Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Dead to Me

The ice cream maker is dead to me.

Yes, I, Valerie Norris, gave up on an appliance that takes something simple—ice cream—and turns it into an Olympic marathon event, with pre-freezing, measuring, mixing in a mixer, mixing/freezing in the ice cream freezer, then adding flavors and freezing it to actual ice cream consistency.
I know, it’s not like me to quit when it comes to preparing food. I’m the same person friends tell, “I love your cooking but your recipes are too much work.” The same person who starts the Thanksgiving gravy the day before by oven-roasting turkey thighs, then simmering them on the stovetop, then straining the liquid, etc. It’s a recipe so involved it has a legacy of burns and knife cuts that don’t heal for months. Why do I keep making it? The gravy is amazing. You could eat it like soup. 

So why did I give up on the ice cream maker? Because I keep producing ice cream the consistency of a home-cranked snow cone. Crunch crunch. The ice cream was better when the machine was new, but over the years it lost what was apparently the magic high speed that produced creamy ice cream.

Oh, I tried. I spent a long weekend giving the ice cream maker a second chance, a third and a fourth. I pre-froze buckets deep in the recesses of two different freezers. I tweaked the recipe. I let the ice cream machine run an extra ten minutes.

t still resulted in ice cream the consistency of melted, re-frozen, freezer-burned iced milk that crunched in my mouth.

But I haven’t completely given up. My daughter has an ice cream attachment for her Kitchen Aid mixer, and I’m going to borrow it and try again. Again with the freezing, mixing, mixing/freezing, adding flavors and then final freezing. Because this time it might be great.

If not, I’ll really give up. Really. Trust me.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

5 Cool Things about Numbered Lists

I love lists. I write out one nearly every morning to give structure to my day. I seldom get to the end of a list at day’s end, but by golly there I am the next morning, sitting down and making another list—and drinking coffee and procrastinating starting to actually work at checking things off.
I keep lists of items I need to shop for, too, because once I get to Target or Walmart or Bed, Bath and Everything Else I tend to get lost in aisles of things I don’t need. (Ooh! Socks that moisturize your feet in bed! Oh, look! Cocktail glasses—I’ve gotten by without any for my entire life but I need them now. And there, hats!) Clearly, I need a list. And blinders.

Numbered lists are a huge selling tool—just check out magazines in the grocery check-out lanes:
10 Beauty Secrets from stuff you normally let go stale in the pantry
12 Weeknight Recipes Your Kids Will Hate But Hey, You Cooked So They Should Shut Up and Eat
21 Ways to Waste Time and Money with Crap You Never Should Have Bought In the First Place
The teasers happen on Facebook, too. You’re just a click away from fascinating subjects:
The 15 Worst Misspelled Tattoos
5 Foods that will make you fat, ugly and smell bad
30 sweepstakes that will never award prizes but will give your FB and email info to hundreds of spammers

So, back to the title of this post. What are five cool things about numbered lists?
1. Numbered lists give you an idea of what you’re getting into. Amid 200 ideas for sprucing up your home or spicing up your sex life, there must be something that will actually spruce or spice, right? (A hint: No.)
2. Numbered to-do lists give you the abundant satisfaction of crossing off items. If you’re a numbered list geek.
3. Number 3, number 3. Umm--

Okay, THREE cool things about numbered lists.

3. You can make them any length you want.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Mean Girls

How could anyone be mean to this clueless girl?
In high school I sometimes got attention from girls because they were interested in my three older brothers and thought they’d go through me to get to them. Only because they hadn’t witnessed my first day in ninth grade when Tim confronted me with, “You don’t know me, you don’t talk to me, I don’t know you.”

One cool upper classmate—let’s call her The Bit… I mean Lulu—invited me to go out with her and her posse. Flattered, I accepted the invitation, thinking, See, Tim, I don't need you. I can hang with a cool, older crowd. 

We stopped at a restaurant and she and the posse went to the bathroom. When they came back Lulu asked me if I liked to sing, and I confessed I did. She raved about the acoustics in the bathroom and urged me to go in there and let fly. “You have to sing really loud to get the effect, but it’s amazing!” Lulu’s Gang of Bit… I mean, her friends joined in, begging me to try it. I kept saying no, but did head to the bathroom for its intended use. As my mother always said, “See a bathroom, use it.”

