Archive for December, 2009

Alchemy: Christmas Cookies

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

The recipe is both precise and vague.  My Grandmother Mae wrote it in her hand and noted it was from P.V. Hansen, which P.V. Hansen’s wife, grandmother of my classmate, Alice.  There’s a teaspoon each of ginger and cinnamon. The leavening is “4 teaspoons of vinegar in which put 3 teaspoons of soda.”  Flour:  ‘Plenty of’ she wrote.

Grandmother—she was quite formal and demanded to be called ‘Grandmother,’ never Grandma or Gramma—was known for her wonderful pies and crust and her ginger cookies.

Grandmother Mae's Ginger Cookies

Grandmother used one round cookie cutter with scalloped edges for her entire batch. Her cookies were thin and crisp, and in my memory, never jagged or tough.

My Mom, Grandmother’s  daughter-in-law, taught me to make them. We branched out into many, many shapes with Mom’s family cookie cutters including lions, sheep, fish, and birds.  I’ve added buffalo, tiny bears, and angels.

Mary Gunderson' 2009 Ginger Cookies for Christmas

The number of cookies depends on the size of the cookie cutters, the eating habits of the cookie makers, and how many times to re-roll the dough. My best cookie rolling secret is this:  mix equal parts sugar and all-purpose flour for the rolling medium.  The mixture lessens the chance of adding too much flour, which will make the cookies tough.

My 5th grade neighbor rolled cookies with me this year. She especially liked to knead the cookie dough and found it easier to roll that way.  The trade-off is that the cookies will be less tender.

Grandmother Mae’s Ginger Cookies

Adapted from the original

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup butter, softened

2 eggs

1 cup molasses

About 6 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon ginger

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon nutmeg

4 teaspoons vinegar

3 teaspoons soda

In mixer, cream sugar and butter.  Beat in eggs and molasses.  In separate bowl, combine flour, ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg.  Stir flour into molasses mixture.  Mix vinegar and soda and add immediately.  Stir just until combined.

Chill dough about 1 hour.

Remove dough and with a small section at a time, roll in half flour/half sugar mixture to desired thickness.  Shape cookies with cutters.  Transfer to parchment-paper lined cookie sheets.  Bake in 350° F oven for about 10 minutes or until set.

Continue with all cookies.  Cool on wire racks and store in air-tight container.

Makes 80 to 100 cookies, depending on cookie cutter size.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas, 2009

Playing for Keeps in Pakistan and Afghanistan

Monday, December 21st, 2009

Greg Mortenson seems more like an avatar, the embodiment of a principle, than a real live, flesh-and-blood human. He is a hero to me and I got to see and hear him in person December 18, 2009 in Bloomington, Minnesota, where I was one of a thousand people who came to be inspired and left energized.

Greg travels with friends, including his chihuahua.

For anyone who dreams of world peace and has a secret desire to save the world from poverty, violence, and ignorance, Greg seems too good to be true. He lacks sarcasm and breathless self-promotion.

Greg Mortenson greets students in Korphe, Pakistan, the village where the Central Asia Institute built its first school with the support of Haji Ali, Mortenson's mentor and inspiration.
Greg Mortenson greets students in Korphe, Pakistan, the village where the Central Asia Institute built its first school with the support of Haji Ali, at left, Mortenson’s mentor and inspiration.

How ya gonna get your brand out there without those?

He does it and has been for 17 years. Humble, earnest, tenacious, and possessing a gentle sense of humor, Greg builds relationships and schools and more in isolated tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Since 1993, he has spent 75 months, more than six years, in the two countries. His first book, Three Cups of Tea, is required reading for top military advisors, including Secretary of Defense Gates, and all US Special Forces troops serving in Afghanistan. Greg’s work to promote peace through education, especially for girls, has brought him to the short list of people who deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.

Under the flag of the Central Asia Institute, based in Bozeman, Montana, he raises money to build schools in the same areas where the Taliban, Afghanis, and troops from the US, Britain, and many other countries vie for hearts and minds. The thing is, Greg credits his success to tribal elders. It’s left to the rest of us to credit this remarkable man for showing how one person can and is making a difference in the face of what seems impossible.

Tribal leaders try out the playground swings at Afghanistan's new girl's high school, built by the community and Greg Mortenson's Central Asia Institute.

A recent example:  His organization set a goal to build the first high school for girls for five provinces in Afghanistan, the same area that’s home to Taliban leader Mullah Omar. The CAI gave themselves 20 years to make it happen.  It took just one year and includes a playground. Elders from another area expressed an interest in building their own girls’ high school and were invited to meet at the new school. Before the meeting began, the men insisted on seeing the playground and in minutes, they were swinging. Old men who have lived through 30 years of war and strife were playing, joyfully. They quickly approved a school in their area; the playground to be built first.

Follow Greg Mortenson on Twitter. Help for the ‘Q’ Factor

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

I recently spent some quality time in the health care system. The system came through. Each player being paid did the respective task as promised: the surgeon, the anesthetists, the nurses and aides, the physical therapists, even the guided meditation person who spoke with me just before surgery. No complaints about the insurance company either, though the deductible is insanely high. I did my part by preparing for the process as directed and following instructions afterwards.

The ‘Q’ factor, a variable over which I thought I had least control, turned out to be the care from my friends and family. In theory, it seems obvious, but in fact, I am a rather independent soul who is sometimes under the impression that she is doing many things herself. The implications of needing help with daily life for a while, personal needs, meals, rides to the doctor, left me more than concerned. I just didn’t see how I would manage.

