Little Riley

Last week, over the Thanksgiving holiday, I had a little taste of heaven. I spent the week with Riley, our seven month old granddaughter. Of course, there were a few others present as well: Stephanie and Matt, and Rob. But this was the first time that Riley was with us as a distinct personality, and it was a joy to experience.

When Riley was born this year on April 22, weeks premature, my first view of her was in a NICU incubator crib with a baby CPAP mask covering her face. Although she was generally healthy, her lungs were a bit immature and she needed a few days of monitoring and growth before she was ready to leave the hospital. That was an anxious time, an introduction to a newborn, tinged with fear as well as the joy of welcoming new life to the family. She was so tiny, so fragile, so remote.

We saw her again in late June, a two month old who had outgrown her need for additional oxygen, who was a growing and healthy infant. But at that visit, although she was a warm and snuggly little armful, she was still sleeping most of the time, still an unknown entity.

The little one I just met is a happy and contented baby, responsive to play, to laughter, to the things she already recognizes as “good:” her bottle, her pacifier, a favorite toy, her parents’ faces. She sings, long drawn out noises that are more than just baby words. She is already expressing joy, finding her voice.

Little Riley is just beginning her journey, but in the space of a few short months she has grown in size and being. She’s becoming a person. She’ll make a unique contribution to the family dynamic. I’m excited to see her again in a few weeks to learn how she’s changed. Last week, she was on the brink of crawling, she was teething. She’ll be more mobile at Christmas, I’m sure, and maybe there’ll be a tooth or two showing in her smile. I’m honored and humbled, once again, to watch the miracle of a young life, growing and absorbing the world she has entered. It will be a journey for both of us. I think I’ll like being “Gram” after all. After all, watching her is reward enough for taking on the title of grandmother.

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How does this help?

Several years ago I had a moment of ephipany. I was having a difference of opinion with someone and suddenly realized that what I was saying wasn’t helping us come to clarity or resolve the disagreement. I realized that my approach was not helping my cause. And suddenly the thought came to my mind, “How does this help?” If I had a goal, an outcome in mind that I wanted to reach, and my approach wasn’t bringing me to that outcome, how was it helping? It wasn’t.

That began a practice for me to filter my words and actions through that question. When I find myself in conflict with anyone and we don’t seem to be progressing toward resolution, I silently frame that question to myself. It helps me to step back, hear my words or see my actions through the other person’s ears and eyes. Obviously, if my persuavie argument isn’t working, it must not be so persuasive. How does that help?

I don’t mean that this approach should be from a manipulative perspective. If manipulation is the motivation, you may get what you want, but manipulation is always ultimately destructive and self-serving. No, this question should be framed from an unselfish and honest desire to seek the best resolution to conflict or difference of opinion. Only in that context can you truly seek the best for both sides.

Asking the question, “How does this help?” doesn’t guarantee that the problem will be resolved. Some conflicts don’t have resolutions that are positive for both sides. And no matter your approach, the other person may not be willing to put aside the conflict. But asking the question will help you honestly evaluate your words, your methods, your motivation. Asking the question is a filter that will help you seek other solutions, other persuasions, or perhaps, ultimately, change your own mind, see the other person’s point of view. And that can be an invaluable gift to both people.

It can be difficult to be honest about this, especially when your point of view seems like the only point of view possible. How can you step back, re-frame, look at a question from another perspective when you know you’re right? But that’s the point…the issue is not about being right or being more persuasive. When you’re trying to find resolution to differences, sometimes the solution is more about approach, method, and understanding. Sometimes it is about compassion, about empathy, rather than staking a claim to being right.

Sometimes I even come around to an opposite opinion from where I began if I have long enough to think before I rush to judgment. There are right and wrong absolutes in life. I believe that. There are some things that are never right, always wrong. But woven among the absolutes of life are many gray areas, and I recognize that more as I get older. When I was young, life was easy to define in absolute terms. But age, some wisdom, my own mistakes and missteps, and a lot of grace has taught me that things are not always what they seem at first glance. It was a long lesson to learn, but now it is ingrained in my thinking. It has become more natural to me to ask the question, and I am open to hearing the answer that comes from that honesty.

