Monday, December 30, 2013

Christmas Cues from Critters

We had a wonderful Christmas.

I could post dozens of pictures of the gifts we gave and received and the food we cooked and ate.

We are blessed with great kids, each other, and a cozy home:

But like a lot of people my age, I do find myself thinking about how over the top Christmas can be, with young kids on overload, tight schedules, recipes that fail and food that has to be remade at the last minute.

And it occurred to me that we should take some cues from our pets about what's important at Christmas time.

1.  Boxes are free and make great gifts:

2.  Time with your "cousin" is the best present ever:

She's so awesome, you don't mind sharing your bones with her:

3. A nap under a small Christmas tree in a finished attic can be just the thing to relieve holiday stress:

4. That relative you really thought was awful isn't so bad when you relax with him in front of a fire on a rainy day:

So thank you to Doug, Alex and Ashleigh, Christine and Brian, Corey and Kristin, Jesse, and Martin and Jenn for all the great gifts, including new Fiestaware and accessories, heated gloves, a warm wool throw, a bird house (to help me think about Spring), a beautiful sweater and scarf, and gift cards for dinner, movies, and new running tights.

But the best part of Christmas for me was time with all of you.

On Christmas Eve:

Christmas morning:

Christmas afternoon and evening:

And Boxing Day (courtesy of our British friends):

And although this isn't a lesson from a pet, I have to add that sometimes the best gifts are the ones someone makes for you:

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Cookie Weekend

Doug and I have been baking Christmas cookies together for seven years now, although both of us had been doing it for many years on our own before we got married and began sharing a kitchen.

Over the years, we've added a few new recipes, dropped a couple that we didn't like so much, and changed up how we decorate and package everything.

But there are some cookies that have become treasured traditions, like these chocolate drops that Doug's mother used to make.  They're a favorite of our friend Mike, who always gets a few extras in his cookie box.  Doug's mom used to drop them from a spoon and ice them with a butter knife.  Doug pipes the dough with a pastry bag and uses pastry bags to ice them as well, so they've gotten fancier, but they're still a happy memory for him:

My sugar cookie cutouts are a favorite from the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, which I got as a wedding shower gift in the 1970s.  I have to say that they never looked quite this good when I made them by myself (see the blue and yellow stars--those are my handiwork; the rest are courtesy of Doug and the pastry bag):

Two of our favorite recipes came from Emeril, whose TV show was one of the first ones we watched together when we first started spending time together almost 10 years ago.  

The first one, the Guinness gingerbread, is amazing.  The recipe calls for 8 ounces of Guinness.  Hmm, that doesn't work so well, since it comes in 12-ounce bottles.  BUT, if you triple the recipe, you can use two whole bottles.  You also need nine eggs and two entire bottles of molasses. 

It makes a lot of gingerbread--two large pans, or 18 smaller loaves, which is what we did this year to make it easier for gifting. Our small pans are assorted sizes, hence the inconsistent look here:

We also got our almond roca cookie recipe from Emeril's show--it was the winner in a contest he held one year for holiday cookies.  These cookies are actually almost like candy, with all of the sugar and heath bits in them (we decided that there's just enough flour in the recipe to glue all the sugar together):

Peanut better cookies are always a hit, and the recipe we use comes from the same book as the sugar cookies.  I discovered several years ago that my vintage child's potato masher is the best tool ever for making the criss-cross pattern on top:

We had a great jam turnover recipe that we somehow lost, but in one of our junking trips, we stumbled on this cookbook, which is where the original came from:

We got a real bonus with this book--all kinds of free advice...with 1950s-style graphics.  All of the tips must be urgently important because they're punctuated with exclamation points.

One of the best tips is "Get Your Ingredients Together!" 

Well, we obviously didn't read this ahead of time, or Doug wouldn't have been running back to the store for butterscotch chips for the Special K bars, which his friend Jeb loves, and for the slivered almonds that the rocas get rolled in. Oh yeah, and how can you make Christmas cookies without red and green sanding sugar?  Another trip to the store....

But even with the extra shopping runs, we still forgot jam for the turnovers.  Not to worry--we found a jar of our friend Beth's homemade raspberry preserves on our kitchen shelf, and the jam turnovers were the best ever.

