Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Lately, I find myself both thrilled and appalled by the speed with which the days pass.

If you've been following this blog since I started it back in February, you know that I quit my job of 12 years. Although it was sad to say goodbye to my work family, it was past time for a change of career. And the fact that I was more or less forced into leaving was a good life lesson- a reminder that not all sociopaths kill people. Most are much more subtle.

My experiment in being unemployed didn't last long. I did childcare for about 5 months, and spent the rest of the time filling out resume's online. And let me tell you, there is nothing more soul-crushing than applying for jobs online. Especially when it takes hours and hours and hours, and you never get a phone call.

But, if you've been following this blog since I started it back in February, you know that I believe things happen for a reason. You know that I have been anticipating my days would become Bigger and Brighter. And even while I wasn't "officially" working, actually especially since I wasn't "officially" working, the days have been Bigger and they have been Brighter. I had more energy and was happier as soon as I got over mourning my job, which took about a week. This was one of the busiest periods of my life and one of the most cathartic as well.

I loved watching my 2 and 4-year-old charges. I gained a new appreciation for stay-at-home moms. I got to paint and color and play princess (although I didn't do it right). I got to take naps, pet dogs, kiss boo-boos and watch a lot more Dora the Explorer than I ever wanted or expected to. Although at times I missed the adult world, overall, I got to have a lot of fun.

I am happy to report, however, that I recently got the first job I interviewed for. It's a good job with a great company. A company that I grew up with and have always admired. It's nice to be wanted and I feel like it's going to be a perfect fit. It's a job I have been training for my whole life. It feels like coming home.

Fate made me a promise and the promise was kept. I'm having Bigger Brighter Days!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Making Connections, (Not) Making Friends

Recently, a friend invited me out to dinner with her SAHM group. I'm not a mom, let alone a stay-at-home one, but my social life has been a little lacking lately and since it's always nice to meet new people and my friend's heart was in the right place, I decided to tag along. The fact that the dinner was at The Melting Pot on Ladies Night had something to do with it as well. There's just something about The Melting Pot that I love. Maybe because I'm a snacker and I love the little pieces of food and dipping the little pieces into different flavors... I'm not sure. But the mix of tastes, scrumptious martinis, reduced cost, and the relaxed experience itself makes Ladies Night worthwhile.

Which is how I found myself: childless, near 40 and single, sharing a fondue pot with four (much younger) mom's and one pregnant woman. Which, if you've ever been to The Melting Pot, you know is kind of an intimate experience to have with people you don't know. Eating food essentially out of the same pot- there's something familial and tribal about that. It's something we don't often experience with our families, let alone strangers, in our hurried lives. Smalltalk ensued, something I'm not a great fan of in the first place. The conversation turned to where we had all come from, and how we all ended up in Grand Rapids, or in some cases, back in Grand Rapids. I explained to one of the moms that although I had been in Grand Rapids for 12 years and have a lot of friends, I don't have a lot of people to spend time with. She agreed and said she was in a similar situation. "It can be hard to meet people," I said, "Once you get to-"
"No," she cut in. "It's different when you have kids." 

Oh. I didn't know this was going to be one of those things I "don't understand" because I don't have kids. Someone forgot to let me in on the secret of how to meet people as a single adult with no kids. I'm sure it's not easy being a SAHM without a lot of friends. I don't dispute that. I just don't think it's easy being anyone without at least a few like-minded adults to spend time with on a regular basis. At least if you're married you have a spouse to talk to sometimes. Single people don't talk to their cats because they're crazy. They talk to their cats so they don't go crazy! 

When we're growing up, potential friends are all around us- in our neighborhood, at school, at church, sports, etc... Once we get past high school and college, it can be rough to meet new people, let alone make new friends. And maintaining old friendships isn't always easy, either. Our modern society is transitory. People often don't remain in their hometowns, near family and friends. Technology helps us keep in touch but it sure is nice to sit across from a real live person at the coffee shop sometimes instead of a laptop. To compound matters, I've noticed that many people react with suspicion and even sometimes resentment when a stranger or casual acquaintance reaches out to them. I've been guilty of this myself. We need to remember to leave ourselves open to new friendships because we never know who is out there waiting for us. 

I felt verbally chastised by the woman who spoke the above words to me. I'm sure she didn't mean to offend, she seemed like a nice person. There was no malice in her tone. But with her words, a wall went up between us. It was clear that she had, rather quickly and with virtually no real information about me, discarded the idea that I may be of some value to her socially or emotionally. I wasn't enough like her. Some of my closest friends, at first glance, don't seem to be much like me. But sometimes it's the differences between friends that prove their value and provide much needed perspective into situations in our own lives. 

Our friends don't have to be just like us, any more than do the people we do business with. Any good businessperson can expound on the importance of networking. Well, sometimes networking is useful not just in the workplace, but in our emotional lives as well. And that includes all of us. Not just stay at home moms. I'm glad I went to dinner though, even though I didn't meet a new best friend. It was eye-opening, no one at the table meowed in response to any of my comments, and the fondue was great- especially the chocolate! 


Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Chocolate Pudding Dreams

Sometimes I sit on my couch and think about pudding. Not just any pudding. That pudding. The one in the picture up there. I sit and I think about how long it would take to go and get some of that pudding. Luckily, getting the pudding would require me to get on the highway and drive into town and arrive at a time when the restaurant is open. And since many of my pudding cravings happen after dark, I'm usually safe. This is not a diet pudding. If I ever learned to make it, or moved closer to the source, I fear what would happen. But this is a pudding that distracts from the empty places. It is comfort food at its finest. After eating it, your understanding of chocolate will never be the same. The picture doesn't begin to cover it.

It's like edible velvet- rich and thick and not too sweet. The homemade whipped cream on top is the perfect foil. A partner in crime, if you will, because this pudding is so good it's criminal.

Yeah, it's that good.

If you're lucky enough to live in, or near, Grand Rapids, you can get this pudding any time you want at Marie Catrib's. Marie has a lot of food that I could go on about for hours. Much of it vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and locally-sourced. Marie is amazing and her restaurant and all her food is amazing too. It's a foodie paradise. But as good as it all is, the pudding tops the list.

If you're not close enough to drive to GR to get some, you can now order it online. And no, unfortunately, Marie is not paying me in pudding (or $$) to tell you this. I promise. I just really love this pudding and I wanted to tell you about it. Because everyone deserves to have pudding like this at least once in their lifetime. The other stuff is great too- the granola bars and granola, seasoning salt, etc... You can't go wrong with any of it. But if you place an order for any of it, you have to promise me you'll buy some pudding too. And eat it with some homemade whipped cream made from the very freshest cream you can find.

Go... go on, get out of here. Go order some pudding. You can thank me later.

This post is linked to West Michigan Linkup.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Easy Mexican Dinners

It's a litte late for Cinco De Mayo, I know. But I've made a couple Mexican recipes lately and wanted to share them with you. I'm extremely fortunate to live in an area where there are a lot of great, authentic (and inexpensive) Mexican restaurants so I don't worry about cooking much Mexican at home. But I saw  the first recipe in the new issue of Everyday Food and I had some flank steak languishing in the freezer so I thought I'd give it a try.

Please keep in mind that I am not a food photographer. Well, actually, you won't have any trouble remembering that! ha! But ugly photography notwithstanding, these recipes are worth the minimal time to prepare.

