Friday, December 30, 2011

Love to the universe

I luv u sis!  That was the message written on one of the roadside ornaments I found as I walked this past week.  When I read those words, I couldn't help but smile as I brushed away tears.

My sister Jane was a soft-spoken, gentle woman who had amazing gifts of caring, hospitality, creativity, and love. She died three years ago and I miss her every day.

The message on that ornament felt as though it had been written just for me, left there just for me to find. I almost picked it up and brought it home.

I'm a scavenger, salvaging all kinds of things I pick up along the road. Pliers, toys, a baby stroller, chairs, lawn decorations. I get a kick out of bringing home things we can use.

I'm a recycler. Often things I pick up go right into the recycling bin.  Others are returned for refunds. Last week, I garnered $3.90 for my recent pick up efforts.

My sister would have delighted in creating ornaments such as the ones I found and putting them somewhere for someone to discover. In fact she hung ornaments in a bush a distance from her front porch. A little bit of glitter to surprise and amuse visitors.

The roadside ornaments appealed to both my scavenger and recycler tendencies. I itched to pick them up. When I saw this one with this message, I wanted it even more. But leaving the ornament on the roadside, as difficult as that was, was the right thing.

Like my sister, the ornament is out there, shiny and carrying a message of love to the universe.

I luv u sis!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Cooking up Aebleskivers & Liver Sausage

I was remiss! I should have provided the recipe for Aebleskivers. Here's the one I used. I found it on  I only made half a recipe, which was plenty for two of us.

For those of you who are especially adventuresome, I've also included my mom's recipe for liver sausage.

Bon Appetit!

  • 2 egg whites
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon white sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 4 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • melted butter for frying
  1. In a clean glass or metal bowl, beat the egg whites with an electric mixer until they can hold a stiff peak. Set aside.
  2. Mix together the flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda, sugar, egg yolks, melted butter and buttermilk at one time and beat until smooth. Gently fold in the egg whites last.
  3. Brush melted butter in the bottom of each aebleskiver pan cup and heat until hot. Pour in about 2 tablespoons of the batter into each cup. As soon as they get bubbly around the edge, turn them quickly (Danish cooks use a long knitting needle, but a fork will work). Continue cooking, turning the ball to keep it from burning.
Liver Sausage
Ingredients & Instructions
  • Meat cooked off 2 hog's heads
  • Add 3 or 4 onions to the broth while cooking
  • 7 lb liver simmered done
  • Grind it all and mix well
  • Add salt, pepper, allspice, thyme and marjoram to taste. No one has given us exact measurements.Put in pint jars and pressure cook one hour at 15 lb. pressure

Monday, December 26, 2011

Letting go of tradition

Liver sausage and waffles. That's my family's traditional Christmas Eve supper. This tradition started when Dad gave Mom a waffle iron one Christmas when I was a teenager. I was old enough to wonder at my father's gift choice but young enough to delight in the idea of this exotic food form.

Compared to pancakes, which Mom could whip up in minutes, waffles were a hassle. Still, Mom hauled out the waffle iron and made waffles once a year, every year after that. She always served homemade liver sausage on the side. This meal became a much loved tradition.

After Mom died, we cleaned out her fruit cellar and I brought home four pint jars of liver sausage. This liver sausage was made in 2006. It wasn't her best batch. Not enough head cheese (hogs head for those of you not accustomed to farm cooking). I love liver sausage, by the way, though it is a taste not shared at all by my husband and only tolerated by my son.

I kept thinking I'd eat the liver sausage myself, but I never did. Now, five years after it was made, even my cast iron stomach thinks we're past the expiration date.

Though liver sausage went by the wayside, the tradition we continued until this year is having waffles for supper on Christmas Eve. My son and his family celebrate with us. But this year, travel plans changed the routine and they invited us to spend Christmas Day with them.

Without the tradition to sustain me, I was left to launch into unknown food territory. Taking inspiration from Danish friends, I made Aebleskivers - an airy donut-type pastry served with powdered sugar and jam - for Christmas Day breakfast. We feasted at my son's house that afternoon on their tradition - an eclectic snack buffet.

Traditions are nice. They're comfortable. They make planning easy. But this Christmas showed me that letting go of traditions can be nice, too.

Will Aebleskivers on Christmas morning become a tradition? Only time will tell. Waffles may return, but liver sausage will drift into the realm of happy childhood memories. And my husband says, Amen!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Little holiday messages bring joy

Ah, tis the season. Decorations are everywhere. Houses, trees, lamp posts. Every year the decorations seem to get bigger and brighter.  But I have seen this year that small and subtle can have great impact.

Walking on rural roads in the pre-dawn hours, when most of the holiday displays  have been turned off, the only flashing lights are generally yard lights glinting off discarded beer and pop cans.

But this holiday season I've found something new. One dark morning, my eye caught a glint I thought was another can. As I came close, I realized it was not a can, but in the darkness I couldn't make it out, so I walked on by. Another day, the sun had peeked over the horizon when I came upon that same spot and saw the object was a tree ornament. I'm used to seeing just about anything along the road. A tree ornament was a first. I mused over who had lost it? How? And would it be missed?

A little further on, I came upon another ornament. And then another. Ornaments showed up on both sides of the road. None was on the roadway itself where it would be crushed by passing traffic. But none was down in the ditches, either. It was as though someone had placed each one on purpose. Most definitely not a random lost ornament; I counted at least 15 in the course of a mile.

I thought of picking them up. Why let objects so pretty risk being destroyed, as they surely would be? But the more I thought about these ornaments, the more I thought they might be someone's little bit of personal joy, spread to delight anyone who came upon them. Perhaps the decorator meant them to delight those of us who walk. Perhaps they were a personal message to the universe.

When I stooped to take these pictures, I saw the ornaments each carried a hand written message. "Let it snow" "Noel" "Merry, Merry"  I didn't turn each one over, but they all seemed to be different.

What message did the person who left these ornaments intend? I have no idea. But they have been a gift to me. The ornaments have made me slow down during my walks. They have reminded me to enjoy the holidays every day. They have made me smile.

