Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Very Merry Christmas - 2009

It was a Christmas to remember. Chris, Kelsey, Clara and Robert; Tim; and Grandpa Dan and I were all together. It was Dan and Tim's first time to meet Robert, who turned one month old the day after we arrived. None of us could have imagined a more perfect Christmas gift.

Clara is at the age where something funny comes out of her mouth all the time. She kept us laughing, as well as very busy, from morning until bedtime. She loves being read to, and she loves having someone join her in pretending. She and I played, all one afternoon, that she was a puppy and I was the puppy-doctor. I can't even begin to remember how many maladies I cured with pretend shots, pretend pills, and other pretend treatments.

Robert is happiest when he is nursing, and still has some pretty fussy periods in between, especially in the evenings. But Kelsey is doing a great job of figuring him out -- isn't every new baby a little bit of a puzzle? -- and even in the few days we were there he was becoming a more and more contented baby. What a euphoric feeling it was to, once again, cuddle a sleeping baby, feeling the downiness of his hair against my cheek and smelling the sweet, milky scent of his warm little body. I've only been home a few hours, and I already miss those two GRAND-kids.

Christmas Day was exactly what it should have been. Clara's eyes were sparkling. Santa left a few big cookie crumbs on his cookie-plate, sitting under the tree, which Clara gratefully ate, herself. Rudolph ate his entire carrot, however. Presents were torn into - everyone helped open ones for Robert - and by the end of the morning the room was filled with toys, wrapping paper, boxes and ribbons. To top off the day, Kelsey and Chris, together, put a delicious Christmas dinner on the table.

I really enjoyed the interaction between Chris and Clara, all Christmas Day. Clara is a well-behaved little 4-year-old. (I know, I could be a little biased, but she really is.) And she always asks permission for special treats or concessions. On Christmas Day, she went all day without hearing "no" to her (admittedly, rather modest) requests:
"Daddy, can I have a Skittle?"
Chris, looking thoughtful for a moment would answer, "Yes, you may!"
"Daddy, could I have some more apple juice?"
Chris, with another thoughtful pause would answer, "Yes, you may!"
"Daddy, could I watch another Bugs Bunny video before I go to bed?"
"Yes, you may!"
Clara just had to feel like it was her luckiest day ever!

The presents under the tree were mostly for the children, but not all of them! Dan, knowing I had been itching for a DSLR camera, gave me a Nikon D5000. He was a little nervous about it. I had been debating, myself, between a Canon and a Nikon, so he feared he might have gotten me the "wrong one." But, as I explained to him, the reason I was having so much trouble deciding between them was that they were both wonderful cameras, and I knew I couldn't go wrong with either. So he just helped me through the difficult decision. I'm happy as can be with it, and can't wait for my first photo shoot. (Most of my Christmas pictures, by the way, were taken with my old camera.)

Here are a few random photos from our visit. As always, since I was taking the pictures, there weren't any of me. I'm hoping to get some from Chris' camera, just to document that I was there, too!

Clara bakes cookies for Santa Claus.

Santa's gift to Clara: a new doll stroller!

Dan looks through the book Chris found for him - a classic book on car racing,
that Dan was thrilled to have

Clara and Uncle Tim

Chris, Kelsey, Clara and Robert

Robert, all dressed up for church on Sunday

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Daring Bakers' December Challenge - Gingerbread House

The December 2009 Daring Bakers’ challenge was brought to you by Anna of Very Small Anna and Y of Lemonpi. They chose to challenge Daring Bakers’ everywhere to bake and assemble a gingerbread house from scratch. They chose recipes from Good Housekeeping and from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book as the challenge recipes. (Recipe HERE)

Phase I - The Pattern
Back when the boys were just little shavers I made gingerbread houses for Christmas. Some of them were very elaborate and large. Although it had been many years since I made one, the challenge presented to us brought back fond memories. However, I thought I'd like to try my hand at something a little different this time . . . maybe a gingerbread Noah's ark, instead of a house! I looked on-line for a pattern. Although I found a few pictures of assembled arks, I couldn't find the pattern pieces, so out came the cardboard, the ruler and the scissors, and I spent an evening making a pattern. After I cut out the cardboard pieces, I taped it all together to make sure the pieces fit properly.

As you see, I stopped off at a kitchen store after work that day and bought a few new animal cookie cutters. You can't have an ark without animals!

