The Glory of Love

You know the song, The Glory of Love ? Bette Midler sang it beautifully in the movie Beaches. It comes to mind now this season with the stress the holidays can bring. You’ve got to laugh a little, cry a little. Sometimes let your poor heart die a little. That’s the story of, and that’s the glory of love.

What does being strong mean to you? I think I am physically strong and fairly strong on the inside. But for the most part, I think being strong means having confidence. I think we are naturally drawn to those who have confidence because then we become more confident.

Celebrities like Bette Midler and Billy Crystal exude strong confidence or they would not be famous! Young children have self confidence without questioning it. As adults, we think we must justify our place in the world and prove we are worthy of someone else’s attention.

We all are “in need” of something. We need someone to always be there for us, we need to trust that someone because ultimately they make us feel safe.

My husband and I were lucky enough to be invited to see Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays. Seeing that show really resonated in both of us. When we left the beautiful new Winspear Opera House, Derek said, “I just know I was meant to see that show.” We both love our families very much. I think after watching 700 Sundays and hearing Billy Crystal talk about his family we saw a glimpse of what we’d like our future to be: a loving marriage, happy kids, grandkids, and a career doing what we love.

Billy Crystal is 61 and still thinks of his parents as heroes. He calls his show and book 700 Sundays because he figured that’s how many weeks he had with his Dad. I think of my Dad who loves his work and quotes from his gather, “If you want to be truly happy, do something you truly love.” My Dad comes to talk to my second graders every year to give this message. I think it is profound!

When we lose someone we love, our mind is flooded with all the happy memories we had, and the negative memories magically erase. When Billy Crystal talked about losing his father, it was heartbreaking. I can’t imagine losing my Dad at 15 or any age. But loss is something we each have to face. I find myself thinking like Scarlett O’Hara did in Gone with the Wind, “I’ll think about it tomorrow!” We all deal with stress differently. Billy Crystal talked about how we are given a deck of cards and that we should appreciate them and be grateful for what we have now.

This time of year it seems natural for most of us to have more of an appreciation for family. We are born into a family that pushes us in ways that prepare us to grow and change for the better. Perhaps our buttons are pushed, our egos are awakened, and maybe we feel we have something to prove. The stress of the holidays and family visits can make us add high expectations to our already full agendas.

We all want everything to be perfect during the holidays! To find the perfect gifts, have the perfect decorations, and prepare the perfect meals.

However, we should remember that there is beauty in imperfection. There is no family that is perfect! Billy Crystal said, “We all have the same basic five relatives.” It’s interesting how we see this more during the holidays. We all have high hopes and wishes for things to be better or we wouldn’t try! It is an absolute must to have a good friend to vent to! Our friends are our free psychiatrists! We “need” them! They give us an ear to laugh in, a shoulder to cry on, and all the attention we need freely. What better gift could there beyond our health? We have to accept the deck of cards we’re given and love while we can. I love my family and friends; they make me who I am!

Love is being free of judgment and expectation. And like the song goes…

You’ve got to give a little and take a little, and (sometimes) let your poor heart break a little. That’s the story of, and that’s the real glory of love.

My grandparents, who had the real glory of love.

Fröhliche Weihnachten, Buon Natale, Joyeux Noël, and Merry Christmas!

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Have you ever had the feeling that you belong in a certain place? Well, for me that place is definitely Italy. More specifically, Florence; It is my favorite place on the planet! I dream of Italy and would love to go there for Christmas one day. I imagine it being magical! I picture an old villa with a roaring fire to read, relax, and play games in front of. We would eat hearty Italian meals and drink delicious wines while the kids drink hot chocolate. Well, I can do this all here! I’m just missing the sounds and scenery of the cypress trees, ancient buildings and vibrant Italians! I am lucky that my husband feels the same way about Italy. Home is where you make it but perhaps someday our home might be where we want it, in Italy. Christmas for our family is at our home. What fun it is to pull in other cultures and customs during the Christmas season. For families all over the world Christmas is the chance to get together, eat wonderful food and exchange presents as a sign of love. For me Christmas is not complete without my mom’s crown roast, Christmas cookies, a real tree, and Christmas mass (it was midnight mass before we had children). We have adopted many European foods over the years: France’s bouche de Noelle, Austria’s Krampus pastry, and Italy’s panettone.

We are all great teachers when we are teaching our children something we ourselves are passionate about. What better time to teach children about cultures and customs during the holidays. Children’s little minds are open to the world and exposing them to culture gives them a new way of seeing things. As a bonus, I get to learn with them along the way.
Being a xenophile I am interested in all things European. Travel with me while you read this and let’s have Christmas in Italy, Austria, France, Germany and England.

Photo: Ashley’s daughter Zooey eating Krampus!

