Sunday, December 27, 2009

Nativity by Brian Kershisnik

This is a little embarrassing to admit, but when I first walked around a corner in the B.Y.U. Museum of Art and found myself face to face with a myriad of the heavenly host, a mother nursing a minutes-old baby, and a rather grief-stricken-looking father, I didn't realize I was looking at a nativity painting. At least I didn't realize I was looking at a painting of the nativity. There was no identifying plaque on the wall next to the painting. I did, however, immediately recognize it as something very familiar and right away I felt a connection with this work. A legion of angels dressed in the familiar clothing of L.D.S. temple patrons was passing by to get a glimpse of what I saw as the newest of their earthly kin. I saw these angels as ancestors and possibly descendants of the small new family depicted at the bottom of the canvas. To me, it showed the close connection between the birthing experience and heaven. When I went up to the front desk to inquire and was told that the roughly seven foot by seventeen foot oil and acrylic expressionistic painting was Nativity by Brian Kershisnik, I felt a little foolish that I hadn't recognized the Holy Family right away. I returned to the painting and immediately noticed the stable-like setting, complete with a mother dog and her recent litter. Of course I had seen it before, but it simply hadn't clicked. And the traditional blue of Mary's dress. And the attitude of singing praises of those angels who were preparing to fly off one side of the canvas and out into the night. And the tears streaming down many of their faces. Okay, so now the painting meant even more.

I spent quite a bit of time in front of Nativity during two separate visits to the museum. It was interesting to me to see the reactions of people as they rounded a corner and came in contact with this enormous picture. Old people, young people, tiny children literally stopped in their tracks and paid considerable attention to this painting. Because it's so large? That probably has something to do with it. But I think it has more to do with Kershisnik's appealing style; he uses color, line, and texture in a way that makes me feel comfortable and somehow included in his work.

The painting's dominant line is the river of angels flowing basically in a horizontal current across the canvas, containing soft interior curves along the way. Another significant line is found where the “river” diverts up and over the stable's earthly occupants, leaving them enclosed (in the negative space) in a soft, rounded, cozy setting. Some other important lines are that of the fence cutting Joseph off from Mary, and the vertical forms of the stable occupants suggesting that, unlike the visitors passing through, they are staying put---earthbound for the time being. Even these lines have a soft, rounded quality, and it is Kershisnik's use of curving lines that creates the overall warmth that is so inviting.

The color scheme of Nativity is appealingly simple, using mainly contrasting browns and blues. The differing values of brown Kershisnik uses in the basic stable setting, Joseph's attire, the subjects' hair color, and the mother dog and her puppies remind us again that, unlike the heavenly host passing over, this place and these beings are of the earth. Mary, however, gets to wear blue. Blue has been Mary's signature color throughout the history of Christian art. Kershisnik uses the deep blue of the heavens (shown mainly in the top left corner of the canvas) and Mary's blue (in the lower right) to physically give balance to the painting. It also designates Mary as the chosen vessel of the Lord and lifts her to a more divine status; she belongs to the heavens as well as the earth. A lighter value of blue is reflected in the dress of one of the midwives to further balance and give interest to the work. Kershisnik repeats the brown values in the hair color of many of the angels. Not only does this serve to aesthetically balance the lower right stable setting with the rest of the painting, but it also reminds me of the angels' connection with the earth; perhaps it hasn't been long since some of them dwelt on earth as mortals. The balancing act is completed by the use of brilliant white in the robes of the angels. High-key is tempered by the low-key blues and browns, giving an overall sense of balance and unity to heaven and earth.

Texture plays a big part in what makes this picture so enjoyable to look at. Of course the medium itself lends texture to the canvas, especially in the stable; the artist builds up with oil paint a suggestion of straw on the dirt floor. But the more noticeable display is the implied textures in the wonderful array of fabrics that clothe the host of angels. Many common textile patterns are represented and we (especially L.D.S. temple patrons) feel a certain familiarity and sense of identity as we pick up on them. I had to smile when I saw a woman point out a specific angel and heard her say to her daughters, “Notice how the red-headed angel chose this swirly pattern for her dress.” Another texture is seen in the glossy, mosaic-like pattern that makes up the sky. It adds visual appeal and also reminds me of the mosaics of the Byzantine and Christian styles, and seems like an appropriate way to paint the heavens.

In addition to his use of line, color and texture to draw us into his work, Kershisnik masterfully depicts emotion through the faces of his subjects as well as through symbolism. While Mary and the midwives emote a sense of peace and an admiration for the newborn Christ, and the angels display various emotions on their faces, it is Joseph who stands out individually. The conflicting combination of relief and grief and despair clearly comes through. I can see what Joseph is feeling. He is physically separated from Mary by a section of fence. The placement of the fence symbolizes what I think all men must feel when their wives give birth; in spite of being present, Joseph cannot fully be a part of it. He has seen the pain and the endangerment to life and, as a man (the protector), he naturally feels like he should have been able to do something to help. He is also feeling the magnitude of being responsible for this special child, the Son of God. I think it was Joseph that originally threw me off about the content of this work; we don't usually see Joseph depicted the way we see him here. With one hand on his grief-stricken face, he reaches through the fence to attempt to comfort Mary. She places a hand on top of his and is actually the one doing the comforting. It is amazing to me that an artist can convey these emotions so clearly and so strongly. I can also read meanings on the faces of many of the angels, one of whom seems to be noticing me as the viewer and giving me a look that says “I hope you realize how important this is.”

Brian Kershisnik's Nativity expresses his vision of and his feelings about the birth of the Savior with real emotion. His amazing use of the elements of art results in a unique warmth, a welcoming spirit, and openly invites anyone who sees it to actually be a part of it. I, as the viewer, have had a phenomenal experience with this painting. I have felt an overwhelming sense of somehow belonging to this picture and feel like I now have a whole new and more meaningful perspective of the birth of the Savior.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Lights

We have one very selfish Christmas tradition that I just love. We put Christmas lights in our backyard. We have big windows across the back of our family room. That's where we spend most of our time. It's really nice to be able to look out and see strings of colored lights adorning our kids' fort and the pine tree right next to the house. In the front yard, we just do the simple New England thing - wreaths and candles in the windows. I think it's beautiful. The kids think it's boring. Kent is working on building a new shed in the backyard. Next year I'm going to decorate that as well. Maybe turn it into a gingerbread house. Some people collect those miniature Christmas villages and set them up around the tree. I'm thinking of creating a life-sized Christmas village in our backyard. Okay, maybe two-thirds scale. Some of those reindeer made of white lights that move their heads up and down like they're grazing, a big snowman that waves to us as we watch him through the window, a pond with skaters... Someday we'll have grandkids. Wouldn't they just love it? I think I'd better hit the post-Christmas sales.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Day in the Morning

So you get up early on Christmas morning, charge into the family room and rip open the presents. Then what? It’s all over. Our kids figured out when they were still quite young that it’s better to stretch out Christmas morning as long as you can. They developed a Christmas morning ritual. They force themselves to sleep in as late as the oldest two decide. This about killed our youngest son for several years. Then we all get up and go downstairs. The kids open their stockings while Mom videos and Dad takes pictures. They look under the tree to see more wrapped gifts than were there before they went to bed the night before. He came! But nobody can touch. Believe it or not, we all go and shower and get ready for the day. Then we gather for Christmas breakfast. When the breakfast mess is at least cleared away from the table, it’s finally time to open the presents. But we don’t just rip into them. We alternate each year, starting with either the youngest or the oldest (somehow the kids keep track of which year it is), and open the gifts one at a time. In this way, we manage to stretch things out until at least ten-thirty or eleven. It seems to make it all much more exciting.

This has been our family’s favorite Christmas breakfast for the past few years. It’s also great for the Fourth of July.

1 loaf French bread
3 eggs, beaten
1 ¼ cups milk
3 T sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup blueberries (frozen blueberries are fine)
½ cup flour
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 ½ tsp cinnamon
¼ cup butter
1 package frozen strawberries in syrup

Cut or tear the bread into small cubes. Arrange cubes in a buttered 9 x 13 baking dish. Combine eggs, milk, sugar and vanilla. Mix well and then pour over the bread. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. In the morning, sprinkle blueberries over the bread mixture. Combine the flour, brown sugar and cinnamon. Cut in butter with a pastry blender until crumbly. Sprinkle crumb topping over the blueberries. Bake at 350 for forty to fifty minutes. While it’s baking, thaw and heat the strawberries. To serve, cut in squares (big squares) and top with strawberries. We’re actually going to use raspberries this year, as one family member has discovered he’s allergic to strawberries. Maple syrup is also good.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

One Neti Pot For Sale - Cheap

I bought a sinus irrigation system a few days ago. I have some sinus issues so naturally I’ve been self-diagnosing on the Web. I read about these sinus rinse products that are available. So began my quest for pristine sinus passages.

I bought this device called a neti pot – a cross between a little personal-sized teapot and a genie’s magic lamp. Neti is an Indian word for nasal. Apparently, people in India have been irrigating their nasal passages for centuries as part of practicing Yoga. I tried Yoga once. It was painful. My neti pot instruction manual assured me that irrigating my sinuses would be a soothing and enjoyable practice.

