Saturday, January 18, 2020

My Temporary "New Normal"

My temporary "new normal" is anything but normal! But then, with our wacky weather, I'm not sure what normal is anymore.

While Australia is experiencing an environmental tragedy from the brush fires, I know many of my friends in the south and southwest faced horrible tornadoes and damaging winds in the storm of the weekend of January 12. I hope your clean-up wasn't too bad. For us, it was the predictions of a very bad ice storm. (They said it was moving northeast, so that goes for you all, too.)

When we see the Weather Channel broadcasting live from our little town, it's a bit disconcerting. Mid-Michigan is not the world's most popular travel destination, so when I was checking the weather and saw a fellow huddled up by a spot that they said was Lansing (but I didn't recognize) it was worth taking notice.

The predictions were for lots of rain first, followed by lots of ice and possibly power outages. This brings back memories of the ice storm of 2013 when Rick was without power for 11 days. (Most of the city got it back within six or seven -- still too long in one of our coldest winters. And it began two days before Christmas, which made it quite the holiday to remember, despite how much you want to forget it.)

But I digress. Rain. Yes. We got it. Inside and out.

I was going to wait to replace my basement windows till later in the season because I need them for rain and it doesn't rain in winter, right? It snows? Needless to say, with two rains over less than two weeks and ground too frozen to absorb it, I am rethinking that strategy.

We were worried that the ice and following snow would be so bad that no one would come to Rick's concert or that it would be canceled. But we shouldn't have wasted that energy! While it was sloppy and a bit icy, things didn't materialize as badly as predicted and a warm and enthusiastic group gathered at the library to hear our guys play!

It started with a solo by Rick and I really wish I'd recorded it. It was a really beautiful piece and he rocked it!

I have to say, I was really proud of him. It's scary to get up there by yourself and perform. I've done it too many times and it's still nerve wracking. As the audience continued to come in, he just kept playing. And it was beautiful.

Then the rest of the gang came on and they played a concert of about an hour.

And they sounded great! I was surprised after when Rick told me he had been pretty nervous. They've played small gigs for nursing homes in the past but it's a lot different when a) there are more people b) the program is much longer and c) the audience can both hear and is mentally present and awake, and not just wheeled in for the show. My surprise was that it didn't show to me.

I feel my own world is in a bit of chaos and total mess and it's making me a little crazy. I can't really take down Christmas till I can get the basement ready, and also till I can beat a path to the basement door wide enough to take down a tree. Which I can't do till the kitchen pie rack and chest are out of the passageways. Which I can't do till the back wall is painted and the stove is installed. Which won't happen till we return from Texas.

We may be back, by the time this posts. But till then, nothing is back to normal. Nothing is in its right place. And, there is only so much I can do till it is. So, I counted my loose change.

Well, not so loose. Let me just say that if you toss your silver change into a piggy bank (or in my case, four piggy banks) for a year or so, you can end up with $256.50 if you're diligent! I see new basement windows in my future.

Lizzie has been naughty. Because of the chaos in the house, nothing being where it should be, I put her Christmas present -- two unopened bags of treats -- in a totebag with other things from the same shelf on a chair. Of course, I didn't zip the totebag.

So it shouldn't have surprised me when I found one bag of treats open and half eaten on the family room floor. I did what any smart cat-mom would do and zipped up the bag to within an inch. The next day the bag was open and her other bag of treats on the floor, dragged half across the room. That, too, was open -- and half empty.

Let's just say some in our household seem to be liking the new normal.

Which includes not having to practice so hard for a bit!

Monday, January 13, 2020

Boatloads of Books: The 2019 Book Wrap

It was a good year for reading. Last winter was long and cold; the summer ideal for finding a warm spot with a cool beverage and a good book. And no, I didn't finish all of these -- or even start a few -- but some of my favorites were in this group!

The totals? I topped my goal of 60 books with 62. And this year, I topped last year's page count -- in 2018 it was 16,785 and this year, 18,238, a good 1,500-plus pages.

