Friday, December 31, 2010


Yesterday we visited Hampton, a National Historic Site, that is part of the National Park Service (which makes it cooler because it’s free).

Hampton was a Georgian estate/plantation built just after the Revolutionary War and owned by the builder’s descendents through World War 2. At which point it was purchased, restored, and given to the Park Service.  Each room in the house is decorated with original antiques from ne of the time periods during which the house existed.

Here are some photos.  One caveat: the photos don’t do the estate justice. There was no way to take in the opulent grandeur. Nor was I able to take photos of the slave quarters and indentured servants housing that kept the estate flush with money and labor.

Here are Cal and I in front of one of the main doors.  It's hard to see but there's leaded painted glass in the window above our head.
 Here's the music room.  Note the harp. There was also an exquisite antique Steinway piano and wooden flute.
 Here's part of the bell system.  Each bell had a different tone and let the servants know where in the mansion they were needed.
Here's Matt in the stairway to the ice cellar. It went down thirty feet.  In the winter they'd fill a 30 foot deep brick lined well with ice so that in the summer the "family" and their guests could have ice cream and iced drinks.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


We are on vacation, which for us usually involves a car trip.  This vacation was no different. We left Chattanooga and headed north along roads flanked with snow. It was lovely as we passed through the Tennessee valley and eventually into the Blue Ridge Mountains. However, I noticed a couple of major differences between Tennessee and Virginia.

In Tennessee, every now and then we’d pass road workers standing along the sides of the interstate holding shovels filled with asphalt patch.  Then in breaks in the traffic, the road workers would dart onto the interstate, dump their pile of asphalt and hightail it back to the shoulder.  I’ve seen the workers out there after any major storm filling the potholes, and I’ve thought this was the height of folly.  And I still do.

However, when we got to Virginia, I discovered what happens when the state isn’t as concerned about highway maintenance. Highway 81 in Virginia is one big pothole broken up by bits of road.  The situation is so bad you could play dot-to-dot with the holes and end up with a spider web of lines.  No matter how avoidant you are, you can’t miss them because there are too many.  I wonder if the state of Virginia will pay for the new struts that I’m sure our van will need. It’s curious to me because I’ve heard, though not through personal experience, that speeding tickets in Virginia are among the highest in the nation.  I’m not sure what the state is doing with the money. But my theory is that if they’re adding to their state income through gouging out-of-state drivers, they ought to at least provide drivable roads.  But that would make sense and the politics of finance rarely does.

Another difference is the quality of driving.  In Tennessee (Memphis excepted) drivers feel a compunction to politeness. At a four way stop in Chattanooga, you might be waved to take your turn early by a kind driver who doesn’t want you to have to wait. This actually annoys Calvin when he ponders liability issues if that driver is really a psycho who’s going to crash into once you pull into the intersection (clearly Cal spent most of his adult driving life in Southern California).  At any rate, in Virginia no one is terribly concerned with politeness.  It appears to be a state of tail-gaters.  While in Virginia, Cal talked to cars in his rearview mirror and asked them why they were idiots and if their hope was to draft off the back of our van.  He became convinced of this when we pulled into the right lane so they could pass only to find that they frequently didn’t.  I think they’re just trying to conserve fuel.  Cal was not amused.

Next state is Maryland.  I wonder what their drivers are like. 

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

And She’ll Have Fun, Fun, Fun....

For you Beach Boys fans, I’ll say straight out that we didn’t get a car.  But we did get something nearly as much fun and infinitely cheaper...a Kindle. 

E-books are the way of the future (publishers take note, burying your collective head in the sand doesn’t change the reality).  Somehow they haven’t learned the lessons of the music industry.  Perhaps they’ll consider what happened to the monk copyists when the printing press came about.  But I digress.

Back to the Kindle.  It’s light in my hand, sleek, and charcoal gray.  The print is lovely pearl e-ink that causes no eye strain and doesn’t have some weird refresh rate that my brain perceives unlike the nasty computer. (Yes, I know how to adjust the refresh rate.)  Plus, it’s not back lit and so you can read in bright sunlight. As you can tell, it’s a match made in heaven.

Thankfully, Ariel was on hand when it arrived to help me with all the technical stuff (she has a Kindle already).  She showed me how to buy free classics, the ones that are out-of-print and not carried by my local library.  She explained what to do when I mistakenly buy an e-book that I don’t want (she knows me too well).  No panic is involved and it’s quite simple. I’m still waiting for her to show me how to read blogs and newspapers.  But I’m not in a hurry.  I’m still trying to decide whether I want to read The Picture of Dorian Gray, some Dostoyevsky (too depressing), or something totally frivolous.   I’ve settled on frivolous.  I’ve always wanted to read Agatha Christie’s Secret Adversary.  It’s one of her Tommy and Tuppence books.  I love the T & T books.  Ariel says it’s because Tommy and Tuppence are only thinly disguised versions of Calvin and me.  But in my defense, I’m not a spendthrift, and I don’t have a penchant for ridiculous hats. However, I do love to disagree with Calvin, not because I’m contrary but because it’s so much fun.

Hmm. That does sound a bit cryptic.  You’ll have to read and Tommy & Tuppence to figure it out.

Here's the Kindle. Next to it is the padded faux suede case that I sewed.  Much cheaper than the $40+ cases that Amazon offers.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

I Don't Have To Dream

This morning we woke up to a white Christmas.  And the snow's been coming down ever since. I can't imagine a more perfect holiday.  Here are some photos.

 Here's our own private Narnia lamppost.

And here I am in Narnia.

