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Archive for the ‘Things That Rock’ Category

Perhaps you are looking for some last-minute Christmas gifts? Or maybe you just like reading about what other people enjoy. In either case, here are some things that I am loving lately (and just to be clear, I am not getting ANYTHING in return for recommending any of these; I either bought them myself or received them as gifts):

Chef’n ZipStrip Herb Zipper

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Photo from surlatable.com

Okay, I didn’t realize this had such a ridiculous name. But it’s awesome. I got a bunch for people as stocking stuffers last year – including myself – and I use it ALL the time. It’s on sale for $6.36 at Sur La Table, if you have any people who like to cook on your Christmas list. 

Anthurium Plant

 

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Photo from homedepot.com

This summer, I was looking for a red lamp to add to my new office and I could not for the life of me find one I liked. But I DID find a really pretty plant with red leaf-like flowers (in a red ceramic pot) at my local Home Depot. I know, a plant does not have the same functionality as a lamp. But if you think of the lamp as more of an accessory, you will see how the plant fit the bill. ANYWAY. It is an anthurium plant, which seems to be a type of orchid. And it’s super easy to care for: I just put a few ice cubes in it each Monday and it remains lovely and shiny all week long. If you have someone in your life who isn’t great at caring for plants but who loves them AND has easy access to ice cubes, this could be the perfect gift. Okay, I am giving the Home Depot site the side-eye because I did NOT pay $32.99 for my anthurium. I can’t imagine paying any more than $15 for it. Maybe $20. I kind of want to dig through my old receipts just to prove it. Perhaps it is seasonally more expensive. If so, it would make an excellent Christmas in July gift.

Kung Fu Girl Riesling

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Photo from kvintners.com

Riesling is my favorite type of white wine. My mantra used to be, the sweeter, the better. But my palate might be changing or maturing or something (unlikely) and I have gravitated to drier wines of late. Kung Fu Girl is my current go-to. It’s probably what I would call semi-dry, so there is a hint of sweetness there. But it’s crisp and clean and also, bonus, I can usually find it for $10.99 at my local grocery store. I’ve also seen it at World Market, if you have one near you.

Lands’ End Shimmer Down Long Coat

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Photo from landsend.com

We live in an area of the country whose winters include snow and cold temperatures. And I happen to possess the variety of child who loves snow more than anything in life. So last year, my husband bought me a down coat from Lands’ End.  It was longer than I wanted it to be – it came all the way down to the tops of my boots (also from Lands’ End). And I felt like a marshmallow. BUT. It is AMAZING. I can be wearing a t-shirt-weight shirt and jeans, and as long as I have that coat on, I feel NOTHING. I can play in the snow with Carla for hours (or until her face is red and I have to drag her inside). I can even lie down in the snow and make snow angels and feel NOTHING. It’s truly the best. And Lands’ End has really good sales on a regular basis. It’s a bit pricy at $199, but if you get a code for 40% off, you’re looking at a much more reasonable $119 for a really great, really warm coat. Oh. I just now “got” why it’s called “Shimmer Down.” I say “got” because you CAN make a pun on “simmer down” just because the coat is made of down doesn’t mean you SHOULD.

UGG Tasman Genuine Shearling Gloves

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Photo from amazon.com

Speaking of warm, these gloves are the softest, fuzziest, warmest gloves ever. Obviously, you can’t text with them on or anything. But I find they are perfect for driving before your car’s heater has kicked in. Or for, you know, being outside in general. They are pricey, at $140, but I looooooove mine so I think they might be worth it.

Bedford Cottage Eskimo Throw

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Photo from bedfordcottage.com

Perhaps you can tell that it is only 15 degrees here, based on these last three items. Well, I am in love with this faux fur throw, which is currently draped over my legs. It’s super soft and warm, but I also love it because it looks like it belongs on a chaise longue in some fancy catalog and makes me feel like the type of person you might refer to as “stylish” and “put together” and less like the type of person whose living room has seventy five Amazon boxes stacked in one corner and a bright blue toddler-height table with red, green, and yellow chairs in another corner and a giant bear from Costco behind the couch and the detritus of a Doc McStuffins vet station scattered across the hearth and pieces of a menorah puzzle strewn like tiny land mines about the carpet. You can buy it via the link above for $149, which I did not; I got it as a gift. But it’s possibly that you could find it elsewhere for less.

Cuisinart CPK-17 PerfecTemp 1.7-Liter Stainless Steel Cordless Electric Kettle

 

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Photo from amazon.com

I drink tea every day, and this water boiler has made it very very very simple. Just fill and press a button. And there are all sorts of temperature variations, so you can set it to the proper temperature for green tea… or black tea… or oolong… or whatever.  My husband – a coffee drinker – uses it too; on weekend for pour-over coffee. I really like that it maintains a specific temperature, too – just in case a toddler suddenly urgently needs you to come help her find proper socks. It cost $73?!?! Sheesh. That seems… excessive. Although it DOES do a nice job. And I really have no concept for how much these things do/should cost. 

Carole Hochman Ladies’ 3 Pair Ribbed Lounge Sock

 

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Photo from costco.com

I grabbed a three-pack of these socks at Costco the last time we were there (what’s a trip to Costco without grabbing something that you simultaneously NEED URGENTLY and also had no idea you needed/didn’t need at all?) and they are sooooo soft and warm and cozy. They don’t look like much from the picture, but they are cushy and plush and I love them. Also: $5.99.

