Monday, December 31, 2012

Say "Cheese"...and Duck

           When I asked my daughter Kristin to send me a picture of Brooks in his new room, this is what I got.


Seems he’s going through a phase in which he hates to have his picture taken. I can’t blame him. I’m going through that phase myself. The difference is he’ll probably outgrow it. I'll only get worse.

             It’s kind of cute when a toddler throws himself face down on the floor and refuses to have his picture made, but not so much when his grandma does it. And the strategy of ducking right before the camera clicks doesn’t work anymore. It worked thirty years ago when it took weeks to get pictures developed, but in the age of instant photo-gratification, in less than a nano-second people are on to your trick. So through trial, error, and mortification, I’ve developed some coping tactics which—using myself as an example—I’m sharing with those of you who also suffer from photophobia. Feel free to use these the next time people insist you join in the group photo. 

 ·         DON’T stand next to, behind, or anywhere near the youngest, skinniest people in the group.   
        (I use the word skinny as a compliment.)
·         DON’T look at the camera face-on.
·         DON’T expose any more of your body than is absolutely necessary.
·         DON’T wear anything shiny on or near body parts you don’t want emphasized, e.g. thick neck, broad shoulders. (NOTE: If you, like me, have a weakness for bright, shiny things, don’t give up wearing them. Just remove them before having your picture made.)


·         DO hide behind other people or position yourself on the row farthest back.
·         DO, angle your body to the camera.
·         DO cover or camouflage as much as possible those body parts you don’t want emphasized, e.g. thick neck, broad shoulders. 

Another helpful hint is to avoid squinty, “Porky Pig” eyes by smiling only with your lips and holding your eyes open. But a word of caution here: I STRONGLY advise you practice this technique in the mirror before trying it in a picture. Otherwise, you might come out looking scared. Or scary as evidenced below.

Finally, some advice for those annoying headshots we sometimes have to provide. To avoid the expense of professional lighting, photo-shopping, and air-brushing, your best bet is to follow this acronym: KISS (Keep It Small, Stupid). I might be the only person in the country who likes her drivers license picture. In fact, the last time I renewed my license, I asked for re-prints of the photo. The agent informed me she didn’t have the right equipment. That’s unfortunate because those stamp-sized pics are perfect for hiding wrinkles, fine lines, yellowing teeth, thinning hair, enlarged pores...whatever ails ya.
I hope these techniques prove helpful to you. If they do, please let me know, and if you have some of your own, please share. 

Wishing you Health and Happiness in the Shiny New Year!

(And thanks to the fabulously photogenic Inklings for helping me demonstrate my techniques!)


Thursday, December 20, 2012

'Tis the Season to be...Confused?

                        About a week ago, my daughter texted me she’d taken Brooks (her two-year-old) to the library for story time. While there, she helped him pick out two Christmas books—one about Santa Claus, one about the nativity. They read the one about Santa first. Then they read the one about the nativity. Every time they came to a picture of baby Jesus in the manger, Brooks pointed to it and said, “Ho, ho, ho!”

                        My daughter is afraid he might be a bit confused. He probably is, but then he’s only two. I think a lot of Christian adults also get confused about the reason for the season.

                        Wait! Don’t stop reading! I promise this isn't another harangue about how Christmas is too commercial. I happen to like some of that commercialism. I like giving gifts to those I love. I like decorating my house so that it’s cheerful and festive for those who visit. I like preparing a meal my family will enjoy. But it’s a matter of priority. If those activities become my main focus, if they stress me to the point I forget the message of joy and peace the first Christmas was meant to bring, then there’s a problem.

                        So in an effort to remind you—and myself—to slow down, to reflect, to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas, I’m sharing my favorite Christmas carol with you. Every time I hear this song, it brings clarity to the season and reminds me again of God’s amazing gift to us. I pray it does the same for you.




Monday, December 10, 2012

Not a Facebook Christmas

            Last night I put the finishing touches on my Christmas decorations and lingered a few minutes to admire my handiwork. No, it wasn’t a Pinterest-worthy scene, but all the same, I experienced satisfaction. Fairy lights twinkled around the fireplace; the nativity and Santa Clauses were prominently displayed; the tree glimmered with crystal “icicles” re-purposed from a dismantled chandelier.

            If all goes according to plan (does that ever happen?), this Christmas should be happy and fun. My daughter and her family will be joining us. I’m already picturing a chaotic Christmas morning when a toddler lays waste to my decorating efforts. And I’m loving it!

