Happy Things for a Rainy Friday

Happy Friday, friends! Here are a few things which are cheering me up today:

1. The Garden Fence. Our house is on one acre, but the adjacent property has over twenty acres, mostly wooded. I like to call it Deer Gardens, an executive community for deer demanding only the finest organic produce, fresh spring water, and award winning schools. Last spring Ed constructed a new fence, so the deer are forced to eat my tulips instead of my vegetables. Pictured below are the very beginning sprouts of radishes (plus weeds which instantly sprung up in the rain).

DeerGardens

2. National Grilled Cheese Day. At first I thought this was like all of the other fake Facebook-inspired holidays made up by some bored fourteen year old, but then I thought, “Who even cares? This is a day I am planning to celebrate!” Turns out it’s a real thing.

Grilled cheese is one of my first favorite foods. I remember being around age four and asking my dad if he is allowed to eat “girl cheese” since he’s a boy. I probably remember this because my family made me ask him this again every single time I ate a girl cheese for the next year. I might have thought they were stupid back then, but now I get it.

I plan on making today’s grilled cheese with grated Gruyère and sharp cheddar, heavy on the butter. Why can’t I lose weight?

GirlCheese

3. Nail Polish. I have a bit of a thing for nail polish. As a child, I always enjoyed the thrill of a new box of crayons, and I love choosing colors. No surprise, I am like a moth to flame at any nail polish display and often find myself powerless. I suppose there are worse shopping addictions one can have. It’s almost time to pick a new color, which is half the fun for me.

While I’m happy with most Essie and OPI shades, my real weakness is Dior. I am currently wearing OPI’s Bubble Bath in a gel — a decent nude but nothing too exciting. I definitely prefer my Dior Safari Beige. That’s me in a nutshell: Fifty Shades of Beige.

4. My Mad Men lamp. This lovely relic currently resides in my basement in a room whose decor can best be described as Garage Sale/Bennigan’s Transitional. When my mother-in-law went into assisted living, we snatched this baby right up. I truly do love it, but it doesn’t quite work on my main floor. I am hoping to find a better spot to showcase all of its Don Draperesque awesomeness. Sorry, folks, it’s not for sale.

mad men lamp

Wishing you all a beautiful weekend filled with good food and happy things.

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The Joy of Going Dark

Watching the season six premiere of Mad Men Sunday night reminded me once again of a simpler time. However, witnessing the lack of constant communication and inability to Google anything on the spot always unsettles me; it feels like reverse science fiction. Did I once really live like this? When Betty went into The Dicey Neighborhood without a cell phone, I was very nervous indeed. How did we manage back then? Almost unbelievable.

It’s an interesting experience to be an American woman in her forties. I’m young enough to have adapted and embraced most new technology with ease, but I’m still old enough to remember having a real life before smart phones and GPS. I remember going out on dates, to parties and various day trips with friends and I rarely could call home to say I arrived safely; I just needed to return when I said I would. What a leap of faith! I remember going to New York City, Paris and London, meeting people at various pre-arranged spots, and if they were late or their train was delayed or they got a little lost…I just kept waiting. Eventually everyone always showed up. Finding someone in a big city without a cell phone seems like a true miracle today.

When I’m working, I don’t have my cell phone with me on the sales floor. It’s against policy and everyone knows I’m usually an obedient rule follower. For many hours at a time, I have no access to my phone, texts, emails, etc. And I kind of like it. For that time period, I am focused fully on being where I am and not distracted by the constant pings of notifications of my Other Life. The world, so used to my usual quick reply, needs to patiently wait until I am done working.

The world is not accustomed to patiently waiting for me. Once, while working a mere four hour shift, I found a voice mail, then a text seeing if I ever got the voice mail, and then another text to follow up…all from the same person in less than four hours. And this was not a 911 emergency, either.  People expect me to be a rapid responder and tend to panic a bit when I’m not. What would Betty say? Probably something delightfully bitchy.

