Monday, February 21, 2011

The Way to a Man’s Heart

One of the secrets to a good relationship is to know your role. At our house, my husband is the Executive Chef, and I’m the sous-chef. That means he makes the big, elaborate plans, executes them to perfection, and I help with prep work when called upon and clean up afterward. And, of course, I take the blame if things don’t turn out right. Hey- that’s just part of the job.

It’s almost time for a fairly new family tradition- Gourmet Valentine’s Dinner. Chef and I started doing this several years ago when we decided that standing in a long line with all of the other happy couples at a local restaurant was losing its romance. So, we take turns each year coming up with something extra special in our own kitchen. Hopefully, he doesn’t often recall the first Valentine’s meal I prepared, which included a heart-shaped cake that featured a crack patched with red-hot candies.

There’s a bit of irony here, because in the days when we had kids at home, I took a lot of ridicule for trying new things at the supper table. If I dared to stray off the familiar path, my dear spouse would build the kids up all day. “Don’t worry, we can always order pizza if it’s too awful.” By the time we sat down, I was doomed. So, I normally stuck with my limited repertoire of quick and easy, and lots of it.
Some of those meals have garnered compliments over the years, I guess. One newly married friend ate at our house and wouldn’t leave without my recipe. He paid his own sweet bride a back-handed compliment. “Honey, even you could fix this, I’m sure.”

Looking back, the failures stand out more than the successes. When one of our sons was in college, he told me he and his buddies had a conversation about whose Mom made the best banana pudding, and he bragged on mine. Clever way of getting me to fix some each time he came home, right? On one weekend trip, the result of my efforts was more like cold banana soup. I couldn’t let that become the topic of conversation on “The Hill” so I immediately went to the store, replaced the ingredients, and started over. After all, I had a reputation to uphold!

After the nest emptied, Hubby started enjoying cooking more, and we even went to New Orleans to become certified in Cajun and Creole cooking. No kidding- we have a framed certificate on the wall! He’s collected some really cool kitchen gadgets, and we spend many evenings tuned into to Food Network. Emeril taught him not to be afraid to add some “Bam”, and he also claims to have learned a lot from watching Rachel Ray. (She’s kind of cute, so I’m not sure it’s all about what she’s cooking).
So, since I’m in charge of the Valentine’s Day dinner this year, I’m mulling over possible entrees, trying to come up with some side dishes and then looking for a killer dessert, all for someone who is successfully controlling his carbs. Not an easy task. My fall-backs usually involve lots of pasta and sweets. This will take some research, and creativity!

I think that the old adage about the path to a person’s heart is true, though. There are many ways to “attract” someone. Holding on for the long haul is something totally different. There’s something about cooking for someone you care about that implies commitment. You put your best efforts out there, with the risk of failure and extreme embarrassment, because you sincerely care. Maybe that’s what is most impressive. Regardless of the ratio of succulent meals to total flops, it’s the fact that you consider that person worth the effort. In this particular case, the sous-chef is very glad to keep trying. This one particular Iron Chef will always be tops with me.

Good Beginnings and Great New Starts

So, a new year is under way, and a new decade. Or did the new decade start last year? Regardless, it’s a time to look over our shoulder for a moment before marching boldly forward. With the fresh calendar page, we have a chance to clean the slate, grab a new piece of chalk, and begin to create something really great (with our erasers handy when we change our minds).

I’ve been thinking back on the great places and situations that gave me my start. I grew up with a Mom who refused to buy into the idea of a “broken home” and instead did everything possible to give me and my sister a firm foundation to carry us along in life. Our little town encouraged us with an emphasis on churches, schools, parks, concerts, parades. All of the things that make for a rich and happy childhood. We took advantage of everything that was free or affordable with a little planning and saving, and can now spend hours regaling anyone who wants to sit still long enough with countless happy tales.

