Friday, February 28, 2014

Sugar and Spice

On Wednesday evening, we were presented with a plate of cupcakes and invited to select a blue one or a pink one. I selected pink; Brian selected blue. We were told that the color of the icing inside would reveal the gender of our first grandchild. Simultaneously, we each took a bite and learned that a little pink bundle of joy will be joining our family this summer.

We have been excited since Christmas Day when we learned a baby was on the way. We were indifferent as to whether we knew the gender ahead of time, but just in the short time we've known, we have begun to think of her. We've been praying for the baby since we knew one was coming, but now we can pray for her.

Knowing the baby's gender has narrowed our imagination by half. Now we can envision pink blankets, ice cream dates between a grandpa and his sweet girl, combing hair into pigtails ... It's fun to imagine what she might be like and who she might become, but we also delight in knowing that we'll likely be surprised many times along the way. She may prefer going fishing to baking cookies. She may be a girly girl or eschew the color pink. She may be on the debate team or play golf. She may be shy or the most confident one in her class. The possibilities are endless.

One day soon, her parents are likely to decide on her name. I'm sure once we can call her by name, we'll feel like we know her a little more. In the meantime, we'll think and dream and prepare ourselves to be the grandparents she deserves.

I can't wait to meet her.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

It's Gumbo Time

In the early 1990s, I went to New Orleans with a friend who was traveling there on business. We experienced the sights and sounds and some of the rich history of the region. It was interesting, strange and exciting all at the same time. If you've ever been to NOLA, you know what I mean. I've never been to another place quite like it. It was the first (and to date, the last) time an entire shrimp complete with antennae and eyes was served to me at dinner.

Not long after, other friends went to NOLA. Part of their adventure included taking a cooking class and upon their return, we decided we needed to make gumbo. Gumbo is best enjoyed with friends, so we decided to throw a Mardi Gras Party. Lots of good memories from that party, including thinking we didn't have enough food so we needed a last-minute run to pick up frozen appetizers to round out the food offerings and the gumbo running out before the chefs got to enjoy any. We borrowed industrial gas heaters to help keep the garage warm in February.

Thus was born an almost annual gumbo-making tradition (we have missed a year or two, but not many). It seems like every year we tweak the recipe a little bit and each year the taste varies, but this year - I'm not sure how we did it - we didn't do any tweaking. It was delish from the start. When we started this gumbo endeavor, it seemed to be an all afternoon affair. Somehow we've wised up and we make it in much less time. Whoever is hosting gets the chicken cooking and that cuts some time from the process.

Here's our top-secret recipe. Warning: It's not anything like traditional NOLA gumbo with sausage and okra; it really is a customized version, but oh-so-good.

Natalie & Elizabeth's Gourmet Gucci Gumbo

5 lbs. boneless chicken breast (7 lbs. bone-in, which makes a more flavorful broth)
2 onions
2T shrimp boil
2T poultry seasoning
1t salt
1/2t pepper
Bay leaf
1T oil
2T Cajun seasonings
1/3c flour
1/3 stick butter
3 cloves minced garlic
Large can of chicken broth (48 oz.)
28 oz. can diced tomatoes
1 cup salsa (this year we used an entire jar of medium)
5 drops hot sauce (or more - this year we used 5 shakes and it was perfect)
1t thyme
2 bell peppers, cut in pieces
2 lbs. shrimp

Cook chicken in a large pot (leave some fat on) with one onion (cut in large pieces), one stalk of celery, shrimp boil, poultry seasonings, salt, pepper, bay leaf, oil, Cajun seasonings and parsley. When finished, remove chicken and strain stock. Have your sous chef shred the chicken because this is a job you don't want to do yourself! (Note: I used to be the sous chef, but I've been promoted so now everyone is an eligible chicken shredder.)

Make a dry roux by heating a skillet and adding 1/2c flour. Keep mixing flour until it turns milk chocolate brown. Sift into bowl and set aside.

