Mom’s Tomato Soup

It’s that time of year. Gardens, farm stands and farmers’ markets are loaded with gorgeous red tomatoes. There is absolutely nothing under the sun to compare with the taste of a sun-ripened garden tomato. How beautiful is this?

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My favorite way to eat them fresh is cut up in a bowl with olive oil, cider vinegar, fresh basil (cut up) and salt and pepper. My dad’s favorite was to make a sandwich of toasted white bread, sliced tomatoes, mayo and salt and pepper – a BLT minus the B and the L. But when tomatoes are in abundance, when you can’t possibly eat that much salad or that many sandwiches, the best solution is fresh tomato soup. To be specific, the tomato soup my mom always made, and still does. It’s easy and freezes well, so you can have the taste of summer when the snow flies.

I am under strict instruction from [you know who you are!] to be EXACT in this recipe, so I will do my best to not say “a little of this” or “until it looks right.” 😊

I’ve been gathering the tomatoes from my garden, eating some and saving some. For the soup, I cut up the saved ones as shown above, stems, green-part-under-the-stem and any bad parts cut off, and had enough to fill my 3-quart bowl to overflowing. Meaning I could not possibly put one more piece in or it would have fallen out. Note that skin and seeds are not removed at this point.

For this amount of tomatoes I started with 6 tablespoons of butter. Put it in a large cooking pot – my Dutch oven was perfect. Melt the butter on a medium heat.

melting butter

 

Add the same amount of flour (6TB) and whisk it in.

flour to butter

Let this get bubbly over the heat.

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Turn the temp down to low and cook it for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it looks light brown, like this. You have now browned the butter.

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On top of the browned butter, dump your 3+ quarts of cut-up tomatoes.

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You should not need any other liquid. The tomatoes have their own juice. Leave the heat on low and cover. I love my silicone lids! This one is particularly nice because the edges let a little steam out.

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Peek at it now and then. Oops, that wasn’t EXACT. Peek after 10-15 minutes. It should start to cook down, first like this:

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A good stir would be good at this point. Then let it cook some more (10-15 minutes more? doing my best to be EXACT here, really I am!!) until it looks like this:

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When it looks like this, give it another good stir and turn off the heat. I let it cool for a while, say half an hour or even an hour, while I do something else. You can think of something else to do.

The next step is separating soup from skin and seeds. A strainer works well. This is my set-up.

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The holes in my strainer are not overly small meaning two things: One, the soup will go through easily, which is good, and two, some seeds will get through, which may or may not be ok with you. It’s ok with me, but I am one of those people who likes raspberry jam with the seeds still in it, so decide for yourself. Some seeds, or use a strainer with smaller holes and do a little more work.

The work is in the pushing through. First, use a ladle to put enough of the tomato mixture in the strainer to almost fill it, like this:

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You see that some went through already. Your job is to get the rest of the soup to go through but leave the seeds (most of them) and the skins in the strainer. With a large spoon, stir it up and some more soup will go through.

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Then with the back of the spoon, push against the side of the strainer.

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More and more soup goes through, and more and more seeds and skins don’t, until it looks like this:

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Use your spoon to scrape off – into the soup – any bits that are stuck to the bottom of the strainer. Set the strainer aside. Now depending on how big your bowl is, you have two choices. Either remove the seeds and skins to a separate bowl (and later feed it to the chickens) and start over with putting the rest of what’s in the pot through the strainer OR season what’s in the bowl with salt and pepper, transfer it your freezer containers and then put the rest through the strainer.

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This is the first half of my soup. I added the salt and pepper (to taste – I can’t be more EXACT about that), stirred it up, then transferred it to old quart-size yogurt containers which work beautifully for freezing this or any soup. I then pushed the second half through, and seasoned it just the same (or about the same because, you know, seasoning to taste is not an EXACT science 😊).

See if you can put it away without preparing a bowl for yourself. I’ve topped mine with Backerbsen, a German specialty I discovered years ago. This past April, my friend Anett brought me some when she came from Karlsruhe to visit. (If you want to try them, you can get them on amazon — maybe not the brand below, but Leimer is a good brand too.) The translation is “baked peas” but they are just perfect little croutons for tomato soup. Oh yum!

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Passing This Way

When you are in someone else’s car, you listen to whatever music they have going. It’s great to let someone else do the choosing sometimes. Not being musically inclined except for liking to listen to it and sometimes sing along, I am continually astounded at the incredible talent and creativity of musicians. It’s amazing to me how they manage to stir up feelings and longings and memories and hopes from deep within you. And they do it in a way that is soooo pleasant!

Among the many songs I heard in the past few weeks, two struck me and have played over and over again in my head (parts of them anyway). From the Notting Hill soundtrack is Elvis Costello’s “She” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ttj0Kd6BWQU). It’s one of those songs that builds on itself as it goes along, with the strength of his voice adding increasingly more weight to the words*. This song reminds me that this kind of love – this deep, abiding, heartfelt love – is real, even if it is rare, even if most people don’t ever find the words to express what’s in their hearts.

A few days ago I heard Seals & Croft sing “We May Never Pass This Way Again” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vd6zYQPCgsc) and that one hit me hard. Here’s why.

