Saturday, December 24, 2011

Kindle My Heart

"Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower, or a . . . a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell musty and . . . and . . . and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer is a . . . it, uh, it has no-no texture, no . . . no context. It's . . . it's there and then it's gone. If it's to last, then . . . then the getting of knowledge should be, uh, tangible . . . it should be, um, smelly."

Giles, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

"Is this it? This time I die?"
"Could be? What sort of answer is that?" said Vimes.
Thud!, by Terry Pratchett

I haven't been posting too frequently the past few weeks. I have a splendid excuse: for my birthday last month, my parents got me a Kindle.

Oooh. Aaaah. Jolie.
I am enamoured of my Kindle. I have become a Kindle addict. The Kindle fits in my purse, between my wallet and my day planner, and can be popped out at an instant's notice. I have not experienced forty-five seconds together of boredom since I opened this thing. Any spare second that I have . . . waiting behind one person buying one thing in a grocery store line, sitting at a red light that I know is going to keep me there for a whole thirty-five seconds, flossing my labor-intensive brace-covered teeth, even waiting on the phone while a customer looks for his/her/its credit card, I have the Kindle. I have a book.

Because Kindle Pages can be turned with one finger, you only need to hold it in one hand. This is useful when you're trying to do something else with your other hand, like cook dinner or disarm a ticking bomb. It also means that on cold winter nights (or days . . . it's been a cold week), the only parts of you that have to be outside the covers are your eyeballs, your nose, and one finger.

Kindle makes books magically appear. Sunday afternoon, I had just finished reading Snuff, and I thought to myself, "Man, I really wish I could read another Sam Vimes novel. I love those Watch books. I know there are more. I shall have to go to the library at some point in the near future and see what they have in." And then the Kindle popped up a little window that proffered Night Watch, Feet of Clay, Guards! Guards!, Thud!, and Men at Arms to have for my very own at five dollars a pop.* All I had to do was twizzle my finger. It didn't even feel like spending money; the Kindle knows my credit card number, and helpfully handles all the sordid details. I pushed a button and got another book to keep me quiet about all the problems of the universe for another six hours.

What really tickles me about this is that it's Good For Me. Throughout all of my young life, I have learned an important distinction: things that flicker are Bad For You, and things that hold steady are Good For You. Television: Bad. Video games: Bad. Putzing around on the internet: Bad. Flickery screens rot your brain and make you antisocial and keep you from getting healthful exercise.

The joy of a Kindle is that it does not have a flickery screen. It has a steady, non-glowy display-thing. It's a glorified Etch-A-Sketch. Etch-a-Sketch is good, wholesome fun. Pages with words on them are edifying and uplifting. Reading makes you smart. Literature is good for your brainz. The Kindle is therefore a paragon of virtue, and I can feel smug, rather than guilty, when I whip it out of my purse.

Now, if you're reading this post soon after reading my earlier post on the King's English, you may be thinking, "Oh, Blogger, poor, poor Blogger . . . you have succumbed to the temptations of technology. You have abandoned the printed page. You are a traitor to your ilk." I would like a chance to argue in my own defense.

First off, I would like to show you two of the most precious treasures that I own.

The red volume is Jane Eyre. This particular copy was printed in 1946. It's got the price written on the flyleaf in pencil, a mark of where it passed through the hands of a used bookseller. I don't know where it came from. I think I plucked it off a family bookshelf when I was about ten years old, and in that ravenous phase where I had to be reading something, ANYTHING, or I would start beating my head against the wall. I devoured the thing.
I had no context for the story. There are no explanatory notes, no analytical essays, attached to the book. It just begins at the beginning and finishes at the end, whether you understand the world you've been dragged into or not. I didn't understand a great chunk of what was going on, but I knew I was addicted. To this day, this particular volume is what Jane Eyre looks like and feels like and smells like to me. I've owned other editions, shiny paperbacks with historical commentaries and helpful footnotes, but as far as I'm concerned they are just reprints of this crumbling volume with the disorienting line-drawn illustrations and the binding that leaves crumbles of powdered maroon binding on your hands and clothes as you read it.

Since I just turned in my application to do a Master's degree in Victorian literature, I think it's safe to say that this book changed my life.

The Three Musketeers I got as a Christmas gift when I was around the same age. It was one of four; the other three were Wuthering Heights, A Tale of Two Cities, and Dracula. As you can see, somebody splurged. They spent a whole two dollars, plus tax, on feeding my voracious brain.

It took me about five tries to make it through The Three Musketeers. Dumas is not a concise storyteller. This book still enchants me. Adventure, romance, high-speed chases, midnight escapades, mysterious secrets, swoon-worthy heroes. Swash, swash, buckle, buckle. This fifty-cent paperback is soft with the oils of my hands. The corners are all rounded away. It's got marks throughout the text marking phases that I went through . . . my 'I need to censor out profanity in my books' phase (this is why Athos says damn a lot) and the 'Every piece of paper is a suitable notebook' phase and the 'I must underline pithy phrases' phase. And yet, through all these phases, the bookmark still stuck into this volume is the same ragged corner that I tore off some other random thing the first time I dove into the ultimate adventure story. Boy howdy, did I get my parents' fifty cents worth out of that volume. When I first turned on my shiny, beautiful Kindle, the first thing I did was download Jane Eyre. I hardly had a choice. Any library that I own, physical or digital, must contain Jane Eyre. It's a rule. Then, when I had a bit more time to let the WiFi swallow the longer text, I crammed The Three Musketeers into my little gray machine.