I accept the gift of the roadside decorator. And I pass that gift along to you. Happy Holidays to you all!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Another view on rural Iowa

According to Stephen Bloom in his recent essay for The Atlantic:

"Those who stay in rural Iowa are often the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking in educated) to peer around the bend for better opportunities, an assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth, or those who quixotically believe, like Little Orphan Annie, that "The sun'll come out tomorrow."

I am here to say Bloom is wrong on more points than just being 'lacking in educated.' I know rural Iowa. I grew up there. I travel the state regularly, writing for The Iowan magazine about what's going on. I never lack for copy. My faith in our state was renewed as I did research for a feature - 'Sizing up small towns: Rethinking success in rural Iowa' - published in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of The Iowan.

Many small Iowa towns are not just alive, they're thriving. The people I spoke with in Corning, Fairfield, and Elkader showed why this is so. Here's what they said.

Small businesses are encouraged: “We operate on a handshake, and we're flexible,” says Roger Thomas, executive director for both the EDC and Main Street Elkader, a program focused on historic commercial district revitalization. “We want them to succeed.”

Small town energy - Affordable operations: Adam Pollock moved his family and his business from the San Francisco Bay area to northeast Iowa 10 years ago. “There's a palpable sense of energy in this town,” says Pollock. “It's hard to live and manufacture in San Francisco. When everyone else went to China, we went to the heartland. People here are steady, reliable, and resourceful. With the Internet, we can do business anywhere.”

Communities are supportive and provide a range of amenities. Maria Fuller, D.D.S., graduated from the University of Iowa, and with her husband went looking for the perfect town in which to live and work. They chose Corning. “We wanted to raise our children in a small town,” she explains. “But it was really important that the school provide a solid education. My husband had to get a job. The community needed to provide amenities — a hospital, school, a sense of community.”  Corning delivered everything on their list, says Dr. Fuller. “If you always had a dream to have your own business, rural Iowa is the place. Take the time to come, visit a while, and see.”

People are involved and make a difference. Fairfield Mayor Ed Malloy sought broad community participation when he initiated a visioning process for the community shortly after he was elected. Planning took 18 months - a process that Malloy says helped the community  “grow, develop, mature, and gracefully integrate into a whole. We have 80 different community organizations that said, ‘Yes, we understand,' and, ‘Yes, we'll take it on,' ” he says. Among other accomplishments, their planning resulted in a $10 million Arts & Convention Center.

Sure, rural Iowa has its challenges. What place doesn't these days? But I'm pleased to say rural Iowans are not sitting around feeling sorry for themselves. They're actively involved. They're looking to the future. They're making the good life happen.

Photo by Jason Fort, courtesy of The Iowan magazine

Monday, December 19, 2011

Giving away 1 million books

Want to help give help away a million books? The organizers of World Book Night are looking for 50,000 passionate readers to do just that on April 23, 2012.

Anna Quindlen, novelist and honorary chairwoman of World Book Night in the USA, says "It will be like Halloween on an intellectual level." 

Volunteers choose one of 30 titles - mostly current novels and memoirs - to give out. The costs of the million paperback books have been underwritten by publishers, printers and paper companies. Authors have waived their royalties.

You make your application on the World Book Night website. If you're chosen to be one of the book givers, they'll let you know by the end of February.

I've signed up and am keeping my fingers crossed. If I am chosen, I'll be giving out books to residents of Oakridge Neighborhood, a community providing housing and services to low-income people in Des Moines.

My book choices include:

If I'm not chosen, I may go buy the books and give them out at Oakridge anyway. I just think the whole deal is really cool.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Are we inadvertantly lining Stephen Bloom's pockets?

Stephen Bloom's article - Observations from 20 years of Iowa life - published in The Atlantic website edition has caused quite the hoo-ha in Iowa and nationwide. When I read Kyle Munson's article in the Des Moines Register describing the lambasting Bloom lavished on Iowa, my first question was, Why?

Why would someone who has spent 20 years living and working in the state - presumably wanting to continue living and working here - resort to such a rant against the state and its people? I read the article and found in the lead what I thought was the reason - an 'outsider's' commentary on the state as a set up for the upcoming caucuses. A reasonable assignment for one such as Bloom.

He could, however, have met the magazine's assignment and done it far more credibly with a more reasoned approach. My take away upon reading the essay was that it was exceedingly long, largely based on outdated stereotypes, and riddled with factual errors. The few valid points about the state's downturn in economy and population were lost in the overriding diatribe.

I was back to looking for Why? The reasons I can come up with are cynical.
  1. He's promoting his books and subscribes to the theory that 'any publicity is good publicity as long as they spell his name right.'  This could backfire on him. I expect Iowans have been an avid audience for his books on Postville and Oxford.  They may be less willing to buy them now.
  2. He has another job, in another state, on the line. Bloom is on sabbatical in Michigan at the moment. Maybe he hopes to stay. I'd advise Michigan to beware. If the past is a guide to the future, Bloom may again be willing to take with one hand and stab with the other.
  3. He gets paid by hits to his article on The Atlantic website.  Until today, I didn't know this was how contributors to online editions of magazines are often paid.  Each unique hit to Bloom's article means The Atlantic pays him more.  This last reason is perhaps the most cynical. 
Under this scenario, Bloom may have purposely written the article as he did to generate the exact kind of reaction he's gotten. To goad so many of us into doing exactly what we did - go read the article. If he did, it's sad. For me at least. But Stephen Bloom may be laughing all the way to the bank.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Survivor Tree grows hope

Weeks after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, workers found the charred trunk and roots of a tree buried in the debris. Most limbs were blown away; roots were gone.

Even though the tree had been out of the ground for six weeks or more, the remnant was taken to a nursery where, miraculously, it began to grow again.

Called the Survivor Tree, this callery pear tree is now growing at the 9/11 Memorial.  New growth reaches 30 - 40 ft. high.