We have a lot of fancy but important cookie-making tools in our kitchen--a large Kitchen-Aid stand mixer, a Cuisinart food processor, assorted silicone spatulas, pastry tips, Sil-pat cookie sheet liners...

But sometimes the old-fashioned stuff is equally important--like this huge dough bowl that we use for the gingerbread.  A dear friend who is now gone gave it to me after she saw my yellow ware bowl collection, and I will always treasure it:

We also have a low-tech floor cleaner:

 My final task last night was to bag the toffee that Doug makes:

Over the weekend, we went through 8 pounds of butter, several dozen eggs, many pounds of sugar and flour, four batches of icing, and several bags of chips and nuts.  Not to mention the two bottles each of Guinness and molasses.

Everything was beautifully decorated, thanks to Doug.

And the kitchen was perfectly clean when we went to bed.  That's the part where my skills come into play.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Family and Friends

Last week, a childhood friend of mine posted a very discouraged status on Facebook, talking about the bitter fights between divorced people over the holidays. I felt bad for her because Doug and I are very blessed at the way things have turned out for our respective families.

As we have for the past several years, we celebrated Thanksgiving Day at the home of his older stepson, Corey, who is married with two small children.  Doug's ex-wife, who is the mother of his two adult stepsons, is usually there, along with her mother, as well as assorted members of Corey's wife's family.  (I apologize for the lack of pictures from this celebration--Doug was too busy frying turkeys to remember his camera.)

Then, some time over the long weekend, we cook at our house and have Thanksgiving number two.  It started out simply enough--when I got divorced, I let my kids, then in their teens, spend Thanksgiving with their dad because he had an extended family and I didn't.  We would then have them over a day or two later so they could celebrate with us and have some of the traditional foods I have always made.

The funny thing is that this event has grown every year--and it now includes my ex-husband and his second wife, along with some very good friends and Alex's fiancee's parents, Monica and Earl, who will someday be family in reality but already are in spirit.

This year, we seated 14 people in our tiny kitchen, which included a second table, normally stored under the guest bed.  Doug suggested putting a second small table in the living room, but I told him there was no way we were going to split up this happy group:

Ashleigh and Doug decided it was easier just to stand up:

My stepson Jesse and his girlfriend brought the total to 16, but since they arrived late, they sat in seats vacated by others who went out to stand by our outdoor fire:

After dinner, we all gathered for a group photo.  Doug put the camera on a timer so he could be in the picture:

In addition to 16 people, we had two yellow Labs, two terriers, an orange tabby cat, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Just kidding about the partridge, but we did have an amazing group of people whose lives have intersected in some improbable but wonderful ways.  Explaining the relationships to Jesse's girlfriend Katie was interesting.

Like the fact that Martin and Doug, who refer to each other as "brothers from different mothers," are the best of buddies but know each other only because Jenn and I have been best friends since the 1970s--when we met through our ex-husbands....

I call Jesse my stepson, but he's really my stepson once removed because he's actually Doug's stepson from a previous marriage. It really doesn't matter because he's a terrific young man whom I'm very happy to have in my life.

So, to everyone who bemoans the breakup of the nuclear family in America, take a closer look.  I'm not recommending divorce--I'm just saying that we should be happy for all of the people who end up being "family."

Like my son, Alex, and his "cousin" Steve, who isn't really his cousin at all but is my friend Jenn's son.  The two boys were born 11 months apart and grew up playing Ninja Turtles and Ghost Busters together.  Now, Steve's married, and Alex is engaged.

Funny thing--Lauren and Ashleigh kind of look like sisters.  In spirit, I think they are.

So, this year, I am thankful for a husband who is a great cook and brings everyone together for awesome food.  And I'm thankful for all of our family members--biological and adopted.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Best-Laid Plans

This past weekend, we had plans to go to Baltimore for a party celebrating the 60th birthday of Earl, my son's future father-in-law.  Since we didn't want to drive down and back in the dark, we decided to get a hotel room through Hotwire.  We found a good deal at a pet-friendly Westin near the airport, so we booked it, planning to bring Jodie along.  We figured Pax would be OK home alone for 24 hours (although he probably wouldn't be happy about it):

We planned to go down in the afternoon, see the progress on Alex and Ashleigh's house, walk around Ft. McHenry with Christine, and go to a cool salvage store called Housewerks.

Well, we all know what happens to the best-laid plans.  Life gets in the way.

