Thursday, April 20, 2017

Recipe Fail, Walking Shoes

The good news is I'm not at the Salvation Army; the bad news is I got excited about making a potato soup recipe from the Old Farmer's Almanac that turned out to be quite bland. I'm not sure if it was the chef's fault or the recipe's. I like potato soup, and it was an award-winning recipe, but somehow the sum of the parts added up to less than spectacular. Maybe I should have added parsley or used a different kind of potato, but thrift demands that I eat all of it, and so I am. I added a little cheese to it, which helped. Maybe I shouldn't say this, because I know bacon isn't good for you, but if ever there was a situation that cried out for bacon bits, that soup was it.

Despite the recipe fail, life goes on, interspersed with time spent applying for jobs, wondering about the future, and cleaning the bathroom. Almost every day, I see a job posting that I'm qualified for, and some of them I get excited about. Even the ones I don't get excited about are ones that I would gladly do because I see them as stepping stones to get where I want to go. I can honestly say that as frustrating as my job search has been, it has also been revealing. When I step back and look dispassionately at the types of jobs that intrigue me most, they are not what you might expect. Looking in one direction is just too limiting.

I've sometimes thought about how much fun it would be to have someone pay me to recommend books--I could be a one-person reader's advisory. You tell me a little about yourself and I'll tell you what I think you would like; thanks, that'll be $50. I actually have a decent track record of recommending books to people without charging them anything, but in times like these, you like to be compensated for your talents. I could also do movie reviews or free-lance dream analysis (strictly subjective, of course, but I think it often is). I could be a travel consultant; hand me a list of your hobbies and interests, and I'll tell you where to go. For an extra fee, I could tell you which books to take with you and how to pack everything you need for a three-week trip in just a tote bag.

Speaking of dream analysis, I took a nap on the couch this afternoon after doing my laundry and dreamed I was walking around the UCLA campus, talking to people. In the dream (as in real life), the campus was quite sprawling, and I was just getting to a part of it that looked familiar when I woke up. I don't know what brought this on, but I've been thinking about walking shoes a lot this week, so maybe that preoccupation carried over into my dream. I could almost see the campus library from where I was standing near the end--almost, but not quite. Is that an indication that my dream job will have something to do with books but may not be in quite the spot I was looking for? I don't know, but that's the kind of question I ask about those types of dreams, just in case you were thinking of hiring me.

There are times this week when I've been reminded of the anxious period I went through just before graduating from college. I was going to graduate school that fall, but graduation still felt like stepping off a cliff. So many people already had jobs and knew exactly where they were going, but the way ahead for me was much less clear. I didn't even know where I was going to be living that summer. As it turned out, I ended up with three part-time jobs and a roommate off campus who introduced me to an entirely new group of people. It was one of the most active and social times of my life, and it all took shape in the last couple of weeks before graduation. You never really know what's around the bend, and as anxiety-provoking as that can be, the seeds of positive change are sometimes already at work before you even know they're there.

Friday, April 14, 2017

If This Is a Movie, I Demand to See the Script

Yesterday I was taking a walk when I realized how tired I was, tired in an achy sort of way. I remember feeling much the same way at the end of the summer before my last semester of library school. That was a very intense term centered on two demanding classes, both of which required multiple projects and presentations; we were also adjusting to a move to the new campus library. At the close of the summer, after the final day of my assistantship, I walked home feeling completely washed out: I'd been holding in so much tension that all of my muscles were sore. It came on me all at once, as soon the last assignment had been turned in and the term was officially over. Rather than experiencing immediate relief, I felt like I was coming down with the flu.

I felt a bit the same way during my walk yesterday, though it was actually a beautiful afternoon. It's been a week of catching up on doctor's appointments, filling out applications for jobs and public assistance, figuring out who to call for what, and sitting in waiting rooms waiting for my name to be announced. Yes, I did say public assistance. With the costs of private medical insurance getting to be too much for me, I figured the least I would need would be a medical card in case none of my pending job applications yield results. Hence the doctor appointments--I decided it was best to get yearly exams, etc. done while I still have access to my regular doctors. I'm told that Medicaid is actually good insurance, but the patient is limited in the choice of physicians.

