Saturday, November 22, 2014

What Kind of Cook Are You?

So I was preparing some pork chops for the Crock Pot this morning and found myself grabbing spices and herbs, along with some other magic potions to go on the chops as they browned.    I was sort of mindlessly flinging things in the skillet when it occurred to me that I was acting with reckless abandon, not unlike a Mad Scientist in his laboratory.  (Pronounced like a good British Mad Scientist would say it:   La-BORE-A-tory)  I almost laughed out loud at the thought that my cooking qualified me as a Mad Scientist.   But I guess in a way it's true.

As we're concocting things in our kitchens, we are either following closely along with Betty Crocker (or another of our cookbook gurus) as our guide and mentor or we go off on our own path, pulling things from our pantries, refrigerators and our vast repertoire of experiences in the  culinary arts.    I find that most of the time I am in the second category and mainly use recipes as inspiration more than a rigid game plan to follow.    I know, I know --- that can be dangerous, especially in the baking game.    If you don't get those proportions and levels exactly like the "formula" calls for them to be, you can end up with a pretty dreadful confection that fails to rise like it should or is flat and tasteless!!    So I don't often go off on my own tangent for baking.   However, I have been known to make Banana Bread with nary a look at a recipe, just relying heavily on memory and what I knew had to go in to make it good.    And frankly, most of the time, it has worked out.   

Most of the people I know give credit (or blame) for their cooking skills to a significant person in their life.    Maybe it was their Mom or a Grandmother who took the time to let them sidle up by them while they were cooking to observe or even help out.    I remember taking an interest in cooking when I was a pre-teen and then in my teenage years.   My sister, Ginny, and I would make platters of homemade fudge, mashed potatoes or a steaming pot of grits to eat while we watched movies.    My Mom was a pretty good cook, too, and we watched and observed what she did in the kitchen.    

My recollection is that my older sister, Charlotte, was a good cook who pretty much taught herself how to cook.   She used cook books and made a lot of what we call "comfort food" today.    Her Sunday Pot Roast with mashed potatoes and green beans were standard fare at her house.    Fried chicken with rice and gravy showed up on the table regularly, too.   It was almost always good, filling and tasty.     

Some people I know have told me that their Moms never (and I do mean NEVER) allowed them in the kitchen.    I am not sure why, but their experience in the kitchen was extremely limited growing up and so what they learned came from their own curiosity and interest in learning the skill.    I do believe those early experiences in the kitchen do more or less set the tone for what kind of adventures you'll have in the kitchen.   If you start learning early in your life how to hold a knife or what herbs and spices can do for your food, I think you tend to be more adventurous and willing to spend a lot of time in the kitchen honing those skills.     If you are discouraged from  having those experiences when you're young, it may lead you in the opposite direction so that cooking is not high on your priorities.   

I have to say that watching many of the cooking shows on The Food Network has filled in a lot of gaps for me.    What I didn't learn from my mother or observed in other cooks or read in a cookbook, I found out by watching Chopped or Iron Chef.      The interesting thing about Chopped is that the contestants are compelled to improvise with the odd set of ingredients that they are required to use in order to win.    So they may be given some really oddball ingredients that seemingly have no relation to each other than a frog does to a horse.    And yet, they are expected to utilize each of the items and come up with a cohesive, tasty dish.    

What I have learned is that you have to think of items in terms of what flavor (or texture) it imparts.    So if you are given some kind of cracker or cookie, you might end up grinding it up and using it to bread a pork chop.    It sounds off the wall but sometimes a small compensation such as adding in another spice or herb will offset the sweetness and it all works out fine.   You have to stretch your imagination to figure out how to use what you're given.     

I have seen chefs melt the chocolate off of a chocolate candy and chop up the peanut inside to sprinkle over the top of a dish.   Sometimes, the chef will have to understand the properties of an ingredient and what it will do once it is combined with another.     It takes courage, knowledge, some experience and yes, a bit of the Mad Scientist to figure out how to use the ingredients and end up with a good dish and not a royal mess.     

One other thought on this subject is that I am always looking for recipes to try.    I look mainly on Pinterest but I still like looking in cook books, even after years of looking at them.     I have many in my collection and inherited a few from my Mom.    What I have realized about myself is that often when I am in the midst of cooking (even by a recipe) is that it will strike me that the dish would taste better if I added something or substituted another ingredient for the one the recipe calls for.    I have no qualms about doing that and make no criticism of the original recipe.    Some people find a recipe on line, completely revamp it, putting things in that weren't called for or substituting with wild abandon and then go back to the site and slam the recipe, especially if it does not turn out right.    I do not do that and honestly, get annoyed with those who do.    If you totally change the recipe, you didn't cook the dish you thought you did!    But as I said, I am completely comfortable with making additions or substitutions as the mood strikes me.   And I take blame OR credit for the way the dish turns out.   

Anyhow, just out of curiosity, how do you think of yourself, dear reader?    Are you a recipe follower, and not prone to deviate from the proscribed way to make the dish?    Or are you more in the Mad Scientist category using recipes as just a jumping off point or coming up with ideas on your own or from things you see at the grocery store?     Then again, maybe you're like some people I know who prefer to "make reservations" for dinner!    Do tell.    Which kind are you?    

Happy Trails and Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Unfinished Business

We got to our house late yesterday after a day spent with family in Mobile.  I opened the car door and what greeted me was the unmistakable chorus of a zillion cicada's singing their song.    LOUD.    I have heard them for the past few evenings and their loud buzz is not like anything else I've heard in my life.     You can almost feel the vibrations in the air.   

As I walked up my sidewalk into the house, it occurred to me that even without the aid of a calendar, without seeing all the Back-to-School displays---with nothing else to guide me but that incessant buzzing noise in my neighborhood, I know the seasons are about to change.   Upon closer observation, there are other simple signs, as well.    

