Saturday, January 29, 2011

Just Happy To Be Here

I meant to start a blog long before I actually did back in 2009. The problem? I couldn't think of a name. I finally decided I just needed to start. I'd come up with a name later. So I lamely called it "Melinda's Essays" and composed my first post, intending to rechristen my blog as soon as I could think of something clever. Last week I finally came up with my name. Not exactly clever, but definitely an improvement. Today I changed it.

Same blog.

 Better name.

Thanks for reading!

Are You Smarter Than a Sixth Grader? or How to Mummify a Chicken

Yesterday I substitute taught in sixth grade. It wasn't your average sixth grade class. The members of this class are enrolled in the Accelerated Learning Lab. They belong to the Gifted and Talented segment of our society. They are the kids we already know are going to score exceptionally high on their college boards, rake in all the scholarships, and otherwise attain amazing accomplishments in academia.

I had a very interesting day with them.

It was Friday, so naturally a spelling test was on the schedule.

The teacher had left me a note on her lesson plan:

I'm sorry the words are so unusual. If you need help, I'm sure the students would be happy to assist you with pronunciation and definitions.

Yikes. I quickly read down the list. Phew. I knew them all. Among them were the following words: entrepreneur, microorganism, leviathan, epidermis, and ululate.

I administered the test according to standard spelling test procedure. State the word, use it in a sentence, restate the word. Everything was going fine until I got to ululate.

"UL - yeh - late," I stated.

"YOOL - yeh - late!" they corrected me in chorus.

"Really?" I asked. "Are you sure?"

"Yes! It's YOOL - yeh - late!" they ululated.

I'm not sure I've ever actually heard the word pronounced before (who would use it?), so I let it go.

Am I smarter than a sixth grader? Apparently not these sixth graders.

Their math assignment was to read to themselves the lesson on plotting data on a line graph and complete the exercises that followed. I have taught line graphs to elementary students many times and without fail, half the kids take one look at the data and feel overwhelmed. They refuse to even give it a shot, raise their hands and say, "I don't get it." Not these kids. They eagerly began the assignment and worked in silence for forty minutes, producing beautifully ruled graphs with color-coded keys. Not one of them asked me a single question about the work. Not even when it came to scatter plots. And when math was over, several of them begged to be able to continue.

What I found the most interesting (fascinating actually) during the day was the work these students were doing for their Ancient Egypt unit.

The teacher had left this note on the lesson plan:

Please tell the students that they absolutely may not peek in the mummification chamber.

This was when I found out about the chickens.

The day before, they had begun the process of mummifying chickens. Fryers, I assume. From the grocery store. They had used salt and cinnamon. Maybe other spices as well. I just saw salt boxes and containers of cinnamon on the floor by the teacher's desk.

The chickens were, at this moment, resting peacefully in a couple of long, white, heavy-duty cardboard boxes with sturdy lids fitting down over them. The students were not even tempted to peek.

I was, but I didn't.

Part of their assignment for the day was to design their sarcophagi.

Another note:

Please tell the students that they may not use a shoebox in their design for a sarcophagus as a shoebox will not last underground until May.

"After we design and make our sarcophagi, we're going to transfer the chickens into them and bury them outside," a student informed me. "Then we're going to dig them up at the end of the school year."

Wow. How cool was that? I've always been grateful for my good, average brain, but suddenly I wanted to be a sixth grader in the Accelerated Learning Lab.

When I got home, I went straight for my dictionary. I looked up ululate.


The first listed pronunciation was "UL - yeh - late." A second one, "YOOL- yeh - late," was also listed.

I felt so smart.

Almost gifted.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Happy Birthday To Me

Today is my birthday. I made myself a cake. I'm sure my daughter would have made one for me had I hinted at it. I'm sure my son, Kurt, would have made me a birthday pie had I asked him to. And I'm sure my husband would have bought me a birthday cake. But I've been planning my cake for almost a month. And they all knew I was planning my cake because I've been talking about it all these weeks.

 It began on December 30 down in St. George, Utah. We were in St. George for our daughter's wedding open house. It's a Mormon thing. In our little culture we do the whole wedding thing a little differently. If the groom happens to be from a different place than the bride, he gets his own wedding reception. Only we call it an open house. Except the regular wedding reception that's held where the bride is from is also usually an open house. Only we call it a reception.

Anyway, at Carolyn and Brock's open house in St. George, one of the desserts they served was a vanilla Texas sheet cake. You can make a Texas sheet cake without the cocoa? Who knew? It was frosted with cream cheese frosting and each piece had a big, juicy raspberry on it.

 And I loved it.

The next day I started planning my birthday cake. Texas sheet cake is made on a baker's half sheet, otherwise known as a big cookie sheet with one-inch sides. I happen to own two baker's quarter sheets. I decided to bake the cake in those and turn it into a layer cake. Because then I could add a gooey filling.

