Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Things That Made Grams Happy Today!

... Lime green Chuck Taylors

... Teachers who read aloud

... Word puzzles

... Our Little Princess in her tutu

... Texas wildflowers

 ... Fresh brewed coffee from my Keurig

... Kids who love to read & school libraries

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Eat, Pray, Love

Grams has just finished reading Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. This book was the March selection for my book club, The Book Snobs.

Grams is an avid reader and is not too particular about books. I enjoy a wide variety of books and am enthusiastic about reading almost anything. There are a couple of exceptions. As a general rule I don't enjoy reading horror because it keeps me up at night. I read at night and since Grandad sometimes travels for his job, sometimes I'm sleeping alone. Stephen King books scare the heck out of me. I'm game for almost anything else except "Christian" fiction. I absolutely detest this genre of literature. It's contrived and preachy. And, while I'm willing to concede that many people actually strive to live their lives this way, it's not something I care to read about.

Even though several people I know have read Eat, Pray, Love and have recommended it with varying levels of enthusiasm, I was less than enthusiastic about reading it. But, in my mind, being a member of the Book Snobs means I have committed to reading each month's selection, I borrowed the book from my daughter and reluctantly began reading.

Surprisingly, I really enjoyed this book. I was able to relate to Elizabeth Gilbert's search for balance in her life. Elizabeth took a year off to recover her life after a nasty divorce. This year off is a luxury that most of us don't have.  She was able to take the year because she got an advance on the book. She spent four months each in Italy, India and Indonesia (Bali). 

During her sojourn in Italy she comes face to face with her own depression and loneliness. She goes into some detail about her use of mood-altering prescription drugs and how they helped her cope with this difficult time in her life and then her ultimate decision not to continue their use. I was impressed by the fact that she found her own internal voice of wisdom and learned to channel it and use it to overcome her own challenges. I also enjoyed her lust for Italian food and the Italian way of life. My favorite quote from the Eat portion of this book is "Ours is an entertainment seeking nation, but not necessarily a pleasure-seeking one."  This is a distinction that I had not consciously thought about before, but I really agree with the assessment.

In the Pray section of the book she travels to an ashram in India and focuses on meditation and prayer. Quite a few of the people who recommended this book reported that they struggled with this section of the book and many of them didn't finish the book from this point. I was fascinated by her efforts to learn to calm her mind. Elizabeth struggles to find her own mantra and eventually decides to impose a period of silence on herself. I related to this because sometimes I too struggle to turn off the thoughts that run through my mind. I personally have learned to meditate using the prayers from the Rosary as a way to calm my mind. My favorite quote from the Pray section of the book is when she realizes that she must be vigilant about her own thoughts and vows many times daily "I will not harbor unhealthy thoughts anymore." I find that very often we limit ourselves by what we think.  There are also some interesting insights on the world's religions and how God is bigger than our limited religious doctrines have taught us.

Then she travels to Bali in her search to understand and open herself to Love. I thoroughly enjoyed the information about the Balinese practice of "happy" meditation. Her Balinese healer teaches her to meditate by smiling. He tells her she must learn to smile "even from her liver." My favorite quote from this section is when the Liz and the healer are discussing how people argue about religion. He tells her "I have good idea, for if you meet some person from different religion and he want to make argument about God. My idea is, you listen to everything this man say about God. Never argue about God with him. Best thing to say is, 'I agree with you.' Then you go home, pray what you want. This is my idea for people to have peace about religion."

This book is entertaining, fun and has a great message. Liz discovers the power that is within her. Near the end of the book she says "We get seduced by our own mantras." That is so powerful. Negative thoughts become self-fulfilling prophesies. If we constantly think "I'm a failure ... I'm lonely" over and over again, those thoughts dominate our actions and become our truth. We become what we constantly think. Words have so much power that we must learn to control them ... both spoken words and the words we think. Just as negative words have negative power, positive words have positive power. The power to stop suffocating ourselves with negativity is within us.

