Cruise to Alaska: Sea Day
(Just landed on this page out of nowhere? You’ll want to start with Cruise to Alaska: Before We Begin.)

I can’t think of a more scenic itinerary than Alaska when it comes to sea days. I suppose others might prefer tropical blue water and balmy breezes for miles, but I couldn’t get enough of the moody grey skies and forests so thick you had to wonder what was out there that had never seen a human footprint.

Norwegian Pearl Cabin - Moody Balcony

We passed Carnival Spirit, heading south on the last day of her weekly sailing.

Carnival Spirit Sailing South

See ya in Oz, Spirit!

I couldn’t find my highlighter, which I blamed on not having enough drawers to unpack and spread out all the little sundries, so I used a pen to mark items of interest on the Freestyle Daily.

Freestyle Daily - Day 2

I’m going to get a little cynical now, and I should warn any huffy NCL fans that I am not picking on Norwegian (this time). This is something that Carnival is just as guilty of, and I assume it’s an industry-wide practice, as we all know cruise ships need to a) get more money from you once you board, and b) appeal to a wide variety of interests, but mostly “a.”

So, above is the Freestyle Daily, which informs people of what’s happening when and where. Below is the same Freestyle Daily, but with all of the following blacked out:

  • Passive features that are available all day, every day (bridge viewing room, sudoku sheets, golf clubs, etc.)
  • Activities geared toward children
  • Activities that carry an extra fee (not that I begrudge the fee)
  • “Activities” which deserve “sarcastic air quotes” because they are really just very obvious sales pitches (50% Off Diamonds Event, Live Acupuncture Demo)
  • Specialized get-togethers (singles mixer, Friends of Dorothy)
  • Notifications of live music (I know this is subjective - for some it’s an actual event to plan for, but for others it’s just ambiance)

Freestyle Daily - Day 2 - Adjusted

I should note that I accidentally blacked out the casino tour and, due to a $#@@!!! mouse issue, couldn’t easily fix it. That said, I think the “tour” of one big room bordered strongly on sales pitch territory, but I’m trying to play fair. See how I left in the “art history seminar” even though it’s really just a gateway pitch for the art auctions? (Don’t get me started on the art auctions. I know it’s possible to get things you like at a fair price.... but the tactics used by the art company representatives are just so slimy.)

I know I left journal making on there despite the fee, but I’ll explain why in a little bit.

Back to the Daily. The in-laws were kind of disappointed in the number of actual free activities for adults planned for our only sea day. We were, too, but we’ve certainly seen Carnival mess up in this area, too. (You know, with nothing much happening all day except for six things between 11:30-1:30.... the same time as not only lunch but some specialty buffet.) Still, it was regrettable that the most general interest items were all happening at the same time around 9am and 3pm, without much general stuff in between.

We’ve been on some Carnival cruises where we hopped from trivia-style event to trivia-style event for three hours straight. I’m not saying Norwegian should do that, but a sea day with only two trivia games total?

(It doesn’t even have to be regular pencil-and-paper trivia. Carnival had a great game one cruise where the host, Pip, asked a question and gave two answers. You had to move to the left side or the right side of the stage, depending on what you thought the answer was. So, for every question, people were eliminated, until it came down to the Last Man Standing, which I think is what the game was called. It was great fun, easy and fast to play, interesting, and we got several games in within the half hour. It’s not like Norwegian even has to worry about running out of ships-on-a-stick or medallions.)

I do want to give praise for offering two dance classes in one day, but the second dance class was in Bliss Lounge, so that doesn’t count. I’ll get to “why” later.

But this is all Shari-a-few-months-later talking. The Shari standing on her balcony, waving to Carnival Spirit, and excited to be at sea hadn’t taken a hard look at the Freestyle Daily. She just starred some items of interest the night before and now wanted to return to the Summer Palace dining room for breakfast.

Norwegian Pearl - Menus

Norwegian does a good job of making the evening’s menu available. (The lunch and breakfast menus are also on hand, but these never change.) Hmmm, again nothing really appealed to Mike. We decided we’d try another specialty restaurant for dinner, perhaps the French place.

This time we were seated by the beautiful back windows. Warm but heatless sunshine made the room luminous; everything looked great. I especially approved of the salt and pepper grinders.

Norwegian Pearl - Summer Palace Condiment Grinders

With the breakfast order only slightly mangled (they forgot Mike’s blueberries, and apparently pancakes only come in one size despite the menu), we enjoyed our meal. The omelette/egg portions were noticeably bigger than what we would get on Carnival. The food was also hotter and the juice was refilled in a timely manner, so for me, Norwegian wins the MDR breakfast round. (Mind you, Carnival may have improved and I just don’t know because we switched to the buffet for breakfast instead. Oh well; we can only report on what we know and assume the reader will provide their own grains of salt.)

Norwegian Pearl - Mike's Breakfast at Summer Palace

Norwegian Pearl - Blueberry Silver Dollar Pancakes at Summer Palace

”Okay, now look sad, like you’re going to be assassinated.”

Norwegian Pearl - Mike Poses with Romanovs

Norwegian Pearl - Summer Palace with Rose and Statue

”Let’s walk through the photo area and see if our very first embarkation photo is there. Oh, and we can look for stickers and scrapbooking supplies.”

Norwegian Pearl - Photo Area

(We didn’t find any stickers, but that was probably just us because we didn’t find our photo, either. Phil and Carol had to point it out to us later.)

”Now we need to get to Bar City for journal making!”

I assured Mike that I wasn’t going to pay for journal-making when I had my own groovy Smashbook going upstairs, so therefore we weren’t going to get sucked into doing arts and crafts (His real fear. I still hear him call out in his sleep sometimes, “I don’t want to decorate visors! No more glitter glue!”), but I just wanted to, you know, see what was happening. So I could, like, inform the world and stuff when I got around to writing about the cruise.

We hustled to Maltings and looked for the inevitable crowds of wimmenfolk.

All we saw was an athletic Fijian with a stack of cellophane-wrapped books in front of him.


”May I take a photo?”

Norwegian Pearl - Journals in Arts and Crafts

”How much does it cost?” (Not because I cared. Again, this was all in the name of hardcore investigative journalism.)

Steven, the host sitting alone, said it was free. “What? But it says in the Freestyle Daily that there’s a fee.”

“No, there’s no charge.”

”Oh! Well, then...”

And that’s when I sat down and when Mike’s body began to shut down his systems one by one in the face of not just an arts and crafts class but a private arts and crafts class. The body has a way of protecting the owner from that much pain.

But luckily Steven was a cool chap. He said I could work on it back in the cabin, which was perfect. I’d already cast my eye on the included Norwegian/cruising stickers and couldn’t wait to add them to my Smashbook, not that I was going to mention that. Then, of course, I got greedy.

”Honey, you’ll do it with me, right?” And here I added the patented wife “spy-eye” that is meant to surreptitiously indicate that we are now on a covert mission and anything I say should just be agreed to, rolled with, and ideally embellished upon in the affirmative.

Alas, Mike’s marital communication receptors had yet to reboot from the recent terror. “Oh no,” he said, his arms waving in protest. “I don’t do arts and crafts.”


Mike, systems now coming online enough to pick up on my overly cheerful tone, partially recovered from his pre-fetal hunkering to politely say, “It’s just not my thing.”

For the remainder of the class time, we had a nice chat with Steven, especially about his time on Princess ships. This was periodically interrupted by my unwrapping the journal package and pointing out in a jokey-but-not-jokey-SPYEYE-SPYEYE way how we could use each of the different stickers, if only Mike would join me in some journaling back in the cabin later.

Poor Steven probably thought these were terrible euphemisms for sex.

About five minutes before "class" ended, someone else showed up. We’ll call her “Dimity” because I can’t remember her real name, and because I’ve been doing a lot of colonial genealogy lately. Dimity brings tour groups onto cruise ships. (Her husband goes on different cruise ships with his groups at the same time. What a life!) She did decide to do five rounds of how I’m pronouncing my name incorrectly, but otherwise she seemed to be nice. (I can think of solid linguistic arguments for at least six different pronunciations, so if I’m not forcing the Sharis of the world to unify on this, the non-Sharis can let it go already.)

This was enough distraction to madly gesture to Mike that I wanted him to take a book so I could have extra stickers. Then we noticed that it was time for trivia, so we all (all!) took our books to the other side of the bar, where a few people had already gathered.

(So, why wasn’t anyone at Journal Making? Was it because they wanted to see the History of Alaska presentation? Maybe. Was it because the Freestyle Daily said there’d be a fee. Maybe. Still, seemed odd, considering the Alaskan cruising demographic is supposed to skew to the older, more sedate side. Meanwhile, I’m sorry that I was such a piggy about the stickers and connived to get more than my share. But, if any scrap embellishments had been for sale during this cruise, I would’ve bought them all, so I’m not going to feel too bad about it. I later asked at the photography desk and they said, no, they only had the small photo albums.)

We waited for more people to come, and they trickled in throughout the game - I think many coming from the Alaska presentation. (See? See? This is why you don’t stack everything at once. I put “OnTimers” down on the paper as our team name, just because apparently I don’t have enough private moments of smugness.) Steven was easy to understand, so at least we didn’t spend most of the game on repeats like yesterday.

Speaking of puffed chests, any smug buildup was hastily removed when I couldn’t remember the answer to the first question. I rarely repeat cruise trivia questions for the whole world to see, for what I hope are obvious reasons, so I’m going to play that policy card now and not reveal my utter, utter shame at screwing up the answer to something that I actually used to teach in my IT days. I mean, I wasn’t totally wrong - I got everything correct except the final syllable of the last word - but still. I shamed my ancestors.

And so, because of my brain blip, and because we didn’t think the “obvious” answer for another question could be right, we ended up tied at 18/20. I’d say I was showing off the score, but it was pretty much the easiest trivia ever, with plenty of hints from Steven, too. I know I said I wasn’t going to give the questions, but here are some answers: Teddy Bear, Libra, Wal-Mart, Mike Myers, Luke. Now guess the easiest questions to go with those answers, and you’ve got 25% right already.

We went into a tie-breaking question. Mike knew the rest of the question and the answer as soon as the host got to “How many Oscars did...”

Fortune and glory, that’s my husband. (Manifesting as an extra participation signature on our cards and a “Well done!” from me.)

Spa time! Our day was going well: yummy breakfast in a lovely location, a new friendly face in what yesterday hadn’t seemed like a very personable crew, a competitive round of trivia, and, let’s not forget, extra stickers.

We left a note in Phil and Carol’s “mailbox” saying where we were and that we were thinking about Le Bistro for dinner. Mike changed to his swim shorts and T-shirt, and I changed into a girl. I wore my swimsuit under my clothes, but it would be too wet to do this for the way back, so I put together a bag.

(I don’t even carry a purse, so this was foreign for me. On Carnival we book spa rooms, so I just trot back and forth between spa and cabin in my suit with my shirt over it, too blissful to mind the rare gawker along the back ways. Alas, no spa cabins here unless you’re getting a suite. So, I retreated from an opportunity to be a poster child for size acceptance and covered up. Fat-lady swim shorts and exploded-biscuit flesh draw enough stares in the water. No need to invite YouTube coverage while parading the length of the ship.)

Bouncing in anticipation, we skipped along to meet our new friend, NCL's thermal suite.


Our friend sure had a lot of other friends.

The thalasso pool was full. The heated recliners were full. The hot tub was not full. “Meet you back here in a few minutes,” I whispered, for despite all the people, the room was silent.

That impressed me actually, that people would follow the signs and keep the area restful. But at the same time, it was kind of depressing to have to mutter in each other’s ears all because Norwegian decided to put all of their co-ed facilities in one big room. A glass wall between the recliners and the thalasso pool and hot tub would do wonders here. No one would lose their view, and those using the pools wouldn’t find heads swinging their way every time they turned on a noisy jet spray.

I put my stuff in my assigned locker and gave the empty steam room a wistful glance. Too bad Mike and I couldn’t sit together in there while we waited for the thalasso pool to clear out a bit.

Mike was gamely waiting at the foot of the hot tub steps. Months before, I’d asked on Cruise Critic if the ladders in the thalasso pool were hard to climb if one was “fluffy” or had a knee injury. No, people assured me, “but watch out for the hot tub.”

They weren’t kidding. What coke-blown architectural mind designed this death trap? Bad enough that the thalassotherapy pool is off limits to anyone with accessibility issues, but the hot tub was just bizarre.

Here’s a glimpse of it again from the embarkation day tour (right, to the back):

Norwegian Pearl - Main Spa Area

Okay, so that’s three short (and slippery when wet, I’ll add) steps up.... and then you sit on the edge of the tub and raise your legs to clear all adjacent plumbing fixtures, and swing your body around. It’s ungainly, but the real challenge comes with getting your wet body back out, especially if you’re a short-legged soul like myself. (But at 5’6”, not actually short, so this is hardly a small problem, so to speak.)

To be honest, since my ankle injury after the cruise, I couldn’t see myself risking the scenario again. Too slippery, too chancey, and them leaving an ugly yellow “Caution: Wet Floor” marker next to the hot tub steps (you can see it in the photo) is just shoddy planning... if not a pathetic attempt to avoid litigation for a serious design flaw.

(Hmmm, I guess if the worst happened, then a lawsuit against a major corporation could pay off handsomely... but what if the settlement was free Norwegian cruises for life? Bleh! I kid, I kid...)

Otherwise, the hot tub was fine. We could have fit another person in there, and I think skinny people could manage four. (And skinny Californian swingers circa 1977 could perhaps press the limit to six, but that blonde pine look would have to be swapped for redwood.)

Having survived the climb out of the hot tub, we descended into the thalasso pool, now with fewer people. Being generally quiet people anyway, it wasn’t hard to remain silent, but we did indulge in plenty of facial expressions and head tilts and nods in our own little world in our own little corner... only to eventually realize that we were getting sideways looks from the other pool patrons.

As we noiselessly bobbed from the rail to the spray to the grill as our mood shifted, I began to notice that other people tended not to stay long. Get in, find a spot, stare dead-eyed at nothing for awhile, get back out.

This is why the pool needs to have slightly different quiet rules. Couples should be allowed to murmur without forming a breathy CPR dome over the other person’s ear. People should feel free to grunt in pleasure when the spray first hits their backs. When the bubbles stop, it shouldn’t turn into a game of panicked hot potato, everyone passing fast glances, trying to figure out without speaking who is going to turn on the bubbles again.

I’m exaggerating, but only a little. The vibe was very weird. Even over in the “active” end of the pool, with the circular rail and strong underwater jets (located at bidet level, if you catch my drift), when Mike and I were gently bouncing and stretching and smiling but otherwise not disrupting anyone, it felt like we were intruding upon a monk retreat. Sure, I may have pointed a little excitedly when the jet inevitably got under my swimsuit and blew my top into a balloon, but I kept my arm bent and close to my chest. I swear!

Mike leaned over to take my ear into his mouth. “I feel like even the other fat people are judging us.”

Aware of what seemed to be a really strict and sensitive environment, we didn’t even touch hands. So, it was great when the pool would be clear (see, nobody stayed long) and we could silently go nuts. Floating! Hands on submerged shoulders for a tow!

Then new people would come in and we’d retreat to demurely wait them out. One guy stayed, though, and kept staring at us. Mike made up a new word.

”That guy,” he breathed, “is a thalasshole.”

Not really, of course. The tone was set, and people helplessly perpetuated it. I never thought I’d say this - me, the person who can’t teach without a quiet classroom (reason #7625 why I’m not teaching this year) - but I think I’d rather people were making clueless, banal, top-volume chitchat than this, everyone taking their underwater pew and reflecting on their sins for up to five minutes.

Mike and I parted (grrr) to try the steam rooms. It was nice enough, for a generic white-tile steam room. I did the sauna a little, then the steam again. Nanoshower then I came out and snagged the double-wide recliner so Mike’s shirt could dry off a bit before the walk back. (Oh judgemental people, how we try to protect your frail eyes.)

The recliner was comfortable and the view looking out the front of the ship was amazing. I could see how even more amazing it must be when cruising through the glaciers.... and I could only guess how crowded. In fact, a woman in the locker room told me all eight members of her family bought spa passes, and they planned to be in the spa all day when we went through Glacier Bay.

The “one big crowded room of silence” method just isn’t pleasant, Norwegian. On Carnival, we would lament not being able to hit the spa twice a day. After this visit, we each carefully danced around the idea of how, of course we’d be back, but if for some reason - just saying! - we didn’t use the spa much - just a hypothesis! - well, it was worth it... mostly... to see what it was like... Um...

Still, trying new things is always fun, and now we were going to get to try a new place for lunch. We obviously wouldn’t be going back to the MDR after yesterday’s lackluster meal, and the buffet didn’t appeal after yesterday, either, so, hmm, how about the Blue Lagoon?

Norwegian Pearl - Blue Lagoon Lounge

Mike ordered the wonton noodle soup.

Norwegian Pearl - Blue Lagoon - Wonton 'Noodle' Soup

It seems it isn’t called wonton noodles soup for a reason.

I started with the mozzarella sticks.

Norwegian Pearl - Blue Lagoon - Fried Mozzarella Sticks

Really, Norwegian? Three sticks? “Oh, but your beloved Carnival only gives out two,” you may counter, with a really unattractive laugh of perceived triumph. Well, first, Carnival is not my beloved. We decided to try other lines for a reason. Second, this is what Carnival gives me when I order fried mozzarella:

Carnival Spirit - Fried Mozzarella

And, for what it’s worth, the server doesn’t just put the plates down then turn and walk away, either. Yes, it happened again, just like yesterday, all throughout the meal. Is it the New Cruelty?

Mike followed his broth with Buffalo wings:

Norwegian Pearl - Blue Lagoon - Chicken Wings

And I had the lone vegetarian entree, the “vegetable lasagne”:

Norwegian Pearl - Blue Lagoon - Vegetable Lasagne

The menu doesn’t specify the vegetables, probably because they change depending on what’s available. It certainly did meet the description of “Parmesan Cheese, Tomato Sauce.” That’s the nicest thing I can say.

(I’m biting back a comment on the plating. I really don’t want to be so negative that people write off my experiences and maybe think I have an anti-NCL agenda. Here, let me say one good thing about Norwegian before the head-shaking continues: it’s great that Blue Lagoon is open 24 hours. In theory. Oh dear, another story for later. Argh. Let me try again, without having to dip into spoilers: Norwegian Pearl has many spots where you can sit indoors and look out at the sea, including here at the Blue Lagoon.)

The desserts we chose to have wordlessly thumped down on the table before us were a chocolate brownie and the cheesecake with pineapple sauce:

Norwegian Pearl - Blue Lagoon - Chocolate Brownie

Norwegian Pearl - Blue Lagoon - Cheesecake

We did manage to engage our server in conversation just before leaving. We asked about the limited after-hours menu, and Mike pointed out that it doesn’t have a single vegetarian option. I didn’t want to say anything, but Mike wanted to solve the problem, and he wondered how “strict” the late-night menu really was. Could I get an improvisation of some sort? Was there really nothing?

”The menu is limited because there are so many other dining options,” the server replied.

”But there aren’t really any dining options after 10 p.m. for vegetarians.”

“There are so many other restaurants. This is just meant to be snacks.”

We gave up. She either couldn’t parse our English or she was too disinterested to at least say she would pass along our comments, let alone offer to ask the chef. Seriously, they couldn’t nuke up another sad Stouffer’s lasagne as soon as the hour hand settled on 10? Not that I wanted to ever eat it again, but having a 10 p.m. curfew on your dining options isn’t great cruising.

(Don’t even mention room service. Apparently the room service menu suffered a downsizing between when we looked it up online and when our ship sailed. We found a misaligned sticker covering the old options, but the only change that seemed to be made was that they removed the vegetarian sandwich. It was shitty pizza or the kids’ menu for vegetarians, unless you count a salad or fruit plate. Later in the cruise I considered asking for an existing sandwich to be made without meat, but I was so soured on the poor attitude from Norwegian staff that just thinking about trying to wrangle an accommodation depressed me. Then I’d think about that joke of a table in our cabin and just give up.)

As we exited, we noticed that the cooking demonstration was going on down in the atrium below. We found a spot at the rail to watch for a bit.

Norwegian Pearl - Cooking Demo in Crystal Atrium

The demonstration wasn’t of how to cook a signature dish from the ship, like I expected, but rather a demonstration of the knife skills used by the chefs in the Teppanyaki restaurant. (Think Benihana.)

Here’s a hint: don’t watch this demo from above. Squeeze into one of the folding chairs in the atrium’s small space between the bar/coffee station/short excursions desk/purser’s desk/reservations desk/future cruise desk/gift shop, or take a fancier chair behind the pillars, and watch it there.

Because, if you watch from above, you may be distracted by all the smashed eggs and other crap that accumulates on the floor behind the chef, while the audience thinks he’s pulling the same egg out of his hat (a post-modern Easter basket when viewed from above).

Back to the room for us to maybe enjoy the balcony a bit. Goodness, were the carts still cluttering the halls?

Norwegian Pearl - The Perpetual Sight of Carts in the Corridor

Norwegian, raise the price and hire some more staff.

We came back to a reply from Phil and Carol. Le Bistro sounded great to them, and they’d already booked it. This was taking some adjusting, traveling with others, but we did want to try it, so no harm done. I can’t imagine what it’s like trying to coordinate activities if some in the party are higher maintenance, so we all got lucky there. I can finally see why traditional cruise dining appeals to people. If you’re in a group, you don’t have to negotiate everyone’s whims and hurts. Dinner is at X time, deal with it. But as I said, we managed without fuss. Good thing, too, since you can’t cancel a reservation within 24 hours of the dining time without paying a penalty.

We left a new note saying that we’d hopefully see them at the Weakest Link game and retired to our room.

MIke, alas, does not dance. Unlike crafts, where now and again I can coax some grudging participation (as I understand it, other wives use the same pleas to ask for diamonds), dancing is off the table. I got him to do some fitness stuff almost resembling dance twice, and one time I got him to shuffle his feet enough to help me go over a lesson plan for teaching courtly dancing when my freshies were doing Romeo and Juliet, and the bellyaching just isn’t worth it. Better to ask for diamonds and dance with them.

But Mike is willing to sit and watch the dance classes with me (if I insist), so we got to the Bliss Lounge a little early so I could see the end of the swing dance class and so we could secure our seats.

Here’s how the Bliss Lounge looks during a dance class:

Norwegian Pearl - Dance Class in Bliss Lounge

Not enough room to swing a pre-pubescent mouse, let alone your partner. It looked frustrating.

We dipped and wove as people stood around, trying to hunt for some seats not belonging to the standing dancers, finally finding two a bit out of the way.

The dancers were dismissed without further instruction, and the host came around and asked us to move our seats to a spot in front of a long sofa since he was going to set up his podium where we were. Oh, okay.

