Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bake Someone Happy

It’s not yet December 1, but my holiday baking is done. Granted, the Buckeyes still need to be dipped in melted chocolate (yes, a Michigander-born girl doesn’t let the Ohio-ness of those tasty treats dissuade), but that’s it.

Why the frenzy? The reasons range from wanting to mail a tin of cookies to son Erik in Germany to having a nice variety for a tray for my department chair husband to take in to the last faculty meeting of the semester and…

…wanting to get it over with. There I said it. The days of joyfully dumping out all my Grandma Rock’s old metal cookie cutters and pulling out her sugar cookie recipe are long gone. Sometimes I wonder why?

Frosted cut-outs and golden cookies studded with M&M’s were just two of my maternal grandma’s specialties. Both my grandmothers excelled in the kitchen. My dad’s mom, widowed when my dad was just 12, supported him and her four older daughters by being the head cook at Mercy Hospital in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Even though she was on her feet cooking all day, Grandma Andrews spent all her time in the kitchen when all her children and grandchildren gathered for holidays. From her sister Carrie, my great aunt, I learned how to make shortcake dotted with butter and Sugar Cakes, melt-in-your-mouth sugar cookies made fluffy with buttermilk.

My mother didn’t like to bake so she taught me when I was very young. Soon I was adept at family favorites from both sides, including chocolate applesauce cake, date nut bars, tomato soup cake, best two egg cake….and inept at things like fudge and one concoction involving powdered sugar, cocoa, milk and Cocoa Krispies. I think it was supposed to be frosting.

In 7th grade I nearly flunked the sewing part of Home Ec (In middle school, my sons took BASE, which was…home ec with careers added. Sensible addition.). I did much better in the kitchen. I can still remember the day we learned the ‘water displacement’ method to accurately measure peanut butter. It’s slimy, but it works.

So what happened over the years?

Well, writing became a much better (and lower calorie) outlet for my creativity. Then there was my husband’s diabetes diagnosis…and the fact the disease runs on both sides of my family. The oldest of Grandma Andrews’ four daughters was Dorothea, a nurse, who had a foot amputated due to complications from the disease. Also, while both my children enjoy an occasional cookie, and Erik is very partial to the chocolate chip oatmeal cookies (recipe listed below), neither seems to have inherited my raging sweet tooth. Finally, the whole working mom balancing act ultimately left no time for laboriously rolling out cookies and decorating with colored sugar, not when there were papers to grade and copyedits due.

Now there are no more papers to grade, not for me. After 15 years at a large university, my husband and I were ready for a lifestyle change. This will be our second holiday season here on the prairie, in the town my husband wanted to live in for nearly 20 years. Long before we had children, we’d drive ‘home’ for the holidays from Flagstaff, Arizona to our folks in Iowa. This Nebraska town on Interstate 80 enchanted him, though at the time I thought he was nuts. And not the kind that go in cookies. Instead we went east. But when a job opened at this university of 6,500 students in his ‘dream town’ at the exact time we were ready for a move, it seemed like fate and faith were aligned.

It’s been a challenging yet wonderful change. Soon I will be realizing my life-long goal of staying home to write fulltime. It’s scary, exhilarating and, apparently, baking inducing.

Maybe next year I will pull out Grandma Rock’s cookie cutters.

What’s your favorite holiday cookie recipe?

Basic Cake Box Cookie/Bar recipe

  • 1 box any flavor cake mix (Pillsbury Classic Yellow particularly good)
  • 1/3 cup oil
  • 2 Tablespoons water
  • 1 egg

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Mix all ingredients. Add one 12 oz. package chocolate chips or any flavor. Spread in a greased 9 x 13 glass pan. Bake at 350 for ten – twelve minutes til golden brown. Let cool and cut into bars.

You can also use this dough to make cookies. Bake the cookies at 375 degrees.

Roll the yellow cake mix cookie dough into balls and flatten with a sugared glass slightly. Bake at 375 7-8 minutes or until golden.

Frost or sprinkle with colored sugar.

You can also use a chocolate cake mix, but it’s drier so use ½ cup oil. Or just make brownies!

Lemon is also a good flavor. Just form into balls and let flatten as they bake. Make a thin glaze out of lemon juice, powdered sugar and a little milk or water.

Or bake in a greased 9 x 13 pan again til done and frost with canned lemon frosting.