Try asking yourself, “how does this help?” The answer may surprise you.

Shared space and intimacy

Rob is coming home tomorrow. He’s been in Anchorage for the past few weeks for a combination of work and training. We’ve rarely been apart this long, and I’m ready to have him be a physical presence in my life again, not just a voice on the phone or a text message or email.

I’ve spent too many evenings and weekends home alone in recent months. When I’m home alone, dinner is usually a bowl of cereal or the time honored grilled cheese. Sometimes I get adventurous and pick up something from the deli when I’m at the grocery store. As much as I love to cook, I am completely disinterested in cooking for myself. But cooking dinner for the two of us…there’s enjoyment in that. This week I’ve thought about what we’ll have for dinner tomorrow night; over the weekend. We love fruit and cheese, shrimp cocktail, grilled salmon, roasted squash, caprese salad…I make my list for the grocery, remember to list the hot Thai peppers that Rob loves, tomato juice, egg beaters for his omelettes, the special cheese we both like. Usually we shop together and that’s a shared pleasure, but he has a long flight tomorrow so I’ll have at least the makings of dinner on hand so we don’t have that chore to do right away.

When he’s out of town, the dogs and I take over his favorite chair and I even sleep in a different room. Our king size bed is too big for me by myself, too empty. I move downstairs to the bedroom on the main floor and feel less alone at night in the smaller space. The dogs try to go upstairs to bed; I have to call them down to the room on the main floor. They’re confused by the change: why would I sleep in a different place?

I’ve thought a lot about shared space and intimacy in recent months. Two people can share a space and have little intimacy; or, every detail can suggest intimacy between the two. When Rob is home we have a familiar routine: we’re up early, and on weekdays, he has usually tuned in the market by the opening bell at 5:30. We begin the day with something warm, and then a couple of hours later have a leisurely breakfast. We sit in front of the windows in the sun room and watch the morning activity on the water, the fog lifting, the first jets of the day coming in to land at the airport across the Tongass Narrows.

We talk, discuss, share. Some days are about errands, some are slow and lazy. Some days we work out at the local rec center, sometimes go for a drive or walk down to one of the local beaches. Always there’s the question of what to do for dinner. We don’t cook together…we cook in sync. I put seasonings on meat or fish; he grills. I steam crab legs, he cracks the shells and takes the meat out for both of us. He chooses music to go with dinner, lights a candle for the table, I put the finishing touches on the meal.  Movie after dinner? Or sometimes he watches a foodie show with me.

There is a rhythm to our life that comes from long knowledge of each other. I know his pace and he knows mine. After 29 years together, does that make us dull, or intimate? I know what I think. It’s a sweet and comforting knowledge of this person who has been my partner through thick and thin, through good and bad, through all the cliches and the moments of magic. I’m looking foward to moving back upstairs tomorrow night, to having a dinner companion again, a movie buddy, my friend, my husband. I’m looking forward to sharing my space again.

My affair with Williams-Sonoma

Christmas Panettone

It began as a long distance romance…I can’t recall when I first encountered a Williams-Sonoma catalog, but it was at least in the early 90s…long before I ever went into a  Williams-Sonoma store or before there was a website.

In the early days of my infatuation, the catalogs were smaller and not as elaborate as the current style. As I recall, they were about half the size of the magazine format that the catalog sports now. But even then, each edition was a passport to wonderful culinary products. Understand, I didn’t experience the pleasure of shopping in unique kitchen stores until I was a young adult. There simply was no such establishment in the region where I grew up.

Granted, no matter where one grew up, retail shopping has come a long way. The internet has added opportunities for buying that were unimaginable only a few years ago. When I lived in the Alaskan Arctic, I regularly ordered items from Williams-Sonoma, and they arrived like clockwork, even at the top of the world. Most of my actual purchasing is done online, unless I’m lucky enough to be in the vicinity of a retail store…something that doesn’t happen often enough these days. I got spoiled to the ease of going to their retail locations when we lived in the foothills above Denver. There were multiple Williams-Sonoma stores in the city, and it was always fun to visit at the beginning of a new season to check out the most recent cookware, gadgets, and receipes being showcased.

