Friday, December 23, 2011

My gifts thus far...

Christmas is fast approaching, isn't it? Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. Wow. Thankfully, I had already finished most of the big tasks by Wednesday, because late Wednesday night (early Thursday morning, actually) I was awakened by a distress cry from my son. The words you don't want to hear at 2:37am: "Mom, I feel like I'm going to be sick!"

"Go into the bathroom! Hurry!" See what a fabulous mother I am? No sympathy, no concern for him... just a frantic plea that he exit all upholstered and carpeted areas before the coming upheaval. (Can you tell I've had to change smelly sheets in the middle of the night on multiple occasions? You see, there are definitely benefits to your child's increasing age; now he knows what he feels like right before he hurls. Yep, that's a benefit.)

All of this was performed in a hushed panic, of course, to try to allow at least one of us (my husband, who had to rise early and work the next day) to eke out some sleep. I met my poor boy in the bathroom, right before his theory was proven true. He was, indeed, going to be sick. And that pretty much foretold the next 30 hours, give or take a few hours. Yikes. We were up for hours in the basement rec room, sitting in the dark and first watching PBS's Lidia Celebrates America (until I realized the food shots were making the boy more ill) and then some sort of home improvement program. And he was still emptying his stomach throughout. Did I mention that?

Today, I am happy to report some improvement. He's not completely cured, but he's eating now and the food is staying put and appears to be on its way to a perfectly normal exit from the appropriate end. 'Nuf said.

However, the gifting wasn't over. I never mentioned here that last week, because I was hoping the situation would blow over without tragedy...but our new cat feasted on some lovely curling ribbon from a Christmas package. Yum, yum. I found bits of it in her regurgitated meal (perhaps that was foreshadowing of my kiddo's illness) and we watched the kitty through the next day and night, making certain she could still eat, drink, pee, do the other... and she did. I read various cat forums online which led me to believe that, since she could perform these duties without trouble or pain, she had gotten the ribbon out of her system and was going to be fine. And she is fine.

However. In the litter box a little while ago, can you guess what I discovered? Maybe you've guessed correctly—a lovely, undigested 4-inch strip of blue ribbon. Surrounded by, caked with, and mostly obscured by feces. That's right, a blue ribbon poo.

So, if this is the pattern of all the good things I'll receive this year? Wow, I can hardly wait to open some wrapped packages! What wonders might I find within? Aren't you jealous!?

Seriously, I hope your Christmas is a good one. I hope you receive the true gifts of joy and peace in our savior, and the fact that he was, indeed, one of us: Emmanual. God with us.

Merry Christmas! And for heaven's sake, throw away the ribbon and wash your hands with soap and hot water.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Odd bits

Well, hello there! It's been a while, eh?

My son likes Arthur, the book and TV series by Marc Brown (who, incidentally, is from Erie, PA. We knew that because the mall in Arthur's town is called Millcreek Mall, just like Erie's! And the town Arthur lives in is Elwood City, which is a real town south of Erie. Yep! We were onto you, Marc Brown!) So, on the PBS website, there are Arthur games. And one of them is a game for his friend, Buster Baxter the bunny, who is obsessed with aliens. On the site, you can build your very own, original alien. Marcus loves it. One "parts" category from which to choose is called Odd Bits, and when you pass the cursor over it, a strange, alienesque voice says, "Odd bits." It always cracks me up. Hence, the title of this post.

(If you care to create your own alien, click here.)

Okay, back to this post.

It's the holiday season (can you hear Andy Williams crooning that line?) and things are rather hectic, but under control. Right before Thanksgiving, we added a member to our family. Here she is.

Isn't she pretty? Her given name was Ninja, and it fits; she's stealthy and silent a lot of the time. I like dogs, too, and hopefully there is still a dog in our future. But with the uncertainty of where we'll end up living (we still hope to move), a house-restricted cat seemed like a smarter choice. We've been needing a furry addition for awhile; the home just felt too sterile. She's very shy with strangers, and we were strangers initially. For days, this little lady hid in impossibly tiny spots, dusty corners, underneath cabinets, etc. She didn't eat or pee for at least 24 hours. I had second and third thoughts about our decision, which I did not voice aloud since this whole thing had been my idea.

But in time, she's come around. For the past couple of weeks, she's been increasingly friendly, and now she's staked out a comfortable chair in the living room as her own. It's likely that no guest of ours will ever see her, because said guest will be a stranger. But we know that she's really pretty sweet and playful. She's very much the opposite of our old cat, who was honestly more of a "dog-cat" that got in your face, meowed full volume, and then leaped onto your lap if you passed muster. Finding a different personality for this kitty was intentional; you can't repeat the past pet, nor should you try.

The whole experience has reminded me that earning the trust of someone who's shy and suspicious feels like a real accomplishment. I'm sort of more like the old cat, meowing a lot and getting in people's faces. That's not good. I need to be more quiet, subdued, reserved. It's not natural but it probably goes a lot farther than my current approach. I always struggle with stuff from the bible that talks up the "gentleness of spirit" aspect, because I really have to look deep in myself to find that sort of thing. Maybe I should work on putting more of it in there, so it's not such a rare discovery...

Onward to another new addition: a lovely, nearly completed (doesn't have a door or windows yet) shed in the garden. Yes, I know—why build a shed if you plan to move? Please ask my husband. Maybe you'll get a more satisfying answer than I did.

Moving on, I looked for a photo I took last summer, but couldn't locate it and was too lazy to search through my CDs of saved images. The photo featured a wonderful, simple, possibly nutritious entrée called egg-in-the-hole. I first learned of this easy meal from Martha Stewart, but I turned it into an art form in late August, when our home-grown tomatoes were bursting from the vines. EITH is a lovely food form because it is completely flexible and easily individualized. (And yes, occasionally I take pictures of my edible creations. No comments, please.)

Here are some divinely uncomplicated instructions for Egg-in-the-Hole:

-Take a piece of bread, rip a smallish hole in the center, and eat the bread you ripped out to sustain you while you cook this masterpiece.
-Heat a medium-sized fry pan over medium heat.
-Drop in a BIG pat of butter.
-When it's sizzling, decrease the heat slightly and drop in the hole-y bread.
-As it begins to toast in the pan, crack an egg into the hole in the bread.
-When about 30 seconds have passed, use a spatula to loosen the egg/bread so it doesn't stick too much to the pan.
-After about 30 more seconds, turn over the egg/bread.
-Add some lunch meat or leftover turkey or ham to the top of the mostly cooked egg.
-Add some shredded or thinly sliced cheese atop the meat.
-Ascertain that the egg is fully cooked or darn close, and then turn off the heat and cover the pan for a minute or two.
-EAT. It's that easy. The most difficult part is washing the fry pan. Which isn't too bad, since you used a ton of butter to prevent sticking. ; )

The tastiest combo I found was whole wheat bread, a home-grown egg courtesy of my sister's hens, then turkey topped with a fresh slice of tomato, sprinkled liberally with Parmesan and pepper. But the beauty of this is that it works with whatever ingredients you have available. The butter gives the bread a rich, crispy texture that feels positively luxurious. You don't even need meat, because the egg gives you protein. You can use fresh greens wilted on top, or just cheese, or even a dollop of cottage cheese. It's completely up to you. Use whole-grain bread and don't go too crazy with the butter, and you might just be able to pass this off as a healthy little meal.

Signing off now; more Christmas-related tasks await. Stay jolly and joyful!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Extroverts, optimistic party planners, and other menaces

Disclaimer: It's the mad, misguided Christmas season, and that can mean only one thing—Mel is in rare form and her bad side is hanging on the clothesline for all to see. And this rant has nothing to do with Jesus, for whom I am very thankful.

Christmas inevitably brings many stress factors. Not just the shopping, the over-spending, the regular-and-expected lying to children, the preparations, the baking, the decorations which might be skipped in years past but are now par for the course with a child in the house... Those are all festive yet exhausting. But the biggest stress inducers by far, for me at least, would be the multiple social occasions that pop up and the people who pressure you to attend them.

I'm an introvert. I've confessed that here before. It doesn't mean I don't like people; I genuinely like a lot of people. I even admire some of them, emulate a few, respect several... But anyway, being an introvert simply means that I am not fueled by my time around people. I find that it makes me weary. I am fueled, fired up, and energized by time alone or with just a close friend of two.

That said, you can imagine that the Christmas season is fraught with peril for people like me. Suddenly, a relatively open schedule is littered with events, parties and dinners and family occasions. It's hard to squeeze them all in, but more than that, it's difficult for someone like me to embrace them and anticipate them with anything other than a heavy sigh. I already know what they will entail. There will be long hours of conversation, often about things I don't know (at the many occasions that my happy, friendly, extroverted husband has been invited to); there will be lots of fattening, rich, sugar-laden food (that I will have to avoid so as not to aggravate my prediabetic condition); there will likely be other women I don't know fawning all over my guy, which makes me a tad uneasy. There will be several events which don't allow children, and that's fine here and there but introduces some friction into the works because although they're not my events, I am expected to find childcare—which can be challenging anytime, let alone at Christmastime...

