Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christmas Scones

            About the only recipes I ever post on this blog are ones from my fellow book club members. There’s a good reason for that. I’m not a cook. Not really. I mean, I can follow a recipe pretty well, and occasionally I whip up a decent meal. But as far as my getting fancy or adventurous with food, it’s just not a passion of mine. I’d much rather be writing or reading.
Christmas is the perfect season
to indulge in melt-in-your-mouth
scones, accompanied by your
favorite tea.
            A few years ago, however, I found a delicious—and almost fail proof—recipe for scones. I call them Christmas Scones because that’s the only time of year I make them. They’re hard to resist  and, let’s be honest, not exactly health food. But for the holidays, we can splurge, right?
Holiday Scones – Basic Recipe
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
1Tbsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
½  cup cold butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 cup whipping cream, divided
wax paper
1. Preheat oven to 450°. Stir together first 4 ingredients in a large bowl. Cut butter into flour mixture with a pastry blender until mixture is crumbly. Freeze 5 minutes. Add ¼ cup plus 2 Tbsp. cream, stirring just until ingredients are crumbly. (If mixture seems too dry, add more cream a tsp. at a time. Mixture should not be too wet or sticky.)
2. Turn dough out onto wax paper; gently press it into a flat, round shape about an inch thick. (A hint from my high school home ec days: Handle the dough as little as possible for lighter, flakier scones.) Depending on how big you want your scones, you can make one round and cut it into 8 wedges, or you can make smaller ones by forming two smaller rounds (about 5 inches) and cutting those into 8 wedges. Place wedges about an inch apart on lightly greased baking sheet. (I use PAM.) Brush tops of wedges with remaining cream, just until moistened.
3. Bake at 450° for 13 to 15 minutes or until golden.
            Wait! Before you rush out to buy the ingredients, let me make a suggestion. While the basic scones are delicious spread with butter and/or jelly, they are also easy to play around and get creative with. So let me share some of my variations. 
            For all variations below, add the extra ingredients to the flour mixture before adding the cream. Then add the flavoring to the cream before stirring it in. The amount of flavoring should be according to your taste, usually ¼ to 1 tsp.
            Cranberry-Orange Scones: Orange extract, chopped dried cranberries and small bits of candy orange slices. (A trick for cutting up the orange slices is to do it with kitchen scissors sprayed with PAM.)
            Cinnamon-Pecan Scones: Toasted pecan pieces and mini cinnamon chips.
            Cherry-Chocolate-Almond Scones: Almond flavoring, chopped dried cherries, and mini, semi-sweet chocolate chips.
            Lemon-Poppy Seed Scones: Lemon flavoring and poppy seeds. Serve with lemon curd.
            The possibilities are endless. If you like, add a glaze by whisking together powdered sugar, cream or milk, and whatever flavoring you want to a desired consistency. Drizzle it over scones. You can even go savory, adding ingredients such as grated cheese, bacon, ham, or herbs.
            One final hint. I always divide one batch in half when I remove it from the freezer and before I add the cream. (Be sure you add only half the cream to half the mixture.) Then I make half of it as one variation, and another variation with the other half. That way I get two kinds of scones from one batch.
            Give this recipe a try. You won’t be disappointed. These scones are heavenly right out of the oven, but they’re also very tasty warmed up in the microwave. If you come up with an especially yummy variation, please share!
I got these four variations from two batches of the recipe.
Starting at top and going clockwise: Cinnamon-Pecan,
Cranberry-Orange, Cherry-Chocolate-Almond, Lemon-Poppy Seed.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Role-Model Barbie

