Our smiles were broader upon his safe return.

Is it appropriate to say “Happy” Memorial Day?

There are happy occurrences today. Local weather permitting, grills will be aflame and pools will be asplash. In fact, in Naperville, the kids have been out of school since last Thursday. So here, already vacationing kids have breathlessly waited for the pools to open on Memorial Day weekend unlike the patiently warming but vacant June pools of my Virginia childhood.

Yes, in Illinois, we start school in August, but somehow that seems less onerous than spending three weeks of June in sticky torpid classrooms.

The pool. Going to the pool. Summer days spent lazily navigating the grassy paths and hot tar streets between home and your best friend’s house and the neighborhood pool.

We like the things
That summer brings.

It brings the sun.

It brings the heat.

It brings the things

we like to eat.

This small piece of American perfection still exists. I am a witness and I am profoundly grateful.

Today, I thank my brother-in-law, Alan, for his contribution to the continuation of our cherished traditions.

Alan is in the National Guard. Enlisting in the National Guard once meant that you could reasonably expect to be sent to the Mississippi River to aid flood victims; or to the Plains to distribute hay for blizzard-stranded cattle; or to the inner cities of LA or New York to restore calm amidst chaos.

But recent events have resulted in Alan’s deployment overseas to war zones in Bosnia and Iraq.

On a beautiful summer’s day, our family, including siblings, cousins and nephews, drove Alan to Baltimore Washington Airport where he took a military transport to Iraq. His footlocker included his weapon—not gun, as he will emphatically correct you—and pictures of his new baby grandson, Adam. Alan was a grandfather when he was deployed. I am in awe of his voluntary sacrifice.

As you may know, I volunteer with an organization that helps local homeless families, Families Helping Families. One of our recent program families was a mom and dad and their 3 small daughters. Mom and dad had both been in the Army. Their troubles began when they left the support the Army provides and were unable to cope with their growing family and the unresolved traumas of military service.

Thanks to their incredible determination and the dedicated service of their mentors and case workers, their story has a blessedly happy ending. They completed educations, received counseling, reduced debt and bought a home. It’s a happy ending every struggling family deserves but too few achieve.

It would be wonderful– happy even– if everyone who has the means would make a contribution to a military family on this Memorial Day. (By using charitynavigator.org, you can confidently donate to an organization which will use your donation for the benefit of the families and not to enrich their directors.) These are the most deserving families and too many are slipping into despair and homelessness. How can our nation allow this happen?

Today, my family will enjoy spareribs on the barbecue, if the weather holds. At only 10:46 AM, thunder is already rumbling. But I am fortunate to have married a hardy mid-westerner. My Paul will gamely man the grill wielding both his oversized tongs and umbrella. Ribs will be charred to perfection.

I promise to take a moment to appreciate my great good fortune and my sweet brother-in-law, who is where he should be today, at home, with his two grandsons.

Thanks, Alan. Happy Memorial Day, bro.


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Pansy Preserved

05/27/2010

Alas, I thought I could.

Urgency Day 449

500 Things Item 52: Suzanne Somers’ Eat, Cheat, and Melt the Fat Away (I really did buy this)

It’s the morning after the first night of summer break, and we’ve already had a sleepover. Better yet, this morning we had pancakes a la Pete! Yup. One of the boys made pancakes for breakfast.

As my sister says, I love our older children.

Gone are the days of the morning dash to Dunkin’ Donuts to stave off the mom- we’re-starving!‘s before I could crank out the Pancakes Suzette. In fact, Pete enjoys cooking so much, he even enthused about Julie and Julia while pouring perfect disks of his signature pancake batter onto a nicely-seasoned griddle.

Oh yeah, I love our older children.

A while back, I fell into a pattern of giving high school graduates a beginner’s cookbook to take with them to college. You can tailor the selections to the kids, whether by region or cuisine or aptitude. Rachael Ray is always a safe choice. She’s got great, accessible recipes and a bourbon-and-cigarettes voice that will inevitably become familiar to the college-bound.

But as Pete was flipping his pancakes this morning, I told him I would have to eschew such novice volumes for his commencement gift next year.

“It’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking for you, baby. Set up your blog now.”

Was that an incipient-blogger smile I received back?

All of this makes it the perfect day to consider the cookbook shelf for the next downsizing item.

