It’s National Chocolate Month


February is a special month for chocolate! It is “Heart Healthy Month” and also “National Chocolate Month.” In honor of chocolate being such a heart healthy treat I am doing a follow up blog on fall in love with chocolate…We all love chocolate and guess what? Chocolate loves us back!

Did you know…Chocolate has more antioxidants than red wine or green tea? A daily intake of a small amount of chocolate may: lower blood pressure, offer disease protection, reduce inflammation, have a positive effect on the immune system, help us to stay sharp, promote blood flow, and moisturizes our skin. The potent flavonoids found in chocolate (the same nutrients that are found in green tea, red wine, and blueberries) are naturally rich in antioxidants and have protective effects that guard against disease. What better reason do you need to enjoy chocolate?

hershey's best of life.jpg We eat chocolate when we feel happy or sad. We may even reach for it when our body truly needs it. Chocolate can warm our stomach, perfume our breath, fight disease, and alleviate pain. There should never be guilt in enjoying chocolate.

I tend to imagine my favorite things as outfits! So…If chocolate were an outfit what would it be? My chocolate outfit is brown silk pajamas because chocolate is luxury yet it is also a comfort.

One of my favorite chocolate memories was vacationing in Paris with my husband. I had just gotten a chocolate crepe in Montmartre and was looking at paintings in the artist’s district by Sacre Coeur talking to an artist just babbling away when I met up with my husband he said, “Come here Ash!” He wiped down my face like I was a three year old. I had no idea I had chocolate all over my face! That chocolate crepe was so good I must have intuitively rubbed it all over me!

Did you know…Americans eat 13 pounds of chocolate a year? The Irish eat the most, 24.6 lbs (this does not surprise me, I am Irish)!

Chocolate can be an impulse purchase at the store, strategically placed by the check out. Recently, my second grade teaching team went to a conference and during some down time we found ourselves magnets to the Godiva store! See chocolate, must have! We all left deliriously happy with our little bags of treasure!

Chocolate is what milk is to infants, a necessary vital part of happiness and contentment.

Hershey’s is an all American staple. The Hershey’s label is my favorite thing to see when I open up my little pantry! The simple label is so perfect with its big block letters. Hershey’s is an American classic that will never go out of style.
Think about all the different times a year we celebrate with chocolate: Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Christmas…I couldn’t possibly pick a favorite time of year to have chocolate.

Chocolate is so dreamy the way it slowly melts on your tongue, and then tortures you with pleasure. Eating good chocolate can be like a spiritual experience! When we share chocolate with the ones we love I think it is an intimate form of communication. We are sharing a dark delicious secret.

Hershey’s chocolate is the only chocolate to be awarded the “Best Life Seal of Approval.” The best Life Program was created by exercise physiologist, Bob Greene. It’s a program to help people achieve their own personal best life. My life is certainly better with chocolate and if Hershey’s can make me feel good about what I’m putting in my body, I’m all for it! My favorite is the dark chocolate “best life” bar with blueberries, cranberries and almonds. I even put it in my oatmeal and fed it to my children for breakfast!

It is easy and a pleasure for me to write about chocolate. I think most of us have very positive feelings about chocolate. It’s one of the greatest joys in life!
Do you have a favorite chocolate recipe or memory? Please share yours and you could win a chocolate stash of your own courtesy of Hershey’s.
My friend Craig who is a chef and father of young children recommends this chocolate recipe:

*Use small balloons size of a softball

Make dark chocolate ganache by adding a cup of hot heavy cream and tablespoon of salted butter over 14 oz chopped dark chocolate pieces. Whisk until smooth. Chocolate melts at 100 degrees F. And should cool to 88 degrees so balloons don’t pop. Dip each balloon on an angle on each third to create 3 petals on sides of balloon. Set on wax paper, put them in fridge. When firm, pop with knife, remove balloon pieces. Fun for kids!
*if you are allergic to latex, don’t attempt balloons!

Chocolate mousse: 14 oz favorite chocolate melted again with cup hot cream, tablespoon of butter. Whip cup of cold heavy cream to stiff peaks. Fold one-third whipped cream into ganache to temper chocolate. Then fold in remaining. Can pipe mousse into chilled chocolate cups, or spoon in. Add raspberries and or sliced strawberries as garnish. A dry champagne goes exceptionally well with this sweet and rich dessert!

Stop and Smell the Memories

 


The smell of life is intoxicating! Think about the smells you love…the smell of baby’s breath; the early morning dew in the summertime, rain…These smells can get imprinted in our memories forever.