Chile-Spiced Steak and Grilled Onion Tacos with Tomatillo Salsa
Adapted from Everyday Food, June 2011

For the tacos:

1 T. olive oil
2 T. chile powder
2 T. brown sugar
2 T. low-sodium soy sauce
2 T. fresh lime juice (plus wedges)
1 ½ pounds flank steak
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 large onion, cut into quarter-inch rounds
12 soft corn tortillas

Mix the olive oil, chile powder, brown sugar, soy sauce, and lime juice together to make a marinade. Place in a Ziploc bag, or a shallow dish covered tightly with plastic wrap and place in fridge to marinate for at least an hour.

Meanwhile, slice the onions and set them aside.

To make the salsa, dice 3-4 tomatillos, 1 jalapeno (don't forget to wear gloves) and about 4 T. red onion. I thought it was a little dry so I added a couple squeezes of lime juice. Refrigerate for a while to let the flavors blend.

Heat your grill to about medium high. Brush the rack with a little oil to prevent the meat from sticking. Season the meat with kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper just before putting it on the grill. Save the marinade and brush it over the steak and onions as you grill them. I did the meat about 5 minutes a side. Flank steak should be a little rare inside. Grill the onions with the meat and brush with the marinade as they cook. After cooking the meat, I blistered some tortillas on the grill.

Let the meat sit for a few minutes after cooking. Slice against the grain, into thin strips. Place several strips on each tortilla. Top with the tomatillo salsa and onions. I also topped the tacos with crumbled Queso Fresco, diced avocado, tomato, and sliced radishes and served with more lime wedges.

I loved the taste of the meat. It would be just as good good served by itself with some roasted corn and stewed black beans. It could use a little extra spice though, so next time I think I'd add a little hot sauce to the marinade. I wasn't crazy about the salsa. I thought the tacos would have been better served with a pre-made, perhaps fire roasted salsa. I also had to finish my onions in a pan inside. They really need to be quite soft and I couldn't get them that way on the grill. The day I made these, however, the wind was so strong that it actually blew a piece of meat off the plate! So I didn't have a lot of patience for standing in front of the grill. I was afraid that dinner- or me- might blow away!

All in all it's a fairly authentic tasting recipe and the meat gets a great flavor, although I'd like to try it when I have more time and it can marinate longer than an hour.

Easy Chicken Empanadas

A few nights later, I was looking for another quick dinner idea and my mind went to a Paula Deen recipe that a friend had tried recently and told me was good. I hate bell peppers though and some of the reviewers (my friend included) complained that although the finished empanadas had a good flavor, they were a little dry, so I was brainstorming ways of making them creamier. First I thought maybe adding some sour cream would help but what I finally settled on was the new Philly Santa Fe Cooking Creme. It's an easy recipe to being with, and this makes it even easier because the spices are already included! All you need is this:

1 box refrigerated, rolled pie crust with 2 crusts (I used the Meijer brand)
1 can white meat chicken, drained and flaked into chunks (I used Trader Joe's)
1 tub Philly Santa Fe Cooking Creme
1 bag Mexican blend shredded cheese

Mix the flaked chicken and about a cup of cheese with the cooking creme. You could add some salsa or hot sauce if you'd like but I thought it was fine was it was. Preheat your oven to 400.

Roll the pise crusts out even thinner. I thought this would be hard because I'm really bad with dough, but it was actually easy and the dough didn't stick. Cut the dough into 3 inch rounds. I just used a wide mouthed drinking glass. It helps to roll out the individual circles into more of an oval shape. Wet the tip of your finger and run it around the edges of the crust. Fill with a heaping tablespoon of filling. Flip the crust over and secure the edges with a fork.

Before baking, brush the tops of the empanadas with some beaten egg white if you wish. It makes them look a little nicer and gives them a crackly sheen. I was able to make about 20 empanadas with a little filling left over.

I even had enough crust left to make on of my favorite childhood desserts- jam pie! Just make a tiny "crust" with a little pie dough and fill the indentation with some jam from the fridge. The perfect dessert for one, and kids love having their own individual pie!

Bake the empanadas (and your jam pie) in the 400 degree oven for about 15 minutes. Serve alone for a snack or with a salad for a meal. You could easily sub black beans for the chicken if you'd like a vegetarian version. They came out perfectly- a little spice but not too much and not dry at all! If you make them, and I suggest you do, let me know what you think.


My ugly, but tasty, raspberry jam pie! 

Monday, May 23, 2011

Friendship, Slacking and a Gleek Retreat '11 Recap

Although I freely admit to being a slacker about things like cleaning out my fridge, weeding, and returning library books, I'm usually not a slacker about things I like to do, like writing in my blog. Lately, however, my life has been a whirlwind and I've been keeping up with most of it ok but my bog has suffered terribly in the face of a temporary job, applying and interviewing for permanent jobs, finishing (finally!) my degree, starting a volunteer job, trying to keep up with various yard and house projects, all while still feeding myself and the cats and keeping up with various friends and, of course, my life in social media!

This last weekend I attended the Gleek Retreat '11 with a bunch of amazing women bloggers from the West Michigan and the surrounding areas, and I decided I simply had to write a post about how much I enjoyed meeting everyone and how great all the speakers were! Not only was it great to be able to put faces to the twitter handles, I also learned a lot from all the presenters. Thanks to Katie, from Kitchen Stewardship, I might even try writing an eBook when my schedule calms down a little! Look for a review of her awesome eBook Healthy Snacks To Go coming up in the next week or so since she was nice enough to give me a review copy. I just glanced through it quickly and there are a few recipes I am dying to try!

I also wanted to take a few minutes to thank and talk about the wonderful sponsors of the Gleek Retreat:

Unfortunately I didn't get time to take advantage of a free facial from Therapon Skin Health while at the retreat, but I can't wait to try the samples that were included in our swag bags. Everyone who has tried them has been raving about them on Twitter!

We each received two full-size bottles of carpet and upholstery cleaner and a coupon for a free Big Green Machine rental from Bissell.

Mabel's Labels provided the bags our swag came in, as well as two adorable Bag Tags for each attendee with our blog names.

Island Girl Bags gave us each a purse-sized Kleenex holder or key fob in our bags in fun patterns. I got a Kleenex holder and it has found a happy home in my purse. Being a bag addict, I've been drooling over their website and thinking of hosting a trunk show sometime soon!

Everyone loves candy and Rudy Kazoody's, Specialty Candies and Gift Baskets of Rockford, tucked little goodie packets into our swag bags. Mine had the cutest little package of Haribo gummy bears in it I've ever seen! How cute are their Retro Baskets!

Roger's Jewelers provided a jewelry polishing cloth, something I desperately needed!

So far my favorite item from the swag bag was from Good Life Granola. This is the best granola I've ever had, hands down! It's positively addictive! Luckily it's made in Holland, MI and a lot of places around Grand Rapids carry it so I'll be able to get more with no trouble. It is available online if you don't live within driving distance of one of the retailers. I highly recommend you try it if you like granola- or even if you don't, it's that good!

Other thanks go out to Julie at Dutch Being Me for planning the retreat. I know how much work goes into pulling off an event like this and she did an amazing job! Haworth Inn and Conference Center in downtown Holland gave us a great deal on our rooms and they were lovely! They took great care of us all weekend with good food, a nice space and lots of coffee! We took a dinner cruise out onto Lake Macatawa on the Holland Princess and it was a good time although sadly I missed the on-board karaoke.   And last but certainly not least, I won my ticket to the retreat from Blog Conference Newbie along with a snack pack and keychain from Words to Sweat By and a pack of 100 beautiful business cards from tinyprints that I received tons of compliments on!

