Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year's Eve plans

We've outsourced Sophie for the evening to her grandmother, where they will spend the evening with one of the Phylli (my mother-in-law has at least two friends named Phyllis, and I was married to Big S. for probably eight years before I correctly sorted them out). They will read stories, watch Animal Planet, eat dungeness crab for dinner, and—most important—retire well before midnight.

Big S. and I are heading over to Marin for a get-together at the home of the same friends who also hosted our group's Yankee swap. They have the largest and loveliest home, and we all clearly take advantage of it. Really, they have graciously stepped in at the last minute because the couple who were supposed to host tonight's festivities are ill. The rest of us are trying to make things as easy as we can on our hosts by carting over a bunch of food. My friend Herb will be bringing some homemade crab cakes, some finger sandwiches, and what he refers to as "various combinations of shit on a shingle." I think he means canapes. Whatever he shows up with, it will be excellent because that's just how Herb does things.

I'm going to take my carmelized onion dip and put together a Croquembouche over there. I'll make the custard filling and pastry dough here; we'll bake and fill the puffs there; and then we'll cook the caramel, dip the puffs, and assemble there—sort of an audience-participation dessert, if you will. This is the effect we're aiming for:

I'm really looking forward to an adult evening because this is what I tangled with today:

Honestly, what did I ever do to the people who gave this to Sophie? Absolutely no one hates gum more than I. It was an evil mess (I threw out a dinner knife we used for stirring), but Sophie loved it.

However, I wisely took a pass on this one so Big S. could have the pleasure of an activity with Sophie—outside.

Hope everyone has a safe and festive New Year's Eve.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

What I think about what I'm reading

My annual bout of pneumonia and the Christmas holidays have provided considerable time for my favorite activity—reading. I've plowed through several books, all of which I can recommend.

Lovely Bones. Many thanks to those who recommended this book in spite of its upsetting subject (the murder of a young girl, told from her point of view). As many predicted, once past the initial descriptions of the crime, the story is told in a readable way, even for the mother of a young girl. And although the premise of this story—the girl narrating events on earth and in the afterlife from her position in heaven—is completely contrary to my atheist viewpoint, I appreciated the poignant and engaging account of how a family pieces itself back together in the wake of such a tragedy. Perhaps what I liked best was the message that healing was not in vengeance but in the ability to move on and continue to love. But as the mother of an only child, it was impossible for me to ignore that the parent who was able to do these things most successfully found the ability to do so in his love for his remaining children. I only have one, so what would I do? Go out and adopt more—immediately?? If I had to bury my only, I think I'd just as soon curl up in the earth and rest with her, and if (as in the book) she were lost forever, so would be I. Perhaps there's more to the "Heir and a spare" than one thinks.

An Unfinished Season. I moved on to this, an account of a young man's coming of age in a world largely not of his own making. The protagonist is a nineteen-year-old from a privileged family attempting to find his way as he bridges the high society of Chicago's north shore (a insightful foreign outsider refers to the debutante parties around which his nigh time life revolves as "children's parties") and the downtown office of a city newspaper, where his family connections have landed him a summer job. Although a very different book from Lovely Bones, I again appreciated the insights to adult relationships of those younger. With less bias and baggage, their views of these complex and muddled relationships are often refreshingly clear if not very sad.

Everyman. I've listened to interviews of Philip Roth on NPR and have long meant to read something by him. Everyman seemed like a good introduction. It was a good pick up from the Ward Just book on the introspection of the aging process. In Just's novel, the son observes the changes in his father as the father ages and inadequacies are admitted and compromises are acknowledged. Everyman gives a front-row seat to a man coming to terms with his many failings but also the reality of those around him and their sometimes unfair assessment of his character (what are you in the end—the sum of your intentions or you effect on others?). The main character observes that "old age isn't a batle, old age is a massacre," and portrays a completely understandable picture of someone embracing and coming to terms with their end.

