Thanks for the mysteries!

Winding down often requires a good mystery to take one's mind off the normal stress and routine. I seize on one author and read through all the titles. At eleven I remember sitting on the bench in the children's section of my grandma's little library under the single bulb hanging light fixture on dark, cold winter evenings, or at the big "grown up" table on hot summer afternoons reading two Nancy Drew mysteries at a sitting. At my other grandparents' apartment I would scrunch myself as small as possible in the most remote corner and read about Cherry Ames, the intrepid flight nurse.

Sometimes the mental vacation mysteries were non-fiction. I read books about great archeaological discoveries sitting up in our backyard treehouse; Troy, Tut, Mesa Verde, and especially Knossos. I still love a good Elizabeth Peters excavation season in Egypt. When my little students get messy I think of Peabody exclaiming, "Another shirt ruined!"

The mystery of King Tut is forever linked in my memory with the assassination of President Kennedy. My third grade teacher, Mrs. Alschwede, was reading one chapter to our class about Howard Carter each day in November of 1963.

In the tough years before my divorce Jim Chee, Lieutenant Leaphorn, and Kinsey Milhone probably kept me from going off the deep end. They gave me courage to put on my own little detective hat and figure out what was going wrong.

This winter break has lots of stress with my mother's illness. I hate to admit I read this blog's statistics daily. And that is the source of this vacation mystery distraction. Someone in Ploiesti, Romania hits this blog twice a day. What a gift that person gives me! I've had to get out maps, and read WWII history. Ploiesti has a population around 250,000 which is not far different than my city of Plano, Texas. Ploiesti has a Clock Museum and oil refineries. I still don't know how to pronounce Ploiesti, but I hope it fits into Burt Bacharach's song, Do You Know The Way To San Jose?

Do you know the way to Ploiesti?

Do you know the way to San Jose?
I've been away so long
I may go wrong and lose my way
Do you know the way to San Jose?
I'm going back to find some place of mind in San Jose
L.A. is a great big freeway
Put a hundred down a by a car
In a week, maybe two they'll make you a star
Weeks turn into years, how quick they pass
And all the stars there never were
Are parking cars and pumping gas
I've got lots of friends in San Jose
Can't wait to get back to San Jose
Do you know the way to San Jose?


Night Driving

One of the photos in the Mayo Clinic history site set me off on a night drive in memory country with my dad in the '54 pea green Chevy. The photo shows some of the Sisters of St. Francis who started St. Mary's hospital in Rochester.

The photo dates back many decades before my memory, but steam heat and nun garb didn't change that much. My memory is in black and white, which is somewhat strange anyway. It's probably a composite memory of several trips with my dad in the Chevy, just as Peter Coy's picture book is a composite trip. The story doesn't connect with children, but the illustrations connect with former children of a certain vintage.

I was probably four years old when we went "night driving" from Lincoln to Norfolk. I was riding shotgun to keep my dad awake on the 120 mile drive. We were going up to the hospital so Dad could see his grandmother or one of his aunts. He taught me to whistle on the trip. We stopped for gas. Dad let me choose a treat from the vending machine. I picked the Hostess Sno-balls because of the soft fuzzy pink appearance. About one bite into the dyed coconut and I swore I'd never eat coconut again! It's not cotton candy or Barbie's feather boa! It's almost as nasty as black jelly beans and goldfish crackers, but those are different stories for another time. It was nastier than the smell of dead skunk for miles and miles.

When we got to the hospital it was very late, well past visiting hours, and besides I was a little kid. Back then you had to be at least twelve to visit a patient. While Dad went upstairs, the nuns took me down to the kitchen and fed me some chicken noodle soup. Did any of this really happen? I'm not sure, but the pea green 1954 Chevy and the Hostess Sno-ball were definitely real.

Travel Guides

Today's newspaper had an item about a pseudo-travel guide called Molvania: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry, that is either very funny or not depending who's reviewing it. I have been doing my own on-line travel investigation of beautiful Rochester, Minnesota. My parents arrived there today by transport ambulance to spend time touring the hallways of the St. Mary's Hospital part of Mayo Clinic. This is not funny, by any review, but it is a relief that the Mayo staff is on the case trying to find the answers to her persistent intestinal questions. As a long-time Prairie Home Companion listener, I can't help imagining her Minnesota gastroenterologist as Dr. Noir, G-I Guy.

