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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Grow Old with Me the Best is Yet to Come

Um, yeah. There’s lots to be said for growing old. Of course, we have to turn up our hearing aids to hear it. Seriously…as if any sentence that began “seriously” wasn’t a joke…there are a few good things about getting older. It’s not dead. That’s the main thing. And there is still a small sector of society that respects, if somewhat begrudgingly, its seniors.

In an attempt to mitigate my abject disapproval of what is happening to me, I’ve decided to expose the bright side of “maturing.” Truly, if I was mature, I wouldn’t be whining about this whole experience all the time, would I? However, there are some perquisites to growing older.

An impaired memory means never having to say you’re sorry. After all, before you apologize you have to remember what it was that requires an apology, and to whom it is owed. More importantly, though, it means not holding a grudge. When someone approaches you saying, “I owe you an apology,” you can simply say “you’re forgiven.” That way you can both be happy—the person apologizing can be at peace with him/herself and you won’t be reminded of the rotten thing that was done to you.

When my daughters were children I read an article intended to help mom’s deal with stress and the responsibilities of running a home and raising children. The thrust of the article was “lower your standards.” If my standards were any lower, my children would have become wards of the state and my home would have been condemned. Getting older loosens our inhibitions—we don’t believe what other people think of us is worth worrying about. So, dust? Nature’s protective coating for my furniture. Socks? Well, today I spent the whole day wearing one pink and one white and didn’t even notice until I took them off to take a shower. And, hey, remembering to take your socks off before a shower is an accomplishment. Was I embarrassed? Why would I be? Maybe thirty years ago, had anyone noticed my socks, I’d have said that I’d done it on purpose. Now, no one notices my socks. And it’s a good thing, too, because what can you say about someone who’s checking out old ladies’ socks?

Getting older is also a time of great achievements. Most of those successes are things that thirty years ago would have been just another dollop of daily life. I remembered my brother’s birthday, yay me! I got out of bed this morning, woo-hoo. I can’t believe I did three whole loads of laundry today (I’ll put it all away tomorrow). Of course, those are minor achievements. Shouldn’t we break out the champagne when we make it across the ice without falling?

Okay, so I admit there are certain rights and privileges attached to getting older. They are not all as much fun as the ones you can exercise when you’re 35 (my self-age), but some of them are even better. My favorite? I get to make the rules. All kinds of rules. My sovereignty covers a wide section of life from what constitutes a good lunch (Lay’s Original Potato Chips and a Coke or Diet Peach Snapple) to fashion (What? I know I’m wearing dots with plaid, they both have blue in them!) to how to play solitaire. Now, if making the rules is the whipped cream on the banana split of aging, breaking them is the cherry on top. And old people can break all kinds of rules, not just the ones they themselves make.

There are so many things you can get away with by saying, “What can I say, I’m old.” Even better, there are so many social transgressions that no one will ever call you on because everyone’s already decided it’s because your youth is far behind you. Think of all the extremely rude things older people say. Think of all the things they “forget,” and all the people whose names they don’t bother to learn because they get away with “honey.” If little kids knew what seniors are pulling, they’d be green!

Here’s the lowdown: if you can convince everyone you’re nuts, you can do absolutely anything. It doesn’t take a lot of effort, just stroll around the neighborhood in your bathrobe at 3 p.m. a few times or stand on the porch and have a loud argument when you’re alone. Dye your hair a different shade of red every month. Bark at dogs. Or the mail carrier. Your reward for this slight investment of time: the next time you do whatever it is you want, someone will be saying “Oh, Crazy Old Harriet (or Harry)? You never know what that one will be doing!” Do you know what that is? Permission. Permission to do every fool thing you want, when you want, and know that there will never be any consequence, because your PR has already assured everyone that you are not quite all there. And that is the real benefit of aging—never being responsible because no one is sure you are.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

High Priestess of Pancakes – Part Three (or, not your Mama’s pancakes [unless I’m your mama])

Throwing away perfectly good food bugs me. And when I say “bugs me,” I mean it in a very OCD way. If I buy something, as an example let’s randomly choose fruity oatmeal, for Chip and he doesn’t finish all of it, I’ll save it. Forever. I won’t eat it, but I won’t throw it away. I don’t know if food pantries will accept open packages of things like fruity oatmeal. As I was going through my pantry, you’ll never guess what I found. Oh…you guessed it was fruity oatmeal. Now what can you do with a couple of packets of Strawberries and Cream or Peaches and Cream oatmeal, other than add boiling water, stir, and eat? I’ll bet you’ve also guessed that it has something to do with pancakes. You are so smart!

