Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid and Field of Dreams

What do these two titles have in common?  Well, more than you might initially think.

As many of you know, Geoff and I took a brief, four-day vacation to celebrate our 28th anniversary.  We wanted to do something close and relatively inexpensive, so we decided on a trip to the St. Louis Zoo (fabulous!), the Art Institute of  Chicago (amazing!!), and a brief stop at the Field of Dreams on our return trip home.  Now to illustrate how influential book blogs are.....last week was the awesome Audio Book Week celebration.  I was so caught up in the excitement of reading the praises of this literary medium, that I immediately reserved about three different books to take with us on our trip. This is the first time that we have traveled while listening to a book, and both of us thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

At the outset of the trip we decided to start with Bill Bryson's memoir of growing up in Des Moines, Iowa in the 1950s.  I have not (yet) read anything by this author, but Geoff had just finished A Walk in the Woods and thoroughly enjoyed it.  I knew that as a first audio book experience, it would be best for us to try a rather "light" read.  This was the perfect choice!

This particular audio book is only six discs long - so we easily finished the entire book over the 1,200 mile trip.  It is narrated by the author, which I really enjoyed because I knew that the way it was being read was the way that was intended to be read --- does that make sense?  For me the book had the right amount of humorous anecdotes (for which I believe the author is famous), detailed research on the time period, and nostalgic references to which we both could relate (even though we are a number of years younger than Mr. Bryson, I would quickly add).  I enjoyed the subject matter so much that I would like to read the book in print as well.  The author's vocabulary, and ability to paint pictures with words, is truly fantastic and I found myself wishing that I could underline the word choice for future reference.  Two examples that remained firmly established in my mind were:
  • a tornado was referred to as a killer apostrophe --- isn't that a perfect metaphor!
  • 1957:  we were entering a world where things were done because they offered a better return, not a better world.
The entire memoir is one in which this time period in America is looked back upon with great fondness.  What  we did not realize, however, is that Dyersville, Iowa - home of Field of Dreams - is very reminiscent of the Iowa to which Bill Bryson refers.  In fact, from the moment we crossed over the Iowa border from Illinois we felt as though we had been teleported into another era.  The farmland is so lush - tall, dark, green cornfields are neatly planted and obviously well-tended; every farm looks freshly painted, with pruned bushes in the front and a white picket fence all around; each town we drove through at 35 miles an hour reminded us of the fictitious Mayberry of the Andy Griffith Show.  Once in Dyersville I noticed that each house in town was manicured in the same impeccable manner as the farms that were on the outskirts of town.  Every other house displayed the American flag with great pride.  It was a breath of fresh of air - both literally and figuratively.

Front of the Farmhouse
Since we didn't arrive until after the field closed on Sunday night (it is a working farm and the Lansing family requests that all visitors leave by 6:00pm), we decided to visit the site first thing Monday morning.  As we were driving to the location at 9:05, I kept thinking that we were going to be the first ones there and I would feel a bit conspicuous.  Well, those fears were unwarranted.  The field opens at 9:00am and when we arrived at 9:15 there were already several cars parked and more coming in after us.

Here is the most amazing thing to me:  this attraction - devoid of video games, bright lights, flashing signs, and latest gimmicks - was appealing to every demographic component in America.  There were families with young children playing catch in the side yard; there was a group of about 4-6 older gentlemen (I would guess 68 to 70 years old) who were taking turns at bat while a young teenage boy from another family served as the pitcher.  Even Geoff got into the pick up game by playing catcher for a few minutes.  Time stood still and it was the most magical experience I have ever had the opportunity to witness.

Photo of the infield from the cornfield
The Field of Dreams is open to the public free of charge.  You are welcome to walk all around the baseball diamond - out to the cornfield and beyond.  For a suburbanite like myself, I have never seen corn stalks up close and it was wonderful to walk along the pathway surrounded by 5 foot plants.  I must confess that I think  both of us were a tad bit disappointed when we did not suddenly disappear as we walked further into the field.  There is a part of me that truly wanted this to be a pathway to Heaven.

While I do not think that this attraction is worthy as a destination location (it is a 7 hour drive from Kansas City, but was only a 3 hour trip from Chicago), I would most definitely recommend it to anyone who is traveling within 2-3 hours of Dyersville.  It takes you back in time --- to the 1950s that Bill Bryson talks about - a time when the television was only turned on after dinner; when talking on the telephone was limited by the length of the cord; when kids spent the summer outside riding bikes, splashing in the swimming hole, and playing a pick up game of baseball; and when parents would pack a picnic lunch, cheer in the stands, and stay focused on the game.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Mini-Reviews for novel project

As I mentioned in yesterday's Sunday Salon post, I am ready to start writing my novel.  Well, I am not really mentally ready, but I will probably never "feel" emotionally ready to start.   But I have researched enough that at this point I know if I do anymore it is simply procrastination.  There will always be more research to do (especially factual data), but until I write the scenes, I won't know what facts I need to uncover.

Right now my plan is to start writing on July 1.  I technically have the entire month of July off:  no appointments for school, and if Mom stays well, no family obligations either.  I did learn that there is a NaNoWriMo for the month of July, and I gave serious thought to joining, but I am afraid that is one more pressure in life that I do NOT need to add to my plate.  So I will just have to rely on you, my dear blogging friends, to keep me accountable to this goal.  I hope to write every day and have the rough draft of this novel complete by the time I must report to school on August 16.  Truthfully, I would like to have it complete by July 31, as I will need to start lesson plans in August, but I am trying to give myself a doable schedule.

