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Fake fir

Monday, November 9th, 2015

I held out as long as I could but I finally gave in and went to the dark side…at least that’s the way my daughters see it…because I bought an artificial Christmas tree.

In the past several years as the quality of a Tannenbaum in a box has gotten better, getting an artificial tree became and more and more tempting. It was harder to justify the work that goes into buying and decorating a real tree. There’s the hassle of manhandling it into the car, dragging it in the house, adjusting it in the stand – “Is it straight now?” – and vacuuming up pine needles until Easter. But our daughters insisted that an authentic Christmas celebration required and authentic tree.

Even though this whole process was a lot of work, I could always wrangle one of the kids to help out. Especially our youngest daughter – Jennifer really cared about having a real tree and was willing to invest the time to make it happen.

Early in the holiday season, the two of us would plan an evening that we could shoot up to Costco and get the tree. While buying a tree at Costco isn’t quite an “over the river and through the woods” kind of picturesque outing, it was a bonding time for us. She always wanted me to wait to decorate the tree until she could be around to help. As we unwrapped each ornament, we reminisced about the moment in time when we bought them.

But this Christmas, Jennifer is in Shanghai and she definitely won’t be popping in for the holidays. And neither will our other two kids. Valerie is working most of the Thanksgiving weekend and Ethan has only been at his new post in Kansas for a couple of months.

So there’s no chance I’ll be letting anyone down by assembling and fluffing the artificial Douglas fir that I bought from Target.

I think the switch to an artificial tree is symbolic of a bigger change than just choosing to make decorating and cleanup from the holiday season a little easier for myself. The artificial tree represents a change of seasons in our lives. For so many years, the holidays were about making the holidays meaningful to the kids. But that time has passed. Now, it’s up to Steve and me to set the agenda for the holidays.

It’s a both uncomfortable and freeing. It will take some getting used to but we may actually rediscover what life was like BK…before kids.

Overcoming obstacles on TV

Sunday, May 31st, 2015

If the networks all stopped broadcasting sporting events – from major TV draws such as NFL football to more obscure sports like archery – the only way our family would know about this huge black hole in the TV schedule was if we read about it in the newspaper – but it would have to be on the front page because we don’t read the sports section either.

It’s not that I think there is anything wrong with watching sports or that not watching sports makes us more discerning viewers.  Anybody who has voluntarily watched Dance Moms like I have, has no place judging other people’s viewing habits. It’s just that sports aren’t our entertainment of choice.

But one night, after scrolling through Netflix to the point of utter despair – “Are Adam Sandler movies actually starting to clone themselves?!” We went back to network TV and happened upon a sports competition that has really captured my attention.

It’s the unfortunately named American Ninja Warrior. The title gives the impression that the show is geeky guys dressed in black competing against each other in some form of martial arts.  But that isn’t the case at all. It’s people (mostly men but there are a few women) who compete against the clock as they make their way through an obstacle course. There’s no goofy falls into the mud or crude humor. These are serious competitors.

What I like about American Ninja Warrior is that the competitors all have day jobs and they are from all walks of life – chiropractor, construction worker, surfer, teacher, doctor and so on. Around the edges of their lives, they have committed themselves to training for this competition that requires equal amounts agility, upper body strength, balance, and grip strength.  Many of them build their own versions of the courses out of plywood and found materials. One of the competitors from Alaska built a climbing wall out of driftwood.

It is fascinating to see which competitors do well; it’s often not the male model types who are posing and flashing their sculpted pecs and six-pack abs at the camera. Instead it’s wiry guys who don’t look especially fit or have beautiful bodies but are incredibly strong and have an excellent sense of where their bodies are in space – very important when you’re hanging on a spinning spoke and having to calculate when to release in order to land on the mat.

I also admire the courage of the competitors because they are taking on the challenge of doing the obstacles for the first time on TV; they don’t get a practice run at the course. So not only do they have to approach the course aggressively, they have to be smart and strategic. For instance, one of the obstacles is a mini-trampoline that bounces them up to grasp a swinging beam. If they miscalculate the trajectory, they end up splatting face first on the mat.

I find the show totally addictive. “The last competitor made it to the end but how’s this guy going to do?” I’ll probably never be an armchair quarterback but an armchair ninja warrior? You bet.


Airbnb believer

Sunday, April 26th, 2015

My boss is a very experienced and savvy traveler so when we needed to make hotel reservations for the two of us for a trade show in Connecticut, what hotel did she use?

