Thursday, December 22, 2011

Somebody Has to Win

I have a part time job as a substitute teacher in elementary school. It’s not a very well-paid position. Sometimes, when a child misbehaves at school, I’ll say something like, “I’m not here to baby-sit. They don’t pay me enough for that.” Invariably, and I mean invariably, several children drop their pencils and their chins.

“You get paid for this?” they ask. Incredulity is written all over their little faces.


I do get paid, but not very much.

But that’s okay because I have discovered a way to supplement my income. You know those extra-long receipts you occasionally get from places like Wal-mart or Home Depot or Rite-Aid that invite you to participate in an online survey? In exchange for your time, you are entered into a drawing for a grand prize of anywhere from $1000 to $10,000.

I take these surveys.

So far I have won a fifty dollar gift card to Rite-Aid (a third-place prize) and a free entrĂ©e at Panda Express. I haven’t kept track of how much time I have spent filling out surveys, but I’m sure it has been worth my while. There’s no way it averages out to less than substitute teacher pay.

A few weeks ago I received a voice mail message from Wal-mart. A pleasant computerized female voice thanked me for completing an online survey and informed me that I had been chosen to receive a $40 Wal-mart gift card. I was also assured that I would still be entered in the grand prize drawing that would take place this winter. She gave me a number to call to redeem my gift card. When I called the number, all I heard was the same computerized female voice tauntingly saying,

“Good-bye.”

That’s it.

“Good-bye.”

Tauntingly.

 I am now involved in an e-mail correspondence with someone named Katrina Peters-McKenzie at Wal-mart’s corporate customer service department. It is obvious that she hasn’t actually read my e-mails. So far she has only sent me form letters about contest rules and regulations. But if I spend less than four hours trying to claim the gift card, and I succeed, the pay will be comparable to my substitute teaching pay. Plus, I am kind of enjoying myself.

On a visit to my parents in Florida one time, I got my mother started. We were in the grocery store and we got one of those extra-long receipts.

“You should get online and take these surveys,” I told her. “Somebody has to win.”

My parents are retired and on a fixed income. They could use a little extra money, I’m sure, and I can’t see either of them substitute teaching.

Well, my mother has taken it a step further. She spent the past year filling out and mailing in forms for the Publishers’ Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. I’ve been encouraging her. Somebody has to win. Why not her?

Sometimes she’ll call me up and say, “I’ve got to make sure I’m home next Wednesday. That’s when they’re giving away $20,000. I told them I’d spend it on new kitchen cabinets.”

“Good!” I tell her. “Keep filling them out. Somebody has to win.”

My sister came to visit this fall. My uber-practical sister. We sat visiting in my family room one afternoon.

“Have you talked to our mother lately?” she asked me. Her eyebrows were raised.

“I talked to her a few days ago,” I replied. “What’s up?”

“She thinks she’s going to win the Publishers’ Clearinghouse Sweepstakes.”

She obviously did not approve.

“Come on,” I said, “let’s go to Panda Express. It’s on me.”

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Lunchtime!

It's almost lunchtime, and I can hardly wait. While everybody else is at school or work, I like to treat myself to whatever sounds good for lunch. Often it's something that nobody else in the family will eat, like asparagus, eggplant, or any variety of squash. These days it's eggplant. It's been my most successful garden crop this year and I've been picking them like crazy.

I have three favorite lunches I want to share with you:

Peanut Butter Toast with Fresh Sliced Strawberries

This one is pretty simple. Toast a slice of whole grain wheat bread. Spread with your favorite brand of peanut butter. Top with sliced fresh strawberries. So good. Mmm. I discovered this over the summer and ate it a lot. Peanut butter and jelly? Jelly is made out of fruit, right? It's a natural next step.

Grilled Eggplant and Toasted Pine Nut Couscous

Again, this is pretty simple to make. Buy a box of Near East Toasted Pine Nut Couscous and prepare according to package directions. Slice an eggplant lengthwise into 1/4 inch thick slices. Brush with olive oil. Grind sea salt and black pepper over slices. Grill on high until black marks appear and eggplant is soft in the center. Place on a plate alongside the couscous.

Asparagus and Sharp Cheddar Cheese

Cut Tillamook Extra Sharp White Cheddar Cheese into tiny cubes and place them on a plate. Break asparagus into bite-sized pieces. Saute them on high in a little olive oil until edges blacken but asparagus is still bright green. Not very long at all. Dump asparagus over the cheese. Eat with rice crackers and a perfectly ripe pear. 

Lunchtime!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Family Vacation

I've been swamped lately, so I thought I'd post this piece I wrote many years ago about family vacations. It's a little long for a blog post, but I hope you'll read it and enjoy it!



Neither my husband nor I come from families with big histories of family vacations. The only vacations my family ever took were when every few years or so my mother and her sister would load two families worth of kids (three from ours, five from theirs) into one vehicle and head off driving from Massachusetts to Indiana to visit relatives. I'm not kidding- eight kids and two women (the fathers never seemed to make these trips) in a station wagon or a van. This was way back before seat belts, obviously, or before seat belts became widely used. I can remember each time our family got a new (or new to us) car, the first thing we'd do was stuff the seat belts back behind the seats so they wouldn't be in the way. This was also before modern minivans. When I say we sometimes made the trip in a van, I mean a Dodge van with two seats up front and nothing but empty space in the back. Just an empty metal shell.

One year, when the eight of us cousins were mostly teenagers, each of our families had a foreign exchange student for the school year. We had a girl from Sweden staying with us, and our cousins had a Norwegian girl. (The Norwegian girl pretty much became a permanent member of the family and actually reads this blog!) The mothers decided we needed to go to Indiana for Thanksgiving. It would be a good cultural experience for these visiting students (even though we lived in the birthplace of Thanksgiving...). We left the fathers at home with their respective sides of the families. We took the van. Two middle-aged women and eight good-sized cousins, the Norwegian girl, and the Swedish girl, who was not happy at all to be there. She was convinced we wouldn't get back in time after Thanksgiving break and that she'd miss Driver's Ed. We wedged a cooler between the driver's and passenger's seats and the ten of us kids took turns sitting up front with the mothers. Keep in mind that Thanksgiving is in November and the only heat in the van was right up front. Everybody else sprawled out in the back with sleeping bags and pillows, trying to keep our noses warm. Everybody except the Swedish exchange student, that is. She was an only child and this was a new and most unpleasant experience for her, I'm afraid. She had brought along a a folding lawn chair, and sat bolt upright, wrapped in a quilt with a grim look on her face the whole way. And the whole way home. We got into a terrible blizzard in Ohio on the way home and were forced to stop for the night. (We usually drove the seventeen hours or so nonstop. There's even a family legend about my mother and my aunt switching off driving duty without ever slowing down the car.) So there we were, the two mothers, the eight cousins, the Norwegian girl, and one very disgruntled Swede, who was by this time kissing her U.S driver's license good-by, all packed into one motel room. This was my experience with family vacations.

My husband's family wasn't big on your typical family vacation, either. I mean like Disneyland or the Grand Canyon. The big family vacation thing for them was the Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City once or twice. However, my father-in-law was an English professor, and they did, through his work, have opportunities for travel as a family. They were able to spend a year in Finland when the kids were young, and while there they traveled all over Europe in their Volkswagen bus. Five kids and Grandma, stopping at campsites, setting up the tent... They still have that tent. And years later, when the kids were older, they spent a semester or two in London. These were wonderful opportunities, but when the kids would complain and ask "How come we've never been to Disneyland?" their parents would say "Well, how many of your friends have traveled all over Europe? Hmmm?"

Somehow, as great as Europe was, it just didn't make up for missing out on Disneyland. So when my husband and I got married and started our family, we decided that family vacations would be a priority with us. And then we promptly moved vacations to the bottom of the priority list. In thirteen years of marrige we've taken only two family vacations.

I'm not counting visiting relatives. If I did, I could make it sound a lot more impressive. Thanks to frequent flyer miles my husband has accumulated during business travel over the years, the kids and I have been able to fly back to Cape Cod most summers to visit my parents. And when we lived back East, we were able to fly west and visit my husband's family. But as far as real family vacations go, we've only done two.

