Sidetracked by a new recipe, a DIY and two unlikely books

It’s been hot. I’ve been bored. The blog post I’ve been planning just isn’t coming together. Like a kid getting sidetracked from a deadline on a school project, I find I’m easily distracted. And so this is what I’ve been up to.

The recipe

These are perfect conditions for me to start puttering in the kitchen. (Cooking requires you to focus on the task in front of you and take a mental break from everything else.) I had seen a recipe for Fresh Summer Tomato Sauce on Jenny Steffens Hobick’s blog, Everyday Occasions . (Her recipes are delicious and she’s generous about sharing tips for success.) I was intrigued by this recipe, because it has only four ingredients! Check it out here; I don’t want to spoil the fun.

This sauce was delicious, easy, and so fresh!! I served it with penne, some meatballs from the freezer, and beans from Steve’s garden. Next, I want to try it with homemade meatballs and polenta, a fairly hearty appetizer we sometimes share at a local restaurant. I’ve been thinking that a slightly larger serving of meatballs and a vegetable on the side could turn that appetizer into an entree.

Polishing silver

Have you ever made DIY silver polish with a quart of boiling water, a tablespoon of baking soda and a foil-lined bowl? This is a recipe I saw on the web a few years ago. I tried it out with a bunch of silver-plate flatware I had forgotten about in the basement. I dropped a few pieces at a time into the hot water bath, and the results were amazing. Although I still use the traditional paste polish when I have the time, this has been my secret go-to when I need to clean a few pieces in a hurry.

It is especially effective with this woven silver basket. (Yes, I also polished some silver.) This was a wedding gift from a special friend in my earliest basket-collecting career. It’s a challenge to clean, so briefly dipping it in this bath has been a lifesaver. My basket used to make appearances on only the most special occasions; now it hangs out on the coffee table or a side table all the time!

Connecting the dots between books

I think I already shared with you that recently one of my reading groups discussed Katherine Graham’s autobiography, Personal History. We had all loved “The Post” with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks and wanted to learn more about Kay Graham. We came away impressed with what Graham accomplished, especially with regard to the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. Her father owned the Washington Post and turned it over to her husband, Philip Graham. Kay took over when Phil died unexpectedly. She make it profitable for the first time, stuck to the Post’s editorial principles and drove two of the most significant stories in the 1960’s and 70’s, making it one of the most powerful and respected papers in the country.

Hold that thought.

Next we read The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s post WWI novel that captures the essence of an era and a class of people. Jay Gatsby and Tom and Daisy Buchanan were all about money — new money and old money. But they were incredibly careless people, and not just careless with things or money. They were careless with the truth and with people’s lives. Fitzgerald’s prose is magical but these are not likable characters.

Taken together these two books share so much about power and money done right and done wrong. What an interesting dilemma for the times in which we live.

It’s finally a little cooler here. I hope it is where you are, too. Thanks for stopping by. See you next time?

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Keeping my cool

Despite my affection for a Carolina beach in the summer, I am not a hot weather girl when I’m in the midwest.

I sweat (even my eyeballs) and get beet red. And that’s just working in the garden on a typical summer day. I’m an upper-seventies to lower-eighties girl, so the recent string of temperatures in the high nineties (which feels like some heinous number over 100 when the local meteorologists start adding in humidity, corn sweat and other variables) has been a challenge. In Chicago we’ve had a brief respite Monday, but the heat is back today.

Okay. I need to stop whining. It’s July, it’s supposed to be hot. So, what have I been up to in this heat?

First, I played with the hose. We have not had much rain, and although the garden beds seem to be doing okay (a bumper crop of daylilies and now the hostas are beginning to bloom), keeping the pots going has been a little harder. Although I normally am a planner when filling garden pots, carefully assembling color, height, etc., this summer I did a few pots with leftovers — some snapdragons I didn’t have room for, an extra geranium, leftover alyssum. And guess what? These may be the happiest summer pots yet!

Then, I saw a great movie. (I’m old enough to recall that going to the movies was one of the best bets for air conditioning. The advertisements teased, “It’s cool inside.” ) “RBG” is a documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She is a truly remarkable woman who has quietly, determinedly, changed the legal landscape for women and men. The movie deftly covers her childhood, education and legal career as well as her time on the Supreme Court. (When she was appointed to the Court by President Clinton, the Senate approved by a vote of 97 to 3. Those were the days.) Friends, family and colleagues offer interesting comment. The movie seamlessly captures her and the challenges of equality.

