Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Gratitude roster 2008

What I've been grateful for this year:
  • Living within walking distance of work, and within driving distance of family and friends in Ohio. Those two things have made my life exponentially easier and more pleasurable in so many ways.
  • The English Department's move from Stansbury Hall (the old campus fieldhouse) to Colson Hall (the former law-school building). Finally, an office with windows! And new furniture! I don't know how my colleagues who worked in Stansbury for decades did it.

  • Lucy's graceful exit--however sad, it was quick and peaceful--and the joy of two new fuzzy weirdos.

  • White Park, a woodsy, 170-acre oasis that's a ten-minute walk from our house. It has provided me with countless hours of solace, and the chance to appreciate the beauty of every season in West Virginia.

  • The record number of voters who turned out to express their disgust with the status quo of the last eight years and their belief that our country can and must do better. Even though things won't get better overnight, at least now I think there's a fighting chance that they might not get any worse!

  • Believe it or not, I'm deeply grateful for Web 2.0. Seriously: between this blog and FaceBook, this year has been full of amazing discoveries, new and renewed friendships, many much-needed laughs, and an odd sense that my current self has been reconciled with all my past selves, if that makes any sense.

    I'm especially gratified to be back in touch with my college friend Jane, the Boulder Hathaways, several grad-school comrades I'd lost touch with, and many former students.

  • And finally, dear readers, I'm grateful to you: to be honest, I didn't think I'd keep this experiment up when I started it a year ago. It's been an interesting ride--I've learned a lot about myself as a writer and as a character (an underdeveloped and problematic one, mostly) in my writing. And I've so appreciated all your comments, feedback, and observations, and reading your blogs as well.
Let's do it for another year, shall we?

Monday, December 29, 2008

Open thread: what were the best books you read this year?

The New York Times Book Review has published its list of the ten best books of 2008, of which I have read exactly one: Jhumpa Lahiri's short-story collection Unaccustomed Earth, which I enjoyed very much. I think she's a better short-story writer than a novelist; I was blown away by her first collection, Interpreter of Maladies--the final story, "The Third and Final Continent," is one of my favorite short stories of all time.

There are a few others on the NYT list I'd like to read sometime, like the new Toni Morrison novel, but as with most "best of" lists, I don't feel especially culturally illiterate for failing to even recognize many of the titles that appear on it.

It did get me thinking, though, about which of the books I've read this year I've most enjoyed, regardless of whether they were published in 2008 or not.

Thanks to my librarian pal Don, I started keeping a log of my reading on Library Thing this year, so I have a handy reference to turn to. I used to keep this kind of a list in a notebook, but frankly, would go for months without putting stuff into it, and then would have to reconstruct what I'd read, and it was just a pain in the ass. With Library Thing, you just type in the title, click, and the book goes on your list.

So, here are a few of my favorites from this year:

Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Alexie's first young-adult novel is stylistically very much in the vein of his adult works, treading the fine line between humor and pathos, which makes his characters all the more affecting. The the protagonist here, Arnold Spirit, is a gifted geek who wants to be a cartoonist, and his drawings complicate and enrich the story in really interesting ways. A YA novel that transcends the tired formula of many YA novels.

Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader

Bennett's novella is a delightful piece of speculative fiction about what might happen if Queen Elizabeth stumbled into a bookmobile by accident, checked out a book just to be polite, and surprised everyone--most especially herself--by becoming a voracious reader.

This could easily have been a total farce, but Bennett really makes the Queen a complex character (Prince Phillip is left to bear the brunt of the "vacuous royalty" jokes). The more she reads, the more isolated she feels from the rest of the world and from human experience, generally. While it feels like a light read, this text raises some provocative questions about the profound ways in which books, and the very experience of reading, alter us.

Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective

I'm a longtime detective-fiction fan, and found this book to be a fascinating analysis of the complementary Victorian obsessions with both the newly minted occupation of the real-life detective and the newly minted genre of detective fiction. (Since I blogged about this before I won't go into more detail here.)

Markus Zusak's The Book Thief

This is one of those books that you approach with dread: "A 500-page young-adult novel about the Holocaust, with Death itself as the narrator? No thanks!"

But truly, it is one of the most beautifully written and moving books I've read in a long time, and while it's terribly sad (including "the weeping hour, a.k.a. the last 50 pages," as a student who read it for my YA lit class this semester described it), it's also compulsively readable. Very different from most Holocaust novels, this one focuses on the plight of working-class neighbors in Munich, most of whom don't support the Reich but have no choice but to comply--at least publicly.

--So far, I've read 48 books this year (!--lots of young-adult novels in there; you can rack those up fast), and there are lots of others that I could mention here, but I want to leave it at the very few of those that I felt passionate about.

How about you? What did you read this year that made you want to pass the book on immediately to someone else, and then nag them to finish so you could talk to them about it?

Christmas books that I'm looking forward to reading next (lots of nonfiction, surprisingly):

The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British

The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, and Literature of Pedestrianism

Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

More tales of ritual holiday child abuse

...and then I promise, I'm going to be done.

But when I opened the Columbus Dispatch here at my parents' this morning, there was yet another story about an odd Christmas tradition of terror and mayhem, this time from Iceland, where a mountain hag named Gryla, her husband Leppalud, and their thirteen nasty sons, the "Yule Lads," threaten to carry bad children off and eat them.

The article includes examples of similar traditions from Italy and Austria. After reading this piece, I have to revise my original assumption that the figure who beat my friend's father in Vienna was the Belsnickle...sounds more like he was attacked by Krampus. (These distinctions are so important! ;^)

If you click to read the article, please do ignore the Cox News Service journalist's conclusion that all of these things are "Christmas mythologies borrowed from pagan folklore." As Erica neatly pointed out in a comment to the last post, the only valid Grand Unifying Theory is the one that reminds us that "it's all in your head"!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Bigfoot and Santa, separated at birth?