Monday, December 20, 2010

On Having An Old House

When you buy an old house (70+ years), you get stunning woodwork, amazing artistry, and whacked plumbing.  Our old house was built back in the day when indoor plumbing was new fangled and bathrooms were called “waterclosets” because they were closets literally.  This is all good and well until you have a problem. 

During our recent water debacle, we discovered that one of the toilets “ran.” So we need to replace the rubber stopper of the toilet.  But, of course, you can’t do that because those kinds of stoppers haven’t been made since...well, no one knows when they were last made.  So the “guts” of our water closet’s toilet need to be replaced.  That means that you literally have to take the whole toilet apart. So much more easily said than done. 

First of all, a water closet is NOT a standard size closet.  It’s the size of a closet when people owned two sets of clothes, work clothes and Sunday clothes, so you didn’t need a clothing rod, just shelves.  Shelf width is the width of our WC—each side of the toilet touches the respective wall.  And it’s not long either. If you needed to, you could almost wash your hands while you sat on the potty.  Not easy fit for two adults, various tools, and flashlights (because, of course, the lights in the WC have decided to be fitful at the same time as the toilet).  And it’s taking two adults because these bolts haven’t moved since the Roosevelt administration (?).  Cal’s hands are now covered with desiccated rubber, which is like tar mixed with grease. 

He’s on his way to the hardware store—but it’s only the second time today.  I’m sure the van will take many more trips over the next few hours.  Stay tuned.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Friday Five

It's almost Christmas time.  Yay!   In light of that, what are your five favorite holiday foods?

Here are mine.

1. Country ham (A completely smoked ham--i.e., doesn't need to be refrigerated--that has to be soaked for three days and boiled for eight hours and then baked in a crust).

2. Fruitcake

3. Advocaat (My mother is from the Netherlands, and it's a Dutch drink.)

4. Raclette (This is a Swiss/French New Years tradition.  My aunt and uncle are Swiss. Raclette involves really good cheese, melted in a special pan and poured over potatoes, meat, onions, pickles, etc.)

5. Coconut-rum pie.  Very Yummy.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Finals Security

It’s finals week at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga.  Luke told us about all the extra precautions that his professors are taking to prevent cheating.  Ariel laughed.  Apparently, the math professors don’t take any precautions.  It’s nearly impossible to cheat on a proofs final.  The exam has ten problems.  Each problem takes about a page to “solve” and doesn’t involve numbers. Copying isn’t an issue because no one knows who might actually be getting the problem correct.  Talking isn’t an issue because again—no one would know if they were doing it right.  Besides if you want to finish in time there’s no time to share answers.  So Ariel’s professor actually leaves the room and congregates in the hall with other profs and they chat.  Students come and go from the exam room.  Some walk the halls taking deep breaths, they open their backpacks and gulp from bottles of Pepto-Bismal, they talk to themselves, they track down the Prof if they have a question, and some even go to the bathroom and ritually wash their hands after every couple of problems.

The boys and I are beginning to think that math really isn’t a major, but more of a club for smart people with social issues.  (Ariel’s offended, but she doesn’t necessarily disagree.)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Water Woes

On Monday, the water bill came.  I didn’t open it because I’d rather read the Christmas letters first.  Cal opened the bill.  He said “Hmmm” and handed it to me.  My eyes fell upon the billing amount that represented a use of just under 25,000 gallons of water. “What?!?” (The Christmas letters fell to the table.) “We have a massive water leak.” 

I ran out to the front yard.  Surely, there must be spongy ground somewhere from all the water.  The ground was bone dry.  Luke pulled the lid off the water meter and I watched the little red triangle of the water meter spin.  Lovely. 

I called the water department.  A woman service person wanted me to put dye tablets into the toilets to make sure they weren’t leaking.  Umm, we don’t have 200 leaky toilets.  I politely declined, pointing out the problems with her theory.  She agreed.  (I suspect she was following the Serviceperson Checklist that the water department made her use.)  She pondered the number of gallons and asked if we had property damage.  Ack!  Property damage?  Did she mean a crumbling foundation?  I answered that as of yet I hadn’t seen any property damage.  Oh, good.  She told me to call the repair people (we have external pipe insurance).

After a call to the pipe repair people, I discovered that the water service woman didn’t know what she was talking about.  The water department has to send over a service guy to actually verify that there’s a leak.  (Either that or the kids are all taking 24 hour showers.)  Of course, no one could come yesterday.

Today Mr. Water Department guy shows up and looks at the meter.  “Ooo.  Y’all have a mighty big leak somewheres.”  (I’m thinking: Uh, yeah...)  “Kinda strange that there’s no standing water in yer yard.”  (I thought so too.)  “Must be some kinda big crevasse thing under the ground that’s filling up with water.” (Must be. Or the house will soon be floating away.) “Well, I’ll put the call in ta the repair people and tell ‘em that you got a leak.”

I waited for the repair people to call and schedule the repair.  They didn’t.  Cal called.  Turns out it’s the repair peoples’ company wide Christmas party.  While I’m sure they are enjoying the holiday spirits, I’d really like to schedule a repair before we’ve “used” 50k gallons.  We left a message.

So Cal called the water company to discuss the rather large bill.  Oh, yes, they do make arrangements to deal with the bill issues.  Of course, you have to pay the whole bill first.  And then if you file the proper paperwork, you might get reimbursed $20.  Twenty measly bucks.  (I think I need some of that spiked eggnog from the repair Christmas party.)  But I’m not shocked.  When the water pipe ruptured two years ago, they only reimbursed us 20 dollars.