Even though it was all fun and educational, by far my favorite part of the weekend was the opportunity to catch up with my friend Stacy from My Life of What Ifs. We were friends in high school and in college and have kept in touch over the years but it has been a decade since we'd seen each other in person to talk and catch up. As with all truly great friendships, the years melted away within minutes and if we didn't get all the way caught up, it sure wasn't for lack of trying! Stacy is the one who inspired me to start blogging again and she has always been one of my favorite people. She is more amazing than she knows and I've always admired her and her perspective on life. Even though we stayed up too late talking, the time I spent with her was a true gift and hopefully another 10 years won't go by before we can do it again. 

Once thing I can tell you for sure is that it won't be another month before you see another new post from me! 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Posters on my Wall: A Liberal's Agenda on Facebook

I'm a liberal and I have an agenda.

Ok, I don't really have an "agenda." But I have a lot of opinions on what's right and wrong and I read a lot. When I find an article that I like on the Internet, I like to put it up on my Facebook wall where I can easily find it and where other people who might be interested can see it and read it too. Because to me, one of the values of social networking, is being able to share with my friends and see the things they'd like to share with me. Sometimes I just post stuff because I see it on a site, don't have time to read it, and want to remember to go back later.

Since I'm a liberal, and might I say that I'm probably more liberal than many, a lot of the articles I post have (surprise!) a liberal bent. I believe in unions, collective bargaining, and workers rights. I'm pro-choice and feminist. I’m sex positive and pro-sex education. I don't go to church but if I did I'd be Unitarian, although I only half jokingly refer to myself as pagan. I am a supporter of public schools and teachers and I believe our educational system is failing our kids not because of "bad teachers," but because lawmakers are trying (and failing) to legislate learning. I vote Democrat. I support small farms and local businesses and I recycle. I think gay people should be able to get married and sick people should be able to smoke pot. I feel that health insurance is a right, not a privilege, and addiction is a disease, not a choice. (And by the way, I'm not interested in taking your guns away. I like to shoot and I'm good at it.)

I like to read about all of those subjects, along with art, science, Apple, literature, LOL cats, religion, philosophy, food, dysfunction, crime, and lists from the editors at and product descriptions from the geniuses at Woot! and ThinkGeek, along with a million other semi-relevant topics. I’m diverse that way and a lot of what I find interesting makes it to my facebook wall in the form of a shared link. Sometimes my shares get people talking, and sometimes they just serve as markers of something that caught my attention for a few stay minutes of the day. I like to think that my facebook wall serves as a sort of time capsule of my interests over time.

The problem with my more political postings, however, is that not all of my friends are liberal. Some are pretty middle of the road and some are conservative either in economics, social issues, or both. Most of the time, things stay pretty civil. Friends are friends for a reason, and politics and religion, while they can bind, can also sever relationships, so I try and balance presenting the issues I care about with the feelings of the people I like. I'm not usually offended by conservative friends. The problem is that it seems when I post anything of a political content, people seem to feel the need to argue politics. I don't mind an occasional exchange of ideas as long as things stay civil. I realize other people have opinions that differ from mine and I respect that. Sometimes I'm interested hearing their ideas on things and sometimes I'm not. I'll carry a discussion so far, but if it turns into an argument, I'll just agree to disagree.

Because I don't want to argue politics, some people have implied that I shouldn't post about it either. I'm not sure I follow that logic. The reason I don't like to argue politics is that I won't be changing my mind. I feel the way I do about most issues not because I'm "towing the party line," but because I've thought them through, researched them, and/or experienced them myself. It's not often that I change my mind on a particular topic, although when I have in the past, it's certainly wasn't because I was badgered into doing so. I'm also not posting about politics to bait anyone, or "stir things up." Everyone has had different experiences and, hopefully, formed their own opinions accordingly. I'm always happy to explain why I feel a certain way about something, but I find arguing politics exhausting and pointless. Will I talk politics? Yes, usually I will. I enjoy talking with other liberals, just as history buffs like talking to other history buffs and musicians like talking music. I also enjoy talking with some of my conservative friends because there are issues that we see eye to eye on and it's interesting to find out where people's values and experiences have led them because we all come by these things in different ways.

I look at it this way; Facebook is kind of like a big house that we all live in together. There are common areas and private areas. My profile is my private area, my room. Posts are like posters we put on the walls of our rooms. I can put whatever posters on my wall that I want. I promise not to put my posters on your wall, unless I know you'll like them too. If you're my friend, you're invited into my space but I don't need you to tell me I have bad taste in posters. If you don't want to look at them, you can simply not enter my room by blocking posts by me from reaching your news feed. If you feel really strongly, you can just unfriend me. Or you can be tolerant, as I promise to be of you. If you start posting about how you hate Jews/gays/Mexicans/Muslims/Lolcats, and they should all be lined up and shot, chances are I'm going to unfriend you because I find intolerance and ignorance deeply offensive. I won't unfriend you based on the fact that we vote for different candidates or we don't agree on issues like abortion or economic policy.

I won't unfriend you, but I probably won't take the bait either. I hope you understand.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Chicken, Bacon and Artichoke Pizza

Here's a link to the Examiner article I wrote about Philadelphia Cooking Cremes and the recipe for Chicken, Bacon and Artichoke Pizza.

Article and Recipe

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Role Model This

I was on a discussion board last week at a website which shall remain nameless. A question was posed as to whether or not participants feel any differently about actors and actresses in light of the behavior of Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan. Lots of participants weighed in on the subject and the majority of the responders mentioned that while they didn't feel differently because of these two particular examples, they had a pretty low opinion of Hollywood in general. One point that was mentioned over and over again by hundreds of different people, was what poor role models Lohan and Sheen are to children.

Wait. Back up the truck for a second. Who decided that actors and actresses are supposed to be role models for kids? I've been hearing this said about celebrities for years and I never really stopped to think about it but now that I have, it's a pretty strange idea. I mean, their jobs are to entertain us. Their jobs aren't really to be role models to our kids.

Celebrities are just people. Pretty people, talented people (sometimes), rich people, famous people. But just people. People who have given up their privacy (but not their right to it) to pursue their careers. They are well paid, however, life in Hollywood isn't cheap. We're told about every detail of their lives, if we choose to care, and even sometimes when we don't. But as much as we know, we never really know them. Which is as it should be. They're people just like you and I and they deserve to live their lives the way they want to. They deserve to make mistakes as much as anyone. Let's face it, if you or I get a DUI, no one really cares. If it makes the paper, it's going to be buried in the legal notices. It's certainly not going to be on CNN, TMZ or the cover of People magazine.

I realize that there are young stars that are on shows that kids like to watch. Miley Cyrus will be remembered by an entire generation as Hannah Montana, no matter what she goes on to do later in her life. When she was filmed shortly after her 18th birthday smoking from a bong, there was an outraged reaction from the press and from parents and even some young fans. How dare Miley sully the good name of Hannah Montana? Miley has, for several years in a row, been voted worst celebrity influence in several online polls. According to Miley and her publicity team, the singer was smoking salvia from the bong, which is a psychoactive herb, legal in California and most other states (for now), a fact she pointed out in her commendably and hilariously honest SNL monologue. Proclaiming that she's "mostly a white swan girl," she acknowledges she's had a few black swan moments. "I'm sorry that I'm not perfect," she belts out in a perfect send-up of a cabaret-style act. Imperfect she may be and I'm certainly past the age of Hannah Montana worship, but that girl has got some pipes! Who cares what she smokes or if she sings country music. She's talented.