The neti pot comes with little packets containing just the right amounts of sodium chloride and sodium bicarbonate. When mixed with eight ounces of filtered water, they produce the perfect saline solution, guaranteed not to cause stinging or burning sensations in the nasal passages. Well, that's a relief.

So the idea is to pour the saline solution out of the neti pot through the spout into one of your nostrils. The solution goes up and over and comes out the other nostril, flushing away all your sinus problems. The booklet gives helpful hints on the whole process: use lukewarm rather than hot, boiling, or cold water, perform the procedure over a sink, since a whole cup of water is about to pour out of your nose, and my favorite tip, and I quote “Do not hold your breath and, if possible, make the sound ‘KHA…KHA…’” I loved this part. For the rest of the day, as each family member came through the front door, I ran to get my little neti pot booklet. After a quick explanation of nasal irrigation, I’d show him this part.

“Mom, you’re a freak,” they each said, but they couldn’t suppress the grin.


That evening, I was ready for my first treatment. I gently warmed some filtered water in the microwave, making sure there were no hot spots, and poured it into the neti pot. I added the contents of one packet and, with my thumb over the spout, shook to dissolve. I then carried the pot and the instruction booklet into the bathroom. I gave the pot a little rub for good luck and imagined a sinus genie rising up out of the spout and granting me three sinus-related wishes.

“Standing in front of a sink, bend forward to your comfort level and tilt your head to one side’” I read. Here goes, I thought.

I poured. Some of the solution did start coming out the other nostril, but the rest of it was suddenly filling up my mouth. I quickly tried to make the “KHA…KHA…” sound and nearly drowned in the attempt.

After recovering, I looked at the booklet again.

“It should not come into your mouth unless you are tilting your head backwards.”


I tried it again, positioning my head more carefully, but I skipped the vocals. I’d decided that the KHA… KHA… must have some kind of mystical yoga benefit that was way beyond my experience.

This time it worked fine. I wouldn’t have called it soothing or enjoyable, but I was hopeful that all my sinus issues would soon be resolved.

Within a couple of hours, I had a terrible sinus headache. It lasted all night. And I must have washed away some brain cells, because the next day, after the headache had subsided, I irrigated my sinuses again. Well, it could have been a coincidence, right? It wasn’t. I was almost immediately struck with the worst sinus headache of my life.

My face hurt.


For two days.

And so ended my quest for pristine sinus passages. If I want to cure my symptoms, I’m going to have to do it some other way. Better keep searching the Web.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

In-n-Out and Krispy Kreme

The recent In-n-Out Burger craze in Orem, Utah reminds me of the Krispy Kreme Doughnut craze that occurred just down the street about a decade ago. At that time, I wrote the following piece. I’ve been to In-n-Out Burger in California. The hamburgers and fries were just like the cheapest burger and fries I’ve ever had at any fast food place. At least Krispy Kreme brought back fond childhood memories.

Kind of long, but I hope you'll read it anyway!

Crusty Crisps? Crispy Whats?” I intentionally get it wrong.

Krispy Kremes!” my kids chant. “They’re the best doughnuts in the entire world!” they exclaim.

Sounds like a lot of hype to me.

“How do you know?” I ask. “You’ve never had one.”

Well, so and so, they assure me, had one while visiting cousins out of state, and he says it’s true.

“Maybe it’s kind of like The Emperor’s New Clothes,” I suggest. “People just want to be popular. They go along with the crowd so everyone will think they’re hip.”

“What’s hip?” they ask.

And so go our conversations, at least once a day during the week of the grand opening of the first Krispy Kreme doughnut store in our state, which happens to be in our town.

“Forget it,” I say. “No doughnut could possibly be so much better than any other doughnut that it would warrant standing in a line for three hours. Let alone camping out over night in a parking lot… And I have a new theory. After you stood in a line for three hours for a doughnut, would you admit that it wasn’t anything special?”

“What’s warrant?” my kids ask.

A couple of weeks go by, and one day I’m struck by one of those rare moods of generosity mothers like me get struck by about twice a year. I’m on an errand with my eleven-year-old, in the part of town where Krispy Kreme is located.

"Want to go to Krispy Kreme?” I ask. “The lines are probably normal by now,” I say naively.


Why don’t I try to be this nice more often, I wonder. Because if I did, I remind myself, I’d never get this kind of reaction. We turn the corner and my chin drops. Cars are parked on the street for 100 yards in both directions. The parking lot is completely full. The parking lots of neighboring businesses are completely full. The drive-thru line circles the building at least three times. We peer inside as we creep past. The line snakes around several times before heading out the door and down a flight of steps.

“NO WAY!” I holler. “Who are these people? Who would be STUPID enough to stand in line for that long for a DOUGHNUT?” I rant.

So much for my generous mood.

“Kurt,” I tell my son, “those people have got to be idiots.”

I tell him, “Sorry, Bud.”

We go to Einsteins and get a dozen bagels.

Several weeks go by. The kids bring home report cards, along with rumors that Krispy Kreme is giving out free doughnuts for every A.

“That’s crazy,” I tell them.

“No, Mom! The principal even said so on the announcements!” they insist.

The principal?

“Well,” I tell them, “put your report cards on the dashboard of the car. Sometime when I’m in the vicinity maybe I’ll stop in, if there’s no line.”

“What’s vicinity?” they ask.

I’m out doing some shopping one day soon, in the vicinity of Krispy Kreme. It’s about 10:30 a.m. A couple of months have gone by since the grand opening, and there are only a few cars in the parking lot. I park and go in. Only two other customers. I verify the free doughnut rumor, feeling a little silly as I ask. It’s true! One free doughnut for each A up to six per report card. I present four report cards and walk out with two dozen fresh, hot Krispy Kreme Original Glazed Doughnuts. I get in the car.

How can I resist? I’ve got to know what all the hype is about, and besides, if it weren’t for old Mom, making them do their homework and study for tests, there might not be free doughnuts, right? I lift one out of the box and take my first bite.

Have you heard it said that smell triggers memory? Well, taste does, too. Suddenly I’m a kid again, at the Kennedy Memorial Ice Skating Rink in Hyannis, Massachusetts, eating a honey glazed doughnut from the snack bar. We all ice skated when I was a kid. Not only at the Kennedy Rink, but on flooded cranberry bogs and neighborhood ponds. We all skated, whether we wanted to or not. I didn’t even really like ice skating, but I wouldn’t have dreamed of staying home. I didn’t like it because my feet always froze. We traded sizes around the neighborhood every year until everyone had a pair of skates that somewhat fit.  No matter how many pairs of socks I managed to cram on my feet under Sarah Carpenter’s hand-me-down skates, my toes would be numb after only a few times around. We all took lessons, too. I only made it through the beginners’ class. Every week I bawled all the way home in the car as my feet thawed out. My mother didn’t sign me up for the next level. I kept going skating though. I could skate forward and backward. I never got the hang of stopping; I’d just crash into the boards. Even my little brother would plod along on a pair of double runners. He was a wreck at sports. My parents had him convinced that Bobby Orr wore double runners. My sister got pretty good. She kept up the lessons. She could do all kinds of spins and jumps. She even danced the Mexican Hat Dance on skates one year at the annual ice show in a big sombrero and a bright colored poncho trimmed with orange ball fringe. I bawled through the whole performance, sitting in the stands with my parents. My feet were frozen.

We all skated at the Kennedy Memorial Ice Skating Rink, and we all bought the honey glazed doughnuts and the steaming hot chocolate at the snack bar. The hot chocolate was always too hot to drink (today they’d be sued), but we loved the doughnuts.

I pop the last bite in my mouth, lick each finger, and fasten my seatbelt. Wait till I tell the kids. Krispy Kreme doughnuts are nothing new to me. I’m certain they’re made from the same recipe as those doughnuts at the skating rink. I wonder if there’s a Krispy Kreme where my sister lives. I’ll tell her I don’t really know if these doughnuts are that much better than any other doughnuts. I’ll tell her I don’t know if the taste warrants standing in a long line for hours. But it might be worth it just for the memories.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Christmas Carol

The Christian season of Advent starts tomorrow. Advent, or the four Sundays between Thanksgiving and Christmas, is celebrated in many ways by Christians in different cultures around the world. In some European countries, they use an Advent wreath. An Advent wreath usually consists of greenery and four candles, one for each of the Sundays. Each Sunday night the family gathers together, lights the appropriate number of candles, and sings carols or tells stories about Christmas. This time is often used to teach about the Second Coming of Christ as well as his birth over two thousand years ago.

In our family, we celebrate Advent a little differently. Each Sunday between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we gather together in front of the television and watch a different version of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, while eating popcorn and oranges and drinking hot chocolate. We watch them in a certain order every year. It’s part of the tradition. The first week, we watch a funny little Dutch animated version we have on VHS in which Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, looks just like a cartoon monkey. Then, right after it’s finished, we put on the George C. Scott version. We have to get an early start because we double up the first week. The second week, we watch The Muppet Christmas Carol, and then sing “We’re Marley and Marley” in our heads for days. The third week, we watch the Patrick Stewart version, but the kids insist we call it the Patrick Henry version for some strange reason. On the last Sunday before Christmas, we watch the musical, Scrooge, starring Albert Finney. Then we all sing “Thank You Very Much” and “Father Christmas” in our heads for days.