After the attacks on 9/11, I took comfort in the fact that the moon and stars were in the sky that night and the sun rose the next morning. There was hope in the cycles of nature.

The Survivor Tree stands as a living testament that we can persevere, we can go on, in the face of the very worst.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Has my life been worthwhile?

I was in New York City last week to celebrate with a friend who was being honored as Global Citizen of the Year by the Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seaton Hall. While there, we toured the 9/11 Memorial where the names of everyone who died in the terrorist attacks are inscribed on plaques that surround water falls that replace the World Trade Center towers.

As we walked through the park, contemplating the people and the lives represented by all those names, my friend commented that she wondered whether what she has done with her life and career make a difference.

The list of accomplishments my friend has amassed during her career includes heading major trade associations, serving in the White House and the Department of Homeland Security, raising two beautiful children, and counting a host of loyal friends and family. The significance of someone as successful as she asking this question touched me.

As we reach a certain age, it is common to reflect on our lives, to wonder how or even if we'll be remembered. The 9/11 Memorial prompts such reflection even if it hadn't crossed your mind before.

On the memorial we find names of firefighters and police officers, average citizens, men, women, children. We see Todd Beamer - the man who famously said "Let's roll!" as he joined others on Flight 93 to overwhelm the terrorist hijackers. His name is inscribed just below the name of Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas and her unborn child.

People - famous or not; the lives - lived full or not, the Memorial left me knowing each one matters.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Salvation Army gets DOWN!

There's no more competitive environment for the public's dollars and attention than New York City. Visualize Rockefeller Center with its massive Christmas tree, ice skating rink, and high end shopping and you get the picture. This past weekend, the area was packed with locals and tourists. And, on every corner there were Salvation Army bell ringers.

How can the Salvation Army hope to compete with the up scale, highly decorated glitz of a New York City Christmas? Much to my surprise, they were doing just fine.

Each kettle was staffed with two bell ringers. They played rockin' holiday music. They rang those bells. They danced. The dances were high energy drawing crowds of spectators, including several who joined in. The bell ringers had fun and so did the audience.

It was more fun to watch the energetic Salvation Army bell ringers perform than it was to watch the ice skaters or shop. And the best part? Without being asked, people filled the red kettles.

The Salvation Army in New York offers a good lesson in marketing. They might have thrown up their hands and said 'We can't compete against THAT!' but they didn't. They took advantage of the huge crowds drawn by the Rockefeller Center attractions. They upped the energy. They entertained and engaged the public. They didn't stop; they got moving! And I'll bet they had a very merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

How'd they do that?

One of the delights of reading historical fiction is learning just how it was to live in another time. Of course, knowing how it was to live in another time is the challenge for the writer of historical fiction.

This week I've been puzzling over how to drive a 1916 Ford Model T. A character in the novel I'm writing buys a used Model T. Another character - a person who has only seen cars from afar  - decides to take the car for a drive.

As I sat there staring at my computer screen, fingers poised over the keyboard, absolutely nothing came out. How could I write about starting and driving a car when I had absolutely no idea how it was actually done. Presuming it was something like today's cars doesn't cut it. It's at moments like this that I envy writers who have a staff of research assistants.

As it turns out, this post could also be titled, "I LOVE Google."  Not expecting much, I typed in 'how to drive a Model T.' To my everlasting delight, the search yielded a host of YouTube videos explaining the process, chapter and verse. The most useful video was created by the Henry Ford Estate. The narrator even wore one of the classic driving coats to lend authenticity.

The videos were very helpful. Helpful enough to get my creative juices flowing and my fingers flying. I'm happy. But not so happy as I might be if I could actually drive a Model T myself. Then I'd know not only how it works, but also how it feels and sounds. Then I'd be sure.

I've told Santa this is what I want for Christmas. I hope he comes through.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Aretha Franklin's trash

Recently an abandoned storage unit went up for auction. Rummaging through the contents, the buyer found dozens of hats, capes and dresses all once owned by none other than music legend Aretha Franklin.

The Queen of Soul is reported to have said she left the items in the storage locker years ago because she no longer wanted them.

I'm fascinated by abandoned storage units, my interest fueled by such shows as Storage Wars and Auction Hunters. It's not so much what storage unit buyers find in the units that hooks me - though who wouldn't want to pay a couple of hundred dollars for a unit only to discover that it contains tens of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise? Rather the puzzle for me lies in why some people rent the units in the first place and why others go on to abandon them.

Why would someone pay to store what they don't want - As Aretha did? Why would she not just give it all to a charity? Or give it to a theatre group for their costume shop? Even if we have plenty of money, which Aretha apparently does, is it a reasonable use of money to pay to keep what we don't want?

Why would someone abandon possessions they can't help but know are valuable and which they could easily sell for considerable cash? Setting aside those who die or are mentally ill, there are still those who simply abandon units containing brand new, still-in-the-packing vending machines, cars, motorcycles, and snow mobiles. No one would mistake any of these for having no monetary value.

There is something very strange about our societal fascination with keeping things, even though we don't need them and may not even want them. We over buy and then we over keep. There are no doubt hundreds of stories there. I, for one, would love to hear them.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Just look up

I am a very focused person. When I'm working on a project, I tune out everything around me. I don't hear anything; I don't see anything. My husband knows to make loud noises from a distance when he needs to interrupt me. If he approaches gently, like a normal person, I'm likely to jump right out of my chair.

I am grateful for this ability to focus. When I worked in an office cubicle, co-worker chatter didn't bother me in the least. When I'm on a writing roll, the hours just fade away.

The problem with this focus is missing the blessings of looking up.  After hours at a computer, my eyes are bleary. I know I'm supposed to give my eyes a rest; I just never think of it.

This week, I stood in my kitchen for hours making candy. Focus is very important in candy making. I watch that candy thermometer like a hawk. Eventually I noticed it was getting dark. Only then did I look up.

There - on display in my kitchen window - was the most beautiful red and purple sunset. Throwing candy-making caution to the wind, I stopped to enjoy this incredible sunset. These displays of light and changing colors last only moments, but they are a true blessing. They remind me of the beauty of the world. They make me grateful for the eyes I have to see. They cause me to stop, in the moment, to remember that every moment of my life is a blessing.

