Can you really love 100 holiday cookies?

My recent quest for five great holiday cookie recipes surfaced lists like “Our favorite 100”, “Tbe 88 best”, “49 Christmas cookies you’ll love”. Can anyone really have 100 favorite varieties of Christmas cookies? I can barely name 100 varieties of cookies. Paul Hollywood may not be able to meet that challenge.

Since most already have their favorite recipes, you might wonder why I’m in the market for five new recipes. My quest has a back story.

I grew up baking Christmas cookies with an enthusiasm rivaling Buddy the Elf’s. My own kitchen years later looked like a full-on bakery at Christmastime. I’d mix up batches of my old standbys, and try one or two new flavors each season, as holiday carols fought to be heard over the mixer and bright lights twinkled indoors and out.

Tins with an assortment of five or six varieties shipped off to far-away friends and relatives. Small bags adorned with pretty ribbons and tags found their way into the hands of friends at work, something from my home to theirs. My cookies got rave reviews.

Then something sad happened. A few months after starting a new job, the holiday season rolled around and I baked and gifted my cookies as usual. The year hadn’t been my best and so maybe my batches hadn’t been the all-time best either. If so, I was unaware…until…

A friend among my coworkers told me – without any sugar-coating – that a) not only did my new co-workers not like my cookies, but b) they were the worst they’d ever had, and c) they were laughing at me behind my back about it.

There was nothing weird or unusual about my recipes. Most were traditional. I wasn’t reducing fats or sugars, or creating odd taste combinations. I understood they just thought they were bad. And they threw them out.

I still baked some cookies for a couple of years after, but it wasn’t the same. I didn’t pass them out at work. I certainly didn’t box them and mail them to friends and family as I had in the past. I was literally ashamed of my cookies.

Many seasons passed, and when I did bake, I would make only a couple of batches, and not at the same time. Just some random batches during the season. In recent years, my holiday baking had dwindled to a batch or two of magic bars, pillsbury slice and bake sugar cookies with reindeers or Santas, and maybe some refrigerated chocolate chip cookies.

I’ve received plenty of cookies from others over the years, and I’ve always liked them. Did I just luck into having friends and neighbors who were outstanding cookie bakers? Could I have been that lucky? No.

It’s because gifted homemade holiday cookies are good. They convey that someone spent their time making something, and then cared enough about you to give it to you. Someone selected cookies they thought you’d like. They took the time to see that you got them. And after all, they’re cookies, and cookies are generally tasty.

Maybe people have 100 favorites – or 88 best, or 49 you should try – because cookies just make people happy. All kinds of cookies. Maybe you don’t have to win the Great British Bake Off to have cookies worth baking and sharing.

So this year I made the long-overdue decision to put whatever happened in my past to bed. I made a whole-hearted return to holiday baking…minus the distribution. I mean, one step at a time, friends!

I made 6 varieties, with only one failure. The dough had been too soft, it spread too thin, and I was a bit heavy-handed with the peppermint. I tossed them, deciding anything that made me feel bad about baking would not have a seat at the table.

I’m pleased to say I enjoyed my Christmas cookies breakfast this morning. This plate was 20 years in the making. It looked like heart-won effort. I breathed in top notes of determination. After the final bites, a taste of resilience lingered.

Lasts and firsts.

It’s funny how independence feels like freedom when we don’t have it, and feels like responsibilities and obligations once obtained. Securing independence is the least of the effort. Sustaining it demands much more.

I still remember unexpected dread coursing through me when my parents announced that a college apartment rent check would be their last. They’d agreed to pay until I graduated. Twenty-one, with a college degree, a job in the city, and a paycheck, I would be on my own.

I’d known the day was coming. I’d looked forward to this ever since I could remember. Yet… wow! I would have to pay the rent next month!

I had a similar experience shortly after moving from an apartment to my own home. After 10 hours at work I arrived home to find that minor drip was a failed valve saturating an upper bathroom and the ceilings and floor below. A repair and restoration nightmare stretched before me.

Waiting for the plumber, the main water turned off and my adrenaline waning, I couldn’t shake the inconvenient irony. If this had happened at the apartment, I could simply have called the office.