Some years we get tickets for the Hale Center Theater production and see it on December twenty-third also, the last night they perform it. They do a really good job. We should know; we’re kind of experts. We’ve been doing this since the kids were little. We pretty much have A Christmas Carol memorized. If we each took a couple of parts, I’m sure our family could manage to pull off our own production on the spot without too much difficulty.

So Advent starts tomorrow. I’d better check the popcorn and hot chocolate supply and go out and buy some oranges. Enjoy the season with your family in whatever way you choose, and if you want to borrow a movie, come on over! Merry Christmas to all, and, in the words of Tiny Tim, “God bless us, everyone!”

How to Avoid Holiday Weight Gain in Just a Few Easy Steps (across the parking lot)

I’ve developed a new strategy for avoiding Holiday Weight Gain. (Notice the capitalization. Holiday Weight Gain is a proper noun – the name of an annual event that starts with that first bag of Halloween candy you buy that is supposedly going to be for the trick-or-treaters and ends with the “better finish off all these treats” marathon that takes place on New Year’s Day.) We’re all familiar with the more common strategies, like just taking one bite of something (impossible), loading up your plate with fresh veggies (gotta have the dip), or using a smaller plate (just doesn’t fool me). You can also refrain from putting eggnog in your cart every time you go down the dairy aisle at the grocery store. And when you do buy it, don’t hide a carton all for yourself in the back of the fridge. And during the holidays, when you eat chocolate chips out of the bag, take smaller handfuls. But these strategies all involve resisting temptation. You probably won’t be successful one hundred percent of the time. We all know that there are two parts involved in achieving or maintaining a healthy weight: eating less and exercising. My new strategy involves the exercising part. Here it is: Every time you shop, park as far away in the parking lot as you can. This shouldn’t be a problem. There are always plenty of spots out there. I know because I’ve been doing this since Halloween. And then run all the way to the store entrance. Or the Mall entrance. And then, when you’re done shopping, run all the way back to your car. (Which somehow always seems farther. I think it’s because the store is big and your car is comparatively small. Bigger things look closer…) Mini-workouts! You get an especially beneficial mini-workout when you push a cartful of groceries all the way out to your car. I did this at Walmart the day before Thanksgiving. You just can’t go home and eat everything you bought. You may be thinking “But I’ll look like an idiot!” Who cares? Think about how you’ll look by January if you don’t increase your activity now. Besides, people will just think you’re in a hurry. And you probably will be; you have to get to your car, and it’s way the heck out there!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Cure for Hiccups - Read All About It!

A few days ago I witnessed a miracle right in my own home. A medical miracle. We had a group of college students over for Sunday dinner. After dinner, we sat around the family room, talking in small groups, reading from The Complete Far Side, looking at photo albums, and waiting for the dessert to finish cooking. ( Naturally, I’d forgotten to put it in the oven when I should have. ) Karyn, one of our guests, had a case of hiccups. She was sitting on the sofa by Nate.


“Why don’t you go get a drink of water,” suggested a guy named Rob from across the room. (hiccup) “That usually seems to help.”

“It does?” I asked. “Has drinking water ever cured your hiccups?”

“Well, no,” he admitted. (hiccup) He looked annoyed. I think he just wanted to get her out of the room. I think he must be a lot like my mother.

My mother hates hiccups. I don’t think she’s ever had them, herself, but my sister seemed to get her share as well as our mother’s when we were kids. I can remember my mother getting really irritated, smacking my sister, and sending her out of the room until she got over them.

She didn’t smack her hard.


Pretty soon everyone in the room was talking about hiccup cures. There’s the paper bag method. There’s scaring the person. Drinking a glass of water upside down (which I’ve yet to see anyone attempt). My husband once tickled the hiccups out of me. That was before we were married. If he tried it today, I’d probably slug him as hard as I could.


Someone mentioned a young girl who was in the news. She’d had the hiccups for something like seven weeks. I told about my neighbor’s elderly father who recently had the hiccups for fourteen months. They finally took him to an acupuncturist. After working on him for forty minutes the hiccups stopped. For two weeks. Then they came back.


“I’ve heard,” Nate said softly to me, rather hesitantly, while Karyn was listening to another conversation across the room, “that if someone offers them twenty dollars if they can hiccup one more time they usually go away.”

“You’re kidding,” I say. And without pause, “Hey Karyn, Nate will give you twenty dollars if you can hiccup one more time!”

Nate squirmed a bit. Didn’t say he would but didn’t say he wouldn’t either. There’s an obvious risk involved, and Nate’s just a poor college student. And I’m a cheapskate.

A gasp from Karyn.

“He will?” She turned to Nate. “You will?” She was pretty excited. She’s just a poor student, too.

“Yes,” I insisted. “One more hiccup, and he’ll give you twenty dollars.”

She got all excited. The room was silent. We all waited.

And waited.

She couldn’t do it.

I’ve never seen anything like it.

Karyn was disappointed. (I wonder how long a poor student would be willing to have hiccups for twenty dollars.) Nate was relieved. I was thrilled.

I can’t wait to try this on someone. Maybe one of my kids. I wonder if it would work if you offered a smaller sum. Like maybe five bucks. Twenty is a bit risky. It probably depends on the individual with the hiccups. I bet my husband could be cured with an offer of as little as two-fifty. He’s a bigger cheapskate than I am.

I’d better tell my neighbor about this. They’re probably shelling out a lot more than twenty dollars for the acupuncturist. And someone should try to contact the young girl who was on the news. And while we’re at it, maybe someone should submit this to the New England Journal of Medicine.

And I’d better tell my mother about this. I think my sister is planning to visit her soon.

We Need A Little Christmas - Or Do We?

So when is it okay to start listening to Christmas music? When I was a kid, we had a hard fast rule at our house: No Christmas music until the day after Thanksgiving. On that Friday, we’d get out the Christmas albums. Our stereo system had a record player that let us stack up five records at a time. One by one, they would drop and play. I can still hear the sound of the needle in the groove of a record as it rotated on the turntable: that rhythmic circular-sounding swoosh in between songs, and even during songs if you were sitting close enough. After I was married and had a family, my father recorded some of our Christmas albums for me on a cassette tape. You could hear that record player sound on the tape. Very nostalgic. Now, of course, we no longer have the means to play a cassette tape or a record.

The Christmas music rule was my mother’s idea, and she was backed up by my sister. I would have listened to Christmas music year round. I sang Christmas carols year round. I drove my sister crazy.

My son, Jeff, is the same way. He loves Christmas music. One year, he found a radio station that started playing “All Christmas music, all the time” the day after Labor Day. He listened to it in the car, while doing his homework, in his bed at night before going to sleep, and he’d set his alarm to wake up to it. He must have been the only one listening though, because it mysteriously went off the air by mid-October.

Jeff took piano lessons for years. He loved it when fall came because that’s when the teacher would start him on Christmas music. He quit piano lessons a few years ago when he got really busy in high school. Now he only touches the piano between September and December. And he only plays Christmas songs. Really. That’s it.

Jeff’s been checking the radio stations every day since Halloween.

Once they begin playing Christmas music on the radio, I admit that I listen, even if it’s still pretty early on, but I don’t always like what I hear. Unfortunately, what they play on the radio is often pretty cheesy stuff. For instance, there’s The Christmas Shoes by a group called (of all confusing things) New Song. Uggghh. There’s another one that refers to Jesus as a homeless person. It’s pretty bad. We always quickly change the station as soon as we can “name that tune.” There’s one called Santa Mouse that they play once in a while that is so ridiculous that we actually listen to it. There’s a version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer that my daughter and I laugh and laugh about. “Rudolph mit your nose so bright, von’t you guide mein sleigh tonight?” Only the guy sings it with an Irish accent. It’s hilarious.

I’m a real traditionalist. Give me the old crooners like Bing Crosby and Perry Como. Karen Carpenter? Yes. And let’s stick to real Christmas songs that have been around for decades. All of the Christmas carols of course, and things like I’ll be Home for Christmas, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Jingle Bells, and Sleigh Ride are all great. I don’t care for most of the pop artist Christmas recordings, like “Last Christmas I gave you my heart. The very next day you gave it away.” Please. That is not a Christmas song. It’s a pop love song that takes place at Christmas time. If pop artists want to record themselves singing real Christmas songs and they don’t mess with them too much, that’s okay. For example, I absolutely love Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band doing Santa Claus is Coming to Town. That’s a classic.

Yesterday afternoon Jeff was out running an errand in the car. My cell phone rang. I answered it and immediately heard the silky smooth tones of Andy Williams singing Silver Bells. It’s started.

Tis the season! According to some people, anyway.

Friday, October 30, 2009

A Posthumous Letter To Madeleine l'Engle

October 30, 2009

Dear Ms. L’Engle,

I was so sorry to hear about your passing a couple of years ago. I’ve enjoyed your books for decades. I loved Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage, about your forty years with the actor Hugh Franklin. Through reading it, I felt I came to know you as a real person, and not just as the seemingly ethereal author of some books I like. I meant to write you a letter a few years ago, while you were still with us, but I put it off, as we tend to do sometimes with our good intentions. I wanted to share something with you that I thought you might enjoy.

