Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Wiz There Was

We have great Christmases now that we don't do any gift exchanges, except for the wee ones, and that's not much of an exchange, just yet. Dave still strings up lights and we get some kind of a tree because Pootie insists. He's sitting on a mountain of truly garish ornaments and if we don't give him an outlet, he might disgrace us in front of the whole neighborhood. We get some kind of meal together that features butter so prominently it might as well be the carveable main course. We're jolly. Dave makes almond roca and distributes it to the masses. I make Christmas cards and send out about a hundred of them.

The only real crappy part left is the traditional holiday Mail Merge Moment, when I attempt to transfer my Christmas card address list to peel-and-stick labels. I warn Dave when I'm about to do it so he can find something to do miles away.

When I finally got a Mac, I panicked that everything I'd ever written would be lost because it was all in Microsoft Word. I thought maybe all my old Word documents would come up to my Mac and be all howdy, howdy and my Mac would sneer and say qu'est-ce que c'est? and go off in a snit and eat cheese.

The guy at the Mac store assured me it wouldn't happen, but he did say if I felt more comfortable with the Word program than whatever Mac has--we may never know--I could have Microsoft Word For Mac installed on my machine. So I did. I do have a technology phobia and would prefer to use what I've already learned even if it's crappier. Everything is working well enough, except for the label issue.

I did successfully get my addresses into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, so it's merely a matter of summoning up the Mail Merge Wizard. "Wizard" should make you feel all confident. Like there might be wands, and everything. This wizard was last seen floating off in a balloon and bellowing "I don't know how this works!"

There is, as it happens, no place on the toolbar into which you can type "I would like you to put these addresses on those labels please." Instead, you select Print Layout in View. Just do it: there's no need to know why, Little Missy. Then, some whole other place, click on Mail Merge Wizard and then click on Yes I Want A New Document You Asshole We Just Did This Last Year, and then you'll need to put in what kind of labels you have, where you bought them, how much you could have saved on line, and the serial number of your printer, which can be found on the box you recycled. Then you click on the pop-up List Frammulator and find an icon that asks you if you're getting your list from an Open Data Source or the CIA or the desk drawer on the left, and you can save yourself about a half hour here because you wrote down the correct answer several years ago and you still have the notes. Click on that, and a new menu pops up that asks you whether you want the name to appear on the label (click "yes jerkwad") and what your first pet's name was, the name of your oldest sibling, and the street where you grew up, and after about a half hour, the wizard has all your passwords and will decide to start working on your labels once he conducts a little personal business.

Now it is time to Edit Labels! Click on a field name under "Insert Merge Field." Yes, those are all verbs and also all nouns, but it is not necessary for you to know what it means, so don't trouble yourself. This will generate a pop-up window. Click inside it and then locate the book nearest you, turn to page 56, and find the sixth sentence. Once you've typed that into the space provided, it will trigger a new pop-up window. Click on "fill in items to complete document." The wizard will do that, only in secret. You
won't see anything on screen. It's time to print.

I need four pages of labels. This year I only went through twenty of them plus some bond paper before I got what I needed. I shaved fifteen minutes off my previous record, too.

I don't know how the Mac would do it, left to its own devices, but I think you just slap the printer and say here boy, here boy and it bounces over to the printer with your address list in its mouth, and then comes back and licks your screen clean.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

And Mercy Mild

In a way, I was cheered by the release of the Senate committee torture report, because I already figured we were guilty, but I didn't necessarily expect us to own up. And the fact that we did gave me some hope that we might be a worthy nation after all.

If there is anything that makes America exceptional, it should be our devotion to civil liberties, our founding principles, our respect for the rule of law, even international law--hell, this being one tiny marble we're on, especially international law--and our unwillingness to compromise our ethics to satisfy our bloodlust.

