Good grief…I grew up with Charlie Brown!

This week, I was planning to share some time-saving tips for making your Thanksgiving celebration easier and more relaxing, however, I got so busy scalding and plucking my deceased (may they rest in peace) chickens, followed by pealing and cooking my pumpkins into puree for pumpkin pies, that Thanksgiving was over before I knew it! I’ll save all of my helpful hints for an easy holiday meal for next year. Instead, I’ll divert you with lessons learned in the course of my peculiar childhood.

Everything I needed to know about life I gleaned from my constant reading of Archie comic books and the Peanuts comic strip. My mom bought me several collections of Charles M. Schulz’s well known, and well-loved, comic strips. The Archie comics have long since been reduced to shreds, but the hardcover Peanuts books are with me still. Back then, I had every single one of those books (and there are several!) memorized from front to back. I used to have one of them lying open on the kitchen table for every breakfast and lunch during the long, lazy, summer months and/or the cold, cabin fever winters. I simply could not sit down to eat without something fun to read, some source of light entertainment. I’m sure you could find a few Spaghettios’ sauce splotches, ketchup smears, or chocolate stains still hiding amongst the pages today. When I was young and unenlightened, I thought the Peanuts comics were just plain fun…and funny. But, now, as a wizened grown-up, I realize that everything I didn’t learn in kindergarten, I was taught by all the Peanuts characters.

Let’s just start with Charlie Brown. Charlie is the lost, lonely little child in all of us. He loves baseball, but he’s a terrible manager, stuck with an inept, uninterested group of athletes on his hapless, homespun team. He never gets any valentines, even though he stands next to his mailbox hoping one will magically appear from the red-haired girl, with whom he is hopelessly in love. His kite always ends up crashing into the kite-eating tree, he always gets rocks in his trick-or-treat bag, and Lucy always pulls the football out from under him just as he takes a wild kick, sending him flying into the air. And the only help he gets in dealing with all this is the crazy, self-seeking counsel from Lucy’s psychiatric advice stand (5¢ per session). And his dog…well, he’s definitely not man’s best friend, as far as Charlie is concerned. However, through all of his struggles, Charlie Brown never gives up, and his one, true friend, Linus, is always there to encourage him. Think about that the next time things go wrong for you, and call on your inner Charlie Brown – try one more time, because you never know if this might just be the time when Lucy decides to leave the ball in position, and you’ll stand there amazed, watching as your football soars into the sky!

Speaking of Linus, how many of us have our moments of insecurity, bordering on sheer terror, when we wish we had a security blanket in which to bury our face and our fears? Linus suffers such insecurity that he can barely make it through washday, almost passing out before the end of the drying cycle. His big sister, Lucy, enjoys bossing him around and teasing him about his weakness. Snoopy likes to terrorize him, too, by snatching the blanket from him, and spinning him round and round if he doesn’t let go. Does Linus allow this weakness to hold him down? No, he doesn’t! He is confident in who he is, and he’s a wise and loyal playmate, always capable of saying the right thing to a friend in need, or pointing out the philosophical significance of an ordinary occurrence. We all have our moments, when self-doubt can freeze us in our tracks, but Linus would tell us to ignore our phobias, and forge ahead, and perhaps have an extra blanket handy for emergencies.

That brings me to Lucy, the self-proclaimed queen of crabbiness. People get on her nerves with very little provocation. She attends a crabbiness support group, and you better watch your step on meeting days! She knows the Achilles heel of all within her little comic strip world, and she aims right for it with amazing accuracy. She tries to manipulate and control with her cantankerously cutting comments, but she fails to have much of an effect on anyone (except for Charlie Brown). The person she would most like to snare in her web is Schroeder, the resident artist of the comic cast, but Schroeder, like all true creative souls, is at home only within his own expressive realm of (in his case) piano performance. Even though he plays on one of those antique, tinny-sounding toy pianos with about two octaves, he produces sounds of a concert pianist extraordinaire, until Lucy gets irritated with the artist and gives up on her oozy, beguiling sweetness long enough to get him mad. When that happens, we hear the true voice of the piano…and the irritated pianist! Schroeder brings out the soft side in Lucy, while she often draws out the best of his creative genius. Think of the two of them the next time your spouse or best friend is irritating the crap out of you…opposites attract for a reason!

