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.