Sunday, January 31, 2016

January Book Report

For the last ten years, I have kept a list of each book that I have read, mostly because I find lists pleasing and also because I like to remember when I have read a particular book.  I often re-read books at specific times in the year and knowing when I’ve read a story before helps me to provide some context for the different pleasures I find in the world of familiar books.

And make no mistake about it —— books are one of my greatest joys in life.  Over the years, books I have read and the characters in those stories provide companionship and comfort; context and advice.  They are a big part of the person I’ve become as well as the person I want to be.

For 2016, at the end of each month, I plan to post a review of one of the books I have read in the month.  Most will be new books, some will be old favorites.  This month’s book is Celia’s House, written by D.E. Stevenson, an English author from the mid-20th century.  I have most of Stevenson’s books and love them all.  Celia’s House was first written and published in 1943.  It’s the story of a rambling old house in Scotland and the family that lives there.  

Unfailingly, Stevenson’s novels are happy stories filled with charming, regular people.  Celia’s House is in that tradition.  The novel begins with a detailed description of a home in Scotland as elderly Aunt Celia contemplates how much she loves the landscape of her family home.  Upon her death, she leaves the beloved home to her great-nephew Humphrey on the condition that he raise his family there and ultimately leave the house to his own Celia, a daughter yet-to-be born.  

Humphrey follows instructions and the novel unfolds over the next 30 years as another generation of family grows up and loves the home just as Aunt Celia did.  I like my novels to have happy endings and all of Stevenson’s novels fill that requirement.  Along the way, they are filled with quirky, cheerful, regular people; enjoyable reads every time.  This one was no exception; a happy read that reminded me of the power of home.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Winter Light

Having grown up in California, when I moved to places with more varied climate, I learned to embrace the seasons.  I quickly came to enjoy them.  I found the transitional seasons of Fall and Spring especially pleasing; perhaps because they feel like seasons of anticipation.  Now, more than 25 years since I moved east, the seasons are an enormous part of my world.  The cold and the warmth; the dark and the light; they shape my days.

Even a relatively mild Winter such as the one we are currently experiencing can be a slog.  We brace ourselves to head outside, wrapped up in jackets and scarves, pulling on mittens and hats to keep the cold at bay.  When there is a sunny day, I turn my face up to the clear sky and the sunlight, feeling like a turtle who longs to sun herself.

Come January, I begin to track the sunlight.  As the dark, cold days pass, the light slowly grows a bit longer and I thumb through my garden catalogs.  In the mornings, when I bundle into the cold car, I remind myself that soon enough days of flip flops and t-shirts will arrive.

Years ago, my favorite Miss Read book reminded me that come February, the days have grown long enough for a walk in the fading light after supper.  So in January, I mark the passage of cold days and look to the salvation of February, when the daylight gets stronger and Winter’s hibernation begins to ease.  

Thursday, January 28, 2016

New Bloom Thursday: Week 5

Historically, this is the point in the amaryllis growing season when I begin to fear that my bulb is a dud.  It’s in a sunny window; I’m following all the directions, but things seem to be a bit slow to come along.

But a look at photos and reports of my previous amaryllis bulbs reminds me that patience is the order of the day, a lesson for amaryllis growing that is applicable to the rest of life as well.  Last weekend’s snow is still piled everywhere.  The melting is coming along nicely, thanks to sunlight and temps above freezing.  The relative warmth has me thinking of the coming Spring.  I’m giving the amaryllis a daily pep talk so that it remembers to join me in these daydreams of blooms and new life.  In its quiet vibrances it’s telling me, “soon, dear, soon.”

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Oh the Shoveling We’ll Do

We got a good amount of snow cleared in round I of shoveling.  Drifts were 4 and 5 feet high and my car was buried in the driveway.  Another two hours will get us fully cleaned out.  Neighbors took up shovels and snow blowers for one another and that made the job easier.  

Taking a rest before round II…..we’ve earned it!

