Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Nothing Says Christmas Like Turbo Tax

My mother is the Christmas Coordinator in my rather large family, which means that for the last 25 years, she's been buying presents for her husband, four children, twenty-odd under-18 nieces and nephews, parents, in-laws, and assorted other relatives and friends. So for 25 years, my mother has been demanding Christmas lists from all of her children and my dad to simplify her Christmas shopping.

When we were 5 and 6 and 7, this was the funnest task in the world. She'd toss us the Service Merchandise catalog and we'd pore over the 100-page section of toys in the back, carefully writing out exactly what we wanted, down to the page number, so Santa would be sure to know what to bring us. But as we got older, and discovered Santa was really "Mom on a shopping spree," and wanted fewer things, it got more difficult. By college, Christmas lists had become not just an annoyance but a certified pain in the butt.

That's when things got competitive.

Mom claims this is our fault, for taking sibling rivalry to a new level. But we know the truth - mom teases us about being the first or last to turn in the Christmas lists because she knows we'll get competitive about it and we'll turn them in earlier that way.

And when I say "turn in," I mean turn in. If you give her a Christmas list she feels is insufficient, she turns it back to you for corrections. Seriously.

The hassling begins the day after Hallowe'en, repeated calls and e-mails reminding us to turn in our Christmas lists ASAP. Last year, my husband, still new to the family and fearing my mother's Christmas-related wrath, turned his list in first. Seeking to encourage him to keep up the good habits, my mother praised him to high heaven and pronounced him her new favorite child -- or at least her favorite son-in-law. Mr. McGee was insufferably smug about this, and I got crap galore from my mother because my husband was more on the ball than me.

Ooooooh, I was determined to show him! (Boy, isn't that the mark of a healthy marriage.) This year, I e-mailed my list just after midnight on November 1, before my mother even got around to asking for it. So proud of myself was I that I e-mailed the list to all of my siblings, my husband, my mom, and my dad, along with the notation that I was now officially the favorite child.

The level of unholy glee I felt about being first with my Christmas list, just hours after the official opening of list season, is a little disturbing to me. But not so disturbing I'm going to stop bragging about it.

Eventually all my siblings got theirs in, though my older-younger brother had his first attempt returned for corrections before coming in second. My husband came in third. My sister thought she was fourth, and safe ... but it turns out my younger-younger brother turned his in a couple days before her but didn't deign to e-mail it to the class, so she was last of the siblings and thus condemned to a year's worth of mocking. (And she was promptly informed via e-mail from my father that she is too young, at 21, to ask for DVDs of "Sex in the City.")

This morning we finally got my dad's list, who is the hardest person to shop for because he's not really into "stuff." His Christmas lists are famously rotten, often asking for "socks" and "undershirts." This year he asks for Turbo Tax -- but only if the giver saves all the rebate cards and proofs of purchase. Yeah Dad, nothing says "Christmas" quite like Turbo Tax -- complete with rebate forms!

But even though Dad's list is lame as usual (although really, slightly less-lame than usual: no socks or undershirts this year!), Dad has turned in his list. Which means that we are missing just one list that would enable us to finish our Christmas shopping:

Mom, everybody's waiting on YOU.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Mike Luckovich Is a Rock Star

This cartoon ran in my Chicago Tribune today and just CRACKED ME UP. I laughed out loud until I cried; so much laughing that my husband demanded, "What on earth is so funny? The newspaper is not that funny!" I laughed until my sinuses hurt.

I don't really know why this cracked me up so much but it's just HILARIOUS. Props to Luckovich. I'm still giggling.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Rutabaga!

I've been so lax in my blogging that even my mother commented on it, but my life decided to have work, family, cat, and appliance crises all in the same week. So my dishwasher has conked out and Orange Cat, the one with diabetes, peed on my bed, which was very inconvenient because I was in the middle of washing the guest bed sheets, so now we're sleeping on the futon in the basement while I wait for one set of sheets or the other to come through the wash. Which, combined with insomnia, gives me plenty of time to contemplate the wide variety of noises a house makes in the middle of the night.

