The Big One-Eight

August 31, 2012

My baby turns 18 today. I do not know how that is even possible.

Last night I spent some sweet hours looking through our family photos. All those trips to the park and the beach and the zoo, all those family get-togethers and vacations. (All those regrettable wardrobe choices as well as fluctuating weights and hair lengths…) How nice that only the good times live in our photos and I do not have visual reminders of the blown-out diapers, the sleepless nights, the battles over food and chores and homework (though, clearly, I remember them).

I didn’t find being a mother to be particularly easy or “natural.” The first year of our son Nick’s life was pretty hard on me. I went from working full time in our insurance agency with my husband to staying home full time with an infant who did not sleep well and wouldn’t take a bottle even of breast milk. My in-laws, who lived nearby, worked full time. My mom and stepmom in California also worked full time. We hadn’t been in Florida that long so I didn’t have a circle of friends to rely on for support, advice and commiseration. My closest friend had a three-month-old and lived more than an hour away. Nick was delivered by C-section, and just when I began to recover from that, I began having gall bladder attacks and had to have that organ removed when Nick was four months old. My husband, who was now running the agency without me, spent most of his time at the office and even when he was at home, he was emotionally drained. An organization called FEMALE (Formerly Employed Mothers at the Leading Edge), now known as Mothers & More, came to my rescue with chapter meetings (without kids) playgroups, outings with kids and mom’s night out activities. I met two of my closest friends through this group and we are still friends, all these years later (one of them is the Mary who took me to the winery a couple of weeks ago).

Despite that rough start, we eventually worked our way into being a family. And I have photographic proof that we’ve had a pretty good life. I’d like to share a few of the photos I found last night. The first was taken shortly after Nick was born:

Poor woman. Doesn't know what she's in for.
This is one of my all-time favorite photos. I was finally through that horrible, hard first year, and Nick and I had forged a close bond.

This photo captures one of my happiest memories. Nick had been given a child’s camera that took photos with 35mm film. One afternoon, we both took our cameras out on our nature trail to take pictures of what interested us. (Note the manly work boots and the walking stick.) I did have his photos developed, and I wonder if he has any of them still?

You’ve seen many photos of Scout on this blog. Here’s the first one I ever took of her. We always tell people that Scout chose Nick. My husband and I had chosen a puppy other than Scout from the litter, but when we came to take our chosen puppy home, this little black and white puppy would not stop following Nick around. He already liked her best from our first visit, so we changed our minds and took the black and white one home instead. Later, when we were going through photos of our first visit to see the puppies, we found this:

Most of the other puppies are doing their own thing, while Scout is licking Nick’s face.

The adage “The days are long but the years are short” most certainly applies to children. Nick’s gone from blocks and Legos, to Xbox and Facebook. He’s 6’1” and I couldn’t rock him in my arms if I wanted to. We’re looking at colleges and talking about professions instead of checking out preschools. But he’s still my baby, and always will be.

Even though he’s turning 18, Nick is still in high school, so I have a little more time to adjust to his newfound “manhood.” I can’t express in words how much, how fiercely I love him and how proud I am of him as he grows up and begins to make his way in the world. I can’t think of a more exciting, scary, rewarding everyday adventure than being his mom.

Happy birthday, Nick!


The Pleasure Hours

August 29, 2012

“Only one hour of the normal day is more pleasurable than the hour spent in bed with a book before going to sleep and that is the hour spent in bed with a book after being called in the morning.”
–Rose Macaulay

Everyday adventures

Stormy Weather

August 27, 2012

How lucky are we? Tropical Storm Isaac skirted farther to the west than we expected, and all we got was some rain (and a tornado watch). No school, no trash pickup, and government offices closed today. There could be some flooding of a river near us, but other than flooded roads we’ve been lucky. Again.

We prepared well for this storm—topping off our gas tanks, taking some cash out of the bank, making sure our hurricane food and water supplies were adequate, charging up the electronics and phones. I even went to the library to pick up two books on hold for me (wouldn’t want to run out of reading material, would I? Not that there’s the remotest chance of that). Last night, the worst of the storm looked likely to pass by us, so we didn’t have to bring in all our potted plants and patio furniture. Our preparations took on sort of the opposite of “If you build it, they will come” thinking—more like “If you prepare, the storm will pass you by.”  

Storms come to us all—both the physical and the emotional. With a hurricane or a tropical storm, you usually have plenty of warning. Not so for an earthquake, which I experienced several times growing up in California. There’s not a lot you can do, except try to be prepared for the inevitable. Store up food and water, fill your gas tank, fill your emotional well. And be grateful when all is calm.

