Monday, December 10, 2012

The Cookie Exchange, Part II: Redemption

So, remember when I said I was going to rock the annual cookie exchange? Last year I struggled with my cookies, but this year I planned ahead. I found a recipe for a drop cookie decorated to look like Frosty just defrosted - cute and just a little twisted. Perfect. I did a trial run and decided that while the original recipe, from the Better Homes and Gardens website, was good, I wanted to make a few changes. It was based on a peanut butter cookie, which is always the last kind left on the complimentary cookie trays at those chain hotels that cater to business travelers. The dough was easy to work with, but the cookie was really dry and hard. So I substituted a fudgy, soft, delicious dark chocolate cookie that my family has been making for years. And since my snowman top hat looked more like something a pilgrim would wear, I used a chocolate melting wafer to better define the brim of the hat. I also decided to enlarge the carrot nose by using some orange-tinted chocolate. Now, I'm by no means a baker, but the end result was pretty cute and they were a big hit at the cookie exchange, which was well run and a lot of fun. But in typical fashion, my cookies did not come together exactly as I planned.   

The cookie part went off without a hitch - I melted baking chocolate, butter and sugar together, mixed in eggs and vanilla until it was smooth and glossy, then stirred in the dry ingredients. It's a really sticky dough, so it has to be thoroughly chilled before scooping spoonfuls onto the baking sheets. The cookies came out perfectly and after a brief rest to cool, they were ready to decorate. While they were baking, Best Friend stopped by to lend a hand. I intended to put her to work making tiny snowman hats out of mini Reece's cups and chocolate melting discs. That's when we discovered that apparently The Boy had found the bag of candy I had stashed in the cupboard and polished it off. Senior came to our rescue and ran to the store to buy replacements. While he was gone, I started melting white chocolate and spooning it on the cookies. With impeccable timing, I ran out of chocolate right after Senior returned from the store. The Girl's boyfriend happened to call at this moment, and was the next one to come to our rescue, showing up not only with the candy but also with a great big pizza! It didn't take long to finish the snowman puddles and top off with the little hats and chocolate chip eyes. The last decorating step was the carrot noses. I didn't have any orange food coloring, so I mixed red and yellow drops into some melted white chocolate. It came out kind of an insipid peach color so I messed with the tints for a while until Best Friend got sick of waiting and just squeezed in a big blob of red. I was pretty mad until I realized that I now had the perfect shade of carrot orange. Unfortunately the liquid food color had now caused the chocolate to kind of seize up, and couldn't be piped out of the bag. By now it was getting late and we had already plowed through a bottle of wine, so the logical choice was to mold 60 tiny little carrots by hand. The Girl stepped in to help us with our masterpieces. We had a great time rolling them out and didn't even try to make them consistently. Some were tiny, some huge, and we dropped them on the cookies in random melted abandon. I must admit, a few landed on the cookies... let's say... inappropriately. By the time we were done we were laughing hysterically, but the cookies looked amazing. We put the cookies into cute little snowflake cellophane bags tied with curly ribbons. Our masterpieces:

I haven't really had much holiday spirit this season. But as I settled on the sofa after the kitchen was clean and the empty wine bottles were nestled in the recycling bin, I realized that I wouldn't trade a whole box of perfect, easy cookies for one lopsided snowman cookie that only came together thanks to the group effort of my family and friends. That was an amazing gift.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Cookie Exchange, Part I: Lessons Learned

Last year I went to a cookie exchange.  The invitation had come in the mail, a beautiful glossy postcard asking me to bring 72 cookies, "creatively" packaged in half dozen portions with the recipe attached, plus another half dozen for the sampling plate. I only knew a couple of the women who were attending, but I was pretty sure they were all equally crafty and hostess-y, traits I used to have. But somewhere along the line, between the teenagers and the demanding job and my general loss of interest in impressing others, those traits disappeared.

Still, I didn't want to embarrass myself.  I wasn't going to bring the paper plate of cookies with dog hair on them, or repackage something from the Meijer bakery. So I looked in my recipe arsenal and found the perfect cookie recipe clipped from an old Taste of Home magazine - Christmas Shortbread Wreaths:

Click here for the recipe: Christmas Shortbread Wreaths from Taste of Home
I figured these would be perfect - they only have a few ingredients, and they're tasty and festive and travel well.  I'd made them before, although it had been several years, so I knew that in order to be successful I would need to keep the ingredients and the cookie sheets cold, so there would be minimal spreading.  I also knew that the decorations were best added just before you take the cookies out of the oven.  Too early and they melt, too late and they roll off.  For my cookie exchange, I decided to make smaller 6-piece wreaths and package them individually. To make them even better, I would dip the bottoms in dark chocolate first!  I bought cute little holiday patterned shrink-wrap bags so the cookie wreaths would hold their shape when swapped with the other lucky exchangers. This was going to be awesome.

I planned to make the cookies the afternoon before the cookie exchange, which took place on a Sunday. I would bake them all, then coat them in chocolate and let them set before packaging. Well, it takes a lot longer to make 12 little little wreaths than it does to make one big one. After the fourth one I was sick of the whole process. I had a few mishaps - some of the wreaths were a little dark, some had swelled in the oven until they resembled pregnant ankles, and a couple stuck to the cookie sheet and broke because I waited too long to remove them. I was using colored sugar for the decor which was getting everywhere and staining my fingers, resulting in a few random red and green fingerprints on the cookies.  Still, by early evening I managed to get a dozen fairly good wreaths baked, and figured the chocolate would cover a multitude of sins.

So, if anyone out there knows how to get chocolate on the bottom of a decorated cookie, please share your secret here. It was a disaster. I tried dipping but the cookies were too thin to get a good grip, and if you squeezed too hard the edges would crumble. I tried pouring the chocolate on a plate and snuggling the cookie down into the pool, but I couldn't pick them back up without getting the chocolate all over the top of the cookie. I tried turning them over and painting the chocolate on the back. I couldn't lay them on the cookie sheet or the colored sugar fell off, so I held the pieces in my hand. It sort of worked, but I couldn't get a nice clean edge. In the end, I had 12 plates of Charlie Brown cookies. There was no way I was going to take these to a gathering of Martha Stewarts. Time for Plan B.

