Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?

Villon was not writing as a meteorologist. For him “the snows of yesteryear” were a metaphor for the passing of the great and beautiful women of history. He was lamenting Heloise and Joan of Arc and Beatrice and an interesting sounding personage I need to research. Who was “Berthe au grand pié?” Surely someone can come up with a better translation than “Bigfoot Bertha?”

I, however, am querying the absence of non-metaphorical snow. You know, that white stuff that traditionally falls in abundance in Michigan. I have some happy memories of snowfalls (fortunately my memory has repressed some of the skidding and sliding incidents, the three hour ride home on the bus with my colleague Steve, when it took us an hour to cover the half mile from the main campus to the Medical Center, and the exhortations of an annoying husband who grew up confronting the blizzards of Iowa, “Just move quickly from drive to reverse and rock it”. No, I remember the little ski ramp we built when the kids were little, legions of beloved snowmen (this one from 1970, with Kate and Al smiling happily) and the time we had a houseful of people watching a movie and we took a break to walk in a foot of freshly fallen snow. Sound was muffled, and Andrew’s Golden Retriever, Murray, joyfully led the way.

This year we have had two insignificant little snowfalls. On a practical level I am miffed, because our children gave us a wonderful present this Christmas—unlimited professional snow removal. We want to cash in. I am also bothered because somewhere in my psyche is the feeling that you can’t have spring without winter and the price for the beauty of May is the trauma of February. I must learn to get over that one.

We leave tomorrow for Washington. I do not want to encounter snow as the Pennsylvania Turnpike climbs the Alleghenies. Let Villon wonder, “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” We will be far enough south to see buds on the trees. See you when we get back.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Numbers Large and Small

As of March 15, the National debt was $8,270,134,498,375.29. I like the 29¢ touch. I can relate to it. I wonder if they have all the receipts stuffed away in a drawer. Since the debt is growing at a rate of $1.54 billion a day, I should be able to work out what it is today. I won’t even try: I get confused by numbers that contain so many zeros. I never quite believe the mathematical puzzle about the chessboard and the grains of corn (or, apparently in England, rice.) Actually, I like this mathematician’s answer, “an awful lot of rice.”

I have just read the latest book by Stephen Frey. Like his previous books, it deals with murder and mayhem against the background of private equity funds, where the protagonists dodge bullets, blondes and scandals in between raising huge amounts of capital. They are dealing in millions and billions, or as they like to call them, “large” and “double-large.” The author worked in mergers and acquisitions at J.P. Morgan and describes in detail how this capital is leveraged into an awful lot of money. I finally understand the concept of “ups,” but get lost amongst all the zeros.

I am, however, fairly competent with smaller numbers. Which is more than I can say for David Beckham. The lad knows how to kick a football, but was stymied when his six-year old asked for help with his math homework.

"It's totally done differently to what I was teached when I was at school, and you know, I was like, 'Oh my God, I can't do this.'"

Why he should have asked his wife to take over is a mystery. Mrs. Posh Beckham is quoted elsewhere as saying that although she has “written" a book, she has never read one . But maybe she figured out the rice and the chessboard.

In other news, Tony Blair announced the creation of a new program(me) entitled, No Parent Left Behind.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Patrick is eight.

Happy Birthday, Patrick. It is fun to see how the grandchildren are developing special interests, and right now Patrick is fascinated by nature in general and insects in particular. Want to know about the Goliath Beetle? Ask this guy. He is going to be hatching butterflies when it gets warmer. I’ll keep you posted!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

We Want Muffin

Ernie recently spent the morning with two of the grandchildren, and returned rather perturbed. “There were these four little people”, he explained, “wearing bright one-piece outfits and they had things sticking out of their heads.” He had come face to face with the Teletubbies!

For me, children’s television will always be Muffin the Mule. I think I remember Bill and Ben, the Flowerpot Men, though I am not sure if they were flowerpots masquerading as men, or men masquerading as flowerpots. I think they came after Muffin.

Muffin was a marionette, controlled from above, who pranced around on a piano. His minder was Annette Mills, the older sister of John Mills, who had me in paroxysms of tears in his role of Scott of the Antarctic . The show always began with a perky opening song. If you listen carefully, you can hear Muffin’s heels clattering away on the top of the piano. There was a penguin and an ostrich and various other characters, but I do not remember exactly what they did. I think it’s the song I remember most vividly.

