Slow Cooker Days

Today, the last day of January, there is a light dusting of snow on the ground. In light of the fact that tomorrow is Groundhog Day, and that a warm spell is predicted, today is a good day to use my slow cooker. I never use it in the warm weather. There is something about the stews, soups, chili and roasts that are so delectable in the winter. It is an unspoken rule: we don’t grill in the winter nor use the crock pot in the summer.

Since September, I have discovered that I really like cooking. Previously, my husband had prepared most of our dinners, often working magic with available ingredients off the top of his head. Now it is almost the other way around. I am making about 70% of our dinners, not including take-out night.

Unlike him, I almost always follow a recipe; however,  I am adventurous about trying new ones. I plan ahead and buy the ingredients so I am not scrambling at dinner time. Lately, I have become more creative at changing things up, making recipe substitutions using products we already have.

Some things don’t come out as well as they looked in the magazine, while others have made their way onto the list of repeats (ones that can be made every month). When I try a new meal, I always make sure I have something that can be used as a backup if my kids are feeling too picky.  Lately they have been much more complimentary of my meals. Maybe they look a little strange, like last night’s Cauliflower and Sweet Potato Curry; but no one had any left on their plate. There was no need to reheat the retaurant leftovers from the  night before.

Today, I am going to sear my boneless turkey breast, throw it in the crockpot with onions, peppers, sausage and diced tomatoes and let my slow-cooker work it’s tender magic all day. By the evening, our house should be full of the juicy aromas of garlic, oregano and turkey- calling everyone to dinner and some slow-cooked Jambalaya.

The sun is already shining, melting the coating of snow away. It is supposed to be in the 40’s later and up to 50 by Wednesday. I better do this now, before it is time to put the crock pot away for the season.


Mmm. I can’t wait `til it’s done!

Saving Family Heirlooms

Tranby House silver tea service, original set ...

Image via Wikipedia

This weekend my family visited my mother-in-law at her new apartment. She had moved in last summer and is still getting settled. Downsizing from a townhouse to a small apartment forced a lot of choices about what to hold on to and what to give away. Much of her furniture,  linens, clothing, tools and various other items had been sold or donated. She kept much more than could comfortably fit into the apartment, so a few months later there was another phase of paring down. We had already taken objects from several rounds of cleaning out: irreplaceable family photos,  a much-used marble chess board and a full set of Limoge china. The latter has been put into safe-keeping for my daughter when she is grown.

When we arrived at the apartment this weekend, we were happy to see how much progress Ma had made in rearranging her furniture and finding a new place for old things. She had her kitchen all set up and had prepared a delicious dinner for us when we arrived. The savory aromas of her turkey ball soup had my son clamoring for a taste. We helped her hang paintings on the walls , which really made her apartment feel like home.

The next day, Ma called me into a closet where she had stored things for which she had no place. By this point of her downsizing they had been whittled down to the most precious family heirlooms with which she couldn’t bear to part. As she pulled out the items, I could see what they meant to her. A silver tea service, an antique planter, a beautiful china cheese plate. I asked her to tell me what she knew about each collection. Some had come from her husband’s side of the family of which she had less information. Most had been passed down through the family for several generations.

How does one decide what to hold onto and what to let go? I could hear the angst in her voice as she pleaded with me to take things home. I wanted to help, so sometimes I created reasons to take things home.

"I don't keep cheese out on the counter, but this will compliment my china set."

I asked my husband whether he knew about a set of silver kiddush cups, which had been bought by his grandfather in Palestine during the 1930s.         He looked them over and agreed we should keep them. Having recently redecorated my living room, I now have a special place where I can display these treasures.

When she unwrapped my late brother-in-law’s silver cup, with the date of his bar mitzvah engraved inside, she became overwhelmed with sorrow. My children both loved him so much that having his special cup will be a silent tribute to him. We can place it on the table in his name at our seder. 

Unfortunately, she could not convince me to take the silver tea set from her parents’ house. Even though it is meaningful to her, at this time I have no place to display it nor would I tend to use it. Maybe someday one of my children would like it, but for now Ma will have to hang on to it. Perhaps as the kids get used to seeing it at her apartment, or experience being served tea with it, this forlorn family heirloom will get a second chance.