The Morning After: Digging Out

The blizzard finally stopped late last night.  Snowflakes ended by around 10 pm and the wind eased sometime after.  This morning is sunny and the white snow is bright and lovely.

And abundant.

Because of the drifting, it’s hard to say what our final snow total is, but it’s the most snow I’ve ever seen, easily two feet.  The National Weather Service is still pulling final totals together but it’s safe to say that we have hours of shoveling ahead of us today.

These photos were made from the comfort of the toasty warm indoors.  It will take plenty of coffee and some breakfast before we head out to face the chore.  Just last week, JT was complaining profusely that we’d never have snow again.  

Let’s blame him.

Saturday, January 23, 2016


By now, you’d have to be living under a rock to not be fully informed about the blizzard of snow currently pounding the East Coast.  I moved to New Jersey in 2002 and before that I lived in Nebraska, a place also known to get some cold and snow.  Nebraskans are a sanguine lot and snow and extreme cold found them firing up their beater car and rolling out on the (unplowed) roads with nary a care.   Out there, blowing snow was a given in every snow storm.  So when stories of East Coast snow or extreme cold consumed the news, Nebraskans were a combination of bemused and annoyed….you’d think that the East Coast had never experienced a flake, we’d all say, privately concluding that the entire I-95 corridor was populated with candy-assed weaklings.

Fast forward to 2002, when I experienced my first Nor’easter and began to fully understand all the fuss.  This kind of storm is no joke.  The amount of moisture that can be pulled in to a coastal snowstorm is significant, what with an entire ocean out there.  The snow can blow down in sheets, as it is for this storm.   Below is the snow on my back deck at 8 am.  

And this is before my corner of New Jersey has yet to truly settle in to the weekend’s storm.  There’s a lot of shoveling in my future.

That’s not to excuse the media insanity.  I can only imagine what the Nebraskans are thinking about us right now as they pull on their work gloves and head out for farm chores with the wind chill in the single digits, “East Coast elite, my ass, not if they panic over a little blowing snow.”

Thursday, January 21, 2016

New Bloom Thursday: Week 4

The mushrooms got eaten this weekend, so that project is complete and now all my attention is turned to the amaryllis, which is still in that coming-along-slowly stage.

Not to fret, I’m a patient woman.  And with a big snow forecast for my weekend, I’ll have plenty of time to talk to the amaryllis and remind it to keep at the blooming.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Kitchen Must-Have: Stick Immersion Blender

The other day I was making split pea soup and when I got out the stick immersion blender I use to puree the soup I thought about how useful this little implement turned out to be.  That got me thinking about other items in my kitchen that aren’t necessarily required kitchen tools but are so useful that I can’t imagine cooking without them.  For 2016, I plan to profile one of these items each month; they are my kitchen must-haves.  Whenever possible, I’ll include links to the item.  Links are not affiliated; they are just for convenience in case y’all want the item.

First up: the stick immersion blender, the tool that inspired this series.  Mine was a Christmas gift from my parents a few years back.  It came from Sur La Table.  I use it for all manner of soups that need to be made smooth, like this split pea soup that first got me thinking about the tool.  

About once a month, I make homemade salsa and the stick blender makes that process easy-peasy.

Smoothies with ice cubes come together in just a a minute or two, thanks to the powerful motor and sharp blades.  In 30 seconds, you can have a milkshake, should an emergency milkshake be required.  Creamy homemade salad dressings are also quick work with this blender.  Clean-up is simple: the stick detaches and the working end goes on the top rack of the dishwasher.  I have a small kitchen and the stick blender stores easily.  I couldn’t live without it!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Real Life Conversations with T: Text Message Style Guide edition

I enjoy the world of my iPhone’s emoji assortment more than I should.  T’s smartphone is not of the Apple variety so I’m not always sure how the iPhone emojis translate in the messages I send her.  Turns out some make it; some don’t.  That’s a shame because she would really love the squirrel emoji.  In a recent conversation, T explained to me her view of the smiley face emoji.

