Reading lately: It’s (almost) all a mystery

It’s been awhile since I have shared recent reads, and in gathering the titles for this post it’s clear that mysteries are my current genre of choice. And why, you ask? Mysteries are my go-to when I have a lot on my mind (like moving to a new state). In a series they can be a bit addictive, individually they capture my imagination but don’t require a big mental investment from me. 

Some, like the Stephanie Plum series below or Sue Grafton’s alphabet series (A is for Alibi) or Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series are addictive. They’re fun to read, and there’s always another title to tackle. They’re like binge-watching a favorite Netflix series.

As you know, I am a huge fan of Louise Penny and her Inspector Ganache series of mysteries, so I was intrigued when she left Three Pines long enough to team up with Hilary Rodham Clinton to write State of Terror, a page turner about a newly appointed female Secretary of State defusing an international crisis. This could have been a cliche, but not in their capable hands. I’m sure co-author Clinton is one of the few people who could provide the insight into international negotiations on which this plot hinged, as well as the behind-the-scenes life of a cabinet member. Penny is the ideal co-author to deftly maneuver the plot twists and turns the book into a true who-done-it. But one of the real joys in this story is how the Secretary of State and her best friend and confidante manage the crisis. It’s two women “making the world a safer place.” This is not great literature, but it is a really good read. 

My daughter-in-law gave me The Neighbor’s Secret by L. Alison Heller. Much like Liane Moriarty, Heller has a breezy style writing about the residents of an upper class suburb and the female book club members in this novel that act as the unofficial communications/moral code police/leadership system for the community. Sound familiar? In addition to the book club, their paths intersect at school functions and social events. Their kids are friends or not. Rivalries come and go. The story begins with a handful of acts of vandalism. Who would do such a thing in this lovely community and why?  And the mystery proceeds. This may not be as gripping as Louise Penny, but it has its moments. And you may find yourself reading more just to see what happens to the book club member that reminds you so much of your next-door-neighbor. Read this on the beach this summer, then pass it on to a member of your book club. 

And while we’re on the subject of beach reads, I started reading Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series (One for the Money, Two for the Dough, etc.) on the beach in South Carolina well over a dozen years ago. Plum is a hapless Trenton, New Jersey, bounty hunter who readily admits she captures her fugitives more by luck than skill. Her sidekicks include Lula, a former ‘ho, who consumes fried chicken and various donuts to calm herself, and Stephanie’s Grandma Mazur, who never misses a viewing at Stiva’s Funeral Home. Her back-ups include Ranger, a former military type with a profitable and mysterious protection business, and Morelli, a hunky Trenton cop and her on-again, off-again boyfriend. There are a host of other regular characters too, which makes this series at once fun and a little formulaic. I read several of these mysteries (and always laughed out loud at least twice in every one) before deciding that the stories were so similar I could not remember what I’d read. And I moved on.

But then we started this moving project and I needed a light, late night reading escape when I couldn’t sleep. I discovered the series had added several new titles. Stephanie Plum had moved all the way to Game On: Tempting Twenty-Eight. So, for several weeks I was back in Trenton, catching up on Plum’s recent adventures, at least until they got a little too formulaic. 

No mystery, just a fun read

Stanley Tucci’s latest book, Taste: My Life Through Food, is essentially a biography of his family’s  love affair with cooking, the recipes handed down from his Italian grandparents to his parents to Tucci and his sisters. His focus moves from his mother’s cooking to other memorable meals — from comfort food to celebratory food. Much of it is Italian, but it’s also French, Asian, British and more. (Tucci is both well-traveled and an adventurous eater.) Some of these cooks have Michelin Stars, some are preparing their mother’s treasured recipes in their own kitchen. If you watched “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy” on CNN, you got a taste (no pun intended) of his appreciation of food and culture. This was a fun read — Tucci writes like he talks in the CNN series. He drops just enough Hollywood and Broadway names to keep the reader waiting for more, and he includes a number of recipes, his own and others from the chefs in the book.

What’s next? 

Here are a few on my short list:

  • London, the Novel by Edward Rutherford. You may recall I had a very slow start to his Paris book but then loved it, so I’m looking forward to London;
  • The Sentence by Louise Erdrich. Erdrich is a favorite author and this book is also featured in a recent issue of “Shelf Awareness” by Page 1 Books;
  • Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones, recommended by Modern Mrs. Darcy, among others. My book club loved his American Marriage; and
  • A Flicker in the Dark by Stacy Willingham, a Book of the Month pick from my daughter-in-law.

What are you reading and/or recommending now? I’d love to hear!

Thanks for stopping by!

The reset part 3: Moving out, moving on 

Are you getting tired of our reset yet? Considering we sold one house, packed it up, and bought another house so quickly, it’s taking a long time to tell the story. But one look at this photo of one of the two pods we needed to hold all our “worldly goods” and you know there’s a tale worth telling. 

