Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Front Porch Pointers

Last fall I finally converted my porch wannabe  into a proper front porch. It turned out to be one of the best worst moves I ever made, as now all I want to do is sit on it. Even in the scorching days of summer and with the house needing a good vacuuming or dusting, I find myself lured to that place to enjoy the fresh air and to idle away stolen moments in reading, reflection, and rest.

It saddens me to see so many lovely porches going to waste these days. Brought up with backyard swimming pools or barbecue grills, Gen Y-ers (X-ers?) who are fortunate enough to have porches don’t appear to know how to use them. Or maybe they just don’t have the time. But even retired Baby Boomers, who should have the time, seem reluctant to gravitate to the front of the house.

In an effort to return people to the time-honored tradition of porch-sitting, I’m suggesting the following:

1. Keep it simple.
 I love looking at the porches featured in my favorite southern lifestyle magazine. They advise decking them out with settees, usually in wicker, and accessorizing with over-stuffed cushions and colorful pillows. For an extra dose of charm, throw in a few potted plants and a chandelier. (Did I say chandelier?) Step onto one of these porches, and before you know it, you’re craving a mint julep and referring to it the veranda. But a word of caution here: This kind of charm can be more trouble than it’s worth. When I planned my porch, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted, but I knew what I didn’t want—another room to clean and take care of. I purchased simple but comfortable furniture that would withstand all types of weather and didn’t require a lot of cleaning, maintenance, or hauling in and out of doors. I also kept the number of furnishings to a minimum. The “floor” is flagstone, which means I don’t have to freak out over a few fallen twigs or leaves or the occasional splat of bird poop. My porch gives me a pleasant spot where I can unwind and not be reminded of the need for upkeep. However, it hasn’t yet shielded me from the reminder my flowerbed needs weeding. I’m working on that.

Magazine's idea of perfect porch decor

My idea...

 2. Extend a welcome.
Screens around porches are good for blocking things we don’t want like flies and mosquitoes, but they also block things we do want—waves and greetings to and from passersby. For me, that’s a big part of front-porch appeal. The market offers plenty of unobtrusive products for deterring pests (the insect kind, not people kind) without sacrificing views or closing off opportunities for quick, neighborly visits. Speaking of those visits, extra chairs should be available for guests to have a seat and chat a while. Also, it doesn’t hurt to have a pitcher of iced tea (or a bottle of wine) chilling in the fridge.

My idea of perfect porch entertaining
3. Sit a spell.
Many years ago, as a busy twenty-something, I spent a weekend visiting my grandmother in a black-dot, East Texas town. The time passed way too quickly, and as Bill and I  headed home to another hectic work week in a crowded city, I was tired just thinking about all I had to do when I got there. We passed a little frame house that listed slightly starboard and was badly in need of a paint job. But its saving grace was a wrap-around porch, where an old man sat, calmly rocking and looking as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

If you’re lucky enough to have a front porch, take advantage of it, if only for a few minutes each day. Make time to put your feet up and enjoy a cool drink.  Listen to the birds, take in a sunset, call out to the neighbors.

The image of that old man has stayed with me for years, and I think it has fueled much of my porch obsession. I can’t say for sure what he was thinking that day (maybe that he needed to weed his flowerbed), but I do know what I was thinking: That fellow knows how to use a porch.

NOTE: You might have noticed a slight change in the look of my blog. More to come in the near future!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A Few (More) of My Favorite Things

