Cupcakes and Cashmere

My column for week of July 6th:

“Having things to look forward to throughout the year, whether centred around a holiday or not, is what life is about.” So says Emily Schuman, author of “Cupcakes and Cashmere” and “Cupcakes and Cashmere at home”. She is a girl after my own heart. She is not as perfectionistic as Martha Stewart (though my plan for retirement is to be awarded for a white collar crime I have committed and be incarcerated in luxury like she was for whatever it was she did—had something to do with stocks, right?). Nor is she too basic and simplistic—throwing on a gunny sack to entertain guests while stirring up a pot of vegetarian chili (not, in a Seinfeldian aside, that there is anything wrong with either jute burlap or vegetables.)

Schumann is all for relaxed elegance, comfortable sophistication, and cosy casualness. After all, if you write two books with “cupcakes “ in the title, you must be somewhat relaxed. Have you ever tried to eat a cupcake without getting an icing moustache? I have tried to eat the little critters with a fork but that just seems ostentatious and a little bit paranoid. Admittedly you can eat a cupcake neatly, but that means not getting both cake and icing in one bite, and what is the point of that?

Schumann is much like me in that she finds preparing for and looking forward to a holiday or event is just as exciting as the actual soiree. She says that it is always “the preparations beforehand” that she loves the most, whether it is picking “out my pumpkin for the perfect jack o’lantern in the middle of October or stringing up heart lights for Valentine’s Day–those are the memories I treasure most.”

Like me, she loves looking forward to things. Having something on your calendar that is just a little bit “special” is living and reliving the event even before it occurs. Many times I have a fantastic event all planned out in my mind, with the perfect décor and food and outfit all picked out. The fact that by the time the event arrives I can barely get the dusting done, the food fixed, and don my jeans instead of the lovely dress I was planning on does not diminish my dreams at all. And there are times that I have pulled off an event dressed just right, with a killer recipe or two, and candles accompanying just the right décor for the event.

Schuman admits to being a little “corny and cliché” and anyone who has ever read this column (or blog or FB post) knows these two adjectives describe me to a T. I love corny and cliché, with the belief that anything corny (tried and true with heart) and cliché (something that always has some truth at its heart) are two of life’s most pleasant elements. Like Schuman I believe that “what goes on the table—from the food to the flowers—is really only as important as who is around it.”

For her celebration of “ Friendsgiving” Schumann says she sends a “proper card” as an invite to the event. The Fare is Thanksgiving in nature featuring ye olde turkey and all the fixings and whipped cream for the pumpkin and pecan pies. I mention the whipped cream because she has an exclamation point behind it on her menu. None of the other foods warranted an exclamation point.

She has many unique ideas for all kinds of events, but two in particular caught my attention. The first is her “Tuesday night dinner party” which she says “doesn’t have to be that much more than a lift”. I am all for this kind of party—its gets you through that first part of the week with something to look forward to, and helps get you over “hump day” with the glow of a pleasant evening past. She suggests keeping the menu simple. I suggest that no matter what you decide to serve it should not be accompanied with Styrofoam plates and plastic wine glasses. Crystal and china with flowers on a beautifully set table make Tuesday into something to remember.

The second party that really caught my imagination is the “Summer nostalgia party”. She centres her parties around “board games and treats” and suggests Kool-Aid with tequila and High-C with vodka. Hamburgers and hot dogs accompanied by other “old school treats” including S’mores are on her go-to menu. She says that “a game of Twister will help set the mood” while playing old summer hits. I say that a game of Twister will set the mood for a trip to the emergency department for me, so I may settle for a more sedate set of croquet (though I will probably catch my toe on a cage and quite possibly break my neck). My brother Jim did not nickname me “Grace” for nothing.

Can you eat a cupcake elegantly? Or still play a game of Twister?

Beginnings: 2015

“Beginnings can be delicate or explosive. They can start almost invisibly or arrive with a big bang. Beginnings hold the promise of new lessons to be learned, new territory to be explored, and old lessons to be recalled, practiced, and appreciated.”

These are the wickedly wise words of Melody Beattie from her book, “Daily Meditations on the Path to Freeing Your Soul”. They are strategically placed under the title of ‘Honour the Beginning’ and notated in her January 1st entry.

