Saturday, November 29, 2014

Happy Holidays by Robin Janney

It's that time of year again.

Turkey's, and deer season, and Christmas lights.

Personally my favorite are the Christmas lights.  When I was younger, and my dad was still alive, all seven of us would pile into the car and Dad would take us cruising around the countryside for no other purpose than to look at the Christmas lights and decorations.  Part of the reason why he liked to go out and look at others' displays was to get ideas for our own home.  Dad was always big on decorating for Christmas, and it's something I really miss.

Some years we would have real trees, chopped down from the farmer's field across the road.  Nothing beats the smell of fresh cut pine.  Sometimes they'd be nice and full, other times more like Charlie Brown's Christmas tree.  A few years we had an artificial tree.  Not as nice, but easier to clean up after and take down.  We always had a mix of homemade ornaments and store bought on our tree.  Pretty normal, I guess.

Dad built his own light forms.  The ones I remember best are the star and the cross.  Nothing fancy, just wooden frames he'd staple the lights on.  One package of lights he didn't even take out of the plastic form because he liked the designs they made as it was.  So he just found a spot and hung them out like that.

Even though Christmas is a few weeks away still, Thanksgiving always makes me think of my dad because every once in a while his birthday (Nov. 23) would land on the big day.  He's been gone for almost 20 years, but there are some things the heart doesn't forget.

I apologize for the lateness of this post.  Between our slip and slide the other day in the nasty weather, Thanksgiving, and pushing to get my second book ready for publication I've been very distracted.  The Kindle version should be going live sometime during the night, I'll edit this post later and share the link once I have it.   In the mean time, my first novel Farmer's Daughter is on sale for a few days at $.99.

I can't begin to relate just how excited I am.  Now I can shift gears and start tearing into the third book in the series.  It'll help keep my brain occupied as I return to work next week.  At least for four hours, but it's a start and I really do kind of hope that my foot can handle it.  The tear in my tendons is still there, and it still hurts, so I'm gonna keep my fingers crossed.
This right here, one of the best holiday cartoons ever

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving.  I spent the day with my in-laws and it was a good day.  Good company and good food make for an awesome combination!

What are some of your favorite holiday memories and traditions?  Another of mine are the holiday cartoons.  Charlie Brown, Rudolph, Frosty, the Grinch, Garfield...kid stuff maybe, but we're never too old for it.

We're just getting started with the holiday season, so I hope you all have good ones.  And I hope you still find time to read a book or two ;)

Edit as promised.  You can buy the Kindle version of Ring of Fire at this link.  Paperback version also available (Amazon's selling it for $10.35, over a dollar off - I have no control over the price of the paperback on their site - so get it while you can.)

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Spirit of Christmas and Community History By C.P. Stringham

The newly unveiled cover to my upcoming e-book!
Time is counting down at an alarming rate. It seems like the first day of the 2014-15 school year was only a week ago. Alas, it’s mid-November. While we have a multitude of routines and events going on with our family of four, the undertone, to everything we do, involves my oldest daughter’s pending high school graduation this coming spring. For parents who have already gone through it, you know what I’m referring to all too well. We’re lucky in the fact that our daughter is pretty organized—more so than I was at her age. She’s visited campuses, picked her top five, and has her applications out. Most colleges have promised to send The Letter within the next two weeks. Yikes!

