Wary of the secret ingredient

We have a long-standing family tradition of thinking someone may be trying to harm us in the kitchen. It’s not that we’re paranoid, it’s just that we all think somebody is out to get us.

When my brother was 4, he watched our mom make hot cocoa at the stove. He studied her mixing milk, sugar and cocoa in a pan over a flame. When she poured in a splash of vanilla, he asked if she was trying to poison him.

There was no convincing him. He’d seen what he’d seen.

Because such suspicion is deeply embedded in a family’s DNA, years ago when one of our girls watched me make guacamole and saw me add lemon juice, she asked me what I was up to. As though I was doing something devious.

“It keeps it from turning brown,” I explained.

She actually made me feel criminal making guacamole.

Family stayed with us over the weekend and I made scrambled eggs Saturday morning, sprinkling them with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Later, the 7-year-old took me aside and said, “Grandma, I liked pepper on the eggs. It makes them spicy.”

“Good,” I said.

“But we don’t eat salt.” She tilted her head and shot me a look that said, “What do you have to say for yourself, woman?”

Guilty—that’s what I have to say for myself. Guilty of seasoning eggs.

Not only is our family suspicious, we do our best to spread suspicion to incoming family members.

We have a son-in-law who detests tomatoes. He so detests them it even says so on the back of his driver’s license: Designated Organ Donor and Hater of Tomatoes.

I persuaded him there was nothing as wonderful as a sun-dried tomato packed in olive oil. So he tried one. Cautiously. He chewed it a couple times, looked at me like I was trying to kill him and then spit it out.

There’s been a distance between us ever since.

We were at our son’s place in Chicago a while back and I was stunned to see him hunched over a bottle of vodka at the kitchen sink on a Sunday morning.

“Is everything all right?” I asked.

He said yes, he and his wife have been making their own vanilla by steeping vanilla beans in alcohol for two to three months and he was just straining some for a specialty coffee.

He gave me a bottle to bring home.

I was straining some vanilla from the big vodka bottle into the little bottle I keep in the spice cabinet when the husband walked in.

“I didn’t know you drank,” he said. “And before 9 a.m.?”

“I don’t,” I said. “It’s vanilla.”

“Sure it is.”






Barbecue and back roads reveal more than what you see

It is simply understood that you don’t visit my hometown of Kansas City and leave there without some of the city’s famous barbecue sauces—Jack Stack, Gates, Blues Hog, Rufus Teague and Smokin’ Guns—which is why when everybody else was semi-conscious from back-to-back feasts of smoked brisket, pulled pork and burnt ends, I announced I was going to the grocery.

“Do you know how to get there?”

I said sure, but I wasn’t really. My brother’s place is outside of the city along back roads of chip and seal, stretches of asphalt here and there and winding highways like Y that slide into other winding highways named YY. And no, you don’t call it Y-Y, you call it double Y.

My nephew announces that he would like to go along. My nephew can’t see. He wore glasses and contacts for a time to enhance what sight remained, then sight left him completely. He mostly keeps his eyes closed now. It’s probably been a decade since he has seen vague outlines of forms.

“Do you really know how to get there, Aunt Lori?” he asks, buckling his seatbelt.

“Sorta, kinda,” I say.

He chuckles. “Hang a right out of the driveway.”

Everything in the country wears thick layers of gray dust courtesy of the clouds cars and trucks kick up as they barrel down the road. But a noisy rain has passed through this afternoon. The land and vegetation, freshly showered, are so green and lush you suspect wet paint on everything in sight.

“We’ll pass some pipes up the road. After that turn right.”

Seconds later, we pass large white and red pipes, the sort used for drainage.

“Pretty sky,” I say. “It looks like orange and lemon sherbet all swirled together.”
small sunset

“Nice,” he says.

“What’s with the house with 15 trucks out front?” I ask.

“On my right? Yeah, I don’t know what’s up.”

