Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ghost Stories

I took my two-year-old daughter trick or treating for the first time tonight. Ally wore a black cat costume complete with a grinning Cheshire Cat face on the front of the black plush front, a long stuffed cat tail in the back, and a hood with cat ears on top.


Initially she was more excited about being outside in the dark than visiting houses in the neighborhood, but it didn't take Ally long to get the hang of begging for free candy. Seriously, the secret to getting a good haul of Halloween candy is to take an adorably cute little girl in a great costume, especially if saying "Trick or treat!" is something of a tongue twister for her. I had to carry Ally's treat bag home for her as it was too heavy for her, but she was very reluctant to entrust me with it. Wise girl, as there will be significantly less chocolate in the bag when dawn arrives.

And now, a ghost story for your Halloween entertainment.

Once upon a time I was a graduate student in the Department of Entomology at the University of Tennessee. One of the retired professors owned a piece of property adjacent to the Cherokee National Forest, almost on the Tennessee-North Carolina state lines, and there was a tradition in the department to spend the occasional weekend at the cabin there. The oldest part of the building was a one room log cabin predating the Civil War. There were narrow slits in the log walls beside the chimney where guns could be fired to ward off marauding Indians or unwanted visitors. Over the years additions had been tacked on the original building, including a bathroom, a kitchen, and another sleeping room. Overall the cabin was in a general state of disrepair, with slanted floors and outside walls that did little to keep out the cold. Not that we minded. It was a great place to visit for the weekend and collect specimens for our insect collections. The owner was too elderly to come out with us, but we'd stop by his house for a short chat and pick up the key to the gate from him on our way to the property. I recall that we usually went in the spring as there were more insects to collect at that time of the year. The property had creeks and seeping springs to explore, open meadows and forest to walk through. It was perfect for a bunch of biology geeks like ourselves. At night you could see the stars clearly with no light pollution. I'd hate to guess how far away the nearest neighbor might have been.

You'd drive forever to get to the cabin, graduating from a main road to a black top road to a gravel road to a dirt road and eventually there would be 50-100 feet of a shallow creek bed before you pulled up at the place in the middle of nowhere. We'd get out, dump our sleeping bags and duffle bags on whatever patch of floor we'd claim for the weekend, then spill out of the cabin into the woods to commune with nature while our advisor and another professor or two would keep company on the front porch. It didn't take long for a substantial pile of green Rolling Rock beer bottles to accumulate on the porch, and after awhile we graduate students would join the professors in the drinking and shooting the breeze. We'd talk about biology and science, office gossip and whoever didn't come on the trip, and of course the upcoming football season. There would burgers and hotdogs on the grill with chips and more beer and more animated conversation. Near midnight there might be a horribly off-key sing along, or the conversation might have turned to how the cabin was supposedly haunted.

Several years before I joined the department there was a female graduate student who said she had seen the ghost of a woman inside the cabin one weekend. The graduate student wrote a description of her experience and left it at the cabin for anyone else to read. The student had been sleeping in one of the rooms when she woke up and saw a woman dressed in white sitting in the rocking chair in the corner. The student said the woman was wearing a long, old-fashioned gown and simply rocked back and forth. I don't remember if the student said the ghost eventually faded away or even if the student fled the room. The student had graduated before I joined the department, but she had the reputation of being a good student with a sensible head on her shoulders, not the type of person you would dismiss as being flakey or ditsy.

One spring weekend I wound up sleeping on the floor of the room where the ghost had been reported. There were at least two other people sleeping on the floor in the same room. Although there were two single beds in the room, we preferred to spread our sleeping bags on the floor instead of disturbing decades of dust and mice poop on those mattresses. I remember waking up in the middle of the night, probably because of someone snoring, but it may have been the creaking floor boards made by someone going outside to pee. While I had admittedly drunk a few beers that evening I was most definitely not drunk or merely dreaming that I was awake. I could hear mice rustling around in the room and the light thump-thump-thump they made jumping across the floor. Slowly I became aware of a soft, white glow several feet to the left of my head, where the rocking chair was located in the room. I'm horribly near sighted and do not wear my contact lenses to bed, but as soon as I realized that there was something white-colored to the side of me just out of my range of vision, nothing could induce me to put on my glasses and turn to see what it was.

