Monday, June 30, 2008

Oh my heavenly sheet-wrapped dog!!!!!!!!!!!!

I didn't have to drive my husband to work this morning, so I got to sleep in for the first time in a while. It was lovely, stretching my feet down into the coolness of the sheets, blissfully squeezing my eyes shut against the morning sun filtering through the window blinds. Hershey came up to snuggle with me, giving me wet kisses on the ear and snuffling my hair.

"I know, I love you too," I said groggily. "Now go down to your place and leave me alone."

He went to the foot of the bed, where he pawed the sheets and blanket until he'd made a nest to curl up in, a process which I always find interesting and amusing. He's so picky in his arrangements, you'd think this wasn't the same dog who's content to throw himself down on his side on the cement porch and sleep for hours.

We both went to sleep, although I was awakened some time later by Hershey pouncing around on the bed. Since he's a forty-five pound muscular brute, that was a lot of heaving and jumping going on, some of it on me.

"Ow!" I said indignantly, lifting up my head and scowling at him through puffy eyes. "What are you doing, you big idiot?"

Hershey ignored me. His gaze was fixed on the sheets and his nose was down among them. He continued with the bobbing and weaving as if he'd just discovered a miniature Mike Tyson throwing punches and threatening to bite off one of his flappy ears. "Hershey!" I said sharply. "Will you settle down and stop acting like you see a spider? You are so annoying!"

I paused for a brief moment.

I don't know what the world's record is for throwing off a sheet and a blanket and leaping out of a bed, but if it is more than one second, I broke it. With time to spare.

With me out of the way, Hershey was free to stalk the ugly black house spider -- one of those kind that can jump -- and eat it. Smacking his lips, he looked at me and wagged his tail, pleased with his efforts to find and consume a little morning snack, and hopefully protect me from whatever plan that spider was concoting about my person. I patted Hershey's back, although I declined to let him kiss me with his spider-breath.

When all's said and done, I think I prefer the alarm clock as a means to get me out of bed in the mornings.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

CURRICULUM REVIEW: Mike Venezia's Getting to Know... Series

Mike Venezia is the author and illustrator of some really great books for children that we have used over and over again in our years of homeschooling. He is the genius behind Getting to Know, Inc., having written and drawn the illustrations for Getting to Know the World's Greatest Artists and Getting to Know the World's Greatest Composers. In checking out his website for this review, I notice that he's added a third series, Getting to Know the United States Presidents. And also branched out into DVDs on all three series. Go, Mike!

Here's why we love these books: Intended for students aged 9-12, they're fun and interesting to read, covering the artist's (or composer's) biography, plus a basic explanation of the artist's style (Renaissance, Impressionism, etc.) and numerous depictions of the artist's actual art in the book. (I'm thinking that the beauty of the DVDs is that you'd be able not only to see the artist's art on your television screen, but also hear the works of great composers. Kind of hard to hear music from a little paperback book.)

For instance, in Getting to Know the World's Greatest Artists: Mary Cassatt, Venezia tells the reader about Cassatt's background as an American woman trying to break into the male-dominated world of art of France in the 1880s. He briefly explains her meeting with Edgar Degas and his contemporaries Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir and Camille Pissarro, with examples of some of their most famous works (Girl with a Watering Can for Renoir; ballet dancers for Degas) and how Degas became her mentor as Cassatt experimented with Impressionism and grew in style and technique to become one of the most famous artists of the period.

Venezia offers forty-seven titles in his Artists series, everyone from Botticelli to Dali to Edward Hopper.

The books on composers are just as good, with the one drawback that you can't hear the music. So I'm putting in a plug for the DVDs, thinking that, without ever seeing one, if they're as good as the books, they'd be well worth the money. The titles in the Composers series range from Tchaikovsky to Duke Ellington to the Beatles, which I really think is an awesome scope.

These books are paperback, a short read at around 32 pages each and -- here's the best bit -- retailing for $6.95 each at You also have the option to buy the entire sets at Mike Venezia's website.

In my opinion, these books are can't-miss options for your children. They'd be great combined with Aline D. Wolf's Montessori classic, How to Use Child-Sized Masterpieces for Art Appreciation, which is another little curriculum we've gotten a lot of mileage from.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

In need of skills

When I drive, I really and truly try to operate my minivan in a manner that won't inconvenience or irritate other people on the road. I swear it. I know what it's like to be driving behind someone who's meandering along at ten miles per hour under the speed limit; I know what it's like to nearly be run off into a ditch by someone talking on a cell phone. I even know what it's like to have to drive up on a city sidewalk for a half a block or so because a fellow motorist didn't check her mirrors before pulling into my lane. Scare-reeeee!

But sometimes, I do things that I don't...well, I mean...sometimes I do really stupid things. After I do them, I think to myself, "You're lucky that some road-rager wasn't behind you when you did that, or you'd probably just have been given the one-finger salute. Or shot in the head."

Like yesterday.

Yesterday was the day that my two nephews, Kieren (14) and Dayden (7), came to stay with us for the day. My brother, Pat, works about three blocks from where I live and it's a simple matter for him to drop the boys off before work. These are days that the girls and I really look forward to. Everything is more fun when The Boys are here: being awake in the morning is more fun (Pat has to be at work approximately two hours before Meelyn and Aisling drag their eyes open on an ordinary day), having lunch is more fun. Going to the pool and even sitting around playing cards at the dining room table after a thunderstorm ran us off from the swim club is more fun.

Yesterday was also the day that Meelyn got her Indiana state learner's permit. Before we went to the BMV, we had to run an errand to the driving school, which involved my writing out a check for a slightly enormous sum of money to pay for the classes, and I guess that's what made me drive like such a freak. The van full of nephews and daughters and me was rolling down the street and I was braking and indicating my right-hand turn to pull into the A+ Driving Academy. There were cars behind me and I was feeling rather smugly pleased at my courtesy; most people treat their turn signals as if flipping them up or down will set off a nuclear war or at least label them as sissies who follow the rules of the road like a herd of sheep.

I turned into the Academy's parking lot still basking in the light of my own glory, when suddenly the van was heaved up and thrown left rather violently. The kids were shaken around like pieces of popcorn in a popper and I let out a startled scream. The van whammed back down to the surface of the blacktop and resumed its ordinary upright status.

"Mom!" Meelyn's eyes were wide with delighted horror. "You just drove over a HUGE cement curb. And I think some geraniums." She, Kieren and Aisling all began to laugh like hyenas, saying, "Whoooaaaaa! Rough pavement ahead!" and flinging themselves about in their seats.

"You are one craaaaazy driver, Aunt Shelley," remarked Dayden. "Can you make the van go up in the sky again and shoot at other cars like a UFO with a laser?" He began making piercing laser-style shooting noises, pointing his finger at other cars.

"Dayden, don't shoot at other drivers. It makes them nervous," I said, ignoring the teenagers.

"You know what makes me nervous?" offered Aisling. She continued before I could say an emphatic no. "Driving through other people's landscaping and squashing their shrubbery. That's what makes me nervous."

Stung, I retorted, "I did not drive over any landscaping! Maybe one geranium. And a little mulch."

"You do see that girl on the bicycle over there don't you?" said Meelyn, pointing out a distant figure about three blocks away. "Because geraniums are fairly easy to replace. But her, I don't think."

"Oh, hush," I said. I chose a parking space to pull in to, directly in front of a young man sitting on an outdoor bench. He was listening to an iPod and leafing through a magazine, enjoying the pleasant day.

Until I drove up, that is. I didn't realize that there was, in addition to the expected sidewalk curb, also one of those long, flattish cement barrier thingies. Why both? Was the curb not enough? The cement barrier seemed superfluous, until I drove right up on it, scraping the underside of Applesauce Anne's nose with a grating sound that set my teeth on edge and started my LOVED ONES inside to start screaming with laughter all over again.

"Wow, right in front of the driving academy," marveled Kieren, who is a very reserved person like my dad and my brother, only not as reserved in this particular instance as I would have liked him to be.

The young man sitting on the bench looked up with some alarm, probably thinking that I was going to just keep on coming. He was prepared to seek shelter, if his reflexive movement toward higher ground was any indication. Seeing that I had come to a mortified stop, he settled back down with his magazine, chin tucked down on his chest to hide a wide smile.

Peony-hued with embarrassment, I put the van into reverse and we went backward off the cement barrier with a mighty bump and another scrape. A face momentarily appeared in the office window of the A+ Driving Academy, undoubtedly wondering if it was a student driver who was causing all the bumping and scraping and fleeing pedestrians. And flattened geraniums.

Meelyn, whose hands had covered her face the moment she took note of the young man on the bench during our ascent of the parking barrier, whispered, "I can't believe we have to get out of this thing and walk right past him. He is really cute."

"I'm sorry," I said with dignity, "but anyone should be able to see that it isn't necessary to have both a tall sidewalk curb and a cement barrier."

"'Anyone' should have been able to see the barrier," said Aisling, which sent her and Kieren off into more gales of wheezing laughter. Dayden uttered pizzzzzzzoooooooooor! pizzzzzzzzzzzzzooooor! from the rear seat, pointing his finger at two women coming out of a coffee shop.

I ignored her. "Come along, Meelyn," I said huffily, sliding the strap of my handbag onto my stiffened shoulder. I got out of the van, hoping that anyone who had witnessed our bouncy, banging entrance to the parking lot and parking space from the driving academy's or the coffee shop's windows wouldn't think I was out of my senses with drink so early on a Friday morning.

She came with me, carefully flipping her hair over her face as she passed the young man on the bench. I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye and noticed that he was still looking terribly amused. I suddenly found a need to dig in my bag for a tissue.

"Okay, now, who are we signing up for driving lessons in here today?" Meelyn asked chattily, looping her arm through mine as I pulled open the academy's door. "Me? Or you?"

Friday, June 27, 2008

Washy dishwasher!

