Thursday, December 30, 2004

The new arrival

We returned from our Christmas trip to New Jersey late last night with our new dog, Jelly (formerly known as Jillian). We picked her up from her foster family in Long Island yesterday afternoon. It made for a loooong drive back -- we left my parents' house on the Jersey shore at 2 and pulled into our driveway at 10:45 -- but it was a far better choice than picking her up on the way down and subjecting her to the craziness of Sam (the poodle) and Gabby (the spaniel mix).

It was slightly bizarre to drive to the home of these random strangers, sit down with them for about an hour and then leave with a new dog. We simply plopped her in the back seat with Rocky, fed them both a tasty treat and headed for the Throg's Neck bridge and New England. Rocky got irritable when Jelly encroached upon her bed, but they worked things out after a while -- by which I mean Jelly slid onto the floor and slept there for the entire drive, and Rocky lured her way onto a lap in the front seat.

I like Jelly a lot, but even in the less-than-24-hours we've known her, it's clear that she has more "issues" than the rescue people let us know about. First, she's filthy. Poop crusted to her butt, matts on her chest, eye gunk matted around her nose. Her fur is dirty, and Darren thought he spotted a flea this morning. That's pretty easy to fix: Our fabulous groomer, who's been making Rocky the lovely creature she is for the last four years, is actually open Saturday -- New Year's day -- and was willing to squeeze Jelly in for a makeover. We'll pick up some Frontline and get the bugs eliminated, too.

Jelly also has trouble walking. With the exception of the kitchen, our entire first floor has hardwood floors. We have area rugs in each room, but there's still a fair amount of wood, and a few raised lintels. So she slips and trips and generally seems uncomfortable there. She also has excessively long toenails, so we're unsure how much of her discomfort when walking is just caused by the nails pushing into her pads.

Nor does she handle stairs well. This morning she woke up at 6:15 -- the rescue people were getting up at 5 every day, so it's going to take a little time for her to adjust to our schedule -- with an apparent need to pee. Darren and I were laying in bed, me with a thermometer plugged in my mouth and him trying desperately to wake up to take her out, when we heard her tumble down the staircase. Not good. When we take her out, she pees on the snow-covered deck unless we carry her down to the yard.

She also drinks a ton of water -- one bowl-ful already today. Rocky drinks very little, due to a long list of anxieties she apparently has about the water dish, so this is a change for us. It also makes me nervous about kidney issues, which is one of the things that caused Sparky's illness and death. However, she was sharing a space with 11 other foster dogs, so perhaps she thinks she needs to get water while she can. Hard to say.

The biggest question, though, is whether she can hear at all. She doesn't respond when we call her, nor did she react when Darren snapped his fingers and clapped behind her head. The rescue people said she knows her name, but we have not gotten her to react to anything other than the sight of food being prepared or the sensation of being touched.

We were told she's seven, which is what the shelter in Brooklyn, which picked her up as a stray, estimated. From her behavior and her health issues, though, we think she might be older. We'll take her to our vet for a going-over next week and see what they think.

It's a lot to take on, and I'm slightly nervous about her general health. After all we went through with Sparky, I'm not sure I can handle another short-lived canine companion. However, she is very, very sweet. Rocky doesn't mind her at all, which is about the best we can ask for at this point. And she's completely in love with Darren -- follows him around the house and lays next to him when he sits. Her most endearing trait thus far is that she snores just like a little person. (She's laying next to me on one of Rocky's beds, snoring and grumbling a bit in her sleep. In fact, he just came in from the grocery store and she hasn't stirred a bit. Definitely deaf.)

So despite a bit of frustration that the rescue didn't seem to notice her other problems, we're looking forward to providing a good home for little Jelly and figuring out what makes her comfortable. Pics to come after her spa visit on Saturday.