I can’t mention Schroeder without getting a picture in my mind’s eye of Snoopy in the Peanuts Christmas video. Snoopy is the wild and crazy, devil-may-care persona which abides in all of us. It rises to the surface at least occasionally, if not with alarming regularity. In the animated special, Snoopy is jitterbugging to the amazing dance tunes provided by Schroeder’s flying fingers on his skimpy keyboard, and the music suddenly stops. All eyes are on Snoopy as he continues dancing with wild abandon, until it finally dawns on him that he is dancing alone, the room gone quiet. He gets embarrassed and slinks away, but we don’t feel too badly for him, because we all know he’s rebounded quickly, and is off somewhere on another reckless adventure. Snoopy is actually like most dogs we know. He is spoiled and weird and in his own little world, and, when he is not sleeping, he is usually involved in some sort of mischief. I guess that’s easy to understand, considering his owner is wishy-washy Charlie Brown, who couldn’t discipline a dog to save his life. But, still, we love Snoopy, because he’s wildly entertaining and he knows how to live in the moment, along with his strange assortment of friends.

There are lots of other eccentric characters in the Peanuts gang, each with their own little quirks. Freda has the naturally curly hair, which she mentions at every appearance, and Pig-Pen can get dirty walking in a snowstorm. Sally (Charlie Brown’s little sister) has a crush on Linus, who is still too busy with his blankie to care about girls. Woodstock, Snoopy’s little bird friend, is probably the cutest of all, even if he can’t fly in a straight line. Quirkiness aside, however, they all reveal to us the tendency in ourselves to cling to certain behaviors long after we realize they’re not working. The characters also give us the strength and courage to move above and beyond our limitations, and to realize that every day is a clean slate, upon which a masterpiece may be written, if only we are willing to let it happen.

A footnote: I hope you got a chance to enjoy “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” last week, in it’s annual airing on TV. If not, be sure to mark your calendar for “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” sure to be coming up sometime soon! And, in case you were wondering, Charles M. Schulz was born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1922. He died on February 12, 2000, leaving to all of us the rich legacy of the Peanuts characters, which still entertains and enlightens today. Thank you, Mr. Charles M. Schulz, for many, many years of smiles and laughter, and for showing us the fears and dreams inside our own, fragile souls!

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The White Death Cometh

Sunday was mass hysteria in the heart of America. It seemed like any, typical day. I was out and about, doing ordinary stuff, driving to a bridal shower, and I passed a grocery store. I happened to glance over. The parking lot was filled to capacity, and people were coming out of the store, their shopping carts flowing with milk & honey O’s cereal. I also caught glimpses of loaves of bread and bags of rock salt. Parents had brought the entire family along, so the children could help protect their piled-high plunder as they raced to load it into the mini-van. Is it Y2K all over again, I wondered? Then it hits me – we are expecting snow tonight, a very early snow for our part of the country. At first, the weather alarmists were only calling for a dusting, or possibly up to an inch, at the most. They’ve been burned too many times in the past by calling for snow that never comes, and they’re tired of eating frozen crow. These days they put a tremendous effort into playing down any possible hint of accumulating frozen precip, until the last minute. This time, it changed from a dusting to 2 to 4 inches, with a winter storm warning going out on Sunday morning. Hence, the Cincinnati tradition of clearing the grocery store shelves of any and all staple foods had commenced, with the added disadvantage of short notice. It is very much like the hunger games – every man/woman for himself/herself, a dystopian society with survival of the fittest being the main objective. It was impossible for me to drive past the store. I felt myself being drawn against my will into the parking lot. The madness was infectious. I had two gallons of milk at home, enough bread for a couple of days, and several bottles of wine, but….would it be enough? Would we run out of everything, and be lost and abandoned in our home for months, like members of the ill-fated Donner party? I felt the car turning, seemingly of it’s own accord, and these words began to play over and over in my head, like a magic incantation – “I. Must. Buy. More. Food!” Luckily for me, the headache and stress of trying to find a parking spot helped clear the brain fog, and I managed to pull out at the last minute, just as I was noticing some back-up lights three rows over. I took control of the steering wheel just in time and got myself out of there, then continued safely on to my friend’s house. Lots of my other friends were there, too, and we drank some wine, played silly games, and laughed about everything. I felt all relaxed and unconcerned when I headed home a few hours later.