This does not mean that I can finally recycle those paper copies that have been hanging around my life for the last fifteen years. No Way. I want to be buried with those books. Somehow, it strikes me as silly to be buried with a Kindle. A Kindle is useful, but it is not precious. The contents of a Kindle are backed up on some giant hard drive somewhere, and can be replaced when the machine itself is destroyed in a six-car pileup (caused by some idiot reading behind the wheel). These books are unique to me. If they are destroyed, they can never come again. I can get a new edition . . . but that's like making new friends when you move to a new city. New friends are all well and good, but they don't slot neatly into the holes in your heart that your old friends have left. Those remain forever. That's what love is.

I love books.

*And that's Amazon cutting its own throat, that is.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


“You’d better tell me what you know, toad,” said Tiffany. “Miss Tick isn’t here. I am.”

“Another world is colliding with this one,” said the toad. “There. Happy now? That’s what Miss Tick thinks. But it’s happening faster than she expected. All the monsters are coming back.”


“There’s no one to stop them.”

There was silence for a moment.

“There’s me,” said Tiffany. 

The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett

It has, in many ways, been a frustrating couple of weeks. Problems keep springing upon me from dark corners: problems that I didn't cause and am powerless to fix.

The oil pressure light in my car keeps flickering whenever the engine idles. The car isn't leaking a drop (I checked) and I got the oil changed and did some basic repairs only a few weeks ago (and that was a story in itself) and there is, in actual fact, plenty of new, fresh oil in the engine (or wherever oil technically goes). But that little light keeps blinking with enough energy to cause an epileptic seizure, and as all drivers will know, a flickering oil light will haunt your nightmares.

My garage door opener has decided to stop working. It got a fresh battery only a couple of months ago, but every time I need to get in or out of the garage, it has taken more clicks of that little button to get it to move. I first resorted to clicking, then I unclipped the opener from my sun visor and held it up to the windshield, then I unrolled the window and stuck my arm out to click, then I got out of the car and walked up to the door and clicked like there was no tomorrow. Each of these escalating measures has worked for a few times, then faded away. The door may be building up an immunity. We've reached the point where I have to turn off my car, get out, open the other door with the keypad (the other garage door is the only one rigged for keypad-opening), walk across the garage to the button by the kitchen door, close the one door, open the other, get back in my car, turn it on, drive it in, turn it off, get out of the car and close the garage. Ah, technology.

And though we are now in mid-December, it simply refuses to snow. Nothing but gray grass and gray sky as far as the eye can see.

But the most frustrating has been at work. My job, for those of you who don't know, involves getting stuff shipped from the US to the UK. As long as I've been doing this job, box after box has just disappeared en route. Over months of investigation, I unraveled the problem: somewhere along the line, our boxes are getting shipping labels slapped on them with the wrong postal code. It's hard to deliver a box if the address says Sheffield but the postal code says Leeds.

So while the UK customers have patiently and cheerfully waited, sometimes for months, to get their stuff (bless these good people. They are truly the inventors of the Stiff Upper Lip), my team and I have sent and re-sent one box after another, and watched each one via online tracker as they sail from California to Florida, Florida to London, London to Massachusetts, Massachusetts to Edinburgh, Edinburgh to Alberta, Alberta to Sheffield, Sheffield to London, London back to Massachusetts, and then stop dead.

Needless to say, it's a little frustrating.

We told management that something was wrong.

"Submit an issue form about it," they said.

An issue form is the automated form we're supposed to use for any problems we can't handle ourselves. Issue forms produce one of four results: 1. no response at all; 2. an obvious response that you have already tried because you're not an idiot; 3. an outdated response that used to work but does not anymore; 4. a response so ludicrously stupid that we print them out and hang them on the wall. Gems have included "You can't track this package through FedEx because it was shipped via SmartPost" (SmartPost is a FedEx service, and it's what nearly all our US orders use); "Did you try re-syncing the account?" (The original problem contained the words 'I have re-synced the account and it didn't help'); "What do you want me to do about it?" (Nothing, I guess . . . that's why I told you about it, so you wouldn't do anything); and, my favorite of all, "You need to submit an issue form for this problem." (Whaa? This is an issue form! This thing you're writing on right now is an issue form! Is there some special magical issue form I'm supposed to be using instead?)

So we submitted issue forms, saying our packages were misdirected. No answer.

I inquired of management again.

The response: "Did you submit an issue form?"

"Yes, a few," said I.

"We'll look into it," said they.

Several days later:

"What did you find out?" said I.

"Oh, that. DHL sometimes gets out of sync, and get one label on the top of the box and a different one on the side. Just keep sending replacements."

I sighed.

I tried to talk to DHL agents to see if they could intercept specific boxes and get the incorrect label scribbled out or something. I got an automated system every time. When I finally spoke to someone, he couldn't get anything to show up with the tracking numbers I had. I sighed again, thanked him, and sent a replacement box.

So a steady stream of boxes poured into this black hole of missing mail. After a while, we stopped submitting issue forms and just sent the boxes anyway. Re-sent boxes got lost. Their replacements got lost. One poor woman ordered maternity clothes back in September; she's due any minute, and not a stitch of clothing has she received.

Finally a customer sent me a photograph showing clearly the WRONG POSTCODE printed on the box, bold as brass. Out-of-sync labels, my foot.

I took it to management.

"Did you submit an issue form?" said they.

"Several," said I.

"Well, we fix problems based on how many issue forms get submitted. Problems with the most forms about them get fixed first. I'm sorry, but it's going to be a while."

We started submitting the forms again. With vigor. I got out my records of re-sent orders and submitted issue forms by the dozen, chronicling the back-log of problems. And while waiting for a response, we kept re-sending boxes.

Then, a breakthrough. A customer, who actually works for DHL, called us. Through his useful information, we were able to track one of our packages. Yodel, the company that handles home delivery, received the box with the wrong postcode on it. DHL, whom we thought for months was the cause of all this mess, received the box with the wrong post code on it.