The Top Fifteen (in no order) (others below by category)

The Gourmand's Way by Justin Spring -- This is at the top of the list. It covers six Americans who lived in France during or after WWII and whose writing on French cooking helped to bring it to the attention of mainstream America. included are Alice B. Toklas, Julia Child, Richard Olney, MFK Fisher and more. You'll learn plenty about cooking, wine, France and the lives of these remarkable individuals. Totally fascinating and a very well-written read!

Educated by Tara Westover -- This memoir has topped the NYT best seller list for months, with good reason. The author writes of her restrictive youth, schooled at home in an emotionally abusive situation by survivalist parents and traces her journey to study in Cambridge a PhD at Harvard. Completely fascinating.

The Vanity Fair Diaries by Tina Brown -- Tina Brown name-drops with the best of them as she recounts her years editing Vanity Fair. In addition to the name recognition, it's a fascinating look at the major-magazine publishing industry. I'd be surprised if Brown has many (any?) friends left after this one but it sure is fun!

Becoming by Michele Obama -- The former First Lady delivers what is said to be the best selling memoir of all time, telling of her youth in Chicago, her college years, her relationship with Barack Obama and life in the White House. I loved her before; I am a total fan now.

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt -- This isn't an easy read but it's a good one for history fans. It  tells the story of how Poggio Bracciolini, a 15th-century papal emissary and obsessive book hunter, saved the last copy of the Roman poet Lucretius's On the Nature of Things (On the Nature of Things) from near-terminal neglect in a German monastery, thus reintroducing important ideas that sparked the modern age.

Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes -- The creator of Downton Abbey turns his lens to the 1960s and a group of bright young things, one of whom, now dying, asks his former friend to find the woman who had his child forty years before. The book jumps back and forth in time as the story tells of this group of British socialites in the 60s and the present day.

The Gown by Jennifer Robson -- Historical fiction and fun for fans of the Royals. The plot focuses on two women who worked in Norman Hartnell's couture studios and were tasked with making the wedding gown for the Princess Elizabeth. A young woman goes on a quest to solve a mystery about her grandmother and discovers a secret.

The Vanity Fair Diaries by Tina Brown. Does Tina Brown have any friends left? I doubt it. But I learned a lot in this fascinating look at editing and publishing one of the nation's top magazines. She's a wonderful writer with a witty, wicked sense of humor and just the right amount of cattiness. This book is loads of fun!

Game Change by John Heileman and Mark Halperin -- This is an oldie and it tells the fascinating story of the 2008 election campaign from primaries to the presidential race with John McCain and Barack Obama. It's a wonderful inside look of presidential politics. The characters may have changed but it's worth a read in 2020.

Fashioning Art from Paper by Dennita Sewell -- This largely photo book is so gorgeous. Written to accompany the "Fashioning Art from Paper" exhibition of Isobelle De Borchgrave, it provides much information about the artist and her techniques.
The illustrations in Fashioning Art from Paper are stunning!

A Better Man by Louise Penny -- This is the most recent entry in the Inspector Gamache series, set in the (unfortunately) fictional village of Three Pines, with occasional visits to Montreal. In this one, Gamache, demoted after an incident in the previous book, tackles a murder in his own town while a potential flood threatens the lives of its residents.

Here Comes Trouble by Michael Moore -- Whether you like or dislike documentarian Michael Moore, you might well love this memoir that covers stories of the author's youth (and to some degree his later years.) Growing up in a small town near Flint, Michigan, Moore tells of a time past and a place long gone in many ways and how that -- and his family -- shaped his life and career.

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert -- Set in the 1940s and beyond, this novel follows a young woman who, after being kicked out of college, goes to live with her aunt, who runs a theatre in New York City. It's a coming of age story with a fun twist and engaging characters.

The Suspect by Fiona Barton -- I love Fiona Barton's books and in this case her lead character, journalist Kate, finds the story she's assigned to report hits far to close to home, taking her from London to Thailand, partly to report, partly to search for her missing son. Could he be involved in a double murder?