She didn’t make hotel reservations at all, but instead reserved a townhouse through Airbnb.  This was going to be my first experience using Airbnb and I must say, I wasn’t totally enthusiastic about the prospect. But hey, she’s the boss.

In case you’re not familiar with Airbnb, it is an “online community marketplace” which enables people who have space (it could be a room or an entire house) to rent it out on a short term basis.

The concept has become very devise in many communities including Petaluma. Some residents oppose allowing the service to operate because of concerns about increased traffic and noise in neighborhoods.  Some cities regulate the industry so that they can collect Transit Occupancy Tax as is done in hotels thereby leveling the playing field between Airbnb rentals and local hotels.

The positive Airbnb experience we had in Hartford made me a believer. I don’t foresee giving up hotels entirely but in a lot of situations, Airbnb is a wonderful alternative. I think cities would certainly be wise to get on board working with the service so that they can benefit – both in positive PR and tax revenue –  from the new “sharing” economy.

What made staying at a townhouse reserved through Airbnb better than staying at the Marriott next to the Convention Center?

To begin with, the price. Even with the trade show discount, rooms at the Marriott were going to be at least $250 a night so for two rooms for four nights, that’s over $2,000. The townhouse was less than $900. So we had at more than double the amount of space – full kitchen, living room, dining room and our own bedrooms and bathrooms – at half the price.

One of my concerns about not staying in a hotel was the potential lack of amenities. Would coffee, snacks, close and safe parking be available? All of these features were more readily accessible than they would have been at a hotel.

The absolute best part was having access to a kitchen so that we didn’t have to eat out. At the end of an exhausting day manning our trade show booth, it was a total blessing to be able to sit in the living room, order in Chinese food and have a cup of tea. In the morning, we could have coffee before putting on our clothes and make-up.  And the owner left us a garage door opener so we were able to park much closer than we would have been able to at a hotel parking lot.

At first, it seemed a little odd to be staying in a stranger’s house with all their belongings and family photos on the walls. This particular situation was even a little more unusual because the owner of the townhouse keeps a Kosher kitchen which means that everything that comes in contact with dairy – utensils, dishes, sinks – is kept separate from anything that comes in contact with meat. It really wasn’t a big deal. She made it easy to respect this practice by labeling all the drawers “Dairy Only” or “Meat Only.”

It only took one night for me to appreciate the comfort that I felt staying in a home with lots of personal touches versus a very impersonal hotel room. Accommodations made through Airbnb give travelers something that a hotel never can: literally a home away from home.

The right stuff

Sunday, March 1st, 2015

There’s a trend that I’ve been reading about that is another example that everything old is new again. People are suddenly fascinated with “tidying up.” This is a concept that I was very familiar with when I was growing up in the 1960s – except in our household, tidying up was communicated in less gentle terms. It was more along the lines of “You can’t leave the house until your room is clean.”

So why the sudden obsession with tidiness? Obviously, most people have too much stuff. We did too, until we moved twice in three years. Moving 50 pound boxes of books that had never been unpacked from the first move really lost its charm. Now that we’ve gone through the process of culling every category of our stuff – clothes, kitchenware, books, tools, cats– we could probably pack up and move in a day. Steve and I joke that if our belongings got any leaner and meaner, we would be sharing the same fork.

I think I first became aware of the decluttering trend with TLC’s“Clean Sweep.” And of course, there’s “Hoarders” on A&E which helps us feel better about the level of clutter in our own lives. “Sure, we’ve got a few closets that need to be cleaned out, but we’re not that bad.”

Then last fall, “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” appeared on the bestseller lists and has stayed there ever since, selling 2 million copies worldwide. I think the enormous popularity of the book has to do as much with the messenger as the message.  It was written by Marie Kondo, a 30 year-old Japanese author who started a home organizing consulting business when she was 19. Married with no kids, she is the tiger-organizer but she is also super kawaii – prim, proper, with shoulder length hair and bangs that make her look like a Japanese school girl.

Kondo’s method for sorting what stuff goes and what stays, is to take one item at a time and ask, “Does it spark joy?” This approach is so non-threatening and childlike that I think it makes it much easier for people to contemplate parting with possessions that at one time, were precious to them.  I’m guessing the question I used to ask my kids as we cleaned out their rooms…”Where did this junk come from and why do you still have it?…isn’t quite as endearing. Hence, no bestselling book for me.

In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, there’s a full page devoted to a series of photographs showing how Ms. Kondo origamis a shirt into a perfect little bundle that according to one of her top five tips, should be stored on its side, not stacked in a drawer. Her other tips include tossing papers and tidying up by category. But there is a major piece of advice that she left out if you really want to live a life that is clutter-free: don’t have kids.