            But in the middle of all this decorating and day-dreaming, my thoughts drift back to Christmas 1990. Even if Facebook had existed then, I wouldn’t have been posting about that one. A long, stressful year was drawing to a close. My husband had lost his job, and we’d moved to a new town. We were living in a rental half the size of our own house, a house still for sale in a sluggish market. My dad was going through chemo treatments for bladder cancer, and my brother was going through a different form of torture, a second divorce. There didn’t seem to be much to celebrate. And yet, what I recall most vividly about that Christmas was a moment of laughter.

            My mother and I were sitting at the table discussing those annoying Christmas newsletters. You know them: We’ve just returned from vacationing in the Bahamas, our son is graduating from Harvard law school, our daughter is engaged to a neurosurgeon. Happy Holidays, Fullofit and Felicity Feelgood.  My mom said she’d considered sending her own newsletter that year: Joe is undergoing chemo, my son-in-law is out of work, my son is getting a divorce...again. “That ought to cheer up folks,” she said. Then we started laughing. Laughing out loud. Belly laughing.

            As we laughed, I realized that in the midst of all that was wrong, so much was right. We had been able to come together as family, we had plenty to eat, we had a warm, comfortable house in which to gather. And we hadn’t completely lost our sense of humor. While we might not have had all we wanted, God had blessed us with all we needed and then some.

            The purpose of this post is not to brag about how good things are for me now but to offer encouragement to those whose Christmas might not be so “jolly” this year. Not all Christmas memories are warm and fuzzy. Not all Christmas experiences call to mind a Norman Rockwell painting. Deaths of loved ones, illnesses, family issues, financial problems, loneliness—all of these situations become intensified when it seems everyone else is celebrating. But even in the middle of our problems and woes, we can claim the promise of Christmas. Not a promise of a pain-free life, but the promise that God shares in our pain and will see us through it.
I wish you and your loved ones a joyful and blessed Christmas.


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Circle of Friends Christmas Tea: In a Word--Piquant!

         “Are you bringing sweet or savory?” My friend Carol asked me this a week before the Circle of Friends Christmas Tea and Book Exchange. Little did she know that in asking the question, she provided the inspiration for the title of this post.

            I didn’t need to look up the definition of sweet to know that it means pleasing, agreeable, or delightful to the senses. Or, in the case of a person, amiable, kind, or gracious. But savory sent me to just to be sure I had it right. I found that savory also means pleasing and agreeable, but there is an added word—piquant. Piquant? I did another search. These are three definitions I found:

            1.  agreeably pungent or sharp in taste or flavor
            2.  agreeably stimulating, interesting, or attractive
            3.  an interestingly provocative or lively character

            Yes, yes, and yes! Our Christmas Tea is most definitely piquant! We had pungent dishes, attractive (or rather gorgeous!) decorations, stimulating and interesting conversation, and—as we have at every meeting—“interestingly provocative or lively characters.”  

            Since a picture is worth a thousand words—and since at this meeting I actually remembered to take pictures—I’m going to let them show you just how special this occasion is.

Carole's beautiful decorations provided the
perfect setting for the festivities.

Difficult choices for Paula, Anna, and Judy!

Eat your heart out, Martha Stewart!

Three days after knee surgery,
but Shelley was determined not to miss.
Yes, the tea is that special!

Our hostess, Carole.

Elizabeth was excited about her new book, but
we were excited about her announcement!
Check out the "rock" on her ring finger!

Brenda with her new book, Nothing Daunted.

Pat couldn't wait until she got home to
start reading her new book.
A true bibliophile!

