12.23.2013

you give me fever.

Once, as a kid, I woke up in the middle of the night, shivering uncontrollably. I was curled up in one corner of my bed. I wanted my mom. But her bedroom was across the hall, which was a long walk outside my blankets and across a floor that in my mind might as well have been made of pure ice. If I was this cold huddled up in my bed, I couldn't bear the thought of leaving it. I don't know how long I stayed there, shivering and miserable. I don't even remember if I finally found the courage to run into my parents' bedroom, or if I finally decided to try calling out.

I realize now that I had a fever. I was thinking about that night, scary and alone and cold, at around 2 AM last night. And also at 3 and 4 and 5. I was in my bed, far far away from my mom, again shivering despite the unseasonably warm night and the down blanket. Josh made an effort to warm me with his body, but gave up quickly. We are snugglers, which means that every night, a half of our king-sized bed goes to waste. But last night, he could not get far enough away from me and my radiating heat. Half asleep, he muttered at me, "No, point that away from me!" and I tried to figure out how to position my body such that my skin would not be facing him.

I did not get much sleep. Once the chills subsided, I could concentrate more fully on the aches. No position was comfortable, because the pain was inside me somewhere. I craved sleep, for its restorative and time-travelling powers. If I could just fall asleep, I would wake up all better. Did I sleep? I think I did, between 5 and 7 AM, and maybe there were micro-naps between the tosses and turns.

I read up on home remedies to reduce fever, and they all sounded cold. Cold baths, cold food, cold air, and fluids. Josh kept telling me to drink lots of fluids, as if I hadn't already put away a two liter of cherry 7-Up. He just didn't know what else to suggest, and a sympathetic snuggle was still out of the question. I know the only cure is time. The fever is my body fighting something off, some tiny meanie that got inside and has to be removed. I thought back to try and figure out where I had picked up my meanie, as if I were going to remember that I'd been licking doorknobs in public restrooms, that must be it. I imagined the meanie baking in my heat, maybe with a glass of cherry 7-Up.

I also thought about Christmas, which is a crappy time to be sick. I thought about the line of family visits we had scheduled, and wondered whether I was going to make them at all, or if I'd go and sit in a corner with a blanket. Or maybe I'll get better in time, but by then the meanie will have jumped over to Josh's body.

Anyway, I'm sick. It sucks. I'll get over it.

12.18.2013

new old car.

Josh and I have been sharing one car between us so long that I had to go back and look up when we lost the last car. It was seventeen months ago. We were planning on replacing it, really, but it seemed like expensive things kept happening. There was the wedding, and then the HVAC broke, and then we went to France. I haven't even told you about encapsulating the crawlspace or the water pressure tank, but those things happened, too. 2013 was expensive.

Sharing the car was a pain, but it was the kind of pain that you sorta get used to after a while. Josh and I work close together, so we were able to manage our schedules such that we both got to where we needed to be. It was a bit complicated. He would drop me off at work at 9. Then he would do whatever until he had to go to work at 11. When he got off his lunch shift in the early afternoon, he'd go home. Then, when he had to come back in for his dinner shift, he would pick me up at the office and then we'd ride over to the restaurant. I would then go back to the office and finish out my day, then go home for a bit until I came to pick him up at 9 or 10.

It was a lot of back and forth, and it wouldn't have worked at all if our places of work were not close together and reasonably close to the house. Every once in a while, there would be an actual conflict, where we had to be at different places at the same time. Also, sometimes Josh would get off work early, but I wouldn't hear the phone ring and then he would be very angry about it. But mostly, we spent a lot of time together driving back and forth.

During the spring, my mom told me that my dad wanted to get rid of their Camry, for no real reason. It did make a mysterious clicking noise at certain speeds, but they'd taken it to a mechanic who couldn't find anything wrong with it. The car is eight years old, but only has about 109k miles on it. For a Toyota, that's barely middle-aged. My dad would gripe about it, because he's the kind of guy who gets an idea in his head and won't let go of it. But maybe he is suited for my mom in this way, because she was equally determined to keep it, also for no good reason. They had three vehicles, and while there are three people in the household, only one of them drives.

Now, as soon as she'd told me about Daddy's grumblings, I saw an in. They did not really need that car, and we could really use one. I casually mentioned that if they did decide to let it go, we'd like to be first in line to buy. Mama hemmed and hawed and about wanting to keep it as a backup. A backup of the new car they'd already bought, with the old truck being a backup to the backup, I guess. I did not push it, because I was focused on getting our heat fixed, and my brain couldn't deal with multiple major purchases at once. But I put a pin in the idea.

A month or two ago, Mama mentioned again how Daddy kept talking about selling that old car with the clicking noise. With no major home repairs on the horizon, I decided to make my play.

See, I had a trump card. You know that old trick where you ask one parent, and if they say no, you ask the other? If I mentioned to my dad that we sure would like to buy that old Camry, he would up his griping from merely irritating to downright insufferable. Actually, he would probably just try to sign over the papers to us on the spot, maybe mentioning it to Mama sometime the next week. But that is a nasty trick, and I did not do that. However, I might have commented to my mom that I could. She said she'd discuss it with Daddy and let me know.

She called the next day with the good news that they would sell us the car, and for very generous terms. We hadn't talked about the price at all, but her offer was one I couldn't refuse. In fact, I felt kinda bad about it, and I said I'd buy her a case of wine to go with it. After she'd agreed to do it, she seemed really happy about being able to help us out.

The car was delivered on the day before Thanksgiving. It apparently had not been getting driven much lately, as there were cobwebs on the dashboard. It was also full of the kind of random stuff that gets left in a vehicle - CDs, an umbrella, a VHS tape, a can of tuna (unopened, thankfully). Mama cleaned most of it out, taking the can of tuna, but leaving a Scott Joplin CD.

And then holy moly, we were a two-car household again. All the little things I'd forgotten were possible came back. Suddenly, I was able to change my name, because I had a car during government office hours. I was able to be the driver when coworkers and I went out for mid-afternoon coffee. I no longer had to wait for Josh to get ready in the mornings. Best of all, when I got home from work, I could change into my sleepy pants and have a beer, because I did not have to go back and pick up my husband from his work. I could even plan on having dinner ready when he got home, rather than trying to do prep work beforehand and finish it up after we got back. The possibilities are endless; it's like being sixteen again.

Thanks, Mama and Daddy.

12.11.2013

star power.

Until this year, we didn't have a Christmas tree topper. Our ornaments are mostly picked up at yard sales and thrift stores, but somehow we never found a topper. I tried making an angel once, but never finished the project and then the dog ate the pieces. I could've gone to any old store and bought one, but I have the feeling I would've just grumbled about the prices and then left without buying anything. Our topper-less tree has never bothered us all that much anyway.

I guess all the Christmas spirit got to me, because I decided that we needed a topper this year. So I did an image search for DIY Christmas tree topper. There are lots of neat and thrifty ideas out there, like using twigs or bows or pine cones. I saw and fell in love with the idea of a Star Power topper. This star is in Super Mario Brothers, where if you get it, you're invincible! I imagined our lovely Star Power at the top of the tree, and then trying to jump up and grab it. Then I imagined sort of falling into the tree and knocking the whole thing over, but I still wanted Star Power.

I was ready to go, too. I had yellow and black felt, embroidery thread, a needle, and stuffing, so I was set. All I needed was a pattern of the star to cut out my felt. Our printer does not work, so I asked my husband to draw me a star. He said sure.

A few minutes later, he abandoned the task, saying that he didn't want Star Power, because it was a pentagram. He wanted a Moravian star instead. In fact, he refused to even draw the Star Power for me.

I thought the pentagram argument was a pretty stupid reason, and I found it hurtful that he wasn't even willing to help me by drawing a dumb star. I retreated to the other room to pout for a minute, then stomped back to say FINE, I can draw my own star if you don't want to help.

Turns out, the real reason he was suddenly against five-pointed stars was because he couldn't draw one, but he didn't want to admit that. And then when I tried, I realized it was kinda hard, which is why I'd asked him in the first place. I'm not sure why I assumed he could just pop out a perfectly drawn star. I teased him that he'd had me fooled into thinking he was an excellent star-drawer for years now. Too late, I already married him.

Since no one in the house could draw a star, we went to plan B.

I did another search for DIY Moravian stars. And we found this tutorial. I went hunting again through my stash of craft supplies and came up with a roll of plain white paper. We each cut off a square piece and made the two halves of the star. Like many paper-folding projects, this one is pretty forgiving. Our pieces of paper were not perfect squares, and we got a little confused with the instructions and made a couple of wrong folds. But! After only about a half hour's work (not including the fifteen minutes we spent arguing about drawing skills and pentagrams), we ended up with a pretty good looking star. We left one of the sides open so we could stick the tree tip in there, and Josh rigged up the tree lights so that the star was lit.