"We never go anywhere," our daughter would whine. "I'm the only kid in my class who's never been to Disneyland."

"How do you know?" I'd ask. "Has someone taken a survey?"

"No, but kids always say 'I've been to Disneyland three times. How many times have you been?' I've even lied , Mom, and said I've been once, but it was when I was really little so I don't remember much about it."

I actually started to feel a little sorry for her when she told me this, but what I said was "Well, how many of your friends have been to Cape Cod? Hmmm?"

"Mom, my friends have never even heard of Cape Cod."

One of our children, on the occasion of an outing to the fitness facility at my husband's place of employment, said, "I love coming here! Since I've never actually seen Disneyland, I think this is my favorite place to go."

Pathetic. Oh, so pathetic. My husband and I exchanged glances. Did we feel guilty that our children could be so easily placated?

Up until this time, we had taken one family vacation. When our three oldest children were seven, four and two, we actually planned and carried out a trip to San Diego. We went to Sea World, the San Diego Zoo, and the Wild Animal Park. (We didn't feel like the boys were old enough to fully appreciate Disneyland.) We had a wonderful time, and when we returned home, Kent and I renewed our vow to make family vacations a priority.

Well, four years somehow sped by, and we had become parents for the fourth time. Our youngest was now three. Too young to fully appreciate Disneyland, but at the same time, our daughter was eleven, and would perhaps be too old to fully appreciate Disneyland by the time her baby brother was old enough. We needed to do this for her, we decided. Plus, we needed to make an honest sixth grader out of her.

"Wouldn't it be fun," I said to Kent, "if we surprised them? Just got them up one morning and said 'Get dressed-We're going to Disneyland!" This is exactly what we decided to do. We made all of our plans. We decided on dates and made hotel reservations. For weeks I worried about slipping up in front of the kids and giving the whole thing away. I even wrote in fake appointments on my kitchen calendar on those days so they wouldn't suspect anything. Finally it was the night before the big day. We got the kids to bed as usual, as it was (or they thought it was) a school night. I waited until I was certain they were all asleep, then I began the packing and we got the car loaded. It was pretty late by the time we got to bed. Kent, naturally, fell asleep right away. To me, it was like trying to fall asleep on Christmas Eve, which is still, to this year, next to impossible for me. I lay there, thinking about the morning, watching the clock... When I finally did sleep, it was a sleep filled with dreams about the kids getting up, wandering out to the garage and finding the car all loaded up before we could spring it on them.

Finally the alarm went off. We had this all planned out. We got the kids up as we always did on school mornings and gathered in the family room. We are in the habit of starting out each day with a family prayer; We like to take advantage of all the help we can get, raising four kids... Our second son was his usual grouchy morning self, and collapsed on the floor near the couch. It was my husband's turn to offer the prayer. I was peeking towards the end when he asked, "And please bless us and protect us today as we travel to Disneyland."  That grouchy little six-year-old's head shot right up and looked around. After Kent finished the prayer, nobody moved or said a word. I don't think any of them were breathing. Finally, our oldest son asked, "Uhhh, did he say Disneyland?"

"Get dressed!" we yelled. "We're going to Disneyland!"

It was better than Christmas morning. And I've never seen the kids move so fast. They were dressed with teeth brushed in record time. I didn't even have to nag. We got everyone loaded into the minivan (a seat belt for everyone-imagine that) and began the thirteen hour drive. I had good intentions of helping with the driving, but was soon nodding off, aware only of my mouth falling open occasionally. It had been a short night for me, or a long one, depending on how you looked at it.

We had the best time. The kids were great travelers. The excitement kept them from complaining about the day in the car. Of course we had a wonderful time at Disneyland. We broke up the trip home, stopping in Las Vegas to visit friends.

We arrived home happy, tired, and recommitted to keeping family vacations at the top of the priority list.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Red Shoes - a film critique



The Red Shoes

written, directed and produced by

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Once upon a time there was a young girl who longed to dance the night away in a pair of red dancing slippers. She put them on and laced them up and she was off. She enjoyed herself immensely. Once the ball was over, she found that although she was exhausted, she was unable to stop dancing. Through the magic of the red shoes and Hans Christian Andersen, she was compelled to dance or die.

In 1948, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger wrote, directed and produced The Red Shoes, a film about a ballet company's production based on Andersen's fairy tale. It is a drama and a tragedy. It has been been called a romance as well, but the romantic love that is supposed to be felt by the main characters comes across as secondary to the love for their respective arts, dancing and music composition. In a way, this only contributes to the overall theme of the film, that to dance is to live, and one must sacrifice all else, including love, in order to become truly great.

The Red Shoes is beautifully made of vibrant colors, graceful movement, and an Oscar-winning musical score. These three elements appropriately combine to lift the viewer out of real life and into a more beautiful fairy tale kind of world in both the ballet and the offstage scenes. This is a story about music, and about dancing, and about color as well; the red of the ballet shoes is strongly symbolic of danger and disaster.

The cinematography and the editing are first-rate, and to me, are the most intriguing aspect of the film. Not only is Technicolor (which was relatively new at the time) used to full advantage, but the cameraman employs other creative techniques with great success. There are several different point-of- view shots throughout the film (especially during the ballet sequences) which lend an artistic quality that is often missing in more conventional films. Sometimes we are viewing the ballet as if perched in the rafters of the theater, sometimes from offstage, and even through the eyes of the principal ballerina as she pirouettes successively across the stage. In fact, rarely do we view the ballet from where an audience would traditionally be seated, seeing the entire stage at once before us. During the twenty minute performance of The Ballet of the Red Shoes, we are treated to an experience that would not be possible for a traditional ballet audience. The combination of stage and film works magic before our eyes. Dissolving and fading and superimposition by the editors make it possible to convey the ballerina's personal feelings to us as she dances. We suddenly see the image of her lover superimposed over her dance partner, or the imposing figure of the ballet impresario attempting to force her choice between love and his promise to make her the best dancer in all the world. During The Ballet of the Red Shoes sequence, we are able to feel the conflict that is tearing Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) in half, and we realize that she is living in her real life the story she is portraying through the ballet: to dance is to live, not to dance is to die.

Moira Shearer beautifully and gracefully portrays Victoria Page, and not surprisingly, as she was a famous Scottish ballet dancer as well as an actress. In fact, many of the performers are both dancers and actors, which explains why the non-dance scenes are almost as smoothly executed as the ballet scenes. Anton Walbrook stars as Boris Lermontov, the head of the ballet company, and in spite of not being a professional dancer, manages to comport himself like one. Marius Goring as Julian Craster convinces us of his love for music and composing but not quite of his love for Victoria Page.

If one considers not just the credibility and power of the dialogue, but the plot and the means of carrying it out as part of the screenplay, one must judge the script to be exceptional. The parallel between the dancer's real life and the fairy tale of The Red Shoes is brilliant, and where it might disappoint a viewer who demands a happy ending, it doesn't disappoint one who appreciates a well-crafted story.

The editing of The Red Shoes shows great skill, not just as mentioned above in relation to The Ballet of the Red Shoes sequences, but throughout. The film flows smoothly in spite of being rather long. Various techniques are successfully employed to create fluidity, including one using shots of destination labels being pasted to wicker trunks in order to show the passage of time and the movement of the dance company between different cities.

As directors, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had a distinct style which came through in most of their work. Known for taking risks by making films that went against the prevalent trends of their day, Powell and Pressburger specialized in passion, beauty, and fantasy, all of which sing out in The Red Shoes. Many of their films, including this one, were projected box office failures, but managed not only to survive, but to succeed with audiences. Powell and Pressburger believed in their work, and believed in the ability of viewers to recognize them as the artists they truly were.

