Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Trees Play Dress Up

"Winter Trees"
by William Carlos Williams
All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.
Yesterday, our wise trees were attired again, even if only briefly.

We woke up to an amazing world. All the trees were covered with this stuff. I'd say it was some sort of snow or ice crystal, but whatever it was, it made for a beautiful day.

Another shot, with more branches. (I won't share the photos I took when Bonnie was tugging "let's go, let's go" on the leash. They are less impressive.)

I took these photos (the photos above & below) at lunch, when Bonnie and I were out walking. As you can see, it was a beautiful day, with blue-skied sunshine, and not too cold. But those trees drew my attention, again and again. And, every now and then, as we walked, those crystals would come blowing down on us - snow that wasn't really snow. It was magical.

I'm not sure which of those two pictures I like better. The first captures the crystal effect better, but I like the tree in the foreground in this second shot (and Jim likes that the footprints in the snow are less visible).

Here's a picture in the woods by Friendship Village. At that park bench, the path goes both to the right and the left, and watching Bonnie made me think of the Robert Frost line "two roads diverged in a wood..."

Thinking of Frost, and the snow crystals falling on us, reminded me of another of his poems, "Dust of Snow."
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
Of course, there was nothing to rue about this day. It was a visual feast, a year-end gift.

I even managed to take several fairly decent pictures of Bonnie (she was distracted trying to read all her smell-mail).

Monday, December 27, 2010


Here is a poem from "The Best American Poetry 2009."
Ringtone, by Bruce Bond
As they loaded the dead onto the gurneys
to wheel them from the university halls,
who could have predicted the startled chirping
in those pockets, the invisible bells
and tiny metal music of the phones,
in each the cheer of a voiceless song.
Pop mostly, Timberlake, Shakira, tunes
never more various now, more young,
shibboleths of what a student hears,
what chimes in the doorway to the parent
on the line. Who could have answered there
in proxy for the dead, received the panic
with grace, however artless, a live bird
gone still at the meeting of the strangers.
When I read this, I thought of the Virginia Tech shootings, and I thought, Here is a situation I would never have imagined - strangers who are used to facing the dead, suddenly confronted with the living as well, because of those omnipresent cell phones.

The author commented "I had a hard time wrapping my head around how difficult this would be for the parents, obviously, but also for the medics who carted away the bodies, who found themselves in the awkward situation of speaking with such simultaneous intimacy and distance. The situation focuses what it is when tragedy lays a sudden claim on you, when you are called upon, with little warning, to respond with a kind of grace... to break the unspeakable news."

For me, the poem led to questions:
  • Did the phones force the strangers to become involved?
  • Instead of merely moving the bodies, did they become a bridge between the dead and the living?
  • Would they even answer the phones?
  • Would they only answer if they saw the calls were from parents?
  • What would they say?
  • Would they be able to "receive the panic with grace?"
I think I would have let the phones keep ringing...

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Trip to the Detroit Temple

This past Wednesday, I drove over to Bloomfield Hills, and attended the Detroit Temple with Dave & Joyce, Paul & Rachelle, & Annie.

This photo is from the church's website - it didn't really look
like this on Wednesday; there was snow
on the ground, for one thing, and
no leaves on the trees! But it's a beautiful building.

Happily, Dave had a camera, so here are a couple pictures to prove we were there.

Robin, Annie, Joyce, Rachelle, & Paul

Can you find the difference between this photo & the
previous  picture? (Answer: Robin turned into David - scary!)

After our session, we lunched at the Potbelly Sandwich Shop, not far from the temple. The sandwiches were good, and it was nice to relax and visit. Conversation covered the movie Babies, Annie's experiences as an intern with church magazines, successful weight loss, and lots in between.

As always when I drive to the temple, I can't help but compare my travel arrangements with those of the pioneers, struggling to build roads and plant crops as they traveled. I am grateful for a warm car and good roads, and the fact that I can drive there, attend the temple, enjoy a meal, and drive back home, all in an easy day.

I'm also grateful for iPods and podcasts, and enjoyed listening again to the talks from last September's General Relief Society Meeting.

I picked up on Sister Julie Beck's use of the word "haven" to describe our homes, and pondered how I could make our home more of a haven.

And I appreciated this comment from Sister Silvia Allred:
How do we strengthen our belief in the affirmations that I have heard over and over again from so many of you, that you believe in God’s love for you, that you trust you will receive His blessings, and that you understand the plan of redemption through the Savior Jesus Christ and your important part in His plan?

