» Archive for February, 2010

Paying attention to pens

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010 by kara

I have an attachment to fountain pens. I love the smoothness of the ink and the responsiveness of the nibs. My writing isn’t particularly pretty, but it just feels better when I use a fountain pen. Even cooler is that when you use one particular fountain pen for a while, the nib ‘learns’ your writing style and it’s almost as if it’s tailor-made for your hand. *sigh*

My mother, Norma, never understood this. She was fond of telling me that in her time, they were excited and pleased to be able to use a ballpoint pen and throw out their old fountain pens. “They were so messy and you never knew when they’d decide to leak in your pocket or all over your books. I can’t believe that you don’t get tired of having ink all over your fingers,” she’d grouse, shaking her head in perplexity. “We sure did.”

I’m a weirdo.  I admit that. I’ve used many different types of fountain pens, but my favorite is my Waterman, which I’ve had since about 1997. At that time I thought I wanted a Mountblanc Meisterstück, and worked toward accumulating usage points on my cell phone in order to ‘earn’ one (yes, that was so long ago that my cell phone carrier had to encourage its customers to use their cell phones by offering points). Oh joy, oh wonderful day that my cell phone statement finally reflected 20,000 points! I could finally send in for my certificate entitling me to a “free” Mountblanc Meisterstück!

Let’s don’t talk about how I probably paid five times more in cell phone bills than if I’d just gone out and BOUGHT a Meisterstück. I know it was foolish, but at the time it seemed like a good deal.

I still remember standing at the display counter in the store, fogging up the glass in front of the Montblanc pens. (I don’t recall which store it was, but it might have been a Service Merchandise. C’mon, that was quite a while ago!) I got the attention of the salesdude, who opened the display case and produced first a little padded (purple velvet) palette like one you’d use for examining a piece of jewelry, and on that he placed the beautiful black resin and gold pen of my dreams.

I just looked at it for a few seconds, admiring the plain, clean lines of the pen, and the 18-karat nib inlaid with rhodium, and the friendly, rounded little starburst at the top of the cap representing the snow-capped peak of Mont Blanc.  Then I wiped my sweaty paws on my jeans, picked it up, and…

…it was disappointingly light in my hand. It felt insubstantial, inconsequential, somehow. I told the salesdude and he agreed that it felt very light. He pulled a Waterman fountain pen from the case, and handed it to me, saying that if I liked something heavier that this might suit me better.  I was in love. Substantial and elegant and perfectly balanced, and the nib was so smooth it almost felt like writing with a sable paint brush loaded with oil paint–except much more accurate.

Kept that pen with me for a few years, until I lost it somewhere in 2001.  I thought it might have fallen out of my purse, or maybe I had left it somewhere. I was petrified that it had dropped between the seat and the console of one of the cars we had long-since traded in. I tore all the cars apart, dumped all my purses out, and repeatedly searched the same places it might have been. Finally, after making several big messes and finding nothing, I gave up. I was very sad, but hoped someone who appreciated the Waterman was using it and enjoying its feel.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2006. Rick was living in an apartment in Oak Ridge, TN near his new job, and I was trying to sell our house in Saline, MI. He had come home for the weekend, and we were packing up the truck with lots of housekeeping stuff:  Tables and lamps, laundry hampers and baskets, lots of things that took up a lot of room. I had moved the electric passenger-side seat all the way forward to jam something else into the back seat of the truck (which is probably the first time that seat had ever been that far forward in the entire time we’d owned that truck), and just happened to spy black and gold and “Waterman” in the seat rail on the floor.

I was overwhelmed with joy. Rick thought I’d struck gold, and was disappointed when he saw it was just a pen. I took it in the house and dismantled it, discarded the long-dried cartridge and soaked the nib in warm water and dish soap. Being a packrat, I still had the cartridges and inductor from the pen, even though I’d thought the damned thing was lost long ago. Dried everything off and carefully reassembled it, and experienced utter writing bliss. Almost better than a lottery ticket. I’ve been using it ever since.

