Thursday, December 29, 2011

I'm Not Tebowing; My Shoelace is Untied

I am worse than the average three year old when it comes to shoe laces. Due to my various foot issues, I have to wear lace-up shoes, at least most of the time. That would not be a problem, if it weren’t for the fact that my shoes keep coming untied. Sometimes it’s because I step on the ends of the laces, causing the bow to pull out, but most of the time they just work their way loose for reasons known only to themselves and God.

It’s almost always my right shoe, too. You would think if it were the way I tie my shoes, both bows would come undone roughly the same amount of the time, but no. And yes, I have tried double knotting the bows, and it gives me maybe an additional thirty minutes before the bow comes undone and I have to stop and tie it up again. So if you come upon me somewhere kneeling with my head bent, looking like this, I am not praying. I am tying my shoe. Again. I don’t even pray for my shoes to stay tied. I mean, the Lord helps those who help themselves, right?

It’s not that I have any objections to public prayer. If you want to kneel, or daven, or paint Matthew 6:5 under your eyes on game day, I won’t make a fuss. Public displays of piety , especially Christian ones, are common. When Juicy J and DJ Paul won the Oscar in 2006 for their song It’s Hard Out Here for A Pimp, Juicy J’s first words were, “Thank you, Jesus”. So if you want to establish your bona fides as your kind of Christian, not one of those people who write lyrics like, 

Its f***'d up where I live but this is how it is
It maybe new to you but it been like this for years
Its blood sweat tears when it comes down to this shit
I'm tryna get rich before I leave up out this b****
I'm tryna have thangs but its on aon [sic] a pimp but I'm praying and hoping to god I don't slip.”

I can see how your public displays of piety have to get more and more out there, given that all kinds of people, even rappers and hip-hop artists, feel entitled to say, “Thank you, Jesus”. That’s the nature of arms races. They push us to extremes. Jesus would understand.

It’s just that if I see you kneeling with your head bowed, I’m going to think you’re tying your shoes.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


My son spends Christmas Eve with his dad and stepmother’s family when he is in town. His stepmother’s family has a large Christmas Eve family brunch and that’s when they do their gift exchange. In the past, John and I have spent Christmas Eve going to see the bonfires on the levee and then to the 11 PM service at our church. We usually get home around the time that Neal does, so in the past we have opened our gifts around midnight and then slept late the next morning before having yeast-raised pancakes for breakfast.

This year, Neal decided to stay overnight with his dad. He came back to our house after noon Christmas Day, giving him just enough time to fix his spinach madeleine in time for our 2 PM dinner. So we didn’t open gifts until 3:30 or so.

When you get to be my age and have to devote a lot of time to divesting yourself of all the stuff you have collected in a life time so as not to be overwhelmed with it, the fun part of exchanging presents is giving gifts, not getting them. Four years ago at Christmas, present buying was easy. Then as now, LSU was selected for the BCS Championship Game, which, just as now, was in New Orleans. So gift selection was simple: I spent a small fortune on Stub Hub buying 2 tickets to the game, one for Neal and one for John. 

I put John’s ticket in a small box, wrapped in LSU wrapping paper. I put that box in a larger box, wrapped in neutral paper, and put that box in a larger box, and so on five boxes deep. They read “Merry Christmas”, “Happy Valentine’s Day”, “Happy Anniversary”, “Happy Birthday” and “Happy Father’s Day”, in order of decreasing size.

For Neal, I did the same thing, with “Merry Christmas”, “Happy Valentine’s Day”, “Happy St. Patrick’s Day”, “Happy Easter” and “Happy Birthday”, in order of decreasing size. Only inside the smallest box was a gift card for an electronic’s store.

I keep forgetting my son isn’t a spoiled teen any more. I was expecting him to anticipate a ticket and whine about it (good-naturedly) when none was forthcoming. However, he simply congratulated John on getting the ticket and admired his own gifts (an LSU tie and some electronic device he had wanted). Later, I had him help me set the table (another Christmas tradition, since table setting was his first chore as a toddler). After handing him the napkins and silver, I handed him a sign I had made thanking me for the ticket, with the ticket clipped to it, and said, “And you are going to need this sign to hold up when you go to the game.”

They were both ecstatic, as was I when LSU held up their end of the bargain and walloped the Ohio State University for the national championship.

This year I made it clear early on not to expect a repeat. Tickets are selling  on Stub Hub for about the amount of my monthly Social Security check. John wanted the hammer drill and Neal wanted an iPod Nano. I also got some surprise gifts: a cashmere scarf for Neal and a gift card for an office supple store for John, who needs a new printer. John also found Neal a collapsible cart to take to the market, which is several blocks from his flat in London. Neal was thrilled; he and his roommate had been saying they needed such a thing. My husband shares his mom’s gifts for finding handy gadgets. 

Neal bought John the shredder he wanted, in which I took a proprietary interest, since I probably used our existing shredder more than John does. The new one reduces paper to confetti, 8 sheets at a time, and takes on CD’s, DVD”s and credit cards as well.

Neal gave me some coasters. Yes, John got a fancy shredder suitable for a small office and I got coasters. They are handmade, marble coasters, purchased at Agra, India, made from the same marble as the Taj Mahal and inset with lapis lazuli, turquoise, tiger stone, and other semi-precious jewels, each one a little different from the last, but I have fun telling people that my son gave John a new shredder and me a set of coasters.

Not the kind that sing "Charlie Brown"

Neal also gave me the elephant for my elephant collection.

It is strange how events in my life tend to repeat. Many years ago, my dad gave me a set of coasters. It wasn’t exactly a gift, he just needed some to set his ever-present coffee cup on when he came to visit. The coasters were mass produced out of wood and cork, but they were precious to me and I hung on to them until they fell apart or got lost over the years. Now I have a replacement, from his grandson.