But I have to say, even though there are benefits to visiting the stores in person, I get more actual enjoyment from a leisurely reading through the catalog. (Maybe this is where some would think I need a life?) But honestly, if you love to cook, how could you resist these pages with the most beautiful cookware, dishes and linens? And for gadget lovers, there are always new and unique items to catch your eye and fancy. What will they think of next? The photography is delicious, there are recipes scattered throughout the pages, lovely staging options for tablescapes (for all my elaborate entertaining) and in some editions, pages and pages of the most delectable foods to order, either for gift giving or for your own use.

I have never had a bad experience with this company. The food items I’ve ordered have been received with rave reviews. I can personally attest to the yumminess of the Panettone,  but most of the food I have ordered has been given as gifts. Their customer service is great and the quality of products as well as food is amazing.

However, back to browsing…if you don’t receive this catalog, go to their website or give them a ring and request it. It’s a wonderful way to find some inspiration for your next family food event or to challenge yourself to try some new culinary adventure. I highly recommend curling up with the latest catalog in the evening, cup of comforting hot tea at your side, and drooling a bit over the pages that make kitchen work seem exciting, even glamorous. Before you know it you’ll be making your wish list and dreaming of new culinary achievements, spurred on by the inspiratrion of beautiful images, lovely products, and enticing recipes.

I’m happy to say that I’ve passed my passion for all things culinary on to my daughter. She had a better outfitted kitchen right out of college than I did until I was thirty. And most importantly, she cooks. (So does my son, but his techniques are a little less traditional, more minimalist. No Williams-Sonoma wish lists for him!)

By the way, you can access a plethora of Williams-Sonoma reciepes on their website and save them to your digital receipe box. The ones I’ve tried have been keepers.

You can link to their site on my blog home page, or here: http://www.williams-sonoma.com/

I LOVE technology!

Now don’t get me wrong…I don’t understand technology…or at least, I only understand a very little bit, around the edges. But I appreciate it so much!

I live in Ketchikan, Alaska, currently, and before moving here I spent two years above the Arctic Circle, in the small town of Kotzebue. My husband and I moved there for what I call our “empty nest” adventure. Well, four years later, the Alaska experience continues. And every day, I’m reminded of how big a role technology plays in my life.

AT&T, the company my cell service is with, had a tower down in this region over the weekend. I kept staring at my iPhone Friday night and Saturday, which was registering “no service” instead of the normal component of full bars. I don’t have long distance service on the land line in the house, so I was literally cut off from family…but oh, wait, I still had internet access, so I was able to email and send messages via facebook that my line was temporarily down…just so no one would think I had fallen off the face of the earth when I was telephonically silent for 24 hours. Rob is out of town, so he wasn’t here to talk to either. Fortunately my service was restored late on Saturday, so I was once again able to be in touch with the world by cell.

Then there is my recent venture into the world of blogging. I decided that I wanted to give this a try, but knew nothing about how to start a blog. I went online and found a couple of books on Amazon that sounded like just what I needed. I ordered, read, launched my site, and voila! I’m a blogger…not a very experienced one, but I’m learning. And a fascinating world it is. You can do the whole thing for free, if you want, and all the really hard work, the coding, is done for you, behind the scenes. Of course, I’m sure if I want to develop a more sophisticated blog or even a web site, I’ll need to learn a lot more. But the current technology makes it possible even for people like me, who don’t know html code from Morse code, to get started.

And I haven’t even begun to sing the praises of the internet in general. I get most of my news online…the benefit being that if a story looks interesting, I can read all I want. Or if the headline looks scary, I don’t have to click on the link. I love controlling what comes to me. And ebooks…who knew it could be enjoyable to read a book online?! I thought I needed the actual book experience, but while I can still appreciate a beautifully illustrated and bound book, I’ve had no difficulty adjusting to reading books online. Yay for Kindle!

And the online services! Let me just say here and now that if you are not taking advantage of online retail ordering, banking, all sorts of accounts management, and social networking, you are missing the biggest time saver and convenience in modern life…better, in my opinion, than microwaves and sliced bread.

