Wednesday, December 31, 2014


In my world, New Year’s Eve is a night for appetizers, sparkly drinks, and laughter to accompany the reminder that tomorrow brings a fresh start in the form of a new year.

JT’s organized a games tournament to maximize our fun.

I hope that the last day of 2014 finds you safe and well.  May 2015 bring you peace and moments of great joy.  Happy New Year!

Looking Ahead with Hope

I’m not the type of person to end a year with regrets or, for that matter, to make resolutions for the new year.  I appreciate people who are capable of making such bold gestures, but that’s not for me.  I am the type to look back on the year that’s passed and think in terms of what I can do better next year.  I’m rather prone to running at full speed through life, a problem that pre-dates 2014.  To that end, in 2015, I am going to continue to remind myself to slow down.  That’s not a new idea to me; it’s my life’s challenge.  Each year I get better at striking that balance, though I’m human and therefore still plenty imperfect.

While I may not make resolutions for myself, for the greater political world, I am prepared to resolve and take action.  For the New Year, I’d like to see a political system prepared to address our problems together.   A real and abiding sense of communal responsibility could move us toward solving many of our national and international problems: poverty, climate change, and issues of race would all make progress if we saw ourselves as truly in this life together and responsible for one another.   I’m prepared to do my part, of course, though I’m realistic enough to know that alone won’t be enough.

I’m not a pessimist and I believe that human progress is possible.  There have been moments in the past year when I’ve feared this world view makes me a pollyanna.  But in the end, moving forward and faking it ’til I make it have always been my default mode.  In their strongest versions, that approach can bring me both hope and optimism.  That worldview is the only way I know to face uncertainty.  So I will hold on and live in hope for 2015.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Time for a Walk

During the school year, JT’s after-school sports obligations keep us at school until after 5:30.  Since the time change, that means we arrive home in the darkness.  The sights of my neighborhood are lost to me in these long days and I’ve found that I miss them.  Over my much-needed winter break I’ve had time to actually go for a walk in town.  Add in the unusually mild weather and I’ve been drawn outside, finding any excuse to take a walk down the familiar sidewalks.

On those walks, I’m reminded of the value of slowing life down, if only for a half hour.  I see my neighborhood’s holiday decorations, smell the trees and plants, and get a chance to look more closely at the gardens around me.  Yesterday, I walked down the sidewalks of a street just two blocks away and saw some tired dandelions in the grass, a reminder that we haven’t yet sunk into winter’s hard freeze.

I’m well aware that these walks have been more enjoyable because of the warmer temperatures in the past week.  Winter’s cold has made a return today but I plan to bundle up and take a walk anyway.  That’s happy!

Monday, December 29, 2014

On Cooking

 In the midst of the eating revolution precipitated by the writings of folks like Michael Pollan, I have read a flurry of articles and essays explaining that cooking is hard for working families.  I find the pushback against the notion of a family table troubling.  Setting aside the question of the means to acquire inexpensive, healthy ingredients, a real issue that I will address in a different post, I disagree that cooking real food is too difficult for working parents .  In fact, for middle class families, the ability to put home cooked food on the supper table is less a question of time and more a question of planning and will.  

I think that the problem is that many of us don’t actually know how to cook the sort of simple meals that will feed a family.  Moreover, we’re so accustomed to letting our children be picky that we think putting together a family meal entails several different meals for the picky palates at our table.  I am not immune to the picky eater syndrome and I like to cook creative meals.  My solution is to always have on hand a few items that my picky boy will eat —— pasta with butter and cheese or tomato sauce; a quesadillas and refritos with salsa; noodle soup.  I serve the picky-eater’s meal with piece of whatever fresh fruit I have on hand.  It’s not going to make the cover of Gourmet magazine, but it will fill a hungry boy with a minimum of effort.

Since I lived in rural Nebraska and a large grocery store was 35 miles away, I’ve been a planner when it comes to the contents of my pantry.  I go to the market each weekend.  Before I head to the grocery store, I make a list of what I need and that list includes a plan for the week’s breakfasts and suppers.    My plans take account of time.  Sometimes, I’m home from work by 5 and have the time to make a more complicated meal.  More often these days, I’m home later than 6 pm and we’re hungry.  In both instances, it’s planning and the ability to create meals on the fly that ensure we get a home-cooked meal served at a table where we eat together.

I also use the weekend to my advantage.  For example, a few weekends back, I had the time to make chicken noodle soup for Sunday supper.  That leftover soup was later reheated and served with homemade corn muffins for a quick weeknight meal.  If time had run short, the soup could be served with crackers, cheese, and fruit.  Leftover corn muffins can be the next morning’s breakfast.   These days, I use the weekend to pull together at least one meal for the work week ahead.  

