Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Bachelor Chow Steak Sandwich

On my way home from work today, I browsed the bakery clearance cart at a certain retail superstore and came up with a bag of 8 large, sesame-seeded rolls, marked down because today was their "best if used by" date. Next, I ran by the meat department, planning to grab a four-pack of hamburger patties, but decided instead to get a package of 7 small, thin-sliced steaks. Then, steering a route toward the cash registers that took me through the produce department, I impulse-bought a nice, soft avocado. And to steal again from Emeril... BAM!

When I materialized in my kitchen (sizzle, bang, poof), I sealed up three of the steaks in a freezer bag and popped them in the fridge for tomorrow. I took out two of the seeded rolls and threw the remaining half-dozen in the freezer. I took out my big skillet and, over a medium flame, heated a couple tablespoons' worth of olive oil. I added pepper and a teaspoon of minced garlic, stirred it around a bit, and laid down the four remaining steaks.

While cooking these on both sides (I turned them 2 or 3 times), I sliced open the two rolls. Then I skinned the avocado and scraped the flesh haphazardly, messily, onto the bottom half of each roll. I layered two sizzling steaks onto each mess of avocado, then smeared the top half of each roll with a bit of the "zesty steak sauce" that the local supermarket sells as a cheap alternative to Heinz 57 Sauce.

The results? Tasty. Juicy. Maybe not melt-in-your-mouth tender, but we're talking about round steaks here. What they lacked in tenderness, they made up in thinness. I could bite through them without having to make like a trapped fox gnawing its foot off. The combined flavors and textures made my day. And best of all, I managed this on a tight budget, on impulse, with no kitchen finesse whatsoever. Heck, I even used a plastic knife to cut up the avocado, and I ate the sandwiches off a paper plate. So laugh, ye bachelors! And salivate, Mom!

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Wishing Spell

The Wishing Spell
by Chris Colfer
Recommended Ages: 11+

I've never watched a single episode of Glee—simply because I don't watch TV—but even I am aware that author Chris Colfer acted and sang his way into millions of hearts in that series. And though he isn't the first actor to find success as an author of fiction—for example, Julie Andrews Edwards and Ian Ogilvy are among those whose work I have reviewed—I can't help being impressed by this kid. Scarcely 23 years old at this writing, he already has a Golden Globe award (Best Supporting Actor in a Television Series) and a New York Times Number One Bestseller. In my book, that's a sign of incredibly ambitious, wide-ranging, and precocious talent. The proof will come when he continues to bring forth fresh creative stuff.

This is Chris Colfer's first novel, aimed at younger readers, and it's the first book of a series called "The Land of Stories." It introduces us to twins Alex and Conner Bailey, who miss their father (who was killed in an accident), worry about their mother (who works double shifts at the hospital to support them), and struggle to fit in at school. Alex is a Hermione Granger type: smart and studious, eager to please, she often feels lonely and left out of her classmates' social cliques. Conner is pure trouble: mouthy and mischievous, brimming with activity, he has difficulty staying awake in class and frequently earns the wrath of his teacher. In spite of their differences, the twins are intensely loyal to each other. And so when Alex falls through a family heirloom book of fairy tales, and lands in the magical world where those tales took place, it's only to be expected that Conner follows her.

The world they discover on the other side of this book-sized gateway is divided into several kingdoms. Some of these kingdoms are ruled by fairies, dwarves, goblins, and trolls. Others have kings and queens who, as princes and princesses, were the heroes and heroines of such classic stories as "Little Red Riding Hood," "Rapunzel," and "Cinderella." A little time has passed since the stories recorded in Grandma's book, but such a very little that the twins soon begin to suspect that time behaves differently on both sides of the book-portal. So they feel the urgency of finding a way back into their own world, where their mother will be worrying about them and might even give them up for dead.

The problem is—How can they get back to their world? A huge but friendly frog tells them that he knows one way, described in a journal left behind by the last man who tried it. This route is called the Wishing Spell, and to complete it, one must collect a set of hard-to-get items from all around the Land of Stories. Things like Cinderella's glass slipper, a bit of Red Riding Hood's basket, and a lock of Rapunzel's hair. And though the rightful owners of these things are nice enough and willing to share, collecting the items will not be safe or easy. The roads are haunted by dangerous creatures. And an Evil Queen who has escaped from prison is also looking for the ingredients of the Wishing Spell—which can only be used once more. If the enemy gets to it first, the twins may be stuck in the Land of Stories forever. And yet, perhaps more disturbing than all this is the strange feeling that grows on Alex and Conner... the feeling that this magical world may be where they really belong.

I liked the tone and pacing of this young author's first book. In short strokes, he paints a word-picture of a really whimsical and charming world. He is especially successful in creating Alex and Conner, who are always saying and doing such fun things. He also proves capable of stirring deeper and darker emotions, and of provoking thought about the importance of story in our world. Book 2 of "The Land of Stories," set to be released in August 2013, will be titled The Enchantress Returns. I look forward to reading this, as well as Colfer's other novel, titled Struck By Lightning: The Carson Phillips Journal. The latter has already been made into a film, written for the screen by and starring Colfer himself.

Princeps' Fury

Princeps' Fury
by Jim Butcher
Recommended Ages: 14+

In Book 5 of the Codex Alera series, young Tavi of Calderon, recently outed as Gaius Octavian—the grandson of Alera's ruling First Lord Gaius Sextus, and thereby Princeps of the realm—faces a crisis in which the antagonistic races that populate his world must either come together or perish separately. At the same time, the question of who will succeed Gaius Sextus reaches a crucial climax that will only be resolved in Book 6, First Lord's Fury.

In the previous books, we have seen Tavi grow from a spirited apprentice shepherd, through being a resourceful student and a daring secret agent, up to a gifted military leader with a knack for turning enemies into allies. And for most of that time, he has had to get by on sheer nerve and out-of-the-box thinking, while suffering the unique disability (for an Aleran) of being unable to call upon the furies of earth, wind, fire, water, wood, and metal to give him powers that others take for granted. Even now, when he has begun to manifest exceptional fury-crafting talents, he may be helpless to defend himself against the jealous wiles of high lords and ladies who will do anything, betray anyone, and murder any number of people to get power for themselves. And so his grandfather sends him on a mission to get him out of the way—a mission to escort the surrendered army of Canim invaders back to its homeland.

No sooner has Tavi's fleet sailed, however, than the land begins to face its direst crisis ever. The Vord are back, spreading their wax-like Croach, feeding off every life-form they encounter, reproducing and attacking in unstoppable swarms, and annihilating anything that isn't themselves. Now they're even worse than before, thanks to high-level traitors who have given the Vord the ability to read Aleran minds and to use fury-crafting, previously available only to the Alerans. At first by stealth, and then in overwhelming force, the Vord have begun to take over the historic heartland of Alera. Their course of destruction is aimed at the imperial capital. And so the realm no longer has time to carry on its endless skirmishing with the neighboring Icemen, leave alone the Marat horde and the Canim.