I cannot agree with her more. Beginnings do not necessarily have to start at the first of a New Year, but they are so metaphorically appropriate that I cannot help but be persuaded to have faith and hope in the New Year.

Last night I went to bed with the pessimistic attitude that this year will be no different; that it will be no better or worse than last year; and that things are not necessarily in my control.

Today though I am determined to take back control, with the understanding that all things are not within my power—that I have to let some things go (as in the immortal words of the movie Frozen hit tune “Let It Go”) and shake “it” off (thank you Taylor Swift)—“it” being my pessimistic forecast for the year.

In seven words, Melody sums up what the New Year holds. She says: “Beginnings hold ambiguity, promise, fear, and hope.” She has conjured up a recipe of ingredients, which if shaken (not stirred) foreshadow the year ahead. I will grasp promise and hold onto hope knowing that there will be trials ahead. Trials I have to face; trials I must wrangle with; and trials that will be won.

I am nothing if not pragmatic. I know that with wins there will be losses. With triumphs there will be failure. With success will come mistakes. But if you adhere to author Neil Gaiman’s philosophy, mistakes are our way of moving forward. His hope for the New Year is summed up in these words:

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.”

This New Year, I want to do something, and if in doing so I make mistakes, then I will look at them as the prelude to change. And I will start looking at change as not a bad thing—but something to celebrate; something to adjust to; and in that adjustment become more evolved. Growing is not something we should give up when we have reached our height—we should continue the growth to our very depths.

Staying static is the enemy. Letting it go, and shaking it off are good advice. Even if that advice comes from a runaway movie or pop star.

(Thanks to Cindy Guest Taylor, photosfromtheloonybin, for the Neil Gaiman quote.)

Do you have any advice for the New Year that may sound clichéd but is very sensible in its roots?

Published in: on January 1, 2015 at 7:04 pm  Comments (27)  
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Put Another Log on the Fire

My newspaper column for this week:

Ten days before Christmas. By the time you read this, the timeline will have shifted. Sounds ominous doesn’t it? Remember when we were kids and ten days was a lifetime, and Christmas seemed to take its jolly time to get here? I read an explanation the other day about why as we get older things seem to move faster—something about events no longer being new to us so we experience them at a faster pace. I am sure that explanation makes sense to someone somewhere, but it did not really resonate with me.

I do find that different things have become more important to me over the years. Things I would have glossed over or not paid any particular attention to when I was younger. As I get older, I may not get wiser, but I do find myself being more reflective and more thankful for the present. Sound like I have taken one too many bites from Oprah’s gingerbread, or delved too deeply into Deepak Chopra’s philosophy, or heaven forbid, taken a page out of Eckhart Tolle’s book, The Power of Now? (I find all of his books to be dense, or maybe I am the one who is dense.)

Over the weekend I was lucky enough to attend two small parties—one with my Writers’ Group, and another with some friends whom I have known since high school. The warmth of being surrounded by good friends (with good food in our bellies topped up with a little wine) was wonderful, but the loveliness of the moments spent with friends was brought to the fore even more vividly by a suggestion I read this morning in my search for a topic for this column. I turned to a book that my husband gave me over a decade ago called “The Little Book of Christmas Joys” and recognized in number 303 a truth that had been borne out by my experience over the weekend.

My little book of joys suggested in number 303 that “When you have friends over and there’s Christmas magic in the air, don’t let the evening end early. Throw another log on the fire.” In both instances, the hosts of the evening “threw another log on the fire”, if not literally, then figuratively. I stayed up long past my bedtime listening to shared stories and taking part in something that needed no screen, either computer or television or phone, to keep me entertained. The art of conversation and conviviality is not lost—and the closeness of friendship shared is one of the most potent elements in the magic of Christmas.

On Saturday I was fortunate to share some tea with a couple of friends at Tim Horton’s. The coffee shop was filled to the brim as it so often is. Our peals of laughter brought us to the attention of other patrons, who I am sure wondered if we had brought a flask to spice up our hot drinks. We had not—we were just enjoying being in each other’s presence. We joked, occasionally elbow jostled, and left on a higher note than the one we had come in on.

