Friday, December 30, 2016

Our Holiday Newsletter

Ken and I did not get around to writing our annual newsletter. Somehow, it wasn't "in us" this year. After 30 years of producing our droll song parodies, graphic mash-ups, and comic spoofs, we have hit the proverbial wall. Now it's almost New Years and it's almost too late.

Nor has it been "in me" lately to write my blog, "Brave Neuf World!" Indeed! How ironic for someone who is not feeling very brave these days. And then there's my sub-heading, "Field Notes from Life's Little Moments," which I fear comes across as quite trivial when so many Big Moments have arisen this year. Endeavoring to be a humor writer in such a fraught environment as 2016 has presented its challenges, to say the least. The real pros accomplish it, but mostly current events have prompted more biting satire and scathing sarcasm than folksy, Erma Bombeck-esque observational witticisms.

Sure, you could paraphrase the old saying, "When the going gets tough, the world needs laughter," and I would agree wholeheartedly. Laughter, love, kindness, charity, tenderness, tolerance, helpfulness, compassion. All needed in abundance, among other human qualities. But notes on inconsequential daily events? Maybe not so much.

But then again, maybe the mundane day-to-day stuff is exactly what keeps us going. We still have to go to the grocery store, as Ken is fond of saying. I love to cook; dinner prep is my favorite time of day. Ken's expertise is wine selection. We enjoy a glass or two with dinner. I got new cookbooks for Christmas and now I'm working through recipes that The Barefoot Contessa prepares for her beloved husband, Jeffrey. Ken wrote a tag on the gift, To: Lesley, From: Jeff-er-rey; gentle mocking of a TV rival. 

We take Riley for walks. Each of us has our own style and rhythm. Ken likes the brisk, long trek through Hills and Dales (literally, that's the name of the park near us) and I'm given to understand that they gossip about me along the way. When the dog and I go out, we prefer a more rambling, "Stop and smell the roses," approach. I call Riley's nose-driven excursions, "Checking his D-mail." The dog version of social media.

We get away now and again. Nether of us has ever been bitten by the "see the world" travel bug. So our trips are modest. Florida, British Columbia, New York, Michigan in 2016. We like a nice hotel, a long beach, art galleries and museums, seeing Broadway shows, visiting friends, eating great food and drinking great wine. Riley stays at Wags Inn, the ultimate in canine summer camps. We did an overnight in Cincinnati this week. We have a favorite pub that serves excellent fish and chips.

Christmas is not over at our house. We keep the tree up and the lights on until the first week of January. I saw a "real" tree on December 26th, left out on the street for garbage collection. It was so sad that it had been kicked to the curb a day after Christmas. After, what ? 63 years of live, pine-scented trees of all shapes and sizes, we got a fake one last year. You'll be glad to know that it is a tremendous success. Not a needle on the carpet. A Frasier Fir candle masks the musty fragrance of our mildewy basement where the tree has been stored since last year.

I take my cue for taking down decorations when the house up the street starts to wind things up. Their nativity display follows the liturgical calendar with amazing precision. I love the absurdity of large, kneeling, plastic, lighted figures that begin their pageant a few days before Christmas. The manger awaits with sheep and cows already lowing. Mary and Joseph and a donkey kneel their way over from the garage across the lawn, taking a few days to reach their destination. Overnight on the 24th, the baby Jesus appears, as do the shepherds. Soon the three wise men and a camel genuflect their way to the blessed site from the direction of the driveway. They arrive on Epiphany, hang around for a bit and then ago home by another way, in the opposite direction, around the back of the house across the patio. Mary, Joseph and the infant also make their way back toward the garage from whence they came. I don't know if the family in this house performs this rite with great sincerity and reverence, or with a touch of whimsy. I am tickled by the delicious irony of it all.

I put tubes of chapstick in Ken's Christmas stocking every year. Neither of us ever sees them again. I have no idea where they go. I also have no idea why people wear down vests. Don't their arms get cold? The other night after I had come in from shopping, Ken asked me, "How's your knee?" I said, "Yes, I got what I needed." But I don't need hearing aids. I took a can of broth out of the pantry this evening. The Best Before date was January 28, 2017. I thought, "Gee. Is it too close to the expiry to still be good?" I used it anyway. We're still here.

Maybe that's enough. We're still here. The world has not ended. There is beauty and love all around. We are grateful for our wonderful life, our friends, our family. And if we need to "cross the Alps" we'll let you know. 

Much love to all,

Lesley, Ken and Riley

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Scary, kids!