T:  I ended my message with a smiley face.

Me:  A smiley face?

T:  Yes.  The smiley face is the universal symbol that means, “this matter is now closed.”

Me:  I see.  I feel our communication will be more efficient now.

T is poised to be the Strunk and White of text message grammar.  Look out world.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Martin Luther King Day 2016

The other day, I was looking at the the central calendar in my home, checking on the wrestling schedule.  Looking at February, I remembered the time when we had Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays as separate holidays.  In 1983, Martin Luther King Junior’s birthday replaced the separate presidential birthdays on the list of federal holidays and we swapped two 3-day weekends in February for one to celebrate MLK in January and another to mark Lincoln and Washington in February.  I remember the controversy and complaining that followed.  You can learn some of those details here

Looking back, the progression of states agreeing to eventually honor the federal holiday seems rather churlish.  There was Arizona, where the state’s governors when back and forth about honoring the holiday.  Or take Arkansas, which honored the holiday by permitting state employees to take either a January three-day week and Martin Luther King day or Robert E. Lee’s birthday instead.  That’s the sort of decision that would be bitterly funny if it weren’t for our nation’s horrifying history of slavery and racial animosity.

In 2009, the year Barack Obama took office as our nation’s first African American president, a friend and I took our sons to a church service for Martin Luther King Day.  The next day, I kept JT home from school to watch Barack Obama take the oath of office.  That momentous day seemed so important —— a real step forward in the struggle for racial equality in a nation that has sometimes gone kicking and screaming toward the promise of liberty and equality laid out in our founding documents.

Fast forward to 2016, and it seems to me that the promise I felt in 2009 has stalled.  Yes, we have an African-American president in the White House and yes, he has taken the time to speak articulately about race.  But enduring inequality is all around us in 2016.  The racism evident in some critics of President Obama is disappointing in a nation that should be better than this.  It’s a victory of sorts that we are more aware than ever before of the racial and economic inequalities that persist in our nation.  For this, I expect Martin Luther King would be glad.  But in so many other ways, we’ve yet to live up to the dream.   There is hard work ahead and we must all do our part.  Today is a good day to acknowledge that reality.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Real Life Conversations at School: Career Advice from a Four Year Old edition

The backstory:  You have read before about my friend S’s daughter P, known to me and the world she will shortly conquer as Baby Hot Sauce.  Earlier this week, she stopped by my office on her way home from school and gave me some career advice.

P:  You should get a TV in here (points to the wall).

Me:  A TV?  Why?

P:  Then you can watch what the kids are doing all the time from a camera.

Me:  I don’t need a camera.  I can just look through the doorway, down the hall.  

P:  Yeah, but if you had a camera you’d also be able to see my class.

Me:  I’m sure that your teacher has that covered, sweet pea.

P:  Maybe.

In hindsight, she might have been giving me a warning about the handful headed my way in a few years  I can’t say I wasn’t warned.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

New Bloom Thursday: Week 3

The box of mushrooms exploded in the last week.  As the growth expanded each day, the box was fascinating to watch.  The growing mushrooms are almost grotesque to observe and the pace they grew each day was remarkable.  For example, here is a picture of how the box looked on Sunday morning.

By this morning, things had nearly doubled in size.

This weekend, we’ll have a supper of risotto with oyster mushrooms.  Meanwhile, the amaryllis proceeds at a comparatively stately pace, soaking in the morning sunlight and preparing to issue forth a lovely bloom.

Our Winter has yet to be snowy but the cold has mostly settled in to stay.  These blooms help me to pass the chilly days in good spirits.  That’s happy!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

January On the Front Porch

I grew up in California and we mostly entered our home via the garage, which was attached to the house and always had a door into our home.  When I was in the 4th grade, I received my own key to the house and began to come home from school by myself.  I entered the house via the front door.   I felt this to be rather fancy, given the fact that only guests came in our home via that door. Sometimes, I would sit outside on the front step, reading a book and imagining that I was sitting on a stoop in New York City, something I had never seen but had read about.