And then he was just so happy. He would wander into the living room just to admire our lovely tree with its great big star, then come back and hug me because I made his wish happen. Since the star is paper, it may not survive until next year, so he wants to make the star-folding a Christmas tradition. It's a sweet idea, but I think I might just go to the office and print off a Star Power pattern.

12.10.2013

o tannenbaum.

We usually get our Christmas tree from the Citgo, which sounds like the kind of Christmas tradition you'd see in a sad movie with a drunk father. But you can get nice trees there, because an Ashe County farm sets up a sale next to the gas station. They were exceedingly nice the first time we went, just like you'd expect people who grow Christmas trees for a living to be, and so we've just kept going back.

This year, we ordered a tree and some other decorative greens through our church as part of a youth group fundraiser. The prices were about the same, though we did not get the fun of picking out the tree. When Josh was little, his grandfather used to take him and all his other little boy cousins out tromping into the wintry woods to cut down a tree. From this experience, Josh formed the idea that tree-cutting was man's work, which is why last year he went to get the tree by himself while I stayed home and made hot cocoa. I pointed out that had there been any girl cousins, they probably would've come too. But it was okay, because I tend to get a fever at the Citgo and end up picking out a comically large tree. In the interest of having space in the living room, it was better for me to stay home. But his year, there was no bundling up, going to the gas station, walking through the makeshift forest of evergreens before picking out just the right one. Instead, I filled out an order form in November, and then last Saturday drove over to the church, where two young men found the order with my name on it.

Being mindful of overlarge trees past, I had ordered a tree in the 7-8 ft range. The guys picked up my tree, all bound up in red twine, and asked where it was going. I pointed to the red hatchback. They looked skeptical, and said, "On top?" I asked if they had anything to tie it down with, and their eyes said no. Well, kids, do you know about the Honda Fit? You're about to see something special.

We had to turn it around once and adjust it a bit this way and that, plus folding down the back row and leaning back the front passenger seat, but we finally closed the hatch on a giant tree. One kid was really into it, cleverly suggesting that I remove the headrest on the passenger set to make room. The other kid just looked confused by the whole thing. We got needles everywhere and a little dirt on the seats, but I am not one to be deterred by needles and dirt. I suppose if I didn't want to get dirt in my hatchback, I would've gotten a pickup truck.

When I got the tree home, I realized we'd have to cut a few of the bottom branches to get it to fit into the tree stand. I'm going to take a moment to put in a plug for our particular tree stand. It's really nice. We've gone through 4 tree stands in as many years. The first year, we found ourselves in a tree stand emergency and bought one at Lowes, which we did not like because it was boring green plastic. Over the course of the next year, we found one of those vintage red and green metal ones, but it ended up being too small for the tree I picked out. We found a bigger one in the same style, but then the tree got knocked over and the weight of it warped the legs of the stand. Finally, we found this one at a yard sale, and it is built for our kind of trees.

We cut off just enough branches to get the tree in the stand. And then we cut the red twine and unleashed our tree, seeing it in its glory for the first time. That is the problem with rolling up and picking up a tree that has been marked for you, there's no telling how it will look without opening it up and then you wouldn't be able to get it into your hatchback. But not to worry, this tree was beautiful. It was also massive. I realized after it was up that we probably could've trimmed down a few more of the bottom branches to reduce the width and create more room for presents underneath. As it was, the tree is five feet wide at the base, and looks pretty much like it's just growing out of the floor. We sorta like it that way.

Our overlarge trees always end up being a little sparsely decorated, just because we never have enough lights and ornaments for our Rockefeller tastes. I spent six episodes of Doctor Who stringing up popcorn garlands, but it still wasn't enough. Maybe another night of work will do it.

I say this every year, but I swear, this is the biggest tree we've ever had. And the prettiest. I would like to commend whoever orders the trees for the excellent specimen, despite the fact that I ordered a 7-8 ft tree and this one is upward of 8 ft. I've decided not to lodge a complaint.

12.05.2013

name changer.

When I was in high school, I had to go to the social security office to get a social security card. I don't remember why, only that I must've been old enough to drive myself, because I went on my own. I remember it as being singularly depressing. The office was small and badly-lit and crowded with lower-income folks, many of them with small children in tow. I felt out of place and alone, and I had to wait for a long time.

The first stop in the journey that is changing your name is the social security office. Or maybe it's getting married. Then again, it could be meeting a nice person whose last name you'd think about joining yourself to. But you've already heard those other stories about the nice man, so we'll just stick to this bureaucratic part of getting married.

Last week, my mom was in town a day early to assist us with our first Thanksgiving. She and I drove across town to the social security office. I had a ball of dread in my stomach, but the empty parking lot gave me hope. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad. Maybe it would even be quick!

The office was closed. As of this past January, the office closes at noon on Wednesday. I made plans to go on Friday, but checked the website first, where I learned that they would be closed to catch up on their backlog.

Instead, this Monday, I took my lunch break to drive over there again. I was relieved to see a full parking lot, though I'd already double-checked the hours online. But then I realized that the parking lot was too full; in fact, there were no spaces at all. There were even vehicles blatantly just blocking others in. A sign said that there was additional parking on the next street over. However, that street was the entrance to an apartment complex, and all along the road there were big signs saying that it was a private street and you'd better not park there or they would tow your butt quicker than you can say "second new deal." Also, there was a line of people going out the door. It occurred to me that lunchtime on the first Monday of the month was maybe not the best time to go to the social security office, unless you just wanted to make a lot of new friends.

I decided that I would get up early the next day and be there when they opened. I would get the very best of parking spaces and smile at the friendly government workers through the glass as they unlocked the door and let me in.

When I pulled up Tuesday morning, fifteen minutes before opening time, again I saw the line out the door, though it was snaking the opposite direction. The parking lot was again completely full, though I did find a small sort of spot that was not really a parking space, but was big enough for a hatchback, so I took it. Then I went to take my place in line. As I was walking up, I saw a large woman with a cane getting out of her car, and I increased my speed to beat her there. I felt a little bad, but this is what the social security office does to you. The weather was clear and not too cold, so I settled in with my cup of coffee and a book I'd downloaded to my phone.

The line was long, but it did move. They clearly have a good system in place to get people in and out quickly. I suspect part of the system is the small parking lot, which keeps people circling the lot until someone else leaves.

Once you got in, you waited with a private security officer until you were directed to a lady at a kiosk. She asked what you were there for, made sure you had the right forms, and then gave you a number to wait. At that point, you were to sit in one of the many chairs, most of which were full. The private security officer took a break from directing people to tell us how the whole take-a-number-wait-for-it-to-be-called worked. I guess some people get confused. Or maybe they don't listen, like the teenager next to me who was trying to make time with the girl on his other side.

After twenty minutes or so, I was sent to Blue Hall, window 6, where a man waited to help me. There was a sign in front of him that said he was deaf, so I should speak slowly for him to read my lips. This threw me off my game, so I just wordlessly handed over my name change application. Then I started getting out all the various other things I'd brought. The website had said to bring multiple forms of ID, and I'd brought my passport, my driver's license, and my old social security card. Finally, I pulled out my marriage certificate, which he took while leaving my three forms of ID sitting on the counter. He clacked at the computer for a while, then printed out a sheet and pointed to another sign that said to verify the information. I checked it and nodded. A managerly-looking guy walked by and signed something to him. I felt oddly pleased that he was able to find work in a nice steady government job.

He gave me a receipt, and I was done. I walked out the door at 9:30, and there was no line at all. Still no parking spaces.

Next stop, the DMV.

12.01.2013

november 2013 books.

I read a lot of books this month. After it took me so long to finish The Tin Drum, I wanted something short. And then I kept wanting something short.

The Tin Drum
G√ľnter Grass
Phew, this book.

So, the book covers the rise of the Nazis, the war, and then the postwar period. It starts off with the narrator saying that he is in an asylum. I like it when my unreliable narrators just come out and say that maybe their retelling of events can't be trusted. Saves a lot of time. But perhaps I would have figured it out soon enough, just because the stories he tells are not quite believable. The style is called magical realism. The stories start out pretty reasonable, but then mythical or fantastic elements gradually sneak in, and by the end, the whole thing is just impossible. It's a neat way to tell a story, because there is truth buried in there somewhere, and who doesn't like a little magic sometimes?

There isn't really a plot. It's more a series of events in a guy's life, and the backdrop of the war comes into play from time to time. The political happenings are always there, always affecting what is going on, but the stories are on a more personal level. Occasionally, he will be involved in or close to a major historical event, such as when the Nazis attacked the post office and the Normandy invasion. But mostly the war is far away, occasionally breaking through to kill off someone's son or cause a shortage of some household good.