As in America, it is common in Europe that people stay close in their family circle during the holidays. Many Europeans, being Catholic, attend mass; even more popular is midnight mass. It seems mistletoe, garlands, and trees are something we have in common with the Europeans. It is likely that most traditions were adopted here in America (the melting pot) from Europe!
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Photo: Christmas market in front of the town hall in Vienna, Austria
Merry Christmas in German is, Fröhliche Weihnachten. Christmas trees originated in Germany as well as many popular Christmas songs like, Oh Tannenbaum. Another favorite, Silent Night by Franz Gruber comes from Austria. In some German speaking areas of Europe, Santa is replaced by Christkind (Christ child). He brings presents Christmas Eve and rings a bell just before he leaves to let children know that the presents are ready. Also celebrated in German speaking regions is Saint Nicholas’ Day on December 6th. He puts goodies in well behaved children’s shoes and a servant named Krampus (a little devil) accompanies Saint Nicholas to make sure the children are polite and well behaved. My friend from Austria makes a Krampus Milchstritzl pastry for her children to eat. The tradition in Austria is if the children eat the little devil up, he won’t come to visit them! Krampus carries a wooden stick or switches to threaten children who misbehave. St. Nicholas never lets Krampus harm anyone because he is so kind.

Photo: Christmas in Florence, Italy

Merry Christmas in Italian is, Buon Natale. Christmas Eve dinner traditionally consists of seafood, with the feast of the seven fishes. Dinner is followed by Italian Christmas sweets like: pandoro, panettone, torrone, panforte, struffoli, and more. Every year my second graders learn how the holidays are celebrated around the world. I love when we get to Italy and so do the children because they are so curious about La Befana! She is a kindly old witch who brings sweets and gifts to good children and charcoal or bags of ashes to naughty children on January 6th, Epiphany. This is the day to remember the Magi’s visit to the Bambino (Christ child). In Italy Christmas is celebrated from December 24th to January 6th. This includes Christmas Eve, Christmas, Saint Stephen (December 26th), and Epiphany (January 6th).
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Photo: Christmas in Paris, France
In France you say
Joyeux Noël. French children put their shoes by the fireplace so Père Noël (Father Christmas or Santa) can give those gifts. La bûche de Noël (Yule log) is a popular dessert cake made of chocolate and chestnuts. The essential French Christmas decoration is the crèche, or nativity scene, which is found in churches and homes. In Provence, crèches are often a mix of religion and everyday life, showing not only the birth of Christ, but also the village and way of life, with farms, stores, and everyday people from the region.
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Photo: Christmas in Great Britain
In Great Britain caroling is popular and so are Christmas cards. A traditional Christmas meal in Great Britain might include turkey or roast followed by Christmas pudding and during the meal Christmas crackers are pulled containing toys, jokes and a paper hat. Unique to England is Boxing Day, which sounds very Zen to me! It is traditionally a day for giving to the less fortunate and getting rid of the things you don’t need or use anymore.

You can probably get a sense of where some of your traditions originate from. Or maybe you read about some you’d like to try this year. However you celebrate, do it with an open heart and love the home you’ve created for your family. Fröhliche Weihnachten, Buon Natale, Joyeux Noël, and Merry Christmas!

This Thanksgiving Toast to Squanto with your family!


This is an exciting time of the year to be a teacher of young children because learning about the Pilgrims and Indians is a subject my second graders are always interested in. Squanto’s story is especially fascinating.

He was such a survivor! Squanto was kidnapped from his home in America in 1605 by English explorers when he was just a child. He was sold as a slave to monks who taught him English. He lived in London and later Spain before returning home. When he finally made it home, he found his Patuxet tribe had been wiped out by a plague. He then lived with his friend Samoset in the neighboring Wampanoag tribe.

In 1620 the Pilgrims came to Plymouth on the Mayflower in Squanto’s old village. Squanto decided to live with the Pilgrims and teach them how to survive in the wilderness that he knew so well. He taught the Pilgrims how to hunt for deer, where the fish swam, the best ways to catch them, where to find berries and herbs and how to plant corn the Indian way (in hills with a dead fish to make the soil richer).

He and Samoset (who also knew some English) and the Indian king Massasoit made friends with the Pilgrims. In 1621 a treaty was made for peace and kept for fifty-four years. Squanto assisted in arranging this treaty, which bound the tribes to Plymouth. As a reward the Pokanokets, who had previously captured him, allowed Squanto to live with the English at the site of his original Patuxet home. Talk about coming full circle! And in return for helping them, the Pilgrims protected Squanto and allowed him to continue to live with them.

Because of Squanto the Pilgrims had much to be thankful for and they invited the Indians to the first Thanksgiving feast. It lasted three days. Massasoit arrived with ninety Indians. My second graders love comparing menus of the first Thanksgiving to what they eat today. It’s really not all that different; turkey and corn are still popular staples!

Squanto lived with the Pilgrims the rest of his life. The Pilgrim children loved him and followed him everywhere.

Squanto did what any kind neighbor would do, he came over to say hello and help with dinner!! Then he made a decision that should inspire all of us. He decided to share his knowledge with his new friends. He taught them things that he knew well, things that would make their lives better.

This Thanksgiving, toast to Squanto with your family! Encourage your children to be the Squanto in their school. Squanto’s story is a wonderful one to share with your children because it teaches them they should be friendly, kind and helpful to the new kids. After all, history could have been a lot different if it weren’t for Squanto helping the Pilgrims survive in their new home in America.

In honor of celebrating the first Thanksgiving I think it’s nice to pay homage to Squanto. Please enjoy one of our family favorites; suitably, corn! Happy Thanksgiving!