It was like that moment in the horror movie where the heroine realizes that the phone call is coming from inside the house.

Something in our system is causing this. Something that we are responsible for and can fix.

I went back to management.

"I'm only one person," said management, shrugging.

I knifed him to death and hid him in a closet.

Artist's Rendition.

No, scratch that last part. That's not what I did.

What I did was go back to my desk and eat a Reese's peanut butter cup and have a think.

I had by now brought this problem to five different layers of management. If I went any higher to solve the problem, I'd be talking to Bishop Burton. Above him, I'd be talking to President Monson. 'Up' was obviously the wrong way to go to get these things fixed.

However, we lowly agents are forbidden to go sideways. We've been carefully instructed NOT to call the nice sister in Germany who can take care of returns, no problem. Under no circumstances are we to shoot an e-mail to the efficient sister who handles credit card disputes. Under pain of death, we must not contact the warehouse team that will happily fix orders that are going to the wrong address. And don't even think about looking up the person who can print magazine subscriber listsshe'd love to get that to you right away, but that's not the point. There are proper channels.

Proper channels so clogged with beurocratic cholesterol that we're about one sneeze away from a corporate heart attack.

So I stayed after work today. I looked up the contact information for the head of the warehouse, and I wrote him an e-mail. In the e-mail, I explained the problem we'd been seeing. I laid out the research that we'd done, and clarified the conclusions we'd drawn. I asked him most politely to look at the boxes going out his warehouse door to see if they had the right addresses, and begged most humbly that if the addresses were wrong, would he please, please find out why? Maybe even prevent them from happening anymore?

Then I clicked send.

I have overstepped the bounds of my job. I'm a little afraid of what I'll find when I go to work tonight. Maybe I'll get an e-mail saying "Oh, thanks! I checked on that, and looks like it was a simple mix-up that I've got fixed now. Merry Christmas!" Perhaps I will get promoted to Chief Problem-Solver and get a pay raise made of all the money we're no longer using to re-send things to England. Perhaps I will get a cake. Maybe I'll even get a name plaque to put on my cubicle.

But then again, maybe I'll get called into Claudio's office to get the lecture, "This really wasn't something you should have been doing. It is not your job to solve problems." (I've had a manager say this to me, by the way. Word for word. I was so angry I started crying, since the knife-and-closet plan was unavailable due to lack of either closet or knife.) "You were very unprofessional. You need to behave yourself from now on or we're going to have to let you go."

Of course, I know in my heart that the most likely outcome is that I'll get a 'Thanks, we'll look into that' e-mail and never hear about it again. But just for today, before the future takes form . . . just for today, I've taken a risk to accomplish something meaningful for the sake of other people who need help. Just for today, I am a hero.

And when I left work, it was snowing.

*And the oil light didn't come on and the garage door opened and they were playing 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas' on the radio.

*Gratitude to Scott Adams for Alice and the Fist of Death. If it weren't for you, sir, Management would be the highest-fatality job category in America.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The King's English

"A magic book . . ."

"Aren't they all?"


I spent this morning at King's English.

King's English, for those of you who may not know, is a small indy bookstore down towards fifteenth south and fifteenth east. It's a tiny little place. I think it was originally just a private home . . . a respectable little two-bedroom house in a quiet east side neighborhood, quaint but unremarkable. But instead, it became King's English.

King's English is packed, but packed, with books. There are so many books, there's barely room to walk around. The place is rich with interior walls, many of them there for no real architectural purposethey're just there to be covered in books, books, books. It gives you the impression that you're exploring a labyrinth. So many corners, and no telling what's behind any of them. (No, really . . . I don't think any two rooms in this building have floors that are level with each other, so if you're distracted [by a book, for example] as you move from one room to another, you may end up falling on your face. Just a warning.)

Despite the danger (or perhaps because of it), I love King's English. This, I feel, is what a bookstore should be . . . a place where getting to a book is as exciting as getting into it. Of course, Sam Weller's, SLC's other famous indy bookstore, is a lot closer to home, but I don't like it nearly as much. It's too downtown. I feel like I'm not progressive enough to shop there . . . like it's reserved for people who occupy Wall Street and dress in edgy, non-designer designer brand clothing and drink espresso and have unusual piercings. I am not cool enough for Sam Weller's. King's English feels more like a place where people run into each other around unpredictable corners and immediately start gushing, "Don't you love books? I love them! We should be friends." I try to shop there whenever I can, because my life is richer when I know that some few lucky souls get to work in such a place.

Terry Pratchett often talks about books as things that bend reality around themselves, causing odd things to happen by the sheer power of their presence. That's the kind of place King's English is. With that many books packed into that small of a space, odd things are bound to happen.

One of my professors at BYU once introduced me to the fascinating idea of liminal space. A liminal space is a border between worlds, a connection point between two realities, and it is at such points of connection that magic occurs. Forests are liminal spaces, rich with trees that connect earth to sky. Seashores are liminal spaces. Churches and temples, that link the mundane to the divine, are extremely powerful liminal spaces. So are doorways. So are mountains, that connect upward, and caves, that connect downward. Dawn and dusk are liminal spaces, or moments, if you'd prefer. Ruins, that tie present to past, are liminal spaces, too. And bookstores, where all that stands between you and a whole new reality is a laminated paperback cover, may be the most potent liminal space I know.