Chop one onion and two stalks of celery. Brown with 1/3 stick of butter and garlic. Add 1/2 cup of canned chicken broth and cook until most of the liquid evaporates. Add 3/4 cup of broth and the roux. Cook until mixed together. Will be very thick.

In large pot, combine broths, tomatoes, salsa, remaining seasonings, chicken and roux mixture and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 1.5 to 2 hours (Note: this length of time is not necessary.) Add peppers about 45 minutes before serving and shrimp about 15 minutes before you're ready to serve.

Serve over cheap rice. (We laugh every time, but this is how we wrote the recipe and we've never used anything but cheap, white rice for our Gucci gumbo.)

Serves 24 and freezes well.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Dear Accuweather App

Dear Accuweather App,

I appreciate you. I really do. You alert me to impending bad weather and I can scroll through several locations quickly to check the weather in favorite places. But I have to say, I think you think you know me better than you do.

You see, anyone who has known me for longer than say, 30 minutes, knows that I am always cold. I am not a fan of winter and this one has been especially difficult to endure with seemingly endless grey gloom and multiple feet of snow. I realize that's not your fault and generally, you do your job well.


We will be traveling to a warmer destination and so I've been asking you to keep tabs on the weather there. And while I think you are accurately reporting the weather conditions, I think you're way off in your assessment of how I feel about it.

Right there, at the bottom where it says, "It's hotter than you'd like." Au contraire. It actually should read, "This is perfect weather for you. You would delight in the warm breeze caressing your skin as you turn your face to soak in the sun. You would shed your hat, coat, gloves, sweater and boots, and enjoy being outdoors in short sleeves and capris, perhaps with a light cardigan after dark. You would relish not having to traipse across mounds of snow and ice in the backyard and cherish the thought that no snow blower or shovel would be needed in the foreseeable future."

Yes, something like that would increase your accuracy and keep you true to your name. So, keep up the good work, Accuweather App. Let your developers know that the next upgrade should include the ability for users to set their preferred weather conditions so you can be 100% accurate in your reporting.

A girl who has been colder than she'd like for longer than she'd like

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Tales the Grocery Cart Tells

Is it just me or do you ever concoct stories or make judgments about fellow shoppers based on what you see in their grocery carts? I think if I was a grocery store checkout clerk, I'd be creating mental stories about people all day long.

On Valentine's Day, I went to do my regular shopping. (My regular grocery shopping as opposed to my regular Valentine's Day shopping, because there is no such thing as the latter on my agenda.) Our store had prepackaged bouquets out for easy access for last-minute purchasers. I was smiling as I saw more than one gentleman pushing a cart containing a bouquet. And my mind went to work on backstories for a few of them.

One man was purchasing hamburger helper and he had balloons as well as a bouquet, so I was sure that he must be a single dad who had the kids for the weekend. Another gentleman had a bouquet and two cans of soup in his cart. At first I thought he'd volunteered to take care of dinner and I thought, "Come on, you can do better than that." Then I thought perhaps his wife had the flu and he was taking home just what she needed. It doesn't take much for me to entertain myself.

I usually don't think about people paying any attention to what I'm purchasing, although when it snows and everyone rushes out to buy milk, bread and toilet paper and we really are out of milk, I want to shout, "I really need milk! I'm not scared of being stuck at home without milk!" lest anyone think I'm joining the pre-snow frenzy. And there have been times when I'm sure the checkout clerk has thought I've had PMS by the chips and chocolate in the cart.

This past Sunday, I had a reminder that people are probably creating stories about me just as often as I am about them. After a church lunch, I asked someone if he would like to take the leftover soda home. "Don't you drink soda?" he asked. "Not much," I said. "Oh, well, that time we ran into you in the store, you had all that soda in your cart and I was surprised. You don't seem like people who would drink all that soda." I explained that it was my bimonthly stock-up and I had to buy four 12-packs to get the sale price.

And thus Harriet the Wannabe Spy realized that she is not the sole author of Tales the Grocery Cart Tells and how often she is likely wrong with the assumptions she makes. But it's still fun to do. It makes me want to go to the store just for fun (did I just say that?) and pack the cart with a bizarre array of items, just to get  people's storytelling cells working overtime.