Ashley’s Corn Pudding
• 1 teaspoon plus 2 tablespoons butter, in all
• 3 tablespoons dried Italian bread crumbs
• 1/2 cup chopped bacon
• 4 ears of corn
• 2 teaspoons salt, in all
• 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
• 1 small chopped onion
• 1 minced shallot
• 1-2 minced garlic
• 1 chopped red bell pepper
• 2 cups heavy cream
• 1 cup whole milk
• 4 T bourbon
• 6 eggs, slightly beaten
• 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
• 1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
• 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
• 1/2 cup yellow corn meal

Preheat the oven 365 degrees F. Butter the bottom and sides of a large casserole dish (13-inch by 9-inch) with 1 teaspoon of butter. Sprinkle the bread crumbs evenly on the bottom and sides of the dish. Cut the corn off the cob. In a sauté pan, melt the remaining butter. Add the bacon and sauté for about 3 minutes or until the bacon is crispy. Stir in the corn, 1 teaspoon of the salt and the cayenne. Add the onions, shallots, garlic, and bell peppers and cook for 3 minutes, or until the vegetables are wilted. Remove from the heat. In a mixing bowl, whisk the cream, milk, bourbon and eggs together. Add the remaining salt, black pepper, nutmeg, and cheese. Stir the corn mixture and cornmeal into the cream mixture. Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 1 hour, or until golden.

Let go my ego

Ego is an exaggerated sense of self-importance, a conceit. It is a force that causes us to care about being better than everyone else. Ego fuels our competitive nature. It can be a healthy driving force but our ego can also cause problems if we let it consume us.

My ballet teacher said, “Let go of your ego and you will be a better dancer.” That statement caused me to think about letting go in places other than the dance studio. Letting go is so hard! There is so much to do on a daily basis and such high expectations to meet. I think most moms carry so much guilt around every day because we want to be able to do it all for our children. As a working mom I feel I could and should be constantly doing better. Those high expectations include trying to live up to the standards of a “stay at home mom.” I do want to do it all and there’s nothing wrong with trying! Letting go of my ego means being true to who I am as a mother and not trying to be someone else.

Photo: Margot Fonteyn dancing with her heart, not her ego!

Learning to accept the reality that there will always be someone younger, faster, luckier, stronger, and smarter is a key to happiness. It’s good for our children to see us striving to be better. Being in competition with ourselves is healthy. I don’t want to compete with someone else; I just want to be a better me!

It seems men have it so easy! They are naturally programmed to let go and don’t hold grudges like women do. We can so easily be offended. Woman don’t let go like men do. We are put off by superior attitudes in other women and when people talk about themselves too much. We all want to be heard; but the less we feel the need to take credit for our achievements, the truer we stay to who we really are.

A big ego can be the start of most arguments. We want to be right and that means making others wrong but, if we let go of that need to be right, we can be more receptive and accepting to others. Have you heard your friends are a reflection of who you are? I try to surround myself with positive people. After all, who we see is who we are. When we are in a happy place, there is happiness all around us. I read once that people are attracted to pregnant women because they exude happiness. I remember feeling like everything was right with the world when I was pregnant with my children and I made some really good friends during those times.

The Pollyanna in me sees this economic time we are in as a blessing in disguise. It has forced us to focus more on what is really important, family! Letting go of our ego and reevaluating our wants and needs just has to happen. We must be satisfied with what we have and it’s wonderful to find that what we have is more than enough. Have you ever noticed, when we stop needing more, what we wish for magically arrives? I’m guilty of being bourgeois because I adore fashion! But, I am humbled when I think about children who grow up in third world countries. They appear happy! It must be because they’re detached from needs they’ve never known; they don’t know materialism.

Sigmund Freud said, “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness,” and St. Francis of Assisi taught us that it is in giving that we receive. To love, work, and give make us better and happier people. I am lucky because I love my work; it gives me pleasure!

I also love the beginning of a yoga class when you create an intention for your practice. It’s not selfish! It’s like a prayer; you say what’s in your heart. It’s for you to know and God to hear. I feel more connected because it’s my inner voice speaking to my heart. I find it’s truer because no one else hears it. I have a very specific routine of prayers that include: to be a good mother, wife, daughter, teacher and friend. I find my intentions are more honest and free flowing because I say exactly what I’m feeling that moment.

Dance, like yoga is constantly flowing. It’s unfortunate that with experience and age I am more able to let go of my ego and be the dancer I wish I could have been at twenty. I think of Margot Fonteyn (one of the world’s greatest ballerinas) who danced up until she was sixty years old. On stage she was magical, her love to dance for her audience made her luminous. Margot’s age didn’t matter. She was more herself dancing on stage than anywhere else.

Maybe it’s easier to let go of our egos when we are doing something we truly love. Dancing is unlike any other art form; there’s nothing materialistic about it. You can’t sell dance like a painting or manuscript, but the feeling it gives me is all I need. I dance so I can feel more alive! I let go and find myself as soon as my hand touches the ballet bar for plies. The studio is my second home. Dancing allows me to run away for just a couple of hours and I return from ballet as a better mother, wife, daughter, and friend.

Our ego is responsible for functions of the mind. And when we truly connect with our self, like we can when we create an intention in yoga, or doing something we truly love like dancing, our ego vanishes.

So often we want to protect our hearts from hurt, but hurt is inevitable; it makes us stronger, wiser, and smarter. It’s reality! I think when we let go of our ego, we trust our hearts. To do this we have to give up control, and that is what’s so hard. Moms want to have control to have a sense of structure, safety, and routine.