The Red Shoes has helped impress on me the importance of the arts, and has helped me to appreciate what must lie behind the scenes of any great work of art. It reminds me to consider and value the sacrifice that accompanies great art. The theme of The Red Shoes carries over into all art forms, including the making of a great film. To create is to live. This theme may apply in another sense as well. After all, Powell and Pressburger created a masterpiece that is very much alive decades after they finished production. To create is truly to live, and Powell and Pressburger and their unique style live on in their classic film, The Red Shoes.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Sourdough Start - World's Best Pet



My husband and I have never been big on the whole pet idea. We both grew up with a dog in the house, and that was fine, but neither of us has ever felt the need to take one on as adults. Our kids never even seriously asked us for a dog. We let them know what our attitude was before they ever had a chance: dogs shed and they poop in the yard. And who almost always ends up taking care of the dog? The mom. And this mom had her hands busy with four children.

No dogs.

Cats were never going to be an option because my husband is allergic to them. Besides, they poop in the yard, too. And why would we need a cat of our own when every cat in this part of our state uses our flowerbeds as a litter box?

We had parakeets for a while. They were fun, but guess who usually had to clean the cage?

 And we did the fish tank thing a couple of times. Guess who always had to clean the tank?


I thought we were done for good, but about a year and a half ago I acquired the ideal pet. My sister-in-law gave me a sourdough start. A living, breathing sourdough start. It resides in a plastic container in the fridge. It doesn't whine to be let out. No pooping. No barking. No shedding. No obedience training. I feed it a little flour and water every couple of weeks, if I think about it. It handles neglect very well; I once totally ignored it for six months and it's still fine. And the best part is, YOU GET TO EAT IT.

Sourdough Pancakes

Take your sourdough start out of the fridge the night before you want the pancakes. (You don't even have to talk to it. Of course, you can if you want to...) Put one cup of the start in a medium bowl. Add a cup of flour and a cup of water to each container - the medium mixing bowl and what's left of your pet. Stir both very well. Put your pet back in the fridge. Cover the mixing bowl lightly with plastic wrap and leave on the kitchen counter until morning. In the morning, add 3/4 tsp baking soda, 3/4 tsp. salt, 1/2 to 3/4 cup sugar, and 3 eggs. Mix well and cook on a hot griddle.


Sourdough Bread (my sister-in-law Ruth's recipe)

In the morning: Take starter out of fridge. Transfer one cup into a medium bowl. Add one cup water and one cup flour. Mix well. Cover lightly with plastic wrap. Leave on kitchen counter.

Feed original start one cup each of flour and water. You can let it sit out on the counter for a little while until it starts to bubble and then put it back in the fridge.(This is kind of like taking the dog out for a little fresh air and then returning it to its kennel.)

In the evening: Add 2 1/2 cups each of flour and water to the medium mixing bowl. Mix well. Cover lightly with plastic wrap. Leave on counter overnight.

In the morning, put the contents of the bowl into the bowl of your large mixer. (You can also do this by hand.) Beat for two minutes. Add about three cups of flour and beat with paddle for five minutes. Let mixture stand for thirty minutes to let the flour absorb. Change to dough hook. Add one Tablespoon salt and about three more cups of flour. Knead until the dough is no longer sticky. (Takes a while.) Place dough in a greased bowl, turning the dough so that the top is also greased. Cover with plastic wrap or a clean dish towel and let rise until double in bulk. Put dough on counter and let it rest for ten minutes. Form into loaves and place on greased baking sheets (or in loaf pans, I guess, or bake on a baking stone) and let them rise until double. Brush with beaten egg with a little water added to it. Make slashes in tops of loaves with a very sharp knife just before putting in oven. Bake for ten minutes at 425 degrees and reduce heat to 375 degrees. Bake for twenty-five more minutes. You can spray water from a spray bottle on the sides of the oven every few minutes for the first ten or fifteen minutes. This is supposed to produce a chewier crust.


Sourdough start - the pet that keeps on giving!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Walmart Potato Salad

There are so many high quality specialty food items available out there these days that we just don't have to make everything ourselves anymore. Some things just aren't worth the hassle.

Like potato salad.

Potato salad is okay. My husband likes it, but our kids don't. It's not something I ever wanted to eat a whole lot of. Two bites is usually enough for me. And making it is kind of obnoxious. (And I know I'm not the only one who thinks so because whenever I mention potato salad, my kids qoute a Spongebob episode where some random fish says, "Nice going, Buddy. It took us three days to make that potato salad. Three days!")
When you make potato salad, you have to cook the potatoes to the perfect state of doneness. I have always found that hard to do. You don't want them undercooked. If you overcook them, you end up with mashed potato salad.  You also have to think about what goes in it. Some people like hard boiled egg, some don't. Celery or no celery? A lot of people think they hate celery. Some people like pickles, but sweet or dill? Will the kids eat it if it has onions in it? My kids won't eat it if it has any of that stuff in it.

My mother's potato salad is really good. She uses perfectly cooked red potatoes, cut up and coated with a tiny amount of vegetable oil, sour cream, green onions, tarragon, dill, salt and pepper. I used to make it once in a while for extended family gatherings, but again, it was so hard to cook the potatoes just right.

So once in a while I buy a small container of ready-made potato salad for Kent. I've tried different brands and varieties. They're always okay. I have my two bites and Kent eats the rest.

But last week I discovered a potato salad that was so good I've been day-dreaming about it ever since. I got it (of all places) from the deli counter at Walmart. It was the Loaded Baked Potato variety. I had way more than my two bites. I think I ate more than Kent did. There was some left over. Throughout the next day I polished it off a spoonful at a time.

Delicious!

So quit boiling potatoes and head to Walmart.  You'll be so glad you did.

Remember - Loaded Baked Potato.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Subtitles - the only way to watch a movie

My son Joel has a friend named Emma. Once in a while over the last couple of years, Emma has come over to watch a movie with Joel. I noticed one time that they had subtitles on.

"Are you trying to earn mastery points for Spanish class?" I asked, assuming the subtitles were in Spanish.

"They're in English, Mom," Joel informed me with an implied "duh."

"I always watch movies with the subtitles," Emma told me.

Oh.

That might drive me crazy, I thought, but whatever.

Last March I visited my parents in Florida. One evening we decided to watch a movie. After messing with the remote for a minute, my mother managed to turn on the subtitles.

"If we don't have the subtitles on, we don't always get what they're saying," she explained to me.

Oh, great, I thought. I'm going to have to watch this entire movie with words strung out across the bottom of the screen. This is going to be really annoying.

But guess what?

It wasn't annoying.

It was helpful.

I made the realization that I don't always get what they're saying either. Especially if it's an action film. Or a movie with a quirky British dialect.

I realized that when I watch a movie, I'm frequently asking a fellow viewer (usually my husband), "What did he just say?" or "So what's going on?"

And the fellow viewer (Kent) usually responds with something like "Shh. I can't hear what they're saying."

My parents don't seem to have hearing loss. I don't think Joel's friend Emma is hard of hearing. I just think they've figured out something the rest of us haven't thought of:

Movies often have bad sound.

I blame it on the filmmakers.They are familiar with the movie scripts. They know what the actors are going to say before they say it. Think about it. If you already know what words are going to come out of someone's mouth, you will hear those words when they speak them. Even if it's a bit muffled. When the filmmakers preview a film, they know just what's being said because they already know just what's being said. They think it sounds fine.

Excuse me? What did he just say?

One night after I returned home from Florida, Kent and I were going to watch a movie.

"Hey," I asked him. "Do you mind if I turn on the subtitles?"

He wasn't keen on the idea. I could tell he thought it would be really annoying to have words strung out across the bottom of the screen for the entire movie.

"If I can read the subtitles," I reminded him, "I won't always be asking you what's going on.You'll be able to watch the movie uninterrupted."

He agreed to the subtitles.

It took watching a few movies together with the subtitles turned on, but guess what? Now Kent turns them on without my even asking.

Is it because he finds it helpful in understanding the dialogue or is it because it keeps me from disturbing him with my questions while we watch?

I'll have to ask him.

