You don't HAVE to be Michael Phelps

If I'm counting correctly, this is H's fourth year swimming with the local swim club. I actually never thought he'd stick with it this long. He's improved so much, from those first few months when he flailed around looking more like someone who needed saving than someone who was swimming in races.

Just this fall, he was moved up from the novice group to the semi-competitive group. It means swimming 15 minutes longer per practice -- so one hour instead of 45 minutes. But his new group swims twice as many laps as the novice group does per practice. He's also trying to boost his number of practices per week from three to four. And he just moved up to the 11- & 12-year-old group for meets, which means he's just about the slowest of his age group in meet events.

It's kicking his butt and his self-confidence. H has never been fast. He has never had a qualifying (Q-) time for state championships. We try to stress to him that he's not, at this age, racing against everyone else. He's only trying to improve his own times, which he did at this past weekend's meet. He swam six events in two days and cut time in four of those six events.

As we were leaving the meet yesterday, he was grumbling about being slow and having to listen to his friends on the team talking about their Q-times. I hate for him to even see the listed Q-times for the events he raced. He's anywhere from 16 seconds to half a minute slower than a Q-time, depending on the event. Considering he shaved no more than 5 seconds off any individual race time, making the cut for the state meet seems a daunting task indeed.

In the car on the way home, he dejectedly muttered, "I think I'm a nerd. I'm really smart at school, but I suck at being an athlete."

Nearly broke my heart.

I asked him if he was even having fun at swim anymore. He said he'd have a lot more fun if he were better. Reminding him of how much better he is than when he was that 7-year-old, first-season swimmer and could barely freestyle one length of the pool doesn't seem to provide much encouragement. We emphasize that he just needs to try his best, to work hard, and he will see results.

It certainly doesn't help that he's the smallest, shortest guy in his age group. I'm afraid he probably also inherited some non-athlete genes from two parents who weren't exactly shining stars on sports teams growing up. I'm hoping for a wild growth spurt one of these days. In the meantime, I hope he sticks with it and doesn't let any snarky comments from his bigger, faster teammates (or the occasional asinine comment from a pressuring coach) discourage him.

Tim and I think it's actually healthy for H to be involved in activities in which he's not inherently talented. School comes easy for him. His assessment scores are stellar. In fifth grade, he reads at a high-school level, and his math comprehension is nearly that high as well. In his second year playing viola, he can sight-read music and amazes us with his skills; he loves playing in the orchestra.

Swimming competitively doesn't come easy for him. That's OK. He doesn't have to be, and surely won't ever be, the best at everything. That's certainly a life lesson worth learning.


Building a Time Machine out of Blogspot (no, not a DeLorean)

A week from Monday, I'm going to be older. That's kind of how I look at my birthday these days. It doesn't have the kind of excitement it once did. I remember the days when I couldn't wait to be old enough to go to a rated-R movie by myself, or vote, or drink legally, or be technically old enough to be president of the United States (not that anyone would be much honored by that milestone these days . . . who would want THAT headache).

I guess the excitement for middle-aged birthday celebrants goes more like this: Hey, I'm way too old to be drafted! Can't wait to be old enough to get my first colonoscopy! Counting down the days until I can become an AARP member! How much longer until I get the Senior Citizens' Discount at Denny's?! Grand slam gets even grander, it seems. Woohoo, I'm still around for another birthday!

I thought I'd look back to the year of my birth and see what today's newsmakers were doing way back when. Time machine set to December 1971 . . .
  • According to RenewAmerica.com, our now-president Barack Obama was a fifth-grader at a prep school in Hawaii. He was the same age my son is now. 
  • Justin Bieber's DAD, my sources calculate, wouldn't be born for another three-and-a-half years.
  • Cher had just released her album "Gypsys, Tramps, and Thieves" and was starring in "The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour" on CBS. Cher, now age 68, announced earlier this week cancellation of the last 24 dates on her current tour because of health problems. 
  • TMZ reported (in November 2014) that actress Louisa Moritz alleges Bill Cosby forced her to perform oral sex in her dressing room before an appearance on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show in 1971. Cosby's iconic cartoon series "Fat Albert" debuted the following year. Hey hey hey.
  • Hillary Rodham had just started dating Bill Clinton. The two were Yale Law School classmates at the time. 
  • Walt Disney World opened in Orlando in October '71. The latest Disney rumors, which popped up in mid-November 2014, suggest that the theme-park giant may be considering plans to build a Disneyland in the Middle East -- specifically, Egypt.
  • On November 24, 1971 (the night before Thanksgiving that year), the man known in the media as "D.B. Cooper," with $200,000 in ransom money, parachuted out of a Northwest Orient flight over Washington State that he had hijacked, and was never seen again. It remains the only unsolved skyjacking in U.S. history. 
  • Former pilot, engineer, astronaut, and United States Senator John Glenn celebrated his 50th birthday in 1971. He's still alive and kicking at age 93 (As of Nov. 22, 2014). He might feel the same way I do about birthdays. He once joked, "There is still no cure for the common birthday."