A moment ago, I saw the sun peek out for the first time today. It’s gone again, but it reminded me that storms pass. And sometimes they’re not as bad as we expect.

It looks like Isaac will strengthen into a hurricane, and make landfall late Tuesday or early Wednesday somewhere on the Gulf Coast. My thoughts are with the people in the Gulf states—I hope they weather this storm safely. 

How do you prepare for storms—physical or emotional?

Everyday adventures

Look Mom, No Cavities!

August 24, 2012

Did you know that domestic horses need regular dental check ups? A combination of factors, including how a horse chews his food and the way a horse’s teeth continue to erupt through the gum during his lifetime, can create sharp edges or hooks that can actually cut his cheeks and tongue, affecting his eating and making it painful to be ridden with a bit in his mouth. Properly cared for teeth help the horse chew feed more effectively—he won’t drop as much, and there won’t be a build-up of improperly chewed food in his stomach that could cause impaction colic. Veterinarians often perform horse dental work, and there are also specialized equine dentists. They generally recommend dental check ups every six months to a year, depending on the horse’s needs.

When a vet or equine dentist takes off those sharp edges with a file, it’s called “floating” the teeth. This used to be done with a hand tool that looks like a large file (called a “float”), but many vets and equine dentists now use a power file with a diamond head—much easier on both vet and horse. The vet or equine dentist also inspects the mouth, teeth and gums for any abnormalities such as an abscess, broken or cracked teeth or even gum disease! Horses can also get cavities and need to have teeth pulled, just like humans. (As far as I know, brushing a horse’s teeth is not a common practice, however!)

As you might expect, horses do not generally like to have their mouths held open while a buzzing electric drill files down their molars. To float a horse’s teeth, he must be sedated. The vet/dentist uses a special halter and mouth speculum that holds the horse’s head up and his mouth open.

Hey, that's my tongue!
Last week, we had a visit from Advanced Equine Dentistry.  Dr. Jay Clifford is a vet, and Richard Grist, CEqD is an equine dentist.  They’re both very nice and easy to work with, so we always like seeing them. Tank is a good patient and is on a maintenance program, so it takes less than a half hour for him to board the rig, be sedated, have his teeth floated and be back out and waking up. (He always looks a little pathetic as the sedation wears off.) After an hour or so, I let him graze a bit before he goes back out with his buddies.

So that’s your horse care lesson for the week, and Tank’s everyday adventure. Oh, and he got a clean bill of dental health!

Back to normal.

$500 Tip

Aaron's Last Wish

August 22, 2012

It started with a young man’s wish, left behind in his will: he wanted his family to leave an “awesome” tip for a server—not 25%, but something like $500 for a pizza. Aaron Collins died in July, just after his 30th birthday, and his family honored his last wish by collecting the funds for that “awesome tip,” eventually giving a $500 tip to a waitress who served them lunch. You can see the video here:

This act of generosity touched thousands of people who continue to send donations to the Collins family, who have pledged to keep leaving these tips until the money runs out. (As I write this, the donations stand at $58,787, or enough to give a $500 tip to 117 waiters or waitresses.) Others have taken it on themselves to leave their own substantial tips. (You can read more about this and see more videos by visiting

I love this story and wanted to share it with you. I’m touched by the love and generosity of the Collins family, and by the outflowing of love from people who have heard about what they are doing. You never know what a kind act will mean to someone, or how many people ultimately benefit.

Everyday adventures

Summer Wine

August 20, 2012

Saturday, my friend Mary took me to the Keel & Curley Winery in Plant City, FL, for a tasting and tour. What better way to spend a rainy afternoon than with a friend drinking wine?

Keel & Curley got its start in 2003 in owner Joe Keel’s kitchen. Keel, a blueberry farmer, was looking for a way to use end-of-season blueberries, and decided to try making wine with them. It took him a couple tries, but eventually he came up with a wine worth selling and Keel & Curley (Curley is Keel’s mother’s maiden name) was born. In addition to three types of blueberry wine, K & C also produce two blackberry wines and seven “fusion” wines: grape wines combined with other fruit juices. Their wines have won several awards, and in 2010, their Strawberry Riesling won Best of Show at the Florida State Fair International Wine Competition. Keel & Curley is the Tampa area’s only estate winery—meaning it is the only winery that grows and produces wine from its own fruit (in their case blueberries) on site. (They don’t grow all the other fruits they use in their wines on their own property.)

