Monday, January 30, 2012

Surrounded by Books

I have a very busy day today. I'm hosting The Book Snobs for dinner and discussion tonight. That means I'm cooking dinner for twelve, so I don't have time to write a proper post. Therefore, I'm taking the easy way out.

Last week Katy and Travis were unwilling participants in the large amount of rainfall that fell on parts of Texas. In spite of their new retaining wall, there was just too much rain in too short of a time period for the drains to work properly. They had water in their living room, not for the first time. This led to a decision to remove the carpet.

You may remember that Travis is an English teacher and has an impressive library which normally resides in that room. So, in order to remove the carpet, they had to move the library. While usually beautifully displayed in a very organized and lighted set of bookshelves, it has now taken up temporary residence in Her Highness' room.

I feel bad for them. They have already done a lot of work to clean up the mess and move the books. Now they're planning to stain the concrete floor and then they'll have to replace all the books and shelves. It's a big job. Ultimately they hope to put in wood floors, but first they've got to figure out how to stop the flooding in the future.

The bright side of this story is this beautiful photo of Our Little Princess that is a result of the temporary relocation of the books. Katy took this photo with her cell phone. I think it's gorgeous. I hope she'll always love being surrounded by books.

Have a great week!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

She Thinks I Can Do Anything

Grams reads a lot of blogs ... probably way too many. I have more than 100 blogs in my reader. There are about 15 of them that I always read and I have come to consider many of the bloggers friends, even though I've never met them in real life. The rest of them I scan and read if I'm interested.

One that I read every day is Cake Wrecks. It doesn't require a lot of reading, it's mostly pictures. It caught my interest because it features cakes by professional decorators that have gone horribly wrong.  They include misspelled words, misunderstood instructions, baby shower cakes that require cutting into a baby (think Steel Magnolias and the red-velvet armadillo groom's cake), and strips of bacon that look like poop. (Just to mention a few.)

Photo credit
Six days a week their posts feature a hilarious assortment of god-awful cakes which make me laugh. But on Sundays the feature is called "Sunday Sweets." Every Sunday they have the most beautiful collection of cakes. They are amazing, cute, beautiful, fancy, plain, and some of them are actually feats of engineering. I adore them. It's what keeps me coming back for more.

At this point I should mention that I am a Wilton certified cake decorator. I've never worked professionally, but I have taken the classes. When my kids were little I often baked and sold decorated cakes for friends and friends of friends. I took the classes when I was on maternity leave with our first baby, realizing that I would spend the next 20 or so years making birthday cakes. I've never regretted taking the classes. Being able to decorate cakes and cookies has saved me a lot of money over the past 30 years. I'm a pretty good decorator, but not anywhere near the level of the decorators featured on Sunday Sweets.

Last time we were in San Antonio, I was perusing my Google reader on Sunday morning, when Our Little Princess noticed the cakes I was looking at. She climbed up on my lap and we spent quite a while looking at beautiful cakes. She was quite entertained and it held her attention for a long time considering that she's not yet three years old. I thought it was a fun way to spend some time with her and didn't really think very much more about it.

Our Little Princess will be celebrating her third birthday in February. She and her mom have been working on plans for her birthday party. She absolutely adores the movie Tangled and all things related to Rapunzel. They have decided to use Tangled as the theme for her birthday party. As part of the discussion Katy asked her if she wanted a Tangled birthday cake. She replied that she did indeed want a Tangled cake and she wanted Grams to make it for her because she wants one exactly like the one Grams has in her computer.

These are the cakes she wants. Aren't they beautiful. I don't even have any idea how one would start to make Rapunzel's tower, as featured in the photo on the right. I know how the Rapunzel doll is made, but I do not have that kind of artistic ability.

Photos from Cake Wrecks
These cakes are so far beyond my limited decorating abilities that it's not even funny. What is funny is that she actually thinks I can do anything. I hope that lasts a while. Even if I can't live up to her expectations, it feels good that she thinks I've got skills.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

What I Know Now That I Didn't Know Then

This photo arrived in my inbox one morning last week. It reminded me of all the birthday parties and Christmas celebrations that I've attended where I've seen kids open expensive gifts, only to spend the rest of the party playing with the box.

