Monday, November 24, 2014

For the Joy of It

Image courtesy of NPS
It’s windy today. Driving through downtown, I saw a dozen ravens surfing in the air above the buildings. I see them often, hanging out near bluffs or large buildings, playing in the surf of the wind. They’re not nesting, or feeding, or protecting their territories. They’re just playing in the wind for the sheer joy of it.

Joy.  That’s really what it’s all about. I’m thankful for the big things in my life: for health and family, a loving husband, a comfortable home. But life is made up of moments, and it’s the moments of joy that make life the celebration it is.

You’ve seen it. It’s the way a baby’s face lights up when he spots his mother. It’s in the way certain soccer players manipulate the ball, reveling in their athleticism.  It’s the perfect focus of a Labrador on the ball in your hand, waiting for the throw.  

It’s the squeal of a child on a swing, pumping higher and higher until she almost flies. It’s that first taste of a perfect piece of apple pie, of sweetness and spice wrapped in a flaky crust. It’s the satisfaction an author feels when a reader says a story touched her heart.

There are sad and serious things happening in the world and our lives. Always, people are suffering in ways big and small, and we can’t ignore that. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t take the time to experience the joy.

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for the little flashes of joy that happen all day, and for the ability to notice them. May you and yours have a joyful Thanksgiving and a joyful life.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Getting Ready

I wrapped my first Christmas present today, and I've already baked and frozen three kinds of cookies. I know, I know. It’s not even Thanksgiving yet and I’m rushing the holiday, yadda, yadda, yadda. I sometimes say the same, but secretly inside, I’m a little kid who just can’t wait for Christmas.
So are some of the characters in my books. In Family Planning (which is on sale through Dec. 7th), Donna has met the man of her dreams and moved to Flagstaff to start anew, only life gets in the way. The story starts and ends at Christmas. Here’s a little excerpt.

“Christmas cookies?” Blake looked at her suspiciously. “You’re one of them, aren’t you?”
“One of whom?”
 “One of those Christmas people.”
Donna started a pot of decaffeinated coffee. “You mean those annoying people who bake cookies and decorate everything in sight and wear ugly Christmas sweaters and go around singing carols for the whole month of December?”
“Yes, those people.”
“I’m afraid so. My name is Donna and I’m a Christmas person.”
He nodded solemnly. “I thought so. I saw the signs.”
Donna laughed and opened the tin of Christmas cookies. “Is this going to be a problem for you?”
Blake reached into the tin. “Actually, I’m a closet Christmas person myself. I don’t actually bake cookies or wear Christmas sweaters but I’m always available for taste testing and I have been known to cut a tree.”

So Grinch about rushing the season if you must, but know that once Thanksgiving is past, my house will smell like Christmas cookies, fir needles, and vanilla candles. Hope yours is filled with all the scents you love, too. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

I Love Autumn

Ten Things I Love about Autumn

      1. Warm shades of red, gold, and brown
      2. Frosty mornings and crisp sunny days
      3. Baked apples
      4. More gourds than I know what to do with
      5. Cuddly mornings under the quilt
      6. The scent of wood smoke
      7. Plans for Thanksgiving
      8. Bringing nature inside
      9. Vees of geese flying over
      10. Hints that Christmas is coming

Monday, November 3, 2014

Bonding over a Bad Recipe

Halloween is behind us and November is here, which means Thanksgiving is just around the corner. For the first time in a very long time, neither of my kids will be with us. Instead, we plan to spend Thanksgiving with my husband’s mother.

This takes me back to my first Thanksgiving with his family. We were in college and hadn’t been dating long. I was just starting to get to know his family and working hard to convince them I was good girlfriend material. His mother set a beautiful table and the food was wonderful.

The next day, she suggested we try a recipe she'd cut from the newspaper for Turkey Frame Soup. We spent a good part of the day preparing the bones, chopping vegetables, and rolling out and cutting homemade noodles. When dinnertime came, we gathered the family together and served the soup. It tasted like dishwater.

Everyone ate quietly, too polite to comment. Finally my future husband turned to me and said, “Thank you for making this for me. Please don’t ever make it again.”

My mother-in-law and I had many later successes in cooking collaboration, especially that year their apricot tree produced a bumper crop. The pie we made was prizeworthy. I’m not sure why the Turkey Frame Soup was so bad. I make soup all the time now, and it’s not hard. In fact, my husband begs for my chicken soup made from the remains of a rotisserie chicken. And yet my mother-in-law and I still reminisce about that awful soup. Somehow the failure created a bond.

I don’t have the Turkey Frame Soup recipe (not that you’d want it) but here’s my recipe for Chicken Barley Soup. It takes a while, but it’s easy and the aroma is wonderful. The chilies aren’t spicy; they add a rich flavor to the broth. As you can see, measurements aren’t exact.  It can be doubled or tripled for a turkey carcass. Rice can replace the barley, but I prefer the nutty texture of barley.

Chicken Barley Soup

To make the broth:
1 cooked chicken carcass after the good stuff (breast, thighs, drumsticks) has been picked off
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon poultry seasoning
A handful of celery leaves
Half a carrot
Half an onion

Using your fingers, remove all meat that comes off easily (backs, ribs, the meaty part of the wings). Reserve. Put the bones with whatever meat is clinging to them in a stockpot or Dutch oven and cover with water. If you have a neck, throw it in. Add the rest of the ingredients. Bring to a boil, then turn to a low simmer, cover, and ignore for a couple of hours.  When the bones are falling apart, remove from heat and let cool for thirty minutes or more.

