Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A Poem for our Silver Day

Scenes of our Love

Tickets to the Renaissance
Eyes meet across the table
Conversation in the Balcony
And it begins.

Escort to dark subways
Lessons in passing
Hands touch, drawing closer
A call about Starlight
And so it grows.

Two left-handed, third of threes
Fairy tale number
For a magical life.

Time passes quickly
Performances as partners
Bears in fancy dress
Then One, Two, Three
We count our blessings

Anniversary of silver
The promise engraved in gold
As you wish
Ever after.

Author's note: There is only one person who will understand every line. I hope. I'm the one with the better memory.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Celebrating 25

This week my husband and I will celebrate our 25th anniversary.  It doesn't really seem like it should be that long. I still remember first meeting him after juggling club. I remember so many days walking around the city together. I remember him escorting me home after dates, even though the subway commute was at least an hour and a half if not longer. I once asked him if it was too hard to date me and he told me "I'd commute for you. Helen of Troy, if the Greeks had to take the train to get to her, they would have given up right there. But I'd commute for you!"

Our first quarter century of marriage has been spent raising our children, moving into a house, and working, scrimping, saving to keep our financial heads above water. We share our life: the joy, the frustration, the triumphs, the tears, the laughter. We spoil each other from time to time, with presents we know the other will love. My husband couldn't wait, so he gave me my present early, a new camera. A good camera. He knew I wanted one for years, but I always felt there were other expenses that needed to come first. My own gift for him seems like it's not enough now. I'll have to add to it.

I don't think anyone has a perfect marriage, but I think when your spouse is your best friend you can get through any rough patch. A good sense of humor helps too.

No one knows how many years they are given, so I'm grateful for the years we've had together, for the love we share. I pray we are able to spend many more together.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Respecting Our Children's Interests

My oldest has been playing Pokemon Go. She has the only device that is new enough to handle it, so she shares it with her brother and sister. The library we work at has two Pokemon gyms and a Pokemon stop, so a lot of what she's collected came from there. She learned she walks about 3km (1.86miles) whenever she's at work. Library employees spend a lot of time on their feet.

It's been frustrating for me to hear so much negativity associated with this game. The NYC police commissioner, while reporting on incidents involving the game, complained, "That craze is one of the stupidest ones that I've seen. Don't understand it, don't intend to understand it. Has no appeal to me." That seems to sum up the problem. Adults who have no interest in the game are passing judgment without trying to understand what it is about. For years, I have heard so many parents lament that their kids aren't getting out/getting enough exercise. The creators of Pokemon have been trying to get kids outside for years, and now they hit on something that actually works. Even before the problems with luring players into unsafe areas and thefts of devices, Pokemon Go had a message on its app to remember to play safely. I know this because I asked my kids about it. I asked them to explain the game to me. Talking to kids seems to be the biggest problem for adults. Mocking a game that our children enjoy only makes them less likely to share their interests with us.

The people who are running into trouble playing the game are the ones who are not following common sense safety. If I'm doing something I love, like photography,  I get distracted too, so I try to remember the basics: Try not to go out alone. Be aware of your surroundings. Secure your valuables (in this case, personal info on your device). Keep off of private property. Don't play while driving. We have heard all of this advice before when texting was the big thing, when smartphones became popular, even when we were wandering around plugged into Walkmans when I was a teen back in the stone age (battery age?) of technology. There are probably examples before that, but that was the craze I grew up with.

My point is that safety is not an exclusive issue to this craze. We need to remember that the things we consider trivial might be very important to our kids.  If you want to build a relationship with them, be involved. Go with them on their Pokemon hunts. Walk with them. I think it's great that this is exciting kids (and older). They are getting outside. They are getting exercise. And some might even benefit from stealth learning as they find Pokemon near historic sites and monuments.

Monday, July 11, 2016

You Have My Permission to Do the Same

We had our first heat wave last week, and so I fell behind in my commitment to posting weekly. I'm stating this as a fact. I do this for the writing practice and simply because I do like to write. But life does get in the way sometimes.

I tend to beat myself up too much when I fail in a commitment, whether it is to myself or someone else. But there are times when there is nothing you can do but keep ahead of the wave. Work and housework pile up. Children get sick. Tragedies happen. We never know what each day will hold, so we must give ourselves permission to miss a deadline, to prioritize family or friends, to take a day for rest. That last one is the hardest for me. I'm very good at forgiving myself for prioritizing family, but I rarely prioritize myself. So when it was so hot that I could not stand the thought of sitting at my computer in one of the warmest parts of the house, I camped in front of a fan with a book and read.

I also took pictures in my yard.

Our cat "walking" on his leash

One of our many chipmunks


An oriole. He's been difficult to catch on camera.

