Stand up, sit down, oh never mind

I’m coming to grips with the fact that whatever I do, it’s never quite right. Anything. Everything. No matter what any of us do, it’s never quite right.

I was pacing before I wrote that opening paragraph.


Because researchers say we sit too much. Even if you exercise 30 minutes a day, sitting for extended periods increases risk for developing cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

I wrote the previous paragraph sitting, but nonalcoholic fatty liver disease sounds so disgusting that I’m standing again. I don’t have a treadmill workstation or standing desk, so I am upright with my back and shoulders hunched so my fingers can reach the keyboard. I am probably doing damage to my spine.

Ergonomic experts suggest that for every half-hour of office work, people should sit for 20 minutes, move around for 8 and stretch for 2. To accommodate all that non-productive stretching and moving around time, the 40-hour work week could easily expand to 60.

Another suggestion is to go cycling 10 minutes of every hour. Still another suggestion is to avoid the conference table and schedule walking meetings. Why not just cycle while you meet?

There’s more, but you’ll want to sit down for this one. Other ergonomic experts warn that too much standing can also have negative effects: varicose veins, back and foot problems, and carotid artery disease. I guess to be healthy, you need to be a virtual Jack-in-the-Box.

Plus, it turns out we’re losing our grip on our handgrip strength. According to the Journal of Hand Therapy, millennial males have far less grip strength than their 1985 male counterparts. If they’d done studies on young males fresh out of the service after World War II, they would have encountered men like my father and all of my uncles who all enjoyed exchanging crushing handshakes. Too much or not enough?

Then there’s the battle over carbs. My personal physician, Dr. Web, MD, states that eating too few carbohydrates causes blood sugar to dip too low and eating too many carbs can elevate blood sugar.

Whether I am eating too many or too few, I am doing the wrong thing and not getting it right.

The coffee debate never stops brewing. One camp claims drinking several cups a day will make you smarter, help burn fat and lower your risk of Type II diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and is good for your liver. In the other corner of the ring people claim that coffee causes restlessness and insomnia, leaches minerals from your body and is addictive.

What we all need to do is sit down, stand up, grab a coffee, run in place, take a load off, stretch for two minutes, dump the coffee, cycle a while, have a seat on the sofa, eat some carbs, abandon pasta, practice opening vacuum-sealed jars and think these things through.

I’m reasonably certain you’ll come to the same conclusion I did—it’s impossible to get it right.

Calling all chocolate mice to the kitchen

As requested by a number of readers, here is the recipe for the chocolate cookie mice mentioned in last week’s column on traditions that come with a “tail.” Ahem. Am posting a few other goodies as well.

A word of warning, I left the mice on the counter a week ago and a certain 3-year-old kept buzzing in and out of the kitchen with an oh-so-happy look on her face. She’d been eating the tails.  Not big on chocolate shortbread, but loves licorice!

Lock ’em up! The cookie mice — not the kids!

Have a Happy Thanksgiving and may the spirit of thankfulness to God, the “Giver of every good and perfect gift from above,” permeate every day of your life, rain or shine.

Chocolate Cookie Mice

3/4  C  granulated sugar

1/2  C butter or margarine, softened

1/2  C  shortening

1  tsp vanilla extract

1  egg

2 1/4  C  all-purpose flour, or unbleached

1/4  C  unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2  tsp  baking powder

72    miniature chocolate chips

36    red or black licorice strips, cut into 2″ pieces

Preheat oven to 325

Beat the sugar, butter and shortening until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla extract and egg; blend well. Add the flour, cocoa and baking powder; mix well. Shape the dough into 1-inch balls.

To form a mouse, pinch one end of the ball to form the nose. For the ears, make 2 tiny balls of dough and flatten slightly; gently press into the dough on the upper front of each mouse body. For the eyes, press 2 miniature chocolate chips into the dough below the ears. Place the shaped cookies 2 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheets. Bake for 8 to 13 minutes, or until set. For the tails, immediately place a piece of licorice into the rounded end of each cookie. Remove from the cookie sheets.

Thankfulness as a way of seeing

Saying, “Thank you,” is one of the first social graces we teach children.

One of the criticisms of Alexa, a popular voice-controlled virtual assistant—an electronic tower you can set in the center of your home and order to play songs, solve math problems give you the time, the temperature and even tell knock-knock jokes—is that it conditions children to be demanding.

Alexa doesn’t require that children say thank you; she just does what she’s told. Ask and you shall receive, just like that.

But why single out the kids? Many of us find ourselves in short supply when it comes to being thankful.

