Lifestyles of the Destitute and Obscure

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Category Archives: books

Christmas From My Point of View

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A lovely classic masterpiece, though I do wish Jesus and Mary looked more like poor Middle Eastern people instead of wealthy Europeans.

First off, to me this is Christ–mas   I keep the Lord’s birthday in there. To even scrawl Xmas on a to-do list makes me cringe. Oh sure, many a movie or storybook likes to aim above the retail greed.

These guys only hint at the original meaning and celebration of Christmas, and I wish they went the extra mile. So we read these classics from Dr. Suess and Chris Van Allsburg and then we bust out the Bible for the original classic.9780394800790
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.”
“Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”
Well that’s true, but…
And from The Polar Express:
“Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe.” I do believe, but it’s not in Santa and a sleigh bell. The words of God ring sweetly for me because I believe.9780544580145

So these books and movies dabble in magic, shooting for the themes of love and togetherness. While they aim high, at least clearing the muck of consumerism, they fail to aim straight up. Look straight up to heaven for your meaning for Christmas and you’ll find absolution from greed, a reason for the season as well as your life and a love so big and so grand yet so tender and sweet that there is nothing in the world like it. It is only found in heaven, and it is given freely to everyone. Get this—all you have to do is (wait for it…) ask. Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ—God on earth in human form, sent as a living sacrifice of love so that we on earth need not be separated from our God in heaven.

IMG_1278Do we believe Santa brings presents? Only if you want to, and then you can believe that Mom and Dad are masters of internet shopping. And once you move on from Santa Clause, you just nod and smile when your younger siblings ask about the big guy with the beard. (It could just be a picture of Daddy in his grunge phase.) After the obvious reason for the season and keeping it void of cliché and any agonizing and overwrought traditions, I certainly buy in to the retailers’ mission to overburden my credit card. But you see, I just love to surprise people. I want my husband to bask in the glow of books that he never knew he wanted. And my husband’s love of books is just beginning to bloom. He reads and speaks the language of music, which I listen to and adore. But I have not absorbed it as a native tongue the way he has. I on the other hand, could curl up in ecstatic bliss with the dictionary.

Does that make me easy to shop for? Yes, of course! I love socks, I love books and boots and funny t-shirts and scrumptious-smelling candles. But wait, don’t give me super heady floral candles. And I can’t stand t-shirts with standard necklines. My socks should be bright and colorful and limited on the synthetics. And please don’t buy me any books from the mystery or bodice-ripper genres. What can I say? I’m an obscure woman with discerning tastes.

We keep the Lord-Jesus-Christ-mas and we enjoy giving unique gifts if not the latest gadgets—no one in our house will receive a hover-board this year, or next, or the year after…And it’s always a great opportunity to bless members of the family with things they need to buy anyway. Last year, all my husband got was underwear, socks, t-shirts and pajamas. Stockings usually contain tubes of toothpaste, possibly because they also contain lots of chocolate.

So, I must confess that we spend too much but spend time together. And in January, we will spend time working hard, paying our bills, and knowing that all true blessings and gifts come from above with love.

For related reading, check out:
Easter in the Park

We Believe in Christmas

When a Woman Like Me Turns 40

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Fancy Cafes are Overrated

sideboard.pasteriesI’m a working mom who stays home with the kiddos for part of the day because now they are all in school. Seventy percent of my paycheck goes to preschool but at least eighty percent of my sanity is intact.

So while the twins are at preschool, I’m working. I had fanciful visions of going to the local chic café, ordering a cappuccino and a scone and working on my laptop… until I nearly froze in their rustic hardwood floor and vaulted ceiling eating area and spent $8 that I didn’t really have. That was nearly satisfying until I couldn’t send an email because the wifi was so blasted ineffective. Back to the warm, quiet and free library.   So now I work off-line in the car with a pre-packed snack, my favorite coffee brewed strong enough to resemble used motor oil and a lovely wool blanket that kept me warm in Colorado and still snuggles my daughter. It even doubles as a picnic blanket in the spring and summer. A fine investment if I do say so myself.

So goodbye dreams of fancy workspaces; the best one is my trusty minivan and the good ol’ fashioned public library.
I make better scones and when I can one day afford my own espresso machine, I can put my six years of barista skills to work and make a better cappuccino. Who needs hardwood floors and antique forks?

To make your own workspace that much cozier, take one of these scones with you and I promise that your cubicle, car or park bench will feel more like a chic suburban café.my.nepenthe.

Orange Oat Scone Recipe bogarted from the book, My Nepenthe: Bohemian Tales of Food, Family, and Big Sur which they borrowed from Stars Bakery in San Francisco (now loooong gone). And so the karmic circle of baked goods passes this recipe along to you.

