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


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:

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.

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.