Every house I’ve lived in as a grown-up has been older, built in the 1930s or before.  Two of them had garages, but they weren’t attached, necessitating entry through a front or back porch.  In 2005, when I first saw the current Sassafras House, the generously-sized and open front porch was one of its greatest charms.  

When we come home each day, we enter through our front door.  It’s just as pleasing and fancy-feeling as it was when I was 9 years old.   Part of my enjoyment comes from my ability to swap out the decor on my front porch each month.  It’s a practice that marks the passing of time and the seasons; a reminder to enjoy all that Mother Nature has to offer.  It makes the porch welcoming: we're home!  It’s also a source of happy daydreaming, as I think about what will decorate the porch in the coming months.  For January, I’ve kept things simple.  The front door has a bare-branch wreath, plain, to keep with the season.

The table has some pinecones and evergreens in a rustic wooden bin that T scored last summer.  The tablecloth is a vintage Etsy find that I've had for years.

The flag invites snow.

Though it’s not particularly decorative, there’s ice melt at the ready for the snow and cold I’ve invited.  It is Winter, after all.

We’ve yet to see any snow or ice but it’s been too cold to sit outside and rock on the front porch; this corner is bare for the season.

I’ve already begun to think about what I’ll set out for February’s front porch.  That’s happy!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A Birthday Wish

Today is my sister’s birthday.  I’ve surprisingly few recent photos of her, given that she loves to have her picture made (and, fittingly, is the most photogenic person I know).    Instead, I offer a memory from our childhood.

KO is my younger sister and, as such, fell victim to my idea of fun.  I loved to play with dolls and can remember endless weekends of pretending as if our bedrooms were apartments where we were raising girl baby dolls.  In hindsight, for apparently single moms living in small places, we had surprisingly large families.  These days, we live on separate coasts and we are moms, with surprisingly large boy children.  It is one of the greatest pleasures of my adult life that these three boys like one another so much.  I like to think of it as the lucky consequence of the fact that I have the best sister ever.

Happy Birthday, KO!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Coloring Books

Last Fall, T and I were at Barnes and Noble when she showed me some grown up coloring books.  She knew what she was doing; I was intrigued at once.  She gave me two books and some colored pencils for my birthday in November.  For most of that month, I colored when I had a spare moment and I enjoyed every element of it.  Come Christmas, each of us received more coloring books and now we are sold on the activity, carefully sharpening our pencils or selecting the right marker and coloring when we have the time and inclination.  

It’s relaxing and just as enjoyable as it was when I was a kid, though these days I do a much better job staying within the lines.

Some of the illustrations are detailed and beautiful to look at so before color is added, there is the pleasure of leafing through lovely illustrations, looking for just the right page to fill with color.

When I was a child, I had lots of rules about my coloring.  I was often disappointed in the things I colored because I sought a perfection that I was unable to achieve.  As a grown up, I feel free to try unusual color combinations; to leave things unfinished; to select a new page even when the current one hasn't been completed.  I feel free to be imperfect.  That’s a good lesson for me to embrace.

Coloring really is relaxing.  It’s also fun.  It provides time to let my mind wander and be free.  

Today is a rainy Sunday, just perfect for cats to sit on the warm radiators under the windows, brew up a nice pot of tea, and sharpen the pencils for some time with my coloring books.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

New Bloom Thursday: Week 2

Things are proceeding quite nicely in the land of blooms.  Mushrooms grow fast with a bit of light and a steady supply of water and I expect we’ll be eating some fresh-grown mushrooms next week.

The amaryllis has maintained a comparatively stately pace but even so, in the greening of the bulb there are promising signs.

That’s happy!

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Winter Found

Just a few days ago, I wrote about the Spring chives found growing in my backyard.  As of today, those days are over.  It’s 9 degrees this morning with a wind chill just below zero.  So Winter has found us, and seemingly with a vengeance.  Having taken a longer holiday than usual, the cold is back and means business.  Gloves and hats have been found; scarves aren’t just pretty accessories, they are the warmth between me and a frigid neck.  