One of my favorite cookies as a kid is a free-form meringue we called Fly-ups. My mom always told me that they were served during the bridging ceremony when a girl "flew up" the ranks from Brownie to Girl Scout.  I never actually made it past the Brownie stage so I can't verify this, but the cookies are pretty darn good and easy enough for a 9-year-old to make, which at this point was perfect.  Normally they have tiny chocolate chips in the batter, but I didn't have any on hand. What I did have was a delicious hunk of Sanders dark chocolate peppermint bark, which I chopped up and used in place of the chocolate chips. It was magnificent!  I can't find my recipe - all my cookbooks are packed up so my kitchen counter space looks maxed for any potential homebuyers. But this one is pretty close:

Click here for the recipe: Chocolate chip meringue cookie from Weight Watchers
I wasn't going to be able to shrink wrap such a delicate cookie, so the morning of the exchange I cut up the packaging. I stacked six cookies and wrapped them in a piece of un-shrunken shrink wrap, fastening them with ribbons to resemble a christmas popper (and by 'resemble' I mean they were in a vague tube shape with both ends tied off). I made copies of the recipe and fastened it like a tag on one end of each cookie stack, and headed off to the cookie exchange. When I arrived, I placed my cookies next to the hand-decorated gingerbread men, snowflake cookies dusted with edible sparkles, exquisite rolled cookies, and... the hostess's perfect chocolate-dipped shortbread cookies. I whispered a silent prayer of thanks for the decision to make a last minute change.

Last week an invitation came in the mail.  The cookie exchange is now an annual tradition, and I'm invited back. This time we need 11 dozen cookies!  I guess I could just hope to wow them with my packaging. But I decided to plan ahead. I found a cute recipe, bought the ingredients, and plan on doing a dry run before the big day.  I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Why I don't like Fall

Every year I hear more and more people saying that Autumn is their favorite time of the year, a time to slip into forgiving bulky sweaters, ride on hay wagons and go apple picking. After all, Autumn is beautiful here in Michigan. The humidity goes away, the air is crisp and clean, and the leaves turn into picture-book colors. But I don't like it.

Autumn gives me a vague sense of dread. I don't know why. The cooler temps offset those menopausal thermal events, I thoroughly enjoy clean air and apples, and I have some great bulky sweaters. So why is Gir singing the Doom Song inside my head? At first I thought it was the memory of being a kid who wasn't ready for the new school year. Then I thought maybe it was a metaphor for where I am in life, winding down from summer fun and headed towards dormancy. But a couple weekends ago I realized what I actually hate about it - it's the damn leaves! They fall. And fall. And FALL. And then we have to rake them all up before they kill the grass or turn into a slippery death trap. So Autumn is okay, but Fall sucks.

One of the things that made me fall in love with my house is that we are situated on an acre and a half of huge trees. They form a beautiful, thick, rustling canopy all summer, obscuring the neighbors houses and shielding our water-phobic dog from the rain. They burst into vibrant reds and yellows in Autumn, beautiful to look at until they drift down to form a thick carpet on the yard (and the driveway and the porch) until the pile is almost as tall as one of Michigan's treasured landfills.

Having our house up for sale this Fall added a new wrinkle to the annual leaf aggravation. Every time we have a showing we have to pick up all the leaves so potential buyers will think the woodland creatures keep our big lawn clean and tidy. Raking is impossible. It takes too long, and random tines point off at 45-degree angles so you always leave little leaf trails behind you.

We have an electric-powered leaf blower but there is definitely a knack to using it. If you don't wave it with the right momentum in just the right pattern, all the leaves just blow in a big arc over your head and settle down behind you. Just when you find your rhythm the cord vibrates loose and falls on the ground. Eventually you get creative enough to figure a way to tie the cord in a knot around the handle so it can't shake loose. This is effective for about six steps until you stretch the extension cord to its limit, straining to blow away the leaves that are juuuuust outside your reach. So frustrating! 

This year was different. We called in the big guns and borrowed a super-powerful (and super-heavy) backpack blower. I don't know the brand but I think it was powered with a hydroplane engine and looked like something the Ghostbusters would use to suck up ectoplasm. Senior strapped it on and cleaned up most of the lawn before his shoulders gave out. He made it look easy, so I decided to give it a whirl. He gave me a quick tutorial, idled the engine, and pointed me toward the steepest downhill part of the yard where it's easiest to move the leaves.

I felt pretty cool as I headed out with one hand on the throttle, ready to decimate leaves and the StayPuft marshmallow man. I got into position and gave it some juice. The blower roared into life and immediately sent a small tornado into the yard, literally knocking me on my butt as leaves, twigs and squirrels flew into the air.

I managed to get back upright, fix my stance and work my way down the hill, waving the blower wand in spastic arcs that moved the stagnant leaves off the ground. It was still slow going and the pack was crushingly heavy, but blowing wave after wave of damp leaves off the grass and into the woods was as satisfying as peeling the label off my beer bottles.

After coming under attack by our new arsenel, the trees threw in the white flag of defeat.  At last our lawn was bare. Yeah, we ain't afraid of no leafs.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Life after 50

Well what do you know - there is life after 50! And it's always nice to be at the low end of a decade, where the "You-don't-look-a-day-over-50" comments outweigh the "I-can't-believe-you're-almost-60" ones. Lots of people have asked me what I'm going to do now that my project is complete. The only thing I know for sure is that I don't want another deadline right away. So I'm going to putter around the blog world for a while and occasionally post things that are taking up valuable space in my brain.