When I had children, I couldn’t wait to introduce them to your books. One of my sons began to consume books at a very early age. He was driven by a hunger for information, excitement, and a good story. Your books provided all of these. Because his interest in some topics was so strong, he sometimes read books that he probably wasn’t really ready for. And because his interest was so strong, he was able to get through these books that were really too difficult for him. For instance, he read the C.S. Lewis Narnia series the summer after first grade. Over the years of his childhood, he reread them several times. I remember his once telling me “I love rereading these. Each time I read them, I pick up on more and more that I missed the first time I read them.” I can’t remember how old he was when he read A Wrinkle in Time for the first time, but I know he was pretty young. Years later, when he was a teenager, he, my daughter and I were discussing your books. “For some reason,” he confessed to us, “I always pictured Calvin as a big bug. A giant cartoon bug.” We laughed and laughed. I knew he had probably been too young when he read it, but a bug? “Kurt,” we told him, “Calvin and Meg get married. You thought she married a bug?” “Well, yeah. I was just a little kid. I didn’t think there was anything weird about that.” Sometime after that, while in a nostalgic mood, I reread A Wrinkle in Time. Riddle solved: chapter two, page 29, about a third of the way down. Meg is telling Charles Wallace who Calvin is. “He’s in Regional, but he’s older than I am. He’s a big bug.” Ha! I couldn’t wait for the kids, especially Kurt, to get home from school so I could show them what I’d discovered. Your book was first published in 1962, a year before I was born. The term “ big bug” must have been like “big man on campus” back in those days. Calvin was a big bug. You’d written it yourself. What else would a little boy in the 1990’s think?

I hope this letter somehow finds its way to you. I’m sorry I didn’t write it when I first thought to. Perhaps you can tesser your way back and read it on the internet. Thank you so much for the wonderful legacy you’ve left the world. We are truly blessed to have your books among us.


Melinda W. Gassman

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Brittany's Belly Buttons

Edible body parts have always been a big part of Halloween. Peeled grapes for eyeballs. String cheese fingers. Bloody toes out of hot dogs with tortilla strip bandages. Pretty gory fare. A young friend of mine named Brittany recently introduced me to a new, much less gruesome body part treat – belly buttons. She brought a bowlful of them to a gathering earlier this fall.

To make belly buttons, place small pretzel twists on a baking sheet. Put an unwrapped Hershey Kiss on top of each pretzel. Bake at 250 degrees for three minutes. As soon as they come out of the oven, top each one with an M & M, m side down, pressing them in well.

Brittany makes these for all occasions. With M & Ms coming in seasonal colors now, she can make them fit any holiday or special event. Imagine cute little red and green elf belly buttons for Christmas. How about pink and red cupid belly buttons for Valentine’s Day? Leprechaun belly buttons for St. Patrick’s Day? With the possible exception of Uncle Sam’s belly button, these sound a lot more appetizing than cold pasta brains or corn kernel teeth.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Halloween book suggestion - The Bell Witch, An American Haunting by Brent Monahan

If you’re looking for a spooky read this week, find a copy of The Bell Witch, An American Haunting by Brent Monahan. It’s a fictionalized account of one of America’s most famous hauntings. A little bit disturbing? Yes. I recommend reading it late at night after everyone else has gone to bed.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Winter Squash

Autumn is here and that means it’s winter squash season. I love winter squash even more than I love summer squash. I even liked it as a small child. My mother used to cook butternut squash and mash it up with a little maple syrup or brown sugar. Mmmm. It was so good. And this sounds like a really odd combination, but I used to mix my mashed potatoes and butternut squash together on my plate, put a pat of butter on top, and let it melt in. Yum. I could never convince any of my family members to try this. They really missed out.

My New England paternal grandfather loved squash pie. My mother, born and raised in the Mid-West, made Thanksgiving dinner every year. She’d never heard of squash pie, and was sure it would be in every way identical to pumpkin.

“Make sure you bake a squash pie,” Gramps would remind her each November.

“Oh, I will,” she’d lie.

A couple of hours after dinner (New Englanders always like to let their food settle a bit before dessert), everyone would come back to the table, and my mother would bring out the pies.

“Make sure mine’s squash,” Gramps would say.

She’d make a big production of distinguishing between the pumpkin and the supposed squash pies.

“Here you go,” she’d say, passing him a dessert plate with a piece of pie on it. “This one is definitely squash,” she’d insist, while we kids gleefully smirked around the table. We were in on it. Then Gramps would rave about the pie and go on and on about how much better it was than pumpkin.

One autumn day a couple of years ago, my neighbor, Beth, showed up at my door with a piece of pie.

“Callie and I thought you needed to try this. It’s the best pumpkin pie we’ve ever had,” she said, “but it’s made from banana squash.”

Squash pie!

It was wonderful. I don’t think I’ve made a pumpkin pie since.

Banana Squash Pie

3 cups cooked, pureed banana squash
4 eggs
1 ¼ cups sugar
2 Tablespoons flour
½ tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp allspice
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp salt
2 cups cream or 1 cup cream and 1 cup milk
2 unbaked pie crusts

Cut up a banana squash and scrape out the seeds and string. Cover each piece with plastic wrap and cook them in the microwave. They seem to cook more evenly if you do them one piece at a time. One piece takes about fourteen minutes. Let it cool a little bit. Scoop out the cooked squash and puree it in a blender. Measure out three cups for the recipe. Eat the rest plain on a plate with a little salt and pepper. It’s so good. Or freeze it in Ziplock freezer bags.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs. Add sugar, flour, spices, salt, and squash. Stir in the cream. (Beth said it was okay to use one cup each of milk and cream, but that I should try it sometime using the two cups of cream. I have. It’s really good.)

I always cut thin strips of aluminum foil the cover the edge of my crusts so they won’t get too dark, and it’s a lot easier to do this before filling them.

Fill the unbaked crusts. Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 and bake for 30 – 40 minutes. Pie is done when a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Another winter squash recipe? How about butternut squash soup? I make this for my daughter and my niece. The three of us absolutely love it. One day this fall, I received a text message from my niece, Emma, who attends college nearby.

“What’s for dinner on Sunday? Butternut squash soup?”

It was all I could think about for the rest of the week.

Butternut Squash Soup

1 medium sized butternut squash
4 T butter
1 medium onion, chopped
3 T flour
3 tsp chicken bouillon
1 ½ cups hot water
2 ½ cups fat free half and half*
salt, white pepper, and sugar to taste

Peel, seed and cut up squash. Place in a large pan, cover with water and cook until soft. Drain and return to pan. OR cut unpeeled squash in half. Scrape out the inside. Cover each half with plastic wrap and cook in the microwave until soft. Scoop out the cooked squash and discard the skin. After squash is cooked, mash it with a potato masher and set aside. Melt butter in a skillet. Add onion and sauté until golden. Add flour and cook for a few minutes. Slowly add the half and half. Set aside. Combine hot water and bouillon, stirring to dissolve bouillon. Puree squash in batches in blender, dividing the chicken broth among the batches. Return pureed squash to the large pan. Stir in the half and half mixture. Heat thoroughly and season to taste with salt, white pepper and sugar.

*I usually use fat free half and half for soups that call for cream or milk or regular half and half. It’s a good way to cut some calories. You can substitute in whatever you’d like to use.

Acorn Squash

Cut them in half, horizontally. Scrape out the seeds and string. Set them in a baking pan, cut sides up. Squirt some maple syrup in each one and add a pat of butter. Add water to the pan until it comes part way up the sides of the squash. Bake them at 350 until soft. Serve them as they are. To eat, scoop out squash, incorporating some of the maple syrup in each bite.

OR, slice acorn squash horizontally into 1 inch thick slices (some will be larger around than others). Remove seeds and string. Spray a baking sheet with non-stick spray. Lay squash slices on baking sheet. Brush them with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake until soft. To serve, place a slice on each plate and fill center with a spoonful of whole-berry cranberry sauce.

Squash is so good for us. It's dark orange flesh signals that it's loaded with antioxidants, right? I've tried to understand what exactly antioxidants do for us. When metals oxidize, they rust, right? So antioxidants must keep our insides from rusting. Or something.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

A Pediatrician's Advice

Our church has a lay clergy, and I’m lucky enough to have a husband who gets to serve as a bishop (like a minister in other churches) for a Brigham Young University congregation. It’s a lot of fun. Recently, a man from the community was called to work alongside Kent in a leadership position. He happens to be the pediatrician we took our kids to for most of their lives. He retired a few years ago.

Dr. Johnson saw us through chronic ear infections, strep throat, seasonal allergies, all kinds of childhood illnesses. And of course, he saw each kid about once a year for a well child exam, also known as a physical. At the end of each of these well child visits, Dr. Johnson would always give me a little advice.

“We like to tell parents three things,” he’d say. “Number one: Always have your children in car seats or booster seats when in the car. Number two: The Pediatric Association recommends that small children watch little or no television. And number three: Don’t feed your children a lot of hot dogs.”

Ha! I loved number three. I always expected him to add a few other undesirable food items, but he never did.

