Sunday, April 26, 2015

Mac and Cheese

The other day I wrote about using my Pyrex collection in my kitchen, and in one of the comments someone asked if I would share the recipes for my banana bread and my mac and cheese.

I can't share the banana nut bread recipe.

It's my mom's, and I'm afraid of her.

I can share the macaroni and cheese recipe, though, because it's mine. It started out as a recipe from a comfort food cookbook, but I've adjusted it enough over the years that I think it's safe for me to say that it belongs to me now. I'll put the recipe first, and then some important notes that you should follow, or else I'll judge you.

Mac and Cheese

1/2 pound dry small pasta
1 tablespoon butter
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon mustard
3 cups grated cheese
1 cup milk

1) Preheat oven to 350 F.

2) Put the butter, salt, pepper, and mustard in a big mixing bowl.

3) Boil the pasta in salted water. You want it to still be a little firm when you're done, because it's going to absorb moisture from the cheese while cooking and soften. If you start with soft pasta (why are you eating soft pasta, anyway, instead of al dente?) it will turn to mush and your mac and cheese will have poor texture.

4) Drain the pasta and dump it into the big mixing bowl. Stir it up until the butter melts. Pour the beaten egg over it and stir it up again until all of the pasta looks like it got some egg, butter, and mustard on it.

5) Butter or spray the inside of your baking dish, and sprinkle the bottom with some of the shredded cheese. Add most of the remaining cheese to the big mixing bowl, saving enough to sprinkle on top of the mac and cheese. Mix it all together until the cheese seems evenly distributed through the pasta.

6) Pour the mixture into your baking dish. Sprinkle the rest of the cheese on top. Slowly pour the milk over the top of the whole thing, getting as much of it wet as you can. (Don't just dump the milk in the middle and call it a day.)

7) Bake for 45 minutes. When it's done, set it on top of the oven to cool for about 15 minutes before serving. It'll still be warm, but the cheese will firm up a little.

Notes, gathered from several years of experimenting with this recipe:

1) It doesn't matter what kind of pasta you use as long as it is a smallish sized pasta and not a flat pasta. Shells, mini penne, regular penne, elbow macaroni, whatever you have a half pound of.

2) This is not a diet recipe. Use real butter, real cheese, and whole milk. All of those things have fat, which is going to melt and bake together and make a nice firm mac and cheese. If you use diet cheese and 2% milk the mac and cheese will be thin and weird, especially since diet cheese doesn't melt so well. If you're worried about calories, serve yourself a smaller portion.

3) Shred your own cheese. Do it in a food processor or just use a box grater like I do. My mom thinks I'm kind of a snob on this issue, but I have a legitimate reason: pre-shredded cheese in the bag has things added to it (usually corn starch) to keep the cheese from sticking together. That's fine, and there are times when that's useful. If you're making fondue, using the pre-shredded cheese means you don't have to add corn starch to your cheese, because the additives are already there and will help keep your fondue liquid instead of binding up. You want your mac and cheese to melt together, though, so shred the cheese yourself. To get the 3 cups of shredded cheese for the recipe, you need 8-10 ounces of cheese.

4) Use a couple of kinds of cheese. One of them should always be cheddar if you're making a traditional mac and cheese, but they should all be a medium or firm cheese, because then they'll all melt the same way while it's baking. Soft cheeses have a lot of moisture, and will make the mac and cheese really wet and it won't hold together as firmly. For the one in the blog entry the other day, I used most of an 8 ounce block of generic store brand sharp cheddar, and then went to the "$5 and under" bin at the fancy cheese case at Kroger and grabbed a lump of sharp English cheddar and a lump of some cheese that I forgot the name of. It felt about the same firmness of the cheddar when I squeezed it, and the label said that it was salty, nutty, and went well with beer. Since cheddar also goes well with beer, I assumed that this cheese and cheddar would go well together, and they did.

5) Extra cheese will not hurt you. If you end up with four cups instead of three, mmmmmm... cheese.

6) Any kind of mustard is fine. I have five or six kinds in my refrigerator because mustard is the lowest calorie condiment I like, so I've been drowning sandwiches in it. For this recipe I usually use Dijon or spicy brown mustard, but if all you have is a bottle of plain old yellow mustard, that works, too. The mustard adds a little bit of savory flavor to the recipe, and brings out the flavors of the cheese.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Blasted Crust Pizza Rolls

You know how people say you should never go to the grocery store on an empty stomach?

You also shouldn't go to the grocery store after a long, mentally exhausting first day back at work from vacation. You shouldn't do it because those two factors, the empty stomach and the fried brain, could lead to you making some poor choices in the grocery store.

Impulsive choices.

EXTREME choices.

The kind of EXTREME choices that leave you unable to even type the word without doing so in all caps.

The kind of EXTREME choices that lead to this:

blasted crust pizza rolls

I ate Totino's Blasted Crust Pizza Rolls for dinner.

They weren't terrible, but I won't buy them again. I bought the ranch (possibly RANCH! or even X-TREME RANCH!) flavor rather than the cheddar flavor, and I guess they taste sort of like ranch. They taste kind of like you took a slice of thin crust pepperoni pizza and crumbled up a handful of Cool Ranch Doritos on top of it. They left my fingers a little greasy, they exploded on the plate a little in the microwave, and I can't stop burping, but who knows? That may appeal to you.

What appeals to me, on the other hand, is that webpage about them. It reads like the cat from Paula Abdul's Opposites Attract video wrote it himself with his biggest crayon. (As a side point, what was actually happening in that video? Was Paula Abdul dating an anthropomorphic cartoon feline? Does Paula condone animated bestiality? No wonder God cast her out of the Bratz movie.) It's not a "Saturday Night Live" parody of Guy Fieri, though. It's a real, actual webpage. Someone got paid to write that.


We’ve got four words for ya: BLASTED. CRUST. PIZZA. ROLLS.

Oh. God. there. are. periods. between. the. words. And only three of those words have to do with food. One of these things is not like the others, and that thing is BLASTED. What does this all mean?