After moving to Arkansas, I happened into a great place to spend my senior year of high school. At a recent reunion, I realized that Bryant was a good place for a great start in our adult lives. Attending school in a time before corporal punishment ended, we learned that life wasn’t always fair or easy, but together, we could survive and thrive. Our boundaries were clear, and consequences certain. We seemed to have emerged with a “can-do” spirit that still exists. There’s not a lot of “Why-me?”s heard in this group. It’s more often “Why not?” We don’t have a whole lot of famous or wealthy alums, but we certainly have some of the friendliest and most hard-working.

It’s probably no secret that each week of my life has a good beginning. I spend an hour or so on the first day worshipping with like minded people. The strength and happiness this provides cannot be measured. I understand those who say that they haven’t found a group where they “fit in”, but my answer is to keep trying. The process of taking the focus off of yourself and expressing thanks to the Source of your daily blessings seems to me to be the best way to prepare for the trials of the week to come.

Along those lines, our little congregation in Paron is making a very big new start this year. A new minister hopes to energize and motivate us to continue the good work that has been happening in that community for almost a hundred years. His name is in fact, Christmas. Very appropriate since that celebration commemorates the very best new beginning in the history of mankind.

Even our favorite college football team is getting in the happy New Start mode. For the first time in a very long time, we are close enough to the top of the polls to be listed among contenders for a National Championship. Our team will be celebrating the New Year a few days late in New Orleans, which is currently the center of a rebounding economy on the Gulf. It feels good to feel so good, for Razorback fans, and for residents of the Big Easy.

So what will you do with your fresh start? Are you full of hopeful plans for 2011? If not, take a look back to see what you can draw on from your past. Do you have a firm starting place by virtue of a good upbringing? If not, look around for someone you know who does. Talk to them about the source of their strength. They’ll most likely be glad to share, and may even steer you toward someone who can help.
This past summer, a Florida rainstorm trapped my grandson and me on a Disney ride with an annoying, but catchy song. It still populates our heads now and then, reminding us that “There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow, just a dream away!” Hope 2011 brings lots of great beginnings for you and yours.

Over the River and Through the Woods

The Waltons had it made. To clarify, I’m talking here about the TV family, not the multi-millionaires from NW Arkansas. Yes, when it comes to family unity and stability, having a great big house on top of a hill was a wonderful thing. Three generations living under one roof year-round meant that for holidays there was no question about the venue for a celebration. All roads led to Walton’s Mountain. Even during times of great hardship or war, all the members of the family had one goal, to arrive at Grandma’s table in time for Grandpa’s blessing before carving into Olivia’s perfectly cooked turkey.

Of course, real life has never been that simple.

About the middle of November, you’ll hear me start to spout some very familiar phrases. “The date on the calendar doesn’t really matter. We love seeing you anytime.” And then there’s the ever popular “Even if we can’t all be together at the same time, We’ll love having each of you.” Sigh.

These statements are actually very true, of course. And to be fair, our children don’t neglect us. We talk to them quite often, and have seen all of them as recently as last summer. It’s just that as the smell of freshly baked sugar cookies starts to fill the air, I have to repeat these things over and over to convince myself.

I blame the media.

Just when I’ve adjusted to seeing my kids and grands on a trickle in and out basis between Thanksgiving and Spring Break, one of those hokey commercials pops up on the television. You know the scene. The well-groomed family is gathering around a perfectly dressed table next to a beautiful Christmas tree. Everyone glances with a smile at the picture of the one missing member who can’t join them because they are… fill in the blank … off to college, defending our freedoms in the military, or serving as a missionary in Bora Bora.

The youngest members of the group are peering out the window through the gently falling snow trying to catch a glimpse of Santa’s sleigh. Just as Mom carries the antique gravy boat to the table, the doorbell rings. Dad opens the door, and Surprise! Wayward Child appears on the porch with his back pack and duffel bags full of dirty laundry (oops- I mean Christmas presents). Laughter, hugs, cut to the product logo.

What are they trying to sell? Don’t bother me with details.

An Eighties movie called “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” emphasizes our obsession with being home for the holidays. The characters played by Steve Martin and John Candy suffer all sorts of indignities before bonding and ultimately making it just in time for Thanksgiving dinner.

