Vegetable Pizza…

So sorry I have not been able to maintain my one recipe a week for a couple of weeks. It’s the beginning of summer and with graduations and weddings it’s been a little bit of a challenge. So I thought I would take this opportunity and reblog one of my more popular posts. This is a great cold appetizer for your summer parties and one that you don’t see that often anymore. I went to a party last week and someone made this and I thought, wow – this is a great appetizer. So I hope this helps you with your summer plans.

I intend to be back in the drivers seat in a couple of weeks. Until then, enjoy this reblog!

You Betcha Can Make This!

Lately I think I’ve become the queen of the appetizers. But as I mentioned in a previous blog my condo community hosts “happy hour” every Thursday and a bunch of us get together to eat some appetizers and drink some wine. It’s been a hoot. I promise I won’t solely be blogging about appetizers but I have to include this one. I’ve been wanting to make this for some time now and was so glad I did. It was so yummy and a nice departure from the usual varieties of chips and dips.

This appetizer is not only tasty but so colorful it brightens up any table. And a lot of it can be prepared ahead of time, which I did. That way the assembly doesn’t seem quite so overwhelming. So let’s talk vegetable pizza.

Lesson Learned 1 – Chop the veggies ahead of time: I found that to be…

View original post 306 more words

Readers Favorite Recipes…

My cooking and baking life is on a short hiatus. We’ve decided that we are going to tile our kitchen (it originally had an engineered wood floor surface that we hated) and remove the carpeting in our living room, dining room, den and hallways and put down hardwood floors. I’ve wanted these changes ever since we moved into our condo and am really excited that its finally happening, but the projects have upended our usual way of living. Right now my appliances are in the living room and dining area so that the tile can be laid underneath their footprints in the kitchen.

My beloved stove is smack dab in the middle of the living room. Perched on top is my husband’s knee pads and various other items (see picture below)…

So as you can imagine it will make it challenging to keep up my goal of one new recipe posted every week. But have no fear. Now is a perfect time to do another compilation post.

I love these kinds of posts as they are sort of a one-stop-shop of recipes that over time have proven to be my readers favorites. And quite often recipes that I think will not be very popular surprise me and get tons of hits on my blog. That’s why these days I never second guess my recipes. You just never know what will be a hit and what will only get a lukewarm response.

So here are some of my more recent reader favorites. I’ll write a short blurb about each but just click not he picture and it will take you directly to the post and recipe. I hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed making them.

  1. BAKED EGGPLANT FRIES: I knew this one would be a winner right out of the box as people are always looking for that french fry crunch without the french fry fat and calories. I’d never worked with eggplant before and was pleasantly surprised at how easy these were to make and how tasty they were. Even the biggest veggie hater in your household will love these.

2. VEGETABLE PIZZA: I was surprised at how this recipe waxed nostalgic for so many people. I got lots of comments like “Oh I used to make this years ago. I stopped and I don’t remember why.” People also started sharing various iterations of how they used to make this based on their tastes and vegetable preferences. This is such a colorful fun recipe and it’s a great way to clean out the vegetable bin in your refrigerator. I brought this to a community gathering and it was gone in 15 minutes. This recipe may be a blast from the past but it certainly can still be a hit today.

Broccoli Cheddar Soup

3. BROCCOLI CHEDDAR SOUP: When I first posted this recipe I had never made this type of homemade soup before. The only soup I ever made was my mother’s chicken soup recipe. I was surprised at how easy this was to make and how good it was. You could make a meal out of this, a salad and some crusty bread. A great dinner for a cool evening. I love this soup and have made it often.

Lithuanian Kugelis

4. LITHUANIAN KUGELIS: No one is happier than me that this recipe is so popular. I am of Lithuanian (and Polish) decent and this was my grandmother’s recipe. She would make kugelis for every holiday meal and it was gobbled up quickly. Be careful, though… it is an artery clogging recipe. But if you eat in moderation this is something you can definitely have every once in a while. In the old days it was a way to fill the bellies of the family without spending a lot of money. Today it’s just something super decadent and delicious.

5. EASY TANGY CUCUMBER SALAD: Sometimes the simplest recipes are the best. This recipe is definitely not rocket science but it’s a great accompaniment to almost any meal. Just a few simple ingredients coupled with a little time to let them all get thoroughly acquainted and you’ve got yourself something delightful and fresh. A former student of mine told me that her kids shy away from salads and vegetables but gobbled this up. This is a great recipe to have in your hip pocket.

6. DELI STYLE TUNA SALAD: If someone would have told me that this recipe would be one of the top 5 recipes searched for on my blog I would’ve laughed at them. But it continues to be a hit even after a couple of years. In this blog I reveal what I believe to be some of the secrets for making deli style tuna fish. Serve with some soup and baked waffle fries and you’ve got a killer meal!

Cheesecake With Fresh Strawberry Sauce

7. CHEESECAKE WITH FRESH STRAWBERRY SAUCE: I’ve made no bones about the fact that when writing this blog early on I was heavily influenced by Food Network shows. I’ve become less enamored with them over the years as they’ve really moved away from the format that I so enjoyed. But I still watch a few of them at times, namely Ina Garten, Ree Drummond and Trisha Yearwood. This particular recipe was included in one of Trisha Yearwood’s shows and it turned out perfectly the first time I made it (how often does that happen). This recipe gets a ton of hits and my stats go through the roof when they replay the segment that includes this recipe on the Food Network. Regardless it is one of my readers favorites and I guarantee it will be one of yours!

8.  PRIME RIB ROAST: If you were anything like me you dreaded making one of these babies for a special meal because this hunk of roast is just so darn expensive you don’t want to ruin it. But in my blog I de-mystify making prime rib. Just follow a few simple steps and it will turn out perfect first time, every time. This recipe is especially popular around the holidays but gets regular traffic throughout the year – definitely a recipe you should have in your arsenal.

9. HONEY BBQ PULLED CHICKEN SANDWICHES: The first time I made this recipe was for a Super Bowl party. It was a big hit. And a great recipe to make for a party as you make this in the slow cooker. The most work you have to do is remove the chicken in and shred it. The rest is done by the slow cooker. I like recipes like these because they don’t require a lot of work or supervision which gives you more time to spend with your guests. My readers must think so too as this recipe gets a lot of hits. I know you’ll like this one for it’s simplicity as well as its great flavor.

Cheesy Potato and Green Onion Casserole

10. CHEESY POTATO AND GREEN ONION CASSEROLE: I developed this recipe because I was getting tired of the using boxed varieties similar to this. Have you ever read the ingredients on those boxes? After about the fifth ingredient I could not pronounce I decided to create a potato side dish made out of fresh ingredients. With the help of a mandolin slicer this recipe becomes something quick and easy to prepare. And talk about delicious. I’ll never go back to the boxed varieties again.

11. GRILLED ROSEMARY GARLIC LAMB CHOPS: And ending this particular compilation is an all time favorite recipe of mine. I just love grilled lamp chops. They are so easy to do on the grill and serve them with a little mint jelly and you’ve got something special. Years ago it was harder to find lamb chops in you local grocery store but now you see them everywhere. We get our lamb chops at Costco. They do nice cuts and the price is the best as well. If you’ve never tried lamb you simply have to. This is one of my favorite summer meals and I hope it will become one of yours too!

Well that’s it – my readers favorites. I’m not sure I will be posting a new recipe next week as construction in the kitchen is taking longer than planned (and having been married to a private contractor I’ve come to expect that). But if not, I might share a few other recipes from my collection that are worth re-blogging. Hope you enjoy these, and if you try any or all of them, let me know what you think.

 

 

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Iced Cranberry Orange Walnut Cookies…

This is a fabulous holiday cookie recipe. Try it and I guarantee it will become one of your favorites!

You Betcha Can Make This!

It’s cranberry season, my favorite time of year. I love cooking and baking with cranberries. Their tartness adds zip to both sweet and savory recipes. I especially like them in cookies. I think they balance out the sweetness in cookie recipes and add a festive flavor.

Now need I mention that it is also getting very close to holiday baking season, and every year I try out at least one new cookie recipe. I saw a version of this recipe in an Allrecipes magazine and tweaked it not only from an ingredient perspective but also to adapt it to high altitude baking.

High altitude baking can be tricky and unless you purchase a cookbook specifically written for high altitude baking you are most likely using ingredient amounts designed for sea level. The higher the altitude the lower the air pressure which makes it difficult for the baker. Baking depends on…

View original post 718 more words

Don’t Chicken Out On Roast Turkey…

Just in time for tomorrow – great tips for a fabulous roast turkey and to die for home made cranberry sauce. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

You Betcha Can Make This!

My husband and I went out to dinner this past Thanksgiving and I made a rib roast for Christmas so I knew eventually I would feel like I was cheated out of a traditional Thanksgiving meal. Luckily for me my local grocery store had a great manager’s special over the Christmas holiday pricing every single fresh turkey breast, regardless of weight, at $7.00. OK, I said to myself, I can’t afford to pass this up even though turkey was not on the Christmas menu. So into the freezer it went just waiting for the right time to resurrect Thanksgiving.

I used to be intimidated by cooking a turkey – I could never seem to get it right making it either over-done or, mostly in my experience, under-done. To me there is nothing worse than a dry turkey especially if you are just cooking an all-white meat turkey breast. Overcooking it…

View original post 1,021 more words

Cream Cheese, Spinach, Bacon and Scallion Pinwheels…

Just a couple more weeks and I will be back to my usual schedule of blogging one new recipe a week. Things are starting to wind down from the move. Until then, here is another one of my popular recipes and it’s great for any summertime party. Enjoy!

You Betcha Can Make This!

I know, I know, this is a pretty rudimentary recipe but I’m sharing it because the flavor is divine. I’ve eaten many varieties of these pinwheels at parties and such and I have to say I like this version the best. It is simple, easy to make and oh so delicious!

Pinwheel Ingredients... Pinwheel Ingredients…

For those of you who’ve never made these before, (and I’m sure there has to be a few out there), there are a couple of tricks to making these that you really don’t think about the first time you make them – or at least I never did. So for the burgeoning cooks who want to avoid some of my pitfalls, here are a couple of tricks to keep in mind for making delicious and good looking pinwheels.

Lesson Learned 1 – The cream cheese must be room temperatureI think this is where many err…

View original post 1,032 more words

Glazed Strawberry Bread…

You Betcha Can Make This!

NOTE: Here’s my second in a series of re-blogs while I’m in the throws of selling/buying and moving. I hope to be back online with one new recipe a week starting at the end of July. Until then, let’s revisit some of my more popular recipes! You’ve gotta try this one. It is simply fabulous!


It’s been a little longer than usual since my last post. The month of May has many “things” happening like birthdays, anniversaries and of course Memorial Day. I got a little caught up in all of that but now am back to a more normal schedule regarding this blog.

Cut The Strawberries Into Small Pieces Cut The Strawberries Into Small Pieces

I don’t know about you but this season it seems like the strawberries are more plentiful, sweeter and cheaper. I’ve mostly been eating a lot of strawberries combined with blueberries and raspberries and mixed with greek yoghurt as a special…

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How Do You Solve A Problem Like Zucchini…

I am in the midst of selling/buying a house so will be somewhat offline for the next month. So instead of new recipes I will repost some of my more popular ones. This recipe is a great way to use up all that zucchini you are growing in your garden. Enjoy!

You Betcha Can Make This!

I am in the midst of selling and buying a house so I have not had time in the kitchen to try out recipes. I should be back doing my regular schtick by the end of July. In the interim enjoy some of my reposts. See you soon!

[Note: A version ofthis post published a few years go has been my most successful blog to date. I get at least one hit on it every day and often more. I’m not sure if it’s the title or the content, but it’s had amazing success. I have updated it with some additional thoughts since I’ve made this recipe dozens of times since first posting it, have definitely perfected it and can provide some additional lessons learned. This is the ideal post for this time of year, especially if you’re like me and have tons of zucchini and are running…

View original post 770 more words

Cauliflower Gratin…

I know I’ve been remiss lately in publishing recipes. Working part time in retail over the holiday season leaves very little time for much else. I was happy to get the house decorated, all the cookies made and get a holiday dinner on the table in a remarkable organized fashion. Unfortunately my blog had to be the one to suffer, but the new year will get me back to my goal of one recipe per week.

And speaking of the holidays, I made a wonderful holiday side dish that I’d like to share with you. I’m a big fan of gratin’s. I make a zucchini gratin that I simple adore, and this holiday season I decided to grace my table with a cauliflower gratin. It was fabulous.

The premiss behind a gratin is pretty simple. It’s basically a main ingredient(s) and a cheese sauce with a bread crumb topping. This one does not deviate from that basic formula. I did do a couple of things differently when I made this recipe and I’ll share those tips in my lessons learned. So let’s talk cauliflower gratin…

Cauliflower Gratin

Lesson Learned 1 – Be careful initially not to over-steam the cauliflower. This recipe calls for steam in the cauliflower to make it slightly tender before cooking it in the casserole. It is very important not to overcook the cauliflower at this point. If you do you will wind up with a mushy casserole. I recommend cutting the cauliflower into even medium-sized pieces and steaming them for 6 minutes tops. Don’t put the cauliflower in the steamer and then start the process of boiling the water. Wait until the water is boiling and then put the steamer on top of the boiling water. The cauliflower should give slightly when pierced by a fork. Once you reach that point, drain the cauliflower and set it aside, or if you feel you cooked it a little too long, shock it in ice water to completely stop the cooking process.

Lesson Learned 2 – You can easily make this recipe ahead of time. When I make this, I get everything done up to the point where I pour the cheese sauce over the cauliflower. Then depending on how much time I have before dinner, I just let the casserole either just sit on my counter, or once it has completely cooled I put it in the refrigerator. NOTE: If you make it so far in advance that you have to refrigerate it, you need to take the casserole out of the refrigerator and let it sit for at least 3 hours before putting it into the oven. That way the casserole will be room temperature when you put it in the oven and the cooking time will hold true. If the casserole is cold, you will need to add more cooking time.

Lesson Learned 3 – Homemade bread crumbs are always better. They are so easy to make, especially if you have day old bread sitting around the house. Just cut the bread into cubes and pulse it in a food processor. You can add any herbs you like at this point or just keep them plain. You will find this to be so much more flavorful than using store bought bread crumbs.

I make this recipe with pepper jack cheese to give it a nice kick, but you can use any good melting cheese like gruyere, cheddar or harvati. But I recommend trying it with the pepper jack. It gives the gratin a nice little kick but does not over power the dish.

Cauliflower Gratin...

  • Servings: 6
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

INGREDIENTS:

1 small to medium sized cauliflower head

3 Tbs. flour

5 Tbs. butter, divided

2 cups whole milk

1/4 tsp. nutmeg

1 cup shredded pepper jack cheese

1/4 cup mild cheddar cheese

1 cup fresh bread crumbs

Salt and pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat oven to 375. Cut cauliflower into medium bite-sized pieces. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Once the water is boiling, steam the cauliflower for no longer than six minutes. Drain cauliflower and set aside. If cauliflower feels too soft, drop it into a bowl of ice water to completely stop the cooking.

In a sauce pan over medium heat melt 3 Tbs. of butter. Once the butter is melted add 3 Tbs. of flour to make a roux. Stir the mixture for at least a minute to cook out all of the flour flavor. Add the milk and stir constantly until the mixture thickens. Once the mixture begins to thicken add the nutmeg and blend well. Once the nutmeg is incorporated, add the cheeses and stir to combine. Once combined remove the pan from the heat. Taste the sauce and salt and pepper to taste.

Pour a little bit of the cheese mixture to cover the bottom of a 1 1/2 quart casserole dish. Add the cauliflower and pour the remaining sauce over the cauliflower. NOTE: This is where you can stop and either hold off baking for a while or refrigerate the casserole. (Please refer to lesson learned 2 above).

When ready to bake, sprinkle the bread crumbs over the top of the cauliflower and cheese mixture. Cut the remaining 2 Tbs. of butter into small cubes and dot the top of the bread crumbs with butter.

Bake at 375 for 30 – 40 minutes or until the bread crumbs are browned and the casserole is bubbly. Look at the casserole after 30 minutes. If the bread crumbs are getting too browned, tent the casserole with foil and bake it for the remaining time.

Serve hot.

Cauliflower Gratin

Cauliflower Gratin

Holiday Raspberry Walnut Bars…

Sorry I haven’t posted for a while. The holidays have been crazy and I haven’t had my usual time to experiment in the kitchen. But to keep in the tradition of trying to post at least once a week, I am going to share a cookie recipe from back in the day.

This is a reprint of a blog I did a couple of years ago. It is such a great holiday recipe that I wanted to give it some prime time, especially now that I have more readers and subscribers. I guarantee you, you cannot go wrong with this recipe. It will be a hit in your holiday cookie baking arsenal!

Raspberry Walnut Bars

Raspberry Walnut Bars

There’s a lot of reasons for this recipe being so popular. First, and probably foremost, it looks so darn delicious. Second, and not known by those requesting the recipe, it is sinfully easy to make. And third, the recipe turns out perfect first time, every time. I can’t take credit for the recipe, it was one I found a few years ago, I simply can’t remember where I found it. So up front I apologize to whomever I am not giving credit to for the actual recipe.

Lesson Learned 1: The hardest thing about this recipe is preparing the pan. The recipe calls for lining a 8 inch square pan with parchment paper allowing some overhang on both sides. Trying to keep parchment paper from popping back out of the pan when you allow for overhang can be tricky. I found the easiest way to make the parchment paper behave is to take two heavy cans of anything and weigh down the paper in the pan while making the dough. That way when it’s time to spread the dough out on the bottom the paper has been somewhat trained and doesn’t jump around as much.

Lesson Learned 2: It is important to follow the directions of using the parchment paper, having the overhang and spraying the parchment paper with cooking spray. I can’t image what you would wind up with if you didn’t. But if you take the time to do it, it comes out of the pan easily and absolutely nothing sticks to the parchment paper.

Lesson Learned 3: This recipe gives you plenty of dough so don’t worry about using it to fill up the bottom. It says to use two thirds of the dough for the crust and one third to dot the top. I found that gave me way too much dough for the top. You need a lot less dough to dot the top then you think, so don’t be afraid to use more than two thirds of the dough for the crust.

Lesson Learned 4: Avoid the temptation to use too much raspberry jam. A nice even thin coat is all you need. Stick to the amount called for in the recipe.

Lesson Learned 5: Depending on how many bars you want to give out, you may have to make this recipe a couple of times. You can make the bars big or small, but the most you’ll probably get out of this recipe is 24 small bars.

I guarantee these bars will be a hit with your family and friends. You simply must try them!

Raspberry Walnut Bars…

  • Servings: 24 Small Bars
  • Difficulty: Easy-Medium
  • Print

INGREDIENTS:

Non stick baking spray

1 3/4 cups flour

1/2 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/8 tsp. nutmeg

3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature

1 cup sugar

2 large egg yolks

1 tsp. vanilla

2/3 cup raspberry jam

1 cup chopped walnuts

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat oven to 350. Line an 8 inch square baking pan with parchment paper leaving an overhang on both sides. Spray the parchment paper with cooking spray. (I do this right before I am ready to put the dough into the pan).

