Saturday, December 31, 2011

Dear Books of 2011 (Part II of II)


Dear Books of 2011 (Part II of II),

Halfway through 2011, I decided that my goal would be to digest (metaphor intended, again) 12 of you.  It seemed like an achievable goal, roughly a book a month.  Part I of II mini book reviews are here.  The second half of the year was much tougher, however, as this blog was born midway through the year.  And if it weren't for the fact that we are on vacation now (the Happiest-Place-on-Earth kind, not the relaxing-and-rejuvenating kind), I would be done with book #12.  But who's counting?

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
The author of The Kite Runner, Hosseini delivers another beautifully written Afghan tale to us. This is the story of two unrelated women brought together by fate, war, and humanity.  At first separately, the two women's lives are told and later intertwined.  In a culture where women are possessions like commodities, Mariam is sold to her husband twice her age, and she lives a miserable life with him, until he finds a much younger girl, Laila, who was orphaned by the war, and takes her in and marries her.  Although these two women understandably dislike one another at first, they eventually find solace in each other and form a bond so strong that they are able to support each other and live for themselves in a male dominated society.  This book brought tears to my eyes on many occasions, and made me feel so incredibly fortunate to be born into a time and culture where women are an integral part of society.  The title of the book comes from the poem, "Kabul," by the 17th-century Iranian poet Saib Tabrizi: Every street of Kabul is enthralling to the eye/ Through the bazaars, caravans of Egypt pass/ One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs/ And the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.  And the novel is every bit as poignant as this excerpt of the poem.  (Reading this book was like eating an unfamiliar ethnic food: although the taste is foreign, the food itself is so fundamental that it not only satiates primal hunger, but also provides the added experience of an exotic new flavor.  4 out of 4 stars).

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
In this very well-researched non-fiction historical book, Larson tells the story of Hitler's Nazi Germany through the experiences of U.S. ambassador, William Dodd, and his promiscuous daughter, Martha.  Dodd and his family move to Germany in 1933, just as Hitler rises to power.  Dodd stands out as a misfit; he is a frugal scholar, as opposed to his peers, who thrive on lavish parties and pretentious conversations.  Martha, on the other hand, quickly falls in love for this new culture as well as many men who represent it.  Both Dodd and Martha eventually find out the horror to which Germany is headed as they first experience The Night of the Long Knives, a night of terror where over a hundred people were murdered, as well as more subsequent tragedies.  I had originally decided to read this book to learn more about that time in history, and because this book is supposed to read like a political thriller.  However, I felt like I kept waiting for something to happen, like a rise and fall of the plot.  Perhaps I am partial to the fiction genre.  That, or there really was no climax in this book.  Nevertheless, credit is given to the author for his extensive research and depth of truth depicted in the book.  (Reading this book was like drinking a highly rated red wine, only to be somewhat disappointed by the complexity of the flavors, yet still enjoying it more than I would a younger, less full-bodied wine.  3 out of 4 stars). 

Before I Go to Sleep by S. J. Watson
Named on several lists of "must-read summer thrillers," I was intrigued by its premise.  Christine wakes up everyday not remembering anything: who she is, where she is, and how old she is.  This type of amnesia erases all memory while the patient falls asleep.  A doctor contacts her and encourages her to keep a journal to help her remember the past.  One day, she comes across her own writing that tells her not to trust her husband, next to whom she wakes up everyday.  This novel was indeed a page turner, albeit repetitive at times.  The author does get inside the head of a female amnesiac with incredible believability, and tells the story with a propelling drive all the way to the end.  Although not completely logical or perfect, the book served its purpose as a quick summer read, and I enjoyed it just expecting that. (Reading this book was like visiting your favorite fast food drive-through: fast, good, though not too memorable.  2.5 out of 4 stars). 

Freedom by Jonathan Franzan
I have never in my life both loved and hated a book at the same time as I have this one.  This was the book that took me forever to read, putting it down to finish several others before finishing it.  If Verghese of Cutting for Stone is a storyteller, then Franzen is a writer's writer.  He writes so damn well that every single word he uses is meant to be and has a purpose.  Readers know exactly how each character thinks as well as how each character feels for one another, down to the tiniest detail.  Walter and Patty Berglund met in college, married, and settled down in suburbia to have a family.  Richard, Walter's college roommate, has an interesting relationship with the Berglunds, one with which the readers knows exactly how these three people relate to each other.  As their kids get older, Walter and Patty lose sight of each other, and in this sweeping tale of current American social issues, from environmentalism to capitalism, love and betrayal, rock-n-roll music and politics, character and integrity, we learn how they come to grips with the choices they make in life.  This book is about the characters; we know them so well that they almost seem real.  But I was never able to sympathize with any of them; and therein lies the problem for me in getting through the book.  And the bit about the cerulean warblers got a little too long. Too preachy, even.  So while I very much admired Franzen's writing, I didn't really like the story or the characters.  And I know Franzen is making a statement about our society with his characters, but it is so bleak that I just could not enjoy it. (Reading this book was like having a delicate dish like Chilean sea bass, only to have it plated with a heavy cream sauce; the odd combination makes it difficult to love.  3 out of 4 stars).

Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande
Written by a surgeon, this non-fiction book is an excellent read for medical professionals as well as the people they treat.  Gawande discusses medicine, and specifically surgery, as a constantly changing body of knowledge used by doctors, who are human themselves, to treat their patients.  His deferential style, compassionate tone, astute observations, and thoughtful debates make this book 'my cuppa tea'.  The book is written in three parts.  Part I is about the fallibility of doctors: how residents learn from teaching hospitals; how specialization in an area decreases mistakes in the case of hernia surgery; when doctors make mistakes and what can be learned from them; and what happens when good doctors go bad.  Part II is is titled Mystery, where he discusses a few very interesting medical issues: the inconsistency and origins of pain; the medical explanations (or lack thereof) for nausea (and extreme cases of pregnancy-related nausea); the medical symptom of "hyper"-blushing, its physiological effects, and a medically debated surgical cure; and the medical explanations of over-eating, obesity, and gastric bypass surgery.  Finally, Part III is about uncertainty in the medical field: the rare yet life-or-death determining cut in certain surgeries; questions involving Sudden Infant Death Syndrome; the debate over autopsies; and the author's diagnosis of a rare flesh-eating bacteria in a woman's leg that ultimately saved her life even though she had to lose a leg.  This book delves deep into how the imperfections of medicine is instrumental in making it a better practice.  (Reading this book was like eating a box of assorted fine chocolates: each type distinct, equally important, and necessary to make the box a superior assortment.  4 out of 4 stars).

Although you are missing one friend to make a nice dozen books read in 2011, I will soon finish my next, when our lives return to home and normalcy.  But it has been nice to close out this spectacular year with a reminder of accomplishing much reading a writing.  C. S. Lewis once said, "We read to know that we are not alone."  I know I am surrounded by shared experiences, and I thank you for your readership.

Sincerely,
Me

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Dear Books of 2011 (Part I of II)


Dear Books of 2011 (Part I of II),

It was my pleasure and delight to have read all of you this year.  Happily, 2011 was the year I started reading on a regular basis again.  Dear Husband has always had a goal of reading at least ten books a year.  The only years that he did not accomplish this goal were the first years of Dear Daughter and Dear Son's lives, when he was a bit more concerned with getting enough sleep than with reading.  Since having kids, I was never able to achieve this same goal... but this year was the year!

Below are books I had the privilege of devouring (metaphor intended), followed by a few of my thoughts about them.  These are not full book reviews, but just little snippets to remind myself of the books as I revisit this list at the end of the year.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
Some writers have a way with words, and some writers are great storytellers.  Verghese, a physician and a writer, is a storyteller.  I read this book on my Kindle, and finished the book without realizing the length of it.  It is a fascinating epic story in first person narrative of one twin brother, Marion, and his life growing up in Ethiopia and later in America as a surgeon.  He and his twin brother, Shiva, enter the world as their mom, a missionary nun from India, die in childbirth.  Their British doctor father disappears after their birth, and they are raised by two doctors who worked at the same hospital.  The story is pivotal on the relationship between the twin brothers, bound by the strength of a special prenatal bond, and torn apart by conflicts that arise during their march into adulthood.  To flee from political uprising, Marion immigrates to the US to further his medical studies and subsequently meets his father, by accident or by destiny, and comes full circle to understanding the life his mother lived before him.  The intricate relationship between the twin brothers reveal themes of love and betrayal, forgiveness and redemption, and tragedies and miracles.  One of the aspects I enjoyed most from this book is the medical details, which were so fulfilling since I thrive on that kind of physiological/anatomical knowledge.  As Marion tells in the beginning, "What I owe Shiva most is this: to tell the story... Only the telling can heal the rift that separates my brother and me."  We spend the rest of the story finding out the 'hows' and the 'whys' in the most engrossing tale spanning continents and decades.  (Reading this book was like having a 10 course meal at Charlie Trotter's, both in length and quality of food.  4 out of 4 stars).

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
An instant sensation from a debut author, with over five thousand reviews on Amazon.com, this book leaves most people uplifted by a sort of sisterly tenderness shared by the characters in it.  A white college graduate, Skeeter, becomes interested in the plight of black maids in the 1960s in Mississippi.  She eventually interviews them and writes about their stories.  The book is written from first person narratives of three women: Miss Skeeter, and two black maids, Aibileen and Minny.  With parts written in dialect, the story is rich in details of these women's lives, relationships, and character.  Reading in dialect made me feel like I was actually listening to them tell me the story.  Again, a very long book, but I was so engrossed in the plot and characters that I finished the book in five days.  For those five days and many following, I spoke in Aibileen's dialect in my head; I swooshed the story in my head like one swirls wine in a glass.  What I found interesting was that while the book was so well-received, much criticism came about when the movie was released this summer.  Many African American historians found the movie perpetuating the same racism and stereotypes of that time in history.  I cannot comment on that until I watch the movie, which is next in queue from Netflix.  But I took the book for what I felt like it should have been, a fictional story that tells of the experiences of black and white women during the Civil Rights movement era in a most heartwarming, gut-wrenching, inspiring, and liberating fashion.  (Reading this book was like eating at your favorite breakfast joint, complete with the best comfort foods and morning coffee.  4 out of 4 stars). 