We took regular ol’ pepperoni filled Pizza Rolls, and THREW THEM IN A VOLCANO.

A volcano? Shouldn't they be BURNED CRUST PIZZA ROLLS, then? Or was this maybe a volcano... OF FLAVOR?

But instead of lava and ash or whatever these volcanoes had MAGICAL RANCH powdery stuff and EQUALLY MAGICAL CHEDDAR powdery stuff.

Magical powdery stuff? And it wasn't an EXTREMELY large pile of cocaine? I'm starting to think that "volcano" was a food additive factory in south Jersey. Kudos to Totino's on the vocabulary words, though. "Powdery" makes me think of "powder", which is another word for "snow", which makes me think of snowboarding, and dude, bro, snowboarding is WICKED EXTREME, like these pizza rolls.

Those rolls got all covered in that powder business and blasted out of the volcano like “LOOK AT MEEEEE! I’M A PIZZA ROLL EVOLVED!! BOW TO ME, LOWLY UNDERLINGS!”

True story: That's how I start most of my staff meetings. Including the part about being a pizza roll.

Then we ran each of them over with a tiny car a few times to make those cute little ridges.

A tiny car? Full of tiny clowns, perhaps? An EXTREMELY tiny car? Full of EXTREMELY tiny clowns? How did Totino's get inside to even drive that thing?

We dunno, just seemed like a good idea.

At least as good an idea as buying these was.

In stores in February! Get flavor dust on your fingies!


My fingies.

I can't even type anymore, because my fingies are too EXTREME.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

All That Pyrex

My friends all know that I collect vintage Pyrex. As I mentioned before, this is often met with amusement, scorn, occasional support (my friends Phyliss and Kristin have proven willing to drive for hours to visit antique stores and flea markets just to look for it), and also often with questions. Here are the three that come up most often:

"What do you do with all that Pyrex?"

I display it and I use it. I don't understand why this is so hard to understand for people, but it is an eternal question, and I think it comes down to snobbery. If I said that I had a set of fancy wedding china, and that I displayed it in a fancy china cabinet and occasionally used it, the response would be more along the lines of, "Oh, yes, of course. This is what one does with fancy wedding china." Since I'm just using and displaying Pyrex, which was sold as everyday dishes and which a lot of people remember (or are still using) from Mom's and Gramma's houses, the response is more along the lines of, "That's so weird." The weirdness factor might also be because I sometimes get overly excited about finding some, but finding it is exciting for me. If it's not exciting for you, just scroll on down.

"Don't you have enough Pyrex?"

This was most recently asked by Mom while they were visiting last week. The simple answer is that no, I don't. I would like to finish my white Town and Country refrigerator dish set, because it is only half completed at the moment. (I don't care about the colored Town and Country refrigerator dish set. I only like the all white with pattern one.) I would like an Early American 404, because it is the only mixing bowl out of the set that I'm missing. I've never seen Brittany Blue in person, ever, at any store, so I haven't been able to decide if I like it and want any or not. (I thought I would like Colonial Mist and Horizon Blue, and when I finally saw them in person I didn't like either one. I didn't think I would like Shenandoah, and when I saw it in person I thought it was pretty and bought it immediately.) I feel like I might want an Orange Fiesta, a Vintage, and maybe a Midnight Bloom, but I won't know until I see them and see what people are charging for them.

Do I need these things? No.

Do I want them? Yes.

"Do you even use all that Pyrex?"

This is kind of like the first question. I was thinking about it this week, at the tail end of my vacation, so I decided to keep track of how much I used while I did some pretty average weekend cooking: I made a mac and cheese, and I'm currently baking a banana bread.

The mac and cheese ended up using five pieces of Pyrex:

mac and cheese (1)

Starting just below the cheese:

My beaten egg is in a Pyrex Family Flair creamer. Family Flair dinnerware was introduced in 1957 and continued until about 1960. It was not produced in white, even though my creamer is all white. Instead, someone has dishwashered my creamer to death between 1957 and now, and all the paint came off, so I have no idea what color or pattern it was. Since it was stripped down to the glass and was a couple of dollars at the antique mall, I bought it, and I always use it for adding beaten eggs to something. It holds about four eggs, it has a spout for pouring them out, I can put it in the dishwasher, and using it to beat eggs doesn't dirty a measuring cup, which I will probably need in the same recipe for measuring liquids.

Below the creamer is a one cup Pyrex measuring cup. I have three of these of varying ages. They're not vintage (one might be from the 1980's, so it's arguable?), and they can all go in the dishwasher.

I'm mixing up the mac and cheese in an Amethyst 325 mixing bowl. It's hard to see how purple it is because of my black countertops, but take my word for it, ok? That's a three dollar thrift store purchase, and I've started looking for the clear mixing bowls fairly recently because I can put them in the dishwasher and because I stop using my patterned, milk glass mixing bowls when I complete their sets and put them on display. (Or use them for other purposes. My Hex Signs 404, for example, is on the dresser in my bedroom, because I keep my bow ties in it. Around the kitchen, I throw my change in an Empire Scroll 043, keep my bananas in a pink 503, hold envelopes and notecards in a red Hostess bowl, etc.) I can't have a kitchen without mixing bowls and I've collected most of the patterns that I like, so I need some working bowls.

Just above the mixing bowl you can see a Pyrex lidded butter dish. I have a clear one because it was a dollar at the thrift store, and also because they didn't make the white glass patterned ones in any of the patterns that I like or collect. There's a couple that I would buy if I saw them because I can sell them to someone else in the collectors groups I belong to, but for the most part if I see a Pyrex butter dish at a store I shrug and move on.

That's only four pieces, though. The fifth was the clear glass 221 I baked the mac and cheese in:

mac and cheese (2)

I have a stack of 221 dishes. I have a clear and an opal (all white), which can both go in the dishwasher, and a Desert Dawn, a Lime, and a Turquoise, which cannot go in the dishwasher. They're the perfect size for cornbread, a small cake, brownies, mac and cheese, vegetables, etc. and I have so many because sometimes I need more than one at a time.