Being a romantic, I do follow my heart. I can fall in love daily with the simplest things. My husband always teases me for buying a newspaper, or bread from the sweet little old men at the grocery store. I can’t resist their kind faces. My heart leads me everywhere as I am not the “ignore your heart and follow your mind” kind of girl. Losing our ego can bring us closer to our hearts.

I understand what my ballet teacher meant by letting go of my ego to be a better dancer. To me it means, dance from your heart. My heart is my dance partner and not just in the studio.

A book that can be shared with women of all ages: The Sweetheart of Prosper County

Thumbnail image for jillalexandersweetheartbook.jpgI remember being 15. It was really hard! Austin Gray, the narrator and main character of The Sweetheart of Prosper County is a delight to get to know. It’s about the journey she goes on trying to become the Sweetheart of the FFA. Austin prospers in Prosper!

This is a mature young adult book and will take you back to the feelings and thoughts you had at fifteen. It definitely reminded me of my high school in Justin, Texas where the FFA is huge! I remember those “Rodeo Naked” T-shirts the FFA kids used to wear! The Future Farmers of America group is a tough hardworking crowd with a lot of heart.

Austin wants to be a part of that group. Don’t you remember how many cliques there are in high school? You have the preps, nerds, cheerleaders, athletes, theatre, band kids, and then the Future Farmers of America. Austin is determined to be the hood ornament on the no-Jesus Christmas parade by becoming the FFA Sweetheart.

I also thought of the movie, Sixteen Candles and E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web because both are about the journey into young womanhood. At fifteen, we’re trying to figure out who we are. This is the age where hormones kick in and friends who are bad influences can make or break you. Without good parent supervision and friend support we might have sunk at the lake grabbling for catfish.

Often, the friends we had when we were fifteen are still our dear friends today because we went through those awful changes of puberty together. Reading this book you will be reminded of that best friend you had before you could drive, the first boy you had a crush on, and how hard it was to “fit in” in high school. These were not easy times. We either toilet papered houses or cleaned up the toilet paper on our houses. I thought it was hilarious when Austin’s mom got up early to take the toilet paper down with a power hose before Dean, the bully, could admire his work.

And where would we be without animals? Animals give us such unconditional love and can sense our fear. Charles Dickens, the rooster, was full of spunk just like Austin! He was the mascot of The Sweetheart of Prosper County. Austin asks for Charles Dickens for Christmas and she hopes he’ll change her life. Austin knows to be a sweetheart she has to join the FFA and raise a farm animal then have it judged at the fair.

Reading The Sweetheart of Prosper County, I fell in love with the characters: Austin (the main character), Maribel (the confident Hispanic best friend), Lewis (the evangelistic Elvis want-to-be), Lafitte Boudreaux (the Creole and former owner of Charles Dickens), Sundi (the marshmallow girl and former sweetheart), Dean (the bully), Josh (the FFA hottie), and Austin’s mom (a hard working hardware store owner who is still dealing with the death of Austin’s father).

My favorite character is the marshmallow girl, Sundi. I’d like to be tough enough on the inside to throw a punch to a bully then brush it off by pulling up “my girls” and whipping out my pink lip gloss. Jill Alexander describes Sundi as a marshmallow girl (pudgy and squishy, soft with no hard edges). She gives hugs freely to all and the same time she has the backbone to send her prize-winning lamb to the butcher and punch Dean in the face. I love it!

The setting of The Sweetheart is perfect! Prosper, Texas is a small rural town in North Texas. I’m a North Texas girl born and raised. I helped my dad pluck quail feathers but I never participated in catfish grappling (bare-handed fishing)! There is also a touch of Cajun and Hispanic influence in Prosper that made me hungry. I’m sure my Julia Child Book Club friends will agree! I was hungry to try Maribel’s Mango kick (hellfire) ice cream, Lewis’s blackberries, and Lafitte Boudreaux’s crawfish boil. Summer in Texas is delicious!

This is a book that can be shared with women of all ages. It’s a mature young adult book because it touches on the death of a parent, drug use, drunk driving, race, body image, bullies, winning and losing. But it still manages to stay light and uplifting. There are wonderful messages for young girls in this book: being true to yourself, not giving up, working for your dreams. My favorite message was pray the problem instead of the solution. I love how Jill Alexander writes in such a gentle way without pontificating. I think her style is unpretentious; young women will hear her wisdom, older women will conjure up memories of what it was like to be fifteen and everyone can learn something in Prosper.

Cheers to Breakfast!

The day can leave me feeling spent! It doesn’t matter if it’s a workday or weekday. At the end of the day, I’m exhausted! That’s why I love the morning! It’s a fresh start, nothing has gone wrong, and everything could go right! Making breakfast can be a fun family affair! We can get so many vitamins and so much energy in the morning with breakfast and it’s nice to start the day off right for our children.

For a great breakfast I think you need a little of everything: fruit, fresh eggs, grains, yogurt, and juice or a smoothie. Julia Child is my patron saint of cooking in the kitchen, and like “Our Lady of Butter”, I like real food! We like whole milk , whole yogurt and real butter in our house. But, my husband and I always manage to balance the healthy with the not so healthy, especially at breakfast. It’s nice to have children develop a natural taste palate, because it’s all about the taste! My daughter loves to be involved in the kitchen, especially at breakfast time. She is learning to cook and loves it!