This is a terrible photo but it shows how tightly the pods were packed. I’m not sure why we brought the vintage Tonka truck, but it explains the space crunch. Moving is always about the “keep it or ditch it” decision.

When we moved in the past there was a fairly straightforward process — load a truck at house A, drive it to house B, and unload. This move was complicated since we knew we’d have an interim stay at our son’s rental. The plan was to pack and store most of our stuff and move just the basics into the rental. 

It seemed so simple. 

The familiar cross-country moving companies were happy to accommodate this plan, and their cost for the move was what we expected. But storage would cost about $1,000 a month! At the time we didn’t know if storage would last two months or ten. Our realtors urged us to consider pods. They had used pods as had some clients. After more research, we decided to go ahead with this. The plan was to have one pod delivered at a time (that was all we could fit in our driveway), followed by a crew to load. The first pod would get picked up and we’d repeat the process. 

Putting the plan into action

The first of two pods being delivered. We had sold the furniture from two bedrooms and moved dozens of boxes into storage. We thought we’d only need part of the second pod.

By the time we actually moved, we had settled on a new build in the Columbus area that would be ready later this spring. We’d be in the rental for more than a month but hopefully less than two. We also had purged, packed and purged some more to stage the house. You may remember from part 2 that our son made two trips to take boxes and a few pieces of furniture to Columbus to use at the rental. 

We still had a few hiccups:

  • At my daughter’s urging, we created a spread sheet of all the boxes — their contents and the room the contents came from. Each box was numbered. (She’s an excellent planner.) However, as my family loaded the boxes onto the trailers that my son drove to Columbus they did not note the numbers of the boxes. It will be a surprise when we open them! 
  • The crews that loaded the pods were so efficient, they loaded some boxes we wanted to take ourselves. This is how I lost my can opener, and whatever else was packed with it. They also loaded two cartons of furniture pads which — luckily —we were able to retrieve. 
  • My husband’s heavy tools and my oversized patio pots took a lot of pod space. My basket collection and other oversized accessories took more room to pack than I had planned on. Full disclosure: we seriously underestimated just how much of this there was.

The crew that loaded the pods wrapped and taped the wrapping on every piece of furniture, even finding ways to wrap and pack those inevitable pieces you don’t know what to do with. They were working “by the hour” but they hustled the whole time. Although, as these pictures will attest, the back end of the pods looked stuffed, they were careful to pack boxes and furniture tightly so nothing could shift or move. 

The moment of truth

As the packing crew shoehorned the last items on the second pod — and I do mean they shoehorned some things into place — and locked it, we turned around to discover that our porch furniture, my husband’s bike, and a brand new snow blower were still in the garage. My  heart sank to my knees. We had already packed our cars with clothes, leftover groceries, and kitchen essentials. 

My husband had seen this coming and called a local self-storage location and rented a small locker. We stayed with friends that night and the next morning Steve rented a small truck and, with our friend’s help, moved the garage leftovers into that locker. It was a bummer to realize we’d have to deal with those things, but at least were we done.

So, now we had a storage locker in Wheaton, one in Columbus, and two pods in limbo. (Should I worry that all our worldly goods are spread out like this?) But the house was almost clean. It’s amazing. You purge and pack and there’s still a bottle of Tylenol in the bathroom, miscellaneous groceries in the kitchen, a towel in the bathroom (I threw it away!) etc. My advice will forever and always be to pack early and purge more. 

Are you getting tired? Because by now I was exhausted. I hired a cleaning team to come thru the house, and they did a great job (except for the part where they blocked the driveway for the last pod to be picked up!). They even gathered the miscellaneous bar of soap, roll of tape and pens left behind in drawers. Too bad they did not get the KitchenAid mixer left in a kitchen cabinet! 

We were done and done in. We swept out the garage, hauled the garbage to the street and left. And honestly? I did not feel a bit sentimental leaving the house. We had lived with boxes instead of our books, packing instead of our pictures, etc., for so long this house no longer seemed like ours anyway. 

But, of course, the story doesn’t end with driving away. I still have not found my can opener and we never even realized the mixer was gone until three days later when our realtor texted to say the new owners had found it on their walk thru. Steve and I looked at each other and said, “Wow, I wondered where it was…” 

Thank you for taking the time to follow our story. I promise to change the topic to something more interesting the next time. See you then!

The reset, part 2

As I was writing this post about part 2 of our reset, Russia invaded Ukraine. My heart aches for the tens of thousands of Ukrainians who have fled their homes and their country. At the same time I am in awe of their bravery, resilience, and even defiance. So often, it seems, we see the best of people in the worst of times. 

Selling was easy. Finding another house was the “challenge. “ 

Most people find a new home first and then sell their current home. We flipped that process. It wasn’t intentional, but that’s the way it worked out. Frankly, we took advantage of a fast-moving market in Chicagoland where we were selling. The market in Columbus was equally competitive, but here we have the advantage of accessible short-term housing in our son’s rental property, which was coincidentally available. We’re lucky, because finding a home was an exercise in flexibility.