As a library junkie, I couldn't help clicking on the library link of the St. Mary's website. I will ask my dad to stroll to the library sometime to see the stained glass window. While Dr. Noir is performing tests of a gastroish sort on my mom, my dad is going to need some stress relief and exercise.


Who do you love?

When we lived in west Omaha in the house where I planned to spend the rest of my life, back in about 1986, we had a fabulous winter ice storm. Our lot backed up to the greenbelt. Everything back there was coated in sparkling ice like a set for the Snow Queen. Out front we were on a cul de sac. When the plow came through it scooped everything into a giant mountain of packed snow and ice for the kids to scale. I was pregnant and totally stressed out with two preschoolers and a nonsupportive spouse. Down at the end of the greenbelt behind the elementary school was a combination "rustic woods" and "educational outdoor learning center". I used to get so pissed off at my spouse and life in general that I would march off through the snow to the "woods". Once there I would slowly calm down and eventually realize there were owls in the trees staring at me. I would stare back, quieter and quieter. If I was too loud an owl would fly off down the Papio watershed, usually just a tad past me so I could feel the way it lifted all the air upwards. The owl and I would continue this provoke-and-fly along the creek until I was really cold, and I would regretfully turn back toward home. I would be back in touch with something beyond my mere mortal understanding, and spiritually fueled to face another day. I understood better why the ancient Greeks considered the owl the symbol for the wise goddess Athena.

What did we do without them?

Mary Jacobs has an op ed piece in today's Dallas Morning News called, "Hey, Mom and Dad, kids really can create their own fun" . Good golly, yes, and it's a weird form of almost-abuse not to let them. Boredom is one of the best things to ever happen to a kid.

I won't go into my long rant on the subject today, as I have so many things I want to do. That's what happens when you are privileged enough to be bored as a kid. You get curious about many subjects. You use your imagination. You create games and cooperate with other kids. You plan. You acquire these wonderful lifelong habits because you weren't rescued from your boredom by your parents.

You also burn a lot of energy playing outside. A dear demented friend and I have just been reminiscing about all the wonderful time spent running, chasing, and hiding in our childhoods (right after the dinosaurs died out). My neighborhood called this everybody's-welcome-to-join at-any-time-game, "DuntalaUt", and we sang our own soundtrack as we ran. This is how it goes:

Dunt a la ut,
dunt a la ut,
dunt a la Dunt A La Dunt A La Ut.

The tune may have been Keystone Kops, or some other classic black and white movie chase theme. The game can be played in any weather. Send the kids to the bathroom, bundle them up, and shoo them outside. Smile and wave when they run past the window.


It's not beans

The magical fruit is the one that can help get my mom back on track, or tract. I have great faith in bananas even though I am personally allergic to them. They are the very best things for babies and grownups with upset innards. They are also the thing to eat if you want to weigh enough to get into the Army.

My dad ate a bunch of them before he went for his Army physical. He was very cute and skinny in those days. He was the age my own sons are now, so I worry a lot about our Rummy's No Exit adventure in Iraq.

This is how to make gluten-free smoothies:

Place one peeled banana in the blender. Add 4 oz. or more of plain yogurt. Add 1 T powdered milk for extra protein. Add 4+ oz. milk or juice. Throw in frozen fruit--5 strawberries or 8 peach slices or 20 raspberries (any combo). You can also throw in one peeled kiwi, or 1/2 peeled orange, 1 ring of pineapple, 1 fresh mango, or just about anything fruititious. Make sure you added the milk or juice.

Start with the low speeds on the blender, then slowly accelerate through all the speeds. Baby, you were born to be wild! Eat it with a spoon or sip through a straw. Freeze the extra for a home-style sherbet.

Gluten-free cooking

This recipe has been awarded the Picky Mama Seal of Approval.

