Saturday, December 27, 2008


Yesterday I flew to North Carolina to spend, ummm, Christmas with my family. We're not christians, but we celebrate anyway. Or maybe some of my family are, but mostly not. Anyway, I was to fly thru Dallas Fort Worth, and due to airline weirdness, I ended up flying out an hour earlier than expected...

Which was great, because, although Austin's airport is pretty cool and has only local food (no chains... You cannot get MacDonald's at the Austin airport!) the DFW airport has - a wine bar! It's in Terminal A (ok, there's one in D, too, I think) and I was hoping that I'd be able to find it.

Sure enough I landed at gate A 19, La Bodega Wine Bar is at A 15, and I was leaving for RDU from gate A 14. I could drink and not have to worry about missing my plane. I figured that fate was telling me to sit down and have a drink, and you just shouldn't argue with fate...

So I sat down and ordered a glass of La Bodega's Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine bar makes it's own wine... Or rather there's a winery and if you want to sample their wine, you have to go to this wine bar. And they make a damn fine Cab, IMHO. It's a very tiny bar, maybe seats 8, 9 people. There's a little side area where they sell wine/liquor tchotchkes but, all in all, it's highly intimate. Plus you're in a bar in an airport, and what's the likelihood you're going to see any of the people at the bar again? So people tend to start talking - ok, people tend to start talking when I'm around anyway - and tell things about themselves that they probably just wouldn't share with the average person they'd known for five minutes...

Yesterday I shared the bar with an Air Force colonel getting ready to deploy to Iraq in January and an unmarried couple just back from a seven-day vacation. There were other people, too, further down, but they were talking amongst themselves. And then there was the bartender, Harrison.

Somehow within five minutes we were talking about marriages. The colonel had a failed, seventeen year marriage behind him and was trying to get engaged to someone that very day, but she wasn't returning his calls because he'd done something wrong. I owned up to having two exes. The couple weren't married. Harrison has three ex-wives. Like I said, I'm not even through my first glass of wine and I know a lot of stuff about these people!

The lady of the couple handed the colonel The 7 Principles of Making Marriage Work, and he told her about The Five Love Languages. The latter is pretty religious, I find, from looking at the website, but the little quiz is kinda neat. I found it interesting that both the books had numbers in their titles. I'm sure there's some theory about self-help books needing finite numbers of things to do to fix your life. SMALL finite numbers. Like you wouldn't really want to read The Four Thousand Six Hundred and Seventy Three things to Make Your Marriage Really Rock.

And the colonel, bless his heart, didn't take the book. No, after the couple left, he handed it to me.

I'm hoping that's not some kind of a sign...

Friday, December 26, 2008

Post party

My Christmas Eve party went just fine. I had too much lasagne left over and too little salad, but that was my grandkid's fault. They'd been to another party beforehand where they'd eaten seven something really rich (donuts? pieces of cake or pie? cookies?) and didn't want lasagne; they only wanted salad. But I had enough wine (very important!), firewood for the chimnea, and Christmas cookies.

Ok, it's probably not fair to call them Christmas cookies, since I make them for Valentines, Easter, and every other holiday that requires cookies, but that's what they're called. It's my grandmother's recipe and my Mom made tons of 'em every year (twelve batches, usually, for xmas). I started making batches even before I had kids, but it sort of amped up when they came along, and then, when Mom died, I inherited some of her cookie people, so now I'm making twelve batches. When you make this many cookies, you collect a LOT of cookie cutters. A LOT. Stars, hearts, conifers (what people who do not run tree lots probably think of as pine trees, when, of course, they're usually fir trees), alphabets, dinosaurs, chickens, eggs, cats, guitars, Texas, musical notes and probably some more that I can't remember without going and looking at 'em all... The Christmas batch has always been: stars, hearts, conifers, and Texas, with occasionally some cats thrown in.

This year, when I was at the hand surgeon's, I saw one of those women's family magazines and it had polar bear cookies on the cover. Polar bears! I've never seen polar bear cookie cutters, but immediately went on a hunt, right after the doctor's appointment, mostly 'cos I was up near Williams Sonoma/Crate & Barrel/Whole Foods. None of 'em had polar bears.

So I went online. The Cookie Cutter Shop online had the best deal between prices and shipping. Unfortunately they also have 700 cookie cutters, so I didn't just get a polar bear. No! I got a lovely penguin and a beautiful cardinal, as well...

Sorry, all the penguins have left the building...

Making twelve batches of cookies requires that you have a cookie decorating party. You mix up a shitload of the 'frosting' (powdered sugar, salt, vanilla and water), get out your food coloring (I use the concentrated ones from Michael's as well as the ol' regular ones from the grocery store), a bunch of small containers and spoons and invite your kids, grandkids, and friends over. You cover your table top with plastic, put the cookies on wire racks and go to town. In our case, eggnog and Maker's Mark are involved for non-pregnant adults. It still takes hours... But it's hours of fun. You have to have non-sweet things to eat, too.