Monday, December 20, 2004

The art of improvisation

I think I hit upon one of my New Year's resolutions tonight while wrapping presents and half-watching Emeril. The jolly old elf was making a bunch of rustic winter dishes, including osso buco and carrot soup with apples and caraway seeds. Apparently somebody'd been giving him a hard time about not mentioning the amounts of ingredients called for in his recipes; over and over again, he said something to the effect of, "Now throw in some sugar. How much? Depends on how sweet your pears are. You say I don't give amounts. But you don't tell me how sweet your pears are." (This was in reference to some sort of pear dessert with port and blue cheese -- the phone rang, so I didn't get the details.)

I think of myself as a good cook -- not extremely talented or inventive, but a solid home cook whose meals typically turn out well. They're simple and rustic -- no elaborate presentation or towers of veggies. But what I excel at is merely following a recipe. I can tweak it within reason to suit our tastes, but generally I just do what the recipe writer tells me. The effect is sort of like being a passenger in a car that's being driven to an unfamiliar place -- if I don't need to know how to find my own way back, I just let the details wash over me instead of retaining them.

As a result, I'm somewhat uninventive in the kitchen. Last night, for example, I made a black bean soup from Gourmet that I've made a few times before; each time, I like it less. As I began cooking, the recipe's approach seemed all wrong: First you boil a mixture of chicken broth and water -- I'd noted that the recipe called for too much water -- then you throw in diced onions, peppers and chiles. That simmers for a bit -- 10 minutes, I think -- then you add drained black beans, a bottle of Corona, cumin, coriander and salt. A few more minutes of simmering and you take it off the heat and throw in some lime juice and chopped cilantro. Top with a bit of sour cream, and it's done.

However, the final product is not so much a soup as it is a bunch of briefly boiled vegetables in a beery chicken broth. I knew that going in, and briefly considered sauteing the onions and peppers, then adding spices and beans before putting in the liquid, so the flavors could marry rather than just floating around alone. But I was short on time and irritated that it was already Sunday night, and so I just followed the recipe as written. Not wise.

We ended up with a marginally satisfactory dinner, followed by a not-very-appetizing lunch today. And there is scads of this soup left -- which, knowing me, I will find reasons not to eat and will end up pouring it down the garbage disposal. Which is not an effective use of our money or the brief amount of time I spent preparing it.

What I want is to gain some intuition in the kitchen -- to pay attention to the effects of what I'm doing so I can do a better job of improvising from a bunch of disconnected ingredients plunked down in the pantry. Our CSA share helps with this kind of thinking, but I still rely too much on recipes. In 2005, as the Internets are my witness, I'm planning to give my cooking the attention it deserves. That means writing about it more -- something I love and wish to pursue (especially in the hopes that one day I can ditch business journalism for something slightly more appealing). Because I know that by writing about it, I will be paying attention. And that is how this hamster brain of mine learns.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

One advantage of a well-stocked pantry

Three-and-a-half dozen oatmeal-raisin cookies, made on whim and finished in under two hours.

Arrival of the spirit

There's nothing like a day spent shopping in (mostly) civil surroundings, followed by decorating the tree, to bring the Christmas spirit on in full force. As Meg mentioned in comments earlier, there's something about the long and drawn-out nature of the Xmas season that makes it just seem wearying.

We joked about the fact that we couldn't even get it together last week to decorate the tree, but in the end I think it was a good decision. After I returned from my marathon shopping effort - only a few stocking stuffers left to purchase! - I took a little nap, then we headed out to see Closer. There's a nice holiday tale for you - adultery, deception and some very unlikable people. That said, I think it's a good movie, and worth seeing.

[digression about to commence]

We actually had a miserable movie-going experience; in a mostly empty theater, Noisy Plot Explainer and Dim Husband sat directly behind us. There's a scene in which Julia Roberts and Clive Owen are sitting next to a window in a fancy restaurant in London. The Explainer loudly identified every building out the window - it was Trafalgar Square, apparently - then wondered aloud what was going to happen. I turned around and hissed, "Will you please be quiet?"