Of course, being LDS rather than Wiccan or Neopagan, I don't technically believe in magic. Not in the classical sense. But I'm fascinated by that intense, electric, fire-in-the-bones feeling that these crossover spaces produce. Have you ever just let yourself get lost staring out across the sea? Have you felt that brief moment of panic on a clear summer night where your whole body was suddenly convinced you were going to fall up into the sky? Do you remember the breathtakingly loud silence that fills a house on Christmas Eve when everyone else has gone to sleep? Have you ever walked into a bookstore or a library and felt it take your breath away?

Whatever that feeling is, I call it magic. It's as serviceable a term as any. It captures the mystery, and the draw, and the almost-terror of the experience. No, seriously. I remember walking into the Salt Lake City public library after my mission. It was paralyzing. I'd spent eighteen months with exactly three volumes of narrative: the Bible, the triple, and Jesus the Christ. I'd read them over and over again, in several languages, struggling to stave off withdrawal from the addiction I'd been nurturing since I was four years old. Then, just like that, my stake president said 'I release you' and I took off the tag and that was it. Books weren't forbidden anymore.

I walked into the library several days later and I just couldn't handle it. Thousands upon thousands of books. It was like being picked up out of the middle of the desert and being dropped into the middle of the ocean. All I could do was wander the shelves, running my fingers along the spines of the books and feeling them crackle with energy. I couldn't bear to read them, not that first time. I don't think I checked out a single volume. I just soaked up the astonishing, overwhelming feeling of power that came from being surrounded by so many books.

King's English still makes me feel that way. I went there this morning knowing exactly what books I wanted to buy, and they were easy to find, but I still stayed for the better part of an hour, just exploring the corners and crevices and nooks, taking volumes off the shelves and holding them in my hands. There were books I knew and books I didn't, books that reinforced things I believe and books that rebutted them, books that fascinated me and books that bored me, books to make me think and books to make me dream. If I live to be a hundred and end up with a million million dollars, I don't think I'll ever feel richer than I do wandering the treasure caverns of the King's English.

Open one. I dare you.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Muppets and Macy's

On the saddest, loneliest, hardest days of my life, I've always drawn some measure of comfort from this moment right here.

I'm curled up on the couch at my parents' house. My stomach is moderately full of cinnamon rolls and hot chocolate, and I am watching the Macy's Day Parade. I wouldn't miss this for all the world with a fence around it. My dad has disemboweled the Thanksgiving paper and is combing through the ads for things the rest of us can get him for Christmas. The Bug (that's my little brother, dear reader) is playing with his iPod and fretting restlessly around the room. We've got gorgeous homemade, home-grown pies ready downstairs, and the turkey (made in a brand-new style, as is ironically traditional) is waiting in the fridge. The huge yellow bowl is half full of cranberries, marshmallows, and sugar, which have been soaking together all night. I'm in a t-shirt that I can get dirty, and my hair is tied back out of the way.

First there are the musical numbers from the new shows on Broadway this year. Dan Radcliffe appears to be having a grand old time in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and the Spiderman musical seems just as deliciously atrocious as everyone has been saying. The Rockettes' kicks are not one inch lower than they've been every Thanksgiving of my entire life. And the cast of Sesame Street is still there, waving at the crowd as they've doing since my parents were children.

We watched a lot of old Sesame Street clips last night, as well as all of Labyrinth. We were in a Muppet mood. We hit the opening matinee show of The Muppets, which I highly recommend to anyone who was a kid at some point in the last forty years. All of those endearing, skewonky, familiar personalities--the irrepressible Gonzo, the unflappable Rowlf, Fozzie outgoing and insecure, Beaker courting disaster at every turn, Scooter calmly keeping all the chaos under control, Miss Piggy plowing through the storyline with that If-you're-not-getting-behind-me-then-get-out-of-my-way attitude, and of course wonderful, familiar, reassuring Kermit. Who doesn't love and trust Kermit? Who doesn't feel safer and calmer when he's around? I've been known to sing along to things in theaters, very quietly and privately, but when he started singing Rainbow Connection I just couldn't help myself.

Rainbow Connection is my song, and it may very well be your song too. Rainbow Connection assures us that there is such a thing as magic, somewhere just out of reach. Rainbow Connection is all about faith. It's a poetic and musical masterpiece in a simple little tune for frog and banjo (played left-handed).

So I watched Muppets. I smiled, I laughed, I danced in my chair. I remembered how great it is to be a kid at heart. I highly recommend it, and intend to get the soundtrack. Go see it when you can. Life is good as long as there are Muppets. And Thanksgiving. And the Macy's parade. And Broadway musicals. And Sesame Street. And cinnamon rolls. And marching bands. And little siblings. And soft gray winter skies. And old movies. And dads who decide that what they really need for Christmas is a panini press. Sounds like I have a lot to be grateful for.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Vodka Vodka Vodka

To alcohol! The cause of—and solution to—all of life's problems.

The Simpsons

What happens when you put six Mormon girls in a small kitchen with several gallons of booze?

It all started with my friend Heidi. Heidi, clever soul that she is, discovered that pure vanilla extract is really nothing more than vodka that's had vanilla beans soaking in it for a month. Hey, thought she, I could make that. She crunched the numbers and discovered that making vanilla herself would, in fact, be pretty darn cost-effective . . . provided she could do it in bulk. That's where the rest of us came in.

Being the good Mormon girl that I am, I have never really had much occasion to interact with vodka. Vodka and I are as ships that pass in the night. So how could I pass up on the opportunity to play with this intriguing new substance in a non-commandment-breaking environment? So I cruised on down to Tabby's house in Orem to hang with my friends and discover the wonders of alcohol.

These friends, I rush to add, are Clubbie friends. Clubbie friends are medievalists. Medievalists like making stuff. Why buy clothes when you can buy fabric and make your own? Why by fabric when you can buy thread and weave your own? Why buy thread when you know a guy who raises alpacas who will give you some wool so you can spin your own? That's how medievalists think. There's always another layer of home production to be explored. I have no doubt that by January Heidi will be figuring out a way to make her own vodka. And possibly grow her own vanilla beans.