I love how Our Little Princess has her head thrown back and is laughing with absolute abandon. I also love that the two girls play so well together. 

Women of a certain age and kids know that simple is better.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Grams Made Filled Peanut Butter Cups

In looking over my blogs for the past few weeks, I realized that I promised you a recipe for the Peanut Butter Cups that I made for Christmas. They are so simple that it's hardly fair to call it a recipe. They are made with a mix and pieces of candy and they are delicious. I will definitely make them again.

The recipes were adapted from recipes I found at both Betty Crocker and Pillsbury.

I made three different kinds of cookies using the same basic cookie. They came out so good that I used them for gifts. I will definitely make them again.


1 pouch (1 lb 1.5 oz) Betty Crocker® peanut butter cookie mix
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon water
1 egg

Heat oven to 375ºF. In large bowl, stir cookie mix, oil, water and egg until soft dough forms. Form dough into thirty-six 1-inch balls (about 2 teaspoons each); press into ungreased mini muffin cups.

Bake for 9 to 11 minutes or until edges are light golden brown. Remove from oven.


36 Bite-Size Reese's Peanut Butter Cups

Make the basic cookie. While cookies are hot and straight from the oven, press one peanut butter cup into each muffin. Cool in pan about 20 minutes before removing. (I think it goes without saying, but you must remove the paper wrapper from each Reese's Cup before pressing into cookie.)

18 Bite-Size Snickers (1" x 1")

Make the basic cookie. While the cookies are baking, cut Snickers in half and press half of a Snickers bar into the peanut butter cookie cup when cookies are still hot and straight from the oven. Cool in pan about 20 minutes before removing.

1 bag of Brach's caramels
1 Tablespoon water
2 Tablespoons of sea salt
Make the basic cookie. While the cookies are hot, use the end of a wooden spoon to carefully press into center of each baked cookie to make an indentation.

In medium microwavable bowl, microwave caramels and water on high 1 minute. Stir; repeat until caramels are completely melted and can be stirred smooth.

Fill each cookie cup with about 1 tablespoon melted caramels. Sprinkle a few granules of coarse sea salt on top of each. Cool in pan about 20 minutes before removing.

I'm planning to make these again for Valentine's Day and fill them with chocolate fudge frosting which I will top with heart-shaped sprinkles. I can't wait to try them.

Monday, January 16, 2012

What I Know Now That I Didn't Know Then

Today Grams is kicking off a new series intended to pass on the wisdom that comes with aging. Honestly, I'm kind of afraid that by mentioning it last week I've given it more of a build up than it deserves.

This new series was inspired by Anna, who I first met through her blog I Am Nanny Anna. Now she has a new blog, Mid-Life Mama. When she interviewed me for my feature it got me thinking about the things I've learned just as a result of getting older. Clearly women of a certain age have learned a few things just by virtue of experience and age.

Sometimes this will be a serious column intended to illuminate a serious subject. More often it will be tongue in cheek or clever. (I hope so anyway.) I'm also hoping to be able to reduce most of these observations to a one or two line graphic that could be pinned to a Pinterest board. "Hello, I'm Grams and I'm a Pinterest junkie." If you don't already, you can follow me on Pinterest.

So, when I started giving serious thought to things I didn't know about getting older, I realized that there are a few things my mother didn't tell me about getting old being a woman of a certain age. I don't know exactly why women in general haven't shared some of these less than delightful tidbits. I decided to start with this one.

I welcome your input and I will gladly share the credit. If you have words of wisdom to share that would be appropriate for "What I Know Now That I Didn't Know Then," please email me at vicki.valenta(at)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Why Time Warner Cable Loses

Grandad and Grams have been Time Warner Cable subscribers since our local cable service became Time Warner. We've been using the same cable service since we got married in 1975. That's 36 years. Fact is, we've never even been tempted to switch.

Several times over the years, Time Warner has been involved in contract disputes with one or the other of our local television providers. When that happened, Time Warner would drop the local provider from their lineup and we would have to attach a switch and rabbit-ears to our television. The switch would de-activate the cable and we would use an antennae to pick up the UHF broadcast and watch the local station. When we were paying $35 per month for cable service that didn't seem like an unreasonable thing to do. It was a little inconvenient, but not too unreasonable.