I know I was awake because I heard someone knock a beer bottle over on the porch when he went outside to pee. I know there was no full moon that night and the windows were not positioned to let moonlight into that corner of the room even if there had been one. I know the light wasn't from a flashlight someone was using outside the cabin. I know I felt silly and even laughed at myself, but I still could not make myself turn my head to see what was producing that soft, white glow. I know I did not feel threatened or endangered by whatever it was over in the corner. I wasn't afraid of it so much as I just didn't want to face something that I might not be prepared to acknowledge. I finally drifted back to sleep after a good hour or so of lying on the floor, staring at the ceiling of the room and trying to rationalize the experience.

To this day I still do not know what that was in the corner with the rocking chair, or if I would turn my head to look at it if I ever encountered it again.

Happy Halloween, y'all!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Travels with Mom

I recently wrote an entry about traveling to Alaska with my mother in 1982.

I love traveling with Mom and I regret that we're not able to do it as much now. The first real trip we took together was sometime back around 1980. We drove down to Spruce Pine and Mineral, North Carolina, to go rock hunting. We have great memories from that trip about a very large black snake stretching across an old Jeep trail, murderous ducks attacking my feet, a restaurant that offered enormous family-style servings, and us acting like crazed gold miners the first time we spied flakes of mica glittering in the sun. If I remember correctly, we were at the intersection of a medium-sized road when we saw something shiny in the loose soil of the median strip. We actually pulled the car over and scooped up some of the soil containing the mica flakes. Yes, we're nuts. Flakey, even, but I still have the moonstone, amazonite, tourmaline, and all those other rock samples we collected on that trip.

Our last trip together was in in May 1997 when Mom flew out to Davis, California, to drive cross country with me back to Virginia. I had moved there for a long-term relationship that ended unexpectedly and abruptly the previous fall. (Well, it was unexpected to me. Maybe not unhoped for by my parents.) At any rate, I was in a rather fragile state but had finally made the surprisingly mature decision to return to Virginia instead of trying to carve out a life in California. I decided to ship most of my belongings back to my parents' house, stuff my car full of what was left, and drive my tattered soul back home. Mom generously offered to fly out and travel with me so I wouldn't be alone. Despite the circumstances necessitating the move, we had a blast on that trip. We laughed at the locals at the Walmart in Barstow, saw thunderstorms dance across the Grand Canyon on Mother's Day, and ate a five pound bag of carrots along the way. There was the hotel room in Flagstaff that had a bathroom so small that the proprietor had cut a notch out of the bathroom door so it could swing past the toilet bowl to open. There was the all-you-can eat Chinese food and fried catfish buffet in some small corner of Arkansas that had a few six-legged customers dining on the tartar sauce. Nevermind that Mom was convinced that we'd never find the interstate again and would be stuck in Amboy, CA, forever, or that one morning I made Mom leave the hotel room five minutes after I woke up because she was already taking the luggage out the door to hit the road at 6 am. It was a glorious road trip and I'll never forget that Mom wanted to go with me.

That first trip to Alaska with Mom was no less of an adventure, too. Sure, it was off to a shaky start with my unexpected arrival into womanhood, but Alaska is simply a fantastic place to visit and we were wowed by it the moment we stepped off the plane in Anchorage. The scenery, the wildlife, and the history of the state make Alaska a fantastic destination. I can't say that my aunt and her daughter traveling with us had an equally glorious time as we were barely speaking to each other by the time we left. A week in a Winnebago with 3 adults and two near-teenagers will dampen even the strongest family bonds. There was an incident with a can of Cheez Whiz, the refusal to pitch in with communal chores, and that's about all I need to say about that. I wish I had the pictures to share with you, but the one of the us taken at the terribly touristy North Pole, AK, says it all: Mom and I stand at one end of the welcome sign, my aunt and cousin stand at the other, and we're either forcing a smile for the picture or barely containing the urge to snarl at each other. And yet Mom and I still laugh about that trip.

