Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween Tricks and Treats

The really scary event this Halloween was this morning's "Budget Conference" for the wedding. Talk about your sticker shock! The crazy part is that we just bought a new car this week, and it cost way less than the wedding will do. And it's not like either of us is fanatical about this event -- I'm not being Bridezilla, and Starman's not the Groom from Hell -- we just want to have a nice, happy event for everyone to remember. I think our mistake is having it in an expensive place, and at an expensive exchange rate. But when we sat and thought about it, we decided it was okay. Scary, but okay.

So out went all the deposit checks, along with letters intended to keep the schedule the way we want it, not the way the last couple to get married there had it. (Really, I think "cut-and-paste" has a lot to answer for in these proposals!) Starman got his visa application done as well; yes, I need a special visa to enter the U.K. with the intent to marry my own husband. Anyway, that's something done for the time being. And I've created a lovely temporary file with all the bits and pieces sorted out. To my surprise, an impulse purchase of Martha Stewart's Wedding magazine paid off: we found a fun place to order the tiny number of wedding invitations we need, and the cut-out organizer (including budget page) has proven very useful.

On the treats side of the page, we have our first dinner invitation from the new group of people we've met because of the lawsuit I'm working on. Sue and Irv live around the corner from us (that's still three miles away -- they're big corners here) and stopped by recently to see the house, drink tea, and invite us to dinner. I've made a pumpkin cheesecake, which should be yummy; that remains to be eaten, for now it just looks good.

And now, here's the trick/treat conundrum for my readers: Someone has issued an INternet-wide challenge to blog every single day in November. I'm going to try to do it, although I'll warn you, some days you'll be lucky to get a sentence or two. (A noun and a verb I should be able to manage; asking for subordinate clauses and parenthetical phrases might be a bit much.) So, whaddya think -- is that a treat, or a trick?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

I make that 1.84 total

I've been meaning to blog about bridge for a while now. This weekend seems the perfect time.

Here's the backstory. I learned to play bridge at the age of ten, when my parents needed a fourth from time to time. I am sure I didn't love it then, presumably because I wasn't very good, and also because it's a hard game for a ten year old to master. Still, I didn't hate it, and as I got into my teens, I actually enjoyed it. I played bridge with some kids in free periods in high school, and I admired tremendously my brother who got to play in tournaments with our then-calculus teacher. In fact, I think that brother is a life master as a consequence of those tournaments.

But the rest of my life, it was very rare that I would play. There was one exhilarating weekend at my parents' house when Coffee Jones and I arrived for a visit and learned that my mother had enough players to do a mini-tournament. Now, Coffee Jones is sublimely gifted with cards, but the rigidity of bridge -- its rules and conventions, counting and considering -- is very off-putting to CJ, so she doesn't play despite being having the best innate card sense of anyone I've ever known. But man was she on her game that weekend! We came in first of the couples there that weekend, and that included people (like my parents) who'd been playing for decades. (I should point out that the weekend was exhilarating only for me -- CJ may have enjoyed aspects of it, but the bridge was stressful for her. Sorry, sweetie -- even years later, I do get it that you were ambushed!)

So, when I married Hub 1.0, I thought, Cool -- he's a puzzle guy, he's super-smart, he's bound to love bridge. Nope. Just didn't take to it, and I didn't push (this time -- sorry, again, CJ!). Which brings us to Starman, who like Hub 1.0 is a puzzle guy and super-smart, but had even less experience playing cards in his childhood. It might have been a disaster if it weren't for two vitally important things: Starman likes to study (really -- he reads bridge books voluntarily!) and we discovered the Bridge Studio by accident one day.

I forget now why we needed to find a Jo-Ann Fabrics store, but we did, and there was one up in Vestal, NY that was convenient. But for some reason we were there too early so we walked around to see what the Bridge Studio was. Our introduction to the magnificent Mary was a newsletter she had written reminding married couples not to bicker at the bridge table. ("Wow! How the game has changed since my childhood!" I thought.) We got a schedule for Starman to take bridge classes, and off he went for his first class.

Let's just say, he never went alone after that! When he came back and showed me what he was learning to do, I knew that I needed to learn this stuff too. So we've been going to classes since last February, and it's wonderful. Mary is delightful and smart, but also perceptive enough to encourage each of us to believe we can play better, while reminding us that everyone makes mistakes from time to time. (She and her husband Harry have a bazillion match points between them.) At first, all we did was go to the class and play afterwards, about two hours total. But we signed up for a website that allowed us to play against computer opponents (less embarrassing when we make mistakes!) and we practiced. Ross read books. (I started books, but you know how it is -- I've got a novel to read somewhere, so the bridge book didn't usually compare). Last month we started coming to another Bridge Studio session where we play with other people in the duplicate format. The first time there were enough people to run three tables, Starman and I came in second! That startled the woman filling in for Mary, particularly as she hadn't met us before. The explanation that we were still taking the EasyBridge classes may not have satisfied her, but she was very nice to us.

