Friday, December 14, 2007

In The Stacks

Everyone knows that books are for reading, and this is as it should be. We love books. Our house should testify to this. Take it from the African American Comcast repair man who came to fix our cable, he glances around the living room as he kneels to inspect the non-blinking box and being a bit awestruck (I chose to interpret it this way at least) tells me in his distinctly punctuated style, "Man, you must really like books." Indeed, we do.

But when, at the last count, there were over 200 library books in addition to six five-shelf bookcases brimming over with books that we own, it would be silly to limit ourselves to merely treating them as eye candy. So, in the name of utility, books have become a raiser for my laptop when it sits on my desk, little blue Shakespeare volumes are a decoration/backdrop for my icon and nativity scene, an old, hefty stack of Defensiones Divi Thomae becomes an extra shelf in the closet, the five stacks against the wall of our bedroom hide the ugly floor molding (and the outlet) and provide visual interest below the window sill, and tightly packed together on the bottom shelf they become almost indestructible child proofing against inquisitive children.

Ah, one can never have enough books; except when one is moving, then, even five books is five books too many. Also, we have too many library books. Even though we've had some of them for 5 semesters now, I still can't change the impression that they are transient books that don't really deserve a spot of the bookshelf. Thus, they sit in piles three feet high (or as high as we can safely stack them) in our bedroom. They were in the living room but that was rather unsightly and a bit dangerous once our son began kneeling and pulling at things. Now I am trusting in the osmosis while we sleep and worldfamous articles by my husband to justify the pain of housing all these books.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Pierogi Pinching

I just returned from pierogi day. Every year since my husband can remember, there is one day, always between Thanksgiving and Christmas where every family member--and anyone else they can find--is herded into the kitchen and held hostage for an entire day. You are assigned a job based on your skill set. There are no volunteers, you simply do as you are told.

My mother-in-law has excellent administrative skills, multi-tasks like crazy, and knows the secret recipe. She, therefore, was assigned to dough maker/roller when she was 12. She cracks 8 (I think) eggs and mixes that with butter, flour, water, potatoes, salt, ?, ? in some special order in the pierogi-only Rubbermaid container. She works it, she kneads it, she rolls it on the pierogi-only cutting board. The dough is too fat, so she rolls it again. Then she cuts thin little circles out with a cookie cutter and transfers them to a cookie sheet on the table in front of the pinchers. For years now she has been trying to get out of her job because, well, while being sore the next day was a pain when she was younger, being sore for the next three days and hopped-up on Advil is not her idea of fun. But, as we said, there are no volunteers.

Then there's the cooker, that's my husband, Matt. The cooker--note, not the "chef"--is responsible for coming to the pinchers' table and picking up the pinched pierogi. From there he transfers the pierogi into boiling water and watches for them to float, when they have come to the top he scoops them out and rinses them in cold water. He then brings them to the packer (Aunt Kiki) and pours them into her bowl of butter. He must also have a stick of butter always melting to refill the packer's supply and extra kettles of water boiling to change the water when necessary. As if this is not enough for one person to do, especially a non-multi-tasker, whenever the cooker is Matt, he is also forced to be the runner.

Here's a snapshot of what we, as pinchers, overhear. Impatiently someone orders, "Matthew, the Saran Wrap, my fingers are covered in butter." Urgently someone yells, "Matthew, the telephone. Your hands are clean." Accusingly, "Focus, Matthew! How long have the pierogi been in the water?" Eagerly, "Matthew, the presents please; there's a lull." I think you get the idea. He takes a lot of heat for his difficult job as cooker added to his admittedly bad case of absent-mindedness and multiplied by his job as general lackey to the packer, pinchers, and roller. Sometimes I feel bad for him. But I know he just couldn't cut it as a pincher.

Pinching isn't difficult work, but it does require an attention to detail and the crucial ability of either not talking or talking while working. If Stephen is on "parole" for his slack production on account of talking, there's no way Matt could make it. The beautiful thing about pinching is that you get to sit the whole time. Mom puts the circles of dough in front of us, we pinch them, and then people--okay, Matt--takes them from our table to the stove. We stretch the little circles out like mini pizzas, put the filling in the center, and pull the edges together. Here comes the skill: we pinch. The thumb and forefinger carefully smush the edges together, making sure that no cabbage or potato has escaped. After we pinch the pierogi, we are forced to painstakingly add a decorative edge (compliments of Sarah) to identify the different kinds.

