29 November 2009

Pretty DARN Thankful in the 'Burbs

I have recently acquired a new friend who lives half a world away. He's from the United States, but living in Europe with his wife and stepson. I am sure he felt a more than little wistful this holiday weekend.
So I wrote him a helpful note this Monday after Thanksgiving:

Dear Ex-Pat Pal,

How was your Thanksgiving? Mine was pretty good. Pretty DARN good.

I was invited along by a sweet friend from church to her brother's apartment in Springfield. Hoping to alleviate an overcrowded kitchen, I offered to bring the potatoes and was extremely gratified as the host, his wife AND his mother all commented on my thoughtfulness in taking that particularly onerous chore off their hands. It's always nice to feel appreciated.

The dinner was very nice. My friend and her brother each have been married to their spouses for a little over a year. Their parents were present along with an adult brother. Oh, and the turkey was pretty DARN moist.

And bonus! I found out a couple of weeks ago that one of my two favorite Sunday School Teachers is their cousin. He and his wife and their 7 month old boy were there along with his mother and younger sister. So it was a convivial group that included me in their festivities.

I was the odd girl out. Of course, I'm always the ODD girl. Someone needs to put a post-it note on my forehead: "ODD WOMAN OUT... unless you invite her." Or perhaps they already did? That could explain why I never seem to lack for invitations. Because I am, as you may be realizing, pretty DARN odd.

Anyway, the only problem with this jolly gathering (which spent all afternoon playing WII sports and laughing genially at the results--both good and bad) was that someone... or ones... brought NINE PIES to the party.

In case you lost count, there were only 12 adults in attendance.
And I refused to be accountable for others' unscrupulous over-culinarizing! I did manage to eat a tiny 1/1 inch sliver of the pumpkin cheesecake, banana cream, chocolate and peanut butter pies. BUT THAT WAS IT! My patience and gastrointesti-nullified space simply ceased to cooperate. My waistband simply refused to rise to the occasion.

Most of the afternoon forward, I sat and played with the 7 month old who amused himself by clutching large handfuls of my blonde stuff to use in pulling himself to his feet on my lap.

I think it horrified his parents more than me. My hair is extremely firmly attached, so no worries: I'm not beginning the week bald. And he had such a big handful that it didn't hurt. As long as the little guy wasn't trying make his escape to the ground, clutching and dragging it with him, we were okay. Seriously... he was just using it to steady himself and pretty DARN fortunately, his mother had cleaned all the sticky butternut squash muck off his hands long before he could attempt that. We had a great relationship---my tiny beau and I... until his Daddy came to collect him. Sigh.

I saw him at church again today, but... alas, he was asleep and in another's arms! Well, ok, the "other woman" was his mother. But I really liked him. And his mother. She was a vegetarian, but not an obnoxious one. I've often thought I could convert, except for I can't give up fish. (Note to self: must try blow fish before next Thanksgiving with my family.) And except for how rude I consider it to show up at dinners and parties to demand the accommodating veggie platter, as I've seen some others do. But she was lovely and not demanding at all. She was pretty DARN cool!

She also brought a huge salad. (Why is there never anything green in my teeth? Because I check constantly!) Anyway, I won the door prize: took the salad and four homemade rolls home for leftovers.

Leftovers: the OTHER Thanksgiving tradition.

So... tell. What did you and your family do? :)

I haven't gotten a reply back yet. But I have the feeling it will read something like this:

Dear Stateside Friend,

We muddled along another pretty DARN French weekend in Paris. No over-sized, dried out roast bird in sight.


Some things just aren't fair. But between a bird in the homeland and a two-some plus one in Paris, it's truly a difficult call. I hope you all enjoyed the holiday weekend with those you love.

Disclaimer: I did not take the above picture. If one from the actual gathering turns up, I'll post it. Tonio & Katrina: If you have it, please forward it soonest.

20 November 2009

A Study in Southern Style: Mr. & Mrs. Phillips

Have you ever felt as if you were dropped from the sky, landing smack-dab into the middle of a soap opera? Previously, I mentioned my road trip to New Orleans this past week, and maybe I should have mentioned something else.

It is my long-held contention that some areas of the South (in particular the DEEP South) do not have any *normal people living there.