Oskar and his family live in the Free City of Danzig, a city that was on the shore of the Black Sea in Poland, but not a part of Poland (it's now Gdasnk, Poland). Oskar is a dwarf, having decided at age three that he did not want to grow anymore, because then his father would pass on the family grocery store to him. He did not want to be a grocer. To excuse his lack of growth, he throws himself down the stairs. He is clear on this - his growth was not stopped by the fall, but because he decided it. He has a series of red and white drums that he beats incessantly, and he can also cut glass by screaming at high pitch that no one can hear. He is narrating his life story to his keeper in the asylum, and he switches back and forth between referring to himself in the first and the third person.

There are some really vivid episodes, such as a bar where the patrons cut onions to make themselves cry so they can release their pent-up miseries. Oskar uses his glass-cutting skills to cut holes in shop windows in the evenings and tempt people into stealing. There is particularly amazing/gruesome scene where someone is using a horse head to fish for eels. *Shudder*

I think that I tried too hard to get this book. I'd read along and think, that's gotta be a symbol, but WHAT DOES IT MEAN? Sometimes you just gotta enjoy the story, man. But whatever, I still enjoyed it and I still get the street cred for reading it.

Lucky Jim
Kingsley Amis
Something a little lighter, then. This is Amis' first novel, he would go on to have a long and illustrious career. It's quite good - very funny and tightly woven. The book follows our hero, Jim Dixon, who is a drunken college lecturer who doesn't actually know very much about his topic and does a lot of shoddy work. And pretty much everyone else is even worse! It doesn't shine a very kind light on academia, which appears to be made up of a bunch of rotten characters scheming and dealing to come to their own ends. Everyone is either outright working against other people or they are using them. As the book progresses, you learn more about each character's plots and ambitions, which all come together nicely in the end. Jim is lucky because even though he is really just as much of a jerk as everyone else, he wins all the petty little contests, while everyone else is thwarted. And perhaps once he is removed from that setting, he turns out to be a good guy, while the others likely continue to be their awful selves. At least, that's what I choose to believe.

The Diary of a Superfluous Man
Ivan Turgenev
The superfluous man is a concept in Russian literature of a person who is unconnected to society. Generally, he is well-off, perhaps due to family money, so there is no need for him to go out and make a living. More importantly, he lacks connection to other people.

In the case of this book, the man was not close to his parents and thus grew up to be withdrawn, unsocialized, and crippled by social anxiety. He says he has lots of examples of the way he has been made unnecessary in the world, but this one story will show you. So he tells about this one time he fell in love with a young woman who eventually rejected him because he acted very badly in the throes of his obsession. Because of this rejection, he withdraws even more and pretty much gives up hope of ever connecting to anyone. And then he dies. Yeehaw, Russian literature.

The narrator is not particularly sympathetic. Lots of people have crummy childhoods, and pretty much everyone does something stupid in dealing with the object of their affection. Yet most people manage to create some sort of connection with someone. I know, that's unfair, particularly since I had a great childhood. I have no doubt that people like this do exist, and it seems a very lonely and boring way to be.

In referring to himself as superfluous, he seems to be saying that society has no need for him, that if he had never happened, nothing would be much different. But I don't think society works that way. Society uses what is there, and if you don't show up, well, it won't make use of you. I guess I mean that if you want to make a connection, you might have to put in some work yourself.

That was my first reaction, anyway: Sorry she didn't love you back, dude, get over it.

However, I thought about it some more. Say there is a certain population who do not feel connected to the people around them (due to dysfunctional childhoods, general shyness, whatever). Some of them will do the work of integrating themselves. But a further group becomes connected by the work of other people reaching out to them. I think that is the call to the rest of us. That's something the preacher talks about sometimes during the children's sermon - reaching out to the kid sitting by himself at lunch. Seems like a good message for adults, too. Maybe it's never too late to become necessary to society.

Down and Out in Paris and London
George Orwell
This is a nonfiction account of Orwell's time in Paris and London, when he was flat broke. It's an exploration of poverty. He was living the life of the starving artist, struggling to make any kind of living while also working on writing and using his stark existence as fodder for his work. According to Wiki, it's not known whether he was actually hard up or he was living that life for research purposes.

This is my first nonfiction Orwell. I've read Animal Farm and 1984, but it's been a while and I do not remember much aside from the plots (and even then, I'm not sure how much of that is from my reading and how much is from the ubiquity of his ideas). Dude could write. The sentences were clear, the descriptions vivid, and the arguments logical and persuasive. The book is sort of casual with its ideas. He writes about his jobs in Paris restaurants, then has a chapter at the end where he talks about why we have wage slaves. He is not kind to the rich. It's philosophical, but then at the end, he says these are just thoughts he had from living this life, and he hasn't thought through the larger socioeconomic implications. I thought that was wonderfully honest, and it encouraged me to then continue his thought and find the possible issues in his arguments.

He says that his particular job, as a plongeur (kind of like a dishwasher in a restaurant), is useless work. He works so that rich people can have luxuries which aren't even very good and for the most part, not even wanted by the rich people who buy them. Work in itself is seen as a virtue, and so no one troubles to think whether the work being done is useful or not. His life is pretty awful - seventeen hours in a furnace of cellar kitchen, being treated like dirt by every employee above you, which was all of them. He uses the word slave, because the people in these jobs don't have time for society, for marriage, for thought. He says the rich want the poor to be worked this hard, because they think if the poor had any leisure time, they would become violent.

My understanding is that he would include most service industry jobs as useless work. I suspect he would include a great deal of manufacturing as well, considering how much of the stuff produced is kinda just crap. But is there enough useful work to go around? Even when he was writing, there were hordes of people out of work and starving (partly due to the lack of organized labor, which is how you get those seventeen hour days). If there just isn't enough work, do people take handouts to survive? Go back to farming to feed themselves? He told me that he hadn't thought the implications all the way through, and this is a place I'd like to ask him what comes next.

Then again, it does seem like there is lots of do-gooder work to go around, much of which is done by volunteers or organizations that run on grants and are underfunded. Perhaps there could be more people making art. But as it stands, there is no one paying for those things. They are paying for restaurants. Orwell says people don't even want these luxuries, but they appear to disagree. Not just the rich, but anyone aspiring to be or feel or appear so. They want mozzarella sticks, they want heated seats, they want devices that turn off the lights when you clap your hands. He was really talking about what he thinks would really make people happy (things that can't be purchased), rather than what they want (all the stuff, yay!).

Stamboul Train
Graham Greene
Another good one. This story follows a set of strangers aboard a train to Istanbul. They make friendships and alliances for the brief journey. One passenger is detained by the police en route for being a wanted socialist agitator. Two others are taken with him as accomplices, even though they had just met him on the train. Still another man goes to look for one of the alleged accomplices, because they had formed a brief romantic attachment. Each character must think about what they owe other people. The socialist had successfully been in hiding, but he feels he owes his oppressed countrymen to come back, even if it is just to be arrested and killed. One of the alleged accomplices is completely out for himself, while the other feels responsible enough for the socialist to stay with him when he has been wounded, even though she will surely be caught. She is hoping for a savior in the form of her lover, who does go back to find her in a snowstorm. Each time the lover thinks that he could leave her, because she is just someone he had met on a train. He wonders when he will have done "enough."

A very good and thought-provoking story, which is apparently something Greene is known for. Sort of a thriller, and the train setting makes an interesting setting in terms of being contained and filled with people who don't know each other and are not necessarily in their element.

Bread and Wine
Ignazio Silone
This book was terribly sad and poignant. A socialist revolutionary comes out of exile, and goes back to his home in rural Italy during the lead-up and declaration of war on Abyssinia. He disguises himself as a priest, and is constantly looking over his shoulder, since if the authorities find him, they will kill him dead (but only after torturing him awhile first). Between talking to the peasantry and meeting up with his old buddies, he becomes disillusioned that the revolution will ever happen.

The peasants are poor and have trouble thinking beyond the difficulties of their lives to consider how social systems make their lives so hard. They're too busy trying to survive, and they think the things that happen in Rome have nothing to do with them. The old party has joined up with the larger European organization, including the Stalinists, and they are concerned with purging people who are not ideologically pure enough rather than bringing any sort of relief to those who are struggling. An old friend of his, after a bad time with the police, has given up the cause. His friend says that to believe in the revolution is to believe in progress, which is actually a fear of life as it exists. His friend says he no longer fears life, meaning he has lost hope in it ever being any better than it is. The young revolutionaries he meets think the Abyssinian War is a good thing, because they heard that war leads to revolution. They do not think of the people they are attacking as brothers in the same struggle.

