Bursting bubbles, and other things friends do

As Husbands Go: A NovelYesterday afternoon, I had thirty minutes to lounge in my claw foot bathtub, throw in lavender bath salts and crack open the first book I’d purchased since the summer. As Husband’s Go, by bestselling author, Susan Isaacs. The reason for this acquisition was specific–I was told to read a first person tale, told by a forty-something woman. That’s how I blog and what I am. Why? I asked the provider of this advice.

“Because you suck at writing fiction,” said she who shall NEVER be named. “Stop writing anything but first person. If you could bottle your voice, and put it in a book, it’ll sell millions.” Note how she put a nice bit of flattery and motivation after the ‘constructive’ criticism?

(now a note on friends an honesty. This is a slide scale. Acquintances will lie (you look great when you know you have a black eye from accidentally hitting yourself. I’ve done this, and I knew instantly who was my friend and who was lying), social friends will at least try to be diplomatic (uh, you have green piece of lettuce stuck in your tooth) and true friends (those pants really do make your butt look fat).

With this harsh but honest phrase, I went to the bookstore, spent two hours shopping around for a book that ‘fit my style’ and picked up Isaac’s latest.

A page in to the novel, I stopped, reached behind me to the magazine stack and selected the Fine Cooking magazine with the three-layer chocolate cake on the cover. Ten minutes later, I’m back to the novel, finished the first chapter, then set it down again. On and on it went, each agonizing page an experience in studying for a term paper on a Saturday night, when only misfits and C-students are still in the library. Except in my case, I was naked, in the tub, the water turning from hot to murky warm.

Isaacs’ writing is fun to read in short spurts, like this blog, I suppose. When injected with a bit of sass, conventional wisdom and local inside-jokes, the piece isn’t overbearing. Yet in her latest, I missed out on most of the references. I’m not from Long Island. Never been there. I’m not in the crowd to even understand a reference to fur from the inside of a goat’s gut, and therefore can’t appreciate the fact it’s the most expensive, illegal material on the market today. I’m not Jewish or from New York, and while nearly every person in my entertainment/literary circle happen to be both, none resemble the neurotic, socially wicked individuals portrayed. Last but not least, I’m past the point of reading books that titillated me when I was a hormonally-crazed teen. A great benefit of being married is I can actually go to the bedroom, shut the door and have my way with my husband. It provides me enjoyment that reading about on a squished page of pulp simply can’t. Thus, it came as no surprise I was literally skimming the book by chapter three, and now, I’m nearing chapter seven, waiting for the punchline.

The more I thought about Her advice, the more depressed I became. By eight, Rog told me to go to bed.

“I can’t take it anymore,” he said. “This happens to you twice a year, and it’s too much for me to handle.” Like how he made it about himself? The only thing I could do was send off 17 chpts of my YA time/travel romance novel  to the producer for review and sleep away my disappointment.

This morning, life was better. I realized the angst of writing a blog in the first person is like a chapter-with highs and lows, laughter and maybe tears. To replicate that in each chapter of a book doesn’t work because the story arch has to be much higher and stretched out. Were I to write chapter by chapter novellas, the reader would be on a continual roller coaster, exhausted and throwing up at the end.

The reflection gave me an epiphany for a new subject of a new book. It was instantaneous. No sooner had I put the last period on chapter 2, I’d sent it off to She and another early reader.  After this experience, I had a moment of appreciation for the value of honest feedback.

Critical commentary is brutal to take, but harder, I think, to give. The giver cares enough to say something, at times, risking the very friendship in the process. The receiver has to consider the input with a layer of trust and love and acceptance or the entire communication comes across as nothing more than shallow criticism.
I can count the people who give it to me straight on one hand. My husband, my mother (though she’s a LOT more subtle about it, and doesn’t go there unless I ask her straight out), a cousin, a friend who lives locally, and She who shall not be named. In fact, “She’d” be a great character in a book, but I can’t do that either. It would ‘out’ her, I’d lose the friendship, and then where would I be? When I called to tell her thank her for both the damage and creativity she’d inspired, I also thanked her for her honesty.

I told She about the impact her words had on my thinking process, and we both laughed.

“That’s what friends do,” she said. Honest feedback and advice is also how friends are lost, I replied. Though I’m big enough to listen and discern an agenda versus what’s the best for me. In this case, She had both an agenda (she likes my blog and would like to read more war stories), but she also wants me to finally get something out that gets read by the masses (I think she’s hussling for a chauffeur job myself).

“The only difference between you and Rog is that his commentary has lot more F-words than you.” She didn’t think that was a compliment.

“I give you so many more good ideas about writing than he does!” she retorted indignantly.

There it is. The honesty continues, because she was right. As always.