While Tavi finds out how much horribly worse things are in the Cane homeland, his mother Isana challenges the Icemen to leave their border with Alera in peace. In an even more literal sense of the word "challenge," she must also risk her life to persuade the leader of the anti-Icemen forces to leave the border, period. Only with their reinforcements does the realm stand any chance against the Vord. Meanwhile, Tavi's Uncle Bernard and Bernard's wife Amara set off on an all-but-suicidal mission behind Vord lines, to spy out the secret (if there is one) of beating this terrible enemy. And Gaius Sextus makes a shocking sacrifice to slow the Vord advance, in hope that the pieces he has placed on the board will have time to move into position for an endgame that others will have to play in his stead. Whether that leaves Tavi on the road to leading the Alerans into a brave new world—or whether there will even be a world—is a matter for the next book.

My evaluation? After my reviews of the first four Codex Alera books, I hardly know what to say that will not make me sound like a broken record. This book plays out before a fantasy-world-building backdrop that will astonish you with its inventiveness, its many-faceted detail, its sense of space and of history, and its potential to generate thrilling conflicts. It teems with likeable and hateable characters, strange creatures, individual and cultural peccadilloes that make its persons and peoples come to life. And in its central character it has an admirable young man of phenomenal charisma, whose future exploits you'll be eager to witness. The only thing slowing me down is the fact that my County Library does not yet hold the audio-book version of First Lord's Fury, read by the magnificent Kate Reading. I began the series with her, and I mean to end it likewise!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

My First Ratatouille

For years, I have drooled over the traditional French veggie hotdish known as ratatouille, made famous by the movie of the same name. But I never had a chance to taste it until I made it for myself. Which I did just this evening.

Emeril's Ratatouille
Going in, I knew that the dish presented in the movie was not authentic ratatouille, but an original gourmet art work cooked up by one of the movie's culinary consultants. While that looks good, it also looks like a lot more work than the traditional recipe with rough-cut vegetables jumbled together in a bubbling pot.

The recipe I ended up following, when it came time to do the actual cooking, was the one featured on Emeril Lagasse's cooking show and published online. Unfortunately, I didn't consult Emeril until after I had assembled the ingredients, by which time I had neither time nor money to go back to the supermarket and correct my purchasing mistakes. So I had to cut a few corners, and the end result probably was not very similar to what Emeril envisioned. Nevertheless, I thought it was good, and I look forward to trying it again.

Now, wouldn't it be nice if recipes actually told you everything you needed to do, in the order you needed to do it? And I mean, starting at the grocery store, when you are trying to assemble the ingredients for a planned meal! To be sure, having the recipe with you at the store would also help. But it would cut through a lot of reading, re-reading, painfully construing, re-ordering of priorities, scribbling, squinting at your scribbles, and swearing venomously when you realize that you've skipped a step that the author of the recipe felt was implied by the string of adjectives embedded in each item of the list of ingredients, and in the past-participles sprinkled among his helpful instructions. Would it kill him to put the steps in order, so that even an idiot like me might get it right in one try?

So here's my memo to myself for the next time I do a ratatouille. Then, perhaps, I will be able to taste what the dish is really like, without a can or two of Ro-Tel covering up the horror of not having as much bell pepper as I thought I did, or pre-soaked dried onion flakes filling in for the onion (which I had used up cooking that runza the other day).

First, the shopping. As you approach your grocery store's produce department, bear in mind that for this dish to be at its best, you will need:
  • 1 or 2 yellow onions
  • 1 average-sized eggplant
  • 1 good-sized zucchini (or 2 dinky ones)
  • 2 yellow squash (because, face it, they're all dinky)
  • 6 or 8 roma tomatoes
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 1 green bell pepper
  • a bulb of garlic or a jar of minced garlic (unless you still have some at home)
  • thyme, basil, parsley, black pepper, olive oil, and salt (if you're running low at home, or feel like troubling with the fresh herbs)
Don't forget any of these things, and if you're planning another dish using any of them, buy extra!

Second, the chopping. Don't bother starting unless (until) you have a clean cutting board, a big sharp knife, a good-sized pot with a lid, and a big cooking spoon to stir with. Rinse off the veggies in lukewarm water and shave off any patches of skin that you have doubts about. Cut off the ends of the eggplant, zucchini, and squash. Slice each in half lengthwise (maybe thirds in the eggplant's case), roll the fruit 90 degrees and repeat; then them chop into mouthful-sized chunks with the skins still on. Cut the stems out of the peppers at both ends; open them up and remove all the seeds and flaky kid stuff; then slice them into long strips the width of your choice, before cutting these strips to the length of your choice. Then slice up the tomatoes (which only need one lengthwise cut beforehand), the onions (probably best if diced more finely), and the clove of garlic (hacked into tiny bits, if using fresh). Set aside the chopped pieces of each fruit or veg in a separate dish. If using the fresh herbs, shred them by hand; or make sure the shakers are handy.

Third, the cooking. This is a nice, friendly dish, in that (per Emeril's advice), you can cook it in 5-minute fits, setting the same timer over and over, and getting everything done on schedule. And you don't have to do much except remember what order to add stuff, stir 2 or 3 times within five minutes, and cover the pot in between stirrings. So, after you warm up about a quarter-cup of the oil on medium heat...
  1. Add the garlic and onion to the pot; sizzle and stir for 5 aromatic minutes.
  2. Add the eggplant and thyme (half a teaspoonful); cook for 5 minutes.
  3. Add the peppers, zucchini, and squash; cook for 5 minutes.
  4. Add the tomatoes, basil and parsley (one teaspoon each), salt and black pepper (use your own judgment); cook for 5 minutes.
And presto! You've got a ratatouille!

Some of the other recipes I've seen around call for some extra flavorings, such as a bit of vinegar and/or some anchovies. I happen to have some anchovy paste around, so I might try that option next time—probably adding it at the onion-and-garlic stage.

As for me, tonight, I had a ratatouille, made essentially as described above. Except, you know, with zombie onions and 2 cans of Ro-Tel. I did have some fresh onion and red & green bell pepper, but (as I learned too late) only enough to make a plate of fajitas with—not nearly as much as Emeril's recipe called for. I used them too, dumping them in as they were (i.e., in fajita-friendly strips), at the pepper/squash stage. They didn't cook as well as I would have liked, and together with the excessive spiciness of the Ro-Tel, they turned out to be the least enjoyable part of the dish.

