Posted in Family life, Food, holiday

Thanksgiving Tips and Why I don’t make Gravy.

For some people, 2020 will be the first time they have prepared a Thanksgiving dinner rather than bringing a dish to share. It can’t be any worse than my first time making a turkey.

The hubs and I had been married a little over a year and had moved into our third residence. We had new jobs, little money, and no vacation time so traveling 10 hours to visit the “close” parents was not an option. My mom felt bad enough that she flew from Chicago to Newark, NJ to help us out. For three people, we had a 15 pound bird.

Helpful hint #1 – Unless you are feeding 5 or more, get a turkey breast or a 7-8 lb bird.

Naturally, the hubs and I had to recreate ALL the dishes both sides of our family made so we could both have the taste of home. This meant two types of mashed potatoes, two types of cranberries, and two types of stuffing. This also meant we ran out of cookware and places to set prepared food in our tiny kitchen.

Helpful hint #2 – For a small group, streamline the menu. Pick your favorite 5 or 6. In our household of 4, we have turkey, cranberry relish and each person picks one other dish. You can always make a different side dish for the inevitable left overs.

My mom alternated between shaking her head at the hubs and my folly and giving us helpful instruction gleaned. She gave me the task of making gravy from the pan drippings while she coached the hubs through some other task. Her instructions to me went something like “heat in the pan, add cornstarch, whisk until smooth and thickened.”

So I whisked, and I whisked, and I whisked. I got the gravy smooth but there was a problem. “Mom? It’s not thickening!”

“Add some more cornstarch.”

So I grabbed the box and poured in some more. I whisked, got the gravy smooth, but it still didn’t thicken. Mom and I repeated our dialogue to the same effect. I made four additions.

When she finished her project, she came over to check my work. She picked up the yellow box I’d been using. She put her hand on my exhausted whisking arm.

“Honey, no matter how much powdered sugar you add, that gravy isn’t going to thicken.”

Helpful hint #3 – Cornstarch and powdered sugar are not interchangeable.

It’s been over 20 years, but I am still not allowed to make gravy.

If you have a helpful hint for preparing a small scale Thanksgiving dinner, please feel free to share in the comments. It’s a strange year for many of us, but we can all learn something new and we can all use a good laugh.

Posted in COVID-19, Family life, work from home

When two or more work from home

Sphynx cat on a computer
Not all Work From Home co-workers have fur!

With the spread of COVID-19, and social distancing efforts, a lot more people are working from home – including students. Freelancers are full of great tips for working from home, but I haven’t seen a lot of advice for dealing with multiple people working from home. My husband and I have both worked from the same home for over 5 years. During that time, we’ve also had kiddos with virtual school days. Here’s a few tips I have.

  1. Identify what each person needs to do their job (which includes schoolwork). Do you need access to an electrical outlet? Wi-fi? A ringing phone? Silence? Background noise? A distraction free background for virtual meetings?

    When I’m doing creative writing, I need quiet. My husband works HR for a Fortune 500 company and spends about 70% of his workday on the phone. Our needs are in conflict. Once we identified this as a problem, we were able to solve it.

  2. Define workspaces for each person.
    When we bought our house, we anticipated having one office that doubled as a guest room. Oops. Rather than moving, we reconfigured spaces. My office (and guest room) is upstairs. When my husband worked on the main floor, his phone calls were a problem in one room, but not the other. But the second spot he tried was near the kitchen and he’d have to quiet the kids when they came home. We carved out a space for him in the basement with a closed door. He can be loud and the rest of us can be loud or quiet depending on the moment.

    On virtual days, my daughter works at the dining room table and my son works at either the kitchen table or in the basement. If the kids can see each other, they distract each other. We move the tables a few inches to keep the sightlines clear, but blanket forts are also effective.