So Dr. Johnson, welcome to the B.Y.U. 122nd Ward. We have a fabulous group of young people. They’re fun and smart and dedicated to the Lord. I’m sure you’ll have opportunities to offer a little advice now and then. These students have outgrown their car seats, and hopefully they’re too busy with school, jobs, and social lives to watch much television. But the hot dog thing? Probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to mention it.

Panda Express Orange Chicken

Our kids love Panda Express Orange Chicken. When I saw that Costco carries a bottle of Panda Express Orange Chicken Sauce, I bought some, took it home, and got on the internet to look for a copycat recipe. The one that I found ( included a sauce recipe. I basically followed their recipe (just a couple of changes) for cooking the chicken, and then used the purchased sauce.

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 large eggs
1 ½ tsp salt
generous 1/8 tsp white pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon cornstarch
¼ cup flour

vegetable oil for frying

Panda Express Orange Chicken Sauce*

2-3 green onions, chopped

Cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces. Beat the eggs in a large bowl. Whisk in salt, white pepper, and 1 tablespoon vegetable oil. Add cornstarch and flour. Whisk until smooth. Pat chicken pieces with paper towels to remove excess moisture. Dump into egg mixture. Stir to coat pieces. Heat an inch or two of oil in a pan. I use a non-stick electric frying pan on the highest heat setting.* Add coated chicken pieces a few at a time, dividing into two or three batches. Cook each batch for three to five minutes, depending on how big your pieces are, turning over part way through. I left mine kind of big – maybe two inch cubes – so it took closer to five minutes. Don’t overcook or your chicken will be dry. Remove smaller pieces first so they don’t get overdone. Better to have them underdone and then put them back in than to overcook them. Drain on paper towels. Place chicken on a serving platter. Drizzle Orange Chicken Sauce lightly over the pieces and garnish with green onions. A little sauce goes a long way. Don’t put too much on. If diners think they’d like more sauce, have them put a little on their plate alongside the chicken for dipping.

* The 44-ounce bottle of sauce only cost $5 at Costco. It’s a really good deal, considering how little you need to use.

** When I don’t want to stink up the house with whatever I’m cooking (fish, bacon, pot stickers, frying anything in oil), I take my electric frying pan outside and plug it in on the patio.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

book review - Knitting with Dog Hair by Kendall Crolius and Anne Montgomery

So I’m walking through the Orem Public Library and stop to check out the Staff Picks shelf – I’m always looking for a good recommendation – and there it is: Knitting with Dog Hair, a Woof to Warp Guide to Making Hats, Sweaters, Mittens and Much More by Kendall Crolius and Anne Montgomery.

Knitting with dog hair? This must be a hoax. I pick it up and look it over. The front and back covers show photos of people confidently dressed in their handmade dog hair garments.

“Stop Vacuuming and Start Knitting!”

“Warmer than Wool for a Three Dog Night”

“Easy Step-by-Step Instructions for Collecting and Spinning the Fur”

“Original Patterns for Novice and Pro”

“Top Breeds for Best Results”

There’s no way I can replace this book on the shelf and walk away. I proceed to the front desk and check it out.

A couple of days later, I finally have time to give it a read. It’s legit! Well, I don’t know if it’s legit, but it’s for real! People really collect their dogs’ hair, spin it into yarn, and knit with it. Clothing. And they wear it. Are you scratching yet?

I get about halfway through the book and I’m making myself a little nervous. It’s beginning to sound quite rational. Perhaps if I had a beloved pet, I might be tempted to try this. I think of people I know who are very attached to their dogs, and wonder if any of them just might be induced to take this up.

There could possibly be health benefits. The authors tell about a woman in Estonia who sells dog hair sweaters at her village market. She claims that dog hair relieves symptoms of arthritis and rheumatism.

And this hobby is not exclusive to dog lovers. The book contains a photo of a delicate cat hair lace collar and a pattern for a pill box hat made of soft, glossy cat yarn.

My family had a beautiful Golden Retriever when I was growing up. Her name was Sherry, as she was the color of sherry. The authors say that Golden Retriever yarn knits up into a beautiful scarf that looks especially nice with a camel hair coat (so save your camel hair, too). Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a memento of the dog we grew up with? Maybe some Sherry mittens or a Sherry afghan? Too late now.

How about an Afghan afghan?

Don’t know how to knit? No worry. Pet yarn can also be used for crocheting, needlepoint, embroidery, weaving… And if you’re hesitant to take up spinning, the authors include a state-by-state index of Spinners for Hire. Just mail them your cherished bags of pet hair and they do the rest.

Knitting with Dog Hair was a fascinating read. It’s very well written, and somehow makes one think the whole idea is sane. It doesn’t make me want a dog, and I’m not sure I’d ever have room for an article of handcrafted pet hair anywhere in my life, but I’m definitely buying a copy of this book for my bookshelf. I’ll probably buy a few to give as Christmas gifts, too. I’m determined to convince someone I know to take up the hobby.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Pear Pie

I love pears. I start buying them in the fall, and eat them all winter. I had never heard of pear pie until this year. I started looking for a recipe. After combining parts of a couple, and changing a few things, this is what I came up with.

crumb topping:
3/4 cup flour
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
6 tablespoons cold butter, cut in small pieces

6 perfectly ripe, fresh pears*
1/2 cup sugar
1/8 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground ginger (I bet ginger-in-a-jar would be better!)
1 1/2 tablespoons Minute tapioca
3 tablespoons plus one teaspoon orange juice
1 pie crust**

Combine crumb topping ingredients in a medium bowl. Cut the butter in with a pastry cutter or rub it in with your fingertips. Mixture should resemble coarse crumbs that clump together easily.

Peel the pears with a vegetable peeler. Slice them, discarding the cores. Put pear slices in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, combine sugar, salt, nutmeg, ginger, orange juice, and tapioca. Pour over pears and toss to coat slices. Cut strips of aluminum foil about one to two inches wide and use them to cover the edge of your pie crust. Put pear mixture into the pie crust, mounding pears in the center. Pat the crumb topping over the pear filling. Bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes. At this point, cover the pie with a tent of aluminum foil and bake for 25 more minutes. Place on a cooling rack and gently remove the foil strips.Serve with really good vanilla ice cream.

*You can tell that a pear is ripe by pressing around the stem with your thumb. If there is a little give, the pear is ripe. To speed up the ripening process, place the pears in a paper bag, roll the top down, and forget about them for a couple of days.

**I used to make my own pie crust, but then I discovered Marie Callender's frozen pie crusts. I think they're really good. They are much better than the frozen pie crusts I grew up with (Sorry, Mom). And so much easier than mixing and rolling out pie crust. I know there are purists who will never agree (my brother-in-law the award-winning pie maker). To them, I say go ahead and make your own. It probably is better.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Fish Tacos

I love fish tacos. I've had some really good ones at restaurants, both fast food and full service places. (Sally Pierce got me hooked on Del Taco's fish tacos.) I thought I'd try to make some at home. This version is fast, easy, and really good.

Panko Breaded Cod, frozen, from Costco
shredded cabbage (a bag of coleslaw mix in the grocery produce department)
white corn tortillas

Cilantro Lime Sauce*:
3/4 cup plain yogurt
1/2 cup mayonaise
1 Tablespoon sugar
2 Tablespoons(scant)fresh lime juice
3 Tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped

Select the smallest, narrowest pieces of fish from the box. Bake according to package directions. In the meantime, mix sauce ingredients in a small bowl. Heat corn tortillas in microwave for no longer than thirty seconds.

Diners assemble their own tacos on their plates: Double the tortillas, place a piece of fish in the middle, add cabbage and plenty of sauce, and fold.

*Naturally, I didn't measure anything when I made the sauce. The above amounts are my estimates. You might have to mess around with it a little.

Monday, September 21, 2009

All Tied Up

Yesterday I was attending a class with a group of women at church. The teacher asked for a volunteer. A friend of mine agreed and went up to the front of the room. The teacher, as an object lesson, produced a rope and began to wrap it around my friend’s wrists.

“Oh great,” said my friend, “after all that time spent teaching my kids never to let anyone tie them up…”

There was a brief pause in the room as women thought about this, and then laughter.

Whoops, many of us were thinking. Guess I forgot to warn my kids about the danger of letting someone tie them up! Don’t talk to strangers was a big one. And don’t get in anybody’s car, even if they offer you candy or need help finding their lost puppy was a given.

Who’d have thought to warn about strangers with ropes?

Or people you know who have access to rope.

Like siblings.

Our youngest child tells about a time when he was the victim of rope in the hands of his brothers.

They stripped his shirt off him, tied him to one of the benches at the kitchen table, and drew a face on his stomach. Then they carried the bench outside and left him there.

I wasn’t home to protect him. If only I’d thought to warn him about the dangers of getting tied up, he might have been able to escape by running as soon as he saw the rope.

Oh well. I may have blown it with my own kids, but I’ll definitely be teaching my grandchildren someday never to let anyone tie them up. Who knows what could happen to them? Especially if they have big brothers.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

September 11, 2001

Where were you when you first heard about John Lennon being shot? Or Richard Nixon resigning? Or Elvis dying? The Challenger exploding? Princess Diana’s fatal car crash? If you’re old enough, you probably remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when you heard the news.