Set up a strainer or colander over a bowl. You’re after the broth, not the solids. Pour the soup through the strainer and discard the bones and vegetables. At this point you can refrigerate the broth and make soup the next day if desired.

To make the soup: 
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 stocks celery, chopped
2 medium carrots, sliced thin
¼ head cabbage, roughly chopped
Reserved broth
1 4 oz. can chopped green chilies
1 teaspoon herbs de Provence (or ¼ each basil, thyme, marjoram, rosemary)
½ teaspoon sage or poultry seasoning
2/3 cup pearl barley
Reserved chicken, roughly chopped
Salt and pepper

Heat oil in stockpot. Saute onion and celery on medium heat until onion is just starting to brown. Add carrots and cabbage and saute for a minute more. Add broth, chilies with liquid, seasonings, and barley. Cover pan. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat and let simmer 45 minutes to 1 hour. Taste and check barley for doneness. Add salt and pepper as needed. When barley is done, add reserved chicken and heat for 10 minutes.  Serve hot.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Laidback Writer

KangaOn the  100 Acre Personality Quiz I discovered I'm a Kanga. It's not far from the truth, except that kids don't know not to misbehave around me. Just the opposite, really. I say, "Everyone gather around me here at the table," and three-fourths of the children ignore me. Where do you get one of those "I mean it" voices that successful teachers and coaches use? 

It was the same with horses. I spent my childhood dreaming of owning a horse someday. Rather than an imaginary friend, I had an imaginary horse, Jerina. White, graceful, with the delicate face of an Arabian, the two of us galloped effortlessly across the farm. My parents finally got me a real horse when I was fourteen, and I discovered I have little talent for riding. I took good care of Lady and she was fond of me, but many of our rides turned out to be long arguments about where and how fast we should be going. She felt her opinion was at least as valid as mine. When my cousin or anyone who knew horses rode her, she was a different animal: obedient, smooth, predictable. Just not with me.

Maybe that's why I enjoy writing so much. The characters in my stories sometimes surprise me, heading off in directions I didn't anticipate, but I have the ultimate power to let them roam or call them back. In the end, everyone behaves, or misbehaves, just as they are supposed to. I've always been a live and let live sort of person. I don't like being bossed around, and I don't try to boss others. I live a lot of my life inside my head, and maybe that's why. In there, I'm (more or less) in control. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Living History and Family Treasures

We just returned from a visit to various relatives, including my husband’s grandmother, an amazing woman.  She thinks she was born in 1917, although there is some doubt because she was born at home and her parents didn’t get a birth certificate until a few years later.  Officially, though, she’s ninety-seven, living in an apartment of her own in a senior facility, and doing her own cooking and housekeeping. She still has sharp hearing, a sharp mind, and judging from her geraniums, a green thumb. I want to be her when I grow up.

We did a little sightseeing on the trip. We saw Cave-in Rock, a notorious hideout for bandits including the James gang, and some beautiful cemeteries, and lots of corn. But mostly, we chatted. My husband’s grandmother is a walking history book. She was there during the depression, WWII, the moon landing, and everything since, working hard and raising a family. She grew up on a farm, married a farmer, and then after her husband died, went to work as a hospital aid. It was never an easy life, but she’s not the type to complain. "We didn't have much, but we grew vegetables and had chickens, so we always had enough to eat." 

The town where she lives celebrates a fall festival called Corn Days, but she mentioned Rooster Day, when someone threw a rooster from the upstairs window of an office building and people tried to catch it. We were able to find a record of Rooster Day on the internet, to her great satisfaction. “See, I didn’t make it up.” It took place in the thirties. Kiwanis promoted the day, encouraging farmers to bring their roosters to sell in town, and she remembers.

She's seen so much, stored up such wisdom, it's a shame that she won't always be there to share her experiences. I love to include characters like her in my books. They've been through all the stages of life and recognize BS and melodrama, although they're usually too polite to say so directly. The curiosity of children, energy of youth, balance of middle-age, and wisdom of elders: all add richness and depth to a story, and to life. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Gourds, Deer, and Expectations

Our Grand Garden Experiment had an unexpected ending. In late May, my husband and I decided to plant a few vegetables in our garden in Arizona even though we were spending the summer in Alaska. We mulched the garden carefully and set automatic irrigation to provide water. The idea was to come back to okra, sunflowers, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, and gourds.

The local deer population had other ideas. They found the tender shoots too yummy to resist. No pumpkin, no sunflowers, no okra, no peppers. They left enough of two Better Boy tomato plants that they regrew and bore fruit, but they’re not ripe yet. It will be a race to see if they ripen before frost.

And they left the gourds. Boy did they leave the gourds. I only planted two hills of three seeds each, but the gourds have taken over the entire garden terrace, crawled up and down the steps to the next levels, and even climbed a tree. We have green and yellow striped gourds, green gourds that look as if they were dipped halfway into yellow paint, and white egg-shaped gourds.

I’ve never grown gourds before, but according to my research, once they’re mature I just have to dry them and then wax or shellac the skins, and I’ll have gourds for decoration and possibly birdhouses. Or maracas. I could start a rhythm band. Too bad gourds aren't edible.

So I spent about five minutes being angry at the deer, and then I saw a doe bedded down in the lot next to our house. Look at that face. Who can stay mad?  It was a privilege to provide a snack to such a beautiful creature. But did she have to eat the grapevine too?