The Last Painting of Sara DeVos by Dominick Smith. Historical fiction set in three time periods -- 1600s Netherlands, late 1950s New York and Sydney in 2000. It follows the work of an artist, a collector and a forger-turned-curator in what is a combination detective and love story.

And finally, the best book I didn't read -- but looked at every single page!  Poured over, to be honest!

Truly, this seven-inch square book is one I treasure. Thanks, Rita of Sketchbook Wandering, for recommending it!

The Categories

The four categories are Memoir/Biography; Mystery; Fiction and Non-Fiction. Books are not listed by preference. Top Picks are highlighted with additional notes about some of the others.



A good category this year. In addition to those featuring in the top picks, "The Little Princesses," by Marion Crawford, was an endearing look at Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret by their governess (who was later shunned by the Royals for writing the book). "Victoria the Queen" and "King Edward VIII" were both heavy lifting but well written and certainly very interesting. "The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating" was fascinating and "C'est La Vie" -- the story of a woman adjusting to a new life in Paris after the death of her husband, just fun.

Educated by Tara Westover
The Vanity Fair Diaries by Tina Brown
Becoming by Michele Obama
King Edward VIII by Philip Ziegler
Royal Sisters by Anne Edwards
The Little Princesses by Marion Crawford
Victoria the Queen by Julia Baird
Here Comes Trouble by Michael Moore
Dancing with the Devil by Christopher Wilson
C'est La Vie by Suzy Gershman
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tara Bailey
Dear Madam President by Jennifer Palmieri
French Milk by Lucy Knisley (graphic memoir)



This is my favorite genre so the list is long. You'll see several books by the same author here -- I like series. Louise Penny and Jacqueline Winspear never disappoint. New to me was Susan Hill, whose "Serrallier" mysteries are fantastic. Digging into the British Library series has been fun. These are classics from the 30s and 40s, often by writers you haven't heard of (and I wonder why not!). I discovered the wonderful Martin Walker's "Bruno" mysteries, set in Provence and revisited the fun 50s New York couple, Mr. and Mrs. North by Frances and Richard Lockridge. I love the Chief Inspector Maigret mysteries -- short and always good.

The Lockridge "Mr. and Mrs. North" mysteries were very vintage, from the cottage. And such fun!

The Emma Jameson "Blue" series started out good and drove me nuts near the end with great continuity errors (if you are going to set a street in London, make it in the location where it actually is! And get the character names right from book to book. It's the editor in me.)

Best of all, Ann Cleeves has a new series and a new detective, Matthew Venn, who is the "star" of "The Last Call." I look forward to more from her with this character.

Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny
A Shot in the Dark by Lynne Truss
The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons
The Dark Vineyard by Martin Walker
The Risk of Darkness by Susan Hill
The Shadows in the Street by Susan Hill
The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes
The Betrayal of Trust by Susan Hill
The Incredible Crime by Lois Austen Leigh
Ice Blue by Emma Jameson
Blue Murder by Emma Jameson
Something Blue by Emma Jameson
Black and Blue by Emma Jameson
Blue Blooded by Emma Jameson
Dim Sum Dead by Jerilyn Farmer
The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear
Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Croft
Maigret and the Death of the Harbormaster -- Georges Simenon
The Case of the Borrowed Brunette -- Earl Stanley Gardner
Maigret and the Headless Corpse -- Georges Simenon
Maigret and the Good People of Montparnasse -- Georges Simenon
The Resistance Man by Martin Walker
Death Takes a Bow by Frances and Richard Lockridge
A Better Man by Louise Penny
Murder Comes First by Frances and Richard Lockridge
Death of an Angel by Frances and Richard Lockridge
Voyage into Violence by Frances and Richard Lockridge
The Long Call by Ann Cleeves
Murder Has Its Points by Frances and Richard Lockridge
A Murder is Suggested by Georges Simenon
Maigret's Doubts by Georges Simenon
The Suspect by Fiona Barton
The Mistletoe Murders by P.D. James
Silent Nights edited by Martin Edwards


I don't read a lot of fiction but those I read didn't, for the most part, disappoint. Four made my top list (above)

The Christmas Star -- Donna VanLiere
Paris by the Book by Liam Callanan
Past Imperfect - Julian Fellowes
The Gown - Jennifer Robson
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
The Last Painting of Sara DeVos

Non-Fiction and Miscellaneous


I adored this book. Avebury is officially on my England 2020 list!

