december 2013 and january 2014 books.

I never posted a rundown of books from last month. I only read two books in December, and I could feel it, too. I missed reading. I looked at books on my shelf and at the store longingly, wanting to stuff them into my brain. So this month, I stuffed some books into my brain and felt better.

A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband "Master"
Rachel Held Evans
Rachel is a blogger who writes very openly and honestly about faith. She is an Evangelical Christian, but frequently features the writing of people of other faiths or who have a specific viewpoint about a religious matter (for example, the afterlife or predestination). I really like her approach that we are all on a journey for truth, rather than speaking from a position of knowing all the answers.

She writes a lot about gender and the role of women in the church. This book was a year-long project in which she strived to achieve biblical womanhood - following the rules set forth for women in the Bible. As it turns out, there is not a general consensus of biblical womanhood due to varying interpretations of scripture. In general, she researched and tried to follow whatever someone somewhere said something was a bibical rule. She also investigated other ways of approaching the same text, which frequently meant that she found someone who said it meant the exact opposite. She made friends with a Jewish woman in Israel who was often surprised at the ways the Old Testament is interpreted by people here. She also pointed out how the few women whose stories are told and who are lauded in the Bible are generally not following the rules.

The writing was frequently funny and relateable. I especially liked when she was frustrated by not meeting up to certain standards of femininity - not being able to cook for instance. She did learn to cook, but there was a ruined meal and a good pout session in the middle of the kitchen floor. She did make a go at sewing but found that it did not come easily to her at all. I definitely relate to crying in the kitchen floor feeling like a double failure when I can't do something considered feminine. It's not just that I can't sew, it's that I'm not a real woman somehow. There is a feeling that not only are we supposed to be naturally good at all those things, but we are supposed to be inclined to them.

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison
Piper Kerman
Last month in book club, a woman said I never liked anything. She admitted that the books were not great pieces of literature, but she rated them based on how she enjoyed the experience of reading them. I find that approach does not work for me. It's not that I expect great literature, and there is great literature that I do not enjoy. It's just that when I am reading something that is, at best, completely forgettable, I am all too aware that I could have been reading something worthwhile. I read for enlargement and expansion. Someday, I will die, and it makes me mad that I spent time reading crap when there was another book that I did not get to. At another point in my life, I may not have the mental energy to process hard books, and I want to take advantage of it now.

She is right, though, that this outlook is only making me miserable, and I ought to lighten up. Anyway, this month, I came in and told her, "Hey, I liked this one!"

The author had a misspent youth, and then ten years later, finally went to prison for it. Being an educated, middle-class white woman, she was a little out of place. The book is an account of her experience in the prison system. It is a humiliating and dehumanizing experience. There is little support for people once they leave, and little preparation while they are there for any sort of normal life outside. People are wrenched from their lives and their families for non-violent crimes, do not have adequate legal resources, and are then put in prison for terms disproportionate for their crimes.

Kerman, who was arrested for being a drug mule, comes to feel real remorse for her crime when she sees the impact that drugs have on the lives of her cellmates. She has harsh criticism for the War on Drugs, and says that we should be helping people get off drugs without ripping them away from their lives. Also, it turns out you can often get drugs in prison.

There is a TV show based on the book, which I have heard nothing but great things about. I have not watched it yet, but will, though I hear it is very different from the book. I do think more exposure for the problems of the prison system is a good thing, because most people are completely removed from it. Before visiting Eastern State Penitentiary, it never even occured to me to wonder why we put people in prison. To punish them? If so, does the punishment discourage others from crime or make the incarcerated less likely to commit crimes in the future? Or do we do it to get them away from us? If so, is that necessary when their crimes hurt only themselves?

See, this is the type of thing we should read in book club.

Still Alice
Lisa Genova
This book was rough. It is about a woman developing early onset Alzheimers. You go with her and her family from her diagnosis at age fifty through a couple of years until she is basically not there anymore. Formerly, she was a professor at Harvard, living the life of the mind. In the end, she is completely dependent on caretakers, though she seems to be well-loved.

This book tied me in knots. As I was reading it, any sort of memory lapse would freak me out, as if I was losing my mind. The hardest for me was seeing the reactions of her family. Her husband couldn't really deal with it and used his work as an escape. It was easy to be angry at him, but it would be gut-wrenching to watch your spouse deteriorate into someone else.

