Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Quality Without Compromise (or the Psychology of See's Candies)

I must come clean: I am now, and have always been, addicted to See's candy.  Others may choose Godiva (blech), or Lindt (no thanks), or even Hershey or Mars (meh), but as for me and mine, it's See's candy all the way.  And by addicted I don't mean I 'gotta' have it every day - certainly not (wink, wink, nudge, nudge), it just means that if I'm going to going to have chocolate, well, I'd just rather save all of those 'empty' calories for the BEST chocolate - not just something that is so-so.

I'm sure there are many of us out there - you know who you are - who feel the same way.  Whether you're a California native and were raised on See's candy, or your an import and you learned to love it along the way, we all have our favorite piece (or, ahem, pieces) of See's candy.

Years - and two houses - ago, I remember Kevin, our neighbor Ray, our contractor Chris, and myself standing out in the driveway with a brand new box of See's candy.  We were all chit-chatting about something, though I can't remember what, when suddenly a hush came over us.  Everyone watched as I removed the outer unmistakeable paper wrap, then the lid, and finally the little rectangle of bubble wrap to reveal the milk and dark chocolate treasures inside.  All eye contact was lost; each person looked quickly for their favorite hoping no one else would get to it before they did.  It was hilarious! Everyone was trying to be polite, but … when faced with such decadent temptation, polite only goes so far.  Finally, the first dove in - out went the milk chocolate bordeaux, followed quickly by the 'cup' of molasses chips (which is a utter ridiculousness since those 2" molasses chips have never fit in those 1" candy cups!).  I was still holding out hope for my piece which taunted me from the corner.  Kevin was up next: out went the milk cocoanut.  SAFE!  That delicious milk California Brittle was mine, all MINE!  The frenzy didn't last long, though it seemed to take forever!  Once we were each happily enjoying our faves (or at least our current fave…it often changes depending on your mood), we all chuckled about how everyone has their favorites and we were each hoping that OUR favorite wasn't SOMEONE ELSE'S favorite.

Shortly before Halloween I went to See's because, well, let's face it - certain holidays just beg for See's candy (happy to oblige).  While standing in a short, but intense, line of See's lovers, I was witness to yet more examples of just how important these little nuggets of chocolate joy are to so many of us.  There was a young man, probably in his very early 20's, waiting his turn to place his order.  It struck me that he didn't look like the sort of person I would imagine in a See's candy shop.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say he's probably the last person I'd expect to see there.  I feel terrible about it now, but at the time I couldn't help but think he looked like a gang member.  Heck, maybe he was and maybe he wasn't, BUT what I can say for sure is that he knew exactly what he wanted.  I didn't hear the selections, but it appeared to be 5 individual pieces and clearly, he'd done this many times before: he had the exact amount of money in his hand when it came time to pay.  He had it down to a science.  The man in line after him placed his order for his custom box and was dismayed to hear that they were no longer carrying his favorite piece of candy.  Poor guy.  He looked so hurt.  He asked when they stopped carrying it; apparently he'd missed it by a month.  He asked why they stopped carrying it; he was crushed to learn that fewer and fewer people shared his love for that particular kind of candy.  You could just hear the disappointment in his voice - he was crushed.  I completely understand how he feels!

I've often pondered the psychology behind the pieces of candy we choose from that little white box.  Are you a mixed chocolates fan?  Milk chocolate?  Dark?  Soft centers?  Or maybe you prefer the nuts and chews.  When choosing a piece from any of the boxes, what do you go for?  Dark chocolate raspberry?  Blueberry truffle?  How about a molasses chip or two?  Maybe one for now and one for later?  How do you buy it - by the piece?  By the pound?  Only around a particular holiday?  Or is it a whenever-you're-in-the-mood-for-chocolate treat?  Just like the candy itself, all of these things can say a lot about you.  Or maybe they just say one thing:  you are a person who stands for Quality With Compromise.  Just like the box says.

Oh drats!  Now I'm craving chocolate!

