Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Dissecting "The Best TV Shows of 2018"

I've fully watched just one show among the eleven named today by the New York Times as "The Best TV Shows of 2018," : HBO's moody "Sharper Objects."

Presented in eight one-hour programs first aired on Sunday evenings, "Sharper Objects" engaged my interest through odd behavior, petty humanity, Southern Gothic drama, and tantalizingly half-explained scenes. Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson exquisitely inhabited the dysfunctional mother-and-daughter lead roles. 

I liked this pretty psycho-drama, although Hubby was bored by "Sharper Objects," in contrast to, say, Sunday Night Football or Sportscenter. I suppose he doesn't classify watching crazy womenfolk as pleasurable...

Of the other "Best Shows," I couldn't warm-up to the highly acclaimed "Barry."  Much as I admire SNL-alum Bill Hader, who is both lead actor and writer, the conflicted plight of a hired killer isn't hilarious to me. No matter how clever. Just not funny.

Family tells me that "The Americans" on FX is pretty great. Which means it caught and kept their attention for an hour. The show is "... a period drama about the complex marriage of two KGB spies posing as Americans in suburban Washington D.C. during the Reagan administration" per FX.

Because we don't have enough of that in our daily news headlines? Television at night is an escape in our home from headlines, not time to delve more deeply into politics and government policies. It's a prelude to sleep, rather than antidote.

What do we regularly watch?  Baseball in season. "Saturday Night Live," still, because we long for a good laugh, especially about politics. 

I rarely miss a "Top Chef" episode. Season 16 premieres on December 6th, this Thursday, on Bravo!! In Kentucky, of all places. Hard to conjure foodie chefs creating edgy Southern-food dishes.  (Photo right of judges Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio.)

Our secret vice? "Hawaii Life" on HGTV, an hour weekly of house-hunting in Hawaii, because we fantasize about escaping it all and fleeing to the big Island for a life of savoring fresh pineapple for daily breakfast, and sipping mai tais each evening amid dazzling tropical sunsets.

I wonder... do they even watch television in Hawaii? Have Hawaiian residents heard of any of these programs?  

If not, Hawaii, here we come. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Trees in Spring

I think that I shall never see 
 A poem lovely as a tree. 

 A tree whose hungry mouth is prest 
 Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast; 

 A tree that looks at God all day, 
And lifts her leafy arms to pray; 

 A tree that may in summer wear 
 A nest of robins in her hair; 

 Upon whose bosom snow has lain; 
 Who intimately lives with rain. 

 Poems are made by fools like me, 
 But only God can make a tree.

-----  Poet Joyce Kilmer, (1886 - 1918)

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Dancing in the Rain with Joy and Persistence

"Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass. It's about learning to dance in the rain."

My family lamented the storm.  A lot.  My parents were worriers.  About money, foremost.  But about... well, everything that might happen. 

About car accidents. Ironically, about both illnesses and doctors. About what other people thought of us. About what we thought of them. About succeeding. About not succeeding. About succeeding too much. 

My mother worried incessantly about our Christmas tree catching fire. About concussions at ice-skating birthday parties. That we didn't eat enough cottage cheese. (Seriously. Ask my sister...) Ours was a fearful home, likely borne of my parents' Depression-era upbringings in poor farming families. Unfettered joy was not a "thing" our cautious home.

Until I read the mantra (above) a few years ago, about not waiting for the storm to pass, it never occurred to me to dance in the rain, rather than slogging out the storm before moving forward in joy under perfect skies. 

Today is one of those joyful days, where I witnessed the fruition of dancing in the rain for years without assurances of anything. I pushed ahead in faith to do the right things without waiting for perfect conditions. And I followed my heart's callings, never pondering where they might lead.  Never imagining they might lead to anything at all. 

Then today....

I learned from blood test results that my health has improved substantially over the past year, largely due to more thoughtful food choices.  

After four years of blogging nearly 400 recipes at my pet-project, Lost American Recipes site, I received an inquiry today from Smithsonian Books... yes, THE Smithsonian... about my project as a whole, and asking if I would include material from one of their books at my site.  

After years of me studying our local political scene, the campaign manager of a leading Democratic contender to replace Congressman Ed Royce in upcoming November elections privately emailed to ask me to meet her candidate at a meet-and-greet or one-on-one.  Anytime. Soon. Asking what I need to know. And to please consider endorsing him. 