They are whisked away at odd intervals punctuated by "Matthew!" to be boiled and then packed in butter until it is time to eat them. Prior to eating, they are removed from the butter packaging and fried in, yes, butter. Ummm, ummm, delicious.

Personally, I'm really glad that my skill set recommended me for the involuntary job of pincher. Poor Matthew.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Side Sit

Dominic moved from the army "I'm dragging myself through no-man's land" crawl to the normal all fours crawl about two weeks ago (8 months). While I am sure that this is quite a step forward developmentally--he no longer pants after crawling 3 feet--I am a bit melancholy that I lost my comic relief. Amidst the endless diapers, orange spit ups, attempts to eat the power cords, baby melt downs, and other rescue missions, this funny little army crawl provided some needed relief to my days. Alas, it is gone.

Or so I thought...for at least a minute I really believed that the comedy with Dominic died with the army crawl. In reality, it has only been superseded by something perhaps funnier yet: the side sit. He crawls and then tries to sit. Resulting in a sit that isn't quite complete; he can't push himself up from the extended arm. Dominic the ham, however, adds his own flair and turns it into little side pose with his hand on the hip.

God knew we needed comedy. That's why he gave us children, spouses, and, of course, Seinfeld.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Here No Weevil, See No Weevil

Today I had to contend with untold weevils. Even now I cannot think of these weevils without shuddering. Seriously, I get shivers every time I remember my battles with these copious little creatures that housed themselves quite comfortably in our beans, flour, rice, couscous, and pasta. The old adage that they taught us in D.A.R.E., while not particularly helpful in staving off the large pests of peers and their drug coercion, does actually hold true when it comes to smaller pests--there is strength in numbers.

I set out in true domestic fashion to make lentil soup so that we could enjoy it on Sunday after church. With the untrammeled pluck of a new housewife, I industriously grab the bag of uncooked lentils from the pantry (okay, so it's really just a shelf in the front closet), threw them on the counter, and energetically plunked a large pot full of water onto the stove. I was ready for the quick two-minute boil and then the hour long soak to rid the beans of any unwanted organic particles and finally the actual soup-making process of dicing vegetables, sauteeing mixtures, and putting it all together to simmer. I was fully prepared, after all, I had an entire day to make this soup.

My elaborate plan, I soon discovered, had a slight kink in it. I had pulled out the dried green peas instead of the lentils. No problem, the lentils were still in the pantry. But what's this, oh, oh no, I don't think that I can handle this. Little black bugs were filing out of the green peas. 5, no 7, 10, AHHHH this bag--still sealed, mind you--was entirely infested. A bean, a bug, a bean, two bugs...there was no end to it. Acting in true problem solver style, I threw on an oven mitt and tossed that bag right into the trash, quickly mushing the remaining bugs into a paper towel. Well, at least that solves the problem of where the little black bugs were coming from (I had seen a half dozen in the course of that week).

Then it dawns on me that the green peas might not be the only infested bags of dried beans. Oh no, my lentils! I snatch them from the pantry; they seem to be okay. No visible infestation. I then don my oven mitt a second time and gingerly fish out the remaining bags of beans: black, kidney, great northern, and 16-bean. I toss them like hot potatoes onto the counter for the dreaded inspection. Uhh...I can see the beastly little creatures enjoying their spacious habitat amongst the great northerns and the 16-bean. creeping, crawling, tramping over the beans in their sealed bags. It gives me the willies so bad that I can't stand to examine the others, so I toss out the whole lot.

As much as I want to just run out of the apartment screaming, "Help! Bugs!" my ego (and my sense of duty) simply wouldn't let me. To my horror, I spent the rest of the afternoon examining the contents of my pantry, tossing the infested, and thoroughly cleaning the entire affected area. "Oh the horror, the horror" does not even come close to the duration of my shivers this afternoon.

And yet, industrious housewife that I am, I can say that even though I didn't end up making lentil soup for tomorrow (I couldn't decide if the lentils were infested or not so I threw them out to eliminate the paranoia), I thoroughly and impeccably cleaned our front closet, also known as the pantry.