The people who’d been sitting on the long sofa came back, now not so thrilled that the seats that had been in front of the big bed (Bliss is styled as an ultralounge) were now in front of them. We tried to scrunch out of their way, but they (and most of the lounge) couldn’t really see the stage from the seated area because of the pillars anyway. Others were pulling chairs forward. I genuinely felt for the people on the long sofa, but the law of the land seemed to be shifting, and it seemed they’d misanticipated the future when choosing anchored furniture.

A new row formed behind us with a couple we’d met in trivia earlier. (Sorry, sofa people.) While Mike was up putting our names in the hat (“Not mine!” I squealed to him - I don’t do performance trivia), the couple said maybe we could team up. I didn't know the rules, but I couldn’t fathom team play for this game, plus we sort of expected Phil and Carol to come. Erm.

I tried to soften the rejection with bright conversation and a light joke about how I didn’t know my in-laws well enough to kick them off our team yet, but it turned into one of those things where the people just end up staring at me while I talk faster and faster to try to get them to say something, anything, to show that they understand that my intentions are good. (I should never have warned them that we weren’t allowed to sit near the bed.... which they didn’t believe until the host told them as well.)

And then Phil and Carol came, pulling up chairs to take some of the last spaces in these new rows... and the sofa people got even madder and made comments, and everyone was uncomfortable, and Phil ended up putting one chair back and sort of crouching on an ottoman.

It was all so pleasant.

Too bad there wasn’t some other, larger, yet still intimate venue for the dance classes and this Weakest Link activity. Like, say, the Spinnaker Lounge which had its last activity four hours earlier. (Check the Freestyle Daily. Pardon my French and my scornful gaze and my Gallic shrug, Norwegian, but WTF?)

So, here’s how cruise-style Weakest Link goes: six or so people are selected from the names in the jar. They step up to the microphone one at a time to answer questions. They are told if they are right or wrong. When everyone has had a turn, these six decide who to vote off. (No points or banking of them, etc.) Eventually it comes down to two people who answer questions until one gets it wrong.

Richard hosted this game and he seemed nice enough, furrowed brow and long-suffering demeanor aside. (It could just be a British thing.) So, I felt bad when I gasped “That’s wrong!” pretty loudly after he read an incorrect “correct” answer off the sheet, but others joined in, and he was good about taking our word for it. (Aquarius is the water-bearer, not Pisces.)

Funny bit (that will hopefully make up for the display of ego in the last paragraph): Mike and I are both Beatles fans. A question came up that was something like “How many Beatles go by their real names?” We all looked at each other and nodded, and Mike and I surreptitiously mouthed “three” to each other.

The contestant of course guessed “three,” and the host said, “That’s right: John, George, and Paul. “Ringo” is just a nickname for Richard.”

Mike and I immediately looked at each other. We hadn’t been thinking about Ringo at all! We were feeling very clever, thinking, “Oh, Paul is actually a James, aha!” and we both overlooked the obvious. Duuuuuhhhh.

And no, we didn’t try to make a case for the answer actually being two, but mostly because we couldn’t remember exactly how the question had been phrased. Had the host said “real names” or “real first names” or “first names” or....? The point is, it was funny that we’d ignored Ringo. Most of the questions were this easy (in fact, many had been in the previous two trivia games), although some were disproportionately difficult. Luck of the draw.

Speaking of luck of the draw, when Richard drew the names for the contestants, he drew a father and a son. So, guess who whispered to each other after each round to make sure they wrote down the same person to kick off the team? People in the audience repeatedly made polite but increasingly pointed remarks about colluding, but it wasn’t until nearly the end that Richard told the father and son to stop double-teaming the other players. I know it’s just a game, but it’s not as fun to watch when you’re just waiting for the inevitable.

So, it came down to the father, the son, and.... one of the sofa people. It was hard to know who to root for. The father and son, despite their taking advantage of a disinterested host, both seemed very nice and very bright. The sofa woman also seemed nice, but she had missed almost every question. (So of course no one wanted to vote her off.)

Norwegian Pearl - Weakest Link in Bliss Lounge

(She’s hidden in this photo, which is probably just as well since I’m not sure what constitutes public space and allowable photography, especially if you're pointing out, er, weak links.)

Since, gee, the father and son weren’t going to vote each other off, the whole game was a matter of biding time until one of them won (the father got a particularly hard question and the son took the honors), but I like all trivia events, so it wasn’t a bad way to spend time in the end. Could’ve been much more fun for all, but by this point we were learning that we were going to have to set the bar quite a bit lower for this cruise.

Our dinner reservation was for 5:45, just after Le Bistro opened. After a bit of a wander with Phil and Carol, we returned to the cabin to relax before meeting them downstairs. Carol joked that she wanted to get “blinged up” and put on the dog a bit, and I had to tell her my concession would be black slacks instead of my usual jeans. We were definitely glad of the near-lack of dress code on Norwegian, not that Carnival’s west coast cruises are very demanding in this regard. (You can wear jeans in the Carnival Steakhouse, people, and this has been the policy for years.) Thankfully Carol didn’t care what other people were wearing; she just wanted to dress up herself. I really did get lucky in the in-law department.

We were dainty enough to use our travel lint rollers, though:

Lint Rollers

Ah, that photo reminds me of something. It’s been two paragraphs without any NCL bashing, so let’s get back to it. (Don’t worry; dinner at Le Bistro will balance out this latest rant.)

See Mike’s soda sticker on his room key? You probably think I’m mad about the Pepsi, having been raised in the Coca-Cola faith. It’s true; I don’t really like Pepsi, but many people do, so I understand that sometimes the coin won’t flip my way when it comes to beverages. Besides, I really commend Pepsi for its “Throwback” line made with actual sugar, not high fructose corn syrup, while Coke keeps its head in the sand and claims that people drink Mexican Coke with sugar for the nostalgia factor of the glass bottles, not because it tastes any different. (So why do so many non-Jewish people seek out seasonal Kosher Coke in 2-litre bottles?)

Norwegian offers water, tea, and coffee to drink for free if you don’t have a soda sticker. I try to avoid caffeine (and don’t like coffee), so it looked like it would be water or my first soda sticker. (I didn’t want to bring on soda since that would mean finding a store then wrangling more luggage.) Carnival offers lemonade, which is a refreshing option (although sometimes they don’t dilute it enough, but that’s easily fixed). I like water, but drinking it exclusively during the cruise seemed kind of depressing. I decided to get a soda sticker.

However, like I said, I don’t really like Pepsi or Mountain Dew. Sierra Mist is okay, but I didn’t know if it was really appealing enough to buy a sticker. Ginger ale I do love, but I’ve become a total snob about ginger drinks and can’t go back to the wan mixer stuff. Again, I needed more incentive.

I know! I’m very forgiving about root beer and most Pepsi product places serve Mug. Was root beer an option?

No root beer? Rats.

Oh! I can see it! There! In the soft drink display on the bar. Orange soda! I do like orange soda! Yay!


Orange soda isn’t included?

But... it’s there. It’s there to buy. It’s a soft drink. It’s right there next to all the included soft drinks. Why isn’t it included?

It “just isn’t.” I see. That seems odd, don’t you think? (Oh, by the way you’ve moved away, Mr. Bartender, I guess the conversation is over.)

We were actually a bit tenacious on this, not taking one bartender’s word for it. We asked around. Nope, orange soda isn’t included. Why? “It just isn’t.”

If you know me at all, I no longer cared that orange soda wasn’t included. That’s the policy. But why was it the policy? Why could no one tell me? (And why did no one seem to care? You can tell this happened on the first day, because by the second day we’d come to understand that pretending to care was a rare skill among Norwegian staff.)

So, I didn’t get a soda sticker. I’d been on the fence, thinking it would be a nice treat to sometimes break things up with ginger ale or Sierra Mist, but being shrugged off made me think, “Nah, I don’t need to give these guys any more money. Water will do.”

Again, I’m not demanding orange soda. (And I think I should get bonus points for using parentheses when mentioning that certain other cruise lines do offer orange soda.) I just wanted to be treated well. I wanted the bartender to look me in the eye, say that he’s sorry, and then maybe say something light that takes the sting out of the situation. Offer me an umbrella, try to sell me a fun cocktail, ask how my day is going otherwise - show that you care about me even though you regretfully can’t offer this one particular service.

Later that week, Mike found a bartender at the aft bar who was able to explain why orange soda isn’t available: it’s not loaded into the nozzle. They don’t open cans for the soda sticker people. This makes absolute sense, and I have no problem with this logic. Post-mix is cheaper than cans, and there is only so much you can hook up to the nozzle. (Why do they even have cans? I still remember the cruise when Carnival ran out of cans of Dr Pepper. Needless to say, no Dr Pepper on Norwegian, even though that's a drink that swings both ways.)

And then this bartender said he would make Mike an orange soda on the sly. So, we’d discovered the rebel camp, but it was too late for me.

Lint-free and ready to have a nice meal, we arrived at Le Bistro right on time, which was a bit impressive since it was only as we were leaving our cabin that we realized we weren’t entirely sure where it was. (Le Bistro is easy to overlook, being tucked behind a door near the bar with the grand piano.)

I’m a terrible person who can’t remember what everyone ordered. (That’s what happens when you are trying to be discreet about taking photos of the meal.) I’m also terrible because I’m going to sneak in one little criticism of what was otherwise a terrific meal. This was our table:

Norwegian Pearl - Le Bistro - Table Space at a Premium

With the arrival of the bread (the basket and the plate with I-forget-what, something non-vegetarian), water glasses ended up in precarious spots, and reaching for objects even inches away felt a little dangerous. Here’s a pre-peopled table:

Norwegian Pearl - Le Bistro

Do you see what I mean about it being on the small side?

But that’s it! Now I will say nice things! Such nice things that I won’t even mention how Mike asked a question about the menu then accidentally started to order before the ladies, horrifying Mihaela, our server.

Oops, mentioned it.

I started with grilled asparagus with shiitake mushrooms and orange hollandaise. I don’t actually like asparagus, but I had some once in the mid-nineties that was tolerable, and I’ve stayed open-minded about maybe someday finding some that rises to the level of “certainly tolerable.”

Norwegian Pearl - Le Bistro - Asparagus and Mushrooms with Orange Hollandaise

This was only tolerable, but that’s still high praise. Twice in twenty years now I’ve had acceptable asparagus. Kudos, Norwegian!

I made myself eat every bite because I hate when people worry that I’m not enjoying a meal. (And I don’t like explaining that being a vegetarian doesn’t mean liking every vegetable. When you’re this fat, people assume that if you don’t like a vegetable, this is proof that you must live on ice cream sandwiches and Cheetos.) Finishing the asparagus wasn’t hard, though, because the deliciousness of the mushrooms and the interestingness of the orange hollandaise raised the entire dish to “certainly tolerable” after all.

For the main course, the vegetarian dish at Le Bistro is a Napoleon of vegetables, puff pastry, and red pepper:

Norwegian Pearl - Le Bistro - Napoleon of Vegetables, Puff Pastry, and Red Pepper

(Do you capitalize “Napoleon” when referring to the food? Bah, I can’t be bothered to look it up.)

My photo doesn’t do it justice. The hostess brought the chef to our table later, and I raved and raved. So juicy! So flavourful! So delicate.

I must learn to cook French food. I would eat tolerable asparagus by the fistful if I could have dishes as complex and singing as this.

And for dessert, a chocolate Napoleon: flourless chocolate cake with hazelnut crunch and Gianduja cream:

Norwegian Pearl - Le Bistro - Chocolate Napoleon with Hazelnut Crunch

I had this. Mike had this. Phil had this. And Carol had regrets because she went with the caramel, lemon, and vanilla profiteroles instead.

Look at those glossy ribbons. Why can’t I cook this? Because there are too many boxes distracting me. Someday this packing will end.

Dinner was long and lovely. Karaoke had already started, so we decided to see what Deal or No Deal was about.

I walked up to the guy manning the table outside the Stardust Lounge.

”Ah, Deal or No Deal.” (I suddenly realized it cost money to play. D’oh! Missed that asterisk. Still, I was willing to pay if it sounded fun.) “How does this work?”

The man looked up at me. “Do you want to play?”

”I don’t know. How does it work.”

”You buy cards.” He shrugged and went back to looking down at his piece of paper.


He ignored me.

I turned to Mike and spoke loudly. “I don’t understand how it works. I guess we won’t bother, then?”

”I guess not.”

The guy continued to ignore us.

We went back to our cabin, where life was less challenging.

Norwegian Pearl - Striped Towel Animal

09 December 2012 |


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Cruise to Alaska: Embarkation Day
(Just landed on this page out of nowhere? You’ll want to start with Cruise to Alaska: Before We Begin.)

This was our first time to check luggage on a cruise. To porter or not to porter? We got into the fast-moving queue to check our own bags. Maybe if we were breezing directly onto the ship with priority boarding we would’ve wanted to add another layer of luggage-loss possibility plus the opportunity to tip, but it wasn’t any big deal to get in line. (I thought I took photos, but the lines was probably moving too quickly.)

Time? Around noonish, I guess?

Bags dropped off at the X-ray belt, we wandered back outside and into the queue next door, which was sluggish by comparison but still not bad. I made sure to get a coupon book from one of the women handing them out to each party; people always say to be sure to get one, so I did. (Verdict: the book has some good deals and maps that are worth skimming before going to port.)

Although we’ve tried to time our Carnival embarkations to avoid crowds, in both Long Beach and San Diego we’ve always experienced a bunch of “hurry up and wait,” even when we had VIP boarding priority. (Ah, we’ll not see the like of those swine flu prices again!)

In front of the check-in station lines were some rows of chairs, but I never saw big waiting areas like we’ve had in California. Thumbs up to the Port of Seattle, Pier 66, and possibly to Norwegian as well. (I have to give credit where it’s due, if only to soften the criticism to come.)

Photo of check-in area taken when we disembarked a week later:

Norwegian Check-In Area in Seattle

Despite the maze pictured above, we only had to wait in a line of a few people. The check-in clerk took our pictures right there as she prepared our key cards, which was brilliant. It didn’t seem to cause any delay, and of course it meant we weren’t going to have to queue up once again, so another point to Norwegian.

(Carnival, I missed you so much on this cruise, particularly whenever I was hungry, but I didn’t miss standing in line while your clearly miserable dancers herded everyone around for their key card photos. I’ve heard them complain on the Behind the Fun Tour about these non-dance duties, and their disinterest in the last pre-boarding activity has always been evident. On the last cruise, I think it was, we had our pics taken by a regular staff member, and it was amazing how much more positive such a seemingly meaningless part of the trip was. But Norwegian still gets the point for making it all part of the check-in service.)

Norwegian does need a catchy name like “Sail ‘n Sign” card, though. I kept calling mine that then always feeling a bit emptier when I corrected myself. Just calling it a “cabin key card” is dull. (Again, it’s funny how the little things matter.)

But, speaking of little things, the red carpet at embarkation is a nice touch.

Embarkation Down the Red Carpet

Things got a little crazy (read: competitive) around the elevators as we stepped inside, and we had to separate from Carol and Phil and almost from each other to eventually catch an elevator. On the plus side, Norwegian doesn’t commandeer the passenger elevators in order to deliver luggage, so there’s that. I did miss stepping into an atrium with a wonderfully high ceiling upon boarding, though. But shuffling in through a cramped little hallway kind of raised the anticipation a bit.

On Deck 10 (if any of the decks had names, we never saw them), we found our way to room 10548.

Norwegian Pearl Cabin - Spot the Coffee Machine

Norwegian Pearl Cabin - Blurry Mike

I call the first pic above “Spot the Coffee Machine.” Can you?

Our first reaction to the cabin was, “Ah, it’s a bit, er... smaller... eh?” Throughout this trip report I’m going to criticize Norwegian Pearl, but I do recognize that some things are absolutely a matter of taste. I know there are people who would trade a nice long shelf and a room service-sized table like we always get on Carnival for a coffee maker in the room.

Not us. The coffee maker ended up wedged into the corner on the floor under the table by the balcony door, where I accidentally kicked it whenever sitting at the little table. Even with this solution, we still felt like we were constantly shuffling objects to work with the space we had.

You will note my positive attitude in that I haven’t said a word about the television. Again, not everyone watches TV on their cruise. We usually like to catch a few movies, and we’re used to catching them on a screen bigger than our computer monitors.... were ten years ago.

One thing I’m always big on doing is unpacking as soon as possible, so we got busy two-manning that. It truly did take teamwork since the reduced size of the cabin meant that only one of us could move around the wardrobes at a time.

Alas, I forgot that Phil and Carol didn’t have much of their own unpacking to do (not having clothes in their small luggage like we did), so I felt bad when they said they were going exploring, and I realized they’d been waiting on us. D’oh. Traveling with others - achievement still locked.

Soon enough we were all set and were going to go find them, but first the spa!

It’s been three years since I wrote a gushy-long post about it, but I still get people writing to me about our cruises on Carnival Splendor in the spa cabins. The short version is that we are NOT spa people. Mike hates any kind of cream/lotion, and if you pointed an axe at my throat (just for variety) and made me choose between getting a massage and eating a very tiny dead spider that may or may not have been pregnant, I would have to sit down and have a think. I wish I were exaggerating.

Even so, we lurve the Carnival thermal suite, with the thalassotherapy pool and aromatherapy steam room. (Living in Las Vegas, the sauna and heated tile chairs hold little interest for me.) So, when we narrowed down the choices for an Alaskan cruise, we looked for ships with a thermal suite. Holland America was at the top of the short list until Mike’s Dad discovered that HAL charges substantially higher prices (even factoring in the slight exchange difference) when booking via the Australian site. Since he’d just done a big European cruise on HAL’s newest ship at an Australian price tag, this smarted, and we went to the next choice: Norwegian.

So, here we were, off to the spa to see about passes.

It’s hard to type about the spa because - as content as we were with the spa on this first day - my favourite shirt was ruined because of something thoughtless the spa people did later in the week.... which I guess we’ll get to later, and I should stop jumping ahead.

Going to the spa was great because people were so friendly. I was amused that all of the women giving tours were black. (Yes, I just said “black.” No, they weren’t African-American.) On our Carnival cruises, the spa personnel were exclusively white, as in UK-white most of the time. Also, usually they’re a bit snobby and aloof, but these women were very welcoming. Suddenly we were having a good time.

The spa looked brilliant. I was uploading pics to Facebook before our tour was over, it looked so appealing. True, we were bummed that we couldn’t share a co-ed steam room, but we’d braced ourselves for that before boarding. The big picture window looking over the sea was neat, and we’d have a hot tub to share as well as the thalassotherapy pool.

Norwegian Pearl - Jennette in Ladies' Spa

Here’s Jennette, our chipper tour guide, in the ladies’ area. Note the loungers looking out to sea and the private hot tubs. Not pictured: lockers, showers, toilets, towels, steam room, sauna, icy plunge pool.

I forget the exact price, but it was one price (~$115 each) for the spa, and another price for the spa with.... “smoothie scrubs”!

I have a near-fetish with bath products, and here was this altar set up these beautifully fragrant, silky, oily, crunchy bath salts. You can see it in front of the thalasso pool below:

Norwegian Pearl - Main Spa Area

See? And for (price I choose not to remember, because of what happened with the scrubs later), you got three pots of these scrubs. So of course I talked Mike into upgrading both of us so I’d get to have six pots of scrubs. Rule all the scrubs!

The system for Norwegian’s spa is different from the current method on Carnival. Instead of wrist bands (originally) and special keys (now), you turn in your card and get assigned a locker. Since the gym is located elsewhere, there isn’t the problem Carnival was having of people just moseying into the thermal suite. Mike never needed a locker, so he just flashed his card. Since our cabin was on the opposite end of the ship and two floors down, I only tried walking to the spa in double layers of clothes then back to the room damp once. At first I was disappointed that we didn’t have a room around the corner from the spa for easy nipping to and fro, as we would in a Carnival spa cabin, but by the end of the week, I had no interest in even going to their so-called thermal suite, but as always, we’re not to that part of the story yet.

One of the women by the door hugged me when I mentioned we’d just signed up for spa passes. I’m not a hugger (see “massage issues” above), but even I was laughing from her excitement. Later that day I would point out that the reason we were so upbeat after the spa tour was because it was the only time that day that we felt like a member of the cruise staff was happy to see us. (Or willing to act happy enough to put the “hospitality” in “hospitality industry.”)

We explored the ship a little, somewhat confused by either outdated information on the deck plan (the Mexican/Latin restaurant was now Moderno’s, a churruscaria) or different labels used in the daily newsletter (good luck finding “Bar City” on any map), but mostly doing fine.

Norwegian Pearl - Bowling Lanes

The bowling area/lounge looked neat. We kept an eye out for Phil and Carol, but our destination was the other end of the ship to try the Summer Palace dining room. Being huge fans of (but not always making time for) lunch in the MDR, we were really excited that Norwegian ships have an MDR open and serving lunch every day, even embarkation day and port days. This is a really nice change from Carnival’s policy.

Norwegian Pearl - Mike in Summer Palace

There’s Mike, not long after ordering. The place was pretty dead, true to what experienced NCL cruisers said on Cruise Critic about people not realizing the MDR is open. We checked the menu outside, decided it was fine, and approached the hostess stand.

The woman looked at us, as if we were lost and she were busy. “Can I help you?”

”Uh, yes, we’d like a table for two for lunch.”

”Room number? Okay, stand down there.” She gestured to the bottom of the lovely little staircase then turned away from us.

We stood there, taking in the Romanovan imagery. They may have disproved the Whole Anastasia Thing, but my childhood was one where the whereabouts of both the Titanic and the Imperial Russian family were unknown. Nostalgia is inevitable. (Especially since I wasn’t a starving farmer in 1915 St. Petersburg.) Neat-o.

Another woman led us to a table by the window overlooking the Seattle port. Nice. I admired the back windows of the dining room and all of the paintings of the royal family.

Norwegian Pearl - Summer Palace Back Windows

We decided to start with a shared appetizer of pita chips and roasted eggplant dip and olive tapenade.

Norwegian Pearl - Eggplant Dip and Olive Tapenade

First Impressions:

  • That’s really ugly.
  • I know it’s an appetizer for one, but the chip/dip ratio seems really wrong here.
  • It’s not just the food that’s ugly. What the hell at the plating?

Second Impressions:

  • “Meh.”
  • “Yeah, it doesn’t really matter that there’s too much dip or not enough chip. I’m not eating any more.”

But our food was taking awhile, so we did eat a bit more, and then were sorry, and then picked at it some more (all of this with only four chips between us), and then again came the regret.

Mike doesn’t like mushroom-anything, so he ordered a NY Strip without the sauce. Therefore, he’s willing to take some of the blame for his plain-looking dish:

Norwegian Pearl - Grilled NY Strip

I realize that we’re probably now coming across as terrible snobs. I should clarify that plating is something we notice and appreciate when it’s done well, but it’s not a dealbreaker. In fact, one of our best meals was one that looked awful. But still, we were used to a certain standard of MDR care, and between our brusque server and the ugly appetizer, we hadn’t yet said, “Oooo.”