You don't have to hang out too long on the internet to find out that that is not a universal perspective. There are a lot of dark alleys on the internet and a lot of people with shivs crouched behind every dumpster. I don't know how anyone could contemplate torture with anything but revulsion, but people do. Some people get little patriotic woodies over it. I don't know what has happened to people who can imagine torturing other people without getting sick. Lots of things, probably. They've been broken somehow, hurt, probably early on. They've had to protect themselves from something or other--even something as ordinary as inconsistent love--since they were children, and they have racked up years maintaining enemy lists, sharpening their blades, figuring out which side of their shield everyone falls on.

They're pissed at the store clerk with a perceived attitude, the friend who all but called them fat, the women who don't think they're good enough, the nigger who got promoted to the job they should have had, the man who can't be bothered to pick up his own damn underwear, the asshole on the phone who can't even speak English. They're pissed and the only thing that makes sense of everything is to have a clear line drawn, and a clear shot at the ones on the wrong side of it.

They've got the patter and the script. They're energized by the Real New Jersey Housewife with her hands on her hips and a head-waggle who says she gon' cut that bitch. Fuck yeah, sister. Give 'er one for me.

Some of them have drawn their line clear up to Heaven. American Exceptionalism? We are God's chosen people. And since we are God's chosen people, everything we do must be what God had in mind. If they behead one of us, we'll slice up their whole family. I would prefer to think a true moral high ground might make us exceptional, but if it's just that God gave us the stamp of approval one inattentive day, so be it. There are echoes of that brand of confidence all over the world, in every dark alley.

People think if we're not strong, if we're not cruel, we'll be run over. That's what those who are devoted to vengeance believe: that the rest of us are pushovers, pansies, naifs who think we can prevail with purity of heart and a good drum circle. Peacemaking is hard work and takes a lot of patience and fortitude, and there's never a guarantee of success. The latter is what it has in common with war. What no one bothers to show is any reliable outcome from war and violence other than more war and violence. There's no good evidence that it's ever done us any lasting good. How can you bomb innocent people and win anything worth having? Does it really matter if our hearts were pure and we didn't mean to take out your wedding party, or your whole village?

One fellow I eavesdropped on in an internet thread said he "didn't feel sorry for those people"--the terrorists, or their innocent human stand-ins swept up in the dragnet, whom we tortured. No one is asking anyone to feel sorry for a terrorist. That's not to say it would not be a good exercise to try. To try to imagine that everyone is human and hurt and something like ourselves. In the case of those actual terrorists we torture, a lot like ourselves.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

A Pain In The Butt

Sometime in the middle of the night, part of me wanted to roll over, and the rest of me didn't, and an argument ensued. Bickering among the factions continued till morning, and by then there was no rolling out of bed. Best I could do was tack toward the edge of the mattress and hope for favorable winds.

This used to happen to me pretty often. I had what I considered a normal amount of aches and pains; a stiff lower back, a squawky knee, and a neck that ached and twanged pretty much all the time, since a childhood neck-pretzeling incident. I enriched a few chiropractors and bought into the notion that this is what you have to put up with if you live long enough. I was only in my forties when someone introduced me to what legions of friends ended up calling "," as in the phrase "I got your damn book, so leave me alone." It's the Egoscue Method, a ridiculously simple protocol that seems to permanently erase pain. Mine went away. All of it; twenty years of it.

So I knew just what to do when my lower back stiffened up. I got out The Book and did the menu of lower-back exercises and waited for relief that had, historically, been immediate. The next day I did it again, and the next. It didn't appear to be making more than a dent.

I concluded that perhaps this wasn't a lower-back issue at all. Perhaps it was an upper-buttular issue. I did the hip exercises. The results weren't spectacular. The right side of me still wasn't interested in getting out of a chair when the rest of me did. Worse, certain toilet hygiene standards were being compromisied. I threw in the neck exercises just for drill. Things were easing, but not quickly. This was a disaster. I had seriously annoyed way too many people evangelizing about this book for it to let me down now.

By the fourth day, I had begun to conclude that if The Book wasn't helping, it was probably cancer. The dreaded Upper Right Butt Cancer.

