Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Anniversary Trip with Complications

Yesterday was our 40th wedding anniversary. We wanted to do something a little out of the ordinary for us, so we decided to go into Chicago (we live in a northwest suburb), take an architecture boat tour, visit the art museum, and have a nice dinner. My husband, who is very detail-oriented, planned the itinerary to fit everything in. We would take the train into Chicago, take a taxi to the boat, another taxi to the Art Institute, and then have dinner.

Our first complication was the train. We take the train into Chicago all the time - to go to the symphony, the opera, the museums, etc. It's a wonderful perk of the area we live in. However, on this particular day, the train was delayed. The first announcement said the signals were out at a station a couple of stops northwest of us, no estimate on how long the delay would be. We sat around the station for 10 or 15 minutes until the next announcement came. The train was still in Harvard (Illinois), its starting point. A truck was stuck on the tracks in Harvard. Plus, the signals were still out at the other station AND a car was stuck on the tracks at that station. Since it takes the train about an hour to get from Harvard to our station, taking the train was no longer an option.

We hopped in the car. Fortunately rush hour was over, so the trip went smoothly. Finding the entrance to the parking garage was another story. Because GoogleMaps was telling us to turn on invisible streets, we ended up making a big loop to switch from driving south to north where the entrance to the underground garage was.

The river boat trip was amazing! It was a beautiful sunny day to be on the water. Our docent-tour guide was so knowledgeable and entertaining, and we saw how much the Chicago River area had changed in the last few years. I highly recommend the Chicago Architecture Center's tours if you are visiting Chicago!

After the tour and quick lunch, we decided to stay at the Architecture Center museum instead of traveling to the Art Institute. Then we crossed the street and checked out the transparent Apple Store. My daughter tells me they're all like this now, but in the suburbs we just see the ones in the mall.
Apple Store, with view of the Chicago River

By the time we finished at the Apple Store, it was time for our dinner reservation. We then had an outstanding dinner at Catch35, where they even gave us candles in our desserts! After dinner, feeling very full, we went down to the Riverwalk and sat and people-watched until rush hour was over before driving back home.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

A 1960s Recipe in 2019

One of my distant cousins, who is very invested in genealogy, is putting together a family cookbook and asked relatives for recipes from our parents and grandparents. I was happy to help and sent in my grandmother's sugar cookie recipe, which lists the ingredients followed by the direction "Roll thin and bake." I also sent my mother's recipe for Norwegian meatballs (yes, it is different than Swedish!) and my aunt's gingerbread boys.

My cousin politely asked if we had any more, particularly from my mother, so I enlisted my brother and sister to help. We came up with a jello mold, a meatloaf, Special K bars, and what we always called "pudding cake," among others. I recently heard from my cousin again, as he is putting the book together. He didn't understand the directions for the pudding cake, and when I looked at it again, I could see why. Here is the recipe (Don't try this at home!):

Chocolate Pudding Cake
· 1/2 cup brown sugar
· 1/4 cup cocoa
· 1 cup warm water
· 1 cup miniature marshmallows
· 1/2 devil's food cake mix
· Mix sugar and cocoa in square cake pan
· Stir in warm water.
· Scatter marshmallows over batter.
· Make cake according to package directions and spoon over mixture in pan.
· Bake 350 degrees for 35 minutes or more

My cousin had several questions about the cake mix, including what is the measurement? One-half box? One-half something else? Once we determined it is 1/2 of the boxed cake mix, he asked if that meant you needed to add 1/2 of the ingredients that the cake mix called for -- the water, oil and egg?

Since I had never actually made this, I referred it back to my sister, who decided to make the recipe and find out. She had made the recipe in the past, but had not made it in quite a long time. She used precisely 1/2 of the cake mix and half of all the ingredients listed on the cake box. This is her review:

"Okay, it's out of the oven and mostly cool. This is not the favorite dessert I remember from our childhood. Not sure what happened, but it's disappointing. 