Medievalists also have a tendency to not give a curse about what "normal" people think of them. This is particularly true in Provo/Orem, where the "normal" is so thick you can cut it with a knife. Throughout this whole endeavor, the voice of my Young Women's president was yelling in my head about slippery slopes and the appearance of evil. I'm pretty sure that everyone else's Young Women's presidents were behaving in similar fashion, because as we worked that afternoon, there were regular comments about what the other women at church would think if they knew what we were doing. Poor sheltered souls, we observed. So judgmental. And most of them, grown women with families, probably don't even know what a fifth of vodka is.

(I had no idea how much a 'fifth' was. A fifth of a pound? A fifth of a barrel? Twenty percent alcohol? No idea. I was totally faking my expertise in anything.)

When you're raised LDS, there's a taboo associated with alcohol that makes even the mere mention of it kind of exciting in a deliciously rebellious sort of way. So when my friend Drew suggested, "Let's see how many times we can say 'vodka' in one minute!" we all chimed in. Vodka vodka vodka vodka vodka. And it continued to be entertaining every time we said it all afternoon.

At this gathering, the first person to show up with actual alcohol was Melanie, who had brought a small bottle of vodka, sufficient for making two jam jars' worth or so of vanilla extract. Is this a fifth? I wondered. But then Ashley turned up with a big old glass bottle, and the eyes of my understanding were opened.
This is a fifth of vodka. Or it was.
The guy at the liquor store was even kind enough to put her fifth in the stereotypical brown paper bag.

There we go, thought I. Now I am a woman of the world, for I have seen and handled a fifth of vodka. Fifth of a gallon . . . who knew? 

Then Heidi showed up with a CASE of fifths of vodka.

She also plunked down onto the kitchen table a pound of vanilla beans, a large bag of cinnamon bark, several pounds of mint leaves and a bag of oranges. Apparently vanilla extract isn't the only thing you can make with that much liquor. To store our completed creations were cases of brown glass bottles. Brown glass helps the extracts to keep better or something, but it has the added benefit of making your creations look like patent medicines from the Old West.

Step right up, folks.
Within a few minutes, the kitchen smelled (and with good reason) like someone had been grating oranges, crushing mint leaves, and slicing vanilla beans in large quantities in a small enclosed space. It was pretty dizzying. It got more so when we actually opened the bottles and started measuring things out. But most exciting of all was when Ashley got the brilliant idea to boil the vodka before adding orange peel, so the essence would steep out like tea leaves. I'm willing to bet that even those friends of mine who are familiar with the ways of alcohol have never boiled an entire fifth of vodka in a saucepan. It's like sticking a can of hairspray up your nose.

Ashley got hold of a large funnel and started pouring the hot vodka back into its bottle (now filled with orange peel and cinnamon). As she started pouring, both she and I did a little math. It went something like this:

Room temperature glass bottle + boiling vodka = explosion???

So we decided to let the bottle warm up a little bit before filling it up all the way.

The result was a toasty warm glass bottle that I carried around with me for the rest of the afternoon. It was just so comfy. Non-teetotalling friends: have you ever snuggled with a bottle of hot vodka? I bet you haven't. But I have.

So with people pouring things into bottles and out of bottles and into saucepans and out of saucepans, under-filling and over-filling and topping off and measuring out, liquor kind of ended up everywhere. It got spilled on the table and on our hands and on the outsides of the bottles and all over the sink. Vodka, vodka everywhere, and not a drop to drink. Seriously. No one even licked their fingers. (Considering the association with hairspray, you can see why they wouldn't.) There's a big difference between enjoying the shock value of out-of-the-mainstream behavior and actually breaking the commandments on which one was raised. The former is a lot of fun; the latter is just tacky.

The next important question was Utah liquor laws. Somebody had heard that it was illegal to drive with an open container of alcohol in your car, and since our brown glass bottles weren't sealed, they would count as open containers. Plus we all reeked of booze and were very giggly off of friends and fumes. I, fortunately, was not pulled over on my way home; I hope the rest of the gang fared as well.

So now I have four little brown glass bottles lined up on my desk. One holds  a vanilla bean, slit open to let the seeds out; one holds a soggy jungle of crushed mint leaves; one holds a couple of small cinnamon sticks that I'm never getting out of there because they've swelled up inside the bottle; and one holds shreds of orange zest that look like the insides of a dark snow globe. They'll hang out there for a month, and then I'll find out just in time for Christmas if I actually succeeded in making the kind of extract I can cook with or if I've just ended up with bottles of vodka with plants floating in them.

So now there's only one thing left to say:

Vodka vodka vodka.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Testing, Testing

Where do Today and Yesterday meet?

In a museum.

Please Don't Eat the Paintings

So . . . I just got in from exploring the brand new Natural History Museum of Utah with Dad and the Little Ones. Excellently done. I highly recommend. (Don't leave just as a football game's getting out, though.) At this museum, I saw many beautiful and fascinating things. The building itself was beautiful and fascinating. It did involve some right angles, but you really had to look hard to spot them. It looks like they gave the architect a pencil and a straight edge and instructed, "Go nuts." The result is a hypnotic network of lines going every which-way, keeping your eye constantly moving as you explore the space.

In a hole in the ground there lived a tech-savvy, post-modernist hobbit who loved skewonky angles.

