Grateful for a challenge.

And there. Despite the Vulcan death grip the winter has on our fair state, the calendar insists that today is Ash Wednesday and we have indeed launched the Lenten season.

Or as my sister and I like to treat it, that special time of year when “spittle” is embraced in our daily vernacular. Just doesn’t roll off the tongue as smoothly during other seasons. Try it.

I’ll wait.

See?

In my younger formative years, during a tenure at a parochial school that rings clearer in my head as “that reason why I can’t wear plaid anymore,” we were taught how Lent is a season to reflect on all the divine sacrifices God made for mankind. And to help us better reflect on what it means to sacrifice, we would each commit to giving up something for 40 days. In a child’s world, the prospect of no chocolate or Saturday morning cartoons for 40 days was pretty deep.

Growing older, it became harder to find things to sacrifice. Then a wise adult offered this perspective: what if Lent was an opportunity to commit yourself to doing something you normally don’t do that could help your spiritual growth? Instead of committing to deprive yourself of something, see if you could find a way to enrich through some activity — a new daily prayer, or a service project? It changed my dread of Lent into a happier acceptance. Some years were about sacrifice, others about growth.

Here in this virtual place, I recall the genesis of this blog. It was intended to help me remember to be grateful for the many things I’m blessed with. The kinds of things that are easy to lose sight of or perhaps not give the kind of reflection it truly deserves. I’ve definitely fallen off the daily gratitude wagon, so my Lenten challenge is to reawaken my journal of Daily Gratitudes. See if 40 days of this practice can extend beyond Lent and last much, much longer.

Today? I am grateful for the incessant waking schedule of an infant. While sleep – an uninterrupted sleep lasting hours that require more than one hand for counting – would be preferred, it’s hard to be grumpy about the chirps and shouts that comprise my wake-up calls when, staggering in a half-awake state to my daughter’s crib, I’m greeted with the most dazzling smile. Time and again. She’ll find her sleep-through-the-night rhythm that she had before, and I’ll definitely feel more rested. But I’ll miss the 1:30, 2:15, and 3:30 a.m. smiles.

Happy trails, little buckaroo.

He was an experiment of sorts. A test for a nearly-newlywed couple to measure their aptitude at raising and nurturing another living being that wasn’t a houseplant.

He was a rescue kitten. An ad in the paper – because in those days, fancy things like websites were still taking baby steps across the Internets – and a voicemail led to a stop along our way home from an out of town wedding to visit his foster home.

Tiny enough to look like a healthy-sized dust bunny from a distance, he made a habit of finding the smallest container he could to fit into.

He fit our hearts, and our home, perfectly.

A little kitten with big ears.

A little kitten with big ears.

He came when called, didn’t mind getting wet, would play fetch, watch us with a sad expression on his face from the upstairs window as we left for work in the morning. He hated any uniformed delivery agent who approached the house, which he announced with a fierce growl before fleeing to the highest level of the house he could get into.

He was very dog-like for a cat. We took to calling him “little buckaroo,” even though his name was meant to reflect his breed: a Russian Blue cat named Koshka.

And you wonder why kids were a long time coming for us?

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In older, yet much healthier, days.

It was his last day on this planet Wednesday. After close to 15 years of embedding vivid memories in our minds.

Like the sight of his little tail, sticking straight up, the only visible sign of him as he waded through a sea of wrapping paper and packing peanuts from our wedding presents.

Or the way he would headbutt your arm or leg to let you know he needed your undivided attention now.

His very vocal intolerance for travel.

How he used a pile of laundry to cope with moving from our old house to our current home. Those familiar smells somehow centered him.

His uncanny ability to sense when company was about to leave, to the point of when we’d close and lock the door we were conditioned to look to the floor as we turned around so we wouldn’t step on his silent sitting figure right behind us.

He would grudgingly get along with a kitten we introduced to the household when he was five years old. And after a couple weeks of power-pouting, accepted our firstborn with a little cat-bath on the top of our infant’s bald head.

Aging was a verb he tackled with as much grace as he could, but the past year was a hard one for him. He grew codgerly, needed insulin, and was forced to adopt a low-carb diet. Despite these changes, he kept up a brave front. Even as aging and health progressed to the point where some of life’s most basic functions were no longer controlled by him.

That’s how we found ourselves bringing the pet carrier down from the attic one last time for him. Why we added an extra towel, to help guard against the wintry chill outside (even though we knew it would need to be laundered aggressively later). Quietly entering a room with walls almost the same color as the foster home spare room we first met him in. Stroking his silky fur from the top of his head, curling around the bases of his ears, scratching under his chin and trailing our fingers gently over haunches that grew more pronounced over the past few months. Loving him as best as we could as he left us to find a much better, pain-free, place.