As I researched Muffin, I found two interesting facts. Muffin was introduced in 1946, which makes this year his 60th anniversary. I was six then, so I suspect that I wasn’t much interested in a wooden mule, but I may have watched some of it with my brother. I also found out that Muffin was “brought back” in 2005, this time as a cartoon character, so I am sure he will soon be making his way across the Atlantic to delight another generation of children. I think Ernie will enjoy Muffin, though Heaven only knows what he would say if he catches sight of a prancing purple dinosaur or those wiggly gentlemen who look like they belong on a list of neighbors you really don’t want living next to you.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Andrew's Birthday

Thirty five today! For a few months now I will be the mother of a set of stairsteps—thirty-five, thirty-six, thirty-seven and thirty-eight. And in a couple of months, Lucy will make the transition from her twenties.

We are thinking of you today, Andrew, and hope to be with you in ten days for further celebration.

I can't let today go by without including another photo, one I pulled from the sad heap I call my photo album. Andrew was wondering if his two sons look like he did when he was young. The general agreement is that they do indeed look like this cute little fellow.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Eat Your Heart out, Mrs. Danvers

While we, or at least I, am on the subject of domestic organization, I announce with pride that I have just solved a problem of long standing.

I tend to get up early in the morning to drink coffee and read the paper. Just about every day I come across an article I want to send to someone, the name of a new author who seems interesting or the address of a web site I want to explore. Once in a while I jot something down on a scrap of paper. Then I lose the paper. It would not be sporting of me to cut out an article when I see it and leave a big hole in the paper, so I make a mental note to appropriate the material at the end of the day. But I either forget all about the article, or can’t remember which paper or section it was in.

For ages I have been saying, “Why doesn’t someone invent a sort of receptacle for a notebook and pencil, which you could wear around your waist, like housekeepers wore to keep their keys?”

So, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce . . . the Châtelaine. The flap at the top closes with Velcro and can be folded over a belt, or over the color-coordinated strap seen here. Slip it on first thing in the morning: the pencil and the notebook allow you to make notes which you can carry with you throughout the day, the optional scissors allow you to cut out things if you are sure no-one else wants them. Note the additional pocket at the bottom which solves another problem, namely that of picking up an important document and putting it down in a soon-to-be-forgotten place.

If I had enough ambition, I would hot-foot it to the United States patent Office and then jump on the first plane to Hong Kong to arrange for mass production. I would soon be a millionaire. I can see it now: the sports Châtelaine, the evening Châtelaine (maybe Judith Liebler wants the contract for this one), the furry Châtelaine for non-PETA members—the possibilities are endless. The AARP would endorse me just in time for Christmas. The Shopping Network would love me. (But wait, there’s more. If you order one for Grandma now, you can get a second for no extra cost in genuine Naugahyde for your absent-minded Grandpa!)

What a great idea. Excuse me while I write it down.

Friday, March 10, 2006

They all laughed at Christopher Columbus . .

My sister in law and I have been the object of derision at the hands of our children for different but not un-related reasons.

Mary Ann’s crime has been labeling the shelves in her refrigerator, so that visiting sons, or even her marauding husband, don’t stand there with an open door rummaging perpetually for cheese. The cheese shelf is clearly marked! Mostly, it gives Mary Ann the sense of organization we so dearly need as we grow older. A kind of domestic “God’s in his Heaven—All’s right with the world” moment.

In my case, it’s for date labeling newly purchased cans, bottles, jars and packages before putting them on the pantry shelves. Not pickles or mustard, never cereal or eggs or ice cream. They always get eaten up. It’s the more esoteric purchases that can languish in the back of the cupboard way past their “use by” date. You know the problem: every Thanksgiving you throw an extra can or two of pumpkin puree or evaporated milk into the cart, just in case you want to make an extra pie, or you go on a chinese food kick and buy lots of jars of hoisin and plum sauce. All those mediterranean hors d’oeuvres that call for jars of sun-dried tomatoes and pesto are my summer downfall. You get the idea. The beans in my photo date back to a trip to Santa Fe when I came home and invested heavily in tex-mex ingredients. I was appalled to see that the jar of anise was bought in 2001 (though Mary Ann claims some of her spices date back to her wedding in 1965.) Since the shelf life of spices is limited (six months?) I need to go on a search and destroy mission.

But I take great comfort in knowing that next Thanksgiving I will not make pumpkin pie out of 1995 pumpkin, while throwing out a can I bought two weeks earlier. Nor, dear children, will you have to eat it.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Tea and Not Much Sympathy from Me

Goldy Bear and Faith Fairchild are two of my favorite detectives. They have much in common: they are levelheaded, serious women (Faith is married to a minister and Goldy is a pillar of the episcopalian church), they track down murderers, they raise children and make their livings as caterers.

