Thursday, April 25, 2013

When the Night Is Cloudy

Smokey, the comforter

The events of last week were harrowing for the people of Boston and West, Texas. Those of us following the news from the security of our homes or workplaces had nothing to complain about, but our stress levels jumped anyway.

When the news is ugly, work becomes solace. I hope you were able to put your head down and lose yourself in writing, laying tile, caring for patients, drawing up plans, whatever. What, though, do we do with the non-work hours we're tempted to pack with CNN? Even a news junkie like me needs a break.

The following gave me a breather and offered perspective--and hope: 

Pets – Dogs and cats across America are wondering what they did to deserve all the extra walks, cuddles, and treats they got last week. They kept us tethered to routine and, in the case of dogs, got us out of the house to watch the sun rise and see the night sky.

Children at play -- The family that moved in two doors to the right of me has two kids close in age to the little girl who lives on my left. Three children at play create a synergy that's irresistible to the brother and sister from the end of the block. Now, a fivesome gathers in the cul de sac in the early evening. Catch and kickball are still popular as are bike riding and teetering on skateboards. If I close my eyes once, I recall the sights and sounds of my own, now grown, kids at play. If I close them twice, I remember myself at that age. The continuum reminds us life goes on.

Romantic comedies and mysteries -- When the outside world is confusing and unpredictable, romantic comedies offer escape and the promise of a happy ending. I've got lots of go-to authors for tough times, but Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Kristen Higgins head the list. Mysteries, too, prove the ideal reads for stressful times because we know the truth will come out and wrong-doers will be punished. Looking for heart-warming, escapist, but thoughtful television? Try Call the Midwife, a series in its second season on PBS. It follows nurses who deliver babies in London's East End in the 1950's. The era is far enough removed that we can watch what unfolds with a little detachment. Plus babies! There are babies!

What helped you catch your breath and put things in perspective last week? Please share.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Look for the Helpers

Forget about "business as usual." Between Monday's tragedy at the Boston Marathon and last night's explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, I'm incapable of writing about travel, food, gardening, even books. 

Like you, I've been watching and reading news reports, staying up past my bedtime, and thinking about the unpredictability of life and our need to make sense out of the senseless.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, social-media expert Kristen Lamb wrote a blog post about how a bystander's bravery restored her faith in humanity even as disasters reduce our tolerance for social-media gaffes.

Lamb's post also included this image of and quote from Fred Rogers:

Last night, I watched helpers run to the rescue of those trapped in a nursing home in West. Helpers also fought fire and lined up to transport people out of town. Seeing them in action comforted me in a way Bible verses couldn't because those helpers were prayer in action.

When I think of the people whose lives have been changed by disaster, I resolve to wring more out of every day I've been given. That doesn't mean I'll add an around-the-world adventure to my bucket list, although I may go zip-lining sooner than planned. My chief resolution is to pay better attention to the people around me. 

My Older Daughter's birthday's coming up. A few days ago, I asked her what flavor of cake she wanted. 

She hesitated. "I don't really like cake." 

For three decades, OD has eaten cake on her birthday. She gets points for politeness, but how I wish I'd known she'd have preferred lemon bars.

I'm going to pay attention. And, if called upon to act, I hope I've got what it takes to be a helper. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

My Blue Texas

Bluebonnets in Houston's Terry Hershey Park

Come spring, Texans pile into cars and trucks and hunt down stands of bluebonnets in fields, parks, and alongside highways, where the Texas Department of Transportation sows seeds. In fact, TxDOT's website includes a regularly updated map that shows where wildflowers like bluebonnets can be found

It's a tradition for parents to photograph little ones sitting, running, or playing among bluebonnets. As soon as the perfect shot is taken, though, the parents must brush off the kids to whisk away fire ants and other pests. Spring in the Lone Star state may carry a sting.

Texas schoolchildren learn the "Please Don't Pick the Bluebonnets" message. If the flowers survive long enough to broadcast their seed, we'll get a glorious show of color next year. Of course, Mother Nature has to cooperate with rain and the right temperature. It helps, too, that municipalities and individuals join TxDOT in sowing seeds.