Finally, I’m keeping company with a couple of great reads. I just finished The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s follow-up to This Side of Paradise and Tender Is the Night. I read this for a book group and we chose it because it’s short but also a classic. Like most of us, I read it decades ago in an American Lit Survey class, when I was churning thru books and pumping out papers and never getting to savor the language and the characters. This is not a “happy read” and the characters are not especially likable, but the writing is so clean and precise. You can tell Fitzgerald wrote, then rewrote, then rewrote again. That kind of precision, striving for perfection in each sentence, is missing in many current works.

Gatsby was not a huge financial success until it was reprinted after Fitzgerald’s death. What I read, however, is the “fifty-seventh anniversary celebration of the tenth printing of the fourteenth Scribner edition.”

But, if Gatsby seems a little heavy for this season, I also picked up another Sue Grafton mystery from the library. I haven’t read “E” Is for Evidence but I think it will be the perfect porch read for a lazy afternoon. My daughter passed along Windy City Blues by Renee Rosen. We have both read What the Lady Wants, Dollface, and White Collar Girl, all set in different eras in Chicago. Their Chicago settings make them great fun for us. Last but not least, I’m working on Ron Chernow’s Hamilton. I had to after seeing the play. Alexander Hamilton is such a fascinating character. Does anyone else do this, read more than one book at a time? This is not my habit, but sometimes it works out this way!

Finally, wishing you a fabulous Fourth with plenty of flags and fireworks, parades and patriots. This is such a happy, uniquely American holiday. Enjoy every minute!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

New year, new project

In the spirit of New Years resolutions, but with a limited commitment,  I’ve embarked on an Instagram project I came up with to 1) challenge myself in the New Year and 2) promote more IG activity (you can follow me here). My goal is to post a photo daily that corresponds to a letter of the alphabet, as in A is for artwork, B is for books, C is for crosswords, and so on.

This is not going to save the planet or change the course of history. I just want to see if I can do it and what photos I’ll come up with. And it has been a lot of fun. Here are a few of the photos I’ve posted so far:

 

After I had decided on my alphabet challenge, Sue Grafton died. I’ve been a loyal reader of her alphabet mysteries (beginning with A is for Alibi published in 1982) since I discovered them, although I think I may have missed a few in the middle. In fact I just finished Y is for Yesterday a few months ago. Sadly, it is her latest and her last. Sue Grafton’s final illness kept her from work on the last book in the series. (As I understand it, per her request, another writer will not take over the last book, which would have been Z is for Zero.)

Her heroine, Kinsey Millhone, is a twice-divorced private detective in California. Grafton introduced her this way: “My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind.”

How can you not keep reading after that?

An orphan raised by her no-nonsense aunt, Kinsey is frugal, fiercely independent, prefers peanut butter and pickle sandwiches to more laborious kitchen exploits, and is famously street smart. Millhone lives alone and works alone, but Grafton developed a colorful cast of friends, neighbors and associates to fill out her world, and they followed along — with evolving roles and personalities courtesy of Grafton — from book to book

I used to seek out her books when I needed a break from other, perhaps more serious reading. They had a formula, but I loved it. I like Kinsey and I admire her integrity. Now I feel as though I’ve lost a friend.

I still love “The Crown.”

Like so many people, I ended the holiday season with a cold and for a few days really just wanted to languish under a quilt on the couch. And while I was “languishing,” I started re-watching season 2 of “The Crown” on Netflix. I was so excited to see it when it was initially released I just pretty much whizzed through it, so it was fun to go back and really pay attention.

I fell in love with the first season last year, and the second season is just as delightful. (In fact, it’s turning me into a bit of a royal junkie!) Yes, it stretches the truth, twists history in some places, and I wonder what the Windsors really think of it. But I love the quality of the production, the Queen’s fierce determination to do right by her job, the way she handles those pesky prime ministers, the brush with history. Not to mention that Prince Philip is a bit of a handful and Princess Margaret — well, what can one say, right?

The scenery is stunning, and it seems no expense was spared. If you want to know more about how the production team recreated Buckingham, Windsor and Balmoral, Joni Webb of Cote de Texas did a fabulous job of researching the actual houses and even furniture they did use here.

And if you are also a royal junkie, please note that the second season of “Victoria” starts next week!

Belated New Years wishes to you and yours. I sincerely hope 2018 is a happy, healthy year, filled with wonder and laughter and exceeds your expectations!

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you next time!

