The Weekend Dish-Christmas Quiz

You know that golden moment we dream each holiday will hold? The one where we’ll pause for one beat, inhale the scent of cinnamon and cloves, look around in candle glow at the family gathered around, listen to laughter and stories, and say this, yes this is what Christmas spirit feels like.
079I know this feeling is something that doesn’t come in a box from the mall and yet, like a hamster on a wheel, at some moment in December I find myself wandering from shop to shop wondering what the people I care most about want or need.

It was after one of these seemingly futile ramblings that I developed the Christmas quiz, a short fill-in-the blank opportunity for the entire family to reflect on gifts of the year while also offering glimpses into what might be treasured under the tree.  I tried to cover multiple topics – learning opportunities, gifts of time, ways to have fun, needed or desired things, ways to make memories and guidance on how to make another feel loved.  These lists guide me, not only as a shopping list, but as a way of discovering how to spend special time together in the coming year.

      The Christmas Quiz

I only wish I could learn to…
I wish I had time to…
A long-term fun goal for me is…
If I had one whole week off I would…
The best Christmas present you ever gave me was…
If I could have one new item of technology it would be…
If I could have one new item of clothing it would be…
If I could have one new toy it would be…
If I could have one new item of self-care it would be…
If I could have one new thing for the house it would be…
My favorite date this year was…
I would feel very loved if you…

My family teased me at first and wondered why we couldn’t just exchange lists like “normal people.” But after the first year, we looked forward to taking a moment to really reflect, not only on the many things that we dream of, but the many ways we do gift each other in ordinary time.

I wish I’d saved these lists from year to year. If I had it to do all over again, I would.  I recently discovered those dated December, 2004 and I’m amused and amazed at how these quizzes offer a snapshot and time capsule.  What was important once, still threads through the things we like best.

When my son was 17, he wrote that he felt very loved when “you keep providing me with food.” My daughter treasured Disneyland trips as her favorite date, and J wished he could “learn to play the piano.” Funny thing is, nine years later, I still show my son love by cooking when he’s home, still know that my daughter’s favorite dates are to the Magic Kingdom, still remember the year I gave J piano lessons because he plays the piano – quite well – all the time now.

You want to know one more funny thing? In 2004 I wrote, “If I could have one new toy it would be an art easel.”

This year, I again asked for an art easel, thinking it was some random new tangent, me wanting a space to create images as well as word play. I’d entirely forgotten my previous desire, but they say if you write something down, set a desire as your intention, that eventually it will work its way into being.

Some times repeat gifts – of time, love, and attention – are perfectly fine. In 2004, my daughter wrote, “I would feel very loved if you do the same things you always do.” So I guess once again I’ll pull out the Christmas quiz. Want to join me this year?


Endless Summer? Not quite.

July is summer’s Saturday. It’s hugged on both sides with summer months so it feels long and free and endless. While there’s still plenty of time to celebrate all the joys of the season,  there’s no denying we’re almost at its halfway point. How are you doing on your  Weekend Dish – Summer Scavenger Hunt?


Grab a friend, get inspired and go make a memory. Remember to take a photo each time you complete one of the 101 Days of Summer activities.  Post photos on Instagram, #backyardsisters_101days

Race you to September!
1. Perfect your go-to summer barbecue meal.
2. Learn a new grilling technique. For a great veggie grilling video, click here.
3. Invite a new neighbor for dinner. Make it potluck.

Mem Day potluck1
4. Eat outside. Every night. Unless there’s thunder and lightening.
5. Eat by candlelight. Every night. Outside. Unless.
6. Sit on the grass with your dog’s head in your lap.
7. Watch fireflies.  If you catch them in a jar, be sure to let them out before you go to bed.
8. Learn 5 new objects in the night sky.  The free app SkyViewFree uses an i-phone’s camera as viewfinder.
9. Plan ahead to find a dark viewing spot for the Perseid Meteor Shower, August 11 and 12.  You’ll catch the summer’s best display of shooting stars. More info here.
10. Make your own ice cream. You don’t even need an ice cream maker. Check it out here.
sunset11. Stay up late.
12. Get up early. Photograph your days.
13. Learn the names of 5 birds in your neighborhood.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has an amazing library of birdcalls. Link here.