Making a wish on the birthday candles . . .

Tomorrow I will be thinking about an Iowa farm girl who grew up to be a wife, mother, teacher, homemaker, accountant, seamstress, crafter, quilter, supreme cookie-baker, grandmother, magazine article-writer, church organizer . . .

I could go on and on.

Tomorrow would have been my mother-in-law's 76th birthday. We lost Darlene to brain cancer a little over a year ago. I miss her so very much. I'd love to tell her about my latest knitting project. I wish I could share the funny things her grandson says or tell her how he did at the swim meet or send her a video of him playing viola -- something she never got the chance to see him do. I know my husband misses sharing his latest photo projects with her or talking sports or getting her take on current events. I wonder what she, a longtime suburban St. Louis resident, would have to say about the national spotlight on Ferguson, MO; she probably would have been speculating like everyone else on when the grand jury findings would be announced. My brother-in-law surely would have enjoyed chatting her up about the Watergate books he was reading earlier this year. And she would have gotten a kick out of all of the pictures he's posted on Facebook of his dog visiting birthday cake sculptures around St. Louis in commemoration of the city's 250th birthday.

It would be so wonderful to ask her what we should do to help my father-in-law try to move forward in his life; I bet she would know just what to say or do to convince him. I realize that for how much I miss her, it it is a mere shadow of the loss that must feel suffocating in its darkness for him. He seems so lost without her. She had such a knack for taking care of him. For taking care of all of us, really.

A week from tomorrow, I will be thinking about her again, and what it would have been like if she and I could have continued our Black Friday shopping tradition. I recall plotting our bargain-hunting strategies on Thanskgiving afternoons, the newspaper circulars spread out around us as we clipped coupons and made our lists of must-have doorbusters.

So I'll think about her on her birthday. And Black Friday. And I'll think about her every day in between, and each day after.

"Here is one of the worst things about having someone you love die. It happens again every single morning." -- Anna Quindlen


I do? I don't, don't, don't understand.

I don't even know where to begin.

I was flipping through news sites online this morning and landed on a story that sickens me on so many levels. I bet you're thinking it's the announcement that mass killer and vile monster Charles Manson is going to marry a 26-year-old, glassy-eyed, obviously unbalanced woman who has been visiting him in prison since she moved to California from her parents' home in Illinois at age 19 to be close to him.

That, in itself, had me reeling. But what truly left me feeling like I needed a long, disinfecting shower was a sidebar story on ABCNews.com. The headline: "What Charles Manson's Future Mother-in-Law Thinks About Wedding."

I stopped wondering what was wrong with this warped girl, born Afton Elaine, but allegedly known to her beloved Charlie as "Star." Instead, I wanted to scream, "America, what the hell is wrong with us?!" This is what "journalism" in our country has devolved into. This is what we're asking for? Maybe we're trying to understand what kind of childhood this person must've had, what sort of Daddy issues or abuse or fetal contact with toxic chemicals she experienced, to have led her down the path to choose a swastika-tattooed, cold-blooded, life-sentenced murderer as matrimonial material.

Or maybe we think this is just another reality show in the making?

In case anyone needs reminding, the 80-year-old Manson is behind bars for participating in the bloodbath slaughter of SEVEN people, including an eight-and-a-half-months pregnant actress Sharon Tate. This bride-to-be's mommy would have been a toddler at the time of the killings.

Do you suppose the mother wonders where she went wrong with her parenting skills? What caused her child to seek love and affection, acceptance and connection, with this cretin? According to the bits of the story I could stomach reading, she didn't seem all that broken up about it. In fact, she -- I daresay -- bragged a bit about the couple's worldly "virtues."

"He's an environmentalist, and she's involved in his environmentalist program," Star's mom explained.

