Friday, December 19, 2014

Rush to the finish

On the bright side, it's Friday, and there are only six and a half (official) hours until I'm free from work for two whole weeks.

On the cloudy side, my coworkers are making me crazy. They've put stuff off until the last minute, and now expect me to drop everything (what I would really like to finish before the break) to review things for them (cover their behinds) that they have been sitting on for over a week.

I'd say I'm having a hard time not whining, but I've whined over on Facebook, and I'm whining here.

It's not even 9 a.m. and I need a drink.

I plan to get one - or more - after work. A nice dinner, a glass or two of wine, and maybe working on setting up the Christmas tree. Certainly an early bedtime, with no alarm set for the morning.

Six and a half hours...

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Blue enamel pan

When my mom and her siblings were cleaning out my grandparents' home, my mother insisted on taking an old, blue enamel 9 x 13 pan, the kind that you can find at Farm & Fleet for under ten bucks.

My grandmother used to layer thinly sliced potatoes, breaded pork chops and onions in the pan. A little bit of water went into the bottom, then it was covered in foil and baked. The end result was melt-in-your-mouth chops, tender steamed potatoes and awesome onions.

Though my mom made the dish often, it never tasted right made in any other pan.

At our Christmas potluck today, my tablemates and I were discussing the fact that it's often hard to duplicate a favorite dish made by a family member, even if the recipe is written down. They always taste a bit different, due to inaccurate measurements in the recipe (how big is a "handful"?), a different pan, or simply missing the person who usually makes it.

I'd described the pan and the dish, and a coworker is also half Sicilian (her other half is Irish, while mine is German - like she said, what was the good Lord thinking?) laughed and said she'd had it growing up as well, as it's a very Sicilian dish.

That led to a conversation about anchovy bread, and sfinchuni, and other wonderful foods.

I actually have everything on hand for the pork dish. Alas, while I have a blue enamel pan (not the pan), it's sized to roast a large turkey, not four chops. Still, I can make do with a ceramic casserole dish.

But as good as it will be, it won't be quite the same.

The slow march to Friday

Honestly, this week may never end. I'm exhausted, for no real reason except I can see the end in sight. A bit of brain clearing here may help.

MasterChef Junior - Eleven year old Logan won last night. These kids are cooking like professionals, and they still have a lot of fun doing it. It was really close - Samuel missed by only a bit. What has impressed me about the show from the beginning, however, has been the demeanor of the judges. You don't automatically think of Gordon Ramsey as nurturing. Yet he and the other judges strike a perfect balance between encouragement and (constructive & honest) criticism. The kids are aware it is a competition - no medals for participation here - and know up front what the expectations are. Bravo for a great season.

Switching things up - I switched phone services last night. The coverage area for my previous carrier changed about eighteen months ago, putting my home in the center of a pocket of their worst possible service (their own website warned you probably couldn't get a signal while inside a building). Tired as I was, I schlepped to the cell phone store last night. Poor clerk. I knew what I wanted, knew the prices, knew the deals on offer and knew that he could tell me how to get rid of some the annoying bloatware Samsung and Google put on their phones (that last bit they aren't really supposed to tell customers, and he actually tried to skip it when it came time to do it, but I caught him). New phone works very, very well on calls from home - yay, now I can call 911 if necessary, and not have the call drop!

I need my eyes checked - That was a craisin/white chocolate chip cookie, not a regular chocolate chip cookie. There was a gift bag on my desk this morning, with three of the cookies, some chex mix and a bottle of seasonal hand soap. I'm assuming it's from the bosses, since there is no card nor any indication of who left it (and everyone got one).

Making merry - The gifts are generally dropped on our desks the day of the departmental holiday party. Because the university is trying to be better stewards of our finances (not that we are in any way NOT good stewards, but trying to be even better), and because the Finance department needs to set the example, we've had potluck lunches for our holidays for the last couple of years, rather than catered things over in the annex. I made a big dish of pulled pork - easy to do, since most of the work is waiting a couple of days for the meat to marinate. Hopefully, we will have enough food for the seventy-odd (and seventy odd) people coming. There are always a few willing to eat, but not willing to contribute.

