Say Goodnight, Gracie

April 3, 2007

When something that started out as fun begins to feel like an obligation, it’s time to put it to bed (as they say in my real-life business) for the last time.

To all of you who have read my posts, thank you.

To all of you who have read my posts and left comments, your validation has meant a great deal to me.

Goodnight, Gracie.

St. Valentine

February 14, 2007

My father sent me a card on St. Valentine’s Day every year of my life up until his death. In the early days, he painted them himself. The first one, sent when I was 11 months old, shows my favorite things of the time: a clock that sat on the mantelpiece; a spoon; a box that had held 100 Player’s cigarettes (my parents smoked in those days); and a particularly gruesome rag doll made of pale green stockinette and named Gwynedd, which is the Welsh spelling—my mother was Welsh—of Gwyneth. My father’s cards were almost always unsigned because tradition, now lost, says that Valentines should be anonymous.

My father also sent Valentines every year to my mother. At the beginning, they were delicate pencil drawings or watercolors, sometimes with quotations and sometimes with original verse. My mother saved them and now I have them. Over the years, my father moved to commercial cards, but the very last Valentine he sent my mother—in 1996, the year of her death—is hand-made.

By then my mother had Alzheimer’s. Confused, frightened, and angry, she was no longer the gentle, loving person we knew. Yet she apparently had a vague comprehension of the significance of the card because I found it among her effects after she died.

A heart and daffodils are drawn (crudely by my father’s standards—the Parkinson’s disease from which he suffered was rapidly advancing) with magic marker. The message: “When we first began to think of such things as Valentines, it was some 60 years and more ago. But the feeling does not change. You are still all the world to me.”

I have many of the Valentines my father sent me. Somewhere I think—I hope—I have the very last one, but I can’t put my hands on it right now. The card is a leftover Christmas card. Apparently my father—by then well into his 80s and in a nursing home—had obviously left it too late to have someone buy a Valentine’s card for him, or maybe he felt that someone else shouldn’t buy something so personal. His once vigorous, sure handwriting on which I modeled my own is shaky. The message of love is not. He crossed out the Christmas greeting and wrote “Oops” followed by a message I can’t call to mind but that I know expressed my father’s love.

My mother and I are fortunate to have been on the receiving end of that unreserved love.

Waste not, want not

February 4, 2007

Eventually rechargeable batteries won’t recharge, and that’s what happened to my Palm Tungsten E. It lasted around two years, which is the useful life the reviews gave it, so I can’t complain that I wasn’t warned. Palm’s astute marketing strategy is to make PDAs with batteries you can’t replace, so you have to buy a whole new device. I removed all the data from my fast-fading E, smacked it with a hammer for good measure (producing the interesting abstract above), then zapped it with my magnetic tape eraser and dropped it in the trash can.

If I had any vision, I would collect moribund PDAs, whack them around, and get the Hirschorn or the Tate Modern or MOMA to put on a show of my work. They’ve all done far sillier exhibits. But rather than launch my new art career, I simply bought another PDA. I chose a Palm TX because it is WiFi-enabled, so I can check my e-mail when I’m overseas (which I will endeavor to do without drawing attention to myself); but even if I’d chosen the E2, which is the new, improved E, the charger and the sync cable wouldn’t have transferred because the connections are all different. This sort of thing drives me crazy. I ended up with a useless-to-me U.S. charger/power cable; international charger/power cable with interchangeable plugs depending on whether you’re in the U.K., continential Europe, or Asia; and sync cable.

Thank goodness for Freecycle. I advertised the spare items just after lunch today, and at around 4:45 this afternoon, Brian, whose Tungsten E is still working, stopped by to pick them up. I could have put them in the Goodwill bag and taken a small tax deduction, but I’d way rather give them to a person I know can use them.

Freecycle and Craig’s List make me feel a bit better about planned obsolescence.

Accented at last!

January 26, 2007

A month ago, my wave keyboard died. I’ve been using that kind of keyboard ever since I was treated for early carpal tunnel syndrome, and that’s a long time ago. I’m so used to it now that if I have to type on a regular keyboard my fingers don’t know where to go, and some words end up looking like Polish. I figured that in the years since I bought the defunct wave, technology had undoubtedly advanced, so I did some research on ergonomic keyboards. There are some truly weird ones and some very expensive ones.