I enthusiastically recommend Eat, Pray, Love.  

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Grams Made Shrimp in White Wine Sauce

About this time during Lent every year, Grams gets very tired of eating seafood. This leads me to look for some creative recipes. I made this one recently; it was quick, easy and tasty.

1 lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 Tablespoons butter
1/2 cup chopped green onions
1/2 cup fresh sliced mushrooms
1 cup white wine
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Pinch cayenne pepper
Fresh parsley

Melt butter in skillet. Saute onion and mushrooms over medium heat until soft. Add shrimp and cook, stirring occasionally, until shrimp turns pink, careful not to overcook. Dissolve cornstarch in wine and add to skillet along with salt, Worcestershire sauce and cayenne. Serve over thin noodles or rice. Garnish with parsley.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Wonderful Weekend

Grams is in San Antonio to take care of Our Little Princess this week. Her Mama has an extremely busy week at work and Daddy has gone on a spring break ski trip with his family. The Princess could have gone to day care, but Mama's busy schedule would have made it difficult to pick her up on time in the evenings. There is nothing Grams would rather do anyway. Grandad is in Houston until Thursday evening, so this turned out to be a great week for Grams to spend in San Antonio.

Springtime in South Texas is the most beautiful time of the year. When winter finally passes, everything bursts into bloom. That's already happened down on the Gulf Coast and it's just starting in San Antonio and into the Hill Country. We were treated to beautiful Texas wildflowers on the drive up Friday afternoon.

On Saturday we decided to take advantage of the picture-perfect weather and try to get a few obligatory "bluebonnet pictures" of Our Little Princess. Anyone who has ever been to Texas probably knows that all Texans must have at least one photo of their children taken in a field of bluebonnets. I'm pretty sure it's a State Law.

We packed all the baby accoutrement, including a variety of Spring dresses, into the car and headed North out of San Antonio towards Blanco. Wildflowers were few and far between. I remember reading a few years ago that the wildflower bloom moves 100 miles northward every two weeks. I'm thinking it'll be at least two to three weeks before the bloom makes it to the Hill Country. So, postponing our bluebonnet photography for a couple of weeks, we decided to head on up into the Hill Country for lunch and leisure.

At Becker Vineyards, just outside of Fredericksburg, the lavender fields are on the verge of bloom. In another couple of weeks they'll be breathtaking. But the peach trees and Texas redbud trees are in full, glorious bloom. We stopped for a brief respite and enjoyed a stroll around the lawn. But, we didn't stay too long, because they have wine and bread, but no lunch appropriate for a one-year-old Princess. It was lunch time and we were starving. We drove on to Fredericksburg and had lunch on Main Street. After lunch, Grams and the Princess enjoyed a stroll through the park while Mama and Grandad finished their lunch. We visited a fabulous toy store where the Princess gathered up as many dolls and stuffed animals as she could carry. We did manage to distract her long enough to get her out the door without actually purchasing any of them.

Sunday was another beautiful day, so we spent a few hours at the San Antonio Botanical Garden. It was so much fun. Again, most of the gardens are not yet in bloom. But the formal garden near the entrance was beautiful. We got to see a beautiful wedding under the garden's Wisteria Arbor and there were several brides having their bridal portraits taken throughout the garden. We took the Texas Native Trail which included a climb to the top of the Overlook for a gorgeous view of San Antonio.

We had a lot of fun with the ducks in the pond at the East Texas Pineywoods portion of the gardens. We also especially enjoyed Watersaver Lane. It's an exhibit that demonstrates how beautiful and varied xeriscape lawns can be. Grams and Grandad have been studying xeriscape in anticipation of some redo of our own lawn which was badly damaged by last year's drought.

We finished up the weekend with a delicious home-cooked meal, cooked by the Princess' Mama. Grandad flew out on Monday morning to work in Houston and Grams settled in for a week of playing with the Princess. It's such a treat when your grown-up children cook for you.