We can be transported anywhere by smell. If we wish we were at the beach, a spritz of something citrusy will take us there. My Dad always smells tropical to me because he wears sunscreen daily! That mixed with Old Spice is my Dad’s scent. Remember that scene in The Parent Trap when Hayley Mills tells her grandfather she’s making a memory and says, “You smell like peppermints and tobacco?” Well…smells, like songs and food can evoke strong memories: We can associate a smell with an experience and it will somehow leave a unique and lasting impression on our brain forever.

I can remember smashing my face against my grandmother’s soft wrinkly skin to smell her Oil of Olay face cream. That’s why I wear it today, so I can remember her. I cannot smell Gucci Rush without thinking of my other grandmother, Mema; she owns that scent!

I think most women are constantly looking for the perfect jeans, mascara, and fragrance. What fun it is to experiment! I think it also depends on what kind of mood you’re in. I like to wear Anais Anais to my ballet class because it’s light and ultra feminine. But if I were going out for a night on the town I would choose something with more pizzazz like Flower Bomb!

Perfume means “through smoke.” This is going to sound so Bob Ross, but I think of scents like happy little clouds waiting to be discovered.

I can think of many smells that evoke happy feelings: I love the smell of school: crayons and pencils. When I smell the combination of cigarette smoke, car exhaust, leather, and the warm sun I want to bottle it because that smells like Italy to me! I love the smell of paper; newspaper, books, magazines, I love the smell of silk, my friend’s car, my mom’s kitchen, the Catholic Church, my babies T-shirts before I wash them. These are smells of life. They are delicious!

Last thing I do before leaving for work is spray myself with perfume then hug my children so they smell me all day. I like to smell like them, too. Especially at night after I’ve bathed them. Mustela and Johnson and Johnson lotions are some of the most comforting and sweetest smells ever! I think these lotions will always be a part of my bedtime routine.

When you love someone, you love their natural smell. I think my husband naturally smells like pineapples! I love to bury my nose in his arm. I remember my sister-in-law saying her dog Dixie smelled like a chocolate cake; I know she meant it because she loved her so much!

A student once said to me…”Hmmm Mrs. Cooley, your house must smell good because you smell good!” I made sure I hugged her every day!

Fragrances react differently on different people. The fragrances that you wear bring out your persona, your style, and taste. Have you ever smelled someone’s perfume you didn’t like and then discovered you don’t really like them much either? I think that’s called chemistry!

Perfume is meant to tease, tantalize and seduce. I think of Marilyn Monroe who proudly said that she slept in nothing but Chanel No. 5. I’m sticking to my baby lotion but I think smell is far more important in determining who we are than we realize; I’ve even read that there’s evidence that those who have no sense of smell tend to be very emotionally detached. I think if you smell it to be true, it must be true!

Do you have a favorite fragrance that has been imprinted into your memory?

Photo: Stop and smell the roses! Pink peonies are my absolute favorite flower. I love everything about them! I think they look like scoops of strawberry ice cream and smell heavenly! I hope my children remember them as the essence of Mommy! Here is a painting by Doug Swinton that I think is beautiful.

Marie Antoinette and her upside-down fairy tale

You know that question…if you could invite anyone to dinner, who would it be? I would so invite Marie Antoinette!

Born Maria Antonia the 15th daughter of Maria Theresia, Empress of Austria, Marie Antoinette was a loving mother and wife whose story is like an upside-down fairy tale. I resonate with Marie Antoinette because like her, I adore the arts, fashion, chocolate, flowers, dance and music. More than that, my family and friends mean the world to me. If I could go back in time I would want to hug her and help her; she was such a good person.

God Bless her Habsburg heart! The Hapsburg house of Austria was the oldest royal house of Europe and the empress proudly gave Marie away to the enemy, France. Marie requested to be addressed in French the moment she stepped on French soil so she could embrace her new French self and leave her native German tongue forever. She never said, “Let them eat cake!” She was not ignorant or rude! She was a good hearted and kindly Queen who tried to aid the poor of her country because she knew it was her duty. The French disliked her from the beginning because she was not French! She was an Austrian princess who threatened the French culture.

Photo: Marie Antoinette with her four children: Marie Thérèse, Louis Joseph, Louis Charles, and Sophie Béatrix painted by her friend Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun

Her true character became more apparent after the birth of her children. She had so much compassion and did everything she could for Austria and France. Marie was a devout Catholic and did what her mother (Maria Theresia) told her. Marie and her mother had more of a business relationship than a loving mother/daughter bond. Marie Antoinette very much always wanted to be a mother herself. She wanted to devote the attention to her own children that she felt she did not receive as a child.

