Saturday, December 31, 2011

Good Riddance, 2011, but Keep Rolling, Blogs I Like!

2011 was just about the worst year of my life and I am glad to see it go. Don't let the door hit you on the way out, 2011. It was a terrible year for many people I know, and they're likewise welcoming 2012, hoping that it will prove to be a happier, healthier, more hopeful one. (It's a leap year, too, so maybe it really will have more spring in its step.)

Of course, even the rottenest of years has some decent moments. (Yeah, I know, "rottenest" isn't a word, but it sounds rottier than "most rotten." Rottier's better than "more rotten," too. I've had a rotten year. Don't argue with me.)

So, in that more pleasant vein, I'll do something I haven't before (don't say I'm not spontaneous) and do a round-up of other bloggers' posts that I enjoyed recently, in the hope that if you're muddling about on the computer looking for something enjoyable to read you might follow one of them and find that it is a voice or a subject that appeals to you, too.

My friend Alison shares her experience enjoying 3 minutes of fame at the Ballard Writers Book Slam in November on her blog, "Slice of Midlife," where she recounts the unleashing of her inner Gloria. (Alison also has an array of delicious international recipes that she dishes up on this site.)

Local author and gardener Valerie Easton wrote briefly and prettily about nature's winter decor (as contrasted with the glitter of the mall) in a post about an apple tree on her blog, "Plant Talk."

Kimberly Hosey's blog, "Arizona Writer," features her gorgeous photographs of birds, spiders, insects, and stunning southwestern scenery and essays about the same. If you scribble for a living or just for kicks, check out her entry about the writing process and then wander into other posts to see the beautiful photographs.

Jane Badger's blog "Books, Mud, and Compost. And Horses" offers delights ranging from photos of beautiful morning walks through the English countryside and musings on gardening, cooking, and crafts to discussions about books, bookselling, everything horses, and some things distinctly human. I still get a chuckle out of this post about harvest decor.

Jane's blog led me to two others that I have recently tapped into.

One is called "Life Must Be Filled Up," and I knew I'd like it as soon as I saw that the author is a big fan of cartoonist Roz Chast. To rip off Annie Hall, well--I lurve Roz Chast, I loave her, I luff her! Ever since, I think, I clapped eyes on an illustration of hers depicting some sort of other-planet foodstuff called Vleedle Mix. (Plus, I went to a cartooning event in New York City in the 1980s and she was the person sitting at the table shyly taking people's tickets. That's exactly where I want to be at meet-and-greet hubbubs like that.)

The other is called "Mother of Invention 1" and my reading of it started off with the author's funny, self-effacing telling of turning 50 and a celebratory 3-hour bike ride with her sister. I spent my 49th year amusing myself with how I might celebrate turning 50, having no idea that it would turn out to be a year of terrible loss and sadness (friends have urged me to consider celebrating 51 or 53, those being perfectly good prime numbers). So I've truly come to enjoy reading about how others handle turning the big five-oh.

Last but not least, my friend Rachael Conlin Levy offers a list of suggestions for the holidays that tantalize with hints of the chaos and catastrophes (including inadvertently setting things on fire) and the general muddle of holiday preparation that inspired them on her blog "The Slow-Cooked Sentence."

Happy New Year, everyone far and everyone near!

Friday, December 30, 2011

More Signs of the Times

Because I am between monumental tasks of a tedious nature, here are some of the signs and other wordings around town that made me think twice over the past two months, presented for your amusement.

Door in Pike Place Market that made me think,
well, don't all doors do this? They open, they
close. Why don't all doors have this sign? It is
what doors are meant to do, after all.
Or else they'd be walls.
Sign at Green Lake, which may need to be renamed
"Practical Joke Acres." Beware of banana peels on path,
clowns with seltzer bottles, and randomly flung pies.
A note found in the dog's water bowl, placed there by
resident stupidhead Django the Art Cat. And it's not even
true. He's got claws. He's got fangs.
If you can't get the owners to cooperate,
perhaps it's best to go directly to the dogs.
We were driving behind this great big dump truck, and
you know what? We're a lot smaller. We wouldn't even
think of shoving the dump truck.
What more can one say? I love the fact that this bumper sticker
happens to be on a car called a Cougar. This is one tough grandma.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Dough, Oh Dear...

The week before Christmas and between Christmas and New Year's is a great time to try out recipes on one's unsuspecting family and friends and to discover just how oddly the simplest recipes can turn out.

Exhibit A: Dinner rolls.

Proper dinner rolls.
My brother asked us to bring dinner rolls as our contribution to Christmas dinner--rolls that weren't like soft balls of tissue paper (a somewhat crisp exterior, he requested).

My daughter, hearing that we were to bring dinner rolls, went off to some la-la planet that adolescent girls are known to orbit and thought we were going to bring some sort of pastry and roll up our dinners in it, like sausage rolls, so she was clearly not going to be much help in the dinner-roll department.

I thought it'd be easy and So Festive to bake our own. Flipping open the Martha Stewart cookbook, I found a dinner-roll recipe and got to work.

