Non-Forced Relaxation

Mellow is just not in my nature. I have pretty much one gear – Go Go Go. Particularly in the mornings. I like to get up and get going. An early morning run is my favorite, getting in a good workout before settling into the day. Even at the cabin, I require my run and a brisk swim before hanging out on the dock with my coffee and magazines. In winter, I chomp at the bit waiting for it to get light and warm up enough to go out skiing. Intellectually I know conditions will improve as the morning goes on, but my heart wants to rush out the door.

The holidays change all that. Having a house full of family brings its own pace and set of priorities. There is nothing like the dim light of morning, when the great room is lit by only the Christmas tree, the fireplace and a few strategic lights. It oozes quiet and relaxation. Little grandkids wake slowly, snuggling in my arms or someone else’s as they gradually come to life. Each member of the family rises on their own schedule, but tend not to sleep in as late as they once did. I set the coffee brewing in the corner and start making the first of many batches of pancakes and bacon.

Even once fed, pajama clad family members linger on the couches. Reading is a favorite pastime, as is playing with 2 1/2 year old Ben’s newest toys. Recounting moments from the previous evening’s games is a popular topic. Routines have all been left behind, and no one feels the urgency to move on. Not even me.

Skiing – A Christmas Eve Tradition

First SkisI grew up in a family of downhill skiers. My parents spent their honeymoon skiing at the King’s Gateway in the UP. I learned to ski at the age of five, going up the hill between my dad’s legs as he rode the T-bar. Skiing was a family affair, rising early to drive to the ski hill, eating the lunch that Mom packed in the leather travel case, and skiing until the slopes closed. My best birthday present was the pair of Head skis my parents gave me – I felt like I’d reached the big league.

From an early age, I remember spending Christmas Eve skiing. All the excitement of Christmas seemed to crescendo, reaching its peak on that day. The anticipation of all the presents and the holiday made the day endless. We probably drove our parents crazy, snooping under the tree and getting under foot while they made the final preparations. So they instituted the tradition of going skiing. We’d ski all day and get home tired and happy, just in time for dinner and a hot bath.

In the early years, the whole family spent the day skiing. As we got older and my siblings got their driver’s licenses, they would drive us to the ski hill while Mom and Dad stayed home. I didn’t realize it then, but it must have been a welcome opportunity to prepare for Christmas undisturbed.

Brule trailsI’m still a skier, but I’ve long since traded downhill for cross-country skiing.  I love the quiet, the trails, the constant motion and the challenge of the uphills. So this Christmas Eve found me out in the woods instead of out on the slopes, but still skiing. It seemed so right. And just like in years past, it helped stem the tide of my anticipation. It’s not the presents under the tree that fuel my excitement these days, it’s the arrival of my IMG_9427 trimmedchildren and their children. The cooking and baking are nearly complete for the holiday meals, the house and tree are decorated, and the presents are all wrapped.  I’m ready to trade empty nesting for a house full of family, noise, and togetherness.  The new house will be overflowing, putting airbeds into use and slipping grandkids into small corners to sleep.  But that’s what memories are made of.  Bring it on – it’s Christmas Eve!

Residual Rollers

The recent blizzard in the Midwest missed us entirely.  Or almost.  Although the skies were dark with ominous clouds overhead yesterday, they didn’t produce a single snowflake.  But the wind was fierce and frosty.  The temperatures belied the chill brought by the stiff wind, and we could hear it whistling through the trees through most of the night.

Some time before morning, the winds dropped, the clouds disappeared and we woke to a clear and chilly day.  As I headed out for my morning run, the promise of a brilliant sunrise lured me down to Brighton Beach to catch those early morning rays. Upon reaching the lake, however, I found the sun obscured by the thick steam rising from the lake.  The sharp plummet into single digits was extracting the heat from the lake, and seemed to leech the color out of the sunrise.

Despite the relative calm of the morning, the lake was still heaving from yesterday’s blow.  From a distance it appeared to be flat and quiet, but at Brighton Beach the swells curled and crashed onto the shore, producing a chilly spray that rained down upon the rocks.  The sound of of the pounding water and the rhythm of the action was musical and mesmerizing.