But not during a movie.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Jeans Quilts - Thanks for the memories, Joel Craft



I always wanted one of those really cool quilts people make out of their old jeans. Everybody loves a great pair of jeans. We all have our favorites. We break them in and they're soft and comfy. A great pair of jeans can become a dear friend. (Hey, some of us have a harder time making friends than other people do.) And then we can turn them into a quilt and cherish the memories we made while wearing them.

Yes, I always wanted a jeans quilt. Only one problem: I'm not a saver (see March 12, 2010 post Just Get Rid Of It!). When our jeans wear out, I assess their condition and then either throw them away or donate them to Deseret Industries. What I don't do is fold them neatly, stack them in a cardboard box, and tuck the box away in a corner of my basement just in case. Just in case times get really hard and I decide to patch them? Just in case we have a war on the home front and I need to rip them into bandages? Just in case I ever get enough to make one of those really cool quilts? It always seemed to me like it would take way too long to save enough for a whole quilt. And besides, I knew I'd never fold them neatly, stack them in a cardboard box and tuck them away in a corner of my basement. I'd wad them up and stick them under the bed. They'd stay there until it made me crazy to think about their being under there, and then I would get rid of them. So why not get rid of them from the start?

Then one day I was visiting my good friend and neighbor, Laurie Craft, in her garage, as she was preparing for a yard sale. I could tell she was a little stressed out about the whole thing. I've never had a yard sale (because I get rid of stuff as soon as I possibly can), but I've heard that people feel a little funny, when it comes down to it, about having strangers rifle through their personal belongings. And people can get their feelings hurt when someone offers a quarter for that precious little dress that their sweet baby girl wore just a few years ago that still looks like new. Or fifty cents for that candy dish with the pink flowers and gold edging that Aunt Sally gave them when she cleaned out and retired to Arizona. That, after all, could be considered a family heirloom.

Or that cardboard box of neatly folded and stacked jeans that were cherished friends to a family member.

"Jeans!" I exclaimed.

"Yes," Laurie replied. "They're Joel's." Joel is her husband.

She continued.

"I folded them neatly, stacked them in this cardboard box, and tucked them away in a corner of the basement in case there's ever a war on the home front and we need them for bandages. And besides, they were some of his closest friends."

Okay, I admit that I made up that last paragraph.

"Yes," she replied. "They're Joel's."

Hmm.

I was thinking about that jeans quilt I had always wanted to make. But I didn't want to stress her out about her husband's jeans.

So just how weird would my friend think I was if I offered to buy up her husband's old jeans?

On the big day I showed up early.

"I'm here to buy Joel's jeans. I want to make one of those jeans quilts but I've thrown away all our old jeans."

"Oh! How many pairs do you want?" Laurie asked me.

"I'll take them all."

I took them home and before too long I got started. I made a really nice quilt. We keep it folded up in our family room and use it when we watch movies. I can almost hear Joel Craft laughing at the funny parts. We've taken it to ball games and on picnics. I can just imagine Joel Craft cheering or asking someone to please pass the potato chips.

We like Joel Craft a lot. He's a great guy.

It's a good thing, huh?

Our daughter turned twenty-five a few days ago. I wanted to give her something special for her birthday. I still had some of Joel Craft's jeans. (I had actually saved them!) I decided to make her one of those really cool jeans quilts. The kind that will always bring back fond memories for her...of one of our favorite neighbors - Joel Craft!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

"Two Great Tastes That Taste Great Together" - peanut butter and chocolate





My sons often ask me those ridiculous questions people (usually boy people) like to ask that force you to choose between two stupid situations.

"Which would you rather do - cut your own leg off or be ripped apart by a grizzly?"

or

"Who would win in a fight - a pterodactyl or a guy with a jet pack?"

"I refuse to be a part of this conversation," is my usual reply.

But a few years ago, I asked myself an equally stupid question:

If I could only eat one food for the rest of my life, what would it be?

I considered this for a while.

 Really, I did

My first thought, of course, was chocolate. But can chocolate count as one food? And I thought I might want something a little more substantial after a while. Say, after a year or two. I finally settled on peanut butter. I was in a peanut butter toast phase at the time. Crunchy peanut butter and whole grain bread. I'd have to forget the bread and eat the peanut butter right from a spoon, but that wasn't a problem. Not like I hadn't done that before.

These days I'd probably choose something different. I 'm not sure what. (Good thing it's not too late, huh?) But I still like peanut butter. And chocolate. Recently I've enjoyed a couple of peanut butter-chocolate desserts that I just love. And a neighbor told me a couple of weeks ago that she likes to make smores using Reese's Peanut Butter Cups for the chocolate. Definitely got to try that.

Peanut Butter Pie is one of our family's favorite desserts. I think a lot of people make something like this. I got this recipe from my mother. Everybody loves it - and here's the important part - even people who think they don't like peanut butter

Peanut Butter Pie

2 chocolate cookie crusts (I don't like the Oreo brand. I prefer Keebler.)

1 (8 oz.) package cream cheese

1 cup crunchy peanut butter

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup milk

12 oz. Cool Whip (thawed)

1 can milk chocolate frosting


Mix together cream cheese and peanut butter. Add sugar. Add milk. Mix in Cool Whip. Pour into the chocolate crusts. Freeze. Frost and refreeze.


A young friend of mine named Kirsten brought over a yummy treat last weekend. They taste a lot like Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, only I think these are better. Maybe because you get a whole panful. She gave me the recipe. I've opted to call them Kirsten's Peanut Butter Bites.

Kirsten's Peanut Butter Bites

2 cups peanut butter, divided


 1 ½ sticks butter, softened

 2 cups powdered sugar, divided

 3 cups graham cracker crumbs

 2 cups semisweet chocolate chips, divided

BEAT 1 ¼ cups peanut butter and butter in a large mixing bowl until creamy. Gradually beat in 1 cup of powdered sugar. With hands or wooden spoon, work in remaining powdered sugar, graham crackers, and ½ cup choco chips. Press evenly into a 9x13 pan. Smooth top with spatula.

MELT remaining peanut butter and remaining choco chips in a saucepan over lowest possible heat, stirring constantly, until smooth. Spread over graham cracker crust in pan. Refrigerate for an hour or until firm. Store in fridge.


Kirsten cuts them into little tiny squares and puts them on a plate. That way you can just take a little piece. And then just one more little piece. And then just... You get the idea?

Thanks, Kirsten!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Alphabetical Order or No One Ever Said Life Would Be Fair


When I got married I moved up in the world. I used to be a W. Now I'm a G. Life is good as a G. Only six letters are ahead of G. There are only three letters after W. And they're X,Y, and Z. So really, W is pretty much last.

When I was in high school, they started what was called Arena Scheduling. In order to sign up for the next year's classes, you were forced to enter the Arena, which was set up in the gym. There you would visit a table for each class you wanted to take (or needed to take), and get signed up. When the spaces were filled, the classes were closed. Naturally they couldn't have every student in the school racing around the Arena at the same time, so they opted, just as naturally, to admit us according to alphabetical order. Well, that seemed fair, right? The kids who had been first at everything for their entire lives got first pick. For those of us who had been last our whole lives, Arena Scheduling was an emotional bloodbath. I remember finally just sitting down on the gym floor in exasperation, wanting to cry.

In high school, home rooms were assigned by alphabetical order, too. One year, those of us at the end of the alphabet had Mr. Malloy.

He was an M.

Right in the middle.

"I've read that people whose last names start with letters at the end of the alphabet are usually a little weird," he told us on the first day of school. "Experts say these people develop a complex from always being last."

He chuckled.

 Not one of us was chuckling along with him.

I surreptitiously looked around the room. Okay, I admitted to myself, there could be something to this. There could be. With exceptions, of course. I hoped with all my heart that the other kids (who were also stealthily observing their classmates) were considering me one of the exceptions.

This past spring I was substitute teaching a class of second graders. I was leading them through the hall to the cafeteria. They were in "lunch line order."

"You lucky boy," I said to the first child in line. "Your last name starts with A so you'll always get to be first."

His eyes got really big.

"Is that why?"

A big grin spread across his face. He'd been first for three years of public school and he'd never known the reason.