I hope you're all enjoying a leisurely pace this Spring. Here in Texas ... Life is Good!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Birds

Grams has a problem with birds. I don't like them. I love how they look and I have a few ceramic birds that belonged to my Mom. I think birds are beautiful, but I don't want to interact with them. To tell you the truth, they freak me out a little.

There are several things that cause me to feel this way about birds, not the least of which is the old Hitchcock movie "The Birds." Then a couple of years ago, when leaving my office one day, I noticed a baby bird on the ground. I didn't really pay it any attention and just walked on by it. So there I was, minding my own business, when all of a sudden, I was dive-bombed from behind. Apparently the mother bird thought I was too close to her baby and she flew at the back of my head. She hit me with her wings as she flew past, then turned around to come back for more. Needless to say, I hightailed it to my car.

Birds don't really seem to like me any better than I like them. I once walked in to my friend Linda's house and her parakeet started fluttering around my head. He didn't really attack me, but it wasn't something I wanted to repeat.

The only bird I've ever been on friendly terms with was my mother's pet cockatiel, Jo-Jo. She had him for several years when I was in junior high school. Jo-Jo was allowed to fly around the house, walk around on the floor, and often sat on Mom's shoulder while she was washing dishes. He would walk around on the table while my parents played cards or dominoes with friends. Jo-Jo could talk. He said, "Jo-Jo's a pretty bird" and a few other innocuous things. He was very attached to Mom. Then, my Mom was seriously injured in a traffic accident and was hospitalized for more than 3 months. During the 3 months Mom was gone, my brothers taught Jo-Jo to swear. On one of the first days she was home Jo-Jo said "G*d dammit" in earshot of my mother and that was it. When we came home from school the next day, there was no evidence that Jo-Jo had ever been there. She gave that bird away, cage and all.

Now, we have a recurring problem at our house. A few years ago, when we had vinyl siding put on our 3-side brick home, we also added an aluminum patio cover. The original cover was lattice and didn't do much to shield the patio, which is on the west side of the house, from the blazing hot South Texas sun. The patio cover is attached to the house with a rain gutter which runs along the edge of the roof. We rarely use our patio and back yard, because most of the year it's hotter than the face of the sun. Occasionally we fire up the barbecue pit on the patio and, when the grand-dogs visit, we go back there to play with them. Otherwise, it's just empty and hot.

For the past several years, birds have nested in these gutters and hatched their eggs. Now, I don't really care if the birds live in my rain gutters. It hardly ever rains here anyway. Since Grandad can't climb ladders any more, it's difficult to get them clean. In order to clean out the gutters thoroughly, someone would have to climb up on the roof. We have had limited success cleaning them out with the leaf blower. But I don't have the heart to clean them out once the birds have laid their eggs. Our best bet would be preventing them from nesting there in the first place.

The problem is that these rain gutters run right down the side of our bedroom. You may have already deduced that Grams is not a morning person. I don't really want to interact with anyone or anything at sun-up. However, these baby birds wake up with the sun and they start to chirp ... loudly. It makes me crazy; the sound is repetitive and continuous. There is nothing melodic about the noise they make. There's no chance that Grams will be able to go back to sleep.

We've looked at various and sundry products that are designed to keep birds out of gutters. Nothing we've tried works. We have screen covers that go over the top of the gutters, but the birds still get in under the edge of the patio cover. For now, I'm just gritting my teeth and trying not to hear them. If anyone knows of a solution, we'd love to hear about it.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Grams Made Chicken Saltimbocca

A couple of years ago when our son married, Grams and Grandad got off very easy. All we really had to do was host the rehearsal dinner. We chose Buca di Beppo, a fabulous Italian restaurant in Houston. The atmosphere is casual and the food is incredible! It's the perfect place for a rehearsal dinner.

The highlight of the meal for me was Chicken Saltimbocca. Since then I've tried this dish in several other restaurants. None of them has measured up to the Buca di Beppo version. I found a couple of "copycat" versions on the internet. I combined several of them and made a few alterations. It's much easier than I expected and came out remarkably similar to Buca's dish.