Interestingly enough, the waves seemed to be confined to that particular section of shoreline.  As I continued my run up the North Shore, the water quietly lapped the rocks without any fanfare.  Brighton Beach and its large rocks must be uniquely positioned to facilitate the crashing of the waves.

IMG_9395 trimmedOf course I didn’t have a camera with me during my run, and the day nearly slipped by before I returned to try and capture the waves.  It was almost sunset by then, and to be honest I had a feeling I had missed my chance.  But as soon as I approached the IMG_9410shoreline, I could hear the thunder again and see the spray.  The residual rollers continued.

The waves weren’t huge by any standards.  It was the way they materialized out of the flat lake that was so intriguing.  The rocks near the water’s edge were encased in a slippery coating of ice that added to IMG_9419the appeal of the scene.  And in the west was a beautiful sunset that lit up the sky – unlike the sunrise that failed to produce any color.  My little point and shoot camera felt slow and unresponsive as I tried to catch the waves in action, and my fingers became clumsy as the cold penetrated my thin gloves.  But I was glad I had returned to see yet another magical moment on our Great Lake.

Singing The Messiah with Mabel

I’ve always wanted to do a Messiah Sing.  It sounded like great fun – the audience and the performers are one and the same.  An orchestra is provided, and singers come together to sit in the auditorium and sing Handel’s Messiah from beginning to end.  So when I saw that St. Scholastica had a Messiah Sing, I decided I’d go.

I’d sung a number of pieces from The Messiah in my high school and college choirs, so I knew some of the sections would be very familiar to me.  In fact, I doubted I needed the music for “For Unto Us” and of course the “Hallelujah Chorus.”  Something that monumental sticks with you for life.  I knew there would be pieces of music I’d never seen before, but I was counting on my rusty sight reading skills and the more experienced singers around me to carry me through.  I recruited a friend to go with me, and I was ready for the challenge.

But I had another reason for going.  Back last summer when we were cleaning out Mom’s house, we went through all her old music.  I found a score for The Messiah that had belonged to her mother, Mabel, with her name hand written on the cover.  It felt like a treasure and I claimed it for my own, hoping for this very opportunity.

Mabel was a music teacher and the first music supervisor for the Iron River, Michigan public schools in the first quarter of the 1900s.  She was known for loving “show business” and the musicals she put on, both in the schools and in the community.  She also greatly enriched the music program to serve all students in the schools.  We found a tribute written about her for the town’s centennial celebration.  One phrase jumped out at me, “Surely no one belonging to the mixed chorus could ever forget rehearsing ‘The Hallelujah Chorus’ from Handel’s famous oratorio, ‘The Messiah.'”

The score sat on my bookshelf until last night.  So as we progressed through the music singing, I found Mabel’s notations for the first time.  It felt so deeply personal to see her markings for expression, for breathing, for dynamics.  I loved turning the brittle yellowed pages, knowing she had turned them, probably directing that school choir.  It made the evening special, bringing back my musical roots and reminding me of my own musical training starting from a young age.

I never knew my grandmother, Mabel.  She died when my mother was 16.  But she left behind a musical legacy that lived on through my mom and on down through me and my own children.  I am so very thankful to her for that.  And I look forward to next year, when I will again bring her score to sing The Messiah.

Christmas Cookie Experiments

It seemed like a good idea.  Rich’s dad mentioned Tinker’s Dark Cookies last year, so I tucked the idea away and thought I’d add them to the package of his favorite Christmas cookies that I send him each December.  I managed to procure the recipe through pure luck.  My sister-in-law happened to be down visiting Dad in Florida, and she copied the recipe out of his wife’s hand written cookbook.  I was in business!

Until I read the recipe…  Hmmm, a list of ingredients, two conflicting sets of times and temperatures for the oven, and a note that warned not to grease the cookie sheets.  That’s it.  I figured I could deal with that, but on looking more closely I realized the real problem.  It called for 1/2 box raisins, 1/2 box currants and 1/2 package fruitcake mix.  Just how big were boxes and packages way back when she made them?  It was probably in the 60’s or so, as Rich remembers the cookies.  And there’s no asking his mom or Tinker any more.