I guess I could have eaten the mac and cheese on a Pyrex plate, but that would have been excessive. I only use my Pyrex plates when I think they look good with the food.

The banana bread used four pieces of Pyrex:

banana bread (1)

I mixed up the batter in that Old Orchard 403. I don't collect Old Orchard, but that bowl was three dollars and I mentioned above that I needed some working bowls for my kitchen as my other bowls came out of usage rotation.

I'm also using my other two glass one cup measuring cups. Good thing I have three, right? One of them has the oil, and I'm mashing up the overly ripe bananas in the other. It's good for that because it has a handle and a wide mouth, so it's easy to hold onto while I mash with a wooden spoon.

Like the mac and cheese, the last piece used was the baking dish:

banana bread (2)

That's an Opal loaf pan. I also have one in brown glass (a gift from Mom many years ago when I moved into my first apartment; it predates me actually collecting Pyrex), and both of them can go in the dishwasher.

And that's pretty much all of the Pyrex I've used this weekend.

Hopefully that answers all of the questions.

Friday, April 17, 2015

My Dark Descent Into Taylor Swift Fandom

It's been warm in Knoxville this week, warm enough that when it wasn't raining I was driving around with my windows down. That means that anyone close enough to the car can hear what I've been playing, and all this week it's been Taylor Swift's 1989. (Last week it was Steve Grand's All American Boy, which you should buy both because it is a decent debut album and also because you can hear a man singing pop songs about loving another man's sexy body.) I didn't stop to think about how weird this might seem until tonight when I ran into a friend in the Kroger parking lot on my way home.

"Joel, is that... are you listening to Taylor Swift?"



"I like her."

"You like Taylor Swift now? You?"

I do.

I like Taylor Swift.

Let me take a minute to explain how this happened. I mentioned it once before, when I wrote about how much I didn't like Beck's Album of the Year. I buy CD's, rather than just downloading the album on iTunes or Amazon, because I don't want to download every song on any album until I know if I like them or not. Sure, I could still do that with digital music files, but if I have a physical CD and don't like it I can take it to McKay's and trade it in for store credit, like I did with that crappy Beck CD. I can't do that on Amazon or iTunes. Granted, it's not what I paid for it, but it's better than nothing. With that idea in mind, I purchased Taylor Swift's CD thinking that I wouldn't like it, but also thinking that I should at least listen to it before pre-judging.

On my first listen, I was immediately scornful. After hearing "Welcome to New York", the first song on the album, my immediate response was, "This sounds exactly the way someone who wasn't alive in the '80's thinks 80's music sounded like." It gave me the same feeling that photos of sorority "80's Nights" parties does. It was very synthesizer heavy, sounded a little processed, and even though it didn't have any beats or chords in common with it the song sounded to me like a knockoff of Nu Shooz's "I Can't Wait". It was later pointed out to me that Taylor Swift actually was alive in the 1980's. She was born in 1989. By the time I finished a first listen of the entire album, I believed that my preconceived notion of Taylor was still correct: She was the kind of girl that I would advise a straight guy friend to immediately break up with, because there was a seething undercurrent of "clinging nutbag" to all her songs.

I'm slow to react, though, so Taylor Swift kept playing in the car for the rest of the week.

By Wednesday, I realized that I liked the third song on the album, "Style". It was catchy, moody, and I might have gotten hooked a little by the reference to James Dean, but also it's a song about how you should really stop dating this guy but you keep dating him anyway because you're both a little obsessed with each other and when you're good together it's great but really you should just break it off for real this time because you keep crashing and burning and that's happened to me before when I was younger and Oh my God, I have something in common with a Taylor Swift song.

Taylor Swift and I connected.

It was like a door opened, and I suddenly began to hear all of the songs on the CD in a different way. I understood that yes, Taylor and I can be a little mental sometimes, but we've both dated a lot of guys who are jerks. And we kept dating them. We remain hopeful, but Jesus, we sure can pick them, can't we? By Friday of that week, five days into my Taylor Swift listening experience, I realized that even though Kelly Clarkson is my go-to for music when I'm mad about a man (because every time I hear a song by Kelly Clarkson I want to go find a man who wronged me and kick him right in the junk), there was room in my heart for my girl Taylor.

So yes, I like Taylor Swift now, and I'm not ashamed to admit it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Anorak in a Sack

As I continue losing weight (or, in the case of last month, not losing any) I've been going through clothes that have been boxed up in the back bedroom for years at a time. In some cases I haven't seen these clothes since I moved here in 2006, when I opened all of the boxes to get my dishes out. (Since I packed everything myself for the move, I used my clothes to wrap all of my glassware. Some of the clothes were already too small at that point, because I'd put on weight my last couple of years in Albany, so after I got my glassware out I just threw the clothes back in the boxes for "someday" when I lost more weight.) In other cases, like the case of the hunter green Old Navy "Anorak in a Sack" that I wore today, I can pinpoint the exact last time I wore it:

Disney World receipt

Based on the receipt I found in the pocket this morning, I last wore it on Christmas Day, 2009, which I spent at Epcot Center in Walt Disney World with my friend Sean.

Look, here I am, wearing my Anorak in a Sack:

I'm calling Britain!

It might be hard to tell in that picture, but that anorak was a little tight in 2009. It's pullover-style, and it was starting not to be so easy to pull over, so after that trip it came out of the suitcase, got hung on the coat tree in my second bedroom, and was promptly ignored from then on.

Until today, when I wore it for walking around town with my parents, and my Dad said it looked a little big.

The fact that an anorak that I wore last in 2009 is a little big should be exciting enough, but here's the thing:

I bought my Anorak in a Sack (so named by Old Navy because you can fold it into itself and zip the whole thing into its own front pocket) for hall director training in the Fall of 1999. Do I fit into all of the clothes that I still own from the last century? No, but I fit in one of them. I fit into an anorak that I purchased when some of my coworkers were under the age of ten.