It seems to Cal and me that two massive leaks in two years means the pipe needs to be replaced.  Cal intends to be here whenever it is that they decide to repair the pipes and make sure it’s clear that we don’t want another ruptured line in two years.  They need to get their backhoe and lay a new line.

In the meantime, we’re still waiting to hear from party people.  I think it’s time for me to start spamming their message machine with messages—that might help the eggnog stupor wear off.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Finals, Snow, and Protest

Yesterday, it snowed.  Now if this had been five years ago when we lived in New England, we wouldn’t call this snow.  It would be a smidge of white dust.  But we’ve lived in Chattanooga for four and one half years now, and we’ve adjusted our expectations.  It is snow.

It was windy and the snow was light so that it danced across the roads in eddies and whorls.  We marveled and fell in love with snow all over again.  It was as if we got an early Christmas present.

The gift came with a downside though.  No, it’s not shoveling.  The accumulation is so minor that a broom would do.  The downside is that Luke had an eight o-clock final this morning.  It’s now been rescheduled to Wednesday.  He was supposed to be done with finals today and now his Christmas vacation has to wait two more days. 

Luke isn’t that upset about it.  He’s pretty prosaic.  But Ariel is upset for him.  She thinks that prof should just cancel the final, give the Luke “A” that he currently has, and move on with life.  She’s also incensed for the students who have plane tickets to go home on Wednesday and now may have to pay extra money and try to get their tickets changed.

But that’s not us. And maybe it’s no one.  What we’re hoping for right now is that the university will be open by 11am, which is when Luke’s next final is scheduled.  If it’s not, Ariel might be organizing a protest. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

Things That No Longer Loom

The things that loom over me have decreased dramatically.  The Christmas letter is done and has met with the approval of all concerned parties.  Matt complained (his word count wasn’t high enough), but my other minions defended me staunchly.  Extra candy canes for those kids. 

The Christmas tree is completely decorated. Of course, tree acquisition was it trauma all its own.  Cal took Matthew and Jake out for a hunt at a “local” tree farm.  The local farm ended up being in The Boonies, GA, and the Mapquest directions were totally wrong—apparently it wasn’t over the hill and through the woods, but through the woods, over six hills, across one hollow, and past the neighbor’s still.  Cal ended up called the tree farm from his cellphone and spoke to someone whom he thinks was speaking English, but whose Southern accent was so strong that Cal said it could have been Tigrinya.  Once we get about ten miles past the Chattanooga city limits, we often run into a language barrier.

Eventually, they found the farm, which had boasted unusual farm animals and well as trees.  The animals were llamas that were so filthy and unkempt that Matt said they looked like hairy giraffes with mange.  He couldn’t bring himself to pet them. And the trees weren’t worth the drive.  Mostly Charlie Brown trees (remember a Charlie Brown Christmas and the sad drooping tree) with weird bare spots.  Next they went to Ace Hardware—we had a coupon.  Ace had a handful of nearly needleless trees and wanted $45. Um, I think not. Then they hit a lot whose proceeds went to a local Children’s Hospital. Sadly, they had only C. Brown trees too.  I guess everyone down here does their trees the day after Thanksgiving.  Finally, they bought a WalMart tree.  Sad, but true. 

It’s currently dropping needles all over the living room floor, but it looks beautiful.  The kids did a lovely job of decorating it. I sat on the couch with Cal, drinking cider and reading the first chapter of Skipping Christmas aloud to the family.  If you haven’t read it, you should.  It’s the perfect antidote to the Scrooge living inside us all.

Oh, and guess what? I only had to vacuum once.  The kids not only decorated; they swept and vacuumed too. Holiday bliss.  

Here's Matt vacuuming the needles.
Notice the candy cane--holiday sustenance.

Here's our electrical engineer making sure the lights will working properly.

And the finished product.  Okay, it looks much better in person.  But you get the idea.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

World Domination

I don’t know if every male ever born wants to dominate the world, but ours do.  Luke and Jacob were discussing it this morning, arguing the finer points of Medieval Total War 2.  I’d been only vaguely aware of this game before, hearing the occasional shouts of “Yes, holy Kaiser, it will be done!” come out of the computer speakers.  Apparently, the point of the game is to take over the known world during the Middle Ages.  And you play a German king. (I could speculate on the reasons why, but I’ll let you do that on your own.) Anyway, Jacob has taken over the world and owns everything from France to Kiev.  He was sharing his strategy with Luke.  When Jake starts the game, he uses his army to take over a couple of countries. Then he taxes them, and not just normal levies.  No. Jacob employs the heavy-handed dress-your-serfs-in-rags kind of taxes.

Luke was radically opposed to this kind of taxation.  He believes in benevolent dictatorship.  And Luke argued that it makes the citizens less likely to rebel. Jacob countered that by insisting that it takes the conquered peoples a long time to rebel because they’re so poor.  And when they do begin to rebel, he just lowers the taxes.  At which point, they adore him for listening to their needs.  And he still gets lots of money because the taxes are much higher than what they were before he took over—but now they’re grateful to him to pay the exorbitant rates.

I asked Jacob what happens in the game now that he rules the world.  He said that Timar the Lame and the Timarids were attacking him.  So he’s sending his crack troops, the Imperial Knights to wipe them out.  I asked him if the knights had a name.  He told me, “The Forlorn Hope.”  Apparently, these troops are condemned prisoners whom Jake gave a second chance for life if they’d fight for him.  He said they’re amazing and wiped the Mongols off the map.  Oh, right.