And that brings us to our very first proper tournament. I want to be a life master. Silly, perhaps, but I grew up in a very subtly sexist home: my parents believed in women's rights, certainly, and treated their kids pretty casually across the board. But somehow it was understood that the boys were bright math types, and my sister and I were good at sewing and cooking. (Interestingly, my sister has a Ph.D. and I've got both a masters and a JD, but it's true that I like sewing and cooking more than being a lawyer...) It would just be nice to accomplish something that I thought cool 30 years ago but never thought I could do.

In order to become a life master, you need 1,000 match points, and they have to be in different colors. Black points are the easiest to earn, as everytime you do well at the club level you get some fraction of a point. They do add up over time, of course, and anyway, we all need the practice. Silver points come from performance at a sectional tournament; these are held in various places and the American Contract Bridge League (the folks who keep track of the points!) let us know by e-mail when and where they're going to be. And finally, there are gold points, won at regional tournaments. Those are the hardest to get. To be a life master, you need some number of black, some silver, and some gold points. And this is a slow climb -- when Starman and I did well at the club the first time, we got precisely .41 of a point! We'll be playing a while at that rate!

Starman and I played in our first sectional yesterday -- and we qualified (with .82 of a point between the two of us) for the 199's class. This meant that we were playing with pairs with combined points under 200. I believe there were ten pairs, and we played 21 boards. Everyone was very nice to us, and while I know I made mistakes, it was nothing too painful. It's all learning, innit? Okay, so at the end of the session, I felt good -- Starman had played with pleasure (ultimately, his enjoyment is my most important goal, as I really want to keep him as a partner!) and I'd had a good time. Then the results went up.

We came in first! Yippee!! And that means we've earned our first silver point, or rather 1.43 points to be precise. We're on our way to being life masters!

Check back in five years...

A Nuptial Update

It's okay, you can breathe again. Yes, Coffee Jones, my intrepid "crone-of-honor" talked me off the cake tier, so to speak. She mounted many sensible arguments why it would be a BAD idea for me to make my own wedding cake, including stress, scheduling conflicts during the pleasantly social weekend we have planned before the wedding, and how no one would care but me. (To her credit, she did not suggest this was a bad idea because either a) the cake would be a disaster if I did it, or b) there would be no cake at all, just some crumbs and chunks left over after I'd taken a chain saw to it in frustration. She's so loving, my crone!)

The winning ("icing on the cake") argument was this: It would be like having the bride step aside and sing at her own wedding. No matter how pretty her voice is, that's just wrong. (I actually saw something like this, but it was the groom and he played the guitar. Still wrong though.) Mind you, I worry I won't have a cake I personally care to eat, so the deal I've struck with Coffee is this: no matter what I arrange or do, no one will know but her and she'll know only if she turns to me during the cake-eating segment of our reception and says, "Well?" and I respond either "Mmm-hmmm," or "Unh-hunh." How subtle is that?

For the rest of you, you'll just have to wait for the post-wedding blog report next spring.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Latest Evidence of Insanity

I must be insane. Not because of the loony tune I'm about to play for you, but because -- in my heart of hearts -- I don't actually think this is insane. Only I know it is. C'mon, even I get that. Only I don't. Not really. There! See? Insane! (And talking to myself!)

Starman [-- who's legal now! Did I mention that? Yup -- we had the interview on 25 September with a seasoned USCIS officer who was more interested in how I could get divorced one week and remarried the next; seems he'd gotten divorced the hard way 18 months ago and was still getting over it; anyway, he approved Starman on the spot, and even approved of me, which was nice] and I were in England over the weekend, staying with High-and-Mighty and Multitasks-With-Ease (Starman's brother and sister-in-law, using their "indigenous peoples" name). I'd already planned this trip with my "Crone-of-Honor" (Coffee Jones; her husband rejected the title "maid of honor" in favor of this version...) but when USCIS said Starman could come too, we just juggled the arrangements slightly. Starman nipped off on his own to visit his mother in Oxford, than on to London to see his two sisters. Coffee and I drove (yes! I drove! I'm not that bad at the whole "wrong side of the road" thing) from Manchester to Yorkshire. First, we visited Fountains Abbey, where the wedding will be, and then we went on to Naburn, south of York, where H&M and MWE live. (During the week of the wedding, the American contingent of the wedding party will be living here, which is a nice perk to this experience.)

On the Friday, Coffee, MWE and I went back to Fountains Abbey, met with Jenny Arugula (representative for the caterers) at Fountains Hall to discuss menus, and so forth. That afternoon, we met with the florist -- Elspeth, a lovely person! -- and then on to Trevor, the baker everyone had recommended. This is where the insanity starts.