            As a recipient of one of the first Barbies to strut off the Matel assembly line, I take personally any criticism directed toward the diva of dolls. I never quite understood all the feminist hoopla about the unrealistic expectations her body communicated to young girls. As far as I’m concerned, the takeaway from Barbie isn’t her shapely physique but her composure. We could all learn lessons about ladylike conduct from this icon of elegance.
When I first saw my
Barbie, I wasn't quite sure
what I had. I would soon
find out.
            I received my Barbie as a Christmas gift from cousins back East, who obviously were more in the loop than we Texans. I didn’t even know who or what Barbie was when I opened the box. In fact, I thought she was a little strange in her black and white zebra-striped swimsuit and her severe ponytail and frizzy bangs. But when I showed her to a friend—who was more in the loop than I, so maybe this was less Texan than Dee Dee cluelessness—I was quickly informed of Barbie’s royalty status in the doll kingdom. And I was also informed that there were certain expectations to be met when it came to Barbie’s upkeep.

Barbie and I had our hearts
set on this Evening Splendor
            My poor Barbie must have thought she’d been banished to fashion hell when she took up residence at our house. No matter how much I requested, argued, begged, whined, my Barbie never possessed more than three outfits—and that was counting the swimsuit. When I pleaded Barbie’s case to Mama, she unreasonably insisted she wasn’t about to spend more on a doll’s dress than she did on one of her own. So, for the time being, Barbie and I had to give up on the little gold and white brocade ensemble with the mink cuffs and matching mink hat. At the time, I think it retailed for around $15, which translates to roughly $15,000 in today’s economy. But my eleventh birthday was coming up, so I told Barbie not to disparage. 
We had to settle for
Satin Flame.
        I discreetly hinted to all my friends that being it was late January, Barbie was getting cold in her swimsuit and not having anything warm to wear (like a jacket with mink cuffs and matching hat) was endangering her health. My friends’ mothers were apparently as selfish as mine. They were no more willing than my mom to shell out big bucks for a killer outfit so that Barbie could have a fun night on the town. Only one friend’s mother came through. Thanks to her, my Barbie could add a red velvet and white satin strapless cocktail dress to her attire. Through research, I happened to know that was the chea least expensive of the Barbie ensembles, but Barbie and I weren’t in a position to quibble. I thanked my friend profusely, and we quickly adorned Barbie in her new “appropriate-for-any-occasion” outfit. While accessorizing her, we discovered that when we tucked the gold vinyl clutch under her arm, the gold finish rubbed off in her armpit. We labeled that residue “purse”peration, and laughed uncontrollably. Never one to take herself too seriously, Barbie didn’t resent our little joke at her expense. And her demure smile told us she appreciated our razor-sharp wit.
            Barbie never complained, but in my heart I knew she was growing weary of her sparse wardrobe. I mean, there’s a limit to how many swimming and cocktail parties a doll can attend. Once again I encouraged Barbie to take heart. My grandmother was coming for a visit. I was sure she’d be happy to whip up a few items for her.
            I had no doubt my grandmother would come to Barbie's and my aid. And I must say, she was willing. But she, like me just a few months before, had no earthly idea who or what a Barbie was. I think when she agreed to help me make some “doll clothes,” she envisioned stitching up a couple of baby doll gowns out of my old flannel pajamas. When she saw the curvaceous Barbie and the scrap of green taffeta I produced for the first outfit, she was at a loss for both words and ideas. But being the loving woman she was, she doggedly tackled the task. With her stubby, arthritic fingers, she took needle and thread in hand and, with teeny-tiny stitches, fashioned yet another lovely strapless cocktail dress for Barbie. When she finished, Barbie truly had a bespoke garment. The problem was it was not only sewn specifically for her, it was also sewn on her and could be removed only with scissors. The frock would be worn either one time or permanently.
            At that point, Barbie and I had a heart-to-heart.
            “Babs, ol’ girl,” I said. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to spend some time in this dress. Either that or go back to the red-and-white number until next Christmas when I can make another pitch for you a decent wardrobe.” 
            This is where I want those of you who think Barbie an unfit role model to read carefully. She never flinched. Her plump, ruby-red lips never quivered. Her eyes glistened, but not so much as one tear smudged her blue eye shadow and heavy mascara. She simply raised her right hand in that elegant beauty-pageant wave and without a scene slipped into her special shoe box still wearing that green taffeta dress. She wasn’t giving up, but she knew how to accept defeat gracefully and return to fight another day. What a doll. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Miss Lillie's Bed and Breakfast - Heavy on Charm, Light on "Fustiness"

