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January 9, 2018

"Sand-Sational Helpers" ~ Burbank Tournament of Roses Float 2018

This was a special year for me to be working on the Burbank Tournament of Roses float for 2018, "Sand-Sational Helpers," for several reasons:  you may remember I wrote about entering the design contest for the float, and nearly being chosen.  But this year I also got to decorate with my mom!   And in the end, I was up on the float itself, placing pale pink roses in the bricks of the sandcastle. 

The theme of the 2018 Rose Parade was "Making a Difference," and the Burbank float exemplified this by our team of sea creatures mindfully cooperating on a beach cleanup.   

Our first day volunteering, Day 3 of Deco Week, sorting seed.
My family celebrated Christmas together for the first time in many years at my sister's house in Arizona.  Though it takes the full year to design and build the framing, apply coating and paint, Deco Week is the period between Christmas and New Years Day, when the majority of the float is decorated and live flowers are applied.  After driving from Phoenix to Los Angeles with my parents, we were able to visit the float site on day 3 of Deco Week.  The float was largely formed, but many details were being created off the float.  My folks were able to get a scale of the endeavor and how many volunteers are involved, the way the organization is structured, and what sort of tasks are required to cover all the details.  My dad brought a book and "supervised" my mom and I on our first visit.  Since it was my mom's first volunteer day, we were given a menial task of sorting a collection of seed into its components, to be reused.  We quickly learned the feel of flax seed vs fenugreek seed, picking one out from the other using tweezers for a couple hours.  We chatted for a good bit with the supervisor in charge of the "waves," not realizing what an intricate and delicate set of flowers were involved in that one detail.

Our Octopus friend on Day 3 of Deco Week
My mom and I returned the next day for some more volunteer time.  We had to wait a bit for an assignment as there were quite a few volunteers.  While waiting, I latched my mom onto a tour being given by one of the supervisors, who happened to be one of the drivers of the float.  He gave further insight into the inner workings of the float, and the four men who ride inside, telling how he is in charge of communications, the live feed, animations, and the audio soundtrack during the parade. 

Day 4 of Deco Week -- Adding Glue to Mumms for the Heron
My mom and I were "upgraded" that day, from the menial tasks of the day before, to actually working on a piece of the float.  We spent three hours applying an industrial glue to trays of mumm blossoms and handing the trays to a decorator on a ladder, who was applying the blooms to the body and neck of an oversize Heron.  Time passed so quickly it escaped us, and we were late leaving the barn for a movie.  We had fun working together as a team, assembly-line style!

Heron Day 4 of Deco Week, as we were working on it.

Day 5 of Deco Week -- Adding Roses to the bricks of the Castle
On Saturday, my folks left town for their next destination, and I again visited the float, alone.  I came by for judging in the afternoon, and got to see the float pulled out of the barn into the sunlight of the neighboring parking lot.  Just the movement of the float is a big production - it had to be backed into the parking lot.  I was taking picture after picture, admiring our work.  All of a sudden the turrets of the sand castle began to emerge and I realized the float had another layer of height!  Throwing away my photos, I started documenting all over.  After judging I went home for a bit, coming back around six to check on the decorator's progress.

In the evening again the politics of float building came into play, this time in my favor, as only two volunteers were needed to climb onto the float, and one slot was already taken.  The person supervising manpower chose me because I had been there the last three days, signified by the dots on my volunteer tag, while the other available person had only been there for two days.  Since I had given more volunteer days, I was chosen to fill the last spot.  So I was put directly onto the float, taking palettes of pale pink roses pre-fitted into water vials and stuffing the vials into holes drilled into the "bricks" of the sand castle.  The drilled holes were tightly fitted, so much so that it was difficult to get the last half-dozen roses into the rectangular spaces. 

After two hours I and a partner had finished the front of the castle.  The floor of the float was covered with the same "sand" dried mixture, and I left the float barn thinking my job was done.  When I showed up for judging the next afternoon, I was surprised to find that the entire floor of the float had been covered in a river of roses! 

