"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" ~ Mary Oliver

Category: Family

really “crazy bark” for final exams. . . !

My granddaughter, A., is studying for her final exams of her senior year at JHU. As you might recall, these are the ones that really count since 2nd semester is usually taken up with job interviews, graduate school applications and other things that Seniors occupy themselves with.

In honor of this intense timeframe, I’m making up a “Care Package” to send tomorrow. This morning, I made a big batch of rice crispy marshmallow treats.

Then, I made some “really crazy bars” copied from Ree Drummond’s recipe online. Here’s what I used:

  1. Chocolate honey graham crackers (put sugar side down so it will show later after you’ve piled all the goodies on top.
  2. Hershey’s milk chocolate bars (3) – which I thought were white chocolate because the wrapper was white, aiming for almond bark but couldn’t find any of either in the store. Chocolate on top of chocolate didn’t sound too bad, though.
  3. Melted the chocolate in a double boiler set on low heat on the stove.
  4. Laid out the chocolate graham crackers on to two baking sheets, cutting some of them to fit the entire sheets.
  5. Spread the slightly cooled melted chocolate on top of the graham crackers, smoothing it out with a spatula so all the crackers are covered.
  6. Then the toppings were added: Peanut M & M’s; Reese’s pieces in M-M form; salted stick pretzels, broken up (you want a combo of sweet and salty which are crunchy and chewy!)  Salted macadamia nuts, cut up into smaller pieces; mixed nut topping; cut-up bite-size Kit Kats, two kinds of multi-color sprinkles that filled up all the chocolate spaces.
  7. Pressed the toppings gently into the chocolate; covered with clingwrap and put in the fridge for the whole thing to harden.
  8. Later, will break the “bark” into manageable pieces and pack up in aluminum pans and wrap up for mailing.

I don’t even want to know how much sugar there is in these crazy bark pieces – the only way I can rationalize it is that they represent ALL the sugar I’m NOT going to be eating for the next five weeks!  YAY!

This is crazy, isn’t it? College students are young so they’ll probably be able to take it. Hope so, anyhow! Happy Exams!!





Chao-girls galore! . . .

my three daughters on a sunny Fall day

my three daughters on a sunny Fall day

“Chao” (pronounced “chow”) is my maiden name and two of my daughters have incorporated it as their middle name as well. The Chao family (my father’s side) were renowned for their adventurousness, drive and determination. They made names for themselves in philosophy and religion (my grandfather as Dean of Religion at Yenching (Peking) University,); science (my Dad, an astrogeologist who trained astronauts to retrieve moon rocks during the Apollo moon shots) and literature (my Aunt who translated poems by T.S. Eliot and Walt Whitman from English into Mandarin.) That’s why we took up the name “Chao” and turned it into “Chao-Girls” as a way of characterizing and celebrating that standard of grit and accomplishment. We have a couple of granddaughters who are “Chao-Girls” too.  One is five and lives in Minneapolis; the other is a sophomore at Johns Hopkins (yeah!)


me and A. who is at JHU. . .

me and A. who is at JHU. . .

J. at the age of 3 . . .

J. at the age of 3 . . .

The (grown) girls all get along pretty well now – something that wasn’t always the case while they were growing up. We lived in a rambling Victorian house in Lexington, a suburb of Boston where the girls went to school. Our house was next to the East Lexington firehouse, which was a fortunate thing I discovered one day when the lawnmower had burst into flames; and another time when a chicken had been placed inside the oven to roast without a pan underneath!

Things were not always easy but they weren’t always that hard either. A bountiful raspberry harvest meant that boxes of extra raspberries were hawked on the red Radio Flyer wagon pulled up and down our street, Locust Avenue. Meals were eaten outside on the back deck shaded by Wisteria vines dripping with tendrils of pale blue flowers. On Patriots’ Day, the town parade could be seen from our 2nd floor bedroom window. Sour cream doughnuts dipped in sugar were a tradition for watching the festivities from our house.

We lived for twenty-two years in that house and the girls got a good enough education to go on to stellar colleges afterwards. They still mention some shenanigans that went on with various babysitters when their parents were at work. I guess we’ll never know everything that we all went through, growing up. And maybe we won’t get around to telling each other our stories for awhile.

But life is long (my second marriage is going on twenty years next year!) and who knows what miracles might still occur?