  3. Define “don’t bother me” signals.
    I close my office door, but that doesn’t mean much to my son, so if he’s home as well, I put on headband with pink flamingos. My husband also closes his door, but it has a glass window. If we knock on the door, he either waves us in or puts up a hand as a stop sign. My kids both put on headphones, even if they aren’t listening to anything. If they are in their work spot with the headphones on, they are working. If an adult makes eye contact, they will take off the headphones and we can give them the five minute warning for dinner. Even young kids can learn to understand these signals, even if they don’t always respect them.

  4. Establish a schedule.
    Remember that noise problem? My husband is not permitted to make or take phone calls on the first or second floor between 9am and 10am because it’s too disruptive during my peak creativity time. Likewise, I don’t go near his office between 8am and 11am because that is when he’s most likely to be on conference calls. When the kids are on virtual days, they are expected to adhere to the same schedule. They also are expected to follow their school schedule until their work is finished. Be sure to schedule lunch and above all schedule an END to your workday.

  5. Create transitions.
    I didn’t appreciate the value of a commute until I didn’t have one. In addition to the “don’t bother me” symbols that tell others you are working, you also need to give yourself transitions that it is time to work and time to not work. Tell yourself (and anyone else in earshot) “I am going to work” and stride toward your workspace with intent, even if it is only two steps.

  6. Get sunlight.
    Seriously. If you can position yourself near a window, do so, and remember to look out every now and then. If you normally walk the kids to school or the bus (or if they do so on their own), go outside during that time and take a brief stroll. Bonus – you have perpetuated a transition. Designate that time you would have spent on your commute to go outside. If it’s warm enough where you are, sit outside for part of the workday.

For most people, having everyone work from home will a brief interlude. There will inevitably be challenges, but by setting expectations and respecting the needs of others, you will make it work.

Flamingo headband
“Leave me alone, I’m working”

Posted in Environment, Family life, Uncategorized

Kicking the plastic habit

Ever since a stint living in Germany in the 1990s, I’ve tried to be thoughtful about my use of plastic. Twenty years ago, cashiers didn’t know what to do when I brought my own love_birds_2pkreusable bags to stores. One even called a manager! Could you imagine that happening in 2018? I average one case of plastic bottled water a year. I do keep some in the house (and in the car) in case of emergency, but I never drink it at home (unless there is a drinking water emergency) and I rarely buy water out because I use a refillable water bottle. I buy resealable plastic bags for school supply lists, but lunchboxes I use these sandwich bags and other refillable containers.

With China’s announcement that they will no longer accept the world’s plastic for recycling, I’m looking for more plastic alternatives.  I’ll share a few things I currently do, a few changes I’ve started to implement, and a few wishes. I’d love to know how YOU reduce plastic.

WHAT I DO (in addition to those above):hk048-sap

  1. refuse straws
  2. use glass containers for storage
  3. skip plastic in home decor items
  4. seek out clothing and other fabrics made from recycled water bottles. If you are in the market for a new purse or backpack, I love Haiku bags. I recently bought a second one – not because the first wore out, but because after 6 years, I wanted a different pattern.
  5. shop the farmer’s markets. Less packaging = less plastic.

WHAT CHANGES I’M MAKING NOW:

  1. Switching back to bar soap. This one hurts. I love body wash and hate slimy soap, but I love our planet enough that I’m giving up the bottle.
  2. Bamboo toothbrushes.

MY WISH LIST: (Can you help?)

  1. Alternative to plastic wrap in the kitchen. I want something to protect oddly shaped food (say cut avocados) from the air and to cover bowls of rising bread dough.
  2. A peanut and tree-nut allergy safe place for buying food in bulk. Every single place I’ve seen has potential for cross contamination and I won’t risk my daughter’s life.
  3. plastic free toothpaste.
  4. Lip balm in non-plastic container.
  5. antiperspirant in non-plastic container.

I would love to hear ideas and suggestions from you. How do you reduce plastic in your life? I’m on the lookout for new ideas.