I love Christmas. 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Shopper in Aisle Six

Yesterday I went to Target for a few last minute items for the Christmas menu. I needed evaporated milk for the pumpkin pie, Red Hots or similar cinnamon candy for the cinnamon apples, apples for the cinnamon apples and a pineapple for the Williamsburg centerpiece. Neal is making us Spinach Madeline this year, and I suspected he needed a few other items, but when I left he was taking a bath and I knew from days of old that he could be asleep in the tub for half an hour or so before he emerged.

Cell phones are lovely. By the time I bought a gift certificate at Office Depot and a few toys at the pet store, I figured Neal would be out and coherent, so I called from Target to ask what he needed. He needed chopped frozen spinach, shredded cheese and evaporated milk, and celery and garlic salts but John was checking to see if we had those. Could he call me back?

I picked up an 8 ounce brick of sharp cheddar and was heading to the front of the store when the phone rang. We had the celery and garlic salts at home, but he needed 2 cups of the shredded cheese. I told him I had bought 8 ounces, and that with what we had at home should be enough to shred into 2 cups. “Mom, he said with infinite patience, “They make bags of cheese that is already shredded. I need one of those.” I tried to explain how easy it is to shred cheese, but he was adamant. 

“Okay”, I said, “I am walking back 7 aisles to the back of the store to swap the cheese in for the shredded kind.”

“That’s good,” he replied. “People need to walk more. Now that your foot is better, you need the exercise. You should thank me for this.”

I keep hearing from my younger internet buddies that they have parents who still keep those adult children under their thumbs. Are there classes you can take to learn to exercise that kind of power? Just asking, no reason.

“Do you want three blend cheese, sharp cheddar, mild cheddar?” We settled on sharp, and I went back to my pursuit of evaporated milk, which we both needed. In the process, I passed the aisle with the gin, which I needed, but I can’t drink these days. It interferes with my medication.

We discuss how chopped the chopped spinach needs to be, and I bypass “cut leaf” in favor of old-timey boxes that clearly say “chopped”. (To be fair, my son is a southpaw in a world of right-handed knives and that may contribute to his dislike for shredding, chopping and otherwise prepping food himself. On the other hand, cheese graters are ambidextrous.)

“Love you,” he said before hanging up. “Love you, too” I replied, adding “a little less at the moment than when you are across the ocean”, but only after he had hung up.

“If I were evaporated milk, where would I be?" I mused out loud, then answered myself, “On a beach in Cancun, sunning myself.” I found the evaporated milk. They had two kinds, name brand and house brand, but the only house brand kind they had was fat free. I’m making a fricking pumpkin pie, who would I be fooling with fat free evaporated milk? I think I asked myself that out loud, too.

I cruised the candy aisle twice, but no Red Hots. Their were cinnamon gummy bears, which I bought because I love cinnamon gummy bears, but they won’t melt correctly. Fortunately, there is such a thing as cinnamon extract, which would work better than the Red Hots for flavoring. I can even add some to the whipped cream for the pumpkin pie. (Pumpkin pie, whipped cream, you can see why I thought non-fat evaporated milk would be silly.) 

My favorite checker is there, and her line is short. I hear her telling the customer in front of me, “Target does not do the drama” at Christmas. Uh-oh. Well, she didn't make any such promises about Target's customers.

When I got home, my son looked at the picture on the front of the box of spinach and was concerned it wasn’t chopped finely enough. I tried to explain that pictures on the front of food boxes mean nothing, but he called his stepmother for consultation. She assured him that anything that said “frozen chopped spinach” was perfectly fine.

“Attention associates: We need a clean-up in aisle 6. A customer seems to have melted.”

The Williamsburg centerpiece is the thing with the pineapple on top.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Comings and Goings

Yesterday was supposed to be a happy day. My son was due to come home from London to spend a week with us before flying to Paris to spend New Year’s Eve with friends. His flight was due in a little after 6 PM and we were going to pick him up. We had offered, via email, to take him out for dinner on the way home, but he thought he might be too tired after 16 hours in the air so we bought cold cuts and made potato salad for a fast fix dinner once we got home.

I have finally become used to how little time I get to spend with my son on his visits here. Even when he’s staying with us, he stays up late, sleeps late, and goes to visit friends, his step-siblings families, and of course, his dad and stepmother. We pencil in a few lunches and/or dinners and wave at him as he goes by.

Yesterday morning John’s former boss called looking for a ride to a memorial service. One of John’s former coworkers, the former boss’s secretary, Jane*, had died. The memorial service was in Baker, not far from the airport, actually, at 3PM. The airport is on the opposite end of town from us. We could easily make it to the service, but then we’d have just enough time to bring former boss home, turn around, and head back to the airport. Either that, or former boss could come hang out at the airport with us. He decided to find his own ride.

This has been a very strange December. In addition to John’s uncle and coworker dying within a week of each other, the father of his sister’s oldest friend also died. We spent one Friday a week ago at his funeral in New Orleans. All three of these people had lived long lives. Jane, as the youngest, was about to turn 80. The tragedy in Jane’s story was that her younger daughter Kelly* had died just a few weeks before, of a drug overdose, after a life punctuated by trips to rehab and jail. Jane, who was already doing poorly, quit eating and refused a feeding tube. 

I never met Jane, but I felt as if I knew her. For at least a year, maybe longer, not a day went by without a Jane story from John. Jane was a character. She filled people’s lives with laughter, however unwittingly.

At the memorial service, I heard of another side to Jane. There was the younger Jane riding a horse, getting a music degree, and posing for a “beauty shot” in her bathing suit. There was the Jane who worked hard to support her daughters when she was left on her own. There was the Jane who made sure her grandchildren had hot meals while their mother, as her husband put it, “was away”. There was the Jane who always wanted to look good - and that led to a typical Jane story. One day she called a coworker to see if her could figure out what was wrong with her pencil sharpener. “Miss Jane, what is all this gunk?” he asked. “My eyeliner,” she replied.

Looking at pictures of all these Janes, I was surprised to see that she actually looked the way I expected. “Are you sure I never met her?” I asked John.