Speaking of contributing -


This is the box I've put together for the silent auction today. The spoon and fork set were made by a friend. The dark blob in the back is an apron, at the left are potholders and to the right are two dishtowels. All the embroidery/applique was done by me. In retrospect, I should have used blue dish towels, or at least a blue and white check, to make the snowmen stand out a bit more. This is a bit of a learning curve - I've been trying out new techniques or features of the sewing machine each time I make something. The potholders here are completely home made. The batting is a special heat resistant type, with one side coated with a heat resistant film. I think I put it in with the right side facing the business side of the potholders...

A desired streetcar - For the last several years the mayor has been aggressively lobbying for a streetcar line for downtown Milwaukee. There is something like $43 million in federal transportation money available, and it is burning a hole in his pockets. Unfortunately, the subsidies needed to run the thing would clean out the taxpayers' pockets. In the meantime, a developer who is planning a large mixed retail, office and residential tower near the lakefront (who is already getting a substantial break on the price of the land, along with additional tax breaks) is insisting that if the streetcar isn't built, he will not build the development. Blackmail, I tell you.

The Common Council postponed the final vote, scheduled for this Tuesday, to January. The project won't stink any less when it is a month older. We need reliable, flexible transportation that can move people from home to work, not a pretty boondoggle designed for tourists and a small flock of greener-than-thou hipsters.

Better get to it, try to get a few things done before the enforced merriment begins.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

All locked up

Since I come in so early, there are a host of locks to undo before I can sink into my office chair and take that first blissful sip of coffee.

The first is a keypad with a number code. The code was changed about six weeks ago, for the first time in several years. I still catch myself starting to enter the old code. Every so often, on a particularly muddled morning, I stare at the keypad, knowing there is a new code and wondering if I can remember it.

The second is a swipe lock. Our IDs have a magic magnetic stripe, one that not only can take deposits so you can use it as a prepaid card in the vending machines and at a growing number of on- and off-campus vendors, but as a key to various rooms.

The third, and final barrier to coffee consumption is my office door, which has a conventional key lock.

The building I'm in also has an attached eighteen story dorm, along with a fairly large Recreation Complex, including a lap pool and even a small theater. The building was at one time the downtown YMCA. During the holidays, the Rec Plex generally limits its hours. This year, however, they shut down entirely (I suppose the community members who have memberships are simply out of luck) for some remodeling.

And that would be why, at 6:15 this morning, I was standing outside the building, work bag over the shoulder, coffee in hand, staring befuddled at the door that didn't open when I pulled it.

Yeah, the building, since the students are not in residence and the Rec Plex is closed, is locked until 7:30 a.m.

Never fear, the handy dandy magic stripe on the ID opens these doors as well. At least I'm used to juggling bag, coffee cup and card, switching the coffee to the hand on the arm that holds the bag, then using the other hand to swipe and grab at the door handle. All without (usually) spilling any coffee.

Sigh. I feel as if I've worked a full day just getting into my office.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Overtaxed

Before this day started, I was ready for it to end. The run up to the holidays is always hard, not because of holiday prep, but because of stinking government deadlines.

The short version: the university files an informational tax return with both the federal government and the state. If you file a copy of the federal return along with the state return, you get to do a shorter, easier state return. The immoveable state filing deadline for us is December 31st.

Since the IRS revised the federal form, we have to have it reviewed by the Board of Trustees, which they do at their May meeting. Thus, the federal return is extended as far as it can go, until May 15th (why yes, the first two weeks of May are a bit hectic in my world).

So, no doing the short state form for us.

My boss is reviewing the completed (long) state form now. He always, every year, comes to me with questions that are already answered in the stack of back up (cross referenced, made as plain and readable as possible and attached to the form in the order in which the referenced items appear) attached to the return.

We've gotten to the point in our working relationship where I think he comes in to ask the questions not because he doesn't understand or thinks something is wrong, but because he has (in his exact words from five minutes ago) blown past that information on the backup. Faster for me to point it out than for him to read it.

Sigh.