If I only look up.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Who has the rights?

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Do you own the cells of your own body? Do you get to have a say in who uses your cells and for what purposes? You might think so. You might be wrong.

THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS tells the story of a poor black woman who died of cervical cancer in the 1950s. Without her knowledge or consent, samples of her cancerous cells were removed and taken to a lab where scientists were attempting to create 'immortal' cells - cells that, kept in the right medium, could be made to live forever. They succeeded with Henrietta Lacks' cells, creating the first immortal cell line.

Henrietta's cells - called HeLa cells - still live today. Her cells have been and continue to be used in research worldwide. Research that has uncovered causes and cures of cancer, the cure for polio, the list is endless. Yet, it was 20 years after her death before Henrietta's family learned that their mother's cells continued to live.

This amazing non-fiction book, which reads like a novel, tells the incredible story of Henrietta Lacks, her cells, science, and her family's quest to understand what happened to their mother.

This book raises a host of ethical, racial, and moral issues. It was a fascinating read. In this age of scientific breakthroughs, high costs for medical care, and the spirited debate about stem cell research, it might be good required reading for all of us.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Are you a thumbbody?

Last month I wrote about discovering the Thumbs on Wheels campaign we saw as we drove the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I was delighted to learn that there's a group called Thumbs on the Wheel that's working to educate drivers and kids on this important practice.

The folks at Thumbs on the Wheel (TOTW) acknowledge it's a personal choice to drive safely. They offer a few simple rules that encourage safe driving and maybe even lessen road rage:
  1. Keep your Thumbs on the Wheel every time you drive.
  2. Put your phone away - seriously, it will be there when you get there.
  3. Smile at thumbbody at every stoplight.
  4. Show anybody how to be thumbbody today!
Sales of T-shirts and other merchandise help spread the word. Some of the proceeds of each sale go to organizations including: The Joshua Chamberlain Society aiding wounded veterans, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the Humane Society, and local schools.

Whether you buy the merchandise or not, the idea is a good one and I encourage you to spread the word. And keep your thumbs on the wheel.

As TOTW says:

Be Safe. Be Happy. Be Thumbbody!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Learning from the master - Part 2

In the category of teaching an old dog new tricks, here are two things I've learned about candy making from Sue, a member of my book club who is the undisputed queen of candy making. These tips have made all the difference.

Temperature matters. Terms like hard ball and soft ball and hard crack dot candy recipes like peanuts in peanut brittle. And they don't mean baseball or the latest drug deal. My grandmother and mother could determine each of those critical candy-making stages by dropping a few drops of cooking syrup in a glass of cold water. Me? Stickler for detail that I am, I need a good candy thermometer.

Tip: Check the reliability of your thermometer each year in boiling water.  If it doesn't read exactly 212 degrees at a full boil, adjust the temps accordingly in your recipes.

Humidity matters. In the past, I found that candies like peanut brittle and toffee and butter crunch occasionally adhered into a sticky glob when I stored them. Eating such candy was a hazard to anyone who had crowns. The problem? High humidity.

Tip: Make crunchy types of candies on days with low humidity and sunshine. This is also true if you make divinity. My grandmother whipped divinity by hand - but only on dry, sunny days.

Sue's Almond Butter Crunch

1 lb butter
2 cups sugar
1/4 cup water
2 T light corn syrup
  • Melt butter over low heat in a heavy sauce pan.
  • Add sugar and stir almost constantly until it comes to a full rolling boil.
  • VERY carefully add the water. (You are adding water to boiling fat)
  • Then add corn syrup
Cook - stirring occasionally until temperature reaches 290 degrees
  • Take off heat and add 1-2 cups chopped almonds
Pour into 10 1/2 x 16 inch, well buttered sheet pan.

Let sit 3-4 minutes then sprinkle 12 oz chocolate chips over the top. As they melt, spread them evenly across candy.  Sprinkle 1/2 cup finely ground almonds across chocolate.

Once candy is cool, break into pieces and store in tins in a cool place.  I've found that scoring the candy with a sharp knife while it's still a little warm helps with breaking it into pieces.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Learning from the master - Part 1

Kathy makes perfect peanut brittle. And she shared her recipe with me. But any cook will tell you that having the recipe and achieving the same result as the master are not always the same thing.

Following her recipe to the letter, I've made batch after batch of perfect peanut brittle. I thought. However, when I bit into a piece of brittle from her most recent batch, I realized there is more to be learned. There is an ever-so-slight burnt sugar taste to her brittle that is missing from mine.

"I did it exactly to 310 degrees. Just like you said," I protested.

"Maybe I go to 315," she smiled.

I confess to being a bit of a slave to recipes. If it works, don't mess with it. That's my theory. But most cooks adapt. My husband professes that my peanut brittle is good, but that burnt sugar taste is even better. I'll be back at the stove trying again for peanut brittle perfection. And walking that tight line between what I know works and the experimentation that could make it even better.

Kathy's Peanut Brittle
  • 1 cup white syrup
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
Combine in heavy pan and bring to a boil
  • Add 2 sticks of the cheapest margarine you can buy. Stir until blended.
Cook over medium heat until temperature on candy thermometer reaches 280 degrees.
  • Add 12 ounces raw peanuts. Stir until temperature reaches 310 degrees.
  • Add 1 tsp baking soda. Stir in very quickly.
Pour at once on to a buttered cookie sheet.  Leave the peanut brittle as it pours out. Do NOT spread it around. Cool and break into pieces. Store in a tin in a cool place.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Saying thank you

Some time ago, I ran into a high school classmate of mine. Other than the passing moments at a reunion, we probably hadn't shared more than a few sentences over the last 40 years. As we caught up that day, I learned that he had served in Viet Nam.

After hearing his story, I said, "Thank you for your service. I appreciate what you did."

He looked at me for a few moments and then said, "I don't think anyone has ever said that to me."

