Saturday, September 25, 2010

On Chocolate (Or, The great taste-testing adventure)

"Everyone's a critic." And now, so are my daughter and I. In attempt to find something creative to do on a rainy Saturday, my 9-year-old daughter and I decided to be our own chocolate critics. As self-proclaimed chocolate connoisseurs, we considered ourselves up to the task. We went to our neighborhood Kilwin's and ordered one of almost everything from the individual cordials/truffles tray. It was an expensive experiment worth its weight in chocolate, not so much because it was delicious but rather because it was enlightening.

We sat down outside the store under the covered patio and got to work evaluating each chocolate based on smell, texture, and taste, and finishing it off with a rating from 1 to 10. We sampled eleven different pieces, the first three of which did not come from the glass display but from the open basket section where each individually-wrapped piece sold for 40 cents. The remaining eight pieces came from the counter and sold for over $1 a piece. The results surprised us.

The only two perfect 10's went to the individually-wrapped pansy, a 40-cent item that was rich and pure in its flavor and had just the right amount of bite, and the chocolate mint truffle with its smooth, authentic mint filling. The rest of the high scores were as follows:

-the coffee truffle (smooth, thick filling with an authentic coffee flavor) = 9.5
-butter cream (melty, soft center just like butter cream frosting) = 8
-chocolate heart (individually-wrapped 40-cent  item with a pure chocolate flavor) = 6

From this point on, it got ugly:

-amaretto truffle (not so sweet but with a smooth center) = 5
-chocolate dome (individually-wrapped 40-cent item, slightly bitter) = 4
-chocolate bon bon (white chocolate shell with disappointing center) = 3.5

The last three scored so low because their flavors were indistinguishable. Here's our best guess of what we ate:

-Irish cream truffle = 3
-hazelnut truffle (smooth center but no nutty flavor) = 2
-champagne truffle (smelled like coconut!) = 2

When all was said and done, we walked away from the table deeply unsatisfied with an aftertaste that sent us to the water fountain, convinced that the taste of public water would be more pleasing than the bitterness that saturated our tongues.

To close, let me just say this. I LOVE CHOCOLATE. And so does my daughter. But our final analysis is that Kilwin's is overrated and overpriced. We agree that chocolate bliss can be more readily achieved with a Lindor truffle, though I prefer dark chocolate while my daughter will fight to the end that milk chocolate rules.

We enjoyed our outing despite the disappointing results, but I think our next chocolate critique should take place in Switzerland, preferably in Zurich at the Lindt & Spr√ľngli store. Anyone care to join us?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

On Cynicism (Or, When the learning curve doesn't exist)

Apparently, I should buy the Shark Navigator Vacuum and the NuWave Oven Pro because my house is filthy and my food isn't being prepared in a healthful manner. This from my 12-year-old addicted to infomercials. Normally, I would link here, but since I have no intention of promoting these products, there'll be no linkage today. Instead I give you the heartfelt plea of my son (and a glimpse into the mind of a child with Asperger's Disorder):

"But Mom, with the Shark you'll never lose suction and it's easy to maintain. With only four easy payments of $49.95, you can get the Shark AND the free Shark Steam Mop, which is  a $99 value!"
I don't know...never losing suction? He's got a point there, I guess.

The good news is I don't have to pay any attention to my son's hard sell because my 9-year-old daughter is doing my mommy job for me. She berates him for his naivet√© as she tries to convince him that the advertisers want him to believe what they say, that the product just looks amazing, and that it's actually not a great deal.

The thing is just one year ago, my daughter was right there on that band wagon with her brother, trying to sell me on other house-improvement tools like Command hooks and picture frame hangers. But somewhere between eight and nine years old, the cynicism kicked in. Somewhere between crooked teeth and the first phase of braces, the skeptical side showed its face. Somewhere between Dora the Explorer and iCarly, the world taught my little girl to be a skeptic. I imagine it's developmentally appropriate, but it's all new to me given the path my son has taken.

I ask myself if cynicism is taught or caught, and in the case of my daughter, it has definitely been caught. But what about my son? Is it my job as his parent to teach him this characteristic? Or is it all right for me to let him live in gullible bliss, believing everything he hears (which he does) and also being incapable of telling a lie (even a white one)? Recognizing people's ulterior motives is an important skill, and my son needs to be taught this while my daughter has picked it up instinctually. Yet it pains me to have to consciously teach such an attitude of distrust.

I am reminded of the adage, "Ignorance is bliss." But I feel I would be remiss in letting my son walk through middle school with such ignorance since other kids will be quick to blow up his bliss given the first chance to mock him.