All along I planned to use marionberry preserves between the layers. Yesterday I bought some at Costco. When I got home, I opened the jar and tasted them. I was disappointed. They had an almost prunish taste. Not at all like marionberry jam I've had in the past. I went to the regular grocery store to look for a different brand. All I could find was raspberry. That would be just as good, I decided.

Somewhere along the line I described the cake I was planning to my sister. She gave me the idea of mixing the jam with marscapone cheese for the filling. So glad I listened to her.

I'd like to share my birthday cake with you. I hope you find an opportunity to enjoy it.

Vanilla Texas Sheet Cake

2 2/3 cups all purpose flour*
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup margarine
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup water
2 eggs
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
2/3 cup buttermilk (or use milk with a little vinegar or lemon juice in it)
1 1/2 tsp vanilla

Prepare two baker's quarter sheets (I'm sure you could use two round cake pans) by spraying with non-stick spray. Line the sprayed pans with parchment paper. Then spray the parchment paper with non-stick spray. Then flour them.

Mix flour and sugar together in large mixer bowl. In a small sauce pan, bring to a boil the margarine, vegetable oil and water. Pour boiling mixture over flour and sugar. Mix well. Add eggs, baking soda, buttermilk and vanilla. Mix well. Divide batter evenly between the two pans. Bake at 350 degrees for about twenty minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Place pans on cooling racks and let cool.

 raspberry filling:

1 (22 oz.) bottle seedless raspberry jam
8 oz. marscapone cheese (you might have to look in the specialty cheeses at the grocery store)

Mix jam and cheese together until smooth. This made twice as much as I needed. I'm planning to eat the rest off a spoon throughout the coming week.

cream cheese frosting:

1/2 cup margarine
1 (8 oz.) package cream cheese
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
1 lb. powdered sugar

Mix all ingredients until smooth and creamy. This also made more than I needed. You probably could cut it in half. Or eat it off a spoon throughout the coming week.

Assemble cake with filling between the layers. Frost all over with cream cheese frosting. Garnish with fresh raspberries.

Really, it was everything I dreamed it would be.

* I just made the cake again, but this time I used cake flour. It was even better. To substitute cake flour for all purpose flour, use 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons cake flour for each cup of all purpose flour. For this recipe, you would use two cups plus four tablespoons cake flour to replace the first two cups of all purpose flour. And for the 2/3 cup that's left you would use 2/3 cup cake flour plus 2/3 of a tablespoon, twice. Right? I'm doing this for you, you know. I already did it once for me, but of course I can't remember what I came up with. Two thirds of a tablespoon happens to be two teaspoons. So that's four teaspoons, or one tablespoon plus one teaspoon. So all together you need 2 2/3 cups plus 5 tablespoons plus one teaspoon of cake flour for this recipe. At least I think so.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Laundry Duty

Laundry is a lot easier than it used to be. These days, I'm only washing clothes for two. What a huge difference! I make Joel, our sixteen-year-old, wash his own. I still do his sheets or he'd probably never change them. And I do his towels. But I don't wash his clothes.Why didn't I figure this out years ago when I was doing laundry for six? And half of it would come back through the dirty laundry still folded?

I came across this essay I wrote years ago when the kids were still young and I was a slave to the laundry.

One day last winter, my husband decided he was going to do the laundry. I don't mean he decided to put a load of jeans through.

"From now on," he announced, "I'm going to be in charge of all the laundry."

I felt his forehead and checked his pupils. He seemed fine.

All of a sudden, I was free! It was as if the invisible chain that had shackled me to the laundry room all those years had been sawn through. I never went near the washer and dryer anymore. Kent would tell me when we were running low on laundry detergent and I'd buy more. That was as close as I got to the whole process.

And I gave up the guilt. If somebody wasn't going to have clean underwear in the morning, too bad. Not my problem. Go talk to Dad.

And not only did he get the loads through, but he folded everything immediately and got things on hangers as they came out of the dryer. And then he put it all away. I sometimes suspect that he did all this just to show me how to do the job right - to prove that it could be done completely and efficiently. He has been known to give lectures on the proper loading of a dishwasher, too. I've often wondered where he got all his experience. It must have been in a previous life.

One day I was meeting with a group of teenage girls I work with in church. I was telling the other adult leader about Kent's taking on the laundry.

"This must be what it's like for the queen!" I exclaimed. She listened attentively, eyes sparkling as she imagined enviously how it would be to live in such luxury.

"I put my dirty clothes in the hamper and don't think about them again. Then I open my drawers and my closet and POOF! There they are, all clean and ready for me to wear again!"

The teenage girls were giving each other sidelong glances, obviously questioning our sanity.

Then a thought occurred to both of us at the same moment.

"This must be what it's like to be a tenager!" we let out in chorus.