Perfect Chocolate Mousse

It’s only 11 am (PST), more than enough time to have the best tasting chocolate mousse for dessert tonight.
This recipe is the easiest, fastest and best mousse recipe I’ve concocted. While the original version is in The New Best Recipe cookbook, (page 973), I’ve made significant changes.
For mousse connisouers, if you prefer a dark-dark version, that’s heavy on the liquor and coffee, go with the original version (you have to buy the book!). I prefer something a bit less dark, since the ultra-dark chocolate gives me a headache. Also, call me kooky, but I’m also particular about the texture. Some mousse recipes make it super airy and fluffy-hence mousse. I, on the other hand, like a creamier texture, less air. Almost between a pudding and mousse.
The New Best Recipe: All-New EditionBy now you’re thinking I have more time than necessary on my hands, and have made far too many mousse recipes. Reality is that this takes less than 20 minutes, and impresses the heck out of guests, so I it’s my default dessert. Really.
As a side note: I’m a cookbook addict. I love to cook. Love cookbooks. Once I buy a cookbook (and it’s sub 200 pgs) I’ll go through each and every recipe, making most (save things I’m allergic to or despise). One of my pet peeves is that I close the book finding only a half-dozen I truly like. The New Best Recipe defies all odds. Not only have I found ways to improve my already-decent meatloaf through cooking techniques, but the smothered pork chop recipe is as divine as the chocolate mousse I based my recipe upon. The flan is outstanding, the roast–i could go on and on. This isn’t to say I don’t make a lot of changes in each one, because I do. But dollar for dollar, this is by far, the most superior, general cookbook I own. (if you have a friend/wife/sister who likes to cook, see if she/he has this book. If not, it’s an awesome gift. I bought for my sister, mom and cousin one year).
Cooks note:
For an extra creamy chocolate mousse, fold in 1 cup of heavy cream that’s been whipped (instead of the ½ cup called for below). Make this mousse at least 2 hours before you wish to serve it to let the flavors develop, but serve within 24 hours, or the flavor and texture will deteriorate.
3 oz bittersweet chocolate (Ghiradelli or better) (found a coupon here)
3 oz semisweet chocolate (Ghiradelli or better) chopped
4 tbs (1/2 stick) salted butter
pinch salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbs orange flavored liquor or light rum (this is optional. I use it only when I know the guests like liquor, but 99% of the time, I don’t put it in. It doesn’t affect the texture)
4 large eggs, separated (room temperature)
2 tbs sugar
½ cup chilled organic heavy cream (see my previous recipe blogs on the diff between organic heavy cream and reg under 9 cooking rules to live by)
Note: the original recipe calls for coffee, but I leave this out. I’ve found many guests either don’t like coffee or don’t like mocha/coffee flavor in the dessert. If you want to add it, substitute the 2 tbs alcohol for the pre-made coffee.
1.     Melt the butter first, and then the chocolate in a double boiler (I use a round, metal dish above a small pan. This allows for better control)
2.     Lower the heat, and add the salt and vanilla.
3.     Whisk the yolks in one at a time. This is very important. You need to make sure that each is fully incorporated before adding the next. Set aside.
4.     Stir the egg whites in a clean mixing bowl on high, 1-2 minutes.
5.     Beat until soft peaks form (if the eggs or cold, you need to put the whites in a bowl over warm water to warm first).
6.     Which a quart of the whites into the cooled chocolate mixture to lighten it, then gently fold in the remaining whites.
7.     Clean and dry the mixing bowl, making sure not a drop of water is in the bowl.
8.     Beat the whipping cream on high until soft peaks form. DO NOT OVERBEAT, since hard whipping cream (almost like butter) won’t fold into the mousse, and it will be ruined.
9.     Try not to eat the entire thing as you spoon into your serving glasses.
10. Refrigerate for 2 hours.
11. Before serving, add a dollop of whipping cream to top.

More points on small talk

Ran out of space and time on the last blog re: small talk, so am picking it up again on this one. Pretend I got interrupted to take a call from a relative that went awry. Actually, that did sort of happen. Rog took the call and it was from his mother, talking about his 90+ year old grandmother. She has men living upstairs in her attack (ok, they are hallucinations), won’t wear her diapers and refuses to let people in to clean the house. After a month of failed interventions, Rog’s dad and mom flew out to fix the situation, stepped in three inches of goo and called to give us the update.

Now you can appreciate how long the phone all took, and why I needed a break thereafter….

Back to small talk, I had more to say regarding a trait I refer to as “subject-dropping.” I don’t know if this saying is a Sarah-original, but it’s when a person wants to talk about something and won’t come out and say it. For instance, you are talking about the weather, and they say,

“The weather is like that at our condo in Maine.”

Hmm. Well, they brought the subject up, giving you the freedom to ignore the subject-dropping fact or follow the conversation down the rabbit hole (Matrix). You then have enough fodder for an evening….

  • “What part of Main?”
  • “How’s the weather in the spring?”
  • “What time of year is best for Moose hunting and Maple syrup?”

or add a bit of flattery…

  • “You’re so busy. When do you find the time?”
  • “You have a large family. Does everyone fit?” (this of course, helps you suss out the size, scope and potential value of the condo, if you are a nosey person by nature)

Then we have the juicy conversations that come up at social events, when someone has thrown back one too many Cokes.

“Look at George. He’s like that all the time,” someone nearby will say.

You look at George then make a moral judgment to proceed or pass on such an inviting comment.

  • “He’s always running around without his shirt on?” or
  • “I’ve never seen someone drool in his soup quiet like that. Where’d he learn that skill?” and so on.

Now, for real-worldcircumstances, such as holiday parties, an emminent threat in the next two months, I’ve found a few golden questions that work well, without being overly aggressive.

For the hostess you’ve never met….

  • “You have a great home. Did decorate it yourself?” (flattery goes a long way, and gets her talking)
  • “This is a unique floor. How did you ever find the materials?” (this implies you are half-way intelligent about floors)

For the host you’ve never met…..

  • “Those trophies take up the entire wall. How did you win so many?”
  • Messages: The Communication Skills Book“The lawn is perfect. How long did it take to mow it?”
As a side note, I enjoyed Messages: The Communication Skills Book. It’s a fun study in body language. I’d long known to “mirror” the other person’s body language (in an unobvious way of course). But the section on body language is fantastic. You can size up what’s going on with another quickly, leading to a whole new level of conversation.

Back to small talk, let us not forget the ever-terrifying work social, where you run in to a former co-worker you can’t stand, or a one-time boss you can’t evade on your way to the bathroom.

Co-worker (assuming he/she doesn’t know your true feelings)

  • “Carol, how have you been? The place just hasn’t been the same without you.” (you get in question and provide an honest comment all in one)

Former boss

  • “Long time no see, Damon. How was the launch of the product line?” (completely benign conversation. Polite and short.)

Small talk on the plane is something I just can’t resist. Not the irritating kind, that annoys the heck out of those in front and behind and never ends. But the short, polite, “I’m interested in you, so you’ll move your big, black, bag, kind of a way.”

On the last trip to SoCal, I sat next to a man that looked like the twin brother of the person I was going to meet. I kept my mouth shut the entire time, until just before landing and couldn’t take it anymore. I asked him if he flew the route often, (yes), and then the follow up question ‘do you have family in the area?’ I then told him he looked like the twin brother of my associate.

He laughed at first, then told me his life story. …”well, I sort-of, kind-of, almost had family down here,” for he was a surgeon that followed his girlfriend westward twenty five years before. They broke up (she dumped him), he kept his job at the Santa Monica hospital, and commuted to and from Seattle on his off weeks (he likes the pace of life and cost of living better). It was fascinating, and all that within the space of five minutes. It was great. He’s a perfect character in a book.