There will never be another cat like him.

Good manners: gifts for your care team

Upfront, let me just say that this is in no way a “must do.” Everyone has different care experiences, and some believe this is going too far. This is intended to share what I did without turning it into a “should” for you, dear reader. Unless you think it doesn’t go far enough. I’m not even talking to you if that’s what you think.

The first time I was preparing to welcome a baby into the world, I heard murmurs and whispers about doing “a little something” for the staff who would care for you at the hospital.

This was news to me – and so I polled, quizzed and queried my way into understanding this practice. I learned that some mom-friends of mine showed up at their place of birthin’ with a cookie tray they had ordered from their nearby bakery, or had a plan in place for their partners to dash out and buy bagels (or pizzas, depending on the time of day) for the nurses’ station once their baby was born and all were well. Other sources I read showed that some people believed it would be offensive to the care team, that the services rendered were just part of the job, and giving them treats doesn’t buy you any favors.

That made me pause.

Whether paid or not, all of us work. All of us have jobs that we’re just supposed to do. Does that mean we don’t want to be recognized or thanked for doing that job?

No. And as our firstborn’s due date came and went, and an induction date was scheduled, I had the luxury of cleaning the hell out of my house one last time, preordering an arrangement of flowers to be delivered to my OBGYN after the baby was born and pulling together some treats to bring with us and share with the hospital staff. I ruthlessly took advantage of the fact that some members of my family are healthcare professionals, and asked for their feedback on what would be most appreciated/useful/desired in a treat basket. Here’s what I learned:

  • Portability is key. Many of the hospital staff are on their feet and on the go for the bulk of their shifts – in some cases skipping breaks and cutting meals short to do what needs doing. Tempting as it may be, if the item isn’t something that can be grabbed and tucked away in a pocket or eaten while walking down the hall, it may just be passed over.
  • Balance the sinful with the healthful. Treats are nice, but depending on either the time of the year or a staff member’s personal health goals, there’s a real risk of sugar overload. Consider adding fresh produce in with the treats and offer a choice.
  • No refrigeration required. This should be a no-brainer, but any treat will most likely be sitting out on a counter in a break room, so make sure whatever is brought in can tolerate at least a single shift out in fluorescent lighting with nowhere to hide.

Using that information all those years ago, I arrived with a basket brimming with oranges, apples, grapes…and some chocolate oat bars, cut and individually wrapped. The one glitch I encountered was when my labor stalled, an emergency c-section was called for, and as the on-call anesthesiology team was congratulating us on our healthy baby boy, I offered up the information that we brought some bars. “No one told us there were treats!” was the outcry. And in the blink of an eye, the surgical suite was emptied, save for myself and the recovery nurse.

For our latest baby, I intended to do it all again – flowers for the OBGYN, and treats for the hospital staff. But, being older and wiser, I also took the minute-and-a-half needed to inquire with my doctor on what staffing numbers typically run at our Women’s Center, as well as the size of the anesthesiology team. To make sure whatever I prepared and brought in would cover at least a shift.

Considering the autumnal air, I then took time to plan out some goodies that felt seasonally appropriate — honeycrisp apples for the healthy, some Lawry’s seasoned popcorn , and for the real treat: brown butter salted caramel snickerdoodles. The day before our scheduled caesarean was spent cooking and packaging.

IMG_3836IMG_3837IMG_3838IMG_3839Some craft paper labels and a trip to Dollar Tree gave me all I needed to dress up the tray and add the personal touch we wanted. But the cookie recipe is what really stole the show. Here’s the recipe, which I found at another blog:

Brown Butter Salted Caramel Snickerdoodles

(from Two Peas and Their Pod)

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2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup unsalted butter, sliced
1 1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon plain Greek yogurt
1 cup caramel squares, cut into 1/4’s

For Rolling the Cookies:
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Sea salt, for sprinkling on top of cookies

Directions

IMG_3828In a medium bowl, Whisk together the flour, baking soda, cream of tartar, cinnamon, and salt. Set aside.

IMG_3827To brown the butter, heat a thick-bottomed skillet on medium heat. Add the sliced butter, whisking frequently. Continue to cook the butter until melted. The butter will start to foam and browned specks will begin to form at the bottom of the pan. The butter should have a nutty aroma. Watch the butter carefully because it can go from brown to burnt quickly. Remove butter from the heat and let cool to room temperature.