Hallowe'en was way scarier when I was a kid. We may not have planted today's fake boney graveyards on the lawn, or hung those gauzy ghouls from the porch rafters. We might not have decorated the front steps with giant, spidery cob webs that tangle up the side walk and shrubs, or installed zombies, their exposed guts spilling out on their way up to the door. Sure there were Jack O'Lanterns in windows up and down our street, but mostly they were the smiling, slightly-maniacal versions carved by our dads, not the menacing, glowering, teeth-gnashing variety you see these days. Still, I say, we had it way scarier than kids today. 

First of all, unless your mom was good at sewing, you wore a PAPER costume bought at the drug store!!! (My mother threw up her hands in defeat every year around October 25th and marched me down to the corner Rexall to pick out something "cute.") You hadn't even made it out the door before the seams came unglued and the whole thing TORN to shreds, like a flimsy doctor's office exam gown, before you even reached the next door neighbor's house! These tatty get-ups were always way too long and reached well below our shoes making them totally unsafe for travel at any speed. The TRIP HAZARD alone was enough to put you in the emergency room. And Lord help the kid that swung an overly-drapey princess skirt too close to an open pumpkin flame! A Human Torch in seconds! Without even one single WARNING on the package!!  And if that wasn't danger enough, you had to wear your costumes OVER your snow suit! (It was damn COLD where I grew up — some Hallowe'ens there'd be snow on the ground — add SLIPPING on ICE to an already hazardous outing!) You looked more like a stuffed bug than the fairy or cowgirl you hoped you were. Nobody's convinced that you're Cinderella if your crown is crushed down over your woolen toque. The EGO BRUISING was enough to leave permanent SCARS and put you into therapy for life. Imagine, stopping at a house, and some kind grandma-sort asking, "What are YOU supposed to be, sweetie? No, I mean really, what ARE you supposed to be?" You'd reply "I'm Princess Aurora from Sleeping Beauty!" thinking, "DUH!! Isn't it obvious, LADY?" It wasn't.

Never mind. Off you went anyway. UNACCOMPANIED by parent or guardian. Your older brother way out ahead of you, not even willing to acknowledge that he HAD a little sister. You didn't care. There you were, on your own, wearing a mask that you couldn't actually see out of anyway, but NOTHING was going to stop you from making it up one side of the street and down the other, shouting, "HALLL-O-WEEEN APPPP-LES" at doorsteps, householders filling your pillow case (nobody had a sucky plastic pumpkin pail!) with loose candy and gummy popcorn balls and sticky Rice Krispy treats and bruised Delicious apples. It's a miracle none of us caught SALMONELLA or TYPHOID or DYSENTERY from all those unwrapped, unsanitary consumables. Who knows where that stuff had been!

Hallowe'en was not for the faint of heart, believe you me! And certainly not for budding introverts, like me. There was always one house on every kid's street where some sadistic adult or mean teen would hold the treats ransom until you performed a trick, a song or told a joke. "NO candy, kid! Not until you DO SOMETHING to earn it!! BWA-ha-ha-ha!" BULLIES! The lot of them. You'd stand there, frozen, petrified, maybe peeing your pants, praying as you never had before, even at bedtime when you begged the Lord to take your soul if you died in the night, that these FIENDS would just give you that one miserable jaw-breaker from the bowl and let you go!! PLEEE-EEE-EAASE!!

Somehow you'd escape those MONSTERS and race across lawns, time running out until you had to get home. Now you're on the home stretch, but, oh, you've TRIPPED on those little, ankle-high, wrought-iron garden edgers, SPILLING all your sweet treasures! Picking yourself up along with the remaining tatters of your crummy paper costume, you limp along — six more houses to go! You can make it!! Wait! Oh, no! You still have crabby Mrs. Cowser's house where her irritable dog, Butchie, is waiting to bark his fool head off and probably BITE your arm off! Or what about Mr. McGregor's spooky old house? NO kid EVER goes there!! You'd heard the stories. It was HAUNTED! And that crotchety old man would keep your baseball if it ever went in his yard. You daren't step even one toe on his lawn. Better skip it. He was probably the guy you'd heard about, sticking PINS in apples!! 

Made it! You dump your loot onto the kitchen table so your mom can check it over for the aforementioned booby-trapped fruit. Another successful trick-or-treat run done until next year. You throw the shreds of your costume in the trash and hit the sheets, buzzed out on a glucose high from wax lips, licorice pipes with red sprinkles, Double Bubble, black balls, Swedish fish and candy necklaces. Your mom plays her "I know what's best for you kids" hand and hides your candy; her evil plot to dole it out, piece by piece, until Lent when she'll talk you into giving it up altogether. 

