Sunday, November 24, 2013

That's How My Cookie Crumbles

Not to brag or anything, but (Spoiler Alert: Bragging Ahead!) I make awesome cinnamon rolls. My cinnamon rolls are so light and fluffy you'll think St. Peter himself took them out of the oven just in time to greet you at the pearly gates.

My caramel pecan rolls have made a grown woman (me) cry. My breads and rolls are airy and flaky at least 90% of the time. I once made a batch of kolaches so buttery and rich that they made even the most die-hard kolache haters love kolaches.

So why can't I make slice and bake cookies?

My point is I can bake. I can bake the heck out of things. Just call me Queen Betty Jo Crocker-Pillsbury.

So why can't I make slice and bake cookies?

I can bake. But sometimes I don't want to bake. When I get a hankering for a hot, gooey, chocolate chip cookie (preferably with pecans) I barely have time to preheat the oven, let alone mix thoroughly. When I'm jonesin' for a cookie, the time and effort required for homemade, is more time and effort than I have.

All those aforementioned rolls, buns and breads have nothing to do with me being some sort of baking savant. I'm not the dough whisperer. All I do is read and follow the recipe, cross my fingers and hope for the best.

With slice and bake you don't even have to follow a recipe. There is no measuring. No proofing the yeast. No letting the dough rest or punching it down.

There are only two vital instructions: “Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake 11-12 minutes.”

How can two more minutes possibly make the difference between an oozing lump of raw dough and a dried-out charcoal briquet?

And yet, that's what I made. One dozen mummified, chocolate chip hockey pucks.

Chockey pucks.

I needed a cookie fix bad. I made a special trip to the store, dusted off the cookie sheets, and even waited for the oven to preheat. Soon the aroma of baking cookies filled the house. I ran to the oven when the timer (I used a timer!) went off, but those anemic, melty blobs were far from “golden brown.”

Back in the oven they went. Two minutes on the timer.

In an instant, the house-warming smell of baking was replaced by the house-clearing stench of carbonized cookies. I tried to snatch edibility from the jaws of defeat by quickly transferring the cookies from the pan to the cooling rack. But the damage was done, and the cookies were over-done.

“Ohhh, they're fine,” I told the Little Prince. “Just a little on the done side. See? Not a speck of black,” I said, showing him the bottom of a cookie. And it was true. Somehow they managed to burn from the inside out. There was no visible sign of burnt-ness. That's what made the taste test such a surprise.

The Little Prince stood by my side, waiting expectantly for my reaction as I took a bite. (Would I gag? Break a tooth?) I didn't say a word, but my labored chewing (and the loud crunching) must have been clue enough. He smiled and patted my arm, then took a handful of Oreos and snuck out of the kitchen.

My wonderful husband picked up two cookies and disappeared into his office. I haven't checked his trash can, but I wouldn't blame him if he threw the cookies away. That was my first thought when I bit into my cookie.

The Princess returned home. “Mmmmm, what smells so good?”

“Burnt cookies.”

“They smell delicious. It can't be that ba...”. She took one look at the chockey pucks and made herself a bag of microwave popcorn.

My Grandma once ruined a pan of Rice Krispie treats. I don't know if it was the marshmallows or the cereal or what, but those were the driest, most tasteless desert I had ever eaten. Until my last batch of slice and bake cookies.

I've been told that Grandma used to bake angel food cakes. From scratch. Multiple cakes at a time.

I wonder how she would have done with slice and bake cookies.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Fun Runs Running Funner

I've spent the last two weeks dreading this Saturday.

Three weeks ago, in a fit of optimism, enthusiasm and joi de vivre (opti-thusi-joi?) I signed up for a 5k. Three weeks ago I figured I had enough time to train so that I could run well enough to not embarrass myself. Three weeks ago I walk/jogged a mile and a half on my first day of training and was feeling pretty smug.

Then thing got really, really busy. Just they do every year at this time. Just like I should have known would happen again. Just like I let totally blindside me again! Now I'm just two days out from the run, and my to do list is still at least 5k long. And my first training run was also my last training run.

There's no backing out though, because I've already registered and sent in my money. I'm not dedicated or foolhardy, but I am cheap. And stubborn. But mostly cheap. If I was to travel back in time and find myself boarding the Titanic and they told me tickets were non-refundable, I would grab a life vest and settle in for the ride.

The fact that I get out of breath walking to the refrigerator isn't enough to dissuade me from going, either. The Princess and I did three runs in the past three months without training. They were more about the fun than the run - “Hey, let's spend the night in Des Moines and run 5k in a tutu.” “Let's run around North Liberty after dark on a path lit by glow sticks.” “Let's run a mile in downtown Iowa City wearing Halloween costumes.”

