Friday, December 31, 2004

Holiday Trees

It sure is pretty out here in the woods this time of year. The white ice of the lake backs up against the shore; white frost adorns the trees.

I have been sick with flu for a week, and I am about to spend New Year's Eve alone so I won't make anyone else sick. However, I can't think of a gracious way to whine about my troubles when there is so much dreadful news of death and horror coming in from the rest of the world, so I'm going to talk about trees instead: holiday trees.

This year my older niecie wanted to select her grandparents' Christmas tree, so my dad took her to a tree farm, and she picked out a big tree, and they brought it home in Dad's swank covered trailer. Dad and I carried the tree inside. Dad, Mom, and I put the tree up, but it wouldn't stand up straight! Mom and I had to hold the tree in position while Dad wired it to one of the beams that support the roof, and then we'd step back, look it over, and readjust.

Dad and I both have bad backs. I spent the next hour or so lying around with an ice pack, and Dad and Mom helped the niecies decorate the tree. They were finished before I knew it! I wasn't even done with my ice pack, and they had the entire tree decorated. Dad had to walk with a cane for the next three days, so I felt like a real wuss for lying around icing my back instead of helping with the tree until I needed my walking stick to get around. I swore to myself that next year I'm buying a four foot artificial tree made out of turkey feathers dyed pink. (I saw one in the newspaper.)

Our family has quite a few Christmas tree stories. My parents' favorite is the time I pulled the tree over on top of myself when I was two or three years old. Despite my peril, Dad couldn't stop laughing even while trying to find his only daughter under the branches.

This year Dad told me a new story. Once he and his father decided that their Christmas tree would be a cedar that was growing in a nearby ditch. I have since learned that cedars from ditches are nearly iconic in Iowa, a common tree for people who don't want to pay anything. Because ditches are part of the public right-of-way rather than private property, nobody owns anything growing in the ditches. Just this year a friend complained to me that some coworkers were very proud of themselves for taking a ditch cedar and setting it up at the office, where it gave off an unholy stink and made the whole building smell so bad that they received numerous complaints, all of which they blissfully ignored in their joy over having a fresh tree that didn't cost them a red cent.

So Dad and Grandpa wanted a ditch cedar. It was right in front of somebody's house, so even though it was technically not the property of the people in the house, Dad and Grandpa didn't want them to see them taking the tree. They tried to work fast. They cut down the tree, tossed it in the back of the pickup, and took off. The tree immediately fell out onto the road. So much for stealth. They picked it up, tossed it back in, and took off, but the darn thing fell out again. At this point they finally figured out that they needed to pack it so the heavy end was next to the cab, with the top of the tree sticking out the back of the truck. They threw the tree in the right way, took off, and made it home without detection.

However, the saga did not end there. Grandma was not at all happy about having a cedar for a Christmas tree. Not only are they rather scruffy trees, but more importantly, they drop needles and make a big mess. Grandma wanted that tree gone, but Grandpa promised that it wouldn't make a mess, and it would be a fine Christmas tree. Grandma caved in, and they decorated the tree, but three days later Grandma declared that there were far too many cedar needles on the carpet, and the tree had to go.

This year as the days went by, I increasingly dreaded the day after Christmas and the removal of our big, heavy tree. That fateful morning I slept in a little--not on purpose--and awoke to the sound of a handsaw. Dad was sawing the Christmas tree into pieces so it would be easy to carry out of the house! My dad is so smart. It's good to be a redneck.


Friday, December 24, 2004

Christmas Season

Right around Christmas, there's almost always some bitterly cold weather in Iowa. I remember one year when it was 20 below out, 60 below with wind chill, racing through the snow and ice to hurl ourselves into the car and drive to Florida!

Yesterday I walked to the mailbox, an enterprise that involves long underwear or tights, boots, sweater, parka, heavy gloves (but not the heaviest), and a supplementary fleece hood under my parka hood. On the walk to the mailbox my body was toasty warm, but the 5-degree F air hurt my nasal passages, and it felt like I wasn't drawing in the full amount of oxygen. However, I did not have to stop walking, and I didn't break into a coughing fit, which was encouraging.