Our initial home search in Columbus had turned up options, but nothing we wanted to move into.  As it turned out, the day our old house went on the market, we retuned to Columbus for more searching. The next two days were a split screen adventure. The whole time we were out looking (but not finding) with the realtor, our phones were pinging to alert us to appointments to view our existing home. (Stressful even as our Chicagoland realtors handled the responses.)

Just to make life more interesting, the temperature was hovering in the teens and the heat stopped working in my husband’s car. (Are we having fun yet?) Within 48 hours we were on a conference call with the Chicago area realtors, debating a handful of offers. 

Buying is all about compromise.

The market in Columbus is as tight as that in Chicago, but our realtor did an excellent job of reading the marketplace tea leaves as well as Steve and me. We gravitated to “patio homes” — free-standing ranch homes with exterior maintenance included. Depending on the builder and the development, these communities may also include a community center, work-out facility, pool, pickle ball court, etc. Some are as small as 40 for 50 houses, others have as many as a few hundred. Some are limited to buyers over 55, some are not. 

The houses we looked at were all nice, offering first floor master suites, guest rooms with private baths, a den or office, and often a roomy upstairs loft for a second living space. We saw several I could have happily moved into — except for their locations: surrounded by apartment complexes, backed up to busy highways or under high tension wires. I kept repeating the real estate mantra to myself: location, location, location.

This kitchen was very close to what we had in our former house, and featured a working pantry to keep the “mess” out of view. The price point was too high, but it will always be the pantry that got away.

Our other option was a three bedroom/two bath ranch. It was non-existent on the market, though we did eventually see one under construction. We only looked at three previously owned houses, all of them patio homes. There just wasn’t anything on the market. Is this January or the marketplace in general?

Obviously we were looking for a new build.

Eventually we boiled our choices down to two builders with appealing locations and spent time with each of them, working thru options from lot choice and siding to trim packages. Steve and I are like-minded about much of this, so the process was not necessarily painful and we knew it was all tentative. But then we hit a wall. 

And every house had a large television hung on the wall(s). Am I being too fussy? It’s all I can see in the room.

And the wall had a huge calendar on it.

Building from the ground up takes close to a year, from final plans to permitting to construction. Today’s supply chain and labor shortages complicate these schedules, and builders only release two or three lots each month. After all the looking and learning, we both came to the same conclusion at about the same time: we just didn’t want to spend a year building a house. We are both a little (maybe even a lot) impatient. After nearly two years of pandemic living we needed to keep the reset moving forward.

Were we making progress or spinning our wheels?

Things begin falling into place.

After a few days of decision paralysis, we took a deep breath and headed back to Columbus and our tireless realtor, this time looking for something already under construction, but perhaps not our ideal floorplan. We found a house by one of the builders we liked. It was in an over 55 community (not a pre-requisite, but not a deal breaker either). There were no high-tension wires, busy highways, or looming apartment complexes outside the front or back doors. In fact the setting was fairly bucolic with a stocked pond and walking trails.

After looking at the second house — and we really scrutinized it — Steve and I and the realtor got back in the car and headed to the next house we’d planned to view. We were each quietly weighing the merits of this last house when one of us (I can’t remember who) posed the question: was there a reason not to choose the patio home in the over-55 community? It checked all our boxes for living space and bedrooms, the kitchen design was very close to what we had and loved, we liked the location, and it would be finished in late April, a reasonable wait in our son’s rental since we needed to be out of our current home the first week in March. 

It takes a certain amount of imagination to choose a house based on this network of studs. Where does the sofa go?

For the sake of comparison, we finished that day’s “tour” looking at two more houses. The first was nestled close to the dreaded high-tension wires (really, they were everywhere!!). The last was a three bedroom/three bath ranch under construction in a more traditional development. It was a great house, but frankly just more house and more lot than we need. Five or ten years ago, I would have jumped at it, now not so much. And maybe our minds were made up. 

So now we are living in Columbus and waiting for the house with the alternate floorplan to be finished. We just stopped by and the painters are finishing up the window trim; we think floors are next. We’ve never owned a “new build” before, so this is fun for us.

Our quest for a reset was never about building a dream home, and I think that was to our advantage. When we switched floorpans, we gave up a butler’s pantry but got a sunroom and a patio. We traded locations from one 20 minutes north of our kids to one 20 minutes east. Neither one was a bad trade off.  And the over-55 thing? Five or six years ago I would have pooh-poohed the idea. Now I think that since everyone is new (many of them also new to Columbus as we are and on the same “get-close-to-the-grandchildren” mission), we’ll make friends quickly. And when we get tired of hanging out with the over-55 crowd, our kids and our grandkids are just down the road. 

