress up was less my thing, but recreating recipes was always fun.

For the last two years, I've been unable to find condensed mincemeat. The son and I are both mincemeat pie fans, and I won't buy the jarred stuff because it's vile. My mother always used the condensed, and added additional apples and raisins, and it was just fine. So this year, I bit the bullet and made my own.

I looked around the 'net for recipes for meatless mincemeat. I found one at a blog called Simply Christmas that looked closest to what I was looking for, so that was my primary inspiration (the link will take you their original recipe). Most of the other recipes I read were variations on the same theme, but this one had the best proportions.

In my book, mincemeat should be flavorful and spicy without being overly sweet. It should have texture without being mush, and some firm fruit (why my mother's addition of apple and raisin to the condensed stuff was genius). None of the spices should overwhelm. So after some fiddling and adjustment, I came up with a filling the son pronounced "Epic Win."

Meatless Mincemeat

1 orange
1 lemon
3-1/2 lbs. apples (Granny Smith and Fuji work well), cored and sliced
2 c. raisins, divided usage
1-1/2 c. dried currants
4 oz. container of diced candied orange peel
1-1/2 c. apple cider
1/2 c. rum (optional)
2-1/4 c. packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ground nutmeg
3/4 tsp. ground allspice
1/2 tsp. ground cloves

Zest orange and lemon and put zest in food processor with the peeled, seeded fruit from orange and lemon. Process until coarsely chopped and set aside. Process apple slices until coarsely chopped and set aside. Process 1-1/2 c. raisins, currants and candied orange peel until coarsely chopped. Put all processed fruit in a 6-qt. pan, along with additional 1/2 c. raisins, cider, and rum, if using, stirring to combine. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer uncovered for about 20 minutes or until most of the liquid has dissipated. Add sugar, salt and spices, stirring to combine. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes, until thick. Adjust spices and sweetness, if necessary. Cool mixture, put into clean containers and refrigerate.

Makes 10 cups, which should fill approximately 3 9-inch pies.

Notes: depending on the freshness of your spices, you may need more or less than what's called for. Personal preference may also dictate how much and what you use. I love the taste of cloves, but it's a spice that easily becomes overwhelming in a recipe, so I tend to start with a little and add more if necessary. I also add the rum at the beginning of the cooking because I like the flavor without the alcohol.

Go sing a nursery rhyme: "Oranges and Lemons" is a traditional English nursery rhyme. It's been in residence in my head for the last two days, which is how it ended up here--besides, who ever heard of a song about mince pie? I first encountered it reading 1984 a zillion years ago, and of course, being THAT kid, long ago divined all the lyrics, the tune and the origin. I do have a rather ominous feeling that I might have used this as a title before. Here comes a chopper to...er...make mince pie.

22 November 2009

Somewhere a clock is ticking

London, England
July 2008

Go listen to some good music: "Somewhere a Clock is Ticking" from the album Final Straw by Snow Patrol. The daughter was quite determined to see Big Ben. The lovely driver we hired to take us to our next destination made sure that she did.

21 November 2009

Old and wise

Party season begins early this year with Neighbor B's Big Birthday Bash. He professed a year or so ago that he couldn't understand why his wife didn't want to celebrate her Big Birthday (because she's older than you, dude!), but that he intended to have a Big Blow Out for his Big Birthday.

And so tonight, we're off to Big Birthday Bash and Blow Out for B. After the daughter and I attend BFF A's play and the spouse has an MRI...gives you an idea what this week's been like.

Just in case the FTC is wondering, I have never been paid for nor received a gift for any product review I've ever posted here. Anyway, don't I tell why you shouldn't use a product or service more frequently than I recommend one? (Hi, Bosch! Though I will tell you, the Whirlpool dishwasher is REALLY useless...) I only talk about things that I use that I like and only because I choose to do so, not because I'm paid, accept advertising or gifts. So now that we've covered that...

Pancakes are a weekend breakfast favorite around here, and a couple of weeks ago, I saw a display at Trader Joe's of their pumpkin pancake mix. I made them this morning, and they are a perfect autumn breakfast treat. A bit heavy on the spice (which is ok with me, but a lot people don't like pumpkin pie spices), but they had a really nice texture and lovely flavor, especially with maple syrup. (For the record, I replaced the melted butter in the recipe called with canola oil, a substitution I usually make with goods like this. I only use butter--never margarine--but generally substitute a heart-healthy oil where the flavor won't matter). With broiled chicken-apple sausages on the side, the pancakes made a hearty weekend brunch on a slightly chilly morning.

