Monday, January 31, 2011

Happiness is...dessert!

Truly.  Who out there doesn't enjoy a deliciously decadent dessert every now and then?  Raise your hands.  Good. Now that you've identified yourselves, kindly commit yourselves to the nearest insane asylum.  Even if your version of a decadent dessert consists of fresh berries with some thick, cool, lightly sweetened whipped cream we've all got a sweet tooth of some sort. 

Well, this weekend I indulged mine a little more than I should have.  But it was worth it!  I blame it on my friend (who insisted on inviting me to a cookie swap on Saturday) and my penchant for setting New Year's Resolutions (which lead to my wanting to try new recipes and impress whoever I happened to have invited to dinner this time) and take no responsibility for my actions at all! :)

My first excursion into recipe adventure was a tasty, homemade version of the Whoopie Pie (the cakey, Oreo-ish goodness I believe was invented by the Amish.) I found a fantastic recipe on for a chocolate/peanut butter version.  You can see it much better in her beautifully professional photographs.  Maybe one day I'll be that good, but until then this is what you get...

You probably can't tell, but the cake was light and moist and just a bit crumbly, while the middle was creamy and oh so yummy!  I used crunchy peanut butter as it was all I had on hand so there were bits of peanuts in the middle as well and it had just the perfect amount of saltiness to balance the sweet chocolate...mmm, to die for!  And super, super easy.  I took them to my cookie swap and they were the hit of the party.  Everyone loved them!  So, if you've got an extra 45 minutes or so in your day with nothing to do, I highly recommend you make these.  You'll thank me, I promise!
My second adventure involved a cheesecake.  I've always presumed cheesecake was hard to make.  It's laborious and time consuming, yes, but it wasn't nearly as hard as I'd thought.  I'm a sucker for anything pumpkin flavored and didn't really get my fill this fall so I googled pumpkin cheesecake recipes and found this one.(recipe)  It turned out beautifully, just the perfect amount of cheesiness and pumpkin flavor, light texture and the crust was a great balance of spice and nuts, mmm!  

Again, you can't really tell from my horrendously lit photos (when I ever get my own house there will be lights and windows EVERYWHERE!!!) And I didn't think to take the photo until after we'd dished it up and enjoyed most of it, but here's what was left.  (And don't tell my mother, but I ate another piece for dinner tonight, smothered in whipped cream....mmm!)

I'm afraid I have a bit of a fixation with food, but I really do enjoy eating.  I love taking time to really savor what I eat; the combination of flavors, textures, smells as well as the ambiance of the environment and the presentation of the food.  I'm even coming to enjoy more and more the process of creating the food (though it still seems that the best food is the kind you don't have to cook for yourself!) 

Readers, what is your relationship with food? Is it something that simply fuels your body or something you find pleasure in? Do you eat a healthy diet or one based on convenience alone?  What are some of your favorite things to eat and/or make? I hope you find a bit of happiness in what is on your plate today. Me, I'm off to eat the last Whoopie Pie from the freezer.  G'nite!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Happiness is...going on an adventure!

Somehow life always looks a little brighter when you've got a vacation on the horizon.  It makes everything much more bearable when you can say things like, "I just need to make it one more month and then it's off to..." or "Just think, two weeks from today and I'll be..."  And then when you come home you can say things like, "Wow, I can't believe it was just last week that I was..."  And that's in addition to all the amazing things you see, do and experience while you are gone.

My list of places I want to visit is almost as long as my list of books to read. If I ever win the lottery or figure out how to become independently wealthy I will spend some time living in a foreign country, travel to the land of the Hobbits (aka New Zealand), and then hop over to Australia to see the mysterious Ayers Rock. There would also be a trip to the land of my ancestors to hunt for trolls and maybe plan a run-in with the Norse god Thor. Then there's the African safari, the walk along the Great Wall, the trek up to Machu Picchu, seeing the sun set at the Taj Mahal, riding an elephant in Thailand and a host of other dream expeditions.

But, more than any of those places there is one that has held sway over my heart for years.  And I just booked it!  My dream vacation that I will have to anticipate for almost a year, will drain most of my savings account and make it virtually impossible to go anywhere else because I have to save all of my time off for the 3 weeks I will be gone.  Where is this place, you ask?  I will give you three hints...

