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Friday, March 29, 2013

Amazing Depth, Great Self-Awareness! Raving Review for Replacement Child by Judy Mandel

Book Cover - Replacement Child
Judy Mandel
Book Review - Replacement Child 
Review by Crystal Casavant-Otto
Book by Judy Mandel
Link to Amazon: click here

Book Review: Replacement Child   by Judy L. Mandel
By Crystal J. Casavant-Otto

Within the first few pages of Judy L. Mandel’s memoir, I scribbled the following notes in my journal:
·        Amazing depth, pulled me in right away!
·        Great self-awareness in seeking her own seeds of truth.
Whether you enjoy reading historical fiction, memoir, non-fiction, relationship, or self-help books, you’ll enjoy Replacement Child as Mandel guides you through the development of her family. The story unfolds like a play and Mandel herself admits “I was not a lead actor in this play”.

Replacement Child   jumps back and forth between Mandel’s current life and the tragic plane crash that happened years before she was born. This was a little hard to follow at first, but allows readers to understand how the past and the present are delicately woven together forming the reality of each character.  The events were depicted so honestly that I often found myself crying during the trials and cheering during the triumphs of many characters.

Replacement Child   may involve the plane crash that took the life of Mandel’s sister, but the story began much earlier than that. Mandel does a fantastic job digging into her parent’s courtship and the early years of their relationship to inspect their emotions and thoughts. She took the time to carefully examine and then develop each character without casting blame or judgment. The care and dedication to this work can only be described as a labor of love and a journey of self-discovery.

Mandel’s parents had a loving marriage, a modest home, two lovely daughters, and then tragedy strikes as an airplane crashed in their kitchen and her mother must choose which child to save first. Neither child was spared; one child perished and the other child was burned so badly she nearly died. Mandel’s parents hadn’t been able to salvage much of their home, and they were willing to do anything to salvage what they could of their relationship. This is where Mandel comes in, during Act II as she calls it, as the replacement child.

I love the honesty Mandel shows when she admits that telling the story of an entire family is really a high wire act. I’m a big fan of this book and appreciate the care Mandel took with collecting historical information to ensure as much accuracy as possible. Judy L. Mandel has done a great job with her memoir, Replacement Child   and I would not hesitate to recommend this book to others. As a mother, I would also recommend having a box of tissues handy.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Secrets for Soft Chocolate Chip Cookies

cookies - cooling on paper shopping bag
Secrets for Soft (and Delicious) Chocolate Chip Cookies

Apparently it has been too long since I baked chocolate chip cookies. My husband has been getting requests for them (from teenage boys believe it or not) and I haven't done much baking since Valentine's Day. Today was a lovely day to spend in the kitchen. The sunlight was streaming in, and it was a nice enough day to hang laundry on the line so I figured cracking the window above the sink a bit would also be appropriate. The smell of cookies baking, the sounds of birds chirping, and the warm sunshine was fabulous. A friend messaged me asking how my day was going and when I told them I was baking cookies, they asked for some and then reminded me that I had promised to share the recipe and my secrets for softness. Well, I am officially going on record and sharing all of my secrets right here, right now - enjoy!

batter - ready for placement on cookie sheets
May your paths be abundantly filled with lemons, sugar, sunshine, and sweet cookies that are also soft!

Before I give you a list of ingredients or tell you to pre-heat your oven, I must tell you that the secret to soft cookies lies not in the ingredients, but in the handling. So please, read this first:

* Do not use hard butter or room temperature butter - use butter that has been microwaved and is approximately 92% liquid and the remaining 8% in very soft and mushy

* Use ONLY butter - real (made from cows milk go figure) butter. Salted or unsalted doesn't matter.

* Bake for only 10 minutes. Don't second guess this ... they may not look done, but do not over bake them.

* Don't scrimp on the chocolate chips ... because chocolate is amazing!

* Cool your cookies on a paper shopping bag (more specific instructions will follow) instead of cooling them on a rack or on the baking sheet. This will pull some excess grease away from the cookie eliminating some hardness.

* Store your cookies in an airtight container or zip lock style plastic bag.

