Paul

Paul, Reading

Not even a week since Muzzy left, and now his da, Paul, is gone.

Paul Tears Down the Wall

Paul, I must tell you, is the reason we have so many hammies. Well, Mike and his big, soft heart is the real reason, but Paul is the one who clambered to the top of the pile (literally, a pile) of opals, asking for a ride home. Such unusual colour, we thought.

And then we drove home and left them all there at the SPCA.

Yes, really.

That was, I think, a Tuesday. Maybe a Monday. I wasn't sure if this adoption was right. Were we reeling on the rebound from Evelyn's death? (We'd actually already adopted two little boys a few days before, and we still had two old boys at home, but four hammies? That seemed too few. And no girls? Oh no, we couldn't be without girls, could we?)

They told us that Paul was a girl. That the entire fish tank was girls. I counted around six. Wow, that plus four at home equaled ten. I'd been thinking more like six or seven tops. Maybe eight.

But, you know, ten is nothing, especially if we were only having three hamitats total. Supposedly these little ladies had been living together for five months and all got along easily. They certainly looked calm. And that little blackish one, wasn't she just the dickens?

We came back on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving (2010). I counted again. Oh, there were eight little hammies smushed in there. Oh... well... what's two more? (And then there was Clark, but he's another story. A story I'm sure I'll be telling too soon here.)

I really do mean smushed. The piles were always 5-6 high. After we got them home and got them into a jumbo hamitat, they still slept like they had no room at all:

Opal Pile-Up

I blame our hammies on Mike, and on Paul for being the adorable gateway, but also on Paul for impregnating Alys so that a couple of weeks later, seven more hammies arrived. PAUL!

However, I could also blame myself. If I'd not hesitated, if we'd taken them home when Mike wanted and not almost a week later, we would've seen sooner that Paul was in fact a boy, and that most of the other smushed hammies were boys. Most. I'd only been looking at Paul for a short while in the living room when I noticed a certain "bumpiness" to his rear end... and the way he kept chasing Alys, in that special way. Oh dear.

Of course, it all worked out in the end. Our lives were richer (if more cluttered) for all of these other new friends, and although I had to start taking an Allegra every day (I seem to have overloaded a furry sensitivity circuit and am now more allergic to all pets, not just hams), Mike became the chief hamitat scrubber, so I just had to enjoy my very own petting zoo.

Pøl and an Opal

(Paul's odd colours didn't last long or photograph well, although Muzzy inherited them. Instead, Paul quickly became a snowham, eventually turning almost completely white except for his head.)

At first Paul (at first known as Pøl) seemed to be an object of fascination for the younger set of opals from the fish tank. I wondered (and still wonder) if he was their father, maybe a brother to the older pair of opals in the tank. We'll never know. But then tensions erupted, as they do, and in the end he (and a few of the others) lived peacefully as a solitary hamster.

Paul is Asleep to You

I don't know what to tell the world about Paul. He was agreeable. He liked having his saucer and wheel and big, big sand bath, but he only used them in rare phases. He liked sleeping in his plastic bed. He also liked sleeping behind the clubhouse. He was a moseying kind of ham, not very ambitious once he'd escaped the SPCA and, er, wedded Alys. A restful fellow.

Two days ago, he was in a very slightly spry mood. I'd been giving him a lot of tofu in addition to seeds; I thought he could use some soft vittles. He was an old boy who didn't get around much these days, so I noticed during one of these special feedings that he was up and about just a teense more than usual.

This morning, he was frustrated. His limbs were working, but his back seemed to be locked up. I was able to pick him up and examine him without issue (but also without answers). He kept trying to move normally, his little paws running against my hand as he tried to locomote. He didn't seem to be in pain, just really unhappy with the circumstances.

I was tired (I'm sleeping Aussie hours these days) but stayed up, checking on him every five to ten minutes until I saw that he was asleep. Sometimes hamsters have strokes. Sometimes they recover a little. Sometimes a lot. Usually not at this age, but as long as he wasn't clearly in pain, I would wait and see.

I woke up about three hours later and checked him. He was all the way across the hamitat from where he'd been sleeping. I can't even imagine how long it took him to get there. Not only that, but he'd somehow pulled himself up and into the huge sand bath. And, even though he'd had such trouble before finding enough purchase to do more than move in circles, he'd pulled himself across half of the sand bath.

And then I like to think he felt pleased with himself for not having been thwarted and died smiling. Or maybe he just felt exhausted and decided to rest his eyes a minute.

We'll never know. It doesn't matter. I would wish for all of them to die in their sleep, old and content, but the odds are against that. Some will struggle at the end. Well, he's okay now.

This site will soon read like a hamster obituary blog: we have twelve very old (for Russian dwarves) critters - most from the same litter. They could all be gone this time next week. Or maybe some will be the very rare exceptions who hang on for Christmas.

What matters, I remind myself, is that they all lived well. They have all been happy. No one has wanted for attention, space, food, drink, veterinary care, saucers, wheels, chew toys, ultra-fine bathing sand, clean paper-based bedding, and Charmin's Ultra Soft toilet paper for nesting (and rolls for romping). And kisses. And snarfles. Lots of snarfles. They have been known and loved as individuals with their own preferences and personalities.

But I still miss each of them so much.

Paul

25 July 2012 |


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A Three-way With Duncan Hines?

It's not like I didn't know that many seemingly competing brands are really all under the same parent company. A few minutes ago on Facebook there was a side-ad for a "Chocolate Grasshopper Cheesecake" recipe from Pillsbury. I clicked on the ad, and it took me to Pillsbury's page, but they had set up one of those shifty deals where you have to "Like" them in order to see the recipe. Bah. Hello, Google, right?

And Google was all, "Hello? WTH?"

Cheesecake Duplicity

And Google and I just stared at each other for a moment. Betty Crocker and the Pillsbury Doughboy are THE SAME PERSON?

When I was doing the cake decorating (getting back to that any day, sure), it was easiest and cheapest just to buy boxes of cake mix. Invariably, the brands on the shelf were Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Duncan Hines, and sometimes a store brand, depending upon the store. (I'm not counting the "special" aisles with gluten-free options and vegan options and whatnot.)

So, while there may be three baking philosophies or levels of quality or approaches to packaged cake, there are really only two companies on the shelf?

Well, no, because while General Mills owns Betty Crocker and part of Pillsbury, the baking products part belongs to Smuckers. (Pinnacle Foods owns Duncan Hines.) So says Wikipedia, anyway.

But clearly they're in cahoots, what with offering the same cheesecake recipe AND photo.

And, clearly, this can only mean one thing: Betty and the Boy are having an affair.

And, if I may invoke and paraphrase Rule 34, this means that somewhere out there, Betty Crocker/Pillsbury Doughboy porn now exists.

Tread the fanfic boards carefully, people. The world just got creepier.

23 July 2012 |

Previously: Russell

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Russell

Russell is Displeased

Muzz (Muzzy, Muzzle... rarely his actual name of Russell, to the point where even non-hamstery things named Russell have been rechristened to Muzz, like major streets in Las Vegas, and both members of Air Supply) left us this morning to be with Mumma Alys again.

Russell and his brother Theodore weren't like their sisters. The girls would explore and cavort while Muzz and Teddy stayed in the nest with Alys. The sisters all developed distinct preferences for interacting and showing affection, but whereas Teddy becomes personable when painstakingly coaxed from his hiding spots, Muzzy never wanted much to do with us.

Teddy and Russ Share a Snooze

Although Muzz lived over a year with Teddy (at left, above), most of the last year of his life was spent living alone, a situation which caused him to blossom into a sand-rolling, seed-shucking, tentatively wheeling creature of contentment who finally called a truce with humanity. Incoming hands weren't bitten but rather eyed more wearily than warily, with only a light press of the mouth if said hands tried to get all smoochy-snarfley beyond the thin levels of acceptable cuddle-love.

Russell Has an Opinion

Muzz was a beautiful lad, some shade of black with orange in it that we never saw until this litter, a color which he never really lost to grey, unlike his sisters and father. In the right light, he looked like a calico or tortoiseshell cat.

He always appeared cross in photos, but I'd watch him from a distance, going about his hammie business in perceived privacy, and at those times he seemed as silly and carefree as any ham.

And so, even though it was a shock to see our hands-down healthiest-looking (despite being elderly) hamster "asleep" next to the seed dish this morning after I'd checked on him only a few hours before, and although I feel guilty for barely having spoken to him in the three days we've been home from Alaska (never mind that being left alone was what made him happiest), I think he had a good life.

I know it was better than if he'd been born in the already crowded fish tank at the SPCA that we brought home (only to be surprised by Muzz and his siblings a few weeks later), but I think his life was good in his own right.

I hope.

As mentioned, Russell joins his mother Alys, sister Adora Belle, and aunt Charlotte in the great rodent afterlife, where the wheels never stop spinning and the tofu buffet is freshened on the hour.

He leaves behind to console us his father, Paul; his brother, Theodore; his sisters Caroline, Madeleine Aurora, Vanessa, and Lauren; and a host of uncles and close family friends.

Most of Alys' Luggage

20 July 2012 |


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Sugar and Spice and Maybe Tongue Lice

Yesterday, after three days dilly-dally-dithering, I finally went to the doctor to see about my fortnight of sore throatyness that these past few days has become swallow-ow!-swallow-ow! with a bunch of zzzzzzzzzz (stagger, stagger) zzzzzzzzzzz.

"Hooray!", we must cheer (we who sometimes get burny/itchy side effects from antibiotics), for it doesn't seem to be bacterial. Strep test negative.

"It's probably just mono," said the doctor. "You probably had mono at some point and..." and I don't really remember the rest because I was too busy exclaiming, "Why, YES, I did have give up a YEAR of my life to mono in my twenties!" and other "Whoa! Whoa!" remarks.

If I'd been more on my game I would've asked why I'm (probably - we didn't bother with the proper blood test) having a mono outbreak now, nearly 20 years later - like, am I more run down than usual or something? - but casual, imprecise, absolutely non-scientific chats with Uncle Google have led me to just shrug. These things happen.

On the plus side, all of my vitals were good and apparently I've lost 10 pounds since I last visited this doc, when I had "walking pneumonia" over a year ago. "Good job," said the nurse. "Keep up what you're doing." Um, sitting on the sofa all day, dividing my time between genealogy and Facebook and the next bread-and-cheese snack, except for when we go out to eat or dive into monster blue-raspberry Icees at the movies? Sounds like an untapped book deal to me...

Then today, IT arrived:

Wheeee!

Oh. Wait. I have certified gunky mouth. Should I be taking this test? What if the results come back like below?

So I called Utah and was reassured that as long as I didn't take any medicine during the 30-minute "no food or drink" window before the drool event commenced, I'd be fine.

Ah, the drool event. At first I didn't notice because I was all, ooo, it's like a snazzy Netflix thingie:

But then I looked at the instructions:

Wait, I thought this was a cheek scraping dealybob? With a sort of toothbrush-a-ma-jig and you scrape-scrape-scrape on cheek, wait a few hours, then scrape-scrape-scrape the other cheek?

But I guess that's those other companies, because for Ancestry we must drool for 2-5 minutes using this fancy equipment:

And here's the other side, with the circle around the part that says storage is supposed to take place within 15-30 C.

Um, this thing has been sitting in my mailbox for a day. In Las Vegas. Where we started welcoming a daily average of 40 C last month. Is this even going to work?

The circle looks kind of like my mouth is about to, for it's time to get drooling.

[...]

I volunteered Mike to be my spotter since I couldn't see the fill line as I salivated and didn't want to overfill. (THAT'S HOT.)

(Here's where I was going to put a video sharing his thoughts on the matter, but then I decided just to share it on Facebook. If this were a brand-creating, monetizing-happy blog, FB would be the bonus content... and by "bonus" I mean like when you used to buy a DVD and the "special features" would include the regular audio track... and the audio track in Dolby 5.1. That said, I always find my husband amusing, so perhaps the video will find its way here when I'm less lazy.)

Update: I joined Vimeo, finally. The video will be done processing and appear below in about an hourish. (I don't know why I didn't want to put it on YouTube, even with comments off. Or Flickr. I could've just put it on Flickr. Duh.)

P.S. My voice has become increasingly nasal/flat over the years, especially when not speaking at long, relaxed lengths, but it's even more so here because of the tonsillitis. I won't say "don't judge" because I'm totally judging myself. I used to be known for a nice speaking voice so I don't know what happened other than it's been happening for several years and I haven't bothered to stop it. (I suspect it's a combo of Midwestern roots followed by living in Texas for yonks all muddied together, then sprinkled with fistfuls of hesitance and cynicism, and smoothed over with a monotone that hints at my deadened emotions... not that I've given this a lot of thought, or anything. Cough.)

Update Again: Here he be...

And if you missed it at the end of the clip, here Mike is, holding the result. With pride, I like to think.

We stopped at the post office on the way to dinner. My spit-tube is on its way to the lab!

22 June 2012 |

Previously: Truffle

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Truffle

Truffle

Truffle, a Winter White

Truffle Coming Out Of Wonderland

Truffle - Facing Left

Truffle With Magnetic Poetry

Truffle Likes Brads and Beads

Truffle, Millet-Muncher

Truffle Slows Down for Tofu

Adopted 21 November 2010
Ran On 17 June 2012

18 June 2012 |


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No Pastry for My Dowry

Some ancestors languish in my files on "probationary" status. I know it's very likely that they are my family, but until better sources present themselves, they are stuck waiting.

And, since I have 1492 known ancestors, plus Mike's 141 ancestors (non-American research is tougher) - and by "ancestor" I mean grandparents of multiple-greats, not aunts and uncles and cousins (people who use "ancestor" to mean "any family member from before my time" need to be bopped on the head) - sometimes those high branches of the family tree needing confirmation are left in limbo longer than I'd like. Maybe that's what Catholic Limbo really is - St. Peter getting behind on the paperwork.

Last summer (was it a whole year ago?), Mike and I went to Salt Lake City where Mike hit an almighty progressive jackpot on the ancestral slot pull, and I was left with nothing to do but blow on his dice for luck. (Mixed gambling metaphors are just part of the service here.) Granted, he was looking at neat German recordkeeping from the 20th century, and I was staring helplessly at the water-damaged 17th-century scrawl of seemingly drunk village priests full of words I never learned in junior high French, but still.

One thing I was able to do, though, was confirm some sources. Sometimes I had to shake my head over "facts" that ended up being no more than conjectures or misinterpretations of previous researchers, but most of the time the double-checking paid off.

And that's how we come to Charlotte Jolivet.

Word around the cat's water dish is that sometimes family members flick through this site when the Tylenol PM isn't cutting it, so for them, I will explain my (our) specific relationship to Charlotte Jolivet:

Dadaw -> his father Adrean Pettaway Stockman -> his mother Eugenia Montpellier (aka Jane) -> her mother Elenor Charpentier Nezat (aka Helen) -> her mother Julie Felicie Barré -> her father Charles Alexandre Barré (for whom the town of Port Barré, Louisiana, was named) -> his mother Marie Jeanne Girardy -> her father Joseph Girardy (who came to Louisiana from Quebec) -> Charlotte Jolivet.

For the rest of you sleepless people with nothing better to read, it's enough to say that Charlotte Jovilet is my 9th great-grandmother, (Ten generations separate us, plus the two that make up ourselves.)

Getting through the first nine generations was cake. (Mostly because of Rev. Hebert's Southwest Louisiana Records, and the fact that the library where I lived in the mid-1990s had a set.) The last two generations were easy to confirm as well. (Three cheers for Cyprien Tanguay and Rene Jetté.) It was proving that Marie Jeanne was the mother of Charles and the daughter of Joseph that was dodgy territory.

As it turned out, this was easy as well - if you knew where to look. But of course I had to be suspicious when so many were claiming these relationships as fact yet not citing any sources. After a century or so, traveling down unsourced roads often leads to brick walls with big murals of milk and honey painted on the side... then you get close enough and - whomp! - broken nose. Also, wild bears lurk.

Wouldn't it be splendid if people remembered the finger-wags of their English teachers and cited their sources? Wouldn't this hobby be something spectacular if we weren't constantly having to re-research other people's uncited finds and could focus on new research instead? (Read all of the above in a cheerful-but-forced "not going to go on a rant" voice.)

At the Family History Library in Salt Lake, entire shelves are devoted to Sacramental Records of the Roman Catholic Church of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, which is where I was satisfied with proof. I can tell you that the relevant call number is 976.3K2s*, but what I can't tell is, other than Charles' birth record, what page anything is on because, like a total stain, in my haste I neglected to take photos that included page numbers. Okay, I did scribble them down, but those notes lie somewhere in the bottom of a tote bag in the back of a closet.

But I swear I'm not a bad source-citer. For one thing, the books are all organized alphabetically and by year. Also, check it out, I can provide photos to prove that I really did look this business up.

 

 

At the time I only had the iPhone, not my way-cool wand scanner, but it got the job done. I love not having to make copies of this kind of thing. By "thing" I mean transcribed records, as opposed to the actual originals. I know some people at this point are thinking I'm a bad researcher because I'm not looking at the originals, but I would be surprised if the diocese even allowed the originals to be subjected to the light. I know when I've ordered church records in other parts of Louisiana I've had to settle for modern certificates with typed information.

(And yes, I need to use said wand scanner on that baptism certificate linked above. In 1996, GIFs were standard for faster loading on dialup, and screen resolutions were so low that the certificate filled the screen. But at least you can see that I have proof for the connection between Eugenia/Jane and her mother Elenor/Helene/Helen, both part of this line between me and Charlotte Jolivet, and I swear we're going to get back to Charlotte Jolivet any moment now...)

So, as we can see, looking back at the three images above, this records extraction/transcription names Marie Jeanne as Charles' mother and also names her parents in the course of describing her marriage to Charles' father, Paul. SLC = St. Louis Cathedral, in New Orleans. Here's a lovely photo of the cathedral taken in 2008 by Kevin Labianco to make up for my shoddy snaps to come:

St. Louis Cathedral

Oh, I should mention that the original St. Louis Cathedral burned down when Charles was in his 40s. But, according to the cathedral's website, it was still pretty impressive when Charles and his parents and his grandparents were living life in Bayou St. John and English Turn.

As might be expected, my deep Louisiana roots that begin with my great-grandparents ("Mamaw and Dadaw") eventually almost always wind their way back to France... so it was actually a bit exciting to discover that I had Canadian relatives... and they weren't even Acadian. Just straight-up Québécois (always a really fun word to say).

Even after I found proof of the link Louisiana and Canada last summer, I just sort of sat on the info to be enjoyed at some always-later date when I would be less concerned with less interesting things.

Then, this past weekend, as I was continuing to clean up my genealogy file, for whatever reason I Googled a little on Charlotte Jolivet (Jolivet is another really fun word to say). I hadn't really looked at the family since knowing there was a truly documented connection. Maybe some exciting new record had come online since then? The wealth of online primary and credible secondary source data is growing by the day.

Well! One of the first hits that returns on such a search is my own genealogy website, where I noticed that I had put some notes in about Charlotte that apparently I found interesting at the time then completely forgot about entirely.

How completely did I forget? So completely that I only just now bothered to look at my own website notes (written during a time when I was updating my website more than my database - something I've learned not to do). And now that I've looked at them, I have to erase the following:

"It turns out that Charlotte Jolivet was a "filles du roi," something I never heard of until about 48 hours ago."

What can I say? So many lines, so many things to "look into later." The part of my brain that knew she was a filles du roi way back when probably didn't save the data to my noggin drive because I don't like to get very emotionally involved with an alleged ancestor until I know a connection to myself is solid.

Continuing with fresh eyes...

In the early days of New France, aka Canada, the land was populated with many a bachelor and very few ladies. So, the ever-helpful King of France, understanding that it takes little baby colonists to make colonization really stick, sent over somewhere around 800 (accounts vary) women from France to help get the Canadian gents (available at a ratio of 6:1) busy with the marrying and the babymaking.

The king provided a dowry (50 livres), all travel and housing expenses, plus worldly goods, such as scissors and taffeta handkerchiefs and 1000 pins and, lest we forget, two knives. This website has an interesting account of all the goodies. The day after the marriage, the couple got even more loot: a pair of chickens and pigs, an ox, a cow and two barrels of salted meat. Plus, if you had 10 children, you got a bonus of 300 livres.

(You couldn't add enough zeroes to that number to get me on board with having 10 children. Not if I had to keep them and look after their poopy britches.)

Accounts exist of the "selecting" process, where men would come to the convent dorms and pick out someone they like. However, the women could refuse, or even not marry at all, and several did not. Some went home and some simply stayed. Armed with two knives and a thousand pins, I suppose you had options. Sounds like the beginning of a great story.

Charlotte was one of the minority (around 25%) who had a dowry beyond the 50 livres (or twice that if marrying an officer). I like to think it was because she was Just That Cool, but it could also be because she was the ugliest stump in Rouen and shipping her off to the wilds of Montreal was her only hope for marriage. I don't know if additional dowries came from the king (as one site says) or the family (as another says), which would be interesting to know.

According to Many-Roads.com, many of the girls were orphans who were selected by the parish priest. But since Charlotte's parents' names are known, I wonder if that was the case, or if perhaps they died when she was older but still a minor. (This is where those scrawly French records would come in handy.) I look forward to having such an interesting mystery to explore.

This site lists all of the filles, their ships, and when and from where they came. Charlotte (here called Charlotte-Catherine)'s ship, the Prince Maurice, arrived on 30 July 1781. By this time, hundreds of tiny Canadians had been born, and France rather needed its money for more traditional government pursuits, like war. A few months later the beginning of the end of the program was afoot.

I don't really speak French, so how about this instead:

The YouTube links go on and on, because apparently everyone knows about the filles du roi except for moi.

Inspired by my ancestor who was not afraid to sail across the ocean in the hope of meeting a similarly adventurous man (or at least to get two knives and 1000 pins), I decided to honour my French roots by making a chocolate-hazelnut tart that I pinned to Pinterest ages ago.

Bonus: I poked around the blog housing the tart recipe and discovered that the author is one of the current Masterchef USA contestants. Mike and I are big fans of Masterchef Australia (and are watching it now), but despite being based on the Australian show, MC USA is a very different program, with lots of sensationalism and mean-spiritedness. Plus, it only has a dozen or so episodes, compared to the 80-something episodes in a Masterchef Australia season. (They aren't afraid of character development and putting aside the competitive format from time to time for episodes with master cooking classes, etc.) In the past we avoided MC USA but happened to catch it the other night, including this blogger's audition, and since it didn't seem as bad as previous years, we're going to give it a fresh try.

(Update: Masterchef USA has this thing where, very unlike the Aussie version, the judges can boot you out at any time for any reason. On Tuesday they had an episode where they looked at - but did not taste - everyone's dish. Then they picked something like one third of the dishes that looked the least appealing/interesting and sent those people home. Again, without tasting. These were people who had just made it through the audition process and received their aprons. Bam! Drama! You're out!

Why? I really don't think the American viewing public needs so much edginess to get interested in watching a long-term cooking competition. The Australian version of MasterChef is full of heart, and while the judges may sometimes be strict or wary or unimpressed, they are never queening assholes for the sake of it. People always say that Gordon Ramsey is nowhere near as much of a jerk when he's on non-American shows, so all of this drama must be to suit American tastes, but is this really what we like? It makes me think of those British shows which have significant American followings but then "mysteriously" fail when ported into brash, canned, uptight American versions. That's right - I'm still not over what they did to Coupling.)

(Oh, but what I meant to say in the previous parentheses was that the tart women was one of those eliminated in the sudden chef-o-cide. Still, I don't think her leaving the show has anything to do with what happened next.)

I played my own sous-chef, getting everything ready in advance so that when I felt like making the tart, it would be as easy as it is on TV. You know - when the chefs just dump in pre-chopped ingredients from their little ramekins, never worrying about spending ages chopping or having to tidy up while working.

Tart Preparation

If this photo (which is awkward because I was trying to quickly take a pic and not derail my cooking mojo with worrying about light and angles) were on a place mat at a family-friendly restaurant, you might be encouraged to look for the following:

  • Mike's beloved last linzer cookie from Bon Jour bakery at Flamingo/Rainbow. (He's going to be cross that I shared the location of his linzer dealer.)
  • The edge of Lauren's hamitat.
  • Both graham crackers and hazelnuts, pulverized for the crust.
  • Ten dollars' worth of 60% cacao chocolate (Ghiradelli) because I couldn't find 55% that didn't look dodgy. Add in $5 worth of hazelnuts, cream, unsweetened cocoa powder, eggs, butter, local honey, and Honey Maid-brand graham crackers (because I thought for Mike's first taste of graham cracker it had to be Honey Maid), and just buying a big choc tart from Baguette Cafe ($27) was looking like a more sensible option.
  • The Ghiradelli brownie mix that Mike bought "just in case."
  • Pyrex measuring cup that we got for free at Kohl's because we're the only people in the neighbourhood who dig those "$10 off $10 purchase" gift cards that come in the mail... and we dig for all the gift cards our neighbours recycle.
  • The knife that gets used for everything, and the knife that gets used for meat when Mike can't be bothered to properly wash the usual knife that gets used for meat (or so goes my theory).

And this is my finished tart alongside the last bit of absolutely delicious, light, silky, not-at-all-bitter chocolate tart from Baguette Cafe, which is possibly the best place for a nom in Las Vegas. (Despite eating all over the valley, it's BC that has raised my standards for soup, quiche, sandwiches, lemonade, and - alas - chocolate tart.)

A Tale of Two Tarts

My tart (pictured up top) was icky. Bitter. So bitter. So bitter that, despite being made of chocolate, all but two slices and one bite (mine, Mike's, and Mike's game attempt at a second chance) is still in the fridge, and this was four days ago. (A few days have passed since I started this post.) Keep in mind that the celestial file on me includes footage of the time I, in desperate need of a choc fix, ate baking chocolate, and I wouldn't touch this tart again after my miserable slice was woefully nibbled away.

A few hours after I made the tart, Mike happened to mention the "Songify" app, which takes your speech (or singing) and autotunes it. I downloaded the "Bollywood" add-on sound and this happened:

Listen to Chocolate Tart Bollywood.

(If your browser doesn't support links to .m4a files, don't worry about listening. If I thought the world would be missing out, I would've converted it to mp3. Mike's inability to reassure me about the tart without laughing is pretty amusing, though.)

You already know I never touched the tart again, but the day after, I had some second thoughts. It was chocolate! How could it be that bad?

Also, I discovered another autotuning app from the Songify people: Talkapella. You can hear how much I wanted some chocolate:

Listen to Chocolate Tart Aftermath.

(Or, again, not, if you're not set up for .m4a links to simply play.)

And yet, I didn't succumb. That's how terrible my chocolate tart was.

So, I apologize publicly to my arrière (x9) grand-mère for shaming her memory with this tart. Maybe that's the real reason she agreed to go to Canada: those Normandy men had unreasonable expectations when it came to tarts.

The packaged brownies were, however, delicious. Good job, Mike.

Also, Mike took his last (he hopes) uni exam yesterday. Good job again!

And I couldn't finish this post because I became addicted to yet another app, The Tribez, for two days. What a fine use of my break from teaching. But then last night The Tribez stopped working (gnash! wail!), which sent me back to my genie database, which means I checked my genie email for the first time in two days and - va va voila! - I've finally been invited to take one of the new Ancestry.com DNA tests!

So, back to cleaning up my file so it will be ready for DNA linking. Go 21st century, with your science-based genealogy and your brownie mixes and cafes that sell tarts already made! Charlotte Jolivet, how I wish you could see us now.

14 June 2012 |


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Dinner at Thomas Keller's Bouchon

This wasn't the plan. The plan was to finally use our Restaurant.com coupon at Panevino's, across from the airport on Sunset. That plan in mind, we both eschewed the usual jeans for black pants. I chose a black blouse and - this rarely happens - checked myself out in the mirror.

"Mike, I have a great idea for a politically incorrect image."

"What?"

"You know how people always complain when their black pants and black shirt don't quite match?"

"I think you match."

I gave Mike a look fitting for a husband who tries to make a reassuring statement about what you're wearing without even glancing your way. But, since he wasn't looking, he missed my scorn.

"Anyway, it would be funny if there was a photo with these two black guys, maybe one with very dark skin and another of a more cocoa shade. And they could be hanging out with a white guy. The caption - in one of those meme-style fonts so everyone gets that this is just silliness - would say, 'Don't you hate when your blacks don't match?'"

Mike maybe laughed (I know, I don't deserve it) and put on a black Polo.

"What are you doing?"

"What?"

"We can't both wear black shirts with black pants! We look like a bowling team. Like on Antiques Roadshow when we both wore blue shirts."

"It's okay."

"Or stagehands. Or fat ninjas."

But neither of us wanted to change clothes, and what the hell, maybe it's adorable that we matched. I felt like now my imaginary and potentially offensive joke photo would need four black guys in it.

(I just searched Google Images for "black guys." Yes, internet, I was going to make you a present. The third image was porn. I tried searching for "white guys." No porn, but plenty of good-natured jokes about white people. What does this mean? I get the prevalence of jokes, but what's with all the choco-rotica?)

We drove to Panevino only to discover that they are closed on Sundays. What? Aren't we in Las Vegas?

(If this were a video report, here we'd cut to the footage of the coupon blowing out of the car and Mike, dressed to mime a windy day, chasing it across the entirety of the Panevino parking lot, and me stunt driving the car in a wide arc to intercept.)

There's a special circle of Hell just for establishments that have elaborate websites but nowhere do they post their hours of operation.

Okay, let's think. What's one of those business casual-y places where we always consider going, but then we don't because we're wearing jeans or capris or whatever?

Mundo? For which we also had a coupon? Rats, closed on Sunday evenings.

I pulled into the back of the Tropicana, off Reno. We both got out our phones and started Yelping. I'm all about "notching" things ("Let's notch it!" is my Yelp profile catchphrase), and of course Mike is in the midst of his Las Vegas Farewell Tour. (So am I, really, as I probably won't go out to eat anywhere interesting once he's gone.) Tempted by Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill but wanting something we hadn't tried before, but something that would be a bit original, I started looking at celebrity chef restaurants on the Strip.

Unfortunately, many of those establishments were dressy, and we hadn't quite achieved that. (The Yelp search interface seriously needs to be able to filter by dress code.)

Then I saw it: Bouchon.

"It says the dress code is casual." But, after searching on Google and within Yelp results, we saw people expressing some hesitance in calling it "casual." Hmm. Well, we were on the high end of casual, so why not just go look at the menu?

(Other peeve: restaurant websites that don't offer the establishment's menu. True, there are some third party menu websites, but I've been burned too many times to put much faith in them. I understand that some restaurants change their offerings frequently, but that's not the usual case. And yes, there are daily variations and specials, but how much time does it take to have one savvy member of your staff type or even just tweet the specials every morning?

All of this said, Bouchon does have an online menu, but it's completely unfriendly to iPhones because it doesn't use HTML to let users scroll down, so all you can see is the first few items. Remember when I was annoying the world with shouty despair over web accessibility in 1994, and the response was, basically, "fuck the sight impaired on their text-to-speech browsers and the people who turn images off to browse faster"? No, no one does, but believe me, now I'm all "Ha HA! Accessibility DOES matter! Are you going to shrug off everyone with a smartphone?! Ha HA, I say!")

When we got to the Venetian, we realized that we didn't actually know where Bouchon was. It turns out that you need to take a guarded elevator. "We just want to look at the menu," I said apologetically.

"You want to eat at Bouchon? Come this way. Take the elevator to the 10th floor. Cross the Sky Bridge."

Getting past the guard was much easier than I expected.

The young women in front of us were wearing casual but stylish blouses with jeans. "We're okay," I said to Mike. He spoke to the hostess, and we were seated right away.

But I get what people mean about how it's casual but not casual-casual. Even though there were people in jeans and sleeveless shirts, there was an overall "smartness" that made me glad my slip-on black faux-sneakers were under the table.

The waiter asked if we wanted still, fizzy, or bottled water. Or (the pause of the period was clear) house water. "House water," I said. And did we care for some wine or a cocktail?

"Actually, do you have ginger ale?" "Er..." The waiter appeared to try to figure out exactly what that was.

"Or do you have soft drinks?" Mike asked. The waiter backed away from the table a bit.

"I could... maybe I could try to find a root beer?"

"Do you perhaps have something like lemonade?" Mike asked. The waiter continued to struggle with all of these wild demands.

"I.. I think we might? I will check."

Awhile later, Mike was brought a modest glass filled with chunky, close-fitting ice and ordinary lemonade, which the waiter referred to as "juice." Suffice to say that refills were not free.

Eventually the waiter returned and came to where I was sitting, looking expectant with his pen and pad. I looked expectantly back at him. He looked down. "Ah," he said, and he took the paper square that had been around my napkin. "Actually, this is the menu."

Okay, Mike and I don't have to put on our company manners very often, and I didn't attend any kind of accredited charm school, but despite my Falstaffian appearance, you can actually take me out into polite society. I have a sure hand with multiple forks, and I would never shame my firmly middle class upbringing by spooning soup toward me instead of in gentle, counter-intuitive, outward sweeps. So, I don't think people are bred to just know that their overlarge napkin holder unfolds into a menu.

(I saw the hostess explain the menu to all the parties seated after us. We were seated by a waiter, not the hostess, so I guess our situation was unusual. We laughed, but the waiter seemed kind of embarrassed for us and I felt like there was a certain remedial tone to everything he said afterward, but maybe that's just me.)

Menus available at last, Mike was disappointed that the salad he'd eyed on the menu at the non-Bouchon (but phone-friendly) website wasn't there. (See? This is why you post your menu so that everyone can read it. Control your online presence, people.) Still, the salade des.. oh cripes, I'm not going to type all of the French. Je suis désolée, Madame Mosher (9th and 10th grade French teacher).

What I mean to say is that we found enough that looked good. Several specials were available. We both decided to start with the potato and leek soup (a special), then Mike would have the new potato salad and I would have the endive salad. From there, Mike chose the steak and I chose the gnocchi.

Bread arrived, placed directly on the table with butter and a cup of pistachios.

Hrm. No little bread plates? Or a butter knife? Well, I guess the table was covered with paper for a reason.

The bread was that perfect (to me) blend of crusty on the outside and springy/soft (but dense) on the inside. Mike was particularly pleased with it, but OCD me was having a hard time reconciling all of the crumbs falling all over the table thanks to that thick crust. (It didn't help that it took a bit of oof! to break the bread.) I felt weird putting my chewed-on piece just down on the table in front of me, and I couldn't help but try to covertly brush all of our crumbs under the pistachio dish plate.

The "water-waiter," who also did some bussing and seemed to be a nice (if serious) guy, happened to notice, though. He moved the dish to the side (exposing all of our shame crumbs) and took a silver rod from his pocket. This was (I later asked) a "crumber," which he used to sweep all of the crumbs into its "holding groove" then dispose of.

The crumber was neat to see the first time, but the second time it had to be used (after the soup was cleared and we'd turned back to the bread), I was thinking I would defintiely have preferred little plates instead of feeling so uncoordinated and messy. Or am I just too middle class to know how to crack ubercrusty bread without requiring a clean-up crew? Maybe it's an environmental concern (fewer dishes to wash), but then why serve the pistachio cup on a little plate? The butter cup didn't get a little plate. This is all more thinking than I feel the bread deserves, as good as it was.

And let's have a word about the water again. When the water-waiter would refill our glasses, he would only fill them about 2/3 of the way. Sir, this is Las Vegas. It's essentially summertime. You apparently don't sell any non-alcoholic drinks. (Friends of Bill, beware.) We already know, even before seeing the dessert menu, that our tip is going to be more than we pay for most meals. And there we were, conserving sips.

Was it a ploy to get us to order bottled water? Refills didn't appear at all during our main course, which made my dish of essentially unsauced gnocchi (more on this in a moment) more like a pile of tator tots than I would have liked. During dessert, the water-waiter looked a bit shocked when we agreed to a water refill. (Then why ask?) He barely refilled our glasses past the halfway point. The only explanation I have is that this is some penny wise/pound foolish attempt to be conscious about water waste. In which case, why the heck no soft drinks? I'm not suggesting that Bouchon "proudly serve Coke/Pepsi" products. I was ready to pay silly prices for an Italian-style soda or a sparkling water with cordial, something like that. (Again, do they really wish to alienate those people who, for whatever reason, choose not to drink alcohol?)

I liked the waiter who was in charge of bringing out the food. He described everything fully as he placed it and seemed friendly and accessible, always ending with a Bon Appetit! I hate to keep playing the "at these prices" card, but, to me, hospitality is the backbone of the restaurant business, and Bouchon was unremarkable if not somewhat wanting in this area. I know I'm American and thus have stricter expectations for congenial waiter behaviour (or so my Aussie tells me), but all I want to do is feel welcome. This can be done in a warm, refined way without resorting to TGI Fridays' tactics, but - except for the "food delivering waiter" (is there a special title?) - I didn't feel like anyone was particularly pleased to be sharing world-famous, Michelin-rated, bestselling cookbook author Thomas Keller's creations with us.

Our waiter had asked if we wanted the soup, salad, and main brought out "1, 2, 3" or all at once. If you'd seen our table (a two-top with a chair on one side and a shared bench on the other), you would've wondered how he planned to get six dishes on there, but it was nice to be asked. Lately everywhere we go, main dishes seem to come while we're still eating our salads.

The potato and leek soup had a dollop of "hazelnut marmalade" in the middle and was "finished off with extra virgin olive oil."

The soup was velvety smooth, and the hazelnuts added an unexpected and pleasant edge. This is what I'd hoped to find at Bouchon: expert preparation with that little signature "twist" you don't see elsewhere.

The portion was quite generous, so unfortunately, after the hazelnut center was gone, the soup quickly became "samey." My early bites also had an interesting "tang" to them that disappeared around the same time. (Lemon?) Speaking of which...

The waiter stopped by. "How do you like the soup?"

"Delicious," I said.

"What are the dominant flavours?" he asked.

Er. Potato? Leek? Mike quickly made his mouth busy with eating. I was on my own. "I think leek, but there is a really pleasant tang, too. I'm not sure what it is?"

"Mmm hmm." The waiter almost smiled a little, nodded a little, and left.

What the hell was that? So, not only did I possibly fail the quiz, but I don't know the answer to my tang question. This is just bad soup pedagogy.

Our salads were presented beautifully. Here is Mike's Salade de Pommes de Terre (new crop potatoes, pearl onions, spring garlic, and confit of egg yolk - yes, I am copying and pasting from the phone-hating online menu, although the Oxford comma is mine since bread crumb explosions aren't my only hangup):

And here is my Salade de Cresson et d’'Endives (watercress, endive, Roquefort, and walnuts with walnut vinaigrette):

Mike: "Isn't Roquefort now banned in the United States? Or under heavy tariff?" "Oh yeah, I remember that." This added some excitement to the salad, although now that I've checked Wikipedia, I see that our Roquefort import issues with France have since been resolved.