Just recently I’ve been going through boxes of ‘stuff’ that I’ve kept.  Some of the ‘stuff’ is from as far back as high school. I found three more fountain pens, two Scheaffer and one Parker, none very expensive, but all loaded with sentimentality. I also found their cartridges, so I carried them all upstairs, consolidated my cartridge supply of all three types of fountain pens into one box in my desk, and set them all up. Now I had broad-nib Shaffers with which to write in peacock blue and lavender and grey inks, my sleek (plastic) Parker with which to write in black, and my lovely Waterman for blue-black ink. :::grinning::: I have the most elegant grocery lists in town!

The Waterman is my most-frequently-used pen, and just this morning it wasn’t working well with the inductor, which was filled incidentally with blue-black Montblanc ink. I wondered yet again whether the brand of ink not matching the brand of pen had anything to do with the pen’s poor performance.  I removed the inductor, emptied and rinsed it and decided to use a pre-loaded, disposable Waterman cartridge instead.

I grabbed one from the communal box in my desk drawer, noting that there were three others like it, and tried to install it. Hmph. Not fitting. What’s going on? Seems like it’s too tight to go all the way into the nib…tried dropping the cartridge into the barrel of the pen and screwing the nib in on top of it. After a little bit of effort, it finally clicked into place, but it still felt tight and wrong.

Began writing and was disappointed to see the ink looked washed out and…wrong.  More grey than blue-black. Finally opened the pen and actually LOOKED at the cartridge I’d installed–which was a black Parker fountain pen cartridge. They’re very similar in size and shape to the Waterman cartridges, just a little longer and a little more tapered from front to back. No wonder it didn’t fit into the Waterman well. Went back to the communal cartridge box and found one more Waterman cartridge. I’ll need to buy more.

I’m a moron. Luckily I didn’t break anything by forcing the Parker cartridge into the Waterman pen, which would have been bitterly disappointing. If I’d just been paying attention, it would never have happened. Must be more careful…

Frugal, if not environmentally-friendly, solution!

Monday, February 22nd, 2010 by kara

I obsess about pet peeves that could be called achingly trivial. Then I obsess about finding a solution to those peeves. And I have  lot of peeves. All that energy wasted on stupid stuff that doesn’t really matter…oi vey.

But it finally worked!  I came up with a solution to something that’s bothered me for such a long time, and it’s a good solution!

In a bottle of lotion (or shampoo, or shower gel, or what-have-you) that comes equipped with a pump, there’s a lot of product left at the bottom when the pump begins to fail. Because the bottle has a PUMP it’s almost impossible to set the bottle upside down to let gravity help. And then you have to unscrew the pump to get at whatever’s left over, and you end up dumping the rest all over your hand and wasting it anyway.

My temporary solution was to vow to buy only flip-top snappy-type containers, which could be inverted and used efficiently without wrestling with a stupid pump. Hooray! Problem solved!

But when you’re standing in front of the lotions with a calculator in your hand, and you realize that the larger pump bottle is less-expensive per ounce, it’s difficult to stick to that vow.

“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Kara!” you’re thinking to yourself right now. “Just throw the whole mess away and get yourself another bottle of store brand lotion and MOVE ON. It’s only an ounce or so!”

Ah, Gentle Reader, there’s the rub (pun definitely intended). If I waste an ounce of lotion, that nullifies the savings I earned when buying the larger bottle, which cost less per ounce. And at that point, this whole soul-rending struggle becomes “a matter of principle.”

I’ve tried propping one bottle upside-down over the mouth of another bottle, and that inevitably ends in heartache with lotion spattered all over the mirror and faucet when the top bottle falls. Because it will fall–it always does. Stupid bottle.

Yes, I have seen those little plastic doohickeys that allow you to connect two bottles of different sizes mouth-to-mouth, so that you can allow gravity to transfer the remainder of one bottle into another. I just don’t want to pay someone $10 for their idea. (Yes, I’m petty and jealous that I did not think of it, patent the idea, get a prototype and market such a useful little plastic thingy for myself.) Plus, those little thingamajigs don’t fit every bottle well–I have an image of a couple of unsuccessfully-coupled fallen ketchup bottles, and a kitchen splattered with ketchup.