Water for Elephants. I'm often suspicious of books that have had this much commercial success (in my view, some of the most appalling crap ends up on the best seller lists), but I picked up this one anyway. I started in on it this afternoon in the car (I can read on completely straight roads if I don't look up) and was alarmed to hear my mother-in-law exclaim from the back seat "Oh, I've read that! I thought it was just delightful!" "Delightful," I must explain, is my mother-in-law's equivalent for "totally rocks." For her, nothing gets any better than "delightful." And books she has thought totally delightful have included such things as the intrigues of Episcopalian ministers in various countryside communities. But I have to say, she is on the money on this one. The story is told by an irascible nursing home resident reminiscing about his youth as part of a traveling depression-era circus following the death of his parents and his consequent departure from an Ivy League veterinary college. I was hard-pressed to describe to my daughter the phenomenon of the freak show, which figures significantly into any circus story of this era, but I guess it's evidence that we've evolved a little if we no longer find gaping at human misfortune acceptable entertainment, right? It reminded me of the conversation Sophie and I had on our Alaskan cruise last summer about the original policy of women and children first into the life boats. She asked "What about Daddy? Didn't they think that Daddy was important too??" I explained "Yes, they thought Daddy was important, but they thought that Daddy would be better able to survive without a lifeboat than Mommy." "Why??" I explained that they were obviously confused about the difference between men and women back then—both their worth and their ability. In light of how much we're clearly confused about these days, it's a relief to see we've made a little progress, isn't it?

Eating locally on the road

We'll be heading back to the bay area today, stopping at Harris Ranch for lunch, in what can only be described as an extreme example of eating locally. This restaurant and hotel complex is located on an extremely stinky stretch of Hwy. 5. And what you smell, is mostly what you eat. They are not free-range, organic, college educated cows, but—dang!—they most certainly are local.

The smell of stock yards doesn't really inspire me to tuck into a big plate of beef (nothing does, really), but fortunately they seem to have taken measures to eliminate the odor from the restaurant. And Big S. will not under any circumstances eat fast food. I'm not a huge beef eater, but Harris Ranch does serve an excellent flank steak Caesar salad. And instead of loading it with ginormous oily croutons, they include artichoke hearts and grilled mushrooms. Tasty!

They also have a very good meat counter, and we usually pick up a few steaks to take home to make steak au poivre.

We've got a fairly brutal eight-hour drive ahead of us through some of the most hideous scenery California has to offer. The central valley is flat, desolate, dusty, and stinky—with traffic. But home's on the other end.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Conspicuous consumption

When my dad and I were out for a walk this morning, observing all the houses that were not there the last time I was down, we ran across this. Look closely, please.

Whereas I admire the efficiency of someone who can get their tree out in the garbage pickup immediately following Christmas, I've got to wonder about the person who reasons "Who cares about lights! We can buy more next year! Unplug that tree and get it out of here at once!!"

But I promised my sister, who lives in nearby Irvine, I would point out that not all people who live in Orange County are conspicuous or unreasonable consumers. She explains that she has reduced her carbon footprint by using the same artificial tree year after year and offers the helpful tip that pine-scented air freshener provides much the same effect as a real tree. So there you go.

A peek behind the Orange Curtain

. . . in Orange County, that is, bastion of conservative politics and conspicuous consumption and where I grew up in the city of Newport Beach. A lot has changed since I left for college in 1980, particularly in my parents' immediate neighborhood, a housing development called Harbor View Homes. When my parents bought their house in 1970, there were five models to choose from, three two-stories and two single-story models: the Somerset, the Portofino, the Montego, the Carmel, and the Something Else. We lived in a Portofino, a marvel of modern design at the time, now a monument to 1970s style, which evidently does not suit everyone. At one time people were content to simply replace windows, upgrade kitchens, and have their cottage cheese ceiling scraped. These days, however, the whole thing has to go.

So we start with something like this, the house across the street from my parents, of their former neighbor Louise, who was carted off by relatives when she became old enough to be deemed unable to live on her own:

Or this, one of the two-story models (don't ask me which one):

The house goes on the market, sells, and the next day–kaboom. House gone,

portapotty installed,

plans posted,

and eventually a new house appears. This one is a few houses down:

This one is the next block down. It's for sale; check out its website. No price listed. I guess if you need to ask, you don't want to know.

Really, most of them are just lovely, but they're so large–many are built seemingly within inches of their property line–and neighbors are so close you can spit out the window and hit the house next door. It's amazing to me that people would spend this kind of money on a house and not want a little more privacy or land around them. Where do they plant their fruit trees? Where do they garden??

