Tom’s Truths

My husband Tom is the smartest person I know. Lots of people throw these kinds of platitudes around, but I’m serious. He remembers everything he learned in school, and I don’t mean college or grad school. He remembers science facts from middle school. He remembers the title of every book he was assigned to read all throughout his academic career. There are very few bodies of water or islands that he can’t identify, as well as tell you the military conflicts that settled who has sovereignty over them. He’s a superb writer, has excellent math skills, and has a deep understanding of the ancient Greeks and their literature. I tease him that high school football is the only thing that saved him from being a Class A nerd. 

Aside from his book smarts, he has a good head on his shoulders for just basic common sense. This is aided by his sharp analytical skills. Over the course of our three decades together, he’s taught me a few things that I use on a daily basis; yes, these are things I should have been taught somewhere along the way, and maybe I was but wasn’t tuned in when it was presented to me. I always passed these on to my students, because while they are simple and basic, they are very helpful in everyday life. So, today, I pass them on to you. If you know them already, great! If you don’t know them, you can thank Tom!

Tom’s Truth #1: Maps

When looking for a state capital or the capital of a country on a map, look for the star. Texaco, which later merged with Chevron, trained American drivers to look for the star, the great big Texaco star! City and country capitals are usually marked with a star.

texaco star

Tom’s Truth #2: Elevators

When in an elevator of a building with multiple floors above ground level as well as multiple levels of parking below ground, it can be confusing to find the button that will take you to the lobby. Sometimes it is marked with an “L”, sometimes a “G”, but it is more likely to be marked with, you guessed it, a star. This can be especially helpful in some countries like in the UK where the first floor is not actually the ground floor, but what we would call the second floor. 

elevator

Tom’s Truth #3: Taking Measurements

When you need a rough measurement but no ruler or meter stick is at hand, use a piece of printer paper or looseleaf. Everyone (in America) knows printer paper and looseleaf is normally 8-1/2 by 11 inches. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve measured a rugor a tablecloth in a store by using a piece of paper! Just be careful with this outside of the US, because elsewhere the standard size of printer paper, called A4, is 8.27 by 11.7 inches.

So, there you have the first batch of Tom’s Truths. Stay tuned, as I’ll share some more with you in the coming months!

Smell the Soup, Cool the Soup

I used to sleep like a log every night. I could drink a cup of tea or a cup of coffee and turn out my lamp and fall asleep before I was finished with my prayers. I would wake up whenever forced to, many hours later, often in the exact same position I was in when I fell asleep. No more. Those days are long gone, and not just gone, but a distant memory that I can hardly believe is true.

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I’m not sure what it is and then, again, I’m absolutely certain what it is. First, age. Martha Stewart loves to brag about how she only sleeps four or five hours a night and wakes up totally fresh, energized, and ready to make millions. I’m beginning to think I’m channeling Martha Stewart’s sleep habits; alas, I’m not channeling her energy or millions.

Second, the ugly cousin of aging (for women at least), menopause. It changes you. It changes a lot of things that doctors and books don’t tell you about: your hair, your skin, your metabolism, your energy levels. I think part of my current sleep pattern is the after-effects of menopause. I may be finished with it, but it doesn’t seem to be finished with me.

Third, stress. Let’s see, now, just what does Michelle have to be stressed about? I’m so lucky, truly blessed in so many ways. I’m happily married to my best friend for 31 years and counting, I have two beautiful, talented, intelligent daughters, I am (relatively) healthy, and I have food, clothing, and shelter when so many are much less fortunate. I have, most importantly of all, my faith, which has kept me steady and strong through life’s challenges, disappointments, and losses.

But, right now, stress has the better of me, mostly over this pandemic, which has kept me out of my classroom this year, doing something I truly loved. I toss and turn all night, awake more than asleep, but during the brief periods of sleep I find myself dreaming of school, and finally, at 2:30, I am wide awake and unable to settle back to sleep until around 5:30 or so, when very uncharacteristically, I wake up again.