In all three situations, I sowed seeds by doing the hard work. I moved forward, ignoring naysayers, avoiding toxic influences, and sidestepping storms. I didn't worry, or commiserate, or frankly, anticipate specific results of any sort. 

I moved forward in faith and joy, with persistence and confidence rather than fearing life. Or car accidents, or burning Christmas trees, or doctors, or ice skating concussions, or succeeding or failing. (I do still fear cottage cheese. I detest it to this very day...) 

I learned to dance in the rain, rather than wasting life waiting for the storm to pass.  And after the rain, my fields of endeavor are bearing unexpected blossoms. 

I feel grateful. 

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Tyranny of Hallmark Christmas Movies

For decades, I believed my family's Christmas celebrations should be, feel, and look like Hallmark holiday movies, although I'd never actually watched one of Hallmark's pretty fantasy films until the last few weeks. 

You know... those gently paced films featuring stately Christmas trees twinkling with tiny white lights and shiny, traditional ornaments. With cozy yet spacious, tasteful homes generously furnished in warm tones. Set in adorable snowy towns with cute, local shops and friendly shopkeepers, and nary a Big Box retailer in sight. 

Movies that invariably include homey activities done together... cookie baking, parade planning, float decorating, gingerbread house building, making angels in freshly-fallen white snow. Tree decorating seems part of every Hallmark Christmas movie, as if the tree was the sacred center of a retail-based, rather than religious-based, holiday.

Movies in which people save all manner of things. Save Santa. Save belief in Santa. Save a beloved Christmas store. Save a charming cottage. Save a Christmas celebration. Save dogs, cats, or horses. Save a small theater or church pageant. Save small town history.  Save the town gazebo. Save the Christmas spirit. Save a woman from time travel. Save love, most of all. 

In Hallmark Christmas movies, people are attractive and immaculately groomed. They wear lovely but never edgy clothes. Certainly no tattoos, no stray piercings, no blue-streaked tresses. They behave with patience, kindness, and impeccable manners. They smile a lot. They speak in dulcet tones and slow cadences, even when calmly disagreeing over tiffs that will be resolved, usually with a kiss, in two hours. 

Sneer as you might at the cheesy dialogue, formulaic feel-good stories, white-bread actors, and impossible plots. Reality is that Hallmark's Christmas movie kingdom is a wildly-profitable smash hit, with 85 million viewers just in November and December 2017. 

"The Hallmark Channel was the No. 1 cable network among women ages 25 to 54 in the fourth quarter of 2016, and its ratings have seen even more growth in 2017," per the Washington Post. The Washington Post column, penned by comedian Cassie Belek, continues:
"While other cable networks have been losing viewers, the Hallmark Channel has been a success story. Theories of the ratings spike range from viewers seeking an escape from the daily fresh hells of 2017 to viewers seeking to embrace the 'traditional values' of a country made great again...
"I am the first to admit that Hallmark Christmas movies are flawed...  I love these movies filled with fake snow, small towns, Folgers coffee cans, dead moms, Taylor Townsend from 'The O.C.' and that one cafe that they keep using in multiple movies without changing the name...
"As divisive as 2017 has been, my female friends and family of all races and political beliefs have been talking about and watching Hallmark Christmas movies more than ever...  
"... women need a little Christmas in 2017. We need 90 minutes to sit down with the people we care about and watch characters love, cry, learn, forgive and get into snowball fights while living in beautiful homes they can’t afford and building elaborate gingerbread houses in impossible amounts of time."
Count me in as one who  is "seeking an escape from the daily fresh hells of 2017."  I can scarcely bear to hear political headlines, especially during this holiday season. And I can't fathom watching programs depicting death, violence, cruelty, broken relationships, or general ugliness.  Life in 2017 is packed with darkness. I don't hunger for darkness in escapist doses of culture.

I thirst for beauty in my entertainment. For charm and possibly cleverness. For loveliness. For positive thinking, and for altruism. For saving things, all for good, if often local or small, causes.  I yearn to sleep well at night, placated with visions of happy people, happy lives, a peaceful world.  My version of sugarplum fairies dancing in my head, I guess. 

Where's the tyranny of Hallmark Christmas movies?  

So where's the tyranny of Hallmark Christmas movies?  The impossible standards set by Hallmark's film fantasies.  Like comparing ourselves to young, lithe Vogue magazine models, almost none of us can emulate the sheer perfection of Hallmark's glossy holiday dreams.

