I had some dreams ... they were klowns in my koffee.

(With apologies to Carly Simon)

This is my journey through job transition from a toxic environment to a better life. Join me for a few thoughts and a few laughs along the way.
What are "klowns in my koffee"? They are the factors large and small that make you less than you are. A "klown" can be a grossly incompetent boss,
a short-sighted policy or a moronic coworker. They won't kill you, at least not immediately, but they abrade the soul
as you scrape past them to get through the day. Sometimes it's best to dump them out of the cup.


Day 279 - New Year's Perspective

Daily Kup (My Life at the End of the Year)
In this contemplative time of year, I would like to pause to think in the quiet of the soul, to ponder the yin and the yang. Unfortunately, two children did not have a nap, the older daughter cannot find a single suitable item of clothing to wear to a wedding, and my husband has found a channel that features explosions and machine gun fire exclusively.

Any still voice in the my soul better have a megaphone.

In truth, I find New Year's Eve depressing. Though I'm not the type, I'd like to try the shiny gown New Year's Eve just once.

No one is wearing a shiny gown here at the moment.

My husband received a Snuggie, one of those fleece sacks with sleeves, for Christmas and he wears it around the house constantly. It is blue with an open back so it's like a medical gown for Smurfs. Mr. T wears a leather belt with it to keep it hiked up enough that he doesn't trip over it. He completes the ensemble with a bathrobe to correct the back closure gap. The combined effect is Obi Wan Kenobi in a retirement facility.

As a break from the gunfire channel, Obi and I are watching a marathon of House episodes.

As this year draws to a close, I think it's important to keep it all in perspective: House is way more screwed up than we are.

Happy New Year!


Day 278 - Porkus Shmorkus

Daily Kup (My Life as a Gainfully Unemployed Person)
We are enjoying a lovely visit with T's family. On our way out of town, the dreaded engine light started blinking again, causing much unclean language and anticipation of visit #3 to Jeff's Auto. On the hunch that it was merely another sensor getting crotchety about a new tank of gas, we motored on until t he blinking stopped. After the last time, I was prepared to push the car all the way to the southern part of the state. It's all downhill according to the map.

In a Porkus State of Mind
Long car rides give me time to think about "stuff." In a couple of months, my little agreement with Porkus is up and I can contact anyone or say any truthful thing I want to. OK, it's not like I've really held back. Or have I?

Either way, it gets dull beating that particularly dead horse, though the Cheryl Boobquist stories always draw many comments from former Porkans. Everyone knows someone like Cheryl. She's Cruella Deville, your ex-wife's mother, or that bat at the DMV who wouldn't let you in five minutes before the posted closing time. She's Dana Carvey's Church Lady and Scott Adams' Catbert, the evil HR director.

Sadly, I think that Porkus is just as ubiquitous. It's more than one little backwater of the civilized business world. I worked for a great company, a Fortune 100 company, that had a little Porkus in its culture. And I've worked for bad companies that had quite a bit of Porkus.

Porkus is a concept that transcends a particularly place and time. It's a state of mind. It's that type of thinking in humans that gives dolphins hope of world domination.

So, if you've never worked at 'THE' Porkus, odds are that you've worked for 'A' Porkus.

Signs That You Are Working for a "Porkus"

— The Marketing Department fabricates awards that the company has won.
— The turnover rate is highest in Human Resources, a department largely staffed by zombies led by a gargoyle.
— The CFO thinks that performance metrics are "a joke" that "most companies don't bother with."
— Education, higher or technical, is viewed with suspicion since management is fully capable of teaching you anything they decide you need to know.
— Conference calls are frequently muted to allow the opportunity to ridicule the customers.
— The technical salespeople wore blue vests at their last jobs.
—Managers are not told their department budgets or the salaries of their employees since it might cause them to try to actually manage something.
— The key strategy for avoiding sexual harassment suits is refusing to hire physically attractive employees.
— No one thinks it's questionable that the production staff all share one social security number.
— The most enduring upper management position is "Toady."

So, if you've ever gotten a review criticizing your writing from a manager who doesn't speak or read in your language, then you may have worked for a Porkus.


Day 277 - Lucky or Smart?

Daily Kup (My Life on the Slopes)
I occasionally post book reviews on Lunch.com. My sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Wilson, would be proud of me, I hope. She bothered to yell at my mother for not letting me go skiing with the other kids, so I guess she liked me. My mother felt that Mrs. Wilson should "mind her own d*mn business" and so I did not learn to ski that year.

Perhaps with a few more book reviews under my belt, I'll belatedly take to the slopes.

There are no new traumas — just old ones with new tires. Your mileage may vary.

Here is my review of Lucky or Smart?: Secrets to an Entrepreneurial Life by Bo Peabody. I've read many business books and this is one of the least egocentric first-person business memoirs I've come across. You can also read it in about an hour.


Are you smart enough to be lucky or lucky enough to be smart? Can you tell the difference?

Bo Peabody, one of the first Internet wunderkinds, was smart ... or lucky ... enough to make and take the money and run before the dot.com bust. In this slim volume, he lets us see behind the curtain into the Oz inhabited by the successful entrepreneur. A media darling in the late 1990's for his photogenic looks, mountain bike and ubiquitous use of the term "dude", Peabody co-founded Tripod, a pioneering social media site later sold to Lycos for $58 million in stock. He watched the stock increase in value tenfold and then sold it at the peak of the bubble. He went on to found or co-found six more companies and nurtured them to success. His current flagship is Village Ventures, a venture capital network.

In this concise manifesto of only 58 pages, Peabody captures the straightforward secrets of his success with lucidity and some self-deprecation. He reveals the truth that it is best to be smart enough to know when you are being lucky. And how to increase the chances that you will be lucky.

His main thesis is "Lucky things happen to entrepreneurs who start fundamentally innovative, morally compelling, and philosophically positive companies." The employees who flock to this type of working environment are the keys to generating a flow of opportunities. Of those many opportunities, the ones that pan out are chalked up to luck.

With tongue-not-so-in-cheek, the world is divided into the B-students (entrepreneurs) and the A-students (managers). Peabody explains clearly how these groups differ and how they absolutely need each other's skills to succeed. It's not all mountain bikes and press conferences -- there are hundred-hour workweeks and the very real chance of making very little money for a very long time.