Around a curve and on a straightaway are a small herd of goats in a low-lying pasture.

“They’re fainting goats,” he says.

He has a phenomenal memory and uncanny sense of place and direction.

We approach the edge of town and he asks if I see duplexes at the exact moment we drive by some. “One of my good friends used to live there,” he says. “Turn by the Quick Trip up ahead.”

“There’s a road before it and a road after it,” I say.

“Turn after, not before.”

We’re in the business center now. He names all the big box stores as we pass them, correctly and in sequence.

We leave the grocery with bottles of barbeque sauce jostling in plastic bags stretched thin.

“Want to take a different way home?” he asks with a grin.


“Go down to the end of the lot and turn right. When my friend Phillip and I take this road we can get from my house to the Arby’s parking lot in 10 minutes.” He laughs and slaps his leg.

The sun throws its last long rays of golden light across a field of wheat. The clouds and the sky are a mosaic of color so beautiful as to be distracting. It’s good to have a guide.



Let them eat cake — lots of it

I should be in an advertisement with crumbs and frosting all over my face and a large headline that reads, “Got Cake?” We have celebrated 10 family birthdays in the past several months. We’ve had a lot of cake—according to the scales, about three pounds’ worth.
There was vanilla with fudge icing, a bird nest cake, a rosebud cake, cheesecake, angel food cake, cake accompanied by sparklers, crème got cakebrulee in lieu of cake, a princess cake and a pirate cake.

This birthday marathon is akin to a car’s odometer rolling over to 100,000. All of the grands have rolled over in a fairly short time span. Their ages are once again in consecutive numerical order and can be recited rapid fire: 7, 6, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and 8 months.

They’re getting older now, so we’re no longer doing as much of that move where someone sniffs a diaper, thrusts a little one at another adult and says, “Here, this one belongs to you!” We’re doing a lot more of “Who needs to go potty? When was the last time you went potty?” Well, that and yelling at the boys, “Don’t do that outside! You’re in the city, not in the woods!”

The dress-up box remains popular, although the tutus, high heels and old purses are running neck-and-neck in the popularity polls with capes and masks, Viking helmets, a plastic sword, a safari hat and a red felt cowboy hat that has weathered some brutal cattle drives.

The doll stroller still gets a workout, but the wagons equally so. The greatest delight is finding a way to connect an old small metal wagon to a deluxe plastic wagon. Together they make a terrific rumble over the sidewalks, shaking the neighbors’ windows and give new meaning to the term wagon train.

The parents of the grands share similar approaches to electronics and digital devices in that they believe they can wait. That’s not to say the older ones don’t know what a selfie is or how to place a call. It’s just that there are other more pressing things to do—like flood the sandbox, drench your cousins or go on a hike looking for leaves, tracks and animal bones.

Once in a blue moon the crowd goes high-brow on us with an occasional program. There has been dancing, singing, recitations and a blossoming fiddle player who does a snappy “Happy Birthday” and “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” a tune that if you hear more than twice will remain in your head for 72 hours straight.

It is chaos when we are all together. Wonderful, blessed chaos. We do best with the chaos, birthday and otherwise, when the weather is good and the overflow can spill outside and into the backyard.

Naturally, I’m hoping for an unseasonably warm Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Give kids a break and start school later

There was a time you could tell when school was starting by the school supply aisles at the big box stores. They looked like the aftermath of a tornado—shell-shocked parents, binders strewn across floors, backpacks upended, and pencils driven straight through the display of crayons and markers. But now the school supply shelves are neat. There is no whirlwind rush for supplies, because there is no single “back-to-school” date.
bus to school

School start dates are all over the calendar, leap-frogging earlier and earlier into August and some jumping all the way into July. They say they’re balancing the calendar but I never knew the calendar was out of balance. Did July try to crowd in between January and February? Did the months ending in “er” suddenly rise up and demand Spring placement?