This is my task teach my son to see the possible hidden lies, to understand there is bad to balance out the good, and to go through his days with the understanding that not all that glitters is gold - which is a whole other battle to fight since he takes everything literally. Euphemisms, adages, colloquial expressions...torture for a person with Asperger's.

I suppose I could sit back and let my daughter take care of things for me since she's usually eager to criticize her brother and teach him these lessons so painfully. Okay, there's my cynical side, which negates the above-asked question of whether my daughter's cynicism was caught or taught. At least I know I'm doing my job well with her.

What say you? Is cynicism a necessary survival trait?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

On Long Hair (Or, A Lady Godiva Complex?)

It's five minutes before test time in a college classroom, but the scuttle in the hall outside has nothing to do with the chapters in question and everything to do with hair accessories.

"Does anyone have a ponytail holder? I forgot mine," a twenty-something girl shouts.
"I've got a clip," a thirty-something woman offers.
"My hair's too thin for those things," a forty-something woman says. "That's why I need rubberbands."
The first girl nods in empathy.
"I have an extra scrunchy," another young woman announces.
The first girl sighs with relief as she accepts the fabric-covered elastic. "Life saver."

When I was in college, this pre-exam interchage would never have happened. The styles back then included bobs...


and teased hair sprayed so thickly that strands rarely fell into the face.

(Yeah, it's me. Junior year of college. My hair's not thick enough to get really big, but you get the idea.)

Since hair fashions, like any other type of fashion, are always changing, long hair eventually came back in style. First, it was long straight hair, causing every wavy- and curly-haired girl to buy a flat iron or seek expensive Keratin treatments. But now it seems long, natural tresses are in, so anything goes.

Which leads me to the college classroom observation. In the class being tested, there are thirteen females ranging in age from 18-47, and each and every one of them (including me, the professor) has hair at least five inches below the shoulder. (And not one of them has bangs - another aspect of hair fashion that seems to have gone the way of perms.) These women ususally wear their long hair loose and flowing, but today almost all of them have it pulled back in a bun or the sloppy-style ponytail, another fashion newbie. They look so darned studious it's all I can do not to stand up and cheer them on to an "A".

Why is long hair so popular? With all the maintenance required for most of us to make long hair look good, why does this fashion continue coming back around?

Easy. It's feminine, versatile, and flattering to most faces. While it takes a naturally beautiful face to pull off a short hair style well, an otherwise average-looking girl is flattered by long layers around her face. And no man can deny the sex appeal of a woman wearing an up-do to expose typically-covered neck and shoulders.

Despite our historical (not to be confused with hysterical) cries for equality, it seems we women still crave the feeling of femininity. And why not? We are not men, after all, and working with our sexuality, sensuality, or whatever we've got has always been a useful tool in this man-controlled world.  From the 11th century days of Lady Godiva (whose long mane did more than simply cover her necessities) to the 21st century hair fashions, long hair is here to stay.
Lady Godiva

So how do you wear your hair?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

On Sad Stories (Or, William Faulkner was spot on)

William Faulkner said, “Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.” I’m not a Faulkner fan - let's be clear about that - but these particular words ring true for me. As they do for many of us. In Meg Waite Clayton’s novel, The Wednesday Sisters, she asks:
“Why are we drawn to sad stories?...No one wants sad in real life. You want the sad life behind door number one, Monty, or the happy ending behind curtain number two? And yet sad plays well in literature. Romance and tragedy. Romeo and Juliet, Anna Karenina…Why is that?”

I got to thinking, and here’s what I came up with:
We say we want happy endings in our stories, but when that happens without incident, we’re cynical about it. “That could never happen so easily.” Or we’re envious of the characters for not having achieved that happiness without struggle. “Not real, no way,” we claim. So even though we want things to go well for our characters, we feel cheated or ripped off if it’s unbelievable.

Happiness is fleeting. We feel exhilarated, but it’s hard to carry that joy around for long since, ironically, it is that happiness that gives us the power to move on. Sadness, on the other hand, sits deep within us for a spell, doing some damage and causing a ripple effect as we contemplate our misery. It reminds us we are alive.

How many of us have said to ourselves while perusing options for DVD rentals, "I'm in the mood for a good cry"? We never call it a bad cry. Think about it. Sharing in a character's sadness is like traveling through cyber-space. It's virtual sadness, which feels as real as the real thing but doesn't way us down the way our own grief could. It's cathartic.

Sad songs do the same thing for our souls. They help us feel passionate about something but then allow us to move on. Because even though the music and lyrics stirred up something real within us, they don't bog us down with real troubles. I, for one, like to be stirred but not shaken. But as Faulkner implied, given the choice to be shaken up or left stagnant, I'd take shaken up any day. Drama queen, you say? Perhaps. But life is messy.

