Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Culinary Possibilities

Hank the ham debuted at Christmas dinner. Luke made the most apropos comment. He said, “This is great” and then ate for twenty minutes without saying a word. So, I guess we’ll be doing country ham again. Even the very weird “glaze,” which consisted of brown sugar, pepper, and corn meal (yes, cornmeal), was delicious. After the meal was over and I was safely in the kitchen where no one could see me (after all, to be in the kitchen means you will surely get stuck washing and drying china and silver, so on one goes there on purpose), I picked glaze off the leftover ham—it was that good. And I had it all to myself.

But there are other treats to be had in the Keller home. One needs simply to be open-minded towards culinary possibilities. For example, Jezebel likes to eat caladium. I had a lovely green and red caladium plant in front of the floor-length arched window of the living room. Jez ate it. Every beautiful leaf of it. I checked to make sure it wasn’t poisonous. It’s not. It just has an acid that burns the skin, especially the tender skin of the mouth. Apparently, Jezebel doesn’t care. Must be a masochistic streak in her.

The kids jumped to her defense and explained the Jezebel just destroyed the plant in order to better see out the window so she can keep watch for the Pomeranian devil. Maybe. So, I cut her some slack on that. After all, she was trying to protect us from the foofy incarnation of faux canine evil. That held water until she decided to eat my amaryllis. The amaryllis wasn’t in her way. And it wasn’t even tempting—they were just dry bulbs that I was trying to force to bloom. But I found her gnawing on the tiny buds of leaves coming out of the bulbs.

After a severe reprimand, she looked positively repentant. Until, Sunday when I was taking a nap. She must have snuck into the room using her infamous army crawl and made a beeline to the plant. Anyway, now I have to decide whether to put the bulbs out of their misery. I think it’s clear she has a thing for plants. I can live with that to a certain extent. But there are plants, and there are orchids. And if Jezebel ever even sniffs one of my orchids…

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Hank the Ham, not the cow dog

At every holiday I try to cook something special. At Easter I make a roast leg of lamb. On Thanksgiving I cook a turkey. And on Christmas I normally cook duck. But this year we decided that duck was a little too pricy. So, I thought we’d do something regional. After all, we’ve lived in many places, and I’ve tried to learn regional cooking. When we lived near San Diego, Cal and I learned to love swordfish tacos (though it’s only recently that I found a “killer” recipe). When we lived in Little Saigon, Cal and I fell in love with lemon grass and mint. In Santa Cruz…well, vegetarian food isn’t quite our thing. Then in New England I learned how to make real New England clam chowder and Italian spaghetti (even if I learned by way of a Polish friend).

Now we’re in the South and I’ve seen all these “country hams.” So, I thought, “Hey, they’re cheaper than duck and they’re regional. Sounds like a great opportunity.” So, after researching it in the Joy of Cooking, we bought our first country ham, aka Tennessee ham or Kentucky ham. The first sign there might be a problem at home was when the children realized that it was sitting in the pantry. Ariel asked me why it didn’t need to be refrigerated. I explained that the ham had been smoked, brined, and salted. Unfortunately, that made her curious, and she found the recipes I was considering.

Her first question was: “What does this mean ‘Scrape off any mold’?!! Are you going to cook and feed us something that grows mold on the outside!?!” I explained that mold itself wasn’t the issue; she ate mold all the time when she ate cheese. In no uncertain terms, she explained that cheese was completely different and irrelevant to the discussion. I told her to trust me—I got a raised eyebrow in return.

So, for the last two days we’ve been soaking and scraping our country ham, which releases the excess salt from the meat. And every 12 hours I change the water that “Hank” is soaking in. When Ariel heard me call the ham “Hank,” she was very disturbed. I can’t imagine why—it’s not like I called him “Wilbur” or some porcine name with literary implications. But she said, “How can you name our food?” I countered, “I always call the turkey, ‘Tomas.’” Apparently, that’s different.
At any rate, Hank is now 12 hours away from his date with my cooking pot. Cal and I are salivating at every whiff of smoked pork, and Ariel walks around the house muttering imprecations and murmuring words that sound like “food poisoning.”

p.s. If you've never read Hank the Cow Dog, you absolutely must. The audio books are great, even better than the books because the author sings the most hilarious songs (my personal favorite is "When Sally Mae comes with her Broom."). I know HCD are supposed to be "little kid stories," but these audio books are listened to surreptitiously by all the teens in our home, not to mention the pre-teen. Bunnicula is also fantastic.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Cal's Second Job

I have to start by saying that I’m not a conspiracy nut. It’s not that I don’t believe that people would want to form clandestine conspiracies, it’s just that conspiracies are not in accord with human nature. The bottom line is that people aren’t secret keepers—they’re secret tellers. And even if it’s in their best interest to keep the secret, it usually gets out. If not in their lifetime, then when they die.

All that to say, I’m not looking for conspiracies under rocks. Neither do I need excitement in my life. I have three teenagers and one pre-teen—I need irenic calm (I love the word “irenic”—I had to find a way to use it). Weird words are enough excitement for me.

So, why all these caveats? Because I want you to know that I am not a neurotic writer looking for ways to spice up her life. (If I wanted that, I’d take up belly-dancing.) But, spice found me anyway. Though in a very tame way.

It all started when we got this really cool Christmas gift. It’s an Epson Artisan 800 wireless printer. You name it, and it does it. Ariel was practically drooling over it. But, we had trouble setting it up. For some reason the printer and computers couldn’t talk to one another. Of course, I called tech support, multiple times. It’s always a bad sign when the tech people start getting ornery, and then they bump you up to the next level.

Finally, I got someone intelligent. To protect the innocent, I’ll call him “Bob.” After much gnashing of teeth, Bob discovered the problem. My computer was only pretending to be connected to our router. It said it was connected to our SSID, but it wasn’t—our SSID had been co-opted and was being rerouted—to where and to whom are up for grabs. At first, I didn’t believe him, after all you’re not supposed to be able to do that. Bob got really cranky then. But after I checked IP addresses, etc., I knew he was right. The scary thing is that everything in our computers is password protected—I won’t even tell tech support what the passwords are. (I’m a bit of a nut about security since I had a nasty experience with a stalker in college.) And here’s the creepiest part, the other system our stuff is being routed through has its own encrypted password, which is not a hexadecimal system (I’ve only ever used hexadecimal.). Needless to say, Bob didn’t want to talk to me for very long.