My parents pride themselves in being original owners of an original model, complete with cottage cheese ceilings . . . and plenty of room to garden.

Bad news for SF Zoo and world peace

In the bay area (and probably elsewhere in the country), we've all been watching with great sadness events occurring the other day at the San Francisco Zoo, where a Siberian tiger escaped her enclosure, killed a young man, mauled two others, and was then shot by police. The zoo closed immediately (while they looked for other bodies–missing anyone??) and has been less than forthcoming about details. But this morning's SF Chronicle reported that the fence of the enclosure is 4 feet lower than national safety standards and–get this–7 1/2 feet lower than zoo official said it was. Jay-suz. How could they not think it was just a matter of time before insurance adjusters showed up with their tape measures??? It's hard to feel sorry for the zoo, but what a tragedy for the tiger. The director of the Oakland Zoo had the wisdom to clarify that this wasn't a bad tiger; it was just a tiger, doing what tigers do. What a sad ending for such a beautiful animal.

But sadder still, at least to me, was the news yesterday of Benazir Bhutto's assassination. Not good for that peace on earth business, is it?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Packed, wrapped, and ready

We've had a single day between our Tahoe ski trip and our trip down to my parents' for a delayed Christmas to do what I call unpack/repack. And I packed and wrapped the last of the presents to take with us. I gave myself a break from homemade wrapping paper and opted instead for giftwrap that one of our print vendors sent our production and design departments at work. Several tubes of this were addressed to people no longer there, so the mailroom guy brought them . . . to me. See what whiling hours away yacking in the mailroom does for you?

Three cheers to The Paper Cafe though: The presents I ordered from them arrived boxed so nicely all they needed was an address label. The gifts are all personalized, and they were thoughtful enough to mark the recipient on the bottom of each box. God knows I'd never get those bows retied as nicely. Thanks, Paper Cafe!!

We loaded up in our new Trader Joe's bags–not as good as the regular ones for groceries given that they have a round bottom but great for presents–and we were off.

Reports from behind the Orange Curtain coming up.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Look what Sophie got from Big S.!!

Yep–a digital camera, which I especially covet given that the one I use has been sent off for repairs. But aside from the fact that it's operational, what I really envy is the fact that it's PINK. She loves this as well. And she loves the fact that it is not "toy" but, rather, "real." As she demonstrated with this picture of,Ugly Doll, which she received in her stocking from the elves, who bring small toys every couple of nights a few weeks before Christmas.

In spite of how late she stayed up, all of us were awoken by small steps, a big flash, and the click of a door as she photographed all of us sleeping. I'll spare everyone the pictures. Her dolls, on the other hand, were quite willing to pose.

And so was Mama, once she was more awake.

On the drive home, she took what she calls "a few snaps" out the car window of the depressing snow coverage. Look, Dad–rocks.

All in all, she's a happy camper, even given the fact that I claim to have told Santa to deliver her presents from him to my parents' house instead of to the mountains. She woke up at about 4:00 this morning, asking if it was too early to go downstairs to see if Santa had come yet. I reminded her that Santa wasn't bringing her present there, which she had forgotten given that it wasn't what she wanted to hear when I explained to her that we were blowing off Christmas to go skiing and would catch the holiday later. But after half an hour of heaving sobs, she admitted that the camera Big S. gave her was the best present she had ever received. And, thank goodness, I was able to get my parents on the phone this morning and prompt them to report to Sophie that presents from Santa had arrived at their house this morning and were waiting for her. Blowing the Santa myth would have been so much easier ("I was too cheap to spring for the extra postage, and your presents didn't get here in time to take to the mountains, so I had them sent them to Grandma and Grandpa's house"), but it was amazing and heartening to realize that she still really does believe. That's enough of a Christmas present for me.

It's not walking pneumonia–it's SKIING pneumonia!!

I've never been sure what "walking pneumonia" is unless it's just different from "flat on your ass pneumonia," which I had last year over the New Year. But this year I wasn't as sick and was determined not to let a little lung infection ruin some early season skiing.

