Sunday, November 30, 2008
A Shopping Guernica Captures the Moment
From the Great Depression, we remember the bread lines. From the oil shocks of the 1970s, we recall lines of cars snaking from gas stations. And from our current moment, we may come to remember scenes like the one at a Long Island Wal-Mart in the dawn afterThanksgiving, when 2,000 frantic shoppers trampled to death an employee who stood between them and the bargains within.
It was a tragedy, yet it did not feel like an accident. All those people were there, lined up in the cold and darkness, because of sophisticated marketing forces that have produced this day now called Black Friday. They were engaging in early-morning shopping as contact sport. American business has long excelled at creating a sense of shortage amid abundance, an anxiety that one must act now or miss out.
This year, that anxiety comes with special intensity for everyone involved — for shoppers, fully cognizant of the immense strains on the economy, which has made bargains more crucial than ever; for the stores, now grappling with what could be among the weakest holiday seasons on record; and for policy makers around the planet, grappling with how to substitute for the suddenly beleaguered American consumer, whose proclivities for new gadgets and clothing has long been the engine of economic growth from Guangzhou to Guatemala City.
For decades, Americans have been effectively programmed to shop. China, Japan and other foreign powers have provided the wherewithal to purchase their goods by buying staggering quantities of American debt. Financial institutions have scattered credit card offers as if they were takeout menus and turned our houses into A.T.M.’s. Hollywood and Madison Avenue have excelled at persuading us that the holiday season is a time to spend lavishly or risk being found insufficiently appreciative of our loved ones.
After 9/11, President Bush dispatched Americans to the malls as a patriotic act. When the economy faltered early this year, the government gave out tax rebate checks and told people to spend. In a sense, those Chinese-made flat-screen televisions sitting inside Wal-Mart have become American comfort food.
And yet the ability to spend is constricting rapidly. Credit card limits are getting cut. Millions of Americans now owe the bank more than the value of their homes, making further borrowing impossible. The banks themselves are hunkered down, just hoping to survive.
Live within our means and save: This new commandment has entered the conversation, colliding with the deeply embedded imperative to spend. And yet much of the distress is less the product of extravagance than the result of the fact that in many households the means are nowhere near enough for traditional middle-class lives.
Wages for most Americans have fallen in real terms over the last eight years. Pensions have been turned into 401(k) plans that have just relinquished half their value to an angry market. Health benefits have been downgraded or eliminated altogether. Working hours are being slashed, and full-time workers are having to settle for jobs through temp agencies.
Indeed, this was the situation for the unfortunate man who found himself working at the Valley Stream Wal-Mart at 5 a.m. Friday, a temp at a company emblematic of low wages and weak benefits, earning his dollars by trying to police an unruly crowd worried about missing out.
In a sense, the American economy has become a kind of piñata — lots of treats in there, but no guarantee that you will get any, making people prone to frenzy and sending some home bruised.
It seemed fitting then, in a tragic way, that the holiday season began with violence fueled by desperation; with a mob making a frantic reach for things they wanted badly, knowing they might go home empty-handed.
Saturday, November 29, 2008
Friday, November 28, 2008
Thursday, November 27, 2008
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Monday, November 24, 2008
Sunday, November 23, 2008
Saturday, November 22, 2008
(location Tubingen, Germany, artist unknown to me)
Friday, November 21, 2008
In my little animal family, Kate is the one so blessed. When we found her, she was covered with terrible scabs and scrapes in addition to being bone-thin. Given her emaciated state, we were sure she had been beaten as well as starved (the vet didn't think so since she didn't shy away from people's hands), but now knowing Kate, I think she may have just run into stuff at full speed. Our home's previous occupant planted lots of broken crockery and glass around the yard (I'm guessing to deter cats or maybe it was just an available to use to improve drainage). Kate has a real talent for uncovering these pieces. (In fact, the only one she didn't find was the broken crockery in the flowerpot in the front yard. That was me.)
I don't even remember how many times she's sliced her paw pads. She has scraped her nipples raw and bloody jumping over stuff and not.quite.clearing. She gets acne. Last month, we took her to the vet because she had a weird growth in her eye, and our vet referred her to a veterinary opthamologist (it is episcleritis, if you are curious. Nothing to worry about.) A few weeks ago, she split a toenail, all the way back to the paw. I don't know how she did it. I kept an eye on it, and soaked her paw every night in an epsom salt solution but it was getting worse, so back to the vet she went yesterday so now she's on pain meds and antibiotics. I know she doesn't like having the capsule shoved down her throat but she minds it less than having her paw soaked. The worst bit about this most recent injury is that I can't take her for the long walks she loves so much. (I know I can walk Seamus without taking Kate but Kate will be totally bummed if she's left behind.) It's kind of bad for me, too, because those long walks give me plenty of exercise. Of course, I could just go on a walk by myself, but I feel kind of weird doing that. First off, I need a good reason to go for a long walk in the cold and dark, and walking the dogs is that reason. It's for them, not for me! (Not that this works all the time. I haven't taken them for a walk in a few days, 'cuz I've been tired and lazy.)