Some of Peabody's advice is deceptively simple: Don't believe your own press. He illustrates this point persuasively with the stories of those Intranet pioneers who seemingly believed so strongly in their own genius that they crashed with their own companies that never made a dime in profit and never evolved to the next level.

In contrast with many business books that mix a pound of statistics with a dash of fear and a pinch of negativity, Peabody serves up a bright and surprisingly uplifting salad.

Read it once, Read it twice. If you're a B-student, dream up an idea and hire some A-students to manage it. If you are an A-student, find a B-student with a great idea, an open mind, and give him or her a copy of Peabody's book.


Day 275 - Christmas Break

Daily Kup (My Life as a Gainfully Unemployed Person)

Burning Khrome takes a couple of days off before writing 274 more of these. I'll be back on Wednesday.


Day 274 - A Cup of Christmas Cheer

When last we heard from our runaway coffee cup on Day 258 [http://klowns-in-my-koffee.blogspot.com/2010/12/day-258-on-ice.html], he was on a glacier and still going north ... ever north. What could be the strange force that drew him from our home and sent him wandering in the world?

And how could he hitchhike without thumbs?

As you recall from Day 258, he had engaged the services of a guide in British Columbia. Through a combination of hiking, skiing, and scaling sheer ice walls that made the Iditarod look like Howard Johnson's on a Tuesday night, the pair progressed farther and farther north. The guide company was a little fuzzy on details when I got them on the phone and would only say that their guide requested an emergency helicopter pick-up between Igloolik and Baffin Island. There was a lot of static on the line but I thought I heard someone yelling in the background: "You tell that damn cup I'm no bloody Tenzsing Norgay!" Confusing since we seemed to be on the wrong continent for that. No word on the location of the cup.

What could be drawing him north like a magnet?
North? Magnet?

Oh, no. A quick review of an Arctic map confirmed my suspicions.

Yep, he was headed for the Big Guy himself and timed to arrive Zero Hour.

But for what purpose?
Jealousy? Payback for that unfortunate elf situation at the bar? An offer of assistance?
I guess we'll never know.
On Christmas morning, he was by the fireplace with a smug look on his face and a basket of pine boughs for a cap.


Day 273 - The Warmth of Friends


Beginnings and endings,
The warmth of every fire hales from some Spring's green sapling.

To friends and wandering strangers as we travel together:

From seed to kindling to rising ember in the night sky,
We gather around the fire to share warmth and laughter.
Thank you for the spark.


Day 272 - Festivus for the Rest of Us

Daily Kup (My Life as a Wrapper)
There was really no reason for me to wait until after midnight to wrap the Christmas gifts. For the past twenty years, I have not gone to bed on Christmas Eve at a reasonable time and this year was no exception. Just trying to catch a glimpse of Santa, I guess.

I don't remember being a big Santa believer as a child but my mother reminded me of an evening spent in tears when I realized that our home didn't have a fireplace. Apparently, I thought that Santa would do a flyover of our chimney-free domicile. She says that I wrote him a letter explaining that we did not not have fireplace but asking him to leave presents nonetheless. I have no memory of this and, until we got to the letter writing part of the story, I assumed that I must have been a cute three or four when this happened. Unless I exited the womb with pen in hand and fully equipped to write complaint letters -- a possibility that has been entertained -- I must have hung onto this idea for quite a while. I was afraid to ask my mother for more detail in case I was thirteen at the time.

We never really abandon illusions; we simply trade them for other illusions. Here's a holiday that resonates with the jaded:


Day 271 - This Little Light of Mine

Daily Kup (My Life as an Elf)
This morning, Mr. T woke up with half his face immensely swollen. As a giant dental abscess was not on his list for Santa, he hurriedly contacted his dentist. She did the 'I told you so' dance before setting him up with an emergency tooth-yanker who had the distinction of not being on our insurance and then closing her office for the holidays without setting out the X-rays and the required written referral. I'm recommending coal for her stocking.

Dr. Pliers, after being shown three times that he was on the list from the insurance company, decided that maybe he was and then got down to the yanking, spitting and swearing part of the show. Mr. T did not ask for the tooth so he gets squat from the Tooth Fairy. It's probably just as well since all the magical airspace is taken over by the big guy with the reindeer for the next day or so.

T came home still swollen but with two big bottles of pills and an overwhelming need to sit on the couch and let the world move around him.

We did.

Oh, Holy Light
I capped my holiday shopping and was dragging home my bags of this and that for this one and that one. It was not snowing. That was a rare few minutes, so I'll repeat myself. It was not snowing.

The tires felt sure and solid on the road and I didn't even need to be in four wheel drive. For all the upheaval involved with the dental emergency, that had at least been resolved successfully. I had a happy thought: For the one of the first times in four years, I wasn't going to have to worry about the car on the upcoming holiday roadtrip. I'd paid a king's ransom after the Thanksgiving breakdown -- the car's, not mine -- to fix everything identified as requiring repair or replacement. It seemed odd that the Check Engine light, my orange companion for months and months, was now dark and silent.

I glanced down at the indicator bank to bask in the blackness that was the absence of fear.

And then the engine light came on.

My 12 Days of Christmas


Day 270 - Manger Wrangling

Daily Kup (My Life as a Gainfully Unemployed Person)
I have a creche with a bonus. It has the requisite number of kings (i.e., three), one shepherd, no little drummer boys, but two Holy Families. I would have liked a cow or another sheep beyond the one that's draped over the shepherd. A burro would have been nice.

But, instead, I have a double dip of Joseph, Mary and the baby.

They aren't identical and I vacillate over which Family to display. One family is a little heftier in a Campbell Kids sort of way but not so big that they look like a threat to the Kings. The thinner couple seem a bit gaunt and eye the sheep a bit closely.

Choices, choices.
Meet Holy Family A. Mary is an unlikely blonde and seems to be doing the Macarena. Joseph is clutching his chest and looks like he has heartburn. That's really a lantern in his left hand but he's holding it like a bottle of Scotch. Maybe that's how he got the burning sensation in his chest.

The baby has red hair and blue eyes. Well, He doesn't have blue pupils, He has black pupils and the sclera that should be white is painted blue.

Maybe this set was destined for Arrakis, the planet known as Dune. Thank you, Frank Herbert.