But despite all these crises, we had a nice Thanksgiving. We visited a friend's family in Peoria for an outdoor Thanksgiving (Yes! Outdoor in that cold!) with a turkey cooked over an open fire, which I find frankly amazing. I prefer my fire neatly confined to the stovetop. I don't think I could cook actual food over an open fire without lighting it on fire, as evidenced by my experience roasting marshmellows.

My contribution to the Thanksgiving feast was mashed rutabaga, a traditional dish in our family that we have for Christmas and Thanksgiving every year. Rutabaga is sorta like a potato, but denser and a scary shade of orange. It's a sharper taste, but I really think it was the freakish color that kept me from eating it for a good 20 years of my life. But now that I'm on my own, I too insist on rutabaga for every holiday meal because it's a tradition my ancestors brought over from Ireland and by God I stick with tradition. It's a good dish to take to potlucks because a) nobody else brings it and b) there's a lot of leftovers to take home and eat yourself. Like I said, it's an acquired taste.

The soundtrack of every holiday of my childhood was the sound of rutabaga being chopped. Rutabaga is crazy dense. Picture a round object about the size of an infant's head, but a lot heavier. (Some of them are adult-head size, but my knife isn't that long.) The only way to get through it is to take your longest kitchen knife, sharpen it up, drive it in the first half inch or so, then whack the tip with your rolling pin. Hard. Over and over and over. Repeat this to cut the rutabaga into 1" chunks which you then boil and mash just like potatoes. It's hard, noisy work, cutting up the rutabaga. My mother likes to do the mashed potatoes and rutabaga first thing in the morning, so she just has to heat them up before the holiday meal. And when I say first thing in the morning, I mean first thing in the morning. For twenty-seven years I have woken up on Thanksgiving morning and Christmas Eve morning at about 6 or 6:30 a.m. to the sound of a rolling pin whacking a knife through a rutabaga.

This year, my mashed rutabaga was a big hit, and not just at the Thanksgiving meal where, to my utter shock, everyone ate some and several people liked it! When I was buying the rutabaga at the grocery store the Monday before Thanksgiving, the produce guy asked me what I was going to do with it. Then a random woman in the produce department said, "Those are rutabaga, right? How do you prepare them? I've never seen anyone make rutabaga!" I explained the mashing. Then in the checkout line, the checker said, "It's so good to see someone under fifty buying rutabaga - young people never buy rutabaga, parsnips, or turnips." And she too wanted to know what I would be doing with the rutabaga! I've never had it be quite such a conversation piece before! Once in North Carolina the assistant produce manager went to get someone who spoke Spanish (?!) because he thought I was speaking a foreign language when I asked if they carried rutabaga, but I've never had quite so many people quite so fascinated by my produce buying before!

So I apologize for my lack of blogging and I promise to be better -- at least, I'll be better once my dishwasher is fixed and I'm not up to my elbows in dishwater on a daily basis. And I hope you all had a rutabagatastic Thanksgiving! (And for my foreign readers, I hope you had a rutabagatastic random November Thursday in which you couldn't get anyone in the U.S. to take your calls or answer your e-mails.)

Friday, November 18, 2005

Mud --> Bottle

I saw literally the most amazing thing I have ever seen in my entire life the other night:

I saw a woman take a hunk of mud and make it into a bottle with nothing but her two hands.

If you have never seen pottery in action, which I hadn't before, you really can't appreciate the magical quality of this undertaking. The potter literally takes a hunk of dirt, tosses it on a spinning wheel, and then makes it rise and fall in answer to her hands. My teacher does this effortlessly, with no mess whatsoever. She began with a hunk of stoneware clay and literally five minutes later had a round-bodied, small-necked bottle, perfectly symmetrical and ready for a cork to be popped in the top.

I mean, it's not like woodworking where you start with boards. She started with mud. Just mud! It gives all those passages in the Bible where God is a potter and making people/things from clay entirely new meaning. I mean, mud can seriously be turned into the most amazing things! And watching clay thrown on the potter's wheel is the closest thing to magic I have ever seen.