The look on his face brought a lump to my throat. I have no doubt he'd read the Veterans Day articles in the paper, seen the parades on TV, maybe even participated in those events. But a thank you extended  in this large, collective way, did not have the impact of the words spoken personally, one on one, from me to him.

Thank you. It's a simple thing to say. I do it automatically. When someone opens a door, passes a dish, picks up something I dropped. Most of the time, I don't think about it. The words just come out.

On Veterans Day, we collectively thank all those who serve in our nation's military. I hope I also remember to say a personal thank you to the men and women I meet who serve. We cannot say thank you often enough.

*Veterans Day image courtesy of Office of Government Affairs

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Dad's favorite

Mom and I traditionally waited until Thanksgiving weekend to break out the candy thermometer and heavy pans for our annual candy-making extravaganza. But I start early. This year it was all I could do to wait until the calendar turned to November.

Pulling out the recipes each season reminds me of the people for whom each kind of candy or cookies is a favorite.  Peanut clusters and peanut brittle are for Dad.  He had a taste for the salt/sweet combination. Every year when I asked him what he wanted for Christmas, peanut clusters made the list. Because that was something I could afford, I was happy to comply.

It surprises me now that Mom and I never made peanut clusters. But we didn't. It took my sister-in-law Jeanne to get me started. Now I make them every year. They're easy. The recipe makes a lot. They store well.  And I enjoy remembering dad when I make them.

Peanut Clusters

2 lbs almond bark (white)
2 - 12 oz packages chocolate chips
2 lbs peanuts (dry roasted, salted)

Melt almond bark and chips in a heavy pan on low heat. Stir in peanuts. Drop by teaspoon onto foil or waxed paper. Cool. Store in tins in a cool place.  Makes about 18 dozen.

Many variations are possible. Some people use milk chocolate chips. I like semi-sweet. Last year I also made dark chocolate. They could be a new personal favorite. This recipe is easy to cut in half.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Just let me eat

"If you do see me in a restaurant. Please, just let me eat my dinner."  That's how Andy Rooney signed off his last CBS 60 Minutes essay.

Some two decades ago, I was eating lunch with a client in the Top of the World restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. Two tables away, I spotted a man who looked just like Andy Rooney. The signature wild eyebrows caught my eye.

Leaning across the table I whispered to my client, a New York native, "That looks like Andy Rooney."

"If you see someone in New York who looks just like someone, it probably is," he responded.

Though I traveled to New York regularly, I could not get used to the idea that you might see someone like Andy Rooney eating two tables over. Even though my career was public relations and I should have been watching anyway, Andy Rooney was the reason I turned to 60 Minutes. His commentaries were witty and edgy and exactly right.

I thought briefly about approaching him that day in New York - not to ask for an autograph, which now I know he never signed - but just to find out if he was who I thought he was. Now I'm especially glad I didn't. In tribute to a man whose words I enjoyed so much, I'm glad I got that right.

* Photo Google images

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

That was then; this is now

November 2. Rain. Wind. 40 degrees. Snow in the forecast.

Ah the beauty of Iowa weather. Wait one minute and it will change.

Our pretty leaves only two days ago on the trees are rapidly covering the lawn and making patterns in the rain on the driveway.

I'm particularly grateful I spent Monday afternoon lying on the grass looking at the sky.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Holding on

It's 72 degrees. On November 1. In Iowa. Can you believe it?

Even though I have plenty of writing to do, I'm dawdling. I've been out for a walk. Out taking pictures. Out laying on the grass, looking at the sky. Even though I'm writing at this moment, my eyes are drawn to the sunshine with every other word. I know I'll be outside again shortly. I'm holding on to these beautiful fall days as long and as tightly as I can.

I'm like the trees. Though the ash trees dropped their leaves weeks ago, the maple trees are hanging on to their finery longer than normal. They've joined the oak trees in clinging until the last possible moment. Even the strong winds of the past several days have failed to make the trees loosen their grip on stunning yellow and red leaves.

In a last tribute to summer, the coneflowers are hanging on, too. I found these blooms near the patio. Their purple as fresh as though it was June instead of November. 

The snowstorms that hit the east coast this past week remind me of past October snowstorms in Iowa. Storms that dropped heavy wet snow on trees still sporting leaves, causing limbs to bow, and break, under the weight.  I'm glad that's not Iowa this year. 

I'm grateful mother nature is letting us hold on to summer for one more day. And believe me, I'm holding on tight, savoring the gift of the rare 70-degree day in November.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Making connections with hankies

The woman sat bent over a card table in the far corner of the room. When Kara Langsdon of the Iowa City Public Library (ICPL) introduced me, the woman never looked up. When I launched into a talk, sharing stories about growing up on a family farm in the 1950s, the woman never acknowledged there was anything else going on in the room. The jigsaw puzzle was everything.

This was the Iowa City Rehab and Health Care Center. The room was lined with wheelchairs. Few of the people who'd come to hear me speak had made it to the room on their own. I wasn't at all certain how much of what I was saying they heard or comprehended. Even by those who watched me attentively.

I was speaking there because my memoir, Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl, is used by volunteer readers in a partnership between the ICPL and Iowa City Hospice. Once or twice a month volunteers visit with people who live in or rely on 11 area facilities like Iowa City Rehab and Pathways. The volunteers read, ask questions, engage in conversation. They encourage people to reminisce and share their memories. I wondered what kind of connections they made.

As I talked, answered their occasional questions, and asked questions of them. I moved from story to story, talking about having fried chicken for Sunday dinner, milking the cows and making hay. The everyday stuff of farm life. 

At one point, I asked, "Do you remember how you learned to iron clothes?"

Out of the blue, the woman in the corner put her hand in the air. She turned around, the biggest smile on her face, and responded, "Hankies!" She'd learned to iron on hankies. Just like I did. Just like almost every little girl did in the 1950s. She shared how she'd learned to iron and then she returned to her puzzle. She was delighted to share her memory; I was delighted to hear it.

