November 23, 2012

What's so Great about Martha Stewart?

I am not American, neither am I rich (well, not in money anyway), I am artsy, but not particularly crafty, so why have I, every November for the past twelve years, bought a copy of the December issue of Martha Stewart Living? What do I see in that magazine that is so enticing for me to spend 6 bucks on it, read it cover to cover, and then keep it enshrined with all the others on a shelf in my dining room to be brought out and pored over every year? I will attempt to answer these questions, for anyone who cares, in the following post.

Martha Stewart is an American icon by now. She seems to be an expert on everything from breeds of fowl to how to keep foxing (those brown age spots in old books) out of your collection of First Editions. She speaks with the alto voiced drawl of the more laughable New York Yuppies depicted in Norah Ephron and Woody Allen films, and her hair is forever blonde. She will hand roll her own wrapping paper in a faux bois pattern and curl ribbon to emulate wood shavings to extend the woodland theme she has chosen for all her Christmas decorations of a particular year even to her packaging of gifts. She will hand make all her Christmas gifts, be they delicious puddings or be they begonias produced from cuttings of her own perfect plants, and present them in re-usable vessels, such as terra cotta pots made locally in her Bedford, New York neighbourhood and stamped with the name of her farm, or specially chosen bowls from her collections, all wrapped exquisitely, of course, as mentioned above, and personalized with a handmade, thematic gift tag. I'm not sure how many of these gifts she gives out to friends and family, but I am willing to bet the number is a high multiple of ten - at the very least. I also hear Martha Stewart, like many powerful people, only sleeps four hours a night. Go figure.

I started my interest in Martha Stewart back in 1995, when I was talking to a friend about cooking my first Turkey for Christmas. My friend gave me an edition of MSL magazine with an article entitled 'Turkey 101'. I followed the directions to the letter and every year I use the same recipe because it makes for delicious results. How can it not, when basted in a bottle of white wine and lashings of butter? Martha Stewart recipes make up a large portion of my special occasion recipes, as well as some of my everyday ones. My mother-in-law heard I was getting into Martha recipes and bought me one of her cookbooks for Christmas in 1996. The best chicken or turkey stock, the best chicken soup (with leeks and fennel) to cure a cold with, the best devilled egg recipe, the best pumpkin pie recipe, the best gingerbread cookie recipe, are all to be found in that falling apart book. My husband bought me a subscription of MSL magazine in 2002 and, while I enjoyed receiving an issue per month, I was a bit overwhelmed with a new baby at the time, and one solid year of fantastic gardening tips for my nonexistent garden and advice on where to find the best bookbinder for one's antique tomes was enough for me. Fortunately, 2002 was a great year for the magazine and I still have all my copies and refer to them often for the best recipes for coconut cake, quesadillas with caramelized onions and zucchini, various cookies and punches, and for a delicious recipe for the chicken and corn empanadas my daughter has requested I make for her birthday party tomorrow. Her birthday cake recipe is also coming from a back issue.

I remember a party we had to which we invited a few friends for quesadillas and margaritas. I made a rich, hot fudge sauce from MSL for the ice cream sundaes I served for dessert. Like all MSL recipes it makes an overly generous amount (I have learned to halve some recipes, particularly for dessert sauces and such), but I made the full recipe thinking I would have leftovers to warm for a future dessert. No such luck. Three of the women at the party proceeded to sit down around the bowl of hot fudge sauce and polish it off. There went a pound of good quality chocolate, but also, there lay the proof of the appeal of MSL recipes. They just taste so darn good.

Martha Stewart Living is about more than recipes and beautiful, artistic photos of food. The magazine contains ideas and instructions for craft projects, features on wonderful American artisans, decorating ideas for houses and apartments, and even occasional articles on how to invest your extra money in a seaside cottage or mountain retreat (which I ignore because I already spent all my money on chocolate). What I like about the magazine is that it sticks to these themes, and it knows what it's about - gracious, good and healthful living, which celebrates the home and family and those who care for them creatively. It's honest about its purpose, too: good taste and quality matter. I also like the fact that much of what is presented in the magazine to be created at home is approachable for 'the rest of us' if we have the time, the desire, and the energy to make some beautiful, delicious things from scratch for our family and friends, and for ourselves. To be completely honest, I'm a busy person and I do not have time or energy to embark on a lot of projects. The times of year that I do make a point of doing so is in preparation for the major holidays, and most of my chosen projects involve creating good things to eat. So, in that way, I am not a thorough devotee of the great Martha. I am not always looking for patterns to make my own dog bed, or ways to stencil my furniture. But for a new cake to make for Easter, or a pretty ornament to make for Christmas gifts? Yes, I'm there, studying the Martha manual along with all the well-to-do housewives of Connecticut.