I had a hypothesis that I only broke into coughing fits in the past because I was accustomed to warmer temperatures and moister air; even in Rhode Island the winters were mild. I guessed that if I spent the winter here instead of just visiting, I would be okay. So far, so good.

It is cold, though. Last night a pipe froze somewhere in the ceiling, and we had no water until the sun came up this morning.

Yesterday we had a visit from my niecies (I call them that; in my head I actually call them my niecie-poos, but never out loud as it would be much too silly). The 7-year-old likes to cook, so I supervised, and she made the pecan pie filling for Christmas. However, that was too easy, and she wanted to make cookies or cake. Cookies or cake?!? Good gravy, this house is so full of cookies that Santa Claus himself couldn't eat them all.

The 2-year-old wanted to cook too, so I thought up a bread machine recipe for chocolate bread, and we made it together. The little one poured some sugar on the floor, but otherwise all went well.

Chocolate Bread

Alternating nieces, pour the following into the machine bowl:

1 1/2 t. yeast
3 c. white flour + 1-2 Tbsp.
1 t. salt (1/2 t. per niece)
2 Tbsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. butter
1 1/8 c. lukewarm water
3/4 c. milk chocolate chips

Bake at sweet, light setting.

I put the chocolate chips in late, hoping they wouldn't melt and blend into the bread, but they did anyway, so they might as well go in at the beginning.

Later, when one is stuck with a loaf of chocolate bread, it makes excellent brandied cinnamon French toast.


Monday, December 20, 2004

Dining Out

Friday night after a job interview that amazingly seemed to go pretty well, I was taken out to dinner at a Cedar Rapids restaurant called Vino's (plus a little sitting and sipping at the bar next door, R. G. Books).

We had a basic meal with no appetizers or desserts, but I have to report that my main dish was a delectable hunk of seafood as good as any I've eaten in coastal areas. I will no longer pine so much for Parkside in Providence, unless for the cocktails. My dinner was a thick piece of slightly crisped Chilean sea bass topped with a tiny dab of black caviar, lounging comfortably on a bed of risotto with tiger shrimp and peas. The peas were not as chic as the rest of the plate, but all the seafood was tender and perfectly cooked. It was a solid and delicious meal.

I bought a gift certificate for my brother and his wife. They enjoy good food and appreciate the difficulties involved in locating it.

Tonight I am playing around with the Enchanted Broccoli Forest recipe for mushroom pie. I don't want to make a spinach pie crust, so I'm using a regular frozen crust and putting spinach in the filling. We don't have any fresh mushrooms, so I'm using a can of mushrooms and throwing in a turnip. My friend Elantu advises me to replace half the yogurt with sour cream, so I'll be doing that too. The pie may taste funny, but it will definitely be full of vitamins!


Thursday, December 16, 2004

Whiter Shade

I never try to intimidate anybody, I don't bite, and I am genuinely friendly, but let's face it: Nobody wants to hire a clerical worker who can read Greek, Old Church Slavonic, and Hittite. For the most part, nobody even wants to know what Old Church Slavonic and Hittite are.

I clearly need to come up with a new answer to the job interview question that asks me what problems I have solved during my work experience. During a recent interview, I knew better than to tell them about my work addressing the problems inherent in teaching ancient languages in a way that actively involves the students, but I couldn't think of another good problem that I had solved outside of academia, other than routine everyday problems like software glitches, copy machine meltdown, filing systems that needed serious overhaul... So there I was, telling them about working with ancient language teachers, when I went from bad to worse: I referred to the teachers of ancient languages as "we." One of my interviewers visibly turned pale.

I definitely feel like the freak of the week.