I will suggest four things that have helped me: prayer, scripture study, obedience, and service.
I can remember teaching youth classes where the kids complained, "we've heard this principle a thousand times." I always replied that we have to get it right, so we keep teaching the same basic principles, over and over. Certainly I've heard Sister Allred's list a thousand times, and yet I haven't quite got it down yet. It's good to be reminded of these basic principles, and ponder how I can adjust my life to be more diligent in these areas.

Note to self: Keep trying!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Baking III and A Bit of Knitting

These are your basic chocolate chip cookies, using the recipe you can find on any bag of chocolate chips. For some reason, I cannot successfully bake these - they just aren't very tasty. But Jim knows the secret, and this batch is yet another in a long line of his successful ventures. He mixes them by hand, just like his mom did. I think this is his secret ingredient: the love a boy has for his mother. Add that to any recipe, and it will be perfect.

This is your basic fudge, using the recipe you can find on any jar of marshmallow creme. It is not very sophisticated, and nothing like what you'll find up on Mackinac Island, but it is what my mom always made - and you know how we feel about our moms!

Don't try this at home: When I was in college, my roommate was making this fudge. When it was all mixed together, she picked up the saucepan to start pouring the fudge into the dish, where it would cool. At that moment, she wondered if she had forgotten to butter the dish. So, with her free hand, she picked up the dish to look more closely - while, with her other hand, she continued pouring the hot fudge onto the table!

I haven't found a lot of knitting time lately, but I've managed to make some progress on Echo since I last posted a photo. And tonight (after taking this photo), I finished her body. Next step: legs!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas Baking II

Another of our Christmas favorites is baklava. We don't make this every year, because, frankly, it is a lot of work. And, let's admit it: it is also a lot of calories!

But they are tasty calories.

Back in Pittsburgh, our church had an international dinner one year, and Mom was in charge of the Greek table. Somewhere, she came up with a recipe for baklava, and we adopted it as our own. (Altho' there are a number of nationalities in our lineage, I don't believe Greek is one of them.)

This recipe makes a pastry that is astonishingly sweet and rich. (I suspect it is sweeter and nuttier than other recipes you'll find; we Beers tend toward a sweet tooth...) We generally cut it in small pieces, hoping to stave off overload. When you bite into it, there are so many tastes and sensations: nuts and sugar; crunchy pastry and gooey syrup; delicious and decadent and memorable.

We used to sit around the table, eating cookies and baklava and playing games. One Christmas sticks out in my mind, when we took a batch with us to Dave & Joyce's apartment in Chicago, and ate it late into the night, playing Risk and Mastermind. The late hour and the baklava overload didn't really improve our playing skills, but we didn't seem to care.

The first time my sister & I made baklava, it was a painfully slow process. The phyllo dough dries out quickly, and becomes brittle. It took Lori & me so long to make, the dough was totally falling apart. We pieced it together like a puzzle, and pasted it down with melted butter. This doesn't hurt the taste at all, and is always a good technique for bringing a stray corner into line.

BTW, I use a small paint brush to spread the butter - it works great. Rest assured, this paint brush has never seen paint! To help keep the dough from drying out, I unroll the layers on the table, and cover them with a damp towel. I retrieve one layer of dough, then recover the stack while Jim spreads the butter and the nut mixture.

Some recipes only call for butter every few layers. We spread butter on every single layer, and use the nut mixture every fourth layer (another nod to the Beer sweet tooth). I try to end with at least two layers (four is better) after the last nut layer.

I recently read that baklava will freeze well. We're going to try freezing some this year, so that tasty baklava will be available through the holidays.