When the new school year starts up, I think I'm going to petition that "lunch line order" be redefined to mean alphabetical order from Z to A.

The principal at this school is a T.

He just might go for it.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Stealing Lilacs

The lilacs have been in bloom over the last few weeks - some of my favorite weeks of the year. They were a little late this year due to a very long winter. Everything's been a few weeks behind. But the lilacs finally bloomed, and I began to drive my family crazy everywhere we went.

"Look at that lilac bush!" I'd exclaim.

"Yup."

"It's huge! Look at all those blossoms!"

"Yup."

"I'd like to steal some of those."

"Yup."

I come by it honestly - the tendency to want to steal lilacs. My mother was a lilac thief for years. We had a lilac tree in our yard but it never got many blossoms on it. She didn't want to cut them because then it wouldn't have any. And besides, there would never be enough to fill up the house.

So she stole them instead.

Up behind the dry cleaners and beside the cranberry bog on Route 28 were some giant lilac bushes. Every year they were loaded with flowers. I'm sure what she took was never missed. And I really don't think whoever owned them would have cared anyway. These bushes were out of the way and I bet most people didn't even know they were there. Possibly whoever owned the property didn't know they were there. My mother would come home and fill vases and place them all around the house. I can still smell them, mixed with the damp salt air, if I close my eyes.

Once when we were teenagers, my cousin Lori and I offered to drive the get-away car for my mother's yearly raid. She put on dark clothes and we waited for the sun to go down. We drove her up to Route 28 and let her off in front of the dry cleaners. She quickly disappeared into some foliage. We made a u-turn and pulled off the side of the road to wait, ready to make a smooth get-away. After a while, she re-emerged. So much for stealth, we thought, as she came trotting across the road, a big white garbage bag over her shoulder, clearly visible, bobbing up and down in the dark. She never would have been successful in the world of serious thieving.

I have had the same luck as my mother in growing my own lilacs. They're kind of sparse. Never enough to really pick. But I've never resorted to theft. I just think about it every year. Especially when I go to church. Beautiful lilacs grow all along the fence of the back parking lot of our church. It's a long fence. I don't think it's as long as a football field. Maybe sixty or seventy yards though. That's a lot of lilacs. Every year I think about putting on dark clothes, waiting till the sun goes down, and sneaking over to the church parking lot. I would take a black garbage bag with me. I confessed this yearly urge to a friend of mine at church one recent Sunday. She was all for it.

"When you think about it, it's really kind of a waste to have all those beautiful lilacs there all week," she said. "We get to enjoy them for a few Sundays and that's it."

But I was saved from the temptation to steal from the church (which would be much worse than stealing from the dry cleaners) by my friend Judy. She grows beautiful lilacs.

"I heard that you love lilacs," she said to me one Sunday at church. "I'm going to bring you some."

And she did. I arranged them in a big vase and set it on the front hall table. They looked beautiful and they smelled so good. I could almost smell the ocean right along with them.



Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Real Men Paint Fingernails




I was at a gathering of extended family recently. I walked into the dining room to retrieve something out of my purse.

"Melinda, Brian will paint your nails for you if you want," said my cousin Lori, referring to her husband.

I must have missed something, I thought. They must have been joking around about Brian painting nails before I walked in here.

"No thanks," I responded. "I'd have it all picked off by the time I reach Nephi."

I walked around the table and happened to sit down directly across from Brian.

He was painting his little niece's fingernails.

"Brian really does do nails!" I exclaimed.

I don't know Brian well. I've only met him a couple of times over the years. But I'll tell you what about Brian - he's a manly man. Not in the least bit girly. You can tell that just by looking at him. He has an electrical background and works for a utility company. You just gotta know he drives around in a big pick-up and has maybe even scaled his share of utility poles. Probably loves all kinds of outdoor activities - four wheeling, camping. Maybe he hunts. And he's a big guy. You just wouldn't expect him to be a manicurist.

"So," I asked him, feeling a blog post coming on, "how did you get into the nail business?"

"I started years ago as a way to spend time with my daughters," he told me. Lori and Brian have two girls who have both grown up and left home.

Over the years he's gotten really good at painting nails.

"It's a lot like painting a racing stripe on a car," he told me. "You have to be smooth and steady."

He finished applying a coat of polish to his niece's tiny nails. As they were drying, he pulled open a plastic bag and fished out a nail stamping kit.

"Now, look these over and decide what you want," he told her.

I realized that this was his stuff and that he had traveled from Oregon to Utah with it so that he could do his nieces' nails. I loved this guy.

 I had never seen the stamping process before. Brian carefully painted white over a tiny design on an image plate and squeegeed off the excess. Then he took a tiny finger in hand and patiently and precisely rolled it across.

"Do you like that one?" he asked. "It's okay if you don't. We can do it over."

It was perfect. They finished off the job. All the nieces lined up for their turns. Flowers and animal prints seemed to be the fashion of the day.

All the way from Oregon with his nail kit.

These girls love their Uncle Brian.

Don't you?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Senior Style - what was I thinking?



I'm no fashionista. My favorite thing to wear? Jeans and a t-shirt. Usually the t-shirt is a hand-me-down from my boys. Happy day for me when they all outgrew the mediums.

But since I can't wear jeans and t-shirts everywhere I go, I am occasionally forced to shop for real clothes. I would sooner shove bamboo shoots underneath my fingernails than shop for clothes, but sometimes we just don't get to choose. And then I go shopping.

I try to find clothing that is age-appropriate but somewhat stylish. Fortunately for me, Costco carries great stuff for middle-aged women. And it's cheap and convenient. If I find something I like and it comes in different colors, I buy a few. It's kind of like having a uniform. Thanks to Costco, rarely do I have to torture myself by entering a regular clothing store. And if I do, I've learned to take my daughter along.

Carolyn became fashion conscious about the time she entered junior high. We'd be in a store. I'd hold up a shirt.

"How about this?" I'd ask. "Is this cute?"

"Yeah," she'd answer. "For you," implying that she wouldn't be caught dead in it.

"Well, I would not want to look like a teenager," I'd inform her.

Oh, don't worry - I'd read her mind - you won't.

Once in a while she pays me a real compliment.

"I'd wear that," she'll say in response to a new top I might be wearing.

Makes me feel so stylish!

Recently my Aunt Becky passed away. A bunch of us were visiting as extended family the day before the funeral.

I was wearing a new shirt.

My Aunt Peachy said to me, "I like that shirt. I'd wear that."

Hmm... I thought.

A few minutes later my Aunt Norma told me, "Nice shirt. I'd wear that."

My Aunt Marie said, "I have that same shirt in white."

Well, guess what. I have it in white, too. Naturally, I had bought it in more than one color. But I was too disturbed to own up to this.

I was dressed like my senior citizen aunts!

I mean, don't get me wrong; they all wear cute clothes.

For them.

I should have taken Carolyn shopping with me. What was I thinking?

A little later on a bunch of us were sitting around the dining room table. As it often does in family conversations, the talk turned to who looks like whom. My cousin Greg, one of Aunt Becky's sons, said, "I don't know what it is, but something about Melinda reminds me of my mom today."

"I think it's because I've grown my hair long," I quickly remarked.

But we know that wasn't it.

We know what it was.

It was the shirt.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Please Pass the Grits!

 My mother is a wonderful cook and has taken up Southern cooking since she moved to Florida. During my most recent visit, she made Shrimp and Grits for supper one night. I loved it. I've made it several times now. Sometimes I use asparagus instead of shrimp. It's delicious.

 I've also started making Grits and Blackberries. So good. Mmm. I could eat Grits and Blackberries daily. Actually, for the past few days, I have.

Grits are my new favorite comfort food. And they're not bad for you. A one cup serving has 143 calories, less than one gram of fat, three grams of protein, 31 grams of carbs, and you control the sodium completely when you decide how much salt to use when cooking them. They are high in folate, and are a good source of iron, niacin, riboflavin, selenium, thiamin, and vitamin A. I don't recommend quick grits, or even following the directions on a box of regular grits. I think the slower method described in the recipe below, including the sitting and reheating time, makes a big difference. So worth the wait!