In a medium bowl whisk the flour, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. Set aside. Beat the butter and sugar until fluffy. (This does take a little time, most people do not do this thoroughly enough so make sure to take the time to make the mixture fluffy). Beat in the egg yolks and vanilla. Gradually add the flour mixture until combined. Do not over mix. Transfer two thirds of the dough into the prepared pan and press down evenly. Spread the jam on top. Crumble the remaining dough and dot it over the jam. Sprinkle the top with the walnuts. Bake until golden 35-45 minutes. Cool completely in the pan. (this is very important).

Holding both sides of the parchment paper, lift out of the pan, transfer to a cutting board and cut into rectangles. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days.

Raspberry Walnut Bars

Shepherds Pie Turkey Style…

Posted this over a year ago and thought this might help with all of your Thanksgiving leftovers. Enjoy!

You Betcha Can Make This!

I’ve always liked the concept of Shepherds Pie, it’s a great way to use leftover pot roast – but what about using poultry as the main protein? A grocery store near my home often features fresh half turkey breasts on the bone and I love them. Because of their smaller size, it’s a great way to have turkey more often than just during the holidays, it’s easy to cook and you still get great turkey leftovers to boot. The only difference is that now I don’t have all of the other holiday side dishes to serve with the leftover turkey, and I wanted to try something a little different than just a turkey pot pie.

Spread The Turkey Over The Bottom of the Dish Spread The Turkey Over The Bottom of the Dish

I’m beginning to wonder what I would do without Pinterest. What great way to find recipes from sites I would probably never find otherwise. My blog…

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Get Your Holiday Crab On…

You Betcha Can Make This!

SINCE ORIGINALLY POSTING THIS RECIPE I’VE BEEN ASKED TO INCLUDE THE RECIPE IN THE BLOG AND I’VE TWEAKED IT SLIGHTLY FROM THE ORIGINAL. SO I WILL REPOST THE BLOG, WITH THE LINK TO THE ORIGINAL RECIPE AS WELL AS A PRINTABLE RECIPE ON THIS BLOG:

I stumbled on this one quite by accident. I was looking for a make-ahead appetizer recipe to bring to a friend’s house. All I could seem to find on Pinterest were appetizers best served hot and I wanted something I could make on Friday to bring to an event on Sunday. Somehow I stumbled on this recipe from justapinch.com called crab dip to make ahead. It sounded like it would fit the bill, so I decided to try it.

The challenge for me was finding some good crab meat. The last time I bought lump crab meat was from Costco and it was full of…

View original post 582 more words

Zucchini Artichoke Olive Dip…

This past weekend a farewell party was being hosted for a co-worker who is moving to New York City. We were all asked, if we wanted, to bring something for the table. I knew I would be working all day the day before and the day of the party so I wanted to bring something that was not necessarily the usual faire and that I could make ahead. I decided on this recipe.

dip ingredientsThis is what Rachel Ray would call a chop and drop recipe. All the work is in the chopping and once that’s done you just stir the ingredients all together and refrigerate it. It’s a perfect make-a-head appetizer for any party.

So let’s talk zucchini artichoke olive dip:

Lesson Learned 1 – Make sure your cream cheese is room temperature: This is a pretty hearty dip, almost a spread, so it’s important the cream cheese be room temperature, otherwise you’ll never get the ingredients completely blended. If the cream cheese is room temperature it mixes easily and you want to make sure everything is thoroughly combined as you have raw garlic and onion in this dip. You certainly don’t want concentrated clumps of raw onion or garlic anywhere.  The only way you’ll achieve that is with room temperature cream cheese.

zucchini artichoke olive dip

Lesson Learned 2 – any kind of olives will do: I had kalamata olives in the refrigerator, but you can use pimento stuffed olives or black olives, a combination of olives or whatever you prefer or have on hand. Be sure to add only 1/4 cup of finely chopped olives to begin with and then taste the dip when it’s all mixed. Olives tend to have a lot of salt in them and you don’t want to overpower the dip by adding too many. You can always add more if you think the dip needs more.

zucchini artichoke olive dip

Lesson Learned 3 – refrigerate this dip for at least 4 hours: This is the kind of dip that tastes even better if all the ingredients get well acquainted, so keep it in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours, although overnight is preferable.

garlic-press-and-sliceLesson Learned 4 – Use a garlic press to mince the garlic: Since you are adding raw garlic, it’s important that it be finely minced. The best way I’ve found to do that is with a garlic press. If you chop by hand you run the risk of having a larger chunk(s) of raw garlic somewhere in the dip. Using a press minces the garlic evenly and allows for it to be thoroughly incorporated into the other ingredients.

Lesson Learned 5 – Start out by using only a small amount of fresh cilantro: Cilantro has a very strong flavor but it also adds depth of flavor to this dip. I recommend starting out by adding only 2 tablespoons of finely minced fresh cilantro. After you taste the dip, if you feel it needs more cilantro you can always add it. I found 2 tablespoons to be more than enough.

Lesson Learned 6 – Squeeze the excess water out of the shredded zucchini: Zucchini, like cucumbers, has a lot of water in it. You don’t want a runny dip so it’s important to squeeze the excess water out. I just took handfuls and squeezed them over the sink until no water dripped out. You can wrap the zucchini in a towel and squeeze the water out that way as well. But, if you have clean hands it’s so much easier just using your hands and you’re not left with a dirty dishtowel.

This is so easy to make and it has a slightly different combination of ingredients than most artichoke dips. Try it at your next party. It’s sure to be a hit!

Zucchini Artichoke Olive Dip…

  • Servings: 30
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

INGREDIENTS

2 packages of cream cheese (8 oz. each), room temperature

3 cups shredded zucchini (2 medium sized zucchini)

1 jar marinated artichokes drained and chopped (you can add more if you like)

1/4 cup finely chopped olives (I used kalamata olives)

4 large garlic cloves, minced

3 Tbs. finely chopped red onion

2 Tbs. minced fresh cilantro

2 Tbs. lime juice (1 medium sized lime)

2 Tbs. good olive oil (I used garlic infused olive oil)

Appetizer crackers or a french bread baguette, sliced.

DIRECTIONS: 

Combine all of the ingredients except the crackers and/or sliced baguette into a large bowl. Combine thoroughly. Refrigerate for a minimum of 4 hours, overnight is preferable.

Serve with appetizer crackers or a french bread baguette, sliced.

Zucchini Artichoke Olive Dip

Grilled Honey Mustard Chicken…

I love the taste of honey mustard. Whether it be a salad dressing, a marinade or a dipping sauce, to me the flavor of honey and mustard combined is simply fabulous. So the other day when faced with grilling chicken for dinner, I decided to kick the flavor up a notch, marinate the chicken in a home made honey mustard sauce, baste the the chicken with the sauce while it was grilling and finally adding a drizzle of it on top right before serving. It was death by honey mustard sauce, but boy was it ever delicious.

So let’s talk grilled honey mustard chicken…

Honey Mustard SauceLesson Learned 1 – Honey mustard sauce/marinade comes in all different shapes and sizes: I’ve tried various ways of making a honey mustard sauce. What I like about this version is it contains sour cream which, I think, adds to creaminess and tang of the sauce. You certainly can use plain yogurt or even chicken stock when making a honey mustard sauce. But so far, I like this sauce recipe the best.

The other thing I recommend is using a mixture of whole grain and dijon mustards to make the sauce. I think using whole grain mustard not only adds to the depth of  the sauce’s flavor but also gives great texture and eye appeal. Remember you eat first with your eyes. By using whole grain mustard there is no doubt what’s in the sauce.

Marinate chicken in a sealable bagMy last recommendation where the sauce is concerned is to marinate the chicken for at least 4 hours, with overnight being preferable. Once you’ve put the chicken in a bag with the marinade, remember to turn it over every once in a while to make sure every inch in soaking in the tasty marinade. Also once you’ve made the marinade and before you pour it in the bag save about a quarter of  a cup to baste the chicken with during grilling and to drizzle over the chicken right before you serve. All I can say is YUMMO!

Lesson Learned 2 – Should you use skin-on or skinless chicken breasts: As you can see from the pictures, I chose to grill skin-on boneless chicken breasts. In many instances I find the fat from the skin permeates the meat during the cooking process and adds additional moistness to the meat. But you have to consider the fact that the sauce contains honey, and I found the skin tended to stick to the grill because of the honey.

Marinated Chicken Breasts

Marinated Chicken Breasts

After a point I wound up just peeling the skin off and cooking the breasts without it. The sticking factor was much less, I still got great grill marks and the breasts were moist. Just make sure you flip them every 5-6 minutes. I cooked mine for about 30 minutes total. Your cooking time will depend upon the thickness of your chicken breasts and the temperature of your grill. If you’re not sure if they’re done, stick a meat thermometer into the center of the meat. If it reads 160 degrees, you’re good to go. Just make sure to turn them over regularly.

Chicken On The Grill

If you’ve been following this blog you know I am a big fan of chicken. I eat it a lot and so I’m always experimenting with ways to prepare it. If you have any favorite chicken recipes you want me to try, just let me know. But I guarantee this recipe is definitely a winner. Enjoy!

Grilled Honey Mustard Chicken…

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

INGREDIENTS:

Four 6-8 ounce boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1/2 cup mustard (half dijon half whole grain) – you can make it a generous half cup

1/3 cup clover honey

1/3 cup sour cream

2 TBS steak sauce

chives for garnish

DIRECTIONS:

Mix together the mustards, honey, sour cream and steak sauce. Take a quarter cup of the marinade and put it in a separate container in the refrigrator. Place the chicken is a sealable plastic bag and pour the remaining marinade into the bag. Seal the bag and massage the contents until the marinade is evenly distributed over the chicken.

Place the chicken in the refrigerator and marinate it for at least 4 hours, overnight is preferable but not necessary. Turn the bag over every once in a while to make sure the chicken gets regularly coated with the marinade.

Prepare your grill (we have a gas grill and I heated it to 400 degrees). Remove the chicken from the marinade and toss the bag with the marinade into the trash. Cook the chicken on the grill for 30 – 40 minutes, (feedback from a reader below said their cooking time was only 10 minutes) remembering to turn it over every 5-6 minutes and basting the breasts every time you turn them over with the marinade you initially set aside in the refrigerator.  The chicken is done when the internal temperature at the center of the thickest part of the meat is 160 degrees. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Per the feedback below, the main thing is to keep an eye on your chicken breasts while making this recipe. For my grill it takes about 30 minutes for 8 ounce breasts. As you can see from the comment below, on their grill it took only ten minutes, which would indicate that their chicken breasts may have been slightly smaller than mine or their grill slightly hotter than mine. That was great feedback, and definitely something to keep in mind when grilling chicken breasts.)

Before serving, drizzle the breasts with some of the remaining marinade and garnish with chopped chives.

Grilled Honey Mustard Chicken...

Serving suggestion: Grilled Honey Mustard Chicken, Baked Potato and Simple Oven Roasted Tomatoes

Serving Suggestion: grilled honey mustard chicken, baked potato with fresh chopped chives and simple oven roasted tomatoes

Lemon Crumb Cake…

Sometimes you just want something quick and easy. This is that kind of recipe. I don’t know about you but there are days when I just don’t want to drag out all the paraphernalia in order to make something that looks and tastes good. This particular recipe requires no stand mixer, food processor, or blender. Just a bowl for the dry and wet ingredients and a small pan to melt butter.

Let’s talk Lemon Crumb Cake…

Perfect Crumble ConsistencyLesson Learned 1 – The crumb topping: Only three ingredients make the topping – flour sugar and melted butter. I found the best result for making the topping is to add 1 additional tablespoon of flour to the 1/3 cup called for in the recipe. That way you get a nice crumble without the mixture being too moist. The crumb topping is easy to do. Just melt the butter and combine it with the flour and sugar. If the mixture looks too dry, add a tiny bit more melted butter. Make sure nothing is dry in the crumble. The picture here shows the perfect consistency.

Add Wet Ingredients To Dry IngredientsLesson Learned 2 – Mixing wet and dry ingredients: The rule of thumb when making a batter you mix by hand is to add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the wet ingredients. Take a wooden spoon or a spoon/spatula and mix until just combined. Make sure to check at the bottom center of the bowl – that’s were unincorporated ingredients tend to hang out. Once everything is combined, STOP. Over mixing will create a tough cake.

Lesson Learned 3 – Watch the time on this cake carefully: Ok, I’ll admit it – I had to make this cake twice to get it right. This cake, depending on your oven and what part of the country you live in, can bake from 50 minutes to 1 hour and 10 minutes. And let me tell you, it can go from moist to dry rather quickly. So keep an eye on it. I use a professional grade loaf pan and so my cake baked in 50 minutes. The time you need will depend on your oven and the bakeware you use. Keep an eye on it starting at 50 minutes.

Right Out Of The Oven

Lemon Crumb Cake…

  • Servings: 8-10
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

INGREDIENTS:

Topping

1/3 cup plus 1 Tbs. Flour

1/3 cup sugar

2 Tbs. melted unsalted butter

Cake

1 1/2 cups flour

1 cup sugar

1 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. salt

1 5 oz. can evaporated milk

1/3 cup vegetable oil

2 tsp. lemon zest

2 large eggs

Glaze (optional)

1/2 cup powdered sugar

3 tsp. lemon juice

1 tsp. lemon zest

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease and flour the bottom and sides of an 8 x 4 loaf pan (if using a nonstick pan you only need to prepare the bottom of the pan). In a small bowl mix together topping ingredients making sure all the flour is coated with the melted butter. Set aside.

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. In another bowl whisk together the eggs, evaporated milk, oil and lemon zest. Pour the egg mixture into the flour mixture and stir until just combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan. Sprinkle the top evenly with the crumb mixture. Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour 10 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Check the cake at 50 minutes. You do not want to over bake this cake.

Cool the cake for 15 minutes in the loaf pan. Remove from loaf pan and let cool completely on a wire rack. The glaze is optional. The cake is delicious with or without the glaze.

Lemon Crumb Cake

 Lemon Crumb Cake

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helpers prepared a 2014 annual report for the “You Betcha Can Make This” blog. Not bad for someone who is relatively new at blogging and does it for the joy of learning and sharing information and not for stats. Enjoy!

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,000 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Pan Fried Cod With Lemon Butter Sauce…

My husband and I have gotten into eating more fish lately and so I’ve become a student of preparing fish. Baking, broiling, grilling – you name it, I’ve been trying it. I will be the first to admit fish is tricky and the only advice I can give is to keep making it until it becomes more intuitive. Don’t be afraid to flip it back on the heat if you find it is not cooked through. I would much rather do that than serve overcooked fish. You can’t take that back. Preparing fish in an art that comes about from trial and error. But I guarantee its worth the blood, sweat and tears.

Lately I’ve made a lot of fish filets, mostly pan frying them and I think I’ve got it to the point where I’ve learned how to judge when the fish is cooked. Normally I try to buy a filet that is between a 1/4 and 1/2 inch thick. That way I know that about 3 – 4  minutes on each side under medium high heat will do the trick.

What’s great is grocery stores are now stocking more fish both fresh and flash frozen. The filets I’ve been buying are flash frozen and shrink wrapped and I find they thaw and cook beautifully. The only fish that I’ve tried a fews times that doesn’t seem to hold up well in this process is swordfish. Regardless of what I do it always seem to turn out tough. So if I plan on serving swordfish I buy it fresh. Otherwise fish like, grouper, salmon, cod, flounder, halibut and the like all seem to hold up well being flash frozen. It’s a great convenience when you decide at the last minute that you want to make fish for dinner, which was the case with me last night.

Recipe Rating – A: I’ll clue you in, the first few times I tried recipes like this the results were not nearly as good. As I mentioned earlier, preparing fish is something of a acquired skill. The only thing I will tell you is to err on the side of undercooking versus overcooking. That way you can always flip it back in the pan if need be. I would also advise that if you are not a seasoned cook to avoid serving fish at a dinner party. Be patient. Wait until you’ve mastered the skill of preparing fish before you venture into doing that. Don’t set yourself up for failure. And don’t let what I’m saying make you shy away from fish. It is definitely worth it to master this skill!

IMG_1715Lesson Learned 1 – Preparing the fish: This recipe has a very simple preparation for the fish. After the fish thawed and I removed it from its shrink wrap, I took paper towels and dried the fish thoroughly. Then I dusted the fish with flour on both sides and seasoned it. This time I used a Penzy’s seasoned blend called “Forward”. The blend consists of black pepper, onion, paprika, garlic, turmeric and spice extracts of celery, rosemary, thyme and basil. Although it sounds like seasoning overload, the blend actually created a nice all-purpose seasoning and it worked well with the fish. Don’t be afraid to experiment here. What I do is open my seasoning blends and smell them. I can tell by the smell what might overpower the fish. A nice all purpose blend works well to compliment the taste of the fish, as it did in this case.

Shallot and Garlic Sauted in White Wine and Lemon Juice...

Shallot and Garlic Sauted in White Wine and Lemon Juice…

Lesson Learned 2 – Making the butter sauce: I have to admit making this sauce was rather easy. I discovered that starting it about 15 – 20 minutes before serving works well. I found it interesting that you sauté the shallots, and garlic in wine and lemon juice without using any oil or fat. You add heavy cream and butter near the end. At one point you are making the sauce while simultaneously cooking the fish, but at that point you’re only doing the finishing touch of adding the butter to the sauce, so it’s easy to multi-task. You can also make it ahead, just make sure to keep it warm on a very low flame. This is a very rich sauce. Be careful. You only want to add a little to the fish. You don’t want the taste of the fish to be lost in the sauce. Add just a little and you will have a decadent delight. The recipe below is more than enough for two people. You can easily double it if you plan to serve more people.

The Finished Butter Sauce...

The Finished Butter Sauce…

Lesson Learned 3 – The power of garnish: I’ve said this before but it’s worth repeating. You eat with your eyes first. I can’t tell you how many times I get comments like, “that looks delicious!” Now I can understand how something tastes delicious but I’m not sure how delicious can be determined by your eyes. But in reality it is, and I’ve found one of the best way to dress up a dish is to garnish it with parsley or chives. Just that pop of color adds to the “looks delicious” factor. Adding garnish is so easy and creates a visual excitement before the dish is ever tasted.

IMG_1742

I served steamed broccoli and cauliflower along with Trader Joe’s chicken fried rice with the cod (BTW, that chicken fried rice is very good and easy to prepare).  The meal was a hit. A friend of mine posted on Facebook that cod has a bad rap and I tend to agree. I’m not sure why. It is a mild white fish that can be prepared in a variety of ways, is complimented by a variety of seasonings and is relatively inexpensive compared to other fish. So, don’t shy away from it. This recipe will work well for any white fish like halibut or grouper. Just make sure you don’t overcook the fish. You want the fish moist, tender and flaky. And when you add that butter sauce, well all I can say is it’s to die for!