We joined a family we know from Sophie's school–we car pool together–who had a condo up near Tahoe City that they procured through a house-swap agency. One of the unfortunate things about having a child is that you can end up spending a lot of time with people you have nothing else in common with other that the fact that you have children of the same age. But then every once in a while there's an exception: You meet and become friends with people you connect with and hope to know the rest of your life. They love your kid, you love theirs, and they feel like family. These are some of those people. Lucky us.

The Tahoe area had received a couple of storms early last week before we arrived, but many of the resorts still only have a 4–5 foot base, which isn't much. But then we're lucky to ski in the Sierras before Christmas anyway, so we were thankful. Here's what we skied:

Friday: Northstar. In general, we hate Northstar, and I have to admit that this trip confirmed our bias. Friday was their 35th anniversary, so lift tickets were $35 each. Seemed like a good idea, but we weren't the only ones who thought so. It was ridiculously crowded, and although the snow that was there was good, there wasn't much of it, and many of the runs had rocks and brush showing through. But it was nice and cold: the tubes to our CamelBacks froze and left us without hydration but nice fluffy snow. What I really hate about this mountain though is how much they have developed the mid-mountain resort. There are time-share condos, a Four Seasons hotel, an ice rink, and an unbelievable amount of high-end shopping (including a bead store–no kidding–who to the hell goes to the Sierras to string beads???). When my husband asked for a trail map, he was handed a brochure that included six pages of a shopping guide. Fine, fine–I'm all for a variety of activities to suit all tastes, but what burns me is that they've increased the lift ticket prices to just slightly less that Squaw for adults without significant improvement of their terrain. And–get this–a child ticket is $28!!! I guess they figured that marketing themselves as a family-friendly resort just wasn't panning out. So our family's ready to take our business elsewhere.

Saturday: Alpine Meadows. We've always loved this place, and our affection for it was only increased by their "A" rating for environmental consciousness. They have developed programs for biodiesel fuel use, summer native plant revegetation, and extensive recycling. And they have a great mountain, with terrain that is well serviced by some great high-speed lifts that move people around the mountain efficiently and avoid long lift lines. My favorite lift is Summit Six, which I call "The Electric Sofa"–a six-seater left that they crank up to maximum speed to zing you right up to the top of the mountain. Alas, Alpine was suffering from the same lack of snow as everyone else. The Scott chair and the entire backside were closed, leaving us only Summit Six and Roundhouse, which grew old by the end of the day. Alpine Bowl was groomed; Wolferine Bowl was not. Rocks not too bad. Food appalling as usual. Glad we brought a lunch.

Sunday: Day of rest. We were all pretty beat and took a day off to relax in the condo. Big S. has new boots, which were making his legs sore in unusual places, and I . . . well, damn it . . . I'm recovering from pneumonia. We cooked, played games (Sophie beat everyone at Concentration), read, and in the afternoon, Big S. took Sophie to see Alvin and the Chipmunks. I finished Lovely Bones (more about that later) and moved on to Ward Just's An Unfinished Season. What a luxury to be able to relax like this! At home there is always laundry to be done, shelves to be reorganized, soup to be made, etc. Up there, there was none of this, and I could clock some serious relaxation without the guilt. And so could our friend Jim.

Monday: Squaw Valley. Figuring that Squaw has some of the highest elevation, we anticipated they would have some of the best snow. We woke up to a steady rain, but by the time we finished breakfast, the sun had come out, and we made a run for it anyway. Sure enough, the top of the mountain was in pretty good condition; the bottom was like an ice rink, but the only time we had to content with that was at the end of the day when we skied to the car. I still wasn't really feeling up to par and had to stop mid-run for coughing fits fairly frequently. And when I really got working, it was frustrating to not be able to get a full lung of air. But I made it down Siberia Bowl a couple of times even though it was what I call "pee-your-pants steep" at the top. Either it's steeper than usual because there isn't much snow or I just don't remember it being that steep last year–the first time I was swallowing fear as I have not done in a couple of years. Sophie made it down just fine, of course. Big S. sprung for a two-hour private lesson for Sophie in the afternoon, and I think her instructor made some much-needed headway in working to get her weight forward ("out of the back seat"). But perhaps best of all (for me anyway) was that at the conclusion of her lesson, he went on about what a great little skier and great kid she is and how much he enjoyed spending time with her. Give that man a tip!!

We celebrated a great Christmas Eve with presents for the kids and a prime rib dinner, which was quite a feat to whip up in a ski condo. Good company and good food.