Martha Stewart Living put out a magazine for kids for a few years. I bought several issues and found them to be full of beautiful ideas to do with my children. We made batches of marshmallow fudge for their teachers, personalized gingerbread people with the neighbourhood kids, lots and lots of cut paper snowflakes after learning the real way to do so, and various other projects. I taught one little boy I looked after to make paper snowflakes and he and my daughter wiled away many hours making them and taping them up in my hallway. One year, my kids and I made little ornaments out of pipe cleaners - little skiing Santas and skating snowmen, wreaths, candy canes, stockings and tiny deer. The project was so much fun and definitely inexpensive. We sent one to everyone on our list with their Christmas card and a mix-tape of seasonal music. The kids made those pipe cleaner ornaments the next year, too, and the year after that.

The other night I bought this year's December issue of Martha Stewart Living. I brought it home with the groceries, which my eldest daughter, Emma, nearly sixteen, helped to put away. After the groceries were in their proper places, my daughter went to bed, but not before she had picked up the new issue of MSL and asked me if I would let her take it to bed with her before I had had a chance to read it. Emma is a baker, beginning to be a good cook, is crafty and like her mother, loves pretty things and good food. The next morning she said she had stayed up late, reading the magazine cover to cover and getting all kinds of ideas for projects to make. For the past two years, Emma has made a beautiful wreath from cuttings of cedar and holly for our front door at Christmastime. Every year she also chooses some kind of special dessert to make for Christmas, and just the other night, she came up with a prototype for our annual Christmas card. It was lovely, so I said, 'go to it!' and she has. I think I will end up being her assistant for that project - if I can keep up.

Years ago, a woman who immersed herself in cooking, baking and decorating would be called a 'little Suzy homemaker,' conjuring up images of a 1950's smiling housewife in a ruffled apron and pearls, but now, she might be called something like 'the next Martha Stewart,' which means something different entirely. I mean, does the owner and brainpower behind Martha Stewart Omnimedia look like a 'little Suzy homemaker' to you?  Heck, she's even done time in the big house.

Photos found online. Happy weekend, friends! 

November 17, 2012

Nostalgia in a Cabinet

Some people might think it's a bit early to be thinking about sending Christmas cards, but believe me, the way the weeks fly by around here it pays to at least try and begin the process, especially if I am going to make them myself. I have always tried to make my own Christmas cards, although some years I end up buying them because I simply run out of time after attending all the seasonal concerts and such that every parent knows are a part of having children in high school band, music lessons or any kind of performing art.I am determined to make cards for my friends and family this year, although the process will be simplified by the help of a pretty, seasonal rubber stamp that I picked up a few weeks ago at the Granville Island post office. The post office there sells a lot of lovely paper products and card making supplies, and is a bit less expensive than the beautiful Granville Island store, Paper-Ya.

Years ago I would draw a sort of 'slice of life' comic of my growing family, photocopy it onto cards, decorate them, insert a copy of our annual Christmas letter, and send them off. Several of our friends and family members looked forward to the cards and they became a tradition for a few years.

The first family comic I ever drew, back in 1995.
It's so old, the paper is yellowed. My husband had just
recovered from a bout of viral meningitis. Crikey!

We were in the middle of packing up to move to Strathcona Park Lodge,
and I was gearing up for a new adventure and lots of changes to come.