At The Wellsprings of Prayer

During a "quiet time" this morning while Dominic was napping ("quiet time" has taken on a whole new meaning now that I have a jabbering, crawling, falling baby), I read Matthew 14-15 and was struck how Jesus feeds thousands twice within two chapters. Now I know that it may not be chronological by chapters/days, but it seems to be a central concern of Christ's. He is the Bread of Life and he is feeding the hungry, by the thousands. Not only that, but he feeds them when they have come "bothering" him from his private solace when he has just found out that his dear cousin, John the Baptist, has just been beheaded by Herod! Very interesting food for thought. (pun intended)

I followed my meditation on Matthew (well, really on Jesus) with some reading on prayer from the Catechism. The article is entitled "At The Wellsprings of Prayer". While the whole article is beautiful and very inspiring, the opening paragraphs really stood out. I couldn't help sharing them with you for two reasons. 1) We all can use a little inspiration or a fresh look at "old stuff". I italicized what particularly struck me. 2) There are a lot of misconceptions about the Catholic Church, and I thought this was a beautiful articulation (one of many) of its view of both prayer and Scripture.

At The Wellsprings of Prayer

2653 The Church "forcefully and specially exhorts all the Christian faithful . . . to learn 'the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ' (Phil 3:8) by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. . . . Let them remember, however, that prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that a dialogue takes place between God and man. For 'we speak to him when we pray; we listen to him when we read the divine oracles."'4

2654 The spiritual writers, paraphrasing Matthew 7:7, summarize in this way the dispositions of the heart nourished by the word of God in prayer "Seek in reading and you will find in meditating; knock in mental prayer and it will be opened to you by contemplation."5

That last one makes me think of an old tape of Harold and the Midnight Bread we used to listen to while we were going to bed as kids. "Don't give up, oh no no. Don't give up. Keep on knocking and you shall find...." I'm sure my brothers will be able to dredge this one up pretty quickly ; it had quite the jingle to it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Pride and Prominence of the Pen

Why is it that some pens make my pretty--although admittedly difficult to read--handwriting look terrible. I swear, the simple grasping of a poor pen transforms it from being perfectly legible under a magnifying glass and even artistic to perfectly atrocious. Is it too much pressure? A cheap ballpoint pen whose flow 'skips'? The size of the barrel causing a shift of finger posture?

Oh for the days when penmanship mattered. Yes, for the days when otherwise straight-A students received B's and C's in penmanship (shhh, don't tell, but I was one of those...old Mrs. Dineen the homework machine in 5th grade). As lucky as we are to have word processors that allow people like my husband to prosper--he was used as the example in college of who not to write like, unless the wanted a zero on their exams; I swear--the sterile uniformity of type can never have the charm, familiarity, and subtlety that handwriting does. Even the cursive fonts cannot compare. They are simply too even and uniform. The perfect regularity is just not human.

I didn't begin this post thinking about John Ruskin, but this does sound remarkably like his treatise in Stones of Venice protesting against mechanized production which takes away the human imprint on objects by making them too perfect and repeated.

Real writing varies according to subject, mood, location, and yes, even writing instrument. In fact, there is an entire science devoted to handwriting analysis: graphology. They go far beyond determining it's Henrik's handwriting. They can tell that Henrik was in a hurry, that Henrik was stressed from school, probably even that Henrik was sick with the avian influenza. They see these things in the darkness of lines, variations of pressure, increasing space between letters, greater/lesser slant, increased misspellings, etc. I'd write you a sample of some of these things but, alas, this is faceless type. Just imagine. Or count yourself spared. There are hundreds of things that handwriting analysts can scan for--it's fascinating. But now, we're left with bland type and emoticons to fill the void. So, go buy a pen that makes you write beautifully and send me a letter.

If you're interested, here's a sample from Wikipedia of possible interpretations by graphologists. What does your handwriting say about you?