Zut alors! Of the 27 cookbooks I currently own, I could only bring myself to pluck one of them off the shelf: Special Occasions: The Best of Martha Stewart. But then, more zut alors!! As I thumbed through it to gauge its dispensability, out tumbled the templates from the legendary Pansy Cake! The Pansy Cake. The Greatest Culinary Disaster of my dubious baking career.

I cannot possibly part with the evidence of such iconically-humbling infamy.

For those gentle readers unfamiliar with The Great Pansy Cake Catastrophe, I offer a recap.

In 1996, Sydney was pregnant with their first son, Jack. I was hosting the baby shower for approximately 35-40 guests. She selected two cakes from the Martha Stewart Special Occasions cookbook: a lovely and simple angel-food cake called Coconut Cloud and the devilishly complicated but stunning Pansy Layer Cake. Loving both a challenge and my darling friend– and also being situationally cocky– I enthusiastically agreed to make both. Unfortunately, amidst all the other party prep, I didn’t begin the pansy cake until 10:00 the night before the luncheon shower.

Possible elements that doomed me:

  1. Inadequate stand mixer
  2. Meringue-layer templates not to scale
  3. Meringues eventually completely ignored
  4. Unfamiliarity with piping icing
  5. Unfamiliarity with multi-step, multi-day baking
  6. Hubris.

Take your pick from the above list. Any one of them would have undone me, but I added each to the recipe in increasingly desperate measurements. The indelible image in my memory is of looking up to see my darling neighbors Andrea and Greg peering with intense concern at me through my front window– at 2:30 in the morning!— as I gleefully tipped the entire contents of the woeful stand mixer and the semi-congealed sludge of several baking pans into the trash.

But the Coconut Cloud cake was phenomenal.

In my family, calling something a “pansy cake” has become shorthand for describing a man-made disaster.

As in: “Wow, that oil spill in the gulf in sure one big pansy cake!”


[Embracing this affectionate symbol of my many imperfections, and I will be donating a less meaningful cookbook.]


Presenting, your Dartmouth Book Award winner.

I can’t afford my nervous breakdown.

Sam finishes school today.

The Self-Contained Unit is a senior.

Wasn’t I a senior just the other day?

Rant alert:

He should be celebrating by having just won the Battle of the Bands, but he didn’t. I know I am not the soul of objectivity in all-things-Sam, but here’s my quibble: The organizers of the competition encouraged the participants to perform original music, and then they gave first place to The Only Cover Band in the Event!

I’m thinking the fix is in.

Additional complaints:

  • On-going computer issues;
  • Air conditioning in the Jeep just died;
  • Paul didn’t get an interview for a job for which he was perfect.

Rant rant. Moan moan. Cry cry.

Alright. That’s enough of that.

Everybody neat and pretty?

Then on with the show…

3 Nudges

05/26/2010

Urgency Day 450

500 Things Items 37-51: Assorted entertaining and catering items


In case you were wondering, three nudges make a poke:

  1. Donna’s recent comment: “What are we getting rid of?”
  2. Janet’s recent question: “What are you getting rid of today?”
  3. The recent demise of Lost.

I hear you! I hear you! Or I feel you out there, encouraging, cajoling or just tapping your many foots in impatience.

“Back to your 500 Things project, Suzanne, and be toute suite about it!”

Okay. ‘Nuf said. I’m on it. But first… what the heck does the ending of Lost have to do with blog-neglect?

Thanks for asking.

When it ended on Sunday, were you still watching Lost? Not so remarkably, we were. It neatly covered the necessary thematic elements which ensure my family’s attention:

  • Fantasy/science fiction
  • Mythology
  • Mystery
  • Pretty people running around on beaches

Not to mention, it soothed the gapping wound left by the ending of BSG.

After I get caught up around here, I would love to dissect the ending with any fellow-Losties, especially if you can provide me with a flowchart of all the flash-backs, -forwards and -sideways. In the meantime, I will direct you to two engaging articles in the New York Times:

Of all the celebrations and post-mortems I have read—or Sam has read to me—these two by Times television critic Mike Hale have been, for me, the most lucid and, frankly, helpful. I admit the ending still has my brow furrowed. Let me just say, I wish all time travel plots could be reduced to the conceit in a recent episode of Big Bang Theory.

Can we all put this agreement in our contracts, please?

The relevant piece for our current purposes is found in the first article, a cogent lament about the pressures on storytellers in The Age of the Internet. As Mr. Hale points out, “Now that the public conversation about how a work should play out can be louder [than before there was an internet] and have greater impact, than the work itself, that conversation will inevitably begin to shape the work in ways that earlier television producers—or say, Charles Dickens—never had to reckon with.”