What we remember, how we remember, when we remember are all uniquely personal experiences. When many other aspects of ourselves have been taken away by accident or age or illness, memories often remain, waiting to be triggered.

I'm honored that the Iowa City Public Library and Iowa City Hospice have found my book useful in helping people to reminisce and connect. And I'm especially grateful to the woman working the jigsaw puzzle for helping me to see so clearly how rewarding making those connections can be.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

October's bright blue weather

"O suns and skies and clouds of June,
And flowers of June together,
Ye cannot rival for one hour
October's bright blue weather"

In eighth grade, I memorized Helen Hunt Jackson's poem, October's Bright Blue Weather. Though most stanzas have slipped from my memory, this first verse pops into my mind every year.

Iowa is sporting excellent color and weather this fall. Some of the best in recent memory. Even a trip to New England this fall did not deliver more spectacular leaves.

During the month of October, I delay my morning walk until late enough in the day to enjoy the sun's warmth and to see the fall color. The clear blue sky, crisp air, and multi-colored leaves - I store these sensory pleasures to remember as we head into the monochromatic Iowa winter.

What a gift, October's bright blue weather.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Cooking with Julia

Inspired by the movie "Julie and Julia," our dinner group tackled Julia Child's Boeuf Bourguignon.

The five-hour preparation time encouraged us to cook the day ahead of our dinner. The instructions promised the dish would only get better for having a day to steep in its juices.

We had as much fun attempting to pronounce the name of this signature dish as we did muddling through the dozens of preparation steps. My friend who is traveling to Quebec next week worked on the pronunciation with her instructor.

In true Julie Child fashion, we were assisted in our efforts by glasses of wine. I may have gotten better - but probably worse - with the pronunciation as the afternoon progressed.

As we agonized over whether we were doing things exactly according to Julia's directions, (you will notice there are exactly 24 onions - just as the recipe calls for) my friend shared what her French instructor had said: "Remember, it's really beef stew."

Yes, beef stew. But as with all such things, the experience made it more. Cooking with friends. Sharing a glass of wine. Laughing over our fractured pronunciation. 

When we sat down to eat, we toasted our efforts and enjoyed both the meal and the conversation. In honor of our muse, I wore pearls. Thank you Julia!

Friday, October 21, 2011

An embarrassment of riches

October 16 was Blog Action Day. The topic this year: 'Food.' I wasn't able to blog on the 16th, but I figure it's never too late to talk about food.

I am reminded of the biblical story in which Joseph interprets the Pharaoh's dream about seven fat steers and seven gaunt steers. Joseph says the seven fat steers stand for seven years in which the land will produce far more than the people need. The seven gaunt steers represent seven years of drought and famine. Joseph's advice to the Pharaoh is to preserve as much food as possible in the fat years because the country will need every bit if it in the lean years.

I feel as though we're in one of the fat years. Particularly when it comes to tomatoes. My husband planted eight tomato plants last spring because our fruit cellar shelves were bare. In spite of ridiculously unfavorable weather this summer, our tomatoes came through. And keep coming through.

We canned and filled our fruit cellar shelves. I gave boxes of tomatoes to every friend bold enough to make eye contact. I took 40 pounds of tomatoes to the food pantry. Just before we left the state in early October for a vacation on the east coast, I picked every good looking green tomato and stored all of them in the fruit cellar to ripen over the next months. The average freeze date for our area is October 10. Certainly the plants would be dead when we returned.

But did it freeze? No. And the tomato plants just kept doing their thing. Upon returning, I picked another dishpan of tomatoes. My husband made goulash. I made stew. Both of us using fresh tomatoes. Tomorrow, I'm packing up bags of tomatoes for everyone I'll see on a trip into town.

I hesitate to scream 'enough' because what if next year is one of the lean years? In Iowa we seldom have to worry about missing a crop. But you never know.

As with most biblical stories, the fat and lean cows convey more than their face value. In the face of an embarrassment of garden riches, I know the story is also about planning and sharing and gratitude and so much more. Would that everyone in the world could be so fortunate.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Thumbs on the wheel

Texting while driving is a hazard. No exceptions. Texters may say they can text without looking. I don't believe it.

As we put 3,800 miles on our van over the last two weeks, we had plenty of opportunity to observe distracted driving. Cars slowing down, speeding up, slowing down. Cars swerving onto the shoulder and jerking back. Even worse, cars swerving into another lane of traffic. Sometimes a cell phone was the culprit; more often we observed the driver texting.

When we entered the Pennsylvania Turnpike, we saw signs saying the Turnpike was a text-free zone.  Other signs called for 'Thumbs on wheels.' We loved the idea and adopted it, even though we only have one cell phone between us and neither of us knows how to text.

For all the good it did, I yelled 'thumbs on the wheel' to offenders as we passed them. Even if they couldn't hear or understand me, I felt better. Our van has plenty of buttons to push, and since the vehicle is new, we aren't familiar with what they all do. Experimenting with those buttons while driving could be as hazardous as texting. 'Thumbs on the wheel,' we reminded each other from time to time.

Thumbs on the wheel. It's a good idea. I hope it catches on.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Taking its toll

Traveling offers so many new sights and experiences. Most a delight, some a pain.

We've been on the road the past two weeks. Sightseeing at Gettysburg, visiting family in Pennsylvania, attending a wedding in Massachusetts. In addition to all the fun, we've had the opportunity to sample the toll roads and attendant service plazas. Even these have been both delight and pain.

We bestow the best service plaza award on the Ohio Turnpike. A variety of food options, well maintained, easy to access, spacious. The Ohio Turnpike offered the best gas prices of the entire trip - $3.13.

Most annoying award goes to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The system for collecting tolls was inconsistent - pay at the beginning, pay at the end - and the fees were high. Plus the turnpike was under construction most of the way. Shifting lanes, slow downs, high prices. We were more than ready to exit that system.

Massachusetts was the most surprising in a delightful way. The tickets we took from the machine when we entered the turnpike indicated it would cost us $21.70 to cross the state. We gulped, got the money ready, and were delighted when the man in the toll booth took the ticket and asked for only $1.60!