Last night, rather than fight it, I decided to read for a bit. I opened my Kindle and picked up where I had left off in my current novel, Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple, who also wrote Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

Now, there are times when books are put into your hands for a reason. This book was not recommended to me, however. I chose this Maria Semple book simply because it was immediately available for loan on Libby. I enjoyed my first Maria Semple book about Bernadette, and I enjoyed the movie adaptation starring Cate Blanchett. I expected to enjoy this second book of hers as well. What I didn’t expect was advice–just what I needed exactly when I needed it–via one of the characters, an eight-year-old boy no less, coming less than a quarter of my way into the book.

The main character, Eleanor Flood, is about to have a meltdown when her eight-year-old son Timby gives her advice:

“Smell the soup, cool the soup,” Timby said. “Huh?” “It’s what they teach us in school when we’re upset. Smell the soup.” He took a deep breath in. “Cool the soup.” He blew out.”

As I read it, of course, I had to try it. And, it worked. I smelled the soup and cooled the soup about three times and I felt myself relax a little. I read for a while and then slept for a while, alas, waking at 5:30 as my new normal. Yes, I smelled the soup and cooled the soup once, had a sip of water, and drifted off to sleep once again.

hot soup

It’s too early in Semple’s book to know if I’ll enjoy it as much as Bernadette, but if the only thing I gained was this delightful metaphor for taking a deep breath and letting it out, then, it was time well spent. It’s not the first time I’ve learned a life lesson from a book!

Goodreads = Good Reading Habits

I’ve been tracking my reading on Goodreads since August of 2008, so this month marks twelve years of books I’ve read, books I want to read (my “TBR” list), and sometimes, my thoughts on them. I wish I were better at writing reviews of all the books I read, but maybe this is something I can work on now that I’m home all day.

Users of Goodreads rate the books they read using a five-star rating system. This system isn’t perfect, no allowances for half-stars or a way to indicate you have abandoned a book you started but didn’t like, but overall it’s a great way to keep track of your reading life. Lots of people use bullet journals and artsy-looking notebooks to track their reading, but I’m much better at keeping track of things on my phone with a few clicks.

Back in the day when libraries were open, you know, in PC (pre-COVID), I would stand in front of the new arrivals bookshelves and add things to my TBR list in Goodreads. It’s easy to do, just by hovering your phone over the barcode of the book (if the library hasn’t pasted its own barcode on top of it) and it automatically adds it to your list! When you start a book, you scan the barcode, and then you can update it as you read, either by number of pages read or percentage of book read if on an e-reader. Now that Amazon has purchased Goodreads, my Kindle automatically connects my e-books purchased through Amazon or downloaded through Libby (library e-book and audio-book loaning app).

One of the things I love most about Goodreads is the Reading Challenge option. Each year you set your own Reading Challenge–how many books you want to read, and as the year goes by, the Reading Challenge tells you if you are on track to meet your goal. If only I paid as much attention to the number of calories I consume each day as I do to the number of books I read each year!

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At the beginning of the pandemic, library due dates were deleted from all accounts, and all fines were erased. I had a stack of library books, as I always do, but for weeks and weeks, I could not focus to read them. I was spending so much energy converting my in-class lesson plans to virtual lesson plans, I just could not pick up a book to read for “fun.” There was so much uncertainty, so many disturbing news reports, so many deaths, who could read for fun?

At some point, my love of reading kicked back in, and the first thing I picked up from my stack was the last book I checked out before the pandemic, in fact, my local branch of MCPL was the last public place I visited before the lockdown. Luckily, it was a very compelling story and I whizzed right through it. I was back! From there, I plowed through my stack and then started in on my Kindle, books I had purchased from special deals via BookBub or Modern Mrs. Darcy, or books I checked out from MCPL via Libby.

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One of the silver linings of not teaching this year has been extra time to read, and I am reading for myself, not necessarily pre-reading for things I want to teach or recommend to students. Now, if I could just get my little furry friend out of my reading chair…

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What is a weekend?

