Sunday, November 30, 2014

Real Life Conversations with JT: Unspoken Communication edition

The backstory:  JT takes Ceramics at school and the teacher uses the large plastic bags from dry cleaners to keep projects damp before they are completed and fired in the kiln.  We save our bags for that purpose, which likely explains the conversation JT and I had last week.  

Me (upstairs, unwrapping a wool skirt just back from the cleaners):  Does Mr. L still need…….(here words escaped me, as I wrestled with plastic in the morning, and couldn’t remember the demanding phrase “plastic bags from dry cleaners”).

JT (downstairs, finishing his breakfast):  Yes.  Just leave the bag on my bed.

Apparently words are not strictly necessary for the two of us to get an idea across.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Winter's Secrets

I always worry that once the leaves come off the trees, I will miss the lush green abundance of fully bloomed nature.  But once the colors are gone, I can see that there is a different kind of beauty hidden in nature’s stark Winter appearance.  Some of the tall trees in my backyard are a case in point.  The thick green leaves of these trees provide shade and privacy in our summer backyard.  Once those leaves were gone last week, it was clear that they hid large nests in their upper branches.  I can see them clearly now.

I suspect they are the creation of the squirrels who share in my garden’s bounty.  I have a soft spot for those squirrels.

We’ve already had our first snowy nor’easter storm.  Winter’s cold has rather taken hold of us.  Soon, I’ll set out the greenery and Christmas lights to join the stark beauty that Mother Nature displays in the Winter.   I’ll be reminded anew that every season offers its own sort of quiet lovely to admire and appreciate.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Real Life Conversations with JT: Self Awareness edition

The backstory: We spent part of our Thanksgiving break cleaning out two rooms that seem to become the repository of crap in my house: the guest bedroom and the downstairs study.  JT helped in the study because most of the things abandoned in there belonged to him.  One of those things, a plastic red devil’s pitchfork, attracted his interest.

JT:  We got this for a Halloween costume I never wore.

Me:  No.  We got that for you when we were at a Halloween store because you wanted to march around with a pitchfork and protest.


JT:  Really?

Me: Really.

JT: Huh.

Left unsaid: JT was a little kid with one hell of an imagination.
Related: he was sometimes a tad weird.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

Supper has been served and now we rest, thankful for our many blessings.  Happy Thanksgiving, y'all!

Getting the Feast on the Table: Thanksgiving Day

Yesterday, I detailed the planning that goes into getting together our Thanksgiving supper.  Today is feast day and there are a few more chores to complete.  The list isn’t too long and I had a good time tracking events yesterday, so today I am doing the same.  Updates as warranted!

The tasks ahead of us (items in bold are completed):

1.  Roast the turkey.
10:00 am: Turkey is out of the fridge; being drained of brine, rinsed and prepped for roasting.

10:30 am: Oven is on; set for 400 degrees.

10:50 am: The bird is in the oven at 400 degrees.

11:10 am: Lowered the roasting temp of bird to 325 degrees.

1:15 pm: Lowered the roasting temp of bird to 225 the final hours of roasting!

2:25 pm: Turkey is out of the oven; resting.

2:50: Carve turkey.

2.  Bake rolls.
8:15 am: Rolls set out to rise.

2:50 pm: Rolls are in the oven.

3.  Peel and boil potatoes; mash them just before supper gets set on the table.
2:05 pm: Peel and cut potatoes; set to boiling.

2:50 pm: Drain and whip potatoes.

4.  Assemble cornbread dressing.
10:50 am: Chopping onions, celery, and jalapeno for cornbread dressing.

11:00 am: Boil water for dressing broth.

2:00 pm: mix broth into cornbread dressing.

5.  Bake rolls, cornbread dressing, sweet potato casserole, and green bean casserole.
1:55 pm: Side dishes set out in preparation for baking.

2:25 pm: Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees for casseroles.

2:30 pm: Casseroles in the oven.