While I stood in front of the mirror brushing my hair the gang burst into the small bathroom. “You didn’t sing!” Lulu complained. “We were listening outside the door!” Their evil laughs left no doubt as to their goal. Forty years later people would be pointing to my yearbook picture and saying, “Remember when Lulu and her crowd caught Valerie singing into her hairbrush in the Big Boy’s bathroom? What a loser!”

Thank God I hadn’t started singing yet.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Lousy Terrorist Cell Phones!

One of the "good" spots for cell coverage--for those without a terrorist cell phone.
My son-in-law always tells me I have a terrorist cell phone: one of those untraceable, pay-by-the-minute, no-contract phones used for nefarious plots and then tossed.

If so, terrorists need better phones.

I just spent a week at a writing workshop up in God’s country, just off the breathtaking Blue Ridge Highway. Remote, secluded, difficult to get to even with directions. (Or maybe that’s just me.) We spent the week hatching plots and intrigues, scheming and devising—kind of like a terrorist group, except with nightly patio dancing and wine. Or who knows? Maybe terrorists like boogying and boxed wine.

The entire time I was up there my cell phone never worked. While others found sure-thing spots—in the parking lot under an umbrella, near the gazebo under an umbrella, leaning off the second-floor balcony under an umbrella (it rained a lot)—my cell showed only an old-school-style phone receiver with a red X through it. In fact, I was forty miles closer to home when I finally got a clear signal and was able to contact my husband and warn him it was time to clear out the hookers and drugs ‘cause I was coming home.

So I think:
1. Either terrorists need better phones, or
2. Anti-terrorists designed my phone to tick off terrorists.

Now that I’m home in the flatlands my cheap terrorist phone works fine again—no umbrella needed. I’ll continue to hatch plots and write my stories—and scheme ways to convince my husband to dance with me on the patio. Maybe with a box of wine…

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Flashpants in the City

I was asked to read my Hub City/Emrys Creative Writing prize-winning short story at Hub City Bookshop in Spartanburg, SC. Last year’s winner had mentioned the disappointing turnout at his reading so I shamelessly begged everyone I knew to come be in the audience.

And things went well. I think my story compared favorably to the other readings—despite its lack of sexual content and F-bombs—and a group of 12 people, a mix of family, Sunday school friends, and writer friends (and some game spouses), came and clapped. And I didn’t trip over any cables or, like at my first piano recital, dissolve into a fit of hysterical giggles. All good.

Afterward, 11 of the 12 joined me for dinner. We strolled to a restaurant with a patio, Wild Ace, on Main Street, like we were city folk accustomed to spontaneous on-street dining adventures. We smashed the twelve of us into two tables for four and patiently waited for our sweet, overwhelmed waitress to bring drinks. And later food. And a while later the next person’s food. And eventually the next person’s food… When I waited to use the ladies’ room I noticed a sign in the kitchen—“Remember—customers don’t like to wait.” Ha ha.

At least we had an entertaining floor show. Didn’t know Wild Ace had a floor show? They don’t. The show was provided by (I’m assuming) Spartanburg residents. We’d noticed a group of teens marching around town bearing a sheet-covered mattress held by the four corners like a casket. When they finally made it to our side of the street they asked us to sign the sheet. Why? Turns out it was a church group playing a form of Scavenger Hunt; the more signatures the better chance of winning. At least that’s what they said. I had a few moments of misgiving after I realized I’d signed a bed sheet for strangers, trusting that this wasn’t a big internet hoax and I was going to be exposed as one of many who had done something else on that bed sheet. Maybe I should set a Google Alert to notify me just in case.

But that wasn’t the end of the fun. A young couple finished up at another table and headed out. The girl swayed dangerously, but managed to survive the journey through the crowded patio without bumping into every chair in her path. A minute later my daughter said, “They need to take her shoes off.” I looked up to see the girl draped over the boy, stumbling and twisting, head bent down like she’d forgotten her skeleton back at the table and was trying to prove she could walk without one.