There’s more to come in this moving story, including two packed moving pods, a storage space for leftovers, the Kitchen Aid mixer we left behind, and a missing can opener. But without a few missteps, moving would be almost simple, right?

Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon

The re-set

Yes, that’s a For Sale sign in front of our house. Read on for part one of our “downsizing” to “right-sizing” journey.

The term “downsizing” has been part of our household vocabulary for some time. My husband wanted to. Me? Not so much. My reluctance had nothing to do with a sentimental attachment to our house. My objection was that we didn’t know where or to what we would downsize. 

It turns out I am perfectly capable of changing my mind.  I am surprised to admit I am willing to forego a large yard and space we are really beginning to rattle around in for the allure of something smaller, probably newer and with the exterior maintenance cared for by someone else. 

But here is the rub. Most people have a plan: moving to Florida, or Arizona, the mountains in North Carolina, etc. We have never had a plan, and, frankly, none of those usual destinations were appealing to us. We thought about the Charleston area in South Carolina. It’s been our favorite vacation destination for years. And we did look around there, but it’s pricey close to the beach and it’s farther from our kids than we are now. Of course we thought about staying in the Chicago area, but oddly enough there was not much to look at. 

One thing about even starting to look was that it got us talking — a lot! We realized that we really wanted to be close to our grandsons in Columbus, Ohio, before they outgrow us. And I would be foolish indeed not to admit that this decision has been driven at least in part by the pandemic isolation of the last few years. 

We need a change; call it a re-set. 

Leaving a home we’ve enjoyed for 35 years and a community we’ve called home for 40 years is   bittersweet. It’s also energizing to think about a new house & new community. We will probably be in an area with walking and biking trails, perhaps a golf course. Columbus is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country and home to my husband’s alma mater. We will not lack for things to do. 

Once we decided we had a direction to move in, we just kept going. We did some preliminary looking in Columbus to see what our options would really be and called in realtors to give us direction on selling our house — when, how much, what preparations the house needed before sale. We were lucky; last year’s buyers’ market had never really slowed. If anything, there was less real estate inventory available. After totally renovating our kitchen a few years back, we had repainted the rest of the interior in the light gray and white palette so popular today. Our biggest task was decluttering and removing furniture to make way for some strategic staging the realtors planned. Every shelf, drawer, and closet was an exercise in decision-making: keep, sell, donate, or dump?

The packing process is so glamorous!

In the meantime, we went back to Columbus to meet with a realtor and look at houses. The realtor was terrific — a saint I’d say to work with us — but looking was hard. It was cold, it was wet, the days were short. (We used the flashlight apps on our phones to tour a few homes under construction.) The sellers market here and in Ohio made for a poor buyers market in Ohio. There just wasn’t anything to look at. We had to really think about what would make us comfortable and what we could trade off if necessary.

Back home, we just kept packing. All those dishes, my party closet with the traveling wine glasses, and all the books I had determined I was not going to give up. Meanwhile my husband began to mine the tools in the garage and basement. We could have opened a hardware store but managed to sell a few and give others away. The same for more of the dishes, some of our “wedding crystal” and even my grandmother’s china cabinet. Not to worry, we saved more than we gave up and the young woman who bought the china cabinet was clearly thrilled. I’m glad it went to a good home. 

166 boxes later…

Our garage/storage center. By the time I took this photo, a few dozen boxes had already been moved to Ohio.

Our daughter, who lives in Chicago, and our son and daughter-in-law in Columbus have been hugely supportive. Our son moved about half the boxes and some miscellaneous furniture to a storage locker in Ohio. Our daughter rented another locker in the city and took some things she wanted but had no room for right now. My husband made run after run to recycle electronics, hazardous waste (mostly in half-empty bottles and cans from the garage — ewww!) and then there were the Goodwill giveaways. Whew!

With stacks of boxes and extraneous furniture piled up in the garage, the house went on the market and sold as quickly as the realtors here predicted — while we were house hunting again in Columbus.

With step 1 — Selling — off our list, we really had to focus on step 2 — Buying or Building? Stay tuned for the next chapter, when decision paralysis temporarily fogs our path forward and the calendar gives us a firm nudge.  

Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon.

Rufrums, poobas snd gloots

The rufrum biggled the pooba.

This is one of my favorite sentences. I discovered it in a grammar text a lifetime ago when I taught freshman composition. We may not know what rufrum, biggled or pooba means, but the sentence makes sense. You know it’s complete if you just  replace the nonsense words with something that makes sense: The cook fried the chicken, The mechanic changed the tire. The teacher gathered the students. It’s a complete thought. Period. 

But, wait. It gets better. How about “The rufrum biggled the pooba while kerpestering the gloots.” This could be “The cook fried the chicken while supervising his assistants.” Going back to the mechanic, it could read “The mechanic changed the tire while I waited.” Or “The teacher gathered the students while heading to the library.”

Life is rarely the simple sentence or the complete thought. It’s often complicated, even messy, and someone always biggles the pooba while you’re kerpestering the gloots.  