They had a super-awesome ant farm (yaay ants!) and a station where you could build a building and then knock it down with a precisely recreated historic Utah earthquake. Our eighteen-inch two-story parking garage twisted like a corkscrew and then crumpled. Guess we should have left the stabilizer thing on there. Also of note were the erosion displays, which involved much playing in silt and blowing of sand; excellent presentations on prehistoric craft skills that drew on the talents of local Utah artists and craftsmen; and smell-based exhibits. Yes, smell! Push the button and see what this thing smells like! Talk about interactive education. But what I really wanted to mention was the skeletons.

Skeletons are the major draw of any natural history museum; rocks are fun, but bring on the dinosaurs. Dinosaur bones have personality. There's a triceratops in the Metropolitan Museum of Natural History that is a particular friend of mine, because we had our picture taken together when I was four. We've stayed in touch since; I always stop by to say hi whenever I'm in New York. As you might expect, the UMNH has a stellar exhibit of fossils, this being Utah and all. The walkway winds down past the recent, tar-pit-era creatures (mammoths, saber-toothed cats, giant sloths and enormous mutant beavers of DOOM) and under and through the allosauroses and brontosauruses and every other kind of -sauruses (except thesauruses; they don't fossilize well) and your velociraptors and your utahraptors and a whole wall of sculls of things related to triceratopses and some dinosaur with giant, sythe-like, human-slicing claws that looks terrifying until you realize its head is so small it couldn't eat a chicken.

I am, by and large, an urban girl. I live most of my life in the heart of a major US city—not a huge one, but big enough to host the Olympic games and direct flights to Tokyo. I don't encounter predators a whole lot. (I mean, predators that could eat me. Of course there's the cat, but that's not what I mean.) I mean something that makes you feel like an ambulatory flank steak with delusions of grandeur when it looks at you. There are the great cats at the Hogle Zoo, but there are fences and super-thick windows involved, and usually they look too bored to care if you're edible or not. In Minnesota, I've encountered a wolf or two at the Wolf Center in Ely, but again, fence. Besides, I've got the common sense to know that a wolf isn't going to bother to eat me unless I do something abysmally stupid, like remove everything else that it could possibly eat from its environment. Not that anyone's ever tried that before.

The point is that I'm very, very used to being the top predator in my own environment. That's what makes wandering among dinosaur skeletons so deliciously unnerving. Because somewhere in the very back of every human brain, right there just inside the nape of your neck, is this little bit of dormant programming that recognizes the size, the build, the teeth of that dinosaur and kicks to life with an important little chemical alert message. This creature is going to eat you. You will experience a brief crunching sensation and then death. It also provides helpful instructions, like Back away slowly and don't break eye contact. This will enable you to live aprox. 23 more seconds than you would otherwise have achieved. Have a nice day. So I ease around the skeletons in my slow, careful, swinging museum-gait, not drawing any attention to myself, keeping my eyes on that dang allosaur until the last possible moment.

You may experience severe bleeding. This is a normal side effect. Please do not be alarmed.

I feel like encountering these enormous predatory things (or even non-predatory things; I'd end up just as dead if that doom-beaver decided it wanted to gnaw on a tree I happened to be standing in front of at the time) is like the test of the emergency broadcast system. You know, the one they used to do on TV that went BEEEEEEEEEEEP. Or the first-Wednesday-at-one-p.m. test of the tornado sirens, a Minnesota ritual for as long as I can remember. (Pray a tornado never hits Minnesota at one p.m. on a first Wednesday.) This prehistoric episode is a test of my brain's ability to recognize and react to predation, something I've never actually dealt with in real life and probably never will. But that little prickle of fear as I look up . . . and up . . . and UP . . . at a dinosaur skeleton assures me that when and if such a day ever comes, I'm going to be ready. Well, ready to live twenty-three seconds longer, at least.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


There must be moderation in all things. Today, after ten hours at work, solving problems I can't solve with information I don't have, I came home and had ice cream for breakfast. Thank the high merciful heavens for ice cream.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Ice Cream

 Giles: Oh, Buffy, I'm sorry. I don't really know what to say. Um . . . I understand this sort of thing requires ice cream of some kind?

Buffy: Ice cream will come.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

As an adult, I possess a powerful combination of things:

1. A regular source of income.
2. A car.
3. A credit card.

When I put all these things together, I come to one earth-shattering conclusion:

I can have ice cream WHENEVER I WANT.

There is nothing stopping me, any minute of any day, from going and buying ice cream and eating it. No authority figure is controlling the finances or the access. I am tall enough to reach the freezer. And I'm only a ten-minute drive away from Market Square, that shopping wonderland where you can get just about anything dirt-cheap as long as you don't ask any questions about where it came from.

Market Square gives out ice cream like Santa handing out presents. 99-cent pints of Ben and Jerry's, Dryer's last month's flavor of the month at two for three dollars, bashed-up tubs of Kroeger's vanilla at 50% off nearly all the time. I can sit at my work desk for two hours and collect all the finances I need to pack my freezer to the gills. (Do freezers have gills? They have something gill-like. It gets dust caught in it and stuff.) Of course, most of this ice cream has passed its expiration date, but who cares? Have you ever put a spoonful of ice cream in your mouth, sucked on it thoughtfully, spat it out and announced, "I feel like this ice cream's gone a little off. Maybe it's about time to throw this away and get a fresh one." I suppose the FDA has to stamp an expiration date on it just to make people feel that their tax dollars are being well-spent, but honestly, ice cream's ice cream. It's frozen, for pete's sake. What's it going to do? I've eaten and thoroughly enjoyed ice cream that had to be dug out of the back of the freezer with several pens and a lot of honest labor. It had probably been back there for years. Tasted fine. Ice crystals on it, of course, but that's all part of the charm.