I asked him what other enemies he had in the game.  He told me that the Pope was a problem because Jake had taken over the Papal states, and the Pope got angry.  So the Pope excommunicated him.  “But it’s okay,” Jake said, “because I assassinated him. Then I set up one of my own cardinals as Pope.”  The new Pope says, “(Jake’s) piety is an inspiration to all peoples.” Hmm... Don’t worry, I’ll make sure this child does not major in Political Science or read Machiavelli’s The Prince.  The world’s a much safer place if Jake’s an electrical engineer.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Birthday Torte

 Today my oldest turns twenty.  How can he be twenty? I still feel twenty inside.  My outside doesn’t look twenty though. Hmm.  

Oh, well, the good news is that we get to eat chocolate torte. Everyone in the family gets chocolate torte for their birthday because:

1. It’s delicious. Of course, given that it’s made of butter, sugar, eggs, chocolate, and more chocolate, it would be hard to make it taste bad.

2. It’s gluten-free so I don’t have to make something different for Matt to eat. Not making two sets of food is so important to me that I don’t mind the fact that making the torte is the baking equivalent of the Ten Labors of Hercules. Melt the chocolate without burning it. Heat and chill a sugar syrup without crystallizing the sugar. Add beaten eggs to hot chocolate without having the eggs cook. Swathe a springform pan in plastic wrap and foil so that the water bath doesn’t melt the torte into a watery brown slop. (Aren’t you eager to make one?)

3. It lasts for days, theoretically. The torte is so rich and dense that I cut only thick slivers for pieces, which is perfect size for a chocolate fix. However, the kids are serious addicts and have discovered that if you wait about thirty minutes, you can eat another thick sliver. And thirty minutes after that, another. The torte doesn’t last long. But don’t worry, I’ll eat a piece for you.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Things That Loom Over Me, Part II

I finished a rough draft of the Christmas letter—although the Matt paragraph remains to be written.  He gave me a list of all the things that I cannot mention.  I’m waiting for the list of what I’m allowed to mention.  Okay, he gave me a list.  It had one thing on it that was usable.  Sigh.

But this means that I have to begin to consider the next great holiday evil.  Trimming the tree.  I don’t know how it goes at your house, but here’s how it is at ours.

First, we bring up what I call the “Christmas Crap” from the basement.  As the two bins are carried up, I secretly do the happy dance that the basement flooding last year destroyed at least four boxes of “Christmas Crap.” Yeah, baby! 

Next Cal and sundry kids go to buy the tree. In New England this was actually fun because we got to peruse the fields and cut the tree ourselves.  Hmm... Now that I mention it, I remember Ariel and I got bone cold as the icy winds blew. 

While they go, I stay home and warm and spice the cider.  It’s an important job involving precise application of the correct spices so I can’t let anyone else do it. Besides if they did, I’d have to go and pick out the tree too.

Cal brings the tree home.  I begin sneezing.  I’m not allergic to the tree, but all the mold and mildew that has accumulated on the tree as it waited in the tree lot.  Of course, the tree does not fit the tree stand.  Multiple trips in and out of the house begin, during which the tree drops mold spores all over the house. I start sucking cough drops and smear Vicks on my chest—my normal allergy meds can’t deal with this. Once the tree fits, I sweep tree needles for the first time.

Next, Jake spends 20 minutes detangling the lights and figuring out why the strings won’t light.  He talks about circuits and conductivity.  I sweep up the second set of pine droppings. Then, I sip my cup of cider. 

Once Jake has the lights working, Luke and Matt put on the garland.  Ariel comments on all the areas that aren’t done properly. She fixes their mistakes.

Then come the ornaments. Ariel discusses with the boys her theory of ornamentation.  It involves color coordination.  Luke’s theory is to make sure a Yankees ornament is visible on every side of the tree. Matthew likes ornaments put on according to some pattern that he has in mind.  Ariel thinks his pattern has  too many ornaments in it.  Matthew ignores Ariel. Jake doesn’t care; he throws a few ornaments on and asks if he can play computer games.  I say, “No!”  I add brandy to my cider and Cal’s.

The ornaments are on the tree. I vacuum needles from the entire living room, telling myself that if I vacuum enough my sneezing will stop. It doesn’t. I decide that I hate decorating for Christmas.

Cal turns out the lights and plugs in the tree. The lights twinkle and reflect in the garland.  I remember the histories of all the odd ornaments. We sit and sing Christmas carols—Silent Night, Joy to the World, O Come All Ye Faithful. My eyes tear up and I remember why I love Christmas.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Things That Loom Over Me, Part I

Okay, so Thanksgiving is over.  However, two big things are hanging over my head.  One the Christmas tree.  But that comes later and deserves a post all its own.  Before the tree looms The Christmas Letter.  When Cal and I got married, he said that he’d balance the checkbook every month if I wrote and mailed the Christmas card/photo.  (We took more pictures on Sunday—and we got a fairly decent picture. The problem is that not everyone agrees on which picture is acceptable. Ariel thinks that the best photo of her is the snorting/crazed* photo and is tired of having the worst picture of her chosen for the official photo.  She’s right. But usually we chose the one picture where Luke and Matt look normal...okay, and the one where l don’t look too old/odd.)

But back to the letter. I thought that when I agreed to do the Christmas letter that I was getting the easy end of the bargain.  (Actually, I think that the reason Cal volunteered is that he saw my checkbook when we got married—sometimes I added when I should have subtracted and vice versa.  I had a lot more money in the account than I thought.  Which was good, but as Cal pointed out it could have gone the other way.  That wouldn’t have been so good. Can you see now why it’s so odd that I have math kids?) 

