Holiday Baking and Pie Crusts…..

In my most recent novel, Irises to Ashes, there is a passage in Chapter Eighteen where the protagonist, Maggie, reflects on her inability to make biscuits or a good pie crust. While the book is not autobiographical per se, there are most assuredly a few things in my past that are reflected in the book. Actually, my inability to make biscuits from scratch or a decent pie crust is past, present, and future.

I cannot count the number of times that I watched my grandmother do biscuits and my first husband’s mother could turn out a pie with a crust that both looked and tasted as if a blue ribbon should be attached. I, however, have long been a fan of frozen or refrigerator crusts if I’m doing the filling myself, or quite frankly, just baking a frozen pie when time is tight. I have tried – honest I have. I have paid attention to cooking shows, and I am convinced that you either have the touch or you don’t. That is not to say that technique can’t be taught – I simply believe that some of us do better to admit our shortcomings and not subject people to continued attempts that produce mediocre results.

Not long ago I made the acquaintance of a lady named Debbie who has a small business specializing in desserts. She is understandably quite busy with the holiday season upon us, but once the holidays are over, I’m going to ask her to do a guest post with her wonderful background and maybe a sample recipe. In the meantime, happy baking to those of you who do well in that arena and Mrs. Smith and I will continue our relationship. Cookies, you say? Well, Toll House are drop cookies after all. Those, I can handle.

Who All Did Small Business Saturday?…..

I make it a point to avoid the big stores on Black Friday and Saturday. That’s not a position-type of point, merely not wanting to get caught up in the crowds and we rarely can align anything we specifically need for that particular weekend. Our families have finally started to cut way back on presents that we give, and I became an on-line shoppers a number of years ago. However, when I saw the Small Business Saturday movement going around, I made sure to stop by the only book store in town and picked up a couple of Santa-exchange gifts that I did need. Small businesses are the heart of so much of this country and I do shop them/patronize them when it makes sense. I have nothing against Walmart, nor do I decry large corporations that are operated in a responsible manner. The truth is that small stores have limited inventory and you can’t always wait for something to be ordered even if the store has that ability.

Let’s hear it – who else made a special point to shop at a small business either Saturday, or really any time during the weekend?

Scuba as a Buddy Sport…..

Diving in the Turks and Caicos

Let me say first that scuba is not a sport for everyone. There are certain medical conditions or anxieties (such as fear of open water) that are not compatible. If you live somewhere like Arizona and don’t like to travel, then no, scuba is probably not of much interest. However, the current training options and better designed equipment combined with travel opportunites available through the internet and other sources have helped bring scuba from an extreme sport more into the mainstream. There are millions of certified divers from age 10 all the way through 80s and perhaps 90s (I can’t personally vouch for in the 90s). Since people often plan vacations for the holidays, especially to warm climates, I want to walk you through some fundamentals if you’ve ever considered trying scuba.

Two of the best indicators of if you would enjoy scuba (Self-contained breathing apparatus underwater) are if you like to snorkel and if you visit one of the big aquariums and think to yourself, “Wouldn’t it be cool to be inside the tank?” A lengthier explanation of scuba training is contained in the Short Story Archives on my web site, Going Under is a Good Thing: Try SCUBA, but the essentials are that you have classroom sessions, sessions in confined water such as a pool, and then sessions is open water such as the ocean, a lake, or a quarry. The classes enable you to become familiar with the principles of diving, the equipment, and how to physically dive. There are academic tests and performance tests, all under the watchful eye on an instructor, and there is a great emphasize on safety. While some of the material will be unfamiliar, good instructors are patient with explanations, go over things as many times as required and address any questions/anxieties in a professional way. Once you have completed your training, you are issued something called a Basic Certification (there are other terms as well) and you are considered qualified to dive on your own without a dive professional. I will say that personally, I believe most people who are genuinely brand new to diving don’t become genuinely comfortable with the equipment and procedures until they have completed 8-12 dives. By the way, that is my opinion and not supported by empirical data.

Something I want to point out is that part of what has made scuba more accessible is that there are many training options these days, to include on-line training for the academics and split location training that can be a wonderful choice for people who don’t live near a dive destination. The split training, usually called Referral, allows you to do academic and pool sessions in one place and open water training in another. You can train with your local dive shop and then go somewhere like Key Largo or perhaps to St Croix, or any other place that has a training agreement and complete your certification. If scuba is something that interests you, but you aren’t quite ready to go the distance, take a one-day introductory course often called Discover Scuba, or something along those lines. This gives you a whole day with an instuctor learning the  basics, trying the equipment, and having the experience of being in the open water. In most cases, you can then apply that one-day training against the full certification course if you choose to move forward.