To make matters more complex, my spouse loves people, adores these gatherings, and is happy not to miss a single one. Indeed, all the people who are like him, who also happen to be planners (thank Heaven the spouse is not), are delightedly setting up all sorts of fun evenings (and some daytimes) in which every attendee can come and happily revel in the wondrous company of all the other scintillating people.

Well, here's a newsflash: some people just don't revel in it. Some people find it tiresome after awhile. Maybe even after a very short while.

Just because people have good intentions does not guarantee that they always have good ideas. Sometimes, other people need to be honest and explain the flip side of all this Christmas activity. I don't want to be a hermit, but I am worn out with biting my tongue and saying yes, with shouldering blame for simply being who I am, for the implications from others that I am a strange, twisted, mean-spirited misanthrope when all I really want is meaningful time with my favorite people instead of frenzy.

That is all...for now. I apologize for being a damp dishcloth.
Happy, happy
Joy, joy.
-Ren and Stimpy

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A heaping helping of stuffing balls and nostalgia

When I was a teen, Thanksgiving took place at Ma-Ma's home.

Ma-Ma was my paternal grandmother. She shared a gigantic second-floor apartment in my home town, living there until the end of her life with her youngest son and, for awhile, his son—her oldest grandson. The place had to be nearly 3,000 square feet. It had tall ceilings, and a ridiculous staircase at both the front and back entrances (where both doors sported multiple locks, always securely locked). Running down one side of the length of the place was a spacious but dark hallway that could easily have been divided into three or four decent-sized rooms; off this hall there were several bedrooms, and a bath, with another half-bath accessible from the dining room. A cheerful sun porch faced the back parking lot, crammed from top to bottom with the bulk of Ma-Ma's bounteous plant collection. Anchoring the other end of the place was a huge living room complete with decorative fireplace. The living room conveniently faced the street, so you could sit in Ma-Ma's favorite rocker by the middle window—if you were lucky enough to land such a prime seat—and there you could watch the comings and goings of the entire town. You could look up the hill to a nearby park, to the college campus housed there, or you could look down the street toward the middle of Main Street (High Street, as it is named in that small town).

When we arrived, others were almost always there already—aunts, uncles, cousins of various ages, all wandering to and fro and getting in the way at times. The turkey was roasting, the potatoes were being mashed to perfection, the corn pudding and green bean casserole were warming somewhere safe... and the stuffing balls were likely being fussed over by my grandmother. Generously portioned, not too wet and not too dry, she formed them all by hand, and they were never baked to perfection inside a bird's carcass! Absolutely not. They were wonderfully browned on cookie sheets, I think. She was always very concerned about their safety, or at least that's what I recall. Would they dry out? Become too hard? We didn't want to bat them in a sports event, we wanted to savor their crispy-tender wonder. The stuffing balls must be protected. The gravy was very important, too; it was another delicate delight to be nurtured and watched.

The dining room in that apartment was grand, right out of the 20s I suppose, with beautiful woodwork, double glass-paned doors leading in from the grand hallway, and my grandmother's table in the center of the room as its stupendous crowning glory. I seem to remember that the big wooden table was always pulled out to its full length, even when the holidays were done. The room was large, the table almost as large, and we filled it and still required a kids' table; I think that was a card table at the end of the room opposite those swinging double doors.

When the meal was ready, we all took plates and filled them, or had help filling them in the case of little ones. We sat, we usually remembered to say a grace and ponder the things we felt thankful about having, and then we ate like the hungry, fragrance-teased people we were. The food was always fabulous. The whole experience was loud, confusing, a bit crowded, and immense fun.

When the meal was done and the kids long gone from the room, the adults lingered, eating more, talking more. I think I lingered most of the time, perhaps realizing even in my spoiled youth that these were precious moments, that some day I would be penning a memory as I am right now. Talk of family, of the people in town, of political developments, all swirled around the warm room. And then, everyone gathered dishes and carried them to the kitchen, and the great food preservation and dish-washing events began in earnest.

I do remember being expected to help wash or dry dishes. I think I usually dried, probably not yet trusted in my girlish giddiness to handle Ma-Ma's pretty China when fully submerged in soapy suds. I don't recall us ever breaking into song or anything, but the mood even while we worked was festive and upbeat. I've never minded getting up and doing something immediately after a big meal, so the clean-up was a welcome chance to move around and remain standing instead of folding my stuffed belly into a soft chair. (That still just impedes my digestion, truly.)

Then it would all be done, or at least the main meal. Maybe we delayed the pies; I really can't remember. I feel as if we held off on desserts and enjoyed them a bit later, after people had squeezed in a rest. When everyone had eaten, that vast living room was like a morgue, bodies everywhere, the couch and recliner always occupied but also large portions of the floor; people everywhere were flung in the half-joyful, half-suffering poses of the gorged. The room was never silent, though; that was the decade of MTV's birth, those early days when the station actually played music videos. My lucky grandmother had a cable subscription, something that we country folk couldn't even fathom, and a day at Ma-Ma's was one of my only chances to absorb as many videos as possible. I never napped, but I did jockey for a position on the floor in front of the television, so I could stretch out on my stomach and gaze, in my overfed stupor, at the musical mindlessness before me.

Now, I am about the same age that my aunts and uncles were at that gathering. Now, my child is small, and my nieces and nephews are teens and young adults. Now, that apartment is inhabited by someone else. My parents are the grandparents. MTV has become something unrecognizable; indeed, much of this culture is unrecognizable to me—strange and empty. Ungrounded. Shallow.

I am realizing, in my old age, that there are scenes and people that you will never stop missing.

Happy belated Thanksgiving. Remember it all, cherish it. Take photos. Write it down. It will fade, and change, and then suddenly it will be part of the past.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Wholesome family activities

Well, I told you last time around that I'd share some information regarding our household supply of meat. So, here goes.

My husband hunts. I have no moral dilemma about this, because I know he is a responsible adult who has been trained properly in this arena by other responsible adults. Plus, I know he respects life of all kinds, and the creator of life to boot. Additionally, he does his best to prepare himself and his weapon so that when a hunting opportunity arises, he is ready and can aim with practiced care and accuracy so as to make the animal's death quick and as free of suffering as possible.

(I also know that my little son is not with him while he engages in this pursuit, and I am more than a tad relieved that the kid has not yet shown serious interest.)

Anyway. We try to be honest with our child, and that involves talking openly about hunting, wild animals, death, humane treatment of life, and our food supply. (Most kids can handle the truth; it's the adults who turn away and get squeamish.)

So, my hunter was successful on one of his recent archery forays, and he made an excellent, quick-kill shot on a very large buck. For the past few years, thanks to some knowledgeable hunting friends from church, my husband has begun to process his own animals. I won't lie; this freaked me out at first, mostly because it happened in our garage. Yes, my father hunted also, as did many of the people (kids, too) in my hometown. I'm comfortable with that, as long as the people who hunt are cautious, mature, and respectful of life. I'm not so comfortable with animals being skinned where the station wagon should be... I'm also not so comfortable with large pans of flesh, or with an electric grinder making a horrific racket in my basement. But? I'm getting there.

The whole experience, now that we've been through it more than once or twice, is actually very informative. I've learned a lot about different cuts of meat on grazing animals—which ones are typically tender, which ones are tough, which ones require a full day of roasting in juices but deliver wonderfully when granted patient, proper cooking techniques. I've learned how deer carry their fat in a totally different way than beef (the fat is layered just under the skin, not marbled throughout muscle... although most of the heavily marbled purchased meats are coming from cows that were fed corn, a totally unnatural and harmful food product for them...) I've learned that honestly, doe meat tastes better than buck. I've learned that a whole lot of garbage can be hidden in any purchased sausage product. (Don't say you haven't been warned! Some of those sausages could make hot dogs or gelatin seem pretty harmless, folks...)

Anyway, mostly I've learned that butchering is bloody, messy work, and that for all my concerns about our garage and basement, they're likely just as (if not more) sanitary than a typical butcher shop.

It's hard to ignore the fact that you're eating animal flesh when you watch the stuff getting ground up and mixed with other stuff, emerging like little worms from a loud machine. There's pretty much no getting around that image. You're eating meat. But hear me on this: Any time you eat meat, even prettily packaged plastic-wrapped store-bought meat, you're participating in this procedure in some way. You're funding it. For anyone who's labeling my family and me as barbarians right now, I ask you only this: when did you last eat a burger? a pepperoni pizza? a good steak? The more marbled the steak, the more likely that the cow it came from was close to death from corn consumption even before it was slaughtered. Fish? Yes, it too had a face once. Not cute and fuzzy, not pretty and big-eyed, but a face nonetheless. For all the people who are shaking their heads at us right now, ready to dial CYS to save our child from this horror, I say to you that you are part of it, too, every time you go out to dinner and watch your children happily, mindlessly consume chicken nuggets.