However, it has been brought to my attention that eating ice cream six times a day for the foreseeable future is bad for me. There's some nutrient or other (maybe Vitamin B12. Never did know what that one was for) that ice cream simply cannot supply. So I'm expected, as an adult, to eat other things before eating ice cream. Like vegetables. But while there are many delicious vegetables available in the world today, very few of them supply that on-top-of-the-world feeling that comes with a spoonful of ice cream. Ice cream is an experience, an indulgence. Vegetables are, by and large, just food.

So I'm working on a list of things that aren't ice cream that give me that same sort of thrill. That "the world is mine and I get to do whatever I want" sensation. Here's a brief sampling:

Things That Are Awesome Like Ice Cream

Taking a shower so long and hot that you drain the water heater
Exploring a market, festival, exhibit, or performance that you just happened to stumble upon
Getting someone to give you a back rub
Riding a water slide, a roller coaster, or a merry-go-round
Riding it again just because you can
Jumping on the bed
Jumping into a pool
Jumping into a lake
Any kind of jumping, really
Wearing fun, gaudy, dangly, sparkly earrings for no particular reason
Standing on your head (or trying to)
Dancing to a song you like, no matter where you happen to be when it comes on
Getting the Jeopardy! question right before the guy on tv answers
Re-watching your favorite movie, whether everyone else is sick of it or not

Of course, as awesome as all these things are, I don't mean to advocate an ice-cream-free life. That would just not be healthy. I'm saying that just because I can eat all the ice cream doesn't mean I have to. And there's a sense of power in that. I can walk down the freezer isle of the grocery store and let all of that ice cream know that it is mine. Just because I don't feel like eating it today, or even buying it, doesn't mean I don't own it. It is mine as surely as if I'd written "Property of RoseE Do Not Touch On Pain of Death Or Else!" on it. Whenever I feel like eating it, it's going to be there waiting for me, obedient and loyal. I don't have to eat the ice cream; I just have to know that it knows that I can. And that's one reason why adulthood is magnificent.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Evils of Cheesecake

 "She's gone to the Enchanted Forest on the other side of the mountains to borrow a crepe pan from a witch she knows."
"She's what?" said the knight.
"She's gone to borrow a crepe pan," Cimorene repeated in a louder voice. "Perhaps you'd better have your helmet checked when you get back. They're not supposed to interfere with your hearing, but sometimes—"
"Oh, I heard you," the knight said. "But what does a dragon want with a crepe pan?"
"She doesn't want it; I do. I found a recipe in the library that I want to try, and the kitchen just isn't equipped to handle anything but the most ordinary cooking. Kazul will fix that eventually, but for the time being we have to borrow things like crepe pans and souffle dishes."
"You really do like it here," the knight said wonderingly.

Patricia C. Wrede, Dealing with Dragons

I have, taped to the wall of my bedroom, a Forbidden List. It's a list of ways to end the sentence "When I get home from my mission*, I'm going to . . ." It enumerates the books I planned to read, the movies I planned to watch, the people I planned to spend time with, and the goals I intended to accomplish once my time behind the tag was complete and I was my own mistress again. It's basically an 8.5"x11" sheet of concentrated homesickness. That's why it was Forbidden.

Now, of course, it's not Forbidden any more, but I haven't changed the title because The Perfectly Acceptable and Appropriate List doesn't have the same ring to it. The List has been a guide and a comfort to me, reminding me of all the wonderful things there are to do in the world and how lovely it is to have the freedom to do them. Some, like falling asleep with my face in a novel or eating at Famous Dave's Barbeque, I managed within 24 hours of landing in the United States. Others, like learning to play the guitar or seeing Half-Blood Prince, I haven't gotten around to yet. But this weekend I decided that I would check off a goal that's been bugging me for some time: I would learn to make cheesecake.

My master plan was to make the cheesecake on Saturday afternoon, and have it finished and in the fridge by the time I had to leave for Stake Conference**. So to that end I went shopping/exploring/poking about on Saturday morning, to see if any of my usual haunts for purchasing odds and ends would have such a thing as a spring-form pan handy. No such luck. (They did, however, have The Italian Job on DVD for a dollar fifty. Score!) So, spring-form-pan-less, I went home and curled up in bed with the new love of my life, Brandon Sanderson. (Not actually Brandon Sanderson himself. I assume he's married. And my bed isn't really big enough to share anyway, with all these bolster pillows on it. [Sorry, Professor Sanderson.] What I mean to imply is that I curled up in bed by myself and fell asleep listening to one of his books.) And of course I fell asleep. And of course I woke up much later than I should have. (It was dark! It felt like nighttime! Give a girl a break.)

Anyway, I dragged myself out of my warm bed into the cold world to consult with Marjie, my landlady/housemate/zany church lady. "What time are you leaving for Stake Conference?" I enquired.

"Oh, tonight's just youth session, I thought," answered Marjie blithely.

Now, I was about 68% sure that she was wrong about this, and that there was in fact a Saturday evening adult session that we were supposed to attend. However, the options appeared to me thusly:

1. I could check my planner, find I had to go to Stake Conference, get dressed up, go out in the cold, sit perfectly still for two hours, come home, and make no cheesecake.

2. I could check my planner, find that Marjie was correct, and stay in the warm cosy house with a fire going and make cheesecake.

3. I could NOT check my planner, assume Marjie was right, stay in the warm cozy house, make a cheesecake, and when when asked tomorrow respond honestly "Oh, did we have adult session last night? Marjie said it was just the youth session, so I thought I'd gotten mixed up. But look, I made cheesecake!"

Guess which option I went for. ***

So I made a pumpkin cheesecake.  From all I've heard, cheesecakes are supposed to be really finicky and complicated, but either I'm really talented or everyone was lying or I just had a cooperative cheesecake with a positive, can-do attitude, because the darn thing turned out pretty as a picture. Of course, it would have been prettier with a spring-form pan, but that's what Christmas is for, right?