For example - My blog site is sending me messages telling me that I'm now one of the lucky ones who is eligible for Google Affiliate Ads. This means if sign up and then hawk products on my blog, and you are so impressed that you click on my recommendation and buy the gadget, I get a commission. Oh the possibilities! I'll casually work them into my blogs so you don't realize you are being sucked in ("I don't start my day without heading to Denny's for a Fried Cheese Melt!") and then sleep on the piles of money that will roll in.

I have to admit, even though I'm not signing up, I was a little curious about how it works. I wondered how they chose the products I'd be promoting. Would it be like when I finally gave in and changed my Reader's Digest subscription to the large print version, and now all the ads in the magazine are for macular degeneration and Jitterbug phones instead of for snack crackers and rental cars? So I watched their promotional video and found out that I would get to search and choose to feature ads based on the topic in my blog. This does open a world of quirky possibilities. So excuse me, I need to go get started on that blog about The Girl's school project on nail fungus.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

New thing #50: Everything old is new again

I've been going to our family cottage in Ontario every summer since I was four years old, but I've never seen it in any other season. It's an 8-hour drive if there is no traffic, and with our busy schedules we almost didn't go there this year. But we had committed to closing the place up for the winter (although most of the work is done by our caretaker) and we had some friends with whom we wanted to share the place, so we decided to brave the elements and head up there for a long weekend in the autumn.

The cottage was built by my grandfather and his friends back in 1920, a place for manly men to fish, play cards, drink, swear and not be bothered by any of their women. It has rough-hewn walls, exposed beams, a tin roof, and sits by itself on an island in the middle of Lake Memesagamesing. The only heat is provided by wood stoves, although it has been updated to include electricity and indoor plumbing. Somehow the women wormed their way in over the years, so now it's a family vacation spot. My grandfather passed on many years ago and left the cottage to two of his sons, Dick and Don. Their offspring, known as the Dicks and the Dons, share the cottage. I'm proud to be a Dick.

It's hard for me to put words to all the emotions I feel when I'm at this place. There are so many happy memories. I'm several years younger than my siblings, the dreaded tagalong, but here I had their attention and their companionship. We had swimming competitions, went hiking, played board games and made home movies. We hid from our cousins and smoked weed in the raspberry patch. We explored other islands on the lake, went fishing and frogging, canoed and paddle-boated, and climbed the 'Mountain'.

My father came alive in this place. His stories, his songs, his games and his belly flops have become legend. He would wake us up at the crack of 9:00 by ringing a cowbell and yelling "Rouse out, now, rouse out! Up all hammocks! Show a leg or a Purser's stocking." When I was a teenager, he promised me he would quit waking me up with the cowbell. Instead he would clank and rattle the lid on the woodstove, dropping logs and loudly exclaiming how clumsy he was. Then he would blame the dog, Chip, for making too much noise. He would stomp around outside my bedroom door bellowing "Tippy toe, Chip! Tippy toe!". He would sing along with gusto to the country songs on CKAT, the only station that came in on the radio, even though he didn't know the words. He taught us snippets of naughty songs and nonsense rhymes, and we had a nightly ritual of going out in the boat fishing until the sun went down. He or my mom would stash away some 'fishing chocolate' so even if we didn't catch anything we still came home with a treasure.

My mom, who was pretty easy going and usually up for adventure, would go swimming every day at the cottage. She had the most perfect diving form I'd ever seen, barely making a ripple in the lake. What I didn't appreciate until much later was how much work she did for these vacations, planning food and entertainment and linens for a dozen people every year, cooking the meals, tending to our scraped knees and slivers and chasing away the occasional bat that got into the cabin, unless it happened after she went to bed, where she would just duck under the covers.

I started bringing Senior up when we were dating as teenagers. He loved the place as much as I did. Since my father was getting older and my brothers were more likely to come up with their own friends and family, Senior became my dad's right hand, and soon knew more about the cottage than any of the rest of us.

My father passed away in 1986. I dreaded my first trip to the cottage without him. I thought the memories would haunt me there, but instead I found comfort. I always feel close to him when I'm there. By then, Senior and I had married and, along with my Uncle Don, had taken on most of the responsibility for the cottage. My siblings and cousins had moved away and were starting families of their own, so they didn't take much interest in the cottage. Our vacations took on a new spin. Now we were the ones doing all the shopping and packing, planning and doing the maintenance and keeping the books. But I had a new treasure, as I got to watch my children fall in love with a place that meant so much to me. We taught them the silly songs and stories, explored the lake, fished and ate fishing chocolate, played endless games and woke them up with a cowbell in the morning.

Over the years the vacations have morphed again. My mother can no longer manage the trip. My uncle has passed away. My sister, cousins, and nieces and nephews are again making annual visits and actively participating in maintaining the cottage. Now we have a lot of different personalities trying to make decisions, coordinate vacation time, and generally get along. My sister took over the bookwork, which was a big relief. Occasionally we are able to overlap our visits so we can spend time together at the cottage, but as our families grow and expand it gets more difficult.

So anyway, enough of the old things. This is about New Things, and we had plenty this trip. It was the first time we had brought up our friends from Michigan, the first time The Boy brought a girlfriend up, the first trip we made there without The Girl. It was the first time we'd seen the new wood stove, installed late last summer after the one that had been there the previous 90 years finally had to be replaced. It was the first time I'd been there in the fall, when the leaves were blazing with color and the lake was steaming in the cool morning air, and the first time I had to worry about flurries but not about bugs. It was the first time we drove the entire way there on the highway, which is under perpetual construction and inches along a little further north every year before petering out into a country 2-lane winding through small towns. It's the first time I've ever seen tiny freshwater jellyfish in the lake (thanks to Eagle-eye Kim). And it's the first time I've been conked on the head by a tree limb the size of my arm, requiring a 140-mile round trip to the emergency room to get stapled back together.

It means a lot to me that this trip, to this place, was the final chapter in my New Things project. I've traveled the world, but I think this is the most beautiful and tranquil place on earth. If you ever want to experience Lake Memesagamesing for yourself, contact our friends The Becks at Parolin's Cottages. You won't be disappointed.