In early December, we started hearing that Time Warner and KRISTV, our local NBC affiliate, were in a dispute yet again. On December 9, KRISTV announced that Time Warner would be dropping their feed. Approximately one day later, they did indeed drop all four stations that are either owned or operated by Cordillera Communications leaving approximately 80,000 customers without NBC. That includes KRISTV (NBC), The CW, KDF, and KAJA Telemundo. I don't know exactly what the details of their disagreement are. I believe its about rebroadcast fees. The local affiliate wants to be paid more, Time Warner doesn't think they should pay more for something that's available free without cable. Time Warner would have to pass the expense on to consumers.

We didn't react right away. We've been here before, it usually lasts a few days or a couple of weeks at most, then they kiss and make up and the television station comes back on. Not so this time. We have not had access to any NBC shows since December 10 and frankly I'm more than a little ticked off about it.

I have always preferred to get my local news from KRIS. I worked very closely with them on an annual back-to-school supply drive for many years. I start my morning with The Today Show and I always have. I even time my mornings by the show. I need to be finished with my coffee by the time the show starts. I have to finish my makeup before the second news segment starts and I must be out the door by the time the local news comes on. I also finish the day to The Tonight Show.  Jay Leno and I go way back. I know he's not popular with the younger generation, but I really like his show. Not to mention, all the other NBC programs I've been missing.

It wasn't too bad over the holidays because everything was in reruns anyway, but since new programming resumed, I've become less and less tolerant. I didn't really complain too much until last week when I realized that I was going to miss Harry's Law and the 60th Anniversary of The Today Show. Thanks to whoever updates The Today Show on Facebook I discovered I could watch it on the internet, so I did.

I complained so much that Grandad offered to go buy an antennae and hook it up so I could manually switch to NBC when I wanted to. But, seriously, when you're paying more than $100 every month for cable services you shouldn't have to do that. At that price, I'll be damned if I'm willing to switch to an antennae for NBC.

In the past two weeks, both parties have stopped negotiating. Each of them points a finger and blames everything on the other party, but no one gives an inch. It's interesting to note that they have not shared the details of their negotiations so it's impossible to know who is right and who is wrong. I suspect it's a little of both. KRIS has now filed a complaint with the FCC asking them to order Time Warner back to negotiations. You can read what KRISTV has to say about it here.

For me, the bottom line is that there is only one NBC affiliate in our town and there are several cable/satellite outlets. So, the local affiliate wins and Time-Warner loses.

Today, we switched to Direct TV. The station line up is very similar and so far the reception is great. And we got it just in time to watch the Golden Globes. I do love me an awards show! And, as a bonus, we get service in the entire house for less than we paid for one television with Time Warner. We signed a two year contract with Direct TV, so we're not going back anytime soon. Sorry Time Warner, you lose!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Wisdom from Women of a Certain Age

I almost forgot to tell you ... I am the featured "Woman of a Certain Age" over at Mid-Life Mama today.

Mid-Life Mama Feature
"Mid-life Mama, is a blog that was created by and for "Women of a Certain Age" who want to meet other mid-life mama's to share our experiences, support each other in this great time of transition, and learn from one-another in all area's of our new life from peri to post menopause, from empty-nesting to being grandparents, from retirement to getting and keeping our health in check."
Anna is the force behind Mid-Life Mama. She also blogs at I Am Nanny Anna! I encourage you to check out both of her blogs.

In recognition of achieving the status of "Woman of a Certain Age" I've decided to launch a new feature I'm considering calling "Things I Know Now That I Didn't Know Then." It seems to me that there are a lot of things that fall into that category. It will be an occasional post and I'm hoping you will help me out by submitting your own words of wisdom. I'm completely willing to give you credit. Please share. Check back this weekend for the first entry in this occasional feature.

The Substitute Diaries

One of the things I really love about substitute teaching is that it's different every day. Some days I'm teaching literature to high-schoolers and some days I'm reading books to kindergarteners. It really is different every day.

This week I've been working with special needs students at a primary school. The class I worked with the last two days are high performing second and third graders. Most of these kids are autistic with a variety of challenges. Some are verbal and some are not. As a group, they don't like change and it takes them a while to warm up to new people. They much prefer to see the same people every day. I've worked with this group enough times this year that they know me now and most of them have let their barriers down to some extent and are able to interact with me.