Monday, February 09, 2015

Let the Gardening Begin

Every year, right around the end of January, I begin thinking what I'd like to do in the garden for the season.  I always have lots of ideas running through my head, and I'm usually able to translate a few of those and make them work in the garden.

… at least for a little while.
Then, suddenly it's the middle of summer and what was easy to care for in the spring, has become unbearable to care for in the blazing heat of the summer sun.  I know this, and yet, I'm ever the eternal optimist that this will be the year!  With that in mind, we've made some physical changes in the backyard garden area that we're hoping will be more inspirational to keep us going during the hotter months.  To wit, we removed a large palm tree that was beginning to lean a bit and tangle in the wires that cross the back of the property.  We were afraid that we might lose it in a powerful wind storm and, if so, it would cause a great deal of damage to the retaining wall that surrounds it, as well as the swimming pool.  We also removed a sago palm that's been there for years.  Our original thought was to re-plant the sago in place of the palm tree, but when we discovered that the pods it sheds are poisonous to animals, so we knew that would have to go too.

This year, I decided to sketch things out a bit before we did any planting.  I'm not really much of an artist, but I have to say that it was a fun task deciding where to put the herb garden, where the lettuces would grow best, and where to plant the hummingbird garden.  I thoroughly enjoyed sketching all of the different shades of green and adding some flowers for pops of colors.

I've also been thinking about some decor I'd like to add here and there to punch things up in the planters, as well as a rather dull redwood fence that outlines the sides of the yard.  Each year I add a few pieces of Talavera pottery to add splashes of color.  I have several planters as well as a beautiful bird bath.  This year I'm going to focus on buying some things that will add splashes of color to the fence.  I already had several terra cotta sun faces and decided to gather and hang them in one area of the fence; I added a large Talavera sun face to this area and I think it's the perfect addition.  I also found a climbing frog that we positioned on another area of the fence.  He looks a bit lonely and will need some mates, so I'll be looking for several more to add to this area.  On the other side of the yard we already have five large. open work wrought iron stars.  I'm going to add small battery pack lights to each of the stars for a little more sparkle at night, and I found some Talavera stars to intersperse in this area as well.

I love adding all of these fun things to the garden, but it does get a little expensive!  This weekend, however, I thought of a really wonderful addition to the garden that won't cost us one dime.  I thought of a clever way to use something we already had outside that hasn't been used in years, and I'm really excited about it!  Years ago dad received a small outdoor fountain as a gift.  He put the pump together and used it for about a year or so, and then stopped using it.  I'm not sure if the pump broke and needed to be replaced, or if he just didn't want to deal with the hassle of it, but it's been sitting in the same spot on the patio for years now without a purpose.  I don't know why I didn't think about this before, but it suddenly hit me over the weekend - why don't we 'cut the cord' (literally and figuratively!), turn the fountain into a planter, and move it to the garden area?!  There isn't a lot of room to plant anything, but I believe the basket the little girl is holding will be just deep enough for impatiens.  The fountain is similar to this one, but not exactly.  Anyway, it's enough for you to get the idea.  Fun, right?!
I think next weekend we'll actually begin some planting!  I have a few things to start from seed, but we'll also be buying some additional herbs, a few veggies and some flowers.  We've decided to add a large fern to the area where the palm tree formerly lived and we will surround that with … well, I guess I have a little more dreaming to do to figure that out!

A bee-bop, a boo-bop, a rhubarb pie!

A couple of weeks ago I was discussing pie with a co-worker.  Why?  I can't really remember what sparked the conversation, but I did glean a lot of really useful information!

I mentioned that I wasn't happy with the way my pies came out over the holidays.  He asked why and I said that, though the fillings were delicious, the crusts left much to be desired.  He said that, during his college years, he worked at a coffee shop called Polly's Pies, and he remembered baking an absolute TON of pies.  He said that for each pie crust, they would pre-bake the bottom crust by pricking the bottom of the crust with a fork, and then placing another pie pan over the crust instead of pie weights.  He said not only did this keep the pie crust from puffing on the bottom (as the any pie weight would do), the heat of the second pan helped bake the top of the bottom crust.  Huh.  I'd never even thought of that!  For that matter, I'd never used pie weights to pre-bake a pie crust (I know - shame on me!).