On that note, small talk is fantastic for writers, musician’s, or shrinks. It opens a world of possibilities for characters, songs and cooky, humanistic stories that make you go huh. Try it. You’ll see.

The art and impact of small talk

For years, I dreaded group functions of any type. High school parties, work outtings, holiday celebrations. Though I was, at various times in my life, a cheerleader, an athlete, career woman and public speaker, then school mom and volunteer, the one skill that eluded me throughout was that of small talk.
Throughout, I’d resist going anyplace with my father because he’d chat up anyone. A person lying on the ground was as interesting to him as the teller at the bank. On one hand, he always had a smile and a sassy comment. And I adored the fact he treated everyone equally. That upside was neutralized by the fact that once he got the other person talking, the conversation could last hours. Me and my siblings share story after story about being left for dead in the car, while Dad got to know the gasoline attendant at the station, or the life story of a moose trapper.
The Fine Art of Small Talk: How To Start a Conversation, Keep It Going, Build Networking Skills -- and Leave a Positive Impression!A few years after being thrust in to the workforce, I was promoted to the position within corporate communications. The very title of the group meant all things communication. I had to talk on the phone, go to press events, talk to everyone all the time, usually about business. But as with all subjects, business gets boring and after a while, people want to talk about life. Uh-oh.
I rushed out during a break on a press tour and purchased a bunch of books on the subject. Most aren’t in print right now, but a few years ago, I purchased another set and gave them to a friend who had just taken a new position at a PR agency. The first one was The Fine Art of Small Talk: How To Start a Conversation, Keep It Going, Build Networking Skills — and Leave a Positive Impression!

Small Talk: The Art of Socialising
A few tips on small talk include Practice. This means get out and start talking to folks. The supermarket, the checkout stand. Anywhere, for instance, a human being exists is fair game. I also purchased Small Talk: The Art of Socialising, by Kathy Schmidt. While Fine’s book was attuned to the corporate world, Schmidt’s book was better for the non-work environment. Since I have both, as do we all, it was a nice compliment.
Perhaps more than any other bit of advice has been following my father’s example. I would sum it up by saying “ask a few questions and then shut up and listen.” This seems to be the number one way to make “small talk.”
As I’m want to do, I’ll give you a few examples.My ability to listen ramped up when I became a writer. Perhaps it was because my brain was jelly after a day of writing, but I was too tired to talk. I found myself asking more questions and not saying much about myself. (Also, this was a great way to avoid talking about being a frustrated writer. Nothing is worse than being really successful in one career, then starting over at the bottom of the heap in another. Note-the usual question “Oh, you’re a writer? What have you published?” Um, well, nothing, but I’m working on it.” This was invariably followed by the same look a person receives when unemployed, and says “I’m a consultant,” which, loosely translated, means “unemployed.” But I digress.)
Tired, but wanting conversation, I’d ask a few questions. In one instance, the septic man came to our house and was busy pumping S–t out of my back yard. Nice visual. In any case, it wasn’t smelly at all, and I’m a weird breed that is actually fascinated by all things mechanical. So I ask him to explain it to me, and when he realizes I’m truly interested, I get the full, Ph.d in poop dumping. In truth, it was fascinating.
I find myself wondering “what got him into the business,” although I left out the s–t pumping part. He said it found him when his wife and daughter passed away.
Ahh…now this is the #1 tip not included in any book. When someone drops a biggy like that, it means they are ready to talk. And in fact, they want to talk about a subject. I took him up on the hint, and said something like “that sounds tough.” He shook his head, and then told me the entire story of the two being killed in a car wreck. It was just after he’d retired and purchased a plot of land by the ocean. His daughter was his only child. I’ll spare you the rest, but this job, pumping sewage,”keeps his mind off his loneliness.” 
I’ll tell you what. I handled it fine when he was standing in front of me and I had my baby in my arms. But after he left, I told Rog about the incident and lost it. I couldn’t imagine losing spouse and child in one fell swoop. The experience also colored my thoughts about other service workers–and in truth–sometimes everyone I see, from guy at Home Depot to the checkout girl at Costco or the garbage worker. I have no idea what they are about. A simple five minute exercise in small talk profoundly impacted my life.
Rog now teases me that I can be anywhere, and if he goes to get a hamburger, someone will be telling me their life story. It’s true. You know what? It’s a wonderfully edifying experience. I’ve grown to love people in an immediate and genuine way. 
Oh, one other note on small talk. I used to have a real phobia about old people. As in, being around an elderly person gave me hives. I’ve always loved children and adults, but when I saw grey hair, I’d run for the hills. Torture wasn’t cleaning my room or scooping Mastiff-size dog bombs. It was visiting the old-folks home with my mom, and staying or hours on end as she chatted up lonely folks.
Then one day, as I was struggling to find something to say to an elderly woman, I found that all I had to do was pretend I was her granddaughter. It altered the entire complexion of our conversation. I started inquiring after her family, and answered her questions about my own.
“I feel as though I’ve known you before,” she said, leaning closer to me, putting my hand in hers. Her fingers were cold and bony, the veins protruding at all angles. She then proceeded to tell me how precious life is, and the relationship between a mother and daughter is sacred and special.
“My first husband murdered my three daughters,” she said without flair or drama. She stroked the top of my hand, softly, as though I was one of her own. She was twenty-six at the time. Her children were “just babies,” in her eyes. She’d lived long enough to see outlive her husband who had died in jail. At sixty-five, she found the love of her life. They were married fifteen years before he passed away. She told me of the years of heartache, of forgiveness, of life, love and loss. All within a twenty-minute chat that started with small talk.
The beauty of this incredible talent is the joy of getting a glimpse of another person. Feeling comfortable enough to do it is a worthwhile beginning.

How computers ruined me

Surely, by now readers of this blog know two things: One, I’m writing at an eigth grade reading level and Two, I don’t bother spell or grammar check before I hit the Post button.

One reader sure to remind me of both is my dear beloved madre (mom). This post is an ode to her, having successfully raised six children, five that graduated from college with one degree, one with two degrees and a third was not to be outdone, and added a third. The sixth child is a different story. She attended roughly three years of college, got married, got pregnant, got divorced, got a job, and went on to a life of fortune and fame in Maple Valley, Washington.

That one would be me.