Technology to the rescue.  Surely this recipe must lurk out on the internet somewhere.  After numerous google searches, haunting recipe sites and trying all combinations of descriptions and ingredients, I gave up.  It’s not there.  So next I tried the history approach. What does Sunmaid have to say about their packages back in the 60’s?  Nada.  They’re not telling. Not unless you’re interested in those little snack boxes.

I was on my own.  I was going to have to guess at the quantities.  In my mind, it boiled down to this:  Have packages increased in size along with the super-sizing of American palates?  Or have they shrunk with the marketing ploy that avoids raising prices by reducing the quantities we are buying?  Or have they done both?  In the end, I decided on the middle road, and just used existing package sizes.

Mixing up the batter, it seemed more cake-like than cookie dough.  It was rich and dark with molasses, spices and lots of fruit.  And no eggs.  I Cookie dough after adding more fruitcrossed my fingers and baked a cookie sheet full.  Rich was my official taster and quality critic, and I waited as he delivered his verdict.  He remembered more fruit and less nuts.  And the cookies spread more than his mom’s. Okay, version 2. Dumping in more of each fruit and making the cookies smaller resulted in a pretty nice little cookie.  Yes, that’s closer he declared!

Good enough, I figured, and finished baking the rest of the dough.  And Tinker's Dark Cookiesfrom the other room, Rich commented that they smelled good – just as he remembered.  The positive feedback was appreciated, as I waded through the uncertainty of this process.  I had to taste a few along the way for my own reassurance, and had to admit they were pretty tasty.  Moist and sweet, they’d be great with a cup of coffee.

The cookies have all been boxed up with care, and the package is in the mail.  I’ll know if it was a good idea or not when Dad samples the contents.  If they meet with satisfaction, I’m golden.  I have carefully recorded my own precise measurements and methods for these  cookies.  I hope I’m done experimenting on this recipe.

A Classic Day in the Woods

The ski trails had not been groomed.  I know, I went over to check.  Twice.  With all that new snow, it seemed there was enough for skiing, but without grooming it was too deep for skate skiing.  There were decent classic tracks, forged by a number of skiers out ahead of me.  So I was left with little choice.  If I was going to ski today, it had to be classic.

Ever since taking up skate skiing, it’s been my favorite for workouts.  I just don’t have the solid technique nor the desire to press hard when doing classic skiing.  So instead, I reserve it for recreational skiing with friends or going out in the woods to enjoy the scenery.  I just didn’t know that today was meant for that type of skiing.

As soon as I set off, IMG_9348I could feel the magic.  The snow was soft, with plenty of coverage, and the tracks were decent.  The silence of the woods descended on me as I glided through the snow.  I didn’t need a workout, I needed to enjoy the surroundings.  It was slow going in the new snow, but that meant more opportunity to enjoy the scenery.

It was mid-afternoon but since we are zeroing in on the shortest day of the year, the sun was low in the sky, sending long shadows across the trail.  The sky was a brilliant blue, providing a beautiful canopy over the snowy scene.  And the sunshine felt good on my back.  Lester River was gurgling under the snow and ice and provided a nice vista as I worked my way uphill.

As the afternoon progressed, the sun lit the treetops on fire.  Soon following, the sky itself began to glow and silhouetted the trees in the foreground.  I desperately wanted to capture it in a photo, but my camera battery had long since succumbed to the cold and complained when I tried to turn on my camera.  A mental picture would have to do.  Perhaps it was for the best – it was cooling down quickly, and my willingness to take off my mitts to handle the camera was quickly evaporating.

Maybe they will groom the trails tonight.  I hope so.  But now I’m glad I had a classic day in the woods.

A Black and White World

We woke up to a black and white world this morning.  Snow was falling at a brisk pace and about two inches had accumulated already.  Our surroundings were masked by the deep white powder which transformed all color to a palate of only two hues.  It must be the brilliance of the pristine white snow that renders all other colors mute.