I'm tired. The return isn't difficult, though the state agency that receives it changed up a few questions for this year. It's a bit of stress, especially trying to arrange two signatures, which this year must be notarized. That moves the deadline back even further (did I mention the university closes down completely from 12/24 - 1/1? yeah...) as I have to contact the Office of the President to find out when he will be available to sign the form.

I whine, but I am very, very thankful to be gainfully employed.

I just wish I could take a nap at work.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A little strange, but it works for me

Two weeks until Christmas Eve. Time to start stocking up the pantry, both for vacation and the traditional Christmas Eve meal -

- pizza.

It sounds strange, but isn't that big a departure from the antipasti spread my grandparents put out every year when I was growing up. It's just all put on a pizza.

When my sister gave birth to my mother's only grandchild, she had just started divorce proceedings against the girl's father. My mother, in order to be sure to have access to her granddaughter "first", decreed that our family Christmas would happen Christmas Eve...morning. Well, brunch time-ish.

After the festivities, sister and niece (and later new husband and stepdaughter) would trail off to whichever relative was next on the list. My mother would take off to her brother's for the evening. I'd go to services at either five or seven p.m., depending on whether the church was offering a 5 p.m. "child friendly" service.

I'd come home to a very quiet flat.

One year, I realized after service that I'd not had dinner, and there wasn't much in the house to cook. About the only place that was open was Walgreens, where I grabbed a frozen pizza and a tape (this was a long time ago) of a movie I'd not yet seen.

Thus, a tradition was born.

It's much more upscale these days. I'm making home made pizza, complete with all natural, nitrate-free pepperoni, buffalo mozzarella and a sprinkling of Parmigiano-Reggiano to finish it off. The local up-scale grocer with the great spirits department is starting their holiday wine sale tomorrow, so I'll pick up a nice bottle or two to go with the grub.

That leaves the movie. Any recommendations? With Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime and Netflix, I should be able to get my hands on just about anything you suggest. Action movies preferred, though action movies that are more than just special effects strung together with minimal plot (Air Force One versus Transformers). Or a light holiday movie (not The Christmas Story, nor It's a Wonderful Life).

I've put together the Peapod order that includes the cheese and pepperoni, plus some supplies for the pulled pork I'm bringing for the office potluck. There should be enough fresh produce to get me through to the weekend before the holiday, when I'll stock up the last time for the week ahead. I start vacation the 19th, and don't really want to be out in the stores much between then and the holiday if I can help it. Crowds make me itch.

Do you have any offbeat traditions or holiday habits?

Friday, December 05, 2014

Beginning of the weekend

Not quite yet - another hour and a half, roughly. But our financial systems are down for the annual W-2 related update, which makes working more challenging than usual.

Lots to get done this weekend. First up, baking. I'm in a cookie exchange with eight other people on Sunday. Fortunately, we are only making a half dozen per person, so including myself, I only need fifty-four cookies. The recipe I've chosen, pecan shortbread cookies, makes about twenty per batch.

A few years ago, I packaged up my cookies for the exchange to look like giant Christmas crackers. No one was enough of an Anglophile to recognize that fact, so this year, I'm going the simpler route, with cute little cookie boxes.

If the tree doesn't go up this weekend, I fear it won't go up at all. Ditto for the rest of the decorations. The question is how much I really want to do. Do I move the couch, rearrange the furniture and hang the icicle lights in the front window, where neighbors passing by can see them? Or do I go the easier route, and hang them across the more accessible patio doors, where only the neighbors to my east will really see them? Do I even care, since I'm really putting them up because I like twinkly lights?

Easter Seals is coming on Wednesday, so I need to finish putting together my donations. Translation: I finally need to go through my closet. I said I'd have clothes in this batch, in addition to the small television/converter, set of drapes and small box of miscellaneous housewares. Slowly, oh so slowly, the clutter is disappearing.

Time needs to be spent in the studio as well. I've the embroidery to finish up on the t-shirt quilt, plus the set of towels and apron for the work silent auction. While the machine does all the work, I can putter, sorting by color the fabric I'm done with and putting it away. The last several projects I've done have been "scrapy" in theme, which means I've lots of pieces to sort out. It doesn't help that since my stash was getting low, I've bought probably a dozen or so half yards to augment it.