I'm counting this as my win for the day.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Things I've Seen

Tonight, at dinner, our table was talking about a street I drive through on my way home from work, Sutherland Avenue. One of the other ladies said, "It's not really a bad neighborhood," with the kind of tone that left "but not really a good one, either" unspoken, and I replied, "It's not, but 90% of the weird things that I've seen in Knoxville have been on Sutherland Avenue."

She raised an eyebrow.

"Really? Like what?"

In no particular order:

1) While sitting in traffic on Sutherland I watched a man walk out of the bus stop, walk around the back, urinate on the bus stop, and then walk back inside. The bus stop in question, by the way, is made of clear plexiglass, and there were other people inside it at the time.

2) At least five times I've seen oncoming traffic after dark that doesn't have their headlights on. I do not flash them, because gang highbeam initiation is real (no matter what Snopes says) and it killed Brenda's boyfriend and that creepy red-herring janitor.

3) Once when I was waiting in my car at the gas station for Kristin to buy cigarettes I realized that the man in line behind her was wearing a lime green adult onesie, with feet. We did not stay to see what he was buying.

4) I saw a man walking down the sidewalk in the middle of the day, casually swinging a machete at his side.

5) I saw two pregnant women slapping each other on the sidewalk.

6) I saw a car with three headlights driving toward me. I don't know what it looking like, because it was far away, it was dark out, and it turned onto a side street before it got to me, but it had two regular headlights and a third one, higher, in between them. I'm reasonably certain that no one in Knoxville is driving a Tucker Torpedo or a Tucker Talisman, but I have no idea what else it could have been besides a weird custom car of some kind.

7) I saw something that I refer to as the Phantom Ambulance. One night, I was driving home rather late after an event on campus, and was pretty much the only car on Sutherland. I stopped for a red light at the corner where the run down barbershop with the red, white, and blue paintjob is, and while I was sitting there thinking, "It's really dark out here," the stoplight at the corner of the intersection went out. I looked up at it, and when I looked back down there was a vehicle driving slowly through the red light from the opposite direction: an ambulance with no headlights on, no ambulance lights on, and no interior lighting. As soon as it crossed the intersection the light changed, and I sped away as fast as I could. I did not turn my head.

So, yeah. Sutherland Avenue?

All weird, all the time.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Elvis

I didn't start the day planning to try something new to eat. I actually wasn't planning to eat out today at all, because I've been intending to make a pasta bake for dinner this weekend all week, to use up some extra cheese in the refrigerator that I'm worrying is about to turn bad. That was part of my plan for the day, after meeting up with my friends Sara and Suzy to hike one of the quarry trails at the nature center, which I haven't done since 2011. That would be right around the time that walking long distances started to make me tired, so I haven't gone back since then.

Now that I can walk for hours, though, hiking is once again possible. I need to take more advantage of it.

On our way to hiking (I picked Sara up because she's buying a new car tomorrow, and doesn't have one right now) Sara and I were shocked by how many places in Knoxville were actually open today. I'm not sure if it's a Southern thing, a Bible Belt thing, a Knoxville thing, or what, but there is a strong possibility that things in our city are closed on a Sunday, and throwing Easter in on top of that led us to assume that there was a strong chance that we wouldn't see any other traffic. We were wrong, though, and downtown seemed to be hopping when we cruised through, so after hiking Sara and I decided to head to Market Square to eat a late lunch/early dinner.

I let Sara pick, because my only preferences are "no Cocoa Moon" (my friend Kristin and I ate there once and my food was so terrible that I've never gone back) and no seafood. I don't really eat seafood, other than tuna salad, and I'm dubious of seafood restaurants in landlocked states. Sara shared my concern, explaining that the half-price sushi specials at the local restaurant are twice a week because they are the nights before they get their fish deliveries. They have to clear out the old fish before it goes bad. With that in mind, Sara picked Stock & Barrel, a new-ish burger place that I've heard about but not eaten at. I'm not usually a burger eater, but I decided to go with it because I said she could pick and hadn't counted it out, and I have been curious to try them since I keep hearing how good they are.

It turns out that they are good. I'm not sure they're worth $12 a burger, but as a once in a while meal, it doesn't feel like I overpaid, especially since I tried something completely different on random impulse, and it turned out to be delicious.

I ate The Elvis.

elvis burger

According to the menu, The Elvis featured "organic peanut butter, fried bananas, Benton's bacon," a locally made bacon that a lot of the restaurants around here that locally source ingredients use. I've never had peanut butter on a hamburger before, but I like everything on The Elvis, and I like everything on it without the burger part, so I figured, "Why not try it?" It was also one of the only burgers on the menu where I liked everything and wouldn't have to ask them to leave anything off. I know it's my right as a customer to ask for it the way I want, but sometimes I feel like I'm being a real pain in the ass and just want to order off the menu without worrying about onions or nuts or whatever.

I was also intrigued, and figured that I might as well try something new.

And it was good.

The bacon is both smoky and salty, and the peanut butter is salty and a little savory. The fried bananas add some sweetness, to cut all of the salt, and really my only issue with the whole thing is that you'll want to cut it to eat, since the whole thing is kind of drippy and should not be picked up with your hands unless you want peanut butter on them. It could easily have turned out the other way, and been as gross as it may sound to some people, but maybe some of those people will rethink it.

Try some peanut butter on your burger.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

A Woman's Guide to Home Repair

McKay's, a huge used bookstore near my house that I visit biweekly, if not more often, has a large bin out front for free books. There's not always something interesting in there, since it's the books that McKay's doesn't offer to buy from people. They'll give your books back to you, of course, but if you say you don't want them then they end up in the free book bin. Sometimes I find interesting things in there, and on at least one occasion they ended up buying back a book that I'd taken out of the free book bin after I finished reading it. The demand for it must have changed while it was sitting on my end table waiting for me to read it, I guess.

I'm reasonably certain that they're never going to take back the book that I found there a while ago, though:

A Woman's Guide to Home Repair

Urban Dictionary might want to borrow that photo from me, so that they can put it next to the definition of mansplaining on their website because, Jesus, this book is really, really mansplainy.