Manuel would have taken care of the rest. Now I would be making the calls, running the fans, living with holes in the ceiling until I could find, book, and pay new vendors to fix them. And I would be paying for it myself.

My boys are teenagers, with decisions about schools, jobs, and lifestyles before them. Even though it was so long ago for me, I remember those days in my own history. Making my own decisions, setting my own course, being beholden to no one – those concepts were so attractive.

They seemed to be achievements, not states in flux whose maintenance would require constant calibration. Decisions that begot more decisions. Lifts that would at times be harder alone.

I do appreciate freedom. Now, though, I better understand the cost at which our freedoms are bought. I see that we are always adding and subtracting from two sides of a scale. We can’t make a change to one without doing so for both. It is a lifelong pursuit of firsts demanding lasts, of goodbyes making way for hellos, of balancing the imbalanced.

It’s why – if we’re lucky – our attraction to independence gives way to an appreciation of interdependence. Our self-reliance becomes something even better: an agent that moves to help others in their balancing, as they do the same for us.

Will the allure of theme dining ever get old?

I’ve dined at my fair share of upscale restaurants. Still, some of my favorite dining memories involve theme dining, even at home. My love of theme dining started in San Francisco, when I was about seven years old. The first restaurant we chose when we arrived had a different theme at every table. A cable car. A stage coach. It was so glorious to my seven-year-old self. I tried alligator nuggets for the first time. Yum! You’d think it would be hard to top.

Next we went to a Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant. It was a Polynesian restaurant located on a boat, and I believed the decor and mini-umbrella-bearing Shirley Temples were the height of cool. Good thing, because it literally took HOURS to get our food. By the time it arrived, I had fallen asleep, head on the table. I breathed in the delicious aroma of Polynesian chicken in its creamy sauce, marveled at its elaborate chafing dish. It was outstanding. But I, and my by-now-livid parents, were too tired to eat. They do not share my happy memories, but I just thought it was the coolest place EVER.

We had more success at the Hyatt Regency’s Ponte d’Oro, where everything was gold or some facsimile thereof. Celebrity George Peppard waived off the Maitre d’s attempt to seat him before us, although we would have been fine with the preferential treatment. Then the food was awesome, the service impeccable, and we sat in a booth that was fashioned as a “gold” cage. We are memorialized in a slightly faded photo of the night, forever tanned and beaming in our golden booth, my mom’s and my own trendy 70’s floor-length dresses beside my dad’s groovy lapels.

While San Francisco may have introduced me to theme dining, we had just as much fun with it at home. It came back to me on a recent night when we ordered Chinese food from a wonderful restaurant in Great Falls.

I arrived home with our takeout to find one son still mid-X-Box game, and the other about to start on the PlayStation, asking to take his meal upstairs. I, too, had just 20 minutes to eat before running outside to a neighborhood s’mores toasting. Fortunately it was taking place right outside my home, so I didn’t have far to go.

I settled in by myself to enjoy Kung Pao chicken, asking my fine frequent dining partner, “Alexa, play Chinese music”. She began to play something that sounded like a traditional tune, and I smiled, recalling childhood theme nights.

My mom would make an Italian meal and I’d put out a red table cloth, grab a bottle of Chianti bearing a well-melted candle and throw an Italian record on the turntable. Sometimes she’d make sukiyaki, and we’d play a Japanese record, and I’d wear a kimono. My dad was a good sport about it, too. It was so much fun, like taking a mini-vacation. When I think of those nights, I smile a deep smile, from the depth of me, grateful for the nights, and the memories that still stay with me.

I’m not an expert, but I suspect it takes three things to build these memories. First, we need to make the memories – do things out of the ordinary, out of our ordinary, out of the routine. It doesn’t take a lot of money or a lot of time to do this. I don’t think the Japanese record we had was exceptionally expensive, and it probably only took about an extra 15 minutes to throw on the red table cloth, the candlestick, and the Italian record. But it was novel. It wasn’t everyday, so it stood out.

Next, we have to be present in the moment of experience, to truly have the experience. We can’t have our phones out playing games, or reading through something for work. Our minds can’t be wandering around wondering when we’ll be done and able to move to the next thing. It’s not an experience if you’re working around it, squeezing it into things you’ve allowed to take priority for better or for worse.