Alright - those are essentially the 'secrets' and here's the nitty gritty of it all:

1 cup butter
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar (I like dark)
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups flour (I like unbleached)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2-3 cups semisweet chocolate chips

1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees F

2) Start at the top of the list (with the butter) and add the ingredients together. Stir thoroughly after each ingredient is added.

3) Using 2 table spoons, place your dough on the cookie sheet (I like an airbake cookie sheet - ungreased) and do not roll, form, or worry about any of that. Just 'plop' them on there. I can only fit 9 cookies on a sheet, but of course the size of your 'plop' is going to determine that.

4) Bake on the center rack (this may mean for optimal cookie goodness that you can only bake 1 sheet at a time) for 10 minutes. Set a timer ... 10 minutes means, 10 minutes!

repurposed Folgers coffee container
5) Remove from oven promptly and allow to 'rest' for 1 minute before using a spatula to move from the cookie sheet to a grocery bag for drying/cooling.
note**** I cut the bottom and handles off my grocery bag, and then slit the bag down the side so it opens to about the length of 2 cookie sheets and then I lay it out on my counter top. It's a little messy when you clean up the mess and there will be some grease on the counter top, but pulling the grease away from the cookies helps keep them soft and moist.

6) After fully cooled, place cookies in an air tight container. I keep my Folgers coffee containers, they are plastic with a tight fitting cover and they work fabulously. Resist the urge to keep your cookies in a cookie jar that is not air tight - they'll get dried out and lose some softness

7) Enjoy and Share!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Appreciation = Priceless

Appreciation - Priceless

What's on my mind today? Well... lots of stuff really, but if I shared everything you would certainly lock me up and throw away the key (not because it's illegal, but because the inner workings of ones mind can be a scary place and you might label me insane). So - what can I share today? I guess I'll share something that was said to me this morning:

Many of you know that I'm a church musician/organist and if you didn't, now you know! It's not that it's a bad gig at all, in fact I love it! The problem is that most people don't ask and may never know what goes into being a church musician. Most of us took more than ten years of lessons meaning weekly sessions with an instructor or a nun and then daily practicing at home (twice daily if our parents insisted), and now we spend hours each week carefully choosing our music, practicing our foot pedals, left hand, right hand, everything together, etc... and then, comes the big moment when we are ready to play it for all to hear. Playing the right notes is part of the battle, but keeping everyone happy is even more difficult. We often hear:
-could you play faster?
-that seemed a little too fast, can you slow down.
-the organ sounded a little loud today, is everything working okay?
-I didn't recognize that hymn, I wish you would have played more melody.

Then there's the fear of coming in too early, too late, or not at all ... playing the wrong tune for the season (ie: our books are marked with notes saying 'do this during lent but not during advent' and 'play this for this pastor, and not for that pastor', etc...).

Now, I have also moved onto the season of life where I have small children. I practice and fret about the organ playing, the timing, the season, the songs, and all of that ... and then, I worry about where the children will be during service, who is going to watch them, should they be there at all, and then I wonder if it's all worth it. I think about hanging up my organ shoes until the children are older, in exchange for a relaxing Sunday morning in the pew. Right now, Lent is just ending and it's nearly Easter. This means I've been playing mid-week services in addition to Sunday services, and the next few days hold Maunday-Thursday Service, Good Friday Service, Special Easter Music, and oh yes ... I suppose I need to figure out how the Easter bunny plays into all this so that my children aren't disappointed - and of course, there's Easter Breakfast to plan, lunch with the inlaws, and possibly som

e sleep at some point.

Now - you have a glimpse into the life of  church organist. So - what happened this morning that caused me to title today's post Appreciation - Priceless ?????? Let me tell you:

A gentleman from my church came up to me at about 9 o clock this morning and simply said:

"Did anyone mention what a great job you did playing on Sunday? It sounded great!"

15 little words and they made all the difference in the world. I guess that hanging up those organ shoes would be silly and now I feel pretty great about those years of lessons, countless hours of preparation and practice, and accidental boos boos that I make from time to time don't seem quite so meaningful.

My take away is that you can really make or break someone by either appreciating them or choosing not to. I am going to choose to be more appreciative, how about you?