In Christmases past, I’ve posted about some of the things that put me in the spirit of the season and the thing that turns me into a proper Grinch. (Think Dirty Santa.) This year, I’m sticking with the “nice” rather than the “naughty” in comprising my list. While these items might be a bit unusual, I’ve found them to be invaluable in sparking or enhancing my holiday mood.
1. Wire ribbon – Years ago, I embraced wire ribbon with open arms and admit I might go a little overboard with it. It makes decorating a snap for those of us who are digitally challenged. With wire ribbon, my bows are now flouncy and fabulous.
2. LED lights – I think it was Christmas 1987, when my mother, my aunt, and I loaded up the car with kids to pursue the time-honored tradition of looking at Christmas lights.  This was the early days of spectacular civic light displays, so we headed toward the extravaganza that had popped up just off the highway on the edge of town. We wound through acres of East Texas piney woods that had been transformed into a fantasy land. Thousands...nay, millions of lights twinkled and flashed, drawing oohs and aahs from even the adult passengers in the car. At the exit, my aunt voiced the horror that only people of a certain age can appreciate: “I wonder if these are the kind of lights that when one bulb goes out, they all do.”
I tell that story to reinforce how grateful I am for the advances made in the Christmas light industry. This year I purchased new strings of LED lights that are guaranteed to last ten years. TEN YEARS! Think of it! For ten years I don’t have to worry about putting up strings of lights, only to have the middle string go out two nights before Christmas.
3. Extension cords and three-way connectors – While we’re on the subject, anyone who has ever put up outside lights knows that that house-lighting scene in Christmas Vacation is really no laughing matter. Few tasks are as maddening in the season of peace and good will as getting strings and strings of lights properly connected. The job requires the patience of a saint. An electrical engineering degree comes in handy, too. This year, even with the few strings I put out, I faced a particularly challenging situation. I was able to solve it with an extra extension cord and a three-way connector. So far the house hasn’t burned down. Talk about a Christmas miracle.
4. Silver, gold, and white – I once had a pilates instructor (blonde and millennial) who claimed her favorite color was “shiny.” When it comes to Christmas, she and I are on the same page. And when it comes to shiny, nothing gives you more bang for your buck—or flash for your cash—than gold, silver, and white ornaments. Add some crystal icicles and glittered grapes, turn on the tree lights and Wham! The bling is blinding.
5. Wax warmers – Burning down the house with electrical cords and connectors isn't a huge concern of mine. Burning it down with a candle is. So while doing early Christmas shopping this year, I bought myself a gift—an electric wax warmer. With a fake tree and fake greenery, let’s just say the perfume of pungent pine never permeated my house. But this year—thanks to my wax warmer—the scintillating scent of cedar does. (I know. I get carried away with alliteration.) Let me add this one caveat: No matter how effective a wax warmer may be, it’s no match for steamed Brussels sprouts. Just sayin’. 
6. Fairy lights – Yes, we’re back to lights again. My favorite southern writer, Rick Bragg insists that it’s “lights of color...that mean Christmas,” but he and I will just have to differ on this one. While I admit the intense hues of those trendy, new lights do create a giddy and gaudy glow, for me nothing creates a wonderland like white lights. And if they happen to be reflecting off snow, it’s a magical bonus.  
Like I said, a rather strange list, but they truly are small things that have added to my enjoyment of the season. In summary and in the spirit of sharing, let me wish you...

                        Flouncy bows,

                        bulbs that won’t fail,

      scents that remind you of a forested vale.

                        May the sparkle of Christmas be yours to discover
                                                                                            in twinkling lights...
   ...no matter the color.
Have a blessed Christmas!     

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Surprised by Enjoyment

Disregarding some advice I was given long ago, I’m beginning with an apology. I apologize for including personal information in a review—something that should be about the book, not the reviewer. But in order to explain how much I enjoyed reading Women and C. S. Lewis, I feel it’s important to explain the expectations with which I approached that task.
I was given a copy of this book along with a request for a review by Carolyn Curtis, one of the editors. Having read a couple of Lewis’ books and watched Shadowlands and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I was an admirer of the man but not what you would call an ardent fan of his work. Surprised by Joy was a pleasurable read for me, but Mere Christianity required careful and time-intensive processing. I assumed this book would be much the same and, frankly, wasn’t too excited at the prospect of such heavy reading. But Curtis was such a delightful person, I couldn’t refuse. And I’m so glad I didn’t. The book, while written by erudite and scholarly contributors, is far from heavy-handed or complicated. Once I began reading, I found it absorbing. Divided into brief, manageable sections, the book lends itself to being read in short increments. But individual essays/interviews were so engaging I couldn’t wait to dive into the next one. I finished it in four days. (And I’m a slow reader.)
Two questions drive the content of this book: Was Lewis a sexist, even a misogynist, as many critics have labeled him? Is his work relevant and does it speak to our current culture? In regard to the first question, the book offers so much evidence refuting the charges—the women in Lewis’ own life, excerpts from his writings both public and private—as to make the accusations appear   ludicrous. Indeed, such charges put Lewis in good company. The same ones have been hurled against Jesus and the Apostle Paul, two figures who have done more to change attitudes toward women than any other in history.  Concerning the second question, the book was an eye-opening experience for me. I was born in the US, came of age in the sixties, and entered the workforce in the seventies. I also grew up surrounded by Christian friends and family. Benefitting from the support of those around me and from the hard work of so many who came before me, I never felt held back or less valuable because I am female. Reading this book, however, made me realize how ego- and ethnocentric I have become. It reminded me of the severity and extent to which injustice toward women (and men) exists in the world. It convinced me that, in today’s climate, communicating the “high view” Lewis held of women is more critical than ever.
For me, one of the hallmarks of a good book is that the reader can glean “extras” from it, whether or not intended by the writer(s). Among the extras I gained from this book:
1) Confirmation that Christians aren’t stupid - In an increasingly secular culture, the media love to portray Christians as knuckle-dragging troglodytes—persons who exchange all intellect and reason for emotion and superstition. While Christianity does indeed involve edification of the heart and spirit, this impressive group of writers, scholars, and thinkers proves that the brain doesn’t have to be sacrificed in the process.
2) A re-vamped and compelling TBR list – The extensive references throughout this book to Lewis’ works, both fiction and nonfiction, have kindled a fire in me to read them. As a child, I never read The Chronicles of Narnia, but at the conclusion of this book, I immediately ordered a boxed set for my grandsons. And I plan to read it along with them!
3) Confirmation that the difference between the sexes matters far less than the difference between the “fallen” and the redeemed - The overarching purpose of Women and C. S. Lewis is to examine the charges of sexism leveled against him. But excerpt after excerpt from his post-conversion writings reveals Lewis’ guiding purpose in his own writing was to share his joy at discovering “... the dignity of a free moral agent made in God’s image to live a life worthy of my creator.” Certainly a message needed by all, regardless of their sex.



Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Sneaker Waves

Just like the calm periods of our lives,
a peaceful sea can belie threats
and dangers that await us.

While visiting the coastal town of Yachats, Oregon, this past summer, I took an afternoon stroll along a bluff. On that walk, the bright sun warmed my face, and the wind blew just enough to rustle the fronds of sea grasses. To the west, the Pacific Ocean undulated in gentle swells and sent up delicate sprays of foam when it met with the rocks below. All the elements that day combined to produce feelings of peace and gratitude and safety. Then I came upon a plaque that cautioned me to beware the sneaker waves.

People who live along the west coast are most likely familiar with the term sneaker wave—a rogue wave which appears out of nowhere and strikes with great force. If you’re combing the beach, the wave can steal the sand right from under your feet. If you’re standing on a massive rock, observing sea life in a tide pool, it can attack and sweep you out to sea in the blink of an eye. Particularly alarming, these waves come at times when least expected, at times when the sea—at her charming best—lulls you into a blissful sense of security.

The plaque I happened on that day was a memorial to two young victims of sneaker waves and a caution of the perils they present. After I read it, I continued on my walk, my thoughts occupied with the sneaker waves of life—those events that shake our emotional foundations or knock us from them with devastating force. Events such as the death of a beloved partner or child, the diagnosis of a disease for which there is no cure, a divorce that leaves one shattered. Events that come with no sign or warning and often in the happiest, calmest periods of life.

Since that day, I’ve revisited the idea of sneaker waves from time to time and considered what I might say about them in a post. The death of a dear friend this past week prompted me to finally put words to my thoughts.

Patsy was really more family than friend. She was my daughter’s mother-in-law, my son-in-law’s mother, my grandsons’ “Mamaw.” I didn’t see her often, as she lived in a different state, but I always felt a strong connection to her because of our mutual love for the people in our lives.  I couldn’t have asked for a finer person to share my daughter with or a more devoted grandmother for my grandchildren. I will deeply miss “co-grandparenting” with her. My heart grieves for all the family members and friends who will miss her gentle and caring spirit.

Almost two years ago, Patsy was hit by a sneaker wave—a diagnosis of cancer. While this news no doubt shook her world, it didn’t defeat her. She battled the disease with faith and courage. Then a few weeks ago, a second wave hit. Her chemo wasn’t working. The doctors were out of ideas.

The plaque I encountered on my walk last summer offers not only warnings but also suggestions. Among them: Respect the immense power of the ocean. An unwavering Christian whose faith radiated in all that she did, Patsy knew another “immense Power” and drew on it throughout her life. Our time on Earth can be slippery and tenuous, but the other Power that Patsy knew offers a rock solid footing. So while the final sneaker wave Patsy encountered was frightening and sad, it wasn’t devastating. She faced it with the hope and assurance of a Firm Foundation.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Caddyshack Politics

The gopher is my favorite.
He represents all those pesky
variables neither party can
For the past thirty years or so, my go-to source for understanding politics has been the George Orwell classic Animal Farm. Whenever I found myself befuddled by all the craziness and crazies involved in that particular realm, I’d think back on some character or incident in that book, and  my questions would be answered. But I have to say, even Animal Farm can’t make much sense of the insanity found in this current presidential election. So I searched for a different frame of reference and found it in another classic—the 1980 movie Caddyshack.