There is a host of things you can put into pancakes that won’t make people sick. For example one or two packets of instant oatmeal (any flavor) added to one cup of pancake mix (scratch or store-bought) and mixed with water will provide you with two things: flavored pancakes and fiber. How much water? Start with ¾ cup, and add a little at a time until you get to batter consistency. It shouldn’t be much more than a cup, but it depends on the type of oatmeal you use. Don’t forget to let your batter sit ten minutes before cooking.

Chips are great in pancakes. No, not potato chips (hmmmm….), baking chips. Mini or regular chocolate chips, peanut butter chips, butterscotch chips, it depends on what you like. How about nuts? For some reason, when I bake I always end up with a small portion of chocolate chips, pecans, or walnuts in the bag. I carefully fold up the bag, clip it closed, and store it. Forever. Instead, the nuts are excellent in pancakes and they are good for you, too. Warm some maple syrup, add pecans, and serve over pecan-enhanced pancakes. How about mini-chocolate chips and walnut pieces together in a pancake? Sounds as good as a chocolate chip cookie, doesn’t it? It is!

Small chunks of fruit work nicely, but if it’s canned, be sure to drain it first. Frozen or dried berries are good candidates for pancakes. Craisins are nice. I have not tried raisins, but they might be pretty good with slivered almonds, oatmeal, or honey. I’m not suggesting you try this, because if they don’t come out well, you can’t feed them to the dog. Although, right now I’m thinking of a topping that combines honey, raisins, and slivered almonds. Gee, I’d like that on ice cream, too!

Most of us are familiar with Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix. In addition to corn muffins, Jiffy also makes raspberry, banana, oatmeal, and apple mixes. For a while we were regular consumers of these flavored muffins, then we just stopped. Of course, we stopped using them after I had stocked up on them. Combine one cup Jiffy with one cup pancake mix, add 1½ cups water, stir, let sit ten minutes, and make your pancakes. One bit of advice: the fruit in Jiffy Muffins isn’t real fruit, it’s fruit-flavored chips. Oh, and another: the pancakes will be sweeter than what you’ve made before. I don’t make these anymore because our local ValueMart no longer carries the fruity muffin mixes.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the value of good, plain pancakes. Or buttermilk pancakes. But variety is good for you. Variety is the spice of life. Which reminds me…a dash of nutmeg, a bit of cinnamon, a little ginger…any or all of these together can go into your pancakes to give them a little pizzazz. If you don’t know what pizzazz is, you’re too young to be reading this.

Don’t add anything you wouldn’t normally eat; you know that’s a disaster in the making. Check your cabinets and freezer for little bits of things that aren’t enough in themselves, but would complement pancakes. Coconut? Sure! Whole oats? Absolutely. The key is to stay on board. Huh? Well, don’t go overboard; use no more than ¼ cup of fruit or nuts to a cup of batter. Actually, ⅛ cup is sufficient.

With all this experimenting, I have never made pancakes Chip wouldn’t eat. I may have said, “they’re okay but I wouldn’t want them again,” but nothing was inedible. And none ever made us sick. It’s like I said, variety is the spice of pancakes.

High Priestess of Pancakes – Part Two (or, what can top pancakes?)

Being a child in the fifties, one had no clue that frying steaks in bacon fat might not be good for you, cutting the mold off the cheese didn’t make it all right, or that high fructose corn syrup would one day be a red flag before a bull. Although I began making pancakes when I was seven, my father was the pancake chef in our family. No matter who made them, though, they were definitely made “from scratch,” a description that somehow suggests something that should make you queasy. We were very middle class and didn’t seem to be lacking anything, but for some reason we did not use pancake syrup. Instead, we were supplied with Kayro (dark) to top our pancakes. What that amounts to is using intense sweetness of no particular flavor. This might be why I started skipping the butter and syrup and began salting my pancakes and rolling them up into tubes. Or maybe Dad just didn’t use enough salt in his recipe.

Not only did I know nothing of maple syrup, but it was an epicurean epiphany when I had breakfast “down the block” at a friend’s house and her mom put grape jelly in a small pan, warmed it, and served it over pancakes. Wow! Flavor! Soon after that experience, I was introduced to pancake houses. This was back in the day when a waitress would bring a rack with six, SIX!!!, flavors of syrup with your order. There was maple, strawberry, boysenberry…what? No CORN syrup??? What an outrage. Fast forward twenty-something years, and the morning after Thanksgiving I am making French toast for my children. A women’s magazine had suggested “Red Sauce” to pour atop holiday-time breakfast. The “Red Sauce” recipe was really quite simple. Put your leftover cranberry sauce in a pan with some butter, heat it up, pour it on pancakes, waffles, or French toast. It was actually good! I expect it would have also been good with oatmeal, grits, Wheatena and any number of other breakfasty-type things. Well, maybe not Maypo.