After that conversation I felt I had much to learn about pie baking, so I did a little investigation.  Each holiday season I use a variety of pie pans to bake my pies.  I did an internet search to see if there were recommendations on the best pie pans, and yep, indeed there were!  Not only that, I discovered that different types of vessels require more or less baking time depending on whether it's glass, ceramic or tin.  You would have thought that I would have known that after all of these years, but nope, in fact I'd never even given it a second thought.  No wonder I have iffy luck with my pies!

So.  With all of my new found knowledge, I baked a pie yesterday.  I knew what kind I was in the mood for ... what I couldn't stop thinking about, but I wasn't sure that Kevin would agree.  When I mentioned it to him, he got a huge smile and said "YES!".  YAHOO!  Rhubarb it is!  All I could think of were those delicious sweet/tart pies that grandma Maxwell used to bake.  They had the most delicious, flakey crust, and the filling was soo delicious, it would be both sweet and make your mouth pucker with it's tart flavor all at the same time.  Mmmm.  Pure deliciousness!

I used the clear glass pie plate that received the best reviews.  I couldn't find a pan that fit inside the pie plate, so I did end up using dried beans as pie weights - and they worked out just fine.  I used tapioca instead of cornstarch in the filling because that's what grandma always used.  I set the timer shy of the time indicated just to make sure it wouldn't burn.  I added time when it was clear that the pie wasn't quite baked to perfection yet.  And waited.  Patiently.  Sort of.

About 55 minutes later, I was rewarded with a golden brown pie whose crust appeared to be quite flakey and oozed just the right amount of pink sticky liquid over the side of the glass pan.  About an hour after dinner, we cut into the pie.  I was a bit nervous, but lo and behold, it was probably THE best pie I've ever made! The crust was perfectly done on the bottom - not doughy.  The sweet/tart filling was just as I remembered.  Warm pie served with a little side of vanilla ice cream that was just beginning to melt.  Oh man.  My mouth is watering just thinking about it!

It's funny how conversations evolve.  How just taking a few minutes to engage in a light-hearted discussion with a friend made me a better baker.  It allowed me learn something new from my friend and prompted me to get seek out some insight into a topic on which I thought I was pretty well versed.  It's true: you (CAN) learn something new every day!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

I have a little confession to make...

