Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A Light Inside

I went to church today.

I made a quick left turn through a gap in the rush-hour traffic and pulled into the parking lot at Saint Patrick's. I hushed the radio, switched off the engine, and sat in the quiet of my car for a minute before taking a breath and stepping out.

A small sign among the early daffodil greens in the front garden said "The Light is On For You," but when I pulled open the front door, the church was dark inside. The space was silent and empty, and I was alone. I paused at the entrance. Dipped my fingers into the small bowl of holy water by the door, a tiny golden bird-bath. Made the sign of the cross, out of habit, without thinking. I used my left hand, the wrong hand, because I still held my car keys in my right.

I walked up the center aisle towards the altar, relieved to be wearing quiet shoes, because even the rustling of my purse against my coat seemed loud and rude. I had come to find the small altar, off in a corner, where rows of flickering candles hold the pains and hopes of the people who set them alight.

The church had small dim alcoves off to either side of the main altar. Each housed a statue and a table holding four short rows of votives. I intended to light a candle beside Our Lady, because it's what my mother does. What all the women in my family do. Tradition and heritage, to ground me. To bring comfort. Not, for me, from faith or from prayer, but from ritual and familiarity. When someone needs help, members of my family light candles for them. When someone needs extra help, we light candles in a church. But there were no familiar saints with compassionate faces to greet me at Saint Patrick's. Only ghosts. I had forgotten that it was the Lenten season, and that some churches shroud the holy figures in purple in the weeks before Easter. I was alone except for faceless human forms wrapped as though for burial.

I chose the altar on the left side, not knowing which figure was standing over me, who would watch over the tiny flames I would leave behind. I folded up a bill for the thin slot marked "offerings" and smiled to myself at how pagan and out-of-place that word seemed in a church. I set my purse down and struck a match against the side of the matchbox, wincing at the abrasive sound. I touched the match to the end of a long wooden skewer, which crackled into flame. Slowly, carefully, I touched the flame to the wick of three candles, side by side, in the front row. One for me, and two for dear friends who are hurting. All of the votives were new, white, silent. Mine were the only ones dancing.

The small padded kneeler creaked as I knelt in front of the shrouded saint. I found myself mouthing dimly-remembered parts of the prayer of Saint Francis. The cadence of my words matched the tune of the hymn from my childhood. Music strengthens memory.

Make me an instrument of peace. Grant that I may never seek so much to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved, as to love with all my soul. 

I left the candles, sat at the end of one of the pews, and looked up. The vaulted wooden ceiling stretched up forever. The only light in the church besides my candles came in through the beautiful abstract stained glass windows on all sides of me. It was late afternoon, and the sun was low enough in the sky to drag the colors into the church and paint the floor with them.

Despite the comfort I find in ritual, I don't believe in a divine plan. Catholicism lost all credibility for me long ago, through inconsistency, intolerance, and the sins of the church. There is no Fate. Life isn't fair, or unfair. Bad things happen to good people, and I can't accept that there is a deity up there rolling dice to decide who deserves to suffer. There is only life, and what you can make of it, which makes it that much more important.

Rush hour continued just beyond the colored glass. Birds chirped in the garden. The sun was setting, and would rise again in the morning. Tears came to my eyes. I let them fall, finding comfort in the knowledge that the world is so very much bigger than me.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

What's for Dinner - Garlic Mushrooms

I had more mushrooms than I could reasonably put into a salad, and I didn't want to go to the trouble of making stuffed mushroom caps, as yummy as those can be. Instead, I made a mushroom side dish that tastes like stuffed mushrooms, but is a whole heck of a lot simpler.

Garlic Mushrooms

Mushrooms (white or "baby Bella")

Slice up a bunch of mushrooms. For two people, I cut up about half of an 8oz package. I prefer starting with the whole ones, because the already-sliced ones are usually cut too thick.

Mince a clove of garlic. Or two. 

Toss a pat of butter into a frying pan and let it melt and bubble. I used about half a tablespoon for my 4oz of mushrooms, but more mushrooms will require more butter, so adjust accordingly.

When the butter's hot, toss the mushrooms and garlic into the pan and cook them until the mushrooms start to soften. You want them to retain some texture, so don't cook them down too far. You're looking for a "tender and buttery" endpoint.

When they seem right, add another little bit of butter and couple of tablespoons of breadcrumbs. I used unseasoned, but I'm sure the Italian ones would be wonderful too. Mix everything up and cook it for another minute or two, to let the breadcrumbs get buttered and toasted.

I ended up using this stuff to top chicken breasts, and it was wonderful. I think it would be great as a side for almost anything, and may even be taken to the next level of deliciousness by adding some grated parmesan cheese at the end. I did not have any, so I could not try. Please, try it, for me, and report back!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Waffle Wars

One can rely on certain topics for inducing a charged debate on the internet. Politics. Religion. Which Star Trek captain was the best*. One does not, however, generally see waffles inspiring people to volley arguments through the wee hours of the morning.

