Thursday, February 15, 2018

Thank God You're Okay

In the face of tragedy like that of Parkland, Florida, we often (after offering our thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families) admonish one another to “hug your children a little tighter tonight.” Hug your children a little tighter, because thank God they’re okay, and you can do that.

Hug your children a little tighter, because someone else will never get that opportunity again. 

Tragedies like Parkland (and Sandy Hook, and Las Vegas, and the Pulse Nightclub, and Sutherland Springs, just to name a few) hit close to home, because we find ourselves in places like all of these every day. Marjory Stoneman Douglas could have been my child’s high school, we shudder to think--and yet, we are also breathing a sigh of relief that it wasn’t, in fact, our child’s school.

In a mass tragedy, while survivors and victims are being identified and released one by one to families waiting in excruciating anxiousness, we can all imagine those feelings. We have all awaited some news, not knowing whether it would be good or bad--a college acceptance or rejection, a job offer, the results of the biopsy, whether or not the surgery was successful. We wait, and a world of agony happens between the time that the event is set into motion and the time we know the results. Waiting is painful. In that space, we imagine the worst that could happen, and animate that into a vivid, harsh reality in our minds. We imagine the very worst.

In most instances, our worst fears are not realized, because our own minds are generally more cruel to us than life is. I can imagine standing on the lawn of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, my child inside. My mind is swimming, battling between the best and worst case scenarios. With each name called, I grow more confused. I see some embrace their children, tears of gratitude flowing freely, saying, “Thank God you’re okay.” Others watch, panic-stricken, as their children are wheeled out on stretchers, and into the ambulance. It’s the ones that crumple to the ground in sobs that are difficult to watch. I look away. They no longer imagine the very worst, because the very worst has become their reality.

It’s hard to be a human walking alongside another human who is going through a really difficult time. We never know what to say, so we either say the wrong thing, or we say nothing at all for fear of saying something wrong. We send our thoughts and prayers because we think that’s the best we can do. It’s the default answer for when we don’t know what else to say. Our “thoughts and prayers” may not help, but at least--we hope--they don’t hurt.

From where I’m sitting--on my couch so many hundreds of miles away from Parkland, Florida--my heart is breaking. Still, I didn’t know any of the victims, and as awful as the loss of any young life is, this horrific event does not touch me directly. I have the luxury of sitting here in my home, going through my regular daily routine. I can read articles, listen to reports, and be angry / sad / shocked, but by and large, my life is no different today than it was yesterday or the day before.

So, a shooting happens. My heart breaks. I can easily imagine myself in the tragedy--yet I have the luxury of retreating from that nightmare into my own comfortable reality.

I am reminded of a passage from the late David Rakoff’s Half Empty:
“I recognize in my incipient tears the remove of spectatorship, and the joy in that which separates us. There is nothing so cleansing or reassuring as a vicarious sadness.”

Time passes, and I forget the heartbreak--because it wasn’t my own, only borrowed.

The families of the 17 victims will not forget.
The students of the school will not forget.

Must a tragedy touch us directly to be etched in our memories?

I wonder what it will take to get us to care as deeply about the loss of another as we would one of our own--to care not just because it reminds us of our own fragility.

We hug our children a little tighter, but what do we do for those who can no longer hug theirs?

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Brownies on Trial

I’d consider myself a cookie connoisseur, and I always favor cookies with a crisp, chewy exterior and a soft, melty interior. To me, every other type of cookie is wrong. Probably immoral.

In my quest for the perfect brownie, I was looking for something similar. It needed to have the chewy exterior, the shiny crinkle-top looking like lava rock on the pan of chocolate-y goodness. It needed to have a deep chocolate flavor, a fudgy interior, and a substantial bite to it.

Memories from Childhood

I was definitely raised on the box brownie mix, and my first experiences baking came from following those picture instructions on the back of the red box. In my early recollections, those box mixes defined brownies for me--making brownies from scratch seemed like it was too complicated unless you were, like, Graham Kerr** or something.

In reality, most scratch-brownie recipes are very simple. However, few I tried improved upon (or even replicated) my favorite elements of a good ol’ box mix brownie. (I did find one that was very similar, if you’re interested.)

At some point in my quest, I decided to get a little more methodical in my experimentation, so, I made a rubric based upon the elements I was most interested in. Maybe it’s the teacher in me, but I wanted to be more objective, and have a better record of what I actually liked and disliked about each recipe.

The Rubric

Each category was rated 1-10, with 10 being the highest.
Chocolate Flavor
I was looking for a deep chocolate flavor--not overly sweet. More dark than milk chocolate.

Looking for a substantial bite-- a brownie that meant business. None of that fluffy, airy, cake-like mess.

The interior needed to be moist and fudgy, maybe a little gooey.

With the gooey interior, though, I also was looking for a chewy outer crust. I’m a fan of the variations in texture one gets from the edge piece (more on this later), so the crust element is important to me.