I had the veggie burger:

Norwegian Pearl - Veggie Burger

It was kind of dry. (No condiments were offered, and I didn’t want to hunt down our server who clearly wanted to be elsewhere.) It also tasted kind of funky, and I’m pretty open-minded about veggie burgers. I can enjoy the mudpie ones of falling-apart smushed things, the spicy bean ones, the earnest whole-grain ones, and the ones that try to make people think a cow was involved. At home I’m often lazy and eat them nearly plain, so it’s not like I ask for much... just not a sort of “it’s brown and round and that’s enough, right?” taste of slightly burnt offness.

Oh well. It was pleasant sitting by the window, relaxing, knowing we had a week of cruising ahead. And now dessert was coming: chocolate mousse with lemon syrup! That sounded really interesting; one reason (amongst others) that we were giving Carnival a miss was because we like to try new dishes, and the menus had become very samey for us. So, finally we were getting into some new territory. Alright!

Norwegian Pearl - Choc Mousse with Invis Lemon Syrup

”Well, it’s chocolate. It’s hard to go wrong with chocolate.” That’s the nicest thing I could say about the bland mousse with zero lemon taste. It seems ours were made without the syrup. We could’ve sent them back, but honestly, the mousse was so lackluster and the service so begruding, we just wanted to leave and shake off such a subpar start to the cruise.

Norwegian Pearl - Summer Palace Statue and Egg

Points for the stylized Faberge eggs, though.

We resumed our wandering and found our way to the other end of the ship and the Stardust Theatre. Who wouldn’t love that peacock curtain?

Norwegian Pearl - Stardust Theatre Curtain

See? See how I try to say nice things? And then I have to say stuff like this: What a pity that the seating is strict side-by-side movie theatre-style seats. Carnival has these in the upper rows, but the floor is pleasant cushioned arcs of benches with convenient little tables positioned in front every few feet. Not only does it make it easy for people to come and go, but the extra space lends itself to other activities.

Norwegian Pearl - Stardust Theatre Seats

The seating is even worse if you’re disabled. These seats are nice if you aren’t in a chair but need to avoid the stairs. But if you are in a chair? Then you’re at the very top of the theatre, behind the last row of seats and on the same level as those seats, so your eyes have to be able to look over the people in front of you then over all the rows staggered beneath you then down to the little stage. Your line of sight must magically take the form of an arc. I couldn’t believe it. Hopefully the other Norwegian ships aren’t like this, and to this day I tell myself there must be wheelchair access somewhere on the main floor and I somehow overlooked it, so take my criticism with the caveat that I feel I must be mistaken; surely no modern cruise line would be so thoughtless.

Back in the room we checked for Phil and Carol (not at home), and I hung up our Alaska map (with painter’s tape so it wouldn’t leave marks):

Norwegian Pearl Cabin - Map Up

One thing people seemed to regard as a Universal Truth is that you can’t go wrong with bringing Upton’s “Mile by Mile” guide on the cruise, which is where we got the map.

I liked the map. It amped the “Woohoo! Alaska!” factor a bit, and that was good. I even consulted the map now and then during the week.

The book, on the other hand, was extra packing weight we could’ve done without. It’s a good book, and if you’re on a cruise where someone is referencing the mile numbers (Who? No one on our cruise.), “they” say it’s very helpful. I just didn’t find it useful during the cruise itself. Maybe I did enough research into the history of the ports beforehand? Maybe because we were on a (relatively) large ship? I honestly found the sailing out of Seattle chapter to be the best, and I read that before we left home.

So, that pro tip didn’t work out for us, but the map was nice to have to liven up the room a bit. Also, later in the week the tape started wearing out, so sometimes the map would fall down without warning and attack Mike in his sleep. Good times.

Neither of us had finished any part of our lunch, so we decided to go check out the buffet. Despite having the layout all in one place, it didn’t feel as wretchedly crowded as Carnival’s buffet always seems on the first day. We spotted Phil and Carol, but not before we spotted the Indian station.

Indian foooooood! And it’s paneer butter masala! Paneer butter masala! I could already tell that, for this vegetarian, Norwegian was going to beat the pants off the dry, acrid paneer cakes that Carnival Splendor offers as its daily (and often lone) vegetarian option.

I forgave and even ignored that the sauce was like water. And then I took a bite.

Norwegian Pearl - 'Paneer' Butter Masala

”Does this paneer have any taste to you?” “Hmmm, no. Is it...” “I think it is...”

Tofu. It tasted like tofu. Darn. They must have mislabeled. We pushed our plates aside. The sauce was just a soup of pitiful wet tomato. No point punishing ourselves with tasteless tofu as well. (And we both like tofu when prepared nicely, e.g., with some flavour.)

The next day paneer was on the buffet again. It tasted like tofu again. We put it aside again.

I think it was on the third day that Mike spoke with someone in a chef hat. “It says paneer, but it tastes like tofu. Is it tofu?” “Yes.” “Oh, the sign says paneer.” “Yes.” “Is it supposed to be paneer?” “Yes, it is paneer.” “But it’s tofu.” “Yes, it’s paneer.” “But paneer is cheese. This is tofu.” “Yes, it’s paneer.” “But it’s not paneer. It’s tofu.” “Tofu is paneer on this ship.”

And a meme was born. “Dusty is clean on this ship.” “Nasty is tasty on this ship.” “Rude is friendly on this ship.” Oh Norwegian, you made it too easy.

I should just be grateful that “tofu = cheese” was limited to the Indian station on the buffet.

The muster drill was postponed, but when it did happen, it had to be the easiest and fastest one ever. No standing in hot sardine rows for ages while the last person is rounded up. Thumbs up to Norwegian here.

We deduced that “Bar City” was the area with three names for bars (that were pretty much just three sides of the same bar) and met with Phil and Carol there for trivia. This was our first time to see one of the entertainment staff, and I thought it was nice the way they wear suits or demure polos instead of the unfortunate pizza delivery uniforms you see on Carnival. (I hear that’s changing or perhaps has already changed.)

But speaking of unfortunate, the guy in charge of the trivia (and one of the senior staff members), while very nice, was almost impossible to understand. He was asked to repeat words over and over to the point that I felt a bit bad for him, but it was a drawn-out headache, and he seemed to host almost all of the trivia games. I could tell others felt bad because they’d start asking other tables rather than embarrass the host, and everyone felt frustrated. At the end, when he asked if anyone wanted the questions repeated, we basically started all over from the beginning as he repeated each one. Once would have been funny. By the end of the cruise, it was hard to look away from the incredible wreckage.

I was tired by now and off my game, and that’s my excuse for failing our team when writing out an answer requiring Roman numerals. (I love Roman numerals! I translate them in movie credits all the time! I write them on the classroom whiteboard just in case kids haven’t learned them elsewhere! I spend way too much time noticing how eight is sometimes IIX and sometimes VIII - certain rogue tarot decks be blamed!) But despite my DUHHHHH moment, we “AmAussies” won for 19/22. (Then I left the paper on the table instead of pocketing it for scrapbooking. DUH.)

Phil and Carol like trivia as much as we do, so having a team of four was novel and felt a bit cheaty, even though of course it wasn’t. When Mike and I play together against teams of four (or even when we play solo against them), we never feel like it’s unfair, so I guess I shouldn’t have felt guilty.

What did we win? A ship on a stick? A medallion? A souvenir?

No, we won initials on a scrap of paper!

Norwegian Pearl - Activity Cards

Everyone gets initials for participating, and winners get extra initials. At the end of the cruise, the gift shop by the bowling alley is open for a couple of hours for prize redemption. (Note that during the week your questions about prizes are answered with a gesture to the glass case and the instruction to come back on Saturday. On Saturday, they reveal the prize exchange sheet and get fussy if you take a photo of it. But ah, ahead of myself again.)

I think this is the point where we checked the corridors for luggage. Yep, there was ours! It made it! No horror stories. The last “what if?” gone. We took it inside to make short work of unpacking before heading off with our neighbours (being Phil and Carol) to the next event.

The ship was sailing along, and the wind was wild up on Deck 12, which was our first-and-last shortcut to the Spinnaker Lounge for “Sing It If You Know It.” We had no idea what this would entail, but since Mike likes karaoke and since Phil and Carol have an entire professional karaoke setup, it sounded like something they’d like to do and I’d like to watch.

(I like to sing, but I can’t carry a tune. That doesn’t stop me at home - poor Mike - but if I sing even just a couple of notes in public, I have to deal with the two-punch of other people’s panic+pity. Thus, I put up with looking like a world-class, rhythmless downer with restrained head bobs so others won’t suffer. “Screw others,” you might say, but then I’d be guessing that you’re one of those people who think “can’t sing” is like “can’t accessorize.” If we go with a fashion metaphor, my singing is not like dressing poorly, but more like showing up naked with slashes of seeping, infected wounds across the body, some of which have a gristly crust and most of which smell. Better to wrap up in a Febreze’d blanket and bob your head.)

Here’s the premise of the game: First, every group gets a team number. (We were Team 2.)

Norwegian Pearl - Sing It If You Know It

As soon as the music starts, if you know the song, you run up to one of the microphones and name it. (While holding up your team number, they had to keep reminding everyone.) Then they play a bit more and you start singing. Extra points for dance moves. Other teams can join in at the other microphones for points. More than one person per team can go up. Every song ends with a huge circle of people singing.

Yeah, even me. The blanket slipped a little, and Carol and I did some “oooo” backups to Mike’s “Billie Jean.” Oooo! Oooo! (I even busted out some moves, but luckily no known footage exists, so you can just imagine the sight as breathtaking.)

Mike refused to go up for “I Will Survive” (he’s a funny lad sometimes), but otherwise the rest of Team 2 made a very solid showing, especially for “Proud Mary,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” and “Thriller.”

Norwegian Pearl - Sing It If You Know It (Phil, Mike, Carol)

Left-to-right: Phil, Mike, Carol, stranger, another stranger.

The event ended with “New York, New York,” so Carol and I started a kickline that eventually spread all around the circle.

Whew! That was fun. It was great to be going to some new events! Now what? Was something else on?

I looked over at the bar but didn’t see any Freestyle Dailies. Hmm. Well, Carol and Phil were going to eat, and we weren’t hungry yet (plus Mike had no interest in tonight’s MDR menu), so maybe we’d wander around and look for a copy of today’s FD somewhere.

We looked high. We looked low. We looked in all the places the Carnival Fun Times would go - every bar and the casino. No luck.

Finally, not wanting to go back to the room, we queued up at the front desk. When it was our turn, we asked if could get another copy. Yes, no problem. Where could we get another copy other than the desk? Nowhere.

Okay, I’m guessing it’s a paper-saving measure, and that’s good. I applaud that... but I don’t know how many times on the cruise I wanted to check the Freestyle Daily and couldn’t. Carnival spoils you by having them all around the ship. (And the newer ships have info kiosks with the same information.) Norwegian Pearl doesn’t even post a master copy somewhere. You have to carry it with you or queue up at the desk. No jogging up to the bar to quickly look at it and put it back, like I’ve done a million times on Carnival. Norwegian really ought to think about posting copies in a few places.

Of course, now that we had a copy, we saw there was nothing we wanted to do. Time to pick a place for dinner. What should we get?

”The Asian place,” I said decisively.

Mike was surprised, and no wonder. As much as I can enjoy Thai, for the most part I don’t like Asian food. What do you expect from someone who expects bread or cheese (or both! pleeeease let it be both!) at every meal? I wish I liked it, but no matter how Americanized or allegedly authentic, I find the vegetarian dishes to be disgusting and greasy, especially Chinese food. Even the stuff I like is only good for about three bites.

I know this is my quirk and my loss. Especially since Mike loooooves Asian cuisine of all varieties and depths of traditional/fusion/etc. (Well, except for Yum Cha. He hates Yum Cha, while all his cousins and his Dad love it and go on about it. “Welcome to my world,” I snort.)

Not long ago I found a photo from Mike’s first visit to the United States - me, with chopsticks, eating Chinese food. I dimly recall there was a time when I didn’t have any strong feelings about going out for Chinese. I guess I became scarred after years of marriage to someone who would do backflips for Asian, and the more I ate it the more I thought about all the other palatable things (Indian, Mexican, Italian, French, a nice sandwich) I could have been eating instead. Oh marriage. It changes a person.

So, for me to suggest that we eat at Lotus Garden is kind of on par with a wife suggesting to her husband that they have a three-way with her and her best friend (the pin-up model). Mike was right to suspect a trap, or at least a plan on my part to stockpile martyr points.

The fact was, Lotus Garden was empty. Quiet appealed. Also, if we didn’t go tonight, it would be hanging over our heads for the whole cruise. Oh, Mike will claim that he wouldn’t have brought it up, but I’m not such an insensitive ogre that I wouldn’t have felt it looming there, his pining. How bad could it be? Get it out of the way and enjoy the other restaurants on the rest of the cruise.

A few “Are You Sure?”s later, we were seated by a friendly hostess. (Someone being cheerful! That’s twice today!)

Norwegian Pearl - Lotus Garden Interior

Norwegian Pearl - More Lotus Garden

LIke I said, pretty empty.

The waiter was named... you know, names don’t matter. Suffice to say that he behaved like it was his first night on a Norwegian ship and he was uncomfortable, which made us uncomfortable. It was our first time eating in a for-fee restaurant on a cruise ship that wasn’t a Carnival steakhouse. On Carnival, the steakhouse has a “pick one from each section” approach. (Although, depending on your ship and server, they can be more flexible.) Anyway, it’s easy to see how the meal is meant to flow.

Asian food, of course, is not so much soup-salad-main-dessert. How many items does one choose? We were used to smooth waiters making us feel like all questions were valid, and instead we had this odd guy who hovered a few feet away when we ate but sort of backed off and avoided answering questions when we tried to order. It was just... weird.

Norwegian Pearl - Lotus Garden - Ribs

Mike started with ribs. We were glad to see that the plating was much more professional here than our lunch at the MDR. (Spoiler: this was the case throughout the cruise. MDR = ugly/no presentation, unremarkable food. Specialty restaurants = nice presentation and food ranging from “okay” in one case to “amazing” in all other cases. Guess when the “okay” case was?)

Norwegian Pearl - Lotus Garden - Spring Rolls

I had the spring rolls. They were.... okay. At best. I didn’t finish them.

Norwegian Pearl - Lotus Garden - Vegetable Dumplings

I didn’t finish the vegetable dumplings, either. (Well, there were four!) Meh. BUT, remember that Asian rarely turns me on. So that’s probably me. They look alright, don’t they?

Norwegian Pearl - Lotus Garden - Veg Noodles

Vegetable noodles. You can probably tell by the glistening and my earlier remarks how I felt about these and how many bites I had of them.

I don’t know what happened to the photos of Mike’s food, which he pronounced “okay.” (See? Not just me.) He said that if he were reviewing for Yelp, he’d give it three stars. However, he had a much higher opinion of his dessert:

Norwegian Pearl - Lotus Garden - Spiced Chocolate Cake

Spiced chocolate cake. Looks gorgeous. Tasted good, too. I, however, ordered the flight of creme brulee:

Norwegian Pearl - Lotus Garden - Flight of Creme Brulee

Red bean, matcha, and ginger. The tops didn’t crack, and I only liked the ginger one, but again, I think I’m just not wired for these flavours, so I can’t dock any points.

Getting the check was just more weirdness with Awkward Serverbot. He never cleared the plates at all during the meal, so when he asked if we were finished, we thought that was going to happen, maybe with an offer of coffee or the presentation of or mention of the check. Nope, instead he stood there, clearly uncomfortable, us boggling, until finally he said, “So, uh, could I have your key card?”

Oh. It came back with the receipt and a comment card.... already filled out by a previous customer. Time to move on.

Unfortunately, reaffirming my dislike of Asian cuisine just made me hungry for an antidote. We were on a cruise! No rules! Freestyle! Let’s go to the buffet - we still have 30 minutes before it closes!

When I lived in a small Texas city (read: limited dining options), it became a joke that you could walk in the doors at 9 p.m. of an establishment that closed at 10 p.m., but you couldn’t expect to order anything. “Oh, that’s put away for the day.” “Oh, that’s being cleaned.” “Oh, that ran out hours ago.” (We’re talking mainstream fast food places here.)

The Norwegian Pearl buffet is a little like that. It may say it closes at 10:30 p.m., but when we arrived before 10, it was down to just a few items, and by 10:15 those were being roped off. Look what I was lucky enough to score:

Norwegian Pearl - Last-Dash Pizza

(I don’t know why I took two pieces. Desperate spite. I don’t think I even ate two bites. I may be fat, but I’m not a garbage can. Awful congealed crap.)

”Oh Shari,” you experienced Norwegian cruisers say. “You should’ve gone to the Blue Lagoon! They’re open after 10 p.m. with sit-down service!”

And I would say, “Oh, you think it’s that easy to feed a vegetarian after 10 p.m. on a Norwegian ship? Just wait...”

And then there would be some evil house of mirror sound effects to build a sense of suspenseful insanity.

We said good night to Phil and Carol (who were moseying past the buffet after a noisy meal in the midship MDR), went back to the cabin, reminded ourselves that we don’t always get towel animals on the first night on Carnival, either, and went to bed.

09 December 2012 |


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Cruise to Alaska: Seattle
(Just landed on this page out of nowhere? You’ll want to start with Cruise to Alaska: Before We Begin.)

We could see the Space Needle as we rolled into Seattle. Is that it? I knew it wasn't as big as the Stratosphere at home in Las Vegas, but I expected to be able to see it for miles. Not that I don’t respect it as an icon, of course, and totally want to visit it and try the signature dry-ice dessert in the revolving restaurant. But now the need to tick it off the list was a little less urgent. Hey, we’d seen it. It was cool. Mike gets motion sickness anyway. If we didn’t go on this trip, we wouldn’t feel cheated.

It was so good to get off the train. King Street Station is undergoing rehabilitation, so we weren't seeing her at her best, to put it gently. I excused myself from the crowded baggage claim room to wait outside, the perpetual hot flash going through an upswing. Taxis queued up all along the stunted little spot where people huddled for the next in line. Our half-designs on maybe grabbing a bus and being frugal vanished with no inner debate. We gratefully got into the cab when our turn came and gave our hotel name – Inn at the Market.

The taxi driver didn't quite know where that was, but I kinda sorta remembered the cross streets well enough to sorta kinda help out. (My phone was too slow to be of assistance, and the station wasn’t far away enough to buy me time.)

As we kept our eyes peeled for the hotel, we noted how interesting all the streets and shops looked. We both would've liked more time in Seattle to explore, but getting to see Portland was really special, too. Now it was nearly 4 p.m., and I wanted to get settled in the hotel quickly so we could explore Pike Place Market before it closed at six. I know some bits stay open later, but I wanted to see all of the produce and flowers, not that either could be particularly useful to us.

(People strongly debate over whether you can embark with flowers on a cruise ship in Seattle. It has been done. It has also been refused. It makes sense that you can. It’s not like they’re flowers from another country trying to come into the United States. Still, I didn’t want to risk disappointment.)

Remaining as uncouth as ever, we rolled our luggage into the hotel lobby ourselves. At the desk was a very cheerful man who was eager to show us on the map all the interesting places to go (as well as to explain the three restaurants affiliated with the hotel). “You been upgraded to a partial water view,” he said matter-of-factly. That was great news; I’d heard that the less-expensive city view rooms, like we’d booked, could get a bit noisy, and from Google maps it seemed that “view” was an optimistic word. So, I politely listened to the man speak of all the great fish and seafood dining opportunities near the waterfront even though neither of us enjoys those so-called fruits of the sea.

From the outside of Room 305 we could look down into the open-air courtyard outside the lobby. From the inside we could sort of look into the Market from two directions. After The Nines, any room would have seemed small, but I nearly found the set-up cozy and not at all cramped. (The in-laws, who were not upgraded, were not as impressed.)

In fact, let’s just cut to my Yelp review:

Don't be fooled into thinking you're just paying for location; Inn at the Market delivers at every level.

Of course, I might be able to say that because when we arrived, we were told we'd been upgraded to a partial water view. My in-laws, who'd booked later than us and were also staying longer (so there was probably less flexibility with their room assignment), had the same city room they'd booked and found the street noise to be so distracting that they considered cancelling their second stay at the Inn booked for after our cruise. (Instead, they talked to management who gladly arranged for them to stay on a higher floor for their return.)

Because this is a concern, and maybe because I'm a little suspicious of how the vending machines aren't advertised in the room's hotel info (they're in the garage, meaning I never found them at 4 a.m. as I prowled each floor before eventually settling for a mostly cold can of $2.50 Sprite from the minibar), I'm knocking off one star, but honestly, I can't imagine a better place to stay if you're in town for a short visit.

Our corner room on the third floor overlooked the main drag of Pike Place Market and one of its side streets. The windows opened, the two chairs were plush and comfy with a convenient table, the desk was spacious enough for all our electronics and my messy Smashbooking, the TV swung out to be angled however we pleased, and the minibar area as you enter has plenty of space for dismantling a carry-on as you search for some tiny item somewhere in its depths that intends to remain elusive until every item in the luggage has been pulled out.

The bathroom was long in design with the usual little amenities, and the bed - oh, the bed! So comfy with plenty of pillow action.

My in-laws found their room to be surprisingly small, and I could see how visitors might get that impression. If our room was the standard, then no, visually it doesn't seem as spacious. However, at no point were we cramped or edging around the furniture or each other, and keep in mind that a) I left our big suitcase open on the unpacking thingy (what are those called?) for the entire stay, b) we're big people, and c) we'd been guests at The Nines in Portland the night before, where our room could've hosted a party so large that you could invite two quarreling friends and not worry about them getting in each others' way, and yet it didn't spoil us for our stay here.

Lest you think the in-laws are surly and unable to be pleased, they did give high marks to the Asian restaurant on site as well as the attached cafe. (We went to the cafe for breakfast and, yes, it was tasty - all the usual items with some nice twists, like pesto in the eggs and fresh juice blends. Sit outside if you don't want to be cramped, though.)

The staff at the Inn never failed to be helpful, whether it was pointing out sights on a map (unrequested but appreciated) or arranging a van for us to go to the pier the next day.

I'd also like to give them an approving nod for setting out cocoa packets along with the coffee and tea in the lobby. I know it's Seattle and I probably won't be allowed back for saying this, but (whisper) I don't like coffee. (Looks around nervously.) I guess I drank enough cocoa in front of the fire to not begrudge the Sprite.