IMG_9329Normally in winter, I prefer to work with the snow rather than against it when going out for my workout.  However, I knew that enough snow would not accumulate in time to send the groomers out on the ski trails.  So I donned my Yaktrax and headed out for an early morning run in the falling snow.  Traction proved to be tricky, as I found unexpected icy patches beneath the snow, and in the deeper untraveled sections the snow clumped and unclumped under my feet.  But this run wasn’t about speed or quality, it was for the experience.  The snow muted all sound and obliterated any long distance view.  I was hemmed in by snow covered trees, in black and white.

Heading down to Brighton Beach I experienced the full force of lake effect.  The NE wind came right off the lake, transforming the snowflakes into crisp pellets that felt like pins and needles on my face.  I was toasty warm inside and frigid on my exposed skin in the bracing wind.  The lake was slightly roiled up and looked decidedly chilly.

I may be biased, but I found some of the prettiest views when I returned to our own neighborhood around Amity Creek.  Who can argue with living in such beautiful surroundings?

    Particularly our own flavor of black and white!IMG_9347 trimmed

A Winter Oasis

Driving down the entrance road, a beautiful sight greeted us. The dry brown late fall scene was suddenly transformed into a wintry wonderland. The trees were laden with fluffy snow clinging to the branches, and the ground was covered with a clean white blanket. The picturesque chalet was lit up from inside, aglow in the evening darkness and skiers silently slid by on the lit trails. Winter!

We were in the Twin Cities, and took the opportunity to get in some skiing at Elm Creek Park Reserve where they make snow for a portion of their cross-country ski trails. Since there was no snow even Up North, we were grateful for the investment and industriousness of the park staff dedicated to keeping their ski trails open. Never mind that it was artificial snow – it was snow and skiing. So far they had covered only 1.3k of trail, and were working hard to add the additional portions to bring it up to 2.5k, but we were happy to have that. Despite the recent warm temperatures, nightly grooming and frequent replenishment with the snow guns had rendered very decent skiing. It was heavenly to ski along, pressing rusty muscles back into service and get some real glide. Feeling the cold air on my face and spending the evening outside skiing was nirvana! To add to the ambiance, real snow was falling, making us believe that maybe real winter was not far off after all. It didn’t amount to much, but that wasn’t the point.

Rich calls it “gerbil” skiing. Doing any distance at all on a 1.3k loop means lots of rotations around the same terrain. But last night no one complained about the repetitions. And once the dinner hour arrived, the trail emptied out and we had little competition for space. Make no mistake, it’s not the same as skiing in the woods, away from civilization and on real snow. But it’s the best we have right now.

I know it’s a worn out refrain, bemoaning losing the ferocity of winters past. So we look forward instead, and as we return to Duluth we are putting our hopes in the Winter Storm Warning that is out for tonight. Will we wake up to winter that is more than a small urban oasis, and snow that blankets not only our front yard but the ski trails across the street? We sure hope so.

Winters of Yesteryear

The high school Nordic ski team just skied by…  on roller-skis.  It’s December and it looks more like September.  The plants outside our front door are greening up again.  I went Christmas shopping yesterday, and passed fellow shoppers in the parking lot who were not wearing jackets.  It just didn’t feel right being so warm while toting Christmas gifts.

When I was growing up in Duluth we always had snow.  Lots of it.  In grade school, our favorite Friday celebration was to walk home from school on top of the huge snowbanks that lined the streets.  They were high, well over our heads.  We had a little red ball that we put on the antenna of our car so others could see it over the snowbank, coming around corners.  (Okay, so cars don’t have antennas any more either.)  We made igloos out of the snow piles from shoveling the driveway.  Big ones that we could sit inside.  Streets were so narrow due to the plowed snow that parking became a problem, or more accurately, navigating around parked cars was a challenge.  And we had legitimate Snow Days, home from school to wait out a blizzard.  At least such is my memory of winter.

IMG_9300The snow we had on Thanksgiving was just a teaser.  I keep telling myself that we didn’t always have snow for Thanksgiving.  And that holiday was early this year.  It’s not time to panic just yet.  Never mind that last year’s dismal lack of snow lurks in recent memory.  We still might have a good snow winter.  Please?