Posted in Christmas, Family life, Writing

Rethinking the calendar

Over 15″ of snow fell on my driveway this weekend, and I’m not counting the drifts. This would have been welcome and fun in December, but in April, not so much.  We barely had snow in December, the month when we sing songs celebrating the joy of snow. Something is wrong.

I blame our collective attachment to the Georgian calendar, the one predominately used today. The Georgian calendar has been kicking around since the 1580s.  Prior to that, the Roman Calendar provided dating in Western Civilizations. That problematic calendar had only 10 months and was about 60 days too short for Earth’s journey around the Sun. Adapting a new calendar is not out of the realm of historical possibility.

Change is tough and I suspect song writing is too. But something is not matching up. Those lazy hazy days of Summer are not likely to roll around until September.  We need a new system with different names. Now, I’m not a scientific expert, and I really like the handy way of remembering how many days are in each month by counting on the knuckles, so I’ll keep the dates the same, but the months get new names. Any holidays deeply tied to a specific month will move to appropriate “new” month.  Also – this is a bit North-hemisphere -entric. My brain is too cold to fully think through all the consequences, that’s because my foolish brain still associates April with Spring.

February becomes “Newano.” By starting the calendar on the old Feb first, we will better align with the traditional Chinese New Year.

March becomes “Midwinter.” I would suggest moving Groundhog’s day to Midwinter, but some of us are ready to choke the little rodent so maybe not.

April becomes “Stillwinter.” St. Patrick’s day brightens up the snow with a bit of much longed for greenery.

May becomes “Frostend.” You can begin to put out garden plants, but chances are high your crocus will end up covered in snow.

June becomes “Junette.” It’s a light name befitting long hours of sunshine and springlike warmth against your skin.

July stays July.

August becomes “Highsummer.” The temperatures soar during this peak summer month.

September becomes “Lingersommer.” The long summer has become stale. Parents are counting the days until back to school.

October becomes “Threeano.” The month has been misnamed so long, why break with tradition. School starts.

November becomes “Plantend.” Harvest the last of your tomatoes before Halloween night.

December becomes “Monthopause.” The calendar year is transitioning. The linguistic gymnastics burn an extra calorie or two so you don’t need to feel guilty about that extra slice of pie on Thanksgiving.

January becomes “December.” Just because I’m reinventing the calendar, I don’t have to throw away all our mental associations with December. Let’s keep the last month the same, except with more snow and a more realistic expectation of how long we have to wait until spring.

 

Posted in Books, Christmas, Family life, First Friday Five, tween

Books to give – teens and tweens

As in years past, I want to help you give books to the children in your life. Hook ’em young, and keep ’em hooked on reading. This year my recommendations are not as organized as some years. My medical saga gave me quite a bit of brain fog, but I have a few scraps of paper collected through the year and I’ll share them here.

 

For the TWEENS in your life:

You can’t go wrong with a book by Chris Grabenstein. He taps into silliness like no one else, but also goes deeper. He understands the emotional life of tweens. Even reluctant readers will connect with his books, including the terrific Mr. Lemoncello’s Library series.

Both my kiddos (the tween and the teen) enjoyed the graphic novel Real Friends by Shannon Hale. Don’t let the cover fool you – this is a book for boys and girls. 

 

 

 

TEENS

My teen is cranky – the authors she loves are not producing books as fast as she can read them.  I think she has already marked the 2018 release of the next book in the Talon series on her calendar. Julie Kagawa is a masterful storyteller. Legion, book 4 in the saga, came out this year. Fortunately, Julie Kagawa has a number of other books to keep her busy.

 

She’s also read a lot of Michael Crichton and Douglas Adams this year. Unless there is a hidden manuscript somewhere that will magically appear this month, I have no new recommendations from them.

Do you have any recommendations for me? I need an excuse to run to the local bookshop.

Posted in Environment, Family life

I have many Egrets

My laptop faces a wall, but my office has a window that looks out over farmland, a marsh and a pond. With spring in full swing, I often crack open the window to listen to the birds and frogs sing. When I need to stretch my legs, I walk to the window and check out the activity.