And as a bonus, another recipe using a Trader Joe's seasonal favorite: spiced apple cider.

Hot Apple Pie

1-1/2 c. Trader Joe's spiced apple cider
Tuaca liqueur
Whipped cream

Heat apple cider in small pan. Put a shot of Tuaca in each of two mugs; divide the hot cider between the mugs and top with whipped cream. Serves 2. Makes a lovely after-dinner drink on a cold evening. The kids enjoy it, too, without the alcohol, of course.

(With thanks to the lovely bartender at the Wuksachi Lodge at Sequoia, who first suggested this drink after a freezing night-time star walk, then told me how to make them.)

Go listen to some good music: "Old and Wise" from the album Eye in the Sky by The Alan Parsons Project.

20 November 2009

American pie

This one knows what's coming.

Go listen to some good music: "American Pie" from the album American Pie by Don McLean. This was the pumpkin that went up in flames, and actually these guys aren't worth making into pie, but he didn't know that.

19 November 2009

Toys in the attic

Our pets have generally objected to the critters that tend to roam the neighborhood (and across our roof). Occasionally, something actually gets into the attic and needs to be trapped and removed, which isn't our favorite pursuit, but is one of those nasty necessities of living in an area that long thrived on agriculture.

A night or two ago, Milton was on patrol at the French doors in our living room, watching something very carefully. Then he ran full tilt to the French doors in the family room. Then back to the living room. Too curious not to look, I turned on the porch light and scanned the area beyond the patio. Just to the right of the fountain, I saw movement: the hind end of a good-sized opossum. It shuffled along toward the seating area, and like Milton, I hurried back to the French doors in the living room. It was stopped on the slate pavers, sniffing around, unconcerned by the fact that the cat and I (soon joined by the spouse and the son) were watching it. The cat was appalled that this hideous creature was in his territory, but it's fine with me: opossums eat all kinds of obnoxious things (snails, spiders, rats) that I'd rather not have in my garden.

And he's more than welcome to visit as long as he stays out of the attic.

Go listen to some good music: "Toys in the Attic" from the album Toys in the Attic by Aerosmith. I actually like the REM version better, but hey, how much of them do we need in one month?

18 November 2009

Good advices

"Consider using tact when speaking today, dear Gemini."

Kids, you are a day late with that advice...

I had a lot of errands to run this morning, so parked at the grocery where I planned to finish, and then walked to an office supply store, and from there to the farmer's market in the town center.

The market has contracted significantly since the summer, which is only to be expected as the growing season is largely over. Still, the apple lady had some lovely stuff out, and I ended up buying about 10 lbs. of various types (I cook with them, and the kids usually take one to supplement their lunches, so we go through lots of apples). I find the market keeps me honest in terms of using what's in season and what's local, and that's a good thing. I've never been big on imported produce, and I think it's just wrong to try to grow stuff out of season, like the nasty strawberries they try to pawn off on us in the winter (though my plants just set a new small crop by themselves. What's up with that?)

Even the fish guy didn't have much to offer. And mostly, I was there to buy stuff for T-Day dinner, so it was largely onions and parsley and celery. And the radishes I simply couldn't resist.

(I like radishes).

I still haven't been able to find mincemeat. Tomorrow I venture off to fancy supermarket #1 and if that doesn't yield any results then I have to wander up to fancy supermarket #2 on Friday. Honestly, are the son and I the only ones who eat mincemeat pie? I make excellent pumpkin pie (scratch, yes), but I do enjoy a nice slice of spicy mincemeat, too.

Since I missed posting a recipe on Monday, here's a quick one that has nothing to do with Thanksgiving at all.

When I worked for Big Entertainment Company, my office was in an industrial area. The company commissary actually had really good food, and the studio commissary was only a couple of miles down the road, but there was very little else amid the warehouses. We were usually pretty time-pressed and didn't want to drive into the nearby cities for a greater lunch selection. Generally, I'd either grab some sushi at the commissary or pack my own lunch, but on occassion, my buddy AKB and I would venture to a little coffee house a couple of blocks away, hidden away amongst the warehouses. They had a selection of sandwiches and a hot entree, but my favorite thing EVER was their roasted red pepper and mozzarella sandwich with a green salad on the side and a little pot of French press coffee. I still miss the sweet man behind the counter who would announce "RPM and salad" the moment AKB and I walked in the door, and then would promptly try to talk us into dessert as well. I miss the sandwich, too.