What is a weekend? In Season 3 of Downton Abbey, the glorious masterpiece of period drama created by genius Julian Fellowes (can you tell how much I love this show?), this question is posed by Dame Maggie Smith’s character.

Now, I’m not a countess or a duchess or a princess, but I am at a strange point in my life where I actually understand this rather curious question. Weekdays and weekend days seem to blur together since I am not teaching full-time this year. Yes, I am tutoring via zoom, so I do have work to do, and I have made a goal to write each and every day, but when what you do is from home and at the time you decide to do it, does it matter if it is Wednesday or Sunday?

The dowager countess Grantham, embodied fully by Maggie Smith, has never “worked” a day in her life. She married well and has been cared for all of her life, even now in her reduced status of “dowager” since her husband passed away and her son inherited the title of Lord Grantham. His wife is the new Lady Grantham, thus Maggie Smith’s demotion to dowager countess. All of her days are equal and all of them are her own to do as she wishes. With no male heirs, Lord Grantham’s distant relative, Matthew Crawley is called to Downton Abbey to learn that he will be the next Lod Grantham. The family is all around dismayed by this and quite shocked that he is a working man. Least you think he is a mail carrier or a carpenter, he is a lawyer, which in America is a respectable and valued professional occupation. But, in England, particularly during the Edwardian period, anyone who has to get up and get dressed and report to an office each day is a working man, not a member of the aristocracy. This is why the family takes a pause from the service of their multi-course evening meal when he mentions that he will continue to work as a lawyer and help Lord Grantham with the running of the estate “on the weekend.”

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My souvenir t-shirt from the Downton Abbey Exhibit, Wilmington, Delaware, 2015

Downton Abbey is a beautiful series, with lavish costumes, incomparable scenery, and superb acting, but one of the greatest things about this series is how we can all see behind the curtain. We can see how the other side lives. We can also see how their pampered lives are made possible by the people below the stairs.

When I was teaching, I always ended the year with 8th grade with the Victorian novel The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Season 1 of Downton Abbey was a perfect vehicle for teaching my students about the formality of the Victorian Era, and how social class was of utmost importance. Showing them select clips, such as this famous one from Season 3, helped them understand why Holmes and Watson spoke the way they did, why women were often forced into difficult situations because of the inheritance laws in England, and why etiquette and social grace was so important. Even the servants had excellent table manners and spoke with proper English. It was one of my favorite things to teach, where I could bring one of my personal obsessions, the Victorian Era, into the classroom. When they encounter British literature in high school, I hope they think back to these lessons and what they learned from me.

I know that as time goes on I will get my bearings and my days will fall into more of a routine. It’s only been a week since school started, two if you count the teacher in-service days, so it’s early days in my new lifestyle. I won’t be asking “What is a weekend?” for much longer.

Don’t Say the “R” Word

Retirement. Like most people who have been working since they finished school, I thought about how glorious retirement would be. No alarm clock for starters. Lots of time to travel, learn new things, read for unlimited periods of time, cook gourmet meals every day, do some volunteer work, maybe even improve my pitiful excuse for housekeeping skills. However I thought about it though, I thought about it being in the distant future.

I thought I would teach until I didn’t love it anymore, or until I felt that I had lost my edge. I never for one moment thought a virus and a pandemic would force me into the decision to not teach this year.

See what I did there? Even after 35 days since I called my principal with my decision, I still can’t force myself to say the “R” word. I haven’t posted much about it on my social media platforms, mostly because I am still rather heartbroken about it. I miss my colleagues, I miss the students, I miss the well-earned and well-spaced breaks throughout the school year, I miss summers off, and most of all, I miss feeling like I was making a difference, molding young minds, getting 8th graders ready to read and write for high school and college. I miss feeling important.

My parents were hard workers. My dad worked two jobs to put us through school. After a full day at work, he drove the late bus for my high school, which I found embarrassing at the time because he was stern with the football players and cheerleaders, universally known as the popular kids. Being in marching band and library club, I didn’t need anything else to distance me from the popular kids.