I am a kitchen gadget girl! Pregnant with my first child, my husband bought me a Breville juicer for my birthday. It’s my favorite toy! Fresh juice in the morning seems like a magical ingredient to the day. Apples and pears are my favorite to mix in my Breville. My daughter calls this “pearple juice”.

The days I don’t make juice, we like smoothies. Smoothies should start with yogurt then you can add whatever you have in the kitchen: bananas, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries…Then you can finish with some different ingredients that can make a powerful smoothie! A handful of spinach and goji berries. What better time than in the morning to get greens in your children’s bellies?

I like spinach because it’s loaded with iron. Since it’s just a handful, you can’t taste it! And if you use blueberries and blackberries, the color comes out purple so it’s pretty! Goji berries which are loaded with antioxidants and have multiple benefits like helping eyesight, boosting the immune system, improving circulation, and promoting longevity. They’re also wonderful in hot tea. A smoothie can be sweetened with maple syrup, peanut butter, honey or Nutella. It’s easy and fast to drink your nutrients and fun to toast to our health in the morning with a breakfast drink!

I think maple syrup is magical! A good source of zinc, it protects the immune system, and supports healing. I feel good giving it to my children and like to add it as a sweetener to everything from oatmeal, tea, sweet potatoes, and even broccoli!

We have breakfast weekday staples in our house, like old fashioned oatmeal and Cream of Wheat (my daughter calls it crème de wheat). We make it with whole milk and add real butter and cream. It’s hearty, healthy, and sticks with us until lunch. For the weekend we like to make Dutch Apple pancakes, sweet potato waffles, or crepes. Toasted nuts and fresh fruit are good on all of the above. On special occasions my specialty is a Tomato Strata, always crowd pleasing and comforting. There’s no gastronomic boredom going on in our house! The kitchen is the most popular place.

Tea has such historic rituals. It’s one of the oldest and most worldly drinks from China to England. To me there’s nothing more wonderful than my ritual of a good cup of hot tea and the newspaper on a Sunday morning. My favorite tea is by far Mariage Frères Éros. When I was pregnant, I would only drink tisanes. Dean and Deluca’s Peppermint Tisane is perfect for this time of year.

Fresh eggs are the ultimate! Once you’ve had fresh eggs, you don’t go back. The color of a fresh egg is a beautiful, vivid orange. It’s such a happy color! It is the color Widow Clicquot designed her Veuve Clicquot champagne labels. Everything about fresh eggs feels right! Lorraine, (the lady I buy them from) has Rhode Island Red hens and one very special hen that lays green eggs! It is so much fun to cook green eggs and ham with my daughter! She calls it, “egg crackin”!

Over the summer I would take my children to Lorraine’s house to pick up eggs. My daughter would be so excited to go to “the egg lady’s” house and see the chicks! It’s nice for our kids to see where food comes from. I think they appreciate it more.

Photo: This Rhode Island hen named Sparrow lays green eggs!

My friend Craig, who is a chef, says this about breakfast, “I have several breakfasts that I love to make for the kiddos. A classic is the egg in a hole; where you cookie cut a hole in the middle of two slices of bread, use a dab of butter in a non stick skillet, and while the bread is toasting, c
rack an egg in each hole. Our eight year old loves the occasional quail egg on her plate. They are so cute and tiny!”

When children in school are about to take a big test; teachers, counselors, principals all encourage parents to make sure their child has a healthy breakfast. I’ll sometimes have children come up to me in the morning and tell me they’re so tired! My first question to them is, “Did you eat breakfast?” Have you heard the Spanish proverb, “The belly rules the mind?” I know it can be a battle at home to get children to eat. Sometimes I’m lucky if my three year old takes a couple of bites. This is another reason I like to drink part of my breakfast. It’s portable and my daughter and son can sip on it in the car. I can’t make them eat, but my hope is with this ritual of breakfast they will grow up wanting it and someday be able to make it themselves.

Starting our day right can boost our energy, increase our attention span, and give us and our children a sense of well being. And, the family fun in preparation and eating around the table together is the cherry on top. Think about the memories you have of the holidays in the morning… It’s all about the food, right? The kitchen always provides the ambience: the fun in preparation, good smells coming from the oven, music and laughter in the background, good conversations with your children, a nice cup of something. It’s the best way to start the day. These are thoughts and ideas, some of which I have learned from others. Take what you like and leave the rest on the table!

Ashley’s Tomato Strata

1 loaf of sourdough bread sliced

8 oz cream cheese, cubed

8 oz fresh mozzerella cheese, torn

4 oz Swiss cheese

Basil pesto (see below)

12 slices prosciutto, sliced thin

5-6 Roma tomatoes, sliced thin

6 fresh eggs

1 cup cream

1 cup milk

Salt and pepper

Arrange bread slices on the bottom of a buttered casserole dish. Top with half of cream cheese, mozzarella, swiss cheese, pesto, prosciutto, and tomatoes. Repeat so you have two layers. Whisk eggs, milk, cream, salt, and pepper and pour over strata. Cover and chill overnight. Before baking sprinkle with herbs de provence and bake at 350 degrees for about 1 hour. Let the strata rest for 10 minutes before unmolding.