...That's essentially the theory of Jeffrey Vallance, whose story of making this connection in the deep woods of Lapland is pretty compelling.

I like the connections he makes between the Sami "Snömannen," Big Foot, the Grinch, and Santa, though I don't buy his assertion that "Santa Claus, the wildman and Snömannen must spring from the same ancient source." Why, O Why, must such interesting and loose cultural connections always be tied up with one impossible Unifying Theory (Which Is Also Always Ancient)? Isn't the paradox of parallel diversity more intriguing?

I found Vallance's article by way of Cryptomundo, a blog about "cryptozoology (the study of unknown, hidden, and as yet to be verified animals)," by way of a BoingBoing post that featured this family tree, drawn by Vallance:

I'm relieved to see that Vallance's theory includes a hefty dose of humor. But the real reason I'm re-posting this here is because the Wildman family tree includes the Bellsnickle (sic)!

So next time you're out in the woods, kids, don't worry about bears, or even Biggie himself--beware the Belsnickle!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Ephemera, the holiday edition

It seems like a good time to trot out some of the more festive holdings from our vast collection of ephemera.

Tom tells me these German Santa postcards are relatively valuable, especially as the Santas aren't wearing the typical red garb, but purple. This antique-postcard site features some similar examples, and suggests that the one on the right is a "Belsnickle Santa."

The Belsnickle seems to be haunting me lately. Recently, a friend told me that her father was in Vienna, and had been beaten by the Belsnickle, a character who travels around with Santa and sort of plays "bad cop" to Santa's good cop. The Belsnickle carries a stick and hits those he thinks have been bad. My friend wasn't sure why her father was targeted, other than being a tourist, and an American tourist at that.

When I was teaching at Ohio State, a student in one of my folklore classes there did a wonderful (and slightly disturbing) fieldwork project about her own family's tradition of the Belsnickle, though she didn't use that term. Every Christmas Eve, one of her family members would dress up as Santa and break into the house, carrying a stick s/he would use to "beat" the kids. Before you start "tsk"-ing, there was more chasing and brandishing of the stick than any "beating," and the kids would scream in mingled horror and sounded not unlike the thrill of going to a staged haunted house at Halloween.

This student's family was German-American, and had lots of other typical German-American holiday traditions to accompany this--the usual foodways and the pickle ornament, for example. In doing some trolling around for information about the Belsnickle, I discovered a site that claims that this is an Appalachian custom, which is interesting given the stereotypical view of Appalachian folklore being rooted exclusively in Scots-Irish tradition.

The description of the Belsnickle's travels reminds us, again, that Christmas used to be a much more raucous festival of misrule than it is these days: lots of drinking, going from door-to-door demanding food and libations, and general bad behavior. We now seem to have limited that kind of thing to New Year's Eve.

Anyway, enough of the folklorist ranting--more ephemera!

Here's one of my favorites: a card presumably intended for a husband to give his wife, circa the 1930s-1940s, I'm guessing. The dishcloth on the front is actually a small piece of gingham fabric!

Ships seem to have been a popular Christmas-card theme in the 1920s and 1930s; why, I'm not sure, other than the usual church = ship connection. We bought all of these in Colorado, so it's not because they came from a coastal location. I love the stylized look of these.

This one, at least, clearly seem to be referencing the "I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In" carol:

And finally, my all-time favorite. I distinctly remember finding this one: I was sorting through a box of postcards and such at an antique mall in Fort Collins, and spotted the black-bordered envelope. Having never seen an actual Victorian mourning card, I thought I'd finally found one. And sure enough, when I opened it up, the inside card also had a black border. But here's what it says:

On that cheerful note: happy holidays, dear readers! Hope it's a peaceful and merry few weeks for you, and that you don't get beaten by the Belsnickle (unless that's what you asked for).

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Divinity: Only semi-divine

Erica over at The Good Old Days has a regular "retro recipe" feature, in which she chronicles her attempts (sometimes successful, sometimes scary) to reproduce vintage recipes.

Recently, she made pecan confections, which suddenly put me in mind of divinity, a type of candy I remember making when I was a kid, which--as I recalled--also started from a base of egg whites and sugar.

So, I tracked down a recipe in a 1943 edition of The Joy of Cooking that we keep around for a few of the old-school dishes that the current edition ditched in favor of things like "Penne with Vodka Sauce."

Not only was there a divinity recipe in there (several, in fact), the previous owner had hand-written yet another divinity recipe on one of the blank pages in the back. That one was too complicated for our tastes (it required boiling the sugar syrup twice, once to the soft-ball stage and then to the hard-ball stage). So we stuck with the original.

If I made this as a kid, I seem to have forgotten the part in which you have to put the syrup-egg white mixture back over the heat and beat it until it forms stiff peaks. Let me tell you, you have to work for this candy; working in shifts, the two of us beat the mixture for a good 15-20 minutes before it started to set up, and this is not light whisking...this is serious muscling-around of an incredibly thick and viscous substance. Our arms are gonna hurt tomorrow.

Then into a greased pan...

And later, after it solidified, we cut it into pieces, and--having determined that it was way too sticky to store--wrapped up each individual piece in waxed paper. That's right. About 80 pieces, total.

The verdict? Meh. The flavor and texture are a lot like a really heavy marshmallow fluff, but with chopped pecans in it. Subtle flavor, not as sweet as you might expect...I suppose it's kind of like a nougat.

