Best Friends

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Let the baking begin!

DSC01382Christmas is not my favorite time of year.  Don’t worry.  I’m not going to launch into a tirade about how commercially motivated our society has become, or goad anyone into a theology debate.  No, I made a promise to myself that I would leave my cynicism at the door.  I vowed to make an extra effort to avoid allowing my negativity to overshadow the holidays or bleed into my blog entries.

Not an easy promise to keep, especially after dipping my toes into the pool of Christmas shoppers down at the mall.  I barely escaped with my life.  I will refrain from recounting the whole grim tale.  Doing so would only set me down a path of no return and then I will have broken my vow to be, if not cheery, at least, civil.

Finding Christmas related activities or events that don’t leave me wanting to chug the nearest carton of laced eggnog is a pretty tall order, but not an impossibility.  After all, I have discovered that I like Christmas music.  Granted, the playlist is minimal, but I’m a firm believer that all good things should be moderated.

There is another thing that I like about Christmas.  It’s the perfect excuse to bake an exuberant amount of goodies.  Of course, I don’t want them in the house because sweets are counterproductive in the whole healthy living lifestyle thing I’ve got going on, but I’ve come up with a solution.  I’ve devised a way to make them essentially guilt-free.  I bake them, pack them in cute bags adorned with curly ribbon and a festive candy cane, and give them to all my friends, family, and coworkers. They seem to like the gesture and it always leaves me with the warm, gooey satisfaction of having put a smile on their faces.  If I were a humane person, I might feel a twinge of remorse for having sabotaged their holiday diet plan, but I’m not, and I don’t.

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I usually try to make a variety of treats including some old favorites, such as chocolate chip and peanut butter.  I also try to incorporate cookies with a little spice.  Some of my favorite cookies aren’t sweet at all.  This is the fault of my little Italian grandmother who used to let me help her make batch after batch of pizzelle cookies.  For those who have never experienced these anise-flavored Italian cookies, I’m truly sorry for they are wonderfully yummy.   My grandmother made the best – my mother runs a close second  – and she used to let me lick the bowl until my tongue went numb.  My mother never let me do that.  You know, that whole Salmonella thing and all.  I miss my grandma.

This year, I have brought back my chocolate ginger spice cookies that are rolled in raw sugar, giving them a nice crunchy texture on the outside which contrasts nicely to the soft, moist middle.  To complement this offering, I have added a Chai flavor inspired cookie.  This one is definitely one to be enjoyed with a tall glass of milk, and while the dense cookie itself is more spicy than sweet, the white chocolate coating drizzled with melted milk chocolate gives it a nice balance.  They are considerably more work than just the basic chocolate chip, but I think they are worth it.  If for no other reason than they are a nice change of pace.

DSC01351While I am a pretty decent baker, a confectioner I am not.  Over the years, I have tried my hand at a lot of different candies: peanut brittle, almond bark, peppermint almond bark.  None of them resulted in anything edible.  In spite of this, I do try to add a bit of fudge to every bag.  Of course, fudge can be as frustrating to make as peanut brittle, especially when one has no idea the difference between those very technical candy making terms: hard-crack stage and soft-crack stage.  However, I’ve found a no fuss recipe that takes all of 20 minutes from the second the sugar hits the sauce pan until I pop the finished product into the fridge to set up.  Everyone seems to like it, and I wouldn’t dream of leaving it out.

The past two years, due to circumstances beyond my control, life has made this task overwhelming.  I just didn’t have the time to bake enough goodies for everyone on my list.  This year is different.  My school semester is finished, there are no obligatory family functions looming that require an ounce of my attention, and I have a couple of days off a week until mid-January.  More importantly, because there are no outside pressures, I feel that I am going to enjoy this year’s baking marathon much more than I have in a good long while.  That makes me happy.  Perhaps even instills a smidgen of holiday cheer into my Scrooge-filled heart.  Anything is possible, right?  I mean, I voluntarily put up the Christmas tree on the 10th of the month.  Much sooner than usual, and with minimal grumbling.  Perhaps Christmas miracles do happen.

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Things I learned this week (October 30 – November 6)

I learned this week…

…that big white angel wings are a hot commodity during Halloween.  My daughter decided at the last possible minute that she wanted to go to trick-or-treating dressed as Max from James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series.  For those you who don’t know, Max is a girl who has been genetically engineered to have wings so that she can fly. Big wings.  Not little fairy wings.  Not rainbow-colored wings made of wire and mesh.  Big white, feathery wings. Needless to say, my daughter went trick-or-treating as a grim reaper.