When I think of September 11, 2001, I always remember a houseful of flies.

Kent had left for work and I had seen the last child out the door to school. Just a few minutes later, the phone rang. It was my son, Jeff, calling from the Barretts’ house, just down the street, where he’d stopped to pick up his buddy.

“Mom,” he said, “Kathy said I should call you and tell you to turn on the TV. A plane just flew into one of the towers of the World Trade Center.”

I turned on the TV. It was right about then that I noticed the first small black fly. Then the next. And the next. The second tower went down, and they were all over my house. All day, as I watched the news, I swatted the flies. We learned about the Pentagon. Standing on the sofa, standing on a kitchen chair (they seemed to be up high); I fought off the assailants with a dish towel. We heard about United Flight 93. I kept up the fight, but couldn’t seem to make any headway. There were always more. I tried to find out where they were coming from, these invaders in my home, but without success. Small black flies. Small black flies. Confusion on the TV., so many casualties. All day long and into the evening, thousands of deaths later, I stood on my furniture, fighting the small, black flies.

I’ve never been able to explain them, there one day, completely gone the next.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Banana Milk Shake

I read somewhere a long time ago that the combination of bananas and milk induces sleep. When the kids were little and couldn't sleep, I'd try to get them to eat a banana and drink a glass of milk. Or if they were driving me crazy and I needed them to fall asleep early, I'd make them eat a banana and drink a glass of milk. I never could decide if it worked or not, but it was always worth a shot.

This is one of my new favorite bedtime treats. It tastes like you're indulging in an ice cream shake, but except for the little bit of sugar, it's good for you. If you split it with someone, it's only 147 calories each.

2 frozen banana halves *

1 cup skim milk

1 Tablespoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon vanilla

Put all ingredients in blender and pulse until well-blended.

* I peel and freeze bananas in a ziplock freezer bag before they start to get overripe. I usually cut them in half first. Don't wait until they get soft to freeze them, or they'll only be good for banana bread.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Year of the Earwig

I had my first encounter with an earwig at about age two. I was climbing the concrete steps leading up to our front door. An earwig pinched my finger. There were two tiny dots of blood. I continued up the steps and through the front door to where my mother sat in the livingroom, surrounded by ancient women. I think they must have been one or both of my great-grandmothers and their sisters.

I've had an aversion ever since.

To earwigs, not old ladies.

I don't care what the Chinese say - 2009 has been The Year of the Earwig. There are tons of them and they are everywhere. In the laundry room, in the garage, in the family room, on my kitchen table when guests were over, in my flower beds and under every rock in the yard, and there's been one in the back of my mind all summer. It never leaves me. There's a myth about earwigs crawling into the ears of sleeping people, causing fever and insanity. No fever yet, but the insanity thing? Could be happening.

When I was about twelve I had a close encounter of the very disturbing kind. It was summer, and I was getting ready to go to the beach. I got my bathing suit off the clothesline in the backyard, took it up to my room, and put it on. There was an earwig in it. I'm still traumatized. I have not used the bathing suit clothesline since.

Earwigs are hideous creatures. I think that, like the horseshoe crab and the alligator, earwigs have probably changed very little since prehistoric times. I've done some research on Wikipedia. Did you know that most species have wings tucked away somewhere and are capable of flight? How disturbing is that? But they hardly ever use them. Instead, they use this tactic called the "defensive drop." They like to crawl up high on things like walls and ceilings and bathing suits on outdoor clotheslines. Once they know you've seen them, they let go and free fall to the ground. Then, while you're shrieking and flailing your arms, they scurry into the nearest crack or crevice. Makes me want to scream just thinking about it.

Two other upsetting facts I learned: they're nocturnal, and they're year-round.

One of our kids, when he was little, built a birdhouse out of a kit. We hung it in a tree in the backyard. One day I thought I'd look inside it for evidence of a resident bird family. I tipped it a little to get a good look into the hole. Hundreds of earwigs did the defensive drop. The birdhouse still hangs in the tree. I haven't touched it since that day. I'm uncomfortable even standing under that tree.

In the spring, I planted my vegetable garden. As soon as the green beans came up, something started eating them. My broccoli plants, too. Each morning, I'd go out to check for damage and find that huge amounts of plant material had been consumed. Someone at the nursery suggested that it might be quail. We'd had quail in the yard that month for the first time ever. Must be the quail. I spent half the summer replanting beans and bad-mouthing the quail. Now I'm pretty sure it was the earwigs; Wikipedia says they like to feed on seedling beans. It makes me crazy to think I've been feeding them all summer.

I recently put some peas in for a fall crop. Something's eating them.

Sometimes I get cold at night so I keep a polar fleece blanket under my side of the bed. But I haven't been able to use it. That earwig, the one in the back of my mind, whispers to me when I wake up cold in the night. It tells me that some of its brothers are burrowing in the folds of my blanket.

Almost every day for the last while I've seen one scramble across the basement floor and under the washer or dryer.

If I get up and come downstairs in the night and turn on a light, will I find them all over my walls and ceiling? Will they then perform the defensive drop?

So, is the earwig in the ear thing really just a myth or can it cause insanity? You tell me. I'm in no condition to decide.

Monday, August 24, 2009

First Day of Sixth Grade

The following is a true account. I have permission from my daughter to post it. It's actually one of her favorites. I pulled it from the archives (a red binder I keep past essays in)and thought I'd post it for anyone who has a daughter starting sixth grade this year. And if that's you, good luck!

It’s the first day of sixth grade, a very important year for social development. My daughter brings home one of those getting-to-know-you questionnaires that a lot of teachers hand out at the beginning of a school year. You know, a page of questions about where you were born, whether or not you have pets, what’s your favorite this or that? She sits right down, fills it out, and leaves it lying on the kitchen table amongst a pile of back-to-school junk (backpack, sweatshirt, pencil box, and that perennial pink emergency form we fill out at the beginning of every school year and then fail to return to the school until we’ve been sufficiently harassed). Then she heads to the fridge for a snack.

Partly out of curiosity and also because I’m in the habit of checking over my children’s school work, I pick up the questionnaire and begin to read through it.

The first few questions are pretty simple. I read aloud, “What name do you prefer to be called?” I jokingly call to her, “Why didn’t you put down Sneaker?” (a pet name her father has had for her since babyhood)

“Oh yeah, right, Mom,” she says as she spreads refried beans on a flour tortilla.

I skip over a few questions such as When is your birthday? and How many brothers and sisters do you have?

“What’s your favorite t.v. show?” I read. I see that she has filled in the name of a popular sitcom.

“You’ve never seen that!” I exclaim. “Besides, you know you’re only allowed to watch PBS.”

“I saw it over at Brittany’s once. Anyway, what am I supposed to put? Barney?” She rolls her eyes as she grates some cheese onto the beans.

“No,” I advise her. “You should write ‘I really don’t watch very much t.v.’”

“Mom, that would be so dumb.”

“What do you like to do in your free time?” I read. “Watch t.v.!” What do you mean, watch t.v.? We hardly ever have the t.v. on!”

She sighs.

“I know, Mom, but if I could, that’s what I’d want to do. Besides, that’s what all my friends do.”

“You know,” I tell her, “this is not a test with right or wrong answers. The teacher wants to find out about you. Why don’t you put down what you really like to do in your spare time? You know how you play house with the boys and you guys pretend to be orphans?” (I can’t imagine why they pretend to be orphans…)

“MOM! No Way!” I am not putting that!” She is now dumping half a jar of salsa onto her burrito.

“What’s your favorite snack?” I read aloud. She has written Cheetos. I look up from the paper and stare at her. She smiles at me as she rolls up the tortilla and takes a big bite.

“Mom,” she says with her mouth full, “people might think a burrito is weird.”

It’s my turn to sigh, and then I resume.

“What’s your favorite thing to have for dinner?” Naturally she has written pizza. I look up at her.

“Mom, it’s my survey. There are no right or wrong answers, remember?”

“Honey, lots of people have heard of Fettucine Alfredo.” This is what she has recently chosen to have for her birthday dinner. I skip down to the last question. What are some of your talents and hobbies? She’s left this one blank.

“How about your talents and hobbies?” I ask.

“I couldn’t think of any.”

“Come on! You have tons of talents! There’s the piano. You can’t deny that. And lots of kids play an instrument.”

“Okay,” she concedes, “I’ll put piano, but nothing else. You want me to put all this nerdy stuff so people will think I’m weird.” She’s getting a little heated now.

“I don’t want people to think you’re weird. I just want you to put down the truth. I want the teacher to find out what a wonderful girl you are. And you’re really so creative,” I tell her. “Remember when you made the boys complete outfits out of plastic grocery bags? With those cute little aluminum foil shoes? You could put ‘My hobbies include fashioning articles of clothing out of common household items.’”

She’s really mad by this time. She screams that shrill sixth-grade girl scream, slams the rest of her burrito down, storms over to me, snatches the questionnaire out of my hand, and runs upstairs, crying. She’s actually crying.

“I was just kidding!” I holler after her, trying not to laugh. I can’t help it. I think it’s funny.

Well, she doesn’t end up changing her answers to suit me. And knowing how important it is to fit in in sixth grade, I lay off. I’m sure the teacher will receive twenty or so nearly identical papers. I think she should give them all an F.