(I remember reading a good article on this once, which Wikipedia sums up well. At some point, Europe banned our country's hormone-laden beef. The US Trade Representative, feeling a bit frisky as the Bush administration came to an end, jacked up the tariffs on many European luxury goods to sky-high numbers in retaliation. Classy. And by "classy," I mean "Douche move, Susan Schwab.")

Despite the Roquefort intrigue, Mike made the better choice on the salad. The little I tasted of his was delightfully soft and savoury.

Mine felt like it was missing something. The (unadvertised) Kalamata olives just increased what should've been a subtle bitterness from the walnuts and walnut vinaigrette. Other than the clump at the top, the Roquefort was hard to find and so finely crumbled that it was equally hard to spear. A little fruit or a bit more cheese would've made this a more interesting, satisfying salad for me. Instead of ingredients that played off the novelty (to me) of walnut vinaigrette, the salad just felt unfinished and artless in its bitterness.

I often label Mike as "picky" because, even though I'm a vegetarian and thus would be the one you'd expect to veto our choices when dining out, he seems to overtake my vetoes at a 3:1* ratio. (*Unscientifically measured because I don't have a special pedometer that calcultes the number of miles I've rolled my eyes when he claims there's "nothing" for him at a restaurant.)

One of Mike's aversions is anything fungal. I've known several people like this, and I myself grew up hating mushrooms. We don't like what we don't like, true, and I know I'm done with giving second and thirtieth and hundredth chances to cooked spinach, which is always going to be Satan's special green bowl of stringy diarrhea, as far as my mouth is concerned.

I got over my dislike of mushrooms just through trying them in some new ways, so it does irk me when the aforementioned "several people" won't even try something they haven't tasted since childhood, but whatever. I'm not the boss of the world. You can tell by all the people under 21 with neck tattoos.

(I should admit that "several people" is mostly "the thoroughly smug and bitchy wife of an ex-boyfriend's best friend." I can barely remember what those three people looked like, but annoying remarks ride in my sulk pocket until I can complain about them in some public way. After twentyish years, finally! You kids don't know how lucky you are today, with your instant public venting opportunities. Now just put some more career contemplation time between turning 18 and your first neck tattoo, and we'll be cool.)

So, I was really proud of Mike for ordering a steak that was served in truffled liquid. (Specifically: Steak Bouchon, grilled New York strip steak with potato boulangère, celery branch, and black truffle jus.)

The steak was cooked perfectly, and Mike particularly liked the potatoes. I was also proud of him because I know he would've preferred to have gone somewhere where he could've had something more inventive than steak. But, if you don't like seafood/fish, lamb, some types of sausage, sandwiches for dinner, roasted chicken unless you know it will be roasted just-so and even then, or gnocchi without sauce, then at Bouchon you have two choices of steak. (And you must accept that you are a picky eater.)

So, while the steak was good (although, no, he didn't care for the truffle jus and wished it wasn't on his steak), it wasn't really Mike's thing, which isn't Bouchon's fault. Just a comment.

"Maybe I just don't like French food," Mike said later.

"Is Bouchon's French?" I countered. A few moments passed and I continued. "I mean, other than the French name, and the way they call it a bistro?"

"The menu is in French."

"Oh yeaaaah." Me just s l o w sometimes.

Okay, let's discuss the Gnocchi à la Parisienne: sautéed gnocchi with a fricassée of garden vegetables and brown butter sauce.

I sometimes get ravioli in brown butter sauce here and there, and when I do, there is definitely more moisture present than what I found in this dish. I know that picture makes things look like they're glistening with delicately applied browned butter, but that's a lie of the light. Gnocchi are (as you no doubt know) little potato dumplings. The taste gets very dry, and very old, very fast if all you have is the smidgy bit of sauce at the bottom, a few clumps of regular butter (look to the right), and four or so tomato strips for moisture.

(I did try to eat the gnocchi with the shown spinach, because I'm not really that big of a weenie on cooked spinach if it doesn't have a strong smell, but that just made it taste more dry.)

I will concede that the gnocchi was nicely prepared, but as I said way back when, after five or six, there was a definite "fanciest tator tots ever" vibe to this very dry experience. A few nights ago we finally tried Nora's, a place many call their fave Italian in Las Vegas, and their gnocchi was lighter and more pillowy than what Keller is serving at Bouchon, plus they offered adequate sauce. Bouchon's gnocchi is ultimately so disappointing that, given Keller's credentials, the only explanation I have is that this is preciousness for the sake of it.

While we waited for a dessert menu, our water-waiter offered to box our leftovers. He came back with a lovely bag with - gasp! - a rope and a half of bread on the top. Okay, that was pretty nice of them. I felt like I'd just been given a goodie bag at a culinary trade show, and I surreptitiously snapped a pic of it next to me. (All of my photos were discreetly taken, as felt appropriate to the atmosphere, and of course I never use flash. Blur is my badge of pride.)

As Mike pointed out, this is the hot tip for Bouchon: always get something to go so you can have more bread. I don't think the bread is any better than Bon Breads or Bonjour Bakery or the loaves they will sell you at Baguette Cafe if you ask, but it is good bread.

Before the official dessert menus came, we consulted the regular menu (I asked to keep mine) and decided Mike would get the chocolate marquise and I would get the lemon tart, then we would try each other's dishes. But one of the specials was chocolate brownie with coconut ice cream and a pineapple something, so I changed my mind.

Mike's "dark chocolate mousse with burnt orange cream"

Mine:

"This is the best thing I've had during this meal," Mike said. My dessert was yummy (could've used a little more pineapple for my taste, and those little cubes were tasteless, but maybe that's a nitpick), and I think it was probably the best part of my meal, too.

But then I think about that other Keller in town, Hubert Keller of Fleur and Burger Bar at Mandalay Bay. The link goes to my Yelp review, where you can see that I gave Fleur three stars. It wasn't the best of experiences in terms of service or food.

And yet, H. Keller's cilantro granita with pineapple carpaccio still calls to me in stray moments. Elegant, inventive, surprising, and just incredibly tasty. I may go back to Fleur just to have it once more, or I may keep my memory untainted with the risk of a second try. Here's a pic:

Cilantro granita changed my mouth

I didn't see anything like that on Bouchon's menu. Maybe they were tired of typing by that point and left off a bunch of description that might've changed my perception, but despite being good, and the best part of my meal, there was nothing extraordinary about my brownies, about my coconut ice cream (Babycakes at the M Resort has coconut ice cream and coconut sorbet that outshine this), or about that ridge of pineapple and shaved coconut, other than it was very pretty.

In short (Rocky Horror Crowd Participation Voice: "TOO LATE!"), the most expensive meal I've had so far in my life should've been better. It was great fun to try, and the highs and lows of each dish held my attention and kept the anticipation going, but when I write my Yelp review, I will give it 3.5 stars. And since half-stars aren't available to reviewers on Yelp, I'm going to round down and question that half star in the first place.

No non-alcoholic drinks unless you enter lengthy negotiations for some mediocre "juice"? A waiter who pretends(?) to be flummoxed by the notion of soft drinks? Stingy water refills both in the pouring and the frequency? A general lack of making me feel like a valued guest or at least like part of a fine dining experience?

Add to this a menu of dishes that never quite delivered a "signature quirk" that would set them apart from the competition, and I would advise the me of yesterday to either raise my fashion bar and try a different celebrity chef or just enjoy three very nice high-middle-road meals for the price of this one.

04 June 2012 |


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The Grand Californian: Is It Worth It?

I took a proper camera to Disneyland on our twoish-day getaway last week (this was before the new camera arrived), but I didn't really take any photos of the property other than the odd snap with the iPhone. I was just always tired or sore-footed. Wah wah wah.

I know, I know: all that money spent on a Disney room (which, unlike in Florida, doesn't come in a "value resort" flavour) and so few photos. But we did enjoy the room! The question is: is it worth it? Even on sale?

I don't know. I'm spoiled for staying anywhere else at Disneyland, but for the price, I think I should feel even more spoiled.

The staff was excellent and welcoming, a reminder of the Disney service and attitude I fell in love with and learned to stop expecting in the California parks, but the hotel is wedged on the borders of Downtown Disney and California Adventure. That's a great thing, of course, being RIGHT THERE when you want to go to those two parts of the resort (although don't kid yourself that you can do much with DCA early entry except in the summer months), but...

I don't know. Maybe it's the steady foot traffic of people cutting through from one park to the other. Maybe it's the nearly ordinary furnishings in the actual room. (Florida is just as guilty there.) Maybe it's paying $50 for an upgraded view (instead of the parking lot) only to be distracted by the roof of the level below.

It was worth it once, especially since it's unlikely that we'll ever go to Disneyland again. Australia is looming, and when we return to the States for visits, we may as well go to the bigger, more luxurious Florida resort. (Pause while I try to get my head around that having been my last trip to Disneyland. No, I just can't imagine.)

It would be even more worth it if the hotels offered a protective bubble for guests to wear in the parks to defend against People Who Suck. Let's put it this way: mild-mannered Mike had to yell at the people behind us on Pirates of the Caribbean to "please shut up." Seriously, these people were talking about salads and what to get for dinner and preferred nicknames at top volume as our boat slipped through the foggy blue grotto, one of the most atmospheric parts of the ride. (And something Florida can't offer. Argh! No! This can't be the end of Disneyland! It can't!)

Back to the room. I did take some proper photos, like I said, but I can't be stuffed to get them off the old SLR right now. Besides, the internet is full of GC photos. How about I share the far-too-many Kaleidoscope photos I made with the iPad while lolling in the room, eating English toffee, and playing Ticket to Ride, recovering from life amongst the pushy/shovey/loud/entitled people?

(Yes, there's a lot of first world consumerism in my recent posts. Mike and I debate whether to buy the 2.99 pasta sauce or splurge on 5.99 pasta sauce, but we have his-n-her iPads. Then again, perhaps the secret to such treats is caring about the price of pasta sauce. And not caring about fashion. Or cars. Or fingernails, toenails, and hair. Or booze. Or children. Or possibly even going to the movies, because I have to tell you, Dark Shadows last night was more meh than funny.)

Behold, my new art series of Grand Californian kaleidoscopes. (Room only. We did sit by the fire in the lobby once. It's nice. But it's not, as another guest described it, "Something straight out of Hogwarts, man!" The hotel is too close to the parks to really make you feel like you're at a National Park Lodge.)

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Enough of that. Oh, wait, here's a creepy mirror effect:

Um, that was supposed to be facing the other side up. Double mirror! (Whatever.)

The wi-fi in our room was only so-so. It's included (at the price, it should be, and so should parking), but getting a consistent signal put me back in the rabbit ears days. Now stand there. No, there. Now lean over. Lift one foot. Point your finger this way. Balance this tinfoil on your shoulder. There, that should last 10, maybe 15 minutes.

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I didn't read all the terms. Maybe I will become a human icentipad, a la South Park. (I finally watched The Human Centipede last night. The production values are startlingly high!) Mind you, I already look like I'm joined to my iPad as it is.

Here's a view of one of the beds. We couldn't get a king (another thing that, at the price, you should be able to get), but these beds were quite nice. I really liked how high they were.

Oh. Hey. More kaleidoscopes.

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I didn't just overwork the Photo Booth app. I also caught up on Draw Something.

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Oh, I forgot to say that we actually came in the night before and did a Priceline deal ($50 - notice I will confess to this pricetag) for Crowne Plaza. It was our fave in the past, and if we'd never gone to the GC, I think we would still like it. (Gone is a lot of the Sleep Comfort stuff, though, like the soothing CD, the linen spray, and the blackout curtains. In fact, management of our curtains required climbing over an artlessly placed sofa.) Decent bed, though. Here it is:

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Here's a terrible shot of the GC lobby, taken on my phone. You can see the left side of the fireplace. (The fireplace area has two long benches and at least a dozen rocking chairs. It's huge.)

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Both beds:

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(You can tell I'm just uploading directly to this post as I look through the photo stream for the first time since this trip. No processing. No planning.)

The bathtub was kind of twee. The lights come on really slowly when you enter the bathroom, like they don't want to waste much energy if you're only going to pee. Oh, and? You have to leave the toilet/shower area to wash your hands. That makes my stomach heave. Does housekeeping really sanitize the inside door latch in case previous guests don't realize they should wipe with one hand and open the door with the other? I worry, I do.

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We did get nice Mandara spa amenities: shampoo, conditioner, body wash, lotion, shower cap, and shoe polish cloth. The soap in the bathtub had nubby bits on it. (Until Mike had one shower. He is hell on soap.)

Here's the best angle of our view from the little (cute) balcony:

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Having the monorail swoosh through (when not down for repairs) was neat, but we mostly stayed inside, out of the heat.

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Here's the worst angle (straight-on) of our view.

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And here's just the balcony (hostess hands sweep toward the table and chairs):

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One thing that is interesting in the hotel is all the baskets of fresh linen outside the rooms. Housekeeping always seemed to be hard at work. (At first we thought maybe room service came up in themey, woodsy, picnic hampers. Alas!)

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A pool. We didn't go in (was never going to happen unless it was open in the middle of the dark, dark night), but the slide (barely pictured) for one of the three pools looked pretty cool.

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And here's Mike just after discreetly holding open a Mickey cookbook in the gift shop so I could snap a pic of the honey-balsamic dressing recipe at Storyteller's Cafe. (Wasn't really the same when Mike made some at home, alas.)

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The Storyteller's Cafe had highs and lows. Our first lunch was great except for Mike's dry-as-eff burger. Outstanding salads, good bread. I had the ravioli which was a festival of beaded-up oil, but it still tasted okay. Drinks were cold and plentiful.

The second day I got the veggie burger and it was just as dry and depressing. Service was mediocre. The food all came out at once so we couldn't enjoy the courses one at a time. Eh.

We did think about Napa Rose, but with Mike's funny sleep and my sore feet leading us to play things by ear, we didn't want to make a commitment, which we would've had to do to prearrange a vegetarian meal. (What the hell, upscale Disney resort?) The second day there was nothing on the menu for Mike.

Luckily there are restaurants just steps away in Downtown Disney, although if you want to eat after 10, you'll have to put your fingers in your ears and yell a takeaway order to the bar staff at House of Blues. (Which you should, as the food is absolutely yum-yum. I will watch chef Aaron Sanchez on Chopped with new appreciation now.) Or you can roll the dice and get the 24-hour (nice) room service from GC, but the late night menu doesn't offer vegetarians anything but that dry burger.

Oh look, I took a pic of Mike sitting a rocker by the fireplace. (I am really appreciating the low-light capabilities of the new camera now that I flinch at one grainy pic after another.)

at-xid-6a00d8341e0bac53ef016766f42ece970b

at-xid-6a00d8341e0bac53ef0168ebf5b5cb970c

It doesn't seem like that was a week ago. It doesn't seem like Mike came back two weeks ago. (It doesn't seem like he'll be back in Australia before we barely get in our last Vegas hurrahs, to do the end-bit of his student teaching and start setting up our home, and I probably won't see him again until the last critter is gone and I can join him. NO! MUST NOT THINK ABOUT THIS.) It doesn't seem like my last group of Honors Freshies (e.g., the ones who visited often over the years because Honors freshmen never hated me in the same way the regular ones did, although some of this year's sophomores could out-hate them all combined) have only a few days of school left. It doesn't seem like my last school year with Clark County is about to have the nails firmly tapped into the coffin. Surely I'm too old and contemplative for all of this upheaval. What next?

at-xid-6a00d8341e0bac53ef016766f43883970b

We do have one day left on our Park Hopper tickets...

31 May 2012 |


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Early Days of the Beastie

That's not even one of my favourite Jethro Tull songs, but when I told one of my former students (who helped start the school's Photography Club, of which I was the happy figurehead advisor) that Mike and I had finally pulled the trigger on buying a Canon 7D, he messaged back "I MUST SEE THIS BEAST."

And so my little beastie she now is. She must be a girl; she requires a little know-how and exploration to make happy, for one thing.

I've been camera shopping ever since October, when Mike's dad booked the Alaskan cruise, and it was then that I thought, "I could probably use a wider lens... or at least some kind of glass upgrade."

Man in Rogue Photo Booth

(Unrelated photo inserted to break up wall of text. Taken in January while wandering around the top of the Stratosphere. The photo booth had just mysteriously detached from its spot and rolled toward the Strat's glass windows! Now that's a photo that would've worked on any camera. Oh, great, now I've just added to a new wall of text.)

One thing led to another... for about eight months of stewing and considering and reconsidering. My beloved Canon Rebel XT (aka 350d) of nearly seven years is feeling its age. I have a few nice lenses and an entry-level telephoto zoom (Canon's 50-250), but I seem to keep the (urgh) kit lens on way too much, just for the convenience.

(On those rare times I dust off the camera. The iPhone has changed my snapshottin' life.)

So I should get a new walkaround lens, right? But how could I put lovely glass on a sorta-slow camera that got noisy at 800 ISO (and didn't go past 1600)? And, if my estimated shutter count was correct, this was a camera that might not live through the Alaskan journey? (You don't even want to know how many shots I have to take of a moving dwarf hamster to get one decent pic, and there have been many hamsters over the years.)

Don't get me wrong: I don't worship gear. I know my old Rebel can take outstanding photos in the right hands, even with the kit lens. Some of my favourite photos are black. Er, I mean that some of my fave photos came off my old gas station 35mm with all the stunning advantages one-hour processing brings.

(Cough.)

But while I technically have everything in my twee power and then some to create engaging photos - camera, general academic understanding of manual camera use, a fundamentally creative spirit, and, when all else fails, a not-terribly-old version of Photoshop - the fact is that I have been slack.

Palace Station

(Another disconnected photo. View of Palace Station and the southwest Valley, almost to where I live, from the Strat. January.)

I grasped the art of not screwing up snapshots and have been on a smiley haywagon of pleasant adequacy ever since. (This must be how all those Twilight fans feel.)

Oh, once in awhile I put on the 50mm and revel in the blurred background that comes with a shallow depth of field, but - despite taking tens of thousands of digital photos - I was probably at my most creative when I was shooting film and playing in the darkroom. I wasn't good, but I was far more playful.

So, some will probably find it odd (dare we say foolish) that someone who is really just looking to have a few more advantages (high ISO, frames per second) for a point-and-shoot lifestyle went for the 7D. A camera that, people warned, was not going to work its magic if I didn't use my brain a bit. A camera that has been on the market for two years already?

Well, like I said, I spent eight months figuring this out, reflecting on where I've been and considering where I want to go. I stayed in the Canon family because of my existing lenses. (I don't advocate for one system over another. For someone like me, they're all great.) I handled several models. I looked at comparisons. I read reviews. I read flame wars. I read my heart. Although I don't deserve it (yet?), the 7D it was.

And so I nearly wet my pants laughing when this scene came up on last Sunday's Veep:

(It's like a dramatic interpretation of certain DPReview.com forums)

The camera arrived while we were at Disneyland, so at first I was too worn out to fool with it. (Sign number one that I don't deserve this camera, I know.) Then I wanted to wait for the walkaround lens. (I went with Canon's 15-85. I agree that it's overpriced, even on sale, but it's just perfect for what I want, and I guess Canon knows that. Luckily I had bushels of Amazon Visa card points to soften a fair chunk of the sticker price.)

Then I finally took a few photos. My first impressions:

1. God, I'm crap.

2. These crap photos taken by a crap photographer who is so lazy* that she's just lolling on the sofa and pointing the lens at the TV stand are totally crap, but they are also a bazillion times better than if I'd taken the same photos with the old Rebel and the same lens. And I wasn't even trying. 3200 ISO with noise reduction, where have you been all my life?!

*(Mike and I ended up having some sort of bug. We're both still shaking it off, so I'm going to forgive myself for having already reneged on the inner promise I made to build a light tent as soon as the camera arrived. I think it's just allergies, but it could also be this alien living in my Upper Ladygarden who has been trying to claw his way out.

Yeah, so we're at Disney, right? Grand Californian - yes, we're seeing off America in a bit of style, but that's another post. Also, it was on sale, 25%-off. Anyway, I'm all, feel this lump! Mike doesn't feel anything. I don't look at it because it's below the Tumtum Obstructed Viewing Area, plus the hotel mirrors are kind of high, plus it's dark, because it's our middle-of-the-day nap. We're old. I forget about it until we get home the next day and I take a shower. Holy Boloney! I have an enormous bruise on, er, that area. It's about six inches long, one-to-two inches wide, and BLACK with hints of purple. Like the worst birthmark you could bring to the junior high gym locker room ever. What. The Hell.

I take Exhibit A to Mike, who literally - yes, literally - does that move where you flinch back then immediately peer closer in disbelief. Biggest, blackest bruise of my life in the WEIRDEST place, with the hint of a lump, although Mike still can't feel it. I can probably only feel it because it's sore when I probe. Otherwise, I'd happen to have to look in the mirror or touch just the right spot in the right way to know that my bikini line has started taking advice from Mick Jagger and is painting it black, black as coal, black as the sun blotted out from the sky.

"Maybe you were hit by a turnstile at Disney?" Mike wonders. Except I always go in Disney turnstiles sideways, what with the park having opened in 1955 and my body having expanded to trendy modern obesity standards. Lap bars? No, again, my stomach is on guard duty protecting that area when I sit down. What. The. Hell.

It's been almost a week since I noticed the lump that is probably not a lump. I have no idea when or how this injury occured. Anyway, the bruise is getting lighter. And if a pod of alien spiders bursts out of the not-probably-a-lump-but-we'll-keep-an-eye-on-it, I can film it all on HD video, thanks to the new camera. Meanwhile, I am lazy, but mystery bruise + maybe allergies or Disney cooties means I'm excused from my way cool idea for a light tent which is, as always, a matter for another post.)

Insanity

(Artist's rendition of what the alien spider pod may look like. Not to scale. Also just another unrelated photo from the top of the Strat. The visit in January was Mike's first! Time is running out for the Farewell Tour.)

Where was I?

Oh yes. The camera.

I love it!

I see what people mean about needing to think if you're going to harness its powers, but we took it out this afternoon and, honestly, I'm a-ok with its snapshots. I spent a lot of time remembering stuff long-forgotten (changing the exposure! flipping the image stabilization switch! choosing the right focus mode!), and mostly I remembered it because I would look at the shot afterward and say, "Oops." (But then, because photos were still taking second fiddle to other things, not bothering to do it right. Oh, I am a living burr to all kinds of common sense.) But I did have it out of Program mode (that nudge just above the two Auto modes) about half of the time. Go me!

What I haven't gotten yet is a good ham-ham photo, but I suppose trying to take photos in a mostly dark room with only a bit of natural light and have something end up being in focus (especially since I wasn't in "machine gun mode") is still a skill beyond my ken (and beyond my shaky hands, and beyond the swift scurry of the bold Russian dwarf hamster).

Still, I tried. Here's Vanessa with a nearly focused eye as she does her funny hopping run in the saucer:

Vanessa, Hopping in Her Saucer

And here's Dudley giving some tunnel sugar to Roy:

Duddy and Roy

We went to Tivoli Village. I played with the shutter speed a little. AIR FIVE!

Tivoli Village - Fountain

I loved the circular polarizer on my old kit lens (see, I know about some stuff), but I don't know how I feel about the one I got for the new lens (a B+W 72mm multi-coated). It's super-thin (because of the semi-wide angle of the lens), thus hard to turn, and also the substitute cap plops off all the time. It's also not as dramatic as my Tiffen. But, it seems to get the job done on reflective surfaces (when I can turn it), and I never cared for the deeply saturated skies I could get on the Tiffen anyway. I liked how the polarizer helped me get this photo:

Tivoli Village - Reflections

And this is a SOOC (straight out of camera, I learned that from the Pioneer Woman before she became less of a funny woman and more of a brand, but more power to her and all that) shot of Mike. I'm not saying it couldn't use any post processing, and the composition has nothing going for it, but I'm a bit giddy that I can take an indoor, flash-free photo in Program mode, to which the camera assigned a high ISO (3200), and not have it come out murky or as if behind a veil of sand. (Low standards are the key to happiness, you know.)

Mike - Bottles and Burgers

I would share more, but Tivoli Village deserves its own post.

Oh, bah. As if I'll ever get around to it. Here we go. All of these are just point-and-shoots with slight curve adjustment and sharpening in Photoshop. I'm still getting the hang of a many new buttons and button placements, but if this is the worst I'm probably going to do with my beastie, things could get beautifully interesting down the road. (Or not. It's all good.)

Tivoli Village - Stairwell

Tivoli Village - Brio

P.S. I don't trust insurance companies, and I've had bad experiences with State Farm before, but their Personal Articles policy for cameras seems really good. We don't have a house (we've been saving ourselves and our sheckels for Oz), so I couldn't do it as a rider on a homeowners policy. (Which I know comes with its own issues, but that seems to be the simplest way.) I'm not using the camera professionally, so I can't join various groups that offer coverage. People in forums, where the question comes up frequently, seemed to despair of a solution for amateurs who rent.

Today I bought a "all peril" Personal Articles policy from State Farm that covers the camera and new lens (I didn't even think to ask about our older macro lens, which is still in production, mostly because I'm a spazz) for $32/year. No deductible. No conditions. I can drop it, spill things on it, accidentally drive my car over it, or cry after someone steals it, and it will be replaced. (Crud, I should've insured the value of the memory card that might be inside, too. My brain is on point-and-shoot mode, too.) This policy is independent of my renter's policy. It works anywhere in the world. When we move to Australia, nothing will change.

Of course, we'll see where the loopholes may be if anything actually happens, but right now I'm kind of impressed. One more gratuitous shot to alleviate the bricks of babble:

Tivoli Village - Brio Panels

Let's end with a better Tull song (from the year I was born)...

30 May 2012 |


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Who Do You Think You Are: The Drinking Game

(Skip the jibber-jabber, if you like.)

My not-so-idle genealogical diversions have been going well lately. I have this theory that if I upload a public tree to Ancestry.com, I'll (finally) get an invitation to (purchase) their new DNA test ($99! Good for men and women!), so to that end I'm refreshing all of my sources in my database and re-examining loose ends before I upload. Since I like to hunt down all ancestors, not just those of a certain last name, that means new data has been digitized since I last ran some of these traps.

At first I was happy when this refresher led to a new great (x6)-grandmother. Her name is Isabella Poe, and she appeared thanks to the digitized index of pension files from the War of 1812. Of course, there was also the luck of her husband bothering to state his wife's full maiden name and the date they were married.

Alas, the Kentucky Poe trail grows quickly cold beyond Isabella, and with other priorities looming, it may be several more years before I know whether I'm any relation to those Poes.

A few weeks ago, though, I did discover a famous relation. Well, "famous" as in "infamous," and only then if you're versed in venomous Purtianical figures of New Hampshire.

I speak of Hateevil Nutter (pronounced like you think). At first I was all, "Oh hey, New Hampshire ancestors! That's new!" (They should sell a collect-em-all map with stickers.) Then I was, "LOL. His name is Nutter. Teehee!" And then I Googled.

Ye Godz. And all that over Quakers?

I recently made a spreadsheet to discover how many of my (mostly Southern) ancestors owned slaves right before the Civil War. (I know where all but one ancestor is in the 1860 census - a total of around 33 heads of household - so I worked with a sound about of data.)

The answer? Two.

Obviously slavery is a beyond-words awful part of our country's (and a little part of my family's) history, but the next time someone gets in my face about how, since I'm (essentially) white with a bunch of Southern ancestry, I somehow owe restitution to the black community (if you doubt that this happens, try teaching inner city black youth for nearly a decade), I'm going to Urkel-out my spreadsheet.

If we're going to tally up a bill based on things my ancestors did, I assume I'll be credited for all those ancestors who didn't own slaves, with maybe double points for those who went Union despite living in CSA territory? And triple points if they died in battle? Let me know the algorithim because I've got fistfuls of Virginia and Carolina Quakers on standby.

Except now along comes Hateevil Nutter to mess with my Peaceful Quaker Bonus! (Yes, I'm already percolating a politically incorrect board game in my head. "Disowned for marrying out of unity! Move back three spaces. Sherman burned the courthouse with your records. Draw a Boo-Hoo Card.") Thanks to Mr. Nutter - or great-times-eleven-grandpappy, as I call him - I think I just lost three turns.

The slavery spreadsheet idea came to me when I watched Reba McEntire get all twitchy on Who Do You Think You Are? when she discovered an ancestor who owned slaves. Woman, you seem nice, but CAPTAIN HELLO ON LINE ONE. It's the South. It's the 1800s. It's not a shocker. Be sad and regretful, sure, but surprised to the point that the entire show derails so you can process your feelings? No.

Me, I was surprised my people didn't own more slaves. It has been funny over the years, though, when certain branches of my southern cousins are talking about the family tree with me, and they say, "I assume he was Confederate, right?" Nope. Sorry. Union.

Interestingly, exactly half of my ancestors who fought in the Civil War were Union and half were Confederate. And one ended up being both, but that's a story for another day.

But, despite some eye-rolling moments, I do like Who Do You Think You Are? The first episode I saw was the UK version with David Mitchell (pause for angelic choir sound effect - the man is a comic genius) then another UK episode with Kim Cattrall. So, when I finally saw the USA version, I had the standard "UK to USA Television Conversion Reaction." Which is to say that I yelled "ARGH!" a lot and kept asking Mike, "Do they think we're THAT stupid?! Why is it so sensationalized? Why is it dumbed down?"

Of course, every show now seems to suffer from "we're about to go to break, so let's tell you everything coming up, and now here's the break, and now we're back, so let's recap everything you just watched plus hint at what's about to happen" syndrome, which drives me insane. In fact, the aforementioned Mr. Mitchell and his writing/acting partner Robert Webb make great fun of it here:

Grr!

It seems people have mixed feelings about the US version of Who Do You Think You Are? I do, too, but not so much the things that seem to irk most people. The shameless plugs for Ancestry.com during the show, the slightly misleading Ancestry.com commercials during the breaks, and the way these celebrities jet around the world - none of this really bugs me. Ancestry is a good tool for many people, I'd certainly jet if I could (although not as needlessly as they do on the show), and I understand that everything is pre-researched to make sure the celebrities happen to stumble upon the most entertaining aspects of their heritage.

What I dislike is how the research methods modeled can be inefficient (giving the impression that more travel is required than is always needed) or sloppy (appearing to blindly accept other people's family trees as fact), although I trust that the actual, behind-the-scenes research is solid.

I like that the show doesn't promote the old-style sexism of researching father-to-father-to-father (and so on), dismissing the womenfolk as mere wives, or staying really fixated on just one name when our family trees are ready to explode with so many names. That said, I often wish we could get a glimpse at the end how many new ancestors without a TV-ready story were found in the course of the professional research. (Nobody really believes they make these discoveries out of nowhere as they film, right? I've even heard of celebrities not getting a show because the research didn't turn up enough excitement.)

Anyway, I think it would do more for the hobby (obsession) if people had an idea of how many stories we all have. Maybe show a before-and-after chart at the end of the show? As in, this is what I knew before, and this is what I know now. When I look at my first proper family tree, it's just beyond belief how many gaps I've filled in. I can't believe there was a time when I didn't have such a strong sense of the history and culture that has led to my existence.

After I watched the Paula Deen finale, I realized there's a fine drinking game buried in this series. I'm not the person to make it since 1) no way am I going to re-watch the episodes for recurring events and 2) I don't really drink, but if someone did make a drinking game, I think the following would have to be included:

Take one drink when:

  • The celebrity is told to "go to Ancestry.com." Take a second drink if it happens in the first five minutes of the show.
  • "Coming up..."
  • The celebrity searches for an ancestor and that ancestor happens to be the first search result.
  • The celebrity excitedly says, "There s/he is!" without decisively ruling out the search result being someone else with the same name.
  • The ancestor's maiden name is clearly available but the family tree graphic shows her with her married name.
  • A living relative is revealed for a meet-and-greet.
  • A living relative appears to simply hand over the original copies of photos or documents to the celebrity.
  • The celebrity is directed toward a more fiddly resource (state archives, newspapers, etc.) without first quickly checking the census.
  • The census is checked, but it's not the most recent census that would be available for that ancestor. (Thus not modeling the standard method of working steadily backwards.)
  • The celebrity opens an envelope containing important documents, as if filming has been on hiatus while we wait for this mail to arrive.
  • The professional in the segment suddenly presents a typed transcript of the record. Take a second drink if first they made the celebrity find the information themselves on the original record.
  • The celebrity flies somewhere for a record that could be easily ordered online or via the mail. Take a second drink if that record is already available somewhere online. Take yet another drink if you know that record is available on the LDS website (FamilySearch.org) or somewhere else for free. I love Ancestry's current business model, interface, and offerings, but it's really silly to pretend that the 2.4 million rolls of microfilm in The Vault don't exist.
  • You start singing along with the theme music before and/or after the commercial breaks. "Aaa-aa! Aaa-aa!"
  • You find yourself looking up the celebrity's ancestors yourself on Ancestry.com or other sites. Take an additional drink for every generation further back you take the celebrity's family tree before that information is revealed on the show (if it is even revealed).
  • The research suddenly swerves up a new branch of the tree, completely dropping what appeared to be an interesting line of research.
  • The celebrity uses a card catalog.
  • You think you can almost see the user name on the Ancestry.com account.
  • We go to a narrated voice-over of a mini-history lesson. (I like those.)

Take two drinks when:

  • You learn something. I don't know if I've ever learned new techniques from the show (only because I've been at this for almost 20 years), but I do appreciate the reminder that, as much as we can do online, good stuff still lurks in dusty archives, both un-digitized and un-microfilmed.
  • The celebrity's talking totally steps all over the carefully inserted Ancestry.com reference.
  • The celebrity projects emotional characteristics and motivations onto the ancestor beyond what the records suggest.
  • The celebrity "knows" something is or isn't true without any documentation. (If Paula Deen didn't already know her entire ancestry, then why has she spent "her whole life" telling people that her family wasn't involved in slavery?)
  • A potential ancestor is dismissed only because the middle initial is different.
  • The show focuses on an aunt, uncle, or cousin instead of direct ancestor. (I'm not saying that's not interesting, but it's not as interesting, especially if you've not exhausted most of your research leads.)
  • The celebrity seems astounded by something the more jaded researcher doesn't dwell upon in an emotional way. (Rob Lowe was really amazed to have a Revolutionary patriot in his family tree. Don't get me wrong: amazement is always the better path.)

Take three drinks when:

  • The celebrity questions how the researcher is making a connection between two people or a person and a record. (Too rare. Again, I'm sure the research is solidly vetted off-camera, but the casual at-home viewer is sometimes led to believe that, hey, if this guy has the same name, it must be our guy!)
  • You like the celebrity more as a result of the show.
  • The entire show is devoted to one ancestor. Meh.

Down the bottle if:

  • You discover though the show that the celebrity is a cousin. (In your drunken stupor, tweet said celeb with the good news.)

28 May 2012 |


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Kindle (e-reader) vs. iPad

Today marks one week since my iPad came to live with me... er, I mean one week since Mike came home from his four months of grad work / teaching practicum in Australia and happened to stop at the duty free shop for a "little" celebration of his hard work.

When not teaching or working on his course load of five grad classes at the same time over the past four months in Australia, Mike was attending various award ceremonies pertaining to his recently completed second bachelor's degree, including the English Prize for highest GPA. I love my smartypants husband. I especially love that, even after he found out that his current program of study was misrepresented in the catalogue as a "one year" affair and that, in reality, students are expected to take twice as long, he didn't quit.

He could have. He possibly should have. The work load has been insane and - worse - at times as far removed from in-practice pedagogy as an ivory tower of academia could construct. But because he didn't quit, I could. And I think the carrot of not having to be part of a poisonous education system after this year has saved my life. But that's all another post! Suffice to say that I have the best husband AND an iPad AND a Kindle, which brings us to my thoughts on this issue:

E-readers vs. iPads

When I got my first Kindle (2nd generation, 3G) a few years ago, tablets weren't really on the radar. People were too busy debating e-readers vs. books to get into that. (Another stupid argument. Books are grand and beautiful and smell great and are a joy to fondle and own, but keeping a paper copy of every book you ever want to read is a job for the Library of Congress. Limited shelf space. Limited luggage space. Enough said.)

When I got my second Kindle (3rd generation, wi-fi), the drama was mostly between Kindle (battery life! Whispernet! pearl e-ink!) and Nook (colour! touch screen! epub!) as people sorted out what was important to them. Folks were starting to read on their iPhones and iPads in earnest, especially with the Kindle app, but the asinine sparring partnership suggested in the title of this post wasn't getting much attention yet.

But when I got the iPad, almost two years later, I wasn't surprised when people asked if I'd "finally converted" to the joys of e-reading with pretty colours and slick interfaces and lots of apps and funsie stuff.

Having always been a vocal cheerleader for e-ink (despite great vision and now decades of daily, prolonged experience of sitting in front of a computer, two "qualifications" people usually claim when saying e-ink is pointless), I was skeptical, but I had to admit I didn't know what would happen. Would I like reading on a tablet better after all? The thought of finally getting my weekly New Yorker in colour was damn seductive.

I think I've made it clear how much I super-lurve my iPad. So, believe me when I say this: reading on the iPad is poo.

Oh, I'm sure it's fine if you've never experienced crisp e-ink. (Crisp = a version without a touch screen. Sorry.) It's not like reading on the iPad is impossible or, if you don't know better, unpleasant. More than once I've read books on my glaring, backlit phone for entire flights, just to keep my carry-on finagling simple. And I do love seeing the New Yorker covers in colour.

But if you know the joys of a good, dedicated e-reader, the iPad is poo. It's heavy. The battery sucks down fast. The "ink" isn't as restful. (I never noticed the difference until I had an e-reader. Before that I was reading bootleg Harry Potters on a monochrome Palm, so it's not like I'm fussy.) And, of course, the mass-ADD of 2012 makes it easy to abandon a book on a tablet mid-page for a push notification, a Facebook news feed check, or just a quick game of Ticket to Ride (which also deserves its own post).

You may argue that a book should be so good or a reader so disciplined that succumbing to illusions of multitasking are a non-issue, but that's poo as well. Try having meaningful, long-lasting "happy time" with the partner of your heart and dreams while the phone rings, a plate of bacon wafts its come-ons just out of reach, and an adorable puppy stares at you hopefully with a Frisbee in its mouth. That's not an ideal environment for focus.

That said, my iPad is an amazing device, as I'm sure all tablets are. It just isn't an amazing e-reader. It's good for reading in the same way a computer is. Like, I can access web sites like the New Yorker archives and read old issues in their original glory. (Sized down to be a bit squinty, to be honest. Am I missing some of easy+clear magnifying method?) That's terrific. But I'm not sure I won't cancel my iPad subscription for the weekly New Yorker and go back to a Kindle-based sub.

I know we all want all-in-one devices, but specialized tools exist for a reason. I tried to roll cookie dough earlier this week with my 9" rolling pin. It was okay, but using the 20" pin would have been much better. That doesn't make my 9" pin any less wonderful. (So wonderful, actually, that I tried to use it instead of my less handy/useful 20" pin.)