But it was, over all, delicious—a different blend of flavors in each bite, a highlight of eggplant here (and I lurve eggplant), a note of fresh tomato there (which, to me, represents what sunshine tastes like), plenty of herb tangs and onion twangs, and firm pieces of vegetable that I could really feel when I sank my teeth into them. I most definitely will be trying this dish again. And I don't just mean the three 18-ounce tubs of leftovers that I put up in the fridge. Ratatouille, I shall return! And I'm taking this memo with me when I shop for your ingredients!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Best Bachelor Runza

I've discussed runza here before. It's a dish involving (at the very least) meat, onions, and cabbage, covered by a crust of bread or pastry. It is primarily known in Nebraska, where there is a chain of fast-food restaurants named after it and prominently featuring the "enclosed in soft bread" variant on the menu. The recipe circulates among the cookbooks compiled by church women's auxiliaries. It shows up at pot-luck dinners. And it forms a small but lovely part of my memories of growing up (partly) in Nebraska.

I made myself a runza last night. Having assembled the ingredients in a recent shopping trip, I tried a different approach to the dish. The result was the best church-cookbook-variant/bachelor-slob-gourmet version of runza I have ever achieved. I feel it is incumbent on me to share how it came about.

To start with, on several past occasions I have fiddled with the "church cookbook" recipe my mother handed down to me. I couldn't decide whether the recipe should include a tomato-based sauce or some type of gravy. I had tried it both ways, with about equal success—but while these attempts went over all right at pot-luck meals at my St. Louis area church, where Nebraska specialties like runza are a strange delicacy, I thought they were "only OK."

One of my experiments suffered from the fact that, on somebody's urging, I added cheese, only to find out that at least one of the people I was expected to feed could not have cheese. Another member of the party objected on principle to cabbage in any form, which put the dish out of the question for her. And most worrying to me, the sauce combined with the other fixings made the bottom crust limp and soggy. This problem increased, and spread to the top crust, when the leftovers were refrigerated and reheated.

So, as a new experiment, I made last night's runza without any sauce whatsoever. And though the dish required me to do my fair share of cooking, I also did it with a minimum of "prep-cooking."

First step: the shopping. Knowing that I was going to make this dish, I bought a good two pounds of ground beef (not particularly low-fat; I'm all for saving money, and grease can be drained off). I bought two canisters of Pillsbury croissant dough, the kind prepared as a single seamless sheet. At the produce counter closest to the deli area of my neighborhood supermarket, I bought a small tub of chopped onion—which, as a surprise bonus (I didn't notice until I was opening the tub) also contained some chopped celery. I bought a small bag of Dole plain cole slaw (the kind with mostly green cabbage, a little red and a few shreds of carrot, but no sauce). And I relied on the fact that I already had the utensils and spices that I would need.

Second step: the sauteing. I started with the ground beef. This I had to divide into two batches, breaking the meat up and browning it over medium heat in a medium-size skillet. I ground a little garlic sea-salt over it. I sprinkled on it some black pepper, paprika, thyme, and a little cumin. After each half of the meat was done, I plated it between two wads of paper towel and patted the grease out of it. Both portions of meat being done, I sauteed the onion and celery mix for a minute, then added the cole slaw and drizzled the whole mess with olive oil. I kept stirring this until it stopped being particularly hard to keep it from overflowing the pan—just enough to begin softening the cabbage.

Third step: the baking. I sprayed Pam in a lasagna pan. I spread one of the rolls of croissant dough in the bottom of the pan, then half of the browned meat on top of that, then the vegetable mixture on top of that, then the rest of the meat on top of that, and finally the second roll of croissant dough. Into a pre-heated 350-degree oven went the lot of it. I peeked inside the oven at 20 minutes to see how the top crust was coming. I let it bake for another 3 minutes or so, and took it out just as the crust was turning a nice light brown. I let it cool for a few minutes, then used the edge of a spatula to divide it into 8 servings.

Final step: the eating. My first serving was so delicious that I couldn't resist having another. I didn't miss the sauce at all. If the meat and vegetables lacked anything desirable for flavor or texture, the crispy flaky crust supplied it. Even the bottom crust seemed to be there, at least when the dish was warm out of the oven. I didn't miss the cheese either; with apologies to the restaurant chain, which seems to consider it a requirement.

The servings that I couldn't eat when the pan was still oven-warm, I stored in plastic tubs in the refrigerator. I ate one tubful late last night, one for breakfast this morning, and one for lunch. And it's gone, just like that. And, all right, a certain clamminess did start to set in, especially in the lower crust, so I was well motivated to finish the leftovers promptly. Two minutes in the microwave with the lid of the storage tub loosened, and the refrigerated entree was piping hot. I tried a little ketchup with today's lunch portion, and it did not go amiss.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Hunters of the Dusk

Hunters of the Dusk
by Darren Shan
Recommended Ages: 12+

"Vampire War," the third trilogy within the 12-book "Saga of Darren Shan," begins with this book. More like the previous "Book 1" than the first book in the overall series, it does not so much tell a free-standing story as set the gears in motion for a new chapter in the career of Darren Shan, half-vampire, magician's assistant, and (increasingly now) warrior prince. It promises to be a chapter filled with savage conflicts, creepy magics, strange surprises, and the dread of a sinister destiny.

Speaking of destiny, Mr. Desmond Tiny (Des for short) shows up at the Vampire Mountain one day, some six years after Darren established himself as a vampire prince. In the middle of a costly war with their vampaneze cousins (who, unlike vampires, actually kill the people whose blood they drink), the vampires are hardly in a mood to hear more bad news from the ancient mage and meddler in fate. But Mr. Tiny tells them that three, and only three, of the vampires must hunt for the newly-risen Lord of the Vampaneze. And if they don't make the best of their four upcoming chances to kill the Vampaneze Lord, the vampires will be wiped out.

Two of the three hunters, according to Mr. Tiny, are to be Darren and his master, Larten Crepsley. Accordingly, the two set out in search of their third companion. Still the vampire's assistant (even while he is an all-powerful prince), Darren trusts his friend. With the third member of the hunt—another vampire prince we haven't met before—they consult an ancient witch named Evanna, who has her own insights into the destiny of vampires and vampaneze, though she refuses to take sides between them. Evanna then joins the trio in a visit to the good old Cirque du Freak, where a few things have changed since they last dropped by. But a violent meeting with the enemy, and the surprising revelations that follow it, cut their stay short.

The book closes with the searchers setting out in a new and unknown direction, one step closer to the grim fate which, if they fail in their task, will leave only one of them alive to witness the downfall of their people. And so, once again, readers following the series are hooked, compelled to seek out the next book (Allies of the Night) and then, no doubt, the gripping conclusion (Killers of the Dawn). As for this one, as a standalone book, I have seen weaker installments in this series, and again I have seen stronger ones. As was the case in Vampire Mountain, you see a lot of stage-setting but not much actually happening. What does happen, however, may give you an idea of what to expect as the danger deepens and the destiny of vampire-kind dangles.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Domino 29

Agent Colt Shore: Domino 29
by Axel Avian
Recommended Ages: 13+

Aimee at Arundel Publishing kindly sent me a pre-release copy of this first book in what promises to be a cool series. I went into this eyes-wide-open, even though I feared it was going to be a rip-off of Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider series—both series featuring a type of teenage James Bond. I was also a little wary of it being as unreadably horrible as the last book I accepted from a little-known publisher and a first-time author. You won't find my review of that book, because I didn't write one. I only review books I feel that I can positively recommend. So the fact that you are reading this review means that I liked this book. In fact, I really, really liked it.