If you eat meat, any meat, then some creature had to die, in some form or fashion.

I'd rather know what I'm supporting than not know. I like helping to determine exactly what goes into our meat supply regarding flavors and source foods. This deer was fat, healthy, and happy; he had a good life. And frankly, I'd rather participate personally in his death this way than support some of the cruel, sick, and unusual practices that are rampant in modern feedlots. If I ever have the acreage, I like to think I'll try to raise my own chickens and turkeys.

That's how we spent a few hours during the past week or so. And I like to think that in the big picture, we're no worse than anyone else. At least we're informed. We know where the food came from. We know how it was prepared. Yes, we all washed our hands repeatedly, and sterilized the necessary surfaces with bleach. But I have peace of mind about it all.

Do you?

P.S. I hope I didn't scare anyone away permanently. It's a topic worth pondering, I assure you.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Posing porcine...and a public service announcement of sorts

Here's my latest painting, created from a photograph taken on a most awesome farm north of Pittsburgh.

Isn't this inquisitive piggy adorable?

The farm was still making final decisions about its name, last I heard, but I've already named this cutie: Berkshire Beauty. You can read more about the pigs, piglets, and other animals on the farm if you click on the Paleo Habitat link over there on the left. (I'll put Berkshire in my Etsy shop tomorrow, if not sooner.)

The people who run the farm are awesome; it's so neat, and inspiring, when you hear stories of and from people who are taking big steps, and some risks, just because they believe in a cause. That's what these folks are doing. In addition to running a household, taking kids to activities, working, juggling all the same things that most of us try to manage daily...they're also taking care of a couple of small herds of livestock. If I understood them well, then the biggest reward is just seeing these lovely creatures doing exactly what they're supposed to do. The family behind Paleo Habitat takes pleasure in the farm experience itself, the contented animals in their natural settings, even the struggles and hard work that must be endured to care for their charges and keep them well.

The result of all the effort is happy creatures being themselves. Will the animals still come to the end of their lives on a dinner table? Yes, some of them will. This farm isn't a retirement home for the animals. But until that day comes, these beasts will relish carefree days in relative comfort, some of them mowing the grass, others rooting for nuts and pieces of apple with their grain. At least, I think it was grain... And when one of these animals arrives at that final day, I'm convinced from the dedication and commitment I've seen that these animal owners will ensure a quick and humane end.

My point is this: These pigs and cows (and whatever else comes to that farm) will live in fields of grass, not small squares of mud and filth and fecal matter. These creatures will not be forced to subsist on a diet of corn and corn derivatives until their stomachs ulcerate simply because corn is cheap and plentiful. These folks have read the same books I have and more, they've studied the big, awful meat producing operations in this country, and they've decided they're not having any part of it anymore. They believe in what they're doing and they want to do it well, for themselves and for the animals in their care.

And I respect that. Very much.

If you haven't read it yet? The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. If you haven't seen it yet? Food Inc.

Inform yourself. Farmer's markets and small farms are growing quickly in this country because people are finally getting a whiff of the crap that our meat supply has eaten, stood in, and been forced to survive until it's killed in an often horrible, painful fashion. It doesn't have to be that way.

P.S. Stay tuned: more information about the meat supply here at our house to come in my next post!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Easy like Saturday morning

A sunny Saturday did dawn
And, unlike every other morn,
There was no rush, no lunch to pack,
No bus to catch to school and back.

Instead, the sun, so cheery, leaked
Through curtain slivers, where it streaked
The bedroom walls with happy light
That beckoned so a person might
Be moved to climb from underneath
The cozy nest of downy sheath.

But no—instead, that person (me)
Lay warm and dreamy, drowsily
Devising what the day might bring:
Some pancakes, fresh air, songs to sing...

For now? The covers would stay snug.
But wait! My son's insistent tug!!!*


Okay! I'm up!

* Actually, he didn't tug on covers this morning; he was so absorbed in Legos that I was able to lounge in bed for several minutes and get up when I was good and ready. That doesn't happen often here. The above scenario is more common. Either that, or he climbs all over my bed and jabs with elbows and knees until it's downright uncomfortable to remain, and I end up removing myself gladly.

Happy weekend!

Monday, October 31, 2011

A confession...and a question

I'm going to reveal something to you.

I like my own kid best.

Yeah, I know. He's my child, of course I prefer him, he's my own, my family, my little boy whom I've nurtured since his arrival in the world. He's the one I have fed, and snuggled, and disciplined, and taught, and guided, and dressed. I've comforted him after nightmares, fought to put medicine in his mouth when he's sick, held him still for painful shots from nurses. Of course he's my favorite kid.

But I'm not talking parental love here. I love him dearly, but that's different. That's the love that God gives you for your child (or children), the all-consuming, protective love that grows bigger as needed. At least that's what I'm guessing, based on what I've heard from every other parent I know, and what I've heard about large families and about children who've grown up.

I'm talking here, though, about liking your kid. It's different. Of course you love your child. But I really, truly like my child. I like him better than any other kid in the world. And we know lots of great kids: nieces and nephews, my son's friends and classmates, children we've met at church, etc. There are hoards of wonderful, charming, very likable little people out there. I know some of them.

But I still prefer my own small guy. Maybe because I see little pieces of myself and my husband in his mannerisms and his speech. Maybe because I can think of countless examples of his kindness, times when he's thought of the well-being of others, observances he's made that required sensitivity and awareness. I can think of innumerable moments when I've simply been proud of him. (I can think of other times, too, when I wasn't so proud—but honestly, I can't recall too many.)

None of these observances are earth-shattering in depth or meaning. I'm guessing that many parents who pondered this subject would agree. But it all begs the question: Does every parent feel this way? I'm guessing that they don't, and that is sad to me. I'm not thinking of awful parents who abuse or mistreat their children. I'm thinking of parents who adore their kids, who care deeply for them like no one else could.

Are their some loving, caring parents who just honestly don't like their kid(s)? Is that possible?

I mean, there have to be kids who are vastly different from the people who are rearing them. There have to be examples of children who resemble not at all, in thought or deed, the people who are responsible for those children. Right?

I just don't know. It seems hard to believe, but it seems equally hard to believe that it never happens. I hope it doesn't, but I suspect that occasionally it does.

And if it does—what a shame, for everyone involved.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Signs of things to come?

Lucky me—I've managed to pick up a horrible head cold, the first of the season. Thus far, my other two housemates have remained uninfected. I keep coughing in their general direction, which is my kind way of warning them to wash hands often with soap. We'll see if they listen, or also fall ill.

The worst thing about being sick is that I have no energy. None. Every part of my body feels heavier than normal, held down by invisible bands that make movement difficult and painful. Joints throb, extremities ache, my brain is dull and thick. That's the telltale symptom of sickness for me, the absolute drained feeling that causes me to sit stupidly or (worse yet) to lie senselessly on whatever flat surface is available. When I don't want to do anything, and I'm content to just sit, then I know for certain that I'm ill. Otherwise, I'd be in motion. I'm much happier in motion. It's part of the reason I shun television; I'm not even the reader I used to be, because it requires being somewhat still. (Yes, I know, I could get a Kindle and read while I run on a treadmill... Please. I want to enjoy the reading experience.)

Anyway, the whole sick thing makes me wonder if this is sort of how I'll feel when I'm old, Lord willin' and the creek don't rise. Will going up stairs take more effort than it's worth exerting? Will I have the strength to rise from my bed, or will I have to try more than once before I succeed? Will my brain feel addled and confused, like a maze of dead ends that don't lead to the right answer? Will my limbs feel constrained and leaden?

It's a valid question, I think, yet one that I don't want to consider for long. It's frightening to me, quite frankly, and I don't like to think about things that frighten me. I might be around for a long, long time, and I can already detect activities that aren't as easy for me as they used to be, memories that don't come as quickly, motions that used to be silent and now elicit an "Mmmph" sound.

The whole "is this what I'll feel like if I get to be an old woman" concern is just one more reason to hate being under the weather. Especially on a sunny day, with blue skies and warm-ish breezes. Those breezes aren't nearly as sweet when your nose takes up your whole face and the only thing you long for is a Vicks-scented tissue.

Okay, enough self-pity. Onward. I'll just carry some laundry upstairs now; I think I can break through the unseen barriers on the steps, the ones that press down on me while I'm trying to climb. I can do it. Deep breath (through my mouth). Here goes.

Friday, October 21, 2011

I urge you to check this out

In keeping with yesterday's post:

The stories you'll find on this link (below) encompass the very spirit that has made this country great. They are the voices of true Americans. Read these stories, be inspired, and if you agree, then consider adding your own life anecdote.