Kids these days. Out there with their moms and dads, with flashlights and glow-in-the-dark safety strips. They have no idea what scary is.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Beatles Redux

The day that I took down the horse posters in my bedroom and put up pictures of Paul McCartney, my mother had a conniption. "What's happened to my little girl?" she cried.

When I begged my dad to give me 10 bucks to buy a black leather cap like John Lennon's, he went berserk. "No daughter of mine is walking around in a man's cap, let alone something those hooligans wear!" he roared.

And, shopping one day with my parents, I should have known better than to purchase my very first Beatles LP in their presence. I nearly died of embarrassment at the comments they made to the sales clerk: "Yeah, yeah, yeah. What kind of song is that?" "Can you even understand the words they're singing anyway?" That's the day I became a teenager. Something changed. And it was because of the Beatles. 

Those magical years, between 1963 and 1970, came back to me in a flash flood of memories this week when we watched Ron Howard's new documentary, "Eight Days a Week." The movie contains concert and studio footage, hysterical fans, press conferences, and still images we've all seen before, songs we've heard a hundred times. Yet somehow it is entirely fresh and engaging. It carries an emotional punch that is part nostalgia, part joy and tons of fun. Certainly there have been other films about the Beatles, but this one made me feel like I had time-traveled back to junior high. 

February 9, 1964 was one of those, "Where were you when?" moments. I was sitting on the floor, in front of a black and white television, in a friend's living room getting ready to watch history being made on the Ed Sullivan Show — the Beatles' first North American appearance on TV. The adults present made it almost impossible to concentrate, what with all their inane chatter: "I don't mind that long hair provided it's clean!" "Look at those girls. Screaming like that! Where are their parents?" Somehow I managed to tune those old fogies out. I was swept away in the wonder and excitement of seeing four totally SUPER cute guys who were singing crazy, rowdy songs to us; yes, US! Us KIDS! It was beyond exciting — all the way to exhilarating.

I fell head over heels in love. I lined my room with posters and pictures. I scribbled devotion all over my record album covers: "I LUV Paul! The Beatles 4-EVER! Long live the Fab Four!"  I got every fan magazine I could get my hands on and stared at each photo as if I could somehow magically make Paul, Ringo, George and John emerge from the pages. I adopted the Twiggy look, bought tights by Mary Quant, and started talking like a Brit: "Cheers mate!" "Watching the telly," and "Where's the loo?" I began corresponding with a pen pal in England, who sadly, never met the Beatles and had nothing of interest to report. 

My best friend and I spent hour upon hour making up stories about how we would meet our favorite Beatle. The circumstances varied in each scenario, me meeting Paul, and she, John, but the outcome was always the same: love at first sight, a kiss, and then happily ever after. She and I saw "A Hard Day's Night" three times at a movie theatre downtown. I was insanely happy to see the four guys actually being real live human beings! Running, sitting, talking! It was all too FAB for words! My friend and I recited lines afterward in our best Liverpudlian accents.

At bedtime I slipped a transistor radio under my pillow so my parents couldn't tell that I was listening late into the night for the latest song.The songs! How could they have been more perfect? From imagining a kiss with Paul, "If I fell in love with you, would you promise to be true?" to slow dancing with a boy at a basement rec room party with Rubber Soul on the record player, "In my life, I loved you more," to doing homework in my room puzzling over "Lucy in the Sky" on the Sgt. Pepper album, and "I am the Walrus" from Magical Mystery Tour. The years of my youth played on accompanied by the White Album and then Abbey Road. In grade twelve, our school's choir director chose ballads like, "Michelle" and "Yesterday" for us to sing. We loved him for it.

My parents even came around in time and admitted that some of the songs were "very nice," especially when they heard some lame orchestral version of a Beatles melody on their easy-listening radio station. As we know now, those wonderful songs have stood the test of time. 

The final LP, Let it Be, was released in May of 1970. In June of that year, I graduated high school. The soundtrack of my youth was done; like in a film written just for me, the Beatles music had underscored the emotional arc of my teenage storyline.

My generation must certainly be the luckiest ever, of all time, to have been teenagers growing up accompanied by the Beatles —the music, the hair, the clothes, the peace and love sensibilities, all the amazing bands that followed, all the kids we knew who picked up guitars and got drum sets and learned  to make their own music because they were so blown away by the Beatles — it was everything that shaped us. Ron Howard's lovely documentary film just gets it. I hope you see it. If you are my age, I hope it brings back wonderful memories for you. This is OUR story. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

Speak! Good dog!