We jogged a little, walked a little, had a lot of fun and got some exercise. I figured that was the whole point. We survived with only a few days worth of aches and pains after each.

Our lack of training isn't something I'm particularly proud of. (Being lapped by a chihuahua in a Batman cape really should have been a more effective motivator.) In fact, after every run, we'd gasp and say “We've really got to start training for these things.”

While the Princess and I didn't train to run, it's not like we just rolled off the couch, slipped on some tennies and headed out. We've been working out at the gym. Unfortunately, pushing a prowler loaded with 70 pounds for 30 yards is a lot different that pulling my ass loaded with 70 pounds for 3 miles. And I sincerely hope they won't make me stop at each mile mark and do a set of bicep curls – not the 12-oz. kind, either.

That reminds me of a girl I used to work with who did “hashing” runs. These “Hash House Harriers” runs involved following a marked trail (instead of a mapped course) and stopping to chug beers every so often. Back then it sounded fun and crazy. Now it sounds mostly crazy, and a little nauseating.

This Saturday's run/walk is a “Pancake Dash,” complete with pancake breakfast. I think it sounds like fun. I'm not sure I'll partake of the pancakes, but breakfast means coffee and that will keep me going. Heck, if they had Eric Balfour holding a trucker-sized mug of coffee at the finish line I'd set all kinds of speed records!

Now if you were to combine the hashing and the dashing you could end up with something really fun. Like a Mimosa cocktail run! Or maybe a Mimosa walk... which could lead into a Bloody Mary walk... and on to some little quiches and sausages, with fruit, or sweet rolls.

In other words, a brunch buffet.

That sounds like my kind of 5k.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Musical Wheelchairs

What kind of music will I be listening to when I'm in the nursing home?

This question has been on my mind for a while now. In fact, I've pretty much been obsessing over it since attending the nursing home's November group birthday party with the Queen Mother. (In case you were wondering, no, I wasn't included as an honoree. Age discrimination.) The entertainment at the party was a Name That Tune activity, and I am happy (?) to say I did, in fact, name those tunes.

“Oh, You Beautiful Doll,” “The Tennessee Waltz,” “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue (Has Anybody Seen My Gal),” and “An Irish Lullaby (Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ra).” I've heard them all, and I can sing – well, hum – them all.

I try to avoid visiting the Queen during the afternoon activity time, because we don't actually get to visit when there's a performer. But sometimes schedules collide and I end up staying for their musical guest. Maybe the Queen and I get just as much out of holding hands and listening to the music as we do from talking.

“The Blue Skirt Waltz.” “A Bushel and a Peck.” “Till There Was You.” "Mr. Sandman."

These songs are the musical equivalent of comfort food for me. I remember hearing them on the radio in my Grandparents' kitchen. “The Lawrence Welk Show” was the original Must See TV for Sunday nights when I was growing up. In fact, I still like to tune in to WMT AM and listen to Leo Greco's Variety Time and Musical Memories with Jim Doyne. I'm quite familiar with a range of old Broadway Musical tunes, and songs from the 1930's, 40's and 50's, otherwise known as “Adult Standards.”

I admire the folks who are willing to share their talents by performing at nursing homes. I envy their ability not just to sing, but also to play guitar, accordion or keyboard (or even the musical spoons and washboard). Does anyone under the age of 60 still know how to play accordion – other than my friend, Queen Martha?

These musical visits always give me the urge to polish up my piano skills. The last time this happened I went so far as to look for sheet music during the Little Prince's drum lesson at West Music. He asked if they had a section labeled “Music for Old Farts in Nursing Homes.” Surprisingly, they didn't.

No worries, I need to look to the future. I need to find music that will be playing, not necessarily what is being played now. Using the Queen Mother as a statistical representative for current nursing home residents, I have concluded that the music being performed was popular during their childhood or when they were young adults. But when I used that criteria to extrapolate results for myself, my brain exploded. I just can't imagine sitting around in a wheelchair listening to Prince, Bon Jovi, Guns 'N Roses, or Michael Jackson.

In fact, some of the songs that were hits during my “target years” may not be so popular when played for a bunch of Seasoned Citizens. Will we still be able to bust a move to “Footloose”? We may need more than “Ice, Ice Baby” for our aching muscles if we do. I'm not sure the “Simply Irresistible” back up singers will look quite as irresistible when they're 90. Billy Squire's “The Stroke” and Olivia Newton John's “Heart Attack” will have a whole different meaning, as will “Don't You (Forget About Me)”, “Who Can It Be Now”, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and “Every Breath You Take.”

