Friday, July 23, 2010

From death into life

We went to a very difficult funeral today, a young father killed in an accident, a senseless tragedy. To be honest, I don't know if I'd have been able to summon up the courage to go if Aisling hadn't been asked to play the piano. I didn't know how to find the strength to sit in the church through the memorial Mass and see his wife, his two young children in the front pew, holding onto their strong faith with a white-knuckled grip, trying to find shelter in the midst of one of life's greatest storms.

But duty calls, and I, like many people, I imagine, find it easy to rely on What is Right to Do when my own personal inclinations are searching frantically for the easy way out: our small parish has three pianists and the other two both have full-time jobs. Aisling, a carefree teenager, has time to spare and she was needed to fill in the gap. So we went, dressed in dark colors on one of summer's most gloriously sunshiny days so far.

I imagined that the funeral would be a dreadful experience, that I would spend every minute and second and half-second wondering What if that were my husband? and What can we do to help them? and at last, torturously, How can we help? How can any congregation, however loving and well-meaning, take the place of a life's companion, the husband, the daddy?

It's all pretty unanswerable. I gave it up with a sigh and sat, rigid with sympathetic sadness through the beginning of the Mass and the first reading, but then we got to the responsorial psalm and I realized that I had been reckoning without the power of the Holy Spirit, to restore hope, to heal, to guide. Undoubtedly, this man's wife and children will have their season of grief. It will be a heavy cross to carry. But they've been promised help in the carrying, and at some point, they'll come through, from death into life, as we sang in Marty Haugen's beautiful rendition of Psalm 23.

I wish I could find a music clip on the internet that made it sound the way our small choir sang it, which was so perfectly lovely, I almost couldn't breathe. Unfortunately, all I could find on YouTube was a collection of videos of the "praise choir" sort, a type of music that I just can't abide because it sounds so false and so perform-y. Our choir, they sang the music in a way that I can only describe as organic, from the soul, in an attitude of prayer and hope that made the entire church, including the bereaved family, release a sigh of relief. As Blessed Julian of Norwich said, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

Here are the lyrics:

Shepherd me, O God beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.

God is my shepherd, so nothing shall I want, I rest in the meadows of faithfulness and love, I walk by the quiet waters of peace.

Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life

Gently you raise me and heal my weary soul, You lead me by pathways of righteousness and truth, my spirit shall sing the music of your Name.

Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life

You have set before me a banquet of love, crowning me with love beyond my pow’r to hold. Surely your kindness and mercy follow me all the days of my life, all the days of my life I will dwell in the house of my God forevermore

Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Welcome to your life's work. Would you like fries with that?

Our Meelyn, aged seventeen, works in a fast food restaurant because her dad and I feel that fast food restaurants are a microcosm of life and the working world. And also that nothing convinces a person of the VITAL, SEARING IMPORTANCE of a college education like working a drive-thru window.

Fortunately, Meelyn had this figured out before she even began this job a year ago, but today? Today was a banner day. Today she actually had someone illustrate a life lesson that her dad and I couldn't have come up with if we'd ordered it from Amazon.

The guy, who is a shift leader at the restaurant, was talking to Mee about his experiences in high school. "I made me some smart friends," he told her confidentially, "so that I could just cheat my way through and not have to, you know, study."

"Wow," said Meelyn, underwhelmed.

"And you know," he said, with the air of someone revealing a great secret of the universe, "I have NEVER READ AN ENTIRE BOOK."

"Imagine that," Meelyn marveled. "Never?"

"Nope," he said braggily. "Not one single book. But look at me! Here I am, a shift leader!"

Meelyn is a very nice girl, a much nicer person than I am, even though I feel like I am a decent Christian. With thoughts of Jesus in my head, I never would have allowed myself to say something fervent, all wide-eyed, like, "Yeah, you're really livin' the dream, dude!"

But I would have been standing there. Thinking it. Thinking it real hard.

(Actually, Meelyn was too.)