But is it worth the time and effort? I don't think so. It was fun to make it again and remember what, exactly, divinity was, but unsurprisingly, it didn't live up to my memories of it. No Proust moment here!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Wanna write a blog that's a guaranteed success? Start one about Bob Seger.

We haven't yet contributed to the "who's visiting your blog?" discussions that Jim and others have posted, mostly because at least 40% of our traffic is from people looking for images of Bob Seger. Seriously. I'm talking visits from virtually every continent on earth, though old Bob seems to enjoy a particularly obsessive fan base in Germany and France.

So, welcome, Seger fans. Though I don't share your appreciation of the "Bruce Springsteen of the Midwest," as one commenter described him, I'll aid your search by adding the following:

For those of you here for other reasons--searching for "biology geek comebacks," "tetris bookbags," or "fantasy plots we hate"--sorry. I mean, I'm really sorry.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Remembering Terry

It's a well-worn story by now that the first time I met Terry, my late brother-in-law, he was wearing nothing but a pair of briefs, squinting into the afternoon sunlight from the door of his room at the Red Roof Inn.

My sister and I had just woken him from a nap, a ritual of his that my whole family would soon become familiar with. He was utterly unabashed about his state of undress, glad to meet me, and was then as always a "hale fellow, well met," as the Brits say.

The Hathaways need in-laws to function, in my experience. They break the usual cycles of interaction, push boundaries, and complement us in necessary ways: Tom, I think, provides a measure of centered calm, while Suzanne provides its corollary with her intensity and candor. Angela's spirit radiates and somehow purifies everything.

Terry added a whole host of qualities, and his arrival in the family circle inspired a range of new traditions, from the "barfing-cow gravy" dispenser to the "Sleeper of the Year Award," given annually to the person who'd had the roughest year and most deserved a rest. Terry won so many years consecutively that eventually we gave him a Lifetime Achievement award in the form of a stuffed Eeyore toy. And while he complained about the long, lingering evenings around the dinner table, I don't think he ever realized that he was the reason for many of them: he was our favorite audience.

Terry's "sad-sack" persona was well known: his motorcycle buddy Scott tells a story about he and Terry meeting up once on a trip. They hadn't been very specific about when or where to meet, but Scott found Terry with no trouble whatsoever by, as he says, "looking for the biggest, blackest cloud in the sky." He knew Terry would be under it, and he was. I can attest from several vacations with him that rain did indeed seem to follow in his wake.

But Terry also embraced life with a mischevious zeal that was unmatched. As the photos here attest, he would wear any kind of hat for a laugh. With Terry, the simplest outing could become an event; a routine drive might lead to the rescue of a wayward tortoise or runaway horse, or the acquisition of a classic bike leaning against a barn on a remote side road. He was perpetually playing practical jokes; gifting people with motorcycles, scooters, and 4-wheelers; and generally encouraging folks to behave badly. This, more than anything, was the gift he brought to our family.

For myself, though, it's Terry's salt-of-the-earth nature that's his most lasting legacy. The spring before he died, I was visiting and told him that I was thinking about leaving academia. "You've already got your PhD; no one can take that away. But what you do for a living doesn't really matter." Those words meant the world to me at the time.

Terry died two years ago today, so he was gone by the time I got the job here in West Virginia and moved back east. But I credit him, to a large degree, for enabling me to see that no job is worth sacrificing your quality of life for. I'm still in academia, but in a place that feels much happier to me.

Terry's memorial service was attended by friends ranging from surgeons to mechanics, social workers to business executives. Their presence and their words made it clear that Terry was, above all else, a good friend. A professional friend.

Honestly: what else matters?

Saturday, November 29, 2008


One of the things we miss about our old place is the fact that we could walk to the grocery store from our house. Here, however, unless we want to buy some staples at the dollar store (spaghetti, say, or ranch dressing), there's really no kind of grocery store in walking distance. And there's not much in biking distance either, though there's a Kroger's in one direction and an Aldi in the other.

The only time we ever bought any groceries while we were out on the bikes, in fact, was at the Aldi, when we bought some hot dog buns after riding down the Mon River Trail. It's just about the only thing we've ever bought at the Aldi here in Morgantown.

The first time I was ever in an Aldi, on the other hand, was in Germany: Rose and I were driving around and we decided to stop in at an Aldi and get some bread, cheese, and some other basic food items, and also some toothpaste, because we'd run out. So, there we were, looking at the odd selection of toothpastes in the German Aldi, no brands we recognized, and finally decided on a tube of "Eurodont": it was cheap, but as we said at the time, "How bad can it be?"

Well, within about two days, we'd crossed the border and gone to another store to buy a tube of Dutch Crest: the Eurodont (now referred to as "Euro-don't") was so unpalatable that we literally couldn't stand it. And it wasn't even the kind of taste where you can say, "Well, it's bad tasting, but it's gotta be good for you." It was our last visit to an Aldi until Morgantown.

And somehow, biking distance or not, we really haven't wanted to buy much at Aldi here, either, although there always seem to be plenty of folks in there doing their shopping. But that Eurodont was some bad stuff. The joys of Globalization.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Happy birthday, old frenemy!

Recent entries on this blog would suggest that I'm a huge proponent of change. Well, that's certainly true at the global level, but on a more personal level, I continue to be astonished by the miracle of things that don't change--or rather, change so gradually and so organically that their growth can easily escape your notice.