Sometimes you should use an e-reader. Sometimes you should use a tablet. Sometimes you can only have one, so you have to decide where to compromise. It's understandable to choose the device that, technically, does it all. This is a "Greatest Hits" kind of world. But if you can buy the individual albums, the different-sized rolling pins, the analogy of your choice, I wholly recommend having both.

And a cookie. Have a cookie.

Linzer Cookies

(Recipe: Martha Stewart's pecan linzer cookies with cherry filling... except mine were almond linzer cookies with a raspberry filling.)

25 May 2012 |


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Sometimes I Accidentally Pronounce It "Gollum"

I'm playing Draw Something while Mike's sleep continues to be silly.

It's nice that Mike is contractually obligated to play DS with me. I don't get a lot of volunteers. :)

 

22 May 2012 |

Previously: Charlotte

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Charlotte

Charlotte
before November 2010 - 19 May 2012

A Princess Brave and Good

 

21 May 2012 |


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It's not like I actually locked the door

"Why are you locked in the bedroom?" That's what Mike just came in to ask. To be fair, I am not locked in the bedroom. I'm just in the bedroom, with the door closed, in the dark, grinning foolishly at my little tablet friend.

I've already learned that dictating is much harder than typing! actually. I tried to dictate a yelp review this morning after an excellent smog check experience parentheses how often can you say that? Parentheses, but I find it's easier to say what I want to say with my fingers, not my lips. That shouldn't be news to me.

Ha ha. I think I will just leave in the words "parentheses" in the last paragraph instead of going back and fixing that. I wonder how you make parentheses using voice recognition? (I'm too lazy to find out.)

So I have this vision of prepubescent girls secreting themselves away in their bedrooms, with locked doors, pouring out their hearts to iPads with voice recognition, and becoming as a natural at dictation as we have all learned to become at typing. Someday there may be sympathetic applications that murmur reassurances as we confide and they record.

Anyway, I'm using Blogsy to write this post. It's freakishly easy to add images. Look, here is another one:

That's some condensation from the ice water carafe from our delicious Indian buffet lunch today. It's not a great photo, I know, but I love that I was able to take it with my phone while out and about, and then I come home and lie under the ceiling fan in our bedroom and just drag it into this post from the Apple cloud. Magic, I tell you. Magic.

And this was my view while getting the smog check this morning. Fancy, right? I don't have more to say on this that I didn't already say in my Yelp review.

Doesn't this yogurt shop look abandoned? There were women outside eating yogurt but inside it was like the outside of St. Mungo's hospital. You know what I mean. (And I can't believe the voice recognition did too.) I took this while we were next door getting a Sim card for Mike's phone. So much consumerism in the past 24 hours. And I haven't even talked about... Well, you'll see.

No, it's not about the flag. The flag is from when we went to Palazzo last night in search of food. The first place we went to was called, fittingly, First Food, but they decided to close early because it was slow. They turned away three couples in approximately three minutes including us during this "slow" time. While half the restaurant was full of other diners. Hrm.

We ended up going to the Grand Lux Café, a place that has long been on our list. It's operated by the Cheesecake Factory. I thought it was solid-any place offering two vegetarian burgers is going to get my nod-but Mike was over the moon with his Asian nachos and some Asian chicken dish. A review for another time. Anyway, I took this photo on the way over there. I suppose it's part of the upcoming Memorial Day decorations.

When I look at these snapshots, taken with my phone, I am amazed at how far the technology has come. However, with this the bar has been raised. The average consumer seems to take glorious throwaway pics these days. And the more dedicated produce genuine art. Of course it is the creative and technical skill of the photographer, not the gear, that ultimately creates the shot, but let's not kid ourselves. A fast lens and a fast shutter can take you places your old point-and-shoot cannot.

I haven't felt ready to raise my photography game despite all kinds of inspiration from fun travels and pro or pro-worthy friends. But, blame it on Alaska, or blame it on the iPad, or blame it on two meals out in the last 12 hours after four months of being on the culinary equivalent of house arrest, or even blame it on my old Canon Rebel (350d) that has passed its estimated shutter life, but someone is getting a new camera next week.

(Seven days to find some new excuses!)

19 May 2012 |

Previously: Look at my voice!

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Look at my voice!

So, I never got back to discussing cakes, did I? I don't know what was going on that week. But I did finish my cakes, and I even have photos, and height then of course-best of all, I still got my certificates!

But oh, that paragraph above looks a little garbled. Guess what? I'm not posting today to write about cakes, despite some strong thoughts on butter cream and basketweave. And don't even get me started on the perils of covering a cake with fondant.

I'm here to write about how I'm not writing. Which is to say, I am speaking. Speaking spells. Speaking magic. In other words, guess which fluffy Las Vegas couple now has his-and-her iPads with voice recognition?

I should also note that as of 2 PM this afternoon Mike is finally back home after four months of doing graduate work in Australia. I didn't mention this before because I don't like to tell the Internet when I'm home alone. There's nothing worse than the global drop-by, And God knows I'm not ready to serve cake to anyone yet.

So, all of the above was written with voice recognition, with only a few pauses for tweaks and fixes. This feels powerful, but I can't quite get used to speaking naturally. All I know is that I now have access to the complete archives of the New Yorker, complete with vintage advertisements and all the Shirley Jackson and James Thurber and EB White and Pauline what's her face I can read. Although I haven't seen my husband for 123 days, this slate of wizardry will see me through the night while he sleeps off 24 hours of flying.

Shabazingazam!

 

18 May 2012 |


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Wilton Wannabe: Forever

So, two weeks ago I went to the second classes for Courses 2 and 3 (on separate nights). It was fun, but... I just sucked. My classmates were turning out lovely gum paste roses, but my spaghetti would break before I got past the third petal, and things weren't looking too good before that. My calla lily was okay, but am I the only person who dislikes the yellow sparkles? In Course 2, my apple blossoms and primroses were trashed whenever I got to the last petal. Every time. "So easy!" said the comments on the Wilton site. My rosebuds flopped flat.

There are no pictures from either of these classes.

Last week started out just as poorly. My daisy edges were too ragged to ignore. The sparkles still looked stupid. The mum, which I didn't think looked so pretty in the book, turned out gorgeous and full-bodied in the hands of others... mine looked like a crumpled mash of triangles that didn't quite cover the base. (My spaghetti continued to break.) Then we did the carnations (postponed to this week because we decided not to waste a lot of fondant just covering cake boards), and everyone hated them. While I had to push down memories of junior high dances gone awry, I sort of liked mine. AT LAST!

Wilton - Course 3 - Class 3

But then I got home and compared them to how gum paste carnations should look. Sigh. (It's not obvious in this carefully angled photo, but my carnations all have big gaps at the top.)

Then the next night my luck sort of turned. Sort of. I couldn't get anything out of Tip 1, despite several cleanings, to the point where my bag (disposable, not even parchment) burst rather than push the icing through, so my violets (such as they were) didn't have any signature dots. I had almost as much trouble with Tip 3, so my daffodil centers were half-assed and more likely to have a Silly String-like moment of Pollackization across the top than a tight zig-zag. I over-petaled my roses until the instructor caught me and told me when to stop. (I also did an up-and-down shake movement on the petals instead of a rainbow movement, having misunderstood the directions, until she intervened. Which is why I now despair of being able to just follow the book and online instructions in order to continue my education.)

But when I changed icing (having run out of purple from over-petaling the roses), I ended up with what I thought were some very pretty white/purple roses. Ragged edges, yes - I can't seem to avoid that regardless of whether it's buttercream, royal icing, or gum paste - but nice. And my daffodil petals could be worse. The lily petals came out too thick and not defined enough, but they have so many visual components that photos of them are rather forgiving.

Wilton - Course 2 - Class 3

With practice, there's hope.

So my mood was much improved, and who knows what would've happened if I hadn't caught a red-eye to DFW a few hours later to spend four days helping my dad deal with my grandmother's stuff. (But then, because it's Texas, I was bitten by the usual "things no can see and certainly no one else is bitten by" whatevers multiple times, and between that, the humidity, and legs swollen either from the plane or the couple of dozen bites that itched like a mofo and made my skin raggedy and scabbed even when I didn't scratch, I ended up lying around a lot and feeling tired and crap, which always happens if I don't visit during the autumn/winter. Trying to sort out Dad's computer issues - ultimately revealed to be local AT&T U-Verse issues - was wearing as well. As was the emotional nature of pulling apart my grandparents' photo albums so my cousins could have all the pics in which they appear.)

ANYway, whine-whine-whine aside, I came home around midnight on Monday. I was at home all day Tuesday to recover and also to get the preparations for the final cakes of Courses 2 and 3 done.

I tried. I did.

I made eight mini-cakes, my original plan being to do two different designs - one with carnations and one with daisies.

Then I decided to make just one design and use the other stack of mini-cakes for the Course 2 final, since I've heard that basketweave is very tiring on the hands, and I don't have the greatest hand strength to begin with.

I made Bunnywoman buttercream and immediately regretted it. Yeah, it tastes better (although still not as good as non-decorating buttercreams), but apparently I'm the only person in the entire world who finds it just too soft to do anything nice with it. I even cut the water this time (from 1/3 to 1/4c) so it wouldn't be so floppy.

I iced both cakes. The one for Course 3 didn't have to be pretty because it was being covered in fondant. I decided to do yellow for the Course 2 cake so I could have yellow basketweave, yellow daffodils, and purple "I don't know whats, but I know I have a lot of them." Yeah... see, I decided to practice the apple blossom at home? But I grabbed the wrong template? And I ended up making a bag of icing's worth of six-petaled instead of five-petaled flowers? And the last petal was still ruined on each one? Yeah...

But the yellow icing looked terrible - again with the deviled egg look. I used too much yellow. And the Bunnywoman buttercream was just a soft mess. Worse than last time. I ended up getting all Richard Dreyfuss-meets-Demi Moore and shaping it over the cake with my hands.

Then an hour later I decided it was too ugly to live and that I still had enough white buttercream to do it over before the last class. I scraped it all off. It's wrapped in a soft ball on the kitchen counter. I don't know what to do with it.

And all of the above is the short version. I'm not even getting into stabbling myself with an X-acto knife when I tried - twice - to make a cake circle small enough for my mini-cake.

So now it's the next day, the day of the final class for Course 3. (Final class for Course 2 is tomorrow.)

I really don't want to go.

I've been up-and-down for 24 hours now of talking myself into going. "You've come this far." "Your flowers are plenty cute even if they're not what you want yet." "You always learn something." "You won't get the certificate of completion if you don't go in and complete the class."

(The 4.0 student in me gets twitchy over that last one.)

I haven't made any preparation. I have this vague idea of putting carnations on top of the cake with the "embellished rope border" at the bottom. I wanted to do fondant leaves going down the sides (like in the book), but I can't do them in advance because I only have one pack of white fondant, and I won't know how much is left over until I cover the cake.

I know I've done this to myself: two classes at once (although I had time for both, so that's not an excuse), trip to Texas right beforehand (although I had ample time yesterday to make any decorations, and really - since I made mini-cakes - I have plenty of flowers already), the critical eye that is less forgiving of myself than of others.

But right now the thought of packing up all the cake stuff (which is EVERYwhere - Mike will be back from Australia soon and I don't even know where to begin putting it since I commandeered his clutter drawer and the space around the appliances he uses) and going to class to make something that I won't really like and won't want to eat (shelf-stable fondant? hard gum paste?) has zero appeal.

Then part of me says, "You did NOT fill up the kitchen with all kinds of cake decorating paraphernalia only to miss the final classes and not even get the certificates."

But I think I have. I know I can make up the classes another time, and the instructor is super-nice, but the thought of doing this anymore makes me wrinkle my nose and want to just shut down. I don't mean cake decorating, although I have no reason to make or decorate cakes other than for class or practicing for class, just the class. But let's face it: not being a natural at cake decorating and not having a reason in real life to decorate cakes doesn't bode well for taking this further.

I tell myself, "That's fine. You had a lot of fun for awhile and learned a lot. You always wanted to do it and, despite never learning to cover a cake in fondant or do a basketweave in the last classes, you did. Don't go if it makes you miserable. Geez, woman. Lighten up."

But I don't want to feel this way. I want to be excited about cake class, like I usually am. I find myself wondering if I'm having a bit of an unexpected existential crisis brought on by Mimi's death, ending my career with the school district, and sorting out what my next identity will be. Is tonight a case of "life's too short to force myself to do a hobby when I'm not in the mood," or is it more like, "what's the point of it all?"

I don't know. Maybe I'll try to do the lesson for the last class on my own, from the book, for funsies... and never mind that the Roomba's brush cage is stuck and I can't seem to keep up with the other housework and the hammies are all getting old with a variety of tumours and oddities and I can't seem to eat a meal that didn't begin in the freezer and I keep forgetting to take my gummy vitamins and I can't think of any cool ideas to help Mike with his student teaching observations this week and I can't find anything good to read (The Alchemyst isn't quite cutting it for me) and I'm covered in scabs and my legs are swollen and my scabs all itch and I'm still fat and will I ever even find more ancestors unless Who Do You Think You Are flies me around the globe (and even then) and that show really promotes some bad genealogy practices, doesn't it? and my ankle hurts and my "Wakey Cakey" alarm (in case I napped) has been going off for 15 minutes straight while I type this and I know I'm a silly billy and as soon as I get some dusting and other errands done and stop using so much polysyndeton in this paragraph, I'll be my frisky self again.

Keep Calm and Kiss Hamsters

03 May 2012 |


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Wilton Wannabe: Flowers and Cake Design, Class 1

Packing for the first class of Flowers and Cake Design (aka Course 2) was pretty similar to Gum Paste and Fondant (aka Course 3) the night before. But I like pictures, so here's one of my workspace once I got to class and got set up.

Wilton - Course 2 - Class 1 - Workspace

Although I tried to keep to one side of the table, we each actually got an entire table for ourselves, except for the three workmates who like to sit together. Only four people were missing from our Decorating Basics group (plus one classmate's grandmother, so five, really), but it made a huge difference to be able to spread out. One of the missing (and her grandmother) were no-shows, and while they're very nice and I'd be glad to see them again, the full table totally spoiled me. I love that we don't have to share at all in the other class. I'm horrible, I know.

And I should be grateful for the bodies because Decorating Basics was cancelled this month because not enough people signed up.

So, in the picture of note is my gum paste glue from the other class. Apparently in the instructor training videos they say to refrigerate this. My instructor says she never knew and left hers out for months. Ha!

On the far right is the box of parchment bags I rushed to get right before class... only to find out that we only needed one to practice folding, so I could have just used the ones that were mysteriously in the Course 1 kit. But next week we need 10, so it's all good. I wonder why we learn about parchment bags now after I just bought a 100-pack of disposables...

The Rubbermaid container was for taking my flowers home. I thought I should perhaps bring an egg carton or a muffin tin, but for this week it was no big deal to leave the flowers in their forming cups (those white circles in the middle) and put those in the Rubbermaid. Next week, though...

We started class with coloring our gum paste with fondant. That was fun. And I finally touched fondant! Everyone was going on about how fondant was something nobody actually ate, and it reminded me of when I was little and I thought parsley was this garnish that, while technically edible, no one ate. (I would've ranked it about two rungs away from drinking the water in your finger bowl.) Clearly they haven't read the jillion cake forums that discuss fondants that are not only edible but (supposedly) delicious.

It makes me wonder how they stomach the Wilton (all-shortening) buttercream, but we'll get to that in a moment.

The first thing we learned was how to roll out our fondant (center out, never backtracking) and put it in the button flower press. I never did get the hang of pressing evenly enough to get a good indentation throughout, but as far as skill involved, this was baby stuff. No wonder everyone prefers to decorate with fondant. Much more of a sure thing, and far less fuss, at least at the beginner level. Both Course 2 and Course 3 have been incredibly restful compared to Course 1 so far - fewer people and easier tasks.

But like I said, while the task may have been easier, my button flowers were definitely imperfect with their uneven imprints and jagged edges from where I poked them to bits trying to get them out of the mold. (I used the dusting pouch the second time, but then I had cornflour and sugar stuck to them.) I only made two because, good girl that I am, I used the colors suggested in the book. If I want button flowers on my final cake, I'll probably try some other shades.

Next we did the pansy... I wish I'd made some gum paste of a deeper purple instead of using the same colours as the button flower, but live and learn. It was really fun to use the ball-thingie and the sponges to thin and ruffle the edges. (Even if I'd always go one step too far and re-flatten them.)

Speaking of purple, despite natural light and selective exposure, my phone wants for these flowers to be blue. Just please try to picture them as purple, as they really are, as the blue makes me think we're shopping in the baby aisle.

Wilton - Course 2 - Class 1 - Flowers

I'm supposed to be practicing all of this at home, of course... but instead what did I do today? I decided to practice my swirled drop flowers. The last time I practiced I really had the hang of them, so now I wanted to whip up a cake and not only decorate it with swirled drop flowers but use the famous Bunnywoman Buttercream recipe. (One that calls for butter and actually tastes good.)

Well.

There should be a long German word for when you're checking to see how much time is left on your red velvet cakes in the oven and - HA HA HA - you turn to face the counter and notice the measured 1/3 cup of vegetable oil sitting there. The vegetable oil that was supposed to be in the cakes. The cakes in the oven.

I cooled them. I leveled them. I tasted them. I made lemon cakes.

The buttercream did taste delicious, but for some reason I was stingy with coloring enough to coat the cake, so there were several thin spots. I thought to myself, okay, the real objective is to try this buttercream recipe and practice flowers, so let's change from the elegant design in your head to just covering this puppy from head to toe with swirled drop flowers and, ooo, maybe a leaf border using one of our three new leaf tips?

The recipe seemed to be on the thin side of medium, but medium all the same. I went to make a drop flower.

SQUISH!

I'd be lucky to get stars to stand up, darn it.

So I had a choice: add powdered sugar so I could make the flowers, even though I know from the Wilton recipe how sweet and nasty that can quickly be, or make an edible cake.

I chose an edible cake.

And even though I have the (optional) cake dividing set, I decided to just eyeball it. (That didn't work.)

So I just kind of went nuts fooshing out decorative clumps with the drop flower tip, and I discovered that my leaf tip (#70) makes kind of a scrunched ruffle if you wiggle it as you spin the turntable. (Which I couldn't spin fast enough. All I had to do was look at the bag and icing would ooze out.)

When I was done, there was something familiar about the look of the cake.

Hmm...

Oh.

Deviled eggs. My cake looked like it was inspired by deviled eggs.

Wilton - First Go with Bunnywoman Buttercream

Yeah, this one isn't going on Flickr.

Of course, I would've been thrilled with this cake six weeks ago. But I had such visions for a demure peach-coloured cake (all that pink you see is actually peach - I really need to tweak my camera app - and I apologize for the cracks in the buttercream but remember when I thought I was going to cover it all up?) with an ivory leaf border (with leaves slightly leaning this way and that in a slight alternating pattern) and strings of crisp white swirled drop flowers radiating from the center, each with a springtime hue in the center.

And instead I just reimagined an hors d'ouevres table from 1978. Any moment someone in a pantsuit is going to start cutting slices between sips of her Harvey's Bristol Cream.

But it was fun. And I learned. And now I have cake. Some failures end in injury and tears, but mine end in butter and sugar. Next time I'll cut the water down a bit in the buttercream. And not be so stingy/lazy with the base coat. put oil in the cake batter. And have some vegetarian sausages for lunch, made with eggplant and red peppers. Actually, that's happening now...

16 April 2012 |

Previously: Adora Belle

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Name pappu kumar

thanku

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Adora Belle

Adora Belle Plays Dirty

Zippy, aka Adora Belle, used to sleep in the bottom of the "sky tower."

She didn't care for the tower itself, but this is how she made sure that she wasn't left out of the party.

The tumours eventually took her zipper stripe, but they couldn't take her brave and kind spirit.

ADORA BELLE
12 December 2010 - 14 March 2012

Lauren and Adora Belle

15 April 2012 |


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This Totally Happened (A Review of Jenny Lawson's Book)

(Not my husband, who is forced by law and the threat of pop quizzes to endure my babblings? You probably just want to skip ahead to where I actually share my thoughts on the book.)

First of all, I wanted to parenthetically title this (A Review of The Bloggess' Book), but using only an s-apostrophe construction to show possession like I just did is sometimes controversial among people who worry about such things. Here in the States, where we have our own take on English, some people like to believe you can only do that it the possessor is plural. Or collective. And some people wig out if you do it at all.

My own (last) name ends in an /s/ so I figure I get to make an executive decision, and I don't like to write things like "Texas's best salsa Rosa's Fresh Salsa Verde from Austin." (Unless they stopped making it. No, even then.)

But at the same time, I want everyone of all punctuation persuasions to be happy! And also, I started typing this review (which, in my head, didn't start at all like this), and I couldn't remember if it was Blogess or Bloggess, which is dumb because the former looks like I tried to make a portmanteau of <i>noblesse oblige</i> but I had a cold and said it funny, and also maybe I took too much promethazine.

And all the while the above was happening, I was losing my reviewing mojo!

See, this is the third time I've won the monthly LibraryThing lottery of review copies. And the first two times? I didn't really like the books... which usually doesn't stop me from writing a review (see: all of Yelp. Or a jillion pages on this site back before it became all trip reports and cake decorating), but the authors seemed so nice. I didn't want to say, "Well, I was kind of bored, but maybe it was just me. Shrug."

But at the same time, if you don't review your Early Reviewers (no apostrophe because it's not possessive) copy, LibraryThing gently implies that disapproving algorithims will make it unlikely that you'll ever get another free book to review again.

So, I assumed I was on the PST - Proverbial Shit List. (I already knew I was on Pacific Standard Time.) So I couldn't believe it when, after entering the monthly giveaway on a "oh yeah, this thing" lark, I won.

And I not only won, but I won the Bloggess's's's book.

Holy moly.

For this, we should start fresh. Ready? O- hold on.

Okay, so you know, I read the book two weeks ago, and even though I wrote and re-wrote the review in my head the entire time I was reading (in those versions I spoke at length about the experience of sitting in my parents' backyard and reading pages out loud to my mother, who has severe Alzheimer's but once upon a time would've/could've/should've been a huge Lawson fan, so maybe it's just as well that we've ended up obsessing over apostrophes here and not getting all sniffly), I'm just bad at timely reviewing.

But this was Jenny Lawson! So when I staggered out of bed at 4 a.m. this morning, all I could think about was how this review was HAPPENING. No breakfast until it's done! Let's Pretend This Never Happened is a deserving work of talent and joy!

Except fuck me if I can find where the "Write a Review" button is on the LibraryThing page. Is this something I'd have to renew my annual paid membership to do?

And I'm sorry about the language, but I'm super-hungry. Maybe I could suck on some Thai rice noodles straight from the box while I write?

No, a vow is a vow. So, here I am ironically not getting credit with LibraryThing, but happily writing the review on my own site, because this book - in the words of Ellen Cherry Charles - is a hill of fun.

So let's run back up to the top of the hill and try to ride this review sled again.

Fold on the line below and ignore all of the above. Here comes the review proper:


When the UPS guy showed up, did his nano-knock, and started running back to the truck, as is the maddening way of all delivery folk around these parts, I happened to be by the upstairs window and, like a bawdy fishwife or just a crankpot sitting at her crafting table and failing to make swirled drop flowers out of electric blue buttercream, slung it open and yelled, "Do you need me to sign something?!"

Mr. UPS made a thumbs-up gesture and kept walking. Wait, did that mean yes? And was he trying to escape anyway? Brazen! So I yelled down again and... oh God, let's just get to the part where I'm downstairs and picking up this intrusive package that appears to be from Some Publisher. Great. I probably won a LibraryThing Early Reviewers copy of something. Why did I even sign up? I'm such a tool.

OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG!

Run upstairs. Open Facebook. Write on Jenny's wall... something about twirling around too hard to actually read...

"Hold on," you may say. "Is this author a friend of yours? Did it just take you 757 words to disclose your conflict of interest?"

Oh, I wish! Think of all the magical times we'd spend not hanging out with each other because we both have some degree of social anxiety disorder, or as normal people call it, "being a jerkface." Except I'm sure nobody every calls Jenny Lawson a jerkface when she doesn't want to go to their party or meet strangers for drinks, at least not since the Beyonce post burned a iron-feathered trail across the Internet. It even showed up on beloved MetaFilter, which I'm not going to link because it was the one time I was strongly disappointed in about half of MetaFilter, who chose to be a bunch of jerkfaces who can't see that Jenny and Victor have a special and enduring kind of love, and she really isn't torturing him with giant metal chickens... at least not by design.

"Okaaaay," you may draw out in your thoughtful and wary manner. "You're just a fan. Even though she once directly tweeted her regrets to you when you suggested a Las Vegas fan meetup. And apparently you were secretly glad to not have to actually go, relieved that you were able to pay the compliment of suggesting a get together without having to follow through. But that's another issue."

Exactly. And I've been a fan since long before Beyonce - as have many people; I'm not trying to put on hipster airs. (Best joke in 2012 so far, heard from Mike: "Why did the hipster burn her mouth on the pizza? Because she ate it before it was cool.")

I'm just saying that, as a fan from way back (who doesn't always get around to reading all of Lawson's stuff every week these days, but it makes me happy to know it's online, waiting), the bar was set high.

I didn't want to set the bar high. Lawson seems to be a kindred spirit and a kind one, and she's the last person to deserve unreasonable expectations, but I couldn't help it. I enjoy her writing so much that, if this book proved to be just a rehash or a toned-down mess made more palatable for a non-blog audience, I was going to have some harsh words.

Example: I've been bagging on Stevie Nicks for almost ten years now, and I love Stevie Nicks. But her stiff, spoken-word raspings in the annoyingly coy and thinly veiled autobiographical third person of the last decade are shit, and she is a caricature of her former self, and that's that. Yeah, she's breathtakingly talented and beautiful and whatnot, but still. She needs a a velvet jetpack to reach the bar I've set for her.

And while I wouldn't talk smack about The Bloggess like that here, it could certainly happen on my sofa or in my kitchen. And I didn't want that. The book could have killed everything.

But, again, because Jenny Lawson is funny and relatable and made of gum drops pooped by discerning pegasi who are airlifting orphans out of mine fields, and the gum drops are never a nasty licorice flavour, I read the book.

Oh wait, I didn't just read it, I packed it in a suitcase and took it to Texas.

To repeat and to clarify: I packed it in a suitcase and took it to Texas, via Spirit airlines.

You know, where you pay for each piece of luggage, so every inch of carry-on space must be carefully planned? I could've waited four days to read it, enjoying my Kindle while in Texas and not fussing with bits of dead tree flopping all over the place. But no, I packed it in a suitcase and took it to Texas. Insert a mercury-bursting piece of thermometer clip art here because my already high expectations just broke through the top of the charts.

The short version: Loved it.

Why? Because Jenny Lawson is a funny, funny person whose writing is also very warm and human.

I love how she can write some things without further explanation (unlike some of us, sigh), even when you're dying to hear the backstory on whatever passing fact she just threw out (there's always the next book), but when she does digress, it's always a romp. Your brain will feel like it's been sipping Meyer lemon moonshine with its pinky finger out, maybe while riding in the back of a truck and wearing a green pirate hat with a pink tulle skirt. I don't know what that means. It just sounds like you'd be laughing out loud while doing it. Like I did while reading the book.

As Lawson might say, "Literal LOL, y'all."

(Yes, that's it. I'm starving!)

13 April 2012 |


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Wilton Wannabe: Gum Paste and Fondant, Class 1

Last night (ask me how my split-sleep is going) was the first night of Course 3, "Gum Paste and Fondant."

Wait, Shari. Didn't you just take Course 1: Decorating Basics? Why are you in Course 3? Did you get to skip a grade, just like that new girl in the 8th grade that all of your friends pointed out to you as, "smart, like you, but she skipped a grade (expectant pause)"?

Sudden sidebar (yes, already): When my mom was in elementary school, they wanted her to skip a grade... but then it was decided that would be too weird for my uncle, who was a year older. She was bummed out. Although not as bummed out as when she didn't get the drama scholarship at her school because "we wanted to give it to you as you're the most qualified, but you're a woman and therefore will just end up throwing it away to get married and have babies."

Which makes me think of this other thing. (We'll get back to the Wilton in a jiffy, I swear!) Have you seen the latest nerd anthem? Which is to say, the latest Guild video? You don't even have to be a gamer to nod yourself up a "yessiree, I get it."

I was going to post this video on my Facebook wall (and I will, as soon as people have had enough time to love on my Wilton updates - in Facebookland's land of limited character allowances apparently I don't digress quite as much), but then I got into a discussion with Mike about bullying. Like, how crazy it is that sometimes I don't discuss being bullied in school when around certain people because I don't want to be seen as a victim or, worse, have the "LOSER" label buffed up and freshly affixed.

Which brings up the real question of why I even have people in my life who would do that instead of nod with the weary smirk of understanding. Maybe I don't.

I guess I just remember being in an education class (don't get me started on the worthlessness of ed classes) and the teacher and several students (many of whom were already teachers) were preaching about how bad home schooling is because "you don't get properly socialized." (I know, I know. A whole other grumble for a whole other day.)

I casually piped up with something like, "I don't think the bullying I received in junior high 'properly socialized' me for anything I've experienced in my adult life. I feel I would have benefited much more from an environment where academics were taken seriously and the nerdier, creative, enthuasiastic types like myself were encouraged, not repeatedly made to learn that life isn't fair."

And almost as a one, the exception being my friends next to me now looking at the floor, the class turned to me with collective looks of pity and an almost vacuous silence hovered until discussion resumed, now with the qualification that "normally" students really need this kind of socialization.

(Would it mean anything to anyone if I pointed out that the student arguing most passionately against homeschooling was a coach? As in, "We need a coach, so we'll hire you to teach whatever." He was in the class to get his emergency credential so the school wouldn't lose a coach with an afterthought degree to someone whose qualifications didn't center around their athletic prowess.)

So, old gripes aside, Mike said something to the effect of "and if you put it on Facebook, people may think you're getting bullied in cake decorating class." Which doesn't make sense, but was totally funny and I kept giggling. "Oh, look at the little baby, using the spacer rings that come with her rolling pin. Whatsamatta, you don't want to invest in new rings? Is it because you think you might drop out? Because your carnations SUCK?" And then visions of keep-away games involving a variety of fondant cutters kept me amused for the rest of the night.

Speaking of amused, why not watch the video again?

Something I didn't realize the first time I watched: their younger selves are smiling at the end. And singing the words. They know. Just like I knew. (I was lucky.)

And to "all the asshat jocks" and "prom queen bitches", now I'm the one who's cool:

Wilton - Course 3 - Class 1 - Bow

The bow is the end-product of the first class. I can see a hundred flaws with mine (or three: oops on the rough edges, oops on the accidental grooved edge although I might do something with that deliberately next time, and oops on not trying harder to get more loops in each ring), but it's recognizably a bow, so, go me! (See, that is how you foster a positive learning experience.)

Otherwise in class we made bases for next week and just generally played with the gum paste. I didn't even have a reason to open my package of fondant. I can still say I've never touched fondant! But that's okay because I'm taking Course 2 tomorrow, and I'm sure I'll get to fondle the fondant then.

So, no, I didn't skip Course 2. I just decided to do them concurrently because May, June, and July are going to be so busy for me, whereas April's schedule is easy-pants. If you're an old-school Wiltonite or not a cake decorating fool at all, you should know that Wilton redid the curriculum pretty recently, so Courses 2 and 3 don't have to be taken in any particular order now, despite the implications of a numbered system. You do have to take both before you go to Course 4, however.

In addition to not touching the fondant, there was a lot we didn't need for the first night. Sparkling sugar? Big rolling pin? Wax paper? Nope. Nope. Nope. I didn't even use everything I set out on my workspace, per the lesson plan booklet:

Wilton - Course 3 - Class 1 - Workspace

But I'm glad you can see the adorable little rolling pin because it was buried when I took my pre-class supply pic.

Wilton - Course 3 Supplies - Class 1

(Click to go to Flickr and enlarge so that you can see all of the geeky commentary. You made it this far - you might as well.)

Okay, now to unpack everything, wash it, and get ready for the next first class: Flower and Cake Design. Because...

12 April 2012 |


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Three Hours Until 1940.

It's coming. Three hours. Are you ready? Will you help?

1940 census archives.com

02 April 2012 |


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Wilton Wannabe: Notes from Decorating Basics, Classes #3 and #4

I can't believe the first course is over. And, even though I know I didn't do anything splashy or original, I can't stop looking at my final cake. It took 24 hours after class before I could summon the nerve to defile it with a knife and fork. (And when I did, it was SO tasty, and then I was all, "Pretty and yummy? What have I done? Who am I?!"

Per the last post, last week was the cupcake class. I didn't post anything because I dashed off right after to see my grandmother, Mimi, before she passed away. (See previous post for some nice memories and photos.) You know, I never think of Mimi as baking. Maybe she loved to bake. Maybe she stopped when she got older and store-bought concoctions began to rival anything done from scratch.

Like I said in the last post, you think you've asked every question you'll want to know, but there are always more. I've written almost 3000 posts on this site and I'm sure if I had children or grandchildren, they'd still think of something to ask after I was gone.

(Probably "Why did you write almost 3000 posts?" Or "How did you write almost 3000 posts without mentioning quitting your teaching job and moving to Australia?" The answers, curious fictional descendants, are as follows: 1. I can't help myself, and 2. Because we're not talking about that until we're several months closer to it happening. Shhh.)

Below are my cupcakes from class #3. Yes, that icing certainly is... vivid.

Cupcakes

Note that I didn't bother Photoshopping or cropping out the crumbs. There's no time for that, not with me signed up to take both Courses 2 and 3 in April. Eeek!

My advice if you are taking the cupcake class is to not worry about blue icing unless you just really love blue icing. I know the book says to use blue, but the book also goes on about cellophane tape and brown paper bags, and no one seems to know what those are for.

I thought my deep blue and sky blue icing looked gorgeous in the Talenti containers. But when it came to doing the cupcakes, that blue just became overwhelming. I have this long-standing discussion with Mike about marketing psychology and how blue is avoided in food packaging... which seemed true when I read about it, but of course I since see the exception everywhere. Anyway, I think the pom-pom flowers would've been prettier in other colors.

You can see that I liked playing with the leaves. I know they're not the best leaves, but they were so easy and leaf-like from the start that it was like sorcery to watch them come out of that tip. Leaves have definitely been the most fun part of class, and I was sad not to find an excuse to put more on my final cake. (We're almost to that part.)

The least fun part was the drop flower. When I practiced at home beforehand, they worked well, and I thought, "Yep, I've got this." In class? HA. I thought it was because I didn't cut the plastic bag high enough that half of the flower would lift off when I removed the tip. HA. No, I practiced with a fresh bag a few days ago, hoping to do a border of ivory swirled drop flowers at the bottom of my final cake, and again, HA. Wasn't happening.

It had to be the icing. (I was stuck using the leftover blue icing for practice. It's still in my fridge. GARR.) My shells weren't ending nicely, either, not even when the instructor tried. The consistency was right, but it was just kind of sticky. I use the pure cane powdered sugar as advised, so I'm wondering if I'm not measuring the Crisco correctly. Or am I not beating it enough? (But in class someone's icing was declared to be too soft due to overbeating, so...) Time to try Crisco's pre-measured blocks, or maybe just get the Wilton's tub, but I'd rather figure this out than get the tub because my mind already heaves a bit at the thought of eating buttercream without butter in it.

So, I need to practice drop flowers. And pom-poms, because maybe if I try another color I'll stop mentally filing them along with 1970s-era yarncraft projects in my "Style" drawer. (Yes, my brain has a "Style" drawer. It was just a tattered manila folder, but now it's a whole drawer with category tabs and pastel hanging files. I blame Pinterest.)

Okay, now on to Class #4!

I was useless on Tuesday when I came back from Texas. I was still pretty useless on Wednesday, but after a nap and a certain amount of anxiety that class was in fewer than 24 hours and I hadn't planned anything, much less practiced, I got busy.

No pictures of "the making of" because, you know, busy. (And I would've been even busier if I'd remembered that I was registered to take the Jeopardy test online that day. OOPS. My brain said Thursday, but of course it couldn't be Thursday, as cake class was on Thursday, and this is what happens when you allow the brain an entire Style drawer.)

I didn't really have an idea for a design. I knew I wanted a pale green cake, like the one with the shaggy mums in the back of the book, but I decided against the mums because that would've meant buying some Nilla wafers. (Not because I'm cheap - although I'll put my table of what the entire Course 1 ended up really costing at the end of this post - but because I don't need a nearly full box of cookies luring me away from salads.)

I was skeptical that the same Kelly Green I'd been using for cupcake leaves would deliver that retro light seafoam shade, no matter what the book said, so I went to Michaels and got the pastel colours, which included a Willow Green. (Yes, I'm inconsistent with my American/elsewhere spelling. I'm actually getting more Americanized, at last, just as I'm about to run away to Oz. Irony.) This green was perfect.

The pink included in the pastel set was also perfect, until I decided that I should make a slightly darker shade for my border. I thought I would have two slightly different saturations of the same shade, a subtlety that could only be detected by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, but instead I ended up with a perfect pink for the roses and a slightly too intense pink for the border. Live and learn... but now I know how all those bridezillas feel. (Some day I may or may not recount the story of the time Mike and I were playing on the MUD - okay, I've lost you already - and we had a huge argument with our third guild leader - folks, never have a third guild leader if two of you are a couple - over whether to colour our latest potion "azure" or "cerulean.")

I tried the Viva paper towel method for smoothing. Honestly, I think it worked exactly as well as the waxed paper, with the disadvantage of not being able to see the cake as I smoothed. However, it was nice to have a floppy surface to use on the top edges, so I'll stay with Viva, at least until the roll runs out.

I felt like my icing was more porous appearing this time (maybe because it was green, or maybe I should rethink making double batches), so it wasn't quite as smooth. I also realized, too late, that I wouldn't have much more than "just enough" to cover my double-layer cake (as in two individually baked cake layers, not one torted layer). Oh, and it was 9" instead of 8", because you know I refuse to bow down to this 8" conspiracy.

Anyway, this made it hard to scoop on the icing generously . In fact, I ran out, so tip 789 was useless since I ended up having to scrape the excess off the top and hand-apply it to the sides with the angled spatula. So, I think I overscraped again, as I had to contend with thin areas where the ghost of a cake showed through.

The re-using of the icing meant no crumb coat (and I'd dared to make one layer in chocolate!), plus it meant I couldn't discard any icing that did get crumbs in it. But you know what I did? I felt like such an artisan... with incurable OCD... after the icing crusted, I took a toothpick and plucked out all of the crumbs I could see. It took fewer than five minutes and was pretty easy, actually.

