Nov 29, 2010

Can you go home again?

Thomas Wolfe wrote, "You Can't go Home Again," which was published posthumously in 1940.  It contains a warning that returning home will likely bring disappointment in two forms:  it will fall short of your expectations, and you will see that you have fallen short of others' expectations as well.

A few years ago, Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora defiantly asked "Who Says You Can't Go Home?" and their lyrics make the point that where you were raised stays with you, no matter where you go. 

More recently, Miranda Lambert's plaintive, poignant lyrics in "The House that Built Me" speaks to a longing to be grounded by our memories of home:
"You leave home, you move on, and you do the best you can.
I got lost in this old world and forgot who I am.
I thought if I could touch this place, or feel it.
The brokenness inside me might start healing.
Out here it's like I'm someone else,
I thought that maybe I could find myself..."
So I guess the answer to this question depends on whether you consider home a time or a place, and how far removed you are- not the physical distance, but the effect of time on our emotional connections.

For those who never left their hometown, this question probably makes little sense; for them, home is where and what it's always been. But for those of us who left the place where we grew up, we know the answer is complex and difficult to explain in words.  You can return, but you can't turn back the hands of time.  You can go home, but it isn't the same place. You're not the same person.

This weekend, I visited the town where I spent my early years.  I have been in the area since we moved, but I've never made a special trip on my own, until now.

My old school
We stopped by the grade school I attended from kindergarten until we moved away in the middle of my fourth grade year.  I was mentally braced for the school to seem smaller than I remembered, even though I didn't grow much taller than I was as a kid.  (No jokes, please.)  I wasn't ready to see it boarded up and dilapidated - it's a shame to see it fall into such disrepair.  A side door was broken out and we could peer inside - the big oak doors with their transom windows were intact, despite the obvious signs of vandals, drug users and homeless.

The local campground was full of migrating Canadian geese enjoying the spring-fed ponds on their annual trek. 

Our old farmhouse hadn't changed much since I last saw it, but the driveway seems much shorter than I remember it as a kid on my bike, and the lilac bushes are much bigger than they were back when. 

Late afternoon sunset in Kansas
Local eateries, the movie theater and other landmarks look much the same, but the midwest farming community is dwindling in size, and time has not been kind to it. But there is still part of me in that little town, and another part of me undoubtedly is out west, where I finished growing up.  The fact is, every place I've lived has added to me - given me something to add to my perspective on life, and to my personal character.  And I've left a bit of me behind with each move.

Happy Monday,

Nov 26, 2010

The things we do for love

Just like the old 10cc song.

I love my husband (aka Mr. Official), and he loves football. So this Black Friday morning I arose before 4:30 a.m., just like many other women. But I wasn't headed out to find the Christmas bargains and drag them back to the cave. No, I was getting up to drive 50 miles and take him to the airport so he could catch a flight back to Nashville.

It's Friday, do you know where your husband will be tonight? I do - mine will be on a high school football field, wearing black and white. Tonight he will be in South Pittsburg, home of Lodge Cookware, the folks who make that wonderful dutch oven I got for my birthday.  (I love to cook, and Mr. Official loves me, so it seems we all have things we do for love.)

This is the first year he's gotten a state semi-final game.  While I would love to have him with us for the entire holiday weekend (and have him share the drive home on Sunday), I'm proud for him and I'm happy he's doing what he loves to do.

Happy Friday,

Nov 25, 2010

A Day of Thankfulness

Each Thursday this month, I've added to a growing list of things I am thankful for. On this Thanksgiving Thursday, my list of blessings is topped off with these seven:
  1. A safe trip.  We had an uneventful trip across four states to reach our destination.  We encountered cold and windy weather, but my trusty car got us safe and sound to where we were going.  I pray for everyone to have safe travels to and fro this week.
  2. Creature comforts.  We enjoy plenty of clean, dry, warm clothing, cozy beds and comfortable surroundings, 24/7/365.  Driving to our hotel in downtown St. Louis last night, I saw men and women who were obviously homeless and it is humbling to realize how much we take for granted.
  3. Jobs and health.  God has blessed us with an ability to support ourselves, provide for our children and enjoy life without major health issues.   It's a huge understatement to acknowledge that not everyone is as fortunate.  May we always appreciate our health and ability to earn a living.
  4. Friends.  If I tried to name all the friends who have been part of my life from childhood to now, I would be counting a very long time.  I have friends who have stuck with me through thick and thin, have challenged me to look at life through different eyes, and shared laughter and tears with me.  I am honored by your friendships, and for your willingness to share part of your life with me.
  5. Family.  You can't pick your family but even if I could choose, I couldn't have picked a better family to be part of.  Whether near or far, they are near and dear to my heart.  My life is richer for the experiences I've shared with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, my parents and brother, my husband, his family and our children.  Each person has shaped my life and influenced me in countless ways.
  6. The opportunity to count my blessings.  What a privilege it is to have time to meditate on all these blessings; to stop and take stock of what really matters, and to appreciate all that I have been given.
  7. My savior.  None of what I have or do would matter if I didn't have the hope of heaven.  Because of Jesus' sacrifice, I have grace and mercy instead of punishment for my sins. Salvation is a gift that is beyond amazing or my ability to comprehend.  All I can do in return is to love God, show his love and share the gospel with others.