It's been at least thirty years since Christina, Kristin, and I first met at Mrs. Wilcox's house, where fifth- and sixth-grade band members from our hometown's three elementary schools practiced during the Carter-era energy crisis. The public schools were operating on what they dubbed the "Viking Schedule," which basically meant that the physical school buildings were closed for weeks at a time during winter, and all extracurricular activities--like the band--were farmed out to willing homeowners, god love them.

Christina and I struck up an acquaintance that blossomed into a full-blown adolescent "frenemy-ship" when we all started attending the same junior high the following year. Specifically, Christina and I became enmeshed in a (mostly!) friendly competition to see who could get the highest grade in Mr. Chappelle's 7th-grade English class. At the end of the year, I learned that Christina was going to London on a family trip, which prompted me to write the following letter:

Wow, was I a bossy 12-year-old, or what? This letter goes on for quite awhile, providing specifics about the charm in question and hypothesizing about several other scenarios that might play out with the $5/London/charm mission. You may recall that Christina has served as the official friendship archivist for these 30 years. On the occasion described in the preceding link, she re-gifted me with the "charming" letter you see here, which I remembered but hadn't seen since I sent it. It ends as it begins:

Though I can't find it, I'm pretty sure I still have the postcard that Christina sent me in reply: a photo of the chopping block in the Tower of London, bloody hatchet and all, with a note reading "Wish you were here so I could chop your head off," or something along those lines. Needless to say, after this epistolary exchange, a life-long friendship was born.

So, Christina, a very happy birthday to you! Here's to at least another three decades of accumulated memories.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Romantoes' lab results are in--it's a worthless, feeling neuter!

My blog is worth $1,693.62.
How much is your blog worth?

Actually, I'd like to have that $1,693.62 right now, since I just got a bill for some masonry repair that's only about fifty bucks less than that. Where do I cash in?

The "What is your blog worth?" analyzer is just one of the blog-analysis tools linked on the LibraryBytes site, along with a "Typealyzer" (analyzes your blog's Myers-Briggs type--this one's an ESFP) a Genderanalyzer (ours is "gender neutral" and proud!), and a Readability Test (not so sexy).

So, all you fellow bloggers: check it out and let us know what your blog's type is! Why does this sound like a bad 70s pickup line revised for the new millennium: "What's your blog sign, baby?" Still, I wanna know.

Friday, November 7, 2008

This says it all

Well, it's been a frantic few days post-election; EJ from CO was in the house, giving a talk on 12th-century Flemish nuns on campus Thursday before she and Tom hopped the Amtrak for Washington for some wacky medievalists' conference this weekend.

But despite the hubub, this song has been in my head continuously since about 11 p.m. EST on Tuesday night, and most certainly since I heard it on Sirius "Soul Town" en route to do teaching observations in Fairmont on Wednesday morning. Coming over the mountains on a gorgeous clear fall morning, feeling like the world might well be redeemable, this seemed like the soundtrack to a new era. And Bill Withers is a West Virginia native, to boot!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

What's that weird feeling?

The blessed state of West Virginia has a wonderful law by which all government offices, including public schools and universities, are closed on presidential election days. Since I voted on Saturday, I went to the gym this morning, which was packed, and then went to Kroger's (site of the earlier Bob Seger incident).

As I was pushing the cart through the aisles, I felt strangely elated. Like, if some peppy tune had come on the Muzak, I might've been tempted to belt out a tune in aisle five myself, or even break into a frenzied dance.

It was such a strange feeling, in fact, that I really wondered what was wrong with me. Too much Halloween candy? Post-elliptical-machine endorphin rush? Those are certainly possibilities, but as I continued my shopping, it dawned on me: this was optimism. And I hadn't felt it so deeply in so long that it felt almost pathological.

Recently, Phillip wrote about his realization that he'd been vaguely depressed ever since the primaries. My aisle-five epiphany was that I've been feeling despondent for the last eight years, on one level or another. Simply imagining that I might wake up tomorrow morning and live in a world that doesn't seem completely hopeless was a revelation. I saw how effectively I'd been restraining myself from feeling even remotely positive that things could change, much less letting such a feeling overtake me.

So, for today, anyway, until all of this is decided, I'm going to be a glass half-full, hopeful Obamabot, and enjoy every second of it.

[Top illustration from Art Spiegelman's In the Shadow of No Towers.]

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Have a finger-lickin' good Halloween!

I've never been a big fan of Halloween--at least, not once I got past trick-or-treating age (and drunken costume-party age). I don't much like being scared, which puts a damper on things. But --as some of you not only know, but were witness to--Halloween does indeed mark the anniversary of Tom's and my official couple-dom. So, I guess I have to observe the occasion in some way.

Tonight we'll be heading up the hill for the un-party of fellow Greeley expat and Halloween-hater, Brian, to hand out treats to those kids with the cardiovascular endurance to venture off the flatter parts of Waitman Street.

At home, the cats will be having their own shindig, since this is Stella's signature holiday, being one of those unlucky black cats and all. Here she is, striking the traditional spooky pose (or doing her best Gene Simmons impersonation, take your pick):

Pip, on the other hand, is working on her "cocktail-swilling society matron" getup. I think she's just about got it down.

The best costume I've seen this year, though, was last weekend in Louisville, Kentucky. Just down the street from the hotel where the conference I was attending was being held, the local Radio Disney station was sponsoring a kids' costume contest. This little guy was one of the finalists, unsurprisingly. Too bad I didn't catch him another block further down the street, in front of the life-sized statue of Col. Sanders at the Louisville Visitors' Center!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Next Stop: Winter!

Regular readers, I hope, may recall my lament about the size of the lawn here and the all-too-frequent necessity of whacking the grass, which I wrapped up by noting that "I'll probably need to adopt some protective eye goggles. That should be a look."