There were waay too many great dishes to pick out a favorite, so I decided to give the recipe for Cheryl's Chicken Pot Pie which I promised in my last post. The best way I know to describe what an awesome cook Cheryl is is to compare her to me. Cheryl is the kind of cook who will taste a dish and say, "It's a light cream sauce with a little white wine and just a touch of basil. I can make this." I'm the kind of cook who reads a recipe and says, "Hmmm, sugar, cream cheese, and Oreos...what's not to like?" So while this recipe might look daunting, it's really not if you do it in stages. And the results are well worth the effort!
Cheryl’s Chicken Pot Pie
3-4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
3 cups chicken stock/broth
1 medium onion chopped
3 medium carrots cut into ¼” slices
2 stalks celery chopped
10 ounces baby Portobello or crimini mushrooms sliced thin
2 T soy sauce
1 T tomato paste
6 T butter
6 T flour
1 cup milk
1 T lemon juice
salt & pepper
minced parsley
1 cup frozen peas
2 potatoes
Cook chicken until just done. I sprinkle with Montreal chicken seasoning and bake for about 15 minutes at 350degrees. In Dutch oven add 2 T oil. Add onions, carrots, celery, diced potatoes (unpeeled), salt & pepper. Stir, cover and cook about 8-10 minutes until carrots and potatoes are tender, but not too done. If needed, add a little chicken to pan while cooking. Transfer veggies to bowl with chicken that has been diced or shredded. In same pan add oil and mushrooms. Cook about 5 minutes. Stir in soy sauce and tomato paste and cook until liquid is evaporated. Put mushrooms in bowl with chicken and veggies.
Using same pan, add 6 T butter, Melt. Add 6 T flour and cook 1 minute. Slowly whisk in 2 cups of the chicken stock and the cup of milk. Cook until thick. Then thin down sauce to the thickness you like with the other cup of chicken stock. Add salt & pepper, lemon juice and 2 T parsley. Mix sauce with chicken and veggies. Add frozen peas, Pour in pan. Bake at 425 degrees for 5 minutes. Add crumbles to top and bake another 10-13 minutes until pie dough is brown and done. Add parsley to top.
Crumble Topping
2 cups all purpose flour
2 t baking powder
1 t salt
½ tsp pepper
6 T butter, cut in 1/2'” chunks, chilled
½ cup finely grated parmesan cheese
¾ cup + 2 T half & half or whole milk
Combine flour baking powder, salt & pepper. Sprinkle butter over. Cut in batter with pastry cutter or pulse in food processor to pea size. Stir in parmesan. Add mile and stir just until combined. Crumble mixture into irregular pieces on a cookie sheet. (I put parchment paper on. Bake at 425 for 10-13 minutes. Set aside.
Enjoy! And I wish for you and your loved ones a Joyous Christmas Season!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

"To Dance with the White Dog" -- a Southern Delight

             Terry Kay’s To Dance with the White Dog was the Circle of Friends book selection for November. From the discussion, I gathered everyone enjoyed this book as much as they enjoyed Cheryl’s delectable chicken pot pie (recipe to come later) and Brenda’s decadent brownies. I know I did.

            Kay is a southern writer, and the story is set in the south. I don’t know why I’m just now learning about him, as his first book was published in 1979, and he has written several books and won many awards. To Dance... was published in 1991 and made into a Hallmark movie in 1993. But somehow he managed to slip under my love-of-all-things-southern radar. Now that I’ve discovered him, I’ll be reading more of his works.

            The Friends liked that Kay—at least in this book—imparts southern “charm” and not southern “crazy.” Not that we’re totally opposed to southern crazy, but once in a while it’s good to let the rest of the country know we’re not all down here eating fried butter on a stick or entering our toddlers in beauty pageants. And we liked it because it is a “sweet” story. It has conflicts and an engaging plot but without the violence, hatred, and angst that’s prevalent in a lot of literature.

             I personally liked To Dance with the White Dog because it is a story about love—love for a spouse, love for children, love for parents, and, yes, love for a dog. And I think that last love is what made the story resonate strongly with me. In the protagonist’s relationship with his dog, I saw much of my own father’s situation. Over the past few years, my dad’s mental state has rapidly declined, and he bears little resemblance to the person he used to be. He is still a fairly easy-going, contented individual, but he remembers only snatches of his past. His children and grandchildren are strangers to him most of the time. His verbal communication skills are all but lost. Sandy, his mixed-breed German shepherd, is his constant companion. My mother and my sister take good care of him, but Sandy keeps him grounded in a world which must seem to grow increasingly confusing. She keeps him moving as he struggles to take her on walks. She sits patiently by his side for endless hours. And because a rub behind the ears and a responding lick on the hand communicate everything, no conversation is required, 

            Kay poignantly reflects his understanding of this man/dog bond in his book. He also addresses the challenges of growing old, the problems of dealing with an aging parent, the awkwardness of reversing the parent/child role. And he does it with respect, compassion, and humor. Even if you’re not a dog-lover (or a southerner), there is much to enjoy and contemplate in To Dance with the White Dog

PS  My mother takes this relationship in stride. One time someone said to her, "Gladys, I think Joe thinks more of his dog than he does of you." Her reply: "Oh, I know he does. He doesn't kiss me goodnight and tell me what a pretty girl I am!"             