Try cherry cake mix, and add cherry chips and almond flavoring and a vanilla frosting glaze or spice and melt caramel and drizzle on top.

Iowa State Fair Cookbook Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies

  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 cup shortening or margarine (I use margarine sticks)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups rolled oats
  • 1 12 oz. Package semisweet chocolate chips

In a bowl, combine sugars, shortening, and eggs; beat until light and fluffy. Stir in vanilla. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, soda, powder and salt. Add to shortening mixture. Add oats. Stir in chocolate chips. Drop by teaspoonful onto ungreased cookie sheet. Bake in 375 degree oven 8-10 minutes or until done.

The dough works better after it’s been chilled a bit in the refrigerator. And the best thing about these cookies is you can freeze them as drop cookies or roll up as logs in wax paper. Either way you can bake right from the freezer when you want some.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Merry Thanksgiving

St. Nick candles sit sandwiched on one bookcase shelf. Directly above is the still-fresh Halloween/Thanksgiving pumpkin nestled in the spray of bittersweet. This is the earliest we’ve ever decorated for Christmas, unless you count the year Erik, our older son, was about three. The apartment-sized tree never went down that year, just kept being redecorated for Valentine’s Day, Easter, etc.

Over time, the mantle of being in charge of the tree has passed from older brother to younger. It was a tradition for years that the minute the pumpkin pie was eaten, out came the Christmas boxes. Our long-time friend, Jean, who joined us every year for Thanksgiving dinner was more than happy to assist…instead of looking askance at the breakneck speed with which the next holiday was ushered in.

Times change. Since we moved from West Virginia to the prairie, Jean is more than 1,100 miles away. Erik is a continent away. My husband, younger son and I had planned to spend Christmas in London to meet up with Erik, who would travel from Rostock, Germany.  However, Erik decided earlier this fall to do study abroad for a semester not a year, so we’re staying home. Works out well. Husband will be in the throes of page proofs for his writing deadline; Mom and I have a January deadline, so it’s nice to have the extra editing time.

On the shortest day of the year, Erik turns 19. This will actually be the third time he’s been away from home for Christmas. When he went to Germany the first time as a high school foreign exchange student his junior year, some people were shocked he wouldn’t be home for Christmas.

It wasn’t the first time.

When he was a freshman in high school a friend’s family took their sons, Erik and another boy to Disney World over the holidays. It was a lovely gift. Sure we missed Erik, but it wasn’t about us.

His younger brother jokes that next year will be an ‘on’ year for Erik being home for the holidays if the pattern continues.

Just because I am good at letting go doesn’t mean it’s not bittersweet. Understanding fully that children growing up is the ultimate wonderful goal doesn’t mean I’m immune to missing them intensely when they’re not around.

So if I had a child who wanted to put up the Christmas tree on the Fourth of July, I’d be draggin’ out the boxes myself. The joy of the season is with us year-round, and the time we get to keep our babies is short indeed.

Embrace it all, and if you’re the first house on the block with tinsel…so be it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

I am thankful for…

Earlier this month, a friend from church offered a challenge on Facebook: Every day this month until Thanksgiving post in your status update one thing you are thankful for.

Lately, I’ve been caught up in life’s little issues and have not taken time to reflect on things I’m thankful for. I admit I’ve been dwelling on negatives rather than positives. A couple of good friends have got to be tired of my constant refrain: “Why can’t I be happy being happy?”

I’m sick of my own whining. It’s time to ante up and be thankful for all the blessings in my life, too numerous to list.

So here’s a start, in no particular order, of things I am thankful for:

1. A husband who cooks. I have NEVER cooked a Thanksgiving dinner nor do I ever intend to. I hate to cook. I love to eat. I do like to bake but that’s a post of a different color.

2. My children

3. My mommy. She’s my best friend and my writing partner. I know how truly fortunate I am to have the mother/daughter relationship we share. When I was five, I did throw a little brass vase down the stairs at her. She gave it back when I was 18, though.

4. A job doing what I love: writing. And all the writers who’ve give me so much reading pleasure over the years.

5. All the students I’ve taught writing to.

6. My friends, from my very first best friend in St. Clair Shores, Michigan, whom I bopped with a metal truck when we were toddlers (my mom said she was trying to play with me when I was trying to get her brother’s attention) to the ones I cherish to this day. And no, I haven’t hit anybody with a Tonka truck since.