On the up-side, West Music did have sheet music books featuring hits of the 1970's, 80's and beyond, as well as the music of Queen, The Beatles (Paul McCartney is 71), Led Zepplin (Jimmy Page is 69), Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger is 70) and Madonna (a mere 55).

I'm just not sure how they're going to sound on the accordion.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Super Wonder Mom

I have two superhero t-shirts that I like to wear on days I know I'll be facing overwhelming odds.

Putting on that Wonder Woman t-shirt or the Superman t-shirt helps me gird my loins on those days I'm heading into battle with rampaging mutant laundry monsters, or thwarting an evil genius bent on burying the world in meaningless paperwork, or attending meetings that bend the time-space continuum all out of shape, or just shrugging off the lingering after-effects of soul-sucking Blue Meanies. Pretty much any day I'm just not sure how I'm ever going to get it all done.

I know those t-shirts don't give me any real superpowers, except maybe added self-confidence. Wearing them is more like a little joke to myself. I imagine striking the superhero pose – feet shoulder-width apart, fists on my hips, chest up and out, head tilted to the side – and announcing “Stand aside citizens, I'll finish that report, whip up some soup and deliver it to the school, attend the birthday party at the nursing home, and still be back in time to take the Princess to the gym. I'm (dramatic pause) Wonder Mom.”

But lately I've started to think maybe I have developed some... unique superpowers of my own.

It all started when I was grousing to myself about the four baskets of clean laundry sitting in the living room just waiting for someone – anyone – to fold and/or put them away. “It's like no one else in this family can even see them,” I thought to myself. Then it occurred to me, “maybe no one else in this family really CAN see them!

Crazy? Maybe, but how else can you explain why the rest of the family had been walking around these baskets for days without even touching them?

Then there were other incidents: dirty dishes left downstairs or next to – but not in – the dishwasher, popcorn bags on the Princess' bedroom floor, pop cans on the Prince's desk, piles of shoes, backpacks, books and papers everywhere. I was the only one bothered by these things... because I was the only one who could see them!

I have developed... Super Clutter Vision!

Sure, it's not quite as exciting as X-Ray Vision, or even night vision, but still... it's something.

To test my theory I gathered the children for a little fun family bonding over laundry folding. “Where? Why?” they asked. Mmmm hmmm, I suspected as much. After I led them to the baskets and guided their little hands to the handles, it was like a fog had lifted.

But another surprise awaited!

After explaining the basics of folding (don't wad, roll or crumple), I discovered that I could easily fold three baskets-full of clothes in the same amount of time it took the two of them to fold one basket-full... together!

I have developed... Super Folding Powers!

This led to the discovery that I am the only one who can put folded clothes away so that they stay folded! Apparently there is some sort of gravitational force around the children's dressers that disrupts the orderliness of folded laundry, so that what starts out as folded in the basket ends up as a blob when placed in the drawers. It is I, and I alone, who have the power to overcome this trans-dimensional distortion.

Super Laundry Putting-Away Power!

OK, that one might be stretching it a bit, but what about these super powers:

Cat Telepathy – I'm the only one who can tell when it's time to clean the cat's litter box (well, at least the only one who ever does anything about it), and usually the only one who knows it's time to feed him (Max's powers are getting stronger here).

Enhanced Hearing – I can actually hear the Princess rolling her eyes at me... from the other room. When atmospheric pressure is just right I can hear that rattle from down the hall, in the basement, even over the phone, or via text message!

ESTPP – Extrasensory Toilet Paper Perception. Not only am I usually the only person to know when the bathroom is out of toilet paper, I'm the only one with the ability to load it correctly!

So, in light of all the speculation that I was involved in the cleaning events that occurred in the living room, the kitchen and the bathroom... the wild accusations that I'm a superhero... the truth is...

I am Iron Mom.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Reality Gets Really Real (Almost)

With the proliferation of reality tv, it's only a matter of time before everyone has their own show. I'm sad to report my own dreams of unscripted stardom have crashed and burned, even before they hit the small screen. To paraphrase A Few Good Men, “You want my reality? You can't handle my reality!”

Planned Shooting Script
5:30 a.m.: They start the day early in the Midwest! Cameras will start rolling at the crack of dawn to capture the cheerful scene as Housewife rises and prepares breakfast for her family.

Shooting was delayed 2 hours while Camera One was repaired following early morning incident with Housewife. Producer's assumption about “early morning riser” does not apply to this subject. Cameraman is requesting hazardous duty pay.

