Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Leaving a Light On

One of the hazards of having lived in a bunch of places is the fact that I never know if a trend in my part of the country is a trend the whole nation has embraced or just a thing in my corner of the world.  Case in point: candlelights in windows.

Tiny candlelights in dark windows are definitely a thing around here and I love them.  A few years back, my mother gave me a set of four lights for the front windows in my house.  They came from Plow and Hearth and are these exact lights. They are easy to use and durable.  I think they make Sassafras House look friendly and welcoming, especially during dark, cold winter nights.  My four lights are in the front windows of my house.  When I look out my back windows, I see that some of my neighbors have candles in their back windows.

This winter, I got an additional light for the stairway window that faces the backyard.  It glows there on the landing and makes my house feel just a little more cozy.  It feels like home; a happy, welcoming home.
May your 2014 be safe and peaceful with a side of joy just when you need it most.  Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Generation Tolerance

JT has been known to enjoy shows like Ice Road Truckers, Hardcore Pawn, Duck Dynasty and Cutthroat Kitchen.  I have no affection for these shows and call it all Republican TV.  I don't watch them but neither do I edit his viewing of them.  This is mainly the case because that sort of parental censorship never pays off and I have confidence in the value system installed in JT long before Hard Core Pawn and Duck Dynasty entered his world.  He's nearly 14 and some choices should be his to make.

In the aftermath of the Duck Dynasty patriarch's offensive comments about gays, JT up and announced that he had deleted the show from his DVR and unfollowed the Duck Dynasty crew from social media sites he uses.  I was pleasantly surprised but, consistent with my original approach to his media consumption habits, pointed out to him that I didn't require such actions on his part.  He looked at me, surprised that I didn't get it.  He won't be a part of such caveman behavior; it is unacceptable to him.  Full stop.  If Duck Dynasty wants to be homophobic, they will do it without JT.

He's not alone in this decision.  A number of his friends also abruptly broke up with Duck Dynasty.  It should be noted that teenage boys are rarely among the most sensitive members of society.  But these kids know the difference between right and wrong and they have expectations about the world.  Since they were 5, long before Bobby Jindal or Barack Obama were a part of their world, they have expected that their buddy N, an Indian-American, will be the president some day (I happen to think they are right about this kid).  Tolerance is in their generational DNA and when they get next, we're all going to be just fine.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Food Friday: Irish Cream

A few years ago, I made up a batch of homemade Irish cream.  The recipe isn't mine; I found it on Tasty Kitchen and I follow it exactly as ordered.  After I mix it up, I store mine in a mason jar in the fridge. T and JT refer to it as my moonshine but no matter what it's called, it's delicious.
During the holidays, I add a dollop or two to a cup of coffee or homemade hot cocoa when the mood strikes.  It's a happy addition to my holiday.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

We Believe

At my house, Santa leaves his offerings on the red bench at the foot of the stairs.  
Traditionally, I make JT's picture as he first spies his loot on Christmas morning.
He's a lot bigger than when this tradition first began.  

Though Santa's secret has been revealed to him, JT continues to embrace the idea of Santa.  I am glad it continues.  Childhood is fleeting and those few years of magical beliefs and confidence that the unknown will be amazing must sustain a lifetime.  The mystery of faith in the magical and the sure knowledge that he is much-loved are an awfully good inoculation against the challenges of the real world.  So we still believe.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas! Amaryllis, Day 1

T gave me an amaryllis bulb for Christmas and I am delighted by this treat.  It will sit on my dining room table to absorb the light and amaze me with its rapid growth.
This plant will brighten my winter days.  Until it blooms, updates will be posted each week on Wednesday so that I can share its display.  Merry, merry!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve

My town sets out luminaries on Christmas Eve.  They are simple ----- brown paper bags, each with a pillar candle and some sand to keep the bag sturdy.  It's a lovely tradition; one that I enjoy because it is so simple.
When JT gets home from his other mom's house, we set out the bags.
Come twilight, we light the candles and then have a supper of snacks and appetizers.