…that Christmas comes earlier and earlier every year.  This just proves my point that the holiday is nothing more than an over-commercialized farce.  For one year, one measly year, I would like to get through Thanksgiving before I am inundated with nauseating Christmas cheer.

…that there are those in my house who don’t share my cynical view of the coming Christmas season.

…that Petrarch was a miserable sap.  Seriously, who writes that many sonnets about a woman who obviously wouldn’t give him the time of day? Did he not have any drinking buddies who could have staged an intervention and gotten the man laid?  Good grief.  I think I’d rather read Beowulf again than have to read one more sonnet about the virtues of some courtly maiden named Laura.

…that karma does exist and sometimes people do get what’s coming to them.  I was leaving my favorite Target store this week and I happened to see a man trying to get his shopping cart to stay where he parked it – in the handicap parking space next to his Expedition instead of in the cart corral.  I called him an ass hat under my breath and kept walking.  People like that piss me off because we all know that cart isn’t going to stay where he left it.  Nope, it’s going to get caught by the wind and end up smacking the passenger door of my car.  It is inevitable.  Sure enough, the wind caught that cart, but instead of carrying it in the direction of my car, it came to rest behind the ass hat’s SUV.  Just as he began to back out of his space.  BAM!  That my friends is karma at its finest.

…that Andy Rooney died.  I loved that grumpy old guy.

…that with a little prodding from the guys in my Western Civilization class, my professor will find a scene from The Holy Grail that adequately depicts any aspect of our current curriculum.  This week – the Black Death.

…that sometimes a little booze is necessary – even if you don’t take a sip.  The comfort that it is there in case of an emergency is priceless.

…that I have an inner clock that doesn’t recognize the end of daylight savings time.  I didn’t get an extra hour of sleep.  I can’t really complain, though.  I was able to accomplish a little more, a little earlier today than yesterday.  I was at the gym by 7 a.m.; home by 8 a.m.; was showered and had a good dent in a writing assignment by 9; and had myself psyched up for a trip to the grocery store by 9:30.  Of course, that’s when things went awry.  I didn’t actually make it to the store until noon.  But hey, what matters here is that my morning was spectacular.

…that my cats don’t recognize the end of daylight savings time, either.  This is a lot less tolerable and makes me want to take them all to the shelter.

…and last but not least this week’s awww moment is brought to you by…well I have no idea because this was an email forward from Nolan.  Too cute for school, indeed.

Things I learned this week (October 8 – October 15)

I learned this week…

…that looking for the perfect pumpkin is serious business in my house.  Last weekend we went to our favorite pumpkin patch.   In a dusty, weed filled field, we searched – row upon neatly constructed row.  There were big ones and small ones, fat ones and skinny ones.  Some that where lopsided, some with twisted and gnarled stems.  The search was exhausting, but finally we spied him – our perfect pumpkin.  His color lovely, his skin roughly textured.  He had character.  We quickly deemed him worthy of the noble position of front porch sentry.  He would guard our door faithfully when the hordes of trick-or-treaters come knocking.  And there he will stay – until he rots or is stolen and murdered by the evil neighborhood teenagers.

…that I still loath Beowulf with every fiber of my being.  While I can appreciate the artistry of the piece, a tale of a heroic warrior’s adventures of dragon slaying just isn’t my thing.  Giovanni Boccaccio, I’ve discovered, is my thing.  It has everything I love in a story – jealousy, betrayal, and murder with a slightly sick twist.  In The Decameron, Boccaccio tells us of a knight whose wife is in love with his best friend.  The knight plots the murder of his friend, cuts his heart out and then instructs his cook to make an elaborate dish out of it.  As his cheating wife cleans her plate and licks her lips, he says:

“What did you think of that, madam?”

“In good faith, my lord,”…”I liked it very much.”

“So help me God,”…”I do believe you did.  But I am not surprised to find that you liked it dead, because when it was alive you liked it better than anything else in the whole world.”

From “The Ninth Story of the Fourth Day” The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio.

Yes.  Sick and twisted.  Definitely my thing.

…that I have broken my pledge to avoid the State Fair of Texas at all costs, two years in a row.  Last year my BFF Amy talked me into going.  I was powerless to refuse the only thing she asked to do while she was visiting from Florida.  This year, my resolve was crumbled by the most beautiful pair of blue eyes.