We have a natural tilt toward the negative.

There are 150 psalms in the Old Testament. Roughly 33 of them are psalms of thanksgiving and 54 are psalms of lament.

The nays have it by nearly a 2:1 ratio.

Thankfulness doesn’t often come naturally. The whining and complaining, the grievances and the sulking—now, those come naturally.

But thankfulness? It’s a tender shoot that needs nurturing. It’s far more multi-dimensional than making a list on paper. Routinely practiced, thankfulness becomes a way of seeing.

Thankful people often share a common denominator. Threads of suffering have woven through their lives—hardship, health problems, unexpected setbacks, outright failures and tragedy. But in an ironic twist, thankful people see not so much what they lack, but what they have. They exercise a boldness that, despite difficulty, reaches deep and gives thanks for the blessings and bounty before them.

It would be like starting out on a voyage across the Atlantic, confident that God is the wind in your sails, then struggling for two long months at sea under wretched conditions. You finally arrive at your destination, which turns out to be a wilderness far more raw and untamed than any had imagined. You hurriedly build primitive shelters and face off against a brutal winter.

The food supply shrivels. Scurvy, small pox and influenza rage. The sick tend to the sick. There is death and more death. Parents lose children, children lose parents and parents lose one another.

By spring, half of the original sailing party has died. A native of the land wanders into the crude settlement and teaches people how to fish and forage for food.

In the fall, a bountiful harvest follows. The natives who befriended you, Samoset and Squanto, gather members of their community to join with you for a thanksgiving feast that lasts three days.

What about the dead? What about all that suffering and loss? The suffering and loss are not erased or forgotten, but a choice was made—not to dwell on that which they lacked, but to give thanks to God for that which they had.

Thanksgiving was a way of life for the Pilgrims. In circumstances that made sense and in circumstances beyond human understanding, they lived the words of the psalmist, “It is a good thing to give thanks to the Lord.”


Some family traditions come with a tail

The mice are back.

No, not that kind, the chocolate shortbread kind. You roll a small ball of dough, shape it like the body of a teeny tiny mouse, pinch out two teeny tiny ears on each side, place two teeny tiny miniature chocolate chips for eyes, bake them, remove them from the oven and carefully insert teeny tiny strings of licorice for tails.

And then you lose your teeny tiny mind.

I’ve made them for years. Then, a few years ago, someone said she never really cared for them. That was essentially a declaration of war in my book, but I got over it because we are related by blood.

I quit making the mice. Hey, the mice and I don’t need a rat trap to know when we’re not wanted.
This morning I had an email asking if I would be making the mice. It was from one of the kids (and yes, she’s my favorite right now) who enjoyed the mice and wants her little ones to enjoy them, too.

I hereby sanction the chocolate mice as official family tradition.

It has occurred to me that many family traditions are born of accident as much as they are of intentionality.

I can’t let go of the story about a woman whose husband asked why she always cut the end of the ham off before she baked it. She retorted, “Because that’s how my mother did it!”

One day she asked her mother why she always cut the end of the ham off and her mother said, “Because I never had a pan large enough for the whole ham.”

The one unnegotiable tradition of Thanksgiving is the turkey because it was what the pilgrims ate. Of course, they had fish, too. Fish and fowl. Some holidays, when I’m wrestling the big bird, I dream of whipping up to the corner Fish and Chicken and returning with a big bucket—fish and fowl, just like the Pilgrims. The gesture would not be warmly received, so I continue a second round with the big bird.

A friend had a tradition of making Sloppy Joes every Halloween using a recipe her mother had used. There’s no tie between Sloppy Joes and Halloween, but it was a tradition that became part of their family.

My mother-in-law had a holiday tradition of making sweet potatoes in her electric skillet. A stick of butter, mountains of brown sugar—it was decadent. And delicious. I would continue her tradition, but who has an electric skillet?

My mother, her mother and all my mother’s sisters always made Waldorf salad for holiday dinners. If I asked our brood if they’d like Waldorf salad, they would answer in unison, “Huh?”

I suppose that’s my fault. I let the tradition slip.

Family traditions are reminders of who we are, the tables we came from and ties to those who have gone before.

I’m suddenly hungry for Waldorf salad.

The Sock Slider should have been mine

I’ve come up with a fair number of inventions in my time, but most of the things I’ve wanted to invent have already been invented by someone else.

The antibacterial wipes you pull out of a canister one at a time to wipe down countertops and door handles? My idea. Clorox beat me to it. By about three years.