The leaves on the Virginia Creeper gracefully draped along the fence top of my back yard are showing signs that they are slowing down.  Their bright green foliage is starting to look a little weathered and leathery.    A few leaves here and there have even lost their summer color and have quietly moved into bright shades of red, yellow, orange and brown.    The squirrels that so eagerly attack our bird feeders for a quick snack or --- more likely --- a leisurely meal of sunflower seeds, are spending a lot more time digging and burying some of those seeds for a time later on in the winter when they will be in scarce supply.    Oh and yep, they take the "one for the storage hole, one for my mouth" method of stashing their winter food.   They never pass up the opportunity to eat some, bury some!  

The air starts to feel different as we move from July to August and then August begins to meld into September.    Even in the south, we have seasons and no doubt about it, fall is coming.     The thermometer still reads 90 degrees and by most measures, that qualifies as HOT.     What happens as we move past summer toward autumn is that the humidity begins to have mercy on us.   Instead of walking out into a wet blanket to start our day (or end a day of yard work), we find the air is cool and yes, almost sweet.    Especially if you have given your yard a haircut and the scent of freshly mowed grass lingers into the twilight.     It is a sign of what is coming and soon.    A nice way to herald the beginning of a new season.   

As I think on these things, I can't help but think of lots of thinkers and philosophers and poets who contemplated all of these signs long before I did.    They put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard or dictated into a tape recorder to give their spin on what they thought of,  given what they have observed.    So with that thought, I will do the same.    My two cents for what they are worth.   

When we're young and not so indoctrinated with how the world/life works, we think time goes on forever.   Summer vacation from school is endless.   At least in June it is!   The years to be young and carefree have no limit.    Unless you have some tragic circumstance that snatches that bit of childhood fantasy from you, we live in that make believe world for a fairly long time.     Then we wake up and realize that time waits for no man.   No woman, either, for that matter.    It is fleeting, slippery and can be over without warning.     Indeed, it is an elusive, mysterious thing that we barely understand before our time is up and gone.   

My intent when I sat down to write this was not to be morose about all of this but to explain how thinking about something like time and its mysteries is a good thing.    It forces you to explain to yourself how you feel and what's keeping you awake at night, what haunts you and WHY.      

What I have discovered is that the brain is pretty good at evading these questions in the cold light of day.  I can find busy work, household chores and just plain frittering of time to escape an examination of my life and my issues.     But at night.   Oh, that is a different matter.   Maybe it's because I am a captive audience.   Captive to a brain that chooses at that time to creep into my consciousness and decide that it's a good time (midnight!!) to have a little chat.    

In any case, here is what happened a couple of nights ago.   Without much effort or prodding, my brain began to come up with lots of unfinished business.    Things I have on my To Do List and have had on it for a long time.    Some I have partially done, some are "in process" and others just sit there, staring at me.    Waiting.   A lot of them have to do with organization of our household business.    Records, important documents, that sort of thing all in one unit.   Not scattered about in various boxes, drawers and folders.   ONE place.   Then there are the things I have talked about doing such as writing down stories for my grandchildren.   They beg me to tell them about my childhood and I have told them many, many stories.    But a better solution, while I still have most of my faculties, would be to actually write it all down.   Then they'd have them long after I am not around to tell them.     And then there are the fun, crafty things that are in boxes, bags and on shelves, also waiting for me to get them completed.   Many of these are not odious, difficult tasks.    They just need to be done and get off the Unfinished Business List.

So why are they not done, since I have plenty of time on my hands these days, as a retired person?    My keen and discerning mind has come up with this notion:  I am still trapped back in the "life goes on forever, time is endless" mode.   But I know better.     I've had my own close encounters with death and it does give you a good slap in the face but unless you keep yourself in line, you will fall back into old ways of thinking and old ways of NOT doing.      Avoidance is easy to do.    It comes naturally to many of us.     Holding myself to accountability and responsibility is much harder.    

Thus:  my resolve to change my evil ways.   First is to recognize and acknowledge the behavior.   You can't fix what you don't admit, right?    Second, devise a plan that includes some accountability.    With this thought in mind, I have come to realize that I'd sleep better at night,  have less stress and anxiety (and yes, there is anxiety when you look at things with a critical eye!) and would get a lot more done if I'd just be willing to change things just a bit.   I don't need to change my whole persona. Just find new  and more productive ways of spending my time.  

As summer fades into fall, as the leaves begin to drop from the vine, I see some new choices for me to spend my time.    And that unfinished business list won't be so long and I'll feel better, too.     We all have unfinished business.  The question is what is it?    Do you need to make amends for something you did that you now acknowledge was wrong?     Are you avoiding talking heart to heart with a loved one or friend to tell him or her that you care about them, that you love them --- because if you do, it opens you up to a vulnerable place?   Do you have tasks and projects that lie dormant because you're too busy avoiding them to get them finished?    

Time is always on the move whether we admit it or not.  No machine or device that has been invented so far has been able to transport us back to an earlier point in our lives.    Movies, video tapes, photographs and 8 mm recordings do a great job of giving us the impression that we're there, but it's history we're viewing.   We're not there to make it all different.     The time to act is now.     In the present.   

 It's a sobering thought when you realize that there is a finiteness to our lives.    And you can let it make you sad and depressed or you can take it as the fact that it is and resolve to use your time wisely and with intention.     I've talked about living with intention before and I am reiterating it in this post. Pay attention and give some thought to how you spend those precious moments of your life.    It is a commodity that is sometimes in short supply, in others doled out generously.   Get that Unfinished List made and then start ticking the things off as you get them done.    You'll feel a whole lot better, with fewer regrets and angst and I think you might even get a better night's sleep.   

