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Celebrate the little things

Bluebirds and thank you's mean more than you think.

It is a gray, chilly morning in Southcentral Pennsylvania. Colder and damper than anyone expects for the second week of spring, with April just around the bend.

But none of that really matters today.

You see, I saw a pair of bluebirds in the planter on the back deck. A flash of cerulean blue caught my eye, a shade rarely seen in my backyard. And there they were, nestled by the coco-shred liner of a hanging basket, pecking at seeds that the wind carried there from a nearby feeder. After they flew away, I jumped up and scattered more seed, hoping to lure them back.

I recently learned that bluebirds pair off during mating season and remain monogamous while their mate is living. Every time I see a pair of bluebirds, I think of them as a happily married couple, with 2.4 children (and a minivan).

Another lovely little joy that occurred this week is that a Philadelphia arts company thanked me for the four-star review I'd given them on

Oh, and one reviewer of WHO KILLED 'TOM JONES'?, someone I've never met, wrote that one of my scenes made her heart "skip a beat."

(Truth be told, it made my own heart skip a beat while I wrote and edited it. I still shudder, even after mulling it over for probably the thousandth time. You embody each character as you write scenes and deeply experience everything they feel, or at least I do.)

The scene that made one reader's heart skip a beat featured Marc Levy, a local police detective with an old-fashioned sensibility.For most of us, life doesn't dole out huge joys and accolades to savor day to day. Or a potential cause for celebration pops up, something you may have anticipated for decades, and you find yourself off the guest list for reasons that you can't fathom.

That's why it is important to celebrate little things.

I kicked up my heels last evening when I found a website listing the best movies currently streaming on Netflix. If like my husband Bill and I, you have already binge-watched the second season of House of Cards, finding this site is like finding a mother lode of Saturday night entertainment.  

Now that I have logged more years on the planet than I have ahead of me, I try to take stock in the simple thank you, the thoughtful book review, or the kind email from a friend who says he just had to buy a copy of your latest book. (Thanks, Jim!)

Or an early morning visit from a little pair of bluebirds.

If the big things in life tend to disappoint you, why not turn to all the less consequential goings-on instead? 

Take the measure of the small stuff, and string all those little joys together to create your own little corner of contentment.


Jillian Michaels & Curves: Savior or she-devil?

She may have a perfectly fit body. She may be the female Jack LaLanne of Gen X-ers.

In anyone's book, personal trainer and TV personality Jillian Michaels epitomizes success and the American dream, right? Fitness-crazed forty-something with great hair and an even greater bod takes American TV by storm.

She's the Don Draper of dumbbells. The Lord Grantham of glutes. The Honey Boo Boo of hamstring stretches. 

While I admire her unflagging discipline to fitness, I also find her to be a loathesome human being and a bully. She had to have been a mean girl in high school because she is a mean girl now--shredding vulnerable contestants just trying to preserve their self-esteem and their sanity while struggling to survive on The Biggest Loser.

Jillian Michaels is now part of the Curves fitness programSo, I was (more than a little) distressed to hear that Jillian Michaels was going to be Curves' new "It Girl." Yes, come the New Year, Curves members (perhaps worldwide) would be watching her videos on a large screen TV, with Michaels telling us what to do on the recovery board between using the hydraulic equipment, during every single blinking workout.

I have been a member of Curves since 2005, and that's longer than I've ever stuck with a single fitness program. I've experienced the Curves peaks and valleys. I've stayed mostly because of the great staff at our Ephrata Curves, and that's the truth. They are all good, hard-working women whom I admire. The way I feel about people greatly informs whether I want to spend my free time with them or not. 

Given the choice of exercising with Jillian Michaels at every workout or finding another salon, I figured the handwriting was on the wall. I am not a fitness nut. I don't even like exercising. I don't need an all-too-intense, humorless mean girl scowling at me during workouts I pay for with hard-earned money.

One year ago, the founders of Curves sold the company to some folks who proceeded to make a lot of changes. They wanted to strengthen the Curves brand. Walls were repainted the perfect brand purple. All the fun little extras that made my Curves unique and special were gone. No more running craft show where I bought lots of gifts year-round. No more hula hoops. While scrubbing up the brand, the new owners forgot to consult the customer in the process. It was clear what they wanted. Did they ever ask us what we want? Not that I was aware of.

I've been doing the SAME workout for nine years. The exact same machines, every single time because it is a circuit. Some of the little extras that the manager implemented helped relieved the sameness, the boredom that inevitably sets in. Now, new corporate management was eliminating the value add. What did they want us to do--jump up and down, waving and cheering, or fall prostrate in gratitude?

And they were going to shove Jillian Michaels down our throats in 2014, too? I know Curves memberships were not nearly as plentiful as they had been and that this whole push of integrating Jillian Michaels exercises was to spur more memberships. But that didn't mean that I liked her any better. Was it time to find out more about that Planet Fitness that went in a couple years ago, that I never paid mind to?

This morning marked my first Curves workout of the New Year. (I unofficially worked out yesterday shoveling snow for an hour and a half.)  After I signed in, I couldn't help but notice the women whose eyes were Superglued to the new TV screen mounted in the workout area featuring videos of Jillian Michaels, skating on the industrial grade Curves carpet, doing pushups, knee bends, twisting bendy things.

All the women in the salon, when not working a piece of equipment, were trying Michaels' moves, too, instead of marching or doing knee lifts on the recovery board.

Since I didn't have to listen to her, I tried the suggested exercises Michaels was demonstrating in place of using the recovery boards, too.

And her exercises were actually really great for me!  They made the workout more impactful and interesting. I was sweating and breathing heavier (but not panting) when I was done. I felt as though I got more out of my Curves workout than I had in a long time.

The Curves trainer asked whether we wanted to hear what Michaels was saying because the sound was muted. I could easily pick up the exercises we were supposed to do by just watching her. "Please, don't," I said. "I really don't like her."

"I would like to hear what she is saying," another lady said. 

And with the that, the trainer turned up the volume on the Jillian Michaels' video. Instead of pleasant pop music ramped up to 140 beats per minute, I heard Jillian pushing us, barking at us.

I almost walked out. 

I don't need to barked at by her during one of the few things I do for renewal.

After five minutes of this I said, "I hope she's not going to be talking the whole time we are working out." If that were to happen, I would definitely leave Curves. 

I put up with exercising to praise and worship music. And giving up browsing and shopping at the little craft display every week. Oh, and no more hula hoops. But having to listen to Jillian Michaels, clearly superior to me in every way that society valued, made me feel like a loser--a big loser--and not in a good way, and I drew a line in the sand. I would not subject myself to her on my nickel. 

"I'll turn it down now," the trainer said. "We won't have the sound on all the time."

I smiled weakly, grateful that she took my complaint seriously. I'm really not a big complainer. When it comes to complaining, I'm more like Mr. Ed and don't speak up unless it really matters to me.

I do like the essential Curves workout, or I wouldn't have stuck with it for the last nine years. I like my Curves fitness center. They offer an awesome yoga class several times a year that has really helped me recapture some flexibility. And I have to admit that I like the extra effort that I must make to do Jillian Michaels' exercises during my workout. I need and appreciated the increased cardio the Curves workout now offers.

But let me be clear. I'm not paying to listen to Jillian Michaels "coaching" me all during my 30-minute workout. I'll take my business elsewhere if that becomes de rigueur at my Ephrata Curves.



More shortbread bakers worldwide!

My original posting of my nana's shortbread recipe has prompted more readers worldwide (besides Bunny of Oshawa) to reach out and share family shortbread stories and some charming photos.

Anne's shortbread fingers were headed to school for Heritage Day

This November, Scottish-born Anne McKechan Propst wrote to say her son who is 9 and is taking shortbread fingers in to his class for his Scottish ancestry presentation.

Like my grandmother, Anne's mother was a Glaswegian too. Her brother lives in Largs which is about an hour from Glasgow. Her family grew up in Ayrshire. She said my Nana would know it (ardrossan) because all the Glaswegians would go there in the summer for the beautiful beaches.

Her cousin has a beautiful Bed and breakfast in Largs. Anne said that if I haven't been there, I would love it:


You could certainly relax and 'write' from there (lol)." 
I certainly could. It does appear to be the perfect writer's retreat, doesn't it?


Appin Bed & Breakfast,172 Greenock Road, LargsCertainly does look like a charming place to visit (and write!) 







Very shortly before Christmas, I received another lovely email message from Robb Powell of Calgary who thanked me for posting my nana's recipe. He lost his mother in July of 2012, and she kept all her recipes in her head. Robb wrote,

[My mother] hailed from the MacKinnon Clan and made the best shortbread in the world. I often made it with her as a kid, but was not able to keep the recipe in my head as neatly as Mom, haha.

She was fairly ill her last few years and the shortbread recipe was a lower priority on my list, although the craving has always visited itself upon me each and every Christmas.

Your Nana's recipe is exactly the recipe as I remember it now, I will know for sure when I taste it. Thank you for posting it. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and I can not wait to make up a batch!

We fancied our shortbread up with sliced red and green maraschino cherries, which I will do on the batch tomorrow. I remember my Mom's steadfastness on the importance of creaming the butter and sugar very well, as well as the kneading and slow addition of the flour to the mix. So I will pay special attention to those notes...while visions of the final product dance in my head!

Then Robb sent these photos. Look how he's arranged the cherries on top so each pan looks like a Christmas tree.

shortbread "trees" before bakingRobbie's shortbread baked







I received another note from Colleen who said,

"Thanks for posting your Nana's Shortbread recipe.I made it today for the holidays, and a family Christmas at my sister's. And I'm sure it will be a hit, (had a taste test). I'm going to have to hide them from me!!"

And a cheery note from Fiona, a visitor from Australia, who talked about her granny born of two Scots:

She always made the shortbread to give at Christmas but we were never allowed to break it to eat until midnight - for Homany (the new year). On her passing, the tradition and role of baker jumped my mother and passed directly to me at the age of 16. 

Sometimes Fiona replaces granulated sugar with 10x sugar for a finer texture. She also said her recipe includes ground rice and that she makes her shortbread into rounds.

Keep those photos and notes coming. Whenever I hear from blog readers, it makes the the world seem a cozier, warmer place.


Giving 'The Joneses' a (well manicured) finger...

About ten years ago, I finally realized the proverbial grass isn't always greener. This epiphany followed two decades of marriage, much gainful and earnest employment, and a period of desperate house-wiving.

What took me so long, you ask?

Wish I knew. All I know is that for a span of about twenty years, I may have coveted the weed-free lawn next door, the late model car across the street, the big boat, the bigger house, the two-car garage, the large dog, the toy dog, the lawn balls, the lawn flamingoes . . . all owned by neighbors and not me. You get the idea.

Sometime in my forties I began thinking that the neighbor with all that green, green grass might have a lawn shot full of toxic chemicals affecting the health of his children and pets. 

And that perfect pink flamingoes tragically fade to bleached-out coral in the glare of the summer sun.

Or that maybe my neighbors' lives--their very souls--had been poisoned by their consumerism, their conspicuous consumption, their innate leanings toward oneupsmanship--their desire to not only keep up with The Joneses but to pound them into their Kentucky bluegrass sod strips.

I was reminded of this last night at the nail salon where I now go for my acrylic fills.

The salon is a modest little place in an ideal location for me--within blocks of my office and the train station. It's run by a sweet, unassuming Asian woman named Rose. Rose is good at what she does, but by no means is her business one of the trendy salons in the affluent town where I work. She charges a good bit less than what I used to pay in a blue-collar neighborhood counties away.

She could command a better price on the Main Line, but for some reason chooses not to. Her pricing is attractive to people like me for whom acrylic nails are a luxury and who really shouldn't spend a whole lot of extra dough on such a service. I'm certain her prices also appeal to people with gobs of money who choose to spend as little of it as possible so they can hold onto as much of it as possible.

When I go to Rose's, I don't walk in the door and seek out a captive audience to tell them how spectacular I am. For one thing, I'm not as spectacular as I think I am, and it would be really gauche if I did all the talking the whole time I was getting my nails done. I mean, no one with any class does things like that, right? Most times, I enjoy myself by relaxing and thinking about life and talking as little as possible.

Last night I entered the salon while Rose was finishing the customer before me, who had to stick her freshly painted tootsies under the foot dryer. I said something about her suede boots stashed beside the station where I was having my nails done. I had to say something. I practically tripped over them getting to the chair.

"Those boots are adorable," I said, trying to be friendly.

"They were expensive. $200! I had to call the company to find out what color musk was."

Big mistake. I didn't get another word in edgewise until she left twenty minutes later.

In the time that it took to dry her toenails, I learned more about this woman from her own lips than I ever wanted to know or that she deserved to tell me.

After relaying how many expensive pairs of boots she bought online, without taking a breath, she told me she was taking a trip to Florida for three weeks because she owns a house in Palm Beach. She then squeezed in that she went to both Penn and Harvard, two of the best Ivy League schools in the U.S. Oh, and she used to make six figures selling real estate. By the way, her first husband left her. Her son went to the Haverford School (a private and very expensive boys school near Philly) and now wants to become a doctor. Her new husband's a lawyer in Philly and gives away thousands of dollars to charity each year, they live in Gladwyne, and the bragging went on and on and on and on until I felt sick to my stomach.

First I found her annoying. Then I felt pity for her. Is that what you have to do, to be liked and accepted in her world? Trot out all the details of your life with minutes of meeting someone, so that they can instantly judge how rich and important you are and whether you are worth talking to? Do people traveling in her circles only allot someone a few minutes to prove their worth as measured by money, influence, possessions, winter homes, summer homes, boots, booty lifts, eye jobs, etc.

My mom was pretty poor growing up--she lost her dad suddenly when she was seven and her mom was in domestic service. But Mom taught me that you never scold children in front of their friends and never talk about money with strangers.

Maybe in my twenties I might have been impressed or taken by a woman like this. She did capture my attention (or I wouldn't be writing this.) If that's how a person has to act to be accepted in her elite social circles, I want nothing of it. Or her.

I suppose I have nothing compared to her. No tony house in Gladwyne. No Penn or Harvard education. No Palm Beach estate. No spouse who gives thousands to charity causes.

But I don't care. I've no appetite for keeping up with Joneses any longer. The Joneses can go blab about their social superiority to all their affluent neighbors in Palm Beach.

Because I'm giving "The Joneses" one well manicured middle finger.




What's zucchini got to do with it?

Well, if your garden looks anything like my garden, little ol' zucchini's got everything to do with how you are getting on in the kitchen right about now. 'Tis the season for harvesting zucchini by the wheelbarrow. And to think, I never even heard of zucchini until I turned 18 and went out West. (And I grew up on a farm!)

What if you aren't a gardener? Maybe you received a couple zucchini from that annoying neighbor with the equally annoying green thumb. Or you see loads of them, all neat and shiny, at market?

Whatever the case may be, if it's August, I'm betting you need new zucchini recipes, girlfriend!

Here are four of my faves to help you out of your zucchini jam (Zucchini jam? There's a thought):

Zucchini Patties

  • 2 c. grated zucchini
  • 3 c. bread crumbs
  • 2 eggs beaten
  • 2 T. mayonnaise
  • 1 T. Old Bay Seasoning
  • 1 c. finely chopped onion

Mix all ingredients in large bowl. Form into patties. Deep-fry in hot oil for 2-3 minutes or until brown. Repeat on other side. (The Old Bay seasoning makes this recipe!)

Zucchini Squash Toss

Slice and sauté one zucchini in a little oil until limp. Remove from heat and add:

  • 1/2 c. grated cheese
  • little oregano leaves

Toss and quickly serve.

Zucchini Filling Casserole

  • 1 medium zucchini, peeled
  • 2 eggs beaten
  • 1/4 c. onion or to flavor
  • 2 c. soft bread cubes
  • 2 T. margarine or butter
  • 1 c. Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 c. shredded Cheddar cheese

Cut zucchini in small chunks. Cook in 1 quart saucepan with water to cover until soft. Drain. Mix together eggs, onions, bread cubes, margarine, and parmesan cheese in a large bowl. Add drained zucchini. Place in 2-quart casserole dish and top with shredded cheese. Bake at 375 degrees for 35 minutes.

And last but certainly not least:

Mrs. Shumaker's famous Five-Star Zucchini Garden Chowder

  • 2 medium zucchini
  • 1 onion chopped
  • 2 T. parsley
  • 1 t. basil
  • 1/3 c. butter
  • 1/3 cup flour
  • 1/4 t. pepper
  • 3 c. water
  • 3 chicken bouillon cubes
  • 1 t. lemon juice
  • 1 can diced tomatoes
  • 1 c. skim milk
  • 1 pkg (10 oz.) frozen corn
  • 1/4 c. grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 c. shredded cheddar cheese

Sauté zucchini, onion, parsley, and basil in butter until tender. Stir in flour, salt, and pepper. Add water, bouillon,. and lemon juice. Bring to boil--stir for two minutes. Add tomatoes, milk,, & corn. Bring to boil. Reduce heat. Cover. Simmer 5 minutes. Add cheese before serving.