Laura Mercier Hand Crème Sampler

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Photo from amazon.com

Well, crud. I see this is either $51 through Amazon or not available. My husband got it for me last Christmas, and it was a PERFECT stocking stuffer. I wash my hands a bajillion times a day, so they get very dry. And there’s nothing less appealing than that powdery feeling of dry skin – well, I suppose cracked and bleeding finger webs are less appealing. I think it was, at one point, around $30 at Nordstrom. (And, keeping in mind that each of us is comfortable paying certain amounts for certain things and not for others, I find that $30 seems just on the high side of reasonable while $51 has me shaking my head emphatically NO.) I have just in the past month squeezed the very last glob of lotion from the very last sample and I would enjoy getting this again and again each year. Also, if you don’t want to gift someone ALL of the little lotions, you could certainly open up the box and give one sample to multiple people. Including, perhaps, yourself. Of course, all this is MOOT because it No Longer Exists. But I’m sure there are many other good hand lotion sets in the world.

Scrivener

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Photo from literatureandlatte.com

This may be a bit of a niche idea, but as a (would-be/trying-to-be/hopes-to-be) writer, I use this every single day. I never thought that I would like a writing platform more than I do plain old Microsoft Word. But I LOVE Scrivener. It’s very intuitive and user friendly AND it has a very simple tutorial on how to use it, just in case. It makes putting together your novel (or screenplay, I imagine) very simple. No more scrolling down in a long document, or opening multiple documents. You just create a new chapter or chapter-part inside an outline, and then you can move parts and pieces around with the flick of your mouse, OR read your entire manuscript in one flowing document. Plus, it allows you to assign (and customize) keywords to each bit of text, from which characters show up to things you need to research to plot points and dates – which you can then use to help you organize the manuscript in different ways, like, you can see at one glance every chapter featuring your villain. It’s fabulous and it’s only $45 and I love it so. If only it could do the writing for me…

Matymats Grippy Yoga Socks and Stargoods Yoga Gloves 

Photos from amazon.com

I have newly taken on yoga as part of my at-home exercise routine. Which means I have newly discovered that my feet and palms sweat when I do yoga. What can I say. The body is a mysterious wonderland. These socks and gloves help A LOT. No more sliding around while I’m trying to do downward facing dog or a triangle pose or other horrific contortion of limbs that my body is clearly not meant to perform. Both are about $15, but both come with multiple pairs of socks/gloves, which means I can match them to my sports bra. (No.)

 

Good luck with any last-minute shopping you are doing!

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When I look back at photos of Carla at age three months, or six months, or ten months, or twelve months or eighteen or twenty-four or ANY of the months preceding this one, I feel such a painful longing for Carla of the past that it is almost hard to bear.

But the way I feel about RIGHT NOW is so intense that I know Future Me is going to have a very rough time looking back at photos of Today.

It feels like being in love, I think. Like, I can’t stand to not be with her. When she’s asleep, I miss her. (That DOES happen, if infrequently.) When I’m in a room with her, I’m often staring at her with a goopy lovesick expression splashed all over my face; if I were in a cartoon, my eyes would be replaced by big red hearts.

My husband – less demonstrative than I am, much MUCH less verbally effusive – feels similarly. I can see it on his face. We kiss her good night before we adjourn to bed and spend a few minutes just looking at her, tucking a tendril of curl behind her ear, smoothing a finger over the soft cheek.

“I can’t believe we MADE her!” I say to my husband, awash in wonderment, like it just happened yesterday. (I mean EW, but I do say that, and I do feel wonderment and awe.)

Three (or, to be accurate, the tail end of Two) is magical.

Carla says “eventually” and “actually” correctly in a sentence, and the earnestness with which she pops these qualifiers into her speech makes me laugh almost every time.

She loves puzzles, running, singing, making lemon soup and other delicacies in her play kitchen, any and all TV, swinging, dancing, hopping on one foot, sliding, hitting her T-ball in the backyard, reading, jumping on and over and across things, cutting play-doh with (play) scissors, swimming, watching tennis, and pretty much anything active.

More than anything in the world, she loves dogs. Big dogs, small dogs, soft dogs, wiry dogs. Dogs hanging out of car windows, dogs walking down the sidewalk, dogs getting their hair cut at PetSmart, dogs lounging on lawns. All of them.

It was surprising, then, the other morning when – after asking to watch a kitty cat video on my phone – she said with such heartfelt longing if we could “bring a cat into my house so I can hug it and snuggle it.” I’ll tell you what, I almost went right out and got her a cat, despite my severe allergies.

She has strong opinions about everything, from what she likes and doesn’t like to eat to where someone should sit to what she should wear to school. One day, we had a long discussion about whether our friend Jack’s name was really “Jack” (my vote) or “Jax” (her vote, and the ultimate ruling). When I told her that in fact Jack’s name was actually “John” and not “Jack” at all, it really blew her mind.

A current obsession is counting things. Whenever you ask Carla how many of something (strawberries, blocks, crayons, blueberries, cheese crackers, minutes until bedtime) she’d like, she says, without hesitation, “Five.” She counts anything that can be counted, from bites of pancake to windowpanes to the caps in Caps for Sale. With some skipping of or confusion with fifteen and sixteen, she can count all the way to thirty.

Fruit remains a staple in her diet, with blueberries topping the list of favorites. Strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries follow, but apricots, peaches, oranges, bananas, kiwi, plums, and nectarines are not far behind. She does NOT like melon. (Fine by me. Melon is an abomination.) She loves pancakes and french toast sticks for breakfast. For veggies, she loves pickles and capers, occasional carrots. Green beans and broccoli top her list of dinner-veggies, and she will even eat them raw (frozen). Peas and corn, sometimes. Same with yams. Fish sticks, tacos, pizza, meatballs, and chicken nuggets are usually eaten and enjoyed. PBJ sandwiches are a good anytime food, same with raw ham and cheese crackers (Cheez Its). She still eats yogurt and applesauce daily (although not as much yogurt as I’d like her to).