Later, when it was all done, and Mike-the-buttercream-hater was drooling over the cake (not so much because of the cake, but because he has gallbladder/ulcer/hernia/IBS/GERD madness converging and is on a drastic diet for the foreseeable future), he was going on and said something about how he would eat the fondant on the cake. And I said, "What fondant?" "The green part." "That's not fondant!" "It looks like fondant." And I did a little mental prance. My buttercream icing looked like fondant!

(In a couple of weeks, when I touch fondant for the first time, I'll probably LAUGH and LAUGH that I fell for such flattery.)

So, in class I was armed with pale pink, medium pink, leftover thin green icing to which I'd added another drop of green (because I was determined that this "shades of the same color" thing was going to happen, and this time it did), and white. I'd considered working in buttercup yellow, but after the cupcakes, I was scared of being garish.

Everyone arrived early - some of us 30 minutes early. It really makes a difference if you can get your bags filled and tipped and ready to go before class starts. With only four colors in my design and no need for tips that don't use a coupler, it was easy to set up.

First we made the bases for the ribbon roses so they could dry a bit while we practiced writing. In hindsight, this was a great idea. Any Wilton instructors who don't do this should really consider it. Another great idea seems to be to laminate the flower templates. Then some people get the metal flower nail and put a magnet on it and the back of the laminated template. I can't find my "I'll use this someday... sure" strip of magnets, so I may stay with the plastic nail and perhaps do a Velcro attachment as I do have lots of Velcro. Long story.

(So, after all the Mimi business, I decided to buy Quicken Willmaker. It's great. Super easy, unless you live in Louisiana and have all that crazy-cool Napoleonic code to deal with. Dad's will - which he requested that I prepare; I'm his sole heir and also have a printer, so it's not like I'm on a mission to seize his prized Calphalon collection - was easy because it all goes to me. Well, half goes to Mom, since Texas is a community property state, and don't even ask how we're going to handle that what with her condition, but I'm digressing more than usual here. My point is that I have the software, so I'm making my will next. I don't really need one because Mike or my Dad are unlikely to fight over the bupkes I'd be leaving behind, but why not? So, I need to designate a recipient for all of my scrapbooking supplies, including all that stupid Velcro. Oh, and I guess my cake decorating supplies. My creative friends really should be sucking up...)

We practiced writing, which went surprisingly well. That piping gel really does the trick of getting that icing to glide on out. I asked the instructor why we couldn't add piping gel to all of our decorating frosting. She laughed. I said, "No, really." And she laughed some more. So, the next experiment will be to see what a little piping gel might do for my drop flower dilemma...

Then we did the ribbon roses. (You old school Wiltonites may not know these. The traditional Wilton rose isn't covered until the next course. These are easier.) I had plenty of icing, good bag pressure, and I thought I had twirling the flower nail a full rotation down pat, but I needed a third hand, or something.

Problem 1: I needed two hands to get the bag twisted for good pressure. Maybe a bag tie would help? Problem 2: With one hand holding the bag, it was hard to pick up the flower nail with the wax paper and base stuck to it. Problem 2b: Sometimes the rose base or the wax paper wouldn't stick when I set the nail on its side so I could twirl the bag. Problem 3: I seemed to always run out of nail twirling space or couldn't maintain the bag pressure.

Hopefully it will get better with practice. My tablemate did lovely ribbon roses (not like in the book, but very smooth) without using a nail at all. I think I might try making them on the turntable... although I guess I should learn to master the nail. Sigh.

We had most of class to decorate our cakes, which was nice. I picked my three "least cruddy" roses and placed them off-center on the cake. (If they'd turned out better, I'd decided to pile them n the center.) My only other plan was to do a top border in alternating rosette colours and a bottom border of repeating shell-shell-shell-rosette. I had a dim idea to pipe some dots on top... somewhere... couldn't think of where... and to do some little three-dot patterns in white underneath the pink rosettes. (I'd also thought of doing three-dot patterns in pink under the white rosettes, but when I saw how the darker shade of pink was looking, I decided against much more pink.)

Knowing (from the book) that I was supposed to finish the top before doing the borders, I took a deep breath, and tried something.

Final Cake

And I was very pleased.

It wasn't as detailed or daring as some that my classmates made, but I'm quite happy. I had really no expectations of this class other than to play with the techniques a bit and see what happened. I know I need to practice so much more than I actually did (which, especially with the unexpected trip, was almost nil). And I still really don't lead or plan to lead a life that calls for decorated cakes. But here I am, signed up for the next two classes. (I'm taking them at once because after April my schedule gets kooky.)

And what did it all cost? Every supply shop seems to have a perpetual half-off sale on tuition. Oh, just 20-off bucks for that. And another 20-odd bucks with coupon for the kit... But what does it all add up to to take Decorating Basics? Well...

 

Item        Estimated Cost       Actual Cost
Class tuition   $23.00   22.50
Student kit   22.00   22.69
Wilton Ready-to-Use Decorating Icing   2.50   2.09
6 plain, flat cookies   3.00   2.99
Apron   4.00   3.88
Pen/pencil and paper   (already had)    
Scissors   (already had)    
Sticky notes   (waived by instructor)    
Damp cloth   (waived by instructor)    
Food storage bag to carry soiled tools   (grocery bags)    
Reusable, cloth wipes   10.00   (waived by instructor)
Toothpicks   (already had)    
Cellophane tape   (already had)    
Waxed paper   2.50   2.11
Bath-sized towel   (already had)   (waived by instructor)
Plastic bags for clean-up   (already had)    
Small plastic bowls or disposable cups (8 oz.)   4.50   (Talenti jars)
Roll of paper towels   (already had)    
Confectioners sugar   5.00   (see buttercream cost)
Squeeze bottle with water   (already had)    
Angled spatula   3.50   5.18
Tip 789 (optional)   2.00   1.93
16 oz featherweight bag (optional)   6.00   5.83
Piping gel   3.00   2.57
Cake leveler   3.00   3.24
Turntable   13.50   12.96
Icing colors   10.00   10.00
2.99
(lost receipt for large box, then got pastel box)
10" cake board for torting   4.00   3.81
(got the plastic board for all cake board needs)
10" foil-covered cake board or Show 'n Serve   3.50   (waived by instructor)
Class Decorating Buttercream   35.00   4.98 (Crisco)
7.13 (sugar)
3.17 (meringue powder)
(If you're doing Course 2, get the big meringue powder. Now I know.)
Glue stick   (already had)    
25 icing flower squares   1.50   0.00
(used wax paper)
12 disposable decorating bags   9.00
(50)
  12.96
(100)
Rose Flower Nail Templates   3.00   (included in kit)
Cakes and Cupcakes
(I failed to foresee many issues.)
  8.50   2.78 (veg oil)
8.02 (mixes)
4.59 (eggs)
Cake caddy   10.00   11.86
Cake lifter   (not estimated)   6.48
Bake-Easy spray   (not estimated)   3.47
Disposable 8” cake pans   (not estimated)   1.34
(should have just stuck with 9" - no big deal)
Viva paper towels for smoothing trick   (not estimated)   2.13
         
Projected Total:   193.00    
Actual Total:       173.37

01 April 2012 |

Previously: Bye, Mimi

Comments

Rose

Wonderful cakes! I love the cupcakes mostly for they're originality in color and frosting! Thank you for sharing them with us!

Faith

I am just taking the class and really enjoyed your posts. Cant believe Ive spent so much for the class though. (just looking at your cost. Your cake looks great, if you had more roses it would look very pretty.

Linocat

Thanks so much for the descriptive posts! I had been debating for awhile whether to try the Wilton class, and have previously taken a short 2-hour, not-decorating-based cake class at a local independent shop ($80, all supplies provided), but took a chance and enrolled in Course 1 for more decorating education. My first class is tomorrow. I am going to do what I can to economize (but it sounds from your post and others I've seen on yelp, etc. that buying more stuff is just part of the deal). Your final cake looks awesome and elegant.

Terry

Thanks for all your stories on the cake decorating. My daughter and I are planning on starting our first class on Sat. Now I am scared to look at prices. Little at a time.

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Bye, Mimi

I haven't posted any thoughts on last week's Wilton class because right afterward I dumped my shaggy, terrifyingly vivid cupcakes in the fridge and caught a red-eye flight to DFW to say goodbye to my grandmother.

Alas, while I was sitting in Spirit Airline's Big Front Seat (money well spent, but that's another post), she took a turn for the worse and could no longer speak. They say she could probably hear me. I hope so, but either way, we were square with each other. I just wanted her to be comfortable and happy at the end.

But then "no more than 24 hours, surely" turned into another day, and Dad and I started to get nervous. All we wanted was for her to have the peaceful end that hospice care and morphine are meant to provide, and the turn had been a bad one. She struggled so hard to breathe.

She finally did wake up a bit, and Dad rushed over while I stayed home to watch Mom (also another post).

It was bad. She cried. She tried to talk. Dad and my aunt tried to comfort her. This is not how it's supposed to be.

Some hours later, while we all slept, she was gone. Unbelievable that someone with that much determination could ever slip away. She was 84.

I would link to the obituary, but (despite a long meeting at the funeral home and my father and aunt's corrections) the thing printed with a date error and more punctuation boo-boos than ought to be allowed in a professional publication. Yes, I am just that demented of a nerd to care. My grandmother deserved standardized comma placement!

So, below is my informal, self-centered, characteristically irreverent "auxiliary obit," probably with bad commas itself, but at least I'm not charging $400 to publish this, although - speaking of money - that's really nothing compared to the $3400 the funeral home is charging despite my grandparents having diligently purchased every conceivable aspect of a pre-need plan... a surcharge for a Saturday burial because it's "overtime"? Really?

Eleanor Mae Stockman Simonds, known to me and her other three grandchildren as "Mimi," was born 15 August 1927 in Whitesboro, Texas, to Charles and Ada Mae (Rials) Stockman. She and her twin sister Edna (Prouty, of Hurst) were the last of Charles and Ada's four daughters. (Mabel and Genevieve, affectionately called "Nig" all her life for reasons I dare not ponder, passed away in 2002 and 1992, respectively.) Dadaw and Mamaw (as subsequent generations called her parents) weren't planning on more kids, but they learned the hard way about washing out and reusing condoms.

(See, this is what we call a "value-added obituary," with bonus details beyond what you're going to get in a standard newspaper piece. If the newspaper ran obits like this, they'd probably sell more papers, and no one would have to pay $400 for a bunch of typos because the papers would pay us. There. I just saved old media.)

(And yes, the condom story is true. I remember sitting at my grandparents' kitchen table and Mimi happened to casually mention that Mamaw and Dadaw, known for their frugality, would wash out the condoms and hang them up to dry, and that's how she and Aunt Edna came to be. I was all, "MIMI! ARGH! STOP!" But she just kept talking like my mind wasn't boiling over with images. "Well, Shari, you're old enough to hear this," she said, shaking her head and carrying on with the story.)

Portrait - Edna and Eleanor

(On right, with sister Edna)

Mimi's parents came from over two centuries of central/southern Louisiana folk. (Genealogy is something we enjoyed working on together in the 1990s. The pictures here come from those low-res GIF-happy days - I'll be rescanning them at a future date.) Mimi, though, lived almost her entire life in Fort Worth, Texas.

Portrait - Rials and Stockman, Eleanor

(Mimi at right, next to her mother - Ada Mae Rials Stockman, and her grandfather - Anderson Franklin Rials. Taken on a visit to Louisiana, 1937.)

But don't think she was a stay-at-home housewife in the suburbs of Cowtown, USA. Mimi and Popo traveled the world by land and air and sea: China, Scotland, France, England, Switzerland, Canada, Belgium, and I dare say most of the 50 states. I don't even know all of the places they went. They loved to travel.

Mexico deserves its own mention, for that is where Mimi focused her ministry work. For over three decades she and Popo hauled in food, helped develop small industries (sewing, crafts), and generally improved life for the many friends she made there through her love of Jesus.

(You may wonder how well a devoted preacher from a Baptist background and her pagan-friendly atheistic granddaughter got along. Well, heaven knows I spent a lot of summers trying to duck Bible camp and prayer meetings, usually unsuccessfully, but it did leave me with some good stories, like this one guy who felt demons channeling into his body from an 8-track tape. This was 1983, so I can see where the universe was trying to send a message. Cassettes, dude. Later, when I was older and could dictate my own schedule, Mimi sometimes hinted at her spiritual hopes for me, but all she would say is that she was glad I was happy and that she had faith that everything would work out how it was supposed to.)

Portrait - Stockman, Eleanor (high school)

But before all that, she met Charlie Simonds, my "Popo," at the skating rink. She was about to turn 17; he was 19; and it was the middle of World War II. He was in the Army Air Corps, 6'3" and all of 135 pounds.

Portrait - Popo and Mimi Walking

They wrote each other almost daily and on 1 June 1944, just after her graduation from Polytechnic High School, they eloped to Weatherford.

(Why Weatherford? Well, that's the thing with genealogy. You think you've annoyed everyone with every last question, and then you realize you have one more, and it's too late.)

Portrait - Simonds, Charles and Eleanor (WW II)

Popo's parents were thrilled. Mimi was close to her mother-in-law, Pearl, a warm-hearted woman who gave almost everyone a nickname. (Mimi was "Joe," and Popo called her "Joey" during their early days together.)

Mimi's parents were not as happy with the news. Their not-quite-17-year-old daughter was married?! To a young dreamer who wanted to fly airplanes (and to put behind him those childhood years spent doing migrant farm work)?

Dadaw was a professional man, a roadmaster for Texas and Pacific Railroad. Mamaw was a practical woman who looked not unlike an elegant, young Jean Simmons. In other words, we're talking about the emerging mid-century middle class at its best. Marriage was something that was supposed to come later, like after Mimi took a clerical turn in the business world - one of her aspirations.

Well, at least Popo promised (to Mimi) that there wouldn't be any kids for awhile.

And that brings us back to that same kitchen table conversation. "Oh yes, Shari; your father was an accident. And I had just gotten a clerical job with the government, too. I was so mad at Popo!"

Portrait - Simonds, Eleanor and Chuck

But by her own account she was thrilled a year and a half later when their son Chuck was born. (As her sister Mabel wrote with a grin, "You've gone and done it!" After two generations of all-female descendants, a grandson surely softened things up between Popo and his in-laws. Don't worry; by the end, they loved him like a son... maybe better... but that's another story.)

Two more children followed (my aunts Kathy and Lisa), and then the grandkids (me, Khristin, Robin, and Michael). Would you believe that someone asked at Popo's funeral why there weren't any great-grandchildren? I can't speak for my cousins (heck, I haven't spoken to my cousins in 25 years, although that's more by the habit of geography than by design), but Mimi never pressured me for grandkids. She liked the independence of working with her ministry and traveling. Maybe some of that culture traveled down to us, or maybe we were all cursed to be barren when Mimi caught The Sailfish:

Portait - Simonds, Eleanor and Big Fish

Fifty-plus years later, it still hangs on the wall, cursing us to lives of childfree adventure.

There were good times and there were bad times, but overall Mimi seemed to live a content life that lacked for nothing. She had many friends in the church, she and Popo traveled extensively until his health prohibited it, and her health was extremely good until these last few months.

I realize I just breezed past about 60 years in one gulp there, but you know what they say - life is all about the dash. As in, "Eleanor Simonds, 1927-2012." That little dash is all the living you do between your birth and death. It looks small on paper (or here on the screen), but it represents everything.

Portrait - Simonds, Charles and Eleanor

Five small, randomly chosen, happy memories of Mimi:

  • She introduced me to menudo. The food, not the Mexican boy band. Actually, maybe the band, too. (I don't partake of either, now, but it's still a pleasant memory.)
  • Driving me around Lufkin at a cemetery reunion. (Everyone knows about cemetery reunions, right? Or should I add "I remember a time before perpetual care" to "rotary dial phones" and "four-year-olds being allowed to ride in the car without a car seat." I'm still wondering if that the last one is just my cousin being overprotective.) Anyway, Mimi tapped the brakes every 40 feet or so, just to regulate speed. Back then I was a bit of a brake-tapper myself. After that one queasy ride with her, I changed my ways and stopped having to replace my brakes every two years.
  • Going to eat fried chicken from a cafeteria-style hole in the wall around the corner. When I'd visit Texas in the summers for weeks at a time, Mimi often took me to a place she called "Grandma's." However, the sign said something like "Ma and Pa's" Being the humourless pedant that I am (see obituary typos), I lived with a huge inner struggle trying to work out why she called it "Grandma's." I asked, but she didn't have a reason. Kind of like the way she would tell people I was visiting from "Detroit" when I lived a good hour-plus and several worlds away from the one city she said her friends would recognize. I do remember that I would try to get double-corn for my two vegetables at "Grandma's," and Mimi didn't give me a hard time about that.
  • Taking Mimi sledding in the backyard in Michigan. (She had to borrow my Dad's snow pants, and it was interesting to me that there were entire states full of people who didn't have their own snow pants.) She must have been only 54 or so then, but it was my grandmother, sledding. Probably also snowmobiling. That was cool.
  • Going to the nursing home around the corner to visit Mamaw after spending a day at the State Fair. I think this was 1985? And Mimi and I were wearing wigs for some reason - they looked like they were made from purple Christmas tinsel. All of the elderly residents smiled with approval. Mimi liked to try new things. She and Popo were alike in that. (But Mimi tended more to the silly side. I seem to recall some head-shaking from Popo as we waltzed around the home in our wigs.)

Oh, there are so many other memories, but you had to be there. The dash - it's over before you know it.

Portrait - Mimi

29 March 2012 |


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Wilton Wannabe: Notes from Decorating Basics, Class #2

I popped the bottom of my biggest Tupperware-equivalent over the cake and went to class carrying it and two bags - one stuffed with supplies, and the other with my turntable.

Several people had already torted and filled their cakes before class, and several had already coloured their icing at home, so I didn't feel awkward for having worked ahead, even though I was the only one who iced the cake. I got several comments on how smooth it was, although people could be lying - perhaps because I know I would. (A few people did ask if their cakes would be as smooth as mine by the end of class, so maybe not. I'm so glad there are more newbies than it seemed at first.) Our instructor said I did a really good job, so of course I had to boorishly protest and point out the bald patch on one part of the rim, etc., until she finally relented and said that it was amazing considering this was my first time to do this. Ha - see if she dares to say nice things again!

Below I'll list in no particular order what I learned and throw in a few pics. We'll start with a pic of handsome Saffron, taken just before class and paused in the middle of a cross-sweatpants scurry.

Handsomesaffron

 

I heartily recommend pre-frosting the cake before Class #2 because then you have more time to do other things... unless you're like me and just sit there, looking at the variety of cakes (especially in height) and watching other people struggle so you can feel reassured it wasn't just you, but then rushing furiously to practice the two new styles and decorate the cake at the end of class along with everyone else.

Using the Talenti jars to mix icing, stash bags and tips, etc. while sharing a table is the bomb. I saw a ranty post on someone's blog about how Talenti isn't environmentally responsible with its plastic packaging even though the company actively promotes re-use. Maybe she's right, but I don't care - I love my Talenti jars. First I get to eat the most delicious ice cream/gelato ever, then I have cute, stackable, screw-lid storage for craft stuff, Indian spices, odds and sods, and now cake decorating. My view when not watching others, including visible Talenti jars:

Cakeatclass

Some of my tablemate's stuff is visible at the right. We went with a kind of paisley method of sharing the table space - most of the space in front of us with a little creeping to the right.

Class #2 may as well be sub-billed as "Over an hour of leveling, torting, damming, filling, and icing and icing and icing." Seriously, do a practice run at home, and if you don't have any serious issues, bring in a pre-iced cake and USE that class time to color icing, fill bags, and start practicing pressure and position along with new stuff with tips 18 and 12. I really, really, really should have done that. (But I'm still glad I pre-iced. I got to pay attention to what happened with other people. Let's just say that I'm scared to put white icing on a chocolate cake now.)

Again, I'm going to recommend pre-icing just because there were several people in our class whose cakes hadn't crusted by the time we got the piping gel transfer. They were disappointed because they had to choose between not decorating (just using the practice board) or decorating on a cake that wasn't smooth.

Wilton Scam #3 (and I say "scam" with love because I do think Wilton is a good company, but their britches are also big enough to take some semi-tongue-in-cheek criticism): the 16" piping bag. Three people in our class used regular disposable bags with Tip 789 and the results were just fine. I kind of wish I hadn't spent the money on the 16" bag, even with 40% discount. Although, do I want to use that many more disposable bags? The 16" bag is the greener, more responsible way, but when just decorating cakes for class, feel free to use a disposable.

Speaking of wasted disposables, do you know how much it sucks when you accidentally put the coupler into the bag with the tightening ring still on it, which leads to you overcutting the bag? And then you try to use it anyway, but it's just a huge mess? And so you have to re-prepare a bag and meanwhile the whole class has already flipped over their practice sheets and is working on the next design? (I told you that the non-icing part of the class goes fast.)

Right now the stand that holds bags looks pretty attractive... as do the rubber tips... and the special twist-ties...

The instructor agreed that my thin ice was too thin, which is probably why I could still see my cake after the third coat. (That, and my bad habit of overscraping, which I didn't realize I was doing until right before class.) Later I mentioned that I'd added the optional salt to cut the sweetness, and she said that may have made the icing even drier, and then I perhaps overcompensated. I think what happened was that my hand mixer was struggling so much that I felt like I should add water. When I made the medium batch, I used the stand mixer. She pronounced the medium batch to be perfect.

The Wilton spatula with the white handle and gold packaging feels noticeably nicer in my hand than the black-handled spatula that came with the student kit. This is something that's keeping me from getting the Ultimate kit, which comes with the black-handled accessories.

I did create a spreadsheet comparing what you get in each of the student kits and the Wilton kit, and what it would cost to buy the items not in the student kit and an empty Ultimate caddy and put it together yourself. (I live a data-driven life, what can I say.) I used Wilton's website prices (which tend to be a bit higher than Michaels) then adjusted for the perpetual 40% Michaels coupon (keeping in mind that someone with a 50% Jo-Ann's coupon might do better, but I don't have a Jo-Ann's nearby). The end result is that doing the kit yourself is, at best, $19 more expensive.

Here's my math on that. I had to hide a few columns to make things fit here, including the Wilton base prices, but those are easily looked up on their site. UK = Ultimate Kit, and the numbers stand for Student Kits 1, 2, and 3. (The Ultimate Kit doesn't have the materials for course 4.)

Ultimatekitcomparison

Ignore the items which aren't in any kit. They were from the 50-pc and 100-pc caddies, which I also compared.

So, while right now I'm really itching for a caddy to make hauling everything to class easier, I'm not sure if I really want the caddy to be my storage method in the kitchen. Would I maybe prefer a dedicated drawer and maybe some attractive, smaller countertop containers for other stuff? I don't mind having duplicates of what's already in my Student Kit #1, but again, what if I prefer the white-handled Wilton spatulas? And if I don't really need the caddy after the classes, I'm saving money to not get it, even if I get a cheaper, smaller caddy that's more convenient for taking to class. (Jo-Ann's is having a deal where they throw in the little Wilton caddy if you take a class in April, plus it's 2-for-1 on the classes. I really like my classmates and instructor, but I do wish I lived closer to a Jo-Ann's! Meanwhile, even our instructor has said that the Ultimate Kit can be a little unwieldy to bring to class.)

I think there's a great argument to be made for getting the Ultimate Kit, but that doesn't mean you're a fool not to get it. Even Mike admires the big caddy with all of the goodies, but I think I'm going to do this piecemeal so I can have exactly what I want. The biggest deal for me is to create well-organized tip storage. I'm going to try using either my linen Wei East "First Look" pouches (these deserve their own post), or some glass jars I got free at Kohls (which can sit on the countertop), and for the tinting colours maybe a clear, vinyl zip pouch that used to hold a Burt's Bees sampler until a few hours ago, when the decluttering project finally came to an end. (WOO SHAZANGITY HOO!)

So, back to class: Being in the aforementioned huge rush during the decorating phase, and after the cutting incident, I didn't feel like starting a new bag for my golden yellow icing, so I tossed it into the pink and figured that if was a bit stripey, that was cool. And it was cool (as you'll see in a moment), especially since it left me with a sherbet-y orange look.

I don't know why I picked cutesy colours for my cake. I have zero interest in character cakes and their ilk. I want to make elegant stuff that doesn't look like I'm bringing it to a kid's birthday party (for a kid who will be too young to remember the cake later). Other people in the class were making gorgeous creations in lavender and sage (two of my fave shades), and there I was throwing down what appeared to be Pepto-Bismol poo with orange toothpaste lines around it.

"Throwing down" is a pretty good description of my technique. I absolutely couldn't - and still really can't - make dots. When I make a good dot with Tip 12, it comes up with the bag and tip. I was also still sucking rather badly with Tip 18, since I had truly less than a minute to practice if I wanted to get some decorating done on the cake. I ended up just squeezing out the lines, thinking I'd fix them later (having been spoiled on that with the whole week devoted to icing and smoothing, icing and smoothing), but of course later they were too stiff to move. Oops.

Oh, about all that smoothing I did this week. Apparently I really spent too much time trying to scrape my way to smoothness before the crusting stage. Several classmates had very rough cakes that the instructor assured them would smooth down once they crusted. (I even asked, to be sure for next time.)

I didn't have time to make any border on top of my cake, so things were looking sad... and of course now that it was decorated, I couldn't fit the Tupperware on top without squishing my squiggles. (Some did get squished when I tried it, as you're about to see.) So, I took a bunch of pictures of my babyish, circusish cake just in case I dropped it while hauling it and everything else to the car.

Sadcake

 

How sorry do you feel for my cake right now? Look at those crooked stripes, and the way I failed to tuck in the ends, and how about that last-minute uneven ring around the bottom? And what have I done with the "cherry"? Why is it pink and orange? (Because there was no time to mix up some red.) And why did I swirl it with Tip 18? Everyone knows you use Tip 12 for the cherry, fool!

The cake rode shotgun to the grocery store so we could get some sulk soda. I've been drinking water almost exclusively for two months. I needed some fizzy lifting drink for my spirits.

Shotguncake

 

Yeah, I need to clean out the side pockets on the car. I can feel your judgment.

Later, I decided to practice dots with tip 12. I practiced; I wiped the board; I put the icing back into the bag; I practiced some more. The icing felt too soft; maybe I should have stiffened it up with sugar as my dots actually were worse at home than they were in class.

I think the point where I got very irritated with my sticky, squoozy "dots" is obvious.

Practicetip12

But I was determined to put everything we'd learned on the cake, even if it meant "ruining" what I had so far. (Is that possible?) Besides, the cake needed a border on the top. So I mixed up some green icing. Well, first I tried to add green to the pink/orange, but this did not turn out as cool and swirly as before. I then made some fresh green but didn't mix it completely, so a hint of white swirl came out as I piped. I think I'm kind of into the two-colour thing.

I made a ring of stars for the top of the cake. I said to myself, "Hey, last week you sucked at stars. This week you're not bad, other than not following the line of the cake very well. Maybe next week you'll be okay at dots!"

I'm so encouraging like that.

Then came the time to add a border of dots to replace the bottom border - a border that actually garnered a sympathetic look from our instructor.

Well, with a toothpick in one hand to fling those pea-like suckers back onto the cake every time they tried to jump off, and my fingertip there to push down the little nippley bits that stood up as I removed the tip (and yes, I removed it at an angle to the side as the lesson plan suggests), this was the end result:

Wilton Course 1 - First Cake

And you know what? I'm kind of pleased after all. Sure, it's covered in mistakes, but I've still learned a lot. Next week: cupcakes and flower nails!

18 March 2012 |


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Wilton Wannabe: Preparing a Cake for Class #2

(Pics follow the babble.)

Under the current (2012) Wilton curriculum, we are supposed to bring a plain 8" cake to class to practice icing and smoothing.

Let me tell you right now that this whole 8" cake business is twerpy. What do I have in my cupboard? A nine-incher. (I expect you to write the innenduous jokes yourself. Some of us have buttercream to lick off our fingers... only to discover that it's pure Crisco.) So I email the (wonderful, patient) instructor and she says 9" is fine, just get a bigger board and bring more frosting.

I decide to practice with my 9". It's non-stick Calphalon, so that means no greasing the sides, right? (HaHA!) Okay, that cake goes away (most of it eventually into my stomach - by the second cake I just threw the sucker away because I was in danger of being sick of cake), and I carefully grease and flour the pan in the manner that always worked when I was a tot who still knew the shame of store-bought baked goods.

Same thing. Absolutely no difference. Yes, I used a bread knife around the side first and everything.

I was out of cake mix, so the next day I went to the grocery store to get some cooking spray and more cake mix. But, the selection on both was poor and kind of pricey. Well, there's always...

...And yea, I went unto the dark place. The dark 24/7 monstrosity. That place where I say I never shop except for hamster seeds... the place where Pillsbury cake mix is a buck and they carry Wilton's cooking spray for about the same price as Pam spray.

So there I am in the Wilton aisle and I see a 8" cake pan... but no, I'm trying to declutter here. Learn to use the 9" force, Luke.

Then I decide to mosey into the baking aisle proper, where the non-Wilton baking pans are.

And would you believe they had NO eight-inchers? Nine, yes. Ten, yes. Eight, no.

And that's when I knew that this whole 8" thing was a big Wilton conspiracy. HA.

Okay, I am fibbing a little because they had 8" disposable cake pans that were only an inch high. But what the heck, I decided to get them. They can be repurposed as glitter trays or something when the decluttering train stops at Craft Table Station. (Right now the decluttering train is sprawled on its side throughout Dining Room Alley, but on the plus side, people can actually walk in to the walk-in closet now.)

So, back to the practicing. I decide to try icing and smoothing a cake before class. (I was further inspired by someone who did this then mentioned it in Wilton's forum for the class. The way she told it, it freed up a lot of time to practice decorating.)

But first, what was I doing before all this? Was I practicing my stars? (Yes, for about 10 minutes. They were kind of better but not great.) Or was I drawing something?

IMG_3580

(Mike and I are both addicted to the "Draw Something" app. If you want to start a game with me, I think my user name is Daffodilly.)

Okay, so first I made a lemon cake. Wow... it was really.... short. The peril of 1"-high pans, I suppose. Maybe I should just stay with the 9" pan. The Bake Easy (Wilton spray) worked perfectly, by the way. So, I used the remaining batter in the 9" pan... and the cake was also short.

How could I bring either of these to class? I'd be torting them into onion layers!

I got the bright idea to make a second short 8" cake, level both, and stick them together. This is fun!

While the second cake (Pillsbury, strawberry) was baking, I leveled my first (Duncan Hines, lemon) cake.

IMG_3590

 

Oopsie! See how I spackled that bit back on? Nice.

The strawberry cake was cooling. I expressed my creativity elsewhere. Mike needed hints on this one:

IMG_3594

 

I was happy that my former student Sara got this one before I added the text:

 

IMG_3597

Okay, time to get the cake really going. I'm feeling so creative!

Yikes, the strawberry has a burned edge.

IMG_3598

 

Above you see my fine MacGyver work with the scissors. (In addition to overfilling the cake pan, I also kinda left the cake in too long. Wait, I didn't tell you about the overfilling yet.)

You can see Nutella in the background - an unopened jar being one of the miracles of the pantry decluttering - but I decided to use some Bonne Maman preserve that we'd bought on sale about five years ago and somehow never ate. The four fruits are raspberry, red currant... I forget the rest. But they seemed appropriate for a lemon/strawberry cake. (Not that I'm going to eat it because, seriously, really sick of cake.)

I made the buttercream dam and then gently spread the preserves, as we learned to do in last week's class.

IMG_3601

Now to put the two cakes together and make Cake Magic!

IMG_3602

Um, why is the strawberry cake wider than the lemon cake?

(Someone may have filled the pan higher with batter the second time around. But it was supposed to add height, not width!)

I fearlessly made an executive decision. Or shall we say... incision?

IMG_3603

Now to do the fun part - icing!

I cut my 16" decorating bag and slung a legendary Tip #789 to the bottom. For the actual icing, I used what was left in my can of Wilton's icing from the last class. Hmm - is that supposed to be used for icing cakes or just for making stars and flowers? I don't know. No one is eating this cake. It's just for practice. Who cares?

I was not necessarily careful in my application:

IMG_3606

Whimsy will be rewarded in the next life, I'm sure. I kind of wish I'd reread the instructions, though.

Keep in mind that the little surgical procedure had left me with crumby sides instead of smooth sides. After much battling (read: over an hour) with the icing, I told myself that there's no shame in putting down a crumb coat.

IMG_3607

 

You could almost tell yourself that all those little pink dots are by design, right?

Sigh.

I set about making my own icing, pleased that by using the canned icing for the crumb coat, I'd have more of my own to play with. Unexpected resourcefulness!

Now I'd like to introduce you to another episode in which Wilton twirls his black moustache:

IMG_3609

 

That's a freshly opened can of meringue powder. HEL-lo. Misleading packaging much, Wilton? *Hair flounce and cocked brow.*

I'm starting to lurk at CakeCentral.com where apparently many people don't even use meringue powder, claiming it really has nothing to do with crusting, that crusting is all about fat/sugar ratio.

Well, after I applied the icing, the cake didn't really look much better. Again, I could have been more careful. Also, I think I have a bad habit of scraping down the icing too thinly instead of smoothing out what I have.

Perhaps you would like more photos. But photos of which time?

Three times I iced that ^%$#@. Three times I smoothed it. Or "smoothed" it. (Yes, I know about the VIVA paper towel trick now, but at the time I only had wax paper.)

I thought about dropping out of the class. I thought about getting a friend to go in my place. Not because I feel incompetent (I do, but that doesn't usually stop me when it comes to hobbies) but because I don't want to face the instructor with this crumb-showing, raggedy cake. Especially since we were meant to do them in class, so me bringing in one already done is like I endorsed it, or something.

But if I hadn't already iced a cake (such that it is), then what would I get accomplished in class? Because this puppy has taken bloody ages, whereas I want to learn about piping gel and playing with tips and stuff again.

It is discouraging to not be doing so hot at what is literally the foundation of cake decorating, but maybe when I get up to smooth out my fourth attempt (which is really just a spackling of areas where too much of the cake was still showing through - maybe my icing is too thin? - as you can see below), things will go better.

IMG_3617

I hope so. Class is in a few hours.

(And no, Miss "I'm not going to buy a cake caddy just to bring practice cakes to class" has no idea how she's going to get the cake there.)

16 March 2012 |


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http://www.ucedaenglish.com/

What a yummy cake! That looks delicious, I wanna go make one right now!

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Wilton Wannabe: Notes from Decorating Basics, Class #1

What fun!

We're going to have to throw out the cost analysis from my last post. I'm not saying it's going to get better, but it's definitely going to be different. Early spoiler: NO BABY WIPES REQUIRED. Woot.

This instructor is really great. This was her very first class, so I'm sure she' was mortified when her icing kept coming off the side of the cake while we sat there in polite silence, waiting, as the minutes passed, but it was actually useful to see how she fixed the problem. (Mostly it involved patience and perseverance. Just like pretty much all of life's bloopers.)

I arrived early and bought my can of Wilton frosting and used the coupon, naturally. Even the instructor was promoting the Michaels app and says she goes in and out of the store several times in one day, buying one item at a time. That was me after the class. (I "only" got in line twice. Yep, Michaels is completely cool with this.)

There are 11 people in our class. One person brought her mother as an observer and another woman brought her two children, so if you have kids, perhaps this is a babysitting option. The kids got a little chatty at the end, which raised my teacher hackles to a code orange shush alert, but it ended up being fine.

A Wilton sociologist could make much of what people brought to the first class. I fit the Eager Newbie stereotype - everything laid out, clipboard with three pages of notes by the end of class, volunteering my stuff as needed, making sure newcomers signed in on both sheets. If I still had my Safety Patrol bandolier from sixth grade, I could've worn it with pride tonight.

Some people had not even purchased the kit yet because they hadn't decided yet whether or not to get the Ultimate caddy. So, if you think this might be you, know that it's fine if on the first night you just watch others while you make up your mind. (I haven't made up my mind yet, although I'm wondering if - with the recent introduction of the fourth course - the caddy will be redesigned soon? Right now it is missing items needed for that class.)

Some people have very fancy aprons. One person does not bake at all. My tablemate had her mother's caddy, a goodie-filled toolbox that made me drool. My tablemate also sells cupcakes, so it's a good thing she's nice or I'd be thoroughly intimidated.

The instructor did her intro a few times before class and as people arrived. This is what the classroom looked like (one table not pictured) before the lights were on, the tables were covered, and the instructor demo area was wheeled in (behind where I took this):

Classroom

Apparently we're very lucky to have a sink. (And that's why we don't have to bring baby wipes next week, but more on supplies later.)

Rather than tell it blow-by-blow (such as I remember), here are excerpts from my notes, which will give some idea of the techniques addressed:

  • The instructor likes to use a wax paper circle at the bottom of the pan instead of greasing/flouring/spraying/whatevering it.
  • She also likes the Bake-Even Strips that make the cake more (although not completely) level as it cooks. (Science behind it: the moisture around the pan keeps the outer edges from cooking at a much faster rate than the middle.) Since you still have to level the top of the cake off, it's kind of a matter of preference. She said she liked having less waste, which makes me wonder what the difference is in taste. Is the cake denser than it would have been?
  • HUGE TIP: K. (because I'm tired of typing "the instructor") likes to use the plastic Wilton plates usually used for tier cakes instead of cake boards unless she's giving the cake away. For stuff at home, she prefers the plastic so it can be reused. I was so happy to hear this; for me, it's a much more sensible option. I'm glad she isn't insisting on the show or foil boards, either. In fact, I really admire how she is clearly a huge Wilton fan but doesn't do the hard sell. More on that later.