Here's our recipe:
For pastry:
40 pastry sheets (fillo or phyllo)
1 pound butter (melted)
1 pound walnuts (chopped)
1 and 1/2 cups sugar
2 Tbsp cinnamon

For syrup:
1 and 1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup water
1 tsp lemon juice
1/2 cup honey
  1. Melt butter.
  2. Chop walnuts. Combine with sugar and cinnamon.
  3. Layer pastry in pan. Brush first, second, & third layer with butter. Brush fourth layer with butter and also sprinkle with nut mixture. 
  4. Repeat, using all sheets (end with 2 - 4 buttered layers, rather than a nut layer).
  5. Score with sharp knife, almost to bottom, in diamond shapes. Insert whole cloves at corners of pieces.
  6. Bake 1/2 hour at 350 degrees
  7. Reduce heat & bake 3/4 hour at 300 degrees.
Meanwhile, prepare syrup:
  1. Combine sugar, water, and lemon juice. 
  2. Heat to boiling. 
  3. Add honey.
  4. Pour hot syrup over baklava immediately as it comes from the oven.
Our original recipe was pretty sketchy, with no specific measurements. We often had to melt more butter, or chop more nuts, in the middle of the assembly process. When I made the baklava by myself, this was a bit problematic, so one year I kept track of the ingredients I used. The above recipe is fairly reliable, although we still tweak it somewhat.

For instance, this time I only bought a 12 oz bag of walnuts (remembering that we had leftovers last year). When I was adding the sugar, I should have decreased a bit, but I was talking to Jim on the phone, and realized I was paying no attention to how much sugar I added. When I taste-tested, the mixture seemed way too sugary (even for Beers). So we found some pecans, chopped them up, and added them. That made for a good mixture, but of course we had way too much then...!

One year we weren't paying close attention while making the syrup, and it boiled over on the stove. Honey everywhere - what a mess. Happily, we didn't have that problem this year!

More pictures, from our latest baklava adventure:
Getting ready
Robin scoring the dough, before baking
Jim adding the cloves
Just out of the oven, and pouring the syrup
Bonnie recovering from the stress of baking

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas Baking

I think my favorite cookies are peanut butter blossoms. I just finished baking a double batch. Don't they look yummy?
Peanut Butter Blossoms
I got this recipe years ago. I was home on Christmas break from MSU, and Mom & I went to visit a friend of Mom's, from church. She gave us this recipe, but what I really remember is her son. He was a little guy - maybe 4 or 5 years old - and the night before, had watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas on TV (the original animated version, narrated by Boris Karloff).

He informed us, with a mixture of solemnity and enthusiasm, that the Grinch was PITCH GREEN!

And that is what I think of, whenever I bake these cookies: a pitch green Grinch.

Here's the recipe:
1 3/4 cup flour (that's one-and-three quarters cup; the numbers look weird...)
1 tsp soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup margarine (softened)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar (packed)
1/2 cup peanut butter
1 egg
2 Tbsp milk
1 tsp vanilla
Hershey chocolate kisses
Sugar, for rolling the cookies in

Mix flour, soda, & salt; set aside
Cream margarine, sugar, and brown sugar.
Add peanut butter & blend
Add egg & blend
Add milk & vanilla & blend
Add flour mixture, in portions, and blend well

Roll the dough in small balls (approx 1 inch). Roll each ball in sugar, and place on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 375 degrees for 7-8 minutes. Remove when cookies are cracked and just barely starting to brown. Top each with a kiss.

Makes 4-5 dozen cookies

Here are a few more photos (because you can't have too many pictures of baked goods!)

Ready for the oven. They tend to slide around on the tray if you're not careful;  think "ice skating."

You want to put the kisses on the cookies as soon as they come out of the oven, so it's important to have them unwrapped and at the ready. A helper comes in handy at this point, as long as you can keep them from eating the kisses...

The front cookie shows the cracking that you look for, and in the back are cookies with their added kisses.


Random: Knitting, Poetry, Weather

This post was originally titled "Random Sunday." Apparently that was optimistic, since I saved a draft and haven't look at it since then. I'll avoid the temptation to call it "Random Wednesday"...

Anyway, here is the first random item. I finished 2 hats.

This is the Hill Country Hat, by Clara Parkes. The first time I knit this hat, I made the ribbing section long, so it could be a double thickness.  This time I kept the short ribbing. It looks nice, but I think I like the longer version better. (That said, I have just enough yarn left to make one of these shorter versions, so I guess the longer ribbing will have to wait.)

We went to the Signature Gallery the other night. This shop is run by a co-op of local artists and craftsmen, and is open just during December. This year, they have wonderful objects - beautiful wood bowls; paintings; picture frames made from paper mosaics; notecards with hand-drawn beagles (yes, I succumbed to those); wonderful jewelry. There were some gorgeous knit hats. I think I could make them - it would just be basic stockinette in the round, with a provisional cast on so I can knit a 3-4" liner. But the yarn was soft and squishy and yummy, and the colors just lovely.