The working title for this book is First Impressions (yes, I realize that this is borrowed from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, but the fact that the main characters are Impressionists, and the initial reactions of Phoebe to them and they to Phoebe are not always reliable - and I think she will have a first love interest in the book - which will carry over to the 21st century --- I don't know, it just works for now).

In doing the "novel" research, I tried to focus on three distinct areas:  YA novels (since this is most likely my target market, I want to discover the right pace and voice for this audience), other historical fiction novels based on these Impressionist artists (I was surprised how many titles were available), and time travel.  So far I have managed to read three historical fiction (and this will probably be enough for now), and one YA time travel novel (I am hoping to listen to and/or read A Wrinkle in Time before I start writing in July), and one YA novel that focuses on art.  I also watched two DVDs that were very worthwhile and I will quickly review those as well.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg.  I am quite sure that the vast majority of you are familiar with this modern day YA classic, but it is certainly worthy of one more accolade. The story is probably geared toward the middle grade audience and centers on a sister and brother who decide to run away from home and share an adventure.  Their adventure is slightly unique in that they choose to run away to Metropolitan Museum of Art and camp out among the historical artifacts.  While many students may find a field trip to the museum boring, these two children show us how fascinating art can be.  The author even taught this adult to look at the world with a sense of awe and wonder, some skills that I think I lost long ago.  There is a portion of the book that involves a mystery that the children want to solve - and provides an added layer of interest for all readers.  I would rate the book a 5 out of 5 stars.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead is a debut YA novel by this talent author which centers on a series of cryptic messages sent to a sixth grader living in New York City in the late 1970s.  There were many aspects of the book that I enjoyed, not the least of which was the description of my favorite city at a time when I lived on the East coast.  I thought Ms. Stead captured the voice and mannerisms of this age group in a way that I could truly recall this particular time in my life.  The ability of these messages to predict future events added to the suspense of the story and held my interest - even though I was somewhat thrown by the time travel aspect of the ending (in fact, I had to re-read it twice before it made sense to me).  This is NOT a fault of the author - this is definitely the fault of the reader.  It was good for me to read this kind of time travel novel - although it is not similar to the style that I plan to write.

The Artist's Specials is a series of 6 DVDs that focus on the life of a particular artist.  I actually watched two of them for my research:  Degas and the Dancer and Marie Cassatt:  American Impressionist.  Both of them were delightful and I would highly recommend them to any child - or child at heart.  The Degas movie focuses on his paintings of ballerinas, in particular the young dancer who is scratching her back in the famous painting, The Dance Class.  He forms a relationship with this young girl:  she models for him, enabling him to perfect his artistic expression of movement, and he encourages her to dance until she is accepted as part of the National Ballet Corps.  The film of Marie Cassatt focuses on her relationship with her visiting nieces and nephew.  At first her the adolescent niece does not understand why her aunt would "waste her time" painting rather than following the more traditional route of marriage and privileged life, but in the end Marie has actually encouraged this young girl to follow her own dreams.  The movie also touches upon the friendship that Cassatt and Degas shared (something that I hope to perhaps embellish in my own book).

Dancing for Degas by Kathryn Wagner is a debut novel, again with Degas as a central character, but definitely focusing on the more adult themes of the Parisian ballet.  The protagonist in this story comes from a very poor family who has no hope of survival unless one of their children succeeds in life and can support the rest of the family.  When the eldest son impregnates a local girl, this responsibility falls on the shoulder of the young daughter, Alexandrie.  Even though she starts ballet lessons late in life (most star ballerinas have studied since the age of three or four), she does work hard and succeeds at earning the opportunity to study at the Parisian Ballet.  This does not mean she will actually become a member of the esteemed corps, but she will have the opportunity to audition in due time.  The book delves into the seedy green room antics of ballet patrons and the purchase of ballerinas for the night.  Many of the girls care more about becoming a rich man's mistress - guaranteeing a luxurious lifestyle for herself and some financial help for her family - than they care about actually becoming an "etoile"  (star ballerina)  Alexandrie becomes a model for Degas and becomes totally enamored by this artist, but he refuses to compromise art for love and marriage.  There were parts of the book that I truly enjoyed - particularly the ending (it was not what I expected), but I had hoped that there was going to be more story of art, and less story of unscrupulous French aristocracy.

Lydia Cassatt  Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman.  This is a small collection of five fictional stories inspired by as many paintings that the artist rendered of her sister.  Lydia and Marie were close sisters, although they were as different as night and day.  Marie was the independent, strong-willed sister with great aspirations and Lydia was sick for most of her adult life with what was to eventually diagnosed as Bright's disease.  The stories are mostly character sketches of a particular moment in time.  I found them quite absorbing, although in a meditative sort of way.  I was truly taken back in time where a particular social class lived at a leisurely pace that allowed them to notice beauty in everyday life.  This would be the perfect book for a summer day - sipping a glass of iced tea in a shaded hammock.

Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell.  This novel follows the love story of Claude Monet and his muse/model/lover/wife  Camille.  I enjoyed this book the best of the three historical fiction novels I read.  I think I liked it because there was enough action/plot/conflict that I was always fully engaged (as opposed to Lydia Cassatt, where it was more a relaxed character study), and while the loose morals of this artistic society is presented here, it does not detract from the primary focus of the Impressionists artistic endeavors (whereas with Dancing for Degas, I felt that the focus on the book was more on the depravity of the young girls than the art of Degas).  Since this novel focuses on their life together, it essentially spans the years of 1857 - 1879, the year Camille died.  I enjoyed the pacing of this book, the attention to artistic detail, and the emotions portrayed of a starving artist who wants to provide for his family, but yearns to paint even more.  I was truly in awe of Monet's perseverance, despite popular opinion and financial distress.  He was truly called to be an artist, he was willing to do 'whatever it took" to heed that call - and the world is forever grateful to him (and his family) for making those sacrifices.