Carolyn is twenty-three now and very comfortable in her own skin! She survived adolescence beautifully. She was a lot of fun then, and is still more fun and more creative than anyone I know. I am proud of the wonderful young woman she has become.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Driving Lessons

I’m teaching my last child to drive. It’s going remarkably well. I hardly ever gasp or shriek or slam my foot down on that imaginary brake on the passenger side. And we haven’t had a single fight over any of it. I can’t decide if he’s really that much better than his older siblings were or if I’ve mellowed over the years.

I think my mother mellowed with each of us. By the time my brother was learning to drive, she habitually slept in the passenger seat. I remember her telling me that she’d read somewhere that drunk people are so relaxed that they fare better in accidents than sober people. Since she doesn’t drink, she thought sleeping would be the next best protection.

I remember learning to drive a stick shift as a teenager. Both my mother and my sister tried to teach me.

Big sigh, then “Just take your foot off the clutch and step on the gas,” they repeatedly instructed me with much exasperation.

What happens when you “just take your foot off the clutch and step on the gas?” A big lurching jerk and then you stall. People honk at you and drive around your car. And just try starting out in first gear like this on a hill, terrified, knowing that you’re going to roll backward right into that very impatient guy who’s behind you, honking like a madman.

My mother and my sister gave up. One Sunday afternoon, my father took me to the empty K-Mart parking lot.

“Now,” he said, “just slowly ease up on the clutch until you start to feel a little tug.”

I slowly eased up, and I felt the little tug.

“When you feel the tug, gently start pressing the gas pedal and at the same time continue to ease up on the clutch.”

The car very smoothly began to creep forward. Success!

We have a little pickup truck with a standard transmission. I’ve taught my kids to drive it using my father’s teaching method, only we go over to the church parking lot on a weekday instead of K-Mart on a Sunday.

One difference I’ve noticed between my older kids and Joel is that he stays in the middle of the lane that he’s driving in. All the other kids had an irrational fear of the middle of the road. They stayed way to the right. It was like they wanted to take out everything parked along the right hand side. I guess having cars coming toward them in the other lane could have been a little daunting, but we live in Utah - home of the widest streets in America. It’s not like the cars coming toward them are really even that close.

My mother always comments on the wide streets when she comes out to visit:

“Brigham Young ordered the settlers to make the streets wide enough for him to turn his wagon around in.” I don’t know how she knows this. I’ve lived here for twenty-eight years and I’ve never heard anyone else say this.

In fact, they’re so wide that on most of the main roads, there’s room for a center lane, a kind of no man’s lane, for making left turns. We didn’t have these in Massachusetts – home of the narrowest streets in America - where I learned to drive. We had a rational fear of the middle of the road.

One time I was driving in Utah with a passenger visiting from New England. I pulled into the center turn lane to make a left turn.

“What are you doing?!” he shrieked as another car coming from the opposite direction also pulled into the turn lane. “Is this some kind of lane for playing chicken?”

It’s probably time to get Joel out and teach him to parallel park, a very important skill for a driver to master. Especially in our family. My mother once called off an engagement because the guy couldn’t parallel park. I’d hate for Joel to find himself dumped someday because he lacked this skill. In fact, I’d better make sure the other kids are proficient. And make sure my daughter knows what to look for in a husband.

I can just hear my mother now, when Carolyn someday announces her engagement:

“But does she know if he can parallel park?”

So have I mellowed or is Joel a better driver than the other kids? I think it’s a little of both. I’m a much calmer parent these days, with only one child under the age of eighteen. That makes a big difference. And I think he is naturally a pretty good driver. After all, he was in the car for most of their driving lessons. He should be better.

Now, as long as they don’t find out I let him have the radio on when he’s driving… Boy, I really have mellowed!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Zucchini Time

It's zucchini season. Good news for some. Bad news for others. I don't know if I've ever met a guy who loves zucchini. I know my husband and sons want nothing to do with it. Real men don't eat zucchini, right?

The most important thing about the zucchini is to pick it when it's small. No bigger around than a banana. This can be tricky because they grow so fast. It requires vigilance. Sometimes I see one in the morning that looks a little small and by mid-afternoon it's ready.

One summer when the kids were little, a zucchini got away from me. One day I found it under some huge leaves. It was big. I decided I might as well see just how big it could get. It got huge. The kids were thrilled. After we finally picked it, we painted a face on it, wrapped it in a receiving blanket, and left it on the neighbors' doorstep. They passed it on to some other neighbors. I don't know how far Baby Zoe got. I suspect that a practical cook somewhere down the street cut it up and made it into a casserole for her large family.

One of my favorite things to do with zucchini is to dehydrate it. I learned this from my friend Karla. She is the healthiest eater I know. One summer day we were on a hike. She whipped out a baggie and started snacking on something. It was a homemade trail mix that included stuff like flax seed crackers, nuts, sunflower seeds, and zucchini chips. Zucchini chips? Yes, she had made them herself. I tried some and was hooked. I've been making them the last few summers.

Here's how:

Slice small zucchini into thin round slices, maybe between an eighth and a sixteenth of an inch thick.

If you don't have a food dehydrator, you can dry them in the oven, door ajar, at the lowest temperature. Put the zucchini on cookie sheets lightly sprayed with non-stick spray.

Or, if you want to get earthy, you can dry them outside under a screen on a hot, dry, sunny day.

Or you can buy an inexpensive food dehydrator. Spray the racks lightly with non-stick spray and fill them up with zucchini slices. Plug it in.

Whichever method you use, make sure you get them good and dry. They should be brittle. Zucchini chips. Yum. The whole dehydratorful fits in a baggie. It's like a baggie of gold. Very valuable to me. I have to hide them when my daughter comes over. Sometimes I share.

I've sprinkled them with seasoning salt before drying. They're good, but I really just like them plain.

Kent and I were at his parents' house recently, comparing garden notes. My mother-in-law mentioned that she likes to grow her zucchini big so she can make zucchini cake with it. I mentioned that I always make sure I pick mine small. My father-in-law asked,

"But what if you want to make a cake?"

"Then I make a cake. You don't have to have zucchini to make a cake."

I hope they weren't offended.

My own mother makes really good zucchini bread. It might seem like I'm partial to my own bloodline, but I did grow up with this stuff. It's the only thing I'd eat with nuts in it as a child. It's really good with whipped cream cheese on it.

My Mother's Zucchini Bread

4 eggs, beaten
1 cup oil
2 cups sugar
2 cups grated zucchini
3 tsp vanilla
3/4 cup honey

Combine above ingredients. Mix well.

1 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cups white flour
3 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 cup chopped walnuts

Mix dry ingredients. Combine with zucchini mixture.

Sometimes my mother would bake this in loaf pans, but I know from personal experience (both eating it and making it) that it's hard to get it to bake evenly throughout. The center is often underdone. Which I actually kind of like sometimes. But you might not.

So, the very best way to go is in a Bundt(think "My Big Fat Greek Wedding"). Bake it at 325 degrees for one hour. It actually makes enough batter for a Bundt pan and then a few small loaves. Small loaf pans work.

As kids, we lived on this stuff in the summer. And into the fall, because it freezes well.

We belong to a church that emphasizes dressing modestly, avoiding revealing clothing. What does this have to do with zucchini? Our little niece, Annie, used to include in her prayers, to the wild delight of her older siblings,

"And please help me not to want to wear a zucchini."

And you definitely won't want to wear a zucchini after you eat this stuffed zucchini. So good, but not so good for you.

Stuffed Zucchini

(This makes enough for a crowd. A good way to get rid of your surplus. Just make it and serve it to them and they will eat it. And love it.)

8 small zucchini
1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup grated cheddar cheese
1/4 cup grated Swiss cheese
1 cup sour cream
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp paprika
1/4 cup chopped chives or green onions
1 cup stuffing cubes
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Wash zucchini. Cut off ends. Parboil for a couple of minutes. Plunge into cold water. Split in half lengthwise and scoop out a little bit. Arrange in baking dish. Melt butter. Mix in cheeses and sour cream, salt, paprika and chives. Spoon over zucchini. Mix stuffing cubes with Parmesan cheese. Distribute over zucchini. Bake at 350 degrees until bubbly.

Everything I do with zucchini, I also do with yellow summer squash. I even make chips out of it. Over the last couple of weeks, I've been growing a very special yellow squash. Something evidently went wrong at the blossom end, because it was growing square. Yesterday was the big day. I harvested it. I immediately took it in the house and took a picture of it with my cell phone. I texted it to two of my kids with the caption

"Sponge Bob Square Squash."

I haven't heard a thing back from either of them.

We had a large group of B.Y.U. students over for a pizza party the other night. I made a salad to go with the pizza, and I cut up a bunch of zucchini into sticks and put them out in a dish.

"You're not putting those out, are you?" Kent asked me.

How I loved pointing out to him the empty bowl at the end of the night.

And a big thank you to whichever of the girls scarfed them down.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Half Marathon

Tomorrow is the Provo River Trail Half Marathon. I ran it seven years ago, and then wrote the following. I thought I'd post it in honor of tomorrow's race. It's pretty long for a blog post. Hope you'll read it anyway!