Fast forward again to 2007 when I learned to make perfect pancakes. Chip (my perfect husband) and I are rather eclectic in our dining out choices. So, besides our great love for Bistro 1896 in Asheville, we are also huge fans of Cracker Barrel. When we have to take a road trip, Cracker Barrel is certainly on the itinerary, usually more than once. Our breakfast there is quite routine. Since I can’t eat all that much, I have a small oatmeal with a LOT of honey. Conversely, Chip enjoys a big breakfast and the main feature is usually some kind of messy pancakes topped with whipped cream. They may be strawberry pancakes or peach, but whatever they are, there are lots of them and he likes them. Lots.

Having mastered perfect pancakes, I began making them more often. Chip is not very fussy. I could serve his pancakes with margarine and syrup every time and he wouldn’t complain, though he may occasionally request a side of bacon (did I mention he’s a saint?). I, having ADD, get bored with the same ol’ same ol’, and have to shake things up. This is one of the reasons that in the past nine years we have never had exactly the same meal twice unless it was in a restaurant. And, though I have ADD, I am also lazy so when I shake things up it’s usually in the most effortless way.

The part I am leaving out here is that I usually don’t put syrup on pancakes anyway. I like real butter (don’t tell me about Kirstie Alley, okay?) and I share them with Charity Marie DoggyDog. Even so, I have to make changes. So, remember the “Red Sauce” from 30 years ago? And the “Grape Syrup” 20 years before that? Without having to consult Google (aka, my cooking school), I began experimenting with pancake toppings. I served Chip microwaved (such an improvement over the pan and stove method) strawberry preserves. Ooooh—pancakes with chunks of strawberries. Then peach preserves. Plum preserves. And, after Thanksgiving, “Red Sauce.” When there didn’t seem to be quite enough red sauce left, I added some Knott’s Boysenberry Syrup and strawberry preserves. Aha! I was narrowing in on the best recipe! I had a mixed berry syrup with a wonderful consistency, whole fruit (cranberries), and chunks of strawberry. And, like that good old Kayro, it was sweet. Very. Chip spoons it on top of his pancakes, margarine, and maple syrup. Don’t ask me why he doesn’t go into sugar shock.

I wouldn’t say that I have created the perfect pancake topping. I am happy to have something I can make in about 30 seconds from things I always have on hand. When I serve something new, I advise Chip that it’s an experiment, and he’s done very well with that so far.

Despite my love of all things butter, I have dropped butter from the recipe. To make a good pancake topping, I use preserves, syrup, and whatever else pops into my head (usually something I should use up now). Try this: 2 parts any flavor preserves, one part any flavor syrup, and whatever seems reasonable. For example:

½ cup strawberry preserves

¼ cup syrup (you choose) –or-- 2 Tbs. water or fruit juice

that leftover fruit cocktail that’s not even one whole serving

those chopped walnuts that didn’t make it into the cookies

Use any variety of preserves (or jam or jelly if you wish) and add some fruit (those single serve peaches in the canned fruit aisle work nicely, as do the mandarin oranges or pears). I’ve never tried this with orange marmalade—I’d probably be the only one who likes it, and I wouldn’t use it. I’m also curious about pineapple marmalade and shredded coconut—Pina Colada pancakes. Hmmmm. Except, I don’t like Pina Coladas.

Next, and hopefully last in the pancake series, up: Not Your Mama’s Pancakes (unless I’m your mama).

Good Time, Bad Time, Real Time

The United States Geologic Survey divides time (all time on earth from the beginning of time) on a neat little table that goes backward in time. It starts with the Cenozoic Era (age of recent life) and ends with the Precambrian Era (theoretically, the beginning of time). The fact that time is shown in reverse-chronology is a dead giveaway that something’s wrong at the USGS. (Want to see the chart?

As someone who did rather well in college Geology, as well as someone who has lived her entire life on this planet, I know that the USGS is wrong. Oh, I’m sure this timeline is serviceable to someone who is doing something silly like studying climate changes in the paleowhatever or estimating the age of a mountain (for what? birthday cards?) or when the dinosaurs became extinct (sympathy cards?). The truth is, this timeline is so inaccurate, it’s laughable.

Let’s assume that you, like me, have lived your entire life on Earth. You have experienced important events, life-defining events. When a life-defining event occurs, life as we know it is dramatically changed (ask a dinosaur to explain this if you don’t get it). So, like the silly, inaccurate table the USGS offers, we carry our own subconscious table which is broken down into various eras such as “when I was a kid,” “when I was in high school,” “before I got married,” “before the kids were born,” “after the kids moved out for good I hope,” and “when I retired.” These eras are further broken down into periods, such as “first marriage,” “second marriage,” “last marriage,” “when Kennedy was shot” (either Kennedy), “when man walked on the moon,” and “9/11.” The divisions are very personal and are not chronologically uniform. For some, “when Kennedy was shot” refers to a time during their first, or only, marriage, while for others it occurred when they were in high school. Still others think it was pre-history. Which reminds me…Chip tells everyone the day JFK was shot I was smoking a cigarette on a grassy knoll in Dallas. Actually, I was in the halls of Lenape Regional High School, right outside my home ec classroom. That’s my story…

How can we, meaning you, prove that my version of time is correct? Ask someone to tell you about the Permian Period or the Precambrian Era. As long as you’re not speaking to a geologist, you’re likely to get a vague answer at best. Even more likely, “the what?” Ask that same person what life in high school was like, and you’ll receive a very lengthy, detailed description. I rest my case.