I made the cake with exactly half of the mix (weighed it to be sure), and half of all the things the mix asked for: a half cup of water, 1/6 cup of oil, and 1 1/2 eggs. I used exactly the ingredients the recipe asked for, but generic brands in some cases. I bought a Duncan Hines Devil's Food mix, used generic marshmallows, cocoa, brown sugar.

Result: the cake came out like cake, but the pudding part is runny. Nothing tastes really chocolatey-rich the way I remembered. It tastes like cocoa. The marshmallows come through. I waited until it cooled to almost room temp before trying. It's quite drippy. I can't imagine how runny it would be if I had cut it when it was quite warm-- which is the way you're supposed to be able to serve it! I don't think I can blame the cake mix, though cake mixes today are different from the cake mixes of the sixties."

The following day she described the cake as "a soggy mess." She also researched a bit and found that cake mixes have changed since the 1960, becoming several ounces lighter. Here is the article if you are now fascinated: https://www.nola.com/entertainment_life/eat-drink/article_10fda124-58d8-5238-88b3-a4cd3e925d81.html. And here is a history of cake mixes: https://www.bonappetit.com/entertaining-style/pop-culture/article/cake-mix-history

It is striking how many of my mother's recipes rely on packaged mixes. The Norwegian meatballs, which I always loved, include dry soup mix. I'm sure the Norwegians of the past did not use a soup mix. Jello molds, which are now mocked, were a big part of my childhood. (We never had the bizarre jello molds with mayonnaise and vegetables, though!) My grandmothers' recipes were generally natural ingredients, and I cook with whole foods now. 

So I am asking my cousin to drop that recipe from the family cookbook. My siblings and I remember the original fondly, and maybe that's for the best.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

When Every Birthday Counts

My mom turned 97 on Saturday. My brother and sister and our families always try to travel to Minnesota for her birthday. It's a mini-family reunion as well as a celebration of our mother's life.

My mother has always been a worrier. As she has gotten older she worries more, and about things that don't matter at all. She also gets tired easily, of course. She's 97! So in planning this trip, we aimed at keeping things low-key, so as not to overwhelm her. That was our aim. Then things just happened.

Our group was smaller this year because my brother wasn't able to come this particular week. But my husband, both of our adult children, my sister and her husband, and I were all able to come. So My sister and I planned on a little celebration for Saturday afternoon at 2:00 -- bundtinis from Nothing Bundt Cake, birthday cards, and time together. (Bundtinis are an awesome invention! Bundt cakes the size of cupcakes in delicious flavors. I highly recommend!)

Then I emailed an older cousin to say we were coming up and did they want to get together sometime? Yes, she and her husband did and in fact, they's like to come over on Saturday for the birthday. Great!

Next, my niece texted me to ask if she could come over on Saturday afternoon for whatever birthday celebration we were having. Yes! I said, and bring your boyfriend.

We drove up on Thursday and went to visit Mom in her independent living establishment. She said, "Dennis and Louis (more cousins) are driving down (from western Minnesota) to see me on my birthday!"

So now our low-key birthday was up to 12 people, which is really too many for Mom's little apartment. And we need actual refreshments. Fortunately, my mother is popular with the staff at her complex and they were happy to find us a bigger room to use. Five of us went out shopping Saturday morning for lots of bundtinis, candles, plates, drinks, cups, and napkins. We met up for lunch and were having such a good time, that we didn't make it back to the complex until 2:10. Fortunately, all the guests except for two were also late!

Our one remaining obstacle was four ladies playing cards in the room we had reserved, but the concierge gently moved them elsewhere.

In the end, the party was lovely. Everyone ate cake, drank iced tea, and chatted.

The following day, the activities director told me Mom had been fussing and stressing about this "low-key" party for days. If she can imagine something going wrong, she will. Our main concern was not tiring her out, but, though she was certainly tired, she also seemed to be energized by all the people and activity.