Okay, so what constitutes a real runner?

Even though I’ve been running on and off for exercise since college, I had never considered myself a real runner. Whenever anyone mistook me for a real runner, I’d protest.

“Oh, no,” I’d insist. I’m not a real runner. I just sort of jog along.” I had always done about four miles a day. More that four miles? I’d ask myself. Why?

I have a friend who’s been a real runner for years. Due to knee and hip problems, she’s begun having trouble with the longer runs.

“I really miss the long runs,” she started telling me, sounding like she actually meant it. “The fifteen milers or more.”

You’re kidding, right?With four miles a day, I’d always been able to maintain my weight and had always been a steady size six. But a strange and terrible thing happened after my thirty-sixth birthday; my body wanted to be bigger.

I’d always heard that the older you get, the harder it is to stay thin. I sheepishly admit that I’d never believed it. When other women would discuss this in front of me, I’d mentally roll my eyes.

Ladies, please accept my most humble apology.

Because suddenly I found myself at age thirty-nine, ten pounds heavier, and now a steady size eight. Yes, I know. A size eight is still small. But guess what? Nobody likes getting bigger. Thin people don’t like having to buy a bigger size any more than heavy people do. And what’s the outlook? A few more years, ten more pounds, and a steady size ten? A few years after that and a sturdy size twelve?

It was time to get serious.

I began to watch what I ate. I tried low fat. I tried low calorie. I gave up sugar for Lent.

I couldn’t lose a pound.

You know what they say about desperate times. I’d have to increase my running mileage. Four miles just wasn’t doing it anymore. I worked up to seven.

Seven miles a day, five or six days a week. My husband, a real runner, helped me buy better shoes, and bigger. My first seven-mile run killed off nearly all the toenails on both of my feet. It took eight months to grow them out.

Weeks went by. Thirty-five to forty-two mile weeks. My husband began to talk about the Provo River Trail Half Marathon, an annual race down Provo Canyon.

“You could do it,” he told me. “Forty-mile weeks – that’s marathon training. If you can run seven miles, you can run 13.1. Just start doing some longer runs on Saturdays.”

Longer runs? Longer than seven miles?

I did it. One Saturday I ran ten miles. Ten miles. Imagine!

“Okay,” I told Kent. “Sign me up.”

He did.

I started to go out with Kent and his real runner friends. I could keep up! Actually, I was probably slowing them down. But I was running faster than I ever had before. Good for me – not so good for them, maybe.

My longest training run before the half marathon was 11.5 miles. I knew I was ready.
Ready, but nervous. Nervous because even though I’d run down Provo Canyon several times now, it was hard to imagine what it would be like on race day. All those people! And what about the whole check-in procedure? Picking up my bib, boarding one of the buses that would take us to the starting line?

And what would end up being my biggest concern: What about the bathrooms?

Before we left the house early on the morning of the race, Kent got out the Gatorade.

“Drink plenty of this stuff. Your body’s going to need it.” I drank plenty of it. And by the time I had picked up my number (1402), my nervousness, combined with all that Gatorade, was making it imperative that I get in a bathroom line before boarding a bus for the ride up the canyon.

I have never seen such long lines. As I stood waiting, I heard one woman ask a friend, “Shall we consider the lilies of the field?” They wandered off to find an alternative to waiting in line.

My turn finally came, and in the nick of time. We had waited so long that we just made the last bus that was ferrying runners up to the starting line. We climbed aboard. I glanced around at the busload of real runners. Some of the women I had had plenty of time to observe in the bathroom line. They chatted casually in pairs or in small groups about their training and workout procedures, and about past race experiences. And they all looked the part. Most of them were very tan with alarmingly white teeth and costly running attire.

Professional, I though. Very intimidating.

They looked like they worked at Gold’s Gym.

“What am I doing?” I thought. I was wearing a cheap pair of running shorts, a t-shirt and running shoes I’d bought on sale for $39.99.

I was an impostor!

I began to feel slightly panicked. Mostly because I had to go to the bathroom again.

The bus pulled up to an area near the starting line.

“Don’t worry,” Kent assured me. “They have Port-A-Potties.” Indeed they did. A long row of eighteen or twenty or so. And in front of each was a line of eighteen or twenty or so people. Maybe more. And it was almost race time. The nearby trees and bushes were full of runners, both men and women, heading off to consider the lilies.

“You could use a bush,” Kent suggested, nodding in the direction of the sparsely growing vegetation. This is Utah, and even though we were in the mountains, there wasn’t much to hide behind in this particular area.

With all these people around? Umm, nope.

“No, you go on to the starting line,” I told him. “I’ll get in line and see how it goes.” We weren’t planning to run together anyway, so what difference did it make if we got separated now or a few minutes from now?

I got in a line. A few minutes later I heard the starting gun. Quite a lot of runners abandoned the Port-A-Potty lines in favor of starting the race on time. Not me. I knew it was pointless to even try to run in my condition. Others felt the same way. It was a good ten minutes before my turn came and I was able to begin the race.

And guess what? The moment my $39.99 shoes hit the pavement my nerves left me. I simply ran. I ran like everyone else. The crowd had thinned out by now, and I was actually able to pass a lot of runners. A mental advantage of starting at the back of the pack: to pass instead of being passed.

I felt pretty good.

In fact, I felt great. And I felt smug as I managed to get ahead of some of the Gold’s Gym employees.

The downhill part of the course was fast and fun. And it was true what they say about race day adrenaline: it kicked in! I loved every step of the first ten miles. My legs were performing a graceful, rhythmic dance. I was light and free. And the time went by so quickly. I could tell I was running a lot faster than I’d ever run before (which, let’s face it, isn’t really very fast). I almost felt like a real runner.

And then I reached the mouth of the canyon. The trail flattened out. Only three miles left, I told myself. But wait a minute. What was happening? As I ran, I began to feel like my body was performing a totally different act from what it had been doing during the previous miles. I was no longer being propelled downward, aided by some force other than my own. They ballet was over. My legs began to feel like they were cast in stone. The sun was up now, and the heat of the August day was setting in. I plodded along. The course seemed endless. They were running us through a residential area in a roundabout way to the finish line. I hadn’t familiarized myself with the exact route before race day and I now recognized that as a mistake. To know exactly what I had left to run past would have been a real mental asset.

And I should have worn a watch. I hadn’t worn one because I hadn’t wanted to put myself under any pressure to run this thing in a specific amount of time. I don’t like pressure, and I had fooled myself into thinking that if I didn’t wear a watch, I’d treat this race like any other run down the canyon, relaxed and enjoying the beauty of nature around me.

“I’ll probably be the last one to finish,” I had told friends and family. I was not setting myself up for failure. “They’ll probably ask me to pick up the cones on my way in,” I joked. But deep down inside I had a goal of finishing the race in under two hours, and as I ran, the competitive nature that really does exist within me (but is usually reserved for things like board games) had begun to emerge. Now I wondered how I was going to reach my goal, especially since I had spent the first ten minutes in the bathroom line. I wished I had worn a watch.

And then, with about one mile to go, there was Kent on the side of the road. He had already finished the race and had decided to backtrack and lend me moral support on my way to the finish line. He jumped in and ran alongside me. Only at this point, he really could have walked alongside me. I was hot. My legs ached. I was barely moving.

“You’re doing great!” he humored me. “Come on, you’re almost there. Push it!” Had I had the strength to turn my head, I would have glared at him.

“I am pushing it,” I panted. I really did appreciate his support, but man, I was almost dead! Other than childbirth (we always have to work that one in, don’t we, ladies?), this was the most physically grueling thing I’d ever been through.

“There it is,” I heard Kent say. I looked up and beheld a glorious sight. It was the finish line. One more guy comment from Kent:

“If you sprint, you’ll be able to beat that old man up ahead of you.”

“I am sprinting,” I informed him as he exited the racecourse.

I felt a smile begin to creep over my face. I kept my head up, my eyes on the banner strung above the finish line. The official clock read 1 hour 57 minutes. Yes! I was going to make it.

“And once you cross that finish line,” I told myself, “You’ll never have to run another step again if you don’t want to.” My foot hit the line and I all but came to a complete stop. I had reached my limit. But what a feeling! Pure joy.

I was proud of myself. Kent was proud of me. And later in the morning (was it really still morning?) when we returned home and I stuck my race bib to the fridge with a magnet, my kids were proud of me.

I hobbled around on sore legs for three or four days, and the bib stayed on the front of the fridge for three or four months. Every time I looked for something to eat, as I continued the quest for a size six body, I was reminded of my accomplishment. No, I haven’t yet made it back down to my former size. The increased mileage did help me to lose a few pounds, but not enough to fit into that old pair of jeans that hangs in the back of my closet.

And I’m still not sure I’m a real runner, but I am pretty sure I could pass myself off as one.

One day recently, as I moved the bib from the front to the side of the refrigerator, I noticed a typo. Instead of Provo River Trail Half Marathon, the text read Provo River Trial Half Marathon.

A trial run?

Oh well. I guess I’ll have to do it again.


So it's seven years later. I went on to run two full marathons after that. I did eventually make it back down to my former size, but I'm currently working on getting back up to where I was!