(Thanks to Fun For Less Tours for the images and the anticipation of a wonderful trip!)

That's right, dear reader, I'm taking a cruise to Antarctica!!  And I am sooooo excited!  It's also a bit liberating in that I couldn't convince anyone else to go with me so I'll be flying solo.  (Well, minus all the people who will be in the tour group.) We'll leave from Santiago, Chile and cruise through the Chilean fjords, then through the Strait of Magellan and Tierra del Fuego National Park in Argentina and Cape Horn before heading to the Last Continent. Then it's off to the Falkland Islands, Montevideo and Buenos Aires and Iguazu Falls before heading home.  What an absolutely amazing itinerary, eh?! I'll get to see glaciers, frolic with penguins, visit some great cities, meet new people. Woohoo!!

So, where are some of your favorite places to visit? Any locations you constantly dream about? Any adventures closer to home on your list of things to do this year?  Find a bit of happiness, wherever you may be or wherever you may go and here's hoping you have a fabulous weekend.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Happiness is...a good book!

So, I probably spend 80% of my time reading on any given lie.  Work consists of various tasks, all involving books; reading them, shelving them, choosing the best ones for displays and story times, critiquing them, foisting them off on the unsuspecting and/or eager public.  I spend time following a bunch of book blogs and reading review magazines like School Library Journal and Publishers Weekly or perusing Amazon, Barnes and Noble and GoodReads and adding more and more and more titles to my own To Be Read list or suggested titles for the library where I work. I write book reviews for an online database. I have a stack of 8 or so full-length books waiting patiently for me at work, along with a stack of 20 or so picture books.  And to fill my grown-up need (which almost always takes a backseat to my love of children's lit) I have 4 or 5 books next to my bed, alongside my scriptures, that I work through when I get a chance (usually at the expense of a good night's sleep!)

And when I'm not flipping through the pages of a book I can be found surreptitiously reading gossip magazines in the checkout lane, shampoo bottles in the shower, cereal boxes at the breakfast table, facebook posts and emails, billboards...pretty much anything with letters!  But books are always my first love.

Sometimes I read a book because I can relate; to the characters, the situations, the emotions.  Sometimes I read a book because I can't relate at all; they take me to new places, introduce me to people and circumstances I would probably never have the opportunity to experience in real life. I find comfort and validation in the familiarity.  I find knowledge and expansion in the unfamiliar. I become a more well-rounded person because of the books I read.  Even in a book I don't like or can't finish (which doesn't happen very often, I have this sick compulsion to always power through) I find something I can glean from it; what I don't want to become or how not to write or just a supreme feeling of gratitude that my life doesn't resemble what I've just read.

Because my TBR pile is so enormous I often have a hard time convincing myself it's okay to re-read a favorite.  (Especially when my list of favorites is almost as long as my list of books to be read!)  But there are a few that I come back to over and over again.  Like a good friend or your favorite pair of jeans, there is nothing like the perfect book to boost your spirits or hug you in just the right places and it's one of my goals this year to make more time for hugs!

Ideally I'd like to make a book spotlight entry once a week or so as I get more into this whole blogging scene.  But for now, here are a few of my favorite books in no particular order.  These are the ones I turn to when I don't want to take the risk of reading something mediocre, when I need a pick-me-up or a guaranteed cry or to have my faith in the world restored or to simply get lost in someone else's world for awhile.

Elizabeth Peters is one of my favorite authors (along with Mary Stewart who wrote similar type stories back in the 60s). I've been reading their books since I was in Jr High and have read them all, multiple times. Fun, romance (100% clean!), mystery, adventure, exotic locales, and a healthy dose of history all make for the perfect feel-good, make-you-smile and wish your life was little more exciting, rainy day afternoon read.  Both ladies were/are very prolific so there's no end to the entertainment.  This is probably my very favorite of them all and feeds my obsession for men in kilts!

Juliet Marillier is a more recent discovery.  I first read this YA (young adult) book a couple of years ago and fell in love with her amazing talent for bringing to life fairy tale worlds.  She's been writing for years and started out doing adult fantasy (her Sevenwaters Trilogy--now up to 5 installments--is fantastic!)  Her writing is lyrical and beautiful and the way she captures emotions and relationships is fantastic.  She's the first author I recommend to friends when they ask for someone new.