May your paths be abundantly filled with lemons, sugar, sunshine, and appreciation!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Guest Blogger, Carmen Casavant

Carmen Casavant, Today's Guest Blogger
Today's Guest Blogger is my daughter, Carmen Casavant. She knew that her picture was featured in my recent blog for WOW! Women on Writing, and I read her the blog. Her response was "so that's why you always ask me about my dreams" and we immediately started talking about our journals. Her journal is a little different than mine, because she is in kindergarten and is just learning how to write. Her journal contains lots of words, a few sentences, and lots and lots of pictures. This is how she journals (for now). 

I told her that we should feature some of her pictures and stories on my blog, and she thought that would be a great idea. So here, is what she came up with from last night's dream. Enjoy!


Saving the Princess

There was a big green dragon. Dragons aren't real, but sometimes I dream about them. The dragon took the princess. My mom was the princess. I had a big long sword and I climbed a mountain. The princess was with the dragon on top of the mountain. I saved the princess and killed the dragon. The End

About Today's Guest Blogger:
 Carmen enjoys reading and writing as well as singing. 
She likes to make up her own stories and songs. 

Crystal's Confession

This word search may give me away before you get to the end of the post, but just for fun ... can you guess what I'm confessing based on the first words that jump out at you?

if you haven't figured it out yet, keep reading:

I love having my picture taken (ever since my children were born). I want them to have lots of memories of what we all looked like as a family. I cherish the photographs of my father, and I have plenty of them but still with I had more. That's likely where my passion for pictures comes from. There is another passion that I just recently discovered though, and that's the one I want to confess to you now.

I'm passionate about life. I've been snapping photographs every morning of the sky, the trees, the snow, the sun, and the world around me. I can honestly say that up until 2012 I hadn't noticed these things. I was fired from my job in January 2012 and I thought my life was going to end. In fact, there were a few days that I thought about ending my life because I couldn't imagine what was worth living for without a career. It's taken me over a year to really come to terms with that. I am truly happy with where my life has taken me, and now I have the time to enjoy what God has blessed me with. I've grown to know my children, my husband, and my friends. I have time to have meaningful conversations instead of watching the clock and worrying about deadlines. Most of all, I have time to experience all that life has to offer.
Each morning there is an amazing sky before me and it is different than any morning before or any morning to come. Each day has a unique smell to it, and the breeze carries it to my nose and I can feel the wind in my hair. I am a moment junkie. I think about all the sunrises I took for granted, all the stars I didn't stop to count, and I feel guilty. I think about the parents who were taken too soon, and what they would have given for just one more sunrise, one more breath of fresh air, or one more sunset to enjoy. I am drawn to photograph these things. Not because I want to be a professional photographer, but because I am a junkie in search of my next 'high' - my next moment! I want to capture the moment so I can look at it again and again, so I can share it with my friends, so I can frame it on the wall and be reminded of how happy I was the moment I snapped that picture. The only thing that might be better would be bottling up the smells that go along with the moment ... but I haven't figured out how to do that.
Here's what I'm confessing to you, it's partially that I'm a moment junkie, but also that I am saving up to buy an expensive camera. I am dizzy with excitement at the thought of taking better pictures and more pictures. I'm ecstatic at the thought of taking one every day and covering my bedroom wall with them. I'm giddy about the happiness that I've been blessed with every day and I hope you can feel some of that when you look at my pictures. I hope they make you 1/2 as happy as they make me.
May your paths be abundantly filled with lemons, sugar, sunshine, and moments that make you dizzyingly excited!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

I Must Be Dreaming ...

Dream Your Way to a Great Short Story!

I’ve enjoyed sleeping for as long as I can remember. My mom may tell a different story about childhood naps and early bedtimes, but as far as I am concerned sleep is a very necessary and enjoyable activity. I sleep, therefore I dream and in recent years I’ve incorporated my dreams into my journal. Journaling my dreams has provided me with fabulous material for short stories and blog posts and has also given me ideas on how to enhance my writing to make it more vivid and exciting for the reader.

I’ve suggested dream journaling to those who have self diagnosed themselves with ‘writers block’. I personally have found that dream journaling is a great way to stop those recurring dreams or those that end too soon. Recurring dreams and those that end in the middle seem to have one thing in common – something needs attention or closure. I’ve found that by writing down what I remember about the dream and then adding the unfinished details I can find the closure my sleeping self was looking for. This may not come naturally at first, but the more you journal the easier it gets.