Then all you have to package everything up and start sending it off.

Here's the cookie recipe.

1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3 1/2 cups flour (low protein)

Now, just a word about baking cookies for those of you who haven't taken chemistry or didn't have a grandmother who baked. You want your butter at about 65 degrees, so you take it out of the fridge and let it approach room temp but not quite get there. You cream it with the beater attachment after cutting it into 1/2 inch squares. Add the sugar and beat, scraping the sides of the bowl. You're incorporating air into the butter. Add the vanilla, and beat. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat. By now it should be a light and fluffy mixture. Then start adding in the flour. Low protein flour is good for cookies and pie crusts; high protein flour is good for bread. If you only have high protein flour, you can substitute a half cup of corn starch for a half cup of flour. Use the dough attachment to incorporate the flour. Beat until just incorporated. Get out a sheet of wax paper about 15 inches long and put the dough on it in a long roll and refrigerate overnight. Roll out to 1/4 inch thick, cut with your fabulous cookie cutters, and bake in a pre-heated 375 oven until they just start to brown on ungreased cookie sheets. Allow to cool and frost.

The Maker's Mark helps.

Monday, December 22, 2008

How green can you be?

Ok. I don't normally post photos of toilets on my blog. Heck, I don't normally post photos of toilets on anyone's blog, but today I was at the new UFCU branch in Austin. It is VERY proud of how green it is, with rainwater harvesting and optimal solar placement and lord knows whatall.

And, in the bathroom is one of those new 'dual flush' toilets... You know, the ones with different amounts of water for, ummm, number 1 and number 2? And that's cool, and it's cool that it's filled with rainwater, but do people really drink out of toilets?

Maybe the sign is for dogs.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

the economic downturn

Well, you couldn't prove it by the tree lot this year. It's doing fabulously. Running a tree lot in Texas is always a crap shoot. Essentially it depends on the weather, most particularly the weather on the weekends.

If it is cool and dry on the weekends, the tree lot does well. If it is cool and damp - say a fog or light drizzle - less well; hot and dry, even less well; and cold and wet, not well at all. There's also a lot of variations on how long the 'season' is, depending on when Thanksgiving falls, because our tree lot, which is the oldest tree lot in Texas, if not the world (we started selling trees in 1951 or '52), opens the day after Thanksgiving. The Tree Lot, no matter what will NOT open before Thanksgiving, and certainly not just after Halloween, which is when some people think the Christmas season begins these days. (Can you hear the 'sniff!' that accompanies that?)

So this year was a short season. We were somewhat helped, I do believe, by the UT/A&M game being played on Thanksgiving, instead of the day after (our opening day), and probably by the fact that Texas positively trounced A&M this year. Usually opening weekend is kind of slow, which gives us time to 'open up' the trees, which are shipped bundled up, wrapped in a gazillion miles of polymer twine. You have to slit the twine, pull the tree upright, and somehow shake it out, to get the branches to drop into a normal position. Then you have to tie it up to a line, so it won't fall over on anyone.

Some of these trees are really big, 9' - 10' tall, and they weigh a ton, and cost a fortune. Essentially the bigger the tree, the more it costs by a geometric factor. So the smaller trees are quite reasonable: you can pick 'em up, you can afford them and they will fit in a house. The bigger ones take two people or three to pick up and carry. You gotta have a pretty big room to put them in, and I'm always happy to meet people who can pay for 'em.

Last year, the big trees, which normally sell out really fast, moved very, very slowly. That was highly disturbing, because we have the most money tied up in them. So this year, I put on my magic prognosticating hat, got a glass of wine, and decided I would order the same number of trees as last year, but smaller trees. We'd make less profit, 'cos there's less mark up on the small trees, but people would be able to afford them. And, we'd keep our prices the same as last year.

My tree suppliers were quite compliant and sold me the trees for the same price as last year. Actually they probably made a bit more money, 'cos gasoline was down, although diesel was not down as much as regular gas. And, I could use last year's price cards! I checked with the Board of the charity, and they agreed on my strategy.

So, we were wrong. The trees, wreaths, garland and tree stands flew off the lot. The big trees flew off the lot. By the beginning of last week, I was having to order more trees. Not tons more, but a few hundred. What happened? Well, we had nice cool weekends, dry for the most part. But that couldn't be all of it.

I also noticed that people were using credit cards more. Last year it was 40/40/20: 40% check, 40% credit card, and 20% cash. This year it's 80/10/5, that being 80% credit card, 10% cash and 5% check. Weird to have such a sea change in spending habits in one year. Now some of these may be debit cards, but we don't do the debit thing, and just run it all as charge. It's more expensive, but easier, and our cashiers are untrained volunteers, so we use the KISS principle.