And then there's Holy Family B. They've definitely got that ta-Dah thing going. This Mary, like the other one, has managed to get her figure back in a matter of hours. I can imagine Jillian yelling at her to do more crunches.

Joseph looks a little too fey to me. Perhaps it's because his eyebrows are way too high, giving him the look of a drag queen on a day off.

The baby is nice in this set in that He doesn't have science fiction eyes.

In fact, He has a taunt physique for such a young child with little six pack abs and everything. Again, Jillian. Bob would have given Him the night off for making good choices.

Since Mary and Joseph are basically supporting actors, let's examine the leading man in more detail. Here are the babies side by side.

Skinny baby is so cool that He's about to give a thumb's up. It's like He's telling a joke to which the punchline is, "This guy!"

Hefty baby already has a halo, which must be a timesaver.

Please help me decide. Should I choose Holy Family A (The Dune Family) or Holy Family B (Performing on Glee with Fonzie)?


Day 269 - The Solstice with the Mostest

Daily Kup (My Life on the Shortest Day of the Year)
On the solstice, literally when the "sun stands still," we stand on the cusp. From now until June - which seems like forever - the amount of sunlight each day will get longer by teaspoonfuls until we bask in the gentle breezes and full bloom of summer.

We didn't waste the shortest day. My little band of destructors, freed from school for two weeks, cooperated in the ritual cleaning of the house. While not exactly up to "Martha" standards even though I've been working on it for weeks, many of the rooms now again look like they did when the social worker visited in the pre-adoption days. The kids were enticed to behave with this promise: If we get the cleaning done, we'll have time to decorate the Christmas tree tonight.

My family had been expressing doubts that the tree would ever appear. Attila the Son thought that the absence of a lighted tree in the front window would be a confusing sign for Santa Claus. who might fly right on by, thinking that we'd had our fill at Hanukkah.

Aided by a large barbecue platter from Famous Dave's and the Time-Life Treasury of Christmas Carols (operators are standing by), we set up the tree. Kollege Kid took the lead and did a wonderful job with the lights and selecting the theme. Since we have enough decorations for three trees, some editing is necessary and prudent to avoid having a tree that topples. Some years, we aim for a color palette or a particular genre; for example, shiny, silver, homespun, toys, Santas, etc. One year, we assembled "simple and classy" with white lights, gold and silver glass balls, and a few metallic ornaments for interest. At the other end of the dial, is "tacky but fun" with every cartoon ornament and kindergarten objet d'art lying in the bottom of the ornament box.

This year, we just let the kids hang any ornament that they thought was fun. The Starship Enterprise hovers next to a pickle with antlers. A delicate gold filigree house shares the neighborhood with Garfield and a bear using a computer. And it looks just great.

Eat your heart out, Martha.

Easy Christmas Ornament
On the years that we have the matchy-matchy trees, these simple and colorful ornaments are cheap, fun to make, and can be made to fit any color theme.

Buy a box of clear glass balls. Carefully remove the metal or plastic hanger piece that caps the opening to the cavity. Add a few drops of craft paint of your chosen color to the interior. Tip or swirl around to achieve different effects.

Adding another color while the first color is wet can produce an interesting mottled effect as seen in this black and white ball. For a color blocked pattern, allow one color to pool and dry in one area, then add a new color to the section that is still clear.

Allow to dry and replace the cap. Hang on your tree and congratulate yourself for your creativity and frugality.


Day 268 - Ding, Dong, the Mouse is Dead

Daily Kup (My Life Peering Nervously Out the Patio Door)
Remember the mouse? The one that was prominently featured on Day 221 (http://klowns-in-my-koffee.blogspot.com/2010/11/day-221-mouse-on-house-house-on-mouse.html )when it decided to stroll by when I was taking a bath? Live and let live, as long as you live outside.

I went to the grocery store and stood transfixed over all the alternatives. Did I want to break his back immediately while risking anyone else who put their fingers, paws or noses in the way? Did I want to poison his internal organs while trying to keep the cats from doing the same to theirs? Did I want to stick him in a little tube so that I could later dispose of a sticky, squealing mouse?

After way too much thought, I selected the combined effects munition of mouse traps. It's a little plastic tunnel with glue on the bottom. Once Mickey is stuck to the floor of the tunnel, it snaps shuts with a little guillotine-like blade in an uncomfortable position. Anatomy of a bad day.

I put two of these plastic traps o'death in the kitchen and waited. And waited.

On evening I heard some running around in the kitchen and, upon investigation, found both cats huddling in fear high on top of the cupboards and both traps cheerfully empty. Plan A and Plan B were both no-starters.

I clung to the illusion that the mouse had shown up and then had simply vanished to some undisclosed location never to be seen again., sort of like Dick Cheney in the last three years of the Bush administration.

With mice out of mind, life went on. Then, midmorning, I was copied on the following text to my daughter:

Realizing the new playtoy Squeakers has is a four-legged live rodent, worth a gasp and slight panic, the removal of said plaything with the use of Tupperware, paper and an open door, worth a sigh of relief and a forehead wipe. The knowledge your mother won't see her favorite bathroom buddy again: Priceless.
It seems that my husband had wandered out in the morning to find the cat playing with its toy. After a few minutes in his 5:45 AM stupor, he realized that this toy was showing a bit more gumption than the standard stuffed one as it was occasionally trying to stagger away. He scooped it up in a plastic tub and threw it outside from the patio door.

Cat slap. Scooped up. Launched. Long fall. Frozen ground.

Sounds like the plot for the next episode of the Real Housewives of New Jersey.


Day 267 - Kazakhstan Part 28

Every Sunday, this blog will describe our life-changing trip to Kazakhstan in 2005 to adopt our two youngest children. While some of our friends and family have seen a few of the pictures, we've never put it all together in an organized format. One of the reasons is that I hesitate to subject others to a 21st century version of the endless slideshow of vacation photos harking to some relative's visit and a lost evening of my childhood. Still, the story must be told before details are lost since this is my children's unique birthright. When we get to the end of the story, I'll edit the posts together into an extended and separate blog page and then have it printed by one of the blog-to-book(let) services for my kids. For people with less interest, these posts will be easy to identify and avoid. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Monday morning was here and we were ready to start our first full week of visitations. We were to meet our driver and interpreter each morning at about 9:30 and visit with Nurlan from 10 to noon. In the afternoon, we would be taken to see Anastasiya at 4. In between the two visitations, we would be taken back to the apartment with occasional sidetrips for shopping for necessities.