I'm about halfway done with rearranging things in there, with the sewing area itself pretty much set. The new little flat panel tv with the Roku is working a treat, but I still need to attach the real antenna and hook up the DVD player. Assuming I succeed in doing all that, I have a couple of Christmas movies purchased back in July or so that I can run off while all the puttering and embroidery is going on. It sounds like a great way to pass part of the day.

So, not a hectic weekend in the sense I'll be running all around town, but fairly busy nonetheless. My fear is that I'll wander from thing to thing without actually finishing anything. I've taken the precaution of e-mailing myself a list, starring the things that really must be done to completion (I highly doubt my fellow cookie exchangers would be happy with a lump of dough, for instance).

Better start organizing things here for Monday.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Reading matters - October and November books

At the end of October, I completely forgot to do a post about October books read. By the time I remembered, I realized I should just combine those with November's books. Here it is December 3rd, and I've yet to post on either. I'll get them listed on the 2014 page later this week.

And how am I doing on the 2014 "read a book per week" schedule? As of this post, I'm through 51 books this year, with one left to read to complete the goal. I'm off of work from December 20th through after the first of the new year. I can pretty much guarantee I'll read one book during that time, if I don't finish at least one between now and then. I'll do a wrap up post on the 31st.


October:

Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury - This is an annual October reread. Bradbury's language and images are stellar, and the plot unusual enough it holds your interest until the very last page. I first read it in high school, as an offshoot of a class on science fiction and fantasy.

11/22/63 - Stephen King - This clocks in at eight hundred some pages in print form, and is one of the reasons I only read two three books in October. Let in on a secret - a portal back in time - by a friend, the protagonist goes back to 1958 and makes a life for himself, waiting for the opportunity to stop the assassination of Kennedy on 11/22/63. There are certain rules to the time travel, however, that make life a bit more difficult than you might think. The majority of the book is lived in the middle, so to speak, the time between arriving in 1958 and the day of the assassination. As always, King's writing is superb. His politics bleed through only a little, and the ending isn't quite what I expected. Over all, it was worth the time invested.

Into the Storm - Larry Correia - This is a more traditional fantasy novel by Correia. War has come to the kingdom, and a disgraced knight is called back into battle. The world Correia has created blends both magic and technology - it was a fun read, though I almost forgot I'd read it (I blame the effort it took to get through 11/22/63).

November:

Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel - This was on a list of recommended books somewhere. The premise revolves around a post-apocalyptic world in the near future and a traveling band of Shakespearean actors. It sounded like a win-win. Action moves from the beginning of the end (a very rapid acting, seriously infectious, ebola-type virus) to a time roughly twenty years later. The new reality is portrayed well, the characters are fairly well written and the action is well paced. It ended, however, sooner than I would have liked - leaving me wondering if there are sequels planned.

The Elmo Jenkins Triology - Ordained Irreverence, Some Things Never Change and The Old Man and the Tea - McMillian Moody - I'm counting this as three books, though at just over 500 pages for all three, it's more like one chunky one. The series follows fresh-from-the-seminary Elmo Jenkins as he first interns, then takes a permanent staff position, at an evangelical mega church. If you have spent any time at all in one of those churches, especially in a ministry position, you'll find the characters and situations both familiar and funny. The books rambled a bit, but were enjoyable reads. They could, however, do with a really good editing (I think they were self-published). There apparently is a fourth book in the series; I most likely will not read it unless I happen upon it in the library.

Embracing Obscurity: Becoming Nothing in Light of God's Everything - Anonymous - This book is a blast of refreshing air through the garbage floating through the evangelical community about everyone being a superstar. The author (who does indeed remain unnamed) walks through Scripture, building a case that obscurity - living an ordinary, but faithful life - should be the normative Christian experience, rather than the constant striving for wealth, popularity, power and other measures of "success" the church has co-opted from the world. He bases his thesis on a right understanding of our position and relationship to God, one we often lose sight of. Great book.