When an American says that he loves his country, he means not only that he loves the New England hills, the prairies glistening in the sun, the wide and rising plains, the great mountains, and the sea. He means that he loves an inner air, an inner light in which freedom lives and in which a man can draw the breath of self-respect.
~Adlai Stevenson

Thursday, October 20, 2011

This is why I don't watch the news

Watching the news, any news, for more than a couple of minutes is nearly impossible for me. The stories on the news are either ludicrous, horrific, or feature mind-numbingly evil antagonists. And sometimes, those stories infuriate me.

The local news can be awful, but often equates a soap-opera news option—overly dramatic broadcasters, all blonde hair, raised eyebrows and deadpan delivery, covering fires in abandoned buildings, bearded men who are arrested for not placing reflective triangles on their buggies... Sometimes the stories are tragic, and sometimes it's just a slow news day.

The world news? That's usually too disturbing to watch for long. We've become immune to violence and death from over-exposure. How many people were killed in the bombing? Was that a dead body I just saw covered in rubble? There was another natural disaster? What was it this time? Oh.

Let's take a look at what's going on now. Okay, there was a large-scale exotic animal massacre in Ohio because some loon of a guy who had amassed all these amazing creatures decided to 1) release them and 2) kill himself. Huh?! What in the world? Why did he collect them all, and then why did he free them and take his own life? Did he think this was some sort of statement? Did he honestly believe the animals would roam freely and not come to harm? How did he even get them? Was it legal? Apparently there were complaints for years about this goofball, yet he continued to acquire (both animals and bizarre personal traits, I'm guessing) and here we are today with a boatload of animal corpses in Ohio.

It gets better. In Philadelphia, authorities uncovered a dungeon of suffering for mentally challenged adults and an assortment of youth who receive government assistance of some sort. A sick little trio of friends decided, apparently, this was an easy way to make some money. How in the world this seemed like a defensible idea to anyone, I will never know. I can't even go there. I am ill just considering the conditions and suffering that these people were held in.

Now, those are stories that turn our stomachs, as they should. I don't want to know about them, but I probably should be at least informed so I keep abreast of what people are capable of doing. I can't begin to understand, but I should be aware and be reminded: This is a really messed up place with some seriously twisted people in it.

But then there are stories that enrage me, too. Like the whole Occupy Wall Street nonsense. What are these people against, exactly? Joblessness? If they had jobs, they likely wouldn't be able to participate in this lovely demonstration for very long. So maybe that's the beef? Or is it that big, bad corporations weren't held accountable for money loss? Were they hoping for college loans to be forgotten and that didn't happen? Have they come to the depressing realization that they can't drive new, fast cars on their current budgets? Do these folks even know why they're there? Are they angry that their cell phones are out of battery power? That their designer duds got dirty and/or no longer match? What, really, is the main complaint?

I can't stand to watch much of it, these people camped out in the very spaces that corporations provide for them, the displeased crowds who all manage to have what they really value (technology, name brands, nice camping gear) but bemoan the lack of money and opportunity. I hate to burst everyone's bubble, but here's the truth: many lives begin with (and sometimes continue with) un-fantastic, uninspiring, unrewarding work. Many of us started there, and frankly, more than a few have remained there. I can tell you why the middle class is shrinking; it's because the middle class tries very hard to have a lot of the same baubles that the upper class enjoys. We here in middle world have a very serious case of misguided, confused priorities. I want to live in a country that appreciates hard work, the basics, and has values. I don't really care to join with a band of creative hippy types who are whining about the lack of handouts.

Stop looking for handouts. Stop kvetching about who got them. Contact the president who's exacerbating the situation, your local and state representatives (do you even know who they are? did you vote?) and share your frustrations with them, and then go to work somewhere. Drive a small used car, live in a smaller house or apartment, shop where I shop, and most of all, Shush. Vociferously occupying a space that lies in the shadow of the very corporations that fund your hobbies, hand-helds, and highfalutin pursuits is hypocritical. If we look back at the history of this country, our success has been the result of individuals who competed to make money and make things better, and who worked hard. Sometimes, success has rested on the ability of many to do without, to sacrifice willingly. Nobody got rich by spreading the wealth, which actually means taking someone else's wealth. Which that wealthy person likely worked to attain. It's not the government's job to provide for us. The government owes us nothing but rights, freedoms, and protection from crazy people.

All right. I'm stepping off the soapbox now. I'm getting fired up just thinking about all this, weird people, cruel people, uninformed spoiled people, etc. I don't want to live in a bubble, but I also don't want to immerse myself in a boiling cauldron of information that fills me with helpless fury.

So, I'll keep the television off, and limit my time online. If I want to maintain a healthy balance in my mind and heart, I need to restrict my exposure. I want to feel genuine love for my fellow man, but golly, they can be an unlovable bunch.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Pumpkin... and pumpkin kin

I love the colors of autumn, especially the squashes, gourds, and pumpkins that grace every grocer's shelf and roadside stand. The bumpy orange guy on the right is my favorite; I already used him in some photos last week. So bright, yet humble. And butternut—who could forget butternut? Having tasted one recently, I am reminded of its exquisite golden flesh hiding inside.

I'll put this latest painting in the Etsy shop in the next couple of days; the edges are still drying.

On a side note, I am supposed (she says doubtfully) to have Comcast come install their services this afternoon. Supposedly (eyebrows raised), my service will be better, faster, and cheaper. We'll see. Verizon has made a dubious, bitter, sardonic customer out of me.

Oh well, have a great rest of week/weekend. Hope it's all you need and more.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Saved by a horn

Picture it. A lovely fall day, and me behind the wheel, heading into the nearby Giant Eagle to pick up a few items. I turn down one long aisle, scanning the lot for a good space. About 10 cars in front of me, near the store entrance, a woman is loading bags into her trunk. I see a good spot a few cars from her, and I notice that she is rearranging the bags she's already loaded to make more space. I also notice that the cart from whence she is unloading appears to be very slowly inching away from her. I stop my car mid-aisle, and observe closely through the windshield: yes, the cart is most definitely rolling away. In fact, it is steadily picking up speed.

I hit the horn, except this is the Saturn that I'm driving, the one with the mystery horn location that is somewhere in the center of the steering wheel but never quite in the same place twice. I proceed to strike the middle of the wheel repeatedly, in different locations, to no avail. The cart is moving more noticeably now, and the woman is still gazing in the opposite direction, mesmerized by how to maximize her trunk space, utterly oblivious to the encroaching mishap.

Ahh, finally success on my end—"Beep beep, beep beep beep beep, BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP!!!" She looks up and I frantically motion to the cart that is now moving with purpose toward a couple of cars. The woman is quick, unlike many shoppers at Giant Eagle; she immediately senses the seriousness of the situation, and with lightning reflexes she runs full tilt toward the cart, reaching desperately to grasp it before it bumps another vehicle. And of the 3 cars it could have zeroed in on, guess which one it's screaming toward? That's right, a Porsche. Bright cherry red, the curvy Carrera style, lovingly polished to a shine.

Just as the cart is about to bang into that shiny car, the woman manages to grab its handle and stop it, mere inches away from the pricey red machine. I can see her take a deep breath, relax her shoulders, and she waves a thanks at me, then takes the naughty cart, still holding groceries, to her car to finish the job. This time, she keeps a foot (brake) behind one wheel.

I park, get out, we joke about a sports car's magnetic ability to attract danger, and I head inside the store. As I pass the Porsche, I can't help noticing that its vanity license plate details the car's make and the fact that it features turbo power. Yeah, that would not have been a pretty scene: the cart, the dent and/or scratch, the angry aging man who drives it (yes, I'm pretty sure that's who drives it), and the unhappy conversation that would ensue.

The day was most definitely saved. For those two drivers, at least. My work is done.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Okay, this weekend will not be a washout...

If you live near southwestern PA, that is. I can't speak for the rest of the country. Sorry about that next-to-last post, with all the nicey-nice references to getting outside, partaking of fresh air, basking in the splendor, blah blah blabbity blah. Obviously, last weekend around here was not a good one for spending time outdoors.

But the next couple of days promise to be much more conducive to happy, warm thoughts. Really!

The pictures on these blank notecards were taken in my back yard. The colors this time of year are simply amazing. If you need any autumnal blank notecards, just stop here in my Etsy shop and have at it. (Fellow Pittsburghers can always just email me and we'll figure out a meeting spot—no shipping costs!)

Wishing you a sun-filled, colorful weekend.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Ain't askeered

I said to my husband the other day, as a lead-in to my reminder about where I store financial records, "If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, all the receipt for the **** are in the ****."

I allude to this type of thinking in other ways, too: "Lord willin' and the creek don't rise..." is one of my stock introductory phrases. When we're going away for a few hours, the hus and I, and especially when all three of us are going somewhere near or far, I call the home phone to leave a message detailing the location of our will.

He gets annoyed with me for doing this, the husband. "You know, that's kind of awful," he says after I place the call to our answering machine. He gives me dirty looks when I mention the bus. He occasionally goes down the path of how I shouldn't say those things because I might speak them unto myself, with the power of some strange inexplicable self-fulfilling prophecy that some Christians embrace–which is why so many of them are phonies who preach how we can expect only blessings and money from God because we'll just refuse to accept whatever else might come our way.