And last, we have to be present in the moment now, to enjoy what we’re doing and to let our mind connect it more deeply to our past. It’s a rewarding cycle. We can always be making new memories, and if we are open to it, have some old ones at the same time.

Can banning be the best advertisement?

I spent some time this weekend considering banned books, the banning of books, the burning of books, and censorship generally. Good times.

I wondered to what extent banning requests were being exploited as another political or ideological tool. To find out, I headed to the American Libraries Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (online, of course), which tracks and publishes challenges and ban requests. I needn’t have spent so much time there, though. Later in the day, the New York Times published an article answering my questions. There is a range of efforts, campaigns to shape the shelves of U.S. libraries. They include efforts to criminalize the stocking of the shelves by librarians and others who choose works that go against conservative preferences.

A rapidly increasing body of efforts take aim at public school libraries on a platform of exercising parental rights over what children can or must read. In 2020, half of the challenges to public libraries generally were brought by parents. ALA’s OIF provides details as to the basis for some of the challenges of years past. After scrolling through a list of challenges to the top 100 American Novels, I wondered if I could support some of the requests that centered around age appropriateness in cases of required reading. I personally read Toni Morrison’s Beloved in my late twenties, and it was rough content. It was an amazing book, but I could see that I might want to be sure my child was ready before requiring that. It’s certainly a balancing act.

It seems, though, that the balancing act is going to get harder instead of easier. Thanks to publicity around book banning efforts, newly banned books are flying off shelves faster than hotcakes off a diner griddle on Sunday. The New York Post reported that after a Tennessee school board banned Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-prize winner Maus last week, the 30-year old graphic novel series soared to the top of Amazon’s charts, breaking through the Best-selling Graphic Novels category into the Overall Best-Selling category. The book is not only back ordered due to demand, but an online fundraiser to purchase the books free for students generated over $80,000.

One of the most important books in my life was a frequent flier on the banned and challenged lists. By the time I read Go Ask Alice, it had already been banned by some middle schools and high schools. The 1971 book was purportedly the diary of a teenager who fell into drug addiction. It was raw and graphic. It endured years of challenges, appearing among the top 10 most challenged books in 2003. I read the book in 6th grade, at 11 years of age. What it did for me was to strip every bit of glamour off drug use.

By the time I finished that book, I understood drugs to be a bad trade – a trade where I would give up myself and my self control to awful people in exchange for fleeting experiences. That book single-handedly helped shape my perspective and life choices for the better. As a former two-and-a-half-pack-a-day smoker, I can tell you that I likely wouldn’t have been a dabbler in the drug world had I chosen to enter it. It probably saved my life. That’s the power of a book.

Those who try to ban books may meet with initial success. Still, they may just be advertising for the very books they hope to restrict. In the end, I believe they sow seeds that will become forbidden fruits of which many will take note and interest, and ultimately ingest. I say, “Let the feast begin!”

How I learned the high price of lying.

For young children, the line between what they hope is true and what they know is true can blur. This is probably a gradual process for most, but for me it came all at once, with a painful splash.

When I turned 5, I began kindergarten and my mom enrolled in college. Among the benefits to me was better access to recreational classes, like swimming. I already loved the water, but lessons made it even better. The pool even had diving boards. One was low, and the other went up forever.

At some point I learned to dive, and began diving off the low board repeatedly. My mom would watch me to my delight, though it must have been boring watching the same moves over and over.

One day I ran to her and told her she’d missed a great dive. She asked if I’d gone off the high diving board. I don’t know what possessed me, but I said, “Yes”. I immediately wished I could take it back. She said something like, “Oh, I missed it.” I don’t know if she prompted me to “do it again”, or if it was my own idea. Either way, for some reason, I thought that if I simply did the deed, my lie would become a truth. And so off I went, wet feet splattering water everywhere, toward the high dive.

My mom must have thought that faced with that prospect of doing anything from that height, I’d own up to my lie. Years later she shared that she had watched me go, thinking that I’d turn around at any moment. She watched as I climbed up the ladder…and up…and up…and got to the diving board, and stood at its edge. And she thought I’d turn around. But I never turned around. I was doing this. I dove off.