I have learned to embrace my periods of digital incommunicado. They feel like mini vacations back to my youth, a life where I can go almost eight hours without knowing about baseball schedule changes and 40% off Banana Republic coupons and spring fair volunteer sign ups and the latest celebrity gossip and my son’s physics grade. Sooner or later, I find out about all of this stuff. For now, on brief occasions, I am enjoying the charmingly retro concept of Just Being Where I Am. I do believe it will be the next big thing.

Another 8766 Hours, Another Birthday Cake

Years ago, my old book club read Michael Cunningham’s brilliant Pulitzer prize winning novel The Hours. I absolutely loved this book, but I can still hear my fellow book club members groaning from here. Let’s just say everyone did not share my enthusiasm for The Hours. In their defense, it was rather depressing. I lent out my copy, so I can’t refer back to specific passages. But one in particular really spoke to me.

Laura Brown was an unsatisfied, depressed housewife in 1949 suburban Los Angeles. Like me at the time, she attached a little too much significance into baking (creating) her husband’s birthday cake. It was her job, her art, her lot in life. And no surprise, despite her ardent efforts, it came out imperfectly.

While thankfully I was never anywhere near the level of misery of Laura Brown (who winds up leaving her family), there was a lot of me who could relate to her struggles during that time of my life. Back in those days, a cake was one of the few pieces of evidence that I “did something.” And then the reminder that I once had so many more dreams for myself than just baking cakes.

She, Laura, likes to imagine (it’s one of her most closely held secrets) that she has a touch of brilliance herself, just a hint of it, though she knows most people probably walk around with similar hopeful suspicions curled up like tiny fists inside them, never divulged. She wonders, while she pushes a cart through the supermarket or has her hair done, if the other women aren’t all thinking, to some degree or other, the same thing: Here is the brilliant spirit, the woman of sorrows, the woman of transcendent joys, who would rather be elsewhere, who has consented to perform simple and essentially foolish tasks, to examine tomatoes, to sit under a hair dryer, because it is her art and her duty. — Michael Cunningham, The Hours

I am better now that my kids are older and I have crafted more of a balanced life for myself, but for every birthday cake I bake, I still remember that gray period of my life when the cake was such a powerful symbol. It represented my job, my worth, my abilities. While there are many times when I still mourn for my life with small children (usually when I see a cute one in the grocery store), I remember that it was also a difficult and sometimes dark time filled with much loneliness, isolation and boredom. Women don’t talk about that part, but they should. Despite my fierce love for my family, I was a little lost and unfulfilled as a person during my early years of motherhood.

It feels taboo to admit that. It feels whiny and self indulgent, and maybe it is. But I serve no one by pretending it was easy, happy and perfect. It wasn’t. Not for me, anyway. There were wonderful hours, for sure, but back then, the wonderful hours were much fewer and farther between than today. I don’t know that I would ever want to go back to that place.

This year’s birthday cake for my husband feels like a victory. Not because it will be perfect, but because it won’t be. It will just be a cake, and there is no such thing as bad cake. It will be sweet and a little messy but satisfying and made with love and good intentions, just like a cake and a life should be.

An April Fools Story and a Tale of Redemption

Hello, Hello and Happy Almost April!

I hope everyone had a lovely Easter, Passover and/or Spring Holiday of Choice and enjoyed feasting with loved ones as much as I did. I have been working a lot more, so my time in the kitchen has been less than innovative lately, and I’ve been sticking to my usual repertoire of take-out family favorites. However, I did try this so-easy-it’s-not-much-of-a-recipe recipe from the Huffington Post for matzo toffee, and it was a pretty big hit. On the plus side (?), I consumed such a shameful amount that I don’t want to look at it for another 365 days at least. Too much matzo toffee + Too many marshmallow Peeps = Too tight jeans.

On a somewhat related note, it’s time for me to bust out my annual April Fools story. Now, if you’re a friend or family member, please forgive me. I know you have to hear this story every single year. But for all the rest of you, please enjoy this lovely April Fools cautionary tale.