Thus, it is ironic, that the least-degreed child is the one that ended up speaking at Harvard bschool on how to create partnerships, and MIT on creating business plans. It is the same one that has written books and spoken all over the planet, but as my mother wails, “my child that can’t spell or write in a grammatically correct way!” (I shamelessly name drop to justify the strong points in my life to compensate for the weak.)

I know she’s mortified everytime I put up a post. The way I know this is because in the time it takes me to go to the bathroom after I post a blog, she’s sent me at least one, and sometimes two or three texts correcting my mistake(s).

The other day, I told her she was like David Letterman’s mom, who, after twenty years, has become such a fixture in Letterman’s monologues, the show might as well shut down when she passes on.

“It’s not that I can’t (spell)” I tell her emphatically. “I just don’t have time or the patience.”

In my defense, I grew up with the benefit of a spell-checker on my computer, and my prowess in this area transferred from actual knowledge to complete dependance. If Microsoft Office doesn’t catch it, the word is fine in my book. Furthermore, since Grisham, and the vast majority of successful authors are writing at a middle-school level, I’m running with the right crowd.

“And to think you went to private school,” she says to me, clucking her teeth.

It’s true. Private. Public. Private again. Money and time spent in the pursuit of constructing a perfectly correct sentence. I thought about driving her nuts by writing an entire blog full of misspelled words and written all wrong (see?) Then I realized if I just write normally, that will happen all by itself. Instead, I’ll just write how I’ve become stupider within time, and wait for the dolphin-penetrating shriek in the background.

Without a computer, I couldn’t type, which might be a blessing. I’d actually have to look up a word old-school. Then it stands a chance of becoming embedded in my brain like a tick in my skin in during a hot, Kentucky summer. This way, I open the lid, type out my missive, shut the lid and call it a day.

I reviewed the most recent texts from my mom, and it seems my latest blogs included me substituting desert for dessert when referring to brownies. Fau Pax when it should have been faux pas, and the mother of all crimes, getting the spelling of her maiden name wrong. Olsen when it should have been Olson. On that one, she threw down the towel.

“No daughter of mine will spell my family name wrong!” Of course, the irony is that I wrote it in the blog about my Grandfather passing away. The error nearly gave my mom a heart attack. Despite assurances that no other family member is reading this thing (how would they know? I asked), I changed it within minutes.

Not to be denied, she encourages me to ‘slow down’ but not change the tenor or content.

That’s an oxymoron in my book. Half the fun is I can type almost as fast as I can think. The value of this stream-of-consciousness style writing is it doesn’t allow time for regret or distillation of the truth. For as my my red topped, curley-haired German voice teacher said last night, “the honesty is shocking.”

I chose to take that as a compliment.

Finally, I pull the big gun of excuses.

“I’m not even getting paid for this,” I blurt out. Oh, the shame. Furthermore, “I’m defying all blog rules by attempting to write in complete sentences, not single-thought fragments.” The fact I even use quotation marks should be considered a bonus. Doesn’t matter. I’m her 42-year old daughter, endowed with a modicum of intelligence and a certain level of worldiness. I should no better.

True ’nuff. I figure that’s what I missed by not attending the last year of college. Darn.

Follow-up Note: 9:28 AM, Thursday morning, 10/14
True to form, I get a text at 8:17 am from mom and it reads:
“Just to prove the point, it is six of whom, not six if which. Oh the shame!”

And no, I’m not going to go back and change my bad writing. As Obama says, what we put ‘out there on the Internet will live forever…”

Award winning Brownies

With halloween festivities fast approaching, my award winning brownies are a great, easy to make dessert. It can feed an army but is equally perfect for a nice party. This basic brownie recipe is from the original Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, Ina Garten, (pg 172/173), though it took only two times for my guests to reject the brownie as overly-sweet.

I had hope however, and started playing around with the ingredients. I’ve cut back on the overall amount of chocolate, substituted sweetened, salted butter (Tillamook) for unsalted, changed the type and the amount of salt slightly (small chunk Kosher), removed the coffee altogether, and am particular about the recipe size and pan. If this ISN’T chocolate enough for you, a) you have a bigger problem and b) you need to purchase her book!

I’ve made this recipe dozens and dozens of times. It was frustrating to me that it required a lot of trial and error to understand the “why’s” behind a few of the originally recommended techniques. At the same time, it’s been fun to change the recipe, and improve the outcome based upon my modifications. (sorry Ina!) The result is a brownie recipe you can serve at a nice dinner or fancy party. See the end of the recipe for serving tips.
Tip and techniques:
Metal bottom sheet cake pans are really the only ones that work with this recipe. Ceramic and glass don’t work. The center will be raw and the sides burnt. Trust me. Not good.
The quality of vanilla is important as well. Most folks probably can’t taste the difference, but cooks and discriminating eaters can. 
A last tip on this recipe. A single batch is too much for a regular size pan. Again, it has cooking issues. I happen to have 2 professional size sheet cake pans. These can be purchased at most cooking supply stores. Increase the batch to a double, and you will have enough for a party, your family, the neighbors…..
1 lb salted butter
1 lb, plus 6 oz semisweet chocolate chips
6 ounces unsweetened chocolate
6 extra large eggs, room temperature
2 tbs pure vanilla
2 ¼ cup sugar
1 ¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 tbs baking powder
1 tsp salt
3 cups chopped walnuts
Note: I leave the walnuts out, or add it to half the pan, since a lot of people are allergic or don’t like nuts.
  1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Melt the butter, 1 lb of chocolate chips and the unsweetened chocolate in a medium bowl over simmering water.
  3. Remove the bowl from the water, and allow to cool slightly. “Slightly” means that the mixture is warm to the touch, but not burning. (the reason? the mixture must be warm enough to melt down the sugar. If it becomes cold, the mixture won’t blend and the recipe becomes more like molten lava).
  4. In a large bowl, stir (do not beat, very important) together the eggs, vanilla and sugar. (the reason behind not beating? This is because over beating puts air in the eggs. The result is a brownie that is fluffy, more like cake, instead of a dense. 
  5. Stir the warm chocolate mixture into the egg mixture and allow to cool to room temperature.
  6. In a medium bowl, sift together 1 cup of flour, the baking powder and salt.
  7. Add to the cooled chocolate mixture.
  8. Toss the walnuts and 6 oz of chocolate chips with ¼ cup of flour, then add to the chocolate batter. (very important—if the batter is too hot, the chips will melt and the entire recipe ruined. Make sure the batter is very cool but not hard)
  9. Pour into a baking sheet.
  10. Bake for 20 minutes, then remove, and rap the sheet against the shelf or counter. You can’t skip this step!! It forces the air to escape from between the pan and the brownie dough.
  11. Bake for 15 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.
  12. DO NOT OVERBAKE!! You will have hockey pucks instead of brownies.
  13. Allow to cool thoroughly. In fact, I like these warm, or better after they’ve been in the fridge.