Busily reading the float to pull out for judging Day 5 of Deco Week -- New Years Eve
Final judging on New Years Eve always draws a large audience.  It's the first time seeing the fully decorated float, with animation and soundtrack playing.  I had fun playing with the panorama camera function on my phone while the float was being prepped to move out.  The crowd is shushed and encouraged to be silent as soon as the judges' van pulls up.  The judges encircle the float with their clipboards in hand, making silent notations.  A bell rings, signaling the end of the judging, and VIPs converge for group photos of all combinations. 

The detail on the float was amazing, from a crab throwing refuse into a trash can to the angel fish next to the Burbank sign.  Besides the octopus and heron, there were seals, pelican, seahorses, walrus, turtles, seagull, crabs, and all manner of sea friends.  My friend Joann spent an afternoon working on all the "trash" pieces on the float.

Our little Heron was on the not-camera side of the float.
My friend Wendy, who first got me involved as a volunteer five years ago.

I took a few fun selfies while waiting for the judges to arrive.


There are only six community funded and volunteer built entries, referred to as "Self-built," in the entire Rose Parade.  Those six groups compete for one special trophy, the Founders Trophy.   This year we took the trophy over our competitors!  It was so much fun to see our float onscreen, and know all of the hard work that had been contributed to get it there.  I can't wait for next year as my holiday tradition continues!

December 22, 2017

Crock Pot Cheesy Tomato Soup

What defines comfort food for you?  This soup is one of my favorites.  It's easy to make, simple, and delicious.  The ingredients are cheap too, though you can spruce it up with the addition of expensive pine nuts.  If you don't have them, substitute another nut, or leave them out.  The secret to the creaminess and flavor is the cream cheese, melted and blended in as the final step. 

The soup freezes well, so I often take it to work with me.  Its a staple in my weeknight cold-weather dinners.  And it makes a perfect football game night dish, or party appetizer.  

This recipe is an easy clean up--just one dish, made easier if you remember to use a crock pot liner bag.  I fill my kitchen sink with soapy water before pureeing the soup, so that I can run my immersion blender in the sink for a few seconds after the soup.  Because I don't let the blender sit around, it comes clean easily too. 

Crock Pot Cheesy Tomato Soup

2 lg (23 oz) cans Hunts whole steamed tomatoes
1 box veggie stock (about 4 cups)
2 cubes frozen basil (about 1/2 tsp finely minced fresh basil)
1/4 tsp minced garlic
1 8 oz package cream cheese or Neufchatel cheese
1/4-1/2 c. pine nuts

Place all ingredients except cream cheese and nuts into crock pot on high for two hours, or low for four hours or more, with lid on.  About 15 mins before serving, cut cream cheese into large chunks and add to crock pot.  Use a fork to pierce any whole tomatoes floating at the top of the crock pot.  When the cream cheese has had a few minutes to soften, use an immersion or stick blender to puree the soup just before serving.  If you don't have an immersion blender, you can puree the soup in small batches in a regular blender.  Toast pine nuts in 325 degree oven for 3-4 minutes or use raw.  Mix pine nuts into the soup and add as garnish before serving. 

December 4, 2017

Gingerbread Bar Cookies with Eggnog Buttercreme Piped Icing

Do you have a group gathering that symbolizes the holiday season to you?  For me, its the yearly Food Bloggers Los Angeles cookie exchange and holiday party.  We had nearly twenty bloggers and bakers contribute their homemade goods.  The smells, warm ambiance and welcoming conversation of this event makes the season special to me, especially on the years I don't get to travel back to be with family. 
FBLA's 2017 Cookie Exchange Table
My plate for the 2017 FBLA cookie exchange
I try to do something different for my cookie exchanges every year; this year, the recipe was new, but it was also the first time I made buttercreme icing, and tried a piping bag.

The loaded piping bag with tip.  The bag is just a regular ziploc!
I was inspired to try a gingerbread bar cookie this year by one that was sold at a fundraiser, but I wasn't able to meet the baker to ask for the recipe.  So I turned online and searched.  I was looking for the gingerbread flavor, but neither a rock-hard version, nor a cake.  I was attracted to the recipe I chose because it called for no eggs, so I thought it might make a denser, less cake-like bar cookie.  As it turned out I was right.  This recipe makes dense but not hard cookies.  It's almost a shortbread, so I cut the portions small.