When I saw it, though, I wondered, "Why would they need a special book just for women about home repair?" so I picked it up and read the back, which I will now quote in its entirety:

Here is the fixit book women have been waiting for -- a sympathetic but noncondescending approach to home repairs addressed to women as intelligent people who simply lack instruction.

Anyone who can back a cake can fix a broken oven -- and save on expensive repair bills. In combining practical instructions with delightful wit, this is the first home-repair guide for women -- both single and married -- that really works!

How about that, ladies? If you can bake a cake (and I know you can, because you're a lady), you can fix your oven. This book, published in 1973, will treat you like a rational, thinking adult (who bakes cakes), unlike books from around the same time period that treat you like raving emotional nutbags. Now, I'm not a woman (even though I can bake a cake), but I'm also not especially handy around my apartment. I don't have to be, because apartment living means calling the office and having problems magically go away while you are at work. At the time that I found this book, though, I had a dripping faucet in the shower that would not shut itself off, and thought, "Maybe this can help me, too."

SPOILER: It didn't, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

A Woman's Guide to Home Repair opens with a charming little introduction where an unknown, uncredited woman tells a brief story of how she was disappointed to discovery on her honeymoon, barely minutes into her marriage, that her husband isn't very handy. How will they survive? How will they live? Will they be at the mercy of the local handyman and his arbitrary charges for fixing ovens and hanging pictures in the living room for the rest of their lives? On the very first page, Mystery Woman (this book has no credited author, not even on the copyright page), asks the question that apparently haunts every woman:

"Did you marry for love, or did you marry just to get your toilet fixed?"

The idea that her husband might not be able to fix the damn toilet after she's gone to all the trouble to marry him makes Mystery Woman question not only her life choices, but also her husband's very masculinity:

"To have one who was not handy was like admitting he didn't watch football games, use an anti-perspirant, or read Playboy at the barbershop."

Wait...people read pornography at the barbershop?

1973 was a wild time, I guess.

Getting back to Mystery Woman, though, it's sort of cute how she doesn't want to be stereotyped as a helpless woman creature while ladling on the stereotypes that manly, handy men watch football and read porn, if by "cute" you mean "terrible". As the story of her growth into a handywoman progresses, we come to understand that her poor choice in husbands really did ruin her life, leading to a failed writing career:

"Some things, of course, I could not fix. I have been writing columns and novels without the use of the letter s which sticks on my typewriter. No wonder I never made it big. Who wants to read a book without _ex?"

Poor Mystery Woman, typing away into obscurity. That doesn't have to be me, though, or the woman that she hopes one day reads this:

"The fact is that women don't have to be unhandy."

They don't. Neither do middle-aged gay men, right? If only the author could say something to reassure me, something like...

"I contend that anyone who can enter an unfamiliar grocery store and walk unerringly to the canned peaches (and few women can't) can master a hardware store."

Wait, you have to be able to find things at the grocery store? I'm doomed. Grimly, sensing disaster (possibly because this book is for women and I'm not a woman even though once my straight boyfriend D--- accused me of having "a woman brain"), I plowed ahead, hoping that somehow I would find a way to fix the leaky bathroom faucet without calling the maintenance guy, since calling maintenance means that I have to clean, dust, and vacuum and I just wasn't feeling it.

After assuring the aspiring handywoman that yes, this book will help her, Mystery Woman starts a whole illustrated chapter explaining what tools are and what the handywoman would use them for. Mystery Woman, who I suspect is actually a man writing as a woman, even explains why a woman needs tools in the first place:

"Wondrous and diverse as are the contents of your purse, a tool kit it is not. The jobs at hand call for more than a key or a dime or even a nail file."

Ladies, you really need to start carrying more useful things in your purse.

The chapter on tools isn't the only one with helpful illustrations. This page from the chapter on electrical problems, for example, shows the kind of educated, technical terms that this book makes use of:


"Fancy doodad", ladies. Fancy doodad.

Turning to the chapter on plumbing issues, which opened with a reminder not to put "paper, string, silverware, and diamond rings" in my garbage disposal, I found a section on how to fix a dripping faucet. I read the entire chapter carefully, noting that I would need a wrench. According to the chapter on tools, I had one:


Then I needed to find the shutoff valve for my tub. According to the book, it would be somewhere near where the tub pipes come out of the wall if I had an older-style tub. I do not, since I live in a mid-century era apartment, so I consulted the book again, and it suggested that the cutoff might be in the cabinet in an adjacent wall. Nope, the cabinet under my sink was empty, too. Maybe I could just take the faucet apart without shutting off the water?

According to the book, that's a bad idea.

I thought about doing it anyway, but the book used the word "flood", so I decided that no, let's not do that.

Let's just call the apartment office, and let them send a man over to fix it.

I failed. Even worse, I'm not sure if I failed to be handy, or if I failed to be a woman.

Maybe someone can mansplain it to me.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Nine Months

It was bound to happen someday, and that someday is today:

I didn't lose any weight this month.

I weigh 220 pounds, which is exactly what I weighed a month ago. I'm still obese, still not at my goal weight, and made no measurable progress toward it this month. I've had all day to think about it since I weighed myself this morning, seven hours and six miles ago, and I'm not as upset about this as I would have been back at the two month mark or the three month mark. There are a few reasons for this:

1) I didn't gain any weight. I may not have lost any, but I didn't put any back on, so even though I made no progress I am still ahead of where I was.

2) I have been way, way off diet for this month. I've eaten candy, a lot of candy. I've exceeded my 2000 calorie a day limit several times this month. By my rough guesstimate, about 20 days, actually. That's a lot of extra calories, but I also increased my daily step goal to 13,000 steps a day this month, and most days I don't just meet it, but instead exceed it.

I'm not upset because this month of dietary backsliding has proven something important: I can balance diet and exercise to maintain weight. Granted, 220 is not a weight that I want to maintain, as I am still twenty pounds from my goal weight and eleven pounds from being overweight instead of being obese, but knowing that I can maintain my weight instead of putting it back on is good to know. I don't remember which blog entry I posted it in, but several months ago I said, "I will have to exercise regularly for the rest of my life if I don't want to be obese," and now I've proven that it will work. I can slip off of my diet more days than I stay on it, but with the right amount of exercise added to that I can maintain.