I have come away reading these novels learning that there is no one right way to tell a story.  No one has told "my" story yet - so I feel confident that I am not unintentionally plagiarizing any one's work.  I am also still excited about my story - which tells me that I am on the right track.  While I know that I must continue to overcome these senseless feelings of perfectionism (I want the rough draft to be perfect) because they are only setting me up for failure, I am still excited about the writing adventure that lies ahead.  Even if nothing comes of it (which I doubt that it will), I feel confident that my experiences this summer will help me be a more compassionate and empathetic teacher in the fall when these teenage writers will be experiencing their own skeletons in the closet.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

TSS: I am ready to write.....

This has been a whirl-wind of a week.  After quite a few misunderstandings, Mom finally came home from the hospital on Monday afternoon.  She will have a home health nurse visit her 2-3 times a week, physical therapist to come 2-3 times a week and occupational therapist to come 1-2 times a week.  In addition, we have hired one of my ex-students to stay with her during the night for the next week or so.  She is insecure about getting up in the middle of the night, and this will certainly give her some peace of mind.

Once I got Mom settled, I had to start thinking about packing and preparing for our mini-getaway this weekend. Yesterday was our 28th wedding anniversary (am I really that old?!) and while we could not afford to do much, we did want to celebrate in a small way.  If all goes as planned, we left on Thursday afternoon and drove about five hours to St. Louis where we had dinner on "The Hill" --- the Italian neighborhood.  We woke early on Friday morning to visit the zoo (and hopefully try out some photography skills), and then after a quick lunch we headed toward Chicago.  Saturday morning was to be spent at the Art Institute followed by a deep dish pizza at Giordanno's.  We were uncertain of the evening plans.  Today we were hoping to visit the Shedd Aquarium in the morning - again, uncertain of afternoon plans - but heads toward Dyersville, IA by early evening.  Tomorrow we hope to visit the Field of Dreams set (I absolutely LOVE that movie) and then head home by way of Ames, Iowa (cute little college town).  While the vacation is not at all exotic, I am really looking forward to it.

Last week's TSS yielded several comments from you that basically encouraged me to review the books that I read --- not to worry about the limited appeal or the writing style.  I must say that Margot hit the nail on the head when she surmised that the English teacher in me feels the need to write the "perfect" review.  While I have been trying to shed that perfectionist persona --- old habits are hard to break.

Today I thought I would ease into this "imperfect" body and write some very quick reviews of the novels I have read as "research" for my own story; however once I started writing this post, I realized that it was going to be way too long to hold anyone's attention.  So.....I thought I would give you the story's background today, and save the mini-reviews for tomorrow.

This entire project is a huge lesson in letting go of perfection and just enjoy the journey.  I have always liked writing non-fiction, particularly research papers, but fiction has seemed like a huge leap into the abyss.  However, since I have consented to teach a creative writing class this fall (my co-teacher has since resigned from the school and moved to Texas --- so I will now be teaching the class solo), I think that I should experience writing a twelve chapter novel, since that is what I will be expecting my students to do.  I suppose I want to try to dispel the myth, "those who can't do - teach" and instead replace it with "I can do, and choose to teach"

So, here is the background to my story.  I have known since February that I would be attempting this project, and at that time I thought I had a story ready to develop.  It was going to be a fictional story based on a thirty second scene that I witnessed about ten years ago at my daughter's junior high.  While I still think this is a viable story idea, and one I might pursue later, I wasn't quite sure that it would fit within the curriculum's parameters of an "adventure" novel; it was more a character driven novel with deep thematic overtones.

Then one day an idea just came to me.  I'm not sure how, or why, or when, but I was immediately struck with the overwhelming feeling that this is the story I am supposed to write.  What is even more bizarre is that this story could be categorized as a YA historical fiction, time travel novel.  Why is this bizarre?  Because I never read historical fiction and the realist in me does not enjoy the concept of time travel (in fact, I never really understand it and feel rather stupid as a result).  And yet....the more I research this time period (Paris, France circa 1880 among the Impressionist painters, particularly Degas, Renoir, and Cassatt) the more interested I become.

My novel will focus on a 15-year-old American girl on vacation with her family in Paris.  She is fond of the theater and hopes to one day perform in the Broadway production of Phantom of the Opera.  While deciding what to do on their first day in Paris, Phoebe wishes to go to the Paris Opera House, while her father insists they visit the Musee d'Orsay.  My protagonist is typically moody and pouts the entire morning.  While looking at some of the Impressionist art she comes across the Degas painting, The Ballet Rehearsal on Stage.  Phoebe closes her eyes and tries to imagine herself on that famous stage.  When she opens them ---- well, you guessed it -- she is there.  Her primary adventure will be to find her way back to the 21st Century, but she will have to experience several other smaller adventures while doing that (those have not  yet been revealed to me, but I am hoping that once I start writing, the story will begin to take shape).

The teacher in me wants to have some educational element to the story, so I am thinking that each chapter title will be the name of a famous painting from that time period.  And the episodic adventure will be based on the painting's subject.  For example, Degas painted pictures of the ballet, cafe-singers, horse races, and the circus.  There must be some adventure that Phoebe can experience at each of these locales, right?

So...there is my story idea, now shared with the entire world wide web.  I hope it doesn't sound too lame.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Weekend Cooking: Versatile Muffins

Weekend  Cooking is culinary meme hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open for anyone to join at any time.  I can't tell you how many new recipes I have added to my collection, or how many new food related books I have added to the TBR list because of this group.  I LOVE it!!

