june 2013 books.

From Here You Can't See Paris
Michael Sanders

The author took a year to move to rural France to learn about working in a restaurant. I'm not sure why he couldn't have stayed home to do that, but maybe I should look into this writing thing. I would like to write a book about flea markets, so to be really thorough, I'm going to need to spend a year in France. Now I require money to do so, which will obviously include a stipend to buy things at French flea markets. For research.

Anyway, his year abroad turns into research about more than just a restaurant, which is entirely unsurprising.

While the profiles of various old French people were interesting, I think I most enjoyed the pure informational parts of the book. For instance, I learned about making foie gras and growing truffles. Foie gras is already illegal in some areas due to the methods used to make it. The ducks are raised normally, but during the last two weeks of their ducky life, they are force fed ridiculous amounts of food, that will then get stored as fat in their livers. They take a feeding tube, stuff it down the duck's throat and funnel corn down there every day. The duck then stumbles off, slightly maimed in the throat region and in a kind of food stupor. It just seems sort of mean and unnecessary. I'm sure it makes their livers quite delicious, but there are other delicious things in the world. The rest of the duck, for instance. Mmmm, duck.

The book mourns the loss of the rural way of life, lamenting old agricultural techniques, neighborly sharing, and simple living. I have a hard time getting worked up about that - the world changes, some things will be lost, others will be gained. But one of the differences is that living in the country requires more of a community mindset. Everyone's got to work together to survive, because they can't just go down to the store. The city is full of individuals, while there are none in the country. Of course, that's not quite true. An individual can have his basic survival needs met in the city without relying on anyone else, but he still has a need for community (and since he's in the city, he can find that). To mourn the loss of something that we required to keep from starving is only something we can do because we are no longer in danger of starving. It's nostalgia for something that didn't really exist.

Jacques the Fatalist and His Master
Denis Diderot
Diderot! Another guy whose name was familiar, but I had no idea what he ever did in the world. He was an editor for the first French encyclopedia, back when encyclopedias were a new invention. He got into some trouble, because the encyclopedia treated it as common knowledge that men are equal and have a right to free expression, which was a controversial topic in pre-Revolutionary France. As a result, Jacques the Fatalist was only published posthumously, because Diderot didn't want to piss anyone off.

This is a novel, but it is not like any other novel I've ever read. Whatever the first novel was, in the centuries since then, a lot of novels have been written. There was probably some great age of the novel, and then of course, people started fiddling with the format. Jacques the Fatalist reminds me of those books in that it is recognizably a novel, but the author clearly does not feel bound by rules of what a novel should be. It made me realize that fiddling with the format is not only something that happens once a form is established and writers get bored by it and want to rebel against the establishment. People have been fiddling with the format since the first one, and fiddling is how the novel developed and became what we think it is. In the beginning, there was nothing that fated the novel to become what it did. That's just the way it happened, as different writers experimented with it through the ages and explored what worked. Maybe if Diderot had published his book earlier, things would have been completely different.

Or maybe it had to happen that way, if you are a fatalist.

Anyway, Jacques the Fatalist. The story is that Jacques and his master are travelling...where? Well, we don't know. Every time the narrator continues the story, saying that they were on the road, he is interrupted by another character, called the Reader. The Reader asks where they are going and the narrator rolls his eyes and doesn't tell us. He tells the Reader that he is too curious, and then expands into a dissertation into whether any of us ever know where we're going. At some point, we get back to the story of Jacques and his master travelling (to someplace, still don't know where). Jacques is telling a story about his loves, but he is repeatedly interrupted by people they meet on the road or himself, telling a different story. There are multiple stories going on at once, being told by various characters who interrupt each other to tell more stories, and it gets a little tricky to keep up.

Does this book sound crazy to you? It's pretty crazy. I thought it was wonderful.

And in the meantime, they're also discussing whether people have free will (because novels turn out to be a great way to explore ideas!). As was indicated in the title, Jacques the Fatalist is, well, a fatalist. He says that what happens does so because "it was written up yonder." So it doesn't matter what we do, or what we think we are doing, because everything has already been written up yonder and that's just the way it is.

[Jacques finishes telling a story about some dudes, who had finished their adventures and then gone to Lisbon.]
The Master: And what did they have to do in Lisbon?
Jacques: Look for an earthquake that couldn't happen without them - be crushed, swallowed up, burned, just as it was written up yonder.