Happy day of giving thanks!

Nov 24, 2010

Recipe of the Week: Fried Apples

My mother-in-law makes the world's best macaroni and cheese and the best fried apples I've ever eaten, too. I haven't figured out exactly what makes her macaroni and cheese so special, so for now I'll stick with sharing what I do know:  her fried apples.

I had never encountered fried apples until I moved south. Now they are among my favorite holiday side dishes. They are very simple to make, so please don't pick up that can of something called "fried apples" at the store - set it down and pick out a half-dozen fresh, crisp apples. I promise that in a few minutes, you'll have something far tastier to serve. (Warning: you may find yourself testing them as you go, so you might need to pick up extra apples, just to have enough for everybody else. I speak from experience.)

Memaw Katie's Fried Apples

6 small to medium-sized apples (see note)
4-6 tablespoons butter (do not substitute margarine)
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon orange juice

Core and slice apples. (Note: I usually use Braeburn, Jonagold or Honey Crisp - something with a fine, firm texture and light skin; not as tart as Granny Smith. If you opt for Red Delicious, peel the skins as they tend to be tough and bitter.)

Melt butter in large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add apples in a single layer and sprinkle with sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until apples are soft and sugar has completely melted and caramelized a bit (approximately 15-20 minutes.) Add a dash of orange juice at the end;  not much - just enough to give it a subtle flavor.  Stir through and serve immediately. Makes 4-6 servings.

And that's it - serve them hot or warm. (They're pretty good cold, too.) They can accompany turkey or ham as part of a traditional meal, or serve them over pancakes or hot buttered biscuits for a morning treat. Or over some good vanilla ice cream for dessert.  The possibilities are practically endless.

Happy cooking (and eating!)

Nov 23, 2010

Before you ask me to follow your blog....

One of the goals of a typical blogger is to get people to faithfully read their blog posts.  The easiest way to keep up with a particular blogger is to "follow" their blog and get an email update whenever a new post is added.

A few really serious bloggers make a living from ads or products and/or services they offer via their blog, but for most of us, being read is the only form of compensation we receive.  (Hint:  comments are always welcome.  They're kind of like applause after a performance, letting us know you didn't fall asleep halfway through.)

And most bloggers read/follow other blogs.  That makes sense:  those who love to write generally like to read, too.

I don't have a long list of blogs I follow, but there are those that I do keep up with - some of them are listed on my blog.  (Sharing the good news and all that.)   Unfortunately, I have discovered that I am the proverbial "kiss of death" for many an unsuspecting blogger.  As soon as I start following, they stop writing.  So if I don't follow your blog, please don't take it personally - I'm just trying to protect your writing muse.

Happy blogging,

Nov 22, 2010

Thanksgiving: T-4 and counting

It's here - Thanksgiving week. Woohoo and hoo boy, all rolled into one. It will be a week of frenetic packing, cleaning, and driving - over more than a few rivers and state lines - to get to the grandparents' house.

It's shaping up to be a busy week with lots of last-minute to-do's before we head west. But it's one more week of holding Christmas at bay - no tree or decorations to fuss over and no wrapping paper or bows on the presents just yet. A week to slow down and remind ourselves that we enjoy a bounty of blessings, from tangible and temporal to intangible and infinite. And for me, it's another week of not running, but I'll probably be too busy to miss it much.

To all of our friends, near and far, we send you our thoughts and prayers for a very happy day of giving thanks. To travelers everywhere, we bid you safe travels. To those readying your homes to receive guests, thank you for all you do to make us feel welcome and loved.

To our fellow Americans who are separated from your families because you are keeping us safe from those who would destroy our freedoms, may God guide and protect you and bring you home soon, safe and sound. Know that you are thought of, missed, appreciated and loved, by those who know you best, and strangers whom you will never meet.