‘let nature take care of it’ . . .

. . . a symbol of longevity*

. . . a symbol of longevity*

This morning, I read about a nun in South Korea who cooks food that is temple food, vegan and devoid of garlic and onion. Apparently, she has been discovered by the gastronomic world and visited by chefs from all over who gather to learn her secrets. She cooks for herself and two other nuns. Sometimes for monks and visitors.

The sophistication of her cooking and its Zen simplicity is described in a lengthy article in the New York Times today. To me, the wisdom imparted by her phrase, “let nature take care of it,” in commenting about whether wild animals mess up her garden or whether things grow in orderly fashion represents the philosophical core of her way of life.

Even when we want to step back and let things work out on their own, we find ourselves fiddling around to control outcomes or to influence people to do what we want. It’s not only the American way, it’s the human way. It’s hard for us to “let nature take care of it.” But, it seems to me to make the most sense, as hard as it is to let that happen.

We don’t have to try so hard to figure out what the right thing is to do or not do. We don’t have to ease others if they don’t want to be eased. And we don’t have to try to change the outcome of our lives when we reach a certain age because we would like it to be different. It is what it is. And today at least and maybe a bit longer, I’ll let ‘nature take care of the rest.’

Here’s a link to this interesting article.

‘remembrance of things past’. . .

Marcel Proust sure had it right.

Many things, like the petite madeleine cake for him, evoked innumerable fond memories of times past that had meaning and import to his life and the society he lived in. In fact, he wrote volumes after tasting again the petite madeleine of his childhood.

It is also true for families who have shared wonderful times in the past. Only when photos are taken by someone whose approach is friendly and good-humored are people captured with so much love. In this case, because my daughter, C. whose eye is as artistic as her vigilance in capturing touching vignettes is commonplace, our family has a chronicle of Christmas that is unforgettable. A panoply of visual petite madeleines, if you will.

Here is a remembrance of past Christmases our family has shared together at a tiny cottage on the Atlantic on the North Shore opposite Thacher Island in Rockport, MA. and in our home here in central Massachusetts.

PCG 121PCG 56jpgPCG 155   PCG 118PCG 116PCG 120 PCG 132 PCG 130jpg  PCG 40PCG 124PCG 140 PCG 141 PCG 156jpgPCG 119  PCG 117  PCG 115 PCG 112PCG 105 PCG 110 PCG 106PCG 87PCG 107   PCG 103PCG 101PCG 104   PCG 100 PCG 95 PCG 98    PCG 97jpg  PCG 99PCG 86PCG 85  PCG 82PCG 93PCG 77PCG 83  PCG 84 PCG 81PCG 80  PCG 78 PCG 79 PCG 75  PCG 70jpg PCG 71  PCG 69 PCG 68PCG 61aPCG 60PCG 67PCG 66PCG 58PCG 62pgPCG 64     PCG 72  PCG 59   PCG 56jpg PCG 53PCG 76  PCG 52PCG 57 PCG 51PCG 54 PCG 50PCG 49  PCG 122PCG 16PCG 43   PCG 44 PCG 45PCG 46PCG 42jpg  PCG 41jpg  PCG 47PCG 35PCG 37 PCG 36  PCG 33  PCG 26PCG 31 PCG 30 PCG 18PCG 27PCG 29   PCG 20PCG 25 PCG 24  PCG 32PCG 22 PCG 17PCG 21  PCG 19    Past Christmas GlowPCG 15 PCG 14  PCG 12 PCG 13PCG 11 PCG 10jpg PCG 5PCG 7jpg   PCG 2jpg PCG 15     PCG 10jpgPCG 14       PCG 9PCG 6


bach and (much) more . . .

Now that the Christmas things have been packed up and put away, I turned my attention yesterday to learning how to use the new Tascam recorder my daughters gave me. After a few tries, learning how to input the settings like “turn mic on,” I sat down at the piano Xmas 2005-Spring 2006 579_2and played through the Bach Prelude in C major. In the middle of that playthrough, the phone rang (G. calling me) which I ignored (see if you can hear it on the video. . .)

I shared the recording with my daughters yesterday which they were able to play and then wanted to upload it as an audio onto YouTube because transmission of the audio clip was too large for a few friends’ mailboxes which were bounced back to me as “undeliverable.”