I don't care if you are an adult, there is absolutely no way you can read one of Mo Willems books without at least cracking a smile unless you are made of stone.  He has an incredible gift and it shines most brightly in his beginning reader series about the two friends, Elephant and Piggie.  Seriously, these books are hysterical.  I dare you to read one without laughing.  (And if you do, we can no longer be friends.)  Whenever I need a quick pick-me-up I read one of these babies (it takes about 2 minutes, tops) and my mood is guaranteed to soar.  I read this one to my mom and sister in the car on the way home from the bookstore and they were giggling right along with me.  Love it!!

Yes, I realize this is actually the score and not the novel, but I couldn't find a good image of the book cover so deal with it!  Love, heart break, redemption, fighting for a just cause, and a slightly Dickensian tragic/happy ending (and the music's pretty good too!) I've never read the complete book, I always opt for an abridged version (shame on me, I know) but the spirit and message of it are the same. A classic for a reason.

Another classic and it seems a little cliche to mention it, but I really do love this book.  It's life changing.  This is one where I will never know what it's like to experience the things these characters go through, and yet the themes are universal and powerful.  The characters themselves are so multi-faceted and rich that you long to know them in real life.  And while I am often torn on the book to movie phenomenon as so rarely do the movies measure up to the written word, this is one where I think the film version was spot on and spectacularly done. Who wouldn't want Gregory Peck as their father? (Love you Daddy! :)

And to finish us off, a brand-new but soon-to-be-classic picture book.  This little beauty won the Caldecott Award this year, and deservedly so.  It's precious!  (And lest you be turned off by such a saccharin word, read it and then tell me what you would call it.) It manages to be charming and sweet without being saccharin.  An elderly zoo keeper comes down with a cold and his animal friends venture to his home to take care of him the way he always cares for them.  My favorite is the little penguin but they all have their appeal.  A wonderfully simple tale of friendship with pitch-perfect illustrations.  If you have young children you must read this book, right now! (I implore you!)

Well, I could go on and on and on but it's past 11 and with my luck I will not have the snow day I'm hoping for tomorrow, so look for more to come. But I'd also love to hear feedback from you, dear readers.  (And I do have readers now!  What an awesome feeling to know that I'm not just typing away for the great void out there!)  Do you consider yourself a reader?  Why/not? Have you read any of these? What are some of your favorite go-to books? I'm always looking for more suggestions, my list can never be long enough!  Now, I'd like to say that it's off to bed for me, but I'd be lying.  I've got a book to read!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Happiness is...the fountain of youth!

Last night I went with a group of friends to go ice skating.  It was about 20 degrees out and the wind was gusting...basically it was COLD! We'd bundled up (I personally had on at least 3 layers) and set out for downtown DC. The National Gallery has an outdoor sculpture garden with a fountain where they have jazz concerts and things in the summer, but when the cold weather comes they ice it over, light it up and send us all back in time.

It could have been the mittens or the fact that my roommate and I skipped half way there to try and keep warm, but stepping hesitantly onto the ice I felt the years (and my feet) slipping away.  My church youth group would take us skating nearly every winter and I took many outings to the rink with family and friends growing up.  You'd think with all that practice I'd be a pretty decent skater. Not so!  :)  But part of the magic comes in stumbling and sliding and wobbling like a new colt on spindly legs. Being a bit hesitant and on unfamiliar ground is one of the surest ways to make you feel like a kid again, when so much of the world was foreign and bigger than you. But just as powerful is the joy and giddiness you feel as you zip around that oval with the wind (no matter how frigid) whipping your hair out behind you and the taste of flying without leaving the ground.

And even better is the nice cup of hot cocoa and the fuzzy blankets waiting for you when you get home!  Reader, how did you spend you weekend? Were there moments of bliss and childlike wonder?  If not, you still have Sunday to find some.  Good luck!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Happiness is...discovering new music!

I love listening to music.  There's just something about a melody that connects to your soul and emotions in ways that nothing else can.  A few notes of song can reverse the clock and take you back to your childhood.  Change the notes and you may find yourself instantly in high school, feeling the rush of your first love or the devastation of that first broken heart.  Music captures the highs and lows and recreates them better than any time machine, for better or for worse.