Colt Shore is like Alex Rider in about the same way that Percy Jackson is like Harry Potter. There are definitely similarities between them and between the organizations they represent; but these similarities could be put down to their common genre. All right, then; so we have established that "a type of teenage James Bond" is now officially a genre. Alex Rider was there first. But Colt Shore is entitled to his turn, and when he takes it, it is most definitely not a ripoff.

For starters, Colt is an all-American kid who goes to a school for secret agents in the all-American town of Springfield, Missouri. For those of you who consider Missouri a flyover state, take it from someone who lives there: Springfield is a real town. The next time I'm down there, I might try to look around for the FALCON training academy, though I hear tell it's well concealed. FALCON is an elite, international problem-solving organization that combines a think-tank with active agents, answerable to no particular government, policing global crime and serving the interests of world peace. Other than being on a think-tank track, specializing in Mediterranean affairs, Colt Shore seems to be a normal high school kid. At first.

Then Colt finds out who is parents really are. And almost immediately after that life-changing revelation, he finds himself on active status, with a mission to protect a brother-sister teen rock band during a USO tour of Afghanistan. The teens have been targeted for kidnapping since their journalist mother made a connection between a girls' school in Kandahar and a worldwide human trafficking ring. Suddenly, swiftly, Colt's mission evolves from protecting Thorne and Talya Ellis to saving the girl, and a dozen others, from a slave auction disguised as a choir tour. Flying out of his comfort zone, and at times riding the edge of becoming a rogue agent, Colt finds himself battling some world-class bad guys amid the scenic mountains and castles of Bavaria.

Click by click, Colt narrates how one decision leads to another, and then another, like the proverbial row of tumbling dominoes, each half-again as big as the last one. You start by tipping over a domino the size of a pack of gum and, in just 29 clicks, you knock over one the size of the Empire State Building. That's the metaphor that drives this book, maintaining a rising level of tension enlivened by humor, pop-culture references (including references to Bond, James Bond), death-defying stunts, just barely non-lethal action, and a spark of teen romance. It's the fantasy-fulfilling wild ride of a young man who has trained for a career as an intelligence analyst, and who suddenly finds himself a bit over his head in live-action-hero soup. It's a sometimes educational look at foreign sites we may not have visited before, even in books; full of convincing details and driven by non-stop momentum. My qualms about this book evaporated soon after the first page, and by the end I was looking forward to the next Agent Colt Shore adventure.

Captain's Fury

Captain's Fury
by Jim Butcher
Recommended Ages: 14+

Face it, you're going to be confused about the titles of the "Codex Alera" books. Book 3 was titled Cursor's Fury, though after about the first quarter of it, the young furyless cursor Tavi had risen to the rank of Captain of the First Aleran Legion. To be sure, he was still an undercover agent (cursor) of the First Lord of Alera, reporting to his lord about the loyalties of the legion's officers under the made-up name Rufus Scipio, as they stood off against the wolflike Canim invaders. But his mission as crown cursor went on hold from the moment the magic of the Canim ritualists wiped out his superior officers, forcing "Scipio" to take command and hold the city of Elinarch. Now, two years later, Captain's Fury picks up the plot-line just in time for Tavi to be relieved from his command and move beyond his role as captain. And though Book 5 is titled Princeps' Fury, it is in this book that Tavi is first recognized as the Princeps—i.e., the First Lord's grandson and heir, rightly named Gaius Octavian. If I just surprised you, you've missed a lot and should go back to Cursor's Fury before reading any further. Spoilers ahead!

As this book begins, Tavi has earned the hero-worship of his men after holding the Elinarch for two years against a vastly superior number of Canim. But there are some in the realm who are threatened by the young captain, especially those who have guessed who he really is. One of those people is Lady Aquitaine, who has so far supported the First Lord's war against the rebellion of Lord Kalare, but only because she intends to see her husband succeed Gaius Sextus on the throne. Thus motivated, Lady Aquitaine plants one of her puppets in command of two Senatorial Legions and sends them to reinforce the First Aleran. Senator Arnos, who makes up in deviousness and viciousness what he lacks in military skill, supercedes "Captain Scipio" in command of the Aleran forces and immediately orders an offensive, regardless of the cost in lives. His second order of business is to maneuver Tavi into getting himself arrested for treason.

Soon Lady Aquitaine, eager to eliminate any threat to her husband's ambition, instructs Arnos to do away with both Tavi and his next-in-command, a high lord's son who is loyal to Tavi. But while Arnos is busy committing atrocities against the freed slaves who have joined forces with the Canim, as well as steadholders who have submitted to the enemy occupation, Tavi slips away. Joined by a tight-knit group of trusted co-conspirators and a crew of scurvy sea-dogs, he makes his way back to the capital city. His mission: to spring the Canim ambassador from the most escape-proof prison ever constructed. One of the reasons it is so escape-proof is that Tavi designed it to be that way, part of his service to the First Lord. But now he has to break into it and (more seriously) out of it again, leading a ten-foot-tall wolf-man. Managing all this will require all the metal-craft of his fencing instructor and personal bodyguard, the burglary skills of his barbarian soulmate, the water-craft of the "aunt" he only recently learned is his mother, and the stealth expertise of his diminutive school chum Ehren. After pulling that off, all Tavi has to do is elude pursuit by Arnos' hired swords, convince a grim enemy to surrender to him when it already has the Aleran forces where it wants them, and fight a duel to the death against the deadliest swordsperson in the realm.

At least this time, I don't have to add that he needs to do all this without the ability to command the furies of wind, water, fire, wood, metal, and earth. Until recently, Tavi has had to get by without fury-craft, setting him at a disadvantage to virtually every other Aleran, which has forced him to compensate with his wits, resourcefulness, and sheer force of will. Now Tavi actually can do a few things, which gives him a certain edge—but will it be enough for him to survive?