But I hope Kate's foot heals quickly, for her sake as well as mine. I kind of need those walks too.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
So, I guess it's no surprise that the past few things I've made have been mostly fruit. It also had something to do with the fact that we had a huge amount of fruit from our weekly delivery.
So, what do you do with a bunch of extremely ripe pears and that red wine leftover from when Oscar made coq au vin? Make poached pears, of course. Now, in true Luneray fashion, I followed the recipe enough to realize that I didn't have enough pears. I had only three, but the recipe called for six so I chopped up a few apples to mix in with the pears. Then I realized that we didn't have a half bottle of wine that I thought we did. The recipe called for two cups of red wine. Eyeing the level in the bottle, it looked a bit less than half full so I guessed we had a cup. I poured it out and found out that the bottle contained one-half cup, exactly. Then I wished I hadn't chopped up the apples because my pear/wine ratio was about right. Oh well. I used the 1/2 cup wine and water for the other 1 1/2 cups and made the recipe using all the fruit. The fruit is tasty but intensely sweet; the wine flavor would have balanced the 1 1/2 cups of sugar much better.
Next up...persimmon bread. We had eight persimmons in our last fruit delivery along with a recipe for persimmon bread. These were fuyu persimmons, which are actually edible when they are firm (other types are extremely astringent and are eaten only after the fruit is soft), and they are tasty but I turned them all into bread anyway. (It's not like we don't have a few pounds of other fruit ready to be eaten raw, after all.) I followed the recipe that came with the delivery despite my initial distrust. No eggs? Agave nectar? The substitution given for the agave nectar was 1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp sugar mixed with 2 tbsp water, and I was sure that was a typo until Oscar mentioned that agave nectar is incredibly thick. But I mixed it up according to the directions and that dough was incredibly stiff. You know that the baked goodness called "banana bread" but is really a cake? Well, this persimmon bread really was more like a bread. A very sticky bread dough, but a dough instead of a batter. Too thick to pour into the loaf pan but far too sticky to shape it, so the loaf pan contained a rather lumpy mass.
After 40 minutes, I opened the oven to test the loaf for doneness and had my newest baking mishap. I pulled out the rack too far and the damn pan flew off the rack and overturned and the loaf flew out of the pan and landed upside down in the middle of the oven. (I should be glad it didn't land on the floor because it would have been immediately gobbled by Seamus whose food instincts (Food! On Floor! Mine!) override his pain instincts (Food! On Floor! Mine! HOT! HOT! HOT!).) Well, the bread wasn't done yet but it was done enough so that it kept its shape as I grabbed it and plopped it back into the loaf pan, only slightly smashed.
Despite its mid-baking flight, the bread turned out all right. It is very dense and chewy and not really sweet. It's really good sliced thin and spread with butter (and would probably be really good sliced thick and toasted), and Oscar suggested it would make really good French toast as well.
This weekend I plan to try making apple dumplings. With butterscotch sauce. Made with real scotch. :)
Monday, November 17, 2008
I'm not deliberately an iconoclast but I'm not a very enthusiastic celebrant for most holidays. Christmas? I had a tree once as an adult but never bothered with decorations since then. I give gifts (and occasionally remember to send out cards) but don't decorate. (One of my colleagues was shocked to her very core when she found this out. "Why don't you celebrate Christmas?" she asked, once she was able to pick her jaw up off the floor. "Well, for starters, I'm not a Christian." "It doesn't matter! Christmas is a secular holiday!" It's funny how Christians are the only ones who think that way. I know some secular Jews have embraced the secular Christmas tradition and get trees, although a much more common practice seems to have been inflating Hannukah into the "Jewish Christmas". Since I'm not Jewish, I'm just parroting a conversation overheard between some some Jewish colleagues. In case you are curious, you can file my religious affiliation as Christian Apostate, although there are plenty of people who will argue that the Christian tradition I grew up in isn't actually Christian at all. Since so many people have strong feelings about that particular tradition, I almost never tell people what the tradition is because what follows is a lot of prejudice from those I'm talking to. This often puts me in a very uncomfortable position of having to defend that church. I left it based on my own personal experiences, but I've never conflated my experience to damn the whole tradition. It's kind of like saying that since you had a bad marriage, that the institution of marriage is inherently flawed and that everyone who is married is just brainwashed or victimized. Yes, I know there are some people who do feel this way about marriage, but how seriously do you take them?)