Like Miley, fellow Disney alum Lindsay Lohan has recently been in the news again, also accused of being a bad influence. I can't keep track, nor really pretend to care, if she's in or out of rehab right now. I know there's been some flap about her supposedly shoplifting a necklace and that the Los Angeles judicial system can't seem to decide what to do with her. She was a pretty girl but her hard living is starting to catch up to her and although she's still pretty, she isn't quite the natural beauty she was a few years back. Far from being worried about being a bad influence herself, poor Lindsay probably wishes she'd had a few good role models of her own. Her father, Michael, was just arrested for domestic violence and her mother, Dina, had the questionable judgement to contract herself and younger daughter Ali, into a reality show called Living Lohan. Lindsay looks tired and extremely unhappy whenever she's interviewed on camera. I kind of feel sorry for her. Lots of people have something to say about how she lives her life but does anyone help? Is anyone there for her? Does she know any other way? I wonder. And is she even the party girl the press would like us to believe?

Charlie Sheen, of course, I've discussed here before. Charlie grew up in Hollywood as did Lindsay and Miley. Normal for us isn't normal for them and I'm not sure most of us have the ability to compare. I know I can't begin to imagine the strangeness of growing up half child, half commodity. Not to mention the expectations that go along with such a lifestyle, the temptations, the constant interference from the press. Most of us don't know what it means to see ourselves onscreen, be screamed at by fans or surrounded by paparazzi. We can't comprehend being a paycheck to our parents, the stress fame places on relationships or the expectations inherent to being a "role model" for millions of children close to our own age.

I don't have kids but I remember what it was like to be one. I don't recall looking to anyone in Hollywood as a role model. I know times have changed but shouldn't parents be encouraging their children to look at the people in their own lives as role models? Shouldn't parents be striving to be the role models they want their children to emulate? Later in life, your kids aren't going to think back to how Hannah Montana handled that situation, they're going to remember what mom and dad did. Kids need role models they can interact with, who can be a part of their everyday lives. They need to understand that even our heroes are human and they make mistakes. Shouldn't they see their teachers, parents, community leaders as their first role models? If I had kids, I'd want them to understand that people make mistakes. That celebrities are no different than anyone else. There are plenty of people in the entertainment business to be admired, just as there are in other walks of life. There are also a lot of politicians among our nation's leaders who I sure would not want my children to idolize.

Don't want your kids posing suggestively for Vanity Fair? Keep them away from Annie Liebovitz. (Should be pretty easy.) Don't want them doing coke? Having sex? Texting provocatively? Wearing skimpy clothes? Talk to them. Let them know that people make choices and that they have to live with the consequences of their choices. Explain that Hollywood operates under different rules and that although it might not seem fair, that's just how it is. Tell them that sometimes adults (even you) occasionally do things they shouldn't do or that you wouldn't like for them to do. Explain why. Be a parent. Realize that they might do some of these things anyway and that the things themselves aren't necessarily bad but the context in which they happen sometimes can be.

Stop expecting the world to raise your kids for you. Stop looking to Miley and Lindsay and Charlie to be a good example to your kids. Stop watching TMZ with your 10-year-old daughter. Or at least explain what tabloid journalism is and the difference between actors and actresses and the characters they play. But most of all, take a long look at yourself and make sure that you're modeling the things that you want your children to take with them into adulthood. Because, although it may not seem like it, you're the one they're paying the most attention to.

Monday, March 21, 2011

An Etsy Monday

I've decided Monday will be Etsy day here at Bigger Brighter Days. This collection is inspired by my red, retro kitchen. Hope you find something you like!

In the Kitchen

FBC: The Man, the Myth, the Legend

FBC: The Man, The Myth, The Legend

You knew I was going to blog about cats eventually, right? After all, they do dominate the Internet. Many of you probably recognize the suave looking dude at the top of this post from his frequent appearances on Facebook. His name is Boo, or as he is known to his many fans, FBC. Most of the time that stands for Fat Black Cat. Sometimes, depending on what he's been up to, it might stand for something else.

I've had a lot of cats over the years, and even now I have four, but Boo has attained a level of celebrity, modest though it may be, that the others have simply never achieved. I attribute this to his coming of age during the Facebook generation as well as to him being the most poorly behaved of any of my current or previous pets. I often vent about his antics to my friends who seem to get a perverse enjoyment out of the fact that he's not their cat. For all of his fans who have asked for more, this is for you. His story is short, sweet and peppered with kitty indiscretions. He's asked me to write it for him because his fingers are too short to effectively use the keyboard, although he often tries.

I was working at a small elementary school in the very small town of Marne, MI, during the middle of July 2006. A co-worker and I were standing near the entryway of the school and the building was closed up as tight as an old school building can get. We stood there talking for quite some time, who knows about what, until I couldn't ignore the irritating sound I kept hearing in the background anymore. I am sensitive to noise and this particular noise was quite grating. My co-worker thought it sounded like a cat but I said no, I thought it was a bird. It sounded just like the noise blue jays will sometimes make to scare away an animal they feel is threatening their nest. I know that noise well as there was a nest of blue jays outside a house I once rented and they made their opposition to my occupying a neighboring space painfully clear each time I came in or out of the house. Finally, I couldn't stand it anymore. I flung the front door of the school open expecting to scare away an angry blue jay. Instead, to my surprise and to the delight of my co-worker who got to say, "I told you so," a little puff of black fur came running out from underneath a bush, "yelling" all the way. If you know me at all, you know that I instantly swooped down upon the kitten, squeeing with the adorableness of it all and brought it right into the building with me. 

When I say little, I mean this was a kitten that could be held in one hand. He was tiny! I closed him up in the office where he amused himself by constantly relocating to wherever he thought one of my feet was about to be, crying loudly and biting my toes with his tiny little needle teeth. I took him home with me that day, thinking if I didn't find his owners I would take him to the Humane Society. I did look for his owners but I soon found out from some neighbors of the school that there had been a litter of black kittens roaming the town. There had been a fair in Marne the previous week and it appeared as though the kittens may have been left behind. Predictably, I kept finding excuses not to take him to the Humane Society. About two weeks after I'd found him, I finally gave up and named him. A friend suggested Boo because he looked like a "Halloween cat" and since I'd just watched To Kill A Mockingbird on TV the night before, and his personality was shaping up to be somewhat... well, "special," it stuck.

Unfortunately, no actual baby pictures of FBC exist, but this picture is 
representative of the "alien" phase he went through as a teenager.
Note the over-sized ears. He grew into them. Sort of.

Five years later my toothy little black furball weighs 19 pounds and holds court on my Facebook page as well as my couch. He's not so tiny anymore, but he sure is "special." He answers to either Boo, Boober, or FBC. He was also known, for a brief period, as Barack O-Boo-ma, but his interest in politics waned and he's never held public office.