Dogs all over town are talking about a brand new scientific study that claims they understand what we say to them. They're worried — and with good reason. They've been trying to keep this secret from humankind for thousands of years. The last thing they need is for us to find out that the whole muttly crew nailed human language eons ago — and they've been having us on ever since.

A group of researchers tested 13 canine volunteers who could be trusted to maintain a "Down. Stay. Don't move!" long enough to get MRI images of their brains. The data showed that the happy parts of their cerebra lit up like glow-in-the-dark collars when they heard their owners' voices — but only when they used positive words and spoke in fun, upbeat tones of voice, such as, "Good Dog!" or, "Who's a boo? Ooo are! Yes, oo are!" They determined that the average family pet recognizes up to 150 words. The brain scans, however, did NOT register much activity at all when the same words were delivered with a dull voice or when negative messages were delivered. The scientists concluded that the dogs did not understand those particular communications.

I say, Baloney! Do we honestly believe that creatures as smart as our canine companions have only picked up 150 "fun" words? They know doggone well what we are saying, and it doesn't depend on a happy voice. Here's my theory: the clever rascals PERFECTED the art of selective listening generations ago.

And there are good reasons for this doggie deception. Up until the publication of this research, pooches everywhere have been getting away with all manner of shenanigans simply by employing their patented three point procedure for feigning innocence: 1. perk up their ears, 2. tilt their heads to one side, 3. pull the comical, quizzical face. Or they might unleash the ultimate emergency tactic: the guilt-ridden big cow eyes with hang-dog expression. They'll be all like, "I don't understand you. I wasn't supposed to flush the gerbil?" We've been programmed to find this gambit endearing. Our hearts melt and before we know it, we're forgiving them for everything from barfing on the carpet to stashing the cat in the dryer to depositing mouse carcasses on the linoleum.

"Bad dog! Didn't I TELL you to leave that thing outside?"

("Yes. Yes, you did. But, as you aptly point out, I am a Dog. I don't speak Human, remember? I thought you said INSIDE. Yeah, that's it. Inside. Now, watch this! Here comes the ear perk, the head tilt and the funny face! We're good, right? Okay. I'll be going for my nap now. Call me for lunch.")

Sure, they respond with slobbery glee when we toss out oft-repeated, playful suggestions, like, "Find your ball!" Or food-related phrases, such as, "Want your din-dins?" Or when we urge them into a merry chase with words like, "PUSS-PUSS!" They know how to work the system — and how to get what they want: the aforementioned ball, din-dins, or feline.

But just try phrases like, "Will you PLEASE quit drooling on my SHOES!" Or, "That's not YOUR pizza!" Or, "I DO NOT need help loading the dishwasher!" Or, "Get your furry butt OUT of those Hostas!" You've said these things a million times! Just cow eyes. You know what? They're simply ignoring you!

Yes, I'm on to their little caper. Have been for some time. But I've decided that it's best to keep it to myself. After all, it only makes ME look bad if my dog ignores my commands; "RIL-EEEY! Don't sniff that lady's crotch!!" 

"Really, Mom?" 

"Yes. Really, Riley. You heard me!"

"Hm. Maybe. Call me for lunch."

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Temptation of Apple; A Customer Service Parable

Have you heard the phrase, "I've been to hell and back again"? Well, I survived a trip to the Apple Store for technical support this week. Honestly, I don't believe in Hell. But if I did, I think it actually might BE the Apple Store.

Perhaps you think of Apple as retail heaven. Maybe you hear a celestial choir each time you swing open those glassy, pearly gates. Your heart beats faster as you enter that white, polished, glossy space with all those amazing digital devices, lined up like shiny forbidden fruit, beckoning and beguiling you. The youngsters in blue polo shirts appear to you as though angels (or are they serpents?) to welcome you upon your arrival, "How can I help you today?" they chime, and you reply in chorus with the heavens, "Mac Book Air! Hallelujah!"

Personally, I find those kids terrifying. I got to my nearest Apple store at 11:30 on a Tuesday morning. A trio of overly-eager youths greeted me, like Cerberus, the three-headed hound that guards the gates of Hades. "How can we help you today?" they said in unison. 

My guard went up immediately. How breezy, outgoing, and self-possessed they were, with their iPads, speaking to each other on their head sets. They probably have a code, "Nana Alert!" to warn the others. 

"Um, I'm having trouble signing in to email," I winced that I was stupid enough to admit I was having trouble with something. One of them smirked. She was thinking it. I could see it on her face, "Typical Old Lady knows NOTHING about computers!" 

"OK, ma'am," she Ma'amed me. "Who's your provider?" 