Happy  Trails,


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

It's been a while since I posted anything and some of my long time fans (and all two of you know who you are) have been dropping hints that I needed to get back to writing and posting the mini chronicle of my life on this blog.   I am a person who needs something to write about and I have to get "inspiration" before I can get going on these writing projects.    So I was preparing to get dressed yesterday and, as is my habit, found myself standing, slack jawed, in my closet, hoping against hope that the contents had miraculously tidied themselves up.     Nope, didn't happen.    So I grabbed a few things, shoved them back on the shelf and re-arranged a few things lurking on the floor and NO, not all of them were shoes.    

The sad state of affairs in my closet kind of stuck with me and even as I tried to sleep last night kept nagging at me.  Do something, I kept hearing in  my head.   Quit putting this off.   You KNOW what needs to be done.    So in the middle of my sleepless night, I vowed to get going on a long overdue project.    I would tackle my side of our closet and eventually, get Larry's side back in order, too.   

First, the Good about all of this.   I have a friend who persists in telling me that I am "the original happy camper".    And she is mostly right about that.     I do have my moments of being unhappy and rather vocal about it, but for the most part, I have a good attitude and have dealt with difficult and dreaded situations quite a few times in my life.    As a nearly 24 year survivor of breast cancer, I can tell you that I've faced far worse things than a messy closet.  The strategy I adopted when I was under treatment was rather simple.    I would say to my self, "I can handle or do anything for five minutes."   And I did.  And when that five minutes was up, I'd say it again and again, as many times as it took to get through it.     I got through radiation and chemo that way, often quietly muttering this mantra to myself.    MRI machines, laser beams that marked the places the radiation was to go and needles attached to bags of chemicals designed to chase any remaining cancer cells from my body were NO match for that fierce determination to get through the procedure and get back to living.    

And when you think about it, this strategy will work for many different scenarios in life that are not exactly our cup of tea but have to be done any how.     So adopting this same philosophy, I thought to myself, what would make doing this job better?    I had toyed with the idea of grabbing every single thing in the closet and yanking it out, hangers and all, tossing them willy-nilly around the room.  Then I'd spend days going through the piles and piles of clothes and accessories.    It would disrupt my life, my sleep and my calm demeanor and I rejected that method almost immediately.    

After mulling over the project, I decided the "I can do anything for five minutes" strategy would work better.    So instead of grabbing handfuls of clothing, shoes, purses, scarves and making a horrendous hot mess in the middle of my bedroom, I am going to use the small section at a time method.     One shelf, one drawer, one rod at a time will work better, won't cause me instant regret and will make it much likely that I'll finish this project like it needs to be done.   

Now for the Bad.    We all have habits and these habits are often what cause us the most problem --- like finding our closets could be making us prime candidates for an appearance on the TLC television show, Hoarders.     Personally, I think one of the reasons that show is a success is that after watching an episode or two, most of us can honestly say with relief, Thank goodness I am not THAT bad!  That does not mean, however, that we're off the hook.   The primary reason my closet looks like it does is simple:  I don't follow the rule of a place for everything and everything in its place.  So my closet gets really out of hand and messy.    

So what to do?    I have concluded after many years of dealing with my bad habits and the resulting messes that follow that it's a matter of making a strategy to deal with the bad habit before it has a chance to sabotage my efforts to keep my closet tidy.     First order of the day is to purge my closet of clothing and accessories that I can't or won't wear any more.    Just thinning the herd of so much stuff will help cut down on what has to go back inside.     Second strategy is to make the closet so much better than it was that I'll want to keep it that way.    To that end, I have decided I want my hangers to match and the mishmash of  hangers from the dry cleaner, clothing I have bought and a wild assortment of metal and plastic have got to go!   But following up on a tip I read somewhere else, I won't be buying anything for storage or hanging until I have purged first and know what kind and how many I'll need.    

Now for the Ugly.   That would be in the inside of my closet.    It's not pretty and certainly not functional in the way it needs to be.    Not ready for Hoarders, either, but still not at its best.    So I am going to post these pictures as a way of holding myself accountable.     

 Egads, that is bad.   OH and ugly.    But it had to be done.    So you see what I am up against.   But the important thing is that I have a strategy to deal with it.     I've used the other method of just pulling it all out and making a royal mess and then ended up with a back ache and lots of angst, only to discover six months later that the problem has returned.    I think my method this time will be less stressful and I hope will serve as a way to make this problem go away.   

 *   Tackle the problem in manageable bites.   Adopt the saying, "I can handle anything for five 
      minutes."    Set a timer and get to work on one section.    When the time is up, assess what you've 
      accomplished and start again.    You can do a lot if you stick to it in small segments.
 *   Start thinking of what your bad habits are.    We all have them.   If you want the closet to stay 
      neat, you have to have a plan to always return things to their proper place.   Come to think of it, 
      that applies to any place you want to stay tidy.   Your kitchen, your desk, your car.    So a change 
      of  bad habits to good ones will go a long way toward making your make over stay made over.

*    Find a way to hold yourself accountable.     I posted pictures on the internet.   That means they
      are here forever.   Even if my blog ends, these images won't.    I am sending a notification to 
      people I know and allowing them to see my nightmare.     What would make you accountable?
      Sometimes just involving a friend or relative who is willing to encourage you and maybe even 
      help you will do the trick.    In fact, I think it's always a good idea to inform someone of your plan
      and ask them to check in on you now and then to see how you're doing.     Accountability is a 
      strong motivator and sometimes is the key to success.  

So now it's time to put my plan into action.    Starting bright and early tomorrow morning, I will get out my timer, put on some tunes to listen to while I work and I'll start the purge.   My life these days mostly requires jeans, shorts, tee shirts and athletic shoes.    The clothes I have left from the days when I was employed outside the home need to find a new home.    I purged some things after I retired but clearly not enough.  Dressier things that I no longer need or use were donated to the Rescue Mission.  Mostly what remains now are a few dressier things I saved --- just in case I needed something dressier. I didn't.  And there are some well worn items that have seen better days.  Tee shirts that are stained, stretched out and raggy?   Well, they gotta go.  Things that my sister, Charlotte, used to call Old Comforts are headed for the rag bin.  This is going to be a test of my resolve.    

