Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Vanity, thy name is Retail!

I suppose I should be writing some kind of year-end summary, or talking about my hopes for the new year, but I don't believe in New Year's Resolutions. If you're going to decide to do something, you should decide to do it any time of the year. (And then, if you're like me, put it off for the next few months. Procrastination: it isn't just for New Year's!)

No, I feel like griping, and a recent trip to the after-holiday sales gave me just the subject: that strange phenomenon known as "vanity sizing." If you're a woman and you've been shopping more than a few years, I'm sure you've experienced this strange transformation in women's sizes. Sizes have gradually gotten smaller and smaller as American women have grown larger and larger. Twenty years ago, when I was fifteen pounds lighter, I usually wore a size 10 trouser. Occasionally I might find an 8 that fit, and one really nice pair of pants I bought was a 6, but I was pretty sure: I was a size 10. Several years passed, and extra pounds accumulated here and there, but strangely enough, I was still a size 10. Until a few years ago, when half the 10s I tried on became too loose. Okay, that's fine. So now I'm a 10-maybe-8; it's a guessing game deciding what size of what brand to take into the fitting room, but I found a few favorite brands and that made it easier.

Well, last weekend I headed for a different department store than usual, and saw some nice cords on sale. I picked up an 8 and a 10 and headed for the dressing room. I swam in the 10s; fine, 8 it is. When I tried them on, though, the waist was still kinda loose. Really, the next size down wouldn't be right, would it? They wouldn't have gotten that silly; it was probably just the cut of the trouser. (I often have problems with waistlines, as the "here and there" those pounds travel to is usually my big butt.) So I changed back into my clothes, found a size 6, and went back into the fitting room. And what do you know? They fit, and rather easily.

Come on, is this really a size 6 butt? I think not.

What really irritates me, besides the constant guessing and the traipsing back and forth between rack and fitting room, is the idea that I'll think, "Omigod! I fit into a size 6! I must buy these pants!"* Half the places I shop never have sufficient fitting rooms anyway, so my shopping experience usually includes puzzling over sizes, waiting in line, not finding the right fit, heading back to the rack, and then waiting some more. Are retailers hoping I'll be so exasperated by the second go-round that I'll just buy the last thing I try on, no matter how it fits?

It would be so much simpler if women's pants were sized like men's: waist and inseam, measured in inches so that the sizes don't change. When I go shopping with TSU, we know exactly what to look for (although we rarely find it, since he is apparently abnormally fit for the mature American male). No wasting time in the dressing room trying three sizes of the same item for the men! Although on second thought, I think I'll pass on wearing my waist size on a label on my waistband, like they put with men's jeans. I'll just look forward to wearing a size 0 in 2035, when I'm twenty pounds heavier than I am today.

*Because really, the thought process is more, "Omigod! Dark purple fuzzy corduroys! They're so fuzzy! And so purple! I must have them!"

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Sorry, Lions Fans!

[Takes Official NFL-Licensed Detroit Lions Paper Bag off head]

As I'm sure any of you NFL fans already know, this year my Detroit Lions did what many said could never be done: they finished the season winless, with a record of 0-16. They even made this monumental feat look easy. A couple of times they had a lead going into the fourth quarter, but each time they managed to screw something up and give the game away. Now, you may think this winless season is the fault of the players, the coaching staff (most of whom have been fired), and horrible management of the gladly-departed Matt Millen, but I'm here to confess: it's all my fault.

I wasn't always a Lions fan, of course. I loved Michigan football from the time I was a little girl, but I wasn't really aware of the NFL until 1977, the year I collected team pencils from the vending machine at my middle school. Through careful hoarding of quarters and shrewd trading, I managed to get all 28 teams, even the Baltimore Colts, Los Angeles Rams, St. Louis Cardinals, and Houston Oilers. (I'd hoped to show a picture of my pencils, but they're missing from my school treasures box. I wonder what they'd fetch on eBay.) I didn't really pay attention to the Lions until the 1980 season, when they started with four straight wins and a couple of the players recorded their own version of Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust." Of course, the Lions were the ones who eventually bit the dust that season, missing the playoffs by virtue of tiebreaker. Still, they were on my radar, even though I didn't get much chance to watch them, not being the one in control of the clicker.

It was only in the 1990s that I became a faithful follower of the Lions. Even if the team was stinking up the field, you could always watch Barry Sanders, arguably the greatest running back ever. And actually, the 1990s were good for the Lions: they went to the playoffs six times, even though they only won a single playoff game (against the Cowboys, woo hoo!). But then I moved to London and lost track of the team. I ask you, is it coincidence or karma that the year after I left, Barry Sanders surprised the NFL by retiring early and immediately taking a vacation in London? Then, while I still wasn't paying attention, the owners hired a former sports announcer with no executive experience to run the team. Since I returned home in 2002, the Lions have punished me for my neglect by posting a record of 29-83, the worst in the league. It's like they're saying, "Oh, so now you're watching? Well, we'll only win one of every four games."

I'm not sure what I've done now, because owner William Clay Ford refuses to purge the management and seek the best in the NFL to take over the team, as Mike Illitch did with the Tigers after their record-setting 119-loss season in 2003. Three years later the Tigers were in the World Series; I doubt we'll see the Lions anywhere close to the Super Bowl in 2012. Maybe I should've bought a Ford Escape for my last car.

Whew. I'm glad I got that off my chest. Now, how long is it until Draft Day?*

*115 Days, 21 hours, and counting.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Photo of the Week--12/22/08

Because of the season I had to revisit our photos from Finnish Lapland. That is actually one of Santa's reindeer (so they promised us), and Boy and I were taking a sleigh ride. Later on, the three of us took a reindeer-sleigh along a candlelit path into the woods, to see the Jolly Old Elf in his cabin. I hope your Christmas holiday had some beauty in it; have a safe and happy New Year.

Friday, December 26, 2008

What are you doing here?

You should be enjoying the vacation season, if you're lucky enough not to be working between Christmas and New Years. Catch some of the holiday sales, as I did. (I bought blankets for the spare bed, but no shoes. Why are there umpteen gazillion pairs of black shoes, and no navy ones?) Sit around and watch movies at home, as we've been doing. (Currently Boy is watching one of the great classics of modern cinema, "Animal House.") Eat all the treats you got for the holiday, as I can't stop doing. (We finish one batch of gift cookies, and someone gives us another. It's nice to be loved, but my waistline has its limits.) Do some of those little projects around the house, as I'll being doing later. Take a nap and enjoy feeling snuggled into your house during the nasty weather.

Don't waste your time coming here. I got nothing. Everyone in the house is on vacation, and so my brain has decided it's joining in. That assignment due in three weeks can wait. So can the blog. Maybe tomorrow my brain will wake up.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Rain, rain, go away!

It can stop precipitating up here for a few days. Really. I mean it. Boy got his snow day last Friday, so according to him, any other snow is wasted. We all got the chance to try out the new snow shovel with the fancy handle, so really, we don't need any more snow. And I'd rather it not rain and erase all the hard work shovelling that we've done over the past week. That's just wrong. Besides, this looks so lovely:

Have a happy and joyous Christmas, if that's what you celebrate; if not, celebrate the fact that the winter solstice is over and every day brings more light from now until June!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Finally a champ!

Most of you probably know I'm a huge football fan. I bleed Maize 'n' Blue (and there was a LOT of bleeding this year), and I've already written about how being a Lions fan has prepared me for the publication search. Sunday afternoon means my workroom TV is turned to NFL football. When we were living in London, I listened to Michigan games live on the internet, and taped Monday Night Football so I could get my fix. I subscribed to the premium sports channel in January just so I could watch the playoffs and Super Bowl. I even turned a trip to Scotland into an opportunity for football, taking the boys to an NFL Europe game. (Watching football in a soccer stadium half-full of Scottish fans is a mind-trip deserving of its own post someday, but not now.)

The final sign I've gone completely cuckoo for football was joining a fantasy football league a few years back. You may have heard something about fantasy football—it's gone from a weird hobby to a real money-making business over the past few years—but if not, I'll just explain the basics. Essentially, you pick your own "team" made of the basic positions: quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, kicker, and defense. Your players can come from a dozen different teams if you like. When they play, you score points for each yard gained, touchdown scored, or fumble recovered (or lost). So every week, you see whether your players earned more points than your opponents'. Based on your performance head-to-head, you get wins and losses; you even have playoffs during the last two or three games of the year.