Omigosh, you can't believe it. After using distilled white vinegar in my dishwasher yesterday in four different cycles (three cups of vinegar per cycle), I ran a load of dishes through to see how things were shaping up. The glasses on the top rack were still a t-i-n-y bit speckled with food particles and they were a little bit spotted with water/mineral deposits, but the plates and utensils on the bottom rack were absolutely sparkling clean.

I haven't been this thrilled since....I don't know. Since I got my driver's license? Since I got my braces off? I live a sheltered life. But I'm just saying -- the distilled white vinegar really worked. I'd like to run it through a couple more cycles with four cups of vinegar instead of three and then give it a beauty treatment once a week thereafter, and that may well solve the dishwasher problem. Cheaply. VERY cheaply. Two dollars and change worth of cheaply.

I am eager to get to the store and buy a box of Cascade, plus some little Jet-Dry baskets to dangle from the top rack. I may have to drape myself over the dishwasher like a fringy silk scarf over a grand piano and plant little kisses on its faux butcher block top -- I'm that happy.

It isn't often that you can stumble across a solution to a problem that really and truly works without the services of a professional from Sears or similar. Yeeeeha.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Un-washy dishwasher

I have a dishwasher that I wrote about here sometime last year -- a nice Whirlpool portable kind with a roomy interior and a quiet and restrained way of operating that has solidly eclipsed a former under-counter model I had once. That thing sounded like five jet planes taking off during a thunderstorm on a runway next to a railroad track with a double-engine train moving briskly along. It was seriously loud and we grew weary of neighbors down the street calling us up in the evenings after dinner, demanding that we hand wash our dishes and stop disturbing the peace.

Unfortunately, we also have hard water. Indiana is famous for its beautiful, mellow limestone that has contributed to the elegant exteriors of such edifices as the Empire State Building and Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina. But that same water that creates the stone is the same water that is so hard, we practically have to chisel the water spots off our glasses. Our house does have all new plumbing, which means that we could easily have a water softener installed. It's just the minor matter of the $300 a plumber would require to do the job.

Well, obviously, my dishwasher is suffering. The girls and I have noticed that the dishes are getting noticeably less clean, which is exasperating. Plus, the hard water absolutely ruins the glasses. They get etched and streaked from mineral deposits and I refuse to use nasty-looking glasses to serve iced tea to guests, or more to the point, drink from them myself. Meelyn and Aisling are the dish-doers after dinner and they already have to the silver flatware, which can't go in the dishwasher, and I went out last week and bought some new glasses which I'm making them wash in the sink and loud has been the grumbling.

So this morning, I decided to search around on the internet for an answer to the problem of streaky, etched glasses, dried food flecks on plates and a general state of yuckiness inside my dishwasher, which is not very old and a fairly pricey mid-range model.

This is what I came up with, for my edification and yours:

1) Hard water is hard on dishwashers. Turns out that those mineral deposits that streak and etch the glasses are also clogging up the hoses and nozzles and water-squirty things, causing them to work less efficiently. Thus the dried food flecks.

2) One simple answer to this problem is to run the dishwasher, empty, on the regular cycle, with two cups of distilled white vinegar added to the water once the dishwasher has filled. If the dishwasher has been neglected -- I felt momentarily guilty, as if I'd been mean to a kitten. How could I be so thoughtless, so heedless, as to neglect my dishwasher, which does so much work for us, so quietly, so uncomplainingly? -- it might take a few cycles of running the white vinegar through before things get better.

3) All dishwasher detergents and rinsing agents aren't the same. Cascade is strongly recommended because it has superior dissolvability when compared to other detergents. I have never used Cascade, mostly because I am a big cheapo and I always cynically figured that Whirlpool had some kind of cozy arrangement worked out with the manufacturers of Cascade when I got that free mini-box with my new dishwasher. But I think this really might be true. I've used several other brands (all cheaper than Cascade) and several different types (powder, liquid and tablets) and I have found out a few things on my blundering own.

For instance, liquid detergents are always gone when I open the dishwasher later; some powders are completely gone and some are still clumped up in the little dispenser tray; and the tablets? Well, those things are completely useless. They don't dissolve at all and we wind up with a dishwasher full of dishes that are not just unattractively speckled with dried-on food flecks, but are downright dirty. Byuck.

The other recommendation for dishwashers is Jet-Dry, the rinsing agent, but the kind internet users advised to use on the help site I found was the old-fashioned Jet-Dry that comes in the things that look like wee little baskets. Using those kind makes more sense, help site posters agreed, because you can physically see with your own two eyes when the rinsing agent is gone. With the liquid Jet-Dry, you pour it into the little dispenser and you forget to use it again. Maybe there is a fancy dishwasher out there that has a little sensor light that comes on when the rinsing agent dispenser is empty, but mine doesn't do that.

So. I went out and spent $2.39 on a gallon of distilled white vinegar and I just started the dishwasher on its third cycle today, using three cups of vinegar to strengthen the solution since my dishwasher had a lot of mineral deposits on its interior. It's working, too! I am really pleased that the answer to this problem was so easy, and although the silver flatware still won't be able to go in, and I'm still concerned about the glasses, I do plan to buy some Cascade and some Jet-Dry and hopefully, we won't have to hand-wash the plates and the serving dishes and the iced tea pitcher by hand, right after they've been "washed" in a dishwasher suffering from calcium deposits.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Whisk Wednesdays Assignment #12, Part 2 - Béarnaise sauce

I posted on Sunday about this assignment and the dinner that was going to go along with it, but events have transpired so that there were no artichokes present at our meal. Instead, there were garlic mashed potatoes and green beans. Or haricots verts, if you are so inclined, which tend to be after reading Le Cordon Bleu at Home.

Béarnaise sauce is a variation -- or perhaps derivation would be a better term -- of the Hollandaise we made last week. It is Hollandaise with shallot, tarragon, wine, wine vinegar, peppercorns and chervil added, creating a more complex taste that compliments the taste of just about any kind of meat or fish, according to the cookbook. In looking through some of the other books in my small collection of cookbooks, I found recipes for beef, poultry and fish that called for a buttery-rich drizzling of warm béarnaise and it's just fortunate for my digestive system that I didn't try to eat the pages that depicted colored photographs.

Meelyn, Aisling and I started out by finely dicing the shallots (we used three small instead of one large) with our new 7" chef's knife. Our knife skills are....poor. Beyond poor. When we were dicing those shallots, we looked like zealous members of of some sort of amateur digit amputation association, only our knife is not all that sharp. But you have to start somewhere, and considering the fact that we trimmed the woody ends off of last week's asparagus with a utility knife that is about as useful as a piece of sharp stone from the driveway, we felt that we were moving forward in the world, even though our new knife cost under $10, which made us all kind of giggle in embarrassment, considering the awe-inspiring price of this professional set. We've been interested in knives ever since watching the contestants on Top Chef reverently placing theirs into their little canvas bundles or attachés.

Shallots diced, we measured out the tarragon, substituting one teaspoon of the dried herb for the one tablespoon of fresh called for in the recipe. It turns out that our blue-collar city isn't the best place to shop if you plan to do a little French cooking and fresh tarragon was not to be found at the two grocery stores nearest my home. (Neither was chervil, fresh or dried, so I substituted dried parsley flakes, but that comes later.)

The béarnaise recipe called for the shallots, tarragon and three ground peppercorns to be placed in a small saucepan with 1/4 cup of white wine and 2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar and then cooked over a gentle flame until the liquid was gone, which I think is called a reduction, but don't quote me on that. Unless I'm right.

I didn't have any white wine vinegar (and was unmotivated to drive back to the market, since I'd just come back from that very place with the meat), so I used the red wine vinegar from last week's recipe. The wine was just a white table wine I had in the fridge.

The herbs and spices cooking on the stove smelled sooo good. The girls and my husband kept commenting on the sweetly savory aroma pouring forth from that little pan. I estimate it took about fifteen minutes for all the liquid to evaporate, with me giving it a stir every now and then. It would be very easy for this to scorch, so take care if you decide to make this yourself. I have to warn you -- this doesn't look all that yummy when the liquid is gone. It sort of looks like, well, chewing tobacco. Already chewed chewing tobacco.

I decided to follow Kayte's way of doing things over at Grandma's Kitchen Table last Wednesday and I did not clarify the butter. I melted it in the microwave in short bursts so that it wouldn't foam up and get too hot -- it needed to be room temperature before we could stir it into the egg yolk/water mixture that was coming up in a few minutes.

One thing I know from making soap for so many years is that if you're making an emulsion, all the ingredients you're combining have to be very close in temperature if you want them to stick together. This has something to do with chemistry and molecules binding together and if hash were on the menu for this week, I could try to explain all that and you'd have a serving of it. Let me just say: if you add hot butter to a just-warm mixture of egg yolks, water, herbs and spices, you're going to have problems: the mixture is going to separate into an oily mess of butter and nasty chunks of curdled egg yolk, plus all the stuff that looks like ABC* chewing tobacco....yuck.

But if you remove that little saucepan from the flame and then add the room-temp butter to it in a slooo-oow stream, you will have no problems. Add the rest of the tarragon, the chervil (or parsley, in our case) and just keep stirring. Before we knew it, we were looking at a saucepan of béarnaise! Meelyn even paid me the high compliment of saying, "Mom, that looks just like the picture in the cookbook." I was terribly thrilled. I pushed my toe against the kitchen floor, blushed, and murmured, "Ohhh, I bet you say that to all the FRENCH CHEFS IN THIS HOUSE."

(If you'd like to see what béarnaise sauce looks like, here's a fairly decent photograph -- oops, wait, I was just informed that that one looks like snot, so try this image instead -- although it doesn't look nearly as delicious as the sauce in the photograph in the Le Cordon Bleu at Home cookbook, nor even our humble efforts chez nous.)

Again, just like last Wednesday, I made a bain-marie out of my small saucepan carefully arranged inside a slightly larger saucepan that was half-filled with simmering water to keep it warm but not hot until the meat was done. I read that if the béarnaise gets too hot, it will cook the egg yolks too much and you'll have a lumpy sauce. I also took out just a brief moment to write "Buy a cheap double-boiler" on my shopping list.