Shrimp (or Asparagus) and Grits

1 cup stone ground white grits (I've used yellow grits, too)
5 cups water
 salt and freshly ground pepper
2/3 cup grated cheddar cheese
1 T. butter

2 T. olive oil
1 tsp. minced garlic
1/4 of a medium onion, finely chopped
1/4 of a bell pepper, finely chopped (I like red or orange)
1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined (or however much asparagus you want)
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 T. olive oil
1 T. flour
3/4 cup chicken stock
1 T. fresh lemon juice

Place grits in a medium saucepan. Gradually whisk in five cups of water and 1 tsp. salt. Bring to a simmer, whisking until it begins to thicken. Reduce heat and simmer gently, stirring occasionally and scraping bottom and sides with a wooden spoon, for 45 minutes. Cover and remove from heat. Let stand for 30 minutes (or up to an hour).

Heat 2 T. olive oil in a pan. Saute garlic, onion, and bell pepper over medium heat for a couple of minutes. Season shrimp (or asparagus) on both sides with salt and pepper. Raise heat to medium high. Push vegetables to side of pan. Add the extra 1T. olive oil if necessary. Sear shrimp (or asparagus) in a single layer for two minutes. Flip and sear for one minute. Push shrimp to edge of pan. Sprinkle flour in center of pan. Cook, stirring flour into vegetable/shrimp mixture, for two minutes. Add chicken stock. Simmer until sauce thickens, about two minutes. Add lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper.

Just before serving, reheat grits over medium-low heat. Stir in cheese and butter. Season with salt and pepper. Serve shrimp (or asparagus) over grits. Don't go too heavy on the sauce. In the asparagus picture above, I went a little heavy on the sauce. You don't need that much.






Grits and Blackberries

Follow directions for grits in the above recipe, omitting the cheese and the pepper. Sprinkle blackberries with sugar (you can use an artificial sweetener) and heat in microwave until berries are juicy and hot. Put reheated grits in a bowl. Add a dab of butter if you want. Pour berries and juice over grits.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Easter Coloring Books



It's Easter time and Easter always makes me think of (among other obviously much more important things) coloring books. When we were little girls, our mother always bought my sister and me new coloring books in the weeks leading up to Easter. They were filled with the outlines of spring flowers, baby animals, and plenty of Easter eggs. We would bring them to life using our box of 64 Crayola Crayons.

I remember the year I learned how to color like a big girl. My sister taught me how to outline. She is eighteen months older than I am and had probably picked up the outlining method at school. I have a memory of the two of us: we're stretched out on our stomachs on the hardwood floor of our upstairs bedroom in our house on Standish Way, each of us with a coloring book in front of us, the big box of crayons in the middle. My concentration level is high as I carefully trace just inside of the black line with my crayon, pressing down to get a nice dark outline. Then I shade lightly to fill in the space. I am so thrilled to know the secret and am proud of my work.

Last weekend my husband was asked to speak at our young niece's baptism. (L.D.S. children are usually baptized at age eight.) He wanted to use a coloring book as an aid in an object lesson.

And it's Easter time! I thought.

We went to Walmart to pick out a coloring book. I chose one with beautiful spring flowers, baby animals, and plenty of Easter eggs.

Kent needed two facing pictures: one colored like an older child would do it, and one like a toddler might do it. As soon as we got home, I went right to work. I got out my 64 Crayola crayons and selected the pictures I would color. I did the toddler picture first. I just scribbled across the page with two colors. ( I have actually seen coloring book pages scribbled in this manner hanging in the MoMA. Really. I think they were from a Winnie the Pooh coloring book.) Then I began the real masterpiece. I carefully selected my colors. I outlined meticulously. I shaded everything in.

Beautiful!

I love to color. Especially in Easter coloring books. I could have filled up the whole book, but I didn't. We gave it to Lora after her baptism, along with some new crayons. I hope she's enjoyed it.

Maybe she's even taught her little sister how to outline.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Old Slippers - New Slippers

I got some new slippers recently. I ordered them from Avon. Who knew that Avon sold slippers? Anyway, it really was time for a new pair. My husband was threatening to burn my old ones.


“What exactly is it that you hate so much about them?” I asked him one day after my slippers had received a particularly scalding barrage of verbal abuse from him.

“You really want to know?” he asked me.

I assured him rather defensively that I did.

“They look like something an old housewife from back in the day would have worn, along with a bathrobe and hair curlers, when she went out to the mailbox to get the mail.”

I considered this.

“Well, I don’t wear curlers.”

They did look pretty bad. If slippers have lives, theirs were definitely expired. I’m sure I’d been wearing dead slippers for some time.


The problem is that I’m very particular about slippers. My feet are always cold. My slippers have to be very warm. I like polar fleece, and I like the bootie style.

Attractive?

No.

Warm?

Yes.

Hard to find?

Yes.

I finally decided I’d better give up and settle for something else. My new slippers are polar fleece, and they have memory foam in them. They are not the bootie style. They are very shoe-like. They have a pretty thick rubber sole (great for going outside to check the mail) and they feel like shoes when you walk. So much so that one day I got all the way to school and half way across the parking lot before I realized I was wearing them.

I showed my new slippers to my fashion-forward daughter tonight.


“They’re unisex,” I told her.

“Are you sure? They look one-sex to me.”

She didn’t mean women’s.

Well, I like them. They’re warm and comfortable. I’ll probably wear them for a long time - way beyond their natural lives.

I think I’m ready to let go of the old pair.

I’ll tell Kent to go round up some kindling.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Knitting and Crocheting 101

Anyone out there remember granny square vests? You have to have lived through the late sixties, early seventies to have experienced them.

They were hideous.

I never had one.

Almost all the other little girls back in the day wore them regularly. Big girls, too, I suspect. It seemed like they had one for every day of the week. Did they actually like them? I always thought their mothers must have forced them to wear them so that the grandmothers wouldn’t have hurt feelings. I'm pretty sure it was the grandmothers who crocheted them. I remember discussing granny square vests with my sister when we got a little older. We were both so glad we’d never had a grandmother who crocheted.

Which is why I was so surprised when, back in the early nineties, my sister took up knitting.* She made me a pair of slippers for my birthday.

They were hideous.

Only she didn’t realize it. As soon as I got the wrapping paper off (I hadn’t even identified what they were), I held them up and started laughing uproariously. Hey, I thought it was one of those sisterly gag gifts and that we were going to laugh ourselves silly over it.

“What are they?” I asked, at the same time noticing that I was the only one uproariously laughing.

“They’re slippers,” she answered, very seriously. “I knitted them for you.”

“Oh!” I exclaimed, immediately stifling the laughter.

“They’re Cougar blue,” I observed. I couldn’t think of what else to say. They weren’t shaped the same. As slippers, you ask? Right. Or as each other.

But this didn’t stop me. I pulled them on and stood up in them.

“I love them!” I exclaimed, probably overdoing the enthusiasm a little in an attempt to cover my previous social blunder.

They were kind of hard to keep on my feet, but I made sure I wore them for the rest of our visit.

A few weeks ago, I learned how to crochet. I’m an Activity Day leader over the ten and eleven year old girls from church. (See February 2011 post Hershey Kiss Roses.) A neighbor of mine, Kathie, is my partner. We thought it would be a good idea to teach the girls how to crochet. Of course Kathie would have to head this up since I didn’t know how to do it. Kathie would quickly show me first, and then I’d be able to help the girls. She taught us how to chain the first day. The second time we met, we reviewed the chain, and then she taught us how to go back up the chain and make another row. And then another one. And another one. I thought I picked it up quite easily and I managed to help some of the girls to catch on.