How silly of me--clearly, protective eye-goggles no longer provide appropriate yard-work security, as I discovered while flipping through the latest "Improvements" catalogue that was recently delivered to our house (conveniently addressed to us "OR CURRENT RESIDENT") via the US mail.

All that is missing from the picture of the "Snow Thrower Cab" is the snow shovel attachment for it to be perfectly usable here at the new house (even as a corner lot, the sidewalks are still too short to need a mechanical snow blower, so I'll have to kludge some sort of alternate attachment system I guess).

And it says it won't shrink or stretch. Maybe I'll get a second one for the long walk to campus, too.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

That totally explains it! (UPDATED)

For some time now, the talking heads have been wondering what happened to the "real" John McCain. You may have seen the bit on the Daily Colbert Showport, one of them, with a montage of such comments earlier this week.

Yesterday a friend posted a photo on Facebook--apparently a real one, not Photoshopped--of McCain gesturing insanely toward Obama's ass at one of the debates.

Once I got over the shock and disbelief that this wasn't a doctored picture, I remained strangely haunted by the photo...until finally, I realized why I found McCain's expression--and grabby gesture--so disturbing.

Folks, I bring you Exhibit A, the photo in question:

...and Exhibit B, this still from "Hyde and Hare," the classic Bugs Bunny cartoon:

Well, there you go. McCain has been secretly imbibing a toxic potion that transforms him into a red-eyed, green-complected, knuckle-dragging psychopath! Props to whoever's doing his makeup.
[See the whole cartoon here.]

UPDATE 10/19/08: Yeah, it's a real photo, taken by Reuters photographer Jim Bourg; he writes about it on his blog here.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

It came from the basement

I've been reading the first set of papers for the ethnographic writing class I'm teaching this semester, in which I asked the students to research and write about a family story, custom, or foodway.

One of the papers I read today was about a dish the student's family called "cornstarch": basically, a cooked chocolate pudding of cocoa powder, sugar, and milk thickened with the eponymous ingredient and then served warm over white bread or biscuits. I'd actually heard about this dish previously--called "chocolate gravy"--from a student in Colorado whose family originally came from the South. In both cases, the dish wasn't served as dessert, but as a meal; my current student's family traditionally ate it with hot dogs.

Yeah, gross, I know, but in both cases the students traced the origins of this dish to the Depression. In that context, and especially in rural Appalachia, the dish makes perfect sense: quick, easy, filling, with a high calorie-to-cost ratio. When we study foodways, I like to remind students that the luxury to eat what we want, when we want, in any season is a very new phenomenon.

So, it's no surprise that my parents, who both grew up during the Depression, hold onto things for a long time. Sometimes this works out beautifully, like when we were watching some old home movies one Christmas and the projector bulb burned out. My dad sprung up, saying that he thought he had a spare in the basement, and a few minutes later came upstairs with an entire box labeled "projector bulbs." The show was back on.

Other times, though, this instinct is a little more suspect. Several years ago, Tom and I were visiting and decided to make a brunch casserole that called for frozen hash browns. I seemed to remember seeing some in the basement freezer, and sent Tom down to get them. When he came back up with them, I took one look and decided we needed to go to Kroger's to get a new bag: the pricetag (yes, a genuine, stick-on pricetag) was from a grocery store chain that had closed in the 1980s.

My dad also had an ancient jar of Postum in the cabinet. I mean, it had to be at least 30 or 40 years old. I'd never seen anyone in the household drink Postum, ever. I suggested that perhaps it could be thrown away, and he recoiled at the very thought: it was Postum! How could it go bad? Upon opening the jar, though, we saw that the contents were glommed together in a hard mass--not the mixable powder it was supposed to be.

No problem, claimed Dad: it could be reconstituted in some water to make a kind of Postum concentrate. Which he did. And, to prove a point, he put some Postum sauce in hot water and drank it. The jar mysteriously disappeared shortly afterward.

I heard somewhere recently that with food prices skyrocketing, people (and restaurants) are throwing away much less food, which is making things difficult for food banks and shelters. Bad for those organizations, but perhaps good for us, who tend to forget that most of the rest of the world doesn't eat like we do--especially not when they're at war. Seems to me some government-imposed rationing, like there was during WWII, might make timelines for ending the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq seem a lot more appealing to our more bellicose citizens.

Now, I'm not advocating digging that old Postum out of the trash can and savoring every last crusty bit with righteous frugality. But we probably could all be more grateful for the abundance we have. For myself, I hope to be somewhere near the Hathaway basement come the Apocalypse, since there's enough down there to subsist on for at least as many decades as stuff has been accumulating there.

P. S. I wish I did have that jar of Postum now: apparently, Kraft Foods discontinued it this past January, and some members of the Seventh-Day Adventist and LDS churches--which both eschew caffeine--are up in arms about it. There's an unopened jar selling on Amazon for $'d think that rehydrated Postum might bring a few bucks, anyway.

In case you're still in doubt about the historio-cultural significance of Postum, check out this item from the Smithsonian's archives.

--With thanks to Historiann's blog on "retro recipes" for additional inspiration.

Monday, September 29, 2008

There's nothing romantic about it

My undergraduate advisor was also one of my favorite English professors--a 40-something woman who seemed to me, then, like she had it all: intellect, humor, common sense, and a bold eye for fashion (she had a pair of purple leather pants that she, and only she, could get away with wearing). As a professor now myself, I often am struck by how much of what I do in the classroom is still deeply influenced by the teachers I had as an undergrad, and especially by her.