When Logan was about ten, I thought it would be HILARIOUS to tell him that he was going to have another baby brother or sister as an April Fools joke, and this is how it all went down:

Me: Guess what, Logan? You’re going to be a big brother again! Isn’t that exciting? What do you think of that?

Logan: Yeah, I kind of thought you looked pregnant.

And that, my friends, is how it’s done. May your attempts at tomfoolery be more successful than mine.

On a totally unrelated note, I wanted to share with you a recommendation for a short HBO documentary I really enjoyed. Fall to Grace is the story of former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey, who resigned in 2004 and came out as a “gay American” after he was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a staff member.

As a bit of a cynic, I was prepared to not be taken in by McGreevey’s reinvention as a wannabe Episcopal priest and mentor at a women’s prison. I may talk like a tough guy, but I fell in love with him in less than five minutes. (And I really fell in love with his house! If you are dying to know what my dream house looks like, see this documentary.) Jim McGreevey radiates happiness. Working with these inmates is truly his calling. You can see and feel the connection they have, and it’s clear that these women have helped him as much as he has helped them.

This is a really sweet little documentary about a person who had it all, lost it all, and then got it all back in spades. I love the idea of Act 2 and second chances. I love Jim McGreevey’s radiant glow which comes from living openly, honestly and with vulnerability. But mostly I love that even though we’re all a little broken, we still possess the capacity to heal each other.

Countdown to Pi Day

Tomorrow Logan’s school is celebrating Pi Day (3.14, get it?) by serving lots and lots of pie. I signed up to make two pies, and our conversation went like this:

Me: Pi Day is almost here. I need to find a winning recipe because I’m bringing in two pies and I want them to be THE BEST!

Logan: Umm, Mom, you know it’s not a pie contest, right? No one will even know it’s your pie that they’re eating.

Me: Oh, honey, they will know, because they will say, “Who made this one? You have to try this one. It’s the BEST PIE I EVER ATE.”

Logan: Seriously, Mom, you can just buy two pies from Acme. No one really cares.

Me (blank stare): Huh? “No one cares?” Of course they care! They care and I care and I will win at Pi Day.

Unfortunately, pie is really not my thing. Talking smack, that’s my thing. Never one to let lack of skill or experience get in the way, I started pulling out cookbooks and magazines and Google searches, determined to create the best pie ever. There are over 61 million results on Google for apple pie alone. My head hurt. Analysis paralysis, as they say.

But then something happened. I stopped and asked why. Why am I doing this? Why does it matter? I certainly have enough things to do, so why am I making extra work for myself?

The answer, it turns out, is as infinite and transcendental as pi itself.

PeachPi

To My Valentine

Mom Mom loved my husband Ed. She was rather cranky in general, but if she liked you, you were set. She took to Ed immediately, as did my whole family, and he was quickly granted Saint Status. This both pleases me and alarms me. Not that it’s a contest, but their loyalty and devotion are firmly in Ed’s corner. I bet that if I turn up dead under suspicious circumstances, they will all whisper, “I’m sure he had good reasons.”

One thing Mom Mom warned me about was not to “brag” about my marriage unless I want some village hussy setting her sights on my man, and even though that strikes me as old country crazy superstitious voodoo, I do try to tone it down most days. Plus, have Frank and Kathie Lee taught me nothing? You just don’t go around dispensing unsolicited marriage advice; that never ends well.

But in honor of Valentine’s Day, I will say this: My almost twenty year marriage is hands-down the best thing in my life. It is a daily source of joy, comfort and strength. I wake up every day feeling happy, lucky and grateful. Sure, that feeling usually disappears most days by 10 am, but I greet each day thinking I am the luckiest person in the world to wake up next to this wonderful man. Life hasn’t always been easy, it hasn’t always been fun, but it has always been good. What’s our secret?