The tyranny is that for decades, thanks to my mother's impossible standards, I believed my family's Christmas celebrations should be, feel, and look like Hallmark holiday movies, although I'd never watched one of Hallmark's films until the last few weeks. 

Now, Hallmark Christmas movies actively reinforce my sense of holiday inferiority. Of not doing enough, not being enough. not giving enough, not having enough.  Of my family not being happy enough.  Of my home not being warm or lavish enough. Of our gifts not being thoughtful enough. Of our celebrations and rituals not being festive enough.  

Of our Christmas decor not being pretty or elaborate enough. (At commercial breaks, Hallmark sells trees, wreaths, decorations, and ornaments so you can duplicate the look of their movies. And spend money to feed your fantasies. See their Shop the Look of Christmas website.) 

This year, my family of 9 (7 adults, 2 grandchildren) enjoyed a sublime Christmas Day at our home, blessed with a delicious feast, piles of thoughtful presents, and plenty of love. 

But over the course of our 4 days of festivities (movies, a round of golf, dinners out, football watching, cookie munching, gift wrapping), our Christmas was also messy and imperfect. None of us behaved with consistent patience, kindness, and impeccable manners. No one spoke in dulcet tones and slow cadences. 

There was a meltdown one evening by one who feels strangled by holiday relentlessness. There was an hour of boorish behavior by one who feels left out of family intimacies. There was disappointment by one who felt childish jealousy of another's presents. Three days after Christmas, our home remains brightly littered with wrapping paper, ribbons, and boxes. 

We are grateful for a long Christmas weekend as an imperfect, divinely human family. But we didn't measure up to Hallmark's picturesque high-bar for what Christmas celebrations "should be."

And I, a fool who unconsciously aspires to perfection in most things, felt twinges of remorse and pain over the challenging small moments with my loved ones. I am wrong. Hallmark is partially the culprit for my shallow guilt.  

After all... ours is a wonderful life, albeit laced with bumps and potholes in the road. To quote Jimmy Stewart, "It's a Wonderful Life!"

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Things Change. Of Panera and UPS, People and ATMs and Divine Peaches

Things change. My Wednesday mornings are changing, after seven delighting years.

Today is my last Wednesday morning to rise early and, come pelting rain or warmest sunshine, pick-up our weekly carton of freshly farmed organic produce from a small, refrigerated truck in the Big Lots parking lot.

Today is my last morning to chat with Tammy, the pastor's wife who distributes produce as a second job and personal ministry. She and her husband planted a new church a couple years ago in San Juan Capistrano.  Her husband and parents substitute for her when she's ill or visiting her sister. 

Today is my last morning to make small talk with Juan, the truck driver and family farmer who packs the company truck the night before, sleeps a few hours, then drives nearly 300 miles each way on Wednesdays to deliver the latest crops to Placentia and Irvine. Juan's parents are buried in the same country cemetery as my grandparents, who also farmed in the San Joaquin Valley.

Today is my last morning to amiably chat with others picking up their weekly farming allotment.  Others also clad in hastily pulled-on clothes and barely combed hair, nursing the day's first cup of coffee. My last morning to smile at and greet the plainly garbed black woman who smiles shyly, but never speaks. My last morning to observe the perfectly-coiffed women in spandex leggings, pricey running shoes, and gigantic SUVs as they gossip about the latest church doings. My last morning to admire from afar the 70-something couple who buy a large produce carton each week, to distribute to homeless shelters. My last morning to exchange cooking tips for last week's produce. (Try tossing broccoli with olive oil and kosher salt, then roasting for 20 minutes.  My husband and son can't get enough. Those divine peaches...those grapes! ) 

Today is my last morning for my seven-year post-produce ritual.  Driving past a Christmas tree farm and miles of glinty-green soccer fields to Panera Bread for a spinach-laden breakfast sandwich and more coffee.  Watching suited real estate agents on Panera's front patio listening to a marketing guru and laboring to impress each other. 

Enjoying my veggie sandwich at the local park. Watching ducks, assorted geese, and a lone egret or two. Watching young mothers push strollers. Watching retired couples stroll in unison. Watching dogs being walked, carried, and also pushed in strollers. Watching a clutch of elderly men sail elaborate model boats in the lake. 

Sipping coffee while meditating on trees and sky and reflective water. While praying to our God. While listening to soft music. While admittedly checking my phone. 

But things change. Our carton of organic produce will be delivered by UPS, starting after Thanksgiving. No more need for contact with any of these people. No need to leave my home.