I have spent the past several weeks detailing various muffin recipes I made on a regular basis when Molly's Muffins was in full swing several years ago.  I thought today's post might focus on how to take a basic recipe and adapt it several ways.

There were two such recipes that I used quite often.  One I recently made for the picture that showcased my Strawberry Picking adventures that resulted in 9 pints of freezer jam.  The muffins do not contain a lot of sugar, which make them ideal for homemade jam and jellies.  I first found this recipe when living in NYC and it was featured on a local Saturday morning program.  Since that time, however, I have read the same recipe in several cookbooks and seen it on numerous online recipe sites:

Basic Muffins (Recipe #1)


  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 stick melted butter
  • 1 slightly beaten egg
  • 1 cup milk


  1. Melt the butter and set aside to cool
  2. In a large bowl, mix together the dry ingredients (flour - sugar - baking powder)
  3. Make a well in the center and add the egg, milk, and melted butter.
  4. Mix just to combine (over-mixing results in a tougher muffin)
  5. Bake at 350 degrees approximately 12 minutes (of course, it depends on the size of your muffin tins)

While this is a good muffin as is, I would also adapt this recipe to make ~

  • Snickerdoodle Muffins (add 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg to the batter and when removed from the oven, quickly dip the tops in melted butter and then cinnamon sugar.  Let cool slightly and then watch how quickly they disappear!)
  • Blueberry Muffins (add about 1 cup crushed blueberries to the mixture.  Crushed worked best for the mini muffins, as whole blueberries resulted in uneven baking.  Sometimes I would top the muffins with nutmeg sugar to bring out the flavor of the berries)
  • Eggnog Muffins (I replaced the milk with store-bought eggnog and before putting in the oven I would sprinkle the tops with nutmeg sugar --- approximately 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg added to 1 tablespoon sugar)
  • Jelly Surprise Muffins (these take a little bit more time to prepare, but are well worth the effort.  Fill the tin about 1/3 with muffin batter; spoon a bit of jelly in the center; top with batter to fill tin about 2/3 full) Each bite yields a tasty surprise.

Hopefully these adaptations have helped you imagine some new muffin combinations that you would like to try as well.

This post is rather long - so I think I will post the Basic Muffin recipe #2 next week.

I am currently (if all goes as planned) in Chicago celebrating 28 years of marriage by going to the Art Institute and having Giordanno's deep dish pizza!  I look forward to reading all the Weekend Cooking posts when I return home early next week.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Weekly Geeks: Book Hoarding

It has been quite a while since I have participated in a Weekly Geeks question.  It seems that the weekly question always addressed an issue that I had just covered and I did not want to be redundant.  However this week's question certainly hits a nerve:

I am curious about those gigantic TBR piles which readers tend to accumulate. Please share with us your habits, tendencies or obsessions when it comes to hoarding behavior.
  • Post a photo (or two or three) of your books to-be-read
  • Share your buying or book accumulating habits - how bad of a problem do YOU have?!?!?
  • Do you keep all the books you've read, or do you give them away or sell them?
  • Can you walk past a bookstore and not go in? If you go in, do you impulsively purchase?

First of all, I would not classify myself as a hoarder.  I am too fond of organization and clutter-free environments to allow myself to go that far.  I am not a very sentimental person either, so I will often go through phases where I need to "toss and pitch" various items in the house in order to give myself more breathing room.

I have never been much for collections.  In high school I toyed with the idea of collecting unicorns, but that didn't last long.  I do tend to collect postcards when I travel, but those are easily stored and serve a practical purpose.  My mom used to collect angels for years and years...and while I have always enjoyed her angel room, my first thoughts tend to run towards, "How do you keep all of those knick-knacks dusted?"  So no, I do not tend to collect, or hoard, or stash away.


Since I discovered the wonderful world of book blogs about 20 months ago, I have probably tripled (maybe even quadrupled) my personal library collection!  While I have always enjoyed reading, I did not really allow myself to do so while raising young children:  there always seemed to be something more pressing to do.  Once I started teaching in 2001, I began to slowly add books to the barren shelves.  Novels that I would be using in the classroom were the first to take up residence, and then slowly but surely books to help me teach those novels would also be added.  I then discovered the sub-category of "Books on Books" that I quickly devoured -- I had no idea that so much had been written on the subject of literary criticism!  Well, this led to further non-fiction interests like "Reading like a Writer" and then writing in general.

I would occasionally allow myself to browse through the new releases, but I was hesitant to spend money on a hardback book that I was not sure I would enjoy.  Ah...but then all of you came to my rescue!

You would review all of these new books in such a way that I not only knew that I would like the book - but I absolutely had to have the book right now!  I would read your back posts and discover "new" books of two or three or five years ago that I also had to have.  I would take notes on your posts and write down any mention of books that you found similar to the one being reviewed.  I would write down new-to-me authors and then research their oeuvre, knowing that if they wrote a series, I would have to start with the first one.

Shortly after finding the blogisphere, I discovered the competitive sport of Book Challenges -- fed by the glorious blog, A Novel Challenge.  This opened up another door for me to expand my literary horizons and add to my overflowing shelves.  You have such a way of exciting the reader in me, that I simply cannot say no.  I am somehow intrigued by challenges that focus on genres that I normally do not care for:  The Once Upon a Time Challenge (fantasy has always been difficult for this realist to grasp) - the Graphic Novel Challenge (still difficult for me, but I continue to persevere); and I am hypnotized by challenges that are tailor-made for my reading interests:  Everything Austen and RIP are the first ones that come to mind.  Joining these challenges causes the TBR list to expand exponentially!