Monday, July 12, 2010

The mayonnaise wars

Ordinarily, I would consider it an act of unforgivable impertinence to disagree with Julia Child. But I like my recipe for homemade mayonnaise better than hers. So there. Let the lightning strike me, if it will. I have spoken.

Julia's recipe is widely available, like, all over the internet, so I don't feel that I'm violating any super-special secret by listing her ingredients here:

1 whole egg, at room temp
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice or white wine vinegar
1 cup olive oil, salad oil, or a mixture of both

Here are mine:

1 whole egg, at room temp (or place one egg in a cup of lukewarm water and allow to sit for 10 minutes)
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus an extra pinch or two
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 cup olive oil, but not extra-virgin; use the type that's called "lighter" or "light" or just plain "olive oil" for reasons I'll explain in a moment.

You may have noticed that the main differences between Julia's recipe and mine are the amount of salt (I think her recipe is bland) and the amount of lemon juice (I think her mayonnaise tastes way too lemony.) Also, I can't condone the use of regular vegetable oil or corn oil, but even canola oil gives homemade mayonnaise a taste that's....not quite quite. I find it difficult to describe, but false or cheap would probably be the best ways to put it. Canola oil just doesn't impart that rich, deep creaminess that olive oil does.

So my vast preference is for olive oil, although I don't like using extra virgin olive oil because it makes the mayonnaise taste too olivey, which, well, what else could you expect? I like to use the plain olive oil designated as "pure" or "lighter" or "lighter tasting" or sometimes even "for cooking," which has nothing to do with color or calories, but rather with what's left after the first pressing of the olives. The first pressing, of course, yields extra-virgin olive oil. The next grade is virgin olive oil and the one following is commercially graded as "pure." It's the pure olive oil that makes the best and freshest-tasting homemade mayonnaise, in my opinion.

I always use my food processor for making mayonnaise and it is foolproof, really. Just throw your egg, mustard and salt in there and whir them around until they're thick and foamy, around thirty seconds. Pour in your teaspoon of lemon juice and whiz around to combine. Follow that buy adding your olive oil with the processor running, just a wee drop at a time, to give the egg a chance to absorb the oil and emulsify. After those first few drops, you can pour the oil down the processor's spout in a slow, steady stream while the machine runs at top speed while thanking heaven that you don't have to accomplish this task with a bowl and a wire whisk. As the egg and the oil combine and thicken -- emulsify -- you should start seeing a lovely, creamy substance forming. You can see mine in the picture up there. You'll find that homemade mayonnaise is a bit more yellow than what you can buy in the store; that's not only because of the egg yolk and the mustard powder, but also because of the olive oil.

And that's your delicious, easy homemade mayonnaise with a taste that will make your tuna or chicken salad or turkey-tomato-and lettuce sandwich or your deviled eggs just stand up and holler "Magnifique!"

You might say, "But why would I want to go to all the trouble to make my own mayonnaise when it is so easy to buy at the store?"

My answers to that question are threefold:

1. Homemade mayonnaise is just a nice food. It doesn't have preservatives, so you have to use it immediately, but that's not such a bad thing because hello, preservatives? Do you ever wonder why a product made of eggs can stay in your fridge for months on end without going bad?

2. Homemade mayonnaise is very inexpensive to prepare, which makes it a great money-saver when you have to make, say, a bucket of potato salad for a picnic, or three-dozen deviled eggs.

3. Homemade mayonnaise tastes incredible, better even than Hellmann's, which is the only store mayonnaise I've tasted that comes close to the home version. You can tinker with it yourself to adjust it to your taste: maybe you'd like a pinch of sugar, or maybe you'd prefer white wine vinegar to lemon juice. You could use either less or more salt. You could make the recipe your very own and then make it whenever you need it. It's so fast and simple, why not?

I know I can be kind of preachy about mayonnaise, but I learned all this mayo-lore at my grandma's knee while we watched Julia together on television and then went out to the kitchen to play. I remember this mayonnaise best on bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches and it changed my life. I am an evangelist for homemade mayonnaise, although I'm sadly aware that most people, like my own mother, don't give a rip. "I can't taste any difference at all," she says frankly, looking bored by the whole thing.