Later that evening I checked the weather report again. By that point, they were calling for three to five inches. I was no longer concerned about my family starving to death over the next day or two, because it had finally dawned on me…I am a working woman now, and I have to drive to work tomorrow morning, in the snow! I can always trudge through the snow to a grocery store after my car slides off the side of the road. There’s got to be a few bags of rice cakes left on the shelves….or something. As I picture myself wandering blindly through the blizzard, the anxiety begins to build to a point where I am unable to sleep. Forget the fact that I grew up in northern Ohio, where we could drive for miles in the snow just following sets of tire tracks made by previous explorers. I learned how to maneuver in the snow by going to the local mall and purposely doing donuts in the outer realms of the parking lot. I came to Cincinnati and laughed out loud at these crazy winter drivers (unless I was stuck behind one of them, and then I cussed at them). But, now, I am older, and for many years now, when the snow has come our way, I have had nowhere to go. I’ve had the luxury of sitting here in my warm house and watching the snow pile up, while these unpracticed drivers slip and slide all over the city. But, not anymore. My relaxed, slow-paced way of life is over, and it’s back to the grind for me, even if the grind includes icy roads. My husband suggested I park my car at the top of our driveway, instead of its usual spot in the garage, down the hill in back of the house. He’s not getting up early to push snow. So, before trudging off to a sleepless night in bed, I took his advice.

I dragged my tired self out of bed very early in the morning, so I could scope out the situation, fortify myself with a good breakfast, sweep off my car and scrape my windows, and leave in plenty of time to get to my destination in a timely manner. I had scouted out my new client’s home, and it was in the hilly part of town. Cincinnati is pretty hilly all around, but the far west side is like a chutes and ladders game – you climb way up, then slide back down. When the weather’s bad, you slide up and down, and all around. I did pretty well until the very last part, where I had to drive up a pretty steep hill, after coming to a complete stop to turn into the road. Somehow, I made it up that hill and found my way to my client’s house. I was so relieved, and proud of myself for still having that northern knack for November navigation. The first measurable snow has come and (almost) gone, and I handled it like a boss. I have heard from more than one news source that we are likely to have another cold, snowy winter ahead of us here in the tri-state. I hope my driving skills, and my luck, hold out until the spring thaw.

The big news now is that Buffalo received four to six feet of snow over the past couple of days. I am thanking my lucky stars that I do not live in Buffalo, and I am wondering if there is any bread or milk left on any shelf of any grocery store chain in the entire city. I am also wondering how you clean six feet of snow off of your car, or shovel out a driveway with that humongous pile of white, frozen tundra as far as the eye can see. I don’t know how those Buffalonians do it, year after year. However, of one thing I am quite certain – if Cincinnati had received our snow in feet instead of inches, we would be off the grid for weeks, and Thanksgiving turkeys would have been available for really low prices come January, because, really, who thinks about a Thanksgiving turkey when the white death is on its way?!

I hope all of you have found the perfect turkey for your holiday feast. I’ll be back next week with some helpful, holiday hints, as you make those final preparations for the big day.