Tuesday: Merry Christmas and driving home. After a leisurely breakfast, we packed up and headed home. It's only the second Christmas I haven't spent at my parents' house, but we're heading down there on Thursday to celebrate our Christmas with them. It doesn't really seem like Christmas, but then for us, it really isn't. Plenty of time for that later in the week. I'm sure Jesus will understand.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Adios and Merry Christmas

from Cindy and Sophie

We're our way up to Tahoe for some skiing (well, maybe not for me) and hanging out with some good friends. We've all been super busy and are looking forward to getting away for a while. We hope Santa will be able to find us!

Have a wonderful holiday. Relax. Breathe. Enjoy. Give thanks.

Snack time—or not

Given that Sophie's school is a ways from our house, we're in a very complicated yet extremely efficient three-family carpool. Yesterday afternoon was my turn to pick up. Over the past two years I've created the expectation that I will show up with a snack of some significance. I ride home from work on my motor scooter to switch to my car before heading out to school, so I have the opportunity to duck into my kitchen and put something together. I've enjoyed doing this particularly since Sophie and the eleven-year-old boy I drive home are such great eaters. One of their favorite snacks is fresh fruit (sliced, please), cheese, and baguette slices. Their taste in cheese is excellent: lately they've favored the Greek manouri and a goat brie (no Kraft single slices for these two). And they especially love homemade baked goods, like muffins, various quick breads, blondies, gingersnaps, or eggnog cookies, the latter of which the boy recently declared the best cookie he had ever had.

But given that yesterday was the last day of school before the winter break and I've been both under the weather and running like mad to get us ready to leave for the mountains (I admit to squeezing in a pedicure), I had a special treat for them. Trader Joe's Peppermint JoJos! "Look, kids! A whole box!!" Might I add that these are very popular cookies this time of year and people on food blogs often discuss how upset they at not being able to find them at the store near them? Seriously, take a look over at Chowhoundwhere foodies are tracking sightings of them throughout the nation.

But no such enthusiasm here. The boy, forgetting his manners, exclaimed "Oh, I hate those!" and then remembering them, "No thank you!" Sophie looked at me with horror and said "Mama! Those are, like, made in a factory!" "Fine," I said. "Pass me the box." Have you had one of these? They're really quite tasty. . . .

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Merry Christmas to me—again!

But at least I didn't buy this gift for myself. In an unusual twist, my mom sent me money (yes—money!) for Christmas with a request that I buy myself a ski helmet. How excellent of her because I've been thinking about the wisdom of such an accessory (most of our friends and all the kids wear them) but just needed this little extra push.

So Sophie and I braved the holiday crowds at REI and purchased this:

It's the the Boeri Siren Plush women's helmet in a color called white carbon. The operative word is here plush; you'll notice that it has soft grey fuzzy stuff on the ear flaps and the lining. And it also includes the important features of vents that you can plug or unplug depending on temperature and the essential (at least to me) pony tail port. Whoohoo!

Thanks, Mom!

The blondies recipe

as requested by Adrienne. With a little commentary, of course.

Although these are often thought of as the vanilla version of brownies, I think of them as the bar version of chocolate chip cookies. And they're so much less work than either: no melting chocolate, no dropping individual cookies onto pan after pan. Just be sure not to overbake. These firm up as they cool.

1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. table salt
12 Tbl. unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), melted and cooled
1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs , lightly beaten
4 tsp. vanilla extract
3 oz. chocolate chips or chopped chocolate (1/2 cup)
3 oz. white chocolate chips or chopped chocolate (1/2 cup)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Line a 13 by 9-inch baking pan with foil, pushing it into corners and up sides of pan (I use two pieces side by side). Spray foil-lined pan with nonstick cooking spray.

3. Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt together in medium bowl; set aside.

4. Whisk melted butter and brown sugar together in medium bowl. Add eggs and vanilla and mix well. Using rubber spatula, fold dry ingredients into egg mixture until just combined; do not overmix. Fold in chocolate and spread batter inprepared pan, smoothing top with rubber spatula.

5. Bake until top is shiny, cracked, and light golden brown, 22 to 25 minutes. Cool completely on wire rack to room temperature. Remove bars from pan by lifting foil overhang and transfer to cutting board. Cut into 2-inch squares and EAT.