Marie Antoinette was a loving wife and mother above everything. What pulls on my heart the most is that she breastfed her own child when they had an abundance of hearty wet nurses. She did it because she loved wholeheartedly and wanted to be with her babies (this was uncharacteristic for royalty). From what I’ve read about France, they have never been a country to breastfeed because their breasts are thought to be for their husbands not their children. Marie made sure she was involved with her children in every way, especially their education. Marie grew up with everything under the sun; then went to live at the “Sun King’s” Palace of Versailles. Talk about a fairy tale! But, Marie did not let her kids grow up the same way. She didn’t give them everything, exposed them to poverty, and was careful not to spoil them.

I love Marie Antoinette! What I love the most is the incredible love she had for her children. I think she was extremely unselfish for giving up her heritage and family (she never saw her mother again once she left).

She was not perfect! But I’ve always thought it’s the imperfections that make people so very beautiful. The mistakes she made, she made because she was bored. She immersed herself into a life of pleasure and careless extravagance because of this boredom. This included masked balls in Paris, gambling, and extravagant fashion (honestly, who could blame her). Her husband, bless his pudgy heart, was as slow as a French snail consummating their marriage! It was seven years before this happened. Of course being a foreign woman, she was to blame and scorned for her inability to produce an heir.

Once she had children she spent less time gambling and more with her family. She was nicknamed “Madame Deficit” because of her hobbies, gambling and fashion. There was also the “Affair of the Necklace” which she was framed for.

Marie just wanted to be loved. Imagine growing up without praise, hugs, and attention then leaving your family at 14…She had a bond with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart whose mother’s attention he was always trying to gain. Mozart and Marie were close in age and played together as children. They both desired to please and capture the love and affection of their mothers.

She very much cared for and respected her husband, Louis XVI! She had a small close and supportive inner circle of friends who she could trust and supported her to the end including the Princess de Lamballe and Count Axel von Fersen.

I so would have liked to come to Marie’s defense seeing how the French treated her so unfairly. If you take anything from this, let it be Marie was a wonderful mother. She said, “I have seen all, I have heard all, I have forgotten all.” Marie will never be forgotten.

Do you know anyone like Marie Antoinette that you would like to invite to dinner?

Fall in Love…with Chocolate!

Chocolate…there really isn’t a more perfect food; it’s like gold, it has a universal appeal.
Vosges, Fauchon, Maribelle, La Milka, Dove, Hershey’s, La Maison du Chocolat, Godiva, Lindt may come to mind when you think of sampling chocolate.
Have you ever had a food-related expression of excitement like the one Meg Ryan had in When Harry Met Sally? A really good chocolate bite can make me close my eyes and moan. I will definitely spend the rest of my life trying to eat more chocolate! Et toi?

There is such pleasure in enjoying chocolate. At the end of a bad day, a little chocolate can set me right again. I think most people can have chocolate everyday at any time of the day!

My favorite thing to eat in the world is a chocolate soufflé. Commander’s Palace in New Orleans has a chocolate soufflé they keep a secret! It’s not even on the menu; you’ve got to ask for it. The best I’ve ever had was in Rome at the Lord Byron Hotel. A chocolate soufflé so amazing I smile and salivate just thinking about it.
Each of my five senses came alive when I ate that soufflé and I’ve never forgotten it. You can tell good chocolate from the look of it; chocolate should be gleaming. The taste and feel of it in your mouth should: melt, snap, and have a strong chocolaty smell. Voulez-vous chocolat?

When I think of hot chocolate, Marie Antoinette comes to mind. During the 1700s, chocolate was primarily consumed as a beverage. It wasn’t hot cocoa she was drinking, but hot chocolate. She hated taking medicines and suggested taking them with the hot chocolate she was used to drinking in Vienna. Brilliant idea — but the heat would make the taste and smell of the medicine worse! The Queen had her chemist make a coin shape pistole; her favorite was almond milk.

There is a big difference between hot cocoa and hot chocolate, the primary difference being that hot cocoa is made with cocoa powder (which doesn’t have the fat of cocoa butter), and hot chocolate is made from melted chocolate bars mixed with cream. Hot chocolate was enjoyed mostly by the rich upper class because it was extremely expensive. What did the lower class drink…? Coffee!
The French court also introduced chocolate as an aphrodisiac. Madame du Barry (Louis XV’s lover) encouraged her men to drink chocolate in order to keep up with her. Then there was Venice’s Casanova (known as the world’s greatest lover), who was known to use chocolate with champagne to seduce the ladies. Ooh la la!
The history of chocolate is vast! Beginning in the Amazon then many cultures and people claiming chocolate as their discovery and making it better than before: Mayas, Aztecs, Columbus, Italians, Austrians, Spanish, and Swiss…

Many movies have been made with chocolate as the theme! Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Chocolat, Like Water for Chocolate, and Consuming Passions are each delicious in their own way.