I will report back on this.   I promise.    And if you have suggestions or hints to make this task more palatable, please leave a comment in the box below.   Or just send me an email.    I can use all the encouragement and support I can get!    

Happy Trails,

Monday, February 10, 2014

Open Up: Let 'Em Run!!

Around our house, the Winter Olympics can't come around too often.    We watch many of the sports and enjoy cheering for the United States team, but are not above rooting for a good athlete no matter where they are from.   

Yesterday we happened to be watching some of the downhill skiing and were simply amazed at the speed and danger those skiers were in from the moment they began their downward descent to the gate at the end of the course.    You could hear their skies chattering on the icy slope and the cameras followed them closely as the edges of the skies dug into the crusty surface.    It was obvious the conditions on the hill were extremely slippery and the skiers had to be ever vigilant to not go flying off the course into a snowbank.    With modern cameras (think Go-Pro!) you can all but be on the slope yourself as they follow the competitors moment by moment down the course, wind biting at your face and ears.   

As I watched the skiers yesterday I could almost feel my own leg muscles tense up as they would go into a sharp curve or go down a hill at blinding speeds.     I found myself holding my breath as they went airborne from the Russian Trampoline only to land and have to do it all again several times before skidding to a snowy stop at the bottom.  

Now if I am being honest I have to say I have never in my life skied as fast or fearlessly as these athletes competing at the level of an Olympic champion.     What I have done is ski on some spectacular slopes in the Colorado Rockies and in Park City, Utah for a period over ten years of my life when I was much younger and before back surgery and arthritis put an end to my skiing days.   I know what it feels like to be on top of a snow covered mountain and look across the vastness that makes up those majestic mountains.    I've stood in the cold with wind nipping at my cheeks and nearly sucking the breath from my lungs.   I watched as others around me swooshed by leaving a trail of their tracks carved into the powdery snow.   And on several occasions, I found myself gliding along, enjoying the view and, for a brief time, not thinking about how dangerous it was that I had strapped some waxed boards to my all too heavy (and bone crushing painful) ski boots and then rode on a chair lift up to the highest point on the mountain that I dared to go and then stood on the edge of a slope, pushed myself forward and took off.  
Marcia and Rebecca at Keystone, Co

And then one day the worst thing happened.    Or at least it seemed that way at the time.    I was going along fine, wind in my hair, sun bouncing off of my goggles when I hit an icy patch.    They don't talk about "icy patches" too much in ski school.    In fact, I don't recall anyone ever mentioning those pesky spots that can happen anywhere along the slope.   When the sun is shining and the temperature rises just above freezing, the snow can melt just a little and get soft.  As the skiers go over those places they pack the snow down and it gets pressed into a hard, icy mess.    If the temperature drops again, you can easily have little surprises waiting for you all. the. way. down. the. hill.   

So I hit one of those icy places and being a relatively inexperienced skier, I started skidding and slipping, pretty much losing control and headed for the snow bank.  At some point (I'm not saying when because frankly I don't remember and I don't WANT to remember), I fell and got turned around so I was headed down the hill head first.    There was nothing to do but continue to slide and pray that I'd get to the bottom without hitting anything.    I slid over further and further and finally was off the trail, headed straight for a pine tree.   And then I stopped, my head only inches from the bark of the tree.  

Larry and Rich ready to go!
Larry raced over and helped me to my feet.    We quickly figured out that the only thing hurt was  my pride.   Oh and maybe a bruise here and there but mostly it was my ego that got injured.   I didn't fall much when I skied, even as a beginner.    I don't know why except I was pretty cautious and took my time.   Or maybe I was just lucky.  This fall felt really humiliating and I was embarrassed, too.

So we made our way back to the condo and related my tale of woe to my niece, Rebecca,  and her husband, Rich. They were sympathetic to my plight and offered hot chocolate and sincere encouragement and thanks that I had not been seriously injured.   I put my skies up on the rack in the hall and was thinking, "Well, that is that.    No more skiing for me this time."  Just the thought made me feel anxious and start breathing faster.  

The next day, I opted out of skiing.   There was plenty for me to do at the condo.   Laundry, making chili, watching the snow fall, baking brownies.    Oh, for sure, my skiing was done for this trip.    And I meant it.    The mountain had gotten the best of me and I was ready to wave the white flag of surrender.  

But I was not counting on having a mentor or challenger right there in the condo with me.    It turned out that Rich was having none of it.   He allowed me a day off and then he began talking about going back on the mountain again.     I protested but he was not going to give up.  He just kept telling me I needed to go back out there and try again.    Rich was a really good skier, a confident athlete and sure of himself when he got on the mountain.  And in his mind, the thing to do when the mountain kicks you in the behind, is get back out there and stand up for  yourself.    Take a deep breath and like the Nike ad says, Just do it!  

The next morning, bright and early, we headed out, just the two of us into the frosty air.   We made our way over to the ski lift and with my heart in my throat, we got on the lift headed for a modest run not too far up the mountain.     I might mention here that ski lifts are not my favorite mode of transportation and I have encountered a few issues with them in the past.  My heart was racing as we got near the top because it's a known fact that for many skiers just getting off the lift without suffering an embarrassing prat fall right in front of everybody is their highest achievement.  I know this because I have had prat falls in front of everybody and I have also skied, victoriously, off to the side of the lift without humiliating myself.   So I have known both feelings.

We got to the end of the ride, quickly made our exit and began gliding over to the place to start our way down the mountain.    I was thinking of begging Rich to just let me go find a gondola to ride back down but somehow I knew by the look in his eyes not to even go there.     As I said, he was having none of my excuses or protests.   I was practically quaking in my ski boots as we inched our way over to the slope.    All the while, Rich was giving me encouraging pats on the back and he kept repeating a little mantra something like, "You can do this."    He must have said that ten times and I kept holding back, not wanting to let my skies get anywhere close to that edge.   I knew once I went over the edge there was no going back.   