Life is full of these moments. My dream for Christmas Day is that I be surrounded by family and friends and that the warmth of the day envelope us all. But I have learned to appreciate the random moments when my family is just sitting around watching a movie, or sharing a meal and laughing together. Or those moments when you realize that the friends that surround you are the most important thing—and that sharing our lives together is what life is all about.

I have used the word “share” many times throughout this column—and though I could have called on my thesaurus to find a few derivatives of the word I did not—as there is no greater word than share. We share our lives and we are richer; we share our food and drink and we are sustained; we share our laughter and we reach that ultimate goal: happiness.

This Christmas season I am counting my blessings. And the blessing that wins out over everything else is the people in my life. They help me keep what little is left of my sanity; they bring joy to my life; they are the magic of Christmas.

Am I getting sloppily sentimental? Perhaps. But is there a better time of year to realize that sloppy sentimentality? I think not. So put another log on the fire, even if you do not have a fireplace.

What is one of your Christmas blessings?

Published in: on December 16, 2014 at 12:47 am  Comments (23)  
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You Are What You Eat

This week’s column is a longer rendition of my last post (with some changes)–so if you read it–skip on to half way through–

I am feeling a bit uneasy and cannibalistic discussing this but did you know that how you eat gingerbread boy tells a lot about you? There are so many ways we can self-analyze ourselves, but I found this one particularly entertaining and seasonally on target. How often do we get to analyze our holiday selves?

Apparently if you eat the head of your gingerbread boy first, says Dr. Alan Hirsch, you are a natural born leader. I always eat the head first. For some reason it just makes sense to me. As for the natural born leader stuff, well, maybe—because I am not a very good follower. Just ask any man with whom I have ever slow danced.

Dr. Hirsch is the neurological director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation. One would think he had better things to do than analyze how we eat our gingerbread—but apparently not. Personally I think he may have just made up this seasonal anecdote, but I am a bit sceptical by nature (except of course when it comes to Santa Claus whom I wholeheartedly believe in, but that is another column). If his analysis is true, then I wish that I ate the left arm of my gingerbread boy/girl first because that would mean that I am creative. So I may just start rethinking the way I eat my gingerbread.

I am going to stay away from the right arm altogether. Eating it first according to the good doctor means you are pessimistic. I do not need any more pessimism in my life, so if you see a trail of gingerbread right arms anywhere, you will know I have been there, and rejected the right arms for fear that their pessimism will rub off on me. Eating the legs is a whole different ball game though. If you prefer to start at the extremities, it means you are sensitive. I do not start with the legs, but my husband often says I have “delicate sensibilities” which translated means of course that I am a pain in the neck, so it is somewhat surprising that I do not eat the legs first given my propensities.

The article from which I gleaned these fascinating facts was written by an unknown editor in the December Food Network magazine. It was accompanied by a picture of a gingerbread boy with his mouth likened to the famous “Scream” painting, and there was a bite out of his head. A little unsettling to say the least—maybe I will forego eating any gingerbread boys this season.

Now, I am sure we could extend this type of self-analyzation a bit further. What does it mean if you love Christmas fruitcake? If you listen to all the negative chatter about the luscious cakes you might be tempted to buy into the negativity about them. But not me. I love fruitcake and though I am not sure what that may mean, I think that it can only be good. Perhaps I am a non-conformist. Perhaps I am nostalgic—because my mom always made fruitcake at Christmas. Or, and this could quite possibly the case—I am a bit of a fruitcake myself.

I have many favourite Christmas foods that could be dissected successfully for personality traits. Take turkey stuffing: ostensibly (yes, I used the thesaurus to find this word—having used apparently already a couple of times) you are a risk-taker if you stuff your turkey as (some) experts advise you to cook the stuffing outside the turkey in a casserole to avoid any chance of food poisoning. A culinary note for you: once stuffing is cooked outside the turkey, it is no longer stuffing, but dressing—this is an important distinction among foodies.