Did you know there is such a thing as a chocolate sommelier like they have for wine!?! As with wine, chocolate is all about origin. Knowing where one’s chocolate comes from matters just like knowing where olive oil, coffee, wine, and cheese come from. Terroir (a French word for a sense of place) matters in chocolate too.
I’m sure when you buy wine, you’re not looking at the label to select by the percentage of alcohol. It’s about the taste! Chocolate and wine go together like peanut butter and jelly! It’s magic!

A smart way to discover chocolate would be to sample it in a tasting kit. One of the most fun food adventures I’ve ever had was the selection of our wedding cake. I think a chocolate sampling party would be a blast! I enjoy seeing my daughter developing her decisive chocolate palate. She prefers milk chocolate, not surprising to me because she adores chocolate milk (what child doesn’t)!
As with anything you put in your mouth, you listen to your palate. It’s not about the percentage or origin; chocolate is a gourmet food with grand history for us to love and share. Chocolate is a never-ending taste test that gives us pleasure and as a bonus, lowers blood pressure. What better reason do you need!
This Valentine’s Day fall in love…with chocolate!!!

And how about you? Do you have a favorite chocolate treat or recipe or chocolate destination to share?

The difference between a need and a want

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My second graders know the difference between a need and a want. If asked, “What is a need?”, they will respond, “Something you need to survive”…food, water, air, clothing, shelter, love…” This past Friday we had “mini-mall” where the kids got to satisfy their “wants” and go shopping! In social studies for the past three weeks, we’ve been learning the difference between needs and wants and consumers and producers.

The children have been earning money (“Cooley Cash”) to do their jobs: coming to school on time, following the rules, making good grades, doing their work, being responsible! They had a chance to open up a “store” at their desks and be producers and consumers.

This is always a fun day because the kids are so excited to buy and sell. I know the parents are thinking, please don’t come home with a bunch of junk! But, if they earned their money, they had the right to decide how they would spend it. It also teaches them not to be hoarders! They picked through some of the things they don’t play with anymore at home to sell them to their classmates.

Photo: Children in Mrs. Cooley’s class spending their “Cooley Cash” and having a great time being consumers and producers.

I am hardly the first to come up with this fun activity; second, third, and fourth grades have been doing “mini-mall” to teach social studies/economics for years! Kids love it because they like being treated respectfully and earning “money” they rightfully deserve and then being responsible in their spending habits. It’s nice to see children of such young ages making wise choices with their savings.

Yes, sometimes you may be thinking: I need chocolate, retail therapy, a massage, a vacation…But life really is good just as is! It is especially good when we see just how much we have to be grateful for.

For last week’s journal I asked my children to tell me the difference between a need and a want. One child said, “Wants are things you want right now! I want a fancy car, toys, and an American Girl Doll!” She also said, “I need some books, a house, food, water, clothing, and love.”

Parents have the difficult job of teaching their children how to grow into responsible, self-sufficient adults. So when they’re ready to go off into the world, hopefully we will have shown them how to thrive in every phase of their lives, from taking care of their everyday needs to managing their finances. Rather than bombarding them with lectures, I think it’s best to teach children financial responsibility slowly and consistently. Children always appreciate being talked to respectfully in a non-lecturing way and in return they have more respect for whatever it is we are teaching them.

Children can understand the basics of budgeting. Most kids get allowances and can grasp simple concepts of spending and saving. It is so sweet to hear my second graders talk about how they are proud and happy that their parents work hard to give them their basic needs. They understand that if there’s anything left over that’s when the “wants” come in to play.

It’s wonderful when children become the teachers. I was listening to some of my teammates talk about their children giving up their allowance to give to Haiti. I think most adults and children always want to do the right thing. How nice for parents to see their children being generous, giving, and compassionate. They end up teaching and reminding us to do the same.

Out of the Mouth of Babes

 

Young children don’t “use” bad words, they say them. Think about the curse words you know; they are short and easy to pronounce, right? A word may well be classified as bad, but children have no idea what it means. They just hear the word and repeat it; it’s very innocent. Children don’t try to figure out words as much as they observe how certain ones cause their parents to react. I’m sure most parents try to stay calm while they explain that the word is not a good word to say. Children can be fast learners and they are always smarter that we give them credit for. If your child said a bad word, it’s probably because someone (maybe you) modeled that behavior in front of them. Well…Que será, sera and c’est la vie! Here’s to doing the best we can!