I had planned to take yesterday off and work on laundry. I'm pretty sure that, if I stacked it all up, it would reach to the ceiling. But, when the district scheduler called around 7 a.m. yesterday, since it would be another day with this group, I took the work. I'm so glad I did. It was one of the most  exhausting and fulfilling days ever.

I have friends who work in the nursing field who swear that the hospitals really are a crazy place to work during a full moon. It makes me wonder if there was a full moon yesterday. I don't know if the kids have just relaxed around me or if there was a full moon or what, but yesterday these kids were what I would describe as wound up.

First of all let me say that I have absolutely zero professional training or diagnostic ability. What I have is a lifetime of living with siblings who have special needs. All of my "diagnoses" are speculative and my best guess. 

"J" is a very handsome young man who never stops talking. He takes almost all of his classes in this classroom, although he is mainstreamed for PE, fine arts, and lunch. He tries to engage anyone in the room in his fantasy play. Most days you can keep him calm enough to actually work for short periods of time. Yesterday that was mission impossible. He just could not stop talking. It was nonstop, constant, all ... day ... long! There was only one exception. Around lunchtime, when he would normally go out for recess, he went over to the reading area and picked out a book. He told his teacher that he wanted me to read to him, because I am a really good reader. He brought the book over to me, tucked his arm inside of mine, and lay his head on my arm while I read to him. It was so sweet.

Then there is a lovely young second grade girl, "E." When I first met E more than a year ago, she was just learning English as her second language. She's really grown since then and speaks English just fine when you can get her to talk. She doesn't interact much with other children and is unusually quiet. I've never seen her get excited like most second graders do. E fixates on pencils, pens, crayons, and markers. Her fixation on these object consists of holding them up to her nose, right between her eyes. She looks at them by crossing her eyes and will then begin to shake as if she's having a seizure. Usually, she does this a few times a day and when you tell her to stop she does. Not so yesterday, she was completely immersed in these objects and simply could not control herself. I accompanied her to music class. The teacher greeted her and put her in a chair right on the front row. I sat at the side of the room, a few feet away, with two students between us. The class is working on a performance which includes singing with hand motions. A few students will have speaking parts. At first E didn't participate at all. Then suddenly, it just seemed to click. She started moving her hands right along with all the other kids. It was so awesome to see. Every now and then she would look over at me, as if seeking approval. I would smile and nod and she would smile back and keep moving. The teacher came to me after class and told me that this was the first time E had ever participated. Always before she had just watched. She didn't sing, and I don't think she will, but just participating was a huge accomplishment.

Another student is a second-grade boy who is hands down the most polite child I have ever seen. He is very soft spoken and cute as a button. He is mainstreamed for most of his classes and comes to the resource room for reading. He speaks both Spanish and English, but he replaces the c sound with a t sound so "cat" sounds like "tat." He is just adorable. In addition to special help with reading, he receives speech therapy. Yesterday, at the end of the day, I was assigned to escort him to the front of the school where he would be picked up by a family member. We were among the first to be out of the school and had to wait for his ride. He picked up a pen and an eraser that someone had dropped on the front walk and stuck them in his pocket. Then he picked up this little green pony bead and held it out for me. He put it in my hand and said "This is a magic bead. Take it home and plant it in your garden and more beads will grow."

But my absolute favorite moment of the day came when I took two boys to their third grade PE class. One of them, "R," does not want to go to PE, EVER. His idea of a good time is to play computer games. They use computer games very effectively as a reward for doing his other work. He is an angelic-looking child, but can become loud and difficult when he doesn't get his way. They asked me to come and pick him up to go to PE because he has been giving them a hard time. When I arrived at his classroom, as expected, R said he did not want to go to PE because he does not like PE. I told him that I don't like PE either, but I had to go and if I had to go, so did he.