Meanwhile, on the other front of the war that has kept Alera's legions dangerously spread out, the First Lord himself marches grimly into Lord Kalare's territory, supported only by his cursor Amara and her secret husband Count Bernard (Tavi's uncle). His task is to prevent Kalare from unleashing one of the Great Furies on the legions approaching his capital city. No one can do this but Gaius, the most powerful fury-crafter in the realm. But the catch is: Gaius cannot do any crafting until he is within sight of the mountain overlooking the city of Kalare. If he does, Kalare will instantly know his position, and it will be hard enough getting through the forests, swamps, and wildernesses of the Kalaran countryside without being attacked by the army of brainwashed fanatics known as Immortals. The elderly First Lord must therefore endure painful injuries that he cannot heal, traverse difficult terrain that he could easily fly over, hide from mercenaries and sentries and expert trackers without using his own ability to cloak, and survive attacks by ferocious beasts without using furies of earth or metal to amplify his strength. So his mission will be a bitter, agonizing test of survival, even with the aid of an air-crafting cursor and a veteran legionarre who has perfected the art of survival aided by wood and earth furies. Whether that will be enough or not will be decided by a slim margin. And what happens as Gaius approaches his goal my shock you, if not turn your stomach.

It is amazing how Jim Butcher keeps bringing it: thrilling action, throbbing suspense, complex political intrigues, and ever deeper exploration of fascinating fantasy concepts. He opens up worlds within alien worlds, plays several different kinds of magic off each other, harnesses the power of a young man of tremendous audacity and hero appeal, and effortlessly leads the reader onward through unflinching descriptions of great hardship and vile evil, challenging ideas, and intricately woven lines of motivation and loyalty. By this point in the series, one cannot help but sense a terrific destiny in store for Tavi, a.k.a. Scipio, a.k.a. Octavian, and the figures around him. What more could a book lover ask for? Nothing could improve this book except—and I speak from experience—hearing the audiobook narrated by the incredible Kate Reading.

One Thing's Needful

One Thing's Needful
by Alan Kornacki, Jr.
Recommended Ages: 14+

In Book 3 of the "Thy Strong Word" trilogy, I learned that many of the reservations that led me to give Book 2 a less-than-enthusiastic review were really the result of Middle of a Trilogy Syndrome. Character arcs and dramatic vectors that seemed to want more development in that book, get it in this one. I don't know if what I'm saying right now is to repair harm that my previous review did, or to report that the author repaired the shortcomings of his previous book. A good reviewer never commits himself as to whether an error was his or the author's whose work he has reviewed. But like film critic Roger Ebert, who passed away a few days before this writing, I am not too big-headed to revise my evaluation. Reading all three books (Love Divine, A Great and Mighty Wonder, and this) of "Thy Strong Word" as sections of a single, larger novel, I see merits that may seem wanting in each individual book. Or perhaps this third book is just better.

Whatever the case, this novel by a sometime colleague of mine in the Lutheran Pastoral Ministry was particularly touching to me. For one thing, I knew exactly on whom several of its characters were based. The fact that I have visited the exact church depicted in one passage (under another name), chatted with its leading members (also depicted under interesting pseudonyms), and am casually acquainted with one of Pastor Justin Corwin's pastoral colleagues (very thinly disguised), might disqualify me from giving an impartial review. But apart from the surprise of Pastor Corwin's decision at the end of the book, whether or not to accept a call to the above-cited congregation, these recognitions were not what most deeply moved me.

What gets me right here (*chest thump*) is the ordeal Pastor Corwin goes through, inflicted by an equal mixture of worldly church bureaucrats, back-stabbing fellow pastors, and disgruntled individuals in the parish, who can make life utterly miserable for a faithful, caring servant of Lord. The outcome of Pastor Corwin's ordeal, developing throughout the trilogy, is perhaps more optimistic than I am after witnessing several such pastoral ordeals, and enduring one or two myself. It is a scandal and an offense that leads one to question why any good, honest, devout man would want anything to do with parish service. But it is also an encouraging testimony to the belief that it is worthwhile, and that perseverance will be blessed.

Meanwhile, Justin's beloved bride Beth struggles with her own heartbreak as the door finally closes on the possibility of having children of her own. Beth takes solace in her relationship with Julie, the teen she and Justin unofficially adopted the year before, and in a sideways career move into juvenile law enforcement. She helps a boy from her husband's catechism class deal with a school bully. And she and Justin keep up a patter of gleeful repartee that lightens a book that, for all the role she plays in it, really focuses on showing what it is like for a regular, flesh-and-blood guy to be the type of pastor all of us need to have, and that some (like Alan and me) ought to be. I have often regretted that meetings and conferences need to be as much a part of it as this novel depicts, but that's the ministry for you. I have often wished that opening the Bible, saying "Hear the Word of the Lord," and following a reading relevant to the occasion (any occasion) with a well-premeditated prayer, were as much a part of the ministry in reality as in these books; but that is something for us to strive toward. If only a few Christians, and particularly Lutherans, would read this novel and honestly consider, even for a moment, the sincere witness it bears to the relationship between pastors and laypeople, the thoughts and discussions thus stimulated might be good for the health of the church. And to make that possibility more probable, author Kornacki coats this medicine in a smooth, palatable, well-shaped novel.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

More "Is THAT How You Say...?"

Further to this post, I continue to collect instances where the pronunciation of words and names by British audio-book readers (and other smart people) surprises li'l old Yankee me...

Lamentable is, to the best of my knowledge, the adjective related to the verb lament. Both words, as I have heard and spoken them at home, carry the accent on the second syllable, a schwa in the first. But in many books by British authors, read by British readers, I have persistently heard it stressed on the first syllable, spoken with the same vowel sound as lamb. Apparently this inconsistency in stress between the adjective and verb is one of the mysteries of the English language that America's democratic experiment was meant to reason away. Our solution apparently hasn't made it back across the Pond.

Van Gogh—The book in which I heard the Dutch artist's name pronounced "Van Goff" was a satirical fantasy about a future world in which knowledge of the past is spotty at best, so I wasn't sure that I wasn't being put on—though the one area the book's characters knew a lot about was art. In American schools, populated by students dragged up through the most dubious educational system on earth, one hears Vincent's last name pronounced with an open o at the end, making possible such miserable puns as "Look at that van go!" But a visit to Wiki confirms that Old One-Ear's name should really be pronounced with a guttural ch sound at the end—like the squirming grubs that Klingons like to eat, only more rounded.

Controversy—I don't know whether this qualifies as authentic British pronunciation. But in my student days, I had a professor whose accent was widely believed to be of the aristocratic English persuasion—though he was not, in fact, English. I think the gentleman may have been a scion of the Lithuanian aristocracy, which went into exile to various places after the Communist upheavals in the mid-20th century. I think this now-sainted doctor of theology may have spent some time in Germany, and I'm pretty sure he was sited in Australia for a while, but apart from that I don't know where his accent came from. I only know that he had a very cultured voice and an enormous vocabulary. (He was the only living person I have ever heard to use the word "animadvert.") So when his pronunciation veered into unexplored territory, we his students tended to make a note of it and question the rightness of how we had been brought up saying words. We would never have presumed to engage him in a controversy regarding, for example, his pronunciation of controversy, with a very definite "open o" on the second syllable—contROversy. Now and then, thinking of him, I read this word with his pronunciation. But only in my head. I don't want to start a controversy about it, no matter how you say it.