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by James Ford
A sweet novel about innocent love, first-time author Ford writes about a Chinese American man in his fifties who discovers a parasol that belonged to his Japanese American friend, Keiko, when they were in middle school in Seattle in the 1940's.  The story jumps back and forth in time juxtaposing Henry's current life -- recent widower with a son in college with whom he wishes he was closer to, and his days as a teenager -- told to stay away from all Japanese people by his nationalistic and strict Chinese father while he found himself utterly attracted to Keiko's friendship.  As the story is revealed in intertwining timelines, the young Henry loses Keiko to Japanese concentration camps, while the old Henry rediscovers that part of his life as he tries to reconcile his relationship with his son.  The story lacks the depth of characterization and plot as the previous two books, but was nevertheless a quick and endearing read.  (Reading this book was like eating chocolate mousse: a dessert course one step up from ordinary pudding, light and sweet.  3 out of 4 stars).

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen
A surprisingly excellent read, this is a story about life in a traveling circus.  The book opens with old Jacob in a nursing home, and flashes back in time to tell about his life with the Benzini Circus during the early part of the Great Depression.  In the circus, Jacob falls in love with Marlena, the wife of the charming yet demented animal trainer/circus boss; takes care of many animals and forms special bonds with them; and learns about the harsh realities and dehumanizing ways of a circus.  The author clearly went through extensive research on the details of how a circus is run, and conveys an extraordinary truthful account of the hardships the crew and the animals had to endure for the success of the show.  My favorite parts of the book are of the sarcastic humor of old Jacob, something that is unexpected to be written in first person narrative by a young female author.  I am looking forward to seeing the movie, next in line for movie night.  But I am definitely glad that I read the book before watching the movie, as a book is much better in my imagination than having to replace the characters with the stars cast for the movie.  (Reading this book was like eating fois grois: something I didn't think I would like, but upon trying it, I utterly fell in love with its richness, complexity, and delicacy.  4 out of 4 stars).

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
My first reaction to the snippet that Wall Street Journal ran on this book was full of rage, disbelief, and dismissal.  From my own upbringing, I am all too familiar with this type of parenting -- one that I am careful not to replicate.  Although, I can understand the reason why many immigrant families raise their children this way: in a foreign land, they believe that a good education is the only way to success for their children in this country.  But Chua is not a first generation immigrant, and depriving her children of play dates, sleepovers, and extracurricular activities this day in age seems very extreme to me.  Then a friend (with my very same beliefs) sent me a free an electronic copy of this book, and I decided to see what Chua really had to say.  In the end, I thought the book was actually worth my read.  Many self-deprecating parts are funny; Chua is brutally honest (sometimes to her own detriment, as she makes such sweeping generalizations that are quite offensive to non-Chinese cultures); and her recounting her lessons learned with her younger daughter seems to make her more human than not.  Although I still do not agree with her methods or style of parenting, I can say that her underlying motive is of the same as the most of us: wanting our children to reach their potential and nothing short of it.  Having said that, I still think there is a middle ground: children can be raised in a nurturing way and still be high achievers.  Ironically, I now recognize myself as a Cubby Mom -- one that tries to balance raising my kids to do their best without coercion, deprivation, or any other extreme Chua Ways.  And I think it's very doable.  (Reading this book was like eating a Costco hot dog: not the healthiest food, makes you feel kind of icky afterwards, but it satisfies the hunger for the time being.  2.5 out of 4 stars). 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Having worked in a science laboratory for at least ten years of my life, I've come across the term "HeLa cells" many times, but I never knew the origin of them until I read this book.  Science labs across the world use these cells that came from Henrietta Lacks to do experiments that have made profound medical advancements, but neither she nor her family ever knew that the cells were extract from her, much less distributed around the world.  What's worse, the family members received no compensation and could not even afford medical care themselves.  Furthermore (and sadly), the cells came from a very virulent strain of cervical cancer cells from Ms. Lacks, from which she died a very painful and agonizing death.  The author conducted extensive research for nearly a decade to understand the life and death of the woman whose cells made scientific history, and told her story with unfailing truth, determination, and will.  This book is a superb tribute to Ms. Lacks and her family, and a great historical account of the evolution and legality of patient consent in the medical field.  (Reading this book was like eating Julia Child's beef bourguignon: exquisite, rich taste of beef and red wine melded in perfection, as only the best ingredients will do.  4 out of 4 stars).