An earthquake that couldn't happen without them. That just slays me. The earthquake in question was the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which inspired a lot of writing and was the first earthquake to be studied scientifically. It came up in Candide, too. Diderot was not afraid to reference other writers all over the place, including Voltaire, but he heavily referenced Laurence Sterne's Tristam Shandy, which made me want to read it. Unfortunately, it turned out to be probably the only book that Josh does not have. Luckily, I found it at a yard sale the very next week for fifty cents. It must've been written up yonder.

Before I Go To Sleep
SJ Watson
This was our book club selection this month, and before you assume that means I didn't like it, I will tell you that I found it to be okay. The plot is that a woman has amnesia, but it's that kind of amnesia where you wake up everyday thinking it's twenty years ago, freak out, but then forget everything again when you go to sleep at night. I don't know if this amnesia exists in real life or if it only comes up in books and Adam Sandler movies. In any case, I don't think this book would stand up against scientific scrutiny.

But it wasn't bad. The main character starts keeping a journal to help her retain things she's learned on previous days. This is a thriller, so she is not sure who she can trust. I don't think I'm much for thrillers. It's entirely possible that the ones that come up in book club are not shining examples of the genre, so maybe I should pick up something that has stood the test of time (Note: consulting this list of the best thrillers, I see that The Count of Monte Cristo is on there, which I happen to be reading - and enjoying - right now. Booyah.).

There is a lot of discussion about memory and how much we derive our selves from it. If you can't remember something, is it the same as it never having happened? Or does it change you, whether you remember it or not? I thought these were pretty interesting ideas, and I love fiction that has ideas, but I wish I'd enjoyed the story more.

A Tale of Two Cities
Charles Dickens
I read A Christmas Carol for seventh grade English class, and the only thing I remember about it is that there were long passages describing food. So I expected Dickens to be long-winded; he was famously paid by the word for part of his career. But the difference in reading A Christmas Carol and reading any other Dickens book is that I haven't already seen the Muppets adaptation, so I don't know the plot (or big chunks of dialogue). And so I had to go slow and actually read, because otherwise I had no idea what was going on. I am a champion skimmer, but I could not do it with this book. I had to go back and read a chapter because I'd skimmed it, and it turns out that I needed to know some things that Dickens had hidden in the words. Sneaky Charles Dickens. I eagerly await The Muppets Tale of Two Cities, though I think the subject matter might be a little dark for felt.

Anyway! Turns out, one of the eponymous two cities is Paris, which is why this book qualifies for my current France-related reading curriculum. The first part is before the Revolution, and there are many unflattering comparisons between Paris and London (the other city), as to the lives of the poor. Dickens is obviously sympathetic with the Revolution, as the aristocracy has seriously gotten out of control. A Marquis in his carriage runs over and kills a kid in the street, and his response is to toss a gold coin out the window at the kid's parents. It's really no wonder the people got tired of that nonsense. Also, they were starving.

You know how things can be Dickensian? I have no idea what that means, except maybe British and kinda grimy. These characters are vivid, but they're flat - they each represent one thing (my favorite was the villainous Madame Defarge). The narrative is pretty plot-driven. Josh referred to it as a "page-turner," because of the way the chapters end on a cliffhanger which makes you want to read on. That word, as applied to Dickens, made me laugh, because of the kind of books we read at book club which are described as page-turners. But he's right; the writing style is just different (and by different, I mean better, because it is Charles Freaking Dickens). There is also a notable amount of religious imagery and language. I guess that's not surprising from the guy who brought us The Spirit of Christmas Past.

There are several long passages where he describes a scene, and I found these to be really beautiful prose. They don't necessarily advance the plot, but they are vivid and set a mood very effectively. There is a great scene where a wine cask is dropped and broken, and all the people stop what they are doing and start drinking wine off the street. Then a guy takes the wine and writes "BLOOD" on the wall with his finger, because the people are fed up. Chilling.

Anyway, I'm going to read more Dickens. And Tristam Shandy. But only after I'm done with the French books. So much to read!

L'Amante Anglaise
Marguerite Duras
I read another book of Duras', The Vice Consul, and it frustrated the crap out of me. I read it, I felt like I understood everything that had happened, but I did not see what the point of it was. Frequently, I finish a book with the feeling that there is some deeper meaning just outside my grasp, like a dream you can't remember. But this was different. I had nothing. I went and looked up a bunch of literary criticism about it. Turns out, I had caught most of the major ideas, but the story is told in such an odd manner that I hadn't been sure. There are lots of ways to tell a story and lots of ways to make a point, and I had to conclude that me and Marguerite were just working on different wavelengths, because the way she communicates is not the best way to ensure my understanding. That's a long and complicated way of saying that I really hated that book.