Terry had largely recovered from the weekend's bout of whatever was ailing him, though he was still a little woozy. Here he sits in the living room to gear up for the morning visitation. These metal-trimmed chairs were quite common there. They were actually very comfortable although they look like fuzzy wheelchairs.

We arrived at the preschool right on time. After the pageantry of the first day or two had subsided, most people in the childrens' homes seemed to ignore us and we rarely saw any of the administrative people. Inna brought us in through the back door past the kitchen and laundry and up a stairway to our visiting room. She spoke to one of the caregivers, who disappeared and returned shortly with Nurlan.

We were better prepared with snacks this time. I had a whole box of something like animal crackers. I didn't recognize most of the animals but they looked like animal crackers as designed by Dr. Seuss and they seemed to smell and taste attractively. We also had blocks and some coloring books. We envisioned a much more peaceful visit. Yes, we were optimistic chumps.

The visiting room at the preschool was huge, particularly compared to the closet at the baby house, and very impressively furnished at first glance. By the end of our trip, I would have spent enough time in that room to know every place where the molding didn't meet or the wallpaper pattern didn't match. But this is what we saw in the beginning. Every wall held some colorful and delicate Kazakh artifact.

This table held a collection of dolls, puppets, silver, and musical instruments. The necked instrument on the left is a dombra, a traditional Kazakh fretted instrument that is played by plucking. It felt and sounded a lot like an Appalachian dulcimer.

All of these objects were lovely, stacked precisely on the rickety table, attractive to small children, and extremely breakable.

Immediately to the right of the table was a marionette theater with richly detailed background and many handmade marionettes hanging on the front. They were marvelously detailed with feathers and intricate little costumes. When Nurlan managed to rip one of them off that had been pinned to the backdrop, I could never get it back on correctly. Eventually, I sat it in the little plastic chair and it remained there, staring at me accusingly, for the rest of our visits.

Finally, we have the even more rickety little table with the tiny tea service. Nurlan could not take his eyes off this. He would regularly start to run toward it with outstretched hands. Tea cups on their way to the mock parquet floor were routinely saved from their fates by the cushioning of a parental body diving beneath them.


Day 266 - Time to Shovel the Front Yard

Daily Kup (My Life in Yet Another Snowstorm)
He's making a list and checking it twice. And he's perplexed about the lack of concrete activity in light of all this planning.

My family is starting to be concerned about the utter lack of a Christmas tree in our house. When you have two small(er) children and two cats that remain remarkably youthful when it comes to destructive ability, the tendency is to install the tree - with everything that can be broken, swallowed or made to spark -a little close to opening night. This is a wonderful rationale and I'm buying it completely, except for the fact that then we leave it up until it becomes an embarrassment.

OK, I admit it. I don't want to put the tree up until the house is reasonably clean. Just once, I'd like to unbox the Christmas decorations and deploy them throughout the house without having to blow the dust off anything. It's a small dream, a tiny dream, but it's my dream ... so help me, Martha Stewart.

Yeah, Snow ... Not Even Worth a Headline Anymore


Day 265 - Blues in the Afternoon

Daily Kup (My Life as a Gainfully Unemployed Person)
We drove to school with our box of wrapped cocoa-filled coffee mugs. Princess Potatohead was wearing pajamas in celebration of "Pajama Day" - the last day before vacation where they watch a movie while eating popcorn. This seems to be a relatively recent development in education. About fifteen years ago, preschools started the practice. Since then, it has age-progressed to elementary and middle schools. In another ten years, I expect to see college classes attended in footed flannel.

The Princess was wearing a hand-me-down red onesie that has a football helmet embroidered on the left front. Anticipating the inevitable uproar about the appearance of "boy stuff" in the tiara universe, I pinned a small Christmas stocking over the helmet. She declared it appropriate and fashion forward for the occasion when worn with Fancy Nancy slippers.

Winter in White and Blue
In the summer, being home was not so isolating. During the periods that the kids were not in school, I wished at times for more isolation.

Winter is different. I was itching to go somewhere with people. The library wasn't going to cut it. I suppose that I could have lugged my laptop to some coffee shop to sit near the propane fireplace. "Retail therapy" is not an option, both on the basis of frugality and also Mr. T's statement, "We don't need any more junk here."

So the natural choice was ribs.

The other members of my family do not favor meat on bones. Their various "eoows" and "yucks" erode the kick of even the best barbecue sauce. I can live with boneless wings if forced, but the term itself jousts at logic. Any barbecued meat item meant for gumming loses in the translation.

I sat by the propane fireplace and drank my coffee ... with a combo plate of ribs and wings with a corn muffin and drunken apples. You deserve to be famous, Dave!

Lingering with my (paper) notebook, I jotted and listened to the blues.

And, when I was ready to go, the only blues were on the sound system.

Premature New Year's Resolution
When I'm taking a bath, I'll consider not locking the bathroom door and then telling the kids that "the door must be stuck."


Day 264 - Teachers' Gifts on A Budget

Daily Kup (My Life in Dreams)
I had a strange dream last night. I often dream of a house where we lived when I was a child. It was an old farmhouse, a portion of which had been built before the Civil War. It creaked and groaned and was an uncomfortable place to be alone. I would often have the disquieting feeling of being watched when no other living person was there.

Later, as an adult and more than 1000 miles away, I would dream of the house dragging me against my will up the stairway or down to a dark corner of the basement. In the dreams, I never find out what lies in wait for me because I wake quaking before reaching the end.

My family sold the property to a man who boarded it up and let it stay vacant for twenty years. During that time, it was vandalized repeatedly. I drove by on a visit to see the front door broken in and gaping like a black mouth. I stayed in the car.

My family, still feeling a sense of ownership for the property that was no longer theirs, would occasionally slip into the house to retrieve a vintage light fixture or other item from the increasingly stripped and damaged residence on the theory that the whole place likely would be torched shortly anyway. My brother said that the interior walls had Satanic graffiti. I went there myself once through the overgrowth with a shovel to dig up the rose bush that my father had given my mother for their first anniversary. The city eventually bulldozed the whole thing into the cellar when the floors started to collapse.