Now, I can’t figure out why any person/government would want to hack our system. We’re not rich or powerful. Ariel came up with the simplest explanation. Back before I met Calvin, he must have worked as a spy. And now, he does occasional freelance work. This theory received even more credence when I checked all the other computers in the house—all of them had been hijacked, except…Calvin’s. We confronted him about it, and he just laughed. Personally, I hope the government pays well.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Grin and Bear It

Most children look forward to Christmas. The presents, the cookies, the candy, the presents, the school vacation, the parties, the presents. My children look forward to Christmas, but with some trepidation. Matt worries about what new embarrassing thing I will write about him that will soon be read by all the obscure relatives. But mostly, the kids dread the “Christmas photo.”

This year we tried to avoid the normal stress and had a visiting friend take the picture right after we got back from church on Sunday. However, there was an issue. Unbeknownst to the friend, there was an odd shadow across the top of my head that blended into my dark hair and made me look, well, a bit odd. I will admit that I’m a little vain, but this went well beyond vanity—I looked like a cone head!

So, we had to take another picture. I thought, “Well, we’ll just do it the next day or so. But then, Cal came down with a nasty cold, the kind that puts you in bed with the covers pulled up. When he got better, I thought, “Okay, today’s the day.” Until Luke got up with a swollen red, crusty eye. Yep, pink eye. After a couple of days of drops, Luke no longer looked like the loser in a boxing match. Finally, it’s time—but, Jacob got sick with the same vile cold. His eyes watered, and his skin took on the tone of spoiled egg white.

This wasn’t going well. It was mid December, and we still hadn’t taken our Christmas picture. It was time—no matter what. I told the kids they could wear whatever they wanted (although the shirts had to have collars). They waited while I tried to get the tripod straight and to remember how to set the auto-timer. Then, I began the photographer commentary: “Luke, put your chin down. Matt, scoot over. Jacob, smile—it looks like you’re sneering. Watch at the camera. Etc.”

Time to take the picture. I pressed the button. The kids yelled, “Hurry, Mom, it’s blinking!” I rushed over, trying to avoid bumping the tripod. Once I was unsuccessful—but it made for an interesting, albeit not Christmas-y, picture. When I did avoid smacking the tripod with my leg, there was always the challenge of squeezing in and trying to have a non-fake smile. And, don’t forget the comments of the other participants: “Oops, my eyes were closed.” “Hey, you’re making yourself look taller than me.” “My knees/back/smile is hurting.” After about ten pictures, I thought, “Okay, we’re done.” I put the data card into the computer and Ariel showed me how to get rid of red eye and so on. Finally, we all settled on a photo and I thought, “It’s over!” But, it wasn’t. One child said, “Hey, Jezebel isn’t in the picture. We need her in the picture.” My fake smile vanished completely. And before I could say, “Have you lost your mind?!,” all the children said, “We need Jezebel in the photo!”

I ground my teeth and said, “Sure, okay”…maybe it’s not the kids who hate the Christmas picture, maybe it’s me.

{Here's the picture we finally chose. (I won't even tell you about trying to get it made into Christmas cards--and how the photo machines at Sam's Club hate me and try to sabotage my cards every year. This year they tried to crop off half of Calvin's head. Thankfully, I was able to save him from the digital guillotine.)}

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Law of Averages

No, this post isn’t about math (sorry, you math-o-philia-ities)…well, it’s a little bit about math. You know how everywhere has an average rainfall for the year, well, here in Chattanooga the average yearly rainfall is 54.52 inches. Last year we had a drought and ended up way behind in rain. This year things were looking pretty dismal too. But, and here’s where the law of averages comes in, the thing about average rainfall is that sooner of later you catch up. Sadly, it seems to be happening at all once.

Last week, it rained and rained and rained some more. And that was great—plants drink in the moisture, depleted reservoirs fill, and basements flood. Yes, basements. Most houses in Chattanooga don’t have a basement, and there’s a reason. Flooding. Our basement floods, that’s why it has a drain in the corner. (It ought to be in the middle, where the lowest point is. I’d normally say that the engineer got his/her degree from an internet diploma mill, but since the house was built in 1940, I don’t suppose that will work.)

Early in the week, we suspected the basement would flood, so Calvin took the plastic bins and cardboard boxes and stacked them in nice piles. The idea was to keep everything as dry as possible. But, at some point, like a house of cards, the boxes tumbled. No one knew this until I went downstairs to put away a couple of Christmas things… Now in case you’ve never stumbled onto a scene of epic disorder, let me explain: there is a moment when you look upon the chaos and your brain tries to fit it into some kind of harmony. “Surely this can’t be a catastrophe of soaked boxes floating in a sea of mildew-y rainwater.” Of course, your brain gives up, and the reality of disaster follows closely afterward. The next thing that hits you is that the person who stacked this tragedy is currently out giving your 16 year old daughter driving lessons and will not be around anytime soon. In case you haven’t guessed, at this point you yell, “Arugh!” (After this, you call your husband and whine very loudly about your suffering. He doesn’t seem too concerned as he is instructing your daughter how to navigate a narrow ridge road without driving over the edge.)

Then you call your three sons and inform them that they will be taking their father’s place in this debacle. Now, you should be aware that the two youngest sons, who are card-carrying members of the “communist workers’ brigade,” aren’t eager to help, but they are willing, especially since they’ll be conscripted anyway. So they get assigned to wash the toys and toy bins. Apparently, they were confused and thought this entailed throwing soap bubbles at each other and spilling water on the kitchen floor. Suffice it to say, they now know it’s NOT part of the plan.