No Exercise TV? No problem

Two weeks ago, I lamented about the fact that Exercise TV was no longer on air and my workout routine had been left hanging.  Well, I am happy to report that I have figured out a solution, it just took a leap of faith. In myself, that is…

During that first week, I scoured my cable tv channels, trying to find a replacement program for my morning yoga. The ones I found were either too fast-paced and complicated, or I didn’t like the harsh, aggressive voices of the instructors. I do my yoga to stretch, relax and clear my mind- not to get pushed to achieve some momentous pose for an unnatural amount of time. So my next move was to check on Amazon for the exact routine I had been following, 10lb slimdown yoga, on dvd. They had it, but by the time I paid for shipping, I would have been out 20 bucks- and I didn’t want the whole dvd, just the yoga part. That is why I decided to take matters into my own hands.   

My cable tv has an ambient channel. I used it for the soothing, zen-like background music and an inspiring series of still shots in tropical paradise. Nothing like yoga on the beach, right?


On the first day I tried it, I relaxed my mind and let my body walk me through the moves. It knew what to do, I just had to trust it. Kneeling position, cat stretch, downward dog, vinyasa flow; it all came back. Instead of listening to an instructor, I listened to my breathing. I was able to better time my moves to my body rhythms.


If I felt like holding a pose longer or shorter, I was in control: no more moving under orders. After a week, I had solidified my confidence enough to draw on other moves I remembered, like spinal twist or screaming pigeon (I know that doesn’t sound relaxing, but it’s a great stretch). Now instead of ending in seated position, I always rise to do several sun salutations. It feels so good to move my whole body at the end.           

If you have lost a favorite routine due to Exercise TV being cancelled, I encourage you to try what I did. Find some favorite music that inspires or motivates you, either on tv or on your iPod. Let your body talk you through your routine. Whether it is yoga or cardio, trust yourself. If it is cardio, start by jogging in place. Eventually you will find yourself improvising and adding  leg lifts or jumps. I think we all have it in us, we just have to find it. We don’t need to rely on corporations to exercise. If you think you lack motivation, how about this…  I saved myself $20 and I created my own routine, which is far more enjoyable and I can be proud of myself. I am sure you can do it too.

Even if Exercise TV comes back, I don’t see myself returning. I am much happier doing it my way.

January Fog

Mother Nature is certainly playing some cruel tricks on Old Man Winter this year. Last weekend, we received a layer of delightfully fluffy snow. Not a lot, but enough to encourage snowmen and sledding in the neighborhood. The outdoor skating rink had finally opened and the cold spell had strengthened the ice enough for hockey.

Yesterday all that changed. The rain came through, followed by 40 degree weather. Today I awoke to a curtain of fog shrouding the road and camouflouging the trees. No wonder we are all in a haze. Even the Canada Geese can’t decide whether to stay or go. First they headed south, albeit a few weeks late, on their annual migration. Less than a month later, they returned for an early spring. When the cold snap hit again, I heard them all fly away toward the warmer climate. I won’t be surprised if they come back soon, depending if this warm spell lasts.

Usually I anticipate the January thaw. But that is only after at least a month of cold weather and several snow storms. This year it is like winter didn’t even happen.    Now all that is left of last weekend’s snowfall are a few piles from melted snowmen

and some puddles.

All this flip flopping drives me crazy! Do I need my snow boots or my mud boots? My hat and gloves, or just a scarf? My winter coat or my fleece? At least I have options, unlike the birds whose only alternative is to travel back and forth to keep warm.

  Can they even find their way through this fog?

Pain Management

My daughter awoke early this morning with excruciating neck pain. After checking for any other symptoms, we determined she had slept poorly and all the tossing and turning had strained her neck muscles. She was too sore to go to school and so is home resting today. This got me thinking about pain and how humans deal with it.

If I watch my dogs closely, I can tell when they are in pain. If one of them steps on something sharp, I hear a yelp. If the walk we took was too strenuous, I will see a limp. Unless the injury is provoked, my dogs will generally curl up on the couch and indicate they don’t wish to be disturbed. Other than keeping an eye on them for worsening symptoms, there is not much else I can do. Humans, on the other hand, deal with pain in much more complex ways.