Great Expectations
Charles Dickens
I was surprised to find that the South Park episode that tells this story is pretty faithful to the book, at least up until the robots. It sort of veers off course at that point.

This book is the story of Pip, an orphan who is being raised by his shrewish sister and her gentle husband. A mysterious benefactor pays for him to move to London to learn how to be a gentleman. The story mostly concerns his development from a meek poor kid into a haughty gentleman and finally a good man (uh, spoilers, but c'mon, this is from the man who gave us Ebenezer Scrooge).

That sounds pretty simple, but the plot is fairly intricate and complicated. There are escaped convicts, a beautiful young woman with a heart of ice, an aged parent, and lots of mysteries. Everything comes together nicely in the end. The characters are really wonderful, too. I feel obvious saying hey, Dickens was pretty good, but, well, hey, Dickens was pretty good. And funny! I mean, sure there is child abuse and terribly poverty, but I did get quite a few chuckles out of it.

I had an easier time of this one than Tale of Two Cities. This is one of only two books that he wrote in the first person, so maybe the point of view cut down on the really long descriptive passages with key plot points hidden in them that I struggled with in Two Cities. However, as I was writing up this review, I looked up a plot summary and realized that I seriously misread the ending. It appears that I still cannot get away with skimming Dickens. I really shouldn't anyway, because his writing is frequently beautiful, and I'll miss all the good stuff if I'm just going for the plot.

The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen Year Old Boy with Autism
Naoki Higashida
This was our book club selection for January. I was really excited to see it come up, because I had seen a glowing endorsement of it on The Daily Show.

It is an odd little book. It is laid out as a series of questions about what it is like to be autistic and why this particular kid behaves the way he does. And the kid answers, using a special keyboard that he and his mother developed. It is very thoughtful and lucid, not at all the impression one has of someone with autism.

He mentions never feeling in control of his body, and not always being aware of where his arms and legs are. Speech, being a body function, is limited. He can speak, but he doesn't always say the things he wants. It's not just not getting his body to do what he wants, it seems as if his body just goes and does things without him telling it to.

He also has problems with memory, in that, his memories are not organized, like at all. So while you and I can think back to yesterday and go down the list of things we did, a person with autism cannot. That's really hard for me to even imagine. His memories are connected to each other, so that something that is happening now will remind him of something that happened previously, as with us. Apparently these memories can be forcefully strong, such that the emotions associated with the memory will cause the person to relive it, along with the physical response to the emotion (laughter or tears or whatever).

The common idea is that autism is a defect of empathy, but this kid indicates otherwise. He can tell when he has let other people down, and he can tell that they are frustrated with him. He aches that he has caused them pain. I learned that doctors used to blame autism on "refrigerator mothers," meaning mothers who were cold to their children. Eventually they realized that having a child that you can't interact with and who may be resistant to touch, would probably go a long way to making a mother standoffish. And I wonder if they may decide that's the case with autism itself. The person is not standoffish, but unable to communicate. They don't prefer to be alone, but they have had to get used to it because no one wants to be around them.

It's really hard to know what to think. There was considerable skepticism at book club that the kid wrote it on his own. I thought that was unfair. The whole premise of the book is that people with autism do understand what is going on around them, but that they are trapped by physical limitations. This world was not made for them. He mentions feeling at ease and calm in nature.

For me, the big impression that I got was of frustration. It seems to be a very stressful condition. Never being able to do what you want to do and constantly doing things you did not want to do, while the people you love are hurt by your actions. He mentioned the emotional outbursts he sometimes has over very minor grievances. If I had to live like he does, trapped in an uncooperative body, anytime I had some sort of minor setback, I'd lose it, too.

In the end, it doesn't really matter whether the kid wrote it or whether he is typical of autistic people. Over and over, he asks the reader to just be patient and treat him kindly. That's the basic advice of how to be with anyone, so that's all we need to do.

Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America
Juan Gonzalez
My enjoyment of this book was mixed. It is, as the title states, a history of Latinos. The first part was history up until 1800, starting with pre-Columbian peoples and then the colonization period. Interesting to me was the comparison of the Spanish colonies to the others, particularly the British, and how that has affected the descendents of the natives and the colonizers. The Spanish were coming into areas with much denser native populations, and they were also more in a holy warrior mode, having been recently working on kicking the Muslims out for the past 800 years. There was a lot more intermingling between the natives and the Spaniards, some in marriage and some in just love-making. Throw in the slaves, and you get a rich spectrum of new races.