When your parent is 97, you just have to celebrate!

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Summer Reading

School is out for me, at least mostly out. There's still moving into a new classroom later this summer, meeting with my new teaching partner to talk curriculum and books, and a few other loose ends. But it is time to plunge into summer reading!

I'm off to Barnes & Noble later to use my gift card (end-of-year gift!). The books I will buy today are totally for fun -- A Discovery of Witches and Good Omens. A Discovery of Witches was described by one reviewer as Twilight for adults. I despised Twilight, but I checked it out of the library before reading that review (which was a positive review) and got almost halfway through before I had to return it to the library (waiting list, no renewals). It is a sexy vampire novel, but it takes place mostly at the Bodleian Library at Oxford, giving it an intellectual aura. I think it will be a great summer read. Good Omens is by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Gaiman is one of my two favorite authors, the other being Jane Austen, and the description looks fun. Another perfect summer read, I hope. Both of these books have been made into television shows, but I would rather read the book.

Professionally, I'm reading a book on teaching AI. My school will begin adding AI to the curriculum in the fall, and this book is required reading. I recently finished No More Math Fact Frenzy, an argument for eliminating Mad Minutes in favor of teaching that promotes a deeper understanding of math. I've also got Welcome to Writing Workshop in my pile, along with books by Jeff Anderson and Ralph Fletcher.

I hope by August I will refreshed and renewed with great ideas!

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

A new year, an engagement, a reconciliation

Last summer my husband and I decided it was past time to push our son out of the nest. So, we told him he had 2 months to move out. He's 30, so it was well past time. To our surprise, he got his act together and with his girlfriend, found an apartment. This was after him having to buy a new car and take on payments, insurance, etc. A year of joining the adult world. The girlfriend is a lovely person and they are a good couple, balancing and helping each other. Everything was good!

A few weeks ago, he announced his engagement! We were plunged into wedding planning, though it won't happen until 2020. Once again, we were impressed by the way the two of them worked together to plan an economical wedding celebration.

The other piece of this surprising and heart-warming story is the reconciliation. We have known the parents of the fiancee for years. I'll call them H and S. We all live in the same town, we are all musicians and had played together years ago. When my husband and I elected to leave the community music group that H directed, he took offense, said some regrettable things, and stopped speaking to us. This silently bad blood continued for years 5 years, until the kids got engaged.

I delighted to say that everybody stepped up. We encountered some potholes in our path, but all 4 parents really want this wedding to be a wonderful experience, focused on the kids. The 4 of us parents went out to dinner last week to discuss wedding things and ended up talking about all kinds of things for 3 hours!

I try to teach my 4th graders productive ways to solve their conflicts, through talking, "I messages," and listening to each other. It is so lovely when it works. And motivated adults can do the same.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

My Grandmother's Fur Coat

After I moved to Chicago, my mother gave me her mother's fur coat, because, she explained, Chicago is cold in the winter and I could make good use of it.

The coat is actually a jacket. It is black fur, very soft. The fur is not one of the common furs that coats are made of, and even though my mother told me what it is, I don't remember. Maybe beaver? It has an unusual feature that my mother told me my grandmother had asked the furrier for - there are snap along the underside of the sleeves so you can unsnap and have the sleeves loose, more like a cape.

My grandmother was a very clever woman who had a difficult life. Widowed in her 20s with a two-year-old daughter, she went to tailoring school to become a skilled seamstress, but ended up working as a saleslady in a very small town in western Minnesota. She and my mother moved from apartment to apartment. In each apartment, they painted, wallpapered and generally made so many improvements that the landlord raised the rent and they had to move. I do not know how she came to have a custom-made fur coat.

I wore the coat a few times during Chicago winters, but as a jacket, it only kept part of me warm. Even more though, I did not feel comfortable wearing fur, even though this particular fur had been dead a long time. I will not berate anyone for choosing to wear fur, but much of the fur industry is not humane and I don't want to seem to support it. So the coat has been living in my closet for a long, long time.