My master plan was to bake and assemble the ark, bubble wrap it and pack it in a box, and take it with me when we went to see the grandkids for Christmas. I would bring the royal icing ingredients and all of the candy decorations, as well, and we could have a Noah's ark decorating party one evening. My only concern with waiting so late to do the decorating was that it would be difficult to get the blog posted by the deadline, December 27.

Phase II - Baking and Construction
I used Anna's Good Housekeeping recipe for my gingerbread, and it turned out great - very easy to roll out and to cut, and no shrinkage. A few of the pieces spread a tiny bit, so I trimmed them while they were still hot from the oven. After baking I sealed them in a plastic container and froze them, since I wasn't yet ready to build the ark. On construction day I pulled the gingerbread from the freezer and laid them out to thaw for half-a-day, until I was ready to put it all together.

Knowing that two sets of hands were better than one, when it comes to building an ark, I invited my friend, Lois, over to help put it together. I made my royal icing using powdered egg whites, and it set up beautifully.

We built the lower part of the ark first, and let it set up before putting the cabin on top. While we waited, we iced the animals, which took a lot more time than I anticipated. We both thought the roof pieces might not stay in place without some sort of prop for awhile, but we underestimated the sticking-power of the royal icing, which held tight and set up like concrete in no time.

In the end, we had a stable and flood-worthy ark, although still lacking the candy decorations.

Phase III - Transporting
The next phase was transporting the ark for a bit more than 900 miles, in the back of our small SUV, so that our granddaughter, Clara, could help decorate it on Christmas Eve.

Phase IV - Decorating
We finally brought the ark to rest, safely, at Clara's house! On Christmas Eve we decorated it with icing and candies.

Thanks, Anna and Y, for this month's challenge. It gave me a great opportunity for a special, creative, grandma/granddaughter Christmas activity.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Celebrating Tim's Good News

We took Tim out to dinner tonight, to celebrate his new job, which will start on January 19th. A couple months ago he became a victim of the economy, when his previous employer downsized dramatically. We're happy for him and proud of him for getting this new job, which actually seems to be an even better position with greater potential for growth. Way to go, Tim!

Many thanks to those of you who joined us in praying for the right outcome.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Overheard at the Kitchen Store - Really!

So . . . I was in one of our local kitchen gadget shops yesterday, looking for a cookie cutter in the shape of a dove (they were out of them). Standing near me were a young, very fashionable lady in high heels, short skirt and stylish hairdo; her husband; and the store clerk. The lady was asking for "something that puts words onto a cake." The clerk showed her their display of decorating bags and metal tips.

"No, that's too complicated. I want something more like a Magic Marker," the lady said.

"Well," said the clerk, "You're in luck! This is about as close to a Magic Marker as you can get for cake decorating!" And she handed her a decorating "pen," something I had never seen. It looked like this.

"Yeah," the lady said, looking at the tool rather skeptically, "But how do you change fonts?"

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Long-Eared Party Crasher

This weekend our church family got together for a holiday party. The food was abundant and delicious. The fellowship was warm and loving. But what had the children pumped was the rumor that Santa Claus would be making an appearance.

Our preacher, John, was the emcee for the evening’s talent show and was keeping things moving along nicely. He had done a super job of building up the kids' anticipation of Santa’s arrival. Unbeknownst to John, though, Santa was not the only VIP coming to the party.

As the talent show drew to a close, John focused everyone's attention on the doors, where we all expected to see that familiar red-and-white-suited elf make his entrance. But look who showed up instead!

Poor John, who always has things so well planned-out, including his own script for the evening, was at a LOSS for words. Now that has to be a first for John! The children had amused, but puzzled, expressions on their faces as the Easter Bunny began handing out little pouches of candy.

But Santa Claus would never let down a crowd of good, little sparkly-eyed boys and girls. A couple minutes later he, also, burst through the doors with a mighty "Ho ho ho!" He proceded to make it clear to the Easter Bunny that he had crashed the wrong party. We all had a good laugh, and the children were the winners, because they received a second round of goodies - this time from Santa.
(Thanks to Wayne and Keith for their creative role-playing and for putting one over on John!)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Reading Log - October and November 2009

The Last Song, Nicholas Sparks

The Last Song is a coming-of-age story of a young girl, Ronnie, who has been estranged from her father for the past three years, having held him responsible for the break-up of their family. It is a story of forgiveness, compassion and love. The bittersweet end of the book, although successful in striking emotional chords in the reader (Sparks is great at this), is very predictable due to the telegraphed clues along the way. I did not find the characters, particularly Ronnie's 10-year-old brother, very believable. His thoughts, more than his words, were not those of a child, despite the author's somewhat weak attempts at giving him child-like actions.