This fall has been like that. We have had some difficult losses. My oldest friend ever, the one I’ve known since I was four, lost her husband of 50 years to breakthrough Covid. There are no words. This was followed by two more losses. (My grandmother always said grief happens in three’s. Julia knew her stuff.) The rufrum biggled the pooba while kerpestering the gloots. 

But life goes on and we soldier forward. We visited our kids in Columbus and had a dinner party. We went antiquing, out to dinner, and met friends in the city. We puttered around the house, made chili and soup. We went downtown to Chicago Shakespeare. Right now, I’m recovering from cataract surgery. (One eye done, the other in about 10 days). I was totally unimpressed when the ophthamologist suggested this. But in glass-half-full mode, I may not need anything more than stylish readers in the future. Wouldn’t that be fun? More rufrums and gloots. 

This has been a bittersweet season. A dear friend suffered a massive brain trauma twelve days ago, but this morning he’s opening his eyes. Life changes on a dime. Today my friend-since-I-was-four told me she sold her husband’s car, then excused herself to go inside and have a cry. Then we shared a few good laughs over the FaceTime antics of our grandchildren and reminisced about her sister biting the dentist. 

Most sentences, like most emotions, are pretty complex. There is solace in quiet moments, comfort in family and friends, and sometimes you just have to pull up your big girl pants and keep moving because the rufrums, poobas and gloots are always out there. 

Here’s to a new week and a sweet start to the holiday season around the corner. Thanks for stopping by.

A bookish dilemma  

The last month has had its challenges. As a result my writing muscle got a little lazy. But it’s getting back in shape, and I have a reading dilemma to discuss.

Do you ever find it hard to get “into” a book?

I’m sure this happens to all of us. Sometimes a book just doesn’t click, And that’s okay. We all don’t have to read the same tings. But if you give it a second or even a third chance and you actually read and enjoy it, you have to wonder how many other books have you passed up? That’s dilemma #1.

A few years ago (or maybe more than that) my son recommended Edward Rutherford’s historical novel, Paris. So I picked up a copy and tried to read it, but I just couldn’t get into it: its 800 pages cover Parisian history through the lives of two families from some year in the 6th century to the 1990’s. It was daunting. There was always something more urgent/fun/appealing to read, so I put it aside.  

But Paris taunted me as it languished on my nightstand shelf in one of my to-be-read piles. I couldn’t  bring myself to give it away, but I also was not willing to crack it open again — until late this summer…

I decided to give Paris another try and gave myself permission to just skip the first few chapters, and jump in. (Note: my personal reading rules do not typically permit any shortcuts, but I granted an exception here.And this solved one of my dilemmas.) That jump-start worked, and I got hooked on the story (and also eventually went back and re-read those earlier chapters). Part of this may be that I just love France, including Paris, and if I could not visit in person then I would do so by book. But the story also hooks you with fictional families that flirt on the periphery of French history. One sent a daughter to the Court at Versailles, another worked with Monsieur Eiffel on his tower. The characters are all fictitious, but the history is real. It’s an interesting concept. I’m trying to decide which of Rutherford’s books to read next. Have you read any of them? Do you have a favorite? 

One author, two books

You may recall that in August I wrote here about reading The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. The bestseller is the story of the Vignes sisters, identical twins growing up in a small, Southern African American community who run away at 16. Initially they stick together, but one discovers she can pass as white and runs away again to create a new life. This is a story about identity and reinvention. My book group loved The Vanishing Half; it offered  a lot to discuss.

My daughter liked The Vanishing Half so much that she went on to read another, earlier novel by Brit Bennett, The Mothers. She liked it even better and passed it on to me. And guess what? I like it even better too. Of course, just because Mag and I might rank one book as better than another, is no reason for anyone else to do so. 

This got me thinking…

Why do we rank books at all? And how much do publishers and press agents, etc., determine the best sellers we read? I think we all tend to pick up books — both fiction and non-fiction — that have a buzz about them. They show up in popular magazines, on talk shows, in splashy bookstore promos. They’re often award winners or by tried and true authors. But I wonder how many good reads are slipping past because they may not have the same fanfare. (Dilemma #2: how do you find them?)

Lately I’ve paid more attention to recommendations from Modern Mrs. Darcy,  a lifestyle blog with a heavy emphasis on reading. I also read Shelf Awareness from Page 1 Books. (Please note that both blogs have a sales component, but buying is not a prerequisite for reading them. And, they support independent bookstores. A real bonus in my eyes.) They are not recommending the same books, so I think I’m getting a broader look at what’s out there. Mrs. Darcy does not rely solely on new books. A real bonus — there re so many good books already in print. Not every good read has to be a new release.