Later tonight, we'll watch "A Christmas Story" and maybe play some games.  Santa will do his work in preparation for Christmas morning and then I will tuck into my flannel nest, grateful for blessings large and small.
I hope that you have some traditions to enjoy and some blessings to count.  Happy Christmas!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Pretty Packages

For me, one of the best parts of Christmas is wrapping packages.  I love the paper, the bows, and all the Christmas tags I find on Etsy.  
That's happy!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas Treat

After an exceptionally cold December, the last two days have been exceedingly mild.  Today, it's already 67 degrees and will likely get warmer.  The snow piles from last week's storms are nearly gone.  I opened the windows so some of the fresh air could come inside and Tiger and Lucy were delighted with this development and they each selected a windowsill from which to observe the world.
In the winter, my cats make themselves comfortable on all the warm spots in the house.  They nap on the radiators, on a soft blanket on the sofa when the morning sun sun shines into the living room, Tiger tucks himself under a down comforter whenever one is available, and Lucy loves to curl up on the furnace itself (it's a boiler, so it can be quite toasty).  Come warmer weather, they enjoy the open windows, sniffing the air and tormenting the birds.
They are surprised to have the windows open this morning, but they are happy to take advantage of it.  They get an unusual treat and I get a reminder that the unexpected can make a day happier.  

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Winter View

Though Winter doesn't officially arrive until tomorrow, we've had a cold and snowy December and have quickly settled into our Winter routines.  Among the most enjoyable has been the view from the dining room window this month.  
That's happy!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Real Life Conversations in Middle School: Accurate Assessment edition

The backstory:  7th graders at my school learn the first half of U.S. History and are seeking to understand some pretty complicated subjects, including slavery.  Two 7th graders were at work on understanding the Three-Fifths Compromise when I was in class with them earlier this week.

Student M:  I don't get the Three-Fifths Compromise.  What is it again?

Student C:  What it is is MESSED UP.

The language may not be sophisticated but the understanding is pretty damn spot on.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Holiday Traditions

When I was in my 20s and living in Tennessee, I came across a book of Christmas stories written by Alice Taylor, An Irish Country Christmas.   They are tales of Christmas in rural Ireland in the early 20th century and they are lovely.  The stories are charming and funny with a tad of sentimentality mixed in.  The book is a collection of the reflections of an adult looking back on the innocence of the holidays at the age of 9  ----- old enough to have some independence but young enough to still embrace the magic of Santy.  

Over the years, I have made it a point to pull out the book in mid-December and read the stories again.  By now, the book is a well-known friend, telling tales that I have heard before and wish to hear again.  I open the book sure of the laughter and well-turned phrases that I know await me.  It's one of my most welcome holiday traditions because in the midst of the busy season it is a reminder that it is in the simple pleasures that the spirit of December is best found.

For me, the most satisfying of those simple pleasures are familiar stories, twinkling lights, the smell of evergreen, and my collection of hand-carved wooden snowmen.  It is here that I can locate memories and traditions and a moment of quiet that most spells the pleasure of the season.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Mystery Sprout

The last time I was at my local Wegmans, I checked out the brussels sprouts, as is my custom.  In the bin, T and I found this:
I told JT this is what happens when GMO seeds are used.  As if he needed another reason to avoid vegetables.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Beak Report

The adventure with my nose started on November 12th, with the first ill-advised surgery.  The day that my stitches came out, on November 27th, my swollen nose looked like this.
Having the stitches out didn't hurt but the pushing and prodding involved left my nose a little sensitive for the next few days.  I am under orders to keep the wound line slathered in bacitracin, so I still have a greasy beak.  But the swelling has diminished and it's looking better every day.  This picture was made on Monday, December 2nd.
And here is Wednesday the 3rd of December.
JT made this picture of me yesterday.
I'm just a tad over two-weeks post surgery and the doctor assures me that it's healing up just as he wishes.  I check in with him in four months for any final touch ups.  And my commitment to sunscreen is stronger than ever.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Before and After