After that I realized that it isn't just the queen and teenagers who enjoy certain luxuries. It's anyone who has a mother or a wife lurking in the background.

I know that dads and teenagers and even younger children are capable of helping out around the house, but isn't there an underlying responsibility that is Mom's? Mom has to see to it that the kids follow through and do a job right. Mom has to nag. If Mom has to nag to get the job done, she isn't exactly going to feel like royalty. I'm pretty sure Queen Elizabeth doesn't have to nag to get the chores done around the palace. And I know that this mom, quite often, just does it herself to avoid a struggle.

And let's face it - how clean can a nine-year-old really get a bathroom anyway?

And as for a dad, he can actually do a great job (although it usually takes a dad about four times as long as it would take a mom), but if he doesn't do it before his wife has to ask him, then it's still her responsibility. Seems like he's doing her a favor. Hmmm.....

Well, it was the best six weeks of my married life. That's how long Kent stuck it out. My parents came to visit, and I don't know if it was a masculinity issue or if Kent was afraid some of my mother's underwear would find its way into his wash loads. Anyway, I'm back in the laundry business these days. I don't always get it folded as it comes out of the dryer, (okay, rarely do I get it folded as it comes out of the dryer) and most mornings we're fishing for socks in the unmated sock basket. Of course, at the same time I'm doing laundry I'm also doing dishes several times a day, dusting, vacuuming, mopping, cleaning bathrooms,cooking meals, and helping kids with school work and piano practice.

And nagging.

My friend's husband is a school teacher. He's off all summer and he cooks dinner every night all summer long.

"Beth!" I exclaim. "How is it to have someone call out every night, 'Dinner's ready!' and go in and sit down at the table and have a meal appear before you as if by magic?"

I'm sure my eyes are sparkling as I imagine enviously how it would be to live in such luxury.

I have a sudden revelation.

"That must be what it's like for Kent!"

"Yeah," she brags, leaning back to relax as she awaits the dinner gong. "It's great to be a man."

Note: Looking back, I'm actually really glad for the opportunity I had all those years to be the one in charge of housework. Hey, I got to stay home. I got to be my own boss. (See May 2010 post "Stay-At-Home Mom.) Although when one of the kids fails to load his dishes into the dishwasher, I usually say something like "I don't mind cleaning up after Dad because he earns his keep around here. But the rest of you can forget it!"

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie - a great read

When I pick up a book off the shelf at the library, I read the flap on the inside cover or the description on the back of the book. (Usually I just go for the inside cover since the librarians insist on covering part of the text on the back of the book with obnoxious stickers. It's maddening.) I read what the book is about. If it sounds intriguing, I cross my fingers and proceed to a self-service machine, where I punch in my library card number and check out the book. (My children think it's ridiculous that I have my fourteen digit library card number memorized. Obviously, I'm quite proud of the fact that I do. Enough so that I've worked it into this writing. Any serious library patron has his library card number memorized. Besides, if you have your number memorized, you no longer need your card.) As I make my way home, I think about the delights of sitting down to a new book. Getting lost in a new story. In spite of keeping my fingers crossed the whole way home though, too often I start a book, especially newer fiction, only to put it down so many pages into it after being confronted with really foul language or vivid descriptions of intimacy.

Excuse me?

Who really wants that?

As my friend Laurie says, "Have you ever heard anyone say 'I liked that book, but it didn't have the "f' word in it enough.'"

Last summer I gave my daughter a book for her birthday. I picked it up at Costso and read the back cover. (No librarians at Costco.) It looked like a good read. I bought it, took it home and wrapped it up. As soon as she tore off the paper, she read aloud off the front cover, "A frothy brew of sex and intrigue."  "Oooh, thanks, Mom! Looks good!" She hasn't let me forget it.

There are many books that would be just as good - I argue even better - if the authors just left the offensive content out.

Recently, I read a delightful, well-written, fairly new (2009)  murder mystery called The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.

Not one offensive thing in it.

Well, unless you find murder offensive. I happen to enjoy a good fictional murder.

The main character is a very precocious eleven-year-old girl named Flavia De Luce. She lives with her slightly eccentric family in a British manor house that has seen better days. The year is 1950. Flavia is a chemistry prodigy. Her specialty is poisons. After she discovers a dead body in the garden, Flavia is one step ahead of the inspector in charge of the case the whole way through the investigation.

No crude language. No explicit sex scenes. No sex scenes at all, in fact.

And the best part: It's going to be a five book series. I just finished book two: The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Laughed out loud as I read. These books are fabulous. I hope book three will be out soon.

The author, Alan Bradley, is a Canadian man in his seventies. He does an amazing job with Flavia's character. I'm curious to know what his chemistry background is.

So, if you don't mind reading a book without bad language, if you aren't looking for a frothy brew of sex and intrigue, you might try these books. And you just might find the sweetness at the bottom of the pie.