Sorry—another digression. Back to the letter. I thought that I was getting the easy part of the bargain, but that was before we had children.  Now I have to write a rough draft and present it to all the kids.  Each one insists on “approving” what I say about them.  Actually, Luke doesn’t care.  So that’s easy.  Ariel doesn’t mind too much, though she says that I make her sound more wonderful than she is.  Jake isn’t too fussy—as long as his paragraph is as long as his siblings.  He hasn’t resorted to a word count, yet. Matt is the most hair-splitting.  He would prefer that I not include a paragraph on him.  Since I insist on a Matt paragraph, he gets to approve every word. I’m preparing my argument—sometimes we get down to the nitty-gritty of the connotations and denotations of various verbs.  Yep. Time to break out the thesaurus. Don’t you just wish you could write it?  I think I hear Cal laughing.

* see previous blog post

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Reprehensible Thanksgiving Tradition

We have a tradition besides the food and festivities of Thanksgiving (which we enjoyed and I have a few pictures to share).  But this tradition causes groans, imprecations, and scowls. It’s the annual Christmas photo.  I usually try to do it on Thanksgiving because:

1. I have a few minutes of down time between when everything is done and when the turkey’s ready and the guests arrive.

2. All the kids aren’t too badly dressed—though Jacob had to be told that a t-shirt that he normally wears to bed does not qualify as “Thanksgiving wear.”

3. I tell them that if we get a good picture, then they don’t have to do it on Sunday morning before church or (assuming they’re not ready early) on Sunday after church.

The six of us went outside.  I explained firmly to the children that I was not going to have the dog in the photo. Imagine more grimaces and gnashing of teeth.  I took eight photos.  Sadly, I did not bring my glasses along so that I could check the photos and make sure they looked good.  When I downloaded the pics to the computer here’s what I found.

Picture One: Not too bad, though some of us look like we need a dose of Metamucil. 

Picture Two: I wasn’t in this one—I forgot to set the timer.

Picture Three: The sun came out and Luke and Matt are squinting so hard it looks like they don’t have eyes.

Picture Four: I’m missing again—why didn’t the losers who designed this camera have a “timer feature” that allows the user to take multiple timed photos until I tell it not to?!

Picture Five: The wind started blowing and my hair is in my eyes. 

Picture Six: Luke and Matt’s eyes are closed.

Picture Seven: Luke’s snorting and Matt is having a crazed moment. Jacob wants to use that one for the Christmas photo.  Fat chance.

Picture Eight: I barely sat down in time and my hand’s blurry.
It looks like we’ll be taking more photos on Sunday.  I’m sure everyone will be very delighted. And this time, I’m bringing my glasses.

Here's the table before we had dinner.
Ariel folded all the napkins.

Here we are having dinner.

I know you want me to post the snorting/crazed photo. Too bad. I value my life. Besides, I have to work with these people again on Sunday. :)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

It's Beginning to Smell Like Christmas!

 Today was the beginning of Christmas.  Yeah, I know that it's two days from Thanksgiving, but Christmas begins when I make fruitcake.  Before you groan, this is not your mother's fruitcake.  This is no dry doorstop.  This is a gourmet fruitcake that bathes in brandy for the next four weeks.

Here's the cake after it came out of the oven just before it had its drenching of holiday spirits.

Four weeks is a long time to wait....

Monday, November 22, 2010

Those Poor Egyptians

I’ve mentioned before that I teach Sunday school for two and three year olds. I’ve been doing it on and off for over 20 years. Most people don’t volunteer to teach these little ones, which is fine with me because I love them.

They are a delight. Once they get passed being afraid (which isn’t bad because they ask to sit on my lap and they snuggle—I miss when my own kids were snuggle bunnies), they are completely honest.

For example, (disclaimer—this one is from many years ago) I asked a little boy to sit in his chair. With sparkling eyes, he said, “Mrs. Keller, what if I say ‘no?’” I said, “Oh, sweetheart, if you say, ‘no,’ then I will have to tell your daddy.” He pondered that for half a second and then sat in his chair.

Then there are the three year olds who try to “shock” me. Of course, what shocks a three year old is not what shocks an adult. One of my favorites is when I pass out animals crackers.

3 year old: “Mrs. Keller, I hate cookies.”

Me: Oh, that’s too bad. Well, you don’t have to have any if you don’t want them.

3 year old, looking terribly indecisive, says nothing. At which point, I surreptitiously slid the child two animal crackers.

And there are the three year old misunderstandings of the world.

Me: There was going to be a famine in Egypt and the people would have nothing to eat.

3 year old: In Egypt they eat only skeletons

Me, trying to figure this out: What?

3 y.o.: They don’t have food. They eat bones.

Me, light coming on: Are you talking about mummies?

3 y.o nods, looking quite pleased with himself

Me: Mummifying is what they did with dead bodies. They didn’t eat them.

3yo, looking disappointed but resigned: Oh.

And, of course, I always have shoe/purse/jewelry bonding. No matter how shy, every two or three year old girl is eager to show you her shoes/purse/jewelry and discuss its merits. And I admit that I’ve worn certain earrings/necklaces/shoes because I knew that “my girls” would love it.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Eleventh Plague

Do you know what I hate about the South?  It’s not the heat.  Okay, I don’t like the heat.  I sort of hate it—but in a I’m-so-much-tougher-than-this sort of way.  It’s the heat that makes steel magnolias out of tulip-type women like me.

The thing I really hate is the mosquitoes.  I know I’ve had numerous mosquito related posts, but finding a mosquito flying in the house in mid-November has got to be a sign of the apocalypse.  Seriously.  What else could it be but the Eleventh Plague?