So I was not looking forward to more Duras, but this one was much more straightforward (though the format was unusual). It's a series of interviews about a horrific murder that has just taken place in small town France. The murderess is widely thought in the town to be crazy, though the reader is left to come to her own conclusions (mine: probably crazy). After the murder has occurred, the characters wonder whether it was inevitable, whether this mentally ill person would have eventually killed someone no matter what (more fatalism!). There's a great quote by the maybe crazy lady: "Perhaps when you get down to it the real cause of most crimes is opportunity."

This book was okay, though it was so short it was hard for me to get invested in any of it.



Thing 1: Chicken nuggets button
A friend of mine is in the market for a new oven, and she encountered one at the store which listed among its features a "Chicken Nuggets" button. She saw this as a sign of the country's decline. For me, this raises all kinds of questions, such as: Who came up with this? Do people use it? Just how many chicken nuggets are we eating as a nation? Does it work for all nugget brands, or is there some kind of corporate sponsorship, such that it works great for Tyson chicken nuggets, but the Purdue ones come out burnt?

I try not to point to specific things and call it a sign of the end times, but I have to agree that a "Chicken Nuggets" button is pretty much awful. Apparently, it is equivalent to setting the oven to 350 degrees. As it happens, that is the default baking temperature for my oven, so technically, I already have a chicken nuggets button. It's just labelled differently. It says "BAKE."

Thing 2: Just what else is in there?
Josh and I were talking about scanning some pictures. We have a printer/copier/scanner, a really nice one, in fact. However, since the ink ran out, the scanner hasn't worked, which is infuriating. That right there is the kind of big company logic that leads to a "Chicken Nuggets" button.

Anyway, in the midst of my angry tirade at Hewlett Packard, Trevor broke in and said, "I have a scanner in my car."

"WHAT?" I asked, far too loud. Remember, I was in the midst of a tirade, and also, since Trev had already fished a spare microwave out of his car, finding out that there was also a printer/copier/scanner in there was just too much.

"Yeah. They were throwing it out at work. I'll go get it." He left to go to out to what looks like a regular old Nissan Pathfinder, but which is apparently some kind of magical Nissan Pathfinder. I'm tempted to see what else I can say that we need around here to find out if there is already one sitting in our driveway. Does it only work for items that we already have, but are broken? Or can I ask for anything? Does Trevor need to be here, or can I just go outside and yell "PET LLAMA" at the car? Nissan should really start advertising this particular feature.

Thing 3: Super cute
I didn't have a third thing, but if you were wondering, my dog is still cute.


sausage alchemy.

Yesterday, around midday, I sent Josh a message asking him to grab two blocks of Italian sausage from the freezer and set them in a bowl on the counter to thaw. When I got home, I saw that he dutifully did so. I also noticed that rather than them being two half-pound blocks of Italian sausage, they were two quarter-pound blocks of breakfast sausage.


I grumbled my way over to the freezer, intending to hunt down the Italian sausage. There was none.


Husband forgiven, it was time to improvise. I had half the amount that I needed, and it was the wrong kind of meat. To solve the first problem, I grabbed a half-pound block of ground beef. For the second problem, I asked the internet what to do. Internet, what do you do when you've only got breakfast sausage and you need Italian sausage, otherwise your big dish of baked ziti is going to taste weird?

You know what's great about the Internet? Whatever problem you've got, someone else has already had it and written about what they did to solve it. Now there will be two of us who had to turn breakfast sausage into Italian sausage. AND, I get to use fennel seed, which I think I bought a couple years ago when I was all excited about cooking with crazy spices. Never used it until the fateful day when I needed to perform a little sausage alchemy.

I've never made baked ziti before, and I'm honestly kind of indifferent about it. It seems like some kind of lazy lasagna that couldn't even be bothered to get into layers. Now that I think about it, that seems like a reason to like it, since I am pretty lazy, too. In any case, my first attempt at ziti turned out pretty delicious, so maybe I've been unfairly maligning baked ziti. I'm sorry, baked ziti.