And then there was just a lot of exploiting, of the land and of the people. First it was the colonial powers, and then it was the gringos, both businesses and governments. The people would elect someone who would pass some laws that the foreign-owned businesses would not like, and so we'd send in the marines. Basically, in the end, the reason the Latinos come here is because we did a great job of making their countries crappy places to live in order to make our country super awesome. The book takes care to not lump all Latinos together, explaining what was going on in the various countries of origin. That all sort of ran together for me, since it was mostly exploitation and propped-up dictators.

Memento Mori
Muriel Spark
Ah, this one was fun. It's about a social group of people in their seventies and eighties, who are all getting an anonymous phone caller who only says "Remember that you will die." Everyone identifies the caller as sounding different - older or younger, lisping or crude or educated, male or female. The police have been unable to trace the call. People react to the caller differently. Some call the police, while others pause and say, "Thank you, that is good advice."

It is pretty good advice, although that advice is what keeps me from enjoying crappy books in book club.

In the meantime, there is lots of intrigue about affairs, secret marriages, blackmail, and an old ladies ward at the hospital. It could have been a book about any set of rich people with nothing better to do than annoy each other, with the exception that there were a lot of complaints about old bodies. And there were a lot of deaths. Someone died nearly every chapter, which created more intrique, because then there would be fighting over the will.

I picked this up because I read a article somewhere about Muriel Spark. I will be sure to pick up her books when I see them. The writing is simple and funny, and the social commentary pointed. She creates characters that I recognize from real life.

Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel
Rebecca Goldstein
When I was in college, as part of a physics class, we had to do papers and presentations on physics topics. Once, I picked for my topic Richard Feynman. My teacher, looked a bit skeptical and said that it wasn't just a biography, I had to understand and explain the concepts of his contributions to physics. I said, Bah! no problem. And then like a week later, I came back and said I was doing my report on Marie Curie instead. I like to think that my teacher was saying that Feynman's work was really hard, rather than that I was an idiot. Although, physics does make me feel like an idiot.

All that is to say that this book, which I expected to mostly be a biography of Kurt Gödel, actually explained his contributions to mathematics. It was a much harder read than I expected, because Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems are advanced math and have philosophical implications. I read slow, and I took notes, but I think I got it, because I am much better at math than physics.

Back in the start of the 20th century, formal systems were all the rage. A formal system is one that is completely reasoned out. Arithmetic is not a formal system, because we rely on our intuition of the counting numbers. A formal system is totally abstract - there are no numbers, only variables. The mathematicians wanted to redefine arithmetic such that it did not rely on silly things like reality. They'd already proved that other branches of math, like geometry, could be formalized, on the condition that arithmetic could. The ultimate goal seemed to be to prove that we could reduce all of reality to abstract concepts. Whatever man could not measure was therefore meaningless. It was like the Math Tower of Babel.

Gödel proved that any formal system which describes something as complicated as arithmetic would be incomplete - meaning there would be things in it that we would know to be true by intuition, but which we could not prove within the system. The philosophical implication is that we are not able to prove using our own designed language what we know to be true just by looking at it. It shows the limits of a language (specifically mathematics, but more generally, any language), which is in the end a limit of our reason. Some say that the theorems show the limits of AI - computers run on formal systems; they can only follow the rules that are given to them.

And that all came from a mathematical proof! Whole new areas of math were started based on things in his proof, which does crazy things like turn theorems into numbers and then do arithmetic on them. The book goes through a simplified version of the proof, because the real version is just too intense.

Gödel was brilliant, but in a way not made for this world. He as always a hypochondriac, but he grew increasingly paranoid as he aged. In the end, he died of starvation because he was worried someone was trying to poison him.

A long time ago, I wrote an overwrought blog entry about Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems. It is a little embarrassing to read now, and I hate to even link to it, but it looks like I basically got the idea right, and my metaphor holds up. My thoughts about what made Gödel crazy are off, and from this book, I now know that Gödel never believed in formal systemsfaith (or as I put it a decade ago, the shoeboxes), so his proofs did not give him a crisis of faith. I don't think intense math or the repercussions of his results made Gödel crazy. He was probably unstable from the beginning and was increasingly isolated in his old age, partly because was off-putting and strange in person and partly because he was so unbelieveably smart that no one could follow him. Seriously, after Einstein died, there was nobody to talk to. I don't know that I'd even want to be that smart.