What say you? Are you ever up for a stirring tear-jerker, or does that kind of story suck the life out of you?

Monday, September 6, 2010

On the Kindness of Strangers (Or, When it's okay not to be kind)

Imagine this scenario:

You're in a waiting room with people coming and going. A stranger several seats away asks you to watch her laptop while she runs to the restroom. You nod, and the woman is gone. One moment later, another stranger casually approaches the laptop, unplugs it, and wraps the whole thing under her arm as she walks away.

What do you do? Do you yell to her to stop? Maybe it's the first stranger's friend picking up the computer for her. I mean, who would be so brazen as to steal a computer in front of another person?

When the first stranger returns from the restroom and finds her computer gone, she turns to you with unabashed anger. "Where's my computer?!" Suddenly, the problem is yours because you took responsibility for a stranger's possession.

This kind of thing happens more frequently than you'd imagine. Because of this, I decided years ago not to accept responsibility when a stranger innocently asks me to "watch their stuff". So yesterday, when the first part of the above scenario happened, I smiled kindly at the woman and apologized, explaining that I wouldn't take responsibility for her computer. Oh, the dirty look that followed. And all I'm thinking is how does she know that I'm not the exact person who would steal it?

The woman left the computer anyway, which means if she was prepared to do so, she shouldn't have asked me in the first place. If she's that trusting, she should have simply taken the risk, hoping that nobody would have touched the laptop since I was present.

For the record, I once witnessed a mother ask another woman to watch her toddler sleeping in the stroller so she could run to the bathroom. People...please!

I hate not to be the Good Samaritan, but this is setting yourself up for trouble. If I sound cynical, answer me this. Why does airport security specifically advise travelers not to accept goods from others in the airport and to report abandoned luggage? Life can be beautiful, but it's also pretty dirty sometimes. Agreeing to take responsibility for a stranger's property is never wise. And asking strangers to take on that burden is unfair.

If your item is that valuable, pack it up and take it with you. And if you're really willing to leave it for a few moments, go for it (but not with young children) and hope that honesty and morality will prevail. Like Anne Frank wrote in her diary, "Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart."

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On Bucket Lists (Or, Wollen wir tanzen?)

I've never given thought to a bucket list, mostly because I can't imagine what would happen if I managed to accomplish all the items. Would that mean it was time to kick the bucket? Or time to make a new list? I'd spend a lifetime making lists, checking them off, and then chasing after new lists, which feeds the possibility of frightening addictions if you ask me (which I know you didn't, but you get my two cents' worth anyway).

That nonsense having been said, I was watching an episode of Samantha Brown's Passport to Europe, and everything changed for me in about two minutes, which was about how long she spent on the segment in Vienna, Austria that would inspire item #1 on my bucket list.

She danced at a Viennese Ball.

The Vienna Ball season runs annually from the New Year through February. The above shot shows the opening of a ball where the debutantes open the dance with the first Waltz of the evening. After they've done their rounds, the public joins in for the rest of the evening. And apparently "the public" could be anybody. Yeah, even you or I could buy a ticket to a ball, don our finest threads, and dance like princesses in venues worthy of royalty but open to Joe Schmos like us. I watched Samantha Brown glide across the floor doing the Waltz - which, for the record, is a relatively simple dance to learn - and looking so fairy-tale elegant that I said out loud (and I was alone when I said this), "I want that to be me."

At this point, I should mention that I've been coveting Samantha Brown's job for years, but this is the first time I actually believed it possible for me to have that kind of moment...that is, without having her meet up with an accident for me to get there.

As soon as my husband came home, I told him about my new bucket list, the one with only one item on it. He was nonplussed.

Hubby: With all the worldly adventure out there to conquer, you want to dance the Waltz at a Vienna Ball?
Me: Yes. I mean, Ja.
Hubby: I want to go white-water rafting on the Colorado River, class 5 rapids.
Me: Wunderbar. Enjoy.
Hubby: You want to Waltz in Vienna. (a statement, but it's filled with incredulity)
Me: You don't like dancing. I get it. But think of the level of THAT challenge - learning the Waltz so you could take me to Vienna and treat me like a princess, just for one night of fairy-tale romance.
Hubby: (the ultimate romantic, truth be told) OK. As soon as I win the lottery - item #1 on MY bucket list.

I may not have a date on the calendar for my Viennese Ball, but just dreaming about its possibility fills me with hope...which I guess is the main purpose of a bucket list anyway.

What say you? What's on your bucket list?