Sunday, December 31, 2006

Books - December 2006

An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
My third Ishiguro book in the past few months. He still moves me. I haven't read much about post-WWII Japan, and I enjoyed the atmospheric sense this book gave me. The plot was a kind of warm-up for The Remains of the Day.

The Nursing Mother's Companion by Kathleen Huggins
The chances that I retained even ten percent of this (apparently very helpful and clear) information are slim. But maybe it's all there in the brain recesses, I'll let you know.

Saturday by Ian McEwan
My last-read novel of 2007 is also my favorite. I was pleased and satisfied at its beginning, when I thought it was simply a contemplation of one day in the life of a London neurosurgeon. It turned into so much more.

The Secret Love of Sons by Nicholas Weinstock
A gift from my mother-in-law, the mother of three remarkable men.

No One Cares What You Had For Lunch by Margaret Mason
Mighty Girl to the rescue in this book of short and useful ideas for making a more interesting blog. Brace yourself.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Down Under (a snowbank, that is)

"The mixup with 'y' and 'i' meant a difference of two continents, 13,000 kilometres (8,000 miles) and around 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) in temperature between his intended destination and where he actually touched down." - Deutsche Welle

Also, the difference between a cosmopolitan Australian city and tourist destination, and a snowy burg in eastern Montana whose population is less than 5,000 and main claim to fame is as the home of the prehistoric paddlefish.

I had no idea that Sidney, Montana even had an airport. Always remember to double-check your spelling when buying plane tickets on Expedia.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Good things about celebrating Christmas in Europe

1. British satellite TV = "Do They Know it's Christmas" in heavy rotation
2. Three holidays - Christmas Eve, Christmas Day #1 and Christmas Day #2 (the 26th)
3. Presents that arrive in the mail, and include Twizzlers and Hershey bars
4. Church bells all day long
5. Christmas morning comes even earlier.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Miss Manners

I've heard stories about all the ridiculous comments that pregnant women hear from strangers, friends, coworkers, family members, even their mailmen. I am lucky enough to live in a place where I can't understand what people are saying to me, besides "When will you get the baby?" and "Is he a girl or a boy?" And it's another benefit of being of Advanced Maternal Age (including feeling like an octegenarian if I ever venture onto the message boards) that most of my friends and family members have either been through their own pregnancies recently or they have been coached by their wives/daughters/friends/sisters on acceptable subjects when speaking with the mom-to-be.

However, I've heard stories. I've even been privy to a few of these uncomfortable moments in person. Some people (Jeff, I know you're reading this) are so uncomfortable about the potential for saying the wrong thing that they just don't say anything at all, even when they know they should at least say congratulations or acknowledge the situation. So here's some advice. The following comments are almost always safe, as long as you've had irrefutable confirmation that she is pregnant in the first place:

-"Congratulations! When is the baby due?" And then under no circumstances should you act surprised at the answer. You should say, "Wow, how exciting." Do not say, "Wow, you've got a long way to go," as though she's not well aware of the fact. Or "Wow, I would have guessed you're ready to pop any day," in fact, the whole idea of "popping" has always given me the creeps. Or "Wow, you look so tiny." That last one might seem like a compliment but it infers that you think pregnant ladies are generally huge. Really, any reference to size or weight should be avoided. Even if you've heard the pregnant person talking about it before, or if your niece couldn't shut up about her pregnancy weight last Thanksgiving.

-"You'll be a great parent." I never get tired of hearing this one. Apparently regular ego boosts are necessary for my well-being.

-"What an exciting time you have ahead of you." This helps counteract all of the exhausted parents of young children who tell expectant parents to "Sleep now, you'll never get to sleep late again" and "The first six (weeks/months/years) are terrible but it gets better eventually, until they become teenagers." The pregnant person has already started down the path of no return; describing impending doom isn't helpful. This one is especially nice if you're a parent yourself. Think up some happy story about having kids and tell the pregnant person about it. I call these tales to mind when I sit around doubting the wisdom of getting pregnant.