Happy Monday,

Nov 18, 2010

Thankful Thursdays: More Blessings to Count

The Thanksgiving holiday is almost upon us and my list of things I am most grateful for continues to grow day by day.  Here's this week's top seven things I am blessed to have:
  1. Our house.  This is not a house I love, but it is a safe, dry, comfortable and secure place to live. Compared to 90% of the homes in the world, I live in a veritable palace.  In fact, the typical house in Rutherford county is larger than the castles that housed royalty in Medieval times.  May I always be grateful for the blessing of having a permanent shelter to dwell in.  It's far more than my Lord had here on this earth.
  2. Our home.  (No, that's not a repeat of #1.)  Our home - where we gather as a family - has been relocated many times.  But having a place for family and friends to share food, fellowship, laughter and tears, means I have a home.  May it be ever so humble, there truly is no place like it.
  3. My talents.  God has blessed me to be able to do many things.  It is tempting (and easy) to dwell on the things I can't do - or can't do well - but more important is what I can do, and what I do with the gifts that have been given to me.
  4. The talents of others.  I am not an island unto myself; I may be talented, but there are definitely many talents I lack.  Thankfully, those talents rest with others around me.  May I always look for the talents in each person in my path - be thankful for them, most especially for the things they can do that I cannot.
  5. The trials of life.  It's never fun to be tested and tried. It is less fun to fail at something, or to be disciplined.  But just as fire refines silver by removing impurities, the trials of life allow me to become stronger and more focused on what is important to my walk here on earth.
  6. My physical senses. I can feel the downy softness of a puppy's head, hear the infectious laughter of a child, see the glorious splendor of man and nature, and smell and taste the delicious flavors and aromas of food.  What would life be like without our senses?  I'm glad I don't have to know!
  7. Time.  You know the expression, "time is money."  We refer to time like it is just that - we spend it, we waste it, we invest it, we manage it, we even find and lose it.  In cold, hard financial terms, there is a time value to money - it's why bankers charge interest on loans.  But time is far more precious than money because we can't make more of it.  Let me not squander the time that I have, but make the most of each day I have ahead of me - it's truly a gift.
Happy counting,

Nov 17, 2010

Recipe of the Week: Overnight Sweet Rolls

I'm not sure which magazine I clipped this recipe from but it's been my go-to sweet roll recipe for many years. The heavy, rich sweet dough recipe is versatile enough to be used in most sweet roll recipes (just roll it the way you want it and add your choice of filling.)  It is also flexible:  you can make the rolls start-to-finish all at once, or you can refrigerate or even freeze the dough to finish and bake later.

My family's favorite are pecan sticky rolls, although orange/coconut rolls are near-and-dear to my heart as well.  Both options are explained below and they are wonderful to make ahead and have on hand to bake up fresh for special holiday breakfasts.

Basic Sour Cream Sweet Dough

2 packages instant active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water (105-115 F)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter or margarine
1 cup sour cream
2 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg (optional)
1 tablespoon fresh orange rind (optional)
6 cups unsifted all-purpose flour

Stir yeast into water in small bowl with 1 tablespoon of the sugar; stir until dissolved and let stand about ten minutes until it foams.

Combine remaining sugar, melted butter, sour cream, eggs, salt and spices in large bowl of mixer; beat until well-blended.  Add two cups flour and beat until well mixed.  Add yeast mixture and two more cups of flour; beat two minutes at medium speed. Gradually stir in remaining flour to make a medium-soft dough (softer than a bread dough.)

Turn onto lightly floured surface and knead 5 minutes until smooth.  Shape into ball and place in oiled bowl, turn so greased surface is on top.  Cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight, up to two days.

When ready to use, remove dough from refrigerator and punch down.  Turn onto lightly flfoured surface and knead briefly. Divide into 2 or 4 equal balls (2 yields two 9x12 pans; 4  yields four 8- or 9-inch pans.)  Flatten slightly; cover and let rest for 20 minutes.

Roll each ball into desired shape (keep remaining balls in cool place) and:
  1. let rise and bake at 350 until done; or
  2. cover tightly and refrigerate overnight, let come to room temperature and bake at 350 until done; or
  3. wrap tightly in foil and freeze for up to two months, let thaw in refrigerator overnight, then allow to come to room temperature and bake at 350 until done.
For cinnnamon rolls, divide dough into two portions; roll each into a 12x18 rectangle, smear generously with butter, sprinkle with cinnamon and brown sugar, then roll up from the long end; cut into 12 rolls and place in greased 9x12 pan.  Can be glazed or frosted as desired.

For pecan sticky rolls, make as for cinnamon rolls, but in baking pan combine 1 cup brown sugar, 1/2 cup melted butter and 1 cup pecans before placing sliced rolls in pan.  Bake for approximately 25 minutes; immediately invert on platter for serving. (Tip:  make sure your tray is bigger than your pan.  Clamp them together securely and flip them together over the sink; that way, any hot flying caramel sauce can land safely :-)

For orange sweet rolls, divide dough into 4 balls.  Roll each ball into a 12-inch circle, smear with butter, sprinkle with sugar and coconut.  Cut into wedges and roll up crescent-style. Place in greased pan (each of the 4 balls will make a 9x9 pan or the entire batch will fill two 9x12 pans.)  Allow approximately 25 minutes for baking time but check at 20 minutes.

Orange glaze:  While the rolls are baking combine 1/2 cup butter with 3/4 cup sugar, 1/2 cup sour cream and 2 tablespoons orange juice in heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Boil, stirring constantly, for 3 minutes. Pour glaze over roll immediately after removing rolls from oven.  You can sprinkle with more coconut if desired.  Serve warm.

Happy baking,

Nov 16, 2010

The Holiday Sprint Week 3: Ready? Set! Wait.

The clock is ticking - we're now down to just over 5 weeks.  Eeek!  However, I refuse to allow Christmas to encroach on Thanksgiving's time on the calendar, so we do not put up a tree before Thanksgiving. (I'm amazed at how many people do!)