Leave her and her feeble taste buds to the store brand, then, loaded with preservatives and with a shelf life of two thousand years, and let the rest of us experience creamy indulgence from real, pure mayonnaise. I will let her share my sandwich if she asks very, very nicely.

The summery nature of June, July and August

I usually write about four or five blog posts per week, because this blog is primarily a record of our lives -- I know! It really is mesmerizing, isn't it? -- and how will there be any record if I never write anything? This is easy in the winter, although I admit that the subject matter can be strained: Monday -- very cold, with a chance of more coldness later; Tuesday -- somewhere beyond cold, so I'm turning the thermostat up; Wednesday -- So frikking cold, even a belt of Kahlua in my hot chocolate can't even cheer get the idea.

But in summer, it's hard to write because of what you see in that picture: the swim club. I took that shot from my seat on a bench on which I have a comfy non-inflatable mattress that can also double as a pool float, two large beach towels, a little flat-topped cooler that holds cans of Diet Coke and doubles as a side table and a bag full of sunscreen, books, books and other books, all of which I'm reading simultaneously as the mood takes me. With a generous basting with SPF30, my huge sunglasses and the Mom Hat, I'm ready to spend the afternoon in complete bliss.

Which we have been doing, which is why I've missed an entire week of writing, except for today. The sky outside is grey and lowering and a familiar pain across my face tells me that I'd better take some ibuprofen right now or I'll regret it sooner rather than later. Whooops....there's some thunder right now. No pool today, so maybe I should write about ten blog posts instead? Hmm...

Monday, July 5, 2010


For all you Catholic readers out there...

I wrote a post last May titled Revelation, in which I related my experience in listening to a tape by Fr. Larry Richards, wherein he exhorted Catholics to remember that we aren't supposed to be going to church on Sundays to get something: we're supposed to be going to church on Sundays to give. It was a relief to hear this because one of my pet peeves with American Christianity is hearing people whine about how they don't "feel fed" by whatever church they're attending, whether Catholic or Protestant, as if any one church with any one pastor could ever be expected to shoulder the burden of nursing a bunch of people who are old enough to be feeding themselves.

In that post, I listed a number of ways that Christians can find the spiritual food they're hungering for, although in the bounteous ways of our merciful and practical God, who is always generous with His gifts and sometimes sneaky about the way He delivers them: even when we're there at church to give back to Him with our worship and praise, He gives us quite a feast with the liturgy of the Word and the Eucharist.

One of the ways I listed for spiritual food that we can consume for the good of our souls outside of Mass was through Magnificat, a monthly magazine that lists the daily Mass readings plus morning and evening prayer. But I just found out that there's so much more than that to this lovely little missal, the current issue of which is pictured above.

On Saturday evening's vigil Mass, Father told the congregation that some member of the parish had found himself with fifty copies of the July 2010 issue of Magnificat and that he'd brought them to the church for whoever wanted to pick one up. Meelyn picked up a copy for me and as I've used it over the past few days, I've come to realize how really nice Magnificat is.

First of all, it's more than just a missal -- a booklet that lists the daily/weekly Mass readings. The daily readings are there, along with the morning and evening prayer I mentioned before, but there's also a handy liturgical calendar on the first page that lets you know where we are in the liturgical year -- today, for instance, is the beginning of the fourteenth week in Ordinary time. There's also Night prayer, which comes in very handy for the insomniacs among us. You can also read about the Saint of the Day and reflect upon the Meditation of the Day (which goes along with the interconnected topic of the daily readings). There is some beautiful religious art in each issue, which brings me to my last point, which is that Magnificat is simply lovely to look at. Printed on high quality paper with a readable font, it's simply nice to have.

There are four ways to subscribe to Magnificat's hard copy version: You can do a six-month subscription, a one year, a two-year or a four-year. This might be a good time to point out that if you opted for the four-year subscription, you'd be able to read the entire Bible (minus the genealogical tables, which I'm not really sure anyone ever reads anyway, with all that begatting going on unto the tenth and lo, the twentieth generation) and have a head start on going through it all again.