A little background:  I used to hang out here, and moreover, POST here - A LOT!  Over time, things sort of waxed and waned, and I'd post from time to time, but nothing like the first few years.
Every time I thought I'd have more time to focus on being here and sharing ideas, something would come up.  We moved.  Work suddenly got incredibly busy.  Then both of my parents were ill at the same time and passed away within 3 months of each other.  Then we moved again and had a number of estate things to work on and get settled.  Then we worked on the house a bit.  FINALLY - finally things began to settle down once and for all after the first of the year. "Great!", I thought, "Now I'll have time to get back to my blog and catch up!" And then...
Then spring rolled around and I finally had to admit to myself that I wasn't feeling great - I was definitely having some health issues.  It didn't seem to be anything serious, really - just a lot of little symptoms that had been bugging me for quite a while.  Then a few new symptoms began popping up and I knew it was time to go to the doctor.  It was May and I had a physical scheduled for the middle of June, but my Kevin insisted that we not wait, so I made an appointment for a few days later.  I'd been doing some research to try and correlate the symptoms and what I was finding ... well, it wasn't great news.
At first the doctor thought we were kind of crazy and a bit over anxious, but she finally relented and did a number of tests.  I won't bore you with names of all the tests, but trust me - there were quite a few. Some of the results came in quickly, while others took a bit longer, the the result was the same. The bottom line is:  I have cancer.
Kind of shocking, I know.  I have carcinoid cancer and have apparently had it for about 10 years - without even knowing.  For those of you not familiar with this type of cancer - which frankly, is probably most people since it's quite rare - it is a slow-growing, non-aggressive cancer.  The primary site is typically found in the 'gut' area, at least that's where it begins. In my case, they haven't found the primary site, which my oncologist said doesn't matter.  Once it spreads, it doesn't really matter where it started.  In my case, when we found it in May, it had spread to my liver and is considered Stage IV. Which, though frightening, isn't quite the same as when you have a Stage IV breast cancer or other cancers.  Basically what it means for me is that, by the time they found it, it had already traveled to the liver - which makes it Stage IV.  The doctor said that people can - and do - live with this type of cancer for years.  Obviously, that's what we're hoping for!  And honestly, it's a very good probability.  With the exception of the two cancer markers used to diagnose this cancer, all of my lab work is good.  If you were to see me, I clearly don't appear to be ill.  In fact, I feel great!  
The bad: This type of cancer does not work well with either chemo or radiation. There are other treatments available to me when I need them, but they are not the standard types of either of these treatments.  Additionally, this particular cancer causes right-sided heart damage - which I have.  The two valves on the right side of my heart both leak.  A lot.  I was having really bad edema which was exacerbating my symptoms. They referred me to a cardiologist who, initially suggested open heart surgery.  But after we talked and looked at options, we decided to try medication first.  I've been on it for a month, and it's working like a charm.  So.  No surgery at this time.
The good: I am on a medication that I inject twice a day.  It has alleviated all of the symptoms that lead me to the doctor in May.  I've been using it for several months now and it's working very well.  It's cut my cancer markers to less than half of what they had been, and it's helping to shrink the tumors in my liver.  All good news.  I have no new symptoms and since this medication is working so well, we're staying with it and just monitoring blood work.  I see the oncologist every two months unless something comes up.
Now that things are sort of on an even keel and we've settled into a new 'normal', I'd like to get back to blogging again.  Since I haven't been doing this for a while and I need to get back to it being a 'habit', I might be pretty slow at first. Then again, maybe not! It all depends on what I've seen. Or done. Or heard. I'm going to try to make the posts more frequent, though they may not be terribly lengthy in nature. But, then again, maybe they will!
Basically, the point is this: having had my life turned upside down a bit, I find that I am noticing things I hadn't before. I am seeing more things, and seeing them from a different angle, and how I feel about things? ... well that's kind of changed, too. I want to relay those thoughts and feelings, and commit them to a page - or a venue - such as a blog post.
Along the way, I'd really love it if you shared your comments with me. I'm anxious to 'meet' some of you who may have been reading my blog for a while, but haven't introduced yourself. I'd love to know what you're thinking.  
I kind of feel like this journey is starting anew. I'm ready to get started! I hope you are, too!

Friday, December 13, 2013

The $60,000.00 Cuppa Coffee

We have some friends who are going through a very difficult time in their lives right now.  They’re a young couple with two small children, and E  has cancer. Unfortunately neither of their families has been terribly supportive; the good news is that they have lots of friends who love them and are willing to do anything necessary to help them out.  We consider ourselves fortunate to be among those friends.

E  has had a difficult time with the chemotherapy drugs.  His body has had some odd (skin blistering and falling off) and violent (excessive vomiting) reactions and the medication has been changed several time.  M has been struggling trying to get everything done.  She’s a full-time teacher, mom and wife, while honing her skills as a part-time researcher (trying to glean as much helpful information about the cancer) and taxi driver trying to get her hubby back and forth to chemo treatments.  We have another friend who recently retired and has been happy to transport E back and forth to appointments and such.

The other day M came flying into the office with a strangely irritated look on her face.  She told me that they’d received their bill in the mail for the first two months of E ‘s chemo; $120,000.00!  She said she nearly passed when she opened the envelope.  Thankfully they have insurance, so they don’t have to pay this amount but … WOW.  She was very animated as she told me about the bill and added a good dose of humor along the way.  She mentioned that they’d included a tear-off section on the bill where you could enter your credit card information and send it back.  Yeah, right!  I told her it was too bad she couldn’t send it back with an audible laugh track.  Then she said she knew how she’d get back at them.  She said that she noticed that they offer free coffee in the waiting room while you’re waiting for your patient to finish their treatment.  With a twinkle in her eye she said that she was going to tell our friend N to drink as much coffee as she possibly could each time she took E in for a treatment.