None. Whatsoever.

Rather, I believe that much of the Deep South is populated with characters waiting for books to be written about them.

Or perhaps just blogs. I've believed this for a very long time.

This is Anita Phillips and her husband Allen. I came in contact with the Phillipses in a Walmart (that'd be "Walmarts" for some of us) in Springville, Alabama on Tuesday. They were in the frozen food section. Shouting. At each other. (Dig her blue jumpsuit. I have one of those in fleece wear. Except in mine, I look like Smurfette.)

At first, the noise made me wonder if a fight were about to break out. Then I thought maybe a reality TV show was filming and I'd missed the notices that said "A TV Reality show is filming here today and by walking through this store, you give your implied consent to being part of the show."

But then I realized no, it was that the real life characters upon which George Costanza's parents from NBC's hit sitcom Seinfeld were based, were in fact, walking amongst us.

You remember them, don't you? Frank and Estelle Costanza were portrayed by Jerry Stiller and Estelle Harris as two of the most annoying people you've never met: noisy, bickering, angry and rude. It was almost painful to watch them at times, but yet you couldn't quite take your eyes off them.

Except these two in front of me were not annoying. Anita and Allen were every bit as noisy, which I believe may have distracted me. Being a TV reporter, I'm often distracted by shiny objects on a sidewalk, so imagine the effect of a little noise. Or a lot.

Back to Anita and Allen. Annoying? No, indeed! They were, however, every bit as entertaining as the Costanzas, squabbling over thawing bags of Tater Tots and what kind and how many rolls of paper kitchen towels are needed. It was like being immersed in a bacon-flavored Costanza-rama.
Just what is it that charms us about a Southern accent? It makes us want to listen and soak it up just as surely as we like to try biscuits with gravy just because it sounds so unusual yet somehow satisfying. We hear it and our mind sops it up as surely as melting butter soaks into fresh cornbread. It's so sweet on the ear, isn't it?
And um, yes, a bit trailer park-y. Yet still we like it. I love it!
So there was Allen, loading an extra pack of frozen burritos into his cart as Anita talked on the phone to the couple's daughter, Brittany, who relayed orders for a more diverse snack spread for viewing the upcoming football game: at least two kinds of crackers to go with the three kinds of chips.

If you notice, both Anita and Allen each have a grocery cart. See the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup dessert boxes below?

That's Anita's cart. She buys those and makes them for Allen. She admitted that fact with all the coy smiles of a 16 year old about to go to her first prom.

I like this about Southerners. These are folks who until the day they die will call their spouse "Baby." There's something warm, nourishing and right about that. Something that recognizes that the other person is to be babied and cosseted and cherished and loved.

Anita had that going on with Allen over the frozen turkey section. All the while of course, blinking those Big Baby Blues and smiling at him.

As I said, they were sorta yelling over the Totino's pizza rolls when I came around the corner to catch them in mid-sentence. Allen noticed me getting a load of them. (I think it was when the perfect stranger took their picture.) Then I noticed the tone. They were playing, teasing, taunting and flirting with each other over the frosted calzone and a row of stacked Velveeta. (Cheese. Should it be stackable? Discuss.)

They were communicating. They were discussing what their kids wanted, who needed how many bags of which kind of tortilla chips, what brand of salsa to go with those chips and what to wash it all down. And here's a tip: look how pleased Allen looks to be in a grocery store with his wife. Of 20 years.

And me? I was drinking it in a bit, myself. Awash in a Southern style that is sticky sweet because after all, people are candy. And these two were just a little... nuts.
(*Special to Anita Phillips: everyone else who reads this blog knows my definitions. "Normal equals average; average equals mediocre; mediocre equals BORING." Welcome to the fun crowd!)

19 November 2009

If People Are Candy, Waffle House Is A Sugar Shack

As you know, I've been out of town for the past several days. You know how much I love a good road trip. Below are a few of the pictures I took literally along the way.

It's a beautiful time of year in the South. And I rolled along taking pictures like the one above with beautiful blue skies.

And this one, where the clouds seemed to be clearing.
I must admit, I was in a bit of a hurry, so I often didn't stop the car and just relied on the scenery from the drivers' seat. It was very pleasant seeing the Deep South as I motored west.