It sounds crazy, but the NFL loves it—it gives fans who might ignore the sport once their team is out of it* a reason to keep watching. I now pay more attention to all games, hoping to see how my players are doing. And I seemed to do okay with my picks. In my first year, 2005, I finished third in the regular season (thanks to Pats QB Tom Brady and the Indianapolis defense), but I tanked in the playoffs and finished last in the league. In 2006, I again finished third in the regular season (Brady again), and third in the playoffs. Last year, I finished first in the regular season (Indy QB Peyton Manning), but tanked in the playoffs, again finishing third.

But finally, in a year when I got no pleasure from local teams, my fantasy team came through. I got the jackpot #1 draft pick, so I not only got Vikings RB Adrian Peterson, but also Peyton Manning and Bears RB Matt Forte. (Consistent RBs are the key to fantasy success, I've decided.) With some luck in the draft, and some smart pickups, I finished first in the regular season. I squeaked by in my first playoff matchup, and only needed 8 points from the Monday night game to win the championship. I spent last night glued to the Chicago-Green Bay game, muttering "rush Forte!" through three quarters as Chicago's offense went nowhere. Finally, they listened, Forte broke through for some yardage, and eventually scored a TD. And I am now a fantasy football champion.

So I'm happy, even if the whole idea is a bit sad. (Even sadder: I'm trying not to think about how there's only one more month before football is done and I must endure the gloom of winter with nothing but hockey and basketball.)

*Not me, I was still listening to the Lions on the radio Sunday, hoping they might get that first win. They lost. So who's more pathetic, them or me?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Photo of the Week--12/15/08

No, your eyes aren't deceiving you: that church really is a little off-center. This is the Oude Kerk, or "old church," of Delft, the Netherlands. And it is a very old church, founded in 1246, with the lopsided tower completed around 100 years later. It was later superceded by the Nieuwe Kerk, or "new church," which is taller and serves as the burial place of many Dutch monarchs. (And just to give you an idea of what "new" means to Europeans, the Nieuwe Kerk was begun in 1396 and finished 100 years later.) So who can resist taking a photo of a building that is so obviously battling gravity, and winning?

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Quilt Files, Holiday Family Edition

It looks like there's no doubt of having a white Christmas up here in Michigan, as I sit here hibernating in the house during a snowstorm. The holiday cards are all mailed (even the overseas ones); the cookies are baked; the presents are purchased (except for one on backorder I have to pick up next week) and even mostly wrapped; the tree's been up since Thanksgiving; and Boy is shoveling the driveway! Now all I need is to have tonight's concert cancelled, so I don't have to drive through a foot of snow this evening ... but even if I end up sledding driving tonight, I won't feel too bad, since I get cookies at the end. I'll play anywhere for treats, as my musical buddies well know.

Anyway, I'm feeling fine and all Christmasy, so I thought I'd share the beautiful wall hanging my maternal grandmother quilted for me in 1996. Actually, all my girl cousins received hangings that year (there are five of us); of course, I think mine is the best.

I just love how the poinsettias in the border fabric echo the large poinsettias; these large flowers were pieced, not appliqued. This means each different piece of fabric was sewn together at a seam, rather than cut out and stuck to the background. It must have required lots of precision (something that's not always my strong point), for the flowers and leaves all match up and yet don't look overly angular. Plus, how did she get the flowers to overlap the borders like that? I've yet to attempt something like this, although I have something in my "to-do" drawer that's similar.

Thinking about getting to those new projects is something for the New Year, though. Right now it's almost Christmas! Hope yours is safe and happy and filled with family.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Untitled post about music

Actually, I had a couple of potential titles for this blog entry, which is in praise of the pipe organ. But I thought heading my post with "I love the organ!" might attract the wrong kind of indexing on Google. Same with "I love the pipe!" {Sigh.}

I'm not sure why I decided to write about this today. Maybe it's because I'm seeking escape from all the Chicken Christmas music that is inundating the air. By this weekend I will have played in two Christmas concerts, and Christmas Eve I'm spending playing at my friend's church. And that's a nice way to spend Christmas Eve, but it would feel more special if I hadn't been stuffed full of holiday songs for the past month. Even the usually reliable XM "Symphony Hall" classical channel is filled with Christmas oratorios and other things too unbearable to mention.

So I guess I felt like turning to the one kind of music that always moves me to turn up the volume: the pipe organ. If you read my review of the film Battleship Potemkin, you know a big factor in my enjoyment was the live organ music that accompanied this silent film. One of my favorite pieces of classical music is Saint-Saens's Third Symphony, whose final movement is grandly completed with pipe organ. (They used this movement's musical theme in the film Babe, strangely enough; but the sight of James Cromwell dancing for a pig to this music wasn't enough to dampen my enjoyment of the piece. Hearing it performed live, a couple shades too slow, was more of a disappointment.)

Occasionally pop music has made great use of the organ; Elton John's "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" is another favorite of mine, and to hear it live in a huge arena was a highlight when I saw him in concert around 20 years ago. Of course, the organ is meant to be heard in a grand space, and I've been lucky enough to hear the organ performed in some of the most beautiful churches in Europe. On a visit to Bath, England, in 1990 we were lucky enough to hear a whole concert of organ music. While living in London, I also took the opportunity to catch the occasional organ recital, including one at the St. Albans Cathedral and Abbey, parts of which date to the 11th century. One time I was even lucky enough to perform with pipe organ, when the honors band I was in played Weinberger's "Polka and Fugue from Schwanda, the Bagpiper" in a grand hall.

So I do love the pipe organ. And here is one of my favorite pieces, Widor's Toccata from his Symphony for Organ #5. It's not the kind of sound quality I prefer (ie, turned up to 11 on my surround-sound system), but it gives you an idea:

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Maus: The Official Haiku Review

So after reading and reviewing the graphic novel Watchmen over six weeks ago, I blithely promised to present my review of the equally groundbreaking graphic novel Maus "soon." And I had intended to get to it soon; I'd already checked the two parts out of the library. But the three-week checkout period came and went, so I renewed the books. Then another three-week period came and went, and the library actually let me renew them again. I hadn't done more than move the books from one spot to another, thinking maybe I would get to them soon. I wasn't in any hurry; after all, Art Spiegelman's Maus is a graphic novel about the Holocaust, so it wasn't the kind of thing I expected to just pick up and read "for fun."

But spurred by my second library notice, I decided to finally crack open the first volume. And it didn't take me more than a couple of pages to get completely sucked in by the story and characters. For while Maus is a story of the Holocaust, it is also a story about fathers and sons and storytelling itself. So now I present the official haiku review: two poems for the two parts.

A father's story
A maze with no good choices
Danger at each turn

Can the son grasp it?
Re-create the father's pain?
Yes; the image speaks.

I suppose the cover of Maus gives you the essential details of the novel: it tells the story of a Holocaust survivor, with all the characters drawn as animals. The Jews are mice; the Nazis are cats*; Poles are pigs; Americans are dogs; French are frogs; etc etc. It's an interesting little metaphor, but I suppose the main advantage is that it mitigates some of the horrific images that the author includes. Now, you may be thinking as I was: do I really want to read something about such a terrible moment in human history? And if Maus was only a retelling of Vladek Spiegelman's experiences in Poland during World War II, it might be heavy going indeed.

But Maus is equally a story of Spiegelman trying to understand his father, who survived Auschwitz but became a frustrating character to live with. So the novel opens with Spiegelman visiting his father's home and asking for all the family stories. How did his parents meet? How did they live before the war? These kinds of stories are always fascinating, and Vladek Spiegelman's is no exception. Soon we are introduced to his soon-to-be-wife and their extended family, who are wealthy business owners until the Nazi occupation. The novel alternates scenes of the son dealing with his father's quirks, and the father dealing with the increasing restrictions put on Jews in occupied Poland. Vladek is a clever and quick-witted man, but at the end of the first part, even he cannot escape the death camps.

