Thursday, May 17, 2018

What would Mister Rogers do?

I've been thinking a lot about Mister Rogers lately. Apparently, so have the rest of you. 2010's documentary "Mister Rogers and Me" aired last month on PBS and is now streaming on Amazon Prime. Another documentary, "Won't you be my neighbor?" is hitting theaters this summer. Tom Hanks will play Mister Rogers in a biopic to be released next year. We need Mister Rogers now more than ever. We need that kind, gentle voice encouraging us when times are tough, reminding us that he likes us as we are. (Not unlike Mark Darcy's approval of Bridget Jones: No, I like you very much. Just as you are.)

Last year I began an attempt to be a kinder person. It went well for a few months, but then the world got all up in my face again and my kind demeanor fell away. Frustration and anger about current events replaced the kindness. I have always been quick to speak and slow to think. After a  far too common outburst I step back and ask myself, "What would Mister Rogers do?" and judge myself against what I presume would have been his measured response.

The current reactionary trend has all of us talking louder and listening less. Controversial, unscientific, often dangerous beliefs are touted as protected speech and actions. Some days are more difficult than others. Last week I was verbally accosted by a woman who ranted loudly about how climate change is a hoax. Tuesday I confronted a dog owner who left her beautiful Poodle-mix trapped in a hot, locked (we checked) car in the sun for more than half an hour. Both situations brought out the worst in me, and when I react to ignorance and cruelty with insults how does that make the world a better place? Afterwards, as usual, I asked myself (and T) "What would Mister Rogers do? How would he respond?" 

Mister Rogers would probably give me a gentle smile and let me off the hook because (I hope) my heart is in the right place. He might give me advice on slowing down, thinking carefully about possible repercussions, and bringing peace into my little corner of the world. Mister Rogers always knew what to say and how to say it.

I wrote about Mister Rogers at Called to the Table this week, and posted a recipe for chocolate sandwiches. Chocolate sandwiches are a nice temporary antidote to the noisy, aggressive, thoughtless world.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Mrs. Beasley and the height of happiness

That's me in the image above, on Christmas morning long ago, at the height of my happiness and as filled with joy as a child could be. (My sisters, on the other hand, look as thought they've experienced their fair share of disappointment, don't they?) I'm the kid in blue, sitting on my grandpa's lap (my favorite person in the whole world), clutching my best Christmas gift that year, Mrs. Beasley.

Mrs. Beasley was a grandmotherly doll I first fell in love with while watching "Family Affair." Buffy, the little girl in the television show, had a Mrs. Beasley doll, and I wanted to be just like Buffy. The cool thing about Mrs. Beasley was she talked when you pulled her string. She talked about jumping rope together, telling secrets, and she told me she was once a little girl just like me. She had a pair of glasses that she didn't mind sharing with me when I wanted to wear them.

The magic of that morning and the joy I felt lasted for a day or two. Then our family packed up and drove to our maternal grandparents' home where we celebrated a late Christmas with our only cousins. I wrote about that visit a few years ago, and how my cousins violated Mrs. Beasley and her possessions.

I always felt bad for Mrs. Beasley for having to endure those dreadful cousins. Mrs. Beasley had a hard time reading or even seeing once her glasses were taken. It was never the same between us, as after that visit both of us were a little less joyful and a little more cautious about the outside world.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Leaving on a jet plane and other weekend adventures

Nordic Ware demo team: me, Edd, Mary Kate, & Linda

"This story begins with a meatball (as all good stories should)..." has become my "On a dark and stormy night..." But honestly, this story really does (almost) begin with a meatball.

This was my second year with the great and generous folks at Nordic Ware in Chicago for the International Home + Housewares Show. During the weekend I help out in the kitchen and do a few demos as clients stop by the booth to chat about both new and classic, beloved products. For the 2018 Show, I was asked to create a spicy meatball to be prepared in the stovetop Kettle Smoker, and a chocolate waffle for the Sweetheart Waffler. Of course, meatballs are waffles are pretty much two of my favorite things in the world, so creating the recipes was pure joy. I spent a weekend or two playing with ingredients and came out with recipes I am very pleased with.

What a thrill it was to cook side-by-side with Edd Kimber of Great British Baking Show fame. Edd won the first season (not yet aired in U.S. but a little bird told me you can stream it illegally if you look hard enough. Not that I'd encourage such behavior...) and since then has made baking his career and lifestyle. The guy is amazingly knowledgeable, and I learned a lot from him during our short time together. Over dinner on Saturday night we peppered him with questions about his audition, what Mary is like in real life, and his favorite/least favorite show entrees. It was a fascinating look into one of my all-time favorite cooking shows.

Americans who love GBBS gravitate toward the show because it is so unlike many televised American competitions. The competitors are generally kind to one another, witty, charming, humble, and my goodness they can bake! Edd is the epitome of the spirit of GBBS. Check out his blog at The Boy Who Bakes.