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
4 thin slices of Prosciutto ham
1 tablespoon ground sage
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 all-purpose flour
1 small can artichoke hearts, quartered
a handful of capers
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon butter
salt & pepper to taste

Rub chicken breasts with sage. Place sliced Prosciutto on top of the chicken and pound it into the breast until the thickness of the chicken measures 3/8 inch.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a skillet. Dredge the chicken/Prosciutto in flour to coat lightly. Place in heated oil, Prosciutto site down. Brown one side, turn and brown the other side (about 3 minutes per side). Remove chicken from pan to a large platter. Drain off excess oil and deglaze skillet with white wine. Add artichokes, lemon juice, cream and butter. Cook until sauce is thickened. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Pour sauce over chicken breasts and top with capers.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Grams Made Chicken and Pepperoni

This recipe comes close to satisfying my occasional craving for pizza. It has the flavors of pizza without the carbs. Even better, it's made in the crock pot.

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
3 ounces sliced turkey pepperoni
1/2 cup sliced, pitted ripe olives
1 cup reduced sodium chicken broth
1 small can tomato paste
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1/2 cup shredded Mozzarella

Season chicken with salt and pepper to taste and place in crock pot. Add pepperoni and olives. In a small bowl whisk together chicken broth, tomato paste and Italian seasoning. Add to crock pot.

Cover and cook on low 6-7 hours or on high 3-4 hours. Top with shredded Mozzarella. May be served over pasta or rice.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Because I Can!

Yesterday Grams walked across the Corpus Christi Harbor Bridge. That's one more item checked off my unofficial bucket list. Once again, my daughter Katy and my son-in-law Travis joined me on my adventure. We were also joined by my neighbors and very good friends, Mary Lou, Brenda, Kandyce and Kelley along with about a dozen other people.

It was a group walk organized by Alan Albin who put together a Facebook group called "We Walked the Corpus Christi Harbor Bridge and Survived." They gather once a month for a walk across the bridge and anyone is invited to join in the walk.

The walk is not for the squeamish. It's not far, 2.5 miles round trip, and the grade is not as steep as I thought it would be. The walk is on a single-file sidewalk that is separated from three lanes of traffic by a concrete barrier that's about 30 inches tall. Traffic speeds by at better than the posted speed of 55 miles per hour. You can feel the rush of wind when 18 wheelers flash past. And, many of the drivers who pass feel the need to honk their horns. I was startled when the first few honked, after that I just ignored it. On the outside, walkers are separated from a 138 feet drop into the ship channel by the bridge's railing, a pipe-like construction which looks like a large handrail and a few smaller pipes each set about 12 inches apart. The wind comes through the railings and when it hits the concrete wall a huge updraft is created. As you approach the top of the bridge, the wind picks up significantly.

If you know anything about Corpus Christi, you know that it's windy. When I looked it up I was surprised to learn that we are not among the top 10 windiest cities in the United States. Yesterday's sustained wind speed was 22 miles per hour, the highest gusts were recorded at 29 mph. To say it was windy is an understatement. Walking in that wind was quite a beating. I'm paying for it today with allergic reactions in my eyes.

The question that people keep asking is "Why did you want to walk across the bridge?" I'm sure every one of the 15 or so people who walked with us yesterday have their own reasons. For me there are several answers to that question. I've been fascinated (obsessed) with the Harbor Bridge since I was a kid and my parents would drive over the bridge and back just to see the view. The sight of the lights of the city spread before us was captivating. I've always thought it would be great to be able to stop and look around. There's not enough time to see everything when you speed by at 55+ miles an hour. As I made the walk yesterday I thought about my Dad and how much he loved that view.

Another reason is that Grandad and Grams have committed to getting out of the house and into our community. Since our kids left home we've become too reclusive. We don't get out and do the things we used to do. And even though Grandad couldn't join this walk, it was a chance to get out and experience something uniquely "Corpus Christian."