8 a.m.: Reminiscent of 1950's sitcoms, we'll tape Housewife handing out lovingly made sack lunches and kisses to the Children and Hubby as they cheerfully leave the house to start their day. Transition to housewife doing light cleaning chores around the house – have costume department find June Cleaver-esque housedress, pearls and heels?

Request upgrade to heavy duty, impact-resistant cameras used by imbedded journalists. Camera Two damaged as Children, Housewife and Husband ran amok in frantic attempt to finish school work, pack backpacks, find shoes and jackets, gather a variety of prepackaged foods that may or may not have nutritional value, and get out of house on time.

Side note: Producer sent to Urgent Care to have high heeled shoe removed from sensitive area after suggesting chaos may have been avoided if Housewife had gotten up at 5:30 according to schedule.

10 a.m.: Chores done for the morning, Housewife will enjoy a cup of tea while sharing reflections on the joys of motherhood.

Cameraman cowers in corner while Housewife frantically searches cabinets for coffee. Housewife vows to shove coffee maker up Producer's nose for using the last of the coffee at 5:30 a.m. and not replenishing supply.

11 a.m.: Housewife will head into nearby State City to run errands. Boooring! Suggest lunch at upscale bistro, introduce element of intrigue.

Housewife's departure is delayed when it is discovered the cat has hacked up a hairball. Housewife cleans up hairball. Cameraman realizes “hairball” is euphemism for “vomit.” Cameraman hacks up “hairball.” Housewife cleans.

Housewife is on way out the door when Child One calls from school requesting delivery of homework. While searching for missing homework, Child Two texts requesting delivery of signed permission slip to be found “somewhere near the table.” On way out the door again when Husband calls reminding Housewife to deliver bill payments on fridge. One foot in garage when Producer calls from Urgent Care asking why she is still at home. Also, he has been discharged from Urgent Care and needs a ride. Housewife's reply to be bleeped out.

Only 30 minutes behind schedule, Housewife makes deliveries to both Children, drops off bill payments, picks up mail at post office, fills car with gas and gets a large coffee. Cameraman breaths a sigh of relief.

Video and audio for drive to State City cannot be used. Housewife swearing at other drivers, Cameraman trembling and screaming.

Housewife arrives in State City. First item on shopping list requires trips to three different stores to locate. Grocery list is MIA, as are items to be returned (last seen before “hairball” incidents). Coupons have expired. Again, audio is unusable.

Producer is surprised to learn that “Chez Donald's” is not, in fact, an upscale steakhouse, and that “al fresco” dining is, in fact, the drive-thru. Housewife tells him to shut up and eat his Happy Meal.

2 p.m. Housewife will visit her Mother in the nursing home. Potential for drama is high.

Excellent footage! Mother is charming. Their conversation is touching although repetitive. Quick replay seems to be five takes of the same exchange. Cameraman is teary eyed. I smell an Emmy!

Update: Footage and camera destroyed, Producer injured after musing aloud about plans to juxtapose footage of Housewife's “I Lost 10 Pounds” Happy-Dance with footage of Mother patting HW's knee and gently saying “You're getting really big.”

HW and Cameraman stop to get chocolate shakes after taking Producer back to Urgent Care. HW eats the whipped cream and top half of both. Cameraman wisely says nothing.

6-10 p.m. End of day video captures family interaction as they share a bountiful meal. Suggest family game night to increase opportunities for Rockwell-esque shots of peaceful family time.

Family dinner becomes “Make Your Own Dinner Night.” Family eats in shifts as Daughter has school activities, Housewife has meeting, Husband works late, Son slips out to play with friends. Cameraman and Producer share quiet meal of Pizza Rolls, reflect on their day.

Family Game Night ends after 10 minutes, amid accusations of cheating. Housewife says this is five minutes longer than last Family Game Night. Calls it a success. Family members exchange fist bumps, head off to their respective computers.

Housewife at computer writing for NaNoWriMo. Two hours later she has Googled spelling of 4 words, won 5 games of solitaire, liked 10 Facebook posts, and has written half a page about why she could never have her own reality show.

Day ends with only 5 minutes of usable audio. Suggest pulling plug on this pilot.

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Little Something for the Birthday Queen

The Queen Mother was 72 when my little Princess was born. Mom started slowing down soon after that, so the “Gramma” my kids know is a different person than the “Mom” I remember. I love my mom, and I'm lucky to still have her, but sometimes I just wish she had her old spark. That's why I tell my kids stories like this about the person I wish they could have met.

When I was a sophomore in college Dad died. Mom found ways to keep herself busy, and increased her visits to me and my brothers, who lived in nearby towns. I went to a small college, where pretty much everyone knew everyone else – and their parents. I was lucky enough to live in the dorm with the same group of girls all four years. When I say Mom visited me, I really mean she visited all five of us.