I have made these so many times I could do it in my sleep. A ski weekend, camping trip, or other get away isn't complete without them.

Hot buttered rum

I'm not a rum drinker, but there's nothing Big S. likes better than this on a chilly northern CA evening. Many recipes for hot buttered rum include melted vanilla ice cream. This is a slightly less rich version.

In a table top mixer, combine
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. nutmeg

Mix well, adjusting spices to taste. I've also added small amounts of ground cardamon, ginger, and/or clove. I keep a jar of this in the refrigerator throughout the season. It's ready to offer in only the time it takes to boil water.

To serve, place two heaping tablespoons in a mug, add a short (or two) of rum, and fill the rest of the mug with boiling water. Garnish with a cinnamon stick and piece of orange peel. Hold up to chin and inhale. . . .


Sorry—only stock photos for a while! The digital camera bought the farm and has been shipped off to the service center (thank goodness it's still under warranty!). Another reason to let Sophie open the pink digital camera her dad got her early. I think I'm going to make her the official photographer of Figs, lavender, and cheese. Stay tuned for much improved photos!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Taking care of business . . . but being
a bad patient

Because taking care of business is what I'm good at, and being a patient is not. On my tombstone (or urn plaque) I want inscribed "She got shit done." So today I have

  • Made six batches of Caesar salad dressing. Because our P.T.A.-like group is hosting a pizza and salad dinner at school this evening before the Winter Performance, and one of my favorite kids will be sad if my homemade Caesar salad is absent. At least I got someone else to pick up the pizzas—thanks, Sabina!

  • Made a batch of Blondies. Regardless of my health, we're leaving Thursday for the Sierras, which as I type are receiving a major dump of snow. Yahoo! Ever see anyone ski with an oxygen tank? I'm looking for one. But at any rate, we absolutely can't go without Blondies.

  • Made some more hot buttered rum mix. We've run through one batch already. Imagine that. Recipe to come.

  • Zipped over the my oncologist's office for my monthly shot in the butt, which ensures that I lead an estrogen-free existence. Thanks, Nurse Monica!

  • Popped by my optimologist's office to pick up yet another pair of contact lenses for me to try in what is seeming a never-ending quest for lenses that allow me to see both near and far—a tale order at my age.

  • Stopped by my office long enough to swat back a few emails and receive from Boss Lady this:

  • Which is absolutely what I need to tell a comma from a period on a dust jacket mechanical, especially in very small type in grey scale (some of our designers are quite young, you see). I love Boss Lady.

  • Completed a Trader Joe's stop, picking up both salad making and grub for the trip. I was standing line having a major coughing attack, gasping for breath, and a lovely young woman asked if she could go first because she "just had a few things" and "was on her lunch break." I couldn't catch my breath enough to reply and so waved her ahead. At least she said thank you. Several times in fact. Amazing the shit you can get away with if you're polite.

  • Gathered teacher and school staff holiday gifts and written cards. All on our small list (it's a small school) will be receiving little boxes of artisan chocolates made in San Francisco, except for Sophie's teacher, who eshews such indulgences and so will receive this:

  • Took a nap. Really—I did!

  • Monday, December 17, 2007

    Eats, Shoots & Leaves

    So since I have fallen seriously ill before my new shipment of books has arrived, I've had to make do with something else on my nightstand. A girlfriend gave me Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation ages ago, and whereas I agreed it was an excellent and exciting topic, I consistently put it aside in favor of some work of nonfiction, usually assigned by my book group. But I'm so glad I picked it up. There is so much I like about it, starting with the tale on the back of the dust jacket:

    A panda walks in a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.
    "Why?" asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a poorly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
    "I'm a panda," he says, at the door. "Look it up."
    The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.
    "Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."

    The author's point, of course, is that punctuation, rather than being ornamental embellishment meant to confuse people, influences meaning in important ways. She uses an analogy with good manners to illustrate the point that it often does this in ways that are subtle:

    Truly good manner are invisible: they ease the way for others, without drawing attention to themselves.

    What's not to like about that? Subsequent chapters then take on a piece of punctuation each and dissect what all has gone wrong in historical and contemporary usage. Examples like this ensue:

    A woman, without her man, is nothing.
    A woman: without her, man is nothing.