I wanted that classic brownie look, with a shiny, crinkled top.

The Pan

I use The Baker's Edge pan for my brownies (lasagna too, but that’s another post!). They aren’t compensating me, but as a strong proponent of brownie edges, I think it’s a great investment. Each brownie has at least two edges, plus they’re a lot easier to cut into more uniform pieces for serving. (I say “more uniform” because I’m the worst at making things uniform.)

The Very Best

My favorite recipe was one that supposedly came from a bakery in NYC that Oprah had raved about (remember those days when Oprah told us she liked something and everyone started throwing money at whatever it was?). I have tried it on 2 separate groups: my church congregation and my coworkers at school. Both times, the entire batch was cleared out in a matter of minutes, and to rave reviews from my (unknowing) tasters. They have five eggs and a whole cup of butter, so they are obviously also very heart-healthy.

You will win the potluck with these. (Don’t tell me the potluck isn’t a competition. EVERY POTLUCK IS A COMPETITION.)

The Recipes

"Baked" Brownies--my favorite recipe!! 
Great chew, good density, dark chocolate flavor. Less fudgy than chewy, and recipe makes a very large quantity.(Taste testers enjoyed these very much.) 

Lunch Lady Brownies
Yummy, but closer to Texas sheet cake than brownies. 

Chewy, Fudgy Homemade Brownies (Sally's Baking Addiction)
Quite sweet (more "milk" than "dark" chocolate flavor). Texturally, very similar to a box-mix brownie, with the thin crackly top and chewy outer crust. 

NYT Supernatural Brownies
To my tastebuds, the chocolate flavor was not deep enough, despite the bittersweet chocolate (I suppose the large quantity of sugar canceled it out). Texture was a bit dry. 

Katharine Hepburn's Brownies
Very fudgy with deep chocolate flavor, but did not have the chewy crust I am looking for. 

San Francisco Fudge Foggies
Very creamy, fudgy texture (the fudgiest rated brownie)--more reminiscent of a truffle than a brownie, to me. Coffee enhances the deep chocolate flavor. If you love really rich chocolate, this is your brownie. 

Disgustingly Rich Brownies
Milder chocolate flavor, and a breadier brownie. 

(I also tried Ghirardelli triple fudge, Aldi brand, and Duncan Hines box mixes, which were all fine.)

Brownie Tips: 
*For fudgy brownies, you must NOT overbake. Underbaking is the way to go. In my oven (crappy electric oven in my apartment that may be as old as me), I also knock off about 25 degrees from the suggested baking temp, and cut the baking time down. For most of my recipes, I started with about 22 minutes baking time. 
*Pretty much always add a handful of chocolate chips to your brownies. Like, if you're worried about calories you shouldn't be eating brownies anyway. I guess you could do nuts or something, too, but do chocolate chips for sure. 
*The fudgiest of brownies benefit from being chilled in the fridge and eaten cold. These tend to be the ones with the higher butter-to-flour ratio, so without the chilling time, there isn't enough flour to give the brownie structure. 
*I adjusted all recipes to fit in my pan, which is the equivalent of a 9x13, just FYI. (i.e., I doubled recipes formulated for an 8x8 pan.) 

**Young Rachel watched a lot of Graham Kerr.

Friday, January 18, 2013

y i so dumm

once upon a time, i was smart. i could do a lots of smart things.  i was good at school i was good at spelling i was good at a lots of more of smart things too.  than one day i woke up. i was not smart.

from before when i was smart i red this book about a mouse who got smart and got dumm again but the mouse was dumm before but before i was smart not dumm so thats not rilly wat happend.  i dunno wat happen sence i was always smart until i got dumm.

but anyways i'm sposed to be talking about why i'm so dumm.  i think its cause some of my friends are also rill dumm so maybe i got dummer from them like the flu cuase i no they dont wash there hands very much like ppl say to do. thats why they smell bad to but i'm sposed to write about why i'm so dumm and i'm so dumm i keep forgetting!!!!!!!!!!!! what i'm writing.

anyways my frends are dumm.  like susan and cari lynn are rill dumb.  but sometimes they preten to be smart even tho no 1 beliefs it so before i new them i was not so dumm but then there dumm cot on me and now i cant even hardly remember what to do.

so susan is dumm and she always wares these swetters and she likes to puke. so maybe when she pukes, the dumm from the puke gets on her swetters and when she gives me big squooshly hugs i get the dumm jerms to.

and cari lynn is dumm and she trys to push me down to hurt me and kill me sometime but then when ppl start looking than she pretens shes helpin me up so she gives me big squoosly hugs to. but rilly i no shes just tryn to kill me. cause she wants to take my lamp that she loves.  so if she kills me she can get it maybe.

so anyways thats i think why i'm dumm its my frends folt but not rilly frends but my enemys.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Follow Your Dreams

(Dedicated to Aly Evans.) 