           To her parents, older relatives, and friends, my mother’s oldest sibling was known as Lillie. Her younger brothers and sisters and, later, nieces and nephews simply called her “Sister.” Then she became “MeeMaw” to grandchildren, great grandchildren, and a horde of great nephews and nieces. But whatever name they called her, folks knew Sister’s door was always open and they were always welcomed at her table. So it is only fitting that some fifty years after she built her little ranch-style cottage, her granddaughter Janet and husband Ray would open it as Miss Lillie’s Bed and Breakfast, reviving the warmth and hospitality for which Sister’s home was so well known.
            Every time I visit Miss Lillie’s, the writer in me sees the perfect spot for a writing retreat. Nestled among stately oak and pecan trees, the delightful bed and breakfast provides many restful spots for reflection and inspiration. Miss Lillie’s is also popular with guests who enjoy getting away for a few days of scrapbooking. Antiquers find Miss Lillie’s to be the perfect home base for their shopping expeditions. Located in the heart of East Texas, it is only forty miles from Canton with its famous First Monday Trades Day. But Canton doesn’t hold a monopoly on the antiques/collectibles market. The countryside surrounding Miss Lillie’s teems with all things vintage (and, yes, a fair amount of junk). The near-by Lindy Antique Mall, Janet and Ray’s other thriving enterprise, offers over 10,000 square feet of beautifully displayed reminders of days gone by.   
            This past weekend, as she often does, Janet offered Miss Lillie’s as a gathering place for a family mini-reunion. I’m always impressed by my cousin’s flair for decorating and her ability to evoke pleasant memories of or quiet longings for the past. After this last visit, I just had to share examples of her creativity. With her permission, I’m using twenty-first century technology to take readers on a virtual tour of “kinder, gentler” times. I hope you enjoy it. If you feel inspired, you might consider a retreat of your own at Miss Lillie’s          
          While some bed and breakfasts can be a bit overpowering with their nod to nostalgia, Miss Lillie's keeps things light and uncluttered. For scrapbookers, the furniture in this "parlor" is replaced with functional tables, allowing scrappers to pursue their craft, unencumbered and uninterrupted.

At Miss Lillie's you don't get just a "bed" and a "breakfast." You get an entire house with a well-equipped, spotless kitchen.
Both inside and out, comfy spots for reading, writing, and reflecting abound. 
Vintage vignettes call out (unobtrusively) to be photographed. I wish my photography did justice to the details and the mint condition of this clothing.
And for a bit of potty humor ... These lacy bloomers hang in the bathroom. Obviously the woman who wore these wasn't worried about adding "bulk" to her hips and thighs!
The serene charm continues outside. The brick in this pathway was salvaged from a demolished building and is over one hundred years old. 
Sister loved to sit on her back porch and visit with family and friends while she shelled peas or pecans. Today, guests still gather there to talk and laugh. (If you want to shell peas or pecans, you'll have to bring your own.)
Like her MeeMaw, Janet Lindamood, proprietor of Miss Lillie's Bed and Breakfast, spares no effort in making sure her guests feel welcomed.