And, you know, I can only write about my own experience so... yep... let's reinstate that fifth star. We had a great time, and I'd love to have an excuse to stay at Inn at the Market again. We considered many well-regarded hotels nearby that were less expensive and had their own appeal (the Klimpton hotels and their loaner goldfish!), but when I thought about the value of the location, and then I thought about all of the other trip expenses, it seemed foolish not to "do it right" and pay a few Hamiltons more to stay at the Inn. Being able to step in and out of Pike Place Market in a matter of seconds will spoil you for life. And, when I stood alone in the quiet of sunrise on the observation deck, sipping my hot chocolate and watching our ship glide into port, I knew I'd made the right choice.

Inn at the Market - Room 305

Inn at the Market - Desk

Inn at the Market - Restroom

Phil and Carol were out at the Boeing Museum (which they recommend), so we checked in with them and set off for the Market.

The first place we went was Beecher’s Cheese. Curds!

Pike Place Market - Beecher Curds

It cannot be overstated how much I love cheese. Mike has IBS and has had to consider which foods are triggers. At one point he said, “Maybe I’m lactose intolerant.” My mind immediately reeled like an alcoholic whose best DT buddy is considering going sober. No! Don’t become one of THEM! Don’t stop the party! If Mike were lactose intolerant, what would I do? What would happen to our annual December tradition of buying a variety of untried cheeses and tucking in to our month-long Christmas cheese board? What’s next, Mike? Are you going to be skinny, too? Traitor troll!

So, yes, seeing the curds made me happy. Now I know how all the people on tequila tasting tours feel... except there were no free samples at Beecher’s. They didn’t need them. I did note, though, that they were open past six. Okay, we were coming back!

Pike Place Market - Hazelnut Orchards

Inside the covered areas and along the streets, there was so much to look at. I didn’t want to miss anything, although it’s hard to cover the Market in a linear fashion. If we lived in Seattle, I would have to bring an entourage to carry all my bags. (A whole stall of hazelnut products? I would be such a happy poppet!)

Pike Place Market - Goldicia Bouquets

Pike Place Market - Angry Mickey

Pike Place Market - Three Girls Bakery

Pike Place Market - Amazon Truck

Pike Place Market - Giant Shoe Museum

Pike Place Market - Fruit Logs

Pike Place Market - Pastas

Pike Place Market - Athenian Lunch Seafood

Pike Place Market - Garlic Spears Are Back

Pike Place Market - Garlic Spears

Pike Place Market - Sanitary Public Market

Of course, we had to see the "original" Starbucks, where it all began 41 years ago. (Unless you read this page and find out it wasn’t quite in the same location.) Mike and I make a good couple because we both detest coffee (although a pinch of espresso in a chocolate flourless cake can be divine), but Starbucks’ double chocolate Frappuccino (creme based, not coffee-based) deserves a salute.

Pike Place Market - Starbucks

The line doesn’t look too awful there, but keep in mind that this is just the outside line. “I don’t really want a Starbucks,” said Mike. “Let’s just stand in this line and see what happens,” I replied.

What happened was that we stood in the line and barely moved. “Oh good,” said the people in front of us when we joined. “Now we don’t feel as silly.”

It was neat to see the original Starbucks logo still in action.

Pike Place Market - Starbucks Logo

The evolution of this logo to the de-sexualized, de-mythologized, and soullessly stylized version of today is an easy metaphor for the company’s changing image overall. (Some would say that includes Starbucks’ decision to sell those non-coffee products I enjoy so much.) I really like this logo and think I used the phrase “aquatic sheela-na-gig” when I originally posted it on Facebook. I’d love to see more of this rough and powerful symbolism in American architecture, but alas, it is America. (This page has a scholarly and interesting discussion of the logo - they are totally with me on the sheela-na-gig imagery.)

We finally shuffled up to the window of the store. Yay!

Pike Place Market - Starbucks' Clever Obfuscation

Wow, Starbucks. Not cool.

By now I didn’t want a Starbucks either, not if it meant at least another 30 minutes in line with no guarantee that there would be anything interesting to get other than a drink we can buy on every other street corner across the country. As we left the line we peeped in through the open doorway to see the wall-to-wall people. Nope, not our scene at all.

Besides, we had to admit that we were pooped. The lack of sleep before the trip; the comfortable but too-short sleep the night before; me with my so-hot-and-wan-but-not-sweating boringness - nothing sounded better than grabbing some carbs ‘n dairy and conking out in the room with that so-soft bed.

(Actually, Mike fancied the Cuban stall, but by the time he dashed back that way, the death knell of six p.m. had struck.)

So, we queued for some cheese bread and little honey-hazelnut crackers from Beecher’s then went a few doors down to Piroshky, Piroshky, a Russian Bakery, for potato, cheese, and onion piroshkies.... which were sold out. Just cheese and onion, then.

Pike Place Market - Piroshky Examples

Pike Place Market - Piroshky, Piroshky

Didn’t matter; they were stunning. (Better than the Beecher’s bread, but of course Beecher’s isn’t a bakery... which might explain the crackers. Meh. They tasted like the horrible whole wheat vegan things I used to bake before I decided that I would just try harder to buy butter from humane companies instead.)

The fun of getting fresh market wares aside, we would’ve liked a real meal, but nothing within “about to keel over and zonk” radius sounded good (or like they had decent vegetarian options). We searched for Indian places, of course, but they were all too far... so imagine our shock the next morning when we saw an Indian restaurant right behind and across the street from the hotel. Argh, talk about off our game!

But no matter, we were having great fun despite the snail’s pace and range. I woke up in the middle of the night again, because that’s just how I am. For someone who can be so sedentary and slow during the day, I have the worst time sleeping for very long because my brain loves to THINK! RESEARCH! INVESTIGATE! PONDER! NOW! LOOK IT UP NOW! SKETCH IT OUT NOW! PLAN, BABY, PLAN!

After the already described investigation of each floor for a vending machine (although not the front desk where I could have just asked), plus a quick peek at the location of the in-laws’ room for no good reason, I contented myself with “Smash booking” at the desk using one of the booklights so as not to disturb Mike... further. (I may have seized upon one of his groggy sleep noises to try to start a conversation about dying of thirst for something cold and the principle of not having vending machines and I could have water from the tap but how the hell were we meant to fill the ice bucket. “Just get a can of Sprite from the minibar.” Men, always about the solution.)

Speaking of rants, if you haven’t ever been treated to one of my rants about Modern Scrapbooking, here comes the short version:

Okay, I started keeping raggedy travel scrapbooks when I was a kid (thanks to an awesome English teacher) which were mostly diaries with things taped in - receipts, brochures, coins of the realm, and so on. Then when the “matched paper and intense coordinating embellishments” method of modern scrapbooking became popular I was very attracted to that. However, as I attempted to make the most of products and tutorials, I kept coming back to a problem:

I wanted to make a scrapbook. The industry wanted me to make pretty photo albums.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I almost never make a print of a photo unless it’s going on the desk or the wall. I wanted to do layouts based on ephemera and journaling, but I felt like I was flying solo as I came up with my own ideas. Furthermore, my “to be scrapped” pile was getting higher and higher as I put off scrapbooking little things (that didn’t fit into a larger thematic layout) or big things (because I couldn’t decide on how to lay it all out).

Some months ago, a billboard went up by my house for a scrapbooking convention. I checked it out online and noticed a workshop for “Smash books,” a “new” way to scrap.

Hahahaha. A “new” way to scrap? This was the scrapbooking that people did before scrapping became a major industry!

So, I Googled around and found that Smash book had its critics (“This is nothing new!”), although most took offense over the idea of buying a bound book of pretty papers when “you can easily make your own with a ring binder and your own papers.”

True and true, but the Smash book looked like a nice package at a reasonable price. (Even more reasonable if you use your local chain craft store’s 40%-off coupon and don’t get all excited like I did and buy it at the convention.) I went to the workshop, shook my head in non-judgmental amazement over all the women exclaiming how new and liberating Smash booking is, got a bunch of cool free supplies, and came home a fan. It is liberating, and I remembered why I enjoyed scrapbooking in the beginning. Just “smash” items into your book (using cute clips, the special SMASH glue-pen, whatever) and journal and doodle around them. Easy! Satisfying!

And perfect for our cruise, I decided. Instead of trying to do a write-up (or at least bullet points) every day in a notebook, as I usually do when traveling, I would glue things into the Smash book throughout the trip and write my thoughts in there instead. I got a bunch of stickers (cruise-themed and otherwise) to embellish and tossed them into my luggage in a little vinyl pouch along with small scissors, glue, and glue dots. Since this isn’t modern scrapbooking, no fussing with bone folders and die cutters and all that crap. (I use the word “crap” lovingly.) Just pretend you are in high school and make it a true book of scraps, not an album of layouts.

Not to give spoilers for the rest of the cruise, but here’s a video of how my Smash book turned out:

Once I caught up on that, I loaded the camera with the 100-400mm rental lens and went up to the deck on the fifth floor.

Short review of the lens: It was good to have on the ship. I couldn’t have used more zoom and had dramatically different photos (unless we’re talking something that is literally, and I do literally mean literally, the size of a small cannon) under those circumstances. If I’d taken it off the ship, who knows? It wouldn’t have helped for the excursions we chose, but of course there are other excursions. Having the zoom instead of a prime was useful; I used the full range and was glad to not have to swap lenses so often. But, in the end, it’s all about your style, so I’m afraid I’m no help, just like all the people on the forums I researched before renting. I wanted to hear “definitely do XYZ,” but that’s just not possible. Well, except for “bring something wide” - my 15-85mm walkaround was fine for that. And “bring some kind of telephoto.” But whether to zoom and how long to go are difficult to predict for someone else.

By the way, I used That’s not a paid endorsement (nothing I say is a paid endorsement... le sigh!); I’m just a satisfied customer. They shipped the lens early to make sure July 4th didn’t slow it down. The lens came with a really nice case (Lenses have cases? What?) and a hood; and all I had to do to return it was take it to the nearest mail services store, hand the box to the person working there (with included return label on box), and ask for a receipt.

No one was on the hotel's observation deck. No one was (visible) in Pike Place Market.

Pike Place Market - Empty

Pike Place Market - Illuminated Sign

I clumsily edited something out of that photo, but I’m admitting it, so that’s okay, right?

Seattle Great Wheel - Night

The World - Extraordinary Cruise Ship in Seattle

”That’s got to be a cruise ship,” Mike and I agreed when we saw the ship in the bay on Saturday afternoon. But which one? No obvious logo stood out. How intriguing.

Later, we all speculated about the ship while out on the deck after our own ship had come in. But not until somewhere in the Alaskan waters days later did I backup the photo to the iPad and twitch my fingers to zoom in on its name.

”The World.”

Oh wow.

Mike told me about this ship once; some famous Australian out of Perth has two suites on it, or somesuch. Wikipedia says that an “Ocean Studio” (something a bit smaller than the size of a standard Carnival balcony cabin) costs $600,000 and that the monthly fee begins at $20,000. Then Wikipedia goes on to say many, many things that reaffirm my long-held theory that I would be very good at being rich.

I find myself wondering if you have to dress for dinner on such a ship. I mean, if you’re that rich, do you cross some kind of dress threshold (say that three times fast) and get to wear shorts all of the time? (One-hundred percent linen paired with a raw silk shirt, I’m sure, but still shorts.)

Moon Over Seattle

Yes, I did like that rented lens.

Seattle - Container Ship and Great Wheel

Seattle - Farmer's Market

The sky was getting lighter.

Pike Place Market - Illuminated Sign, Again

I returned to the room and played on the iPad. At some point I peeped out the window.

Our ship! The funnel was in port!

Facebook alerted! Cruise Critic alerted! Mike alerted! (Again, I waited for the slightest sleep grunt and chose to interpret that as “Yes, I’m awake! Please start a conversation, honey!” Being married to me is a vibrant experience. Except for all the dull bits.)

Soon Mike was lying awake, texting with his Dad. (From email to texts to clicking “like,” non-invasive communication is one of my favourite applications of tech.) Carol wanted another hour. Phil wanted coffee. Mike wanted a shower. I wanted to go see my ship!


Soon the guys and I were back up on the deck, Mike’s first trip up there. Ship!

Norwegian Pearl from Inn at the Market

On our last cruise, on Carnival Splendor, I took a photo of the ship coming in while standing on the bow of the Queen Mary, and then I took a screenshot of Splendor’s webcam, pointed at where I was. The Norwegian Pearl was facing away, but I took the screenshot (earlier) anyway. It’s my new tradition.

Watching Our Ship Watch Another Ship

And while our ship watched another ship, I watched Mike and Phil.

Inn at the Market - Mike and His Dad

Inn at the Market - Rooftop

Pike Place Market - Flowers

Ah, my daffodils.

Mike, a Bit Shaggy

Back to the room, a nap for Mike, then the four of us down to the cafe around back (which was fine, busy, had to sit on stools which isn’t the greatest for short-legged dumpy folk like myself), then back to the room again (lobby cocoa in each hand) to double-check the packing and whatnot until it was time to meet in the lobby to take an arranged (by concierge, per my father-in-law) van to the port.


09 December 2012 |


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Cruise to Alaska: Portland
(Just landed on this page out of nowhere? You’ll want to start with Cruise to Alaska: Before We Begin.)

Not many cruises begin in Portland, but ours did. Why? Because I’m fat.

Unlike a socially acceptable and admired linebacker, though, I can actually squish myself into a regular airline seat without trespassing into my fellow passengers’ space. In fact, I won’t even use my half-strip of the armrest because I literally dislike rubbing elbows with strangers. With Mike on one side of me to lean into, and my arms crossed in front of me, the passenger on the other side need not get that look of panic when they see us coming down the aisle.

However, sitting like that gets uncomfortable. I could take a window seat, but then I wouldn’t be sitting next to Mike, who needs an aisle seat to give those long legs of his a place to go, especially when the inevitable d-bag in front of him starts battering his knees with the recline button. (We’ve actually had people complain to flight attendants that they can’t recline because Mike’s legs are in the way.)

So now you know why we fly MD-80s (or any plane with a two-seat row), or buy out the entire row, or - now - fly Spirit.

OMG. I know Spirit has its detractors, especially people who don’t get that the a la carte business model isn’t for everyone, but for us fatties, Spirit is the proverbial bomb.

Why? The Big Front Seat. For an additional fee (as with everything on Spirit), you can purchase spacious accommodation in what I suppose used to be the Business/First class when the plane belonged to its previous owner. Go for the front row: my stubby legs can barely tap the wall-carpet in front of me. Miz Fluff here can even use the tray table from the armrest without getting belly bumped. Plenty of side room, plenty of space to recline, plus you legitimately get priority boarding. (Unlike most of the line behind you who just queue up anyway.)

Spirit Airlines, Big Front Seat

Row 1, Spirit Airlines

You might try to argue that most airlines have nice seats for an additional fee. Yes, that’s true. For hundreds or (more usually, it seems) thousands of dollars more, you can have a pleasant flight. On Spirit? Sixty-five dollars - and that’s the high end. (LAS<- ->DFW) For our trip to Portland, it was only $13 to relocate from the scrunch of humanity to a Big Front Seat. Thirteen bucks!

Okay, so picture me back in the first days of spring, looking to book our flight to Seattle. The cheapest option was Alaska Air, fine, but we’d have to buy out a row. (This comes with its own anxiety because we have had the stress of surprise seat reassignments in the past, and the extra seat can only follow one person. Okay, so that only happened once and it all worked out, but still! Anxiety!) I lamented that Spirit didn’t fly to Seattle. Hey, maybe they flew somewhere nearby...

Here’s what I realized: for price X, we could book three seats on Alaska Air to Seattle, a good hotel, and taxi transportation. (I know light rail from Seattle's airtport is cheap, but hauling a bunch of bags on public transportation for 45 minutes each way just didn’t appeal to me.)

Or, for the same price X, we could book two Big Front Seats on Spirit to Portland, a good hotel, two business-class Amtrak tickets to Seattle, another good hotel, and taxi transportation.

It would mean an extra night away from the pets (because if we flew in on Saturday it would be too late for an Amtrak connection or, if we then caught a puddle-jumper, we’d arrive too late to explore), but hell, what with our upcoming (and presumably permanent) move to Australia, would we even ever get another chance to see Portland? Notching an extra new city plus a leisurely train ride up the west coast sounded like the better adventure.

And So We Set Off

This cruise to Alaska was a gift from Mike’s father, Phil, and Carol, Mike’s father’s wife. (We don’t say stepmother.) They came (from Australia) to the States to see a bit of Los Angeles then visit us in Las Vegas for the week before the cruise. (My first time to meet any of my in-laws face to face.) So, we were already all comfortable with each other by the time Friday came. They flew out early in the morning for their two nights in Seattle, and we prepared to fly to Portland that afternoon.

By “prepared” I mean that we, heat-avoiding night owls with irregular sleep habits even when it isn’t school holidays, completely failed to flip around our day-sleeping schedule in time for our flight.

Story of our lives, really, and usually - while not ideal - no big deal. But for some reason I got hot (the usual desert scorch will do that) and couldn’t get cool. I was boiling but not sweating. If this was a hot flash, the “flash” part was disappointingly misnamed. From the car, to the parking lot (we tried to splurge on the garage, but even the long-term economy lot was nearly full), to the airport, to the gate... I was just red and hot. Was it the vestiges of my recent re-bout with mono? What was happening? Usually when I get too sleep deprived I get chills, sometimes to where my teeth chatter if I’m really run down, but heat? What?

Mike, tired but otherwise fine, went to get a drink and came back with a cherry slurpee that tasted like melted Jolly Ranchers. Bleh. I wasn’t even thirsty, though. Just hot. I held the cold drink to my face and looked forward to early boarding.

The mysterious overheating hung over me like a scratchy blanket until the next night in Seattle, so if it sounds like we wussed out on our sightseeing, that (and the extreme tiredness the first night) is my excuse. (Although, let’s face it, we’re usually pretty low-key in our tourist meanderings.)

The flight went fine. Mike liked the seats about as much as he liked his disgusting cherry drink, which is to say “a lot.”

Mike After Disgusting Slurpee

Usually our cruise luggage consists of two rolling carry-ons, a camera/electronics bag, and a couple of zippered totes. (We pack them in the carry-ons then use them for souvenirs and whatnot when we leave.) But that’s Mexico, where people don’t chant “Layers! Layers!” on the Cruise Critic forums. Plus, since we’d be traveling with people we knew, it might be more awkward than usual to re-wear clothes. (That’s right. We do that.)

Furthermore, here we were flying to a cruise for the first time, not able to shuck off the day-before’s laundry into the trunk of the car before crossing the street to the ship, and not able to dump souvenir overflow into additional bags that only had to be carried down the length of the gangplank. And because we were flying (not to mention flying Spirit), and because of the “Layers!”, it just made sense to bring a big suitcase in addition to the carry-ons.

Of course it did. But you don’t know me, Woman Who Fears Lost Luggage. I haven’t checked a suitcase in over 10 years. (And no, I’m not one of those people who pushes the limits of “carry-on.” Until this trip, being a light traveler was a strong checkmark in the Pro-Shari Column.) While I would never put anything valuable or irreplaceable in a checked bag (duh), and of course we had travel insurance (duh), if our clothes were lost, replacing them would suck. Oh, we could’ve managed on short notice in Portland or Seattle for everything except swimsuits (plus-size) or Alaska-ready jackets (summer, plus-size), but if it happened on the ship? That little gift shop doesn’t even have T-shirts with a centimetre to give, let alone undies.

(So kids, the lesson here is Don’t Get Fat. It’s dreadfully inconvenient. I know it’s a super-easy way to test people for assholery, but having to carefully eyeball a booth before you sit down in a restaurant gets annoying.)

Therefore, packing so that the least-replaceable things were in the carry-ons that also were holding most of the electronics was like designing a 3D jigsaw meant to stump the next Mensa get-together. And yes, we had to have our electronics. Some people need their shoes, their suntan lotion, their cosmetics, their curling irons... we need our picture-making, word-displaying, life-sharing gadgets. The newer camera with walkaround lens plus another lens fit in the camera bag, but we had to bring the older SLR just in case - my luggage anxiety doesn’t have anything on my camera anxiety - plus the so-so telephoto plus a big rented telephoto which deserves its own post, plus the iPads for backing up pics and possibly sharing them, plus the Kindles for reading because iPads don’t use e-ink and are heavy, plus the brilliant tiny cordless/cruise-friendly power strip that I’ll show off later, plus our smartphones, plus the zillion cords, plus booklights, plus batteries, plus battery chargers.

Because baggage claim checks are the most mysterious pieces of paper in the universe (what are they supposed to do, again?), and because my fear after lost luggage is stolen luggage, our pace to Baggage Claim was brisk. The Portland airport is twee and easily manageable, so that took no time, although of course our bag was one of the last to come out. “One down, two to go!” I thought, referring to the luggage checks on the train and ship yet to come. (You wouldn’t think luggage would be lost on a cruise, especially with only one ship in port, but everyone has read the sob stories. On the other hand, given that everyone’s luggage is left outside their doors while they’re off exploring the ship, I’m surprised more isn’t stolen, security cameras or no.)

As part of my planning I printed out coupons for airport->downtown service from Radio Cab. Of course, once we arrived, I was way too tired (and still so hot) to deal with phoning and making arrangements. Why not just grab a shuttle or cab and go to the hotel? How much more could it be?

Answer: Seven dollars more, but I have no regrets. (Granted, we had to pay in cash or else pay $4 more. Portland ain’t Vegas.)

Our destination was The Nines. Originally is was going to be Hotel Monaco because I’ve always wanted to stay in a Kimpton hotel and be given a loaner goldfish for the night, but the HM in Portland was just too much more expensive than other interesting-looking options in the same area to justify it. (So, did we stay at a Kimpton property in Seattle instead? Wait and see!)

Area was very important. This was our one night in Portland, and I had one non-negotiable objective for it: Powell’s Books. The Nines looked like a great location: light rail stops in every direction on the corners, the heart of the free-fare zone, and plenty of restaurants nearby. Plus, the hotel was in the top half of the historic Meier & Frank Building, the lower floors of which are occupied today by a Macy’s. So downtown!

The rate was also competitive. I won’t say what it was (here’s a clue: smack-dab between Disney’s Grand Californian and a good Priceline deal in Anaheim), but the AAA discount was so nice that my membership has just about paid for itself this year. We reserved a corner room with an outside view (as opposed to overlooking the lobby) and “lots of natural light” in the bathroom, and based on photos online, my expectations were high.

Our SUV shuttle (passenger count: 2) pulled up to the hotel's busy curb at about 5:30 p.m., greeted by friendly doormen and bell services. The joint was jumping, and not just with check-ins; apparently the rooftop bar was the place to be on Friday night. I didn’t feel self conscious about taking up our own luggage (one big piece, two carry-ons, camera bag on my shoulder) until it took a couple of tries to get into a sufficiently empty elevator. (The weight of hipster gazes takes up extra space.) Still, we’d not been to the ATM yet - being used to living in a cashless world - and the cab ride had left us short on bills for tipping bellhops.