6.  Assemble cheese tray.
11:40 am: Slice cheese for cheese tray.

2:15 pm: Set out brie; assemble the rest of cheese tray & crackers.

7. Make gravy.
2:55 pm: Start gravy.

8.  Set the table.
9:50 am: Dining room table cleared off.

10:00 am: Set dishes; serving bowls on table.

11:00 am: Assemble centerpiece for table.

2:30 pm: Set the table.

3:15:  Supper is served!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving Feast: The Pre-Planning

I secured all of my holiday supplies last weekend, so that I wouldn’t need to be at the grocery store the day before Thanksgiving, when the madness is well beyond my patience level.  This year’s supper is a traditional feast and will feature all the usual suspects:  roast turkey, mashed potatoes & gravy, cranberry sauce, cornbread dressing, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, yeast rolls with butter, a cheese tray, and pumpkin pie.

I am blessed enough to have the day off from school and while the icy snow falls, I will be completing the advance work that makes Thanksgiving Day go smoothly.  I spread the tasks throughout the day, so I can get other things down as well.  I love this process and find cooking to be among the most pleasant parts of my holiday celebration.  This year, I am posting my preparation checklist here on the blog and as tasks are completed, I will live-update.  

The tasks at hand for today (items in bold are completed):

1.  Brine the turkey…….I do this for anywhere between 15-24 hours before I plan to put the bird in the oven.  I buy a fresh turkey from a local butcher so that I don't need to worry about defrosting it.

9:45 am: Mix the brine for the turkey.  Boil and let cool.

10:30 am: Rinse turkey and set in brine bag.

11:00 am: Pour brine in the bag; refrigerate brining turkey.

2.  Make cranberry sauce.

11:00 am: Start boil of sugar, orange juice, and water for cranberry sauce.

noon: Cranberry sauce cooled and in the fridge

3.  Prepare and bake the pumpkin pie.

12:10 pm: Make pie crust; start pumpkin pie custard.

12:40 pm: Pie is in the oven.

2:00 pm: Pie is out of the oven; cooling.

4.  Roast sweet potatoes; assemble sweet potato casserole.
1:45: Wash sweet potatoes for roasting

2:10: Sweet potatoes in the oven for roasting.

3:00: Mix together the ingredients for sweet potato casserole; place in the fridge until tomorrow.

5.  Assemble green bean casserole.
1:50 pm: Cook green beans for casserole

2:01 pm: Assemble casserole; cover and store in fridge for tomorrow.  

6.  Make cornbread (tomorrow, I will mix together the cornbread dressing).
12:45 pm: Set out cornbread ingredients.

1:25 pm: Mix together cornbread.

2:10 pm: Cornbread is in the oven.

2:35 pm: Cornbread is cooling.

3:20 pm: The day's cooking chores are complete and I am turning my attention to the tidying up the guest bedroom. Let's hear it for holidays!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Spice, Spice, Baby

A few weeks ago, T tackled the mess that was my spice shelf.  I say was because she found shelves and organized the whole operation.  Now I can easily find the things I am looking for, a very handy development now that the holiday cooking season has arrived.

That’s happy!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Winter’s Rest

In my perfect world, happy endings always occur.  For this reason, I sometimes read the end of a book first, just to prepare myself for the prospect of an unhappy ending.  Of course, life doesn’t always offer happy endings and, even when it does, it may be that there is difficulty and sadness along the way.  To remind me to be patient with this uncertainty, I like to garden.

A garden demands some labor in exchange for a reward a few months later.  The growing season alone is a lesson in waiting.  Of course, I’ve also planted my fair share of seeds that don’t sprout.  So I know that gardening is not a guarantee of a happy ending.   But it is an investment in the idea that patience may bring beauty.  Seasonal change is its own reminder of constancy and on the coldest and darkest day of the year, the promise of a warm long day to come is as certain as life gets.