While taking a course with a buddy who may then be able to travel with you may be more enjoyable than going it alone, there are plenty of single divers who have a great time meeting new “buddies”. Scuba opens an extraorinary world to you and I would strongly encourage you to check out the training and travel opportunities that are literally all around you.


Family Squabbles, Quarrels and Holidays…..

“How do you develop your characters?”, is a question that I am often asked. They are essentially composites, although in some cases, a certain character may have several traits of a real individual. It is important to me for readers to be able to genuinely relate to the characters – even the minor ones. One of the themes of my latest novel, Irises to Ashes, is young Maggie Stewart’s intense desire to leave home and travel – not because of dark circumstances, but because of a yearning that she cannot explain in the early part of the novel. Her older sister is the most vocal in disapproval of Maggie’s wishes, and the rest of her family is unable to comprehend why their lives aren’t “good enough” for her. This conflict is something that many individuals who have left home have experienced. And that brings me to the subject of this post as we approach the holidays when, unfortunately, but truthfully, family strains can pop up and sometimes erupt.

Squabbles are commonplace within families – I can’t imagine a family that can’t count a number of them. Quarrels are different though – deeper and potentially hurtful with the possibility of escalating into a rift that can last for years and perhaps never be healed. I have several friends who are estranged from brothers, sisters, or parents. The cause of the rift may be clearly traceable to a specific event, but that is not always the case. At times, the telling is easy to follow and at times, it is obvious that the stated event was more likely a “straw that broke the camel’s back” scenario. In some situations, the individual telling the story appears not to know how the emotional wound occured, much less how to resolve it.

These kinds of issues can be complicated and despite what families are supposed to be about, let us honestly state that genuine ill will can be a reality. However, unless the situation is of that magnitude, the holidays can also be a time to reach out, or to accept a hand that is extended. Anger can soften over the years, words that were once spoken in haste or in younger days may be forgiven. Misunderstandings can be recognized as that rather than as intentionally inflicted pain. The special meaning of holidays can lead people to reflect, to feel the urge to reconcile. So, as this holiday season unfolds if you are in a place where there is a family rift, perhaps this could be the time to try and bridge the gap.


When You Are Comfortable With Not Talking…..

“Four Weddings and a Funeral” is a delightful movie that I have watched a number of times, although not recently. I would mangle the quotation if I tried it, but there is a scene in which the older gentleman from the ensemble group of friends discusses his theory of why people get married. He more or less says that two people are in a relationship and one day they run out of things to say to each other, so the man proposes because he doesn’t know what else to talk about. This is similar to the wonderful “Bus to Abilene” story used by Jerry Harvey, a well-known management expert who illustrated that managing agreement can often be more difficult than managing conflict because there are situations where no one necessarily agrees with a point, but everyone is saying they do because they think that is what “someone” wants to hear. In the “Abilene Paradox”, everyone agrees to go into Abilene on a sweltering Texas day with all sorts of things that go awry during the trip. Afterwards, it become clear that no one really wanted to go in the first place and when the individual who originally suggested the idea is queried as to why, he basically admits that he just said it because they were all sitting around and it seemed like something to say.

This is a long introduction to discuss that becoming comfortable without talking is something that many of us often overlook. I am not into Zen, yoga, or meditation (though perhaps I should be), and I am about as Type-A as they come. I can chatter with the best of them and when you get my sister and I together, there is rarely a gap in conversation. The disinclination of men to “chatter” has been written about and discussed at great length, and as we have just celebrated our twenty-third anniversary, I had occasion to ponder our ability to now sit quietly and comfortably as we read or watch television. Television of course can launch conversation – or at least exchanges, but when we sit outside by the pool (or wherever) with respective books, it’s different. And it’s okay. If you had asked me twenty-four years ago about the traits I wanted in a potential husband, I don’t believe that I would have said, “Someone I can be comfortable with not talking to.” I understand that now and appreciate it. Mind you, there are most assuredly emotionally unhealthy reasons for not talking, but that is the stuff of a different post.

Of Civility, Responsibility, and Shopping Carts….