My mom was a legal secretary and renown for her typing skills, until the day they yanked her IBM Selectric away from her, replacing it with a word processor. She hated that machine with a passion. I think that’s when she started planning.

One morning, dressed and ready for work, my dad came into the living room to see my mom still in her duster and slippers (that’s what she called her robe, which she also used as an apron when she started cooking dinner still in her work clothes). He asked her why she wasn’t dressed for work, and her reply was, “I retired.” She said she had told him that she would retire on her birthday but never mentioned it again. No party, no send-off, just there one day and not there the next. I have no idea if she gave her boss notice or not. She was a tough-as-nails Scottish lass until the very end.

My dad worked until my mom’s health deteriorated to the point that he felt he needed to stay home with her. His heart wasn’t in it anymore any way, as his work, where he was a manager, had been farmed out to a third-party consultant, and boy, did they make a lot of changes. Unfortunately, my dad did not fit into their plans, which included a laptop and a cellphone, and they made life difficult for him. So, he retired. I tried to get him to pursue litigation for age discrimination but he would not have it. He said he was quite happy to sit on the sofa with my mom, remote control in one hand, and a cup of coffee in the other.

I’ve been complimented in year-end reviews for my work ethic, particularly during the 20 years I worked in the legal field, where being a workaholic is as highly praised as a Harvard law degree. I know I got it from my parents, and maybe that’s why I’m struggling with the “R” word. If I were younger or in better physical shape I would be in my classroom right now, grading summer work, sanitizing everything after the kids left for the day, laughing with colleagues, doing lesson plans.

But, I’m not younger or in better shape, so I’m not teaching this year. I’m going to tutor students via Zoom. I’m going to write more, and hopefully get a piece of fiction published. I’m going to make dinner for my family every night. I’m going to walk my dog. I’m going to read A LOT more. I’m going to improve my knitting and crochet skills. I’m probably not going to improve my housekeeping skills, but hey, that was a pipe dream anyways. I’m just not going to say the “R” word. Not yet.

Calling Doctor Zatarain …

Have you heard the term “doctored up,” or is that a Southern phrase? It means to add your own twist to something, usually to improve the taste or appearance of something, as in, “She doctored up the punch with a bottle of rum.” (LOL. Sorry, that’s the covid talking.)

Yesterday I wrote about buying fresh seafood at my local farmers’ market, specifically a pound of shrimp and a pound of fish filets each Saturday. I lauded the benefits of cooking with fresh ingredients instead of processed foods. Well, there a few exceptions, and one of them is Zatarain’s Jambalaya Mix, which I made last night after having doctored it up to my own tastes.

I grew up eating jambalaya, always made from scratch, and usually made by my Uncle Joe. He isn’t really my uncle, but the brother of my dad’s brother-in-law. Uncle Joe could have won any cooking contest on earth with his jambalaya. What made it special was his addition of lima beans…just a sprinkle for color and an extra veggie boost. Not traditional, but I love it this way.

I sometimes see jambalaya on restaurant menus, but I never order it. Why? Because it is never, not ever, jambalaya. Let’s start with what jambalaya is NOT. It is not stew over a bed of rice. It is not soup with rice in it. It is not made with pasta (?). It does not have tomatoes in it, unless you are Creole and not Cajun.

So what IS jambalaya? It is a rice and meat dish that is cooked together slowly until the liquid is absorbed into the rice while flavoring the meat. Good jambalaya is tricky because rice can be tricky. Too wet, too mushy, too crunchy, too dry, too gloppy, too gummy. There are lots of ways rice can go wrong.

If you had to compare jambalaya to something, it would be the famous Spanish dish of paella. The cooking techniques are similar, although the spices and seasoning differ greatly, with paella relying upon saffron to bring its color and unique flavor to the dish. Uncooked rice is added to a pan where vegetables and aromatics have been sautéed together. Liquid is added, just enough to cook the rice and get completely absorbed, along with spices and seasonings. Seafood, sausages, and other meats are added in stages, depending on their individual cooking times. It is cooked slowly, stirring every now and then so it doesn’t stick to the bottom (which is the main difference from paella where the burned rice at the bottom is highly desired).