Now the positive side of all this book lust is that my family is never at a loss for what to buy me for Christmas,  Birthday, Mother's Day, etc.  A gift card to any bookstore will always yield squeals of delight and hours of enjoyment.

To give you an idea of how much my personal collection has grown over these past few months - view the photos of my bookshelves taken in February, 2009, and compare them to the photos here.  I may not be a hoarder - yet - but I do have an obsession.  So much so that I did a search for used bookstores in Chicago before we left town.  I discovered that there is a Powell's in Chicago - as well as Myopic Books.  Not quite sure my husband had planned on making those kind of scenic stops on this anniversary weekend!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Life is a Verb: Week 4

Life is a Verb Thursday is a summertime meme that I have decided to follow as a result of reading the book by Patti Digh.  I found that book to have so many profound statements of how to live - that I have decided to meditate on one statement each week during my three months of summer vacation.

Last week's meditation caused us to ponder what are our TRUE fit into the pair of jeans of our youth, or to recapture the lifestyle that those jeans represent?  I think for me the issue is not to recapture my past, but rather to seek a realistic future.  I have always tried to live my life without regrets, and for the most part, I can look back over the past 50 years and say that I made the best decisions I could with the information I had at the time.  Hindsight is always 20/20, but I cannot look back at the past with the knowledge I have today; that is not fair. I can, however, look at the future with the knowledge I have today and attempt to make wise choices.  

I think for me it is not my old pair of jeans that I try to wear again, but it is someone else's jeans that I want to fit.  I need to learn to be satisfied with ME - to not compare myself with others for I will always find those who are better.  I need to accept who I am; discover my God-given strengths and talents and learn to develop them; learn to become the best me I can, and know that there is purpose for my life.

This week's devotion is something that has been in the back of my mind since summer began:  selfishness.  What is it, really?  Is it ever ok to think of yourself first?

Again, a bit of back story.  This segment began by a retelling of the canned speech flight attendants give before take-off.  You know the case of an emergency, the oxygen mask will drop from the ceiling.  If you are traveling with a young child, please make sure to cover your face first, then take care of the younger passengers.
We don't put ourselves first for fear of being called selfish.   Not to our face, of course, but in those quiet moments when people make infallible pronouncements about others, the kind that allow for now ambiguity....Sometimes I wonder if taking care of others - saving others - isn't simply a diversion from saving ourselves.  If I focus on you, I don't have to focus on myself.  And maybe saving others deprives them of their own agency....Nurturing my own self first in order to be better able to help others - what would this look like?  (page 119 in the Intimacy section)
For those of you who have been following my blog lately, you know that I have been taking care of my mother for the past two weeks.  While this did not come as a surprise, it was not a welcomed interruption to my summer vacation.  I was hoping to be a little selfish this summer; after all, my youngest is now a senior in high school and very independent; I was not going to be involved in academic pursuits; I did not have a summer job.  This was going to be the first summer off in five years.  The above quote is one that is quite timely for me this week.  I hope that you can related to it on some level as well.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Parts of Fairy Tales

I spend every morning at the desk with a cup of coffee by my side, dogs at my feet, local news softly detailing weather conditions on the television, and reading my favorite book blogs.  This is the most relaxing way I know to start a new day.

This morning I noticed that a couple of you have taken a different kind of personality test:  What Part of the Fairy Tale Are You.  Wendy is the magic wand and Cathy is the dragon; several of Cathy's commenters are fairies.  I thought this was quite clever and decided to take the quick, five-question test myself.  I must say, I am VERY impressed at the accuracy of these results!

You Are the Castle

You are a bit of a homebody and even somewhat of a loner. You function best when you're all by yourself.
Other people see you as mysterious and even a little scary. They don't understand how deep and complicated you are.

You have many layers to your personality, and there is always a surprise waiting around the corner with you.
You aren't as scary as you seem, but you are intense. You require people to confront things about themselves that they rather not know. 

Sunday, June 20, 2010

TSS: Happy Father's Day!

I hope that many of you are able to celebrate a fun and relaxing Father's Day with family and friends.  We are hoping to have a family cookout here today:  grilled chicken and KC Strip, corn on the cob, side salad, and Coke Cake for dessert.  I am hopeful that Kansas weather will cooperate, as we have had enough rain to last us the rest of June!

The only thing that might prevent this celebratory meal would be if Mom has to have surgery.   It has been a twisted couple of days, that is for sure.  She originally went into the hospital a little over a week ago because her hypertension (high blood pressure) and orthostatic hypotension (blood pressure bottoms out when standing up) were out of balance.  They managed to tweak medications and regulate her blood pressure by Tuesday, but then on Wednesday she started to experience pain in her abdomen.  A sonogram showed that it might be her gall bladder, but the surgeon was hesitant to operate on Friday because he was not completely convinced that was the culprit (and given her weak heart, unnecessary surgery is not an option).  Anyway, we are in a holding pattern until they can discern the right direction to take.

I feel as though I have let the ball drop on the blog.  While I do still love to read, and have read numerous books over the past month or so, I have not written a book review for quite some time.  I feel like I am an impostor in the book bloggosphere.  I think my lack of reviews is for several reasons:
  1. The books are probably of interest to only a select few and I do not want to bore you.
  2. I do not feel qualified to write an in-depth review on these topics, so instead I remain silent.
  3. My free time this summer seems to be quite limited (at least as long as Mom is in the hospital) and I would rather spend it reading new books, than writing ill-qualified reviews.
Most of my books this summer have been of the non-fiction genre.  I have read several books on photography - and now that my son bought me a new camera (Canon EOS Rebel T1i --- thank you, Brian!!!) I am really itching to put this new-found knowledge to practical use.  While I feel unqualified to write a review for these books, I will say that I truly enjoy Bryan Peterson's writing style.  I found his book on Understanding Exposure to be very informative and written in a way that an amateur could easily understand.  You might recall that this is the same author who wrote Learning to See Creatively which I thoroughly enjoyed and plan to re-read again sometime soon.