    Wilton plate

  • If making multiple batches of icing, use a stand mixer. Otherwise, a hand mixer can be good to keep you from overmixing.
  • Did you know they now sell shortening in pre-measured (one cup) blocks, like butter? I didn't.
  • K. says that for flavour extracts (and you don't have to use Wilton brand - I think the only "magic" to Wilton brand is that it doesn't color the icing at all, if you want your white to stay snowy) she really likes to combine almond, vanilla, and butter.
  • If you use milk instead of water in the buttercream icing recipe, you have to refrigerate (sooner).
  • In this desert climate, she advises starting at 8 teaspoons (or was it tablespoons - see the recipe) of water, and probably increasing from there.
  • Make sure your powdered sugar is pure cane sugar. (There are other kinds of powdered sugar?)
  • The meringue powder used in Wilton's recipe is in lieu of the egg white you might find in other recipes. (And, again, makes it less perishable.)
  • We are asked to make at least one batch of icing ourselves for next week, so we can get the feel for it, but we can bring canned stuff for the rest of the course if we wish.
  • I like that she reminded people not to lick anything unless we're the only ones who are going to eat the end product. Did people really need to be reminded of that? I made a note at the time just so I wouldn't forget to mention it here, so of course now I'm paranoid that people think I felt the need to write that down.
  • (I totally lick things while I'm cooking, but then I stop and wash everything thoroughly before resuming. Yes, even if it's something for Mike. Well, usually.)
  • I'm not confident that I can tell the difference between medium and thin icing. (She passed around stiff, medium, and thin in cups.) The "jiggle test" (how still does the spatula stay when you stick it into the icing then jiggle the cup) will hopefully not let me down for next week.
  • K. only has one 10" bag. She usually uses disposables. Don't freak out if your bag becomes dyed from your icing colors. It happens. (Hers is pink. It's kind of cute.)
  • The big tip (mentioned in my last post) doesn't have a coupler. I'm also no longer sure that I'm going to get it. She demonstrated icing the cake using it, but I'm not convinced that I'm ready to appreciate its advantages.
  • How to prep the disposable bag for icing: Drop in the big part of the coupler, back it up a smidge, cut the bag with your scissors, put the tip on, and then screw on the ring. (Now I see that my "Baker's Secret" pastry bag from yonks ago is unique in being such a bugbear to clean - the bag is permanently attached to the big part of the coupler.)
  • Wilton has plastic tips you can throw onto the end of the decorating tip and then you can put a bag of icing, tipped and ready, into the fridge to use later, and it won't dry out. (Nice if you want a break or don't want to clean the bag out of excess frosting but also don't want to use what's leftover right away.)
  • Student suggestion: when filling the decorating bag, put it in a larger cup.
  • K's method: fold the top of the bag over. (If using Wilton's disposable bags, fold over at the top of the logo.) Fill the bag a bit past halfway. (If usinf the Wilton disposables, fill it up to the bottom of the logo.) Use the spatula to dump clumps into the bag, then run the spatula against your where your thumb (which is under the cuff) is pressing to clean it off before putting more in. Shake icing down to bottom. Smooth all icing to the bottom. Twist the bag a few times to eliminate air pockets and give yourself a nice, plump area for grasping. (Repeat the last two steps as you ice.)
  • Filled cakes. I feel like a whole world just opened up to me. She used the cheaper ($2-3) Wilton leveler, the one that is out of stock at Michaels and may not come back in because (theory is) Wilton could be revising that product. (Which doesn't really help me for next week, but I can get one elsewhere.) She did have to see-saw it slightly (a complaint on the forums is that it doesn't slice right though), and she also had to fiddle with it to get the wire on the right notch on both sides at the same time, but it seemed like a great product for the price. (The more expensive one is $25.) Anyway, I've always thought of cakes with layers as these complicated things involving lots of pans, and now I see it's just a matter of adjusting the leveler and going to town. Big secrets revealed!
  • Sidebar anecdote: I used to pester my great-granduncle Pat (not my father's uncle but my grandfather's uncle) for stories about my great-grandparents (his brother and sister-in-law) during our raging friendship of the late 1990s. He lived for them a bit in his younger years - my great-great-grandmother died when he was a kid, and my g-g-gf died when he was a teen. But now I'm just showing off that for awhile I had a best friend with such a deep and clear connection to my ancestors, so let's continue. So, he was living with them, and my great-grandmother (Pearl) was a very kind woman who liked to take care of the neighbourhood kids, feed them, and so on. One day a kid comes crying. Why? His mother beat him. Why? Because he was telling his mother about a triple-layer cake Pearl had made, and his mother beat him for lying. Everyone knew there was no such thing as a triple-layer cake! So, Pearl made a triple-layer cake that afternoon and took it to the boy's mother. Basically, she was all IN. YOUR. FACE. WENCH. As soon as I get my $3 cake leveler, I'm going to truly feel like Pearl's heir. (Although she probably used a knife.)
  • When filling a cake, make a dam of icing around the edge, about a half-inch away, first. We don't want jam or Nutella oozing out during the icing stage.
  • Some people use a dot of icing to stick their cake to the board (or plate) before decorating.
  • That hand stays (relatively) still. The turntable does all the work.
  • If you get a single crumb on your spatula (that you're using to spread around the icing), stop and wipe down the spatula. The spatula must never touch the cake - just the icing.
  • After 20-odd minutes, K. smoothed the icing by putting parchment over the cake and running a smoother (which she sad to learn is not in our kits, but any small, flat surface you can grab will work - think of a tiny, plastic iron) over it.

At the start of class K. handed out the lesson plan booklets, which have step-by-step instructions with pictures (as well as blurbs about non-essential but life-enhancing tools down at the bottom). Near the end of class, she went over the list on page 17, which is the list of what to bring to the next class.

Wilton list

See all of those X's and scrawled notes? Let me just bring up one more thing and then I'll go over the supplies I actually needed tonight and the ones I don't need after all for next week.

On the Wilton forums, a common complaint is that there isn't time to decorate the cookies on the first class. The other instructor who was doing sign-ups for the classes last Saturday warned me of this. K. said that she didn't get to decorate cookies on her first class. It's a known issue. A related complaint is that the instructor spends time showing off Wilton products in the store aisle that could have been used for more interesting instruction.

Well, we got to decorate cookies. K. took us on the field trip to the Wilton aisle after class, making that part optional (everyone went), and because she had modeled so many products so well during the demos and hands-on instruction, we all were able to ask intelligent questions, and everyone started buying their supplies for next week, so I don't think Wilton or Michaels lost any sales. I was amused by the people who were shocked by next week's supply list. Yeah, when you're sold the kit (described as "what you need for the class") and given a list of supplies for the first class, it's definitely misleading.

But, if you have a great instructor like K., I can see getting away with not buying anything else. You'd have a harder time, but you'd never feel like you were only half-participating. I think the people who didn't bring anything to the first class still had a good and useful time.

Okay, time to dissect the supply lists. This is the list for the first class, straight from the Wilton website, my comments in red:

  • Course 1: Decorating Basics Student Kit - only if you want to decorate and/or feel confident your class will get around to decorating or at least filling the bags (and you think you may need help with setting up your bag)
  • 1 can Wilton Ready-To-Use Decorating Icing - see above
  • 6 plain flat cookies with a box to transport them home (optional) - my tablemate practiced on crackers, and she's a pro baker. Unless you want the thrill/experience of having decorated on something "real," your practice board from the kit is good enough.
  • Apron - absolutely not needed for the first class unless you are sit-com levels of clumsy
  • Pen or Pencil and Paper - I would recommend just a pen. I was the only person taking serious notes. Other people just jotted down the odd thing in the margins of their lesson plan books, which is a smart idea as then you have it all in one place.
  • Scissors - we made one snip - the end of the disposable decorating bag. I'm sure you could borrow someone's scissors for that. (K. offered hers.)
  • Sticky notes - I have no idea why we'd need these. No wonder I was told not to bother with them.
  • Damp cloth - Our classroom is lucky to have a sink. Ask - maybe yours does, too. A cloth will be good in future lesson for just wiping hands, but I only got a smidge of frosting on one finger because I was careless. (Yes, I licked it.)
  • 1 gallon-size plastic food storage bag (to carry home soiled decorating tools) - Yeah, as I suspected in my previous post, any plastic bag will do. It just depends on how you pack your gear whether a bag that zips closed will be necessary for you.


Here's the list for next week, with my comments in blue, and items from this week that I've already addressed omitted:

  • Reusable, cloth wipes - no need, we have the sink
  • Toothpicks
  • Cellophane tape - K. couldn't even think of a reason why we might need it
  • Waxed paper
  • Bath-sized towel to spread over work area - no need, K. brings table-sized paper
  • Plastic bags for cleanup
  • Several small plastic bowls or disposable cups about 8 oz. size - K. said to bring IF we wanted to make colored icing and not practice with just white. I love her "optional" approach. (But of course I want to practice with colors. One of my three trips past the Michaels register today was to get the jumbo variety pack of icing colors.)
  • 25 paper napkins or a roll of paper towels - advised for convenience but not necessary as we do have some by the sink
  • 1 cup confectioners’ sugar - K. says we only need the sugar in case there's a problem with our icing we've brough from home, so not to worry about bringing an entire cup.
  • Squeeze bottle with water - this is for adding a few drops of water to the icing if necessary. I'm definitely using an old mustard bottle.
  • Lunch-size paper bag (optional) - "No." Another thing we don't know why we might have needed.
  • Contents of The Decorating Basics Student Kit and Lesson Plan
  • Angled Spatula to ice your cake - K. actually did hers with a straight spatula because her angled spatulas were all dirty. I don't think an angled spatula is necessary if your spatula is very long and you're dextrous at wielding it (so the handle doesn't touch the cake). I still haven't decided whether to go large or small. K. seems to like the large, but I feel awkward with them. Michaels is out of the smaller angled spatulas, so we'll see - my pocketbook (large with coupon or small elsewhere at full price) may decide.
  • Tip 789 Cake Icer Tip (optional) - I think I'll see how well I do getting the cake iced without one. Then it can either be a luxury I get in the future or a necessity I get the next day.
  • 16-inch Featherweight Bag (optional) - This is for Tip 789, so see above.
  • Piping Gel
  • Cake leveler - K. promoted this as optional but really useful. I think we all want one.
  • Turntable - K. actually used the smaller, less expensive turntable than the one everyone raves about. It seemed fine, but I am prone to hunching as it is, so I'm glad to have a little more height on mine. She didn't promote the turntable very heavily, but its value spoke for itself.
  • Icing colors of your choice - see sugar comments above
  • 10-inch cake board for torting - I have my plastic plate!
  • 10-inch foil covered cake board or Show ’N Serve board - not necessary - yay!
  • Cake filling (optional) - now I want to try this
  • Cake lifter (optional) - this is really tempting. I've had some bad experiences trying to lift things by using spatulas bfore. I bet the money saved on cake boards, the bigger bag, Tip 789, and baby wipes has found a new home. (At least the lifter is only $10 before coupon - cheaper than baby wipes!)
  • One 8-inch layer of cake on a cake board - K. did advise that when we make our cakes (if from a mix), we use the other half of the mix to make cupcakes (then freeze and thaw from Class #3).
  • Class Decorating Buttercream – recipe on page 7 of the lesson plan
    • 1 recipe thin consistency to ice cake in class
    • 1 recipe medium consistency

And now Mike is back from his own classes, so I must run. But wait, you say, how did the actual decorating go?

Um.

Well, I wouldn't share with the people on Facebook, but I can trust you not to laugh, right?

The practice board is really neat. You slip the examples under the plastic sheet and then pipe right on top of them. Today we worked with star tip #18. Squeeze. Hold. Hold. Release. How hard to squeeze and whether you press directly on to the board/cookie is a matter of personal preference.

I was having trouble first with my canned icing being too thick (stir it around before bagging, and hold the bag a bit so your hands warm and soften it). Then I had trouble because my stars were partially lifting off the cookie when I lifted the tip. Then I would try to make new stars to cover up the old half-stars. And sometimes I tried to make really big stars to cover up stars I just didn't like, and sometimes I tried to put stars between other stars even though there wasn't much space (but just enough to bother me.)

It will get better with practice, I'm sure.

(And I had lots of fun and feel inspired and encouraged, and that's what matters, right?)

09 March 2012 |


Comments

Decking Ipe

Those cookies looks so delicious. Now I'm craving for it.

violet

really enjoyed your blog!

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Wilton Wannabe: What Will the First Course Cost?

Well, my apron is rolled up in the not-so-steamy bathroom, hopefully to be dewrinkled in time for tonight's first class. Do you know how hard it is to find a plus-size apron? And not the "plus size" at Michaels that is only an inch wider on each side but has "extra-long strings!" - gee, that will do it. And it really will have to because that's what I ended up buying since it would only be $4 with coupon.

Wal-Mart's regular aprons have an extra half-inch on each side but it didn't seem worth a few extra bucks plus, you know, Wal-Mart. It may be interesting to note that almost all of the cake decorating stuff at Wal-Mart was within 75 cents of prices at Michaels, and of course if you do what I said in the last post and use that 40%-off coupon from the Michaels app, the price doesn't begin to compare.

However, not everyone lives almost walking distance from Michaels and therefore can afford to pop by and use the coupon every day to slowly build the collection... although the guy at Michaels told me I could use the coupon over and over on the same day (despite what it says) so long as there's someone in line ahead of me when I re-queue. Interesting.

Bed, Bath, and Beyond had "full size" aprons with a healthy extra five inches on each side, but these were $20 and, honestly, it would be cheaper to replace most of my shirts if something got on them.

Opinion on the Wilton forums about aprons is divided. Some people never wear them. Maybe I will be one of those people, but $4 seemed like a reasonable investment just in case I'm not. However, as there is still an inch of me showing on every side in the "plus size" apron, I don't know if the apron will fulfill what one person said was the most important thing: a place to wipe your hands. When I cook at home I wear an old t-shirt and wipe my hands on my hips (when towels aren't handy), so my instinct to wipe in the "apron zone" just isn't there.

Okay, in further minutia, one thing I have learned in the course of having 1,322 hobbies is that, if I like the hobby, I will spend more than planned. I thought I would look at the supply list and see if I could suss out in advance what the cost of taking this four-week course will be. Then later we can look back and LAUGH and LAUGH.

I took photos of many of the items at Michaels earlier this week (nerd alert, nerd alert) and below will list that price minus coupon (if realistic) plus tax (~8% in Las Vegas) then rounded in the nearest direction. A few prices I can only guess, and might be quite wrong, and some things I already have here at home. I've only included optional items if I plan to get them.

<
Item       Cost
Class tuition   $23.00
Student Kit   $22.00
Wilton Ready-to-Use Decorating Icing   2.50
6 plain, flat cookies   3.00
Apron   4.00
Pen/pencil and paper   (already have)
Scissors   (already have)
Sticky notes   (waived by instructor, but already have)
Damp cloth   (waived by instructor, but already have)
Food storage bag to carry soiled tools   (already have - any plastic bag will surely do?)
Reusable, cloth wipes   10.00
(Reusable wipes? Oh, Google says it's a baby thing. And Amazon says they're 10 bucks each. First sticker shock of the class! Ten bucks is probably still easier/cheaper than making my own.)
Toothpicks   (already have)
Cellophane tape   (already have)
Waxed paper   2.50

(If Yahoo Answers is right.)

Bath-sized towel  
(Already have - pre-distressed and everything from when Phobos would try to dig her way into the bathroom. She was like a cat - couldn't stand closed doors. I still prefer dwarf hamsters to "regular" ones, but I do miss that silly girl.)
Plastic bags for clean-up   (already have - again, not going all fancy)
Small plastic bowls or disposable cups (8 oz.)   4.50
(Argh - who just convinced Mike to toss out a bunch of unsightly commemorative tumblers? Maybe I could use plastic measuring cups? And a cracked plastic measuring cup that I was just about to junk! What about glass ramekins if I don't care if they break? But then Michaels probably does care. Hey, is AM/PM still selling those limited edition World of Warcraft tumblers? Oh, hold on. DUH. Talenti empties - a half dozen of which are sitting in the cupboard, getting in my way, but too useful to throw away. We probably have a dozen on the countertop holding various spices and several more holding craft stuff. With their sturdy construction and screw-top lids, they're rather amazing as well as surprisingly attractive, and they allow me to justify spending $4 on a pint of delicious, delicious gelato now and again. Check out the gallery from their Facebook reuse contest.) But I'm still adding 4.50 to the tally because if not for this class I would've forgotten about the World of Warcraft cups.
Roll of paper towels   (already have)
3c confectioners sugar   5.00
(Hmm. I just bought a box of this the other day. Um. Um. Guessing...)
Squeeze bottle with water  
(I have a sports bottle but it's leaky. I think I may have done the right thing and thrown it away. Rats. I suppose they mean more of a condiment bottle? Michaels online doesn't give a price. Target sells them for $10/3 pack. WAIT! WAIT! I just threw away a depleted deli-style mustard squeeze bottle last night! And then I lazily postponed taking out the trash! I'm going to have faith that I can use this bottle... and there are two more like it in the fridge on their last legs. What can I say? We love a variety of mustards here.)
Angled spatula   3.50
(Okay, right now I think - per the advice of one website - that I want the smaller spatula so my little hands can handle it easier, plus it can be used on cupcakes. But I may get talked into the bigger spatula tonight, and I don't want to have spatula drama, and maybe the bigger spatula is better? But... the internet says... I'm going to use the "sticking to my current guns" smaller spatula price.)
Tip 789 (optional)   2.00 + 2.00
(This thing is huge. Does it come with its own coupler? I don't see one in my pic. I took a photo of some large couplers next to it but they didn't look big enough. Still, better add on the price to be safe.)

16 oz featherweight bag (optional)   6.00
Piping gel   3.00
Cake leveler   3.00
(Wal-Mart price. They only had the "ultimate" one - $25 - in stock at Michaels.)
Turntable   13.50
(Bought already! I didn't want to risk them selling out when the other students found out they needed one. Per the Wilton forum recommendations, I went with the Ultra Trim 'n Turn so I'd have a little height off the countertop.)
Icing colors of choice   10.00
(I'll go with the larger value-pack, I suppose.)
10" cake board for torting   4.00
10" foil-covered cake board or Show 'n Serve   3.50
(This annoys me. I don't really care what's underneath my cake unless I'm giving it away.)
Class Decorating Buttercream (~8)
hopefully includes enough for home practice
  35.00
(Let's figure this out. Here's the recipe for the stiff version. Looks like we're going to need a lot more confectioners sugar. And what does shortening cost? I haven't had a can of it around since I lived with my chicken-frying parents... which sounds like an oath, heh. And do I really need "Wilton flavor" or can I just use vanilla extract? $35 is my guess, Mr. Barker...)

Glue stick   (already have)
25 icing flower squares   1.50

(I can't just make them out of the waxed paper, above?)

12 disposable decorating bags   9.00

(Surely this hobby will be much more fun if I invest in the 50-pack.)

Rose Flower Nail Templates   3.00
(From what it looks like on the student kit box for the next course, these are included? Hopefully by the third lesson I'll know whether I want to take the next course.)
8" layer of cake on a cake board   4.50 + 10.00
(I was going to go store-bought all the way to save time *and* have a means of carrying the decorated cake without buying a cake caddy. I don't mind sucking up the cost of a cake caddy that, I swear, will only be used for these classes because I'm way too anxious to ever actually serve my cooking to others, but here I am trying to declutter, you know? But even if I make my own cake, using a plastic covering from the store is going to be so ghetto, all sliding around and stuff.)

(So, 4.50 for cake mix, plus I think we're about out of regular vegetable oil despite only buying some every two or three years. Plenty of eggs, though. Cage-free and everything. See, I'm not cheap where it matters.)

(And a tenner for the cake caddy. Sigh.)

6 cupcakes   2.00
(Should I make the Cherry Coke Float cupcakes again? Nah. But will my cake caddy hold six cupcakes? Surely. Or should I get the 3-in-1 cake caddy instead? No, that thing is huge, and I don't even need a cake caddy. You know what I'm going to do later? Scope out some multi-purpose Tupperware.)
Cake   2.00
     
Projected Total:   193.00

I may need one of those damp cloths for my forehead.

(Later, for torture and funsies, I'll see if the Ultimate Caddy/Kit will save me enough to make it a more interesting option for the second course.)

Two hours until showtime. Let's go pack everything and see what I forgot!

Note: the title of this post sort of comes from my cake decorating inspiration board on Pinterest. Check out the pillow cake. Someday?

09 March 2012 |

Previously: Upon a Frosted Pony

Comments

Christopher

I would LOVE to be within walking distance from Michaels. Its a 30 minute drive for me right now! Ugh, killer!

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Upon a Frosted Pony

As I try to declutter our home, a home destined to suffer heaving cupboards and teetering closets as two hobby-oriented, nostalgia-minded, gadget-enriched people with enough dwarf hamsters (and all their assorted architecture) to land their own reality show - if people cared as much about pet rodents as they do about the Duggars - cannot help but press the limits of building code and physics when home = a one-bedroom apartment, I find myself wondering if there's really room in my life for Yet Another Pastime.

And the answer is, "Of course there is." Especially when I'm no longer holding on to every "Terms and Conditions" booklet and assorted addenda for every credit card I've ever, ever had. (I like to think that this is more OCD than mini-hoarding, and until they make a popular TV show about OCD - other than Monk - it's acceptable to feel superior.)

I've been attracted to the idea of cake decorating since I was a wee, cake-lovin' tot. As I think I've described here before, my Mom did a class back in the early 1980s, I think it was. I don't know if it was Wilton - who seem to operate without competition in cake decorating culture, but her class used plastic cakes to practice. That cake decoy was around our home for many years, always disappointing me anew when it failed to be the real deal.

That Wilton (now?) requires its students to bring in their own cakes has been the dealbreaker on taking a class for a long time. (And eBay seems to have never heard of the plastic practice cake. Have we found an untapped aspect of the retro market?)

I'm not incapable of making a cake, especially from a mix, but really I have a low interest in baking. It's fun when I do it, but I rarely do it unless I'm trying a new recipe, and that just happens so I'll feel creative. It's not like I'll ever make it again. So really, I just want to know how to make the pretty flowers, right?

I don't even know why. I'm never involved in parties or other occasions where a decorated cake will be admired, and Mike hates buttercream icing with a passion.

That's why I didn't try to get Mike to take a class with me... true, I thought it would be a completely fun couples activity where we'd be united in our philosophies that include really not wanting to eat Crisco-based icing or design football-shaped cakes decorated with hundreds of tiny brown flowers. But, it was one thing to drag him to the scrapbooking expo in 2007 (hey, our matching glittering magnets from the make-n-take are charming!). What can you do with a man who hates buttercream? It would be asking too much.

And my Mom? She had fun at the classes, and she decorated one birthday cake for me, and that was it. Despite continuing to enjoy cooking and baking, I never saw her touch a pastry bag again.

Time passed. I kept toying with the idea. But why do a cake decorating class? It's not like you learn the fancy stuff right away, either. And you have to buy supplies. And you have to declutter your apartment even further to make room for those supplies. Bah. Leave it alone.

And then a few weeks ago, in the spirit of actually doing the things on Pinterest and not just gawking at them, I made these: Cherry Coke Float Cupcakes.

Except mine didn't look at all like that. Mine... had more of a "bloodshot eyeball" effect.

Ew.

However, they were delicious. And so moist. You should definitely make some of these.

The cherry frosting, however sad looking, was completely yummy, and I even sort of understand why I ended up with fluffy gloop (that I flung onto the cakes with a spoon) instead of icing that could be piped into artful swirls.

Not that I was going for that. No, that happened a few days later, while I was still under the spell of the Cherry Coke Float success and decided to use up some Meyer lemons for cupcakes with chocolate frosting.

Poo!

I think we all know what that looks like. Like, literally looks like.

I swear our kitchen isn't bathed in hot studio lights. But even if I had done better with the stiffness of the buttercream (maybe I should've used a different recipe from last time), there was no excuse for the frosting spilling over the top of the decorating bag or me not being able to think of a design more interesting than the attempted swirls.

The part of me that's been saying, "Yeah, I'll learn cake decorating someday with YouTube and plenty of practice" began to falter.

So I suppose I was ripe when my phone buzzed last Saturday. Ah, an alert from my Michaels app. (If you ever shop at Michaels - and I do, since Jo-Anns and Hobby Lobby are both on the other side of the valley and not right around the corner - get the app. Just get it,)

Hmmm, a class open house? And all Wilton classes are half off?

Now, I know the situation with Michaels and their Wilton classes. They cost more than at other places. You're meant to wait for the deal, the coupon, the whatever. (This is true of anything you buy at Michaels, so again, get the app. You will always have a 40%-off coupon.) So, this "buy 2 classes, get 2 classes free" promotion (with the less-advertised "or get a single class for half price" side note) wasn't a rare and special occasion.

But, as they say in Grouponia, the deal was on. Was it time to take the proverbial plunge? (And have you seen those cupcake plungers that inject creamy frosting into the middle of the cupcake?)

I drove over. I walked up to the table. I nodded politely during the spiel. (Like I hadn't read the Wilton class forums every single time I got the "Should I?" blues.)

I noted and respected that this instructor doesn't require that you spring for and/or bring everything on the Wilton list (damp cloths, icing colors, sticky notes, and Wilton-brand icing). I liked that she mentioned up front that cookies might not be decorated during the first class. (A common complaint on the forums.)

Ten minutes later I was signed up for a month's worth of two-hour classes ($22), with the "Decorating Basics Student Kit" ($23 after app coupon) under my arm.

Yeah, most agree that it makes better financial sense to go for the Wilton ultimate caddy, $120 + tax after coupon. But, even if I planned to take all four classes - and I already know I can't do the other two until September if this ends up being totally fun - I'd rather start small and see what happens. Again, there's only so much space in the closet.

So. Here we are. Twenty-six hours away from my first cake decorating class.

I'd like to write more on this, but I have to make my now-daily trip to Michaels. Why? Well, that falls under "more." (Which comes before "later.")

08 March 2012 |

Previously: Prezi Pressie

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Prezi Pressie

Last year my dear friend and brilliant co-worker Tillie did a great staff development session (four words you almost never see together) on Prezi, which is like PowerPoint and its equivalents, but a little more dynamic for students to use. (I feel it challenges them more to thoughtfully innovate when it comes organization.)

I sort of forgot about Prezi for two reasons. One, the usual down-to-earth bull. Aside from the obvious issues of getting accounts for all of the kids and booking lab time, we can't forget - especially this year! - the risk of taking time (as little as it might be) to teach students about Prezi when the new curriculum guidelines (or at least the admins who interpret them) would probably rather that we not use minutes that could be spent doing English-y things on learning new web apps when the old ones will do.

The other reason is that it was during Tillie's Prezi presentation that my cough was so deep and unforgiving that I nearly threw up and passed out simultaneously, and I scampered home after that (er, after fulfilling my last 20 minutes of contract time, of course) and promptly took to my bed with what ended up being pneumonia. (Which we all joked about at the time, but it's a year later and the wheeze is still working on steadily going away.)

But this morning, while brainstorming with Mike over tech-centered student activities as he does this final lap on the road to becoming an English teacher (the sick freak), I remembered Prezi. So, I made one as a demonstration... and of course it has to do with dwarf hamsters. (Because I just wanted to rush something out and also not have it be work-related. That said, the message is still important.) And now I'm going to practice embedding said Prezi (press the arrow at the bottom to begin):

Note: Click "More" to view in full screen. You can also zoom in and out with your mouse's scroll wheel. Such fun!

Yep - the whole point of this entire post was so I could see what an embedded Prezi looked like.

But Prezi does offer myriad possibilities for those who either need to visually organize information. And the fact that it's still here a year after Tillie's dealybob is encouraging.

What I really like is that it lets you log in with Facebook. I know some people dislike FB, and of course that's okay, but for those of us who use the social networking site, it's always such a bonus when we don't have to create Yet Another User Name and Password for Yet Another Site. (And then try to remember it a few weeks later.) Woot, Pinterest, Prezi... I just click "log in with Facebook" and I'm in. No further drama. Even better, unlike some web sites (stupid Pogo.com), Prezi doesn't write on your wall.

So, that's all I have to say this morning. Dwarf hamsters aren't starter pets (I can barely hold Madeleine myself - it's the rodent equivalent of riding the Gilley's bull), Prezi is a cool thing, and I worked out in the fitness room yesterday, with GUYS in the room and everything, but that's another story. (Hopefully more of a series of long, life-changing novels, but at this point barely even a vignette.)

P.S. Hamster: Vanessa. Hands: Mike. Fuzzy socks purchased for free with one of those amazing $10-off anything Kohl's cards: Mine.

22 February 2012 |


Comments

Dan.weise

I love it! Cool tool and cool presentation. One interesting think I found was that I could zoom in and out withthe scroll wheel of the mouse.

Can't wait for more on the life-changing novels front.

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Dump the Genie out of the Bucket

(I don't know what that post title means. Cross genealogy off of your bucket list? Sometimes I just like the sound of something and figure we can assign meaning as we see fit. Aren't there entire forms of literary criticism based on that? And criticism of that criticism, but anyway...)

Ancestry.com has the 1930 census available for free until until Monday night. I suspect they're creating a bit of buzz in anticipation of the 1940 census, which will be released to the public in 45 days. I remember when 1930 came out - it seemed like this day was forever away. In fact, I remember waiting the seven years after I started research for 1930 to come out, and that also felt like forever. How amazing to have lived through so many eternities!

The census data is always kept private for 72 years, which I suppose implies that if you're still alive when a census with you on it is released, you've either lived your share or society no longer cares about your privacy as you'll be gone soon anyway. Rather icky either way. But, I console myself that all of my grandparents were still alive when their first census was released, and hopefully my grandmothers will still be here in 45 days. I wonder if they'll lengthen the waiting period for future generations, especially those for whom "privacy policy" is an everyday phrase, those who never knew what it was like to have to pay extra to have an unlisted number.

(Is that still the case? I haven't had a land line for seven years.)

Of course I will have to reactivate my Ancestry subscription in six weeks, even though it's probably impossible for the 1940 census to assist with any of my brick walls. (I fervently hope I end up eating those words, of course!) I wonder if the price will go up with the new census? Hmmm.

With a lot of down time for allergies and possibly another cold (which would make it the third in four weeks, so let's hope not), I've been spending more time in front of the computer, although not so much with the genealogy - it's day will come again soon enough. Instead, I've been refreshing my Irish on Rosetta Stone (a generous gift - I could never have justified the cost myself), upping my game significantly in Photoshop (speaking of expensive gifts) through some excellent podcasts that are also available on Youtube (where, unlike in iTunes, you can start from the very beginning), dreaming big on Pinterest, and even using Pinterest as a research tool for a few projects.

One of those projects is an idea I have for making a wall-size family tree. But, instead of names (although these could be added later), I want to use postcards of the area the family members are from. And instead of a family tree, I've started thinking about doing something more like an ancestral geographical timeline.

So, I've started making a spreadsheet - one column per decade. Then I look through my family tree and figure out where all of my ancestors were in or near a given year. (If someone moves to, say, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, in 1851, I'm not going to wait until the 1860 spot to put up a Sheboygan postcard, especially if they've moved by 1859. Judgement calls will be made.)

Right now I'm still in the organizing-via-spreadsheet stage. One thing about my family, and probably a lot of other American families west of the Mississippi, is that we have tended to be on the scoot. At no point can I seem to say, "Oh yes, and in this town the so-and-sos lived for three generations." Three generations in the same town? I'm happy to get two generations in the same state! Wandering feet - I was born with 'em.

The next phase will be the fun part: skulking around eBay, finding the perfect postcards to represent these locations. For some I can try to find postcards from around the same time, but "pretty, cheap, and geographically relevant" are all far more important. I'm sure it will take ages to collect them all. (One thing I might insist on is that they're postally used. I already collect both stamps and used postcards, so this fits that.)

When I have all of the cards, I'll have to come up with a wall design that will display them in an attractive way while allowing the viewer to start at the modern end and work backwards. Overlapping will be inevitable, but there must also be room to add more cards as research (hopefully) continues. I suppose there will be a bubble-bulge shape, with only a few cards on the modern end (2010 = one postcard for Las Vegas for Mike and me, and one postcard for Fort Worth for my parents and grandmothers), then many more cards as all the branches of my family AND Mike's are considered and keep doubling (or should we do two walls, one for each of us, and have all our cards meet at the connecting corner? oooo!), but then fewer cards again as those dead ends in research start presenting themselves.

I have no idea how this can be stylishly done, but I'm sure collecting the cards will be interesting and informative enough in its own right if the display doesn't pan out. (I've always been better at ideas than execution when it comes to crafty stuff.)

So, to this end, I also have a Pinterest board going with pretty photos of places my ancestors lived. I know it's not my culture, but I like to get a feel of where I'm coming from. Joyce Carol Oates would argue that it's one way to know where you're going to.

(Okay, that was just a cheap excuse to link to the story. But does anyone else remember watching the very racy Smooth Talk - with Laura Dern, and based on this story - on PBS in the mid-80s? I never liked Treat Williams the actor after that.)

I realize that spending paragraphs explaining a craft idea without a single durn photo is not how we do things in 2012, so if anyone actually made it through all of those paragraphs, I encourage you to make a postcard timeline and then come back here and brag about it. Will you be full-on linear or perhaps incorporate a swirl? Or maybe work up and down vertically in lines, like a paint roller? Look for mine on Pinterest - hopefully before the 1950 census is released.

17 February 2012 |


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Quick-Pickled Cucumbers

I've been debating with myself for over a week on whether to hyphenated "quick-pickled." Is it a compound adjective modifying the noun "cucumbers"? (I say yes, and so the hyphen.) Or is "quick" describing the compound noun "pickled cucumbers"? (Could be. No hyphen.) But if so, then why not just say, "Quick Pickles"? I mean, who other than foodies and farm wives even thinks about "pickle" on its own to mean anything other than a cucumber?

Oh, my head. (It's been happily full of cucumbers, pickled in the quick way, since last week.)

See, over on Pinterest, which is the greatest threat to my Facebook time since Facebook was the greatest threat to my World of Warcraft time, I pinned a recipe for ginger scallion noodles. (I need to taste it before I decide whether to hyphenate it.)

And then I thought, "I know you, me. You'll make a big pot of this, eat two bowls the first night, rave about how it's a keeper, pat yourself on the back for increasing your lazy cooking repetoire, and then the leftovers will languish in the fridge for two weeks until you sheepishly throw them out because you'll be 'Oh. Soup. Boring.' every day thereafter."

But I still want to make the noodles because I'm a changed woman, honest. And part of that change involves stepping up the production of new side dishes to accompany new main dishes, so the new main dishes will not get so samey so quickly. (And this is all part of the bigger change to actually make more of the things I pin on Pinterest.)

The noodle recipe recommended serving with quick pickled cucumbers (no hyphen), so I found this recipe (also no hyphen), and I made said cucumbers, pickled, quickly.

(But I did not make the noodle dish, what with having only Chinese egg noodles and not Ramen noodles. I thought I'd go the next day to the Asian district and get some proper Ramen noodles, after not finding them at two other grocery stores, which would then give my cukes more time to soak, making them Not-as-Quickly Pickled Cucumbers, and you'll notice that the addition of an -ly suffix means I can't hyphenate, and the voices of grammar debate start up in my head again. People used to ask if I got bored as an only child. What? With all this neurotic fun built right in?!)

(Anyway, it's a week later, and I still haven't made the noodle dish. I have made potato tacos, which were delicious, and lemon baked pasta from Pioneer Woman, which was edible, and I also made chocolate ginger biscotti, which NEVER HAPPENED, because it's not on the Alaska cruise "diet"... on which I have only gained weight although admittedly I feel better, despite having two separate colds over the past four weeks, one of which required several days off work, so let's pretend this whole paragraph never happened and just drop it.)

I made the pickles, which taste nothing like pickles, but they are pretty yummy. And pretty unhealthy, I guess - does so much sugar go into regular pickles? - but I suppose that's why you only use a few to accent your ginger scallion noodle dish... and not swipe a small handful every time you serve up your leftover potato tacos or baked lemon pasta.

Station Casino gift actually works?

In the continuing spirit of trying new things, I dug up one of the mandolines we received free from Station Casinos some years ago. I assumed it was crap, and it seemed all plasticky and junky like crap, so it's been in the "casino hoard" cupboard (double-wide) for several years, along with fanny packs, knives, photo frames, seasonal cookie jars, and more coffee cups (with saucers!) than I know what to do with. And about 13 candy dishes, per the last crapola census. Walk around any Las Vegas thrift store - they can't give this stuff away.

It's not all crap, but I really need to get rid of the coffee mugs. Mike says noooo, they're part of our loot, plus have sentimental value, but I challenge him to even notice once they're gone. In fact, they could be gone already.

Or not. The next time you're in Las Vegas, why not consider mixing up your drunken slot play, helicopter touring, and ultralounge crashing with a road trip out to the southwest part of the valley, where we even have a bus stop now, and picking up some free coffee cups? Feel like a local, circa 2007, before everything went toes-up. Free shot of Torani's watermelon syrup if you bring your own Sprite.

(I think Mike over-ordered as we still have six bottles, and neither of us is drinking much soft drink these days. ALASKA! And you can just take the Torani ginger syrup and also the chocolate macademia, and maybe the grapefruit. Those were all poo.)

Unless, like I said, the cups are already gone, tossed in the Dumpster because artfully smashing them then using the pieces to make cool mosaics is exactly the sort of fartsy idea that I think about but never do, and then I become a candidate for certain starts-with-an-H TV shows as I hold on to my "art supplies." (And once again I'm testing to see how often Mike checks here for updates. At my 2011 rate of posting, I dare say he might be the last one left.)

So anyway. Pickles. Quick. Swedish. Marcus Samuelsson. Yes, this is everyone's Ethiopian-Swede eye candy's recipe. Also learned from Epicurious.com: quick-pickled cucumbers (which probably don't require a hyphen debate when written in Swedish) are, in fact, the second most popular condiment in Sweden.

Maybe that will be a trivia question on the Alaskan cruise.

For whatever reason, maybe because I'm kind of flighty about some things, I decided to slice the cucumbers along the sides, into strips, instead of into rounds.

Then I thought, "That seems silly, so let's do both." (Me and the mouse in my pocket, by which I mean the hamster on the floor.)

The mandoline was pretty exciting, making quick slices that made me feel so culinary and professional. You don't know how empowering this was to a person like myself, known for her lack of knife skills. Do you know how I chop onions? It involves a lot of hacking at the larger chunks of onion and sending out miniature cowboys to corral all of the escaped slices from beyond Cutting Board Ranch.

I didn't want to stop. I got down to the nub of the cucumber. No - how could the fun be over?! Just a few more slices.

Mandoline Manicure

I call this pic "Mandoline Manicure." Or "Lucky."

(It's hard to see, but a wedge of fingernail is missing down to the quick.)

Per the recipe, I put kosher salt on the slices for 30 minutes to, I think, help dry them. During that time I boiled 1.5c water with 1c sugar and a half-cup of white wine vinegar, and a bay leaf. No allspice berries because I didn't have such things, and I'm chintzy when it comes to niche ingredients.

The sugar/vinegar mixture cooled, and I rinsed the salted cucumbers. Then I squeezed and squeezed and tried to get all of the moisture out, but that was a mess, and it felt like I was just mashing all of the cucumber up in my fists. (I wasn't.) Still, I know I didn't get the cukes dry enough. Next time I'll just leave on the salt and squeeze from there. I love salt. It will be fine.

I slid all the cucumber strips (and rounds!) into a bowl, poured the brine over it, and left it in the fridge overnight.

And it was goooood.

Quick Pickled Cucumbers

10 February 2012 |


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Dan.weise

OK, now I need to get some ingredients and try out this recipe. Looks like a delicious side dish. Might even experiment with other seasonings...

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When Life Imitates Porn

Not to rush away from the Alys memorial post (this one and that one both being backdated - I'm actually typing a week or so later in February), but I so rarely have an anecdote worth sharing.