But, in my dreams, it's always there.

I've been working on lucid dreaming, the type of dream where you realize that you are having a dream at the time. These dreams are frankly a whole lot of fun, though I've probably wasted the potential in sophomoric dream-time pursuits like telling off obnoxious people or flying by flapping my arms. The whole key seems to be to try to do the opposite of what you usually do in the dream until you establish control. Fear is the last to come under control.

In last night's dream, I bound through the front door of the house and up the stairway. It's dark because the windows are boarded but somehow I'm still able to see. Horrible, guttural screams emanate from the bedrooms. I yell, "What's going on up there?" I stride toward the room where most of the noise is coming from and fling open the door. There is a young man lying on the bed and he is very ill. Somehow, I'm not surprised by this and set about evaluating his condition and getting him blankets and water. More unearthly sounds come from the room that was my grandmother's bedroom and later my room. Again, I walk directly there and demand to know what is happening. Two very pregnant young women are in labor. I knock the plywood off the windows to let in the light and start to get supplies to help them delivery their babies just like I know what I am doing.

When I woke up, I had a sense of "Well, that takes care of that." And I think it just might.

A-Plus for Frugal but Friendly
We don't have a lot of extra resources for gifts for each of the kids' teachers. Attila the Son, in particular, has a small and dedicated army of intervention people who see him for an hour or so a week each. A gift card for each one of them would be the fiscal equivalent of getting a root canal, but without the novocaine.

Teachers get a lot of kitschy "teacher stuff" -- which must be fun when you start your career and tedious when you look out over apple tokens of every size fifteen years later. Right up front, I'll acknowledge that people get and give too many coffee cups, seasonal guest towels, and stuffed animals wearing message T-shirts.

And I'm going to contribute to that since it's hard to get frugal vessels to contain good wishes for a bunch of people whom you barely know.

Ah, the ubiquitous coffee cup. Can be useful. Can be clutter. Wonderful and actually beautiful coffee cups show up brand new with their $6 original price tags intact at thrift stores for 50 cents. This fact alone points to the clutter conclusion but I'm not going to dwell on logic.

In a splurge of handmade optimism, I've been rounding up unique (to me, at least) coffee mugs for the past several months. With my little battalion of individually selected mugs looking all shiny and new, we whipped up a batch of rich and chocolaty cocoa mix.

Rich Instant Cocoa with Marshmallows and Chocolate Chips

3 cups instant nonfat dry milk powder
2-1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
1 cup powdered nondairy creamer
1 cup (or more!) mini marshmallows
1/2 cup (or more!) mini semisweet chocolate chips

Mix the dry milk, confectioners' sugar, cocoa powder and nondairy creamer in a large bowl. Scoop 1 cup each into 6 plastic bags and top with marshmallows and chocolate chips.

Seal bags and attach directions: Blend 1/3 cup cocoa mix and 3/4 cup boiling water together until chocolate chips begin to melt.

Some people make 1/3 cup (one serving) bags but this didn't seem nearly enough. With the air pressed out, sandwich bags of cocoa mix roll nicely and fit into the coffee cup. Cover with colored plastic wrap and a nice tag for a yummy and considerate gift.

The total cost is about $1.04 per gift, including children eating additional marshmallows and chocolate chips.

And when the cups are donating back to the thrift store, you can buy them for 50 cents and start all over again.

Premature New Year's Resolution
FedEx and UPS trucks drive up and down my cul-de-sac at least four times a day. In the future, I resolve not to sing "The Wells Fargo Wagon" from "The Music Man" while waiting to see if it stops in front of my house.


Day 263 - California Dreaming with Cookies

Daily Kup (My Life in Flight)
Kollege Kid, now 21, flew off to San Diego this afternoon for a short vacation with a friend. My little Weather Channel icon in the system tray keeps flashing red to warn of a cold weather alert. They might as well make it blink permanently from November to March. On the other hand, we aren't going to fall into the ocean.

No Fear of Flying
I love flying into and out of LAX. I made the trip several times to visit the California plant when Porkus management still cared about the quality of the products. Ah, good times. Flying in at night was breathtaking and I never grew tired of suddenly breaching the mountains and seeing the California coast spread out like an amber, lighted table extending in all directions.

When you fly out in daylight, the plane rises rapidly and heads straight out over the ocean. Below are sailboats and cargo ships and even whitecaps on a choppy day. The plane banks sharply and doubles back to the coast, climbing madly. The downtown skyscrapers are on one side and a mesh of highways form arteries feeding suburbs that merge seamlessly with no break. Suddenly you are up and over the purple mountains and it's all gone.

This video, while taken from a small plane and therefore closer to the ground than the view from a jetliner, captures the motion of flight and the fascinating precision of the prettiest urban sprawl in America.

No Bake Cookies
As a fitting successor to yesterday's bleary-eyed, but festive, salute to cookie baking, here is a recipe from my mother's recipe file. She made this file for me about a thousand years ago when I first married. The cards have yellowed and some of the recipes defy that current craze for health, but it's hard to beat the basics when handwritten with love.
No Bake Cookies

2 cups sugar
1/3 cup shortening
1/4 cup dry milk
1/2 cup water
3 cups rolled oats or wheat
1/4 cup cocoa
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/2 tsp vanilla

Mix together in a saucepan the sugar, shortening, dry milk and water. Heat until mixture boils, then remove from heat. Add the rolled oats or wheat, cocoa, peanut butter and vanilla. Mix thoroughly. Drop by teaspoonfuls on waxed paper. Allow to cool. Store in a clean, dry, covered container.
Versions of this recipe on allrecipes.com ( http://allrecipes.com//Recipe/no-bake-cookies-i/Detail.aspx) and Foodnetwork.com ( http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/cooking-live/chocolate-peanut-butter-no-bake-cookies-recipe/index.html ) substitute 1/2 cup butter for the shortening and 1/2 cup milk for the dry milk and water. Other variations include the addition of coconut or M&M's. It's hard to go wrong with anything that you throw in so it's a wonderful recipe for getting rid of small amounts of leftover dry cereal, raisins, or pretzels.