This morning, Wells Fargo's ATM was the first to wish me a happy birthday, one week in advance. My phone assistant, the one I didn't ask for, wants me to ask questions of her.  But I can't think of any questions that I can't answer using my own resources. I certainly don't need an ordering assistant. I order too much stuff already. 

We used to chuckle when my father-in-law refused to use a debit card or ATM machine for years. He said he wanted to walk into a bank, and talk to a teller who knows him. He wanted human contact.  He wanted to be known. I understand that impulse. 

Things change, often for the best.  But these changes that remove and replace human connection, I don't think they're for the best. 

But still, things change and ebb and flow.That's modern life, I guess. I deeply miss the people and people-watching that efficient technology has replaced in my life. 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

"The Year of Pleasures" by Elizabeth Berg: Charm with a Bite

"The buzzer on the stove sounded. I took the pie out and put it on a cooking rack, closed my eyes, and leaned in to smell. Then I headed upstairs to find something to wear tonight. I would bathe, rest, dress, and go to search out the company of others, bearing the gift of fruit in pastry. 

"What did we do here but pull ourselves along in this fashion? Never mind our various life circumstances, what I believed was that we had all been flung into the water without having been taught to swim. We ate, we slept, we formed our kaleidoscopic relationships and marched ever forward.

"We licked chocolate from our fingers. We arranged flowers in vases.  We inspected our backsides when tried on new clothes.  We gave ourselves over to art.  We elected officials and complained. We stood up for home runs.

"We marked life passages in ceremonies we attended with impatience and pride... We felt at times that perhaps we really were visitors from another planet. We occasionally wondered if it was true that each of us was making everything up.

"But this was a wobbly saucer; this was thinking we could not endure; we went back to our elegant denial of unbreachable isolation, to refusing the lesson of being born alone and dying that way, too.

"We went back to loving, to eating, to sleeping, to marching and marching and marching along."   

This passage is from  the novel "The Year of Pleasures" by Elizabeth Berg, the September 2017 book selection for my local public library book club.

I hadn't looked forward much to reading this slim volume, and regarded it as fluff, aimed women of a certain age. And it is, for the most part.  I usually read literary classics and current best-sellers, and non-fiction, often biographies or related to environmental or political topics. 

But I liked this charming novel more than I expected, largely because the author appeals often to the senses... taste, smell, sight, hearing, touch.  Reading "The Year of Pleasures" was a relaxing, sensory experience.

Elizabeth Berg can also dazzle with descriptions, such as this paragraph on page 78:
"The mantel clock struck five, startling me from my reverie... I moved to the kitchen window and watched the movement of clouds across the sky, then the lazy revolutions of a falling maple seed just outside the glass. It looked like a tiny pair of discarded angels wings, browned with age."
Like a squeeze of sour lemon in a hot cup of soothing tea, though, author Berg also startles the reader, from time to time, with sharply acidic notes... the bitchy girlfriend of a lovely young man; bitter disappointment when her late husband's written legacies are meaningless mumbo-jumbo; the passage above that belies puzzlement at the meaning of life. 

Just beneath the pretty words and images of this book float anxiety, bite, and a touch of bile.  That is what makes "The Year of Pleasures" interesting.  Not just the sensory experience...Life is not merely a freshly baked pie, "the gift of fruit in pastry."

Clever book. Clever author and very smart editor. Don't judge this book only by its delicious cover. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Roasted Corn and Cucumber Summer Salad

Despite my extensive cookbook collection, both vintage and current, I often create my own dishes based on the contents of our over-filled refrigerator. 

I'm enamored of the lettuce-free salad I concocted for my lunch today. (I'm tired of salad greens lately for no particular reason.) Using organic veggies from this week's CSA produce delivery, my delicious summer salad is also simple.

Roasted Corn and Cucumber Summer Salad
  • 1 whole cucumber, peeled and diced into large bites
  • 10 to 12 cherry tomatoes, cut in half
  • 2 ears of grilled corn, chilled and cut from the cobs
  • 2 ounces of jack cheese, cut into bite-sized cubes

Next time, I'll add a quarter cup of chopped red onions, and maybe a small handful of chopped walnuts. The grilled corn ears were leftovers from last night's dinner. 

I tossed this refreshing summer salad with a very small amount of ranch dressing.

Enjoy!  Thanks to my sister, Teri, for inspiring me to eat even more veggies.