High bush blueberries
We arrived a half hour before our scheduled tour so we could divide up our tastings instead of doing them all at once. (Even with only a sip or two per wine, after tasting 12 of them at once I’d be reeling, and I wouldn’t be able to savor the different flavors.) After we checked in for our tour, we got our tasting cards and began with the Dry Blueberry (100% blueberry juice, with no sugar added).  The room where the tastings take place was a large open space with a distinctly happy vibe (sorry, I didn’t take any photos of the whole place—but you can see some on the K & C website). The wine hosts (a term I just made up) were friendly and knowledgeable, happily pouring wine and answering questions. I know very little about wine, but I enjoyed tasting the fruity combinations Keel & Curley produce. To me, they seemed sweeter and less complex in flavor than many other wines I’ve had, and according to our tour guide, they are considered “young wines,” and best drunk within a few years of bottling.

After tasting several wines, it was time for our tour. Our guide brought us to the large warehouse-type building that housed the entire small operation, from fermentation to clarification to bottling. The spotlessly clean building smelled yeasty, from the wine-making yeast used in the fermentation process. Wines in various stages of completion filled the imported (from Italy) stainless steel vats.

Fermenting wines
Filtering apparatus
Bottling machine
When we returned to the main building we finished up our wine tastings, and chose some wine to take home: Dry Blackberry, Wild Berry Pinot Noir, and Key West Key Lime Sauvignon Blanc (which I did not think I’d like but turned out to be one of my favorites).

Usually my Saturdays are taken up with chores or other work, or I keep myself available for family activities that we seldom seem to take advantage of. Thank you, Mary, for getting me out of my usual rut and taking me on an everyday adventure! I’ll think of you every time I raise my souvenir glass!

What did you do this weekend? I hope you had at least one everyday adventure.

Black Cow milkshakes

Happy Little Things: The Black Cow

August 17, 2012

When I was a teenager growing up in Southern California, I lived within walking distance of an Arby’s fast food place. Sometimes, when I had enough allowance left over after a visit to the record store (yes, record store—I’m 150 years old), I would walk to Arby’s for a Black Cow—a root beer-flavored shake (not a float).

My Arby’s sold the Black Cow all the time, not just during “Black Cow Month,” the way some franchises did, so I could indulge whenever I had the money, or when I could talk my mom into stopping there for lunch. Eventually I grew up and moved away and spent my disposable income on things other than Black Cows, but for years, every time we stopped at an Arby’s, I always hoped they’d have a Black Cow shake on the menu. Arby’s eventually discontinued the shake altogether and I went into mourning.

Now, thanks to the magic of the internet, I can satisfy my Black Cow cravings. However, as I was looking up information on the Black Cow, I discovered that the Arby’s version, a vanilla shake made with root beer flavored syrup, was an imposter. Generally, the term Black Cow refers to a root beer float, sometimes with chocolate syrup added to it! Now there’s a marvelous concept! Chocolate makes everything better. And if you use cola instead of root beer, it’s called a Brown Cow. Or sometimes the other way around. Or sometimes, it’s a root beer float made with chocolate ice cream. It gets a little confusing. Anyway, according to Wikipedia, the first Black Cow was what we now call a root beer float and debuted on Aug. 19, 1893. Frank J. Wisner had been producing soda waters for the people of Cripple Creek, CO, and wanted to come up with a drink the children would like. One night, inspired by the snow topping Cow Mountain (it reminded him of vanilla ice cream), he added a scoop of ice cream to the soda the kids liked: Myers Avenue Red root beer. The drink was hit, and the children shortened the original name, “Black Cow Mountain” to “Black Cow.”

With this information in hand, I decided to try several versions of the Black Cow—a root beer float with chocolate syrup, a vanilla shake with root beer extract and this: Black Cow Ice Cream!  All in the name of science, and all for you, I might add. I know this is the kind of hard-hitting experimentation you look for when you visit Catching Happiness.

The verdict: The ice cream tastes like a good chocolate ice cream with a root beer aftertaste—good on its own and makes a yummy root beer float. However, it’s just enough trouble to make that I probably won’t do it again. The vanilla shake with root beer extract was close, but a little bland. The winner? The root beer float with chocolate syrup! That’s what I’ll reach for the next time I want to satisfy my nostalgic craving for a Black Cow.

The aftermath of making the ice cream

What was one of your favorite childhood treats? Do you still indulge?


Summer Afternoon

August 15, 2012

“Summer afternoon, summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”
—Henry James

It's National Relaxation Day today! Why not celebrate?


Where's Ariel?