This past year has been a great journey. I'm filled with optimism and looking forward to trying New Things until my final breath. And I pass on the challenge to you - go try a New Thing! It doesn't mean that you have to travel the world or conquer a fear or spend a lot of money. You don't need a deadline or a blog. Just reach out and experience something different that life is able to offer, good or bad, and reflect on what you get from it. At the very least, you might get a good story out of it. I hope you've enjoyed reading all of mine.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

New thing #49: Celebration of the Horse, sort of

We don't celebrate horses much at our house. The main reason is that The Girl is highly allergic to them, a fact we discovered right after we plopped her on top of one as a child (followed by another new experience, breathing treatments). I also had a less than stellar experience with a tired old mare at Camp Wyomoco when I was twelve. I never could find the right horseback riding rhythm, so I spent the whole week as a human paddleball. But since the tiny town of Metamora, MI was hosting their annual Celebration of the Horse, and we've never done more than drive through Metamora before, it seemed like a good time for us (minus The Girl) to give horses another try. 

Why the long face?
I checked the schedule events for this one-day celebration,    which kicked off with a pancake breakfast at 7 am and wrapped up after a concert finished around 7 pm. We had a busy day at home, so we planned to head over in the late afternoon. We arrived shortly before 5 pm and were thrilled to find a prime parking spot right in front of festival ground zero, the park where most of the events were being held. They had the usual craft vendors, food booths and not-for-profits, but what made it special was the minature pony rides and half a dozen beautiful horses in temporary pens. We spent a great few minutes with each of the horses, going right up and petting them and mostly avoiding all sorts of horse slobber. As we bid the last one goodbye we noticed that they were starting to tear down the horse pens. In fact, all the booths were coming down. In a matter of minutes, the only thing left standing was the gazebo where the band had just started playing, and by the time they were half way through their first set you wouldn't even know there had been a festival in the park. The whole town and all the horses had rolled up the sidewalk and disappeared. Even the grass had fluffed back into place. Some celebration this turned out to be.

But the evening was not a total loss. Just across the parking lot sat the historical White Horse Inn, the self-proclaimed home of the best burger in Mid-Michigan. We decided to go grab some dinner and went inside. There we found the entire population of Metamora (approximately 30 people) already eating dinner, so we relaxed at the bar while waiting for a table to become available.

The White Horse Inn opened in 1850 as a stagecoach stop, and is the oldest continually-operating restaurant in Michigan. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad and later received a franchise to feed and house overnight passengers of the Michigan Central Railway. They survived and prospered during Prohibition by promoting "breakfast specials", and later added an upstairs tea room, winter sleigh ride/dinner packages, cooking classes and ghost hunts. Legend has it that the Inn is haunted by a ghost named Lorenzo, the original owner. 

The building is really neat. The ceilings are low and the hardwood floors undulate under your feet. It's tavern decor, with wood paneling, small tables, and plenty of kitsch hanging in the bar. We only had to wait about 30 minutes before our table was ready. Many of the current menu items are based on original recipes from the late 1800's. Ordering was a bit of a challenge because our waitress was hard of hearing, requiring everyone in our section to repeat their menu choices loudly. This would come in really handy if you are one of those people that scans the plates of your fellow diners to see what looks good. We tried the 'best' burger and the famous all-you-can-eat fish fry. The food is surprisingly upscale in taste without the usual matching upscale price, and everything we had was fantastic. The portions were generous but we still managed to share some dessert before sliding into a food coma.  (Updated to add that sadly, the White Horse Inn closed without notice about a month after we visited there.  I swear we had nothing to do with it).  ((Updated again - new owners!  Yay!))

Metamora is a quaint, pretty little town nestled in rolling hills. It's a nice place to stop by on your way to somewhere else. You can get a terrific meal there. But if you want to celebrate horses, you'd better get there early.

Monday, October 1, 2012

New thing #48: Thursday Night Live

Click here to listen to the Cold City Cowboys
Cold City Cowboys is a local country band that has only been playing together a short while but is already making a big noise in the local music scene. They were recently invited to perform live at the 99.5 WYCD studios in Ferndale. DJ Rob Stone hosts a program called "Thursday Night Live" that showcases local talent, and listeners are invited to come into the studio to watch the show, eat free food and win prizes. I've never been to a radio studio broadcast, so I wasn't sure what to expect.

We had a little trouble finding the studio, a non-descript building set apart from the other cracker box offices by the radio tower looming overhead. There were a handful of fans gathered in the parking lot, waiting for the doors to open. We chatted with a few, some of whom had never heard of the night's featured musicians. They're VIP club members, regulars to the show who stop by every Thursday for free entertainment and food, which seems like a pretty sweet deal to me. One of the regulars was a tiny old man who was decked out in a fancy purple cowboy shirt, black leather pants, cowboy hat and boots. He was awesome. Another was a friendly and slightly scary guy chugging a Coke, or at least something brown in a Coke bottle.

The doors opened promptly at 8PM. We filed in, signed a release form, and were pointed towards a conference room where hot food from Qdoba Mexican Grill was waiting. Unfortunately we were reading the release form when they pointed this out, and didn't see which way to go. We wandered aimlessly down a hall lined with movie posters from the 70s and 80s, which seemed really out of place until Senior figured out that the sister station sharing space at WYCD is an oldies station. There were only a few people working at the station that evening, most young and all very nice. We could see through a window into the booth where the Cold City Cowboys were going through a sound check with Rob Stone, who bears a strong resemblance to the blond kid in Saved by the Bell.  After a few minutes they opened the door to the studio and invited us in to the booth.