Stuffed Potatoes

Scrub and bake a bunch of potatoes at 450 degrees until they are squeezy. It doesn’t matter if they are huge or tiny.

Take them out and let them cool until you have time to deal with them.

Slice them in half the long way. Use a soup spoon to scoop the insides into a mixing bowl. Line the empty “shells” in rows in a Pyrex casserole.

In a skillet heat 1 T vegetable oil. Saute lots of chopped green pepper and celery. Depending on your mood and available food, add chopped mushrooms, onions, browned ground beef, or crunched cooked bacon. Do not drain off cooking oil. Add all of this to the mixing bowl, along with garlic powder, dried parsley, oregano, black pepper. If your blood pressure is good you can add some salt, but don’t go overboard. Stir in 4 oz. or more of warm milk and 4 oz. plus of plain yogurt. Stir in your favorite grated cheese. Sometimes you may want a lot of cheese, and other times not so much. Scoop the mix back into the potato skin “shells”, and sprinkle with paprika. Bake at 300 degrees for half an hour for small spuds, and an hour for the big ones that look like Richard Nixon. This can be anywhere from a tiny appetizer to a main course. It is excellent winter comfort food. You can freeze the leftovers to nuke later. You can also dream up new and different versions.

Scents of the season

Christmas should smell like pine trees, sugar cookies, candy canes, Chex Mix, and hot apple cider. Holiday gatherings usually have the satisfying aroma of hot dryer lint, since the return of the guys creates a lot of laundry. Family feasts have the smells of turkey, jumbo pitted black olives, and Del Monte canned sauerkraut. The turkey is interchangeable with roast duck, but the olives and sauerkraut are manditory in my family.

Today, though, the scent is the Self Clean cycle on the oven. The guys are at their dad's house, and I am dealing with the chicken casserole that boiled over in the oven Thursday. It is good that my little students give me lots of fragrant soaps, lotions, and candles at Christmas time, so I can cover up the scent of baked-on cheese. I'm much better at being the Cool Color Fairy than I am at being Becky Home-Ecky.

During my short trip to Nebraska I did a lot of cooking and freezing food to fuel my dad and tease my mom's tastebuds. I made a beef stew with carrots, parsnips, celery, peppers, green beans, peas, and potatoes in a tomato/molasses sauce. My grandma used molasses in her goulash and in her odd, delicious baked "chop suey" oven casserole. We would arrive at her house late on a snowy afternoon while she was still at work at the library. The kitchen windows would be all steamy, and there would be that savory, meaty, molasses, earthy root vegetable bass notes, and sweet'n'sour aroma. Because I was a very big girl, I would walk the block on the crunchy, snow-covered, wavy brick sidewalk, and climb the scary, steep, icy steps to the Pierce Library to tell my librarian grandma we had arrived.

This is Halma's recipe for Chop Suey:
1 lb. veal, lean pork, or baby beef, cut up in small cubes. Brown meat in a heavy skillet in 3-4 T butter. Add 2 T flour and blend, then add 2 tsp. salt and 1 cup hot water. Stir and cook until thickened. Add another cup of water, 1 1/2 T molasses, 1 T soy sauce, 1 cup diced celery, 1 cup diced onion, 1 can bean sprouts, 1 can mushroom pieces, and 1 can water chestnuts. Bake in the oven about 1 hour. Serve over boiled rice, with chow mein noodles and soy sauce. Serves four.


A solitary Christmas Day seems like a the most difficult thing to endure when you are newly divorced. This is my ninth Christmas since the divorce. I have not been alone every year, as there were a couple times my ex was off in some place like Armenia or Kosovo on Christmas. Still, I have come to enjoy this day of peace in my house, if not on earth. I've been going full tilt ever since my classes ended, so the lull is very welcome.

Growing up I often had the feeling that my backyard (so basically The Earth) was resting under a thick blanket of snow in winter. Winter doesn't ever seem like a time of death, but as a call to slow down, wrap up, and take time to rest. Last night after the gifts I fell asleep in front of the fireplace wrapped in a heavy blanket with the voices and laughter of my sons in the background. After all the Christmasses being sure to have the right batteries on hand for the new toys, it was very precious to recharge my own batteries that way.