If you think of mosquitoes as irritating insects, I guess you don’t understand the horror of it all.  But remember, mosquitoes are miniature vampires.  The only reason that they don’t make you undead is because they’re too small.  But here’s the thing, mosquitoes are changing their DNA.  The fact that they’re alive in mid-November is proof of that.  And they are changing their tactics—they’re organizing.  (I know because I can see the “just wait” in their sneering multi-focal eyes when they bite me.) While a single mosquito can’t make you undead on its own, a swarm is a different animal all together.  A swarm could suck you dry on the way to the mailbox, which is when they like to attack me.  I’m sure they’re all under our Southern magnolia tree waiting to strike.  The mosquito in the house today was just their advance guard.  It’s coming...the Eleventh Plague.  Beware the mosquito apocalypse.  Don’t say that you weren’t warned!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Writers' Quotes

My friend Andrew sent me some writers' quotes.  Here's one of them.  Thanks, Andrew!

The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say,
but what we are unable to say.
~Anais Nin

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Gnashing of Teeth

Nothing quite equals the gnashing of teeth provoked by college registration.  The university assigns registration times to different groups of students.  Luke got up before 6 am to register for next semester (For reasons know only to the UTC system, Ariel registered at 1pm yesterday—I’m not sure why, they’re both sophomores. The fact that she had early reg time caused outrage earlier this week.  I assured Luke that it was because they university doesn’t want to disturb the delicate balance of the math psyche by making them set an alarm.  I know you think I’m joking, but Ariel will back me up.  For example, most of her math professors actually have bottles of prescription medication in lines across their desk. And it’s not antibiotics.)

Sorry for the digression. When I got up to make coffee, Luke was grumbling.  I asked how registration went.  He said that Organic Chemistry was already full at 6 am, and he couldn’t get into the class.  So, theoretically, sophomore Chem majors can’t get into the class.  It’s a sophomore class. And since UTC only offers O Chem 1 in the fall and O Chem 2 in the spring, you’d think they’d know how many students to expect.  I suggested Luke Force Add the class.  He said you can’t.  Fire laws limit the number of students in labs.  Oh, right.  Are the profs planning to fail a lot of students, and thus don’t need the extra labs?  If so, they should tell the students not to register for spring.  Of course, more likely they will add labs.  But why not do it before reg when it helps to plan your other classes? 

But I think I’ve discovered the answer.  Unlike math majors, who need their balance maintained, the university wants chemistry majors to learn flexibility.  After all, these are people who measure meticulously.  They tend to do everything precisely. At two, Luke had a fastidiously organized his sock drawer (even separated by day socks and night socks).  He was so tidy that when he and Ariel shared a room (they were very young), her idea of cleaning up was dumping her mess on Luke’s side so he’d clean it up.

In other words, the whole registration fiasco is really an attempt at character building by the university.  Hehe.  I suspect Luke won’t appreciate my interpretation. 

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fairy Rings

This time of year we get rain and warm, but not hot days.  That breeds mycelium (mushrooms).  Of course being an avid gardener, I pulled up all the fruiting bodies.  But across the street from our house is a big patch of grass that isn’t so faithfully tended.  And I’m glad.  Because when the conditions are just right, the fairy rings appear.  If you’ve never seen a fairy ring, it’s a circle of grass that’s perfectly outlined in mushrooms.  It’s really amazing, otherworldly actually.  It makes me want to put on fairy wings and dance.
Of course, I wouldn’t be a sweet little elfin fairy with a crinoline tutu.  I picture myself more as Holly Short from the Artemis Fowl books.  Holly may have wings, but she packs Neutrino 2000, can fly any ship with turbo thrusters, and take down a charging bull goblin without breaking a sweat.  Yep, that’s my kind of elfin fairy.

Here’s picture of a fairy ring.  It’s not the one across the street, which is actually better, but I don’t have a photo of it.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Study Buddy

I just finished helping my daughter study for a proofs exam.  Why? Because I was too tired to come up with an excuse for why I couldn’t help her study. 

My job as study-buddy is to hold up a flashcard and nod as she recites drivel to me.  If the drivel is vaguely related to what is scrawled on the card, I say “good.”  If the drivel seems unrelated, I say “yeah, maybe.”  Then she looks at the card and says, “That’s exactly what I said.”  And I say, “Oh, right.” I mean how am I supposed to know that a sideways swirl is actually an “R,” which isn’t really an “r” but is actually a “relation?”  (Maybe they’re second cousins once removed, but I didn’t ask.)

However, I did find a couple of interesting things like hUg.  Any math that involves hugs can’t be all bad.  And actually hUg stands for “h” union with “g” so it really is a kind of hug.  Which leads to the integral of e to the x, but I won’t go there.

There are other cool terms we studied and here’s what I think they should mean: supremums (super mums—moms who sacrifice their “down” time to help their daughters study) and infimums (sick mums—moms who stay up too late helping their daughters study).   

Then there’s the set theory thing with inverse images. I told her they looked like paramecium.  She was mildly offended that I’d “managed to taint” math with science.  Hmm. I’ll remember that for next time I want to get out of flashcard duty.  “Hey, Ar, the foot of this swirly R looks like a flagellum.”

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Writers' Quotes

Writing, I think, is not apart from living.  
Writing is a kind of double living. 
 The writer experiences everything twice.  
Once in reality and once in that mirror which waits always before or behind. 