…that (in reference to the above) the Fair is still overpriced and crowded with rude, obnoxious people.  However, I did eat a Fletcher’s corny dog and a fried pumpkin pie.  Both pretty darn good.  Still, I don’t understand why anyone would coat their corn dog with mustard, then walk around trying to eat it.  Totally disgusting.

…that the discovery of the private study rooms at my campus library was a wonderful thing.  Sure, I don’t get to people watch and play my beloved “What if?” game.  I am saddened by that, but it is a small price to pay in order to avoid inconsiderate, germ-invested young people.  Plus, lack of distractions leads to increased productivity. I was able to get an entire blog finished on Tuesday and about 1000 words written in Retribution on Thursday.  Not too shabby.

…that technology is not always my friend.  This is the second time I’ve written this particular blog entry.  Very frustrating, but I am trying to look on the bright side – at least I didn’t accidentally delete the 21,000+ words I have managed to eek out for Retribution thus far.

…that I don’t get this whole Occupy Wall Street thing.  I saw an interview with one protester here in Dallas who boasted of quitting her job at Neiman’s so that she could protest.  Really?  What kind of message does that send?   Look, I’m all for exercising one’s constitutional right to assemble.  I understand that the country is angry, and rightfully so, but these folks need to consolidate their message if they want anyone with any power to incite change to take them serious.  Right now, they look like a bunch of campers making a mess at the local city park.  I feel sorry for the park employees who will have to clean up their mess once they are finally evicted.

…and finally…this week’s awww moment is brought to you by a crazy little squirrel who looks a bit like Einstein to me – well, if Einstein were a Russian squirrel with hairy ears.

Maxim Shipenkov / EPA

Things I learned this week (August 22 – 26)

So, here we are again – another week successfully muddled through, with virtually no collateral damage.  That makes for a good week, in my book. 

For those of you that pay attention to these things, there are only 27 days left until the official beginning of the fall season and only 120 shopping days left until Christmas. 

I’m looking forward to the beginning of fall, myself.  Though, I don’t know why.  I live in Texas.  Mother Nature tends to forget about us down here in the Lone Star State when she is handing out seasonal weather.  I’m starting to think that she doesn’t care for us all that much.  Or maybe we are being punished for something.

Rick Perry, perhaps? 

Just saying.

I learned this week…

Megan the Wise

…that my daughter is wise beyond her years.  She sat down at the dinner table and out of blue said, “So many years gone by so fast, huh?”  She’s had a lot of these little zingers lately.  I’m not sure how she became so mature or if it is even a good thing, but her frankness warms my heart.  I am so blessed to have her in my life.

…that even at my age, and with more than a few semesters under my belt now, I still get butterflies on the first day of school.

…that an educational institute’s library is still one of my top five places to people watch.  The eclectic group of individuals who choose to begin their quest for higher education at a Community College make for great character inspiration, as do the facility that are determined to teach them.  I spent two days this week taking it all in and playing my favorite “what if” game.  Perhaps I will share some of the things I witnessed with you in my next blog entry.

…that even though I am not a proponent of war, I am thrilled to see Gaddafi’s regime come crashing down.  Those of you old enough to remember Lockerbie, Scotland will surely share my view.  [If you would like to read more about the bombing of Pan Am flight 103, you can do so (here), as well as (here).] Now, the question is:  Will the liberated Lybians embrace this opportunity for a new beginning, free from oppression, or will they squander it away, allowing an even bigger evil to rear its ugly head.  I guess time will tell.

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that I found this little tidbit regarding the founder of IKEA very interesting.  For those of you who don’t know, I loathe the Swedish furniture maker with the strength of a thousand suns.  I have no real problem with their products, per se.  I will readily admit that my favorite writing chair is from IKEA – though my choice of decor tends to lean more toward traditional than modern.  My biggest problem with the store is in its design and layout.  I don’t appreciate being herded like little lab rats through a never-ending maze while enduring the endless stupidity and rudeness of those packed like sardines around me.  I want to get in, get what I need, and leave.  An impossibility in IKEA.  Oh, and don’t get me started on the floor.  I have never left that store without an ache that runs from my right knee down to my right big toe.  Never.

…that I was mistaken in my belief, or perhaps hope is a more adequate word, that the middle school parents would have a better grasp of pick up and drop off rules.  Their children may have matured over the summer, but sadly, they have not.  Yesterday, I saw a white Chrysler 300 (with pimpin’ rims) parked backwards – complete with illuminated reverse lights – in the moving (in the opposite direction) carpool lane.

