Thursday, April 23, 2009

Rare Gifts, Bought or Made

I enjoy procuring quirky gifts for others. This, of course, means I enjoy receiving quirky gifts. I like to find unusual things, though it's best to reserve that habit for people you know well. I remember a particularly puzzled expression on my piano teacher's face once, when I gave her a bundle of vintage sheet music tied with pretty ribbon and fresh herbs. It was a great gift: I think she just had a LOT of old sheet music that she would've like to rid her closets of, without more be sentimentally presented to her.

But I stand by the creativity, if not the discretion.

Here are some nifty ideas for those of you needing to buy gifts for loved ones in the coming months. They're fantastic for a couple reasons: one, they're unusual; and two, they're
great inspiration. That is to say, if you had the time, ability, and will, you could make these yourselves for much less moolah. And with the economy falling into the cracks of Mount Doom shrieking "my Preciousss!" and money as scarce as hen's teeth, well, I thought you might appreciate it.
Idea #1: Reclaimed Pottery Necklace

These adorable jewelry items are colorful and creative, while being homey and reminiscent. Buy them at Uncommon Goods, and you'll spend
$68 plus S/H. Save your broken dishes, teach yourself a bit about working with wire, and buy a cheap jewelry kit at Wal-Mart, and you're the bee's knees.

And who doesn't want to be the bee's knees?

And that way, you have a reminder of a favorite family heirloom, or just a chipped yard sale find that you like to pretend is a family heirloom.
Did heirloom used to mean looms passed down to heirs? Where does that word come from? I'm too lazy to check wikipedia to find out.

Idea #2: Necktie Wallet

If you're sufficiently crafty, this wouldn't be a difficult project: fashion a wallet from an old necktie. I love this idea, because it makes a wallet a part of a man's ensemble, uses the ubiquitous and timeless necktie as an additional accessory, and would be super cute carried by a chic metro businesswoman. The other great aspect of a necktie wallet? Use a special tie for a loved one. If a passed family member had a favorite tie, it would be a great way to continue to use it. Also, use ties with an alma mater's logo - say, University of Kentucky - or of a favorite brand, like a John Deere tie or a Tony Stewart racing tie. What a fantastic Father's Day gift it would be! Just practice on a yard sale tie first to get your technique down first.

Idea #3: Culinary Garden Kit

Let's consider: An inexpensive tin from a craft store like Hobby Lobby or Michael's; tiny canisters from the same; a few wooden plant markers; seeds; and designing an insert card and cover. This would be a great craft to do in bulk with older kids for Mother's Day gifts, or birthday gifts. I haven't priced these items, so buying the supplies might not be that cost effective vs. buying the finished product. But I bet some of you creative folks could think of inexpensive ways of accomplishing the same end goal.

The question to weigh is simple: which do you have, time, or money? A great prof in college discussed this point in class. You often have either time or money to spend. If you have less money, you spend more time, in things like crafting gifts, food preparation, travel, etc. If you have more money, you can afford to spend less time. But you'll spend one or the other. Now is a good season in North American life to practice spending time!

These three items are available for both sets of readers: for those of you with ample bank accounts and little time on your hands, you can follow the links above and purchase these online. For those of you with scant resources but time and ingenuity, you can have fun crafting gifts like these in the coming days.

I particularly enjoy the fact that all three items include elements that are nearly timeless: old china dishes, men's wear, and seeds. What a way to stay connected to femininity and masculinty as its been expressed over centuries...

Monday, April 20, 2009

Why I Like McCann's Irish Oatmeal

Today on our show we will be featuring a new favorite product: McCann's Irish Oatmeal. We will interview McCann's enthusiast Elizabeth to find out more about why she loves McCann's.
So, Elizabeth, the Big Red Couch is curious: why do you like McCann's Irish Oatmeal?