We travel to the rural midwest for Thanksgiving, which means we don't do "black Friday" shopping, and we don't get home until very late on Sunday, so there's no putting up the tree as soon as the Thanksgiving dinner is over, as is the manner of my highly efficient and effective friends. Since the cards include a photo of us with the tree, I can't get them printed, signed, sealed and ready to mail early. Basically there is no way to get a headstart on the holidays, other than some deep cleaning (pantry is done; refrigerator and freezer are next.)

Some years I chafe under this self-imposed state of limbo, but everything always gets done between the end of November and December 24.  It's not a miracle, but it does require a leap of faith that it will work out, and it always does.

Occasionally I manage to get some Christmas shopping done in advance. The swimmer girl and I are headed to Gatlinburg this weekend for some shopping and relaxing with a group of friends. Here's hoping I can knock out quite a bit of the gift buying this weekend. That just leaves getting the tree bought and decorated, the cards printed and mailed, the cookies and candies made, and presents wrapped, all before it's time to hang the stockings on the fireplace and catch "A Christmas Story" movie marathon. All in 26 days. Piece of cake, as long as I stretch good first.

Happy sprinting!

Nov 15, 2010

Ten things I love about Thanksgiving

Why do I love Thanksgiving?  Let me count the ways:

Mickey joined the Macy's parade in the '30s
  1. It focuses on faith, family and food, which just so happen to be my favorite focal points all the year long. 
  2. Its signature color is orange, too! (Imagine I'm saying it with an Elle Woods squeal of enthusiasm.)
  3. I love New York City and Macy's.  Since 1924, Macy's has sponsored the Thanksgiving Day parade in NYC.  Ergo, that makes the parade doubly awesome, even if I am the only one in my family who wants to watch it.
  4. It is the holiday that dares to be different and remain unsullied by the crass commercialization that tarnishes other holidays. (No Thanksgiving candy or music or gift exchanges.)
  5. It is fall's last hurrah before winter blusters its way in.
  6. Ease of decoration.  Since I don't do Halloween, my fall decorations remain perfectly stylish until it's time to replace the pumpkins with nutcrackers and sparkly things.
  7. Since we visit the 'rents over Thanksgiving, my cooking duties are minimal - I simply pitch in where needed.  No pressure to perform.
  8. Is there any better smell than a roasting turkey?
  9. The college football season is almost over.  (This year that is indeed a blessing.)
  10. Pecan and pumpkin pie.  Need more?  Okay, pie with whipped cream. 

Happy Thanksgiving,

Nov 12, 2010

Week 4 Without Running: The Timeout Continues

Well, I did the bad thing: I pushed for a run on Monday (as soon as I hit week 4). "Surely the recommended 5 to 8 week recovery for a moderate calf strain doesn't apply to me!," said my optimistic self. Alas, it apparently does so I and my calf are back in timeout.

Hopefully it's only a small setback, as I didn't push it to another "pop" but in hindsight it was probably a foolhardy thing to do. I'm thankful for my live-in massage therapist who vigorously worked out the knotted calf while gently chastising me for not respecting the age of my ligaments and joints.  To which I say, "harrumph" (because it is too early to say "humbug.")

This long timeout has forced me to get more creative with my exercise repertoire, which has turned out to be good:  who knew I could become a fan of group workouts?  Of course, next week, I plan to try another run. And the week after, and the week after, until I'm fully healed and running without pain (or Advil.)

Happy healing,

Nov 11, 2010

Thankful Thursdays: The Second Seven

During the countdown to the holidays, I'm taking time each week to take stock of some of the blessings in my life. Last week kicked off with the first five.  There are too many to count them all, so I'll just offer a weekly summary of one per day as we head into Thanksgiving.  Here's the second seven, but above all, today is Veterans Day - a day to honor all our vets.  I pray for God's blessing on all our combat veterans and their families - past and present, along with those actively serving today; may they become the veterans of a peaceful future time.