The second part deals with Vladek in Auschwitz, where again his ingenuity helped both him and his wife survive. The horrors of the camps are balanced by the modern-day pieces, where a frustrated young Spiegelman is trying to deal with his father, whose second marriage is breaking up. We also see his doubts about his ability to deal with such heavy subject matter. But by making the creation of the book and his relationship with his father part of the novel, Spiegelman creates a story that's accessible without being shallow, and grim yet still life-affirming.

I have to agree with Watchmen creator Alan Moore, who noted in his review of Maus: "Maus surely marks one of the high points of the comic medium to date. It is perhaps the first genuine graphic novel in recent times, and as such its significance cannot be overstated. Please read it."

*Always the cats are the bad guys (sigh); or maybe Spiegelman was thumbing his nose at Hitler, a noted ailurophobe (cat-hater).

Monday, December 15, 2008

Photo of the Week--12/8/08

As you may have figured out, I really like photographs that play with light and shadow, and this is one of my favorites. It's another alcázar (ie, "fortress") from our Spanish trip, this time in Jerez, home of the sherry industry. This building is a part of a complex of baths built by the Moors in the 12th century. I couldn't resist the way the light streamed in through the star-shaped skylights. I'll bet it made a great atmosphere for a lazy day at the baths.

Friday, December 12, 2008

My secret boyfriend...

Hey, ladies, you know we all have one. You know, that special man that we see every day (or week, or year), up on the movie or television screen. That one guy that is just so perfect that even your husband wouldn't mind if you ran away with him. (Okay, the husband might mind because who would make dinner and change the cat box if you ran away, but he's a practical guy, so he doesn't worry about the miniscule chance you will ever meet your secret boyfriend, let alone get close enough to run away with him. Men are no fun—except my secret boyfriend, he would understand.) Oh, if only he could meet me, my secret boyfriend would tell me I am perfect just the way I am and give me my own luxury home filled with kittens and a maid to clean all the litter boxes.

And how do I know a certain someone is my secret boyfriend? Well, not only is he cute, he's intelligent and funny. And sometimes, it's like he's actually reading my mind:

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Merry Chicken to All!

Yes, 'tis the season to get seriously annoyed by the endless ads and promotions extolling that the holidays are coming! Better spend your money now! From the decorations that appeared in stores the day after Halloween, to the radio stations that switch to all holiday music all the time (in November!), we can't escape having Christmas stuffed down our throats.

I protest. And I've finally decided to do something about it.

This brainstorm came to me last week, after sitting through a dinner in a restaurant and being tortured by a weird combination of Top 40 hits and Christmas standards. I'm not going to use the word Christmas until it's appropriate.* Instead, I'm going to substitute something that I actually like having stuffed down my throat: Chicken. So when radio stations want to play holiday music in early November, I will sing along:

"I'm dreaming of a white chicken ..."
"Have a holly, jolly chicken!"
"I'll be home for chicken..."
"It's beginning to look a lot like chicken!"
"Have yourself a merry little chicken..."
"There'll be a bluuuuue chicken without youuuu..."
"Feliz pollo y prospero año de felicidad!"

Unfortunately, "The Chicken Song" made famous by Nat King Cole is about "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire," not chickens ... but I could make an exception. Anyway, I encourage you all to indulge in a little silliness with me this chicken season. After all, is it any sillier to say, "Merry Chicken!" than it is to sing about Christmas in November?

Finally, Clio would like to add her own, "Bah, humbug!" for the Chicken Season:

*That would be about two weeks before actual Christmas. And yes, I know that's today, but shouldn't my rants suffer from the same procrastination as everything else I do?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Beautiful dreamers ... until you wake up

Okay, I'm not too proud to admit that I like naps. Actually, I adore them. With Boy headed for school at 6:30 am, in combination with my crazy evenings, I often don't get the ten, er, eight hours of sleep I need to feel fully functional. So occasionally, like this morning, I see Boy out the door and then head straight back to bed for a couple hours' make-up time. I wake up feeling refreshed and ready to waste work the rest of the day.

This morning was a little different. I had a really weird dream, so weird that it actually woke me up. It involved driving with Boy and getting lost (and I did get lost alone in my car this weekend, different story), finding a way back to a place I knew and finding it blocked, turning around, and then being forced to leave the car for some reason (the dream skipped that part) and go by bicycle, then foot, to escape a city via rail tracks. (The dream also skipped why we couldn't just take the train; they were in the station.) Anyway, Boy and I ended up in someone's workshop, being chased by zombies we didn't know were behind us. Pretty creepy, and yet, as I was dreaming, a little corner of my subconscious was saying, "Escaping a city chased by zombies? This would make an awesome story!"*

Now, there's no reason that dreams can't inspire good stories. One of my favorite writers of historical fantasy, Katherine Kurtz, has written over a dozen books after fleshing out a story (and an entire world) that she had in a dream. Of course, she likely had notecards right next to her bed to take down the dream in minute detail. My little corner of the subconscious is not that proactive. It whispers, "Oh, this would be an awesome story," yet it doesn't bother trying to wake me up to take notes. (It, too, probably needs its ten, er, eight hours of sleep.) So I have woken up, vaguely remembering the following:

  • A girl's home is about to overrun by invaders? aliens? ecological disaster? She escapes to the town's underground library, where she will rebuild civilization with books. And everyone will be grateful and treat her like a goddess! (Why the library is hidden underground, I don't know. Why a smartypants should expect to be treated like a goddess is equally mysterious. And yet, while I was dreaming this, I thought it was the greatest idea ever!)
  • There's something like a jungle gym in the sky. And people run around it to fight each other! They might fall off! But the winner will rule the kingdom! (Again, why in the sky? I don't know. And yet, my silly subconscious was telling me, "This is the greatest story ever!!!")
So I was reminded again this morning that while my subconscious might come up with an image or a situation that seems really unique and interesting, when you take away the immediacy of dreaming, by itself it's not very compelling. I've never been tempted to try any of these ideas because there's no story to them. More important, there's no character in them. Now, someday I might dream up a character who seems to fit in one of these situations, and that might spark something. But for now, I just take that little subconscious voice with a grain of salt. And vow I'll try to get to bed earlier tomorrow.

*Or it might, if Max Brooks hadn't beaten me to writing the definitive zombie book.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Photo of the Week--12/1/08

While we were living in the northerly latitudes of London, where the winter season meant total darkness before 5 pm, it was essential that we escape to the Mediterranean during the February school break. In 2001 my parents brought my paternal grandmother across the pond, and four generations of us visited Spain for a week. We rented a minivan (minivan on tiny European roads = very interesting) and drove through Andalucía, hitting the beautiful cities of Seville, Jerez (home of the sherry industry), Granada, and Córdoba.

A common feature in these cities is the Alcázar, or "fortress," a stronghold needed during the many years when Muslim and European empires were battling for control of the region. Here is the family in front of part of the Alcázar of Córdoba: my grandmother, my mom, Boy, and my dad. This was the second trip to Europe for Grandma (she also came with us to Italy), who was almost 82 at the time. She had never owned a passport before we moved to London, but was so excited to visit us and try a little traveling. Grandma passed away just about a year ago; while she inspired me in very many ways, one of the most important was this: you're never too old to expand your horizons.

Friday, December 5, 2008

A Coda on Pie

So last week I wrote an Ode to Pie in celebration of the Thanksgiving week. Yes, I said, "Thanksgiving week," and I suppose I should explain for those of you who are unfortunate enough never to have experienced the annual pie massacre my family calls "Thanksgiving."

You see, every year my mother prepares for the descent of locusts family members into her house by baking pies. (Sweet, tasty pies!) And every year, the number of pies is close to 40. This year it was 41. Last year, I believe it was 38. Whatever the exact number, it's a lot of pie.

But we have a lot of people visit throughout Thanksgiving week. If family fly in from out of town, sometimes they arrive on Tuesday, so we have to eat pie. We definitely get people coming up on Wednesday night, so we have pie with the usual dinner of homemade soup. On Thanksgiving proper, we don't usually get the bird until 2pm, so we might need a piece of pie to tide us over until then. After digesting for bit, we usually need to top things off with another piece of pie; after all, there are so many yummy flavors available. This year on Thursday we had something like 30 people in the house for Thanksgiving dinner and pie, so lots of pie was needed.