I gather the traditional English wedding celebration is slightly different from the traditional American wedding. While a lot of modern UK couples get married in the late afternoon (rather like we do here), the tradition there is to get married in the morning and then sit down to the "wedding breakfast" which is actually lunch. The meal has three courses: a starter (our appetizer), a main course, and "pudding." Yup, that's what they call dessert. All desserts are "pudding," perhaps because they don't have Bill Cosby. I don't know. But the weird part about that, of course, is not the name, but that it exists at all. You're going to be eating wedding cake, so who needs dessert? Okay, I accept that isn't actually the point. I also get it that the cutting of the cake -- a traditional element on both sides of the pond -- is at the very end of the shindig, so why make people wait. And finally, it's traditional in the UK to serve fruitcake in a royal icing (shiny & white; dries solid and hard) shell with an underlayer of marzipan for good measure. Nobody needs a huge slice of fruitcake, so you can well imagine a traditional three-layer fruitcake wedding cake serving everyone within 2 miles. So, the guests have sticky toffee pudding (served with double cream -- yum!) for dessert, and then sleep through the speeches before waking up for a wafer-thin slice of fruitcake.

The trouble started with Trevor (we suspect him of being Wallace & Gromit's kindly older brother -- he definitely had the family smile!) and his fruitcake -- it wasn't very good. (And that's assuming you can have a "good" fruitcake. If you don't even accept that, then this was really bad.) So that option gets crossed off. The alternative is to have his sponge cake with chocolate truffle center. These were much yummier. (He had little teeny ones for us to try; one wedding option is a tiered stand with lots of these teeny ones in place of a solid cake.) So I tentatively approved -- but didn't book -- a smaller version of the sponge cake: two small layers, which he said would serve 50 people. (We're only planning on 30 people, so that would seem to be a no-brainer.)

But the whole thing stuck in my head, as though I hadn't resolved the issue at all. Think of a check list: Venue {check}; food {check}; flowers {check}; photographer {check}; cake {check}. Cue the crickets. And this is crazy, right? The sponge cake with truffle center is very yummy. And if I'm just worried that a small, two-tiered cake is only going to serve teeny slices to people already full from "pudding," then I should just order a bigger cake. Right?

Only that's not the way my brain works. I realized this just recently: when I'm falling asleep, I solve problems. Real problems, imagined problems, other people's problems, whatever. It is, I gather, a nice soothing activity for me. Who knew? Now that I see this, I recognize myself doing it all the time. Which is how I knew that I had somehow put The Wedding Cake back on the list of problems to solve. Here's the analysis:
  • I bake. I'm not great at it, but I'm good for an amateur. I like to bake. And I like to bake for family and friends.
  • Guess who's going to be at this wedding? You got it: Family and friends!
  • I could bake a fruitcake no problem. I have a great recipe (assumes you like fruitcake; if you don't like fruitcake, it's merely in the "if I liked fruitcake this would be really good, no, really" category) which has to sit soaking up bourbon for a month and can be transported, safely, at room temperature, so it would be easy* to do that a month before the wedding, then take it over, drape some fondant (solid white but soft icing) over it and let Elspeth do flowers for decoration.
  • If I know I can do a fruitcake with no effort at all* then why not see if a more traditional American wedding cake would be possible. You know the style: somewhere between a layer cake and a pound cake, with really yummy filling and buttercream frosting? If I could take the layers over frozen, it wouldn't be impossible** to frost it there and let Elspeth do the flowers...
  • I would really like to be able to say I made the cake.

You see immediately where this is heading, don't you? And let's be honest about this: * means I'm exaggerating the ease of a) hosting a bunch of guests in a foreign country, b) getting myself & Starman ready for the big event, and c) serving as my own pastry chef in an unfamiliar kitchen; ** means I'm outright lying to myself.

At its lowest level, this is what we have: I think it's a harmless obsession, good for falling asleep, to figure out how this MIGHT be done, even as we all know I'd be insane to try it. So why not do trial runs of wedding cake recipes to see if one suits? What's the harm (other than to my waistline) to practice frosting techniques? So what if I'll be presenting guests and loved ones with suspiciously nuptial-looking "birthday" and "holiday" cakes. No harm there. In this country, no one dislikes wedding cake, right?

But I'll be brutally honest: It's that last bullet point that's the killer, so to speak. I would totally love to be able to say I made the wedding cake. I know that looks boastful, and maybe it is, but it's also who I am. I find it hard to do stuff that other people take for granted, but baking is relatively easy, and problem solving how to do something is -- well, it's a snooze, innit?

So, I'm insane.

I kinda think that's implicit in the title of this blog.