The 18 year old bears the brunt of the labor—he’s the only one strong enough to carry 30 rolls of soaked toilet paper out of the basement into the rubbish bin. He also carried out the bins of soaked books, clothes, and blankets. Unfortunately, there are no medals for meritorious service during a basement flooding. Oh, well.
Later that night, when you sit with your beloved trying to figure out how this came about, it hits you. It’s the mouse in the basement that refuses to be caught—this is his revenge for the traps. It’s going to be a long winter…

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Watch Your Back

The bummer about having a mom that blogs is that your friends end up following her blog. And they may say, “Hey, got that dog poop cleaned off your shoe yet?” Of course, that doesn’t bother Luke, Ariel, or Jacob much. But there are others…

So, we discussed pseudonyms. I told Matthew that I could refer to him as “he-who-may-not-be-named.” But that conjured ideas of Voldemort. So, we threw that out. Jacob told me he had a pseudonym all picked out for himself. He wanted to be called “Luke.” Luke, however, was not amused. Ariel doesn’t care too much that I mention her in my blog. But we sometimes have different ideas what actually occurred in a particular incident. (BTW, Ariel, you did really love the Orestia.) And Luke, he doesn’t care one way or the other—as long as his shoes are clean.

The bottom line is I think the kids should be happy to be "well-known." Maybe it’s preparing them for a famous future. Luke could be a rock star—he just needs long hair and an electric guitar. Ariel could be the dictator of a third world country—she just needs to find an available dictatorship. (Do you think Venezuela is tired of Hugo Chavez yet?) Jacob could be a movie heartthrob—he’d just need to give up his dreams of being a computer programmer. That leaves Matt. Matthew could be a famous master criminal—but I think Artemis Fowl has that already sewn up...Artemis, you better watch your back.

Monday, December 8, 2008

FLL Frenzy

If you developed a chocolate bar that was rich, sweet, deeply chocolate and had no calories at all, not only would 99% of all women pay whatever it would cost, but they would drool while doing so. A new operating system that debugged itself would send computer programmers into a drooling frenzy. And a virtual-reality helmet that worked with Wii would drive teen boys into a pool of drool. But would there be anything that would cause a drool rage among Oakridge National Laboratory scientists, Tennessee Tech University professors, engineers, and boys (and a few girls) aged 10-14? I would have said “no” just two days ago. Now I know that’s not true. There is something that makes them all giddy. It’s called First Lego League.

Several months ago, while I was fixing dinner in the kitchen, Jacob and Matt asked if they could join a robot club with their friends Andrew and David. Like the naïve mother I am, I said, “Sure, honey.” I imagined time spent chatting and hanging out. Then they asked about joining Lego League. Once again I pictured boys sitting around playing with Legos. Soon, I found out there would be a competition, and the team had to register. And the registration was expensive, so that looked like the end of Lego League for the boys—until the Chattanooga Engineers Society put out the money to sponsor the team. At this point, I should have “smelled the coffee.” Instead, I thought, "Isn’t that sweet."

After months of Saturday hours spent building and programming, the boys ended up knowing that “Steve,” as they affectionately named their robot, could perform important tasks like carry a polar bear to a research facility, bury carbon dioxide “balls,” construct and test a levee, bring scientists across the frozen tundra, and propel a bicycle to the research station (although what good a bike does in the Arctic is unclear to me, unless it’s supposed to provide exercise for the scientists). There were about nine other tasks too, but I don’t want to bore you.

Another step in preparation was research. Jacob would yell, “Hey, can I use your computer, I’ve got to learn about ‘urban heat islands.’” No, u.h.i. are not tanning salons or cities like Honolulu or Kingston, Jamaica. At least, not according to Jacob. Matt, on the other hand, studied the feasibility of water-powered lawnmowers. Not practical, but very cool.

So, fast-forward to this Saturday, where we had to get up at 5:30am and drive for two hours to the First Lego League State Championships. The gymnasium filled with parents (more dads than I’ve seen at any baseball game), scientists, professors, and hyper kids carrying robots, presentation props, computers (for last minute programming changes), and printers. This is the ultimate convention for geeks of all ages. So, we began the rounds. Two rounds of robot challenge (where the robot performs up to 15 tasks in 2 minutes and 30 seconds). This is followed by robot construction interviews, teamwork interviews, and team work challenges. Finally, they do their clever presentation on how to conserve energy (which they sung to the tune of the Beverly Hillbillies theme song). You had to be there—it was awesome. Unfortunately, their judge was a climatologist who was clearly miffed that Al Gore won the Nobel Prize instead of her. But, even she couldn’t resist the David/Matthew show (imagine two boys with long eyelashes, puppy dog eyes, and dimples the size of craters). The team scored high on presentation.

Finally, we were down to the third and final robot challenge (it’s now 3:55, or something like that). Andrew and Laura run the robot, and their run is amazing. Then, we wait and wait for the standings to be posted. And then, we wait some more. Finally, two other mothers and I decide it’s time to go. The kids did great, but it’s their first year (some teams have been going for seven years) and we were only 7th after round two. So, we pack up the kids and go home.
Yes, halfway home, we get “the call.” The kids took THIRD in the state championships—and we weren’t there for the awards ceremony! I will never live this down. I’ll be ninety years old, drooling on myself, and still be referred to as the-mother who-left-so-early-her-kids-didn’t-get-to-participate-in-the-awards-ceremony. Oh well, we all have to live something down...
Here is the lego team: Cyberthunder!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Walking in Someone Else's Shoes

Animals are great. They protect your house. They lick your face when you cry. They eat food you don’t want to eat—okay, they won’t eat brussels sprouts, but they will chow down on just about anything else. However, there is a downside to pets. Excretion issues. Personally, when I take the dog out, I keep my eyes on the ground. But not everyone does that.

My husband, whose thoughts are no doubt are on celestial things, frequently brings an odor with him. I say, “Euw, check your shoes.” He moans, groans, and scrubs his shoes. But, he hasn’t figured out how to avoid the problem.