Monday, December 13, 2004

Ch.5a: A Fast Friendship

The Fourth of July dawned warm and muggy. Cassie whiled away the morning alternating between the ocean and the condo’s swimming pool, while Maggie fit in a workout. Brad emerged from his laptop in mid-afternoon, and all three took a cab to South Beach, where festivities were underway. Cassie felt like Ashley Olsen on her way to meet Mary-Kate for a tropical adventure. They would dance on the beach, and maybe solve a mystery if one presented itself.

Brad insisted that Cassie stay with him and Maggie until they found Brittany, and he carefully selected a central location for the three of them to meet if they accidentally got separated. Cassie sighed wistfully. Ashley’s parents would have said, “We trust you,” and sent her on her way with a credit card. Sometimes real life could be so unfair.

Luckily, they barely had time to drink their iced herbal teas, and Brad was still standing in line for beer, when Brittany appeared. “Cassie! It’s so lovely to see you! You look amazing! Hi Maggie! I want to show Cassie something. Can we go? Mom’s around here someplace; she said she’d come find you later.”

“Okay, you girls go off and have a good time, but remember, Cassie has to be under that awning at 10:00 sharp.”

“Okay, Maggie,” said Cassie, and she allowed Brittany to tow her away by the wrist. “Where are we going, Brittany? It’s good to see you too!” Cassie basked in Brittany’s warm affection; Brittany had so much self confidence and elegance.

“I’m going, like, as far away from parents as I can get! This place is full of hotties, and you and I are a couple of gorgeous babes who, like, need to be seen!”

They were headed straight for the beach. Cassie noticed heads turn, but she did not fool herself into believing those guys were looking at her. Brittany gave her a little hug. “Oh, Cassie, it’s so much fun to be here with a girlfriend! What would I do without you? I’d be so bored! So what did you do all day?”

“Me? I went swimming. It really wasn’t that exciting, but I had a good time. The beach is so beautiful!”

“Yeah, like, we had our photo shoot on the beach this morning. The men were so... wet... not the photographers, the models.” Brittany giggled.

Soon a few men started filtering over to talk with Brittany, and she engaged them in lively conversation. The group of them strolled along the beach until Brittany abruptly shrieked, “Oh my god! We have to be somewhere! Thanks, guys, but we’ve gotta go!” She grabbed Cassie’s wrist and jogged back up the beach. “Cassie, there’s somebody you just have to meet! You’re going to be so surprised!”

Cassie, who had been ever so slightly disgruntled over being completely ignored for the past hour, was instantly mollified. “But what about the people you just met?”

“Who? Oh, you mean those guys just now? No, we’re going to meet some much better ones. Besides, most of those guys were just not my temperature. Or yours!” Cassie felt a warm glow at being included. She wondered what her temperature was.


Tuesday, December 07, 2004


I have been actively seeking work for over three months now. It is discouraging, and occasionally I allow myself a day to sink into despair and make no attempts to look for a job, or a day to do volunteer work and amuse myself and make no attempts to look for a job. This week I left a rejection letter on the floor for two days so I could step on it a few times. Still, for the most part I keep on plugging.

As a person who likes to remain very active and busy, I have a minimalist beauty regimen. It involves cutting and filing my nails every week or so, shaving my legs from time to time, remembering to moisturize and floss, and other similar grooming activities that many women, swimmers, and bicyclists engage in. However, now that I am unemployed and full of angst, I feel completely licensed to obsess over any body part I choose. In making this choice, I have left my skin and hair to their usual haphazard maintenance and focused my nagging anxiety on my face.

My chin, neck, and upper lip have never been so clear of stray hairs; the blackheads on my nose have never been so small. My eyebrows are so perfectly sculpted that even other people comment on them, and not just people who saw them when they were bushy, either. They require touch-ups twice a week.

I realize that some people spend real time on their appearance and even hire professionals to perform facials and manicures and pedicures and waxes, but for me, plucking stray hairs from my eyebrows is a sure sign of obsession and angst. I need a job soon, before I start buying lip liner.


Sunday, December 05, 2004

Get the rope!

One thing I have learned: the label "homemade in Iowa" is not a good enough reason to buy a salsa.