Happy Bake Cookies Day!

When Ken and I married four years ago this past October, we had a small wedding. And while we’d asked that guests “just bring yourself” – discouraging any gift-giving – my bff and her partner showed up with a ginormous, need-a-forklift package, which, when I unwrapped it the next day, began howling with laughter.

“You said that when you moved to the country, you were going to bake,” Mish said with a giggle when I called her. “So get to it.”

For the girl who hated measuring, hated wiping up flour (the fact there was so much flour to wipe up speaks to my culinary competence), and spent the majority of her life in congested North Jersey with an Italian bakery on every corner anyway, I was now the owner of a steel-gray industrial/professional standing mixer in my kitchen in Upper Bucks County, which compared to congested North Jersey is the country.

This behemoth couldn’t even fit in the pantry, and I didn’t want to disrespect Mish and Cat by relegating it to the basement, so with a one, two, three…HOIST, I shoved it into the corner of the counter. After a few days, I draped a pretty dishtowel over it. When in the world would I use this thing? I wondered. The answer came on a mid-December Saturday when my teenage stepdaughters decided today was the day to bake Holly’s Holiday Almond (but mostly Butter) Cookies.

Holly would have been my mother-in-law; she left us before I joined the family. But I knew her. Ken and I go way back, first as dating partners then friends, but spent almost a quarter of century leading separate lives; so, of course, during those intervening years, Holly had been absent as well. I know her now only through a boatload of stories and adages, and, pertinent to this particular Saturday morning, by way of a handwritten recipe – yellowed and anointed with greasy fingerprints – for her family-famous cookies, which the Odells traditionally bake together.

My standing mixer had a maiden voyage, which would turn out to be the first of many baking journeys, as I’ve taken on lots of personal cooking challenges since. But as the winter holidays approach, and in honor of Bake Cookies Day, which is…TODAY, I am honored to share Holly’s Holiday Almond Cookie recipe, and a picture from last year’s bake fest. Enjoy!

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a medium bowl, cream unsalted sugar (you can use a mixer on low speed for this). To the bowl add:
1 tsp. salt
4 tsp. almond extract
1 lb. confectioner’s sugar
Beat together and transfer all to bowl larger than beater bowl, then slowly add and hand turn:
10 cups pastry flour (8 cups if not pastry flour)
When well incorporated, roll into logs no longer than 1 foot; cover in plastic or wax paper and refrigerate for 2 hours. Cut into 5/8-inch slices. Decorate with glitter and pop ’em in.

cookies

Watch carefully. Average bake time per batch is about 8 minutes. Bottoms should be golden.

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Happy Hanukkah to All, and to All a Good Night

“You know, he was Jewish.”

This was a family-famous refrain spoken by my grandmother, my Jewish grandmother, over the many years I was fortunate enough to have a grandmother in my life. Now, my Jewish grandmother, Jeanette, practiced Conservative Judaism, after having been raised in a strict Orthodox home by her immigrant parents. To give you an idea of how not Orthodox Grandma Jeanette was: First and foremost, unlike any other Jewish grandmother I’ve ever known, she did not cook (she liked to eat out), but she did have three go-to meals she made for holidays: beef brisket, bean-and-barley soup, both prepared according to Jewish dietary kasher laws, and…shrimp scampi, which is as tref (unfit) as pork is. She loved bacon too, and she broke tradition when it came to foods she really liked.

Still, she was proud of her heritage and knew every Jewish person ever in the world, it seems. She had a book called “I Bet You Didn’t Know So-and-So Was Jewish” or something like that. So around the dinner table, eating shrimp scampi, she’d say things like, “You know, Alexander Graham Bell gets all the credit for inventing the telephone, but it was really his Jewish assistant.” I don’t know whether that’s true or not.

The reason I’m writing about my Grandma Jeanette and her proclivity for Jewish-people trivia now is because ‘tis the time of year when Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song” gets played ad nauseum. Bet you didn’t know there was more than one version, each one adding to his list of surprise! Jewish people. I imagine Adam grew up in a home like ours.

There’s something about self-identification with a group that brings us comfort, or contributes to our sense of mass worth or power. And especially now, during the holidays, when Hanukkah menorahs, Christmas trees, and Kwanzaa kinaras are aglow, there’s a way bigger part of me that celebrates diversity, and another itty-bitty-but-nonetheless-there part that can’t help but feel sad that these wonderful aspects of our history and heritage are what continue to keep us divided, and too often hateful.