Pan Fried Cod With Lemon Butter Sauce

  • Servings: 2
  • Difficulty: Medium
  • Print

INGREDIENTS:

Lemon Butter Sauce:

1/2 cup dry white wine

1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice

1 shallot. chopped

1 large clove garlic, minced

1 large dash of Worcestershire sauce

1/4 cup heavy cream

1 stick of butter

Salt and pepper to taste

A dash of hot sauce, if desired

For The Fish:

2 cod filets between 1/4 and 1/2 inches thick

1/4 cup all purpose flour

Spice Blend of Choice (I used Penzy’s spice blend called “Forward” – see reference in blog)

1 Tbs. olive oil

1 Tbs. butter

Salt and pepper

Fresh parsley or chives for garnish

DIRECTIONS:

Begin by preparing the butter sauce. Heat a sauce pan over medium high heat. Add the wine, lemon juice, garlic and shallots. Cook for about three minutes or until the shallots turn translucent. Add the Worcestershire (and hot sauce if desired – I did not add hot sauce) and simmer until the mixture becomes syrupy.

Stir in the cream and cook for about 1 minute. Whisk in the butter a few pats at a time until it becomes fully incorporated. Serve immediately or keep warm until ready to serve.

In a large skillet melt the butter and olive oil. On a plate mix the flour with some salt and pepper. Pat the fish dry with paper towels. Dredge both sides of the fish in flour. Shake off the excess. Sprinkle the spice blend on top of the filets. Once the skillet is heated and the butter melted add the fish seasoned side down. Season the other side with the season blend. Cook the fish for 3-4 minutes on each side.

Pour a little bit of the sauce on the bottom of the plate. Put the fish on top and pour a small portion of the sauce over the filet. Garnish and serve immediately.

IMG_1736

Pan Fried Cod With Lemon Butter Sauce...

Pan Fried Cod With Lemon Butter Sauce…

Pan Fried Cod With Steamed Vegetables and Chicken Fried Rice...

Pan Fried Cod With Steamed Vegetables and Chicken Fried Rice…

Baking With Flour and Eggs…

It occurred to me that I added a new category to my website called tips and trick and have yet to write a post under it. That ends today. The purpose of this category is to share some tips and tricks that I’ve learned along the way that make cooking and baking easier and better. I am hoping that my readers will also join in with their tips and tricks since I know I’ve still got a lot to learn.

My initial post covers two of my favorite tips, ones that have made a big difference in my baking. I call them knife aerated flour and quick and easy room temperature eggs.

KNIFE AERATED FLOUR:

I’ve often mentioned that my mother wasn’t a very good cook. She simply wasn’t interested in it. But when she did, she was not intuitive and she often made mistakes that affected the outcome of a recipe. One of her big mistakes was how to measure flour. Baking purists will tell you that the only way to measure flour is by weighing it. That may be the case, but I hardly find any recipes that include the weight of the flour in the ingredients. Normally it is listed in cups.

But not all cups are created equal. What my mother used to do is put flour in a measuring cup and then shake it so that the flour would settle. She would continue that process until she got the amount called for in the recipe. Basically she was using packed down flour as her measurement. Not good…

I found the best way to measure flour without weighing it is to use the knife aerator technique. Before I scoop my flour out of my canister into a measuring cup, I take a knife and stir it in the canister to aerate it. Then I put my cup in my canister and scoop out a heaping amount. After that I take my knife and level the measuring cup and voila, I have an amount that parallels weighing it. Easy, quick and recipes tend to work out well using this technique. The only time they don’t is if I need to do a high altitude adjustment. Then I add one to two additional tablespoons of flour and that usually does the trick. If you don’t live in high altitude you don’t need to worry about that.

So next time you measure flour, aerate it and level it in your measuring cup using a knife. You’ll get a much more accurate amount that way.

Use a knife to level off the flour...

Use a knife to level off the flour…

EASY ROOM TEMPERATURE EGGS:

From watching a lot of professional chefs I’ve learned that using room temperature eggs when baking makes the eggs blend more thoroughly in the batter. The problem is, who ever remembers to take the eggs out of the refrigerator in enough time to render them room temperature. Not me, that’s for sure.

But I recently learned a great little trick that in 5 minutes gives you room temperature eggs. Just put some very warm water in a cup deep enough to cover the eggs (I normally use my 2 cup measuring cup) and let them sit on the counter for 5 minutes. Voila, you have room temperature eggs. I do this all the time when I am baking now. It’s a great little trick and it hardly takes any time at all.

IMG_9778

WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE BAKING TIPS N’ TRICKS?

I know there are a lot of tips that can make for better results or are amazing time savers. I would love to hear some of yours. Feel free to share and we can all learn from each other! Enjoy!

 

A Life Well Spent…

For a long time I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand it, I couldn’t accept it, I rebelled against it. Who would ever choose to live their live that way? A life of complete servitude, a life that strips you of your individuality, a life solely based in hardship and hard work – it made absolutely no sense to me. No woman in her right mind would leave her family and home at the age of 16 and enter a convent. No woman in her right mine would vow to a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. No woman in her right mind would dress up in a wedding gown march down the aisle and pledge her life not to a man but to the Lord. Why would any woman do this? It just made no sense to me… that is until a few days ago…

The Motherhouse grounds...

The Motherhouse grounds…

This past weekend I spent a few days in my hometown of Chicago attending the 75th jubilee of my aunt Sister Teresita Miksas. My aunt was celebrating 75 years of being a nun in the religious order of the Sisters of Saint Casimir. Seventy-five years of anything is in itself a milestone but 75 years of being a nun is an remarkable achievement. I definitely wanted to be there for her. I fully understood the significance of it. But I was conflicted. Being there would almost certainly take me back to a place and time in my life that was not very happy, to memories that I did not want to revisit and to a time that I would sooner forget than relive – that being my high school years. But I ultimately knew that this was not about me. I owed it to her to take this journey. She deserved it. She earned it. And surprisingly enough, it was through this journey that I began to understand.

The Motherhouse grounds...

The Motherhouse grounds…

Growing up I struggled accepting the traditional roles women were expected to play.  I never saw myself being fulfilled as a housewife. I didn’t relish the idea of being expected to cook and clean for a man. If you want a chef and a housekeeper just hire one. I wanted to be independent, self sufficient not reliant on anyone or anything for my well being or happiness. Because I felt that way I resented women that I perceived to be the opposite. And so when I began to understand the concept of life as a nun I rebelled against it. Thinking back now I’m not sure whether my feelings were that of anger or sadness, maybe a combination of both. But the idea of being a nun, being taught by nuns, being influenced by nuns especially in my most formative years was distasteful to me. I guess I never thought these woman had a foot in reality. I viewed them as uninformed and out of touch. And when I was finally out from under their influence I went wild. I was free from feeling my development had been stifled, believing I was ill prepared to function in the real world. I was determined never to look back or focus on what I believed to be years of indoctrination in a lifestyle I could not accept. I was finally rid of the influences that were trying to make me into something I was not.

 

The Motherhouse grounds...

The Motherhouse grounds…

But now I realize nothing could be further from the truth. After my experience this past weekend I know it was all part of a process, a journey that has thankfully taken me full circle. My experience made me realize that although you can never go home again there are valuable lessons to learn from trying. This past weekend I was afforded the opportunity to learn about these women, their history, their achievements and their current struggles. It is a story of leadership against the odds, servitude, accomplishment and loss. It is a story that needs to be told.

The order of the Sisters of Saint Casimir was founded by Mother Maria Kaupas in 1907. Born Casimira Kaupas, she emigrated to the United States at the age of 17 to work as a housekeeper for her brother the Reverend Anthony Kaupas. In her late twenties she founded the congregation of The Sisters of Saint Casimir and in 1911, at the age of 31, her order established the motherhouse that I recently visited (at the age of 31 I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up). The Sisters began to staff schools in Lithuanian parishes in Chicago. By 1928 they were teaching in parishes across the United States and also began their health care ministry with the opening of Holy Cross Hospital.

Mother Maria's death mask...

Mother Maria’s death mask…

All these monumental accomplishments occurred at a time in our society when women were not afforded the same privileges we have today. The original wing of the Motherhouse was built in 1911, nine years before women even had the right to vote. Holy Cross Hospital was built in 1928, thirty-five years before women were afforded the right to equal pay for equal work and forty-one years before women were allowed to attend prestigious universities such as Harvard and Princeton. Mother Maria Kaupas formed a ministry, engaged countless other women to follow God’s calling, built schools, staffed hospitals and provided thousands of immigrant children and families the education and health care they were lacking all the while combatting a society that believed women were not equal to men. When you think about it, she was an entrepreneur with leadership skills that rival those of a Steve Jobs or a Mark Zuckerberg. This was not a woman who was uninformed and out of touch. She was driven by a personal mission of establishing a faith based ministry to benefit those in need. And she succeeded brilliantly.

The phonograph purchased to teach the Sisters English...

The phonograph purchased to teach the Sisters English…

All weekend long I was immersed in the epic history of the Sisters of Saint Casimir. Initially times were hard and the rules were stringent. The nuns wore habits that showed the outside world only their faces below the eyebrows and their hands. I remember as a kid wondering if they even had hair on their heads. Early on (before the dress code became more relaxed in the 1960’s) they were required every day – summer or winter – to wear long underwear, two underskirts, and a camisole type garment all underneath a wool floor length tunic with long sleeves and adorned at the waist by a rosary cinch. A bib made of hard white material went around their necks and down their chests. On their heads they wore a wimple that covered their hair and concealed their necks topped off with a headdress that consisted of a veil and a hard white forehead crown that appeared to rest on their eyebrows.  Since the tunics were wool they could not be cleaned regularly so in those days a nun had to wash her myriad of undergarments frequently so as not to offend others with her body odor. The garments were stifling and the crown on the veils chaffed their foreheads. As one Sister so aptly put it, “If you could survive the days of wearing those habits you knew you were truly a nun!”  Today their dress is more secular, simple and understated. You know they’re nuns but you can also see them as human beings.

IMG_9969

Mother Maria's room...

Mother Maria’s room…

I was afforded the opportunity to take a tour of their Motherhouse, a place that I had never seen before. In the old wing (a new wing was added in the 1970’s) is the room of their founder Mother Maria Kaupas. Kept as a living memorial to her, it still contains her furniture, typewriter and even the bed she died in. In the corner stands a bust of her image fashioned after a death mask that she agreed to have done when she was still alive. In 1996 the Vatican agreed to proceed with the beatification process of Mother Maria (the process that can result in sainthood) and in 1999 her remains were removed from Saint Casimir’s cemetery and placed in a white marble sarcophagus in the Motherhouse chapel.

Mother Maria's typewriter...

Mother Maria’s typewriter…

The chapel is undoubtedly the cornerstone of the Motherhouse. Although they call it a chapel, it truly is a mini-basilica with an enormous altar featuring massive marble statues. Two side altars abut the main altar. Numerous breathtaking stained glass windows adorn the walls. And in the back behind Mother Maria’s sarcophagus is an exquisite tile mural featuring an image of her. Most churches built today cannot even come close to replicating the splendor of this chapel’s architecture and artistry. It would simply be too cost prohibitive.

The old wing housed a library, a small chapel, and an ornate rotunda at its core with a circular wooden staircase and massive wall statues depicting the crucifixion of Christ. Standing near the rotunda stairs you can almost hear the faint laughter of the children who once climbed them or the footsteps of the postulants who ran down them only to be caught by a bemused Mother Maria. Stain glass windows adorn the entrance doors, a mini museum adjacent to the rotunda contains personal artifacts of Mother Maria, an old phonograph used to teach the Sisters the English language and a pictorial history of the many Sisters who served the order and those who have passed away.

The crucifix hanging in the rotunda...

The crucifix hanging in the rotunda…

There was also a large auditorium with a stage that is now used for special functions. On the back wall of the stage is a mural painted by Sister M. Mercedes. Completed in 1973 it depicts the history of the Sisters of Saint Casimir from their roots in Lithuania to their ministry in the United States. I stood there in awe of it. The artistry, attention to detail, the use of color and light. It was amazing. I felt the need to touch it and to revel in the work of a great artist. In its heyday, the Motherhouse walls were adorned with many pieces of her artwork, some currently valued at approximately $3,000 each. A gifted artist who shared her talents not only to provide joy but also to pay homage to the rich history of the women in this holy order. I was rendered speechless.

The center of Sister Mercede's mural

The center of Sister Mercede’s mural

 

Sister's Mercede's mural on the back wall of the auditorium

Sister’s Mercede’s mural on the back wall of the auditorium

 

The signed mural...

The signed mural…

So on and on the stories went. Women who were accomplished artists, musicians, educators, health care providers all dedicated to a higher calling and the common good. The fruits of their labors permeate the buildings and grounds. Their past is palpable throughout – you sense it, you feel it – but unfortunately it’s now accompanied by an ever present deafening silence of a lifestyle that has slowly become a way of the past.  Walking down the halls you see a vast array of empty sleeping rooms, an infirmary on the fourth floor completely shut down with furniture removed and walls stripped, the library dismantled with its contents shipped to a university in Lithuania – room upon empty room echoing the sounds of a rich past and an uncertain future. And slowly you begin to realize the heartbreaking reality that things will never be what they use to be.

The old chapel...

The old chapel…

 

The current chapel...

The current chapel…

The order of the Sisters of Saint Casimir was established at a time when social services were the exception and not the norm. During those bygone days, if religious orders did not provide these types of services they simply did not exist. Today these services can be provided without having to make the same sacrifices the Sisters made. People can easily live a secular lifestyle and still serve the common good. Unfortunately these societal changes created tragic results. Systematically convents have been shutting down, private schools are being sold and hospitals are being privatized. No longer do people want to make such huge personal sacrifices in order to serve. No longer are women aspiring to a religious life in numbers that can sustain these historic communities. Such is the plight of the Sisters of Saint Casimir.

Mother Maria's sarcophagus at the rear of the chapel...

Mother Maria’s sarcophagus at the rear of the chapel…

 

The mural behind the sarcophagus...

The mural behind the sarcophagus…

Currently the order is looking to sell the Motherhouse and grounds. A two block square piece of property on the Southwest Side of Chicago, it served as the center for the work of these women for over one hundred years. The grounds are immaculately manicured, the building stands as a testament to their history – the only home that those remaining have ever known. They expected to live there. They expected to die there. But it has just become too expensive to own and operate.

The ornate ceiling in the rotunda...

The ornate ceiling in the rotunda…

I know in my heart of hearts that Mother Maria, being the business woman that she was, would say this must be done. In reality it has to be done. But what struck me was the grief these women were experiencing during this change process. At first I didn’t get it. It’s just business. I understand having to make a business decision. It’s the way of the world. But after spending a weekend with them, I began to see them in a totally different light. And through that process came respect and admiration for who they are, what they have accomplished and what they are losing.

As I walked the grounds of the property I could not help but be overcome with sadness. I stood at the grotto that existed when my aunt was young. I held a picture of her taken several decades earlier at that very same grotto standing behind a kneeler between her mother and father. I touched the top of the same kneeler that my grandmother and grandfather touched. I felt them. I felt their joy of having a daughter who entered the religious life. I felt their presence and the presence of so many others who sought peace and solace on those grounds. I cried for them and for all who would be losing that special place. And it was there that I finally came to understand and appreciate the history and the ministry of the Sisters of Saint Casimir.

My grandparents and aunt at the grotto circa 1945

My grandparents and aunt at the grotto circa 1945

 

The grotto today...

The grotto today…

Now systematically they are all being moved to a continuum of care facility on the South Side of Chicago. Only the able bodied remain at the Motherhouse to continue the process of phasing it out. The others will have wonderful accommodations and great care but it will never be the same. As I stood on the grounds I couldn’t help thinking what will become of Mother Maria’s sarcophagus? What will become of the grounds? What will become of the grotto? What will become of Sister Mercede’s mural? What will become of that gorgeous chapel? And I know these questions are running through the minds of each and every one of them. They are questions still remaining to be answered.

But although there are still so many unanswered questions one truth is and will always remain constant. No one will ever be able to strip from them the incredible legacy that they, along with Mother Maria, built. It will remain forever in the hearts, minds and souls of all they touched. It will remain in my heart, mind and soul for as long as I live.  Finally I understand…

And so, after 75 years of being a nun, I say to my aunt and to all of these wonderful women – thank you and may God bless you.  Be brave. Stand tall and be proud! It has been a life well spent.

Happy 75th Anniversary, Auntie! (in the wheelchair)

Happy 75th Anniversary, Auntie! (in the wheelchair)

 

 

 

The Hiawatha Park Dance Company…

The Hiawatha Park Dance Company Logo

The Hiawatha Park Dance Company Logo

In recent days I’ve been spending time trying to organize this blog. I’ve been blogging for a couple of years now, and part of the challenge I face is that I don’t blog about one specific subject. That can be confusing to potential visitors who, I think, look to blogs for very specific information. Within the past year, the greater part of my blog had dealt with a growing passion of mine, cooking and baking, and writing about the recipes I’ve tried, my opinions of them, and lessons learned while making them. I am not a natural cook learning much of my technique from the school of hard knocks and some strategic cooking classes and my thought was that my journey may help others like me who did not have anyone to mentor them in the culinary arts when they were growing up.

Ok, so what does all of this have to do with the Hiawatha Park Dance Company? Well there are two trains of thought that brought me about to the dance company. The first being that, early on, I was so career obsessed and my job became my total focus – one of the reasons I never really learned how to cook and that is something I’ve been thinking about recently. And second, as I was organizing the blog it occurred to me that I have written several blogs about my general memories about Hiawatha Park but none specifically about the dance company. So it’s time for that special group of ladies to get their due.

Me and some of the members...

Me and some of the members…

I taught in after school programs at Hiawatha Park for 14 years. My title was drama instructor and my job was to teach drama and to produce children’s plays (along with directing and working at Theatre On The Lake, but that’s an entirely different blog in itself). It became apparent early on in my days at Hiawatha Park that both the students and the audience liked musicals so I decided to add a few dance numbers to some of the early shows I produced. That soon became the glue that made many of the students return. They loved to dance (and so did I) and dancing as a part of the program grew by leaps and bounds until it got to the point the productions were more about dancing and less about acting. Although we continued to do plays (it was a must every December) we branched off and started to do dance recitals every Spring. And those took off like wild fire. Soon I was mostly teaching dance classes, with one play production class and the numbers of students in my program got larger and larger.

Being the type-A personality that I am, I wanted to make sure my students had quality instruction. I had taken dance classes in college and had some good basic knowledge but I wanted to provide classes that could challenge the abilities of the students as they began to excel. So off to dance studios I went. At one point in time I was taking classes 3-4 times a week with various choreographers I had worked with as well as instructors from the Hubbard Street Dance company, a renowned Chicago dance company.

The dancers, and me with their mom's...

The dancers, and me with their mom’s…

Now, I am not your typical dancer – I am way too tall and had never been super lean, but I had innate ability that got me pretty adept in the principles of jazz dancing. From there, what I learned they learned – sometimes even down to the routines that I learned in my classes. I saw students struggle, I saw students fail, I saw students excel but I made sure that each and every one of them always knew that they were positively challenging their abilities, and that to me is the true meaning of success.