At the tail end of the sinus infection I picked up in France, my left eye started to swell up. Ever since living for two years in a basement apartment in college, I've become quite the connoisseur of sinus infections, but this was new on me. It started when I noticed a tender spot in my lower eyelid. Naturally, I resorted to the first diagnostic test of any body ailment: I poked it. Yup, that hurt, so I stopped poking it. Good thing, too, because the next day, it was swollen. Like most body parts, the eyelid is one I forget all about until something is wrong with it. And now it was pressing against my eyeball, which made me poke at it, which caused it to swell more. I finally broke the vicious cycle by not poking it.

But the swelling didn't really go away. I no longer felt pressure on my eyelid, but I clearly had a bump in my eyelid. Luckily, it's not really that noticeable because of my glasses. If I told you it was there, you'd look and see it, but otherwise, no one has recoiled in horror. Josh, who is a hypochondriac, told me to go to the doctor immediately, because anything that is going on near your eye means you're going to be struck blind at any second. I shrugged, made jokes about those crazy Paris sinus infections, and figured it would go away.

It has not gone away. It has been nearly four months, and I still have a bump on my eyelid. I continue to be able to see out of both eyes.

At some point, even I got kinda worried, so I decided to consult the internet. Josh said, NO! Do not look it up on the internet because there will be all kinds of horrible misinformation and gruesome pictures and you'll get freaked out and think you're going to die or go blind or go blind and then die because you walked into traffic and I wouldn't even know where to send the mortgage check every month!

Uh huh, I said, typing as he gesticulated wildly. Hey, look, it's called a chalazion. They go away on their own, usually.

Oh, he said. You just looked it up and picked the most likely thing, rather than the worst thing. Huh.

A chalazion is a cyst caused by a block gland in the eyelid. Did you know you have glands in your eyelids? You do. They produce meibum, which keeps your eyes moist and makes your closed eyes airtight. A chalazion is similar to a stye, though a stye is an infection of different set of glands (the glands of Zeis or the glands of Moll, I kid you not) and usually clears up more quickly (though I think they look more gross). Chalazia usually go away on their on within a couple of years, though in rare cases they are surgically removed.

Anyway, one thing you can do to reduce chalazia is to put a hot compress on them. The blockage is basically oil, and the heat will serve to liquefy it, so it can be secreted out. I made my own little compress by putting a scoop of white rice into a sock that had lost its mate and then securing it with a rubber band. I heat the rice sock in the microwave for about a minute and then hold it on my eye. Of course, you can buy a hot compress for your eyes that doesn't make you look like a cheap pirate or smell like rice, but that I'm willing to look stupid in the comfort of my own home to save $25. I had grand plans to sew up a custom hot rice eye patch, complete with an adjustable headband, but I haven't gotten around to it.

The compress seems to be working, though. After I take it off, my vision is very hazy, because I have a film in my eye - all that stored up meibum, I guess. Sometimes, if I use the compress right before bed, I can't even open my eye in the morning without scraping away the ferocious eye booger patch that formed in the night.

So that's the update on my left lower eyelid. I hope you all learned something today, about chalazia and meibum, and of course, the glands of Zeis and Moll.


change for good.

On our last day in Paris, we did our best to spend the rest of the cash we had on hand. Luckily, Charles de Gaulle Airport was nice enough to help us out by charging an arm and a leg for our breakfast and a souvenir magnet. Airports are considerate like that. We got on the plain back home with pockets of change.

As we were nearing New York, an announcement was made that the stewardesses would be collecting our spare foreign cash for UNICEF. Josh and I pooled our change and then I selected the most interesting coin in each denomination to keep as a souvenir (Euros have different countries on each piece, sorta like the state quarters). I have an old wooden pencil box once owned by my Uncle Johnny where I keep foreign currency picked up on trips. Sorry, UNICEF, my little box doesn't have any euros, so the children will just have to do without these few coins. Way to make me feel like a jerk, UNICEF, just because I can afford to spend two weeks in France while children all over the world die of preventable and treatable diseases.