Frozen yogurt? That was mine, too. I was freezing yogurt in high school and pretending it was ice cream. But it froze like granite and was nearly impossible to chip off a bite to eat. Eventually scientists invented a process to keep frozen yogurt smooth and creamy. I like to think I was in on the ground floor.

Press’n Seal was mine, too. I remember standing in the kitchen one day thinking, “What if you crossed wax paper with plastic wrap?” Then I went to the store and there it was.

When Facebook dawned, our son registered his dog, Max, for an account. Max immediately got 20 furry friends. I toyed with launching Pawbook. I never got around to it. Just as well. I’d be tangled in lawsuits with Mark Zuckerberg and defending Marmaduke from accusations of fake news posts.

All of which brings me to the Sock Slider. Have you seen it? Oh my.

The Sock Slider is one of those As Seen on TV wonders. It is a small, blue plastic contraption that you stretch a sock over and then slide in your foot.

I’ve been beating myself up for days over the Sock Slider.  It so should have been mine.

“Why?” you ask.

Because anyone who has ever engaged in battle with a pair of tights or pantyhose should have envisioned the Sock Slider.

What woman can’t count the number of near-death experiences she’s had trying to put on pantyhose? There you are, stretching an elastic waistband made with incredible built-in resistance, holding it taut, while attempting to scrunch up the legs of tights or pantyhose, standing on one leg, poising the other leg for insertion when ZAP! You lose control of the waistband. It zings back on you and catapults you onto your backside.

If someone already patented a Sock Slider, you can be sure the Pantyhose Slider isn’t far behind.

I’m not happy with my invention record to date, but I’m not out of the game yet. I have more ideas in the works.

How about a purse that lights up on the inside when you open it? Genius, right? No more digging in the dark. You can see to the bottom of your handbag.

OK, one more. The outdoor mat that cleans the bottom of your shoes. It’s like a wet jet Swiffer or an upside down Bona mop. You step on the mat; your weight triggers a mist beneath your shoes. Then you wipe your shoes dry on the textured (machine washable) upper half of the mat and enter the house with clean shoes.

Call me, Shark Tank.

I know, I know. I’m keeping my day job.



Open-concept kitchen can cost a cook big-time

I find myself wanting to shout at the television these days. Not at the news shows—they do their own shouting—but at the home and garden shows.

These open concept kitchen floor plans are a huge mistake. You see the homeowner running about chattering how wonderful it will be to have friends and family in her new open kitchen while she prepares a meal. What you don’t see is the homeowner running about looking for bandages because she sliced her thumb along with the carrots because friends and family are gathered in the kitchen while she prepares a meal.

Surely, I’m not the only one who can’t talk and cook at the same time. I listen to someone tell a riveting story, lose focus and overdo the paprika. By a half a cup.

I try to be a polite listener, making occasional eye contact while I cook, and shave two knuckles in the cheese grater.

Thankfully, we only have a semi-open kitchen. There are two doors to the kitchen, one of which can be closed completely. The other is a large open doorway, but I can barricade it with a piano bench and two chairs if the need arises.

Since it’s only a matter of time before I injure myself with a carving knife or zester, I’ve dictated that anybody who isn’t actively involved in food prep must stay on the other side of the peninsula. Nobody gets in my Bermuda Triangle (the triangle of workspace between the ‘fridge, stove and sink).

To those of you considering knocking down a wall to open up a kitchen that has been separate from the rest of the house, think twice about the benefits of working in seclusion:

When you have a kitchen that is somewhat set off from the rest of the house, the rest of the house doesn’t smell like garlic. Or stir-fry.

When you have a kitchen set off from the rest of the house, you can still sweetly say to your spouse, “May I have a word with you in the kitchen?” When your kitchen is a major gathering space you have to say, “May I have a word with you in the garage?” Trust me, this raises eyebrows.

When you have privacy in the kitchen, you can lick the spatula, test taste all you want and let the dirty dishes tower in the sink.

When you have privacy in the kitchen, you don’t have to dive below a counter or into a cabinet so the kids don’t see you popping a cookie or a cracker into your mouth.

You can even pretend to knock your head against the counter to relieve frustration and no one will call a family meeting because no one will see you do it.

One final word for those of you still uncertain of the value of a semi-closed kitchen.

Your own stash of chocolate.

Cloudy with a chance of s’mores

There is an underlying assumption that you will have good weather whenever you plan a trip. The good weather assumption is right up there with other ridiculous underlying assumptions, like nobody will get sick, you won’t have car trouble and the kids will get along beautifully.