Wait. Before you start rolling your eyes, think about it. The dominant setting of this movie is the lush, rolling golf course of Bushwood Country Club. (Ironic that it’s named Bushwood?) Running this seemingly idyllic world is a regime which establishes and enforces the rules— the special ones for those in charge and the ones for everyone else. Most strictly enforced are the rules that bar newcomers who don’t fit the long-established expectations of appearance and decorum. Life at Bushwood is about nothing if not appearances.
At this point, I have some explaining to do. Lest you think I’m comparing the Bushwood world to either the Democrat or Republican party, you are wrong. I’m comparing it to both parties. Regardless of their names, both parties have been around a long time and both have their rules and conventions—weird and convoluted though they be. And in both parties, there are special rules for special people. Both parties have their unprincipled, high muckety-mucks. And both parties work overtime doing damage-control to their tarnished appearances.
So back to Bushwood, where trouble is brewing. Into this well-guarded world, comes an outsider. Crude and bumptious, he respects neither the rules nor the anointed leaders. But he does bring a certain element of fun and the appeal of shaking things up, so he attracts fans. The establishment wrings their collective hands, battle lines are drawn, and members and employees take sides. Chaos ensues.
And now you’re thinking, you’ve got this all figured out. In the present election, the identity of  this obnoxious outsider is obvious. But, once again, you’re wrong. Both parties this season have had their unwelcomed contenders. Admittedly, one of these intruders is louder and more pretentious than the other, but both parties have had to deal with the unrest and frustration these interlopers have either stirred up or exposed.
So where will all this pandemonium lead? Well, in Caddyshack, pretty much the whole golf course blows up, but at the end, all is well. As the characters party to the music of I’m Alright, the viewer gets the feeling everything will work out and life will go on. It is a movie, after all. In real life, the consequences of this election could be direr. Things could blow up and we won’t be alright.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Kitchens of the Great Midwest -- A Book to Devour? Savor?

It has been a while since I blogged about the Circle of Friends book club, but I’m glad to report we’re still going strong. For a change of pace, we met yesterday for a luncheon rather than our regular dinner. We enjoyed delightful egg casseroles supplied by hostess, Carol, and an array of colorful and healthy salads. To offset all that healthfulness, desserts included lemon cookies, crepes with lingonberry jam, and Pat Prager’s award-winning peanut butter bars.

No, this isn't Pat. This is Cheryl who
whipped up a batch of Pat's peanut butter bars
to share with the Friends. Cheryl says she has
to admit they're tasty (even if she did make them
This pan attests that the Friends agree with


Thank you Shelly for nominating
this book for our club!
Now if you’re thinking Pat Prager is a member of our club and wondering exactly what awards her peanut butter bars have won, you obviously haven’t read the Friends’ selection for this month—Kitchens of the GreatMidwest by J. Ryan Stradal. And you should read it.
It’s hard to describe this book, but if you think Prairie Home Companion meets Fargo with a few recipes thrown in, you might be getting close to the idea.
Or maybe this will help.
Take one obsessive-compulsive female jock; one love-struck teenage boy; one spoiled, selfish, ego-centric woman; one traumatized, twenty-something alcoholic; one lonely, middle-aged woman whose identity is wrapped up in her cooking. Sprinkle generously with a spicy blend of Lutheran church ladies, pretentious foodies, middle-school bullies, and all manner of misfits, mayhem, and music references. Gently fold in one big and big-hearted female chef with a near perfect palate. Mix together in an Olive-Kitteridge-type plot, and serve with a generous dollop of satire and spot-on language.
Follow this recipe carefully, and—voila!—you have a delicious and fitting read for a group of ladies who love their food almost—almost—as much as their books.