I think her favorite food of all is chips. Or maybe ice cream. She is confident ordering both: the former in our local Mexican restaurant, only very rarely with guacamole; the latter anywhere ice cream is sold, even at the previously-mentioned Mexican establishment. Her long-time go-to has been vanilla ice cream with sprinkles (jimmies), but lately she has been asking for rainbow ice cream.

She requested very specifically a vanilla cake with blueberries and vanilla frosting for her birthday. But ask her what she wants for her birthday dinner, and she responds, “Dinner? For my birthday?” as though the concept doesn’t compute.

Her favorite conversation topic of late is a thorough recounting of what happened during the day. “Tell me about your day, Daddy,” she will ask at dinner, and then when he pauses in a sentence, she turns to me: “Tell me about your day, Mommy.” She particularly likes us to tell her about special days – like the time we went to the zoo and saw not only a person dressed up like a cookie, but then ran into some family friends and went on to spend a lovely afternoon together.

More often than not, I am “Mom” and her father is “Dad,” which I am trying to resist. I still wish I was “Mama.”

She is at that stage where she expresses her love freely and loudly: “I just love you so much, Daddy!” she’ll crow, throwing her arms around him.

She still has a few baby words left: mixing up “lemon” and “melon” (which results in the delightful “waterlemon”) and saying “am-ih-lo” instead of “animal” (although “squir-lahs” are now clearly “squirrels.”) and calling “yellow” “lellow.” She has recently taken to calling her grandfather’s slippers “bumpers” (because of the anti-skid bumps on the bottom). I often say to her, “I love you more than all the stars in the sky” and her responses crack me up. Once, she said, “I love you more than all the pants on the ground.” “I think you mean plants?” “No, I mean pants.”

The other day, we were playing in the yard. We have an enormous tree back there – so big it would crush our house to smithereens should it decide to tip over – and Carla decided she was going to climb it. She managed to get maybe a foot off the ground and kind of hung there. “I think it’s too tall for me to climb, Mommy,” she called back. Cheerfully resigned, she dropped down and commenced running in circles, laughing with joy.

She has the most magnificent dandelion puff of blonde curls. I think it’s the perfect reflection of her personality. Beautiful, light as air, untamable, gleeful, fun.

I cannot wait to see what she does next.

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My daughter turns THREE tomorrow, and I am having Feelings. Lots of good feelings, about her. But also sad, sentimental feelings about How Quickly Time Flies and How This Might Be the Only Three I Get and how bedtime issues might be preventing me from properly Cherishing. And also also the long tail of Sadness Surrounding Her Birth and the attendant Guilt for Feeling Sad At All Because It All Worked Out Okay.

So! I am distracting myself with cake!

Carla specifically requested a vanilla cake with blueberries and vanilla frosting. And for her school treat, she wants to bring blueberry cupcakes with sprinkles.

I have been spending pleasant hours looking for Just the Right Recipe, which has – as I mentioned, just now – been pleasant. But it’s also been fruitless (ha – blueberry pun) because The Exact Cake is not out there. Or if it is, I haven’t found it.

Don’t get me wrong! I HAVE uncovered many many MANY delicious sounding recipes. But it seems that most bakers pair blueberry with lemon. And why wouldn’t they? It is a DELIGHTFUL combination. I would in fact eschew the blueberry and just go with the lemon. BUT. It is not my birthday, and I aim to please.

One of my Life Goals has been to bake a cake. A from-scratch cake, with from-scratch frosting. The first cake I baked was for Carla’s first birthday, and I baked three: 1. A practice cake, which turned out so well I then immediately went on and made 2. A smash cake for Carla and 3. A real cake for me all the guests at her birthday party.

First birthday 1

I mean, if you think I have Feelings now, just imagine how intense those Feelings were at her FIRST birthday! So lots of cake was in order then as now.

Her first birthday cake was a banana cake with cream cheese buttercream. I do not like bananas, so I had to take my husband’s word for it that the cake was amazing. Carla, for her part, seemed to enjoy it immensely. It was maybe her second encounter with cake and she made short work of the smash cake (to my husband’s chagrin).

The rest of us ate the other cake, which was lemon with lemon curd filling and lemon buttercream.  It was DELICIOUS, but that’s my kind of cake, you know?

For her second birthday, I made a chocolate cake with chocolate cream cheese frosting. Let me just clarify right here that in my opinion, cream cheese frosting is The Best, hence its repeated appearance in this post and on the cakes I bake. But if I am making vanilla buttercream for THIS YEAR’S cake, I suppose that means no cream cheese. BUMMER.

Second birthday

Speaking of this year’s cake, after that detour into birthdays past, and also I have a strong an unaccountable craving for cake, don’t you? what I have found is a lot of vanilla cakes, and some lemon cakes with blueberry buttercream, but no vanilla cake with blueberry buttercream.

So I am going to have to put some recipes together, which makes me feels like A Real Baker. Clap clap! Very exciting.

I even looked at Actual Cookbooks for help, Internet, which is unusual for me. But they proved Very Unhelpful in this instance.

Third birthday 1

Right now, I am wavering between this recipe for white cake from Test Kitchen…

Third birthday 2

(although I would also scrape some vanilla bean seeds into it, and instead of using almond extract, I would just double the vanilla extract) and this recipe for Very Vanilla Cupcakes from Sally’s Baking Addiction.

And look! That very same recipe just so happens to have a vanilla buttercream to go with it!

And for the blueberry frosting between the layers, I am doing a LOT of waffling.

First waffle: blueberry filling vs. blueberry buttercream. If it were LEMON, I would of course go with lemon curd. It would make a nice little tart opposition to the creaminess of the frosting on the outside of the cake.