I have also read several books on art appreciation, particularly focusing on Impressionism, mostly because I really love this time period and also because it is the setting of the book that I plan to start writing in July.   Geoff and I are hoping to go to Chicago for our 28th anniversary this coming weekend and I want to visit the Art Institute of Chicago and see some of the famous paintings in person (most notably Gustave Caillebotte's Paris Street:  Rainy Day)

The third category of non-fiction books that I have focused my reading is Cookbooks.  I have probably checked out of the library about 20 or 25 over the past few weeks.  My first major haul included cookbooks of Food Network personalities, such as Rachael Ray, Paula Deen, Barefoot Contessa, and Yan Martin.  However I quickly discerned that if I made these recipes all the time, I would probably gain about ten unwanted pounds.  So the next batch of cookbooks focused on recipes that include low-fat substitution suggestions, like  the Hungry Girl and Cook Yourself Thin.  I must say that I had already incorporated several of these suggestions myself over the years, but each cookbook provided a couple of tasty sounding recipes that I would like to try.

Finally, I have also been reading a lot of books on the art and craft of writing:  anything from fiction, to creative non-fiction, to personal journals.  This tends to be my mode of operation for nearly every project I take on in life:  conduct thorough research (almost to the point of sensory overload) and then just dive right in.  I am relieved to say that I am just about at the saturation point with knowledge and I am now ready to "just do it."  Of the dozen or so books I have skimmed and/or read since June, I would say that the ones that I found most helpful were Writing True by Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz and Writing Down Your Soul by Janet Corner (this is, of course, in addition to the two modern classics on writing that I reviewed here, as well as Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones and Poem Crazy by Susan Woolridge)

The fiction novels that I have chosen to read during this time  period have been "research" for my book project.  To the left is a picture of the novels that I have set aside; the ones that I have completed so far include:  Dancing for Degas by Kathryn Wagner, Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman, and When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead.  In my "research" I am trying to read books that take place in the age of Impressionism (Paris, France around 1875-1882); that involve Time Travel --- both adult and YA --- as I believe my finished book will be most appropriate to the adolescent market.  I must say that I am rather stumped as to why I feel driven to write a time travel book about the Impressionists.  My interest in art has only been within the last couple of years - and I am certainly NO expert; and I have never had an interest in time travel books.  But...I am trying very hard not to question the inspiration, but rather to follow and see where it leads me.

This week will probably be focused on getting Mom out of the hospital - and arranging in-home care for her; researching activities for our upcoming trip to Chicago by way of St. Louis (I already know I want to visit the St. Louis Zoo and the Italian neighborhood of that same city as well as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Shedd Aquarium), and reading some of those novels pictured above (perhaps The Time Traveler's Wife and Luncheon of the Boating Party would be good selections.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Weekend Cooking: Banana Nut Muffins

Weekend Cooking is a wonderful weekly meme hosted by Beth Fish.  Feel free to join if you would like!

I will continue my theme of Mini Muffins which I began a few weeks ago.  So far I have shared recipes for White Gingerbread and Cappuccino Chip muffins, and today I will share a more traditional recipe, Banana Nut.  Most quick bread recipes can be easily prepared in mini muffin tins - which for some reason always seem more festive and fun.  I tend to delude myself in thinking that mini muffins have fewer calories since they are so small.  That may be correct, but not if you eat three or four in a sitting!

This recipe comes from the classic cookbook, The Fannie Farmer Baking Book, which I obtained back in the 80s and have worn very thin (in fact, the book automatically opens to this particular recipe because I have used it so often).  The recipe that I will share today is entitled Kona Inn Banana Bread (page 551), but I will also tell you that I have successfully prepared the Zucchini Bread (page 553) and Pumpkin Bread (page 557) recipes as mini muffins to the culinary delight of family and friends.

All these muffins freeze well, so my philosophy is to always make a double batch (it really doesn't take much more time than a single batch) and freeze some for impromptu get-togethers.  I hope you enjoy!

Kona Inn Banana Bread

  • 2.5 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • my adaptation:  1 teaspoon ginger and 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 cup butter - softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups mashed ripe banana (about 6 medium bananas)
  • 4 eggs, slightly beaten
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts (although I have often thought chopped macadamias would be truly decadent)
  1. Stir together the dry ingredients (flour, salt, and baking soda, and if desired, spices)
  2. In a large bowl, mix the wet ingredients (butter, sugar, banana, eggs, and walnuts)
  3. Add the combined dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and stir just until the batter is thoroughly blended.
  4. Pour into greased muffin tins (I use Pam) and bake at 350 degrees for approximately 15 minutes (start checking after 12 minutes just in case)

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Sandwich Generation

Have you ever heard this term before?  Several years ago this was the hot buzzword, but I have noticed these days when I mention it, I am faced with blank stares.  Well, I think it is time to resurrect this metaphor.

The Sandwich Generation refers to those, like myself, who were born just after the baby boomers.  We have now entered our 40s and 50s and many of us find ourselves still caring for adolescent children in the home, but we are also now the primary caregivers for our aging parents.  We are, in essence, sandwiched between these two responsibilities and as a result, find ourselves squeezed from both ends.