Adversary is another word that I think the same, sainted professor said differently than we hoi polloi. Like controversy, he accented it on the second syllable. When I first heard the word pronounced that way, it hit me with a stunning blow. Instantly I was embarrassed by a sense that I, and everyone else I had ever heard say the word aloud, had been wrong all along. After all, adVERsary brings out the connection between this noun and the adjective adverse; while ADversary (like CONtroversy) seems to sag under the weight of too many consecutive unaccented syllables. Plus, the nasal twang of its third vowel, when pronounced in standard American fashion, smacks of uneducated bumpkins struggling to read the big-city newspaper, sounding out words they've never met before. One feels a crushing consciousness of the superiority of the reverend doctor's culture and upbringing.

Ululation—I'm willing to bet the reason I thought this word was pronounced with two long "yoos" was that I had never actually heard anyone say it aloud, having absorbed it into my vocabulary through books. Then I started listening to audio books in which such excellent British readers as Alan Rickman and Kate Reading seemed to agree that the word is pronounced "Ull-you-lay-shun." Huh. My theory that this is an onomatopoetic word must go back to the drawing board, I guess.

Bier—You know, the platform that a coffin stands on during a funeral; or perhaps the contraption with protruding handles, on which the coffin is carried by the pallbearers. I don't actually know whether I've ever heard this word uttered aloud, in American English, by anyone who wasn't reading aloud from a published work. Sort of like "dais," it's one of those words you read all the time but can only form the vaguest idea of how it is supposed to be pronounced until it crops up in an audio-book. I'm pretty sure the standard American pronunciation sounds just like the word "beer." But now, in Audio-Book Land, I'm hearing a British pronunciation with two syllables, a long /i/ in the first. Sort of like "buyer." That rather spoils my punning scheme to have my coffin placed atop a double row of beer kegs. I'll just have to find a different excuse to include alcohol in my funeral.

I have also belatedly learned that dahlia (the flower) rhymes with "azalea," in spite of being named after Somebody Dahl. Which opens up whole new vistas of botany-related limericks; though, again, it points up the arbitrariness of English pronunciation. I mean, how better to honor a respected colleague than by naming a newly discovered plant after him, while pronouncing it in a way that obliterates any resemblance to his name?

While I'm mentioning this, I might as well also note that it is from British audio-book readers that I also learned that chitin (the stuff of which beetles' carapaces are made) is pronounced just like kitin', and that lichen (on which I blogged at one point) sounds just like liken. Somebody needs to tell my seventh-grade science teacher. UPDATE: I have also heard at least two British readers pronounce "lichen" as though it rhymed with "kitchen." What's funny about this is that one of these readers, earlier in the same book, also used the "liken" pronunciation.

Zounds!—This mild blasphemy, dating from Shakespeare's time, started out as a contraction of the phrase "God's wounds!" I take it this is a reference to the crucifixion of Christ. Yet in my acquaintance with it, from hearing it used to occasional flamboyant effect on the left side of the Atlantic, it tended to rhyme with the word "sounds." It did, that is, until I started listening to the likes of John Lee and Anton Lesser reading the works of British authors. They made it rhyme with "wounds," a pronunciation that I immediately accepted as right.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Hide It Under a Bushel?

So I was running errands today, and I happened to be driving from the Headquarters Branch of the County Library to the laundromat I frequent near home, when on an in-this-case convenient stretch of road that I have seldom traveled before now, I passed this sign. I suppose I had halfway noticed it before, but it caught my attention more than usual today. Now that I am using the city's Public Library more than I formerly did, it surprised me to discover a branch even closer to home than the Buder Branch, which I ordinarily frequent. I actually live within a short walk of two branches. Who knew?

One of the things that caught my eye was the name of the branch, though I had to ask how to pronounce it. (My guess was "Mah Tcha Seck." The library ladies' kind correction was "Mack-a-Check.") I perked up at the name because, by a weird coincidence, the library book that I had with me, that I planned to return to the Buder Branch after picking it up there at the hold desk on Tuesday, originated at the Machacek Branch. I had never dreamed that I would have walked a mile to one library only to pick up a book requested from another library only half a mile from my home. So, during a lull in my laundering activities, I walked up to the Machacek Branch to return the book.

My second surprise was that, having found the sign marking the library's location, I still had trouble finding the library. From the street, even at a season when the trees aren't as leafed out as in the photo, the sign was easy to see but the building was not. To one side of the sign was an alley that seemed to run straight across the block to the next street over, without any other visible outlet. To the other side, the entrance to a parking lot serving no visible purpose, except perhaps as overflow parking for the Baptist Church on the next block. Between these two landmarks there wasn't much to see except a grassy mound, crowned with what appeared to be tennis courts girdled in chain-link fencing. (This turned out to be the roof of the building.)

Only by venturing around a bend in the low hill (just for purposes of exploration) can one discover a stairway descending into a gap in the hillside, sheltered by a concrete barrier that makes it difficult to see what one is approaching until one reaches the bottom of the steps. Then, suddenly, appears the entrance of a single-story building, built like a nuclear-attack bunker. The resemblance grows even stronger when one enters the building. It's gloomy, tiny, and drab. It can't possibly have much of a collection. The space is crammed with shelves, computer desks, and other libraraphernalia.

I returned my book. During my walk up the street from the laundromat, I had decided to look for a particular book. I settled down at one of the catalog computers and searched for the book. I learned that there was exactly one copy of it in the city's Public Library system. And that one copy, which the catalog assured me was currently available, lives at the Buder Branch. I could hardly believe it. In seven years of visiting the Buder Branch (more and more frequently of late), I have never before found a title I was looking for at that branch. I have always had to request a hold and pick it up there when it was delivered from another branch. And now, my first time searching at another branch... Buder.

I requested the hold for pick-up at the Buder Branch, finished my laundry, and headed straight to Buder. I reckoned it would either be waiting for me behind the counter or, more likely, still on its shelf. Buder, in stark contrast to the Machacek Branch, is a sparkling, modern building of three stories, brilliantly lit by sunlight through its numerous windows, and very visibly sited on a street corner within plain sight of one of the busiest intersections in the neighborhood. Naturally, the book I was searching for was meant to be shelved on the third floor. I huffed and puffed up the steps and looked in the section I thought the book would belong in—book 2 of a series I haven't read past book 1—but although I found book 3 right where I expected to find book 2, I did not find the title I wanted. I enlisted the aid of some friendly library ladies. They checked the computer, the returns cart, the holds desk, and a couple of other places where the book might have been shelved... but no joy.

I did come home with an armload of other library books that I "impulse shopped" as I was stalking my quarry. And the front desk staff told me they would keep looking for it. But for the moment, Buder Branch seems to have struck out once again in the game of having the title I'm looking for. Funny how these things work out.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Dear Diary

It's Easter Tuesday. And it's my first day off after eight days, most of them long, busy days that stayed busy well into the night. What better day to laze around and do nothing!