Random item #2. Back in June, when we visited the Joslyn Art Museum, there was one piece in the American Indian Collection that impressed me. Okay, there were lots of pieces that impressed me, but I made particular note of this one. Well, actually I didn't do a good job of that, since I don't actually remember the artwork. I think it was a drawing of moccasins, and dance steps, or something. Very vague - sorry. But part of the piece was a poem, and I really liked the poem. I wrote it down, and then when we got home, I was able to track it down. It is an excerpt from Dancing Circles in the Bearpaws (published in Ndakinna, by West End Press), by Joseph Bruchac.

The dance he speaks of is one that will unite generations: present, past, future. I think he creates a very strong image and emotion:

So we dance one more circle
and we share the breath
of these mountains in
a dance which may carry
our children into another century.
We dance our hearts into
the earth which loves us
as much as we care for it.
We dance for our elders
and for the grandchildren.
We dance slow and strong for those after us
whose steps must begin
where ours end
and in this same circle
will dance, will dance
where our feet have been.

Third random item. I took this picture a day or two after Thanksgiving, when it was a bit cold and snowy.

We had similar weather this past weekend - perhaps a bit snowier, and definitely colder. Brrr. It was in the teens, and windy. But regardless of the season, this view, from this window, is one of my favorites. The bushes growing outside the window afford some privacy, as well as a playground for birds and squirrels. Summer evenings, the setting sun throws light through these windows. Winter evenings, the blowing snow makes the living room seem cozier.

And at Christmas time, the lights from the Christmas tree are reflected in these windows, as if they originate out in the snow.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Chicago: Food & Fun & Children's Wishes

Jim & I like Chicago. Sometimes we go there to visit family, and sometimes we go just to spend some time together. This was a "time together" visit, and it was delightful.

After checking into our hotel, we walked down to Macy's, and had lunch in the Walnut Room.

Walnut Room
Christmas Tree

Lunch was delicious. Jim ordered a cheese appetizer, and I discovered that I do like Brie cheese - who knew? I had their famous chicken pot pie (delish), and Jim had Swedish meatballs, with ligonberry sauce on them - and surprise! I liked that too. While we waited for lunch, we went to the petites department, and surprise! it turns out that I was in the mood to shop for clothes.

After lunch, we walked to Daley plaza for the Kristkindlmarket. Mostly, we just browsed, although Jim did manage to buy some sweets, and one ornament.

Picasso Sculpture

Last year, quite by accident, we discovered the One of a Kind Show & Sale Chicago. This show is held on the 8th floor of the Merchandise Mart, and is full of amazing creations. This year, we decided to tackle it in two smaller chunks of time, which was only slightly less overwhelming than seeing it all at once. We saw beautiful jewelry, pottery, glassware, wood, textiles... of course, the pieces we really fell in love with were completely out of our price range, but looking was free.

Chicago River, by the Merchandise Mart

We also did some looking at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Jim & the Defiant Lion

Stephanie and Bruce Tharp designed this year's wreaths. They
combined the look of traditional North American cranberry wreaths with the hopeful spirit of Buddhist and Taoist wishing trees. In the wishing trees tradition, part of the lunar new year celebration, children throw oranges with attached paper notes over banyan trees. The artists have integrated this custom with traditional Western holiday decorations by incorporating “wishes for the world in 2011,” written by Chicago-area children, into each of the 2,011 clear and red plastic spheres that make up the wreaths.
You can read more about the wreathes here. This link also lists the children's wishes; here are just a few that caught my eye:
  • Love, for everyone to love more than they hate.
  • I wish there was an 8th Harry Potter.
  • is to help Africa.
  • I hoep we make flying cats
  • to find a cure for cancer and birdflu.
 Jim found a delightful restaurant, the Exchequer Pub, near the Art Institute. We shared a pizza, and a piece of red velvet cake - yummy. (Yes, I should have taken pictures.)

I'll wrap up with just a few pictures from the Art Institute.

Monet - Sandvika, Norway

This Monet caught my eye because, frankly, it looked seasonal.

We read about the exhibition "Neither Man Nor Beast: Animal Images on Ancient Coins," and laughed when we finally found it. It consisted of one small display case. Admittedly, it was laid out nicely. This is just one of the coins on display.

Chagall - American Windows

These glass windows were recently restored, and really were quite impressive.