At the end of the hour, I had a skinny rectangle. I took my little project home and continued to work on it. It was kind of fun. And it was very satisfying somehow. I loved seeing and feeling the yarn build up and come together in a pattern, simple though it was. I was creating something. Maybe a Barbie blanket. Of course I’d have to get a Barbie. I sat and worked at it for quite a while. It was very therapeutic. It was relaxing and I just wanted to keep going. I could get hooked on this, I thought. (Sorry about the pun.) (Crochet hook?) Only I noticed that the further along I got, the stranger my rectangle was getting. In fact, it was no longer a rectangle. I now had a perfect trapezoid. My row was getting shorter each time I got to the end and turned around to go back. Hmm. So much for Barbie's blanket.


I learned two things from my crocheting experience. I learned that the reason those little girls back in the day had all those granny square vests was because the grandmothers found crocheting therapeutic and satisfying. They just kept making them. I also learned to appreciate the work my sister put into knitting those slippers for me. My Barbie blanket had turned into a Barbie trapezoid. Her slippers had turned into… well, I’m not sure what. But I bet making them was very therapeutic for her. And satisfying.

Maybe I’ll ask Kathie to teach me how to make granny squares. I could make vests for all the little girls in our Activity Day group.

 
* I called my sister to ask her if she minded if I wrote about her less-than-successful knitting experience. She claims to have no recollection of ever knitting me a pair of slippers. She does remember trying to learn to knit a coat hanger cover at a church group activity when she was a young girl. She says that was the only attempt to knit that she has ever made. But I have a home video that shows the two of us, with me wearing the Cougar blue slippers. Well, that doesn't prove she made them, she says. I think I humiliated her so badly when I laughed that she has blocked the whole experience. I feel terrible. Maybe I should make her a granny square vest to make up for it!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Oysters on the Half Shell



It's my last day in Florida. My mother and I go out to lunch at a local seafood place. We sit out on the deck overlooking the water. She really wants some oysters, so we order half a dozen as an appetizer.

Raw, on the half shell.

Even though I was raised on seafood, I've never tried raw oysters. My mother reminds me that when my sister and brother and I were just tiny, we'd stand around our dad with our little mouths hanging open as he shucked scallops, just waiting for him to toss one our way. We loved them.

And nowadays, I love sushi.

Raw oysters?

Why not?

I pick up a shell and pierce the slimy blob with my fork. Just as I am about to slide it into my mouth, my mother says, "It tastes just like you're swimming."

It does.

I close my eyes and let it roll around inside my mouth a bit before I chew just a little and swallow.

I could be in the ocean.

I squeeze a little lemon on another one and I'm ready for my next plunge.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Plantains, Pineapple and Star Fruit

My mother is an excellent cook. Whenever I visit, I can count on gaining a few pounds. In spite of my morning runs, this trip has been no exception. I've been averaging half a pound a day. Good thing I'm not staying long.

My mother is all about food. Good food. We talk about food all the time. We plan ahead, but we never fit it all in by the end of the visit.

"Oh, we didn't get to have the fish tacos," she'll lament the night before I'm leaving.

"Next time," I'll reply. "And the crab claws."

We have had time for the fabulous fruit side dish she makes with plantains and star fruit. She gets the star fruit from her next door neighbor, Nellie.



Nellie has a star fruit tree, but she doesn't care for star fruit. She gives my parents all they want. Star fruit really doesn't have much taste (kind of a mild melon flavor), but it's so pretty to look at when it's sliced.



And apparently it's loaded with Vitamin C and antioxidants.




Plantains, Pineapple and Star Fruit




very ripe plantains
ripe star fruit (golden in color)
pineapple
pineapple juice or orange juice
butter
brown sugar

Peel and slice plantains about 1/4 inch thick. Trim or peel star fruit and slice crossways. Saute plantains and star fruit in about two tablespoons of butter.




Add a tablespoon or two of brown sugar and saute a little longer. Add a can of pineapple chunks with the juice and heat through. If using fresh pineapple, saute it with the other fruit and then add orange juice (or I guess you could buy pineapple juice) and heat through.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Jurassic Park Night



I'm lying in bed in my parents' guest room. It's dark. The curtains are blowing gently into the room. A sliding door is open to the lanai at the back of the house. Vertical blinds are pulled across, and the slats are softly rattling.

I hear strange sounds outside in the night. I reach over to the bedside table and feel for my cell phone. I compose a text to my son, Kurt.

I hear noises outside in the yard that sound like something out of Jurassic Park. I'm just saying...

I picture in my mind the palm trees, the giant agave plants and other exotic flora that make up the Florida landscape. It even looks like Jurassic Park.

(Insert text alert sound here.)

What dinosaur? The raptor? Is it a hissing with clicks followed by harsh squawks? Or is it more of a deep throated bellow? Like an elephant. That's a t-rex. If it's a very harsh rasp with rattling then it's probably a dilophosaurus, and you'll need to be careful cause they spit blinding venom.

I knew I'd texted the right guy.

I listen intently to the sounds outside the house.

More like the hissing with clicks.

(Text alert.)

Yeah, raptors are swift and lethal. They can open doors and attack in packs. I'd close the door, lock it, and turn off the light. Still, they'll get in if they really want to.

I consider this.

K. Thanks. Will do.

I think of the lanai. It's just a big screened-in room opening off the back of the house. In other words, the back half of the house has mere screens for walls. And roof.

I listen to the sounds of the Florida night and eventually drop off to sleep. I wake up to sunlight and what sound like regular old birds chirping.

I'm just glad I'm still here.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Florida Morning Run


I lace up my running shoes and head out the front door of my parents’ Florida home. It’s a seventy degree morning in March. I glance up. A fairly strong breeze is pushing some high white clouds along the blue sky at a good clip. Tall straight palm trees are swaying far above me.




The air is damp and I can smell the salt of the nearby ocean. I love how it feels. My middle-aged skin, which has never acclimatized to desert living, is thirsty and greedily sucks up moisture. I imagine I can feel fine lines plumping out and hope to look five years younger by dinnertime.

The grass crunches under my shoes as I cross the lawn. The blades are broad and stiff. I recall a young woman I know who grew up in Florida telling me, “You don’t want to sit around on the grass in Florida, and you don’t want to walk on it barefoot. And you have to watch out for fire ants.”

I reach down to stretch out my ham strings and compulsively scratch my ankles.

“It’s a mile around our block if you take in Roanoke as well,” my mother has informed me. I hit the pavement with a slow jog.

                                                                    
Beautiful things are in bloom in every yard I pass: hibiscus covered in bright pinks, reds and yellows; gorgeous bougainvilleas loaded with magenta blossoms; stands of amaryllis in peach and red. Different things than grow at home. And to think they are blooming in March. I inhale the thick sweet scent of gardenia as I pass a bush that’s loaded with white blossoms.

I see the sign for Roanoke and take a left. I run down one side to where it ends in a cul-de-sac and then back up the other side to the main block. People have all kinds of interesting mailboxes, I notice. I see one in the form of a giant manatee.

Another species that seems to sprout prolifically in the neighborhood is realtor signs. Although I see evidence of a few children in the form of bikes and scooters abandoned in driveways, the area is mostly home to the elderly and “They die, you know,” my mother has told me.

As I run I glance up. Three large brown birds of prey glide in a circle, seeming at times to hang in place on an air current. Have they, too, noticed the For Sale signs?

I round the corner at the far end of the block and behold a lawn absolutely covered in pretty white birds. They’re the size of skinny chickens. They have fairly long legs that hinge backwards and long, pointy, dark orange beaks. I will find out later from my mother what they are. Think “four letter word for wading bird.” That’s right – Ibis. I’ve only ever seen one in a crossword puzzle. They’re pecking away at something in the lawn. Do ibises mean grubs in Florida? I wonder.

On my second time around I meet an older gentleman out for a ride in his golf cart. We wave as we pass in opposite directions.

Three times around.

I notice even more beautiful things growing and blooming – crown of thorns, Mexican petunias, even poinsettias. An elderly couple comes along on bicycles. They’re pedaling so slowly I wonder how they’re staying up.

Four times around.

I glance at my watch. If that was four miles, I’ve set a personal record. I don’t think so. Must have been Senior Citizen miles. They get a discount, you know.

Should I go around again?