So what else am I thinkful for this week?
  1. My faithful pooch.  That may sound like a trivial thing to include on this list, but there are days when the dog may well be my best friend - she's certainly among the most loyal and patient of those who know me.  We've had several wonderful canine companions over the years; Spice (aka Big Dog) is my nearly always at my feet - all 80 pounds of her.  Statistically, her remaining years are numbered, and so I treasure the time I have with her while she's still in good health.  If you've never seen the "GoD and DoG video by Wendy J. Francisco, it's well worth the 1.59 minutes to watch it.
  2. Farmers and ranchers.  What would we eat if it weren't for the men and women who keep us in food?  I love having a summer garden, but heaven help us if we had to depend on my gardening skills to feed us all year 'round.  I am grateful to those who raise and grow the food we take for granted.
  3. The innovators.  We'd be a sorry lot if no one had ever conjured up innovations like corrective eyeglasses, utensils to eat with, clocks to keep track of our time, a microscope to see germs (and antibiotics to kill them), and countless other products and devices that we use every day, and barely notice.  But we would surely notice if we had to do without them!
  4. The poets, artists and philosophers.  Their contributions have added richness and depth to the human experience, giving us phrases to express our rough thoughts, beautiful objects to behold, and challenging us to think deeply about our existence and relationship to one another, and to our creator.
  5. The United States Postal Service.  Seriously - is there anything better than opening your mailbox and finding a handwritten card or a package, delivered promptly and cheaply by the good ol' USPS? They do an amazing job, day in and day out, of getting everything to its destination, interpreting terrible handwriting and correcting transposed addresses and ZIP codes.
  6. Friendliness.  A stranger holds the door open for you, a fellow driver lets you ease into their lane of traffic, or someone simply smiles a friendly hello.  Those small acts of kindness are game-changers for our moods, sometimes making turning a miserable day into a tolerably good one.  Paying it forward not only feels good, it is good.
  7. Changing seasons.  I'm not a big fan of winter, in fact I grumble most years when the days get shorter and colder.  But having four seasons is truly a blessing.  There is beauty in each season, and as they change, it's a perfect reminder that we don't have to orchestrate everything in this life for ourselves.  There is a creator who is in control.  The beautiful blaze of fall leaves can leave us speechless, if we stop long enough to take it in.

Happy counting,

Nov 10, 2010

Recipe of the Week: Green Bean Bundles

I first encountered this recipe a few years ago; as we planned a holiday "progressive dinner" a friend recommended it as a side dish to accompany our main course. And what a recommendation it was - these green beans are now a Lea family tradition at the holidays. They look and taste "fussy" but they really aren't much work to assemble, and can be made ahead, then baked at the last minute.

I wholeheartedly recommend using only fresh green beans. Frozen whole green beans would be a second choice. Even though some recipes suggest using canned green beans, I would prepare a different green bean dish if canned beans were the only choice.  This recipe is worth the added effort and expense to track down good crisp, plump fresh beans.

  Green Bean Bundles

1 pound fresh green beans, washed and ends snapped off
8 slices bacon (see note below)
1/8 cup brown sugar
coarse grind pepper

Blanch beans by immersing in boiling water for 2-3 minutes then immediately plunge in ice water to stop the cooking.

Note: I use thick-slice bacon, and I like to pre-cook it (skillet or microwave) for a few minutes to cut down on the baking time.  If you use thinner bacon, you may not need to do this added step.

Divide cooled beans into 8 even groups.  (You can eyeball it or count them - I've done it both ways.) Wrap a slice of bacon around each bundle and secure with a toothpick.  Sprinkle with brown sugar and pepper.  Place in 350 oven and bake for 20-30 minutes or until bacon is fully cooked.  Remove toothpicks and serve immediately.

Makes 8 servings

Some recipes call for adding mustard (dry or prepared) to the toppings and/or drizzling with melted butter.  I haven't found either is necessary (the bacon provides plenty of fat and the sweet/salty pairing of bacon and brown sugar are marvelous on their own.  But you can always jazz 'em up to suit your tastebuds.  And if you're keeping them in a holding pattern - like on a buffet line - a little butter might keep the beans moist.)  

Bonus for busy cooks:  once you've assembled the bundles, they can be refrigerated for a day before baking - just add a few minutes to the cook time to compensate for them being cold when you start.

Happy dining!

Nov 9, 2010

Picking our battles

This week we celebrate Veteran's Day.   God bless our veterans and servicemen and women around the world; they carry the battle scars of conflicts fought to keep our freedom intact.  When I think of our veterans, I often think of Joshua's bravery.  And his carefully chosen words recorded in Joshua 24:15 contain so much wisdom and commitment to our purpose here on earth:
"Choose this day whom you will for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." 
When faced with a choice, Joshua picked his battle carefully and took a brave position, one that I'm sure he found was not always popular with the home crowd.  Not much has changed since his time in that regard.

Most parents today are very familiar with the concept embodied in that verse.  We use the shorthand expression, "pick your battles" to sum it up.  From the time our toddlers begin asserting themselves (a favorite first word is "no"), we are forced to learn diplomacy at lightning speed.  How to finesse a balky child into an outfit they don't want to wear, eat something they don't like, go somewhere peacefully when they really want a nap, or to be calmly held by someone they don't know.  They are learning the art of compromise - and so are mom and dad.

Soon we learn that stripes and plaids and camouflage prints really can be worn together and that the occasional cookie for breakfast won't kill them, especially if they wash it down with some milk.  In return, they learn they can still smile and keep going even when they're tired, and that their Bible class teacher is fun and friendly, not a frightening stranger.

I heard someone add this caveat:  "When you have picked a battle (with your child) , win at all costs."   I tend to agree, although I think that "all-or-nothing" should be tempered with some reasonableness.  If we pick a battle in error, it is okay to show our children that we can be humble and admit we were wrong - very different than simply giving up and giving in.

Unfortunately, I think our society has taken the "pick your battle" idea to the passive, permissive extreme, giving the child free rein because parents are afraid to pick ANY battle.  By sidestepping every conflict, we fail to teach our children that a peaceful and happy life is bound to require them to make some compromises along the way, too.