I grew up in a home filled with music.  My parents took us to the young persons symphony programs when we were little and exposed us to their favorite bands from their youth.  My little brothers and sister and I would drag our kitchen bar stools into the front room, pull out the record player and sing back-up into wooden spoons,  or with our hands over our ears, mimicking the recording booths we'd seen on TV. (The Carpenters have no idea how much bigger they would have been if they'd only used us!)  Or for those livelier tunes we'd improvise hand gestures and dance movements ala The Supremes. I also spent many a Sunday night at my Grandpa's house listening to his old jazz records and basking in the memories of the first time he heard or saw a certain band and reveling in his opinions as to why this trumpeter was better than that one and such.

It also seemed like every friend I made or life step I took would introduce me to some new type of music or add a new artist to my list of favorites. A friend who'd served a church mission in South America gave me the gift of Luis Miguel and Los Prisioneros.  A short stint at a small rural college dragged me kicking and screaming onto the country train (never to look back, I'm afraid!) Roommates and co-workers have roped me into concerts such as Dan Fogelberg and Pete Yorn.  Dates have taken me to see Sarah McLachlan and Jim Brickman. My sister continually passes on CDs meant to enlighten me in the ways of some of the smaller indie alternative bands.  And then there are the lovely bloggers who are continually throwing out names I've never heard of!

In consequence, my tastes are rather eclectic and run through everything from JS Bach to Dave Brubeck,  The Beatles to Bon Jovi, James Taylor to Taylor Swift, The Killers to the King's Singers, Lady Antebellum to Belle and Sebastian, Neil Diamond to Diamond Rio, Frank Sinatra to Moonlight Sonata, and just about everything in between (minus most rap and most techno or R&B stuff.)  The only true criteria I have is that the music fits my mood and be sing-along-able.  If the music or message is too crass or unintelligible for me to join in at the top of my lungs then it probably won't make the cut.  Anything else is pretty much fair game.

And I'm always on the lookout for something new and interesting to add to my collection.  This is the latest discovery, take a listen!

Ms. Gledhill has been around for a little while but started out in the Christian music scene before branching out to reach a more widespread audience.  This is the title song from her latest album.  I just love her fun sound.  Everything of hers I've listened to so far is upbeat and full of a slightly shabby chic-ish sort of charm that makes you want to smile and sing-along. (Or ride a carousel.  Don't you just love the vintage carousel in the video?) It's the perfect thing to listen to if you need a quick pick-me-up.  How can you feel low after listening to that?

Reader, who is your favorite artist?  What are your favorite kinds of music? What part does music play in your life? Are there any other artists you suggest I explore and discover?  On this cold and blustery winter Wednesday, do me a favor. Find your favorite piece, take a few minutes to just listen to it play.  Close your eyes, sing along if it's appropriate and just BE the music.  You have my permission! 

Monday, January 17, 2011

Happiness is...a home-cooked meal!

Another of my New Year's Resolutions is to widen my repertoire of recipes and cooking skills. So, I decided I wanted to make a full-on meal once a month; everything from appetizer to dessert.  The only problem is I have a roommate who loves to cook, so my plans have been a teensy bit thwarted, but in a good way.  Instead of doing the entire meal by myself I combined my efforts and the two of us created an absolutely delicious Sunday dinner which we shared with our other roommate and a few friends from church.  It was pretty amazing if I do say so myself.  Just look at this tasty spread...

Roast chicken with lemon, rosemary and thyme.  Roasted potatoes and carrots. Homemade kalamata olive and garlic bread with rosemary butter. Lemon panna cotta with blueberry sauce.  Yum!

And tonight I'm mixing up a batch of homemade chicken noodle soup with the leftover carcass from yesterday.  The perfect winter meal on this cold and blustery afternoon.

Oh, and did I mention that happiness is also a 3-day weekend?  And a clean room? And a de-junked closet?  How was your weekend, reader?  Here's hoping it was just as productive and filled with a bit of happiness as well!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Happiness is...a new computer!

So, my little laptop has been with me since I made the move from Utah to Virginia nearly 5 years ago.  It's been through the ringer and back more than once.  Besides coming across the country I've dropped it, gone through an online master's program, watched countless movies, downloaded/uploaded who knows how many songs to itunes, stored so many photos and journal entries that it's tiny little 37 GB hard drive (I even added extra memory beyond what it came with originally) has had a hard time keeping up.  I've spread things between CDs and flash drives and external hard drives and deleted them from the hard drive more times than I can count.  It's come back from the brink of death twice, both times during my schooling and only by the grace of fervent and tearful prayers (it works people!)