However, my twelve year old has found out the best way to keep dog poop off your shoes is to wear someone else’s—particularly his 18 year old brother’s shoes. This afternoon, Matt brought the dog back into the house, held up Luke’s shoe, and said, “Hee, hee.” I looked up and said, “Oh, my!” This was seconded by Ariel and Jacob as they caught sight of Luke’s shoe. Luke, who up to this point had been engrossed in whatever food he was currently devouring, looked up. There was a moment of blank silence. Then, Luke’s face contorted into something akin to what the Cyclops must have looked like when Odysseus shoved a pike into his one eye. Luke drew in two lung-fulls worth of air and bellowed, “I will kill you!”

Matt tossed the shoe and ran. Luke yelled, “You are cleaning off that shoe!” A bit scuffling occurred until I explained to Matt that he’d better clean off Luke’s shoe. Matt took the shoe to the kitchen sink. At which point, I screamed, “Take that thing outside!”
Eventually, Matt came back complaining that his hands were completely numb—apparently they were so cold that he’d even stuck them into the fireplace to warm them and couldn’t feel the fire. The shoe, I believe, is currently “drying” outside. I haven’t asked where the other shoe is or what it looks like…I don’t want to know. In the meantime, I’m hiding my shoes!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Merry Heart

I wasn't sure when I first started this blog how it would evolve or what I would write. But, I found that I'm writing not a diary or politics or theology or philosophy. There are plenty of people who do that better than I could. Instead, I'm sharing what puts a twinkle in my eye or makes me laugh--the ironies and absurdities of real life. If you enjoy this, I'm glad you're joining me because I believe that "a merry heart doeth good like a medicine."

Quick Housekeeping Note: I'm changing the name of my blog from "Fountain Pen" to "A Merry Heart." This may change what pops up if you have my blog saved to your "favorites list." I hope it doesn't cause too many problems, otherwise I have to go whine to my favorite 16 year old computer whiz. I'll make the change in a day or two, so if/when it pops up with a new name, you'll know why.

Pomeranian Devil

(Here's a picture of Jezebel keeping watch for the Pomeranian Devil.)

Dogs are supposed to bark. That’s kind of why you get one. They are supposed to bark at burglars, so that the bad guys rob your neighbor’s house instead of yours. And our dog does that. Everyone one who walks down our street warrants a bark or a growl. Which one you get is dependant on how close you are to our property. The closer you are, the nastier the bark. But, here’s the odd thing. Jezebel saves her nastiest barks, her I-am-from-the-pit-and-I-thrive-on-living-flesh barks for the little Pomeranian dog that lives across the street. Now for those of you who don’t know what a Pomeranian is…it’s a dog that weighs about 3 to 4 pounds, and that’s after it’s just eaten. Its coat is, well, foofy. Lots of hair sticking up everywhere, so that it looks like a fluff ball floating across the pavement.

Now I ask myself, “Why does this lint ball unhinge Jezebel’s mind?” Clearly, it isn’t a threat to her, our property, or the children. Then, I figured it out. Keep in mind that Jezebel is the perfect specimen of “dogness”—the Platonic ideal come to life. Yes, yes, I know that the ideal only exists in the mind, but you get what I’m saying. Now, Jezebel understands that she is what God had in mind when he created dogs, so when she sees this Pomeranian, she knows that that “thing” cannot be a dog. And it doesn’t appear to be a cat—cats are relatively smart, and this “thing” is clearly stupid. Jez also knows that this animal can’t be a rat—it’s too foofy. Rats are sleek and fast. So, there’s only one thing left, yes, this is a beast from the pit who’s come to take advantage of poor, ignorant humans, especially old ladies. And, Jezebel is distressed to see it—she must warn the world. But, sadly, no one is listening…

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Math Redux

There must be more math people out there than I guessed, or maybe most math people just won’t admit they’re “numbers people” out loud… In either case, I got an email asking for more math entries. How come I don’t get emails asking for more interactive Kindle opportunities? Oh, well.

In any case, here’s another math entry.

When people find out that all four of our children are math-loving, that Ariel has declared math as her major in college, and that both Luke and Ariel work as tutors in the Chatt. State math lab, they come with worship in their eyes and saliva dripping from the corner of their mouths. They say, “How did you make your kids love math and do well in it?” They assume, especially since I homeschooled my children, that I have some special secret. And if I were just kind and generous, I would share it with them. But it’s not true! There is no secret; or if there is, I don’t know it. My idea of teaching math, at least at the higher level, is: “Hmmm, you’re learning trigonometric bearing. Yeah, I’m not very good at that. If you can’t figure it out from the book, ask Luke.” And then I run quickly to the safety of the kitchen.

I try to explain this to the salivating parents. “I didn’t do anything. I gave the kids lots of reading—we did lots of literature. I believe in the primacy of a broad humanities education.” Surely, they will understand that I had nothing to do with my children’s love of math.

“Lots of reading,” they repeat and their eyes sparkle with happy malevolence.

“No,” I protest. “It’s not reverse psychology!”

My daughter interrupts, “Mom, you made us read Aeschylus’ Orestia.”

“Yes,” I say, “but you loved it. You even used to snuggle up in your bed and read it on your own.”

“Okay, yeah, that’s true,” she admits.

Matthew points his finger at me. “But, you made all of us read the Epic of Gilgamesh.”

My children look at me with condemning eyes, and the parents of unsuspecting children begin plotting horrible summer reading lists, consisting of obscure Greek poets and odd epic cycles.

I just hope I don’t start getting anonymous emails, threatening me with death by means of James Joyce’s The Dubliners. Take pity on me—at least I didn’t mention the Venerable Bede or Thomas Hobbes.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Build a Better Baited Mousetrap

We have a mouse in our basement. Maybe, mice. Hopefully, mouse. First, the long-tailed vermin got into the dog food—chewed a lovely hole into a bin full of dog food. Then, once the dog food bin was removed, it chewed on the stored dining room table pad in the basement. Obviously my communist table wiper (see “Communist Car Wash”) had done only the minimum job. So, the table pad was removed to a safe place, and the traps came out.