“How a work should (his emphasis) play out:” Now there’s an interesting idea. In yet another way the internet has leveled society by providing a public platform for Anyone to voice an opinion, the internet is also redefining the notion that a writer should control her or his story. If the ultimate success of a work is determined not by artistic merit but by high ratings and ad-dollars, then should the masses be consulted for their opinions on plot and character development to ensure their loyalty?

I suppose it depends on your expectations.

Personally, as an audience member, I’m in it for the surprises. I guess I’m Aristotelian in that sense. Give me some popcorn and a good cathartic jolt, and I’m one happy viewer. I didn’t want a say in determining that Darth was Luke’s father or that Dumbledore would die or that Bruce Willis was a ghost. It was so fun not knowing! Let the writer be in control. It’s one of the few ways left for Anyone to be in control of Anything.

And there it is. I guess I want control of my blog. I guess. Mostly in the sense that if on a given day, I want to write about something other than the 500 Things project, well then that’s what I want.

But I also want, and very very much, for my gentle readers to stay interested.

And if three nudges make a poke, consider me poked.

I’ll work on balance: Your kind interest and my unannounced musings. I have to say, by far the biggest current obstacle to this continuing mission is not my stubborn desire for control, but my negotiations with The Self-Contained Unit over sharing his computer. Which I guess is also a desire for control: His.

In working toward regaining my downsizing momentum, I present today’s 500 Things project items. All 15 of these entertainment/catering items were part of my formerly laminated life. Peeling off the lamination is proving messy. Once it is entirely removed, I fervently hope the resulting streamlined life will prove satisfying.

Significant quantities of Goo Gone may be necessary.


List-Days

05/20/2010

yesterday, to-did: chicken panini*

It’s a list-day.

I love list-days!

They’re organized. They’re structured. They provide a neat path to completion, one satisfying check mark at a time.

Long-time friends and readers will know I’d like to apply some lamination to my day at this point. But I’m supposed to be eschewing that sort of rigidity and embracing change. Hard truth: tough to edit a laminated list.

But today’s list isn’t part of the larger Projects upon which I have embarked, so I’m not overly concerned about strict adherence to the no-lamination resolution. See, that’s growth: Flexibility about rigidity.

Here’s what I should accomplish today:

  • Pick up paperwork for client at credit union; meet with lovely K.C.
  • Return library books; check out holds
  • Swing by Wild Bran for gluten-free bread-baking supplies
  • Hit Target for other groceries
  • Drop off resume at library Human Resources (different from my branch)
  • Spend 90 minutes or so at the laundry mat washing Sam’s comforter; enjoy new library book

So, it’s mostly ordinary errands, peeckupandropov as Click and Clack would say. Except for the next to the last item. Did you catch that one?

I mentioned to some—and engaged the fantastic resume consulting services of two—that I was applying for a position in our local library system. Well, I didn’t get called for an interview.

<sigh>

But the encouraging news is that in the 2 weeks since I originally applied, two more openings have been posted. Fingers crossed and wheels a-squeakin’, I intend to apply for every fracking job they post. They should hire me just to be rid of me.

Of course, that to-do list item really is about the larger Projects upon which I have embarked. Employment, in the sense of urgent industry, informs every thing I do, everything there is for me to-do.

And that hard and fast rule is unconditionally laminated.

*chicken panini w/apricot sauce highly recommended!

Hey Sam, gimme shelter?

Where does your blog live?

Some blogs live on wordpress or blogspot, blogger or blogher dots com. Some are private, some public. Some are cozy, some are edgy. Kind of like our real homes, our virtual homes reflect an aesthetic we either live by or aspire to. That’s part of the appeal of starting a blog. Free decorating.

Unless you upgrade.

Since some blogs are still gestating, maybe your blog only lives in the most virtual space of all—your brain. Like Zeus with Athena, I hope you are able to birth your brain-child. If that’s what you want.

When I invited you to my blog, I gave you the address at wordpress. That’s the virtual home of process not product, and for me, it has been a surprisingly welcoming address. I certainly appreciate how easy it’s been for this tech-know-nothing to construct a site.

My blog’s actual, physical home is where I do the writing, on my computer, in my office, in our home. I would say sentimental whimsy is the decorating theme of this space.