Nah, I think, stepping onto my parents’ driveway and startling a gecko into some bushes. I'm on vacation. And besides, it’s about time for breakfast by the pool.


This is the Florida life.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Everything You Need To Know About the Apostrophe in One Simple Lesson


I have a dream to teach every English-speaking person how to use an apostrophe correctly. Whenever, as a substitute teacher in elementary school, I get a chance to teach children about apostrophes, I tell them “Now you know something that many adults don’t understand. So go home tonight and teach this to your parents.”

I don't mean to sound like I think I'm really smart because I know how to use an apostrophe correctly. I know that it doesn't require a lot of smarts to understand. This is why I want so much to teach it to everybody out there who speaks English. I happened to pay attention in school the day they taught it. Maybe you didn't.

 In case you didn't:

Are you intimidated by the tiny speck of ink or pencil lead known as the apostrophe? Do you feel an uncontrollable urge to throw one in before every letter s you write? Just plain unsure so you avoid them all together?


Well, wonder no more! Anyone can become an expert in the correct use of the apostrophe by simply completing the following tutorial. You will be helping me in my quest to rid the world of misplaced apostrophes and you will have increased confidence.

If you already use apostrophes correctly, I think you are wonderful! Read no further. And don’t apply for the certificate at the end of the course. It is intended for beginners only.

Gaining a Basic Understanding of the Apostrophe in Ten Minutes or Less

The apostrophe is used to show possession.

Example: The dog’s bowl is on the kitchen floor.

The apostrophe in the above sentence is placed before the letter s, indicating that the bowl belongs to one dog.

Example: The dogs’ bowl is on the kitchen floor.

The apostrophe in the above sentence is placed after the letter s, indicating that the bowl belongs to more than one dog. The dogs share the bowl.

Example: The dog’s bowls are on the kitchen floor.

The apostrophe in the above sentence is placed before the letter s, indicating that the bowls belong to one dog. There is no apostrophe in the word bowls because it is simply the plural of the word bowl. There is no need to use an apostrophe because nothing belongs to the bowls in the above sentence. (Don’t throw in an apostrophe just because you see the letter s.)

Example: The bowl’s interior had dog food in it.

The apostrophe in the above sentence is placed before the letter s in the word bowl because the interior belongs to the bowl.

There is a lot of confusion about apostrophes and last names. Many families like to display a sign by the front door that tells who occupies the house.

Example: The Smiths

The sign in the above example has no apostrophe. “The Smiths” in this case is short for “The Smiths live here.” The letter s in Smiths indicates that more than one Smith lives in the house.

Example: The Smiths’

In this case, “The Smiths’” is short for “This is the Smiths’ house.” The apostrophe follows the final s in Smiths, indicating that the house belongs to more than one Smith.

Example: The Smith’s

This is what we most commonly see on this kind of a sign. The apostrophe before the final s indicates that the house belongs to one Smith. I suppose if you’re the one who pays the mortgage, and you consider the house to belong only to you, and you want everybody to know that you are the sole owner of your house, the Big Smith… but it seems kind of weird to me.

The apostrophe is also used in contractions.

Example: do not          don’t

Here’s (here is) the tricky part:

What is the difference between its and it’s? How do you know when to use an apostrophe?

Maybe you want to show that something belongs to “it.”

Example: The dog licks its bowl.

There is no apostrophe in the above sentence. If you used an apostrophe before the letter s in the word its, it could be mistaken for the contraction for “it is.”

The dog licks it is bowl?

No good.

So we leave it out.

Whenever you’re (you are) wondering if the word “its” should have an apostrophe, ask yourself “Do I mean ‘it is?’” If you answer yes, then you need an apostrophe. If you don’t mean “it is,” don’t use one.

Now take the following quiz and see how you do! Insert apostrophes in the appropriate places. Answers at the end of the post.

1. The girls dress is very pretty. (one girl)

2. The Johnsons live at 225 Sycamore drive. (a whole family of Johnsons)

3. The Johnsons house is at 225 Sycamore Drive. (a whole family of Johnsons)

4. I wouldnt touch him with a thirty-nine and a half foot pole.

5. Lets go to Bettys and eat some peanut brittle.

6. I wonder if its almost morning?

7. There are five Brittanys in the class.

8. The birds feathers are all over the yard. (more than one bird)

9. The cat arches its back whenever the small child is near.

10. The players uniforms are old school. (more than one player)

11. Wont you come home, Bill Bailey?

12. I will go out to eat with the Petersons on Thursdays for the rest of the year.

13. I will go out to eat with the Petersons dogs on Thursdays for the rest of the year.

14. The Thompsons cat is stuck in the tree.

15. The bad guys mask fell off as he was holding up the bank during Fridays storm.

Hopefully this has helped a few people. Now go and teach it to someone else. Help to rid the world of misplaced apostrophes. It’s a worthy cause!

Answers: 1. girl’s 2. no apostrophe 3. Johnsons’ 4. wouldn’t 5. Let’s, Betty’s (implies Betty’s house) 6. it’s 7. no apostrophe 8. birds’ 9. no apostrophe 10. players’ 11. Won’t 12. no apostrophe 13. Petersons’ 14. Thompsons’ 15. guy’s, Friday’s

Scoring: 15 correct – you are an expert! Report your perfect score to me and I’ll e-mail you a certificate. (It could take up to thirty days to receive it.) 10 to14 correct answers – you’re getting there! Less than 10 correct answers – contact me for more tutoring.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Hershey's Kiss Roses - so easy a Cub Scout could do it - maybe!


My responsibility in the church these days is to do Activity Days with the ten and eleven year old girls. It's like Cub Scouts for girls.

Talk about fun!

Last week we made these adorable roses out of Hershey's Kisses.

I used to be a Cub Scout den leader. What a difference. Don't get me wrong - I loved Cub Scouts. There's just a significant difference in what boys and girls this age are capable of as far as crafts go. I remember another den leader once telling me, "I just go into a craft store and ask for a craft that takes a normal person five minutes to make, and it's perfect for an hour-long den meeting."

The girls had no problem making these roses. They came out really cute.

If you're looking for a fun, easy, inexpensive Valentine for little girls to make for their friends, grandparents or teachers, this might be it.





You will need:

cellophane (red or pink for roses and green for leaves)*
wooden skewers
floral tape
Scotch tape
scissors
paper cutter**
ribbon
Hershey's Kisses

*I bought cello gift bags at Walmart and cut them up.

**Cutting the cello bags with scissors was tricky. The bags were not quite regular cellophane. They were a bit more plastic-like. The paper cutter worked really well.

1. Using the paper cutter, cut the pink or red cellophane into five inch squares and the green cellophane into four inch squares.

2. Roll a small piece of Scotch tape so it is sticky on both sides. Tape the flat sides of two wrapped Kisses together.

3. Carefully stick a skewer into the pointed end of one of the Kisses.

4. Put the pointed end of the other Kiss in the center of a pink or red cellophane square. Wrap the Kisses as if you were putting the wrapper on a Tootsie Pop, twisting paper around the skewer at the base of the Kisses.

5. While holding the twisted cellophane in place, start wrapping the floral tape around the cellophane and skewer. You must stretch the floral tape to make it sticky enough. Wrap tightly. Wrap just down far enough so that it all stays together securely without your holding it, then stop and put it down.

6. Fold a green cellophane square so you have points along the top edge. Do this by bringing a bottom corner up between the two top corners and then folding the whole thing over. It will be cone shaped. This need not be exact. You just need something that looks like greenery to place behind your rose bud.

7. Place your greenery behind your rose bud.

8. Continue to wrap with the floral tape. Rewrap where you already wrapped, incorporating the green cellophane into it all. Be sure to stretch as you go so that the floral tape will stick to itself. And wrap tightly.

9.When the bud and leaves are securely in place, continue to wrap down the length of the skewer. When you get to the bottom, wrap back up a little ways. Cut off floral tape and stretch and smooth the end around the skewer.

10. Tie a ribbon around the stem. Voila!



Happy Valentine's Day!