Even so, we ended up handing in a few euros worth in change as the collection bags jingled their way up the aisle. I imagine they really rake in the dough this way. As much as the airports do their job to take every last cent, people end up with pockets of change that they can't spend at home but isn't enough to exchange. According to the website, this program was started in 1987, but this was the first time I'd ever heard of it. I think it's absolutely brilliant. It makes it easy and convenient to give, and it even sort of seems like they're doing you a favor by taking some of that useless coinage off your hands. Well done.


none of my business.

Dear Wells Fargo,

I have noticed that you want my business. Technically, we already do business, as you are the holder of my mortgage. So every month, I send you some money to pay off a giant loan, and you agree to not take away my house. I do this through your website. Every time I sign on to your website, I have to decline an offer of some kind or another. It's usually for a credit card with points, I think. I don't really read the offer, because I'm pretty sure I don't want it. Maybe that's close-minded of me.

Last year, I got married. Thank you for your congratulations. I finally got around to changing my name last month, and I did my due diligance and went to one of your branch offices to change my name on the mortgage. Upon entering the building, I was immediately greeted on both sides by friendly and helpful employees. See, Wells Fargo wants my business.

I was not trying to do any business that day, really. I just wanted to change my name. I decided to do it in person, because otherwise I would have had to fax in my marriage certificate, and I use the fax machine so rarely at my office that I have to ask someone how to use it each and every time. It's sort of embarrassing, really, so I thought a face-to-face meeting would be quicker and easier for everyone.

The process of changing a name on a Wells Fargo Mortgage account was pretty simple. I provided my ID and my marriage certificate, just like I did at the credit union and the DMV. However, your agent wanted my business. She really, really wanted my business. She asked me if I was interested in opening a checking account today.

"No, thank you, I have a bank that I am happy with."

"Yes, but most people use multiple banks."

"Really?" No, really? Is this true? Why do they do that? I find it baffling. Maybe they have two crappy banks and it adds up to one okay bank. They should just get a good bank, like the credit union.

"Yes, and with a Wells Fargo checking account, you can easily pay your mortgage."

"I am already able to pay my mortgage." Obviously, or you would've taken my house away already.

"You can even set up your direct deposit so that you can have a percentage of your paycheck deposited here and then the rest at your credit union."

"I don't really have a need for that." I'm still wondering about those two-bank people and their split direct deposits. What is the possible advantage of this? Why would I want to deal with two banks? It sounds like double the hassle. Just think if you had to change your name at each one!

"Well, you came here for your mortgage, though. You could have gone to the credit union, but you came here."

"No, Wells Fargo bought my mortgage." HA!

"Oh, well you can still have a checking account here. And because you already have a mortgage account, we waive the fees!"

"No, thank you."

This went on a while, with her pausing every once in a while in her sales onslaught to do something on the computer that had to do with my name change. Finally, finally, I escaped the clutches of your employee, though not before being given a brochure and being told that I should return soon to begin my banking relationship with Wells Fargo. I was fairly irritated by this point. I spent the whole drive home arguing with the sales lady and thinking up witty comebacks that I could write on my blog and pretend that I actually said. I really stuck it to you, Wells Fargo.

The next day, I received a call from an unfamiliar number and let it go to voicemail. It was your friend and mine, the woman who apparently gets commission on checking accounts. She mentioned how it was good to see me and reiterated that we really ought to get together to start my banking relationship. She also mentioned that I should probably double-check my next month's statement to make sure the name change went through.

A day after that, I got an email, asking if I would be willing to take a survey about my recent experience in one of your branch locations. Would I! However, the survey was a bunch of questions about whether the person I talked to made me feel as if Wells Fargo wanted my business. And well, I had to rate her highly on that point. I got the impression that the employee would hunt my business down in the jungle. It's too bad you did not ask me whether the visit left me with a good impression of your organization (1: strongly disagree) or whether I would tell my friends and family what a frustrating time I had there (5: strongly agree). But I guess this tactic must work out for you, because of all the people out there who are bullied into having multiple banks because they just want to make a stupid name change on their mortgage.

The next month, I followed the lady's advice and checked my latest statement to make sure that my new name was reflected. I was surprised to find that I had a new name, but it was the wrong one. Somehow, you'd replaced my middle name with my new last name, Sandra LastName MaidenName. So you badgered me about opening a checking account I did not need or want, and then failed to do the one bit of customer service I came in for. You know, my husband is a cynical fellow, and he says that the sales lady botched the name on purpose so that I'd have to come back. I, however, think the more likely culprit is your company's overall incompetence, coupled with a focus on profits rather than customer service. But it's possible your employees are petty and underhanded, too.