Why or how do we choose what we read? And I’m thinking here about choices beyond what the book club may be reading this month. Are you reading for information, entertainment, research? My guess is that our reasons for reading shift a lot. During the worst of the pandemic, I really just wanted to escape and entertain myself with a good story. For me that’s often a mystery or a biography. Lately I’ve begun to look more for information. Perhaps the pall of the pandemic is lifting from my brain a bit.

I’m frankly curious: has your reading changed over the last 18 or 20 months? And if so, how? Who and/or what is your source for reading recommendations? I’m just curious (my mother would say snoopy.) I’d really like to know.

Thanks for stopping by. Have a great week!

Thinking out loud

We’ve enjoyed one beautiful, warm, September day after another here. I’ve been cleaning up the garden, thinking about what I might do different next year, and pondering a few other things.

Gracious living

My late, great friend Sherry was a stickler for “gracious living.” In her book, gracious did not necessarily mean a lot of money (though that would be nice), but it did mean extra effort: candles on the table, fresh flowers (most likely from the grocery store) and cloth napkins. I was reminded of her mantra last week as I lit a handful of votives on the table before we sat down to burgers. Candlelight wasn’t going to turn the burger into a steak, but, hey, we wanted burgers. It’s the “extra” that counts. 

When my son and daughter were in grade school, we tripped into having Sunday dinners in the dining room, complete with candles and the good dishes. (This began with a Yule Log they wanted to light, Christmas dishes, and the good silver. A tale too long to tell here.) And we did that most Sundays at least until the older of the two left for college. 

Last winter during the pandemic my husband and I brought the tradition back just for us. 

I hear a lot of talk on Instagram and in blogland saying much the same thing. Why are we saving the “good stuff”? And it’s all good stuff, whether it’s your grandmother’s heirloom Haviland, your wedding china, or the new plates and mugs your found at HomeGoods to replace the chipped and discolored dishes that have established their residence in your kitchen.

,What is it about the dining room and/or the good china that makes us slow down, enjoy the wine, and linger over the conversation? At least in part I think, it’s just that. We slow down and breathe a little deeper. There is a comfort in tradition — in gracious living — and lately we have lost so much of that.

Obviously, we’ve lost a lot to the pandemic. And maybe almost as much to the pitched political battle that has permeated most of our life for the last few years. I long for a little more grace and I’m looking in new places to find it. If you have some ideas please share them.  

Doing something good about the bad news 

The news has been grim: fires in the west, flooding in the east, the pandemic that does not end. So, last week, I was thrilled to wrap my hands around something I really could do. I shopped to fill two school backpacks with a list of school necessities — everything from pencils and erasers to 3-ring binders and paper, paper, paper. I did this at the request of two much smarter and proactive friends who wanted to do something for the Afghan refugees headed this way. So they talked to one of the agencies who will be helping settle these families and found this was a way to help. It didn’t require a conference call or adding a line item to a budget somewhere. Two women emailed a supply list to their friends and invited them to help. So far they’ve acquired dozens of backpacks.

This is not about taking sides on international policy. The deed is done and now we do what we can to help.  

I can’t think of a better closing line, so I’m going to quit while I’m ahead. Best wishes to you for a wonderful weekend. Thank you so much for stopping by. I look forward to seeing you here again soon.

Cooking from the garden

BasilBucket

Vegetable gardening is always a mixed bag of success. One year you get buckets of tomatoes, the next year just a handful, but enough green beans to feed the neighborhood. Never count your vegetables until after the harvest. 

 After years of his vegetable garden, my husband seems to have discovered the secret to successfully cultivating green peppers. At least this year. I’m calling it benign neglect. We came home from a two-week trip to South Carolina and picked a bucket full. That’s more than we’ve ever had, but that was just one load. The pepper plants have continued to produce. So, we have had fajitas and stuffed peppers, which I had actually not made before. (Sorry, no pictures — they tasted great but were not remotely photogenic.) Here’s my current pepper stash (along with a few tomatoes and one lonely lime). 

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I’m told I can just chop peppers up and freeze them to use later in soups and stews this winter. I’m going to give this a try. 

But basil is another story

When all else fails, the basil keeps coming. And coming. For that reason it’s fun to grow, but then what to do with it? Crank up the pesto machine. 

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I made my first pesto last year. In the past when recipes called for a dab of pesto to finish off a soup, etc., I just used some from the grocery store. However, as I have learned more (and experimented more) with adding layers of flavor to my cooking, I’ve begun to appreciate this flavor booster.

Last year I made a small-ish batch of pesto and froze it by dropping tablespoon-sized dollops on a parchment-lined sheet pan, freezing them quickly, then storing the frozen tablespoons in a plastic container. I pulled the pesto out by the “tablespoon” as needed. What a great resource! It didn’t take up much freezer space at all and it was perfect to put a finishing touch on soup or add extra flavor to bruschetta.

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This year I’m upping my pesto game with bigger batches. Right now I have one jar in the fridge and 4 more in the freezer for friends. We have so much basil, I’m sure I’ll make anther batch to freeze the tablespoon measures for this winter.

