Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving Already

Wow, folks, here it is already. How did it sneak up on me? Oh yeah: I’ve been really busy. But you knew that already, since it’s been so long since I’ve written.

I feel like I owe you an explanation—but that would be really boring. I’ve had some big work deadlines—the kind where you have to stay up late staring at a computer and shuffling through mountains of papers. The kind where the project gets increasingly, nightmarishly complicated and problematic before it can become intelligible and orderly, ready to leave your desk.

To make the past week more difficult, some smaller projects came up out of the blue. To be honest, those were more interesting that the big thing that was seeming old by now, and I enjoyed them—in some respects, just because they represented a change of subject. But it all combined to make for a big work crunch, that ol’ freelancer “feast-or-famine” thing. Hence the long nights.

Up until very recently, I have managed to stay away from the so-called energy drinks, but I’ve been abusing Red Bulls recently. And I’ve found out that although Red Bull “gives you wings,” it also gives you the jitters and heart palpitations! But you know how it is: Sometimes we have to abuse ourselves to meet the all-important deadlines. Right?

I’ve always kind of assumed that the term deadline meant that “if you don’t get this done on time, heads will roll.” But I’m beginning to see that isn’t really the case. Seriously: What’s another damn day? No one gets killed when a work deadline is missed. (Well, unless you’re a surgeon, or someone in charge of delivering a vital organ needed ASAP for transplant purposes.) The very worst that could happen is something financial, a loss of funding, a loss of a job.

Instead, I think that the term deadline has more to do with what happens to us, cumulatively, after decades of that kind of stress—abuse, really.

On the first day of my first job in publishing—right out of grad school—I was shown to my new desk, which I had inherited from my predecessor. The desktop was clean except for some dust, a stapler, a tape dispenser, and the phone with all its unnecessary buttons. I opened the desk drawers and found a dish of paperclips, some chewed-up pencils with the erasers worn off, and a bottle of Excedrin with just a few tablets left to rattle around in it. Sliding around next to a dog-eared pad of post-its were some mint-green Tums, dusty from being loose in the drawer.

That all should have been a clue right there. But I was convinced that my graduate-school training would make me different from my predecessor. I had been taught the correct procedures for my job—I had learned not only the substance of book editing (how to copyedit, how to proof—those two things are different, you know—how to index, etc.) but also the procedures. Editors, by nature, are rule- and procedures-oriented. We like checklists. We like workflow elegance, streamlined with an engineer’s precision.

I had been taught the time-honored, standard, logical sequences for bookmaking. When the manuscript arrives, this, this, and this happen, usually simultaneously, first. The editorial department does this, the marketing department does that, and the production department does something else. And so on down the line—first the copyediting, then the author review, and then you enter all the final corrections. Then the manuscript goes to the production department for page layout, and after that, there’s the page proofing. Blah, blah, blah. The details vary, but the process is the same, if you want to be efficient about it.

But then, just a few weeks into my first job, my supervisor was telling me, “well, this manuscript doesn’t need ‘copyediting.’ I think it just needs a light proofing; then it can go straight into production.” I followed his instructions, though I did know better. I told the copyeditor to do only a proofreading, and sure enough, weeks later, the proofreader was informing me that the page proof needed a copyedit.

It soon became clear to me that the bitten pencils, the spent Excedrin bottle, and the miscellaneous Tums were symbols of a companywide dysfunction, to which I was not immune. Within a year, it got to the point where I couldn’t quite tell if my smiles were genuine, or only camouflaged grimaces.

That life was brought back to me with this most recent push, the late-night rubbing of eyes and temples, the concerned e-mails from my client, my reassuring e-mails in response. It would get done on time, and I knew it. Whatever dysfunction or miscommunications had created the distressing situation, it was my job to get it resolved.

So I did the work and got it all off my desk and onto my client’s. It is in a much better and more organized condition than it was when I received it. What a great feeling! Just in time for the holidays.

It’s not that I enjoy the stress and late nights, the anxiety of a thousand questions that each give birth to five more, as the time is ticking down—but completion and cleaning off my desk does give me a little extra something to be grateful for when we offer up our thanks before the sacrificial turkey.