I enjoyed myself. And I am not going to feel guilty about it.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Baby Dragons Cake

 It was cool enough before my husband's birthday to bake this. He's really into Game of Thrones (and trying to convince me to read them). All I know about the book is that there is a character who raises dragons. That sounded cool (or hot?) so I figured I would do the baby dragons on a cake.
 It's hard to tell them apart on the cake. They are all wings, necks, and tails crowded together. I used mini cake pans and cut the shapes of heads, necks, bodies, and tails out of the small cakes. The cake is a velvet cake recipe that I turned into a chocolate velvet cake. It had a nice dense crumb that really held together. I used melted chocolate to cover the bodies and hold the pieces together. My daughter made the different colored wings with a basic sugar cookie recipe. They all sit on a single layer base cake. I had two extra mini cakes, so I spread them out a little more and added the "Cake is coming" sign. Frosted and decorated with whipped cream frosting.

It's easier to see the dragons once we moved them to separate plates. They are like weirdly shaped, inside-out Ring Dings®.
The yellow winged dragon is grooming. I liked the positioning of it.
Poor red dragon broke a wing in process. I fixed it as best I could using chocolate for glue. After two days working on it, I really didn't want to do anything else to it.

They were quickly gobbled up.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Parenting Lessons from Fairy Tales

Parents often view many fairy tales and folk tales as cautionary tales for children. They read these stories ready to explain how the girl got into trouble by talking to strangers or how the boy ended up penniless because he made a bad business deal. The discussion might cover how faith and perseverance helped the young hero/heroine succeed against all odds. These tales are all about helping kids learn how to get along in the world.

Or are they?

I recently talked with my oldest about how hard it is to find kids who know the classic tales today. Parents don't seem to read these stories to their children anymore. Even among the children in my homeschool storytelling group there is a lack of knowledge of some of the most iconic stories. Are they irrelevant in our new age? Am I old fashioned in believing there is still a place for these stories? 

I don't think so. These stories appeal to our basic human emotions and desires. We may not endure the same struggles as these fairy tale men and women, but we can relate to what they go through. The metaphor of the story is what draws us in. Who hasn't fought a dragon (obstacles) to reach their castle (goal)? Who hasn't completed menial tasks while striving for something better? It may not be a prince charming, or even fame and fortune, but the basic idea is overcoming problems by finding creative solutions, and learning a little about yourself along the way.

One thing we realized is that it isn't always the hero/heroine's fault that they are stuck in a situation. Sometimes the problem is bad parenting choices. Maybe some stories were actually cautionary tales for the parent, not the child. Here are some examples:

  • Sleeping Beauty: Leave aside the bad social skills of not inviting everyone to your daughter's christening, now that she's cursed, you decide the best way to deal with it is to remove all spindles and spinning wheels from the kingdom. How about keeping a watchful eye on her and teaching her that sharp things hurt?
  • Jack and the Beanstalk: Don't send your child out to sell his beloved pet cow to the butcher. They had a bond.
  • Little Red Riding Hood: And don't send your child out into the woods alone! The poor kid didn't even have a bread knife to protect herself.
  • Cinderella: If we base this on the original, the father lets his new wife do what she wants to his daughter. Lax fathering is a big problem in fairy tales. Hansel and Gretel also experience it, 
  • Rapunzel: The other end of the spectrum is the fathers who try too hard. You know your neighbor is a witch, maybe it's a bad idea to steal from her. Try asking. This is also true of the father in Beauty and the Beast, who stole a rose for his daughter. And the father in Rumpelstiltskin needs to stop being so boastful about his daughter's skills.
There is always value in the tales we tell. That is why they lasted so long and keep returning in new forms. That's why I love a good story!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Coming to Flower

I once had a discussion with a friend and fellow gardener about finding "volunteers" in the garden. She said she never had volunteers, but it was probably because she was a compulsive weeder. As soon as something sprouted that she didn't plant, out it went.

I tend to weed slowly. I like to make sure I can identify the plant before I pull it up. You can't always tell what you are growing when it's a seedling. I have had unusual flowering plants appear in my yard simply because I waited to see what would happen. A year or two ago, a droopy petaled flower appeared in our yard because I decided not to weed it. It turned out to be a woodland flower called white avens.

White Avens, geum canadense
There is a saying that a weed is a flower in the wrong place. But it can also be in the right place and we just don't recognize it yet. Watching something grow without knowing what it will become takes patience and acceptance. Sometimes you have to let things be and see what develops. What we consider annoyances today can surprise us when they come to full flower.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

I Really Hope i'm Not Graded on this Post

We got an "energy savings report" from our electric company recently. It shows how energy efficient we are compared to our neighbors. If you consider we never owned a dishwasher and we are now living without a dryer, coffee maker, and other convenience appliances, it isn't hard to imagine that we scored a "Great" followed by two--yes, two!--smiley faces.

Did I fail to take that seriously? I thought I left the world of report cards behind a long time ago, but grades follow us through life. Think about it. There are job performance reviews; authors receive book reviews; businesses receive grades from several online review sites including the BBB; and we even get report cards after physicals (I'm always amazed when I hear parents brag about their child's percentile for height and weight). We are a nation that likes to grade and compare.

These grades and reviews are useful to a point. It is helpful to get ratings on the doctor you plan to use, unless someone completely trashes that doctor for a personal reason. I often read product reviews on Amazon and other online retailers that give one star because of a shipping problem. This tells me nothing about the product. Doing an online search of best places to eat in the area won't necessarily give you the best. It gives you the best that have been reviewed plus sponsored ads.