Photo credit
It was a beautiful sunny and warm day yesterday, so PE was outside. The class was learning how to jump rope as well as how to turn a rope for someone else to jump. The teacher paired my two boys with two "big boys." And by "big boys" I mean kids that will probably be football players once they get to high school. I could tell that they were not thrilled with this pairing but they were being good sports. I realized right away that in order for the two big boys to jump, I would have to help turn the rope. The concept of turning a rope for someone else to jump was beyond the abilities of one of my boys, so I tried to show them how to do it. One of them got it and was able to take his turn, the other did not, so I turned the rope. All four boys were able to jump rope by starting from a standing position and starting to jump on a 1-2-3 count. I was pretty surprised that both of my boys were able to do it.

About halfway through the class, the teacher blew her whistle and had all the students sit and watch as she had a student demonstrate how to run in and out of an already turning jump rope. I remember doing this as a child and I also remember that it takes a great deal of coordination and good timing. She told the students that they could try it or not. If they didn't want to try it, they should just continue with jumping as they had before. I was very surprised that both of my boys wanted to try it. One of the "big boys" went first. He got it on his first try. The second of the "big boys" tried repeatedly. He didn't give up and finally, after maybe ten tries, he was able to do it. One of my boys tried once and didn't want to try again. The biggest surprise of all was that "R" was able to do it on his third or fourth try. It was so exciting to see him participating and accomplishing what was surely a huge challenge for him. The two "big boys" rushed over and congratulated him with high fives. I have to admit that I actually had tears well up in my eyes. At the end of class, I complimented both boys on their willingness to work with my two boys.

I want to share this photo with you too. At the end of the day, while waiting in the car pick up area, I looked down and noticed a little girl wearing only one sock. When I asked her about it, she said the other sock felt "weird" so she took it off. Her teacher told me that this is a pretty common occurrence for her. It just made me smile, so I thought you might enjoy it too.

I have enjoyed spending a few days with these kids and I have a great deal of respect for people who do it every day.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Queens Came Too

Today, January 6, is the traditional day when Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany originally celebrated four events, the baptism of our lord, the changing of the water into wine at Cana, the Nativity of Christ, and the visitation of the wise men or magi. January 6th is the twelfth day of Christmas and twelfth night is the end of the Christmas celebration.

We grew up enchanted by the story of the wise men. Even as a child back in the Baptist church we sang "We Three Kings."

A few years ago I bought a book called When It Snowed That Night by Norma Farber. It's a lovely little book of poetry that I include with my Christmas decorations every year. My favorite poem in the book is titled The Queens Came Late.

I have long thought that the gifts that the wise men brought to the Christ child were odd. I mean gold, frankincense, and myrrh? I understand the symbolism of all three gifts and I've even heard some pretty good explanations for what Joseph and Mary probably used each of them for. But, come on, what Mary really needed was someone to bring a casserole and some diapers.

I think most of us would acknowledge that the role of women in history has been diminished by the fact that history was written by men for men. But I do like to think that maybe the women of Bethlehem heard about the woman who had given birth to a child in the manger and did what women always do, made a casserole, gathered up some baby clothes, or wove a blanket and took them to make the Holy Family a little more comfortable. And Ms. Farber supposes that not only did the Three Kings make that long trip to Bethlehem, but the Queens came too.
Epiphany by Janet McKenzie
The Queens came late, but the Queens were there
With gifts in their hands and crowns in their hair.
They’d come, these three, like the Kings, from far,
Following, yes, that guiding star.
They’d left their ladles, linens, looms,
Their children playing in nursery rooms,
And told their sitters:
“Take charge! For this
Is a marvelous sight we must not miss!”

The Queens came late, but not too late
To see the animals small and great,
Feathered and furred, domestic and wild,
Gathered to gaze at a mother and child.
And rather than frankincense and myrrh
And gold for the babe, they brought for her
Who held him, a homespun gown of blue,
And chicken soup–with noodles, too-
And a lingering, lasting, cradle-song.
The Queens came late and stayed not long,
For their thoughts already were straining far-
Past manger and mother and guiding star
And a child aglow as a morning sun-
Toward home and children and chores undone.
From the Night It Snowed by Norma Farber
1909-1984 , children’s book author and poet.
 This year the Catholic church will celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany on Sunday, January 8.