First, there are many kinds of pain. Some are good, like when you have had a hard workout and your muscles are crying to stop. Then there is the bad kind, when you know you have overdone it and need to take a day off of your workout routine. There is long-term or chronic pain felt every day, such as sciatica; and there is sudden, acute pain which may require emergency care. Some people are better at tolerating pain than others. There are those who shriek in agony at a paper cut, and those who grit their teeth while cutting off their own trapped body part. Women experience childbirth with or without drugs, but the emotional rewards that come afterwards usually dull the memory of the pain, enabling them to justify wanting more children.

Soldiers return from war with emotional, as well as physical pain. Witnessing the horrors of war, famine or disease can release feelings similar to the experience itself. Emotional pain should never be discounted as unreal. The human brain works in ways that create physical symptoms during times of emotional stress. The hypothalamus releases hormones that trigger these reactions over which the rational mind has little control.

Regions of the cerebral cortex associated with...

Image via Wikipedia

Treating pain can be done through physical or mental therapy, but the most common course is with medication. I am all for taking Aleve or ibuprofen when I have a bad day. It is what enables me to carry on with all the demands I have to fulfill. I tried to give my daughter some, but she had so much trouble sitting up that she couldn’t swallow the pills. I resorted to heat pads and a massage. I don’t think either relieved her pain that much, but it made me feel like I was helping her relax. As a parent watching your child suffer, whether with a headache, broken bones or emotional stress, all you want to do is make it better.

My brother-in-law suffered the physical and emotional pain of a brain tumor for 10 years. He underwent several rounds of chemotherapy, two surgeries and radiation. All the while we tried to have a positive outlook. The emotional pain of seeing him struggle, especially towards the end, finally convinced his family that the only thing left to do was keep him pain-free. In the last week, he was taken to hospice where the compassionate staff did everything to keep him comfortable, without prolonging his disease. It was a hard decision, but one that relieved pain in may ways. His physical pain was gone, emotionally he seemed at peace. The pains of guilt and helplessness the family felt vanished as we resolved that this was the end.

Why does pain have to be so complicated? Wouldn’t it be better if humans could handle it as calmly as dogs? But then what would happen to our moral values- whether we believe in humanitarian rights for all or an eye for an eye- which often seem linked to how much pain and suffering is acceptable in society? Perhaps the experience of pain is a condition of being human. We each have to learn how to deal with it in our own way.

As I go back upstairs to see how my daughter is handling her pain,  I will leave you with two quotes to reflect on:

“Given the choice between the experience of pain and nothing, I would choose pain.”- William Faulkner

“We can not learn without pain.”- Aristotle

The State of the Arts

  Last weekend my family took a trip to a ski resort. On the second day it was brutally cold so we pursued indoor activities instead. Out of respect for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, I suggested we go to the Norman Rockwell museum, where we could see the famous Four Freedoms series of paintings, as well as other portraits from the civil rights era. My kids hate it when I try to incorporate educational opportunities into their daily lives, so my idea was quickly ruled out.

Instead we drove around for a while and eventually stopped at the Clark Art Institute, an impressive private art collection. The kids weren’t really interested, but saw it as an excuse to get out of the car.

The first room we went into had some beautiful Winslow Homer landscapes, including Undertow; but the kids just shrugged so we went into the next room. That one housed a portrait by Renoir, a small version of Monet’s Rouen Cathedral and Dancer by Degas.

    When I pointed them out, I was told they had never heard of these artists. How could this be? I was fairly puzzled. We have taken them to art museums in NYC, Boston and other places, including London and Rome. Why do they not recognize these names and appreciate the art work? If after all the exposure I have given to my children, they still have this dismal lack of interest or knowledge, then this is a sad sign of where things are headed.

My son recently gave me an elaborate (and possibly valid) explanation of why he prefers television over reading books. It has a lot to do with plot and character development. These take a long time to develop in a novel, whereas it is never an issue in a tv show. He doesn’t have the patience to slowly let things evolve.

Perhaps the same is true with the artwork. Appreciation comes from observation and interpretation- noticing details and figuring out what the artist is trying to express. The desire for instant access and results seems to be too hard to resist. Waiting for the climax of a novel or taking in all the aspects of the artwork require a lot of attention. I will continue to do my best to encourage both of my children to appreciate literature and fine arts; however, I fear that like in Homer’s painting, I am fighting against the undertow.