Children repeat everything! I remember one of my students coming in and announcing, “My Daddy bought me a swing set that cost $999.99 but I’m not supposed to tell anyone!” I wonder and you should too…what are my children repeating to someone else?

Photo: Mary Cassatt’s The Child’s Caress
I imagine this is my daughter covering my mouth so I won’t say a bad word!

I teach my second graders that words can hurt and as long as they’re not using words in an unkind way they will be making a smart choice. I have seven year olds come tell me, “Mrs. Cooley, so and so said the “S” word (shut up, sucks, or stupid). Words like stupid are bad words when applied to people. But children are going to learn all the “S” words from their peers so why not be the one to introduce them properly.

I read Judy Blume’s, Superfudge every year in my classroom because it’s hilarious and the kids love it. Their favorite part is when a talking myna bird says, “Bonjour Stupid!” Before I read it I talk about how the author Judy Blume wants you to laugh and it’s ok but it’s not ok to use the word “stupid” in an unkind way. They know this and I think they appreciate that I trust them to be respectful with their vocabulary.

What’s ironic about cursing is that it’s supposed to be good for you! It’s a release. I can remember how to say bad words in other languages easier than everyday vocabulary because it’s fun to curse! If you stub your toe, the best prescription might just be to say a bad word to relieve the pain. Think about the different ways you can curse: to vent, express anger, pain, excitement, surprise, even happiness… Just like the horn on your car, you can do a lot of venting with it and it feels so good!

I am not a big curser and I think that’s why saying a bad word feels so damn good to me! If you curse all the time, the words are less potent and may not satisfy you in the same way if you use them less often. I think if you use bad words within a safe circle of friends who won’t judge you and you’re not around children it can result in you feeling really nice, healthy, and honest. We have to make our smart choices just like children, but if you find if there is an occasion that calls for a bad word, you can usually find a window to say it.

Chefs may be the worst at cussing! Look at Chef Gordon Ramsay; I would not want him to be mad at me! I was at a restaurant once with an open kitchen and the chef was not happy! The whole restaurant got an earful of angry cussing. It was hot in that kitchen. Maybe that’s where that saying comes from, “If you can’t handle the heat, stay out of the kitchen.”

We know as parents we must model the right behavior for our children. When we slip, we should apologize but we shouldn’t forget to laugh! My fix to most things is a change of scenery to distract either children or adults from the problem. So why not provide a change of vocabulary too!

When my three-year-old daughter said, “dammit” in the correct context I was shocked, stunned, and speechless. I started saying “oh dear” all the time over compensating and thinking I could erase her memory and try and fix the problem. Then one day she dropped her goldfish and said to her brother, “Oh dear dammit!” My friend said not to worry, she’s three and it will go away. I know she’s right, just as long as her Daddy and I are good role models for her and her brother. I just don’t want my daughter getting in trouble at school for saying something she doesn’t understand herself.

My husband has also changed his choice of words to silly things like, “green rabbit.” We’re not perfect (and I think it’s healthy for them to know that) but having children certainly makes us try hard to be better. We all want to be good role models for our children. Teaching good judgment is not just a one-time event, but a process.

Photo: Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World
I imagine Christina saying (like my daughter), “Oh dear dammit! The house is so far away.”

The Very Ordered Existence of Merilee Marvelous

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Marvelous Merilee Monroe, dragon loving, Pez dispenser collecting, thirteen-year-old who has Asperger’s Syndrome lives in Jumbo, Texas and is searching for her place in the world.

As I read Suzanne Crowley’s book I was taken on a unique journey into the mind of Merilee and her Very Ordered Existence. Crowley’s book is full of colorful characters that you want to get to know.

Merilee’s new friend Biswick is an 8-year-old boy with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. He and his “Irish” alcoholic poet father just moved to Jumbo. Veraleen is someone you would want on your side. She is tough, but with a heart as big as Texas. Both Biswick and Veraleen need Merilee and vice versa!
 
As a teacher, I feel for those kids who “do not fit in.” Parents and teachers can reach out to children, but if they don’t have peer acceptance, those kids fall into a “different” category. Like Merilee, I see those kids searching for their VOE (Very Orderly Existence). It’s difficult to find your place at thirteen. I certainly wouldn’t want to do it over again. It’s the time puberty hits and you care so much about what your peers think. You’re stuck in between being a kid and an adult. When you’re thirteen you need your parents and caring adults more than ever.