“Is she drunk?” I asked, eyeing her absurd shoes, “or just can’t walk in heels?”

“Oh, she’s drunk,” my daughter said. She’s been to college so she knows these things.

The couple had made little progress—about halfway through the cross street—when the girl collapsed, lying flat on her back in the street. I don’t think she was hurt in the fall—bonelessness is helpful that way. The boy stared down at her as if she were a stranger blocking his path. Another girl went over to assist and she and the boy managed to get Drunk Girl back on her feet—during which we all discovered she was wearing black panties.

All in all, a memorable night. Can’t wait until my first book signing.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Sold to the Woman in the Turban and Scarf

My house is tastefully furnished with a mixture of furniture both new and antique.

Okay, I have a couple of antiques, more reproductions, and some really cute old furniture I bought during my post-chemo “I need to try new things right now because there's so much I haven't done yet!” phase, when I went to my first auction and went a little power crazy with the numbered paddle. The excited new owner of old furniture and no way to get it home, I called my neighbor Sherry.

Evidently I called the right person. In a hushed voice she said, “It’s better if you get those kinds of purchases into the house before your husband is aware you bought them. I’ll come with the truck.”

Sherry and I loaded the bedframe and dresser onto her truck, and then unloaded them into the garage under the watchful eyes of my husband. I pointed out the wide wooden side rails to the bed, the small drawers on top of the dresser, the lower drawers full of dainty, dirty gloves, and a book on “hygiene” for young girls. I didn’t point out the water damage. The stink of ancient mothballs inside the drawers pointed itself out.

My husband’s reaction—or lack of one—surprised me. I’d never in our marriage purchased a piece of furniture he hadn’t chosen with me, nor had either of us ever attended an antique auction, so I figured I was in for an argument. But he’d just seen me through a life-threatening illness and was witness to other post-chemo crazies—I guess I caught him at a vulnerable point. All he said was, “I can’t imagine what you were thinking.”

A daughter walked into the garage and gasped. “Oh, Mom, that furniture is beautiful! Please please please can I take it to college with me?” I was so delighted with her reaction I agreed to let her take my precious finds to the same city where her sister couldn’t hang onto a winter coat for longer than it took to meet another cold, homeless person. (She did bring it back.)

John was never a fan of antiques, or “old crap” as he referred to it, until I came into a little money and immediately dashed off to look for a china cabinet. The perfect piece was waiting just for me in a Victorian house/antique shop I could have happily lived in forever, if it only had central air. And windows that opened. And better plumbing. And more electrical outlets. And a better kitchen...okay, never mind. John agreed the china cabinet was a beauty. He liked it so much that, ever since, he has been looking for matching pieces. The fact that we haven’t a dining room big enough for another cabinet doesn’t slow him down. “That would go perfectly with your china cabinet,” he’ll say, rubbing the finish.

We still go to antique shops although we have no room for anything unless we throw something else out. John often says if we had the money he'd replace my “old crap” with a guest bedroom full of golden oak bedframes and dressers.

I wonder if my daughter wants that old crap back.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Karaoke Crazy

Rockin' out! (No, I am not in this picture!)
You’ve ended up at a karaoke party.  Do your eyes roll madly in their sockets while you search for a quiet corner? Do you hyperventilate at the thought of singing in public? Or do you grab the microphone and start rockin’ out?

I used to hyperventilate. Just the thought of singing in front of a crowd made the contents of my gut begin to churn. But some years back when my then-pastor, the saintly and adorable Rev. Davis Chappell was turning forty, the church decided to throw a big party for him whether he liked it or not. I called the organizer and said, “I’ve written a parody of the song ‘This Magic Moment’ titled ‘This Tragic Moment,” and you have to sing it to Davis.”

Steve said, “No, you have to sing it.”

I panicked. “No! No! I can’t sing in public! My voice goes all quivery and I can’t breathe and—”

He commanded, “Sing it for me now.”

Obediently, like the good little Catholic girl I once was, I sang the song in my terrified, quivery, singing-in-public voice, knowing he would agree posthaste I couldn’t possibly sing in front of the group.