The Hunter/Gatherer Approach

I am a faithful follower of the paleo diet. In case you never heard of that (and, apparently, there are lots of people in that category), here’s my suggestion – google it. Millions of web sites will come up, with information and recipes…and you still might not know what it is. In a nutshell, it is a lifestyle formed around the concept that cavemen (of the Paleolithic era) ate healthier than we do today. They were hunters/gatherers, who subsisted on fresh meat from the hunt, and nuts, berries, and other food gathered from nature. They lived very healthy, active lives, with no tooth decay, until they were killed at an early age by a man-eating tiger, a natural disaster, or a fellow hunter with bad aim. We know this because all the archeological finds from that period have been skulls of young folks with a mouth full of substantial choppers (…or something like that). Don’t quote me on that little tidbit. I tend to skip the lengthy, background, scientific argument part in all the paleo books and head immediately to the back of the book where they hide the paleo chocolate chip cookie recipes. I think these recipes were found in an ancient cave system in modern-day Syria, engraved on the skulls full of teeth.

At any rate, I have found the whole hunting and gathering concept to hold true in my search for paleo recipe ingredients. First of all, you have to find organic farmers who grow organic vegetables and fruit, and who allow their livestock to roam around in fields eating grass and/or bugs all day. These farmers are not easy to find, until you entice them all to a local farmers’ market, under the guise of selling all their hard-earned harvest. Once you have them all corralled there, they will mingle and talk about how difficult it is to be an organic farmer. While they are sharing war stories, you can slip in unnoticed and buy some healthy, pesticide-free and GMO-free produce, or eggs, or meat, from one of their CSA members who is manning the cash box for the day. (I think CSA stands for Cows [and/or Chickens] Straying Afar – I’m not sure. You better google that, too.) Unless you live in the posh, hip part of town, you will probably have a bit of a drive to get to these farmers’ markets, but it is better than driving way out into the country, and risk stepping on a cowpie. One of these markets will make a significant dent in your hunting efforts, but it won’t take care of everything.

I often find myself in need of coconut and/or almond flour. I don’t think these products are really flour, but if you are eating paleo, you have to pretend a lot. I also go through a lot of coconut aminos, which is a soy-free soy sauce substitute. For these things, I order from a co-op type of company. I found a company that doesn’t require me to order enough supplies to feed an army, and it’s so easy. I order online, and drive once a month – right during rush hour, through major construction delays – to meet the truck (along with other flaky folks like me) in a parking lot to pick up my stuff. Last month, the truck driver had to drive off to the side of the buildings to hide from a cop who was hanging around in the parking lot, because, allegedly, it is illegal to meet a random semi in an unused parking lot. This gathering job can be dangerous sometimes!

Yesterday was a particularly crazy day of hunting for me. It started out in the early morning with a trip to Sam’s Club. I had to buy cat and dog food, and cat litter, as well as several big bags of potato chips (fried in olive oil). I would imagine the paleo population did not have to worry about lugging 55 lb bags of dog chow out to their mini vans. They probably just dragged a 12,000 pound wooly mammoth home with their buddies, after a successful hunting venture, and when they were done with the butchering, their little canine companions got to chew on the carcass. No grain-laced victuals for those lucky dogs. I do wonder, though, what they did about the cat litter situation. Based on my knowledge of history, I will venture a guess on that dilemma. Since, I am assuming, most of their cats were outdoor pets, they simply did not put a cover on the sandboxes they had built for their children’s recreation. (Those of us who have been around for awhile know that those little sifters they put in beach sets for kids were originally designed for the purpose of cleaning the cat poo out of our uncovered sandboxes.) This solved two problems for the caveman community – giving the cats a convenient corner to deposit (and disguise) their droppings, and keeping their children out of their hair while they were busy with the arduous task of cooking the mammoth roast. No lengthy sojourns to overwhelming warehouse stores for the Paleolithic populace!