My favourite holiday cookie is one that even I dare to make—it is so good that the trouble of actually making it from scratch is worth it. It is the raspberry thumbprint cookie. It too can be analyzed—and I am afraid that the jury would name me as a glutton as I have been known to shove the whole cookie in my mouth at once (I tend to make them on the smaller size so this can be done without danger of choking). Slovenly though my method may be, it is gastronomical nirvana.

I am not sure that how I eat my food really is a window into my soul, but I do know that I enjoy all the Christmas delights the holiday has to offer, and whether that makes me a leader or slovenly is up for debate.

Published in: on December 9, 2014 at 10:29 am  Comments (18)  
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Getting a word in early……………Dear Santa

Never having written a Dear Santa letter in my youth, this week I write to him for the first time in my weekly column:

I am going to do something that I have never heretofore done. I am going to write a letter to Santa. I do not remember ever writing to Santa to ask for something for Christmas, so it is nigh high time. I may have scribbled a note to him left with milk and cookies, but a true Dear Santa letter has never been written, so here goes:

Dear Santa;

Hope all is well at the North Pole and that the elves are being diligent. Tell your wife hello and wish her a Merry Christmas for me. I suspect you are getting ready for the big day even though it is still a month away. I hear you were in my small town last week in the parade, and from all accounts you did yourself proud.

Okay, now that I have dispensed with the preliminaries, let me get down to the nitty gritty of this letter. As you probably know by now, people write to you asking for gifts but in the process couch their requests in niceties as we have been taught that it is impolite to be greedy. Far be it from me to be thought greedy, but at this time of year I have to admit, I like to receive as well as give. I am being honest here and hope you will at least get me some credit for that.

I would like to ask for peace on earth and that everyone be fed and clothed and warm this winter but I know that it is not your responsibility, so I will leave that to a higher source to guide the rest of us to continue the quest that though seems impossible, is not one we should give up on.

Okay, so here is what I want for Christmas. It is a book called “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.” Quite a mouthful isn’t it? I can understand why you might think that it is a rather pretentious request, and a less than modest one, in that the title includes the words “The Thinking Person”, but I think I should be congratulated for wanting to better myself.

The book is written by Steven Pinker, who until he wrote the book was a high ranking academic (and still is, the fact that he wrote the book did not change his status.) He was born in Montreal, is around my age, and seems to be approaching the whole thing of grammar in a rather tongue-in-cheek way from the review I read in the Sunday Toronto Star. Tongue-in-cheek, yet still serious.

Pinker, unlike legions of us lesser folk, believes that “grammar is a fascinating subject in its own right”. Now I must admit that I like grammar too, though I break many of its tenets on a regular basis. In order to make the subject more appealing to a broader base he says that one should think of “grammar as the original sharing app” which is our “solution (for) getting complicated thoughts from one head into another.”

He rails against what he calls academic “highfalutin’ gobbledygook” wherein academics use “ponderousness as proof of gravitas” when in reality “their writing stinks”. I know firsthand whereof he speaks having turned out numerous essays in my younger days that make me scratch my head when I reread them today. (It humbles me that I do not understand the writings of my youth, but then I comfort myself with the fact that one has to put them in the context of being an answer to a dubious assignment by a crafty professor.)

Santa, I know it makes me sound like a bit of a book nerd to want this book for Christmas when I could ask for shiny baubles, warm sweaters, and perfume (all of which are welcome btw) but I have always found that the voice behind the books I read are comforting, compelling, and sometimes I even learn something (though retaining it is another story).

I am convinced that I want this book merely by reading a deft review by Jim Coyle. In his article he dedicated the last paragraph to a quote by Pinker who stated rather elegantly that “To a literate reader, a crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase are among life’s greatest pleasures.”

Santa, just so you do not feel any undue pressure, I am letting my husband read this letter too—so between the two of you maybe you can come up with a plan to have this book, shiny and new, wrapped up and under my Christmas tree, in oh say, a month’s time?

With love and admiration, LouAnn

What would you ask Santa for?

Published in: on November 25, 2014 at 12:05 pm  Comments (20)  
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Rose Coloured Glasses

Sparkling bright silver
The colour of November
Not doomsday dull grey.

It is time to put our optimism on and wear it gladly and gaily.