After some time it became apparent that, as in many cases, some students were simply much better than others. In my mind that did not make them better it just made them more adept at learning certain principles of dance. So as I began to notice varying levels of expertise it became a challenge to figure out how to keep all of my students motivated and interested. Then one day during a dance class it came to me. I was being instructed by a dancer from the Hubbard Street Dance Company and I thought dance company… dance company. What a great idea – form a dance company. Create a venue for the dancers that excel and provide a tangible goal for the aspiring up-and-coming dancers. The idea took off.

Membership was basically up to me, we did not have a formal audition process and I did not stay at Hiawatha Park long enough to develop one. Basically I think I based it on whether a dancer could do a double turn – some could do triples. They also had to be able to perform every element of the more complex routines. I will never forget their first official number, and their simple introduction: Ladies and Gentleman, The Hiawatha Park Dance Company  — the black jackets with the company’s name on the back –  their backs to the audience, the lights go up, the surrealistic intro to Prince’s song “You’ve Got the Look” and then BAM, they turn and begin their bump and grinds. All I could think of was how fortuitous it was for them to be dancing to that song as the words “Sho nuff do be cookin’ in my book” certainly applied to them at that moment. It was all I could do to not reduce myself to a blubbering idiot as I watched them. They were proud, confident young women who found an identity that separated them from the pack. They knew it and I knew it. They were the ones all the other dancers in the program aspired to be. It was so fabulous to see them shine. And shine they did. They learned everything I learned. They were dedicated, competitive. They wanted to be the best they could be. What life lessons they learned through that program, life lessons they didn’t even realize they were learning at the time and I didn’t realize I was teaching.

They developed a great reputation so much so that they were asked to perform at Chicago Park District city-wide events. They were the main event at the city’a annual Arbor Day Celebration for a couple of years, an event that brought the mayor and a host of other city dignitaries to Daley Bicentennial Plaza on Chicago’s Lakefront.

Woodsmoke Ranch Program

Woodsmoke Ranch Program

They performed at Woodsmoke Ranch, a private RV park, for a couple of years (one of the parent’s owned some property there) and of course they performed at Hiawatha Park dance recitals and Christmas parties. I even had to institute a number in all of our shows where all the other dancers would have one number with the dance company which, at it’s highpoint, included sixty kids on stage all-together weaving in and out of each other and performing different but coordinated routines. I always dreaded staging that one – it took one complete rehearsal just to get that down as they would all rehearse separately until production week. Sometimes I wonder how we ever even did it. But in the end it was worth it just to see the looks on their faces and the faces of their families and friends.

At the city-wide Arbor Day event

At the city-wide Arbor Day event

If there is one thing that I can point to as my shining accomplishment at Hiawatha Park it has to be the dance company. Not that the other parts of the program were less important, but once I established it I knew I had hit the programmatic jackpot.

I stayed at Hiawatha Park for 14 years. In my third year three young women came into the drama program, Michelle Steffen (Rouland) , Janine Herman (George), and Camille DeAngelis. A few years later their friend Denise Chyrsty (Redmond) joined and then all four of them stayed with the program, becoming the initial core of the company, through their senior year in high school. That last year they became affectionately knows as “The Seniors”. Talk about growing up together, boy did we ever. It was so important to me that they have their last year in the dance company that I turned down a promotion the year before so that I could stay at Hiawatha Park for them. I never told them that at the time and was offered another promotion immediately following their final performance. I took that one and the dance company became history.

The Seniors

“The Seniors” with their moms and me.

But if “The Seniors” were the elder statesmen, you can’t discount the other members of the group, Jenny Jarosz (Holcomb) – the heart and soul of all of us , Nicole Burns (Shamo) the dedicated professional, Heather Wronowski – “finger love” (and the members all know what that means), Michelle Kyrstek – our angel who died at the age of 13 from an unsuccessful organ transplant, Lydia Hlibchuck – who taught us all a thing or two about jazz turns, and April Balitewicz – the most flexible dancer of the entire bunch. Together they were a joy to work with and a joy to be with. To this day most of them are still in my life.

It has taken me this long to honor in writing this wonderful group of young girls who have all gone on to become inspiring women. And although the miles may separate us, the love binds us together. I love them all and will until the day I die. And so, with all the love in my heart it is my honor to introduce to you, ladies and gentleman, The Hiawatha Park Dance Company!

Dance Company

Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies…

Cranberry oatmeal cookies have been a staple in our family for the last five years. I was looking for something completely different from what I traditionally made for the holidays and found this recipe in the 2008 Taste of Home Best Loved Cookies and Bars holiday magazine. At the time the magazine cost me $9.99 and I thought that was pretty pricey. But I can now without hesitation say that it was the best money I ever spent. That magazine is my go to place for holiday cookie ideas and it has a wealth of cookie recipes, many that have become our holiday favorites and many still needing to be tried. The magazine is a compilation of recipes from different people around the country and the editors did an excellent job of choosing fabulous recipes.

Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies

Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies

Initially I made these cookies just because I liked the way the picture looked in the magazine. I was not prepared for how delicious they would be. A co-worker recently described their flavor as being close to a Starbuck’s cranberry orange scone with a bonus of white chocolate chips. I think she hit it on the head. Not only are they easy to make but they look colorful on a dessert tray. Here is my rating and lessons learned making these cookies.

Rating: A+++++ – once again this cookie is one of our all time holiday favorites. How could I rate it any less?

Lesson Learned 1: Use golden raisins in this recipe. The recipe does not specify what type of raisins to use but I found the dark raisins create a less colorful and vibrant looking cookie, and after all you eat first with your eyes, remember? Make sure the raisins are fresh. Don’t use the box that’s been sitting in your pantry for six months. As with any ingredient, the fresher the better but especially with raisins.

Lesson Learned 2: Put in a healthy tablespoonful of grated orange peel. I used the grated peel of two large oranges. Don’t skimp on this. The flavor of the orange peel so compliments the tartness of the cranberry and the sweetness of the white chocolate. Use more than less.

Lesson Learned 3: These cookies keep well both in the refrigerator and the freezer so these are great make ahead cookies.

I guarantee that you will love these cookies. They are easy to make, easy to store and add a nice colorful holiday flair to your cookie assortment.

Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies

  • Servings: 4 dozen
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

INGREDIENTS:

1 cup unsalted butter softened

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 eggs

1 tsp. vanilla

2 cups flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. baking soda

2 cups quick cooking oats

1 cup raisins

1 cup coarsely chopped cranberries (you can you frozen ones but I prefer fresh)

1 TBS. grated orange peel

1 package (12 ounces) white chocolate chips

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat the oven to 375.

In a mixing bowl cream butter and sugar. Add the eggs one at a time beating until well combined. Beat in the vanilla. Combine flour, baking powder, salt and baking soda; add to the creamed mixture. Stir in the oats, raisins, cranberries and orange peel. Add the white chocolate chips.

Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls (I use a cookie scoop) 2 inches apart onto an ungreased baking sheet. Bake for 10-12 minutes or until the edges are lightly browned. Remove to wire racks to cool. Enjoy!

Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies

Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies

Now Let’s Not Be Rash…

Saturday, suns out, great day to be out in the yard getting things prepped for the upcoming year. Love these times when bushes start to bloom, birds are tending to their young and the thought of planting tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers and herbs warms the soul providing anticipation of the crops to come. A day in the yard. It doesn’t get much better than this. Sunday morning waking up scratching, oh boy looks like I must have gotten a couple of insect bites. Boy do these buggers itch. Oh well, had them before, a little hydrocortisone cream should do the trick.

Monday and Tuesday, these nasty bites are still so darn itchy but it looks like they are less red and I’m on the road to recovery. No worries, just wish they wouldn’t itch so much. Wednesday morning beautiful day, get up, give a light morning wake up scratch to my mid section, head off to the kitchen for some juice, coffee and my morning reading. The weather is gorgeous so I spend some time out on the deck enjoying the Spring weather and thinking about getting ready to go to work. Off to the bathroom to get dressed, slip off my night clothes and… what’s this, a small rash on my mid section. What the heck could this be from? I know its not shingles because it the rash is on both sides of my body. Did I eat something different, no. Did I change laundry detergents, no. Did I use a different soap or shampoo, no. What the heck. I’ll call the doctor and nip this thing in the bud.

That afternoon, the rash seems to have spread around all the areas that had insect bites, two on the back of my right leg, one under my right arm and one on the back of my left leg. The doctor gives me some prescription ointment to calm the itching. It doesn’t seem like it’s spreading anymore. I put on the ointment and joyous relief. Ok, just need to ride out the healing process now. I sleep a restful sleep, no itching, yep nipped this thing in the bud.

Rash

Rash

Thursday morning I wake to some itching. No problem, got my cream and this will help. The day goes on, the itching becomes more intense. The cream appears to only be slightly working. What is going on? At night the itching seems to ease and so I go to bed with the hopes of a better tomorrow. I wake up five times during the night with itching that is about to drive me mad. Ok, this is getting crazy. When I get up in the morning, the rash has spread around my midsection to part of my back, down my one leg and up my right arm. This is nuts. I call the doctor, go in for another visit and it is steroid time. It is definitely an allergic reaction, but to what who knows. That remains to be seen.

The body is a strange and wonderful thing, but when an allergic reaction occurs it goes haywire. Every inch of the affected area is itching like there is no tomorrow with no guarantee that we have solved the problem. The steroids should do the trick, but if the allergen (and who knows what that is) is still present, the body will flare up again. If that occurs, the next step is a visit to the allergist. What fun. So here I sit typing away in the hopes that I will not be tempted to scratch praying for the steroids to take affect and hoping that this mysterious allergen is no where to be found anymore. It’s been quite a week. How was yours?

Judge Not Lest…

I am not gay, never have been, never will be. I always have been sexually attracted to men. It is who I am to the core of my being. Heck, I never even knew gays existed until I was in college (how I lived in such a bubble I will never know). But I do remember that fateful day I learned about homosexuality. I was in a play production at Northern Illinois University and sitting in the audience during a rehearsal of a scene I was not in. I was watching the actors on stage especially admiring a handsome young man in the scene. I turned to the guy sitting next to me in the audience and said something to the effect of “how gorgeous is he” and he said, “I know, he’s my lover.” I almost fell off the chair.

I went back to my dorm room and called my mom. I asked her if she knew about gays and she said yes. When I asked her why she never told me she simply said the subject never came up. I was floored. The thought had never occurred to me that someone could be sexually interested in someone else of the same sex. I remember at the time the thought of it did not repulse me, just confused me. As I was trying to sort out my feelings, I started thinking about my friends in the play. Up to this point they were my friends. Does it change now that I know their sexual orientation? What happened if someone decided not to like me because I was a heterosexual? Does any person have the right to make those types of judgments? I thought long and hard about it and decided that since I had no desire to be judged, liked or disliked because I liked the opposite sex, I was in no position to judge, like or dislike someone because their sexual orientation differed from mine. Defining moment for me. And from then on, I’ve had a wealth of friends gay and straight and do not or will not differentiate between the two of them.

Heck, I’ve even been propositioned by gay women. Once my husband and I were in our favorite restaurant in Chicago “Two Doors South” (a restaurant owned by two gay men on Clark Street that is no longer in existence) and I needed to use the ladies room. The restaurant had one toilet for women and one for men. The women’s bathroom was locked and so I waited my turn. A young woman came out of the bathroom and stopped in front of me. As I began to walk around her toward the bathroom she touched my arm and said, “I’ve been watching you all evening. You have the most gorgeous eyes. Would you care to meet me for a drink sometime?” I smiled and said to her, “The gentleman I’m having dinner with is my husband, but thank you, your compliment just made my day. I appreciate you saying such nice things but unfortunately it will not be possible to meet you for a drink. ” She smiled and said, “You can’t blame a girl for trying” and we went our separate ways. I remember thinking I was pleased that another women found me sexually attractive, but it did not change the fact that I wanted my sexual partners to be men. Being involved in theatre in Chicago I was propositioned many more times, always appreciating the compliment but it never changed from my sexual orientation. To this day, some of my closest friends are gay, the best man at our wedding was gay, I probably have as many if not more gay friends than straight friends. But I really don’t even put that monicker on them anymore, they are all my friends. What they do behind closed doors is their business. I love them for who they are and the friendship they bring.

So why are we so polarized about gay marriage? To me it is so simple. If two people love each other and want sanction that union legally, who are we as a society to say they cannot. Heck, if the straights have it so figured out, why is the divorce rate in this country so high? What is the big deal? Why is government compelled to interfere? If it is a religious conviction, then I think we’ve forgotten that a long time ago our forefathers made it very clear in the constitution that there is to be a separation between church and state. If a religious group, as part of their religious organization, wants to ban gay marriage – go ahead. It’s their purview. But government cannot ban something based on a religious conviction. So the way government tries to get around it is to define in legal terms the definition of marriage as a civil union between a man and a woman. Then they have the legal right to ban it. In my mind there are a wealth of other social issues that need much more attention.

I am so tired of all of this. Banning gay marriage is simply wrong. Those who oppose it need to get their noses out of other people’s business and concentrate on their own lives and relationships. It’s time to change this abomination. This issue, no doubt, will be on the forefront of the presidential election campaigns this year. Nasty rhetoric will fly and lies and half truths will be fed to the American public. Throughout all of this I have only one piece of advice for those who will be doing all the mud slinging: Judge not lest thee be judged…

Rainy Days and Mondays…

“Talkin’ to myself and feeling old. Sometimes I’d like to quit. Nothin’ ever seems to fit. Hangin’ around, nothin’ to do but frown, rainy days and Mondays always get me down.”(The Carpenters, 1971)

Slow, nurturing, steady rain, how unusual for Colorado and on a Monday no less. Brings back memories of the old Carpenter’s song. What is it about this type of rain that makes you want to curl up in bed with a good book or bake something tantalizing in the oven, or savor a cup of deliciously warm coffee? Even my dog is lethargic, curled by my feet as I write this blog.

Mondays are a different animal to me now. At some point they became the bane of my existence. I’m not sure when since I found my work rather fulfilling for many, many years. All of sudden I became aware of dread coming over me at about 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, that dread of thinking about getting back to the grind, back to work, back to the stress of another 80 hour week. As I progressed in my career, the responsibilities and demands placed upon me became greater and for many years I was hungry for that, I thrived for it. But there came a point where I heard Peggy Lee singing in my ear “Is That All There Is” and I knew that type of work life was no longer for me. Been there, done that, time to move on.

Now that I am “retired”, Monday is like any other in a progression of glorious days where I get to choose what I want to do and when I want to do it. And the same applies to the weekends. No longer are Saturday and Sunday my mecca. They are just like any other day of the week, only it seems I see more people out and about on those days. This is a gift of a magnitude I can’t even begin to put into words. It parallels that joy of childhood when one day is like all the others, filled with discovery, adventure and play. Over time we lose that precious feeling. We become slaves of the treadmill to the point that we forget that we have a life or even deserve one for that matter. The choices we make, the responsibilities we have dictate who we are and what we do. And there’s nothing wrong with that unless is causes you to forget who you really are and what is really important. For some people, work is important, fulfilling, something that makes them very happy. For many years, that was me. I always found tremendous fulfillment in my work until my mother died and I began looking over my shoulder finally believing that maybe I could not avoid a similar fate and if so, would I leave with a mountain of regrets. That’s all I needed. I was done. I’ve never looked back.

So although today is gloomy, overcast with a steady “Chicago-like” rain, one thing is for sure – rainy days and Mondays no longer get me down… and for that I will eternally grateful!

50 Shades of Reflection…

I recently finished reading the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy, the quirky love story of Christian Grey the young and wealthy CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc. and Anastasia Steele a young college graduate interested in pursuing a career in publishing. The story begins with their chance meeting when she interviews him for her college newspaper in place of her sick roommate and takes you through the twists and turns of their tempestuous relationship and sexual escapades. The trilogy takes the reader into the world of the BDSM (bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism) lifestyle and recounts in detail various acts that accompany the darker side of the sexual experience.

The books are not well written (when I was younger I never read Harlequin romance novels, so I imagine this might fit somewhat into that genre although I hope this was slightly better written) and the story seems highly improbable and yet I read all three of them within a week’s time. After I read them, I questioned why I felt compelled to do so. I started doing some research about the books and their rapid climb to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list and found various opinions regarding the onslaught of their popularity. Interesting, at times laughable and always mired in war of the sexes.

The research that has been done is showing that the books’ popularity is not with young women but rather middle aged and older women. Now that was a revelation (of course I fall into that group). But why?  One writer opined that the younger women are still “getting it” and therefore do not need the fantasy world of the books. Another writer opined on the differences between what men and women want out of sexual experiences saying that men were more visual but  women more auditory, hence women are drawn the the descriptive nature of the sexual acts in the books. Another opined that although many deviant sexual acts are described, the trilogy is really a love story and women cannot resist a good love story, improbable or otherwise. I’m not so sure these arguments make sense to me, and I have to question the theories of these articles all written by men. I love when men think they have women figured out and vice versa. It makes for interesting conversations.

So I had to question why I took the time to read them, cover to cover in one week. Am I a deviate, do I crave the BDSM lifestyle, what’s up with all of this and where did this come from?  I’ve been thinking long and hard about this and have finally come to some conclusions. First of all, I am not a pervert nor do I desire to become one. This is not a lifestyle I would ever exploit or choose. But what occurred to me reading these books is that the author puts you behind closed doors, away from oversight and judgment and challenges you to admit that you have a dark side. We all have demons, we all have fantasies, we just don’t want to acknowledge them in polite company. As we grow up, we make choices. We choose our educational paths, we choose where we live, we choose our interests, our friends, lovers and yes, we even choose our sexual preferences. But we don’t talk about it, in reality we’re pretty puritanical about it. And after a while, we define en masse what we think is acceptable and what we think is taboo. And we go through life never deviating from that path in thought or deed… or do we?

The books make you think about who you really are in the darkest parts of your soul, your boundaries, limits, and take you on the journey of exploring your jump to judgment whether regarding yourself or others. What’s right, what’s wrong, is there a right or a wrong, and to what ends will you really go and why. I think older women may be drawn to this because they have already walked that path making those decisions, some in denial, some in secret others horrified or repulsed. But we don’t talk about it because in our puritanical society we label and judge, especially as it relates to women and sex. So I congratulate the author, E.L. James (a woman) for putting it out there and getting people, especially women, out of their veiled world and  talking. As to whether it’s right or wrong that is for you, the reader, to decide.

By Way of the Dinosaur…

Yesterday Saint Scholastica, an all girls Catholic High School on the North Side of Chicago, announced it will be closing its doors at the end of the 2012 school year. Since it would take an overall enrollment of 400 plus and additional $3 Million in donations to keep the school open, the board of directors comprised of 44 nuns with a median age of 77 voted to shut down the school.  Now doesn’t that say a mouthful!