I really have to buckle down and stop slipping off of my diet, though. It will be nice to maintain my weight when I get to my goal, but since I'm not there yet I need to go back to reducing mode, not maintenance. Especially since I have registered for a half marathon in September. I need to be smaller and faster by the time that rolls around, and 220 pounds is not small and fast enough.

On the plus side, now that the weather is warmer I can get off of my treadmill and start walking outside after work again. In order to do that more often and with less annoyance, I've purchased something called a "runner pack":

runner pack

I now dare you, dear reader, to try to explain to me how this is not a fanny pack.

I stumbled into this because I keep hitting my hands on my legs while I walk. It doesn't happen with every single step I take, but it happens often enough that it's annoying, because it's my thumb that's always taking the brunt of it, and for some reason the angle always seems to be exactly right (or wrong) for it to be the bone at the base of my thumb that crashes into something. My left thumb gets poked and stabbed by my keys and my right thumb smacks into the corner of my phone, sometimes hard enough to pop open my phone case. It's annoying, and I needed a solution, so I asked for suggestions on Facebook. After a spirited debate about whether I needed to carry anything in my pockets at all besides the car key and a number of derogatory statements about the acceptability of fanny packs in public, some of my friends suggested something called a "runner pack", and my mom helpfully pointed out that runner packs on Amazon would have free shipping under Amazon Prime. Everyone was in complete agreement that a runner pack is totally different from a fanny pack. Totally.

They're not.

I find it kind of hilarious that everyone was like, "Oh, no, it's not a fanny pack. It's a runner pack," because now that I have one, it's a fanny pack. It's smaller and skinnier and holds less stuff, but it's a fanny pack. Denying that is just a mental exercise in self-deception.

Here's the thing, though: I don't actually care what it's called if it serves the purpose.

If I want to walk the Greenway after work, I am on a clock. The sun sets every day between 7 and 8 this time of year, but by 7 it's dark enough that I don't want to be on the Greenway anymore. I work until 5 most days, and even if I'm already changed into my walking clothes by 5 (which happens on good days, when it is slow and quiet enough in the afternoon for me to shut my door at 4:50 and get changed; I still answer the phone, but I don't answer the door because I assume the university doesn't want me to do so in my underwear) campus traffic and city traffic can keep me from getting to the Greenway and onto the path for 40 or 50 minutes, and that's if I actually get to leave right at 5. Sure, stopping to stow everything in my glove compartment and then to thread my car key through the laces of my shoe is only an extra minute or two, but for my convenience I just wanted to take everything that I have normally in my pants pockets and dump it into something else.

A fanny pack would have served that purpose, but I now have this runner pack instead.

Which, I guess, means that someday I'll have to become a runner.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

My Current Amazon Reviewer Ranking

In my January 1 writeup of all the books I read last year, I chronicled my long journey to the top of the Amazon reviewer rankings. As I explained then, I heard that higher ranked reviewers are sent free books and other products, in the hopes that they will review them, too, and give them a positive rating. Even though there are almost 100 books that I haven't read yet in my apartment, stacked in piles throughout the living room, I somehow felt that I needed more books, and spent the year adding a review of every book I read.

I then discovered that it's really hard to get to the top of the Amazon reviewer rankings.

Amazon won't say exactly how they determine your rank. Part of it is based on the number of times people find your reviews helpful, part of it seems to be the number of reviews you have, and I'm willing to bet that part of it is also related to whether or not the people who found your review helpful went on to actually buy the book. Whatever they do, I started 2014 at #4,829,824 and ended the year four million spots higher, at #125,420.

And then I never posted a review again.

Amazon wants me to. They've been sending me these emails that say things like, "Joel, one person found your review of __________ helpful" or even outright begging, asking, "Joel, how many stars would you give ________", and I've thought, NONE. I won't give you any stars, Amazon. You spent a year jerking me around, and you've broken my heart.

But now I feel like that's maybe the wrong path to take.

I'm not hurting Amazon any by not posting reviews anymore. Amazon doesn't really care about me. They only care about selling books. They don't care about my review ranking, either, unless it also helps them to sell books. On the other hand, I might be hurting authors, and I'm friends with some authors. Authors depend on reviews, written and verbal, to help people discover their work and possibly purchase it. They need positive reviews, and (if they read them) even negative reviews might be useful to them if they are well written and valid.

With that in mind, I'm going to go ahead and paste in the reviews of all the books I've read so far this year. Amazon doesn't need me to, but the authors whose work I read and enjoy might. I just won't look at my reviewer score for the rest of the year, no matter what Amazon sends me, unless they're sending an offer for free stuff.

Then I'll check to see how far my ranking has risen from my current number: #95,461.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Month in Books (March)

I've spent most of the month thinking, "I'm so far behind on books," but I'm really not. Instead, I think reading ten books in January set up an unreasonable expectation for how much I was going to accomplish this year, but I think the amount that I've actually been reading in February and this month is actually much more reasonable, and nothing to be ashamed of. Additionally, one of the books that I finished this month but read for quite a bit in February was over 800 pages long, and one of the books I read entirely during March was also over 700 pages long, too, so I may not have finished as many books as I feel like I should have, but I still read a lot.

Anyway, here are the books I finished this month:

1) My friend Rod recommended Drew Hayes' Super Powereds: Year 1, so I gave it a try even though it's over 800 pages long and I try not to read anything that big this early in the year. I'm glad I did, though, because I enjoyed it a lot. In a world of regular people, Powereds (who have superhuman abilities but can't fully control them), and Supers (who have abilities that they can control), five students at Lander University's top secret Hero Certification Program have an even bigger secret: they were all Powereds, but have undergone an experimental surgical procedure to transform them into Supers. Now, they have to adjust to college life, secret identities, classes, and the struggles of young adulthood while also competing against Supers who have had control of their abilities all of their lives. The secret of their transition isn't the only one some of them are keeping, though, and there are enemies in their midst both seen and unseen. Can they succeed in becoming Heroes? And will they still want to? Hayes does a really good job of building distinct personalities for the characters and maintaining a steady pace for action and plot. There are a few times when the writing could have used a tighter editor, but overall this was a good read.