For ten years my Christmas season has officially begun when my friend unwraps the peanut nativity scene her son made in preschool. I have my own markers of the season, but it is always reassuring to know the peanut Joseph, Mary, and Baby Jesus have survived another year. Today we archived the peanut nativity scene against the unthinkable. The shoebox is getting pretty fragile. Peanuts aren't forever. Neither are digital technology or human memory, but the meaning of Christmas is timeless. We just want the peanuts to stick around for a long time with the memories of our children as preschoolers.

When we went walking Thursday we found a credit card on the ground. Since I couldn't find the name in the phone book, I mailed the card back to Shell in Houston. Today we were surprised to find two drivers licenses for the same person on our walk. It really hit me that this man was born in 1923 like my dad. I hope he is okay. Why are the contents of a wallet lying in the leaves and snow? Was he robbed? Is he deceased? There he is looking at me in the more recent license photo. He lives, or lived in another town. I've written him a letter and sent him the licenses. He haunts the edges of my holiday.


The holidays are a wonderful time of family togetherness, just lounging around, relaxing, and waiting. Waiting for Santa? Not these days. We are each waiting and hoping for our turn for a hot shower!

This reunion is more than my water heater can handle. The dishwasher is running twice a day. The washing machine is doing extra duty. Most of all, as the guys have gone off to live in dorms and apartments of their own, they've lost the habit of leaving some of the hot water for the next showerer.

So if you catch me still in my nightgown at noon, don't think it's because I've been sitting around eating Christmas cookies all morning. I'm really waiting for a HOT shower.



This was an incredibly beautiful sunset in Lincoln, where there is no snow.
This was a pretty strange day in Plano, Texas, where there is.

These are delightful penguins at the South Pole, by students age 3-8.

This is not a sleeping polar bear at the North Pole.It is a 1991 300 ZX in need of many expensive repairs before it becomes driveable, so it's basically hibernating.


I do not like it here or there

I do not like it anywhere. I do not like green eggs and ham.

Would you, could you in the freezing rain? I finally get a chance to do my own errands and holiday shopping, and it's snowing! Could I speak to whomever's in charge?? I suspect it is the Grinch.

Had a delightful lunch sitting out on the patio of the French restaurant with my dear exercise partner yesterday. We don't give each other gifts anymore because shared time is far more precious. We did a brisk, lengthy, and therapeutic walk before we went to lunch. Thanks so much to the U.S. health care system for the motivation to walk fast and vent loudly about what's wrong with the damn U.S. health care system! It's cheaper than joining a gym. Recent dealings with the health care system have caused me to lose five pounds in aggravation, so the system must be improving my health, right? The system is clearly not Horton. It does not hear the Whos in Whoville. It was created by Sylvester McMonkey McBean to relieve all the Sneetches of their money.

Have you heard of my herd of through horns jumping deer? Every deer jumps through horns of another pellmell by a deer whose horns also are jumped through as well. Have you heard of the word "uncompliant"? That's what gets written on your medical chart if you ask too many questions and quit neatly jumping through the horns of the other deer. Neither Superman nor Dr. Seuss can fix the system without us. It's time for Brave Sneelock to wrestle this Grizzly Ghastly and pin both its shoulders down flat to the mat!

Doctors and hospitals are supposed to work for us, not for insurance and pharmaceutical companies. When did they get so scary? Look what we found in the park in the dark. We will take him home. We will call him Clark. He will live at our house. He will grow and grow. Will our mother like him? We don't know.

CR Best Buy Rating

Once again I am thankful for my Consumer Reports online subscription. I just researched best buys for single handset cordless phones for my dad. I got an easily-understandable explanation of all the gigawhoozies and other excess techno lingo that cuts to the chase. It's nine degrees in Lincoln, Nebraska this morning. I've saved my dad a trip to the library and leaving my mom home alone while he locates this information himself. Now he will just whip over to Shopko and pick up one of the recommended models comfortable in his choice. One small step for man, one giant technological leap forward!