Though I know that cooking is not something that everyone enjoys, it is something that brings me pleasure.   Getting a homemade meal on the table feels like a job well done.   Homemade supper is a much better family meal than prepared food.  As long as eating is not optional, I feel like it’s my responsibility as a parent to feed my family.  I embrace that challenge.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Morning

Christmas Eve is considerably less pressure-filled when I needn’t construct a tiny Playmobil village, though I always enjoy filling holiday stockings with treats chosen for the recipient.  As I fill those stockings I think of Christmas mornings past, when JT was transfixed by the glories of Santa’s deliveries.  I’ve always maintained that the joy of playing Santa on Christmas Day makes up for the rough spots of parenting throughout the year and that’s true even when a teenager lives upstairs.  Turns out that even a 14 year old can be charmed by the happiness of Christmas morning.

I enjoy Christmas planning and preparation and even collect the ribbons to use for next year’s gifts.

I hope there was a package or two to make your Christmas bright.  Merry, merry to y’all!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve Planning

Yesterday, while I put together a batch of baked potato soup, I also got started on the appetizers I will serve for Christmas Eve.  I’m making everyone’s favorites, so the list is rather long.  In addition to sparkling drinks, the menu will feature:

- potato skins
- lil’ smokies in bar-b-que sauce
- chips & onion dip
- carrot sticks & blue cheese dip
- brie & crackers
- rye rounds (my hands-down childhood favorite)

I’ll set out the feast at sunset and there will be pictures posted then.  Today, I’ll be putting the finishing touches on tonight’s feast and doing some of the work for our Christmas supper.  Along the way, I’ll post updates here.  

9:30 am
Mix together pumpkin pie ingredients; slide pie into the oven.

10:00 am
Wrap potatoes to bake for tomorrow’s Potatoes Romanoff.

10:40 am
Pie is out of the oven and cooling.

11:15 am
Potatoes are in the oven and baking.

12:15 pm
Getting out the slow cooker for lil' smokies and dicing onions for the rye rounds.

4:00 pm
Lil' smokies in the slow cooker.  Putting together the potato skins and rye rounds.  Setting out everything else.

5:30 pm
Happy Christmas Eve!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Holiday Traditions

The older I get the more I look forward to the holiday traditions that spell celebration: Christmas lights, holiday greenery, familiar holiday music, and holiday cooking all bring me happiness and peace.  Things are a little busier that I would like this year, but I am reminding myself of the blessing in that; happy and healthy family parents are nothing to sneeze at!  Today, sandwiched in between the cooking and shopping chores,  I will fit in a reading of a favorite story, a look at a favorite garden catalog, a nap, and a Shirley Temple drink.  They are a welcome reminder to pause and appreciate the holiday season.

That’s happy!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Carnage in the Christmas Aisle

On Saturday, T, my mom and I ended up in a CVS, killing time before our reservation at a Victorian Christmas Tea.  My mom scored some Gevalia coffee, T searched for Grinch Christmas cards, and I noted that there had been trouble in the Christmas ornament aisle.

This Cinderella didn’t get her happily ever after.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Cookie Day

Each December, I make cookies for my students as my way of saying thank you for the ways in which they enrich my life.  It’s rather a feat of planning that gets 150 allergen-free cookies into the hands of grateful kids who, modern though they are, all relish the charm of a home-baked treat.

Every day that those students and I are together is an opportunity for me to share my love of the study of history with them.  Baking cookies is another way to share something else that I love with my 7th graders, boys and girls on the line between childhood and adolescence.  They are both ready to embrace big ideas and yet still prepared to laugh like little kids.  They make my days bright and this time of year get cookies as a thank you.  That’s happy!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Washington Slept Here

It’s a running joke in New Jersey that you can’t go anywhere without finding a place that George Washington stayed.  As the Revolutionary War criss-crossed the state, the Continental Army and General Washington were rather everywhere.  This past weekend, T and I took a visit to one of those places, the Ford House in Morristown.

The house was the home of a well-off family of Patriots and while the Continental Army camped just south of the town in the bitterly cold winter of 1779-1780, Washington and his advisors planned the next step in a war that was in a rough patch that year.

In the 7th grade, I’ve just finished teaching the Revolutionary War and the writing of the Constitution.  It’s refreshing to think about a time in American history when leaders and citizens worked together to make sacrifices and rise above their disagreements.  When I bring my thoughts to the modern world, I dread the thought that compromise in the name of moving forward as a nation is no longer among our talents.

’Tis the Season

More packages were wrapped in the last few days.

That’s happy!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Pretty Packages

One of the things I most enjoy about Christmas is wrapping packages.  Wrapping paper, ribbons, and gift tags bring me happiness.  Though I can wrap gifts throughout the year, Christmas is an excuse to really indulge.  That’s happy!