I, for one, can't wait to pay off my mortgage and never have to deal with you again. For now, I will just have to go to your office and change my name again. I think I'll go to a different office this time.

Your disgruntled customer,

Sandra LastName MaidenName


deja vu.

We had just gotten to the craft store when I heard a weird noise. I thought it was some kind of store alarm and wished they'd turned it off. It was the kind of sound that is meant to be annoying, and the fact that it was quiet enough that I couldn't quite tell where it was coming from somehow irritated me more.

It was coming from my purse. It was also coming from Josh's pocket. It might've been coming from other pockets and purses all around us, as the National Weather Service sent out a tornado warning in our area. Huh. That's a little scary. A warning means a tornado has already been spotted, right? Just how big is our area? Why didn't we check the weather before we left home to get craft supplies? Well, we were already there, so I went ahead and picked out what I needed.

In line at the register a few minutes later, the power flickered and the crowd of people murmured in apprehension. Out the front store window, the parking lot was getting drenched. A lady in line next to me started muttering, "Not now, I don't need this, I don't have time for this," like she was experiencing a crafting emergency. Lady, no one has time for a tornado. I looked around at the other people who had not checked the weather before going to the craft store on a Saturday afternoon and wondered whether these were the people I was going to die with. They were not the ones I would've picked.

The power flickered a few more times as customers ahead of us continued to check out. I guess the registers had a backup power source. I looked around the store, trying to figure out the safest place to be in a tornado. The building did not inspire confidence, but I figured there had to be a bathroom where we could all cower somewhere in the back. Finally, it was my turn to check out. The cashier rung up two of my items before the register lost power. The register behind me stayed on a couple minutes more, just long enough to allow the lady who did not have time for this to finish up and scurry out.

With nothing else to do, I looked out the windows on the parking lot. The rain was coming down harder and at an ever-increasing angle. It was harder to see anything. It was almost like a fog that rolled in, except that as it thickened, it turned whiter and whiter. People gathered in the front of the store and watched the outdoor displays blow across the lot. I looked for the tornado and wondered whether it would come from behind us.

Within five minutes, we were back to just a regular rainy day. The wind was a breeze, and the air was clear. Josh got a phone call. I looked at the craft books while the registers rebooted. I started to think maybe I would not die with Josh and forty strangers in the bathroom of a craft store.

Josh rejoined me and said, "A tree just crushed my car."

What? Seriously? I felt like the lady who did not have time for a tornado.

A year and a half ago, a tree fell over and crushed Josh's car, which had brand new tires on it. Yesterday, the air turned white and the wind broke a pine tree off, where it landed on Josh's car, which he'd had for about six weeks. the weather outside had cleared, but I was downright stormy. Josh tried to cheer me up, but I had a ball of anger in my stomach and a yoke of dread on my shoulders. The cashier told me there was nothing she could do about the power going out. I managed a weak smile as I told her that I knew, and I did not tell her that I had other things going on in my life besides this extended transaction.

You know what? There is a unused and barely driveable band van in my driveway. The tree was perfectly welcome to hit that, if it was so intent on crushing a vehicle. The first time a tree lands on your car it is a bummer, but the second time just feels personal.

But then we got home, and I saw that if we hadn't gone to the craft store, the tree would've taken out both cars. I also saw that if the wind had sent it in a different direction, it could've hit the house. And unlike last time, we have comprehensive insurance on this car.

I sighed. I got out the phone to call the insurance company. Josh got out the axe.

The second piece in my series of photographs entitled "Trees on Toyotas"


first christmas.

I left you hanging about Christmas and my terrible yuletide fever. I know that you were so worried that you were unable to even enjoy your own celebrations. Your assorted friends and family kept asking, "What is it? Whatever is wrong?" but you did not tell them because you didn't want to ruin their merriment. You were unable to even eat pie, because your stomach was just in knots.

I'll tell you how it went. Approximately four hours after I whined on the internet, Josh burst into the house, a grocery bag full of soup and soda, declaring "I'm sick." The meanie I'd picked up wasted no time in jumping to another host.

We spent the next four days in bed. It was a very whiny Christmas. When I'm sick, I like to moan and groan, and I like indulgence, sympathy, and bedside service. Josh is similar. We were a fussy, fussy pair. Josh spent the day declaring that he was dying, he was sure of it, this right here was his last day on this mortal coil. The next morning, he woke up and immediately expressed surprise that he was still alive. I would've rolled my eyes at him, but they hurt.