I've been a reader of Sparks for a long time. The first of his works that I read, nine or ten years ago, was the little book, A Walk to Remember. Since then I've read a number of his other books, including The Notebook, The Guardian, The Wedding, Message in a Bottle and possibly my favorite, Three Weeks With My Brother. Some were good reads, and some not so good. I'd have to put The Last Song in the second group - not so good.

As I started reading it, I had to put the brakes on and do a little research. Was this really meant to be a book for adult readers? To me it had the feel of a book intended for the juvenile market. Apparently, though, it is considered an adult novel, but what I learned was that Sparks wrote this book after writing the screenplay for the Disney movie of the same name. (Call me clueless - I didn't even know it was a movie.) And the main character of the book, the 18-year-old Ronnie, was crafted specifically as a role for Mylie Cyrus. All of that leaves me a little cool on the book; it's just not how a good book should be born, and this cart-before-the-horse approach negatively impacted the book.

Nicholas Sparks is a good story-teller, and this is not to say I'll never read another of his books, but I am becoming a bit bored with the sameness of his plots and characters. That may be the reason my favorite of his books was Three Weeks With My Brother, which is non-fiction and markedly different.

The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd

Lily’s mother died of a gunshot wound when Lily was four years old. That tragic moment left her with confused memories and guilt that haunt her as she grows up, motherless, in the care of her emotionally distant and harsh father, T. Ray, and her outspoken, tobacco-chewing, kind-hearted but impatient Black nanny, Rosaleen.

The story takes place at the height of the civil rights movement, in South Carolina. A string of tumultuous events, surrounding Rosaleen’s attempt to register to vote for the very first time, results in Lily and Rosaleen running away together.

Lily and Rosaleen, through a mixture of chance and mysterious clues, find themselves at the home of the three black Boatwright sisters, August, the nurturing and wise “Mistress of Bees”; June, the somewhat aloof, educated school teacher and musician; and May, the emotionally fragile sister, who can’t distinguish other people’s sorrow from her own. Lily, who has grown up without a mother, is soon embraced by a house full of mother figures.

The symbolism that the author draws from June’s bee colonies is rich, and seeps into the words and thoughts as sweetly as the thick, amber honey that Lily and the sisters harvest and seal in glass jars. Sisterhood, guilt, forgiveness, the “black Madonna,” love, nurture, death and grief are themes that hold the story together.

I loved reading The Secret Life of Bees, and would recommend it to friends.

A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini

This was the second book I've read by Hosseini, the first being The Kite Runner. Both of these books are tales of Afghanistan and the turmoil and suffering caused by religious and political factions in this war-torn nation, over the past half-century. But what makes his stories have the impact that they do on the reader is that these are not stories of the nation so much as stories of individuals trapped in the chaos of the nation's war-torn history.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is the story of two women, one born in 1959, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Afghan; and the second born, a generation later, into a simple but loving home, where she was encouraged to become educated and reach for the stars, despite the social and religious prohibitions on women in her country. These two women's lives become intertwined as they both suffer through life-and-death situations and turn their original hostility toward each other into a loving mother-daughter type of relationship.

Hosseini is a talented author, and I highly recommend both books - The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns.

The Blessing Way, Tony Hillerman

Attending the Hillerman evening, this month, prompted me to begin reading his Leaphorn/Chee mystery series - maybe from start to finish. This month I read the first in the series, The Blessing Way.

In this story, we meet, for the first time, Lt. Joe Leaphorn, as he stalks a killer, believed by the Navajos to be a "Wolf-Witch." Caught in the middle of this chase are Ellen Leon, who has come to the desert to meet up with her fiance, to tell him something important; and Albuquerque professor, Bergen McKee, who has come to continue his research on Navajo witch lore.

In The Blessing Way, Hillerman does a good job of building tension in the reader and of delivering interesting glimpses into Navajo traditions and beliefs.