In our family, we’ve often tried to explain to our kids how difficult it is to make a journey to see each other. Our oldest grandson used to recite a little “How do we get there?” speech, which summarized the directions to his destination. He particularly liked the route to Uncle Jon’s, Uncle Chris and Aunt Kat’s houses- “Out on the highway, over the mountains, and through the tunnel” back in the Fayetteville days. Then, after he moved to Texas, the trip to see anyone was “Drive, drive, drive, Take a Nap, drive, drive, drive some more.”

Add to the logistics the fact that all of our little families have jobs and vacation schedules to juggle, and the realities of assembling in one spot on any given day become very difficult. I understand that perfectly, really I do.
Uh-oh. There’s another commercial, playing “I’ll be Home for Christmas.” Somebody turn that doggoned TV off.

After all, Christmas is not about me, anyway. It’s a time to be reminded of the great love our Heavenly Father demonstrated when he sent His Son to live here with us. Because of that great gift, we all have a chance to be together at home someday.
So, Good-night Grandpa, Good night, Mary Ellen, Goodnight Ben, and Merry Christmas John-Boy, wherever you are!

Making a Difference- Easier Than You Think

I confess that I often get a bad case of the “don’t-want- tos” when I’m getting ready for work in the morning. Especially now that the weather is cooler, it is so tempting to stay home in my “pj”s. So what motivates me to don my “business casual” attire, apply makeup and drive into the city? The prospect of a paycheck is a large part of it. Even more important though, is the thought that I might actually make a difference. It is satisfying to think that what I do might make someone else’s day a little brighter in some way.
Outside of our working life, we are constantly asked to help others. When we watch the news and hear of so many folks who need so much help we can be easily overwhelmed. My watchword in this case comes from an expert at making a difference, JoAnn Cayce of Thornton. Her advice to me: “Honey, just do what you can.”
Think for a moment about what you are already doing. Is there a particular charity that “has your number” and calls you year after year because they can depend on you to give at least a little? Did you ever walk around the downtown area of a nearby city with 40,000 of your closest friends in support of brave cancer survivors? Do you give to your local church? See, you are already in the habit of being helpful.
I think making a difference becomes a mindset. It’s a natural reaction of a grateful heart. We are so blessed that we can’t help sharing with others. There are so many opportunities, especially with the holidays approaching. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with checking out a charity before you give. After all, you want to be sure that your gift will really reach someone who is really in need. Sometimes the grass-roots organizations are the best. In Saline County, the Churches Joint Council on Human Need operates a food pantry, and also helps promote a drive to collect warm coats each year. One of my favorite charities asks me to simply mail some letters to a few friends, asking for a donation. I like this much better than the traditional “door to door” approach, and although I don’t have huge results, it does generate a little bit for medical research.
Your time can be even more valuable than your money. So many organizations can use your talents, and provide you with a feeling of satisfaction for a job well done. Organizations like Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Habitat for Humanity, Civitan, and the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are always looking for people with big hearts and willing hands. Volunteering can enrich so many lives, including your own.
On a smaller scale, we can watch for opportunities in our everyday life. Did someone need a hand holding a door, or carrying a package? Could you afford to pay for a cup of coffee for the guy behind you in line? Each courtesy we extend to others just warms our own hearts.
I remember a story that a former Miss Saline County shared with my daughter’s Girl Scout troop years ago. I’ve seen it in different forms on the Internet, and it has a wonderful message. It goes something like this:
A child was walking along the beach, and noticed hundreds of starfish washed up on the sand. The tide was going out, and she knew that if these little animals didn’t make it back into the water, they would die. She began picking them up, one by one, and tossing them as far out to sea as she could. A man walked by and pointed out that there were hundreds, and she couldn’t possibly save them all.
His question to the little girl: “What does it matter?”
Her reply: “It matters to this one” as she stooped to pick up another starfish, “It matters to this one,” throwing it toward the ocean with all of her strength. “It matters to this one.”
Your efforts do make a difference. Just watch for opportunities, and do what you can.
I’d love to hear about what you do, and how it makes you feel. Write to me in care of Ouachita Life, or leave a comment on my blog at