Ashley’s Pesto

Blend until smooth:

2 cups fresh basil

¼ cup toasted pine nuts

1 garlic clove

Salt and Pepper

½ parmesan cheese

2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Pulse basil, pinenuts, garlic, salt, and pepper in blender or cuisinart until finely chopped. With the blender still running, gradually add olive oil. Mix in Parmesan by hand.

Shall we Tutoyer?


Please let me start by stating, I am not an expert by any means on language studies. However, I have always had a great fascination with cultures and languages. I’m a xenophile!

When visiting another country that we are not familiar with, Americans should politely and humbly ask residents if they speak English — preferably in their language. I remember when my husband and I were traveling in Italy and we were scared that we were about to miss our train. I ran up to the ticket counter and said with my American manners, “Two tickets please”. Well, this older Italian woman was instantly put off by me and we missed our train. I should have made an attempt to ask in Italian; or said, Mi scusi, parla inglese? It wasn’t funny then, but I learned a valuable lesson. It is respectful to make an effort to speak the language of the country you are visiting! Many people that travelers encounter do speak English, but it is polite to attempt their language.

Part of what makes learning a new language difficult is learning the customs, manners, and correct pronoun usage.
Tu is used in French when you’re talking to someone you know well, like a family member or best friend. Vous is used with people you don’t know very well regardless of their age, strangers, corporate hierarchy, or someone older who demands respect. The French word Tutoyer means to address someone using the familiar forms of the pronoun “you” rather than the more formal forms. Tu is a mark of friendship. I think it’s correct to say, when in doubt use Vous, Sie, Usted until the native speaker says otherwise.

The French address each other with formality, calling each other Madame and Monsieur, which in a way may seem formal to us, but it signifies a respect for the individual which exemplifies the French way of life. It is expected that bonjour or bonsoir should be the first thing out of your mouth as a greeting in shops and other public places. Failing to follow these rules is considered très rude.

Prior to the French Revolution, people addressed each other with tu. It was the way bourgeois or noble people addressed their servants. Tu (French and Spanish) and Du (German) are for children, family members, and friends.

I don’t know about you but I think of Japan as a culture of politeness. I had the pleasure of visiting with some Japanese teachers who came to the school where I teach a few years ago to observe American children in public school. I remember being blown away when the Japanese teachers said they thought America was very strict! I always had the stereotype that the Japanese teachers must be extremely strict because the children are so formal.

My class’ Japanese teacher, Yoshie, was explaining to me that there are five levels of politeness in Japan! They are determined by a variety of factors: job, age, experience, children… There are different ways of speaking: honorific and humble. The Japanese culture is structured by polite interactions. The politeness levels in Japan are tremendously difficult and intricate. The male and female patterns of speech and politeness are much different.

This makes the Japanese seem a bit passionless to me. There’s a lack of familiarity that we have here. On the opposite end, there are places like Brazil where the people are relaxed and have a liberal showing of affection. Here in the U.S. we are comfortable with informalities but not as intimate as Brazil. Language and culture constantly evolves, but I think politeness and respect can always help keep a nice balance.

Think about the difference in pronouns and the constant capitalization of nouns. In German, a word is written the way it is said. The pronoun Sie has all functions of you, him, her, it, and them. Sie is a way to formally address. We have our own special pronoun in Texas, “y’all!” It is very commonly used here but say it in New York and you have an audience of horrified gawkers!

We CAN hear formal English in everyday life but we might not even notice it because it comes so naturally. A perfect example is The Lord’s Prayer Our Father who art in Heaven. But, we don’t speak this way unless we’re in a Shakespeare play or just want to be gawked at!

It’s common to teach babies sign language. My children know the basics: Mommy, Daddy, please, thank you…Children soak up any and all languages when their young. That’s why it is so important to introduce language at an early age.

My brother Sean, who is fluent in Spanish, is always trying to talk me into going to a Spanish language school on my summer break. With two young kids, I don’t see this happening for a very long time. But, it’s a lovely idea!
Mark Twain wrote “a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years.” I won’t ever be fluent in anything unless I become a foreigner myself! But I have a long standing date with the Rosetta Stone and hopefully that will at least be an improvement!

I feel guilty using the word foreigner because it means: alien, non-citizen, and outsider. If I were living in a country that I didn’t grow up in, I wouldn’t want to be called “foreigner.” After all, this is their home now.

My husband and I went to Paris with another couple years ago. Our travel companion, Julie, grew up in Paris and spoke fluent French. I noticed how careful she was when she spoke in public, especially to waiters and clerks. She mentioned how embarrassed her mother would get when she went back to Paris to visit her family. She would be teased for her lack of “in the know” new phrases and her Texas/French accent. Language is constantly changing! It’s impossible to keep up unless you are a world traveler!

There is a German tradition I’ve read about that I think is perfect and hilarious! Any time you become close enough with somebody that you switch from Sie to du, you seal it by having a beer together. I just love that!

We can sometimes have a lack of respect just because it’s in our nature. I have an example as a teacher… If a parent addresses me as Ashley without me asking them to, it doesn’t seem quite right! I think you have to wait for someone to tell you it’s O.K. to call me by their first name. My parent volunteers will start by calling me Mrs. Cooley along with the children. I quickly ask them to call me Ashley because I think it’s nice to be informal and establish a casual relationship. Just as long as you begin your relationship with respect first.
It is a pet peeve of mine when people don’t address you at all. Especially in e-mails if they start jumping into questions without a “Dear Ashley,” I am put off because it feels like they are shouting at me!