Well, I do believe that we can affect our mood, our attitude, and our witness to others by the things we say out loud. But I also know that terrible things happen sometimes and there's not a word that could have been spoken or withheld to prevent them. People die in horrible ways sometimes, even young moms and dads, even children. We live in a fallen world and tragedies do occur here. If I refrain from leaving a voice mail message that reveals the location of our will, that doesn't mean that we're any safer as we travel. It might mean that if something bad happens, no one will know where to look and read our wishes... and then there's likely to be some ugly, nasty squabbling. And delays. And additional taxes.

I don't know why I speak of these things in such off-handed fashion, almost in jest. I guess it's my pathetic way of acknowledging the very real risks of our existence. Maybe it's my tongue-in-cheek method of trying to appear unfazed by these potential realities. There's a slim chance that deep down, a tiny part of me holds tight to the completely untrue belief that by addressing the dangers out loud, I am warding them away.

I hope and pray that none of my just-in-case pronouncements ever come true. I try to be thankful for every day that no devastation occurs in my little life. Yet, being grateful, too, is a nod to the awful possibilities; you see, if I didn't realize that with every tragedy, there by the grace of God go I, then I wouldn't have the sense to be grateful when I am spared.

It makes sense to me, in a twisted way.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Just juicy (NOT couture)

One of the good things about a sagging economy (yes, there are good things) is that a bit of common sense and frugality begins to return to people. Suddenly, it's hip to clip (coupons) and out of the blue, magazines and newspapers begin to feature stories on trading services and bartering for goods. Which makes sense, when you think about it; before money got all standardized, trade was a main form of obtaining your necessary goods. It works even when money isn't worth much, and it works with skills as well.

Take this painting, for example. It came together quickly because it was for a friend, but also because I knew there was something for me on the other end. I make things with paint, you see, but my friend makes things with yarn. Which I can't do, unless you count misshapen pom-poms. So, we decided to trade skills, thus trading a finished product at the end. Fun! And how sensible, isn't it?

By the way, this friend also has an Etsy shop where she sells vintage goods and some handmade items. I highly encourage you to check it out here.

(I can't sell prints of this berry painting, because I don't have permission to sell or reproduce the image that I used as source. However, I can paint originals from all sorts of sources. So, if you have a favorite subject or photo you'd like to have rendered as an original painting, let me know and we'll talk.)


On another note, my little family spent a most enjoyable, affordable Saturday at a local marching band festival. Delightful! It's so refreshing and inspiring to see young people working hard to make great music, to listen to the awesome melodies, to watch them scurrying around a football field, and just to be outdoors on a lovely day. This weekend promises cooler temps, but plenty of opportunities to get out there and immerse yourself in your community and nature. Support kids, considering buying something from people with hand-lettered signs, and get some fresh air to boot! It's therapeutic!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

And yet more about expectations

I've been thinking about expectations, and how they shape our perception of—well, of everything.

(I touched on expectations here once before. Here I go again.)

We spent a long weekend in Cape May, NJ, and arrived home this past Sunday evening. It was nice to get away, the town was as beautiful as always, we climbed lighthouse steps and rode in a horse-drawn carriage and visited a Civil War village and ate far too much food that someone else had prepared and consequently cleaned up. It was fun.

But the weather mostly stunk. We knew, thanks to internet weather reports, that an unseasonable cold snap was expected, both here and there. We packed jackets, and rain coats, and umbrellas. And we didn't use them the whole time, but we did use them a significant portion of the time. We squeezed in some beach fun, but we also spent time looking longingly, through mist and raindrops and wind, at the nearly inhospitable shore. I fumed a bit on the drive home, felt sorry for myself, composed various blog posts with silly titles such as 'Scuse Me while I Curse the Sky... (I kid you not.)

Yet, the weekend was nice, and relaxing, and trouble-free. Even the rides there and back weren't bad. The newly purchased used car ran like a champ, we saw mountains, and Amish buggies, and rolling hills with barns tucked neatly within. We neatly avoided Philly at rush hour. Whew.

So what was lacking? Not much. Some sunshine, some warmer temperatures, I guess—I was expecting air temps to match the water temps (upper 70s) as they normally do in mid-September. (The water was great; the air, not so.) And there's the problem word: expecting. I was anticipating a certain type of visit, and we didn't have it. So now I feel disenchanted, disappointed, cheated of what should have been a warm, balmy weekend. But why? We're all humans living on this changeable orb. We know, by now, that weather is not a sure thing in any direction. We know that it isn't always sunny at the beach. Yet still, there's this pervasive feeling of discontentment in my gut.

Expectations can get us into trouble emotionally. If I'm learning any lesson consistently and repeatedly, it's that I need to expect less from life. I need to stop expecting good weather, uncomplicated days, and excellent health. I need to stop expecting people to be good, and thoughtful, and unselfish. I need to remember which world I'm currently inhabiting, and start living with more appreciation for the many times when things actually do go well and I ride the wave of relative ease of living. Truly, for most of us these days, life is pretty easy. We have so many gadgets, countless conveniences, comforts, and abundance, that it seems we've lost sight of the harsh reality that there's still so much we can't control.

Like the weather at the beach.

So, I need to turn my foolish little expectations on their heads. Let's see what that looks like:

I'm so glad that a hurricane didn't hit land while we were there! I'm so thankful that our tire didn't fall off en route and roll down a mountainside. I'm so happy that the horse pulling our Cape May carriage was obedient and stopped at the light instead of rolling through the busy intersection or charging a pedestrian. I'm really delighted that Marcus's slight cold didn't turn into a full-fledged illness with fever and chills. I'm very relieved that no one mugged me because this was one of the few times each year when I actually had cash in my purse. I'm thankful that I was blessed enough to have my own great little family to accompany me on this drizzly escapade.

There. That wasn't so hard, was it? No. It wasn't. We aren't perfect. Life isn't perfect. It's good, but not perfect. And that's okay. I can hope for better weather next time, but I need to steer clear of "why, why, woe unto us."

It was fun. And the last positive spin? All that cold wetness made it much easier to depart on the final day. Here's to realistic expectations, and nurturing a grateful heart.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Joy in, and from, the garden

A garden can be so inspiring, especially on a late summer morning.

I was picking beans earlier today, plucking some peppers, thinning the slightly leggy arugula, and as I pulled each item from its vine or stalk, the plant released a little zing of scent, redolent with the fresh good thing I'd just freed. Around me, birds were talking to each other, a squirrel was threatening some perceived intruder, cars swished past behind the fence, a neighbor directed the driver of a large truck of mulch to the desired spot in his yard. It was warm but not hot, slightly cloudy but not raining, and I was a small part of something so big and wonderful that I could scarcely receive all the stimuli around me.

These little veggies came from our garden. I couldn't resist painting them; the colors were so yummy. And I hadn't painted from real life in a long time—I'd forgotten how rich the shadows, how complex and delicate are the tiniest details in real life. (The veggies are for sale in my Etsy shop.)

And now, for everyone who's grown cabbage that's becoming ripe, here's a simple grilling recipe to use some of it. (We never intentionally grow cabbage because the plants are space hogs, but it seems that each year, we are gifted with a handful of them. I like cabbage, though, plus it's super-healthy...and I discovered that grilling it is fabulous.) You'll see from my recipe that I like to keep things "loose" so that everyone can make the recipe his own.

Grilled Cabbage Potato Kielbasa Stuff

NOTE: You'll need a grill cage/pan/something with small openings to fit over grill)
*red potatoes (4 larger ones)
*fresh cabbage (one small head or part of a big one)
*big hunk of kielbasa, any brand, any style (about 1 pound)
*some olive oil, salt, and pepper

First, pre-cook the potatoes in the microwave; stab them each with a fork several times, put them on a plate, and cook them using the potato setting. If no setting, then on high for 8 or 9 minutes will do it.

While the potatoes cook in the microwave, cut up a big hunk of kielbasa into large, bite-sized pieces. Then chop the cabbage into big pieces, not bothering to separate the layers. (Obviously, don't use the stem or nasty thick white parts.)

When potatoes are done, let them cool briefly and then chop them, skins and all, into big pieces. If they're undercooked, it's okay—they'll finish on the grill.

Now put all the big chunks and pieces into a big bowl and slosh a bit of olive oil into it. Add several bold dashes of salt and pepper and any other seasoning you'd like (no baking spices, though) and then put the whole mess on a pre-heated grill tray. Use a long-handled something-or-other to keep the stuff moving around periodically, turning it, making sure what's on top ends up on bottom and vice versa... About 8 minutes on low/medium heat should do it.

Scoop it all off the grill tray into a big bowl—the same one you used before, if you'd like. Eat it. It's great with corn on the cob, even better if you slice the corn off the cob and mix it into the grill.