As I finished and closed each of you at the end, I always savored that last taste of you in my mouth, and chewed on that flavor for a few days.  This was a wonderful way to revisit those flavors and remember what it was like for me to experience each of you.  (Part 2 is next; please stay tuned.)

Sincerely,
Me

Friday, December 23, 2011

Dear Holiday Newsletter 2011


Dear Holiday Newsletter 2011,

I was able to force enlist Dear Husband to write you this year.  This is great for two reasons: one, he is a much better writer than I, and two, I can check one thing off my December list without having to do it.  So this is a guest post from my one-and-only: DH.  Enjoy!  (Please note that 'YT' is 'Yours Truly' indicating DH, and 'DW' would be 'Dear Wife' for me).

***

HOLIDAY NEWSLETTER 2011

Saying that YT is the “decider” in the family is like Dmitry Medvedev declaring that he is in charge of Russia while standing next Vladimir Putin.  It is a distortion of reality and will not go over too well.  Therefore, when DW matter-of-factly proclaimed that YT will be composing the holiday letter again this year, YT realized that there is very little wiggle room.  This is particularly so since DW has picked out the Christmas tree; bought the wreath for the front door; put out the mantle holiday stockings; chose the holiday card; and designed the family picture calendars on top of her day job of being Dr. Sears and Giada.  It is in this spirit of partaking in stress-free holiday fun that YT has penned this season’s greetings, instead of trying to google for a holiday letter outfit in Bangalore.  

Yes, this year has been a year of unprecedented developments and global challenges with the Great Recession, EU debt crisis and people occupying everywhere and anything bolted down.  Here is a quick run-down of some new tidbits in our humble household.

 Developments:
  • Dear Son’s favorite mantra these days is “I can do it by myself,” but in the helium-induced voice tone of a cartoon character.  DS is taking the school bus daily to his pre-school all by himself as well as independently managing wee-wee duties by following the simple rule of “shake it, don’t break it.”  Thanks to DS’s recent concussion and peanut allergy, we have sampled the local, late night hospitalities of the ER services at Advocate Good Shepherd (wonderful ice chips) and St. Alexius (great popsicles and movie selections) hospitals.
  • Dear Daughter is eating like a sumo wrestler and growing like weeds, both physically and intellectually.  DD looks forward to surpassing her mom’s height (question of when not whether) and is a voracious reader of literature (currently partial to the fantasy genre).  One area that DD has already surpassed her mom is in violin virtuosity (student now teaching mentor on how to play Pachelbel’s Canon).
  • DW has taken the plunge in channeling her inner-author by publishing her writings online.  DW is taking to blogging like fish to water, dust to TV screen, [insert your favorite analogy here], or Walkers to living flesh (YT is a big fan of the show).  DW has already wrapped up one blog dedicated to kids’ summer activities and is now focused on her second blog filled with witty musings on daily life (see http://letters-of-muse.blogspot.com).
  • YT has joined a legal 2.0 firm and the 40’s club.  

Challenges:
  • DS is a product of parents with OCD and AR lineages stretching back for millenniums.  Therefore, it is no surprise that DS has certain compulsive behaviors and particular idiosyncrasies that must be accommodated for household peace.  YT cannot sprawl out on the inviting family room couch (misplaced sofa pillows or infringed air space), and DW cannot arbitrarily change the sitting order at the family dining table (cosmic disturbance) without the resulting verbal tirades and abject abhorrence from DS.   
  • DD has the pain tolerance of a gnat.  Every discomfort feels like 11 on a 10 point scale.  It takes great self-control for us not to laugh while DD is in the depth of her agony and self-pity with ready-made pearls of tears.  We feel the need to apologize to DD in advance for the female pains/discomforts in store for her.
  • DW will be teaching a Sunday toddler class at our community’s non-for-profit Chinese school after the holidays.  DW will be dusting off her moth-balled teacher voice (as well as dancing and singing skills) and planning fun, yet educational, Mandarin curriculum for the attention-challenged toddler students and their parents.
  • For YT, see his Developments above.

As we are headed to Disney World over the holidays, may you wish upon a star and all your cleverly phrased New Year resolutions come true (or there is always next year right around the bend).  Here is to a tranquil and healthy New Year to you and your family. 

Happy Holidays from YT, DW, DD & DS!

***

So, Holiday Newsletter 2011, you've been stuffed in our holiday card envelopes and sent to our friends and family.  I know that you will bring a laugh or two to the readers.  And I think it's wise to have DH write you every year.   Cheers to our new tradition! 

Sincerely,
Me

Monday, December 19, 2011

Dear Winter


Dear Winter,

The words I associate with you are 'survive' and 'endure'.  You arrival is inevitable, and I must try my darnedest to grin and bear you.  Our winters are long and arduous, complete with blizzards and snow storms.  But there are so many others thing that make our days in the winter much less than desirable.

We live in a region where the four seasons are very distinct, with winter notably one of the longest ones.  It turns cold in November, and we usually get our first snow around Thanksgiving; our chances of a white Christmas are fairly high, and snow storms visit us in January and February; we think spring is around the corner beginning in March, but it doesn't actually begin to get warm until May, and even that is questionable.  Thus, most of us here feel like we have winter six months out of the year, which is way longer than I can handle.