"Just go see the chiropractor," Dave said. That seemed like a betrayal of The Book. I waited a few more days so it would seem like my idea, and gave her a call.

Our chiropractor is a wiry woman who brandishes her own heroically good health like a reproach. She's been free with the advice over the years; diet, exercise, occupation. "You shouldn't be a mail carrier," she told me early on. Her advice is tailored to the individual. "You shouldn't be a hod carrier," she told Dave. Well then.

The problem with having a fabulously healthy chiropractor with stellar habits of mind and body is that she's only in her office periodically, and the rest of the time she's got her fanny parked on a mountaintop in Nepal or something. She wasn't in.

I'm going to Plan C. I am going to ignore it. If that works as well as it does with my cat, I expect my butt pain will be walking across the keyboard any time now.

Hurray, hurray, it's Margaret Day! Today! Start tossing!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Precisely Bundled

Last year we were trying to find super-warm coats for our winter trip to Alaska. It's hard to put a coat on in a warm store and really know what it's going to do for you.  Mostly you're kind of guessing, judging the coat for bulbousness or fuzz factor or some such. So I was pleased to find a tag on the coat I ended up buying. It said it was good to minus four degrees Fahrenheit.

That is a freakishly specific tag. So many questions arise. Are you just dandy to minus four and then you lose a degree and it's Whoa Nelly, Boy Howdy, Katy Bar The Door? Do they figure in wind chill? Are we walking briskly or are we hunkered at a bus stop? Shouldn't it add "or minus fifteen during menopause?"

Oops! Missed this one.
I've never cared for the wind chill factor. I liked it better when the weather person said "minus four with a twenty-mph wind." I can do the emotional math. Assigning a wind chill factor seems like cheating; and it takes out all opportunity for bluster. As it were.

But the coat just said minus four. A temperature that Alaska gets a big kick out of and thinks is adorable, but should be unthinkable here. So I figured I wouldn't have to test their claim too closely in Portland.

It's like seeing a hat with a label that reads "87% endearing except on Tuesdays and Murr, where it will make her tiny head look like the nipple on a baby bottle."

Or a sweater scoring "7 to 9 on the schlumpy-to-fab spectrum depending on choice of brassiere."

There had to be research to produce a tag like my coat has. They had to have lined up a significant number of subjects and zipped them up and put them on the train platform while temperatures dropped, and made notations of precise temps when asses froze off and clunked onto the concrete. You throw out lows and highs from the Albanian fellow who is furred like an otter and the little skinny girl from Ecuador, and you average the rest. You've got the tag people in Indonesia on speed-dial, and your coats are on the market the next day.

Give me another few years, and all my clothes are going to be fleece, cut loose. The tags will say "net weight 130 pounds; contents may have settled during shipping."

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Going Straight

Dave, in solidarity

Stuff happens when you're not paying attention. I put on an old comfortable dress the other day, the one with an Empire waistline. An Empire waistline is situated high, just below the bust line. Unfortunately, since the last time I wore the dress, the waistline and the bust line have changed sides, with the bust now playing in the shadowy end of the field.

Meanwhile, I woke up the other day to discover that a third of my face is now habitually resting on the pillow next to me, like a close friend. I can actually see some of it, without using a mirror.

Both of these happenstances might have seemed like a disaster a few decades ago, but I don't plan to do anything about either of them. My philosophy is to let all my components play as they see fit and just hope they're all rounded up in time for dinner.

So this business with my teeth is nothing I would ever change for cosmetic reasons alone. My chewing teeth are well-behaved, but the front ones are tripping all over each other like they're in a stampede in Pamplona. My left front incisor has knocked its neighbor clean out of the running. It's ahead by a neck. Behind those, it's all pushing and shoving and coarse language. There's nothing attractive about this, but what bothers me most is that the insides of my lips are getting shredded by the sharp edges. My dentist only takes pictures of the molars, so we don't have a record of the whole set, but I think this has to be a recent development. Maybe all those face-plants on the pavement have gotten everything on the skedaddle.  I didn't notice any loosening at the time, but my teeth might have gotten together and decided they'd be safer in someone else's face, and now they're gettin' the hell out of Dodge.