That dive was the most painful of my life. I attempted to do a shallow dive, but my chest and legs hit at an angle that made it feel like more of a belly flop. It felt like death by a thousand slaps. I resurfaced quickly but the pain made it hard to catch my breath. Eventually I did catch my breath. I swam over to my mom and confessed that it was actually my first time off the high dive.

It was a good lesson. Sometimes it’s easy to think that if we say things and believe them hard enough, they’ll be true. But it’s good to have a reminder that it doesn’t really work that way.

You don’t have to go far to make a memory.

Travel advertisements seem to always promise that you’ll make memories if you simply join them on this cruise or at that resort. I have made such memories, and would never trade them. But I’ve also noticed that many of my fondest memories come from everyday experiences. The slightest objects, smells, or sounds can bring us right back to a moment past. Here’s what I mean.

Sometime in the early 1970s, on a hot summer night, my dad introduced me to plums. We were huddled in our TV room – which we called the Blue Room because it was – you guessed it – blue. He sat down with plums and asked me if I wanted any. I said I didn’t think I would like them. He responded, as he did many times, “You don’t know unless you try.” So I tried. They were black plums, deep purple on the outside and deep red inside. They were juicy and they were delicious! They were so refreshing in the summer heat.

Over this past summer, that night came back to me, as if I were a small child in that blue room, talking to my dad. I’d bought a variety of plums and to my delight found that some were exactly the same as those I remembered. The second I cut into the first, saw the inside and smelled it’s sweetness, it all came back. It tasted like our smiles in the light of the television.

Cherries reminded me of my mom for many years, and still do. It’s because one summer she’d put a bunch of washed cherries in a big metal bowl, we took them out on the very green grass of our front yard, and she taught me how to eat them while we picnicked. Now they also remind me of my son, who also enjoys them.

Grape Kool-Aid reminds me of childhood days at the beach with my mom. She’d fill up a Tropicana glass gallon jar full of ice and grape Kool-Aid, and I would help mix in the sugar. The cold jar beaded condensation by the time we got to the water’s edge and spread our towels. It was too heavy for me to lift, but she would pour it into the cup for me. I loved the sound of the ice rattling against the glass jar, and how it tasted when the ice was melting, watering it down. I still love watering down flavored drinks, like Gatorade, and even orange juice.

Kiwi reminds me of my college friends. I had never had a kiwi before college. My friends got one or two to cut up and try. We all decided we liked them, even though they looked pretty gross. Because I was extremely opinionated and largely unfiltered in college, I am sure I said exactly that upon trying it. But when I eat kiwi now, I always think of the girls we were and the women we were becoming on that day.

Touching fresh mint springs brings me back to a tender scene with my grandfather. He would make iced tea and add fresh mint from his garden. I remember him bending down and asking me sweetly in his Italian accent if I’d like some. Sometimes when I drink something with fresh mint, I’m back at his summer home by the bay, the breeze blowing through the house from front to back, the hydrangeas on either side of the front door, and the pea gravel back yard where we sat enjoying those summer days.

Anything made of Mother of pearl reminds me of my grandparents in New Jersey, and of being at their home as a child. My grandfather had a business that made buttons. They mixed shell scraps into the cement for the sidewalk at their home. I thought the sidewalk, which ran along the house and next to a big apple tree, was beautiful. I would crouch down to trace the shell scraps with my fingers, little half-moon cut-outs where buttons had been successfully punched out at the factory. Other pieces were broken buttons damaged in the process. They were shiny and reflected light unlike the chalky-feeling outer shells. I marveled at the layers of shell that could be seen in some pieces. When my mom told me that they were scraps that weren’t needed after the buttons came out, I couldn’t fathom how anything so beautiful and interesting could be unwanted. I don’t have mother of pearl in my sidewalk, but I do have some picture frames that bring me joyful memories of those days.

Creeping phlox in my garden remind me of another grandparent. I think of her when their flowers emerge in my garden each spring. My grandmother planted long borders of them along one side of her sand-colored brick house. We would sometimes visit the home in Pennsylvania for Easter, and would be met by a long row of neat, mounded pink and purple blossoms visible as we approached over the hill. Everything about my grandmother’s house was very neat. Yes, even the creeping phlox.