So, how do I make my doctored up jambalaya? This is not so much a recipe as a suggestion of how to go about making something that looks and tastes like jambalaya.

Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a heavy-bottomed dutch oven with a tight fitting lid. Sauté chopped onion, garlic, green and red bell pepper, green onions, celery, and parsley in the oil until soft but not brown. Season with Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add the Zatarain’s mix and the water as indicated on the box. The Zatarain’s box calls for 1 pound of meat: cubed chicken, sliced smoked sausage or andouille (sauté first to reduce the greasiness), and/or cubed ham. It could be one type of meat or a mixture. It can be left-over pork chops or left-over rotisserie chicken. If adding seafood, add it closer to the end of cooking time so that the seafood doesn’t get rubbery. (Here’s where you add the lima beans, straight from the freezer bag!) Stir together and bring to a boil. Cook tightly covered 20-25 minutes until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender. Stir every now and then to prevent sticking but over-stirring will break up the rice and make it gloppy.

When I make this with shrimp, I always make a quick stock with the shrimp shells (heads and tails included) and I use this instead of the plain water called for on the box. This brings so much flavor to the table.

If you have a family of yankees who don’t like spicy Cajun food, you can add 1/2 cup of long grain white rice (uncooked) and an additional cup of water to the mix. This will dilute the heat a bit.

Serve with a green salad and some crusty French bread. Louisiana heaven–albeit doctored up and not from scratch–on a plate! Bon appetit!

Teach a man to (cook) fish. . .

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way many shop for groceries; my family is no exception. At the start of the lockdown, my husband shopped for groceries at our neighborhood Safeway every two or three weeks. He went during the “senior hours” to reduce some of the risk. Our millennial daughter suggested Target’s shop online and deliver service, and we soon switched to that until we got a gallon of milk that was already past its due date. At this stage we are doing Target for non-perishables and Safeway for meat and dairy, but for the last two months, we have been shopping at a small farmers’ market every Saturday morning for produce.

I’ve always loved shopping at a farmers’ market. For the two years I lived in Belgium, it was a fun family outing on Saturday morning to pick up fresh produce, Italian deli items like pancetta, and of course, cheese. The cheese truck always had the longest line but it was well worth the wait. On the way out, we would stop at the poulet roti truck for a rotisserie chicken, roast potatoes, and sausages, for our lunch.

Surprisingly, while the pandemic had a drastic effect on farmers selling to restaurants, farmers’ markets sales remained static. An interesting look at the numbers can be found here.

The quality of the fruits and vegetables purchased at the Pike Central Farm Market is far superior to anything we can buy at Safeway. The first nectarine I sliced and passed around to my husband and daughter sold all three of us. With our newly earned status of “regulars,” we are in and out in no time as we, duly masked, make the small circuit to our favorite stalls: multi-grain seeded bread, nectarines, watermelon, tomatoes, burrata, corn, bell peppers, and fish.

Fish at a farmers’ market? Buying fish at Pike Central Farm Market is the closest experience I’ve had to my childhood of eating really fresh seafood every week. I grew up in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, nicknamed “fisherman’s paradise.” Weekly we feasted on freshly caught shrimp, crabs, crawfish, oysters, redfish, catfish, flounder, and more. I had no idea how good I had it until I moved away and had to {gasp} pay for seafood.

Each week at Central Farm Market I buy a pound of shrimp and a pound of whatever fish they have on offer. So far we’ve had flounder, halibut, red snapper, and bronzini. The shrimp is easy as I have a plethora of recipes from my Cajun upbringing to rely upon: shrimp creole, shrimp étouffée, seafood gumbo, shrimp and corn soup, and for tonight’s dinner, shrimp jambalaya.