I really loved the political books "Fear" and "Game Change" this year. And I was glad when blogger Mike Biles of A Bit About Britain compiled British history into "A Bit About Britain's History," which is a delightful read and scholarly (but not too scholarly). Susan Branch's "Vineyard Seasons" is a cookbook with stories that delights. "To the Manor Reborn" is a must for Anglophiles who can follow how Avebury Castle was restored by the BBC to several periods in which the home was occupied by various owners. This is history too but with a lot of design thrown in. Thanks, Jenny Woolf, English Travel Writer! Four star!

Fear by Bob Woodward
The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt
To the Manor Reborn by Sian Evans
Game Change by John Heileman and Mark Halperin
Fashioning Art from Paper by Dennita Sewell
The Gourmand's Way by Justin Spring
A Bit About Britain's History by Mike Biles
Not so Prim Rose  by Margot Shaw
Vineyard Seasons by Susan Branch

All in all, a good reading year. I've started 2020 with Ann Patchett's "The Dutch House." So far, so good!

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Friday, January 10, 2020

Goodbye, Big Bird: A Remembrance

He was one of the kindest, most amazing men I have ever met. And when I learned in December that Caroll Spinney had died, I felt like I had lost someone part of my family -- even though I had only met Caroll and his wife, Debi, years ago over a few short days and our only correspondence since had been holiday greetings. And yet, Caroll was present in our lives and many others often -- through his characters of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.

When I first met Caroll Spinney, he was a young guy who was part of a brand new show on public television called "Sesame Street," where he "played" two roles -- Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. I was a college student, studying puppetry as part of my theatre program. He was appearing at MSU during a puppetry festival and after his talk I went backstage to meet him and tell him how much I admired his work and the program.

He was gracious and friendly. And when I met him again 32 years later, he didn't remember. But I never forgot.

It didn't matter that he didn't remember (who would?!) What mattered was that when he came to WKAR all those years after to be part of the station's 50th anniversary celebration, he knocked it out of the park in terms of kindness, generosity and an amazing stamina that boggled our minds.

Caroll was our special guest for the 50th, and he had a pretty rigorous schedule -- media interviews, speaking at two dinners (running simultaneously!), attending and speaking at a reception and then meeting-and-greeting hundreds of children (and their parents, who had grown up with "Sesame Street") at the station open house.

He shook a lot of hands and posed for a ton of photos and pretty much every photo had plenty of smiles!

My job was taking him from hotel to station and back, making sure he and his wife, the delightful Debi Spinney, got where they needed to go when they needed to be there and had what they needed during their visit. I've never met more gracious people (and we had our share of divas now and then). Nor, have I met anyone with such tireless energy.

The thing is, this experience may well have been unique to me but it wasn't unique to Caroll. Public TV colleagues across the country could tell you the same story -- the only thing that might change would be the location and event details!

Caroll was not only a remarkable puppeteer, he was also an artist and author and had written an interesting memoir, "The Wisdom of Big Bird."

While he was in East Lansing, he also not only signed copies of his book, but he wrote very personal inscriptions in each one -- and then drew art work to accompany it. This he did in his hotel room during his breaks. Truly, the man didn't rest!

Caroll and Debi struck up a good relationship with several of my WKAR colleagues and after their visit we exchanged holiday cards. I wouldn't call us "friends" like your neighbor or colleague or your friend from high school, but in a way, Caroll and his characters were everyone's friend. And certainly I think we all treasured those brief times together.

He was also a remarkable artist and each card was a depiction of his two beloved characters.

I have a Christmas wall of some of those cards. I treasure them. (If I could still get the same frames, the rest would be up there too!)

Last Christmas was his first where he included a photo of himself and Debi. I wonder if that was a clue?