    The author, a British journalist and BBC writer, enlivens this all with comments only a writer of that milieu can produce, for example

    Look at that sentence fly. Amazing. The way it stays up like that.

    Both words and punctuation spring to life in the most amusing way. I'm feeling better already!

    Sunday, December 16, 2007

    Please help me

    by breaking into my house and stealing this:

    It is plastic. It is horrible. It lights up really brightly. And worse yet, it plays thirty Christmas carols continuously. Because you don't just wind it up; you plug it in. And then it just goes forever. But it does not sounds even remotely like a music box; rather, it sounds like a tiny, evil electric organ.

    Since we will be skiing over Christmas proper, my mother-in-law gave Sophie her presents Friday night. This was Sophie's main present from Grandma, and she loves it, almost as much as I hate it. And didn't I say I like Christmas music??? I do, but not like this.

    But on a better note, I'm totally in business next year for our gang's annual Christmas Yankee Swap party. Behold, the Cyclone Cocktail Mixer:

    Batteries included. Plastic, of course. Drinks mixed with the push of a button. Because shaking them is just so hard. I have to admit, the resulting "cyclone" is hilarious. But not that hilarious. We think we're exhibiting appropriate restraint by waiting a year to divest of it.

    The fun just rolls on around here.

    Saturday, December 15, 2007

    An illness entirely of my own fault

    After coughing and hacking for nearly three weeks, I finally at my husband's insistence, went to the doctor yesterday. By the time I got there, I already knew I had pneumonia. I seem to get pneumonia the way most people get a head cold. And I almost always know when I've got it. It's just a certain feeling. But after tests breathing into a funny little machine and waiting for several hours for a chest xray, it was confirmed and I was sent home with the standard antibiotics.

    The view that this is an illness of my own fault is not mine exclusively. I think it's bad karma from wishing I could be sick in bed for a while to enjoy the new books I have ordered. But my husband has another idea: entertaining. That's right: I have entertaining-induced pneumonia. According to him, I have worn myself out with parties, holiday dinners, holiday events at school, and probably even holiday decorating. All of this, he says, is unnecessary and clearly leads to illness in my case. (I'll concede there may be a pattern. I did spend last New Year's Eve in the hospital emergency with a fever of 103 and, of course, pneumonia.) But fine, I said, I'd rather go down serving drinks and tasty appetizers than be healthy and miss all the holiday fun.

    Big S. has generously handed me a reprieve from driving Sophie to her Saturday classes so I can stay home and rest. Whether I can go to our gang's big Yankee Swap party tonight is still to be determined. I'm convinced I can put on my fancy clothes and be propped up on the coach--maybe.

    So I'm back on those cards, which will certainly be in people's mailboxes by Christmas New Year's.

    Thursday, December 13, 2007

    What's next?

    To read, that is. In a major personal victory, I have finished David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, a long and fairly complex tome that makes a mockery out of traditional narrative structure but was nontheless one of the best books I've read in years. This was a selection of my book group, and two months since choosing it for our monthly read, the only person who had finished it was Girlfriend D., who read it last summer over her summer break from her job as a school librarian (an unfair advantage, I think). The group voted an extension for it, and we'll discuss is at our January meeting (we skip December) along with the new book Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. I've already read Middlesex and remember enough to fake my way through a book group meeting, especially after everyone's had enough wine, so I have what I call a "free pick" for my next book. Whoohoo!!

    A local independent bookstore, A Great Good Place for Books, has offered Sophie's school a donation of 20% of all sales for people who give the school's name. Pretty generous, no? We're especially happy to have this promotion since we essentially fired Scholastic Books because we are sick of the crap they sell (including toys that accompany books—as if books aren't enough themselves) and their poor service. So I'm getting ready to put in a big order. Here's what I've got so far:
    Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold (I've been avoiding this for obvious reasons but am taking a friend's word that I'll enjoy it in spite of the subject matter.)

    Holidays on Ice, David Sedaris

    Everyman, Philip Roth

    Ghostwritten, David Mitchell

    Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen

    An Unfinished Season, Warren Just

    That's enough to keep me out of trouble for ages! I'm also ordering a book for Big S. for Christmas:
    The House of Mondavi, Julia Flynn Siler

    And I'm waiting on word from my sister and sister-in-law on books that their kids would like for gifts. (Books are so easy to wrap, you know.)