Oh, no! A question I couldn't answer. I was dreading this. "Mm, no idea. Outlook? Live?" 

"What does your email address look like? Is it something dot com?" 

There it was. That condescending tone. Yes, it's SOMETHING dot com! I told her my email address. She tapped something into her iPad and mumbled into her headset. 

"Okay. Which device are you having trouble with?" 

"My iPhone and my Mac Book." At least I knew this much.

"Okay. Come with me. I'll give you to a Specialist," like handing me over to the high priest of sacrifices.

"Hello there, My Dear," he hissed. Who told him he could call me "My Dear"? "How can I help you today?" I repeated the whole story a second time. 

"Do you have an appointment?" I was temporarily stunned by his question. He threw me for a loop. "Uh, no," I reply, with a bit of attitude, trying to regain my composure, "It is totally impossible to make an appointment!" Lord knows I would have made an appointment if it hadn't been for the fact that the store's phone number appears nowhere on the Apple web site and you can't sign up for an appointment online.

"Right," he said. Was he just teasing me? "There are some people ahead of you." I looked around at the other Condemned Patrons in the room. Every one of them was over 60. OMG, is this where old people come to die? "HOW DO YOU TURN THIS THING ON???" I heard one woman ask. "Oh Lord," I prayed, "Please let these kids think I'm hipper than the rest of these old fogies."

"Give me your name, and I can get you in the queue," he said, like St. Peter telling me which direction I'll be going.

I told him my name. That was when he started calling me, "Miss Lesley." I haven't been a "Miss" in 40 years. And this kid I've never met is calling me, "Miss Lesley."

"If you give me your cell number, I can text you when we're ready to see you, Miss Lesley," he offered, "It should be about 45 minutes."

I took the walk of shame past all the youngsters in blue shirts on my way out of the store. I went to gobble down some lunch, which I couldn't enjoy because I was waiting for my text. I didn't dare be so cavalier as to leave my phone in my purse where I might not hear it. I couldn't risk missing my cue. St. Peter would be calling. I popped a Tums.

Exactly 45 minutes later, I got the text saying, "Come on back! We're ready for you!" I'm sure this was meant to sound upbeat. For me it was like a bell. Tolling.

At the store, I was once again greeted by a chipper youth, "How can we help you today?"

Oh, please, I have to go through this torture again? She sent me to a Specialist. The Specialist wanted to know how she could help me today, and after I explained the whole story for the fourth time, she took me to wait in Purgatory — which at the Apple store is a very uncomfortable high stool at a work table half-way down the store, where there is a computer turned on streaming Fox News. She said, "A Genius will be right with you." 

This particular torment lasted what seemed an eternity. I was about to complain, "I got a text saying you were ready for me 25 minutes ago," to the denizen of darkness who was walking toward me, but he was assigned to the old gal sitting across from me. I protested. "What's going on?" I wailed, "I've been here way longer than this lady!" I am not usually so vocal, but really!! 

He explained, "THIS LADY HAS AN iPAD. I ONLY DO iPADS. YOU'VE GOT A MAC BOOK AIR! YOU NEED A MAC BOOK GENIUS!" I found his shouting a bit impertinent — an assumption that all senior women are hard of hearing.

I was a full half hour in Purgatory until my very own Genius came along. I thought, "This is it. Next step, the Inferno." I walked with him toward the very depths of the store for what I thought would be the final level of humiliation. But, I must say that he was very kind. A Boy Scout type. Personable. Smart. Almost-angelic. He listened to my tale and wasn't the least bit patronizing. He fixed the problem with my email (which as it turns out was not "operator error" as I'm certain you have all surmised it would be) by deleting my account and re-installing it. He healed my Mac. I left the store as though reborn. Walking on a cloud. Saved from the fiery fate of computer shaming. 
So, what's the moral of my story? Is it: customer service from the customer's point of view is sometimes very different than the service provider's? (Apple Inc. might think they've perfected their system. I let them know differently in their customer follow-up survey.) Or is this a parable about the kindness of one man who didn't discriminate against an "old lady"? Who restored my dignity and faith in youthful computer geeks? I like to think it's the latter. (I gave him high praise in the survey.) Maybe my assumptions about them were as thick as what I believed theirs were about me. 

In the meantime, I hope and pray that nothing else goes wrong with my devices, forever and ever. Amen.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Dear Dee-Dee in Dayton,

Seeking a steady course to navigate life's stormy waters? You may well turn to prayer or meditation. Need a listening ear to talk through those deeply personal issues? You might ask for counsel from clergy, therapists, your spouse, or dear friends. But for all your other garden-variety, knucklehead problems, you can't go wrong with Dear Abby.