We had lots of plans, and we missed them all. Josh was supposed to work Christmas Eve and then sing in the choir that night, but instead we watched Christmas movies on the futon. We were supposed to go to his mom's on Christmas morning, but instead we watched crappy Christmas movies. And we were supposed to be at his dad's place in the mountains the day after Christmas, but we watched sitcoms that had Christmas episodes. And we were supposed to be in Winston-Salem for Josh's show two days after Christmas. We made it to that, but we spent the day watching some really terrible and frequently inexplicable Christmas cartoons. We officially exhausted the Netflix holiday catalog, and we even rented Miracle on 34th Street from Amazon.

Around 3 PM on Christmas Eve, Josh announced, "HAM."

No context, just the word. The thing is, I was pretty sure what he wanted, but I didn't want to be right. So I mumbled, "Huh?"


To be clear, it was about three hours before the grocery store would close, and Josh wanted a Christmas ham. Since we'd been planning to spend the holidays with his family, we did not have any of the traditional foods. It looked like a Campbell's condensed kind of Christmas. I was totally okay with that, because the very thought of the grocery store exhausted me. It became a whining match, with him saying HAM and me just groaning.

But he won. We went to the grocery store, and then we stomped out and went to another grocery store because seriously, Harris Teeter, I am not going to pay $30 for a stupid ham, I don't care how nice your hardwood floors are. We got one at Food Lion for $9. The thirty minute excursion depleted us completely, and we came home even whinier than when we left. But after a couple of hours and some instructions from the Pioneer Woman, we had our Christmas dinner: ham and baked sweet potatoes. Of course, we didn't actually end up eating much of it because our appetites were poor. But hey, Christmas. I told him the ham had been a good idea, and he thanked me up and down for making his request come true.

At some point, maybe it was while finding out that Jingle All the Way was just as bad a movie as I'd always suspected, I realized that this was our first married Christmas. While it was not ideal, I think that being sick together was actually better than being sick alone. When one person is sick, the other person is still forced to endure their whining and has to decide whether to stay home with their invalid. This way, there really was no question of either of us going anywhere, and I think we were each able to be more sympathetic to the other's prodigious moanings. So it was feverish and full of groaning and snot, but there is no one I'd rather spend a miserable Christmas with.


lucky soup.

I like holidays with food. I think it's the combination of a special tradition with eating. In fact, I think we need more. We should pull out our calendars and find every obscure observance and start some kind of delicious tradition. Stephen Foster Memorial Day is coming up next week, folks, and I think we should honor him with buckwheat cake. Maybe we'll skip Groundhog Day.

On New Year's, you're supposed to eat black-eyed peas for luck and collard greens for money. During my childhood, my parents grew turnip greens, and so I could have all I wanted during the summer. I didn't want any of them no matter what time of year it was, because they were nasty. No one liked them but my dad, and I wonder if that was maybe the way he cooked them. My dad is a real fine fellow and knows a lot of corny jokes, but his cooking led me to believe that I did not like some foods that later turned out to be delicious. His turnip greens made the whole house smell terrible. I think he just boiled them. Turns out, the secret to greens is boiling them with a ham hock. Ham hocks are available at your local grocery store, and they are magical, even if I don't really know what they are.

Last year, for New Year's, I just made Hoppin' John and greens, which required two magical hocks of ham. This year, I was lazy and wanted one dish. I also had a ton of leftover Christmas ham to make use of. So I looked around for a soup recipe.

Over the years that I've been learning to cook, I've discovered that I am not the kind of person who goes into the kitchen, throws things together and comes out later with a new recipe. I have a friend who is constantly broke, and so she is forced to take everything in her sparse pantry and make magic happen. I rely on having a pantry fully stocked with staples and an internet full of recipes. Maybe someday I will have the skill and confidence to just make something up. And then I'll come out with a cookbook. I'll call it I Totally Just Made This Stuff Up!

One thing I have figured out how to do is to combine multiple recipes. When I decide I want to make a thing, I go looking for a bunch of recipes. I generally have an idea of how I want it to be, and I skip most things that have a lot of convenience foods in them. I like to taste the inconvenience. It's sort of like going on Allrecipes and then picking out the various suggestions you find in the comments under each recipe.