My husband grilled the beef -- we ended up buying two strip steaks that were on a severe markdown, indicating that they'd been on display for a few days -- and cut them in half, along with a couple of chicken breasts that I'd marinated in a nice vinaigrette earlier. Meelyn whipped the garlic potatoes with butter, salt, ground pepper and a bit of milk; the green beans were ready for Aisling to dish up with the slotted spoon.

I asked everyone if they'd mind making the grilled meat with sauce their first bite and was extremely gratified when everyone said, "Mmmmmmm!" in unison.

"I could grow to like this Frenchy stuff," my husband said, mopping a bite of steak in a little puddle of sauce with enthusiasm.

Me, too!

NOTE: I happened to read a severe little paragraph in a different French cookbook which stated that sauces are meant to be applied with artistry, a mere tablespoon or so drizzled over the meat with a careful hand, creating a beautiful presentation as well as a beautiful taste. Me, I used a small ladle and covered our steaks and chicken with a thick blanket of béarnaise that completely obscured the meat, making a presentation that looked like oddly shaped, unidentifiable lumps under a very pretty sauce. It could have been a chunk of possum under there, for all we knew. That's how we eats our sauces here in the Hoosier state, monsewer.

* Remember that from childhood? ABC = Already Been Chewed

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Okay, I am still not a fan of the cheesy name of this program, but I simply cannot argue with its efficacy as a methodology. Meelyn and I have started the pre-algebra program and we have both discovered that the manipulatives are pure genius.

Granted, we're not very far in the book; we've done the first week's worth of assignments in the text and both of us have met with success. Steve Demme does an excellent job on the DVD of explaining the new concept the student will be working on -- for example, the first lesson covers addition with negative numbers -- and then the student goes on to do the daily assignment, twenty problems.

Meelyn and I worked separately, sitting on either end of the sofa using a tray table for our notebooks, with another tray table between us to hold the manipulatives. Using the manipulatives was slightly amazing. I don't have a mathematical mind, so doing a problem such as (-11) + (+28) became understandable to my brain and my eyes when I used Steve's method of gathering the colored "bars" to solve the problem.

This problem required the use of three ten-bars (ten cubes in one long, plastic strip), one cube and an eight-bar: one ten-bar and the cube were turned over to their hollow side to represent a negative number, while the other two ten-bars and the eight-bar were left right side up to represent the positive number. I plucked them out of the cardboard case and lo and behold! I SAW THE MATH!

Even better, Meelyn saw it, too.

If you're confused about the "bars," (also referred to as "blocks") click here to get a look at them. We have Starter Set 1 and the Algebra/Decimal inserts.

Math-U-See employs the following approach in all of its levels, taken from the MUS website:


Math-U-See: Suggested 4-Step Approach

In order to train students to be confident problem solvers, here are the four steps that I suggest you use to get the most from the Math-U-See curriculum:

1. Prepare for the Lesson
2. Present the New Topic to the Student
3. Practice for the Student to Acquire Mastery
4. Proceed after the Student Demonstrates Mastery

Step 1. Prepare for the Lesson

As the teacher, watch the DVD/video to learn the concept yourself, and see how to demonstrate this concept with the blocks or fraction overlays. Also, read and study the examples in the Teacher Manual, along with the written explanations. The video and the Teacher Manual are designed to easily familiarize you with the new material. They are your multi-sensory educational tools. The older and more mature the student, the more useful the video and Teacher Manual will be for them as well.

Step 2. Present the New Topic to the Student
Present the new concept to your students. Have the students watch the video with you, if you think it would be helpful. Older students will benefit from watching the video.

Build: Demonstrate how to use the blocks (or fraction overlays) to solve the problem.

Write: Show the problems on paper as you build them, step-by-step.

Say: Explain the "why" and "what" of the math you are doing.

By using Build, Write and Say (also explained on the video), you are helping the students to use their eyes, ears and hands to learn. Do as many problems as necessary until the students understand. One of the joys of teaching is hearing a student say "Now I get it!" or "Now I see it!"

Step 3. Practice for the Student to Acquire Mastery
Using the examples and the Lesson Practice problems from the Student Text, have the students practice the new concept. Coach them through the building, writing and saying process. It is one thing for students to watch someone else do a problem, it is quite another to do the same themselves. Do enough examples together until they can do them without assistance.
Note: Do as many of the Lesson Practice pages as necessary (not all pages may be needed) until the students remember the new material and gain understanding. Utilize the word problems, which are designed to apply the concept being taught in the lesson.

Step 4. Proceed after the Student Demonstrates Mastery
Once mastery of the new concept is demonstrated, proceed into the Systematic Review pages for that lesson. Mastery can be demonstrated by having each student teach the new material back to you. Let him build the problem with the blocks (or fraction overlays), write it as he progresses through the problem, and say what he is doing as he works the problem. The goal is not to fill in worksheets, but to be able to teach back what has been learned.

Note: The Systematic Review worksheets review the new material as well as provide practice of the math concepts previously studied. The word problems are taken from material the student has mastered in previous lessons as well as the new material. Remediate missed problems as they arise to ensure continued mastery.

Proceed to the lesson tests. These can be used as an assessment tool or as an extra worksheet. Limiting the time on a test is your decision, but be aware that it is often an unnecessary source of stress, especially for younger children.

Your students will be ready for the next lesson only after demonstrating mastery of the new concept and continued mastery of concepts found in the Systematic Review worksheets.
Confucius was reputed to have said, "Tell me, I forget; Show me, I understand; Let me do it, I will remember." To which we add, "Let me teach it and I will have achieved mastery!"

I really enjoyed using this system with Meelyn yesterday, who went from a great fear and loathing of math before we started yesterday morning to an actual tentative feeling of "maybe I can do this after all." She was disgusted with herself for making careless mistakes (writing -28 for an answer when the answer was actually -27, for instance) but I'm not too fussed about those kinds of mistakes, because at least I can see she has the concept. The kind of mistakes that worry me are when a student writes -28 and the actual answer is something like +642. Naturally, I want those careless errors to be cleaned up, but I am delighted to see comprehension. So it was a real treat to see Meelyn teaching the material of that first lesson back to me, explaining it clearly and getting it right.


What a relief. I don't feel that I need any manipulatives to see a good year ahead.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A trio of feast days

I wish I'd remembered to post this sooner, but I didn't.

Three awesome saints have had their feast days over the past three days: St. Aloysius Gonzaga on June 21, St. Thomas More on June 22 and St. John Fisher today on June 23. I'm fond of St. Aloysius Gonzaga because he was a Jesuit, a contemporary and a protégé of St. Charles Borromeo, Bishop of Milan, who was so instrumental in helping the English Jesuit missionaries to travel incognito into England during the English Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation. These men, along with St. Francis de Sales, were some of the leading lights of that period in history.

Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher were both Catholics who were martyred by King Henry VIII. They remained strong in the face of opposition, facing death with courage and even humor. "See me safely up," St. Thomas More reportedly said to the officials who presided over his beheading in London on July 6, 1535. "Coming down, I can shift for myself."

Happy feast days, beloved saints!

He needs salt

My husband got up this morning, pulled on shorts, shirt and sandals, and left the house to take Hershey and Wimzie, our dogs, on their morning walk around the neighborhood. He's met and befriended people all over the place (they're out early watering the flowers) so the three of them are usually gone about twenty minutes or so while the dogs do their business and my husband trades good mornings with the gardening and coffee-on-the-front-porch-with-the-newspaper crowd.

I was in my room getting dressed and watching the news and weather on television when I suddenly heard Hershey, a silly black dog who is part beagle, part Sheltie (a Beltie, my friend Cato called him) start barking. Since he has that touch of beagle blood, his bark is a dramatic, drawn out sort of yodeling; if he were a human, he'd be an operatic tenor, but not a very good one.

"BAAAROOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!" Hershey yodeled in the distance. "BAARROOOO!!!!! BORK! BORK! BORK! BARROO-OOO-OOOOOO!!!!"

I winced, mindful of the neighbors who might possibly still be sleeping at 6:47 on a cool summer's morning, being rudely yanked from a sound sleep by the ululations of an excited dog who has just seen a cat. Or a squirrel. Or possibly a little piece of cottonwood fluff borne along by the mild breeze.


"'Yipe'?" I thought. The borking and barooo-ing ceased and all was quiet until I heard two sets of paws and one set of human feet mounting the stairs. The dogs burst into the room, Wimzie trotting bossily, Hershey prancing. My husband followed, looking like a man who would rather get back into bed.

"What was going on out there?" I asked. "I heard Hershey going crazy halfway down the street."

"Oh, he saw a squirrel," my husband replied wearily, taking a pair of Dockers on a hanger out of his side of the closet.

Hershey, hearing his name mentioned, came over and gazed up at me hopefully as I sat on the bed applying makeup, hinting broadly for an invitation to jump up and snuggle. It is sometimes difficult to want to snuggle with him, since he is forty-five pounds of solid muscle, yet feels compelled to climb into my lap and lick off my blush with long, loving swipes of his stinky wet tongue. "Why did he yelp?"

"Winzie bit him."

"She bit him? Why'd she do that?"

My husband took a pair of dark socks out of his dresser drawer. "He wouldn't shut up with the barking, and apparently it was getting on her nerves. Plus, he was standing still trying to intimidate the squirrel, who couldn't have cared less, and Wimzie wanted to move on. So she growled at him, and when he wouldn't pay attention to her, she bit him on the side of the neck."

Wimzie has never taken any crap from Hershey. It's well known around here that she only barely tolerates him; he's bigger and stronger than she is, but he's never learned to open doors or tip over wastebaskets or drink out of people's glasses without tipping them over when they unwisely leave them unattended on a sofa table. He is, in her opinion, useless, and she usually refers to him as "that frigging loser you saddled me with."

Wimzie has been known to reprimand him as a mother dog disciplines her pups, and one time -- a time that I shudder to think about -- she nearly decapitated him when he snuck up behind her and attempted to assert his macho authority by making a few ill-advised hunches in the vicinity of her hindquarters. That never happened again. For a while, I was even nervous to walk up behind her.