 ~Catherine Drinker Bowen

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Autumnal Conspiracies

How do I know that autumn’s here?  (Okay, it’s November, but I live in Tennessee so fall comes late.)  Is it the apple cider that’s mulling on the stove? Is it the leaves that are going from green to crimson? Is it the leaf mold that makes us sneeze 24 hours a day?

No. It’s none of those things. I know it’s autumn because I need two wardrobes.  In the mornings, I need an undershirt, long-sleeve shirt, wool sweater, jeans, and warm socks.  By afternoon, I need a pair of shorts and a tank top.

It freezes during the night and hits the 70s or 80s in the afternoon.  Why is that?  I’m sure there’s a scientific explanation that has something to do with wind patterns and the seasonal movements of the earth around the sun, but that’s hogwash.  I’m pretty sure it’s caused by an under-the-table deal between the detergent companies and the clothing manufacturers.  (Kind of like the deal between greeting card manufacturers and the postal service, which created holidays like Secretary’s Day and National Talk-Like-A-Pirate-Day. Yes, that’s a real day with real cards.)

Anyway, the temperature swings are clearly a result of weather altering satellites owned by Proctor and Gamble and the Gap. In a bid to make up lost revenue due to the recession, they’ve messed with the weather and engineered these multiple clothing changes. Instead of tossing shorts and tank top in the wash, I also have to wash jeans, an undershirt, a tee-shirt and heavy socks.  Now multiply this by the six people in the house. (thankfully, we have only one girl or you could be multiplying this by twelve to include outfits that were tried on and discarded).  Yep, that’s a lot of laundry.

So I’m going through lots of detergent. (BTW, in an effort to save money and not pay for any more satellites purchased by P&G, I bought the Costco version of Tide.  Don’t do it.  It doesn’t dissolve properly, even in warm water, and leaves little bits of detergent on your clothes.)  However, I’ve outsmarted Gap as well as Target and Kohls, who are no doubt involved in this conspiracy, by buying at a thrift store, sewing, and remaking hand-me-downs.

Thankfully, winter’s just around the corner, although then I’ll have to face the gas company/heating oil conspiracy. I have no idea how to get around that.  Last winter, I tried turning the heater down very low. But when the kids “saw” their breath, mutinous rumors abounded. Their eagle eyes have already been watching the thermostat. I must come up with new ways to thwart the heating company. Or my kids.  Hmm. The heating company is easier.

N.B. For some reason, Blogger insists on putting my final paragraphs in a different font.  What's up with that? I've tried every remedy.  It must be a Microsoft/Blogger conspiracy formulated by the computer imps who really run the companies.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Meacham Baby

You might remember that a couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I was going to the Meacham Writers’ Conference.  The day finally came.  If you’ve never been to a workshop before, it’s like showing off your new baby to a bunch of strangers whose job is to find your baby’s flaws. Yeah, kind of scary.  Since I’m not the best judge of my own work. I was nervous.  What made it even worse was that I didn’t have anything new to submit, I just dusted off an old novel that had been “trunked” for the last six or seven years.  So I hadn’t had time to decide if that “spot” on the cheek of chapter one was a cute freckle or a witchy mole with hair growing out of it.  My other worry was that this old manuscript is what I call my “heart novel.”  And I really didn’t want the story to be dumped on. 

Mine was one of the last manuscripts to be dealt with in the workshop.  I was a little more relaxed because everyone seemed to be knowledgeable about writing and fair.  But I was still pasting on my it’s-okay-I-can-take-criticism face in case I was told the story was trite or cliché or had a witchy mole in chapter one.

As it turned out the spot was a very cute freckle, and the baby was tickled and cooed over.  The seminar leader told me to get the book in the hands of agents asap.  I was stunned—my baby wasn’t a three-eyed alien.  I guess I’m going to dress the book in its cutest ruffles and frills, i.e. re-edit it one more time and look for an agent.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Reader Recommendations

(This isn’t exactly a Friday Five, but I’d like some opinions so bear with me.)

The other day, Jacob was looking for a book to read (he’s a picky reader) so I suggested Dune. I remembered reading and enjoying it as a teenager.  He borrowed it from the library. 

Then, of course, I did the parent thing—I thought, “Uh, I don’t exactly remember the details of the book...maybe I don’t want him to read the book.”  So I started reading it again.  And I’m really enjoying it (so far nothing too objectionable).  I’m not a big sci-fi reader, but a well-written book is lovely whatever the genre.  One of the things I like about reading outside my favorite genres is that I pay more attention to the writing and how the author creates his/her magic.

What I’m loving about Dune is that although the pace is slower than I might have imagined, the author is spreading a lot of breadcrumbs for me to follow.  Plus, Frank Herbert, Dune’s author, does his world building with a restrained hand.  A lot of sci-fi is yawn inducing for me because they authors get too caught up in world building.  But in Dune I learn only what I need to know, i.e. no information dumps.  So instead of knowing every oddity of the setting, I learn what the characters experience, what their normative is.  And I’m fascinated.  Small details here and there create a more real, exotic world than a paragraph detailing the differences.  I guess what I’m saying is that I’m learning from a master about place and setting.  That’s what I like about reading out of my favorite genres.

What I’m asking for in this post is for you all to share with me who you think are masters of their genres.  I can’t wait to start putting books on hold at the library.  Thanks!  Here are a few recommendations that I have to share.

Detective Mysteries:

1.Agatha Christie.  But some of her more unusual books.  Try reading a few of her Tommy and Tuppence stories: N or M and By the Pricking of My Thumbs.  In these books (and others with Tommy and Tuppence) Christie allows the couple to age and their relationship to mature. Also check out some of her plays that have been novelized—very interesting style.