I was glad to have sweater weather and had even looked forward to it.  But just one day in to this patch of significant cold finds me looking at my garden catalogs and dreaming of Spring.

Monday, January 04, 2016

The Lives We Live

Each December, to mark the end of the year, the New York Times magazine produces a magazine with one page reflections on some of the people who have left this earth in the past year.  Called “The Lives They Lived,” it’s neither macabre nor a reflection on the lives of the particularly famous.  But it is a thoughtful tribute to the lives of people who were meaningful in their world and, often, by extension, the larger world as well.  

The tributes are sometimes sentimental, though never cloying.  They don’t gloss over the weaknesses of these humans, though as reflections on people who have passed they are more completed pictures of lives lived, and quite often lived in an interesting fashion.

As is the case every year, there are people whom I knew of (Stuart Scott; Kathryn Barnard; Lisa Boncheck Adams) and people whom I didn’t know very well and now know better (Claude Sitton; Elizabeth Wilson) and people whom I didn’t know at all (Augusta Chiwy; Mira Rothenberg) and now wished I had.  There are stories of people who found meaning in life even in years or decades where there was precious little to be found (Glenn Ford, and wow, the world was hard on this man).

The edition sits by my Spring garden catalogs as my joint partners in the new year.  One collection of readings reminds me of the future to be planned and the other remembers a past that landed us squarely into that future.  Together, they are also a reminder that we must go forth and do our part to leave the world a little better off than when we found it.  After two weeks of very restful holiday, I am back at school today, determined again to do my part to make better the lives lived in my orbit.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

In Search of Winter

One of the early signs of Spring in my world is the growth of bright green wild chives in the grass of my backyard.  Come late March, they are usually the first sign that warmer, longer days are on their way. 

We’ve had an unseasonably mild Fall and early Winter and the last few weeks have brought more than 6 inches of rain with only the occasional night below freezing.  The ground isn’t warm but it certainly isn’t freezing.  It feels more like March than December or January and I’m not the only one who’s been confused.    There are an abundance of wild chives in my backyard and they smell like Spring.    

The Arctic Blast is forecast to return next week.  Something tells me that January is about to be a shock for these plants.

Friday, January 01, 2016

In the Backyard Neighborhood: January 1, 2016

For some time now, I’ve made a tradition of marking the passing of the seasons by making a picture of something in my garden and reflecting on the changes it experiences.  When I look closely, month by month, subtle differences begin to emerge and, before I know it, Winter gives way to Spring.  Summer and Fall emerge in turn.  A year flies by and, as it does, I’ve had the chance to appreciate the seasons.

These monthly snapshots are my reminder to appreciate the beauty of each season.  They are also a chance for me to particularly admire a part of my garden, from which I derive great pleasure.  In 2015, I made a picture of my peach tree at the start of each month.  In previous years, I’ve had a monthly look at the line of hostas against the garage and the clematis vine along the fence.  These three items live in the same neighborhood of my yard and in 2016 I plan to mark their collective changes month-by-month.

The hostas, which I love, were here when I moved in.  The peach tree and the clematis vine were my additions, in 2013 and 2010, respectively.    The bird house, which isn’t a growing thing, but is very much a part of this corner of the yard, was a Christmas gift from T two years ago.  This part of the yard can be seen when I come downstairs each morning and I love the seasonal charms it affords.  I look forward to sharing this view at the start of each month in 2016.

With Winter’s arrival, the corner is quiet, despite our unseasonably warm December.  We’ve had plenty of frost but the ground is still well-above freezing and I’ve had the chance to plant a few more bulbs that I’ll enjoy come Spring.  There is time for me to rake more of these wet leaves into the garden patch, but the yard is so wet now that the chore must wait for some dryness.   We still await our first snow. 

Perhaps it will have arrived by February 1st, when I'll check in again with a glimpse of the backyard corner.