Last weekend, we spent a whole day rearranging some furniture in our house. In my quest for a china cabinet to hold our recently inherited china I had daily walked by a cabinet in our own downstairs family room, ignoring it as a possible contender due to a prevailing idea that it would be too small. One day, looking at the cabinet,  my husband said, "how about this?" and I found myself uttering a "we could try it" sort of response. The cabinet had once been home to our dishes but since moving to this house with ample room in the many kitchen cupboards, and for the fact that the glass had broken in the cabinet door, the thing had been demoted to a catch-all for my stuff - cards and letters I couldn't bear to throw away, birthday candles, old experiential learning books my husband no longer needed for his present career, old files of my writing, etc. I cleaned out the cabinet, we brought it upstairs, and it now holds Nana's china and Granny's crystal glasses very nicely indeed - and looks like it has been in our dining room forever. We'll get the door glass cut sometime soon. (We also need a piece cut for the garage door window which, for a long time now, has had a hockey ball shaped hole in it. It's on the to-do list.)

This cabinet has been with us as long as I've
been making Christmas cards

In the cleaning out of the cabinet I came across a file of old annual Christmas letters I had written, and another filled with the original drawings for the many years of cards I had made. I was, frankly, surprised to see that my drawings were not that bad. Not great by any means, but not bad either. I can't remember the last time I sat down to draw something besides a map for directions or a doodled flower while I'm talking on the phone.Today, I sat for a few minutes looking through the file, reading the old letters from when our children were little, and looking through my interpretations of our evolving life as a family over the years. I must say I enjoyed strolling down memory lane, and I was suddenly very glad I had decided to make cards again this year.

The original drawing for the front of my 1999 Christmas card 'Anyday, 1999'

The original drawing for the  inside of my 1999 Christmas card:
 'Holiday (Ahhh!) 1999/2000'

Family scene from inside Cabin 21 at the Lodge. December, 1999

The last family comic I drew for Christmas 2000
The next Christmas we had a little fourth in the picture.

After my 2000 card I stopped drawing a family comic. The year after our fourth child was born, and I became busier than I had ever thought possible, my kids drew little pictures for our annual Christmas card and I put them together in a collage format, made them into cards and sent them out. The kids enjoyed decorating and colouring the cards, but somehow the experience was not quite the same for me. I had enjoyed framing our family in a single comic format over the years.

One day, perhaps, I will pick up a pencil and draw another family comic. If not, I will still have this collection of cards which serves as something of a point-of-view family archive of those early, formative years that played a large part in making us what we are today.

If you click on the photos, it will enlarge them.

November 10, 2012

Of Wind and Lego

This morning as I ran up the hill and across the bridge over the train tracks that carry goods from the Port of Vancouver to the interior of our province and beyond, the cold north wind blew against me. I assumed a head down fighting position and forged on despite the roar in my ears and the sudden slowing of my pace, and the metaphor did not escape me. That north wind felt like my life over the past few weeks. It whirled and swirled and gusted somewhat mercilessly trying to catch me up in its confusion and breathless assault on my senses. Still, I went on, doing what I do, pressing on and trying to make sense of things to figure out just what my role was in the midst of it all. I knew, despite my efforts to keep my chin up, that my struggles were showing because earlier this week my teenage daughter came up to me and said, "You look like you need a hug," and gave me one.

As I ran I wondered at the wisdom of nature: She knows when to end one season and start another, she embraces change because she has no choice; she knows change is a necessary part of life, and yet we humans resist and fight it. Dumb humans. However, to be fair, humans have choices, which makes our lives challenging because we also have human nature; we have pride, fear, and differences in temper to deal with. It is tempting to think during these times of difficulty that the end result will be a massive change in one's life, if only we can get through them. I've learned that is rarely the case. I used to, when I was younger, look for a big dramatic event, such as moving or changing jobs, as a means to escape or make sense of whatever I was going through emotionally. I now know that these periods of stress and internal battle are usually about something less obvious. A choice is often necessary to be made in the end, but it can take a long time to come to it if it is to be made sensibly and thoughtfully and not as an emotional reaction. Sometimes the answer is in doing what one already does, but in a different and better way.

As I gratefully turned off the bridge and rounded the corner onto the protected downward slope the wind had no power there. I left her to rage behind me and took the chance to speed up my pace. I began to feel better and stronger. The road was quiet once again and as I passed the steep track on the right that leads up to the water tower I thought perhaps one day I might attempt to run up it. I would have to be in a bit better shape. It had been weeks since I had been able to run; my sinus cold had prevented me. It was good to have hope of one day running up that track, to know that one day I could rise to that challenge and perhaps even make it to the top. It occurred to me that my life was back on track, too. My mind was much calmer than it had been in weeks, my attitude more positive and my purpose more defined, even though I had yet to know what my choices would be when it came to finally making them.