There is particular focus on the church's place as an advocate for the people against the ruling powers. Dressed as a priest, he has to be careful not to give away his true identity, but he makes more and more bold statements. His fellow priests seem to be good-hearted people, but like the peasants, they are focused on their own struggles. Our hero points out that Jesus did not care about pissing off those in power, that was what he came to do. The priest responds that that's fine for an upstart group like a carpenter and his buddies, but the church now has millions of people counting on it for protection. To go against power would bring persecution and suffering on all of them.

Heavy stuff. Really wonderful, though. Lots of amusing well-drawn characters, and the philosophy is well-integrated with the story. There's some pretty good symbolism in there, and maybe it was heavy-handed, but I totally picked up on it all by myself. There is a beautiful funeral scene for a peasant, where the mourners eat the bread and wine made from the wheat and grapes the dead man grew. You know, bread and wine? GET IT?

The Lost Husband
Katherine Center
Book club book. It was fine. Nothing else to say about it. It did not make me think about poverty or the inherent value of work or symbolism. There was no socialism in it whatsoever. It was a love story on a goat farm.

For our club meetings, the leader usually reads questions that were printed off the web somewhere, frequently provided by the publisher. I guess this book is not aimed at book clubs, because there was no such list. So I wrote my own. I was pretty annoyed and a little nervous when I realized that I would have to do this, but I was surprised to find that it was fairly simple. And then I felt good about myself and my chick lit analysis skillz.

But still, this book did not make me think about much.

A Mathematician's Apology
G.H. Hardy
Ah, this was lovely. It's an apologetic, which is a fancy word meaning it's an argument, in this case, for the study mathematics. Millions of schoolchildren all over the world have asked, "Why do we have to learn this crap, anyway?" and Hardy answers.

Except not really. He is not defending applied math, the kind of math you use to calculate a tip or that a architect uses to design a building. He is talking about pure math, completely abstract math, math with no application whatsoever. His defense is that it is art.

Say what? I KNOW!

He does this by basically breaking down what makes something art, and then breaking those ideas down further again. Then he shows how math meets that criteria. It is very clearly the argument of a logician, and it seems strange to try and define art that way. And yet, I know exactly what he is talking about. I have always felt that there is a creative element to math and to computer science as well. It's nice to see it explained.

The Line of Beauty
Alan Hollinghurst
This book follows the life of Nick, a gay young man living with a ridiculously wealthy family in 1980s London. The book is divided into three parts - the first where he is first beginning to have lovers and still feels very much a fish out of water as a middle-class kid living among opulence. During the second part, he has embraced the decadence of wealth, promiscuity, and drugs. Finally, chickens come home to roost in the final part, where political scandal and AIDS tear down his life.

The author is harsh on the wealthy. The book reminded me of The Great Gatsby - the protagonist was even named Nick! He also points out the hypocrisy of judgment of homosexual promiscuity, when the straight people are sleeping around, too. Some particularly nasty characters indicated that the gays deserved AIDS for being so slutty, yet there was no way at all to have a socially-acceptable homosexual relationship in the 1980s.

I picked up this book because it won a Booker Prize, but I almost abandoned it 100 pages in. There was a fair amount of sex at the beginning. I get that when you follow a young man around, he's going to be thinking about sex quite a lot. Nick's homosexuality is a huge factor in the story. That's fine, sex is an important part of life and thus a fair topic for literature, I just don't enjoy reading about a lot of sex, gay or straight. But I stuck it through, and the actual sex, while always there, was not given so much wordspace in later chapters. The writing was lovely, and while the characters were very different from me, I was able to see their point of view. There were a lot of vivid details mixed in, which provided good characterization.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull
Richard Bach
This is about an actual seagull. It's a fable, and there were pictures in the version I had. Pictures of seagulls.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull lives with the other seagulls on the shore. The other gulls spend all their time following fishing boats around so that they can eat, but JLS only wants to fly faster and higher, seeing the regular gull life as meaningless. He practices his flying, gets faster, but the other gulls think he is a weirdo. They eventually kick him out of the flock for being such a weirdo. Living alone now, he continues to practice his flying. One day, two white gulls come to him and take him to a place with gulls that practice flying all day long. There he learns other tricks, including telepathy and teleportation. He returns to the regular world and begins teaching other gulls who have been outcast from the flock. Finally, he takes his team of outcasts back to the flock, where they start teaching the flock to find joy and meaning in flight. JLS teaches them that the obstacles they perceive are illusory.

That's pretty much it. It took me about a half hour to read the thing. I get it, it's a fable about rising above the rat race (gull race?), finding yourself, striving for perfection, etc. It seems sorta trite to me, but maybe the ideas were new and fresh when it was written. I do not feel that the addition of pictures of seagulls help give it seriousness.

11.28.2013

turkey day.

Pounds of turkey: 35
Metal folding chairs moved in a hatchback: 32
Lost teeth: 1
Times the hammock hook was pulled out of the tree: 3
Potato rolls baked: 64
Leftover potato rolls: 0
Time in hours of a game of Settlers of Catan: 3
Water pressure tanks replaced: 1
Puppets: 4
Time in hours the water was turned off: 1.5
Pies: 6
Loops on the tandem bike: 5

Happy Thanksgiving.

11.26.2013

washer/dryer.

In the interest of keeping it real, I will admit that my husband and I had a fight on our honeymoon in Paris. Maybe that's understandable. Being in a foreign country, people using unfamiliar languages and currency, delays, lost luggage, your smartphone not getting internet...all that adds up being stressed out and taking out your frustrations on the nearest person.

So what did we fight about? Laundry!

One of the big selling points about the particular flat we rented was the fact that it came with a clothes washer. What a great idea! We would only have to bring half as many clothes! More room in our suitcases for souvenirs! We are surely the smartest travelers ever.

One evening it became clear that we needed to do some laundry. All of our clothes were dirty. Well, not all of them. My short pants and my sundresses were sparkling clean. My one sweater, the one I'd worn every single day, was, of course, dry clean only. The owner of the apartment had left a binder full of useful information - phone numbers for the pizza delivery from Speedy Rabbit, that kind of thing. There were also manuals for the various appliances, including the washer.

I don't know if I've mentioned it yet, but neither Josh nor I really speak French. We got better. By the end of the trip, I could hold a whole conversation in French, as long as that conversation was me ordering food and paying with a credit card. The citizens of Paris speak fantastic English. Every single person, from the art dealer at the flea market to the singer at the bar, spoke English well enough for me to have actual conversation with them. It was humbling.

However, the manual for the washer was not in English. I took a look at it and decided I could just wear dirty clothes. Josh was more persistent. In his reading, he discovered that the washer was also a dryer.

Say what?

That's what he said, anyway. He pointed out the word in the manual to me, but it's not like I know the French word for "dryer." That word could've meant "flagellater" for all I knew. Plus, who ever heard of a washer/dryer? It doesn't even make sense. He insisted, explaining that the machine would use hot water to steam the clothes dry (what?). So after we had washed our clothes, he pushed the dry button. Or what he said was "dry," I only know food words in this language.

The little machine made some whirring noises, I made some doubtful noises, and fifteen minutes later it made the ding! noise that means it's finished. We opened it up and found very hot, very wet clothes. Josh said it needed more time, I said there is no such thing as a washer/dryer. He said fine, what do you suggest, and I said get the hangers.

That was the fight. I don't blame you if you missed it. I missed it myself. I won, I guess? Josh gives in pretty easy sometimes, preferring to just let me have my way and then resent me about it. We are working on it.

We hung up our clothes all over that little flat. Conveniently, there were some lights hanging from wires running across the room. After we ran out of hangers, we hung things from doorknobs and drawer pulls and anything else that would hold a wet sock. Then I took pictures of Josh standing next to his drying underwear in France - so romantic!

It wasn't a great plan. Some of the clothes did not get dry fast enough, and they got that telltale mildew smell. That was when I found out that we'd had a fight, and that there was lingering resentment: when the clothes still weren't dry, and it was my fault for not listening to my husband who knows how to read French appliance manuals.

A couple days later, we needed to do more laundry. But our time in Paris was coming to an end, and we did not have enough time to dry our clothes using the hanging method, not that it really worked. So I just said whatever, we'll do it your way, let's see this washer dry. Josh set the machine to dry, and he programmed it to run for something like two hours just to make sure they were good and dry. Then we went to bed.

I woke up a bit later and could not get back to sleep. Do you ever hear a sound that probably was going on all along, but once you notice it, you can't not hear it? It was like that. First there was a sloshy noise, which was accompanied by renewed skepticism that a machine can both wash and dry. Then there would be some churning and humming. And then there would be a pause, just long enough for me to start to think that the time was up and the machine was done, before it started up again with the sloshing. In my half-awake delirium, I became convinced that the machine was melting our clothes, that we would reach in tomorrow and pull out one big clump of mixed socks and underwear and pants.