I've seen enough pictures and live feed of on-air radio programs to know to expect a small room with desks, computer screens and big microphones. But I was wondering how they would accommodate a studio audience of up to 40 people. In my mind I pictured myself on a bleacher straight from the set of Jimmy Kimmel. Actually it was more like being in Wayne and Garth's basement. It was an average-sized room with low drop ceilings and plain carpet taped to the floor. The center of the room was filled with a circle of tables and office chairs, and loaded with the computer monitors and microphones that I was expecting. A group of padded stacking chairs upholstered in a nice 80's dusty rose-colored pattern (from the oldies station maybe?) occupied a small area near the door, and the rest of the room was ringed with neon orange couches dotted with coordinating geometric throw pillows. Lots of posters and banners covered the walls and an autographed cardboard cutout of Taylor Swift in a tall silk hat stood nearby. Rob told us to grab a seat anywhere. We did so, lounging on an orange couch in the corner while others sat on chairs or sprawled on the floor or leaned up against the door. The broadcast wasn't starting for another half hour, so he pointed out where the hot food was set up (ohhhhh THAT conference room!) and went out to fix himself a plate. When he returned he briefly explained the format - he would introduce the Cowboys and chat with them for a minute or two, and then they would play two songs, and then there would be a break, and repeat the whole sequence until they'd played 8 songs. We audience members had a job too, to make noise whenever Rob held up a ratty handmade "Applause" sign. We practiced this several times, watching the sound wave display on the computer monitors pulse in response, then settled in as the show started.

It was the first time that the Cold City Cowboys had been interviewed by a major market radio station, and nerves were setting in. The usually-ebullient Levi Bootcut seemed subdued. Although he bantered deftly during the interview portion, he didn't really come to life until later in the set, visibly relaxing as he looked into his girlfriend's eyes. Frank Bash left his bass home for this acoustic set, instead plucking away on a banjo that he had picked up for the first time the previous week. Like Sampson, his energy kicked in when his hair was freed from the Rastacap he wore. Silent Joe Bash let his fingers speak volumes as he kept the beat on a snare box, a cool contraption that looked like a crate but was an ergonomic challenge to play. Trevor, however, looked like he was right where he belonged. He was relaxed, in his element, and sounded better than ever.

When the mics were on the show was a lot of fun. The breaks were kind of weird, with most of us sitting in that uncomfortable silence you encounter on an elevator full of strangers. I think we were all afraid to say much in a room full of recording devices. In no time at all the show was over. The crew has the whole TNL experience down to a science, and did a nice job herding people from the studio to the lobby for prize drawings and pictures after the show, then out the door without anyone feeling rushed. I still don't know how much the internet audience heard while listening to the show being streamed on the Web, but I enjoyed this glimpse inside the radio business.

We listened to the station as we were driving home, and heard the broadcast debut of the Cold City Cowboy's latest release, "Back Home". It's pretty cool that WYCD supports the local music scene like that. If you want to check out the band, visit their Facebook page here, and maybe give them a "Like". It's not just their talent that draws me in, it's their brotherhood. These guys genuinely love and respect their music and each other, and it shows. They support each other, insult each other, and take turns calling the shots. And in case you were wondering, there is one more reason this is my favorite band. The Boy is a Cold City Cowboy. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

New thing #47: Bunco bunch brunch

Anyone who knows me well finds it hilarious that a non-game player like me is in a bunco club. Part of the reason I participate is that "bunco" is code for "get together to eat, drink, gossip, and occasionally toss a pair of dice". But the main reason is the group of women with whom I play.

A job transfer brought us to Michigan ten years ago. We landed in an upscale neighborhood, and I wondered how we would fit in. Senior's hair was longer than mine, I had a couple tattoos, The Girl was in her Goth phase and The Boy hadn't quite grown into his front teeth. We were the only house on the street with resin chairs on the deck and a Harley in the garage. But the neighbors seemed friendly, so when I was invited to fill in as a sub in their bunco club, I decided to give it a try. I remember being intimidated with these women at first. One of them owned a plane, for crying out loud. Another lived in a castle. All were confident, successful and bright. And welcoming. And fun. I've been playing every month since then. If I need to know the name of a good contractor or a recommendation for a great restaurant, I call one of the bunco girls. When I had back surgery, they all pitched in and brought dinner to my family every other night for weeks. We celebrate each others's successes and support each other in hard times, so I really wanted to share a New Thing with my bunco babes.

There is a beautiful venue nearby called the Pine Knob Mansion. It's a popular spot for weddings, and they also host a Sunday brunch. Most of us had never been there, so we decided it would be fun to visit. Since none of us are planning to get remarried, we went for the brunch. We set out on a chilly fall day, only getting lost once on the labyrinth of roads winding up to the Mansion. This English Manor residence was built in 1927 by Colonel Sidney Waldon, who served as VP of the Cadillac Motor Company and was also responsible for creating the landing field now known as Selfridge Air Force Base. Only a few of the rooms are open to the public, but they are all impressive. There is a library straight ahead of the foyer, a beautiful paneled bar and ballroom to the left and the Great Hall to the right, where brunch is served. A stone terrace stretches across the back of the home, anchored by a gazebo and bordered by a serpentine wall. The house and surrounding gardens are located on the highest point in Southeast Michigan, literally right next to Pine Knob ski hill, and offer the best views in town.

The Great Hall has a beautiful arched ceiling, huge windows accented with stained glass, and ornate wood trim. The brunch buffet is laid out with a selection of traditional breakfast foods (including an omelette station) and a variety of heavier lunch selections. I felt it was my duty to sample just about everything they had to offer, even managing to nab pieces off a pyramid of fresh fruit without starting an avalanche across the white tablecloth. The attentive staff made sure our glasses were full and our empty plates were removed promptly. (It could be that they were just trying to stay warm, since there was a cold draft through the hall that lowered the temperature to almost unbearable proportions). After stuffing myself, I noticed that people were coming out of the bar with plates piled with cake and chocolate covered strawberries. Always up for a challenge, I uncorked my hollow leg and went to check it out. You could make your own ice cream sundaes, or help yourself to an array of desserts that I'm pretty sure came straight out of Costco's freezer case. They even had chocolate covered bacon, which of course we all tried. It was very salty and pretty disgusting.