Just when I was resigned to going to a rehab facility for two weeks, my aunt who lives in Washington State offered to come for the surgery and ten days after. I’ve always enjoyed Karen’s company, but it didn’t even occur to me to ask her to come to help me. I was very moved by her offer and accepted.

Then, Kate, an acquaintance, also single and independent, told me about She had been kicked in the knee by a horse and had an immediate crisis that included feeding a stable full of horses while she recuperated. Someone told her about CareCalendar and both she and her horses were cared for well during her recuperation.


CareCalendar is an online service where one can enter ones needs over any period of time. The Bortel family in Stockdale, Texas created and maintains the service. There is no charge, but they ask for donations. After the requests are entered, there’s a code to send to everyone who has offered to help. Each of those people can go into the site and see if the requests fit with their schedules.

CareCalendar, coupled with my aunt’s generosity, made all the difference. I needed about a month’s worth of steady attention. In just a few days, I had promises of a five week’s of meals, rides to the doctor, and, even a crew of friends and their kids to do fall-cleanup in the yard. My aunt loved the results of CareCalendar, too, as she didn’t need to cook much, though she did make a fabulous apple pie.


I received wonderful dinners, including African Peanut Soup, a divine Chicken and Rice Casserole, several bottles of wine (saved until I was off the pain meds), bouquets of flowers, and even Seasons 1 and 2 of Mad Men. Some of the friends and neighbors who helped were the usual suspects, friends I see often enough. I was very grateful knowing I could rely on them, though I wasn’t surprised at their attention. I sent CareCalendar and the sign-in codes to every person who offered to help, some of whom I didn’t know that well or expect do anything. But, they offered and I honored that.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised. But, I was. And, humbled too. A recent study reported in the New York Times details how children practice giving and helping even before they can talk. The researchers say that we are programmed with the urge to help. It’s biological, they say.

Apart from my appreciation for my friends and family and CareCalendar, one other thing is worth noting.  A handful of the people who helped me have started using CareCalendar, including the church’s ‘Hot Dish Ministry’ and individuals coordinating for friends and family.

Biological? It works. That’s all I need to know!

Generation Connect

Friday, December 11th, 2009

About half way through my freshman year of college, I was starved, starved to see and talk to people who weren’t aged 18 to 21. I have a vivid memory of being invited to dinner by a young couple with a baby and feeling a sense of relief, even though the parents were just a few years older than I. It was a relief to step back into the wider world, beyond the homogenous pond of my fellow students in the dorm, the dining room, the nerve-wracking chemistry lab, and the giant biology lecture hall.

Students at the University of Minnesota (UM) Medical School and St. Paul’s Luther Seminary have a lifestyle opportunity to step out of the age-narrow ghetto of higher education and gain skills in working with elders in their chosen professions. The residents of Augustana Apartments, a downtown Minneapolis senior housing complex, have invited people from these two programs to be their neighbors. Co-housing across Generations The arrangement is the brainchild of Dr. Edward Ratner, UM associate professor of internal medicine and medical director of Heartland Home Health Care in Roseville, Minn.  The initiative began Fall 2009 with two medical students and three seminary students moving to vacant apartments at the complex.

The idea is mutual support. Dr. Ratner wants his students to better understand the needs of elders; each student completes training as a home health aide as a condition of residence. Students have a place to live, eat, and socialize with people who aren’t in a hurry. For the elders, it’s a way to combat loneliness and to have the chance to pass along age-tested knowledge. In addition, such things as changing a light bulb or greasing a squeaky wheel in a walker can seem almost insurmountable to someone who can’t climb a ladder or easily squat down, while a younger person does such chores without hesitation.

Dr. Ratner’s plan is low-tech/high-touch. It’s almost laughably simply and blindingly obvious, yet it’s innovative. The population over age 65 is growing fast.  Fewer people than ever choose geriatrics as a medical specialty. Not only is it in the bottom of the pay-scale for physicians, many ailments of aging don’t respond to quick fixes.  Depression is common and undertreated among elders and isolation boosts the tendency to depression. Fewer kids grow up being around elders. As those kids become adults, elders can seem foreign. Younger people, even those pushing middle age, live hurry-up lives dominated by technology. An elder may offer a kind of listening and attention that seems novel to the fast pace of mainstream 21st Century life.

The co-housing initiative at Augustana Homes seeks to address these issues. I’m going to be checking with them in a few months for an update. In the meantime, I am scheduling time both with my mom and other elder friends, and with the “youngers” in my life.

Spirals: Design for Living

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

About a year ago, I designed a new logo for my plan to write about aging gracefully.  In the meantime, I found that I had very little to say about that topic, not experiencing much grace with the aging in my life or with those around me. I did love my logo though, a spiral, pink and gold, suggesting a seashell, a snail, a labyrinth.

Sprial Inspiration --

Over the last year, I’ve come back to this image, mesmerized. The spiral is one of nature’s genius designs. I’ve found there’s a discipline that celebrates the spiral.  It’s called biomimicry and it’s for innovators and problems solvers. We’re all problem solvers even if the label innovator doesn’t seem to fit. The theory is this: systems in nature reveal form and process for solving problems: a challenge presents itself. Trial and error bring about a solution that must be evaluated on its merits.  That may create a whole other set of challenges and the process repeats, without end.

I’m learning more about biomimicry (there’s a terrific reading list here). I want to find out where this spiral can take me.

Hello and Welcome

Friday, December 4th, 2009

This brand new website is born today, December 4, 2009.  I’m Mary Gunderson, writer, editor, and speaker about food, health, and wellness. I’m exploring how we age with grace, which means living each day creatively and fully.  Few people, if any, can expect to live without any limitations or illnesses. How can we best take care of ourselves and others and be well, no matter what.