Ski Lessons

seen from diagonally behind the skier

Image via Wikipedia

Yesterday I wrote about the bonding experience my family had during our hotel stay. The reason we were there was to spend the weekend skiing. [In an earlier post I talked about our plans for some fun winter activities.  see entry for 11/11/11]. We had chosen two smaller resorts, which would be less popular for people from our area, decreasing the likelihood of encountering anyone we knew. Teenagers seem to have a sensitive radar detector which makes them believe that everyone notices everything they do. Skiing turned out to be a way to take some risks and handle embarrassments calmly.

My son and I started out first. We had seasonal rentals and were able to get on the slopes while my daughter and husband were fitted for their gear. Right away we had our first mishap. As we boarded the chair lift, his ski popped off. The attendant stopped the lift and retrieved his ski. Unfortunately, he had to carry the ski during the ride and was destined to fall when he got off. He took it in stride and we set out. We had only taken the first descent when his ski detached again. We spent 5 minutes trying to get it back on, clearing snow out of the binding or trying to find flatter ground to stop on. All the while, he kept insisting that it was broken. I finally conceded he was right and we took our skis off, trudging up the steep hill back to the lift.
No attendants were available to help us. I began to get frustrated. What if we had an actual emergency? Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to come to such a small mountain if there wasn’t a safety patrol around. You can see where my mind was going… Finally a fellow skier noticed us and offered his assistance. He fiddled with the ski binding and then pointed out that my son’s boots had too much snow stuck to the sole. He helped clear them off and got the boot secured into the binding. I thanked him for his help and he kindly pointed out that there were easier trails we could ski from the other chairlift.
We got down to the bottom without further incident, but my son was in a bad mood. He felt humiliated that he needed to be helped by a stranger, who then must have thought he didn’t know how to ski. He became very grumpy and wanted to leave. Just then I spotted my husband and daughter heading toward the lower lift. We caught up to them and got in line. The kids decided to ride up together. I assume they shared stories about their experience so far. My husband and I observed them chatting and smiling from our chair behind them. By the time we got to the top, my son was in a much better mood and was eager to help his sister ski. He encouraged her to follow him, making sure to ski slowly, taking wide turns back and forth demonstrating good form and control.

Having her brother as a model was good for my daughter. She had been very nervous about downhill skiing. Even though she has good balance and used to ski steep, curvy trails on cross country skis she lacked the confidence to do the same in this new sport. Everyone was willing to accommodate her by starting on the green (easy) trails. We stopped often, offering words of encouragement and some tips to improve her skills. Within a few runs, she had switched from snow plowing to slalom style and was able to stop hockey style. At that point we tried to convince her that she would be able to ski the blue (intermediate) trails. Brother was eager to move on to harder terrain, but said he preferred skiing together rather than going off with me again. (I think he was still embarrassed to run into someone who had witnessed us on the other hill). For me, the important part was being together and having fun- as long as it wasn’t the “bunny” hill. We were able to do a blue trail for our last run of the day, leaving everyone happy and looking forward to another opportunity to ski on Monday.

On Monday, we drove to a different resort which had a quadruple chair. We spent the entire time skiing together. There was a very long green trail, which wound its way down from the summit. After a few times, Sister was feeling confident enough to take some blue trails. We praised her on how much she had improved. She actually seemed to be having fun! At one point, as I was winding my way downhill, she came flying past me. She appeared to have good form, but was going much faster than I would have expected. Seconds later she fell when she hit a mogul. She got up and brushed herself off quickly. I pointed out that it was actually a good sign that she had fallen because it meant she was getting more comfortable with herself and more willing to take some risks. Before I knew it, she was off again following her brother down the trail.

As I watched them ski together, I got all happy inside. This is what an ideal family winter activity should be. I couldn’t wish for anything more wonderful!

Family Bonding Time

What do you get when you put 2 adults and 2 teenagers in a 300 sq. ft hotel room with 2 double beds and 1 tv for a weekend? The answer you might expect would be disaster. In our fortunate case, I would call it “family bonding time”. Being confined to a smaller space with fewer options for things to do compels everyone to be more considerate of each other and more tolerant of distractions. All of the following values enhanced our experience:

Consideration– The most noticeable adjustment was that everyone cleaned up after themselves. At home I would have found clothing littering their bedroom floors, but in the hotel every inch of floor space was precious. Surprisingly, everyone picked up after themselves and stored their clothes in the assigned drawers. I never had to ask them to clean up! I don’t think this was out of courtesy for others as much as not wanting to step on their things, but the result was very pleasing.