Roman - Head of Mars

Jim liked this piece - even if poor Mars was missing his nose.

Roman - Statue of a Boy

I liked this piece. Sweet, innocent.

Architecture - okay, this wasn't in the Art Institute. But Jim likes architecture, and he took lots of pictures of buildings. So I had to include at least one photo, right?

Robin and some sculpture, I'm not sure what...

Jim & Robin. Behind us is a model for a sculpture that was near our hotel. Unfortunately, I forget the artist's name.

Ganesha: the
Remover of Obstacles

I like the idea that there is someone whose purpose is to remove obstacles - it sounds very imposing. And this fellow does look pretty imposing!

We stopped to rest at a cafe in the modern art wing, and received our drinks in these delightful metal bottles

The Titanic, by Stanley Tigerman

We looked for a magnet with this image (long story made short: we were trying to find it for a friend), but had no success whatsoever. Still, we managed to behave ourselves while in the gift shops. Our favorite purchase was a box of Christmas cards with owls...!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Random Photos

Jim & I just got back from a trip to Chicago - we visited the Art Institute, and the One of a Kind artists show, and we ate some good food, and we did some serious shopping, and we were able to attend the temple as well.

I'll eventually share some photos from all that, but for now, here are just two photos.

This one we apparently took on Thanksgiving, but we didn't look at it until we were in Chicago - and then we were astonished - because look at how CUTE Bonnie is!

The adoring & adorable Bonnie
We adopted Bonnie nearly four years ago (in February, 2007), but we have very few photos. Why is this? Simply because, whenever we take out the camera, our dear little girl lowers her head, tucks her tail, and, if possible, leaves the room.

What would make a dog so camera shy?!? We cannot imagine, but we periodically try to photograph our girl, and on this occasion, the stars aligned in our favor, and this is the result!

Chicago Temple
Thursday and Friday, the weather in Chicago was cold but sunny, and we enjoyed walking around downtown. Today, when we drove up to the temple, it was quite a different situation, as this picture shows. It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Handel's Messiah: A Christmas Tradition

This flash mob performance of Handel's Messiah is extraordinary. Watch it. Watch the expressions of the surprised audience, and the joy on the faces of the performers. Listen to the inspiried music, and listen for your own stirrings of emotion.

When I was growing up, my parents had an RCA Victor recording of Messiah, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham: four records, plus a book containing the libretto, illustrated with paintings by Botticelli, Durer, Van Eyck, El Greco, and others. I have their recording now; in this day of CD's and DVD's and iPods and YouTube, we don't play the LP's, but the set reminds me of my parents.

The family story is that my parents bought a stereo system before they bought a bed, and slept on a mattress on the floor. That stereo system consisted of two large cabinets, containing the turntable and the speakers. By 'large' I mean waist high, and 2 or 3 feet long (is that right? or is that the memory of a small child?). Anyway, my parents' recording, via this stereo system, was how I first heard Messiah.

I suspect that most people are introduced to Messiah via the Hallelujah Chorus. Certainly that was the piece I initially recognized and enjoyed. From there, I grew to know For Unto Us a Child is Born. This was my mother's particular favorite; she always claimed to have worn out that section of the record.

Over the years, I listened to Messiah in various settings, with different performers, and the more I listened, the more I grew to love all of it. The Trumpet Shall Sound became one of my favorite pieces, and always made me think of my Uncle John (although I never actually heard him perform it, and could only imagine his music).

I attended performances of the Mendelssohn Choir with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and performances with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Sometimes, I was able to attend sing-along performances, where the crowd made up in enthusiasm what it lacked in skill. Here in Kalamazoo, I attended a performance of Messiah in beautiful Stetson Chapel at Kalamazoo College (one of my favorite settings). And in Chicago, I watched my brother Dave perform Messiah with the Apollo Chorus, in Symphony Hall.

I love this music. It has become a year-round favorite, and an essential part of my Christmas celebration. Spencer J Condie wrote in his article Handel and the Gift of Messiah
Upon completing his composition, he [Handel] humbly acknowledged, “God has visited me.” Those who feel the touch of the Holy Spirit as they experience the overpowering testimony of Handel’s Messiah would agree.
Are you looking for a new Christmas tradition? I recommend Handel's Messiah, for the spirit it will bring. And frankly, if you're new to Messiah, that flash mob video is as good a place to start as any.