This is also the rare recipe where children can safely lick the uncooked mixture from the bowl or spoons since there are no raw eggs used.



Day 262 - Christmas Cookies and Interventions

Daily Kup (My Life wondering who exactly needs Special Ed)
Our neighboring school district was closed again but we bundled against the freezing temperatures and made the journey to school. The kids enjoyed being driven for a change since I had an 8 AM appointment with the "Child Study Team" to agree on a recommendation to evaluate my son for Special Education. Heavy stuff. I tried to curb my verbosity but we still exceeded the allotted half hour. Attendees were a classroom teacher, an ELL teacher, a speech pathologist, a special ed teacher, a social worker, the nurse, the principal, a phy ed teacher, and a hyphenated psychologist. And a partridge in a pear tree. The psychologist/team leader was proficient but always spoke to me as though ... I ... was... very.. slow .. in that voice that Marilyn Monroe used to sing "Happy Birthday" to John Kennedy. I half expected to hear, "Do ... you ... have ... any ... further ... questions, ... Mr. President?"

Most classroom teachers whom I have encountered are creative, caring, and competent. I have less faith as one goes further into administration. I like and appreciate our school's current principal but she seems to be the exception rather than the rule. The Peter Principle, which states that employees are promoted to and stay at the level at which their incompetence prevents them from further promotion, takes to the public school system like gas station rest room samples to a petri dish. One positive to the schizophrenic and fickle finger of fate approach to staff reduction used by Porkus is that turnover and renewal occurs quite organically, unless you are a relative or fellow cult member.

I have mixed feelings about progressing to Special Ed interventions. Attila the Son is quite bright and is capable when he wishes to be. And I don't have the cultural context to know what the appropriate measured response should be when kids come up to you, call you a racist name, and spit on you. On the other side of the coin, when a kid writes and spells a word out loud fifty to one hundred times, he ought to know the word the next day. Particularly when we've been doing this for three years.

I agreed to let them test him fifty ways to sundown and, if we don't like the direction that it's going, I guess we'll revoke the permission to go further. I know this is my right because I read it in the outdated rights statement that they gave me that included only the odd-numbered pages.

Special Recipe
A natural follow-up to mentions of the volatile Attila the Son, administrative meetings with a cast of thousands, and the pile of steaming contradictions that is Porkus is a wonderful email that I received from a Porkus Pal. There really were some wonderful people there and I cherish about 50% of those that I worked with. (The balance would look good under my bumper, but I digress.)

I'm not much of a drinker and my cup of tea is actually ... tea, so this is very much tongue-in-cheek. On the other hand, if you work at Porkus long enough, this type of intervention is an idea that starts to spark.

Like any content that is not homegrown, I researched to make sure that there were no copyright issues and actually found this recipe posted on food.com with the 'real' recipes. It got 5 stars (that look like 10 stars if you've attempted the recipe.) Thank you for the laugh to a Porkus Pal whom I'll simply call "Jack Daniels."

Jose Cuervo Christmas Cookies

1 cup of water
1 tsp baking soda
1 cup of sugar
1 tsp salt
1 cup or brown sugar
4 large eggs
1 cup nuts
2 cups of dried fruit
1 bottle Jose Cuervo Tequila

Sample the Cuervo to check quality first.

Take a large bowl, check the Cuervo again to be sure it is of the highest quality, pour one level cup and drink. Turn on the electric mixer. Beat one cup of butter until large in a fluffy bowl. Add one peastoon of sugar. Beat again.

At this point it's best to make sure the Cuervo is still ok, so try another cup just in case. Turn off the mixerer thingy. Break 2 leggs and add to the bowl and chuck in the cup of dried fruit. Pick the dried fruit off the floor.

Mix on the turner. If the fried druit gets stuck in the beaters just pry it loose with a drewscriver. Sample the Cuervo to check for tonsisticity. Next, sift two cups of salt, or something. Greash a sookie cheet and check the Jose Cuervo.

Now shift the brown nuts and stirrup the sugar.

Add one table. Add a spoon of sugar, or somefink. Whatever you can find. Greash
the oven. Turn the cake 360 degrees and try not to fall over. Don't forget to burn off the oven turner. Finally, throw the bowl through the window, finish the Cose Juervo and make sure to put the stove in the wishdasher.

Cherry Mistmas!

Stirring the Pot
Tomorrow, a real and really easy cookie recipe from My Mom's Recipe Cards.


Day 261 - Cold-Hearted

Daily Kup (My Life at Absolute Zero)
The wind chill coasted in the balmy range between twenty and thirty below zero. The children were bundled, wrapped, and then sent to waddle to the bus stop. Minneapolis closed their schools today to gain time to thaw and dig out.

As an engineer, I know that 'cold' exists only in the context of the absence of heat. Heat is the actor and cold merely the empty stage. Thermodynamics be darned. In this universe, cold is a rapid wolf splintering the bones and gnawing at the soul. It pries at the windows with skeleton fingers. It rises from the floorboards. It lies in wait by frigid mailboxes and lonely alleys.

Speaking of a Few Flakes
The tingling of my spider senses tells me that Porkus, my deeply troubled and ethically challenged former employer, is laying off employees again. It's hard to believe that there is anyone left to let go. Trouble making that Christmas payment on the Lexus, Andy? Don't be surprised if you find three ghosts waiting for you on Christmas Eve.

And a Few More Flakes
Snow drifts. Why should you? Go to Snowdays (http://snowdays.popularfront.com/) to make your own snowflakes and set them free. Mine is #10029446.


Day 260 - Kazakhstan Part 27

Every Sunday, this blog will describe our life-changing trip to Kazakhstan in 2005 to adopt our two youngest children. While some of our friends and family have seen a few of the pictures, we've never put it all together in an organized format. One of the reasons is that I hesitate to subject others to a 21st century version of the endless slideshow of vacation photos harking to some relative's visit and a lost evening of my childhood. Still, the story must be told before details are lost since this is my children's unique birthright. When we get to the end of the story, I'll edit the posts together into an extended and separate blog page and then have it printed by one of the blog-to-book(let) services for my kids. For people with less interest, these posts will be easy to identify and avoid. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Terry spent the rest of the day recuperating. For a devout TV watcher, the absence of English language television may have been worse than gastric distress. There was a TV in the parlor-like living room and one in the bedroom. Neither brought in many channels. Of the available, fuzzy stations, none of them were in English. As far as I can tell, the official Kazakh station was in Kazakh and some Russian, the ones from the other side of the border were Russian, and then there was something unidentified from Belarus.