Brunch at Pine Knob Mansion was a lovely, relaxing experience and I recommend it to anyone. But if you want to book a wedding there, I suggest you check the concert schedule at nearby DTE music theater first, or don't bother hiring a band. And wear a jacket. And stay away from the dessert bacon.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

New thing #46: Bikini boot camp

I've been hearing about Bikini Boot Camp at my local gym for almost two years. It's tough enough that some people enroll in a conditioning class just to work their way up to this one. It's run by a petite blond dynamo who just returned from maternity leave and can still bounce a quarter on her stomach. My best friend is one of her recruits.

Just to clarify - you don't wear a bikini to this class; it's supposed to whip you into bikini shape. My current shape is somewhere between pear and starfruit, and I knew one class wasn't going to do the trick. But if I don't challenge myself, who will? So I put on my big-girl pants (the ones with the built in sports diaper, just in case jumping was involved - I am fifty, after all) and headed to the gym.

We warmed up on the elliptical for about fifteen minutes before going to meet our instructor, Jessica. [Note: Jessica is actually a friendly, soft-spoken professional who took time to explain each move and correct our form, all while giving us useful tips like how to avoid stressful eating and how to reduce water retention bloat. But in the interest of artistic license, I will refer to her as the Drill Sergeant (Sarge) for the rest of this post.] 

Sarge handed us tonight's program, a full page of exercises focusing on upper body and core moves. Most of the moves would be done on something called the Tower, a tall, sleek torture rack with adjustable straps attached to a vertical sliding mechanism. Our training was broken into four sections. Each section had two different exercises that targeted opposing muscle groups. I can never remember the names of the muscles, so I just related each section to my problem areas:

     Group 1 - Back Fat/Armpit Bulge

     Group 2 - Batwings/Popeye Arms
     Group 3 - Droopy Shoulders/Humpback
     Group 4 - Beer Belly/Plank Butt

For the first group, Sarge said to move the slide up to the top of the Tower and put the weight between 15 and 25 pounds. Naturally I set mine at 12. We did fifteen reps of Back Fat with each arm, then segued immediately into fifteen reps of Armpit Bulge with each arm. I finished and was feeling pretty good until Sarge told us that we were repeating the entire set three more times. And get this, the last set didn't stop at fifteen reps - after you finished those, you rested for a few seconds then repeated reps until you reached the point of muscle failure. May I say, this was not the most motivating instruction I've ever received. 

I made it through the whole routine, using the counting technique I learned as a kid. "1, 2, skip a few, 44, skip some more, 99, 100." When I finished, I looked at Sarge like a happy puppy. She pointed to the door and said "Laps!" Two of them around the track; a mix of jogging and sprinting. By the end of the second lap I was composing my last will and testament in my head.

We were expected to repeat this whole routine for all four muscle groups. All the other Brunhildas quickly lowered the slide on their Tower to chest level and got to work on their Batwings. I gamely reached up to release the lever on my Tower, but since my arms were now jelly I couldn't get it to budge. I ended up standing on the base of the Tower, pulling with both arms in short, jerky motions accompanied by short, jerky grunts, until I finally wiggled the lever out far enough to set the slide into the correct position. After this everything became kind of a blur. We moved on through endless sets of Batwings and Popeye Arms, around the track twice more, then endless sets of Droopy Shoulders and Humpback. At this point I hit the figurative wall. Light headed and nauseous, I sipped water and took wobbly walking laps around the track until I felt better. I did return and try a set of Beer Belly/Plank Butts, but only made it through one before common sense took over and I headed down to the locker room.

I took Sarge's advice and stretched out my throbbing muscles, then grabbed my gym bag and headed to my car. I had to use my knees during the drive home because I couldn't get my arms to move the steering wheel. I was sore the next day (week), but not as bad as I had feared. I even heard a tiny voice deep inside me that said I should go back and keep trying until I make it through the whole class without skimping on any moves.  But I was able to drown it out with a nice glass of red wine from the comfort of my couch.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

New thing #45: Disc golf

I'm counting down my final few New Things, and with less than a month to the deadline, my family is pitching right in to make sure I reach my goal. Today they took me to play disc golf. There are a lot of courses around here, some easy and some more challenging. We went to Seymour Lake Park and played the back nine; a nice course that winds through the woods before coming out into the open near the ball fields. 

Disc golf is played by tossing flying discs down a course, aiming for the chains and basket of the target pole. You'd think you could just grab a Frisbee from the garage to play. But no, you have to go out and buy official disc golf discs, which are basically Frisbees with a thick beveled edge. They have putters and drivers and mid-range discs, all with different degrees of loft and speed. I tried a few different kinds, and every one I threw went about six feet and landed in a bush. 

I was having too much fun to get discouraged. The Boy showed me how to wind up on the tee (like pull-starting a motor) and Senior taught me to keep the disc level during release. The Girl and The Boyfriend kept us laughing and helped retrieve my wayward discs. I did get better as we moved through the course, despite the fact it took me two turns to cover as much ground as any of the boys did in a single throw. And even though I had a hard time zeroing in on the target, I managed a direct hit on The Girl with my disc. Twice.

I played real golf once, about thirty years ago. I made it to the second green before throwing my clubs down in disgust and swearing that I'd never play the game again. I've matured a lot since then. I haven't improved, but I've definitely matured. I'm a long way from the LPDGA, but I had a really fun afternoon with my family and I will play this game again.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

New thing #44: This one sounds more elegant in Haiku

Why yes, that IS two women on a giant inflatable Hot Dog.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Tubing seemed like fun;
But I had never tried it.
Sounds like a New Thing.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Inflate the Wiener!
And we shall conquer the waves.
But the lake says no.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Flying in the wake.
A moment later, airborne.
A nose enema.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Mermaids of the frankfurter
Regain the saddle.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Friday, September 7, 2012

New thing #43: Stand Up Paddling

 What's SUP!
Stand up paddling (SUP) is one of the fastest growing water sports, probably because it's not hard and you don't need a ton of equipment. I've been noticing people out on our lake with paddle boards and thought it looked like fun. Old men, pregnant women and dogs have all glided past our dock with ease. It wasn't long before my buddies at Groupon made me an offer I couldn't refuse - a paddle board lesson for three people taught by Urban Wave SUP. Sarah and Chani started the business earlier this year, and they'll bring everything you need to get the fun started.