After the service, we made it to the airport with time to spare. Neal’s plane actually arrived a little early, in contrast to the flights coming in from the east which were badly delayed by storms. “Do you guys still want to go out to dinner?” he asked. It turned out he had run into some old friends in Dallas who were taking a different plane to Baton Rouge but were going to be at a local campus hangout, the Chimes, later in the evening. If we stopped there for dinner, we could then leave him with his friends and he’d grab a ride home later.

Okay, the cold cuts will keep. We had a nice leisurely dinner. Neal admired a ring I was wearing. “I’m glad you like it,” I said. “I’m leaving it to you in my will.”

“I’d rather have you. Can I swap it for you?”

 After dinner, Neal found his friends and we headed home with his luggage. On the way home, I had to laugh.

“This has to be a new record,” I told John. “He didn’t even make it home before leaving with his friends.”

Then I think of Jane and Kelly. My son is not on drugs, in and out of prison and rehab. He loves his family, all of his family. We’re lucky, all of us.

Life goes by so fast. There’s no time for keeping score.

*not her real name

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Fleur de Lis

The last time we went to Fleur de Lis for pizza, it was also during December. I know that because it led to my thinking that during December, even ordinary events seem “Christmasy”. I find myself wondering what December would be like if there weren’t a major holiday dominating it: the weather getting colder, the days getting shorter, and no lights, decorations, special music or general feeling that the month is headed toward something. Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, if you live in the U.S and don’t live in a cave, you can’t avoid the way other people’s Christmas shapes the month.

Before you tell me that December would be like January, I should remind you I live in southeast Louisiana. January 6 is the start of the Carnival season, so we change our red and green wreaths for purple, green and gold, replace “Jingle Bells” with Al Johnson singing “Carnival Time” and keep right on partying. Besides, in January, the days get longer. By the end of the month, that nice cozy feel that late December has to it is disappearing.

But I’m getting sidetracked. I meant to write about the Fleur de Lis. It bills itself as a “family restaurant - children welcome”, but when I first started going there in the 70’s it was to drink with friends. You probably have a bar/pub/restaurant like it somewhere in your town: a place that apparently hasn’t been remodeled since it was built and looks like it wouldn’t pass a health inspection unless the inspector arrived accompanied by a guide dog and holding out a palm, but that the locals all know it and fill it up in droves because the food is good and the drink is better.

The Fleur de Lis is a midcentury modern building (it opened in 1946) with stucco walls painted pink  and a neon flamingo lighting up the front. Inside it’s dark, and the acoustic tiles on the ceiling have been stained by decades of smoke before smoking was banned in restaurants here a few years back. The chrome and vinyl seats look like they could be the originals.

The menu consists of pizza, pizza, and oh, yes, pizza. (Well, there is also something on the menu called pickled eggs.) The pizza is rectangular in shape, with a thin but chewy crust, the way I like it. As the restaurants owners tell the story:

Fleur de Lis was out of town on a gravel road, back in 1946, when my family bought it. It was a cocktail lounge at that time . . .
My grandmother decided to make a small pizza as an appetizer. It was enjoyed so much by the customers she began to sell them. Then she realized they needed to make a larger size. The small pizza was made in pie pans she brought from home. So she brought a cookie sheet and the "square" pizza we are famous for was born. Of course the pizza is actually a rectangle cut into small squares, but everyone loves to refer to them as a square pizza, which is just fine with us.
My parents began to run the restaurant in the 80's. Their goal was  to make it a family restaurant where families are welcome to bring their children; an aspect still important to us today.

So Saturday we went there for pizza again. It was my turn to treat. I didn’t have cash on me, and it turned out (I had forgotten) that they don’t take credit cards, but they do take checks.  We had the large “Round the World”, with no pepperoni on my half and anchovies (for me) on the side. The total tab was under $15.

I think we need to make it a December tradition. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

“Marley was dead, to begin with.” I am rereading A Christmas Carol. The beloved tale that encourages generosity, celebration, family feeling and empathy at Christmas and all other times begins with the words “Marley was dead”.

Having reread the words, “Marley was dead, to begin with” and inspired by Kit Whitfield’s recent deconstructions of first sentences of novels, I begin to think of other first lines, the ones that when you hear them, you can automatically place in their respective works. This is the list I came up with:

  • Call me Ishmael.
  • Marley was dead, to begin with.
  • In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
  • There’s my last duchess, painted on the wall, looking as if she were alive.
  • I sing of arms and the man*.
  • Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph.**
  • Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
  • In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
  • "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents.”*
  • To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman.
  • In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job.
  • The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville Nine that day.
  • The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home.
  • All children, except one, grow up.
  • My mind now turns to stories of bodies changed into new forms.

Six of those lines have been translated from other languages, but I think at least four of those should be recognizable anyway. I’ll post sources another time. Feel free to add any of your own in comments.

* That’s not the whole first sentence, but if you are going to recognize it, that’s the part you’ll recognize.

** I know, that’s not the first line of the book, but I would argue that it is the first line of the story.

Little Known Christmas Fact

When the Wise Men traveled to Bethlehem, they brought along a cat, who gave the infant in the stable the gift of comforting purrs.

Friday, December 16, 2011

It's a Wrap

My husband wanted a hammer drill for Christmas, specifically, a DeWalt hammer drill, not cordless, that Lowe’s had for a good price. We don’t do surprise presents - he took me to the shelf and pointed it out to me. A few weeks ago I went to the nearest Lowe’s to buy one. They had one left on the shelf, and it looked as if it had been previously opened, as the nearby clerk confirmed.

So I waited a few days, until the day of my ophthalmologist appointment, and went to another Lowe’s which is one exit down the road from there. They, too, had only one left on the shelf, and it was fastened with a wide piece of tape, but the tape looked as if it could have been the original packaging. So I bought it, and left it in the trunk of my car to await an appropriate time for me to bring it in the house and wrap it. (We don’t do surprises, but we pretend we do.)