For the ziti, I modified the Pioneer Woman's version to make it appropriate for someone who does not work on a cattle ranch - I cut down on the meat and cheese. I'm sure it would be amazing with two pounds of meat and a pound and a half of cheese, but that's true of pretty much everything.

Baked Ziti
Adapted from The Pioneer Woman

3 cloves garlic, minced
1 whole large onion, Diced
1/2 pound Italian sausage
1/2 pound ground beef
1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
1 15 oz can diced tomatoes with juice
2 teaspoons Italian seasoning
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
salt and pepper, to taste
16 ounces, weight ziti, cooked until not quite al dente
15 oz ricotta cheese
3 cups mozzerella cheese, grated
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 whole egg

Preparation Instructions
Heat a pot over medium heat. Add Italian sausage and ground beef and cook until browned. Remove meat from pan, leaving the fat. Add onions and garlic and saute for several minutes, or until starting to soften. Add meat back to pan.
Add tomatoes, salt, pepper, Italian seasoning, and red pepper flakes. Stir and simmer for 25 to 30 minutes. After that time, remove 3 to 4 cups of the sauce to a different bowl to cool down.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
In a separate bowl, mix together the ricotta cheese, 1 cup of the grated mozzarella, Parmesan, egg, and salt and pepper. Stir together just a couple of times (do not mix completely).
Drain the pasta and rinse under cool water to stop the cooking and cool it down. Pour it into the bowl with the cheese mixture and toss to slightly combine (there should still be large lumps.) Add the cooled meat sauce and toss to combine.
Add half the coated pasta to a large casserole dish or lasagna dish. Spoon half of the remaining sauce over the top, then top with half the remaining mozzarella cheese. Repeat with another layer of the coated pasta, the sauce, and the mozzarella.
Bake for 20 minutes, or until bubbling. Remove from oven and let stand 5 minutes before serving.


box set.

Our favorite television show of all time is Mystery Science Theater 3000. If you're not familiar with it, it's a show where a guy trapped in space is forced to watch really terrible movies. To maintain his sanity in the face of cinematic incompetance, he builds some robots to heckle the movies with him. I suppose if you weren't already familiar with the premise, that explanation may not have helped. You really just ought to watch it sometime.

Anyway, recently they've been releasing DVDs of the show in fancy box sets. As a bonus freebie, included is a little movie poster of each terrible movie featured in the set. They are neat posters, done in the style of old cheesy movie posters, which works great with a TV show featuring old cheesy movies. We have several of these box sets, which means we have a whole lot of these posters and nothing to do with them. Then we noticed that we also had a nice big frame that we had nothing to do with. It's not hoarding if you use it, even if it takes a few years.

Add in a piece of felt, and we were in business.
I feel like I need to admit that I had to buy the felt. We tried it first with a couple of other fabrics, but none of them looked right (Josh was taken with the satin, but I thought it was too shiny). I bought a big piece of black posterboard, but it was not black enough. So finally I bought some felt. I already had some felt, of course I did!, but not a big enough piece for our purposes. Since I did not think ahead enough to measure the frame, I bought more than I needed, so now we have a leftover big piece of black felt, plus a sheet of black posterboard.

Removed from stash: 9 posters, 1 frame.
Added to stash: 1 large piece of felt, 1 black posterboard.

I guess we'll call that even.


stuff people.

Today, a friend of mine had a yard sale to offload some of her junk before she moved to San Francisco.  I got there late in the day to walk around her mostly empty apartment.

She had cool stuff, which is the kind of praise I give, because I am a stuff person.  I'd never been to her apartment before, but if I had, I would've looked around and thought how I'd like to go to her yard sale.  Luckily, I've learned that it's socially unacceptable to offer to buy someone's things when they are just having you over for a visit. Compliment the stuff first, and if they're looking to part with it, you'll be the first to know.

In her living room, she had a large blueprint on the wall, at least I guess that's what you would call it.  It wasn't blue, but it was a sideview drawing of a building.  Of all the cool things she had left, it was the coolest, and I told her how much I admired it. It did not have a price on it, so I assumed she was keeping it.
This is a terrible picture of a really cool thing.

"Yeah, it's funny how people are really drawn to it.  Everyone that comes over goes to look at it."

"I can see why."

"Do you want it?"

"Yeah, we'll do that."