Ingredients:

3 cups flour

½ cup turbinado sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup (2 sticks) cold butter, cut into small pieces

2 cups whole oats

zest of 1 orange (or ½ teaspoon of dried orange rind)

¾ cup heavy cream or buttermilk

¼ cup coarse sugar or turbinado sugar for sprinkling on top

 

Preheat the oven 350 degrees Fahrenheit and line a baking sheet with parchment.

Combine the flour, turbinado sugar, baking powder, and baking soda in the bowl of a food processor. (I use a battered medium sized bowl and a 25 year-old pastry cutter and that seems to work just fine. Also, you can measure out these dry ingredients and set them aside easily if suddenly you find you need to run a carpool or referee a sibling squabble. You can do this really quick and then finish up the mixing and baking when you have a little more time.)

Add the butter piece by piece, pulsing until pearl size. If you’re using a bowl and a pastry cutter, then cut the butter until the flour and butter mixture is fairly uniform and mealy and the butter pieces are very small. Transfer the dough to a bowl if you used the food processor and stir in the oats and orange zest.

Stir in the cream or buttermilk until just moistened. (I ‘make’ buttermilk by measuring out my milk and then adding 1-2 tablespoons of white vinegar. Let it sit for about 5 minutes and then voilà, you have buttermilk.)

Bring the dough together with your hands and gently pat into an 8-inch round. Cut into triangle shapes and transfer to the prepared baking sheet, separating them so they do not touch. Sprinkle the tops with course sugar. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until lightly golden brown. I always rotate my baking sheet about 2/3 of the way through because my oven is crappy and I want to make sure all the items get baked evenly.

**There are a number of variations and substitutions, including switching the orange for lemon zest and then adding 2-3 Tablespoons of poppy seeds. You can also add 1 cup of dried currants, raisins, cranberries, cherries or blueberries as you bring the dough together. Seriously, the possibilities are endless.

Note: Check out the cookbook from your local public library and ooh and ahh over the photographs of the bohemian ‘60’s and ‘70’s (there’s even a belly dancer!) and all the wonderful, whimsical décor. It is a lovely cookbook as well as a collection of history and style.

Library Books for Summer

All hail the crazy, lazy days of summer—depending on your employment and child-rearing position in life.  What is summer for?  The beach?  Sure.  The movies?  Maaaaaybe.  But books?  Darn Tootin’!!  Here’s what’s currently trying not to accrue late fees on my library card:

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez— listening to this one as an audiobook; I multi-task my commutes and my runs with some literary interludes.

boyntonOne, two, three! by Sandra Boynton—You can’t go wrong with Sandra Boynton board books for kids, or calendars for adults.  Her quirky cats and dancing hippos can charm the socks off young and old.
This Little Chick by John Lawrence
Little Lion by Giovanni Caviezel
Only You by Robin Cruise—a sweet little surprise/love poem book.

For the bigger kid:
Ivy + Bean by Annie Barrows—if you’re not familiar with Ivy and her friend, Bean, you should be, especially if you have kids kindergarten through about grade 3.  Something modern and fun while your waiting for them to get old enough for Harry Potter.
Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White—Okay, this is cheating a little bit (we actually returned this book about a month ago) but this is the best, best, best book for beginning chapter read-alouds.  Yes, there’s Charlotte’s Web, but Trumpet of the Swan is even better.  It doesn’t get nearly enough coverage as its big sister, Charlotte, but it is every bit as quirky, clever, amusing, heartwarming and poignant (and all those other book-describing adjectives) if not more so.  Read it to your kids, or even just to yourself.
josephJoseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback—A great little story with fun illustrations and Jewish culture to boot—excellent.  I am not, however, the first to think so.  It won the Caldecott Medal.
Chu’s Day by Neil Gaiman

For future reference, because I know she’s a good writer, and I’ll need something for the big kid once she’s into grade school:
The Runaways by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

Bringing up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting
by Pamela Drucker—It was time to read another view of parenting, though in truth, it’s a non-view kind of view.

3sistersAll these, because I was in a Gothic kind of mood, and I’m still hunting (not in the literal sense) for a taxidermy crow to grace the top of my bookcase.  Contact me if you have any leads.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman
The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen
The Annotated Brothers Grimm
The Three Incestuous Sisters by Audrey Niffenegger—an illustrated number, not so much for the children.