I can tell you that after looking into the welfare services available for people, I'm amazed at the stamina it takes to get yourself into the system. I was also surprised when I went out to the Human Services office at how healthy, well-nourished, and well-adjusted everyone was looking in the waiting room that day. This is not a snide way of saying that I think there were a lot of people there gaming the system. (I can think of a lot easier ways to provide for yourself than jumping through public assistance hoops--like working, for instance. Normally, it's much less draining.) No, it's just an observation, apropos of what I'm not quite sure.

Part of me felt like I was in one of those made-for-TV Lifetime Channel movies, in which some heart-wrenching but ultimately solvable drama plays out, peopled by adorable, big-eyed children, single mothers in desperate straits who still manage to be well-coiffed and color-coordinated, and unemployed men who look just a little too middle-class to be anything other than Hollywood equity. Is this a tribute to how well Kentucky is taking care of its needy citizens, or did I happen in on a day when the relatively well-off happened to make up a large portion of the client base? I'm asking an honest question, because I don't know. The thing is, I've seen needy people before, and this group did not resemble them. I could almost have been in the gate area of a major airport rather than in the welfare services department (and, hey, nobody was dragged away with a concussion and a broken nose either, so that's a plus).

I decided to plan for the worse case scenario (actual homelessness) just in case that's what happens, so I've been exploring as many options as possible. I can tell you that here in Lexington, people without resources often end up at the Salvation Army. While I certainly hope that doesn't happen to me, I tried to plan today for that outcome, wondering how long I could afford to keep my belongings in storage in case no one had room for them. It's certainly cheaper to pay storage costs than to pay rent, and some of the storage outfits even throw in moving trucks these days. I also started packing an imaginary suitcase, thinking about what I would need to have with me in a temporary shelter. Not a cheerful thought, perhaps, but one it's best to entertain ahead of time in the event of no job offers.

I have come to a few realizations over the last couple of weeks, or maybe it's more accurate to say confirmations of things I realized some time ago. One major realization is that I'm not so much discontented with where I am as discontented with my circumstances. I ditched one tentative plan to move to the West Coast (where there seem to be a lot of job openings of late) when I decided that not only was it too risky without a firm offer of employment but that I prefer to be in Kentucky. I've yet to see California roll out the red carpet for me jobwise (if they do, well, that's another story).

I still sometimes feel restless, as I've always liked traveling, but getting the PhD seems to have changed me. I seem to have more inside of me now so that wherever I am, I'm able to take a wider view of things. I noticed this when I was visiting my hometown the other day. When I was growing up, I wouldn't have been able to look at some of those streets with as much aesthetic appreciation as I have now. But times have changed, and so have I, and even if it's difficult for me to imagine living there again, I can appreciate a nicely restored house, an inviting porch, and a garden full of spring flowers.

The saga of Wordplay's long period of self-employment is still in progress, the outcome uncertain, so any of my interested readers will have to check back on the story as it unfolds here. I would like the last few years to have been vastly different than they were; at the same time, I don't see how they could have been. It is perhaps a case of "needs must," and in the end I may decide that this experience, too, has enlarged me in unexpected ways. I think I now have more understanding of people who stay for years in loveless marriages, watching as the years pass them by but deciding that they can't do anything other than stay the course. In the end, maybe, many of these people have few regrets either. I know very few people, for instance, who would go back and do things differently if it meant never having had their children.

Well, fellow mythologists, the word is that tough times don't last, but tough people do. My feeling is that, cliche or no cliche, this is probably right.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Ecclesiastes Says

You know what they say about the weather in Kentucky, right? "If you don't like it, wait five minutes." I've actually heard that other places lay claim to the same quip, and that I cannot attest to, but here, it's basically just a description of the facts--especially this time of year. Spring is very changeable.