Supper at school

Monday, February 16th, 2015

An article appeared in the paper a couple of weeks ago that continues to roll around in my mind and whenever I think about it, it really makes me feel sad.

I can hear someone saying, “Really?! There’s just the one article that left you depressed?”  No…and taken in the context of the truly horrible stuff that is reported in the papers, this article seems downright benign. But I found it disturbing nonetheless.

So what was the article? It was: “More students are being served dinner at school nationwide.” According to the article In the 2014 fiscal year, 104 million suppers were served to students, up from about 19 million in 2009.

The fact that elementary age students – many of whom also eat breakfast at school – are now eating all of their meals at school really tugs at my heart for several reasons.

There is something about a family coming together at the end of the day that is sacred. It’s not about mom cooking and serving meatloaf and mashed potatoes dressed in her pearls and shirtwaist dress ala June Cleaver. But it is about every member of the family sitting together, putting down their cell phones or video games, and looking one another in the eye – even if it’s just for 15 minutes and “dinner” is a bowl of Mini-Wheats.

And once again, schools have stepped in to meet a need that ideally should be provided by parents. Aren’t the basic necessities of life such as providing food and shelter for kids, the responsibility of their parents?

But I can also see the other side of the argument. What choice do many parents have except to rely on the school? No one would argue that even if a school has very nurturing after-school child care workers, a school environment is a very poor substitute for being home with parents and siblings. But if the parents work long hours and aren’t able to pick up their students by “dinnertime,” it’s better that the kids receive some nourishment rather than end the day famished.

I think the reason this topic depresses me is because it paints a very bleak picture of the way that family life looks for so many families. A 6 year-old spends 10 hours at school, eats some chicken nuggets in the multi-use room before being picked up by an exhausted mom or dad who once they arrive home, only has enough energy to zone out in front of the TV. The child retreats to their bedroom to play video games until they fall asleep.

How to bring families back together to strengthen the family structure and instill values and attitudes? I don’t know – it’s a huge question. But I don’t think serving dinner at school will help.

Brunch for dinner

Sunday, January 4th, 2015

Our youngest daughter, Jennifer Lynn has always enjoyed cooking and baking. So while she’s been home on winter break from her first semester in the dorms at college – in addition to not sharing a bathroom with eight other girls – she has really enjoyed being able to whip up a batch of cookies or make a breakfast burrito whenever she’s in the mood to cook.

So a few days ago, she told me that during her time at home, she wanted to make Eggs Benedict. She wasn’t really sure if this craving was fueled by a fond memory of having the dish for brunch at a restaurant or re-watching all the episodes of PBS’s Sherlock …starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

In case you’re not familiar with Eggs Benedict; it’s basically a heart attack on an English muffin. It starts with an open-face toasted English muffin which is innocent enough assuming that you don’t butter it. But then each half of the muffin has a layer of bacon or ham topped with a poached egg. If that isn’t enough to send your LDL levels soaring, the eggs are topped with Hollandaise sauce.

What’s Hollandaise sauce? An emulsion of egg yolks and melted butter flavored with a few teaspons of lemon juice. Think of it as sauce that has hit its cholesterol saturation point. Keeping leftover Hollandaise sauce and serving it more than once would be a death wish.

Given that Eggs Benedict is lethal stuff and Steve had triple bypass surgery eight months ago, I thought we should perhaps put a Surgeon General’s Warning on the edge of the plate. We’ll just chalk this meal up to a once-a-year holiday treat; the next day Steve resumed his typical menu of skinless chicken, protein bars and nonfat milk.

Hollandaise sauce only has three ingredients but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to make. We were doing just great, whisking the yolks over low heat and slowly beating in the butter but in a matter of seconds, between the time Jennifer and I topped the first poached egg with the sauce and turned back to the stove to get a second spoonful, the sauce “broke,” turning into a lumpy, oily mass of lumpy scrambled eggs. Internet to the rescue – it turns out that by mixing a small amount of the broken sauce into another egg yolk – oh good, another helping of cholesterol please – the sauce can be saved.

Our sauce was rescued and back to its smooth mayonnaise-like texture when we started the process of poaching the eggs. It sounds easy enough…bring a couple of inches of water to a simmer and then slip in an egg. It’s not. When it doesn’t work, the resulting floating mess of egg whites in water is pretty disgusting. A few more YouTube how-to videos and we finally had the technique down.