 

A Christmas story for 2017

A dear friend gave me this adorable mini tree, which I love. If you look closely at the antique glass beads, you see bits of candle wax, left from days of lighting trees with candles.

Every Christmas, I think, has its own story. Some happy, some downright funny, some even occasionally sad. This year, I hope you had a wonderful Christmas, and that you have time for one more holiday story. I couldn’t tell this sooner, because it took until now to unfold.

Christmas 2017 flew by in a rush of excited little boys, lots of legos, snow flakes, champagne corks, and last minute cookies. After the “dust had settled” as my dad would say, and I got over my Christmas cold, disposed of the paper and boxes, and the returns had (mostly) been taken care of, I was thinking about the blessings of the last year, and what I might blog about, when a lightbulb went off in my head.

As has become the custom, my husband, my daughter and I traveled from Chicago to Ohio to spend the holiday with my son, his wife and our grandsons aged 4 and “almost” 7. Jack & Ben’s excitement is palpable and exhausting. It’s also magical. (Has Santa left yet? Where do you think his sleigh is right now? China? Antarctica? Do you think Santa would like a star cookie or a snowman? How many carrots for his reindeer?)

After an early start and a longer than average drive, we pulled into their Ohio driveway. First one and then two boys were bouncing in the window (I love this welcome). By the time we got in the door my daughter-in-law was sweeping up a broken ornament, the casualty of that exuberant welcome.

Since Columbus is my daughter-in-law’s home, we’re also joined on Christmas by her mother (otherwise known as Grandma B), her sister and brother-in-law, her Aunt Rosie and cousin Joe. There are at least three or four conversations going on, along with the beeping, honking or hum of some vehicle Santa has left under the tree. There are more presents to open, toys to show off, toasts to be made and news share. We’ve added extra chairs to the table and the little boys will eat at their own table. Now, this is Christmas.

(I’m just setting the stage here, but the lightbulb is about to click.)

Although I have no siblings, I grew up celebrating Christmas surrounded by an extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends who were family. I miss that. I love, and am so glad, that we have been embraced by Jen’s family. Though I think all of us — in Chicago and Columbus — would find it strange to celebrate any other way, I know not every family does.

In this, we are blessed.

I have to admit that my first few Christmases in Columbus were a challenge. I missed opening packages under our tree. I missed being the hostess. I missed having my family at my table. But then I realized I was just missing the past — my parents, my grandparents and my aunt & uncle. I had lost the last of them before we adopted this new tradition which I now realize we are so lucky to have. This is the shape our family has taken.

I hope your holiday story included time with family and/or friends-who-are-family, on Christmas or another day, because there are no rules in these holiday stories.

Thanks for stopping by to read my Christmas story. I’ll see you in the New Year!

Three things for this week in this season

There’s so much going on this season, and when things get a little crazy, I get really indecisive. (Seriously, as in should I wear boots or shoes to the store? Cook pork chops or pasta for dinner? Everything gets to be an issue.) It’s not surprising that I couldn’t decide what to write about this week, so here are my top 3 topics: traveling wineglasses, necessary conversations, and a new book.

The traveling wineglasses came out of their boxes last weekend (you may remember last year’s post about them here) to welcome friends to our holiday open house. I hate to hang numbers on things, but this has been our holiday tradition for more than four decades. Once in a while I get a little weary of this whole thing (as in, should I really be having yet another party?) but then someone says, “We always look forward to this…” And the truth is, we do too.

Since we have had so much “practice” at this party, Steve and I have developed a routine for getting it together and we have simplified, simplified, and simplified some more. It is, after all, about getting together with friends. For the last few years I have been serving prosecco along with the customary wine and beer. I did it at first as an ice breaker. But now I think, on a Sunday afternoon, it’s what people enjoy drinking. (Back in the day we served eggnog and then for a while it was spiced wine. Talk about an evolution!) Bubbles are much more fun!)

I have learned to keep the menu simple, so I can enjoy the party. This year it was really just meat & cheese trays, some veggies & dip and Steve’s burgundy meatballs. It’s pretty easy to “dress up” the trays with fancy olives, some fruit, even little cornichons or nuts. The meatballs are the “hearty” snack and definitely made ahead. We re-heat them on the stove, then pop them into a chafing dish for the afternoon. I made two batches of cookies and bought some and, voila! we had a sweet tray.

Although we have an artificial tree, I love fresh greens. I bought three big bundles to use inside and out with seeded eucalyptus and red winterberries. They pretty much arranged themselves. Next year I may try working fresh greens into some of my artificial greenery.