I don't want to get braces, even though they are a lot better than they used to be. The kids who had braces fifty years ago looked horribly  uncomfortable, and so did their parents. They cost, like, a couple thousand dollars, or about what you'd pay for a small house if you didn't need a rec room, and they were made out of cattle fencing and razor wire. Every so often the victims had to go to the orthodontist, who sent in a team of tiny rude inmates to yank it all tight. Then they were sent home wired with explosive rubber bands and dread. After a couple years the teeth were set free provisionally but still had to be locked up at night. It was a horror show.

Now braces are adorable little dots in decorator colors glued to the teeth and connected with gossamer and good intentions. They look like something the kids would do just for the jazz of it.  I'm not signing on just yet. It's still expensive, and if I wait long enough they'll have a satellite able to straighten them remotely using GPS and the magnetic field. It'll be cheaper, too.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Be Preparednessful!

So we're next in line for the big earthquake, and I am led to understand that I should be acquiring preparedness, or having preparedness thrust upon me. I don't like it. It can't even be a real word. What was wrong with "readiness?" When I look at my monthly bills, am I supposed to aspire to paidness?

I can't bring myself to think about any of it until I check the Oxford English Dictionary--the one with every word and its earliest usage in it, and which comes with a magnifying glass--and see when this travesty of a word was visited upon us. And it turns out it was in 1590. Well, no offense to the OED people, but there's a lot of evidence that those early English speakers were drunk. Spelling like toddlers. Capitalizing random shit as though they have to wake themselves up every few Words just to make it to the End of the Sentence. And then by 1654 we have: "...he gave the Executioner the token of his preparedness, whereat the Headsman severed his head from his body." Maybe it's just me, but I do not consider this any endorsement of preparedness. Whatever: the OED can't be all that proud of the word, or they'd use bigger print.

Anyway, preparedness is one of those things you know you should get around to having, but that it could probably wait. Our neighbor Gayle thought it was so important she had a gathering at her house so some folks could come from the Red Cross and get us up to speed. Here, we don't worry much about floods, or hurricanes, or tornadoes, or wildfires. House fires are a concern, but my smoke alarms scare me worse than fire does. What we're really supposed to worry about is the big 9.0. The titanic earthquake that is already 14 years overdue.

So one of the things you need to do is prepare a portable emergency preparedness kit. You're going to want first aid supplies, a flashlight, cash, toothbrush, can opener, duct tape, blanket, tweezers, toilet paper, wrench, 50 feet of rope, garden hose, emergency speculum, medical team, a coach-and-six, and five hundred gallons of water. Handy.

And with all that, I don't know that you can truly be prepared for a 9.0 earthquake. Sure, you can have a cache of stuff. But no one is going to go through one of these events and think: hey, I was so ready for this. Because that's the whole point of huge earthquakes--that's what gives them so much jazz. You're never going to be ready just that second.  You're never going to admire your kit and say, "okay, now." The one we're due for isn't going to bobble you around. It's going to flip you right out of bed and plate you up with hashbrowns. I've looked it up on the soil map: the ground on our particular block will turn into pudding. I can't pretend I'll be calm. I was once sorting mail, and the wheeled dolly that was stationed to my left started to spontaneously roll away. I thought I was moving. I almost threw up on my postal black shoes.

There's more to the kit. You're supposed to have a bucket, trash bags, bleach, and two boards to construct a makeshift toilet. I don't know what the boards are for. I do know that after a 9.0 earthquake, I won't be needing a toilet for a while. You're also supposed to keep sturdy shoes, a flashlight, and an extra pair of eyeglasses in a bag attached to your headboard.