The previous weekend, Jodie ate something nasty on the beach before we could get to her and take whatever dead thing it was away from her.

Four days later, when I went to get her out of her crate first thing in the morning, I was greeted with a mess in her crate.  Whatever she ate gave her a nasty case of uncontrollable diarrhea.  We put her on a limited diet for a couple of days, hoping that by Saturday, she'd be OK.

She wasn't.  And we had no one we could leave her with--all of the potential pet sitters were in Baltimore for the party. So on Saturday morning, we sent our regrets and headed for the vet's office.

Jodie is now completely recovered, so this isn't a post about a really sick dog.  It's also not a post about us feeling sorry for ourselves because we missed a fun party, lost money on a prepaid hotel room, and spent more than $200 at the vet because our dopey Lab ate something she shouldn't have eaten:

It's really just about making the best of an all-around bad deal.

Because in the end, Doug and I had a good weekend.

It was bitter cold here this past weekend, so we lit our gas logs early and kept the fireplace going all day.

I made tomato pepper-jack tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwich croutons.

I baked cookies:

We watched the Ravens beat the Jets and saw our UD alum Joe Flacco throw a great touchdown pass.

I finished sewing a quilt for Brian, Christine's boyfriend:

And I painted the inside of our kitchen hutch with two colors of leftover Annie Sloan Chalk Paint mixed together.  We also changed out the ordinary metal knobs for glass ones from Home Depot:

We also just enjoyed being together all weekend in our cozy little cottage.

Life can be good even when our best-laid plans fall apart.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Apples Aren't Always Red

Back in August I wrote a post about Pat, a dear friend who--despite failing health--was upbeat and happy, signing her emails, "Every day is a blessing."

In that entry, I wrote about visiting Pat with another friend, and I said that next time we wouldn't wait so long to visit her because we never know when it might be the last chance we have.

Sadly, that visit was the last one we had with Pat--she passed away last Friday at her daughter's home surrounded by her family.

Pat's son-in-law Alan, who is a pastor, led the service to celebrate her life yesterday. It was an amazing melange of memories from a life lived to the fullest.  

Alan painted a vivid picture of a woman who was creative and colorful, caring and compassionate. She put clothes and recipes and home decor together in crazy ways.  But her outfits and her concoctions and her decorations always worked despite the unlikely mixtures.

Pat made cheap pizzas out of bread, ketchup, cheese, and oregano for her kids when they were young and she was short on money, and she shared chips and movies in her bed with her grandkids.  She not only lived every moment to the fullest herself, but encouraged everyone around her to do the same.  She gave her grandkids disposable cameras at Longwood Gardens so they would have a record of the day, and she made cards with original watercolor art for her friends and family:

I found this little card in a box on my desk -- Pat had sent it to me at Christmastime two years ago with her new address inside:

For a wedding gift, Pat gave me and Doug a picture frame with a hand-painted mat that now holds our wedding picture:

Pat was a woman who changed her hair color and rearranged her living room furniture as often as she switched out her seasonal wardrobe.  She decorated every square inch of wall space in her home with art, yet could always find room for one more painting.  She made a 1970s condo look like an English country cottage.

Even when she had little herself, Pat always had something to share with those less fortunate.

Tissues were pulled out of pockets when her 21-year-old grandson Turner played the guitar and sang "Morning Has Broken," and laughter filled the room when a guest pastor sang Frank Sinatra's "My Way."

How could we not laugh?  Pat was barely five feet tall, but she "stood tall" and did it her way.  She didn't like complying with doctor's orders or listening to her kids' concerns about her health.  Even well into her 70s, she was still job hunting, including filling out the paperwork to be a post-Katrina FEMA representative. Two years ago, she enrolled in an online dating service. 

Pat delighted in playing pranks on her friends and her family. She once sent a letter to a co-worker, allegedly from the president of the University of Delaware, informing the woman that she had won an award. The letter said that the awards ceremony was scheduled for December 25 and that it would be a potluck dinner so the award winner should bring a dish to share. 

For her famous annual Halloween phone call, Pat would call the grandkids and cackle like a witch. The kids finally took to letting the calls go to voicemail so they could save the messages and share them with their friends. Despite being short of breath most of the time, Pat managed to make the call one last time this past October 31st.