So are folks in Texas ignoring all the warnings to pay off credit cards instead of charging on them? Are they just more optimistic than the rest of the nation? Is our economy more insulated? Are we just in denial?

My guess is that it's a bit of all four. People around here talk about how our real estate market is strong, but I think that's baloney. It's not moribund, but houses that would have been snapped up in a day or two eighteen months ago are sitting unsold for months. All the fancy pants high rise condos that are being built downtown are now exploring the option of 'leasing!' Fancy that!

Whatever it is, I'm glad people are buying trees.

Friday, December 12, 2008

winter light

Me on right with my friend, Andy.

Yes, Roz is right, I don't quite understand snow. Ok so I WAS born in Michigan (shhhh, it's a secret!) and I have adorable pictures of me in a snowsuit. I quit understanding snow the year I lived in South Dakota/northern Nebraska, when it was 117 on the Fourth of July and -42 in December. Admittedly, there wasn't that much snow involved in the whole process, because it doesn't rain out there very often... But still, snow and my brain just sort of did a disconnect, which was reinforced when I lived in Madison, Wisconsin the next winter...

But winter light is winter light and I love it. I try to analyze light. I think about it: would I know that this was December if there were no other external clues, just the light? I think the answer is yes, because here in Texas at least - where we do have palm trees, although they don't really sway - the other clues are highly changeable. It can be warm or it can be cold, but the light is that sort of weak, lemony, but kind of harsh light... Raking light from the angle of the sun.

This week it has been cold - a couple days - and warm... Also a couple of days. And today was a warmish one... Mid sixties. I went for a walk late afternoon. I went to the Golden Slipper, my local shoe repair shop. "When do you want 'em?" the guy asked me. "Umm, today?" I replied. After all, it was my favorite pair of Børn Cardinal boots. I wear 'em at the tree lot. It's part of my high fashion lumberjack look. He said he could have 'em ready by five. I said that was cool 'cos I needed to go to Farm to Market Grocery (Look for the radish!) on South Congress. So I walked there, enjoying my neighborhood and the fall colors of the leaves, and the neighborhood goat.

After I shopped at Farm to Market, I went next door and ate dinner at Woodland. Ok, it was a bit early, but it was happy hour, so I had the white bean and sausage soup with a glass of Malbec. And damn, I missed not having my journal with me! After the mugging, when I go shopping, I take just a bag and a credit card or $$$ in my pocket, but NOT my purse. So I didn't have a journal, and I was hard up.

I'm going to have to work this whole thing out. I don't want to be mugged again - and, oh horrors, if they'd gotten my purse with my journal in it! - but, I can't go around without my journal.

So, I've got some thinking to do.

What's up...

Ricë told me that if I didn't blog today, she was going to unlink me! Alright already! She said I'm even behind Miss Doxie in blogging, and Roz positootley puts me to shame. Sigh. It is true. I figured at the very least I could list my excuses for not blogging.

First, I went to the cabin in NY. It is kinda primitive, essentially a shed. There's no heat, unless you are one of those silly people who thinks you can heat an uninsulated cabin with a fireplace. There is also - gasp - no internet, at least no hi-speed internet, unless I drive into town. And, in August, with gas at $4/gallon, I didn't feel like driving anywhere very often. A couple of friends from Texas came to visit me and we did drive into the city, and over to Woodstock, where I spent way too much money on a really cool silk jacket. Almost all my clothes come from thrift stores (I shopped several times at the Salvation Army store in Kingston) except shoes and things like really cool black silk jackets with faux fur lining the cuffs and collar.

On my way back to Texas - mind you, I drive to and from NY, so I'll have a car while I'm there - I stopped to visit my sister in Ohio. It was sort of a surprise visit and we had great fun calling the folks and talking to them since they didn't know I was going to visit Pam. Hell, Pam didn't know I was going to visit Pam. My cell phone would not work at Pam's house, so we talked on her phone. Stupidly, I left my cell phone in the living room... Stupidly because Pam and Jed arise early enough in the morning to leave the house at 6:15 am! I am NOT awake at that hour, so they told me just to lock the door behind me. I rose, showered, dressed, made a cup of coffee, packed and left, locking the door behind me. Of course, I'd left the cell phone in the living room. I couldn't call Pam to ask if there was a key hidden somewhere, 'cos, well, my cell phone was in the living room. I remembered that the window was open in the room I slept in, so I figured I'd just go around the house to the window and slip it open, pop in and retrieve the phone. I just didn't reckon on the house being completely surrounded by huge bushes in an impenetrable thicket. It had rained, so as I tried to slip along between the wall of the house and the bushes, I got completely soaked and covered in wet, decaying pine needles. Sure enough, the window was open, but I couldn't get the screen out, so had to go back to my car, get my trusty Opinel French Fruit Knife (#4), wend my way back to the window, and slip out the screen. Ahh, one more problem, even though I was wearing 3 1/2" heels, I was not tall enough to jump into the window. Once again, I slipped back between the house and the bushes, to the garage, where I found a bucket, a sturdy bucket, which I carried back to the window, climbed in, retrieved my phone, climbed out, closed the window, put in the screen, grabbed the bucket and wound my way around the house one last time... I put the bucket back and looked at myself in my car window. I was covered with wet pine needles, and had dirt and muck all over me. But I had my cell phone. And no one had called the police, so I drove off and called my sister and told her how easy it was to break into her house.