I do not like wrapping packages. I'm not good at it, and don't like my uneven results. We used to have a store near us that did gift wrapping, but it went out of business when a Mailboxes, Etc (now The UPS Store) moved in a block away. For a while, another packing and shipping store had a gift wrap service, but they discontinued it a few years ago. So I am on my all thumbs own when it comes to wrapping. I use a lot of gift bags, but the drill is too heavy for that solution.

Wednesday, after driver safety class, John decided to go replace a front tire on his car that he was worried about. It was the perfect time for me to bring the drill in from the trunk, wrap it, and put it under the tree. As I wrapped the package, I heard rattling, which worried me.

That night, we went to Lowe’s for John to buy blades for his jigsaw, and I noticed the shelves were now restocked with drills, and that each package was fastened with  a flat plastic ribbon circling the package in both directions. I started worrying that I had bought a drill that had previously been opened and returned.

So Thursday morning, I snuck the package out from under the tree and hid it, plus the receipt, in a bag of old ornaments that I had promised to take to the thrift store.  I headed to Lowe’s with my wrapped drill and told my story to the customer service rep. She agreed they could swap it out, but she had to unwrap the box first to make sure it wasn’t damaged, because if it was, I’d have to take it back to the store from which I purchased it.

Once she unwrapped it, she asked, “What makes you think it’s been opened before?” 

“Because it just has that one piece of tape and the ones you have on the shelves now have binding on them.”

“Well, let me check with someone from that department.” A few minutes later someone else came by, looked at the package, and said, “Thats the way they pack them.”

“Then why is it rattling?”

“That’s the way they pack them.” He offers to open the box and check that everything is there, which it was, rather loosely packed but still in its plastic bag. He also explains that when they stock the shelves, they are only required to put the plastic binding I saw on items priced over $100; somebody may have chosen to put it on the smaller items, but they don’t come from the factory that way. “We’ll take it back if you want. It’s up to you.”

I decide to take it home. The clerk threw out my torn wrapping paper for me and put another piece of tape on the box. Now I had the problem of finding another opportunity to wrap the box again. Fortunately it came sooner than I thought,when hubby needed to make yet another trip to Lowe’s to get new weatherstripping for the front door. As soon as he was out of the driveway, I grabbed the box from the trunk, rewrapped it in the same kind of wrapping paper and ribbon, and stuck a tag on it and put it back under the tree. By this time, I've had enough practice with it that it actually came out looking decent.

It doesn't matter. Next year, I’m getting  him a fruit basket.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Death At Christmas

My husband’s Uncle Jack died early Monday morning. He was the husband of John’s father’s younger sister, whom I met once when we stayed at their house on the west coast on our way to Alaska for a cruise. They were extremely hospitable to us and we enjoyed our visit. Aunt Mary’s cooking was better than anything we had on the cruise.

Uncle Jack had been ill for over a year. It started with anemia from internal bleeding, which led to a stroke. He never recovered entirely, and had a series of mini-strokes until he finally lapsed into a semi-comatose state and stopped eating. His health directive ruled out tube feeding, and in a few days he was gone. The immediate family is having a small, private memorial service, so we sent flowers and a letter of condolence, feeling that sense of helplessness you do when you are far away and can’t be of any practical use.

Uncle Jack’s death reminded me of other deaths my family has had at Christmas. When I was nine my Grandma L, my stepmom’s mother, died of kidney disease after a long illness.  (Since she was a Grandma, she seemed very old to me, but was really not even 60 years old when she died.) We took down the tree the day after Christmas that year, but thereafter my mom did her best to make every Christmas festive for us. She’s the one who set the example I follow of decorating everything in the house that can’t actually move out of the way. She also baked cookies (the rest of the year she wasn’t much of a baker) and prepared special dishes for days in advance. Each year mom would complain that she hadn’t been able to get us much for Christmas, but I was always pleased with my gifts, and looking back, I appreciate that she did not let Christmas become a sad time of the year for the whole family when I know she missed her mother very much.

Not quite ten years ago my godfather died the day before Christmas Eve, from a fall down the basement stairs. He was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and was not supposed to go near the stairs, but probably forgot. I wanted to go to Ohio for the funeral, but a snowstorm was moving in and my godmother pleaded with me not to. I didn’t want to add to her worries, so once again, we sent flowers and our sympathy. 

I know that people die every day, and that some of those deaths will be at Christmas, just as some will be on some otherwise nondescript day in mid-August. The absence of our loved ones is no less felt at Christmas because their deaths occurred at another time of year. Still, when I hear of a death at this time of year, the little kid part of me wants to holler, “That’s not fair.” People should live to see one last Christmas.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Little Old Lady Driver Class

My foot is still not quite up to Little Old Lady Exercise Class. My knees are getting stronger; I can actually pedal fast enough on the exercise bike to get my heart rate up. I even walked up the ramp to the P-MAC on two occasions to go to basketball games instead of taking the elevator. “Jumping around”, in Dr. S’s words, is still not advised.

My dear hubby found me a substitute, however - Little Old Lady Driving Class. It’s not just  for little old ladies (well, neither was the exercise class). It’s actually a class sponsored by AARP for drivers 50 years old and older. Hubby found out about it when he called our insurance company to find out of his rate would go down now that he is driving fewer miles a month. It turns out it does, a bit, but what really makes a difference is this driver safety class. It saves him $40 every six months. I’m not sure yet what it saves me, but it will be something. So he signed us up.

The class took four hours (almost to the minute), and consisted of videos, lecture discussion, and a pre- and post-test. The time went by relatively quickly. Subjects covered were how minds and bodies change as we get older and how it affects driving, eight safety strategies, other road users and how to respect their road usage, knowing our roads and highways, understanding our vehicles, and judging our driving fitness and knowing when to retire from driving. 

A sobering thought: death rates from motor vehicle accidents climb dramatically once you hit age 75. For women my age, there are just over 2 deaths per thousand crashes. For 75-79 year olds, that rate climbs to 4 deaths per thousand and for 80 years old and older, almost 7 deaths per thousand. For men, those rates are even higher and climb more steeply as they age.