I graduated from an all girls Catholic High School (Maria High School) that also announced this year that it will transition into a charter school within the next two years. When I graduated, we had over 300 girls in my graduating class. Now Maria doesn’t even have 300 girls in the entire school. To add insult to injury the grammar school I attended, St. Joseph and St. Anne, closed its doors many years ago and the building is now owned and operated by the Chicago Public Schools. So other than Northern Illinois University, all of the schools I attended when I was growing up are or will soon be gone.

I never liked going to an all girls Catholic High School at the time I went. I was like many other 13 year old girls, interested in boys and dismayed by the fact that they would no longer be in the classroom with me. My dismay was for all the wrong reasons, but I remember feeling repressed and angry that I would have to spend four years looking only at nuns and other girls. Of course there was the occasional lay faculty, but that was rare at the time. Now it’s rare to see nuns teaching in any classroom. And if they are still around, their median age is in the upper 70’s.

I didn’t realize at the time that I was actually being given a gift that I couldn’t possibly understand until much later in my life. There is a wealth of research out there showing how young girls educated in a same sex environment excel to a much greater degree than those in a mixed gender environments, especially in the teen years. Since there is no pressure to compete with boys, they develop a strong sense of worth and esteem that provides a solid foundation for them when faced with that competition in later years.  I never gave it a second thought when I got into college and especially when I got into the workforce. I never felt at a disadvantage competing with men, it was simply a given. I just knew that I could achieve whatever I set my sights on, and understood what it would take to get there and how to do it. Looking back now, I understand how important those years were and how they prepared me for the successes I had and the challenges I would face. I never doubted in myself and knew I would always find a way even during the darkest times in my life. And even though I could write a whole slue of “war stories” of things that happened during those high school years, I never realized how that educational environment shaped my opinion of myself and my belief in my ability to succeed.

It’s sad that systematically these educational opportunities are going the way of the dinosaur. But then again, maybe so am I.

Blame Blame, Whose to Blame…

This past week we all heard about the tragic death of Whitney Houston. So young, so gifted, what a waste to die at age 48. The news coverage was laden with who was responsible for her untimely death. Was it bad boy Bobby Brown who took the naive young princess and turned her into a wacked out crack head?  Was it the music industry more intent on selling records than on the health and welfare of a human being? Or was it Whitney herself who some claim was a “party girl” and merely showing more of her true self as time went on?

The more I heard these questions the more aggravated I became. Until the toxicology reports come back we will not have a definitive answer. But once again this situation sadly shows what the culture in this country has truly become – one of inability for taking personal responsibility. It’s always someone else’s fault, right? The doctors who prescribed the medication, the entourage comprised of “yes” people who let her drink and party, the drug dealers who provided her drugs and on and on until I literally want to puke. In reality if blame must be assigned look no further than Whitney Houston herself.

I attended a transformational training session about six years ago conducted by a man named Ted Willey who wrote the book “The Power of Choice” (a link to this book is at the bottom of this blog). Through laughter and innuendo he held up the mirror to everyone in the room and challenged them to take personal responsibility with a simple statement – “You are the product of the choices you make”, period. Sadly we have forgotten in our society how to be 100% responsible and to take 100% responsibility for our actions. Just break down the pronunciation of word responsible and you will get response “able”. Not response impaired, not response sometimes, but response “able”, able to take full responsibility for whatever choices in life we make. If you choose to eat more calories than you expend you will gain weight, period.  It’s not the fast food industry’s fault for not posting nutritional information in its restaurants. You made the conscious choice to put the food in our mouth and not exercise. If you get burned by spilling hot coffee on yourself it’s not McDonalds’ fault for not putting “caution this is hot” on the outside of the coffee cup. You spilled it on yourself and it was hot, period.  If you are late for work it’s not because the snow caused a major traffic jam. You made the conscious choice not to leave early enough to get to work on time, period. Plain and simple – we are the product of the choices we make.

Anyone who is an artist is plagued by insecurity and self doubt. Anyone in the Arts knows that to be true. It is one of the major factors that drives people to the Arts in the first place. Through theatre, dance, music, and all other forms, artists can transform themselves, if only for a short while, into something that they believe they are not and could never be. Through performing artists get the adulation and affirmation they seek by often becoming someone that is so far from the core of who they really are. It is both a blessing and a curse. To find a outlet that creates a reality so different from your own self image is a high all onto itself. The downside comes if you continue to question whether you are good enough or talented enough to continually perform at a high caliber. That was probably the downfall of Whitney Houston. To hear Kevin Costner relate how she questioned her talent and beauty when doing a screen test for The Bodyguard was heart wrenching. Her talent was once in a lifetime and her beauty was second to none. Too bad she could not see it or believe it for herself.

But regardless of that, she made the conscious choice to turn to drugs to relieve her pain and insecurities. No one held her mouth open and poured the pills down her throat.  No one forced her to inhale cigarette smoke and party well into the night. She was responsible for how she treated her body. It was no one’s fault but her own.

Maybe wrong, but maybe right…

Big story on Google News today – inmate Dannie Robbie Hembree Jr., convicted murderer of Heather Catterton writes a letter from a North Carolina prison espousing how he has been living the good life since his conviction. In his letter he says”

“Is the public aware that I am a gentleman of leisure, watching color TV in the A.C., reading, taking naps at will, eating three well balanced hot meals a day,” Hembree asked in the letter. “I’m housed in a building that connects to the new 55 million dollar hospital with round the clock free medical care 24/7.”

The article goes on to say that the victim’s family is furious about the letter, and rightly so – but maybe not for the right reasons. I’m not sure we should prevent an inmate from doing something like this. If this is true, and somehow I don’t doubt that it is, someone who has been convicted of murder is sitting around living a life that many people on the outside cannot afford to do – watching tv, eating three squares a day, and what about that access to health care?  Many Americans would love to have that. And he goes on in the letter to say that the likelihood of him being put two death within the next 20 years is nil. So who is being punished here, really?

But one thing he says make me believe that by his actions he could help the change the system. First of all he is creating enough of a furor to heighten the awareness of the general public. For too long we have put our head in the sand regarding how screwed up the justice system in this country can be.  In his letter he challenges those on the “outside” to do what was decided in the courtroom and and murder him. Strong language, but sometimes we need the wet towel slap to wake up. He is doing an “in your face”  with the public and basically saying put up or shut up. He is challenging a justice system that tends to err on the side of puritanical civility by holding up the mirror on how we treat victims and criminals – ass backwards. This may be wisdom in its basest form. The system is a joke, the victim and their families live through torture for years and the person who perpetrates the crime gets three warm meals and state-of-the-art health care.  Mr. Embree is a genius as far as I am concerned. When will we ever learn?

Death Row inmate writes taunting letter

Christmas Eve…

Can you feel it? Something is different, very different. It only happens once a year and it is magical. I don’t know about you but every Christmas Eve something changes. I’ve never been able to put my finger on it but it’s palatable. This year it could be the remnants of the 14 inch snowfall we had two days ago. Santa will definitely be maneuvering through the white stuff in Colorado tonight. Maybe it’s the wrapped presents under the tree or the neighbors stopping by with holiday goodies. Maybe it’s the smell the glazed ham or the stuffing baking in the oven while the cranberries are popping on the stove. Maybe its the anticipation of the ghosts visiting Ebenezer Scrooge or Clarence getting his wings or Bing once again singing White Christmas. I’m not exactly sure why today always seems so different but it does.

Santa

Santa

People are rushing but they’re smiling and offering holiday greetings. Scores of people are wearing Santa hats and reindeer antlers, lighted necklaces  and a wide variety of tacky holiday sweaters and socks. There’s last minute shopping for gifts, food and booze all in anticipation of the evening to come. For some families the main celebration is on Christmas Eve, for others its Christmas Day and some brave souls celebrate both in earnest. But regardless of the wide variety of traditions and beliefs, it all begins to start feeling different today.  Why?

As I was traveling out and about today I gave that some serious thought. Here I was in my car and once again feeling very different. Why does this happen every year at this time? And even though I’ve never been able to figure it out, something suddenly something dawned on me. Unfortunately as you get older you tend to get a little jaded about some things. You’ve been around the block a few times and seldom do you look at things with childlike awe and innocence… except on Christmas Eve. It is the day when you believe again, in angels, in people, in goodness, in family, friends and yes, even Santa Claus. The tree seems brighter, the presents shinier and there is the anticipation of reindeer on the roof.  I know there is also a strong religious implication with this holiday, and although I am not traditionally religious, there is also the belief that many years ago on this night in a stable in Bethlehem the Christ child was born. On no other day do these feelings occur making Christmas Eve perhaps the most special day of the year.

So on this Christmas Eve, I am thankful for my family and friends and grateful for the many blessings in my life. I am also missing my parents who instilled in me a special appreciation for this time of year, but am feeling them in spirit sharing with me the joys of this special day. And in the spirit of sharing, some past holiday memories of my family and me set to some of my dad’s favorite holiday music. Merry Christmas to all!

Holiday Hodgepodge…

My mind is a hodgepodge of memories around the holidays – some joyous others sad. Although you wish for your days to be merry and bright, life does not take a vacation over the holidays. When you are very young, you experience nothing but euphoria over the holidays – Santa Claus, holiday parties, presents under the tree, beautiful decorations, snow falling – the list goes on and on.  As you get older those memories are still vivid, but they are tempered by years of experience, things that have changed and people who are now longer with you.

I have a very vivid memory of watching television with my father on Christmas Eve. Every year we would sit and watch Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye sing about following the “old man wherever he wants to go…” and watch how Bing and Danny singlehandedly save General Waverly and his Inn. You guessed it – the movie was White Christmas. Every year we would watch it. Maybe we would drink hot chocolate, maybe not, sometimes I would go to bed immediately afterwards and other times I would stay up and go to midnight mass. But every year father and daughter would sit together and watch White Christmas, a precious holiday memory.

My father’s favorite Christmas song was The Christmas Waltz. We had a big band album that had a fabulous version of that song and every year my dad would play it and ask me to sing along with it. He always seemed to do that when I was making cookies.  My dad felt that song typified the spirit of the season and he would get this huge grin in his face when I would sing it – another precious holiday memory.

Although we had our tradition of going downtown to shop on the first Saturday of December, there was always at least one more shopping trip my parents and I did together. Every year on that trip they would ask me what I really wanted for Christmas. Sometimes I knew exactly what it was, other times I needed to be inspired by what I saw. I have to admit I was spoiled. Anytime I asked for something, I got it. From clothes to housewares, to electronics – my parents always gave me a special gift or gifts at Christmas. Years and years of hugging them in the stores, thanking them for the gifts, smiling and laughing – feeling such joy – another precious holiday memory.

Then there was Christmas morning. When we were very young we always got up before our parents – after all we couldn’t wait to see what Santa brought. As we got older the roles reversed and my dad would get up first, sneak into the living room and put on Mitch Miller’s rendition of  Joy to the World. The song starts out with church bells gloriously ringing and then a choir joins in singing the song. I can still hear those bells ringing in my mind – the signal to get up, gather around the tree, find joy in each other’s company and celebrate the best day of the year – another precious holiday memory.

So many memories over so many years. My dad died in 1998, my mom in 2006. I miss them both every single day and I know both of them would want me to continue to have joyous holidays. Sometimes easier said than done. But I try to make new memories and traditions to honor them and all that they gave to me. Every year since I’ve lived in Colorado I make a donation to a dinner at Denver’s Children’s hospital. A friend’s son was diagnosed with leukemia over the holidays several years ago. He is now cancer free but every year his family brings a holiday meal to the hospital on Christmas Eve to feed the parents who are going through a similar experience. I bake a ham and make a huge plate of Christmas cookies to help them, in a small way, get through the terrible time they are facing. I do this to honor my mom. To honor my dad, I donate to the Salvation Army – one of his favorite charities. I also do holiday music postings every year on Facebook in his memory. My dad was a music fanatic and he gave me my love of music. He would have gotten a kick out of seeing what song I would post every day. Just a few little things done in the spirit of keeping my parents alive over the holidays. It wouldn’t be the holidays if I couldn’t share them with my parents, the two people who created so many magical times and memories for me.

We are now in the home stretch of the 2011 holiday season. The next week will be frenetic and in that frenzy many new Christmas memories will be made. Memories that will last a lifetime, precious memories both happy and sad. I would not change any of mine for the world. Thank you mom and dad for having made past Christmases bright and for creating the memories that continue to light the way. And in the spirit of what you created, I share with all of you the song that my dad played to wake us up every Christmas morning – Mitch Miller’s Joy to the World.

How Did I Get Roped Into Making The Cookies?…

Kolachky

I’m not sure when it started – I think in high school, but I’m not sure. My mom used to make the holiday cookies. I have memories of almond crescents, chocolate snowballs and chocolate chip cookies. My mom was not a baker. She wasn’t a cook either for that matter. She did what she had to but it wasn’t one of her big joys. So no wonder, somehow, the cookie making chores fell to me.

It was a sneak attack actually. Luring someone young and impressionable with the temptation of chocolate chip cookie dough. Now doesn’t that taste good, honey? Isn’t that divine, honey? Don’t you just love it, honey? Would you like to know how to make these – I’ll show you.  I think that was the trap, but I can’t really say for sure. Then first it was just can you make the chocolate chip cookies for me, honey. Then it was standing by the oven with mom and learning how to determine when the chocolate snowballs were actually done. Then it was mom showing me the art of rolling out and forming the almond crescents. And lo and behold, slowly but surely torch was passed.

Now it is a tradition I cannot escape. Each year the expectation is there – when are you going to make the cookies? And then it’s – which ones   and how many and who is getting them and planning the timetable for getting them all done. Only the chocolate chip cookies have survived the test of time. They have been made every year since the beginning. The snowballs went by the wayside years ago – too dry. And this year the almond crescents left the pack – too sandy for my husband’s mouth after his radiation. But fear not – there are the others: the triple chocolate brownie cookies, two varieties of cranberry cookies (one with icing), peanut butter chocolate kiss cookies, spritz cookies (trees and wreaths), sugar cookies dipped in chocolate, two varieties of kolachkys (apricot and raspberry), and the newbie this year – the raspberry walnut bars. Somehow in a weak moment I decided that I would try at least one new cookie recipe each year – I never made a rule as to how many or when one variety would be transitioned out. Maybe I should because the list seems to get longer every year.

How did I ever get roped into this? I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I wouldn’t give it up for the world – precious holiday memories and traditions.

 

Recipe for Raspberry Walnut Bars

Raspberry Walnut Bars

Singing Holiday Songs…

Holiday songs underscore all of my holiday experiences. You only get a chance to pull them out for a very short window of time but the memories they create last forever. My love of music was instilled in me by my father – he loved music and loved to dance and handed down those passions to me. I also found out at quite an early age that I had a pretty decent singing voice and had an ear for musical harmonies. The nuns at my grammar school loved that and hence the holiday memory I am about to share.

I have a few very strong memories of grammar school but one that always rises to the top was gathering around the piano during music class (how many schools have music classes anymore) and singing Christmas songs. My sixth grade teacher had a penchant for The Little Drummer Boy and was elated to find out that I had a range that could support doing the bass rum pum pums in the song. I also had an ear to be able to sing that on pitch so that assignment was always relegated to me. I never wound up singing the lyrics to that song but I was the best background singer my sixth grade teacher had ever know. And what is that song without that background refrain? My sixth grade teacher would boast to other teachers that she had a student that could sing the bass part of Little Drummer Boy on pitch and they were always surprised to learn that it was actually a girl who was doing it.

But I also had a range that allowed me to sing soprano and that gave me a starring role in the song “Angels We Have Heard on High?” I could belt out the Glo ooooo ooooo oooo oria like no one’s business and finally got the chance to sing a lead vocal in a song in the holiday concert. To this day that song holds a very special place in my heart. I can still see this little sixth grader, strong and proud, singing with gusto and faith – truly an magical and angelic time. I can still see my class gathered around the piano, divided by our vocal ranges, smiling and singing, having the time of our lives. A special time of year with special songs to sing.

I’m not sure why to this day this one particular grammar school memory stands out for me. But I can still clearly see the room we were in, the piano in the back of the room, the winter sun streaming the windows, the uniforms we wore, the big blackboards with examples of palmer method cursive writing above them – I can even remember the smell of Maurice Lenell cookies wafting through the hallways – the hallways always smelled like that in our school. And I distinctly remember the pure joy I felt every time I sang a rum pum pum or a Gloria. It felt like Christmas time would last forever and that I was the luckiest kid in the world. Pure happiness, a precious memory.

I don’t sing these song much anymore. I don’t know why. Maybe I should…

Home For The Holidays…

They are the best of times, they are the worst of times. My apologies to Charles Dickens but those words aptly sum up the holiday season. Never is there a time during the year where the joys can be so immeasurable and the sorrows so intense. And the more years you have under your belt the more memories you have to cloud the current reality. It seems like the thermometer of the season can go either way, often day-to-day or hour to hour and eventually the season is measured by the overall average temperature of happiness or sadness.

Are all those holiday experiences and memories precious or stigmatic?  I’m not really sure. All I know is that, for me, every year the the holiday season is an adventure in feelings and emotions. So, with that in mind, I am going to dedicate my blog this month to the recounting of current and past holiday stories. Do they help to make the season bright or just reinforce what once was but is not to be again? That determination is solely up to you.

Growing up the holidays were always big in my house – it was a magical time. And although we were not rich by any stretch of the imagination, we always had a lot to be thankful for on Christmas Day. Our house was filled with holiday music the likes of which I still treasure. My dad was a huge fan of the “Big Bands” and so our holiday music consisted of Christmas albums by the likes of Guy Lombardo, Lester Lanin, The Three Suns and the incomparable Mitch Miller. We always had a meatless Christmas Eve followed by a big Christmas Day dinner at my Grandmother’s. Then we would get packed up into the car and travel to my other grandmother’s house where we would spend the rest of the day with my dad’s side of the family. Christmas cookies, homemade bread, turkey and all the trimmings, football on the television and lots and lots of presents under the tree. That was the basic game plan for the day. But my memories are not so much tied up in what we did that day, but with the events and the traditions leading up to the “big dance.”

The first big event came every year on the first Saturday in December – the annual family trek to Downtown Chicago to see Santa at the Carson Pirie Scott store and go Christmas shopping. We had a route and a game plan and we followed it for years and years. We would park the car at a parking lot near Congress and State Streets and begin our journey – first stop the Sears Roebuck store. I can still smell the ‘pine-like” aroma that came wafting out of the small incense burning log cabins they sold. In my mind I can clearly see the small puffs of smoke coming out of the chimneys in the display as we made our way up the escalator to the toys floor. You see, the main highlight of the trip was the fact that every year my parents gave us five dollars to spend on anything we wanted, no restrictions. It felt like we were given a million bucks and the decision as to what to spend it on was agonizing. We combed through every toy department several times before making those decisions. It was heaven.