Recently, though, I've been reconsidering one of my mentor's proclamations. At one point in a class, she remarked that there was nothing better than being sick and lying in bed reading Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. I remember her raving on about the decadence of illness, and how doubly wonderful it was to wallow in one's misery while reading about someone else's. It made having a chronic, long-term illness sound like something to look forward to, a bibliophile's dream.

I still haven't gotten around to reading Proust, but I can tell you that I know that it would probably be the last thing I'd pick up if I were wasting away. For the last month now, I've been fighting off some kind of upper-respiratory bug that just will not go away. If it were just a case of the sniffles, that'd be fine with me--or if it were some massive case of bronchitis that forced me to stay in bed and sleep for days on end, that would be OK, too.

But this is one of those middle-ground things, where you feel like complete and utter shite, but not bad enough to take to your bed. The coughing and laryngitis don't even bother me, really. It's the damn brain fog that's driving me completely insane. I constantly feel like I'm about five beats behind, sometimes more. I'm confused, disorganized, unfocused, and dull--all things that I hate to be even temporarily, much less for four weeks straight.

So, shut your pie-holes, Proust and Professor Know-it-all. There's nothing good about feeling bad.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

An old favorite

Regular readers out there may recall that "I Hate Evil." I recently had occasion to reread an old favorite of mine in the 'medieval fantasy novel' genre: Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter. And while I didn't recall it at the time I wrote that earlier post, I see now that one reason I love the book is because there's not a bit of evil in it--though there is plenty of foolishness, plain old madness, and even a little willfulness to spare. And there's magic just about everywhere.

Dunsany's book was first published in 1924, and if you needed any further proof that it's a pre-Tolkien work, it's the hugely bearded King of Elfland: what self-respecting post-Tolkien elf could possibly exhibit his masculinity so clearly? But that's exactly part of the book's charm and why its such a shame that it's so rarely read these days: it reminds us so powerfully that there's another way to write fantasy, and that magic doesn't always have to be linked up to a great and terrible evil force. (And as final confirmation of the power of Tolkien's vision in the contemporary world, I'll just point out the the spell-checker here on marks "Dunsany" as suspect, but is perfectly okay with "Tolkien," which must therefore be in their dictionary. Dunsany apparently once had five plays on Broadway at one time, and in the 30s and 40s was, undoubtedly, a much larger literary figure than Tolkien--but not on

Instead of evil, the characters in The King of Elfland's Daughter struggle against things all too familiar to the rest of us: the power of time to bring change, on the one hand, and the feeling that stability is only a tiny step away from stasis, on the other. Even more remarkable, given these conflicting powers and anxieties, virtually all of the major characters in the book end up getting pretty much exactly what they ask for: it's a happy ending all around.

And the miracle of the book is that there's still a sadness to that happy ending that makes it even sweeter.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

An unintentional snappy comeback

Recently I've heard the infamous strains of Heart's "Barracuda" a number of times--over the earbuds in my iPod at the gym, and also in connection with She-Who-Cannot-Be-Named, aka John McCain's VP candidate.

Apparently, this was the Alaska gov's nickname in high school, and was used at the RNC as a sort of theme song for her. Heart, unsurprisingly, has issued a cease-and-desist order to block further use of their song by the campaign.

[If you can't remember the tune, check out the creative phonetic representations of its signature guitar riff over at Historiann.]

Anyway, I'm a little chagrined to admit that "Barracuda" was also my nickname in high school...or at least, the nickname my biology teacher called me. And, in the context of the "snappy comebacks" (non) discussion, I feel compelled to tell the story.

One day very early in my sophomore year, I was sitting in biology class, listening to the teacher, Mr. Logsdon, trying to get some discussion going about the previous night's reading. He'd asked a question that no one was inclined to answer. This wasn't too surprising, given that he was a pretty sarcastic and intense guy, which made him mighty intimidating to a group of 15-year-olds (or to me, anyway).

Suddenly, he says, "Well, Ms. Hathaway, you're sitting back there looking like you know the answer; do you?"

I did, in fact, so I replied, "Yes."

It turns out that what he'd actually said was "Well, Ms. Hathaway, you're sitting back there looking like you know everything; do you?"

To which I had just replied "yes."

So, he assumed I was a total smartass and an egocentric jerk, to boot. For Mr. Logsdon, however, these were apparently badges of honor that earned me the nickname "barracuda," which he continued to call me right through the senior biology class I took with him a couple years later.

I never could bring myself to disabuse him of his misconception, largely because I sort of enjoyed the idea of someone thinking I was an uppity smart mouth, and not just a nerdy freak (which was closer to the truth). In my heart of hearts (or should I say my Heart of hearts), I probably would have wanted to answer his actual question by saying "yes." So why not imagine that I had?

So, my one snappy comeback was, in reality, the result of poor hearing. It still had a similar ring of satisfaction, though.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The art of the witty (and timely) comeback

My previous post (and Jane's response to it) as well as Tom's dream vision, below, put me in mind of that rarest of rhetorical triumphs, the witty comeback. You know, the kind that you usually think of hours or days too late. Only a select few are graced with the right retort in the moment.

The best snappy-comeback story I know of is one that my friend Christina tells. Years ago, when she was in graduate school, she took her car into a local garage to have some repairs done. It was a father/son operation, and she was dealing with Mechanic the Younger at the front desk, while Dad Mechanic was working on something in the vicinity.

As their conversation wound down, Christina said to Mechanic the Younger, "By the way, could you take a look at the horn while you're working on the car? I think there's a short or something in there because it doesn't always work."

From the back of the shop, Dad Mechanic piped up, "Oh, sure, that's just what these women need, to be able to honk their horns more often. We oughta just disable it!"