I started reading Dear Abby as a pre-teen. I haven't always agreed with her, but for the most part, I think that this lady's advice is pretty much right on the money. I've written hundreds of letters to her myself. All of them in my head. 

That's right, I have not sent a single one. Whenever something irksome crops up, I find the mental exercise of writing to Dear Abby can be highly therapeutic. Usually, by the time I've composed an imaginary letter, I've pretty much gotten over whatever it was that was bugging me or solved whatever problem I needed to solve. It works like a charm when you're angry-vacuuming or furious-ironing.

You could try it, too! Here's how. Really dwell on your issue until your brain's ready to explode. Then, start off with:

Dear Abby

Good start, right? 

Add a line that makes her feel good and that will assure her you aren't a total self-centered narcissistic nut:

I haven't missed a single one of your columns since the 1960s when you used to say that anytime boys and girls get together they should keep four feet on the floor at all times!  I avoided teen pregnancy because of you! Thank you!

Then, make sure that she's paying attention. Your problem is pretty bad, right?

Even though I have read your advice for nearly 50 years, I haven't had such a dilemma as I do now that would make me write to you.

Next, describe yourself. Be as flattering as you want to be. It's your bio. You're the protagonist of your story. Paint yourself in the best light possible: 

I am a 63 year old woman, pleasant, friendly, and a heck of a good .…

Add details about your personal life. This is so that Dear Abby knows that you are undoubtedly the one in the right regardless of the disagreement you're writing about: 

….happily-married, retired from a brilliant career, community-do-gooder, now a stay-at-home dog mom, humor blogger, and part-time aspiring artist who….

Now, you're ready for the body of your letter. This is where you launch into your particular predicament, introduce the antagonist(s), and set up the question:

For the last few weeks, I've been….

It has left me feeling…..

And I really wonder if I should tell them that they….

Or if I should stifle the urge to…..

Fill in the blanks as appropriate. 

The next section is the "sell." This is where you stress the urgency of your issue and drive it home with emotional emphasis:

Do I risk being called a.….?

Or am I perfectly justified in being….?

Honestly, Abby, I don't know WHAT will happen if I don't….!

This ……is driving me CRAZY!

I REALLY need your advice!

Finally, close your pretend letter with a compelling, thematic sign-off that recaps the acute nature of your dire need. While you're at it, give yourself a clever nickname that sums up your current mood. This is the most creative section of your letter, so give it all you've got:

Yours in anguish,

Dee-Dee (Distressed and Distraught) in Dayton

There. You've gotten it all off your chest. Now, don't you feel better? And just think: you saved yourself a postage stamp! Go! Write your letter.

Dear Abby,

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Let Them Eat Cake! And Chocolate Eclairs! And Pies! And Macaroons! And….

These are difficult days. And what are we doing? We're denying ourselves carbs. And sugar. And butter. Why, people? Why? 

Oh, sure, calorie-laden, fat-drenched, lactose-rich, carb-dense, sugar-soaked, gluten-packed baked goods are bad for us. Okay, okay, you're right. But take heart, dear friends! If you are avoiding any or all of those culinary bad boys, here is a way to have your cake and eat it too — metaphorically speaking, at least. It is called the Great British Baking Show.

Now in its third season on PBS, this one hour TV show from the UK (where it is in Season 6 and known as The Great British Bake-Off) certainly sweetens my summer. Every week, we are treated to the creation of scrumptious, outrageously gorgeous baked goods produced by competitors who vie for "Best Amateur Baker." Don't you just dream of being crowned with that title? I know I do! (This, in spite of the fact that I tried a cake recipe last weekend calling for fresh peaches that turned a horrifying, blue-green color. Oh, my! If I had presented THAT disaster to the GBBS judges, I would have been laughed off the show! More on that in a minute.)

I'm not keen on most "reality" shows, but when I watch the GBBS, I find myself falling like Alice through the looking glass into a fantasy world of tarts and cupcakes and honey buns that's incredibly therapeutic. First of all, GBBS Land is beautiful: a lush green English country garden with little lambs nibbling the lawn and ducks padding in the pond. A perpetual spring and early summer blossoms week upon week. Gentle English drizzle refreshes the roses and rhododendrons. And in the middle of this idyllic, pastoral scene stands an enormous canvas tent that shelters a monumental pastry kitchen.