One of my favorites from xkcd.com

It all began on Twitter. A friend asked for advice about buying a new kitchen appliance: she only had the money and space for one, and couldn't decide between a waffle iron and a sandwich maker. Replies were heavily weighted towards the waffle side - understandable, in my opinion, because who needs a machine to make a sandwich? It started to get weird when someone in the waffle camp shot down the grilled cheesist argument about melty cheese being better than waffles by saying you could melt cheese on waffles.

Whoa there.

Usually, I wouldn't get too worked up about waffles. They're pretty far down my list of preferred breakfast carbohydrates, behind pancakes, crepes, and french toast. But in what crazy world are people gumming up a waffle's tiny perfect squares with a melting slice of cheddar? "Waffles are for syrup!" I protested. Maybe whipped cream and strawberries if they're for dessert, but cheese is right out.

Then someone suggested Bearnaise sauce, and all hell broke loose. I just viscerally disliked the very idea of non-syrup toppings on waffles. 

Shortly after the Waffle Wars broke out, my friend Angelique asked me about chicken and waffles:

Allow me to expand on my response.

I don't understand the idea of "chicken and waffles" because:
  1. It's a breakfast food paired with a not-breakfast food. "Steak and eggs" on a breakfast menu seems a little weird to me too. I feel like pork is an acceptable breakfast meat, but other meats don't belong with pancakes or waffles. I concede this may be my own cultural conditioning talking.
  2. Wait, is chicken and waffles even FOR breakfast? Is it dinner? Where does it belong? I need labels. I like categories.
  3. It's bone-in fried chicken, which is normally eaten with one's hands. But waffles are a fork food. I can't picture how one successfully eats this meal, especially since Google image searches lead me to believe that one is often piled on the other. Do I pick up the chicken and eat it, taking waffle bites from time to time? Do I fight the fried chicken pieces with a knife and fork, crushing the waffle beneath? I'm also told that syrup is usually involved in this dish too, which confuses me even more, because it would make the chicken harder to pick up and eat.
In a bold, unexpected, psychological attack, maple-syrup-hater Tasha sent me a link to a bunch of non-traditional waffle recipes, many of which cross firmly into "dinner" territory. Like chili topping a cornbread waffle, for example. At first I was appalled by the concept, but as I scrolled through the list, a couple of recipes actually appealed to me. What does that mean?

After more thought than I probably should have devoted to this topic, I've come to the conclusion that my issue isn't with savory waffles, per se. It's with dinner waffles. Waffles are a breakfast thing. Like French toast or croissants. This ham and cheese waffle makes sense to me, because it can still be served at breakfast (or maybe brunch), and I'd still be within reason to dump maple syrup on it.

Those people who are monkeying around with waffles for dinner... well, I contend that once you're making them out of cornbread and putting chili on them or using them as the bread layer of a BLT sandwich, they're really "waffles" in name only. It's like if someone made curry French toast. Ok, so maybe it's technically French toast, but it's so far from what we know and love as French toast that they probably should have given it another name entirely. But what do I know? I prefer pancakes anyway.

*Picard. By a mile.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Food Bank

We were driving home after dinner at a new Italian place, very full and very happy. An aluminum pie plate sat at my feet. The leftover penne and meatballs contained within it made the car smell absolutely delicious. We passed some nondescript brown brick buildings, and Dave read one of the signs out front.

"Look," he said, pointing to the buildings, "A food bank! If you want, we can drop off those leftovers so you can withdraw them later."

"Um, I think food banks give your food to other people."

He feigned shock. "Then that's a horrible bank!"

"They take your deposited food and give it to others," I explained to my husband. "Basically, it's redistribution of food wealth. Fucking commies."

"We should look for a food credit union. We could probably get a better food interest rate."

"And lower fees?" I asked.


"I wonder if a food bank would have a foreign food transaction fee."

Dave looked over at me. "Like, if you deposited Ramen noodles, they'd take a cut?"


"Oh, definitely." He nodded vigorously. "That's how they get you."

Linking up with the Yeah Write Moonshine Grid. Click through, kick back and enjoy some fun weekend reading!

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

How Did We Get From Saying "I Love You"

"I married a Canadian - whom I love very much - and she introduced me to a great band called Great Big Sea. And this song is in NO WAY dedicated to her. At all."

We needed this cruise. More than I realized; more than I can really explain.

Different couples deal with stress in different ways. Some argue, slam doors, and seek out space away from one another. Some look so far outside the relationship for comfort or for escape that nothing can be salvaged.

I have always been afraid that stress would pull my relationships apart. My family doesn't have a good record in that area. Almost every one of my aunts and uncles who married found themselves in a hurtful and bitter divorce. My parents' relationship was strained and uncomfortable for years, and ended the same way.