For those that don't ski, slopes, especially the easier ones have areas that are slanted downward and then flat places where you can stop, catch your breath and rest before finishing the run.    On more difficult ski trails there are fewer flat places and steeper slopes.    Rich had wisely brought me to a relatively easy ski slope to try to rebuild my confidence.    So we took off again, down the hill.

At the next opportunity I stopped again.    It was clear this was going to take some time and I was not really enjoying it one bit.    Oh, I made my way down the hill, but joy and exhilaration were the last things on my mind.   I was kind of getting annoyed with Rich because he was so determined to help me get past the fall and he was not going to give up easily.  He just kept repeating his mantra.   I kept thinking, "just get me off this mountain!"   This was not going well.    

We came to another slope, another chance to win back my confidence and prove to myself that I could do it.    I hesitantly shoved myself toward the edge of the slope and let them drop over onto the edge when I heard Rich take a breath behind me.    I began to cautiously inch my way down the hill, making snow plows as I went.   A snow plow is a beginner move taught at the very first ski lesson so you will slow down.   You put your skies together in a pie shape wedge and it really does make you go rather slowly down even a slanted run.   And that's what I was doing.  Snow plowing my way along.   It is not a good strategy for skiing with intention of having fun.   It's just a way to get the job done until you get to the end.    

Finally, in exasperation, I am sure, I heard Rich shout, "Open up!!  Let 'em run!!"   In other words, stop doing that silly snow plow and go for it!!    I knew he was going to dog my tracks, repeating that phrase over and over until I did it.    So just to get him off my back, I dared to let those skies drift ever so slightly to parallel with each other.     As they came into line, my speed began to pick up, as expected.     I stood up a little straighter and began to look around me.     I saw the trees going by, faster and faster.    I heard the noise my skies made as they glided across the glistening snow.    The wind blew across my face, reddening my skin and making me know I was alive and on this day I was skiing like I meant it.    I was having fun and could feel that tiny thrill of excitement in the pit of my stomach as I approached the orange gates at the bottom of the hill.  Rich's last ditch effort had worked!  
Marcia and Rich--- I did it!

I have thought about that day since then many times.    I am proud of myself for having the courage to go back to the mountain and prove to myself that I could conquer my fear and overcome the self doubts.   And I am really glad that I had that chance, one more time, to ski like I meant it.   To have fun.   To open up and let 'em run.    

As it so happens, I didn't want to relate this tale from my past just for grins and giggles.   No, my dear reader, whoever you are, wherever you are in life, I have a point to make.    All of us face mountains that have sidelined us.   We all have moments of self doubt and certainty that there is no way we're going back to face those fears.     When those times come into your life, you need to remember those Olympic athletes and the mountains they are on.   Not one of them was always where they are today.   Every single one of them had to learn their sport the hard way.    And when the times got hard, the bruises too painful, somehow they had to reach deep down inside and push their way back to the top of the mountain and try again.     They had to find a way to say to themselves, "you can do this."

Breckenridge, Colorado
I was lucky that day and had a coach, a family member and mentor who could have been out on the mountain skiing for himself.   He took time from his own opportunity to ski a much more demanding, difficult ski trail to encourage me to return to the hill.    A good lesson was learned that day.    Don't give up on yourself and give in to defeat.     No matter what your goal, your station in life, your level of education, you can go on to bigger dreams.     Put yourself back on that mountain top and give yourself permission to Open Up:  Let 'em run!   

Sunday, February 9, 2014

She Loves You, Yea, Yea, Yea!

It had a been a difficult year for me.    The previous summer in June of 1963 our family had -- it seemed to me -- rather abruptly packed all of our belongings into a gigantic Mayflower Moving Van and left my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi to go live Deep in the Heart of Texas -- Fort Worth.    My Dad had gotten a promotion at work and had the audacity to make the decision to move to Cow Town, as it was quaintly called, without consulting me or my sister, Ginny.  

To say we were upset and unhappy about the move would be a huge understatement.    I think we cried all the way to the suburbs of Dallas and at that point I realized we were moving to a very, very different place.    I had just finished up the 9th grade at Hardy Junior High School and was really looking forward to my first year of high school the next fall at Provine High School.    I thought I'd finally arrived at the perfect age and was eagerly anticipating what life was going to be like now that I had finally gotten to the big time -- high school.   All of that had taken a sudden about face as I realized I'd have to start all over making friends, going to a new school and all that a move like that entails.   

I made it through the summer that year without too much angst and met some new friends my age when we began attending a Methodist Church a few blocks away from our house.     I was a very shy teenage girl at that point in my life and very self conscious of my Mississippi accent and my Mississippi clothes that suddenly seemed really out of style with what my new peers were wearing.   I was approaching my 15th birthday that fall and I let my Mother know right quick that if I didn't get some penny loafers (Bass Weejuns) and a pair of white Levis I would die a mortal death right there.

I was just getting adjusted to my new hometown and figuring out how to make new friends at my brand new school, Arlington Heights High School.   It was a rather affluent school with kids that came from a wide area.  Some of the kids I went to school with actually were driven to school in chauffeur driven limousines.   A few lived behind gated mansions with servants and amenities I had never heard of, much less seen!    Of course, not all of the classmates there were rich and neither was I.   But it wasn't long before I found another lonesome soul like me and she and I became fast friends right away.   I was beginning to think I might do OK here in this Cow Town, so far removed from my old hometown in nearly every way you could imagine.  