Not that I'm any good at it. When I sit down at the wheel, clay and water tend to fly in all directions, and my things end up off-center or just plain tip over. Sometimes I press too hard and knock them over. Mostly I don't press hard enough because wow is clay hard to work. I'm going to have arms like an Olympic weightlifter by the end of this class from trying to shove the clay into submission. And you have to push in every imaginable direction at once - one hand pushes out, the other pushes in so you don't go too far out; in-pushing hand guides the clay up while the out-pushing hand holds the top of it down so it doesn't get too skinny. Follow all that? Now the clay is spinning at the speed of light (well, close to it) and there's all these other things you have to be doing, like adding water and smoothing things out and not soaking your fellow students with flying water or conking them on the noggin with clay.

Despite my clumsy neophyte skills, I have managed to produce a few vessels that look like actual plates and cups and bowls and vases. A few. But this is the killer part - I made them out of mud. Mud! And now they can go in the dishwasher! I honestly can't think of anything quite so miraculous. Mud turning into a cup that can go in the dishwasher. Mud becoming an actual vase that doesn't leak. Mud! It's just mud! And now it's stuff! Useful stuff, even!

I have a sneaking suspicion I'm going to be coming back to pottery class again after this semester is over. Every time my teacher sits down and, with a minimum of muss and fuss, creates a beautiful vessel out of nothing more than clay, I think, "Man, I want to do that."

And I attack the wheel again.

One day, I am going to turn mud into a bottle.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

In the Midwest, Food Is Love

My inborn Midwesternness is asserting itself. I read a great piece in Notre Dame magazine by a British student at Notre Dame and his adventures in Midwesternness. He says that while in the Midwest, "I have lost track of the number of people who have barely had a chance to assimilate the fact that my name is significantly less exotic than it first sounded before they have invited me into their homes for a meal. ... I have also now visited five of the Midwestern states and met countless people resolutely determined to confirm the stereotype of the friendly Midwesterner."

I laughed until I cried because, um, yeah. As soon as I meet a foreigner, a benighted coastal native, or anyone new to town, I'm determined to take them home and feed them. I don't care that I've known them for five minutes. I don't care that I only learned to cook last year. This started when I was about 18, this determination to feed people I had just met, particularly if they were not lucky enough to be from the Midwest, and now that I'm 27 it's in full blossom and expresses itself in urges to make complicated casseroles and serve fruit salad in bowls made of canteloupe for people I've known all of six hours. Because if they're not from the Midwest, what have they been eating all these years????

I don't know if it's something in the air or the water or what; my mother is a native of Virginia, yet after 30ish years in the Midwest, exhibits these same tendencies (and oh my God can my mother cook; I swear my college roommates, and those of my siblings, would have held death cage competitions to win the right to eat my mother's Thanksgiving turkey). My husband, having only had two years now to catch the friendly-midwesterner bug, is a little bemused by my insistence on feeding every stray human (and cat) that I meet, but I've noticed he's started inviting newcomers to town to our house for food. Because if they're not from the Midwest, how have they not starved to death yet??? And how have they lived this long without knowing the glory that is Midwestern beer-battered bratwurst???

And let me take this moment, you stuck-up New Yorkers and self-centered Los Angelinos who are thinking right now that your food is soooooooo much better than mine by virtue of your proximity to salt water, to point out that the nation's best restaurant is NOT on the coasts but is in Chicago: Charlie Trotter's has been repeatedly named not just the nation's best restaurant (and chef), but was named the world's best restaurant in 1998 by Wine Spectator. But more to the point, you luckless denizens of the coasts, Midwestern home cooking will knock the socks off you, and you only really have to hang around O'Hare for 10 minutes before someone will start offering to feed you. We worry about you coastal types; you don't seem to eat very well, you suffer from inferior cultural institutions in your cities (I'm sorry you can't all be Chicago, but you can't), and are you drinking enough milk? I didn't think so. Don't worry, Wisconsin is sending some.

If you hurry and catch a plane now, you can be here in time for dinner; I'm whipping up some homemade shortbread and if you're really lucky, I might beer-batter some bratwurst for you.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Death, Death, and More Death

I know I'm overdue for an update or two (hey! It rhymes!) but I am worn out from the longest week ever in the history of the universe (I looked it up - they snuck an extra day in there) and my house is still a disastrous mess and I'm behind at work and while the back garden is now tilled (my arms will never recover) it still has to be prepped for winter and ... and ... and ...