Gingerbread Bars

1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp salt, or to taste
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 cup molasses  

1.  Mix brown sugar and butter together till creamed, scraping down the sides of the bowl well.
2.  Add spices: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and salt and beat to combine.  
3.  Gradually add the flour and baking soda while mixing.  Mixture will be dry.
4.  Add the molasses and beat to combine.
5.  Prepare an 8x8 pan by lining with aluminum foil and spraying with cooking spray.  
6.  Pour dough into pan and pat down to hard-pack it.  It will be crumbly but bakes together much like a shortbread.  
7.  Bake at preheated 350 degrees for about 20 minutes.  Center will be set and edges will be pulling away slightly from pan when done.  Bars firm up as they cool.  Store in airtight container or freeze.  

Eggnog Buttercreme Frosting

Approx 4 cups powdered sugar
1 cup butter, softened
4 Tbsp Eggnog

To softened butter in a stand mixer, slowly add powdered sugar, blending well.  Scrape down sides completely and blend again.  Add eggnog one tablespoon at a time as mixer is running till combined, observing the consistency.  For maximum eggnog flavor, add the full four tablespoons, but if you prefer a stiffer icing, use less liquid.  Load icing into ziploc piping bag with tip, and pipe as desired.  Let stand 10-15 minutes for icing to set, or refrigerate to set. 

My Notes:  I was out of cloves, and didn't miss them in the dough.  The original recipe said not to use blackstrap molasses in the dough as it would be too heavy, but it was all I had in the pantry, so I went with it and again, I liked the results, though I haven't tried it with the lighter version to see if it would come out better.  This really was like a gingerbread-flavored shortbread--high butterfat--so cut the cookie portions small.  Dust icing lightly with nutmeg if desired. 
Original recipes for bars and frosting credited to Averie Cooks and Two Sisters Crafting, respectively. 

September 12, 2017

Everything to Each Other: My Parents' Golden Wedding Anniversary

My parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary just a couple years ago.  They held an open house to mark the occasion, and each of us kids helped in some way to make it a memorable event.  It was a fun but somewhat informal affair at my mom's choosing; I made a photo slideshow that played on a side table, but there were no formal speeches.  Recently, I tried my hand at writing a toast.  Though this occasion had passed, the speech assignment was my opportunity to express what my parents have meant to me as role models, so I wrote a theoretical toast that I would have given had I been asked to speak at their golden anniversary celebration.  The parameter for the assignment was that the speech be no more than 4-6 minutes aloud, so I was practicing brevity even as my heart was full with all that I've learned from my folks.

Thank you all for being here tonight as we celebrate Jane & Curt's Golden Anniversary.  A wedding anniversary is the culmination of love, trust, partnership, tolerance, and tenacity, in no particular order - but most of all a celebration of laughter.  I'd like to tell you how my folks' marriage influenced their work, community life, and above all, their primary emphasis on family.

My mom, Jane, followed my dad, Curt, through three states and back as he was promoted and transferred up the corporate ladder in Human Resources at a large grocery chain.  We moved about every two years, from Chicago, IL, to Salt Lake City, UT, to Orange County, CA, and back to Utah.  They met at the University of Illinois, where their first date was to a St. Patrick's Day dance.  Jane supported Curt as he pursued an MBA, and in turn he supported her through nursing school, while raising three children.  I recall learning to count to a hundred in kindergarten by counting out a package of paper lunch sacks (which came in a pack of 100) in my parent's bedroom while mom was studying for nursing school.  I had the pleasure of taking a few courses with my mom, when she went back to school to get a bachelors at the same time I was in college.  Jane had her own career as a NICU nurse and grief counselor, always growing her skill set as she became a hospice chaplain.  We were never more proud of my dad than when he reinvented himself to head the local Catholic cemetery for the last chapter of his professional career.  My parents taught me to continue to reach for new boundaries in personal and professional growth and set the stage for me to follow my dreams.  