If you experience winters like ours, you will be able to relate to my winter woes:
  • Shorter daylight.  As if the cold of the winter is not enough, we are blessed with more dark, dreary, and chilling hours of the day.  Driving home from violin lessons in pitch darkness feels just so depressing.  Because darkness means I should be in bed, not having twenty more things to do before it's time to rest. 
  • Wasted time.  It takes so much more extra time to leave the house in the winter.  Just bundling up the kids in their coats, scarves, hats, mittens, and boots takes forever.  If I can add up all that wasted time in one winter, I'm sure that's a good eight hours of priceless sleep for me.  Not to be had.
  • Zero humidity.  Once the heater kicks in, out goes any moisture in the air.  That means: 1. more time wasted on putting on lotion on the kids and myself after showers; 2. I must wear disposable gloves in the kitchen so that my fingers do not touch water, or else the skin on the sides of my nails crack, and these skin fissures are the most friggin painful $#$%@s I know; 3. and finally, I must chase down the kiddos with lip moisturizer sticks or else their lips look worse than crocodile skin. 
  • Winter medication.  But not just your normal run-of-the-mill fever reducer or cold medicine.  Cold weather means getting the kiddos refills of inhaler medications for colds-induced wheezing and 2.5% hydrocortisone cream for dryness-induced eczema.  All. Winter. Long.
  • Snap, crackle, pop -- and I don't mean Rice Krispies cereal.  Winter makes Dear Daughter and I look like we are perpetually holding on to a Van de Graaf generator.  And I still haven't found the perfect hairstyling product to combat this problem.  But the NUMBER ONE MOST ANNOYING thing of winter for me is... the ZAP I get each time I get out of the car and touch the door close it.  (If anyone can tell me how to avoid that zap, I will be forever indebted to you).  

But as the hopeless optimist that I am, I forced myself to think of some positive aspects of winter (even though they still don't even out the negatives for me):
  • SNOW DAY!  It's always an exciting possibility when a snow storm is about to roll in.  There's nothing like spending an entire day in the warmth of the home in your pajamas with the kids having nowhere to go.  
  • My Ugg slippers.  I get to spend months in these house slippers.  They are like having my feet wrapped in heaven.  
  • Hot showers.  There's something about taking hot showers on cold days. It's like a magical decompression chamber where you can let all your stress seep out through your steam-aerated pores.  Even if it only lasts a few minutes, it's still minutes of emotional bliss.
  • The Holidays.  Admittedly the most exciting holiday, Christmas is the kiddos' favorite time of year next to their birthdays.  From the tree to the stockings to the presents under the tree, it is the happiest time of the year.  It's especially wonderful when the holiday spirit transcends the gifts themselves.
  • Red noses, ears, and cheeks.  Not on me, but on the kiddos when they come home from playing with snow.  The sight of them walking in the door with their smiles and their eyes asking for hot cocoa is enough to send me dashing to the kitchen to stir up some, pronto.  I will just live vicariously through their joy in being in the elements and playing with frozen precipitation while I stay warm and cozy inside.  (Okay, I admit that I actually enjoyed sledding in our backyard last year; the thrill of sliding down that hill was actually worth braving the cold...)  

Seeing as we are just beginning this cold weather and snow season, I must get ready to persevere your presence, Winter.  But as any other fact of life, there can be no pros without cons, no good without bad, no heat without cold.  I guess you will always serve to make our summers all the more inviting when they come around.  In the meantime, I will survive.

Sincerely,
Me

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dear Holiday Cookies


Dear Holiday Cookies,

I love eating you.  I like baking you.  I like decorating you.  I don't like cleaning up.  I hate the time pressure.

Last year, we made holiday cookies for the kids' teachers.  The kiddos helped with decorating them, and I was surprised at how good they were at it.  It went over so well that I decided to do it again this year.  However, my list of recipients nearly doubled!  We have music teachers, music class friends, school teachers and aids, special teachers and nurse, bus drivers, Chinese school teachers, and a couple of cookie lovers at home.  I've finished one batch so far, yielding 80 cookies.  I still need to bake another batch for the cookies to be gifted on Friday.  There might be a few late nights.  Good thing the kiddos already fulfilled their desire to decorate the cookies.  Now they're good with just eating them while I slave over the next batch.

I've used this particular sugar cookie recipe for years.  After all, it is called 'No Fail Sugar Cookies'.  Here is the link to the sugar cookie recipe, and here is the link to the Royal icing recipe.  But I do have several notes to add to these recipes.