Serving tips:

For parties, allow to cool, then put on a Saran Wrap, very very tightly, and refrigerate overnight. This hardens the brownies without drying, ensuring the brownies settle, are very dense, and easy to cut in to all types of shapes. Remove from the pan and use fun cookie cutter shapes.
Your guests will love you!!

Regifting Ettiquette

I approach this subject with a certain degree of fear and trepidation. Not just because I’ve had numerous requests for me to address the most-sensitive-of-holiday-topics, but because today, I turned on the ‘anonymous comments’ capability. For non-authors, this is like an Amish streaking naked in Times Square. So please, be kind. Keep in mind this is one woman’s opinion, and that deep, deep, down, I’m a good person. Really.

On one hand, I have Roger, who is obsessively opposed to re-gifting. Or, rather, he was for the first ten years of our marriage. During that time, he insisted we keep every set of Chinese balls, homemade candles, hallucenagenic incense, odd-shaped paperweights and every type of knick-knack, (Not the Brazilian thong supplier, thanks very much!)

His points were valid. The giver went to the time and effort of finding, purchasing and/or making the item especially for us. It’s his contention that to not use the item, or worse, place it out of site, insults the giver of the gift. No matter what, appreciation should be shown to the giver by keeping and displaying said gift.

Fair points all.  Appreciation and gratitude should absolutely be expressed. It’s always sincere, even if the pilgrim shaped Thanksgiving soap holder doesn’t quite work with my bathroom. It was a nice thought, cost money to purchase and send. A receiver could have it worse, and receive no gift at all.

That said, I apply some rules to gifts, gift usage and re-gifting.

Rule number one. Never, ever, EVER lie.

Just tonight, Rog and I were discussing the joys of honesty.

“Honesty is attractive,” he told me. I’d never thought of it that way, but I agreed. He then went on to tell me that “honesty is persistent.” In other words, the truth will catch up with you.

Let me give you an example. One year, when I was in my early twenties, I attended a holiday white elephant party. I’d never done so before, and was asked to bring an item worth less than five bucks. I looked in my cupboard, found a glass vegetable platter still in it’s box, and figured its was just the ticket. Proud of my item, I wrapped it and took it to the party.

The party planner put us in a circle and we played a game that required the participants to open and “pass around” the gift. The rules are not-important; the outcome is. Suffice it to say that my plate was opened, and a man in the room recognized the plate. In front of the entire room, he asked where I got it, and I was caught off-guard. Instead of saying it was a gift I never used, I said I purchased it the year before. With a red face, he told me that was interesting, since he purchased a plate in Germany for his wife, just like the one I held in my hands.

The room went silent. Shuffles, laughter, odd looks. It was horrid. The reality was the gift had been given to me as a birthday present the year before. I lost five pounds from sweaty armpits. All I could do was shrug my shoulders and say “what a coincidence!” and move on.

All was not lost. A few days later, the same guy told me he was mortally wounded his wife had given me the plate HE gave HER as an “I love you” gift. The anger he showed toward me was redirected hurt stemming from his wife’s re-gifting. This leads to rule number 2.

Rule number two. If you are going to regift, do it in another state.
Oh. My. Lands. This one was classic. Last year, we had a Christmas party where many guests brought gifts. A good many were plants, some that needed immediate planting, a few that gave us allergic reactions, and one that we were morally opposed to keeping.

The latter plant in this case, an ivy, is plant-non-gratta in this household. It’s an invasive species in Washington, and takes over, kills and consumes everything in its path like the borg ship from h–l. In this case, the plant had no tag on it telling us the person who gave the gift.

The following week, I had a business-client event to go to, and wanted to bring a gift. The ivy! we both thought. We were pleased that we could re-use and regift the item. No sooner did I enter the room and drop the gift off when my good friend (a client turned friend actually) came up to me and commented on the plant. She asked where I got it, and I said in hushed tones, that it was a gift, but didn’t have a tag on it.

“That was my gift to you!” she exclaimed. This moment of mortification (MOM) gave me a flashback to the time I ran in to a former co-worker at the mall. She was shopping with the new husband (I with a boyfriend) and she had a huge pooch in her belly. The rest of her was as thin as I remembered, but her tummy looked six or seven months pregnant.

I patted it, and asked when she was due.


“I’m not pregnant,” she said. “I’m happily married and must have put on weight.”

True story.

Fortunately, my friend was more good natured about my clueness-ness than my former co-worker. However, I will never, ever make that mistake again.

Rule number three. Don’t regift in-family.
This is akin to the ‘don’t marry your cousin policy.’ I’m not just talking immediate family members. I’m talking your family to his family (spouses) or cousin to cousin. For example, if I received a seashell-inspired turnip peeler from my mother-in-law (never have btw) and gave it to my own sister, and she mentioned it at a birthday party for my daughter (that they both attended), the re-gifting would be obvious. Not good. (note my requirement to change the names and items of the innocent to protect the guilty?)

Rule number four. Use the gift at least once.
See rule number one. This ensures you satisfy the inevitable question of “how did you like the gift?” You can honestly respond, “we used the macrame towel in our guest bathroom!” while looking the gift-giver squarely in the eye. However, make sure you don’t receive another unwanted towel by identifying your style of decor, what you really need, then drop hints throughout the year about things you “simply can’t find!” This last year, I went so far as to send relatives links to $9 dollar lip gloss that makes me as nearly as happy as driving a clean car, and a lot cheaper than a macrame towel!

Rule number five. Tell/ask the giver if you can regift.
This last summer, my neighbor told me she was going to hold her annual garage sale. As is our custom, I went over early to check out the goods, and she came up, holding a hand-made rug I’d purchased for her in Mexico six or seven years earlier.