So, although I don’t know how it all works, I love that it does. And that brings me back to Alaska. This is a remote state, much of it inaccessible by road. There are many communities that you can only reach by ferry or plane. Alaska is short on roads. But with internet access, cable, cell phones and jet planes, there is little that you can’t get, even in the bush communities. (Well, you can’t get much restaurant variety or a mall experience, but you can order online and at least connect with the outside world.) Talking with long term residents who have spent a lifetime in this state, hearing their stories, I can only imagine what it was like to live here when the main connection was through snail mail or expensive phone calls.

So here’s a thank you to all the brilliant minds who have invented the things I now consider life necessities. My husband says I have a relationship with my phone, and its true…its a lifeline that I would be lost without. But judging from the number of people I see walking around with phones in hand, I’m not alone…I have a lot of company.

Story People

I love this:

I read once that the ancient Egyptians had fiftty words for sand & the Eskimos had a hundred words for snow. I wish I had a thousand words for love, but all that comes to mind is the way you move against me while you sleep & there are no words for that.                       Brian Andreas, Trusting Soul

Do you know this artist and poet? I first saw his work several years ago and was charmed by his words. Some are profound, others funny. And there are some pieces that I don’t get at all. But the ones that resonate…they’re magic.

Here’s another one:

I finally got to exactly where I wanted to be, she said, so why won’t all these growth experiences go away & leave me alone?

Or this one:

I’m not that good at being a tourist because I’m always looking at the way the light shines in your hair or the way your dress opens to the wind & my favorite places in the world are places filled with you.

Another personal favorite:

I’m feeling overdressed, she said & he held her close & said as far as he was concerned she was always that way & her eyes glowed softly in the light of his desire

I have seen him in Hawaiian shirts she said, so there is nothing hidden between us

Rob sometimes wears Hawaiian shirts (only beautiful and tasteful, of course! But I say this last bit to him anyway).

And a final excerpt:

There are things you do because they feel right & they make no sense & they make no money & it may be the real reason we are here: to love each other & to eat each other’s cooking & say it was good.

All of these quotes are from the same book, Trusting Soul. But there are many books and pieces of art, frameable, 3-D, etc., available. Get your own, read the whole thing, see if you’re charmed. Check out the website: http://www.storypeople.com/storypeople/Home.do

Favorite things

Riley photos

 AND

  • Berry wreaths
  • Clear glass vases or jars, especially with something interesting filling them
  • Tiny white Christmas lights, used year round as backlighting
  • Bread fresh from the oven, lots of butter
  • Anything from Pottery Barn
  • Cooking magazines
  • Traveling anywhere with Rob
  • A quirky sense of humor
  • Sentimental anything….music, movies, commercials, cards
  • Quaint towns that make me think “I could live here!”
  • Warmth
  • Soft gingerbread cookies
  • The shared look between lovers that tells each of you that you know the other’s thought
  • The fragrance of home baking – anything from the fall…apples, pumpkin, spices, all those comforting aromas
  • Beautiful beaches
  • Frank Sinatra’s music
  • King crab legs cracked open by my husband and dipped in melted butter…heavenly!
  • Cranberry colored paint on walls with white trim
  • Family photos
  • Cilantro, basil, and rosemary…fresh herbs in salads and soups

Best Fudgy Brownies

These are the BEST fudgy brownies!

Ok, I know this is going to be hard to believe for brownie lovers, like me, who are ever in search of the perfect brownie recipe. But I think I finally have my favorite for a basic fudgy brownie. No cream cheese here, no peanut butter, no additional exotic flavors…just good old-fashioned chocolate nuttiness. And the best part…no expensive or hard-to-find chocolate required. And since this recipe is made from scratch and standard pantry/fridge items, you don’t have to remember to pick up a mix to have these decadent chewy morsels any night of the week. The process is simple too: all you need is a bowl and whisk.