Finally, it stopped. I slept.

The next morning, we opened the washer/dryer to find clothes that were dry. They weren't even melted! But they did have a strange sort of burnt smell. So we smelled a little burnt ourselves. Add that to the slight mildew stench and the body funk from the dry-clean-only sweaters. It sorta worked, because each odor prevented the others from becoming overbearing. We smelled off in some way, but not in a way anyone could pin down, unless maybe they'd recently had a fight about laundry, too.

us and them.

After we got back from France, a friend was asking us about how we were treated. He'd recently gone on a trip to London and Paris, and he said the French were just as nice as could be, but the Brits were rude.

"Yeah, they just don't like us over there." He couldn't understand it.

See, this is a case of pronouns. He said "they" to mean British people, and "us" to mean Americans. But really, "they" means the British people they encountered on their trip, probably just some of them, and "us" means his particular group of traveling Americans. I don't know what kind of traveler he is, but I saw some who were going to go home thinking the French don't like Americans. At the train station one morning, a woman went up to the pastry counter and bellowed, "SPEAK ENGLISH?" The cashier nodded, and the customer went on to say her order in English, very loudly and slowly. See, if I had to go to work at a busy station every morning and be yelled at like I was a moron, I might not always be my cheeriest. And then a tourist would go home and say that all my countrymen were jerks. I would go home and complain to my spouse about entitled Americans, completely forgetting about the nice young couple I encountered earlier that same day.

Those generalized pronouns work the other way, too. While we were staying in the countryside, I helped our host hang up some laundry on the clothesline. "I bet you don't do this in America," she said.

"Sure, we do. Well, we personally don't, but there are people who do." I know, it's a confusing statement. I felt the need to defend "us," meaning Americans, even if the comment was true in regards to "us," meaning Josh and me. But later, she did the same thing, saying that "we," i.e. the French, have gardens. Except that they personally don't. I told her that many Americans did, too, but again, we do not.

It's hard to represent your whole country. A man in the bar told me that he liked the American people okay, but he had some problems with its government. I told him that was a common feeling over here, too. Another person we met seemed to have developed his ideas about Americans from television, and he did not come out with a good impression. I wondered what shows he'd been watching. Another seemed to think that we eat only fried food, breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

So I hope we did alright, being abroad. The people we interacted with probably still have their own ideas about Americans, picked up from who knows where. But maybe there will be an asterisk next to that thought that says some of them are okay.

11.24.2013

my redneck present.

Before Josh moved in with me, he bought a secretary from the North Carolina State Surplus to use as a bureau. It was massive and massively heavy, because it was made of particle board. There were two drawers, plus a top compartment that opened out, where the frontpiece could be used as a writing surface. One of the joints was a little busted, but otherwise it was solid. Josh was very attached to this completely ordinary piece of furniture, but I tend not to question his strange attachments, since he is strangely attached to me.

I did not care for this particular piece of furniture, and he really had no need for it once we moved into the house. It was too heavy to go up the stairs. We shoved it in a corner. I occasionally said something about taking it to the thrift store, but without a specific need for the space it was taking up, I didn't have a good reason to get rid of it other than I just didn't like it.

One day, I came home, and the secretary was gone. However, I did not celebrate, because it had been replaced by an electric organ. Actually, the organ itself was in another room. The secretary was displaced by just one of the two enormous speakers.

Josh was too much in the throes of his electric organ excitement to do much of anything, including find a new home for the secretary. He did not take advantage of the three men he'd brought in to move the organ to move the secretary to the thrift store. The secretary ended up on the back porch. Another thing he neglected to do in his excitement: ask me if I wanted an electric organ in my house.

I yelled a lot of things that day, but they were all about the organ. The next day, I yelled something about how the porch is not an appropriate place for a secretary. The day after that, I was too hoarse to yell anymore, so we just made up.

The secretary sat on the porch. It was convenient for putting our beers on when we grilled out. It was also dearly loved by the local wildlife. Apparently, there is a species of millipede that loves nothing more than wet particle board for living in. The secretary got wet with each rain and the boards swelled up a little more. The millipedes moved in. When it rained, they would come out and wriggle, and once you noticed one, you saw that there were actually seven thousand or so. It was pretty gross. After the apocalypse, when the roofs are all ripped off and the particle board furniture of the world is left open to the elements, that millipede is going to do just fine.

I don't know how many pieces of furniture you need outdoors to be officially white trash. I hated it, but got used to it enough to not grumble about it very often. The few people that we ever had over already knew the kind of people we were. I myself grew up with a stove in the yard, until the fateful day that it fell backwards (or was it pushed???) into the woods, where it went wild.

But then last fall, our church asked for signups for a program called "Foyer," where a group of four couples rotate having dinner at each other's houses. I was moderately interested, as it sounded like a good way to meet people. But I thought of all the things that would need to happen at our house before it was ready for company. Sure, my family could come over, and we could have friends over, especially the ones still living in crummy apartments. But I was not going to allow church people, practically strangers, to come over and see how we lived.

It wasn't just the secretary. It was also the overgrown front yard, where there is no grass, but plenty of briars and upstart poplar trees. It was the siding on the back of the house that we had replaced, but still hadn't repainted to match the rest of the wall. It was also the collection of motor oil in milk jugs and plastic juice bottles sitting by the driveway. We spent years living in the house without maintaining the outside of it. Maybe we are white trash, or maybe we are just children masquerading at being grown-ups.

Josh was not interested in Foyer, until someone directly asked him to do it, and then suddenly, he transformed into that guy at church who can't say no to anything. He lobbied hard to sign up that very day, but I pointed out all the things that added up to a picture of a redneck household. I said we could take care of those things in the next few months, and then sign up the next time they started up a new Foyer. He saw the wisdom in this, and promised to take care of everything. I wrote the list of tasks on the whiteboard.

One day, I came home, and he told me he had taken care of the secretary. Praise be! And then I saw the secretary, in pieces, in the backyard next to last year's Christmas tree. But...right, but you just...that is obviously just...ARGH.

We did not sign up for Foyer the next time. Or the time after that. Nor the time after that. In his defense, he did cut down the saplings in the front yard. It looked a lot better, like someone lives here even.

However, we are hosting Thanksgiving for my family this year. This week. Which means that forty or so people are about to descend upon our house. While the thing they have in common is the kind of past with a stove in the yard, many of them are children. I don't know much about children, but I do know to assume that they will get into everything. EVERYTHING. The secretary and the oil cans would just have to go.

Yesterday, we lined the trunk of the car with trash bags and loaded up the various pieces of the secretary. It took a bit of work to find them all. It's fall, you know, and the millipedes aren't the only things that had begun reclaiming the secretary. It had just about gone native. I can sorta see his logic. His problem was that the drawers would not bust apart. So while the individual boards had been disintegrating quietly underneath the leaves, the drawers still stood tall. EITHER WAY, IT IS NOT AN APPROPRIATE WAY TO DISPOSE OF A SECRETARY, JOSHUA. We also loaded up the oil cans, and in doing so, I found some large pieces of broken glass. Good googily moogily, we were bigger rednecks than I even knew.

But it's gone now. We are only rednecks on the inside again. It's like a fresh start. Let's not screw it up this time.

11.19.2013

health food.

Once, when having some friends over, they brought cute little bread puddings in individual tins for everyone. Do you like bread pudding? I love it. I don't think I'd ever tried it until I was an adult, and as soon as I had, I looked up how to make such a delight happen in my own kitchen. I was shocked, SHOCKED, at how easy it is. You don't even have to make the bread! Bread, eggs, milk, sugar, spices, BAM. More people should be making bread pudding. It's got bread in it, so it's practically health food.

The particular bread pudding that our friends brought was extra fancy, because instead of stale store-brand sandwich bread, they'd used croissants. It was decadent, like the kind of thing that billionaires eat. It opened my mind to all the possibilities of bread pudding created by the many varieties of bread. They'd also mixed in a generous amount of chocolate chips, which turns out is the necessary ingredient to get Josh to enjoy bread pudding. I cleaned my personal tin as best as I could; since we had company, I did not lick them. I thought about it, though.

The morning after our dinner party, we found the pudding tins on the floor, which was not where we had left them. They were also completely clean of chocolate smears, which was also not how we'd left them (because of company). We'd only had the dog for a few weeks, but we knew enough to know that Remix was not supposed to eat chocolate. We thought we'd killed her with the most delicious bread pudding in the world. However, with a little googling, we found out that a dog can safely have up to 1 ounce of chocolate per five pounds of dog. So our dog could eat three-quarters of a pound of chocolate with no ill effects. Phew!