“I’ve had this, and never really used it,” she said. “Do you want it back or can I sell it?” I’ll admit, I was a little hurt. Rog and I had picked it out, hauled it back, and heck, it was cool looking. But truly, it wasn’t her style, nor that of her home. I respected the fact she held on to it, and she had even placed it over her living room couch for the first year.

I took it back. Now it sits in our laundry room, on top of other things I can’t really use but don’t want to discard.

Honesty hurts. But I like honesty. I can deal with honesty. It would have been far worse to see the blanket at a friend’s home, and learn she bought it at my neighbor’s garage sale!

The other day, I was asked if gifts have a shelf-life. Sure. What that shelf-life is, I have no clue. Two years? Five. Don’t know. Don’t want to find out. I recently justified it’s ok to regift after someone dies, moves, or is no longer a part of my life. That said, I’m still going to give it another year, just in case.

Weight loss programs that work and fail

Let me preface this blog with some history. I was born 6lbs 5 oz, and am 5’11”, though this latter fact is always disputed in my house. For the record, I’ve been 5’11” since age fifteen, measured multiple times, the most recent being for an insurance policy (in case I get knocked off, you read it here first). This last factoid is important because I’ve ranged from 115 as a hard-core runner to 185 as a pregnant person. My lean, eat-anything-I-want, is typically between 132-138. I’m now 148, which qualified me for a Premier elite with State Farm, but it’s still heavier than I’d like.

Growing up, my eldest brother called me ‘bird,’ a reference to my bone-thin legs. Though skinny, I was always an athlete, and that gave me a great foundation of muscle. But as my martial arts instructor told me one day: “You’ve overdeveloped your thigh muscles. It turns to fat when not utilized.” Sure enough, one to many pizza slices in college gave way to long work days in my twenties. By my thirties, bad patterns were set. Thus began my use of, and experimentation with, all sorts of diets.

I’d begin with simple eating right and exercising, but see no reason. That is a logical, reasonable way to approach a small jean size. Me? Give me the quick, results-right-now approach. Save reason for the uninformed.

Lemonade Diet
After reading how Beyonce used the Lemonade diet to drop 22 pounds in a month for her role in Dreamgirls, I went to Costco, purchased several bags of lemon, a few cans of Cayenne and Maple Syrup, and began a week of drinking hot, putrid tasting drinks and living on the toilet.

The results were indisputable. In four days, I lost seven pounds, in seven days, 10. The side effects were horrid. A pasty tongue (white), breath to kill a horse, stomach pains from the lemon, a natural diuretic (e.g. intestinal flush), and then diahrea like I’ve never experienced. (I’ll interject here that I’ve found many-read many many-female celebrities use this for it’s quick results).

Doesn’t that sound grand? Scale validation aside, it was the WRONG kind of weight loss. It was water weight, and I suspect, muscle tissue (for no protein was injested). The reason for my suspicion is I was left with these sickening, cellulitey legs (and if the muscle was strong underneath, the surface of the skin would have been smooth).

Not surprisingly, the weight returned one real food entered my system. Immediately. Hips and thighs shared the re-acceptance of the pounds with my arms and belly like the embrace between high school sweethearts.

Verdict? This is fine in times of absolute desperation–e.g. fitting in to that college outfit for your 20 year reunion, going to a wedding and the like. If you’re legs can be squinched in to nylons or under a dress. But don’t do it pre-bikini, and don’t expect the pounds to stay off. It comes right back on unless one goes back to the basics (exercise and eating right).

Mom is probably choking on her tongue as she reads this, for in fact, she hates fads and has never dieted a day in her life. Dieting for my naturally-thin mom means having one bowl of chocolate pudding, with half and half and a dollop of butter in the middle, instead of two. But I digress…

Grapefruit diet, cucumber diet, cabbage soup diet….

I’m happy to say I’ve not crossed this line, though I know people who have, and will admit it. I’m not sure why someone would eat a concentration-camp-esque diet in a modern, third world country, other than to write a novel about a torturous experience. Weight loss? Check. Rapid weight gain? Check. Not a single person I know who followed these diets lost more than 10 pounds, or kept a single pound off.

HCG Program
I’ve had many friends follow Dr. Trudeau’s HCG program, lose weight and keep it off (though it was originally created in Europe). While the premise sounds crazy (us American’s have a tendency to think anything not created in the US is crazy), I’ve seen it work, and yes, I’ll cop to it now, I’ve done it.
There. That was like passing a really bad piece of meat.
Facts–for 26 or 43 days,
Step 1-inject yourself with 30 ccs of diluted HCG (Human Growth Hormone), something that is extracted from the urine of a pregnant woman—

still there? Breathe…keep reading….

Step 2-eat as much as humanly possible for 3 days
Step 3-cut down to a prescribed 500 a day diet of specific proteins, fruits and vegetables, drink loads of water
Step 4-watch the weight fall off
Step 5-finish the injections, but keep to the 500 cal a day for 3 days, then return to normal caloric intake, without adding the starches (rice or potatoes) or sugars

Europeans have been doing this for thirty (30!) years. It resets the hypothalmus to the “normal” or original state (again, my lay-term). The body functions at optimal production.

Verdict. I’m sold. Dropped 15 pounds, kept it off, and reset my hypthalmus.

Before you think I’m a lunatic, know that I watched friends try this 3-decade old “fad” for 2 years before I was sold on injecting myself with another woman’s distilled urine. For heaven’s sakes, if someone had told me I’d be doing this, I’d have set aside my own freaking urine while I was pregnant!!
But desperate times post pregnancy required desperate measures.
Beyond the immediate results, it’s been several months, and I haven’t gained back a pound. The program instilled in me such good health (eg good foods with great recipes), eating 1800 calories a day (that’s a lot for me), is done with wonderful meals, sweets, and no starvation.
In fact, every person I know that followed the HCG program (for it’s not a diet-it’s a change in lifestyle) and reset of an actual body part), has continued to lose weight on the program.

Oh, forgot to mention one very important part. It gets to the 3rd layer of fat; the hard to lose parts above the knee, under the armpit, around the hips. It also leaves the legs smooth (rids the cellulite) and retains the muscle, since it’s full of protein.