Sugar Cookies:
  • This is a recipe that makes 5 dozen cookies, so it makes a double batch.  It can easily be halved if you don't need so many cookies.
  • I use less sugar (1 3/4 cup instead of 2 cups) because I am about to put Royal icing on it.  It will be sweet enough.
  • I highly recommend using a KitchenAid stand mixer for this recipe.  Scrape down the bowl often, especially toward the end of the 6 cups of flour, to make sure the dough is well mixed.   The dough often tries to squeeze out the sides of the bowl since it's a double recipe, so push it back down if it happens.
  • See "Hint" at the end of the recipe: roll out the dough between waxed paper (or parchment paper), refrigerate for 10 to 15 minutes and cookie dough is ready (or see previous post - Dear Pie Crust).  Cut with cookie cutters, collect leftover dough, re-roll between wax paper, and refrigerate again if necessary before cutting it.
  • Try to roll dough out to same thickness, about 1/8 inch.  If I skimp on the thickness, I can get 80 cookies out of this recipe.
Royal icing:
  • I use pasteurized egg whites in powder form that comes in a can (Deb El Just Whites).  Use the chart to make 1/4 cup volume of egg whites, which is 2 egg whites.  Whisk powder in warm water for several minutes until foamy and well-dissolved.  
  • I added closer to 3 tablespoons of water.  Perhaps it's dry here.  But I do the ribbon test.  When the icing stops ribboning at 5 seconds, stop adding water.  There should be a nice shine to the icing after mixing it on low speed for at least 5 to 7 minutes.
  • Spoon white icing into small bowls.  Color icing separately.  
  • Pipe icing around the edge of the cookie first.  Then fill the inside of the piping with a dollop of icing and spread it evenly with a toothpick.  Let dry completely.
  • I use wax paper (disposable) to pipe the icing (pastry bags and tips are hard to clean).  Tear out a square sheet of wax paper, cut it in two rectangular halves.  Roll one into a cone with the long side of the rectangle turning into the tip of the cone.  Fill the cone with icing, then snip the tip to the diameter for piping.  
  • Royal icing gives a beautiful sheen to the decorated cookies once dry.  

I truly do enjoy doing all this (as do the kiddos), even though baking and decorating 5 or 6 dozen cookies is very tiring.  But having to do it under time pressure is even worse.  I made the second batch of cookie dough last night, and the dough "patties" chilled in the fridge overnight.  Today, I must bake the cookies in the morning, decorate them in the afternoon, and package them at night.  This is all during a day where I must pick up my holiday photo cards from Costco, go to DS' preschool to prepare Healthy Snacks, go to DD's school to watch a holiday performance once in the afternoon and once in the evening.

Let's just say my house is a mess, my kitchen is a mess, I'm swimming in holiday cookies, and I can't quite see the light at the end of the tunnel yet. 

So as much as I love you, holiday cookies, you've turned my weekly routine upside down.  I've put many things on hold this week for you, and I'll end up cleaning the house all of next week.  But I suppose I'd still rather have you than not, as the holidays would just be missing something if you weren't around.  Besides, you are really-very-super-pretty-and-yummy.  And my kiddos would agree, whole-heartedly.  Now, I'll turn my attention back to you, and go preheat the oven,...

Sincerely,
Me

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Dear 'Canon in D'


Dear Canon in D,

The first time I heard you was in the movie, Father of the Bride, when Annie Banks was walking down the aisle to marry the man of her dreams.  Five years later, it was in my own wedding, when my little brother (twelve-years-old at the time) played it on his violin during the procession.  And amazingly, another fifteen years later, my Dear Daughter will be playing it on stage with her fellow music school violinists for the annual holiday concert. 

There are a few pieces of violin music that are so beautiful and haunting that, upon hearing them, my eyes tear up without intention.  Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel is one of them.  Written in the 1680's, it has become such a timeless and classic piece of music that it has been adapted to many different instruments and played at events such as weddings and other celebrations.  Originally, it was written for 3 violins and a bass, played in rounds, as you can see from the score in the video above (with the top three staffs for violin, the fourth for bass, and an accompaniment on a grand staff at the bottom).  This concept is similar to the popular folk song Row, Row, Row Your Boat sung in rounds.

When I listen to Canon in D, I just cannot help but think of the genius of the composer.  The progression of the notes and chords seem so very simple and logical, yet delicately exquisite.  The music brings the listener from a tranquil, complacent state to a climax of substantial yet ethereal joy; it moves onto a grander, more uplifting feel offset by more staccato and repetitive sounds, and finally finishing on a very fulfilled and complete end.  It is by far my favorite classical music piece.

When DD started playing violin, I knew that the day she plays this piece is the day I will be bawling in the audience.  That day is here.  To say the least, her journey with this instrument has not always been easy.  With her perfectionist personality, there has been lots of tears due to frustration and fear.  But also because of the perfectionist in her, I have felt her pride and delight in knowing how to express herself through music with this instrument.  I envy her grasp of music and violin technique, as I believe that it is something that I will never experience as fully as she.