I asked Eppie to stand in front of the elephant ear so that I could record how big it is in relation to how big she is. These plants just keep getting bigger and bigger. But as she stood in front of it, the leaves of the plant looked like angel wings to me, with the sun shining behind and through them and her sweet face radiating all that is good and fresh and wholesome. The photo captures a moment, as all our photos do, yet we know as we look at the photo that the moment is past. Less than a week later, the moment is past.

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When I heard the song, I thought: It’s not We May Never Pass This Way Again, it’s We Will Never Pass This Way Again. I hope that face looking up at me will look up at me again many times in the future (and I will cherish it just the same), but never again will it be Eppie’s just-turned-four face. She’s a little angel in this picture. She’ll be a bigger angel next time.

My son Bradley said to me recently that the harshest reality of adult life is how fast time goes. His own daughter Piper is now two and another (P2, he calls her!) is coming soon. How is this possible?! Here is Piper between Eppie and Rise during my visit to Vermont a couple weeks ago.

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Precious moments, these are. Precious little ones. Every now and then, or as often as you wish, it’s good to think about what you consider precious. Maybe the voice or touch of someone you love, or the way they say your name. Maybe the view you see when the sun rises in the morning. Maybe a person you have contact with every day who is remarkable without knowing it. Maybe your good health (or the aspects of your health that are still good!). Maybe the music that uplifts you. Maybe the bounty of your garden – these are the cantaloupes I harvested today from mine. Maybe the funny face of a little dog who has found a special place in your heart!

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My neighbor Jennifer asked Eppie the other day if she missed her parents. Eppie said, “When I am with Oma, I miss my mom and dad. When I am with my mom and dad, I miss Oma. I wish I could be with them both.” For my ears, those were the most perfect words she could have said in reply.

It’s a rather reflective day for me, perhaps you can tell. My darling granddaughters and I had two and a half weeks together, starting at their home in Vermont and ending at my home in Virginia – marvelous, precious weeks. But it’s the middle of August and they will be going to kindergarten and preschool very soon. As I think about how we will never pass this way again, I am less sad because of the certainty that we will pass another way someday (someday soon I hope!), and it will be equally wonderful to walk through those days together.

 

*She (lyrics)

She may be the face I can’t forget
The trace of pleasure or regret
May be my treasure or the price I have to pay
She may be the song that summer sings
May be the chill that autumn brings
May be a hundred different things
Within the measure of a day

She may be the beauty or the beast
May be the famine or the feast
May turn each day into a Heaven or a Hell
She may be the mirror of my dreams
A smile reflected in a stream
She may not be what she may seem
Inside her shell

She, who always seems so happy in a crowd
Whose eyes can be so private and so proud
No one’s allowed to see them when they cry
She may be the love that cannot hope to last
May come to me from shadows in the past
That I remember ’till the day I die

She maybe the reason I survive
The why and wherefore I’m alive
The one I’ll care for through the rough in many years*

Me, I’ll take her laughter her tears
And make them all my souvenirs
And where she goes I’ve got to be
The meaning of my life is
She, she
Oh, she

 

*Somehow I always thought this was “the rough and ready years” (“rough in many years” doesn’t make any sense to me!).

Fun with Names

People can tell you that they love the sound of waves crashing on the shore or birds singing in the trees, but common sense tells you (and studies have shown) that the sound people love more than any other is the sound of their own name. “How can I help you, Mr. Jones?” is so different than “How can I help you?”

When I was directing the training program at a high-end resort, we had a set of “behavioral standards” that helped staff to know, in general, the expectations for their interactions with guests. These were not the technical directives such as the wait staff offering to refill the guest’s coffee cup within three minutes of them finishing the cup they have or the housekeeping staff remaking the bed “tightly and attractively” during daily service. Behavioral standards were the basics like smiling, being polite and maintaining eye contact. Use the guest’s name, we told them. Do not underestimate the power of using someone’s name. Use it discreetly, but use it.

Using someone’s name builds good relations, makes people feel respected, shows attention to detail, is the ultimate personalization. There are good reasons why, when you sign in to a web page such as your email or credit card statement, you invariably see some form of “Hello, ______[your name]______” or “Welcome back, ______[your name]______.” These companies know the power of using your name and work hard to make it seem natural, as if you are being spoken to personally.

Plus it’s fun, especially if you have names like Eppie and Rise. And we should have fun wherever and whenever we can! This past week my granddaughters and I did something we have done twice before on previous visits (does this make it a tradition yet?). We made name pretzels! They may be only four and five, but they know their names!

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It’s rather tricky to guide a child in dough-rolling and take pictures at the same time, so many thanks to Fred, my friend who was visiting, for the great photos that follow.

For pizza dough and pretzels, I have used King Arthur Flour’s “Easiest Bread You’ll Ever Make” recipe for many years. I grant that all the practice I’ve had makes it easier for me than for someone who is new at it. Nonetheless, this is what I started with when I was new at it, and it has served me well. https://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/hearth-bread-recipe

Once the girls have their aprons on and the dough is rising on the counter, it’s time for the real fun to begin. You pinch off a piece of dough and get a snake started, one snake at a time. Applying enough pressure to get the dough to stretch out lengthwise but not so much as to smoosh it is probably the trickiest part of this whole operation.