Whenever I use one of Ms. Stewart's recipes, I can't help but think of that scene in the hilarious film Martha, Inc., in which a woman timidly asks Martha about using a recipe of hers that didn't turn out right; Martha rounds on the woman and hisses, "Maybe you just can't cook. There is nothing wrong with my tartlets!"

So when the dough persisted in being incredibly stretchy and sticky, it was hard to blame Martha, because I didn't want to get it in the neck.

Following the instructions, I cut out one-inch-wide blobs of dough and nestled them on the baking sheet so they all snuggled together. They looked odd, but very cute. I assumed they'd rise in the oven and puff up into typical dinner rolls about the size of a lemon.

Well, they didn't.

They stayed exactly the same size, though they did develop a nice soft interior and a firm, golden exterior. But they were basically a dinner-roll version of monkey bread.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing. But it did mean I wasn't going to break them up into handsome little round dinner rolls, tuck them into a gingham-cloth-lined basket, and deliver a photo-shoot-worthy cornucopia of yeasty splendor to the table. They were too much like the failed attempt at spiced pecans, which resulted in a giant 14 x 17 rectangular slab of over-toasted pecans welded together with burnt sugar that could be picked up like a cutting board (probably could have served as one, too).

However, since they weren't burned, we were able to break them apart and serve them in three sizes: extra-small (one blob), medium (2 blobs stuck together), and large (3 blobs).

They quickly disappeared during dinner, so they were a hit, despite their density. But I still can't figure out where Martha...I mean, I...went wrong.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Caribou's Snooze

Very windy outside this Christmas Day; must have been rough going for the reindeer. Shh. They're sleeping after a hard night's work...

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Eve of Christmas Eve

The first Christmas after losing a beloved member of the family unfolds in sadness and joy, loss and renewal, wistfulness and nostalgia. My heart feels heavy even as it is uplifted by the songs, scents, and traditions; I feel older and somewhat removed even as, thanks to half a century of memories and delight linked to this holiday (so beloved by my parents), I am as eager to see what's under the tree, what's in the stockings, and what's on the roof as any child.

I am grateful for traditions, as well as for having a kid around the house, because they work together to pull one along as if on a sleigh. It was quite clear a month ago that there would be a tree, and baking, and Christmas ships and jigsaw puzzles and fudge and parcels smuggled into the house, when my child asked somewhat apprehensively, tapping gently around the edges of my feelings, whether we would go downtown as we always have at Christmastime to see the lights, visit the Market, and find a new place to have lunch.

No wonder they never let Rudolph play any reindeer games. He was a hog.
There were lots of beautiful and colorful things at the Market, just as there was at the Phinney Winter Fair.

It was fun to track down and haul home our annual bounty of treats to share and enjoy between Christmas Eve and New Year's Day.

Aero Bars! Chunky KitKats! Cadbury Flakes! Chocolate-covered digestive biscuits! Some of our favorite things exported from England (in addition to Tony himself, of course, who was the one who picked out the pub ale). Look closely and you can see that the 14-year-old has already broken into the Flakes and the digestives. (What you can't see is the Aero bar she already ate.) I'm responsible for the German 5-grain bread, the Jacob's cream crackers, and the teawurst (a favorite of both my Dad and I, and very hard to find in Seattle). Oh, some lemon-orange cookies and some locally produced jam, too.

The local woman who collects glowing Santas had the whole crew out this evening.

Lights, singing, and a bonfire cap the day at Golden Gardens park.

Luna, however, was perfectly content to stay home and shred her gift, the cardboard tube from the inside of a roll of wrapping paper.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Do Snowmen Eat Their Young?

Oh, yeah. Snowmen. Innocent fixture of old-timey winter scenes and children's activities. Kindly old Frosty, gentle and magical friend of "The Snowman" by Raymond Briggs, banjo-strummin' omniscient Burl Ives snowman.

But, my friends, there is an evil side to these pure-as-the-driven-snow beings.

And I'm not even talking about trumped-up Hollywood cold-blooded killers such as Jack Frost, or wicked legendary creatures like the Abominable Snowman.

No, these are small, smiling, sweet snowman who look like butter wouldn't melt in their mouths.

(Which it probably wouldn't, actually, since snowman are about as cold as a refrigerator.)

These disturbing thoughts entered our minds while visiting my mom this weekend. Mom has always loved snowmen, and she has a charming display of little carrot-nosed figurines on a bookshelf set up for Christmas.

They're very cute.

But on closer inspection...

"Mom?" I said. "This snowman up front is--throwing snowballs."

If a snowman is made out of rolled-up snow...essentially, giant snowballs...then isn't a snowball...a BABY SNOWPERSON?

Ergo, is it not wrong for a snowman to be throwing baby snow-beings?

Would it throw them at people? at cars? Does this mean the benignly smiling snowman is really just about as nasty as those trees in The Wizard of Oz who throw their own apples at Dorothy and the Scarecrow?

Shaken to the core, I returned to the safety of my own fair city the next day--whereupon my daughter and I encountered this cold-hearted creature in the lobby of her orthodontist's office:


(The image is taken from a product catalog online because, not being a snowwoman with a cold heart, I did not embarrass my daughter by taking a photo of the orthodontist's holiday decor in front of other teens and their parents.)