Just the other day, I was covering up with sunscreen and turning on the air conditioning for a drive to Louisville on an absolutely gorgeous afternoon. The passing scene consisted of baby blue sky, greening fields, and redbuds, and the road was practically singing under the tires. Yesterday afternoon, while I was at home, intent on an online job application, a storm that looked to be God's answer to Job blew in and caught me almost unaware. While I was fixing dinner, all hell broke loose, if you picture hell as consisting of ominous rumbling, black skies, bilious light, and torrential rain. I was tending several pots on the stove when the noise caused me to look out, and it occurred to me that I might have to run for the closet, pasta or no pasta, if it got much worse. Things settled down later, but it turned cold overnight.

Today, I was back to my down jacket and gloves; there was a cold rain spitting intermittently, and spring seemed like a dream from another lifetime. I had the heat on in the car, and a turtleneck suddenly seemed like a great idea again. That's nothing, though. I have actually seen it snow in April (and once, long ago, even in May), so unless we get a blizzard, almost anything else is business as usual.

I should really be writing about the book I finished the other day, but I'm slightly exhausted by the effort I've put into job applications, so you'll have to excuse me for putting that off. Trying to discuss the ins and outs of Edith Wharton's love life seems a bit much under the circumstances, though the book was interesting and not what I was expecting. (I thought it was going to be like The Bostonians but it was more like The Paris Wife. OK by me.) I'm only too glad to be busy with applications, but what I would really welcome is results. It would be pretty ridiculous for a woman with several college degrees, numerous skills, and considerable personal charm to end up on public assistance, but that appears to be the direction I'm going in. Don't say I didn't warn you. (Yes, it is pretty weird.)

It looks like the weather is trending warm again starting tomorrow, and we should have a nice weekend. So much back and forth could be disconcerting for someone who isn't used to it, but most people around here are hip to the facts of Kentucky weather. You can go from one of those storybook days when it's almost impossible to wish yourself anywhere else to a lowering day of wet winds and chilling rain that makes you ask yourself "What am I thinking?" "Who ordered this?" in the mere blink of an eye. Oh, well, to everything there is a season--even unseasonable spring weather.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Goddesses in the Pages

Lately, I've had a pretty good run with finding entertaining books at the library. I seem to have a theme going--I've read three books in a row about women in difficult circumstances finding their way in the world. At least, two of them were on that theme, and I suppose you could count the last one, too. Although it was what I think is called a Regency romance and considerably more light-hearted than the other two, its heroine did bump up against a very rigid social structure; the humor in the story came from the way in which she consistently ignored attempts to bring her to account.

I found Maeve Binchy's A Week in Winter on a St. Patrick's Day display shelf celebrating Irish writers. I liked the only other book of hers that I've read, Nights of Rain and Stars, a story about a group of people vacationing in Greece, and the premise of A Week in Winter--a woman setting up a hotel on the west coast of Ireland--sounded promising. No War and Peace grand strokes, just a domestic drama about relationships, starting over, and figuring out how to make things work. The characters included several capable women whose disarming ability to overcome obstacles provided much of the impetus of the story. My only quarrel with the book was its structure, for having gotten to know the main characters, I was thrown off by the introduction of a whole new set of people, the first week's guests at the hotel, whose stories made up the last part of the novel. Do hotels like this really exist in the west of Ireland? If so, I'd love to go to one.

The second book I read was Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I believe I saw the first part of a PBS series based on this book some years ago, and I somehow had the impression that it was a more staid tale than either Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, but I didn't really have that right. It's the story of a woman escaping an abusive husband in a time and place that didn't make it easy for a woman to assert her rights. While it includes some harrowing episodes and many instances of the restrictions placed on women (and men) by Victorian society, it's surprisingly fresh and contemporary in its treatment of characters and relationships. Overall, it's a little less dark than either of the more famous works by Miss Bronte's sisters, having a more optimistic and even (at times) humorous outlook despite the seriousness of its theme. This novel should be better known than it is, I think.

Georgette Heyer's The Grand Sophy is much like the other two books I've read by this author: light, frothy, and entertaining, with an engaging heroine who does pretty much as she pleases just about all the time. Reading it so soon after the Bronte book was a study in contrasts as I thought about the nearly insurmountable difficulties faced by Helen Huntingdon in the latter compared with the ease with which Sophy Stanton-Lacy sails through life, driving her phaeton at a blistering clip through Hyde Park and rearranging the lives of everyone she comes in contact with. Well, they say it takes all kinds, and I believe it.