I appreciate that kids may forget much of what they learned during summer vacation. The theory is that if schools shorten summer vacation, kids will retain more. Plus, they’ll get a one-week fall vacation, a one-week Thanksgiving vacation followed a by two-week vacation over the winter holidays and another week-long vacation in the spring. I thought vacation time was the problem.

I’d like to go on record as an advocate for unbalancing the calendar. Yes, I’d like to propose school start dates should be pushed back to September in order to accommodate the lazy days of summer. Who says summer isn’t educational?

I support extending summer so kids can enjoy good nutrition—stand next to a tomato plant, smell the vines, pluck cherry tomatoes in rapid succession and pop them directly into their mouths.

I favor extending summer so students can learn math by charting the proliferation and distribution of zucchini, discovering how one small plant can feed the entire state of Wisconsin.

I support extending summer so every child can have the full sensory experience of sweet corn – smelling the husks, pulling back the silks, feeling butter grease their hands and run down their arms as the scorching August sun turns the grass to a dry, brittle brown.

I hear your opposition: “Your unbalanced calendar is only about food.”

Not true, my unbalanced calendar also puts a premium on boredom. The last few weeks of August should be reserved for stretching time, sitting outside in the evening, feeling the heat evaporate from the earth, watching the sun dip low, listening to crickets, learning the art of dawdling and the sheer pleasure of nothingness. Everyone should experience a season of boredom. It’s how you discover what you enjoy.

I also stand by the unbalanced calendar plan as an economic stimulus package. Freeing August from the grips of school calendars allows time for more family road trips, which generates monies for tourism as well as additional paychecks for restaurant workers, hotel workers and lifeguards. Unbalance the calendar and we’ll have that federal debt paid down in no time. Or not.

I’ve made my case. Now, like every politician, I conclude my argument with that old reliable tug at the heart: Do it for the children.


Sometimes 1 + 1 equals a full brain

One of the much touted benefits of aging with a spouse is that, together, the two of you often make a whole brain. You can complete one another’s sentences, tell parallel stories with wildly differing details at the same time and help one another with dates of birthdays and anniversaries, as in, “No, that one was born the year we had the roof replaced.”

On occasion, you can even help provide missing punchlines for one another’s jokes.

The husband starts a familiar one saying, “Do you know why men with a pierced ear are well-suited for marriage? Because—now what was it? Men with a pierced ear are well-suited for marriage because . . . because—”

“Because they’ve already experienced pain and purchased jewelry!” I say. Ba-da-bing. Teamwork. It’s a good system in general, and I’m all for helping one another fill in the blanks, but the husband has gone too far, which is why I will no longer be fielding questions from him, or anyone else for that matter, with more than one compound word beginning with “some.” Something, somewhere, someone, somehow, somebody, sometime are officially off limits, and I mean all of them.

Increasingly, as others play Name that Tune, we play Name that Person.

Last night it was, “Do you remember someone whose name was like royalty, and he used to play something brass and they moved somewhere with South or North in the name?”

At least I had decent parameters to work with on that one. Answer: “Jim King played the trumpet and moved to North Carolina.”

Other times, the questions are so vague I don’t have a clue, such as, “What was that funny story someone told about something that happened in some national park?”

With a structure that loose, I’m grappling with whether we’re talking animal, vegetable or mineral.

It’s not that the man is forgetful, it’s that—like every single one of us these days—he has SHS (Selective Hearing Syndrome). I made that up, but doctors should really use it (only after they pay me for naming rights, of course). He tunes in to the constant barrage of information and noise when he wants to tune in and then uses me as his personal Google search engine for the details he missed when he tuned out.

He’s not the only one who does it. One of the grandkids asked if I would make a dessert I made not long ago. “It was something yummy, something chocolate and you made it when everyone was here and you said you’d make it again sometime.”

Well, that narrows it down to big family gatherings, major holidays and the dessert section of 30 plus cookbooks. I’m going to need WikiLeaks to find that one.