Community has always been central to my parent's way of life.  Their faith sustains their relationship.  Always active in their Catholic church parish, whether it be couples club, ladies' guild or Knights of Columbus, most of their friends have come from their church activities.  When they retired and moved to Nashville, they gave service to their new community by volunteering at the local hospital.  These activities showed me how to make friends, how to give back, and how to find a sense of belonging. 

But always, nothing has been more important to Curt or Jane than family.  There's a greeting card in my baby book, signed by my brother Gregg, that says "Welcome to the family, Eric."  Apparently my brother and sister had a bit of a betting war when I was in the womb.  My brother, having lost, thought he might change the outcome before "it" came home from the hospital if he addressed his card to a boy.  I like to think my folks taught him to love me.  As this story shows, our home has always been filled with humor.  Christmases have always been a huge deal in our house.  My mom loves to decorate and to entertain, and that holiday is one where she goes all-out.  Perhaps the greatest sign of love for their family was Jane and Curt's decision to return closer to their extended family after retirement by moving to Tennessee, where they could easily and regularly visit their siblings in Southern Illinois.  My parents' treatment of each other is the embodiment of the word "family."  Their devotion to each other continues to grow, as they've seen each other through health issues.  The way they cherish their relationships continues to instill their values in me and my siblings.

My parents have been my central role models throughout every stage of my life.  They continue to give me hope that the right match is out there for each of us.  Their work, community focus, and devotion to family have laid the groundwork for all of us to share in their happiness.  Please join me in a toast to their next decades of love and life together.  To Curt and Jane!

August 30, 2017

Culture and Education in Modern Art at the Broad Museum

Angry Because its Plaster Not Milk, 1965, Edward Ruscha

What do you do at a museum when you know you've only got an hour to cover the whole facility?  Take lots of pictures and read the signs at home in your photos....What do you do when the subject is one you're not entirely familiar with?  Take selfies for your facebook profile. 

The Broad Museum downtown Los Angeles is one of the newest cultural establishments that are free and open to the public.  It's been around long enough to gnaw at me that I haven't been, so I finally went online for tickets, thinking I would go in six or eight weeks.  To my surprise, I got a four pack of tickets for the following Saturday at 7pm!  Less than a week to wait.  Later I realized the museum closed at eight, so I might rather have waited a month or so for available tickets that were earlier in the day.  But we had the tickets, so my friends and I went, thinking we'd get an overview and learn how to schedule a repeat trip. 

To my surprise, I did make it around to all the exhibits, though I probably would have lingered longer if I were not concerned about the closing time.  My favorite, of course, was the Jeff Koons, both the Balloon Dog and the Tulips, but there were so many great installations.  Most of what spoke to me came from their permanent collection.  The lower floor was a temporary exhibit called "Oracle," about the complexity of the systems that underlie our world.  The middle floor of the Broad is composed of their vault, where they store the collections not on view.  Interestingly, this area is exposed through a glass elevator and portals in the wall of the stairwell, so that the public can see how their operations work.  The upper 3rd level houses the permanent collection on view.

Oracle Exhibit Summary
Review, 2016, Andreas Gursky, part of "Oracle" exhibit
Untitled (You are a Very Special Person), 1995, Barbara Kruger
Why?, 1990, Christopher Wool
Untitled (Men in the Cities Ellen), 1981, Robert Longo
Balloon Dog Blue, 1994-2000, Jeff Koons
Balloon Dog Blue, 1994-2000, Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons Artist Statement
Tulips, 1995-2004, Jeff Koons
Black Flowers, 1961, Roy Lichtenstein
Mirror No. 1, 1969, Roy Lichtenstein
Green Blue Red, 1963, Ellsworth Kelly
Hustle n Punch by Kaikai and Kiki, 2009, Takashi Murakami
Untitled (Your Body is A Battleground), 1989, Barbara Kruger
Campbell's Soup Can (Clam Chowder Manhattan Style), 1962, Andy Warhol
Two Marilyns, 1962, Andy Warhol
Under the Table, 1994, Robert Therrien
Artist Statement of Under the Table, 1994, Robert Therrien
Angry Because its Plaster Not Milk, 1965, Edward Ruscha
Broad Museum Vault, portal in staircase
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