We’re calling this Porch Pasta

This recipe is a good example of cooking from the garden or the farmer’s market. It uses fresh tomatoes and zucchini along with the pesto.

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I browned a pound of mild Italian sausage and added a zucchini that I had quartered the long way, then cut into half-inch dice. I stirred this combo around a bit until the zucchini was just lightly browned, then added a cup of roughly diced fresh tomatoes. While I was working on this I also cooked a box of rigatoni in a large pot of boiling water, just until al dente. I saved a cup of the pasta water (in case I needed it to loosen up the sauce), then drained the pasta and added it to the sausage/zucchini/tomato mixture. Depending on how much pasta you want, you may or may not use all the rigatoni. (I aim for the pasta to be about half of this dish. You may like more.) Next I added a generous tablespoon — make that two — of pesto.

The pesto adds a bit of creaminess to the pasta as well as flavor. I think the sausage and the pesto flavor the dish perfectly without blunting the freshness of the tomatoes and zucchini. But you could add a pinch of red pepper flakes to the browning sausage. With a green salad on the side, this was a simple and really fresh supper.

No pesto but still delicious

GreenBeanCapreseFinally, friends stopped by late Sunday afternoon for a casual supper and I served this Green Bean Caprese Salad  with burgers. The recipe is from Chris at The Cafe Sucre Farine  (whom you should be following whether you like to cook or just have to sometimes). She also included the recipe for lemon-basil oil to use as a light dressing. This salad was a big hit and such a welcome change from potato salad and/or baked beans. Plus, isn’t it pretty? 

And that wraps up August. I always consider this month bittersweet. Summer is sadly winding down but school is starting and I always loved that anticipation. August 31st was my favorite uncle’s birthday. Bill would have been 102 this year. (Yikes!) He taught me to swing a bat, ice skate and even can tomatoes. His simple, straightforward faith carries me along on the toughest days. He’s been gone for a long time, but then again he’s always with me.

Thanks for stopping by. Have a great week, and I’ll see you again soon!

A day at the (art) museum

BisaDetailHi. Before I say another word, I need to apologize for my last post. “Good Stuff” probably arrived in your inbox riddled with typos and crazy mixed up type. I can’t believe this happened, but I hit publish instead of review. And out it went. I’m so embarrassed. I realized my mistake immediately, but it was too late. I did clean up the mess on my website, so if you read the post at ivyandironstone.com, you saw the corrected version. 

On with today’s post. I’m so excited to share this. 

Earlier this week I met two of my best-ever friends (the kind from the first day of high school!) downtown at Chicago’s Art Institute. Our goal was to see the Obama presidential portraits and then hopefully take in another exhibit on quilts. It turned out to be quite a day. 

The Obama portraits were more interesting in person that we expected. Like us, you have probably already seen them in the media. They are not typical presidential portraits. The artists — Kehinde Wiley for former President Barrack Obama and Amy Sherald for former First Lady Michele Obama — are the first African Americans commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to create official portraits of a president or first lady.  

Mr. Obama’s pose was familiar — seated, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, as if he’s ready to engage with the viewer. The portrait is really large, commanding even, and maybe a little imposing. I’ve been curious about the leafy background since the painting was revealed. The artist used it to work in flowers representative of places in the president’s life, including Chicago, Hawaii, and his father’s native Africa.

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Mrs. Obama’s portrait is also non-traditional. I imagine most viewers are initially struck by her gray skin, a trademark of the artist. According to the Art Institute, Sherald  does this “as a nod to these historical photographs and a reminder of the relative absence of African Americans in the history of painted portraits, but also to relieve her subjects from the internal and external limits imposed by the construct of race.” Interesting, huh? The hair, the expression, and the African-inspired fabric of her dress are all very much Michelle Obama. And purposeful. Interestingly, the background on her portrait is just blue. The blank but colorful background is another hallmark of artist Sherald.

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Chicago was just the first stop for these portraits.  They’re traveling on to the Brooklyn Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, High Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Bisa Butler’s portrait quilts

I’m not sure what we expected from this exhibit, but it wasn’t close to as extraordinary as these quilts proved to be. Artist Bisa Butler constructs her quilt portraits from bits and pieces of fabric, from the finest details of a facial expression to the puffiest sleeve on a dress. I tried to show some of the detail in the first photo, above. 

Although each work is strictly fabric, she approaches each piece as she would a painting, often working from a found photograph and selecting fabrics as an artist selects paint pigments. Butler incorporates kente cloth and wax-printed African fabrics in her quilts, using bright jewel tones rather than more traditional shades to depict skin tones. She believes this conveys the emotions of her subjects —who may be everyday people or historical figures. Look at the range of expression on the faces of the children in this quilt, Safety Patrol, which opened the exhibit (and knocked our socks off from the start.). 

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This quilt is based on an old photograph. The tulle on the hats is a three-dimensional addition. I love how naturally the women are posed.