-A special piece of advice for the boys: The only circumstances under which the words "mucous plug" should come out of your mouth are those in which your significant other is the pregnant one, and the two of you are alone in the privacy of your own home. Or, alternatively, in a medical setting. But it's best if you just stay out of group conversations regarding the girly bits and/or more unseemly physical aspects of pregnancy, even if someone seemingly invites you to participate. Because the girls will just laugh at you later, giggling about how you tried to act like you know what "effaced" means.

After you've talked about The Baby for a few moments, don't feel bad about going right back to whatever kinds of conversations you've always had with the pregnant person. Just because she's With Child, it doesn't mean her other interests have totally disappeared; in fact, she might be tired of talking about it. I am always grateful to friends who ask how things are going with the baby, and then move along to important topics like pinpointing when Britney turned the tide of public goodwill. (By the way, I think it's genius that K-Fed seems to be headed toward a career in professional wrestling, it's the perfect spot for him.)

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Tis the Season

It's a birthday tradition here for the birthday girl/boy to bring treats to share with coworkers. This seems slightly unfair to me - more work on your birthday? - but it also results in getting to eat what you want on your big day, no picking through carrot cake when you don't eat carrot cake or politely digging the raisins out of the cookies. A control freak like me appreciates these things.

Jeff turned 36 on Monday, so he brought the cranberry bars to work yesterday, along with some fruit and sparkling wine and orange juice. He says his coworkers wandered in and out of his office all day long, saying "Congratulations!" That's not an American birthday sentiment. It's probably due to the subtle reference to death ("Congratulations for living this long!") and the American aversion to admitting we're not all going to live forever that causes us to just say "Have a happy day!"

I think Jeff had a happy day, and I definitely did. I find that his birthday makes me happier even than my own (and I'm all about being happy on my annual Day of Moi). I spend it thinking about the first cake I baked for him (bday #22 - a 4-layer chocolate beauty, from scratch, that I was worried about being devoured by ants in my college apartment), the birthdays we spent on opposite sides of the USA (#24 and #25, we probably argued over the phone as was our habit at the time), the traditional hourly phone calls to sing the birthday song on his voicemail all day long, and even last year's birthday which I spent at the U2 concert in Portland while he hung around here in the slush, working. I remember how thankful I am for all the years he's been in the world, all the years he has been in my world, and all the laughter we still share. He takes great care of me and I can't even express in words what a superb dad he is going to be. Which is fortunate, because someone is going to have to watch the kid during U2's next tour.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Is anyone still out there?

I haven't managed to post in a while, due to a strange turn of events. I had a busy week. That might not seem so strange to you, but it hasn't happened to me in about a year. So bear with me if my blog posting has been thrown off.

Don't worry, I haven't been in the hospital, or given birth in my bathtub, or anything interesting like that yet.

I promise I'll be back soon.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Too Much

And now, for some nostalgia:

This is the original video matched with a remake of the song by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. If you're not my age, or from the USA, you'll wonder why on earth this puts me in the Christmas spirit. The answer would involve an elfin dentist and an evil Burgermeister.

Monday, December 11, 2006

We need a little Christmas

Munich Rathaus
Every Christmas is different. While my family had its traditions, they always varied slightly depending on where we lived, who was home, whether I was in the country or not, my grandparents' ages, my parents' marital status, and whether or not my uncle demanded that everyone go to church. After college, I alternated holidays between my family and my husband's, and since my parents have moved around a few times since then and my husband's family has almost doubled in size thanks to the addition of numerous offspring, we never seem to do it the same way twice.

All this should have prepared me for this holiday season, which will be the most unique of my life so far. Jeff and I will celebrate far away from anyone but each other. Since our baby is due to enter the world just a couple of weeks into the new year, there will be no travel for us, not even a few hours to a bustling European capital where we can order room service cheeseburgers. So we'll hang out at home and forge some new traditions. The first of which will probably involve a discussion about whether we are officially a Christmas Eve family (like mine) or a Christmas Day family (like his).

