Monday, November 28, 2011

Aretha Franklin's trash

Recently an abandoned storage unit went up for auction. Rummaging through the contents, the buyer found dozens of hats, capes and dresses all once owned by none other than music legend Aretha Franklin.

The Queen of Soul is reported to have said she left the items in the storage locker years ago because she no longer wanted them.

I'm fascinated by abandoned storage units, my interest fueled by such shows as Storage Wars and Auction Hunters. It's not so much what storage unit buyers find in the units that hooks me - though who wouldn't want to pay a couple of hundred dollars for a unit only to discover that it contains tens of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise? Rather the puzzle for me lies in why some people rent the units in the first place and why others go on to abandon them.

Why would someone pay to store what they don't want - As Aretha did? Why would she not just give it all to a charity? Or give it to a theatre group for their costume shop? Even if we have plenty of money, which Aretha apparently does, is it a reasonable use of money to pay to keep what we don't want?

Why would someone abandon possessions they can't help but know are valuable and which they could easily sell for considerable cash? Setting aside those who die or are mentally ill, there are still those who simply abandon units containing brand new, still-in-the-packing vending machines, cars, motorcycles, and snow mobiles. No one would mistake any of these for having no monetary value.

There is something very strange about our societal fascination with keeping things, even though we don't need them and may not even want them. We over buy and then we over keep. There are no doubt hundreds of stories there. I, for one, would love to hear them.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Just look up

I am a very focused person. When I'm working on a project, I tune out everything around me. I don't hear anything; I don't see anything. My husband knows to make loud noises from a distance when he needs to interrupt me. If he approaches gently, like a normal person, I'm likely to jump right out of my chair.

I am grateful for this ability to focus. When I worked in an office cubicle, co-worker chatter didn't bother me in the least. When I'm on a writing roll, the hours just fade away.

The problem with this focus is missing the blessings of looking up.  After hours at a computer, my eyes are bleary. I know I'm supposed to give my eyes a rest; I just never think of it.

This week, I stood in my kitchen for hours making candy. Focus is very important in candy making. I watch that candy thermometer like a hawk. Eventually I noticed it was getting dark. Only then did I look up.

There - on display in my kitchen window - was the most beautiful red and purple sunset. Throwing candy-making caution to the wind, I stopped to enjoy this incredible sunset. These displays of light and changing colors last only moments, but they are a true blessing. They remind me of the beauty of the world. They make me grateful for the eyes I have to see. They cause me to stop, in the moment, to remember that every moment of my life is a blessing.

If I only look up.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Who has the rights?

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Do you own the cells of your own body? Do you get to have a say in who uses your cells and for what purposes? You might think so. You might be wrong.

THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS tells the story of a poor black woman who died of cervical cancer in the 1950s. Without her knowledge or consent, samples of her cancerous cells were removed and taken to a lab where scientists were attempting to create 'immortal' cells - cells that, kept in the right medium, could be made to live forever. They succeeded with Henrietta Lacks' cells, creating the first immortal cell line.

Henrietta's cells - called HeLa cells - still live today. Her cells have been and continue to be used in research worldwide. Research that has uncovered causes and cures of cancer, the cure for polio, the list is endless. Yet, it was 20 years after her death before Henrietta's family learned that their mother's cells continued to live.

This amazing non-fiction book, which reads like a novel, tells the incredible story of Henrietta Lacks, her cells, science, and her family's quest to understand what happened to their mother.

This book raises a host of ethical, racial, and moral issues. It was a fascinating read. In this age of scientific breakthroughs, high costs for medical care, and the spirited debate about stem cell research, it might be good required reading for all of us.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Are you a thumbbody?

Last month I wrote about discovering the Thumbs on Wheels campaign we saw as we drove the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I was delighted to learn that there's a group called Thumbs on the Wheel that's working to educate drivers and kids on this important practice.

The folks at Thumbs on the Wheel (TOTW) acknowledge it's a personal choice to drive safely. They offer a few simple rules that encourage safe driving and maybe even lessen road rage:
  1. Keep your Thumbs on the Wheel every time you drive.
  2. Put your phone away - seriously, it will be there when you get there.
  3. Smile at thumbbody at every stoplight.
  4. Show anybody how to be thumbbody today!
Sales of T-shirts and other merchandise help spread the word. Some of the proceeds of each sale go to organizations including: The Joshua Chamberlain Society aiding wounded veterans, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the Humane Society, and local schools.