I wish we could take another trip together. Even more, I wish my daughter was old enough to take a trip with us and remember it. As it is, either Ally will have to listen to all my stories about traveling with Granny, or she'll have to come with me to see Amboy (population 13!) all for herself.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Seriously yummy pumpkin bread

There are fat pumpkins everywhere you look at this time of the year and it's time to make two of my favorite treats, pumpkin bread and pumpkin pie. I've made my own pumpkin puree by cooking down fresh pumpkin, but seriously, the canned variety is just as good and a thousand times easier. Make sure you use pumpkin puree and not pumpkin pie mix which already contains spices. I'm sure you could adapt this recipe to using the mix by omitting the spices listed here, but I doubt the result would taste as good as the bread made with your own spices.

This recipe is an adaptation of the pumpkin bread recipe given in Camille Glenn's 1986 cookbook, The Heritage of Southern Cooking. I love this cookbook. The old photos and commentary are fascinating and I can easily spend an hour just leafing through the book. One of the changes I made to this recipe was to use a mix of granulated and brown sugars. I had planned on using molasses for a deeper flavor, but didn't have any on hand when I made the recipe. Another change was to use five spice powder and ginger in addition to nutmeg. You could use pumpkin pie spice or just cinnamon if you don't have five spice powder, but I like my pumpkin spicy. Also, the original recipe calls for water and I used buttermilk instead. (Buttermilk makes everything better.) The nuts could be toasted before adding them to the batter for even deeper flavor. I'd try black walnuts with this recipe if I had them on hand.

This is a tender and richly spiced loaf. Well, who are we kidding? This is really cake, and a yummy one at that.

Fall Pumpkin Bread

1 stick butter at room temperature (life is too short for fake butter!)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon five spice powder
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup canned pumpkin
1/4 cup buttermilk or water
1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts or pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream the butter and sugars together until fluffy. Add the eggs and continue to beat until the batter is thick and smooth. Combine the floor, baking soda, baking powder, spices, and salt in a separate small bowl and stir with a whisk. Add the flour mixture, the pumpkin, and the buttermilk alternately to the creamed butter and eggs. Do not overbeat. Fold in the nuts with a spatula. Spoon the batter into a lightly greased standard loaf pan. Bake for 60 minutes, then check for doneness using a cake tester. Don't be alarmed if your loaf takes 90 minutes to bake as the moisture in the brown sugar and pumpkin may vary and increase the baking time. Loaf is done when the tester comes out dry. Remove pan from the oven and allow to stand for 10 minutes, then turn out of a rack. Cool thoroughly before slicing.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Looking at 1982 from 2009

So my encounter with the little girl at the local Chik-Fil-A last weekend has me mulling over my own experiences as a little girl on the verge of puberty. Mom had given me the appropriate books to read and we'd had "the talk" by then, but reading something and experiencing something is entirely different. Like rebuilding a car engine, or say pregnancy. You can read all you want about the topic but it's not until you really do it yourself that you gain a real appreciation of the subject. There I was, prepared as possible for my first period, but woefully unprepared at the same time.

I started early, eleven years old in 1982. I clearly remember it was June because we were packing for a two week vacation in Alaska. Yep, I started my first period the day before we embarked on a 14 hour trip to Anchorage. Lucky me. We were flying on standby tickets and Mom insisted that we wear skirts because our names might not be called if we didn't dress nicely and apparently pants weren't "nice" no matter how much I protested. Never mind that I despised wearing a skirt at that age because 1) I felt awkward in them and 2) I only wore them when I had to so the very fact that I was wearing one made me feel even more awkward. At that age I desperately wanted to fit in with everyone else and not attract attention to myself, which in my mind definitely meant not wearing a skirt. Fitting in with everyone else wasn't easy as I was fairly tall and solid for my age and wore thick glasses for my nearsightedness. There was no way my parents were going to buy me the skintight Sergio Valente jeans popular in the 1980s and they wouldn't have looked good on my body anyways, but I only wanted to wear jeans. Instead, I wore a dark brown calico prairie skirt with several tiers to it, along with a tan peasant blouse with a drawstring neckline, as I boarded the plane. This wasn't too far out of the fashion stream at the time, even though the kids at my middle school called me Pocahontas or Laura Ingalls every time I wore it. A pair of cowboy boots would have really boosted the outfit, but again, I only wanted to wear Nikes with those jeans. Anyhow, there I was, stuck on a plane for upteen hours while dressed in an outfit that I felt screamed "LOOK AT ME!". In retrospect the skirt was probably a much kinder outfit as I was also wearing a rather large and thick sanitary pad wadded between my thighs that would never have fit under Sergio Valente jeans. I was embarrassed, uncomfortable, and so dead certain that everyone who looked at me must have instinctively known I was having my period.