After surviving my Sam’s adventure, I came home, unloaded my yield, and headed off to the local grocery store. While there, I searched high and low for organic varieties of produce items that are not in season locally. This is an uphill battle, involving plastic bags that will not tear off properly, getting squirted by the produce sprinklers, and weaving amongst stocker’s carts and fellow shoppers. I survived with only a couple of scars, and managed to find room for all of this stuff in my refrigerator. I am hearing that most serious “real-food” aficionados have more than one fridge. It is my dream to someday attain such a distinction.

After that, it was off to meet another of my farmer friends for my twice-a-month chicken CSA pick-up. This week, I was also wangling for a whopper turkey. I prepared carefully, with a larger than usual cooler, and an early arrival to get into a gainful wangling position. My planning paid off considerably. Thanks to my artful hunting skills, I snagged two frozen chickens and a HUGE frozen turkey, organic and recently slaughtered. Get out of my way, rookies…you are messing with a wangling pro!

I wish my quest had ended there, but alas, I do a modified paleo, which includes raw milk. In order to gain such goods, I have a game plan that involves another family. They were already hooked into a clandestine, round-about plan to get around our state’s outlawing of raw milk. I now own a wee bit of a Bessie, and for a monthly boarding fee, I get a wee bit of Bessie’s milk every week. My friends pick up the milk for me on their trip to the farm, and then I visit my friends to get my share. My entire system works out rather nicely, except that just when I have recovered from one safari, it is time to head out the door again. However, my health has greatly improved from all this healthy eating, and I have lost weight. I’m quite certain that the weight loss has a lot to do with the hours and hours I spend on my feet, hunting, gathering, and cooking, but that’s okay. I have recently been told that “sitting is the new smoking,” so I had to find a new hobby anyway. Just when I had decided to (finally) learn how to crochet, I find that recliner sitting is no longer chic. So, off I go, before the arctic blast settles south and the snow flies, to garner more ground beef, or snag a few snap peas, or amass more apples for my healthy family – a cavemom’s job is never done!

This week, I encourage you to get yourself to a farmer’s market, where you can catch a rare glimpse of a bleary-eyed, coffee guzzling, flannel bedecked farmer, who has worked his fingers to the bone all week to bring you amazingly healthy food. He and his wife will smile politely at you when you complain about the price of his ground beef and winter squash, so you will take the plunge and buy it anyway – and you’ll be SO glad you did!

Simply Thriving

Once again, in this wonderful life I have been given, I am passing through my favorite astronomical season. When the evenings begin to turn cool, and the breezes blow a bit more often from the north, I take a deep breath, and turn my eyes toward the heavens. Birds will soon be traveling en masse now, heading to a warmer clime ahead of winter’s first blast. When I was a child, my girl friends and I had a habit of shouting out, “My wedding,” whenever we saw a flock of birds soaring overhead. The idea was, whoever said it first claimed that group of birds, and that’s how many people would be in attendance at our wedding. I have no idea where this absurd superstition came from, but I can tell you that it doesn’t work. With all the flocks I won, I should have had more than 10,000 guests at my wedding, all perched on the back of the pews, chittering away and leaving droppings on the hymnals, but instead, there were less than two hundred in attendance, all relatively well-behaved…and potty trained. I often chuckle when I see a winged southbound assembly in the sky these days. My gut reaction (now that I’m old) is to yell out, “My funeral!” But it would bring stares of dismay and confusion, and it might be difficult to explain, so I refrain.

In lieu of garnering a potentially newsworthy attendance for my eventual send-off, I’ll focus on the foliage. Autumn leaves amaze and astound me, with their beauty and their variety, whether viewing from afar, or examining each leaf individually. The long-range view, overlooking a hillside or a valley, can be truly stunning, but I prefer the hands-on perspective. Sometimes, from just one tree, you can find leaves of orange and yellow flame right next to some so deeply red they are almost black. This same tree might also boast of red-veined green leaves, or soft browns. Up close or far away, the feast for the eyes never fails to stop me in my tracks, and take my breath away. I still pick up leaves like a little kid, and bring them home to dry them in a book. And when I am out walking, I purposely tread on the very edge of the sidewalk, through any gathering of fallen leaves I can find. Some of the leaves are extremely dry and crispy – these are my favorites. When you walk on them, it’s like eating potato chips with your feet. The sound is like the laughter of a baby – it brings a smile to my face and makes me feel young again. Most of the leaves are not quite so crisp, and those I just do a swing-step through, with a bit of a Charlie Chaplain swagger, so I can enjoy the soft rustle and watch the leaves leap-frogging in front of my feet. Can there be a simpler, lovelier treasure than that?!