My husband Cal worked at a pest control company when he was doing his Master’s degree in seminary, so vermin removal is his territory (or sphere of sovereignty, if you prefer). Cal bought snap traps—he eschews glue traps because they aren’t as humane and ought to be used only as a last resort.

One night he set his traps. One trap had mozzarella cheese—he’d sewed it to a trap with a needle and burgundy thread. The second trap he baited with dog food—it seemed to be a favorite of the mouse. The next day Cal went downstairs to survey the fruits of his labor. Sadly, the mozzarella had been eaten right off the trap and the thread lay in a neat pile on top of the unsnapped trap. The other trap was also unsnapped—and the dog food was no where to be seen.

Obviously, our mouse was not your ordinary run-of-the-mill Mickey. He must be more of a Milton. Or, maybe a she, a Murgatroid. In any case, Cal had a new strategy. Glue. Yes, he decided to glue the bait to the trap. First, he got out the Gorilla glue. I imagined the bait encased in a dried foam of unbreakable glue and said, “Honey, do you know how much that stuff swells as it dries?” (I have plenty of experience gluing on the arms and legs of Frodo and Aragorn and the various appendages of Uruk-hai, Treebeard and a massive cave troll.) At any rate, Calvin agreed and got out the Elmer’s wood glue. Once again, he baited the traps with cheese and Pedigree nuggets. But, our Murgatroid is a bright mouse-ette. This morning, it was as I suspected—she had smelled the glue and left well enough alone. Cal hasn’t decided what to do next. (We’ve been busy getting the last of Luke’s and Ariel’s scholarship papers delivered to the right place.) I’m sure that by tonight he’ll have figured out a new and better way to bait a trap. I think he’s considering chocolate. And if he doesn’t catch mice, he may catch a chocolate-lover or two.

P.S. Of course, there’s always the possibility that the mouse/mice are here as part of Oswald’s plan to take over the house/world.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Interactive James Joyce

(with thanks to P.D.Q. Bach)

I’ve heard amazing, wonderful things about the Kindle. Even bibliophiles seem to love Kindle. I think I would love to have one (if Amazon wants to send me a free one, I would love to blog about its fantastic features…hint, hint to Amazon). But what would clinch the Kindle for me is if they had an interactive James Joyce feature. With apologies to my Irish friends, it seems to me that Joyce’s prose, “sound well enough, but don’t actually mean anything.” So, I got this idea of an interactive James Joyce feature. You would call up a book, say A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (APAYM). Then a menu of choices would appear. For example: If you would like to read APAYM where every pronoun actually had an antecedent, press one. If you would like to figure out who the real protagonist is, press two. If you would like to read the novel with a commentary by an impecunious grad student hoping to finish his dissertation, press three. If you would like to read APAYM with every tenth word removed and put together as a short story at the end of the novel, press four. If you would like to read APAYM as Joyce would have written it had he been on anti-psychotic drugs, press five. And finally, if you would rather have APAYM deleted and replaced by Jane Austen’s Persuasion, press six.

Yep, that would do it for me. And I have no doubt that Kindles would sell like hotcakes, especially among undergraduate English majors.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

We had a wonderful Thanksgiving despite the fact that I woke up at 2:30am and realized that I didn't have a roasting pan for "Tomas," our turkey. I got several helpful suggestions, which included using a painting tray (eww!). Thankfully, the grocery stores anticipated people like me, and they were open until 3 in the afternoon. My dad and mom went and bought a roasting pan, so we didn't have paint-flavored turkey.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Publishing Perils: Querulous Queries

Many of you probably know that I write fiction as well as this blog. Well, I am currently on the hunt/look out/search for a literary agent. Why do I need a literary agent? In the good old days, maybe you didn’t need one. But now days a good editor doesn’t read through the “slush pile.” You need an agent who can call said editor and say, “You’ve got to read this manuscript.” And you need an agent to protect your rights. In this economy, a publishing house can make a lot more money by not giving the author too much. For those of you who haven’t been through the experience, I thought I’d share what it’s like to look for an agent.

Imagine that you’ve spent anywhere from one to five years crafting your novel. Writing, rewriting, agonizing over word choice—should I use the words “he paused”? No! Those are considered cliché words now. So, you’ve got to find another phrase. Something along the lines of “The young woman’s beauty caught his eye, and so he didn’t notice the flag pole until his bicycle crashed into it.” You get the idea? Good. So, you’re done editing. Now, comes what is referred to as the “dreaded query letter,” in which you explain your novel, your qualifications for writing it, throw in a must-read-the-manuscript hook, show off your voice, and give your contact information. All in one page or less. In other words, shove knitting needles into your eyes while juggling ginsu knives. Oh, and by the way, the whole thing must be written in present tense. Why? Who knows? Some literary god with a perverse sense of humor must have planned it this way.

Assuming the “dreaded query” is finished, you now have to research agents. This means hours spent on the web tracking down literary agents and finding out what genres they represent, how they prefer to be contacted (email or snail mail), and what they want to be sent (query only, query with first five pages, query with 1st five pages and synopsis, or a query along with a recommendation from a New York Times best-selling author). Of course, it gets more complicated because there are sub-genres. The book that I’m currently “shopping” to agents is a young adult fiction (not to be confused with children’s or middle grade). In young adult fiction, there are multiple sub-genres: fantasy, chick-lit, paranormal, urban paranormal, literary, coming-of-age, etc., etc. And, of course, agents don’t specify what kind of YA they’re looking for. In fairness to agents, they may get a phone call from an editor saying, “Hey, I want an urban paranormal with a male protagonist.” Guess what the agent’s going to be looking for that day? Yep, a New York City-dwelling 17 year old male protagonist who’s also a werewolf/vampire/zombie living in 2099. Guess whose book is going to get a rejection letter that day? Yep, mine. If I’m lucky the rejection letter will say, “Interesting/intriguing premise, but it’s not what we’re looking for.”