Every year I invite my Dad to come to my classroom and talk to the kids about government. When he leaves, he always says something like, “Everyone should come volunteer at a school to be around children because you forget what it’s like…that innocence, wonderment, and curiosity.” Merilee seems to be on the cusp of losing her childlike innocence and becoming a bit sarcastic, pessimistic, and cynical.

We are young for such a short time. It’s a difficult time full of uncomfortable situations, but that’s part of what shapes us as adults. This is a moment in Merilee’s life when she is questioning faith and hope; she dives more deeply into her imaginary world of dragons for safety.

Merilee has a very precise and controlled schedule and when Biswick and Veraleen come into her life she has to put her VOE on hold. I’ve taught children like Merilee. You DON’T mess with the schedule; it throws them off and ruins their mood and day! Everything must be in order and when there is a fire drill or something to throw them off, it’s very uncomfortable and frustrating to a child, but especially a child with an autism spectrum disorder.

Merilee passes out purple tootsie pops to people so they will leave her alone. She is always drawing dragons and her teacher tells her, “Come back from dragon land Miss Monroe.” She has coordination issues, blurts out words like: stupendous, marvelous, and horrendous all the time. Her Dad gave her the nickname “Hug” which is ironic because Merilee hates to be touched.

Her sister “Bug” is hard on her and is very resentful. Her mom is very spiritual and always trying to talk Merilee into going to church with her. Merilee’s grandmother is not a typical loving Nana; the only thing she gave her was her name and a knit hat. Merilee feels that her grandmother strongly dislikes her. She has fond memories of her other grandmother who died when she was little; I like that she remembers her looking like Mrs. Butterworth. Through her new friends, Biswick and Veraleen, Merilee learns how to love.

I thought of the movie Napoleon Dynamite when traveling into Merilee’s world. Both characters are deeply into their own world and their peers at school tease them for being different. Both are obsessed with magical creatures (ligers and dragons). But in the end they see the power of family, friends, and love. They realize they have a choice; they can choose to play tether ball alone or let someone in their VOE to play with them.

1. How did Merilee evolve throughout the course of the novel?
2. What character did you relate to the most?
3. What was your favorite part of the book?
4. Would
The Very Ordered Existence of Merilee Marvelous make a good movie?
5. We all have a VOE, what’s yours as a mom?

A touch of Italian seasoning can be good for a mom


When it comes to love… it’s always better to be Italian.

An Italian woman, wow — she is a plethora of things. Listen to the passion that comes through the Italian language. When you hear an Italian woman speak, you know that she is confident, sexy, saucy, she can be stylish, she can smoke a cigarette like no other, and she can fight for what she loves! An Italian woman is also a good Catholic wife, she can cook, and is a hard worker, and most importantly she is a mamma. She will love her family with all her heart! Look at Sophia Lauren; she is all of these things. What better role model for an Italian “wannabe” like me!

Sophia Lauren is Italian royalty. I read when filming Nine, people in Rome lined the streets to wave at her. She may be known for her sex bomb roles, but she loved her husband, adores her two sons, and grandchildren, and she still loves to cook for her family.

Photo: Penelope Cruz in the muscial, Nine.

I had been anticipating seeing the movie Nine since I saw the previews in July. I didn’t pay attention to the reviews and went to see it with an open heart. One of the first lines in Nine is “What’s your favorite pasta?” That’s so Italian! I was hooked from then on! I can’t get the music and dance out of my head.

Being a dancer and having a taste for musical theatre, I adored the choreography. If I had to pick a favorite scene, I’d say Fergie’s “Be Italian.” I thought it was sensuous and gypsy like with tambourines, sand, and a chair dance that reminded me of the Kit Kat Club in Cabaret. I would have loved to play her part in this movie. The beauty of acting is that you can pretend to be someone else. What fun it would be to play the temptress!

Nine is set in the sixties. Women wear lingerie with garter belts and satin and lace bras. It balances fantasy, reality, history, dreams and beauty in a way that movies are supposed to. Movies and books are supposed to be a pleasure, an escape and take us away to a faraway place. This is exactly what Nine did for me. Nine is a grand movie, a must see if you love Cinema Italiano.

I thought of the musicals Chicago (I was in this musical in college) and Cabaret (my husband and I saw at studio 54) with all the Razzle Dazzle of the costumes and dancing, I also thought of the Lido in Paris when Dame Judi Dench sings Folies Bergere, and of course the movie La Dolce Vita with the romance of an Italian fountain (one of the most famous scenes in film history). I am that dancer with the big feathers. She’s in me!

The sixties in Italy were a time of glamour; there was no such thing as “mom jeans”. I like the pizzazz of that time. I try to mix a bit of glamour into my life every day. It might just be red lipstick, but it’s something fun to remind me I’m a woman.