Surprisingly, our room wasn’t ready, although the reception clerk (also named Mike, and an ex-Las Vegan) was so friendly and professional that this news was only a little disappointing. (Also, being so tired was somewhat numbing.) He checked us in and, per our request, set us up with the faster internet option ($9.95). You can also order this via the hotel’s iPad app, which is really just their mobile site, but it’s still pretty nifty. You can also use the app/site to order room service, arrange concierge stuff, and so on. I was impressed. We decided to wait in the lobby until our room was ready in “20-30 minutes.”

Mike in The Nines Lobby

The Nines - Lobby Ceiling

Someone on the internet, in their review, said that the ceiling had to be fake but that the builder did a good job of making it look like it was natural light. This is why the internet can be harmful to your health; in the olden days, people didn’t have the stress of such ongoing inanity.

Satellite view of hotel, including skylight.

(And then there’s the wonder of Google Maps, and the balance of the internet is restored.)

Were we underdressed? I don’t know. When I was about 12 years old I was a slave to The Preppy Handbook. I got the joke, but who sent off for catalogues from Miss Porter’s? This girl. The book repeated a well-known bit of advice that was new to me, something to the effect of how, when out in the world, you should treat your old wool coat like a mink and your mink like an old wool coat. Elsewhere in the book it discussed how truly preppy people would wear the same cardigan for thirty years, until it wore out.

While I no longer aspire to prepdom, I do have some of that alleged fashion sensibility. If my clothes are clean, modest, and uneventful, and if the occasion is not officially designated as some degree of formal (and my brain can’t accept that checking into a hotel is ever formal), then I’m good. Still, we were aware of a certain vibe that said this sentiment might not be shared by all of The Nines' guests.

Our rooms were ready within 10 minutes; Mike-the-desk-man came to the lounge to tell us. Ah, the journey would be over at last! Sorry, after a certain point, it really is about the destination, wise sayings be damned. Alas, my first thought was: “Where’s our king bed?!”

The Nines - Room 931

(It wasn’t “Who’s that man flopped out over there wearing your clothes, Mike?” But wouldn’t that have made an interesting Twilight Zone episode?)

We only have a double bed at home (yes, two fatties like ourselves - and kids, if you think geometry skills have no application to everyday life, I can assure you that you are wrong), so we always look forward to a king bed when we travel.

I checked the reservation on my phone, though, and was reminded that I’d sacrificed the king bed so we could have a corner room with a view. Oh yeah. Stupid hot and exhausted brain-brain.

Mike Sprawled on The Nines Bed

Yeah, noooo problems with the beds at all.

Shall I contribute a data point to the internet that not everyone is willing to admit?

Sometimes... when we find ourselves in a hotel room with two beds... we each grab one for ourselves and that’s how it goes.

Yep, I know some of you young romantics are horrified. “Are you getting divorced, Shari and Mike? Is that how it is?”

My marriage advice is usually pretty Mike-specific and therefore not worth much (unless you are planning to be the second Mrs. Mike after I’m dead, as foretold), but I will advise this: suffer no shame in enjoying being a bed hog. Pillow pile then a lie across the diagonal? Sign me up!

Except we couldn’t relax yet, or else next thing we knew, we’d be waking at 2 a.m., restless and having to eat from the room service menu and counting the hours until Powell’s opened and we could make a quick dash inside. Not fun. Had to hang in there.

The Nines - Entryway

Eventually I wheeled in the luggage. Just to the right, out of frame in the photo above, was a refrigerator and mini-bar. The connecting door is also on the right, the entry door down on the left.

The Nines - Love This Sofa

The Tiffany-blue sofas were as lovely as promised and much more comfortable than expected. Not content with two beds, I flopped all over this while Mike consulted Yelp for din-din ideas.

Yes, I’m well aware that the thing to do in Portland is eat from the food pods. There’s even an app for it! And that’s how I know that no pods of interest were open nearby on Friday night. And, by “pods of interest,” you know I mean Indian food. Trying the local curry is what we do.

There’s no graceful way to segue from the topic of Indian food to a photo of the restroom. I promise I only just remembered to show it and am making no deeper statement about causation or correlation:

The Nines - Bathroom

That natural light is fetching, isn’t it? Where exactly does it come from?

The Nines - Toilet

Oh my. That’s a lot of light.

The Nines - View from Bathroom

I forget what the amenities were, other than nice. Of course I have them somewhere - well, not the shampoo because Mike doesn’t like cruise ship shampoo, but we have a whole video on that coming up on the Juneau day. If I stumble upon them later I’ll come back and share.

(Here I stopped typing to do some packing in the hope that it would get me a little closer to the location of stashed hotel toiletries. Alas, all I ended up with was a rather clever fortress at the top of the stairs. Any home invaders with an eye on nabbing my collection of hamster toys - currently categorized into small storage buckets all along the main hallway - will have to do some fancy vaulting first.)

Right, so despite the appeal of a little rest in the room, we didn’t take the dangerous path and instead headed out for one of two possible Indian places on the public transportation route to Powell’s Books, as mapped by Yelp and by me checking and double-checking and triple-checking the light rail and trolley routes.

The weather was warm, in the mid-to-high 80s, so I was glad for featherweight Capri pants and sandals. Before the trip, someone was on CruiseCritic asking about wearing layers in Alaska and whether it was ever warm enough for Capri pants. Among the responses was someone who felt the original poster and anyone else considering wearing Capris ought to know that Capri pants were the most unflattering clothes article on the planet, maybe only to be worn by a young woman with extremely shapely calves, but even then.

I replied with something to the effect of how for some of us the comfort far outweighed possibly not looking our very best in the eyes of others, and was there really anyone over 30 who suffered from that kind of vanity? (Yes, I know there is, but I like to smack people around a bit sometimes.) Then the thread predictably divided into those who feel people should know how ugly Capri pants are and those who felt you should please yourself when it comes to fashion. So, when I wore my Capri pants out to dinner, I did so with a bit of defiant sass, remembering that thread.

(However, despite going in early July, it was never warm enough to need them in Alaska. Luckily these took up almost no room in the luggage.)

(And while I don’t notice how Capris look on others, I know they look terrible on me. I’m not only fat, but thanks to genetics I have meaty calves - the Michigan winters of my childhood were plagued by knee boots that wouldn’t zip! - which descend into cankles. Back when I wore linen Capris and Birkenstock clogs to work - yeah, that woman on the boards only thought she’d seen a moving fashion violation - some of the “less content” students tried calling me Ms. Cankle behind my back... until I owned it, but that’s another story. Even back when my life was nothing but nightly dance class and running my hands over my ribs in satisfaction, those adorable Greek sandals that laced up the shins were not to be mine. You know how there are the “such a pretty face” fatties, like Delta Burke? And then there are the fatties who go nuts for shoes, a la the late Nell Carter? For those fortunate few, be it face or feet, some body part lends itself to dress-up. The rest of us just say “screw it” and enjoy the breeze in our terrible(y comfy) Capris.)

(So - and yes, I’m sorry that we’re still in parentheses like the Bubble Boy - if this trip report were a work of literature, you could use contextual criticism to call the Capris a metaphor for freedom in the external conflict of man vs. society and the internal conflict of man vs. self. However, hopefully you can easily tell that this is not literature. It seems obvious to me, but sometimes people find this site and disagree with what I say, which leads to two standard bits of feedbacks in the comments: 1. You’re fat! and 2. Your writing sucks! All I can say is that they must have paid Google for a different tour of the internet than what they got, and all complaints and refunds should be taken up with that office.)

(Not that the kind of people who write such comments ever bother to read this far - in fact, I’m very impressed if you are even reading this far, where “you” probably equals my poor husband, who is no doubt skimming even though he knows there will be a quiz. ALL ESSAY, sweetie. Better take notes.)

The Nines - Looking Down at Courthouse

The Nines - View of Courthouse and Square

That’s the view if your room at The Nines faces front. Our room didn’t face front. I thought I’d be disappointed, but it was fine and possibly even more interesting (for reasons to be expressed whenever we get to the next morning).

The Nines - Corridor Outside Elevators

I have curtains like this over the mirrored closet doors in our home. It’s probably the most stylish bit of decor I’ve ever done beyond hanging a painting. (I should also mention that we rent - discarding the mirrored doors isn’t an option.) Gauzy things are nice - takes me back to Pier One’s inventory circa 1990. I approve.

Catching the light rail was easy (once we caught an elevator down that wasn’t full with bar patrons): just turn left, cross the street, cross the street again.

Light Rail Outside of The Nines

That’s the rail going the other way, up to the train station. At this point we were tired and thinking of taxis for our trip to the station in the morning, but even the concierge recommended light rail when I asked about booking a taxi. Did we take his advice? Stay tuned and hope for fewer asides on fatdom, the boggling nature of other people, and stream-of-consciousness ramblings based on minor associations with the topic at hand.

(Oh, wait, that’s my entire website. Sucka!)

A few stops later we hopped off. I love cities with free downtown transportation. (Hey, Salt Lake.) The first Indian place was only a short walk to the next corner. It looked okay, kind of crowded with gringos, but Portland’s the kind of city where white people probably know good Indian food. (And in this matter not like Salt Lake.) The other place’s menu online looked a bit more exciting, though (which is my code phrase for “offers shahi paneer or paneer makhani”), so we continued down a few blocks south on 11th. (Is it me or does Portland have small city blocks?) Neither restaurant we’d looked up had brilliant Yelp scores (3-3.5 stars), but our stomachs were growling and we needed to save our little energy for Powell’s.

East India Company (Under Construction)

Aw, the poor place is covered with unsightly construction. We need to do them a favour and eat here. They’ll probably be glad we braved the scaffolding.

Therefore it was a little surprising when they asked if we had a reservation. What, it’s only six-something? And the place is quiet? But no worries, they sat us right away.

Within 20 minutes, we understood why they asked about reservations. The atmosphere didn’t get loud, but the tables certainly starting filling up. So much for our attempt at noblesse oblige.

I thought the napkins were pretty:

East India Co - Napkin and Glass

The food was absolutely dee-lish.

East India Co - Delicious Paneer Makhani

Look at that paneer and all the creamy sauce. I have to get up in a few minutes and cook frozen pierogies; this makes me so sad. A close up of the garlic naan? Of course.

East India Co - Naan

So, for two, maybe three, weeks I’ve had all of the ingredients to make coconut curry chili on the countertop. I’ve cleaned around them, stacked grocery bags around them, and every few days I’ve dared to peek at the yams to see if their stringy little roots were full-on Rastafarian yet. Just looking at these pics and remembering the meal caused me to finally get up and properly cook. (Chopping and measured spices and everything! Well, I did use canned beans.) A double batch, even!

I don’t know if it’s going to be any good. Mike usually makes it, and he was at work/school (student teaching) and couldn’t answer my questions. But hey, at least the kitchen counter (“bench,” in Australian) is finally clear. Oh, and I was able to use the leftover boiling water for the couscous to mix up some hot chocolate in my souvenir Norwegian cup from the day in Glacier Bay.

Er, speaking of cruises, on with the tale.

We both agreed that if East India Company were in Las Vegas, it would be one of our go-tos. (If you’re in Las Vegas and want consistent, nicely prepared Indian, I recommend Mt. Everest for dinner, Mint Indian Bistro for lunch buffet, and India Masala in the Rivieria food court - seriously - if you don’t want to go off-strip or if it’s midnight or if you just want to run it for a sack full of gorgeous carryout. India Masala has a new location over by Gandhi and Mint, but I haven’t been there yet.)

I will point out that there was always a line for the restroom at East India, and the fact that I even needed the restroom for this particular purpose was unusual... if you understand me. (The restroom is pretty, though. Nice basin.) Although we’d eyed the spiced chocolate cake on the menu when entering, I briefly hit a point where I didn’t feel very comfortable and just wanted to leave... but then I got better. Again, if you understand me. Maybe it was the sleeplessness and the problem of feeling hot, but Mike said later he felt the same way but then, much as I did, after waiting in a certain line not far from our table, felt fine. I realize this moment of TMI might keep people from going to the restaurant, but honestly, even if it happened again, it was worth it.

So, there was dessert after all.

East India Co - Spiced Chocolate Cake

The cake was nice - we do like to have multi-course meals when traveling - and now we were sated and ready to explore, which is to say to enjoy walking past the library across the street to catch the streetcar to Powell’s.

Portland Library

Portland Streetcar

Riding the streetcar was pleasant. I could see enough to tell that Portland would be a great place to visit again sometime. But my one goal was Powell’s, and now it sat before us, full of books! books! books.

That’s when I started coughing... which led to kind of choking... and then I threw up a bit in mouth... and then I swallowed it back down immediately because there were people and happy dogs around and nowhere to properly puke and heaven knows if it did come out it was going to end up my ample bosom or worn-once sandals or something - it was all too sudden and preoccupying to trust myself to position myself for the best trajectory. Short version: Niiiiice.

So I took a few photos while recovering. Look, it’s the car I didn’t throw up on:


Maybe it was just the excitement of being at Powell’s. Powell’s! Books! Powell’s!

Even as I type, I have a stack of out-of-print children’s lit ready to be boxed. Where did I get it? Powell’s! The biggest independent bookseller in the world! (And is there a Barnes and Noble anywhere that holds as much as the downtown Portland store? Powell’s!)

This is why I wish people would stop getting hissy-fitty over e-readers. I super-love my Kindle. You know that. I super-love my iPad, which everyone says will replace dedicated e-readers like the Kindle. I hope not, because the lightweight, constantly charged, e-ink experience is heaps better. However, I read magazines on my iPad for their pretty, pretty colours, only to ditch them as soon as I get a compelling Kindle book. It’s just a more ergonomic experience for me. Not everyone agrees. That’s okay. Hopefully the future will contain tablets and e-readers and books just as we can still buy shirts in rayon and cotton and silk.

For I do love booky-books, make no mistake. However, the Global Financial Crisis (and other factors that I’m too ignorant to discuss) has made getting published difficult, which means less selection for readers, and we all saw what happened to pop music (in all its all-Britney flavours), so I’m glad e-books have made it easier for authors to find a reading public. And do we really need to kill trees so that all three parts of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy might live?

But I know I don’t speak for all other Kindle/iPad/Nook/whatever lovers, so I'm shushing up now.

Powell's Bookstore

City of Books, they call it. Why can’t I live in the City of Books? Why?

Powell's City of Books - Birds Have Done Been Put

Birds! Put on signs! So Portland.

Powell's City of Books - Mike at the ATM

Mike solved our cash problem. Funny, finite bits of paper.

Powell's City of Books - A Staircase

Words! Put on steps! So Pinterest.

Powell's City of Books - Doesn't Count Without the Silent E

Does it count if you don’t pronounce the silent-e at the end?

Alas, the Rare Book Room was closed.

Powell's City of Books - Rare Book Room

Powell's City of Books - Rare Book Room (Through the Glass)

I didn’t really know what to do, what to look at. Our luggage space was spoken for. Our apartment space is spoken for. I already have a queue of books to read. Coming here was just cruel, yet beautiful. Like the muddy space between pleasure and pain that the bad men on Hellraiser spoke of. Remember the one with chattering teeth?

(Here I paused to read all of the Hellraiser-related Wikipedia articles. I think I’m scared of boxes now.)

I could lament not spending my days within bikeshot of Powell’s, but so much inspiration might be dangerous. Look - I could learn to speak Cornish!

Powell's City of Books - In Case You Wish to Learn Cornish

That book is $334, used, on Amazon! (Day-um, I ought to’ve bought it, eh?) Oh good, it’s only $14.25 on the Powell’s website. Sigh. Cornish. I could’ve been all earthy and fey like Tori Amos - doesn’t she live in Cornwall now? Or is that the the person from Bananarama and the other guy from Wham who became a couple? Or is it all of them? Oh, would that I had the time and stomach to write fanfic.

Powell's City of Books - I Need All of These

Mine. All mine. Stupid luggage limits! This is why people in the old days had steamer trunks when they cruised.

Powell's City of Books - Exterior

Farewell, bookstore so big that fold-out maps are provided. Farewell. We may have only bought a luggage lock, but it is special, even when Mike accidentally packs it and forgets to put it on the case.

It was so pleasant walking around outside as the sun hung low in the summer sky. Back on the trolley, back to East India, back around the library, back on light rail. We sat in Pioneer Courthouse Square a few minutes, looking at the hotel.

The NinesSignpost, The Nines, Pioneer Courthouse

Back in the room, I was startled to see that we’d had turndown service while we were out. Me not used to fancy pwaces. Me probably wouldn’t have left a bottle of Vicodin and a couple of iPads out like bait if I’d realized.

(The Vicodin was out because it was in the way while I dug for something else. It’s the same Vicodin from my oral surgery, untouched since that time. I swear. I only brought it in case a gallbladder attack happened on a sea day. I haven’t had an attack for over five years, but you never know, plus there’s Mike. I could never have a Vicodin habit - I just don’t eat enough fibre... or Indian food.)

I turned off the soothing New Age music and visuals coming from the television, and we zonked.

I woke up around 5 a.m., I think, because that’s when I was trying to take arty pics like this:

The Nines - Room Corner at Night

Completely forgetting that my stained shirt (hello, I had Indian, it’s a thing) was lying over the back of the chair, post-stainsticking.

We were both famished. The turn-down brownie was quite nice, even though snobbery was inclined to look askance at food wrapped in cellophane, but we were counting the hours until Urban Farmer, the on-site restaurant, opened. There are probably a dozen local-preferred breakfast eateries near the hotel, but the Urban Farmer’s promise of French toast with hazelnut butter and huckleberries was calling me.

We did the 21st century-thing and played on our his-n-her iPads. Mike activated the 4G on his, in anticipation of connecting while in port on the cruise. It probably would’ve been cheaper if we’d both just done this and not paid for faster wireless at the hotel, but at the time I was worried about using up our 4G bandwidth. (I needn’t have been. I barely used 10%, even with photo uploads. Mike probably used about 50% - no idea how. Perhaps he forgot to turn off backups... I know The Nines got to enjoy me accidentally backing up a couple of gigs of photos to the Cloud while I slept.)

I installed the Photoshop app because heaven knows I couldn’t let even my Facebook peeps see our pics without the curves adjusted. The app works quite well, but I still felt the need to re-process everything when I got home, so I’m not sure that’s a Pandora’s Box I suggest opening. What was working a treat, though, was the Apple “Camera Connector” for the iPad when used with the Canon 7D. (I’m being specific for Google purposes.) After reading so many mixed reviews of the CC, I was beginning to think we ought to forget the iPad for backup, but no, it worked just fine. The 7D uses CompactFlash and the CC’s card slot doesn’t, so I had to pack the camera cord to plug into the CC’s USB slot, but it was all easy-peasy. Two thumbs up.

The Nines - Steps Instead of Elevator

Being only one floor up from the restaurant, we took the stairs.

Urban Farmer - Video Art

I dug the video art, although it took me awhile to realize these weren’t live webcams we were looking at (makes sense - how ugly would they be at noon?).

Urban Farmer - Farm Thanks

A large board listed the provenance of the menu’s ingredients. Our food definitely tasted fresh, especially the eggs. (Alas, my French toast was now being served with blueberries, but it was still memorable. Mike had steak, eggs, and a salad. A salad? He never quite craves “breakfast food” the way I do.) Overall, a good meal, despite the indifferent service.

The Nines - Lounge and Urban Farmer

Hotel lounge and restaurant, above.

It was still quite early and we didn’t have to be at the train station until 10:45ish for our 11:30 train. (Curse of the checked luggage again.) If you know Mike, you know what he did. Zzzz. And if you know me, you know I didn’t. Instead, I chose to play Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window.

The Nines - Peeping Across

Guests of the hotel next door, shut your curtains! (Or open them up more? What was happening was kind of inconclusive.)

The Nines - Room Cards

Ah, Nines. You’re so pretty. Your Tiffany-blue sofas are soft and velvety, and your eggs are robust with farm-fresh flavor. But your twee elevators are so inhospitable, even without the luggage. And of course we did have luggage, as did everyone else trying to leave the hotel.

Emboldened by sleep, I said let’s forget the taxi and take the light rail to the station. All we had to do was cross the street to the northbound stop - even easier than the day before. A few dubious but probably harmless types were wandering around, but so was a police officer. (Like a good tourist, I still nagged Mike to turn all zippers and opening flaps towards his body.)

The rail was as easy as hoped. (A guy did fuss at me to move so he could put up his bike. How was I to know that little peg above my head was for bikes? Or that there was even a peg? People!) We got off at the closest stop (the Greyhound station) and walked the short distance to Union Station.

Portland - Union Station

The station’s historic interior made me think of the Texas and Pacific station in downtown Fort Worth where my great-grandfather worked as roadmaster. (That station was being remade into apartments when we visited in 2007.)

Portland - Union Station Baggage Dept Sign

We walked straight to the “Quik-Trak” kiosk (somewhat visible in the above photo) and printed out our tickets. Then we sat down just inside of Baggage Claim to carefully tag everything. (Even our carry-ons, as directed. I’m so obedient. I hope someone is keeping score somewhere.) We dropped off the big bag and rolled our two little ones to one of the long wooden benches, which were all nearly full. At least we didn’t have to queue up at the ticket counter. For our first Amtrak trip, we were doing pretty well.

Portland - Union Station - Ticket Counter

Portland - Union Station - Waiting Room

I sat with the bags and took the odd snap while Mike looked for a beverage. (A trend, it seems.) He came back just in time (another trend) for the call to queue up. Yay, we got to go into the shorter business class line that boarded first. (For $20 more, Amtrak promised roomier and more comfortable seats plus concession vouchers.) I wanted to hurry so we could pick out good seats, even though The Internet had assured me that the business class cars were often empty and we could feel free to move around.

Oh, Internet.

Our line reached the man at the door checking tickets. “Where’s your boarding pass?”

Boarding pass?

”Yes, you should have another piece of paper here with your seat assignments.”

(The Internet had said that seat assignments were only for really busy trains.)

”Um, this is what we got from the ticket kiosk.”

”They should’ve given you a boarding pass.”

”It wasn’t a person; it was a machine. This is what it gave us.”

”You have to go back and get a boarding pass.”

And that, friends, is the truth. You can use the Quik-Trak kiosk to pick up your ticket, but then you still have to queue up at the ticket window to get a boarding pass.

We scurried back inside. Luckily business class tickets get their own line, so we were helped right away. (Now we knew we didn’t have to hurry to pick our seats, but there was still a sense of urgency as the regular ticket holders had almost all emptied out of the station.) Whew, seats together! I would’ve been a crabby crabella if Amtrak’s puny directions had put us with strangers. I had downloaded their app and everything! Such betrayal.

But now we made the mistake of going back to the business class door... which was locked. Our guy was over with the regular ticketholders, who were behind a barricade.