Canadian Geese and Mallard ducks are standard fare. Sometimes, I see a muskrat taking a swim. Occasionally, Merganser ducks put on a diving performance.

But my favorite are the egrets. Once, five egrets waded in the shallows; most days two stop by. With their high-stepping black legs and neck that extends out of the standard “S” shape as they walk, I find them delightfully slow and awkward. When they spy a snack, they go statue still for a moment. In the blink of an eye, they snatch the tadpole or fish or insect and jerk their long neck straight. Even at a distance, I can see them swallow and pause before starting the process anew.

I may have some regrets in life, but time I waste watching egrets is not one.

Posted in Books, Career Day, Family life, For Writers, parenting

Please 2017, or Hope Springs Eternal

After a year which wore out its welcome sometime in August, I’m really hoping for a better 2017.

Sure, a few great things happened in 2016 – I took two terrific vacations with the family (Jamaica and San Diego, CA), my near two-year battle with dizziness came to an end, and the Cubs won a World Series but on the whole, hope seemed hard to find.

I grieved for the loss of human beings who inspired me – David Bowie and his art of reinvention, Umberto Eco whose pinball scene in Foucault’s Pendulum is sexy perfection, and for Carrie Fisher, who lived life with such fearlessness, wit, intelligence and honesty that for this child of the 70s at least, she was a role model of both what not to do (the drugs) and how to live. When Mohammad Ali died, I grieved once more for my grandfather who died from Parkinson’s disease 35 years ago. And I grieved for my grandmother-in-law who passed away in the spring.

I grieved for the loss of civility, and for my hometown, the City of Chicago, which seems incapable of stemming the tide of violence.

In 2016, I suffered many professional shortcomings. I expected to end the year with an agent, or at least a contract. I put forth a solid effort, but simply put, I failed. It’s not a good feeling, even though I understand that larger industry consolidations make it harder for a well-reviewed mid-lister like myself to break through that magical ceiling that divides the best-sellers from the rest of us. It’s easy to get down and think about quitting, but then something magic happens.

January first, 2017 is a new day. My calendar is not entirely blank, but it may as well be a clean slate. Today, I will do some serious exfoliation and scrub off 2016. As of this writing, no-one has died in 2017, so there is no need to grieve. No-one has teased my children or been unkind to them. No-one has told me no. Look out 2017, here I come.

 

 

Posted in childhood, Christmas, Family life, First Friday Five, parenting

First Friday: Five great games!

I’m a huge fan of games, note I did not write board games, or card games or video games. I love them all. In this season of giving, whether to a loved one or to a toy drive, here are five games I highly recommend because not only are they fun, but they can also be adapted to accommodate a range of ages. I’m not part of any affiliate program. The links are there for your convenience.

  1. Labyrinth – The original German title translates as “the crazy maze.” Why? Because with each turn, the game board changes. As you race to collect treasures, you can work with or work against the other players to reshape the routes to the various treasures. It says 8 or up, but we started playing it when my son was 5 and he not only kept up with the adults, he usually beats us. This is a great game for spatial reasoning. Available at Toys R Us and other retailers.
  2. Perpetual Commotion – This is basically the card game I grew up calling “Nertz.” It’s a high-speed game with elements of solitaire that can easily be adjusted for younger players by dealing them fewer cards. You could also play in teams where one person is responsible for watching the feeder pile and one person flips the deck. It’s available at Amazon and other retailers.
  3. Richard Scarry’s Busytown Eye Found It! In this cooperative game, the highlight  is spinning a Goldbug, when sets off a timed search for objects hidden throughout the game board. Cards indicate if you will be looking for kites or hot dogs or something else in the overstuffed and often comical drawings of Richard Scarry. Unlike Hi-Ho-Cherry-O or Candyland, I have no urge to stick a fork in my eye to avoid playing this game. Available at Amazon and other retailers. 
  4. Apples to Apples – This game comes in myriad versions. I’m partial to the kids version, especially when playing with family because it contains cards such as “My mom” and “under the bed.” While the former should always be paired with “beautiful” or “nice,” the latter is best played on the person with the messiest room. Available at Creative Kidstuff and other retailers. 
  5. My last game I recommend this year skews older and is the newest one in my household, but also one became a quick favorite. Evolution: The Beginning. Even though the instruction book almost as overwhelming as those for King of Tokyo and Settlers of Catan (two other games our family loves), the card-based game play is straight-forward and fun. The artwork is beautiful and the structure of the game allows for multiple strategies to victory.  The action is low-key and it takes less than a half an hour making it a great way to wind down before bedtime. I believe it is a Target exclusive, but may be available through resellers.