The next time you go to the store, remember, somebody's watching you ...

Monday, February 24, 2014

Seven in Seven

This week, I'm going to attempt to write seven posts in seven days, along with others who are writing along with Jen at Conversion Diary. I debated if I should commit to such a feat, for once a week blogging seems consistent to me and because I have deadlines to meet on the scintillating topics of eminent domain and corporate security, along with some website copy on ballet. (There's always a varied selection of topics on my work menu.) I am also woefully behind on my non-credit writing course and should play a bit (or a lot) of catch up this week. And I need to finish "Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune" because it's due back to the library on Saturday. Throw in some volunteering, the regular responsibilities of running a household and coordinating contractors coming and going, and it could be a busy week.

But it's always a busy week and I am masterful at finding reasons not to write even when I know that's what I should be doing. Not necessarily blog writing, but writing here helps me get into a writing rhythm. As a bonus, it's only supposed to snow one day this week, so shoveling and snow blowing shouldn't be too much of an interruption to my quest to write each day, from Monday to Sunday. The pesky "w" key on my keyboard continues to only respond to repeat pounding, but I shall conquer that obstacle one way or another.

One post down, six to go. And thus begins The Week of Blogging.

Friday, February 21, 2014

A Little Bit of Sochi in the Cupboard

The Sochi Olympics are coming to a close. In my estimation, these two weeks have seemed to be more about criticism, complaint and ego than competitive spirit, prowess and camaraderie. And it's a little hard to want to watch primetime coverage when the results have been plastered across the Internet all day. Hopefully, the intended spirit of the Olympic Games is alive and flourishing somewhere. We have enjoyed catching parts of some of the competitions - holding our breath at the ski jumpers and snowboarders, gasping at falling figure skaters and cheering on the US hockey team in that eight-round shootout.

We were in Russia in 2013. We have traveled to the host countries of the Winter Olympics prior to the last two games - we were in Vancouver/Whistler before the 2010 games. It's unlikely that we'll be in South Korea before the 2018 games, but you never know. We didn't anticipate being in Russia last year, either.

When we travel, we try to pick up a Christmas ornament as a souvenir, and sometimes we'll pick up a mug to add to our burgeoning collection in the cupboard. In Vancouver and Russia, we thought it would be fun to bring home a bit of an Olympic connection and picked up mugs with the Olympic insignia.

In Vancouver, we purchased our mug and went on our way without incident. In Russia, not so much. We went to the Olympic store in GUM, an upscale shopping mall in Moscow's Red Square, where there was an entire store filled with Sochi apparel and tchotchkes ... and mugs. Brian picked out a mug, counted out the appropriate payment of rubles (which we had finally obtained after several futile ATM attempts) and we started to leave the store.

Then the store alarm sounded.

There was a security guard in a sleek, dark suit posted at the door, and he immediately started repeating "cheque" in heavily accented English. We looked quizzically at him and each other, and then it dawned on me that he wanted to see the receipt. So Brian checked his pants pockets, shirt pockets and coat pockets. Nothing. I don't remember where he found the receipt but then the security guard wanted to see the bag. So Brian showed him the bag with the mug in it. The guard kept insisting on "bag, bag" and then made a lifting motion. Ah. He wants to check your backpack, I translated as we continued to cross the language divide. Once we had proven that we hadn't squirreled away any key chains or stuffed animals, the guard smiled and wished us well. "I hope all goes well with you," he said. Not exactly what you would expect at the end of a security encounter.

Security had a prevalent but generally discreet presence. We entered our Moscow hotel through a metal detector and there were armed guards in suits in the hotel. We saw surprisingly little security in the airport, a far cry from 25 years ago when I remember armed soldiers patrolling the airport. The security presence in 2013 certainly wasn't as intimidating as the soldiers who boarded our overnight train in 1989 asking to see our passports.

Every time I've pulled down the Sochi mug to use during the Olympics, I've thought of this story and smiled. This little mug has the biggest backstory of any of its comrades in the cupboard.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Joy? No. Gratitude? Getting There.