"Just your humble servant here, old girl," I would say in a bright, false voice that betrayed my jangled nerves. "Erm, can I get you anything? A fresh dish of water? A Snaussage? A front row ticket to a cage fighting title match?"

Twenty minutes later, Wimzie accompanied me in the van to drive my husband to work, cheerfully bouncing out to sit on her favorite seat, where she lurks behind the tinted glass, waiting to launch a volley of fierce barks at any possible cows she may see along the way. Horses, sheep, goats and other dogs don't bother her, but cows....She seems to think that cows are unnatural creatures that conceal realms of untold menace for Jack Russell terriers inside their plodding bodies.

I was careful to maintain a steady pace throughout the drive so that she wouldn't become annoyed and try to urge me along by a sudden bite to the neck. You have to keep your eye on Wimzie.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Gearing up for this week's Whisk Wednesday

This week, Shari, Kayte and I are working on another emulsified sauce, the famous Béarnaise. Le Cordon Bleu at Home says (on page 250) that if anything could be called a "steak sauce" in France, this would be it. Which makes me feel kind of weird about THE GREAT BIG BOTTLE OF HEINZ 57 sitting in my refrigerator. What can I say? I am a complex woman with many different layers, kind of like a great big bulb of garlic. Yeah.

I've never made Béarnaise before, but I have eaten it. This week, it's going to go on a couple of filets mignons -- our grocery budget will not allow for the six center-cut tenderloins of beef the recipe calls for, nor even four so that we'll have one each. However, I can spring for two and my husband, who is absolutely brilliant on the grill, will get a great deal of pleasure out of cooking them. He has mastered the ability to produce a delicious medium-rare steak. And considering that he usually has some el-cheapo cuts of meat to work with, I figure this will be a pleasant thing for him. We're going to eke out the rest of the meal with grilled chicken in our favorite marinade.

This is also going to give us the chance to eat artichokes in a different way than we've ever eaten them before. Previously, all artichoke eating has been confined to eating spinach-artichoke dip with celery sticks and baguette slices, which is made with marinated artichoke hearts. We all love that a lot -- the spinach and artichokes are perfect together in their spicy blend of cream cheese and grated Parmesan, with plenty of red pepper flakes and ground black pepper. I make it in a little quiche plate and it is really tasty. But now, we're stretching ourselves a little with these cooked fresh chokes and Aisling says she hopes they don't make her. Choke, of course.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Field trip

Yesterday, the girls and I traveled over to Carmel to a 4-H meeting -- it's that time of year again with the project sheets and the project tags and the project books and it seems like I'm forgetting something, oh yeah! The projects! Anyway, with gas at $4.09 a gallon, we always combine one trip into two, so we planned to stay in the area until it was time to go pick up my husband at work. But that left us with two hours' worth of time to spend, so I took us on a field trip.

We went to that place which should be a pilgrimage of sorts to anyone who loves Top Chef as much as we do. I'm talking, of course, about Whole Foods Market , a place to which we'd never been. We have seen inside a Whole Foods Market, when all the Top Chef Chicago contenders were running around madly buying their "proteins" and peeling leaves off their bok choy to bring down the weight at the cash register. But it's just different being there yourself, even though it would have been fun to talk to Stephanie and Antonia and ask them what their favorite slow-cooker recipes are.

The nearest Whole Foods to our city is the one right there in Carmel, and it was full of the predictable Carmely goodness: the distressed walls and floor tiles and displays that looked like they were wheeled off the set of Under the Tuscan Sun, all ochre and burnt sienna and touches of bitter green like Cerignola olives. Very attractive decor. It set off all the food like a velvet jeweler's box sets off a diamond ring.

But, oh, my goodness, the ring itself! Piles of gorgeous fruits and vegetables! Organic dried herbs, every kind you can think of! Boxes of vegetarian dog biscuits! I know! That's kind of stupid, isn't it?! Pastas and oils and teas and cheeses and whoaa! I backed up a few paces and then joyously grabbed a bottle of Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day Dish Soap, which is the only brand I've been able to find on the market that doesn't produce the maddening itch and subsequent flaking skin of an allergic reaction. The key is in the word "soap," which is a whole different thing from most dish-cleansing products: they are detergents and my hands can't take it. I unwisely washed a sink full of glasses the other day and ended up having to take a Benadryl.

The Mrs. Meyer's brand of dish soap was discontinued at the grocery store I shop at a few months back, so I was plenty glad to be putting that attractive bottle into my mini-cart. And it actually cost the same amount in Whole Foods as it did in Kroger back home! Score one for the field trippers.

We worked our way slowly across the store, browsing here and there among the aisles, cooing over the wee jars of organic baby food and rolling our eyes at the aformentioned vegetarian dog biscuits.

"There's a reason why dogs have those long, sharp teeth," I remarked.

"And also a reason why, if Hershey is offered a piece of hamburger or a carrot, he always goes for the hamburger," said Meelyn.

"Or why he chases squirrels but not potatoes," Aisling chimed in brightly, but then her brow furrowed. "Or maybe that's because the potatoes don't run..."

The best part of all, however, was the wine and cheese section. I don't think I've ever seen so much cheese and I know the girls haven't. We were rocky pleased to see that there were many free samples available and the girls each daintily smeared a tiny cracker with a little bit of goat cheese, nibbling carefully. This is so much different than the days when they were small and I had to prevail upon them in the name of good manners, Judith Martin and Emily Post not to descend on store samples like a plague of locusts or army ants, eating all the little bits of food carefully arranged on cocktail napkins and then moving on to the display cart the samples were sitting on. And if there was a senior citizen standing there in a green apron offering the samples, I had to look lively to keep her from being eaten. Mmmm...person.

"This cheese is so delish," said Meelyn. "Here, try one!" She handed me a tiny crostini with the goat cheese spread thick. I popped it into my mouth and I swear, I have never tasted anything as delicious as that cheese in my life. In a life partially dedicated to the eating of cheese, this was something altogether new.

This cheese, as I read later on the package, was the plain variety of goat cheese from Montchevré-Betin of Belmont, Wisconsin in an 8-ounce log. It was creamy and buttery-rich, with just the slightest bit of tanginess and I thought I'd died and gone to some kind of cheese-stocked heaven. I believe it was about $5.99 or something like that.

Before we left the store, we decided it would be a good thing to use the facilities, so I went into the restroom with Aisling while Meelyn waited outside with our three items for purchase and all our handbags. The restroom was right next to the beer and wine section, so Meelyn occupied herself by looking at the labels of wine bottles, some of which are very beautiful, pure and genius works of art sticky-backed onto glass, and some of which are quirky and funny.

As she browsed, she was startled, she said, by a voice over her right shoulder.

"Excuse me, miss?" the voice said.

She turned her head and saw a young man in a Whole Foods golf shirt and apron looking at her expectantly.

"Can I help you make a selection?" he asked her, obviously unaware that she has just turned fifteen.

Meelyn said it was very hard to keep from giggling and she hated to dash his hopes because she is a nice person, but that she managed to say "No, but thank you." He retreated to his place behind the deli counter and she surreptitiously pointed him out when Aisling and I returned.

"Honestly," she said, "we've been over here in the cheese section for twenty minutes. Hasn't he seen that I'm here with my mom?"

"Maybe he thinks I'm your cook," I offered.

"You are our cook," Aisling pointed out.

"You must look like you're twenty-one years old from a distance." I looked at Meelyn and felt a sudden sinking in my stomach, but it turned out it was a mere passing whim compared to the pain my husband got when she related this story to him about half an hour later.

"Dogs," he said hollowly, looking at me with wide eyes. "Not like the useless ones we've got, but great big Rottweilers that are trained to eat any male under the age of twenty-five who isn't in med school or law school or for his father's very lucrative business. And some for you, one for me. I'll teach you how to shoot to wound. Right where it counts."

I patted him on the hand, but he continued muttering feverishly to himself.

Back at Whole Foods, this tasting of the cheese reminded us that we'd had no lunch. Katie and Rebecca had served us grapes and homemade sour cream coffee cake when we hung around after the 4-H meeting, begging for a handout, but my stomach was still rumbling: It was, after all, 4:30 pm and I hadn't had anything since 8:00 that morning. So we bought the little cheese log and a packet of the tiny crostini and secured a plastic knife from the salad bar. Combined with cold, cold bottles of water, it made the most delicious little lunch we'd had all week, pretty cheap for an "out" meal. And better BY FAR than some warmed-over hamburger from a fast food place, where one might possibly be called upon to squish a pigeon.

The girls ate their crostini and handed some up to me as I drove to go pick up my husband. We took a little moment to stop off at the baby house we found for rent last week, just to see if anyone had moved in, which they hadn't. It sat there in its pretty yard, waiting to be loved, although it already is, by me.

We just love a field trip.

Back to the future...

I was told by several people -- i.e., my family -- that my new layout, the one I thought looked so crisp, clean and summery, actually looked, as they expressed it, like crap. Change it back to the green and leafy look, they said. So I did.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Watch your language, buddy

There is ALL KINDS of construction going on in our street. The city is doing something to something to make the somethings work more efficiently. I think it's the storm sewers, but don't quote me on that.

The construction begins, with a great farting fanfare of diesel machinery starting up, at about 4:30 am and carries on all day just until the point that I think I'm going start chewing holes in the carpet. Then they stop and go home, leaving a few discarded cups and cans dotting the careful landscaping and a new coating of dust on my windows.

I can deal with the cups and cans, I suppose. That's why God sends the wind, right? To blow the city workers' dumb trash right back to city hall, three blocks away? But what I find harder to deal with is the CONSTANT CURSING that goes on. It wears on my last nerve, it really does.

For instance, here are a couple of the poetic utterances I've heard this morning while sitting here at my desk by my open dining room window:

"J**** C****!!!! SLOWER! SLOWER, G** D****!!!! WHAT THE F*** ARE YOU TRYING TO DO??!!"


"PUT THAT F***** IN GEAR AND BRING 'ER FORWARD, G** D*****!!!!! NOT SO F****** SLOW!!! J**** C*****!!!!!! I DON'T HAVE ALL F****** DAY!!!!!"