As for meatballs... get the recipe here. I like to call them Swedish-Thai meatballs because they have one foot firmly implanted in Swedishness and a few toes in the flavors of Thailand. Lovers of chocolate, get the waffle recipe here.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Who says you can't go back? An evening in Gaylord

In my circles I am known for always accepting a dare, my fondness for food and drink, and repeating this mantra often: All roads lead to Gaylord (and wherever you are, someone in the room knows your mom, so always be on your best behavior). I grew up in Gaylord, at least for a few formative years. As a kid my days were spent riding Marvel the Mustang (a faithful, beautiful steed who retired years ago to a calm life up on a shelf in our garage) in front of our house up and down Main Street.

Our house was right in the middle of the street, and I knew every neighbor along our block as well as across the street. My best friend Shelly lived on the corner, and my other best friend Lila lived across the street one block over. A cool but older girl lived two doors down and she patiently allowed me to hang out with her when she didn't have other plans. Across the street from us were the Mains. Their dad was the high school football coach, and their house was filled with what seemed like an endless parade of gorgeous blonde girls. The youngest was Jenny, and I loved playing with her as if she were my own living doll.

Summers were filled with swimming lessons in the morning and free swim all afternoon. We played for hours in the park, singing "SWING-set, SWING-set" to the rhythm of the glide. We fought the mean boys to sit on memorial war tanks permanently affixed to concrete.

As autumn cooled the air and when I was too little for school, I watched my sisters walk to Gaylord Elementary every morning. I was envious, and couldn't wait for the day I finally started kindergarten. I was sure that the teachers would see how clever I was, far advanced for my age, and let me skip all the way to second grade. Instead, I was selected to be class monitor while our teacher ran occasional errands. I took that opportunity to leap onto our shared table and sing cowboy songs while tap dancing for my classmates. These shows went on for a few weeks until the morning our teacher returned to the classroom mid-performance.That halted my path to leadership and I was forever doomed.

When we moved away from Gaylord, I was heartbroken to leave my dear friends. Before the Internet, Face-time, and Skype, there weren't a lot of options for staying in touch. Long-distance telephone calls were reserved for birthday chats with Grandpa Johnson, certainly not an every day occurrence. We friends threw ourselves into the pen pal thing, but after a few months the letters petered out.

As I grew up and away from my Gaylord past, I began to notice how many people I met who had ties to the town. The clerk at our local mall is cousins with my buddy Lila. I went to elementary school with the sports guy on our local CBS television station, and there are countless times when chatting with strangers we will realize our mutual connection to Gaylord. Two of my four sisters continue to make Gaylord their home, so I am lucky to return occasionally for family parties and holidays.

Last week I was invited to the Gaylord Library to speak about my book "Jul." It was pretty cool. Before the program my sister threw a party for her friends, and asked me and T. to join them. We snacked on meatballs from the book and the ladies enjoyed Gamle Ode dill aquavit and tonics. Another sister joined us, and then we gathered at the library where I saw familiar, beloved faces of neighbors and friends I haven't seen in decades. They greeted me with warmth and smiles.

We don't always get to go home, and seeing these people from my past was nothing short of amazing. I wrote about the adventure at Called to the Table this week, and included a recipe from the firm where my dad worked for many years.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Of Valentine's and cats

In our house there is a clear distinction about which human belongs to which cat. I am very much Oskar's human. While he loves playing with T, and enjoys attention from just about everyone, when it comes to love and affection Oskar comes to me. At night he sleeps on my head, or at the very least shares my pillow.

Orson on the other hand, is unapologetically in love with T. Orson tolerates my presence, but rarely sits with me on the couch. He prefers nestling his head in T's lap while staring lovingly into T's eyes. At night Orson uses T's body as leverage while he tries to push me out of bed with his strong legs. There have been nights in the past year when I wake up in the middle of the night to find Orson laying between T and me, but more often I open my eyes to see Orson's enormous face about two inches from mine, his blue eyes boring through my soul, like he is watching and waiting...

Then last night a miracle happened! I was nudged awake as Orson attempted to get comfortable. I felt him tugging at my pillow, then a soft heavy blow hit my face and ear as Orson plopped down on my head and immediately started purring.

T says Orson is one pound over a regulation bowling ball. At 17 pounds he is a big big boy, and 17 pounds of soft fur is still 17 pounds. With that girth pressed against my ear I could hear nothing but the purrs. Orson's flicking tail tickled, and I soon lost feeling in my face and neck, but I was in heaven. I felt like Sally Field accepting the Oscar, "You like me! You really like me!"

It wasn't until I felt T lift Orson up and out of bed that I realized Orson had only been using me to get closer to T. He wasn't snuggling with my face out of love. I was simply a prop in his efforts to lick T's ear.