This morning, after reading that YouTube only accepts video clips (with music in the background) I learned that I have something called I-Video on my Macbook Pro dock (duh!) So, I went through some photos and added enough of them so that the “soundtrack” of the Bach played all the way through, adding a final photo so that the last C-major chord could be heard.

Not being that technologically able, I managed to upload this video onto YouTube (twice!) set the viewing button to “public” and hope that it will play for anyone who might be curious to see what’s possible with a little time and preserverance. Thanks for listening/watching. . .

(In carrying out this little exercise, I am reminded once again how profoundly fortunate I am, surrounded by the love of this beautiful family.)

small wonders . . .

birthday tulips!Today, I was fiddling around with some photos in order to print some out and take along with me when I visit my daughter and her family in Minneapolis, a couple of weeks from now. What I had in mind was to print them out in smaller sizes, make a montage of them, print out the montage and frame it, thereby getting more images into one space.

On my HP printer instructions, it showed “contact sheet” as an option to print multiple small photos all lined up in rows. Not knowing how to input more than one photo at a time, I searched on online for help. Up popped various sites including ones for free software to make collages online, save and download them for printing. JUST what I didn’t know that I was searching for. So, a few minutes later, I downloaded “Smilebox” for a 7-day free trial ($3.+/month if you choose to subscribe afterwards.)

Much to my surprise, there were a myriad of collage formats to choose from–some marked “premium” which would be free during the 7-day trial. PLUS, my little collage could be set to MUSIC! ~ mine or theirs. I chose to upload the ukelele version of “somewhere over the rainbow” played by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. A piece of music that I uploaded for another collage was Steve Martin’s composition for banjo called “the great remember” in memory of Martin Short’s wife, Nancy. It’s a sweet little piece.

Anyhow, I’m excited about this little discovery and thought I’d mention it in a post today to share the first and second “pancakes” from this fun medium. And thanks to all the smiling faces in the collages for such good times that we have shared together!

Click here to see this small wonder that appeared out of the blue today! And here’s another . . .

Postscript: here is one that marries a poem by mary oliver with a prelude by Scriabin played by Yuja Wang.

rebirth et al. . .

IMG_6027You know how they’re always talking about rebirth at Easter time a few weeks ago? Coincidentally this year, the world also saw the convocation of a new Pope for those who are Catholic. Obama, at his visit to Israel, intentionally spoke with a phrase in Hebrew at each place that he visited. He also gave at least the younger generation of Israelis some hope that “peace is possible!” That’s a rebirth of an idea in that tense region.

In reflection over these last few weeks, the most profound thing that happened to me is that my cherished relative, Pei-Fen, whom I visited in the beginning of March, died soon after at the age of 92. She seemed to be hazy and floating in and out in consciousness after having had a recent stroke. But when I saw her, and when I asked if we could take a photo together, she straightened up and looked directly into the camera. Then, she made such an effort to tell me to: “Take care of your family. Take care of yourself. . . and BE HAPPY!”

I think she wanted to tell me this because she knew, even if we hadn’t been in touch that much, that I had not been very happy for much of my life.



What I have done since I heard of her passing, was to remember that she had given me an old Victorian amber pendant when I was about college age so many years ago. I myself had later given it to a young relative in hopes that it would carry some meaning, and so, at this point in time, I didn’t have it any longer.

So, I turned to eBay to see if I could find a piece of amber that “looked like Pei-Fen”and would be something I liked so much that I would wear it all the time so that it would remind me to be happy each time I touched it. Sure enough, I found one that was not round and not oval, but more like a fat ellipse, an old golden brown piece of amber with the rough side of the petrified resin visible on the underside. The crude surface of the natural amber was part of the worn out look of things, the patina of life, that duly attracted each of us in our lives.
pei fen amber frontpei fen amber back
I like things whose beauty has been softened by age: hence “as is” is a familiar description for things that I have picked up for a song in my antiquing days long ago. That means there are usually hairline cracks, chips, repairs to things that don’t look pristine but whose beauty glows nevertheless.

Come to think of it, it’s sort of like people we know who age well (like Pei fen!) hold themselves with good posture and have grace in their faces that shows they have learned many of the things that bother us when we were young no longer matter at all. Most things don’t, I have found. And what a relief that is, come to find out!