And I hope you have a little extra something to be thankful for, too.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Abscission Wind

For several years, now, I’ve been trying to think of a good name for it, that wind that comes and sweeps “autumn” off the trees and gives us the winter landscape.

It doesn’t arrive at any set date—although around here it happens in late October or early November—but when it happens, it’s usually a distinct and noticeable event. It’s that cold front that drives through, with wind and rain, that puts an end to “fall color” and knocks off nearly all the leaves.

Other times of year, and other distinct seasonal weather events, have special names. We have the “dog days” of summer and “Indian summer” in fall. Of winds, there are Chinooks and siroccos, mistrals and haboobs, Santa Anas and williwaws . . . and many more. And then there’s that occasional, deceptive “January thaw,” giving us a taste of sweet warmth only to crush us with more grim winter.

But I haven’t found a name for this cold front that usually, and cleanly, divides autumn and winter. And I think we need one.

So I have some ideas I’d like to propose.

How about “the Exfoliator”? I know, I know: An exfoliator is something—a goo or an abrasive—used to remove dead skin cells, and it has little to do with tree leaves. Yet the “leaf” root word is there, and because it has to do with sloughing off structures that are already dead, it is better than “the Defoliator.” Defoliation has to do with leaves, but then it also implies a chemical that dispatches leaves before they’re ready to die. It’s a leaf-killer. So “the Exfoliator” sounds pretty reasonable, don’t you think? Especially if you capitalize it to make it look official.

Do you think we should add a word to make it clearer? The Autumn Exfoliator? The Exfoliating Wind?

Or what about “the tree sweeper,” “the branch cleaner,” “the canopy clearer”?

Or we could focus on the action on the level of the twig and leaf stem, the break that occurs when the leaf is ready to let go, and the breeze or the rain that catalyzes the separation. Maybe we could call it “the leaf render.” Or, from what happens when the leaves go flying, “the scattering wind.”

Or we could be a bit nerdy and use some slightly fancy botanical lingo. There’s a precise name for that stiff bit of tissue that develops between the base of a leaf stem and the twig it’s growing from. This tissue is called the “abscission layer.” As it develops at the end of the leaf’s “life,” it cuts off nutrients to the leaf, and the leaf “dies.”

(Realize: leaves aren’t organisms, so they don’t die. Yes, unlike our hair and fingernails, leaves are living tissues, but they’re meant to be sloughed off at some point. Even on evergreen trees, the leaves are expendable. Perhaps a better mammalian metaphor would be the process of menstruation.)

Abscission. Per Webster’s: “the act or process of cutting off: REMOVAL”; “the natural separation of flowers, fruit, or leaves from plants at a special separation layer” (meaning the aforementioned abscission layer).

I kind of like the word; despite the fact that you don’t hear it used much, I think it’s perfect. And it’s not a tough word to learn: “ab-SIH-zhun.”

We’re talking about the cold front, the wind and rain, that makes the leaves become abscised. So how about “Abscission Front”? Or “Abscission Wind”?

Let’s try it out in some sentences.

“Well, the Abscission Front came through last weekend, and now the leaves are mostly off the trees.”

“The Abscission Wind usually blows around Halloween, giving a stark and spooky look to the clawing branches of trees.”

“The Abscission Wind opens the canopies, making for sunnier woodland hikes.”

“Don’t put off enjoying the fall color—you know the Abscission Wind is just around the corner.”

What do you think? Start using it!

Let’s see if we can get it adopted into standard American English!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Christkindelfest: Mark Your Calendars!

Kristkindlfest, Kristkindelfest, Christkindelfest—no matter how you spell it, you’ll want to be there. Music, cookies, coffee, food, fellowship, fun, and a beautiful, German-flavored worship service to get you in the Christmas spirit. Mark your calendars now.

First, I have some music to share with you! You can watch and listen to music from Christkindelfest 2008 while you read the rest of my post.

First, here’s the Central UCC Choir singing “Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming.” That’s a good German Christmas hymn!