Her husband – my grandfather – was just as neat. His garage was literally as clean as the inside of the house. Every tool shined and had a place on peg boards or in drawers. The floor was a shiny gray. Though the house and garage were relatively small, there was space around everything, and no clutter to speak of. Having lived through the Depression, they lived out the “waste not, want not” principle. Sometimes when I look at my own garage I have an urge to get everything out, wash it, paint the floor a shiny gray, and find homes for all that remains. Alas, I came of age with the saying, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” and my garage reflects that. So it’s a little easier said than done. But a girl can dream!

Music transports me to many places and experiences from years passed, but in a different way than objects. I don’t think there’s anything else that can move me across a variety of decades in the way music can. And there are both special days and every-days that surface for me. If I give in to the memory as the music plays, I find that my mind moves rapidly on to related memories. It’s as if I’m at a buffet, and there’s just one table after another of deliciousness to choose from.

Hearing Styx’s “The Best of Times” through the car radio, with its own nostalgic quality, I was immediately back at my cousin’s wedding as he married his high school sweetheart. I was in that room dancing and watching them dance, surrounded by cousins and aunts and uncles and other relatives that I loved then, and love still though some have passed on. As I gave in to the memory, it shifted. I was at my own wedding many years later when that groom was a guest watching me get married. Then I was at a pool in Las Vegas celebrating my aunt’s birthday with our families, yet another wonderful experience.

We have so many precious gifts locked away in our brains, just waiting to be brought back to life. We can miss them on days when we move too quickly through the logistics of just getting things done. We should give ourselves the time to pause in the present, and to enjoy our experiences. Then we not only make new memories, but we are sometimes rewarded by moments of unique beauty past.

A blooming pink rose on piano keys

You never know where you’ll find some heart and soul.

When I was five, my family walked across the street to our neighbor’s house for a party. The homeowners were a young couple. The man’s name was Neil. I only vaguely remember what he looked like, and less about his wife on that day. I don’t recall going back afterwards, although we may have, children’s memories being what they are.

What I do remember is that Neil had a piano, and he let me sit down and play it. In a matter of minutes, Neil taught me to play one part of “Heart and Soul”, and he played the other. Then we switched parts. Those minutes must have appeared completely inconsequential to observers. They were not. The making of music with black and white keys reached right into my heart.

Before I go on, please know that I did not become a professional musician. Don’t wait for me to tell you when I hit the big time or about all the lives I’ve touched. It didn’t happen that way for me. This is just a story of a girl and a piano, and how an encounter with Neil and his piano cleared an enchanted, winding path that I still revisit from time to time.

After the Heart and Soul experience, my parents made a stretch investment. They sank $400 into a gently used Winter piano and signed me up for group lessons at our community college. But I hated practicing things like, “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. What was a bonnie anyway? In class, the short electric keyboard heard through headphones didn’t sound anything like the piano at my house or at Neil’s house. I wanted to play songs that sounded big and had lots of notes. I wanted to make real music.

My teacher, an accomplished Romanian concert-pianist, tried to keep me on one-handed scale exercises and one-clef songs. Finally, though, she broke the news to my parents: I had too good an ear for my own good, and not enough discipline to follow her lessons. They were wasting their money. And so, for the next six years, we dusted, polished, and walked past a silent piano in our living room.

Then in seventh grade I met new friends at a new school. They played piano…really well. Watching them play, I longed to make music again, and declared myself ready for lessons. My parents’ response can be summed up as, “Been there, done that, done pouring money into this.” They reminded me that I should feel free to break out any of the several books they’d bought last go-round, and start practicing. It was a reasonable and understandable response. And I took the advice.

After seeing the musical “Annie” and loving all the music, I got the score, and set about teaching myself to play. I broke out the old books. I learned the notes, scales, and how to read the symbols. I had a good memory, so I wrote notes to guide me, learned a few measures, memorized them, and moved on to the next measures. I spent hours each night at the piano. Eventually, I had taught myself to play most of the songs comfortably. So I asked again: Could I have lessons?

My parents agreed to give it another go with private lessons from a friend’s teacher. Each week he would put new progressively difficult sheet music on the stand, and tell me that frankly…trulyhonestly…he thought this piece was beyond my skills…but maybe I could give it a go. The psychology worked. By the following week, I had learned and memorized the piece, and we’d start the same dance over again.