FBC is a naughty cat, although I like to describe him as having a lot of personality. He's a Bombay, loud funny voice and all. The first time I took him tot he vet they laughed at him for his big ears and long rat tail. When the vet was done laughing she said "well... that will be good for balance. Maybe he'll grow into it." FBC loves to play fetch almost as much as he loves playing with ponytail elastics, which he stores in his food dish when not in use. He sharpens his claws on my sofa, fishes Q-tips out of the garbage, starts almost every cat-on-cat fight in the house, and is terrified of vacuum cleaners (even ones with no motors) and of storms. If it even rains hard, he hides under some furniture or runs to the basement. He's scared to death of plastic grocery bags. But he loves to bird watch, sometimes forgets his tongue is out and has a little whistle in his purr. His fur is sleek and tight to his body. Water rolls right off him like he's a seal.

On second thought, maybe there's a reason he's 
scared of those plastic grocery bags...

You may be seeing more of FBC here from time to time. Although we are at the beginning of thunderstorm season here in Michigan and with all the thunder last night, he made himself pretty scarce. He did manage to quell his terror and put in an appearance while I was eating dinner. For now, however, FBC and I will wish you good day and return to our regularly scheduled blogging. 

As FBC would say... "Peace, Bitches!"

Friday, March 18, 2011

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Roasted Chicken with Cauliflower, Chickpeas and Olives

Last night I promised you pictures and a recipe and today I'm finally getting around to delivering on that promise! For the most part, everything went as planned but since I had to stop at Meijer on the way home to get some of the ingredients, things got started kind of late! I also had to do dishes from the previous night before I started cooking. Once of these days I'll get on the correct schedule and won't have to delay dinner for cleanup anymore! Who am I kidding, that will never happen.

The original recipe called for grape tomatoes rather than olives and when I got to Meijer and saw they are currently almost $4 a pint, I decided I'd leave them out. I'm not a big fan of tomatoes and I like them even less roasted. The recipe was similar to one published by Cooking Light about a year ago that included green olives so I decided to include those instead. It was a good decision. I also didn't have a lot of cooking juices from the chicken so I added a little garlic olive oil. I'm not sure exactly what religion I am but whatever it is, garlic is a major part of the dogma. We insist on a liberal application of it wherever appropriate. This seemed like a recipe that could benefit from a little garlic and in fact, I think it did.

I'm a big fan of the "perfect bite." You know, those rare dishes that allow you to experience a perfect melding of taste and texture?0000 This dish fits that description perfectly. The chicken is juicy with crisp skin. The vegetables are the real stars here, however, from the earthiness of the chickpeas to the sweet, mellowness of the red onions. The cauliflower has a sweet nuttiness and the olives add a perfect, briny flavor. To be honest, I could have done without the meat, and made with just olive oil, this would be a quick, cheap and satisfying vegan meal, especially paired with a green salad and some crusty bread.

Below is the recipe and a picture of the end result. I apologize for the quality, I didn't realize until too late that I need to get new batteries for my camera! This was taken with my cell phone.

Roasted Chicken with Cauliflower, Chickpeas and Olives
Adapted from Roasted Chicken with Cauliflower and Chickpeas, Everyday Food, April 2011

One 3-4 pound chicken, cut into pieces
One small head of cauliflower, cored and cut into florets
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 large (or 2 small) red onions, cut into wedges
1 cup large green olives, cut in half lengthwise, pimentos removed
1-2 tsp garlic oil or olive oil with chopped garlic
salt & pepper

Position oven racks in the top 1/3 of oven. Preheat oven to 450 and place a rimmed baking sheet covered with foil on top rack. Cut up the chicken and sprinkle with salt and pepper. I like Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. When the oven is hot, carefully remove the pan from the oven and arrange the chicken pieces skin side up. Place on top rack and bake for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare another rimmed baking sheet with foil.

After the chicken has cooked for 20 minutes, remove from oven and move pieces to the second baking sheet. On the first baking sheet, place the prepared vegetables and toss with the juices from the chicken and a little extra oil, if necessary. Place both pans back in the oven, chicken on the top rack and veggies on the bottom and roast for another 30 minutes or so until the chicken is done and the cauliflower can be pierced with a fork.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What's for Dinner?

I just got my new Everyday Food magazine in the mail yesterday. I'm a huge fan of this magazine. Everything I've made always turns out really well and is usually pretty easy. I'm having company for dinner tonight and I'm thinking I'll make one of their 5 weeknight dinners with 5 ingredients or less that costs less than $5 per serving. I'm leaning towards the Roasted Chicken with Cauliflower and Chickpeas. It looks like it's a takeoff on a vegan recipe from Cooking Light called Roasted Cauliflower with Chickpeas and Olives. Which, to be honest, sounds just as good to me as I'm a huge fan of olives! My guest, however, is going to want meat, so I'll just do the Chicken recipe and sneak in a few olives. It serves 4 for $3.71/person, which means I should have leftovers for lunch or dinner tomorrow, making it a great way to stretch my budget. If only I didn't have to stop and pick up the chicken it would be perfect! 

I'll take some pictures and report back later with the recipe (if it was good) and some tips. Stay tuned!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The North Jersey Burger

I made these burgers for lunch. While I wouldn't say they changed my life, they are very good burgers. You don't need to cook the onions, just make sure the water is quite hot when you put them in and let them soak for a while. They turn out kind of like a more substantial White Castle. The salt is important and so is using a cast iron pan. These burgers need to sear on the hot pan and they'll come out very juicy. I put a lid on the pan for a few minutes after putting the bottom of the bun on because my buns were starting to get a little stale and it helps the cheese to melt too. After I took the burger out, I buttered the top of the bun and let it toast in the pan.

I should have taken pictures- next time! I was in too much of a hurry to eat today! If I'm forced to cook burgers in the house, this is the way I'd do them from now on. Give it a try and let me know what you think!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

It's Etsy Time!

Another treasury for your consideration. This one is called Fabulous Felts. I am continually amazed at the things people can craft out of yarn! I know the basics of how to felt and it's not easy! For these little works of art to come out as perfectly as they do is really amazing to me. Oh and some of these items are made of straight-up felt but I don't think that makes them any less special!

When #WINNING! is Losing

I felt a little relief this last Sunday evening when I saw that for the first time in days, none of the topics trending on Twitter had anything to do with Charlie Sheen. I'm not much of a celebrity stalker. I don't follow TMZ, although I find their uncanny ability to break a story amazing. I enjoy reading People but I almost never buy it. I've only landed on Perez Hilton's website once or twice. Normally I couldn't care less about celebrity bad boys (or girls). But I've been following Charlie Sheen these days, although I've never been a fan of his and I've never cared for the show Two and a Half Men. To be honest, I'm not exactly sure why I've been tuning in to "news" I'd usually avoid like the plague, but I think it has something to do with his history of addiction and mental instability. Throw in the celebrity factor and you've got a pretty interesting window into how our society loves to build people up and then watch as they fall. I think my interest is less in Charlie, than in how we're all reacting to him. 

I've heard lots of speculation on what's really going on with him:
  • Is he still using drugs and drinking? I'd put money on it.
  • Has he always been like this and his PR people have just managed to make him look mostly normal until now? Possibly.... Probably, actually. 
  • Is he suffering a drug-induced psychosis? I'm becoming more and more convinced that this may be the case. There are times he seems a little too together though so I'm not 100% sure.
  • Is it all an act? Could be, but I'm not convinced he's that good of an actor. Not to mention he looks like death warmed over. 
  • Maybe he's really clean now and the drugs were just masking his obnoxious personality all these years? I mean, check that wedding video from way back when. Charlie has been a wild child for a long time. Not to mention you can be clean and still be in a state of drug-induced psychosis.