So, you’ve researched literary agents, and sent off your queries. Now, is the waiting game and you try to ignore the statistics, which say that only 1% of queries letters will elicit a request for a partial or a full. Yep, a whole one percent, or less. And that’s only to get you to the next step, which doesn’t guarantee you anything. I know what you’re thinking, “Why on earth do she do this?” The answer is simple. I can’t not write. It’s a kind of madness. But thankfully, it’s one that doesn’t land you in an institution, just garners remarks from acquaintances like “Oh, you’re still doing that.” Yeah, I sure am. It’s a disease—watch out it’s contagious, like chicken pox.
Tune in tomorrow for the next step in the publishing saga. “What happens when an agent requests to see your manuscript?”

ps Yes, yes, I know the queries aren't querulous, it's the writers who are. But, I just couldn't resist.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Ice Pit

My parents have come to spend the holidays with us. The kids are thrilled, of course. And it’s not just because they love their grandparents so much, although they do. And it’s not because my mother showers them with exotic chocolate, which she does (and they love). And it’s not because my parents will take us out for dinner, which they will (we take the kids out once a year, so it’s a big deal for them). One of the biggest thrills for the kids when my parents visit is that I turn up the thermostat. My mom has cold intolerance, so I can no longer keep the heater set at 62. Instead, it’s set at 68. From the kids’ responses, you’d think they were in Hawaii. No longer do I hear things like, “Hmm, guess I’m going to have to go outside to warm up.” No longer do I see children walking around the house in snowcoats. And no longer does Ariel point out to me that she’s wearing flannel pajama pants under her jeans. In self-defense, I must say that normally I crank the fireplace from the time we get up to the time we go to bed. And by afternoon the living room is a balmy 72 degrees. I’ve pointed this out to the children, but they sneer and tell me it doesn’t matter how warm the living room is because the heat never penetrates the Ice Pit. (I will admit that once I actually saw my breath in the Ice Pit, but I haven’t told the kids that.)

What is the Ice Pit? It’s the name the children have given to Calvin’s and my bedroom. Why do they even care you ask? Because the television and the Wii are in our bedroom, so the kids can’t play a game or watch a movie without descending into "arctic chill" of the Ice Pit. And why is the room so horribly cold? Well, that is a combination of many factors beyond the setting of the thermostat. Our room is hidden from sunlight by a massive 100 year old Southern magnolia tree, which the kids despise since it’s always dropping something on the lawn that they have to clean up (flowers in the spring, pods in the summer, and leaves in the fall). The other heat challenge to the Ice Pit is that whoever was the heating engineer for the house obviously got his degree from an Internet-fake-yourself-a-degree web site. And thus, with that superior education only designed one heating zone for the entire house. Consequently, balmy in the living room means the Pit is never heated.

I’ve told the kids that the room isn’t so bad; after all, I sleep in it every night. “Yeah,” Ariel said, “and do you notice that you wear an undershirt, flannel pajamas and wool socks and you sleep on flannel sheets, under two blankets, and with a down comforter over the top. Plus, I’ve heard Dad complain that he ends up sleeping on the edge of bed because you scoot over to his warmth during the night.”

Okay, so maybe the Ice Pit is a little cold, and maybe their little fingers ice over when they play Wii, but last month our gas bill was $40 instead of $120! I can buy a lot of blankets for the Ice Pit with that. Plus, spring’s right around the corner—there’s only 3 months of winter left to go.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Scholarship Apps 101: Or, Why You Paid for Basketweaving Lessons

In parenting, there are many woes. Cleaning up a dirty diaper is bad. Not as bad as cleaning up the vomit of a child who started puking in bed and then walked down the hall, still puking, and by the time they got to the bathroom were finished. And that’s not as bad as taking a sixteen year old out driving for the first time. You end up screaming “Stop!” and stomping your foot. And in response the teenager screams back, “Which one is the brake?!” Of course, any parent with a college student will tell you that all those horrors pale in comparison to the horrors of scholarship applications.

Those of you who have not gone through the horrors will roll your eyes, but that’s only because you haven’t yet experienced it. Have you noticed parents of high school seniors lately? They have permanently etched frowns, facial tics, and a hair-like temper trigger. Those are all the results of scholarship applications.

In order to understand this, you must understand the stakes. The parents view scholarship applications as a means to avoid debt that will keep them and their child in servitude for the rest of their natural life—this is because college fees are now so expensive that if an average human being were paid to donate both kidneys, it would only cover the “technology access fee.”

So, the parent sees these scholarships as a way not only to recoup the investment they made in their child’s education (I don’t even want to figure out how much we paid for music lessons over the last 12 years), but also as a way of being able to avoid personal bankruptcy.

Here’s what happens. Said parent finds a scholarship for “Underwater basketweavers who were born in California on a full-moon and have SAT scores of more than 1300.” So, you print up the application, which is nine pages of 10 point type, and break out your reading glasses. Much to your overwhelming joy, you discover that those 12 years of underwater basketweaving (read piano lessons) might finally pay off. You wave the application under your child’s nose and they say, “Oh, I guess you want me to fill this out, right?” You respond, “Yes, absolutely.” The child says, “Okay, could you put it on my dresser?” Things sound good at this point, right? Wrong!! The next two weeks are spent gently reminding your child of the application while at night you yell into your pillow, “I will not nag!”

After three weeks, your child picks up the application and reads it. You hear a moan from the general direction of their bedroom and head over. The moment you walk through the door, the accusations begin. “This has an essay!!” You blink. “Of course, it does. All scholarships require essays.” The child says, “You didn’t tell me that.” You explain, “Well, they don’t give you money for nothing.” The child scowls nastily and says, “Have you read the essay topic?” You ponder this, it is a loaded question. You say carefully, “Yes, but I’m afraid I don’t quite remember the topic.” Now, the child reads (imagine a painful whine), “Explain the importance of basketweaving both in its underwater and on land forms, and how this impacts the economy of both the United States and the world. Include in your essay how underwater basketweaving makes human beings more compassionate and better leaders!!!” The child adds, “How could you do this to me?”
You scratch your head and say, “Would you like suggestions?” The child sighs, very heavily, and the scholarship paperwork goes on the shelf for another week. Finally, after several “screaming into the pillow sessions” from you and nasty looks from your children at meals, a draft appears next to your computer. The child says, “Well, there it is.” He/she smiles meanly and says, “Dad helped me.” In case you don’t know teen-speak that means, “Mom, you clearly lost all sense of the real proportion of this and so I had to get a sane parent to work with me on this.” And, since this is vaguely true, you say, “Great, honey.”
The child begins to walk away and you say, “Um, did you finish parts 3 and 4 of the application?” The child turns and scowls, “What is that?” You lick your lips and say, “Part 3 is a listing of all your favorite underwater basketweaving classes and why you liked them. And Part 4 is an explanation of how you’ve used underwater basketweaving to serve mankind.”