14. Take your morning beverage on the porch, patio, or near an open window.
15. Prop your bare feet on a ledge.
16. Plant one living thing, even in a small pot if you don’t have a yard.
17. Plant something you can eat. A few green onions. Parsley. One tomato plant.
18. Visit a farmer’s market.
19. Take home something you’ve never eaten before.
20. Eat it.



21. Learn to make the perfect margarita or mojito or favorite frozen treat.
22. Invite neighbors over to help you drink it.
23. Visit your mom and dad.
24. Look at photos from childhood family vacations; yours and theirs.
25. Record favorite memories either on video or audio.
26. Visit your children.
27. Look at photos from family vacations; yours and theirs.
28. Record favorite memories.
29. Create a family yearbook of photos.
30. Do one thing that scares you.

get wet

31. Swim in a natural body of water.
32. Cannonball into the deep end of a pool.
33. Play Marco Polo.
34.  Learn one new water skill: surfing, body surfing, paddle boarding, water ballet moves.
35. Teach your new skill.
36. Pick fresh blueberries.
37. Make a summer fruit cobbler. For the Backyard Sisters favorite cobbler recipe, click here.
38. Eat dinner on a blanket under a tree.
39. Walk after dinner through town or your neighborhood.
40. Listen.
41. Hike a new trail.
42. Learn the names of 5 new native plants in your region.
43. Visit 3 new state parks. The rangers there will know the names of the plants.
44. Take a new friend with you.
45. Volunteer for a park clean-up day.
46. Tune your guitar, your piano, your cello, your drum, your voice.
47. Learn one solid song.
48. Lose your inhibition.
49. Make a campfire.
50. Sing under the stars.
51. Make s’mores.
52. Sleep under the stars.
53. Learn how to remove ticks from your dog. (Same concept applies to humans.) Great video here.

54. Sketch, photograph, or journal what distinguishes your local ecosystem from others.
55. Learn 5 edible plants.
56. Learn 5 poisonous plants.
57. Learn to pack lightly.
58. Learn to clean up after yourself.
59. Learn to read a map.
60. Get lost.
61. Go to a car show.
62. Attend your state or county fair.

stevenson quote

63. Submit something: homemade beer, photography, literature.
64. Hold hands on the Ferris wheel.
65. If you win a giant stuffed panda, give it away to a neighborhood kid.
66. Visit the booths with prize-winning pies and jams and wines.
67. Congratulate the blue-ribbon winners. Ask one fine question about their process.
68. Hear an outdoor concert.
69. Watch an outdoor movie.
70. Wait for the Milky way.
71. Visit your local library.
72. Remember summer reading when you were a kid? Check out ten books.
73. Visit an independent bookstore. Buy one thing.

74. Hear a live author reading.
75. Thank the author in person.
76. Perfect one aspect of your craft: Great openings. Killer closings. Trimming the fat from word count.
77. Slow dance under the Full Flower Moon on May 25.
78. Sip strawberry wine under the Full Strawberry Moon on June 23.
79.  Dance with abandon under the Full Thunder Moon on July 22.
80. Fish under the Full Sturgeon Moon on August 20.   For full moon name meanings, click here.
81. Invite neighbors over for a pancake breakfast.
82. Visit the housebound neighbor who couldn’t come.
83. Bring flowers, or stories, or one of your photos.


84. Call your grandmother or grandfather or aunt or uncle or long lost cousin.
85. Tell them about the trees and birds and stars. Ask about the view from their window.
86. Ask about their favorite summer memory.
87. Remember to return your library books.
88. Lie on your back on the grass and watch the clouds.
89. Swing.
90. Swim again. Again. Again.

balcony art
91. Travel.
92. Learn five bits of history about one place you’ll visit.
93. Read before you go.  You can find a literary companion for more than 20 destinations from Whereabouts Press where the mission “is to convey a culture through its literature.”
94. Attend an outdoor art show.
95. Bike ride. On a beach cruiser. Along the beach if you’re lucky.
96. Learn hello, goodbye, please, thank-you and I love you in five new languages.
97. Learn how to come home.
98. Harvest and eat your one small thing standing barefoot on your own patch of ground, balcony, stone or wood.
99. Cut flowers from your yard. Take some to your neighbor.
100. Send an old fashioned hand-written note, with some herbs or fragrant leaves.
101. Set 5 small items – a shell, a rock, a poem – from your summer on your desk.


With water in my ear and sand on my toes,

The Weekend Dish – Thank You

Dear One,


(You are amazing. I love you beyond the clouds and back.)