Anyway. I’ve been noodling on this particular peeve for many moons, and finally came up with a workable and elegant solution. Remove the pump top from the bottle, and place a plastic bag over the mouth of the bottle. Upend this, propping it in the corner of your vanity or wherever it will not be knocked over, and when gravity has done its job, squeeze the rest of the product into the bag.

Squeeze the air out of the bag, and fasten the top closed. Get your receiving bottle ready, and snip a small hole in the bottom corner of the bag. Aim, then squeeze, and you should be able to strip all the leftover product neatly into the new bottle. Et voila!

Think “piping frosting,” except you’re not piping something edible and it’ll be much easier because you’re just trying to squeeze the contents neatly into a bottle, not spell out “Happy Birthday, Pumpkin” in legible icing script on top of a too-hot cake before all the party attendees arrive in four minutes.

Greener members of the audience may say “But Kara, that wastes a plastic bag! You’re using all the product, but you’re needlessly using a piece of plastic–it becomes a wash!” Save it, brothers and sisters. If this matters to you, you can rinse the plastic bag and use it again for a similar operation–just don’t empty the next bottle into the snipped corner of the bag. Also, bonus points if you’re using an already-repurposed plastic bag, because then you can throw it away and not feel bad!

I should patent and trademark this blog entry, shouldn’t I?

Can a blog be a diary or journal? Or is it different?

Saturday, February 20th, 2010 by kara

All through my life, writing has come naturally to me and it was assumed that I would earn a living as a writer. Mrs. Gregg, my kindergarten teacher, told my mother this, so it must be so.  Although I haven’t taken much formal instruction in writing, the professional advice I’ve been given usually includes keeping a journal.

Never wanted to keep a journal or write in a diary for fear that someone would find it and laugh at all my twisted thoughts and trepidations. Guess you could call it a phobia, it’s that big a fear for me. Doesn’t even matter if the person reading is a complete stranger, or if my journal was discovered years and years after my death. Not even the idea of being long gone by the time strangers read my journal lessens my dread.

The fear isn’t as bad now as when I was a child and teenager.  I’m much more self-assured and recognize that my feelings are valid, and that I don’t need to get validation from other peoples’ approval. So I should be able to relax about baring my soul to a journal, especially now that I’m an adult and don’t have to worry about older siblings questing for it and ruining my life by making its contents public and then tormenting me with it for the rest of my natural life.

So why can’t I commit to keeping a journal? It would only be a help to me. Many writers say their journals are an invaluable tool for their work. They experiment in their journals and refine their writing style, and use journal writing as a warm-up before settling down to work.

And I could use a little help with my writing. It’s been my lifelong goal to earn a living through storytelling, but I have not been successful to this point, very likely because I haven’t established the habit of writing on a regular basis. I THINK about writing on a regular basis. I PLAN to write (or maybe I plan to plan to write, and that might fall into a ‘double-negative’ situation) on a regular basis, I just never actually get to the writing part.

My friend Karen and I have been talking about this lately. We agree that my God-given talent appears to be writing, and combined with my extreme lack of tolerance for members of the general public, it would be imminently suitable for me to work by myself, writing, in the comfort of my own home.

So I’m starting with the most obvious step, that of writing ‘something’ every day. I take this opportunity to air out my mind, to chew over recent events and to refine my thoughts. Lots of my blog entries come about from this process of writing ‘something’. Does a blog count as a journal entry? Or is it really the same thing?

Obviously a published blog isn’t going to be private. Readers do stumble upon it and read, or so my webmistress Jessica tells me. I do understand and consciously accept that people are reading my rants; I use my blog to spread information that I feel would be beneficial to others, like animal rescue, frugality, food and housekeeping.  And I wouldn’t bother with the blog if I didn’t feel it was being read by SOMEONE. But sometimes those blog entries remind me a little bit of a journal or diary, which usually is kept private.