When parents in America get mad at their children, we suddenly stop using cute nicknames and use their full names. I remember my mom and dad saying, “Ashley Elizabeth” instead of my regular “Ash”. I knew I was in trouble!

I don’t like feeling frustrated! I can usually laugh off most anything. If not I can certainly say merde and shizer! But, when I’m not good at something it fuels my fire to do it better. So, like Mark Twain said; it may take me thirty years but I’ll get there and so can you!

Friendship is a gift we should treasure like our health

I recently read an article in the Argyle Sun Newspaper about a 101-year-old woman who credits her longevity to her friendships. After I read it I said to my friend Laurie, “I think this woman is right, the secret to living to be 100 is friendship! Just look at Georgie (click here for the article).

I have heard that older people with a strong circle of friends are more likely to live longer. I think this must be true. Have you ever noticed how much information there is about families and marriage but not as much on friendship? Friendship is definitely an undervalued resource. Our friends make our life better. The trick is finding time to foster these relationships.

Friends are protective and nurturing. Think about who walks in Relay for Life? A multitude of supportive friends! Friends can run errands and pick up medicine if you’re sick, bring a meal when you’ve just had a baby, be there through laughter and tears. I think those who have strong friendships are less likely to get sick because they have a lower stress level. A friend is like a free psychiatrist. Friends who have a strong bond know they have someone to turn to, always!

The same day I read about 101-year-old Georgie I went to hear a speaker at the school where I teach talk about how to live to be 100. It was such a coincidence that I was with my dear friend! Dr. Joe had some valuable things to say, but I kept waiting for him to say the secret to living long was love and friendship. That was not on Dr Joe’s five factors to living to be 100! He talked about a healthy body, not a happy heart. I know in MY heart we need both!

I was so tickled at my friend who had agreed to come with me. Before hearing Dr. Joe, we attended a PTA meeting. We kept finding humor in random parts of the meeting and we ended up passing notes back and forth like teenagers. When we stood to say the Pledge of Allegiance, I couldn’t help but think I already know the secret to a long life: laugh, smile, have fun, enjoy each other while we are here! We can’t always be worrying about not exercising enough or eating the right things. That’s not what life is about! Even if we don’t make it to 100, why not just live large now and keep laughing with our friends.

My husband says, “I know how to live to be 100…have lots of sex!” Well, I think he’s probably right about that. I know my schedule may become more challenging after he reads that I agree with him. We’ve all heard how sex increases how long we live. The reason is the body needs intimacy and bonding. There is such value in touch! Think about animals and babies…they need touch to develop. I tend to cup my hands around my children’s faces when I’m talking to them. I know I have their full attention and they know they have mine. More importantly, I do it because I want them to feel my love.

I can’t help but think of another Joe, Joseph Pilates. He believed our physical and mental health is intertwined. He was so right! Pilates lived to be 87. I LOVE that Joseph Pilates lived his life well and made not only his body, but also his heart happy too. His exercises can help you find peace, reduce stress, and be present throughout your life. But, if you really get to know Joe, you will fall in love with his way of living too. He was a man who loved his wife, smoked cigars, participated in winter swimming, and being the German he was; drank his beer from a stein in his studio! I just love that!

I think a regimented, determined person who makes a daily effort to stay in shape and includes friendship and love as a hobby can easily live to be 100. Friendship is a gift we should treasure like our health. But think deeper than just the superficial; the core of our hearts must be nourished as well.

In the quest for better health, people can turn to doctors, spirituality, self-help books or herbal supplements. But they sometimes overlook a powerful weapon that could help them fight illness and depression, aide a speedy recovery, slow aging and prolong life; their friends. There is balance with everything! When you find yours, you’ll know it!

Prost to friends! Prost to our hearts! Prost to laughter! Prost to Pilates! Prost to our life now!

Dr. Joe’s 5 factors to live to be 100
Control the quality of the air we breathe: Air is the number one nutrient for nutrition.
Water: Water regenerates tissue, water restores our health
Food: We need carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals…. And eat raw food!
Exercise: Delivery System of Nutrition. Exercise forces movement without movement we die quickly.
Nutritional supplements (Dr. Joe Guarnera)

*Prost: German for cheers

Fashion is like an elegant language

Marie Antoinette, Coco Chanel, Audrey Hepburn and Miuccia Prada exemplify fashion for me.

Coco Chanel said, “Fashion is in the sky, in the street; fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”

I believe fashion is like an elegant language, with it you can create reality or fantasy…
When I had my first child I was reading The Baby Whisperer, and I remember the chapter on introducing your baby to your home. Well, I took that information and ran to the closet! I told my daughter we will have great fun in here! What little girl doesn’t enjoy playing dress up. I’m still that little girl and I am tickled pink to see my daughter is, too!

Women can make emotional connections with their clothes. My closet is like a time capsule of memories. I am still wearing things from my childhood! I also enjoy wearing things from my mom, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Broaches, jewelry, and scarves I used to play with in my mom’s closet have made their way into mine. Accessories can make an outfit personal.