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But after a few of them, you get the idea.

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With a four-year-old and a five-year-old, this activity is about working with your hands to make something interesting and yummy. If it’s not perfect, it will be yummy anyway, but the fun for a child – think of it – writing your name using snakes of bread dough! And then getting to eat it!

Let’s start with E for Eppie (which is short for Eponine, in case you wondered).

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How proud and happy she was to see it take shape.

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And R for Rise. Do we like it?

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R is not so easy as E. A little tweak is in order.

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That’s better. She’s happy. I’m happy. Onward.

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I’m not sure this is strictly for kids either. Can you see yourself with your friends in your kitchen, party-time (!), each of you making your names? Eppie loved seeing hers!

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By the way, those are silicone mats on my baking pans. I love them. Before I had these, I prepared the pans differently. I used to cut brown paper grocery bags to fit the pans and then greased the paper. This technique works beautifully but I prefer the mats. One less step.

Rise was equally proud of her name.

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We also made OMA (for me, Oma), an F for Fred, and a J, A and W for Jennifer, Anna Lane and Will, our neighbors who were coming later to play. But before you bake them (at 400 degrees), you first have to paint beaten egg on them and then add salt. The painting is another artistic element for the girls to enjoy.

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When the time comes for adding salt, you can talk about how different people have different tastes, different preferences, even with something as simple as salt. Some like more, some like less. We put on as much as we wanted to, and in some cases more (oops) than we intended to, though their ability to distribute it carefully and evenly was quite remarkable. If you do put on too much, you can push it off later. We are using coarse salt, umpteen varieties of which are available to choose from.

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While waiting for them to bake, the new swing came in very handy. I don’t know about the kids in your life, but these kids LOVE to swing!

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We didn’t read as many books together this time as we did in March – I wonder why!

When the pretzels are good and browned, take the letters off the baking sheets to cool. Wire racks are perfect for this.

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Add a plate of cheese (this one has dried cranberries in it) and a perfect plum or some other fruit cut up, and you have lunch! A very special lunch!

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Corn Muffins at Their Best

There are some foods I just don’t buy except at the height of their season. Corn on the cob is one of them. I read a great post by Shaun H. the other day about Grilled Sweetcorn (https://catchmeonthewater.com/2018/07/21/grilled-sweetcorn/) and then saw the best looking fresh corn at Yoder’s (Madison, Va) the next day. Yes, need to try that. We got a dozen ears, followed his instructions for removing the silk, soaking the ears and grilling till slightly blackened, and oh how heavenly it was. Thank you, Shaun. The leftover ears I shaved clean with a sharp knife, then put the kernels in the fridge for another day, not having any idea what would become of them.

corn

I love a new day and the ideas it brings. At the moment I have two little granddaughters in the house, Rise and Eppie, ages 5 and 4. “What shall we have for breakfast, girls?” In that moment I remembered three things: the fresh corn in the fridge, my wonderful recipe for Johnnycake (a.k.a. Cornbread) and another recipe I got from an Amish cookbook for “Unconventional Cornbread.”

I vaguely remembered that the “unconventional cornbread” recipe included corn as well as cornmeal. It had been a long time since I looked at it,* but I recall it had other things in it, bacon even – undoubtedly good, but more than I wanted to bother with at the moment.

Keep it simple. How about just a handful of the fresh corn in the cornbread? Use the tried (a hundred times) and true cornbread recipe and add the grilled kernels.

You can always tell which of my recipes date from way back. They are the ones that include shortening crossed out and replaced by butter. Early on, I just copied recipes from wherever I found them and generally followed them to the letter. But it didn’t take me long to discover that butter is far superior to shortening in all but a few applications, so I made corrections. Rule of thumb: Err on the side of butter.

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This recipe is great for two reasons: 1. It’s simple and comes out great every time and 2. the maple syrup. I lived in Vermont for 22 years so I got used to the real stuff. If at all possible, use the real stuff. It is so much better there is hardly a comparison with the product called pancake syrup.

Put the dry ingredients in a bowl and stir them up. A wooden spoon works great. I don’t beat the rest separately, but feel free to follow the recipe. I just mix the dry stuff, then break the eggs onto it, pour the milk and maple syrup onto it and start stirring as I add the melted butter. Stir only enough to blend. This is important. Lastly, if you have it (find a way to have it!), add some fresh corn recently grilled and shaved from the cobs. I think I added about half a cup, maybe ¾ cup. The batter them looked like this, kinda lumpy, just right.

batter

To make things easier (and fun) for the girls, we used paper muffin cups inside my tins. They loved wearing their aprons, helping to stir the batter and having the job of putting the papers in the tins.

paper muffin cups

This amount of batter was perfect for twelve muffins, which baked to a golden brown and smelled soooo yummy.

muffins in tins

The jar to the left is my homemade strawberry jam, which in no way conflicted with the corn, in fact enhanced it. I also put honey and of course butter on the table. The muffins needed a basket for serving, and we were ready.

muffins in basket

I tried to capture the steam wafting up from the hot muffin in this next photo – you might see it, but I don’t. I also know that a photo can’t capture the sweet scent, the waiting jam, our hungry bellies… It was almost 830am by the time we were sitting down, the preparation process taking slightly longer when two little girls are involved – not that I would trade this time with them for the world!

inside of muffin

I haven’t had a good corn muffin in a long time. These were both new for me – never added corn to that recipe before – and beyond good. Outstanding texture, perfect moisture. I’ll make them a time or two again before that stash in the fridge is gone, and then most likely I’ll wait till next year for a repeat. I don’t mind a bit having something so delicious only in its season.