Me: Well, I'd seen it at the store several times but never purchased it because it seemed a little pricey. I like oatmeal and I like foreign foods and I love all things Scottish, Irish and English, so I was eager to see what it's like. When I found it on clearance at Wal-Mart recently, bam-o! I slam-dunked it into my cart. (Did you know Southerners call shopping carts "buggies"? It was super confusing when I went to the store with a friend and she said we needed a "buggy".)

What did you discover about Irish Oatmeal?

Me:I love it! It's ready in 5 minutes - either stovetop or microwave - and it's really filling; I'm not hungry soon afterwards. It makes instant oatmeal look like water. Also, the texture is different - like a blend between oatmeal and grits. This is because they don't press it flat. So it looks different than, say, Quaker Oats. A cool fact about McCann's is that it was started in 1800. That's over two hundred years ago!!

What do you eat with it?
I sweeten it with a little bit of brown sugar and pour some milk over it. I could add berries if I wanted to, but it's actually really good by itself.

What's the flavor of McCann's like?

Difficult to describe. It's...heartier and more flavorful than the oatmeal you're used to. I think it's probably because oats from all over are incorporated into typical oatmeal, but McCann's is from one specific location, as this map of Ireland shows. Actually, it makes instant oatmeal, or even quick oats, seem tasteless and like glue. McCann's steel cut oatmeal has a distinct grainy, nutty flavor. I like to think it tastes like Ireland!

Where do you find McCann's Irish Oatmeal?

I suspect it's available at a lot of places. At Wal-Mart or Kroger's, it'd be with the rest of the oatmeal. At Meijer's, it's in the internation
al food aisle. It's probably at Whole Foods and venues like that, as well.

Have you ever paired McCann's Irish Oatmeal with Irish Breakfast tea, for a taste and cultural morning bonanza?

Why yes, Big Red Couch, I have. Just the other day I enjoyed a cup of River Shannon Irish Breakfast tea with my Irish oatmeal. It was delicious, nuanced, and savory.

Anything else you'd like to say about your new favorite product?

Well, there are obvious health benefits from eating oatmeal regularly - its fiber, the way it helps regulate cholesterol, how it's not a high-fat breakfast. It helps remind you that back in the day, foods that were good for you were also...good. I think a lot of "health" foods specially marketed these days are bland and disgusting - but that's because a lot of flavor is removed when fat or calories are removed. With McCann's Irish Oatmeal, it's distinctly flavorful, but it also really makes me feel good the rest of the day. One serving is kind of small, so often I make two servings, but the canister is lasting me quite a while. Another way to enjoy McCann's Irish Oatmeal? Just Google "Irish oatmeal recipes." Mmmm.

Well, folks, that's the word from one happy oatmealer.
You can enjoy more information about this classic starter to a good day at McCann's Irish Oatmeal. While I simply followed the directions for McCann's Irish Oatmeal (steel-cut), here are additional ways of preparing this lovely treat.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Catch A Tiger By The Tail

This weekend, two folks flew up to the central Bluegrass (and boy, were their arms tired!). They piled into a tiny car, and my sweet husband and I piled in with them. We were headed to Ohio: land of the Wright Brothers, title name of a slam-dunk double album by my fave-o-rite band, and One of the States that Shares a Great Lake.

We piled out of the tiny car and piled into a house that was overrun by enthusiastic young boys. In fact, it only takes two enthusiastic young boys to make a house feel overrun by youngsters. The tops of their heads smelled sweet. They giggled. They crashed. They cried.

They called me Ewisabef.

I love it when wee ones call me Ewisabef.

We all piled into cars and drove to the sprawling Cleveland Zoo, where I came face to face with just how happy animals make humans. My classic favorite is the tigers. A close second: the giraffes. A new favorite: the white poison frog that can kill a hundred people.

Why do humans forget how much we need animals to feel, well, at home? Even exotic creatures with startling eyes somehow make me feel - well, at home. More human. It's as if far-off, primal memories are stirred.

Or maybe it's the memories of childhood Bible storybook pages filled with illustrations of Adam naming animals, and animals piling into an ark and going on a journey. As children, we squeal with delight over these stories. As adults, we tell them to children - but rarely ourselves.