This continued for several years, during which I learned my favorite pop songs, show tunes, and all manner of classical including Chopin waltzes. I still didn’t have the patience for music theory, sight-read poorly, and didn’t get a thrill from public performance, so I was never going to make any money at this thing. Still, I experienced incalculable hours of enjoyment, escape, and accomplishment during that time. It was something of an addiction. When eventually my teacher shared that he had taken me as far as he could, we tried to find an advanced teacher, but could not.

Without new weekly challenges, my mind became occupied with other high school concerns. The passion remained, despite playing only occasionally. I nixed the opportunity to go to a college where the admissions officer sneered when asked of the possibility of taking music electives. I chose a college that had a recognized music and drama school. I’d agreed not to major in music as a condition of my parents footing my very expensive college tuition, but there was no way I was spending four years at a school that didn’t see its value. And while I didn’t take lessons, I did visit practice rooms from time to time.

In my senior year, that Winter piano moved to my college apartment. It has followed me to four other homes since and is still one of my favorite possessions. I’ve played other pianos in many places over the years, including a digital Yamaha in our home that can make anyone sound like a one-man-band. The most amazing experience was playing a Bösendorfer grand piano left unlocked for a concert by some happy accident. It was big. Its sound was bigger. I had a lump in my throat from the beauty of it.

Still, the sound and feel of my Winter is warmest. The sound of my Winter is the sound of my life. It has spent so many hours with me for pleasure and for comfort. I played Christmas carols by twinkling tree lights, and welled tears of joy hearing my children practice on the same keys I loved so well. I played to heal when I was devastated, tears streaming down my face onto keys. I played when I was frustrated, and life was complicated, and nothing made much sense. Many times after playing, my head rested gently on the music stand, one hand on a key block, the other tracing the grain in the polished golden wood or fiddling across keys without any pattern or point. Those were moments well-spent, and gratitude for distractions or memories remembered.

A few years ago, after decades of my own version of carpool karaoke to anything that came on the radio, I decided to take voice lessons. I was not a natural. Still, by some good fortune and destiny, my teacher introduced some theory as part of our lessons. After decades of not caring, I was finally interested in how musical phrases came together to convey different emotions, and how the patterns and structure of a piece could feel predictable or unpredictable to a listener. It was fascinating. Although I wasn’t able to continue the lessons and focus on theory, I may resume some day. I have a feeling that when my nest is empty, I’ll again look for comfort in the keys. This time, I’ll be interested enough in theory to experience playing in a new way.

Would I ever have stumbled into this had we not gone to our neighbor’s house that day? What if we’d gone, but Neil hadn’t stepped over to help me play? Every day we meet people and have seemingly innocuous interactions. Sometimes we don’t know whether or how they touch our lives. I’m sure no one at that party understood that they’d witnessed the exchange of a gift that would keep giving throughout my life.

And what if my parents had simply gone home from that party and thought of it as an entertaining evening? Instead they discussed how they could nurture me, looked through classifieds to get an instrument, found teachers, and drove me to and from lessons for years. What if they’d sold the piano when I was seven, impatient to use the space for other things and recoup at least some of their losses given my allergic reaction to structured teaching? Surely I wouldn’t have taught myself those songs from Annie, or went on to learn so many others.

We can never know how our everyday actions may shape the future for one or for many. But if we lead with our heart, lean in with our soul, we do make beautiful music together.

A beautiful mess.

Some days when I’m leveling off flour in a measuring cup or pouring sugar crystals, I’m visited by memories of bakings past. For a while in my youth I spent Saturday mornings at a 4-H program where Miss May taught us how to bake all sorts of yummies.

I’d never met anyone like Miss May in my town. I grew up in an area largely populated by people who’d moved south from New York and North Jersey. Their families had spent summer weekends on the Jersey shore. Scrappy and confident, from those who had made their way through Ellis Island for better opportunities, they now made the move toward bigger homes in a place that held happy memories. We were loud, quick, and bold. Everyone talked over each other, especially over spaghetti on Sundays.