Naturally there were a few crumbs left on the plates when we were done, so guess who else got to enjoy some of this delicious breakfast: chickens! I think they like it too.

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*In case you are interested in the “Unconventional Cornbread”

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Here a Word, There a Word

At odd moments throughout the day or night, I play a word on the scrabble-type game on my phone called Wordfeud. On any given day I have six or seven games ongoing, which could mean I play six or seven words or could mean dozens. Playing is good for us! Maybe I’m just trying to justify an activity that some might deem pointless, but truly, I observe numerous benefits.

First and always first for me is the connection I maintain with other people. My most active opponent is Nancy. She and I live far away from each other, but she’s a wonderful person and I like her a lot and this is our thing. Through the consistency of play and occasional chats – even just to say “I never heard of that word!” or “Well done!” (to which she invariably and modestly replies “I had the right letters”) – we maintain a lovely friendship.

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Secondly, playing a word takes me away from whatever else happens to be going on at the moment, or gives me a reason to redirect my thoughts. The momentary distraction somehow helps me do the thing I was doing before just a little better. Why? Maybe my brain chemistry is jumpy? Maybe the back and forth allows it to rest and regroup and carry on more efficiently overall? I have no idea. All I know is that I get things done despite this background activity.

Also, I enjoy the challenge. Do I remember how many U’s there are and count how many have already been used before I decide I need to find another way to play my late-game Q? No. Do I remember all the two-letter words that start with D? Is DE a word? DI? DU? No. How many times did I play QUO (as in status quo) and have it tell me “QUO is not in our dictionary”? (Why not? That one baffles me!) But even though I am not as competitive as some people, I still get a thrill from making high-scoring words so I keep trying to do it.

Mainly though, I enjoy the not-always-obvious parallels to everyday life. Here are ten that have occurred to me:

  1. You don’t always get what you want. Sometimes, no matter what you do, you just don’t have what it takes to make it work. If I had had a T in the game above, I could have made NIGHT out of NIGH, and used that to connect to the DW (Double Word) space that later held the K in AUK. I could sit there all day wishing I had a T, but I don’t. I could sit here all day wishing I had the money to make my vision of a new kitchen become a reality, but I don’t. No amount of wishing makes certain things happen. I simply don’t have the T or the money. Onward we go with what we have.
  2. You sometimes learn something new. What is AUK, you may ask? According to Wikipedia, “an awk or alcid is a bird of the family Alcidae in the order Charadriiformes. The alcid family includes the murres, guillemots, auklets, puffins, and murrelets.” Did I know this when, not having a T, I played that word? No. But it worked. Do I try to know what the words mean that are unknown to me but work? Sometimes. The main thing is that it’s new, and I am stretched intellectually and possibly enlightened about something I didn’t know before. John Holt’s book Learning All the Time articulated beautifully for me (at a time in my life when this truth was not self-evident) that we do not stop learning when we graduate from whatever school we attend. Ideally, we should be learning our whole lives long. ZINE is a word? FEATER? PIA? Apparently!
  3. Some of what we do is predictable and that’s not always bad. When I go first, I almost always start at the left and move right toward the center space (which you have to cover in the first move) or I start above that space and work down to it. I seldom start at the middle space and play a word down or to the right. Similarly, I almost always put milk and sugar in my earl grey tea. I almost always park my car in the same spot. Life is full of what’s unpredictable and challenging. Some elements being almost always the same is stabilizing and helpful.
  4. Sometimes something funny comes along and you get a smile. In my game this morning, Nancy played FLIRTY, which brought its own images to my mind (you have your images, I have mine!). BLAH brings to mind Frog and Toad Are Friends, a silly kids’ book by Arnold Lobel. (Frog ran up the path to Toad’s house. He knocked on the door. “Toad, Toad,” shouted Frog, “wake up. It is spring!” “Blah,” said a voice from inside the house….) In our everyday world, people say and do funny things randomly, and they make us smile. The more of this, the better, I say.
  5. Sometimes you get really lucky. The more of this, the better too! Having the right letters to make a word using all of your seven letters in one word happens occasionally (and results in a lot of points which of course could be pivotal in winning), and we applaud it and bask in it – until the next maddening collection of letters is at the bottom of our screen, waiting for use. The fact is, a good bit of life is the luck of the draw and in different ways we all have blessings. You got really good parents, or a fabulous teacher that the kids in the other class didn’t get, or you had a boss who believed in you and made career advancement possible, or someone couldn’t use those concert tickets and gave them to you for free! What I get (or got) is different than what you get or got, but we all have something someone else doesn’t. Take note of what you have that’s good. Don’t lose sight of it.
  6. You can’t argue with the authority. If the game says it’s not a word, it’s not a word, and you can’t play it. Some things are confusing. Why is JELLO a word? I would think it’s a proper noun like TUESDAY and therefore unacceptable. But it works in Wordfeud. Do I have the right to argue this? Will my protest matter? No. I have to deal with it whether I agree or not, whether it makes sense or not, whether I like it or not. Likewise, if the result of a given election (not that I have a particular one in mind!) is objectionable to you, you have to find a way to deal with it. If the county regulations require a permit for building a porch, you get one. If the street sign says One Way, you go that way. If a tennis ball hits the line during a game, it’s in. If you don’t water house plants, they die. Some things cannot be argued with.
  7. You don’t always see a way at first. I sometimes look at the possibilities and could play this word or that one and can’t make up my mind, or I don’t see anything good at all, and I just close it up. Not always, but sometimes I find that if I wait a bit, I see things in a way I didn’t see them before and all of a sudden I have a move to make. Where did that come from? I had rainwater washing into my chicken coop area making not only a wet mess but also an unhealthy environment for my chickens. I stared at it and stared at it. Then a berm came to mind. A retaining wall came to mind. The shovel came out, and the power tools and measuring devices, and now the rainwater washes around the coop instead of into it. Did I plan it that way from the start? No. Did I see the solution at first? No. But wait. Think on it some.
  8. Some people are just better. Whether they have better skill, better memory, better (consistently better!) luck, I don’t know, but my sons Lincoln and Samuel kill me almost every time. I don’t know how they do it. They rack up the points unbelievably almost every time! You’ve maybe heard that statistic about how if the underdog doesn’t win x-percentage of the time (with rats it might be 30%) they get too frustrated and don’t want to play anymore. It might also sometimes work in reverse where it’s not fun for the winner to always cream his opponent either. Nonetheless, isn’t it the same in life? Doesn’t it seem like some people get all the breaks? There are reasons for this, as there are reasons for Lincoln and Samuel’s domination in this game, but when the reasons are not apparent, it can be maddening.
  9. Unexpected (good) things happen sometimes. You’re behind by 85 points, you’re sure this game is going to become the next loss in your personal stats, and suddenly you have all the right letters for a killer word. Yes! (Or if you’re me it’s Oh dear! if I’m already ahead by a wide margin and don’t wish to demotivate or otherwise deflate my opponent.) The same in life. You can have a string of bad luck with bosses and then find yourself with a gem. You can have a pain in your leg and then happen upon a particular position or exercise that makes it – voila! – suddenly better! You can be too tired to take the pans of newly-made granola out of the oven when it’s done (before going to bed but after you’ve turned the oven off) and find that the delay made for a marvelous, perfect crunch (yes, I will post my granola recipe soon!). Ultimately we control so little. But random delightful surprises pepper our life with joy and fun. Bring it on!
  10. In the end, a lot of things don’t matter that much. If I win or lose this game, life goes on. If I play a word and then realize I could have played a better one, oh well, too late. If I don’t get my new kitchen, I’ll still be able to cook dinner in my old one. If I absentmindedly park in a handicapped spot and get a $180 ticket (bother!), I have to pay the fine. If I am out of milk and instead put just honey in my tea this morning, or nothing at all, it’s not the end of the world. This game helps me keep a good perspective.

All good reasons to keep playing, don’t you think?

 

One Chicken Step at a Time

I feel the need to revisit a topic from about six weeks ago because progress has been made and progress ought to be noted and celebrated. I refer to the reluctant chickens, the ones who have a Taj Mahal of a coop and don’t seem to realize that it is theirs to use as chickens normally use a coop.

A great deal of time was spent designing, constructing and outfitting said royal palace.* There were simply too many new chickens for the old coop, and since the bantams had been separate since their chickhood from the larger birds, we decided to keep them separate henceforth.  The new coop has features you’d think the little chickens would brag about to their well-adjusted neighbors in this photo who happily occupy the adjacent old coop at night as chickens are supposed to do.

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(It does seem that they sleep standing up, which I suppose is to their credit. This habit baffles me.) These birds come in through their little door at night and go outside through the same little door in the morning. Let’s just say this in-out routine is normal.

Back to the bantams, my set of which includes silkies, black copper marans, a lone d’uccle and some mixes of the same. (There will soon be a new name for this group thanks to clever input from readers, but all in due time. For now they are simply the bantams.) You may recall from an earlier post** that despite the coop being ready for them, despite it having food inside, these little hens decided to sleep on the ground outside.

silkies at night

One night we found them in this same place as it torrentially poured rain. (No photos of this, needless to say.) They just sat there in the rain, soaking wet. One by one we picked them up – no resistance whatsoever on their part – and put them in the coop to dry off, and left them in there for a few days to get used to it. In the meantime we changed out this very cool entrance ladder, which possibly was too challenging.

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The new ramp has to be easier. I caught this hen coming down the other day. Maybe she was practicing?

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I did not plan on checking on them tonight, but it’s a perfect August evening, a little cooler than recent evenings, and I wandered toward the soft lights of the solar-lit coops when I took Coco out just at dusk. To my delight, I found the ground of their outdoor run empty …

run at night

but were they inside?? One was. Good little d’uccle (!), setting a fine example for the others, not only inside, but perched on the fine cedar pole.

lone d'uccle

The idea of the cedar poles and the front windows was to be able to see them roosting. One roosting chicken viewed through the window, and the smallest of them to boot, is not overly picturesque. Imagine how much cooler this image would be with a bunch of chickens roosting on the pole as the other chickens do in their coop.