It's fascinating that C.S. Lewis describes his conversion taking place in the sidecar of his brother's motorcycle - after a trip to the zoo. He famously says that on the way there, he was not a Christian, and on the way back, he was a believer.

The Narnia creator wasn't crediting a zebra exhibit with his change of heart; his thought processes had been churning for a while. But I relish the scene: old Jack, hunkered in Warnie's sidecar, fresh from a trip to the zoo, coming to faith. The stories he spun roared with creatures, familiar and fantastic: foxes and fauns, wolves and witches. The zoo was just the welcome mat, the diving board, the launching pad. And Aslan ruled it all.

I'm no more fond of scaly fruit bats now than I was before the visit to the zoo; but I am richly aware of the vast universe in which God has placed us. Humans are distinct in creation; yet all the while, we are in creation. On this one tiny point, theists and atheists agree: that there is a flourishing abundance of life on this planet that prods joy and wonder out of us.

It is never good to be childish; it is always good to be childlike. I think the more childlike we are - allowing ourselves to enjoy a rhino's antics, or laughing at the bizarre appearance of a lumpy camel - the more we will understand God, and what Chesterton named God's mirth.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Through the Keyhole

When I was little, holiday visits sometimes included a long drive up to the farm in the woods where my grandparents lived. A downstairs bathroom just off the dining room held the fascinating distinction of having a keyhole in the door that you could peek through. Normally, it was blocked with a wad of toilet paper - to protect unwitting inhabitants from prying eyes - but sometimes, when I had entered and slid a bolt to lock the door, I moved aside the wad of paper and peered out discreetly at what was going on in the dining room.

This was also the stage when I was carrying around a small mauve notebook and pencil to record happenings and hopefully solve mysteries. That hope was dashed when I accidentally dropped the notebook into the toilet of aforementioned downstairs bathroom. Oh, cruel fate. With one flush, my hopes of being a savvy agent were washed into the septic tank.

And after I had watched a procession of belts and slacks and skirts move back and forth past the keyhole to my heart's content - or when someone started banging on the door - I moved the wad of toilet paper back in place, lest I be found out, and exited, full of ease that my clandestine activity had gone undetected.

Today, I allow you to shove aside the wad of paper and peer through the keyhole, at your leisure, into the outer room of activity. If you were truly able to peek through the keyhole into my life, I wouldn't have the ability to edit anything you saw. As it is, I offer you a sampling. The picture is incomplete, therefore, but not insincere; it is only a portion, but it is a true portion.

Just don't drop your top secret notebook in the toilet.

Unemployment is a dangerous beast. It is a period of enforced leisure. This has benefits and drawbacks. One could baptize it by christening it a Sabbatical; but Sabbaticals are often chosen, and unemployment is often not. One can consider it a time for rest; but it is not uninterrupted rest: the pressure of needing employment battles any impulse to renew oneself through the break. It is opportunity: opportunity to search out new vocational avenues, to finish projects left undone, to learn new things. It is a space, a pause, an in-between. It is limbo. It's also a period of solidarity. Consider, for instance, the enforced leisure of a nursing home. Unemployment is a good time both to recognize the opportunity to order your spirit through new lessons, and also to sympathize with those for whom retirement has become burdensome, or lonely, or purposeless. The difference is that at my stage of life, I assume the period of unemployment is temporary, a blip on the radar, frustrating as it may be. To the others, it is unescapable. That is an important distinction.

Today, I did not feel well. Some days I try to redeem the time by investing a lot of energy in job searching; sometimes I labor long over household chores, or work at writing projects.