The biggest sticker shock came when we crossed the George Washington Bridge going from New Jersey into New York. $12. Just to cross the bridge. Traffic was bumper to bumper. We figured thousands of cars cross that bridge every day. At $12 each. The plus on this one is the bridge is one impressive structure. And we resigned ourselves to helping New York with their budget crisis.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

BLT's for Christmas?

Great weather. Great garden. And it just keeps coming.

I foist tomatoes and peppers off on anyone who visits. We eat tomatoes at every meal. I'm not kidding. Even breakfast.

I picked two dishpans of green tomatoes and have them stored under newspaper in the fruit cellar. One year we were still eating garden tomatoes in December.

Do you think BLTs with tomatoes from our own garden would be in order at Christmas?

Monday, October 3, 2011

The very best word

I am thinking that 'Grandma' may be the very best word in the English language. My granddaughters came to visit on Sunday. Their parents in tow.  While the youngest is still a baby in arms, the oldest is two years and nine months. Old enough to plink away on the piano, navigate the swing set, know her way to the prairie - and to call me Grandma.

Grandma is delighted to run around after her everywhere. To catch her shooting off the slide a hundred times. To race with her to, and around, the prairie. To be as delighted as she is by every stick stepped over, every dried leaf discovered, every handful of pine needles picked up. To answer every 'why?' or 'what?' question she can pose.

We picked a bouquet of prairie flowers to give to her mama. After they packed up to leave, I found the bouquet still on the kitchen table. I'm delighted to have the bouquet as a reminder of a granddaughter visit. And to still hear the luscious sound of 'grandma' lingering in my ears.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

An eagle encounter

We drove the back roads of northeast Iowa yesterday, skirting north of Waterloo, Cedar Falls and Waverly. We speculated on whether the many large birds soaring far above us were turkey vultures or Bald Eagles.

Vultures are more common, but eagles have made a major comeback in Iowa. Along the rivers particularly, you may spot one of these great birds. Usually at a distance. In the air. Roosting at the top of a tree. Diving into the river for fish.  Barring an eagle cam like the one in Decorah that became a national phenomenon last winter, we never expect to see an eagle up close.

So imagine our surprise yesterday when we crossed a small bridge and were startled to see a Bald Eagle fly across the road directly in front of us.


It flew from near the ground - perhaps where it had been enjoying lunch - straight across the road, not twenty yards in front of us, - and off into the trees.  I'm certain I've never seen an eagle so close in the wild. I may never again, but it's not a sight I'll forget.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Walking for more than a cure

I joined the PurpleStride Iowa pancreatic cancer walk on Saturday, in memory of a friend who died of the disease, and to offer moral support to his wife and children.

There were hundreds of us walking the three-mile Raccoon River Park trail in West Des Moines. We shared space in the park and on the trail with PAWS for a Cause and another group of walkers supporting another disease cure.

Walks have become a popular way to raise money while raising awareness. These walks must be effective; there are more of them every year.

As I walked along with a friend who also spent her working career in marketing, we talked about the many benefits of these walks:
  • Raising money for research
  • Raising awareness of a disease
  • Showing visible support to survivors
  • Remembering a loved one
  • Getting people involved in a healthy activity
  • Enjoying a beautiful fall day
  • Getting involved in community 
Our time on the walk also gave us an opportunity to consider the impact of death and the beauty of life. When we set foot on that trail, we walked for a cure in more ways than we knew.

Monday, September 26, 2011

All community

Coffee shop. Ice cream parlor. Lunch counter. But that's the least of it.

My favorite coffee shop these days is Smokey Row just off I-235 at MLKing in Des Moines

The thing I love about Smokey Row - beyond the coffee and food and wifi and friendly, accommodating young staff (as if that wouldn't be enough!) - is that this coffee shop is a true community gathering place. Students from Drake University set up their computers for individual work or study groups. Families gather around big oak tables and play dominoes. Mothers and daughters come for lunch. Children come in after school for an ice cream or plate of Smokey Row chips. Business people come and go. The central location, just off main thoroughfares makes Smokey Row a convenient, easily accessible meeting place.

People come and hang out for hours, and that's just fine with the staff. The place is always busy, but you can always find a table.

My bible study group gathers at Smokey Row every two weeks. When I tell my husband I'm going to bible study, he's enthusiastic, 'So this is a chicken pot pie night!'  A signature dish at Smokey Row, chicken pot pie is always on the menu.

I've been to the Smokey Row in Oskaloosa and found the environment to be just the same. I can only assume the company philosophy is, 'come for the coffee, stay for the community.'

A coffee shop but a whole lot more.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Showy fall flowers

Crossword puzzle clue: Showy fall flower

Answer: Aster

Did you think asters?  Since a crossword puzzle is part of my everyday routine, 'aster' and 'showy fall flower,' are always linked in my mind. Asters are very pretty, I admit, with their yellow centers and purple petals.  But when I walk outside at this time of year, I wonder why other flowers do not vie for showy fall flower honors?

Why do the puzzle writers not think Tall Golden Rod? The fronts of golden rod are neon yellow turning to red gold and rust at this time of year.

Why don't they consider Maximilian Sunflower? Growing taller and more gangly all season, the Maximilian sunflowers now reach eight or nine feet and sport bright yellow flowers all along the stalks. Stunning.

Equally showy are the purple sweeps of hosta blooms south of my house.  A rather plain dark green hosta throughout the year, this one variety has two things to commend it. It multiplies like crazy, filling in space wherever it's planted. And when it blooms, it puts up countless stems of purple blooms.

I get it. Asters are showy fall flowers, but perhaps more important, their name includes the letters so helpful to forming other words. I just think puzzle writers and solvers would benefit from enjoying the many flowers that brighten fall gardens.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Ratatouille - the recipe

There are far more complicated recipes for Ratatouille, but here's the more simple version I used, taken from the Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book.