We planned a weekend trip with 12 family members to enjoy the loveliness of fall at a rented lake house based on the aforementioned assumptions with good weather chief among them.

A month out, the long-range forecast said 65 for the high and 52 for the low. Perfect sweater weather.

Three weeks out, the temperature forecast began warming to the mid-70s. Ditch the sweaters.

Fifteen days out, the forecast on my weather app replaced all the sun icons with clouds and raindrops. Find the rain parkas.

Two days out and there was a 90 percent chance of rain. Seven small children in a house in the woods with nothing but rain. Whose idea was this, anyway?

I ripped open my suitcase, began pulling out clothes and throwing in construction paper, scissors, pipe cleaners, glue sticks and washable markers.

The day before we took off, the forecast changed from a 90 percent chance of rain.

To 100 percent.

I ripped open my suitcase again. If the hair dryer and cosmetics went, I could wedge in a hot glue gun, ball of twine, wood slabs and a wood burner. We were going to have fun even if Grandma’s hair looked scary and she didn’t smell so great.

We arrived at our destination with threatening clouds but no rain.

“To the beach! Run, kids, run!” someone yelled.

Everyone sprinted. Kids jumped in small waves, threw sticks and rocks and got their shoes and pants soaking wet.

Then the rain came. “To the house! Run!” someone yelled.

So it went. “To the beach!” “To the house!” “To the beach!”

During the Saturday afternoon lull in the rain, we sprinted to the beach, lit a fire, roasted marshmallows, squished them between graham crackers with squares of chocolates and gulped down s’mores as the sky turned a threatening steel blue. The wind kicked up, the rain commenced and it was back to the house.

The storm raged, bending trees and whipping branches. The lights in the house began to flicker, the wind lashed and the waves from the lake roared. We all pasted our noses to the windows and agreed it was way better than watching the Weather Channel. We would have stayed with our noses to the windows, but it is hard to eat lasagna standing up.

We played board games, tinkered on musical instruments, sang off-key and slept that night to the sound of rain pelting the house and waves roaring along the shore.

Morning came softly with the moon high in the sky and a swatch of pink low on the horizon. Day broke and, as if on cue, two bald eagles soared overhead. We loaded the cars and pulled away leaving blue skies without a cloud in sight behind.

We don’t always get what we want, but sometimes that is entirely enjoyable, too.


We share toothpaste and kids, but not a suitcase

I used to routinely pack for the husband whenever we went out of town, but a few years back I stopped. I can’t remember the exact circumstances. I suspect it was a combination of time shortage on my part and a preference for waiting until the last minute to pack on his part.

In any case, since we initiated the “Everybody Count Out Your Own Socks Policy,” it has become increasingly apparent that we have very different approaches when it comes to packing.

When we first started packing separately, I wondered what sort of random, haphazard packing method he might use. When I witnessed him packing methodically, carefully and neatly, I wondered if perhaps I was indispensable. And then he tossed in hard cover books, newspapers and heavy dress shoes on top of his neatly folded clothes. So maybe I was still indispensable.

Mathematically, our split packing should have meant going from one suitcase to two. It did not. I take two bags for his every one. I long to be one of those people who “travel light,” packing only three articles of clothing and turning them into 15 different outfits, but it is not in the stars. Or the luggage.

I tend to pack for every conceivable weather condition (heat wave, torrential rain, drought, hail, hard freeze, blizzard), while he packs like an optimist who assumes the weather will be sunny and 72 regardless of the destination or season.

His modus operandi for packing is “Have khakis, will travel.”

Let it also be noted, the man doesn’t do “outfits.” He is of the mindset that everything he has goes with everything else he has. Why argue at this stage of the game?

I’d be concerned if I saw him laying out shirts and pants on the bed, seeing what goes together for hours at a time the way I have been known to do. He appears to put little thought into packing, but always looks put together.

The greatest difference in our packing revolves around shoes, which is currently running at a 4:1 ratio in my favor. What can I say? I have needy feet.

We also differ in that I will start packing days before we leave, while he often packs the morning of, based on the motto: “What’s the big deal?”

It turns out I come with a lot of baggage. Literally. Meanwhile, he has successfully become the minimalist that I always wanted to be. He’s gone from packing one medium suitcase to a carry-on bag, to a business overnight bag that wouldn’t even hold my hair appliances.

We recently returned from a weekend trip and I asked if he had unpacked, as I was going to start laundry.

“I brought in the clothes I took on hangers,” he said. “I just need to unpack a few things I stuffed in my camera bag.”

Is there anything more annoying than someone else’s success?