Today, I drank three cups of tea and savored every drop. Upton had accomplished a minor miracle and sent a tea order out remarkably quickly. I commenced with River Shannon (an Irish Breakfast blend), then followed with an untried Himalayan (intriguing - I expected far-off scents of sherpas to waft from the tin; instead, I closed my eyes and was taken quickly to a suburban ger in Ulaan Baatar, and the spicy smell of Mongolian wool and mutton that I was immersed in several years ago). Then I concluded with a mug of a new Assam, that brought me home. The malty notes of a hearty Assam always mean I'm home. I think Assam is probably served in heaven, along with The Perfect Scone.

Today, I watched a small vase of tulips on the table reinvent itself. I think it was after awaking but before the tea that I noticed only two tulip buds were erect; the rest were drooped in a submissive arch that somehow made me think of curled up ballerinsa in a circle around two pirouetting figures. The water in the vase had gotten too low. I filled it up, but was unconvinced that the bowing tulips would complete their step and raise again to dance across the stage. But as the afternoon wore on, the leaves perked up, and slowly, one by one, the smooth green stems refilled and lifted the tulips back into their places, completing the dance. For some reason, that small scene was immensely comforting. To know that sagging heads can be lifted is an important truth in life - whether tulips or humans are the subject. Did you ever see the Hitchcock in which a sick girl believes she will only live until the last leaf on a vine outside her window is finally blown away, and then she will die? But it clings on and on and she recovers, though in the meantime a kind old man falls from a ladder and dies. When she is well enough, she discovers the reason the leaf had clung on so long: the old man had been on the ladder, painting a leaf on the wall. We all need to see new life sometimes.

Today, I enjoyed the poignant story of Mark Twain's life thanks to a marvelous Ken Burns documentary. I started it the other day; I finished it today. It was educational; it was entertaining; it was mirthful and sad, much like the man. I heartily recommend it.

Today, I consumed a large slice of homemade wheat bread that my brother had ingeniously upgraded to a dessert bread through the addition of fried apples. Finding apples in your bread is like finding a twenty dollar bill in an old winter coat pocket. It's delicious. The fact that we made it together makes it feel like family bread, a household enterprise, a rather delicious, crumby expression of sibling creativity.

Today, as I watched the tulips unbend from their prayers, I reflected on how green growing things on a dining room table makes me feel deeply and irrationally comforted. Finally, I decided it was due to my stack of memories of women keeping potted plants and vases of cut flowers in the center of the table. Right now, I have a vase of perked-up tulips, three roses that my sweet husband brought home for me yesterday, an ivy plant, a shamrock my friend Angie gave me for St. Patty's, and two trays of infantile seedlings. Just typing that soothes my fevered mind.

But whenever I visit my Michigan grandmother, before the table can be set, a half dozen African violets must be moved from the dining surface, and depending on the time of year, plastic trays of adolescent tomato plants must be relocated. To set the table at my Mom's house, you usually need to find a place to perch the ivy. And my Indiana Grandma often has a vase of flowers on her table that needs placed on a desk or taken to another room to make space for mashed potatoes or beef and noodles.

So you see, plants on a dining room table show me how to be a woman. They are how I am a woman, as these women have taught me to be. Ivy and sage seedlings and tulips and roses remind me that no matter how much I don't know about my life right now, I know how to tend my dining room plants. I know how to make wheat bread, how to fry chicken, how to iron a shirt, how to crochet. These tangible reminders are, in times of uncertainty, more concrete than reading theology, no matter how much I love it. And they are something I hold in common with generations of women in my family. We plant things. We cook things. We tend things. We mend things. That is who we are - in case I had forgotten.

And this is what you will see if you peep through the keyhole at my dining room.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

250th Post Celebration Extravaganza

I like having extravaganzas. They spice things up.

Today's extravaganza celebrates the 250th post here at the Big Red Couch.

It seems like only yesterday, the Big Red Couch
was just a twinkle in my eye.

Here are some things that I think of when I think of extravaganzas:

Cotton candy and monarchs aside, a 250th Post is a Terrible Thing to Waste. Which is why this one will have all the variety of a juggling, sticky-sweet, circus elephant, visiting-dignitary extravaganza.