Grading is subjective, and yet we spend our lives competing for the best grades or beating ourselves up for being less than perfect. My parents never compared me to my siblings, but I still felt the pressure to get the best grades possible. The grade became a measure of my worth. I didn't want that for my children, so I spent a lot of time downplaying the required testing we did--and my youngest still does--for homeschooling. Still they felt the pressure to do well, and I only tested them once a year.

Now I'm getting graded on my energy efficiency. And even though I got a "Great" with two smiley faces, I wondered if I could have gotten three smiley faces. If you're an "A" student, the stress is worse because the only way to go is down. It's impossible to be perfecter than perfect, and if everyone else improves, your score goes down by default, so it still feels like you are doing worse even if you maintain your level of perfection. See how crazy that is? That's a glimpse into my head. Which is why I never graded my homeschooled children. Because their grades reflect on me, which makes their grades my grades, and the person I compete the most with is myself.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

May Ends with Two Cakes

May is done. Unless you have all your children's birthdays in one month, you don't know what a relief that is. Add to that the fact that most big events usually happen in May and you will have an idea of what my month was. We finished out the month with a graduation/Confirmation party sponsored by my mother (thanks, Mom). We had the event at a restaurant, but I agreed to bake a cake for it. Why? Because I didn't account for two things. First, I didn't realize how many people would come, so I didn't know that "a" cake would become two cakes. Second, the weather became hot and humid exactly when I needed to begin baking. Thanks weather.

The first cake I baked was for the Confirmation. My vision was a simple dove made of a large and small cupcake. I used a velvet cake, baked and chocolate dipped shortbread for the tail, and opted for buttercream frosting because it's usually my go-to for decorating. I will tell you now that it doesn't work as well when it's hot and humid. On the plus side, spending four hours baking and decorating in a sauna-like kitchen did help me sweat out five pounds. Always look on the bright side.

 I am not happy with how the dove came out. I think it looks like a cockatoo. I suppose I was getting delirious in that final hour in the kitchen and everything was softening as fast as I could decorate, even with giving the cake and frosting refrigerator breaks.
I made the second cake the night before the big event. My plan was to go as simple as possible. I had already made the top of the graduation cap when I made the tail feathers, so all I needed to do was bake a chocolate buttermilk cake and cover it with chocolate ganache and a small bit of buttercream for the trimmings. The cap is a cupcake. The hardest part here was keeping track of the math--I did one and a half recipes to get a full cake plus six cupcakes (the other five cupcakes became tributes). I did all this after working a full day at the library. The sacrifices we make for our children!

My one disappointment is that my photos at the actual party did not come out well. Have I mentioned I miss my camera? I really miss my camera. I just can't figure out my daughters' cameras and they are too shy to take pictures of people. Maybe because people move too much and end up blurring in every shot. Anyway, this ends the May Baking Marathon.

Monday, May 23, 2016

More Events, Finishing with a Labyrinth Cake

We had such a crazy busy week I thought I missed a couple of weeks of posting. It always seems we pack as many life events as possible into May. The week that began with a birthday/graduation had a Confirmation in the middle and a 20th birthday celebration at the end. 

The Confirmation was very nice. Marina sponsored her little sister, which is good, because she is a calming presence and my youngest was completely panicked. I'm not quite sure why this got scheduled on a weekday night at the height of rush hour. Maybe it was a way to control the crowd. At any rate, it was a nice ceremony, and we capped off the night by ordering Chinese food and relaxing among Marina's boxes and bags in the living room. Did I mention I have a dorm room in my living room again?

My girls with our parish priests and the grandparents
By the end of the week I was really beat, but my son was turning 20. I always try to make his day special because it is hard to be a middle child and the last birthday in a month of birthdays. He gave me an interesting challenge, as he usually does. I had done some prep work the week before and was really happy with how the cake turned out. He wanted a tribute to David Bowie and we are all fans of Labyrinth, so....
Click to enlarge, it's worth it.

I want everyone to enjoy the view from the back. I worked hard on that hair.

 He asked for Jareth on his throne. If that wasn't too hard. And he would totally understand if I couldn't do it. As usual, I took that as a challenge. And after the Mad Tea Party cake, the wheels already began turning on how I could create armature out of shortbread cookies. The cake base and the throne seat and turrets are my basic buttermilk chocolate cake. The top of the throne, the stones around the edge and Jareth's body are made from Scotch shortbread. The throne supports are chocolate covered pretzels. I used a buttercream frosting, chocolate buttercream, and plain old melted chocolate to decorate the cake. I had trouble with the maze design at first, so I'm not too happy with the floor. It took half the cake before I got the hang of how to make it maze-like. 

I baked Jareth's limbs, head, and torso separately and built him up with frosting and chocolate. His head is actually flat except for the nose, the rest is hair frosting, which I think came out fabulous. If I did this again I would probably make his crystal a ball instead of a flat cookie. It was so small it probably would have baked fine, and it would have had a better effect.

We all wore masks for the celebration to complete the theme!

My son made his own mask. All others are Marina's creations.

The cake looked good lit up.

In the end, Jareth lost his head. Just like a goblin king.

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