My mom had a chocolate brown one shoulder Halston dress from the 70’s. Oh how I wish she still had it! I am making a lovely trousseau for my daughter!
Fashion does not rule my life, but it’s a very happy part of me and a way to express creativity. I think dressing is an art form; it can be intellectual and the same time playful. We have to get dressed every morning, why not enjoy it. Our style shows the way we think about ourselves. For me, if I love what I’m wearing, I’m going to have a great day.

As an elementary teacher I think it’s important to dress happy! I get hugged, pulled on, even patted in my classroom. My kids (both boys and girls) will lovingly touch my suede shoes and silk scarves. Kids love texture and color. They should have something interesting to look at for the seven hours they’re with me! I’m willing to be their fashion model!

When shopping I go into another world. I was almost arrested in Barcelona! I tend to shop for the whole outfit and after shopping upstairs I went downstairs (to what I didn’t realize was a different store) with a dress in my hands looking for accessories. A very angry Spanish woman grabbed me and took me to the police! I was so stunned that when the police officer was speaking to me I couldn’t even mumble, Habla Inglés! I was in another shopping daze in Paris at my Mecca, Galeries Lafayette! I was singing “The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music” in my head the whole time!

It’s been a while since I’ve been shopping. Life happens, but that doesn’t mean moms can’t enjoy fashion. I’ve been a Vogue subscriber since I was seventeen! My mother-in-law teases me about my Vogue magazines! She says someday you won’t want these. But, to me it’s like having my own art museum in my hands.

Being a working mother of two in a bad economy, I look at my closet differently. I see what I already have that can be reworked and take it to my favorite tailor, King Kong!! Alterations can change a whole look. A tailor can make you look better: thinner, taller, younger…Tailors are in vogue now because people want to make repairs on torn, worn-out clothes and shoes. People are too financially strapped to make replacements. A tailor can make an old outfit new again. And you get to be the designer.

Sex in the City was so much fun to watch! I couldn’t relate to the lifestyle but it was my shopping fantasy! My favorite scenes were those of Carrie putting together outfits in her closet, especially when she was packing for Paris! I also love Project Runway. Of course there is the good, the bad, and the very ugly. But, fashion is about experimenting and I like to see a fresh way to dress and always admire those who take risks.

We all have staples in our closets that we know work on our bodies. For me, my staple is a jean skirt. It can be dressed up or down with the right accessories. I also think about color. Certain colors can change your mood from sad to glad. I will forever be searching for the perfect jeans! It’s an ongoing quest for most women I think!

I am delighted when someone asks me fashion advice! I am not a fashion connoisseur, just an amateur who gets pleasure out of playing in her closet.

I have a theory: The sexier you make yourself appear, the less sex you probably have! I think if you are comfortable in your clothes, you are sexy! My husband’s favorite coquetting starts with a fashion show! He is quite the connoisseur! To close with clothes I will say; clothes are meant to hide what is intimate and private, but our style can actually reveal who we really are inside.
Ta-Ta bourgeois boredom, hello King Kong!

Fashion Hits by Ashley
The Devil Wears Prada, The September Issue, Coco Chanel, Valentino: The Last Emperor, Coco Before Chanel, Yves St. Laurent: His Life and Times
Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, Love, Loss, and What I Wore

Deep in the Heart of Texas

I went to college out of state in Alabama. Living somewhere other than Texas I became more proud to be a Texan. When I’m away from home and someone asks me where I’m from, it gives me great satisfaction to say Texas!

When my friend Natalie and I were traveling in Switzerland and people found out we were from Texas we had an instant audience!

People who are not from Texas are always dying to know and ask: Do you have cows? Horses? Live on a ranch? Drive a truck? Have you been to Southfork? Texans are used to these questions and like them because Texans are proud! No state is more recognizable, memorable, or loved.

You give kids a puzzle of the United States to put together no matter where they’re from children will start with Texas!

I think of my sister Paige who just moved from New York City to San Francisco and comes home to visit maybe twice a year. When I see her I immediately assess her style! I notice she tries to keep Texas close to her by wearing cowboy boots. She may have lost her Texas accent but she is still proud to say she is a native Texan.

Texas style can be seen as historical. When my friend Margot’s Dad came to visit her from Austria he was on a mission to find a John Wayne “duke” vest. Mission completed in Fort Worth!

When I would get home sick in college I listened to George Straight’s Amarillo by Mornin’. That song just makes me want to get in the car and drive all around Texas!

It brings happy tears to my eyes to hear Kindergarten do their Texas program every year at the school where I teach. When they sing, The stars at night – are big and bright
Deep in the heart of Texas 
it is simply magical.

Texas is known for our “Cowboy Cuisine.” When I was three I would help my Dad pluck the feathers off the quail he brought home from his hunt. My Dad’s specialty is grilled quail wrapped in bacon with a jalapeno pepper inside.

Texas Hits by Ashley

Music: ZZ Top. Janis Joplin, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Stevie Ray Vaughan

Clothes: Stetsons, boots, jeans, BIG hair

Food: steaks, chili, bbq, tamales, tex-mex, pies

BooksThe Sweetheart of Prosper County, Friday Night Lights, L is for Lone Star: A Texas Alphabet

Entertainment: Rangers, Cowboys, Billy Bob’s, Texas Rattlesnake Round-up, Friday night football

Weather: heat, drought, hurricane, twister, flood, and more heat

Other: bluebonnets, armadillos, tumbleweeds, oil wells