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Where were the others? Huddled on and under the modified ramp they were! Why? Enjoying the night air? Who knows? Unwilling to share sleeping quarters with Miss D’uccle? Still waiting for the little voice inside to say It’s okay, really, you can go inside!

Bridge Club

I cannot say why Spot is hanging off the front corner like that. Looking perhaps to see how far a drop it would be if she got unsteady in her sleep? Spying on the two silkies paired up down below? For that matter, why are those two there? Being shunned for bad behavior? Not enough room on that platform? Planning their next practical joke on the others?

But they are making progress! And I applaud them! I don’t know what measure of courage or daring it took for them to walk up that ramp and park themselves up top for tonight. Certainly we could fault them or chide them for not going just a few more steps, through the totally amazing egg-shaped door and onto the very fine cedar roosting poles as we hope they will do. But I say Bravo! They’ve made it to the platform!

Too often, isn’t it true, we ourselves make the tiniest steps of progress or we see it in others and we let the moment pass unnoted! Or worse, we look at how far we (or they) didn’t get instead of how far we (or they) did get. Maybe these hens are an example to us that even small bits of progress are still progress, and sooner or later we too will walk our own ramp and maybe we too will sit there a while before we work up our nerve or have the self discipline to go a little farther.

Maybe you have a thing you’re trying to train yourself to do, like drink more water or speak kindly more often. Maybe you’re trying to refrain from a bad habit, like trying to drink less soda or get angry less often. Whichever it is, doing or not doing, make sure you take note of the successes. Celebrate these. Build on these. Note them well. That way, when the setbacks (invariably) come, you will have something to balance them with. You can remember all those times you made progress and the picture is not so bleak. Less bleak is good!

Thank you, little bantams, for showing us one step forward.

 

*June 23 The Building of a Chicken Fort

**July 2 A Coop Unoccupied

A Giant Beanstalk and Treasure Found

I say Beanstalk but I mean Gourdstalk. Nobody thinks of Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum when they hear the word gourdstalk – if gourdstalk is even a word. But Beanstalk – this evokes giants and bravery and treasure. I’m glad for the reference because even if I didn’t deal with a mean giant or a little boy bravely taking back stolen goods, I did find treasure recently.

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The viney thing with the big green leaves growing vertically to the left of my granddaughters is a gourd. The photo does not even capture the full height of the stalk, which grew from two small seeds. A little closer up, the leaves look like this:

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The leaves are beautiful and the height is remarkable – even if it doesn’t reach up to a land high in the sky where a giant’s castle stands. But the plant is not the treasure. The treasure is whose plant it is. Last week I made new friends. Not to say I didn’t know them before. Louisa and Jake are friends of our mutual friend Millicent and I met them more than a year ago. But now they are no longer friends of a friend. Now they are simply friends. My friends. And I am theirs.

When I mentioned to Louisa that the girls and I would be passing through Charlotte, she said, “I wish you could stop in. Is there a way?”

We made a way and it was marvelous! Their kind hospitality included the best mac and cheese I have ever had, the best hot dogs I have ever had and a visit to the barn where Louisa’s horse and a pony live. The girls got to meet the pony,

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brush him,

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feed him,

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and walk with him a bit in the yard. He has not yet been trained to carry small children, but not getting to ride him in no way detracted from this experience for the girls.

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Back at the house, they stared up at the top of that amazing gourdstalk, ran around the yard and fished leaves out of the koi pond.

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The kindness shown to all of us, our time at the barn and the giggly fun we had at their house with dogs and balls and popsicles and spinning chairs — all of it was remarkable.

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Not only this, but I found in Louisa and Jake what Anne of Green Gables would have called “kindred spirits.” I felt as if I had known them for a long time, as if I could be myself, as if we were just catching up after a long absence, as if we could talk forever, which we very nearly did! I felt accepted, cared about, respected. This is what friends do! It’s so wonderful! Most amazing of all was that truly we did not know each other well at all before this visit.

I realized that this must be a bit of how my mom feels. She moved into her new home about eight months ago, not knowing anyone there before she moved in. Now she knows almost everyone in her community. She attends outings of all sorts, invites people over for dinner, says hello in the hallway to everyone she sees, works on the flower committee, reads to Evelyn (who is 101 and blind) and represents her floor in meetings that include discussion of larger issues. (And I’m sure I’m forgetting something.) In this short time, she has been asked to be in photo shoots for new marketing material and is also already on the welcoming committee, reaching out to new residents. She’s never been so happy, so involved, so engaged with the people around her.

I have dear, wonderful friends who have been in my life for decades. I count myself exceedingly blessed in this department, so much so that it could be tempting to close the door to others. Making new friends at any age can be unnerving. Opening up, taking a chance, trying something new, giving of yourself (with an uncertain outcome), going out of your way – it’s a bit risky. There’s no guarantee that you’ll connect with this person or that person. But what a treasure is found when that connection feels genuine and fun at the same time! When you smile thinking back on the time you had together. When someone who doesn’t have to care about you does anyway. When you very much look forward to next time…

Pink Hands

I love the story of the Little Red Hen. You know the one where the hardworking and foresightful Hen goes through the steps of growing wheat. She asks three other animals on the farm – the Cat, the Pig and the Duck in the version I remember – to help her plant a grain of wheat she found. She says, “Who will help me plant the seed?”