…that the weather folks on the nightly news are just screwing with us.  We might have fallen for the arbitrary 98 or 99 degree high temperature prediction stuck in at the end of the ten-day forecast, the first few half-dozen times, but now it’s just cruel to dangle such utter nonsense – complete meteorological fabrications – in front of our noses.  Haven’t we suffered enough?

10 day forecast courtesy of http://www.weather.com

…that adaptation is born out of necessity.  A couple of weeks ago I came back from vacation to find that most of the stationary bikes at my gym, including my beloved #3, were gone.  “Out for repair”, the pimply boy behind the counter told me.  I was forced to get my cardio workout on the elliptical.  I am surprised to report that I don’t hate it.  I’ve figured out how not to fall off and how to adjust it to fit my short, stubby stride.  As always, I judge the success of a workout by the amount of sweat dripping from my body and the level of numbness I feel in my legs when I’m finished.  The elliptical delivered on both.  This does not mean that it will replace the spinner as my workout apparatus of choice – I am a biker, through and through.  *HA!  I made a joke there.  See?*

…that though I searched high and low, I was unable to find any new reports of bear attacks.  However, I did come across another Great White shark attack.  This time off the coast of South Africa.  I don’t wish to belittle such a tragedy with insensitivity, but I must conclude that this surfer was either demented or had never watched the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.  Every episode I’ve ever seen features dumbasses shark enthusiasts in boats off the coast of South Africa surrounded by large numbers of these predatory fish.  You can read this surfer’s story (here).

…that insects can elicit the occasional awwww moment:

Miroslaw Swietek/liveScience

Okay.  Perhaps that was being a tad too generous, but you have to admit that the above photograph had you leaning in a little closer to your computer screen, musing, “What is that?”

My work here is done.

Things I learned while on vacation

So, I’ve been away from the blog for a few days.  Maybe you’ve notice; maybe you didn’t.  If not, I’m crushed.  I thought you loved me and hung on my every word.

No?  Your unwavering devotion is all in my head?

Hmmm.

My little vacation was a six-day trip to Key West via Orlando, Tampa and Miami with my girlfriends.  It was wonderful and exhausting all at the same time.  I guess that’s how you know the vacation was a roaring success – you need a vacation from the vacation when you get  home.  That’s how I feel today.   I’m beat.

In the spirit of my new regular Friday entries (Things I Learned This Week), I’ve decided to share with you some of the things I learned during my stay in the great state of Florida (no sarcasm intended.  I was born there and have a great affection for the state and its quirky inhabitants).

Things I learned while on vacation in Florida with my girls…

…that World of Beer is a fun little pub with waitresses that will go above and beyond to find a beer in their massive collection that will satisfy even the pickiest of non-beer drinkers.  Kudos to them!

…that Miami International Airport was designed by the same crazy monkeys that designed Orlando International Airport – only on crack.  Can you say cluster-fuck?

…that at the Mall of America in Miami you can get your hooker shoes, hoochie-mama dress and a shot of penicillin all under the same roof.  One stop shopping at its finest.  (Stole this little bit of genius from my BFF, Amy).

…that the Olive Garden’s unlimited soup, salad, and bread sticks is always a good idea.

…that true to form, Amy nearly killed us all with her driving.  To be fair, it was only once this trip.  Of course, it was on a bridge over shark infested waters, going 90 mph – about 35 mph OVER the posted speed limit.  Her consistency is admirable.  She never fails to disappoint.  Love that girl!

…that there are 42 bridges between mainland Florida and Key West.  No I didn’t count them.  The very informative trolley driver was kind enough to share that bit of useless trivia along with an unending supply of not so witty conch jokes.

…that there is in fact no beach in or around Mallory Square.

…that actually reading the map and literature provided by trolley booking lady instead of stuffing them into my bag would have alleviated any such confusion.  Note to self…

…that misjudging your trolley stop will result in an extensive tour of the island – the opposite side of the island from your intended destination.  However, this little jaunt did afford some very nice views and quite a bit more useless trivia to be stowed away for later use.

…that Willy T’s on Duval does indeed make a superior mojito.  Yum-o.

…that the Hemingway House cats actually do have more toes than nature intended.  Freaky.

…that I have “itty-bitty titties”.  Or so the drag queen at Aqua so kindly pointed out.

…that it is useless to wage a battle against curly, frizzy hair in a climate with oppressive humidity.  It is a fight you can’t win.  Embrace the frizz.

Wing and Wieners –  funny.  Misreading it as Wigs and Wieners – priceless.  Thank you, Shelley.

Key West, Florida