The kicker may surprise you: Put a big scoop of full-fat, small-curd cottage cheese on top of the whole thing. WOW. It's fantastic. I can't tell you why it works, but I can assure you that it does.

(This recipe feeds 2 hungry adults with a tad left. Need more? Double it!)

Hey! Have a great rest of the week and weekend! I'll be removed from technology for a few days, but I'll be back next week! : )

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten years since

For reasons I can't put into words, I spent some time on YouTube yesterday, looking up footage and sound clips from that awful, awful day 10 years ago.

I felt truly compelled to do so. Compelled because I'd talked with my sister about a story on the news, featuring the recording of a flight attendant calling from one of those doomed flights. The people first receiving the message couldn't quite believe what they were hearing. Attack? Not a test? And then, when it was confirmed, they were all business.

I listened to some heartbreaking stuff on that website. Last recordings from many, calls to emergency operators who began as hopeful lifelines and became instead a last contact, a companion for death. There were a few clips that, after reading the comments below them, I chose not to hear. There are some voices that I don't want to have in my head permanently.

But I have a choice; I can simply click elsewhere. Those people who died had very little choices remaining for them. Burn, choke, or jump? Sit in fear or attack your attackers? Get yourself out or go back for others and risk your own neck?

I will never forget what evil people did that day. I will never become complacent. I don't want to—that's what compels me to listen to the recordings and watch those towers crumple into the ground over and over. I believe that not all Muslims are killers, just like I believe that I'm not represented by the extreme Christian factions who bomb abortion clinics. But I also know that my savior is a proponent of love, and forgiveness. And whomever those people worship doesn't condone that sort of thing for anyone who doesn't share the same beliefs.

They're out there, right now, plotting. Planning. They might even be in your town. Don't become complacent. Don't think that things are different now. Hang a flag, and shamelessly put your hand on your heart when you speak the anthem or sing a song about our country. Pray. Try sincerely to be good and forgive. But do not rest easily. We're not dealing with mere people here; I believe we are dealing with Satan's soldiers.

Vladimir Putin: "We are as dust to them."

Mel: Yes, that about captures it. I'm willing to be dust to God, but not to those bastards.

NOTE: At least Google kindly decided to acknowledge the event, in its own small way, for the first time. FINALLY.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Finally, a new painting

I actually wrapped this up last week, in a rare half hour of painting with my son in the same vicinity. The sweet boy patiently created bug potions in his outside "laboratory" while I finished this lazy lion.

Now the kiddo is back in school and I'm going through that strange adjustment period of sudden silence. I'll figure out what to do with myself in a few days, but for now I'll just wander around in a bit of a haze... and figure out what to paint next.

The lion in my Etsy shop; I'll be turning the image into cards and/or prints when I can pin down the husband to help me with technical specifics.

Seize these last couple of weeks of summer! Consider lying in some tall grass amid dappled sunshine, like this big-maned fellow!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

This IS the something

It's easy to get sucked into the rhythm of our ridiculously high-tech, over-scheduled culture. In summer, so many of our friends are taking multiple vacations, or their children are attending various camps, or they're juggling a busy schedule of work and sitter and grandparent pick-ups. Plus, the weather is nice and warm; no one is stuck at home, staring at a snowstorm. There are festivals galore, crafts and food and ethnicity and music all being featured here or there. The pool beckons, as do museums, and the zoo, and hiking trails, and the library...

There's a bit of pressure to make the most of the couple of months you have: where should we go today? What's in season? What's on the agenda? Have we been to this place yet? Or should we go to that place? Which is closer? More expensive? Do you friends like this one? I heard this one is fun.

By mid-summer, our steam is beginning to run thin. By August? It's pretty much gone, without even a whistle. It's canning season, there's harvesting to be done, and we're running low on both personal fuel and family budgets. August, I suppose, is the month when you come to appreciate the back yard most of all. It's the month when you truly embrace, out of both weariness and comfort, the beckoning sway of the glider. The very glider where you once read stories to your child is where he now reads them to you. The same glider where you witnessed the first hummingbird of the season will be your seat when you soon bid farewell to those hummers. The glider where you've watched the chipmunks run madly to cover, where you saw the hawk swoop down for a defenseless animal. The very glider where you've welcomed countless mornings and evenings, with their rosy pink skies and array of either chirping birds or prowling bats.

That same patio, that glider, that backyard garden, all of them will provide company when you welcome autumn, and a new classroom teacher for your child. All those yard factors will be present, sitting still, while life moves forward without ceasing. They will comfort you with their sameness even as you mourn the loss of other places, people, traditions.

I'm realizing anew that I don't need to keep telling myself we should be "doing something." Sometimes it's good enough to just sit, and talk, and think. That familiar patio and yard are the setting for my son's most imaginative games, for our best and deepest discussions about what he wants to be and do someday. Yes, we reminisce about Kennywood and the beach. But we also share thoughts, and dreams, and secrets. The baring of hearts happens on that familiar (dare I say boring?) concrete and turf. Those are the places where we permit vulnerability, where we face some frightening and honest truths. Those worn seats and paths bring out what is hidden and real and true.

We don't need to always be "doing something." This is the something, this sharing of selves. It can't happen when we're constantly busy. It must be coaxed by languid minds, into the light of well-known, well-loved territories.

It's not too late. Stop doing something. Start letting out the real.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

No blessing for you!!! *

There are a lot of weird phrases and behaviors that have been ingrained in us since childhood. Some such traditions help pave the way for courteous interaction; it has even been said that "good manners are the glue of our society," or something similar to that. Yet there exist a few archaic, misguided cultural morés that simply don't make sense.

The act of pronouncing "God bless you" after someone near you sneezes, for example. Doing just a few minutes' worth of research turns up limitless possible reasons why English-speaking cultures do this, but not a one of them still holds water. When someone sneezes, do any of us honestly believe that the sneeze is a vulnerable millisecond upon which the soul is more exposed to evil spirits? Is there a one among us who truly thinks the heart stops while the sneeze happens? No one is sneezing as a pre-cursor to the plague any longer; why do we all still bless each other as if the sneezer were at death's door?

The thing that makes me pause most of all is the fact that nearly everyone uses this phrase, or its secular third cousin, the shorter version of "Bless you." People who don't utter the word blessing in any other context are sure to trip over the next person in order to bless a complete stranger after his face has contorted and blown droplets nearby. Why?

We have decided in our home to oust this phony proprietary phrase. We're not saying it anymore. Instead, it's the burden of the sneezer to pardon him or herself after sneezing. After all, sneezing is actually rather disgusting, often resulting in flying spittle, snotty nose, and a loud shout whilst all that nastiness is expelled. In my family, it's more often a volley of sneezes. Yeeeeeuch.

I invite you to join us in the "No Blessing for You" campaign. It's easy. Simply say nothing when someone near you sneezes. It's okay. The sneezer likely does not have the plague, nor did his heart stop. And I hate to break it to you all, but evil spirits are all around, all the time—not just when you sneeze.

Blessings are good, when intentional and heartfelt. Praying for blessing for people is even better. But not when they spit on me.

*If you're a fan of the 90s sit-com Seinfeld, then you know the Soup Nazi—the crazy foreign fellow who makes stupendous soup but serves or withholds it as he sees fit. This title is a nod to that episode. The "glue of society" comment is another Seinfeld moment--Kramer said it.)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Serious stuff

I guess it was hearing about Gary's death that brought this post to existence.

Gary, someone whom I'd barely known, but knew that I liked immensely. I "walked the aisle" with Gary over 15 years ago, as attendants in the wedding of friends we had in common. We'd never spoken before then (he was slightly older, in a different crowd in high school) but the entire event was so much more relaxed and fun because he was on the team of over-dressed people sitting at the big table. Funny, easy to know, and so comfortable in his own skin, his joie de vivre was contagious.

He's dead. I found out recently that he died a few months ago, of an aggressive form of cancer. Just a year or so older than I am. That spark of a person is gone from this place.

There are many people I used to know who've already left this orb. Those who are considerably older than I am still hurt, but don't have the same ability to shock me. It's the people who are my age that feel most unnatural. Like Zane: I still can't believe he's gone. How can someone so alive cease to be alive? Heart attack, I think. And Greg, a person I'd never formally met but whose teenage image lives indelibly in in one of my scrapbooks because he happened to be standing next to an ex-boyfriend at some gathering. Greg was murdered in what appeared to everyone to be a random shooting. I don't believe they've ever caught the killer.

And then, last week, the crazy downpour of rain which led to an unprecedented wall of water that took four lives here in our city. It happened on a stretch of road I've traveled before, not far from some regular stomping grounds of ours (the zoo). Gone. Who could have predicted that tragedy?

I don't want to be a downer. I just feel a strong tugging at my soul that I need to be a voice of truth right now. And the truth is that none of us know when we'll depart this globe. For some, it is far sooner than we ever expected; others, like my husband's going-on-91 grandmother, admit readily that she's stayed longer than she ever thought she would. But the simple fact, courtesy Jim "Jimmy Mo" Morrison, is that no one here gets out alive.