Simply put, time on Planet Earth begins the day you were born (anything before that is prehistoric, therefore theoretical) and ends the day you do. What happens between those two days and how you perceive those events define the divisions of time.

In our house, we are living in the “after we got married era,” which is divided into two periods, the “pre-Katrina period” and the “Carolinian period” (which is current time). In the pre-Katrina period there was no better place to live than at the beach. In the Carolinian period there is no better place to live than the mountains. Clearly, Hurricane Katrina was a life-defining event (also, life-altering). Previous to the “after we got married era” we lived in the “before we got married era,” and although we both lived through that era, for each of us periodic divisions vary. The USGS has yet to come up with a system to define this phenomenon or a table that charts real time. Clearly this ex-housewife from New Jersey is hipper to the whole time thing than some so-called scientists.

Consequently, what does this have to do with global warming? Nothing. But Chip just asked me, so I thought it might be important to clarify that fact. If you have read this far in an attempt to get a better understanding of global warming, well, hey…I feel sorry for you. But here's the warming happens; global cooling happens; the history of planet Earth is a history of climate change.

Living La Vida Virtual

I am not bragging. I own an amusement park. I have a mansion in the suburbs of
New Jersey. I have a condo, a trailer house, a bungalow, a manor house, two tree houses, and two farms, both with cottages, barns, and a variety of outbuildings. I own hundreds of head of livestock, hundreds of chickens, as well as goats, sheep, swans, and countless cats and dogs. I even have dozens of reindeer. I have hundreds of friends. In the morning, when I rise, I check my mail only to find that some of my friends have sent me tons of money (the day before yesterday I got 72k). They also send me all kinds of food and gifts, every day. The gifts include livestock, real estate, china, jewelry, and toys, really far too many items to list. I’ve even received trees. I am invited to restaurants, cafes, islands, sorority houses, and distant cities. I am hugged so often I can’t believe I’m not bruised. I am prayed for and complimented and validated in every way possible. This is my life. Virtually.

I am very easy to locate. Nearly every day, for far too many hours a day, you can find me on Facebook. This is not a guilty pleasure, it’s an out-and-out addiction.

My friend John (who is in a tiny minority because he’s someone I’ve actually met, as well as his brilliant wife and sweet children, his parents, his brothers, and on and on) received an award on FarmVille the other day, “Vegetable Virtuoso” to which I responded, “I’m a Veritable Vegetable.” Actually, the more I thought about that the more I liked it. No, not BEING a vegetable on Facebook day after day, but the phrase, “Virtual Vegetable.” It’s the Internet version of the couch potato. It’s so clearly self-definitive that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if lots of people use “virtual vegetable.”

What exactly is it that we’re doing when we play YoVille, FarmVille, FarmTown, Roller Coaster Kingdom, and the myriad of other similar games available on Facebook? We take elements and put them together and make a picture. You may be presented with an empty field on which you can place crops, buildings, trees, and animals. There is a character in the midst of all of this, your avatar. That’s the little person who’s always in the way when you’re trying to place an item somewhere. Whatever you create is endlessly changeable. You actually don’t have anything in the picture that no one else can have, but you can arrange the virtual items in your own design. It’s not an art, but it’s almost a craft. When you get tired of the picture you create, you can move everything around or add more items.

Remember Colorforms? It’s reassuring to know that Colorforms are still around after 59 years. You can actually buy a reproduction of the original shapes set for around $30 (try Amazon .com) and new sets continue to be released. As an experienced person (sounds better than old), I still remember my four favorite sets: the original shapes, Miss Cookie’s Kitchen, Miss Cookie’s Space Age Kitchen, and Popeye the Weather Man. Oh, I had plenty of others (Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and Bugs Bunny, for example), but nothing could compare to Miss Cookie’s cabinets that actually opened and closed or creating rain for Popeye and his friend. Colorforms offered a netbook-sized box of virtual fun. The pleasure that we get when we play our virtual games must be akin to the joy of Colorforms.

Often when I’m at the computer, Chip (who still owns his original Bugs Bunny set) asks if I’m blogging. I probably strike the keys often enough in a day to produce a new War and Peace. Usually, though, I am not writing. I tell him, “No, I’m playing with Colorforms.”