My first boyfriend abandoned me when my parents' divorce made me "too goddamn sad all the time" and "annoying to be around." I see now that it was an unstable and unhealthy young-adult relationship that was a bad idea from the start, but it crushed my 18-year-old self. I dropped out of college and floated through several months in a blur before finding the light again and crawling my way towards it. I went back to school. I tried to be sociable. But things were different. I had witnessed a relationship I thought was the most solid and reliable one in the whole world - my parents' marriage - falling angrily apart in front of me. I had no good role models, nobody to look to for thoughts on a healthy relationship except the columnists at Cosmo and the couples on Friends.

When my husband and I were moving towards our wedding day, I was flooded with conflicting thoughts. Of course we'd last forever - we loved each other so much, understood each other so well, laughed so often together. But everyone must think that at one time, or nobody would ever risk the commitment of marriage. Who could say, then, whether our relationship could withstand all the years ahead, all the problems that would come our way?

It's been a hard year for us. Members of my family, far away in Canada, have been sick and needing surgery. I lost one grandmother, and the other is 98 and fading. I'm far away and can't be there for the ones I love, and the guilt eats away at me. I left my old job, which meant leaving some of my support group behind. Other friends moved away. I'm still striving to find my role in my career and in this world. Arguing with immigration agents. Arguing with health insurance companies. Struggles and loss. I got scared. Scared for us.

I tell my husband, often, how much I love him. I cling to him sometimes when we're in our office together. I drape my arms over his shoulders, my cheek pressed into his beard, as he reads message boards and checks his email. I doubt. I worry, analyzing everything. I ask him again and again whether we'll be okay, whether we'll stick together, all the while hating myself for asking but not always able to stop. His answers are always the same, always reassuring, always patient, always yes, yes, of course, I love you and we're in this for the long haul no matter what.

"How Did We Get From Saying 'I Love You'", by Great Big Sea, is a breakup song. It's about running into your ex after the breakup and realizing you can't find anything in common anymore, anything to talk about except the smalltalk of strangers. It's heartbreakingly sad. My feelings of inadequacy and fear of divorce and loneliness make a song like this really resonate with me.

And my husband played this song for me, at an open mic night on our cruise. Knowing how much I love hearing him play music, my husband found a way to dedicate his performance to me without dedicating the song itself. A little gesture, spontaneous, touching. It meant so much. Maybe we've come from saying "I Love You" to the place where the words don't matter as much as the sentiment, and maybe I can be okay with that. I am loved.

 I'm linking up with some amazing bloggers over at Yeah Write. Stop by and spend a little time reading and supporting the gang!

JoCoCruiseCrazy III - Day 7

The last day of our cruise was another slow-paced day for us. I think that helped us ease into the thought of heading for home.

We met up with the song circle folks again, this time upstairs in one of the card lounges, and Dave got to jam with musicians again for a little while.

We shared a bottle of wine with a different set of good friends and talked about how funny the future is, bringing us to places we wouldn't have expected.

Jonathan Coulton played for us again, and we all sang through our tears when the other performers joined him on stage for the traditional closing song: Sloop John B. I just watched that video again before linking to it, and I teared up again. It was hard to say goodbye to all the wonderful friends I'd made, and to leave this amazing nerd summer camp. Despite the sadness I felt about leaving, though, it was true - I did want to go home. After a week, I missed contact with my family, I missed my cats, and I was tired of sleeping in a tiny shoebox of a room. But that doesn't mean I don't want to go back and enjoy JoCo Cruise Crazy 4.

Monday, March 04, 2013

JoCoCruiseCrazy III - Day 6

With all of the island visits over and nothing but sea days left as the ship turned northwards to bring us home, the party atmosphere came down a few notches on Day 6.

We slept in. Late. I kicked myself for it later, because there were some panels I wanted to attend, about writing and about quitting your job for a creative career, but the problem with an interior room is that there's no daylight to tell you that you should seriously be getting your ass out of bed. Maybe it's a sign that I should stick with my day job for a little while longer. Whatever the reason for the sluggish start, the result was that we missed a whole morning and woke up in time for lunch. We ate at the Windjammer buffet and the choices weren't too bad, although I questioned their decision to add sliced red and green peppers - and no  mushrooms or garlic to speak of - to their Chicken Marsala. 

The upper decks by the swimming pools were crowded all week, so we didn't get very much outdoor lounging done until we discovered the quiet open spaces on either side of Deck 4. There were fewer chairs there, but we could sit in the shade and listen to the water rushing by without having to deal with splashes and screaming toddlers. We spent an hour or two there that Friday before the 2pm show, reading and relaxing. 