Elizabeth brought some yummy succotash, also a
dish of significance in this book. Sadly (or not),
 there was no lutefisk to be had. Cheryl tried to obtain
some via the internet, but it seems no one is willing
 to ship this Scandinavian delicacy in the summer months.
 Probably a good idea.
 A couple of reviews to prove that others enjoyed this book as much as the Friends did:

"An impossible-to-put-down, one-of-a-kind novel. I have never read a book quite like this. This stunning debut announces J. Ryan Stradal as a first-rate voice in American fiction."
                                                   --Rob Roberge, author of The Cost of Living

"A Great American Novel in the fullest sense of the term. Everything you want a book to be."
                   --Ben Loory, author of Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

My Latest Gardening Strategy --Tough Love

This is the season I grow increasingly offended by Facebook posts. No, not political ones. Few of those ridiculous rants will tempt me to unfriend you. But a pic of your hussy of a hydrangea, exposing her voluptuous blooms for all the world to see? That’s a different story.  
Admittedly, there is a good deal of envy behind my outrage. If Facebook is any indication, it would seem that growing show-stopping hydrangeas is an inalienable right of any gardener south of the Mason-Dixon line. But, sadly and unjustly, that is not the case.
I have two hydrangea plants. One is on the side of my house and gets limited light exposure. About every other year, it produces one or two decent blooms. It has been there a long time, and I haven’t pulled it up because . . . well, it’s doing its best under trying circumstances.
My sun-deprived hydrangea
... you have to admire this kind of effort.
The other plant, however—the one on my patio—is a different story. I’ve tried everything—cutting it back, not cutting it back, fertilizing it, moving the pot around for maximum sun. For a while, the plant gave me fairly decent blooms, but now it's going through its teen years—that’s about age six in plant years—and has grown lazy and stingy. Over the last two summers, it has given me nothing, nada, zilch in return for all the love and pampering I’ve lavished on it.
I need to explain that I began setting up housekeeping in the mid-70s—that transitional period between the Age of Aquarius and Stayin’ Alive. It was also the time of decorating your space with enough houseplants to replenish a ravaged rainforest. When it became apparent the green in my thumb was lacking, my friend Donna—still under the lingering effects of love and peace—offered advice: “Words of encouragement and tender caresses will restore vigor and vitality to your languishing plants . . . along with regular watering and feeding and adequate exposure to sunlight.”
I followed that perfect blend of mystical and scientific advice for years, but recently I’ve realized that plants—like pets and kids—have distinct personalities. Even when they’re in the same family. What works well for some doesn’t necessarily work for others. Some respond favorably to positive reinforcement and kindness. Others require something a bit more . . . forceful.
I tested this theory last spring with my obstinate hydrangea. I squatted in front of that petulant plant to deliver a tough-love talk.
“No more coddling,” I said sternly. “No more free ride. If you don’t produce a bevy of beautiful blossoms this season, you’re compost.” With that I stood, brushed my hands on my jeans, and walked away. When I glanced back, I could’ve sworn its over-indulged foliage was smirking.
I waited all summer. As had become its habit, the plant accepted my feedings and waterings like they were services owed, not privileges. Every day it lazed in its bed of dirt, soaked up the sunshine, and snacked on slow-release fertilizer. Not a single bloom appeared.
Toward summer’s end, I stood over it, shaking a hand trowel. “That’s it,” I said. “I’m through with you. I’ll let you stay in this pot for now because it’s too late to replace you. But come next spring, a butterfly bush is going to occupy this very space.”
With steadfast determination, I made good on my threat. The rest of the summer and all through the fall, I didn’t give that plant so much as a sprinkle of water. I turned a blind eye when its impertinent green leaves paled. I watched with sadistic pleasure while they withered and turned crispy. In winter, when hard frosts threatened, I didn’t bother to move the plant to a more protected space, and I scoffed when I saw its naked, shivering stalks protruding from a blanket of snow.
In the early days of this spring, I surveyed my patio, making note of what new plants I would need. I came to the bare twigs that once was my hydrangea and with stalwart resolve leaned down to rip them from the soil. But as I peered into the pot, I saw a speck of green the size and shape of a doodle bug. On closer inspection, I saw that this was a bud, not a bug, and it was attached to one of those twigs . I released a weary sigh.
 “Okay,” I said. “One more chance.”
My "other" hydrangea shows
that it's trying...we'll see.
As of this post, I’m pleased with the attitude adjustment my hydrangea has made. At last count, there were eight—count ‘em, eight!—blooms bursting forth from those once-barren stalks. Not huge blooms, to be sure, and I don’t consider this a total turnaround on the plant’s part. But I’m a reasonable person. I can appreciate small victories.
Also, I’m feeling a bit smug these days. I’ve never been over-confident about my gardening skills, but it appears my tough-love theory might have some merit. I’ll give it this summer before coming to a definite conclusion.
In the meantime, I’m preparing for a little heart-to-heart with an uncooperative clematis.