Heyer's book did have some ground to it: there's an affecting account of the illness of one Sophy's young cousins that brings the story down to earth a bit and an episode in which another cousin nearly comes to grief at the hands of a moneylender. I was surprised at the anti-Semitism expressed in the book. It may have been historically accurate, but it was jarring to see it so unabashedly displayed and was at rather at odds with the light-hearted tone of the story. And while there were some delightfully comical passages in the early part of the book (and some very droll characters), I will admit to liking Sophy better before she grazed her friend Lord Charlbury with a bullet, however good her intentions may have been. Also, the effect of a headstrong heroine is somewhat spoiled when she ends up being bossed around by her fiance. All of that strategizing and larking about, merely to end up a submissive wife? It was much more fun to watch her boss him around.

If I had to name presiding goddesses for each of these books, I would mention Hestia and Demeter for A Week in Winter (lots of descriptions of food and domestic comforts), Demeter and Persephone in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Helen embodies both of them), and Aphrodite (in a particularly mischievous bent) in The Grand Sophy. I'd gladly read more books by any of these authors and only wish Miss Bronte had been more prolific.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Life's Perplexing Questions

Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale? (Twelfth Night, II, iii)

Q. How do you clean a shower curtain?

A. With a scouring pad and white vinegar. If you do it regularly, you can probably get away with wiping it down while it's hanging up; if not, you'll have to take it down and scrub it in the bathtub, a real nuisance. Bonus hint: if you start a cleaning session with one ingredient, like vinegar, it's probably best to keep on with it until the whole bathroom is clean. That way, you don't have to spend time worrying about mixing chemicals and creating noxious gases. Life's too short for that.

Q. Why are bunches of kale so big? I bought some to make soup like you were talking about last week, but I had a boatload left over. What are you supposed to do with it?

A. Bunches of kale, much like bunches of celery, are sized more for families than for single hipsters. If you buy some for soup, you're probably going to end up making soup again to use up the rest of it (I don't know what else to do with it except to put it in soup; you could steam it, I suppose). My advice is: don't be shy about dividing the bunch in half the first time, because if you are, you'll end up with way too much kale for the second batch. There's always more of it than you think. The good news is, kale holds up well in soup and doesn't wilt away to nothing like some of your other greens.

Q. My boyfriend left me, and they don't allow pets where I live. I'm getting through the breakup OK, but it's just so cold and lonely when I go to bed at night. Any suggestions?

A. Get a hot water bottle, fill it with water as hot as you like it from the sink, and put it under the covers a few minutes before you go to bed. If you warm the place where your feet will go, you can then put the bottle itself against your back. Just make sure it's hot but not too hot. It may sound like something your spinster aunt would do--but it's sooooooo much better than it sounds.

Q. Which is better reading for a beach vacation, Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters?

A. What kind of a beach vacation are you planning? I find the Brontes more passionate and less concerned with convention. It's no slight to Miss Austen to say this, but I think her appeal is a bit more cerebral, more concerned with wit and conversational nuance. That kind of thing can get lost in the shuffle if you're surrounded by, say, several games of beach volleyball going on at once or a clambake/sing-a-long. At the same time, a Bronte novel (it doesn't matter which one) might seem too dark under the same circumstances. Personally, I would take either of them to the beach but only if it was a quiet one.

Q. I have a cafe habit but can't afford Starbucks. How can I have the same experience at home without buying an expensive coffeemaker?

A. I have made coffee using filters and the pour-through method that I then mixed with milk and syrup, but it's kind of a hassle. Buying those little bottles of Frappuccino at the store also works and is fairly economical if you drink them sparingly. Pop the top and pour.

Q. I hate to dust. Is there any way to make it more enjoyable?

A. Putting music on makes most things in life more tolerable. When I was in library school, I did cataloging homework to the accompaniment of heavy metal at least once. For some reason, it created the right energy. For dusting, I like bossa nova. I also suggest clearing off your shelves so that you have fewer things to move when you dust.