Daniel Day Lewis was very intense, very Italian (I would have liked to play a role if it was called Ten)! He plays a filmmaker who suffers from a creative block of procrastination. He has demands of nine women in his life and they are a major distraction when he’s trying to make his new film called “Italia.” He’s one of those men you love to hate.

I think one of the sexiest movie lines ever was when Lauren Bacall said to Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not, “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together – and blow. One of the sexiest dance scenes was the tango in the Chicago movie danced to Roxanne. Now, after seeing Nine I’d say Fergie’s dance number beats them both out when her character, Sanghina says before singing Be Italian, “But now I teach you three words, You will learn them and drive your women crazy: Ti voglio bene you will say, It means I want you every day. Ti voglio bene. Ti voglio bene you will learn means every night for you I burn.” I think the Italians have more passion than any other culture. It must be in the water…that’s why I drink San Pellegrino!

Sanghina is trying to teach the Italian film director about how being Italian is having a love for life, food, dance, drinking, sex, fighting… Live today as if it may become your last. I love that passion and fire. Everyone should have a zest for life that joie de vivre.

The older I get, the more drive and enthusiasm builds inside of me. I attribute it to being a mom. I bet most flamenco dancers are mothers! Being a mother fuels our fire and makes us appreciate every day. Having children makes a woman sexier, stronger, and full of such intense love that we never dreamed possible. I can see myself being a flamenco dancer. Have you ever seen authentic flamenco dancing? It is usually performed by an older dancer and if you watch her face you will see she dances with a love for life; she dances as if it may be her last dance. She is a Gypsy! I think that’s why the character Fergie plays is my favorite. Just like the tango scene in Chicago, it’s a dance that has a strong, defiant, and explosive energy. I just love it!
Love…Italian style should be
Ti voglio bene and to live today as if it may be your last. Be Italian!

Photo: Ashley in dancing in the musical, Chicago.

A hand-written thank you note is a little treasure that won’t be forgotten

 

A letter in the mail is a gift! Thank you notes can be an art form. Consider the stationary, the penmanship (you can see personality in someone’s handwriting), the formulation of thoughtful words, even the choice of stamp is a special detail. A hand-written card is a little treasure and it is not forgotten.

Writing a thank you note lets the recipients know that you took the time to sit down and think of them; it’s sincere and thoughtful. It’s about thanking people for thinking about you and your family even if the gift is not your cup of tea!

In this time of texting, facebooking, twittering, and e-mailing, it seems so simple to just take the easy way out and say thanks electronically. Anything not in your own hand has an emotional distance and can seem impersonal. This makes hand-written notes rare and much appreciated. A thank you note shows the giver how much you value him or her. Older generations definitely expect them. I always write one to my grandmother first! It’s respectful and considerate to put forth the effort. Can you imagine the disappointment when the person who hand knitted your child a sweater is thanked by an e-mail with smiley faces?

Photo: Vermeer’s Mistress and Maid from my favorite museum in the world, the incredible Frick Collection in New York . Notice the writing set and quill, this truly was an art form.

After Christmas, you don’t feel like doing much of anything. You’ve had the in-laws, survived the Christmas mess, made and cleaned up many meals, and slowly want to go into hibernation after too many egg nogs and entertaining. But, I find if I don’t do it right away my balance is off and I can’t sleep. I like to have my all my ducks in a row. My mantra for most things is very “Nike”! “Just do it!”

A late note is better than no note at all, but it’s probably best to write them as soon as possible. I can whip a thank you note out best if I don’t contemplate too much about what I’m going to say. I have a little formula that’s similar to what I teach my second graders: Greeting, express gratitude, share how you will use the gift, add something personal, thank again, and regards. Giving thanks doesn’t have to be a chore if you make the effort to keep it interesting.

It seems we are raising a generation of technical wizards! Those wizards need to know how to use a pen and attempt nice handwriting in this information age. After the holiday break, my second grade class will begin learning cursive. This is a good time to get them to write thank you notes because they’re just dying to try out their new cursive handwriting. Think back to the times of quills! I have a copy of the Declaration of Independence in my classroom. The children are always in awe of the tiny and very beautiful handwriting.

Everyone likes to be appreciated. When friends and family see you took the time to thank them with a nice note, they’re more likely to give an encore performance. A tip I would give to my second grade classroom (but I think it works for everyone) is to write honestly. The truth is always more interesting, even if it’s obvious it was a regift! We can all find our inner “Pollyanna” and discover something about a gift to be glad about!