She helped me take it down from the wall, where it had been attached with clear packing tape.  I rolled it up carefully, and we secured the roll with a necktie from her free pile, since someone had already taken her ball of rubber bands, also from the free pile.  I offered her money for it, but she said she'd only paid fifty cents for it at The Scrap Exchange, a junk store/warehouse in Durham that sold all kinds of random stuff for the purpose of making art out of it. So I offered her fifty cents, but she rolled her eyes at that.

This was the second to last yard sale I went to today, and this item was totally free, but it was the best thing I picked up all day.

My grand ambition is to construct a frame for it, and maybe it'll even end up hanging up over the fireplace. But then people couldn't get up close to it, which would be a terrible shame.

I felt a little bad, because the only things I was getting at her yard sale were free - the blueprint and an atlas from the free pile. Plus the PBR* she offered, which I drank while we shot the breeze for a little while. So I also picked up a artist's articulated model for a buck.
Every pose I put him in, he looks like he's dancing.

More of my friends should have yard sales.

*Note: It was after 1 pm, so it was acceptable to have a beer.**  Also, it was a really nice day, and everyone knows how awesome it is to drink a beer on a nice day. 

** As a related note, this was not the first yard sale where I'd been offered a PBR. It was just the first time I'd accepted, since the previous time, it had been 10:30 AM and I hadn't known the people, though they were obviously quite friendly.


book safe.

Several years ago, a coworker mentioned that it was really easy to make a book safe, i.e. a book that looked like a regular book when it was on the shelf, but would open to reveal a hidden compartment. I looked up some instructions on the internet, discovered it really was easy, and made my first book safe. It looked terrible, but that's how it goes with first-time crafting. The first one always ends up a little goofy. As long as it's on the shelf, it looks fine - just one more book in my house. When you take it off the shelf, though, you might notice how the pages are oddly gapped, as if they were glued to each other when the book was not quite in the closed position. But it still works, and inside you would find my passport, a very small Snoopy notebook, and a wad of cash. Depending on the thickness of the wad of cash, this book is sometimes the single most valuable item in the house.

You can understand why I'm not showing you a picture. Plus, it really is a shoddy piece of work.

Not to be deterred, or perhaps in denial, I made another book safe to give to a friend. I remember that it came out slightly better than my first attempt, but it was still rough. But because I have high self-esteem and understanding friends, I sent it anyway. Maybe she still has it on her shelf, where she stashes an old love letter, a keychain, and a two dollar bill. Or maybe she tossed it into the street, where someone else picked it up and noticed that it was badly constructed, but definitely good enough for something that was found on the street.

I had given up on book safes, because it seemed like I was terrible at making them. Until a couple weeks ago, when Josh purged from his library an old book that was mediocre in the writing but rather lovely in the binding. It was a good size for a book safe, and it was the kind of book that a curious browser would not pull off the shelf to flip through. I saved it from the Goodwill pile by putting it in the pile of books to be ripped apart.

Guys, I was so careful. Previously, I had used a box cutter to cut out the pages, but this time, I went with my trusty exacto knife, which had seen me through so many difficult wedding-related craftwork. And I cut fewer pages at a time, decreasing the incidence of ragged edges. Then finally the glue step, which had always been my problem area before. I have to confess that it was still problematic this time, but again not terrible. Definitely still good enough to pick up off the street, and possibly even good enough to fish out of the free bin on the curb (or maybe that's worse? I haven't thought through this ratings system very well).

I was looking for a good tutorial to share with you, so that you too could make a shoddy first attempt. I don't know where I got the instructions before. I didn't look them up when I made the second and third safes, since I remembered the instructions. However, I really should have, because I found a tutorial that seems to use a much better gluing method that I was going with, reducing the weird gapped page problem my creations exhibit. I have not personally tried this new method, but as soon as I find another book worth hollowing out, you bet I'm gonna.

Book Safe Tutorial

But this one is for my niece, who graduated from high school this week and is college-bound in the fall. Every college student should have a little hidey-hole, where she can keep things secret from prying roommates and nosy RAs.

She won't be able to hide anything from her aunt, though. Or anyone who reads her aunt's blog.


gem show.

There were no good yard sales, and we had slept in anyway, so we went to the fairgrounds to see what was happening at the flea market. On our way in, one of the buildings had a banner that said "GEM SHOW." Josh wanted to look, and though I expected to be bored, it was free. I've seen the geology exhibits at the Smithsonian, so I wasn't sure what I would get out of a gem show.