Q. I'm a Democrat, but I have a crush on a really cute Republican girl. My family and friends keep saying it will never work, but I'm just wondering . . . is interparty dating ever OK?

A. Actually, I believe you may be the wave of the future. Political stratification is pulling the country apart, and anyone who's bucking the trend is to be commended, in my opinion. Ask the girl out, and see what happens. What debates, elections, and political commentary can't fix, maybe hormones can.

Q. When Chuck Berry died this week, I was in a quandary. I liked his music, but people were talking about the trouble he had with the law. How do you mourn someone in a case like that?

A. I'm not sure I can give you a precise answer. I ended up doing the thing I always do, which was to look up information about Mr. Berry and try to make sense of it all, the incredible talent and contribution to American culture mixed up with the transgressive tendencies. I will say that I think it's hard to be a pioneer, like Mr. Berry was, a black man making inroads into white culture in a segregated time, not that that excuses wrongdoing. However, if any aliens from another civilization ever do come across the Voyager spacecraft, his may be the first human voice they hear, a signal honor for him. There is one way in which this seems entirely appropriate to me. Mr. Berry did a lot in his own way to bring people together.

Q. How do you clean wood floors? Doesn't water warp them?

A. Thank goodness for an easy question. I use a dust mop and only apply a damp mop lightly for touch-ups. Some people say to wax them, but if I did that I'd only slide around on them.

Q. I want to start my own blog. Is it hard?

A. No, but there's no money in it. You'll need a day job. And people will ask you these vexing questions.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Tail End of Winter

Well, I believe I've covered my neighbors here, haven't I? They're an odd assortment with an unfortunate habit of turning up in the same place I am, and the funny thing is, being unfriendly doesn't do a thing to discourage them. They include people who come and go at strange hours; talkative folk who have rap sessions in the parking lot in the middle of the night (sometimes when it's freezing); pseudo punks (who wouldn't know rock music if it rolled them into a muddy ditch); and an amazingly heavy-footed upstairs socialite who always seems to have it "all going on." She now seems to be styling herself a special agent, since she was wearing a trench coat when last seen.

Personally, I spend my days cooking and cleaning when I'm not job hunting, which makes me sound more boring than I am. I am actually a well-rounded person, decent conversationalist, and good human being, but I'd rather not cast my pearls before swine. This is not out of snobbery but rather out of a sense of self-preservation; there's no telling what you might step into if you so much as put your nose one-eighth of an inch in the wrong direction around here. And it used to seem like such a nice neighborhood!

Speaking of cooking, I don't think I mentioned the brownies I made last week, but they were really dee-lish, even though I didn't follow the recipe exactly. I had a couple of egg whites that I needed to use up, and the recipe calls for three, so I added a whole egg for the third one. They rose a little higher than they normally do, but that was great--"more" rarely being a problem when it comes to brownies, as you'll no doubt agree. Once those were gone, I made sugar cookies, and the only hitch there was that I was washing dishes while the last batch was baking, got distracted, and left them in too long. However, I only had to throw away two, as the rest were salvageable, if a bit crunchy. I'm eating the well-done ones first and put the "pretty ones" in the freezer. I have a lot left, and since I used my special cookie molds, they are all in fun shapes, hearts and Easter eggs. But the neighbors are not getting any of them.

I also made soup with tomatoes, kale, and chicken stock, but I had cleaned out a lot of magazines during my winter housecleaning surge and no longer had the recipe, so it wasn't the way I remembered it. I think I must have originally adapted the recipe to my own use because the one I found online that seemed most similar to it called for chicken, and I don't think I've ever made it that way. (There were some decent recipes in some of those magazines, but I had gotten tired of looking at them.) I always used sausage for this soup, but this time, I used leftover meatballs, and I think that made a difference, too. The meatballs were too dry to flavor the broth properly.