2 cups cubed, peeled eggplant
1 small zucchini, halved lengthwise and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices (1 cup)
1 - 7 1/2-ounce can tomatoes, cut up
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
2 T olive oil
2 T dry white wine or water
1/2 tsp dried basil
1/4 tsp garlic salt
1/8 tsp pepper
1/2 cup shredded Swiss cheese

In a large skilled combine eggplant, zucchini, undrained tomatoes, onion, olive oil, wine, basil, garlic salt, and pepper. Bring to boiling; reduce heat. Cover; simmer about 2- minutes or til tender. Cook, uncovered, 5 to 10 minutes more or til thickened, stirring occasionally. Sprinkle with cheese. Serves 4.

Since I believe fresh is better whenever you have it, I made several adaptations to this recipe - using fresh tomatoes, basil and garlic from our garden. I didn't have Swiss cheese, so used Mozzarella. Just as good as far as we could tell.


End of the season garden eating

The last eggplant. The last zucchini. The last onions. That's what I brought in from the garden this past week.

My mother always made soup with the last vegetables of her garden. She had so many beans, carrots and onions - even late in the season - that she canned quarts of vegetable soup to enjoy through the winter.  

With my last vegetables, I made Ratatouille. This traditional French stewed vegetable dish is definitely not something my mother would have made. Her cooking - always excellent - tended toward the more simple meat and potatoes of my father's taste. 

When I'm using the very last things from the garden - in a week when the weather went from fabulous to way too fall-ish, way too fast, I can't help but feel a sense of poignancy. Everywhere I look are signals of summer's end.

My husband is pulling up vines, taking down the garden deer fences, getting ready to plow the garden under. Only the tomatoes hang on and keep him from getting the tractor out. I passed a block of maple trees showing tinges of red. The fall prairie flowers are blooming.

The summer is coming to a close. It's all way too soon for me, this year.  I will miss walking to the garden and picking our next meal from whatever is ripe. Now my walk will be to the freezer or fruit cellar. Produce from our garden, yes, but not the same.

Ratatouille was a nice way to wrap up the garden. Until next garden year!


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Addicted to stats

My name is Carol. I'm addicted to web stats.

There. I've said it. Every day, I look at the statistics for my blog. How many visitors? Which countries do they live in? Which browsers do they use to access my site? Which posts are people reading?

My addiction began when I was in Italy. It was during that month - when I challenged myself to post every day - that more than about 10 people began to visit my site. I admit it was fun to post a story of my day's adventure and get comments. To see how many people read and when they signed on. 

Since returning to Iowa, I eased off and post 2-3 times a week. I'm delighted that some who joined me in Italy have apparently stuck around.

Just to set your minds at ease, I don't know who you are specifically, but it's fun (to me) to know that while the vast majority of readers are from the U.S., substantial numbers also read from Russia, China, and Germany. I know that my bike trail posts on the High Trestle Trail attracted many. No doubt thanks to a reTweet from a former colleague. My persistent posting about the prairie has also developed a following.

Since I don't sell things on my blog, all this info falls into the 'interesting but not particularly useful' category. If there's any payoff to me, it just to think that the ideas and information in some blogs are thought provoking or entertaining or helpful in some way to readers.

You're probably thinking, 'She doesn't have enough to do!' You may be right. I'll probably loose interest in tracking the stats. But for the time being, I'm having fun. And now that I've admitted my obsession, perhaps I can work to break it.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Seeing Iowa with fresh eyes

Have you noticed how when you're away from a place for a while and then come back, it all looks different? I was always struck by how our kitchen on the farm always looked so small after I'd been away at college for a few months.

I had a chance to see Iowa that way when a friend visited this week. She's a former Iowan who moved to Phoenix nearly a decade ago and now returns to Iowa in September to escape the Arizona heat. She knows Iowa and Des Moines, but after being away for a time, returning lets her - and me - see everything again for the first time.

We had a 'Bridge Day,' when we took in the developing Des Moines river walk, starting with the white pedestrian bridge to the north, walking south past the Brenton Skating Plaza to cross the red pedestrian bridge, then back north.  We enjoyed sunset and moonrise on the High Trestle Trail Bridge. My friend did not let me forget the beauty of our green trees, a feature she sorely misses in the desert southwest.

The prairie in my yard was a very short stroll that prepared us for a longer, late afternoon walk around the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge. The muted purple and gold plumes of the grasses were highlighted by a wealth of yellow flowers. And we spotted many buffalo, some barely visible in the tall prairie grasses.

My garden was giving us all the incredible, juicy tomatoes we could want for dinner and supper. Though we never tired of those, we did venture into local restaurants like Proof where the food is as flavorful as any meal we'd ever eaten anywhere. After dinner, we strolled the Pappajohn Sculpture Park, joined by dozens of others out enjoying an incredible Iowa evening.

I have to say I was proud to spend a week touring Des Moines and central Iowa with my friend - showing her all the new sights - some that I was seeing myself for the first time. Sometimes it takes a visitor to make me really appreciate all we have here. World class art, food, attractions. That's Des Moines. That's Iowa.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Taste & smell the prairie

"Taste this," I say, pulling leaves off a small prairie plant and handing them to friends who tour my prairie.

"Taste it?" they ask, skeptical.

I nod.

With some hesitation, they do.

"It's licorice!" they exclaim.

Watching the recognition dawn on their faces is such fun. The licorice taste of a Anise Hyssop leaf surprises everyone.

The prairie surprised me this fall when it revealed a new plant. Boneset is in full bloom - a drift of fresh white flowers standing amidst the dried brown seedheads of coneflowers and black-eyed Susans. What makes this surprising is the scent.  Just like Lily of the Valley.

Prairie flowers don't have much scent - at least in my experience. So it's a treat to not only find one that does, but one that has such a pleasant, old-time fragrance.

On top of excellent taste and a romantic scent, the prairie is covered with gold - or at least it appears so with the grasses waving their green-gold and red-gold plumes in the afternoon breeze.

It may look as though the prairie is closing down for the season, but far from it.  Licorice. Lily of the Valley. Gold. When you least expect it, the prairie comes through - full of surprises.