Much of my late business was triggered by unemployment. My old career ended on February 28 due to lack of funds to pay my full-time salary. After a two-week vacation devoted to job-seeking (and one day of judging a high school choir contest), I was offered two part-time jobs—unfortunately, by direct competitors, meaning that I couldn't take both jobs. I went to both interviews, signed both conditional job offers, and submitted pee samples for both companies' pre-employment drug tests. Both companies checked my background and called back to say they were go, if I was.

Then I had a decision to make. One competitor was offering more money per hour plus extra pay for working in the wee hours; the other offered more hours and a round-trip commute that was 30 miles shorter. I thought it over for an agonizing weekend, then accepted the latter offer.

Though I prefer not to name the company I now work for, I won't conceal the fact that after 8 years of post-secondary education, three degrees, and several years of professional experience in an 40-hour-per-week, evenings-and-weekends-off office environment, I was now, at age 40, starting a relatively menial hourly job, with some 33 hours per week spread around my availability in a way that somehow seems to leave less free time in my life than I had before. And the time I spent at work seemed more physically and mentally draining, at least starting out.

My orientation at the new workplace started on Tuesday, March 19th, followed by several solid days of training. My first day off was Palm Sunday, March 24. I had made sure to have that day off because of a concert I was supposed to sing in. (While all this was going on, rehearsals had continued for both choruses in which I sing.) By the time I got home from church that Sunday, St. Louis was beginning to disappear under a 10-inch-thick blanket of snow. The concert was canceled. So I stretched out with a good book, hugged my cats, and enjoyed my last day off (minus church) until now.

I had 9:30 to 5:30 shifts the following Monday and Tuesday; a 1 to 6 p.m. shift Wednesday; 8 to 5 shifts Thursday and Friday; and 8:30 to 5 on Saturday. Then 5 to 10 p.m. on Easter Sunday and 9 to 5:30 yesterday, Easter Monday. I volunteered to add one of these days to my written schedule because my supervisor was looking for extra help during the busy time leading up to Easter. All that time spent standing at a cash register during a commercial feeding frenzy, until my feet were killing me and my knees were so stiff that I rather waddled than strode wherever my duties took me.

Meanwhile, carefully blocked out of my work availability, yet by such a slim margin that I never had time to touch down at home between one thing and another, I had choral rehearsals on both Monday nights and also last Tuesday night; church services on Thursday and Friday nights; and (obviously) church again on Sunday. The church services were sited at the limit of the distance I could drive (at legal speeds) between them and my work shift.

I managed most of this while absolutely, positively broke. I had enough bread, lunch meat, and cheese to pack a sack lunch for work each day, and enough loose change to buy a couple of 50-cent sodas out of a vending machine outside the break room, and a 75-cent bag of chips, to add variety to my breaks.

There was one day (the Monday before Easter) when I forgot to bring both my sack lunch and my money with me; so I lived on water from breakfast until a break in that evening's chorus rehearsal around 8:30 p.m., when the refreshments served by volunteers from the chorus became my first meal in 13 strenuous hours.

There was another day (Maundy Thursday, I believe) when someone stole my lunch out of the break room fridge, obliging me to spend on food part of the roll of quarters I had brought along to buy fuel for the trip to church. The fuel light on my dashboard didn't even go out after I pumped in as much as I could afford with the remaining coins. I made it to church on fumes, spent on fuel every dime I was paid for playing the accompaniment for Maundy Thursday worship (less a 99-cent bottle of iced tea), and was riding on fumes again by the time I got back to church on Good Friday. Meanwhile, when I brought my sack lunch to the break room Friday morning, I found that my signed and dated sack from Thursday had been put back in the fridge... with one sandwich missing.

My first paycheck reached me on Maundy Thursday. It came in good time. I desperately needed to buy groceries, after almost a month of not daring to spend a dime more than I had to. The sandwiches I packed for Saturday's lunch featured the last four slices of bread I owned. But I couldn't shop until after work on Saturday, because I wouldn't be going home until after church either Thursday or Friday. So it wasn't until Saturday night that I loaded a cart with enough bread, lunch meat, cheese, and cheapo frozen pizzas (and some other essentials) to survive until my next paycheck.

My pastor and his lovely family, who have too recently been through some employment-related financial straits themselves, gave me an Easter card with a generous cash gift enclosed. God bless them. Even I didn't realize until then what a tight spot I would have been in without that sudden shower of "pennies from heaven." Because this gift reached me early for Easter (on Good Friday, actually), its first benefit was to fill my fuel tank to the brim for the first time since I lost my previous job, and buying a gift card to ensure that "I know where my next tank of gas will come from."

I next used part of the gift to supplement my first week's meager paycheck when I filled that shopping cart with groceries on Saturday evening. It's amazing how many staple items one runs short of when one has been living on less than one needs to pay the bills for even a short while. I was totally out of toilet paper. My cats' litter box desperately needed a bucketful of crushed clay. I didn't have a slice of either bread or cheese to make a sandwich (though I had plenty of lunch meat), a cracker to spread peanut butter on, or anything besides tap water to drink. I had nothing in my freezer except a half-dozen Italian ices and some dodgy vegetables of such a vintage that I worried about having to eat them. I had some rice and pasta but nothing to go with them. I had fixings (such as a few cans of Ro-Tel and a cream-of-chicken soup) but nothing to fix with them.

On Monday I bought a few more grocery items I had forgotten on Saturday. Nothing big. I replenished my supply of ramen—which was all I had been eating for a couple of days, and ought to be kept around for the next tight spot. I drank a pint of milk, whose outrageous price is the reason those 50-cent cans of pop will be the death of me one of these days. I tried a Yakisoba ramen entree, which proved much tastier than my usual brand, but even while its 98-cent price tag makes it a very cheap meal, it wasn't so much better as to be worth paying five times the price.

But the gift from Pastor's family really came in handy today... on my first day off since Palm Sunday. Here's how I used this blessed and much needed day of rest...

First, I breakfasted on bacon and eggs, made by my own hands. These were probably the most self-indulgent items in my grocery purchase on Saturday night; but I found good deals on both, and I reasoned that by not eating my usual toast, I would save bread for future sack lunches. Then I cleaned up and got dressed, and shoveled garbage out of my car to make it marginally presentable. Then I went to a certain discount store and bought a new pair of shoes because my previous decrepit pair were plotting to murder my feet during an impending series of work-days spent standing and walking on a concrete floor. I bought some insoles to put in the new shoes, as soon as the cushiony stuff in them breaks down enough to let my feet slide around. And I bought windshield wipers to replace the ones on my car, which had devolved into a display of rubbery strips flopping around on the rain-blurred, persistently grimy windshield. Then I returned the wipers for a refund, because they didn't include an attachment needed to install them on my car.