I settled on the Kinesis Maxim. At $150 it’s not cheap (especially when you can buy an ordinary keyboard for under $20), but I spend all day at the computer and my wrists are worth it. The keyboard splits by varying amounts or not at all and tents in the middle to three angles. It is ultra-cool, comfortable to use, and I love it. But …

The “but” is that there’s no embedded numeric keypad on the right. I knew that when I ordered it, but since I always use the numbers along the top anyway, I figured I wouldn’t miss it. What I’d forgotten is that in order to type in French and Italian, you use the ALT key plus the ASCII numeric codes to generate accented letters–and you have to use the number keys on numeric keypad. Off I went to CompUSA for a standalone keypad, but it didn’t solve the problem because it and the keyboard weren’t on speaking terms, and pressing ALT on the keyboard had no effect on the keypad.

You can create keyboard shortcuts in Word to produce accented letters, em dashes, copyright symbols, and so on, but that doesn’t help you if you’re in another application, even another Microsoft Office application.

There are programmable standalone keypads (expensive of course), but the specs I read on the manufacturers’ Web sites didn’t make it clear to me whether one of the keys could be remapped to take the place of the keyboard’s ALT key. Kinesis tech support and the couple of keypad manufacturers I contacted were no help at all.

I don’t even remember what I typed into Google this afternoon, but it gave me the solution: Install the Windows U.S.-International keyboard drivers. (Several years ago, I installed the drivers for the French and Italian keyboards, but some of the letters are in different places. Switching back and forth was a pain and keeping three keyboard layouts straight was impossible).

The U.S.-International drivers, however, are simplicity itself. They use two- and three-key combinations. Type apostrophe then e and you get e acute; ^ then e and you get e circumflex. The driver is smart enough to pick out the letters that do have accents and those that don’t, so when you type apostrophe plus s, you don’t come out with an accent on the s. It’s a far less cumbersome method than the old ALT + ASCII codes. The only thing it doesn’t seem to work in is WordPress text entry (for that you apparently do need the numeric keypad method), which is why I can’t show you here.

I know that some of my readers type in foreign languages, so perhaps this information may be useful. The international drivers are already on your computer and install in about two minutes through the control panel. You’ll find instructions here and a clear explanation and list of the key combinations here.

Now I’m going to send a properly accented e-mail to my French penfriend.

Omsk, Tomsk, and Nizhni Novgorod

January 14, 2007


My interest in the Trans-Siberian Railway goes back a long way. Some parents spoon food into their recalcitrant offspring saying “Here’s one for Mummy, here’s one for Daddy, here’s one for Teddy …” and so on. For reasons best known to herself (and she is, sadly, no longer around for me to ask why) my mother chose the main stops on the Trans-Siberian Railway. I was an unenthusiastic eater, so by around age two, there had been enough repetition that I could recite them myself. My favorites were Omsk, Tomsk, Nizhni Novgorod, and Vladivostok (which last caused great amusement to my parents, as I said what I heard and it came out as “Bloody boss dog”).

While the Trans-Siberian Railway isn’t a tourist line but an important passenger- and freight-carrying part of the entire Russian railway system, there are travel companies that specialize in organizing tourist travel from Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Moscow to Vladivostok is 9,258 km (6,152 miles) and takes seven days. If you get off and on the train and spend a night or two anywhere, it takes longer, of course.

I adore trains, so it immediately became something I have to do before I die, which better not be anytime soon, since the trips aren’t cheap and I need to start socking away the money. You could probably do it on your own more cheaply if you speak Russian and know your way around, but I don’t. Maybe this will be my retirement present to myself.

And once you get to Vladivostok, it’s only 36 hours by boat to Tokyo, and it’s been more than 30 years since I was there … . On the other hand, you can take it to Beijing, where I’ve never been … .

Weighty matters

January 12, 2007

Happy New Year, albeit 12 days late.

As a baby and a toddler, eating was not one of my greater accomplishments. My mother had to coax food into my mouth and used all the games at her disposal. Not for her the approach of “Here’s a spoonful for Teddy; here’s a spoonful for Mummy; here’s a spoonful for Uncle John.” My mother shoveled spoons of strained peas in to the stations on the Trans-Siberian railway. Given my lack of enthusiasm for food, I could apparently recite them by heart at a very early age. I am told that I obligingly tucked the food away in my cheeks like a hamster, and when I ran out of room, I simply blew it all out. I don’t know why my mother didn’t strangle me, but she didn’t, and it’s thanks to her unfailing patience and creativity that I didn’t starve myself to death. (And yes, she did try leaving me alone on the assumption that I would eat when hungry, but when day four rolled around and I hadn’t eaten anything, she decided that wasn’t a viable option.)

Fast forward to now, some never-mind-how-many decades later. I have clearly overcome my reluctance to eat because I am carrying extra weight–not much, but I am 5′ 1″ and small-boned. The 10 or so extra pounds show and mean that 75 percent of my clothes don’t fit.