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Bird-brained Advice for Writing: Part IV - Finding the "Write" Reason

            In the olden days—those days before the internet and e-readers—publication was the holy grail of writers. With today’s revolutionary changes in the publishing industry, the good news is that with a little self-discipline any writer can achieve that goal. The bad news? For the majority of writers, even if we self- or e-publish, we’ll be lucky to get anyone beyond a few loyal friends and family members to read our work. And yet we persevere.
            Why do we do this? Why—in the face of frustration, failure, futility—do we slave away on our articles, manuscripts ... blogs and pray that a few folks will read what we have to say? The “bird-brains” offer some insight on this seemingly masochistic endeavor.
            In bird by bird ... Anne Lamott shares information about the ultimate reason writers do what they do. Early in her writing journey, she received scathing criticism from an editor and experienced the mortification with which many of us are familiar. But rather than ditch her story, she took his advice and “with great trepidation” sat down to revise. As she wrote, she had an epiphany: the realization that this time “I wasn’t writing the book with my thumb stuck out, trying to hitchhike into history; I just wanted to write a book for my father that might also help someone going through a similar situation.” She also discovered “There is no cosmic importance to your getting something published, but there is in learning to be a giver.”
            In Gooney Bird is Absurd, author Lois Lowry poignantly demonstrates the same message. Throughout the school year, Gooney Bird and her teacher Mrs. Pigeon work tirelessly to share the techniques and joys of storytelling with Gooney’s classmates. Through various programs and activities, the second-graders learn to appreciate the satisfaction and fun that can come from creating their own stories and poems. But not until the class experiences the death of someone dear to them do they learn the true worth of their writing. When they compose "A Goodbye Poem,” they are able to express their sympathy to the family of the departed and alleviate their own sense of loss.
            The common thread of these two stories is that they both get to the root of why we write. We write out of the desire to give and to connect. Whether we write fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or a letter to the editor, we write to share our thoughts, observances, successes, and even our failures. We hope that in baring our souls, we can somehow shed a sliver of light on others experiences. We might not be able to solve readers’ problems. But we can offer encouragement and let them know they’re not alone. For confirmation of this, check out Jennifer Cazzola's comments here.
            You might be questioning whether your writing motives are this pure. I mean, what writer among us has never dreamed of making the bestseller list, winning the Pulitzer, or landing a movie deal? Who doesn’t send out each manuscript with the secret expectation that this is the next Harry Potter phenomenon? Who doesn't blog with visions of becoming the next Pioneer Woman or the online answer to Erma Bombeck? But if you're doubting the altruistic reasons behind your writing, ask yourself this: If I had no chance of ever being published, of ever making a dime, of ever having an audience of more than one, would I still write? If your answer is “yes,” then I think you’ve found the “write” reason.            

In this my final post of "bird-brained" writing advice,
I want to introduce you to Brianna. She is my great-niece and
 the instigator behind my introduction to the Gooney Bird series.
Much like the protagonist of this series, Brianna loves stories
and imaginative outfits. And clothing that matches
too closely gives her a feeling of "ennui."


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Bird-brained Advice for Writing: Part III - Finding the "Write" Word