Don't get me wrong. I am not a dainty little flower. I'm just saying when you have people working right outside your house for eight hours a day for the past five days and many unforeseen days into the future, it would wear you down to have people shouting "Mary Had a Little Lamb" at the tops of their leathery lungs, let alone bombarding you with a fusillade of profanity.

Besides, I know what "Mary Had a Little Lamb" would sound like from this gang. It'd go a little somethin' like this:

"MARY HAD A F****** LAMB..."

Mere seconds ago, another torrent was unleashed with the foreman yelling, "I'VE TOLD YOU ALL A THOUSAND TIMES NOT TO ROLL THAT G** D***** THING FORWARD OVER THERE BUT IT LOOKS LIKE I'M GOING TO HAVE TO SAY IT ONE MORE F***** TIME!"

At that point, I'd had it. I mean, it is only 10:15 am and the sun is not yet beating down and the traffic is light and there's a fresh morning breeze. What's it going to be like at 4:30 pm when it's hot and everyone's tired and sweaty.

So, partially concealed by the dining room curtain, I assumed my best Teacher Will Give You Saturday Detention voice and shouted ringingly, "HEY! YOU STOP THAT KIND OF TALK OR I'M COMING OUT WITH A BAR OF SOAP AND DON'T THINK I DON'T MEAN IT!!!"

Seriously. If I were working outside a house with a great big Virgin Mary shrine prominently displayed in the front -- you cannot miss it; it's a huge chunk of concrete that stands thigh high -- I'd be a little more circumspect in my choice of epithets I was going to be hollering at the dimwits I was leading.

There was a slight silence. It was absolutely golden. But then another diesel engine fired up and I don't know if Mr. Cussy McCussington ever summoned up a reply. Heh.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Hatching Day

Today is Aisling's thirteenth Hatching Day, as she puts it. My baby is now a teenager.

Thirteen years ago at this time, Aisling was three and a half hours old and the hospital nurses were already making deliberate moves towards prying the two of us out of our respective bed and bassinette and giving us the bum's rush. What is it with hospitals these days that they'll barely allow you the time to climb off the delivery table and brush your hair before they're all, like, "Thanks for stopping by! Don't forget your pocketbook! Oh, and the baby! Here she is! Hey, will you do the APGAR test when you get home and call us back with the results?"

Anyway, Aisling as a newborn infant was much like she is now -- loud and demanding, cheerful and cuddly. She didn't so much want to be held as she wanted to be worn, and not in one of those fancypantsbaby slings, either. She had no truck with this hands-free style of mothering. She wanted my hands hold. Ing. Her. No excuses.

Aisling still wants that, and scoots up next to me on the sofa every evening, pressing herself into my side -- her cheek, her arm, her leg --so that I can barely tell where I leave off and she begins. That seems logical, because my husband says that she is my Mini-Me. It makes me hope somewhat wistfully that she won't grow up and move too far away for me to hug regularly.

Happy birthday, dear Aisling. We love you, honey.

Whisk Wednesdays Assignment #12, Part 1 -- Hollandaise and Sauce Moutarde

I am more of a foodie-wannabe than an actual foodie, so when I relate that the Hollandaise and Sauce Moutard the girls and I made turned out spectacularly well, picture a balloon drop and flying confettiand the sounds of a brass band playing a strapping Sousa march on the street outside our house.

This recipe, from the excellent cookbook, Le Cordon Bleu at Home (you can have a look at it and read reviews by typing the title in the search feature to over to the right and down a bit), was very easy to follow even for a piker like me and delicious? Oh my heavens, you cannot believe the rich, warm, buttery goodness. My two teenage daughters, Meelyn and Aisling, and I were standing around our saucepan gauging the need for more lemon juice, salt and cayenne and all of a sudden I noticed that we had achieved the required level of yumminess, yet still, there we were. Tasting.

"Stop," I said, lifting a spoon to my lips. "Stop tasting the Hollandaise, girls! How do you expect to have enough left over for our asaparagus, and some to add the Dijon to for the Sauce Moutarde?" I took another enthusiastic taste. The girls, licking their spoons, looked at me with narrowed eyes. I placed the spoon in the dishwasher and cleared my throat.

"Thank you," I said with dignity.

I felt we'd cheated a bit in the making of this sauce because we watched a DVD of Julia Child making Hollandaise just a week ago. She explained everything so clearly, telling us what to do -- and perhaps more to the point, what not to do -- that it would have been hard to mess things up.

First off, we placed the three eggs in a shallow dish of warm water so that they could come to room temperature while we were clarifying the butter. I was a little nervous about that butter, seeing as how I had never clarified it before. Eaten it, yes. Clarified, not so much. Since I wasn't sure, I did what any seasoned internet aficianado does -- I used Google.

I found that information this site and the instructions worked a treat. Before too long, I was skimming off the foam into a little bowl, pouring the clarified butter into another bowl, and then scooping the remaining milk solids into the bowl with the foam. Easy peasy, and so far, so good.

Once the butter was clarified, I showed Meelyn and Aisling how to separate the eggs so that we'd have the yolks for our Hollandaise. We popped those into a medium-sized saucepan, added the water and got to whisking.

It was nice having help for this task, because Julia made it pretty clear in that episode we watched that one does not leave the egg yolks and water there on the gas burner and go off, say, to paint one's fingernails or read the newspaper or broker peace in the middle east. Over a medium heat, we whisked away and were rewarded in less time than I imagined with a nice, thick yolky emulsion and it was time for the clarified butter.

Aisling professed herself to be tired of cooking and me giving cooking instructions in a bad French accent, so she sat down at the kitchen table with a book and put her feet on the dog, who had come out to the kitchen seeking a handout, perhaps hoping for an entire ham to fall to the floor. Meelyn stayed at the stove to whisk while I added the clarified butter. Once we had a nice, smooth thing going there in the saucepan, I added back the rest of the milk fat from the little bowl and Meelyn whisked it all smooth. As it turns out, I think this was a mistake. Fortunately, this was a happy mistake that affected neither the taste nor the texture of the sauce.

For our Hollandaise, we used about a teaspoon of lemon juice, approximately two teaspoons of sea salt, and probably an eighth of a teaspoon of cayenne. I could have used less lemon juice and been happy, but the result was, as I said, delicious.

Half the Hollandaise was reserved for the asparagus we were going to roast and the rest was going to have the Dijon mustard added to it for the Sauce Moutarde, but first we had to roast the asparagus and cook the saucisse fumée.

I know that asparagus is traditionally served steamed with Hollandaise, but I'm not fond of steamed asparagus; I don't like the texture. I am really fond of roasted asparagus, tossed with a little olive oil and salted and peppered and placed in a 4500 oven for fifteen mintutes. I heated the saucisses fumées on the stovetop for that same amount of time, in the pan in which we clarified the butter.

To keep the Hollandaise warm, I used yet another pan -- can you imagine the crowded interior of my dishwasher, with plates, cooking pans and utensils all jostling for space and complaining, "Move! I can't get any water on me! You're hogging all the detergent!" -- and made a little makeshift bain-marie since I don't have a double-boiler.

Asparagus done, the girls and I forked it onto our warmed plates and gave it a couple of loving dollaps of the plain Hollandaise. We then made the variation by adding a tablespoon of Dijon mustard to the remaining mother Hollandaise, which created the petite sauce moutarde. That accomplished, the sausages went to the plates and were given a friendly soupçon of Sauce Moutard. We all retired to the table with glasses of freshly brewed iced tea, et voilà! We partook of an extremely tasty lunch.

By the way, I'm just being a dork with all that saucisse fumée stuff. It's just plain old all-beef smoked sausage I bought at the deli counter, made by Eckridge, the same kind that is often cut into chunks and served with steamed and buttered cabbage or even bean soup. Confession is good for the soul.

And Hollandaise is good for the stomach!

Here are Shari's results over at Whisk: a food blog

Here are Kayte's results from Grandma's Kitchen Table

I am the public's servant

Yesterday, on the way to take my husband to work, he wanted to stop off at a mini-mart to run in and get a packet of breath mints. When you make your living in the retail world, you don't want to be all up in some client's face with breath that could kill a tree, right? So he ran in to make his purchase and I sat and waited for him.

It's difficult for me to just sit, however. (Reminds me of the old man sitting on the porch staring off into space, who, when asked what he was doing, replied, "Sometimes I just sits here and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.") I had my book with me, but I suddenly noticed that the van's dashboard was a little dusty, sprinkled liberally with dog hair due to the ride in the front seat Wimzie took yesterday. I am prepared for crises such as this one, so I reached into the glove compartment, where I keep a little lambswool duster with a wooden handle.

There I was, happily dusting away -- and those lambswool dusters are really great; apparently the lanolin or something still present in the wool attracts the dust like a magnet -- when I got that icky feeling on the back of my neck that someone was looking at me.

Turning my head, I saw that another car had pulled up next to us with a young man who looked to be in his mid-twenties sitting behind the wheel. And he was staring at me in frank amazement, completely gobsmacked, as if seeing a large lady removing the dust from her van's dashboard with a little duster was the most peculiar thing he'd seen in all his born days.

I met his gaze and he looked from my face to the duster and then back again, his mouth open unattractively. I had just begun to wonder if he was on some kind of work release program from the Village Idiots Institute when he shook himself, got out of his car, and went into the store. As he exited his vehicle, I happened to notice that he had a dashboard with such a liberal coating of dust, he could have grown potatoes.

I prefer to think that his astonishment wasn't directed toward my person, but rather that he'd been all agog at the new piece of information he'd suddenly garnered, there on an ordinary Tuesday morning in June: he hadn't before realized that it was physically, or perhaps even socially, acceptable to remove the dust from the dashboard of one's car.

I, just sitting there placidly dusting away, have changed someone's life for the better. Yes. Yes, I have.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Whisk Wednesdays

Tomorrow will be my first Whisk Wednesday here at InsomniMom. The girls and I will be stirring up Sauce Hollandaise and Sauce Moutard. You might say a little prayer for us: I have recently felt very proud of myself for stirring up a homemade barbecue sauce that uses a great big ol' tacky bottle of chili sauce as a base, so I am quite possibly out of my league here.