As we went through the material covered, I realized I hadn’t taken a driver’s test of any kind since I moved to Louisiana in 1972. I’ve kept up on changes in the law (for instance, you now have to turn on your headlights as soon as it rains enough to turn on your windshield wipers; that didn’t used to be the law until some time in the late 80’s), but some things I really just did not know, like how far you have to stop behind a stopped school bus. Usually I just hit my brakes as soon as I see the driver activating the stop signs, but one time I came up a slight hill on a four lane highway behind a stopped bus and did not know how far behind I needed to be. (Thirty feet, in Louisiana.) I did not know who has the right of way when entering a roundabout (the drivers already in the roundabout), although I’m pretty sure I would have reacted correctly when faced with the situation. And it turns out I have been taking some risks in driving on the road with big trucks: cutting in too closely when passing them and then slowing down, and hanging out in their blind spots.

At least I behave safely around railroad crossings. If a gate is down and/or the bell is clanging, even if the train is not in sight, I won’t drive around it to get across the way I have seen some drivers do. I also do not walk on railroad tracks or stand too close to them.

So the class was worth the $14, even without the insurance rate reduction. (It’s $12 for AARP members.)

After class, hubby drove us to the insurance agent’s office with our class certificates in hand. As he chattered away (distracted driver), he was reminded of something he needed to convey with a gesture that took at least one hand off the wheel. “Sweetheart,” I pointed out mildly, “Didn’t we just finish taking a driver’s safety class?”

“Yeah, I know,” he said, then proceeded on with his anecdote. Fortunately we made it to the agent’s office without causing an accident.

Because I really, really would have hated to explain that one.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Peace Offering

Truffle is a warm and friendly cat with me. He is especially warm and friendly when everything is going his way: when I feed him his treats, when he gets to snuggle on the electric blanket, when he’s sitting on the edge of my chair getting his ears scratched.

He is not warm and friendly when he has to see the vet. That’s when he turns into 13 pounds of snarling muscle. At least, I think he weighs 13 pounds. At his most recent check-up, last week, it was impossible to get him on the scale. It was impossible to take his temperature. It was just possible to give him his shots with both vets and one assistant holding him down. Dr. Kate was also able to check his heart rate while he was wrapped in a towel snarling at us. “You would think his heart would be racing, “ she said, “but it’s not.” Great, I’m the mom to Hannibal Lector cat.

So I decided that since I am retired and have time for these things, I would make the vet some homemade goodies for Christmas. The vet’s office is less than half a mile from my house, so it was no trouble to drop something off. And what could be more appropriate than homemade truffles? Made with dark chocolate and decorated with white chocolate and chopped macadamias, they would reference our black and white cat, D’Artagnan, as well. Isn’t that how cute?

I have a recipe for no-cook chocolate truffles, but I decided to try something new, specifically, the Chocolate Truffles Recipe from the Simply Recipes website. It looked easy, especially if I skipped the optional flavors and went with basic vanilla. I could roll one third of them in cocoa, one third in chopped macadamias, and drizzle one third with melted white chocolate. How easy is that? as Ina Garten would say.

I keep forgetting that Ina Garten is a professional chef, and I’m not. Still, the recipe is easy. However, it does not make as many truffles as the recipe says: I was only able to make 25 of the size shown. It’s also harder to roll the truffles into balls than it is with my no-cook version. We have a melon baller someplace in the attic that would have made the job easier, but if I went to look for it I'd be there until Easter. 

After they’re formed, the truffles have to sit in the refrigerator overnight before you can roll them in toppings. They aren’t really hard to make, just fussy.

Rolling one third of them in cocoa was easy. I was even able to round them off some more. Rolling in the macadamia nuts was harder because no matter how finely I thought I had them chopped, I’d keep finding big pieces that wouldn’t stick. Drizzling with white chocolate was where I ran into trouble. I had to guess at the proportions of cream and baking chips that would let me drizzle yet still harden as it cooled. I guessed wrong. Even worse, my attempts to drizzle a few lines over each truffle resulted in blobs rather than stripes.

Okay, they are homemade, right? We aren’t going to worry about the little stuff. I packed them into a tin and took them over to the vet’s office. “Thank you”, said Kim, the receptionist, as I suggested she might want to keep them in the refrigerator. “What are they?”

“Truffles,” I answered. A brief puzzled expression passed over her face and then she realized I meant the candy and opened the box. (After all, I’m the mom to Hannibal Lector cat.)

So I think Truffle will be welcome there for another year, but next year, I'm sticking to cookies.

Friday, December 9, 2011


On January 9, 2012, 7:30 PM local time (1:30 AM GMT), the Louisiana State University (LSU) football team will play the University of Alabama football team in the BCS Championship Game for the national collegiate football championship and a horrendously tacky looking but much prized Waterford crystal football.

For my readers from outside the US, that’s American style football, as played at the collegiate level, not what the rest of the world calls football and we call soccer. 

LSU has won every game so far this season, for a total of 13 wins and no losses, against a brutally tough schedule. Alabama has lost one game (to LSU) and played one game fewer, since they didn’t play for the Southeastern Conference Championship. (For those outside the US, the college and university football teams are divided among regional groups called conferences. If there are 12 or more teams in a conference, the conference subdivides into divisions and the two division leaders play each other in a championship game for a slightly less tacky trophy and a banner. And bragging rights.)

In the time between now and the game, fans of each team will be talking smack, making bets both monetary and not, and making fun of the other team and its fans, mostly its fans. The real purpose of the teams is to serve as tribal totems. The teams themselves are pretty much composed of decent young men who are hoping to hone their athletic skills and go on to play professionally. The tribes of fans are pretty much composed of idiots.

Last time LSU played in the championship game, I bought John and Neal tickets on StubHub. 