As I was walking the Iditarod trainees (aka Cooper and Shelby) yesterday down the neighborhood thoroughfare that is growing narrower due to plowed snow that has nowhere else to go, I wondered what would happen if I embraced winter and its polar vortex and its snowy glory with joy instead of with fatigue and annoyance. The thought of joy was foreign and fleeting, I have to admit. Pretty much beyond my imagination. I've gotten much better about not complaining about winter, because there is absolutely nothing to be gained by complaining, but I have voiced my weariness with the season.

Today, I was running the snow blower and doing snow clean-up for what seemed like the 100th time (in reality, it's probably closer to 15 or 20 times). I had to adjust the snow blower to blow as high as it could over the existing snow mountains and as I worked, I realized that while joy may be out of my reach, I can certainly find things to be grateful for during this season. I've been neglecting my gratitude journal, which is especially dicey for my mental well-being during the long, long winter as I know an intentional focus on gratitude helps my spirit and outlook and can help combat Winter Funkiness. So as I wrestled the snow blower over some ice and continued my snowy workout, I started to list things and situations I am grateful for that are directly related to this seemingly endless winter.

Forget Funky. Get Grateful. A Winter List of Thanksgiving

  1. We have a snow blower.
  2. That snow blower has an electric starter, alleviating my potential frustration of not always being strong enough to pull the cord hard enough to start it.
  3. We have another snow blower. We inherited this one that I have yet to run because it lacks an electric starter. We thought about giving one of the snow blowers away (and tried) because although we live in Pennsylvania, it seemed excessive to have two, but the bigger one has been a great help in moving snow this year.
  4. We don't have sidewalks to clear, just our front walkway.
  5. We have able bodies with which to push aforementioned snow blowers and heave shoveled snow.
  6. There are two of us, which means we can share the snow clean-up load and responsibility.
  7. B has been safe commuting to and from work.
  8. My commute does not require that the car leave the garage.
  9. We have a garage, so our vehicles are not consistently out in the elements.
  10. The dogs, while not always embracing the snow, seem to find ways to enjoy it. It's fun to watch them instinctively create paths for themselves in the snow and jump through the snow as if they are doing backyard moguls.
  11. My mother resides in a retirement community where all snow removal activities are taken care of for her. We don't have to worry about her cleaning up snow or how to get over there to take care of it or hiring someone to do it. It's done.
  12. Our furnace has been running like a champ this winter. It's the first winter that we have not had to have it serviced and every time I hear it kick on, I whisper my thanks.
  13. We have not lost power throughout all these storms, even when neighborhoods close to us did.
  14. My neighbor delivered our Girl Scout cookies today. OK, that has nothing to do with winter, but it was a day brightener.
I'm sure I could come up with more and probably should, but I have some web site copywriting to do, so I need to hit "publish" and move along. While I'm not joyous about winter and snow and polar vortexes, I am mining this season for all the reasons I can be grateful until the snow has melted, spring has arrived, and Winter Funkiness has headed for the hills - or wherever the next polar vortex is occurring.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Friday the 14th

This Friday the 14th is Valentine's Day, which some may find as scary or distasteful as a Friday the 13th. The fact that I'm even posting something on Valentine's Day is amusing to me, given that I spent years intensely disliking (Mom says it's not nice to say "hate") the holiday and though my thinking has matured quite a bit, I still view it as a contrived holiday. But before I expound further on that topic, scenes from an early morning walk around this winter wonderland we live in.

After running moguls (in honor of the Olympics) in the more than a foot of snow in the backyard, my canine valentines have turned their attention to training for Iditarod. Go, Team Walker! Remember, pull together and listen to your leader. MUSH!

I had to stop, juggle leashes, dig my phone out of my pocket, and hope no traffic, snow plows or unfamiliar dogs would come my way when I saw this in a neighbor's yard. Even the snowmen are lying down, crying "uncle" and breaking out their beach chairs. This will make me smile all day, especially as we anticipate our next weather event which will deliver 2-5 more inches of the white stuff.