And as I told Shari, the writer of Whisk: a food blog, I do occasionally make casseroles featuring cream of mushroom soup.

I am not a foodie. I just like to eat. And my normal level of cooking is way, way below Kayte's skill. Kayte is a gourmet cook -- I can tell because of the casual remarks she tosses off, as if making a soufflé is something most people do on a daily basis. Now, I'm not a total idiot. I don't, for instance, pronounce the word soufflé as "soofley" or anything, but I have never made one. I am good at making frozen chicken pot pies, forty minutes from oven to table. (Just kidding, Kayte.)

But anyway, it's important to keep learning and adding all kinds of knowledge to the insides of our heads and we all have to eat, right? So Meelyn, Aisling and I are going to use this opportunity Shari has offered through Whisk to learn about good food and how to make good food. She doesn't need to do a single thing toward helping us enjoy good food. We've got that covered.

I can't post pictures of our weekly ventures yet, but I will write about our results every week.

Monday, June 16, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: Entertaining is Fun! How to be a Popular Hostess

Book: Entertaining is Fun: How to be a Popular Hostess
Author: Dorothy Draper
Publication info: non-fiction, published by Rizzoli International Publications, New York: 2204
Original publication: published by Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., New York: 1941

My rating (out of five stars): * * * * *

If you've never read one of Dorothy Draper's books, you should. You really should. Go ahead and go get one right now, preferably the one I'm reviewing right now. I can wait.


Okay! Now that you're back, isn't this book just too adorable, with its polka dots and red-edged pages and the retro-forties fonts and artwork? Just looking at is fun, but wait 'til you start reading.

By all accounts, Dorothy Draper was, in our common parlance, FAB-u-lous! I mean, the woman did the interior design for Chicago's famous Drake Hotel, as well as the Beverly Hills Hotel. And the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were personal clients. Plus, I can attest to the fact that she writes a very entertaining book, and when the book happens to be about entertainment, how awesome is that? As I sat here pondering things, I realized that this book is the exact inverse of a mortician's writing a deathly dull book on his trade. Deep? Oh, don't you know it.

Mrs. Draper has the knack of writing as if she's writing a chatty letter just to you. I felt that she'd taken my measure and found me wanting on page five when she severely said to me: "In recent years, we've all heard a great deal about the Will to Fail, which sometimes is even more urgent than the Will to Succeed. The will to Fail isn't the only enemy most of us have to guard against. There is also the Will to be Dreary. It's a morose little imp which whispers to use that something which we know would be fuin would be too much trouble, will take too much time, will be too expensive and probably wouldn't be as amusing after all as just now you think it would be."

Does she know me, or what? Because I am a great big lump of dreariness just sitting here on my desk chair; a person so dreary that I didn't even want to invite my own fourteen-year-old nephew over to the house until we could get some decent food in it so that he wouldn't go home and tell my brother and sister-in-law, "Going to Aunt Shelley's is okay, I guess, but all I had to eat all day long was a hot dog that was all weird and dried up at one end where someone left the package open and a spoonful of chocolate syrup."

And we've owed several people -- some of whom are probably reading this blog and wondering what kind of manners I was raised with -- a return dinner for a good long while, yet that old Will to be Dreary keeps flicking through the list of all the things I know how to cook and saying in a dull voice, "No, they'll hate, they'll hate, I hate, they'll hate that..."

Because this book was originally written in 1941, there are some unintentionally hilarious bits that made me giggle. For instance, Mrs. Draper, in outlining all the details that make a simple dinner party perfect, included this gem on her list: "Place cigarettes, ashtrays and matches between every two plates."

Can you imagine? My gosh, people must have been smoking like chimneys for every two people to require ashtrays, matches and....and....coffin nails! I am trying to imagine what Gary and Katie would do if we ever....*ahem*....returned the favor on the delicious meal they served us, oh, about a year ago, if they sat down at our dining room table and saw a packet of cigarettes, matches and an ashtray cozied up next to their bread plates. In spite of the fact that the ladies at Mom's Night Out often get a celebratory beer or margarita, we are all a rather strait-laced group, my friends and I, and I think if I were going to follow Mrs. Draper's instructions, I'd have to substitute a small bottle of soap bubbles and a bubble wand for the cigarettes.

Another thing that tickled me was Mrs. Draper's earnest entreaty to weekend hosts to be sure they're there at the house, ready to throw the front door open in welcome to greet their guests. "Can there be anything more dreary than to arrive to stay several days at a house where there is only a bored-looking servant to receive you (and not one who has been taught to smile)?"

At our house, weekend guests have been greeted in anything but a dreary manner, with the front door crashing open and two dogs bursting therefrom in a maelstrom of fur and tongues and tails, all with me exasperatedly yelling, "Down! I said get down! You are bad, bad dogs! Go to your beds!" and diving in among them with a rolled-up copy of Woman's Day, thrashing and whacking and knocking our guest down the steps into the street.

The next funny bit came later in the book when Mrs. Draper was explaining how a certain New York City bachelorette got a reputation for sophistication, even though she lived at a swanky women's residential club where she could not entertain, by taking all her guests to a small French restaurant down the street from her club. The proprietor of the restaurant, Mrs. Draper relates, was pleased to decorate "Miss A's" festive table in the manner of her choosing, which meant a red-and-white checked tablecloth, crusty bread in a little basket, and aself-conciously twee sounding flower arrangement.

Miss A's menu was always the same, ordered in advance of the dinner party: the restaurant's soup du jour for the first course; Coquilles St. Jacques for the fish course; a broiled chicken served with a salad of mixed greens, all served with her favorite wine. For dessert, there was always a plate of ripe pears accompanied by a selection of cheeses and cups of bitter, scalding black coffee.

This lovely meal, says Mrs. Draper, was simple and inexpensive while also being elegant. At 85 cents per person, plus one dollar extra per person for the wine, you can just hardly beat it for a sophisticated yet carefree way to entertain.

Isn't that just delicious? Can you imagine being able to have Coquilles St. Jacques -- that you didn't even have to prepare and cook -- and all the rest of that for $1.85 per person?

I absolutely loved this cheerful book with its somewhat wistful memories of an era long past and more innocent. There was still a lot to learn from it, however, even though I'm hardly likely to convert an unused carriage house into a playhouse for entertaining guests by the fireplace that my husband and I could build together while our maid handed 'round a bowl of rosy apples and we toasted bread on long forks to serve with anchovy paste I'd whipped up in the main house.

It was a very fun read, and if you like entertaining and cooking food for company, you'll be sure to enjoy this book.

Bird squisher

I was driving to pick up my husband at work last week and this weird and possibly hammered out of its tiny brain bird flew in front of Anne as I was zooming her along the highway and there was a loud-ish sort of whump! and a swirl of feathers and now this is my second bird in a month.

It doesn't get one bit easier with repetition. Just in case you wondered.

When the time is right

On Friday afternoon, Aisling and I drove Meelyn over to Carmel to Lora's 16th birthday party (it rained like the holy angels were pouring water out of buckets, but fun indoor games were played and enjoyed) and on our way down Rangeline Road, we saw a For Rent sign with an arrow pointed down what looked like a quiet little side street. Aisling and I decided to investigate further once we'd dropped Mee off.

The street that looked like a quiet little street turned out to be a quiet little street. It meandered down a small hill and at the bottom, we found the sweetest little baby of a house sitting there, empty. I fell in love at first sight.

The house was sitting in a lovely wide front yard, shaded by a big tree, well back from the road. It featured a nice sized asphalt driveway that led to a roomy one-car garage. The house itself was a ranch-style construction, looking to have been built maybe in the 1940s or early 1950s. It was connected to the garage by a generously proportioned mudroom. The windows were plentiful, nice and low, and the exterior was sheathed in two different types of Bedford stone: the top half was the gorgeous rusty taupe kind that I like so much (and that also can be seen in St. Ambrose church in Anderson) and the bottom half was the more widely seen grey taupe.

Aisling and I peered into the mudroom and saw new flooring installed, plus the washer/dryer hookups and plenty of room for a drying rack, a folding table, the dogs' crates and a box of boots. A door led from the driveway into the mudroom and from there into the kitchen; another door led out back to the yard.

We made our way around the house, peering in whatever windows offered us a view. New carpets everywhere; front part of the house living/dining/kitchen; back part, three bedrooms and a roomy bath. We went through the gate into the back yard (with Aisling tugging at me and whispering, "Are we trespassing, Mommy? Will the cops come and haul us away?" I don't know where the child thinks we live...) and saw a huge slope of grass with two big trees. A large deck was built onto the back of the house, with a sliding patio door leading outward.

The yard was fenced, large enough for a volleyball net and running dogs and a bunch of teenagers roasting hotdogs and marshmallows. Squinting into the kitchen, our hands cupped around our eyes, we saw painted 1940s metal cabinets with retro drawer and cabinet pulls and a new white stove with a digital readout, which I thought was an amusing combination.

It felt like a happy house, like people who loved it and each other had lived there.

We left and came back later with my husband and later still with Meelyn. Every time I looked at it, the house made my heart give an adoring *thump!*. It's a lot smaller than the house we live in now, but that's really not the issue because we can't move there anyway. The time is not right, especially considering the news that our landlord, who is the world's kindest man, says that he doesn't want to lose us and has just dropped our rent $50 a month. You don't walk out on that kind of decency in a landlord!

No, the time isn't right. But someday, the time will be right. We're thinking maybe eighteen months or so. And that beautiful, humble little house, quietly sitting there in Carmel with neighborhoods full of gorgeous, enormous houses fore and aft, gave me some kind of sparkling, inward hope that the right house will be there when we need it.

Tagged by Shari

First of all, I have to explain who Shari is.