Back inside and to the back of the line (which had re-swelled with last-minute arrivals). Oh well, at least we were sorted out and sitting together.

Once outside we walked across the tracks to the further away train, our Amtrak Cascades. I would’ve preferred the Coast Starlight (if only for the Big Bang Theory cred), but the schedule worked out better for the Cascades, plus people said it was more likely to be on time.

And so we entered the nearly full Car Number One at the back of the train. The overhead luggage space looked a little skinny for our bulging carry-ons, but luckily there was ample room at the front of the car. We sat behind two men that I’d watched taking each other’s photos in the old-fashioned phone alcoves inside the station.

Amtrak - Business Class Vouchers

Amtrak - Business Class

The TVs don’t play movies, much to one passenger’s disappointment. Our conductor (I swore I wouldn’t forget her name, but now... Felicia?) told the person that when the train was overhauled, they decided to spend the money on wifi instead, since so many people could then watch movies on their own devices. Good decision: the wifi was reliable and reasonably fast.

This was very helpful thirty minutes later, when we started looking into flights from Seattle for the trip home, because no way was This Train Thang was happening again if we could help it.

I guess some of it was the bad information and hass, and some of it was the way the seats weren’t really that amazing, and certainly not as comfortable as Spirit’s Big Front Seat (although fine), but what it really was was The Noisy Baby.

Now, I know the noise isn’t something the baby understands how to control. I used to telecommute from a duplex where at one point a family moved in and their baby screamed - not cried, but screamed - day and night. Day and night. It’s not an exaggeration to say Mike could hear it in Australia through the headset. This made it difficult to think and work, but what can you do? It’s a baby. (Later, when the people complained to my landlady/friend that they could hear me moving around at night, when I preferred to work - running the faucets or shower, flushing the toilet - at least she had my back and pointed out that I could hear their baby all the time.)

But on a train, at least on this train, taking the baby into that little alcove between cars (or the not-so-little alcove behind ours, where there were no more passenger cars) would’ve been a relief to the rest of the passengers. This isn’t like a plane where there’s nowhere to go. Alcoves! Plus, baby aside, the passenger car was stone silent, like a casino bingo game (which shocked me the first time we played), so it’s not like he/she was part of the buzz of humanity. No, it was one screaming, crying, squealing, top-volume baby and (more importantly) his/her vocally encouraging mother in an absolutely hushed car.

People astound me.

Just the thought of four hours of this made me tired. Trying to sort out air arrangements (the old “buy three seats or spring for first class because this ain’t Spirit” issue) made me tired. I griped on Facebook and begged Mike to wait until we were in Seattle because I just didn’t want to think about it. (Mike is well-known as Area’s Most Tolerant Man wherever he goes... until a screaming baby shows up. Then I have to start smacking him when he instinctively sotto voces out a “Shhh!” I always hiss “We’re going to get into a fight!” Maybe he doesn’t think people holding a baby can land a punch, but I’ve seen Undercover Blues more times than anyone else on this planet. It’s such an underrated movie that I feel like I have to watch it for everyone.)

To get away from the baby, we decided to move into the dining car.... which was full. One table for four was taken up completely by Felicia (or whomever, the conductor) and her co-worker, who were chatting while ostensibly going through paperwork. (Grrr.)

So, on to the “bistro,” or what I would call the snack bar. I got a sandwich and Mike ordered a hamburger, but then unordered it as soon as he heard the rustle of cellophane and the beep of the microwave. “That’s the only thing I like here,” said one the ladies tending the snack bar, trying to change Mike’s mind.

The sandwich was fine. Kind of a pesto/mozzarella deal. Not anything I’d want twice unless I was in captivity, but fine.

It was a little while later that I remembered our $3-off coupons. D’oh!

And that’s how Mike ended up with a sandwich just like mine. I thought it was nice that they let him use both coupons. And he thought it was weird the way, when he bought the sandwich, the same lady as before said, “That’s the only thing I like here.”


At some point the baby reduced his/her screaming fits to the quarter-hour. We had fun “checking in” on Yelp at every station where we stopped. If you’re in the paired seats (as opposed to the single seats), you get the coastline side for each way, but the view was nice from either side. I know because I’d switched to Mike’s window seat when he got up for food and, hello?, was the window seat more spacious? It definitely felt more comfortable. So, as people in our car got off at various stations, I started Goldilocking around, trying to find a nice window seat. Too sunny on the other side. Obstructing curtains in the seats behind us. I returned to my honey and told him I’d be taking the window seat for the trip back next Sunday. (“Okay,” he said, with the tone of one who expects to have booked plane tickets before then.)

When we hit Tacoma, Mike looked at me and said, “Tacoma? Like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge?” Oh yeah! So we started keeping eyes peeled while confirming with Wikipedia that we were on the lookout for something green. Darn, we’d missed it. (I looked at my photos later and saw a bit of it next to a pic of a sailboat that I took. Ha!) Did we see it on the trip back? And if so, was it by rail or by sky? Time and further typing will tell.

We did get to whizz past the Museum of Glass.

Passing the Museum of Glass

That looked cool.

Amtrak - Us on It

09 December 2012 |


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Cruise to Alaska: Before We Begin

Ten minutes ago I finished writing this trip report. It took ages not because it's so long (did I really just put 82 photos in a single blog post?) but because it felt so negative to write that I kept avoiding it, worried that it would be too easy to write about the lows and too hard to describe the balancing highs. (The excuse of a torn-up ankle made it easy to procrastinate, too.)

I'm going to proofread it now, once, which is less than it needs but all it will get because

a) eons will pass before I want to relive it all again,

b) we all know that I actually like long, rambling sentences/paragraphs/posts that meander far from the perceived point, so the best we can hope for here is a punctuation check, and

c) I want to get this bugger out in the open before people start planning their Alaskan cruises for next summer. If I can save one person from booking Norwegian...

I typed that last bit a little tongue-in-cheek. I do that a lot.That's why this "prologue" is happening, so that people know that I'm not as serious as I may seem in my trip reports. Anyone who knows me knows that I like to be a little dry, a little deadpan, but also a little hyperbolic and goofy sometimes, too. Definitely a little human.

It's a weird arrangement, when you have things you want to say, but you also don't want to be taken too literally. I doubt I'll pull it off. After all, "A Modest Proposal" still horrifies people, and I'm not Swift. (Nor will I begin to try to be, so please kick that bar of expectations back down into the dirt where it belongs).

So here's the deal:

We had a great vacation during the second week of July 2012 when we cruised to Alaska. Great vacation, yes, but a decidedly mediocre cruise on Norwegian Pearl. As in, we decided we'd never risk another cruise on Norwegian again.

This is the trip report for that cruise.

Don't come looking for exciting drama, though. If you like a low rumble of eye-rolling and disgruntlement, you might be okay.

If you hate Carnival, you'll probably get miffed because sometimes I compare NCL to CCL, but that's just because Carnival is all I know. (My in-laws have tried just about every line except for NCL. Their sentiments were similar.)

Besides, if I were a dogged cheerleader for Carnival, we wouldn't have broken away from them to sail on Norwegian, would we? And hey, sometimes Norwegian beat Carnival in our experience, and I talk about that.

So, I may be whiny, boring, self-indulgent, and far too windy and wordy for almost everyone's tastes, but I am fair.

This is just one trip report. I'm not purporting that our experience with NCL was universal or even common. (If it was, they surely couldn't stay in business.)

I also know, and would like to reassure the reader that I know, that our tastes are not the same as everyone else's tastes. Literally. I'm a vegetarian. Mike's not, but he doesn't like fish or seafood. Mike doesn't drink; I rarely do. We don't gamble on the ships because we live in Las Vegas (for a few more weeks, anyway). Balconies are important to us. Certain room amenities are, too. Good service isn't mandatory, but bad service is intolerable. And so on.

Everyone has their own expectations. We're no different. Maybe you'll relate to us; maybe you won't.

I'm only writing this trip report because in the 7th grade my English teacher had me keep a travel journal while I missed a week of school. Something about that stuck. I like to write. I like to record. That doesn't mean I'm any good at it. (Sorry!)

Luckily, this isn't a time-share presentation, and you're free to leave at any time with no obligation. (You don't even have to stay for all the words! If all you want is the photos, you can tuck them under your mouse-click and escape. See? I'm very nice! Try to remember that when I'm on my 70th lap of whining about Norwegian's food.)

The great thing about cruising is that "there's something for everyone." Unfortunately, our Norwegian Pearl experience didn't meet our preferences at the level of service we'd experienced in the past.

Another adage is that "A bad day on a cruise is still better than a good day at work!" Well, yes, but I used to say something similar that went like this: "Three weeks with pneumonia is still better than putting up with 5th period freshmen!" (2011) Or, "A few hours at the dentist getting a crown replaced and - OOPS! - looks like the anastethic wore off! - is still better than 52 minutes spent with my 4th period sophomores!" (2012). Or "Striving to be the good cog in a criminally incompetent school system is better than being unemployed!" (2005-2012).

"Better" does not always equal "good enough."

We had a bunch of fun on our vacation, because that's who we are. (And there is bonding in the bitching, is there not?) I hope this trip report conveys some of our delight at seeing new places, traveling with dear family, and, particularly, being perpetually enthralled by the majesty that is Alaska.

And I hope someday, sometime, someone at Norwegian sees what I've written and initiates a few reforms. I'm too skittish to risk another Norwegian cruise myself, but the line does have some good ideas, and I'd like for them to at least do well enough to keep "the other two" on their toes.

(Shall we?)

09 December 2012 |

Previously: Dudley


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"Dudley," I asked him this morning, "aren't you going to stick around until Friday? We can celebrate the two-year anniversary of your adoption. Maybe order in some millet?"

But how could he resist the Thanksgiving feast they're putting on in Hammie Heaven? Not with those cheek pouches.

We miss you, Dudders.
Give everyone our love.

Dudley Peers Over the Wall

A Dudley in the Hand

22 November 2012 |

Previously: Julian


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Goodbye, Uncle Scuffles.
Goodbye, sweet Julian.

November 2010 (adopted) - 28 October 2012


29 October 2012 |

Previously: Roy



Roy, Roy, Roy...

Le Roy est mort. Vive le Roy.

In The Big Book of Dwarf Hamsters (7th edition, Scritchinghouse), Roy's lengthy entry contains two abbreviations worth noting: e.R. (early Roy) and l.R. (later Roy).

The earlier period refers to the first year or so of Roy's life after being adopted (at an already mature age, albeit barely), and it is mostly an enumeration of those hamsters which had to leave the Village of Bro-pals due to Roy's perpetually cranky, bossy mood. (A few contemporary scholars have cited his diabetes as a factor in his temperament, pointing to the repercussions from the deluge of territorial pee he was forced to create, but this is not a universal opinion.)

First Paul left, then Neil, then Julian and Glenn together, until it was just Roy and Dudley. Roy couldn't bully or intimidate Dudley because Dudley has never let anything in his life bother him.

Little writing exists documenting this middle, idyllic period of Roy's life. He slept here. He slept there. He always slept with Dudley. They lived in the bathroom. It was a quiet existence, their only quirk being that they liked their ceramic pumpkin hideyhole to be on its side, creating a wide door, and a bit of a Wizard of Oz effect.

How Roy Prefers It

Cauliflower grew in Roy's ears. Dudley turned grey(er). They were growing old together.

The l.R. time frame is generally acknowledged to bracket the final two months of Roy's life. Roy suffered perhaps a stroke, for he was no longer able to use his back leg for locomotion or even to hold himself upright. And yet, he still managed to scoot to wherever he wanted to go. His only limitation was that he couldn't reach the water bottle.

And so, he was watered by hand several times a day (because of the diabetes) until technology progressed to where he could be raised on a hill of fluffins throughout the day and left to enjoy the water bottle within reach. When done, he burrowed down through the fluffy, white bedding to the next napping spot.

Still, surely he could not last long.

Then he was discovered coated from neck to tail in thick goo, a viscous gel that continued to flow in measurable gobs for the following hour from a ruptured abscess. Let's not forget the powerful stink of it. A one-ham Civil War battlefield of doctorin' took place.

The end was surely near. He screamed once as his wound was cleaned, possibly the only sound he ever made in his life.

The medic on duty would not see him suffer a moment further, not even long enough to rustle up an after-hours vet. A vintage bottle of Jack Daniels' Lemonade was produced from the back of a dusty cupboard. If the booze did not kill him, perhaps the sugar would.

Roy, who had refused water, drank eagerly from the proffered capful.

And then he drifted away.

And woke two hours later, his usual, nonchalant self. Ate some seeds never looked back.

The last six weeks of Roy's life passed without incident. He scooted and slept here. He scooted and slept there. Dudley no longer slept with him. That was sad to see, but neither of them seemed to notice.

How Roy Spooks Me

Then, a few days ago, it was noticed that Roy was now actually able to lift himself up to the water bottle again. Not enough to stop the assisted drinking, but enough to get the odd sip.

And Dudley started trying to sleep with him, and vice versa. One afternoon Dudley spent over an hour trying to get into the pumpkin where Roy was. And Roy was discovered wiggling into the sand tunnel to join Dudley in his SUV.

It was like old times. I began to almost believe that our little Rasputin might even walk again. If any ham could...

In the next edition of The Big Book of Dwarf Hamsters, Roy will still have his customary noms de nom under his photo: Roysenberry. Bumblenose.

But beneath that, in italics: Fighter.


Mid-2010 (adopted November 2010) - 23 October 2012

24 October 2012 |

Previously: Clark


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Friday after Thanksgiving, 2010. SPCA. We'd come back for the job lot of older hams in the glass aquarium that we'd seen earlier in the week. They'd be a handful, but we liked handfuls.

I don't remember which of us said, "Oh, look."

We peered up to the dark shelf over our heads, a storage rack for empty cages. What we saw was a small face pressed to the bars of a tiny travel cage, watching us.

"And that one, too, of course."

The ballad of Stanley and Clark has been strummed by cowboy poets on the Steppes since before either hamster was born, but in case no scurrisome minstrel ever came to your door, this is the short of it: "Why don't we see if this little guy will get along with Stanley?"

Clark and Stanley, Friends in the Saucer

And they were best friends.

And Stanley grew old as Clark grew plump, but Clark still took his cues from Stan. If Stanley climbed on top of the cottage, Clark followed. If Stanley liked sunflower seeds, those were Clark's favourite, too. If Stanley eagerly got into the hand, Clark.... well, Clark stood nearby, not so sure, but trusting Stanley that it might not be completely awful to deal with these humans.

Clark cared for Stanley in his last days, stayed by his side, kept him warm company. When Stan left, I didn't think we'd see much of Clark. His interest in us had only ever been through Stanley.

He came out only enough to eat and drink. Why run, without Stanley? Why climb, without Stanley? Why even look at a Milkbone, without Stanley there to take the other end?

I couldn't give him a philosophical pep talk. He was only a little hamster, after all.

But eventually, Clark came out more. Soon he ran. He found the sand bath again and declared it fine. He powered storms with his saucer. He still looked at the hand like it was a guest who hadn't called first, but he'd still hop in and be patted, just as Stanley had taught him was good.

Clark, Too Fast for Focus

Our "Nutcrunch" grew older. Our "Clark Bar" became more bare. Our "Clarkle" sprouted an array of warts so alarming and never seen before on any of our brood that he became "Treebeard" for awhile, but that is another tale.

He still ran.

And then, he went to the wheel, but only to sit. And he went to the sand, but only to groom.

And eventually, he went to his bed, and he slept.


Septemberish 2010 - 20 October 2012

21 October 2012 |

Previously: A Taste for It


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A Taste for It

Thanks to a sale on a Groupon-like site, I now have another DNA test on the way to my door.

Why? Because gave me a taste for genetic genealogy, but they won't let me buy the rest of the meal. Ancestry isn't giving its customers their raw data, and while I think their test is excellent and they are well-poised (with their huge genealogy-oriented - as opposed to medically oriented - database of customers) to be the new champion in using DNA for family research, they haven't made a single noise as to whether releasing the raw data is in the works.

(They even told blogger CeCe Moore at YourGeneticGenealogist that she had to understand that they are going to prioritize changes to the current test/interface based on feedback, not based on what she wants, which implies that her repeated cries for raw data might be way down the list. The guy sounded very nice about it, which almost makes it worse. Let's face it: Ancestry is the company that runs the TV ads telling Average Joe that his amazing family history is only a click away. They're possibly not catering to the crowd that wants to compare DNA segments... although many feel that's just because said crowd is too new to genetic genealogy to know what they want yet. Heaven knows that was me six weeks ago. I had no idea how important raw data would be to me once the giddyness of a finding some good matches passed.)

The other two big companies people seem to use for autosomal tests are FamilyTreeDNA and 23andMe. Both have their merits. I wanted to get the test with FTDNA first for the following reasons: 1. They have more genealogy-oriented customers with family trees online to compare for cousin matching. (People complain about other customers at 23andMe not responding to genealogy queries because those customers only took the test for medical info.) 2. You can upgrade your test for deeper/more detailed results than what's offered at the other two companies (closer mtDNA and yDNA matching).

FTDNA even had a sale (autosomal + basic mtDNA or basic yDNA) for $249, a very nice savings over their usual $289 + $159, but I just couldn't justify it. I'm not teaching this year. Mike is finishing his student teaching and can't sub (or get a job) until his certification is complete in November. And there's all the back and forth travel between Australia and here.

Oh, and then I was walking across the parking lot and my ankle swallowed a grapefruit. Out of nowhere. Just while walking.

In other words, a sprained ankle.

The aftermath on this deserves its own post. (The short version is that the $60 office visit + $62 X-ray + $10 ACE bandage + $40 air cast + $10 second ACE bandage because the upper cast strap doesn't quite reach around my calf that has always been peasant-bulky no matter what my weight - ask me about a childhood spent unable to ever zip up cute knee boots... all of this was an unexpected expense.)

Well, the sprained ankle made me a little stir crazy. I couldn't pack. Couldn't concentrate. Was useless.  Would type about a paragraph of the Alaskan cruise trip report (See! Haven't forgotten!) and just slump over and stare at the wall. Except for having to shuffle-hop-drag myself to Roy, our ancient and diabetic dwarf hamster, every few hours to stand on one foot while he drinks for five minutes (I timed it) because he's too old to get upright enough to reach even the lowest water bottle (but too feisty and seemingly otherwise content to have put to sleep). "Roy, stop giving me perspective," I would say, sulking.

Even now I'm sitting here with my MacGuyver'd contraption on my ankle, hoping it won't shame me too much as a I hobble around the new Caesars Palace buffet next week. (Five-hundred-plus dishes! They're doing a week-long preview and Yelp "Elite" are among the invitees. I'll post my review here after it goes on Yelp. As a vegetarian taking a gluten-free friend, hopefully we'll have unique and useful points of view. Oh, and we'll be quite the pair because she's sprained her fingers and is waiting to find out if they're fractured.)

So, I was sad. And since it happened on the way to the car to go to the store, and since Mike was in Australia at the time, and since I couldn't get down the steps to the front door to take delivery from friends or pizza places, I was stuck eating the things in the pantry that are only meant to be eaten if there's an apocalypse. "Oh yes, I remember that can of soup. Bought it just before we were married."

But I did save on a week's worth of groceries, which negated the medical expenses somewhat.

And then Mike got some free online play at one of the Australian dog racing or horse racing websites. And things went... shockingly well.

So, when I saw the 23andMe deal for $225, I was tempted. But I looked away. My heart was set on FTDNA. Besides, Ancestry could suddenly offer raw data at any time, right? How long is beta supposed to last anyway?

But all that downtime meant I eventually started spending more time on Ancestry's forums, where I noticed that months were passing and no one was getting even a hint on whether or when Ancestry would be adding new features, let alone the raw data that might not even be a priority. Too much time on any internet forum will skew your perspective in silly ways, but I started thinking about how if/when Ancestry does implement new features (like a search engine, my empty Talenti jar collection for a search engine!), then those will have to be beta-tested.

It felt like a long wait was ahead.

And then I saw that there are three genes that will absolutely, positively tell if you're going to get early-onset Alzheimer's.

GIVE ME THE TEST, I hollered to my Visa card.

Okay, okay. I did a bit of research first, and it turns out that 23andMe only tells you about your risk percentage for late-onset Alzheimers. Pft. Percentage risk. I want to know about this guaranteed gene mutation for early-onset, what my mother has.

However, since 23andMe specifically says they don't give information about early-onset, and since I'm still too much of a newb to understand whether this information is discoverable within the raw data you get with an autosomal DNA test, I had to remove this justification for purchase from the table.


But just as gave me the taste for using DNA for genealogy, looking over 23andMe's site and tools like Promethease gave me a taste for wanting to know if I was point-zero-one-seven-percent more likely to smell asparagus in pee.

Sure, the cost was only a little less than the preferred FTDNA test I'd just passed up, but that sale was over and there was no getting it back. Also, I always wanted to take the 23andMe test eventually because it seems to have more medical data for Promethease to analyze. And, FTDNA now lets you import your 23andMe results (for $89), so you can benefit from their databases. (23andMe's price includes the mtDNA test as well as autosomal, so I hope the mtDNA info is also imported to FTDNA and can be upgraded. Update: Apparently you have to re-test at FTDNA for mtDNA. I don't know if the price is the same.)

Starting with 23andMe then importing into FTDNA seemed like the best of both worlds, and maybe I was meant to miss that earlier sale so I'd use this one instead.

Justify, justify.

Ah hell. I've got a birthday coming up.

So! Stay tuned for more DNA rambling. And, although we've been lucky for some weeks now and all are currently in good spirits, more hamster obituaries. And, someday, that Alaskan cruise report. (Currently it's at 16,000 words with photos plus one video... and I'm only up to embarkation morning in Seattle. Apologies in advance as the end result is - spoiler! - going to be "Alaska is beautiful. Didn't care for the regular food or staff on Norwegian. My in-laws turned out to be very nice.")

15 September 2012 |

Previously: Madeleine Aurora


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Madeleine Aurora

Feisty bar cub.
Playful gumdrop.
12 December 2010
22 August 2012


22 August 2012 |

Previously: Tagxedo Cat


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Tagxedo Cat

I just discovered Tagxedo, so I used it to make a cat-cloud of the previous post.

Tagxedo - little cat

(Speaking of the previous post, "Mary Ellen" seems to be a combination of two sisters, "Susan Ellen" and "Mary." I don't know why people are conflating them; they are two separate individuals in every census. Perhaps that's why my DNA match didn't list Mary at all - too much drama. Genealogy really is a blood sport in more ways than one.)

18 August 2012 |


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Mary, Mary... Where Ya Hidin'?