Steve said, “You’re singing. I’ll accompany you on the piano. Meet me an hour before to practice.” And he hung up.

Moment of truth time. I sing alto, can keep a tune, and once in a while sound pretty good—in my home, my car, or in the anonymity of a large congregation. But my fear of singing or even speaking in front of a crowd kept me cowering in dread of doing either one.

I had two choices: to finally accept that I was never ever ever going to sing in public, or to woman up and sing.

Time to woman up.

For the next week I practiced obsessively in private, and then began stopping people at work saying, “I have to sing this song in front of you.” Eventually I could do it without having the vapors, and without the accompanying urge to vomit.

The night of the party I practiced with Steve but without a microphone, and managed to get through it in tune, without the quavering.

An hour later Steve put a microphone in my hand.

I sang the first line quietly. Through some holy miracle I sounded—good. My shoulders straightened and I began to sing louder, more confidently, bluesier. And the crowd loved it. By the end they were singing along and cheering. People told my husband, “I didn’t know Valerie could sing!” He said, “Neither did I!”

Much later, a new friend invited me to a karaoke party, a regular event at her house. I selected the song “Crazy,” by Patsy Cline. Typical rookie-karaoke bravado, I learned, to think I could handle that song. Every woman at geezer karaoke bars thinks they can sing “Crazy.” Here’s a hint: most people suck.

But—I didn’t suck. I sang that song like I was born in 1932, like I wore a ’50s full-skirted dress and kerchief, like Willie Nelson (who wrote it) wrote it just for me. I owned that song. One guy said, “I’ll never look at you the same again.” And he meant it in a good way.

Afterward a woman said, “That used to be my signature song, but I’ll never sing it again. I hate you. I’m kidding.” Then she said, “I hate you a little.”

So, if you’re hosting a karaoke party, I’m your girl. I’ll sing in groups, duets, singly, whatever. I haven’t yet braved the world of karaoke bars, but someday I just might.

But if you’re contemplating following my road to instant karaoke stardom, a word of advice: Do NOT steal another person’s signature karaoke song. And by that I mean, stay away from Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” That song is mine.

And I’m not kidding.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Spit It Out!

Men seem to consider their own spit toxic. As I wait at a red light the truck door in front of me opens, a man leans out, and he spits on the pavement. I come out of a restaurant after having enjoyed a nice dinner and just ahead of me a man spits into the bushes.  Even my husband, who is somewhat domesticated, spits into the toilet at the exact same minute I’m brushing my teeth. Yuck! Gross!

What is the deal with spitting? I really want to know. My female friends never seem to need to expectorate their own saliva. If it builds up noticeably we simply—are you listening, men?—swallow. You should try it.

Or is spitting something males must do, like male dogs marking their territory? Is it a compulsion? Please, tell me the reason for all this sputum-spittage.

Which brings me to another nasty male habit. Peeing outside. (Okay, I must admit there was one little neighbor girl who peed in my hedges, but she wasn’t terribly civilized in any other area, either. And she attended a “progressive” private school, part of a chain, where they probably made peeing in public part of the regular curriculum.)  Little boys seem especially compelled to pee outside. I know—I’ve watched Supernanny.  Are males born with the urge to pee in fresh air, or is a learned behavior?

A Scout leader told me he and his Scouts didn’t need bathrooms on camping trips; “The world is my bathroom.”

I said, “But your bathroom is my world!”

So, men, tell me why you spit so much. Just spit it out. You do everywhere else.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Baby, I Was Born This Way

Forbidden love. I confess to a mad, crazy love for something that—because of my sex—the world views as wrong and inappropriate. I know, this type of lust is supposed to be exclusively male, but I can’t help myself. I refuse to hide my love despite what people think.
Yes, I’m a woman. And yes, I love my backyard grill.

Ten years ago I was complaining about our gas grill. “Hot spots! Flare-ups! I can’t control the temperature on this thing! I need a new grill!” John, my decidedly non-grill-lusting husband, reminded me I’d said the same things about the previous grill, and maybe it was time to go a new route.
A new route? Not charcoal. I didn’t have the time or patience to wait for a charcoal grill to get ready. But he said this was different, it was hard wood charcoal on a ceramic grill. You could maintain the temperature, no hot spots, no flare-ups, and it took only 10-20 minutes for the grill to be ready for cooking: the Big Green Egg.