Flight Attention

One thing I've discovered this year is that I really enjoy flying now that I am not responsible for anybody but myself. All the stress of maneuvering little boys through concourses, keeping track of "The Special Bunny", keeping them from disturbing other people was so draining, that the fun of a trip was rarely worth the ordeal. Now it doesn't much matter if the plane leaves on time, if the plans change, if silly people with oversize carry-on bags block the aisle. I don't much care if the TSA folks go through my purse three times looking for a non-existent pocket knife. The only thing that bugs me is that some airlines only serve Pepsi instead of Coke.

It's time for me to beam up. Fritzi and I say teary good-byes. Howie drives me to the airport in the cool sunshine. He lets me out to check in with Northwest and confirm that my flight is on time. He parks and comes into the terminal for more good-byes and hugs. Standing still while he walks out the door is one of the most difficult things I've ever done.

By the time I ride the escalator upstairs and take off my shoes for security, the weather has changed. Low snow clouds have blocked out all the sun. Drizzle is hitting the windows. Passengers for the 1:05 flight to Minneapolis are grimly determined. They have no plane. They are making friends with strangers. I think of "The Outcasts of Poker Flats". Their plane might arrive eventually. Some have created a card party, others a pity party.

The 4:05 flight is still allegedly on time. Minutes tick by. I finish my wonderful library book by Stephanie Kallos. No announcements are made, but it becomes clear that flying in and out of Minneapolis isn't going to happen in a timely fashion. A worn-out farmgirl changes my ticket. She's been doing this for hours. I will fly a United link into O'Hare, my old nemesis. Then I will find an American flight to DFW. Fine. I can handle it. Time's not a factor. I've spent three and a half days in a different galaxy. My priorities have been rearranged. Sitting in an airport wrapped in a parka and reading a paperback seems like the only thing out there. Breathe in. Breathe out.

The descent into Chicago is pretty trippy. We fly over residential areas with outside Christmas lights and displays. I consider waving back to waving Santas on rooftops!

Let it go. Let it snow. Let it go.


Theme decor

My condo is not really a theme park. So why have we returned to the Automotive Living Room decor??? I got rid of the battery, and then the case of Valvoline. Yet for the past week I've had two black floormats from the '91 Beached Whale 300ZX plunked in the middle of the living room. If Architectural Digest were to feature us, they would write in glowing terms about our neo-post-demolition-modern-autodestruct repetition welding the interior to the panoramic vista outside the windows. In real life, I would say that the clearly delineated floormats on the carpet poetically reflect the enigmatic growing oil spots on the parking spaces. If that ain't feng shui, take a whiff of my shoes. They had an encounter with a crazed back-splashing nozzle at the gas station. My fashion scents complement my design sense. It's a wonder my name isn't embroidered on my shirt pocket. Maybe I could market designer candles with scents for gasoline, transmission fluid, ArmorAll, just-mopped truckstop restrooms, vinyl upholstery mildew, and well-aged fast food sacks.


The Goodfellas of Bremen Town

One of our favorite stories for preschool or early Elementary drama is the classic Grimm brothers story of the Musicians of Bremen Town. I get to appear on stage tomorrow for the very first time in a performance of this story. I get to act surly and uncouth, dishonest and cowardly. It should be lots of fun, and I get to wear a hat. My real job is to impose a thin veil of order over a group of four-year-old villains during the parts of the story when the musical rooster and cat have the stage.

I have always loved this story, learned from a Little Golden Record in the late Fifties. My parents had a print of Picasso's musicians (with the dog under the table) hanging on the wall, and I believed it illustrated the Grimm tale. Most versions of the tale include a rooster, a dog, and a cat. I usually include a donkey in the quartet, but sometimes it is a mouse. I love that the animals set out to remake their lives, and manage to outsmart the robbers.

I will be appearing in a version that would make Tony Soprano and Janet Evanovich proud. We are doing the Bremen Town robbers in New Jersey mobster talk. Youse' guys shouldst use da potties before you put on your costumes! Flush and wash, or swim with the fishes.


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