Fortunately, he's already finished the second book. Unfortunately, he has not finished the other two. The second one is probably the next book I'll be downloading to my Kindle, after I finish the one I've been forcing myself through for the last three weeks.

2) Michael Bamberger's Wonderland takes the reader to Pennsbury High School, just after 9/11 but before the war. Every high school type is there: the troubled teen having an affair with his teacher, the homecoming queen trying to figure out what the rest of her life looks like, the popular student athlete with the troubled home life, the AV club nerd, the pregnant girl and her boyfriend who are trying to graduate despite becoming parents, the career teacher who's counting the days until he retires, the misunderstood rebel with a garage band, the kid who dies tragically during the school year, and all of the rest. The difference is that in "Wonderland" they are all real. Bamberger spent a year interviewing students, staff, and family members at Pennsbury, chronicling the school year leading up to the Pennsbury Prom and its aftermath. Will the prom committee chair get to go to the University of Vermont, even though she can't afford it? Will the class jokester succeed in getting an up and coming musician named John Mayer to play the prom? Will the quarterback and the softball pitcher break up? And will any of it matter to any of them in the end?

I really enjoyed reading this. Bamberger maintains journalistic detachment but still brings Pennsbury to life, exploring the town, the school's social environment, and the history of the people involved. I kind of want to google some of the people, just to see where they ended up, which is kind of odd since, for the most part, I have no interest in where the people from my high school that I don't already speak to are now.

3) I've seen the movie "A Christmas Story" at least a hundred times, possibly more, but I've never read the book until now. Since the stories that formed the basis for the movie were published in different books, Jean Shepherd's A Christmas Story collects them into one volume for convenience of readers who are fans of the movie, but the introduction does recommend reading the original books in full. Reading this is almost like watching the movie, because the movie adheres very strongly to what's written. It's still worth a read if you are a fan, though, because it gives more detail in certain places, and I learned three things from it that I never knew before:

a) The metal zeppelin that Randy gets for Christmas and plays with is not a random toy from the prop department. It is his Christmas present from Ralphie. I always thought it was a period-appropriate toy that they just stuck in there, and didn't realize that it has actual significance.

b) The Bumpus hounds actually eat an Easter ham, not a Christmas turkey. That story was changed to fit the holiday in the movie.

c) I learned something about the Leg Lamp. If you remember nothing else about the movie, you most likely remember the iconic image of the Major Award that Ralphie's father won:

superboy, with lamp

I always thought that the shape of the lamp was just a weird hilarious oddity, a random plot point to snicker at, as if Shepherd sat around thinking, "It needs to look like something that a lamp wouldn't normally look like. A tree? A fire hydrant? No, no! A woman's leg!" It turns out, though, that the Leg Lamp is shaped like a leg because the logo of the company that sponsors the trivia contest is a woman's leg in a high heeled black pump. The narrator mentions that the company makes a "glowing orange soda", and after a little googling I discovered that it was the logo for Orange Nehi. I'm not sure why Ovaltine is mentioned by name in the movie while Nehi is not, but it's interesting to know that the lamp isn't just a weird piece of art in a random absurd shape. Instead, it's like winning a neon Pepsi logo.

Anyway, if you love, or even just like a little bit, the movie, then you'll also like this book.

4) Remember Rebecca Martinson, the author of the infamous deranged sorority girl email that catapulted the phrase "cunt punt" into the national vernacular? In the forward to Taylor Bell's Dirty Rush she waxes poetic (in her own way) about what an accurate depiction of sorority life Taylor Bell's account of her experience in the Beta Zeta chapter at Central Delaware University is. Taylor, a third generation Beta Zeta legacy, isn't interested in joining a sorority. She's an intelligent, independent Women's Studies major, and is distrustful of the entire Greek system until the night of her very first college party, when the sisters of ZB rescue her from a social disaster. Before she knows it, she's abandoning a lifelong friend, rushing the chapter, and joining the planning committee for the "cancer kids" charity after a night of driving a sister to the emergency room to help get the sister's anal beads removed convinces her to give these girls a try.

Taylor Bell, author of this accurate depiction of sorority life where girls sleep with fraternity members because their chapter tells them to, everyone hoovers so much cocaine that they make a Bret Easton Ellis novel look like a PSA from Nancy Reagan, and sisters drive over an hour one way to eat KFC without being seen doing so by other students, isn't real.

About twenty pages in, I realized that the author and the protagonist had the same name, so I glanced at the copyright page and discovered that the copyright is jointly held by two guys. Taylor Bell is a sorority girl created by two middle aged white guys, but that doesn't mean the book is wildly inaccurate, right? Not after Rebecca Martinson said a few pages of nice things about it, right? Nope. Other than panty raids and pillow fights, every cliché you could think of about sorority members shows up in this book, and by the time they get to the sex tape it's not even entertaining any more. I started out sort of enjoying this, but by the end I was just bored.

5) I'm going to have to start running soon. I've more or less hit the top speed that I can make while walking, and it's just barely going to get me through the half marathon I registered for in September, which I'm kind of terrified about anyway. With that in mind, I picked up Matthew Inman's The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances, but it's not as inspirational as I was hoping. Instead, it's kind of blunt in saying that the best way to run is just to put your shoes on, get out there, and run. It was entertaining, but I guess I was expecting some kind of magical wisdom or something, rather than a bunch of stuff that I've sort of already figured out on my own.

I don't know if I'm ready for that yet, but I'm getting ready to try. That's a good first step, I think.

Also, it motivated me to buy something that may or may not be a fanny pack, so there's that.

6) Neil MacGregor's A History of the World in 100 Objects was a fascinating look at 100 objects in the British museum, and how they represent the history of civilization. Starting at axe heads and stone tools, the book moves through religious iconography, currency, technological advances, exploration, trade, social issues (I was surprised to see a chapter about LGBT equality and one about equal rights for women) and ends, with object #100, with a look toward the future.