Friday is an almost exact repeat of Thursday (pie, turkey dinner at 2, more pie), except we usually have a few more people attending. Again, lots of pie needed. Then we have the stragglers who stay through Saturday, finishing up the soup and the jigsaw puzzle that's taken over the dining room table, and of course it wouldn't be family time without more pie. (Really, people, there's something like 10 flavors to try!)

So anyway, that leads to this little coda. When I left my mom's house on Saturday, she told me to take a pie. Actually, she told me to take two: apple and pumpkin, of which there were a few extra. No problem. After all, pie for breakfast is no different than a "breakfast pastry," except it has more real fruit and tastes better. So we've slowly been working our way through the pies, and last night Boy and I went out to dinner because TSU was out of town. We went to his favorite restaurant, and he requested their tasty chocolate chip cookies for dessert. I gave him a skeptical look and said, "But there's still pie at home." When he complained that there wasn't any pumpkin left, I corrected him and said there was still a piece, I had just moved it into the apple pan. He frowned and gave this response:

"But Mom, that's not dessert pie."

!!!! Only in my family, I suppose.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The pains of getting basted...

As I've mentioned before, I frequently see parallels between one of my favorite hobbies, quilting, and the gargantuan task that is writing a novel. I was thinking about this the other day when I was doing my least favorite part of making a quilt: basting.

Basting is the onerous chore of taking the completed patchwork top of a quilt and a fabric backing, sandwiching batting between the two, and then pinning the whole thing together. If you don't do it right, it makes the quilting much harder: if there are bumps and bubbles riddling your quilt sandwich, you have to spend more time fiddling with the fabric instead of getting to the stitching. (It's especially crucial if you're machine quilting a piece, since it's so easy to stitch the bubbles into your quilt when you're sewing fast. Since I'm hand-quilting this particular piece, it's not as crucial, but it still helps to have a smooth sandwich.)

Although I have a tacking gun gadget that supposedly makes basting easier, it's never worked properly (I'm probably using it wrong), so I end up using safety pins instead. This requires a lot of annoying work, and always results in stuck fingers. Because I'm working on a king-sized quilt, basting is even more complicated. I have enough floor space to tape anything smaller to the floor, keeping the fabric stretched, but I can't do it with a king. So I ended up taping sections to my dining room table, and stretching as much of the rest as I could with one hand while sticking in pins with the other. It's not a pretty picture:

To give you a sense of scale: each of those squares is 4 x 4 inches. The pattern consists of 5 large blocks made of 25 squares each, and the quilt is 5 blocks long on each side. So overall the quilt measures 25 x 25 small squares; with the addition of a small border, it has a total size of 104" square. (That's 625 squares altogether, if you're counting.) So it required a lot of stretching, a lot of moving and retaping, and a lot of pinning. As you can probably tell from the expression on my face, I'm not having lots of fun.

At first, I thought maybe basting was a good parallel for outlining the plot of a novel. If you take the time to make a really exhaustive outline, it makes writing that first draft a lot easier. You know everything that's happening, and where the characters are headed. You don't have many bubbles, where you have to take out the stitching and smooth things out before rewriting—er, restitching.

The only problem with this parallel is that, unlike basting a quilt, making an outline for a novel isn't really essential. A lot of writers never use them. Although I've written three other novels that way, I'm currently working on one without an outline. Of course, the last three were plot-driven fantasies, and this one is a contemporary comedy that's more character-driven, so that could be the real difference. Another fault with the parallel is that I actually like outlining; it's a kind of brainstorming, so it's a creative process. Pinning a quilt is just busy work that requires close attention and precision.

So maybe a better writing parallel to basting would be the revising process. I know it needs to be done, but I don't enjoy it. I already did the fun parts of brainstorming (choosing the fabric), and writing the first draft (piecing the patchwork). It's hard work trying to figure out what needs to be cut or moved or changed, and it hurts my fingers. But it has to be done, or else I'll forever be trying to work out the bumps and bubbles from my writing. Luckily I have a critique group to help me with this task, and they're much more effective than my tacking gun gadget. I suppose that makes the rewriting a lot like quilting—sometimes painful, a lot of busywork, but showing visible rewards as you get closer and closer to the finish.

Of course, maybe the best metaphor for basting is the creating of quilting-writing metaphors for this blog. Perhaps I'm stretching things a bit, but I had to do something with my brain while I was stretched across half the dining room table, sticking pins into my fingers.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

I just looove musicals!

I try not to get too political here, but this is a bit of political humor I felt compelled to share, especially since it features Neil Patrick Harris, who I think is extremely funny and talented. And so, thanks to Funny or Die, Prop 8: The Musical!
See more Jack Black videos at Funny or Die

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Word Nerd Sez: G is for ...


I was thinking and thinking over this letter for quite some time, because there wasn't a perfect "G" word that sprang to mind. (Actually, there were several words that suggested themselves, but none seemed unique enough.) So I started browsing the dictionary ...

... whoops, got distracted for a moment there (the Latin galact- means milk!). Anyway, a couple pages in I came across this little gem of a word, which means "jumble" or "medley," from the Middle French for "hash." It's a great word to describe this particular blog entry, or the Word Nerd feature, or even this blog as a whole. Plus, this word just trips off the tongue: gal-uh-MAW-free. It sounds so fancy, but means something totally messed up. (Again, a good description of this blog.)

And to jumble things up a little more: here's some of the "G" words I considered but didn't use. Most of them are actually double-G words; I have a weakness for alliteration:
  • gregarious
  • gargantuan
  • googolplex
  • gargoyle
  • gewgaw
  • gingersnap
  • gigantic
  • galligaskins*
  • gesticulate
  • glockenspiel
Okay, those last two don't have the double G, but I still like them. And now that I've used the letter "g" so much that's it's starting to look foreign, I shall bid you Good-bye.

*I lie, I wasn't really contemplating this earlier. But I found this 16th-century word meaning "loose breeches" during my dictionary browse and I had to share.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Photo of the Week--11/24/08

There's all sorts of interesting architecture to explore in Istanbul, from the Blue Mosque to the Hagia Sophia, but I love mosaic artwork and so this is the photo I'm featuring. You can see the azulejo tilework typical of many Islamic buildings from the Middle Ages (and which we saw in trips to Spain, Portugal, and Tunisia, in addition to this trip to Turkey). The other thing that amuses me about this photo is that it is of a specific place in Istanbul's Topkapi Palace. The name of the place? The Circumcision Room. Boy, of course, was gloriously unaware of either the name or the meaning when I took this photo, as you can tell by the smile. (Back then he would smile for photos. Now I have to bribe him.)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

I am not alone!

It's nice to know there are people out there who are as anally retentive about grammar and punctuation abuse as I am....

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

An Ode to Pie

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I won't be around for the rest of the week because I'll be too hopped up on turkey and pie to bother writing in my blog. Thanksgiving is a major holiday in our family: we usually have 20-25 people on Thursday, then close to 30 on Friday. We do not know the meaning of "leftover turkey," and we love our pie. So here is a very poor ode celebrating a very tasty dessert:

O cherry, pumpkin, apple, peach!
I will have a slice of each.
And berry pies (of black
and blue) I shall not lack

Tho' some may blanch, I think I'll try
A míxed rhubarb apple pie*
I really love pecan
(So does the whole damn clan)

Two crusts, or pie with none on top
When eating pie, I cannot stop!
A pie that's a la mode
Could merit its own ode
And coconut, banana cream?
I'm only eating in my dreams
(And neither is there orange;
'cause nothing rhymes with orange!)

Of every pie I'll have a slice
Fourteen kinds; that should suffice
(at least for the first day;
don't worry what you weigh!)

And when the pastry's all devoured
And the plates have all been scoured
I'll burp a fond good-bye
And dream of Christmas pie

Have a great holiday, everyone!

*Not really. Rhubarb={shudder}. But it's called poetic license for a reason.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

This Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for ...

... my family, my health, yeah, yeah, sure, I'm grateful for all that stuff. But as I was baking cookies last week, I realized what I'm really thankful for: GADGETS!