Anyhow, I did that with our New Year's dish, and it turned out really well. I wrote everything down as I was figuring out the ultimate recipe, just so I could have the piece of paper in the kitchen as I cooked. But then I was so impressed with the results that I was glad I had it on paper, ready to put into my recipe binder. Josh also heartily approved, eating 2 bowls that day, though maybe that was just for the extra luck.

New Year's Soup

2 T olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 1/2 c ham, diced
2 c dried black eyed peas, soaked for at least 8 hours and then drained and rinsed OR 1 can black eyed peas, drained and rinsed
6 c broth (I used turkey stock)
1 T basil
1 T oregano
1 bunch collard greens, stems removed, thinly sliced
2 carrots, sliced
2 potatoes, chopped
salt, black pepper, and cayenne to taste
1 T apple cider vinegar

Heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, celery, and ham. Cook until onion is translucent.

If using uncooked peas: Add black eyed peas, broth, basil and oregano. Bring to a boil. Skim off and discard any foam on the surface. Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, until peas are tender, about 45 minutes.
If using canned peas: Add broth, basil and oregano. Bring to a boil.

Mix in collards, carrots, and potatoes, and simmer until tender.

If using canned peas, add them now. Add vinegar and salt, pepper, and cayenne to taste. Eat on New Year's for luck and money. Results not guaranteed, but the soup's pretty good.



Upstairs in the bedroom is a laundry basket where we put things that need to be dry-cleaned. Cheap and lazy people that we are, the basket is full and has been for quite some time. It is entirely filled with wool sweaters. Some people like sweatshirts, others like to layer t-shirt and long johns, but my husband is a sweater man. You might think that with a basket full of sweaters permanently in the dirty laundry, he'd be going around cold. You'd be mistaken. He has plenty of other wool sweaters. Since they too are dry-clean only and have been worn multiple times, you couldn't really call them clean, but they have not yet taken on enough body funk to qualify them for the basket. Honestly, we could probably just take the dirty sweaters to the thrift store, and he would continue to buy more used sweaters to replace the ones that gradually become dirty enough to be classified as such. I think in that case, he would be likely to buy back his own sweaters from the thrift store. I sorta doubt that the thrift store washes dry-clean only goods before putting them out on the sales floor, so they wouldn't actually be any cleaner. But he would think they were clean, for only $3.50 plus tax, which is a heck a lot cheaper than our dry-cleaners bill would ever be if we ever stopped being so lazy.

The thing they say about married people looking alike is true to a point, in that I wear a lot more sweaters than I used to. I used to be more the type to layer shirts, though I have sweatshirts, too. Now, I layer t-shirts and sweaters.

Once, Josh got a hole in the sleeve one of his favorite sweaters. He consulted the internet, and using some yarn I had that didn't quite match, he darned up the hole. I was impressed. For one thing, I didn't even know exactly what "darning" was, other than it was something that women in little houses on prairies did to socks. For all I knew, it meant to make puppets. Sadly, it does not. It means to take yarn and weave a patch over a hole, possibly in a sock, but also maybe in a sweater. He did a reasonable job - the patch was in an out-of-the-way spot, and really the most noticeable thing was that the yarn was a different color. What was even cuter than a man darning a sweater was how proud he was of himself afterwards. He was wearing his rehabilitated sweater, and every five minutes or so, I would catch him looking at his handiwork and grinning, which was another impressive feat, since looking at it required contortions similar to kissing your elbow.

This afternoon, while wearing a t-shirt and sweater combo, I noticed that my elbow felt oddly cold. It did not feel warm and comforted by the snuggly softness of my very nice, orange, cashmere cardigan, inherited from Josh's grandfather. I looked, and there was a hole, about an inch round. Darn!

Well, that's okay. I know what to do. I stopped at the craft store on my way home, and used the sweater to pick out some matching embroidery thread. I looked up a tutorial, and I fixed the hole. And then for good measure, I fixed another tiny one that I found nearby, figuring that big holes came from ignoring little holes. Unsurprisingly, the little patch is hardly noticeable, while the big patch, well, looks like a patch. But the color match is pretty good, and I think it adds a certain hobo chic. I find myself admiring my own work over and over, and of course I also went online and wrote a whole stupid essay about it. Makes me feel kinda bad for teasing Josh about the million times he looked at his own mending. I may even apologize...after I show off my own needlework, of course.