Published in: on November 22, 2014 at 2:57 pm  Comments (9)  
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TOO SOON!

Thrown into winter
Windy, snowy, freezing cold
Shiver me timbers

Published in: on November 20, 2014 at 8:29 pm  Comments (21)  
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The Place “Just Right”

The Santa Claus Parade and Festival of Lights have started the holiday season in my little town, and this is my weekly newspaper column dedicated in part to that tradition and my own traditions which are, if I do say so myself, a bit quirky:

The strains of holiday cheer fill the air. In my mind’s eye I can see the Christmas parade replete with bands in their regalia, floats full of red cheeked faces, drummers drumming, and the festive evening’s darkness cut by glowing lights. I imagine the jolly old elf punctuating the night air with “ho ho ho”; his lovely wife loyally by his side waving and smiling at the crowd. And I see the children full of hope as the magic of the holiday season begins in our fair town.

I see these things clearly. But this year I participate from the warmth of my home. The thought did cross my mind to leave the toasty confines of my little red chair in the corner of my living room, but it was fleeting. No one wanted to accompany me the half a block walk to the corner of my street to watch the annual parade and I did not want to bundle up and venture out on this cold cold night by myself. I noticed on Facebook the day after the parade that several of my friends tempted the cold and watched the parade, but their conclusion was the same—the parade was wonderful, but it was “freakin’” (a term I am convinced was coined by Regis Philbin) cold.

Nevertheless, I did participate in a way that has become somewhat of a tradition that I have donned since my kids have grown up and are no longer interested in standing out in the cold with me. I left my chair and the glow of the TV and climbed the stairs to my upstairs bathroom. From that vantage point I could see the fireworks that both noisily and colourfully ushered in the “most wonderful time of the year.” I corralled my youngest son to join me, and we gazed out the window together, warm and cozy in that little utilitarian room. He got a little agitated at one point, wanting to get back to whatever he was doing before I asked him to join me, but I prevailed upon him with that most poignant of tools a mother has in her arsenal—guilt—so he stayed until the bitter end. Which was not bitter at all.

From our perch on the bathroom counter we had a view most others could not replicate. There was no straining of necks, no chill up our spines, no jockeying for position in the crowd. We could just enjoy the display and hear the oohs and awes of the crowd a mere few blocks away. I actually oohed and awed a few times just for good measure and ironic pleasure—but to be honest, there were some undeniable wows in the display. It was a fitting way to begin the season. I have quietly been introducing a few decorations into my home décor—a “real” evergreen wreath on the front door, a festive planter on my coffee table, some red and green ribbon waiting patiently to festoon its way through the house.

As I write this there is freshly fallen snow outside, forming crests on our bushes and adding newness to our surroundings. According to the weather men and women we are in for a November week that rivals mid-winter. And that is okay. We have to make the transition and if it is early this year, so be it. I will be taking on decorating with fervour in the next couple of weeks, my motto being “if it takes a day or so to put up and a day or so to take down, I need to enjoy it for a few weeks”. I am someone who is no stranger to hard work (and don’t let anyone tell you that decorating is not hard work) but I like the fruit of my labours to last for a while.

This year, as in others, I will start out determined to simplify Christmas, and get it down to an art. But Christmas is not an art. It is not perfect. I have come to the conclusion that it is a craft; one that is original every year yet has aspects of its forebears. A favourite little ditty that I love and brings to mind all that is simple and good (and unattainable) follows. It is called “Simple Gifts” and is attributed as an American Shaker hymn. On the surface it sums up how I would like life to be in general, and Christmas in particular: “ ‘Tis the gift to be simple, /‘Tis the gift to be free/‘Tis the gift to come down/Where we ought to be/And when we find ourselves/In the place just right, /Twill be in the valley/Of love and delight……………..”

Here is hoping that in this Christmas season, we all land “in the place just right.”

Where is your Christmas “place just right”?

This, That, and the Other

A Little of This, A Bit of That, and The Other: Hickory Nuts is the original title of this, my weekly column. I am getting a little tired of having to thank David for his inspiration once again, but David, once again, thank you.