Things were going well until the late fall of that year when the entire nation experienced a loss so great and so unexpected it threw us all into a kind of group mourning and state of grief.   It was the assassination of President John F, Kennedy.      I was in Mr. Van Meter's biology class when we first heard that there had been a shooting and by the time I got to my English class a few hours later we were told of the president's death.     There is no way to describe exactly how it felt but it was a frightening and very scary time for everyone to see our president shot to death and it happened in a town only 30 miles from where we were.  The President had been in our own town earlier that morning.  We were not prepared for such a devastating turn of events.   And for the next two months we all more or less went through the motions of living and tried to go on with our lives but it was extremely difficult.

In January of 1964, a buzz began to go around especially among the youth of the nation.   There was a new musical group that was the latest sensation in Europe.    They had an odd name and their clothing and hair made as much news as their music.    Some of their music began to show up on local radio stations and word of a trip to appear in person in the United States began to circulate.    For a nation still in mourning, it was a light hearted turn to something that would help us transition back to living again.  

That group was The Beatles and once they came on the musical scene, the world has never been the same.   They influenced music for sure, but they also brought in new hair styles, clothing and new ways of thinking.    Over the years that they were together,  their music evolved, too, and each fad of the way they dressed morphed into another.    Parents lamented their long hair, which by today's standards was anything but long.    Schools dealt with how long was too long and what to do with the boys who dared to break the rules for acceptable hair styles.  The Beatles were pretty outspoken, too, and the youth of the world began to listen to not only their music but some of their opinions about politics and even religion.

By February 1964, the arrangements had been made and the Beatles were scheduled to appear on the very popular variety show, The Ed Sullivan Show.    Mr. Sullivan was famous for having a wide range of  entertainers on his show featuring everything from opera singer, Robert Peters to dancing bears and the Line Backers from the Green Bay Packers.    Anybody who was anybody showed up on Ed Sullivan!    So the word spread like wildfire that THE BEATLES were going to be on Ed Sullivan.  

My sister, Ginny, and I were so excited to see our new found singing idols that we actually stayed home from our church youth group the first Sunday night they were on.   We were fairly quivering with excitement when the time came for them to come on stage.     Girls in the studio audience were swooning and crying, something we had never witnessed before.   My father, unabashedly a musical snob, was not impressed and rather vocally told us how he felt about the whole thing!   Undeterred, we watched with rapt attention and thus, Beatle-mania broke out right in our living room and truly,  all across the country and eventually world wide.

So on this 50th Anniversary of that occasion, I can't help but look back in fondness with all that took place during that time.     I was a shy, awkward teenage girl, searching for who I was and wanted to be.    I had been plunked down into a totally new situation and was finding my footing in a new place.  New friends, new way of talking, new way of dressing.     And layered on top of that to become politically aware of how quickly things in our world could change, it was almost too much for a 15 year old girl to endure.    The Beatles were a phenomenon that came along at the right time and place.  They sparked our imagination and made us smile again.    

Thanks to John, Paul, George and Ringo, I turned back to being a teenager again.    I talked with my best friend late into the night about which one of the Fab Four was the cutest.   We read our Beatle magazines from cover to cover and felt like we knew every aspect of their lives.    And one Sunday afternoon my Dad took me by the local record shop where I bought my very first Beatle album, Meet the Beatles.    I thought nothing could ever top that.    For a teenage girl, I thought I'd finally arrived and that all was right with the world.    

Every kid needs something to remember their teen years for that they will take long into their adult years.   For me, one of the highlights will be remembering my fascination, indeed, love for the Beatles.     They brought me great joy and happiness at a time in my life when I needed it.    They were the first real recording artists that I knew much about and wanted to buy their music.     The bonds of friendship that I had with my first friend I made in Fort Worth were knit from the common thread of our love of the Beatles.    Even all these years later I can hear their early recordings and smile and remember the words like I knew them at 15.     She loves you, yea, yea, yea.... Indeed.       

Monday, January 27, 2014

Random Thoughts on a Winter Day

I've been away from here for a while so I thought I'd just post a few things that were dancing through my head this afternoon.   Our weather just got upgraded to a Winter Storm Warning.   We've been on a Winter Storm Watch since yesterday and we expected the upgrade so it's not exactly a surprise.   Anyhow, the thought of real, honest to goodness winter weather headed our way took me back a few decades to my youth. 

I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, not exactly the place most likely to have severe winter weather.   But every now and then we'd have an epic (for Jackson) snow storm.   My mother and older sister often told me the tale of when my baby sister was born how it snowed them in and our house was the only one on the block with heat because my father had thrown a bath mat over the gas meter, thus preventing it from freezing up.   They told me about neighborhood parties with my parents' best friends because no one could get to work.  They trudged through the snow to our friend's house and proceeded to have an impromptu party.   They cooked large pots of chili, played cards and just had a really good time while the kids all played out in the snow, made snowmen and had snowball fights.  

When I was about 10 years old, we had one of those unusual, once-in-a-decade snow storms in Jackson.   The wind howled and the temperature plummeted to single digits.    School was cancelled, of course, and with the unexpected holiday, every kid in our neighborhood was running around outside like Daffy Duck.   We did every cliched thing you've ever heard of when kids get around snow --- some of us for the first time in our lives.    We stuck our tongues out and caught snowflakes, made snow angels and played until near exhaustion lobbing snowballs across the yard to our "snow forts".    It was such pure fun it brings tears to my eyes to remember the innocence that surrounded us that day.

Later we lived in Ft. Worth, Texas and one year a snow storm blew through that had us huddled in front of our fireplace, wearing parkas and mittens to keep warm.   The blustery wind kept gusting up under our house and would blow out the flame on our gas heater.   So for all practical purposes we had no heater in our house and the only source of heat was the fireplace in our living room.    It was a shock to our southern souls to have true winter weather thrust upon us.   It did not shock us so much that we forgot what to do in the snow, however.