Our secret is we have no secret. Sometimes we call it divine intervention, sometimes we call it dumb luck, but the truth is there is nothing that we do or don’t do other than being ourselves. I could never sell a marriage book or be a paid speaker. I have no tips or helpful hints. I just happened to have married someone who, against all odds and evidence to the contrary, still thinks I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread. Still thinks I’m beautiful even though there is much, much more of me to love than in 1991. Still thinks I’m smart and funny and good, even though I am rarely any of those things very often at once.

And I married the smartest man in the world. He will argue that he isn’t, since he’s humble, too, but he is to me. But more importantly than being smart, hardworking, and successful, he is good. He is a really good person in a world where there just aren’t that many really good people. He has a pure and generous heart and always does the right thing, even when no one is looking. He can fix almost everything and create almost anything and handle chemistry and calculus like it’s nothing. (If I was more entrepreneurial, I could rent him out). He is my number one sous chef when I cook, but he knows his way around the kitchen well enough to earn Executive Chef status sometimes, too. He is still as handsome and strong as ever, and he still fits into the same sized pants as when we met. There is so much more I could say, but one needs to keep the village hussies at bay.

So maybe the secret is to marry someone you truly admire and who admires you in equal measure? Or maybe it’s all a big roulette game, and we blindly lucked into the exact right combination at the exact right time? I’ve learned not to question it too much and simply enjoy the ride.

Sometimes a girl just gets lucky.

roses

The Waiting Place

When I was in high school. I worked at a Hallmark card store. I learned so much from that job. Much of what I learned was how NOT to treat people, but that’s a tale for another day. As a young, impressionable girl raised on Dynasty and Danielle Steele, I loved a good story.

One of my coworkers, an older lady named Betsy, told me a story that I still think about sometimes. (Let’s note that I’m now the age of Betsy, “the older lady.”) The summer after high school, Betsy was at the beach for the weekend with her girlfriends. She was planning to attend Vanderbilt University that fall. Before she packed up to leave, Betsy decided to take one last walk on the beach, and on that spontaneous walk, Betsy met the man who would be her husband for the next fifty years. She started dating him and decided to ditch Vanderbilt and get married shortly after their beach rendezvous.

As a snotty and know-it-all child of the 80s, I was appalled that she would abandon her plan of attending a prestigious university for some strange guy she just met on the beach. And for what? To become a wife and mother working part-time in a Hallmark store with high school students? How could she even be smart enough to have gotten into Vanderbilt in the first place if those were the kind of choices she made? But Betsy seemed very happy and was a sweet lady with a good life. I liked her a lot.

There have been times in my life that I think about that story and the seemingly random events that change the course of our lives forever. What if Betsy didn’t go to the beach that weekend? What if she decided to pack up and leave instead of taking one last walk? It often feels like our insignificant decisions (a spontaneous walk) can have way more of an impact than our Big Life Decisions (choosing a college). As an over-thinker, I find this notion simultaneously comforting and unsettling. Nothing matters. Everything matters.

I am at a crossroads right now, slightly stuck in The Waiting Place, as wise Dr. Seuss called it.

You will come to a place where the streets are not marked.
Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked.
A place you could sprain both you elbow and chin!
Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in?
How much can you lose? How much can you win?

And IF you go in, should you turn left or right…
or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite?
Or go around back and sneak in from behind?
Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find,
for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.

— Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go

Eventually I will get unstuck and choose a direction, but for now, I’m sticking it out right here. My friend introduced me to a phrase that’s often used in the recovery community, and when my head is spinning with options and I’m overwhelmed about what to do next and how things will turn out, I find that it helps me get back on track: Just keep doing the next right thing. I can do that. And eventually, I believe, the right walk will lead me in the right direction, probably when I’m least expecting it.

Ode to Downton Abbey

downton-abbey

Are you a fan of Downton Abbey? I am a shameless lover of television and all things English. Needless to say, I can hardly contain myself that Downton Abbey Season 3 is starting in just two days, nine hours and thirty-two minutes here in the US (1/6/2013).