Great care has been taken by the show's producers to dress the set to evoke the most charming of Edwardian British tea rooms. Every detail is delightful. The pastel palette, the crockery on the shelves, the little Union Jack flag banners, and the cake stands with glorious confections perched upon them. It's what Downton Abbey would look like if Mrs Patmore, the cook and pastry chef, were the central character.

All other equipment in the tent lands firmly in the 21st century. The ovens have the cleverest of doors that open outward and then tuck neatly away underneath. Bakers can ever so gently slide in their meringues or their bain-maries of custard cups. No awkward reaching, butt-in-the-air, arms-out-stretched, that surely would put one at risk of dropping a pan of wobbly cake batter and look so bad on camera.

And such tenderness the bakers show toward their pastry progeny. They kneel or sit right there on the floor, peering through the oven doors, gazing into the bake chamber to monitor doneness and proper rising. They tap their resting bread dough in the proving drawer with feather touch to see if it has risen to the exact right moment it needs to be kneaded. They delicately decorate towering cakes with fondant flowers and lovingly lace linzertortes with lemon zest.

Next comes the taste test by the program's judges, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood (seriously), both award-winning pastry chefs in their own right. This can be a bit punishing, watching them sample luscious-looking delicacies….while you're not. Your sweet tooth will surely salivate. But don't be tempted to jump up and search the kitchen for that last, stale Digestive biscuit in the cupboard just to sop up the drooling. Watch carefully. These TV people are sampling creamy custards and fluffy cakes. Nobody is snorfing down an entire dessert. They are trained professionals. Do not try this at home!

The best feature of the GBBS, in my opinion, is the graciousness with which competitors treat one another; the judges and hosts are equally fair and respectful. Far from cutthroat or dog-eat-dog, on GBBS everyone helps each other out. The judges are firm and direct, but oh, so polite. Everyone is so kind. No petty rivalries. One and all hug it out at the conclusion of each show. You get the feeling that they are truly sorry to see their dear friends winnowed out of the contest. It's as though baked goods inspire everyone to be more civilized; to become their best selves. Power to the pastry!

I would have been content to accept that this one-hour, TV-induced state of euphoria was temporary; brought on by vicarious sugar highs. But then I had the incident with the blue-green peaches. I believe that what happened next proves my theory.

A dear friend in Vancouver came to the rescue with research showing that an interaction between the acidic peaches and baking powder containing aluminum was a likely culprit. I went to Whole Foods to buy an organic baking powder.

Meanwhile, I sent emails to three online baking crisis lines (yes, they exist) one of which was Gourmandise, a cooking school in Los Angeles. The most delightful reply came from someone named Clémence, owner and pastry chef at Gourmandise. She was quite certain that the problem was my elderly, non-anodized aluminum cake pan. Clémence signed off her email with, "Wishing you a delicious day." How enchanting is that?!? I wrote back immediately with my thanks and a note saying that I loved her sign-off. It made my day. Clémence wrote again to say, "Glad we figured it out!" and his time her closing remark was, "Wishing you the sweetest afternoon." 

I like to think that we could all use a delicious day; friends helping out; perhaps an hour of good manners, sharing a light, beautiful Angel Food, followed by wishing each other the sweet of afternoons. Wouldn't that just be the icing on a cake? 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016


If you've watched as many PBS murder mysteries and British crime dramas as I have, you know that when the going gets tough, the tough make tea.

Yes, if Detective Chief Inspector, Vera Stanhope knocks on your door, well, you should just march right into the kitchen and put the kettle on to boil. Brace yourself for bad news. You're going to need a strong cup of brew.

And it isn't just Vera who will order up tea when delivering unsettling announcements. Tea will be administered to anyone suffering a shock, whether they get the grim report from DC Janet Scott and DC Rachel Bailey, Sergeant Catherine Cawood, Inspector Endeavour Morse, Detective Inspector Robbie Lewis, or DI Jimmy Perez, way up there in the Shetlands, or even amateur sleuths, like Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot. "Best sit down. You've had a nasty blow. Here's some tea."

This wouldn't work on American television. I can't see Matthew McConaughey's character in "True Detective," saying things like, "Here ya go, Luv! A nice cuppa will soon put you right." Can you? 

"Best add lots of sugar, Pet. Come on. Drink up. It will do you good." That's what Vera would say. But I can't see American TV cops offering tea. If they did, it would be more like some hardened, gruff Andy Sipowitz-type shoving a mug toward someone in the interrogation room. It would have the words, "World's Best Dad" written on it, a soggy tea bag afloat in tepid water extracted from the coffee maker, and one of those strings attached for bobbing the bag up and down to extract a tiny hint of flavor. Not the same is it? 