My sister, Ginny, decided we needed to build a snowman .  She seldom ever did things that were ordinary and neither was her idea of a snowman.   We rolled the snow in our yard into three snow balls ranging from small to large.   Then we stacked them on top of one another.   It was at this point that Ginny decided that our creation had to be a lady.   She ran in the house and got a scarf and other accessories to dress our lady and for some reason, I seem to remember she even figured out a way to give her earrings!   Like I said, Ginny never did anything half-way.    When it came time to finish her off, she started gathering up more snow and before I knew it she had added arms to our lady.    And she was not content to just put arms.  She added hands and sculpted fingers so our snow lady had her hands on her hips!    Sassy, she was.

We had snow so seldom when I was a kid and when we did, it was always an occasion.   It meant a day or two off from school.   Daddy stayed home from work.  Mama would let us do things that we ordinarily did not get to do.  Our town got transformed to a winter wonderland.  It was almost magical.  

I made a batch of Peanut Butter Cookies this afternoon and if I am being honest I have to admit it's because of the prospect of winter weather.    If I can figure out a way to make a Low Carb Fudge, I'll make that, too.   And why is that?    Because of all the memories made during those times of snowy, winter days, one thing I remember us doing always was making goodies and treats.     Daddy made snow ice cream for us.    Mama let us make fudge and sometimes it actually turned out right. But frequently it didn't.   We never let a little thing like fudge that wouldn't set up deter us, however.   We ate soft, chocolaty goodness right off the plate with a big spoon and then grinned big fudgey smiles at each other.

Those were some happy times that came tumbling back into my mind this afternoon. And all because we're under a Winter Storm Warning!  Good memories on a January afternoon.     Our weather is going downhill soon.  The wind has already shifted around from the south so that now it's coming out of the north.     The cold air is going to invade our town.   But I'm prepared!   I have those cookies cooling on the counter.     At the first sign of a snow flake I'll probably run around outside like Daffy Duck.    It will be like old times and it'll make me very happy.  

Do you have fond memories from your childhood that can come back in an instant?    What about traditions associated with those memories?   For me, making those treats is as natural to me as putting on a hat and gloves to play in the snow.   It is just something I automatically think about doing.    The Peanut Butter Cookies are easy and if you want to make a batch here is what you need:

1 Cup of Peanut Butter, creamy or crunchy
1 Cup of Splenda Sweetener (or Splenda Brown Sugar Blend)
1 Egg
1 tsp. Vanilla 

Pre-heat your oven to 350.    
Mix the peanut butter with the egg.   You can do this by hand with a large spoon.    Add the Splenda and vanilla until well mixed.   
Using a teaspoon or small scoop, make a small ball of  the peanut butter mixture, about the size of a walnut.  Place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper or non-stick aluminum foil.    About a dozen will fit on a standard size cookie sheet.    
Use a fork dipped in the Splenda to make the hash marks on the top of the cookie mixture.  The Splenda will help keep the fork from sticking to the cookie.   
Bake for about 12 minutes.  Remove from the oven and let cool.   
Make about one dozen small cookies.   

This is a flour-less, sugarless cookie.   Low Carb.   Be sure to use a peanut butter without added sugar if you want to limit the sugar in the cookies.   I found Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter to have no added sugar and it worked fine in this recipe.   

I am still going to hunt for a Low Carb Fudge recipe and if I find one that works, I'll post it here.  If I have to, I'll eat it with a spoon and I'll tell you that, too!

Hope you all have happy memories from back in the day.     I know I do and it was fun to go back to that happy place again.   

Happy Trails,

Monday, November 18, 2013

Don't Let Your Car "Brake" Your Day!

Not very long ago, Larry and I set off on our very first real road trip.    We've made trips before, obviously.    But this one was different because we were going a very long distance in our own car.  No rental car this trip!   It was a trip that ended up putting nearly 4,000 miles on our trusty Camry.     We knew it was going to be a lengthy trip because we planned to be gone for nearly 3 weeks  and required several overnight stays along the way.   

I started planning for this trip some time back in the summer.     I spent a lot of time on the internet scouting out hotel rooms, places we wanted to see along the way and what we could do once we got to our destination---Massachusetts.      Thanks to wonderful hosting by Rich and Rebecca, we got to see parts of Vermont, Massachusetts and New York.    They were our traveling companions for that portion of the trip and made a lot of grand adventures possible!  

Before we could pack our bags, load up the car and head out on this fun trip, Larry was already thinking about preparing our car for the trip.     Fortunately, he didn't wait until the last minute to do that.     A full two weeks before we were to leave he began maintenance and check ups that anyone should think about before taking a road trip.  He replaced belts, hoses, changed the oil and checked fluid levels.  He even gave the ol' buggy a good wash and wax!   Starting ahead of time ultimately saved us a lot of aggravation and potential problems that could have interfered with our plans.  

Larry is a guy who knows a lot about preventive maintenance because he spent the lion's share of his career doing that for Fed Ex.    The vans that he kept running and in service were on a regular maintenance schedule.   But it wasn't just the scheduled maintenance that was important.   The eyes and ears for every day those vans went out on the road came from the drivers who were required to do a pre and post trip inspection.   Before they ever left the building, they were expected to do a walk around for their vehicle.  They looked at it, noted anything that didn't seem right.   They were supposed to make sure the vehicle was ready for service and tell the mechanic if anything seemed amiss.     Then they listened and watched for things while on the road and finally, wrote it all up at the end of the day so the mechanic could check it out with more detail and experienced eyes.   This system works very well for major fleets and is one that you can adopt to make your car last longer and not fail you when you need it to work properly --- which come to think of it is EVERY time you get in it to go somewhere!     

How many times do you just get in your car, crank it up and let 'er roll?    You only pay attention when the noise coming from under the hood is literally screaming at you or it fails to start.      Or you give a passing glance to the dash board and don't make it a habit to note whether there are lights on, other than the gas gauge giving you a nudge that you might need to refuel.   If this is you, then maybe the following suggestions will make your driving experience a bit less of a hassle and more pleasurable.   