At this point, your child’s eyes fall out of their head, their face turns purple, and they lose the ability to speak. You decide not to give them the next five scholarship applications until tomorrow and you don’t notice the tic that’s developed in your left eyelid.

Monday, November 17, 2008

36 Eggs

How many days does it take a family of six to use 36 eggs? I remember days when I’d buy a dozen eggs, and they’d last forever. Eventually, I graduated to buying 36 eggs because they were cheaper that way and we had four kids so we’d eat them before they went bad. But, now…how long does 36 eggs last? Assume for this task that no one breaks any eggs or feeds them to the dog, or bakes for a get together. Take into account that I don’t make eggs for the family breakfast. How long would they last? Would you guess three weeks? Or maybe two weeks? How about even one week? Those guesses would all be wrong. 36 eggs lasted 4 ½ days. Yes, that’s 60 hours! That’s more than one egg every two hours. Maybe we should buy chickens—but that would take a lot of chickens. Well, at least eggs are cheap protein…don’t even get me started on how much milk Luke and Jacob can drink in a week.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A Rose by Any Other Name

Shakespeare said, “a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.” And to a certain extent that’s true. But, if a rose were called a skunk cabbage, I don’t think men would give them to their wives on Valentine’s Day. Names are important things. Take for instance our five month old black Lab. If we’d named her “Pumpkin” or “Tinkerbell,” I don’t think that we’d get the same reaction from strangers that we do when we yell, “Jezebel, get back here!”

Yes, that's her name. I take responsibility for it. There aren’t a lot of things I really, really want, but I had to name her Jezebel. I’ll explain why. When the FedEx guy knocks on the door with his signature pad, I yell, “Jezebel, down!” By the time, I open the door the guy is halfway to his truck and calling over his shoulder, “Hey, lady, don’t worry, you don’t have to sign. We’re good.” Or, when Ariel takes the dog out front and Jezebel runs out to sniff at the gang kid on his cellphone, and Ariel calls out, “Jezebel, come back here”….believe me, you’ve never seen a gang kid run so fast—he might trip over the crotch of his low-rider jeans.

Now, of course, this would be irrelevant if she were a big, tough snarling beast like our last dog, Jill. (Yes, I love irony.) Jill was the snarliest 100 pounds of teeth and muscle that I’ve ever met—other dogs laid on their bellies when she walked by. Seriously. But, Jezebel, well, let’s just say that her nickname at home is “Jellybelly” and Jinglebells.” I think you get the drift. But, it doesn’t matter. When she runs up to sniff someone or to lick them to death and I call out “Jezebel!,” people panic.

So, right now I’m waiting for the holidays. Christmas package deliveries should be fun. I hear those UPS guys can really run.
P.S. You notice the cool "biker" collar--it's all about image.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Communist Car Wash

You know, it's clear to me that Marx and Engels didn't spend a lot of time with their children. If they had, they would have given up on communism before it started. Why? Let me give you an example. Have you ever given your children buckets, soap, rags and water and told them to wash the car? And, of course, it goes without saying that they aren't getting paid--they get a place to live, food to eat, a good education, etc. So, you smile at your dear offspring and then go inside the house to iron their Sunday clothes or chop vegetables for their dinner. Forty-five minutes later, your offspring, who are now wet and filthy, trudge back into the house. You assume that given their current condition, they have done a good job.
Of course, since you've been a parent for many years now, you know that "it's what's inspected not expected that gets done" and, thus, you go look at the family vehicle.
The car isn't clean--it's in a state of semi-wash. There are various factors that contribute to this. First, since collectivism wasn't working, i.e. most of the kids played with soap or squirted each other with the hose, the oldest child assigned various jobs to unpaid subordinates who chafed at this usurpation of authority and felt they got the hardest job. For example, the hubcaps are notoriously nasty and so look horrible even after their cleaning. You find the laborer given this task and ask what happened. He (n. b.: not a sister, she got out of this job by invoking feminine privilege--Euw, that's gross!) explains that he tried, but it just won't come clean. You pick up a brush and scrub the hubcap and discover there is clean metal underneath. The child assumes a posture of "shock and awe" and suggests under his breath that you ought to be doing this job, it's too hard for them.
The second problem is that the children have no stake in the vehicle--they don't care how clean the car is. They view it merely as a conveyance of their parents that allows them to schlep their stuff (fencing foils, musical instruments, and robot club goodies) from one place to another. So, it's irrelevant that most of the hood is clean except for the big blotch of dirt in the middle.
The final problem is that since they aren't getting paid, they actually hope they get fired. After all, the "management" will still provide everything they need--including dinner and freshly ironed clothes for Sunday. So, getting fired is what they're hoping for. (Though no computer time seems to be an excellent "reward" for work poorly done--but now I'm abandoning the communist analogy.)
At any rate, the communistic approach to labor is an utter failure. If Marx and Engels had spent more time with their children, we could have saved the world a lot of grief. Which brings to mind Piaget, whose theories of mind and personality could have been greatly enhanced if he'd watched his children instead of making his wife do it...but that's for another blog.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Math, part 2: Calculus