Here's how I prepare. I don't worry much, and I have the emotional flexibility to be able to take whatever comes. That's the kind of preparedness that has worked for my whole life, and will continue to work for me right up until that 9.0, at which point I will have plenty of time to ponder it all while I'm under the rubble wearing only my Skechers and a pair of unfashionable glasses. And I will think: Gayle's right next door. And she has one hell of a kit.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Just Desserts

It must have been almost thirty years ago that the family decided we could probably shake up a few traditions without pissing off the gods, and we examined the Thanksgiving dinner menu with fresh eyes. That's the kind of thing you're allowed to do when your family traditions include items from the Jell-O and marshmallow families. Dave and his sister didn't really like turkey, but the rest of us thought that was non-negotiable. Possibly even a matter of law. Punkin pie was mandatory also, but there could be a little wiggle room with other desserts. "What this dinner needs," Susan said, "is more chocolate." Or any chocolate.

I'd recently run across a promising-sounding recipe in a magazine I, as a letter carrier, was supposed to deliver, and printed off a copy of it at work at the expense of the stamp-buying public (thank you, America). I couldn't remember what it was offhand but I offered to have a look. "Does it have any chocolate in it?" Susan asked.

I located the recipe under a rumple of papers on my desk. "Let's see," I said, smoothing it out, "it's called 'Fudge-Slathered Fudge Cake.'"

"Bring it," Susan instructed.

The next day
It was one of those recipes that starts out as a pain in the ass. You preheat the oven to 350 and then you find square pans and grease them and then line them with tin foil and then grease that and flour it and knock out the excess flour, and by then your oven is preheated and you haven't even touched an ingredient. But the ingredients are tremendous. A pound of chocolate, a half pound of butter, eggs, sugar, walnuts, brandy, and two tablespoons of flour just to restore order and discipline. It's still a bit of a pain in the ass but you can feel confident it's going to be great, because chocolate butter sugar brandy. You do have to whip the egg whites and egg yellows separately and "gently fold"--god, I love that--the whites into your chocolate sludge. If there's a way to do that without losing all the loft from the egg whites, I have never found it. Then you bake your two layers, and they puff up sort of randomly, and you let them cool overnight on a rack.

The next morning your little square cake layers look all stomped to hell. They're lumpy and shrunken and flat as an old lady's tit. Or so I'm told. It's a panic situation, that first year, but hey--that's what the frosting is for. It starts out as cream and sugar. You're supposed to boil those and then reduce to low and let it bubble for ten minutes whilst "occasionally washing down sugar crystals from the side of the pan with a moistened pastry brush." Like I'm ever going to do anything with a moistened pastry brush.

The frosting is fabulous and the cakes go together beautifully, with walnuts pressed into the sides for the jazz of it. It's a hit. Anyone who ingests more than about a two-inch cube of it has to lie down on the floor for an hour, but it's a hit. And a tradition is born.
Embiggen for recipe

The next year, and all the years after that, the cakes do the exact same thing, but by then you've realized that they're only in the recipe to keep the fudge frosting layers apart, like a semi-colon holding back a pair of clauses. But the frosting doesn't set up properly. You review your ingredients, find them accurately measured, and frost the cake anyway as is. After a while someone notices it's crawling off the counter and heading for the hinterlands at a dead gallop. It's a family effort to corral the frosting with a deft posse of fingers, and even if it doesn't look like it belongs on a magazine cover, you still have to make it again the next year.

Discoveries are made over the decades. A few years in, I scribble a note in the margins: no need to grease the pans first. Duh. The tin foil slides right out. Some years the frosting works and some years it doesn't. I finally realize it's one of those heat things. It's chemistry. Chemistry was my favorite subject but when it slides into the kitchen arena, it's black magic. This frosting business is one of those candy-making deals where you have to check if your balls are hard or soft, and it's all too embarrassing. At some point I recognize that my frosting works if I let it bubble at a higher temperature for a slightly longer time. I scribble that in my margins.

I could have taken a full degree course at a culinary institute and figured this out faster than I did on my own. But I've got it working now.

Dinner is great. Dave makes a plaintive and utterly futile motion that we have prime rib instead of turkey next year. That's a tradition, too.