But here are some alternate techie ways to get fed through prayer and the Word: Magnificat can also be launched as an app on your iPhone -- your daily prayers will come right up on your little screen for only $1.99 a month. Or you can subscribe to Magnificat online in either six-month or one year terms of service.

This is what I was talking about when I said in my Revelation post that there's just no excuse for any of us to have this lazy attitude of sitting in our high chairs with our mouths hanging open, waiting for some food to be shoveled in on a little spoon, or worse yet, offered to us in a bottle or a sippy cup. We need to see to our feeding through prayer, through reading our Bibles, through learning about Jesus through our faith by reading the Catechism or about the lives of the saints. There are so many ways available to us that it's just a terrible shame to hear about people leaving the Catholic church -- and incidentally, Jesus in the Eucharist, the cornerstone of our faith and the reason why -- because we think that a rock band playing up in the front of a different church is going to provide us with what we need. Good grief.

Magnificat is a particularly nice way to feed ourselves a good, satisfying helping of the Holy Spirit.

You never know how much you love your oven

Until you don't have your oven.

On Father's Day, I asked my husband what he wanted for his special dinner and his answer surprised me a bit: homemade sloppy joes on sesame buns and tater tots. Or, as I call them, potato puffs, being as how I cannot force the word "tater" out of my mouth; it kind of hurts to even type it. This is because I am a food snob and I know that this is a personal failing and a petty weakness, but "tater" is an ugly word. "Yogurt" is an ugly word too, but since my only alternative is to call it "curdled milk swarming with bacteria," I prefer to stick with the ugly name. "Potato" is a whole different story.

I made my husband's sloppy joes and heated up the oven to 450 degrees with my Grandmother Marshall's huge cast-iron skillet inside it (the only way that potato puffs or roasted potatoes develop a crispy crust in the oven). When it was finished heating, I hurriedly dumped half a bag of potato puffs in it, pushed the oven rack back in and closed the door.

And then I stood there pondering for a moment, opened the oven door again, and grabbed the handle of my cast-iron skillet.

If the oven had been hot -- which it wasn't -- this maneuver would have been accompanied by wild screams and fervent cussing.

I went to the living room and told my husband that potato puffs were off the menu.

A few days passed, mostly because I spent Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of the following week employed in packing for CousinFest. This included not only packing clothes, but also packing a cooler and a hamper, both stuffed full of food. We don't mess around at CousinFest, when it comes to eating. I felt that I just didn't have the time to wait around for a repairman to come and fix whatever was wrong, but boy, do I wish I had.

Because when we got back? I called the Will Will Repair Your Appliance if it's the Last Thing We Ever Do place last Monday, one week ago today. And a repairman oblingly came over, stuck his head in the oven, announced that the thingamadooey was wrong with the whatchamacallit, told me he needed to order a part, and disappeared.

We've heard nothing from him since.

And I have been stricken by an urge to bake things. It's hard, I find, to plan menus around things that can only be cooked on the stove, although I did resort to "baking" some enchiladas in my electric skillet the other evening. In my opinion, the microwave is good for steaming vegetables and melting butter and heating up Thanksgiving leftovers. It even does a passable -- if overly zealous -- job of thawing pork chops; you have to keep your eye on it every second because my idea of defrosting the pork chops means that the ice is barely knocked off them and my microwave's idea of defrosting lies somewhere between nuclear fusion and the surface temperature of the sun. But I do not bake things in the microwave. That is unnatural behavior, I don't care what my eighth grade home ec teacher said.

So! The stove it is. Tonight we're having scrambled eggs, bacon (acceptably microwaveable) and grits. Tomorrow we're having stir fry. And if the appliance guy isn't back with the stove's part by then, we're either going to keep repeating scrambled eggs and stir fry ad infinitum, or start having Spaghetti-O's for dinner.

Friday, July 2, 2010

RECIPE: Amish Lemon Squares

I posted over at Facebook around Father's Day about whether I should make lemon squares or Key Lime pie for my in-laws (I ended up making both) and a great number of people sent me messages asking if I'd be willing to share my recipes with people.