Christina turned to Mechanic the Younger, batted her eyes sweetly, and said, "Actually, if you could fix it so that it says 'F**k off' instead, that would be even better."

Ah, I get a vicarious thrill just repeating that story.

Alas, I have no good tales to tell. In some ways, I think kids handle this stuff better than adults do--when we study children's folklore in my classes, we talk about how kids are armed not only with a host of traditional insults, but with a parallel set of traditional retorts: "I know you are, but what am I?" "I'm rubber and you're glue; what bounces off me sticks to you." "So's your mother." Maybe we need to come up with a lexicon of quick-draw comebacks for grown-ups, too.

So, faithful readers: any good comeback stories to share?

If I were Chaucer

If I were Geoffrey Chaucer (and I were living today), I'd write a poem in which I fall asleep watching John Stewart's Daily Show, and then I'd dream that I saw Barack Obama, himself now on The Daily Show, responding to the inevitable claims that his "lipstick on a pig" proverb had been sexist. Obama would look around (in my dream) at the right-wing pundits and politicians making those claims and he'd say "You guys calling me 'sexist,'? That's like the pot calling the kettle black."

And maybe then I'd wake up, and I'd let the poetic (and proverbial) chips fall where they may.

[Sorry, but it's Chaucer week on the Tom Show.]

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Meet the new right, same as the old right (now STFU)

The first presidential election I could vote in was in 1984, and I campaigned energetically and naively for Mondale/Ferraro because of Ferraro's being the first woman on a presidential ticket. I got to see her speak on campus at Ohio State, and got even more fired up. Of course, we all know how that turned out.

That all seems like a million years ago--in fact, I'd almost forgotten the whole episode. This time around, I didn't get excited about Hillary's candidacy because she was a woman, and while I'd like to think that's a sign of my and the country's growing sophistication, the Women's Media Center video below shows that I'm dead, dead wrong about that.

On a happier note, we do seem to have arrived at a point where other major media outlets can slice-and-dice that kind of hypocrisy:

[Side note: THANK GOD for Jon Stewart. As I heard a commentator say on a "This American Life" piece once, I would drink his bathwater.]

Now, we all know Karl Rove is an a$$hole, and we all know how unbelievably skillful the right has been at appropriating the political rhetoric of the left and turning it against them. But frankly, to hear Karl Rove denouncing others as sexist was the last straw for me.

It certainly helped me articulate the problem I've been having all along, which is that I'm fed up with the right wing coming along decades too late and slinging accusations like this without first acknowledging that yes: the left had it right (no pun intended) when they got behind feminism (and civil rights, and the 40-hour workweek, and on and on and on). The left takes the heat for trying to corrupt the nation with its wicked, culturally destructive ideas, and then the right gets to sweep in and say, "Hey, you know what? That was a good idea after all. Gimme some of that."

It's interesting to hear McCain's policy advisor in the Daily Show video, above, talk about being insulted by media "attacks" on Sarah Palin from her "female" and "feminine" point of view. Dammit, you were insulted because YOU'RE A [closet] FEMINIST. If you're going to steal rhetoric, you gotta steal the whole package, and be prepared for the backlash.

What Karl Rove knows, and what he's so freakin' good at, is tying up the conversation so that the left can't say anything without spanking themselves.

And he gets this, I think, from the left's idea that "the personal is political." Years ago, when I was in grad school, I was walking up the sidewalk to my apartment building when a teenaged boy walked by with a friend and said, "If you weren't so fat, I'd go out with you."

Now, this wasn't the first time in my life I'd had a random, unknown male say something to me on the street. I've heard it all, both the insulting and the (allegedly) "flattering." But that was the moment at which I fully understood what that maneuver was about: power, and the reification of (white, middle-class, straight) male privilege. The only men I know who have had such experiences are gay: a high-school friend at whom another guy shouted "AIDS case" to on the street, for example. And I got it, the ways in which sexism and homophobia are rooted in the same kind of hatred.

Now, though, if I share that experience, I'm "playing the gender card." And if any of you out there want to disagree with me, you're automatically being "sexist." The right, once again, has shut down all conversation about the issue, which is what they've been doing so skillfully and carefully for over thirty years. And it's how they plan to win this election (as they have in the past).

The only way to fight back? As The Temptations say, "Rap on, brothers [and sisters], rap on!" Crank up the volume!

--With deep thanks to friends and fellow bloggers at Historiann and Leaf-Stitch-Word for the inspiration.

Monday, August 25, 2008


I come from a family of collectors, I have to admit, and one of the pieces of wisdom passed down to me by my collecting parents was the following: to have a collection you must have no fewer than three of something. If you only have two of something, I guess it's just clutter.

[Another pearl from the same oyster: if it's worth less than 75 dollars, its a vase (rhymes with "case"), if it's worth more than 75 dollars it's a vase (rhymes with "schnozz"). Now that I think about this one, though, I'm sure inflation has probably altered this equation. Maybe it should be 100 dollars or more by now.]

Elsewhere here on Romantoes, on the "ephemera" blogs, readers can see parts of one of our collections. My most recent collection (it just reached the critical size) consists of a collection of glass canes, the Ohio-valley glassworker's preferred version of that old folk-arts classic, the hand-made walking stick. The joke of the glass cane, as I hope to explain one day (who isn't always happy to have a joke explained to them?), is echoed in two other classics of glassworker's folk-culture: the glass hammer and the glass chain.