2.Dorothy Sayers. The Lord Peter Wimsey books.  (Especially the ones with Harriet Vane—Harriet’s a writer so you can’t help but love her. ;)

Don’t forget, share with us what you love and who the masters are.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Writers' Quotes

A good style should show no signs of effort.  
What is written should seem a happy accident. 
 ~W. Somerset Maugham

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


Ariel is fascinated by statistics. Today she researched the professor-student ratio of various majors at UTC. She discovered that the chemistry professor-student ratio was 1 to 36 with a retention rate of 54.1%--the number of students who don’t change to a different major. Then she pulled up the mathematics professor-student ratio, which was 1 to 1.56. Yes, that means that for every math professor there’s 1.56 students (and that doesn’t include the adjunct professors—of course, they usually teach non-major math classes). That’s an amazing statistic. But then you have to consider that the departmental retention rate is 35.9%.  Hmm. So despite the fact that each math professor could teach one and half students, basically private tutoring, they still can’t retain 2/3s of the students majoring in the department. Hmm. Why? Any ideas?  I’m guessing it must be personal hygiene issues.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Meaner Than Me

My children call me “the meanest mom” they know.  It’s a title I wear with pride as it really means, “You make me do chores,” “You monitor my computer time,” and “You make me do the schoolwork that I’m capable of instead of what the government/schoolboard requires.”  Also very high on the list of why I’m so mean is music lessons.  The kids take music lessons until they graduate from high school.

Cal and I both come from musical families so we think of music lessons like we think of math—it’s just one of those things you have to learn.  And the music teachers have agreed, the children all were given musical gifts.  Of course, just like math, they’d rather not study it, even if they’re good at it.  

Jacob was, according to his teacher, born with an internal metronome.  So he’s particularly good with rhythm.  His teacher’s given him lots of syncopated, swing, etc.  But she’s also given him sonatas. She claims he was created to play sonatas.  Jacob strongly disagrees. Here’s what happened at his lessons the other day.

Teacher: Take the second ending.

J: Can’t I take the first? (So he can replay the stuff he has just played and avoid the difficult stuff coming next.)

Teacher: No.

J (After finishing the section): I don’t like this piece.

Teacher: Too bad.  I do.

J: It’s really long.

Teacher: Honey, this is only the first movement.

J (After the stunned silence wears off):  What?

Teacher (paging through the piece): This is the second movement

J (grunts)

Teacher: Oh, look here is the third movement.

J: I really hate this song.

Teacher: This is my favorite sonata

J: When can I quit it?

Teacher: When you love it as much as I do.

Jacob sighs heavily and meditates on the fact that he’ll be working on the stupid sonata FOREVER.  And me, what am I doing during this exchange?  I’m smiling—there are way “meaner” people in the world than me.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Bomb Threats and Writers' Quotes

The university that Luke and Ariel attend had a bomb threat this morning.  Luke was sent home as part of the evacuation of threatened buildings.  Ariel's still in class.  I'm wondering if she's going to be evac'd.  Sigh.  Why do people think this will actually help them during midterms?  Do they seriously think an extra day of study is going to make a difference?

Being that it's Thursday, here's the writer's quote for the day.  Enjoy.

‘Writing is a deeply immersive experience.  When the words are flying, the house could be burgled and I wouldn’t notice.  I have a low boredom threshold and I like intensity – writing is a way of escaping the quotidian.’

~William Wordsworth

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


I’m going to a writing conference this Saturday.  And since I’m signed up to go to a workshop, I got a packet of novel excerpts to read in preparation.  I was pretty excited at the quality of most of the writing. Yay!  But the thing I was most excited to see was rewritten version of a novel that I’d read in the workshop last year.

Last year’s version wasn’t bad.  But like a lot of newbie novels (mine included), it started out with backstory.  Why do we do this so often?  I mean, we all know that you don’t begin with backstory.  I think I’ve done it because I’m not as confident in my writing and my characters as I need to be.  And I think it’s because a lot of times when I start a novel, I really don’t know the characters yet—what I start off writing is more to educate me than anyone else.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  You have to start somewhere.  But you can’t stop there or your readers will yawn and move on to another book. 

Instead in this new version of the book, the author began where the story started—when something happens, when the main character gets kicked in the stomach by the plot.  As a reader, I get to see who the MC is through her actions and decisions.  As well as by what she doesn’t do or say.

What about the backstory?  It was important information.  But this time, the author dropped bits and pieces of the backstory into the chapters like chocolate chips in Tollhouse cookies.  We found out what we needed to know, but only when we needed to know it, and it left me hungry for more.  Isn’t that what every writer wants?  I know that I do.

I can’t wait to see the author and tell her how excited I am about this version of her novel.

Update: Our friend Duncan had brain surgery this morning.  The neurosurgeon said that it went very well.  We’re all very thankful.  And thanks for the prayers.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Photos and Updates

Here's a photo of my three oldest in their costumes.  Luke was right.  Rubbing alcohol does remove Sharpie even after you've had it on for hours.

In case you've forgotten, Ariel went as Medusa--hence the snakes in her hair, Luke went as Harry Potter, and Jake was a pirate.

Here's a photo of my budding chemist on Sunday morning, grating horseradish for a sauce for the lunch roast. Luke always wears his lab goggles when he deals with horseradish or onions.  And, yes, it does keep his eyes from watering.

One final note, Luke's friend Duncan (18) is doing very well.  He's still in neuro ICU and will need surgery, but he's doing remarkably well.  We are all very thankful.  Luke, Ariel and Matt are visiting Duncan right now.  Cal, Jake, and I will visit later this afternoon.