Archive for August, 2010

Tough-Love Letters to a Troubled Teen – II

   Dear Maisie,

I am listening to the drone of a lawn mower outside my study window as I sit down to write to you this week. The sound reminds me of how life is made up of so many seemingly insignificant events – small tasks or daily routines – that we don’t give much thought to. Yet when you add them all up at the end of a year, they form the patchwork quilt, the running narrative composition, of our lives on earth: each little effort as we work toward a goal or create a pleasant experience for someone else; every opportunity to use our gifts for scholarship or art or craftsmanship, or for working the soil to produce good things. 

That’s just me feeling philosophical today, but I have often had to remind myself that sending a note to a discouraged friend or baking cookies for a sick neighbor or taking someone to the store or a doctor’s appointment are not time-devouring side trips off the path that carries us toward the really important things, the Big Stuff that we hope to accomplish. They are more accurately the atomic particles that give forward momentum to our existence.  

And then the Big Stuff becomes the road markers that we aim for as we are being propelled along by these humdrum, everyday duties.  

When I was in high school, I coasted; couldn’t see the point of any of it; deprived myself of the joys of accomplishment. I didn’t know how to dig inside myself for a purpose. Heck, I didn’t even know who I was, so ready was I to let others define that for me. How ever was I supposed to know what to do with me?  

I’m still not always sure to this day how to define myself, or whether I want to fully accept the “Who” I have grown into, but when I keep plugging away and let the Lord direct my steps, then my days start to fill up with meaning. And if nothing else, I can tell my own story as a cautionary tale, and share the sweet sustenance of stories about people who inspire us to endure with grace. Serving others is always better than trying to please them. 

Some day I will write about you. It will be an account of struggle and triumph; it will have a happy ending, bursting with encouragement for those who read it. And it will be the story of a young life redeemed, with God’s help and your own “everyday” efforts. 

I love you…

                                           Aunt Suz

August 27, 2010 at 3:28 pm Leave a comment

Tough-Love Letters to a Troubled Teen I

     Dearest Maisie,

I usually look forward to sitting down to write to you every week, but today I find that I’m procrastinating, thrashing about for words; no idle chitchat about homework and weather seems appropriate under the circumstances of our bright, beautiful grandniece having gotten herself kicked out of school. I guess I’ll just dive in, and pray that God will guide me to say useful things. 

I need to start by assuring you that I do understand resentment and anger. Life on this earth is fraught with reasons to accumulate both. Uncle J. knows that firsthand. He was only twelve when he learned that he would never get the chance to live a “normal” life; that he would have to watch everything he ate and drank, and give himself insulin injections multiple times each day. As he grew older, he learned that diabetes could cut his life shorter than some, and that he might have severe problems related to his condition, problems like heart disease and loss of vision, or even amputated limbs. 

When he was only 33, he lost his youngest brother, first to mental illness and then to a premature death from a seizure. And perhaps his greatest agony was when he lost his family to an unwanted divorce and he didn’t see his children for months on end. He used his faith to get him through each hardship, but still, there are scars and there is underlying pain. 

I, too, have known reason for emotional distress. My mother – damaged by the desertion of her own father at a very young age – passed along her defensiveness and insecurities to me, communicating confusing messages about relationships; my own family turned their backs on God and my parents’ marriage ended in a bitter divorce; my brother chose drugs and alcohol over his family, even over his beautiful baby boy; and I spent many years accepting poor treatment from others because I had such a low regard for myself. Floundering and searching for two decades, I accumulated a huge load of anger – eventually mostly at myself, for wasting so many of my early years. 

We also have a friend who suffers from cerebral palsy, traceable to physical complications at birth . From his earliest years he has been virtually wheelchair-bound and often ostracized by others, left to reasonably wonder why his lot in life is what it is.  