The Russian stations had many variety and musical shows. The music was largely western but had a sense of being a click or two away from current. The male performers often dressed somewhat like the Czech brothers from that old Saturday Night Live skits. A lot of tight polyester. Really. With bright colors and disco ball backdrops, there was the sense of being transported to the 1970's.

One constant was the presence of music by Madonna. Apparently, this transcends all borders. And Elvis. They like Elvis.

With a squeal of recognition, we tuned in to what would become one of our two favorite Russian language shows. A sassy young woman down on her luck is hired by a stuffy entertainment industry producer to care for his three children. There's a funny and sniping butler and a jealous business associate. Yes, it's "the nanny who's known as Fran" -- only without Fran.

In Russian, the show is called "My Fair Nanny" and the plot lines roughly follow the American version with a certain Russian twist. The Fran character is now Victoria and has become Ukrainian instead of Jewish. If she has any annoying accent, I couldn't really tell. The Russian butler is small, dark and sneaky but more animated than the haughty and pretentious Niles. The producer lives in a smallish apartment in Moscow meant to represent opulence, reflecting that even the wealthy in Russian live modestly by American standards. The Russian kids are, well, kids, and interchangeable with their American counterparts.

Since this isn't King Lear, it was an easy show to follow with no knowledge of the language. In every episode, the Nanny gets caught in a trap of her own making while trying to hide something from her boss, gets caught with or without the butler's help, faces repercussions when the boss find out, but it all works out with her still managing to put something over on him at the end of the episode.

The format is mindlessly entertaining in any language and particularly sparkling when the alternative is endless panel discussions with stubby men in uniform and no explanatory pictures or text.

Terry began to feel a little better. We were very mindful of the mantra of not delaying the visitation schedule for fear of throwing everything out of whack. Could he look well enough by tomorrow to be able to get past the watchful eyes of the childrens' home people? With the great life lessons learned from "The Nanny," it seemed like a bit of subterfuge was a reasonable plan. If only we had a butler to help ...


Day 259 - Christmas Can-Can

Daily Kup (My Life in the Cold, Cold North)
When they pulled the snowplows off the road, Mr. T. thought that we probably could still make it out with four wheel drive to complete our planned Christmas shopping. When they shut off pizza delivery, then he realized that this could be serious.

They never plowed our road and the mail never came. I ploughed my driveway with the bottom of my truck later and made it to Target in the early evening to do the lion's share of my shopping. It was so quiet that having two customers at the checkout caused the manager to joke, "It's a rush!"

You're never really a Minnesotan until you have strolled through Target during a snowstorm wearing a full snowmobile suit and carrying a Coach purse.

Yes, We Can-Can
Here's some holiday cheer forwarded by Sherry. Thanks!

The group is Straight No Chaser, a male a capella chorus from Indiana University. Just for fun, here is their twisted take on the 12 Days of Christmas, complete whith a surprise or two.


Day 258 - On ice

Daily Kup (My Life as a Gainfully Unemployed Person)
In Minnesota during the winter, we are eternally in one of three possible states: awaiting the arrival of a forecasted snowstorm, digging out from said storm, or in that sweet spot in the middle when it's storming but not yet the most efficient time to start shoveling. Right now, we are waiting for the storm that is supposed to arrive "after midnight" and last until the next midnight.

As part of the frugality project, I've been cooking almost exclusively with food from the pantry and preserved food from the garden. I can tell that this has met with less and less enthusiasm from my family based on the number of trips they make to stand in front of the open refrigerator door and peer, then walk sadly away.

In light of the brewing culinary revolt and the anticipated snowstorm, I went to the grocery store with several hundred of my neighbors to block the checkout lanes. I tool Attila the Son since he has a part of a Cub Scout achievement that requires reading competing grocery store ads and performing the actual grocery shopping with whatever adult can be conned into taking him. I taught him unit pricing. He taught me that grocery stores have poorly-made, overpriced toys hidden on every aisle and that he has great resilience in his ability to say, "Can I have this?" repeatedly without seeming to take a breath.

Ice, Ice Maybe
It's been quite a while now since the cup has been on his own. And I miss him. I truly do. When his credit card statement showed up in the mail, I did a terrible thing. I opened it.

The last I knew, he was headed, "North." It looks like he's engaged a guide in British Columbia. I called them and they emailed this picture. I just don't get it. I never was a fan of iced coffee.


Day 257 - From Thanksgiving to Christmas

Daily Kup (My Life on Track to Christmas)
I came, I saw, I planned.  Yes, Christmas is progressing nicely.  I'm looking forward to visiting the Women's Art Festival on Saturday to pick up a few unique and special items to complete my shopping.  In particular, it will be wonderful to see textile wizard Baroness Color and her latest designs in person.  Check out the Festival at the Midtown YWCA on East Lake Street from 10 to 5.

The Venn Flowchart
While reading random magazines during a haircut, I saw a humorous article that featured a 'Venn flowchart."  Venn diagrams and flowcharts are two graphical planning tools that really don't work together but I was sold when I saw that the author had plotted two sets called "Extremists" and "Zombies" and created the natural intersection of "Michelle Bachmann."

So here is a Venn flowchart of the progression from Thanksgiving to Christmas.


Day 256 - All That Jazz

Daily Kup (My Life on a Very Cold Day)
I battled with HTML all day to get a nav bar for static pages across the top of the home page. In a victory of form over function, you'll notice a bar with tabs that don't work. As Charlie Brown would say, "Good Grief!"


Day 255 - Diet Quiz

Daily Kup (My Life on the Treadmill)

The Christmas Spirit was late in coming this year. But, belatedly, it arrived with a thud like a fat guy down a chimney. I'm a sucker for "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

Slim Chance
My husband has been dieting and going to the gym every day. He's dropped about 25 pounds and has been taunting me to join him in his quest for improved health and smaller pants.