Miss May’s ancestors also hailed from another continent, possibly against their will. They had moved north from the south, where I heard they knew everything there was to know about baking. Miss May moved and spoke calmly, and gave direction with infinite patience, as if time were no matter. She had a joyful spirit, a quiet tenderness in her soft drawl, and she was inspirational. I wanted to use the butter wrapper to grease the corners of the loaf pan as well as Miss May could. I had to pass the knife over the flour cup three times – forward, back, and forward again – to make sure it was as level as Miss May’s demonstration. I still do it today.

Each week she’d hand out a new paper with a recipe. We’d put them in our 3-ring binders to make our own recipe books. My pages still bear fingerprinted crusts of floury pastes and butter splotches, attesting to the name of the group – Messy Makers. I understand the program still exists, but know nothing of when Miss May stepped away. Thanks to her and the 4-H program, in the short time we spent together I learned to enjoy baking breads, muffins, rolls, and more.

I loved the feel of the dough on my fingers, the warmth when it had risen, the way the air felt when it escaped as I kneaded. I loved the way an egg rested in a mound of flour, and how it all came together when mixed. I loved when the ball of dough pulled away from the sides of the bowl, when it was changing from plain ingredients into something that would be beautiful. I loved the special set of mixing bowls and measuring cups and spoons my mom had bought so I could have what I needed to bake. I even loved the waiting periods when I needed to let something rise, and could go off and do something else while it did its thing. And I loved the smell as it cooked, and the goodness that emerged when it was out of the oven.

At some point I started entering the county fair, and winning ribbons for the goods my little fingers created. I won ribbons in the adult categories, even though I was a child. My favorite blue-ribbon winner was blueberry muffins, made with blueberries we’d picked at a farm. But there were other ribbons. So many, in fact, that one day I was trying to figure out what to do with them, moving them from one place to another. I poo-poo’d the reds and yellows – second and third place winners – as meaningless. I told my mom I could probably toss them. Oh, that did not go over well…at all. My mom was having none of that.

I got a stern but appropriate talking-to about how grateful I should be to have gotten those red and yellow ribbons; how many others would have loved to get any ribbon at all; how the fact that I had gotten them meant that someone else – someone who wanted them – did not get them that day; and generally, how I’d better become a better sportsman, or kiss my competition days goodbye. And rightly so.

Eventually I stopped entering the fair. I don’t recall why or when. But the lesson about good sportsmanship stuck with me. I still have a competitive streak. In time, though, I learned the value of effort, and that most often the effort is worth much more than the recognition or the results.

I value how the “game” – any game – is played, and what goes into it, and the personal stories that bring us to those moments. I’m willing to fail and try new things, and that helps me take chances that pay off. It’s helped me professionally to innovate, and it’s helped me personally in ways too private to share. I enjoy competing with myself, with my own best. I ask myself, “Is this my best?”, not, “Is this the best?” And I enjoy and appreciate the work of others freely, without feeling their success minimizes my own.

Although I’ve won a few awards as an adult, those I prize most are the team awards. I love people coming together and doing great work, creating something better than any of us could have done alone. I’ve learned that sharing success makes it that much sweeter. I’ve lost to competitors on some awards, and I’m just as proud of the attempts and the growth that came of them. My breads are no longer worthy of ribbons, but I love them just the same. It’s a long way from where I started, and a much better place to be.

Pool Jewelry: You can take the girl out of Jersey…

When I was a teenager, it never occurred to me to take my jewelry off before going to the beach or pool. You weren’t dressed without plenty of jewelry and dark black waterproof mascara. Jersey. What can I say?

I carried that tradition well into adulthood. I wore irreplaceable jewelry to beaches and pools everywhere I went. I just got lucky that I left with what I’d come with, and that the pieces weren’t worse for wear. In recent years, though, I’ve been buying inexpensive pieces I consider “pool jewelry” every once in a while. They sparkle and offer the bling factor without damaging the good stuff. They make me so happy!

Why don’t I leave jewelry home altogether? It’s not that I want to look a certain way, or that anyone else cares. I just really enjoy seeing anything sparkling in the sun with the water’s reflection. Nothing looks as good as fingers gliding through the water in front of you with freshly painted nails and glistening rings. It’s a whole experience. The rest of my pool wear is usually pretty toned down. I’m sure no one even notices my pool jewelry, and I like it like that.