Yeah. Charles Manson, tree-hugger? Lover of Earth and all its creatures?

I'm guessing he's just up to his old brainwashing, cult-leader trickery. I saw the photo of his betrothed (with her long, brown, straight hair and cold eyes) and immediately thought: just another member of the Manson family. Susan Atkins. Patricia Krenwinkel. Leslie Van Houten. Lynette "Squeaky" Fromm.

All those Bible-thumpers out there, ranting about preserving the sanctity of marriage, is this the picture of marriage you're hoping for? One woman, one man? Till death do they part?

Whose death are we talking about, I wonder.


Stand up, sit down, fight fight fight

In late spring, I wore a pair of high-heeled shoes. I felt like dressing up for work. I like the way they make me feel youthful and girly. And for someone who squeaks by at 5'4" when I'm standing ramrod straight, the added height with tall shoes is bonus.

Right around the same time I wore this fabulous, feminine footwear, something in my back slipped or bulged or inflamed. It didn't matter whether I was walking, lying down, floating in a pool, curled in the fetal position -- my back hurt. Hurt doesn't even begin to describe the pain. And any sense of looking feminine went right out the window; I looked like the Hunchback. I tried chiropractic adjustments and electric stimulation. I iced it. I slathered it with Sportscreme. I broke down and went to an internal med doc who prescribed some lovely narcotics and several sessions with a physical therapist.

The pain has waxed and waned, but I haven't been the same since those damn heels.

The doctor also suggested that my sedentary lifestyle could be aggravating the condition. At first I was offended. Sedentary lifestyle? I'm not sedentary! I am go, go, going all the time! I work out! I take walks! But a closer look at my actual physical movement throughout the workdays left me shocked. There were times I sat in my desk chair from 7:30 a.m. to noon, and from 12:30 to 5, with only an occasional restroom break or trip to the coffeepot. I even ate my lunch at my desk. I wear a device that monitors the number of steps I take each day. I believe 10,000 steps a day is the target to shoot for; there have been days when I crawled into bed at night without hitting 3,500.

Doc called desk work "the new smoking" and had me convinced I needed to make a much more concerted effort to move more (and probably eat less, but one thing at a time). Doc wrote a note to my employer in late summer, requesting that I be provided an alternative workspace, one where I could work part of my day standing up.

I thought, "Yes! This would be perfect! Let's do it!"

Then I found out getting this setup was not so simple as a medical request from a licensed physician. Because this desk would be special, I needed to schedule time in the company's Ergo lab to test out the equipment and see if it met my needs. So I had the letter and I scheduled the lab time. Meanwhile, my back continued to be compressed into my desk chair as I was still working up to 12-hour days in front of my computer screen. Finally, I thought, I'd jumped through the hoops (no small feat for someone with disk issues). Then came the big whammy. If I wanted one of these desks and my doc felt it was medically necessary, I could have one . . . but only if my manager agreed to foot the $1,100 bill.

More paperwork. More begging. More waiting.

Eventually, the higher-ups agreed, signed on their dotted lines, emptied out their pockets, whathaveyou. Yes, they said, I could have the sit-to-stand workstation. Hooray!

Seven weeks after I got the monetary OK, they finally installed the desk.

For reasons completely unrelated to my frustration over the wait for the desk, I thought about quitting last week. But honestly, I felt guilty about the extra cha-ching they forked over and thought it would be bad form to give two-weeks' notice just as my fancy-schmancy adjustable desk arrived. Although, now that I think about it, I've put in so much unpaid extra time lately (the joy and honor of being "salaried") I probably have paid for the thing ten-fold.

So far, after the first six hours, I'm enjoying it immensely. This is the most comfortable I've been in ages. It's kind of a bummer I work from home two days a week. Maybe I'll figure out a similar ergo setup for my home office. Or maybe a couple days a week, I'll just stand in my cubicle at work in my jammies and fuzzy slippers.


Forget to Remember

Home Ec teachers everywhere would give me demerits.
Martha Stewart would tsk-tsk and look down at me over her reading glasses.
I'd get booted right off Cupcake Wars or Pastry Revolt or Bakers' Smackdown or whatever culinary reality show is on these days.

Why, you wonder?

I don't measure my ingredients over the bowl, avoiding the inevitable lid falling off a jar and pouring the entire jar of spice in the mix. I resist the urge to use butter-flavor Crisco for anything other than greasing a pan now and then. I treat my Kitchen Aid mixer with the great reverence it has earned.