 With the economy struggling, unemployment still a serious issue, and all the global turmoil, why do I want to talk about returning shopping carts to the store? Well actually, it’s not even taking a shopping cart all the way back to the store, just to the closest cart corral. Okay, so why talk about that with all the other important matters facing us? Because this single, small act is connected to personal responsibility, self-discipline, and civility. How so?

You see a parking spot open and head for it, only to have to stop your car because a shopping cart is blocking the space. Perhaps you have a passenger who hops out and moves the cart, or you put your car in park and do it yourself. Perhaps you go on to another parking spot, mumbling or seething about someone’s lack of
consideration. Perhaps you realize that you’ve left a cart like that, but that’s different because you had a really good reason. Perhaps you ignore the whole incident because it has become so commonplace. Perhaps you blame the store. After all, isn’t it their job to take care of it? Do you mean the dedicated cart retrieval person that stores hire? I haven’t seen too many want ads for that position. Oh that’s right, the stock person or bagger who takes care of the carts as part of their other duties. When carts are placed into the corrals or even returned to the store, that means the individuals clearing out the corrals or tidying carts at the store entrance spend less time on that task and more time either bagging your purchases or managing the stock so you won’t have empty shelves. You’d rather having them chasing carts all over the parking lot?

Okay, moving on to other reasons why you don’t walk rarely more than thirty paces and sometimes as few as ten paces to return a cart. It’s such a bother. And not being able to pull into a parking space or risking a cart roll into your (or someone else’s car) is more convenient? Lots of people leave carts out. That is true and if you have children, you are teaching them that you can’t be bothered with a simple act of courtesy. If you have a child who is old enough,
why not have her or him perform the task? Oh yes, I did forget this one – someone is waiting for the parking place and they’ll wait longer if you take the cart back. It really doesn’t take that long and other cars can go around whoever is waiting.

The small act of not leaving carts in parking places or scattered around is symbolic of other aspects of civility that we seem to have either lost or no longer consider important. There are many things that have gone awry in this country that we cannot control, but whether or not to return a shopping cart is a personal choice that individuals make perhaps multiple times a week. This is a choice that is completely up to the individual and each time an individual
chooses to leave a cart in a parking place, the message is, I’m too busy/important, and/or everyone does it, I don’t care how my action
impacts anyone else.

When taken to a greater degree how different are these than traits that are seen in gridlocked politics and the type of greed that led to our current economic turmoil? No, I am not naively suggesting
that some of the big problems we face will magically be resolved if everyone is more considerate about shopping carts. But I will say that it’s an easy place to start.

Scuba at Almost Any Age…..

Rock Beauty while diving in Key Largo

It hardly seems as if it could have been a week since we returned from Orlando and the 2011 Diving  Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA) show. There are consumer dive shows held all over the country throughout the year; shows where anyone with an interest in scuba diving can wander in to see equipment and products, hear about travel opportunities, and talk to people. DEMA, however, is the dive-industry show with access limited to professionals in all dive-related matters. This is where the latest in technology/products and training techniques are revealed, continuing education for dive professionals is available, travel agencies and tourism representatives show off what they have to offer for group travel. In some cases, there are people who have products that are easily transferbale to other aspects; the company that is making all reef-safe products such as sunscreen no doubt attends many outdoor activity shows. The multiple organizations that are working to prevent further damage and reverse damage to marine eco-systems are certainly not confined to the world of scuba divers. The sheer diversity of groups that are in attendance is part of what intrigues me as I move among the displays. It is the perfect place for me to find experts in areas that I write about and it was a treasure trove when I was doing research for Islands in the Sand: An Introduction to Artificial Reefs in the USA.

Since DEMA shows are about dive professionals, the age group starts around 18 and goes to whatever. It is not unusual to strike up a conversation with someone well into their 70s who can discuss the great technology strides in self-contained breathing apparatus (SCUBA) because they have personally gone from using rudimentary equipment of the early days to enjoying technological advances in today’s equipment. Something that you also hear is talk about multiple generations that are now a part of what was once an extreme sport. Three generations of divers within a family has become common and when you see adolescents, mom and/or dad, as well as grandmother and/or grandfather all diving together, it’s one of those things that makes you smile. As an instructor, my husband has seen the rise in grandparent-grandchild combination taking lessons, and this is often a topic in the seminars that he attends during the show.
Yes, the “Marketing” part of DEMA is to help promote scuba as a sport with all the associated equipment, products, and services, but most of the people involved in these products and services are (or have been ) avid divers. For the majority of us, it is about how best to share the wonder and excitement we have experienced with those who have not yet slipped beneath the water’s surface to temporarily exist within the fascinating underwater world.
It is easier than ever to learn to scuba dive, especially to take an introductory course where you learn the fundamentals under careful control of a dive professional. So think about adding this activity to your next appropriate vacation.