To all parents everywhere, please pick your battles wisely.  But do pick some battles, stand your ground, and be prepared to fight until you win.  Caving to your child's every whim and whimper is not compromise, it is captivity.  And we shouldn't be negotiating with terrorists - especially not our own kids.

Happy parenting,

Nov 8, 2010

Holiday Sprint Week 2: Merely Organized or OCD?

I report, you decide.

But first some background.  You know the saying, "Be careful what you wish for, you might get it." Well, a couple years ago, I wished for a walk-in pantry. And my awesome husband and dad granted my wish: I have a truly palatial pantry that measures 4 feet by 10 feet (actually a tad bigger than that.)

Now, before you wonder what on earth I could complain about with this pantry, consider how many times most of us have wished for a bigger closet - but know in our hearts we'd just cram it full of stuff? Or a bigger purse - ditto. Or a bigger car, house, whatever. Bigger is not always better. We know this.

And I'm really not complaining - my pantry storage is awesome. It almost makes up for the fact that my kitchen workspace is a compact 9x9 (with another 9x9 for eating area. It's the smallest kitchen I've had since our first apartment, and we've lived here ten years - far longer than we've lived anywhere else.)

But back to the pantry. Do you know how much stuff you can store in a huge pantry? Let me tell you, it's a lot. And if you don't have time feel like putting away all the canned and boxed foods from the grocery store trip, it's okay - just slide the bags in the pantry and close the door. Channel Miss Scarlett O'Hara and tell yourself you'll think about it tomorrow.

So my slovenly ways finally caught up with me, and I found myself stepping over week-old bags of groceries randomly scattered on the pantry floor. That makes for an interesting gauntlet to cross when you dash into the pantry for something you need to add to your sizzling dish on the stove, right. this. second.  I'm embarrassed to show this picture, but here it was:

The "before" shot. Now you know why I keep the pantry door closed.
I gritted my teeth and went to work. Combined two boxes of quart-size tea bags into one. Combined the two boxes of individual-size green tea bags into one. Found I had two open boxes of many things ('Nilla wafers, cereal, snack crackers...the list goes on.) Dug deep and found a headless chocolate bunny from Easter. (It gets better.) Kept digging and found a headless chocolate Santa from last December. (I detect a homicidal pattern, and I'm pretty sure I know which child did it.) Found a can of mandarin oranges had ruptured and spilled down the back of one shelving unit. That was pleasant. Not.

Okay, so all the nastiness was tossed, the drippy stuff cleaned up, the floor under the shelves all vacuumed, the out-of-date items were scrapped, the new groceries were put away and the older stuff rotated to the front. I could stop right there - job done.  I probably should have stopped there.

The "in-between" shot - much better.
But there's just something alluring about taking organization to that next level - bordering on "Sleeping with the Enemy" kind of tidiness. (I think we were supposed to be disturbed by the scene with all the perfectly arranged canned goods, but I found myself admiring the neatness and organization and wondering if I could replicate it without being creepy. I digress.)

I realized as I began to clean and organize more deeply that I had allowed myself to pile things too deep on the shelves, which meant I was constantly reaching behind (and knocking things over) to retrieve or return something.  So this time around, I ruthlessly sorted and organized in a one-deep layer (except for canned goods.)

See, the labels are not all turned *perfectly* towards the front. No scary music playing.

And just above that, my triumph, my pièce de résistance:  my flours, grains and sugars are now all labeled and stacked in modular containers.
Yes, that is a big bottle of Bacardi.  It is vanilla-in-the-making, for culinary purposes only.
And the pastas and rice are all neatly organized and visible.  (Yes, I buy warehouse-size boxes of macaroni and spaghetti, along with white and brown rice.  We heart carbs in all shapes, sizes and textures.)
I don't think I alphabetized the boxes...
Now I'll let you be the judge - is it just good organization, or is it obsessive-compulsive?  Either way, now that I'm done I realize how much food we have stowed away.  Time to stop stockpiling, and see if I can use up a lot of these items - now that I can get to them.  My menus for the next few weeks will definitely be incorporating a lot of the excess buildup I found, and hopefully I can clear out a lot of the surplus before the holidays.

Happy organizing,

Nov 6, 2010

My Dream House Wishlist

I discovered the house we built in Oklahoma back in '97 was recently up for sale. It was kind of weird looking at the interior pictures, and seeing no trace of the paint colors or wallpaper that we I picked out all those years ago. I recognized all the rooms and layout only because we physically touched every piece of the house from the time the foundation was poured until we put the last coat of paint on the upstairs bathroom and moved in.  (We're very hands-on when it comes to building a home.)

It was in many ways our "dream house" - before breaking ground, we modified the builder's original floorplan, adding space and features, and made it our own unique home. I spent hours going over plans with the cabinetmaker before he began crafting the custom maple cabinets for our kitchen, baths and laundry, the stair rails and fireplace mantels.