I feel almost the same way about fossil hunting, but I learned last week that fall is not opportune timing for locating fossils in creekbeds. Creeks tend to wind through the woods, hence, they are filled to overflowing this time of year, not with water, but with fallen leaves. My leaf viewing was greatly enhanced, but I only found two brachiopods and two horn corals. However, in the past, while turning over large rocks during this time of year, I’ve come across lots of slow-moving salamanders and crawdads, and one amazing, segmented leach. I snagged that puppy and stuck it in a jar. Then, I took it with me when I picked up my girls from a youth group meeting. As I displayed this large, green, blood-sucking creature with a huge, horrifying mouth, all the boys from the youth group gathered around in fascination. The thought that popped into my head was, “I was never so popular with the boys….I should have thought of this back in my high school days!”

Other simple pleasures for me include the sudden rushing of the wind through a stand of trees. I am also enticed by the powerful rumbling of thunder. I sometimes feel like I could take on a John Muir adventure, and nestle on a tree branch while a thunderstorm passes by. It would be scary, yet electrifyingly intoxicating (pun intended!). Like most people, I am a sucker for spectacular sunrises and sunsets, although I have to admit that I rarely make it up in time for the sun’s rising. (Sleeping in, with relaxed mornings, just happens to be another of my favorites!) And the mad rushing of a mountain stream during the spring thaw cleanses my soul like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.

I seem to have an outdoor theme going here, and, to be sure, I am able to commune with God most ardently while surrounded by nature. However, I’ve got my happy “inside moments,” too. Peace and tranquility, apart from the outdoors, usually includes friends, family, good (home-baked) food, and laughter. If none of the aforementioned is present, I’ll settle for a glass of wine, stretchy pants, and my slippers. I have my preferred fall rituals for indoors, too. I love it when the time comes to travel to my upstairs cedar closet and pull out my thrift store wardrobe of cold-weather clothes. Having my jeans in the drawer and long-sleeved shirts filling my closet is almost as gratifying to me as leaf collecting. I have, indeed, been blessed with the art of enjoying the simple things in life.

If you’re wondering what my training ground is for acquiring this artistic talent, it’s this – God has forced me into it. And, after several years of fighting and whining, I finally succumbed to the Master’s guidance. My husband is self-employed, and has been for years. Sometimes business is great, but usually, it’s just enough to get by on. Despite this fact, we chose a stay-at-home mom approach for our family, with the added blessing of homeschooling our children. We have a small house, with three bedrooms and one full bathroom, in a neighborhood that is not quite as nice as it used to be. People these days generally do not want to spend their entire adult life in a house this small, even though most of the neighbors who were here when we moved in had done just that. We all want bigger and better, with one bathroom per person, more rooms than one family can ever navigate, and posh neighborhoods. When I get envious of such a style of living, I remind myself that there are children in some countries who abide in cardboard huts and dig through the trash to earn a living. I should be ashamed of myself for longing for more than I need. I have a warm house, a comfortable bed, plenty of clothes, and an abundance of food. The most crucial lesson I have learned, through my experience with breast cancer, is that I really only have the gift of today. Armed with that sobering knowledge, I will do my best to revel in it and thank God for all that I have, instead of focusing on what I think I am missing…well, at least I will try my very best, and ask for heavenly help when I fail.

In the week ahead, I encourage you to make a few choices that lend themselves to a more simple, no-frills, undemanding day. You will find an unadulterated joy in the sacrifice.