Today I baked bread. I had a feeling I might be low on flour, and I was. I had five cups, so I substituted ground flax seed for the sixth cup. (I have sometimes used oatmeal to round out a loaf, but the only oats I have right now are fancy Irish steel-cut ones that cost about $6 and are too expensive to use in lieu of flour.) I had to forgo kneading, as the dough was too sticky, so it went directly into the bread pans to rise. I couldn't even punch it down midway through rising because it struck to my knuckles when I tried it. So into the oven it went, and it came out of the pans cleanly half an hour later, though definitely browner and denser than it usually is. I ate some while waiting for my soup to heat up, and I've got to say, that is some healthy-tasting bread. It's got a slightly nutty flavor and is good on its own but would also make a good sandwich, I believe. However, I still prefer my average homemade white bread.

And that's about all I have to say this week. I feel that I should try to do something for St. Patrick's Day, but it will probably end up amounting to a bowl of Irish oatmeal for breakfast. I don't have a shamrock cookie mold, I'm not a fan of corned beef and cabbage, and the only time I tried to make boxty I was disappointed. I used to make a pretty good bread pudding from scratch, but I've already got cookies, as previously discussed. One dessert at a time, that's my motto.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Actual Facebook Posts

Oberon: Do you amend it then; it lies in you.
Why should Titania cross her Oberon?
I do but beg a little changeling boy
To be my henchman. 

Titania: Set your heart at rest.
The fairyland buys not the child of me. (A Midsummer Nights's Dream II, i)

Feb. 17  Me (In the car this afternoon, twirling the FM dial): "Doesn't anybody play straight rock 'n roll anymore? Do your duty, or sink with the rest." Yes, it's sometimes hard to find a decent song.

Feb. 20  Note to neighbors: callow youth, do not descend en masse on a lady who has been driving decades longer than you've been alive [Note: this was a math error. Fancy making yourself older than you are!], come up on her blind side in the dark, and tender parking advice in the guise of being helpful. If you want to be helpful, curb your loud music displays, tendency to attract partygoers who stand around and stare at those who actually live here, and peculiar porch behavior. You are not a credit to your nation; in fact, you detract from it with every breath you take. Also, please forbear to address me in future, unless the street is actually on fire. On second thought, not even then; you'll probably just get someone killed. Also, your taste in music sucks. The only good thing you played at your meet-and-greet on Saturday was "Born in the U.S.A.," and if Mr. Springsteen is not ashamed of you for co-opting his song for your own devious purposes, I am.

Feb. 22  You know that old joke about your dental fillings picking up radio signals? I don't know if that's even possible, but I do get weird bleeps and ringing noises that sound like they're from electronic equipment. My doctor said there wasn't anything I could do about it, but I think he thought I was talking about ringing in my ears from allergies. I just hope it isn't Russian spies! (or any other kind). More likely, it's some kid with a laser or something playing James Bond. It's bound to be illegal.

Mar. 4  Went to the Laundromat; had to run clothes through twice because detergent and fabric softener didn't rise out completely. Saw a weird guy who reminded me of someone who works at Kroger; he grossed me out by standing behind me while I was folding my clothes. Further weirded out by a car with electric blue headlamps that followed me onto my street and parked a little way up on the other side, just sitting there for a few minutes without (apparently) doing anything. They left as I was looking at my cell phone. Then I noticed a car with lights on parked on the OTHER side of Nicholasville Road, also just sitting there. I got my cell phone out again, and they left. I was taught to report suspicious activity, and I did, but the police basically just said next time call us while it's happening. While WHAT's happening? I told them I couldn't be sure the car wasn't there to pick someone up, so I was waiting to see what they would do before I got out--but that was a lot of strangeness in a short period of time. Not long after that, it sounded like someone fell hard down the stairs in the hallway of my building. So that's my Saturday night.

Mar. 6  He's back! I told the barista at Starbucks that the creepy clerk at the other location (MIA for a while but back on Friday) looks like he works in the porn industry at night, a tattoo parlor during the day, and the drug trade on third shift. He said, "What can I get started for you?" And I said, "Nothing."

Mar. 9  That was a cute display of calisthenics I saw over by the UK Library earlier tonight. If they were trying to impress girls, though, I don't think it worked. (Kind of annoying, though.)

Moral of the story: Get with the actual program, or live with yourself for the rest of your life. Think it over carefully.