For a moment I believed that Orson might be my Valentine this year. Alas, it wasn't meant to be. It shouldn't shock me anymore that Orson only has eyes and love for T. We have that in common.

Happy Valentine's Day! 

Friday, January 26, 2018

Life is chaos, be kind

      Image: Oskar, because pets make us happy

Sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas T and I watched the Patton Oswald standup special "Annihilation" on Netflix. Even if you don't know who Patton is, you've likely seen him in various roles on television (King of Queens, Goldbergs, etc.) or heard his voice in movies like "Ratatouille." I follow him on social media because I appreciate his honest reactions to politics and current events.

Patton's first wife died two years ago and he was left to raise his young daughter alone. He has since remarried (they say a widower who has had a good marriage will marry again within a few years after he has lost his wife), but the pain and loss continue to color his world as well as his daughter's.

In "Annihilation" Patton addresses that pain, and talks about his first wife's response to the mess of a world we live in. She said, "It's chaos, be kind." There is no rhyme or reason for acts or cruelty. There is no Finger of God guiding life and death. Everything is random. The only way to make things better is to be kind to one another.

In an interview with Patton said:  
What’s weird is that I do have a “belief system,” but that belief system comes down to what Michelle always said, which is, “It’s chaos. Be kind.” If you want to talk to God — or whatever you think God is — go be nice to another person. That is the best way to communicate with the infinite. Be nice to a family member, a loved one, go spread that around. That’s sort of what I was doing, or started to do once I could move. You’re being a superhero when you’re out doing that. You don’t know how it will be spread around, but you know that you’re literally out there doing good.

Many of us are trying to make sense of current events. We get angry and curse the powers that be. We shake our heads in despair. We worry. We look to one another  for signs of hope. With each day and each piece of ridiculous news the cycle begins again.

It hasn't been easy for any of us. Yet, we are all in this together, and if we don't have hope we don't have a reason to get up in the morning. Hearing Patton's wife's response to the curious chaotic world reminded me that we can only control our own small piece of it. If we can make our space peaceful, that has to be enough.

To combat the struggles, I am determined to keep this mantra: Life is chaos, be kind. Life is chaos, be kind. Life is chaos, be kind.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Lessons: dreams and blessings

Two of my sisters already have their ornaments in storage, trees on the curb, and the last of the pine needles swept away. I heard reports from friends yesterday that leftover cookies found their way to the trash bin overnight.

It is a sleazy time to be alive and many of us are in a rush to wipe the filth of this past year from the soles of our shoes. We are disappointed in so many people we thought were admirable leaders. We are disappointed in family and neighbors who gladly escorted to power the current United States administration. We have witnessed countless acts of cruelty and sadness and loss. Yet, we are fearful of what is yet to come.

Personally, I am in no hurry to move on from Christmas 2017. 

Christmas, and its constant companion nostalgia, always trigger memories that make me more sentimental than I expect they will. Last week I recalled the year my elementary school choir sang "The Friendly Beasts" for our holiday concert. Our teacher divvied out solos to the more extroverted singers, and we all vied for the coveted "I said the donkey" verse. (I am uncertain why that particular verse was so popular, but it may have had something to do with coming first in the song and that donkeys are the cutest of the lovable manger animals.)

A classmate received the donkey-verse honors, and I was disappointed but dutifully set about memorizing the cow-verse which was to be my solo. I also memorized all of the other verses because I thought it was the most beautiful lullaby ever written, and it was about BABY JESUS so he probably knew all the words too.

The kid who was selected to sing the sheep-verse was out sick the day of our concert. Our teacher scrambled to make sure we could sing the song without the sheep soloist. It was a lot to ask of first and second graders, and we began last minute auditions. I knew it was my time to shine, and I loudly sang out (My unbridled enthusiasm often makes up for my shortcomings.):
Jesus our brother, kind and good
Was humbly born in a stable rude
And the friendly beasts around him stood
Jesus our brother, kind and good.
I, said the sheep with curly horn
I gave him my wool for his blanket warm
He wore my coat on Christmas morn
I, said the sheep with curly horn.
That was the year I had two solos in the holiday concert. While I really wanted the donkey-verse, I was content earning both the cow- and sheep-verses. It was a good lesson about making the most of what you are blessed with even when you don't get the thing you really want.

This lesson brings up other Christmas songs that always fill me with emotional memories. I sang two songs to my daughter when she was small every night before bed. "There's Always Tomorrow," from "Rudolph," which reminds us that today might have been a lousy but there is always a tomorrow for dreams to come true. "Count Your Blessings," from "White Christmas," reminds us that even when things seem dire now, we've come a long way from where they used to be.

Never stop believing in your dreams and always be grateful for what you have. These lessons will have to sooth us as we head into 2018.