First off: two oven-free, get-it-done-while-the-kids-are-napping recipes.
Ha! Bet you weren't expecting RECIPES during an extravaganza. But wait til you see what the recipes are!

I say oven-free, because has anyone else noticed how difficult it is to regulate indoor temperatures during spring? I mean, one day it's 40 degrees out and you're shivering and need the furnace on, the next day it's a balmy 75 and your un-tree-sha
ded house is baking in the afternoon sun. And turning on the oven in a small domicile only complicates the seasonal hot flashes.

So why not make Pioneer Woman's pots de creme recipe, and follow it up with a new twist on an old Betty Crocker lemonade recipe?

PW's pots de creme = sublime. And yes, that's pronounced Poe, which is why, if I were a lit prof, I'd make Edgar Allen Poe de creme for class the final day. I'll simply post her photo and a link to the recipe, but this can literally be made in ten minutes, without an oven, and it tastes like heaven, or, more specifically, like rich, grown-up chocolate pudding - though more of a mousse consistency.
It does need to chill 3 or 4 hours - so if you make it during the afternoon, it's ready for evening dessert. YUM.

And now for something completely different: a tweaked Betty Crocker pitcher of lemonade. See, spring makes me want lemony things. But every day of the week makes me want chocolatey things. So if you space them far enough apart - say, five minutes - you don't get an undesirable mix of lemon and heavenly chocolate.

I turned to Betty Crocker for lemonade, because I had a bad lemonade experience once. You see, reader-turned-therapist, it all started when I used a recipe one time that directed a syrup to be made from water and sugar, to sweeten yon lemonade. It turned out toooooo syrupy! Blech.

So I found this recipe, and the only thing wrong with IT was that it was too lemony (yes, yes, I was a lemonade Goldilocks).

Here is my tweaked, for your pleasure, strawberry lemonade recipe.


Mix 5 cups of cold water with the juice of 4 very ripe lemons (very ripe = feels surprisingly heavy for size; juice should total about 1 1/2 cups).

Stir in 1 1/4 cups of sugar.

Slice 4 or 5 ripe strawberries, throw into the lemonade. Stir around a bit.

Chill. Drink. Listen to appreciative "yum!"s.

Now, the original recipe called for 3 cups of water, 1 cup of lemon juice, and 1/2 cup of sugar. YIKES. Do you realize what a 3 to 1 ratio of water to lemon juice IS? My throat is tingling just thinking about it. Very, very tangy. Suspiciously so. So I tweaked.

And here's the secret to happiness - in the kitchen: don't feel bound, hand and foot, to a recipe. If you don't like the result, don't think you're a bad cook: just change it! I know many beginner cooks who are paralyzed with fear at the thought of digressing from the printed page. Be free! Be emancipated! If it's too lemony, dilute! If it's too tangy, sweeten! If it's too lacking in strawberries, add strawberries!

Which means, if you make my lemonade, and something doesn't taste right - well, feel free to change it! I'll never know.

I do recommend using a pretty glass pitcher. But that's just me.

What's that? You want to know why my nickname is Bitty? Well, you'll just have to wait to find out: but not for another 250 posts.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Don't Blink

As my old Sunday School teacher used to say about her tiny midwestern hamlet, "don't blink or you'll miss it."

For my usually verbose self, here's introducing a quick, drive-by, don't blink or you'll miss it post. Hats off to Maryanne McDaniel.

First, let's have a round of applause for Alfred Hitchcock. When's the last time you watched an old episode? They're fascinating - and the first one that came on today? Who was in it, but Aunt Bee! And the second one? Who was in it, but a very, very young Cloris Leachman! And talk about mastering dark humor - I made a big omission when I accidentally left Alfred Hitchcock off my Lunch List.

Now, I thought you'd like to know, as I type this, that my hands itch. It's true. After a decade of living almost completely allergy-induced, hive-free....theeeey're baaaaack. Yep. Swollen fingers. Itchy hives. Only Benedryl helps so far. And only Benedryl acts like a hammer to my head, knocking me out like an express train to the brain.