So anyway, my husband, who is not Jewish, and I received an invitation the other day to a “Latkes Party” from a woman my husband knows. For those of you who don’t know, latkes are fried potato pancakes, which is a traditional Hanukkah food. “So she’s Jewish,” I said, channeling Grandma Jeanette’s “one of us” chirpiness. “No,” my husband replied. “So her husband’s Jewish,” I edited. “No,” my husband replied again, then added, “Maybe she’s interested in knowing more about this holiday, about people and traditions she doesn’t know well.”

Wow, I thought. What’s more…Yay! I remember reading what a little girl said in the wake of 9/11 – something like, “They wouldn’t hate us if they knew our names.” So this holiday season, get to know others’ “names” – even in small ways, like making latkes, attending a Christmas Eve midnight mass, and/or sharing a Kwanzaa tradition of sharing a libation from a single chalice. Not only will you be showing respect, you’ll be modeling peace.

My crazy cute Maltese, Jack, in his Hanukkah sweater on Christmas morning 2010.

My crazy cute Maltese Jack in his Hanukkah sweater on Christmas morning 2010.

Scream Therapy

I love my husband. I promised him, always, that before I voiced any complaints, I would start by saying, “I love you,” slowly and meaningfully. And then (usually with a smile), “Do you think you could get the socks into the hamper instead of near it?” Or “Remember, hot water cuts grease.” And here’s one for the approaching winter season: “Didn’t the chimney guy say to keep the woodstove on “start” for only a minute or so? Leaving it on too long will break the bricks.” BTW: We need to replace all the bricks on the floor of the stove this year.

So you can see that I have a thing about how the house is kept. That’s the backstory to one particular, recent night.

I had a presentation to which I arrived late because I got stuck in construction traffic that crawled its way to a light. Twenty-five minutes and I was finally first at the intersection. Turn, turn, c’mon… And then the evil flashing railroad signals started blinking and the petulant gates came down in front of me. It was, of course, a freight train, with car after car after car rolling by for almost 11 minutes. (Not ten; not 12. I watched the clock.) Add that to it being a cloudy day when Penelope, my GPS, decided to take some personal time on my return trip via an alternate route I’d punched in to avoid the construction and tracks. When I finally got home, two and a half hours later, I found my husband had settled into a movie night, leaving crusty plates and sticky pots all over the dining room and kitchen, while in the background ran the soundtrack of an unidentified film and two mewling cats that hadn’t been fed.

I am acutely aware of how my body wears frustration.

Human_jawbone_left

It starts in my jaw joints and back of neck, which, I guess, is why I often get tension headaches. Next, I bite and/or wet my lips, which is first followed by pinching my now- bitten or -wet lips between my left forefinger and thumb, and then by a deep exhale. And for the finale, I…tell people that I love them and what I want, which is probably healthy, but what I really want to do is give them, as my mother used to say, “a what-to and where-for,” a/k/a “a verbal thrashing.”

This is why I am drawn to what will happen on October 12, at 1200 hours GMT to celebrate International Moment of Frustration Scream Day. This is when everyone around the world is encouraged to go outdoors and scream for about 30 seconds.

The_Scream

Yep, get it all out. Let it loose. Now, I have pretty good lung capacity, so I could probably do a single; however, I’m certain a stream of screams is okay too. Having said that, 1200 GMT is 8am EDT. So careful of any noise ordinances that may exist in your town. Better yet, invite your neighbors to join. This day is, after all, for everyone.

Don’t Fall Down

On one of the last and hottest summer days in “The Great Gatsby,” Daisy asks, as the bored elite lazily sit around fanning themselves, “What shall we do with ourselves today, and the day after that?” To which Jordan, Daisy’s best friend, answers, “Don’t be morbid. Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”

Gatsby-Stills-Jordan-2

If you read my “Pretty in Pink” back in July, you may remember that I alluded to “The Great Gatsby” in that blog too. It is my favorite book. When I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel during my sophomore year in high school, not only did I highlight this line, I put a star next to it…and didn’t think about it again. Until about six years later, when the words came rushing back to me: I was closing up the pool where I’d been lifeguarding into September weekends when a sudden cool wind rustled the trees. A few orphaned leaves danced into the air, then hung for a moment before dropping into the water – which I had just finished skimming. Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall… I would be graduating college at the end of this academic year, and I thought, This is an unmistakable sign that change is coming – for me, for the trees, for us all. (Twenty-one year-olds are dramatic. And if you’re wondering why I remember this, it’s because the dramatic 21-year-old me kept a very dramatic diary during this time, which the older nostalgic me likes to read every so often.) I have returned to that line again and again during losses of love and loved ones, and when I started my own “chapter two” with a new marriage and new career.