7. A wonderful church

8., 9., 10., and so on….My extended family, my older son’s girlfriend, my favorite professors, M&M’s….

What are you thankful for?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pity Party

My older son is working on his blog about differences he’s observing between eastern and western Germany, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Meanwhile, my professor husband is updating his blog about sweeping changes taking place in the media industry.

Me? I’m indulging in a public pity party.

Recently I had a conversation with my friend Elizabeth, a much younger mom, who is juggling a toddler, a new baby and a full-time job, albeit one with a modicum of flexibility. She’s handling it all with grace and aplomb (and no those aren’t her kids’ names).

Talking to her made me think of Gail Sheehy’s road map to adult life “Passages,” which I haven’t read and Nora Ephron’s paen to sags and bags “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” which I have read.

As the date of my 25x2 birthday approaches, I find myself reflecting (wallowing is more like it) in self-introspection.

I loathe self-introspection. Ask my dear friend Susan.

But I’m not going gently into that next stage or phase or whatever term you prefer.

I spent my thirties having babies and my forties losing (and gaining some back) the baby weight. In addition to working fulltime, writing and doing the whole route of church and school volunteerism (sometimes only a sentence fragment will do!).

As a new decade roars toward me, I stand on the precipice of change.

I love big sweeping change. Ask my husband. Get-used-to-small-things change like new glasses or even new shoes, not so much.

This passage has snuck up on me. I’m no longer the young mom juggling a dozen sticky-fingered balls in the air. Instead I’m an older mom who’s watching her children grow into these amazing near-adult-like creatures.

Maybe I’ll skip the pity party after all and start shopping for a whole lot of birthday candles.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

All Systems Go

 Recently a friend and I were talking about ‘systems’ to manage kids’ paperwork, shoes, toys, etc. My friend, A,  is seven younger than I am, and her children are in the early elementary school years – otherwise known as the ‘plethora of paper’ years. Artwork, homework (yes, even in kindergarten), and forms stuffed into backpacks arrive each day with alarming regularity. 

 Sadly, I have never met a piece of paper I didn’t want to have a long-term relationship with.

 A and I swapped stories. Her dining room hutch is the repository for her children’s artwork. I offered how I have always favored a ‘shoe basket’ to keep footwear ‘confined.’

 Our conversation reminded me of another friend from more than 20 years ago.  H was the first to have children among our group and the first to  have ‘systems.’  She juggled kids, teaching parttime and a particularly stressful adoption process. Her lists of what household chores needed to be done what day and her typed grocery list enthralled me.

 I love organization and loathe clutter, but the former does not come naturally in my surroundings and the latter does. In addition, I married a man who is extraordinarily organized in his thinking BUT…  Let’s just leave it at that.

 My husband, however, does all the cooking and parenting has always been equally divided and when not, he’s the one who does more than me. I stopped being able to help both our sons with math homework about second grade.

 My mother raised four children with considerably less household help from my father, and I once accused her of making it look too easy. It wasn’t easy at all. She just was and is incredibly organized. Even when we were little, she  was always writing to earn a few extra dollars to supplement my father’s school administrator salary. 

So a few years ago my husband and I began talking about his seeking a job at a smaller university – maybe moving back ‘west’ to be closer to family and big sky country.  A job opened at a school of 6,500 students in his ‘dream town’ of Kearney, Nebraska. The university we both worked at was pushing 30,000 students. My husband applied, interviewed and accepted the new position.

 To sell our house, we called the realtor who had sold it to us nearly a decade before. She and I had taught Sunday School together, two of her children had babysat our younger son and she’s a good friend.

 When she and  her fellow realtors did their ‘walk through’ our house,  the consensus was my husband and I needed to ‘tidy’ up our home office more.  Actually, we needed a bulldozer to remove the papers, etc from the space.

 I blew up…but just to my husband. If we’d had time to clean out that room we wouldn’t be moving. It was a dubious monument to how busy and cluttered, and  not just physically, our lives had become over the years.

 We were ready for a lifestyle change, and, while not without challenges that come from uprooting after 15 years in one spot, change has been good.

 How do you deal with clutter?