The real answer to his behavior is probably a combination of the above scenarios. We'll probably never know the whole truth. Through it all, however, one thing seems clear; Charlie Sheen is an angry man with a tremendous ego and a soup├žon of mental illness. True, he makes no apologies for himself and there is something that feels refreshing about that in an age when celebrities are constantly offering up halfhearted apologies for their indiscretions. But I can't help but think he wouldn't be a very fun person to hang out with considering all the negativity bubbling so close to the surface. I wouldn't want him as a friend, employee, a boyfriend or husband and certainly not as a parent. 

Even though I've been following Charlie's antics, I also feel a little relief that attention seems to be turning away from him already. Which in turn makes me sad to see how easily we dismiss someone with serious mental illness and a dangerous addiction. Not to mention how we mock them. I'm not even going to address the people who think he's some kind of hero.

Our society both loves and hates an addict. We encourage drinking and build many of our most important social occasions around it; sometimes even work related occasions. We put bars on every street corner and then judge people harshly for getting a DUI. We make it uncomfortable for people not to drink. But if you're an alcoholic? Forget it, we don't want anything to do with you. After all... drinking too much is a choice. Right? We hate smokers but we sure love the tax money they pay on every deadly pack. That's what they get for smoking! Drug addicts are just scary. They're bad people and ought to just stay away from the rest of us decent folks. Mental illness makes us cringe. It's so scary. I mean a little garden variety depression is ok, as long as you're quiet about it. But please don't even think about doing any ranting and raving. (Unless you're a celebrity that is- then we will pay you to do it and put you on TV!) Hold down a job, try to act normal. If you end up on the street, you're just not trying hard enough. Get over it, already! Oh, it's so much fun to place blame, isn't it? Feels nice to experience compassion from afar. 

Obviously I'm simplifying a lot of complex issues for the sake of making a point. I'm certainly not excusing drunk driving and alcoholics and drug addicts are no fun to deal with but they are people just like you and I. They have families and friends, and the more you care about them, the less fun they become. The Sheen family has been pretty quiet on the subject of Charlie. Jon Cryer has refused to respond to Charlie's criticism and name calling. Chuck Lorre has responded only in the most minimal of ways and even ex-wife Denise Richards, she of reality show fame, has remained mum on the subject, merely saying that Charlie has always lived this lifestyle. It's nothing new. Family and friends aren't surprised. Charlie didn't get this way overnight. No one does.

The fact is, we don't know much about addiction. We've made great strides in understanding mental illness. But we're far from "curing" either problem, although they often go hand-in-hand. The human brain, for all out advanced medical equipment, is still largely a mystery. Doctor's are still trying to determine the role that genetics plays in addiction and mental illness and it looks like it's shaping up to be a more significant role than previously thought. There's not a lot of money being spent to study addiction. It's not a glamorous field of study. There's always AA. Let them save themselves.

The sad fact is that AA doesn't work for everyone. It's a great organization, I'm not slamming it. I believe it's saved a lot of people. But it doesn't work for everyone. Going cold turkey doesn't work most of the time. Putting them in prison doesn't generally work either. Many addicts lack the life skills they need to overcome their addictions. Many have lost support of family and friends. Addiction is a sticky diagnosis. Martin Sheen compares it to having cancer, as do many twelve steppers and in some ways, it's not far off the mark. Addiction is an illness. And just to complicate matters, there's that element of choice. Or at least there appears to be. But ask a longtime alcoholic if they feel like they have a choice whether or not to take that next drink. Look around at how many smokers have to keep quitting over and over. Ask a heroin addict if they ever stop fantasizing or reminiscing about getting high. The choice is only a choice for so long.

Our society isn't supportive of recovery. Because addiction is so stigmatized, many addicts don't feel they can be open about their recovery and so they may be constantly placed in situations they can't handle. Look at Ted Williams, the "homeless man with the golden voice" who was thrust into the spotlight only to end up drinking again. Almost overnight, all his contracts and financial backers disappeared. We have so little understanding of addition and mental illness that everyone involved in his so-called salvation apparently thought it was no big deal for him to handle overnight fame. The same people were shocked and appalled to find out that Williams had abandoned his nine children years prior and had a rap sheet as long as his arm. Who would have thought a homeless addict might have some skeletons in his closet? Ted Williams has the same voice as an addict that he had as a supposedly sober man. But suddenly some people in the entertainment business have developed a moral high ground about entertainers stepping over the line. Go figure.

And then there's Charlie. The difference is, Charlie Sheen is getting away with his antics and Ted Williams, not so much. What if Williams had attained celebrity before his addictions landed him on the street? What if he had all the money of a successful, longtime celebrity? I dare say his story may have had a much different ending. As for Charlie... who knows what his ending will be? Even if he were to clean up his act, I'm not sure his ego would allow even the perfunctory and insincere apologies for his bad behavior that we like to hear from even the most obviously unrepentant celebrities. I empathize with his family and friends. They are feeling pain for him and they are also, at the same time, embarrassed by him and for him.

No matter how you feel about Charlie Sheen, his very public breakdown has aroused a lot of strong emotions in people. Maybe the best thing that could come out of it is if we start talking about mental illness and addiction. They're two of the largest public health crises facing this country. From them often spring others, such as child abuse and neglect, domestic violence and homelessness. Charlie Sheen is a long way from living on the street, but he's not so different from many men and women who do. He's not so different from the addicts in our own lives, because chances are we all know a few. At the same time we may feel scorn, we should also feel pity. In addition to disgust, we ought to try and empathize. Because someday it may be our spouses, our children, our friends or even ourselves inhabiting Charlie's dark place.

Because when it comes right down to it, there but for the grace of God go you and I.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Non-Smoking Section Please

I quit smoking about three months ago. I wasn't the typical smoker. Most smokers start the habit as teenagers or young adults. I was almost 30 when I started. I'd always hated cigarettes and couldn't stand even sitting near the smoking section in a restaurant. I came from a staunchly non-smoking family; neither of my parents smoked. People are 4 times more likely to smoke if they come from a home where parents light up. But, regardless of statistics, I became a smoker.

In about 2001, I was going through a divorce. Most of my friends at the time smoked, including, I was to find out, my husband. I knew he'd smoked socially but I had no idea he'd been hiding a habit from me for years. There are no recreational smokers; at least, not for long. If you light up on a regular basis and you inhale, you're a smoker. I thought I could beat the nicotine. I thought I waited just long enough between times that I wouldn't get addicted. I was wrong and if you're a smoker, you know exactly what I mean. My smoking friends tried to warn me but I told myself I could stop anytime. I just didn't want to. But when I decided I was done with cigarettes, it wouldn't be any big deal.

Ironically, even though I had started smoking on a regular basis, I still didn't like cigarettes. But the habit spoke to the stress I was under. I felt calmed. I had something to do with my hands. I fidget. When I'm bored or nervous, I bite my nails, shred napkins, click pens and fiddle with whatever is handy. I've always been conscious of this habit as one that annoys other people and tells them more about me than I'd like them to know. So when I started smoking and it gave me something to do with my hands... it was love. Not to mention the physical act of smoking, I could fidget with my lighter too! Smoking becomes a ritual. Most smokers have their favorite brand of lighter. Some will only use Bics or Zippos, most "pack" their smokes. Everyone has a different way of ashing their cigarettes and disposing of the empty packs. You get strangely attached to all the accessories;  lighters, ashtrays, your favorite brand of smokes.