This school year, Luke and Ariel have been taking calculus at Chattanooga State. I was a little nervous. I wasn’t sure how they’d do, etc. Once again, I worried about nothing.
When Ariel returns from class she’s giddy. That’s right giddy. One day, Cal leaned over to me and whispered, “She’s acting like she’s been on a great date.” I whispered back, “I know, she’s like this every day. And it’s calculus.” We shrugged our shoulders. How can someone be giddy over math?
The other day she sat with me on the couch and told me in near breathless terms about the glories of anti-derivatives. After she finished, her face fell and she said, “You don’t seem very excited.” I said, “Ariel, it’s like you’re speaking Swahili to me.”
I mean, anti-derivatives, does that mean “against derivatives”? If it does, I could kind of go for that. Or, is it ante-derivatives, meaning “before derivatives.” Whatever that would be… This is the problem—I have to parse our conversations. And even when I do, they mean nothing to me.
The scary thing is when Ariel got home from class today, she gushed, “Next semester in Calc 2, it’s all anti(ante)-derivatives!” My eyes glazed over, and I said, “How exciting for you, sweetheart.” Can someone rescue me?!

p.s. Later in the day Ariel called out to me, “Mom, what’s 38 plus 26?” I said, “Ariel, you’re the math tutor—you should know you’re math facts.” She replied, “That’s what calculators are for.” I said, “What does that mean? Are you implying that memorizing math facts is for people who are bad at math—so they can feel better about themselves?” She just smiled and said, “Math facts are just toooo hard.” Hmmm, does that make me her private calculator?!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Poem for Writers

A writing friend of mine sent this poem. I think it's exactly on target. Hope you enjoy it.

Many people hear voices
when no one is there.
Some of them are called
mad and are shut up in
rooms where they stare
at the walls all day.
Others are called writers
and they do pretty much
the same thing.

Pit Orchestra

If you look at the title of this post, it seems a little Dante-esque. But it just means the orchestra is playing down below the stage, in the "pit."

Last Friday Calvin and I went to see Crazy for You, a Gershwin musical, because Ariel played in the pit orchestra. The orchestra and the actors/singers/dancers did an amazing job. Here are pictures of Ariel. They had three performances last week and three more this week. After that, hopefully there will be some normalcy. (But probably not.)

Friday, November 7, 2008

Technology Intervention

I have always admitted that I am technologically ignorant. So, when Ariel confronted me about having a blog, I gave her my first line of defense. I don’t like technology. If I’m honest, I view my antipathy as a badge of honor—I am content with those things which have satisfied writers through the ages, i.e., paper and pencils and beautiful pens. In response, she raised an eyebrow, something she’s very skilled at, and reminded me that I love email and that I write my novels on a computer. Clearly, the first point in this discussion goes to the sixteen year old. Time for my second line of defense. I don’t understand how it all works. She raised a second eyebrow (I told you she was skilled at this). “Mom, it’s completely self-explanatory, besides I set one up for you last year. All you have to do is write!” Score two for the daughter with naturally curly hair. Now was the time for my final excuse. “Ariellll, my blog is ugly…” She looked down her cute little nose at me. “Mom, you’re whining.” Then, she proceeded to explain/lecture me how a writer in the 21st century needed to take advantage of the new methods of communication. Finally, she ended with, “I’ll make your blog more attractive, but then you have to promise to write more often.” I promised I’d write at least once a week. I can’t help but wonder if this is a foreshadowing of thirty years from now when she’ll be saying, “Mom, now take your heart medicine like you promised the doctor…” Sigh.

P.S. If you enjoy reading this or like the way the blog looks, I guess you should tell Ariel. :-)

Thursday, November 6, 2008


I am a bit bemused by the title of this post. How is it that I’m writing about math?! But I live in a home of mathematicians. No, not my husband. He’s with me—two art-loving humanities type people who ended up with four math-loving children. I’m still not sure how it happened. We read together as a family—we still do. They get assigned all the classics: Homer, Hemingway, Austen, etc. When I bemoan the fact, Luke says to me, “Mom, we love Shakespeare. It’s really the best you can hope for.”
I’m still assigning the kids lots of reading—the younger boys are making their way through the Odyssey now. When someone mentioned the volume of reading, Jacob said, “Yeah, it’s amazing how much you can read when you don’t sweat comprehension.” UGH. Somebody pass me the smelling salts, quick.
P.S. Please note the prefered subject is everywhere--calculators, graph paper, math books, economics, etc.

Friday, October 31, 2008


Last night around midnight, Luke heard a noise, then another noise and another. He tiptoed out of his room (okay, Luke doesn't tiptoe--he's more like a mastadon, but you get the idea) and woke up Ariel. In the darkness they surrounded Oswald, flipped on the lights, and captured him.

Later, during Oswald's interrogation (which did not involved torture, merely the dangling of honey-coated bird treats in front of his nose), Luke and Ariel discovered that Oswald had set up his base of operations under Luke's dresser. And, though Oswald did not protest during his arrest, he was furiously chewing the bars of his cage this morning. Luke believes Oswald spent his time on the lam recruiting other creatures in his bid for world domination. So we'll have to see what other creatures try to escape. Our spy network has told us that Jezebel was recruited, but she refused to participate--Oswald couldn't better her current arrangements of four square meals, a warm bed, plenty of bones, and a two and half mile run over the hills three times a week. Besides Jezzie thought Oswald's secret code was a bit over the top.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


The other day, Ariel's hamster Oswald escaped from his cage during the night--he knocked the cage onto the floor, the wheel broke off the cage, and he hightailed it. How Ariel slept through this all is rather mystifying. And we haven't seen any sign of him since. Luke talks about Oswald breaking free to mate with rats and then discusses of the possibility of hunting ham-rats in the basement, Cal talks about a tasty treat for Jezebel (our five month old black Lab), Jacob talks about the lights dimming as Oswald chews through electrical wires, and Matt mentions seeing the phantasm of poor, dear Oswald. Ariel "patiently" ignores it all.

Personally, I believe that Oswald is a secret agent who has been "placed" in our home to spy out the secret goings on--who gets up for a midnight snack and leaves the pizza out on the counter, who leaves legos/dining room chairs/violin cases in the middle of the floor to be tripped over, and who gets up and secretly transmits coded messages about world domination and demands a new knuckle bone.