Roasted Red Pepper and Mozzarella Sandwich

Two slices of hearty bread like sourdough or Italian
Basil pesto
Sliced roasted red peppers packed in water, drained and patted dry
Sliced fresh mozzarella, near room temperature

Spread one side of each slice of bread with a thin layer of pesto. Layer red pepper, then mozzarella on top of pesto on one slice, then cover with second slice, pesto side down. Butter top slice of bread and place buttered side down in a frying pan with a lid or a sandwich press. Butter what is now the top slice of bread. Grill sandwich, flipping once, until bread is toasted golden and mozzarella has melted.

Makes one sandwich. Enjoy.

Go listen to some good music: "Good Advices" from the album Fables of the Reconstruction by REM. This is one of the albums that always reminds me of a long-ago Thanksgiving...but that's another story in itself. Familiar face in a foreign place...yes.

17 November 2009

And silence is another way

Of saying what I want to say

And there are days when my mouth should be stapled shut. That was today.

Someone let drop that a former neighbor of ours is applying to the daughter's school. I frowned when the last name was mentioned because I haven't thought of these people for some time, which is just as well because I do not care for them, and I definitely dislike their offspring, one of whom is a little older than the daughter. And who, I might add, slugged the daughter, completely unprovoked, in the stomach with a baseball bat when the daughter was about two.

Not my favorite people.

So, I was puzzling over who these people might be when the first names of the parents were mentioned, and the penny dropped. Unfortunately, caught completely unawares, and most definitely not wearing my diplomacy hat, I squealed quite loudly, "Oh my God! Not them!"

Although the person with whom I was speaking found my outburst quite funny, all I can do is think about the grande faux pas. And feel really embarrassed.

Just pass me the stapler, please.

Go listen to some good music: "I Drive the Hearse" from the album The Incident by Porcupine Tree.

16 November 2009

Prelude and fugue in F minor: I. Prelude


Such a great word.

At present, my life seems fraught...

...with danger.
...with peril.
...with uncertainty.
...with my constant companion, boredom.
...with unwitting chaos (not to be mistaken for my usual brand of witting chaos).
...with annoyance.
...with beauty.
...with hope. Oh, I am so hopeful!

The house is fraught with the sound of the son (sophomore in high school) freaking out because the school has demanded he create a "resume" in preparation for college.

"I haven't done anything yet!" he wails.

"So, you're starting early," I tell him in sanguine fashion.

It's going to be a long couple of years.

Visualize things that are beautiful, the horoscope said. For once I take the advice, and all day, as the sadness of the world has pulled me down, I stopped and thought about what and who I love. I thought about parrots against a sunset, music, the perfect moment in time, my son and daughter, the cat rolling around the floor in flirt mode.

And I am fraught...

...with the potential for joy.

Go listen to some good music: "Prelude and Fugue in F Minor, BWV 534: I. Prelude" from the album Bach: Complete Organ Music by Christopher Herrick.

15 November 2009

Calling all in transit

Recently, the spouse, the daughter and I watched the Mad Men episode that covered the events of November 22, 1963. There is an infamous family story about the spouse, who was a little more than 2 years old, running around the house, repeating, "Kennedy shot. Kennedy shot." over and over. The evening we watched the program, the daughter turned to me and asked if I remembered JFK's assassination.

I looked back at her bemused and said, "No."

She can be forgiven, I suppose, because ancient history is ancient history, and parents are, of course, ancient history.

Still, cultural memory is a strange thing. I've seen the films made that day and in the subsequent days so many times that I can almost believe that I did witness the events that unfolded. Years ago, when we visited the spouse's brother while he was doing his residency at Parkland in Dallas, C. insisted that we all go to the museum at the old book depository. It was really quite eerie.