Gadgets are cool! Gadgets are fun! Gadgets make life easier! "Gadgets" begins with a G! (Whoops! Word Nerd isn't returning until next week!)

Here's one that I just discovered a couple of weeks ago. Now, in general I love my DVR (aka TIVO) and you can have my remote when you pry it from my cold dead hands. I not only use the satellite service to record and playback TV shows, but also to listen to XM Radio. They have two classical music channels with little or no commercials (or even talking), something sorely lacking on regular radio in my area. Since this is a radio channel, they broadcast a still picture with the music, and the "info" button shows the title, composer, and performer of the piece. Now, because it's a still picture, after a few minutes the TV goes into "screensaver" mode, blank except for a DirecTV logo that bounces around the screen. The bouncing logo can be fun; Boy and I like the game from "The Office" where you wait for the logo to hit the corner perfectly, although TSU thinks we're nuts. But a few weeks ago, a miracle happened:

The bouncing logo is now a box with all the title/composer info, so I don't have to find the clicker if I want to remind myself if a piece is Brahms or Schubert or one of those other guys I forget about. Hallelujah!

So I'm listening to classical radio as I begin baking, occasionally glancing over to get title info, and I come upon another favorite gadget. I luuuurve my KitchenAid mixer, which has a certain sleek mechanical beauty to it. More important, it saves my increasingly tender elbows and wrists from overwork as I make a double batch of cookies (4 cups of flour is hard to mix) or a tasty cheesecake (it makes quick work of lumpy cream cheese). It's heavy, but its motor could probably power a small lawnmower. It's perfect and I'm so thankful I have it this time of year.

Last, there's this tiny little kitchen gadget I love for making cookies: this doohickey that ejects whatever goop you might scoop with it. It's perfect for making rolled cookies; much easier than the "two-spoon" method and much cleaner than pinching dough with your fingers (I hate getting dough under my nails). Nope, with this baby I just scoop some dough, squeeze the handle, and with a satisfying "snick!" I have just the right size ball of dough to roll (and dip in sugar). Even if I didn't like eating cookies, I'd bake them just to use this gadget.

Although there are other little utensils I enjoy, I'm going to stop here with my list of gadgets for which I'm grateful. Gigi, however, would like to add she is thankful for the gadget we call the "Flat Rat." It's a little hunk of fur with a leather head and tail, and she loves to chase it so much she's been fetching it back to me as I write this entry so I can throw it over and over. Sigh. A cat-slave's work is never done. Maybe I should invent a gadget to chuck cat toys....

Monday, November 24, 2008

Dance with the devil...

... at least, that's what my felines would think about the following:

Photo of the Week--11/17/08

Sunset. A schooner. A Greek island. Sometimes, you just luck into an awesome shot, as I did when we visited the island of Santorini, and one snap is all you need for perfection.

Friday, November 21, 2008

And now, a commercial interruption...

I'm still looking for a "G" word to explore, I have a cool picture/post about basting quilts and writing I'm thinking about, and I should have another haiku review soon. But now, I'm too crazy busy to spend much time on the blog. This was my schedule last night:

4:30—Take Boy to the orthodontist
5:30—Go to high school and pick up/order scrip for fundraising
5:45—Pick up pizza on way home for dinner
6:00—Don't eat pizza, but go to TKD instructor's meeting
7:00—Duck out of meeting and go to band rehearsal (late)
10:00—Get home and eat rewarmed pizza for dinner.

And here's today's schedule:

morning—make double batch of cookies for craft fair bake sale
afternoon—make poster thanking businesses who allowed us to post signs; stop at grocery store to pick up milk and posterboard
???—squeeze in some writing? I do have an assignment due by the end of the year.
3:00-5:30—help set up at craft fair
5:00—duck out early to place craft fair signs near freeway exits
6:00—help officiate at TKD testing

So instead of cogitating on the letter G, or the parallels between basting and writing, I will be making gingersnaps. Sad for you, Dear Readers, who need a little amusement in their day (extremely little); but Happy for me, who will be required to perform quality control on said gingersnaps. (Hmmm, G is for Gingersnaps? I will think as I bake.)

And if you're in the Plymouth-Canton area Saturday, please stop by and do a little shopping at our holiday craft fair. It supports the wonderful Plymouth-Canton Marching Band, who were National Finalists once again this year and placed 11th in the country!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Random Rants

The cold has frozen my brain, so I find myself unable to think of anything clever to write about. I'm feeling irritated, and unable to overlook the little things that annoy me, so I'm going to inflict them on you.

#1 rant: my neighbor's ugly car, which they have parked directly behind my driveway so that I have to be extra careful every time I back out into the street. I saw you had a "For Sale" sign on that white, rusting, crappy Jeep earlier this summer, and I bet no one wanted it because it doesn't work. At least, I haven't seen any sign you've even moved it from that spot across my driveway since August. I mean, I know the economy sucks, and you probably want to get something out of your junky car, but it's not going to look or work any better by keeping it out on the street to block my way and make the neighborhood look trashy.

#2 rant: people who volunteer to help out and then never show up. Okay, I understand people are busy. Maybe you thought you had more time when you first volunteered. But you can't even be bothered to send an e-mail or phone call to let me know you can't help? I can understand having to say no. But not even bothering with the courtesy of letting me know, so I can adjust my plans—that's just rude.

#3 rant: clueless drivers. Sure, this is a constant, so it's not even really worthy of rant space. But really, going 35 in a 55 mph zone? I don't care if you're lost, you're not being safe when you go that much under the speed limit. This is the probably the same guy who pulls out in front of me and fails to accelerate, when he could have waited 10 seconds and had no traffic behind me to impede his putzing car. This is probably also the same guy who creeps through the green left turn light, ensuring only one car of the ten lined up behind him can follow. Grrr.

#4 rant: TEENAGED BOYS. They're obnoxious and they argue too much and I'm going to stop doing their laundry and cooking their dinners and then we'll see who's won the argument!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Fun with numbers!

I looked at my statistics yesterday, and realized that this would be my 100th post in The Blathering. That's a pretty impressive number—at least, if you're a math nerd who loves playing with numbers, like me. (Example of math nerdery: while at Nationals this summer, I told my teammates that it was easy to remember my room number: it was a perfect power of 2, on the 5th floor, so of course it was 512. I saw quite a few head shakes in response to reciting this fun fact.) Anyway, I thought the way to celebrate my 100th post was to look at all the fun numbers related to this blog, which I started at the beginning of June:

170 days to write 100 posts
23 travel photos posted
13 posts about writing
9 haiku composed
9 posts about sewing/quilting
8 posts about cats (it only feels like more; sorry!)
8 posts about words
6 posts complaining about how boring Moby Dick was
5 ranting posts (although I feel another coming on, about the ancient piece-of-crap Jeep perpetually parked across from my driveway)
5 posts that prove I'm a total nerd (some might argue the number is 100)
6 manuscripts sent to publishers/agents
4 rejection letters
2 agents/publishers who need to speed it up!
11,068 words written for pay
untold* words written for fun
1 blog follower (Thanks, Mom!)
untold** regular readers

I'm kind of amazed that I've managed 100 posts, writing about nothing much at all. (Although I suppose if Seinfeld managed nine television seasons of a show "about nothing," this little blog isn't that much of an achievement.) Still, it's been fun to write, and even better when people stop by and comment. I plan on sticking around for at least another 100 posts, just to see what happens.

*Actually, I fear I would be depressed if I calculated how many words I've written for fun. Not as many as I'd like, that's for sure.
**And I appreciate all six of you.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Photo of the Week--11/10/08

There were all sorts of perks about living in London, but one was that Boy's school had a full week's vacation in late October. (Iin part to make up for no Thanksgiving, but also to correspond with British school schedules.) Anyway, in the fall of 2000 we decided to take a cruise that visited various Greek islands, plus Ephesus, Turkey; we spent a couple of days in Athens before sailing. As you can see, there are many hills in Athens and we climbed quite a few. This one gives a good view of the Acropolis in the background, and Boy and I felt like King and Queen of the Hill.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Callie blogs!