“Not I,” said the Cat. “Not I,” said the Pig. “Not I,” said the Duck.

So she does it herself. She continues to ask for help with harvesting, threshing, milling and baking, and the other animals continue to refuse to help. Finally the bread is ready to be eaten and they sure do want to help with that! Too bad! They didn’t want to help with the work, so they don’t get to enjoy the reward. The Hen shares the bread with her happy chicks.

Today was Harvest Day at Golden Hill. The beets and carrots have been doing what garden vegetables generally do if you leave them alone. (Anyone who has harvested a baseball-bat zucchini can relate!) I just didn’t get to it before now, can’t imagine why. But the beets had pushed themselves pretty much out of the ground and the carrot tops had dried up.

Here are the beets in their bed in May, in June and today:

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And the carrots in their bed in May, in June and today:

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See what I mean? I’m an amateur in the garden, but this I know: It’s time to harvest. And I had little girls happily helping me!

First we did the carrots because you have to pull harder. Little girls get tired, so let’s do the somewhat harder thing first and save the easier task for later. I loosened the soil and exposed those gorgeous orange tubers.

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Eppie didn’t want to get her hands dirty with pulling carrots, so Rise helped with this. Eppie put them in the box. Well, some of them. She found other interesting things to look at in the garden, including two worms. I wonder sometimes if some children never get to touch real worms…

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How fun it was for Rise to pull up some pretty big ones!

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Eppie was more impressed with one that was curled. And with the ants whose home we evidently disturbed. “Look, sister!”

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The ants were none too happy but they will figure it out.

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We got two boxes full of carrots, smoothed the dirt for the next planting, and said Wow! as we looked at our harvest. Rise said we should make carrot soup for dinner. We’ll see about that, but how wonderful that she is not only helping but also thinking about what to make with them.

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Onward to beets. So much easier. You don’t have to pull at all, but practically just lift them out of their nice bed,

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and twist off the green leafy part (that’s for the chickens).

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Beets are fun. Look what you get besides beets – pink hands!

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I like making little girls happy. I like making chickens happy. Look at the box of greens behind the box of beets! I know we could eat the greens too, but you have to draw the line somewhere. All those lovely beets make me so happy I can let the greens go.

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The chickens were soon very happy!

Well, each in their turn. The photo below shows the brahmas, cinnamon queens and Rhode Island Reds, which I have been lately calling Group A – will someone please help me come up with a name for this group?! They got theirs first – the beet greens and a few tomatoes that the garden turtle (remember him?) chewed off half of because they were lying on the ground because someone (I wonder who) didn’t get around to staking up the tomatoes very high either.

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See the silkies and black copper marans (Group B for Bantam?) looking through the dividing wire, longing for theirs. Hey, where’s ours? Patience, patience!

Ah! Good things come (usually) to those who wait. The chickens like the tomatoes better than the greens. But I guarantee that those greens won’t last long either.

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I think I never had a harvest of beets and carrots like this. Never so many. How blessed am I to share the experience with these lovely young ladies! Later in the week we might plant some more carrots and beets in these beds so that there will be a fall harvest. Something tells me I’ll have two good helpers!

 

 

Eye Patch Giggles

I’ve been watching my mom sporting her eye patches for over a month now. She was initially (and understandably) distressed about her eye occlusion – you would be too if a main blood vessel in your eye burst. But having the option to look hilarious and stylish at the same time overruled her inhibitions, and she jumped right on the Eye Patch Wagon. Some of you will remember this photo:day one (2).jpg

That first day she was just trying them on – and having loads of fun with her partner in crime I may add. After that she got serious about it, requesting a few adjustments such as thinner elastic on all of them and better sizing so they did not slip off. How nice to have custom-made eye patches and then be able to tweak them besides! It appears there are some benefits to being 83!

Unsurprisingly, she then began to do some serious coordinating with them. I mean, how about this for an outfit?

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Personally I think the mini watermelons were a most perfect choice for this hot July day.

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Friends and family had great fun posing with her. Clearly she was entirely comfortable embracing her disability. Rock on, Mom!

And have fun playing pirate with your great-granddaughters!

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The blue and white combo below works well and maybe doesn’t call quite as much attention to itself as the watermelons, I’ll grant. Some days you want to be striking, and some days you don’t.

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The orange and yellow flowered patch with the solid yellow shirt, lovely again. It’s hard to see but the orangey earrings go with the orange in the patch. Of course.

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I’m so happy Mom is not letting the eye situation get the better of her. She’s always been a take-the-bull-by-the-horns kind of person. It seems that she looks at it this way: If I’m going to have to wear an eye patch, I’m going to have fun with it! 

This teeny yellow plaid patch picks up the yellow flowers in the shirt in this next combination, all bright and cheery for summertime, and playing with delightfully dueling patterns. Unfortunately I was not present for the piece de resistance when she wore the purple star patch to dinner one night with a perfectly matching purple top. Downright elegant she was, so I am told.