The house we are in now was not (and is not) our dream house. But it is our home, and has been for over ten years. During that time, we have replaced roofs and floors, and pretty much everything in between. There is little in this house that is original to its mid-70s construction, except for the structure hidden behind the drywall and under the flooring.  If the previous owners saw it, they would probably feel much the same way about it as I do about our last home.

But our updates and remodeling efforts have been restricted by the house's footprint and roofline - which are respectively small and low. There are definitely some good points to the house we're in - it's on an acre with plenty of big trees, I have a HUGE laundry room, cavernous shower, a walk-in pantry to die for, and the location can't be beat. (And it's almost paid off - which is pretty sweet.)

So what would I wish for if I could build or gut and re-do another house (BEFORE moving in)? Many things. But here's my top ten wishlist items for the next house - whenever that might happen:
  1. A bigger kitchen. Not commercial-size - I don't want to run a marathon to fix dinner. But I really doubt I will get duped into another 9x18 space for kitchen and eating area. Fool me once, all that.
  2. A walk-in pantry.  I will miss my big pantry I have now, unless I find a way to have another one.  (Note to self:  forget the "mom cave" - just give me a big honkin' pantry, preferably with built-in cabinets, electrical outlets and maybe even a sink beneath a window, with countertops on either side.)
  3. Taller ceilings.   I'm no giant, but even at my stature, eight-foot-ceilings feel a little claustrophobic, especially when you've lived in a house with soaring space above your head.
  4. Fireplaces.  As in multiple - one outdoors, and at least two or three indoors.  They are one of the things that make winter bearable.
  5. Windows, windows, and more windows. Tall windows that let in lots of light.  And that tilt in for cleaning.
  6. Closets, closets, and more closets.  B-I-G closets. There ought to be a law that all closets must be large enough to do what they're designed to do (plus some wiggle room), whether they are for linens or coats or clothes.
  7. A central vacuum.  Had one, loved it, would love one again.
  8. A garbage disposal.  (Or, put another way - no septic system.)  It's the little things that mean a lot.  You don't miss 'em until you don't have them any more.
  9. A walk-in attic.  One that you can actually stand up and WALK around in.  Every time I pull down the attic stairs, I get a mental image of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, and flinch at the though of the staircase smacking me in the face.  It can't, but it just feels like it might.  And hauling my Christmas decorations up and down attic stairs and stooping over at the waist to tuck them away is JUST NO FUN.
  10. A covered or screened-in porch.  With a niche for a TV (above that outdoor fireplace) and an adjacent hot tub, preferably with a view of a pond, stream or other burbling natural water feature, close enough to hear and far enough away to not pose a flooding threat.
Hmmm.  This makes me want to pull up some homes-for-sale sites and just take a peek at what's on the market.  (Stop hyperventilating, I was just kidding!  Well, maybe I was, and maybe I wasn't...)

So what's on your list of must-have's in a dream home?

Happy dreaming!

Nov 5, 2010

Chihuly at Cheekwood - Bravo!

Sometimes it pays to procrastinate.  I have wanted to see the Chihuly exhibit at Cheekwood Botanical Garden ever since I heard it was coming.  But the summer slipped away and I never found made the time to visit.  

But I recently discovered that it was being held over an extra week AND Cheekwood was offering a free day on November 2.  It doesn't get any better than that!  (Okay, so it was a little crowded.  But it was a beautiful day; not hot, not cold, a little overcast, which helps with photo quality, and the gardens are still beautiful even though they are winding down for the season.)

I convinced two friends and one adorable little girl to go with me.  Unfortunately, we were in a bit of a hurry, trying to squeeze this visit into an open space on all three busy mom's schedules.  But even though we clipped through the garden at a good pace, it was beautiful - well worth the trip. (And I owe a huge thank-you to our driver who patiently eased her way through some snarly - and snarky - traffic in Belle Meade. Not sure if money can buy happiness, but I'm convinced it does not buy niceness.)

Dale Chihuly is most definitely deserving of his worldwide reputation as a master artisan of glass art, and Cheekwood's gardens were a terrific backdrop and foil for these beautiful pieces.  Thank you Mr. Chihuly and Cheekwood (and the patrons who provided the financial support) for bringing this exhibit to Tennessee!

Before we left, we heard Cheekwood is doing their annual Festival of Trees in December.  Hmmm, we might just have to find time to go back for a more leisurely visit in a few weeks!

Happy strolling,

Nov 4, 2010

Thankful Thursdays: The First Five

As we start the holiday countdown, I want to take a moment each week to take stock of some of the blessings in my life. There are too many to count them all, so I'll just offer a weekly summary of one per day as we head into Thanksgiving.
  1. Being a U.S. citizen. This week saw strong voter turnout at the mid-term elections. May we never forget the precious freedoms that we enjoy, and take responsibility as citizens of this great land and do our part: inform ourselves of the issues and vote responsibly at every opportunity.
  2. Living in the 21st century. We enjoy the benefit of technology and medical advancements that our ancestors did not have access to. From the trivial things (like access to Facebook and a blog) to life-saving equipment, tests, and procedures for medical emergencies.
  3. The foresight of our forefathers. The documents they so thoughtfully framed secure our freedoms, lay out our rights and responsibilities, and form the basis of our government and laws.  I'm thankful for their wisdom and timeless ideals that continue to stand us in good stead today.
  4. The joy of friendship. I have enjoyed the comfort and support of so many good friends over the span of my life - I thank God for each friend He put in my path. I hope I can provide the same love and friendship that I have been privileged to receive.
  5.  God's patience.  He has given me time to grow and mature, providing me with lessons to teach me to wait on Him.  I pray I do not squander the time He gives me, or test His patience more than I already have.
So what are you most grateful for this week?