It's about time that Food Lady gave me a chance to blog. You'd think she'd be quicker to get the idea*. I sat on her desk, next to the computer, and all she did was scratch my ears. Then I sat on her lap, right in front of the keyboard, and all she did was stroke my fur. I tolerated that for a little while. She tries to be nice, I guess, but if she's not going to give me some treats (ie FRESH CHICKEN), she should at least give me a turn on the clicky click click machine. Click click click and little bugs dance across the screen. I like to chase bugs. They are quite tasty, if not as good as FRESH CHICKEN.

I've fixed her, ha ha. She's gone somewhere with the Big Noisy Man and left the computer on where I can get it. She thought I was sitting on the cat tree looking out the window for birdies, but I was really waiting to pounce on this keyboard. So now I can give you the real scoop about what goes on around here.

I am the real boss of the house, of course. Even my Big Fat Sister knows better than to mess with me. I tolerate her when it suits my purposes. Here all her extra fat is helping keep me warm, so I permit her to share my pillow. But if I'm enjoying a seat near Food Lady's dinner and she tries to nose into my territory, I will growl and swat her nose until she backs off. I will not share my chance for crumbs with anyone, especially not Big Fat Sister, who doesn't need any extra crumbs. I don't even bother growling at the Gray One; that's what Big Fat Sister is for. She keeps the Gray One in line, and I enjoy the top perch for watching birds, getting the best food, and stalking FRESH CHICKEN.

Don't let the Food Lady fool you. She may be making clicky clicks on this computer all day, but she's not doing real work. Sometimes I have to stare at her for 10 minutes before she realizes that I need more food! Those food pouches don't open themselves, so get to work, Lady! And when you're done, I feel like chasing a mousie. Don't make me come in there and knock the toy box off your desk before you realize you need to get back to work. And when you're done with that, come fluff my quilt. This blogging thing is tiring; I need another nap.

*I can't believe it took me this long, either, but I just now saw the idea somewhere else, and all the best ideas for this blog come from thievery.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Kitty Therapy

I've spent the last two weeks doing publicity work (which I dislike), and to make things unimaginably worse, today I'm attending a funeral for a teenager. I can't write under these conditions, so there's only one alternative: cat pictures. Here is Clio being adorably cute in my lap:

Here is Gigi, going crazy with love? anger? hatred? for a poor, innocent kitchen towel:

Callie, doing her best to obstruct any office work. I believe it's the warmth of the lamp that she finds attractive.

To top things off, a sweet sweet dessert, if you will: an adorably cute sleepy kitten. He (actually a rare male calico) has the right idea of how to deal with days like this: stick your head on the floor and nap.

Now I can go on with my day. Hope yours is better.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Hair today, gone tomorrow!

We've created a monster! Boy says it's my fault for telling him how much fun I had in my marching band days, and what great friends you can make. His great new friends decided to shave his head in honor of Nationals competition, which happens this weekend in Indianapolis. So here you see the before (crazy hair after being pinned under his uniform hat) and after (hair all gone!).

Hmmm ... a vision of his follicle-challenged future? Seriously, I couldn't be prouder of Boy this fall. Not only has he gone all out in participating in marching band (at least 24 hours of rehearsal a week), he's done it while earning all As and A-s in his first quarter of high school. Hopefully someone will post a video of the show very soon, because it's amazing and I can't wait to link to it. Go PCMB!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Photo of the Week--11/3/08

Ahhh, Venice! Listen, when your mother-in-law offers to stay with the offspring while you and your hubby go explore this lovely city on the Adriatic, you don't hesitate! Now, The Spousal Unit did have business meetings during one day, but that just meant I had a free day to spend in the glass museum and shops in nearby Murano. We had a beautful fall weekend and enjoyed a gondola ride, a Vivaldi concert (performed in period dress), and of course the lovely canals. This view is of the Santa Maria della Salute, one of the many churches built after Venice survived the plague of 1630. I thought it was a lovely shot, particularly with that skyrat pigeon dove flying through the air.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Quilt Files, Episode 5

Well, I promised last time I would present the first quilting project I ever started; it also happens to be the one I most recently finished. And here it is, what I call my Sea-and-Sky Log Cabin:

You may wonder why it took me so long to finish this quilt; I figure it took between six and seven years from start to finish. The top isn't very complicated at all, which is why I chose it for my first project. It's a simple log cabin with a large central square that's surrounded by three "logs." There are extra borders between the squares, yes, but those aren't very hard at all. (Unless you measure them short before you start sewing, or put them on backwards and have to pick the seam out ... but I didn't make any of those mistakes. At least not with this quilt.) No, what took so long was the quilting. I decided to quilt this piece by hand, since I thought doing it by machine on such a big piece (queen size) might be too ambitious for my first project. I stitched in the ditch for the squares, and stitched diagonals in the big borders. As you can imagine, this is a pretty time-consuming task, and something difficult to do during the summer. Who wants a big heavy quilt sitting on their lap while they're stitching it? I sure didn't. So I put it away during summers, and occasionally remembered it during the winters, and finally finished it this fall. You can't really see all the quilting from the front, but on the back you can see it to its best advantage.

I'm pretty pleased with how this quilt turned out. I think it's beautiful, although I'm not sure where I'm going to display it. In the meantime, it will hang on my quilt rack in my sewing room, although Callie has her own opinion about the proper use of quilts, as you can see in the photo. Cats don't care about the details. Forget the fabric selection and quilting technique; if it's soft and comfy, it's a success!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Word Nerd Sez: F is for ...


I have to admit, I only discovered this word a couple of weeks ago. I was reading an article in Newsweek on the government response to the financial crisis that has been rocking the markets over the past two months. The actual quote was this:

"Fellow citizens," Bush fumfered Friday, "we can solve this crisis—and we will." Unfortunately, his reassurances seem about as calming as the scene from "Airplane" in which the flight attendant urges everyone to remain calm while all hell breaks loose.
I was immediately intrigued. I mean, Newsweek is pretty mainstream, with a fairly clear style; it's not like it's a journal written for an academic audience. And yet they used a word I didn't know ... and I'm not used to finding words I don't know in a mainstream magazine, especially not ones only six letters long. I immediately had to stop reading and go to the dictionary. And this is what I found:

Fumfer: Yiddish word meaning to "mumble", most often used to mean to be evasive; can also mean to putter aimlessly or to waste time.
Wow. What a great word. Sometimes people really do mumble with the intention of being unclear, and now I know the exact word for it. Not only is it a more exact word, it's fun to say. In general, I like the feeling of many Yiddish words. Dreck, glitch, klutz, putz, schlep, schmaltz, schmooze, shtick, spiel, tchotchke, tuckus—the hard, clipped sounds of these words seem to give them extra emphasis. And it's always fun to season your vocabulary with words that have origins other than the more common French, Latin, and German.

We often borrow words from other languages that give us more exactitude than English; if you're a word nerd like me, you'd probably enjoy Adam Jacot de Boinod's The Meaning of Tingo, which is an exploration of these kinds of words that we haven't yet borrowed. If you want to know all those Eskimo words for snow, or the dozens of Somali words that describe camels, this is a fun read. Now, I've fumfered long enough in this post, so I should get back to work.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Don't just vote—Think!

Well, voting day is finally here, for which my sanity is profoundly grateful. (You know you're hearing way too many political ads when you start having dreams about not being able to escape political ads.) And I've done my civic duty and gone out and voted. I feel virtuous about it, because not only did I go vote, but I spent time studying my ballot before I went in.

Doing a little research is important. Sure, by now most people should have an idea of who they're voting for at the top of the ticket, and it's not hard to "Vote only for 18" when there are 18 judges on the ballot, but what about all those lesser-known races? Local supervisors and university regents and circuit court judges and township library trustees? (Library trustees!! Very important, I need the library for my work!)

The internet is a great tool. If you go to the website of your local newspaper, they'll have a list of their endorsements. You can read what they say about each candidate; they often have articles about the candidates as well, with interviews. Often they have voter guides with responses from the candidates themselves. If they don't, you can always search the League of Women Voters website for their candidate questionnaires.