But blueberry isn’t really TART. Well, I see that this recipe for blueberry filling from Mother Thyme includes lemon juice, presumably to up the Tart Factor (Hmmm. Sounds kind of racy for a toddler, no?), but it worries me. Even though the recipe says to chill the filling, I’m afraid it won’t gel correctly, and then we’ll have soggy cake. IS THERE ANYTHING WORSE? (Yes: Soggy hamburger buns.)

Here is a potential solution: Bean Town Baker has a recipe for blueberry curd that seems like it would address both the tartness and the sogginess issue. Curd is a weird word. Curd. Curd. My only hesitation is that I am not the best at MAKING a curd. The eggs have, in the past, egged up on me. Which is disgusting. When I’ve used lemon curd in cupcakes and cakes, I tend to by it in a jar because it’s much better and MUCH easier. Also: no egg bits amongst the creamy lemony tarty goodness. What are the odds I can track down some pre-made blueberry curd? A very quick google says “not good.”

Second waffle: If I go with blueberry frosting, I am waffling between this blueberry buttercream from I Heart Kitchen or adapting this raspberry frosting recipe from Sally’s Baking Addiction. The former gets points for being super simple AND using fresh blueberries. The latter sounds more decadent AND I already have blueberry preserves in my possession.

Now wait a second… Here is a recipe for blueberry CREAM CHEESE frosting from White on Rice Couple! But, while it sounds better to ME, I’m not sure it really adheres to the desires as expressed by my daughter. So maybe next time.

I have been dithering, as well, about throwing a blueberry or two into the actual batter of the cake, to see if that increases the blueberry quotient. But Carla really seemed specific about wanting VANILLA cake. So I will probably just go with adding some fresh blueberries to the top and sides.

OH! Or, for the kids’ cupcakes, I could FILL them, with blueberry filling/curd! And top them with vanilla buttercream! Maybe that’s what I’ll do. Sorry, toddler parents! Get your Shout spray and your Oxi Clean ready!

All right! To the store for Cake Supplies! And birthday hats.

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Some short thoughts for you today, Internet. I know, brevity is unusual for me. Don’t worry – I made up for it in quantity.

 

  • A cardinal’s call sounds like a gun in a really girly video game.

 

  • I have heard that acupuncture is really good for anxiety, but I get anxious just THINKING about acupuncture.

 

  • The worst thing about Fourth of July is the surrounding 4-to-6 week period of random fire-crackering at all hours of the day and night. I do not enjoy playing the game of Fire Cracker or Gun Shot? with my husband when we’re snapped out of sleep at two in the morning, fearing for our lives.

 

  • The best – inexpensive – red wine I’ve had in a long while is the 2010 Michael David Petite Petit Sirah. You’re welcome.

 

  • Sometimes I like to sit in my backyard in my bikini (and shorts) and catch the rays. The neighbor whose backyard touches ours has a 22-year-old daughter, home from college, who also likes to sunbathe in her bikini. So my flabby abs and I stay inside a lot.

 

  • Trader Joe’s microwavable jasmine/basmati rice has changed my life.

 

  • I miss Jill Zarin. And that crazypants Kelly. I do not miss Simon.

 

  • Come to think of it, I miss Paris Geller too.

 

  • There is nothing more exciting than growing actual fruit on actual plants that you actually planted. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to protect them from the neighborhood wildlife. This is not your personal produce section, DEER/CHIPMUNKS/SQUIRRELS/BUNNIES/BIRDS.

 

  • What kind of creature is leaving giant poops in my yard?

 

  • Standing with the fridge door open, looking at a cold can of delicious Diet Coke, imagining that crisp, bubbly elixir of happiness trickling down my throat, and contemplating a night of staring at my ceiling fan while my heart whirs frantically and my brain cycles endlessly through my to-do list is not fun. There is no good option here, folks.

 

  • The other day, I saw two cars with personalized license plates. One said One Soul and the other said Fun Knee. What?

 

  • Why is “exercise more frequently” the solution for so many things and “nachos with a brownie chaser” is the solution for nothing?

 

  • I never thought I’d see this day, but alas: we have run out of bay leaves.

 

  • Tom Selleck as Richard from Friends. Indiana Jones-era Harrison Ford. Bruce Willis any day, any time.

 

  • Fresh strawberries always look so delectable in the store, but by the time I get around to washing them, they are soft and discolored and possibly moldy. (See also: grapes, blueberries, artichokes.)

 

  • I probably go outside in my pajamas more often than I should.

 

  • My couch loses approximately ten zagillion feathers each day. I’m pretty sure the feather supply is infinite, but if it turns out I’m wrong, what do I do? Just… throw out the couch? Which will at that point, obviously, be just a pile of empty fabric rectangles.

 

  • I’m not boycotting them or anything, but I haven’t had an Oreo in about two years. I could really go for an Oreo right now.

 

  • The only book I’ve read – all the way through – since March is 50 Shades of Grey. Make of that what you will.

 

 

 

What are you thinking about today, Internet?

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The three months leading up to my junior year of college were lonely and emotionally draining. I was living in Atlanta, working in a ministry that helped feed people, find shelter space for those between homes, and track down money with which to pay overdue electric and gas bills.

It was good work. But in between the moments of feeling like I was helping to make a difference – a real difference, even if it was only temporary – I felt sad and hopeless and overwhelmingly guilty. I had so much and others had so little.

On top of that, I was alone in a city that didn’t know me, didn’t want to know me. My heart, already bruised after a string of breakups, was being torn to shreds by the men and women who sat at my intake desk  day after day and told me that they couldn’t pay their rent or feed their babies.

On the long weekends when I didn’t have work and I didn’t have anyone to talk to, I’d lace up my sneakers and grab my walkman and run. I ran for hours, miles, matching my gait to the beat of “Yellow” and “I’m Like a Bird” and “Drive” (a mix CD my roommate burned me off of Napster) (A walkman! NAPSTER!).