Central United Church of Christ—which is Jefferson City’s historic German Central Evangelical Church—sets aside a Saturday in early December to offer a German-style Christmas worship service to the community. And lots more. Do you like church suppers? Do you like cookies? I thought you did!

The date is Saturday December 4, 2010. Here’s the schedule.

9:30 to 11:00—Kaffeeklatsch and bake sale in the church gymnasium. The bake sale features German-recipe cookies, kuchen, tea rings, and stollen, along with other yummy things. The idea is: Buy some goodies to take home with you, plus a little extra to eat right now, while you sip coffee, visit, and make new friends.

(By the way, they usually have cookbooks to sell, too. In case you’re like me and can’t get enough of church-ladies cookbooks.)

11:00—German-style worship service, in the church’s sanctuary. First, if you’re not a member of Central UCC, relax!—you’re welcome to participate. If you’re a Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, or anything else, don’t worry: The United Church of Christ welcomes you as a fellow Christian! (That’s one of the reasons this denomination is called the United Church of Christ: The idea is that despite the denominations, we are all united under God.) (Hmm: that sounds kind of familiar, somehow . . .)

And even if you’re not a Christian at all, it’s okay. This service is light on the preachin’ and heavy on the music. I think we can all agree that the Christmas sentiments of peace, joy, and love are powerful and are worth celebrating, whether you think the stories are literally true or not.

This year, the choir is preparing music from a German-language mass written by Franz Gruber (who wrote the music for “Silent Night”) that features an Alpine horn (well, it will be performed on a French horn)—and it should sound very “Tyrolean.” As far as I’ve been able to tell, this mass is rarely if ever played in America; it was brought over by Central UCC’s former choir director, Carl E. Burkel, who wrote the arrangement.

There will also be a “children's time” and plenty of good Christmas songs for everyone to sing. I understand, too, that the Christkindelfest offering always goes to local charities. Please don’t hesitate to attend this—it will get you in the Christmas spirit for sure.

Here is another video for you to watch—this is also from the 2008 Christkindelfest, and the singer is Esther Seidel, a lifelong resident of the greater Jefferson City area, who learned “Silent Night” in the original German as a little girl, and has known it by heart ever since.

By the way, I was there when she sang that year, and I couldn’t help but think of my Grandma Schroeder, who is about her same vintage, and how little it took to get her to start singing, and how she remembered the German lyrics to all her old songs.

I can’t tell you how moving it was to hear Mrs. Seidel sing this song. The video gives you only a small taste of this beautiful lady’s sweet singing.

And! I’ve heard that Mrs. Seidel will perform again this year! Yes! She’s planning to sing the beloved German Christmas hymn “Vom Himmel Hoch” (“From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” or “From Heaven High I Come to You”). It’s one of Martin Luther’s hymns!

And then . . .

12:00 (or thereabouts--after the service) to about 1:30—Lunch in the gym. They’re serving delicious Burger’s ham from Moniteau County, plus—I’m sure—a bounty of yummy church-lady-style side dishes.

1:00—Reverend Stephen H. Buchholz, pastor of Central UCC, will lead a tour of the church. He’ll describe the congregation’s 150-year history and focus on the lovely artwork, stained glass, carvings, and their symbolism in the sanctuary of this historic church.

One more YouTube link for you: It’s the Central UCC choir (under the direction of Dr. Ruth Robertson) performing the traditional German carol “Never Do Bells Ring More Sweetly.”

So: put it on your calendar right now, so you don’t forget it!

—And see you there!

Special thanks to Rene Miserez of Central United Church of Christ, who has posted several Central Church videos on YouTube. She made it possible for me to share these with you. A big exuberant Munichburg “Danke Schön” to you, Rene!

Monday, November 8, 2010

If Bread Pudding and Apple Pie Had a Baby . . .

. . . They’d name her Betty. —Apple Brown Betty, that is!

Remember when I was telling you about our abundance of apples, and how, in order to use them before they get soft, I’ll have to become the “George Washington Carver of apples”? (Click here to get that story.)

Well, it turns out that I don’t need to become the George Washington Carver of apples! Know why?