But what about that all-important library trustee race? The LWV didn't have a questionnaire for them, nor did the big city newspaper. Well, I had to do a little more research. First, I googled "Canton township library trustee" and discovered that four of the eight candidates were incumbents. I think they've been doing a good job, so that made it easy to pick them. There were four other candidates for the two remaining positions, so I needed to do a little more digging. I added one of the candidate's names to my google search, and discovered that two of the four had actually attended a library board meeting in the past six months. Those same two also responded to the hometown newspaper's questionnaire, while the other two didn't bother. I read what they said to make sure they weren't nutcases, and voila! Last two picks made.

I consider the hour or so I spend doing this research a wise investment; and hopefully it pays off. May your time in the voting booth pay off as well.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Photo of the Week--10/27/08

While we lived in London from 1998 to 2002, we had plenty of opportunities to travel around the British Isles—a weekend here, a weekend there, and we covered several regions of the country. During a trip to the West Midlands (which border Wales), we saw many lovely castles, manors, and even a set of Roman ruins. This is a view of the gatehouse of Goodrich Castle, in Herefordshire not far from the Welsh border. It dates to Norman times, and was built sometime in the late 11th or early 12th centuries. I like this picture not only for the sense of scale, but because it proves I will climb almost anything to get a good shot.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!

I love Halloween. It's one of my favorite holidays. I mean, who couldn't love a day when you're supposed to dress up in crazy costumes and then devour tons of sugar? Even as a so-called grown-up, I've taken any chance I get to dress up for Halloween. At my first job, before the company became corporate and boring, we actually had a Halloween party and employees were encouraged to dress up. I came up with some weird costumes for those parties. One was "prom date from hell": I took an old bridesmaid dress (and matching shoes!), ratted my hair, and wore socks and a jean jacket with the outfit. In 1992 I went political: I borrowed a suit from the TSU, wore it backwards with a George H.W. Bush mask on the back of my head; put a duck bill on my nose, and used a squeaky red-white-and-blue cane. (Lame duck, get it? Okay, it looked better than it sounds.) In 1994, when I was six months pregnant with Boy, I made a snake costume that had a mouse's tail sticking out of the mouth. (Recently fed snake, get it? You had to see it, I guess.) More recently, I've been able to dress up for the Dexter Community Band's annual Halloween concert. I've made Cat in the Hat, Moon Goddess, Renaissance Princess, and Egyptian Queen costumes for those events. Tragically, this year we couldn't get the auditorium for Halloween and so I have no excuse to dress up.

Still, there's always the decorating. I don't go crazy with lights and sculptures and fake webs and ghosts, like some of my neighbors. No, I'm all about the pumpkin carving. I make my pumpkins do weird things. Last year I re-enacted the alien-busting-out-of-the-stomach scene from Alien using a pumpkin and a squash. This year, though, I'm going with an old favorite: the barfing pumpkin. Instead of the usual CSI: Pumpkin patch scene (one pumpkin with a knife in its head, the other a barfing witness), I went for something a little more topical:

You can't read the sign, but it says: "I told you not to eat all your Halloween candy at once." Here's a closeup of the barfing pumpkin:

Halloween is the best!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

It's a tough job ...

... but someone has to cuddle a big puddle of purring fur:

Just to make sense of the photo, I was sitting in the kitty cage, a cube no more than 3 feet square. Black-and-white kitten was tucked into the left side of my jacket (the gray fleece), and gray-and-white kitten #1 was tucked into the right. (That's his head in the middle.) Gray-and-white kitten #2 wanted his own space up close, so I leaned back so he could settle atop my torso and neck, and let my legs dangle out of the cage. My head is barely supported by a mylar shelf, and I took the photo myself with my cell phone. It was incredibly awkward, but warm, cuddly, and full of loud purrs. Like I said, a tough job, but I'm willing to do it.

Watchmen: The Official Haiku Review

I've still been too harried to spare two hours to sit down and watch a classic movie, but I did get through a work that Time magazine hailed as one of the 100 greatest English-language novels from 1923 to the present. (Nice thing about books: you can digest them a chapter at a time.) Entertainment Weekly recently ranked it as #13 on their list of the greatest novels of the past 25 years. Oh, and it helped legitimize a genre: before it was published in 1986-87, you called them "comics" and you found them at newsstands and specialty shops, not in the book store's "graphic novel" section. So here, without further ado, is my review of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' 1987 classic Watchmen.

What is a hero?
Outlaw, steward, idol, god?
No, merely human.

I suppose today, after a decade of popular movies eager to explore their heroes' darker sides (the new Star Wars films, The Dark Knight), that Watchmen might not seem unusual. But it was groundbreaking at the time, and even now it seems to go further into exploring real flaws than anything else I've ever read or seen. The mostly-retired masked heroes in Watchmen include a violent psychopath, an attempted rapist, an impotent has-been, a self-serving businessman, and a woman with severe mommy issues. The only one with true superpowers (he is able to see and affect all quantum states of matter) has becoming emotionally divorced from humanity. The plot revolves around the murder of one of these heroes, which leads the rest to explore if (and why) there is a plot against them all. The conclusion (which I won't give away) is bleak—there's no justice in the usual sense—and yet it feels totally real and satisfying.

So, the subject matter and characterization aren't what you typically think of when you think "comics"; in addition, the structure is very complex. There are numerous flashbacks that reveal the characters' histories; there are "documents" appended to each chapter (some written by the characters themselves) which give more details; and throughout is a comic-within-a-comic that further explores the themes of heroism and villainy. As for the graphics, they contain all sorts of details that reinforce the story; I'm sure I would catch many more of them on a second reading.

Now, I have to admit I was a comic book nerd when I was a kid; I have very fond memories of my dad taking me down to the old Blue Front in Ann Arbor and letting me browse the comics (and candy) shelves. I grew out of them—I couldn't read them regularly, so I couldn't benefit from the longer story arcs—but I still love comic book movies and hit most of the big ones. (My favorite this year: Iron Man.) Still, I don't think I'm being a fangirl when I say that Watchmen has the depth and complexity of the best classic fiction. I hear rumors that the upcoming movie adaptation will remain fairly faithful to the original novel, if the current studio wrangling over its release doesn't end up getting it butchered or canceled. If so, I'll be in line opening weekend.

Oh, and having enjoyed one classic graphic novel, I decided to check out another. Coming soon: a review of Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer-winning Maus.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Like, the best, most excellent (you tell 'em!) post EVER!!!!!

Okay, so this post was inspired by my friend Jacqui, who last week dared her fellow writers for children to post a picture of themselves at the age of their target audience. That sounds like fun, I thought, and I dug into my box of old school stuff to find a picture. And besides a bunch of old yearbook photos, this was all I found: a shot of me on my aunt's pony. I was about three at the time, and terribly cute (whatever happened!). I have no other childhood photos in my house, except for a bunch I took on a trip West when I was twelve. (Unfortunately, since I took them, the only time I appear is when I accidentally stuck my finger into the frame.) Either my mother is hoarding photos, or I'm trying to avoid producing evidence of my awkward teenage years. Because my target audience isn't three; my inner child is really a 13-year-old boy, still reading comic books and laughing at fart jokes.

To my protests that I only have old black-and-white yearbook photos, Jacqui responded: the scanner still works even if you don't have a color photo. Fine. Here, so all of you can point and laugh, is my 8th-grade school portrait. I prefer to think of my expression as "introspective and dreamy," not "dazed and confused." The glasses? Not my fault; I had to pick from what the '70s offered me. My hair? I have no excuse besides ignorance of all that girl stuff. At least I stand out (yeah, um, that's it!) among the feathered-bang gang that roamed the middle school in the late 1970s. And at least I wore earrings, so you could tell I was a girl. If the photo was in color, you'd see my T-shirt, so artfully layered underneath my blouse, was dark purple, another giveaway that I wasn't a boy (because my figure sure wasn't telling!).

Still, it's not that hideous or embarrassing. But I found something else that was: my high school diary. Despite my protestations in its pages that I wasn't writing a diary (ick! I commented), I really was. A lot of cryptic comments about boys and friends (or so-called friends) who had pissed me off; many laments about how tragic my life was (punctuated with many parenthetical! asides! and! many! exclamation! points!!!!). Many, many, nonsensical remarks about everyday stuff, like what was playing on the radio. Occasional introspective comments that are marred by being oh so melodramatic. This particular page is from my freshman year, which I remember as being a challenging time, with an adjustment to a new school and a shifting group of friends. This is probably one of least obnoxiously self-pitying pages; I was evidently in a good mood because I was about to ditch the glasses. (And after seeing those glasses, can you blame me?)