As usual, I’m behind the eight ball getting this week’s Broads of a Feather blog out. It is Friday after all. Before you know it, my partner-in-crime, Robin Janney, will have her week’s installment up. I’d like to say I’ve been preoccupied by working on both Overcoming Sarah and Objects At Rest – Ellis Springs Series: Book Four, but I’m not. I’ve written a little for the sooner and created a cover for the latter. Progress nonetheless.
The Jennie Fassett House of  459 West First Street.
For the past three years, I’ve been volunteering my writing skills to Elmira’s Near Westside Neighborhood Association. In 2012, my friend Laurie, who had been serving as a board member for this nonprofit group, asked if I could help with their Homes for the Holidays brochure. The person who had done it in years past, had things going on in her life and needed to split the workload with someone. The job would entail visiting three of the homes participating on this Christmastime self-guided tour event, interviewing the homeowners about their home’s history, the renovations they’d completed, and their decorating from antique pieces to some pretty impressive works of art. All of this gets done a few weeks in advance which gives us time to compose an informational write-up to go with each house. Those attending the event purchase tickets, available at several different locations throughout Elmira, and then receive a brochure that includes each write-up and offers a map to get to each house participating in the tour. The event is traditionally held on the first Saturday of every December and proves to be a popular fund-raising event for the association. Last year, I was asked to do the write-ups for the entire brochure. It’s a labor of love since I like history and architecture. Writing about it? Pure bliss. Don’t get me wrong, it is time consuming, but so worth it! This year, I offered to do it again and they accepted. 
Elmira has some of the most beautiful collections of old Queen Anne Victorians, Greek Revivals, Colonial Revivals,Tudor Revivals, and many others. The well-known architectural firm of Pierce & Bickford designed most of them. Since 1983, the neighborhood has been designated as a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. Previous owners include some of the most prestigious names from Elmira history including the Langhorne family and their son-in-law, Samuel “Mark Twain” Clemens. Mark Twain, folks!! Totally cool for a literature fangirl like myself. In fact, Clemens’ final resting place is located in the historical Woodlawn Cemetery. Sounds kind of macabre, but I visited his grave site recently and have to say it was a very sacred moment for me. I liked the fact that other visitors had left him little gifts like flowers, cigars, and a mini bottle of bourbon—the booze bottle was empty so I assume his visitor toasted his grave before tossing it back, but a small part of me hopes Samuel got to enjoy it.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt leaving 610 Edgewood Drive.
My daughter, a history buff, loves going with me and meeting the homeowners ahead of time and receiving the private tour. One of the homes, from last year’s tour, was built for the former superintendent of the old Elmira Reformatory. The Tudor Revival was said to have been built using the labor of select prisoners. And why not. The reformatory was set up to teach them skills to help integrate them back into society as contributing members after their sentences were served. The program worked well, too, and received national recognition as a success story. A big proponent of the system was none other than former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt who visited the superintendent and his family at their residence and had dinner.  The homeowners are very proud of their home's history—and I have to say I was completely jazzed about it as well. Eleanor is at the top of my all-time favorites list of American first ladies.
Councilman Brent Stermer's house at 318 West Clinton Street--a holiday showstopper. 

Many of the homeowners pull out all the stops and it takes them weeks to decorate their homes for the Christmastime tour. Some, like Elmira Councilman Brent Stermer, displays unique theme trees in almost every room of his Queen Anne Stick-Style. He also boasts to have over 10,000 ornaments. That would be an accurate count from my observation. Another homeowner blends their holiday decorating with priceless works of art which lends a tasteful museum feel to the house. My favorite artwork was a set of original sketches displayed in the formal living room by the late surrealist artist, Salvador Dali. Other homes held ancient Chinese vases and Hudson Valley River artist paintings among vintage Lladro’s and Hummels’. Many have intricate collections of stemware and dishware such as: local Steuben Crystal, Depression Glass, Gay Fad, Blue Willow, etc. Treasured antique furniture from Empire, Chippendale, Shaker, and Mission—pieces that go from elaborate to functionally understated.
Capriotti Properties' great rehabilitation success story - The Gillett House at 378 West Church Street.