A lot of info on the web is overblown and wrong. That’s one reason I waited to long; I wanted first-person accounts of individuals with success. Those few that failed weren’t strict about the protocol.
Now–the next question you ask, is about the money. It’s spendy. I’ve heard of clinics in Vegas charging $1200-1500 per cycle. On-line, one can buy the same thing for $50 bucks (and I have one friend who went from a size 10/12 to 4). She purchased homeopathic HCG on-line. I thought it was risky, but it worked out fine for her.
Luckily, I found a Dr here in Washington who isn’t a scalper, and it was $150 for the treatment. I then continued on, eating healthy, and am nearing in on my fighting weight–well, have about 15 more pounds, but better than it was!
Though this last one worked and the others failed, I’ve always supported a high-protein, low-carb diet. My husband went on P90X for 90 days, and lost 20 pounds. However, he kept at the eating program at a whopping 2500 calories a day and lost another 15 in three months. He’s now 185 pounds. It’s been amazing. It’s also been hard work and strict, healthy eating.

That’s the way it should be.

Preventing cancer

It was nearly four pm on a Wednesday afternoon when the doctor found ‘ripples’ along the inner side of my armpits. I was in for a regular checkup and told him of the pain I’d been feeling on both sides of my breasts.

“I’ve been doing a lot of lat presses,” I said, convinced I’d torn a muscle.

He felt on both sides, commenting I was skinny for my height which was bad. That day however, it was good, he went on say, because he could feel a lot of ‘nubs’ that he suspected were inflamed glands. His faced registered no emotion as he felt the inner part of my hips. “Checking more glands,” he said. “See this? They are raised.”

It meant nothing to me. I was thirty-two. In the best shape of my life. In fact, my world was perfect. A great career, a good marriage. We’d recently adopted a dog, a sure sign life had transitioned in to a grounded world of normalicy.

“I’d like you to see a specialist since I’m not sure about these nubs.” Whatever. Sure. I didn’t even look at the card he gave me and went on my way.

A week later, the pain was a bit more intense, and Rog suggested I follow the doctors orders. I looked at the card.

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. It should have scared me, but it didn’t. I’d never known anyone with breast cancer, let alone had it myself. Beside, breast cancer is here, there and everywhere. I couldn’t go into the grocery story, the mini-mart or turn on the TV without seeing pink ribbons and being asked for a donation.

I made an appointment with the doctor listed on the card, and didn’t notice the receptionist moved up the date when she learned it was a doctor referral.

Two days later, I was lying on my back, a woman’s warm hands gently probing the lymph nodes under my arms and near my hip line. As she pressed her fingers on my skin, she began asking me questions.

“How much do you smoke?”

“I don’t. Never have.”

Her eyes met mine.

“Never?” as though I were lying.

Well, yes, once. I told her about the time I was eight, and my cousin was spending the summer with us. “I got in to her backpack, hid under the pool table where no one would find me, lit a cigarette and tried one inhale,” I said, a wash of twenty-two year old guilt flooding over me. I’d never told anyone. (sorry mom!)

“What about drinking?”

That I had done, I confessed, but not much. I never have liked the taste of wine or beer, the smell of latter reminding me of bottled farts (though I left out that little tidbit).

“Are you a coffee drinker?”

“Smells great but tastes like mud.” That, at least, got her laughing.

“You shouldn’t be allowed in the state of Washington.”

She ordered up x-rays, and while we waited, she asked me about our family history, specifically, relatives with breast cancer, or any type of cancer.

“Not one. No cancer of any kind.”

We were tall, blond, Swedes blessed with a long shelf life. Not a single heart attack, cancer, or other disease my mom or dad could recall. In fact, the only problem seemed to be a tremendous capacity to eat butter, pure, unadulterated heavy cream and potatoes in quantities our Russian friends envied.

When the x-rays returned, she put them up on the screen for review. She gestured for me to get dressed, then we both sat down again.

“The predominant demographic for breast cancer are forty year old black women who smoke four packs a day,” she said, facts removing the necessity for diplomacy. “You have every symptom of that demographic.”

She didn’t give me time to react. She began educating me on my situation.

“Your breasts are like a steak rippled with fat,” she said, pointing to the x-ray. “These white dots–they are cancer waiting to turn, for lack of a better word.”

My breasts ceased to be sexual objects at that moment. They were balls infested with white balloons with strings attached.

“They are ticking time bombs. At any moment, one, or all of them, can become malignant.” She ordered up tests and continued.

“Alcohol and caffeine stimulate cancer cells,” she said, as though this was common knowledge. Since I didn’t smoke, she looked first to those two items as the culprit. I told her I adored chocolate. Was that enough to cause cancer, I asked.

She shook her head no. “You’d have to eat vats and vats,” she said.

As we waited for the test results, we talked about other “possible” contributing factors. The environment, pesticides, man-made food (margarine) fats–the list was endless. As the short appointment stretched into hours, my anger grew. Why hadn’t the public been told about the connection between alcohol and caffeine and cancer I asked.

She shrugged. “Those industries are huge supporters of the healthcare industry.”

The only way to be sure would be to have a double mastectomy, she told me, recommending I go home, talk with my husband and we make a decision by the end of the week.

This is where my Swedish, don’t-cry attitude served me well. When Rog came through the door, I told him straight up what I’d learned. He blinked a few times, then we both agreed we’d do what we had to do to live. Period.

When I called mom, she told me to call our swami (aka, our homeopath). He listened to my description of the situation, and though no cancer specialist he, told me to immediately change my way of life.

“It’s easy,” he said, in his middle-eastern drawl. “You are a carcinosen.” (For the homeopathy-ignorant, this is a type of personality). “You hold everything in. You never cry. You work seven days a week, twenty hours a day and have done so since you were eighteen. Of course this was going to happen.” He went on to tell me that it’s a part of my DNA, this whole cancer is inevitable for a person like me.

I wasn’t sure what pissed me off more– hearing I had ticking time bombs in my chest or my freaking swami being so matter-of-fact about it.

“You knew this was going to happen?” I nearly yelled.

“Let’s just say, I am not surprised.” Even the way hef slowly enunciated each word infuriated me.

All I wanted to know was if it could be fixed by some miraculous means.

“Yes. But you have to do what I say starting right now.”