The one mistake I make nearly every time I bake is one that shows both my eagerness and my impatience, my zest for kitchen creations and my lean toward laziness. Never fails. I dive into a recipe and get halfway through the mixing and sifting and folding, then come to a screeching, panicking halt.

I have started to bake without checking my recipe to make sure I have all the ingredients.

Tonight's missing-in-action recipe component: Cream of Tartar.

I will digress for a moment by stopping to ask, really, what the heck is Cream of Tartar? I've never really known. Never actually questioned. But tartar is what builds up on one's teeth and must be scraped off by a mean-spirited dental hygienist who, much like Martha Stewart, tsk-tsks at the patient's lack of brushing prowess and inability to floss the recommended 17 times a day. Cream of that? Not at all appetizing.

But according to every Snickerdoodle cookie recipe on the planet, said cookie cannot be made without Cream of Tartar.

So I began the frantic cabinet search. Paprika. Pumpkin pie spice. Cajun seasoning. Dry Mustard. Ugh! No way! I've already mixed the butter and granulated sugar into a fluffy cream, whipped in the egg, splashed the half-teaspoon of Vanilla. Where are you, pesky Cream of Tartar?! I use you, maybe, three times a year. Only for Snickerdoodles! I cannot have used you up! You must be here!

I emptied three shelves, two spinning space-saver contraptions, and was about ready to pull on my shoes to head to the store, when I found it. Behind the Stick Cinnamon and can of Nutmeg. Cream of Tartar.

My dough is now chilling for the recommended hour before I form it into 1-inch balls, roll it in a cinnamon-sugar combo, and bake at 350 until the tops crack and the edges begin to brown. All is good. Until next time when I discover the last stick of butter has disappeared from the fridge. Or the roll of parchment paper is empty. Or I could have sworn we had Baking Powder, but there's only Baking Soda on the shelf.

Will I learn my lesson? Maybe not.
But we are now going to learn what Cream of Tartar is and why it is a Snickerdoodle necessity.
Cream of Tartar comes from wine! That must be what gives the perfect cookie its perfection. 
From the blog BakingBites.Com: Cream of tartar, more technically known as potassium hydrogen tartrate, is a fine white powder with many culinary applications. It is a byproduct of the winemaking process as the powder forms inside wine barrels during fermentation. It comes from tartaric acid, a naturally occurring substance in grapes and some other tart fruits that is the principle acid in winemaking. It helps to help control the pH of fermenting grape juice (wine) and that also acts as a preservative for the wine. It is an acid and it is often used as a major component in baking powder, combined with baking soda to react when the mixture is moistened to ensure that baked goods rise well. 


Give it up for . . . Cherry Gun!

It's a strange feeling when your date night includes a trip to the local casino to listen to a band a grown son of your friend plays in. And by strange, I mean "Wow, we're old." Tim and I didn't actually say that. I did exclaim, more than once, "Wow, what a kid. He's just a baby."

I'm sure the 20-something drummer with his piercings and his powerful beat and rocking voice would not appreciate me calling him that. I didn't say it to his face when he came out to chat with us between sets. But I reflected on his shy, quiet demeanor, his youthful half-grin, and his shock of reddish curls as he ambled back on stage. And I had to say it again, "What a bey-bey."

We had a fun night watching Cody lay the beat for "Cherry Gun," a Minneapolis-based cover band that plays a wide range of rock, country, and pop. As Cody joked about the upcoming set, he acknowledged the eclectic mix, "There'll be 'Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy,' followed by a Pitbull song."

They attracted quite a crowd of gamblers, dancers, and drinkers during the evening with a set list that included Lady Gaga's "Poker Face," Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl," Taylor Swift's "Shake it Off," and Adele's "Rollin' In The Deep." At one point, I could've sworn the guitarist had actually channeled Neil Diamond during an eerily spot-on rendition of "Sweet Caroline" (bom-bom-bom  . . .  so good, so good, so good).

Keep an eye out for this band, "Cherry Gun," which could be coming to a casino near you. We heard that they already have their tour dates booked through September 2015. And they're set to play our Riverside Casino again in January. Visit their website, www.cherrygunband.com. Like them on Facebook. They deserve the support. They're a talented, hardworking bunch.

Cody's probably enjoying the post-concert rock-star party life as I write this on my laptop in bed. Way past my bedtime.