My lack of enthusiasm for Christmas certainly didn't spring from my family background. My grandmother and mother both loved Christmas and all the decorations, music, etc that went with it. The day after Thanksgiving, my grandmother would start decorating the house first thing in the morning and it was always decked out by lunchtime. I don't ever remember her having a big tree; she had a tabletop ceramic tree with little colored glass (or plastic) "ornaments" illuminated from a lightbulb within. Yes, a bit kitschy, but then, so was my grandmother. (Unironically so.) She would whip up Christmas excitement to a fever pitch, so much so that we always opened gifts on Christmas eve because she couldn't wait until Christmas morning. But Dec 26th? Christmas is over and done with baby. First thing in the morning, everything came down and was put away. Contrast this to my mom who never, ever wanted Christmas to end and never hurried to take down the decorations (we had a fake tree, so there wasn't even a slowly decaying piece of shrubbery to serve as a memento mori. How long did it take to remove the Christmas decorations? One year, I found an Easter egg hidden in the Christmas tree.)
But I've always liked Thanksgiving. How can you not when the whole focus of the holiday is a really great meal? I don't go all out with decorations (you might have guessed that I'm not one for decorating--not my house, not my yard, and not even myself. I appreciate the effort that others do but really, it's not for me. Honestly, I think people should only go through with decorations because they want to, not because they have to. But with that thought, we have new neighbors on our street who put up a big display for Halloween and I wonder what they will do for Christmas. I really hope they won't have anything inflatable.)
I've also found that people are extremely particular about their Thanksgiving meal traditions, as becomes obvious when people outside of your immediate family try to share a meal. Oh, the mashed potatoes aren't quite right. What, where are the candied yams? No ham? Green beans with pearl onions? It's like every family has a set of dishes that are only eaten on Thanksgiving and that's what Thanksgiving dinner is.
In our family, it was roasted turkey and gravy (no giblets), mashed potatoes, green beans, candied yams, and jellied cranberry sauce (you know, the stuff straight from the can, which still retained the shape of the can even in the serving dish) and for dessert was pumpkin pie, mince meat pie and this weird dish called "ambrosia" that my grandmother made. I never liked it but everyone else did. (All I remember was it had colored marshmallows, some creamy stuff that was probably Cool Whip but may have been mayonnaise, and toasted coconut. I think there was canned fruit in there too.) I liked everything except the candied yams and minced meat pie (and the ambrosia). In fact, I don't think anyone ever ate the candied yams except my grandfather. (I think they were always fed to the dog.)
Well, for all this talk about people being so traditional with their Thanksgiving dinner, I'll be a big ol' heretic and admit that I really prefer ham to turkey. I'll eat roasted turkey, of course, but if I could only choose one to make or eat, I'd take ham. I have since found out that candied yams (which I still loathe) are not the same as sweet potatoes, which are actually pretty good when roasted and not drenched in caramel and marshmallows. Freshly whipped cream is way better than Cool-Whip. Cranberry sauce is super easy to make and there's no reason to buy the canned stuff. (This is the one thing that I am a purist about. Cranberry sauce is cranberries and sugar. Period. Keep your orange rind, coconut, carrots, apples, and what-have-you far away from my cranberry sauce.) My mom's basic mashed potatoes (made with plenty of white pepper and garlic) are really hard to beat but mashing freshly roasted garlic in with the potatoes is worth the extra effort.
But you know what my absolute favorite Thanksgiving food memory is? Saturday after Thanksgiving in La Paz, Bolivia, 1992. I was joining Oscar's family at his grandmother's house for their large weekly meal, always an elaborate affair. For dessert, she surprised me with a homemade pumpkin pie because she knew it was Thanksgiving in the US, and that it was an important holiday and she didn't want me to miss out. It was so thoughtful of her and so unexpected! And absolutely delicious too. Pumpkin pies aren't traditional in Bolivia but she had the recipe right and it was scrumptious.
Sunday, November 16, 2008
Friday, November 14, 2008
Yeah, that can be the theme song for my life lately. Not only did I oversleep AGAIN this morning, and not even notice Oscar's various tries to wake me, but I apparently reset my alarm for a later time, but have no memory of doing it. Kind of like sleepwalking, only it's "sleep-alarm-clock-resetting".