Though I like to believe I'm flexible, I think I may have reached my threshold for change. We're certainly not lacking in the Christmas spirit around here. We spent the weekend in Munich, taking in their Christmas market and eating nachos at the Hard Rock Cafe. We were surrounded by hand-carved ornaments, choirs singing carols, numerous Kris Kringles, and gingerbread houses in every hotel and restaurant lobby. I live in a city where the Christmas season is practically its reason for existence these days. But it's the personal celebrations that I already miss - putting on a sparkly outfit and drinking fancy cocktails with friends; seeing my coworkers' spouses for that once-a-year gathering; handfuls of shopping bags to show for the workout I've given my credit card. But this year, between the distance from family and old friends, my lack of a sparkly maternity outfit or anywhere to wear it, my self-control against fancy cocktails, the absence of co-workers, and my credit card's devotion to, Christmas is so different that it almost doesn't feel like the same holiday I've celebrated for the past 34 years.

While wandering around outside Munich's historic Rathaus (town hall) on Friday night, we were surrounded by American voices, many of whom extolled the "Christmasiness" of Germany. In the next breath, they discussed their plans to board a plane back home and finish their shopping before the stores closed on the 24th. Jeff and I will cook our Christmas meal without the jet lag, without the crowded checkout line at Target, and without the feeling of being dragged from one supposedly festive event to another. We feel so lucky to have the chance to create our own family and our own traditions. But if we were ever lulled into the idea that the fabled holiday spirit was about the "stuff" - the music, the decorations, the lights, the parties, the shopping - we now know that those animatronic holiday TV shows were right. What we've been celebrating for the past three decades was more about our good fortune in being surrounded by people who made us laugh and included us in their celebrations, and made time to enjoy a once-a-year tradition with us.

Cookie Goodness

Heavenly Cranberry Bars
Here's a photo of one of the bars I made (the rest were devoured). Erika's suggestion to line the pan with foil worked perfectly, so I've updated the recipe below to include those instructions.

I'm participating in an online cookie exchange. I think that makes me both geeky and annoyingly Martha Stewart.

This is a version of the cranberry bars that a certain international coffee chain sells this time of year. The only difficult thing about this recipe is removing the bars from the pan - I think I'm going to try lining it with waxed paper this year and maybe I'll be saved the hammer/chisel method I've used in the past. And even then, they were worth the trouble. (Thanks, Erika, for this recipe!)

Heavenly Cranberry Bars

1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
1 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 3/4 cups (1 bag) white chocolate chips
1 1/2 cups dried cranberries, coarsely chopped
1 cup toasted chopped pecans (optional)
1/4 cup candied ginger (optional but makes them really good), coarsely chopped
1/4 cup grated orange zest

White Chocolate Frosting
8oz cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 tbsp grated orange zest, divided
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup dried cranberries, coarsely chopped
6 oz white chocolate, coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a 11x15 inch jelly roll pan or rimmed baking sheet with foil. Whisk together the brown sugar, butter, eggs and vanilla in a large bowl until smooth. Whisk in the flour, baking powder, and salt until well blended. Stir in the white chocolate chips, cranberrs, nuts, ginger, and orange zest. Spread mixture evenly in the prepared pan - it will be quite stiff - and bake until golden brown, about 20 to 22 minutes. Set aside on a wire rack to cool. Cool all the way.

Make the frosting by creaming together the cream cheese, powdered sugar, butter, 1 tbsp of the orange zest, and vanilla until smooth and fluffy. Spread the mixture over the cooled base. Stir together the remaining 2 tbsp orange zest with the dried cranberries and sprinkle the mixture over the frosting. Melt the white chocolate in the microwave for one minute, stirring until smooth. Drizzle the white chocolate over the bars - a plastic baggie with one corner cut off works well - and let it sit until the chocolate is set. Cut the bars into 2-inch squares and then diagonally into triangles.

Makes 48 bars.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Just Terrible

Her: Don't stop at one. If you only have one, you'll spoil him, you just won't be able to help it. I would have spoiled my child if I'd only had one; as it was, I just didn't have time, I was too busy with the next one.