Caroll retired from being Big Bird in 2018. After wearing that huge suit in which he could see only through a small camera in front of him, and operating Oscar in a variety of uncomfy positions (hands over head, reaching up from a trash can!), I think he was more than due for a break. He may have started to be ill at that time -- or not. I don't know. This photo from the New York Times obituary only hints at what it would be like to operate an eight foot yellow bird.

Photo Credit: New York Times

What I do know is that he left a tremendous legacy in these two characters he created: Big Bird, the innocent... (I'm guessing this might not be Caroll on the skates, skating to this very touching version "Feliz Navidad," but the character is certainly the gentle giant he created)...


...and Oscar the Grouch, here with Michael Buble, singing "Oscar Hates Christmas." He showed that we all have our grouchy side, and yet what wasn't to love in this fuzzy green monster? Face it, we all know and love at least one Oscar.

And for me and Rick he left another legacy, one of very warm and personal memories, good times and discussions and an example of a life well lived.

You'll be missed forever, Caroll. But your characters continue to live on.

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Wednesday, January 8, 2020

New Year at Home

Goodbye, December.  Welcome January!

Aren't these calendar pages wonderful? My friend Kate does a new calendar every year for our annual sale and I'm wild about this year's (ab0ve). And last year's! (Below)

We had an odd New Year's Eve. For the first time in decades -- since before this photo (below) taken at the turn of the century -- Rick and I were in different places. He had volunteered to babysit the Toddler Twosome at their home and I was still recovering from my Christmas Eve fall on a slate floor in Livonia on scattered toys from the toy box. (And on the beginning of a period still going on of being sick as a dog.)

It was a good move and we talked on the phone but I wasn't quite up to the car ride or the activity! And, it got me to bed at a decent time!

We celebrated on New Year's Day. His bread, French Onion Soup, salad, all good. At home.

Home. That's my "word" for 2020. And that means the physical house here and the cottage as well as my personal "home" -- body, mind and soul.

For Christmas Rick and the kids are giving me a kitchen re-do. Well, Rick calls it a kitchen enema. I don't like that, though it might be closer to the truth. New paint, new stove. Clean slate! Counters will have to wait; the 1964 "ants and gold speck" counters will be here a bit longer.  Home.

So, I emptied all the dish and food cupboards for painting inside and clened off a shoebox-plus-more of photos, recipes, eyeglass prescriptions and who knows what else off the fridge. We'll keep the old cupboards, which I rather like with my knotty pine family room adjacent. But if you're going to do it, do it!). Home.

Everything was taken to the guest room (and the family room, and the dining room table and the coffee table, and the hall) -- unless it made it to the basement (things I need to keep but don't use regularly) or to charity (several bags already).  There's a pile to take to the cottage, too. My junk drawer doesn't look like a junk drawer anymore!

So, along with this, some of you know that a few days before New Year's we had a huge rain and since the ground was frozen, it rained in through the basement windows. Well, that was a mess -- not as bad as last year's spring basement flood -- but enough.

So between that and the kitchen, guess what? New lawn grading and replacement windows will be required for the basement. Home.

Christmas is still up. To be fair, it always stays up till Twelfth Night but this time it might be a little longer. And to tell the truth, it's beginning to bug me! But till some things get moved back to the kitchen and I'm feeling a lot better than I am right now, it will have to wait.  I want to bring up the snowfolk. Preferably before spring! Home.

After Christmas I was recovering from a fall. On the 29th of December I started having low grade fevers and after a week of feeling progressively worse, I finally went to the doc. Antibiotics, Xray and hopefully no pneumonia. So, I'm sort of dragging. But listening to others and taking care of my personal "home," my health.

Rick is getting ready for his first official concert with his trio on January 12. They had a dry run at an assisted living center the other day that went well, Rick said. Then the public concert. If you're anywhere near Lansing, MI, ask me for details! It's free (and snacks, too!)

He's pretty excited. If you are into 45 seconds of listening, enjoy the video from a rehearsal.