So I look forward to the morning of January 10, 2012, by which time all this will have been settled, for good or ill. (Hubby and son are alumni of LSU, so “good” is defined as an LSU win and “ill” as an Alabama win.) In the meantime, I speculate, as sports events cause me to do, whether the winner of this game is predetermined or not. For some reason, I don’t wonder that about other events in life. It’s not that I think that football games fall into some special category of events that are predetermined while everything else is in free fall. It’s just that I don’t usually worry about predetermination. I don’t see any way of deciding whether events are predetermined or not, and if there is no way to know something, I prefer to use the brain space on reflecting on those problems that do have solutions. 

A year or so ago I read a discussion on Talk Rational regarding whether the omniscience of God made free will impossible. I tried to follow the arguments, but they pretty much made my eyeballs itch. I don’t know enough philosophy to know when someone is making a reasonable but difficult to follow argument and when someone is just bullshitting. I read Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, a book that can best be described as “dense”, but can't remember most of it two years later. So don’t count on me for a nuanced discussion of the problem of free will.

I’ve had reason to think over the years that I’m glad I can’t read the future. Once while reading an account of a murder trial in our local paper and realizing that the victim was a woman whose son was one of my little clients fifteen years before; once when a childhood friend who had attended my mother’s funeral died six months later of a longstanding heart condition; once when watching the Southern Yacht Club burn down in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. My graduate school boyfriend had taken me to the Yacht Club with friends of his who were members and I felt grown up and sophisticated. It’s probably also just as well I couldn’t foresee that the young man, who was brilliant, was also going to develop a mental illness that cut short his promise and left him on disability.

But my not being able to predict these outcomes does not mean that they weren’t already set in motion years before I arrived on the scene. The domestic violence that led to the murder, one friend's heart disease and the other friend's mental illness, the corruption and mismanagement that led to the levees failing didn’t just happen one day. They all had deep roots. But were they unavoidable? That I don’t know.

Compared to these events, football games seem uncomplicated. There are only two possible outcomes: either Team A wins or Team B does. Of course, on the way to these outcomes, unpredictable things happen: a ball takes a funny bounce, a referee misses a call, a receiver drops a pass that hits him right in the hands. Later fans of the losing team might think “If only Eric Reid hadn’t made that interception on the goal line”, but what does that even mean? If that one event had changed, what else would have had to change? And would it have made a difference to the ultimate outcome, or would something else have gone wrong?

What I know is that on the morning of January 10, 2012, either Alabama or LSU will have the crystal ball - the crystal football. The other kind of crystal ball, no one has.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Foreign Exchange: Part 5, Mademoiselle from Armentieres

After our experience with Eric, I was willing to call it quits, but John wanted to try for a happier experience with another student. We found Laura, a young lady from France (but not Armentieres) with excellent English skills and a happy looking smile. She responded to our first email, but we didn’t hear more from her until she actually arrived. Like Eric, she flew to Baton Rouge, so we didn’t have to drive to Houston to get her. Unlike Eric, she seemed happy with the city, her room, the restaurant we took her to for dinner. “She seems like the anti-Eric," I told friends.

As it turned out, although Laura was far more polite (and not depressed), she, like Eric, arrived with the idea of finding a different family as soon as possible. To help her make friends, I introduced her to my co-worker’s two teens. Actually, I invited them to come to the water park with us, but since my co-worker had a membership, she offered to take them all. Laura had a good time.

Labor Day weekend we made plans to go to Tennessee to see John’s sister and family and do some sightseeing on the way home. At the last minute, Laura had a request. She wanted to stay home with the T family and go tailgating with them. We agreed, but realized this was a bad sign.

In the meantime, the situation at Laura’s high school was getting worse. When the influx of students from New Orleans had arrived the year before, the Baton Rouge students were sympathetic. By the time the next school year started, lines were being drawn, and fights were breaking out. A few times the police were called. I couldn’t blame Laura for feeling frightened and frustrated.

Once again the T children approached their parents about hosting our student. My co-worker was afraid it would  interfere with our relationship, but I assured her it wouldn’t. Laura wasn’t our possession or prisoner. If she would be happier somewhere else, more power to her. The T’s applied to AFS and were accepted as host parents. Laura transferred to the school in their neighborhood and said goodbye to us. I wished her well. She had an enjoyable year, from what I heard, and still keeps in touch with her host sister.

As for us, we agreed it was time to stop hosting students while we had three happy experiences and two  unsuccessful ones. We visited Anett in Hungary twice, once the summer after Eric left and once the spring we went to visit Neal in Paris. On the first trip, I had bought a necklace for Laura, a swan-shaped charm on a chain, which I gave to my youngest niece instead after Laura left.

Looking back on our experiences with our young friends, I can see some surprising similarities. Counting my son, I’ve lived with teens from four different continents and can confidently say that they all keep vampire’s hours, use their floors for storage, and think the center of the universe is a little closer to their belly buttons than it actually is. On the other hand, all of our students, including Eric, were willing to lend a hand with household chores and picked up after themselves fairly well. I did notice that they each stopped making their beds in the morning after a few weeks. I wish I’d kept a chart; I’d be willing to bet the rent money it was the same number of weeks for each of them.

We’re still in contact with Chan, Anders and Anett. Anders even convinced John to join Facebook. If I hadn’t had those three in my life, I probably would never have been to Thailand or Hungary (we still haven’t made it to Denmark), and possible not yet have been to the Grand Canyon (we went with Chan) or Hawaii (we went with Anett). 

I think about Eric from time to time and hope he is doing well and that someday he’ll return to the US under happier circumstances. Laura I’m sure is doing well.

Would I advise other people to become host parents? I think it’s wise to know what you are getting into. You can make lifelong friends, or you can find yourself with an unhappy teenager who expected something different and wants out. I’m glad we hosted students, and I’m glad we finally stopped. It was a season in my life, and I look back on it fondly.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Christmas Decorating

When I am daydreaming about Christmas treats, one of my favorite daydreams is that someday I will be able to hire a floral designer to decorate my whole house for Christmas. Since my hunch is that would cost my entire budget for my someday Australia trip, it is likely to remain just that, a daydream. In the meantime, I try to accomplish what I can can, leaving my house with that loving hands, done at home look, blended slightly with that chewed on by the cat look. Neither look makes it into the Christmas editions of my favorite magazines.