And that was the extent of my party planning.

We live in interesting times.

A few weeks ago I impressed myself by getting our tree dressed early. (Step 1 in my party plan. Get it done so all the boxes are cleared away.)  The next day I was up in time to see a news message on my iPad announcing that Matt Lauer had been fired for inappropriate workplace behavior. Now Al Franken has been pushed out of the Senate, and Roy Moore came this close to winning a Senate seat.

The good news is that the women who helped launch the conversation are on the cover of Time magazine. Well done!

On the one hand, I am both uncomfortable and tired of hearing various recitations of sexual misconduct. On the other hand, the women who have come forward have shown remarkable courage. This is a singular moment in time and a conversation we need to have. We need to listen to their stories and keep listening. Sons and brothers and husbands and co-workers need to learn that this is not acceptable behavior. Girls and women should never settle for anything less than a safe work place. I can’t wait to see where this conversation takes us.

On a more positive note…

Earlier this week we heard former Vice President Joe Biden speak during the Chicago stop on his American Promise Tour. What a wonderful and refreshing evening! He sat onstage at the Chicago Theater with Leslie Odom, Jr. and talked about the purpose behind his book, Promise Me, Dad (which was handed out to everyone in the audience), his career as a public servant, the commitment he made early on to always, always put his family first, his role in the Obama administration, and more.

The audience was packed and remarkably diverse in every way. We all hung on to every word, laughing at his stories, bursting into spontaneous applause at his observations of American history and politics, and shedding a few tears as he described his son’s battle with brain cancer. My daughter looked around the packed house at the Chicago Theater and summed it up perfectly: “This makes you wonder what could have been if history had played out a little differently.”

So now you know what I’ve been up to and why I still need to finish shopping, tackle holiday cards, and maybe do a little wrapping. But, in truth, the Biden book is calling my name. And it’s so nice to sit by the tree.

Wishing you the warmth of family & friends, as well as the peace of the season as we head into the holidays!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

 

From pumpkins to Christmas Curtains

My non-orange pumpkin patch.

How elaborate is your “fall decorating?”

When my son was 3 he asked if we could do some Halloween “decoration-ing” like his friend Brian’s mother did. So, we bought a few of those colorful pumpkin/black cat/witch cutouts to hang in the windows and a smiling skeleton (because you wouldn’t want to scare the 3-year-old) to hang on the font door. Done!

After a few years, we upped the ante, using a bale of straw as a seat for a scarecrow and “artfully” propping cornstalks in a few places. That was outside. I began to collect a variety of over-size dried gourds for inside. Then I traded the bale of straw and scarecrow for my own pumpkin patch, adding several of them to the landscape in early October.

Now we have morphed into pumpkins inside and out, especially decorative if they are not orange but rather green or white. (I even have a large pink one this year!) And we go to great lengths to get them to last until, hopefully, Thanksgiving. And I do fuss over a fruit and/or vegetable and/or floral centerpiece here and there. But I don’t make  point of adding seasonal throws to the furniture or even own fall pillows for the sofa. I don’t even have a single potted mum this year.

One “real” pumpkin with my ceramic ones from a Kentucky artisan.

Is this some sort of rebellion on my part? I am after all the person with files — electronic and paper — on her favorite rooms and decorators. (Thanks to Pinterest I can efficiently call up gallery walls, tabletop vignettes and mantels.) And I can spend hours rearranging books, collectables, and whatever on a shelf.

The Christmas Curtains

I was mentally making fun of all this when I remembered my grandmother’s seasonal change of curtains. Sometime in early November, she would start plotting the hanging of the Christmas Curtains. (And I say “plotting,” because the change of curtains required the assistance of my mother and/or my uncle to accomplish. My grandparents lived in an old, shot-gun cottage in Chicago, with high ceilings and tall, narrow windows. Grandma no longer did ladders, but it was fine with her if someone else did.)

The Christmas curtains I remember were sturdy barkcloth with red poinsettias and deep green leaves on a white ground. (And in truth, if my adult self had seen them on their way out, I would have rescued them and found a way to use them at my own house!) First, the living room and dining room windows and woodwork needed to be washed and/or polished before hanging the curtains, because who would hang nice, clean curtains on a window that could be dirty? (Thus making it even more of a project.)

Because these were Christmas Curtains, the process had to be repeated in January to hang the Winter Curtains. Then in the Spring, came the Easter Curtains. And, I think, there were separate Summer Curtains, though she may have eventually given them up. This was Julia’s salute to the seasons, so perhaps I come by this seasonal urge genetically.