She stared at me. As I turned back to face the screen, she simply continued with what she'd been saying. I wanted to beat her senseless.

My revenge came at the end, though. The Explainer seemed to be a Julia Roberts fan, and this is not a movie in which Julia gets to play sweet and cute - far from it. As the credits rolled, the Explainer told Dim Husband, "Well, that was certainly darker than I'd expected."

No kidding.

[digression ends]

In any case, we headed home for spaghetti and meatballs from my grandmother's recipe. It's a very simple one: mix bread crumbs with grated parmesan cheese, garlic powder, basil, oregano, salt and pepper, then combine with a small amount of water. Crumble raw ground beef (or a mixture of beef, pork and tortured baby cow) on top, then add a couple of beaten eggs. Mix with your hands, form into balls and bake for 30 min. at 350 degrees.

The meatballs certainly aren't gourmet, but they are simple and warm and they smell insanely good while they are baking. I made a very simple marinara sauce - sauteed garlic, crushed tomatoes, basil and the tiniest bit of oregano, plus salt, pepper and (the secret ingredient) crushed fennel seed - while Darren made a salad. After the meatballs are done baking, I drain them a bit on paper towels, then throw them in the sauce for a little while.

By this point, A. had arrived, with a bottle of zinfandel to supplement the cab/shiraz mix we'd already opened. I cooked some perciatelli - pasta shaped like spaghetti, but with a hole in the middle, the better to slurp with - and we settled down for a cozy meal at the coffee table and a discussion of the movie, which A. had seen a few days earlier.

Slightly tipsily, I draped the tree with lights - using a new vertical draping strategy I read about somewhere, rather than the traditional horizontal method - and the decorating began. It was then we discovered that the box in which we store our ornaments has mildewed over the last couple years, so the ornaments threw off quite a stench. (We'll be both ditching the box and moving ornament storage out of the basement this year...)

In any case, the picture above is our final product. And, yes, the real thing is somewhat less blurry.

Friday, December 17, 2004

A week to go

Not only are we nearing the final stretch of the marathon holiday preparations, but I actually got a run in this week! Just 2.5 miles on the treadmill at the gym, but I discovered what I think is the magic formula for a running soundtrack: an album that you know well, but haven't listened to in a long time. That means you know the words -- always helpful for getting lost in a song -- but you're not sick of the songs. And you don't know what song comes next, which has always been a problem in the running mixes I've made. Wednesday's soundtrack was The Joshua Tree, which I haven't put on in years. Made the run go by very quickly. (And was much more enjoyable than the overwrought stuff I've heard from U2's new album.)

Of course, the only problem with this theory is that there is a finite number of albums that fit the criteria. Which means that I now have a really good excuse not to run very often, as I don't want to tear through my good tunes. (As if I needed another one...)

So as the week draws to a close -- and I prepare for fish tacos and margaritas at my sister's tonight -- I'm feeling a bit more ready for the impending holiday insanity. I still have a bit of shopping to do; in fact, I nearly left my list, which says "Darren" on the top and contains the description and price of everything I've already bought him, plus my ideas for the last few gifts, right here on the desk that we share. Genius.

Anyway, I'm planning a blitzkrieg trip to Freeport tomorrow morning. You may know that Freeport is home to L.L. Bean's flagship store, which does not have locks on its doors because it never closes. In the last several years, it's also rapidly become an outlet Mecca, with lots of off-price goods from name-brand retailers. It's been my vow this year to avoid the mall completely, and I've succeeded thus far. But I need to get some clothes for Darren, and the boutiques in downtown Portland just don't work with my budget (though the gear shops, bookstores and other assorted indie havens certainly do).

So while Freeport has some mall-like qualities --- the Gap, anyone? -- it does not contain the inherent evil of the mall, not least because you actually get fresh air when you walk between stores. I'm hoping I can knock off the last few items on Darren's list, plus pick up pj's for my aunt and Pat the Bunny and Blueberries for Sal for N's kids. Oh, and I need some stocking stuffers. Hmm, perhaps it won't be such a short trip.