So, here we are in mid-April, a time for rebirth as Spring begins to unfurl the crocus, daffodils, narcissus, hellebores. The roses also begin to wake up a little as the old thorny stalks are pruned away. Even my money tree inside, which has had a blight which has caused it to lose almost all of its leaves, is beginning to recover. I favored soapy eco-friendly pesticides for awhile but they didn’t work. So last Wednesday, I went to Home Depot and looked for the strongest pyrethrin spray I could lay my hands on. It seems to have done the job.

            at last!

at last!

What I have also been learning is that even though it’s great to look forward to what happens with your children, and then with your grandchildren, the truth of the matter is that no matter what one’s age is, and no matter how much time we think we might have left, the most important thing, I believe, is to live for oneself and not for others. To see each day as an opportunity to nurture one’s self with enough rest, modest meals, to do the washing up in the kitchen, do the laundry, to clean up the garden beds and to hang out our clothing on the clothesline in the cool Spring air because it means that one is taking care of oneself and the things that matter to us.

So, given Pei-Fen’s final exhortation to “be happy,” I think I’ve learned from it and am now happier, wearing an old piece of amber I know she would have loved. I remember to be happy each day, for my own sake, according to my own taste in all the little bits of happiness, cracked, chipped and worn but still beautiful.

That’s a lot of rebirths, don’t you think?

meaning. . .

What gives meaning to a life? I have been thinking about this since returning from visiting my 92-year old relative this past weekend who is weak and yet still lucid enough to send me off with an instruction to “take care of my family, take care of myself. . . and be happy.”

Is that all it takes? I take care of my family all the time, probably a little better than I take care of myself. But I think that last part about being happy is both the simplest and the hardest to carry out.

For example, I think one can DO lots of things to make yourself happy–and only we know what those things are that we especially treasure and enjoy. One of my discoveries of late is a “Rondo” movement of a Beethoven sonata played so tenderly and beautifully by a British pianist named Paul Lewis. (It’s the fourth movement of Sonata #4 in E-flat major, Op. 7.) G. and I went to a concert at Jordan Hall in Boston and heard Lewis play Schubert sonatas this January. Listening my way through these Beethoven recordings, I am amazed and taken aback by the freshness of the interpretations, so musical, clean and touching in its beauty of melody and line. Rapture is one way to describe it, I think.

[Here is a link to the piece on Youtube played by Daniel Alvadaras, someone other than Paul Lewis, but you can get a sense of the piece. Lewis’s rendition is available in the collected Beethoven sonatas.)

Actually, it has made me think about my mother and how important music was to her, all the way to the end. When asked why she went to the Unitarian Church that she had belonged to for decades when she said she didn’t believe in the afterlife, she answered simply, “for the music!” She sang in the choir and played recorder too, although she didn’t think that counting beats or measures was that important. I think one of her greatest wishes in life would have been to play an instrument as well as my sister played the violin and viola and I played the piano.

So, listening to Paul Lewis play this Beethoven “Rondo” makes me very happy today. DO-ing something like this makes me feel that BEING happy is a state of grace, whenever it appears. I am also struck by how individual our moments of happiness are. Someone else might not hear or experience what I am when I’m listening to this music. So many of the things around us that we cherish and enjoy are mere objects to other people. A line in a book or poem, flowers in a vase tilted in a certain direction; a meal, simple and warming may have meaning to us and make us happy but might not suit anyone else. But, if we’re happy, that’s a good thing.

Has something made you happy today?

Postscript: Icing on the cake tonight! Finding a YouTube clip of Paul Lewis and Imogen Cooper playing Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor. Luscious! Here it is!


remembrance. . .

May-July 2007 354_2Last week, I received an email forwarded to me, telling me that my favorite cousin, PF, had had a stroke. Today, I visited her on her 92nd birthday, her three sons, their wives and children congregating at the family home, taking turns coming to see the matriarch in her hospital room on her birthday. They said she had fallen last night on the way to the bathroom, taken to the ER for an MRI to see if she had injured her head, keeping her up until 5 in the morning. Already weak, I was told she was very tired and might not be awake enough to recognize me.