Yep.  That’ll do it!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Little Christmas Mistletoe

A friend of mine came to work the other day with his pinkie finger all bandaged up.  Seriously - from knuckle to tip, it was all cozy and snug inside an enormous wad of bandages.  I asked him what happened and he said that he nearly cut his finger off Sunday cutting mistletoe for his son's Boy Scout fundraiser.  OUCH!

He went to the ER right away - where he promptly waited 5 hours to be seen.  Shortly before the doctor came in, he went out and asked someone if they thought his finger was still viable for a repair; they looked at, said 'Yes, there's still a little bit of pink left'.  A few minutes later the doctor came in and stitched it back together.  He didn't know how many stitches they'd given him, but he said it circles the entire pinkie in something that looks like a blanket stitch.  Again I say OUCH!

He brought the mistletoe in to work to sell.  A dollar a bunch.  Boy, that seems like a mere pittance compared to what I'm sure his doctor bill will be!

Anyway, here's our Christmas photo … oddly enough, with mistletoe!  (**Disclaimer:  No fingers were harmed in the photographing of this mistletoe.  Pinkie swear!)

The Great Pumpkin … Mystery

(I have no idea why part of this post, and all of the last post is in black…talk about your mysteries!) 

So I’m doing a little advanced planning.  I’m planning on making those adorable plush velvet pumpkins that are so popular in the fall (see, told ya I was planning in advance!).  One of the things I love about the pumpkins is that their stems are real pumpkin stems - which is what brings me to the advanced planning bit…

This year we had 4 pumpkins of various sizes and shapes on our front porch.  They will meet their demise this weekend to make way for something a little more holiday appropriate, but before they do, Kevin is going to carve off the pumpkin stems for me.  Four.  Only four.  Now, of course, I wish I’d planned even further in advance and picked up a few more pumpkins before they were all gone.  But alas, I did not.

However.  An interesting thing happened over the weekend.  Kevin and I were driving along one of our favorite routes and we passed a house that had bunches and bunches of pumpkins lining the wall, driveway and front porch.  The pumpkins were all shapes, sizes and varieties.  Sooo cool!  We passed in on Saturday.  Then again on Sunday.  I drive home from work that way, so Monday and Tuesday I spied the pumpkins again.  Finally on Wednesday, I decided to go up to the house and ask if, before they tossed them out, I could have a couple for my craft project.  I wrote out a slip of paper with my name and phone number and the word ‘Pumpkins’ on it to hand to the homeowner should they agree with my request.  So.  I ring the doorbell and a very nice lady answered the door.  I told her that I had a strange request.  She immediately told me that she was not the homeowner, but she asked if the request was about the pumpkins.  I said it was and asked if the homeowner was around, and sure enough, she was.  She joined the other lady at the front door and when I mentioned the pumpkins, they both giggled.  They said that the pumpkins really weren’t theirs.  The homeowner said that she woke up one morning and went out the front door, and there they all were...dozens of pumpkins!  Seventy in all.  She still has no idea who put them there or why.  It’s the Great Pumpkin...mystery!  She invited me to take as many as I wanted, wished me a Merry Christmas and that, my friends, was that!  I am now the proud owner of six more pumpkins with fun and unique stems for my craft project.  Yahoo!  

PS - She did mention that the pumpkins had been disappearing over the last several days and that I was the first one to actually ask if I could have one.  I’m glad I did the right thing and asked -- it was completely worth it to hear the story of how she acquired all of those pumpkins!