It's never been easy for me to make sense of the 1960s. Though I was born during that decade, I was a child of the 1970s who came of age in the 1980s. In college, I took a class called Literature and Film of the '60s, taught by a Brit who was completely enamored of the U.S. culture of the 1960s. I slogged through an awful lot of mostly awful '60s literature and some rather eye-opening '60s cinema. I understood more about the decade by the time I was done, but little that helped me to put myself in that place. Mad Men has been more useful in that regard, even though it serves as more of a filter. The series starts in 1961, and my own birth was a ways off yet, but it's the memory of a green glass ashtray, or the sheer volume of cigarette smoke that used to circulate everywhere. The drinking. When I was really young, I remember my parents drinking martinis. I loved green olives, and I coveted the olives in their martinis...until I tasted one after it came out of the martini. Suffice to say I have never taken to martinis. I never experienced anything like Betty's "Around the World" dinner party but I remember similar menus from reading my mother's cookbooks as a child. Somehow, I was just waiting for Betty to bust out the tomato aspic.

(Who in God's name invented aspic? Talk about an abomination. My mother used to serve it--with cucumbers and celery in it! And lemon wedges on the side--and Waldorf salad, the very thought of which is still enough to make me gag. Apples, celery and mayonnaise. Yeesh. Stewed tomatoes and zucchini. Okra.)

When explaining aspects of my own childhood to my children, I am very much aware of how difficult it was for me to parse the experience of my parents with what I knew to be history. My father was a World War II veteran, but he served for only a very short period time, at the tail end of the Pacific war. My mother was a first grader when World War II ended, so she had as much recall of it as I do of Vietnam, which is virtually nothing. When my brother and I were kids, Hogan's Heroes was our reference point for World War II (isn't war funny? Damn, those Nazis were such cards!) until we were old enough to read the Time Life World War II series (talk about your unsanitized history. Dead bodies everywhere in those books. No one pulled any punches in those days). By the time we were in junior high, our school was renting old newsreels from the 1940s, which went a lot further in explaining how the war played out than anything any living person was telling us. And yet, one day I did the math and saw the barbarism that predated my birth by a generation. It changed the way I looked at the world and my fellow humans forever.

What I find interesting and perplexing is how the 20th anniversary of the Berlin wall coming down has simply bounced off the kids' consciousness. Although they are aware of the big wars and big moments in history, something that affected their parents so profoundly as did the Cold War just doesn't seem to register. I may not remember the 1960s as such, but I remember the Threat of Communism and the Iron Curtain. The old Radio Free Europe commercials did nothing but convince my preschool self that a giant curtain made of battleship chains hung between free and Communist Europe.

Go listen to some good music: "Radio Free Europe" from the album Murmur by REM. I got goosebumps the first time I heard this song, and could clearly see the Iron Curtain I'd always visualized as a little girl.

14 November 2009

Eleven saints

I love this video.

(Slightly NSFW for a single word.)

Go listen to some fun music: "Eleven Saints" by Jason Webley. You can see more of his videos on YouTube, and his music is available here.

13 November 2009

No time

The problem with NaBloPoMo is that there are days where there is nothing to say. Hello, Friday, November 13. Then I'm stuck with yammering on about...mowing the lawn. So I arrived at tonight's post by the simple expedient that "No Time" by the Guess Who happens to be the song that the spouse and the daughter are playing on Rock Band right now. Works for me.

No time...to travel.
No time...to actually plan my next move.
No time...to get the son's learner's permit (so he tells me).
No time...to get the boy's wisdom teeth out.
No time...oh god, the orthodontist.
No time...to do Christmas cards.
No time...to bake cookies.
No time...to write that novel (300 words out of 50,000?)
No time...to learn the piano.
No time...to get the daughter's ears pierced.
No time...for this litany of complaint. I got the lawn mowed. That was something.

But the travel. Needs to happen. Even the horoscope is insisting.

Go listen to some good music: "No Time" from the album The Guess Who: Greatest Hits by The Guess Who. There was a story printed in the local paper today that made me so angry that I was going to take that on, but decided that something heartwarming and upbeat is better. You can read about what 16-year-old Caitlin Crommett is doing here.

12 November 2009

Red skies

Orange County, California
September 2009

Taken the first night of the Station Fire from many miles away.

Go listen to some good music: "Red Skies" from the album One Thing Leads to Another: Greatest Hits by The Fixx. Yes, I do fully expect that some time soon I will be able to do something other than cough and sleep and post photos.

11 November 2009

The finish line

It's been 12 years since we bought the house in the 'hood. My children have grown up here; this will be the place they remember when they are older. Though I remain uneasy with the realities (or lack thereof) of much of Orange County, and will never feel completely at home, I am periodically reminded of the length of time we've been here when I walk down the street and a neighbor stops me to chat or a seasonal gift appears on the doorstep or a tragedy galvanizes our little community. I am reminded that I am part of a community.