Saturday, October 27, 2012

Lately, More Funerals Than Weddings

            This afternoon I attended a funeral—my second in a week. It seems that I’m attending funerals much more frequently these days. I would attribute that to my age, but a much younger friend confided that she, too, has lately attended what seems an unfair number of funerals. So maybe this isn’t just an age-related phenomenon. Maybe it also can be tied to the number of friends and relatives with whom we have been blessed.   

            Whatever the reasons behind this frequency of funerals, I’ve made a surprising discovery about these most solemn of services: Namely, they aren’t really that solemn anymore. They are true celebrations of life. The few funerals I attended as a child followed a clear-cut format: sad songs, prayers, a sermon with some scriptures about life eternal and a heavenly home, a farewell to the deceased with a promise we would one day be re-united. I’m sure all of that brought comfort to the grieving family and should still be a part of every service. But at more recent funerals, I’ve noticed another element has been added—an opportunity to know the deceased in a way few of us were able to while he or she was alive. Whether it’s through a video, a display of family pictures, testimonies of friends, or the opportunity to chat with family, I have learned so much more about the departed. And I’ve learned about the “extraordinary-ness” of those who lived what I previously considered ordinary lives. I’ve learned about dedicated teachers who touched students’ lives in ways few people realized while they were living. I’ve learned of men who served selflessly in the military both during times of war and peace. I’ve learned of individuals who struggled through difficult childhoods to become devoted parents who valued family. And I’ve laughed. Yes, I’ve shed tears of laughter as friends and family recounted those funny acts, accidents, and antics that make the departed all the more endearing to us. I’ve left services such as this saddened yet uplifted, determined to appreciate life and people more.

            This post is not in any way meant to trivialize the sense of loss that accompanies a loved one’s death. Grief is painful, eased only by time and faith, and never completely erased. But perhaps the hurting can be alleviated in some small way by the realization that even in death those dear to us still provide hope and inspiration for the living.









Friday, October 19, 2012

Longing for a "civilized" presidential campaign? Fuggedaboudit!

            It seems every presidential election year, I hear some of my women friends—both Democrats and Republicans—voice annoyance with the vitriolic political atmosphere. Their complaints go something like this: I’m so tired of the rhetoric and hateful attacks. Can’t we just have a civilized campaign?
            To this question, I categorically answer, “No.”

            I say “categorically” because my limited understanding of history convinces me that presidential campaigns have seldom been free of heated, impassioned discourse. Nor have they been free of those who play fast and loose with the truth or those who demonize opponents with spurious accusations.

            A few years ago, David McCullough’s John Adams proved to be an eye-opening read for me. Among the author’s most striking revelations was the “dirty politics” that ran rampant during Adams’  bid for re-election against Thomas Jefferson. Those are two of the nation’s most revered Founding Fathers, yet that campaign was rife with slurs and innuendos and out-and-out lies.

            According to McCullough, “In the summer of 1800 the question of who was to lead the nation became a contest of personal vilification surpassing any presidential election in American history...and whether Adams or Jefferson was the most abused would be hard to say.”

            Among the charges hurled at Jefferson:

            “...a Jefferson victory would mean civil war.”

            “...Jefferson had swindled clients as a young lawyer...”

            “Not only was Jefferson a godless man, but one who mocked the Christian 
             faith ...Bibles would have to be hidden away for safekeeping were he

            Adams was no less a victim, being ridiculed as

            “...old, addled, and toothless.”

            “...[sending] Charles Cotesworth Pinckney to London to procure four
            pretty mistresses to divide between them.” (Can you imagine?
            John Adams??!!!)

            “...quite mad.”

            John Adams was published in 2001, so I don’t know if after the 2004 and 2008 elections, McCullough would still claim the Adams-Jefferson election was the vilest in American history. But it has to be right up there as one of the meanest, and if the situation hasn’t changed in the past 212 years, I don’t see it doing so in the future.

            But if I can’t offer hope the acerbic atmosphere of campaigns will improve, maybe I can at least offer the following suggestions for easing election angst:

            1) Completely dismiss the campaign and watch only sitcoms and reality TV.
                Or keep the subject light and get all your political information from
                SNL skits or late-night talk shows.