Thursday, December 11, 2014


I have a friend who makes the most beautiful photos of nature and found things.  She’s a talented artist but the photos are more than just talent at work.  Through her lens, I can see the beauty of the items and places she has photographed.  I can also see the respect and appreciation she has for the natural world and things that have been left to nature.  Characteristically, she is modest about her rather immense talent.  Looking at her pictures and talking to her about what she views has given me a richer appreciation for the things that I see.  When I make a picture of something in nature, it’s with a renewed eye for that which I find lovely.

Last week, on a frosty morning, there were leaves on the pavement with a shadow of ice imprinted below them.  They were lovely.

The patterned icy print was ephemeral but I caught a shot just before the morning’s sunlight melted the picture away.

Thanks to C for always reminding me to look for the beauty that is around me.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Not a Proud Moment

It just so happens that I am spending this week teaching 7th graders about the achievement that is the U.S. Constitution.  Right now, we’re learning about the writing of that document.  We’ll follow with studies of its meaning in the larger context.  We’ll explore the Bill of Rights and the 14th amendment.  We’ll talk about the 19th amendment.  Invariably, I’ll be called upon to explain why such freedom-loving people permitted the continuation of slavery and the exclusion of women.  I’ll help my students to wrap their minds around the ways that our history has fallen short of the great promise contained in the Constitution.  I’ll show them how the promise of freedom was eventually offered to all Americans.  I’ll feel proud of my nation and it’s commitment to powerful ideas.

But not today.

Today, the Senate released its heavily redacted report on CIA-directed torture of detainees and prisoners in the custody of the United States.  It is deeply disheartening.  In advance of the release, Senator Diane Feinstein gave a speech in which she told the nation that, “…history will judge whether or not we are a just society, governed by law.”  And then she issued a report that detailed that many ways that we let down the cause of justice and have disappointed history’s expectations of us.

It’s horrifying to read about the things that our government did in the name of keeping us safe.  In this report is the evidence that in the war on terror we lost sight of who we are and what we believe in.  The price of our national safety cannot be brutality.  If it is, we have crossed the line into being our own enemy.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Food Friday: Homemade Popcorn

When I was a kid, my dad made homemade popcorn in a popcorn popper and it was the most delicious of treats.  As an adult, I love popcorn nearly as much and I’ve learned to make it on my own.  While the rest of us have become a nation of microwave popcorn poppers, at Sassafras House we are old-school poppers. In my book, homemade popcorn is the ideal comfort food.

It takes practice to learn how to make popcorn just right but it’s a skill worth practicing because homemade popcorn is snake-charmingly good.

You need:
a big pot or kettle with a firmly-fitted lid
1/4 cup oil
1/2 cup popcorn
salt and melted butter to taste

Heat the oil with the lid on the pot and 2 or 3 kernels of popcorn.  Usually, I heat it just short of the highest setting on my gas stove.  This is a practice-makes- perfect exercise and you’ll have to find your own sweet spot for heat.

When the first kernel pops, pour in the rest of the kernels and set the lid on top.  Let the pot sit on the heat until more kernels pop and then every few seconds, give it shake over the heat.  You need to keep the lid on, so the best way to accomplish this is with some hot pads to hold the lid secure.  When the popping begins to slow, listen carefully.  When there are a few seconds between kernels popping, you’re done.  Turn off the heat and let the hot pot sit for a minute in case any kernels pop late.  Empty into a large bowl and sprinkle with salt and melted butter to taste.  Turn on something great on the telly and sit back and enjoy the taste of childhood.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Attitude Adjustment

If December were a middle school student, we would have been having a conversation about its attitude.  I can hear the conversation now: “Overcast, damp, and gloomy is no way to behave, new month.  This is especially made worse by the shortness of your daylight hours.  Straighten up and fly right, December,” I would say.

This morning’s lovely sunlight suggests that December has opted to avoid a lecture.  Count me as grateful.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Icy Leaves

I made this picture on the back deck last week when the nor’easter blew through with snow and sleet.  This ice has since melted, though a cold rain is headed our way today.  Winter seems determined to take hold.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Front Yard Flowerbed: December 1

Winter has begun to take hold around here.  I expect we’ve seen our last 60 degree day of the year.  Since the 1st of last month, the leaves have all come down and the dahlia bulbs have been pulled up and stored away for the winter.  The flowerbed is at rest for a few months.

The only color to be seen is in the evergreen bushes and the rhododendrons and even they look weary, ready for the restful season that lies ahead.

As for me, I’m looking forward to the garden catalogs that will soon make their way to my mailbox.  Winter is the season of garden daydreams.