A thank you note is one of the loveliest ways to share our love and appreciation for someone. A warm and heartfelt thanks is like a hug in the mail. It is gracious and the right thing to do, but also makes the writer feel good.

Here are some ideas to make your thank you cards more interesting, some of which I have learned from others. Take what you like! I’m all ears for your ideas too, especially since I haven’t written to my grandmother yet!

1. Personalized M&M’s are sweet in addition to a hand-written card!
2. If you have left over Christmas cards, insert a photo of your children playing with what that person got them.
3. Have your child draw a picture to go with the note, it’s personal and your child will feel good about participating in on the thanks.
4. Design your own thank you card on Kodak gallery and fill it with pictures of Christmas morning.

 

 

Knitting cookies, baking sweaters

 

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The happiest people are those who do things for others. Just put a bit of yourself in a homemade gift. Making something, anything, is one of the very best ways to show your love for family and friends. Children love to do for others if given the opportunity.

I don’t knit, but I appreciate the love that goes into the creation just like baking. I think knitting and baking are similar in the way that both take concentration in putting it all together, but there’s also something very therapeutic and meditative about each process.

I’ve always heard people who practice yoga are some of the happiest people on earth. I think it’s that quiet meditation found in yoga, but it can be found in other activities like baking and knitting, too. It’s that pure creative process that gives off an inner peace. I find that same peace when my hand touches the ballet bar for plies, practicing Pilates and hearing just the sound of my breath, and again when I’m baking and making the house smell good. What makes knitting and baking different from other activities is that it’s a gift. You are creating for someone else, something made from love.

Baking is a great way to get the kids involved in the kitchen and they get to help with a gift for someone they care about. Children can be taught to knit, too. I remember my grandmother teaching me something simple; I made headbands in all different colors for my family. I see knitting and baking as a great activity for children because it can help with fine motor skills.

My grandmother knitted sweaters, Christmas stockings, and blankets for all the grandchildren. They are all little treasures to our family. What better time to think of knitting than with new babies and holiday gifts. I was very lucky to have my friend from ballet knit a baby blanket for my daughter and my friend’s mother from Austria knit a baby sweater for my son. The feel of the blanket and sweater is plush and soft. You can see and sense the work that goes into knitting.

It seems like knitting was becoming a lost art for a while. A knitted gift has such a long lifespan that continued appreciation for them far exceeds feelings for anything “store-bought.” I think of my little red and green stop and go mittens my grandmother made for me that my children now wear. It’s like they are wearing hugs on each hand.

Don’t have a granny or friend who can knit you something? There are websites that let you pick out your own granny to knit a hat or scarf. When you look at the grannies’ faces you can tell the result will make you smile. How could you not love something someone made for you? You may not just see grannies knitting anymore now that Kate Hudson has made knitting hip and young people have taken it up again. There are many books and magazines that have made knitting chic and not just for babies. There was a gorgeous hat Carrie Bradshaw wore in Sex and the City when she was in Paris. I would love to make something like that someday.

Where I am in my life, working with small children, I can’t bring myself to add a “new” activity like knitting right now. If there were only eight days a week, ah the things I would do. I have to pick what to do with my windows and what makes me a happy person is doing ballet and baking. That’s what I have time for now. One day I’ll make room for learning how to knit, until then I will appreciate what others can do.

Click on these links for more knitting information:
http://www.goldenhook.fr/
http://www.stitches-of-faith.com/

Please enjoy a family favorite that my mother, daughter, and I love to bake during the holidays.

Spiced Cardamom Cookies
5 ¾ C flour
1t baking soda
1T salt
1T ground cardamom
1t ground allspice
¼ t ground pepper
¼ ground cloves
8 oz (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 C dark brown sugar
½ C sugar
½ C dark corn syrup
¼ C water
¼ C heavy cream
1 large egg
2 t vanilla

Whisk flour, baking soda, salt, cardamom, allspice, pepper, and cloves in a large bowl. Place butter in a mixer bowl. Bring sugars, corn syrup, and water to a boil in a large saucepan, stirring until sugar dissolves. Pour hot sugar mixture over butter, and then beat on low speed until combined. Beat cream egg, and vanilla in a bowl, then add to butter mixture, Beat on medium speed until well combined. Reduce speed to low, and add flour mixture, beating until just incorporated. Divide dough into thirds, and flatten each into a disk. Wrap each disk in plastic, and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight. Preheat oven to 350. Roll out 1 disk between lightly floured parchment to 1/8 inch thickness. Cut out shapes with holiday cookie cutters. Spacing them1 inch apart on cookie sheet. Bake cookies until edges are golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes. If small start checking after 8 minutes.