He then told me I had to start taking a remedy, called Carsinosen, every day without fail. He told me it’s normal for people with repressed feelings (check), those who were quiet and sensitive as a child (check), who loved butter and chocolate (check) who were sexually aggressive (um, doublecheck) and so on. He gave me some links to look it up online, and said he’d ship me out a batch the next day.

“You must quit all sugar and chocolate, go completely organic, get rid of every toxic item in your home, and eat greens at least three times a day. Preferably more.” (did I mention I hate greens?)

“But one thing you must do,” he intoned, like Moses coming down from the mountain, “you must, and I mean must, change your lifestyle.”

What? As if his laundry list wasn’t going to accomplish that?

“Reduce your work. Change your career. Change your lifestyle. Get your feelings out. Cry more. Be more sensitive to others. Be compassionate. Don’t hold back doing things you want to do.”

Oh, got it. He wanted me to change my personality. No prob. An easy thing to ask of a controlling, non-emotional Type-A.

“Read up on chemical toxins in your house,” he advise, the parting bit of advice before he went on to his next patient. “Get rid of anything toxic.”

I didn’t waste time directing my anger at him. Rog and I read all about the top-ten toxic chemicals. We had every single item on the list, and sometimes, multiple items. We then looked at the top ten toxic ingredients. The worst and most common offender seemed to be Sodium Lauryl Sulfates. Depending on the list we looked at, it was number one or three. This is a commonly found chemical shown to cause severe changes to the skin, though studies linking them to cancer are still debatable (see link). It was (and is in) everything—toothpastes, shampoos, facial cleansers, body wash, exfoliant, moisturizers, you name it.

I was horrified when it appeared on every (EVERY) single beauty product I owned.

Gone. The entire lot.

As Rog and I literally cleaned house, and invested a fortune in natural products, we read cases where men and women with cancer (early-mid stage) arrested their cancer. This didn’t mean it went away, it just stopped progressing. In each case, a complete life-style change had occurred, and this included dietary habits.

Rog and I went organic, but we also went largely ‘green,’ as in, eating lots and lots of green vegetables. It was hard. I hate salads, kale, broccoli. But life is choices, and my choice was to live, with both breasts. It wasn’t debatable. It was obvious.

At the end of the week, I told my doctor I wanted to wait a month, and see if my actions were going to help ‘arrest’ the pre-cancerous blobs. She shook her head.

“In nearly twenty years, I’ve never seen a case this far a long be arrested,” she said sympathetically, but sternly. She wished me well and told me she’d see me the following week. The second week, the same thing. The sizes had increased.

The third week, she was shocked. No increase. Fourth week, no increase. And so on, every week for three months.

“I can’t believe it,” she said. She’d brought in other doctors to review the results, and I was asked to explain what I’d done to affect this result.

They nodded to one another in silence, as though my comments confirmed their own opinions.

“Most people won’t give up what they love,” said a male physician. “They’d rather die.”

Rather lose a breast or die than give up coffee, or smoking or drinking? Rather risk losing a loved one than replace a few hundred bucks worth of cleaning supplies in the home or passing by the fast food joint on the way home?

“Patients don’t always listen to advice,” he said. “Few want any at all.”

That sounded like a typical type A to me. Seattle is full of ’em. The world is full of –us.

Since that time, ten years ago, I’ve remained in an “arrested” state. The checkups went quarterly, then yearly. At last check, the time bombs were still within,  and can tick at any time. The journey, and it’s impact on our lives was interesting upon reflection, though unfun (is that a word?) at the time.

It wasn’t easy in the beginning; we lost most of our friends with whom we’d go out to dinner or travel on vacation. Rog stopped drinking, his show of solidarity akin to men shaving their heads when their cancer-ridden wife goes through chemo and loses her hair. Our then-set of friends were uncomfortable drinking with, or in front of us. That pretty much wiped out everyone in our social set.

With the loss of our circle of friends was an emptiness. It wasn’t as strong as a death, but we grieved over the years of invested relationships, the people we loved, and those who we believed loved us back. Suddenly, we were in our cancer-induced island of isolation.

Those who didn’t entirely desert us were hopelessly affected, behaving as though I were going to explode if I went inside their home and got whiff of some Windex. Back then, breast cancer, and discussing the subject, wasn’t done as much as it is now. It was said in hushed voices, Rog’s friends asked if they could hug me without hurting me (actually, for a while, my chest did hurt all the time, but this gradually faded). I felt guilty for Rog losing some of his friendships as well, many that went the way of the sand because he’d no longer go out w/his drinking buddies.

We had a few long years relative quiet and loneliness. My swami remained optimistic and unworried.

“You go through phases,” he said, telling me it happened with his own wife. “The friends you had in your twenties and thirties reflected your hard-charging, party lifestyle. You now have different priorities and values. It will take time to find couples who share your values. When you do, they will be friends for life.”

Sure enough, it was about four years until  Rog and I started ‘couple-dating,’ eg, finding new friends and building relationships. This has expanded with other changes–children and community involvement. During that time, more studies have appeared in Newsweek and other magazines, linking various foods/drinks/environmental toxins to cancer. I’ve heard friends remark “everything seems to cause cancer,” as though it simply doesn’t matter anymore (we’re all going to die, so live it up).

It’s been hard keeping my mouth shut as I watch people injest what are basically toxic items into their body, as clueless as I was about the potential result. I don’t thrust my opinions on others, or until this blog posting, share my story with friends or acquaintances. The reason is akin to the doctors’ comment–most people don’t want to hear it. When I’m asked about my healthy habits or skin–I’ll explain that Jennifer Lopez noted drinking reduces collagen in the skin– and it’s better for you. I refrain from launching in to a diatribe about the evils. People can read and make their choices. I’m no more going to judge or try to change a person’s life than I would want another’s unsolicited opinion about my own.

Today, I’m downright lazy compared to my pre-cancerous life. I only work late hours, not vampire hours (into the wee-morning), though I still hear rumblings of complaints from certain family members I’m doing too much. Rog and I have even eat red meat and non-organic stuff, and in times of true desperation, will stop at a drive-through. I do have chocolate-within reason, and truly pay for it when I then have to get back on-the-wagon. Those are the exceptions though, and not the rule.

Can cancer be prevented? I’m not sure. But it can be arrested, for I’m living proof. I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, for as long as I can, to live as long as I can.

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