Anyway, reading through this reminder that the teenaged me wasn't quite as deep or articulate as I remember made me think about why writing for this age appeals to me so much. Back then, everything seemed life or death; everything was up or down, with no in-between. Any setback was a tragedy; any triumph meant you could conquer the world. Often I've thought that if I had a time machine, I would go back to that age and tell myself to chill, to take things less seriously and believe they would get better. (The teenaged me would probably look at present-day me and wonder why that old lady thinks she knows anything about anything.) Of course, there's no such thing as time machines. But books are just as good as a time machine for taking you into another time or another world. Many times when I was a teenager a book could lift my mood, or at least help me forget my all-consuming problems. To think about someone else, empathize, and take me out of that self-absorption that defines most adolescents. Can you think of an audience more primed to be affected by a book? I can't, which is why I keep writing for them.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Photo of the Week--10/20/09

Of course we had to visit the Schloss Neuschwanstein in Bavaria during our two-week tour of Germany. I know it's a huge attraction, and everyone has a photo of it, but I liked the kind of eerie ambience created by the rainy weather during the day we visited. As we walked up the big hill to the castle, through the damp, dark, and foggy forest, it was much easier to imagine being in one of King Ludwig's fairylands. Or maybe in one of Richard Wagner's operas, as Ludwig was a major patron of the composer, with scenes from the operas decorating the interior of the castle. It was a good reminder that some tourist attractions are big and popular for a good reason.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Marching band kicks my sash!

It's all my fault, Boy insists. All the concerts I dragged him to; all the times I told him that I had the most fun and made some of my best high school friends in marching band. So when he entered high school at the Plymouth-Canton Educational Park this year, he decided to join the marching band. I was pleased. I thought he'd have fun and make friends, and his school's band has a great reputation, with numerous national top-10 finishes (and 3 championships) over the past 20 years.

Then I discovered why the band has such a great reputation. They work extremely hard: a week of full-day practices in June and July, and two weeks' worth in August, including band camp. Once school starts, they rehearse around 25 hours a week. Saturday is either a full day of practice, or a competition day with rehearsal, travel, and performance. And the result is amazing. I remember marching band as doing three, maybe four, songs at halftime of football games, with a single formation for each song. I was in the flag corps, and we twirled and spun our one flag in a routine for each song

The PCEP band, though, is to my high school band what the Rockette's Christmas Extravaganza is to a middle-school holiday concert. They memorize ten minutes of music, and they're moving around almost the entire time. The patterns are intricate, and the music is challenging (no movie themes or pop songs here!). And the color guard is—well, out of this world. They change flags. They change costumes. They have props! They dance and move around and generally make things look even cooler.

The other thing I discovered is that to have the band look so good, it takes a lot of volunteer effort. (And money, too, but the fundraising is so well organized it's not annoying.) So I thought I'd stick an oar into volunteer waters; I've got a flexible schedule and brains, so why not? I offered to help with publicity for the charity craft fair they're hosting in November, the week after Nationals. So I spent most of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday generating address lists, mailing labels, and letters so we can get local businesses to post signs promoting the event. Great! Now I thought I'd get back to writing, but then I saw they needed help making new sashes for the uniforms. The theme of this season's show is "Kaleidoscope," and they needed more pops of color/shine. Well, I can sew, I thought. I showed up Wednesday night and helped cut out material for the 170+ sashes they needed to make. Then I took some home and spent most of yesterday and this morning sewing them together. They weren't that hard (baste and topstitch seam binding), but they were time-consuming. Then tonight I'm going to help the uniform genies velcro the new sashes to the uniforms. They do look pretty, don't they? (Callie wouldn't cooperate and be a sash model, which is just as well; I can imagine putting the sash on an allergic tuba player and having them sneeze the instrument clear off their shoulders. Disaster would ensue.)

But, of course, I haven't done diddly with my writing this week. Final score of this lopsided defeat? Marching Band: 150 contacts, 17 sashes; Novel, 0 words. But at least the band will look great!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

There's no time like tea time...

... and at my house, tea time lasts all day long. Yes, it's true. My name is Diane, and I have a drinking problem.

It's not really my fault, you see. First of all, I'm not a coffee drinker. I wasn't raised in a coffee-drinking household, so I never found the smell of coffee that appealing. When I finally tried it, I thought it was bitter and nasty; I couldn't add enough sugar and milk to make it palatable. Strangely enough, although there was plenty of iced tea in the house when I was growing up, I wasn't a big fan of that, either.

But then, when I was young and impressionable, I started dating my husband. Because both his mother and his stepmother were born in Britain, any time we visited them I was offered a cup of tea. Now, when you're 20 years old and meeting your boyfriend's family, you smile and say yes a lot and try to appear normal. And guess what? I discovered that with a little milk and sugar (okay, a lot of sugar), hot tea could be warm and soothing and tasty.

It was just plain old PG Tips or Tetley tea (only proper British brands for my lovely lady in-laws), but that was like a gateway drug. Soon I was trying other types. Earl Grey. Orange Pekoe. English Breakfast. Irish Breakfast. Jasmine. China Oolong and Lapsang Souchong. At college, a classmate turned me on to Twinings Blackcurrant. At a local sandwich shop in Ann Arbor (the late, lamented Drake's), I experimented with maté, a Brazilian breakfast beverage.

Soon I was trying anything. Green teas. White teas. Strange herbal fruity infusions. This weird rooibos stuff from South Africa. Chai tea. (Glorious, glorious chai!) I even learned to like plain old iced tea, even without sugar.

So my fondness for tea might have escalated a little out of control. As evidence, check out my tea shelf:

Sad to say, that's not all my tea; if it comes in a little envelope, I combine a variety into a single box for the main tea cabinet; overflow sachets are in a separate cabinet, along with all the instant cocoa and cider mixes.

Ask me, and I'll always claim that my drinking problem is under control. Just don't ask before I've had my morning cuppa.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Word Nerd Sez: E is for ...


It's funny, I'd been wondering what word I could possibly use for my "E" entry when this one popped into my e-mail box from the wonderful subscription service. It's certainly appropriate to this feature, for it means "the worship of words." Now, I don't know that I "worship" words. I esteem them highly; I spend a lot of time contemplating them; I have fun playing with them. But I haven't built any altars to them ... unless you count this blog. Egads.

Anyway, I'd rather play around with words than worship them. Which leads me to a.w.a.d.'s Internet Anagram Server. Put in any phrase, and it will give you a zillion anagrams (rearrangements of the letters). Many of them are nonsense, but others can be quite amusing. I inputted my name (first and last; stick in my middle name and I get really weird stuff, lots of "zenith" and "geez," and "zit"), and it gave me over 1700 suggestions, including these that stood out:

Teenaged Nil: most teenagers feel like this, I guess, but I'm no longer a teenager (and I had a different name back then: rare naked pi!), so it doesn't count. Neither does leading teen. Aged teen nil might work, but it's not very nice.
Dental Genie: I did write a poem about the tooth fairy; "dental genie" scans much better, though.
Tanned Liege: I'm neither. Maybe if I didn't have a lineage dent, I could trace myself to royalty.
Elegant Dine: I like this one. Who doesn't like to dress up and eat out? It's certainly better than eaten dingle; that doesn't sound appetizing at all.
Genital Need: That's just wrong. But funny.
Giant Needle: Well, I do sew a lot.
Gated Eel Inn: I've got a name if I ever open a B&B!
Dang Teen Lie: Hopefully I won't encounter this soon. Ever. Hear that, Boy?
Elegant End I: Oh, good. I was worried about something ignominious, like tripping on my own underwear and suffering a fatal concussion.
Inane Get Led: Something for election season!
Need Ling Tea: I haven't heard of "ling" tea, so I must need it.

I could go on, but they just get sillier. Why don't you try it for yourself? Post your favorites in the comments.