The violin is a beautiful piece of instrument.  It can make multitudes of tones and layers of depth in its sound.  When DD started lessons, I also decided to learn for both myself and to help her along.  An adult learning to play the violin is much different than a child; our fingers are more rigid and much less natural at the subtle motions.  A grown-up can read music and learn to play pieces faster, but a child learns to mold to the violin with so much more ease that it eventually becomes an extension of the child.  I had always stayed several pieces ahead of DD in the Suzuki books until this year, where I've only managed to stay just ahead of her so that I can help with notes when she learns a new piece.  Her technique has far surpassed my abilities.

When I learned that DD was going to play Canon in D for the holiday concert, I was both nervous and excited.  (The violinists are playing the first half of the piece, up to 2:13 in time from the video above).  For selfish reasons, I really wanted to learn it as well.  It took me an entire afternoon to play it by reading the music.  Weeks later, it took me another entire afternoon to memorize it.  But learning it is not hard; playing it with grace and ease is.  Furthermore, playing alone is not hard, but playing it in rounds with other people playing different parts of the music is extremely hard.  During this entire time, DD was practicing it daily, and I'd only picked up the violin those two or three times.  She was the one helping me learn the piece last week.  In the end, I'm ecstatic that I can actually play it, even if it's not fluently.  But I am more ecstatic about DD playing it with such poise, speed, and confidence, alone and in rounds.

(Here is another video showing Canon in D played in original instruments, by San Francisco Early Music Ensemble Voices of Music.  This video also provides a very interesting read on the instruments/pitch used in this performance that are the same as Pachelbel's Baroque era).


This afternoon, DD will play you, Pachelbel's Canon in D, in the third group of violins on stage.  And though she has learned only half of this piece, I look forward to the day she can play the entire piece and love it as much as I do.  Maybe my old, rigid fingers can still try to learn it with her as well.  But I will remember to bring a wad of tissue to the concert, because watching DD play my favorite piece of music on stage will very likely overfill my heart with enough joy to blur the vision of her smile when she lifts her eyes from her violin to meet mine.

Sincerely,
Me

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Dear December


Dear December,

If August is a 'Blur', then you are a very long 'To-Do List'.  Without a doubt, starting from the end of Thanksgiving weekend each year, I begin to fret about my list.

December is supposed to be a month of warm holiday festivities.  But for most of us, it involves a lot of hurdles to jump in order to enjoy what little festivities there are, if we even have any energy left for it.  And since there are only two weeks of school, December seems especially short, making the goal of checking off all the items on my list seem all the more unattainable.

First, there is the holiday photo card, with which I have a love-hate relationship.  I love holiday greeting cards, and I always want to create a nice one of our family to send out.  This is when I go through all my pictures to realize that we don't have good enough many pictures of the four of us together.  (And this is when I make a mental note to take more family pictures next year... oh, wait, I'm having a deja vu.)  Then there's looking for the perfect pictures of the kids: ones that are not too old, too blurry, or too obnoxious.  Oh, there isn't any?  Hmm.  Whip out my camera phone when it's already days into December, force take a few of the kids, and wish on a very bright star that some will turn out okay.  All of this does not even include downloading and uploading the pictures, finding a suitable card design, ordering them, and sending them out.

Next, we always include a newsletter that highlights the events of our year.  Some people think that newsletters are impersonal, but I have always enjoyed writing them, and the recipients are at will to read it or not it does tell a nice story to go along with the card.  Last year, inundated with items on my to-do list, I enlisted DH to write the newsletter.  And if you were fortunate enough to read it last year, you'd know that DH's writing skills far exceed mine, so much so that I have officially resigned from this particular job, for good (he just doesn't know it yet).  So all I have to do to check this one off the list this year is give DH a deadline.  (Yes! as I pump my fist.)

Ever since I can remember the kids came about, I have had 'calendar duty' in December.  One year, I decided to make personalized calendars full of kids' pictures for DH's and my family, and they were such a big hit that everyone has expected them asked for them ever since.  Again, love-hate relationship.  It involves sifting through a year's worth of photos, uploading them to a vendor site, arranging each month's photos and captions just so, and having them ordered and received with enough time to send some overseas and make the Christmas deadline.  This task usually takes several sittings to even get close to being done.  But as much as I hate starting it, I end up loving the process and the end results.  Lucky for you recipients.

Let's continue.  What's the holidays without gifts?  Gift-buying is not the hard part; deciding what to buy is.  This usually involves several trips to various stores, then finally giving up on price comparison due to frustration, and resorting to shopping online.  Only to realize that I should have bought more wrapping paper at one of the trips to a physical store. 

Next on the list: mailings.  First things first: compiling the mailing list.  Find new addresses, toss old ones.  Add new friends, delete people "we once knew."  Print mailing labels.  Print newsletter.  Stuff envelopes.  Package gifts and bundle cards so that I can stand in line at the Post Office for much longer than I have time for. 

This is not even to mention hauling home and decorating a Christmas tree; baking and icing holiday sugar cookies to be given as gifts; planning and cooking Christmas dinner; helping with DD's violin practices, rehearsals, and final performance in her music school's annual holiday concert; cheering on the kids at their school holiday performances; wrapping enough Christmas presents to swear off buying so many next year (again, deja vu); and, most importantly, remembering to leave Santa Claus milk and cookies on Christmas Eve. 