Shrimp Creole

The fish preparation has sent me to my cookbooks, especially types of fish I didn’t grow up eating like halibut and bronzini. Trying to cook and eat in a more healthy manner, frying fish would negate adding more fish to our diet. In my research, I’ve found that baking fish at 375° for 12-15 minutes on a sheet pan, well-seasoned with a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and pepper, and a pinch of dried thyme, pretty much works for all types. If the filet is thicker, like salmon or halibut, it may take a few additional minutes. Add a steamed veggie fresh from the farmers’ market and you have a lovely and healthy meal.

Find a farmers’ market near you and see what is available. Buy what you can eat in the coming week and store it properly once you get it home. It’s healthier than processed foods or foods that have traveled many miles to your local supermarket, and you can help out a farmer along the way!

Year 1 (again)

My new “classroom,” a/k/a our home office

In the days ahead, social media will be flooded with photos of kids holding signs indicating their new class year at school. There will also be pictures of teachers proudly displaying the same sentiment, “My 5th year teaching!” or “My 14th year teaching” which is what my sign would have said this year. But for COVID-19.

Due to falling into a category where chances of a difficult recovery from COVID-19 are statistically higher, I’ve elected to sit out this year. My school, which I dearly loved, is celebrating the start of the new school year today, August 25, 2020, in a hybrid formula, with some students in class five days a week, and some students attending school virtually throughout the school day. I wish my former colleagues the best of luck during this stressful time.

Today, I am holding the #1, marking my first year (again) in a career situation. I will be offering my services to tutor and/or teach via Zoom, while continuing with my freelance writing career. These are all things I had planned on doing during retirement, but I was hoping to decide when that would be, not based upon my doctor’s recommendation, my family’s urging, or my concern over my own health.

My first career, from 1978-2002, was in the legal field, primarily in commercial real estate and shopping center management. For two years my family lived overseas where I volunteered at the international school my daughters attended. Upon our return to the US, I began working in education, first as a youth minister from 2004-2007, and then as a middle school language arts teacher from 2007-2020. While teaching writing to 7th and 8th graders, my own creative juices pushed me into my third career, as a freelance writer, with profiles and articles being published in regional parenting magazines from my area.

As I struggled with my decision all summer, I experienced the same anxiety and restlessness that many teachers and parents have felt. While I will greatly miss the daily contact and connection with my students and colleagues, I know this is the right decision for me.

My goal is to document this first year of change here on this site with daily posts about all of my favorite things in life: family, friends, faith, food, teaching, reading, and writing. Follow me on this journey as I begin with Year 1 (again).


Book Review: The Missing Treasures of Amy Ashton by Eleanor Ray (Gallery Books, June 2021)

I’m glad I persevered with this book. When I was at 27%, I wasn’t sure I wanted to finish it. But, I hate leaving books unfinished out of respect for the author and the hard work involved in bringing a book project to fruition. The beginning of the book focuses a lot on Amy’s hidden … Continue reading Book Review: The Missing Treasures of Amy Ashton by Eleanor Ray (Gallery Books, June 2021)

Grammar for Grownups

Just for fun: How many of these can you check off? ☐ Do you ever lose your train of thought when you stumble upon a typo while reading a magazine or newspaper article? ☐ Do you cringe when you see a billboard or signage in a store with an apostrophe being used to show possession … Continue reading Grammar for Grownups

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No Gobble Gobble for Dinner

Enjoy this short comic piece of mine recently published by The Daily Drunk Literary Magazine! You may enjoy it even more if you knew my father Roy Blanchard!

https://thedailydrunk.com/f/no-gobble-gobble-for-dinner

 

 

Book of the Day!

Enjoyed the original format, the movie, and now reading the Young Readers’ Edition by @scholasticteach @scholasticbookclubs

Can’t wait to teach it next year! #amreading #amteaching #amwriting #lessonplans #summerreading #teacherlife

Thanks @marthastewart48 for the lunch idea! #lunchonthepatio watermelon 🍉 mozzarella 🧀

#hiddenfigures #blacklivesmatter