August 13, 2012

Seen on the street in San Francisco:

I hope she enjoyed her trip. Apparently, her co-workers missed her!



August 10, 2012

What was all that about keeping life simple, reducing the amount of stuff on hand, etc.? I seem to have taken a step or two back, and it’s no surprise that books were involved.

I had been quite good about not buying a lot of books lately—that is until the bookish stars aligned in a most particular way in the past month. Suddenly I find myself inundated with a large pile of books from: 1. a library book sale; 2. my local used book store (where I at least turned in some books for credit); 3. Paperback Swap and 4. a sale at (I also bought a couple books from my library’s used book store as well. It’s a sickness, I tell you.)

I justify this sudden influx of books by noting that I’ve only bought books that I either can’t get at my library, books I especially want to add to my personal collection, or books that I need/want for reference for a writing project. I also can’t help it that one of the books on my Paperback Swap wish list became available during this same period…

And just when my to-be-read stack seemed to be shrinking.

Curious about all this book bounty? This post would be far too long if I describe all of these, so I’ll just share a few:

Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin. I found this at my local used book store. I was under the impression this was a series of essays, but it turns out it’s a novel, set in San Francisco. After visiting San Francisco, I’ve wanted to read more about it, and more books set there. 

Very New Orleans, Diana Hollingsworth Gessler. Another travel-inspired title. I’m adding this little illustrated book to my growing list of books about New Orleans, one of my favorite cities. 

The Solitary Summer, Elizabeth Von Arnim. A novel by the author who wrote Elizabeth and Her German Garden. In this book, Elizabeth is to have a summer all to herself, with no guests, but plenty of time for her books and her garden and general roaming of the countryside.  Sounds like heaven to me.  I bought this one and the next from the Abebooks sale. 

The Lady Vanishes, Ethel Lina White. I love mysteries, and this sounds like a good one. Originally published in the 1930s as The Wheel Spins, Alfred Hitchcock eventually made a movie out of it. 

Pears on a Willow Tree, Leslie Pietrzyk. This was one of the books my son could have chosen to read from his school’s summer reading list last summer. He didn’t choose it, but I decided to read it. Described as “a multigenerational roadmap of love and hate, distance and closeness….four generations of mothers and daughters of Polish ancestry are bound together by reminiscences and tangled relationships.” (Doesn’t sound like anything a teenage boy would want to read, does it? Who chooses the summer reading lists, anyway?!) Another purchase from my library’s bookstore.

Cousin Kate and The Spanish Bride, Georgette Heyer. I used to read Georgette Heyer’s historical romances when I was a teenager and young adult. This summer, I picked up Heyer’s biography, which turned out to be fascinating, and renewed my interest in her work. She was a very private woman, refused to do interviews to promote her books, and was quite expert on the Regency era in England in which so many of her books were set.

England As You Like It and England for All Seasons, Susan Allen Toth. I dare you to read Toth’s books on England and not want to pack your bag and go. I already had Toth’s My Love Affair With England and decided I wanted to complete the set—thanks to Paperback Swap, I did.  

Belle Weather, Celia Rivenbark. A collection of funny essays focusing on southern life. I’ve read her other books (including Bless YourHeart, Tramp, and Stop Dressing YourSix-Year-Old Like a Skank)  My library bookstore had Belle Weather for just a dollar, so I snatched it up.

I admit I go overboard with books. I really do not need to own all these books, but chances are pretty good that I will pass at least some of them on eventually, back to the used book store, library or Paperback Swap. In the meantime, I will revel in the wealth of printed material I have to choose from. I just finished a novel, so what shall I pick up next?

What do you go overboard with?


Ode to Marbles

August 08, 2012

Photo courtesy  Malgorzata Replinska

I have always enjoyed poems that celebrate the small pleasures of life. Here Max Mendelsohn, age 12, of Weston, Massachusetts, tells us of the joy he finds in playing with marbles. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]

Ode to Marbles

I love the sound of marbles   
scattered on the worn wooden floor,   
like children running away in a game of hide-and-seek.   
I love the sight of white marbles,   
blue marbles,   
green marbles, black,   
new marbles, old marbles,   
iridescent marbles,   
with glass-ribboned swirls,   
dancing round and round.   
I love the feel of marbles,   
cool, smooth,   
rolling freely in my palm,   
like smooth-sided stars   
that light up the worn world.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2004 by The Children’s Art Foundation. Reprinted from Stone Soup, May/June, 2004, by permission of the publisher, Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.