So, on the night Alys fell into a coma, I had just found out that I didn't make the cut for jury duty again and - having been called and rejected twice - my service was now complete. Rats, but just as well, because I wanted to be able to take Alys to the vet in the morning if she seemed uncomfortable. (She didn't, but she deserved a second opinion.) Meanwhile, I was a bit sick myself, but nothing major. All of these factors in place, I called in for a sub.

Mike, being in Australia and thus limited to Skype while being distracted with writing his daily six-page paper for an intense two-week part of course he's doing for a grad program (which requires that he travel back and forth to Australia throughout this year), didn't quite catch that I had called in.

Around 1:00 a.m. Alys slipped away from us and past the velvet rope that leads to invitation-only access to Hammie Heaven, and by now I was in an ouchie state that required the force of a leftover Tylenol 3. I already had my sub, so why not conk?

Because it was 1:30 a.m. and I felt like poo, there wasn't much I could do with little Alys, so I laid her out on tissues on the carpet, next to her hamitat. (I couldn't leave her body in there with Vanessa and Caroline. They had both, especially Caroline, been covering her up all night and fussing over her. I had to even take Caroline out for a bit because in the early stages she kept trying to rouse her mother and sometimes drag her to their main nest.) I went to sleep.

I never heard the doorbell ring 20 times. I never heard the knocking. I never heard anything until my eyes flew open as my bedroom door was being opened.

A man stood there.

"Um, hello?" I started to sit up, not processing anything, thank goodness, or I probably would've had a heart attack on the spot.

"I'm with the fire department?" the man said, and he did have that sort of look about him.

I paused. Even in my groggy but very startled state, this didn't seem to be how people were usually rescued from fires.

"Is everything okay?" I asked. (Thinking, "Oh, crap. Am I going to have to evacuate? With all these hamsters?")

"We're here because your husband hadn't heard from you in eleven hours."

What?

"Um, my husband is in Australia."

"Yeah... We know."

You can guess what happened. Mike didn't see/hear from me before I went to work. He knew my jury duty was cancelled, so why didn't I come on to Skype to say bye? That's what we do every morning, then he goes to bed right after I leave. I only wouldn't do it if I were physically unable...

All Mike could think about was how I'd been in some pain last night, restless and whimpering (it was unusually bad), and he remembered that I took a Tylenol 3 once Alys no longer needed me, but he didn't really think it through that I took the pill too late in the evening to be able to go to work the next day.

So, Mike called my work and was relieved to hear that I had a sub... but 11 hours? When normally I call eight hours a big stretch?

Mike called the property manager, Frances. He begged her to go inside and check on me, but she said she couldn't without permission... which is bizarre, since we're both on the lease and his permission has been good enough in the past to let in workers, etc. But what she could do is come around and knock and ring the doorbell, which she did to no answer. He called her back, and she suggested 911. He pointed out that he was in Australia. (Does anyone know how to call Las Vegas 911 from Australia?) She called 911 for him.

And some minutes later (the fire station is right around the corner), I had four fire department personnel standing in my bedroom - three guys and a woman. (Something for everyone's fantasy, I suppose. And yes, to answer everyone's question, they were all totally young and cute.)

The woman said, "We're going to have to ask you some questions." (I'm still sitting up in bed, looking amazed.) "What day is it?" "What year is it?" And then from the lead guy: "How many pills did you take?"

All I can say is that I'm glad, on this rare occasion, I'd gone to bed with a t-shirt and pants.

"Do you require any further medical attention?"

No, but I figured him asking that meant that I could check "yes" next to "Did you see a doctor?" on the absence forms teachers have to fill out.

Of course, the worst part was that the floor was in need of a vacuum and the kitchen countertops were messy. I reassured Mike on Skype (who thought I'd be mad, but no, just still stunned, as so many of us are when the fire department comes to the foot of the bed to wake us up) then quickly did ten minutes' worth of housework and pretended it looked that way when they came in.

I try not to dwell on whether or not they saw Alys lying in state like a tiny Lenin. (Well, our hamsters are Russian dwarves.) At least they didn't have a camera crew, which in 2012 is always a real concern. (Like the time I pulled to the highway shoulder in Austin for a flat tire, circa 1994, and a police officer, perhaps trying to look extra macho for his TV people who stood around while I shuffled laundry in my trunk to get to the spare, issued me a citation. A citation for having a flat tire.)

Alys was nicely put to rest later that day, and the school secretary laughed to hear about the firemen, which is good since every teacher knows that you never, ever, ever piss off the school secretary, and dealing with your distraught Aussie husband in the middle of a busy day might've qualified as that.

And so this was the story of the night Alys died and Mike got to look like the sweetest husband on Earth (which he is), while I got to look like some pill-poppin' dead hamster hoarder. I expect the Bob Dylan ballad will run seven, maybe eight minutes. Movie rights sold separately.

27 January 2012 |

Previously: Alys

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Alys

Alys - Sitting Up

Alys, gentle mother of so many little hamsters, many of whom arrived two weeks after we adopted her and her companions, many of whom we suspect to be her offspring as well.

She lived a low-key life, always sweet and never fussed, with her daughters Caroline and Vanessa. And like many of her daughters (Adora Belle, Madeleine, Vanessa, and probably Charlotte), she developed tumours fairly early on. Luckily hers didn't keep her from running in the wheel or playing peekaboo in the cottage, and she seemed to always be happy.

After all, this is how we adopted her:

Shelter Hammies

And soon after there was, with help from the fellow in the lower right corner above (the SPCA is historically not-so-hot at separating males from females), a lot of this:

Alys and Four of Seven

For a year and a little over two months, we've had eighteen (18!) dwarf hamsters, all just about the same age. I wish we had fewer, just so we could spoil each one better, especially since this lot will be the last. But at the same time, I wouldn't give up any of them. (Although, as I said on Facebook a few months ago, "I just realized that we're the Duggars of the hamster world.")

Alys lived at least 17 months, and I'm guessing it's a lot closer to 20 months or beyond. A goodly age either way for a dwarf hamster with tumours and litters and an early life of stress. We miss her, our last matriarch, but we are, as always, grateful for good lives and peaceful ends. Love and kisses and all the tofu you want, little Alys.

Alys with Bruncheon Tofu

26 January 2012 |


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And I Actually Need to Buy Some Dishwashing Soap

This post is completely inspired by just having watched a commercial for Dawn dishwashing detergent with Olay inside. It's not really about the soap - although we are out - but about the cute little sponge featured in the commercial.

YouTube has any number of Dawn commercials, but not the one with the pink sponge with fuschia daisies in it.

I actually have pink daisies in our kitchen right now. Ooo.

Kitchen Daisies

Half-price at Fresh and Easy, even. (Which is my most recent Yelp review and finally puts me past 100. Maybe I can stop now. Maybe I'll opine here again instead.)

Maybe it's the 2 a.m. talking, and the way The Bob Newhart Show is on the television (which just led to me downloading a sample of Marcia Wallace's autobiography), and the fact that I'm on Day 8 of a strangely nasty cold but really must go to work in five hours despite flip-flop sleep and continuing oogeyness what with having missed the last four days and final exams started in six hours... but I thought I'd catch up the unseen world on what's happening with me these days.

Oh and look, I just did.

By the way, I'm not happy with everything that's on the fridge door. I come from a people who prefer, to this day, a silky smooth refrigerator front. And although Mike and I have collected a few cherished magnets, it's a careful collection, and things like free business magnets get put in clutter drawers if we like the business, then eventually thrown away when my WASPy upbringing manages to wrestle for itself a little extra forebrain.

But it's not the magnets that bother me, but the big empty (and ugly) notepad that I won't let myself take down until we plan more meals, damnit, and the card on the left that I made for Mike some years back and that, when told last year to find a home for it so it would stop looking out of place in the bedroom bookcase, he chose to stick where you see it now. So now I scroll back up to the photo and think, awww, him placing the card there is more touching than me gluing it together in the first place. Of course that's where it must stay.

But the big notepad has got to go.

And speaking of "got to go" - I have a few hours left to lie awake and wonder how I'm going to function, even as proctor and especially as freeway driver, on reduced mental capacity as I go to work at bedtime and come home after 24 hours of being awake.

How I envy those of you who can just... sleep.

18 January 2012 |

Previously: Alpha 2 Zulu

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Alpha 2 Zulu

When not feeling sad/guilty about all the posts I don't write (because I'm just a hack for the Yelp man, doncha know, as I try to hit 100 reviews before winter break ends), I like to counter the blank spaces with inane fodder such as follows:

What my browser autofills in for me when I type each letter of the alphabet.

(Hopefully nothing embarassing. Let's see.)

A is for Ancestry.com, where I don't currently have a subscription.

B is for BestBuy.com, where they're never going to list the Canon 7D for half-off Amazon's price, but I keep checking anyway.

C is for CNN.com. My apologies to my dad. I swear I must never go to URLs that start with a C because I usually go weeks if not months without checking this site. How in the world does it beat out Chase.com?

D is for Docs.Google.com. Right on.

E is for eBay.

F is for Facebook. Sorry, Flickr.

G is for Gmail.

H is for some convoluted long URL that leads to HSBC which is where I make those 0% promotional interest-free payments on the television we finally bought last summer.

I (is for something else below, I'm using the pronoun here) almost wrote a whole post about credit card tomfoolery recently, specifically about how misleading the billing period and the payment date can be. To wit: I made a payment on the 5th of the month. The due date was on the 19th. I then made a payment on the 25th of the same month, anticipating that it would be applied to the due date of the 19th the next month. (In each case I paid at least 4x the monthly minimum.)

The next month, I made a payment on the 20th, remembering that I'd last paid on the 25th and not wanting more than 30 days to go by without a payment. (Because of grace periods and whatnot.) I also figured it was the earliest I could pay for the following month, since the due date had just passed the day before.

Ha! I was slammed with a $30 late fee, a new monthly minimum, an interest charge, and a new scary-number APR.

This happened because, and I know you already figured this out, although my due date was on the 19th, my billing period ended on the 26th. So, when I paid the next month's bill early, it was really just going on the same bill, even though the due date was almost a week earlier. Then, when I thought I was paying the next bill as early as possible (on the 20th), it thought it was a late payment for the month that had just passed.

I called HSBC('s headquarters in India, from the accent) and was very sweet and asked if, in the light of my history (always on time, always paying extra, sometimes making extra payments), someone might see if something could be done. I barely had the words out (again, SWEETLY) before Raj (or Jimmy, as I think he announced himself) in full exasperation started trying to explain where I'd gone wrong.

I stayed sweet (I swear!) even though if there's something on my grrr list it's a customer service person trying to calm me down before I'm become angry. I know they probably just had to deal with 100 ragey, abusive idiots, but I'm nice. Like, I usually end any customer service call blushing and skipping because I've been complimented to bits about how patient/nice/understanding/joyous I am. I'm a bit of a dream, frankly.

And thus I hung in there, acknowledging quite humbly that I totally knew it was my error (but perhaps someone could note that I'd clearly thought I was doing a good thing) and Jimmy-Raj said he would check to see what he could do, and by this time he realized that I was not the usual devil, so when he came back on the line, everything was great - all charges removed and the promotional 0% APR restored with full honors, and we were besties and blah blah honey flies vinegar bad etc.

I'm just sharing that because a) remember that your due date is not the end of your billing period, and b) sometimes life is fair.

I is for IMDB.com. Really?

J is for JoyStiq.com... because I celebrate the Feast of Winter Veil more than I do Christmas, these days. Sorry, Coca-Cola.

K is for KVVU.com - where I usually go instead of CNN. I don't know why. I don't even like the news. I think I went for one story then at some point just typing "k" to see if the news was still insipid became a habit.

L is for LVCCLD.org, our public library, now serving e-books to Kindle owners. (But not making it easy to search for e-books because the same database also includes digital audio books. Why? So, every time I see a title I want, I notice that it's only available in WMA format. Then I go steal the book off IRC... in my imagination, because I'm law-abiding. Very law abiding. That's not even my sarcastic voice. Some of us have future emigration to think about, you know. Remember Meg Ryan's character in French Kiss? I can't afford to be without a country. I don't want to live in an airport.)

M is for Maps.Google.com. I like to stalk the places I used to be and street-view the places I'm about to go.

N is for Netflix. No, I didn't jump ship this summer. See also comments on new TV.

O is for OfficeMax. The August spent constantly checking flyers stays with me. Also, I have a gift card I need to use there.

P is for Pinterest. I love Pinterest so much, I will link my page of pins again: Pinterest!

Q is for QueenMary.com. I think it's my only starts-with-q Q-URL.

R is for Norwegian Pearl Roll Call on Cruise Critic. Odd. Anyway, it's not like I'm going to any meet and greets, so I'm guess I'm just a creeper.

S is for Subscribed threads on Cruise Critic. (One of which is the Roll Call. Heh.)

T is for Typepad.com, which I use to type this, because I haven't had a chance to convert everything to WordPress and do all the fiddly things to keep URLs intact.

U is for The Undermine Journal. You don't want to know. (Nerdy World of Warcraft stuff.)

V is for VirginAmerica.com. Someday they're going to drop those First Class rates, they really are.

W is for Woot.com. As in, "I have a post in progress saved from last month where I talk about all my Woot shirts, but I can't finish it because I can't remember them all, and this is why I no longer participate in Woot's mystery random shirts - that, and Mike keeps complaining about having to find more hangers, and let's not even get started on how I've never actually worn one. Like I said, a whole other post.")

X is for XE.com. Did I even go here in 2011?

Y is for Yelp.com. Of course.

Z is for ... a URL I think I'd rather not give out. It's a little too powerful for my taste. (In fact, I'm going to turn off comments so no one guesses.)

So there we have it, my personal dot-com Monopoly board. Now back to eating jalapeno gouda, watching Twilight Zone, enjoying those rare few weeks of open windows (61 = perfect!), and not thinking about next week.

Next up: everything I've learned over Winter Break. (Basically, cilantro granita will change how you think about food, and Arkansas Black apples are mealy and bleh, even if you buy them at Whole Foods.)

31 December 2011 |


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Smitten with Written Kitten

My teeth are pretty normal again. (I had forgotten what it was like to be able to brush behind my back molars!) So, while mine wasn't really a horror story (just horrible pain and meds that worked like my hatchback climbing the mountain to Big Bear Lake, and I'll remind you that this past summer that ended with an overheated engine and a night's car rental), Mike has learned to not reassure people that wisdom tooth extractions are "easy" or "pretty painless" or "no big deal." And I have learned that "I will eat soup all the time! Soup is good!" convictions pass pretty quickly once the ability to gnaw returns.

(But Plan Alaska is still underway. In baby steps. The kind of baby steps infants take when they're just dangling from their father's arms and being hopefully swirled and dipped over the carpet.)

I was just on MeFi where someone made a post about writtenkitten. You get a photo of a kitten for every 100 words you write. (Excuse me while I paste this in.)

The 156 words above got me this cutie:

What's for dinner?

Now back to Facebook, where I'm (surely) boring people with too many status updates (three in one evening!), with at least one being - (Susan from Coupling voice) APPARENTLY! - too subtly silly to avoid a rather pointed comment from an acquaintance about (APPARENTLY!) having too much time on my hands.

I have always found them curious, those people who begrudge others for a little mental frolicking on their own dimes. They're not unlike those who proudly say "I have a life" when you're eagerly describing something they find frivolous. I suppose I should be grateful they even took the time away from their cancer-curing and world peace-bringing thinktank to give me those four tired words.

And for that rant I get two kittens!

Neska i Guisla al sofa

Discussion topics from recent status updates (and no, I didn't post each one individually - I'm a bore but not completely uncouth in social networking etiquette):

  • What's up with the Obama-Gillard press conference where, when answering a question, the President suddenly referred to the Aussie Prime Minister as "Julia"? I even asked on MeFi - no responses.
  • So, I have ordinary UV and/or polarizing filters on my lenses, which makes me wonder what effect they have on my photos when they cover the nice glass. (Okay, so only two lenses have nice-ish, not L-quality but well-rated, glass. And I only have four lenses.) I've seen people be persuasive in both directions, and for years I've just left the filters on to protect the glass, rarely even caring about twirling the polarizer. But maybe I should be thinking lens hoods instead? (But they're kind of expensive. But you can make your own! But those aren't very sturdy. Unless you get ambitious! But I'm not ambitious.)
  • Who was our "greatest ally" before the President said this morning that it was Australia? Is there a timeline somewhere? Seriously, because I really thought it might be Canada. Or is Canada more like family and not in the running? How does the UK feel? Was Obama really referring to just Australia or to the whole Commonwealth?
  • I can't decide if Pumpkin-Nutmeg Dinner Rolls would be just so fragrant and interesting or a dense, sickly mess.

I get another kitten!

Weekend In Bed

(These photos are all CC licensed for sharing. I'm assuming, per my own Flickr CC designations, that the direct link and HTML title tags are sufficient attribution.)

I best shut up before I become a full-on cat lady. (Not that there's anything wrong with that... unless you are already a full-on hamster lady.)

17 November 2011 |


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In The Place Where They Call Me Diane

Greetings from Vicodin City, where the Fire Demons and Angels of Ache must keep 50 feet away from the city's enameled walls, and nobody ever poops!

Last Friday morning I had my wisdom teeth (plus a bonus molar) extracted.

Three hours later, we were sitting in a CVS parking lot. Mike was on the phone to AAA, urging them to hurry as his wife was in pain and needed to take her medicine with food. My memory is in snippets. Screaming. Writing "GAUZE! GAUZE!" on the back of an envelope. The AAA guy arriving while Mike was still across the street at the (usual) dentist (not where the surgery took place) getting gauze because CVS was a madhouse. Blood running out of my mouth and down my neck. The AAA guy looking rather spooked. Somewhere in this, our battery was replaced.

I remember throwing bloody gauze down to the floorboards. That was over five days ago. Some warm days ago. I hope it's not still there.

By Friday evening I was feeling better, although it meant supplementing the Vicodin with 800mg ibuprofen.

Saturday was worse. The stiffness that sets in overnight, and all that. The cracked corners of my mouth from where they'd been stretched. So nice for the "care" bag to include lip balm. (And gauze, oops. Not that it would've been enough.) I found myself clenching, over and over, especially if I waited five hours to take another Vicodin. (You can take it every four hours, but the pharmacist said not to take more than five per day. So, I tried to hold out a little each time.)

Sunday was much the same.

On Monday I was writing on Facebook, feeling guilty about missing work and wondering if I was supposed to be better. People were reassuring.

Don't think I wasn't on FB before that, though. My first update came less than an hour after we left CVS:

"Can't believe am already writing on FB. 45 minutes ago was screaming and crying in car for more gauze to bite on (like bullet) while waiting on AAA to fix battery. (See Mike's post.) Vicodin is NOT cutting it, but added ibuprofen and can now grunt short phrases with some coherency. Woke up in chair at the end to "Breathe, Shari, breathe!" over and over. Heard someone say "very bad sleep apnea." Really? Frozen peas are on face - only the site of worst impact hurts now. Am thinking of Tom Hanks with ice skate in Castaway and trying to keep perspective..."

Sleep apnea? I'll think about it later.

On Tuesday I was definitely feeling improvement. At last! And there I was worried about dry socket. Whew!

I didn't take any Vicodin, first because I felt I could get by on 800-1000mg ibuprofen, and later... when I was on my 10th ibuprofen within a two-hour space... because the thought of taking another Vicodin scared the poo out of me.

Or rather, I wish it did.

Yes, yesterday I learned all about the fizzy grape drink bottled under the name Magnesium Citrate. And 90 minutes later, I learned even more. I learned through tears and whimpers and swallowed screams. And I learned that no painkiller was worth the kind of constipation where, even if you've had nothing but pudding and soup and mashed potatoes for five days, there are tears and whimpers and swallowed screams.

But then this morning, on my "well, I know I'm doing better, but let's take this last day to really rest and do things right" day, I woke up around 10 a.m. with Firejaw.

Firejaw = burning, swollen heat around where the worst impacted tooth was. (Ironically, this is the tooth that has given me the very least amount of trouble over the years. I'm not sure it ever really was a problem, maybe because it barely erupted, what with being all sideways.)

Teefies

There, see it on the lower left side? The white smear whose roots are outside of the picture?

And above it you can see the broken nub of a wisdom tooth that started all the trouble, along with the molar that it partially ate, its cohort in urgency.

(If you can't see, click to enlarge in a popup window.)

Before I went to sleep, I was tossing and turning over a strong ache in my lower jaw, on the side of the Bad Ex-Tooth but more forward. But like I said, I woke up with Firejaw, and the pain was very definitely around the area where the tooth used to be. (It's hard to tell when heat and pain are radiating.)

That was at 10:00, so that's when I took 800mg ibuprofen.

At 10:30 I took a Vicodin.

At 10:55 I took 200mg more of ibuprofen.

At 11:15 I called the dentist office. They got me into a post-op appointment this afternoon. (Or I could've had them call the oral surgeon - which was already an option because he gave me his 24/7 cell number - but it seemed better to have someone actually look in my mouth.)

At 12:00 I was feeling okay. I called my Dad. "You sound terrible."

It's nearly 1:00 and I'm still feeling okay. I want a nap, but my appointment is in about an hour.

Tomorrow is a staff day. (With the new policy that if I miss it, I have to make it up with an administrator before and after school next week.) Grades for the quarter are due on Monday by the end of the school day. I've missed six days of school. (Two before surgery due to pain, one for surgery, and now three for recovery.) Let's NOT think about that today, though, okay?

So, that is life with me. (OH NICE. I'm here eating yogurt while I type, and an inch's worth of stitching just came out of my mouth. Sadly, it's the chewiest thing I've had since last week.)

UPDATE (5:00 p.m.)

Post-teefies

Hooray - the doc did some poking and irrigating and says that all is well. Unfortunately, they had to take so much bone (see new X-Ray, above), that it's not surprising that I'm still needing this much painkilling power. But no dry socket, no infection, no trapped food - and no more soft foods and especially no more guilt. So happy! (Hurty, but happy.)

END OF UPDATE

Oh, other than my father-in-law just booked a cruise for the four of us (me, Mike, him, his wife Carol) to go to Alaska! this summer on Norwegian Pearl.

Alaska!

(Sorry HAL, but you were charging insanely higher rates to book from Australia, which we could've worked around, but it offended my father-in-law - who cruised HAL as recently as September - immeasurably to discover he had to pay so much more just for being an Aussie. And no, it's not because of fees or exchange rates - the Australian dollar is stronger than ours at the moment. In fact, their better economy is probably why HAL dares to charge more there.)

(Sorry Carnival, but we can't handle yet another Spirit cruise, especially since it means no thermal suite of any kind. And frankly, your "2.0" upgrades are disappointing to this vegetarian, but that's another post, and the hype surrounding them is even worse. I love John Heald's blog, but the way he now compares everything good to a Guy Fieri burger, and calls the Fieri burger the very best in the world, is laying the promotion on a bit thick. I don't even like Guy Fieri's shows.)

(Sorry, Princess, but we're tempted by the freestyle dining and all of the extra dining options. Sure, there's an upcharge for many of them, but we're used to paying even more for Carnival's steakhouse.)

(Sorry, Disney. I don't think my in-laws are into your product the way we are, and even though we do love The Mouse, we don't want to pay more money to eat with strangers.)

(Sorry, Royal Caribbean. Um. What is it that you offer again? And justify charging more than NCL and Carnival for? I speak of the Alaskan cruises here. Let me know.)

I can't wait to be excited about Alaska! Academically I know that someday soon the thought of ten restaurants on board will mean something other than "Ow" to me.

And that day, when it comes, and please let it come soon, will stretch and stretch into a period of continued deprived longing, because if I'm going to Alaska! this summer with my (never met in person before, picture-takin') in-laws, to Alaska!, where things like hikes around glaciers are meant to be breathtaking in a way that doesn't cause alarm in others, someone is going to have to wake up her Wii Fit avatar again.

Eight months. That's about how long I had before Mike came to the States the first time and we planned a big whirlwind trip to Walt Disney World and Las Vegas. And I "got ready." By the time his plane landed, I still felt like a cow who was only halfway done with her weight loss (and I was), but when I look at the pics now, I sure wouldn't mind rolling back to that point.

Snow Glee

Fatty McFatpants at Mt. Charleston, February 2001.

So, we will consider the soft foods (minus the pudding) of the past near-week to be a fortuitous start to, well, something I've done so many times before, but without any real earnestness for six or so years.

Alaska!

P.S. The title of the post? My middle name is Diane. For some reason, the office where I had my oral surgery had me down as preferring to go by my middle name. So, at first, everyone was calling me Diane. I felt a bit Shirley Jacksonish, and thank goodness the surgeon's name wasn't Dr. Harris, but after I corrected the staff, I sort of missed Diane. How often do I get to use my middle name? So, Diane is my dental name. But Shari's the one going to Alaska!

27 October 2011 |


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And then, 23 years later, I visited the dentist again.

There comes a point where you put off going to the dentist for so long that it becomes, in your head that now may or may not have cavities (paging Dr. Schrodinger, DDS), too embarrassing to go to the dentist.

After a wonderful evening remembering why Lindsey Buckingham is one of the top live performers today (a sentiment deserving its own blog post, but you know I'll never get around to it), my face was brutally ripped open from nose to neck.

Or that's what it felt like. And then the evil spirits brought out the lemon juice cauldrons.

Yeah, felt more like that.

x50.

My mother always warned me, way back when, that if I didn't get my wisdom teeth out, then SOMEDAY, and that day WOULD be a weekend, Bad Things Would Happen.

And, if right now you're incarcerated in a posh prison with internet access but with most of the internet blocked, perhaps you've read all of my past posts when I thought Bad Things were happening, but then the pain subsided and I settled back into denial. "Hey, I've lasted this long."

And if you're perhaps a psychic prisoner, maybe an X-man of sorts, and that's why they keep you locked up but also restrict your ability to spend time on better sites, then maybe you remember all those blog posts I didn't write, like about the time one erupted wisdom tooth cracked (April 2009), or the time the gum next to that wisdom tooth was starting to shrink away from the perfectly good tooth next to it (2010?), or the time the now-jutting-out no-longer-so-perfectly-good bystander tooth just broke in half while I was eating (date erased by denial mechanisms).

If you don't pay the Tooth Fairy, she charges interest.

And so, per the title, today I found myself back at the dentist at last.

Things have definitely changed. I filled out a questionnaire online the night before, where I got to rate my level of fear associated with going to the dentist ("moderate") and share what I thought the dentist should know. (I wrote about how disgusted I was with myself, but the character limit is about a fourth of a tweet, so I had to settle for "Haven't been to the dentist in 23 years. Appalling!")

I don't know if that's why they gave me the super-nice dentist and technician, or maybe they're all that way. By the time the X-rays were underway, I wasn't even scared. But, as soon as the dentist starting tapping that pick on my teeth, the sound took me right back. That's when I realized that it's all big brave talk until the noises begin. I'd far rather have surgery than a cleaning. No whirring. No tapping.

And that's where things will begin, with five teeth being pulled on Friday morning: all of the wisdom teeth (two are impacted and two are just troublemakers) plus that poor tooth that was killed by my stubbornness. (Part stubbornness and part economics, which later transformed into part "I don't know anyone in this city who I feel I can ask to drive me home afterward," which - by the time Mike arrived - just became "LA LA LA LA LA CAN'T HEAR YOU.")

(Short break.)

I must try to sleep and see if I can go without the Tylenol 3 tonight. As nice as it would be to have a medicated holiday tomorrow while I wait for the surgery, it's a case of it being more work to make sub plans than to stay at home. (As I discovered when I stayed late on Tuesday, holding my jaw.)

I'd intended for the above to just set the scene for some issues I wanted to discuss (okay, rant about), but let's cut straight to the punchline: I'm looking forward to oral surgery. Not because it means I'll be taking care of my health (although that's good), but because I'd rather have five teeth pulled than deal with the shambles that is our education system.

(Not my school, not my students, not their parents, not my co-workers, not my district, not my state, not our country, not anyone employed by any of the above - just our education system. This is hardly the place to point fingers, as I need that broken system to help pay to pull the five teeth.)

What is the buyback policy on souls?

20 October 2011 |

Previously: Wii... Fit... Hic...

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Wii... Fit... Hic...

Today I popped in the Wii Fit disc, and notice my verb "popped" like it's this thing I do every day and not every 181 days. I can be specific because right away Wii Fit mentioned how long it'd been since our last workout together. Pneumonia, recovery, blah blah excuses excuses, but here I am now and let's begin again.

Wii Fit seemed glad to see me, but it couldn't hold back a few passive-aggressive jabs. "Of course I remember your name! I remember every name and every footstep!" "How are you... Mike?" (Robotic Boobah laughter.) "How is Mike?"

And then I had to pick from a list of options. Was Mike SLIMMER? Was he HEAVIER? Was he MORE TONED? Or was he THE SAME?

I chose The Same. (More Boobah cooing.) Oh, did I know that dogs are more encouraged to exercise when they see their owners do it? Maybe I could help Mike and encourage him by doing well today?

Lordy. The Roomba never sasses me like this.

But finally I made it through 24 (official) or 32 (counting be-bopping in place while switching menus) minutes of yoga (3 activities), strength training (1 activity), and aerobics (basic run, basic step, basic boxing THEN advanced boxing because I unlocked that and it was actually making me sweat and not just feel like a doof), took a shower, and am back on my butt on the sofa with a bag of tortilla chips and World of Warcraft open in another window. But I'm drinking water instead of Sprite with a shot of Toroni watermelon flavour so, you know, one step at a time.

Brewfest

Every year WoW has an Oktoberfest-inspired holiday called Brewfest. Year Five is underway right now - not in any kind of Stalinesque way, though - and as usual it's a lot of fun. (By the way, WoW is probably our last stop on the topic train today, so no hurt feelings if you want to activate the in-post escape parachute at this time.)

With the Cataclysm expansion and breaking of the world last year, BF (as I'm now going to abbreviate it) changed a bit in terms of where we do the daily ram racing and the stats on boss Coren Direbrew's drops, but mostly it's the same as it's been since the second year. (Yes, I was lucky enough to buy both rams the first year. And both are 10x more attractive than the ugly orange-ish Horde-side 100-mount achievement sunhawkthingie, but that's another post.) In fact, it's so similar Blizzard forgot to change the quest text for the ram racing. (Poor Mike looked for apple barrels all the way to Razor Hill and back again.)

A thousand kudos, however, for the text that went with this year's purple stein, and for adding the keg pony (not to be confused with the pony keg), so no complaints from me. That said, here are some things I'd like to see added to keep Brewfest fresh:

Trade Prince Gallywix: Okay, this is Mike's idea, but shouldn't TPG be all over this event? Maybe once a day he arrives on a mechanized litter and is just a general ass. Maybe he thinks he's owed taxes on something; I don't know. The drunk revelers ignore his petty tyrant demands, which upsets him. You get a small buff if you can chuck a sampler mug at his head without him noticing.

Dark Iron Hipsters: The poorly defined stereotype we all love to hate would be fun to see coming out of the mole machines every half-hour, but here's what I'm thinking: the dark iron dwarves invade not only for the possibility of free beer as they do now but because they're mad that we have their Dark Iron Ale. Maybe when people are in the Grim Guzzler fighting Coren Direbrew, they can stop to buy some DIA then sell it for a profit to any Brewfest vendor. (Limit the number you can buy or carry or that will be purchased in X amount of time.) Said Brewfest vendor then turns around and sells it at an outrageous markup. (And maybe a cluster of JubJub's tiny grandchildren hop around vendors who have the limited quantities for sale. Maybe selling the brew re-activates the limited quantities, and you can only sell to those who have sold out. And maybe I just realized that it's not the dark iron dwarves who are the hipsters in this scenario, tunnel-visioned righteousness aside.)

Or Alliance Blue-Brew: Some people love imports, that's all I'm saying. Maybe there could be a tie-in quest to steal some of the Alliance drinks? Attack carts on the road to Ironforge? Something PVPy that would annoy me but might be fun for others. (With a way to get the loot without winning the fight.)

Noisier Ogres: Did we used to be able to bark for the ogres? Let's bring that back. I know everyone would take option because their tent is closer to Orgrimmar, so maybe it would only be available when one of the ogres decided to take a break and walk around the grounds to stretch. (And this event would only happen every 3-7 hours, would award 20 tokens instead of 15, and if you do it 10 times, it's an achievement. Oh, and you have to keep pace with the walking ogre and be quick about it because he only does one lap.)

Gear: Anniversary tabards with a number on them (made of signature Brewfest bubbles) for the number of years you've celebrated Brewfest. (Determined by steins/Feats of Strength.) Every year you can turn it in for a new tabard. (Maybe have it just about stein pride? Because 2010's missing stein poses a problem.) Something new and useless to wear makes shopping all the more fun.

Sippy Straws: The goblins will love this the way they love their inflatable pool toys. This year's stein can't be filled from the kegs (right?), so why not sell goofy sippy straws to drink from the BF keg (ew), pony keg, or keg pony('s kegs)? And a random buff of short duration could proc based on how good the straw was and/or where you used the straw. Maybe there could be a quest to gather reeds (cheap straws?) or materials for glassblowing (curvy, lasting straws).

For my own home-based Brewfest celebratin', I finally bought a bottle of Young's Double Chocolate Stout. Is it as good as some claim, or will Whole Foods' "coffee" keyword on the display prove all too accurate?

26 September 2011 |

Previously: Sprechen (Typ)

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Sprechen (Typ)

So, remember that trip to Salt Lake City that I never blogged about? Where the microfilm laid bare generations of Mike's peeps (yes, I non-ironically say "peeps" now - I think Pepys would approve) from Germany? (And a bit from England but damn if he's not collecting at least three different lines of Wilsons, which are just as bad as Smiths, almost, in a genealogy-off.)

No, of course you don't, but suffice to say when we came home it was all click-click-hey-cousin! And now Mike has a cousin (ummm, firing up Family Tree Maker), specifically a second cousin once removed, that we type to over in Germany. (We = me, because Mike gets embarrassed.)

And when I say type, Ich meine, dass ich Dinge Typs in Google Translate und dann kopiere ich die Ergebnisse in einem anderen Fenster der GT und dann kopiere ich * die * Ergebnisse noch einmal zu überprüfen, und so weiter, immer und immer wieder. Und dann habe ich auch einfügen, die Engländer. Und dann die Cousine schreibt mir in Deutsch und Englisch, und ich bin mir nicht sicher, ob er beide Sprachen spricht und jetzt ist es zu umständlich für ihn zu erwähnen. Hrm. Auf jeden Fall werde ich nicht cross-check dieses oder auch die englische, weil es einfach viel alberner auf diese Weise. Wenn Sie Deutsch sprechen. (Was ich eindeutig nicht.)

We need a photo. Here, in case I never do that SLC post, is the death record of Mike's great-grandmother - Mina Luisa (Fiand) Späth. We only knew her name from the refugee documents that accompanied Mike's grandmother and family to Australia. It was at this point we realized we were on to something. (And then we spent the rest of the trip hot on the trail.)

It Starts to Get Amazing

So yeah, that's what Mike gets. And that's probably the most illegible record in 200 years of scrolling through microfilm. By day three, I could almost believe I could speak German, so legible and neat were the records.

But as for my own family, what did I get?

WTH, French Parish Priest?

Merci, 17th-century French parish priest. You suck.

Tomorrow the San Gennaro Feast starts, this time at the Rio. I haven't been since Mike first came here. Neither one of us is a bit Italian, as far as we've discovered, unless you count my great(x35)-grandfather, which we don't. (He doesn't look like the sausage, pepper and onions type. Also, that would be a prat move on my part.)

But, as I eat this delicious roasted red pepper pesto penne that Mike made tonight based on my Pinterest board, perhaps it's time to forge a few italiani onto the family bark. (And he served it with ciabatta - così delizioso!) Hmmm, and doesn't Babycakes make a lovely tiramisu cupcake? And don't we have free slot play at M tonight? Hmmm.

(Arrivederci!)

13 September 2011 |


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Ricotta, Peppers, Garlic

Something has happened in the past month or two: I've completely changed my pizza topping preferences.

Before I was firmly a mushroom person; maybe mushroom + onions if it didn't cost too much. If I didn't like the mushrooms at a particular place, or just wasn't in the mood, I'd get onions + pineapple. Or sometimes just pineapple. On a few occasions I even saw my pizza covered in mushrooms + pineapple and sometimes + onions as well, but then I'd remember why I don't do that. I also like black olives, but I don't like too many toppings interfering with the cheese patches, plus olives can be a little too bitter.

I don't know what happened. I think it's because of Mac Shack, this place down the road where they make pasta to order. Pick a sauce, pick a noodle, pick toppings, etc. (You can see my Yelp review here. The first visit was "meh," but the second-chance visit sealed the deal.) Tired of carrying over my pizza preferences into pasta, I decided to order pasta with roasted pepper cream sauce, ricotta, jalapenos, and garlic.

Yum! And then I tried it the other way: ordering the same ingredients on pizza. Yum-YUM!

It's funny because I hated mushrooms as a child, but when I became a vegetarian I decided to try the scary fungus again, just to make sure I hated them, because back in those days, if you didn't eat mushrooms, you were looking at a lot of sad cheese + bread + sides dishes at restaurants. And luckily - unlike with cooked spinach and soggy collard greens and okra in almost any form - this was one ingredient where my childhood yucky-meter was wrong. (Maybe those over-sensitive kiddie tastebuds find mushrooms just a spot too pungent?)

So, the mushroom pizza that was my gateway to second chances 24 years ago has been semi-retired in favour of more spice and the strangely pleasant sensation of cloudy clumps of ricotta. I wonder what other food revelations are waiting for me. I'm eager to try spaghetti squash...

Otherwise, we've been getting Indian almost every weekend. Last night I milled around the former La Concha/El Morocco parking lot while Mike ran in to the Riviera food court for what is (surprisingly) some of the best Indian in the city. (Although the naan was rather terrible this time.) Oh look, here's another Yelp review from me.

But I'm really sick of eating out, honestly. Even when we only do it once a week. Mike now makes curries as good as any we can buy, and until a new restaurant opens, I feel like I've worn out the thrill of trying new things. With a bunch of cooking possibilities pinned to my Pinterest board and a book called 660 Curries within fingers' reach, here's hoping that my resident chef and senior Roomba operator will be cutting down on our to-go box footprint soon...

12 September 2011 |


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Rather Inevitable, Quite.

Keep Calm and Kiss Hamsters

Made with the Keep-Calm-o-Matic.

11 September 2011 |

Previously: Summer Rolls (Over)

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Summer Rolls (Over)

Home from a spontaneous meal at Panna Thai. I've come to regret meals out that stem from laziness and not seeking some new dining experience... is this why people take up skydiving? Mike has resolved to pay better attention to my "Vegetarian Pleasures" Pinterest board and cook accordingly.

Tonight we're watching season one of (deleted). I'd say what, but the same people who delight in popping to throw out insults would probably also throw out spoilers, if they thought it would upset me. (Why am I so powerful to get such a rise out of passing strangers? Is it because I'm the Dalai Lama's secret suburban twin? When Mike heard that the Dalai Lama loves cheese, bread, cilantro, and sweets, everything suddenly made sense.)