’Cause there are already a ton of lovely apple recipes out there! I mean: Duh!

It would be very hard, I think, to come up with a truly novel way of cooking apples.

However, it’s not hard to find apple recipes that don’t seem to be used very often. Take, for instance, Apple Brown Betty.

I think that recipe used to be ubiquitous—an easy dish made by girls in their home ec classes. A quick, satisfying dessert made by every homemaker, wife, and mother from the 1920s to the—

—Well, when did folks quit making it? I grew up in the 1970s and I honestly don’t recall anyone making this—not my mom, not my grandmas, not my friends’ moms—no one.

And Sue says she doesn’t think she’s ever had it, either—and she’s from a different part of the Midwest, and is slightly older than me. But we’ve both heard of it.

It’s in so many cookbooks! And all the ladies our moms’ age know about it. What’s the deal? Did everyone just get sick of it at some point? Or is it that apple pies and other desserts got so easy to make, what with premixed and prepared pie crusts and all?

(Well, or maybe we’ve had it and not noticed—maybe it’s just not all that memorable?)

So, heck, with all our apples to eat, I had to satisfy my curiosity and make an Apple Brown Betty.

I mean, I kind of feel sorry for her. Like the name “Betty” itself, the dish seems out of style, like it “peaked” in the thirties and forties and got trapped by its own popularity. (This can happen to popular songs, too. Is anyone ready yet to hear “Afternoon Delight” or “On the Road Again” again? I didn’t think so!)

The recipe came from my Aunt Anna Mae. (Note that she, too, has one of those wonderful names that’s being eschewed by today’s baby-namers, one of those fun fifties “poodle-skirt names,” like Patty Lou, Peggy Ann, Sally Fay, Mary Jo, and Dorothy Jean.)

One more note: Apple Brown Betty isn’t the belle of the ball, the prettiest of desserts, but if you dust some powdered sugar or drizzle some crème fraîche on her, it will dress her up quite a bit!

Apple Brown Betty

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Grease loaf pan or 8-inch square baking pan.

Add hot water to cover 1/2 cup raisins, and let them soak. (The raisins are optional, however.)

Toast 4 slices of bread, then cube them.

Peel and slice 8 tart/sweet apples.

Blend 1 cup sugar with 1 teaspoon cinnamon.

Mix together the bread cubes, apples, and drained raisins.

Add 3/4 of the sugar-cinnamon mixture to the apples and stir to blend well.

Pack into baking dish and dot with 1/2 stick of butter or margarine (diced).

Top with remaining sugar-cinnamon mixture and bake for about 1 hour.

Oh, yeah: And keep an eye on her, so she doesn’t become “Over-brown Betty”!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Oat Bran Dinner Muffins

They're savory! And they're not just for dinner--they make a fine breakfast or a tasty snack, too. This is a new variation on a theme.

Like all my oat bran muffins, they're very satisfying without making you feel, well, overstuffed. They're loaded with fiber and you know oat bran can help reduce cholesterol. Because they're filling and not fattening, they're great for if you want to lose weight.

They're delicious, too.

And easy to make. What I do is buy oat bran in bulk and create several dry mixes ahead of time. I put the mixes into zip bags and stack them in the refrigerator. It's nice to not have to fiddle with measuring spoons in the mornings!

Some of my mixes already contain brown sugar in them, so all I need to do is add the liquid ingredients (3 egg whites, 2 tbsp. of oil, and about a cup of other moisture) and little handfuls of whatever dried fruits, raisins, nuts, or carob chips sound good.

But I always keep a few mixes unsweetened--and these I can take in a savory direction. Here's a great example.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees and prepare muffin tins with cooking spray or by lining with paper muffin cups. This will make a dozen muffins.

Start by mixing together all the dry ingredients in a large bowl.