Whether you buy the merchandise or not, the idea is a good one and I encourage you to spread the word. And keep your thumbs on the wheel.

As TOTW says:

Be Safe. Be Happy. Be Thumbbody!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Learning from the master - Part 2

In the category of teaching an old dog new tricks, here are two things I've learned about candy making from Sue, a member of my book club who is the undisputed queen of candy making. These tips have made all the difference.

Temperature matters. Terms like hard ball and soft ball and hard crack dot candy recipes like peanuts in peanut brittle. And they don't mean baseball or the latest drug deal. My grandmother and mother could determine each of those critical candy-making stages by dropping a few drops of cooking syrup in a glass of cold water. Me? Stickler for detail that I am, I need a good candy thermometer.

Tip: Check the reliability of your thermometer each year in boiling water.  If it doesn't read exactly 212 degrees at a full boil, adjust the temps accordingly in your recipes.

Humidity matters. In the past, I found that candies like peanut brittle and toffee and butter crunch occasionally adhered into a sticky glob when I stored them. Eating such candy was a hazard to anyone who had crowns. The problem? High humidity.

Tip: Make crunchy types of candies on days with low humidity and sunshine. This is also true if you make divinity. My grandmother whipped divinity by hand - but only on dry, sunny days.

Sue's Almond Butter Crunch

1 lb butter
2 cups sugar
1/4 cup water
2 T light corn syrup
  • Melt butter over low heat in a heavy sauce pan.
  • Add sugar and stir almost constantly until it comes to a full rolling boil.
  • VERY carefully add the water. (You are adding water to boiling fat)
  • Then add corn syrup
Cook - stirring occasionally until temperature reaches 290 degrees
  • Take off heat and add 1-2 cups chopped almonds
Pour into 10 1/2 x 16 inch, well buttered sheet pan.

Let sit 3-4 minutes then sprinkle 12 oz chocolate chips over the top. As they melt, spread them evenly across candy.  Sprinkle 1/2 cup finely ground almonds across chocolate.

Once candy is cool, break into pieces and store in tins in a cool place.  I've found that scoring the candy with a sharp knife while it's still a little warm helps with breaking it into pieces.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Learning from the master - Part 1

Kathy makes perfect peanut brittle. And she shared her recipe with me. But any cook will tell you that having the recipe and achieving the same result as the master are not always the same thing.

Following her recipe to the letter, I've made batch after batch of perfect peanut brittle. I thought. However, when I bit into a piece of brittle from her most recent batch, I realized there is more to be learned. There is an ever-so-slight burnt sugar taste to her brittle that is missing from mine.

"I did it exactly to 310 degrees. Just like you said," I protested.

"Maybe I go to 315," she smiled.

I confess to being a bit of a slave to recipes. If it works, don't mess with it. That's my theory. But most cooks adapt. My husband professes that my peanut brittle is good, but that burnt sugar taste is even better. I'll be back at the stove trying again for peanut brittle perfection. And walking that tight line between what I know works and the experimentation that could make it even better.

Kathy's Peanut Brittle
  • 1 cup white syrup
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
Combine in heavy pan and bring to a boil
  • Add 2 sticks of the cheapest margarine you can buy. Stir until blended.
Cook over medium heat until temperature on candy thermometer reaches 280 degrees.
  • Add 12 ounces raw peanuts. Stir until temperature reaches 310 degrees.
  • Add 1 tsp baking soda. Stir in very quickly.
Pour at once on to a buttered cookie sheet.  Leave the peanut brittle as it pours out. Do NOT spread it around. Cool and break into pieces. Store in a tin in a cool place.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Saying thank you

Some time ago, I ran into a high school classmate of mine. Other than the passing moments at a reunion, we probably hadn't shared more than a few sentences over the last 40 years. As we caught up that day, I learned that he had served in Viet Nam.

After hearing his story, I said, "Thank you for your service. I appreciate what you did."

He looked at me for a few moments and then said, "I don't think anyone has ever said that to me."

The look on his face brought a lump to my throat. I have no doubt he'd read the Veterans Day articles in the paper, seen the parades on TV, maybe even participated in those events. But a thank you extended  in this large, collective way, did not have the impact of the words spoken personally, one on one, from me to him.