Finally, there's usually always travel plans during winter break, so just thinking about packing for the trip alone is enough to make my head explode.

<Insert a deep breath here>.

Now that you're here, December, I notice that it has gotten cold.  A fresh layer of baby-powder snow greeted us this morning.  I have a feeling that you purposefully hand me a long to-do list to distract me from the inevitable arrival of freezing temperatures and snow storms.  I suppose I do appreciate that.  As for the list, as much as I begrudge the items on it, I will not let you come and go without checking off every item, because there is not a single one that I would be willing to forgo.  My list is what makes the holidays jingle.

Sincerely,
Me

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Dear Kitchen


Dear Kitchen,

You are my haven, my sanctuary, my oasis.  Oh, the SHEER BLISS of being in my kitchen, ALONE, creating healthful nourishment or concocting sinful delight!  It has to be one of my most gratifying pleasures in life.  

The joy I experience in my kitchen is overwhelmingly exuberant, but limited to several factors.  First, cooking in a clean kitchen is an extraordinary feeling.  When there are no dirty dishes in the sink, all clean dishes are already put away, and all countertops are immaculate, the kitchen is just so much more inviting for cooking or baking.  Starting clean also means it's easier to end clean, with a yummy finished product as a bonus. (Have I mentioned my OCD tendencies before?)

Another limiting factor is being alone.  By myself.  Without help.  I would much rather do everything by myself than have extra hands in the kitchen (since I have no control over other people's hands).  I like to do the measuring, pouring, mixing, dicing, peeling, chopping, sauteing, deglazing, and garnishing all by me lonesome self.  It's a control thing.  I'm a freak like that.

Lastly, it's always nice to have sufficient time to do as I please in the kitchen.  Cooking under pressure is no way to cook, since having a time limit is a sure fire way to make a mistake somewhere along the line.  Convection ovens only help so much, and a stovetop setting on high risks boiling over and making more mess to clean up.  All other shortcuts or substitutions will show up in the quality of the food, and is just not worth it. 

Given these factors, you can imagine how often it is that I actually experience the true bliss of cooking in my kitchen.  The kitchen is only ever completely spotless every two weeks, for a mere 12 to 18 hours.  The kids are always home when it's time to cook dinner.  Getting dinner cooked and served on time is definitely a challenge.  On any given day, cooking also means any combination of the following:
  • a very tight race against the clock to get dinner on the table so that there is sufficient time for violin practice, showers, bedtime stories, and an always-later-than-intended bedtime.
  • high-pitched screaming in the background from either child (or, sometimes, both) over a squabble or a toy.  
  • overzealous kids demanding to help, stir, mix, cook, or watch (um, I'm racing against the clock, remember?)
  • washing dirty dishes first in order to have an empty sink for later*.
  • bumping into kids running around the kitchen island or tripping over toys they left whilst doing that.
  • being interrupted with, "Mommy, I need to go potty!"  (The kind that still requires help).  Seriously?
  • spilling, dropping, or smearing food somewhere because of my own clumsiness, followed by under-my-breath cursing while wasting more precious time cleaning up.
  • *piling up more dirty dishes in the sink while making dinner, ones that will probably not get washed until the next day.
  • screaming at the kids about something over the vent hood fan to no avail, since they look at me like I'm a mad woman mouthing words for fun.  
  • "Mommy, I spilled something on the carpet..."  Oh. for. crying. out. loud.
Like I said, normally, cooking is far from pure joy.

But, on Thanksgiving morning, I had my chance to experience absolute exhilaration in my kitchen.  I made Mommy's Mean Apple Pie.  From scratch.  Flying solo.  The kitchen was pretty clean with an empty sink.  Dinner was eight hours away, so no time pressure.  DH was playing with the kids, so I had complete sovereignty in the kitchen.  I was high on joy.  I cut up the butter into the flour with two forks for the pie crust until my thenar eminence hurt on both hands.  But they were pains of delight.  I soaked up the bliss of every little part of baking this pie while I added plenty of Love Sprinkles into it.  While the pie baked, I washed every piece of dish and utensil I used, so even before the pie was done, the kitchen was clean again.  Ahhhhh!   We had apple pie a la mode for dessert that night, and everyone could taste my special Love Sprinkles.  (In case you're not familiar with this special ingredient, it's umami rendered from the chef's TLC since she was able to cook in peace and harmony.)

Before winter break, Dear Kitchen, you will host me and my kiddos again, when we will bake our annual holiday sugar cookies.  Although I won't be able to fly solo for that one, it is another kind of glee that we experience together, although I must first mentally prepare myself well for that occasion.  Because I will then reward myself the time and space to learn how to make a Swiss roll while the kids are in school, at which time I can throw out my arms and declare, "I AM THE KING OF MY KITCHEN!"

Sincerely,
Me