But the real reason I made the walk across the Corpus Christi Harbor Bridge is because I can! I walked it to challenge myself to keep on living this new active life that is a gift. I walked it to make up for all the years I sat and watched other people do active things. Just like climbing Enchanted Rock was a milestone for me, walking the Harbor Bridge was a celebration of my new healthy life. So, yes, Grams walked the Corpus Christi Harbor Bridge and survived. But Grams isn't just surviving, Grams is thriving!

What's next? I've already told my son that he has to join in the next adventure. We're on the lookout for othe next challenge. Watch this space for future developments.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

I'm Afraid of an Avalanche

When Grams was in elementary school, my mother launched a career as a "Tupperware Lady." In the 1960s it was an acceptable job for a mom with a houseful of kids at home. As a result, Grams was indoctrinated early regarding the importance of "locking in freshness." The most vivid memory I have of her days as a "Tupperware Lady" is delivery day. On delivery day, huge boxes full of Tupperware would arrive on our doorstep. We would haul it into the living room and help sort it first by party, then by customer to make sure all the right Tupperware got to the right hostess. It seemed so organized, although even then I was vaguely aware that this stuff occupied a lot of space.

This leads me to my own kitchen. I'm willing to bet that most of you have a kitchen cabinet that holds various and sundry plastic containers, including but not limited to Tupperware, Gladware, Ziploc, generic freezer containers, and mixing bowls along with lids for all these containers. They run the gamut from round to square and rectangular. Some are shallow and some are deep. Grams is no different.

When Grams and Grandad married, we got lots of real Tupperware for wedding gifts. It's definitely the gold-standard for plastic containers. And it's price reflects that. It's so expensive that if you take it anywhere you have to make sure you put your name on it or don't let it out of your sight. Otherwise it just disappears or you get home without the lid, rendering it useless.

From the get-go I have found plastic containers to be unwieldy and hard to store. It never makes my cabinet look neat and organized like the photos in their ads. It's just a big mess that falls all over the place. Over the last 35 years Grams has tried every conceivable idea for organizing said plastic containers. At various times it's been stacked and sorted by size, shape, color, brand, and a plethora of arrangements. I've bought hangers, racks, and other storage solutions, I've used shoe boxes, and sometimes I've just tossed them all haphazardly into the cabinet.

I even bought one of those "systems" that are advertised on infomercials ... you know the ones that come on a carousel and all the lids fit all the containers. They stack so neatly and only take up about a square foot of space. Honestly, I thought this one was really going to solve all my storage problems. Needless to say, that was not the case. The first set I bought disappeared quickly. (I later found most of them in my son's home in Houston and few in my daughter's home in San Antonio.) So I bought another set that turned out to be of lesser quality. If you drop one, it shatters and whatever is inside splatters all over the kitchen. There aren't many pieces of that one left either.

When we were younger, real Tupperware was a necessity in South Texas. There just weren't any other products that would keep food fresh in our climate. Sometimes the humidity is so high that potato chips become bendable if you don't find a way to seal them. In recent years, the less expensive Gladware and Ziploc containers are good enough quality and are just so much cheaper. When they became available, Grams thought she would never have to worry again about losing them or leaving them somewhere.

But this stuff has an entirely different problem. Unlike the pricey real Tupperware, I can't get rid of the cheap stuff. I thought switching to this cheap stuff would at least create a "turnover" effect. I could leave it someplace and never have to worry about it again, or I could just toss it in the trash, thereby relieving some of the congestion in my cabinet. Hey, it's supposed to be "disposable." That has not been the case. This cheap stuff just won't stay gone. First of all, I can't bring myself to throw it away. I guess it's years of training by my Mom. And, seriously, I could make people sign a legal release before allowing a $30 piece of Tupperware outside of my house and still never see it again. But, neighbors and family members who never in their life returned an expensive piece of Tupperware, stockpile this cheap stuff and bring it home in stacks.