I found your note, tucked under the honey jar after the dinner party.  It’s hard to know exactly what made you underscore “amazing.” Was it the dancing in the kitchen after cheesecake? The roaring laughter at the table when you told that story about a sprinting basset hound? Whatever dear friend, it was really nothing, you know, nothing more than deciding to open up the door, serve a little food, and add some candlelight. For the record, you are amazing too. And for that, I’m grateful.

DSCN2554A few years back I had this idea to keep all my Thank You notes. At the time I thought I’d collect a pile, then paper a wall with them, or create a room border, maybe modge-podge them onto a tray. Yes, I’ll pause while you chortle.  At my earnestness. At my utter disregard for the fact that I have no crafting ability. But still, I save these treasures.

Thank you for including us! We enjoyed meeting some of your friends.
Thank you for spending a Saturday afternoon with me at the AFI Fest…

Merci pour the less-buttered chocolate cake…
Thank you for a wonderful semester of learning!
Thanks for your love and support during what has to be one of saddest times of my life…
Thank you so much for sharing your time, your words, and your poetry…

Thank You notes remind me of good times and of the importance of helping friends through  the sad ones.  They’re a living scrapbook of parties I’ve almost forgotten, of cakes I’ve made so frequently that I tend to I overlook how they might still be special to another. Thank You notes, sent and saved, draw in pen the invisible web of connected lives.

This weekend, take a minute – that’s really all it takes – and send a Thank You note.  Or, if you’re like my friend, write a note and tuck it in a hidden spot where it will be discovered later.  Either way, show a little gratitude for big things, yes. But focus on the small things too; the time spent together, the cake, the poem, the words said at just the right time.


To our readers, on this our 100th post – this one’s for you. You are amazing.

With No Crafting Ability Whatsoever Except When Using Words



The Weekend Dish

Write now!

National Novel Writing Month begins in exactly six days and you can get a jump start on outlining, prewriting, researching, and yes, writing your book-length project this weekend.

NaNoWriMo, as its known to those in the know, is an annual event billed on the website as “thirty days and nights of literary abandon” where the challenge is to complete 50,000 words within 30 days. You do the math, that’s a lot of writing.  But a perusal of the list of published NaNoWriMo authors includes titles put out by major houses and may include a few names and novels you’ve read like Sara Gruen and Like Water For Elephants.

The concept is pretty simple. You register on the website.  It’s free.

In return for your public declaration of intent, you receive cyber pep talks and support from NaNoWriMo staff and information about local writing groups and in-person events.

You buckle your seat belt to your writing chair. You write.

I’ve already started writing.

Why I Can’t Write 50,000 Words This November
Thirty people are coming for Thanksgiving dinner and I recently moved and I’m not finished unpacking yet and there’s no mirror in the downstairs bath (and no light either) so how can I host a holiday without also doing a little shopping for the house and the new backyard is still mud and the rainy season is imminent and how can I ignore that November is an ideal month to plant in California and did I mention I have no backyard, (seriously, it’s dirt, just dirt which turns into mud when it rains and you know I have Chester and he needs to go outside because that’s what dogs do) and the new issue of dirtcakes is due out so I’ve got writers to contact and contracts to send and design to oversee and the semester is winding down and I know my students paid for and expect to receive not only teaching but grading which means I’ve got dozens and dozens of papers to read and comment upon and did I tell you me daughter’s in-laws are coming to town and I’d be rude not to plan some time for them and surely I’ve mentioned that I’m also a writer which means that all those family things and foody things and editor things and house things and garden things and teaching things will have to somehow bow to this writing thing but I’m old now and I have to sleep so maybe I just won’t eat and I certainly won’t clean (although I should shower and do laundry so as not to offend those standing nearby) but of course I’ll cook the week of Thanksgiving because I really love all those 30 people who will show up on my front porch that day –

Ack! Stop the chatter and just write.

You’ll find inspiration some where. Mine arrived in my e-mail in-box earlier this year. With permission, I’m excerpting it here:

Hi Professor,
It’s Brian Ducoffe.  I was in your “Composing the Self” class last fall. I don’t know if you remember but I participated in National Novel Writing Month and finished. I ended up spending the next 9 months editing and revising it and the book is now published. I ended up going the self publishing route after a couple conversations with some literary agents just so I could have more control but am hoping I can pick up some attention and possibly make some publishing houses take notice. Anyway I just thought you’d like to check it out since I wrote it during your class! Thanks!