Lives of trees intertwine with family

It took seven strong men in four big trucks little more than three hours to take down 30 years of history.

Two 80-foot white pines bit the dust. Or the grass in the backyard in this case.

Bark beetles had taken their toll on our once-lovely towering pines. The beetles leave pinholes in the bark and mounds of sawdust at the base of the tree to let you know they’re hard at work. If you’re ever driving along and see a row of pines looking deep fried, extra crisp, or an entire mountainside with trees that look like they have been painted with rust, say hello to the bark beetles. They are dastardly little things.

Personal history and memories often intertwine with trees. There was a stately row of poplars in my first childhood home. I never picture the house without the trees.

Out on the farm, our grandparents always cut a Christmas tree from the fields. It was short and squat, had stiff needles that left scratch marks on your arms and smelled wonderful. That tree was a family tradition.

The pines in our backyard were only 5-feet tall when we moved in. They grew right alongside our kids and in the same manner—silently and quickly, but without the orthodontia and pizza.

Those pines once stretched a hammock between the two of them. They watched over swimming pools, campouts, rounds of hide and seek, snowfalls, one unauthorized bonfire and countless family gatherings.

A huge willow tree once stood in the backyard as well. The kids had a treehouse in it for a long time. Neighbor kids enjoyed it, too. The old willow rotted from the inside out and had to be taken down. The kids are in their 30s now and they’re still mad about the willow.

There’s a sadness to a fallen tree, a hollow thud that echoes death when it hits the ground.

My husband and I were working as newspaper photographers in the Pacific Northwest when Mt. St. Helens exploded. Forests were annihilated. Sprawling stands of evergreens stripped bare and splayed like bristles from a hairbrush on the charred and barren mountainside.

It was jaw-dropping, not unlike the aftermath of hurricanes and tornadoes. The loss of trees somehow compounds the even greater losses of lives and homes.

Trees tend to be symbols of strength and beauty. The death of a tree is a reminder of our own vulnerability.

The trees returned to Mt. St. Helens —and they returned faster than the experts predicted. To all who had witnessed the devastation, the regrowth was invigorating.  Those small seedlings cradled the beauty of new beginnings.

We’ve filled in the empty holes where the pines stood and dug a new hole that waits delivery of a Norway spruce.

One of the grands asked how tall the new tree is.

“Not much taller than I am,” I said.

“Can we decorate it for Christmas?” she asked, eyes twinkling.

New growth and new memories.

Getting a lock on your true friends

I heard a man say that your true friends are the ones you can call at 2 a.m. to bail you out of jail.

Why I’d be out at 2 a.m., arrested and in jail, paled next to the question of who my true friends are.

I immediately thought of a friend of 30 years. Definitely. She’s the one I’d call.  Plus, she lives in the neighborhood, so I’d be an easy drop-off. But the more I thought about it, I realized she’s not the sort you want to rouse out of a deep sleep. I’d need to wait until around 9:30 a.m. when she’s fully functioning. That would mean nearly eight hours in the slammer. I scratch her off the list. I guess we aren’t as close as I thought.

Another friend sprang to mind but she’s one who thinks the best of everyone, myself included. If I called at 2 a.m. to say I needed her to post bail she’d come unhinged and wouldn’t be in any condition to drive. Another one off the list. Maybe it’s time to run with a tougher crowd.

I realized a number of my friends are at that age where they’re tooling around the country visiting grandkids or taking grandkids on trips. Some friends. Never home when you need them.

A few others came to mind, but being in a police station could be unsettling for them. Then I thought, well I imagine it would be unsettling for me, too. I scratched them off the list and was miffed at their attitudes.

Striking out with friends, I moved on to family.

My first thought was the husband, but he has a way of tuning his cell phone completely out at night unless it’s dinging with a breaking news alert. Those he hears. He’d bail me out, but to get his attention I’d need coverage from a cable news network. More than 35 years of marriage and he’s a maybe.

I could call my brother if he lived closer. He’d come. Then again, he can be a tough love sort of guy when it comes to these situations. I could hear him telling me maybe I should sit there and think things over. I scratch through his name and make a note to give him a piece of my mind later.

I could call our youngest. We once picked her up at 1 a.m. when she was out with friends and her car was towed. She had parked in a drugstore parking lot—right in front of a sign that said “Customers Only, All Others Will Be Towed.” It would be like a payback. Nah, she’s married and has babies now. I couldn’t do that.

I have decided it is best not to go out at 2 a.m. or run afoul of the law. The hypothetical question may not have told me who my true friends are, but it was certainly a good deterrent to crime.