Before the next pet obituary pops up, let's get in another genealogy/DNA post. Am I even trying to type up a trip report for the Alaska cruise, you ask? Yes! Trying! But - despite the contradictory evidence of my previous cruise reports - the writing requires some brain cells to be firing, and lately my brain in a loop of "pack, recover with a game of Bubble Witch, hit reload on the DNA results, pack some more." And "pack" is more like "drag shit out from every corner and make apartment look like an episode of Hoarders so that each packed box will be thematically consistent" followed by "then photograph the about-to-be-packed object and enter it under its appropriate category in the Itemizer app on the iPad so that when all this aforementioned shit falls off the container ship in the middle of the Pacific, as happens to containers every single year, I'll have not just my dim memories but also a photo of that skirt I used to love so much, the one with the mirrors along the embroidered hem."

(Followed by "hide behind computer on sofa, conveniently out of sight line of main packing zone, and pretend that having the again aforementioned shit covering the entire apartment in an incredibly tidy way isn't gnawing at my very soul" because, listen, there may be more desert dust on my furniture than I can keep up with on a daily basis, but organized-and-in-the-closet is a fetish of mine.)

But yes, the genealogy.

The other day something great happened: I may have found an incredibly promising lead on my great-grandmother's grandmother, the closest relative whose family is missing in my tree. I've been searching for her a long time, and my grandmother Mimi (who just passed away a few months ago) was always very keen to know the story of her mother's mother's people. This is (a poor scan from the .GIF days of) her grandmother, Mary E. Stark. (At right, seated with bouquet.)

Portrait - Stark, Mary


It was Mimi's birthday, actually, when this all went down. As I've mentioned before, when I look at my matches, quite a few "private" trees pop up. People set their trees to private for various reasons, the merits and misunderstandings surrounding which aren't worth discussing. It's their tree; it's their rules.'s recommendation is that you contact people with private trees and ask for access.

I have 997 DNA matches as of this afternoon. If my tree were private, and those 997 matches messaged me asking for access or more information or whatever, my head would go kablooey. Even if you didn't have to scrape my noggin-bits off the ceiling with a spatula, I'd have a hard time replying to those 997 people (and this is just from the past three weeks - what happens when this DNA test is out of beta and available to all?) in any kind of a timely manner. Why do I bring this up? We'll get there.

Of my 997 matches, at least 158 are private trees. I have to say "at least" because Ancestry doesn't have a way to sort by private/public. I can only sort by unopened, starred, and "everything," and this week three of my 53 starred matches made their trees private. If that stat is typical, then about another ~24 trees or so have probably gone private. (A quick scan of my first page of "everything" results does, in fact, show a few trees I'd previously looked over are now private.) So, let's say about 18% of results are private. Again, why am I pondering these numbers? We'll get there.

One thing I do every few days is quickly scan through my (currently seven) pages listing unopened matches to see if anyone has made their tree visible. The 348 unopened matches I have this afternoon include the 158 private trees and 112 matches who do not have a tree linked to their results. The remainder is made up of those whose trees are too small at the moment to regard as likely or unlikely.

So there it was, Mimi's birthday. I'd already called my Dad and moved on, though, and wasn't thinking about this when I did my scan of the unopened pages and, hey, newly unlocked tree!

I opened it up. It was a Low confidence match, but I've already discussed how many of my promising matches come from the Low/Very Low range. (It only makes sense, since there are so many of them.) We had for surnames in common: "Newton," "Perry," "Stark," and "Young." Sigh - all common names. I'm shocked there wasn't also Brown, Davis, Harris, Jones, Smith, Thomas, Thompson, Williams, and so on because, believe me, most of my matches seem to have them. (And I dutifully open each one, as you should. You never know.)

When I clicked on "Stark" and saw it was in Louisiana, I paused. Hold on now. This could be something.

Here's a good place to tell you what I know about my Mary E. Stark.

The first time I saw the photo above, my grandmother said, "That's Mamaw's mother with her sisters and her father. I think it was her wedding day. I think she may have come from Mississippi."

Later, as I was hip-deep in nothing in my research of Mary Stark, I asked Mimi why she thought it was Mary's wedding day. (She didn't know but guessed it was because she had the bouquet while the other girls had single flowers.) I asked her why she thought Mary might be from Mississippi. (She didn't know.)

On the census, Mary's children always said their mother was born in Louisiana. However, Mary died when they were infants, and Mary's husband (Frank Rials) went on to marry twice again. He'd also been married once before. All three of the other wives were definitely born in Louisiana. The fourth wife raised Mary's kids from childhood. They called her "Big Mom." With the usual allowances for census error thrown in as well, I wouldn't take what was said to the censustaker as gospel.

But still, I had no clue.

Other than two more clues, that is. I knew when Mary and Frank married and where: 1888 in Saint Landry Parish. A time and a location, huzzah! Yeah, except Frank had been in Caldwell Parish a few years before and would be in Rapides Parish (and remain there) a few years later, so he was a bit of a scooting man. Who's to say he didn't court a woman across the Louisiana/Mississippi border. Or even just across the Saint Landry Parish border. It's a great lead, but again, dangerous to restrict yourself to this place and time.

Mamaw's father (Frank) kept three of his marriage licenses (and his first wife's first marriage license) folded up in a little cigar box. Mamaw inherited them, then Mimi inherited them from her. Mimi made many copies for everyone. She was wonderful at sharing all family documents, videos, and so on. If she thought you cared, she'd make you a copy. She had an office in her bedroom closet from which she ran her ministry, so typing, faxing, copying - all this was in her bailiwick.

After Mimi passed away, I made a hi-res scan of the original, which of course I will share (my "of course" is foreshadowing):

Marriage - Rials and Stark

It's this document which gives Mary her middle initial. Her name and the date of her death in 1895 comes from the Rials Family Bible, which my grandmother gave to me as a gift about 15 years ago. I copied all the data from it then put the Bible in my mother's fireproof safe. I wish I'd made a scan because I regret to say that I don't know where the Bible is now. Hopefully it was moved along with the rest of my parents' stuff (so much of which has yet to be unboxed). However, my mother developed early Alzheimer's, and although I know my Dad made sure all the sentimental stuff was saved when they sold much of their property and moved, I can just imagine that safe getting accidentally left behind and unopened, sitting among the ephemera of a family business that did not end well. I can also imagine that safe being carefully preserved and stored with the ceiling-high piles of boxes my father has in storage. It's a bit of a Schrodinger's Bible at this point. Best not to think about it. I just wanted to explain that why you have to trust my eyewitness account of the family Bible's information and not yell out "Screenshot or it didn't happen!"

In other and related nerd references, and because I think today is the day I'll pack all of my mid-90s dot-com T-shirts and my recent Woot T-shirts into a big box of nerdy goodness, here's a Woot shirt I own and like:


Mood lightened, let's continue.

So, let's recap: I had a photo, a name and death date from a family Bible, a middle initial and marriage date/place from a marriage license, and two hazy maybes from my grandmother's recollection.

I found possible matches in the 1880 census for a Mary Stark (or M. Stark, or Starks, or even E. Stark, or Maria, or Mariah, and so on - you know how the census is), but without knowing her birth date or if Frank was even her first husband, they could be mine or not mine at all. Certainly no Stark family in the known or adjacent parishes was catching my eye.

If you're a genealogist at all, you've already started clucking your tongue. Or, if like me, muttering profanities that go like this: "The %^$#% 1890 census! %^$#! ^&%^$ to hell!"

If you're not a genealogist, maybe you don't know about what happened to the 1890 census. I'd tell you myself but then I'd get all riled up, which is what keeps happening when I try to type my cruise report. Right now I'm stuck on our night in Portland two days before the cruise and how hipsters ruined the elevator for everyone. Anyway.

If the 1890 census had survived (if ^&%#^ dumbass bureaucrats hadn't destroyed it - argh! - mustn't think!), I would've found Mary and Frank together, two years married and my Mamaw just a baby. The census would've told me Mary's age, her birthplace, and where her parents were born. Yeah. This is why you don't talk about the 1890 census around genealogists, okay? Or if you do, use it as a way to gain favor with them by swearing and lamenting appropriately.

I've said that Frank married twice more after Mary. He also had one more child, my Uncle Verna. Here's a picture of Uncle Verna with Mary's two sons, my Mamaw's brothers, Dan and Cole.

Portrait - Rials, Dan, Verna, and Cole

Dan, at left, was a dry cleaner. Verna eventually lived with him and his wife (they were childless) and worked in the store. Cole went to Angola for shooting the man his wife was sleeping with. Uncle Verna told me it wasn't so much for the murder, but for the way he reloaded and kept going. After getting out of Angola (where he was enumerated in the 1930 census), Cole went to work with Uncle Dan as well. (Something I didn't know until yesterday when a 1936 city directory for Shreveport came online. See, genealogy is never done. The fact that I haven't put Uncle Dan's brilliant World War I diary with photos online is proof enough.)

I digress, though. Uncle Verna and I entered a correspondence in the late 1990s before he passed away, and he couldn't tell me anything else about Mary. I've never met a descendant of Frank's first wife who could, either. I did all of the usual searches: succession records, newspaper articles, cemetery records - oh, the amount of microfilm I sent for and pored over! Mary didn't exist online in anyone's tree back then, but today you can find her dead-end history in scores of trees, all originating with when I first started sharing my family history online in 1995. That makes searching for descendants who might know something a bit irritating at times, but as someone who keeps notes on distant cousins myself, I can't complain.

(Although I do wish people would cite their sources - not because it's "mine" but because it leads to better research - but that's a battle we're not going to win for the foreseeable future.)

So. Mary. The big brick wall. Unless someone someday found a diary or letter from a relative who mentioned Mary in an identifiable manner - and hey, it could happen - things did not look good. Things have been sitting around not looking good for almost 20 years.

There was a brief hum of "Hmmm" some years back when I was staring at that marriage license, stumped as always. Then I noticed this signature:

Signature - JT Scott

And I thought, "I've seen that before."

I looked around my other records and found it:

Marriage Bond - Stockman and Smit

Ah. Okay, so we've been talking about Mamaw's parents, right? Mamaw was married to Dadaw (yes, they have real names but I'm not making you learn them right now). This is the marriage bond for Dadaw's parents in Rapides Parish, 1883, five years before Frank and Mary were married.

I remember calling Mimi. Hey Mimi, the person who was security for Dadaw's parents' marriage was a witness at Mamaw's parents' marriage. I guess they knew each other even before the Rials family moved to Rapides Parish.

But, honestly, that didn't necessarily mean much. It was a smaller world in those days. All these parishes butt right up against each other, you know? In fact, although Mary and Frank were married in Saint Landry Parish, when I went to look up Frank's residence in Saint Landry in 1900 (because "Police Jury Ward 6" on the census form doesn't mean much to me), I found that it was around Turkey Creek.

But wait, Turkey Creek is in Evangeline Parish. I know this because Cole, Mary's wayward child, died there. (Once, in the course of my research, the mayor of Turkey Creek once left a message on my machine saying he knew of Cole and thought he had a daughter. I've never found the daughter, but it does point out that we're dealing with small places, even today.) Ahh, but Evangeline Parish wasn't formed until 1910... from Saint Landry. (I remember my elderly cousin Gracie saying, on one of Mimi's videos, how her family was asked which parish they'd prefer to live in when the government was setting its boundaries.)

So really, Mamaw's parents and Dadaw's parents lived a straight north-west shot of 16 miles away from each other by modern roads. No surprise that they ran in the same circles. In fact, Mamaw's other half-brother married one of Dadaw's sisters. Now, if only one of them had married a Stark!


So let's appear to digress once again and talk about this J.T. Scott. I must admit that I had so much clear information on Dadaw's side of the family that I didn't really feel a need to find out who J.T. Scott was. I know that may appall some people, especially those of you who only work on a few branches of your family tree. Me, I want to know about it all, so there's not much incentive to scrape into the corners for scraos when the story is already well formed and so many other lines needed my attention more.

Still, it wasn't too much longer before I realized that "J.T. Scott" was probably the half-brother of Dadaw's father. The family history said that his name "Rough Scott." I had seen him in the 1850 census as a baby as "Zachary Taylor Scott." I didn't see him in the 1860 census (remember the days of cranking through census pages by hand without an index), and in the 1870 census he seemed to be the same "J.T. Scott," but since Dadaw's father and siblings were scattered after their mother (and each of her three husbands) died, it could also be some relation to his half-brother. You have to be careful with assumptions, etc etc.

At some point I did find him in 1860, saw that he was enumerated as John, made a note of it, and carried on with life. Looked like he changed his name to John (his father's name) after his father died. So J. T. Scott on the marriage bond was probably the half-brother. Okie doke. Brother or friend, we already knew it was a small world.

In recent years, having a bit more time to revisit the collateral lines plus having the ease of synching Family Tree Maker with Ancestry (and receiving thousands of "hints" to explore), I found "Ruff Scott" in the 1880 census. He was married to a woman named Narcissa. "Huh," I thought. See, I had two more pieces of information passed down from Gracie about Ruff: one, he died from drowning. Two, he married a woman named Eliza.

But, again, you know how it is with the census. Her name could be Narcissa Elizabeth or he could have another wife or Gracie could be wrong - blah blah blah. Again, lots of "hints" to explore, not a lot of motivation to sort out the wives and descendants of my great-grandfather's half-uncle while there are more immediate relatives and hotter leads to explore. (I'm not saying I don't want all of this info, but I do have other interests in life, not to mention work, family, critters... Don't be armchair quarterbackin' my methods, y'all.)

Now let's come back to my grandmother's birthday. This person's tree is made public. I see the name Stark. Expecting another dead end, I see that her Starks were in central Louisiana. Interesting. But I've looked at central Louisiana Stark families before and came up with nada. It's just one of those fairly common names that you will run across everywhere. Look at Game of Thrones.

I noticed, though, that her ancestor was born in Mississippi. Hm. Well, that is interesting.

I noticed that her Stark ancestor was married in Rapides Parish. Okay. Tell me more.

I noticed that her Stark ancestor had several sisters. Interesting..

I scanned their names and dates. No Mary, and they all died decades after she did, and they all had first and middle names, which ruled out not only Mary being a middle name but Mary perhaps causing a scandal so great that her husband marked her as dead in the family Bible, but really she went on to live a full life while her children thought she was dead. (Not a story I wanted to embrace, but my mind was open.)

Sigh. It was a Low confidence match. I shouldn't hope for much.

Still, perhaps Mary was a cousin to the ancestor. Forget the DNA side of things - here were some Starks in central Louisiana that I hadn't ruled out before. Of course I should keep looking further up the tree.

Alas, the tree only went one generation further. I looked at the patriarch, born in Alabama but usually enumerated in Mississippi. I clicked on one of his census links. Maybe there would be another family of Starks nearby, a family I'd looked at before but couldn't see the connection.

But all I had to do was look at his family. There he was. There was the match's ancestor. There were all the sisters she'd listed. And there was another sister. Named Mary.

Holy smackoli.

I checked the other censuses. Mary in 1860. Mary in 1870. M.L. in 1880. (Forget the L! We all know you never rule someone out because records appear to have different middle initials.)

A Mary Stark. From Mississippi. With several sisters. And a mother who apparently was out of the picture (literally, in my case, and not on the 1880 census). With a connection to central Louisiana in the 1880s.

Okay. Okay. (My mouth as my brain spins.) Okay. Calm down, Shari. "Mary" is about a common a name as it gets. Why wasn't Mary listed as a sister, though, when she's right here in the census and called "daughter" of the head of household?

I decided to look at the other sisters in my DNA match's family tree.

And I saw that one sister, Eliza, married a John Taylor Scott. In Rapides Parish. In 1884. And? They had a son named Levi.

Dadaw's half-uncle J.T. Scott aka Rough Scott aka Zachary Taylor Scott was raised by a stepfather named Levi before he died a few years later and his mother then married Dadaw's grandfather. Levi would've been the only father he remembered until he was 11 years old.

I checked the Rapides Parish marriage records. There it was: J.T. Scott married Eliza Starks (note the variant). Well, I'll be. Had I seen this before? If so, it must've been before I'd noticed J.T. Scott's signature.

But even if I'd gone looking for the wife of the half-brother whose signature was on the marriage documents of two sets of gg-grandparents years before their children married, I wouldn't have found her parents. Matching an Eliza Stark of unknown age to the right Stark family in the 1880 census would've been just as fruitful as hunting for all the Mary Starks. Not just common names, but Eliza's family was never enumerated in Louisiana. I would've felt like I was getting into sketchy territory. Rough Scott was dead by the 1900 census, and all of his 1880 census children were grown. Yes, there's an Eliza Scott in the 1900 census, a widow (and it has turned out to be the same Eliza), but at this point, not knowing then what I know now, it would've still been a far-afield search for connections that I've only recently had time to consider making. I'm not going to beat myself up (too much) over not trying harder to follow such a trail.

Furthermore, my DNA match seems to be the only person on the internet researching this family. Kind of like I'm apparently the only person researching Mary. I've since seen one other researcher, who lists Mary as a sister and calls her "Mary Ellen," but this researcher has no sources and has some odd info, like not having all of the sisters from the census, and giving them a mother born after the oldest sister. Still, where there's smoke there's fire - perhaps his or her version plus the census will tell the whole story.

And she says that Mary Ellen died in Louisiana. I'll be writing her tonight. Maybe she's the one with the family story that changes everything.

Of course I have written to my DNA match, but she hasn't logged on for a week. When she does, she'll probably be overwhelmed with correspondence (since her tree was private) plus sorting through all of her new matches. (They come daily for me.) Still, I hope I hear from her soon. Why does she document everything so well but not list Mary as a sister?

So, I have a lead. A good lead. Or a frustrating coincidence. Mary E. Stark... maybe Mary Ellen Stark? It's your time to shine. I've got a good feeling about this.

I spoke of foreshadowing up above, and I ran all of those numbers for a reason, but I also spoke of time. A better blogger would carefully edit out all that business and save it for another post, a post in which she makes a case for just staying the heck away from genealogy message boards where people see you make suggestions for ways to share trees in a way that's good for DNA matches but without giving up much privacy or even data and interpret it to mean OMG SHE WANTZ TO STEALINS OUR DATA AND LOOK AT OUR PRECIOUS STUFF AND MAKE PUBLIC TREES MANDATORY AND ALSO PUT ALL OUR BANK ACCOUNT NUMBERS ARE ON FACEBOOK AND MAKE US HAVE ABORTIONS WHILE PRAYING TO HEATHEN GODS... yes, it got that bizarre, illiterate, and hysterical. But as I often say, that's a story for another day. I've got to chase my Mary!

And pack. Alas, "chasing my Mary" feels like a metaphor for packing - work and work and nary a dent made. But now, hope for Mary and boxes both!

18 August 2012 |

Previously: Vanessa


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The one and only Fox-Eared Cleopatra has returned to the Sky Tower for a permanent engagement.

We remember her with this wee retrospective.

Madeleine and Vanessa

Vanessa, No!

Vanessa - Holiday Side

Vanessa Is All Ears

Vanessa, Hopping in Her Saucer

And then there were nine.

07 August 2012 |


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My DNA Test: Part 2 (Genetic Ethnicity)

For (sick, nerdy) grins, before my DNA results were in, I made a spreadsheet to try to predict my genetic ethnicity. But first, I did a bit of reading.

In my experience, there are two things that seem to really confuse people about genealogy: cousins and percentages.

I could-should-will do a post someday on how many arguments I've weathered over figuring out cousins. "But he's older, so he can't be my cousin. He must be my uncle." (No.) "If she is my grandmother's first cousin, she must be my third cousin." (No.) "Everyone is probably 4th cousins with each other." (NO.)

But that's another post, one where we could talk about cultural labels ("aunt" and "uncle" as honorifics for all older relatives regardless of relationship) and how English is missing some cool nuances, such as distinguishing between the sister-in-law who married your brother and the sister-in-law who came from the same womb as your spouse. For now, let's talk about percentages.

People say things like, "I'm a quarter Irish, a quarter Polish, and half Italian." It's a nice shorthand way of sharing your cultural influences and identity, especially if you're an American with ancestors who immigrated recently.

But the problem happens when people take their cultural identity as a sort of genetic gospel. I've been reading discussion forums on Ancestry and comments on genealogy blogs about other sites offering DNA tests, and I - a newb myself to these things - just want to bang my head. Over and over I see something like this:

"I had my test done with Company X and it was a RIP-OFF! Don't use them! My great-grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee and my Mom's side of the family is 100% Swiss, and neither of these showed up!"

A great blog is The Genetic Genealogist, and their "Everyone Has Two Family Trees" post is a must-read. (Please read it if you really care about such things because I'm about to do some simultaneous over-simplifying and rambling convoluting. It's a gift.)

My argument is that many of us actually have three trees.

Tree #1: Cultural Identity

When I was growing up, I asked my mother what we were. Living in the suburbs and, later, exburbs of Detroit, I felt surrounded by a variety of geography-based cultural influences. Polish, Scandinavian, Italian, Russian, French, New York (heh)... (It took a teaching career in an 80 % Hispanic school in Nevada to "learn" that these are all just boring, bland, blank shades of "white" and thus not valid for inclusion in a discussion on multiculturalism. GRRR...) But as far as I could tell, I really was "just white." I couldn't detect a cultural identity in myself based on location. My parents spoke with Southern accents, and none of my friends knew what gumbo was, but otherwise I was a Midwestern girl, a non-participant in my people's rituals except during summer visits to Texas, when things would get really Jesus-y.

My mom said told me I was English, Irish, French, German, and Indian. (We said Indian back then. You know what we meant.) Okie dokie.

It felt right. I didn't ask how she knew. Over the years I became very attracted to different aspects of English and Irish culture, but I don't think it's because I had some notion that they fit into my story. France, too, but less so because of the language barrier. German? Not really. (Is it because I didn't take German in high school? Never saw BOOP! filmstrips BOOP! of its famous landmarks?) Indian? It was the most romantic prospect of them all, but I had some unfocused idea that probably every American had a bit of Indian in them. (If only.)

Weaksauce as it was, that was my first tree. For other people, the links to the old country are a lot stronger. Their paper or DNA genealogies may say something different, but they feel connected to the food, customs, language, and so forth of whatever branches their cultural tree has. It's kind of like religion. You could have three Catholic grandparents, but if they're all dead and you only spend time with your Lutheran grandfather, you're going to feel much more Lutheran.

When I got into genealogy and was pumping my mom for specifics on how she knew we were English, Irish, etc., I was disappointed. It turns out she was mostly guessing based on surnames, possibly carrying on speculation of those before her. Her great-grandmother would put on a brogue at her request, so Mom had assumed she was Irish. (Note: She was born in Arkansas and was at least a 4th-generation American.) Stories about Native American ancestry flitted about, but as years passed some of those stories turned out to be about people who married aunts or cousins, not our ancestors.

In short, nobody really knew. When I started doing genealogy, I was repeatedly warned that there was nothing to be known beyond a few generations, led to believe that my family faded away from Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas into the Kentucky/Mississippi/Missouri mists, their origins forever lost.