So I (1) joined a gym, and (2) joined a diet program at the gym. The eating plans are flexible and easily adapted to my semi-vegetarianism (fish and eggs but no meat or poultry) and they aren’t of the annoying kind that include half a grapefruit, a quarter of an avocado, and two-thirds of a can of tuna in week one. What the hell are you supposed to do with the remaining fractions? Give them to the deserving poor? Those of us who worry about the starving Armenians don’t like to throw them out, so we eat them, and that screws up the diet.

And (3), with this post, I’ve gone public. I’m on a diet starting Monday.

In the meantime, every vegetable I own that isn’t in the week one meal plans is sauteeing and will become a frittata with the three remaining eggs (from Monday on it’s Egg Beaters for a while) for tonight’s dinner and tomorrow’s lunch. After which I am going to watch Ladies in Lavender, courtesy Netflix.

$5, $10: Does it really matter?

December 23, 2006

5.jpgI went to Barnes and Noble this morning. On my way out of the parking garage, I passed an old man who had just found a discarded fast food container in the trash can and was eating the leftovers. I waited until I was past him then looked in my wallet for some money, hoping I had a $5 bill or some singles. I had a $10 bill and a $20.

Ten dollars seemed too much and the small amount of change I had–less than $1–would have been an insult. I hurried to Barnes and Noble, close to tears at the thought of how desperate you’ve got to be to eat someone else’s leftovers out of a trash can. The quickest way to get change was to buy a cup of coffee. There was one person ahead of me, so it should have been quick, but he had mistakenly proffered a Starbucks gift card, and the barrista had mistakenly tried to ring it up, and all this had to be sorted out while I stood there impatiently shifting from one foot to the other. When I’d bought my coffee, I dumped the cup on a table and ran back to the garage with a $5 bill in my hand. I was too late. The man had gone.

I keep thinking about him and wishing I’d given him the $10 bill. I have never in my life been hungry because I didn’t have enough money for food. And it’s not that I couldn’t afford to give him $10. Tomorrow I am going to give $50 each as Christmas presents to three young people, the grown-up children of a friend. They will be glad to have the money but they won’t want for food without it.

I don’t know why $5 seemed right and $10 seemed too much. What I do know, though, is this: It’s not the thought that counts, it’s the act. I’m pretty unhappy with myself at the moment.

Christmas cake

December 22, 2006

“Would you make us a traditional English Christmas cake?” asked my very dear friend, with whose family I will spend Christmas Eve.

“Yes, of course,” I said, even though the request came in early December and if a Christmas fruitcake is to be good, if should be made no later than September.

When I first came to live in the United States, I couldn’t understand why fruitcake was such a joke. It was something I loved. Then I tasted the local version, and (all apologies to my adopted country), I understood why. The American version is extremely sweet, glutinous, overloaded with glace cherries, angelica, citron, and so on; and the bought version has a chemical taste.

An English fruitcake contains raisins, currants, sultanas (unobtainable in my region of the U.S., and no, golden raisins are not the same thing), a small amount of candied cherries and lemon and orange peel; and rum and brandy. By the time it’s aged, with the help of regular drinks of rum and brandy poured over it, it’s rich but not over-sweet. A week before Christmas, it’s coated with a layer of marzipan, and a few days later, it is frosted with Royal icing (powdered sugar, egg white, and lemon juice) and decorated with tiny figurines of snowmen, Father Christmas, and so on. It is placed on a cake board, something you can buy easily in England at this time of year but not in the United States; then it’s surrounded by a paper cake frill, something else unobtainable here, so I made a reusable fabric one many years ago.

When I was little, I’d carefully separate the marzipan from the cake and the white icing, give the marzipan to my father, and eat the cake and white icing. Since I’ve (sort of) grown up, I scrape off the white icing and eat the cake and the marzipan.

My cake hasn’t had enough time to grow into its role. It’ll be okay but not stellar. And it’s been many years since I made and iced a Christmas cake; the icing, which I did last night, is way too sweet. I should have put in fewer egg whites and more lemon juice. However, it looks pretty and brings back childhood memories, and since mine were happy, scraping off the frosting won’t make a difference.

No entry

December 15, 2006

This evening on my way home, I stopped in at CompUSA and bought a standalone numeric keypad and a USB hub. Like just about everything these days, each of my two new devices came enclosed in an almost-impenetrable bubble of very tough plastic. I am accident prone (that’s the PC way of saying “I pay the price for being clumsy and often impatient”) so hacking my way into this packaging is not something I approach with confidence.