Anyway, the reason I know I put a star next to that highlighted line is because during that second career as a high-school teacher of English, I stood with that tattered book in my hand at the head of a classroom and looked out into a sea of faces, asking if anyone had, after last night’s reading, highlighted that line, and if so, why? A few had, and almost all had put a question mark on the page instead of a star. I am tempted to go online and see how literati may have interpreted those words, but I don’t want to. I like mine: After the heat and stillness of summer (literal or metaphoric), it’s the nip in the air that gives us goose bumps, shakes our bones – reminding us that we are alive. In the face of life’s crispness, we must be resilient because, as the dropping leaves remind us, nothing stands still or unchanged for long.

But don’t be morbid.

Many of us love the autumn, but few of us love the “collateral damage” as Nature begins preparing for winter, or favorably view this season’s metaphor in the cycle of life. My mother used to listen to Frank Sinatra sing “It Was a Very Good Year” and I still remember… But now the days grow short/I’m in the autumn of the year/And now I think of my life as vintage wine from fine old kegs/From the brim to the dregs….

sinatra-frank-it-was-a-very-good-year-1961-signed-frank-sinatra_5749704e89a5eb52a1cb8f8c936127ab

Yikes! Turn off that station and tune in (below) to some pick-me-ups for the fall.

1. Life starts again, and so does school. Some continuing education classes run for a few weeks during the semester and seats may still be open at your closest county college or continuing education programs at local schools. Also consider Michaels’ crafts classes. (You may see me in the Wilton cake-decorating workshop.)

I need help.

I need help.

2. Decorate and reincarnate. Last year, while raking, we found a knotted branch that had broken off our maple. It was…dead. But after drying it out and spiraling a piece of antique fabric around it, it has experienced a rebirth as an ornamental valance in our living room. We’re on the lookout for more this fall so we can do the entire downstairs in “early bark.”
tree-branch-valance-copy1

3. Pluck up. Ecclesiastes reminds us there is purpose in everything. And a time for…pumpkin-picking! Visit a local pumpkin patch, and bring home a gourd or two…or seven.
LINUS AND SALLY WAIT IN THE PUMPKIN PATCH FOR THE GREAT PUMPKIN TO APPEAR

4. Trick or treat! That’s right, dress up. Better yet, dress up as a superhero. But do it on Halloween or people will stare.
superhero-kid

5. Be blue. I am not a climatologist, so I’m unaware if there’s any scientific background to what I’m about to say: The fall sky is not the same sky you see in spring or summer. Step outside and take it in, be in it. It’s also not the same blue you saw when you were 21. And that’s probably a good thing.
images

And if you do plan on falling down, here’s the only place to do it….
fall-back-into-leaves

Happy Autumn!

Life by the Book

books

The sky was a little gray when I set out on my very first by-myself walk to the center of town. There would be streets to cross, and I’d practiced long how to look both ways. My memory insists this was the summer before I turned 8, and in those days, in a small town, 8 was plenty old enough to make this maiden “voyage”. My destination was the new bookstore, and I wanted to read “Charlotte’s Web.” How grown up I felt, handing the clerk the $5 bill Mom had given me, and getting change. This was, obviously, a long time ago.

It was only a few minutes into my return trip that the darkening clouds lived up to their threat. Lightning fractured the sky and thunder rumbled. I slipped the book under my shirt and ran, jumping over rivulets and puddles, and rounding the last corner to see Mom on the top porch step, waiting.

But instead of going inside to dry off, I plopped into one of our wicker chairs, pulling my knees to my chest, and broke open the spine of my brand-new book against my bent legs. I remember the first scene, with Papa getting the ax because he needed to take care of the runt born the night before. I remember the sound of the rain pelting the porch roof, and the belief that little Wilbur would be protected.