The base mixture is:

2 1/4 cups oat bran
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking powder

To this I added (quantities are approximate):

1 tsp. Italian seasoning (a blend of oregano, basil, rosemary, marjoram, whatever)
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
a sprinkle of garlic powder
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese (I use a microplane grater, but whatever)
1 small red chili pepper, minced (use your best judgment here, folks)
1 tbsp. fresh parsley, finely chopped

Whisk together the following liquid ingredients in a separate bowl, then combine with the dried mix:

3 egg whites
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 cup tomato juice (these come in little cans; very convenient to keep around)

Before filling the muffin cups, adjust liquid: The mixture should be about the same consistency as for corn muffins. Stir in more tomato juice or water if you need to.

Spoon into muffin cups.

Bake at 425 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes, or until they start turning golden on top and a toothpick comes out moist, but not wet.

You know . . . these are so healthy, you might even give yourself permission to spread a little real butter on them while they're still hot!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Cussometer Reading: Only a "2"!

Wednesday, when my folks were visiting, I asked Dad to help me with the worst storm window of the bunch: the big one on the back porch. I told you about this process last year. Remember? The storm windows out there on the screen porch were salvaged from steamboats by my great-grandpa.

Click here to refresh your memory; there are pictures and everything.

Man, that storm window is heavy. It must weigh about thirty-five or forty pounds. It's about three feet high and five and a half feet wide. Real wood and real glass--yeah--and it's that old-fashioned, warbledy glass from history.

Every year we've lived here, getting that thing in and out--but especially in--has been a pain. It always sticks on one side, and we have often sanded or even planed that edge to get it to fit.

Worse, we usually have a hell of a time getting it to go on both hooks at once. It's a two-person job at best. The bottom part must be held far out beyond the side of the house in order to get the top part on the hooks. Then, the bottom part is pulled inside and locked in place with more hooks.

It's heavy enough that you want to use both arms to hold the bottom edge of the storm. What, then, do you use to move the top part into position on the hooks? Your head? I have actually tried that. (And no, it doesn't work.)

The dialogue usually begins like this:

Person A: Okay . . . I think it's hooked on my side . . . how about yours?

Person B: Nope, I can't get it on. We need to push it out and try again.

(Pushing, lifting, grunting noises; squeaking of metal hooks.)

Person B: Okay, it's hooked on my side. Are you on on yours?

Person A: No, it slipped off and now I can't get it to go on. We've got to lift it out again.

(More pushing, lifting, and grunting; squeaking of metal hooks.)

Person A: Okay, I think it's on on my side . . .

Person B: Dang it! Now it won't fit on my hook again.

(More pushing, lifting, and grunting, etc.)

Person A (or B, take your pick; whichever person represents ME): Okay--hang on--I've got to rest a second, my arms are getting tired . . .

Let the cussing commence. If there's a Person C, he or she stands in the yard, watching. The job of Person C is to let Persons A and B know if the window is actually hooked or not. That knowledge is reassuring when it's time to haul the bottom inward, usually with some real force, since it always sticks.

So even if you can manage to get it on both hooks at once, you sometimes still can't get the window to fit into place. It's at this point that we've unhooked the window, lugged it completely back inside, and run down to the basement for the sandpaper and planer. . . . Then, to start all over again.

For years, now, Sue and I have been rating each fall's back-porch storm-window experience on a scale of 1 to 10 on the "cussometer." Most years, it's about a 7 or 8. Some years, it's been a 9--especially if we're trying to do it after a rain, when the wood swells and makes for a particularly tight fit.

. . . So Wednesday, Dad and I put up that blasted storm window, while Mom reported on our progress from down in the yard.

And--what happened? What did we do? I had been dreading the whole operation--but it was actually very easy this time. Yes, it took us a few tries to get it hooked, but it wasn't very bad.

And then, when we pulled it inward, at first it seemed hopelessly stuck in the usual place; then Dad did something--what??--to the top, on his side, and whoosh! It slid right into place. Did he lift it? Did he push it outward a little right there? He says he doesn't know--he had accidentally gotten his fingers caught at the bottom and was pushing it outward in order to free his hand--and then--

Wow! What did we do?? Was it because I had parted my hair differently that day? Was it the shoes we had on? Was it that I had just drank a Diet Dr. Pepper? --I mean, What??

Ta-dahhh!! It was only about a 2 on the cussometer this year!