I had a bad experience recently with a former co-worker with whom I thought I was on good terms. Apparently she didn’t like me as much as I liked her, because I found out that all the while she and I were visiting and bonding while working together, she was lying about me to my managers. I felt foolish and gullible and very betrayed, and I wrote about it in minute, gory detail for my blog. But after I read back through the entry, it seemed too raw, too personal for publishing.

I needed to write about that experience in order to resolve my feelings, so I did. It felt good to dump all the anger and hurt into the ‘sausage factory’ of my keyboard and see the ‘sausages’ appear on the screen. But did I need to publish that blog entry in order to finish the job? I guess not. It felt too private to share, or maybe I’m still too hurt to put it out there and risk more wounding by critics who feel I’m overly sensitive.

So…that kinda sounds like a diary entry, doesn’t it?  Writing about an experience to understand it more fully and to cope with it, but then not sharing it with anyone.

And isn’t it funny (both ‘funny-ha-ha’ AND ‘funny-strange’) that I resisted keeping a journal for almost 35 years because I didn’t want to share my private thoughts with anyone inadvertently, but here I am publishing a blog chock FULL of private thoughts on Teh Interwebz in front of potentially millions of readers?

Heh! Millions of readers–who am I kidding? This blog is probably more private and secure than my best childhood hiding spot, which was inside an old game box at the very bottom of my toy box. This was all tucked underneath a precarious pile of junk including the Battleship game boards and stuffed animals, guaranteed to make a huge racket if someone knocked it down while snooping.

Sheridan Belle and the Abscessed Tooth

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010 by kara

Here’s Sheridan Belle, also known as “The Baby Loo.”

So our grrl, Belle, is getting up there in years.  She’s 13 years old, which is amazing to me because most of the time she doesn’t act like a senior citizen.  She’s had a few medical problems along the way but for the most part she’s a healthy, hearty grrl.

She had a cracked molar surgically removed about a year ago, and I had made her some chicken & rice soup to ease her recovery while she healed.  It’s a very simple soup, nothing more than chicken thighs simmered with celery, carrot and rosemary, and then some white rice.  NO salt, pepper, onion, garlic, hot sauce, or any of those other things that make food worth eating for humans!

Turned out she didn’t really NEED the soup, she just chewed on the opposite side of her mouth.  When she actually did chew her kibble–most of the time she just swallowed it whole. Little weasel.  I think her tooth extraction was harder for ME than it was for her.

Last week, she got quite sick with dental problems again.  Our friend and her vet, Dr. Kara, came to see her and said that Belle had an abscess somewhere in her mouth, most likely a tooth, but she couldn’t tell for certain without x-rays.  Belle started taking an antibiotic and painkillers and we made arrangements for her to come to the vet’s office this morning for x-rays, a tooth cleaning and potential extraction, all under general anesthesia. 

Bonus!  February is Pet Dental Health Month, so Belle got a $50 discount on the procedure!  Wooo!

I was concerned, though.  She’s getting up there in years, and general anesthesia is hard for anybody, much less a senior citizen. No other options, though–she is NOT going to sit quietly while Dr. Kara scrapes, cuts, pulls abscessed teeth and then stitches her back up. And we can’t let her suffer with a rotten tooth periodically abscessing again and again. I think watching her (or any of our furkids) suffer is the worst part: She’s miserable and there’s nothing I can do for her except give her the pain pills and try to fix her food so she can eat it.

No worries, though–she’s out of the operating room already and has awakened from the anesthesia.  The extractions went well, and she’ll have to be eating soft food for a few days to protect her stitches.  I’ll go pick her up at 4 p.m., and I’ve got chicken breasts thawing to be chopped and boiled for her dinner.  She’ll like THAT.

It’s important to know, however, that many canine dental problems, especially those like Belle’s, can be avoided. Use caution in giving your dog chew toys–make sure that whatever they’re chewing on isn’t so hard that they’ll crack their teeth on it.  Yes, this can really happen, especially if your dog is an aggressive chewer!

Also, get your dog used to having you handle his or her mouth and brush their teeth.  This can prevent plaque buildup which can cause a bacterial infection of the heart, along with rotting their teeth. Take care of your dog’s teeth and ensure their overall well-being!