            To introduce this post, I’m venturing away from the “bird-brains” for a second and sharing information from another successful writer. In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King says that every writer must equip and carry with him at all times a “toolbox.” In this metaphorical toolbox are the skills he should have on hand in order to approach his craft with confidence. The tool King insists goes on the very top shelf of the toolbox? Vocabulary.
            I know Gooney Bird Greene would concur. From the day she enters Mrs. Pigeon’s second-grade classroom, Gooney Bird’s speech reveals she has a passion for words. And her resourcefulness in acquiring a dictionary for each of her classmates helps her spread that passion. By the time the second graders present their Thanksgiving program, words such as cajole, indefatigable, incognito, admonition, and my personal favorite ennui are as natural to them as gobble, gobble is to a turkey.  
            Although Anne Lamott, doesn’t overtly state it, I infer from a passage in bird by bird ... that she also places a high priority on vocabulary. While creating a scene in a novel, she discovered she didn’t know the name of that little “wire thing” placed over the cork of a champagne bottle. Her quest for the exact word resulted in her calling a winery and conversing with a two-thousand-year-old monk (her description). (And now that you’re burning with curiosity, I’m going to let you smolder. You’ll have to read her book to find out the name. Or call a monk yourself.)
            I’m willing to bet that every person who has ever set pen to paper—with the possible exception of author Charles Portis—has struggled at one time or another to come up with the exact right word. That is why, if you are a writer, vocabulary building should become second nature to you. I’m also willing to bet, however, that it already is. How can you be a writer and not love words?
            Understand I’m not talking pretentious, stilted verbiage here. Everything I’ve read about contemporary writing cautions against using an obscure, polysyllabic word when a familiar, shorter form will work just as well. Why say somnambulating when sleepwalking gets the same point across and doesn’t send your reader scrambling mid-sentence to the dictionary?  Enriched vocabulary is about knowing many words so that you’ll have the precise word at your disposal when you need it. So that once you’ve written trinket twice in the same paragraph, you’ll know that gimcrack can serve as a good alternative. So that if you want a character to sound pompous, you can have him say imbroglio instead of spat. An enriched vocabulary enables us to clearly express sights, feelings, or experiences that otherwise might be indescribable.
            So what is the best way to build vocabulary? In Gooney Bird’s classroom, every time the second-graders hear a new word, they look it up in their dictionaries. Mrs. Pigeon tells them that once they use a word three times, they own it. For the eager second-graders, that method works well. Surprisingly, King instructs us to not make any “conscious effort to improve [our vocabulary].” He says start with the vocabulary you have and then naturally acquire words by reading . My favorite method is to read and “pay attention.” One of the reasons I enjoy my kindle is that  definitions to unfamiliar words are just a screen tap away. Upon finding a word I especially like, I highlight it. That way I can revisit it later and "own" it. When not using my kindle, I have my phone with the dictionary app nearby. Whether you work crossword puzzles, make flashcards, play word games, or simply read, the best way to increase your vocabulary is whatever method works for you.
Choose your favorite tool(s).

           It is difficult to describe the pleasure I derive from vocabulary building. But give me time. I’ll find the right words for it!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Bird-brained Advice for Writing: Part II - Paying Attention

            When my cousin Jerry found out I’d written a book, he said, “I was going write a book one time. But I got to page ten and couldn’t think of anything else to say.”
            I’ve been there. But now I can solve this dilemma in two words: Pay attention.
            Many of my author friends have lamented that they’d rather write a three hundred-page novel than a one-page synopsis. Ditto for me. That’s because without the story’s juicy details, a synopsis can be as dry as the white meat on an overcooked turkey. So where do we get all those wonderful details? By paying attention.
            As far as I’m concerned, one of the perks of being a writer—and you can claim that title regardless of where you are in the journey—is sharpening the skill of observation. Writing increases the ability to look for and recognize the details that make people or events or surroundings unique and interesting. As Anne Lamott puts it in bird by bird..., “If you start to look around, you will start to see.” Maybe you’ll start to see that it’s that slightly crooked front tooth that makes a smile so engaging. Or maybe you'll notice that the nandina bush you'd given up for dead is sprouting a few green leaves at its base. 
            Paying attention isn’t limited to what we see. Quite frequently I catch myself in a restaurant or in a line with my ear slightly leaning toward a nearby conversation. This isn’t eavesdropping. It’s research. Listening closely to conversations, wherever they occur, can alert you to the distinctions of voices, accents, speech patterns, and even mannerisms people use while talking (not to mention some interesting subject matter). Lois Lowry incorporates details such as these so skillfully in her Gooney Bird Greene series that soon the reader knows which character is speaking even before he is identified in the speaker tag. Listening extends beyond conversations. Pay attention to the sounds of nature, of music, of machinery, of windchimes.... Pay attention to the lovely and the harsh, the symphonies as well as the cacophonies.  
            Details can be gleaned from paying attention with all the senses. And they can be gleaned when paying attention when we’re reading. Some folks might consider me a snob for saying this, but I honestly do enjoy some books as much as for the way they’re written as for the plot or theme. I agree that description shouldn’t take a reader out of the story. But when skillfully done, descriptive details can plunge us more deeply into it, even when we pause and re-read a passage because it resonates with us. Of course, I’m not saying copy what another author has written and claim it as your own. But learn her technique. When you’re enjoying a particular line or passage, stop and ask yourself what makes it so enjoyable. What makes it stand out--the writer’s precise word choice, his candor, his ability to mix the ridiculous with the sublime and elicit a laugh?     
            A final, very practical word of advice about paying attention: As soon as you gather a great detail, write it down. I’m currently trying to train myself to carry pen and pad with me at all times because I’ve lost more good material to bad memory than I have to computer failure. Lamott says she never goes anywhere—even to walk her dog—without a pen and an index card. These days, those more technically savvy probably rely on phones or tablets, but I’m not to that point. Whatever works for you, use it. Just remember: Write. It. Down.
            Remember what I said about a line or passage that strongly resonates with us? This one from bird by bird...did it for me: “There is ecstasy in paying attention.” Amen.   