I was almost afraid to tell Sue about it that evening; I was afraid she'd feel gypped out of the one easy time we had with the storm window. I wish she could have seen it, because I don't think she completely believes me!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Broadway Storm Windows

First, a note to my regular readers: Thank you so much for checking in so faithfully! Every click helps me remember that something I do is actually appreciated enough to be sought out by someone. Don't stop! I apologize for not posting very much recently--I've had a head cold for about a week, and I'm still fighting with it. Both of us have been suffering. And you know how it goes--just because you feel like hell doesn't mean there isn't still a lot of stuff that needs to get done. The following is a case in point.

Sue repainted the old wooden storm windows on the Broadway side of the house, which needed it; their last reglazing and paint job was about eight years ago, thanks to my mom, who loves to paint stuff and did a wonderful job on these.

There are ten of these storms; four each on the first and second floors, and two (thankfully smaller!) on the third.

I often wonder why the heck Grandma didn't replace them, when she did all the rest, with aluminum ones? My guess is that it was probably the expense, for one thing; also, Broadway Street is noisy and an abundant source of sooty black street-dirt. Also, those windows face northwest, whence come the icy cold blasts, and she'd want a good seal on that side in wintertime.

When dealing with these storm windows, a big part of the work is simply getting them in and out. Each one weighs nearly twenty pounds, and they're about five feet tall. My Dad (having messed with them most of his life) knows the tricks for getting them in and out, and he taught me some of them this year.

Maybe you will find what follows boring, but to me it's crucial information. One of the reasons I'm writing this is so that I will remember it for next time, so I can fuss with these windows by myself.

First, naturally, it's a given on all the storm windows on this house that you absolutely need to keep track of which window goes where. They are not interchangeable. So each storm is marked at the top with something like: "2nd floor dining room north" or "1st floor living room south."

Getting them in and out is pretty scary for me, considering that during the process you can only grasp them by the bottom foot or so, which is difficult given their weight and height. Don't try it on a windy day!

To reinstall them, you must grasp them about a foot above their bottom edge, using an elbow against the base as leverage. The elbow-thing is one of the tricks that Dad showed me.

The side that will face the house should be facing up, and you push the storm window out the lower part of the open window. Then, using the strength of your hands and wrists, you have to flip the storm upward so it's more or less in position. For me, that's the scariest part. I can't help but think that I'm one wrist spasm or sneeze away from disaster. I consider that my car is parked three stories below.

You can rest the storm window temporarily on the brick sill (but don't let go of it, of course). Then you have to hook the top part in place. To do this, push the bottom outward, away from the building, to get the hooks at the top of the storm to slip over the tabs at the top of the window frame.

This is often easier said than done. Usually, you cannot actually see the hooks and tabs as you're doing this, so it must be done by feel. It usually takes a couple of tries. Is it on?

The final bit, once you're pretty sure the window is hooked at the top, is to draw the lower portion inward and hook it in place at the bottom. Again, that is often easier said than done, since sometimes it's a tight fit--layers of paint--and there's sometimes no way to "push" on it from the outside.

(Another handy hint: keep track of which storm window of each pair fits most tightly, and try putting that one in place first, so you can utilize the neighboring open window so you can lean out to do some pushing, or to inspect.)

We do think about replacing these heavy antique storm windows, which we leave up throughout the year, with more "modern" aluminum sliding storm windows with screens--like we have on almost all the rest of the windows. I try to imagine what it would be like to have those windows be open-able, and it appeals to me, especially during the summer. But the cost is prohibitive, and it seriously isn't very high on our list of priorities.

Mom has counseled us not to fool with aluminum storms, anyway. She says we should set our sights on full-fledged, insulated replacement windows on that side of the house--but then if we can't afford simple storms, I don't know how we can afford that.

So this fall Sue repainted the good ol', bad ol', storm windows, and we've got them all back in place, and I think we'll be able to get another ten years out of them before we have to revisit the issue.

She did a great job, and they do look really nifty. They, and the old-fashioned sash windows they protect, are in marvelous shape, considering their age.

And yes--I'm rather proud.