Most notable about these houses is the fact that many of them have had to undergo extensive and costly rehabilitation projects because, as with many old neighborhoods, economic decline led to disrepair. The majority of homes were also affected by the flood of 1972 that was brought on by the relentless rain of Hurricane Agnes. As single families moved out, slumlords snapped up properties and went willy-nilly by fixing them in the quickest, cheapest manner possible in order to satisfy turnover into rental properties. They hacked, removed, and covered over most of the unique character each of these homes offered. Painting over intricate hardwood trims and paneling of quarter-sawn oak, bird’s eye maple, chestnut, and mahogany as well as covering floors with glue for linoleum and commercial carpeting. Decorating horrors that cause a blow to the heart of any true admirer of old residential architecture. Slumlords seldom reinvest in their properties once they do the initial work and, before long, after the wear and tear of numerous tenants, the homes are once again in desperate need of help. As years passed, the Near Westside Neighborhood Association was formed in an attempt to draw attention to the history of the homes of Elmira’s Who’s Who of generations past. Due to the commitment of those individuals, the historical designation was earned and instead of razing homes, they have slowly created awareness and raised funding through State and Federal grants as well as through local organizations and residents. A turnaround in decline has happened. Houses are being rehabilitated into the grand splendor of yesterday. Historically accurate colors and materials are used, when possible, to make it happen. People have taken notice and, thank God, are embracing their city’s rich real estate heritage.
My daughter, the old soul, in the upper gallery of 
The Gillett House.

As I finish this week’s blog, I’ll be back to work on my write-ups. Three down, three more to go. I also have interviews with homeowners scheduled for this afternoon and Monday afternoon. Can’t wait to see their houses! Aside from the historical community aspects each year, I leave this event charged and inspired to start my own holiday decorating. It seems to just seal the magical feeling of the season for me.
For more information about the NearWestside Neighborhood Association, click on this link. If you’re feeling extra generous, please make a tax-deductible donation to the cause and help protect our historic homes of Elmira’s Near Westside! And this is the link for their 30th Annual Homes for the Holidays tour event. If you live locally, come on out and support this wonderful fundraiser and enjoy these old homes while they are decked out in their holiday glory! Stop and say hello if you see me during the tour!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Adventures in Cooking Creatively by Robin Janney

For the past three years, I've been living in a situation where I had no choice but to learn how to cook creatively.  Now, I'm not talking about making centerpieces out of fruits and vegetables...I wish!  I would love to have a talent like that and the need for it!  For the life of me, I can't find a free photo of a cool centerpiece.  Google "carved carrots" sometime and you'll find plenty of "food porn" to look at.

No, what I'm talking about is a lack of cooking fuel, in our case propane, and the need to learn to cook everything on electric appliances.  Stuff like the microwave, slow cooker, deep fryer, and an electric griddle.  One thing I haven't bought yet has been a hot plate, instead relying on an old electric frying pan.

I don't do a lot of soups or stews, instead I make pasta dishes in my slow cooker.  Ever since I went to a Pampered Chef party that had crock pot lasagna as a dish, I've been making my own.  Ok, I only made the lasagna once.  It was pretty good.  But I make a lot of spaghetti and goulash in my slower cooker.  Using both the tomato sauces and Alfredo sauce so we don't get tired of the tomato.  Not to mention that we have to watch our tomato consumption anyway because of our acid reflux! The one dish I seem to have a lot of trouble with is macaroni and cheese.  I haven't figured out what I'm doing wrong there.  I usually end up with paste.  :/
The Great Pumpkin they are not...

And it can get a bit monotonous at times.  I alternate using beef burger, tuna, hot dogs, sausage, in my pasta dishes.

This past month, I had a fit of nostalgia for the time I remember making homemade pumpkin puree with my mom one year.  I just remembered how nice our kitchen smelled while they simmered down, and how good the pies and pumpkin breads that holiday tasted.  I thought maybe I could do the same in my slow cooker.

So what do I do, I go to one of our local farmer's stand (Farmer's Fred - if you live in the area, check them out!!) and bought four smallish pumpkins.


What was I thinking?

Because I do things in about 5 minute stretches in an effort from tearing my foot tendons any further, it took my 6 hours to cut up and process 1 pumpkin.  Of course, I was overlapping at the end of the first day...cutting up the next pumpkin while the first one cooked.
I had no idea what lay ahead of me...

This is 1 of the two pumpkins
pictured at the start...
I only put in 1/4 of the second one.