That post I mentioned yesterday, the one that got eaten by a hungry cybermonster? Well, it was about her and her blog, which is called Whisk: a food blog. Kayte found Shari's site and was immediately captivated, and when Kayte gets captivated, I often end up being prodded along to accompany her, and why I'm not sitting here with knitting needles instead of a keyboard and a badly-sewn, disheveled quilt square on my lap, I do not know.

Anyway, Shari is doing a project that she calls Whisk Wednesdays. Whisk Wednesdays involve doing a lesson from Le Cordon Bleu at Home, taking a photograph of what you cooked, posting it on your own blog, and then writing about it. The first Whisk Wednesday lesson Kayte read about was the one coming up just two days hence on June 18, wherein we will be making Sauce Hollandaise and Sauce Moutard.

Kayte happened to remember that I had set myself the project this summer of making a really good mayonnaise, perhaps from Julia Child's two volumes titled Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I had even recently checked out a lovely three-disc Julia Child DVD set from the library and spent several lucious hours watching Julia, of whom I never grow tired, making Hollandaise and Béarnaise sauces with grace and humor and choking slightly on a bread crumb and burning her finger on some sizzling butter. She was just adorable.

Naturally, when Kayte saw Shari's blog and heard me talking (at a Pizza Hut, of all places) about my desire to make a really special mayonnaise, she decided that I ought to do this with her, and the girls too.

So I decided to just jump into the sauce, so to speak. (And really, what could be better than being right up to the neck in rich, buttery Hollandaise? Just add a roasted asparagus life preserver, and swim, little minnow! Swim! Life is your saucepan!)

Shari is a lovely, friendly sort of person and her blog is too much fun to read. I love foodies. They are such expansive and generous people. I hope she still likes me when she finds out that I sometimes -- well, okay, often. Shut up -- make comfort food casseroles with cream of mushroom soup. I worry about that. My only defense is that casseroles are so French.

She tagged me with a getting-to-know-you set of questions, which I will answer and pass on to some unsuspecting fellow bloggers. Muuuaaaahahahahaha....

What was I doing ten years ago?
I was in Charleston, South Carolina spending the week with Susie, eating fresh seafood for dinner every evening and chocolate croissants for breakfast every morning. I can remember this specifically because we celebrated Aisling's birthday and Cato made a huge rainbow of balloons to cover the archway that led into Susie's dining room and Aisling, just, like, fell out. My husband and I bought If You Give a Moose a Muffin for her for her birthday and regretted it for the next four years.

What are five (non-work) things on my to-do list for today?
Ummm...brush my teeth? Hair? How about "lie in wait for the mailman, who should be bringing me a package from Amazon"? I'd like to read my book and continue paging through that stack of slow-cooker cookbooks I got from the library, looking for likely contenders.

Everything else is work, work, work. Not counting the time I'm spending here, typing, when I should be doing something else. I feel terribly guilty.

Five snacks I enjoy:
1.) Popcorn! 2.) Rye crackers and the bleu cheese/pecan dip I posted here around Christmas-time; 3.) And definitely wasabi peanuts; 4.) Graham crackers with chocolate buttercream frosting; 5.) Celery stuffed with peanut butter or cream cheese, cut into bite-sized pieces.

Things I would do if I were a billionaire:
1.) Do something to help all the people whose lives have been turned upside down by wind and water, especially Karen, Jane and Betsy; 2.) Have the most awesome fun homeschooling ever and spend a year or so just traveling around the world; 3.) Buy a house (with a fabulous kitchen and home office) closer to all my friends; 4.) Buy a car. BUY A CAR. Probably a Volvo SUV hybrid because I like their commercials; 5.) Retire and have the leisure to study whatever I felt like studying: cooking, literature, languages, history....

Places I've lived:
Oooh, this one is not a very fun question to answer because I read Shari's answers and she has lived in cool places like the moon and all. Well, not really, but when you consider the fact that I have lived in two places --- northern Indiana and east central Indiana -- it makes Papua, New Guinea, Saskatchewan and Ontario sound extremely exotic.

Jobs I've had:
1.) high school English teacher; 2.) elementary school teacher; 3.) writer; 4.) handmade soap and toiletries maker and business owner; 5.) private tutor

Sunday, June 15, 2008


I had to type those symbols above for my title, because ever since installing the Cuss-O-Meter down there on the lower right side of the page, I've been very mindful of my language. That's me: Always thinking of others. So use your imagination and come up with what I might have said facing this situation:

I had just about finished up typing a long, lovely post about merry thoughts and happy things when the electricity flickered off and then right back on again. Cyberspace ate my post for dinner and is now digesting it somewhere in a black hole, laughing to itself and daintily patting its lips with a dinner napkin torn off from a corner of the Milky Way.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Babysitting going well

The babysitting is going well. The boys are happy, the girls are having fun. It's been a long time since we've had diapers and sippy cups and little voices saying "Doggy? Nice doggy?" in the house.

Candyland has been played. Battleship also. The only problem we've run into is that Mr. Littlesox deeply desires to play the "p'nano," which is something we can't let him do. It's always been a house rule that no one is allowed to bang on the keys because a piano is a valuable musical instrument, and plus it wears on my last available nerve.

The menu tonight was macaroni and cheese and peanut butter sandwiches. Water all around, because Mr. Bigstuff played two baseball games out in the sun this afternoon and was thirsty, Mr. Littlesox because he has a yeasty kind of diaper rash and I remember from experience with the girls that fruit juice and even milk do not mix with those rashes; they only make them worse.

The boys love the dogs and the dogs love the boys, agreeably padding around after them and angling to get their backs petted, their eyes closely examined and their teeth touched. If any of us tried that with Wimzie, she'd have our arms off at the shoulder. But a two-year-old? No, he can get right up in her business and breathe in her face, but does she protest? No, she does not. She stands there wagging her stub of a tail and allowing her eyes to twinkle brightly. It defies understanding.

The girls have had a really nice time looking after the boys. They're very sweet kids and it's really been lovely having them in the house this evening.

Press conference

Sir Isaac Newton, please step back. Blaise Pascal? Move aside. Marie Curie? There's a place in the last row beside Galileo. All other scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, physicists, researchers and geniuses of engineering? Please take your seats and be quiet, because I have an important announcement to make.

Socrates? I know you're a talker, but the rules apply to you, too.

The phones at our house were not struck by lightning. They were not damaged in any way.

They were merely unplugged from the main base's phone jack on the living room baseboard.

Thank you for your attention.

I won't be taking any questions.

Big girls

At 5:30 this afternoon, I drove Meelyn and Aisling to church so that they could go to Mass. They went alone today because they have their first-ever babysitting gig tonight and they won't be finished until around midnight. The parents of the two little boys they're minding are going to the Rascal Flatts concert at the Verizon Center, and it's sure to be a crowded and trafficky mess over there.

It amazes me, somehow, that my girls are old enough, first of all, to be dropped off at the church doors and I can know that they're not going to go inside and make paper airplanes out of the bulletins, or step on an elderly lady's feet as they push past her to get a seat in a pew, or sit there playing games on a mobile phone, which is something I saw a teenage girl doing a few weeks ago, with her mother right next to her.

Meelyn and Aisling are babysitting for the two boys at our house because it made more sense for their dad (who works with my husband) to drive the boys and my husband here, for a number of complicated reasons, most of which have to do with the transference of car seats from our vehicle to theirs late at night. Anyone who has ever wrestled with a toddler car seat at the top of the morning after a good night's sleep, a well-rounded breakfast and a cup of good coffee knows what it can be like to haul one of those things from one car to another, let alone doing it at night when you're worn out from sitting on the grass listening to really loud music.

I personally would rather wrestle with a kangaroo.

It's strange to me that this is their first babysitting job (well, they've looked after their young cousins from time to time, so they know how to give bottles to babies and change diapers and all that), but this is their first non-family experience. I was an ardent babysitter from the time I was about fourteen -- I even worked for two summers as a nanny for a doctor's family in my hometown when I was a teenager. But I worked back in the day when it was possible for someone to call my parents' house and say, "Hello, is this Shelley? My name is Mrs. Brown and I got your name from Mrs. Johnson, who was talking to Mrs. Smith, who told her that you were an excellent, reliable babysitter. Could you babysit for my kids, Johnny, Joanie, Jimmy and Jessie next Saturday? They're eight, six, three and ten months and I'm sure you'll just love them..."

Nowadays, my husband and I wouldn't even consider letting the girls babysit for any family we haven't known for at least twenty years. We also would feel it necessary to insist on running a criminal background check on both the mother and the father, with an extra emphasis on making sure that the father isn't some weirdo perv sex offender who likes to make passes at the teenage babysitters. I really am just kidding about the lie detector test and the sex offender things. Well, maybe only partly kidding. But you all know what I mean. You don't just send your kids into anybody's house nowadays. I hate it that things are like that.

Another problem that prohibits their babysitting endeavors is that just about all the families we know who have young children live in Indianapolis, which is where we don't live. Our friends generally have babysitters who live in their neighborhoods. Our own neighborhood consists either of middle-aged professional people whose children are already grown, or elderly folks who have lived in their houses for decades, or small-time drug dealers who live in the decrepit old mansions owned by the slumlords who are the bane of our street. Those people do have kids, but there's not much opportunity there, unless you're willing to take your fee in Vicodin. Which, thanks but no thanks.

The boys are at the house now, aged six and almost-three, and they are sooooo cute, I can hardly stand it. I WANT TO BE A BABYSITTER TOO!!!! The six year old is happily playing a game of Battleship with Aisling and cheerfully coaching her on how to make her guesses. The almost-three is snoozing on the couch; Meelyn just tried to wake him up, on his mama's orders, but when she gently shook him and said his name, he barely opened his eyes. So she sat him up, propped against the pillowy cushion, and he immediately went back to sleep again and fell over sideways. She asked me what she should do, and I counseled her to let him sleep another twenty minutes and then try again.

Meelyn is making mac-and-cheese for a kid-friendly supper and there's a movie to watch later and also Candyland, plus we have dozens of books for little ones of all ages. I think the evening will pass quickly, and if all goes well, the boys' parents have offered the girls another job in a couple of weeks.