Back in Austin, I proceeded to cut off my fingers on my left hand with a table saw. Wait, wait, I'm making that much more dramatic that it really was. I actually just ran the fingers lightly over the whirling blade when a piece of wood backed up as I was ripping it. It hurt like a melonfarmer. I couldn't believe I'd done what I'd done, but I had enough sense to run into the bathroom and put my fingers under cold running water. I managed to reach my Vicodin with my right hand and promptly took one. Twenty minutes later the bleeding was manageable. I could bend the fingers, so I knew I hadn't severed a tendon or a bone. To celebrate that fact and to try and overcome the pretty horrendous pain, I took another Vicodin, and fell sound asleep. When I woke up, I soaked my fingers in warm salt water, changed the bandages, took more Vicodin and went back to sleep. I think I did that for two days. Then I decided that, despite the salt water soakings, my index finger was getting infected, so I called my doctor's office. When you tell them you've run your hand through a table saw, they'll see you right away. They just want to see what kind of a person would be silly enough NOT to go to an emergency room, I think. Anyway, I ended up going to a plastic surgeon who told me that my fingers were going to be horribly deformed. For that he charged me $166. Actually, my fingers are going to be fine, I think, and my index finger is kind of cutely deformed. But they hurt like cold fire when they get cold.

Let's see. Oh yeah, ten days after that I taught my first fall class in bookbinding. It went ok. I'd quit taking the Vicodin, 'cos I just can't teach on the stuff. I was feeling pretty perky and chipper. I got home from class and realized I was out of wet cat food. So I walked to the grocery store five blocks away, talking on my cell phone to my Dad the whole way. I had my wallet and a nice 'shopping' bag I'd gotten in Guate this summer. I put the cans in the bag with my wallet and left the store. A car followed me out of the lot, turned onto the street I turned onto and parked and turned its lights out. (It was 9:45 pm.) I saw the cars lights go on and then WHAM!, something hit me really, really hard on the back of the head. It hit me so hard that I just sort of flew to the ground. I didn't even put my hands out (a good thing, considering) to break my fall. And then some melonfarmer was wresting my bag off my shoulder, and I was telling Dad that I had to get off the phone, I was being mugged. I sat up and yelled "You're only getting four cans of cat food," at the young man who was running to the car that had pulled up alongside us. And then I remembered my wallet and thot "Shit." I called 911, and four police cars came. They wanted to take me to the emergency room, but I didn't want to go. I knew I didn't have a concussion, and I just wasn't in the mood... The police had those big flashlights and they found my hat and glasses, and bluetooth earpiece... And my wallet! Apparently when the guy jumped in the car, my wallet fell out of the bag. Everything was there. The police offered to take me home, but I told them I had to go back to the store and buy four more cans of cat food, so, bless them, they took me to the store and waited, and then took me home.

So, have you been in the back of a police car recently? I hadn't. They're all molded plastic, from the back of the driver's seat to the back of the back seat, with a plexiglass divider in the middle. I think this should be an option - the 'travel' option - for all family cars. You can just hose it out if there are any accidents, and the kids can see each other but not touch each other. Fabulous!

Ahh, and now it's tree lot time. I run a tree lot for a charity at Christmas. We sell somewehere between 2,500 and 2,700 trees and all the profits benefit youth charity. The lot is staffed by volunteers and part of my job is to 'organize' them and their schedule. It's like herding cats. However it's really fun because I get to pretend I'm a lumberjack for three weeks and play with trees and chain saws! Vrrrooom! Vroom! The only problem this year is that it's been pretty cold here in Texas, which is good for tree sales but really bad for my fingers. It will be over next week, actually, if we don't run out of trees first. We turn the lot over to a Boy Scout troop for a week and in return they set up and tear down the lot for us. So, on Wednesday, the tree lot is theirs and I begin my frantic cookie baking project.
A future Tree Lot Chairman

And that's it.