Nearly two years ago, in January 2012, an 11 year-old JT got braces on his teeth.  Freshly metaled up that morning, he was rather excited about the affair, feeling like braces were a rite of passage.  He was at least willing to partake.  His first set of bands matched the Baltimore Ravens football team colors.  
In the months in between, the band colors regularly changed.  And each month,  I've made a picture of the boy on the day that we visited his very patient orthodontist.  This picture is from last December, when rubber bands were first introduced.
Yesterday, a month earlier than we expected, the braces came off.  I made a picture, of course.  From the looks of it, a lot has changed in the last two years.
Last night, as he was working his way through the pile of bubble gum and caramel that T and I got him to celebrate, JT said to me, "two years passed so fast."  I couldn't have said it better myself.

Monday, December 09, 2013

'Tis the Season

Yesterday, we choose our Christmas tree and set it up in the living room.  Christmas trees always cast a special kind of special in the house so that each year's tree seems perfectly suited to the celebrations.  This one is no exception.
Here and there is a package to adorn the tree.
The stockings are at the ready.
The house smells piney and lovely and the cats are delighted to have a visiting tree.  As for me, I love the simple pleasures and beauty of Christmas traditions. 

Saturday, December 07, 2013

On Truth, Reconciliation, Forgiveness and Nelson Mandela

I still remember the moment when I first learned about apartheid in South Africa.  I was 14 years old and a participant in a debate contest.  The other team mentioned apartheid and I had no earthly idea what it meant.  As the debate unfolded, I learned about the system in South Africa.  I found it all unbelievable.  Nations could act like this in 1982?  Unthinkable!  Not surprisingly, I lost that debate and my naivete that day.  But I gained information about an injustice that would forever change my understanding of the world.  From that point on, I made it a point to know about the situation in South Africa.  Which is not to say that I understood it.  

I can never think of Nelson Mandela without thinking about that moment when I first learned about apartheid.  In his writing and speeches, the mounting injustices of apartheid were made clear.  By the time I awakened on a cold morning in February 1990 to the news that Nelson Mandela was finally being released from prison, South Africa had been on my radar for years.  I'd read the works and ideas of the ANC, heard the testimony of Bishop Tutu, read the literature of Nadine Gordimer and others.  I'd signed petitions and sent letters demanding an end to apartheid.  I knew a lot about the injustice and horror that was the system of apartheid.  I understood the pernicious effects the system brought to a society.

I admire Nelson Mandela for the way that he never gave up on South Africa.  In the last few days, as people have mourned his passing and celebrated his life, I have thought about how powerfully he belongs to the people of South Africa.  It is in the dignity with which he lived his life and in the way he resumed his freedom and governed his country that he belongs to us all.

In this respect, what lingers most for me about Nelson Mandela is his extraordinary courage as a leader.  As the first elected president of a racially equally South Africa, it was Mr. Mandela's willingness to live in truth and the reconciliation that is forged from forgiveness that he was at his most enduring.  It was his gift to the people of South Africa.  Thanks to him, it is their powerful message to the world.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Real Life Texts with T: Hypocrisy edition

The backstory:  I am involved in a multi-year project to select toenail polish colors that feature names which are not the least bit descriptive of the color.  For example: Head Mistress, Foot Loose, and Jamaica Me Crazy are all "colors" I've had on my toes in the last year.  T knows about this project and reminded me of it the other day when I texted her my concern about the name of a candle scent.

Me:  Candle burning in this office is a scent called "copper kettle."  I do not think that is a legit scent.

T:  Oh sweetie, you are in no position to judge candle names since you choose nail polish by their exotic names……sorry to be the one to tell ya.