Since it did not kill my dog, I've been craving that bread pudding ever since (had it killed my dog, I would probably still have craved it, but would feel conflicted). I did not want to go out and buy a bunch of croissants just for the purpose of making the most delicious bread pudding ever. Croissants in France are cheap; croissants at Kroger are not.

Then last weekend, we were at a church yard sale where they were selling boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. There came unto me a thought. I paid $5 for a box to support their mission trip or youth group or something. Mostly it was to get the doughnuts.

I asked the Internet whether anyone had ever made doughnut bread pudding before, and the Internet said, duh, Paula Deen has. Of course she has. But she put fruit cocktail and raisins in it, which is fine, I guess, but sort of silly in a world where chocolate exists. I found another recipe that used store-bought cake doughnuts with chocolate chips. Between the two, I came up with something.

Do I need to even tell you? It was amazing. And you don't even add any sugar! Health food, I tell ya.

Krispy Kreme Doughnut Bread Pudding

1 dozen Krispy Kreme glazed doughnuts, cut or torn into bite-sized pieces
4 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 c half and half
1 t cinnamon
1 t vanilla
pinch salt
1 1/2 c chocolate chips

Mix the chocolate chips and doughnuts in a large bowl. Mix the other ingredients in smaller bowl. Add the wet mixture to the doughnuts and let them soak it all up. Add to a buttered baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 - 35 minutes until set. Let cool, then stick face directly in and snarf it up. Or serve it on plates or whatever.

Notes:
You could maybe sub milk for the half and half. You could also possibly cut the chocolate chips to 1 cup, but I have a chocolate addict in the house. Some people make sauces to put on bread puddings, which is probably delicious, but unnecessary.

11.17.2013

yard sales, nov. 16

I haven't done an entry like this in forever!

Frankly, we haven't gone to many sales this year. I have no explanation. I still believe in and preach the gospel of secondhand. I drop into at least one thrift store every week to poke around. I don't buy much, but I still like to look. Sometimes you see some crazy stuff, like clown shoes.

I think that I finally have enough stuff. I really wasn't sure that would ever happen. But I feel overwhelmed by all the stuff sometimes, and the thought of taking on more just makes me tired. So to buy something, I have to really really really really like it, OR it has to replace something I already own - an upgrade.

Friday night, I had gone to some thrift stores and bought only a book (totally broke my no more books rule, but it looks really good, was in perfect condition, and I was weak from not having bought anything at a series of three stores). I looked through the clothes, because I need some basic shirts for church. Sometimes vintage t-shirts just aren't that appropriate. It would actually be totally fine at my church, but I guess I'm old-fashioned. The thrift stores in my area have the clothing arranged by color, so if you want a black shirt, it's easy to find that section. I looked through all the black shirts, and I found a couple that were cute and in my size. Then I didn't buy them, because shirts at thrift stores are about $3.50.

I know. It's more than a bit silly. There are a lot of solid financial concepts in my decision:
1. The shirts were not special. They vary from other shirts, but to me, it's just serves as a black shirt that I can wear to church. I can go back to any Goodwill and find another black shirt that is comparable any time I want. If I'd found a pair of jeans, I would have bought them, because it's much harder to find pants that fit and are not cut for some horrendous fad. Shirts? Bah.
2. I didn't need a shirt at all. I would like to expand my wardrobe to have more selection, but I'm not skipping church for lack of things to wear. I could wait until I found something I liked better or something cheaper.
3. Clothes are cheaper at yard sales, it was Friday night, and I was planning on going to some sales in the morning.

See, very practical, but I didn't stand there and count reasons out in my head. I just know the difference between a shirt that I like a dollar's worth and one I like three dollar's worth. I wonder sometimes whether other people distinguish between one and three dollars. Most of them shop retail, so in terms of a shirt, probably not. I suspect that lots of people also think of value in terms of what the store says value is, not by their own internal system.

In any case, the secondhand gods must have looked approvingly at my good sense, because the next morning, I found four very nice Eddie Bauer shirts in my size for fifty cents apiece. Wore one to church this morning with a yard sale skirt and some Goodwill shoes. Looked cute.

I also found Christmas ornaments. The lady suggested shining them up, but I kinda like the tarnish (or I am too lazy to shine them up and can tolerate the tarnish). I've also considered just spray-painting them. I got five of them for a dollar: two angels, the wise men on camels, a bird, and a rocking horse. There was probably a bird at the manger, but the rocking horse seems a bit suspect.


My find of the day was - wait for it - a hole puncher.


Now, this is a pretty sweet-looking hole puncher. Vintage and industrial, you could stick this on an old desk, get out the soft lighting and have a photoshoot to sell an old typewriter on Etsy. I searched for the name and found an ad for it in a paper from 1965. It's very sturdy. Something I love about secondhand shopping is that your most common and utilitarian of possessions can be unique and interesting, which makes activities like putting your choir music in a binder a more enjoyable experience. It's the little things, people.

But what is really fancy about this hole puncher is that the position of the holes is adjustable. You can punch up to seven holes in your paper, and you can adjust the positions of each. So if you have some kind of non-standard binder, you rebel you, you can still be organized. Have you ever heard of such hole punching technology? Indeed, I have not. I really don't see myself ever needing a hole puncher other than this one. It seems unlikely to break, and has such fantastic capabilities that I can't imagine any requiring more than this hole puncher can handle.


So. Check buying a hole puncher off my list for life. One less thing.

11.15.2013

dancing shoes.

I stripped off my socks, and there was blood.

It was entirely predictable. I'd brought the wrong pair of shoes to Washington, D.C., and I'd walked all over our nation's capital in them. It was just stubbornness, a refusal to believe that my blue Chuck Taylors, the ones I got married in, my something blue, were the wrong shoes for a day of sight-seeing. I'd learned this lesson already in Paris, where they rubbed my pinky toes raw. They are fine for the life of a software engineer, but not for any sort of non-sedentary lifestyle.

I'd had bloody socks before, in high school. All the girls on the basketball team were required to buy these particular Nikes. They were ugly and they were rough on my feet. There was a game early in the season where I'd played my fifteen-year-old heart out (we lost), and then grossed out the whole locker room with my bloody socks. From then on, every day in the locker room before practice or a game, I wrapped up my littlest piggies in two band-aids apiece. Maybe I should start doing that whenever I take a trip where there's going to be a lot of walking. I am still hopeful that I can figure out a way around this, that I'm simply not wearing the shoes properly. Tighter laces, or looser ones.

I went into the bathroom to wash off the crusted blood. In doing so, I discovered two blisters. As I gingerly bathed my wounded tootsies with a hotel washcloth, I composed a strongly-worded letter to the Converse shoe company. I imagined their reply: We're not responsible for your weird feet, lady.

The real problem was not the blisters or the blood, but the fact that I had a wedding to go to in about an hour, and the shoes I'd brought for that occasion made my Chucks look like bedroom slippers. I thought my toes were pinched before, but they were about to be squeezed into a pair of peep-toed pumps. I was just hoping that no blood would decide to peep, too.

I eased my way into the dress shoes, complaining all the way. Josh called me a poor baby. I complained some more, because that is how I deal with pain. My husband is a lucky, lucky man.

The wedding was lovely. My cousin got married in a Methodist church in the suburban woods, in front of a huge window, while the great state of Virginia showed off her autumn colors behind. My appreciation for weddings has skyrocketed since I threw one. It's nice to go to a party and not be responsible for any of it.

At the reception, there was Mexican food and an open bar. We sat with some Texas relatives of the groom and talked about voter IDs and the American Pie movies. We put together Lego minifigs from the bowl of parts on the table.

After dinner, a DJ turned up some tunes and invited everyone to dance. Josh looked at me expectantly. I thought of three things:
1. My feet.
2. The beers I'd had.
3. The smug blog entry I had just posted about how we were bad dancers, and we didn't care who knew it.

If there was anyone in the world who had read it, it was my mother, who was sitting just across the room. I took a big swig of my beer, and allowed my dance-partner-for-life to lead me to the dance floor, where other dancing nerds were already showing off their complete lack of moves.

We danced. We had so much fun. Does anyone ever regret dancing at a wedding?

Later that night, I found myself in the same hotel room, removing my shoes and afraid of the damage I might find within. No blood. And somehow, my blisters had gone away. It didn't appear that they'd popped, they just seemed to have fused back into my feet. Dude, dancing cures blisters. Does the American Podiatric Medical Association know about this? This could change everything.


11.14.2013

minou.

When I was a little girl, I was nuts about cats. There was very little going on in my life that was not cat-related. I wrote stories about them, I drew pictures of them, I filled up roll after roll of film with blurry photos of them. When I wasn't playing directly with them, I was pretending that I was one, part of an entire cat community, with characters drawn from our real-life cats and also cartoon ones on TV. I had a rich imaginary social life.