My Dad and Me circa 1956

Our annual trek which began at Sears proceeded north on State Street to The Fair Store (how many of my Chicago friends even remember that store), Carsons, Wiebolts, Walgreens and the final destination, the piece de resistance, Marshall Fields! As we made our trek and purchased our gifts my dad would hike back to the parking lot and deposit our treasures in our car, often making the trip several times during the course of the day. We never worried about someone breaking into the car and stealing them – that just didn’t happen at that time. It was a day of buying presents for loved ones, looking at the amazing holiday windows, getting to spend our five dollars, putting a donation into the Salvation Army bucket, listening to Christmas carolers on the street, passing the street vendors hawking roasted chestnuts and praying it would snow to make the day absolutely perfect. And to top it all off, the icing on the cake was dinner at Millers Pub. At that time Millers Pub was on Adams street and every year as we made our trek back south on State Street we would stop to have dinner at Millers capping off the day. Even now, Millers Pub means Christmas to me. The pub was always jammed packed and we learned early on to adjust our holiday routine to include a stop at Millers as we made our trek north on State Street to make a reservation for that evening. We got seated a lot faster that way. And after many years of doing this we had our routine down to a science. I so looked forward to this day every year. We continued this tradition all through my college years although, after a while, I decided that a trip to Santa’s lap was not to be part of the plan anymore.

That was the first Saturday in December every year for at least twenty years. And then no more. My parents moved to Florida and I stayed in Chicago. I changed my personal tradition and started making a similar trek on the Friday after Thanksgiving, but it was never the same. Joyous memory or sad memory? There are days I teeter between both. But every year as we approach the first Saturday in December I hold my father’s and mother’s hand in my heart and take a walk in my mind north on State Street.

The Age Old Holiday Argument…

For as long as I can remember it has been the perennial argument at this time of year – are we jumping the gun on Christmas and glossing over Thanksgiving? Many people have very clear opinions on the subject and do not hesitate to voice them especially when they see Christmas decorations go up earlier and earlier every year. And to add insult to injury, retailers are upping the ante on Black Friday this year with some opening their doors at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving night. So how does someone have dinner with the family on Thanksgiving and still go to bed early enough to get a good night sleep in order to adequately function during the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift? Beats me…

Are we moving farther and farther away from celebrating Thanksgiving? My opinion used to fall on the side of giving Thanksgiving its rightful due. After all, we have plenty of time to enjoy Christmas and New Years. No need to parade them out before Thanksgiving. I mean, how can you have breakfast with Santa before you have turkey with the Pilgrims. It just doesn’t make sense… or does it?

Christmas time is my absolute favorite part of  the year – and whether you call it Christmas, Kwanza, Hanukkah or whatever, it is a season of warmth, love and giving. As a child, I remember feeling like it took forever for Christmas get here after Thanksgiving. There were the traditional holiday shopping trips, the holiday parties, the holiday movies and all the usual fanfare. There was so much time to revel in all of the festivities. But it doesn’t feel that way anymore. You blink an eye and it’s Halloween, then Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years and before you know it it’s Valentine’s Day. Where does the time go?

I’ve found that people, on average, are a little nicer at Christmas time. They smile more readily. They greet you more often. And even though there is a lot of hustle and bustle the overall spirit of the season seems to prevail. I’ve often thought if we could bottle and sell Christmas spirit all year long the world might be a more peaceful place. Let’s face it – the image of Santa makes people smile. Singing “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas” makes people laugh. Reliving the plight of Ebenezer Scrooge reminds people of what is truly important in life. Smiling, laughing, cherishing what is truly important – these are things we should do all year long. But we tend to only make special note of them during the holidays. What prevents us for reinforcing it throughout the year?

So if elongating the holiday season helps to consistently bring front and center the importance of the simple things in life, I’m all for it. Bring on Christmas paraphernalia in  October! Don’t take the tree down until March! Play Christmas music in your car in July!  Bake some Christmas cookies in September! Keep some holiday decorations up in your house all year long! Let the true spirit of the season be pervasive in your life throughout the entire year. Then we won’t have to debate if we are jumpstarting the Christmas holiday too soon – it will have never left us. I’m all for that!

A Position of Trust…

I am always amazed when a teacher, coach or anyone else in a position of trust uses the excuse of lapse of judgment when it comes to the emotional and sexual well being of a child. Maybe I was lucky, I don’t know. But when I was teaching children that was always foremost in my mind. And no one had to teach me to do that. It was innate – the feeling of treating others the way I wanted to be treated regardless of their age, recognizing that when you are in a position of trust you have the power to save or ruin a young persons life. I don’t remember anyone pounding that into my head when I got my teaching degree – it was assumed you knew. But I guess you know what they say about assume.

How a 50+ year old man can “assume” it is ok to “horseplay” by taking showers with 10 year old boys makes my blood boil. He has admitted to that and that in itself is an abomination. I know men tend to be wired differently and some have less inhibitions than women as it relates to their naked bodies, but children do not. Ten year old boys are children. Children are very easily taken in by adults, especially those who give them things they would not have otherwise had or enrich their lives with experiences they thought were never possible. Someone who does this for a child has to have pure motives, right? Someone who does this has to care, has to have a child’s best interests at heart, right? Someone like this would never hurt a child, right?  Alas, the trap…

I taught young children for fourteen years. In the back of my mind was always the thought to first to insure their safety, and then to provide them access to a responsible,  caring adult always making sure the line was drawn, however delicately, between adult and child. I was not their friend (in light of how they perceived friendship at that age), I was someone who was not their parent but cared for them as a pseudo-parent or older sister when their parents could not be around. I made sure they understood the ground rules and I also expected them to expect from me no less than what I expected from them.

I never worried about physical contact – I taught dance and that was part of the program. Showing a child how to position their leg to have correct turn-out, positioning their core so that they had strong balance, adjusting arms, shoulders and elbows for correct form – I never worried about this. But there was a reason. This was always done in class and always done with many other classmates around – this was never one-on-one in a private place away from everyone else.  Often I would demonstrate on myself if I sensed a child might be uneasy with any type of physical demonstration on them. And this was never done out of the context of the classroom. I made sure it was clear that it applied to the physical discipline I was teaching.

Then there was the hugging. Young children, and I taught mostly girls, love to hug. It was a demonstration of love and something they naturally did with their families and friends. To them I was family. But again I made sure hugs were not done when you were alone with a child, and however sad that may sound a teacher can never afford to have their motives questioned. One question and your reputation can be ruined for a lifetime. That is all a part of being in a position of trust – it is the best position in the world to be in but  it carries tremendous responsibility.

So as I think about what is going on now at Penn State I find it hard to swallow that a grown man can have that type of “lapse” of judgement with a young child. It angers and frustrates me to no end. And in the end it affects all of us by making the job of a good teacher even that much harder.

Five Years Ago Today…

I held her hand. I told her not to worry about me. I told her she had raised a strong independent daughter who could take care of herself. I told her to go to dad. Then I made one final request of her. I asked her for one last Christmas gift. She and I had been together when I came into this world  – I asked her for the gift of being together with her once again when she left this world. Her breathing became shallower and shallower. Soon the breaths were so shallow I knew they could not sustain life. One last small breath, a tear ran down her left cheek and she was gone. Peaceful, quiet and eerily beautiful. At that moment, my mom gave me the most precious gift of all.

I cannot think of a better way to honor her than to reprint what I blogged the day after she died. It captures all of the emotions I felt and continue to feel to this day.

WRITTEN NOVEMBER 15, 2006 

Euphrasia Dolores Miksis Drabik – born September 23, 1922 – died November 14, 2006. How do you even begin to put into the words this very special life?  She was one of four children (the baby) of Apolian and Marcella Miksis (Victor, Genevieve and Bernice), born in Chicago and lived under very modest means on the south side of Chicago (a large Lithuanian stronghold at the time). She married Edward Joseph Drabik (1915-1998) and had two children, Robert (1947) and Janice (1951). She lived in Chicago until she retired with her husband to Clearwater Florida in 1982 and moved to Colorado to be near her daughter in 2004.

The Last Picture of My Mom taken September 22, 2006

Mom, I miss you terribly already, but I am at such peace because you are not suffering any longer. I had two + great years with my mom here in Colorado. We went shopping, went to movies, saw plays had regular ladies nite out dinners – and I was blessed to have had the opportunity to really spend some time with her after living far away from her for so many years once she and dad moved to Florida. She always felt I was going to follow them down there, but little Jan who always had a boat load of independence decided that Florida was not for her and lived in Chicago, Dayton, Ohio and now Boulder, Colorado.

I had never experienced a death before and so I was really not sure what to expect and how I would feel about it. Yesterday started with a call from Hospice. They asked if I wanted a nurse to stay with mom all day, because they had one available. I jumped at the chance, because I had planned to be there all day as well, and knew I would appreciate not only the company but also the professional assessment of mom’s condition.

We sat all morning and chatted about mom. There were some changes in her condition since the nurse spent the day with her on Sunday, but nothing to indicate eminent death. The nurse was quick to remind me that those conditions could change at any time, and could change rapidly.

At about 11:30 am, the nurse suggested that I go out for a while and grab some lunch. I decided to do so – nursing homes are tough environments to be in when you are sitting at the bedside of a dying person.I was just finishing when I got a call on my cell phone – some things appeared to be changing, they recommended that I come back. I got back relatively quickly, and to my untrained eye I could not notice any type of change. But they told me that her heart rate had increased significantly and that her breathing was changing.

So, I sat by her bed and held her hand. I told her that she was the one who was there when I entered into this world and I asked her to give me a final Christmas gift – to let me be there when she left this world. I kept encouraging her to go, I told her daddy was waiting, I told her that I would be ok, and I told her that she should give in and be at peace. Over the course of about 20 minutes, as I continued to talk to her and to hold her hand, her breathing became more and more shallow. It finally got to the point where her breaths were so insignificant that it made me wonder how that little amount of oxygen could sustain life. Then there were a couple of more very shallow, very small breaths, and nothing. A tear streamed down out of her left eye, and it was all over.

When I came back from lunch, not only was the nurse there who was assigned for the day, but mom’s regular nurse, the hospice social worker and a nurse being trained to do bedside assessments. She had a room full of people, pulling for her to be out of her pain and wishing her a speedy journey to dad. I have to say, although I was fearful of what to expect, it was the most beautiful experience of my life. My mom gave me the ultimate gift, and I will always be grateful to her for sharing her last moments of life with me.

Since last Wednesday you could see that she was accepting what was happening and preparing for the next phase of her life. On Friday she asked me what was happening to her. When I asked what she thought was happening to her, she said, “I’m dying”, and I told her yes. With tears in her eyes, she told me that she would not be able to go Christmas shopping with me, and with tears in my eyes, I told her that she would always be able to go Christmas shopping with me, because for as long as I live, I will always have her in my heart wherever I go and whatever I do. She smiled.

On Monday I had both my aunt and my brother talk to her. I held the phone by her ear and they told her it was ok to let go. When she heard my brother’s voice, she opened her eyes and I got cognitive recognition. I said hi to her, and she very weakly and softly said to me, “I love you.” Those were the last words I would ever hear her say.

Today we will finalize the arrangements and my last job is to get her back to dad. I can’t believe that it is over, and yet I am so happy that she is finally out of her pain. This journey was a tough one, but she handled it with grace and a positive attitude. I truly believe that until this last week, she thought she would beat this thing and walk out of that nursing home. She was a fighter until the end.

Euphrasia Dolores Miksis Drabik – born 1922, died 2006. I love you with all my heart, mom. And until the day that I die, you will live on in my heart. I am counting on you to be my guardian angel now. It’s a dirty job, but I know you are up to the task. Thank you for everything, mom. I will always love you.

Your baby,

Janice Marie

 

 

The Beginning of the End…

My parent's home in Clearwater Florida

After my dad passed away in 1998 my mom continued to live in their home in Florida. In early 2004,  I finally convinced her to sell the house and move to Colorado. The house sold quickly, no surprise to me, it was a gorgeous home on a corner lot, and within six weeks of making her decision she had relocated to Colorado. My mom found a great place in Longmont, an apartment building that catered to people 55 and over but was not a traditional senior citizen complex. The building was owned by a wealthy couple who bought it specifically to provide housing for their aging parents. When you walked in you would never guess that it was a “seniors” residence. It made me realize how we, including myself,  pigeon-hole people into certain stereotypes and project certain images into that. I was expecting doilies, smells, tacky decorations. But it was just a beautiful well-kept building. What a concept! It had a small movie theatre on the main floor as well as a party kitchen. The owners planned a few outings every month and they transported those that wanted to attend the events in a limousine. My mother was in heaven.

We had some great times when she was here – going out to dinner, seeing plays, being tourists in our own state. We even did sleep overs. Quite often on a Friday after work I would drive out to her apartment and we’d go out to dinner. I would stay over night and take her grocery shopping the next day. My mom had macular degeneration and once she got here to Colorado it appeared to worsen rather quickly. After she was here for about a year it got so bad that she couldn’t drive anymore. She often told me that although leaving Florida was one of the hardest things she ever did, she was so grateful that she was near me and that she had the support she needed to deal with her failing eye sight. It was great for me to have her here. All of my adult life we lived thousands of miles apart – she in Florida, me in Chicago, Dayton and Boulder. We would see each other over the holidays and maybe one other time during the year. It gave me the opportunity to spend a good deal of time with her and get to know here all over again. I will always be grateful for that.

Mom and me in Las Vegas circa 1999

Right before the holidays in 2005 things started to happen. My mother was very health conscious (although she continued to smoke cigarettes and had all her life) and in her later years and worked hard at eating properly and working out. When she lived in Florida she went to the gym three times a week, walked at least two miles on the track and worked out on some of the machines. The apartment building she lived in in Longmont had a fitness room on the third floor just down the hall from her apartment and she kept up that regimen when she moved to Colorado. One day when we were talking on the phone she told me that she must have worked out a little too hard on one of the machines because she was experiencing a slight pain in her back. I thought nothing off it but would come to realize a few months later that it signified the onset of her lung cancer. She dismissed the slight pain as well and told me she would be more careful when exercising.

The next sign came when we went Christmas shopping. We were at the Colorado Mills Mall and at one point she asked if she could sit down for a moment. That puzzled me because my mother never asked to do that before when we were shopping. But she was still a cigarette smoker and sometimes the altitude would get to her. I just dismissed it as that and let her sit while I went into a couple of stores. Once she had rested she was fine for the rest of the day.

After the first of the year a friend of my mom’s in the apartment building called me and said she was worried about her. She was a former nurse and she told me she knew something was wrong but did not know what. When I called my mom she dismissed it – she said she was just tired but she was fine. I found out later she did not want to worry me but at that point she did not even have the strength to walk down to hall to drop off her garbage.

It all came crashing down one evening. My mom called me and admitted she was not feeling well. She kept saying she felt like she had something in her chest and it felt like all she needed to do was have a good belch and it would be ok. I took her to urgent care where they took an x-ray of her chest and gave her something that seemed to subside the strange feeling she had in her chest. She was feeling better and I took her back home. I found out the next day that urgent care called her to tell her that she had pneumonia and that she should see a doctor right away. My mom told them that she had a doctor’s appointment the following week and she would wait till then. I’m not sure why my mom thought that pneumonia was trivial but she did. And of course it is not and two days after that she called me to tell me she could hardly breathe. I called her doctor and begged her to see us, and fortunately she did. The doctor listened to my mom’s breathing and immediately said that she was going to admit her to the hospital. My mom kept saying “can’t you give me something for this and I will take it at home?” to which both the doctor and I both said no. Once she was hospitalized it was determined that it was much more than pneumonia, it was congestive heart failure. She needed to be on oxygen and blood thinners as well as a wide variety of other medications. We also got a nurse to visit her three times a week to monitor her progress and assist with some basic needs around the house. She appeared to be responding to treatment.

And then it happened… I was driving to work and I called her. I called her every day on the way to work. She was in pain, in tears, and hysterical. She said if she had to live with this kind of pain that she wanted to die. I had never heard my mom say that. I immediately called 911 and had her taken to the hospital. When I walked in to the emergency room she was lying on a bed looking frail and helpless. They had taken an an x-ray and noticed a compression fracture of the spine but could not see what caused it. They ordered a scan the next day, Friday.

I will never forget that Friday. At my mom’s request I had gotten a facial that morning. It had been a very stressful time for me trying to manage my mother’s care and a full time job. My husband was hospitalized at the exact same time and my head was in the clouds most of the time trying to juggle everything. The facial seemed to help and I was more relaxed than I had been for quite some time. I got home and decided to call my mom to see if she had gotten the results of the scan. I called her and she said matter-of-factly to me, “They told me I have lung cancer, but I won’t accept that.”

I rushed to the hospital and was fortunate enough to arrive just as her pulmonary doctor was visiting her. It was her primary care physician that had initially given her the news. My mom was not too fond of her primary care physician in the first place so it was easy for her to dismiss the diagnosis she provided. But she did like her pulmonary doctor and when he delivered the same news, she fought it first but started to realize that this was serious. I walked out into the hall with him and asked him how long she had. He stammered for a minute. I told him I was not going to sue him if he was wrong but that I needed to have some idea of what I was up against. He told me she had between three and six months. She lived for five.

Perfectionism…

My mother was a perfectionist and that is where we differed the most. Everything had to be perfect – from her penchant for ironing underwear and socks, to using a toothbrush to clean the baseboards around the floor to folding military-style corners on bed sheets to having perfect attendance at work. She was very disciplined and tried to instill that into her daughter. Unfortunately her daughter was just not wired that way.

I have to say that eventually some of it did rub off and I am grateful for that. I learned the discipline to get things done and to work hard but the rest was just not for me. I would watch as she would meticulously clean every corner and dust every inch of the house and have everything in place in her cabinets, dresser drawers and closets. You never had to worry about what our house looked like if you stopped by for a surprise visit. It was always immaculate … except for my room. My mother finally resolved that issue by simply closing the door of my room whenever she felt it was necessary. Every house she lived in was always that way until she became very ill at the end. Her homes were always sparkling clean and company ready.

She tried and tried and tried to instill the same desire for meticulousness in me, it just never worked. She thought being disciplined would motivate me but it did just the opposite. It made me not want to be a perfectionist. I will never forget my first high school report card. Going to high school was a very scary thing for me. I excelled in grammar school but was uncertain if I could cut it in high school. I remembering giving my mother my first high school report card and being very proud of what I accomplished. I had one B and all the rest were A’s. My mother looked at my report card for a minute, turned to me and said very seriously, “so what’s with the B?” I was crushed but she did not know it. She thought by saying what she said she would motivate me to try harder. I took it to mean that I was a failure. And that was the beginning of me being harder on myself than anyone else ever could for many many years. I know now that was never her intention. In later years she told me how proud she was of what I achieved academically. When I told her the story of the report card she didn’t even remember saying it although she did admit that it sounded like something she might say. One of the many push-pulls of a mother-daughter relationship.

Two pictures of my mom

She was also a stickler for my school attendance record and single handedly saw to it that I had perfect attendance for all four years of high school. My mother worked nights at Harris Bank in downtown Chicago when I was in high school. My dad had the responsibility for getting us up in the morning, making our breakfast and getting us out of the house. Mom usually came home after breakfast and just about when we were ready to go out the door. One morning I woke up and had bad cramps, I was getting my period. I really felt lousy and my dad said I could stay home. My mom got home, saw I was still in bed, got me up and made me get dressed in the car while she drove me to school. After all, we couldn’t spoil my perfect attendance record. I have to say once I got to school and started moving around I felt better, but to this day still find it hard to understand why she thought perfect attendance was so important.