What is really curious to me is that I have never been able to eat a sandwich.  I know, it is quite a simple task, but I am just not coordinated to take a bite without all the insides shooting out the other end.  My husband used to make fun me, rightly so, that I could ruin a perfectly good roast beef and swiss sub in about five bites.  But here is the thing...the way that I eat a sandwich has now become a reflection for my real life today.  Each time my mom is put in the hospital, each time she has a fall, or a dizzy spell, I feel a little bit more of my own insides being squeezed out the other end.  I expect to have issues with my own children, but I never expected to have issues with my mom.

I thought that at this time in my life I would begin to have an opportunity to live for me; to do the things that I wanted to do because I would have the time and the finances to be a little bit selfish.  As I wrote in my post yesterday in Life is a Verb Thursday.....I willingly put my life on hold saying "when this happens then..."  Well, "this" happened.  My youngest is a senior in high school this year and I can finally breathe a little sigh of relief.  I can begin to spend money and time on me and my own interests.  Or at least, that is how I envisioned it happening.  Instead, I find that I have very little free time because I am caring for a parent who doesn't really want to live (she has said so on many occasions), but she is too afraid to die.  It is emotionally draining.

Last summer I had to write some poetry for a creative writing class.  I am NOT a poet, and the poems were less than mediocre, but the subject of the poems still rings true.  One such poem was entitled Out to Lunch and it encapsulates these emotions in a concise way.  I will share it with you now, not because it is good, but because the essence of it is real:

Out to Lunch

The sandwich generation:
Caregivers to our parents as well as our children.

Mom is your basic white,
While my grown children would be marbled rye.
The teenager can definitely have her sourdough moments.

But what does that make me?       
I don’t have the sense of humor to pull off ham and cheese.
I hope I am not considered turkey.
Tuna Fish?  Nutritious but the smell keeps people at a distance.
Peanut Butter can be too annoying –
Sticking around where it is not wanted. 
Bratwurst might be nice, but I am neither hot nor spicy.
A Hero?  I would never be so presumptuous.

I think I might be a BLT:  Bound - Lonely - Tired. 

I understand the imagery, but I don’t like it.
Sometimes I want to forget about sandwiches
And order take out.

Are there any of you who feel the same way --- or am I the only one?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Life is a Verb: Week 3

Life is a Verb Thursday is a summertime meme that I have decided to follow as a result of reading the book by Patti Digh.  I found that book to have so many profound statements of how to live - that I have decided to meditate on one statement each week during my three months of summer vacation.

Last week I focused on the concept of perfection and why we often have the unrealistic expectation that we need to do something perfectly the first time, when in reality it is only through practice (and analysis of what we need to do differently the next time) that truly allows us to perfect our craft.

In my journaling of this topic I realized that I have a very warped definition of the word "practice"  To me practice has always had very negative connotations, that is, I have internalized "you need to practice" with "you are not good enough"  OR...."you need to practice" with "you cannot do anything fun until you finish practicing"  I have decided that I need to wipe the mental slate clean.  I need to remove these negative connotations and replace them with truth.  Practice is not to be viewed as punishment; it is quite simply a journey.

Also, I have learned that I need to remove the word "perfect" from my vocabulary.  I have always associated these two terms together, as in "Practice makes Perfect" but for a perfectionist -- there is no such thing as absolute perfection for there is always room for improvement.  Instead, this perfectionist needs to modify that expression to something along the lines of "Practice yields Improvement - but also allows for joy in the journey."  Anyway, that is what I am going to strive to do the remaining weeks of the summer.

This week's meditation requires some back story.  Patti Digh spends quite a bit of time telling us that she has kept the same pair of jeans in her closet since high school.  She thinks that these jeans will serve as proper motivation to lose weight.  One day her incredibly fit and trim adolescent daughter comes to her complaining that she has no clothes to wear.  On a whim Ms. Digh gives her this prized pair of jeans and tells her she can have them.  A few minutes later the daughter returns with the jeans in hand saying that they are "too small."  Patti is dumbfounded!  She has berated herself for decades that she has gained too much weight only to discover that the jeans do not even fit her well-proportioned daughter.

So, with that anecdote in mind, here is the statement to ponder over this next week:
Why do we punish ourselves with unreasonable expectations, putting life on hold until we reach them?  What is the real danger of such pressures?  They delay living, the real life  in front of us.  "I'll do that when...." we say to ourselves.  "I can't do that now because I haven't yet done this...."  Are the jeans the real goal, or is the simpler, more active life, a less stressful way of living, a life unencumbered?  Perhaps those are goals to be reached for, not the jeans."  (page 113 in Intimacy section)
This is even more timely now than it was a month ago when I first read it.  My mom is still in the hospital and constantly bemoaning the fact that she cannot do the same things that she was once able to accomplish.  For the last five years my mom has chosen not to live in the present, but simply to exist.  I do NOT want to make these same choices in life.  I want to learn to live in the present - in the here and now - and enjoy all that life has to offer.  So I ask you, and me, What undue pressures are we putting on ourselves today that need to be removed in order to experience joy and peace?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Wordless Wednesday: Puppies

How I miss these cute little things!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

TSS: 6.13.10

This has been a rather busy week for me.  I had so hoped to take part in Natasha's Bloggiesta, as it was so much fun and very productive the last time, but weekend plans prevented me from joining this go around.  I look forward to visiting all those blogs who did take part and see all the changes you have made.

On Tuesday night I was able to attend the preview for the Johnson County Friends of Library annual book sale. We had horrific storms that night which meant fewer crowds and a more leisurely environment in which to browse.  I arrived about 5:45, fifteen minutes before the official start, but discovered that some of the tables had already opened -- yippee!  The sale is held at a local shopping mall and takes up nearly ALL the interior floor space:  it is HUGE!  I shopped for three solid hours and could have stayed longer.  I left the sale having spent $26 for 26 books.....not bad!