If that's not food for thought, consider this: adopted dogs are the best. I'm not saying every dog in a shelter is the right dog for you - although if you visit a shelter, it'll be hard not to want to take every one of them home with you. But I guarantee in you're in the market for a dog, if you're patient, you'll find just the right one, and save it from being euthanized. And right now is a great time to do it, because shelters are flooded with "foreclosure" pets - pets that have been the casualties of people losing their homes. Dogs contribute to mental health, help prevent or alleviate depression, and are the best old-fashioned alarm system. And they're always - always - happy to see you!

Three cheers for one my advertisers, I saw: I joined: I triumphed. Do you have some old books, movies, or cds that you wish you could swap for a book you've been wanting, or a movie, or a cd? Join Swaptree. I'm quite excited.

Last but not least, write to someone shut in. It's spring: everyone wants to be out and about. But a friend of mine from college - she's under 30 - recently had, of all things, a stroke. She's had a couple brain surgeries, and has slowly been attempting to recuperate. Therapists are working with her to increase mobility and speech. After several weeks, she just said her first words the other day. And she's moving to a new rehab center soon. There's a website set up for her, where you can write on her guestbook, which is read to her every night. There are a lot of serious or inspirational messages left, but the other day I decided to leave a funny note of stupid things I've done (I couldn't think of any jokes). I got a sweet message back saying she laughed until she cried. And it reminded me that there are a lot of people - in hospitals, nursing homes, retirement centers, or rehab centers - who can use a bit of spring sunshine brought their way. And hey - if you've been laid off and haven't found a new job yet, what better way to redeem the time?

Well, I better scuttle, or I'll let you down on my promise to keep this short.

Keep laughing - and help others laugh, too.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Something Old, Something New

The something old can be anything you like - say, Barbara Walters, who supposedly is going to retire soon. I'm not holding my breath: if she's hung on this long, why not a bit longer?

The something new is the coolest gadget ever. No, not Inspector Gadget - though my
friend's eight-year-old, formerly known around here as her seven-year-old, erupted in laughter at goofy Inspector Gadget's antics recently when he was over to stay the night. It did my old cynical heart good to know that a fave cartoon from my childhood had the staying power to make today's youth laugh.

No, the cool new gadget is the Google search bar to your right. But WAIT! It's not just a
ny Google search bar. No, for better or worse, it will search according to my super-duper personalized parameters - and hopefully, what kinks sneak through will soon be fixed.

What's that, Big Red Couch? You mean, like, it searches for what I want, but with your tastes, likes, and dislikes to guide the search results?

That's right, fair reader. That's right.

But Big Red Couch, how much will this wonderful service and set of Ginsu knives cost me?

Well, the Ginsu knives will cost you a trip back to the 80's, but this handy Big Red Search Bar costs you NOTHING.

It does benefit me, however.

How, Big Red Couch - can I call you Big Red Couch?

Yes, fair reader, you may. And you segue me nicely into my next point.

In reality, the "something new" - this search bar, and a handful of ads on the site - are a renewal. You may have noticed, a long time ago, a few random ads around The Big Red Couch. You probably stretched, scratched, reached for a new bowl of cheesy poofs, and ignored them.

And some of them probably warrant ignoring. After all, the advertisers try to gear them towards the content of my website, but sometimes they don't bother, and other times they miss the mark.

Which is why the Google search bar is so great, in addition to the ads. So
here's my disclaimer: I do not necessarily endorse any ads you see on this site. I allow them to be here, but that doesn't mean I support specific brands, remedies, or tonics being peddled to you.

But I do benefit a little by them.

So if you have a spare second, try out my Big Red Search bar, or click on an ad for a minute. It puts a couple pennies in my piggy bank, and who knows? You may discover an age-old remedy or tonic for sciatica.

But I'd steer clear of any tonic being peddled by Aunt Bee's Medicine Man!