People, if you are reading this, and you don't have a clue what will happen to you when you die, I pray that you'll stop right now and think about it.

I spent more than half my life trying not to think about it. I pushed it away even while two of my high school classmates were snuffed out before finishing college. I ran the other way, pursued stupid things, tried to achieve earthly goals, convinced myself halfheartedly that my fellow humans and I had somehow crawled from slime. I didn't want to appear unworldly, you see. I didn't want to be one of "those people" who blindly follow an invisible God who judges. I didn't want to be responsible. I didn't want to be accountable.

But I was empty, and sad. I made hurtful choices. Like the song says: I was lost.

It's funny how your eyes are opened widest when you are lowest. You're emotionally naked, and you finally take a good, clear, unwavering look around you. It's then that you become aware of a loving presence Who's been waiting, walking beside you, sometimes behind you, but always within arm's reach. Once you acknowledge the presence, you are not the same. Now that the presence is real to me, Jesus is a person I know and not an unachievable ideal. Over time, the idea of people coming from monkeys, let alone muddy water, is utterly inconceivable to me. There's a line from the remake of Charlotte's Web where Fern's mom is asking the doctor whether he thinks Charlotte's web words are a miracle—and the doctor basically reminds her that the web, itself, is a miracle. All of creation reveals a creator. The eye, the ear, alone are unbelievably complex systems. The brain? Beyond explanation. Pollination? Photosynthesis? The fact that we are perfectly distanced from the sun for survival? From the moon to control tides?

Maybe there's one person out there who will read this and really think about it all. If that's you, and you're thinking about it, then please read this, this and this. There is a savior and He loves you, all of us, even when we don't deserve it. He's already given everything for you. Accepting that outstretched hand will change your heart, and the way you think about this world. And this world is a very temporary one.

Bad things still happen. Every day. This small planet can be a pretty evil place, and people will disappoint, fall short, and treat each other unspeakably. I still feel pretty down at times, and there's a lot I don't understand. But it's funny—I find that I need less and less to understand everything. My mind isn't as restless as it used to be. Is it humility? The understanding that even if someone explained it all, I still wouldn't really get it? Has God taken away my troublesome desire to comprehend everything? Either way, it doesn't really matter. What matters is this: I am not the same person that I was before I took that hand. There are days when I cling to the hand, and days when I try to pull away from its stubborn grasp, like a little child trying to extract a sweaty palm so he can stray. But I know there is more than this world, and that I am forgiven and accepted once I leave it. I know that when I wise up, that loving hand will still be there for me. And that's a pretty good feeling, especially in these God-forsaken days.

Next post will be light as a feather. Promise.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The incredible shrinking tomatoes

The creation of homemade, home-grown tomato sauce is a journey. From planting, to tending, to gathering, to peeling and gutting and cooking... and the result? Not nearly representative of the amount of work and time put into the creation. That starting pile is only a sampling of the mound of tomatoes with which I began. The second photo, of the naked tomatoes in the sink colander, is the real number of messy globes that were destroyed in this process.

And yet, the flavor is luscious. So, I suppose it is worth it, sort of. It's not as if canning is really difficult work, only hot and time-consuming. And you can wander around while the stuff cooks down, and stop by for an occasional stir and taste... There are far worse ways to spend your time.

Yeah, I'll do it again. Next week. I'll freeze some, too. Much easier. But canning is a sure thing, just in case the power grid goes out, and honestly? Those rich, red jars are just plain pretty—and far more satisfying to regard upon completion.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Against the wind

There are seasons in your life when you feel palpable resistance. A lot of resistance. What was simple so many times before, now becomes suddenly complicated. Easy, mindless actions require more thought and planning than you would have believed possible. People who supported you are nowhere to be found, or worse yet have had a change of heart; decisions that would have been made in a heartbeat now flutter around in your mind like moths near a dim light, endless quandaries to be painfully pondered, situations that have grown so many sides it seems you've gained a couple of new dimensions in your mind.

That's pretty much where I am these days. If I were the kind of person who posted pictures of myself, I'd find one where my eyes are squeezed shut tightly, lips pressed together to keep out the dust, hair whipped frenziedly in all directions, because that's the sort of resistance I've been encountering of late. From the universe, some would say. From Satan, I believe. But there it is. Against the wind.

The most recent example? My car keys don't work reliably anymore. The car is old but still good, and without warning, my car keys, BOTH of them, have decided they no longer hold the necessary information to start the car when inserted into the ignition. I have jiggled, wiggled, and sworn at the keys, to no avail. They go neatly into the ignition, and then they mock me by refusing to turn. I turn the steering wheel with increasing force, wiggle the keys more roughly, and sweat breaks out on my brow... Nothing. And then, usually, after a couple of long-suffering minutes (with my child witnessing all this madness from the back seat), then the car starts. And we're fine.

The solution? Hopefully, a newly created key, etched from its source file instead of copied from the weary keys in my purse, will do the trick. No guarantee, of course; something called "tumblers" could also be the problem, I was told by a mechanic. But we are required by common sense and thriftiness (since lock replacement is far more expensive than a new key) to try the cheap key replacement method first.

Except, remember, I'm moving against the wind. Because I am a slacker, and I never got around to it, I have never changed my name officially with the people who issue car registrations. My correct married name is on my driver's license, on my car insurance, and I've repeatedly written the corrected name each time I've renewed the registration... but the people in PennDOT never changed it, nor did they tell me that they required a copy of my marriage license in order to do so.

And to get the key re-cut, from the car records, any dealer requires that your registration name and the name on your license match exactly. EVEN IF YOU HAVE EVERY DRIVER'S LICENSE EVER ISSUED TO YOU, AND BOTH YOUR OLD AND CURRENT SOCIAL SECURITY CARDS, AND THE *!@?&% TITLE OF THE CAR BECAUSE OH, BY THE WAY, YOU'RE THE ONLY OWNER. And did you know that every blasted PA Department of Motor Vehicles is closed on Mondays? I know that, NOW. I remembered it as soon as I'd sweated and sworn my feeble key into action at the cursed dealer's garage, and then driven my angry self to the DMV to beg for an updated registration. Which I found out, yesterday, would not have been possible anyway. AAA was kind enough to help me, but apparently because we live in an archaic state, Pennsylvania processes all name changes only through Harrisburg, the old-fashioned way.

I called AAA today, after almost getting stranded at the grocery store. Could they at least plead my case? Could anything be done? We're afraid to go anywhere. I have a little son. It's summer. We don't want to be stuck in the grocery store parking lot, cursing the melting ice cream. We have a perfectly good car! We have every document known to man EXCEPT the bloody registration with a perfect name match! Our lives and safety are in jeopardy here, people! (Dramatic music rising in the background)

Can AAA help us? No. Sorry. Does PennDOT care? No. I called them, too. Could they please do it quickly? Process it ASAP? Make a note on my file? No, no, and no. They're not allowed. They get 4 days to process it once it's in their hands. Getting it back to me via good ol' U.S.P.S. snail mail can take up to 10 days. That's 10 business days, mind you. Remember how many holidays these people get?

So, this is just one little example of the forces that have worked against me lately. I never dreamed that getting a replacement key would cause such stress, duress, and fury. And the other thought that's coming to me again and again is that this is such a small matter, really. I honestly don't have any right to get really upset. People all over the world are truly suffering, the economy is staggering and tripping its way further into a malodorous cesspool of debt, there are natural disasters and helicopters crashing and sickness and poverty and drought... I truly have no right to complain. I know that.

Okay, I'm done now. No more self-pity. The key issue will get resolved in time, although not my time. And these are all small issues in the big picture.

Thanks, Lord, that we haven't really been stranded yet. Thank you that this is the biggest problem on my mind right now.

P.S. Can you help us out with this key madness, Lord? Please?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Mid-summer doldrums...

It's been a good summer so far, yet I've been feeling a tad deflated of late.

I couldn't quite pin down the reason why. Maybe it was the incredible heat. Maybe it was the fact that the rat is still living in our garden, and in our attempts to kill the thing we mistakenly murdered a chipmunk instead. Maybe it's because I'm the only person I know who gains weight instead of losing it during the hottest months of the year. Maybe it's because we were thinking about trying to move to the country, but then, with Todd starting a new job and then being out of town for a week, we've missed the search-and-sell window of time that we'd need to change schools before the new year. Maybe it's because I'm yet again disappointed in the way my church handled a sticky personnel change. It could be any of those reasons...

But then I figured it out. The real reason for my slump is that late July is the mid-life crisis of summer. It's the point when you look back at what has transpired thus far, and ahead to what remains. Late July is when you begin to realize you may have squandered much of June, what with alternately thinking "we have all summer" and running around too much instead of truly appreciating the fresh green world around you. Late July is the reality check, when you start to actually number the remaining weekends in the season. It's the time of summer when you begin to understand that you won't fit in all the fun experiences and events you'd hoped to, simply because there's not enough time, or money, or both. It's when you glimpse the first back-to-school sales ads, and remember all the educational activities you planned to tackle each week with your kid... and didn't.