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Switching Gears

When I was young, I wanted to be:

  1. A writer
  2. Mom to 10 children
  3. A musical comedy star
  4. The First Lady (girls couldn't even wear pants til 6th grade in the small Michigan town I lived in, yes, Michigan...freezing cold...we had to wear 'stretch pants' to school then take them off until recess time)
  5. Mrs. Donny Osmond
  6. Mrs. David Cassidy
  7. Mrs...well you get the idea....
  8. An environmentalist (I  had no idea that's what it was called...I just wrote letters protesting the use of colored dyes in toilet paper and tissues and lettered on wooden medallions 'Save the Seals')
  9. Thin
  10. Happy

Are you what you want to be?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

June Cleaver I ain’t

Once I asked my older son, Erik, if he wished he had a conventional mom. Nope, he said, he liked me.

In many ways I adapted a traditional parenting style, from trotting off to the pumpkin patch years ago with his kindergarten class to chaperoning a 7th grade field trip to NYC.

Okay, maybe that wasn’t exactly conventional, but I’d already done the aforementioned autumn trip, the ‘farm’ (famous for baby animals and torrential downpours) and the international festival at the university student union.

So the week before Thanksgiving six years ago, I boarded a bus along with several other hale and hearty (or foolhardy) parents and a few grandparents -- Big Apple bound.

Let’s just say some people embrace the role of chaperone more ‘heartily’ than others. This is how my group ended up with Max, who became one of Erik’s best friends.

Erik’s friends are an adventurous lot (their parents a courageous, supportive cadre). Currently two are doing ‘gap’ years in Slovakia and Chile. The spring of Erik’s sophomore year in high school, he and several of his friends participated in a trip to Guatemala. That summer we drove then 16-year-old Erik to DC, the first leg of his first trip to Germany.

Life is divided into different kinds of people. Some have curly hair, some have straight hair. Some are wanderers, like Erik and his dad. I swear the ancestral blood of Erik the Red flows like lava through the veins of my husband (technically he has strong Danish roots, but a viking is a viking). When we lived in West Virginia, dh once rode his motorcycle to Ohio…via Buffalo, NY.

Erik is no different. When he was little, we lived in Flagstaff, Arizona. I belonged to a faculty wives’ playgroup. We’d get together, and the children would play and the moms would drink tea…and my toddler would be tryin’ to head for the Mexican border.

Others, like my mom and me, are ‘castle builders.’ She’s traveled extensively over the years but is firmly rooted to the notion of home. I loathe the act of travel (unlike the gleeful men in this family, younger son included) but do enjoy seeing things. I just am awfully fond of home, wherever that may be.

Monday marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In spring of 2008, my husband, younger son and I flew to Germany to visit Erik for spring break (tad chillier than Ft. Lauderdale). We walked those streets, visited the cluttered testament that is the Checkpoint Charlie museum and stood next to the Brandenburg Gate.

Easter Sunday we took the train to Amsterdam and visited the Anne Frank house. Erik had gotten us tickets on the Internet so we could bypass the long lines waiting in the falling snow.

A videotaped interview with Otto Frank played as the queue filed through the last of the cramped twisty quarters. His words still resonate. He spoke of his daughter being a ‘typical’ teenager. I marveled that I never knew the 'house' where the Franks and others hid was actually quarters above a jam warehouse. It wasn’t important to Anne so she didn’t feel the need to mention it. I tried to imagine what life must have been like, especially for the children, never being able to go outside or make noise during the day for fear of exposure. Otto Frank spoke of what an ordinary teenager she was, and that’s what made her so extraordinary.

Anne Frank was somebody’s daughter. She could be cantankerous and fight with her mother and sister and dream of kissing a boy. She didn’t get to grow up. She didn’t get to see the world.

I am thankful every day my children can and do.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Holding on

I was going to blog about the ‘birthday season,’ which starts today in our families. Then came the news about Fort Hood.

Could I keep my media savvy younger teen son in the dark about this? Why was I even thinking that way? Protecting our children from knowledge about the evils in the world doesn’t protect them. And yet, even I, the mother so adept at letting go, sometimes want to cling so fiercely the physical ache is palpable.

On September 11th, 2001, my older son and his fifth grade classmates sat and watched as the airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center twin towers, the Pentagon and a field in southwest Pennsylvania. Some parents questioned whether their children should have been allowed to watch these events unfold. My husband and I, who met as journalism students in our very early 20s, agreed with the teacher’s decision. But that night we asked our son Erik, who is currently studying abroad in what used to be East Germany, his thoughts.

He told us, “We begged the teacher to keep the TV on. We had to know.”