I will say that it's not Mad Men - finally got into that this past summer. As excellent as the hype. (But when is Sal coming back?!)

Last night we watched Olivier's iconic speech from Henry V (III.i) after seeing Branagh do it. Um, Olivier was shit. And I remember thinking the same thing twenty years ago when my friend Julie had a paper due so we watched both Zeffirelli's and Olivier's Hamlet. Okay, I'm no Mel Gibson fangirl, but Olivier? Shit. I know old movies and new movies each have their own charms, but I'm just talking about performances. And Olivier? Shit-shit-shit.

I keep repeating that because once you've commited the sacrilege of saying that Sir Lawrence is shit, you've just got to run with the moment. Some goons from the RADA will probably be around any moment to "have a word," so I'm going to type it now before I'm too busy trying to unknot the scarves tying me down in front of the TV looping The Larry until I "get it."

I mean, I want to appreciate him, even if only in the context of the day, but what was so awful about the other actors that he was considered good? Were they less pretty? Less precise in their speech?

Subject change, same category: I'm always bothered by photos of Charlie Chaplin showing all that light, ruffly hair.

Subject change, new category: It's going to be ages before I qualify for an Aussie degree at the cheap rates. If I decide to go with science-science (astrophysics), I really should start re-learning math now. (It would be nice to have those reckoning skills anyway, and I'm convinced that I'm only ignorant in advanced math, not actually bad at it.) But if I decide to go with information science (sorry, but it's embarrassing to even type that phrase - STAND BACK WHILE I CATALOGUE THIS DATABASE!), all I need to do is keep indulging my OCD tendencies when it comes to organization, right? Heh.

And now it's 10:21 on a school night and I have to dream less interesting dreams.

08 September 2011 |

Previously: Dribble-a-Day

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Dribble-a-Day

I've become fascinated with those five-year diaries that only allow enough room for a sentence or two per day, per year. It speaks to both my urge to document and my urge to always find something else to do rather than something that doesn't take much time and would be appreciated later. (See also: exercise, lesson plans, cooking from scratch, and scrapbooking.)

And then I remembered that I have a blog and that I'm a dumbass. There's nothing stopping me from writing down a sentence a day... even though the unspoken proprieties would probably gently redirect me to Twitter or Tumblr for this.

Entries I would have to choose from today if I had one of those five-year diaries:

  • My ear really itches. Didn't I see the doc about this last year? And he said it was allergies?
  • Networks down all morning at school. There went those lesson plans.
  • Mike ran the Roomba twice. Maybe he will steam clean soon.
  • I hate when Mike lets the Roomba clean around the toilet. I've seen the floor next to the toilet, and that should be a bleach-and-gloves-only zone.
  • No, last year I saw the doc about the bug bite inside my ear that got infected. It was the year before that with the itchy ears.
  • But also last year.
  • And this year! ITCH ITCH ITCH ITCH ARGH ITCH ITCH.
  • Every September. Must be allergies.
  • Or students.
  • Mike already checked for lice.
  • Pudding!
  • Watched MacGruber last night. We keep forgetting that we have a television in the bedroom.
  • Wore new pants today. I like the deeper pockets.
  • Worked until about five. Where does the time go?
  • It's only week two: how is there still grading to be done?
  • So, here we are, watching Henry V. Only took me 20 years to get around to it.
  • You know who was interesting? King Lear's father. Last summer I had a fancy to write a story about him... or his wife... or King Lear's wife... but I was afraid of copying Jane Smiley.
  • (But that didn't stop Christopher Moore from writing Fool, so that's a pitiful excuse for not having the focus and tenacity to try to write a story-story. I'll leave talent out of it because who knows until you try? Such is the allure of not trying!)
  • I'm a yod-dropper.... except for "news."
  • "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!"

Scritchy-scritchy scratch-scratch.

07 September 2011 |


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I'm Just Mad About Saffron

Labor Day weekend ends today with a delicious meal at Bombay (where one should avoid the buffet - see, it even rhymes - but not miss the tikka masala) and a melted Babycakes cupcake (I was so amazed by the double-digit temperature that I forgot it was still hot) and me actually moisturizing... actually, poor Mike performed the moisturizing since my solo attempts are mediocre, and Mike hates the feel of lotion on his hands. He hates liquid soap, too - can't feel clean with it, at least not beyond the wrist. What else does Mike hate? Fish, mushrooms, shower gel, and lotion-hands - I think that's it.

He loves napping, which is what he's doing now. Later when he wants to stay up late to watch/annotate Branagh's Henry V together for his Shakespeare class, and I need to get to sleep, you are my alibi that I was right here on the sofa, waiting, and we are now even for the dermal hydration episode.

(What kind of moisturizer, fictional readers want to know? This was a cream from Bath & Body Works' former Pure Simplicity line. It is, just like their droolicious Les Couvent des Minimes stuff, long discontinued. Pure Simplicity had a great "milk thistle" cleanser for dry skin, and my fave lotions and creams and body washes were the ginger and the salt. Fig was okay, too. I can't be alone in being a fan because all of this stuff now sells on eBay for 2x-5x the original price. It was all very light in feel and scent, never perfumey or greasy, despite Mike's complaints. Damnit, B&BW. Maybe it's really your fault that I only moisturize twice a year!)

Speaking of things that sound like food but are not food at all, here's a photo of Saffron:

Saffron, Stately

A few days ago we moved Neil(-the-hamster) out from the hamitat with his brothers. Too much fussing. Neil will need some solo pics soon. A few of the others are up on Flickr (click the box in the upper right).

This weekend we also finally finished watching all 80+ episodes of MasterChef Australia. This is nothing like MasterChef in the United States. The fact that there are 80+ episodes should assure you that we're not talking about a hyped-up rah-rah cutthroat competition, and I like food-based reality shows like The Next Food Network Star and The Next Iron Chef, but MasterChef Aus is really something different.

I guess it's on every night, for one thing? And everyone is an amateur chef, unlike Chopped and the others mentioned above that I usually like. Some nights are challenges that will end with a few contestants (or a whole team) having to face an elimination round in the next episode, some nights are said eliminations, some nights are competitions against professional chefs for an "immunity pin" (like a Get Out of Jail Free card), and some nights the pros step in and give the contestants (and us) a master class in several dishes and techniques. It's actually civilized, with none of the alliances and scheming from the contestants like in other shows, or at least none shown on camera.

Production values are very high - a big trip to New York, some barely documented trips for winners to Asia and New Zealand. And the visiting chefs! Thomas Keller, Nigella Lawson, that guy from that #1 restaurant in Denmark (okay, I am not a chef groupie), that Blumenthal "everything is full of liquid nitrogen" guy from England, and others that I'm sure I should be in awe of... oh, and at one point? THE CONTESTANTS COOKED FOR THE DALAI LAMA.

And one of the contestants (go Ellie!) freaked out, and the Dalai Lama held her hand to comfort her.

That never happens on shows with Bobby Flay or Giada de Laurentiis.

Mike has now twice made a leek-and-goat-cheese tart we saw on the show. Yum-yum. (Oh, but add "goat cheese" to the list of things Mike doesn't like, so he substituted mascarpone. Tasted great.)

Sometimes I get nervous about all the fetishizing of food in our society (as wonderfully lampooned in that one South Park episode that also takes on the Shake Weight), like we're just asking for Biblical plagues to kill all the crops and stop the silliness - check out the frayed vestiges of my Protestant upbringing, y'all - but then I look at old cookbooks or old restaurant reviews and think, no, specific people may be silly, but I think there's a respect toward food emerging in this culture, especially giving thought to where it comes from, that's a step in the right direction.

And now Mike is up, and there's a piece of chocolate hazelnut panettone (also from Babycakes) clamoring for my respect.

06 September 2011 |


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Lesson Plans in Google Calendar, or "Organization is the First Step to Faking It"
If there's one area where the kids usually do give me credit, it's for being well organized.

Sometimes, if I don't give them something they want, like checking to see if they turned in a paper, they'll start getting accusational. And then I'll say, "Oh no, I know exactly where it is. It's in the burgundy folder on the left side of my desk, about midway through the second section."  Oooo.

But, rare showoff opportunities aside, usually the kids think I'm organized because I have a clean desk. No Seussian stacks of grading papers obscuring a calendar blotter for me. No, instead I tuck everything into colo(u)r-coded folders (by period) and if that stack gets too tall, I throw it all into my bottom desk drawer... where it joins the bulging folder with the post-it on it... and the post-it says, "Slush Pile." Which I sort out in June, mostly by recycling everything.

But the clean desk is good psychologically, and "adequately organized" is as good as "well organized" for most purposes, unless you're subbing for me and want a paper clip.

(Subs always go nuts looking for paper clips. I rarely need clips, what with my folder system, so I keep them somewhere other than my main desk drawer. I feel the judgement in the sub report.)

One area where I am, I think, justifiably proud of my organization is in my lesson planning. Yes, I frequently change my plans at the last minute, which I think some people file under "Shari being all hippie floopy kum ba ya-ya-tastic," but really I change them because I do what you're supposed to do, constantly reflect and adapt.

Some might argue that a really great lesson plan will stand up to all situations, and to them I say, "Please, give unto me the sacred manuscript of lesson plans to which lies affixed a magical ungent that will turn this humble teacher into a scary Terminator robot. Or that thing from Alien. Or Gozer. The banshee from Darby O'Gill and The Little People. Something. Because those of us who can't get that one kid to shut up and work often find ourselves scuttling lectures or fun activities involving easily-stolen materials or thoughtful projects requiring a certain amount of self control because one proverbial bad apple, who can't be sent out of the room without stopping for paperwork and first talking to the parent, who only speaks Spanish, and even then little changes because he's been in monthly conferences in the deans' office since elemetary school, ruins everything."

As one of my Pinterest boards says, I am not the Jackass Whisperer. Nor am I one of those people with a drill sargent voice. And I smile too easily. So, for this reason and others, more academic and less frustrated, lesson plans change.

But that's not where I was going with this.

What I like about my lesson plans isn't necessarily the content (which my students will swear is designed for optimum misery and trickery) but how I do them. I do them in Google Calendar.

Why?

  • So I can just give people the link. Supervisors wanting to scrutinize, fellow teachers wanting ideas, whomever. But not the entire Internet because I don't want to risk having the kids see them. A few years ago there was a push at our school to share their lesson plans online so the parents could see what we were doing and the kids could anticipate what was coming. Er. no. I put minutes up so the parents/absentees could see what we did, and I put in topics so everyone could see what was coming, but my actual plans have procedure notes and mandated legalese and journal topics/discussions meant to be surprising, of course, the expected dates of pop quizzes.
  • Easy to change. This is self-explanatory.
  • Paper-free! One less thing tryin to clutter my desk. If the system is down, I have my smart phone if I need to remember some detail. (But I don't do much that I can't ad lib.) I make copies in advance whenever possible, so that's not an issue.
  • Just attach files. Files - such as worksheets or handouts - can be uploaded or linked to their location in Google Docs, if you use that. I'm starting to use Google Docs for everything so that every (internet capable, and most are) computer has access to my stuff. It's also vital for keeping me sane regarding objectives and standards, which I'll get to in a minute.
  • Color-coded and separated by class. ("U" in colour looks weird to me in compound adjectives now. I think I'm going to take my regional spelling inconsistencies even further and start dropping it. When in America... and all that.) I have a calendar for each class. They all show up on the same calendar view, each with a different shade. I can flick them on and off with a click. It's just a nice way to see my whole day all at once then focus as I need to, without staring at three documents or having items run into each other.

Screenshot - Google Calendar - 01

Yes, my English IV plans are lacking, but I just was given the class, remember? Also, I have the year scoped out - now I just need to sort out the daily particulars, and that will be easier next week when I have the textbook (and can see how long stories/pieces) are.

(And AP is minimal because I'm just going to copy over last year's plans and tweak them. I had planned to make amazing new plans, but then the English IV bomb dropped.)

Obviously only the day's topic shows up in the monthly view of the calendar. But, click any "event," and it looks something like this:

Screenshot - Google Calendar - 02

Except hopefully without blue scribbles. (Those are there to avoid identifying various things that don't need identifying. I don't know why I scribbled out the attachment names on the bottom. It was just the fun of Snipping Tool's blue pen, I guess.) You can see that I just use the word "Explain" without getting more specific (Diagram on whiteboard? Student example? Personal anecdote? Poster? PowerPoint?). More on this, and the objectives at the top, in just a moment.

Objectives and Standards: These drive me batshit. I absolutely understand why they exist and why they are necessary and how they are helpful for planning. I even understand why our lesson plans must reference them. What drives me nuts is how some supervisors want them.

Like, some supervisors want you to write the objective on the board like this: "The student (or learner) will be able to (some task in the standards) by (names of activities you will be doing)."

Why? "Oh, the kids need to know what they are meant to be learning." Yeah, well, 1) the kids (my kids, anyway) rarely look at the board ("What warm-up?" is one of my pet peeves), and 2) that is not kid-friendly language.

If you want to be "student-centered" (did anyone just call buzzword bingo?), just write "Vocabulary - Chapter 4" in the area on the board where today's plans go. Or, if you follow a "to do list" format, write something like 1. Complete vocabulary worksheets on own. 2. Discuss new vocabulary.

The kids will, at least if you remind them to look at today's agenda, then know that today they are learning new words. And those words will be seen when/as we read Chapter 4.

Everyone is happy.

If I write, "The learner will be able to determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by completing a predictive vocabulary worksheet, engaging in whole-class discussion, and following independent study procedures including creating two-column notes," then the only person happy is the admin who gets praised when a superintendent or similar mucky-muck comes to visit and happens to see that waste of good whiteboard space. Oh, and don't forget to note that this is Common Core ELA Standard L.9-10.4. And all that's just for one activity...

The kids aren't going to read/appreciate that kind of phrasing, and having to write that crud on my lesson plans every single day makes me cry. (Just ask a student teacher who has spent an hour writing six pages of lesson plans to describe a single class period. "You'll thank us when you're a real teacher and you can write shorter plans." Fine, that's student teaching, but there's no reason to use highly formal language and nuance-by-nuance descriptions every day once you actually start teaching.)

And just as what I write on the board should be of benefit to the kids, I think what I write in my lesson plans should be of benefit to me.

We're required to "demonstrate advanced planning" and have at least a week's worth of plans available, just in case "something happens and someone has to step in," which is the rationale for making incredibly detailed plans using the language bolded above.

But honestly? If you, the sub who gets to be me while I'm recovering from "something that happened" (please, let it be the lottery), can't think of something to do when I write, "Explain the three types of irony," then I don't know what to say, other than I resent that the fractional chance of you needing detailed plans with formal language is chewing up so much of my time.

(Or let's say it's an activity. One activity for vocab might be shortened as, "Make groups of threes, one word per group, to do picture, sentence, and definition/part of speech on whiteboards. Groups then present to class. Class takes notes."

I understand that a sub might be confused over how to run that activity. Big or individual whiteboards? Where are the markers? How are the groups formed? What kind of picture? What kind of sentence? Do they use dictionaries or the glossary in the textbook? How long do they do this? How long do they present? Which member of the group presents first? Is the presentation graded? What constitutes good participation? How is division of labor fairly separated? What kind of notes? Are the notes graded?

And that's where I come back to "Yeah, my lesson plans are for me, and I don't spell out everything that's in my head. Ask if you have questions. And if I'm in Tahiti, spending my lottery winnings on indigenous coconut art, ask anyone else in my department. They'll probably give you something even more interesting to do.")

The district asks that we outline the objective, procedures, grouping, materials, and assessment in our daily lesson plans. I used to do this all in a spreadsheet, which looked like this:

Screenshot - NOT Google Calendar - 01

Not the most exciting week, at least not on teeny-tiny font with minimal explanation. You can see (if you click through, enlarge, and put on any reading glasses) that I kept my objectives brief and me-friendly, and instead of stating the standards, I listed them all of the standards by number then bolded/underlined the ones that I used that week. Not daily. (But these were plans I transferred to another spreadsheet before I was done, so I hadn't marked the standards yet. That other spreadsheet is at school, which is another argument for using Google Docs.) I then just checked off whichever assessments applied (again, for the week) from the list of checkboxes.

With yearly tweaks, this is how I did plans for the past six or so years. Then last year I found myself drawn to using Google Calendar for the reasons described near the start of this post. What to do may be less obvious for that mythical substitute, but I now just write the procedures and let people deduce the materials and assessment from that. (If it says "End of class: vocabulary quiz," then "quiz" is one of our assessments. Well spotted! And the attachments are a good reminder for the materials.) I like to think that it works, in that I know what to do and how to do it, and the supervisor can see what I'm doing, that my assessments/groups/activities vary, and that I have clear objectives which tie to the standards.

Oh wait, I didn't prove that last bit yet.

Okay, look back at the first image. You'll see that on Mondays, there's an event called "Objectives: Common Core 9-10." (There's also one for grades 11-12/AP.) If you were in my calendar and clicked on it, you'd see this:

Screenshot - Google Calendar - 03

See the attached spreadsheet (with the big red circle around it)? If you clicked that (and I'd remembered to share that file with you as well as my calendar), you'd see this:

Screenshot - Google Spreadsheet - CC

It's a list of all of the Common Core standards. (Or it would be, if you could keep scrolling down.) I then put an X next to the standards we've met this week. I'm thinking I will have at least nine or so weeks visible at a time, so I can see which standards we're hitting the most (and least) often.

"Awesome," you might say, "but what about the objectives?"

Yeah. Okay, well, there's going to be an agenda on the board each day, as always. (Inside a nice grid made with painting tape that also lists the homework and upcoming due dates.) Do I really have to make a boring multi-part statement for each part of each class every day along the lines of "TLWBAT X by Y" if my X is covered by the linked spreadsheet and my Y is covered by a description of each day's activities in the detailed calender view?

Or did I just invalidate part of the salaries of a bunch of education "professionals" (who aren't actually in the classroom)?

Consider it a pay cut. Like the one the teachers got.

(Well, here's hoping it will be acceptable. The district has started their own calendar-style online lesson planning tool, which looks exciting... except it doesn't offer any standards past the 8th grade. Don't get me started on how the business of education so often peters out when it comes to supporting the needs of high school teachers. I spent too many of my "teacher education" classes listening to K-5 ideas and strategies to have anything fresh to say there.)

I really like this "Calendar with linked standards spreadsheet and attached documents as needed" approach, and I hope it may inspire someone else (if they can make it past my usual bitching). Now, off to fill in all that English IV and AP... or maybe try to get my priest to level 75. She's never going to master tailoring and alchemy otherwise. Oh, behold the final hours of summer...

21 August 2011 |

Previously: Portraits in Mischief

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Portraits in Mischief

Listen, I seriously-seriously have, I swear, three content-rich (but smothered in the house blather) posts going.

There's the cruise miscellany one, the one about how we went to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City that shares everything you need to know about the joys of saving microfilm records to USB drives (amazing!) complete with a rant about German vs. French records, and there's also a post brewing about how the other day, just to warm up my writing fingers, I wrote a bazillion Yelp reviews and am now in the Yelp "Elite" Squad. Just like Mike. And lots of other people. But I take what scraps I can when I can and fashion them into a mental tiara, but still doing little prove that I'm not jut a sofa-slug who only leaves the house so I can check-in to places on my phone (and then write reviews about them).

Okay, so all that was going on, and I was there reading my Yelp Elite "list of suggested tasks so you can feel guilty about lots of things, and not just about taking forever to write reviews," when - FOR REASONS THAT TOP SCIENTISTS HAVE YET TO DETERMINE - I opened my work email. Oh, hey, guess what, Shari? You may have another class to teach next year.

Not another period to teach, but another class. Two of my four regular sophomore classes (yes, I have sophomores again, LONG story) were just swapped out for regular senior classes. (My other class is AP Lang. AP Lit did not survive the budget cuts.)

On the one hand, this was great news. Not only do sophomores hate me in general, but many of these sophomores just had me as freshmen (and thus hate me specifically). Even I think they deserve a year off.

Also, I love the Brit Lit curriculum. Not that senior English is Brit Lit any longer, especially with the new national standards. The interpreters of those standards strongly push non-fiction with an American or global-but-not-so-really-British-at-all bias. But since we can't afford new textbooks, I will still have an excuse to approach reading, writing, and thinking through the lenses of Beowulf and Sir Gawain. Ha.

And, senior classes tend to be a smidge smaller. (Although the reason for this - drop outs - is unfortunate.) There may actually be a desk for everyone, or at least a chair.

But, on the other hand, I only found out yesterday that this was definitely happening, which gives me about one week to make plans for a class I didn't expect to teach... and haven't taught before other than student teaching... and now must be planned planned during the time when I was expecting to use to make refined, beautiful plans for the other two classes I will be teaching.

Which means the next person who yaks about teachers and their "summers off" is getting stabbed in the neck. Yes, the contract schedule is nice, very nice, and I'm glad to have it, and I'm grateful to have a job at all BLAH BLAH BLAH, but spending days on end doing work for which I'm not paid AND getting a pay cut when I return to "real" work is not cool.

Oh, August is too soon for griping.

Thank goodness I'm just another sucker who checks work email when off the clock, right? I could've been finding out about this new class next week.

(Still, it meant also seeing clueless messages from clueless people who don't know how clueless they are. I'd use livelier adjectives, but I don't want anyone to recognize themselves. Let's just say that our pantry is now short a box of emergency brownie-consolation mix.)

Moving on.

While I am busy, our hamster Madeleine is being a tiny, silky handful. In the past eight months of her little life she's gone from a shy, unassuming thing to Bossy McWhipcrack. A few days ago her personality just got too big for the hamitat she shared with Lauren and Adora Belle. Strangely, she wasn't fighting so much with Lauren, whose life work is to know what's going on with ALL people and ALL hamsters at ALL times, but with poor Adora Belle (aka Zippy), who is sweet and quiet.

It happens. They can live together for a year and be cuddly affectionados on their own but suddenly just not want another hamster around. (Unless that hamster is willing to bow down, and even then...)

So, Madeleine is off on her own, and all seems well. Lauren only has to keep vigilant tabs on one of her sisters and any incoming hands, Adora Belle can zonk out in the sand bath in peace, and Madeleine.... can rev her energy up another ten notches.

Madeleine

Right away she started trying to get under her blue coupe. This was Helix and Owl's old car, and plenty of hamsters have had cars since then. (We also have this model in pink and yellow, and Teddy and Russ have an SUV.) But we haven't had many hamsters try to turn over the car.

Evelyn was the first, and she'd attempt it for hours. After she died, we got the huge lot of SPCA hamsters, and we gave her car to the five opal boys who currently live in the bathroom. They too were obsessed with turning it over, and the power of five is what it took to make it so. (It was like seeing Evelyn's dreams realized.) But that was it, and I thought maybe it was just something about that yellow car.

But now Madeleine's just going nuts about flipping the blue one. In the morning I see the car standing alone, the purple bedding pushed away by all her kicks and flops and digging during the night. It's hilarious, of course, but the poor frustrated dear...

Cheered by this sight again tonight and thinking I'd lay out a fast post (not knowing I'd still find a way to bitch on and on about work, doing my bit to make everyone feel superior for not being such a whinybabyasshat), I scooped up Madeleine and took a few other photos.

Madeleine

That's another overdue post! "Bought a refurbished Roomba from Woot. Changed my life."

Madeleine

Luckily I saved everything from student teaching, including the calligraphy markers for a project that I'm sure would be regarded as a waste of time by the current standards. Now I'm going to use them for a different project while everyone else is "not teaching much for the first few weeks because all of the kids that still haven't enrolled or will switch classes when we get our new numbers at the end of September." Because that's not a waste of time. (See how I'm still weaving in the bitterness?) Back to the markers: I'm amazed that they're all still juicy!

And yes, there is a huge push for everyone teaching the same subject to do the same lesson plans every day, at least for the first month as kids change classes frequently, and it's absolutely a sound idea... except it comes down to someone (usually non-pushy me) having to teach using materials/methods that don't bring out his or her A-game (and showing your A-game is important at the start of the year). Then there's still the problem of catching up all of the unregistered kids who wait until the last possible day to enroll and still get credit. (And by "kids," I mean "parents" who tell the kids it's more important to stay another month in Mexico with family than go to school. I don't even disagree with that, but it affects those people who choose to be in school when it starts. Come or don't come, but don't make us build a crappy system that caters to extreme absences.)

(And that's why this year I'm going to start teaching on Day Two. Like, actual parts of speech and everything. I sort of tried this last year, and everyone survived. This year, if you enroll five weeks late, I now have a website for you to check and get all of your makeup work. And you now have to do it, too: no more starting these mega-latecomers with an A because no transfer grade is coming and even beginning to explain a month's worth of make-up work is overwhelming. Check the website. See me before or after school with specific questions. I go home at contract time. Don't count on me to check my email after I go home. Good luck. Tell your parents I said hi.)

You know who is never late for class? Madeleine.

Madeleine

See, here is she trying to think of ways to teach Antigone, which I've never taught before. (Oh yeah, never mind the seniors. It's been five years since I taught sophomores, and I'm not doing anything the same.)

Madeleine was thinking of getting some cheap sheets from Goodwill for togas... maybe the kids would actually read with inflection if they were wearing costumes? Let's see, my current roster says I have 38 kids... plus the kids who will register late.... not sure what used sheets cost, but is it possible to get 40+ teenagers into togas and doing their warmups in the first few minutes of class? Maybe not, but since my 31 desks (I've had a couple break) and five chairs will be at a premium, maybe "fastest toga-tying" will be the incentive that gets you out of Standing Room Only. Hmm!

Madeleine is blurry in that photo because she was laughing. I had just told her about how, before I was a teacher, I thought all you needed was a teachers' edition of the textbook, and you could wing the rest.

Madeleine is a silly hamster, but she's wiser than I used to be.

Madeleine

And then Madeleine picked up each calligraphy marker and tested it for suspicious bits. Kind of like the special TSA patdown I got on the way to Utah, a story no one will ever hear, unless I go finish some lesson plans.

Or go waste an hour on Pinterest. (Are you there? Feel free to follow me! Are you not there? Well, that's another post...)

Or I could go gamble. Gamble. Win. Give an unemployed teacher my job. Hmmmm....

18 August 2011 |

Previously: Gratitude

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Gratitude

(This post started out as a list of 10 things for which I'm grateful, mostly because sometimes I think it isn't obvious how appreciative I am about life in general when I'm going on about the tiny hiccups interrupting all the good stuff. I never really made it past the first item on my list, though. Usually going off-topic doesn't faze me, but usually when I stray to the topic explored below I end up deleting the post. So, if this post disappears later, it will because the benefits of sharing couldn't match the catharsis of writing.)

I still have some a "misc roundup" of thoughts for the last cruise, what we did on the last two sea days and whatever else my phone notes (hopefully) reveal. My father-in-law has generously offered to take us on an Alaskan cruise, although with Mike's uni schedule and his having to fly back and forth to Australia over the next 12 months for some limited "face-to-face only" coursework, it's hard to say exactly when that will happen.

What I do know is that if we go next summer, it won't be on Carnival. Not because I'm down on Carnival now (although I may be over school break cruises and am definitely done with the west coast itineraries unless they start sailing Splendor - or anything with more balconies than Paradise/Inspiration - to Catalina), but because I just can't go on Carnival Spirit again. Beautiful dining room, but no thalasso/co-ed steam plus my desire to not be on a very familiar ship again has us looking elsewhere. (Now, if we wait a year and Carnival Splendor starts doing Alaska, we'll see.)

I was all decided on NCL Pearl - freestyle dining! lots of restaurants! co-ed steam! not too fancy! - but then I heard (hi Kathy!) that if you do Alaska, HAL gets the prime position at the ports, and NCL leaves you walking a mile before you even get to town. Okay, back to my spreadsheet...

Some will read this and say, um, Shari? Your father-in-law is taking you guys on a cruise to Alaska? And you get to pick the ship? And you have the nerve to lightly fuss over the "issues" involved, in public, in this very scary economy? When even you, with a steady job and good credit score, have more gut-pinching things to worry about? And how do those jeans fit, Mrs. Vanderbilt?

I know. I'm very grateful. Below are a few other (chosen from the mind's ether as I type) things for which I'm grateful.

I'm grateful Mike got to know my mother before the Alzheimer's. (Or before it was obvious.) Someone favourite'd an old pic of my Mom on Flickr the other day:

Mom - Morning at the Victoria Airport

Photoshop overindulgence aside, It feels weird posting this because my mother was very pretty, and downright glamorous when she had her "face" on, and this is an unflattering photo compared to how breathtaking she could be. But I like her happy expression so much, and it's so genuine. The photo was taken just about 10 years ago, when she drove me early-early to the tiny Victoria (Texas) airport, where no one thinks twice if you're in curlers and pajama pants.

And here she is only four years ago, with my cat Euphrosyne. (Phros died a few weeks later of old age.)

Phros and Mom

Mom was clearly afflicted at this point, but she could start to tell stories (and finish them, if people were willing to sit through the long pauses) and could call Mike by name.

(The reason she's sitting on the toilet, for those of you with alert eyes, is because at the time my father was rebuilding a bathroom in my grandmother's house that was added much later. It's in the middle of what's become the preferred route to backyard/garage, so chatting around the toilet, even sitting for a moment, isn't unusual, and definitely was the norm when Dad was working on the room.)

Three years ago she was talking even less, and her motor skill decline was more noticeable (not able to feed herself), but she was in fine spirits and able to be goofy and ham it up for the camera:

Mom, Cavorting

That was a great visit. I think that's something that changed as she got older, her willingness to be silly on camera and not self-conscious about taking a bad photo. Or maybe it just came with the 21st century. I was into (film) photography for awhile and I remember getting her to play around for some long exposures while I clicked away on cheap film I'd process myself. As soon as our photography culture changed - thanks to digital cameras - to one where it wasn't "one shot, let's hope it comes out," I guess everyone started getting more casual shots. I'm glad she'd developed that relationship with the camera before things changed.

Then again, maybe it wasn't just a global shift. The mother of my 30s was a lot more laid-back than the mother of my youth. I know some of that is the warped perspective of a child, but she'd tell you so herself. There was a wonderful eight-year stretch from my late 20s to my early 30s where we spent a lot of time together getting up to zany adventures and making each other laugh for hours. As terrible as it was, with Mike stuck in Australia and me stuck in the States, I realize now that had Mike been around, or had I been single, I wouldn't have had all of that wonderful time with my mother. Our unique friendship, with the near-telepathic communication and the unconditional love, gave her an outlet to joy as well, something I fear she tended to put off otherwise, always saving her dreams for a day when XYZ goal was accomplished.

The mother of my 40s, last summer:

Mom and Me - June 2010

This was before she lost 70+ pounds, so I doubt I could hide as much of my bulk behind her now. She didn't lose the weight through illness, but through a healthy eating program instigated by my father because when a person, in an instant, doesn't know who you are, and she decides to fight for her life to get out of what is a frightening situation, any extra bulk is an alarming burden on the caregiver. (Especially one who must live carefully in his post-heart attack / post-health insurance days.)

Dad's camera was fogging that morning. Maybe it was set on "metaphor mode." He has since had battery issues, so there haven't been many photos since our last visit. I want to send him my tiny pocketcam that I don't use since getting a smartphone, but he doesn't like little cameras. Maybe I will send it anyway. Or bring it. It's hard to think of time.

Mom no longer hesitates when speaking, but her speech is nonsense. It sounds real, with inflection and pauses, but it also sounds like the jibberish that is relaxing to make when you're exhausted. (Or am I the only person who's played with that?) Sometimes I can hardly get a word in when Dad puts her on the phone, which isn't how she was "in real life." Her drawl is 78rpm now. She sounds happy, though. I try to treat her normally and when she pauses, seeming to expect a response, sometimes I even say, "Wait, what was that last bit?" as if it was all intelligible until those last few words. I don't want to disappoint her.

Eighteen months or so ago she could still answer questions. (Although the hardest question I ever asked her - "Mom. Do you still know my name?" - was answered with a pause and a carefully light and long "Yessss!" I recognized the tone. She used to use it when she wanted to make someone feel better. Kind of a "Duh! Silly!" without the splash of sarcasm, but also the voice of someone who is speaking the fundamental truth but maybe not the immediate truth.) Now I'm not sure if she's replying to my insipid little remarks about the cats and the weather or if she's in her own world, talking into a plastic toy telephone to imaginary friends.

But sometimes, as if she is deaf or Scooby Doo, she will make strained, recognizable sounds. Only a few months ago she said, "How are you?" on one of her very good days.

And sometimes she says, "I love you." Sometimes she says it over and over. And she sounds so happy.

And I am very grateful.

Slides to the Light - Mom and I, Reading (1975 or 1976)


09 August 2011 |


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Carnival Splendor Again: The "City and Tropical Jungle Escape" Tour in Puerto Vallarta

Early spoiler: there is no escape.

For three months now, almost four, I've had a review of this tour on the "Sticky Notes" app on my desktop. Actually, I have at least a couple of reviews - each more heavily neutered in an attempt to get it posted in the shore excursion review section at Carnival's site. (I have a problem with word counts. You'd never guess, right?)

It's a shame I don't have the first-impulse version, heavy on snark and allusion (deluded words for "whining," some might say) and light on the proofreading, the kind of thing I'd usually post here, because Carnival won't accept my cut-down version. They say my review breaks the rules because it contains names... even though the rules clearly say that names may be used so long as they are first names only.

I suspect - and you all know by now that I'm a Carnival cheerleader first and a critic second - that Carnival simply didn't want to have a negative review be the first review of this tour. (I should revise and resubmit, I know, but look how long it's taken me to write about a cruise in April? I've got to stop cruising just so I can get back to babbling about other things, instead of feeling bad that I haven't finished the cruise report and thus not writing anything. Update: I looked at Carnival's site and saw that the two reviews there are one-star. So, I wrote another version - a brief version of what's below - and submitted it. Fingers crossed.)

Anyway, below is one of the versions. I've added photos and commentary that I kept off the original review lest it distract from my point. (Apologies for not letting the same editing wisdom guide my typing fingers here.) My advice to you is to not book this tour unless you really don't care if it runs as described. Otherwise, get Carnival to agree in advance to compensation if you can prove, with photos, that the tour is misrepresented.

Puerto Vallarta - Tour Tickets for 'City and Tropical Jungle Escape'

(Composed the same evening we came home, mid-April 2011.)

Today I stepped off the beautiful Carnival Splendor, caught up on the latest John Heald blog, and found out that we can now write excursion reviews on Carnival's website. What timing! Let's start with the "bad news," as they say - the only excursion I've ever regretted, and one that has still had both me and my husband grumbling since we were in Puerto Vallarta just three days ago. (Well, grumbling as much as we can when not heartily enjoying the rest of the cruise, of course!)

First, forget what you read about this excursion online or in the "Fun Ashore" guide once you board, both descriptions of which will talk about "time on your own" to explore the city square and an "optional nature walk" as well as a duration of three hours.

Also forget what you will see on the colorful brochure available from the TravelEx display on the Shore Excursion desk, which mentions swimming in beautiful pools by the river in the foothills of the jungle.

Don't, however, forget to read your ticket, which is the only place that will say, "closed toe shoes required." We asked the Shore Excursion desk about this new information; they said to ignore it. I say to keep it in mind if you don't like sand in your shoes.

You can read all of the above referenced descriptions for yourself. You can also do what I did, and look up reviews and photos for the El Nogalito restaurant - I'm sure that, like me, you'll be looking forward to a relaxing, scenic visit as soon as you see the lush landscapes.

So here's what actually happened, both the good and the bad:

We waited in a little tent on the Puerto Vallarta pier for our bus to be ready, which I thought was a nice touch. (Especially if you've ever queued up in the sun for half an hour, e.g., Acapulco.) The tour left right on time at 9:15, which I definitely appreciated. We had specifically booked a short tour so we could have plenty of time to relax in the spa while most people were off the ship.

Our first stop was downtown. Instead of being allowed the specified "time on our own," we were aggressively told, over and over, by the tour guide Jesse to "keep up with the group" and "don't go off on your own." This was disappointing because we've been to PV before, and this time we really just wanted to bop into a little cafe near the downtown square while everyone looked at the church on one side and the beach statues on the other, but the driver had moved the bus to an unknown location, so the "time on our own" evaporated and we were forced to follow the group.

Jesse hustled us to the malecon (boardwalk) just in time (cough cough) for a performance group (the admittedly impressive "flyers") to ask us all for donations and try to sell us flutes. We stood there for 10 minutes while they walked around and around our group, triple-checking that no one wanted these things. We then saw them perform. The performance was neat, but being a captive audience and spending so much time standing in the direct sun waiting for the "huckster" portion to end was not.

Here is Mike's skeptical face as we grew tired of waiting:

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - Mike's Early Skeptical Face

And here are the flyers:

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - Flyers

Performance over, for the next ten minutes we were led past a few boardwalk statues, past the city hall ("that's the city hall on the left"), through the church (120 seconds, tops), and then along the streets to where the bus had moved.

I liked this internet kiosk, which we hadn't noticed on the last trip:

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - Jesse Points Out Internet Kiosk

Jesse did stop to point out a school and talk a little about the school system, which was interesting. He was a friendly man who seemed earnest in what he presented, and I think he had the grace to show discomfort as he knew some people were not happy, so I don't know how much of the blame for this trip falls on him, and how much falls on the operator. (Later the operator - according to Carnival - completely blamed Jesse. But, you have to wonder...)

Something else I missed when we were at the church last time - a statue to Isaac, Your Bartender.

Puerto Vallarta - They've Built a Statue to Isaac, Your Bartender

The school Jesse talked about:

Puerto Vallarta - Primary School

For the entire now-mandatory tour of downtown, everyone was repeatedly told to hurry up, keep up, and so on, with stragglers (usually older passengers walking at a normal pace) getting directly addressed to walk faster.

We got back on the bus, drove around the block, and went to Marino y Marino "Jewerly" (sic). Here Jesse announced that we would spend 25 minutes in the shop and could look at the fire opals. (Suddenly all his earlier chat about the pretty opals of Mexico made sense. What didn't make sense was when he said, "Australia also has opals, but ours are much prettier." Um, Jesse? Tons of Aussies in our tour group, if you hadn't noticed? Way to earn a tip.)

This "jewerly" shop was the low-rent equivalent of the Diamonds International stops on some tours. This was not the Plaza Genovesa advertised in the tour description with its "many small shops and a number of restaurants". (Quotation from Googling around.) There was nothing to look at other than a similarly run-down pharmacy across the street. We stayed on the bus while the driver drove in circles - I think we got the better tour.

Here's the pharmacy:

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - Shopping Stop

And here is the "jewerly" shop:

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - So-Called 'Plaza Genovesa' Stop

At this point we were a little disappointed, but more in a shoulder-shrugging, eye-rolling way. We'd been to PV before. We were mostly interested in taking in the scenery and some snacks at El Nogalito. It was just a three-hour tour, after all. Enough to say we tried something new, then we could get back to the thalasso pool.