Now back to the holiday at hand. Valentine's Day isn't a huge deal around here. Oh, I've already gotten a card from the puppies and am sure there will be one from My Funny Valentine later this evening when he arrives home from work to the supper and dessert of his choice. There could even be flowers in the mix, but if not, I'm perfectly OK with that. I'm grateful that while cards, flowers and candy on a Hallmark holiday are lovely and appreciated, and make me feel special (and they do every time I receive them, especially on the "just because" days), that's only a small part of what love looks like in our marriage. I see love when Brian:
  • Runs the snow blower for the seemingly 100th time this year
  • Makes fires in the fireplace
  • Rubs my feet
  • Makes me laugh
  • Unclogs a clogged drain
  • Works hard to make sure his family is well taken care of
  • Surprises me with chocolate hidden in my desk drawer
  • Knows when to speak and when to listen
  • Does a million other things to take care of, honor and respect me
I have been blessed with a partner who is more than I could have hoped for and dreamed of and who was well worth waiting for. Love goes far beyond candy, flowers, chocolate, dinners out, and movie dates (our more typical dates are trips to the home improvement store). It takes work and commitment, and sometimes a significant amount of energy to do the next thing when you'd rather stay inside and avoid the snow or face a clogged drain when you've put in a long day at work. I'm thankful for a husband who puts me first, always.

Valentine's Day can be tough, whether or not you're in a relationship, but perhaps it can serve as a good reminder to tell the people who mean the most to us that we love them or to find the opportunity to brighten the day for someone who may be feeling lonely or sick or scared or (fill in the blank). Every day is a good day to be a valentine, to show love and kindness to people in our families, at work, in line at the grocery store, our neighbors and friends.

When my brother was a DJ at the college radio station, his daily sign-off was "tell somebody you love them." That's good advice, and because love is spoken in a million different ways, we can make every day a valentine kind of day.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

There Will Always Be Another "Again"

Nearly two years ago, I wrote my second blog post. It was titled Again. I wrote it in a hospital waiting room; I can go back there immediately in my mind's eye, typing on my laptop as I wait for Joanne to finish her treatment. Two weeks after I wrote that post, Joanne lost her battle with cancer.

When Joanne was diagnosed and we became more involved in her circle of support, we were still reeling from losing Pam to cancer. It felt like too much, too soon, but there we were. Again. And maybe it's just part of growing up, getting older, living life, but I've come to realize in the deepest part of my heart that there will always be another again.

Again doesn't come when you're ready or prepared; it just shows up. No one goes looking for again, but there it is, lurking in the shadows. Again and again and again. It can seem - and be - relentless.

Just last Tuesday, we learned someone we knew had just been diagnosed with cancer. By Thursday, he had passed away. A friend lost his mom to cancer this week. Another friend's cousin is in the last months of his battle with cancer. My aunt died from cancer last summer.

I hate cancer. Not that anyone feels any differently than I do in their abhorrence for this insidious disease. I'm just tired of it showing up again.

And it's not just cancer. It's any one of a myriad of physical or mental illnesses and diseases. It's losing a loved one, a job, a pet, a home. It's an accident, a prodigal child, the end of a relationship.

There will always be an again. It would be easy to stay mired in the anticipation of the next big, bad again. It is tempting to stay in your sweats, eating comfort food and watching mindless television or scanning the Internet. It's certainly a more difficult choice some days to live a life of gratitude and joy, to get dressed and face the world when it seems like again is everywhere you turn, in your life or someone else's.

But I know there are lessons to be learned in the again: to love and be loved; to win some and lose some; to discover the joys and blessings determinedly pushing their way through the cracks of the again; to breathe deep and let go; to allow others the blessing of rallying around you; to discover how weak and strong you can be within a single moment of time.

Sometimes you're in the again; sometimes it's my turn again. But no matter which side I'm on, I am confident there is life and breath and joy on the other side of the again. And each time it rolls around, I'm going try my best to summon the strength and fortitude to find the blessings within. Again.