My mom was famous for speaking first and thinking second, especially when it came to me. I think she felt so comfortable with me that she never felt she had to mince words – and she never did. Once we were on the phone and she was talking about an article she read in a magazine about John F. Kennedy Jr. Without thinking she blurted out, “and guess what, Jan. He’s a slob, just like you!” By that time I was more mature and not so easily crushed by some of the things she would say and when I called her on it she immediately backpedaled and said, “the article talks about how it is common for slobs to have a lot of money and I know you have a lot of money so I was making a financial comparison between the two of you.” To this day that logic still escapes me, but somehow I feel comforted knowing that John F. Kennedy Jr. was a slob.

I share all of this because I want to create a realistic picture of my mother. Like any other mother and daughter relationship we certainly had our ups and downs. Things weren’t perfect, often messy but there was always love. Although I wish my mom had done things differently in certain instances, I have yet to meet the parent who found the book that tells you how to raise the perfect child and be the perfect parent. As a matter of fact I am glad a book like that didn’t exist as my mother, in her never ending quest for perfection, may have memorized every chapter of it. And although my mom and I were both headstrong and opinionated, it was she who taught me to believe in myself, she who made me believe I could be whatever it was that I wanted to be, she who made me believe that I could compete with and be better than any man, she who gave me the independence to strive and achieve far more than I ever dreamed. In an era where women were still expected to play a more subservient role, she was the first woman in her peer group to go back to work and the first female head of the bank’s charge card division. I learned from her that women could play whatever role they chose to play in life and not necessarily the role that society had perennially designated for them. I grew up not fearing competition and not ever settling for being subservient to anyone – one of the greatest gifts I think my mother ever gave me. The role model that she was and the unending love that she gave were and still are today the things I cherish the most about her.  They are also the things that I continue to miss the most.

The Beginning…

My mom’s best friend was a woman by the name of Jean Rymas. It was through Jean that my mother met my dad. She and Jean would regularly go to dances at the Saint Agnes dance hall and it was over the holidays in 1942 that my mother and father first danced to the Kay Kaiser band. My dad knew his way around the dance floor and his charm and his dance moves swept her off her feet. When I asked my mom why she was attracted to my dad, she told me that initially it was because he looked like Tyrone Power – you can judge for yourself.

Tyrone Power

My Dad


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Their courtship lasted a few years mostly due to the fact of my dad’s military service. But finally on May 27, 1945 they were married at Immaculate Conception Church in Brighton Park on the South Side of Chicago. At that time my father and his brother owned a tavern, and that kind of business can be very hard on a new marriage. It requires a lot of hours trying to please drunken people in order to get return business. The times were very different then. No on cared if you drank yourself silly and then got into a car and drove home. There were no DUI’s no blood alcohol level tests. Televisions were not a common household items. Most people got news through radios. And because communication was so primitive, taverns and churches became the hubs of neighborhoods where people frequently gathered to feel part of a community. Taverns opened early and stayed open late. There were no holidays or sick days. A tavern was open every day, year-round, rain or shine. And that lifestyle is very difficult for a new family starting out.

Mom and Dad's Wedding

They stayed in the tavern business until both my brother and I were born. My brother was born in 1947 and I followed in 1951. I almost didn’t make it into this world, though. Being in the tavern business both my uncle and my dad had guns in their apartments above the tavern to protect against violent customers or attempted robberies. One day when my mother was about six months pregnant with me my brother, who was almost four years old at the time, found the gun and thought it was a toy. He aimed it at my mother and said bang, bang but his fingers were to weak to actually pull the

Me and My Mom circa 1958

trigger. My mom got the gun away from him, told my my dad and that was the driving force to get rid of the gun and get out of the tavern business. The night before I was born my mom was having a drink and a cigarette at the bar (remember, things were very different then), and all of a sudden got a taste for a fudgesicle. She told me she ate it and immediately went into labor. As I mentioned in my previous blog, my mom lived a very sheltered life. She once told me that when she was pregnant with my brother she thought he would be born through her belly button. By the time I came around she knew differently. She said she never had pain in child birth – she was not very stoic when she was in pain, and so she told me she probably would not have considered having a second child if the first birth was too painful. I’m glad she decided to give it a go one more time. And after all that on May 22, 1951 little Janice Marie arrived. My parents then bought a three-flat in Brighton Park and my dad opened a small neighborhood candy store. My mom’s mom lived on the first floor and we lived on the second floor. We would stay in that same building until I graduated from college my parents retired and moved to Florida in the early 1980″s.

Through the years I began to realize that mothers and daughters have interesting and complex relationships. In many ways I was exactly like my mom and in many ways I was the polar opposite. My life with my mom was loving, fiery and complicated and as I continue to recount these memories I am sure you will see that regardless of the ups and downs I would not have traded it for anything.

It’s That Time Of Year…

Three weeks from today is Thanksgiving better know as Turkey Day when I was growing up. For quite some time the stores have been looking past this event and stocking their shelves with Christmas items. Now that Halloween is over retail is officially in holiday mode. All of the stores are pulling out the stops with bright colors, ornaments, food gifts and of course the elfs, snowmen and all the other traditional holiday characters. I think we have come to merely validate Thanksgiving and have it serve as a placeholder for what is to come next – Black Friday.

But these next few weeks are an important and very bittersweet time of year for me. The holidays have always been the time of year I look forward to with great anticipation. And in some respects I still do. But now it is a time of year that will always have a mark of sadness attached to it as well. It was this time of year, five years ago, that my mother was living out her last days. And although I was happy she was going to be relieved of her pain and suffering, I never anticipated the emptiness I would feel and continue to feel since she died on November 14 2006. So as I was thinking about the five year anniversary of her death I decided it was time to focus on the gift that was her life. To that end, I am going to devote my next couple of blogs to remembering one of the most influential women in my life, my mother. And instead of wallowing in sorrow that she is no longer here, take time to share the memories that I have of her and rejoice in the life of Euphrasia Dolores Miksis Drabik.

My mom at 18 years of age

So, let’s start with that name. Yes her name was Euphrasia. My mother always told me that my grandmother found that name on the last page of the bible. But no matter how many bibles I have looked at over the years I have never been able to find that name on the last page or anywhere else for that matter. Although I do remember an old Elvis Presley movie where he claimed to have an aunt Euphrasia but that’s about the only context I could ever associate with her name. My mother was a very beautiful woman. I know you think I am prejudiced but just look at her picture for yourself and then tell me if you disagree. She was the baby in her family – she had an older brother and two older sisters both who became nuns. I once asked my mother why she didn’t become a nun and she said she just liked boys far too much and the thought never entered her mind to live the life of a nun. She was just too worldly. She always imagined herself famous – she even created a stage name for herself. At that time Hollywood stars rarely kept their real names and she didn’t think Euphrasia had marquee appeal. So, she was going to be Dolores Woods star of stage and screen. (Now do you see how I was destined to be involved in theater arts).

She never went to college. She graduated from high school and immediately started working as a secretary in a law office. Her looks did not go unnoticed by her employer. He continually made sexual advances to her. My mother had lived a very sheltered life and she was not sure how to deal with the situation at the time. She told me that these uncomfortable advances went on for a while and then finally stopped. When I asked her why they stopped so suddenly she turned to me and said, “Honey, never underestimate the power of a good strong fart!” Yep, that was my mom.

So in the coming days I will share some of my most precious memories of her. I look like her, I talk like her, I am no doubt her daughter. And she was by no doubt the best mom a girl could ever have.

Bless The Beasts and The Children

One of my favorite songs by the Carpenters was a lesser known hit that was the title track to the 1971 movie Bless the Beasts and the Children. The lyrics are poignant: “Bless the beasts and the children. For in this world they have no voice – they have no choice.” And no truer words were ever spoken do describe what happened in Zanesville, Ohio yesterday.

Only 1700 Bengal Tigers are believed to exist in the world today and eighteen of them were killed yesterday. They were killed not because they posed a threat to the public, although that was definitely the immediate concern. They were killed because someone was allowed to keep them as pets on private property. They were killed because someone engaged in the exotic animal trade and captured them and sold them. They were killed because they had no voice, they had no choice. And to me, that is the abomination of what is known as the absolute power of man. And absolute power corrupts absolutely.

This is not unlike the recent situation in Pennsylvania where a number of mentally handicapped adults were found bound and chained in the basement of a residence for the sole purpose of someone being able to abscond with their social security checks. Locked in a different kind of cage, some of them had been missing for years. They had no voice, they had no choice. It saddens me that this continues to happen in our society and all over the world. The weak, the small, the beasts, the children – all who should be able to grow and thrive, live free and be able to lead the lives they were meant to lead can fall prey to such wickedness and inhumanity.

Now I know there are also many, many stories of just the opposite happening. People going to the extra mile for each other, people advocating for those who cannot advocate for themselves, people fighting for the rights of animals. Our society is no different from any other. We have the good and the bad. But I can’t get out of my mind the picture of the carcasses of those lions and tigers and bears lying lifeless on the ground on that farm in Ohio. This is no song from the Wizard of Oz. It is an abomination that these animals had to live and die the way they did. My one hope is that this finally opens the eyes of legislators to do something to protect these exotic animals. They did not ask for what they got and they got a very raw deal.

As the song goes: Bless the beasts and the children for the world will never be, the world they see. Light their way, when the darkness surrounds them. Give them love, let it shine all around them. Bless the beasts and the children give them shelter from the storm. Keep them safe, keep them warm… and that is definitely the way it should be – because unfortunately in this world they have no voice, they have no choice.

The Carpenters – Bless the Beasts and the Children

Where Is This In My Job Description?

A story I read today made me once again think about the incredible value a good teacher brings to the life of a child. And whether that teacher is a parent, a relative, an academic, coach or recreator, teachers are the lifeblood of growing up healthy and strong. And quite often we don’t recognize the value they bring at any particular moment, but in hindsight realize that we would be much less of a whole person without the force of their influence behind us.

Today one of my former students recounted a conversation she had with her 11 year old daughter who maintained with strong conviction that she would not engage in sexual activity until she was married. Easy to say at 11 years old, harder to uphold when you are sixteen and “in love”. She maintained that if a boy pressured her for sex she would simply break off the relationship. Again easy to say when you are eleven and have not yet found “the love of your life”. You could tell her mother was very happy that her daughter felt free to talk openly about that subject with her. And, in a very gentle way her mother lovingly reminded her that when the day comes (and it will come) that she has to make a decision regarding having sex, she hoped she remembered the unwavering conviction she felt at 11 years of age regarding waiting until marriage.

This is definitely one of those critical moments in a child’s life where they turn to someone they trust not only to express their views but to get validation for something that could be embarrassing or difficult to discuss. You only hope in these cases that they turn to someone who cares about them, someone who has their best interests at heart. In this case, she turned to her mother. In another she may turn to someone else but whoever assumes that role of “teacher” has the same responsibility – to recognize the significance of the situation and to care for the welfare and the well being of that child.

When I initially got into teaching I never realized the enormity of that responsibility. I taught theatre and dance in after school programs and mistakenly believed that’s what I was primarily doing. Along the way I found out that even though those disciplines were the “carrot” that got kids into my classes on a day-to-day basis, the real reason they continued to come was the interaction they had with a caring adult who was not their parent. And I learned that lesson in quite a unique way.

As part of my after school theatre program, I would organize field trips to other recreation centers that had similar programs so that my students could see plays performed by other kids their age. We would arrange an evening out that consisted of going out to dinner, seeing the play and then discussing what we saw on the ride home. I would try to do this at least once each season and each time it was an experience that the students looked forward to with great anticipation.

It was during one of those pre-show dinners that I finally understood my role as a teacher. About five girls and myself were eating and just having pleasant conversation when all of a sudden one of them turned to me and said, “do boys have periods like girls have periods?” There was complete silence at the table. And I will never forget the first thought that came into my mind – “ok, now where is this in my job description?” I was initially taken aback. But luckily I then felt honored that she came to me and and that she felt she could trust me not laugh at her or embarrass her but give her a straightforward caring answer, which I attempted to do. And I knew it was not only on her mind, but on the mind of all the other girls sitting at the table as well. What power, what influence an adult has at that moment. I was blown away.

And over the years that one moment stuck with me as time and time again my students would come to me and share sensitive information or ask me sensitive questions. And more and more they began to do so. And more and more I was glad they came to me. And over time, I began to realize the enormity of the responsibility each and every teacher has, and it mostly has nothing to do with their chosen discipline. Teachers have the power to save lives, change lives, to create hope and to inspire. They can be the pivotal make or break influence in a child’s life, an important thing to recognize and remember.

So I congratulate my former student for performing the role of a good teacher impeccably with sensitivity and caring. And I thank all of my former students for their faith in me as their teacher when they were growing up. I know it made me a better human being and I hope it did the same for them.

Hello, My Name Is…

Jan and I am a technology immigrant. There are three generations that currently exist in the cyber world: technology aliens, immigrants and natives. I bet you know one in each generation. The aliens still exist in the dark ages – no email address, no smart phone and absolutely no computer at home. After all it is a fad and just like the 8-track player will eventually fade away into oblivion, right? Don’t try to fight it, it is a badge of honor for them to be on the outside looking in.

The immigrants were brought into this brave new world kicking and screaming. Some recognized what it was becoming and begrudgingly jumped on board. They created email addresses, learned to surf the web but that’s it. Others embraced this strange new world and dove face first into the deep end of the pool, learning as fast as they could trying to make up for lost time. They were in awe of the capabilities of technology, almost like the feeling of going to Disney World for the first time. They loved it, they couldn’t get enough of it.

And then there are the natives – they never knew anything but the digital world. Their baby toys were small computers. Their moms pacified their cries by handing them their smart phones and watched in amazement at how intuitively they mastered the device. They text and surf faster than the speed of sound. They live their lives through social media. They are wired all the time. They know nothing else.

I am proud to be a technology immigrant and a closet geek, although more and more I seem to have come out of the closet. But I was dragged kicking and screaming into cyber world by my sister-in-law as I was mistakenly one of those who thought computers were just another fad. My sister-in-law plunked me down in front of her computer, tears streaming down my face, and said you will learn this – this is important. I was scared to death, scared I couldn’t cut it, scared I would break it, just plain petrified. She also dragged me to a computer programming class – I hated it. I mean, how could numbers make a computer work? I am now probably one of a only a handful of people remaining who wrote code to solve the quadratic equation in Pascal language – not that it got me anything, but it did teach me about the inner workings of a computer.

Then it came time to buy my first computer. Ah yes, I remember it well. It was a Gateway with a 30 MB hard drive. I was styling. I had the power of the world in my home office. I knew it just couldn’t get any better than this. I had reached the pinnacle of technology. Life was good. Or so I thought. But things changed rapidly and in a few years my poor little Gateway didn’t have the capability to perform common functions. So time for the next latest and greatest. That computer was a Dell – and it came with an 18 inch flat screen! No more mini television as a monitor. Wow – certainly this was the pinnacle of technology. I was in technology heaven. I have to say the Dell served me well – I had it for seven years – a fossil by technology standards. But when it started to act up and the cost to repair it equaled a hefty down payment on a new one, I was once again in the market for the next latest and greatest. Decisions, decisions…

One day, my husband told me he had a long conversation with our neighbor about computers and what we should buy. Our neighbor took him to his home office, had him sit down in front of this huge sleek screen and began to show him some of the features of his computer. (It is important to note that up to that point my husband was a technology alien). He immediately started to play around with it and was surprised at how intuitive it was. He was hooked. He came home that afternoon and said, “Honey, we should get an iMac.” I almost fell off of my chair. The next day I posted on my Facebook status that we were considering going over to the dark side, leaving the Microsoft world and venturing into the world of Apple. My niece immediately called me and said, “Auntie Jan – I am an Apple Genius and I can get you a discount on my family plan.” The rest is history. Today we are the proud parents of an iMac, MacBook Pro and iPhone. The iPad will be the next venture.

So what’s my point? Well, there are a couple. First, I will never forget the first time I did a Keynote presentation on my MacBook Pro and was able to control it from my iPhone. After the presentation a twenty-something young man came up to me and asked me how I did it.  Hallelujah, I had arrived! I finally knew something that a technology native did not. I was validated. Second, I never thought I would ever see the day when my husband would be surfing the internet. He uses it frequently now and realizes what a valuable tool it can be. It has opened up worlds to him and I am grateful for that. Third, and perhaps the most important of all, these tools have changed our lives. We can find and keep in contact with people we never thought we would see or hear from again. We can get and receive information in the blink of an eye. We can master the power of computing even though we struggled with Math and Science. And most of this was because one man had the vision to take technology out of the geek world and make it accessible to and desired by the masses.

Thank you Steve Jobs. Rest in peace. Your legacy will be compared to the likes of Albert Einstein, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. Not too shabby for the likes of just one man!

Steve Jobs 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech

(F)orget (A)bout (R)esistance (T)actics…

I’m not sure why we have such a hard time with the concept. After all, it is a normal human function. But for some reason when the subject arises we revert back to our puritanical heritage lest we, perish the thought, offend our delicate sensibilities. And we’ve developed a variety of monikers to avoid calling it what it is – tooting, flatulence, breaking wind, ripping one, silent but deadly (the dreaded sbd), passing gas – all derived in an effort to be politically correct. But why?

We all do it. We all know we do it. I remember the first time I realized that when I did it in the bathtub I could create bubbles. What fun, although my mother didn’t think so. I’ve come to the conclusion that even though we willingly accept the reality that we do it, we conveniently forget that others do. And we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking that the rich and the powerful never do. So when others do it or, God forbid, someone famous does it we don’t quite know how to handle it.

Take for example just this past week – Tuesday night on Dancing with the Stars. Nancy Grace and her partner finish their dance and right in the middle of their obligatory post dance interview – yes, you guessed it – someone ripped one on live TV! For the moment all fingers are pointing at Nancy Grace although she vehemently denies being the culprit and has vowed to use her legal prowess to uncover exactly who perpetrated the crime. No one wants to admit to doing it, after all how uncouth. And on live TV to boot. It doesn’t get much better than this.

But wait – just recently Rahm Emanuel, mayor of the City of Chicago, rips one during a national TV interview. It’s loud and clear for everyone to hear and will remain in perpetuity on YouTube. What a legacy! And what does he do when the dirty deed occurs? He smiles this sheepish grin and quickly takes a sip from his coffee mug before he busts out laughing. The person interviewing him meanwhile doesn’t know where to look or what to do.

So why has his normal human function created such a conundrum for us all? Thank goodness we do it, otherwise our bodies would blow up from all the unnecessary gases that have built up in our systems. Maybe it is the aroma factor, although they don’t necessarily have to have aroma. Maybe it is the sound of it or the fact that at times we just can’t control doing it. And when that happens what do we do  – we rip one and walk away in the hopes that someone else will get blamed. We never ever want to admit that we were the one. And some people have even used it as a term of endearment. How many husbands have tooted under the covers and then lovingly put the covers over the wive’s heads so that they could enjoy the experience as well. Sometimes it can be a badge of honor and sometimes our worst nightmare.