For research on writing prompts for the Iron Horse Women’s Writing Group (led by yours truly):
Naming the World: and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer
The Writer’s Idea Book by Jack Heffron
Virginia Woolf Writers’ Workshop: Seven Lessons to Inspire Great Writing by Danell Jones

And some others:
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury—Recommended by Uncle Jeremy.  I love Ray Bradbury and hope that I will be able to get to it soon, after all the homework’s done.
How To Behave So Your Preschooler Will, Too!  Sal Severe, MD – Because I liked the title.
It’s Twins!: Parent-to-Parent Advice from Infancy Through Adolescence by Susan M. Heim—Self-explanatory reasons.
Japanese Art by Joan Stanley-Baker—For a school project, sort of and because I couldn’t remember the names of the Buddhist temple guardians (Fudo).

Happy Summer!  Happy Reading!  And be sure to let me know what’s on your list. (So I can add it to mine when I’m done with this one.)

Baking a Chocolate Cake

ThunderCakeCoverI want to live in the Midwest, simply so I can have fireflies, church potlucks and thunderstorms.  Patricia Polacco’s book, Thunder Cake, really makes me long for chickens, antique Russian Orthodox iconography scattered about, a cat, some bright turquoise furniture, a samovar (don’t ask me why on that one, I just do) a few odd goats, and a good, old-fashioned thunderstorm.Thunder.Cake.Vr.Mary

So, even though we don’t have thunderstorms in Northern California, my eldest and I made Thunder Cake.  It helped that it was raining that morning.  And the weather was obliging enough to rain again the following week when I whipped up the frosting and my little helper was there to top the cake with the strawberries and lick the leftover frosting off the spatula.Thunder.cake.Smile

The rain and wind didn’t stop my neighbor from walking around in his athletic shorts, barefoot and without shoes.  He’s out sunbathing by the pool the second the temperature breaks 60 degrees.  He won’t be vitamin D deficient, that’s for sure.  Ah, apartment living is always so lively!  Ahem, but I digress…

Thunder.Cake.Strawb.So we made mixed up the cake batter with help from Julia, the Kitchen Aid mixer, and whipped those egg whites into a frothy frenzy with my mother’s Scovil hand mixer from 1972 (I say ‘we’, but my helper had to go to her room and close the door, because the Scovil battering against the metal bowl was too loud) and baked our two layers of chocolate cake.  I froze those puppies for a few days, and then thawed them to celebrate the end of my husband’s abstinence from eggs and dairy.  And what a way to celebrate—we’re all on the verge of a diabetic coma, and there’s three quarters of a chocolate cake left over.  Who wants to come over and help us eat it?  (Said the Little Red Hen.)

Note: for further fun and games, literary adventures and updates on one of the coolest children’s book author/illustrators ever, visit Polacco’s site. (click on the nifty link here and make your own postcards from Thunder Cake.)

Thunder.Cake.decorate

Our version won’t win any beauty pageants, but here are a few tips to help round out the frighteningly brief recipe at the end of Polacco’s book.  Thunder.Cake.RecipeI supplemented the directions with the 1-2-3-4 Cake recipe from Alice Waters’ Fanny at Chez Pannise cookbook. The instructions are written for children (and when it comes to baking cakes, I am a beginner at the elementary level) and anything from Waters’ is bound to be a gem.

Thunder.Cake.Fanny.Chez.I scoured epicurious for a simple buttercream recipe, and was completely bamboozled by the one I found that suggested a 1:12 ratio for butter and powdered sugar.  Yikes.  I ended up with a powdery mess, then figured that there had to be more butter in it, especially since I added 1/3 of a cup of cocoa, and made it even drier.  So here’s what I did instead—learn from my mistakes.

Easy Chocolate Buttercream Frosting
Ingredients:
2 sticks butter (1 cup) at room temperature, so it actually mixes
4 cups powdered sugar (sifted!)
1/3 cup cocoa (sift this, too.  I didn’t, because I was annoyed and in a hurry, and the cake has a bit of a grainy, pimply complexion—like I said, it’s no Beauty Queen)
1 tsp. vanilla

Mix the butter all by its lonesome until it’s nice and smooth.  Add half the powdered sugar and mix until creamy.  Then add the cocoa, the vanilla, and little by little the last 2 cups of the sugar.  You may not need it all.  Just mix it until it looks like, well, frosting.  It should have a nice, smooth, spreadable quality about it.  Don’t dip your finger in and lick it until the cake’s all frosted.
Note:  I added a thin layer of strawberry jam to the middle instead of frosting, just for a little change-up, and because it is my nature to rebel against the recipe.  I suppose you could cook down and macerate your own strawberries, but the jam is cheap and easy, and that’s just the way we do things around here.