Not to worry, as she said my Chinese name as soon as she saw me: “Sung-mei,” and held my hand, her wrinkly hand over mine. It took awhile before I gave her gifts that I had brought her that I thought she might like: a soft mohair taupe knitted capelet from Glasgow, Scotland, which she immediately took in her gnarled hands to warm them up, not caring if the soft thing went over her shoulders or not. She whispered in Chinese that she “liked it very much.” A deep mulberry fluffy throw went over her knees replacing one that had kept her lap warm. I attached the tiny earbuds to my Apple Ipod shuffle and turned it on to play music I had downloaded last night. It was a movie score, composed and conducted by her late husband, a famous clarinetist and composer who had died in 2003.

Pei fen
Of all my Chinese relatives, PF was the one I held closely as a role model. Unlike my mother who revered convention, PF and I were free spirits, fiercely independent and not afraid to experiment with food, making things or using things in different ways. She would use some pottery bamboo tools as hair sticks, winding her long dark hair quickly into a twirl on her head. Now, her hair was cut to shoulder length, but I brought a cherry burl hair stick to show her, because she had loved natural things like it in the past.

Back at the house, her three sons were busy behind closed doors discussing family business while the women sat in the kitchen doing a crossword puzzle. The dark red brick linoleum in the entryway and kitchen was an identical pattern to the one that was in my Lexington kitchen when the kids were young. I remember washing and waxing it to a dark shine so many times. It was a fond remembrance and an amazing coincidence that our kitchens had had flooring in common all those years.

As I leaned over to say goodbye, PF said slowly but very clearly to me: “Take care of your family, take care of yourself. . .and (a pause) be happy!” I’m glad that I went and had a chance for us to visit one more time on her 92nd birthday today.

waking up . . .

Yesterday, I took a trip to Northampton, about an hour or so from where I live, to exchange some yarn for a sweater vest that I wanted to knit for a friend. It didn’t take long to find a nicer color in a heavier weight Lopi yarn that would be more suitable for the project. There was still time to window shop at a couple of stores that I like and have a quick lunch before returning home.

On the trip out, I had thought that I might be able to get back in time to catch the matinee showing of the movie, “Silver Linings Playbook.” The movie had stirred a lot of fuss for Jennifer Lawrence, a young actress who has been nominated for an Academy Award for best actress. The leading man was Bradley Cooper, whom I don’t particularly care for, but the film also had Robert de Niro in it so I figured that would balance things out.

I was a few minutes late but the cashier lady kindly confided that the movie had great acting but was slow in the beginning and that I wouldn’t have missed much. The beginning was indeed very slow, setting the stage for why and how Bradley Cooper was struggling with himself. His character does this all through the movie, this viewer wondering off-handedly whether he would ever “get it” or at least pull himself together.

Lawrence’s character is messed up also (of course, why else could there be a plot, right?) but there was an electric moment in the movie, at least for me, which is why I am writing this post on a Sunday morning. Lawrence is yelling at Cooper, saying that she does things for everyone else all day long, all the time, and that when she wakes up in the morning, she “feels EMPTY!” Well, I can identify with that all right. In fact, I was thinking later on, that many of us women feel like we’re doing that at least some of the time, and maybe not even noticing that we’re doing it. Or that it leaves us feeling empty too.

Why is it that even when we KNOW that we’re doing it–being and doing for others, all the time–that we can’t help ourselves. Or maybe our circumstances are that if we don’t “do it,” then nobody else will. Or, maybe we should be doing for others for ourselves, right? I don’t know the answer to this but I decided when I woke up this morning that I am going to take the day off from it, maybe even a couple of days since Monday is a holiday.

Instead of pushing myself to complete projects to please others, I’m going to take a rest from knitting. Instead of thinking that I really have to put away some things and clean the birdcage or the fridge, I think I’m going to read for pleasure today. Instead of cleaning up, I’m going to stop and rest today. After all, nobody’s MAKING me do anything. It comes from inside somewhere.

Another observation offered by the movie, equally as powerful, was the portrayal of a henpecked friend of Cooper’s, trapped by his desire to please a demanding wife who insistingly wanted what seemed like more and more, running him and his life around like a drill sargent. That was the quid pro quo for men who take that heavy burden on, trapped in their silent anger in the basement or out in the garage, the equivalent of waking up feeling empty too.

This little movie can be grating and annoying at times, but it portrays how vicariously we take out our frustrations in life, wanting our favorite sports team to win for us, wanting to win our bets in life. While Jennifer Lawrence was interesting to watch, it was Robert de Niro who stole the show. I hope he wins a Best Supporting Actor Oscar next weekend.