Me: Mmmmm...

Her: My daughter-in-law is an only child and she is terrible, just terrible.

Me: You know, I'm an only child. Do you think I'm terrible?

Her: I don't really know you that well.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Amazon Woman

I've done all of my Christmas shopping via Amazon this year, and I'm crossing all of my digits for good shipping karma. Two years ago, I ordered a book in December, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, in case you care, and it was interesting though I definitely didn't understand every page, which is Amazon's fault (see below). Instead I received a giant set of Matchbox cars. Which led to a personal campaign to find an actual phone number for their customer service department, eventually requiring a snotty e-mail. I never did receive the return postage, so the Matchbox cars went to my coworker and her young son, and I did eventually receive my book. But then I had to read it in a rush to complete it by my book club meeting. So it's Amazon's fault that I couldn't give you a coherent recap of the main plot points of Invisible Man. And I hope some child was not deprived of his/her Matchbox cars on Christmas morning.

All of this is a way of telling my loved ones that if you never receive your Christmas gifts, I have the Amazon customer service telephone number, I would be happy to share it with you. And if you receive something really odd, it might be a mistake on their part, not bad shopping on my part. Though I've been known to get kind of creative, so I'll admit you are taking your chances if you call and ask me if the meat tenderizer that you never wanted is a mistake, or your real present. Because who doesn't need a meat tenderizer?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

We Belong

I've joined a Flickr group called NoBloBookMo (yeah, the name doesn't really make sense but it does if you know more about it, but do you really care? probably not). We're supposed to post a photo of a book every day for a month, along with a description, or a reason we're posting, or whatnot. Other members have better things to do than take photos of all their books, so I have basically hijacked the group and begun posting photos of some books I've read, in alphabetical order. Not every book I've read, because there are some I'd really prefer to forget about (those Stephen King knockoffs from junior high are still giving me nightmares).

Anyway, head over there and take a look at my books or at all the books because you just can't get enough of me telling you what you should read.

Monday, December 04, 2006

To Market To Market

Christmas People
N├╝rnberg's big Christmas market opened on Friday, so we made a trip into town yesterday to take in the festivities. You might recall last year, when all that kept us from freezing to death in the Hauptmarkt was the heat generated by thousands of shivering bodies, half of whom were fortified by strangely spiced wine, drunk from small green boot-shaped mugs.

This year, I wore my spring jacket, put on some gloves because they matched my scarf, and Jeff walked around with his coat unzipped. Is this the winter we were promised last year? I'm not sure. I'm still hoping for some snow before the holidays but I must admit it was more pleasant to shop for holiday goodies under a blue sky and sunshine than fighting the wind and feeling the snot freeze around my nose.

I was so cheerful that I even allowed Jeff to snap my photo. You might have noticed that I'm exuding an anti-camera sentiment lately. I tried to explain to my snap-happy husband yesterday that it's not that I feel ugly or ungainly (except when I try to get out of bed in the morning, it's too bad you aren't here to witness the spectacle), it's simply that I am rarely inspired to put together a presentable appearance that I'd like preserved for posterity. I've never had an eyeliner pencil last so long, nor have my hair accessories ever lived in such a pristine environment (ie never touching my head). And you already know about the rise of the sweatsuit in my wardrobe.

The good news is that I'll spend a few afternoons this month volunteering at the American/German sister-city stand at that market, so I'll probably be forced to wear actual clothing, and (gasp) brush my hair. Perhaps this turn of events will result in some photographic evidence.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Sentimental Journey

For further evidence that Journey is at the nexus of all things good and enduring in pop music, watch this video. (via mamapop)

Then, when your brain is sufficiently racked as you try to figure out what songs he's singing, go here.

Afterward, you'll surely be on the hunt for tickets to a Journey show. If you live in the UK, you're in luck. Except it looks like they're still touring with that singer who is not even close to being as good as the knockoff Steve Perry. Believe me, I've seen them both live.

Now you're probably wondering what Steve Perry is up to.