The summer ended and I went on a family trip that began with a mini-reunion of the family on my dad’s side. My grandfather was so ill, he couldn’t lift the oxygen tank that accompanied him everywhere. I remember marveling at how strong my tiny grandmother must have been to lug that thing in and out of the car. (I marvel now at how strong she must have been in so many other ways.) It was so good to see him, for my last memories of him to be set in a beautiful place filled with much laugher and family togetherness.

After the reunion, my parents and my brother and I went up to Canada. We walked on a glacier and ate a lavish, four-course meal attended by a fleet of servers in a restaurant that looked like a castle. I remember my father tripping on a flight of stairs somewhere, cutting his shin. And as the little river of blood snaked down his leg, the dreadful realization bobbed to the surface of my consciousness – maybe for the first time – that he wouldn’t be around forever.

My mother flew with me back east to school, as she’d done every year; got me set up in my dorm room. She left the morning of September 11 (a morning I mostly slept through, by the way. Thank goodness for instant messenger or I never would have turned on the TV.) and was sitting in an airplane at Newark airport waiting to take off when her pilot saw the first plane hit.  We spent days watching the coverage – the plumes of smoke billowing upward and upward as though it was happening fresh every minute; the scenes of people tacking up missing person signs near ground zero; the footage of American flags blossoming from homes and businesses and car windows all across the country – our hearts swollen with pain and hope and terror and pride. Classes started on time a few days later and I said goodbye to my mom. My uncle drove up from South Carolina to pick her up and drive her west. My father started driving east and they met somewhere in the middle.

That was me the fall of 2001: heartsick, panicked, grief-stricken, lonely.

I wasn’t looking for love.

So when I met the cute boy at a concert that October and shared a Wa sandwich with him in a friend’s dorm room, I didn’t think much of it. He was one of dozens of cute boys I’d met in college (albeit one of the few who’d looked at me with anything like interest). And I wasn’t looking for a boy. My heart was battening down the hatches, closing the storm shutters against the possibility of more feeling.

We all tried to be normal. I can’t recall if I went home for fall break that year – but I know my choir trip to Spain was cancelled. I took a statistics class that was surprisingly interesting. I tried valiantly to attend a class on Chaucer but when I didn’t forget I had it, I could never find the classroom. (I still have stress dreams about that class.) I started work on the first of two junior projects – this one about the poetry of Elizabeth I.

In between classes, I was aware of the cute boy. I piled into his SUV one day after dinner with a group of his friends. He had the Linkin Park album in his CD player and I remember giving him mental bonus points for knowing the words to “In the End.” He drove us back to his side of campus, and I stood awkwardly in his dorm room, trying to come up with the proper amount of impressed enthusiasm for the number of beer bottles he and his roommates had amassed on the mantle of their common room.  His eyes were so blue.

We first kissed at a fancy gala. I still remember the dress I was wearing – knee-length black tulle over hot pink tulle with a slit up the side where the pink came through in ruffles – my flamenco dress, I called it. I’d had a choir concert that night, so I was late to the party. The cute boy was there. He was 21 (and I was not) and he sneaked me sips of a fancy drink that tasted like cake batter. We stood outside in the November cold and smoked cigars. (Neither of us likes cigars.) In the basement tap room later, our heads swirling with loud music and tobacco and too much Frangelico, we kissed for the first time. I remember thinking he was the best kisser in all the lands.

But that was just harmless fun, my heart insisted, drawing its fragile armour tight around it.

Several weekends we spent flirting and – made bold by bad beer – kissing. Many week days, we’d blush in each other’s presence, afraid to admit to anything blooming between us.

He’d come over to my dorm room on school nights, sit next to me on the little loveseat set up in the common space, and watch reruns of Seinfeld. (Much later, I learned he hates Seinfeld.) He never held my hand, never touched my hair, never kissed me good night. Just watched Seinfeld with me then trudged back to his own dorm.

We went to the winter formal together. I wore the same red gown I’d worn to my high school prom.

We emailed over Christmas. He was in Europe with his family; I was back home, hanging out with old high school friends and boyfriends, flagrantly NOT serious about anyone anywhere, in the US or overseas.  Two weeks is a long time to be away from someone you’ve only known for three months. And the empty planes and heightened security, my father’s pallor of grief from losing his father, the high school sweetheart who’d found someone else to love… it all reminded me of just how fragile everything is, how destined for ending.

Back at school, we had to study for exams. An English major who knew how to work the system, I had arranged it so I only had papers to write. (I hated exams, but I loved writing papers. Still do.) The reading and exam period encompassed all of January, if I remember correctly. Once my papers were filed neatly in my professors’ inboxes, I had nothing to do.

The cute boy needed new tires on his car. He would sit for his last final and still have a full week left in the exam period. So he was going to drive home – here, in fact; this city where we live now – to get new ones. His mother and his sister would be visiting from Europe, so he could see them at the same time.

Somehow, we came to the agreement that I would come with him.

How did we arrive at that conclusion, I wonder? And why were my parents okay with me driving eight hours in a car with a boy they didn’t know – a boy I’d only known for three months – to stay with his family in a strange city?

Sitting in the car, the feeling that this was a horrible mistake settled around my shoulders. What would we possibly talk about for eight hours? Instead of thinking up topics on my own, I read him tidbits from Cosmo magazine. (There was a little fact about yawning in that issue. It said people yawn when others yawn as a means of communicating with each other. We still say, “I’m trying to communicate with you!” whenever one of us yawns after the other.)

We got to his house and I met his mother and his aunt and his sister. I would be sleeping in his sister’s room, on a trundle bed.

I went upstairs to call my mom, to let her know we’d arrived safely.