The worst part was cutting the pumpkin up.  My butcher knife gave me grief while trying to cut the stem off.  Cutting it in half after that was a bit troublesome too, but I managed it with a bit of seesawing the blade and pumpkin.

It got a bit easier after that.  The halves cut in half a lot quicker.  And scooping out the guts was no problem.  After that, I cut the sections into smaller and smaller pieces before cutting of the rind and the spongy inside where there were a few strings attached from the guts.

As you can see from my picture, I cut them into really small pieces. Probably the biggest reason why it took me so long.  As it was, it took over an hour for the pumpkin to be tender enough for me to drain it.  The third batch I did, pieces slight larger as I was getting tired of pumpkin, took almost an hour and a half!  I still haven't cut up the fourth one yet.  There's always tomorrow!

Because I kept the lid on while this was boiling, it didn't create that house filling aroma I remembered from my youth.  But then are our memories ever accurate?  I could very well be romanticizing this!  But once I drained the pumpkin and smashed it, I sure did get a face full of that steamy goodness.  It was enough to help  me overlook the fact I had lightly scalded the backs of my fingers because I had the pot angled wrong.

Nice!  And yummy!
I used an old potato masher, and then because I don't have a food processor, I pulled out my electric mixer and ran the beaters through the smashed pumpkin.  I'll admit to sampling the pumpkin both before and after mashing it.

And this was the easiest part.  All I did was scoop out a cup of the puree and slap it into a plastic bag.  I laid them flat as I pushed the air out so that they would freeze quickly and stack nicely.
I have about 15 or so of these in my freezer!  :D
 Even though I am about pumpkined out, I'm still going to go ahead and process that last pumpkin.  Because it makes me feel soooo good to have those little baggies in my freezer.  Even though I can't do anything with it right now, it's just a satisfying feeling to know that it's there.  I did this, even though I could have taken the pumpkin to a friend or family members house and shortened the cooking time by using their stove, I was able to do it on my own.  It might have taken me longer using my slow cooker, but that's ok.

I am glad that I have the electric appliances that I do, and that I've learned how to make so many things in them for me and my husband.  Many people don't even have this much!  If I'm feeling crazy enough, I might try applesauce next.  Maybe.

What's the most creative you've had to be to cook a  meal or dish?

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Night My Dad Was Saved From Zombies By C.P. Stringham

Looks as if my Broads of a Feather blog post will be on the shorter-side this week. So many events came up since my last post that I figured I’d have numerous topics to write about. But I got nothin’. Maybe everything is all log-jammed up. So much going on that I wouldn’t know where to start—or end for that matter. I’ll wedge one of those metaphorical logs free and see which topic wins out…
Christmas past with my parents.

My dad recently spent two weeks in the hospital. What started as a nasty bout of pneumonia (which can be life-threatening to those of advanced age and diabetic), turned into something else entirely within the blink of an eye. His initial ER blood tests revealed elevated cardiac blood enzymes. The doctor said they were in what they referred to as “the gray area” between normal and heart attack. Further tests revealed it was the infection that caused irreversible damage to his heart. Monitoring also revealed he was in arterial fibrillation or A-Fib. From the Cleveland Clinic Webpage:
 What happens during AFib?
Normally, your heart contracts and relaxes to a regular beat. In atrial fibrillation, the upper chambers of the heart (the atria) beat irregularly (quiver) instead of beating effectively to move blood into the ventricles. About 15–20 percent of people who have strokes have this heart arrhythmia.
It’s possible my father was having symptoms of A-Fib for at least two months before he developed pneumonia. He had complained about being tired all the time which led to inactivity and brought the onset of infection. While in the hospital, he told my mother he had felt winded lately. Hindsight. The pneumonia left relatively quickly after juggling IV antibiotics. However, the medication prescribed to regulate his heart rate was unsuccessful. His team of cardiologists recommended electrical cardioversion, but a transesophageal echocardiogram revealed a blood clot in his heart, so they couldn’t do the procedure at that juncture.
He’s home now. My mother is monitoring his medication vigilantly since he has a habit of forgetting whether he’s taken things or not—which can’t happen anymore. His blood sugar is another issue. They are working with an endocrinologist to regulate his insulin intake. In four to six weeks, they will have him in again for another TEE to see if the medication he was prescribed eliminated the blood clot while trying to regulate his heart rate the best they can.