I am allegedly 17 weeks and 2 days into my first pregnancy, and I have come to the conclusion that pregnancy is a myth.  

This is made up. 

Despite the small pile of positive pregnancy tests on my bathroom counter, I didn't even start to believe in the remote possibility that I might be pregnant until I had my first OB appointment at 10 weeks of my alleged pregnancy.  Looking at the squirmy little form on the screen awakened in me the slightest hint that it might actually be the case that there was, in fact, a being growing inside of me.  This feeling has since worn off.  

Yes, my belly is growing.  But that could also be the doughnuts I had for "second breakfast" yesterday.   And speaking of those doughnuts, I should mention that one of my greatest disappointments in this "pregnancy" is that I have had very little in the way of cravings.  

Perhaps I'm just doing them wrong.  I've always thought that these "pregnancy cravings," as they are so called, were involuntary, sudden, and undeniable--and strange.  That I might be sitting at my desk in the office (I have neither a desk nor an office) at midnight (I'm in bed by 11), and suddenly think of the mythical pickles and ice cream.  Hence, I would alert my devoted husband of this necessity, and he would run to the nearest 24-hour store to satisfy my need, being the gem that he is.  After some thought, though, I'm wondering if they aren't a bit more calculated than that.  Perhaps I'm just supposed to use my position as the woman carrying my husband's child to exert my authority over him, to test the lengths he is willing to traverse to accommodate his Beloved.  

In this scenario, it plays out as follows: 

I think to myself, "I like Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, but I have none at the house right now."  Now, under normal circumstances, I would then say to myself, "Oh, well," and either find a viable alternative or give up the idea altogether.  As a Pregnant Individual, however, I take a different approach.  I say to my Other Half, "Good heavens me!  If I don't have a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup very soon, I think the baby will grow an extra arm!" And he, being overly concerned for my well-being, will dash out to the store and buy as many Reese's Cups as are available.  As I munch, I plot my next "craving."  

My apologies to the rest of womankind if I have just outed a conspiracy.  I was not informed, and thus have not been benefiting from it, so I feel no loyalty. 

Pregnancy dreams are another thing causing me disappointment.  They have been painfully normal, like last night's gem:  

"Rachel Eats Enchiladas While Chaperoning a Youth Conference Activity at Church." Yawn. 

This is kind of what they looked like. 

Even my most interesting dream of late was fairly boring.  Andy and I were vacationing in Paris (which, for those of you who have never been, is very much like a small amusement park, if my dream is accurate).  We waited in line to ride a train or roller coaster from which we could see the city, but what I really wanted to do was to go to the top of the rotating restaurant.  It wasn't just any ordinary rotating restaurant, either.  It would also periodically change its orientation from horizontal to vertical, making it part restaurant, part thrill ride. At $100 a head, though, it was outside our price range. 

In my dream, I remembered the first piece of mine ever published: a little paragraph in the Greensheet when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade (this is real-life true, in fact).  To respond to the question "What would your dream vacation be?" I answered that I would like to go to Paris, where I would climb the Eiffel tower, and then eat at a famous pastry shop.  (Still true.)  So, back to my dream, I told Andy that we would have to live my dream and find a bakery.  I really wanted a croissant (craving?).  

The funny thing is that I didn't recall any of this until I saw a commercial featuring a croissant on TV at the gym.  I suppose I should have taken that opportunity to go to the bakery 'round the corner and make my Beloved buy me a croissant . . . "for the baby."  Blast.  

And now, I want a croissant again.  "Sweeeeeeetie?"  

The Project

I've always loved to write, and my whole life I've received positive feedback about my work.  However, since I've finished grad school, I haven't done very much of it.  Thus, I launch this blog.  I don't want to lose whatever skills I have, and the only way to maintain and to build upon those skills is to do it.  So, here goes nothing.  

I posed the question to my Facebook friends asking for writing prompts to help me get started, since part of why I haven't written is because I have trouble these days finding things to write about.  I used to just come up with stories upon stories, but that's not the case anymore.  In any case, this is what my Facebook friends came up with as my catalyst: 

*How has your time in Vienna altered your life? 
*why u so dumb? 
y u so dumm
*I like turtles. 
*A memoir in the mind of household objects, like the toaster is depressed because te blender won't return his calls.
*Document your preggo dreams, maybe even elaborate on them.
* "He/she was the last person I had expected to see again in my life, yet there he/she was." 
*How Januka and Dhana Pati got back together? (fiction)
*How Ted Mosby finally meets his wife
*Your version of what happened to Doc Edward's podium (Doc E was my Sr. English teacher in HS).
*School lunches. You wouldn't believe how much writing material you get out of writing about school lunches.
*Introduce yourself through your cat's perspective.
*Write about the phrase "I'm Okay."
*Beardie Chris's hobo story
* "It was an ordinary day . . ."
*still, why u so dumb? 

Thanks for all the responses!  These will make some great (and some not-so-great--thanks, jerks!) places to start.