As Alan said at the service, he could go on for hours with anecdotes about his mother-in-law, a woman who lived for today because yesterday was in the past and tomorrow hadn't happened yet.

But for all of us who knew and loved Pat, there is now only the past.  Memories of her will have to be enough.

Rest in peace, Pat. We miss you already.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


Doug spent 30 years of his life as a machinist at the University of Delaware.  It was a career that chose him more than one that he chose.

Being a machinist paid the bills, but being a photographer fed his soul.

Four years ago, he was offered an opportunity that was too good to pass up.  The dean of engineering, one of the best people either of us has ever worked for, offered to continue paying Doug's final year salary as a machinist before retirement while freeing Doug's time up so he could join the photography staff as a freelancer.

A very successful second career was born, and Doug now collects his state pension, makes some extra money as a freelancer, and, best of all, has the time to take pictures of anything and everything he wants when he's not working for UD.

Now, unless he's cooking, shopping, or mowing the grass, he's seldom without a camera in his hand:

His pictures tell stories of young lives:

and old:

of joy:

and despair:

of pets:

and their people:

Today, Doug reached another milestone in his reborn life as a photographer--he now has his very own website,, thanks to the help of my dear friend Jenn's son, Steve. Steve is a budding photographer himself and has gotten some tips from Doug.  Last night, he returned the favor and put his computer wizardry to the task.  Four hours later, Doug's public presence was born.

I hope you'll check it out.

His work is awesome. Yes, I know I'm his wife, but it IS awesome. Really....

Monday, November 4, 2013

Learning from

Last week, I checked out the TED website in preparation for helping one of our faculty members who has been selected to give a TED talk in 2014.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the TED phenomenon, the subtitle on the website is "Ideas Worth Spreading." The talks cover an amazing array of topics from vulnerability and sustainability to architecture, privacy, and the notion of home.

And they're also addictive.  I intended to watch just one or two to get an idea of what they're about, but after going through six or eight of them, I had to force myself to push them away as if they were a half-eaten box of donuts.

One of the talks struck a particular chord with me.

In "How Great Leaders Inspire Action," Simon Sinek talks about effective marketing--whether we're trying to sell others a product, get them to vote for us, or lead them to a course of action.

Sinek says that we erroneously focus on the "what," when what we should be emphasizing is the "why."

People don't buy what you do, he says. They buy why you do it.

He's so right, and there is a life lesson there.

I thought about the huge house we stayed in at OBX two weeks ago:

It had six bedrooms, six or seven bathrooms, a theatre room, an infinity pool, a hot tub on the waterfront, and a gourmet kitchen with a killer view of Currituck Sound.

But all that was just the "what."

The "why" was being there with wonderful friends and relaxing together in that hot tub.  The why was my husband cooking fabulous meals for everyone in that gourmet kitchen.  The why was watching everyone with a camera try to capture the gorgeous sunsets every night.  The why was all of us coming together to carve and decorate pumpkins for Halloween.

Was it wonderful to do all these things in a beautiful house? Of course.  But without the other people, the house would have been just ... a big house with a pretty view.

I always wanted a beach house myself.  I dreamed about it, but it was a dream that was always out of reach.

Or so I thought.

Until one day, I was looking at a real estate website and saw this:

It didn't look much like the beach house of my dreams then, but it eventually became the beach house of my dreams after Doug and I put a year's worth of hard work into it:

But the reason it fulfilled my dream wasn't the what.

It was the why.

I wanted a beach house so I could take a few steps from my front door and see this:

And this:

And do this:

and this:

And see Doug happily doing this:

And see Pax like this:

It was never about the what.  I didn't need a big fancy beach house with lots of rooms and a $1 million price tag. 

I needed a humble little shack where I could spend lots of time with my husband and our beloved pets relaxing and renewing ourselves in a completely different environment from the one we live in most of the time.

And I'm kind of glad I'm not rich enough to have afforded a big beach house because if I was, I would have missed out on the whole experience of tearing apart a mess and rebuilding something wonderful with Doug. 

So for me, the beach cottage really was always about the why.  

And I think we should always focus on the why when we make decisions about what path to follow, what to buy, which leader to follow....

Because the what is just the what.  The what can leave us feeling empty when it doesn't deliver on its promises.

As Sinek says, Martin Luther King didn't deliver the "I have a plan speech." He delivered the "I have a dream speech."