Beware, fellow citizens. Beware.

I'd watch out for those nutcrackers, too. I mean, that seems to make sense from the get-go. Fixed stares? Gnashing jaws? Creepy. Here's two in my mom's apartment, and yes, she is completely aware of the fact that they are a weird duo harassing this poor swan:

"You are a very, very, very bad swan."

Don't even get me started on Santa Claus.

"OK, let's all sing...'Away in a DANGER.'"

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Light the Christmas Kindle

I have gone over to the Dark Side.

It is true. I have been given a Kindle for Christmas. I guess this means the demise of books, once and for all. Civilization will crumble. Libraries will topple. A book will now be nothing but a block of paper used to prop up a wobbly table, boost a small child up to its dinner, or decorate a shelf or coffee table. Or something to use as bookends to hold up books! Which you won't need! Because they'll be gone! Because of the Kindle! Not ever. Not in our house, anyway. I swear if we took all the books out of the house, there would be zero insulation in this drafty old place. We don't have enough horizontal surfaces to contain all the books. Nor will the Kindle prevent their acquisition or hasten their departure.

So why'd we get one? Well, for one thing, it was offered to me. I don't get very excited about gadgets and technology, but I do love search engines and library databases. When I was first asked if I'd like a Kindle, I couldn't be bothered, but then our library system started offering titles for the Kindle, and that was the first step on my slippery slope to the ebook.

Plans for its use mainly involve downloading fiction from the library. I have to take so many nonfiction books out of the library, for research purposes, that I quickly use up my allotment of "holds" I can place (you're only allowed to have up to 25 holds at any given moment). So I've often had to delete fiction titles I've placed on hold to free up space for books I need for work. My digital titles, however, don't count toward my physical-books-hold allotment.

I also have this notion that maybe I'll slog away more on the treadmill in the basement if I have the Kindle there reading aloud to me. Bad eyesight, bad lighting, and a bad bookholder on the treadmill have conspired to make reading while tramping an unworkable option.

However, the prospect of having tread-time stories read to me by the Kindle is kind of dreadful, considering the monotonous, robotic voice with which it speaks. It won't be like listening to Jim Dale read "Harry Potter" aloud. Still, the prospect of me never exercising is even worse.

And the robotic voice might turn out to be quite funny, actually. (I am thinking of the VTech electronic activity board a friend gave my daughter when she was about two, and how after the child went to bed, we so-called grownups found out how easy it was to make the board say Bad Words if you quickly toggled between the innocent buttons that read aloud letters of the alphabet and names of things like ducks.)

Certainly learning to tap the Kindle screen gently has been both frustrating and amusing. I have already repeatedly swiped when I should've tapped and launched myself to other stories in a Jill McCorkle short-story collection. I am also  learning to tap briefly and not press the thing like it's a keypad on a microwave. Pressing like that while reading makes the Kindle call up the Oxford English Dictionary and provide a definition for the word I'm touching. Thanks to this feature, I now know what "the," "dog," "is," "before," and "there" mean.

Which brings me to Reasons Why It Will Never Replace My Books (any more than my dishwasher will replace the kitchen sink, or my cell phone the camera).

Slapping a bookplate on a Kindle
renders it unreadable.
1. Nonfiction books crammed with information and gorgeous photos vs. a Kindle screen: no contest.

2. Beautiful dust jackets, old books with embossed covers and tipped-in color illustrations and quaint black-and-white images, random inscriptions or notes in the margins, deckled edges, the colors of those little headbands on the spine...the physicality of books is simply enjoyable.

3. All the hard work a book designer puts into the selection of fonts, the spacing, the relationship of a chapter number to the text, initial capitals, and the like pretty much vanishes on a Kindle, as far as I can tell.

4. Visits to libraries and bookstores = relaxation + (discovery x serendipity).

5. You can't inscribe a Kindle. You could stick a sticker on it, I guess, but stickers always become rubbish rather quickly, leaving a gooey strip for all kinds of gunk to adhere to. I cherish the few inscriptions I've received in books.

6. One day, the Kindle will wear out. Or be outmoded by new technology and you'll find that downloading books to your particular ancient device is like trying to download them to a toaster. However, I have a green solution planned for mine. It will simply become a brilliant little ice-skating rink for needle-felted mice in a Christmas display.

Most of all, I doubt the Kindle will ever carry the emotional history that some of my books do. My hardcover copy of "The Cricket in Times Square," for example--just picking it up transports me back to a hot, endless summer afternoon under a pink-flowered mimosa in my Long Island backyard, lolling on a chaise longue in idle 8-year-old bliss, reading the book for the umpteenth time.

And for good or ill, that book still contains an outline of a caterpillar that fell out of the tree onto the page, causing me to slam it shut in a panic. (Sorry, caterpillar.) Kindles probably have bugs, too, though of a different and less squishy sort.

Still, the Kindle's got one thing my books never had: its own personal hand-made blankie. Made from a recycled sweater by a friend, who didn't know she was making a Kindle blankie when she crafted it. (I guess Kindles can cavort with serendipity, after all.)