I thought about this last weekend as I got out my garden shoes for one last set of garden chores before winter.  I dug up my dahlia bulbs and stored them in the basement for next spring.  Tomato cages were put away for next season.  I ran the mower over the leaves on the lawn to mulch them up; this disposes of the fallen leaves and feeds the lawn over winter.  This particular chore also had the double  purpose of running the mower out of gas for the winter.  

Many of the leaves in my yard have already fallen and the stark beauty of winter has begun to take hold.  The peach tree has just two leaves left.

The apple and pear trees are not quite done dropping their leaves.

The garden had a few roses that had survived the cold.  I brought those inside for one last bouquet.

The cold temperatures that are settling in are a reminder that Winter’s season of rest is nearly here.  Gardening chores are shelved for a little while.  

On the front porch, a few pots have bulbs hidden in the dark soil.  These porch plantings will be the first sign of spring when it arrives in a few months.

Until then, Mother Nature has ordered that we rest.  It is a welcome respite.

Friday, November 21, 2014


On Thursday morning, JT and I left the house a little later than I would have liked and we were rushing.  Needing to rush in New Jersey is never a good idea and, naturally, things went poorly.  By the time we got to the traffic circle in South Bound Brook, I was not amused.  I was in that circle when a large garbage truck entered in front of me, forcing me to stop quickly to avoid being hit and crushed.  In that second, I shouted and immediately flipped off the driver, who was looking right at me as he cut me off.

I was wearing mittens.

A few seconds later, out of the traffic circle and now crossing the bridge over the Raritan River, my headphone-clad offspring looked at me and said, “that was fucked up.”


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

All Grown Up

In the eleven years that I taught in the Upper School, I coached the Model Congress team at my school.  Each November, the team made a trip to Washington D.C., site of the real Congress, and participated in a contest to see if a Congress made up of high school students could do a better job than the actual Congress (hint: Yes, they could).

For most of the years that I made that trip with my team, JT joined us as the team mascot.  Here’s a picture of his first Model Congress trip, in 2006, when he was 6.  That year, I brought some babysitters to watch over the boy while I wrangled teenagers into bed at 1 am.  That’s the amazing J and C pictured with us at the Washington Zoo.

Over the years, we developed traditions during the trip.  Here we are in 2007, the year we started watching an IMAX movie on our annual visit.

When he was 8, he tried his hand at ordering room service.

And we visited the Jefferson Monument.

In 2009, we staged a Viking invasion of the Congress.

The year he was 10, we brought a friend and sought to avoid the scary beasts in the Museum of Natural History.

In 2011, we took a walk to the Martin Luther King, Jr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt monuments.

Our last trip was two years ago, when JT was in the 7th grade.  We messed around in Union Station and took a trip to the Zoo, as if things had come full circle.

Last year, I moved to the Middle School and a new coach took over the team and accompanied the students to the capitol.  This year, as a 9th grader, JT wrote a bill and he's joined the Model Congress team as a member.  His team mascot days are over.  Tomorrow, he heads south to D.C. with his teammates and plans to explore the city with his friends.  He has a good bill to propose and he’s practice debated.   He’s leaving his Mama at home, as befits a 14 year old learning to make his way in the world.  At home, I'll mark the quick passage of time and wonder just how fast the next few years will fly by.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Your Moment of Floral Zen

For my birthday, the principal and assistant with whom I share the office gave me these lovely flowers.

They sat on the table in my dining room last week and provided much-needed beauty and a reminder that even when the job is hard, I have some great colleagues, the kind that know how to laugh off the rough edges of middle school life.  

Friday, November 14, 2014

Real Life Conversations with JT: Subtle Asides edition

The backstory:  JT was at the mall with me, a trip he made voluntarily because he had something he wanted to buy himself at the Apple Store.  After the errand at Apple, he found himself at Talbots with me. I had stopped in to purchase a scarf that was on sale.  I treated the mission as a strategic strike and was in the store less than a minute before I located the scarf and stepped up to the counter to make the purchase.  Talbots has a shopper’s reward card that offers occasional discounts.  This fact matters to the conversation that ensued. 