I was going to tell her to get back to me when she had a few more clues, but instead I told her to run it by Grandpa and see if he could remember something. Somehow. Sometime.


It’s showtime, take your (correct) seats

I can probably count on one hand the number of times my parents went to see a movie.

In the mid-60s, Truman Capote wrote “In Cold Blood,” a non-fiction novel based on the murders of four family members in Holcomb, Kansas. A year later, the book was adapted into a movie. My mother, a voracious reader, had read the book.

My parents were familiar with the small town of Humboldt, as they were with most every small town in Kansas and Nebraska.

What’s more, a man from Mom and Dad’s church had been cast in a small part in the movie as the mail carrier. So there you had it – a movie based on a book my mother had read, based on a crime that had sent shock waves throughout the Plains, and had happened in a town they were familiar with, featuring a man they knew in a major motion picture production.

My mother, who didn’t care for television shows like “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza” because of the occasional shooting, and my father—who was always in motion (if he sat more than 10 minutes he often lapsed into deep sleep and snoring), were going to see a film-adaption of “In Cold Blood.” A more ill-suited audience for a movie had never existed.

They settled into their seats and were not surprised that a cartoon preceded the movie. There were often shorts before movies. They weren’t familiar with the cartoon characters—a boy with animal companions—but then they watched cartoons about as frequently as they watched movies.

The cartoon seemed long. Very long. About 20 minutes into the cartoon, my mother dispatched my father to ask how long the cartoon was going to last. My father returned and informed my mother that they had bought tickets to the wrong theater and were watching “The Jungle Book.”

in cold jungle bookThoroughly disgusted with themselves, they left the theater and came directly home. It took a few days, but eventually they laughed about the situation.

The other night I browsed Netflix looking for something to take the edge off of a crazy week. I found some obscure movie about horses with an impressive 4.5 out of a 5-star rating. The review said it was inspiring, heart-warming and family friendly. Just my speed. The husband joined me. The opening scene was poorly lit. The title and screen credits may have been done by hand with a wide-tip marker. The plot and dialog were predictable. Instead of lulling me to sleep, it piqued our curiosity as we both wondered how it had garnered a 4.5 rating.

We watched a little longer, still waiting for the plot to develop or at least for the camera angles to suddenly improve. About 20 minutes in, I looked at the review again and saw it was for 11- to 12-year olds.

The movie apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.



Each decade of life brings surprises

I just read an article titled “Five Healthy Habits that Fight the Signs of Aging.”  It was written by a woman who recently turned 40. As my southern friends would say, “Bless her heart.”

Basically, the author advises eating healthy and wearing sunscreen. sunscreen-clipart-sunscreen-bottleGo ahead, sweetie, keep believing.

If you only knew. It’s better that you don’t. Actually, it’s better that none of us do. Some days, the mystery of the unknown is what keeps us going.

As someone who has seen 40, may I tell you about 40? Forty is nothing. Forty is the sandbox of life. Forty is merely the back end of 30. At 40, your skin still fits. The thought of “comfortable shoes” at 40 is anathema. On a good day, you may even still have that dewy glow of youth. You can still eat ice cream, pizza and doughnuts in your 40s.

I will grant you that the back end of 40 comes with a cloud of apprehension—as it should as 50 is a bucket of cold water in the face. Medical appointments appear with increasing frequency on your calendar. Colonoscopies, bone scans, cholesterol checks. Merely holding a cookbook causes weight gain.

You envision a brow lift during your 50s. Of course, you can’t afford it, so you consider the alternatives. Perhaps a few pieces of strategically placed duct tape. You may even be sucked into exercises promising to eliminate that furrowed brow and put yourself through regimens of weird facial gyrations. You lament all the years you frowned. Why did you frown? Because you were raising children, that’s why!