When I’m not working as an educator here at A Woman’s Place (AWP), I publish nonfiction. But for pleasure, I read fiction only. Because pretty much always, fiction ends happily. And if you were to check out my profile on the online book club Goodreads, you will see I prefer books about women (probably because I am one), but specifically about women who, despite odds or obstacles, come to live a flourishing life.

Here, in the AWP Education and Training department, we are all avid readers, so I polled my coworkers, Christina Baer, Christine Ferrante, and Liesbeth Bisschops, about their favorite strong-women books. Together, we’ve compiled, in no particular order, this list of our favorite female-centric fiction (or nearly fiction) titles from the last decade: “The Paris Wife,” by Paula McLain; “Fortune’s Rock,” by Anita Shreve; “Ahab’s Wife – or, the Star Gazer,” by Sena Jeter Naslund; “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” by Khaled Hosseini; “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” by Lisa See; “The Secret Life of Bees,” by Sue Monk Kidd, “The Red Tent,” by Anita Diamant; “The Tea Rose,” by Jennifer Donnelly; “Room,” by Emma Donoghue; “The Hunger Games,” by Suzanne Collins; “The Time In Between,” by Maria Dueñas; and “The Help,” by Kathryn Stockett. (Did you catch the two “Wife” and “Secret” titles? Mmmmm.)

When I think about my own history of loving books, it begins on a rainy day on a porch in a safe and loving home. According to our Mission Statement, A Woman’s Place envisions a society where all individuals are safe in their relationships and can flourish. Safe physically and emotionally. Sadly, there are too many women, men, children who are not flourishing because they are not safe. We always make sure to acknowledge callers to our hotline as being strong, courageous in taking that first step in taking back their lives. And what keeps us doing what we’re doing is holding onto the belief they will come to be protected, hoping that in real life, their stories end happily.

I Got the Boom Boom Pow

I used to be a chair-dancer. Which means, when music played, my upper body moved, but my legs didn’t get the memo. So at parties and weddings, whenever the band got going, I stayed put while rolling my shoulders and snaking my arms to show I was in 50 percent possession of rhythm. I put this picture in because it’s nice.
flamenco-dancer-on-a-chair-150-p[ekm]253x288[ekm]

I didn’t look like that. Anyway, now I can dance. Sort of. Let’s go back….

For my entire physical fitness life, I have been a swimmer, an activity my father assured could be “taken into old age.” In my young age, I swam competitively in school. Okay, that last statement is almost entirely a lie. Being what my mother refers to as a “hothouse flower” and swimming being a winter sport (except at the World Games and the Olympics, which I would never attend without a spectator ticket), I was on the team for about a month. In the decades since, I’ve been wearing eau de chlorine, committed to a 1-mile swim four times a week, which over the years takes me longer and longer to accomplish.

Now, let’s move forward again: I work a lot. So does my husband. And on weekends, we empty-nesters go our separate ways when it comes to fitness: I head poolside, and he to the track or tennis. But one Friday night, barely recognizing each other over dinner, he suggested we take a Saturday class at the Y together. “I don’t…gym,” I said. “It will be fun and different,” he offered. We checked out the schedule and saw an 11:30 am Zumba class, led by Sara.

“I hope it’s chair Zumba,” I said to myself.

If you don’t know, Zumba is a blend of high-velocity international music, mostly Latin and African. And dancing to it is exercise. That’s an understatement. Now, both of us have pretty good lung capacity, but after 10 winded minutes trying to watch Sara’s feet, which Danika, the girl now Zumba-ing beside me, had suggested before class started, my husband tapped me on my back, and said, “I give up.” I, forever the competitor, pushed to the full hour, fearing I must have looked as clumsy as a foal taking its first unsteady steps on super-duper fast forward. “Don’t worry,” Danika soothed, as I sat on the floor, sucking the last droplet from my water bottle. “You’ll get to know Sara’s routine.”

Except Sara went on a two-week vacation. And Elphaba subbed for her. “Elphaba” is the Wicked Witch of the West’s given name. That probably wasn’t the substitute instructor’s name, but that’s who she was to me.
images

Anyway, Elphaba called me out twice over the next two classes.

Time #1:
Elphaba: [voice booming into one of those wireless pilot-looking microphones while pointing at me] “You are not moving your arms.”
Me: [loudly over music] Someone [glancing at Danika, who looked away] suggested I watch your feet instead.
Elphaba: [stopping and placing one hand on her hip] “Well, is your friend a dancer?” “I’m a dancer. You need to move your arms.”
(Little did she know that moving my arms was my special talent when it came to dancing.)