I started with the USB hub. It took scissors and an Exacto knife, and I cut myself on the plastic container. Then there was an interior plastic enclosure that had to be pried apart. That done, I figured I deserved a break, a BAND-AID, and a glass of wine, after which, I attacked the keypad package. That one was easier (just as well, given the glass of wine). I could insinuate the scissors around the edge of the bubble and it opened. Out came the keypad, a cable, a battery, and a user guide.

“Remove the battery cover from the back of the keypad,” says the user guide, giving no further hints as to how this is to be accomplished. I’ve tried every which way, and I can’t do it. I’ve pressed the front of the battery cover and tried to slide it backwards, pressed the back and tried to slide it forwards, tried to open it with my fingernails, and tried to pry it up with a knife.

Tomorrow I’ll go back to CompUSA and ask them to show me how to open it.

Technology transfer and partnerships with industry are big in the federal government these days, so I have a suggestion for the Department of Homeland Security: Get together with the manufacturers of consumer electronics and between you I am sure you can come up with a foolproof way to keep terrorists out of the country. It will undoubtedly involve plastic bubble packs.

Life imitates art

December 10, 2006

fellini_simage01.jpgYesterday afternoon, I was at the intersection of 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue on my way to visit friends who live near Dupont Circle. As I waited at the red light, a person wearing reindeer horns crossed, followed by someone in red with a pointed red hat and long pointed shoes, who was surely one of Santa’s elves. Then came Santa himself, and finally someone who–inexplicably–seemed to be one of the three Magi. On they walked, one behind the other and apparently in their own world, a fantastical little troop. The light changed and I had to drive on.

A truly Fellini-esque moment, which I long to have been able to capture in a photograph. But perhaps it’s in keeping that I couldn’t.

Best friends

December 4, 2006

12_04.jpgThis post was inspired by Elisabeth, who posted on her blog, As My World Turns, about her favorite childhood toys and asked her readers what theirs were.

A favorite Christmas present was my teddy bear, given to me by my maternal grandmother when I was three. Teddy slept with me every night until I was around 10 years old, during which time, I loved all the hair off his chest, so my mother made him a very smart tailored suit and knitted him a primrose yellow pullover.

Another favorite was my first bicycle. I was six. My father went through the usual process of trying to teach me to ride a two-wheeler (no training wheels in those days) by holding onto the saddle and letting go when he thought I was doing okay. I always, somehow, realized he’d let go and wobbled precariously then capsized. One morning, five or six days into the learning experience, no one was watching and I took my bicycle into the back garden, which had what was, to me, a very long path to the back gate. “I can do this,” I said to myself firmly (I clearly remember that). I got on and rode down the path.

For many years of my adult life, one of my most-loved possessions has been Gretchen, the doll my mother made for me when I was very small. She was my first doll. My mother named her because I was still too young to name toys, and she is dressed in Dutch national dress, or my mother’s best guess at it based on pictures. My mother made both the doll and her clothes, down to embroidered cuffs and an embroidered apron. Gretchen’s face was starched to give a base on which my father could paint the features with watercolors.

I was a careful child and kept (and still have) many of my most loved toys and books. Years later, when I was already an adult and, little by little, was bringing those special things from England over to the U.S., it was Gretchen’s turn to be put in my suitcase. My mother, by then in very comfortable circumstances, said—and I feel my throat tighten and tears behind my eyes as I write this—”It makes me sad that I had to make you a doll because we couldn’t afford to buy you a real one.”

“But that’s why I love her so much,” I said. “Because you made her for me.”

The price some of us pay for picturesque

November 20, 2006

Before I begin this shameless bid for sympathy, I want to make clear that I’m not advocating that every walking surface be covered with more-level-than-level concrete, just that in historic areas, you watch your step.

I hobbled back to the United States in July with a stress fracture to my foot, without a doubt brought on—or brought to fruition—by large amounts of walking on the cobblestone streets of old Lille. And now I am recovering from an encounter with Old Town Alexandria, where the charming brick sidewalks are uneven and the metal grates they place around trees (presumably to discourage dog poop) tend to shift out of place.

I took a friend, visiting from England, to lunch in Alexandria on Saturday. Coming back to the car after lunch, I tripped on one of the dog-deterrent metal grates and fell straight forward. It was one of those surreal experiences that happen very fast (too fast for me to even put my hands out to try and save myself) yet also happen in slow motion so that you can say to yourself on the way down, “This can only end badly.” As it did. My chin met either the sidewalk or the metal grate—I was too dazed afterwards to know which—with my full weight behind it. I bit my tongue on both sides, broke a tooth (a back one fortunately), cut my chin (dramatic amounts of blood but a small cut), got assorted bruises here and there, and pulled a muscle (I assume) near my ribs.