We had outdoor cats, which were often one step removed from feral. They came to the food bowl, but were not interested in being manhandled by a little girl. A few of them would consent to be petted, but they were never snuggly enough for me. Of course, snuggly enough for me was in the love them and squeeze them and call them Complainy range. Since then, I have met cats that are very snuggly, and it makes me sad that I never had that growing up. I understand that it was probably my own fault, though. Maybe they wanted to snuggle, but they feared for their lives.

We briefly had a kitten when we stayed with some friends in a village outside Lyon. It was like renting a kitten for four days. I think Rent-A-Kitten services would be a great success, though they would probably convince everyone that they don't want to own kittens. At least, that was the lesson I learned.

This kitten was named Minou, which is simply French for kitten. Really, she didn't officially have a name, as her owners either called her Minou or what might have been "Kitty" with a French accent, but sounded to me like "Titty." We opted to call her Minou.


Minou, being a kitten, was incredibly playful. I'm used to the lazier behavior of adult cats. Kittens only nap when you're gone, I think. Then when you come home, they spring to life and start batting at your pant leg.  Mostly, they want to play. They might get distracted by a bug or a piece of string, but mostly, they want to play with you. They want to sit on your lap and bat at your hands while you're trying to read. At dinner time, they jump onto the back of your chair. Stand still, and they'll climb up your leg. Minou's very favorite game was Bite. You can probably figure out how it goes.

I feel like a wuss complaining about widdle kitty bites. They don't hurt that bad. At first, I was happy to play with her and let her bat at my hands. She would bite and I would bop her on the head with a finger. But at some point, it just seemed like all biting, all the time. By the end of our stay, we would go to our bedroom and shut the door to escape the teeth of Minou. It was tricky, because she was good at zipping into the room under your feet. Then you had to try and catch her from her hiding spot under the bed while she was attacking you.

As with Remix, we took to speaking for Minou in our own goofy Minou voice. Pretty much the only thing we ever made her say was, "I'm gonna BITE you!" We could make a whole little speech out of her biting plans as she crept across the room, our tender hand meat in her sights. And then the pounce - "here I come to BITE you!"

We were not sorry to leave our bitey friend behind. We own a pitbull and we were glad to be back home where an animal would simply snuggle us rather than attempt to draw blood. But sometimes, I sneak up behind Josh and give him a playful nip on the shoulder...I'm gonna BITE you!

11.13.2013

old amsterdam.

We took a day out of our time in Paris to hop over to Amsterdam to visit a friend. Amsterdam is a crazy place. It is picturesque and quaint in appearance, but intense to experience. In Paris, and later in Lyons, Josh would heave a big happy sigh and say, "Let's move here. Can we move here?" He did not say that in Amsterdam. That is likely unfair. We were only there a day, and we spent a lot of time in the tourist areas. We got mildly lost. I would absolutely go back, but I know that I am not cut out to live there.

For one thing, there are already too many people. Something I have noticed about the big cities that make me anxious versus the ones that make me feel good about humanity is how close they feel. I have a hard time in Manhattan because the buildings are so tall that I feel walled off all the time. Walled off with a lot of strangers. Amsterdam felt like that to me. The buildings were not tall, but the whole place felt very cramped. A lot of the streets were very old, and therefore narrow. It was a little better near the canals, but even there you felt like the buildings were leaning in over you. That's because they were. A while back, the city tried to build some subways underneath the canals, which unfortunately caused the buildings on either side to sink. I think they halted construction on the subway, and I hope they took some measures to secure those houses.


And the bicycles. Do you like bicycles? Not as much as the Dutch. I agree that bicycles make a lot of sense in Amsterdam, because area-wise, it's not that big. (We saw some very small cars, too. They're so small that you don't have to get a full driving license to drive them, sort of like a moped. And, bonus, you can park them on the sidewalk.) I've just never seen such a bike culture. In some of the fancier neighborhoods in North Carolina, usually near college campuses, there are bike lanes. They're usually just the shoulder of the road with a bike painted in it. In Amsterdam, there is a completely separate, smaller road next to the larger road, a road for bikes. So you have the road, then you have a sliver of sidewalk, and then there is another road, followed by another sliver of sidewalk next to the leaning buildings. A distracted tourist might stand in the bike road waiting for the light to change so that they can cross the main road. They wouldn't stand there very long before being screamed at or just run down by an old Dutch lady, because as far as the old Dutch lady is concerned you are literally standing in the middle of the road like a slack-jawed yokel. Next to Centraal Station is a parking deck for bicycles.


The whole traffic situation requires constant vigilance. There are a lot of cars, and then there are all the bikes, and oh yes, there are trams, too. And there are canals, so after you get hit by the bike, the car, and the tram, you can fall in the water and be run over by a houseboat. People know how to move in Amsterdam, and they are not going to let you slow them down. They've got somewhere to be and only five minutes before it starts raining again. Our friend showed us a website that had the radar map of the city, where you can check for breaks in the clouds before you go anywhere, so maybe the fast pace is weather-related.


Also, I was unable to figure out how the tram routes worked. I have been able to figure out public transportation maps in multiple cities, but I had no luck there. Each time I thought I had it right in theory, the trams in actuality would prove me wrong. We ended up walking. This could be my own fault, or this could be why everyone rides bicycles.

Anything goes in Amsterdam. There are weed shops all over the place, some of them obviously catering to tourists and others that looked like a place where everybody knows your name. We did not go through the red light district, though Josh says he saw a lady dancing provocatively through a cellar window. We were in some tourist areas, and most of the shops were capitalizing on Amsterdam's reputation as a den of sin. So many phallic souvenirs. We encountered shops like this in Paris, too, around the Moulin Rouge. But that was in a generally seedy part of town, where everything was just a little bit dirty. In Amsterdam, this kind of thing was just everywhere. Our friend says that frat boys from all over Europe come to Amsterdam to get wasted, hire prostitutes, and be generally obnoxious.

It's a very international city, which I guess is why it is so permissive a place. When you've got people from all over trying to make things happen together, you need to live and let live. Everyone spoke excellent English, which was very lucky for us. I stretched my pitiful college French to the limit, but I don't know a lick of Dutch. I couldn't even read it very well. In French, you can sound out the words and end up pronouncing things badly, but generally understandably. With Dutch, I'd get halfway through the word before encountering a strange letter combination, and my eyes would cross. I learned how to say "thank you" from a information booth at the train station, and that was the extent of my education.

This sounds like a long list of complaints from a disgruntled tourist. I am sure that to some people, Amsterdam is the place they've been looking for all their lives. And it truly is a beautiful place. There are cobblestones and canals and cute houses all over the place. I think if I went back I would be able to adjust better. I guess I'm saying that it's not you, Amsterdam, it's me.


11.08.2013

choir widow.

There is lots more to say about our European adventures, but while I've been not writing about that, other things have been going on that I haven't been writing about either.

During the summer months at our church, they have what they call the "summer choir." Mostly it's the regular members of the choir, but they don't wear the robes and they don't proceed in at the beginning of the service, so it's supposed to be casual. While in this low-key state, they invite other church-goers to come and fill in some of the spaces vacated by vacationing vocalists. The very first time we came to church, this was going on. So we walked in and were enthusiastically asked to join the choir. I'm pretty sure my face communicated my absolute terror. We declined.

One Sunday this summer, I had to go drop off a borrowed coffee thermos in the kitchen, and by the time I got to the sanctuary, there was Josh, sitting with the summer choir. I should've known not to leave him alone. Every time he gets off by himself, some sneaky Episcopalian talks him into volunteering for something or other. This time, the lady didn't even have to talk. Recognizing him as a sucker joiner, she caught his eye as he came in the door and jerked her head toward an open seat in the choir. And that was that.

I was pouty, because I did not want to sit by myself. His answer was for me to come sit in the choir, too. Seeing as how we would be put into different sections, this was not a solution. Also, I told him that summer choir was just the way they get you to join the regular choir. The revelation of their real plot was not quite the bombshell to him that I'd hoped. In fact, he seemed entirely okay with that idea. Hrmph.

It's November now, and summer choir is over. Which means Josh has graduated to wearing a robe and walking in at the beginning of the service. He made sure to get Thursday evenings off so he can go to practice. And, he has practice again before the service, because Episcopalians sing strange songs, which means we have to go to church at 9:15. We'd been talking about getting up early enough to go to Sunday School, but it had just never happened. Apparently, it took the choir. So I go to Sunday School, and Josh goes and practices singing. He loves it. He comes home on Thursday nights all full of musical joy. He says it's like free singing lessons. The opportunity for summer choir came along at the same time as he was starting up a new band with himself on the mike, so he saw it as one of those mysterious ways that the Lord's always working in. And here I thought it was just sneaky Episcopalians.