When we finally sat down to eat, the Eggs Benedict were absolutely delicious. There are conflicting stories about who created this combination of tricky techniques, precise timing and heart-stopping ingredients. Whoever it was, they were an evil genius.

That’s how I roll on Christmas

Sunday, December 28th, 2014

When I was growing up, I knew that as I raced past the kitchen on the way to the living room to see what Santa had left us, I would catch a glimpse of my mother standing at the kitchen counter. She was chopping celery for the giblet (what is a giblet and why would anyone want to eat one?) dressing for our Christmas dinner which was an exact repeat of our Thanksgiving dinner…with one minor change: my mother usually swapped out the Pineapple Cottage Cheese Lime Jello salad from the Thanksgiving menu for a festive Tomato Aspic Gelatin Salad with Pimento-stuffed Green Olives.

There are some holiday food traditions that are better left to die a natural death – giblet dressing and Jello salads fall into that category. So early on in our marriage, I started my own Thanksgiving and Christmas morning tradition: homemade Cinnamon Rolls.

I always make the dough the night before – once again putting my 30 year-old Kitchen Aid mixer through its paces because I always make more dough than the bowl is designed to hold. I’ve come to find out that yeast dough is really quite forgiving. It can be left on the counter to rise – poke it with your finger and if the hole starts to fill in, it needs to rise more. After that, I just put the bowl in the refrigerator overnight and count on the yeast to do its magic and rise a second time the next day.

Ready to pop into the oven.
Ready to pop into the oven.

So on Christmas morning as long as our kids can remember, they awake to find me in the kitchen rolling out the dough…although I’m certainly not dressed like my mother. She would have been wearing a shirtwaist dress ala June Cleaver. The gay apparel that I don on Christmas morning falls into the yoga pant and baseball cap category. Another hour or so until the dough expands to fill the pan and they are ready to bake.

Is there anything in the world that smells better baking than Cinnamon Rolls? And it’s not the cloying, created-in-a-lab kind of smell that is pumped out of a Cinnabon stand. This smells yeasty and dreamy. Cutting into the squishy dough, the girls joke about using the fluffy goodness as a pillow.

While I have certainly enjoyed my share of Cinnamon Rolls over the years, I think that the real pleasure in cooking comes from watching others enjoy what you’ve made.

The stuff dreams are made of.
The stuff dreams are made of.

And when it comes to the leftover Cinnamon Rolls packed into the Tupperware in the fridge, our adult daughters bicker over who’s eating the center out of them – which is the best part – and leaving the edges. If they are worth fighting over, I know they are good; they certainly aren’t arguing over who ate the last of the Bean Salad.

I guess I’m feeling a little sentimental this year over the Cinnamon Rolls because I don’t know if our children will be home for future Christmases – when it’s just Steve and me, I certainly won’t be baking up a pan of a million calories of carbs for just the two of us. So for now, it’s another reminder to breath in the aroma and savor the moment . It’s delicious.

Thanksgiving menu musings

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

We’re going to a Thanksgiving potluck tonight and based on how quickly everyone responded with their contribution to the meal, no one spent time scouring the internet for new recipes but instead signed up to bring a dish that is one of their traditional family favorites.

That is certainly true for me as well because I’m making the same Apple Crisp that I have made for dessert for Thanksgiving ever since Steve and I got married 30 years ago. Every time I make it, it brings back memories of our Thanksgiving celebrations; thoughts about where were we living, how old the kids were, who we shared it with, and on and on.

This got me started thinking about the Thanksgiving menu that I grew up with and the traditions in my mother’s household.

In the 1960s when I was growing up, brining a turkey was yet to be discovered. Everyone thought that the best technique to achieve a moist turkey was to open the oven door every 20 minutes and baste it.

We now know that doing this results in turkey jerky. But as a kid, I loved the responsibility of squirting the drippings from the bulb baster over the turkey’s caramel brown skin and listening to it sizzle when it dripped off the wings and hit the bottom of the roasting pan. I took my job as the baster very seriously. I felt so needed, like I was tending to a sick child and my regular ministrations were helping the patient get well. Unfortunately, the poor bird didn’t get well, but just really well done.

When it came to what to serve with the turkey,  Thanksgiving dinner always included some kind of Jello salad. I’ve always thought of those two words – Jello and salad – as an oxymoron, kind of like “fruit cocktail.” You can have one or the other but putting them together makes no sense.