Visiting parents were always a big hit on campus because they meant we got real food! I don't think anyone's parents ever managed to have a private dinner out with just their own student. We were a pack, and we hunted like a pack, always finagling to bring a friend to dinner with us. Even if the visit didn't include a meal, it usually included a trip to the grocery store (with goodies to be shared among the pack) or maybe even homemade cookies!

Mom had access to UPS pick up where she worked, so she was a great one for sending cookies. Our mail was delivered to tiny post office boxes in the dorm's main lobby. If you received a package larger than a matchbox, you had to ask the front desk worker to get it for you. It was impossible to keep cookies a secret (and all boxes were assumed to contain cookies)! Mom wouldn't have wanted me to hoard them, either. She made cookies to be shared.

I know she took us out to eat several times, but there's one dinner in particular that I will never forget. My friends and I met Mom at this little Mexican restaurant in a town that was no more than a blip on the road between home and school. El Charro's was just this side of rundown, but they had the tastiest Americanized-Mexican food around, the servings were huge, and the prices were low. The tables didn't match, the chairs didn't match, the plates didn't match, the utensils didn't match, the plastic glasses were scratched and didn't match, and the chips and salsa were the best I've ever had. And they were always crowded.

It was a long(ish), narrow restaurant, just wide enough for the bar and a single row of tables. A few more tables filled in the open space between the end of the bar and the kitchen. After a short wait the six of us managed to grab one of the tables across from the bar. People stood behind people sitting at the bar, leaving a narrow path for the waitress (she must have been 105, but was as spry as a 25-year-old), who dashed from the kitchen to the front of the restaurant and back again.

With six of us, and the kitchen struggling to keep up with the orders, it didn't take long for us to finish off our chips and salsa. We tried several times to get the waitress' attention, but she flashed by so quickly it was impossible.

That is, until Mom balanced the empty chip bowl on her head.

Whoosh, the waitress was there, whoosh she was gone, and whoosh we had a full bowl of chips! We were all laughing so hard we could hardly eat them.

I don't remember anything else about that night, but I can still see Mom sitting there with that woven wood bowl perched on her curly, grey-haired head, behaving like nothing was out of the ordinary.

A quick Google search turned up a source for those “retro” bowls. I may have to put one on my Christmas list. Maybe I'll take it out and balance it on my head if I ever need a reminder of how things used to be.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Crikey, Cri-kee!

We have a little black cricket who desperately wants into our home.

He is hunkered down in a tight corner next to the door from our garage into our family room. Every time someone goes in or out I have to remind them (and me) – don't let the cricket in or the cat out. I'm not sure which would be worse, but I am sure I would be the one sent on the wild goose/cricket/cat chase to restore order.

You would think the mighty hunter-cat would quickly dispatch any insect intruders, but crickets tend to outsmart him. He'll be hot on the trail, all pre-pounce wiggly, when the cricket suddenly jumps and startles him... which startles me... which startles him. Crickets drive the cat nuts, but the cat drives me nuts. It's a vicious cycle.

Of course “small” is a relative term for an insect. I'd say he's about the size of a quarter – the same as the smallest of those hairy, black spiders that all try to check in to Chateau Salemink this time of year. That's why I nearly wet my pants every time he jumps out of his corner to ring the front desk bell.

I try to scoot him back from the door with my toe. This is a pretty tricky maneuver, requiring a light touch. I don't really want to squash him. Not because I'm some great humanitarian, but because that crunchy/squish sound they make when you step on them gives me the all-day heebie-jeebies. And because I'd have to clean up the mess (all-day, all-night heebie-jeebies).

Every time I move him or step around him I'm reminded of that scene in Men in Black II when K starts to step on a cockroach but doesn't and the bug says “Damn decent of you.” Once he's safely out of the way I shut the door and reply “Don't mention it” in my best Tommy Lee Jones voice.

But that's just the latest, and perhaps funniest, propaganda from the Bugs Are Our Friends crowd. When I was a kid, The Cricket in Times Square was one of my favorite books, and I read every issue of Cricket literary magazine cover to cover (my nerdliness started early). More recently, Disney's Mulan, taught me that some cultures consider crickets to be good luck.

Of course this is all anthropomorphism. For all I know I don't see the same little black cricket every day, but an entire squad of identical little black crickets. They may very well be planning to move in and stage a midnight concerto, after feasting on my blankets.

Or our house may have received rave reviews on the cricket equivalent of They may be gathering here to meet and mate, turning our house into some sort of cricket brothel and maternity ward.

Maybe if they get lucky, we'll get lucky!