Wednesday, December 04, 2013

The Unhealthy Side of Capitalism

I have health insurance and I am grateful for it.  Like most Americans who have health insurance, mine is via my employer.  Like many people whose employer is a small non-profit, I pay a significant share of my benefits.  In my case, that's 40% of the premium.  To insure JT and me, I pay an amount that is a shade more than $550 a month; more than $6500 a year.  My employer adds another chunk of change, nearly $10,000 a year.  The total to ensure JT and I exceeds $16, 500 per year.  That's a significant amount of money, though I wouldn't consider going without health insurance.

Most years, the company who provides my insurance is making money.  It's a for-profit corporation and that's what for-profit corporations do: make money.  It's clear that most Americans actually forget that fact when they think about health insurance.  But it is important to remember that most health insurance companies are in the business of making money.  They collect a premium from their customers and place a bet that we won't get sick.  The customers pay that premium, hedging against the prospect of illness.  No one actually wants to be sick, of course, and we quickly lose sight of the basic nature of this arrangement.

I mention this because in the current hand-wringing about Obamacare and changing insurance plans, we've once again lost sight of the fact that in choosing an insurance-based for-profit model of healthcare, we've signed ourselves up for a very costly enterprise.  Obamacare's regulations require insurance companies to pay for a host of treatments, treatments that Americans want to be included in their healthcare: maternity care, birth control, vaccinations, regular check-ups, preventative measure tests like mammography and colonoscopies, and host more.  Those things are expensive.  Of course our rates will go up.  This is a significant burden for the people who pay for insurance: employers and employees.

If you work for the government or a large employer with a stash of cash, you likely pay a very modest share of your insurance premium.  For example, state employees in New Jersey typically pay less than 15% of the cost of their premiums, while their employer pays significantly more.  This is not unusual and it creates a challenging political climate.

I am frustrated by this increasingly unequal arrangement and would cheerfully support a single-payer system of government-managed hospitals and physician clinics.  It would be less costly, a fact born out by the current New York Times series about the cost of healthcare, "Paying Till it Hurts."  I've linked to the most recent article in the series here.  A single-payer system would also be accessible to every one of us and significantly better than the system we have today. 

Until then, I've received word that my insurance will cost at least 20% more next year.  My monthly outlay will therefore increase to $610 a month.  That's 610 dollars that will not go into the economy for other goods and services.  If I am lucky and we remain healthy, it will go into the coffers of a private corporation whose profits will pay stockholders.

It could be me, but that seems like an unhealthy arrangement.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Old House Treasures

I've heard dozens of stories about the things people find in the old houses.  Years ago, this house yielded a wooden radiator cover but that was the sum total of its treasures.  Or it was until last weekend, when T announced that she'd found an extension cord under the porch.  I was briefly excited by this news, because who couldn't use an extra extension cord?  Then T wound up her treasure and gave it to me.
Neither of us dared to give this fire hazard marvel a try.  

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Front Yard Flowerbed: December 1

The five day stretch of time off for the Thanksgiving weekend couldn't have been more needed in my life.  Between the pace of my days in the Middle School and the challenge of teaching a whole new grade-level, I've burned the candle at both ends this fall.    Add in the crazy events surrounding my nose and minor surgery in the last two weeks and I was ready for a break.

I got my stitches out on Wednesday.  Then I indulged myself with some sleeping-in, leisurely mornings, holiday cooking, book reading, and holiday planning.  T and I worked on some home improvement projects and saw a movie.  There was some fall clean-up and some outdoor Christmas decorating.  In the front yard flowerbed, I dug up the dahlias that bloomed late last summer, trimmed some errant ivy vines, and raked out some of the dead leaves and vines.   
Today, I put 40 tulip bulbs in the ground.  They'll winter over and surprise me and the rhododendren come the spring.
That's happy!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Out with the Old