My kind of hospital stay! Web photo.
Dad’s hospital stay didn’t go without incident. The normal hospital-related stuff went on. Getting the family all on board, making potentially dangerous decisions for treatment, and just the normal grind of everyone’s life being disrupted from commuting back and forth to the hospital. The most bizarre incident came about with my dad’s first roommate on the cardiac floor. He’d had open heart surgery to repair a heart valve. Nice guy. Loved reading. Although we don’t share an interest in the same genres, we talked books. He loves horror and, more specifically, all of the zombie-based stories that are out. All in all, he was a nice guy. My dad’s second night of sleep was interrupted around 2am when his roommate had a night terror. Scared the hell out of both of them. By the third day, as my husband and I were leaving before lunch, he said to me, “Your dad’s roommate is going through withdrawal.” I didn’t see it, but my husband has seen addiction behavior before in a family member. He told me about everything he’d witnessed that helped him draw his conclusion. All of which made sense. That evening, after a particularly hard afternoon at the hospital, my mom stopped in on her way home. Part of her anxiety was explained as she told us how Dad’s roommate was brought beer because the surgeon “prescribed” it with his lunch. The patient had apparently revealed to his nurse that he was an alcoholic and having a difficult time with it as he convalesced. That meant he was detoxing while recovering from heart surgery. He was given another beer with his dinner. At one point, since he wasn't eating and had only drunk his medicine, he started falling and my mother had to rush to catch him. Otherwise, he would have fallen against his bed's footboard. God forbid he crack open his chest! What my mother described sounded like something from an episode of House, MD.  My mom didn’t get the reference because she’s never watched the TV series. As my husband and I explained to her, the medical team had to treat his heart recovery and that couldn’t be done while he was detoxing. Withdrawal would make everything more difficult. From a Huffington Post article:  
"Doctors sometimes order beers for patients who are going through withdrawal. The kitchen staff places on the trays whatever doctors order, and sometimes they order beer. A lot of patients get it, said the staffer, because doctors think they need it. Not usually throughout their whole stays, but at least at first."

Meme based off of The Walking Dead from The Nerdy Nurse Webpage
The next morning, we arrived early so we could see my dad off before his TEE since the game plan was, if the TEE revealed no clots, he’d receive the electrical cardioversion. Only, when my mom, who got to the hospital ten minutes ahead of my husband and I, found my dad’s hospital room was empty. My dad’s bed was even missing. Panicked, she searched for a nurse. The nurse told her my dad had to be moved to another room and took my mother to him. After the nurse left, my dad proceeded to tell her how his roommate had a very bad night. Fact of the matter was, his roommate was almost delusional. At 11pm, he woke my dad up to tell him that he was going to save both of them and that there was nothing really wrong with them. The hospital was holding them there and they were going to be sacrificed in the morning. They were going to throw them into a fire and burn them. He assured my dad again that he would save him because he knew what to do. Then, he began sneaking around the room to look for zombies. Checking behind curtains, in closets, and the bathroom before locking himself inside. Dad said his roommate was so sincere that, at one point, he was starting to question the whole zombie thing. My dad is always able to joke in a time of crisis. He rang for the nurse, told her what was going on, and then she got others to come and help coax his roommate from the bathroom—although it took forever. Meanwhile, two nurses came in, grabbed Dad, bed and all, and wheeled him into another room. Preferably, one that was zombie-free. What a night!
                           (Video clips from Fox TV's House, MD)

I know what you’re thinking; I made it up. I assure you, this really happened. Truth is stranger than fiction as the old cliché goes. Do any of our Broads of a Feather readers have a crazy hospital stay story? Robin and I would love to hear about it in the comments section below!