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.