But really, the whole purpose of this blog is to encourage our numerous regular readers to chime in: so tell us, what's your latest collection? What have you acquired recently that lifts a couple of useless pieces of clutter to the much more valued status of a collection?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Shutup in aisle five

I don't think I've mentioned here how much I hate Bob Seger. Mike blogged recently about the songs that trigger an autonomic push of the radio scan button, and for me, any Bob Seger song has the same effect. It's hard to link my response to any single thing about his music; I just think he is and always has been overrated, to continue a thread Jim started on his blog.

Because I don't often hear a Seger song all the way through, I was dismayed this morning when the usually ignorable background music at Kroger's started playing "Against The Wind."

Since I still had shopping to do and couldn't sprint for the self checkout, I had to endure this sentimental claptrap as I perused the bread aisle...but then, to add insult to injury, a guy in the next aisle over started singing along. Loudly, and quite emotionally.

Now, this guy had a decent tenor, and since one of the reasons I hate Bob Seger is that while I despise his songs, they always get stuck in my head, I figured: hey, maybe my fellow shopper thinks that singing the song while it plays will exorcise any urge to hum it later. But he really seemed into it, like this was a song that meant a lot to him thirty years ago when it was first released, and hearing it opened up some deep pocket of grief right there in housewares.

And I think that's what irritates me about Bob Seger: he's really just as mawkish and bombastic as Air Supply, but he has this kind of macho credibility that I don't get. And don't give me that "He's a great songwriter" bit. I mean, this is a man who wrote lyrics like "
She was a black-haired beauty with big dark eyes/And points all her own sitting way up high/Way up firm and high."

That has to be one of the yukkiest metaphors in all of pop music.

But if you must, here it is. You can even hold up your damn lighter if you want.

P. S. Jim, I know that in saying this I run the risk of subjecting Bob Seger to the Curse of the Overrated. But maybe that's just your superpower.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Tom Show!

Back for another fifteen-week run, right here in Morgantown! Reservations not required, and there's no two-drink minimum. (Weekends and holidays excepted).

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The cat days of summer

Here's a clue: they're nothing like the dog days, as far as I can tell.

The kitties are a mess. The colds they had when we got them have turned into upper respiratory infections, for which they're taking antibiotics, and now they have ringworm, so they're coated in a greasy antifungal goo. Better still: the spores can stay active for up to 18 months, so experts recommend steam-cleaning all carpets, upholstery, and curtains, and dousing every other surface with a dilute bleach solution. And did I mention that humans can get ringworm from cats? So now every time I have the slightest itch, I'm sure that I, too, am about to raise my foot and try to scratch my ear off.

We're trying to dwell on the positive: they seem unphased by any of this--are still running around and wrestling with each other and eating like small horses. But honestly, this is not what I bargained for when we adopted these babies. I feel horrible even saying that, but, well--let's just say I'm sending out props to all you real parents of real children who nurse them through illnesses and clean up after them with nary a thought. At least I can shut these two in the basement when they get too skanky.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Ephemera, part 3

Yesterday was the annual "World's Greatest Garage Sale" here in Morgantown, which is actually held in a multi-story parking garage downtown. On the radio they said there were 90 vendors there, though as you might expect, not nearly that many were worth a close look: lots of people selling country "crapts," as I like to call them, and many local volunteer organizations raffling chances to win gas cards.

But, if you recall our previous post, you won't be surprised to know that we got sidetracked by the ephemera. Tom scored with a $10 box full of dance cards from the late 1920s and early 1930s.

They're all from dances held at West Virginia University by various organizations--fraternities and sororities, of course, but also the campus ROTC unit and, my favorite, the General Engineering Society. The cover tells the tale: "Engineers' Dance"...though in my opinion, it should read "Engineers Dance?!"

The interior is equally amusing, with various dances named "Perpetual Motion" and "Oscillator," and the request that attendees check slide rules at the door. That engineers had a twisted sense of humor, I knew. But that they dance? Well, I guess they did in 1927, anyway.

The cards name the featured bands, too, including those with such school-spirited names as Al Mabey's Old Gold and Blue Orchestra and Overt Halloran's Merry Mountaineers. But the group I'd love to have seen live is Bob McGowan's Syncopating Pirates.

A couple decades later, my dad's own dance band, Dave Hathaway's Tophatters, would be featured on such cards. He paid his room and board through his undergraduate and graduate-school days at WVU gigging around Morgantown. I recently saw a postcard from the late 40s that he sent out to advertise his band, which I'll try to post later.

It's easy to look at these cards and see them as remnants of a much more elegant and mannerly past, and to wonder about the woman to whom this collection might have belonged...was she happy to dance with "Mutt" and "Speedy" at the Engineers' Dance? Are the first and last dances marked "XXX" because the guy was so hot she couldn't mention him by name, or because she planned to arrive late and leave early? But I also know that until the late 1960s, women at WVU were kept to a strict curfew and not allowed off campus for any reason without written permission from a parent. So, I have to temper my romanticism with a dose of reality.

Still, I love these darned things, and wish I could dangle one from my wrist and use the tiny little attached pencil to write in the name of the unfortunate gentleman who gets me for a fox-trot partner.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Baby cats!

As faithful readers might recall, we lost our darling old cat, Lucy, in March, just a month shy of her 21st birthday (and damn, we were getting all ready to take her out for a night of tequila shots).

As hard as that was, I knew I'd be sucked into pet ownership again before long, inevitable heartbreak and all. We looked at the shelter and the foster home's offerings a couple of times before we finally picked out two littermates this week and brought them home.

The black one, Stella, is a tubby little ball of energy. The calico, Pip (short for Pipsqueak--aka Pippa, Pippi, Pipperoo, The Pipster) is a little less rowdy, since she still has a bit of a cold. But we're loving having them around...even if it is odd to have cats who actually jump and can hear!