Adventures in Family Vocabulary

August 06, 2012

My husband and I have been married for 24 years, and over that time we’ve developed a set of words and phrases that serve as a kind of family shorthand for feelings and inside jokes. Most of them have an element of humor (good for diffusing sticky situations) and sometimes serve as a sort of verbal throwing-up-of-the-hands. For your amusement, I share a few of them below:

“I’m a delicate flower.” Meaning: whatever you’ve asked me to do is too hard, and I can’t/don’t want to do it. Sounds nicer than “You don’t really expect me to help you move that furniture, do you?”

“Pay the love toll.” Meaning: Before I give you what you want/you walk by me/you leave the house, I need a hug.

Hayseed/Nimrod. A hayseed is a person who has done something stupid, but doesn’t know any better. A nimrod knows better, but does the stupid thing anyway. With teenagers around, it’s often hard to discern between hayseed and nimrod behavior.

“Buy yourself a trinket.” Usually said by the lender to the lendee who is returning change after borrowing money. Sometimes we also say this when someone outside the immediate family tries to pay one of us back for something we paid for.

“You kids get off of my lawn.” We say this when we realize we just said something that makes us sound like old fogies. Usually accompanied by shaking a fist in the air.

Family vocabulary makes me happy. I feel more connected in an intimate way to my husband and son, because no one else completely understands the history and emotional content of our words. Sometimes saying a single word in a certain way diffuses tension, making us laugh instead of yell or cry.

Does your family have any words or phrases that serve as family shorthand or inside family jokes?

Did someone say HAYseed?


2012 Summer Olympics—Horse Event Primer and a Few Fun Facts

August 03, 2012

Have you been watching the Olympics? I’ve been spending hours glued to the TV because…equestrian events! Thank you NBC Sports! So far they’ve had the sense to air good portions of the three equestrian events that take place at the Games: eventing, dressage and show jumping. If you’ve never watched equestrian events, here’s a quick primer for what you can see, and a few fun facts:

Currently, equestrian events are the only ones where men and women compete against each other as equals.

The three equestrian sports at the 2012 Olympics are dressage, “Grand Prix” or show jumping, and eventing (also known as three-day eventing).  Each sport has a separate team of riders and horses.

In dressage, horses perform a series of movements known as a “test.” The first two rounds, the movements are in compulsory order. The third round is “freestyle” and set to music. Dressage has been called “horse ballet.” In show jumping, horse and rider must complete a course of approximately 15 fences within a set amount of time. Penalties are assessed if poles are knocked down, a horse refuses a jump, or if the horse and rider do not complete the course within the time allowed. Eventing takes place over several days and includes three components—a dressage test, a cross country course, and a round of show jumping. (The dressage and jumping aspects are completed in the same manner as the regular dressage and show jumping, but at a less demanding level.) Eventing is the triathlon of horse competitions, and tests the horse’s fitness and the rider’s all-round skill.

In each of these sports, team and individual medals will be given out. Two hundred athletes will compete for the six gold, six silver and six bronze medals at the 2012 Olympics.

Riders must be a minimum age of 18 to compete in eventing or show jumping, and 16 to compete in dressage. The oldest member of the U.S. Olympic team is Karen O’Connor, a 54-year-old eventer competing in her fifth Olympics. The youngest is 18-year-old Reed Kessler, part of the show jumping team. And the oldest athlete at the entire 2012 Games competes in dressage: Japanese rider Hiroshi Hoketsu, age 71.

Equestrian events began in 682 B.C. when a four-horse chariot race took place at Greece’s 25th Olympiad.

Until 1952, only male cavalry officers were allowed to compete in equestrian events.

Lisa Hartel, of Denmark, won a silver medal in dressage at the 1952 Games, despite being paralyzed from the waist down by polio and having to be lifted on and off her horse.

Also in 1952, Foxhunter, the horse that carried Colonel Harry Llewellyn to Great Britain’s only gold medal of the Games (in team show jumping), received a congratulatory telegram from Winston Churchill.

The horses that compete in the Olympics have their own passports. The passports don’t have pictures, but line drawings indicating the horse's identifying features. They also contain a list of the horse’s vaccinations.

Check online or with your local TV stations if you’re interested in taking a peek at the world of equestrian sports (or click here for the best schedule I've found). Eventing finished earlier this week, dressage is taking place now and show jumping starts Saturday. Here’s a quick YouTube video from the eventing competition to whet your interest: 

What’s your favorite Olympic sport?


Treat Yourself

August 01, 2012

“One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats.”
—Iris Murdoch

How will you treat yourself today?