Friday, September 19, 2014

Bird-brained Advice for Writing: Part I - Generating Content

It’s almost spookier than the Hitchcock movie the way birds have lately invaded my writing space. In my last post, I reported on Anne Lamott’s book bird by bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Shortly after purchasing that book, I listened to some audio books from Lois Lowry’s children’s series, Gooney Bird Greene. And it turns out Gooney Bird also has insightful information to offer on the art of storytelling. So like I said. Spooky.
            To be honest, I was less than enthusiastic when my sister Elaine announced we would be listening to the Gooney Bird CDs on a car trip. "I listened to these when we were on a trip with Brianna [her seven-year-old granddaughter and my great niece],” she said. “They’re really funny.”

            Yeah, I thought. Really funny to a seven-year-old. But what could I say? It was her car.

           So, as our journey commenced, I got comfy and—being in the seat behind her—prepared to sleep for the next few hours. But my eyelids had barely begun to droop when Lowry hooked me with her description of the eccentric and precocious Gooney Bird. By the end of the trip, we had to drive a few extra miles so I could find out the identity of the mysterious second-grade room mother. And in between our departure and arrival, Gooney Bird gave excellent tips on storytelling. I was surprised to find that much of Gooney Bird’s advice matched Lamott’s. After all, a wide age gap exists between the target audiences for each of these books. But when I thought about it, the similarities make perfect sense. After all, a good story is a good story, right? So the basic elements should be the same.
            For generating content, both Gooney Bird and Lamott essentially offer the age-old advice to write what you know. This doesn’t mean a writer has to be a technical expert on the subject she writes about. I guess it helps, but in this information age, a lot of technical knowledge is just an internet search away. I think what it does mean, though, is to take your own experiences and use them as a starting place. One of Gooney Bird’s stories explains how she got her name. She goes on to point out that everyone has a name; therefore, everyone has a story. Lamott’s advice is the same, only she drives home the point with a story about an aunt making lemonade. Surprisingly (or not), a subject common to both “bird” books concerns school lunches. Lamott describes how she uses them as an exercise for her writing classes. An entire passage in one of the Gooney Bird books “shows” Gooney Bird’s classmates describing and bartering with their varied and interesting mid-day meals.
            If there is an inkling of writer/storyteller in you (and I believe there is in everyone), the topic of school lunches has to evoke at least one good story. I immediately remembered the time I forgot to bring my lunchbox home from school. My mother was out of brown bags, and the next day I had to suffer the extreme humiliation of toting my lunch to school in a plastic bread bag. And speaking of lunchboxes, what memories do those bring to mind? And bread? Did your mother ever try to disguise the bread heels by spreading the peanut butter and jelly on the crusty sides and pressing them together? Ha! Nice try, Mama.
            By now you get the point. Our own experiences can generate a lot of stories. A seed of truth pokes through our consciousness and with proper cultivating grows into a full-fledged story. In my next installment of Bird-brained Writing Advice, I’ll discuss the proper care and feeding of those seeds.   
            I’m always happy to receive comments of any kind. But this time, I’d especially like to hear any of your own interesting school lunch experiences. I know you had at least one!