Coordination– Even though it was a weekend, my high school student had a ton of homework. The desk was located in a nook of the room which offered a tiny measure of privacy. We set her up at the desk with her books and lap top. I even unplugged the coffee pot since there were only enough outlets for the desk lamp and computer at the same time. Usually when she works, she likes peace and quiet, but she learned how to focus on her assignment while the football game was on in the background. My son had brought his iPad along and was able to watch videos with his headphones. I relocated the chair so I would not be too close to the desk and was able to enjoy my book without too much distraction from the tv.

Conservation -There were a refrigerator and microwave in the room. I had brought 2-liter bottles of our favorite drinks from home, as well as hot chocolate mix and popcorn. Instead of asking for money to spend at the vending machine, my son became very good at filling the ice bucket and grabbing chips from our snack supply. When it came to restaurant choices, I noticed how flexible everyone was willing to be. Usually we debate for half an hour on which to choose, but over the weekend  for some reason either the closest restaurants were perfect or everyone understood that cooperation was necessary. We never had a discussion about it. One place was suggested each time and that is where we went. I think there was also an unspoken consensus that we were picking one expensive dinner and one cheap one. The kids chose appropriately from the menus without any budget being mentioned.

Cooperation– Finally, in the evening after our return from dinner and a final stab at homework, we would get into our pjs and use one of the beds for a family game. Apples to Apples gave us a fun non-electronic activity which had us laughing. Taking turns leading, respecting each other’s judgment and gracefully accepting winning or losing are all important aspects of life and playing a game that reinforces these is valuable time spent together.

Apples to Apples

Image via Wikipedia

Snow Day…almost

Every kid lives for snow days. When the weather forecast calls for snow or ice, certain rituals need to be performed to bring on the snow. Wearing pajamas inside out, making snow angels under your sheets, putting a pair of mittens under your pillow. Even my teenagers follow some of these practices. Hey, you never know- they just might work.

Yesterday afternoon was sunny and in the 30’s. A beautiful time to be out walking,  admiring the green ferns and moss valiantly growing in the middle of January. My husband was so proud to still be harvesting brussels sprouts for dinner!  How a few hours changes everything…

In the middle of the night, the freezing rain hit followed by an inch or so of snow.  It wasn’t enough to close school, but I did get a text alert that school was delayed 2 hours. Not exactly a snow day, but when I went into my kids’ bedrooms with the news, I heard some mumbled cheers from them before they rolled over and went back to sleep.  My neighbor’s elementary school children, however,  didn’t waste any time getting outside in the snow.  I think if it hadn’t been raining, they would have played for an hour. Oh the excitement of snow- especially when it is enough to delay school!

Left hanging by Exercise TV

Before the holidays arrived, I had established a disciplined routine for myself. As soon as my kids left for school, I turned on my Exercise TV yoga workout. I would spend 25 minutes clearing my mind in downward dog or warrior II. Then I would take a steamy shower and by the time I came back downstairs I was ready to start my blog. After Thanksgiving, the chaos of the holidays season came crashing into my routine and threw it off balance. When January rolled in I hoped to return to the calmness of knowing what I was doing every day.

During the first week the kids were back in school, I searched my tv guide frantically. What had happened to my Exercise TV? I finally googled the topic and found out that the channel had shut down at the end of 2011. There were no suitable replacements available on cable (at least not for free). I don’t need to listen to discussions about diet and nutrition or hear stories about successful weight loss. I need someone to talk me through my workout. Whether I need encouragment to hold the pose just a little longer or to push my heart rate a little higher, having a trainer tell me what to do has a better rate of success than doing it on my own.

The other problem is that now I have to find another way to clear my head and free my thoughts. Those inverted poses really got the juices flowing. You’d think by now I could create my own routine, but at 8am I don’t have much willpower and a cup or two of coffee seems so much easier. Caffeine is not as effective as exercise though. Maybe I will have to resort to buying a dvd and popping it in every morning.

For now I’ll have to rely on my dogs to get me moving. Maybe a good jolt of cold air will be a refreshing start to my morning…

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