Diane Mott Davidson’s Goldy Bear lives and works in Colorado. In the latest Davidson book, Double Shot, Goldy arrives at the site of a memorial luncheon she is catering. She has stashed the food away in freezers and refrigerators ready for the final warming, set-up and plating. But someone is out to get Goldy and when she arrives at her venue, she is attacked. When she comes to, she discovers the power to the refrigerators was turned off overnight and the food is an odorous mess. In that situation, I would make a quick trip to Kentucky Fried Chicken, strew the greasy breasts with parsley and a choice olive or two and give it a foreign name. But not our Goldy. Unperturbed, she drives home, fortifies herself with a triple shot of espresso and marches into her walk-in refrigerator where she has enough previously prepared food to create a whole new luncheon menu.

Kathryn Hall Page has an equally resourceful protagonist. In The Body in the Snowdrift, Faith Fairchild is staying at a ski lodge owned by friends of her in-laws when the chef suddenly “goes missing.” It is the night of the big Scandinavian shindig and Faith is asked if she can step in and save the day. But instead of rushing straight to the kitchen to poach a moose, she relaxes in the sauna before putting on her duds and overseeing the production of prodigious amounts of glögg, lentil soup and salmon with mustard dill sauce.

How I admire the sangfroid of these two. It is not unusual for me to be in the position of feeding people unexpectedly, which explains why a letter to the Detroit News caught my eye. Gertie from Southfield wanted suggestions for entertaining unannounced guests. Clearly a topic for the Food Editor. Instead, it appeared in the column of the Interior Design guru. She starts off fine and suggests tea, specifically English Breakfast and Darjeeling, both of which I often have on hand. She starts to get unglued when she moves on to food —“small cut-up sandwiches such as watercress or thin cucumber slices with a little butter on fresh white bread with the crusts removed.” Watercress is expensive and if you try keeping it around for surprise guests, you land up with a refrigerator drawer full of green slime. She moves on to suggest scones served with homemade or fancy preserves and clotted cream plus petit-fours and bite-size éclairs. Remember, we are talking about unannounced guests here. And if anyone knows where to buy clotted cream in Detroit, please let me know. Passing over several other quite unrealistic food suggestions, we move on to “pleasant setting.” Here, she really loses me. Her advice includes dim lights, plump pillows, candles and “throw a silk scarf or shawl over the table ...”

Just imagine all the murderers running around undetected while Faith and Goldy are busy taking their clotted-cream-encrusted Hermès scarves to the dry cleaners.

Friday, March 03, 2006

My Kingdom for a Hot Water Bottle

I’ve been suffering from some minor sneezy/fluey/achy/earpy thing for a couple of days. I feel a lot better today, though the thought and sight of food is more than I can tolerate. Yesterday I spent the entire day in bed, mostly dozing and asking Ernie pitifully from time to time if he had any idea where the hot water bottle was.

Growing up in England, we needed hot water bottles every night just to get in bed. Remember, most of us lived in houses with small coal fires in one room, around which we would huddle (any one remember chilblains?) Shortly before bedtime, my mother would boil water and put it in our hot water bottles. The first bottles I remember were not the rubber ones, but big, stone logs with a bung in the top. I seem to remember a tendency to leak. When we ran upstairs into our frigid bedrooms, there was a warm patch in our bed which kept us comfortable until our bodies warmed up the sheets.

These days, and especially in a world of central heating, flannel sheets and flannel pyjamas, hot water bottles are an anachronism. I know we had one, but I may have given it away when a friend was sick. But yesterday, when I felt so miserable, it would have been so wonderful to curl up with a hot water bottle. And though I really wasn’t hungry, a soft-boiled egg with toast soldiers might just have done the trick.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Logic Restored

He wasn't "Jason": he was Justin and the poor guy had to stand behind the desk that Apple insists on calling "The Genius Bar." He was genius enough to recognize our problem immediately——a disintegrating logic board. You should know that we never, ever buy extended warranties, but when we bought the computer we decided it might be a good idea. So we didn't blink at the $85.94 for a new power supply, $732.81 for a new logic board and $135 for the hardware repair. It cost us nothing. Nada.

Justin said it would take 7-10 days to repair, but as soon as we drove across town and got in the house, he called us to say the parts were in stock and the repair was done. A cheap and easy fix: it's never happened before and probably never will again.