Veterans Day Thoughts…..

As a veteran, it is heartwarming to see the many tributes that are posted to Facebook, web sites, etc., and shown throughout the country. Does it bother me to see those who discredit and despise the military? Of course, but their right to express that belief is a part of freedom. For every active, reserve component, and former military, there are also millions of men and women who have served as civilians within the Department of Defense, and contractors who serve in a different capacity (and no, it isn’t just for the money). There is the family side too, – wives, husbands, children, siblings, parents, and friends who wait anxiously, supportively when their loved ones are in a place where harm may come to them. There is another group that also deserves a moment of thanks – the ones who volunteer, like with the USO, or begin campaigns of letter writing and sending care packages.

After all that thanks, I would like to add a final note to moms and dads whose young adults may be considering the military. I know it can be an unsettling thought, but as someone who spent 22 years in the Army, and as someone who helped train new soldiers, I can tell you that even a few years in the military can make a tremendous difference in an individual’s life. Notwithstanding the danger that can occur, there is a sense of pride and comradarie, a recognition of why this great country is worth defending, that stays with most veterans long past when they hang up the uniform.

Bless all of you who are taking time to remember veterans today.

A Family Business, A Chance for a Dream…..

Starting a restaurant in today’s economic environment tends to be a bit of a leap of faith and Chefs on the Run in Homestead, Florida is no different. We have a weekly paper and I often contribute human interest articles and restaurant write-ups. Those two are not as disparate as they may seem because really, small businesses are often based in very human stories.

Chefs on the Run opened not long ago, an emphasis on take-out, but with a charmingly decorated dining room that holds about seven tables. The young Chef Jodrick and his family are from Puerto Rico and his culinary background includes work in Orlando, Coral Gables, Coconut Grove; locations where he honed his skills. Although he began as a dishwasher and was actually drawn to cooking because he liked fire, his willingness to work any station, to learn all that he could about food was part of why he rose within one of the restaurants where he worked, and was poised for the type of position that could truly launch him as a professional chef. He and his wife, Jessica, learned that their young son was autistic. It was a clear choice; professional chefs do not hold 40-hour a week jobs. Their son’s condition was such that if his parents were able to spend extra time and participate actively in therapy, then he might well be able to function at a higher level than otherwise. Chef Jodrick didn’t hesitate – his wife and child needed him; needed him then, not years down the road. He shifted into a different type of culinary endeavor, to include developing recipes, that enabled him to spend significantly more time at home. After a few years, the increased therapy seemed to be effective and the opportunity to buy a small restaurant in a less than perfect location came open.

It was not the dream scenario they had envisioned, but it was a chance to pursue the dream. Chef Jodrick, his wife Jessica, his brothers Eric and Emil, and even his mother-in-law, Estrada, are all part of the business. The food is excellant by the way, an assorted cuisine that includes Puerto Rican favorites such as mofongo, balanced by Atlantic salmon with honey-miso glaze, and other delicious dishes. They also provide catering and have plans to build on their success if things go well.

Theirs is a story of faith, family, and drive bound together by strong relationships. I will keep you posted as to how they do.

In Those Tragic Times……..

I will warn you that this is a teary type of post. It is becoming evident that a dear friend is losing her struggle with cancer. There is some hope, but it is not likely that she will make it and I will refrain from writing more beyond today. This tragedy is compounded because she is one of those who was a cancer survivor. She, her family, and friends, so many who love her had already gone through this, and in her way of gentleness and bravery, she had been a model of what you like to think that you would be under the same circumstances.

This blow, this impending loss is painful on many levels. The death of an elderly parent is something you prepare for, understanding that it is the natural order of things even as it leaves a hole in your heart. For those you love who are yet in the midst of a full live, you want to somehow reach out, to say, “No, this isn’t fair, it can’t be time.” In doing so, you want to alter the balance, to set things right. It is my deepest hope that I will write a post later and say, “Ah no, it did work out. That slim possibility came about, and all is well.” But if that does not occur, I want to take a moment here to remind everyone that there are people in our lives we care for and we forget to say it. We’re busy, they’re busy, we mean to… So today, please find someone that you’ve intended to reach out to and let them know that you’re thinking of them.