I guess I expected something like a museum, but the crucial difference is that you can't buy the stuff at the museum. Vendors were set up in stations, most of them having created a square of tables full of merchandise, while they operated behind the counters. Most surprising to me were the beads. I guess it makes sense (rock + hole = bead), but I certainly didn't expect the gem show to be like a bead store. While the wares did seem to be more focused on natural beads, including gems, rocks, and coral, there were still places where you could buy metal charms and all sorts of findings.

I guess the next step was jewelry, for those of us who haven't the inclination to take beads and make wearable art out of them (or those of us who maybe once had the inclination, but never really followed through on the hobby). Some stations were beads, some were beads and finished jewelry, while still others were just jewelry. One of them had a picture of a supposedly-famous lady we'd never heard of, wearing the creations of the seller.

Finally, there were fossils and shark teeth. You could buy trilobites or ferns, fish jaws or megalodon teeth. I thought the nautilus shells were cool, but creepy. There were no pictures of ladies, famous or otherwise, wearing them.

And somewhere in there was the stone xylophone.

It was set into a wooden carrying case. Tiny nails between the stones held each bar in place. The stone was dark, with some kind of dragon engraved in it. Obviously Chinese in origin, though you could be forgiven for being thrown by the arabic numerals. It was cool. A stone xylophone - I'd never seen such a thing. But it was a little chintzy. It looked like a souvenir. It probably was. Since we've never been to China, for us, it would be a $200 souvenir of the gem show.

Josh wanted it. He had not known that stone xylophones existed before today, but now that he did, he could not live without one.

I did not share his enthusiasm. Like I said, it was cool, but it wasn't anything I wanted and definitely not at that price. We left without spending $200 on a souvenir from someplace we've never been. He did buy some pretty rock pendants for his grandmothers.

The next day, Josh said he was thinking about going back to the gem show, which extended through the weekend. I thought that I had escaped the fate of having spent too much money the day before when we had left xylophone-less. At that moment, I was still in bed. I did not really want to leave my bed, much less the house, but I said okay, I'll go. He pulled out a wad of cash and counted out some twenties. He was thinking of offering $125 for the xylophone.

Once back at the fairgrounds, I told Josh that I was going to look around, maybe buy something for my mom. What I was telling him was that I wanted nothing to do with this xylophone transaction. But it became clear that he was reluctant to start negotiating, as he was following me, rather than talking to the xylophone man. I tried to encourage him.

"Well, how high are you willing to go?" This is the most important question. You need to know before you go in what your high mark is, and if it comes to that, you need to be able to walk away.

"I don't know. What do you think?"

"I don't want it at all, so I'm not a good judge here."

"Yeah." We walked around some more. We pretty much covered the whole show.

Finally, we agreed that we would start at $100 and top out at $125. I thought about all the other things you could buy for $125. Also, for some reason, he wanted me to negotiate for him. I am not sure why. He has haggled before on small dollar items at yard sales. And he got the pawn shop to drop the price on my engagement ring by $100. But he was feeling shy, and I sensed that if I ever wanted to get out of this gem show, I needed to step up.

We found ourselves once more looking at the xylophone. The guy smiled, recognizing us from the half dozen other times we had examined it. We commented that it was neat. He said the stones might be antique, but he needed to do some more research. I noticed to myself that you could get away with any number of misleading comments by saying that you needed to do more research to be sure.

Finally: "Is the price negotiable? We're on a limited xylophone budget." I managed to say this with a straight face, though the concept of having an item on a budget called "Xylophones" cracks me up.

He looked sad and said no. He said something again about more research, and depending on what he found out, the price might even go up. We smiled wistfully (well, Josh did), and we wished him luck with his xylophone. At last, we left the gem show. I did not buy anything for my mother. It would be months or maybe even a year before the gem show came back, and by then, maybe Josh would have forgotten all about the xylophone.

While I was relieved, I worried that Josh would resent me for not letting him spend $200 on a stone xylophone. Not that that is in any way an accurate description of what happened. He has money that he can spend on instruments and he doesn't need my permission. That's just the way resentment works sometimes. I considered that I may be hearing about the stupid xylophone for years to come.

Instead, he came home and said, "Thank you for talking me out of buying the xylophone. I did some research on the internet. You can buy that exact thing on eBay for $200, and they have three of them for sale. It's actually called a lithophone. Litho for stone."

Well, isn't that nice? I basked in having my good sense appreciated.