Sixty? I recently crossed 60, so I speak with authority when I tell you that 50 is a cakewalk compared to 60. Sixty is like being tasered. Once you get feeling back in your legs, pull yourself upright and look around, you wonder how you got here. You feel 17 inside, but the candles on the birthday cake are setting off the fire alarm.

You have new sympathies and understanding for those older than yourself.  Instead of muting the prescription drug commercials on television, you listen intently to all the adverse side effects, wondering if you may one day need the medication—or more importantly, if the medication will one day will kill you.

If you’re blessed with good health, you quickly learn to keep it to yourself. Friends your own age don’t want to hear about how great you feel or that you signed up for a mini-marathon.

A group I am speaking for recently requested a publicity picture. I realized the picture I use is four years old. A lot of changes can happen in four years. I sent the picture and told my contact to pencil in a few more wrinkles. I need to get an updated photograph of myself. And I will. Just as soon as the healthy eating, sunscreen and results from the furrowed brow exercises kick in.


On call for potty training

I fielded four calls before I finally found out that my name and number had been posted on a bathroom wall. It’s not as bad as it sounds. My contact info, along with my picture, are on a poster on the bathroom wall where one of the grands is potty training.

When she has a success, she chooses someone to call and then that person emotes through the phone, shouts, yells, claps and cheers her on to greatness. Or dryness.

The husband just got a text saying that if he doesn’t turn his phone on and take a few calls he’s going to be deleted from the call list. Just like that, Grandpa could be history. The world of potty training is brutal. Always has been.

Potty training is right up there with your kid getting a driver’s license—a milestone that you, the parent, simultaneously look forward to and dread.

When my daughter said she was using the “Potty Training in a Day” method, I didn’t say anything. pottytrainmeme

When she said you give the child a doll that goes potty, I didn’t say anything.

When she said you give the child salty snacks and drinks and have them practice running to the potty, I didn’t say anything.

When she said you reward the kid with M&Ms, I finally said something.

“Somebody gave me a book just like that when your brother was born,” I said. “I started the ‘Potty Training in a Day’ method on a Monday and threw the book out on Thursday.

“Besides, I gained five pounds from rewarding myself with M&Ms every time I rewarded your brother. More than 30 years later and I’m still trying to lose the weight.”

Of course, these days there are endless options when it comes to potty training today. There’s “Potty Training Your Child in a Week,” “Potty Training Your Child in Three Days” and “Potty Training Your Child in Less Than One Day.” I would think the Less Than One Day method would be far more appealing (and expensive) than Potty Training in a Week. Who wants to drag it out if you don’t have to?

To our daughter’s credit, she was more diligent than I was and her little girl was ready and caught on quickly. Also, to our daughter’s credit, she didn’t post any pictures of it on Facebook.

Despite the recent family success with “Potty Training in One Day,” my favorite approach floating around right now is “The Naked & $75 Method,” which comes from John Rosemond. You let the kid run around naked for three days, the theory being that the kid won’t like the mess and will get to the potty on his or her own.

The $75 is for cleaning the carpet.






Pulling the plug on ambience

Since the people we most often dine with on the patio are grandchildren who go to bed at 7 p.m., we are rarely outside after dark and able to enjoy the ambience of flickering candles or string lights. Ambience with grandchildren consists of greenish night lights that automatically come on when the room gets dark.

When friends who have been known to stay up until the wild hours of 10 and 11 joined us for a late dinner, I immediately wove 40 feet of tiny fairy lights through a tree that overhangs the patio. Ambience at last.

fairy lightsWhen the sun went down and the lights went on, the husband commented that none of the lights were in the top, or even in the middle, of the tree.

“They’re all low like they were hung by someone 5 ’2,” he said.

“Scoff all you want,” I replied. “I’m enjoying the ambience.”