What to do with it? I want to donate it to a group that will use it for animal welfare. A number of wildlife rehabilitation groups accept old furs to use in nurturing and comforting injured and orphaned animals. So I searched online for some place near me that takes old furs and found it's not that easy to give away a fur to an animal organization. I finally found a resale store, Buffalo Exchange, that has a yearly fur drive for Coats for Cubs. It's only from January to April, so the coat will have to hang out at my house for awhile longer. I like to think of my soft black fur comforting a young animal or maybe a family of youngsters.

It's a bit of my family history and a connection to my Grandmother, but I would rather see it being put to good use than just hanging in my closet. I have the stories, I can let the coat go.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

This past Saturday I had an unusual and wonderful experience. I was invited to attend a Mozart party!

My main leisure-time activity is playing the (French) horn. I play in several community groups -- a band, orchestras, and a horn choir. I love to play and I love the social part of playing music. In addition, I have been a little obsessed with Wolfgang Amadeus and his family. (See multiple posts on my music blog, for example: Mozart & Salieri) So when the invitation to the Mozart party came, I jumped at the chance to play Mozart all day!

We arrived at 1:30 and the wind players made our way to the basement. There were eight of us, two horns, two oboes, two clarinets, and two bassoons. The string players were upstairs in other rooms playing quartets and other types of chamber music. Downstairs, we played octets for several hours. No one had practiced the music ahead of time; we were all sightreading. In between playing we chatted and got to know each other (ad rested!).

This party has been going on annually for 40 years or so. It started as a birthday celebration of Mozart, whose birthday is January 27, 1756. However, January in Chicago is not always travel-friendly, so the party eventually moved to June. Some participants have been coming since the first one, others have joined later, and some, like me, are one-time subs. Everyone is there because they love playing music, and love Mozart's music. Because everyone is sightreading, there is no expectation that our readings will be perfect.

After an afternoon a playing, everyone took a break for dinner and enjoyed more chatting. After dinner furniture was moved and the living set up for a small orchestra concert. This was again sightreading -- no rehearsal. We played the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro (one of Mozart's most famous operas), one of his violin concertos, and the Haffner Symphony. Again, relaxed and low-key, though everyone stayed together (without getting lost) and made music. A great day!

Since I am Mozart-obsessed, I tried to find more information about the octets we played. Mozart's music is cataloged by Kochel number, or K. number, so I looked up a few of the octets we played. Mozart wrote the Serenade in E-flat major, K. 375 in Vienna in October of 1781 for St. Theresa's Day. Mozart says in a letter to his father that he wrote it to impress a gentleman who had connections at the emperor's court, so he "wrote it rather carefully." It was played in three different locations on St. Theresa's day. No information on whether his plan to impress worked.

Another Serenade for wind instruments, this one in C minor, K. 388, was written in 1782 or 1783. The information I found says that Mozart was extremely busy during this time, both with many composing projects and with personal issues with the Weber family. He married Constanze Weber on August 4, 1782, though there were complications and intrigues leading up to the wedding. My source says this serenade "shows no sign of hurried creation; it is tightly structured, and superbly wrought." Mozart later arranged it for string quintet.

We also played an octet arrangement  of the "Gran Partita," or Serenade in B-flat major, K. 361. This is one of my absolute favorite pieces. Mozart wrote it for 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 basset horns (a member of the clarinet family, no longer used today), 4 horns, 2 bassoons, and double bass. Mozart didn't date the piece, but it was probably written somewhere in 1783 or 1784. As with all his works, he wrote it for a particular group of musicians and was received very positively by the first audiences and musicians. This is one of the pieces featured in the movie Amadeus. You can hear a snippet from the Gran Partita here

This may be my only time at this Mozart party, but I am thinking maybe I could make my own chamber music party, on a much smaller scale than this one. A few musicians, music, and a space and time!