Not knowing doesn’t prevent horrible things from happening. We cannot protect our children from all the evils in the world, no matter how badly we want to. Sometimes we’re immune even to protecting them in our own houses if something treacherous, like cancer or debilitating disease, strikes.

But we can inform, enlighten and educate them and love them…to pieces.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Mother’s Occupation: Freelance Writer

In about twelve hours from now, I will be standing in my college professor husband’s feature writing classroom to discuss freelance writing. In another lifetime, I taught reporting with a decided features emphasis. Along with my writing partner/mother, I have co-authored 28 novels aimed at women with number 29 due at the first of the year.

Despite my ‘resume’ and doing tons of research and talking to my mother, who sold her first story to Highlights for Children in 1965, I have no clear idea of what wisdom I’m going to impart to these bright shiny faces.

My husband said he simply wants me to talk about how to find a niche and market articles, using the same principles I have always applied to writing and selling novels.

I still got zip.

When I was in elementary school, students had to fill out index cards at the start of each new year stating the occupation of each parent. I can vividly recall sitting in a second grade classroom in Three Rivers, Michigan and printing in block letters FREELANCE WRITER instead of ‘housewife’ following Mother’s Occupation:

My mother, Barbara Andrews, attended the University of Michigan in the 1950s. She realized journalism was not really her forte so she went home to Kalamazoo College. There she could ‘dabble’ in her interests such as writing and theater. She met my father in a play. They fell in love, got married and she decided not to attend law school in Indiana. Instead she taught junior high and eventually along came me, then Joan, Steve and Mark.

My father, a school personnel director, always wanted my mom to go back to teaching. However, daycare was non-existent in those days, she hated teaching and she’d have to drive to another district since nepotism policies prevented him from hiring her.

So she became a FREELANCE WRITER, turning out material for Sunday School magazines, crossword puzzles, true confessions, antiques publications.  Then one day my Aunt Marge, who owned a flea market near the shores of Lake Michigan, gave my mom a big bag of used Harlequin Romances. My mother studied those stories and went on to write numerous romances under her own name. When I was pregnant with my first son, he of the wandering nature, she suggested we team up. I’m plot, she’s character.

This month marks the 16th anniversary of the publication of our first co-written book. On the day we sold that partial manuscript, we got a rejection letter back on another proposal.

Kinda puts things in perspective.

In the morning, I’ll be able to pull stuff together and go in and tell my husband’s students that if they want to be FREELANCE WRITERS, more power to ‘em.

And then I’ll tell ‘em how.

Not that I have all the answers by any means… in fact I’ve been soliciting help from my writer friends…but it is the family business.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Plain and Simple

We had lots of trick or treaters on Halloween, our second here on the ‘prairie.’ Perhaps it was the gorgeous sunny weather that brought out all the firemen, fairy princesses and other costumed cherubs. Sitting and waiting for the doorbell to ring, I managed to read an entire book.

War and Peace it was not.

Instead it was a slim tome titled “Plain and Simple,” next month’s selection for the book club I belong to. It’s a lovely companion piece to the one the group is reading this month, “The Midwife's Tale.” If you haven’t read this Gretchen Moran Laskas book set against an Appalachian background at the beginning of the last century, run, don’t walk, to get it.

Though very different, both books share a common thread of women searching for their true purpose in life. Both are about women striving to find the true meaning of why they were put on this earth…where they’ve been and where they’re headed.

A person’s connection to God also finds a foothold in these stories.

After a lifetime spent steeped in the Anglican/Martin Luther-ism traditions, I’ve “officially” become a Methodist (along with my family). The senior pastor’s forte is preaching without ever scolding, reminding people to carry the Lord’s purpose for them beyond the Sunday services. Yesterday Pastor Gary asked us to silently reflect on where God was going to take us this week.

The woodshed is the first thing that popped into my mind.

My path to living a good Christian life sometimes traverses a slippery slope. Some areas I’d give myself passing grades, others not so much. I may disclose what I weigh, but I won’t divulge my spiritual shortcomings!

When I shared this with Pastor Rebecca, the vibrant associate pastor, she asked if I’d read “The Shack.” If you could bottle her excitement and enthusiasm, no one would ever feel weary. I told her no, but I plan to now after her recommendation.

This is the place where I should say I plan also to take some time to reflect where I’m going and what my purpose is along the way. That’s not me, though. I believe in action, not introspection.

So I’m going to read some more books, eat some leftover candy and try to stay out of the woodshed.