I Like Pie

At our school, we do our morning announcements on closed-circuit television.  Which is fabulous!  The kids love love it and it gives them a chance to have a live, in-studio, on-air performance.  ...the only caveat is that sometimes, 7th and 8th graders don’t necessarily possess the best on-air presence.  Often, the word ‘photograph’ comes out pho-TO-graph.  And though they’re learning, their inflections aren’t exactly, well, accurate.  For instance, years ago our Home Economics teacher had planned a food sale for after school.  It was around the holidays, and her students made various kinds of pie; the sale was a slice of pie for $1.00.  To promote the pie sale, she asked to have a blurb put in the student bulletin to be announced over the air the day of the sale.  The two student announcers that morning were supposed to have a  witty repartee about the pie sale; the final line was to be an enthusiastic ‘I like pie!’  However, the young announcer who delivered the line did so with a very somber - almost sad - face and a downcast ‘I like pie’.

Bless her heart.  She has no idea how many hours of entertainment she has provided our family over the years.  Every time, and I do mean every time, we talk about pie, invariably we all put on the most somber face we can muster and solemnly state ‘I like pie’.  Then we giggle and guffaw until the next time we say it --- no doubt an hour or so later.

Thanksgiving is a big pie holiday.  You guessed it … we like pie.  

I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Does every Polaroid picture look like Christmas morning when you were a child?

Straightening out some drawers over the summer, I found a Polaroid camera and several boxes of unused film.  I couldn't tell if the camera still had film in it or not, so I clicked the button and, lo and behold, a photo popped out.

It was Kevin, sitting on the floor inspecting something he'd just received in the mail that day for his drum kit.  I'm not sure whether it was the look on his face, or the ubiquitous quasi sepia toned graininess of the picture, but he looked like a little boy on Christmas morning opening his gifts from Santa.

We had a good giggle over it and then wondered to each other if every single Polaroid picture in the world has the same resemblance: Christmas morning, circa 1970's.

Photos have changed a lot over the last 30 - 40 years, that's for certain.  And pretty much, Polaroids have come and gone.  Still.  There is something utterly charming about capturing a goofy pose and silly grin - and having the results to share instantly.  Somehow taking a selfie and sharing it on Facebook just doesn't have the same thrill.

Just sayin'

Friday, September 13, 2013

Reading Between the Lines

For about the last six years or so, the women on our staff have had a group WOFA.  It stands for  Women of First Avenue.  We mostly get together over the summer while we're off, but we get together during the school year sometimes too.  We've done all sorts of different things: mani/pedi's, movies, tea, craft projects - you get the idea.

Just before school started this year, one of our teachers - a woman - sent a message to everyone about getting together before the school year started.  She sent the message out to everyone on staff, but when one of our WOFA members saw the email, she assumed it was going to be a WOFA event; she didn't realize the message had been sent to everyone.

With that in mind, her response was perfectly normal ... for a WOFA event, but not so fitting for the whole staff.  Not that it was inappropriate by any means, it's just that, well, it wasn't really applicable to the men on the staff.  And if you knew our staff, you'd know that this incited some riotous emails sent to the whole staff.  Most of us have been with each other for a very long time and know each other very well - kind of like one big family.  You know, that kind of family (insert mischievous grin here).

Subject:  Long Time, No See

SR: (Female)   Hello everyone!  How about a pre-school, end of summer gathering this Thursday August 22nd around 4:30-ish?  Any suggestions for a good place in Arcadia/Monrovia?

MM: (Female)   I'm in!  Just a thought - there is a pedicure/manicure place in Pasadena called Dashing Divas.  On Thursdays and Fridays they serve complimentary cosmos!  They are super clean, everything is sterilized and they have a healthy outlook on things.  Very cute, relaxing, with a leg massage, and we could all start school with attractive feet!  A basic pedicure is $25.00, a manicure is $20.00.  I'm open to anything!

DP: (Male)   Let the comedy begin in 3...2...1...      Missed you guys!

JR: (Male)   Can't remember if it was Michael or Mark who suggested that place.

MG: (Male referred to in JR comment above)   I don't care who suggested it.  Just hand me a Pale Ale and I'm in!

Welcome back everyone!