This weekend we are in San Antonio staying with Katy, Travis and the granddaughters. Tomorrow we'll all travel to Corn Hill, Texas to celebrate Uncle Johnnie and Aunt Mary Ann's 50th wedding anniversary. There will be a mass followed by lunch and a Czech-style wedding dance. I can't wait to join in the wedding march. It will be a great day of celebration with family and loved ones.

I'll be back next week. I hope you have a great weekend.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Grams Made Cavatini

Last night Grams hosted Bunco. My Bunco club is so much fun. We've been playing together for many years with occasional changes when someone moves away and someone new joins. Originally, we all lived in the same neighborhood, but over the years many of us have moved to different neighborhoods, but still in Calallen. Hosting includes serving dinner, snacks, and dessert. Adult beverages are optional.

I almost always know exactly what I want to make, but not this year. I just felt uninspired. So, I sat down at my computer and browsed, and browsed, and browsed. I just couldn't decide. I knew I wanted to make a casserole or something in the crock pot. I looked at soups, chili, enchiladas, tacos ... none of them appealed to me. Then I saw a reference to a dish that Pizza Hut used to serve that I loved, Cavatini. Cavatini is a pasta casserole with pizza flavors. Yum! I started with this recipe and tweaked it to make it closer to the way I remember the original.

Image source
I was very pleased with the way it came out. The recipe calls for a 9" x 12" casserole. I used two CorningWare skillet/casserole dishes. I have my mother's original Cornflower pattern and the one I got for a wedding gift back in 1975 which is Spice of Life pattern. They are about 9" square. I have recently rediscovered my CorningWare. If you have a ceramic cooktop on your stove, I highly recommend it. It seems to heat up much faster than my traditional metal pans, it doesn't darken or stain the ceramic top, and it's much easier to clean anything sticky out of it. Just soak it for a few minutes and wipe it away.


1 onion, chopped
1 pound ground beef
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 package sliced pepperoni
1 can sliced mushrooms, drained
1 can sliced black olives, drained
1 (6 ounce) can tomato paste
2 (24 ounce) jars spaghetti sauce (I used HEB Puttanesca Sauce)
8 ounces penne rigate pasta
8 ounces rotini pasta
8 ounces cavatappi pasta (or macaroni)
4 cups shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
½ cup grated Italian blend cheese

In a large saucepan, brown ground beef with onions. Add green pepper, pepperoni, mushrooms, black olives, tomato paste, and spaghetti sauce. Cover, and simmer for one hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Cook pasta in boiling water for 8 to 10 minutes, or until al dente; drain.

Mix together pasta and 2 cups mozzarella. Layer in a 9x13 inch baking dish, pasta, sauce, then top with remaining mozzarella and Italian blend cheese.

Bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes. Let stand for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

(You can make this recipe using almost any short, macaroni-style pasta.)

I served this with a simple salad and garlic bread. For dessert, we had old fashioned pineapple upside down cake. It was delicious and a big hit with the girls. Some of them went back for seconds.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Pinterest Inspired New Year's Resolutions

It has been many years since Grams has made new year's resolutions. I just don't embrace the whole "new year - time to change" mentality. I don't diet any more. I committed to a lifetime of healthier eating choices five years ago when I had gastric bypass surgery. I could definitely resolve to exercise, but again, that's something I've already committed to do. I'm definitely not doing great with either of these, but I keep plugging away at it and I'm way healthier than I used to be.

But, I've seen so many blog posts and Facebook status updates about new year's resolutions, that it's really been on my mind. So I spent the first few days of the year thinking about what resolutions I could make that I could truly embrace. My favorite Pinterest board is one where I've been collecting words and quotes. I decided to go there and for inspiration. Here are my Pinterest inspired new year's resolutions.

First, I'm going to try to take time every day to notice when I'm happy.

Source: via Vicki on Pinterest

When possible, I'm gong to avoid negative people.

I'm going to look for happiness in everything.
Source: via Vicki on Pinterest

I'm going to be content with what I have.

I'm going to remember that a bad day is not a bad life, it's just a bad day.

Source: via Vicki on Pinterest

I'm going to embrace the time I spend doing the things I enjoy.

I realize that those are some lofty goals and resolutions. I don't expect to be successful with all of them all of the time, but I think if I can build these into my daily life, I will be happier and healthier and 2012 will be a great year.