While composing, my gaze often lingers on the perfect purple lamp, the precious triptych of Lord of the Rings posters (Ballantine first edition covers), the totally cool Jonny Quest Hallmark ornament,  the framed flowchart of “Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock.” This is my perfect work environment: kind of silly, very tidy, achingly familiar. I work best when surrounded by at least a few threads of continuity.

For the last few days, I have been unraveling.

On Sunday, my computer developed pixelization.

Yes, let us bow our heads and despair in quiet tones.

It’s an 8-year old laptop. The repair would be “at least” $470 to install a new video card and replace the wires in the monitor.

In the Venn diagram of:

  • Things that make sense and
  • Spending $470 on an 8-year old laptop–

there is zero overlap.

So for now, my blog lives in Sam’s office, on Sam’s computer. It can play with games called Guild Wars, Morrowind and Oblivion; it can listen to thousands of iTunes; it has access to a lot of naughty YouTube videos. Unfortunately, there are no themed lamps or out-of-print dorm posters or Hallmark ornaments nearby. There is very little whimsy and even less, well, tidiness. But we are guests, my blog and I. And we will not criticize our gracious host. In fact, I am sure we will do something nice for Sam and his computer.

Like vacuum the crumbs out of the keyboard.

I’m confident I can get used to the new digs; you know what they say about a change of scenery being good for the soul. Okay, I’m not at the spa or the beach or a mountain lodge, but I will endeavor to embrace this experience and try not to pick up any traveler’s scurvy. (That’s less about Sam’s cleanliness than about my finicky constitution.) And I will try to be a good guest and not rearrange the desktop too much.

I am asking for some forbearance from my gentle readers. It may take some time to unpack my things and get about my business. Work feels urgent but suddenly doing the work feels unfamiliar.

I wonder if Sam would mind using a purple desk lamp for a while.

Bits of Bittman

05/15/2010

First thought for our first sister:

KK in situ

Happy Birthday, darling KK.

You are the soul of grace and elegance,

and we miss you everyday and especially today.

Cheers!


It’s a gorgeous Saturday morning here in Chicagoland.

After worrying our way through a record warm April—yes, warm weather concerns us—May arrived with “unseasonably” cool temps. Weather progs don’t like to use terms such as “unseasonably” as they are hard to quantify. But five April days with temps above 80 degrees evidently qualify for a quantifiably unseasonably warm Chicagoland April.

The first half of May has been wet and cold. Like check-the-sump-pump-every-20-minutes wet and cover-the-tender-vegetation cold. So it felt like a benediction to wake this morning to clear skies and promising temperatures.

It’s cycling weather! Booyah.

But first: Oatmeal with walnuts and dried cranberries and the online edition of the New York Times.

When did all the newspapers get together and agree to publish special sections on certain days of the week? Why is Wednesday the food section day, whether you get the Times or the Trib or the Post? This I don’t know, but last Wednesday the Time’s Dining section had a great recipe from The Minimalist, Mark Bittman. What a surprise that a column called “minimalist” appeals to me.

What appeals to me is Bittman’s approach to food. His recipes stress simple but flavorful ingredients with an emphasis on vegetables and quick preparations. And his tagline says that he is a vegan.

Until 6 p.m.

I find this compartmentalization incredibly, well, enlightened. If you are a vegan for ethical reasons, you would certainly quibble with such a temporally-limited conviction. But in nutritional terms, I think it makes a lot of sense. If you restrict your intake of animal proteins to one high-quality meal per day, you had better emphasize healthy vegetable sources the rest of the day.

Take for example the incredible recipe for Chana Saag, an Indian dish Kara posted this week on An Hour in the Kitchen. She had me with this dish’s chickpea foundation (6 g. of protein in every 130 g. serving!) but then she threw in garlic, spinach and garam masala?

So good for my tastebuds and the planet.

Another recipe I urge you to try: the recipe from Bittman’s column last Wednesday, Asparagus Pesto. It includes all the classic basil pesto flavors, but uses steamed asparagus as the base. This lovely uber-condiment will be sitting-pretty atop a nice piece of grilled fish at our house tonight.

So Bittman had already been hanging out in my kitchen this week, when he re-entered this morning with a profile of ultra-marathoner Scott Jurek. Who knew it was possible to be an elite-level athlete and a vegan? Is it really possible to consume enough calories entirely from plant-sources to train for and run races of 100 miles or more? It’s a great article that deepened my awe for what the human body can accomplish when partnered with an equally disciplined mind.

Way to go, team homo sapiens!

Okay, our 30 mile bike ride is feeling pretty tame about now. Time to commit to more.

It’s gut check time!

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