I purchased a few DK art books - I just love the Eyewitness series and they are not always easy to find.  These books are just my speed - not too academic in their analysis of paintings, with plenty of pictures for me to actually "see" what they are trying to describe.  I will use these for my own personal pursuit of art appreciation, and I hope that future grandchildren will enjoy learning about the beauty of art through these books as well.

I found two books by Julia Cameron and I quickly snatched them up!  I only had the opportunity to read the first two chapters of the Artist's Way last fall, but really fell in love with her concept of "morning pages."  I hope to skim through both of these books this summer, and then perhaps really start to put her suggestions into practice.

I purchased three books that I have already read, but knew that I wanted copies for my own personal library:  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry, and The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa.  Each of these books I enjoyed greatly and I hope to re-read them again sometime.

I also purchased several fictional books, most came highly recommended from your blog reviews, and a couple with which I was unfamiliar but the description on the back of the book made me willing to risk a dollar.  I also found several biographies and memoirs, most notably Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island, The Private World of Daphne du Maurier, Tender to the Bone by Ruth Reichl, and The Tolkien Family Album.

I realize that this is a rather eclectic collection of books, but I am really very pleased with each purchase.

I spent Thursday evening visiting with my mom - and we had such a pleasant chat.  However, when I got up to leave, she began to feel dizzy and ultimately had a difficult time just putting herself to bed.  This resulted in a trip to the ER on Friday morning and admittance to the hospital in order to stabilize her blood pressure.  This is a recurring issue with her, but it never fails to catch both of us by surprise and always adds an extra layer of stress to our lives.  This is the primary reason why I am not able to participate in the Bloggiesta.

This coming week requires me to be at school for two days out of five - so I will not have time to do as much reading, writing, and playing that I would like.  BUT....this means only one more meeting at school at the end of June and then I will have the entire month of July off.  Now that is something that I can get excited about!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Weekend Cooking: Strawberry Jam

Weekend Cooking is the weekly meme hosted by Beth Fish Reads where we discuss all things culinary.  Feel free to join us anytime!

About two weeks ago my youngest daughter, my son's girlfriend, and I drove about thirty minutes outside of town to a "pick your own" strawberry patch.  I had discovered their location from the Pick Your Own website, which has listings available for all fifty states, plus a few international locations.  This was an adventure for me, for as I have mentioned before, I do not like to drive to "foreign" locations on my own.  Well, this proved to be a bit more of an adventure than I originally thought, but a lot of fun!

We found the Wohletz farm with no problems, but even though we arrived before 10:30AM and I had confirmed the night before that they had plenty of fruit, they were totally picked clean!  We were so disappointed.  However, in true Midwest spirit, the owner apologized profusely and suggested we try another local farmer "just up the road a piece"  The directions were minimal to say the very least, and I was afraid I would end up on the edge of the county without a clue how to return to civilization.

However, all those fears were for naught.  We found the second farm, Lawson Brothers, without any problems (and it wasn't nearly as far out of the way as I had originally thought) and they had loads of berries ripe for the picking.  The three of us picked about 13.5 pounds of strawberries in about 45 minutes time.  We could have easily picked more, but it was a typical hot, humid Kansas day and we were tired and sweaty.

So what does one do with that many strawberries?  Well, I gave about two quarts to Amanda to take home to her mom, sugared down about two quarts for strawberry shortcake, and turned the rest into nine pints of Strawberry Freezer Jam.

The recipe is fool-proof (it is available inside the box of each Sure-Jell packet), requires no sterilization or paraffin seals, keeps for months in the freezer, and tastes out of this world!  I think our family has already snarfed down about two pints!

I just got notification that the same farm now has raspberries ready for picking - but I am not a fan of all those seeds.  However, the blueberries are just about ready at The Berry Patch and the same gang plus my eldest daughter hope to venture out next week and pick several quarts of those tasty treats that can be used in cobblers, smoothies, muffins, and pancakes.

Friday, June 11, 2010

More Thought-provoking Quotes

In continuing my themed reading this week of how to journal meaningfully (rather than just keep a diary), I decided to read Christina Baldwin's book, Life's Companion:  Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest.  There are some good exercises in this book, but quite honestly, I think I have saturated my brain with knowledge and it is now to start putting in some action.

One entry that the author shared, which I found deeply prophetic at this point in my life, is the following by an 85-year-old woman, Nadine Stair.  I hope that this resonates with a few of you as well.

If I had my life to live over, I’d like to make more mistakes next time.
I would limber up.
I would be sillier than I have been this trip.
I would take fewer things seriously.
I would take more chances.
I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers.
I would eat more ice cream and less beans.
I would perhaps have more actual trouble, but I’d have fewer imaginary ones.
You see, I’m one of those people who live sensibly and sanely hour after hour, day after day.
Oh, I’ve had my moments, and if I had it to do over again, I’d have more of them.
In fact, I’d try to having nothing else.
Just moments, one after another, instead of living so many years ahead of each day.
I’ve been one of those persons who never goes anywhere without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a raincoat and a parachute.
If I had it to do over again, I would travel lighter than I have.
If I had my life to live over, I would start barefoot earlier in the spring and stay that way later in the fall.
I would go to more dances.
I would ride more merry-go-rounds.
I would pick more daisies.

It is one thing to read this quote and to give it some thought, it is quite another to put it into action.  And yet....I am considerably younger than Ms. Stair and I would like to hope that my mind and my heart would be open enough to take these wise words of wisdom and apply them to my life today, rather than wait until it is too late and say, "If only I had more time...."

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