Things that I liked:

a) I learned a lot. For example, I had no idea that paper money was invented in China.

b) Even though the book is 700 pages long and can seem intimidating, each chapter is short, only 5-7 pages, so you can slowly chip away at this and still feel like you're making progress.

c) The author doesn't shy away from negatives. He doesn't pretty up the negative aspects of colonialism, war, slavery, or intolerance.

d) This really is a world history. The author includes multiple chapters on the civilizations and cultures of Africa, Central and South America, and Asia. I was concerned that since all of the objects are housed in the British Museum this would be a history of the world from a Western Civilization perspective, but this is very globalized.

The thing that I didn't like was that in the entire book the author only mentions once or twice the idea that any of these objects, several of which are unique and culturally and historically significant to specific countries around the world, should be returned to their places of origin. I probably wouldn't have thought about it, but the author himself raises the point in one chapter that there have been discussions about returning this object to its homeland, but it's really better off being kept safe in London where everyone can enjoy it. That, to me, smacked of "old white patriarchy", but when I discussed it with my friend Jackie and Keri, they both pointed to the current situation in Iraq where ISIS is destroying historical artifacts, so I can see both sides of the argument. Every country isn't Iraq, though, and there are probably several where the object could be returned, since the "everyone" who can see things in the British Museum is actually a rather narrow slice of the whole of humanity. On the other hand, this probably isn't the kind of argument I can settle in one paragraph, either, so I'll move on.

7) Remember in January when I read VC Andrews' Christopher's Diary: Secrets of Foxworth? In case you don't, here's what I said about it:

Did you ever read "Flowers in the Attic" and wish there was another version of the same story where Cathy's brother, Christopher, mansplained everything to you? If so, "Christopher's Diary: Secrets of Foxworth" is the book for you! High schooler Kristin, a distant cousin of the Foxworth family, has grown up hearing creepy stories of the attic children for her entire life, but thought they were just exaggerated rumors until she found a locked strongbox in the rubble of burned down Foxworth Hall. Opening it, she discovers Christopher's diary, a day by day account of the years Christopher and his children spent locked in the attic of Foxworth Hall, tortured by their religious grandmother and abandoned and poisoned by their mother. As she reads the diary, Kristin becomes more and more obsessed with Christopher, falling in love with the long-deceased cousin and imagining that she sees him following her, beckoning to her, and, eventually she begins pretending that her boyfriend is Christopher. Her boyfriend, Kane, agrees that they should pretend to be Christopher and Cathy, and our story ends with the two of them heading up to Kristin's attic to read more of Christopher's diary, because attics turn Kristin on now.

I was expecting trash, and wasn't disappointed. The sequel will be out next month.

Well, the sequel did come out, and I did get around to reading it. In short, Christopher's Diary: Echoes of Dollanganger was like a VC Andrews book ghost written by Stephenie Meyer. This book didn't just go off the rails: it left the tracks and steamed into Crazytown under its own power.

It picks up right where the last one left off, with Kristin and Kane sneaking up to Kristin's attic to read Christopher's account of being locked in the Foxworth Hall attic to each other. Within days of doing so, Kane starts to become obsessed with the story, rearranging the attic furniture, only wanting to spend time with Kristin when they're in the attic reading to each other, insisting that they call each other Cathy and Christopher, and then he surprises Kristin one day by showing up in a blond wig, to be "in character" more. Meanwhile, Kristin's father is trying to unravel the mystery of who has really hired him to rebuild on the grounds of Foxworth Hall, as the buyer that he's been meeting with turns out to only be the manager of a trust that actually bought it, and the trust is overseen by a psychiatrist who treated Corrine Foxworth Dollanganger Winslow after the first burning of Foxworth Hall, when Grandmother Foxworth and Bart Winslow were killed. The psychiatrist, it turns out, is working for the most shocking twist of all, a person believed long dead who has every reason to want the diary that Kristin and Kane are reading, a person...

...whose full story will be revealed in the sequel, due in May.

8) I picked up Shirley Jackson's Hangsaman because it was heavily referenced in Shirley, the novel about Jackson that I read in January that suggested that she murdered a college student who was having an affair with her husband. In Shirley, one of the things that makes the character based on Jackson (I say that because I'm assuming that it's just fiction, and that Jackson didn't actually murder anyone) even more evil is that she not only killed this girl, but then mined the circumstances of her death to write a novel about it, and that novel is Hangsaman. The cover of the book even says it's "loosely based on the real-life disappearance of a Bennington College sophomore in 1946".

The problem with that is that it sets up an anticipation that the book is going to end one way, with one of the female characters disappearing, and (spoiler alert, I guess) it doesn't. That doesn't make it a bad novel, but it does make it a novel where you spend the whole thing anticipating one outcome, looking for clue to that outcome, wondering when that will happen, and then you get to the end, where it seems possible right up to the last page, and it doesn't happen. It's an entire novel of foreshadowing that goes nowhere, and can leave you a little frustrated. (Or a lot. I don't know how mad you get.) That's sad, because it's not a bad novel. It's not Jackson's best work, but it is ominous and disturbing in places, and if you're freed from the expectation of, "Oh, God, is she about to get murdered/kidnapped/kill herself?" then you can actually read this and think, "God, that's morbid," and enjoy it just for that.

In the book, Natalie Waite, a college freshman, leaves home for a small, private, all-female college and wanders into all the sorts of trouble that parents imagine their daughters will run into in college: social ostracism, rampant smoking and drinking, people stealing in the dormitory, flirtations with lesbianism, students seduced by their professors, dabbling in the occult, not attending class and wasting the money their parents are paying for tuition, etc. All of this is viewed through Natalie's unreliable filter: she's socially awkward, depressed, and having trouble separating imagination from reality. Is any of this actually happening? Where does it start to and then wander off? The reader has no real way of knowing.

Coming up in April: I'm going to force my way through the book I've been reading on the treadmill for three weeks and move on to something I might actually enjoy.