Happy counting!

Nov 3, 2010

Recipe of the Week: Mexican Pizza

Several years ago, I attended a Pampered Chef's party and the hostess made a scrumptious "Mexican Pizza" with a cornbread crust. I faithfully clung to the brochure with the recipe for years, but during one of our two most recent moves, it got lost in the shuffle.

I tried to make the recipe from memory a few times, but my efforts were less-than-successful (I couldn't get the crust right, and didn't remember the exact measurements.)  I begged all my friends with Pampered Chef connections to help me track down the recipe, but no one remembered it or had a copy of it.  I had given up on it until early this year when I came across a posted copy of the original recipe again.  That's also when I realized how much I had modified the toppings!  So here's my rendition of this delicious, easy recipe.  It makes a great appetizer, game-day food or weeknight dinner.

Mexican Pizza with Cornbread Crust

1 1/4 cup flour
3/4 cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup milk
1/4 cup olive oil

Preheat oven to 400. Stir crust ingredients together. Place on pizza stone or greased pizza pan. Let rest 3 to 4 minutes, then use a rolling pin to make a 12 to 15-inch circle (or square it off if you're going to cut it in squares). Bake for 12 minutes. Remove from oven.

1 pound hamburger, browned and drained
1 package taco seasoning
1/2 can refried beans
1 can Rotel tomatoes, drained (hot or mild, you choose)
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Brown and drain hamburger. Mix in taco seasoning and water, according to package directions. Cook until thick and bubbly. Remove from heat.

Spread par-baked crust with refried beans; top with browned and seasoned hamburger, Rotel tomatoes and cheese. Return to oven and bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until top is bubbly and golden.

Makes 8 slices or 16 squares

Happy eating!

Nov 2, 2010

Week 3 Without Running

I am really hoping this calf muscle strain is ready to become a thing of the past, but I won't push my luck too soon (an attempted run is on tap for later this week, just to see how it's doing.  I'm prepared to wave the white flag if it isn't completely  healed.)

In the meantime, our YMCA has launched a new Body Pump workout and I'm pretty sure my body is almost twice the age of the average person in this class.  I was barely able to sit down (or stand up) after my trial run with it last week, but I'm a firm believer in "that which does not kill us makes us stronger," so Monday morning, I went back for round two, which meant my stride was less than graceful when I accompanied Mr. Official to the football officials' banquet last night. Next class is Wednesday, then Friday.

On the in-between days, I can tuck in pilates and yoga.  My only problem is going to be when the calf muscle is fit for running; what am I willing to give up, or will I find myself working out twice a day?  (There are arguably worse things I could do with my time, but there ARE only so many hours in the day.)

Today is voting day, and since I didn't vote early, I will be among those procrastinators who will wait in line to vote at my local polling place.  Then I'm headed for Cheekwood to see the Chihuly exhibit during its last week in Nashville. 

Happy Tuesday,

Nov 1, 2010

The Holiday Sprint - Week 1

The 8-week countdown has begun!  It's November, do you know where your Christmas cards are?

In addition to getting the tree up, getting the cards in the mail is high on my list of early December to-do's.  Last year, I broke a very long sabbatical from sending holiday cards, and managed to crank out not only a newsletter but a family photo card, no less!  (That over-the-top effort could explain our weird weather last winter.)

Of course, that means I need to repeat the magic this year; and time is of the essence.  (What does that expression mean, anyway?)

To meet my looming, self-imposed deadline, now is the time to start thinking about corralling our offspring for another family picture.  (If you think getting your toddler to sit on Santa's lap is hard, just wait until you have to get a teenager and two 20-somethings to agree on a date for a family picture!)  Not only that, I need to choose the *perfect* card so I can merge photo with card, spellcheck our names, order enough cards, then sign, seal and deliver to my trusty mail carrier.

Shutterfly was kind enough to send me an offer for 50 free photo cards, which was an unexpected gift (the very best kind!)  And they are offering 20% off all their holiday cards - so what are we waiting for?

Browsing through their huge selection of Christmas cards, it's going to be hard to choose just one - the designs are all great!  I especially like their "story" cards although I'm not sure I can sum up everything in a card...the tradition of the blah, blah, blah letter is just too deeply entrenched.  Most likely our friends will find a flat photo card tucked inside the ubiquitous family update letter.  (Yes, that would be my attempt to sign our names at the bottom, and no it's not legible.)  Hey, at least I don't send you a fruitcake.

Happy countdown!