So we certainly recognize how life can deal you blows that cause deep and excruciating wounds. Of course, we can never know exactly the degree or the nature of the anguish that churns inside of you because of your family split and your early shuttling between households while your parents sorted out their own issues, but we do understand that it exists and that there may be good reasons for (more…)

August 23, 2010 at 5:24 pm 2 comments

Makeovers, Before and Afters, and Happy Endings

   I once heard a personality theorist claim that our childhood fairy tale preferences reveal a lot about our grown up selves. According to family lore, I used to love Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling. I would cry myself red-eyed every time I heard it, then ask for it again, night after night. 

It’s a tragic tale, really; the story of a misplaced cygnet who suffers much heartache, repeatedly fleeing abusive treatment because of his motley appearance. I can barely stand to read a summary of it today, but apparently the glorious outcome, as the now-grown duckling transforms into a beautiful swan soaring majestically overhead, was sufficient reward to me at age three. 

An internet search on this fable brings up huge piles of psycho-babble about identity seeking and self-esteem – interesting deductions, since the story revolves around genetic coding and outward appearance. I think I liked it as a child because of the uplifting, redemptive ending and because the “after” was such a dramatic contrast to the “before.” Maybe even because I fantasized that fate might someday transport me to my own idealized state, like the swan, who was predestined to become what he became.  

Over the years I’ve continued to feel a strong pull to magazine articles featuring makeovers, and even to those hokey one-page testimonial ads by “real people” who talk about how they turned their lives around with the right diet or miracle supplement or change in philosophy. I like to think I have matured. Maybe not.  

My adult analysis? Perhaps these themes hold appeal because we all have been blessed with a desire to achieve our personal best, until environmental influences or sheer inertia rob us of that impulse. The idea of correcting course and reinventing ourselves can be an alluring prospect. 

Practicality further argues that many formulas benefit from being re-worked, like a political campaign that introduces sincere humility (it has been done) and baked beans without nine grams of sugar per serving (have you read that label lately?). So, as the crowd gasps in wonderment at yet another back-flip from general philosophizing into the arena of food preparation, today, a few random comfort food dishes inspired by the makeover theme (non foodies can skip to the concluding paragraph): Pork and Beans for the New Age, my version of an ethnic pasta dish, Noodles with Onions and Cottage Cheese Lite, a nutritionally enhanced Golden Mashed Potatoes, and for a little something on the sweet side, an “after” version of Morning Glory Muffins that I call Anytime Muffins. Those could be a happy ending all by themselves. (more…)

August 19, 2010 at 10:39 pm Leave a comment

Rae’s Magic Mirror: Some Self-Improvement Plans Require a Jump-Start

   In the winter of 1996 I tracked down Rae and Anita, two girlfriends I’d known since fourth grade but had been out of touch with for years. We decided to reunite at Rae’s home in Altmonte Springs, Florida, a suburb of Orlando. I was positively elated. After a thirty year lapse, I’d have a chance to see my two dearest childhood chums again. “We can have our own Homecoming,” I thought. “Shoot; we can have a slumber party!” 

But my mood threatened to plummet when I considered how my weight had soared since I’d last seen them both. The whole poundage issue had been an up and down struggle for me over the decades. Recently the yo-yo had rebounded and I’d let bad habits reclaim me – body and self-image. Yet at forty-something, weird things were happening inside my head. I mean, I was getting really comfortable with the notion that it is quite acceptable to have a mid-life cushion. Or two. 

In fact, before I got news of the reunion, I’d been inching toward becoming certifiably delusional. After all, didn’t that subtle slap, slap, slap of upper thigh flesh sound refreshingly like a gentle tide lapping at a sandy shore? And wasn’t it possible that my True Metabolism was simply waiting until menopause to spontaneously kick into gear and at last propel me toward a permanent weight-control plateau? 

Yes, bod-related self-deception was coming far too easily – even though my foot actually required a bootstrap tug before I could lasso it with my pantyhose, and no, I couldn’t really ignore the mother lode of cellulite cloaking any remnant of that muscle formerly known as the abdominal. I was simply getting craftier at justifying these extra handfuls of Me. I mean, one never knew. I might just need an emergency fuel supply someday if … we had another horrendous Minneapolis winter … and … I became … house-trapped by … giant snow drifts … and … um, gargantuan icicles. It could happen. 