But I noticed a bit of symmetry along the highways and byways of Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia.

A bit of a theme, you might call it.

(Here's a little Waffle House Trivia [WHT]: Waffle House restaurants serve more than 3.2 million pounds of grits each year; enough to fill 86 semi-trucks.)

I never had to strain my eyes.
Although sometimes, it did seem to go by in a bit of a flash!
Look, it's almost gone! No worries because here comes the next exit:
And the next:

And the next:

"It was a dark and stormy night..."
Haha! Sorry, just wanted to try out that sentence.
(WHT: If you stacked all the sausage patties WH serves in one day, it would reach the top of the Empire State Building.)

The next two exits? Heck, just south of Chattanooga, TN, I spotted one exit with a Waffle House on each side. They'd catch you coming or going.

Sometimes, I was going a little too fast to get to the side of the road to snap a photo.

But I didn't let that stop me from capturing the moment.

This one loomed up on me so fast that I could only point and click.

Not exactly sure where this was, but somewhere in Tennessee, I believe.
(WHT: Waffle House Restaurants serve 10,000 T-bone steaks per day.)

I almost missed this next one. Do you see it?

The sign is behind the tree. I put a little arrow in, just in case you struggled to see it behind the tree. Click on the photo and you'll see it.

I don't want you to go away thinking that I wandered and meandered all the way across five states taking these pictures without ever getting a meal in one.

Waffle Houses are something special in the Southeastern United States and you have to be in a particular mood to eat there.
Or you have to be a trucker. Truckers can eat there any day of the week and any time of the day, it would seem. But... that's another story.
This was my first ever-meal in a Waffle House, and I chose the one in Wytheville ("withVILLE"), Virginia, to take the plunge.
The menu is limited. Waffle House pretty much sticks to eggs, bacon, waffles, steaks and anything that you can do with those items. Plus chili.
(WHT: WH customers consume more than 2% of the total eggs produced in the USA for foodservice, every year. That's 185,000,000 eggs annually.)
They also serve a "garden fresh salad" but I suspect the "fresh" is a misprint.

Ordering salad in a Waffle House is rather like ordering a burrito in a Chinese restaurant. It'll arrive, but you may wish to rethink that choice. I wish I had.

After a day of junk food and sandwiches in the car, and with another 5 hours in the car still ahead, I couldn't face more carbs. I ordered the chili and BLT ("with six slices of bacon!") combo with a soda for $5. (It's a "recession special." Please: nobody tell them the recession is over; I don't think they like change.) I had the sandwich wrapped to go and ate the chili and added a salad.
The chili was pretty good; the salad was um, a salad. But here's what made the whole experience stand out as fresh:
That's TJ on the left and Beth on the right.
TJ has worked there a month and when I walked in, she asked "Can I help you?" that seems to be a universal question among Southerners. They always want to help, see to your comfort, get you a glass of sweet tea or start fixing whatever it is that ails you.
Beth has been there several years and is from Pennsylvania. She's an accomplished hand at Waffle House waitressing.
Beth is still training TJ just a little and carries the burden well. She made my BLT ("six slices of bacon") and wrapped it up with a smile. I think she even looked the other way as I examined the silverware.
Waffle Houses are so small that they generally have a cook in the back and two waitresses during the lunch and dinner rush. (They are open 24 hours, so in "the wee hours," a graveyard waitress is often alone out front.)
On the whole, it was an interesting and entirely satisfactory experience. Perhaps more so from an anthropological standpoint than on a gustatory angle. But it was interesting and all six pieces of bacon were accounted for on the BLT which I ate for lunch the day after.
And I will be back. Their hashbrowns--chunked, smothered and scattered all the way--is an experience I will want to savor after a day a little less Cheeto'd.

16 November 2009

Producers? Who Needs Producers?

I am going to admit something here: I like having a producer around sometimes.
I don't always like having them around. There's nothing better than getting in a news truck and roaring off to chase a great story without anyone else's input or say so. The feeling of independence is amazing.
But sometimes, you can just enjoy having an "assigned best friend/minder/ assistant/and yet somehow boss-person" around. And when that person comes with a funky little style all her own, knowing exactly what she wants, how to achieve it, communicates it clearly and takes care of all the details along the way, well, it can be a wonderfully relaxing experience.
Toss in a New Zealand accent, a piercing or two, hair that looks (it's hard to see in the photo, but in person, that hair is shaved around the sides and the shaped part on top comes to a point in the front, as if a small jet-black boy's cap was perfectly positioned on top of her head) like the personification of the word "cheeky," and the occasional well-placed "F---" and it's absolutely hilarious. (Sorry if that offended, but when some people say it, it's just darned funny.)