The cake recipe is from Southern Living. Usually my cakes don't look this pretty,
but the directions and pictures were easy to follow.

The dining room, Christmas 2004. 

One year I spent a small fortune on a matching wreath, swags, and wall hanging baskets for the front porch. The calico wreaths someone had given me for Christmas 25 years or so before had given up the ghost, several live plants had died in the wall hanging baskets, and I decided I could spend some money on decor that would last me another 25 years. The swags hung from the original front porch light fixtures. Then the light fixtures broke, and I couldn’t find replacements with quite the same configuration. That actually worked out well, because I put a swag on the back door and the other on the light fixture at the side door, and voila, the whole house looked cohesive. (“Cohesive” is a decorator term meaning the opposite of that mix of stuff you inherited from grandma, stole from mom, and found while dumpster diving.)

This year, hubby made a live wreath from the trimmings from our enormous Christmas tree, and complained about the wreath hanger making marks on the frame of the storm door. So now the live wreath is on the back door, the faux wreath is on the side door, and one swag is back in front.

The poor little Christmas cactus is hanging in there.

John's live wreath, with a purchased bow

The side door

If the outdoors looks cohesive, the indoors is a different story. The indoors looks like a moderate sized explosion took place in Hobby Lobby. The way things look in my head and they way they look in three dimensional space is laughably different.

There is, for instance, the tree. Thirty seven years ago, one of my little clients gave me a beautiful velvet ornament she and her mother had made for me. It was a turquoise color, that over the years faded to a seafoam green and now to a beige with a tinge of green, but the lace foil and synthetic pearls are still as good as ever and I can’t bring myself to get rid of it. It did, however, spark the idea to have a tree with all unique ornaments. Most of the ornament sets I have are themes: the old Sears Christmas Around the World ornaments, The Wizard of Oz ornaments, A Christmas Carol ornaments, nursery rhymes ornaments, but the ones that are duplicates are left over from another tree in another house. In someone else’s hands, that might have looked charming; in mine, it mostly looks mismatched. Since a lot of the ornaments are gifts, they are staying. I can actually remember each person who gave them to me, and part of the fun of decorating the tree is remembering each person and hoping they are doing well.

The bottom is empty because of the cats.

The Nutcracker tree in the back room

Then there are the collections, most of which are also gifts of mugs, candle holders, and ornaments too heavy to hang on the tree. There’s an angel collection, a snowman collection, and a Santa collection. This year, I added an impulse purchase to the Santa collection: a two and a half foot tall Native American inspired Father Christmas that the owner of the Native American shop in Cherokee, North Carolina let me buy for 20% off after I drooled over it for half an hour. When I put it on the bookcase with the rest of the Santas, they looked like the mismatched impulse purchases they are. Finally, I moved them across the room to the built in bookcase and distributed them among the shelves so they are still grouped together, but a little less dissonant. I think. The angels are on top of the first bookcase and the snowmen are on the desk.

I think he needs a sled.

Finally, there’s the mantle. The mantel sports faux greenery, cast iron stocking hangers, candlesticks, and this year, the Santa picture that I can never find the right spot for. There used to be a perfect spot for the Santa picture, on the wall that is now the home for the armoire. There is another suitable spot for Santa on the back wall, but that’s where we put the tree. So Santa is now hanging on the mantle, only a few inches too high, and hubby is tired of messing with it. I can’t blame him.

The stockings in the middle are handmade. The one on the left, my mom crocheted, and the one on the right, my MIL made for Neal.

So maybe someday I will hit the lottery, hire that floral designer, and have a house that will make you all green with envy. In the meantime, well, it’s Christmas. Isn’t that the time for loving hands, done at home?

Another "it seemed like a good idea at the time" purchase,
a souvenir of Branson, on the baking center in the kitchen

Monday, December 5, 2011


In packages of tinsel flimsy
Hopes that this will be the one time the children
Cease their quarrels,

And wrapping, in sturdy boxes, strapping taped protection 
Against the guilt of being miles and years way 
From a place no longer home,

And wrapping 
The hope that a small gift will arm against
The jealousy of friendship

And wrapping
The boxed reminders that the year just passed 
Is counted out in broken promises, lost hopes,
And goals as distant as Atlantis,

I remember
That in just such demon days
As winter swallowed daylight
Seekers preached

The birth of the Sun,
The birth of the Son,
The birth of the Light.


Saturday, December 3, 2011

I'm Not Visiting Australia Anytime Soon

As I have written before, I have a plan to see all seven continents and all fifty states before I die. Well, I have a plan to see all seven continents and all fifty states that’s contingent on my not dying in the next five years or so. I’ve been to 39 states, including Alaska and Hawaii, and six continents, so it’s not unreasonable to think I can make it, unless I get hit by the Hypothetical Evangelists’ Best Friend Bus tomorrow.

We even had a plan to see the last continent, Australia, next summer. My nephew was getting married in Hawaii, where he is stationed, and as we were making tentative plans to go, John said that as long as we were going to Hawaii, we might as well go on to Australia. (There is a reason I love the dude.)

Alas, three weeks later, the wedding was off, and the combatants, uh, former lovebirds, are no longer speaking. I did mention a few times that we could still plan a trip to Hawaii and Australia anyway, but we didn’t get any further than discussing it.

Then came the news that a friend of mine is getting married in Colorado. The wedding is at the end of next summer. We are friends because we belonged to a weight lifting email list. A smaller list of five of us spun off from the larger one, and while the larger list is no longer active, the rest of us keep in touch weekly. I’ve actually met bride to be and one other member in real life. It would mean a lot to the bride to have us all at the wedding, and fortunately, we are all able to go.