Cheesed off

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010 by kara

I’m becoming quite a fan of measuring by weight rather than by volume.  It seems so much more accurate to say “8 ounces of shortening” as opposed to cramming an amount of shortening that you HOPE is sufficient and lacking any sizable air bubbles into a one-cup measuring cup.

And now that I’m buying butter in one-pound bricks from Sam’s Club instead of quartered, paper-wrapped pounds from the grocery store, I’ve had to get good at doing the math in my head to convert volume measurements to weight.  Instead of just slicing off “one tablespoon” from the quarter-pound stick, it’s necessary to run through all the math and weight equivalents in order to calculate that one tablespoon of butter weighs a half-ounce.  And one half-ounce of butter will always be exactly that, doesn’t matter what form it’s in, a half-ounce of butter will always weigh a half ounce. But if I’m slicing a tablespoon off the stick, and the quarter-pound stick wasn’t wrapped absolutely straight at the factory, I may end up with more or less butter by depending on those little lines printed on the paper.

But oi vey, the MATH.  It hurts me sometimes.

As a result I’ve gotten pretty good at guesstimating the volume of food to equal the desired weight.  Doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s a solid like butter or shortening, or a grainy powder like sugar or flour, I can get pretty close just by eyeing it up! Cool, no? Or does this count as a “stupid human trick”?

In my younger days I worked as prep cook under an amazing Hungarian woman who could pour an absolutely correct amount of seasoning into her palm straight from the package.  Need a teaspoon of salt? Here it is. A half-teaspoon of cinnamon? There ya go. She might not always wear her teeth to work, but the day she showed me how she could use her palm to measure out tablespoon after accurate tablespoon of parsley, I was her biggest fan. For a long time I worked on being able to do the same, and now after 22 years I might be getting close.

Anyway, I ran to Food City a few days ago to get some beans and cheese for a batch of chili.  Only bought a half-pound of cheese because the price wasn’t that great and I only needed a little bit to grate over the chili.  So I’m studying the cheese, which is labled as an 8-ounce brick.  I’m looking at it, and thinking that it doesn’t look quite like a half-pound of cheese, so I get out my trusty digital scale:

No, it's actually 7 and 8/10 ounces. Not quite a half-pound.

Hmph.  I KNEW it didn’t look like a full half-pound of cheese. Whatever that may look like.

So, what does it matter, you ask?  So I didn’t get a full eight ounces of cheese, even though I paid for it–so WHAT? The problem lies in the fact that if every package of cheese is 1/5 of an ounce short, then the cheese distributor is selling that 1/5 of an ounce twice. We’re being charged for it, but we’re not getting it. The cheese people are shorting the individual consumer so they can make a little more money.

It’s a small bitch, but it’s my bitch, nonetheless. And if everything is inaccurately packed like this cheese, think how much each of us consumers are being cheated.

It’s one thing to watch the size of a candy bar shrink from 3 ounces, to 2.75 ounces, to 2.15 ounces, and remain the same price. It’s a given that food will get more expensive, and either prices must go up or we must get less food for the same price–check out the big tubs of yogurt the next time you’re at the grocery store.  They used to contain 32 ounces of yogurt and now the same-sized tub only holds 24 ounces.  There’s a 3/4 inch gap between the yogurt level and the top of the tub. Mmmm…vanilla yogurt with wheat germ…had to get a bowl as part of my ‘research.’  But I digress.

I didn’t take my digital scale to the grocery store to measure each of the packages of cheese there.  It’s possible that each package of cheese differs slightly, either above or below the listed weight.  Sure, some customers may actually receive 8 1/5 ounces of cheese.  Maybe it was just my day to be on the short end of the stick. But that isn’t ideal, either.  You should get exactly what you pay for, whether it’s eight ounces of cheese or eight ounces of blasting powder, and that package stated that it contained eight ounces of cheese.

Wanna know what 2/10 of an ounce of cheese looks like?  Here ’tis:

Okay, so it's grated. Try to use your imagination and picture it as a chunk.