This is Kelly. She fits the description of the two paragraphs above to a "T." She works for a company out of London that hired me to do some reporting in New Orleans this week. I'd tell you what her last name is, but I think she's rather private. (Otherwise, I'd tell you her middle name is Joan, right?)
She flew in from The Mother Country on Sunday and she's a nonstop scream. If the picture was video, you'd seen her hands flying around adding a little extra sauce to the whole soupy thing of her.
This week, Kelly set up everything that happened, organized the interviews, schmoozed her clients, wrote material for me to shoot all along the way, kept the convention managers happy, taught a fast workshop in remedial photography and editing, ordered lunch and trotted out to get it and kept the reporter moving whenever she stopped to play a little too much.
I'm sure you realize that a producer has to take a measure of crap. I think it's in the job description. It's not just that reporters are difficult to steer (like being road manager to the iceberg that sank the Titanic) but it's also that everyone we come in contact with wants something.
For instance, if a city official from Meridian, Mississippi sends his public affairs person over to advise me of exactly how vital he was to success of the project that I'm reporting on and then press me to interview him, well, the answer is no. But it's so nice to be able to say "You'll have to ask Kelly."
If the father of a ten year old girl who made a poster for the project comes by with the daughter in tow to say "Wouldn't you like to interview my little angel?" I say, "Oh, gosh, you'll have to ask Kelly."
If someone shows up to say, "Fred Schmidt is actually the person who organized this (project/scheme/grand plan for the edification of the Universe); you absolutely must interview him," well, you know exactly what I say: "You. Must. Check. Kelly."
As for Kelly? She deals with it. She smiles a crooked, quirky little smile and sparkles a little at them. Waves her hands around a fair bit and it's magic. Before any of us know it, she's taken my measure of crap, turned into cookies and handed them out to everyone she comes in contact with who then walk away thinking they got the best of it all.
And I have to tell you, if they got it from Kelly, I'm guessing that maybe they did.

11 November 2009

My Feet Are Not Small

This is Rahman.
If he looks familiar, perhaps it's because you saw him on a "WANTED" poster. In Pakistan.
Oh? You've not been there recently? Neither has Rahman. But he's the opposite of a criminal.

Rahman Bunairee sat next to me in digital audio editing class for several days this past week at Voice of America. (This is probably one of the coolest aspects of working at VOA. You never quite know who is around the corner.)

The first day when I came in, he told me his name and said "Maybe you've heard of me?" I said "Um, no."

He said "My house was blown up in Pakistan."
Yes, yes, we've all had accidents with the blow dryer and a tub of water. Bad times with a toaster and a butter knife. Life is difficult and confusing, isn't it?

Television reporters are known for sensitivity and tact at such moments, as we all know, right?
"Oh, goodness, I'm so sorry that happened to you, but can you tell me exactly what you felt at the moment that you heard your family's home and all its contents had been utterly laid waste by an explosive device made specifically in the hope of killing... YOU?"
I promise, I didn't say that. But you thought it was a distinct possibility, didn't you? We're all friends. You can admit it. I can take it.
It took me a bit, but I soon began to have a vague, rather nagging memory... a distant bell tinkling in the back of my mind that let me know I could dig in the far, dimly lit recesses of my mind for the details of what I read on a couple of in-house emails and in the Washington Post.
Rahman was working as a Voice of America journalist in Pakistan. Technically, he was the bureau chief for another television group and did a little work for VOA on the side until after he received a few death threats and his family's house was blown up by the Taliban.
Well, that happened to me one time when I... er, no. Never.
Fortunately, neither he nor any of his family were at home at the time that the bomb detonated. The U.S. government immediately brought him to Washington, DC to work and resettle his life as best they could. Not so far, so great, right? But maybe things were looking up.
Maybe, except for on arrival, Rahman was taken into custody by federal officers on charges of being a terrorist. Well, not really. They just said that his reason for being in this country was something more than stated on the visa. The visa that the government procured for him.