Time #2
Elphaba: [again into her mic over the rapping music] Don’t you have better sneakers, ones without such a thick sole?
Me: I have plantar fasciitis and arthritis in both knees. I need padding.
(Oy!)

Thankfully, Sara returned, and in the months that have passed, still dedicated to the pool, I’ve kept up with that Saturday morning class. I’ve gone from chugging the entire water bottle to stealing a few dainty sips between routines. But better, my upper and lower body had a détente. I now rumba, I merengue, I strut and pump, and sometimes, in my padded sneakers, I jump…a little. Eventually, I didn’t need to watch Sara anymore, so I began glancing covertly around the room. There were men and women of all ages, some young teens, and others as old as…well, pretty old. And many of them were doing their own thing. Some only swaying or gently bouncing, some doing the exact opposite of what Sara was doing – but all working at their own pace, all having fun, and all absorbed into the frenzied beat of the dance mix, which included songs like “Boom Boom Pow” and “Waku Waku.”
clases_de_zumba_fitnesss

Now get this: After I got done telling my 84-year-old mother of this observation, she confessed that at night, she cranks “that loud modern music channel” on her TV and dances around the kitchen while she’s cleaning up her dinner.
tn-38
Mom, obviously, has choreographed her own Zumba routine.

So now we’re up to today, or rather, a few days ago when at the wheel beside my colleague Cynthia, who is also of a certain age, a song came on the radio. “Everything that has a driving rhythm sounds like Zumba music,” I said, cranking up the volume. “I know!” she agreed. I looked at her. “You…Zumba?” “Yes,” she said. “I go with my friend Beth once a week.” Which leads me to conclude there are more of us out there than anyone knows. We are The Secret Society of Zumba-ists. Cynthia and I giggled, then started rolling our shoulders and, at the traffic light, the driver behind us saw four arms snaking up over the headrests.

I guess there are more chair-dancers out there as well.

I’m in Love with a Jersey Girl

“Oh my God… I’m back. I’m home. All the time it was… We finally really did it. [then screaming] YOU MANIACS! YOU BLEW IT UP! AH, D—…” Okay, the rest of this quote is filled with expletives, so I’m gonna skip it. Some of you pop-culturists knew in a nanosecond that these are the lines spoken by the character George Taylor in the final scene of 1968’s “Planet of the Apes” as the camera panned out to reveal the top of the Statue of Liberty jutting out of the sand.

statue-liberty-beach

Even at the tender age of 9, my jaw fell as I sat in a darkened movie theater with my dad on a Tuesday, Thursday, or Sunday (as those were his visitation days after my parents divorced). I had just been to the Statue with my Grandpa Izzy on a day-long whirlwind bus tour of NYC must-see’s and, home again, had nestled a 6-inch replica of her on my doll shelf.

Beginning in 1981, and for most of my adult life, I happily lived in her “shadow” in Hudson County, New Jersey. And although New York City has jurisdiction over Liberty Island, on which she sits, the Statue’s geographical home is New Jersey. So, technically, like me, she’s a Jersey Girl. I digress. On July 3, 1986, along the shore of the Paulus Hook section of Jersey City, with an awesome view of her perch, I shared a spot on a rock and a six-pack of beer with a good friend who two decades later would become my second husband.  That night, we celebrated her 100th birthday – and her reopening to the public after a massive renovation – under a canopy of fireworks and the blaring of Sousa likely heard clear to the Mississippi. Fifteen years after that, I sadly watched, on my television set, those who celebrated in her shadow the attacks on our freedom, which closed her, for security purposes, for the third time in her life.

Last week, closed yet again after having suffered damages from Hurricane Sandy, Our Lady of the Harbor started once again accepting visitors. I once thought of her, rather traditionally, as a symbol of freedom and of womanhood. Instead, though, as I now review her curriculum vitae, I think of her as a symbol of courage, standing tall inside broken chains at her feet, as if to say, “C’mon. Gimme whatchya got.”

Welcome back, Lady Liberty. Nothing keeps you closed for long: not age, enemies or superstorms. And even though that dramatic image made me tremble in a movie theater long ago, I’m a-thinkin’ not even “D— dirty apes.”

CLH1.CA.Of.0719.PLANET6.O.O