You won’t BELIEVE how basic this recipe is:

  1.  2 eggs
  2. 1 cup granulated sugar
  3. 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted (I use salted or unsalted, whatever I have on hand)
  4. 1/2 cup all purpose flour
  5. 1/3 cup Hershey’s Cocoa powder
  6. 1/4 tsp salt
  7. 1 or 2 tsp vanilla extract (use ONLY real vanilla extract, makes a big difference)
  8. 1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

 Method:

  1. Butter or spray with baking spray an 8” x 8” baking pan, or you can also use an 8” pie dish for these if you want to serve the brownies in pie shaped wedges.
  2. Heat oven to 350 degrees ( I like my brownies a little under-baked, so my trick is to bake these in a slightly cooler oven, 325 degrees).
  3. Beat eggs; blend in sugar and melted butter. Stir in flour, cocoa powder and salt. Add vanilla extract and chopped nuts.
  4. Pour into a prepared pan. Bake 25 to 30 minutes or until ALMOST set. Brownies will not test done in center. Cool for a few minutes, or as long as you can stand to wait; cut into squares or wedges. Serve warm with ice cream or whipped cream. Serves 6 to 8, depending on how generously brownies are cut.

 Recipe can be doubled if preparing for a larger group.

Enjoy! And let me know what you think.

Mahalo

This morning I brought my “Mahalo mug” to work with me. I had filled it with coconut caramel coffee from the Kauai Coffee Company http://store.kauaicoffee.com/kauai-coffee-hawaiian-coconut-caramel-crunch-p19.aspx …delicious! This is the mug I got from the resort Rob and I visited in October in Kauai. You may have seen these deals on vacation: you buy a mug from your resort, and then get free refills on coffee, tea, sodas…it’s a gimmick, but not a bad one, and you can bring the mug home if you choose to. I’m not usually one to need souvenirs labeled with the place names of vacation spots…no spoons or knick-knacks for me with national park logos or island names. But who can’t use an extra coffee mug? So I threw it in my luggage when I packed.

Southeast Alaska is getting chilly. Although Ketchikan is on the coast and the temperatures here are nothing like the frozen north of Alaska, we have frost and the occasional snow during winter months. This morning I came out to my car and had to run the defroster for several minutes waiting for the windshields to clear. (My 80 year old house has a tiny one-car garage, designed for a model-T, not a modern day SUV.) So I park outside, and this morning the cold air had frosted everything.

I set the mug on my desk when I got to my office, and looking at the image of the resort pool, I was instantly far away in a warm and sunny place. We all know that music and fragrance can transport us to another time, another place. Who knew a plastic coffee mug could do the same? The little things in life…I’m reminded again and again of their importance. Even if they are plastic and sport a resort name. Sometimes it is less about the object, more about what it evokes. Hawaii is magic…can’t explain it, but it is. And even a cheap coffee mug can’t detract from its allure. In the end, whatever brings you to a happy memory, a good place, is also touched with a little of that magic. So even though I’m not one to be sentimental about coffee mugs, I think I’ll choose this one for a while. Winter is a good time to remember the sun on the sand, the warmth in the air, the exotic aroma of the Hawaiian frangipani, and a week with my favorite husband.

Troubled waters

“We are sometimes taken into troubled waters not to drown, but to be cleansed.” 

I love this…troubled waters, turblent waters…sounds frightening and very negative. Can’t still waters cleanse also? Still waters are calming, soothing, healing. The image of turbulent waters brings to mind pounding surf or stormy seas. Nothing reassuring in that. The natural instinct is to shelter from storms.

As I was thinking of the difference in still and troubled waters, and the value of troubled waters to life, I thought of the agitator in washing machines. Newer models don’t have agitators, but for decades this was a standard part of the machinery. The agitator helped with the cleasnsing process. You could argue that the movement is harsh for delicate fabrics, and the same can be said of lives. Fragile lives, delicate situations, can be damaged by turbulent waters, and the results are not guaranteed. But nothing in life is guaranteed.

Maybe  it is more valuable to come out of the water cleansed rather than wholly intact. Everyone gets a bit frayed around the edges with time, just as well-worn fabrics do. Perhaps the process is essential and worth the time of fear and uncertainty. But you have to come through the waters to know the outcome. I would add, when you’re in troubled waters, look for lifelines to hold to. And have faith in the process.