The 'hood has been here since the mid-1950s. I've looked at historical aerial photos of the area, and originally, this development was part of an orange grove. I've found weird artifacts from those days when I've been digging in the garden, and old orange trees still grace some of the yards around here. An original house, built in 1912, survives a few streets over. This is what qualifies as "old" in bright, shiny, plastic Orange County.

What sets the 'hood apart is not only the families who have lived here for 20 years, raised their kids and sent them off to college, it is that so many of the original owners stayed on, as well as those who moved in within a few years of the neighborhood's completion. A lot of them have passed on in the years we've lived here, their homes subsequently sold to younger families who are growing older alongside us. Thus the cycle repeats.

We lost one of our grande dames last week; she'd just celebrated her 100th birthday.

When we moved here, I. was still driving herself everywhere in her little car: to the store, to church. One of her daughters lived with her, and M.E. would boom out of the driveway in her Corvette every morning, to be followed later in the day by I. on her way to whatever activity she had planned. We'd see her on Sunday, tiny and wizened, stony-faced, brave in makeup and hat. Her hats made me laugh; there was something enormously comforting in seeing this little, feisty woman in her hat.

Every Halloween, I. and her daughter would put out a single decoration: a string of lights attached to some hellish sound-making device that wailed non-stop for the hours it was turned on. Every year, the spouse and Neighbor B. swore they would "de-bark" the thing, complaining bitterly about its awful noise. Early on, the son and daughter worried because they knew the rule: no pumpkin meant the occupants weren't home or didn't want trick or treaters. I told them not to worry. The string of orange lights and the howling were I.'s pumpkin, and she and M.E. would greet the children who came to the door every year.

It was one winter morning, years back that the daughter, the son and I were out for a walk around the neighborhood, and I caught I.--in hat--climbing a step ladder. Few things are more breath stealing than seeing one's 90-year-old neighbor unsteadily mounting a ladder. I called out a greeting, and asked if she'd like some help, making my standard joke that the Good Lord made me tall for a reason. A little querulously, I. told me that she just wanted to replace the front porch light bulb for heaven's sake. It was time, wasn't it? The holidays were over and she wanted things set to rights. I agreed gravely that she was correct, and she stood by to supervise as I removed the holiday light fixture and restored her incandescent bulb to the porch light. She queried me about the children, who were standing uncertainly on her grass, and I told her that if she ever needed assistance with light bulbs or what not, she was welcome to call me.

Over the subsequent years, I. would call me, though generally it was because she saw something going on at my house that interested her. Why were overstuffed chairs sitting in my driveway? she wanted to know. Because I'd donated them and was waiting for the truck to arrive to pick them up. Ah, there were places that would take furniture? That was good to know. And curiosity satisfied, she would hang up.

We noticed, as time passed, that she ceased to drive herself anywhere, though her daughter or a friend would still take her out, brave in her makeup and hat. About a year ago, the firetruck arrived, followed by the paramedics and an ambulance. I saw the flashing lights reflected in the screen of my computer while I worked, and worried, went to the kitchen window. I cursed a little under my breath when I saw the entourage stop at I.'s house. She's too young, I thought, and then tried to figure out exactly how old she was. Still, too young. And I kept watch at the window until I saw the stretcher come out, I. propped up in state, brave in her hat, looking alert and cheerful. The relief was almost enough to make my knees buckle.

But within a short period of time, the firetruck and the paramedics and the ambulance were back. Soon thereafter, a truck bearing a hospital bed arrived at the house, and I. returned home in an ambulance. The firetruck, with its flashing lights, became a frequent visitor, and the neighbors traded news, hoping for the best, joking that I. was bored by her caretakers and needed a visit from the buff firefighters to perk up her day.

On Friday, they came for the last time.

I was out lighting candles in our pumpkins on Halloween when M.E. brought out their string of lights and hung it. The sound was just as awful as it had ever been, but like I.'s hats, a comfort. While I sat out on our porch with the daughter on Halloween night, I watched the groups of little kids run up their walk and bang on the door, as they'd done all the years I've lived in 'hood.

Go listen to some good music: "The Finish Line" from the album Eyes Open by Snow Patrol.