I don’t know if I told her straight out; no, I think I held onto it like a secret for many months. But I remember talking to her in his bedroom in the dark, laughter and chatter floating up the stairs from the kitchen, and knowing with such clarity: I could marry this man.

Something about the calm, confident way he drove, the easy way we’d been able to talk for eight hours straight… Something about the family photos on the wall or the comfortable warmth of the kitchen or the way that his mother assumed (as mine would have) that of course I would sleep in his sister’s room… Something about how welcoming these women were, how much they clearly, deeply loved this boy…

That’s when I knew. I knew he was a man I could love, a man I could walk beside into forever.

I hid that knowledge deep inside myself, kept it under lock and key, for several months. It wasn’t until spring break, when I was sitting in a closet in a Puerto Rico hotel room, straining over bad cell reception to hear him talk about St. Patrick’s day in New York City, that I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I DID love him, and I wanted so badly to tell him so. I did a week or so later, I think, under cover of darkness. Turns out he loved me too.

But that first moment… the moment I said to hell with wounded hearts and the possibility of pain and opened myself up to a future with him? Was that night in his childhood bedroom, talking to my mother on the phone.

Our love story isn’t particularly cute or special, but it’s ours. Thinking of it still forms a little mountain of happiness in the back of my throat. Remembering that time still makes the room sparkle. I still think this city is a magical place.

 
Now. I’d love to know when YOU first knew that you were standing face to face with the person you’d love for the rest of your life.

Was it love at first sight? Was it friendship that deepened into love? Was it a wild and crazy romance? Did you meet in a bar, in a class, at work, online? Was it unexpected? Was it a long time in the making?

Please do tell. I could use some love stories to get me through the weekend – sappy, silly, strange or whatever yours may be.

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It’s so easy to be kind. To share a warm smile. To send a handwritten note. To give a compliment or a gift or a helping hand.

And oh! what a lasting impression just a small comment or gesture or act of kindness can leave!

* * *

I was in the grocery store a few weeks back, wearing my beloved grey belted wool coat.

I’d just placed a package of bean sprouts in my basket and was looking longingly over the display of artichokes. That’s when I felt a hand on my waist.

“This is such a lovely coat,” came a sandpapery voice from behind me. “But the belt is twisted.”

I looked over my shoulder at an older woman –  late seventies, grandmotherly – as she gently untwisted the belt so it lay flat on my back.

“There,” she said, smiling up at me as she patted me on the arm. Her dark eyes sparkled as she shuffled off among the oranges.

That small gesture made me warm through and through.

I don’t know why it affected me so much. Perhaps it reminded me of being a child and having my mother smooth my hair or straighten my shirt. Perhaps it was just being touched in a small, gentle way. Perhaps it was that she went out of her way to make my life a little less messy – with no hassle and no expectation of remuneration.

* * *

A year or so ago, I read somewhere about people doing random acts of kindness. (I think it was on Jen’s blog? Jen? Am I hallucinating?)

Jen would buy Target gift cards (this sounds like the kind of thing Jen would do, so I’m going to leave it) or the like and leave them on random cars.

I did this exactly once – put $10 on a gift card rather than buying a $10 tube of mascara – and left it on the windshield of a car.

Who knows what the recipient thought? Maybe s/he thought it was stupid. Maybe s/he thought it was a delightful surprise. (My husband thought I was a weirdo.) Maybe s/he didn’t see the envelope under the wiper and it flew off into a ditch somewhere.

But I don’t even care.

It made me feel SO GOOD.

Why oh why don’t I do it more often?

* * *

Compliments are nice, too.

When I last saw my hairdresser – in early December – I asked her a serious question:

“Is my hair too long?”

Yes, I love my hair long. My husband loves it long. But I know that sometimes long hair can look lank and stringy.

She tilted her head and regarded me closely.

“No. I think tall, thin people like you can pull it off,” she said. “And anyway, we’ll give you layers to add movement.”

Me, a tall, thin person?

It made me glow all the way home.

Later, in early January, I was once again at the grocery store.

I was getting fish for dinner. The sweet woman behind the counter said, “Wow, your lashes are so long! Are they real?”

I was surprised and delighted. My lashes are stubby and nearly invisible, so I am a mascara fanatic. It’s the one makeup item I never leave home without.

(“What did you tell her?” my husband asked. “That they’re real!” I said. “Well, did you tell her about all the mascara you’re wearing?” “Mascara doesn’t make my lashes less real!”)

* * *

A few years ago, my husband and I were in my hometown visiting my parents.

It gets bitterly cold there in winter. The day in question, the temperature was hovering around seventeen below zero.

We were stopped at a stoplight when we saw a young man coming down the hill across the street.

He was walking. It was clear from his gait that he was drunk or otherwise impaired. And he wasn’t wearing a stitch of clothing above the waist.

The light changed and a pickup a few cars in front of us pulled up next to the young man.

The driver took off his own coat and handed it out the window to the shirtless guy.

* * *

Last year, I was having a tough time.

Who knows why.

But one day, when my husband collected the mail, he tossed an envelope my way. It was from an unfamiliar address.

Inside was a sheet of stickers – glittery cats – and a recipe for gourmet macaroni and cheese.

Turns out it was from Daisy.

She’d gotten the glitter cat stickers as a random act of kindness from her husband’s coworkers. And then she passed them on to me.

I still have them.

I take them out and look at them and they make me smile every time.

And while I haven’t made the mac and cheese yet, I drool over the recipe every so often. (Mac and cheese is fattening. But drooling over mac and cheese burns calories.)

* * *

One of Swistle’s New Year’s resolutions this year was to act more often on generous impulses.

I loved that resolution. All too often, I think, “Oh, so-and-so would like this!” and then, at the last minute, I chicken out and never let that person know I was thinking of him or her.