IMG_3830In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the brown butter and sugars. Mix until blended and smooth. Beat in the egg, yolk, vanilla, and yogurt and mix until combined. Slowly add in the dry ingredients and mix until just combined.

Form the dough in a ball and cover with plastic wrap. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. You can chill the dough overnight.

IMG_3829(While the dough chilled, I took time to quarter the caramels.)

IMG_3831When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Measure about 2 tablespoons of dough and roll into balls.

IMG_3832Flatten the ball with the palm of your hand and place a piece of caramel in the center of the dough. Wrap the cookie dough around the caramel, making sure the caramel is completely covered with dough.

IMG_3833 In a small bowl, combine the cinnamon and sugar. Roll the balls in the cinnamon-sugar mixture.

IMG_3834Place dough balls on a large baking sheet that has been lined with parchment paper. Make sure the cookies are about 2 inches apart. Sprinkle the cookie tops with sea salt.

IMG_3835Bake the cookies 8-10 minutes or until the edges of the cookies begin to turn golden brown. The centers will still be soft. Cool the cookies on the baking sheet for 2-3 minutes, or until set. Transfer cookies to a wire cooling rack and cool completely.

Overheard recently in the Living Room

Me (under pile of back-to-school paperwork): hey, what’s the kiddo’s student number again?

Him (sitting in front of the computer): you don’t have the email I sent you?

Me: Not in front of me, no. This form has a line for the student number, and we could leave it blank without penalty, I’m guessing. But since you looked it up last week, I thought you’d like the chance to mess with the office staff and just write it in for them.

Him: Ooh! Hang on a sec (begins typing furiously).

For Luann.

A dear family friend, gone too soon. Missed most by her husband, children and grandchildren, but almost equally by countless friends.

What Sweeter Music

What sweeter music can we bring
Than a carol, for to sing
The birth of this our heavenly King?
Awake the voice! Awake the string!

Dark and dull night, fly hence away,
And give the honor to this day,
That sees December turned to May.

Why does the chilling winter’s morn
Smile, like a field beset with corn?
Or smell like a meadow newly-shorn,
Thus, on the sudden? Come and see
The cause, why things thus fragrant be:
‘Tis He is born, whose quickening birth
Gives life and luster, public mirth,
To heaven, and the under-earth.

We see him come, and know him ours,
Who, with his sunshine and his showers,
Turns all the patient ground to flowers.
The darling of the world is come,

And fit it is, we find a room
To welcome him. The nobler part
Of all the house here, is the heart.
Which we will give him; and bequeath
This holly, and this ivy wreath,
To do him honour, who’s our King,
And Lord of all this revelling.

What sweeter music can we bring,
Than a carol for to sing
The birth of this our heavenly King?

Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

A Conversation at Costco

(Recently conducted, after lugging a 40-pound bag of cat litter into the shopping cart.)

HIM: Maybe we should toilet train the cats.

ME: No, we don’t want to do that.

KID: That’s silly, Daddy!

HIM: Why not?

ME: You don’t want those cats toilet-trained.

HIM: Okay, tell me why.

ME: Because, if they truly exist to make your life miserable as you tell me so often, as soon as they see you heading for the bathroom they’ll sprint into the room, slamming the door behind them, and just sit there for a good half-hour, whether they have to use the toilet or not.

KID: Yeah!

HIM: We have three bathrooms; and there’s only two of them.

ME: I don’t know how, but gut instinct tells me that they’ll find a way to render them all useless right when you need one the most.

HIM: You’re probably right.

 

Conversation to kill time on the road

DISCLAIMER: No one in the car was pregnant at the time this conversation happened. No one recapping this conversation is pregnant, either. Felt the need to state this up-front given the subject matter about to be discussed.

Sooo, not pregnant. Got that? Okay. Moving on, now.

[Conversation in the car on our way somewhere, because the people-watching in neighboring vehicles wasn’t all that interesting.]

ME: How about Pierce for a boy’s name?

HIM: Pierce? [throws eyebrow-askew glance towards passenger side]

ME: Yeah! Like Pierce Brosnan. Not a bad actor, if you ask me. Or, more significantly, as in Benjamin Franklin Pierce, the character in M*A*S*H.

HIM: Pierce?

ME: You know, Hawkeye Pierce, nicknamed after the character in James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans…”

HIM: …where we got the idea of using Cora for a girl’s name!

ME: Annnd there. The dots are connected. Circle complete, see?

HIM: I don’t know.

ME: sigh.