You see, in the British crime genre, tea possesses soothing qualities. It involves ritual that socializes and calms. You can't be interviewed by crackerjack detectives until you're feeling a bit steadier.

My own love affair with tea dates as far back as the 1970s when I started watching PBS. I was enthralled with the civility of it all. The maid has discovered the body of His Lordship upstairs in the study. Slumped over an oak desk. Stabbed. A letter opener lodged in his back. Everyone downstairs in the library is keeping a stiff upper lip, but clearly need to compose themselves. "Ring for tea, won't you, darling?" Her Ladyship will say. The gathered suspects will emit a collective sigh. "Oh, yes, we can bear anything if we have tea."

It seemed only natural to me that I would adopt tea drinking as part of my British telly-viewing. "Ooo! The butler just brought in the tea tray. Must go make myself a cup. And butter a scone as well!" Tea and a murder just go hand in hand, don't they?

Soon, tea became our morning beverage. And when 3:00 rolls around, it is time to put the kettle on. I love the ritual of preparing it and pouring it from my favorite red tea pot. Holding that hot cup between two hands. Settling into a comfy chair. Sighing. Ah! That first, piping hot sip. Nothing like it. I can see why it is the British TV cop's go-to beverage for un-jangling rattled nerves. It certainly works for me. It's like putting on UGG slippers and a beat-up bathrobe. Comforting. Warm. Caring. Sympathetic. "Yes, Chief Inspector, I'm ready to answer questions now."

If you, too, wish to add tea drinking to your PBS viewing, my recommendation is to make it properly. Bring cold water to a rolling boil, at which time, and only as it is boiling, pour it over tea leaves (or bags of the very best quality) in a tea pot that has been rinsed, and thus warmed, with hot water. The pot can be your best porcelain or serviceable crockery, but it is best if it is seasoned with years of tea stains that have never been washed away. Next, clap the pot's lid on, and let your brew steep for 3-5 minutes before you pour it into your favorite cup or mug. Add lemon, milk, cream, honey or sugar per your taste. I drink it clear. But I suggest, if you've had a nasty shock and the police are at you door, add a heaping amount of sugar. This is what they do on British police dramas. It seems to help.  

Friday, July 1, 2016

As American as Apple Pie. As Canadian as a.....

If we are looking for an equivalent Canadian metaphor to the old saying, "As American as apple pie," let's try the butter tart on for size. 

For those of you unfamiliar with this sweet treat, the Butter Tart involves an open-faced, individual-sized, pie-crust shell with a gooey, brown sugar, egg and butter filling, with or without raisins. Although similar to pastries from other world cuisines, the butter tart is thought to be a genuine Canadian original and everyone's favourite Canadian dessert. For us ex-pats, it is impossible to visit our Home and Native Land without at least drooling at the sight of butter tarts in a local bakery. To eat one is to risk a diabetic coma, so sometimes we refrain. But never mind, it is metaphor we are seeking.

What does it mean to be "as American as apple pie?" Quite simply, this phrase has come to describe something that is characteristically American. An article in the Huffington Post, 11.26.14, entitled, "Why Are We as America as Apple Pie?" theorizes that, "apple pie as the quintessential American product may be an apt metaphor after all — it was brought here from foreign shores, was influenced by other cultures and immigration patterns, and spread throughout the world by global affairs….it all began with apples, which, in the nation’s infancy, were grown on almost every farm." 

So what have we got that describes something "typically Canadian?"

A lot of the apple pie symbolism rings true for butter tarts in the Canadian context. The recipe's origins represent three major players from foreign places that settled the early nation: French immigration in the 1600s (Tarte au sucre), English/Scottish settlement (Border pie and Treacle tart), and American influence (Pecan and Shoo-fly pies.) Other immigrant groups in ensuing years brought fruit to the discussion and by 1900, the first recipe for butter tarts was published in the Women's Auxiliary of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Barrie, Ontario. It took off from there.

Every individual's preferred butter tart qualities (runny or sticky; raisins or currants; thick crust or thin; nuts or no nuts; touch of maple syrup or not; firm or flaky) are not only tolerated, but celebrated in typical Canadian character, and being tarts, these little morsels are all of uniform size so that no one gets an unequal portion of the pie, so to speak. 

Sweet, but not cloying, open-faced, a bit crusty. What better description of your typical Canuck? 

And so, I ask you, shouldn't "As Canadian as a Butter Tart" become our national metaphor? 

Happy Canada, everyone! Happy Birthday Canada. I'm celebrating by making Nanaimo Bars. I tried, but I couldn't stretch the metaphor that thin.