Now, I know it’s impractical to buy things all the time. That could get just plain expensive. But when I’m ordering a little something on Amazon and I see something that I feel like so-and-so could use, I’m trying to be better about ordering it without a second thought. Without worrying that the recipient won’t like it… Or that s/he will feel obligated to return the favor… Or that it will come across as stupid or weird…

And I’m trying to be better about just being kind in general. Smiling brightly and saying hello to people when I come across them, rather than averting my eyes and scuttling past. Asking people if they need help, when before I would fret over whether I’d be intruding. Giving compliments – even to strangers.

I don’t do it every time. I don’t do it enough. But I do it more, and I think that counts for something.

* * *

The delivery guy gave a sharp rap on the door and then disappeared down the hallway, leaving two packages against the wall.

One, I was eagerly anticipating: a birthday gift from my parents that my mother had said was on the way. (I didn’t know what the gift was, just that it was coming. Turns out it was chocolates from the very chocolate boutique that provided chocolates for my wedding. They are amazingly delicious. You will not be surprised to learn that they have already been thoroughly plundered.)

And the other was a fabulous surprise: a tall box of flowers! Inside was a beautiful bouquet of irises and lilies from a girl who’s gone from blogger-I-admire to real-life friend.

I’m not ashamed to say that I blubbered as I cut the cellophane off of the bouquet and sobbed as I filled the accompanying vase with water and wiped tears off my cheeks as I bit through a dark chocolate shell.

That’s what kindness can do.

Whether it’s from your loving parents… or a brand-new friend… or even a generous stranger…

It can knock you off your feet.

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Christmas was on a Saturday this year, and I had to work right up until Christmas Eve, so I had the unique pleasure of watching my father and my husband take over the bulk of the Holiday Chocolate Making.

Sure, I was involved. I dipped all of the mint tea chocolates and some of the lavender ones. And I was Salt Placer in Chief for all the sea-salt caramels.

And it’s very likely that this makes zero sense to the uninitiated.

But don’t worry – I took many photos!

Let us look at them whilst I give you very scientific directions as to how to make chocolates yourself.

Super Scientifical Direction #1: Buy the book Chocolate Obsession: Confections and Treats to Create and Savor.

Decide on which of the mouthwatering chocolates to make.

(This year, we chose sea salt caramels, star anise and pink peppercorn filled chocolates, mint tea chocolates, lavender chocolates, and force noir [basically, double dark chocolate] chocolates.)

Super Scientifical Direction #1(a): Or, if you don’t want to buy the book and/or are lazy, make sure your Chocolate Partner (parent/spouse/sibling/whomever) owns that book and makes the chocolate centers of whichever chocolates you want to make. And the caramel. Make sure your Chocolate Partner makes the caramel too.

Super Scientifical Direction #2: Freeze/chill/set the centers per the book’s instructions. Extra points if your dishes of chocolate centers take up all the room in the fridge that your mother needs for all her holiday cooking.

Seriously – a giant Christmas roast can’t exactly fit in the DOOR of the fridge.

Super Scientifical Direction #3: There’s another step in here, involving adding some sort of chocolate to the bottom/top of the centers, but I forget what it is because I was working. So refer back to Direction 1.

Super Scientifical Direction #4: Have your Chocolate Partner – henceforth, CP – painstakingly measure out identical bite-sized squares of the hardened chocolate centers.

Make sure that you are hovering nearby with the dog, ready to catch any slivers of chocolate center that do not fit the super careful measurement parameters.

Just kidding. The dog can’t eat chocolate.

Super Scientifical Direction #5: Now that you have been badgered into stopping working because the work day is over, it is time for the Tempering of the Chocolate. This is the silky warm hot tub in which all of the center squares will take luxurious dips.

For this step, you will need chocolate (lots), a double boiler (or a pot and a bowl that nestles into the top of the pot), a bowl, a thermometer, a stove, and a heating pad.

Break up some chocolate into some pieces. There might be some butter involved? I can’t remember. Nope? Just chocolate? Okay.

Then melt the chocolate in the double boiler until it reaches a certain temperature. You can add more chunks of chocolate to lower the temperature.

When it reaches that temperature, then you need to lower it to another temperature, I think? Man, I miss one year of Holiday Chocolate Making and I totally forget how to do it.

Super Scientifical Direction #5(a): You should really read the book because my directions suck.

My picture taking up to this point sucks as well.

Super Scientifical Direction #6: Then you move the top of the double boiler (aka the bowl) to another bowl that is lined with a heating pad.

Aha! The first photo!

It is very difficult to know what you are looking at.

So I have made a Super Scientifical Diagram of the photo to be all helpful and stuff.


[Click to embiggen.]

See? MUCH clearer!

Super Scientifical Direction #7: Now it is time to dip the chocolates!!!!!!

For this step, you will need the aforementioned bowl-within-a-heating-pad-clad-bowl, a thermometer, some forky-dipper things, the hardened center squares (typing that makes me feel like I’m a game show host), and some cookie sheets draped in wax paper. Or saran wrap if you like fighting with a plastic film that prefers to stick only to itself.

So, you make sure the tempered chocolate is at a certain temperature (which you can raise by raising the heat on the heating pad and lower by lowering the heat on the heating pad and by adding chunks of chocolate). Then you drop one of the center squares into the chocolate hot tub and submerge it. But do this really quickly or it will melt.

Then you use one of the forky-dipper things to lift out the center square from its melty paradise. Try to position the center square so that it is as close to the edge of the forky-dipper as possible without plunging into the chocolatey depths.

[Yes, that is another glimpse of my kind and patient father

in the background.

Or rather, the button of his Chocolate Making shirt.

You should have a Chocolate Making Shirt if you engage in Chocolate Making.

Because you WILL get chocolate on you.]