Yesterday, T set to work securing some loose boards on the front porch.  While she was under the porch I took care of some fall clean-up chores, some of which had been delayed earlier this month as I dealt with my beak.  Most of the leaves in my yard get spread over the garden to take advantage of some cheap natural mulch; others get left on the grass because they are good for the lawn.  The extras get bagged up and placed at the curb for the township to carry away to their own giant mulch pile.
The pumpkins were mulched and fall-themed decorations on the front porch were put away, in an out-with-the-old tradition.
I began to organize the outdoor holiday decorations.  Some are familiar favorites, like the holly-trimmed wreaths that hang from the flower pot hooks.  Others are brand new, like this snowman that my folks gave me for my birthday.   
Next week, I'll put the boy to work hanging some lights on the porch.  I love the sight of twinkling holiday lights and greenery, especially in the cold twilight of the short days in December.  It brings cheer to the evenings and is a welcome tradition at Sassafras House.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Journal

When I first learned to cook, I was impressed by people who could get all the food on the table ready to serve (hot things hot; cold things cold) at the same time.   At first, I would make a plan for myself to get the timing right.  As I got more experienced in the kitchen, the timing of the process came easier to me.  But for an affair such as Thanksgiving, I revert to my planning mode.  The night before Thanksgiving, I sketch out a plan.  This year, as the Thanksgiving cooking unfolded, I kept track and made pictures so that I would have a digital record of the process.

The Thanksgiving menu was a very traditional traditional feast:
- roast turkey
- mashed potatoes and gravy
- cranberry sauce
- cornbread dressing
- roasted brussels sprouts
- sweet potato casserole
- cheese & crackers
- rosemary rolls
- pumpkin pie with whipped cream

The days before Thanksgiving, I made the pumpkin pie and the corn bread for corn bread dressing.  Thanksgiving morning, I was up early to get things started.  The goal was a 1 pm Thanksgiving feast.

7 am - set rolls out to rise
 8 am - get turkey out of the fridge to bring to room temperature (it was already defrosted)
- prepare cornbread dressing
- prepare cranberry sauce

9 am - prepare turkey to roast; set oven to 400 degrees
- prepare sweet potatoes to roast
9:30 - turkey in the oven at 400 degrees for 30 minutes
- sweet potatoes roast for 30 minutes

10 am - hit a snag with the sweet potatoes, which I hoped to remove roasted from the oven; they need to roast longer

- stir together streusel topping for the sweet potato casserole while the potatoes roast some more
- add broth to cornbread dressing
- place room temp cranberry sauce in the fridge to cool
- reduce oven temperature to 350; continue to roast turkey

11:45 am - assign T to peel potatoes while I trim brussels sprouts for roasting
- brush rolls with melted butter & sprinkle with fresh rosemary
noon - set potatoes to boil
12:15 - remove turkey from oven to rest
- increase oven temp to 425; roast sprouts & start sweet potato casserole, cornbread dressing

12:30 - remove roasted sprouts
- lower oven to 350; continue cooking sweet potato casserole & cornbread dressing
- T carves the turkey.....whose picture I failed to make when I fetched it from the oven....oops!

12:45 - place rolls in the oven; make gravy
- start to set food on the table

1:15 Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013


On Tuesday, as the pre-holiday fervor hit a crescendo in the Middle School, my 6th graders and I took time to share our favorite Thanksgiving foods.  I heard a lot about mashed potatoes and roasted turkey.  Deserts were also mentioned.  The kids laughed and exchanged nods as shared favorites were identified.  I thought about those conversations as I was doing some pre-holiday cooking this morning, making a few items ahead of time.  First up was pumpkin pie.
I also made the corn bread for cornbread dressing that I will stir together tomorrow.
Both of these dishes are at the top of the list of favorite foods at my house.  I love holiday cooking and find the organization and planning just as enjoyable as the meal itself.  Later today, I'll set out my antique dishes, getting ready for the feast.  Tomorrow we'll roast turkey and brussells sprouts.  Mashed potatoes, fresh cranberry sauce, rosemary rolls, and sweet potato casserole will also set on the table with my favorite cornbread dressing and T and JT's favorite, pumpkin pie.  It will be a feast with leftovers to spare.  We'll count our blessings and enjoy the day, thankful for all the things that make us smile.