So if you are the recipient of a gift of food from Grams' kitchen that's packaged in a disposable plastic container, please, consider the container part of the gift. Just keep it. If you can't bring yourself to keep it, put something delicious in it and pass it on to someone else. I don't want it back. I'm afraid someday I will open my kitchen door and be buried by an avalanche of plastic food storage containers.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Light Remains

My father-in-law, Adolph Valenta, would have been 82 years old today. He died in May of 2006 of complications from lung cancer. He was an extraordinary man and I loved him.
"There are some who bring a light so great to the world that, even after they have gone, the light remains." - author unknown
We had our differences. When Grandad and I announced our engagement, he forbade the marriage because Grams was not Catholic and had no plans to become Catholic. That gave our relationship a rough start. To Grandad's eternal credit, he stood up to his father. He explained that we were not asking for permission, we were simply informing him of our decision. I cannot begin to explain how hard that was on Grandad or how much it endeared him to me.

My relationship with my soon-to-be in-laws was "healed" when Grandad had a near-fatal traffic accident just six weeks before our wedding. It's a sad fact that spending time by a loved one's side in the emergency room and on the trauma floor of a hospital will help you overcome past slights and hurts. That's what happened to us. Even so, it took me years to come to love him.

He was quiet but strong. He never preached his religion; he lived it. He had integrity. If he said he was going to do something, you could take it to the bank.

I had a hard time calling him "Dad." Eventually, I arrived at calling him "Papa Adolph." It fit perfectly and it stuck. I could go on and on about him, but instead I want to share what my daughter Katy wrote about him.

"A brother, a husband, a father, and Grandpa to me, a true patriarch who provided for his family the love, integrity, and the spirit that is so important in maintaining a close-knit family. This is how he will live on in me. As I embark on starting my own family and home I will keep his sense of family firmly embedded in my heart. It will give me the strength to do the right thing for my loved ones even when I am frustrated and to give my love selflessly.

He lived a full life, he knew his grandchildren well, saw them grow up and start families of their own. And as I reflect on the impact that he had on my life, I know that others loved him too. And that is such a wonderful thing to know…that your grandfather was truly a good man and, he touched the heart of everyone who knew him. So we should celebrate his life. We should take the things that we love most about him and try to be a reflection of those things for the others in our lives.

Every time that I went home to see Grandpa and Grandma we’d always play card games after dinner. On his last birthday we made a point to get home to see him. He was unable to play with us. We would have been content to just sit and visit with him but he insisted that we play cards anyway. And looking back at that night, I know it was because he just wanted to hear us laughing and talking with each other; that he found comfort in happiness at his dining room table. And I know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that he would not want us to be overcome with grief. More than anything he would want to hear us cheerfully visiting with each other and the laughter of the children playing."
Generally speaking, the family was better because of him. We knew if we screwed up we would have to answer to Papa Adolph. We acted differently because we didn't want to bring shame or disappointment on his name. We needed that and I miss it.

There are so many things I miss about him. He could fix anything and he rarely threw anything away. The entire family depended on him for repairing everything from washing machines to bicycles. Since his passing, we've all learned the high cost of repairmen.

He loved to dance, especially to Czech music, and I miss dancing with him. He enjoyed everything he did including golfing, fishing, hunting, and horseshoes. I miss playing cards and dominoes with him. He was one of those players who could tell you what everyone at the table was holding in their hands. He was usually my partner and, thanks to him, we often won.

I can still hear him telling my children to "listen to your mama." With just those few words he could turn them from argumentative toddlers into obedient children. It was remarkable.

And, he was a baker extraordinaire. I had never even heard of kolaches when I married into this Czech family. He made the best kolaches and homemade bread I've ever tasted. I really miss it.

He understood the value of education and had more common sense than most people. You could go to him for advice and he would help you work through whatever you were dealing with.

Happy Birthday, Papa Adolph. We miss you but we know you're still watching over us and taking care of your family. Your light still shines ... and we're doing our best to make you proud.