Senior and The Girl joined me for our early morning lesson. The air was cool; the lake was calm and quiet. Chani showed up right on time and unloaded a variety of boards. She has a fun surfer vibe and set us right at ease. The 90-minute lesson starts on land, where you learn some basic rules and practice holding the paddle correctly. 
Before long we were in the water and ready to practice what we'd learned. 

We attached leashes to our ankles and The Girl bungeed a lobster to the front of her board for luck. You start out on your knees, and then push yourself up to a standing position. I thought this would be the hardest part, but it was actually pretty easy and we all popped right up. Chani continued to give us tips as she led us out into the lake, like how to brace yourself to shift your weight so your toes don't fall asleep from the death grip they have on the board. The stroke you use while paddling is different than propelling a kayak or a canoe. You keep your arms straighter and use your core to gain momentum. If you do it right it's a great workout.

After a few minutes, both Senior and The Girl really got the hang of it. I, on the other hand, couldn't get rid of my jelly legs. They both skimmed around the lake, executing turns and slicing through the shallows, while I continued to wobble and paddle around in circles, cursing all those old men and pregnant women and their dogs. I only fell once, somehow managing to end up sitting on the board instead of touching the icky lake bottom, but I never felt relaxed and was getting pretty frustrated. Then Chani suggested I trade boards with Senior, who had been paddling a longer, heavier board. Eureka! It made a world of difference and I immediately began to enjoy myself. SUP frees you from the confines of the canoe or kayak. You can turn on a dime or in a lazy circles, skip over the wake of a passing boat, streak across the bay or pause to watch the Bluegills swimming beneath you. You can stand, sit, kneel or just lie down and float. It's about the most versatile water toy I've ever tried.

By the end of the lesson we were considering buying boards and starting our own SUP community. But a good board isn't cheap, and you have to have a place to store it. Renting will work better for us for now, especially since the girls at Urban Wave will deliver the rental boards to our door. So keep your eyes open, we might be cruising by your dock one of these days.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

New thing #42: Hot air ballooning

“Well, one day I went up in a balloon and the ropes got twisted, so that I couldn’t come down again. It went way up above the clouds, so far that a current of air struck it and carried it many, many miles away. For a day and a night I traveled through the air, and on the morning of the second day I awoke and found the balloon floating over a strange and beautiful country."                                                                 ― L. Frank Baum, Oz: The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz

If you ever get the opportunity to experience balloon flight, you might find yourself wishing to be in Professor Marvel's shoes. It's a unique adventure that begins when your pilot snaps a tracer up into the sky to check the wind, and ends with a traditional champagne toast after you land.

I often see Sky Adventures hot air balloons floating in the sky over Oxford, so I decided to book a ride with them. At first I thought I might be flying solo, but then my fearless friend Marie agreed to join me. It took three tries before the weather and our schedules aligned in ballooning harmony, but we finally got to meet the crew and our fellow passengers. Marie and I were assigned to the Mini Phee, the smallest of four balloons that would be lifting off that evening. One of the pilots released a small latex balloon into the sky to check the prevailing winds, which determines the launch site.  The boy scout camp in Metamora was chosen, so we headed there in a caravan of trucks and trailers and watched the crew set up. It was remarkable how quickly the baskets and frames were unloaded and assembled. The balloons, which were stored in large canvas bags inside the trailers, are unloaded by slowly driving the trailer ahead while crew members dole it out on the ground, foot by foot. A flame-retardant skirt is attached to the end of the balloon envelope and then strung onto the basket frame. Now came the really clever part: diesel-powered industrial fans were wheeled out and used to inflate the balloons. It was fascinating to see the long tubes of nylon grow into colorful elongated spheres while crew members held firmly onto the skirts. Once the balloons were fully inflated, the pilot crawled inside the basket.  His crew slowly tipped the basket upright while the pilot fired up the burners. This heated up the air enough to keep the envelope inflated until we were ready to board.

A small portable ladder makes climbing into the basket quite easy. In no time we were rising up into the air, more smoothly than any elevator. It's very peaceful but not as quiet as I expected. There is a steady hiss from the fuel line, and when the burner comes on it erupts in a noisy burst. It's also quite warm, most likely from the huge deadly plume of fire hovering just over your head. The balloon rotates slowly as you drift through the sky, so sometimes you see where you're going and sometimes you see where you've been. The view is phenomenal, so clear that we could see the Detroit skyline over 40 miles away, and so much better than peering through an airplane's dirty plexiglas window. I think anyone who rides a motorcycle can relate to the wonder of actually being able to see and taste and smell the scenery as it goes by.

We meandered over the countryside at an average speed of about 6.5 mph, alternating between rising up then gradually dipping low enough to let the trees brush the dust off the bottom of the basket. At our highest altitude we reached 1400 feet. Neither Marie nor I felt any fear, even when hanging out over the side of the basket to take pictures of our reflection in a lake, or trying to grab pinecones out of the treetops. Great Blue herons glided below us, deer paused in the woods before dashing under the trees, and livestock paced in their fields, perhaps unsettled by the strange sound of the balloon above them. Most of the ride was over rural countryside, where the house-to-chicken ration leaned heavily in favor of the chickens. We waved and called to people out working in their yards or sitting on their front porch enjoying the soft evening air.