Denver is to the west of us, but not so far west that it leads you to think that once you’re there, you might as well hop on over to Oz. Colorado is right next door to Utah, one of the states I haven’t yet been to, so I’m hoping to convince John to come with me on a drive to Mountain Meadows to see the memorial to the Baker-Fancher party. Maybe I can point out Utah is closer than Australia.

Okay, so Australia isn’t going anywhere. We, however, were going somewhere last night, a party sponsored by some engineering group that John belongs to. John bumped into a former coworker, Li, and as I sat on the other side of John at the bar drinking Diet Coke and trying to make out their conversation over the live music, they talked shop. Suddenly John turned to me and said, “Li is going home to China for a visit in 2013.” As I was about to wish Li a happy journey, John added, “Do you want to go?”

“Sure, why not?” I said, since “Sure, why not?” is pretty much my standard response to all proposals of travel coming from my husband, especially in bars. “When in 2013?”

“Oh, late,” Li informs me. Okay, lots of time to pack. Our itinerary includes Beijing and some other city I couldn’t make out over the music but I have lots of time to find out picky little details. 

So how far is China from Australia, anyway? It never hurts to dream.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Christmas Letters

Christmas letters have a bad reputation. Miss Manners does not like them, many readers of the old Ann Landers and Dear Abby advice columns of years past wrote in to say how much they despise them, and one year MSNBC even had their readers share their most notorious ones. One wonders from which dregs of humanity those folks who actually send those letters are recruited, since everyone professes not to like them. So it is with much trepidation I confess, I like Christmas letters.

I have liked Christmas letters since I first started receiving them 40 something years ago, and only started sending out my own six years years ago, so I don’t think I’m being self-serving when I say I like them. My Christmas letter started out as for my siblings only, one year when I was facing surgery shortly after Christmas and needed to spread the news. In the past two years I have added one other person to the list, my godmother, the only surviving member of my older generation of relatives.

The MSNBC feature described Christmas letters as “a litany of bombastic bragging disguised as holiday cheer.” To which I say, “Yeah, so?” If you write me to say you bought your husband a new Lexus for Christmas, it doesn’t take anything away from me unless you stole it out of my driveway. (Which you couldn’t have, since I don’t own one.) If you have a new job, a promotion, or the world’s cutest puppy, I will raise my glass in a toast and then drool over the puppy pictures. What exactly is wrong with getting other people’s good news?

It is precisely when I am feeling my lowest and most depressed that I seek out other people’s good news. I used to say that if I could be the good fairy at a child’s christening, I would give that child the gift of being able to rejoice in other people’s good fortune, because then she would always have something to be happy about.

So while we are on the subject of bombastic bragging disguised as holiday cheer, I will share a story about my son, although it didn’t happen at Christmas. He was in the computer club in his high school, and the club was chosen to participate in a contest in Cincinnati. Unfortunately, they couldn’t take everybody, and my son, a lowly freshman, was left behind. “They’re even going to get pocket money,” he grumped. “A concept with which you are totally unfamiliar”, I added dryly. He actually was chosen as an alternate, but since everyone else remained hale and hearty, he didn’t get to go.

His buddies won second place, however, as he came home to tell me excitedly when they got back to school. “They even got a trophy!” he added. “They kicked butt.”

I used to say that if I could be the good fairy at a child’s christening, I would give that child the gift of being able to rejoice in other people’s good fortune. Then one day, I realized that’s exactly what I had done.

How’s that for bombastic bragging?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Oh, Gee

In addition to my regular annual checkup with Dr. N, yesterday was my annual eye exam. This was no accident; when Dr. N schedules appointments for her patients, she looks for appointments they already have and schedules around those. This is handy for people who live far away or whose insurance only charges one copayment per day, but it always makes me nervous that I will miss an appointment. 

Dr. N saw me promptly, however and came bearing mostly good news. My blood work looked good and my total cholesterol had dropped even more.

So then it was on to my ophthalmologist, Dr. Hottie. No, I don’t call him that to his face, but he is a sight for sore eyes. First I had something called a visual field test, and had to push a button every time I saw a flickering light. Then the standard vision test, then I had my eyes dilated and got the standard glaucoma tests. Somewhere in there, a technician took pictures of my optic nerves.

By the time Dr. H came in to see me, I was checking my watch wondering when I’d get out of there and if I’d have enough time to go buy my husband’s Christmas present at Lowe’s. I wasn’t expecting to hear that I have glaucoma. My left optic nerve is showing signs of notching on the lower margin, and I have corresponding “shadowing” in the upper left visual field. (The eye is flipped with respect to the optic nerve, the lower nerve innervates the upper eye and vice versa.) Dr. H reassured me they had caught it early. He also explained I have low tension glaucoma, which wouldn’t have been diagnosable by a standard test of eye pressure. In low tension (or normal tension or normal pressure) glaucoma, eye pressure is normal but the optic nerve shows damage anyway. Treatment is the same: eye drops to lower eye pressure and if that doesn’t work, surgery to increase drainage of eye fluids. Ten percent of people with glaucoma can lose their vision even with treatment.

I cannot figure out if I am the healthiest sick person I know or the sickest healthy person I know. What I do know is that I have an interesting reaction to bad health news. Whatever anger, fear, or self-pity comes along later on, my initial reaction is always the same: shame. If something is wrong with me, I caused it. 

I don’t think I’m the only person who reacts that way, either, because we have the Adam and Eve story to suggest that this is a pretty widespread belief. If human beings feel soreness and pain, and eventually die, it must be because we did something wrong. We must have brought it on ourselves some way. Women must have done it, because we’re the ones who bleed mysteriously. Shame and pain, they’re almost sisters.

Today I’m feeling a little calmer. I have drops to put in my eye each night and I go back to Dr. H in a month to see how they’re working. Other than that, there isn’t anything I can do. This isn’t something that diet and exercise will fix. This isn’t something that requires major lifestyle changes.

Oh, gee. I wasn’t expecting this.