But it's okay. For all those things I'm reluctantly crossing off the list, the things I'm planning to put on next year's summer list, I'm also examining the list of fun things we have managed to fit in: picking berries, visiting museums and downtown, running through fountains, swimming, taking hikes, playing with friends, visiting with family, cooking out, sitting on the porch, reading and telling great stories, eating ice cream—lots of ice cream (hence the weight gain)... We haven't squandered too much, now that I think about it. We've had a pretty good balance. I even got the kid to paint with me this morning, "plein air." I lasted much longer than he did, but he made sand souffle in his sandbox until I was ready to break for lunch, and a light breeze was blowing, and the sun shone beautifully but not directly on us, and all was unbelievably well.

Coming to the 40-something point of summer is a lot like living to that point of your life: there are regrets, and there is also rejoicing. There is ever-increasing thankfulness, and an effort to strive for joy, with the growing understanding that it is a choice.

I suppose I was just feeling the mortality of summer pressing down on me a bit. Happily, we still have a few weeks left. And if I'm looking through the long lens, we hopefully have next summer, and maybe even the next after that. Life is like that; you can't dwell on the haven'ts. You have to acknowledge them, but only so you can work them into the next list. I'll try to spend much more time reveling in the Have Done category than grumbling through the Haven't Yet list. I strongly encourage you to do the same.

That said, however, don't sleep too late, or get stuck in front of the stupid TV. Those guys are summer thieves for sure.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A class act? Del yeah!

One evening last week, the husband, the kid, and I made our hurried, scrambling way to the South Hills to witness a bluegrass legend: the Del McCoury Band. Del and the boys were playing in one of a string of giant stone churches atop Washington Road; the event was a fund-raiser for both a youth organization that began at our church, and for a group for kids based in Dormont, I think.

Anyway, for days before making a decision, we went back and forth about whether to go. Todd loves this guy and his music, I like him too, he's known all through the music industry as the guy who brought back and re-energized bluegrass music, other artists laud and revere him, etc. But the timing couldn't be much worse for us, both schedule-wise and spending-wise. Still, it was for a good cause, and we both knew we might never get such an opportunity so close to home again.

So we scarfed down dinner and jumped into the car. We just made it, tickets were still available, and we got decent seats. The huge, beautifully appointed church was warm and getting warmer, but no one cared too much. We parked ourselves near a fan standing in an outer walkway and waited with anticipation. I took a quick look around at the crowd, a mostly middle-aged to older gathering with a smattering of young adults, a number of families, and a handful of small children sprinkled here and there (ours among them).

Then the lights dimmed, the resident pastor addressed the crowd briefly and told us no video was permitted, and the show began. McCoury and his crew walked onto the small stage, all dressed in suits with ties, carrying their beautifully shined, perfectly tuned instruments.

Del himself addressed their audience at first and many times throughout the show. He was a white-haired, well-groomed man with a kind-hearted, quirky sense of humor; he explained at one point that he'd worked with Bill Monroe (father of bluegrass music) in the early 60s, so I figured Del had to be at least 70. He joked several times about his mind and how it's not what it used to be, but then would tease us that he could only remember the songs that he liked best or the ones that weren't as challenging to play. He spoke to the crowd often, affably and comfortably, telling anecdotes about his past experience, other performers, and the history of the genre. I got the feeling that whether playing a small show inside a church, or performing at Carnegie Hall (which they have), this guy would be the same. In a word, he was delightful.

The other members of the group were clean-cut, well-spoken men, two of whom happened to be named McCoury as well (Del's sons, I'm sure); the youngest appeared to be no more than 30. Each of them was a consummate musical genius, bringing forth unbelievably complex, blisteringly fast melodies from their strings with ease, then switching to quieter, slower tones, then back to traditional driving bluegrass rhythms. The topper, of course, was that in addition to their unbelievable mastery of their instruments, they all could sing fabulously well, and in perfect harmony. While they played.

Even if you abhor this type of music (and I used to really despise it, I'll confess), you could not argue that these fellows are amazingly talented, multi-faceted musicians. Remember this type of entertainer? The dancers/singers/musicians of yesteryear? The type of groups and individuals who looked nice and respectable, who had layers of talent, humility, and good manners on stage to boot? Del and his band covered a couple of tunes, talked about some of the songwriters whose work they'd covered at other shows, and in every instance the man had only good things to say about each of those artists. How refreshing is that, eh? I'll bet I will never read a stupid news story about Del twittering some unkind statements to a competitor, or posting something unflattering on his Facebook wall about another musician. And the band played a long time, two sets, plus a few more songs as an encore. With the suits and ties on the whole time, mopping their sweaty foreheads while they thanked us all for coming. For a charitable show that I'm certain could not have been too profitable for them, if they saw any profit at all.

At one point, Del asked for the mikes to be shut off, and they performed an amazing, quietly moving song about getting down on your knees and praying. There was no pretense, no drama, just heartfelt rendering of words and notes. These folks were, and are, the real deal, or putting on such a good show that they bamboozled me—a scathing skeptic—with ease.

I am so, so glad we went to the trouble to attend. It was rushed, it was hot, my boy got weary before it all ended, but I left that show with hope for the future of entertainment. There are still class acts in the world, even in America. You won't often find them in the headlines, but you can find them.


Here's a little sampling of Del and the boys. Sorry you missed them.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The bold and the hideous

Ah, the sights and sounds and smells of summer. Sunshine warming your shoulders, bright blooms in every direction, colors that only God could dream of... that is July here in lovely western Pennsylvania. Except you might get a few very unwelcome visitors in your happy little utopia...

See the pretty flowers? (Note the great color combination of the first; remember my favorite shades of dandelion yellow and wine red? These beauties are perfection, no?)

See the last picture? That sneaky, pink-nosed beast stealing the birds' discarded sunflower seeds? I got a good look—the brown/gray fur, the long skinny tail...

Definitely not a chippy.

Last night, the hus and I worked on a shared mission. He took his trusty machete and obliterated the full, lush hostas (a.k.a. rodent hideout), while I drove with purpose
to the nearest Home Depot. Guess what I purchased?

I hope I don't poison the wrong critter by accident, but I simply cannot and will not tolerate dirty rats. Yeeeech.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Second-hand furry goods

I am a big proponent of buying second-hand items, especially with big things like furniture and cars. I've tried to instill this mindset in my son. Perhaps with too much success...

We talk here and there about getting a dog. Our neighbor dog is a sweet little pup that we sometimes help care for, as I mentioned here. And since the loss of our kitty, I rather miss the soft, furry presence of a pet in our home (although I don't miss the hair, nor the messes and strange behaviors).

We were discussing a pet, the boy and I, and he said he might want a puppy. I reminded him that puppies can be a lot like babies. "They whine more, and also poop and pee more often, not in the appropriate places," I said. "Besides, we should adopt an adult dog—puppies are always more successful at finding homes, because they're small and cute. They're way more likely to be adopted."

"Would we get a big dog?" he asked.

"Not necessarily big, just full-grown. Those dogs are less likely to find homes," I told him. "Plus, you don't want to buy puppies from a pet store. Some of those puppies aren't healthy." I didn't mention the horrors of puppy mills that I've read about. Sadly, some of them in our very own beloved Pennsylvania... There are some pretty cruel people in this world.

"So where would we get one?" the kid asked me.

"At an animal shelter, Honey."

"Oh, we could get a used dog," he replied, with sudden understanding. I burst out laughing. A used dog. Then we both started giggling.

"Well, they're not used." Then I considered it again. "I guess they are used dogs. But that's okay. We like used stuff, right?"

"Yeah." We chuckled some more. I was picturing the animals, from like-new to lightly loved, all the way to heavily adored, looking wan and worn. It made me a little sad even though we were laughing about it, because it's just another example of how people get a new thing, then lose interest or don't find immediate satisfaction in the thing and dump it somewhere. Except sometimes the thing is alive.

So, yes, if we get a pet, it'll be used. Which is just up our alley.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

America, America

Hey, All you nice people! All two or three of you who actually read this!

I want to wish you a delightful Independence Day. If you are American, then hopefully you'll recognize this adorable little Lego scene. I must give credit to Carl's Jr. (a restaurant chain that apparently is not popular where I am? since I never heard of them?) but they did the honors. In homage to the many Legos littering my world, courtesy of my sweet boy, I'll allow our favorite building blocks to depict one of America's finest moments.

There were many. There are many still to come. I hope you'll take some time to ponder some of those moments that shaped our country in the next 48 hours. I also hope that if you are American, you'll proudly display a flag on or near your residence.

If you want to feel concern for America's future, as I do, perhaps you'll watch this:

If Blogger is being stupid and the link is not showing up, then copy/paste this:

The vid is courtesy of my sis. Thanks, sis!