So, my goal for this year was to use my tax returns not for travel as I usually, do but for a new laptop.  And as much as I need one, oh how that decision hurt! I'm just not a happy camper when I don't have a vacation on the horizon.  But, never fear!  Daddy came to the rescue with a belated graduation gift when I was home for Christmas this year, some funds toward the purchase of a new computer.  Woohoo!

Last weekend, after much deliberation, I trotted over to my friendly neighborhood BestBuy and found me an itty bitty Toshiba (pictures of the new bundle of joy to be added soon). Now I just need to figure out how to use it!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Happiness is...a birthday party!

I threw myself a birthday party yesterday.  That's another first for me.  I don't like to be in the spotlight.  That's just asking for trouble when things don't go according to plan, you can't fade into the shadows and pretend you have no idea what's going on.  (In the shadows, that's my favorite place to be!)  But it turned out rather well.  There was a decent amount of people that showed up but not so many I felt overwhelmed.  And it was great to spend some time with some truly wonderful friends.  I was showered with unexpected gifts and a month's worth of hugs along with tasty treats and terrific conversation. It definitely made up for the crappy rest of the week I spent sniffling, sneezing and feeling generally yucky. 

A few more things that make me happy...
African Violets
Star Wars cookies
Any wish I could have made while blowing out my candles would pale in comparison to what I already have in my life, compliments of the wonderful people I call friends. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "A friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of Nature."  Amen, Mr. Emerson.  Amen!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Happiness is...a fresh start and a new challenge!

With the start of the new year I'm always looking for things to add to my never-ending list of resolutions and things to accomplish.  My years start not only with the freshness of a blank January 1st slate but with a birthday on the 2nd, today. This year is a significant birthday (don't ask which one, it's not polite!) and with it I've decided to focus my goals on doing things that scare me...hence this blog! Putting my writing out in a public venue, opening a bit of myself up to the masses is a very scary thing.

I've been a blog stalker for a couple of years now admiring the skills and accomplishments of writers, book reviewers, artists, designers, photographers, chefs, crafters, family and friends. I don't feel that I have a strong enough leaning in one particular area to devote an entire blog to it, instead my blog will be a celebration of the many things that make me happy.  Books, art, nature, thoughts and ideas, family, food, travel, music, God, the unexpected, friends, adventures, puppies, rainbows.  I'm sure they'll all be covered here at some point in time. If you are looking for something insightful, smart, or world-changing, this ain't it.  But if you need your day brightened just a bit, a new way of looking at the world or just another way to waste some time at work, then you've come to the right place.

We're just wrapping up the holiday season.  I love that we begin everything in November with the opportunity to focus on what we are thankful for, for all that we've been given.  This grateful mindset is the perfect way to usher in the Christmas season.  It helps us to be more open to giving to our fellow man, makes us aware of the miracles all around us and brings to mind the reasons for the birth of Christ. And with our hearts turning to charity and love we are primed for a new beginning. We can evaluate what is truly important, where we stand and what we need to do to improve, setting appropriate goals and moving forward with thoughts of gratitude and love. These thoughts of gratitude are what lead me to the theme for this blog.  I'm a bit pessimistic by nature and tend to focus on the doom and gloom.  I've tried hard recently to look for the positive, to count my blessings and appreciate all the wonderful things that this world has to offer, the things that are constantly touching my life.  When I look for them, they are easy to find.  And so, this blog will hopefully be a catalyst for my taking more notice of what's around me and celebrating all the little things that make this life worth while.  And if I can add just a touch of happiness to someone else's life, so much the better.

In my mind this new year of 2011 is a success already.  Only two days into it and I can already cross one thing off of my list of goals and resolutions. (Another thing that makes me happy!)  Start a blog. Check! Now I only have a million and a half left to go.  Reader, are you a goal setter, a list maker? What do you have on tap for the coming year? Whatever your year may bring may you find success, accomplishment, love and luck and bushels and bushels of happiness with this fresh start and new set of challenges.  Happy Birthday to me and Happy New Year to all of you!