Our traditional Thanksgiving Jello salad was a reflection of the place and time where I grew up: Salt Lake City, Utah (known for having the highest per capita consumption of Jello) and raised by a mother who loved the packaged convenience foods that became popular in the 1950s.

There were two Jello salad recipes that my mother alternated for special family meals. One was Tomato Aspic with pimento-filled green olives and diced celery and the other was – brace yourself – lime Jello mixed with cottage cheese, walnuts and pineapple. Both recipes were served with a dollop of mayonnaise.

Okay, so those combinations sound absolutely horrible now. But just like basting the turkey, at the time, I loved helping make them. Slicing up the olives in precise circles and saying a little prayer as I lifted the ring mold off the Jello, hoping that it had come out without cracking, are what I remember most about my Thanksgiving dinners as a kid.

It makes me realize that food is as much about the feelings that a particular dish evokes as the taste. True as that is, I think I’ll skip the Green Jello and stay with Apple Crisp.

Emptying the nest

Sunday, August 10th, 2014

A week from today we will be on I-5, heading to Southern California to get Jennifer Lynn moved into her dorm room at college.

Other parents I talk to tell me that yes, it’s hard when your youngest child leaves home but that you get used to it, and in fact, it doesn’t take all that long to really start enjoying having the house all to yourself.   I’ll have to take their word for it, because if you were to ask me right now if I’m excited about being an empty-nester, the answer would be no.

If it were possible, I would time travel back to when our three kids were 4, 8 and 12 and I knew of their exact whereabouts every minute of the day. It’s not that I wanted to check on them because I was concerned that they were doing something they shouldn’t be; for the most part, our kids followed the rules. But knowing where they were, gave me a sense of security and control.

Now that they are 18, 22, and 26, asking them to wear an ankle bracelet and report in at the end of the day so that I can be assured that they are safe isn’t really an option. There’s no way I can replicate the time we they were little and piled around us on the couch watching “Mr. Bean” on TV on Saturday nights.

I’m finding being a parent of adult children every bit as challenging as when they were little. It’s not as demanding on a day-to-day basis but the stakes are higher for the choices they make. Long gone are the days when I can tell them what to do and when they ask why, the answer is “Because Mom says so.”

Here’s where some faith comes in. Thinking that I was the one in charge of their lives when they were young was really a false sense of security. And now that they are adults, I have to trust that the One who really watched over them as kids, is still watching over them. Amen.

Ikea run

Sunday, June 16th, 2013

To celebrate Father’s Day, Steve had the traditional manly meal of Swedish meatballs and lingonberry jam…okay, so he didn’t get a big steak and baked potato. That’s because Steve was a really good sport and agreed to spend his Father’s Day at Ikea with Jennifer Lynn and me.  He really is a great husband. However, he said that next year, we’re going to a gun show on Mother’s Day.

The trip to Ikea-land was prompted by our recent move. We’re starting to shop for couches to replace our lumpy, cat hair-imbedded ones that we had in our house in Petaluma but are far too large for our 1600 square foot condo. I thought the slightly miniaturized Ikea furniture might be a good fit for our downsized living space.

Of course the first thing we had to do upon arriving at Ikea was head up the escalator to the cafeteria. For a little more than $11, we got 20 meatballs, an elderberry cupcake, soda, cardboard-like crackers, soup and mystery juice. They imported the meatballs but I think they forgot to import any sort of flavor with them.

As patient a shopper as Steve is, he was worn out by the time we reached the desks and we still had at least another mile of yellow-and-blue brick road to follow. He said what Ikea really needs is a bar where guys like him can retreat for lingonberry beer while their wives and daughters debate the difference between the Bladvass and Smörboll duvet covers.

Whenever we go to Ikea, I feel like an extra in a zombie movie. There are masses of people shuffling along looking like they are being controlled by some outside force. “Must find Tjusig rack. Must find Tjusig rack…” I bent over to look at the price on a rug and when I looked up, I swear I was looking into the face of the undead. The man’s face was slack jawed, glazed eyes, sunken cheeks. His wife must have been sucked into the black hole that’s called the Marketplace days ago, never to be seen again.

But back to the couches…the couches at Ikea are the first ones that I can sit in and have my feet touch the floor. While that’s great for my 5’2” frame, Steve said that if he sits down in one, he might never get up. We’ll have to look elsewhere for a couch but Jennifer Lynn did come home with a set of colorful new curtains and throw for her new room and the price was barely into double digits.

On the way out we happened upon one item that we couldn’t pass up: fried onions that literally called out our name to us. Well, almost our name.