Then gently tap slash scrape the forky-dipper against the side of the bowl to dislodge as much excess chocolate as possible. Then place the dipped chocolate on the saran-wrapped cookie sheet.

Super Scientifical Direction #7(a): Feel free to swear if the center square falls off the fork and back into the Hot tub O’ Chocolate.

Super Scientifical Direction #7(b): Feel free to swear even more loudly if the newly-dipped chocolate refuses to release its hold on the forky-dipper when you want it to slide neatly onto the cookie sheet.

Super Scientifical Direction #7(c): Have your CP top the chocolate with some indicator of what flavor it is.

We use lavender buds for the lavender chocolates…

Sea salt for the sea salt caramels…

Cacao nibs for the force noir chocolates…

[NOT PICTURED]

And chocolate drizzles for the mint tea chocolates.

But you can go crazy. I give you permission.

Super Scientifical Direction #7(d): Repeat until all chocolates are dipped and/or the kitchen looks like a Hershey’s bar exploded.

Who are we kidding? The kitchen has looked like a Hershey’s bar exploded since Tuesday. My poor mother is likely STILL cleaning chocolate out of the cupboards and off of the cat.

NOTE: The cat was not actually involved in the Holiday Chocolate Making.

Super Scientifical Direction #8: At this point, realize that you really wanted to make filled chocolates too!!!

Super Scientifical Direction #9: Get out the trays for the filled chocolates. Carefully decorate them with gold leaf or “tattoos” whilst your CP makes the filling.

[TATTOOS NOT PICTURED]

Here’s a close up of some gold leaf action…

Super Scientifical Direction #10: Go to bed whilst your CP and his CP fill clear bottles – the kind you often see filled with ketchup and mustard at diners and such – with the filling and make the chocolate coating for the filled chocolates.

Super Scientifical Direction #10(a): Shake your head sadly at how easily you’ve been replaced.

Super Scientifical Direction #10(b): Zzzzzzzzzz.

Super Scientifical Direction #11: After you coat the chocolate trays with chocolate, you need to place them upside down so the excess chocolate can drain. I mean, you want the centers to be mainly filling, just coated with the chocolate.

Super Scientifical Direction #11(a): Mmmmm… Chocolate drippings…

 

Super Scientifical Direction #12: Once the filled chocolates have been coated, filled, and covered with a final layer…

…you get to slam the trays really hard on the counter so they drop out.

CAUTION: Bang the tray down once, firmly, then lift. THEN wait for all chocolates to stop dropping before you slam the tray down again. Many a chocolate has been smushed by Over-Eager Tray Slamming.

Sadly, I do not have a photo of this as I was darting my hands in between slams to rescue the dropped chocolates. Holiday Chocolate Making is nothing if not dangerous.

But I DO have a photo of the “tattooed” star anise and pink peppercorn chocolates!

The tattoos are sheets of transfer paper (or something?) with a pattern on them. The paper part peels off prior to the slamming, and the pattern transfers to the chocolates. We have some pink plaid patterns as well, but they show up best on white chocolate.

By the way, these are identical to the gold leaf chocolates… Except that I photographed THESE for some reason, and not the gold leaf ones. SLACKER.

Super Scientifical Direction #13: Move the dog with your foot because he has found some stray a) chocolate or b) saran wrap on the floor and is eagerly lapping it up. And no one wants saran-wrap- or chocolate-induced barfing on Christmas. NO ONE.

Super Scientifical Direction #14: Enlist a partner to arrange an array of the freshly-made chocolates on lovely plates or in adorable candy boxes.

[Box displayed in front of holiday card collection.]

 

[LOVELY PLATES NOT PICTURED]

(Man, I really screwed the pooch on the photography, didn’t I? I guess that’s what happens when once is forced to decide between photographing a chocolate or eating it.)

Super Scientifical Direction #15: Taste each variety of chocolate to make sure none of them has been accidentally poisoned.

Especially the sea salt caramels.

[Yes, I love them so much I took TWO photos of them

and ZERO of the force noir.

And ZERO of the finalized gold-leaf versions of the anise peppercorn.]

Super Scientifical Direction #15(a): Really. You might want to taste test two or three of each variety. For safety reasons, natch.

Super Scientifical Direction #16: Deliver beautiful plates of chocolates to all your friends and loved ones. Accept graciously if they invite you inside for a glass of wine, even though it is only 1:00 in the afternoon.

Super Scientifical Direction #17: Stop in the middle of the delivery session to go to a hometown favorite fast food joint where you get two orders of curly fries and a cherry Mountain Dew and the CPs all get giant burgers and will end up eating your second order of curly fries.

Super Scientifical Direction #18: Get a flu shot post curly-fry-pig-out.

Super Scientifical Direction #19: Resume chocolate delivery until you have filled your entire quota of Being Social for 2011.

Super Scientifical Direction #20: Go home to where another partner has graciously cleaned up the wreckage of Holiday Chocolate Making wreckage and has also made lobster for dinner. LOBSTER.

NOTE: This is an absolutely critical step in the chocolate making process. Please inform your partner in advance.

Super Scientifical Direction #21: Once stuffed with lobster and, who are we kidding, about a pound of butter, enjoy poison-free chocolates for dessert.

The end.

* * * * *

Seriously? Best Holiday Chocolate Making ever.

And somehow, I managed to cajole both my husband and my brother into joining my father and me for chocolate delivery. Despite the fact that both gentlemen dislike Needless Socializing.

I promised them it would be quick and painless, and that we’d only get invited into approximately 10% of the homes we visited.

It took about five hours and we went into about 30% of the homes that we visited. It was exhausting.

But fully delightful. Especially coming home to yummy lobster. (Which my parents received as a gift from some very awesome friends.)

Can you see why this is my favorite holiday tradition?

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