Handwriting Characteristic Interpretation
Slant of the letters
  • A forward slant indicates an emotional enthusiasm
  • Straight up and down indicates a logical nature
  • A left slant indicates introspection.
Angle of the lines on unlined paper
  • An upward slant indicates optimism and higher energy.
  • A downward slant or lines with trail off the page indicate depression or physical exhaustion.
General shape of the strokes
  • Circular handwriting indicates a highly emotional nature.
  • Angular handwriting with sharp points indicates aggressiveness, directness, and high energy
  • Square handwriting indicates a real world, practical based approach
  • Squiggles and irregular strokes indicate an artistic and non standard approach
Individual letters
  • The letter "t" has the largest number of interpretations. For example where the horizontal "bar" of the t is placed on the vertical "stem" indicates where one places their goals, while the height of the t stem indicates the potential to accomplish those goals.
  • A low t bar indicates goals set lower than what can be accomplished.
  • A t bar high on the stem indicates goals set high.
  • A t bar that is above the stem indicates setting goals higher than can be accomplished.
  • If a small "g" is drawn like a figure 8, it indicates a strong sense of humor.
  • An indented "notch" in the upper oval loop of a small "h" is the result of an arrhythmic heart beat.
  • A small "r" with a square shape indicates someone who is good with their hands
  • A small or capital letter E which is drawn with rounded edges like a reverse "3" is known as a "Greek E" and indicates someone who is well read.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Etymology : Snickerdoodle Cookies

I was struck again yesterday by the inexplicable conglomeration of words and phrases that constitutes "English". The most recent occasion of this all-too-frequent etymology perplexity was making snicker doodle cookies for Thanksgiving. I was almost certain that no snickerdoodle cookies I had ever had had snickers in them. But just to be sure I asked my friend, fulling expecting a negative answer, "They don't have snickers, do they?" No. Of course they don't, this is English. So where does this misleading name come from? We guessed that it might be Scandinavian , something like sniggerdaiden (I have no idea if that actually sounds Scandinavian). As for the meaning, the only explanation we could coming up was that they make you laugh or "snicker"...

So, after a brief consultation with The Oracle--google--we came up with a few possibilities. Here is what Wikipedia has to say:

"Nobody is sure where either the cookie or its name originated. Various food historians have shown that biscuits and cookies similar to the Snickerdoodle have been recorded in the Ancient Roman era and Medieval Europe. In Renaissance England, a cookie called a “jumble” was popular in the cuisine. Later, Germans were known to have added more spices and a variety of different dried fruits, eventually evolving into the gingerbread cookie. Cookbooks from the 18th and 19th centuries have also contained recipes comparable to the Snickerdoodle.[1]

The origin of the name “Snickerdoodle” has given rise to many theories but few facts. The Joy of Cooking claims that snickerdoodles are probably German in origin, and that the name is a corruption of the German word for "snail dumpling" (Schneckennudeln, or cinnamon-dusted sweet rolls). Similarly, one author states that “the word 'snicker' may have come from a Dutch word 'snekrad,' or the German word 'Schnecke,' both describing a snail-like shape.”[1] However, another author believes the name came from a New England tradition of fanciful, whimsical cookie names,[2] and yet another cites a series of tall tales around a hero named Snickerdoodle from the early 1900s.[3]"

Now personally the last explanation is my favorite, and I think it's just as likely for the simple reason that none of the possibilities make sense. A snail shape? Have they ever seen a snickerdoodle. For those who haven't, or can't remember, here's a picture. In fact, there is an entire chidlren's series by Otis Ham from the early 1900s--clearly predating all modern superheroes--based on the hero "Snickerdoodle" who rides around in a peanut mobile. Snickerdoodle is called, "the tiny pre-runner to superman."

Wow. All the things I never knew.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Good Old Days

I was reading this morning an argument by St. Jerome against Helvidius from about 383 A.D. Really, I wish that book reviews--or political debates, for that matter --were written this way now...they would be far more interesting. This puts the old rhetorical tricks to shame. Here are a few specimens:

"I was requested by certain of the brethren not long ago to reply to a pamphlet written by one Helvidius. I have deferred doing so, not because it is a difficult matter to maintain the truth and refute an ignorant boor who has scarce known the first glimmer of learning, but because I was afraid my reply might make him appear worth defeating."

"To defend his position he piles up text upon text, waves his sword like a blind-folded gladiator, rattles his noisy tongue, and ends with wounding no one but himself."