I was incredibly lucky. I don’t know how I didn’t break my jaw or my nose or my front teeth. I don’t know how I didn’t knock myself out. An older or a heavier person might not have escaped so comparatively lightly. I was also lucky that someone was with me to pick me up and mop up my bleeding chin—thank goodness there are still old-fashioned people like me who carry cloth handkerchiefs!

My jaw is not back to 100 percent functionality so right now I am living on mashed potato, mashed banana, applesauce, yogurt, ice cream (my excuse for the latter is it feels so good on my swollen tongue), and whatever else I can purée in the blender and slide into my mouth on a teaspoon. I feel as though I should be in a highchair being spoonfed.* I was three years old when my late mother fractured her jaw and had it wired shut for six weeks. I don’t know how she stood it. They knocked out a tooth so she could eat everything through a straw, which probably explains why she hated soup for the rest of her life. No blenders in those days, so it must have been a dreadful production to prepare food. At least I can eat thicker mush, but even so, after a mere 2.5 days, I crave crunch, especially celery and corn chips.

I will be interested in the response I get (if, indeed, I get one) from the person on the Alexandria City Council under whose wing sidewalks fall and whom I e-mailed yesterday.

I leave you with this thought from my sometimes eccentric (see footnote) but usually practical mother, “Pick up your feet and watch where you’re walking, for heaven’s sake. How many times do I have to tell you?”

* My mother had her weird moments and spoonfed me not with the boring “This spoonful’s for Daddy, and this one’s for Uncle Bob” or that thing about airplanes going into hangars, but by making each spoonful a stop on the Trans-Siberian railway. I was an extremely finicky and reluctant eater and so I got lots of practice and could (though not now) recite them all, in order, at the age of two.

Please to remember

November 5, 2006


Please to remember
The Fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason plot.
I see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

In 1605, a group of English Roman Catholic conspirators were discovered to have stored some 1,800 pounds of gunpowder in a cellar under the House of Lords in the British Houses of Parliament. The idea was to wipe out King James I of England (VI of Scotland), his family, and most of the aristocracy (the Lords) by putting a match to the whole thing during the State Opening of Parliament.

One of the conspirators, however, was concerned that some of those who would be blown up were Catholics and wrote a letter of warning to Lord Monteagle. On November 5, 1605, the cellars were raided, and Guy Fawkes was discovered and arrested. Under torture, he revealed the names of his co-conspirators, who were rounded up or killed trying to evade capture. In January 1606, Fawkes and a number of the others were tried and found guilty of treason. They were hanged, drawn, and quartered.

Guy Fawkes and the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 are remembered every November 5 in England with fireworks and bonfires on which effigies of Guy Fawkes are burned (gruesome entertainment for children, when you think about it). One of the best parts was tucking potatoes at the base of the bonfire to bake in the embers. By the time the fireworks were over, the potatoes were cooked. The skins were charred and you always burned your fingers, but no baked potatoes have ever tasted as good as those.

In the days leading up to the 5th children used, when I was growing up, to haul the effigies around on makeshift carts or pushchairs (strollers), chanting, “Penny for the guy,” and collecting money for fireworks. I don’t know if they still do.

Culinary tip: How not to make toast

October 5, 2006

I walked into the office this morning and dropped two slices of bread into our antique toaster for breakfast. The toaster usually takes five minutes to induce a slice of bread to turn slightly brown, so I stopped by a friend’s desk, and we got into conversation. Right about the time I started to smell my toast, the fire alarm went off. The whole nine yards: flashing lights, blaring sirens. The entire corridor was blue with smoke. The thing that is supposed to pop the toast up when it’s done had failed.

I assume that people on the two upper levels of our three-level building followed the standard procedure and evacuated, thinking there really was a fire. A trio of my colleagues (who were on their way out anyway) left with a dramatic show of crouching, coughing, gagging, gasping—and, of course, laughing. The rest of my department stayed. I was mortified, though no one else (including the boss, fortunately) seemed to think it was anything but funny, and by lunchtime, when everyone had made at least one smart remark about it, I was laughing too.

The fire department showed up to reset the alarms—a fire engine bearing three firemen in full gear, carrying axes and oxygen tanks. The boss had called to let them know it wasn’t a real emergency, or I suppose they’d have come in with hoses; even without hoses, they were impressive. On balance, though, I think I made the right decision in not asking to have my picture taken with them.