It’s expensive, but supposedly lasts forever. We had a little money to spare (yes, I was shocked, too) so we went all out and bought one.

And I fell madly, passionately in love. I’ve made the same chicken recipe on my BGE and on the little electric countertop grill—no comparison. I can slow-smoke a pork shoulder, grill amazing burgers, ribs, chicken, whatever; it’s all delicious.   
My only complaint? We cheaped out. When we priced the BGE I asked John, How many kidneys do you need, really? But he went with the medium Egg, not the large or extra-large, so when we had a gang over I had to cook in shifts, hold items in the oven while I cooked another load. I kept an eye on the kidney black market, but let’s face it, 63-year-old kidneys don’t command prime prices. Finally I took a chance on a Weber charcoal grill.

The first day as I piled on the briquettes a son-in-law looked over my shoulder and said, “Is that going to be enough charcoal?” I said, “Yes, I counted out 50, the number the Weber grilling book said to use for this size of grill.” He stared at me pop-eyed for a moment, then cracked up. But it was exactly enough charcoal to cover the grid. So there.
The Weber makes a pretty good sidekick to the BGE, and I’ve discovered a chimney charcoal starter that shortens the wait time.

Which brings me to another illicit love, the love of two grills at the same time. How do I defend this? In the words of the great theologian, Lady Gaga: Baby, I was born this way.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Like a Kid in a Coffee Shop

It was an unlikely group to grace a coffee shop with its presence—three generations: grandparents, parents, a boy of about five and a curly-haired girl about two years old. Before they even made it into the coffee shop just steps ahead of me, the little girl was whining and on the verge of pitching a fit. I mentally rolled my eyes—I was there to work on something with an actual deadline, having had trouble ignoring housework and laundry at home, and didn’t want the distraction of a whiney child. Then I told myself not to be that person. It’s bad enough I don’t like pets—now I’m not a fan of other people’s kids, too?

So I followed them in and got my simple cup of coffee while they discussed the menu board. The little girl kept yelling, “Mommy! Mommy! Juice! Juice! Juice! Juice!” No one acknowledged her demands so she just kept demanding.

I found a spot and set up my computer, but it’s a small shop and I was twelve feet at most from their table. The grandparents sat down, then the kids came to claim a chair—the same chair. The little girl made that pre-verbal “Nnnnnnnuh!” roar and pushed her brother off. Imperiously she pointed at an empty chair. He took it without complaint.

Soon Grandma was standing by the girl’s chair, telling her to sit or kneel so she wouldn’t fall. Eventually the little girl let one knee hit the seat of the chair for a moment and Grandma went back to her chair. In minutes they were at it again, and Grandma muttered something about a high chair. Grandpa said, “Or a strait jacket.” I thought that sounded like a fine idea.

When the parents joined them there was much fuss about where everyone would sit, and the little girl decided she would abandon her chair and sit on her mother’s lap, to whine and cry and yell. Half the time the mother was trying to keep the child from slithering off her lap, or guard her coffee from being knocked across the table.

Shall I quit with the blow-by-blow? I think so. It didn’t get any better. The food was not to her liking, the company not to her liking, apparently nothing met her standards. Lacking vocabulary, she cried and roared and pounded and threw.

Dad plowed through his breakfast and ignored the uproar. Mom placated, wrestled, dodged, distracted, tried everything she could. Except, of course, discipline.

Once the parents and grandparents bolted their meals, Grandma stayed behind with Dad to help him clear the incredible wasteland that had once been a table. Well, I thought she stayed to help. As soon as the mommy was out the door, Grandma began lecturing the daddy on “that’s the only way she’s going to learn. And you’re going to have to do it. That’s the only way she’s going to learn.” I listened desperately to find out Grandma’s secret to containing the little monster, but missed that part.

I heard what the daddy said, though: “You’re right. You’re right. You’re right.”
I got the feeling they’d had that conversation before—and would have it again.