In journalism, we call that "adding insult to injury."

After a couple of very public statements by someone a lot higher than me at VOA, Rahman was released to restart his life in the United States.

I learned a lot in computer class.

I learned that it's very nice to sit next to the cool guys when in a learning situation. That way, the extraneous lessons in humility are a bit more concentrated.

Hump Day!

It's Wednesday. And it's raining. Which is really not a surprise in Washington, DC in November. It just isn't.

It was more than sprinkling when I left for work. It was absolutely pouring hours later when I left to go home. It's not surprising at all.

But this was. Look how clear and sharp and brilliant the colors are in the rainbow above that apartment building!

Now look a little closer. There are two.
And look at this third picture.

We can all hope for that, yes? Happy Veterans Day.
BTW, later this week? ROADTRIP. Deep South. I promise, I'll bring home the bacon!

07 November 2009

I Dreamt that I Was Married to Tom Cruise...

And somehow it wasn't a nightmare.
Disclaimer: Since this is not now, nor has it ever been one of my aspirations, we will consider it a product of an odd bite of turkey sandwich in the waning hours before I turned in for the night.
I don't recall worrying about his film career. I was looking forward to getting to know Suri, because she looks like a dear child and Katie Holmes seems like she'd be an excellent mother; one who would raise a sweet little girl. (Although I do remember wondering if I could get Siri's little cast-off designer duds which, according an online "news" service, cost an estimated $2 million dollars annually. I planned to start an ebay.com store and sell them. Then I'd use the money to pay for enough H1N1 vaccine to immunize at least one developing nation.)
Tom, himself, seemed intelligent and well-focused on his acting.
I do recall thinking he was very, very short.
And I don't remember at all thinking about the "hmmm, he believes our progenitors were aliens" bit. Interestingly, that didn't cross my mind at all.
He just seemed a tad better looking (which I was nicely detached about) than most men that I've kept company with recently. And a lot more well thought out.

Dreams are odd things, aren't they? And this one had no couch-jumping involved whatsoever.

PS: please do feel free to comment with your own odd dreams or perhaps insight you might have about my "Tom Cruise as husband" subconscious babblery.

04 November 2009

Human Candy: The Leaf Blower

This is Jeremy Tidd.
Jeremy was blowing leaves on the street when I got in my car the other day. I popped right back out to take his picture. Why?

Have you ever heard that saying that people resemble their pets?

You take a hard look at Jeremy and tell me that blowers of leaves don't resemble their, uh, leaf-blowing machines.

Jeremy, to me, resembles his power tool. Seriously. Tell me that I'm wrong.

I don't mean it in an unkind way. He also seems to me to be the human personification of the word "Autumn," too. Autumn, of course, being one of the most productive times of the year, when many fruits and vegetables come to fruition. (I just flashed on my farmgirl roots. Did you notice?) I thought he was fun to look at and maybe you'd think so, too. He's a little bit of human candy.

Part of the reason that I like looking at people so much is because some of them have a type. Jeremy is almost a character in a Hollywood film because his visual "flavor" is one of those "types." I'm not sure what type that is, but it seems very likeable to me, and something to be savored at this time of year. Maybe I can compare him to a pumpkin pie flavored lollipop. If such a thing existed, it would be a little sweet, seasonal, and yet made from a humble pumpkin, which everyone likes.

We have lots of leaves in the streets here in Washington right now. It's a very beautiful time of year, and in between damp, gloomy days, we are enjoying beautiful clear blue skies and the last weeks of warmth before winter sets in.
So it's a good time of year for Jeremy's business. You know what I've always wondered about people who blow leaves? Where exactly are they blowing the leaves to?

It seems kind of funny to me that someone pays a person to blow leaves off their property.
Of course, then their neighbor comes outside, sees that the leaves are blown his direction and pays another person to blow them back. But perhaps this is all part of our great economic system of "circulating American dollars."

But likely it's just more of the same stuff that Jeremy puts in a big bin with grass clippings, leaves and yard trimmings all summer and into the fall, then spreads around the landscape in the spring to make things grow.