Thank you. It's a simple thing to say. I do it automatically. When someone opens a door, passes a dish, picks up something I dropped. Most of the time, I don't think about it. The words just come out.

On Veterans Day, we collectively thank all those who serve in our nation's military. I hope I also remember to say a personal thank you to the men and women I meet who serve. We cannot say thank you often enough.

*Veterans Day image courtesy of Office of Government Affairs

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Dad's favorite

Mom and I traditionally waited until Thanksgiving weekend to break out the candy thermometer and heavy pans for our annual candy-making extravaganza. But I start early. This year it was all I could do to wait until the calendar turned to November.

Pulling out the recipes each season reminds me of the people for whom each kind of candy or cookies is a favorite.  Peanut clusters and peanut brittle are for Dad.  He had a taste for the salt/sweet combination. Every year when I asked him what he wanted for Christmas, peanut clusters made the list. Because that was something I could afford, I was happy to comply.

It surprises me now that Mom and I never made peanut clusters. But we didn't. It took my sister-in-law Jeanne to get me started. Now I make them every year. They're easy. The recipe makes a lot. They store well.  And I enjoy remembering dad when I make them.

Peanut Clusters

2 lbs almond bark (white)
2 - 12 oz packages chocolate chips
2 lbs peanuts (dry roasted, salted)

Melt almond bark and chips in a heavy pan on low heat. Stir in peanuts. Drop by teaspoon onto foil or waxed paper. Cool. Store in tins in a cool place.  Makes about 18 dozen.

Many variations are possible. Some people use milk chocolate chips. I like semi-sweet. Last year I also made dark chocolate. They could be a new personal favorite. This recipe is easy to cut in half.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Just let me eat

"If you do see me in a restaurant. Please, just let me eat my dinner."  That's how Andy Rooney signed off his last CBS 60 Minutes essay.

Some two decades ago, I was eating lunch with a client in the Top of the World restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. Two tables away, I spotted a man who looked just like Andy Rooney. The signature wild eyebrows caught my eye.

Leaning across the table I whispered to my client, a New York native, "That looks like Andy Rooney."

"If you see someone in New York who looks just like someone, it probably is," he responded.

Though I traveled to New York regularly, I could not get used to the idea that you might see someone like Andy Rooney eating two tables over. Even though my career was public relations and I should have been watching anyway, Andy Rooney was the reason I turned to 60 Minutes. His commentaries were witty and edgy and exactly right.

I thought briefly about approaching him that day in New York - not to ask for an autograph, which now I know he never signed - but just to find out if he was who I thought he was. Now I'm especially glad I didn't. In tribute to a man whose words I enjoyed so much, I'm glad I got that right.

* Photo Google images

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

That was then; this is now

November 2. Rain. Wind. 40 degrees. Snow in the forecast.

Ah the beauty of Iowa weather. Wait one minute and it will change.

Our pretty leaves only two days ago on the trees are rapidly covering the lawn and making patterns in the rain on the driveway.

I'm particularly grateful I spent Monday afternoon lying on the grass looking at the sky.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Holding on

It's 72 degrees. On November 1. In Iowa. Can you believe it?

Even though I have plenty of writing to do, I'm dawdling. I've been out for a walk. Out taking pictures. Out laying on the grass, looking at the sky. Even though I'm writing at this moment, my eyes are drawn to the sunshine with every other word. I know I'll be outside again shortly. I'm holding on to these beautiful fall days as long and as tightly as I can.

I'm like the trees. Though the ash trees dropped their leaves weeks ago, the maple trees are hanging on to their finery longer than normal. They've joined the oak trees in clinging until the last possible moment. Even the strong winds of the past several days have failed to make the trees loosen their grip on stunning yellow and red leaves.

In a last tribute to summer, the coneflowers are hanging on, too. I found these blooms near the patio. Their purple as fresh as though it was June instead of November. 

The snowstorms that hit the east coast this past week remind me of past October snowstorms in Iowa. Storms that dropped heavy wet snow on trees still sporting leaves, causing limbs to bow, and break, under the weight.  I'm glad that's not Iowa this year. 

I'm grateful mother nature is letting us hold on to summer for one more day. And believe me, I'm holding on tight, savoring the gift of the rare 70-degree day in November.