Clerk:  It’s your birthday month.  Would you like to use the 10% off on this purchase?

Me: (knowing that the 10% off can’t be combined with the 25% off I was already using):  No thanks.

Clerk:  Are you sure?

Me (wanting to get out of the store as soon as possible):  Yes, I’m sure.   I’ll come back later this month.

JT:  You’ll come back WITHOUT ME, right?

Apparently, when I return, it will be without the boy. The clerk was distinctly unamused by our  mother-son communication, a fact the boy noted when we left the store, as if it's a character flaw to not get (or enjoy) sarcasm.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

One Child at a Time

Some weeks bring more difficult than I would like and this week seems determined to be that sort of week.  But I’m the kind who fights back against rough weeks and last night I did it by baking and wrapping up homemade cookies for a bake sale at school this morning.

The bake sale benefits Pardada Pardadi School in India, a place where rural girls receive an education.  The Middle School sponsors a student at the school and I can’t think of anything better than ensuring that at least one more girl has a chance at the freedom of education.  

Also: homemade cookies.  That’s happy!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Real Life Conversations with T: Organic Ingredients edition

The backstory:  T enjoys Annie’s organic bunny fruit snacks and as I looked the the box and its claim to be both organic and vegan, I had questions.

Me:  How do they make fruity snacks without gelatin?

T:  Weasel earwax?

Me:  Weasel earwax?  

T:  Yes.  No weasels are harmed in the harvest of their earwax.

Turns out it’s just organic tapioca, which likely tastes better but isn’t nearly as amusing to consider.  Also, who has “weasel earwax” at the ready as an answer to questions of any kind?

Friday, November 07, 2014

Food Friday: All Mexican, All the Time

It’s my birthday week and I decided to treat myself by cooking Mexican food for suppers this week.  Here’s a road map to the feasting:

Sunday supper: chicken tacos

This is a go-to celebration supper at Sassafras House, the original comfort food in our world.  A recipe for my chicken can be found here.

Monday supper: burrito bowl

This bowl came together incredibly quickly and was perfectly awesome.  I used red cabbage and leftover guacamole from the day before.  I also used canned black beans that I warmed and spiced up.  I don’t like plain rice, so I used saffron rice from Sunday’s taco supper supper.  I served the bowl with some warmed corn tortillas.  Tasty, easy, delicious and likely to become a staple in this house, the recipe can be found here.

Tuesday: 8 layer dip

Strictly speaking, this dish is Tex Mex but it fit the theme and it’s my birthday, so it qualified.  Plus, JT loves it.  My 8 layer dip features refritos, sour cream, guacamole, chopped tomatoes (the last ones from my garden), grated cheese, green onions, cilantro, and black olives… that order.  There are zillions of recipes for layered Tex Mex dip and if you’ve never made it, try this one.

Wednesday:  shrimp quesadilla

As should be clear by now, Simply Recipes is my go-to website for food basics.  The writer is from Sacramento, California, a place near enough my hometown to ensure that her definition of Mexican food meets mine.  I saw this recipe on the website and give it a try.  Tasty and easy to pull together on a weeknight.  Try it!

This week is proof-positive that I could eat Mexican food every day of the week.  Plus, having a theme for the week sure makes the planning part of cooking easier.  Happy Birthday week to me!

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Real Life Conversations with JT: Life Evaluation edition

The backstory:  Yesterday, JT asked me how I felt about my upcoming birthday, when I will turn 47.

Me:  Well, when I was your age, I don’t think I imagined this is where I would be at 47.

JT:  You have a steady paycheck, a nice girlfriend, a place to live, and you've been to Europe. Plus, you have a bad-ass, amazing 14 year old son.  You have a good life.

Put that way, I guess I’m in good shape.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Your Weekly Dogwood: November 5

As predicted, one windy storm wiped out the rest of the leaves on the dogwood tree.  The last of them fell off the tree during the Nor’easter last weekend.