I went to the doctor to try to figure out why I've been having so much trouble sleeping, but it's not so much sleeping as it is waking up. ONly once in the past month have I woken up on a weekday feeling rested, and then I fell asleep on the train going into work and was literally jolted awake when the train came to a stop at my station. So instead of coming into work all rested and alert, I was completely groggy and sonambulent for most of the day. Anyway, previously, the doctor suggested regular exercise, just walking. And I've been doing that, but while there are definite benefits (like increased aerobic endurance, noticably firmer leg muscles, and looser jeans), my sleeping hasn't seemed to have been affected either positively or negatively. Alcohol doesn't really work either, which is actually a good thing because I can't use it as a crutch. In fact, past a certain point, I don't feel relaxed but actually anxious and restless.
Maybe I should train one of the cats to wake me up. Sasha sometimes would be very annoying in the mornings, but he wasn't a reliable alarm clock. Maggie is far too relaxed and refuses to move when she's snuggled up. Seamus and Kate would rather bust a gut then go outside into the cold (unless they are going for a walk, of course. They can hardly contain their enthusiasm then. Which reminds me that I need to spray my raincoat with ScotchGuard. It's a Gore-Tex coat but Gore-Tex rainproofing qualities has a lifespan. Who knew? About five years, if you are curious.)
So, I sit at work, not busy enough to keep me occupied and the stuff I do have to do is so uninteresting that it's hard to motivate myself. I broke a longstanding rule of mine the other day and started reading a book. I had completed everything on my to-do list, and so was essentially just keeping my chair warm until it was time to leave. I wonder if this is one of the reasons I have trouble waking up? I feel like there's no purpose of me being here? I feel so guilty about having a good job that pays well and for most of the time it's interesting enough but when it's not interesting, I really can't stand being here.
I have it better than so many other people, so why do I feel so ungrateful? In a stunning bit of irony, one of my colleagues just came up to congratulate me on my 10th anniversary with the agency. Yep, I started here 11/16/98, and was really excited about it, to be honest. She told me that a group of my colleagues had planned to take me out to lunch so I promised to act surprised when they offered. :D
Let's move on to a bit less whininess, eh?
None of my recent blogging seems complete without a kitten anecdote so here's the latest: Mouse has developed a fascination with Oscar's ears and my nose. She loves to perch on shoulders, and when she's hanging out on Oscars', she is overcome with a desire to nibble his ears. Oscar is hyper-ticklish, so it's extremely amusing to me when this happens. Yesterday, I tucked Mouse into the hood of his sweatshirt, and she hung out there, reverse-kangaroo style for a bit. Lately, after I've gone to bed, she joins me and settles down tucked under my chin and starts licking my nose. I have no idea why. It's a very ordinary nose. Thankfully, kitten tongues aren't nearly as rough as cat tongues.
In knitting news, I may have finally jumped off the deep end. Some of you who know me may be surprised by that declaration as you have no doubtedly come to the conclusion that I jumped off a long time ago. You may know that I enjoy knitting socks, but I almost never use up the entire skein of yarn for the socks that I make. There's always a little bit left over. I've been keeping these mini-balls of yarn, figuring that I'd find a use for them sometime.
And I have. The Yarn Harlot featured a knitter who was making a mitered square blanket out of her leftover sock yarn and a lightbulb went off. What a great idea! And I've found out that knitting mitered squares is insanely addictive. You can make the squares any size you like, as long as you start with a stitch count in a multiple of 3+1. Then you decrease two stitches in the center every other row until you are left with a single stitch. Bind off, and you are done. My squares (actually, it's a rhombus, not a square) are about 3inches at its widest dimension and to make a blanket the size I want, I will need about 228 squares. In case you are curious, each square has 511 stitches in it. That's 116,508 stitches for those who are curious but don't feel like opening the calculator feature on your computer. Not including the edging.
I don't know what size I will end up with. I don't know if I have enough sock yarn to make the size blanket I want nor do I know if I will get sick of it and end up with either a lap robe or a funky scarf. However, right now, all I want to do is knit mitered squares. It's a perfect little object. Each one takes about 20 minutes (yes, I'll let you guys do the math on that one) but I'm attaching each to the other as I go along so I won't have to sew them together. I've put together enough of it so that it is starting to resemble something instead of a long, unwieldy strap. I've put all my yarn bits into a bag and I pull out a color at random. The only rule I have is that two squares out of the same yarn can't be next to another. So, it's kind of a crazy quilt approach and I hope the final result will be interesting. But, trust me when I say it's really fun to make. Making mitered squares is completely addictive, and they are so small that I can easily convince myself that I can make just one more.
But another thing that's cool about this project is that since it's knit out of leftover yarn, each square has a story. "Hey, these are the socks I made for Katze. This is from Ms Swann's socks." And some of my knitter friends have given me some leftover sock yarn, too, so now their stories are knitted in. "This is from the socks Lana made for her husband. He loves yellow."
I'll post a picture of it when it's a bit more cohesive.