My great-granduncle (Pat, mentioned in the last post), was considered the best hope. "My mother was very English, very proper," he said, idolizing the woman who'd died when he was a child. "My father was Irish. He ran away and sailed to Ireland and learned all about our family, the Irish ancestor who took his wife's name to escape the law."

For five years or so, I heard through the grapevine that this was a true family story. Then I actually met Pat, and we became besties, and he admitted that maybe he'd embellished or misremembered some details over the years. My research showed that if either his mother or father were very English or Irish, it was several generations back. (But I did finally find an Irish link before he died. His father's mother's mother's mother was described in a census as being born in Ireland, but her name remains unknown to me. AND she married a Smith. Arrrrrrgh!)

In short (way too late), Tree #1 is your emotional attachment to geography. I understand why people are reluctant to let it go, even when nothing in a DNA test can invalidate your cultural identity.


Tree #2: The Map of Paper Trails

The second tree is the one that says Grandma was born in this year, in this place, and she married this guy, and they lived here, and here are their children, and these were their parents - repeat as far as possible in every direction, hoping to fill in the beautiful mural of the context of you as time goes on.

Since my family couldn't pass along non-USA geography-centered traditions (not to disparage the gumbo or the Jesus), I couldn't wait to see what the historical records would say.

Well, I've said it before and I'll say it again. Bring on the chorus of dancing Springsteens because I (and the next five generations) were all boooorrrrrn in the USA, boooorrrrn in the USA. (And that greatx4 grandfather born in England was a bare blip on a boooorrrrn in the USA radar.)

As I mentioned at the top of this post, I tried to predict what the ethnicity results might be for my DNA test, and to do this I looked at my paper trail. By the eight generation, when I only had a few known non-USA ancestors, I turned into my mom and started making guesses based on surnames, or on those ancestors I knew of further up the tree (fractional percent of the tree though they may represent).

The best I could do was this:

Original predicted ethnicity

(I tried to use the same groupings as, thus "British Isles" instead of English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh.)

It's funny, though, because in my research, which nationalities have showed up loud and proud first? English. Irish. French. German. My mother always did have good instincts.

But when I start looking at the bigger picture, so much is still unknown. That's why, once again, I have to shake my head at those people who curse their DNA tests for being "clearly" inaccurate. I've looked at 600+ trees over the past week, and - not to be boastful about something that often comes down to luck - my ancestral tree goes back further than most. (We're talking documented ancestors. Don't get me started.)If I have that much "unknown" in my tree in the first eight generations when those first eight generations are mostly complete, less-complete trees are full of at least as much possibility. It's not because I have all those USA people, either. Migration and intermarriage are not a USA exclusive.

(Of course, those people's DNA tests may very well be inaccurate; I'm just arguing against assumptions based on what percent ethnicity people perceive to be in their trees. It's easy to forget how fast just a few blank spots can multiply.)

Despite all of my reading on the fallability of DNA tests (or rather, the interpretation of DNA tests), and despite those blanks in my tree, and despite having a firm idea of how culture and historical records and DNA were three separate things, I still "felt" like I knew what my results would probably be. Probably a lot of British Isles and Central European with a touch of Scandinavian, right?


Tree #3: You and Only You

Unless a person is an identical twin, siblings don't look just alike. They inherit different traits (or don't) in differing amounts (or not at all) from each parent. So why do people expect to have inherited all of their ancestors' DNA? Probably for the same crazy reason that people act like they know their entire tree and overlook the influence of empty branches. The emotional attachments developed in Tree #1 stay with us.

The aforementioned Genetic Genealogist has another great post, this one discussing how you may take autosomal DNA tests with three different companies and seem to get three very different results, but it's not that the tests are different, just the interpretations.

As GG points out, different countries have different databases. Those databases are constantly being refined. (Ancestry points this out in the test results, meaning that as time passes, my ethnicity results WILL change.) Some entries in the database are imperfect, too. I can't find the article right now, but some of those entries came from people here in the States being gathered, tested, and asked to provide a four-generation genealogy. Well, who's to say that this person's genetic input didn't mostly come from a few empty branches in the fifth generation? They're reporting "England, England, England," unaware of, say, an Egyptian great-great-grandmother. The more people who test, the more such anomalies are rustled up and properly re-categorized.

Understanding as much about migration as possible is important, too. Expecting French but your results say Scandinavian? Blame the Vikings. If your results say Italian, blame the Romans. And so on. And those are just the big sweeps we know about. Small migrations happened all the time (look at how the USA was formed - we didn't invent the idea of moving elsewhere for a better life), right down to the far-off ancestor whose journey was never recorded for the annals.

(And then there's the DNA problem of the far-off ancestor's wife, who may have been a little too sweet on the local goatherd while her husband was at war. But none of us like to think about that because that's a brick wall built for the ages. So, shhh.)

The GG post mentions another post that says at the 10th generation, only around 10-12% of our ancestors in Tree #2 may show up in Tree #3.

I just created a 10-generation ancestor report for myself. That's 1024 theoretical ancestors, but my greatx4 grandparents were cousins, and who knows how many times other relatives married? So I don't know how many distinct ancestors are in the first 10 generations, but in my database I only have 357 names so far.

In other words, I only know ~35% of my ancestors through the first 10 generations. (Which is actually a good-size amount.) That means 65% of my family tree between me and my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather is a mystery. And that means that, even though the world was once a smaller, less connected place where people didn't move around as much, you can't be surprised by what shows up in your Tree #3. Sixty-five percent is a wide enough door for all kinds of unexpected people to slip through, and for all I know, most of my DNA is coming from that big 65% hole.

Delving back into Tree #2 kind of talk, by the 10th generation, these are the known countries in my tree:

  • Belgium
  • Canada
  • England
  • Finland (one 10th-generation ancestor)
  • France
  • Germany
  • Ireland
  • Scotland
  • Spain (one 10th-generation ancestor)
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland (one 10th-generation ancestor)
  • USA

In fact, these are the only countries anywhere in my tree, unless you count some early medieval locations.

So, imagine my surprise:

Ancestry pie chart

I don't recall which happened first: boggling over what it said or boggling over what it didn't.

The hefty presence of the British Isles is no surprise. (I hope someday they can categorize it further. If only Ancestry allowed you to download your raw data. Sigh.) But I definitely wasn't expecting the total lack of Central European (France/Germany) genetic markers. (I assume they're somewhere in the 3% Uncertain.)

But the big news is that there's a whole new texture of white bread on the table. Eastern European? Does this mean I can finally live up to my (Hungarian) name?

And an entire 7% Finnish/Volga-Ural, aka Russian? Is my one known Finnish ancestor behind this? (The spotlight swings to Hendrick Andersson, who arrived in New Sweden - aka Delaware - in 1654, a blacksmith who lived in the Finnish community there until his death 40 years later.)

Or does it come from my great x 32 grandmother, Anna of Kiev?

Back to the big chunk of Eastern European. Mike's theory: "You're part gypsy." Me: "We prefer the term 'travelers,' thanks."

Not to indulge in silly stereotypes, but sure, why not, could be. Could be lots of things. I wonder how close the connection is. I wonder which country. (Did you know that 99% of Estonia's population is blue-eyed? And all blue-eyed people are said to be related to a common ancestor from 6000 years ago?) Are we talking deep-East (maybe tying in to the Finnish/Volga-Ural), or just on the border?

Will I ever know?

05 August 2012 |



I know about the cultural labels. In my own country that's what we do. Everybody above a certain age is addressed with some sort of title in front of their name as a mark of respect.

It applies to young people too. Even if they are not a blood relative you may still refer to woman in your own age group as "sister".

You did a lot of work on your ancestry report. I wonder how much you would have charged to do that for someone? Lol, lots of money.

Ron Miller

Had fun with your writing. I've been researching my ancestors for 30 years to the point that I've gone to live in the UK for two years,(my grandfather came from Kent, England with his parents and grandparents), then France for a year, and Germany for a year. I just got my results back: 50% Central Europe, 50% Scandinavian. This is clearly wrong. My pre-estimate was 53% Central Europe, 47% British Isles. Besides my 100% English maternal grandfather (I have his line back on many, many branches to 1600 and even some to the 1300s), his wife came from colonial American stock with a few German Quaker ancestors who came over to join William Penn. Most of my English ancestors had old English surnames from the Saxon days with a few who would have come with William the Conqueror - oh, and I come from a boring family of long livers and long marriages. I have hundreds of known, well documented ancestors and not a single one from anywhere near Scandinavia. also provided me with a long list of fourth cousins with 95% confidence and I didn't find a single common ancestor. Is this a scam?


" Most of my English ancestors had old English surnames from the Saxon days "
You clearly have some genes from Viking/Norman incursions. The English are a very mixed group.

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My DNA Test

Last week I was idly checking for my DNA results, as I had done every day since my drool departed for Utah, even though results weren't expected until the end of August.

Well, Surrrrprise!, surrrprise!, as Gomer Pyle always said. The results were in!


I don't know why I'm blocking out my last name. Since saying sayonara to my stateside schoolmarm (ack, can't think of another s-word!), um, career, keeping my Google-ability low is no longer important. Harmless habit, I suppose.

So, what you're looking at here is the DNA status page. It shows how I'm displaying my name (choice of real name or user name) to other users; it shows who in my uploaded family tree is linked to the results (me); and it has a link to where I can control things, like if other matches can see unshared components of my predicted genetic ethnicity, etc. (The rationale behind hiding one's predicted genetic ethnicity is probably worthy of a long and dry essay by some sociologist.)

I clicked "View" and, as the page loaded, had the same two reactions I had when I received my first letter from Uncle Pat, my grandfather's uncle and - for too brief a time - one of my best friends. 1. Should I wash my hair? 2. Should I grab some chocolate?

These are, in fact, my standard reactions to anything momentous where I suspect I'm going to be settling in to the sofa for awhile, making sense of it all. Same thing happened when I realized I was going to see porn for the first time. I paused the video, went to the kitchen and made some cake batter, then returned, big bowl and spoon in hand. (I didn't worry about my hair because I was a vain teen in those days; I had stupid hair, yes, but it was always squeaky clean... palmfuls of mousse aside.)

On this occasion I soldiered through without the sensory festive accoutrements of coconut conditioner smell and milk chocolate in my throat. Would there be matches? What kind of matches? Close matches? Distant matches? Would I find out something new?

And what about my ethnicity? What would I be? Would I be Nordic? Would I be Celtic? Would I find fortune rewriting Que Sera, Sera?

There were matches! Twelve new cousins in the 4th-6th cousin range topped the list, with 95-96% probability. It looked a bit like this:


(Although not quite like that because I've matched to a third cousin since then.)

Via the dropdown box and sliding bar at the top of the page, users can filter results to show everything, or only certain degrees of probable relationship, or only unopened matches (this quickly became a critical feature), or only favourites (see the gold stars? I "fave" the ones where I know how we are related). Sorting is either by relationship (if you want to see the best/closest matches first) or by date (to just see the latest matches).

Sorting by date has also become critical for me because I keep four pages of matches "unread." That's over 200 matches. Why? Because:


Grrr. People with locked trees. Grrr. Or no tree linked at all. (Hopefully something they'll fix as they realize it affects their own results.)

True, those matches in the screenshot above are "Moderate," meaning it's pretty much a coin toss as to whether they're related. A little worse, actually. More like 40% chance of being related, 60% chance of nuh-uh. However, I've found enough matches in the "Moderate" and even "Low" and "Very Low" sections to know it's worth looking at everything.

Of my initial 12 "High" matches, three had hidden trees. I asked all of these people if they wouldn't mind looking at my tree for possible matches. (Ancestry suggests that you ask them to invite you to see their private tree, but that felt very forward.) Two of the people invited me to their tree. The other has never responded (although she logs in daily). Grumble.

I have been (block your ears because my own horn is about to toot) a vigorous beta tester (this DNA test is new for Ancestry, although the test itself has been around awhile), sending in feedback and suggestions at such a rate that I expect a job offer soon, or a visit from a couple of guys with pipe wrenches. One thing I've suggested is the option for people to make their private trees visible to DNA matches, or at least close DNA matches. This would save a lot of "Can I see your tree?" awkwardness, followed by the person having to manually verify that you're a DNA match, then having to navigate the tree-sharing interface, which apparently can be difficult if you don't know to send it to the person's user name, not their display name.

As with existing private tree sharing protocol, all information about the living would be blocked.


Further down, I'll list some of the other suggestions I've made. If you're an user who has taken the test and agrees with my suggestions, I urge you to chime in with feedback. (The feedback button is on all the DNA-related pages, upper right corner.) That way Ancestry will know what's important to users. After all, it's in our best interest for Ancestry to offer an amazing DNA test product. More customers for them = more matches for us. (Especially since Ancestry doesn't allow users to download their DNA data for use on third-party sites. That's definitely a suggestion worth making. Other companies do allow this, but their tests also cost a bunch more. Perhaps data download could be an optional extra fee?)

So, when I looked at those "High" matches, I found that one of them had a "hint" for how we related.


(This is actually a more recent match - that lone third cousin from a day or two ago. The info is blocked out because this is my mother's side of the family, and even though I never-ever give my mother's actual maiden name on all those occasions when you're asked to provide it for security purposes, and even though finding out her maiden name is quite easy, why court fuss?)

(And no, it's not "Lewis." Heh.)

At this writing, I have 16 pages of matches, or about 800 matches overall.


Subtracting 200 hidden/nonexistent trees, of the 600 matches left over, I've had about six of these hints. (Actually a few more, but they were so clearly unrelated that I reported them to Ancestry as bugs.) I think it was six. You have to open each match to see whether there is a hint, which is actually rather boggling. (Hang for a minute while I go make another suggestion...)

Here's how those Shared Ancestor Hints played out:

High3rd cousin (1R)10Brackin Lewis, greatx3 gf
High6th cousin (1R)16Jesse Stanley, greatx6 gf
Moderate6th cousin (1R)16John Simmons, greatx6 gf
Moderate6th cousin (2R)17John Stanley, greatx7 gf
Low5th cousin (1R)14Nathaniel Preston, greatx4 gf
Low5th cousin (2R)15William Coker, greatx6 gf
Low7th cousin (1R)18Edward Grantham, greatx7 gf
Low7th cousin (1R)18William Nodding, greatx7 gf
Very Low5th cousin (1R)14Benjamin Knotts, greatx5 gf
Very Low4th cousin (3R)14William Coker, greatx6 gf
Very Low7th cousin17Peter Stalcop, greatx6 gf

("1R" = "once removed," etc. By "Links," I mean how many people, total, are there starting with me, going up to the common ancestor, and then going back down to the DNA match. I was going to say "degrees of separation," but then I never know if that means counting yourself and the end person or not.)

For some of these matches, my traditional paper/oral evidence was good and likely, possibly even strong, but not quite explicit enough for my taste. The reassurance of the DNA match - especially when I see that the other researcher used a different trail to make the same conclusion - is a thrill indeed.

You might notice that William Coker is my shared ancestor with two of these matches. (Ah, good ole Buck Coker, of Turnbo's Tales of the Ozarks... a story for another time.) One match has 15 people in the "chain" between them and myself, the other has 14. However, it's the closer relative who shows up as a "Very Low" match, and not just "Low." Why, you (hopefully) ask?

Even though that closer relative is closer to Buck Coker in terms of generations than myself or the more distant match, that match and I carry a bit more of Buck's DNA. The usual luck of the draw - just like with eyes, hair colour, height, noses, and so on. If I had a sibling, they might not have enough of Buck's strand to find any Coker matches at all. That's why the more people in your family who test, the better your genetic-based genealogy research can be. You may not have a discernible speck of your greatx3 grandmother's DNA, but your brother might.

(Note also where I have two 6th cousins (1R), but one is a "High" match and the other is a "Moderate" match. Same degree of relationship, but we're talking a plunge from 96% probable match to 40% probable match, according to's explanation. I guess either I didn't inherit as much DNA from that ancestor, or my match didn't.)

I'm curious about the one "High" match with 16 people in the chain. Ancestry says the upper end of a 96% confidence match could be as high as 12 degrees of separation. I have to wonder if that person and I are related more closely in a way we don't know yet.

If Ancestry doesn't offer you a Shared Ancestor Hint, you still can see the person's tree, any surnames you have in common, and any locations you have in common (as well as the birth locations of all their ancestors on a separate tab).

Alas, even though I'm lucky to have only a few blank spots going back that many generations, my matches have even more empty patches. So, I don't know if our blank spots are in the same places or if what they already know is one of my ancestors. Unfortunately, I haven't found a link to any new ancestors, even though there's an insanely good chance I'm staring at some of them in the face. (800 matches - you just know there are unicorns and rainbows in there!) I have found just enough of a whisper of promise here and there to know that DNA results are to my research now like census pages were when I was just starting out.

These are surreal times for genealogy. Two strangers drool into vials. If all goes well, they're rewarded with a great-great-great-great-grandfather.

Some of the suggestions I've sent to

  • We need a search interface across matches. Show me all DNA matches with a "Smith" ancestor. Show me all DNA matches with a link (not just birth!) to Washington County, Arkansas.
  • We need a "DNA Match Activity" page similar to the "Member Activity" page. If one of those 200 locked trees becomes unlocked, I'd like to know. If someone adds more ancestors, I'd like to know. I'd also like to be able to click one link and see all of my DNA matches with a Shared Ancestor Hint.
  • We need a more sophisticated system for marking matches than a star, especially if we don't have search or an activity page. I have no way to tell which starred matches are definite connections and which ones are just probable, and the stars (I'm happy to say) are mounting up. Just being able to add, say, a surname tag would be a great help.
  • A separate tree privacy setting for those who are a DNA match, as discussed above.
  • I don't think this will happen, as it would probably require a separate privacy setting and people would have to be educated to opt-in to use it, but being able to see which of my matches share the same matches as me would be great. Maybe call it a "Match Cluster" and note any surnames and/or locations that all matches share.
  • The location tab for a match, when expanded, shows cities within a state and not usually counties. It also only looks for birthplace information. Given that most of us operate only on a county level after a certain point, it would be much better to show the entire location than just the city. (I understand that it's almost impossible for the program to pick out the county as the style for showing that a place is a county and not a city varies.)

Overall, I'm loving this. And it's only going to get better! I get new matches every day. Today I got a 96% confidence match to a person who is mostly West African. Wow. My mind went to the obvious place - AWKWARD TURTLE - but her European ancestry seems to be quite recent. (Although her tree is too small to say for certain.) Anyway, let me be starry-eyed and think of a time when so many people have their DNA tested that, as people find new relatives and learn more about their own genetic hodgepodge, a little more racism is chipped away by our increased sense of connectedness.

Speaking of genetic ethnicity, what were my results? Did (pick a European country) beat (pick a British isle)? Did any Native American show up to give truth to the family stories? Do my black students finally have proof that we are, as they would remind all the white-looking people in the room, all from Africa? Can I sing along to "Turning Japanese" with a glint in my eye?

The answer is that my results were...


That's another post, I think.

04 August 2012 |

Previously: Glenn


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The thoughtless World to majesty may bow
Exalt the brave, & idolize Success
But more to Innocence their Safety owe
Than Power & Genius e'er conspired to bless

(Thomas Gray)

02 August 2012 |

Previously: Cheer Six Ways


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Cheer Six Ways

For absolutely no good reason other than one Wiki-click led to another and I learned something new, here's Connie Francis singing "Where The Boys Are" in six different languages, none of them English. (One was quite surprising.)

Spanish. Easy.

French, the other ubiquitous choice of high school language courses.

Apparently this one was quite popular.

Growing up, my schools offered first French and Spanish then (once we hit 10th grade) German. I was crazy about languages back then, and particularly interested in French, so I successfully argued to take both F&S because of their linguistic similarity. However, I was also very practical (or tried to be) about academics, too, so I wonder if I might've tried to ditch the Spanish for Japanese. Back in the 80s, we were constantly told that knowing Japanese was going to be essential in our brave new future. Spanish was just another Romance language. Heh!

If only Wayne Newton did a cover.

Italian, si? But what about this:

Non è italiano. E 'napoletana, la lingua di Napoli. Nifty!



29 July 2012 |

Previously: Caroline


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Vanessa and Caroline

Fast snapshot from last weekend. Bright sunlight, dusty strawberry nook. Vanessa, at left. Caroline, right.

You'd never think they weren't always best sisters. If you'd seen Caroline a few days ago, hopping into the wheel and trying (but failing, too old, too small, too finally tumorous, like her mother and sisters) to scout for bonus seeds on top of the trundle bed, you'd never peg such a bold and sweet spirit as the bullied-upon of the litter, the one who had to be sent away to live with her mother and her least political sister.

This morning I realized that I hadn't seen either Vanessa or Caroline since yesterday. I checked in their big cottage and could see Vanessa sleeping, breathing. I could see a bit of Caroline. She looked wrong. Why only a bit? Was Vanessa on top of Caroline?

This isn't the first time I've found one sister sleeping on top of the other, keeping each other in warm company as one slips away. When this happens, the leftover body becomes pressed under the weight of the caretaker hammie. It's not pretty, but it's kind of beautiful.

Vanessa must've stayed by her side since yesterday. She's out now, attacking Milkbones and cracking seeds with a single-mindedness that says she's missed a few meals.

Caroline was always friendly, always sweet. (To have eventually won over the aloof Vanessa, that's something.) Yes, we sang Neil Diamond to her, all the time, custom lyrics.

She was the first hamster to ever successfully climb the Pear Club:

Irrepressible Caroline

Her pouches were always stuffed to caricature limits. "Eat, Caroline!" I'd tell our skinny little girl. "There's plenty! Silly ham!" But she'd always ignore seeds to get into the hand, be patted and kissed. It was hard to hold her when she became so thin and threadbare, but she didn't seem to know the difference.

Caroline Is Not This Old

Caroline is survived by three sisters (Vanessa, Madeleine Aurora, and Lauren), one brother (Theodore), several uncles, and two humans who thought she was a lovely, lovely girl.

Caroline - SEE YA

12 December 2010 - 28 July 2012



29 July 2012 |

Previously: Paul


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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.


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 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:


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, 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 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 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 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."


"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?"


"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"


"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.)













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.


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.



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



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:


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.)


Both beds:


(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.


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:


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


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


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


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!)


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.


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.)


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.)



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?


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.


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 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.)


(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, 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:


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 during the show, the slightly misleading 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" 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 ( 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 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 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 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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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.



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.)


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.


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.



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


Name pappu kumar


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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.

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.


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

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.


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
(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
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



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


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.


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.


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.



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:


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.)


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.



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.



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.


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?


(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.



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:



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



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

Yikes, the strawberry has a burned edge.



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.


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


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?


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:


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.



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


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:



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 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.


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 |


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):


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?


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 |


Decking Ipe

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


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
(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



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.


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.


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 |


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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...) 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 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 |



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."


"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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