New Year Thoughts: Botanicals

Just before the holidays, I had a call from a curator for the Gallery at Bainbridge Arts and Crafts in Winslow inviting me to be part of their June 2012 exhibition – a three-person show tentatively titled “Botanicals.”

My first thought was uh oh, I want to do this, but no flowers to paint ahead of a late May deadline. Winter makes one’s flower obsession seem far away and long ago – no easy inspiration from the flowers themselves.

That’s an Alaska truth, but Washington will have flowers – bulbs aplenty by March and April. The title “Botanicals” makes me a little anxious. The other people – Jan Hurd and Kathleen McKeehan are really botanical artists – but I am not. The title intrigues me though, and I do love to observe and paint flowers, as the others must. I am curious what else we have in common.

I’d like to make new paintings to meet the “Botanicals” definition, so I need to set goals and build experimentation time into a schedule (remembering “Willpower”).

One winter in Anchorage, I visited my favorite flower shop every week and drew their blossoms. I sat on a little red stool at the level of flower-filled buckets – with just a pen and paper pad on my knee. Being there in the bustle of the flower shop helped my winter isolation and my drawing.

For my painter friend that Christmas, I combined the December images with quotes (I was reading non-stop about flowers and gardens in those days) to make a “winter garden” calendar.

I recently found those drawings, and while I get myself back to thinking about flowers, searching for ways to inspire the images I want to see – exploring possibilities and limits – I will post some of those images or parts of them.

Thinking about flowers in February – a good idea!

Snow Days

Washington’s “snow event” will be over by the time you read this – I hope.

But snow seems never-ending in Alaska this year. Last week, the snowfall (88” by mid-January) broke the all-time record for accumulation to that date. Snow mounds on roofs and in berms, and more fell while we visited to meet our granddaughter.

We spent magical days encapsulated in a snow shaker, but warm and cozy, protected by the old red house. I thought often about bringing our babies home to that house. (But never in winter. Snow, single digit, and below-zero temperatures make a dramatic backdrop to the beginning of a life.)

In routines both new and utterly familiar, I got to hold the tiny baby while her mom slept, had a shower, or took a snowy walk around the block with the dad and the old dog. And I cooked. I liked making a meal, then walking with the baby about the house while her parents chatted at the table like a couple on a date.

I thought a great deal about my mother as I joined the grandmother ranks. She always amazed me with her willingness to be with the baby or the children – holding whoever needed holding, playing board games she never quite got (no matter how earnestly instructed in the rules), and tirelessly reading stories with speech bubbles full of “blistering barnacles” and the like.

In those days I couldn’t see why my mom didn’t mind not being part of the grown-up table conversation. She seemed selfless – knowing I wanted to be there, she’d divert the grandchildren – now I wonder. I feel like I joined that group of goofy people who smile knowingly about their grandchildren, and now suspect my mother preferred to be with our sons.

I loved holding this baby. She’s sweet and reasonable, and once fed, easily drifts to sleep in welcoming arms. To be with her is absorbedness of the best kind – I felt I was doing exactly what I should be doing at that very moment, also grateful, happy, besotted.

With the new dad back to work and snow falling and muffling outdoor sounds, the house grew quiet like a house does with no creatures astir – the new mom returning upstairs for a nap, the dogs and the cats sighing and settling and always nearby. So very quiet, but all the world right there.

I’m so thankful to have seen the new baby while she’s still tiny, yet already such a person, and watch our son and his wife transformed into caring, competent parents. It’s an ancient way of families being together – extra arms to hold the baby, grandpa to help with the chores. Shovelling snow, making food, and doing laundry never seemed so useful or so rewarding.

Snowy days to cherish.


New Year Thoughts: Root Season

Jack Bishop’s “Roasted Parsnips with Balsamic Vinegar and Rosemary” were a hit at Thanksgiving. Either that, or I didn’t cook enough of them, because they completely disappeared.

His recipe is simple. Peel the parsnips, cut, and roast. Quarter large parsnips and slice out the woody center, but just cut small ones into inch and a half chunks. Toss them with olive oil on a baking sheet with a rim, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Roast at 425° for about 40 minutes, then combine two tablespoons of balsamic vinegar with two teaspoons of minced fresh rosemary, and drizzle over the parsnips on the baking sheet, tossing to spread.

Continue roasting for just a few minutes (Bishop says three). In the heat of the fray of Thanksgiving, I think ours got left in the oven over-long, but the resulting crunchiness may have contributed to their popularity. Tasty!

New Year Thoughts: Continuity

In my Granny Trudy stash I found an appliquéd and embroidered cloth with a sunbonnet girl surrounded by flowers in one corner with more flowers filling the other corners. I used it to make a little receiving blanket for the new baby, the flannel backing tucked over to form a soft binding.

Originally there were tape ties at each corner of the cloth, and when I told my sister-in-law about the blanket, she said the tapes tied the cloth to a card table during weekly ladies’ bridge games. (My husband and his sister remember enormous meringue kisses filled with ice cream made by Granny Trudy and their mother for those gatherings.)

I love the thought of this new baby girl having something for ordinary use with handwork made by her great, great grandmother. And relish the thought of a line of women who make things – sunbonnet girls, ice cream kisses, blankets, and babies.

New Year Thoughts: Habits

A pre-baby trip to Alaska involved a lot of happy cooking for the freezer, so I got to enjoy the new kitchen in the old house. You notice things when you cook in other people’s kitchens, especially if you are trying to do a good job. My daughter-in-law’s wooden spoons don’t look like mine. Hers look new, but they aren’t. She uses a spoon rest.

I never thought about this habit before, but while I sometimes rest a spoon on a dish when I need to put a lid on the pot, and wouldn’t put a food-covered spoon right on the counter or stove top, I’m inclined to just leave the spoon tipped against the side of a pan full of sauce or oatmeal or sauté.

When the sweet friend of our younger son came at Christmas, and we were cooking on Christmas Eve, I asked her if she left the spoon in the food on the stove. “Oh no,” she said, “I put it on the…” and she indicated a shape in the air by the stove – “a spoon rest?” I said. “Yes.”

She had already noticed my deficit, and in my stocking I found spoon rests – ceramic and shaped like oversized spoon and fork – charming and useful.

Now I am struggling with changing a bad habit! And a soup to practice on is clean-out-the-fridge, use-the-odds-and-ends-beans soup: I soaked and cooked all the mismatched beans, different sizes of white, black-eyed peas (for the new year), a sprinkling of kidney beans – producing enough beans for the soup and some extras to freeze.

I’d cooked a squash the day before and saved the seeds, so made a quick stock (stock makes all the difference in soup, that’s all there is to it) by sautéing roughly cut shallots, a leek including the green, roughly chopped carrot, celery (and the peelings of a small celeriac), and then added the squash seeds and strings along with a bay leaf, parsley sprigs, salt and pepper, and six or so cups of water. (The next time I made stock I used the skin from a roasted acorn squash as well as the seeds – that tasted great!)

I let it simmer for a while, then strained it and added three cups of the cooked beans, winter greens from the CSA (chopped collards and stir fry mix) and a chopped rutabaga and the celeriac.

It still surprises me that I write about cooking, and I am grateful for all I have learned in the process. Soup made good by stock is a new habit from last year, so here’s to more learning in 2012!


For Christmas I got willpower. (I could leave it there – what a present you’d think!) Under the tree, along with a soft sweater, a small power drill, and other treats, I found the book “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength” by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. In the midst of New Year goal setting and resolution making, this book rewards a read.

It’s written by a duo whose credentials deliver both science and lively writing. Baumeister, a psychologist, explores self-control – willpower. Tierney, a science columnist for the New York Times, engagingly mingles psychological studies with the experiences of real people. Geared toward the curious common reader, the book works just fine.

In experiments in the late 1990s, Baumeister was the first to identify willpower as a muscle, and reveal that, although it was fatigued by overwork, it can also be strengthened. He discovered that the physical basis of willpower is in finite supply, and that we use the same resource for widely different things. His experiments, often involving children left alone in rooms with tempting marshmallows, showed that self-control employed in one situation diminished the chance of self-control being available for other demands, such as learning or decision-making.

When the authors identify all the possible temptations in an ordinary day that test self-control (exacerbated mightily now in the wired age), it’s easy to see how we wear out our willpower by evening. We all have different weak spots – strong willpower in one instance and failure in another, and by the time families come together at dinnertime, emotional self-control might be in short supply.

Baumeister and Tierney update lessons from historical figures like Charles Darwin on money and Anthony Trollope on time management with introductions to modern tools that track money spending and Internet usage. (I shudder to think about seeing a printout from, a program that keeps track of when you are actively working on a document and when you wander off to view the images in People magazine.) The authors quantify how much time the average person spends “just checking email quickly.”

An intriguing chapter discusses the “To Do” list, and the authors point out how exhausting it is to ignore undone tasks, because the act of avoidance wearies the unconscious. (But according to the authors, simply putting the tasks on a list mollifies the unconscious.) I’m only halfway through the book, but suspect that depleted willpower gets in the way of creative life – an unconscious fretting about the undones can’t easily solve a problem imaginatively.

The authors also suggest identifying a clear time limit for a task. For example, I don’t have to sort the photos for all of 2011 (I’m afraid to look but actually 2010 might also be undone), but I can promise to give it two hours. Then the old favorite “well begun is half-done” might click in.

Sleep matters, and food matters also. Glucose fuels self-control, a sticky wicket since simple sugar makes things worse – but the protein in a handful of nuts can nourish willpower!

“Food Rules”

In a colorful new edition of Micheal Pollan’s book “Food Rules,” he’s added more rules and the most wonderful illustrations by Maira Kalman – the book makes good sense and is such fun to look at and read. In the days before Christmas I had a wonderful time painting some of Pollan’s rules (with my illustrations) as a gift for our younger son and his sweet friend.  Pollan says his new rules come from his readers – after the first edition, people wrote and suggested their rules. So, you can’t see,  but up the side of the canvas frame in my version I wrote: Remember beans!