In other news, we are having a home visit on Sunday from the rescue group that is caring for Jillian the shih tzu. Our references have cleared and our vet has approved us. Our vet also went to great lengths to get some information for us about the ovarian tumors the poor pooch suffered. She called an oncologist, who told her that this type of tumor spreads less than 20% of the time. Those are odds I'm comfortable with; though Sparky's illness and death last year were difficult, I wouldn't have missed having him for the world. So we've decided not to shy away from Jillian-who-will-be-renamed based on that info.

Ok, that's the Friday wrapup from me. Time for tequila!!

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Tis the season

There seems to be some holiday angst going around. It's hit our house, too. I spent the morning shopping with my sister, and somehow came home with no more Christmas money, yet very little to cross off my list. (One culprit is the new lamps for our bedside tables - necessary, since mine went kaput earlier this week, but not particularly Christmasy.

This afternoon I talked to Darren about my irritation over the shopping - I've been doing the lion's share of it, even for our mutual friends, and it started pissing me off. So we're going to make a new plan for the remaining shopping. Even doing it together would make me much happier than slogging around alone amid the chaos. (I'm also making him help me bathe Rocky tomorrow - she threw up several times in the middle of the night a few days back, and is one stinky pooch. It doesn't really take two people to give a nine pound dog a bath, but I'll be damned if I'm going to do it alone, especially when the ridiculous creature needs her hair - not fur - blown dry afterwards.)

This afternoon we also unloaded all the decorations, which are now strewn throughout the house. Our living room in particular looks like a red-and-green bomb exploded in it. One happy realization, though: Just because someone gave us a Christmas thing does not mean we actually need to display it. This was a new and glorious concept. So the worst of the stuff is staying in the plastic bin where it lives the rest of the year.

Otherwise, I'm pretty unmotivated. I probably oughta write some cards before we head out to dinner - our favorite breakfast and lunch place just began serving dinner a few days ago! - so I think that's what I'll do. While I drink a beer, of course. The key to sanity in this endeavor is my latest CD purchase, the Vince Guaraldi music from A Charlie Brown Christmas. It's melancholy and sentimental - perfect for the grinch I am at the moment.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

A cavalcade of pooches

A poorly scanned shot from the early years -- me and my first dog, Patches, who we had to give away because we lived in rental houses, and trying to find one that would take a Dalmation was tough.

Here's Sparky in his Glamour Shots pose. He was pretty chubby when we first got him. This shot doesn't show his very cute snaggletooth.

Three of the family dogs. That's Rocky in the back - the spotted one - with Sparky in the front, and Sam, my parents' neurotic poodle, on the right.

Monday, December 06, 2004

A new dog?

So, I hesitate to say it, but we are on the trail of another "new" dog. I haven't blogged at all about our adventures in canine companionship, and we've got to head out to a meeting of the ALS fundraising group in a little bit, so I'll try to make this quick (ha!):

We have one dog, Rocky, a four-and-a-half year old shih tzu princess who we got as a puppy from a breeder here in Maine. When she was nearly two, we started looking for another dog, preferably a shih tzu, who could be her pal. We didn't put much effort into a search, but one day my mom called with info about a shih tzu mix near her place in NJ who needed a home. And that's how we ended up with Sparky, an amazing, happy little dog who we loved completely, despite the fact that he was only about 85% housetrained.

He was my dog -- he loved Darren, but when we sat down, he'd jump in my lap. And when we came home, he'd run to get his beloved fleece starfish and bring it to me. He'd come to work with me and snooze on my lap during meetings. And in the car on the way there, he'd stand in the back seat, with his back legs on the seat and his front legs on the driver's side armrest, so his gray furry head was visible out the corner of my eye. At stop lights, I'd turn to look at him and he'd lick my nose. I absolutely loved that little guy.