This

As a self-proclaimed wordsmith, I found a term which I bequeath the “Word of the Year” award. The word is one I have never come across before—but both its spelling and meaning are soothing. Susurrus, pronounced “soo-sur-uhs” is defined as a soft, murmuring sound.

A favourite blogger of mine is a Canadian living the American dream. His blog, Live and Learn is one where I find the most charming quotes and astute observations. It is where I discovered my new favourite word, its definition, and subsequent context. Described as one of the most beautiful words in the English language, it “resembles the rustling symphony of the fallen leaves moving across pavement or the whispers created by the branches of the trees on a windy autumn day.” The vivid picture painted by such a description is one that I would like to be water coloured into.

The definition goes on to say that “uttering susurrus also stimulates the acoustics of nature’s effect” and is “one of those rare words where it’s aesthetic, sound, and feel coincide beautifully.”

That

I was watching Jamie Oliver’s Food Channel program “15 Minute Meals” early this morning, and while I really like the chef, I have a bone or two to pick with him. The secret to his 15 Minutes Meals is all in the preparation. He has all his utensils out, the food processor at the ready, and the water boiling for his pasta or potatoes or whatever culinary delight he is preparing that needs some boiling. This is cheating. Everyone knows that to get a decent boil going for a pan of water takes some time—yet this is not part of his 15 minutes. Nor is the time that it takes to set up the meal—getting everything out and half-prepping it (washed greens, unwrapped cheeses, and unscrewed lids).

I am not particularly fond of spending time in the kitchen on a daily basis. On occasion I like to cook, but the daily grind is just not something I look forward to. So when I am promised a 15 Minute Meal, I want to only spend 15 minutes. Any more than that, and I feel cheated. Seriously, Jamie’s meals would take most of us at least 40 minutes—and that is still not too long to spend on fixing a meal if we are told the reality of the situation. But to advertise something as 15 minutes and it to turn out to be 40 is not a good thing (I asked Martha and she said I could use her tagline).

So, Jamie, while I still love your show—quit trying to pull the wool over my eyes.

The Other: Hickory Nuts

I am pleased as punch. Now, how pleased that really is, is a complete mystery to me—but I am using this phrase to tell you how happy a mystery benefactor has made me. Someone, who will remain unnamed at this point (mainly because I do not know their name), left me a bag of hickory nuts after reading my columns nostaligizing the lovely nuts.Their note read “I enjoy your columns, particularly the one on hickory nuts” or something to that effect (the note has been lost in the plethora of papers that surround my desk—but I did not misplace the little nuggets of goodness).

So, to that person I have two things to say: 1. Who are you? 2. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Your writing looks somewhat familiar, but I could just be fooling myself into thinking that I recognize it. I must tell you that I am enjoying the hickory nuts immensely.

In the old days, I used a hammer on my parent’s brick outdoor fireplace to break into the little fellows, and capture their nutty goodness (some of which I had to forego as we were tasked with getting the meat of the nuts for a cake my mom would make). Instead of getting the hammer out, I found my nutcracker (until this point only used at Christmas) and a little utensil that comes with it to dig the tiny pieces from the crevices of the shell. Now, this is no easy task, but once a morsel is successfully unattached the reward is a gustatory delight. You may think I am overstating it, but the hickory nuts have brought back wonderful childhood memories. They taste of the woods, autumn, and times past. Again, I say thank you.

Published in: on November 12, 2014 at 12:38 pm  Comments (21)  
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Freedom

 

 Hopping on my steed

I would wheel out of the driveway

And up the road

To destinations not unknown:

the creek, the corner store, a friend’s house ~

Warm summer breezes teasing my long hair

Into tangles that no comb could unravel

My arms and legs tanned where shorts and top ended.

I would ride by fields of corn and wheat

And feeling a little silly, talk to cows as they munched in the meadows

Their big brown eyes somehow understanding.

Sometimes I would have to pump and strain with wild delight

Chased by big dogs which had no chance of catching of me

As my fear made me strong, fast, invincible

I long for the days when freedom was as easy

As riding my red bike.

Summer memories……………………..

Published in: on August 6, 2014 at 12:07 pm  Comments (21)  
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