An example of an unfinished dream might be waking up just after you meet a handsome prince in the middle of the woods. Of course you wake up feeling like you want more: more time with the prince, possibly a kiss, etc…you want to find your happily ever after. Start by journaling or jotting down what was in the dream:

·         Tall trees

·         Brightly colored leaves

·         Singing birds

·         Small animals scampering through the woods

·         Jazz music playing quietly in the background

·         A soft blanket and an overflowing picnic basket

·         The dark haired prince with the broad shoulders and sparkling brown eyes

·         Your hair falling in ringlets down your back

·         Your yellow sundress made of the softest cotton

That’s where things stopped in the dream. The prince came into view, looked at you longingly, and beep…beep…beep your alarm clock brought you back to the reality of an empty bed, an itchy work shirt, and a tedious day of work and your demanding boss.

Use your journal and your writing talents to journal yourself an ending. Pick up right where you left off and add the details.

·         The prince sat down on the picnic blanket

·         He grabbed your hand softly and kissed your hand with his oh so soft and voluptuous lips

·         He spoke and his voice gave you a shiver because it was so deep

·         He told you that you were the princess he had dreamed about for so long and he could hardly look at you because of your astonishing beauty

·         You shared a sandwich and chatted comfortably for hours before parting ways and promising to meet at this same spot tomorrow

·         The following day he proposes and you live happily ever after in a castle on the hill overlooking the bluest river you have ever seen

Once your story has an ending you can put it together into a short story, poem, or other piece of writing. You may also find that by giving the story closure, you will not have the same dream night after night. It seems that finishing the story gives your subconscious more available space for the next great idea/story and it’s doubtful that you’ll ever run out of material for your stories.


May your paths be abundantly filled with lemons, sugar, sunshine, and dreams with happy endings!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013


This is a crazy dream that I had a few nights ago. As Mark and I discussed it, we came up with no rational answers about where it came from or what it symbolizes, other than my greatest fear as a parent is that I will be taken from my children too soon. I don't fear death and I look forward to heaven, but I pray that my children will be grown when God calls me home. In the meantime, this story reads like something from the Twilight Zone - hopefully you'll enjoy it!

May your paths be abundantly filled with lemons, sugar, sunshine, and dreams filled with happiness and fresh flowers!

A short fictional piece by Crystal J. Casavant-Otto

He reached the voicemail the first time he called: "this is Otto, leave a message" said the voice on the recording. He couldn't bring himself to do it so he hung up. He just knew something was going wrong at the Otto household and he didn't want to overstep his boundaries as Mrs. Otto's Gynecologist. He waited a few days and tried again, only to hear the same recording. This time he left a message: "Mark, this is Dr. Leach. We met back in December at Crystal's appointment. I would like it if you would call me back please. The number is nine two zero, three two zero, four thousand. I'll talk to you soon; thank you." He hung up the phone and shook his head. He wished he had a better understanding of what was going through his patient's head and the only way to find out would be to talk to her husband.

Mark finished bedding the heifers, fixing the broken water line, and was about to take apart the bucket mechanism on the broken skid steer when he heard the familiar beeping of a voicemail on his phone. He took off his gloves, reached into his pocket, and looked at the screen. He shrugged his shoulders not recognizing the number and proceeded to pull off his hat, bring the phone to his ear, and listen to the voicemail. It sure was odd that Crystal's 'girl doctor' would be calling him. He was about to place the phone back in his pocket when a nagging voice in his head told him to make the call and talk to the Doctor.

Mark dialed the number rather hesitantly and was surprised when Dr. Leach answered on the second ring. Mark was worried, knowing that the busy Doctor had given him his direct line.

Mark: "Dr. Leach, this is Mark Otto, Crystal's called?"

Dr.: "Yes Mark, thank you for calling back so quickly. It's important that we chat. How is Crystal holding up and how are you all doing with the news?"

Mark: "Oh, well we are all pretty shocked, but we are doing well. She's been napping a lot, but other than that, we are doing okay. I think she's coming to see you next Friday with one of her friends. I can't get away, but she'll have plenty of support."

