Putting a little polish on the new year

My mother was an excellent housekeeper. The woman never once wrote her name in the dust on a piece of furniture to decide if she needed to clean.

Nor did she ever stand on a chair to make herself the height of a tall son-in-law to see if she should wipe down the top of the refrigerator.

She had a few surgeries over the years, and before each one she’d have my father move the stove out from the wall so she could clean behind it. Who can relax under a general anesthetic if you know there might be dust balls lurking behind the stove?

The entire house was neat and organized. Even the kitchen junk drawer knew better than to slouch in disarray. There was a place for everything and everything was in its place.

We had a clothesline in the backyard of our first house. Mom would hang the sheets outside for maximum clean and freshness. If storm clouds gathered, she would fly to the backyard, race down the lines, rip pins off and throw the sheets in the bag, then race back to the house as the rain started, satisfied that a major catastrophe had been averted.

We were spoiled rotten with fresh bedding, fresh linens and cookies fresh from the oven. There is a compelling allure to fresh: the beginning of a school year, the start of a marriage, the birth of a child, moving to a new place, starting a new job.

Fresh is the draw of the new year—turning the calendar to a new beginning that is not yet muddled and cluttered, marked with rings from coffee cups and neglected To Do lists scrawled in the margins.

A new year will dawn fresh. It always does.

The question is—will I?

Maybe I need to do some housekeeping myself. A good sweeping would find some interesting tidbits in the dust pan – a lazy habit or two and new challenges that fell by the wayside.

How about that layer of dust building? The sort you can write your name in. The dust goes by the name resentment and it is time for it to go.

Maybe it’s time to clean out all those drawers crammed with junk — the ones holding old tapes that replay the things I regret doing and the things I wish I had done.

I could use some polish as well — a readiness to listen more than I talk. Glass cleaner is in order, too—something to remove the smudges for a clearer view of the things that matter and things that don’t.

Cleaning is rarely my first choice of activities, but I have my broom, dustpan and furniture polish in hand, ready to go. Here’s to fresh starts and a new year.

Search is on for the missing Jesus

Jesus is missing.

We’ve unpacked all the decorations, hung the bulbs and lights on the tree, arranged the Christmas carolers on a shelf, looped artificial evergreens around the banister and smacked a wreath on the front of the house.

No Jesus. Can’t find him anywhere.

We bought him at a downtown dime store on our lunch hour the first year we were married, along with Mary and Joseph. Mary and Joseph came undone long ago, but baby Jesus held on.

Plastic. About 2 inches by 3 inches. Bright blue eyes, pink lips and full head of blond curls. He looks nothing at all like a true newborn, let alone a Middle Eastern Jewish newborn, but still. We have history together.

Until now. No Jesus. No peace.

There’s only so much hunting, fretting and stewing you can do before it’s time to move on. Still, it nags me that he is nowhere to be seen.

I dash to the grocery store, throw it in park, grab my wallet, cell phone and list. A Salvation Army bell ringer greets people with a big smile on the way in. Not now. I’m stressed by my own carelessness and in a hurry.

I race down the aisles, grab things and get in line. It’s the cashier with the bad teeth. Sometimes they hurt so that she squeezes the side of her head against her neck. Counter pressure to the pain. She has four teeth that need pulling but hasn’t had the money. As we talk, she says a health clinic run by a church downtown pulled her bad teeth. She feels better now. The constant pain is gone. She looks good today. She’s a stern woman, but I almost thought I saw her smile.

On the way out the door, I nearly smack into a woman who stopped abruptly by the bell ringer. I maneuver around her and see she is rustling through her handbag. She pulls out a couple of greenbacks, carefully folds them and tucks them into the red bucket.

“Merry Christmas!” the bell ringer booms.

The sun is setting and traffic is stalling. The wait at the stop light by the row of fast food franchises is interminable.

The usual characters are out, the ones with cardboard signs. You can never tell who is destitute and who is scamming.

A man in a hooded parka dodges between cars, crossing two lanes of traffic, clutching a Chick-fil-A bag. He places it in the hands of a weathered man with an even more weathered sign. They exchange nods and smiles and the man in the parka dashes away.

The sky has turned soft pink, swirled with brush strokes of orange and ripples of turquoise. I hit the radio. Two shootings, a baby beaten by the mother’s boyfriend and more sex scandals. Why did I turn it on?

Headlights and taillights glow as evening falls. I turn into the subdivision behind a friend’s car. She’s probably returning from her parents. She’s been caring for them for 10 years.

Sentence fragments and random phrases float through my mind.

I carry groceries into a dark house and walk from room to room flipping on the lights. The bare spot on the piano where the baby Jesus should be looks at me accusingly.

The sentence fragments meld together. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.” Matthew 25:35-36.

I wonder if I’ll ever see that small representation of Jesus again.