After 35 minutes (there's always time to earn more of a kickback?), we headed to El Nogalito. How was the tour described again? Oh yes, the chance for an optional nature walk along the river or, if we preferred, we could buy snacks at the restaurant and hang out there. The latter sounded like a great deal. All of those vacation photos from independent travelers were the carrot to keep me from getting grumpy over what was so far a somewhat sleazy tour.

We turned onto a dirt road off the coastal highway and almost immediately stopped. "I hope you don't mind the sun!" yelled Jesse. Huh? I thought. Actually, this pale chick who gets sunburnt just driving the car around does mind the sun. "Your tour description mentioned the sun, right?" (Um, no.) "Okay! Hope you brought a hat!" Jesse continued. "We're going to walk a short way through here, then get back on the bus and ride to the restaurant."

Well, I had sunblock, and he did say a "short" ways. We decided to get off and see whatever there was to see in this "short walk." It looked like we might cross the river or something. That could be nice.

It was not nice.

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - MANDATORY 'Nature' Walk Begins

First Jesse led us by a large yard of caged chickens. "For fighting," he explained proudly.

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - Cock Fighting Pens. Nice.

Look, I can roll with the "when in Rome" cultural sensitivities as well as the next person, but, c'mon. It's a bus full of mostly Australians and Americans. Cock fights? Pretty offensive in OUR culture. And since we're the guests (the paying guests), I don't think that's something that needs to be advertised. (Although, come to think of it, this wasn't advertised, was it?)

Then Jesse pointed out a clump of banana trees and a clump of bamboo trees in the middle of a dirt parking lot with a few outbuildings around it.

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - See, Here's The Jungle. Enjoy.

It was like going to the tree zoo, except it was more like some sad tree zoo from the days before zoo reform, which is my way of saying that I've seen lusher, fuller displays at the local nursery... and I live in Las Vegas. You know, the desert.

Around the corner a man was waiting for us. Jesse turned the tour over to his friend, who invited everyone to sample his different kinds of tequila. Oooookay. Which tour are we on, again?

It turned out that we were on the tour where you sit for 40 minutes - yes, 40 minutes - by a cash register as you watch an ever-dwindling group of people take "just one more shot" and learn yet another toast in Spanish.

Now, I will admit that we're not really drinkers (Mike not at all and me rarely), so we weren't thrilled over the detour, but it added a little local color, and it distracted me from the sad burro tied up under a tree on the other side of the lot, waiting for photo opportunities.

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - Sad Burro Waits for Your Sad Photo Op

Five minutes of unadvertised tequila tasting, and I wouldn't have complained, and I'm sure most of the passengers were pleased to suddenly have free booze foisted upon them.

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - And This Went On for 45 Minutes

But, as I said - FORTY MINUTES LATER (I took a lot of photos with time stamps) - we were still there, and by now all but a few people were sitting around, glumly staring at nothing, waiting for the host to feel confident enough to point out the cash register so we could get the inevitable sales objective met and be on our way.

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - Reaction to Undisclosed 45-Minute Sales Pitch

Finally we started to walk across the dirt lot to a bridge over what I realized was the river - a trench with a lot of dusty grey rocks.

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - The River in April

True, no tour has any control over the weather, but a disclaimer might be in order here. ("Conditions may be significantly less "tropical" at certain times of the year.")

Was the bus waiting on the other side? No. We walked in the sand along the dry riverbed for ten minutes as Jesse pointed to trees and mentioned some of their uses. Hold on, was this the "optional" nature walk? I don't know which was more irritating: that we'd been forced into what was advertised as an optional nature walk, or that the "nature" walk was less interesting than a slow meander down most people's driveway.

Admittedly, there was briefly a pretty part:

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - Admittedly, Something Pretty Showed Up

We walked back across the river(bed) and up a gritty slope to the waiting bus.

I checked the time - guess what? We were due back on the ship in five minutes! Argh. But could it get worse?

(Oh, one should never ask that.)

Anticipating that all would be "right" soon as we finally got to our last stop, I was encouraged as the bus turned in to the little (and very pretty) town of El Nogalito. Jesse spoke of the many things offered by the restaurant: fresh seafood, quesadillas, "wonderful guacamole - very creamy," and a combination plate for ten dollars with a "variety" of snacks. He spoke of exotic drinks but also the option of soft drinks in a can, two dollars each.

We'd skipped breakfast, so this sounded good. I wasn't happy about the tour going into overtime, the near-hour spent trying to sell us tequila, the skeezy stop at a store that was not the Plaza Genovesa, or having to march around downtown in the kind of tour group we usually aim to avoid, but put a little salsa and fresh Mexican cheese my way, and my happy face usually wins out.

We arrived at the restaurant, only to be ushered to one side where a display of seafood was set up. "Don't sit down! Don't sit down! You must come here first to hear about the menu!" both the restaurant host and Jesse cried.

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - El Nogalito - No Sitting Until Sales Pitch Is Over

The host pulled back a cloth to reveal a fish/seafood platter (then, for the remainder of the "presentation" used his other hand to swat flies off it), which we could get for $52. He pointed out each type of fish. This went on for several more minutes than was necessary. Then we were allowed to take seats.

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - El Nogalito - No Menus, Just $54 Seafood Platter, Fajitas, or $3 Soda (Or Booze)

As we wandered to a table, I noticed that there was a bit of water in the riverbed here by the restaurant... along with a lot of trash - advertising banners, plastic bags, etc. My photo looks overexposed, but the area really looked that faded and bleached.

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - More Water in River, but Trash, Too

As the waiters came around to take orders, everyone near us asked after the "creamy guacamole" Jesse had spoken of. "No, only seafood platter," they were always curtly told.

When I said that we didn't care for fish/seafood, I was told that we could get fajitas. Guacamole? No. Quesadillas? No. Combo plate? No.

(But if we ordered an alcoholic beverage, we could get chips and salsa. No thanks, especially not after watching all of the flies land in the open salsa bowls on every table - including tables that sat empty until the next tour came.)

We asked for a couple of Cokes, being thirsty by now and not having much else to do for the next "45 minutes to an hour, we'll see how it goes," as Jesse put it.

Great.

Some people ordered the available food, but most stuck to drinks and sodas. I saw the fajitas served to someone at the next table and... yeesh. Granted, I didn't taste them, and I'm the first to point out that "authentic" Mexican food is different in every region, but what she was served looked like wet chicken salad with a couple of tortillas. If grilled vegetables and meat are a gringo tradition, then viva el norte.

After an hour of playing homemade crosswords and jumbles on a piece of paper with my husband (it was so desperate that I suggested ripping the notebook into 52 pieces to make our own "prison deck" of cards), a waiter came over and shook my husband's can of Coke to see if it was empty.

"I guess it's time to pay," said my husband. "Four dollars, right?" "No, six dollars," said the waiter. "Three dollars each." "Tell him Jesse will pay!" I cheerfully advised my husband, but being the non-confrontational people that we are (hey, we just wanted to avoid drama and get out), my spouse only repeated "Six? Not four?" a few times before handing over the cash with a boggled grumble.

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - Another Hour of Sitting

Jesse finally said it was time to go. With the exception of one easy-going table that had ordered the seafood platter, we led the stampede to the bus. (But not without hearing Jesse tell the people at the table to take their time and not rush. Argh!)

About ten minutes later, everyone was on the bus and we began the short trip back to Puerto Vallarta. More than once Jesse picked up the standard stack of comment cards and looked around at us before setting them behind his tip basket, where they stayed.

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - Comment Cards, Not Distributed

Jesse asked who wanted to be let off in Puerto Vallarta instead of returning to the ship. "Where would you like to be let off?" Everyone described places by the boardwalk. "Great!" replied Jesse. "We will let you off at a good place, only two, two-and-a-half blocks away!"

And so we got to see the "Jewerly" shop again, as that's where the bus stopped to let off those who wanted to spend more time in PV. Nice.

That morning we had hoped to be back on the ship around 12:30, maybe by 1:00 with traffic, with some nice Mexican snacks to tide us over. Instead, it was nearly 2 p.m. and we hadn't eaten all day. Plus, we'd been lied to, subjected to shady business practices, forced to attend a long tequila tasting (not even a proper tequila tour), and pretty much had spent five hours taking a tour other than the one we'd purchased.

When we told the Shore Excursions desk the next day, the clerk's reaction was, "Wait, are you sure you were on the City and Jungle Escape Tour?!" Like I said a jillion words ago, she contacted the tour operator and they expressed the same dismay and amazement over the misplaced hour spent hawking tequila plus the short shrift given to following the tour's description.

Carnival gave us a 25% refund, but really, I just wanted the time back, not the twenty bucks. I like a good war story (and blog post with plenty of photos - but that will come later), sure, but I'd rather have spent that time relaxing on the ship. (Or being on the tour that was described.)

Even if what we went through sounds like a fun tour to you, I advise you to think twice. We didn't get what we expected. Who knows what you'll get?

03 August 2011 |


Comments

Antanas

We took the same tour and this happened:
http://www.cnn.com/2012/02/26/world/mexico-cruise-robbery/index.html?iref=allsearch&is_LR=1

The guide was not that bad or pushy, but we visited the same places and stores. And what happened in a jungle - that is a story for the horror movies.

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Carnival Splendor Again: Todos Santos (Etc.)

Previously: The First Sea Day

(With no greater excuse than "the Fun Times were a bit out of reach behind the sofa for reference," the travelogue finally continues.)

Todos Santos - Tour Tickets

Todos Santos awaited us! We were selfishly pleased the stop in Mazatlan had been cancelled. The second day in Cabo meant we'd stay later the first day, which meant the Todos Santos tour was available. Usually it's only available when you sail on Carnival Spirit.

By this cruise we felt like old hands at Cabo if not the entire "Mexican Riviera," but this was our first time to share a port with a Norwegian ship. Here's the Norwegian Star:

Norwegian Star

Morning tours in Cabo (booked through Carnival) meet onboard to make sure everyone gets on the tender and to their tour on time. (If you book with someone else, always make sure they have a backup plan if the ship is delayed, or a refund option if the water is too rough for tendering.)

We waited in El Morocco lounge, not a space we usually visit during the sunshine hours.

Carnival Splendor - Waiting in El Morocco Lounge

Tours were called in groups of twos and threes. I ended up wishing our tour had met closer to the central steps; after we called and started walking the length of the ship, the pace felt a bit competitive as everyone vied to be first. Yes, first to the tender that would take us all at the same time. I think a few non-tour people fell in with us, too - maybe that should be the next Cruise Critic flame war. "Unauthorized Queue Zippering," we could call it.

Anyway (she continues, a month or so after typing the above - I'm not only a lazy diarist but a lazy typist as well), we got the big catamaran for our tender, a nice change from the little "doll eyes" as we call them. (Long story. Inside joke. Hamster related, of course.) The size of it, though, just heightened the usual problem of small families claiming an entire bench for themselves, disregarding the "move to the back, slide all the way down" directives, and then leaving was delayed because the last people were milling around, trying to find a seat.

I think I've mentioned (not sure, as - like I said - it's now been awhile since I started this post and the last thing I want to do is be all professional and reread what I've said so far) that on this cruise Mike and seemed unusually sensitive to people being people. Someone in an Amazon review of our "book" (if you don't know, don't ask - it was just a trip report) said that I claim to not want to complain, but then I complain all the time. My reaction?, "I said I didn't want to complain?" Ha! I love to discuss minutia and ponder why things are the way they are. (Which, to some, does sound exactly like complaining, I admit.) But if there's bitching to be done, may as well enjoy the camaraderie of it. Gripefest at Shari.com. Bring your own sour grapes. We'll make smoothies!

Anyway (trying this again), here's Mike on the tender:

Carnival Splendor - Mike on Catamaran Tender to Cabo

Our group met on the pier, crossed the street together, walked through the bus depot, queued by twos in an orderly fashion, and finally boarded a bus with excellent windows:

Bus to Todos Santos - Great Windows

Later on the ride home all that sun made me feel kind of faded, burnt, and oogie, but for sightseeing, they were great.

The restroom was tiny, though. Astonishingly so:

Tiny Toilet on Bus

Maybe it was bigger on the inside. I don't mean like a TARDIS, but just bigger than I realized. (Or maybe like a TARDIS. May have missed a chance there.) Putting the microwave and coffeemaker right above it just added to the errrgh.

To this day I wonder if this is wordplay or a typo:

Motel la Roca - Dive Inn (Cabo San Lucas)

A bunch of ATVers:

ATVers - near Cabo San Lucas

It's funny; I was on the bus thinking, "How awful - to come all the way to Cabo and just screech around in the dirt." Someone down there may have been thinking, "How awful - to just sit inside an air-conditioned bus and be driven to sights instead of playing in the sunshine." Travel: We're All Doing It Right.

After several "that must be it"s that weren't it, we approached Todos Santos.

Welcome to Todos Santos

As we rode along, Mike and I kept looking at street signs, trying to remember the name of the street with the restaurant we'd routed out on Google Maps before leaving. But then we thought there wouldn't be a TS tour, so we didn't write it down. Oops. Hotel California - where the tour meal was planned - didn't have much to offer Mike's dislike of seafood/mushrooms/etc. and my vegetarianism. We preferred the idea of wandering off on our own anyway.

Good plan, and one we set into motion as soon as Mike caught up with guide Libby, who was almost all the way to the Hotel California down the street before everyone disembarked. (Except for the restaurant, the visit to TS was meant to be self-guided. However, she was doing a tour of the cathedral and cultural center for anyone interested. Anyway, we wanted to tell her our plans.)

Libby didn't know our chosen restaurant from the description, but she made some suggestions for other places we might like.

We parked a little past the Jill Logan Galeria:

Todos Santos - Jill Logan Galeria

"Tequila's Sunrise" is across from the Hotel California. Hyuk hyuk.

Todos Santos - Tequila's Sunrise (Across from Hotel California)

I was disappointed to see that the tour company brochure on the cruise ship promoted the lie that the Hotel California had anything to do with the song, but at least no one on the tour or in the town brought it up. This would've forced me to become Boorish Person Who Cannot Let Some Things Go. (Become? More like "stop suppressing.") I think the rumour that hotel = song subject (soundly shot down by Don Henley) only survives now because of shoddy copying-and-pasting or sleazy tour operators. Yes, the HC gift shop plays a twinkly version of the song in the airy background, but that's almost tongue-in-cheek and easily forgiven.

Todos Santos - Hotel California Lobby

(Hotel California, lobby.)

We started in the gift shop, looking around a little and noting the culinary sea salts created by the hotel chef. Libby had mentioned them in her well-informed spiel. The shop was a little crowded, not only with our tour but other tourists (no other buses, though), and the salt didn't have prices, so we decided to look at it again later after sorting out our restaurant.

Todos Santos - Hotel California Sea Salts

Having a delicious, leisurely meal somewhere scenic while taking in the atmosphere seemed like a great start to our too-brief time here.

(Much better than trying to peer around people queueing up for blinged-out baby-Ts with the hotel logo. Also of interest to many were the damiana-based liqueurs. I remember when I first learned about damiana as a neopagan teen, wearing out a copy of The Herb Book. And no, I didn't go straight to the "marijuana" entry - I was a late bloomer to pot and it never really took. Yes, I just admitted to the entire internet which includes my father that I tried then-illegal-and-currently-sorta-illegal drugs. Sorry, Dad! It was only a few times and I was so bad at it that I honestly don't even know if I inhaled. Smoking? Ew! The control freak in me prefers carbs. You can still drive. Anyway, I was far more interested in entries on things like damiana. "You mean there are plants that promote... that?" Never would I have foreseen that 25 years later I'd be on a pier looking at signs saying, "Damiana Vodka! Made with Nature's Viagra!" Meanwhile, did you catch the name of the book's author?)

Todos Santos - Place That Sells Beer

Right away it struck me how clean and casual Todos Santos is. I mean, I wasn't expecting the filth of Acapulco (jab, jab), but even when we walked past dirt, there was no connotation of grime. (And definitely no machine gun-bearing officers on prominent duty.) The closest we've come to this before may have been Comala, also a designated "pueblo magico" of Mexico, but Comala doesn't have the "charm on every corner" that TS has. You get a true "artist colony" feel without having that HI! WE MAKE IMPORTANT ART! AND TAKE VISA! vibe. (Remember when Hank Hill visits the artist colony in the strip mall? Or was it Peggy? Is there not a King of the Hill allusion for every occasion?)

Todos Santos - Cathedral

(The cathedral was plainer than expected.)

Todos Santos is tidy, but there are ruins:

Todos Santos - Ruined Building

But even the ruins seemed tranquil - places biding their time until the next idea comes along. Not evidence of poverty and neglect. Todos Santos is much more like what I expected La Paz to be: relaxing, no pressure, pretty.

We decided that maybe the restaurant was called the Cafe Todos Santos. (Or maybe someone suggested it was, I forget.) We asked for directions as we walked around. One woman said it was two blocks away. (I barely heard her because I was so pleased with myself for addressing her using the "usted" form. Eighth-grade Spanish, represent!) No luck. Mike asked at a real estate office. They didn't have any ideas. He asked a New Yorker who now lives in La Paz. The man didn't know, but he could suggest another place on the next street, which we kept in mind. Meanwhile, I peeped into shops and other hotels:

Todos Santos - Hotel in Passing

One street had different saints above each door:

Todos Santos - Manos MexicanasYou could make several lunch-trips to Todos Santos and still not visit all the little hotels, galleries, eateries, and stores:

Todos Santos - Inside a Shop

Not our restaurant, but I liked the sign:

Todos Santos - Tre Galline Restaurant Sign

Coming around a bit in a circle, we found "Caffe Todos Santos," just steps from where ten minutes before we'd turned a corner and decided to try elsewhere. But when we went inside, we discovered it was truly a cafe of the "coffee first" variety, and not the establishment we'd been seeking:

Todos Santos - Caffe Todos Santos Menu

Pretty menu, though.

So much interesting architecture:

Todos Santos - Building

We decided to find the last person's restaurant, on a street parallel from the sort of main drag on which Hotel California and the Cultural Center are found and at the bottom of a hill.

I liked the steps leading up to this corner grocery:

Todos Santos - Grocery Store

(Not enough to correctly expose the snapshot, but you get the idea.)

Todos Santos - American Ice Cream and.. Nachos

I think those nachos are American as well... if we're defining "American" as "K-Mart cafeteria fare." Not the most appetizing sign, and a good reminder that just because it's "authentic" doesn't mean it's "tasty."

(But, one of the best plates of nachos I ever had was butt-ugly, and made in Utah, so who knows? But that sign? No bueno.)

We kept seeing twisty little staircases outside of small buildings:

Todos Santos - Minimart

And the small buildings we kept seeing now weren't restaurants. Hrm.

Todos Santos - Daniel Rope y Novedodes

(But what we did see was still pretty cute.)

We came to a park:

Todos Santos - Park

And to our left?

Todos Santos - Las Fuentes Entrance

Las Fuentes. Was this the restaurant we'd found online? No, but it had the rockwork, shade, fans, and courtyard aspect we'd been seeking.

(Why didn't I just turn on my smartypants phone and look it up? Because I live in mortal fear of three-digit cell bills... or worse. Yeah, I know you can arrange for special plans before you leave the country, but what if there was some misunderstanding? Also, they still make you ring up and talk to a human to get that done. Then again to get it undone. Easier to just explore and keep the world at bay.)

As we entered, the hostess was so still and oddly posed in the center of the room, looking at nothing, that we felt like intruders. (Actually, Mike wasn't even sure she was a real person. It was shadowy. Could've been a cardboard cutout.) But no, there was another small group here (also gringos), the restaurant was open, and we took a table for two near the back.

Todos Santos - Las Fuentes Interior

Mmm, chips.

Todos Santos - Las Fuentes - Chips

Mmm, two kinds of salsa.

Todos Santos - Las Fuentes - Chips and Salsa

Mmm, real Coke for Mike and blurry lemonade (carbonated, lightly sweet and tangy) for me.

Todos Santos - Las Fuentes (Unfocused, Heh) Lemonade

The hostess-now-waitress took our orders efficiently despite my poor but serviceable Spanish. Her English was limited, so if you go to TS, don't assume everyone is comfortable with English, and be sure to know all of the good tourist phrases, like "uno mas, por favor." (But at least mentally put an accent over the /a/ in "mas." It's too late/early for me to be looking up these things, but know that someone out there is holding you to a higher standard.)

Mike had the chicken enchiladas.

Todos Santos - Chicken Enchiladas at Las Fuentes

I couldn't decide, so I ordered plain quesadillas to share.

Todos Santos - Quesadillas (Plain) at Las Fuentes

Obviously this was not a tapas bar, and the appetizers could serve six. Oops. We nibbled, but they were a bit on the plain side (yeah, I know that's how I ordered them) and couldn't compete with our other food, which was fresh and delicious.

I had the potato tacos:

Todos Santos - Tacos de Papas at Las Fuentes

I want to grab another one (uno mas!) out of the photo right now, they were so good. Light but thorough seasoning on the non-greasy potatoes, cotija cheese, crema, a little lettuce for crunch and sprinkling of tomatoes for a juicy accent and.... happy slobbers...

All around us as we ate were little chickadee-like birds hopping up and down off the tables. We took pleasure in watching a plump one scout everywhere for cast-off tortilla crumbs. (But of course all of those photos came out too blurry. The birds were darling, though.)

Mike makes a delighted face:

Todos Santos - Las Fuentes - Mike Making Faces

Todos Santos isn't on a beach, but it is right by the sea. Many restaurants boast fresh seafood, including Las Fuentes.

Todos Santos - Langosta Fresca - Fresh Lobster

Sated but not stupidly so, with nothing but raves for Las Fuentes coming out of our mouths as eagerly as lunch went in, we continued to wander.

I failed to take a photo of an iguana as long as my arm, but here is a pharmacy on the opposite side of the street (and a non-sequiter - I'm not suggesting the iguana used steroids or anything):

Todos Santos - Farmacias GI

We thought about getting some Omeprazol (an OTC anti-reflux/acid drug that I've probably misspelled), as it's so much cheaper in Mexico, but the pharmacy we visited was cash-only, and we wanted to save our cash. Plus it just felt a bit dodgy. (The place, not the drug buying. I said OTC. Federales, stand down!) I'm sure the product is the same as in the cities with their clinical-looking stores meant to make you feel like you're at an open-air doctor's office (why do retailers in Mexico so often not have a front wall?), but it's also cheaper in the city, with all the competition, so we decided to wait. (The pharmacy shown above was closed, actually, but I didn't take a pic of the one we considered. We told the guy we were going to an ATM and would be back, and then we ran away. No, I don't know why I can't just say, "I've changed my mind." Lying just feels more polite at the time.)

Hmm, what is this?

Todos Santos - Brick Structures in Lot

It's behind this:

Todos Santos - Las Compas Building

The inside of which looks like this:

Todos Santos - Another Doorway (HDR Abuse)

(If you abuse the HDR settings in Photoshop.)

Next to the building were two shoes by the side of the road. Two! Truly this is a magic town, if roadside shoes come in pairs.

Todos Santos - Two Shoes

Oh look, the other side of the building... and the chimney-thing again.

Todos Santos - Pepsi Ghost Sign

More about soaking in the tranquility than shopping (we're not really art people most days anyway), we found ourselves back at the bus without any souvenirs.

Todos Santos - Our Bus

That wouldn't do! Even in La Paz we managed to find a magnet in the port terminal. Not being time to leave yet anyway, we walked on down to the Hotel California. I mean, it's not about the song, but it's an attraction in its own right. And we needed to buy something.

Todos Santos - Santo Miguel

Perhaps not that.

People seemed to be having a good time in the bar.

Todos Santos - Hotel California Bar

Do you ever find yourself wondering how many pictures are out there of you, in the background of someone's snapshot? I think Flickr already lets you search by tag + date taken? But I wish there was a master search engine that looks at tag, date, and lat/long, and gives you results, be they on Flickr, Photobucket, Picasa, Webshots... (And why is Webshots still seemingly #1 with cruisers?) It would be even neater if it could look at your recent uploads and say, oh, it looks like you were at lat/long blah-blah at noon on July 14 - here are some other pics that match that description.

Neat, yes? So, venture capital: who has some? And programming skills? And a lawyer for when people start freaking out to see unflattering shots of themselves across the internet.

I talked myself out of the salt. No prices, and it seemed more exciting in theory than in reality. I saw some soap that caught my eye, as exotic bathing stuff always does, but I wanted to check out the set of shops across the street first. (There's a lot of first-person singular pronouning happening here. Mike is happy for me to be the bossy tour guide, although he can take over when the BTG is freaking out that we'll never find the restaurant and we'll have to climb back up a hill with post-pneumonia lungs and low blood sugar just to eat some butt-ugly nachos that aren't even Utah-good, which is only two steps away from dying in a ditch alone. With an itchy nose.)

The shops were mostly the usual souvenir mix of fire opals and leather sandals with embossed beer logos that we'd not seen much of elsewhere in town, but I did see a piece of stone art that spoke to my rodent-loving heart:

Todos Santos - Swingset Mice

Awww!

But nowhere in Todos Santos did we get the hard sell until we came to this place. When I first admired the swingset mice, it was $120. (Yeah...) Until I heard the price, I was even half-considering it. So cute! A pain to schlep back, but cute!

But by the time the seller was suggesting $40, despite all of the awkward no-thanks'ing and excuses we made because we're polite like that (and also didn't want to alienate someone whose numbers were getting better by the minute, and everyone does have their price), Mike had pointed out all kinds of chips and missing parts to me. Drats.

Maybe for $15? Or $20? But then, the missing bits... the hauling... the fact that we don't have a house with a yard, or even a house. (I have been thinking about synthetic grass for the balcony. Now how can I turn the busy traffic into ocean waves?)

Oh, and there was also the moment when the seller said, "let me show you where I make them" and took us six steps away into a jewelry showroom, got behind a glass counter, and started talking about fire opals.

I'll make my own swingset mice someday. Put it on the list.

So, back across the street to the Hotel California gift shop to admire the locally crafted soap again, in its artfully distressed box:

Todos Santos - Desert Soaps

(I'm saying "artfully distressed" because I mostly believe it, and because Mike asked and they said they didn't have any others in better condition.)

Despite all appearances of having only remedial grooming knowledge, I'm a fiend for those bath products that manage to combine homespun earthiness with a little sophistication. We leave farmers markets as often with soap as with food, which is weird because I have this whole "soap scum bad, bath gel good" thing about the bathtub that I'm sure Mike will speak about at length when I'm dead, probably in the arms of his second wife who will never nag about housework because they'll have a maid, a maid whose salary will come out of the insurance settlement from where I was hit by the truck while wearing imperfect underwear* and left to die in the aforementioned ditch, but I digress.

(*I'm going to come back to the topic of underwear. I'm just saying this now so you don't go hunting all around this shoddily organized post looking for the follow-up asterisk.)

Wasn't one of these on Antiques Roadshow?

Todos Santos - Hotel California NCR CR

A better view of the Emporio:

Todos Santos - Hotel California Emporio

Mike waits to pay:

Todos Santos - Hotel California Register

Back on the bus, with the soap. It's all about the soap.

Todos Santos - Mike, Soap Model

Roadside fortress:

Building Outside Todos Santos

(Here I had to look up "crenellate" to see if it meant what I wanted it to mean to describe the building above. Would you believe that Merriam-Webster's site requires premium membership to see the definition of that particular word? The term "five-dollar word" has new meaning. Dictionary.com will tell you for free, but I used my semi-stolen OED access instead. But is it really stolen if it's a taxpayer-funded institution that accidentally shared the password on the internet? In the end, I decided I didn't even want to use a word that is, frankly, too close to "crinoline." Are you also imagining a battlement made of stiff petticoats? And by the way, have you ever met Caroline, one of our dwarf hamsters?)

Irrepressible Caroline

Tagging. I hate it. Cabo is no Mazatlan, though. (And I like Mazatlan, but if the amount of tagging there has any relationship to the amount of crime, I can see why cruises are being rerouted. Does tagging = heavier crime? Wait, tagging is a crime, so duh. I really hate it. Overlapping balloon letters are so 5th grade, right? And the vandals who don't even try to make puffy letters - the ones who just scrawl their gang's initials - you just know they don't even have matching satin jackets.)

Tagging Between Todos Santos and Cabo San Lucas

And that was our day in Todos Santos! We came back to Cabo, bought some acid reflux drugs like old gits, and felt pleased to have found another way to enjoy this port we can't seem to shake. (I realize that toward the end it seemed more like our day in the Hotel California gift shop, but all of my other photos are easily duplicated by using Street View in Google Maps.)

Speaking of Google, did we ever remember which restaurant we were looking for? Sure, as soon as we looked it up at home. It's called Los Adobes and is on this page along with Caffe Todos Santos (where we thought we were going) and Las Fuentes (where we ended up).

Hopefully we'll get to try Los Adobes sometime, but I wonder what will get us back to TS? I'd be happy to return, but when will we even vacation in western Mexico again? Those same-old cruise itineraries are getting pretty played out for us, and I have a long list of land-based sights on my wishlist ahead of our southern neighbour. Would we want to ride the bus again? (I'd rent a car, corruption worries aside, but why risk being an hour and half away from the cruise ship when you get a flat, knowing the ship won't wait?)

But who knows?

On the bus ride back, Libby - a former teacher - gave us a quiz on Baja California, covering topics from earlier. Part jokey, part serious, all multiple choice. Fun way to pass the time, and I could see she probably had no problems with classroom management in her teaching days. (Yes, I'm jealous.) At the end, when she gave out the comment cards, the two people with something written on the back of their surveys received prizes from the glassblowing factory. (Some day I should talk about the glassblowing factory.) Very sweet. Mike was a winner and got a glass heart.

This was all a neat experience, but we did feel tired from the sunny/bumpy drive back, so we decided against the spa - beloved spa! - in favour of naps and reading as it was only a few hours until dinner.

Such laziness ended up extending to dinner. Tonight was Mike's favourite dish in the main dining room: jerked pork loin. But, everything else on the menu was same-old, especially for me, with that single vegetarian dish on the menu each night. It's not the same menu every night, of course, but it's the same set of menus every cruise, and we just eat too well at home to be excited any more. Maybe if we had amazing waiters like on previous cruises or Your Time Dining or just a table with a great view or a less noisy restaurant...

Anyway, I never thought we'd miss the MDR on JPL night, but the jerked pork loin happened to also be available on the Lido buffet; we decided to see if it tasted the same then decide from there. Sometimes the buffet items just aren't as good as what you get in the dining room. It's not just the presentation and pacing of the MDR experience; the way they can be served differently sometimes makes a difference. (Baked stuffed mushrooms? The same. Vegetarian pot pie? Doesn't even look the same let alone taste alike.)

Mike pronounced it good (and three months later promises he wasn't lying for my sake), so we kept it low-key and stayed on the Lido, with apologies to the Mike and Shari of a year ago who would be aghast.

Not that I'd remember to ask Mike about the pork loin now if I didn't just discover that I actually took some notes on this day. Notes! What else do these notes say?

Oh yeah, earlier that day unattended kids were cannonballing into one of the hot tubs on the deck above the pool/big screen. Grrr. No one was around. I asked the kids their ages to scare them into settling down (ha), then meaningfully said to one, "So you're the oldest?" After that I nodded and walked away as if I was going to do something official.

But what? Set myself up for parent drama for the rest of the cruise as soon as a kid outed me for telling them off? Or have the kids ignore me/be disrespectful and make seeing them later always be unpleasant? Why should I even have to deal with this?

But 1) what they were doing was dangerous in that little tub, at that angle, with the very slippery deck, on a moving ship, and 2) if I were an adult who wanted to use the hot tub, I'd be pissed off to find a group of pre-teens and younger treating the hot tub like pool/splash park. Unsupervised children aren't allowed. The sign is right there. It doesn't matter that adults get their own tub in the back (as some would argue) - this tub has rules.

The sign is also right here:

Carnival Splendor - No Unsupervised Kids in Hot Tubs

No jumping. No unattended kids. No horseplay.

Someone came up to mop the floor (like a small lake from the jumping kids), and I described what the kids were just doing and that they were alone. Alas, the person didn't seem to speak English. This is usually never a problem on the ships, but I think this person - nice though he was - also didn't want to venture outside the scope of keeping his head down and mopping, which may have been the real issue.

We went to a house phone, but these have no option to call anyone other than housekeeping, the steakhouse, etc. unless it's a 911-type emergency. Argh!

So. Trek down to Guest Services, queue up, and describe everything (while the kids themselves may have since moved on), or shrug and go back to the room?

Option two it was. Sorry, kids. If you break your necks, sue your parents.

One thing we missed while ashore was the urban myth trivia. That sounded original and interesting. I'd like to know what kind of questions they asked. (Especially since folklore changes as it goes along, so couldn't you just say, "Well, the version I heard from my aunt's brother-in-law's dentist, who was actually there...") Was it classic stuff like, "How much did the cookie recipe from Neiman Marcus allegedly sell for?" Did they get edgy at all? You know what I mean... the toothbrush one? *shudder*

Carnival Splendor - Mike at El Morocco

We really like how Carnival now has a comedy club with performances from two comedians most nights. El Morocco is a good space for this, too, although it has "wings" at the back where you can't see the stage so well, at least compared to the more straightforward (but more cramped) Versailles Lounge on Carnival Spirit. Each comedy set runs around 30 minutes with a break in between, with "family" shows on earlier and R-rated shows later.

So far no comedian has held much back at those later shows, and some of the topics are so out there you can't help but be entertained if only from the novelty. (If you're as filthy-minded as I am, at least.) On this cruise, one comedian even did a bit about "period underwear." (I told you I'd get back to the topic of undies.) Sir, men are not to speak of such things! Even Mike, who usually does our laundry, is expected to ignore the greying stains on what were once festive cotton prints. (His second wife - the one with the maid who probably makes jerked pork loin using authentic imported hand-pestled spices - probably doesn't even wear underwear. Or have periods. Hey, I hardly have periods either these days, but that doesn't stop nature's panty pranks.)

TMI, right?! So no, don't bring your kids to those late shows. (They aren't allowed, but then neither is doing cannonballs into the hot tub. At least the comedy they've probably already heard before on South Park.) Strong visuals may happen.

Shocking or barely R-rated, the comedy was much better than our first Splendor cruise, before the fleetwide launch of the "Punchliner Club," when all we had was some grouse miserably abusing the crowd. This time we saw Russ Nagel again - his show held up quite well the second time - and Merl Hobbs, who was also funny, but he needs a website. (MySpace doesn't count, mister.)

Two observations: One, it's odd how everyone clears out of the lounge between shows. The break is only 30 minutes. We preferred to keep our good seat (or find a better one). Maybe most people don't bother with seeing the late-late comedian?

Carnival Splendor - Punchliner Screen in El Morocco

Next, and here comes the whinge, the bar service in this room was as bad as it was the last time we were here on Carnival Splendor two years ago. Once they know you're a soda drinker (with a pre-paid soda card), you won't see them again. It would be one thing if they were busy (more drink sales = more tips, I get it), but several times we saw servers just standing against the wall, watching the show, or at least keeping their eyes averted . The dining room started out just as bad but was much better near the end. (But still, no one was as great as Maria or Denis on Carnival Spirit.) I don't think it's a ship thing, just bad luck, but I don't know? Maybe bigger ships promote that kind of work ethic? The room was only half full for the last show on this night, but we couldn't get anyone's attention - at the wall or on the floor.

I did try to talk Mike into getting a Shirley Temple - he's never had one! - but he couldn't handle the embarrassment of ordering something called that. Pft. (Remind me to get cherry juice at the store. We got a new "Ninja Warrior" immersion blender from Woot.com - half off! - and it makes genuinely excellent smoothies and slushies. Don't ask how many frozen hot chocolates I've had this week. Anyway, wouldn't a frozen Shirley Temple be tasty?)

I see from my notes there's another moment to chat about. After boarding or after dinner, I forget which, we came back to our room only to discover that some rooms around the corner had their doors open so the occupants could yell back and forth to one another. Such a breach of etiquette in my spa cabins? Say it isn't so!

This happened more than once with these cabins during the cruise. On this occasion, we could hear a young boy tearfully screaming, "IT'S NOT FUNNY!" over and over at the top of his lungs while a bunch of adults laughed at him at the same volume. This went on for ages. I swear. No uptight hyperbole from me. It wasn't the kind of gentle laughter that's meant to calm a tantrum, either, but rowdy, boisterous laughing from people who sound as oblivious to the kid's feelings as to rest of the hallway's peace and quiet.

I wasn't figuratively elected Miz Passive-Aggressive 2011 for nothing. Eventually I stuck my head out the door and yelled, "It is TOO funny!" then let out a roll of over-the-top laughter meant to imitate the adults. (The kid I really felt for, and I regret that he may have thought my response was for him.) Not pretty. Not proud. I just wanted the adults to become shamefully aware that they were being idiots to a point where strangers were mocking them. (It did get quieter, but I think it was dying down anyway.)

Maybe it's time to sail HAL so I can be the one getting told off. (Is it true that you can't wear jeans in the public areas anywhere on elegant nights?)

I wonder if HAL has as much of this:

Carnival Splendor - Dead Ice Cream Cone Found in Elevator

(To be fair, what do you do if you drop an ice cream cone in the middle of the night? Maybe the person went down to guest services and help was on the way. I can't even say I'd go very far to let someone know. So, I apologize for the cheap shot that implies Carnival attracts a tacky breed of people who leave a trail of dairy-based crime scenes in their wake (or is soft-serve non-dairy?)... even with all of my grumbles, I don't really think that's the case. I still like the pic, though, so it stays.)

Towel Animal - Reclining Bunny

Reclining Bunny played us off to sleep. It looks like daylight in that photo because I actually took it the next day, details of which will come "later," but our second day in Cabo is best described by referring to my previous 1,001 mentions of the thalassotherapy pool. (The good thing about repeating a port for the fifth time? Giving yourself a vacation from that vacation and staying onboard!)

15 July 2011 |


Comments

Lisa

Love your blog, Shari! Like you, I am a CCSD English teacher and official Carnival cruiser (A Carnival convert, actually). :) Thanks for answering so many of my questions with your blog! We are traveling on the Splendor this summer for a second time, but it will be our first experience in the spa cabin! Yippee!!! :) I am more than excited! Enjoy the rest of your summer!

Daniel Weise

Thanks for another installment in the ever anticipated Shari.com travelogue! Love the narrative and there are so many parts to which I can relate.

One thing that always bugs me is how people can be so seemingly uncaring and/or ingnorant of how their actions affect those around them. The cabins propping the doors open and yelling back and forth is a perfect example.

Have to add Todos Santos to the list of places to explore.

Zaragoza Jewelry Store

Egads. I wish I could get you to write for me, lol. You have got to be one of the best and longest post writing writers that I've come across lol.

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