I understand why my Mom didn't feel I was ready to wear tampons, but oh how much easier that would have made things. What I don't understand is why she didn't offer me aspirin to ease the cramping, but she and my aunt were sitting together in a different row of seats than my cousin Mary Catherine and me. (Oh, did I mention that this was something of a mother-daughter trip?) Maybe Mom didn't recognize that I was hurting. It didn't occur to me that I could ask for aspirin for the aching; I just thought that this was something that you had to suffer along with the indignity of wearing what amounted to a diaper between your legs. But the unfamiliar pressure and aching made me feel like I constantly needed to pee, so I nearly wore a trail down the aisle to the bathroom on that flight. There was an older woman sitting between me and the aisle that had to get up to let me out each time I needed to go to the bathroom, and by the end of the flight she remarked in a rather bitter tone that I must have a bladder infection. It must have been an unspeakable hassle for her to have to move her bottomless rum and coke off the meal tray each time I wanted out.

So, fast forward through our vacation in Alaska to a month later. Mom had invited my aunt, Mary Catherine, and our maternal grandmother over for lunch on the back deck. My grandmother wanted to hear about our trip as Alaska was one of her very favorite places to visit. Then, much to my horror, my grandmother turned to me and asked, "So, how does it feel to be a woman now?" I would not have minded one bit if the earth had opened up and swallowed me on the spot. I remember my face flushing in shame, muttering some sort of defensive remark, and then angrily demanding that my cousin pass me the mustard for my sandwich NOW! Mom sharply reprimanded me for my bad manners and rightly so, but I don't think anyone understood my feelings. I didn't have the wherewithal to say it then, but if I ever went back in time to that exact moment I would probably respond to my Grandmother with, "Are you out of your freakin' gourd? What do you mean by 'woman'? I'm only ELEVEN!"

I was eleven. I loved horses, stuffed animals, and eating giant bowls of ice cream while watching Saturday morning cartoons. I was still a child, despite the fact that my body had decided that it wasn't going to wait any longer to get the show on the road. I didn't want anything to do with this new status quo of periods. I felt that somehow I was expected to wear dresses with pantyhose, do my hair and apply makeup each day. Was I expected to find a boyfriend now, and maybe have babies? Overnight it seemed that the world had changed its expectations of me when I was still struggling with all the expectations from before puberty. And if being a woman meant feeling ashamed by my body and physical pain each month, then I didn't want to have anything to do with it, thank you very much.

Every girl has a different experience with puberty. I know my mom tried to prepare me as best she could, and I'll do the same for my daughter when the time comes nine or so years from now. I can't say that I'll do a better job than my mother and Ally will have an easier time than I had. I'll at least make sure Ally knows it's okay to take some ibuprofen when it hurts, and we'll find some nice jeans for her to wear with those sanitary pads the first couple of years.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Bad Manners

Yesterday we took our two year old to the local Chik-Fil-A so she could climb on the play equipment as a post-nap treat. Perhaps I should have taken a nap, too. All of us have had a cold, cough, or variant of the creeping crud on and off for two weeks now. Even though I wasn't feeling very sick, I haven't been getting enough sleep as Ally's coughing keeps me awake. I tend to be a light sleeper and jolt awake when I hear Ally coughing in the middle of the night. Lately I've been getting up 4-6 times each night to check on her. Although I'm dead certain that she's coughing hard enough to make herself throw up, the coughing doesn't seem to bother Ally one bit as most of the time she doesn't even wake up as I replace her covers. Regardless, the interrupted sleep is starting to wear on me and tends to make me really, REALLY cranky.

So there we were, sitting in the playground area watching Ally climb in, up, over, through, and down the play equipment. I could have laid down on the bench and taken a nap, but Ally wanted to make sure we were watching her every moment. "MOMMY! DADDY!" she yelled at each observation bubble and tunnel opening, just to make sure we hadn't moved since she last called for us thirty seconds ago. Then she'd move four feet farther into a tunnel and yell again at the next window. We're working on what's an appropriate "inside" voice, but small children don't come with a volume control. I'm pretty sure that's why the play area is in an area separated from the dining room by glass walls and doors.