"Now that I have cleared the rocks and shoals I must spread sail and make all speed to reach his epilogue. Feeling himself to be a smatterer, he there produces Tertullian as a witness and quotes the words of Victorinus bishop ofPetavium. Of Tertullian I say no more than that he did not belong to the Church. But as regards Victorinus, I assert what has already been proved from the Gospel—that he spoke of the brethren of the Lord not as being sons of Mary, but brethren in the sense I have explained, that is to say, brethren in point of kinship not by nature. We are, however, spending our strength on trifles, and, leaving the fountain of truth, are following the tiny streams of opinion. Might I not array against you the whole series of ancient writers? Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenæus, Justin Martyr, and many other apostolic and eloquent men, who against Ebion, Theodotus of Byzantium, and Valentinus, held these same views, and wrote volumes replete with wisdom. If you had ever read what they wrote, you would be a wiser man. But I think it better to replybriefly to each point than to linger any longer and extend my book to an undue length."

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Value of A Good Librarian

The value of a good librarian cannot be underestimated.

I am, in general, very easily intimidated by store personnel. I hate asking for help, religiously avoid stores that have "hoverers" (like The Buckle, Limited, and Motherhood Maternity), and refuse to buy anything at gas stations where items have no prices. Cashiers who comment on items you're purchasing bother me to no end, the gay man at the lotion kiosk in the center of the mall with his nail spiel, and most recently, the librarian who was a little too interested in my fine.

Fines should be things that you're informed of, you pay, and life moves on without mentioning it ever again. There should be no guilt involved--especially if you are paying the fine! There should be no dirty looks. There should be no suggestions on avoiding this fine in the future. Oh no, it should be left in the dust so that I may continue my patronage of the library without shame or cowardice. I have officially switched libraries because of this awkward situation--even though I have paid in full. Where I once went to the Middletown Free Library and had all of my reserved books sent there (about 5 a week), I have now taken my business and reserved books to the Aston Public Library. So you see, a good, gracious librarian, cannot be underestimated.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Bending the Rules: Biscotti

I love biscotti. It's really just an excuse--and a really good one, at that--to eat cookies for breakfast. The fact that they are Italian and "high class" isn't all that bad either. A long crisp cookie with succulent almonds and anise and a generous drizzling of chocolate on the top. They say that biscotti is perfect for dipping, and it is, if you want to find cookie pieces in the bottom of your cup of coffee. Even so, they are probably the best complement to coffee for breakfast that you'll ever find. Now if only all the butter and sugar didn't occasionally wreak havoc with my tummy...

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Sound Bites, Toe Bites, and Mosquito Bites

Sound bites are short, frequently dumb, and very meticulously concocted.

Toe bites come from animals and small children--my son was crawling around on the floor at my parents and meticulously crawled right up under the stool that my grandmother was sitting on. From there he decided to try out two lonely baby teeth by taking in a mouthful of my grandmother's sock-clad toes. Now he is trying to bite mine, which are bare.

Mosquito bites, no matter how deliberately you fight against them cannot be prevented. Do not try. They are meticulous in their biting. I do not like them.

Games People Play

I just put a finger on what was bothering me yesterday morning. It wasn't our ridiculous budget, the hopeless heaps of books, or my I-can't-believe-I-forgot-the-sugar cookies. No, the little knot in my stomach was tightening again. In fact, without my noticing it, it had been tightening just a little bit each morning that I opened the cupboard to make my customary pot of coffee. I had just a small stack of coffee filters less--from experience I could tell just by looking at it that there were less than two weeks worth left. For the record, let it show that I had noticed this stack diminishing for the last month; every time I was at the grocery store I would look at "coffee filters" on my list and decide against it. Not yet. I must wait until I'm at Big Lots. They are $1.50 cheaper there. Then I would be at Big Lots and decide against getting them. Not yet, I say. I think I can make it until my next trip ( 10 days). In the mean time, my stack in the cupboard is getting uncomfortably small. How would my morning be if I suddenly just ran out and had to forgo my cu of coffee? Worse yet, what if my addiction so compelled me to make an additional trip to the grocery store? Awful. Why do I do this to myself? It's just one more of those sick games that frugal housewives play.