"Besides, there's a guy on the internet who tells you how to make one! And this guy at work knows where you can get granite scraps..."

Oh well.


dusty kid.

We stopped in our tracks when the chicken exploded.

"You're not allowed to say I don't know how to use the microwave anymore."

Josh does not know how to use the microwave, or at least he did not until very recently.  That was when I noticed that his strategy was to always set the timer for five minutes and then wait until he heard the tell-tale pop and sizzle.  When confronted with numbers, Josh takes a guess and hopes for the best.  Since I started teasing him about his microwaving skills, he has figured out that he can stop and think for half a second and come up with a more reasonable guess than five minutes.

I opened the microwave and began cleaning out the shredded chicken pieces decorating each of the six interior sides.  Remix, always on hand when something is happening in the kitchen, watched with interest.  I told her to sit, then tossed a handful of irradiated chicken at her feet.

I could not understand why the chicken exploded.  I'd set the timer for forty-five seconds, and there were three leftover fried tenderloins in there, fresh from the fridge.  That should not explode anything.  But I shrugged and put the plate of chicken in the oven to broil.  Then I put in a bowl of green beans into the microwave, thirty seconds.  Within five seconds, there was the pop and sizzle and a trail of smoke was emitting from one bean.  Then the microwave's hum changed slightly and there was no more pop and sizzle.  Another five seconds, the hum changed back to the other hum, and the trail of smoke got bigger.  I stopped before I ended up wiping exploded bean.

I was encouraged by the partial behavior.  A microwave that is sorta broken still sorta works.  Maybe we'll reheat the spaghetti sauce on the stove for tonight, but tomorrow, we could give our old machine another try.  It just needed a rest.  That sounds logical, right?  Josh said that a sorta broken microwave was dangerous, and we were all going to get cancer immediately.

Our microwave, like our late heat pump, is original to the house, which means it has given 29 years of service.  Maybe it was time to let it go.  In any case, my beans were still cold.

"I have a microwave in my car," Trevor said.


Trevor has a microwave in his car.  Formerly, it lived in his dad's basement before moving with Trevor to his first apartment.  After the apartment, he moved in with someone who had a better microwave, and his basement microwave stayed in the car.

That was about eight years ago.  The one time the microwave left the car was when Trevor got a new car, where the microwave went to live.

"I just thought it might come in handy someday."

He went to go digging in his car, which I began to think of as some kind of Mary Poppins vehicle.  Who knows what else might be in there?  He came back inside carrying a GE Turntable Microwave Oven.  Josh got a wet rag and began wiping years of backseat off the little machine.  It was gross.  Somewhere in the conversation, we ended up naming the microwave "Dusty Kid."  Sometimes we name our appliances and refer to them as robots.

"You know, I think I would have plugged it in and tried it out to see if it worked, then spent the time cleaning it," Trevor remarked.  That would have been smarter.  But it didn't matter, because we plugged in Dusty Kid (the light came on!), and gave him a bowl of mostly cold beans.  With the push of a button, he hummed to life.  Thirty seconds later, warm beans.

"See, I knew it would come in handy someday."


changing tables.

A couple of years ago, when we were visiting Josh's mom, I was walking around the house with her and she was just offering me furniture left and right. It was in a Someday kind of way. I think it started when I complimented the hall tree, and she said that maybe Someday, once we got settled, we could have it. Then later, it was a pair of bunk beds. You know, once we get settled. Once we had four children, apparently. It felt a little like a bribe.

Not that I have any problems with bribes, according to my new kitchen table.

Josh asked for this table when he was twelve years old. You know twelve year old boys, always wanting furniture. This was their family dining room table, where five little boys made suppertime messes and did their homework. It was made by a woodworking neighbor out of a humongous maple tree that used to grow on the old family land. There is a little gold plaque on the base, saying the name of the carpenter and the date. The table was made in 1989. My sweet Joshua was six years old.

Pretty sweet heirloom, right? I know! My advice to you ladies out there who like nice furniture: marry a first-born. His grandbaby-hungry parents will just throw furniture at you.

We picked up the new table using the band van, because a farmhouse table is one of the few things that will not go inside a Honda Fit. When we turned it over on its side to fit it throw the doorway, we discovered ancient food stains decorating the underside. Josh said, "You can see the marks from Andrew's high chair." Andrew, nearly seventeen years old and holding up one side of the table, looked a little embarrassed.