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Mom’s patches are coordinated, yes, but most of all they are fun! They reflect the little girl inside the grown woman, the choice to giggle rather than grumble. How she looks is not about her coordinated outfits — it’s about her spirit, her heart, her joy.

All this eye patch business has made me think about how we present ourselves, what we do to hide or not hide our disabilities, our imperfections, our flaws, and where, overall, how we look fits into and reflects the scheme of things. Think about what you do to make yourself look the way you want to both at home and in public. How much do you care about and think about how you look? Do you look in the mirror and say things like:

That shirt makes me look dumpy… this one is better. 

Those pants fit better than they used to … they are not so bad now.

This coat is dated and I look like an old fart….

Just going to pick up a coffee – I’m not changing for that…

Does everyone even look in the mirror? Sometimes I wonder.

The fact is – despite the bombardment of advertising that would have us think otherwise – how we look is only a small part of who we are. My sister Lisa got Hodgkin’s disease in her early 20s. Three weeks before she died, she jokingly said to me, “Finally I’ve grown my nails and lost some weight and now I’m going to croak.” We laughed, but we both knew it’s not about what you look like. It’s about who you are inside that’s so beautiful. It’s about precious time with people you love.

I hate that Lisa died so young, I hate that I missed so many years with her. But I have never forgotten those moments we had together. Over the years the conversation morphed for me into a little voice in my head that says: Make sure you’re paying attention to what’s really important. Don’t take the good things for granted. Let the stupid stuff go. Tell the people you love that you love them – in words when words are all you have and in actions as often as possible. Make the world a better place.

Clueless Yoga

The first time I saw my son Samuel do yoga on the back deck, I was both surprised and highly impressed. That was yoga? It did not look like glorified stretching. It did not look like deep thinking. He was doing moves requiring strength, flexibility and balance. I was nuts about gymnastics back in the day, so I appreciated both the time he had clearly invested to reach this stage of proficiency and the level of difficulty he had achieved.

Subsequently he mostly went to the gym or a class, so I didn’t see him in action much more. And come to find out, I had seen him doing a sub-category of yoga called acro-yoga. Half a year ago, I convinced him to show me how his handstands were coming along. It was winter, so the living room had to do.

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Now I’m not saying he’s ready for Cirque du Soleil, but that’s a darn good handstand (which he held for about 30 seconds, by the way). Straight body, strong wrists, weight balanced over his shoulders – not at all bad. My first gymnastics teacher, when I was 12, would have approved. He was a former Chinese acrobat who made us do handstands for the first ten minutes of a one-hour class, so central, so important were they in the sport.

My second gymnastics teacher was a man named Leo who had a gym in downtown Springfield, Massachusetts, on the third floor of an old building with no air conditioning. There, during high school, after a lot of ill-timed flailing and splatting, I finally perfected a side aerial (a cartwheel without hands) – the pinnacle of my gymnastics career. It felt like flying and I will never forget it.

Though I was not destined for greatness in gymnastics, I know a thing or two about pointed toes and body positioning and timing. Some of it is like riding a bike – you don’t forget it. The muscle memory is amazing. Also amazing is the difference between what your mind wants to do and what your body allows you to do, but anyone over 30 knows this.

So I sorta, kinda know something about gymnastics, and I had a spattering of ballet training as well, but yoga (aside from Samuel’s example) was always rather a mystery. Frankly it looked boring. (And you know how I feel about boring.) Don’t those people want to move more? I always want to move. (Therefore everyone does, right?) Over time I watched people doing yoga here and there, and am older and hopefully wiser now, and I see its virtues. And yoga mats are cool.

Rise and Eppie, my darling granddaughters, are here. August is warm, and there is space outdoors. August by 10am is almost too warm and the space beckons. So why not make first thing in the morning Yoga Time?

I know: These girls would do better with a real yoga teacher. I know: I should set up the laptop and play an online yoga session for kids for them. I tried, really I did. I know how to open a YouTube video. I just couldn’t get one to open. I took it as a sign: Get out there and do something with them, amateurish as it is.

That’s when Yoga Time became Clueless Yoga Time!

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Do I have a clue what I am doing? Uh…

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You keep your weight balanced in the center, shoulders back.

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You stretch until your body says that’s far enough. You will notice in the next photo that the girls can touch their toes. They can easily touch their toes. I used to be able to do that.

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You keep straight arms and straight legs except when you mean to bend them.

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You lift up your butt and wiggle for fun!

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You point your toes whenever you remember.

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You tolerate your mat buddy.

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What do you mean? she says. It’s the only soft place out here!

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Once in a while, you lie back and enjoy the view above you.

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You say “Ta-Da!” at the end!

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I realize that all of this is glorified stretching with some giggles thrown in. But when I ask Wanna do some yoga? the girls get excited and put on their leotards. They unroll those mats and head outside. They move and stretch and balance those little bodies right along with me. We do the pencil and the whoosh and the wiggle and the up and the down. I will get some more info and we will do the dog and the cat and the table and the tree next time maybe. In the meantime, we’re having a blast even if we are clueless.