No images of Christmas curtains, but here are my Grandmother and Grandfather with a Christmas tree in 1943 or 1944. This is a favorite photo. I love those smiles. War-time holidays were melancholy, but these two always made the most of every holiday.

I’ve been thinking about my grandmother and her curtains. To us it may seem an odd choice. If she knew how infrequently I wash or otherwise freshen up the few curtains I do have and how many of my windows are frankly unadorned, she would be wagging her finger at me. But in my grandmother’s day curtains were one of the few ways she could indulge in a little decorative pizzazz. And she liked that.

So I’m thinking that though she would have found my alternatively-colored pumpkins a little odd, she would have liked the idea of a pumpkin patch and maybe even a scarecrow.

My pumpkins will stay outside at least until the squirrels devour them. The gourds will remain in place inside until Thanksgiving weekend, when ready or not my husband will start bringing up Christmas boxes. And we’ll probably eat turkey leftovers on the Spode Christmas Tree plates.

What about you, are you holding off on Christmas until after Thanksgiving?

Thanks so much for stopping by! See you soon.

In the space between summer and fall

I’ve thought a lot about what to write this week. This is a blog about the fun stuff, “the looks, books, cooks, and travels of a somewhat curated life.” But then the scenes from Texas start playing in my brain and everything I’m thinking seems trivial and even inappropriate.

Home is at the heart of everything for so many of us. It’s our haven and our safe place. This is where we come at the end of the day, where we reconnect with our families, where we share some of life’s best moments. Harvey has stripped that safety, that comfort, from its victims. Getting it back is going to take a long, long time, and it’s going to be hard, really hard. They deserve our love and support, however we can give it, and our thoughts and prayers, whatever is our custom, for months to come.

Back to the space between summer and fall.

This can be a challenging time, a yin & yang season. If you love summer, it’s coming to a close. If fall is your favorite season, it’s just around the corner. If you’re feeling sentimental, it’s the start of a new school year. If you loved school, it’s new friends, new books, new classes. Your summer vacation may be behind you, but, hey, the holidays are yet to come.

See what I mean? Yin & yang.

I’m a glass half-full girl, so although my garden is frankly tired and the lawn has some nasty brown spots, I’m cooking up a storm with the tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, basil and dill running wild in the vegetable and herb gardens.

I can’t help myself.

This is the season of closing one chapter and opening another. I think it’s the back to school mindset. I loved school, as did my kids (well, at least they would say they “liked” school). I have to confess that I’ve always felt a little stymied by moms who are so sad at the start of the school year. (You know, the ones who are forced to wear dark glasses to hide their teary eyes.) I understand that whether you are sending a preschooler off to kindergarten or your “baby” off to college, the start of the school year marks off another year on the calendar, perhaps even a stage of your life. But still…

On the first day of school, long ago.

No matter how I felt inside on the first day of school (and it wasn’t always good), as a mom I always took a deep breath and forged ahead, not because I’m especially brave or wise, but because I thought I owed my kids all the optimism and excitement I could muster. And in all honesty, since both my son and daughter hopped on the bus, ran into the building, pushed us out of the dorm, maybe it was the right thing to do.

 

Where do you stand on the first day of school?

Bill with my daughter and a birthday cake.

I’m writing this on August 31st, always a bittersweet day for me. It was my Uncle Bill’s birthday, my favorite uncle, the uncle by which all other uncles should be measured. This is the uncle who took my seven-year old self ice skating in January, then out for a banana split. In fact, he skated with me and with my Aunt’s many nieces and nephews for decades. This was Bill. He taught us all to swing a bat and a golf club, and to catch a fly ball. He and my aunt never missed a birthday, baptism, confirmation, graduation, etc. They were the champions of milestones and carried this on to the next generation. Bill was the same uncle to my kids as he was to me, sometimes with comic results. He missed an entire quarter of my son’s state championship football game because he went to get coffee (Translation: He was way too nervous to sit in the stands) and ended up helping the crew in the refreshment stand brew the first pot!

In a week where tragedy has helplessly unfolded before our eyes, in this yin & yang season, remembering Bill is a genuine comfort. He would be saying a prayer for hurricane victims, telling me what to do about the brown spots in the lawn, complaining about the Chicago Bears, and cheering on my grandson’s first weeks of first grade.

I hope you have a Bill in your life.

See you next time.