So, after that brief flash of panic, I settled back into a cozy blanket of apathy, rationalized the dickens out of the fact that my hip and waist measurements were now interchangeable, and told myself that my old friends wouldn’t care a whit. They’d still see me as that lanky adolescent they’d known eons ago, and surely they’d accept me no matter what condition I was in,or out of.  (more…)

August 14, 2010 at 4:27 pm Leave a comment

Unsolicited Observations and Flexible Feasting

    If you asked me to describe last Thursday and Friday – or, apparently, even if you didn’t ask – I would say they were two of those virtually perfect summer days that the Upper Midwest is capable of producing: 80-ish temps with reasonable humidity levels; whisper-light breezes; powder blue skies, quilted with just enough cloud batting to keep the sun from scorching through. 

Of course, all of this will change. Things have a way of doing that. Even the most reasonable bits of advice can devolve into bad counsel. Just the other day I stumbled across the claim that brushing your hair the traditional 100 strokes a day is bad for it, for heaven’s sake; that it “pulls hairs out of their follicles and possibly weakens individual strands.” Is nothing sacred? Next thing you know, someone will decide that eating eggs and drinking beer and coffee doesn’t constitute nutritional suicide. Oh, wait; I guess we’re already hearing that flip side message, aren’t we? 

But then change is what keeps life interesting – life and food preparation. So at the risk of spraining something maneuvering through this contorted transition, I’ll ease into a short discussion on one of my favorite topics: revising great recipes to meet the goal of keeping people healthy. Only a few tweaks are required to lighten up Rachel Ray’s Chutney and Cheese Stuffed Chicken Breasts, so that may be a good place to start. Next, my version of her BLT Potatoes, a big panful of Roasted Yellow Pepper Strips (follow directions for red pepper strips in 11/25/09 posting), a cooling batch of Cucumber Raita, and a refreshing rewrite of Peach Melba on a Tuffet – short or long version.

Guess it’s time to revise my long-held suspicion that the only good change is the kind you get back from a five dollar bill. (more…)

August 9, 2010 at 5:54 pm Leave a comment

But What About the Micro-environment?: A Challenge To the “Green” Generations

    You hear a lot these days about environmentalism – everything from international quotas for air pollution to how many sheets of toilet tissue we should use per bathroom visit. Preaching on the subject has become a religion for some people, and public school curricula encompass ecological studies from kindergarten on up.

Doesn’t it all boil down, though, to the glitzy repackaging of a decades-old idea? A lot of us baby-boomers grew up with the concept that intelligent stewardship of resources is a sign of good character. We learned it from parents who had lived through the Depression and had honed “reduce, reuse, recycle” to an art form long before our children and grandchildren ever had it written into a classroom teaching module; we were instructed in it by scout leaders who taught us to leave our campsites even better than we found them; we heard it promoted by Lyndon Johnson’s wife Lady Byrd, who spearheaded a “Beautify America” campaign.

It was called conservationism back then, and it was basically good common sense applied to everyday life: don’t do anything selfish or shortsighted that will make living conditions worse for others; respect other people’s property; don’t waste food or material goods or electricity; don’t litter.

This uncomplicated logic suggests that our own neighborhoods should shine with examples of good citizenship. One would think that would be the easy part. But if we can’t master the easy stuff, is there any hope for developing this universal sense of accountability we keep hearing about?

So why the curmudgeonly rant? Well, I’m a walker. I walk the sidewalks and paths around my neighborhood six days a week, come rain or shine or sleet or snow. I walk to the grocery store and the produce market and the Post Office (conserving gas); I walk to and through the local parks (saving gym fees); I walk to the library (preserving brain cells); I walk to the corner store (supporting local merchants). These trips are fraught with glaring indications that attempts to nurture interest in “sustaining the planet” have not taken root. (more…)

August 3, 2010 at 9:10 pm Leave a comment

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Recipe. According to Encarta, "a list of ingredients and instructions for making something." The thesaurus offers the alternate terms, "formula, guidelines, directions, steps, technique."

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