            OR (and these are the two I recommend)

            2) Educate yourself by reading. Reading the opinions of those you
                respect and trust or reading the words as they came straight from
                the horse’s mouth allows you time to absorb and process the material
                being presented without the yelling, interrupting and posturing
                found on most political talk shows or without the convenient
                "spinning," the telling us what we just heard in case we're too dumb
                to figure it out for ourselves. You should also read information 
                presented by BOTH sides.


            3) Pray...for God to appoint and anoint our next president. And then
\               —whoever is elected—continue to pray for him and our country.


Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Gem of a Book: The End of Your Life Book Club

   sends me notices almost daily about the latest literature. If I took them up on every recommendation, my VISA bill would rival the national debt, and my kindle would probably crash. But occasionally I succumb to their ingenious marketing scheme. When a recent email suggested I might like The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe, I decided to check it out. I’m glad I did.  

Product Details            I read the summary on the Amazon web site. In spite of the title and the fact that this is a memoir about the author’s mother and her battle with pancreatic cancer, the story appeared to be inspiring rather than depressing. Then I “test drove” the book by reading the first few pages. I liked Schwalbe’s style. He managed to make waiting with his mother in the cancer center sound, if not pleasant, at least tolerable. But what hooked me was he and his mother decided to start their own private book club and discuss the books while she received her chemo treatments. I like reading about books almost as much as I like reading them. In this book, it appeared that I could do both, so I downloaded it. I’m glad I did.  

            A few more pages into the story, I was regretting my decision. I discovered that Schwalbe and I hold totally opposite religious and political views. I was convinced I’d find nothing on which we’d agree, including the books we liked. But I’d already paid my thirteen dollars, so I felt obligated to keep reading. I’m glad I did.  

            As I continued, I learned that Mary Anne, Schwalbe’s mother, and I did have something in common—our Christian faith. I learned so much from and about this remarkable humanitarian woman. The book was full of her uplifting insights and observations on living and dying...and books. As I read further, I found myself liking Schwalbe himself. While I didn't agree with his ideologies, I came to respect him as a gifted writer and admire him as a loving and devoted son. He wrote a beautiful tribute to his mother. And surprise, surprise, I found he and I actually liked some of the same books. In fact, in the Appendix he lists all the titles mentioned in this memoir. I plan to investigate many of them.  

            Folks who are facing life-threatening illnesses or have loved ones or friends who are—and those surely include most of us—will be encouraged by this book. I highlighted many passages as I read, planning on sharing them. But when I finished, I found I had marked almost one third of the book, too much to share in a single post. So I highly recommend you read the book for yourself. You’ll be glad you did. 



Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Nominations Are...

             No, not nominations for the Oscars, the Emmys, the Golden Globes. Not even the CMAs, MTVs, SAGs or any other of the weekly awards the entertainment industry deems necessary to bestow on itself. The nominations I’m listing are far more important and far more intriguing. They’re the nominations for the COFRL—Circle of Friends Reading List. 

            The September meeting of our club is one of my favorites. At that time, members nominate books they particularly enjoyed or think will make interesting reading and discussion. Then we vote for those that will comprise our reading selections for the next year. Because of time restraints, we went ahead and decided on our first two choices: for October, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen; for November, To Dance with the White Dog by Terry Kay. Also, for January, we’ll read Winter of the World by Ken Follett. The remaining selections will be determined by votes. In the past, I’ve forwarded this list to several friends who, as I do, appreciate suggestions for good reading material. Now I’m sharing the list with you along with a link to a brief description of each book.  

The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman

Have a Little Faith by Mitch Albom

The Painter from Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein

Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne 

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by Countess of Carnarvor

In the Kingdom of Men by Kim Barnes

The Litigators by John Grisham

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grisso

Becoming Odyssa by Jennifer Pharr Davis
The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler                                 

Where We Belong by Emily Giffin

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
            As you can see, our tastes in books are as varied as the dishes we bring to our potluck dinners. And just like our dinners, our list offers--to quote Templeton in Charlotte's Web--a “veritable smorgasbord”of delights. From lighthearted chick lit to inspiring nonfiction to chilling mysteries, there is something to satisfy every literary appetite. And just as I do at our dinners, I’m going to sample everything and devour what I really like. 

            If you’ve read some of these books, I would love to hear your opinion of them.