Then we'll be headed to Dallas for a few days for the memorial service for his stepfather, who died the day after Christmas. It will be good to see the family again, most of whom I've not seen since the reunion in June. Then, back home.

The kitchen was in full power-mode this weekend and is nearly done. I was banished, my primary job being runs to the hardware store and to pick up lunch. Kevin, Molly and Rick worked their tails off and as I write this, we just need half-a-wall and the chair rail painted and hardware replaced on the cupboard doors. Most of the food and dishes are back in place. There will be another post with more photos when it's all done -- and about the lessons I learned about myself during all their hard work. (See, I can be productive when I'm sick.)

I'll tell you one thing -- I need to "dig out" more often. While they were under the sink they found a set of shoe-related things from the previous owner. This box of shoe polish was 38 cents at Kresge. Kresge hasn't been around in decades, and the 38 cents might be closer to the vintage 1963 of the house.

Just keeping it real! So that, in a nutshell, is January. And, my Word of the Year. It's as ambitious as I make it. So, we'll see!

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Monday, January 6, 2020

Christmas Cookies, Presents and Food!

Christmas Eve. I really love the sound of those words together. The anticipation. The joy.

We spent several hours of Christmas Eve with the Toddler Twosome so their parents could go to the gym in the morning and later, to a holiday party. There was some cuddling.

And cookie decorating. This has always been a full-family thing done after dinner on Christmas Eve. But times and ages of participants changes things and so it was me and the baking assistants in the afternoon (while the other adult baking assistant in the room took the photos.)

After a near-sprinkle accident, we got our rhythm down. (lesson learned: Don't give a toddler a jar of sprinkles and say put some of these on your cookie, because they will dump the whole jar onto the cookie sheet!).

The rhythm -- I frost cookies and hand some of them off to the sprinkler. Who covers them with sprinkles and eats them.

Meanwhile, our junior assistant's purpose was more as a taste tester. He was eating cookies as fast as I could frost them. His method? Lick the frosting off, then eat the cookie. I was glad I made many the size of animal crackers so it wasn't as decadent as it sounded! (Fortunately, the clean-up crew was under the table, doing their due diligence!)

Time for Christmas Eve dinner. Kevin made perfectly grilled steaks, Molly did a terrific salad and we had mashed potatoes with it. All delicious.

There is something about dinner by candlelight. So soft and gentle.

Of course, it wasn't all soft! I love Christmas crackers! Gotta wear a crown!

This group had particularly good "presents" inside. (They were by Emma Bridgewater -- if I see her brand again, I'm getting them!)

Our Big Guy was very into blowing out the candles!

The next morning brought presents! Big Guy delivered -- and helped us all open our gifts.

Rick and I gave the boys each a tent. They were hits!

Then Big Guy got his beloved Buzz Lightyear that lit up and talked!

While the kids played...

Kevin got breakfast ready.

More candles, more blowing, more play! Grandpa was invited into the tent to share time with the Big Guy and Buzz.

While Molly got the boys ready to head to the next family Christmas, Rick took a little break! This is one of my favorite photos from the time with the kids.

And soon it was over, they were out, we were on the road home. But this is the image I will keep in my mind! The magic and joy of being a child.

We got home in time to get ready for Christmas dinner. Fortunately, I'd set the table before we left.

That tablecloth is from our blog friend Rita at Panoply. Her downsizing generosity is now part of my Christmas decor!

It was mom's china, silver and crystal with some bunny ornaments for napkin holders.

Mike and Kate arrived, Kate bringing the rest of the dinner -- a salad and peppermint stick ice cream for dessert with our Christmas cookies.

That, the prosecco and a few appetizers set us up well for dinner!

I made jambalaya. And very good. I used THIS RECIPE but if I did it again, I might cut some of the spices in cooking and add them near the end or at the table. It was super spicy!

And then it was over.

Kind of perfect, actually. I couldn't have handled more people after the Toddlers and being prepped for Christmas dinner (and Kate's contributions) made it so easy. It has been a very good season.

And now, we're ready for a nap! On to the new year!

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