I knew I was feeling more myself yesterday when I ran into a friend whom I had been meaning to have over for a visit all year - and I invited her, her husband and son for tea today. I'd had an idea to dust off some of my son's Lego to give my friend's son something fun to do at our house. My son, in his later years of Lego collecting, had kept his sets stored separately. I took down the large Medieval castle set from the shelf in my son's closet and began to put it together on the living room floor. Putting it together proved to be slow going and when my youngest daughter had recovered from her day of school she began to help me sort through the hundreds of pieces. I took a break to bake something for the next day and heat up our leftovers for supper. Then our eldest daughter came home from her after-school job at the dental office, ate supper, and then also could not resist the building of the Lego castle. We worked together a bit until my traffic weary husband and second son came home from attending a university open house in Vancouver and I jumped up to help them get their supper, too. They wanted to know why we were building the Lego castle and I told them about our guests and their son due the next day. After they ate our son also joined in the building, and with his help the castle was completed in no time at all. I knew that is how it would be - if you put Lego out, kids cannot resist building it. Sometimes adults, too.

There was something so satisfying about putting all the Lego pieces together to build something I know our little friend will be thrilled with. When life feels complicated, being able to concentrate on something simple that will give someone joy seems to be the balm in my Gilead. My son carefully placed the knights, the king and the dragon and the ghouls around the castle. This morning I will do some more baking with my daughter, and walk downtown to shop for some fruit and cheese for our tea. I will ask my careful son to move the castle up onto the coffee table for little George. If he gets bored of that, we also have a Viking ship and fortress, a minature Ferrari sports car, a Harry Potter train, a deep-sea diving submarine and countless other sets he can build. I am sure someone here will be willing to help him.

There's good soup simmering over at Stella's Virtual Cafe. Just click on the link above the cafe sign on the upper right hand of my blog. 

November 2, 2012

All Souls Day, 2012

There is something unmistakably beautiful and bittersweet about the gradual decline of a year. In this part of the world, we enjoyed summer weather right up until Thanksgiving (the second Monday of October), and then, just like that, the north wind carried a cooler, damper message, and fall began. The trees, their leaves almost dried to a crisp from the seemingly endless stretch of brilliant sunny days, seemed to rust overnight and exclaim, "Wait a minute? Weren't we just yesterday young and green?" 

Our fall colour is at its peak right now, and is often glossy with the rain. Bands of low cloud stretch across the mountainsides and the grass/moss mixture that is our lawn is littered with damp, brown leaves. The ruby red Japanese maples around our town are nature's crowning achievement this year before she lets the winter winds have their way, shedding her old coat until spring.

An interesting new fence separates this house's trees
from the empty lot next door

Ginko trees turn a sunny yellow in the town

A red maple spreads out  its foliage like an umbrella

Today is All Souls Day, a day to remember those who have gone before us, those who have shed the old and heavy coat of this life on earth. Two years ago I was inspired by the glory of the fall colour to write a poem about All Souls Day. I re-posted it last year and today, I will share it again. It still resonates with me. Perhaps when you read it, you will insert the names of your own loved ones and those who have inspired you and are no longer with us.

All Souls Day

Today I am taking some time to remember
 all those souls I have known
who have moved on from this mixed bag of beauty and sorrow: 
Lea, Peter, Nana and Grandad, Granny and Grampa,
 Grampa Warren, Great-Grandad Matthew, Nana Brown,
and schoolmates 
Pat, Laurel, Jason, and Rodi
For whom we now pray.

Also those souls I did not know but think of nonetheless: 
my brother Michael who was born and died long before I came along,
(Would I be here had he lived?)
various ancestors whose DNA I share with my children
 and authors and artists who filled the treasure chest of thought and vision
I look to for inspiration and comfort -
'We read to know we are not alone,' says C.S. Lewis' student in Shadowlands

And then there are those with no one to remember them
in November we look upon the trees
singing their swan song in ruby red dress
Spirits waving in the fields
seem to say 'Vanity, vanity, all is vanity,' 
'Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die' 
My heart reaches out to lift them up and set them free
to the place where I hope to go
someday long from now
if only someone will remember me

Empty swings on  the Harrison beach lagoon

Wishing you a good weekend.