Maybe I just did.

Naughty or nice? Grandma makes the call

When we gave my mother a grandma necklace years ago, we never dreamed a woman could get so much mileage out of a simple gold chain with five little figurines.

Mom loved wearing the necklace. She said it was a way to keep the grandkids close to her heart. The thing was, you never knew how many grandkids were close to her heart. Some days all five might be on the chain; other days there might be only three or four.

“I see one of the grandkids is missing, Mom. What happened?”

“Your brother’s youngest smarted off. I took him off the chain until he straightens out.”

If one of the grandkids got cheeky with her, she took them off the necklace. She didn’t really take them off, but she would fling their figurine around to the back of the chain. Swinging in style one minute, gone from glory the next.

She told whichever kids had been acting up that they could come back to the front of the necklace and join the others when they straightened out. She was a matriarch who knew how to hold a crowd.

Her antics with the grandma necklace were second only to the Great Pillow Caper. Mom and Dad, completely devoid of all rationality, once rented a huge van to take 11 of us a fair distance to a family reunion. It was a tight fit, elbows in one another’s rib cages, window space at a premium, crying babies and cranky kids. Squabbles mounted on the long drive home. A dispute ensued between a couple of the kids over a pillow.

Grandma demanded the pillow be passed up front to her and announced she would “dispose” of the matter once and for all. She lowered her window. Then raised it; then lowered it.

The kids were spellbound.

Kids nothing —we all were.

Someone yelled, “Do it, Grandma! Show ‘em what you’re made of!”

Of course, she wouldn’t really throw a pillow out of a vehicle window, which would be both illegal and hazardous, but it did keep the kids at rapt attention with the possibility that she might.

The fighting stopped immediately. Those children, now all adults, are exceptionally well-behaved on long car-trips but have an aversion to traveling with pillows.

Being that the grandma baton has been passed to the next generation, it only seemed fitting that I, too, have a means of holding a crowd. I, too, have a grandma necklace.

There are nine little figurines on the chain. The grands know that I love wearing it and love keeping them close to my heart. They also know that jumping out of closets in order to hear me scream, or commenting about the wrinkles around my eyes will get them removed from the necklace.

Periodically, chaos erupts when we are all together and an instigator will run over, check the necklace to make sure he or she is still in place, then take off yelling, “I’m still on the necklace!”

“For now you are! Don’t push it!”


Warped comments fly at warp speed

A friend who has a peculiar habit of thinking before she speaks refers to the seamy side of what transpires on social media as “popping off.”

“That’s all it is,” she says, with a twinkle in her eye. “Just people popping off.”

It is a struggle to remember life before people began popping off, before you could barb someone with a snarky comment, take a swipe at someone on another continent, or decimate a total stranger in 240 characters or less.

In an effort to limit my exposure to all the popping off, I make it a practice to avoid the comments sections that follow online news stories. Except for when I don’t. My self-control needs work.

I fall off the wagon every now and then and read a few comments. Then, there I sit, picking crumbs out of the computer keyboard, wondering if there is intelligent life left on the planet.

We all have opinions. People always have had opinions. Just like people have always had conflicting opinions. But there’s something different about disagreements today.

Perhaps it’s the pseudo anonymity that spurs us, or the adrenalin rush of speed, seeing thoughts fly from our fingertips into cyberspace. Whatever the impetus, we seem to be—and I don’t know how to put this gently—a bit more, well, rotten.

Nasty. Aggressive. Bellicose. Belligerent.

Being that I can be given to popping off, I once wrote some dictums on an index card that I keep in a desk drawer. I would do well to look at the card more often and I tell myself I must. But then that old problem with self-control pops up again.

The first one asks, “Is my opinion timely?”

Timely is not about being the first out of the gate. We’ve mastered that one.
Timely is about finding the apt moment. Maybe I don’t need to say what I wanted to say right now. Maybe the opportunity passed, or maybe what I have to say would be better heard at a different time and in a different setting.

The second one asks, “Is what I am about to say true?”

Is it true because it came from my friend’s former co-worker with an aunt in Montana whose daughter, now living in the D.C. area, does yoga with the niece of the person under discussion? Or is it true because I heard it with my own ears and saw it with my own eyes?

If I knowingly say something of a dubious nature, or patently false, I should probably ask myself, “Why do I like throwing gasoline on the fire?”

The third question asks, “Is what I am about to say kind?”

I know—what if it’s not kind, but it’s true? Truth cancels out kindness, right? Not so fast. With some finesse, grace and thoughtfully chosen words, it is possible to speak the truth with kindness. I’ve seen it done. Once. I think it was on a Tuesday.

Finally, “Is what I am about to say necessary?”

As much as I’d like to think what I have to say is necessary, it’s probably not.

I’ll end now.

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.