Here in southeast Texas, winters are mild, so bluebonnets don't signal the end of bitter cold. Why then do Texans so look forward to them? I can think of at least three reasons. One, the flowers are pretty, perky, and a striking shade of blue. Two, the legend of bluebonnets' start in Texas begins with the little Comanche girl who gave up her prized possession to end a drought. Not only is the little girl's story touching, but the specter of drought is as pertinent today as it was then. Finally, spring is outstanding in southeast Texas, and the bluebonnet reminds us to stop and savor the season. The blistering heat of summer is around the corner, so we have to wring every bit of enjoyment out of balmy temperatures, the sight of trees in bud, and, of course, those bluebonnets.

Here's a charming article about Texans' fascination with bluebonnets by the Houston Chronicle's Kyrie C'Connor. 

Texans aren't the only ones in stalking a favorite blossom. Here, Melinda Van Lone writes of her quest to see and photograph Washington D.C.'s cherry blossoms

What's the weather like in your part of the world? Does your area boast an iconic spring blossom? If so, what is it? 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

My Weekend with Maeve

Recently, I spent a long weekend in the west of Ireland and didn't have to cross the Atlantic via plane or ship. Irish writer Maeve Binchy transported me to a seaside village via A WEEK IN WINTER, the book she finished shortly before her death last July.

The premise of A WEEK IN WINTER is the time-honored one of strangers gathering for a specific purpose. Remember Chaucer's CANTERBURY TALES? In both works, most of these strangers are, at least initially, identified by their occupations. Chaucer introduced us to the Prioress, the Friar, and the Knight. Binchy gives us the Principal, the Doctors, and the Librarian.

The pilgrimages in A WEEK IN WINTER are mental or spiritual. The strangers hope to restore themselves with long walks along the cliffs, sea air, and good food. To that end, they gather at Stone House, a mansion-turned-inn operated by Chicky Starr, an Irishwoman who spent twenty years in New York City and harbors a secret.

Within a frame narrative, Binchy tells each person's story. In addition to the Principal, the Doctors, and the Librarian, Stone House attracts an American actor traveling incognito, a youngish woman and her difficult mother-in-law to-be, a Swedish musician grappling with his duty to take over the family's accounting business, and a couple who supplement their income by entering contests.

We also learn about Stone House's employees Rigger and Orla and the mansion's original owner, Miss Queenie Sheedy, who is thrilled to see her family home restored to glory.

Chicky Starr's story is compelling, as is her desire to create a refuge where others can relax and recharge.  

Readers can dip into the book one character's story at a time or devour the whole thing at once. I enjoyed the mention of characters from previous Binchy books, particularly Ania, the young Polish cleaning lady/factotum from HEART AND SOUL who is now, I learned, training to be a nurse. (Yes, Ania is fictional, but I am happy for her all the same.)

I enjoyed my stay at Stone House and am grateful for the hours I've spent in Ireland, England, Greece, and other locales with Binchy as my tour guide. I'll miss her.

The following dessert is a recipe from Ina Garten, better known as the Barefoot Contessa. My first attempt wouldn't have passed muster with Chicky Starr, but I'll improve. This treat is ideal for summer and is much easier to prepare than I thought it would be. That said, I did NOT, ahem, make my own mango sorbet. I bought Trader Joe's version. (And TJ's raspberry sorbet, too.) The Barefoot Contessa says the recipe serves eight, but it easily serves twelve.

Above is a shot of the ice cream bombe I made, with the photo of Ina Garten's (from her BAREFOOT IN PARIS cookbook) in the background. As you can see, I poured the berry sauce with too heavy a hand. (Mine, by the way, was made with blackberries.)

Who wouldn't enjoy a weekend in Ireland plus sorbet and ice cream for dessert?

Are you a Binchy fan? If so, do you have a favorite book or character? When it comes to dessert, do you have a favorite? What is it?