Dr.: "That's good to hear. I'm glad she's got support right now. If you need any help or additional resources, please let me know. Okay? I was a little shocked by her initial response and wanted to make sure everyone was handling the news as best as possible."

Mark: "Thanks so much, I better get back to this broken skid steer, but thanks for your concern Doctor. See you soon I'm sure."

Dr.: Good Bye.

Mark: Good Bye.

Dr. Leach hung up the phone and ran his fingers through his thinning hair. It was just a few months ago this lovely couple and their two young children had sat in his office excited about the new baby. It was hard enough telling them that the baby had died, but now it seemed so unfair that they had all of this to deal with too. This was the part of his job he really hated.

Even after her D&C from the missed miscarriage, Crystal had seemed hopeful about her own health and the possibility of having another baby. She was easy going, fun loving, and devoted to her children and her husband. Dr. Leach was excited to help her achieve her goals of having another baby. He reminded her about watching her weight, eating right, and assured her that 35 was not too old to conceive. He was certain he would see her in a few months after she had another positive home pregnancy test.

She had come in even sooner than he expected; she was concerned that it had been eight weeks since the D&C and still no period. He ran the hormone level test and was optimistic when the results came back with 50,600. At her appointment, he scheduled the ultrasound and told her about the possibilities:

"Crystal, this could be exactly what you want, just a little sooner than you'd planned. Based on your levels, you could be 6-8 weeks pregnant with a single child, 4-6 weeks pregnant with twins, or I better tell you the long shot here ... there's always the possibility that part of the placenta was not removed and it is multiplying and mutating and you could have a cancerous mass throwing off your hormone levels - but that's doubtful okay? Let's just see what happens with the ultrasound."

She had looked confused by those options and checked her calendar. There was no way she was as pregnant as he thought. 6-8 weeks was an impossibility and even 4-6 weeks was a stretch of the imagination. She had hugged him when leaving the office and smiled saying "God has a plan and I'm excited. See you in a few weeks Doc!"

Those were the exact same parting words she used the day he gave her the devastating news. He himself believed in God and had gone to Catholic school, hell - he even worked at a Catholic hospital, but how could she be handling this with a smile? He just couldn't explain it. Now that he had talked to her husband, he was even more confused.

Mark hadn't given anymore thought to the conversation with Dr. Leach. Crystal and the children got home, she made the children supper, did laundry, did homework, tucked the kids in bed, and was waiting with a hot meal when he came in from the barn. Her belly was getting bigger every day and he couldn't wait until their baby would arrive. It wasn't ideal that she was so tired and throwing up all the time, but knowing life was growing inside of was so exciting for both of them. She was growing even closer to the older children and he couldn't wait to share the good news with them.

"Did you pick up the paint for Andre's room?" he asked while enjoying his steak and potatoes that evening. She assured him that she had a coupon and would be heading to Menards first thing next week. Then she wrapped her arms around his neck and reminded him that she loved him with her whole heart and she couldn't imagine what would have happened had they not met and fell in love. He looked at her with the same longing he had on their wedding day and reminded her that she was his soul mate. With that, he finished his dinner and they went up to bed to make love and hold one another close.

That night she had the same dream and again she awoke sweating and having trouble breathing. She was back in Dr. Leach's office and instead of telling her about the baby in her uterus he was telling her that there was a tumor that had spread and she had months to live. Instead of giving her a due date of September 30th he was telling her that it would be nothing short of a miracle if she lived until September to see Andre and Carmen start kindergarten and first grade. Her head was spinning, she couldn't tell truth from fiction. She felt her tummy and it was growing, she felt like she was going to throw up - how could all of these symptoms be the symptoms of her own death instead of indications that new life was beginning inside of her?

In a rare moment of clarity, she rolled over and tapped her sleeping husband on the shoulder. She wanted so badly to tell him the truth. She wanted to remind him about which Cemetery she wanted her ashes buried in, which songs she wanted sung at the funeral, and how she wanted the children cared for. "Mark, wake up - please." and all she heard was snoring. She rolled over, pulled the blankets up to her chin and thought, it's better if they don't know what's coming. I can just pretend everything is okay and we can make happy memories up until the end. I'm just not strong enough to face them and say goodbye.

With that thought, she closed her eyes and went to sleep dreaming about the child she so desperately wished was growing in her toxic womb.