So you will have to do without my Eyebrowsy entertainment for the holiday weekend. Instead, I invite you to do what I'm doing to decompress, which is blowing things up on computer games. If you don't have a Civ or SimCity or Emperor or Neverwinter Nights handy, hop on over to Jay Is Games for casual mostly-flash gaming (some Java and Shockwave). This is how I like to burn off my aggression after annoying things happen at work - five minutes of blowing things up in flash, rather than committing my entire day to annihilating AI opponents on Civ.

If you're more of a shopper than a shooter for decompression and you're near Peoria, you should check out the Julep's Closet sale this weekend at the Riverplex.

(Note to concerned readers: Only pixels died. No actual people. Pixel death makes me feel better.)

Monday, November 07, 2005

Adventures in Tool Rental

Scene: Eyebrows, yellow pages open before her, calls a tool rental company.

Me: I'd like to rent a rear-tine tiller.
Person: Okay.
Long silence.
Me: So when can I get that then?
Person, after another extended silence: Thirty dollars.
Person, at random in the silence while I try to decode this: You need a pick-up truck
Me: For a rear-tine or for any tiller? Because I have a hatchback.
Person: Twenty dollars.
Me: What?
Person: If you want a midtine it's twenty dollars.
Me: Does that fit in a hatchback?
Person, after an extended silence: It doesn't need a pickup.
Me, who was told yesterday she needed to reserve them at a specific time when she called the same shop for a quote: So what time should I get that?
Person: Okay.
Long silence.
Me: I said, do I need a reservation time or can I just come in?
Person: Just come in, we might have them
Me: Um, okay, bye.
Person: Okay.

The company is named "Call-a-Tool."

Indeed I did. Indeed I did.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

In Which I Mock Things That Ought Not Be Mocked

This young woman went missing from ISU in Normal, Illinois; she eventually (and tragically) turned up dead in Mississippi near a chicken house of some sort. This has been a huge story not just in Bloomington-Normal but in Peoria as well, because a disappearance and murder of this sort is unusual in central Illinois - at least when it happens to someone who's not a hooker turning tricks for drugs. (I believe the term is "crack whore," but that just sounds so perjorative.)

At any rate this has been dominating the local news for the last few weeks, and I'm having huge problems, because while I know this is a hugely tragic story and I feel for the young woman's family and friends and it's a horrible thing, well, every story includes a line like:

"Normal police said they were expanding the investigation to include ...."

And I think, "Well THANK GOD they're not using the abnormal police on this one!"

or, "A Normal woman said, 'These things just don't happen here!'"

And I think, "Good thing they didn't quote a weird woman!"

Every single time Normal is in the news for ANYTHING and they use "Normal" as a modifier to describe a "Normal police officer" or a "Normal resident" or a "Normal parade" I just crack up. This never gets old to me. It is ceaselessly funny.

When I lived in North Carolina, I was near Person County, which occasionally resulted in some doozies - my favorite was when an elderly man with dementia wandered off from his nursing home and the headline read, "Person man missing." It took a good five minutes before it dawned on me they weren't just being redundant. (Notice how again the funny news bit comes from things that really aren't funny. I feel I ought to sing the Conan O'Brien "Ima gonna go to hell when I die" ditty for finding such tragedies hilarious.)

But Person County really just has nothing on the City of Normal. And it sort of tickles me that every night on the news I can look forward to a new knee-slapping story about a Normal store opening or a Normal building demolition or a Normal school holiday.

Because THANK GOD we're not dealing with the abnormal ones here, folks!

Saturday, November 05, 2005

I Get Cooler by the Instant

At our Hallowe'en party, we set up our nerd hole of a basement for the teens and tweens in the neighborhood to play X-Box and watch movies side-by-side on two TVs, and we change out all the lightbulbs to red and purple ones, and we stock it with candy and Mountain Dew.

Thus I was pleased to receive the following review from a 14-year-old party-goer who was playing Halo while watching Star Wars: Return of the Jedi:

"Mrs. McGee, your basement is TIGHT!"

"Yeah, tight!" the other kids echoed.

That's right, my basement has been deemed "tight" by teenaged boys. Bow down and worship the glowing glory of my cool-ocity.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Pumpkin Pieces

I'd blog but I'm still recovering from our Hallowe'en party.