Come on . . . wouldn't you sell your soul for this?

So I went to bed happy as a clam, with a beautiful cheesecake setting in the fridge, and woke up the next morning rarin' to go for Stake Conference. I showered, dressed, attended to hair and makeup, and in general did everything to nurture my image as a good and faithful young lady who would never skip out on an edifying meeting just to make cheesecake at home.

While warming up for choir, I ran into my parents. "You missed out on a good talk," my dad informed me.

"Oh, gosh, did I?" said I.

"Elder Robbins gave a great talk about cookies."

"About cookies, you say?"

"Yeah. He talked about having to resist the temptation of freshly baked cookies, when the smell's wafting all over the house, and how it's better to just not have any cookies lying around in the first place if you know you're not supposed to eat them."


So the entire stake was listening to an extended metaphor in which temptation was represented by baked goods, while I was at home making a cheesecake. And if chocolate chip cookies are enough to endanger Elder Robbins's immortal soul, what chance do I stand with a pumpkin cheesecake with sour cream topping stashed in the fridge?

I still had my last innocence-card to play. As we walked into the chapel, I found where Marjie was sitting and ran up to her. "There was adult session last night! We missed it!"

"I can't believe you fell for that," Marjie told me cheerfully.

I stared. Marjie, my mom, and their friend Connie all started laughing.

"I'm going to Hell," I told Marjie, "and it's entirely your fault."

"Oh, go sing," said Marjie, waving me and my damn├Ęd soul away towards the choir.

After church, I made sure to share the cheesecake with Marjie, my parents, and both my siblings, just to make sure that if I do go to Hell, I'll take all of them with me.

*For details of said mission, please visit

**Stake Conference: two long hours of church Saturday night and two more long hours of it on Sunday morning. Universally acknowledged to be the most boring meeting of all the year.

***I could, I suppose, have verified that there was Stake Conference and then decided not to go to it, but that's taking entirely too much personal responsibility for my own decisions. I'm just not comfortable with that.

The Tooth Fairy on Being a Grown-Up

It can be a pretty tragic thing for a kid to loose a tooth at summer camp. There is a ritual to tooth-losing that is disrupted by not being at home, sleeping in his/her/its own bed upon his/her/its own pillow. Feelings can range from pride ("Hey, cool! I lost a tooth at camp! I'm specialler than all the other kids!") to annoyance ("Dang, I wanted my five dollars. Lousy timing.") to trepidation ("What if I lose it before I go home? What if I never see it again? What if somebody steals it?" ("Who would want to steal your tooth?")) to outright meltdown ("It wasn't supposed to happen this way!!!") Tooth-losing is a rite of passage, an important moment of transformation, that can get lost in the chaos of lots of kids and lots of activities (and lots of personal possessions in a very small cabin) that are part of camp life.

Mirabelle, my boss since I became a counselor at sixteen years old, has a gift for getting into kids' heads and understanding the things that can make them freak out. With adults, she can be bossy and brash and terse, but with kids she always knows what to say. She understands the craving for recognition that comes with such a monumental accomplishment as losing a tooth, and has made it her personal mission to make sure that every tooth-loser receives that recognition. Five dollars is out of the question—budgets are tight—but she keeps an account at the camp store for tooth-fairy gifts and has become adept at creating fun hand-made cards of congratulations.

Her great dread, however, is that someday a child will wake up as she sneaks into the cabin and put two and two together. As traumatic as losing a tooth is, it pales in comparison to the trauma of realizing that the Tooth Fairy is only grown-ups telling lies. Mirabelle does not want the shattering of some child's innocent faith on her conscience, to haunt her to her dying day. So she dresses up in a dirty twenty-year-old negligee and a pair of fairy wings for all Tooth-Fairy-related activities.

So when I was sixteen years old, still a brand new junior counselor with lots of enthusiasm and not a clue to my name, I walked into the staff house one fateful evening and this is what I found: in addition to the general hubbub of people planning activities, grading papers, telling stories, and eating contraband snacks, there was Mirabelle, kneeling on the sandy floor in front of the coffee table (a single board bolted to three milk crates), intently engaged in her work with construction paper, glue sticks, and glitter, looking like Tinkerbell's older, crabbier cousin who had recently been splatted against the windshield of a semi.

The art project was not cooperating. (Of course it wasn't. Have you ever known any project involving glitter to go smoothly?) Finally, in frustration, Mirabelle threw down her art supplies and demanded of the company at large: "WHO let me use big people scissors?!?"

I'm not sure why this has stuck with me for almost ten years, but it has. And it's still funny. To this day, whenever some adult endeavor goes horribly, horribly wrong, it springs to mind again. Every time I get lost driving by myself, accidentally set something on fire, destroy a garment on which I spent a lot of money, put my foot in my mouth in front of people who are never going to let me forget it, or generally cause any kind of chaos in my mature, self-sufficient existence, the question pops back into my head: "WHO let me use big people scissors?"

Really, who did? There was no training course for this adulthood thing. I don't have any kind of certification declaring me competent to function in society. I get this feeling that the universe is grossly understaffed, if the only person available to be in charge of my life is me.

When I'm the only one in charge of my life, every catastrophe-free day is a victory. And so this morning, a chilly Sunday morning, I decided to start a blog. The blog is for the stories of my adventures as I go careening through adulthood, sometimes strewing mayhem in my wake, other times making it all look easy. I plan for it to contain gloating about my triumphs and humor about my almost-triumphs, as well as a healthy dose of the immature, the infantile, and the innocent. Because adulthood without some childhood in it can't possibly be any fun.