For now, my house has two tables. I bought my dinette set (table including a leaf, 6 chairs) at a yard sale more than ten years ago. I am a sucker for a vintage dinette set. This one came along at just the right time. I was just about to move into my first apartment, and I had no furniture. The yard sale was at a church, with assorted items spread out on a basketball court next to a picnic shelter. We got there early in the day, and the table and chairs was $30. I was all ready with my cash in hand, but my boyfriend told me to wait until the end of the day. We came back later and got it for $15, because I guess no one else in Connolly Springs appreciates vintage tables. The set was already a little world-weary from half a century of service, but a couple of years in my college apartment did it no favors. It seems like every time I change residences, the legs come off in the move. We ended up having to attach the legs to pieces of wood that we then reattached to the table. Even still, I wouldn't trust my weight on it.

The night we got the new table in the house, Josh laid himself right on top of it. Maple is strong.

Of course I am a little sad to be saying goodbye to my lovely dinette, rescued from the trash heap in a community where retro furniture is not as appreciated as it should be. I mean, you would be surprised if I did not mourn a crappy, barely-standing table. You would begin to seriously question my devotion to junk. But we already have a home for it, in the house of a friend who also does not let a couple of wobbly legs get in the way of appreciating something with a history. Being able to give something away, rather than merely getting rid of it, always soothes the pain of letting go.

Besides, I think it's getting to be time in my life where I could use a sturdy table. Buying secondhand does not mean all your belongings are junk. It means that you use what works until you find something better within your means - the continuous upgrade. I had a high school teacher who talked about every change in our lives as if it were a death. This is the death of my vintage dinette set self, the birth of my heirloom table self.

Surveying our downstairs this week, Josh remarked that he finally felt that the house was his. While I think the getting married probably had a little to do with it, I have to agree that his presence is more obvious. He went around pointing out all the things that came from him: a sarcophagus, an electric organ, and a great big table, the table from his childhood. I pointed out that all these things were half mine now.


gone for the summer.

We have a stone fireplace, which makes for a nice spot to hang some art (not in the fireplace, but on the stone, which extends all the way up to the ceiling). Occupying that spot for a while now is a print of a painting of an old house in an overgrown field, called "Gone for the Summer."

I got it at a yard sale for five bucks. Five bucks! For a cool painting in an incredibly nice frame. That was the price the guy was asking, and I was happy to pay it. After I handed over the Lincoln, my mom told the guy that he was lucky I didn't try to negotiate him down.

Mothers: embarrassing their adult children since the beginning of time.

While I like this painting, I am ready to replace it. It's nice, and rundown houses in the country do hold a special place in my heart, but I would like to upgrade to something a little more...inspired. That's vague, I know, but I'll know it when I see it. We have tried to replace it with various pieces that hang elsewhere in the house, but the space requires something large.

A couple of weeks ago, Josh and I were at a Goodwill when he picked out a painting. Josh has been all about paintings lately, buying four or so in the last month. He likes real paintings, pieces of work where an actual person put an actual brush on the canvas. He hangs them in an upstairs nook where he's arranged a mini recording studio. The painting he bought that day was of a mountain scene. Great big mountains in the back, with some trees and a lake and a little cabin in the foreground. Six bucks.

When we got home, he said it was probably big enough to go up on the fireplace. And I hedged. Remember, I was ready to get rid of the old house picture. But this mountain one was not the replacement. It was fine. But it was even less inspired. The mountains especially showed some real skill with the brush, but the scene itself looked like something Bob Ross might paint. However, I took the high road and said he ought to run it up and see it how she flies.

So he did. It did not change my feelings. In fact, I thought it was even worse, because the blues and grays of the painting just sort of blended in with the blues and grays of the stone. But I said leave it up, maybe it'll grow on me. Then I went on about my day. Josh apparently continued with his admiring, because about ten minutes later, he announced, "I've decided that I like the new painting."

Isn't that cute? He decided that he liked the painting that he'd already decided he'd liked.

The other night, after more than a week of life with the mountain painting, Josh told me that he thinks the old one was better in that spot. Maybe that was hard for him to do. I like to think it was made easier by my total coolness and willingness to give the new painting a shot. I wasted no time in putting the house picture back up. We'll just keep looking.

Slightly related: When looking for a picture of the house painting, I came across a version that someone had embellished. Now that is inspired.
Credit: Lukey Arts