Naturally, I was all, "Well, SURE!" because I am all about being kind to people and doing nice things for them, even if I sent them a friend request that it took them over a month to answer, as if they were running a background check on me and had to wait for the results before confirming that they knew me.

I knew I should have used both my maiden and married names on my Facebook profile.

Anyway, my mother and I got this recipe from an Amish lady in either Middlebury, Indiana or Shipshewana, I can't remember which. The lady was running a little bakery out of a picturesque shed behind her house and I can't even tell you the wonders we beheld in the glass case that was set up in there. Or that she was really kind about the fact that I'd stepped in gum and left clingy bits of sticky pink goo all over her pristine linoleum floor.

We left sans gum but with this recipe, which was not really a fair trade. Especially since the lemon squares are so easy to make, but I'm sure those little bits of nasty bubble gum were a real pain in the prayer bonnet to get up off the floor.



2 cups flour
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 cup soft butter, plus 2 tablespoons (yes, you read that right)
4 eggs, beaten
2 cups granulated sugar
1/3 cup ReaLemon concentrated lemon juice
1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix together first three ingredients in a medium mixing bowl until mixture clings; press evenly into a 9x13" baking pan and bake at 350o for twenty-five minutes.

While crust is baking, rinse out the mixing bowl. Break the four eggs into the bowl and beat; add sugar and ReaLemon. Sift together the flour and baking powder and add to egg mixture, stirring to combine. Pour over baked crust and bake for twenty-five minutes at 350 degrees. Allow lemon squares to cool and sprinkle with a bit of powdered sugar. Cut into squares and serve.*

*In the Amish lady's pastry case, the lemon squares were about as big as my head. So depending on what you're looking for in a lemon square, whether it is a full-on sugary citrus rush or a dainter specimen you can nibble while drinking a cup of Earl Grey tea, cut them in whatever size suits your need.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The misunderstood lyrics of Elton John, or How the Souspane Has Figured in My Life

First of all, I have always loved the music of Elton John, ever since the very first song of his I can remember loving, which was "Bennie and the Jets."

Secondly, I have no idea what a souspane is, and even if you read all the way to the end of this post, you still won't know either. That may either be because there is no such thing as a souspane, or it might be because the souspane is a literary device used by songwriter Bernie Taupin when writing lyrics that were designed to throw us all off and annoy our parents. Or it may be that I'm just challenged in some way that hasn't yet been identified by anyone, up to and including the Brown Dirt Cowboy.

All I know is that I think it must be a noun. The souspane.

The souspane didn't make an appearance in Elton John lyrics until I'd been listening to his music for a while, but the first lyric I misunderstood came right there in "Bennie and the Jets" and I wasn't the only one who was fooled by it.

In "Bennie and the Jets," you have your song about a rock band led by a female singer, Bennie, which is confusing in itself. "Bennie" sounds like a boy's name, and there are so many two-syllable girls' names to choose from, like, say, Shelley. "Shelley and the Jets" rolls off the tongue just as fluidly as "Bennie" does, I feel. Anyway. In the chorus, two teens named Candy and Ronnie are asked if they've seen her show -- the "solid wall of sound" -- by their unnamed friend who is excitedly relating the wonders of the concert.

"She's got electric boots!" he gushes. "A mohair suit! You know I read it in a magazay-ay-ay-ayne..."

Considering that Elton John has that British accent and also that he doesn't feel the need to enunciate his words like an elocution teacher in his songs, could all of us really be blamed for thinking the boy said, "She's got electric boobs! Her ma has, too! You know I read it in a magazine."

Although why we'd all care about Bennie's mom's presumably middle-aged bosoms, I don't know. And wouldn't a mohair suit be really itchy?

There were a lot of us at Parkview Junior High School who were grievously disappointed that there were no boobs in the song.

Once we got that all straightened out, along came "Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting," which is where I first encountered the souspane, but not before I ran into this bit of confusion:


Well, they're packed really tight in here tonight

And I'm looking for a daughter who'll see me right

I may use a little muscle to get what I need

I'll just [unintelligble for a few words] and shout out "Chick-fil-A!"


Okay, remember that my ears were only about thirteen years old at the time and therefore stupid. In this song, in which Elton portrays himself as a thuggy kid from the wrong side of the tracks, he's not looking for a "daughter," but rather a "dolly." In my world, "dollies" were things like Betsy Wetsy, not girls out looking for a good time in a bar.

And furthermore, Elton isn't shouting out "Chick-fil-A" as if he's hungering for a Chargrilled Chicken Club sandwich. No, he's actually saying "She's with me." Only instead of pronouncing "me" like "me," he pronounces it like "may": as in, "I'll just sink and little drink and shout out, 'She's with mayyyyyyy!'" So I think my confusion is is understandable.

The last verse of the song -- a really fast and noisy song, with the words all run together -- sounded like this to me for years:


A couple of the sounds that I really like

Are the sounds of a souspane and a motor bike

I'm a juvenile product of the working class

Whose best friend floats in the bottom of a glass


Now I'm older and know better, thanks to my friend Betsy, who heard me sing the word "souspane" one day when we were listening to Elton John's Greatest Hits, Volume I and said incredulously, "What did you just say?"

I oblingly sang it again for her.

"Souspane?" she queried, twitching suspiciously around the corners of her mouth. "What's a souspane? Where did you get that? And what is it?"

"I don't know what a souspane is," I answered with dignity. "I just thought it was one of those Englishy words that they don't call it what it is, like saying 'flat' instead of 'apartment' and 'torch' instead of 'flashlight.'"

"A souspane," she said dubiously, a smile stretching across her face. "The sound of a souspane and a motorbike..."

"I picture the souspane as maybe a kind of musical instrument, maybe like a harpsichord," I said, not yet perceiving that I was being mocked. "Because you know the song 'Daniel'? In that song, Elton sings 'The souspane is pretty, but I've never been.'"

Betsy began to erupt in little snorting giggles that increased in volume and intensity until she was holding onto the arms of the chair in which she was sitting, wailing with laughter, her head thrown back with utter abandonment in her mirth, which was at my expense.

"Souspane...." she gasped, tears streaming down her face. "Souspane, oh....AAAHAHAHAHAA!!! HAHAHA!!!!"

Peeved, I narrowed my eyes and demanded, "Well, if Elton John isn't talking about a frigging souspane in those songs, what exactly is he saying? Do YOU know?"

"EVERYBODY knows," she hiccupped, wiping her smeared mascara out from under her eyes with her pointer fingers. "And please believe me when I say that nobody else in the world has ever heard the word 'souspane' in either of those songs. You are so special." Her quivering voice led me to believe that another avalanche of laughter was about to overtake her, so I raised my voice and said:


Betsy managed to recover herself enough to say, "In 'Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting,' he says the he likes the sounds of a SWITCHBLADE and a motorbike. Not souspane."


"Yes, and how you got 'souspane' out of 'switchblade,' I honestly cannot fathom. They don't sound anything alike, even allowing for Elton's slurry pronunciation."

"Well, how about 'Daniel,'" I asked, goaded. "He QUITE CLEARLY says, 'The souspane is pretty, though I've never been.'"

She cleared her throat and declaimed, "'THEY SAY SPAIN IS PRETTY, though I've never been.'"

"Oh," I said lamely. "Spain. Well. You can see how I could have understood 'souspane' out of 'say Spain.'"

"No, I can't," she said frankly. "Number one, because there's no such thing as a souspane. And number two, because the CONTEXT of the SONG tells you that Daniel is traveling on a plane and waving goodbye and all that. Unless, of course, you were thinking that he had his harpsichord-turned-souspane boxed up in a crate in the hold of the plane?"

"Oh, shut up," I said ungratefully. And then went off and bought the cassette version of Elton's greatest hits and a Walkman with some headphones so that I could listen to my music in privacy, without any other nosey person interfering with my understanding of the lyrics and the marvelous, magical, beautiful souspane.