Randall Monroe, creator of the xkcd webcomic, told us all about the time he turned his living room into a giant ball pit. Seems to me that the trouble (and the expense!) isn't worth the payoff, but to each his own!  Live the dream! Then The Doubleclicks took the stage and made me giggle at Clever Girl (I'm considering making "Raaawr velociraptor!" my new ringtone) and cry at Imposter. The Doubleclicks play "silly" songs, but they're tremendously good at making you feel feelings. 

Luckily, Wil Wheaton was next up and had us in stitches with his first public attempt at standup comedy and a live reading of his definitely-going-to-get-made-one-of-these-days Robocop sitcom.

After the show we met up with our friends in their balcony room and enjoyed a bottle of wine together outside in the sea air. You're allowed to bring wine on the ship as long as you don't drink it in public areas - they'll charge you a corking fee if you do - and a Sea Monkey by the name of Jeremiah had generously given Dave and I two bottles of fabulous Syrah from his wife's vineyard. It was wonderful, as was the company.

With a huge movie screen hanging over the main swimming pool area, there was no way we would get off this cruise without having a movie night. We considered putting our swimsuits on so we could enjoy the show from one of the half-dozen hot tubs, but it was a pretty chilly night, for Caribbean standards, and we opted for lounge chairs instead. Laughing our butts off watching Paul and Storm's Learning Town was the perfect way to end our lazy day.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

JoCoCruiseCrazy III - Day 5

We spent Valentine's Day in Saint Maarten. Wow, that's fun to say! Makes me feel like some sort of jet-setting rich girl. I'm going to hold onto that feeling for a little while.

On Day 5, we woke up incredibly early for our big excursion on St Maarten. Actually, we woke up an hour too early, because someone's phone synced to island time while in USVI and someone didn't notice, which meant that two someones were up and swimsuited and sunscreened and complaining about how room service never showed up, when those someones could have had another hour of sleep. Sigh. We skipped the official Royal Caribbean excursions because a brave and incredibly organized Sea Monkey named Christina set up a private trip for 40 of us through the local St Maarten company Captain Alan's Tours. This way, we ensured that everyone on our excursion was a Sea Monkey, so we could be weird and dorky and nobody was going to give us any uncomfortable side-eye.

We took up three boats with our gang, and Dave and I were lucky enough to ride with the Sea Monkey good luck talisman - the Yoda backpack.

Yoda backpack meets museum Yoda.
Photo courtesy Jeff "Oboewan" Kahan

Our boat was also the only one with an iPod dock, so we got to rock out and sing along to Skullcrusher Mountain as the boat bounced through the waves. We were soaked and hoarse by the time we anchored at the first snorkeling stop at Tintamarre. The bottom there was sandy and speckled with small patches of sea grasses, and we were told to look for turtles. Every few minutes someone would yell "TURTLE!" and 40 people would flipper and flail their way over for a look. Poor turtles.

Our second stop was at a breathtakingly beautiful reef. The choppiness of the water got to me a little and I felt pretty seasick, but I refused to let it stop me from enjoying the beauty of what was just beneath those waves. Dave took my hand and we floated together with the current, pointing out fish and coral and sea urchins to each other as we went. It was an hour I will never, ever forget.

Lunch was fabulous salami and cheese sandwiches, eaten in the calm, waist-deep water off the beach of Pinel island. The sun, the sea birds, the naked leathery old guy standing on the shore, balls-to-the-breeze without a care in the world... another memorable spot to spend our Valentine's day. 

You totally just zoomed in to look for naked guys, didn't you.

Back on the ship, not nearly as sunburned as we could have been, we were treated to a wonderful night of comedy. First was Joseph Scrimshaw, whose self-deprecating style and sharp insights on geek life really resonate with me. It's the kind of stuff that makes you laugh in the moment, and makes you think about it for the rest of the night. He should be a lot more famous than he currently is, if you ask me. Then we enjoyed the brilliant wits and fart jokes of Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett from Rifftrax as they mocked short educational films with the help of some guest stars.

Sea Monkeys once again put their talents on display for the world to enjoy on Open Mic night in the Pharaoh's Lounge. The place was packed at the beginning, but the crowd thinned considerably as we crept past midnight. It's too bad, really, because some really great stuff happened right near the end of the show. Ned's comedy routine with his "You may be a Redneck Jedi" observations, Angela's poem about only knowing Star Wars through pop-culture references, and Leslie's amazing rendition of Tatooine Blues on an invisible keyboard are only a few of the acts that blew the crowd away. Much of the show is available on YouTube: check out this playlist if you'd like to see what sort of amazing things this group can pull together.

My favorite part, though, was my husband's performance.

The best part is how he pointedly did not dedicate this breakup song to me. I think he needs to play in public more often so he can be a super famous  musician and we can travel the country together for a while, but I can't convince him he's good enough. Oh well, no rockstar-wife life for me.