He may be right. Take this simple test to determine if you, too, need to consider a little physical improvement:

  • * Waiters smirk when you order a Diet Coke.
  • * When you tie your shoelaces, your bows are not centered on the front of the shoe.
  • * You are concerned that someone will question the weight on your drivers license.
  • * You swivel the showerhead from the center position in order to avoid showering only your right shoulder.
  • * You wouldn't consider getting a tattoo -- not for aesthetic or health reasons -- but because you can't predict what skin inflation or deflation would do to the picture.
  • * You've given up shaving parts that you can't see very well.
  • * If you were a cat, your whiskers would touch both sides of the door frame at once.
  • * You are concerned that small Asian children want to rub your belly for luck.
  • * You want your weight to be less than your IQ and getting smarter seems to be the easier route.
  • * You go to the doctors' and are disappointed when she's so slim.
  • * Santa looks frightened when you want to pose sitting on his lap.


Day 254 - Monday, Monday, Monday

Daily Kup (My Life falling through the grid)
Monday is a pivotal day. Back in the Porkus days, Sunday afternoons deteriorated into malaise and depression that became a migraine-inducing panic by Sunday evening. It's no wonder that the majority of heart attacks occur on Monday morning. At least one guy on a gurney is thinking, "Well, at least I don't have to go to work right now."

I tend to blame a lot of insights on age but I know younger people who see the problem without the benefit of ever seeing a Burma Shave sign. Who wants to wish away their lives on Monday through Friday so that they can do something they actually like on the weekends ... if they aren't too exhausted to do so? Lather, rinse, repeat, die.

For the moment, neither Sunday nights nor Monday mornings are now cause for depression. In reality, Monday mornings are refreshing since I plan the week's goals and schedule. Such a small step to define the value of one's time and so rewarding.

This reminds me of a quote from the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle where Hal, the father, is describing his job:
Hal: You know those nature shows where a wasp paralyzes a caterpillar, then
injects it full of larvae? It stays alive for weeks, completely aware, feeling
every little bite as the larvae devour it from the inside. I sat in a cubicle
every day envying that caterpillar, 'cause at least he got to be on TV.

Narrow Demographic?
It's so Monday. Here's a tribute to that infamous day of the week from my favorite Canadian twin teenage lesbian indie folk rock duo, Tegan & Sara.


Day 253 - Kazakhstan Part 26

Every Sunday, this blog will describe our life-changing trip to Kazakhstan in 2005 to adopt our two youngest children. While some of our friends and family have seen a few of the pictures, we've never put it all together in an organized format. One of the reasons is that I hesitate to subject others to a 21st century version of the endless slideshow of vacation photos harking to some relative's visit and a lost evening of my childhood. Still, the story must be told before details are lost since this is my children's unique birthright. When we get to the end of the story, I'll edit the posts together into an extended and separate blog page and then have it printed by one of the blog-to-book(let) services for my kids. For people with less interest, these posts will be easy to identify and avoid. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

The icy fingers of the November wind made me pull the hood of my jacket over my ears. With hands in pockets and shoulders pulled up tightly against the cold, we walked toward the closed amusement park rides. Inna walked somewhere behind us, her tall boots clicking against the rocks. Terry was still feeling sick, though I was hoping that it was merely the contrast between the cold, open park and the 80 degree apartment where we had been spending most of our time.
It certainly felt cold enough to snow but the ground was clear and the sky was slowly changing from gray to a robin's egg blue. Most Uralsk days had seemed the color of dryer lint, so this was a delightful change.

The wind whistled across the adjacent water. The closed buildings gave the park a feeling that would have been ominous if not for the blue sky.

Terry seemed to feel worse and worse. We waited for Inna to catch up. With as much delicacy as possible under the circumstances, he inquired about the presence of a rest room. She seemed noncommittal and said that nothing was probably open. Under the circumstances, this was neither adequate nor comforting.

There was a large building up ahead. It had a bulk that seemed to promise some stability and, if we were really lucky, maybe plumbing.

The building is exactly what it looks like. The Cyrillic lettering proclaims this a cafe and bar. An 'original' one at that.

It is probably a terrific place to eat in the summer. In November, it is boarded up tight. We walked the perimeter looking for a door that had drawings or words that indicated the presence of a rest room. No luck.

Inna pointed to a small building a short distance away. Despite my tourist bent, I did not take a picture of the outhouse. Terry went inside and emerged almost instantaneously with two words: "No way."

It seemed to be farther back to the car than we had remembered walking originally. As you might imagine, the trip back had a lot less meandering. Terry was extremely happy to see the apartment. Inna and Dima took off in the little car. Unfortunately, that was our one allotted day of seeing the countryside without hiring a guide and a car. Since we were still erasing and ironing American bills at night in an attempt to have enough money to last however long we were going to be there, luxuries were off the menu. Anyway, it didn't look like Terry was going to be up to leaving the apartment for quite a while anyhow.

The childrens' homes have strict rules against visiting when ill. What kind of problem was this glitch going to cause?


Day 252 - Daisy, Daisy, Give Me Your Answer, Do

Daily Kup (My Life as a Gainfully Unemployed Person)
Last night's shovel loads from the sky became this morning's glistening ribbon of white. The plows came and did their magic by morning time. I had danced on the cusp of canceling the Daisy Girl Scout Investiture ceremony, fearing that the roads would be impassible, if not impossible. A big thumbs up to the blue flashing light guys who not only cleared my street but left my mailbox standing in the process.

Please Don't Scare the Daisies

Ten little girls in ten little blue vests stood in a circle and managed to get through the Girl Scout Promise. Most used the correct hand and got their three little fingers in the air with the thumb and pinkie clasped.

On my honor, I will try:
To serve God and my country,
To help people at all times,
And to live by the Girl Scout Law.

We sailed through the welcome to the parents and handing out the agendas carefully colored with big, bright markers and delicate colored pencils. We said the Promise and had each child contribute her petal to the giant flower constructed on the carpet. Then, each name was called and the girl walked forward to have her hand shaken, receive the greeting "Welcome, Daisy" and have her shiny new Daisy pin apply to the yellow flap on her vest. This worked well until the fifth child. This child arched her back and retreated ten feet from the middle of the room until she had trapped herself in the bookshelf in the corner. She refused to be extracted.

This child was my child.

After the last girl went through the process with no issues, we dug Princess Potatohead out of the corner and slapped the pin on her vest while I muttered, "Welcome, Daisy" under my breath.