And then last fall he got sick. It was a long, drawn out affair that showed no signs of being terminal at the beginning. But eventually it was. He lost his desire to eat -- this was a dog who my mother once found under a bed, only his back legs sticking out, as the entire top half of his body was stuffed into a bag of dog treats so he could chow down more efficiently -- and he eventually grew very weak. (The diagnosis was a murky combination of kidney disease, gastrointestinal disease and Lyme's.) We finally put him down last December, a week or so before Christmas.

Needless to say, it was miserable. I still think about him a lot (I'll post a picture later on), especially the quirky, funny stuff, like how the only thing that would calm him down in a thunderstorm at night would be to lay on my pillow, on top of my head. Or how he'd grin and wag the entire back half of his body when I came home from work.

Eventually, we started talking about getting another dog -- for Rocky, and for us. Last spring we made a few forays into dog searching, until I realized that what I was looking for was Sparky in another body. So we waited a while more, and in June adopted a dog named Watson from a shelter on the Massachusetts/Rhode Island line. We found him on Petfinder; he was advertised as a shih tzu mix, but clearly was a terrier mix who maybe once looked crosseyed at a shih tzu. But we adopted him anyway.

That experience ended very badly; he turned out to be a very aggressive dog who had never been taught anything -- not sit, not come, not "you are a dog; people are the boss." Two weeks after we brought him home, he viciously attacked our favorite vet tech -- the one who cried when Sparky died.

We reluctantly gave Watson up to the local shelter, which is very good at assessing dogs and placing them appropriately -- resources the other shelter obviously didn't have. After several weeks of evaluation, following the shelter's decision to place him with an experienced dog owner, Watson again viciously and out of the blue attacked someone, this time a shelter worker. He was put down in August.

After that experience, we pretty much gave up on the dog hunt. I didn't want to deal with the prospect of another Watson -- a kind dog that had been ruined by jackass people -- and I couldn't justify having two purebred dogs when there are so many that need homes. So we stopped really looking, though I'd occasionally check the shelter website and a few others I bookmarked. That's how we found Jillian.

We decided to fill out an application for her in early November, and agreed that we'd be honest about the experience with Watson, knowing that it might disqualify us from being considered, since many people who run dog rescues are very militant in their beliefs about animal (and human!) behavior. Weeks went by, and we never heard anything. So I figured the fact that we gave Watson up had indeed made us undesirable and didn't think much of it.

Then, this afternoon when we got back from Baltimore and D.C., we had a message from the woman who is fostering little Jillian. I had a long talk with her this evening, peppered her with questions about aggression and behavior around food and kids and every other potentially upsetting scenario I could think of. And it all sounds good.

Tomorrow, I'm calling our vet to talk to Robin, the vet tech who cried at Sparky's death and was bitten by Watson. She's an amazing person, who is compassionate for people and animals; I'm going to ask her a bunch of questions about Jillian's history, too. And then, if all goes well, I'm going to call the rescue group back and tell them to go ahead and call our references. Assuming they vouch for us, the final step would be a home visit. So cross your fingers for us...

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Heading south

It's another early morning --- light is just beginning to steal through the trees. Darren left about half an hour ago to drop Rocky off at his dad's barber shop and then head to basketball. I tossed and turned for a while after his car pulled out of the driveway, then finally surrendered to the fact that I was awake and got out of bed.

Today's Darren's birthday --- #33. He's got the day off; I have to work until 1:30 or so, then we head to the airport for our flight to D.C. I'm really looking forward to a few days of hanging out with friends and relaxing. We've been to D.C. several times before, so we don't have to do all the touristy stuff (which D. and C., our hosts there, were grateful for). Baltimore is a bit less familiar, especially for Darren, so we're looking forward to checking out Ginga and DP's neighborhood and catching a movie at the very cool art house.

So, with that I will head away from the computer and into the shower. Back on Monday - have a fabulous weekend!