After about 45 minutes the tanks ran low and it was time to land. Our pilot picked out a suitable landing place in an undeveloped double lot of a country club subdivision, about 10 miles from our lift off point. There is a vent at the top of the balloon that he can manipulate by pulling on a cord, and that helps him regulate our speed and loft. He told us to hold on and keep our knees springy in case the landing was rough, then expertly steered us towards a 'Chaser' who had followed us on the ground. When we got close enough, our Chaser reached up and guided the basket down to a smooth gentle landing. We climbed out of the basket and helped tip it on one side to be dismantled, then waited as the crew walked the length of the balloon, squeezing out the air and securing it with straps before rolling it up. We helped them return it to the canvas bag while carefully shooing away the many curious grasshoppers that inhabited the empty lot. Apparently a grasshopper trapped in the nylon of the balloon will eat its way out.

We drove back to our meeting point and joined the other balloonists to swap stories and pop open some champagne (or sparkling juice). We toasted our successful flights and agreed that they ended all too soon, and we should do it again. Maybe next time we'll get all the way to Oz.

Friday, August 31, 2012

New thing #41: Paint Creek Trail

At the trail head
One of my friends inspired this New Thing by asking me if I'd ever been on the Paint Creek Trail. Since this was another spot I've always meant to visit, I was glad to meet her there one evening after work. We found great parking spots next to a big hedge behind a restaurant at the north end of the trail, which starts out in the heart of the Village of Lake Orion. I was a little surprised at how many homes back right up to the trail at this point. We might have given off a little Creeper vibe as we passed by and checked out their back yards, noticing if they had mowed their lawns or if they needed new kitchen curtains. But soon the paved trail gave way to dirt and we had left the village behind. We finished our warm-up and started running at an easy pace. This is a great path to run on - narrow but well maintained, hard packed and level, very scenic as it follows Paint Creek - and bonus! There are bathrooms along the way! The only problem is the trail is really busy, with a steady stream of kamikaze bicycles that whizz past you at full speed. Happily, most of the riders yelled "On your left!", which provided enough warning for us to get out of their way. There is also a spot with a big warning sign telling you to watch for wayward arrows from the nearby archery range. Interestingly, I only noticed the warning signs posted for people heading south. I guess you northward-bound hikers are expendable.

We ran for nearly 3 miles, feeling pretty athletic until we realized that the whole way had been down hill. So we walked the return, allowing us to really enjoy the natural surroundings. We passed fields of wildflowers going to seed and crossed over mossy ravines. The creek criss-crossed the path several times, with sets of steps that invited you down to splash in the shallow water before it meandered out of sight. Benches were strategically placed for those who wanted to rest and watch the birds. At one point we noticed two new-century hippie chicks exiting one of the many side paths running perpendicular to the trail and figured we must be near a party spot. I couldn't see anything through the trees, but eagle-eye Kim noticed some graffiti. We decided to check it out so we turned down the next side path and found this fun and funky art explosion sharing the space with Mother Nature:

We made our way back to the main trail and continued towards the village. I was busy casting one eye to the sky in case any disgruntled Archers were hiding in the woods, when we heard a really strange noise coming down the trail behind us. It was a girl cruising by on an Elliptigo, one of the coolest things I've seen in a while. I have got to find a place that rents these!

Dusk was approaching by the time we got back to our cars, but there were very few bugs and the weather was so perfect that it didn't seem possible that an hour and a half had gone by. The Paint Creek trail is definitely a place to visit again.  

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

New thing #40: Voilà! Soufflé

One of the things on my short list when I started this project was to channel my inner Julia Child and make a soufflé. I really want to be a better cook than I am, and this seemed like a nice challenge. I was tempted to make a chocolate soufflé, but I decided to stick to the classics instead. I had this recipe, and what better way to honor a traditional French dish than with a mixture of Italian and Swiss cheeses?

Senior was out of town, but both The Boy and The Girl were home on a weekday night. This is a rare occurrence and deserving of a special occasion meal. Unfortunately I didn’t have most of the key ingredients. I headed out to the grocery store, but I don’t seem to be physically able to enter a Kroger without filling a cart. By the time I got home it was after 8:00 pm and both had eaten. Undeterred, I got out my utensils, put on a fancy polka-dotted apron (really) and pre-heated the oven.

Soufflés are actually pretty easy to make! It’s basically a white sauce with cheese and eggs. My Food Network addiction finally paid off as I had no problem thickening my sauce, grating the cheese, separating and tempering egg yolks and beating egg whites into beautiful tall foamy peaks. Everything folded together nicely, and in less than 20 minutes I had six ramekins ready to go in the oven.

I reminisced while I cooked. My mother’s mother was a home economics teacher, but she was not the warm fuzzy type that liked to cook with her grandchildren. My strongest memory of her is being told to get my hair out of my face. Mom cooked to please my father, who felt that salt was the only necessary seasoning. Spaghetti sauce was a can of undiluted condensed tomato soup, salad dressing was defrosted lemonade concentrate, and casseroles were barely tolerated. Now, sometimes meals were more exciting. At least once a summer my dad would bring home live lobsters and we’d feast. On occasion we ate stuffed beef heart, venison stew, and roast duck. But a typical dinner at our house was plain meat, boiled potatoes and frozen vegetables all cooked into submission and served swimming in butter and salt. It's no wonder that exotic foods would become a passion in my adult life.

My creation
Since I’ve never eaten a soufflé, I had no idea how they should look on the inside or how they should taste. When the timer went off, I took one out of the oven to check for doneness. The Girl and I dug in our spoons, but the middle hadn’t set. She accused me of trying to give them salmonella, and The Boy refused to even try it. But after another five minutes they were done and beautifully tall. We admired the golden brown crust. We poked them and watched them deflate. We entertained ourselves by calling out "Ermahgerd! Serfler!!" The only part we didn’t really enjoy was eating them. 

Basically, a soufflé tastes like eggs. Hot, cheesy, kinda wet scrambled eggs. It would be a great choice for a Sunday brunch or as a light dinner with a salad and a glass of wine. It was not a great choice for college-age kids who had already filled up on cereal and Sweetarts, and were on their way out for the evening. Nevertheless, my inner Julia was satisfied.