After that partly wasted trip, I went where I should have gone in the first place: to Dobbs, where I've been getting tire rotations gratis since I bought my tires there. I was overdue for a tire rotation and oil change. They also supplied my new wipers and did the safety and emissions inspections my city requires each vehicle to pass before its license tags can be renewed—and my old tags expire this month. While Dobbs was lubing, rotating, and inspecting my car, I crossed the street to Great Clips and purchased a long-overdue haircut. Then I marched a block down the street to a branch of the public library, where I had a book on hold, waiting to be checked out. I sat in a sunny corner of the library and read for a few minutes, until Dobbs rang me to say my car was ready. Happily, it had passed both inspections on the first go.

After driving home to fetch some documents I had forgotten to carry with me, I next drove to the license bureau and renewed my tags for two years. For once I had everything I needed (including the cash) to get this done in one trip. This enabled me to shake my head compassionately at the woman next to me in line, who had forgotten every single item she was required to present at the counter. I might have called her a twit, if I hadn't been through exactly what she was about to go through.

Next, I got a little lost looking for the AT&T store. When I found it, I switched my cell-phone from monthly billing (bundled with my home phone) to a pay-as-you-go plan. The store had just gotten a new computer system this morning, and hadn't yet gotten set up to the extent that they could sell me airtime, so I then drove to a Quik Trip convenience store and bought an activation pin, entitling me to 250 minutes of talk between now and July 1. I loaded these minutes onto my phone, used an ATM to transfer funds from my savings account into checking, and went home.

But my fun and relaxation wasn't over just yet. Once at home, I checked the rent bill which was technically due yesterday, but which I couldn't possibly have paid until today due to the way my last paycheck from the old job gets direct-deposited. I was expecting to confirm the usual amount on the bill, so that I could decide how much of my remaining cash I would need to deposit in checking before paying the rent. But instead, I got a nasty surprise, which needed to be straightened out with a trip to my apartment complex's management office. Not only did I get the nasty surprise taken off the amount I must pay, but I also found out that today was the last day I could use $200 in rent coupons that I had earned when I renewed my lease.

With that far-from-nasty surprise added to what I then had in checking, I didn't need to make a trip to the bank—so I wrote a check for the rent and stuck it in the night-deposit slot. The check, that is. I gather that I won't be writing many more checks this month. But that's no big surprise. I haven't written checks for much other than my rent in the last couple of months. My checking account has been, over the past several months, a sucking black hole of negative dollars that eats my paychecks nearly whole—and that's with me turning back-flips to avoid spending money out of that account, except to pay my rent. This would seem, on the face of it, to be a ridiculous situation, considering that I was getting paid considerably more each month than my rent costs. And yet at one point, I was so deeply overdrawn that the bank had to decline to allow me to cash a check so I could pay a bill or two—not only because it wouldn't have paid off my overdraft, but because the penalties waiting to be applied automatically the moment I made any deposit would have exceeded the amount of the check by more than the maximum amount I was permitted to be overdrawn.

This had been going on for months, and getting worse and worse, even though I was making more than enough money to my debts and hardly spending anything else. It's not the type of hole you can dig yourself out of. You make a few anxiously awaited purchases or bill-payments on payday, forgetting that the direct-deposited funds from your paycheck do not become available until 24 hours later, and suddenly you have an overdraft. You put in enough money to clear the overdraft, but then the penalties from the previous overdraft cause you to be overdrawn again—with penalties of their own in train. Penalties on penalties! The next month or two, paying the same bills (which, again, add up to less than your take-home salary), the same thing happens again and again, pulling you deeper into the hole until your attempts to pay crucial bills (phone bill one month, then car payment, then rent) begin to bounce. And this after you have lived on ramen and water for a whole month while waiting for not one but two paychecks to clear the bank. You drop in at the nearest branch and ask, "What the hell happened to my paycheck?" And they explain to you that it isn't so much that you've been living outside your means, as that their penalties are costing more than you make in a given pay period, before you even think about paying the bills.

The point of this long and depressing story is: As of today, my rent is paid, my tags are renewed, my car has oil and fuel in it, my fridge and freezer have enough food to get me through the next little while, and I still have a few dollars to my name—the cash in my wallet, after today's expenses, being just a bit less than the funds in my checking account, after my last paycheck from the old job cleared and after today's ATM fund transfer that effectively closed my savings account. I won't owe the insurance company anything for a couple months. My educational loans are in forbearance until August, at which point I can reapply for a forbearance of up to 12 months if needed. I am expecting a small stipend for the concert I almost sang in on Palm Sunday; and a week from this coming Thursday, I should get my first "full-size" paycheck on my new job. Between those windfalls, I expect to be able to pay a tax preparer (TurboTax, at least) to file my federal, state, and city tax returns—praying that I don't somehow owe more taxes than I paid last year. Then I can worry about my electric bill, my gas bill, my car payment, and whether or not I need to port my home phone number to a prepaid cell phone (and that's only if my landlord will allow me to disconnect my phone line). My bank account is out of the hole. If I can keep it that way without falling behind on any of the above bills, I might make it—even earning less than half of what I was earning a month ago.

The loser, however, will most likely be this blog, and everything else I do on the internet. It's a pity, because I was just starting over after being disconnected for several months. I had been using the computer at work for essential online activities (such as renewing library loans, posting book reviews, and checking my email), until that job ended. My new job doesn't offer the facilities to do that. The remarkable way it snugly fills the time available between my other commitments, also gets in the way. Certainly the decrease in my income won't tend to encourage the addition of an extra bill, which I wouldn't have taken on myself if some friends hadn't offered to underwrite my home internet service. And now these friends have received a financial setback of their own, and are begging off after only one month. It isn't their fault. It's simply discouraging to note that the very day I heard this news from them, the bill for the second month's internet service also arrived. At this moment I can pay it. My only worry is whether I should—or whether I should rather plan to make sure I've got what's really needful (for bodily survival) covered.

I think I'm going to give it a try and see how things go for the next month. I've got so much to say (as this blog at least somewhat bears witness). I find it spiritually and mentally nourishing to say it, to work out my ideas in writing. I feel less lonely when I think other people may be reading what I write, as though I had someone to talk to and who might, perhaps, answer back. I don't know how I could live if this vent for my thoughts got plugged up, if this window on the world closed—I simply don't know, even after the past year and more, when that vent and that window have been forced into a narrower channel by circumstances out of my control. Maybe, when cash flow permits, I will scrounge up a wireless notebook computer and begin haunting a cafe with free WiFi. Bottom line: If I do go dark, as I may in the near future, don't give up on me. God permitting, I shall return.

Meanwhile, I'm remembering what I said while parting ways with one of my coworkers on my last day at the old job: "Have fun working tomorrow. I'll be at home with my hair in curlers, painting my toenails and eating chocolates." Well, obviously, it hasn't turned out that way... even on my day off!