See, the cool thing is that Brian never once missed an assignment or asked for an extension he just kept showing up, doing his school thing while finishing Our Elephant Graveyard.
So here’s to you and here’s to me and here’s to a growing word count.
What are you waiting for?
See you on the bright side of November.
Full details of NaNoWri Mo can be found by clicking here.
With high expectations,

The Weekend Dish-Peaches and Cream Italiano

“The Beautiful Month of September is here!”, our grandmother would exclaim in a sing-song voice on the first day of September. She had an affinity for September, it being her birthday month, also mine and my younger sister’s.  We have carried on the tradition and call each other to wish a Happy Beautiful Month of September on the first as well. September also is a time of changes and new beginnings. For school folk it marks the beginning of a new year. It is the time when the weather starts becoming a little cooler and the leaves begin to change colors. With a nod to a trend I see developing, lists of five things one can do, either in a week or a day, I am compiling my own list of five things to do this weekend to celebrate the beautiful month and what it brings.

1. Take some time to think about the things you are grateful for. They can be very simple: ice cream on a hot afternoon, the nudge of your dog’s nose against your leg in an attempt to elicit a pat from you, or greater: the love of your spouse or significant other, your health. If you want some inspiration check out photographer/film-maker Hailey Bartholomew’s gratitude project titled365 Grateful. She shares her tale of how finding and taking a picture of something she was grateful for every day for a year changed her life.

2. Go for a walk with an eye out for signs of the changing seasons; the different flowers which are beginning to bloom, perhaps the presence of new wildlife making a fall appearance in your area or the thinning crowds at the beach.

3. Tackle a project you have been putting off all summer; that closet that needs cleaning, the stack of paperwork which has been pushed aside too many times.

4. Launch a creative endeavor; begin a painting or drawing , a photography project, or writing the first page of your novel, a poem or even a letter. To read some fascinating letters written by notable authors ( actors, authors, politicians) visit the letters of note website.

5. Use the last of the season’s peaches to make this deliciously simple dessert.

Peaches and Cream Italiano

3 peaches, peeled, pitted and halved
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup marsala wine
Dissolve the sugar in the water and marsala and let the peaches macerate in the liquid for approximately one hour.
1/3 cup mascarpone cheese
2/3 cup whipped cream ( made by whipping: 1 cup cream, 2 Tbsp powdered sugar and 1/2 tsp vanilla until thickened)
Mix together cheese and whipping cream and splash of marsala wine and set aside until ready to use.
Dark chocolate for grating

Heat skillet over medium high heat and place peaches cut side down . Cook until beginning to brown and slightly caramelized. Place one half peach in a bowl with cut side up. Fill space where pit was with the whipped cream/cheese mixture and grate the chocolate over the top. Serve immediately. Serves 6

If you like the idea of lists of 5 things to do, and would like to be inspired every day, then you may want to see what David has compiled at

Have a great weekend easing into the changing rhythms of September, the Backyard Sisters’ way.


The Weekend Dish

Venice, Italy                                                                                                 photo credit: Catherine Keefe

Dreaming of Venice, Italy? Maybe you have had your eye on La Biennale di Venezia or Venice Biennial, the  major contemporary art exhibition held there every other year, but just haven’t made it yet. This weekend if you are in Southern California, specifically the Los Angeles area, and want to try the next best thing, have I got an opportunity for you!  The Venice Beach Biennial will be held on the Ocean Front Walk.

Venice Beach, CA                                                                                              photo credit: James Keefe

In conjunction with the Made In LA 2012 project and directed by the curator of the Hammer Museum, Ali Subotnick, there will be over fifty fine artists combined with the veteran boardwalk artists displaying their works. In some instances, the fine artists will be collaborating with the boardwalk artists on projects. The display areas are the Boardwalk and the Recreation and Parks area near Windward Plaza (adjacent to Muscle Beach and the Graffiti Wall). For a list of the participating artists and more information click here.

The hours are:      Friday July 13 and Saturday July 14 from 11AM-sunset

Sunday July 15 from 11AM-6PM

So head on over to Venice Beach take in some art and enjoy the sunset.

Venice Beach Sunset photo credit James Keefe

To really make your Venice experience complete, you could also take a stroll through the local canals.


~ Sue