So there you have it – some awesome ways to spend the time with friends and family throughout the winter. With these games, your only awkward discussions will involve what to play next.

If you have a favorite game, please share it below. Thanks.

Posted in Family life, First Friday Five, Food, parenting

First Friday: The #TealPumpkin edition

If you’ve followed me on social media or on this blog, you may have noticed I’m a passionate supporter of the Teal Pumpkin Project to ensure even those with food allergies can have a safe and happy Halloween.

My daughter has severe peanut allergies and as much as we love Halloween around my house, it is a high-risk period because, let’s be honest, how many of us can resist a Reece’s? My daughter, yes, but some kids snack on a few and then dig their hands into a bowl filled with all kinds of treats and spread that peanut-butter around and let’s not talk about school lunch the next day. Instead, I’m offering 5 ways to get your house ready for a safe, fun and happy Halloween.

  1. Don’t let the kids grab the candy in a free-for-all when the bell rings. Have the designated door opener give each trick-or-treater a generous handful instead.
  2. Keep a bowl of peanut-free treats. We give out a lot of Skittles, Starbursts and Laffy-taffy. If a trick-or-treater gets a Snicker’s bar at my house, it is only because my children have returned home and we are redistributing the stuff they can’t eat. Wondering what candy is safe to give out? My Target had a terrific display and handy list of ingredients.
  3. Remember that peanut allergies are not the only allergies. Some kids are sensitive to gluten, eggs, dairy, or others. Accommodating all food allergies can be a challenge which leads to
  4. Offer a non-food alternative. I’ve given out Halloween themed rubber ducks, Play-dough (although it’s not safe for kids with wheat allergies), pencils, bubbles, stickers, spiders and noise makers. You can buy large quantities at Oriental Trading  but since I get less than 100 kids at the door, I head to Dollar Tree. With 12 pencils or a 4 pack of eyeball bubbles for a dollar, I can offer something fun and safe without breaking the bank.
  5. Last – but not least – make sure trick-or-treaters know you are part of the Teal Pumpkin project. Paint a pumpkin teal, hang a sign at the door, post a yard sign, or do the house up in teal. And don’t be surprised if you get a few extra thank yous. The Teal Pumpkin is such a small thing to do, but your compassion makes a huge difference to those of us on the front lines of food allergies.

 

 

Posted in Family life, Photography

Renewing a hobby: Instagram

I am a latecomer to the Instagram party. I thought about setting up an account dozens of times, but the thought, “I have to learn another social media network,” held me back.

This past month, I took the plunge. I want to learn more about it, because my kids will be on there. Also, I want to get back into photography and this seems like a good place to share work. Instagram has motivated me to make better use of my phone as a legitimate camera, capable of creating artistic shots, and not simply quick snaps because I cannot reach my digital SLR before the moment passes. I have a lot to learn, but I love this shot of a grasshopper.

View this post on Instagram

A guest in my reading nook. #insectsofinstagram

A post shared by Lola Karns (@lolakarns) on

I have yet to post the obligatory #authorsofinstagram post of my work space.

In the meantime, there will be cat photos. And nature shots, and food, and whatever else tickles my fancy. Follow me, @lolakarns, on Instagram