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We were struck by the detail on the mother’s dress. Once again, the pose is so natural. Look st Dad, holding his daughter still

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I love the fabric layering and detail in each quilt and the remarkably life-like poses. (Look at the feet in each quilt!) I have always considered quilting as a precious part of our American heritage: a necessity for frugal homemakers to use what they had and an evolving craft reflecting historical moments as well as an art form. Bisa Butler’s work redefines the medium.  I’ve spent a lot of time studying these images, trying to grasp both her vision as she approaches each quilt and then the skill and artistry to select and assemble the fabrics.

That’s all I have right now. I hope you are having a good week. Thanks for stopping by and I’ll see you again soon.   

Good stuff! 

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Are you keeping cool? It’s hot and humid here, a good day to stay inside with a good book or maybe an organization project. Here are some bits & pieces I’ve been thinking about lately. 

This hat

I’ve been on the hunt for the right summer hat for years it seems. Something to shade my face, but not look like Scarlett O’Hara. Something that stays on my head but is more attractive than a baseball cap (my usual go-to). As a bonus, something that would work beyond the beach would be great. Thanks to a tip from Cindy Hattersley (check out her blog here and her Instagram here for serious inspiration) I ordered this hat by Wallaroo on Amazon. It’s perfect. I rolled it up & stuffed it into my backpack for our flights, and it readily snapped right back into shape. It’s cool and comfortable, with a drawstring inside the brim to tweak the fit. It came in a ton of colors. I ordered mine in this mid-brown, kind of tweedy look that goes with everything. Now, I’m thinking of a second one,  but I’ll have to start all over picking a color. 

Dressed up mac & cheese 

MaCheeseGood old mac & cheese is showing up on menus everywhere, often gussied up with lobster or shrimp, you name it. I previewed a menu at a Kiawah restaurant and read a review that raved about their mac & cheese side. (Southern cooks really do love their sides, with everything from a sandwich to fried chicken.) So, I ordered it. One taste quickly won me over, and my husband — who foolishly ordered fries with his pulled pork sandwich — accepted my offer of a taste and kept coming back for more! 

This was three-cheese mac with fresh basil. So now, of course, we experimented  here. I started with Ina Garten’s recipe for mac & cheese from Barefoot Contessa Family Style. She uses freshly shredded cheddar and Gruyerre. (I also used cavatappi instead of regular mac, per Ina.) Then once we got the cheese sauce on the cooked mac, we filled a ramekin with the cheesy mac and added basil chiffonade until we got the right taste. (We actually dumped the ramekin of mac into a bowl and then added basil for easy mixing and tasting.)  We  used 3/4 cup of fresh basil chiffonade per recipe to get the right flavor mix.  That’s a lot of basil, but we think we nailed it. I’m looking forward to serving it soon. (Plus, anything served in an individual ramekin is just so cool! )

These shoes

ShoesI love these shoes — this is my third pair. They are Tulip by Ilse Jacobsen. I bought my first pair, in a bright pinky-red, to take along on a trip to Europe as my alternative walking shoes. They were so comfortable I wore them almost every day on  a four-week trip thru France, walking over cobblestones, city streets and everything in between. The uppers are made from recycled microfiber; the outsole is natural rubber, and they are stitched, not glued. My only complaint was that by the next summer they were beginning to show some dirt that I just couldn’t clean off. I solved that problem by buying another pair in black; the red ones became my go-get-the-mail, water the yard, run to the store shoes. I’d been thinking of another pair this year, maybe in blue (to wear with jeans). But I found this green or mayube khaki color while on vacation. The saleswoman suggested they may be more versatile and I think she’s right. You can find them at Nordstrom, Zappos, Soft Surroundings or lots of independent shoe stores, which is where I got mine. 

What I read on the beach

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz is about Jacob Finch Bonner, a once promising novelist with a now floundering career teaching in a minor writing program at a remote college. Bonner borrows the can’t -miss plot of a former student who has died, develops it into a New York Times bestseller, now destined for the big screen. Not only has he found fame and fortune, he’s also found his soulmate. Life is good — until he begins to get mysterious messages accusing him of stealing the plot. This is a page-turner with an interesting take on writing, publishing, and especially social media with a cool twist at the end. 

Then I read The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. It’s on bestseller and “must read” list everywhere. My book group discussed it last week. The Vignes sisters are identical twins growing up together in a small, Southern Black community who run away at age 16. They stick together, struggling to find work and keep a roof over their heads until Stella discovers she can pass as white and, essentially, runs away again to create a new life. Desiree maintains her racial identity and, after years away, returns to her hometown with her daughter. What does it cost Stella to maintain her lifelong secret? And what does it cost Desiree to come back home?  Theire’s a lot to think about and discuss  here.

So, that’s the good stuff. I hope you enjoyed and I look forward to seeing you again soon. Thanks for stopping by.