Cars today are amazing devices and, like most of the other things in our lives, are run by computers.    They make our cars run more efficiently, keep us safer and, in some of the newest models, have even taken over things like parking and braking to keep us a safe distance from the next vehicle.   When you look under the hood of most cars, the entire engine compartment is filled edge to edge with almost no room for a hand to get in there to repair something that is broken or malfunctioning.   What you need to realize is that even with all those computers and mechanical devices the most important component is YOU.   If you don't heed the warnings, the lights and other ways your car has to tell you that something is wrong (those new sounds!!), you could still end up stranded on the side of the road. 

On a regular basis, you should be looking at your tires, your oil and water.    Unlike the Fed Ex driver, you probably don't need to do this every time you go out, but every couple of weeks is usually sufficient.     When you crank your car, listen to it.    Preferably without the radio or air conditioning on as they can mask important sounds.   Does it sound like it normally does?   Did it take longer to crank than it usually does?   If so, what did it sound like?    Make note of these things because you will need that information if you believe it needs to be checked out by your mechanic.   Don't ignore changes as they are clues to what is going on out of your sight, under the hood.  

Once you get going, does your car move correctly?   Do you notice any unusual vibrations or shimmying as you move along?   When your tires are not aligned properly it can make your car sway as it rolls along.  It might be harder to steer, too, or pull in one direction or the other.   Improper alignment can make your tires wear out faster than they should and can interfere with the comfort of your ride.    If you notice unusual lumpiness as you ride along, it may be that your tire has a serious issue going on that requires a more thorough exam by a mechanic or tire store.     Before we left on our road trip, Larry did a visual examination of our tires and deemed them to be OK.  But to be sure, he took the car in to be aligned and so they could put it on a lift for a better look at the tires.   Imagine his surprise to be told that one of the tires had a serious problem that would have almost certainly caused us a problem after we were under way.     As it was, because he started the check up process WELL AHEAD of our trip, he had plenty of time to replace the tires so we started our adventure with less of a chance that a blown tired would ruin our day and possibly our trip.   

Now about those warning lights and gauges that we depend on to warn us about issues under the hood......On a trip last fall to Apalachicola,  I learned something that I never knew before.   We had been traveling along nicely, enjoying the scenery near Panama City when all of a sudden an amber CHECK ENGINE light came on.   Larry noticed it almost immediately and mentioned it to me.    I was sort of panicked, wondering what it meant and if our trip had just hit a big snag.     I figured he would pull over and stop immediately.    

I was wrong.    He did stop, but it was a little way down the road where we could pull off into a shopping center parking lot.     He got out, did a quick check and then got back in and we continued our trip.     He explained to me that AMBER lights mean one thing, while RED lights are another matter altogether.  This, I never knew!    Amber lights are a way to let you know that something is not right and that it should be checked out.    As a rule, they do NOT mean you need to stop ASAP.     Just make note of the light and, at your earliest convenience , take the car to the shop to find out the source of the problem.

Please note that another thing you can do is take your car to almost any of the national auto parts houses (Auto Zone,  O'Reilly's or Advanced Auto) and they can hook your car up to a laptop computer that can get the code your car's computer is giving and tell you what it means.     Most of those places do not make the repairs but can tell you what needs to be done which will be useful information when you take your car to the repair shop.     

RED LIGHTS.    They are a whole other ball game when it comes to your car's well being.    If you ever see a red light come on, you have to find a way to get off the road and quickly.      Something is really wrong under the hood and that RED LIGHT is giving you the signal it's time to shut things down.    If you ignore it, chances are pretty good that your car is going to simply stop running and you're going to stop anyhow.  If you see a red light, start planning immediately how to safely get to the side of the road or to an exit if you can.   You probably will need road side assistance and possibly a tow truck to get you to a repair shop, but by acting quickly and appropriately, you could save yourself thousands of dollars in repair expenses!   

And speaking of repairs, if you are ever in a situation where you are advised to have an expensive repair done to your car, always think about getting a second opinion.    Ask the first mechanic to write down what the problem is and what they recommend to fix it.    Then find another mechanic, take the car to that person and get another opinion.    Do not tell them what the first mechanic recommended, just what the symptoms are.   When you are being told that an expensive repair is necessary, you surely want to know that it was, indeed, necessary.    So don't be afraid to seek out another opinion when it's your money and your car.    

Finally, one last bit of advice from the resident mechanic here on the Funny Farm:   Try to park in the same place when you arrive back at home.    Why?    Because every now and then (two weeks) you need to move the car a bit ---- back it up, pull it forward, whatever works in your drive way or parking space. Then look where your car was parked.     Is there fluid on the ground?    If so, do you notice any color to it?     Normal air conditioning drips will not be colored and will dry up shortly. Totally normal, by the way.  If you notice color in the drainage, take note of what color it is.   Fluids that your car uses to function come in all colors---red, yellow and green.    Oil leaks will often give off a rainbow effect.    Make a note of the color of the leakage so when you take your car to be checked ----- you ARE going to get that checked, aren't you? ---- you can tell your repair shop service writer (the guy or gal writing up your ticket) what you found had dripped out of your car's engine compartment.  This gives them a starting place to look and will save them time and possibly save you some money.    

Most of us today would be lost without our vehicles.   We depend on them to get us to our jobs, run errands and just take us from here to there!    You can make your car last longer, cost less to maintain and reduce the stress in your life by simply taking the time to maintain your vehicle.   Listen to what it is telling you.    Pay attention to the signals it is giving you.    Then act on them and don't wait until you're stranded to discover you have a problem.    You might even save a lot of money by getting attention where it is needed before something is ruined or has to be replaced.   Moral of this story is: do your due diligence when it comes to your car and it will make your car last longer, cost less and give you less heartache.   You might even have an amazing road trip to tell about!

Happy Motoring!  Happy Trails!