The play area was a pretty popular place yesterday, with three or four other children monkeying over the equipment. One girl was about 8 years old with long wavy blonde hair and wearing a pink and brown knit dress with flowers, polka dots, and stripes. Clearly she was the queen bee of the playground, directing the other children around, learning the names of the other kids, offering to go get any stragglers up at the top, and asking the parents if she could play with their kids' toys if the kids themselves didn't let her. I didn't care for her bossy nature and blankly ignored her as much as I could, even though she tried to engage me by telling me that those shoes in the cubby were hers and not to let Ally mess with them, and could I please move over so she could sit on the bench with me? Her father was sitting in the restaurant and appeared to be watching her, but obviously wasn't within hearing distance of his child.

A few minutes later the girl climbed up into the play structure, turned around, and told me that I looked pretty. Her comment didn't even register with me the first time, so she made a point of telling me again. Startled, I told her thank you, but didn't say anything else to her. Soon afterwards her father came into the play area to collect his daughter and they left.

Little girl, I'm sorry that I behaved the way I did. I haven't been getting enough sleep and was in a less than stellar mood, but I still could have been more polite to you. I should have asked you your name as you clearly wanted to interact with other people yesterday. I saw a woman with a young baby sitting at the table with you and your father earlier. You probably have a young sister now and are trying to adjust to the new addition in the family. You're also approaching the edge of the cliff that drops off scarily into puberty, and you may be bewildered by the chasm ahead of you. I should have admired your self-confidence instead of dismissing it so lightly as being bossy. I could have at least told you to have a good afternoon as you left, but what bothers me most is that I never even thought of telling you that you are pretty, too.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Hellooooo, October!

It's a lovely autumn afternoon on the back deck, warm in the sun but cool in the shade. Cool enough for a ginormous mug of oolong tea that we picked up in San Francisco's Chinatown last November. Thankfully the breeze is keeping any surviving mosquitoes at bay. I hear a hummingbird squeaking over by the scarlet pineapple sage, but I doubt they'll remain in southwestern Virginia much longer. The red and burgundy leaves of the dwarf crape myrtle are almost incandescent in the sunlight, and the purple asters beside it nearly pop with the color contrast. There's a titmouse scolding my miniature dachshund, but Oscar seems more intent on finding the latest trail left by the chipmunk living under the deck. Mr. Chipmunk has taken to boldly running across the deck , cheeks stuffed full of food to cache for the winter, and Oscar does not approve of this. Not at all. Of course Oscar also doesn't approve of the dwindling hours of daylight each day or the sudden drop in temperatures. Can't say I blame her. She doesn't have much of a coat and is practically nekkid on her belly so come winter she embeds herself like a tick in the sofa under the knit throw to stay warm. She's pitiful if we get any snow as her belly is only a few inches above ground and she's a girl dog to boot.

Yep, you read that right. We have a girl dog named Oscar. The original plan was to have a male and female pair named Oscar and Frankie, respectively. Steve surprised me with Oscar the night I defended my PhD almost 6 years ago in October 2003. She was 8 weeks old and barely the size of my foot, but Steve had already gotten an ID tag with the name Oscar on it and so it never occurred to me to change her name to something a little more feminine. She's not much of a girly dog anyways, aside from her dislike of having to pee in the snow. We hadn't had her too long before she woke us up one night, barking her head off and growling. Someone was trying to break into the kitchen window, but he ran off as soon as we shouted about calling the police. The police were never able to catch the guy, but we figure he must not have been too bright to break into a house with multiple cars in the driveway, security lights blazing on the garage and carport, and with a very loud dog inside the house. Oscar only weighed a couple of pounds at the time, but you couldn't tell she wasn't a much larger dog from the volume of her frenzied barking.

So it's times like this, when I spy Oscar digging in the dirt in my flower bed beside the garage, that I try not to get too upset by the crater she's excavating in pursuit of Mr. Chipmunk. Faithful watch dogs should be allowed to express their dogginess every so often, and it's comical to watch her dig so intently. We'll just plop her in the bath after Ally is done, and Oscar can express her feminine side by smelling of lavender tonight.