Winter will bring snow and ice on the branches of this tree and then, as sure as the sun rises and sets each day, spring’s daylight and warmth will bring blooms.  I'll be here to see it all.  Marking the seasons with my dogwood tree reminds me of the value of patience.

That’s happy!

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

The Government We Deserve

I have to confess that I am absolutely enraged at the response of Governors Cuomo and Christie to America’s full-blown case of ebola panic.  The disease is clearly dreadful and I acknowledge that the anxiety is real but let’s make note that our anxieties are not REALISTIC.  I haven’t been impressed by the CDC in this crisis, but the WHO and Doctors without Borders do have a strong sense of how the disease spreads and how it can be contained.  President Obama has been measured and careful in his rhetoric.  Congress, busily campaigning for re-election after two years of doing nothing, has been virtually silent.  In the meanwhile, the nation has panicked.  In a way, this is a case study of the nation we have become, a group of citizens ignorantly lurching from one media event crisis to the next, with no sense that this is our government and therefore our responsibility.

At the same time, my daily inbox has been clogged with hyperbolic requests that I donate money to various Democratic political causes and candidates.  Many of them are political causes and candidates that I passionately believe in but this year I just couldn’t donate.  Even $5 seemed like a quiet endorsement of the ridiculous behavior of Congress.  I certainly don’t want Republicans to take control of the Senate so that they can run that institution are poorly as they have run the House, but I can’t fathom actually spending a dime to support the nonsense that has become Congress, no matter who is in charge.

I thought about voting against all incumbents, but my Representative (Rush Holt) has resigned and both of the candidates for the House in my my district are newcomers.  My senator, Cory Booker, has only been in office for a year.  He’s up for election to a full term in this seat.  I like and respect him and he has made efforts to reach across the aisle.  I will be casting an enthusiastic ballot in his favor this morning.

As for the rest of it, I feel like the nation is trapped in a cycle of irresponsible behavior as we wait for the bloodsport that will be the 2016 presidential election.  Harry Truman's famous do-nothing Congress has nothing on us.  I expect that Republicans will gain a narrow victory in the Senate and that the Democratic opposition will then take up the obstructionist tactics Republicans have used for the past two years.  The national interest will suffer, of course.  The list of serious issues we've failed to address (global warming, immigration, student loan debt, and more) will grow longer and more serious.  And we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Morning Light

The time change occurred over the weekend and for a few days it feels like I get to sleep in.  Better than that is the sunlight which now arrives a little earlier in the morning.  This was the sky I saw as I enjoyed my first cup of coffee this morning.    The pink quickly faded to be replaced by sunlight.

It’s a good way to start the week.

Sunday, November 02, 2014


There are several tall sycamore trees on my street.  Though none grow in my yard, the large leaves and strips of bark will make up several of the bags of leaves I’ll eventually rake up and set on the curb.  I don’t mind the chore because the stately trees shade our street all summer long.  I figure a little raking is fair payment for the pleasure they bring me.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

November 1: Front Yard Flowerbed

The clock falls backward this weekend.  The extra hour of sleep will be most welcome and I have a plan to ease the darkness of the shorter days, so I’m ready for the change.  Mother Nature must have her eye on the calendar because right on schedule with the arrival of November the weather has turned chilly.  Last night, I fell asleep to the sound of the wind scudding dry leaves up the street.  I awakened this morning to breezy rain and temperatures in the low 40s.   Fall is definitely here, a fact that is abundantly clear in the ragged edges of the front yard flowerbed.

It’s time for me to dig up the dahlia bulbs to store for the winter and make the garden beds ready for their winter season.

I’ve planted some bulbs already and plan to put down a few more before the frost sets in.  It’s raining this morning but when things dry tomorrow, I’ll get out the mower out for one last mow.  That mow will serve several purposes — trimming the green grass one more time, mulching the leaves that are already down into fertilizer for the lawn, and running the mower out of gas for the winter.  I like these seasonal chores.  The fact that my garden needs rest is a reminder to pause myself, grab a cozy sweater, pour a hot mug of tea, and embrace November.