    I hope I get my book soon! I feel a serious chest cold coming on that should require several days of convelescence.

    Wednesday, December 12, 2007

    Trouble in the kitchen

    Usually things work out for me in the kitchen. In the rest of my life, not necessarily, but in the kitchen almost always. But every once in a while catastrophe occurs. Like yesterday.

    Sophie has a friend at school, Little Friend S., who really wanted to see her Christmas tree and decorations. They're Jewish and although it sounds like he talked his parents in to a tree, they don't have all the associated crap that goes with Christmas. And heaven knows I do—lots of it. I just love this little guy. He's sort of a male version of Sophie, and they get along amazingly well. So I thought it would be nice to invite him over for a visit and have the kids decorate gingerbread houses. I picked them up at school, and Little Friend S. accompanied Sophie to her violin lesson (she let him carry her music bag for her). Then home to our house.

    I have a cast iron gingerbread house mold and usually use this, but this year I saw kits that actually looked pretty good. They were by Willy Wonka and came with some of our favorite candy: Nerds (LOVE them), Sweet Tarts, Fruit Runts, and Bottle Caps. Thinking I could cut myself a break, I grabbed two last week.

    Everything you needed was there: the house parts, royal icing mix (just add water), and lots of candy. What could go wrong?

    Plenty, evidently. And to be fair, it's really not Willy Wonka's fault. I should have assembled the houses the night before but was at a school meeting and got home too late. We let the icing dry but clearly not long enough because when Sophie and Little Friend S. decided that the roofs would look good with about a pound of candy each, we experienced severe structural failure.

    One house went down.

    Followed quickly by the other.

    Damn. After several attempts at repair, we finally decided that taking home the frosted and candy-covered pieces would suffice. They were really good sports.

    But the evening was not a total lose. The kids regrouped and put in some good work on Sophie's Calico Critter house.

    And Little Friend S.'s parents came over for dinner. They brought these lovely flowers and a delicious salad.

    We had daube provencal, a French beef stew, which I served over buttered egg noodles.

    Here's a picture of the braised fennel I served as a side:

    And I pulled some squash dinner rolls that I baked a few weeks ago from the freezer and warmed them up. They were a lovely deep orange color and were so moist you almost don't need butter.

    Squash Pull-apart Dinner Rolls

    And I got another chance to use my super Christmasy red transferware dishes, the fruit of many hours spent on eBay auctions. I have a good sized collection of mostly unmatched pieces, which is just how I like it.

    Anywhoo, back to those cards!!

    Shopping alert!

    I just swung by Elephant Pharmacy on my way back to work from the dentist (no cavities, and they totally bought my lies about flossing), and look what I found:

    Cashmere scarfs for $24.99! Merry Christmas to me again! Since I ride a motor scooter to work all year around (yep, even in the rain), I am a huge wearer of scarfs, and they've got to be soft, not scratchy. These absolutely fit the bill.

    Of course they would make great gifts also.

    "Is Cindy growing onions?"

    my house cleaner asked my mother-in-law the other day (she works for both of us). Now, why the hell would I be doing that?? But I am forcing narcissus (paperwhite) bulbs. I do this every year as soon as the bulbs appear at The Gardener .

    Some people recommend doing all sorts of nutty things, including refrigerating the bulbs and starting them in a dark place. I've had good luck with the The Gardener's method of just placing them pointy end up on top of stones or gravel in a glass container and filling the container with water up to the base of the bulbs. It's important the bulbs not get wet because they'll start to rot. I place the containers in full sun. The temperature of the location rather than the amount of sun seems to make the difference.

    This one, which has rooted the most, is on my bathroom counter, where it is fairly warm.

    This one, on the bedroom window sill, is not doing as well. I think it will be fine; it will just bloom later than the other one.

    This one, on Sophie's "beauty table," is not doing well at all, probably because we both forgot about it and it did not receive any water. We're on the job now, and it will probably also be fine.

    Narcissus are not only beautiful but very fragrant. It's a beautiful way to bring a little springtime inside in the winter months. In another month or so, we'll have something that looks like this: