Bittersweet….

Even though the liturgical season of Christmas isn’t over (not by a long shot!) I’m falling in line with the secular American way of doing things. The lights have come down; the wreath is off the door, and now the tree is coming down too. Last year in this house! It’s been a good Christmas.

Christmas lights 2015
I wanted to create a “river of light” between my house and my neighbor’s – we settled for a puddle around the tree. We both wanted to charge admission to the street.
Outdoor Christmas lights 2015
The lights at my house 2015, The tree with the lights is on the left.
Christmas tree 2015
In the background you see my Christmas tree. Gotta get some better glassware on the table next Christmas.
Christmas tree 2015
Last shot of the tree for Christmas 2015. ‘Til next year!

Welcome to 2016 – and the first recipe of the New Year

Today I’m having friends over to celebrate the New Year with black-eyed peas and cornbread. I found my new favorite cornbread recipe at martysmusings.net:

  • 2 boxes Jiffy corn muffin mix
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup melted butter or margarine
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 16 oz. creamed corn

Instructions

  1. Mix all ingredients together and pour into greased 9 x 13 baking dish.
  2. Bake at 375 degrees for 35 minutes or until lightly brown.

As Ina Garten would say, How easy is that?

Why all the radio silence….

It’s because life is so busy for the last two years! I have some terrific ideas for blog posts – usually during the middle of the work day – and then once I get home (late) after running errands, get dinner and do any chores – I’m ready to collapse into bed. Darn this time change. I want to hibernate.

So, let’s start over.

Hello friend. (as a dear Toastmaster I once knew used to say.)

Here are some things I’ll be posting about in the days to come:

  • my no-added sugar Christmas
  • 50 things before I turn 50
  • my health journey
  • Toastmasters and the joys of leading volunteer groups

Can’t wait to talk with you soon.

Aunt Jim

Family Reunion – looking back and looking forward

In September 2014 I journeyed to Sioux Falls, S.D. for the Rust Family Reunion. Below is an adaption of a speech I gave to my Toastmasters club about the experience. This September I’ll be lucky enough to do it again.

Tales of time spent with families on vacation have a special place in America’s collective mythology. There’s the car trip across the country beset with hilarious disasters along the way – it’s the subject of books, memoirs and comedies spanning the entire Chevy Chase oeuvre.

Or there’s Thanksgiving and Christmas with the relatives – whether it’s the first turkey dinner with the in-laws, or that holiday right after a hotly contested election. There have been years when I asked my Sunday School class to pray that I wouldn’t strangle any of my kin.

In years past we had the obligatory holiday snaps developed after the trip with which to bore our friends and neighbors. Those of a certain age may remember the slides we had to sit through. Now with Facebook and Instagram we can make our friends jealous (or put them to sleep) while we’re still on the trip! Relax, this will be all stories and no pictures of people you’ve never met.

Last September (2014) I went to see my father’s people at the Rust Family Reunion. Each year his six brothers and sisters gather and spend the better part of a week together. Then on Friday night, as many of their kids, grandkids, great-grandkids AND great-great-grandkids come into town for the buffet dinner at the Royal Fork restaurant. The past few years I’ve been lucky enough to go up for a few days to spend time with a side of the family I hardly ever see – and I was lucky enough to go again in 2014.

The scene is Sioux Falls, S.D. – one of the windiest places in the lower 48. The natives act like it’s still summer, but it was autumn to me! Dad and his siblings were all born on a family farm outside Adrian, Minn., a small community about 45 minutes away. Sioux Falls was their big town, where they went to the Fair and to the State Theatre for movies. Most of the relatives still live within a couple states’ drive, but for us it was a 1,100 mile flight.

Let me introduce you to the case of characters. Aunt Betty Lou is the oldest at 86. She was my roommate for the week at the motel. Uncle LeRoy is the next oldest – he recently turned over day-to-day operations of the Rust Family Farm to my cousin John, the sixth generation Rust to run the place. Next up in the batting order is Aunt Marlys, who drives in five hours with my cousin Tim from outside Fargo, N.D. (The Midwestern states are HUGE.) Uncle Ed – oh, you’ll hear more about him – comes over from Wisconsin with Aunt Elaine. Uncle Bob is next in line, right before my Dad. And Aunt Audrey is the baby of the family at 69. She was a little upset with me for not bringing my swimsuit on this trip – she didn’t want to take a dip in the pool by herself.

Aunt Anne, Uncle Bob’s wife, books rooms for us at the Empire Falls Best Western. It meets all our needs – an extra-large room where we all gather; a free hot breakfast each day with waffles and omelets, and most importantly – this is a key selling point: freshly made cookies each afternoon. Every day the “elders” would send me or Aunt Audrey downstairs to check on the cookie situation. And report back so all the uncles could head downstairs and get cookies.

So what do we do? Well, what do you think a bunch of old people do? We sit around and talk. And drink coffee. And eat home-made munchies that everyone brings to the party, besides the motel-made cookies. And we shop. Fortunately, Empire Mall is within walking distance. Unfortunately, it lies beyond an 8-lane road which handles all the traffic coming into Sioux Falls from Interstate 29. Imagine herding 10 people over the age of 70 across a road like that. I felt like a crossing guard at the Alterra Senior Citizens center. I wanted to yell “Hold hands! Stay with your group!”

Because so many of the folks are getting on, I wanted all the family history,  knowledge and lore only they could share. What was it like growing up? What were Grandma and Grandpa Rust really like?

Uncle Ed stole the show with his tales. Like all the boys, he went into the service soon after high school. Back then, they were eligible for the draft. Uncle Ed served during the Korean War, and once he came home, he had to find a job. Finding a job wasn’t the problem. In five days he went through five jobs. Now before you think he was a wastrel read on as to what these jobs entailed. One was at a cracker company doing all the grunt work. He put in a full 8 hours and decided, I can do better. Next he went to work at the Campbell’s Soup factory in town. Any job where they start you off pulling the chickens off the truck is pretty low on the totem pole. Worse – when your work environment includes something known as the “Blood Room” – Uncle Ed wisely decided to turn in his ID badge and move on to a higher calling.

That next day Uncle Ed joined Uncle Bob at the county road department. Listening to the two of them laugh about that experience, you’d never know that years later they’d both go on to big success in their own businesses.

That was the week – funny family stories, time spent catching up and eating far too much. And guess what – I lied to you. There will be pictures! I’m adding links to previous posts on past family reunions so you can see the town of Sioux Falls (a beautiful place) and the family farm.

The first week of September wasn’t a National Lampoon-style “vacation from hell” at all. I’m so glad I went. If you have older members in your family – take the time now to sit down with them. Or get in the car or plane and go visit! Once they’re gone you’ll wish you had more memories. Thanks to this crazy week I do.

Happy Birthday to a lovely lady

Today, March 5, is my Mom’s birthday.

When I think of Mom, I think of the time the two of us went to Savannah together for the weekend. I was worried about what we’d say to each other for 72 hours of togetherness. It was the first time in some years we’d spent that much time just by ourselves. What would I say to her all weekend? Would it be awkward?

I needn’t have worried. The minute I picked her up she started chatting about anything and everything. She chatted happily all weekend, the extrovert. All I had to do was listen.

Another memory I have of Mom is of her making cocoa for me and my brother after school on cold, rainy days. And of her being the Girl Scout cookie captain for five years running – as well as the Cub Scout den mother for my brother’s pack. (Never forgot one of the Cubs eating so many cupcakes he made himself sick.)

Mom was the modern day Centaur, as Erma Bombeck said – half woman, half station wagon. Or in her case, a light blue 1970 Ford LTD. She chauffeured me and my friends to kindergarten, ballet class, piano rehearsals and later high school band practice.

She was a dedicated worker. She was never late to her job as a nurse – in fact, she’d get uptight about her schedule and be ready 30 minutes before she had to leave for her afternoon shift, just to give herself time to relax. In my memory she didn’t get sick and hardly took time off. At her retirement party the organizers limited the 10 speakers on the program to two minutes each. That was after the presentation of the plaques from the mayor and the governor.

For all her talents, Mom was not Julia Child – and she didn’t pretend or try to be. She was firmly out of the WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) mode of cooking – boil it to death because water is a spice. I couldn’t eat green beans after I left home until I discovered steaming.

But Dad liked his green beans that way – and he was the one she was cooking for, not us kids. She always catered to him, making him a priority. Cookies Dad liked – he got them. Dishes he liked – he got them. Even today she cooks a hot lunch for him most days. Funny tale about that: right after they moved into their current patio home community, Dad got a part-time job at the model home across the street. Mom would cook his lunch and carry it over to him each day at noon. One day the neighbors reported that a few minutes after they saw Mom return home, she was back out the door to go to Dad – with a ketchup bottle in her hand.

Mom understands loyalty, fidelity, service and love. A 54-year marriage (and counting), as well as a 25-year career, is proof.

Happy 75th Birthday, Mom. May you have many, many more.

Mom laughing
Mom (far right) with my Aunts: Anne, Marlys, Audrey and Elaine; at the Rust Family Reunion in Downtown Sioux Falls, Sept. 2012

Quick Takes

Some of my favorite blogs do a “quick takes” style post once a week. This weekend (and week) has been too crazy for me to think of any type of organized topic or essay, so that’s what I’m going with today!

1. Exhaustion

I’m exhausted by my new schedule. Last week was the third week in a row I’ve exercised for 3 days during the week. The workouts are a combination of stretching, some cardio, core work and strength training. One hour each – at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday and Thursday, and 8 a.m. Saturday. Yikes. By 10 p.m. (now) I can barely keep my eyes open. I’ll keep you posted on how well it’s going – but now, I’m getting up those 44 stairs from the ground to my second floor office a lot quicker. I only huff and puff once, at the last landing.

2. Oscars

I’m not watching the Oscars tonight. Why? Not because I’m not interested in who wins … I’ll look online for that info. And I’ll definitely want to see “who wore it best.” What I can’t understand is why, in 21st century America, our biggest award show has to honor entertainers. I’m not trying to disparage actors and others in the movie industry, but just questioning perspective. Where are the dramatic award shows for scientists? Why don’t we have award shows for returning soldiers? Or firefighters? When will an award program for teachers be televised nationally, on broadcast television? I’d like to think that a small business owner who built a business out of nothing and now employs hundreds of people could one day get a big award and the ovation she deserves, too.

3. Angel Food cake

Today I made an angel food cake to celebrate my Mom’s birthday (which is actually March 5. We’re getting in an entire birthday week here!) I used a mix and it tasted great – but it sure looked funny. Not sure what happpened – when I released it from the bundt pan (after cooling it upside down on a bottle like the instruction said) one side of the cake was all fallen in. Nothing a ton of frosting couldn’t fix … if only I was going to frost it. Ah, well, with Cool Whip and berries, it still tasted great.

4. This darn weather

Today it was cold. Yesterday it was colder. Last Thursday it was 32 degrees – and two days before the temperatures reached 70! This is why people get sick! I’m ready for my consistent 80 degree days now, thank you.

5. CBAP prep

So how did my resolution to up my studying go for my Certified Business Analysis Professional exam? Well, this past week: I blew off studying Thursday night (and watched The Big Bang Theory), got too busy to study Saturday and finally forced myself to study today, Sunday. Two hours! Go me.

5. Lunch at work

Salad again … sigh. Sticking to this plan of eating mostly lean meats, fish, chicken and vegetables is hardest at lunch. I don’t think I was made for low-carb. But it is working ….

6. Paleo

That reminds me (and I’m cheating here with this take) – I’m going to have to post on some of the Paleo sites I’ve been reading.

7. Something to make you smile

Here’s a day brightener …. watch this and you’ll feel wonderful! Keep going through the first 90 seconds…then get ready to dance.

Ah, that thief of time…stealing hours from my CBAP prep

I’ve written before on procrastination.  It’s still a challenge. When I wrote my most recent post I had it all planned out: I would journal each night in my lovely “Keep Calm and Write On” journal a friend gave me for Christmas. Then I’d post regularly each Sunday. Maybe I’d slip a random cat picture in on Saturdays. (“That’s Caturday” says Pickles.) Then both the reality of my new exercise schedule (6:30 a.m. Tuesday and Thursday, 8 a.m. Saturday), and my inherent sloth kept that from happening. So here we are. On Thursday, writing a post I meant to publish last Sunday.

It’s also making hash of my study schedule for the Certified Business Analysis Practitioner exam. Actually, I should reword that – I’m allowing distractions to make a hash of my schedule. “Procrastination” isn’t something that happens to me – I’m doing it. And I’m doing it to avoid dealing with the dry-as-dirt text of the review manual I must cover. I’ve never read anything so boring. I’ve taken economics and accounting classes in college that had more pep and dramatic interest. It amazes me that the IIBA (International Institute of Business Analysis) could wick the life out of my job and drain it of all interest. My day-to-day job – helping to build or add on to web sites for a large company – is fascinating. You’d never know that if all you knew of business analysis was this Business Analysis Book of Knowledge and the review text. After a month I am still on chapter five of a nine-chapter book.

So here’s the plan to conquer procrastination and get this over with: Get up a little earlier on Mondays and Wednesdays, head to work early, and study for one hour before starting work. Tuesday nights – study from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday nights – study from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays – do at least one hour of catch-up review.

Will I do it? I can’t let this drag on forever. Readers, keep me honest and cheer me on!

On friendship

It’s been a long time since I posted, but now’s the time to start again. I’m going to take the pressure off myself by posting only once a week – and maybe only once every two weeks. Another time I’ll explain the long gap in posts. Today is about friendship.

Tomorrow my friend Jill moves to Alabama to be closer to her family – especially her 70-something father. Jill and I have known each other since 1999, the year I moved back to Columbia. 15 years! We celebrated our 40th birthdays together with a trip to New York City. Every year for the past eight years we’ve been going to the S.C. Book Festival together, coming home laden down with new books. She is one of my oldest friends and I’m going to miss her terribly. I’ve already planned my first road trip to Alabama on the first weekend of April.

Ever since she told me she was leaving, I’ve thought long and hard about friendship – how so many of my friends have left my life, how my shyness prevents me from opening up and making friends quickly and deeply. I have so many acquaintances … and I’d like to turn them into real friends. Then I start to think, how can I show them love? How can I be a friend to them? (The best way to have a friend: be one, or so I’ve heard.) Over the years numbers of dear ones have moved away, like my friend Karen who’s now in New York with her kids. It’s been almost 8 years since I’ve seen her, but I still remember her fondly and we send each other Christmas cards. And there’s Grace, the military wife in Virginia. Now she’s one who learned to make friends quickly. I need to ask her for tips. Thank God she loves to post on Facebook and keep us all up to date. That’s the only way I know what’s going on with her and her crew.

As I look over it, I don’t think I’m too harsh in thinking I’m to blame for letting so many friendships either wither or fade for lack of care. How can I fix it? By cherishing the ones I still have and mainly by listening better. So often I find myself listening at the start of a conversation, then drifting off to think of something else. The writer Russell T. Davies once said that conversation, real conversation, isn’t so much one person taking, and the other person listening, as it is one person talking – and the other person waiting to talk. Ouch. If I listened better – I’d know so much more about the friends I have – so many more details, and be so much more a part of their lives.

But, thank God, there are new friends to make, and new friendships to deepen. In the last year I’ve started to get to know Janie, a fellow member of my Toastmasters club. She’s such a fascinating individual – and a worthy friend to have and cherish.

In our language, we speak of cultivating friendship. That makes me think of gardening. Just as it’s now time to plan for the spring planting, it’s time to get to work on friendships, to cut away the vines and dig up weeds, clear away dead pine straw and till the earth. It’s time to bring forth something beautiful.

So tired … busy weekend Toastmastering at District Conference

I will never drive back from a District Conference on the Saturday night after it ends … I left Myrtle Beach at 1 1 p.m. and got home at quarter of 2.

But the conference itself was fantastic. My friend Ray Schnell won 1st place in the International Speech Contest. He’ll represent South Carolina (District 58) at the 2013 International Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, this August. Sorry for the fuzzy photo; I was moving around.

Ray Schnell
Ray Schnell is congratulated by International Director Kristina Kiehlberg, left and District 58 Governor Phillip Woody. Phillip is a tall guy and he has to look up to Ray here!

 

The conference was held at the beautiful (and pricy) Hilton Myrtle Beach Resort at Kingston Plantation. I got there around 7:30 p.m. Friday … the sunset from my oceanfront room balcony was a gentle display:

Serene oceanfront view
The view down the beach at Kingston Plantation in North Myrtle from my balcony was serene.

More pictures and commentary to follow ….