Slowly, steadily, the rituals of smoking became a part of my daily life- first smoke in the morning, stopping at the gas station or the party store to buy a new pack, fumbling for a lighter, driving with the car window cracked in the winter, a drink and a cigarette, Sunday morning breakfasts with friends in the smoking section. And with my new addiction came a new diagnosis. The cough that wouldn't go away wasn't bronchitis, it was full-blown asthma. And those of you who have never smoked are shaking their heads and wondering why I didn't quit then. Good question. But nicotine, she is a harsh mistress. So to my smoking accessories, I now added two different inhalers. More rituals, more things to hold in my hands and turn over and over, cap and uncap and recap and over and over. More money to spend on prescriptions and doctors visits.

I tried to quit several times. I did, in fact (mostly) quit for a surgery. Eight weeks without a cigarette and all I could think of was starting again, which I did, as soon as I was able.  For all the drawbacks, I didn't want to quit. I loved smoking. I hated it and I loved it. I used the patch, it made my skin itch. I got a rash and sore spots. It lasted a few weeks and I was smoking again. I tried the gum. It tasted awful and didn't do anything but make my mouth feel numb. I never even quit with it. I tried cold turkey a couple times which didn't last long. I tried Wellbutrin and I didn't even get to the point of quitting.

And then I heard about this new miracle drug called Chantix. Which I think I got three prescriptions for from my doctor before he finally asked me why I was misplacing them and not getting them filled. There just never seemed to be a right time to quit. I was always stressed about something and I figured I needed complete calm in my life before I could tackle being nicotine-free. Yeah, right. All of you who have achieved perfect calm, with the absence of all stress, raise your hands. That's what I thought. I was also freaked out by the prospect of the vivid dreams that are often a side effect of Chantix. But I finally started taking it and it worked. I quit. No bad side effects. I felt great too. I was, however, still living with a smoker at the time and from time to time I would sneak a smoke and before you know it, I was back at the bottom of the slippery slope of nicotine addiction.

Fast forward about a year and a half. I have another Chantix prescription. I live alone now and no one smokes in my house (including me). As of May 2010, you can no longer smoke in restaurants or bars anywhere in Michigan. The cigarettes which were $3.18  a pack when I started smoking about ten years earlier have now almost doubled in price. Although I like having a smoke out on my porch on a nice summer evening, I'm not looking forward to another long, cold winter spent shivering outside. I cough a lot and my throat is sore most of the time. I've been suffering terrible bouts of acid reflux, so bad that stomach acid burns my esophagus and I have to go to the doctor several times to have my throat numbed and then sleep almost upright. I start taking my Chantix again and this time it sticks. I want to quit. I am tired of having to stop and buy smokes all the time or go out just before bed to make sure I have one for morning; the panic on the way to work in the mornings when I think I've forgotten a lighter. I hate how I start feeling nervous and fidgety when I'm somewhere I can't smoke. I know people notice it. I hate having to excuse myself from groups to go out and stand in the rain, puffing. I can't stand this anymore, I feel like a prisoner and I want to quit. I want to quit bad.

The Chantix worked its magic again. I didn't finish more than a few weeks worth. I quit in the first week. I used some homeopathic lozenges. I don't know if they helped but I think they did. I didn't sneak any smokes this time. I could be around smokers and not be seriously tempted for the most part. Although there were some trying times that I may have slipped up if people had let me. The nicotine withdrawal doesn't last long. A week at most and that's probably an overestimate. It's the habit part that is hard- the hand to mouth gesture. The loss of all the little rituals. Driving is hard, I always had a cigarette while driving. After meals and on the phone I have a nagging sense that something is missing. Sometimes the urge just sneaks up on me. It's usually gone within a few minutes.

When I was painting my bedroom, about a month after I'd had my last cigarette, I kept having very frequent cravings. At first I couldn't figure out why. Then I realized that what I really wanted was a break. Smoking becomes the way smokers take their breaks. Downtime becomes about the cigarette, smoking becomes synonymous with relaxation. After I quit, I noticed that I had a hard time remembering to take breaks. I had to relearn to listen to my body. To realize that although I don't have the excuse of needing a cigarette, I still need a break sometimes. Once I figured that out, the rest of the painting went well and the cravings went away.

I'm three months in now. I've experienced some pretty significant "life" stress. I'm still a non-smoker. I'm committed. After I quit and started being able to think clearly again (it takes a while!) the first thing I noticed was that I still smelled like perfume at the end of the day. I thought that was kind of nice. I was tired all the time for a while. But my mouth wasn't terribly dry all day long. And then I started noticing my sense of smell getting sharper. Laying in bed one morning I couldn't figure out why I kept smelling cinnamon until I spied, several feet away, a half full mug of Yogi Indian Spice Tea. That was a fairly pleasant experience but let me tell you that having your sense of smell all of a sudden get sharper isn't always a great thing!

Food still tastes pretty much the same to me but then I never really noticed diminished taste. Figures, the one side effect of smoking I could have used. I breathe better than I used to; my asthma has barely kicked in all winter. I still have a sore throat since my sinuses are still draining a lot of what I can only assume are unspeakable toxins and poisons down the back of my throat. But the nagging, itchy cough caused by the cilia trying to clear everything out of my lungs is gone, or at least greatly diminished. My ears are less plugged and my skin looks better and is less dry. I stay warmer so I assume my circulation has improved. And I feel calmer. I no longer feel the need to leave restaurants as soon as humanly possible and I can spend time talking to friends and family instead of being distracted by the need to fuel my nicotine addiction.

I know this process isn't over. That it will take years for my body to repair much of the damage. I know I will have to be constantly vigilant in order not to be swayed into thinking that one cigarette is ok. But I feel up to it this time. I didn't quit just because I felt like I should. I quit because I wanted to. And just like with any addiction, to succeed, the desire for change has to remain strong. It will no doubt at times be a wild ride but I've fastened my seat belt and this time I'm ready.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Garden Dreaming

Here's another Etsy collection I put together because I am anxious to get back to my beloved garden. I can't wait to see what comes back up this year!

Garden Dreaming Treasury

Rediscovering the Importance of Girlfriends

There was a time in my life when almost all my good friends were male. Many years, in fact. Part of it was the novelty, because I had always been intimidated by boys in school. I grew up a little isolated and I barely understood other girls, let alone boys with their loud ways. As I grew older, I didn't feel comfortable with most women I met. I wasn't thin and I wasn't that concerned about dieting. I rarely wore makeup and never learned to do fancy things with my hair. I wasn't having children or hoping to have children. Most women I met I didn't feel like I fit in with. And after high school, I wasn't meeting a lot of other women anyway. I missed my high school girlfriends, many of whom had dispersed off into different parts of the country.

Over the years I met a lot of amazing, strong women. I had role models and old friends I had kept in touch with but from whom I was separated by distance. I am close to my mom. But I didn't have any women friends who I could call up and meet for lunch. I still don't have very many of them. But I have rediscovered why friendships between women are so precious. I've cultivated them where I can. Some online, some old friends I don't see very often, some old friends I've started to see more frequently, some family, some co-workers. Some the same age and some years older or younger.