Reason #8,975,224 why the Apocalypse may be upon us

There's an article on MSN Money this morning informing readers why credit cards are a good thing. Yes, good. Like a medium-rare steak with Bearnaise or a furry little spaniel puppy or the news that researchers have discovered that you can make the calories fall out of a dozen doughnts -- any variety -- by shaking the bakery box really hard for thiry seconds.

MSN Money writer Liz Pulliam Weston relates that credit cards are "a tool, a penny-pincher and a guardian" for consumers, helping them arbitrate squabbles with merchants, pay bills online and protect themselves from identity theft. The last time I looked, you could pay bills online with a debit card just as easily as a credit card. Secondly, my debit card has a little symbol in its lower right hand corner that indicates that any purchase I make with it from my personal checking is also backed up by that issuer.

She also goes in for that big deal about how credit cards offer various "rewards." For instance, she points out that using credit cards can actually help you save money. Yes! They can! With some credit cards, every time you charge a dinner at The Cheesecake Factory or buy paint at Home Depot or whatever, the issuer will place 1-3% of your total purchase in a savings account for you, which is darned generous of them, isn't it? At that rate, after making multiple puchases every month for about ten years, you might be able to go out to dinner at The Cheesecake Factory again with that windfall of cash from your savings account!

Just don't get the idea that the money saved in this account is going to put one of your kids through college, or bartending school, or, say, a week of tennis camp at your local YMCA, and you should be just fine.

Rather disingenuously, Liz admonishes her readers: "Plastic offers an array of protections and sweet perks -- many of which cardholders don't bother to use. Just don't let the goodies tempt you to go into debt."

Thanks, Liz. Really. Thanks for that advice. And do you mind if I ask -- have you lost your mind, woman? What, exactly, do you think people in our society are doing with all their credit cards? I'll tell you, because you don't seem to know: THEY USE THEM TO GET INTO DEBT.

Often times, they don't mean to. Couples will have one credit card around "just for emergencies" and then an emergency comes along that they don't have the cash to cover and the balance goes on the credit card, which of course is too much to pay off at the end of the month because if they could pay it off at the end of the month, they likely would have paid it off when the emergency happened in the first place. Then they're stuck, paying that monthly minimum, until the next emergency comes along at ratchets up the outstanding balance just a little more.

Or maybe a lot more, depending on the emergency. Right now, with all the flooding in Indiana, gas generators, battery-powered back up sump pumps and even Shop-Vacs are selling briskly, according to a news report this morning on 93.1FM-WIBC. You think a lot of the people whose basements or living rooms are flooded with four feet of water, who had no electricity for three or four or five days all have the cash on hand to go out and buy these things? My heart aches for of them, since so many didn't have flood insurance. They were never required to have it; never dreamed they'd even need it, and now they've lost everything. Except, of course, their debt.

Frankly, I'd rather carry a rattlesnake in my wallet, Liz.

The greater percentage of people who have credit cards are not going to use them in the manner that Liz tells us they should be used: with rewards, without debt. Most people are going to carry some kind of balance over from one month to the next. That's exactly what the credit card companies are hoping they will do. The card issuers know that most people will forget about or never bother themselves to redeem their "points," their "perks," or even their frequent flyer miles. That's just fine with them.

But it shouldn't be fine for the majority of people out there, all of whom would be best advised to run like the wind from most of the conventional wisdom about finances out there. The same banks who run the credit card industry are also the same banks who are in it straight up to the neck with all the adjustable rate mortgage loans that have caused home foreclosures from sea to shining sea. I'm not completely convinced that people should be listening to much of anything they have to say.

Or to Liz. She's one of them.

Potty mouth

Whoopsie! I used the word aitch-ee-double hockey sticks in the title of my last post, quoting humorist Dorothy Parker, and that usage kicked the needle on my Cuss-O-Meter (scroll down on the right) up an eighth of a notch, ju-u-st above the "darnit" level.

I now have a quarter of a tank of cussiness on this site, and depending on your point of view, I need to either tone it down or get crack-a-lackin' on adding more naughty words per post. Hee.

What fresh hell is this?

That title is a quote from Dorothy Parker, that sassy little minx, who is one of my favorite writers. I find that I use it more and more often these days, especially ones like yesterday.

Yesterday morning, Aisling came up to me and remarked conversationally, "Hey. Did you know that none of the phones work?"

I looked over at one of our telephones, which was sitting innocently on its base, apparently ready and eager to serve me if I should need to place a call. "No, I can honestly say that that is a piece of information of which I had not yet taken possession."


"I didn't know the phones were out."

"Oh. Well, they are."

I picked one of the three cordless handsets up and looked at it. Maybe its batteries had run down, due to spending two days under the coffee table? But no, that wasn't it. As I took it off its base it lit up and the word "talk" was written obligingly across its little face. I pushed the button to turn it on; no dial tone. Same deal with the other two handsets.

Later on yesterday evening, I mentioned to my husband that the phones didn't seem to be working, accompanied by this burning question: "So did we pay that bill?"

"Yeah, it's paid in full. So whatever's going wrong, we have nothing but love from AT&T. They have no reason to shut us down."

Neither one of us can figure out the phone thing. Electrically, they still work. We can retrieve stored phone numbers; we can listen to old voice mail messages; we can do everything except make an outgoing call. The last outgoing call I made was on Friday morning, when I star-69'ed someone who had called us and hung up. Presumably, no one can call us, either. So phone-ishly, the phones are....broken? Fried by lightning during one of the many thunderstorms plaguing the area? Protesting the two days their comrade spent under the coffee table? What? What?

As if there weren't enough to worry about with all the poor people whose lives have been turned upside down by tornadoes and flooding; with food prices rising; with gas soaring to $4.18 per gallon; with the economy whimpering and dragging itself along on its elbows in a trail of I have to figure out what to do with our dumb telephones??!!

Sometimes -- no, I take that back -- a LOT of the time I wish it were socially permissible for adults to lie down and flail on the floor while screaming and drumming the heels vigorously into the carpet. I really do.

Friday, June 13, 2008

It seemed like a good idea at the time

My friends Bridget and Jerri have both been telling me about this great Yahoo group that Catholic homeschoolers can join, where you can sell curriculum and buy curriculum and all manner of things pertaining to, well, Catholic homeschooling.

So I decided that I would join. Jerri solemnly assured me that she often sees Math-U-See items for sale, plus high-value things like Rosetta Stone language software for mere pennies on the dollar (and what a treat it was to find out that other Catholic homeschoolers besides yours truly buy expensive curricula, use it four times in a manner so that it cannot be returned for a refund, and then think, "Well, not so much" and stick it in a closet until they join a Yahoo group where it can be unloaded on someone else for way less than half the original price. My husband always says I should cut out the middle man and just go out to the driveway and burn a stack of twenty dollar bills.) I didn't really want to join another e-list, but this sounded too good to pass up.

When I went to the Yahoo site to register, I didn't pay much attention to how active the list was; I was in a hurry so I just entered my information, which would allow this entity to send me email from the group in the form of individual posts, and went on my merry way, completely oblivious to the hellstorm of homeschool emails I had just released into my inbox.

The girls and I were going somewhere that particular day, so I didn't check my email for about six hours. When I got back to the computer, I logged on to my account and was considerably startled to note that I had something like seventy-five new messages. Seventy-five! For a moment, I was feverish with excitement, thinking that there had been a sudden outbreak of interest in Shakespeare and that students and their parents were clamoring for me to organize three or four more classes to meet their needs. I am such a sweet little dreamer.

Instead, the emails were from people with names like buttonsandbows2u and mommy6kids2cats and happycrafter1973. They were all selling Catholic homeschooling items and it was interesting to see what they had for sale, but none of it was of any use to me. I plowed through about fifteen of the seventy Yahoo messages, leaving personal messages from Carol and the Ka(y)t(ie)s unanswered. They eventually got lost in an avalanche of Yahoo mail, entreating me to buy twenty-six Bethlehem Books for $10 each (which is a really great deal, just in case you didn't know) and Little Angel Readers (which the girls outgrew, like, six years ago) and all kinds of things.

But no Math-U-See pre-algebra. Or Latin American Rosetta Stone software. None. Ever. JERRI!!!!!

I hastily switched my account over to a daily digest. "There," I thought with relief, clicking the digest link. "That'll help." I set off looking through many pages of emails to find Susie's letter to me about my Aunt Peg's health problems, which I had read but not responded to about a week back. I never did find it. I have an overwhelming sense of guilt whenever I think of Susie's heartfelt message about meeting a retired Catholic priest in an elevator and breaking down into sobs and asking him if he could help her. He could, as it turned out. Here she sent me this sad and beautiful story about her mama and I never replied.

The daily digest was even worse. WORSE. How could it be worse? Let me tell you: there's no such thing as a "daily digest" with this Yahoo group. This is the busiest little group of buyers and sellers I've ever seen outside of that gazillion-mile long rummage sale that takes place along the National Road. Their idea of a "daily" digest? Oh, let me think, ABOUT FIFTY EMAILS PER DAY. And each one of those digests has about twenty-five things that people WTB or have FS.

I felt so guilty about not going through each. Individual. Email. In every single digest. Why be so obsessive, you goose? you might be thinking. I'll tell you: My mama didn't raise no quitters. When faced with an insurmountable task, we forge ahead in the manner of our sturdy peasant ancestors settling the wilderness, beating away the bears and malaria-carrying mosquitos with our sunbonnets and relishing the opportunity to set up housekeeping in an 8x12 windowless log cabin. You may think it's a far cry from the difficulties and privations of the Indiana wilderness to the difficulties and privations of being inundated with friendly yet over-frequent non-spam emails, but I assure you that it isn't.

In short, this e-list, while it is a worthy one and has no doubt thrilled many people with the bargains they've snagged, is driving me straight up the freaking wall. We are as poor as a goldfish swimming in a teacup, but if being on this list is the price I've gotta pay to dig through endless emails in forlorn hope of finding some gently used Spanish language software for the girls, I think I'd rather just head right over to Rosetta Stone.