Confession: I “know a guy” and managed to watch the first episode of season 3 on my computer back when it first aired in the UK, but I just couldn’t continue watching it after that. A) I’m too much of a Girl Scout and don’t like to break the rules or cheat; B) It’s more fun having the communal experience of watching and discussing it with fellow US fans; C) If any show deserves to be watched on a large television screen, it’s Downton Abbey, and D) I don’t fancy myself one of those tiresome people who glibly reports she’s already viewed the whole entire season when her friends are super excited for the premiere.

If I wasn’t all partied out from November and December, I would throw together a little viewing party. For those of you inclined to do so, I highly recommend checking out Downton Abbey Cooks for authentic suggestions and interesting historical food facts. While I won’t be hosting a party, I am thinking of trying this recipe from BBC for Cock-a-leekie soup to get into the spirit of things. Plus, hello, cock-a-leekie soup! Who can resist chicken and leeks? What?

As I always say, the show is worth watching for the clothing and wallpaper alone. Yes, it is basically Masterpiece Theater’s version of a soap opera — cheesy, sometimes predictable and frequently overwrought, but immensely satisfying nonetheless. It makes my heart happy. And there is simply no one on television better than Dame Maggie Smith. She steals every single scene.

Cheers to my fellow Downton Abbey fans! I have a feeling there are many of you here.

The Gift of the Magi

The gift of the Magi is to hold what you have and not think a minute of what you are missing. — Garrison Keillor’s interpretation of O. Henry’s Gift of the Magi

I was in 8th grade the first time I read O. Henry’s short story The Gift of the Magi. We were learning about irony, and that was the example my teacher used. While I thought the story was sweet, I lacked the worldliness to truly appreciate it at the time.

A couple weeks ago, I heard Garrison Keillor on NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion reading his own interpretation of the Gift of the Magi, and thought it was so beautiful that I knew I’d want to share it with you. Don’t be alarmed by the time on the link; the story is only a couple minutes at most, and it starts playing right away. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.

Gift of the Magi

The Birds: A Photo Essay in Three Pictures

I was just about to get into the shower when I heard what sounded like ten people walking around in my attic. While I wanted to write off the sound as mice, the noise was simply too loud. Whatever was up there was a few pounds, not a few ounces. I am not normally the skittish type with an over-active imagination, but taking a shower with an unknown thumping in my attic was starting to freak me out a bit. Then our dog Teddy started to bark at the ceiling, so I took him outside to have a look around.

Birds1

At first, when I noticed the scene above, I was rather relieved. Oh, look, I thought, these big guys can probably make some serious noise through the vent. THAT explains what I heard! And they’re a pair — perhaps a couple mating for life with a nest near by. Isn’t nature grand? I’m so lucky to live here!

And then, slowly, like in a movie, I walked a few inches to the right and saw this:

Birds2

Two birds? Sweet. Six birds? Freaky. Here is where I admit to the world I have a bit of a frog and butterfly phobia. Anything jumpy or fluttery or with the potential to unpredictably land in my hair makes me very uneasy. I don’t want to kill them, but I do want to keep a healthy distance. Of course, most of my friends find this phobia of mine delightfully charming charmingly quirky completely nuts. Birds are in the same category as frogs and butterflies, but they usually have the good sense to keep their distance from humans.

So there I was, outside in the rain with a fluffy white delicious looking dog, and as I’m about to head to the front door to walk back inside, I see this over the doorway:

Birds3

You’ll have to excuse the poor photo quality, for at this point, I was across the street at my neighbor’s house, shaking and crying and pointing at my roof like a full fledged crazy person. That’s the thing with phobias — they go from rational to irrational in the blink of an eye. I needed to explain to my neighbor that no, I could not simply walk through the front door of my house like a normal person, because you see those six birds up there? And their four friends on the side of the house, too? They are going to swoop down and eat me and Teddy the second we get too close to the house.

In an overly calm tone favored by those in the hostage negotiation business, my neighbor told me to sit tight while she honked her horn to scare them away. It took a good forty-five seconds of honking before one of them flew off or even flinched, but they finally left my rooftop so I could safely return to my house. The end.