So did our friends, who stayed until 10:30. We said goodbye on the front porch and I went back outside to retrieve the fairy lights, gently pulling them from the branches, draping them around my neck and across my arms, so they wouldn’t tangle. If it had been December, I could have stood in the front yard and doubled as a Christmas tree.

I walked back to the house and discovered the screen door was locked. I knocked softly. No answer. I knocked louder. Still no answer. “Anybody home?” I called, but not too loud, as it was now after 11.

Pacing the patio with tiny glowing lights draped over me, I realized if one of the neighbors looked outside they could report a UFO, and a helicopter with a blinding searchlight would be sweeping the backyard at any moment.

I cut the lights. It was pitch black.

I peered in the house again and saw the bathroom door was closed.

Being a cloudless night, I walked to the middle of the backyard to get a good look at the stars. Talk about ambience.

I walked back to the house. The bathroom door was open, but the husband was nowhere in sight.

I thought I heard a raccoon rustling in the bushes. Or a ‘possum. Probably both.

All of a sudden there was a glow casting on the lawn. It was from the light in our upstairs bedroom.

Great. The man was probably going to bed. When would he notice I wasn’t there? Midnight? Two a.m.? A week from now when he stumbled across chunks of my hair raccoons had ripped out and scattered beneath the grill?

I pressed my nose to the screen door again. Futile. Then I remembered that some of the grands had put a rip in it not long ago. Yep, I could reach through, tear it a little more and unhook the door.

I was standing in the kitchen, winding up the fairy lights, when the husband walked through and said, “Where have you been?”

“I was enjoying the ambience.”



Don’t read this if you get bugged easily

There is a beetle in my freezer. And he’s not there by accident. I caught him, I boxed him and then I froze him.

If you’re an insect lover, you may want to stop reading now. But before you leave, know this—there’s no better way for a bug to go. Millions of them go like that every fall with the first hard freeze. Initially, I felt a bit remorseful about freezing a bug, but then I realized I was merely hastening nature’s cycle.

I only hope the beetle saw it the same way.

In any case, the beetle is in the freezer on top of a pack of ground beef and between two bags of frozen vegetables. Now, if I peel the lid off that box in two weeks and find the beetle is missing, I will probably throw out the ground beef, the vegetables and everything else in the freezer.

It is my son and 5-year-old grandson’s fault that there is a beetle in the freezer. Frankly, I often gag slightly when I hear about their latest exploits. Then, before I know it, I am taken in the by the excitement and doing things I never envisioned doing—like catching insects and casually popping them in the freezer.

They recently bought a casting resin kit (liquid plastic that solidifies in an hour). A lot of crafters use the kits for making jewelry or preserving leaves. Our son and his son are using the kit to preserve insects in test tubes. I suppose their bug casts could double as jewelry, but I don’t think they will become a fashion trend anytime soon.

So far they have cast a lightning bug, a carpenter ant and have a dragonfly chilling. (Because they have nature projects in their freezer far more frequently than we do, we often order out when we pay them a visit.)

Shortly after they told me about the project, I spotted a shiny black beetle crawling on some brick. Every fiber of my being wanted to crush the beetle, whack it with my shoe, flatten it with a rock (I’ve been very pent up lately), anything but catch it. But when I considered what a little boy can learn studying the wonders of creation up close, I was suddenly on board.

Apparently, I was so on board that when I called to let them know that I had a specimen in my freezer, I suddenly, unexpectedly, with no forethought whatsoever, heard myself commit to scoring an earwig.

Who am I? I cannot even say the word earwig without screaming. Earwigs: bugs that slither into your ears while you sleep and spin wigs, right? Maybe not, but if not, why do they call them earwigs? They’re disgusting. And now I’d committed to finding one.

Just like that, I’m an entomologist. Or an etymologist. Or both.

Unbelievable.  Of course, there’s always the chance I won’t come across an earwig under a mound of mulch or in the seed pods on the false indigo where they hang out every year. But if I do, I am honor bound to try and catch it.


The things you do for love.