Of course, I have been asked to join the choir about fifty times since Josh signed up. About thirty of those times were him. I sang in the church choir when I was in high school, so it's not as if I'm allergic. However, I only joined then as part of a deal with my dad to get a beagle puppy. I'd use that as an example of the kind of persuasion he would need to bring to the table, except that I can't be sure that my husband wouldn't just go out and get a puppy. I don't want a puppy, and I don't want to join the choir.

Josh asks why I don't want to join the choir, and I don't have a real reason, other than when I imagine doing it, I suddenly feel sort of crappy and like I hate church. I don't need a reason other than not wanting to. I felt abandoned at first, but now I feel like I need to just find my own place in the community. He joins everything, and I haven't join anything, yet. I'm just easing myself in.

I've gotten used to sitting on my own (still not used to being there by 9:15). In fact, I sit with the other choir widow(er)s - the spouses of choir members who don't want to sing in the choir, not even for a beagle puppy. The choir takes communion before the rest of the parishoners, and when that happens, we go up there and insert ourselves in line with our partners so we can take communion with our honeys. It's sweet. And then we go back to our seats and listen while the choir provides music for the rest of communion. Sometimes, if I know the song, I even sing along quietly to myself.

I have to admit, his singing has gotten better. And he looks awfully cute in the robes.

11.01.2013

leader price.

Across the street from our little flat in the city, there was a grocery store. Being built into a storefront that predated supermarkets, it was well-stocked, but cramped. It was called Leader Price.

We saw a lot of English writing in France, both store names and on apparel, and most of it didn't quite make sense, as if they'd taken a French phrase which may or may not have been idiomatic and then run it through a bad online translation engine. The result was often phrases that no native English speaker would say. Or maybe they were British or Australian terms, I don't know. We thought about how we could make a killing selling shirts with English phrases that, you know, made sense, but I'm not sure the French could tell the difference. They are happy to go to Leader Price and not worry about it. Maybe making sense is overrated. What the heck is a Food Lion, anyway?

We went to Leader Price probably every single day. We bought wine and cheese and chocolate, and sometimes bread if the bakery down the street was closed. Sometimes that was dinner, and sometimes that was the post-dinner snack. For being a small store, they still had a whole aisle devoted to wine. The first time we went, I randomly grabbed a bottle of red, basically picking the cheapest thing that had a little sticker on it. The sticker means it won an award. This is not a foolproof method for choosing wine, as all you need to give out awards is a roll of stickers. But this wine, which cost $4 a bottle, was pretty fantastic. Josh in particular liked it, saying that we needed to buy up cases of the stuff and ship it back. We did not do that. I don't even remember the name of it, and we will likely never come across it again. There are tons of French wines that you can only buy in France, which is maybe why they're so cheap.

And we tried a lot of different cheeses. Josh introduced me to fancy cheeses when we first started dating. Before, my idea of fancy cheese was something that came in a block, rather than individually sliced and wrapped. My tastes are still not very sophisticated. I love those soft, buttery cheeses, but I can't handle anything too sour. When we were in Lyon, our friends gave us some Brie and dismissively said it was the stuff they give to kids, so my tastes are about as developed as a French kid's. French cheese was also ridiculously cheap, or maybe that's just at Leader Price.

At Leader Price, and probably a lot of other European stores, you don't get free bags. You bring your own or you can buy some from the store for some pittance. I'd bought Leader Price bags on two trips before I realized this. After that, I stopped saying "Yes, uh, I mean oui" when they asked if we wanted a bag and we just carried everything. But we still had those two bags, and I'd paid for them, dangit, so I was going to keep them. We used them to store our dirty clothes in our luggage.

When we got home, I didn't want to use our Leader Price bags the way we'd use a regular old Food Lion bag. I remembered something I saw on the internet about using plastic bags for iron-ons. I bought a plain t-shirt at Goodwill, trimmed the logo (the tutorial said it worked better if the iron-on was smaller than the surface of the iron), and made my own Paris souvenir. It is quite possibly the only Leader Price t-shirt in existence. People who bother to notice it will not know it is a souvenir of Paris, though they may wonder about the name.

Leader Price!

10.31.2013

october 2013 books.

Short list this month, mostly because I picked up a really long book that I am very close to finishing.

The Rebel Angels
Robertson Davies
There is a thrift store in Raleigh that has giant bins of free books. We have too many books, and so it's easiest if I don't even look in the book section when shopping, but I always check the free bin. Since the books are all tossed in there, you have to dig a bit, which is just fine because I'd rather not find anything. Usually what happens is I get to the last bin and find something amazing, then I go back and really dig through the rest because I think the Free Book Gods must be smiling at me. Sometimes, and this is silly, I take books that I already have, just so I can take them to the used book store. It's not really for the store credit, but to save a good book from certain death.

Anyway, one day I found a Robertson Davies book in the free bin. I'd never heard of the guy, but the cover looked like the kind of thing I'd like, with positive reviews from trusted publications (like The New Yorker, not Cosmo). I looked the book up on my phone, where the Amazon reviews were also uniformly glowing, with phrases like "the best writer I'd never heard of." So I added the book to my pile. Then I kept digging, and I kept finding more Robertson Davies. Some Davies fan must've died and their estate, having never heard of the guy, donated all the books, where they ended up in the bins, having already languished away on the shelves, passed by others who had never heard of him. As a result, I have five Robertson Davies books. Never read a single one until this month.

It was really good!

The book takes place at a small private university, with various amusing campus characters. Davies, a professor himself, was incredibly well-read, so he drops references to things all over the place. It made me feel smart when I got them (lots of references to Rebalais, and even a shout out to Beerbohm!). It's not a plot-driven book; there are several interweaving storylines going on that come together very nicely in the end, but the focus is really more on the characters. And it was very funny stuff. There was a gypsy Christmas dinner that was particularly wonderful.

One of the main themes was about finding value in the dirty or broken (appropriate for a book from the free bin). One of the professors is studying ancient folk traditions, specifically ones using excrement, which leads him to meet some gypsies, who use horse dung to rehabilitate broken violins. Several professors are in the process of cleaning out the estate of one of their deceased colleagues, who hoarded works of art. The title refers to a myth about some angels who got kicked out of heaven for giving sacred knowledge to the humans (sort of like Prometheus). University professors are compared to those angels, still imparting sacred knowledge to the pitiful humans after all these years.

Good stuff, which is lucky because I've got several more Davies books to read.

The Master of Go
Yasunari Kawabata
When I went looking through my unread books, I deliberately picked books by authors that I have multiple works by. Months ago, I went to the estate sale of someone who was apparently a Kawabata fan. I bought them all. I am a sucker for translated books, because taking the time to translate a whole book into another language seems like a pretty good vote of confidence. Plus, the cultural differences always make for interesting reading.

This book was a work of sports journalism, about a championship game of Go that lasted for six months (not continuous). There were extended sessions, and a couple of huge breaks because one of the players was very old and in poor health. I have never played Go, though my understanding is that it is similar to Othello, which my brother taught me to play twenty-some years ago. Despite being a retelling of a game that I don't understand and which is about as thrilling as chess, the book was pretty suspenseful. It was told as a battle between old and young, both in terms of the players, the evolution of the style of gameplay, and the nation of Japan. While the match took place before World War II, the book was written afterwards, when Japan was irrevocably changed. Though the war (and the bomb) changed the country, the old ways were already disappearing beforehand.

While I wouldn't read it again, the fact that Kawabata made me care about the championship match of Go indicates that he's a pretty good writer, I think. A really good writer can make you care about most anything.

Crooked Letter Crooked Letter
Tom Franklin
Our book club selection this month. It's a crime novel of sorts, one crime being recent and another one thirty years old and still unsolved. It's set in small town Mississippi (thus the title), and deals a lot with race and class division. The interesting thing to me about was that it was set in partly in the 1970s and partly in modern day. It seems like a lot of books that deal with race are set in the really bad old days before integration, as if everything immediately got better. But this shows that there was still a lot of very open racism in the 70s, and that it still exists today, though it is muted.

The book was okay. I feel like I never have anything good to say about book club books. It's possible that reading them in between established classics is not putting them in the best light. Even when they are solid books, like this one was, they seem pretty ho-hum in comparison to the best writer you've never heard of.

I've actually decided to give up my moderator position at the end of the book club year in February. At that point, I will probably switch to another club that reads things more aligned with my reading interests. I really like reading with a group, because so often I feel like I need some extra insight to really get a book. I rarely feel that way about the books we read in the club. I don't need help picking up the subtext; frequently, there isn't any. But I think book club has been good for me in terms of thinking about books and discussing them. That is why I joined it, so mission accomplished.