But we just don’t quite know the best way to handle the situation when we are caught in the middle of it. We get embarrassed, we act like it didn’t happen even though the sound could have doubled as a fog horn. And heaven forbid if the aroma factor occurs – how do you get away quickly without tipping your hand that what you really need to do is put a clothespin over your nose or douse the room with air freshener.  Wouldn’t it be great if, when it happens, you just stood there and said, oops I farted. Sorry. How direct, how freeing, how up front and honest! Yes, I think that’s the ticket.

So from now on I am on a campaign – I mean if Nancy Grace and Rahm Emanuel can do it publicly, so can I. From now on I will forget about all resistance tactics. No more pretending, just call it what it is – a plain old big fat fart. Fart. Fart. Fart. Fart. Fart. There now, I did it, I said it, I feel better.

Rham Emanuel farts!

It’s The Little Things Really…

I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like not to be free. Yesterday as I watched the Amanda Knox verdict I began thinking about  a few things that happened over the past week regarding life in general and what we choose to appreciate. I’m not going to get into a debate about whether she was guilty or innocent. What struck me was her reaction when she heard the verdict and what she said afterwards. She was so relieved that she was going to once again be free that she could barely stand and had to be held up as they escorted her out of the courtroom. Later, after she was released, it was reported that all she wanted to do was to go home and lie in field of green grass. Interesting.

I also saw a show last week about the Memphis 3, a group of 3 young men who were arrested eighteen years ago and convicted for the deaths of three very young boys. The person believed to be the ring leader was sentenced to death and was being held in solitary confinement. His life was filled with days where he had no sunshine, lived within four walls with a concrete slab and mat for a bed, a hole in the floor for a bathroom and a slat in the door where his meals could go in an out. His only “luxury” was a television but he only had the basic channels, no cable. He described the things he had to do in order to cope with these horrific conditions and how he began to lose his ability to see things far away as he rarely had to use his eyes to see beyond the confines of his four walls. He was allowed one visitation each week for three hours on Sundays. That is how he lived his life for eighteen years until modern science and a review of the investigation shot huge holes into the conviction. Can you imagine not seeing the sun for eighteen years, not knowing whether it was day or night and only having human contact for three hours a week? And what he said he appreciated the most about being free was being out in the sun again, feeling the warmth of the sun on his face. Interesting.

Lastly, a close friend of mine lost her younger sister last week. She died from a pulmonary embolism, quick and gone. There was literally nothing anyone could do to save her. My friend had breakfast with her sister just last Sunday and in the blink of an eye everything changed. She talked about how wonderful it was to have that time with her and how glad she was that she made the time to do it. A simple breakfast, interesting.

It struck me how in each one of these situations the things that mattered the most were the simple things. I remember when my mom was dying and it was getting near the end. My life was turned upside down and all I longed for was a “normal” day. A normal day. I wanted the little things like relaxing over a cup of coffee on the deck, going to work, coming home and having dinner with my husband, no hospitals, no doctors, no nursing homes, no insurance companies, no illness. I wanted a normal day. And no money in the world could buy me that at the exact time that I wanted it.

So, that begs the question of what is truly important in our lives. Do we stop and think about it? Are our priorities straight? When was the last time you truly appreciated lying in a field of green grass, feeling the warmth of the sun on your face, having breakfast with someone close to you, appreciating a normal day. Little things really, but once they are taken away from you they become the most important of all.

Have We Come A Long Way From Camelot?

It was just the same as it was on 9/11. You remember exactly where you were and what you were doing. So it was on November 22, 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I was in 7th grade at the time and our teacher told us that the president had been shot. The whole school walked over to the church and en masse we all prayed that the president would be all right. After we finished, the pastor went up on the pulpit and announced that John F. Kennedy was dead. That was the very first time the concept of death hit home for me. I mean, it just couldn’t be. He was so young, so vibrant and he represented a new era in American politics. The torch has been passed to a new generation, my generation. And in an instant, it was gone. The hopes, the dreams the excitement over what was to be. Gone.

So now I found it very interesting to finally hear the words of Jacqueline Kennedy in the only interview she gave after President Kennedy’s death. She was only 34 at the time he died. So young, so beautiful and she carried the sorrow of a nation on her shoulders with dignity and class. Everyone wanted to be like Jackie. She had the ability to melt the heart of Charles De Gaulle and charm the throngs of people she met on the campaign trail. And now, marking the 50th anniversary of Kennedy becoming president, Caroline Kennedy has chosen to share her mother’s thoughts with the world by releasing the tapes of that interview.

What struck me as I listened to some of the excerpts is that although we as women feel we have come a long way, it was not that long ago that we were expected to be subservient to men and were socialized to believe that was our role. In listening to Jackie you hear how she willingly would defer to the wishes of her husband, how she wanted to make for him a quiet and relaxed atmosphere when he came home because of the enormity of the stresses he faced during the day and how she felt that women should never go into politics. She talked about Kennedy’s disdain for showing affection in public and so he would never hold her hand. She willingly accepted that and she usually tried to walk slightly behind him when they were out in public. As a matter of fact, a television commentator once remarked how unusual it was for Jackie to deplane Air Force One before Jack as she had done at Love Field on the day Kennedy was killed. She had very hard and fast beliefs about the role of a woman in a marriage and it was definitely one that took a back seat to the man.

Some people were actually shocked when they heard her words. How could someone like Jackie Kennedy, Jackie O, be saying these things. I was not shocked at all. I have been studying women and leadership for the past 6 years and one thing I learned and try to teach is that the rights women now have here in the United States were not unalienable and only granted a very short while ago. Women did not have the right to equal pay until 1963 when the Civil Rights Bill was passed. Women could not vote until 1920. In some parts of the world women still cannot vote. Just this past week women in Saudi Arabia were finally given the right to vote but not until the 2013 election even though there will be an election coming up in a few months. And women in Saudi Arabia still cannot leave the country unless they have permission from their husband or guardian.

American women have a lot of rights that we now take for granted and some that could very easily be taken away, namely to right to choose what you can and cannot do with your own body. I find it funny that many women take these rights for granted or think they are entitled to them. And I find it funny that they think it odd that Jackie Kennedy would sound so subservient to her husband. It was not that long ago that women were expected to behave that way. We’ve come a long way baby. Or have we?

Change

Change is a strange thing. We all look at change as something to expect and we all say that change is good and yet when we are in the midst of change we sing a different tune. Maybe it has to do with how change is handled. Maybe it has to do with who is leading the change and why the change is happening. But maybe it just has to do with the fact that by nature we are creatures of habit and change is the antithesis of that. Change means doing something differently, behaving differently, breaking a habit, foraging into the unknown. So although in theory we all say we should embrace change, by nature we tend to resist it.

Take for example the Muscular Dystrophy telethon. This year after 46 years Jerry Lewis was not a part of it. Lewis had been the face of MDA, so much so that we began to look at the young children he advocated for as Jerry’s kids. For years he brought the biggest and brightest stars out to stump for the MDA. One year Frank Sinatra even got Dean Martin to appear, the first time the feuding duo had been on stage together since their break up many years prior. The show was a 21 hour marathon and we all watched as Jerry sleeplessly made it through, loosening his tie, looking bleary-eyed but always fighting for the cause he had taken on as his own. And then at the very end the singing of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and with tears in his eyes he would thank the audience for their generous support. It is estimated that over the years Lewis garnered billions of dollars for the MDA. And now, matter-of-factly, Lewis is no longer the MC of the show.

Don’t get me wrong, it is my understanding the Lewis could be one heck of a bastard to work with and very difficult to manage. I don’t excuse that. Success can create monsters in people and only the truly successful remain humble through it all. But there is no denying that he produced big time. He created a brand for the MDA that many other charitable organizations wish they could emulate. To dismiss him matter-of-factly was a poor choice on their part. And despite everything they were still able to raise 61 Million without him. They may feel validated. But I wonder if that would have been possible had he not created the foundation for doing so.

Now, was it time for Jerry to hang up his hat? Probably. But there is class and there is class-less and I think the MDA appeared more the latter than the former. It is easy to dismiss someone simply because they appear no longer relevant or too old. But to fail to consider the body of work over four decades and recognize it appropriately is bush league. Every year I have given to the MDA but I did not this year. I am disappointed in how they handled the whole situation. There is something to be said for time and tradition. And although it was probably time for a change, they handled the change very poorly.

So I guess I am resisting this change at least for this year. Change is hardly ever easy but it can be successfully accomplished if it is appropriately managed. This could have been the year of the tribute to Jerry. Instead the MDA walks away with mud on its face and a little less money in its pocket, at least from the lack of my donation. It may be a drop of water in the ocean but at least I feel validated. And, thank you Jerry for entertaining us all these years. You deserved a little better than how you were treated.

The Oglebay Home Stretch

We are now in the home stretch of Directors School. I am currently sitting in a class listening to a presentation of Fiscal Resources Management. The more I sit in on these classes and have an opportunity to interact with the students the more I am impressed not only with the faculty but with the caliber of people who are currently in the field providing parks and recreation services to communities across the country. These professionals are hungry for knowledge and are passionately engaged in all of the sessions. They are high energy, challenging and thirsty for every kernel of information they can get. I am so impressed and so humbled. This school goes by so fast. It will be over by tomorrow evening. But the learning and networking will go on far longer than the short week here and benefit the communities that they all serve.

All of this has just served to reinforce my love of the educational process. The sharing of knowledge, the interaction of teacher and student, the joy of discovery, the blessing of sharing, the struggle, the laughter, the learning and growing – how does it get any better than this? I look out on this group of students right now and feel extremely blessed that they are the ones in the trenches making it happen in the field of parks and recreation. I started out in this field because I loved the educational process but did not buy into the traditional educational system. And over the years I have never regretted being in this field. When I decided to move out of teaching in after school programs, my goal was to make sure that the types of programs and services offered through parks and recreation would continue on as I experienced first hand the differences these programs made in people’s lives, including my own. And I sit here right now and am feeling that I have come full circle. To be able to be part of this very special educational process makes me feel that in some small way I am making good on the promise I made to myself years ago. As I see the passion of these students, I have no doubt that our profession will continue to carry on.

What did I do to deserve to being involved in such a special program? I am so glad that goes around comes around – and I am so glad that I was around when it came back around.

Dirty Dancing in Wheeling

Who will ever forget the picture – Baby leaning on the railing with her cute little dress and sweater, dreaming of what was to come – the stone covered pathway and the camera panning back to this big rustic resort building known as Kellermans –   Baby sneaking a peak through the window as old man Kellerman talks to the service staff, and then seeing Johnny Castle for the first time. I can see those moments from that movie so clearly.

The setting of Kellermans seemed so perfect for the story of Dirty Dancing- the beautiful scenery, lake, cabins and tons and tons of activities from which to choose. What an ideal way to spend some time during the Summer. I always hoped one day to visit a place like Kellermans. Three years ago I got my wish when I was asked to be an instructor for the National Recreation and Park Association’s Directors School. The school was to be held at the Oglebay Resort and Conference Center and although many of my colleagues were very familiar with Oglebay, I had never been there before.

View from a trail at Oglebay

Oglebay is about a one hour drive from the Pittsburgh airport. I can remember that first year renting a car and making that trek to Wheeling, seeing a huge Cabelas store on the way and enjoying the experience of traveling to a new part of the country.  I got to Wheeling and immediately began seeing the signs that direct you Oglebay via a winding road filled with numerous twists and turns. It felt like I was driving on that road for a very long time and then, all of a sudden, there it was – Kellermans! No, it was not the same building as in the movie, but the same rustic resort-type feel that greeted Baby in the movie greeted me at Oglebay. There is a porch lined with rocking chairs at the main entrance to guest registration. It reminded  me of the rocking chair that Baby’s father sat in as he sadly stared at the lake and wondered where his innocent daughter had gone. Individual cabins line the trails around the resort and I could imagine all of the “dance staff” popping out of any of them at any given time. The lake, the paddle boats, the stables, the golf courses – all aspects of what I envisioned Kellermans to be. You can stand at the top of a hill and watch the deer romp on the property. You see a father and son fishing in the lake. A trolley makes regular stops by the front porch to take guests to visit various places in the park. The resort even has a small zoo with quite an impressive stock of animals. And the trademark hanging plants stationed on just about every pole. The restaurant was also reminiscent of Kellermans with multi level seating and beautiful views. And then there was the library. The library is actually a small pub-type restaurant and lounge nicknamed the library by the school students who tend to spend some time there during the course of the week sipping a few brews and making friends that will last a lifetime. Oglebay is definitely a magical place. And in a few days I will be happily on my way back to my Kellermans. I look forward to it every year. And although there are no Johnny Castles there, I have found it to be a wonderful place to learn, refresh and renew. And who knows, there may even be an evening of “dirty dancing” in the library!

Be It Ever So Humble

Its after dinner and I am sipping a glass of wine and thinking about benchmarks. I have to admit this thought did not come to me out of the blue but rather it was influenced by a blog written by one of my former students. In the blog she posted today she recalled the significant benchmarks that occurred between her last two hairdresser appointments. And yes, they were significant. It got me to thinking about the benchmarks in my life, especially the more recent ones. And although the time between my last two hairdresser appointments have not yielded the monumental changes she wrote about, the last ten years or so especially since I left Chicago have. I guess the trip my husband and I are planning back to Chicago is playing into these thoughts.

I left Chicago in 1999. If someone would have told me in 1998 that I would wind up living in Boulder, Colorado I would have laughed at them. The world is so much smaller these days. When I grew up people stayed in the city where they were born until they died. My parents were born in Chicago and lived their whole lives there. Yes they did retire to Florida but one of the driving factors for that move was the fact that my brother moved there several years earlier and so they felt they would still be close to family. When they moved, I was the sole remaining Drabik left in Chicago and my upbringing did little to make me think that I would ever live anywhere else. So I thought I would live in Chicago my entire life.

But things changed dramatically for me in 1993 when the Chicago Park District reorganized and I began working with a whole different level of talent and experience than the District had ever know before. One of the more life changing experiences I had was working with a woman who became the most influential mentor I ever had. She opened my eyes to a world of professional possibilities. She made me believe in myself. She pushed me, supported me and kicked me in the butt when I needed it. Her influence is directly responsible for me going after the job in Dayton, Ohio and making me believe that I was good enough for the job in Boulder.

But all of that meant leaving Chicago behind. And to the surprise of many including myself, I did. And although I have not lived in Chicago since 1999, I have been back to Chicago a couple of times since then. And when I went back I realized that there was a lot to the saying that you can never go home again. The old neighborhood where I grew up and the neighborhood that my husband and I lived for twenty plus years were not the same. The big old tree in front of my parents house was gone and replaced by a concrete pad. I guess no one wanted to mow the grass. The houses on Oakdale where Nick and I used to live were razed and in their place were three story single family dwellings. Our neighbors of twenty plus years were either gone or deceased. It simply was not the same. The city I had lived in all of my life was now not my city anymore.

Soon I will be going back to Chicago. I have not been back there for over 8 years. Why am I so excited to go back? What fascination does the city of Chicago still hold? I know what I will find. I know it will not be the same. I mean, what happened to Marshall Fields? The last time I was in Chicago I visited Marshall Fields on State Street. If I go there this time it will be Macys. Am I ready for that? The last time I was in Chicago Miegs Field was still there. Last I heard it got bulldozed in the middle of the night and park land left in its place. And now I hear they have a casino in Rosemont. Changes, changes, changes. So why do I want to subject myself to the sad fact that things will be so different from when I lived there and that life went on without me?

The difference this time is that I know that in all likelihood I will never live in Chicago again – and I am at peace with that. The difference is that I live in Colorado, I love Colorado and I have no intention of leaving Colorado. The difference is that I have accepted that life moves on and that Chicago will never be the same. But why should it?  No matter what you do or where you live, live moves on. That’s just a simple fact and fighting it is senseless. But the one thing that will not change and that no one can ever take away from me are the memories I have of growing up and living in that wonderful city. They are precious, they are mine and they will never change. And although Colorado is my home, Chicago is my heart. Be it ever so humble, I am who I am because of growing up and living in Chicago. And so it will always be – sweet home Chicago.

It’s That Time Again!

When I was in grammar school and high school it was the time I dreaded the most. Eventually I would open the Sunday paper advertisements and see those words: “Back To School“. It signified that the carefree days of summer vacation were counting down and soon it would be time once again to hit the books. I hated the thought of going back to a dictated routine, having to get up early, having to wear a uniform, having to study, waking up when its still dark outside, the sun setting at an ungodly early hour – all of the things that signified this particular ominous time of year. But there was always one aspect of back to school that was an undeniable joy – buying school supplies!

The first pleasure associated with buying school supplies is olfactory. Walk into any office supply store or down the aisles where the school supplies are stocked in any store and you will know what I mean. That smell of paper and file folders – there is nothing comparable. It makes you want to reorganize your life, or on second thought maybe just your desk. But that initial whiff is so intoxicating it gives you visions of scholarly grandeur.

Then it’s time to start making your school supply choices. Oh the possibilities! I loved getting that new lunch box or choosing what pens I would use, getting my yearly supply of Elmer’s Glue (gotta love Elmer’s Glue), buying file folders, pencils, crayons, scissors, a new book bag, yellow highlighters, paper clips, and on and on all the while watching my shopping cart fill up with back to school delights. But there was one purchase that was the pinnacle of them all, the big kahuna, the brass ring, the piece de resistance, the mother of all mothers, the purchase to end all purchases, the height of the back to school supply shopping experience – buying your notebook!

Back To School

Ah the notebook – so many choices so little time. What will it be this year? Do you get the tried and true traditional composition book with its familiar black and white design on the cover? Or do you go bargain hunting and buy various ones with different colored covers for twenty cents each. Or maybe you opt for the one that has your favorite television show on the cover, or your favorite cartoon character or your favorite movie hero. Choosing a notebook is highly personal and tells the world, or at least your classmates, who you are and what is important to you. It is your brand for the upcoming year. Every year the notebook aisles seem to get longer and longer and the choices are endless. You can spend hours just looking at them, opening them up, fanning the pages, determining whether you want thick or thin lines, perforated edges, divided sections, pockets on the inside flap, large ringed or small ringed, a hundred pages or fifty pages. It is such a difficult decision. After all you will be stuck with it for at least a semester or perish the thought maybe even an entire year. Decisions, decisions…

So now whenever the back to school ads appear they bring back these precious memories.  No longer do I have to worry about going getting back into the routine of going back to school. I haven’t had to worry about it for a long time. And I chuckle thinking about what goes through kids’ minds today as they see those ads showing up for the first time. Are they dreading them like I did? Do they look forward to buying their school supplies? Do they get excited buying Elmer’s Glue and browsing through all of the notebooks? I wonder…

But one thing I will never understand. Can someone please explain to me why I still have this inexplicable urge to buy a notebook?  Beats me. But y’know, for old times sake I think I just might.