My younger self would have been aghast at the thought of separate pool jewelry. That girl believed her life and future pool experiences would resemble the 1980’s Chanel No 5 commercial that bid her “share the fantasy”, a sleek gold-threaded coverup discarded here, a high heel sandal placed just there, a black bathing suit, and perfection all around. I had no idea that the commercial’s director – Ridley Scott – was offering me a fantasy as unlikely to come to fruition as any scene from his Alien films. It all seemed attainable.

One of the pleasures of growing up is that I’m not so wedded to a larger fantasy. It frees me to enjoy experiences for their own qualities instead of their congruency to an overall vision. Sure, I love diamonds, and they have their place. But I can also appreciate crystals that sparkle in the sun in a place that’s shared with others having their own good times. I still do like the idea of that Chanel pool. But I love watching families at Reston pools playing with their children, hearing them giggle and remembering those younger family days in my not-so-distant past. The girl I once was would have grabbed the solitary pool scene any day. The woman I’ve become thinks that might be fun for an afternoon, but it could never be as rich as my real life.

A drop of water in an endless sea is okay by me.

I’m a sucker for traditionally classical instruments in rock songs. Metallica’s “No Leaf Clover” played with a full symphony is probably my favorite example, but it’s not alone. This week I was transported by one of those songs, back to days long before I could put words to such preference. A song can do that. Take you back to a place and a time, the feeling of sun on your face, a breeze through a half-open car window, smelling like something close to home. You see the half-constructed jug-handle turn near the newly-built Pizza Hut…when Pan Pizza was a new thing. Your eyes stop seeing what’s in front of you for a second, a moment from years past so close you might be there now.

That’s what happened when “Dust in the Wind” – the original Kansas version – shuffled up in my playlist this week. I’ve heard it plenty of times, but in this second my eyes glazed and I was a 10-year-old in the back seat of my parent’s car. I was telling my mom how beautiful I thought this song was. The premise made sense to me, and the violin lifted my soul. She disagreed, the thought of our mortality being horrifying. But I liked everything about the song.

I close my eyes
Only for a moment, and the moment’s gone
All my dreams
Pass before my eyes, a curiosity

Dust in the wind
All they are is dust in the wind

Same old song
Just a drop of water in an endless sea
All we do
Crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see

Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind

Now, decades later, I can understand how a mom might not appreciate the thought of us being mere dust in the wind with quite as much relish as her 10-year-old. But when I heard it this week, a different line grabbed me, and for a different reason. “Just a drop of water in an endless sea.”

You see, just before the song played, I’d gotten a notification that a high school friend had accepted an old Facebook invitation I’d sent. I felt instant joy at the memory of her smiling face, and felt we were connected again despite years of being out of touch. We had gotten to know each other in classes in high school, and connected only briefly after graduation. A few letters and calls here and there. Even during high school we’d seen each other mostly during school days. But seeing that Facebook notification I thought how much better my high school years had been having had Deb in them.

I mouthed a “thank you”, grateful for her bubbly personality, and the many laughs we’d shared. Some were predictable – like when she would arrive at the cafeteria and ask me if I’d remembered that we had a vocab quiz in English in about 25 minutes. I’d always forgotten, and would frantically grab the word list just in time, thanks to her. I can still hear her saying, “Dohhnnnaaaa, not again?!” It’s beautifully ironic that I became an English major in college, but that’s probably thanks to Deb, as well. Those reminders helped me place out of entry level English classes in my first college year. I’d replaced them with a literature class I loved so much. It inspired me to switch majors. The choice served me well.

Perhaps we are just drops of water in an endless sea. But each drop ripples, and our effects on those we touch are significant. If our voices and actions reverberate and resound, I’m glad the sea is endless. It just means our impact is that much greater.

While I still love the violin solo, the music, and the vocals of “Dust in the Wind”, I now disagree with most of its other lyrics. It’s not that they are horrible to think of, but that I no longer believe in their truth. I’m lucky enough to have crossed paths with so many who impact other people and our world in positive ways. Buildings we build may crumble, but the good we do for others remains. We are not specs of dust. We are remarkable. We are drops of water, water we all desperately need.