I still have a lot of male friends. And they're great, I love them. They appreciate my cooking, remind me not to take things too seriously, feed my cats when I go out of town, carry things to my basement, help me with yard work and car repairs. Some of them commiserate with me over relationships and some make me feel funny or get angry at injustices they feel have been perpetrated against me. They take me to dinner, buy me silly little gifts when I'm feeling down and give me a male perspective on problems. My male friends are wonderful to me in many ways and I love them but they are still vastly different relationships than the ones I have with my female friends.

I've gone through some tough times in the last few years and in riding them out I've noticed a few differences in the way my male versus female friends react to problems. The men tend to disappear. They can't fix my problem and they don't know what to say so they kind of vanish into the ether until things even out. Some of them give me a lot of advice and then if I don't follow it, they get angry. Which really isn't that helpful when dealing with stressful situations. You want your friends around you, not purposefully staying away or being angry with you. I know not all men are like this but it's been my experience that its pretty common. They mean well, they just don't react in ways that I understand. Which by now I am starting to expect, even though it still hurts sometimes.

My female friends, however, will sit with me for hours. Sometimes we talk about our problems, sometimes we distract each other with other topics. Sometimes we don't talk much at all. The best thing is, they are always here (or there!) for me. Sometimes we can only talk on the phone, via text or over the Internet but even when they aren't "here" they are available, concerned, understanding and always ready with a sense of humor and a dose of perspective. Most of us have gotten to an age where we've had a few disappointing relationships with men, perhaps a divorce. Even if we're married we know that a romantic relationship, no matter how wonderful the spouse, can't and shouldn't be expected to meet our every need.

And so, if we're lucky, we have our girlfriends. These relationships are precious and we need to treat them as such. Though our lives are all busy, we need to keep in touch, reach out, get together, or simply send a note or an email. For all the smart, funny, caring, beautiful women I know... thank you. You are appreciated and you are important!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

How do I love thee Roku? Let me count the ways...

It was a sunny Saturday afternoon here in West Michigan. One of the first we've had in a long while. What did I do to celebrate it? Caught up on episodes of Perfect Couples and 30 Rock on Hulu. What? It's still cold out. Besides, I opened the shades.

It's this Roku, see? It's given television new meaning for me. I'm not sure that's an entirely good thing for my productivity but it's nice on the weekends when typically I'd sit around watching stuff I hated just because I didn't feel like doing anything else and there was nothing on the 200+ available channels of "stuff" that I wanted to watch at any given time.

I bought the Roku because I wanted to save money. After seven plus years of being a faithful DirecTV customer, I was tired of seeing my bill go up and up and, well... UP. I'd been thinking about it for a while but I was having trouble making myself take the plunge. I'd always really loved my DirecTv. But, just before Christmas, I saw a special deal. Roku had a deal going with Netflix that if you signed up for Netflix on demand at $7.99 a month, you could take $20 off the price of any Roku unit. And so for $59.99 and free shipping, I ordered the Roku XD. I figured I had nothing to lose, it was less than the monthly cost of my (basic) DirecTv service and if nothing else it would be a nice supplement.

Considering I ordered my Roku during the Christmas shipping season it arrived incredibly fast. The box itself is tiny and incredibly light. I didn't have an extra HDMI cable so I hooked it up using the included RCA cables and breezed right through the little bit of setup it required, including applying software updates, joining it with my wireless network, adding channels and activating it to work with my Netflix and HuluPlus accounts. Because I have the slowest internet that AT&T offers (1.3 MB down) I figured I'd have to upgrade but to my surprise, the streaming worked just fine and I was still able to browse websites while watching TV.

In January I took the plunge and dropped my DirecTv service. I went from paying $68 a month for TV to paying about $16 a month for my Hulu and Netflix subscriptions. I was already paying for internet service and I didn't end up having to upgrade so no change there. Not bad. The interface is easy and uncluttered. The Roku works with Amazon Video On-Demand so you can rent and purchase content. There are also quite a few other channels available and several have been added just since I started using my box. One of the big draws is Pandora, everyone's favorite Internet radio.

It's not perfect. CBS isn't partnered with Hulu so none of their current content is available. You can watch it on their website but I can't stand watching TV on my computer. Mostly because whenever I'm watching TV I'm also on the computer! However, if you have a digital TV this can be remedied by hooking up and antennae to pick up local stations. (If you don't have a digital TV you'll still need a digital converter box to use with your antennae.) BBC America is another content provider that hasn't really jumped on the streaming bandwagon. I miss watching Graham Norton. I also miss The Soup and Chelsea Lately, a couple of big hits on E! that aren't currently available on HuluPlus. But I expect that as more people switch over to streaming devices that content providers will be forced to fall in line. And as much as I miss those few shows, I don't miss the big bill every month. It just wasn't worth it.

So far the biggest down side is that I find myself watching more TV. I have access to classic shows that haven't been available in syndication for years right up to current episodes of almost all my favorite shows and I can watch them when it's convenient for me without worrying about setting my DVR to record or worrying about filling up the hard drive. I've discovered new shows I didn't know existed because I was never watching during the right time slots. I recently discovered Raising Hope, Perfect Couples, the IT Crowd and I plan on going back to catch up on Parenthood from the beginning of the season. I can finally go back and watch Desperate Housewives from the beginning and figure out who everyone is. I can spend a boring Sunday watching an entire season of programming back to back.

The biggest positive, besides cost savings, has been the advertising. Netflix doesn't have ads during the content. HuluPlus does but it's very minimal and not obnoxious at all and doesn't distract from television viewing. It is exactly the way advertising on television should have always been and the way I hope it will remain, at least for streaming content.

There are a few technical glitches from time to time. It's a new technology, after all. Roku just announced that they sold their one millionth box during 2010. If you really think about it, one million is a pretty small number for a product like this. From time to time my box will freeze. Usually it restarts itself and it's a pretty quick process. Quicker, in fact, than waiting for my DirecTv receiver to start back up after a restart- or a rainstorm! Sometimes there are software updates that need to be applied which is so easy as to be almost automatic. Occasionally there will be an interruption in the streaming content but I think this has more to do with the content provider, or possibly my slow internet. I am always able to recover and pick back up where I was. Overall, I am impressed. The quality of the picture is clear, the sound is great. Everything syncs up fine and doesn't look pixellated or jerky. I can pause my viewing whenever I want and because the commercials are so brief I often do. No time to run out to the kitchen for a snack or take a bathroom break!

Streaming content changes your viewing experience. At first I found it cumbersome and somewhat overwhelming to have to decide what I wanted to watch rather than turning on the TV and just flipping through channels. It's a much less passive means of entertaining yourself. I got used to it pretty quickly though and I have to say, I really prefer it. I don't feel tied to my television at certain times and I tend not to turn it on simply for background noise so even though I'm probably watching more TV, my viewing is much more focused and the TV isn't on as much.

I love my Roku and I highly recommend purchasing one if you have any ideas about dumping your cable or satellite provider. It was the right choice for me and several friends and family members have happily purchased one at my recommendation. Even if you don't intend it as a replacement for cable or satellite service it's not a bad supplement to these services. If you're considering a purchase, however, remember that you will need to subscribe to Netflix and HuluPlus in order to get the most out of your player. Just keep in mind that if you order a box, you may spend more time watching TV for a while. Don't say I didn't warn you!