Friday, December 31, 2010

In Mourning

With all that is going on right now - the frantic holiday season, my upcoming one-year anniversary, Ross's many recent interviews, hopes to lead a new ladies' Bible study group and the unexpected passing of a young friend - I have been, until last night, too overwhelmed to write.  When too many thoughts and ideas crowd my mind, they are unable to flow as freely as they should.  Instead, they jostel each other, clamoring for space and voice, and, unable to move, they fester and rot.

Last night provided and unfortunate remedy to that.

The news of Melissa Lynch's sudden death yesterday was shocking and I know that most of us who called her our friend are numb, unable to process the fact that a vibrant and beautiful young lady and fellow actress is no longer with us.  I don't profess to have any answers to the painful, angry questions her passing has brought.  All I know is that I am praying to my God, the supplier of all needs, who will comfort those who mourn with the completeness of his love and mercy.

We need time to express our anger, our fear, our regret and our shock.  I don't believe that God condemns us when, in our confusion and outrage, we ask, "Why?"  I do believe that he wants us to run into his arms so he can bring us peace - although he doesn't always provide answers.  There likely isn't an answer that would satisfy us anyway.  Why so young a woman?  So beautiful and talented a friend?  Why so perfect a smile?  Yet, there is a measure of good that can emerge from all this...

Those of us who remain, who acted with her and therefore took a little part of her soul with us when we left Clarion, have regrouped.  People who have not had much contact, if any, in years, have found each other again, carrying the matching banners of mourning.  We have rediscovered common and beautiful memories - not only memories that involve Melissa and her great talent, but memories that remind us of why we fell in love with our art.  If we close our eyes, we can remember the glowing glory of standing under a single, golden spotlight...the giddy, nervous laughter of pre-show superstitions...the thrilling triumph of a standing ovation...the shared intimacy of creating lives and a histories out of nothing...

The radio station is frequently listen to, K-Love, often features a guest speaker during the morning show.  Yesterday, it was a pastor who has been encouraging his congregation not to make New Year's resolutions, but instead to choose just one word that will act as a lens through which they want to see themselves and their lives.  

The word that immediately came into my head as I drove the icy back roads to the bank yesterday morning was "relationship".  I had spent so many hours this past year fretting over not being a good enough wife, sister, daughter, friend, employee, Christian, leader.  I made myself sick comparing myself to people I considered more successful than myself.  I grew depressed and anxious, and more withdrawn than I had been previously.   All of the beneficial social and relationship-building skills I had gained through training at Starbucks, Dollar Bank and Berean Fellowship crumbled from disuse.  I wasn't spending much time with my friends.  I was sometimes reluctant to help at church, even though such work previously brought me joy.

It slowly dawned on me that feeding my insecurities was not the way to build and sustain healthy relationships.  I mean, I knew that and have always known that, but as I was driving, I just felt lightened by the reminder of that knowledge.  Relationships involve sacrifice, passion, effort and determination.  They rarely just happen, and even those that seem to happen organically still require nurturing and care.  I felt that God was reminding me about my duties to the people in my life with whom I have relationships: my husband, my family, my co-workers, my church and my friends.  And he reminded me that service to others cannot dwell in the same heart as self-loathing, so I must choose.

Just as I was beginning to make that decision daily, I was struck with the news of an old friend whose relationship I had let fade.  And I was filled with sadness and regret at both the news itself and the fact that I had lost touch with her - and myself.

Although I would much rather have been reignited by something other that the death of a charming young woman, I am determined that I will gather up the memories - and the potential - of passion into a beautiful bouquet and display them where I can see and enjoy them as often as a please...and allow them to remind me that nothing follows us to the grave but the relationships we have built.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Muse of Fire... how I will always remember Melissa Lynch.

Seriously, the girl was so passionate about everything you could almost feel sparks crackling in the air around her.  Physically, she was very pretty.  Pale skin, shining dark hair, a slight frame and a winning smile, but her eyes were what got you.  There was an intensity in them that was almost frightening.  It was as though she was about to lock horns with a stampeding bull - and end up with steak for dinner.  

It was one of her trademarks, that passion.

That same brand of passion didn't flow through all the actors I had met during my time at Clarion University.  Although there were many, many talented, adept, charming, brilliant people, that intense fire seemed reserved only for a few.  Miranda Scopel, for one.  She was one of those people whose fashion sense was from another era, who lived like she was dying, who could make any topic sound intriguing and maybe even a little scandalous.  Trevor Southworth was another.  He was another creature when he was onstage.  Almost inhuman, in the best possible way.  My God, these people were just...fireballs.  Not only good actors with good directorial and design instincts (there were a lot of people like that), but just so much energy and passion that sometimes you just wanted to sit them in a comfy chair with a blanket and a cup of chamomile tea to quiet them a bit.

I loved these people.  I always wanted to be one.  Melissa was one.

She was one of those versatile actresses who never got stuck in a certain type of role.  She played the innocent Wendy Darling in Peter Pan as adeptly and sincerely as she played the quiet, confident King of England in Henry V.  She had mastered numerous dialects and could whisk you to the hard-pressed streets of Brooklyn, New York, a southern plantation or the foggy, chilly coast of Ireland - with just a single phrase.

She was loud.  She was opinionated.  She loved to laugh and cause a scene.  She could be as proper or as unladylike as you could imagine, depending on her mood.  But there was nothing in the world she seemed to love more than the moment when she found her character...when she found the gesture she had been seeking, the tone of voice, the position, the stance, the motivation, the mood.  It was fascinating to watch, and an honor to be a part of.  I directed and acted with Melissa in several productions during the time we spent at Clarion, and if I were to honestly name the highlights of my educational career, she would be in the top two: directing Broadway Bound and acting in Henry V.  It was a thrill to pour my talent and passion into a performance with her, and I will never forget those opportunities I had.

Melissa went on to be among the few Acting graduates I knew who found success as an actor outside of college.  She returned to her hometown of Philadelphia and was building a career in reputable local venues when her life ended just a few hours ago.  She was involved in a car accident.  She wasn't even thirty.

She will be greatly missed.

The true magic of theatre is not in the set or the lighting or the music.  That takes talent and technology, and it is, of course, always a marvelous display of the work of the hands and mind of a designer or artist.  But creating a character out of nothing but black words on a white page is a different kind of magic.  It's the magic of the heart that only truly passionate actors ever get to share.  It's a spell woven by an enchantress who wants nothing more than to connect, to feel, to express.  And it's a love song that will spill over into every aspect of a life, even after that life has ended.  

Thank you, Melissa, for captivating us with your passion.  Thank you for reminding us that passion cannot survive without diligence and perseverance, and that passion is worthless without product.  Thank you for the memories that you have woven into our hearts, and for the great talent you shared so proudly and so freely, with those around you.  Thank you, Melissa, and good-bye.

"We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep."

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Virgin Ears

When I was a child, the music that was popular was fairly mild by today's standards.  I listened to Paula Abdul, Boyz II Men, and Garth Brooks (I was a country fan for about three and a half weeks when I was 11 years old).  Everyone sang a lot about love, but even in the 80s and early 90s, most music wasn't too racy.  Innuendos were subtly intertwined with catchy new wave melodies, and I didn't have a clue that I was singing about sex along with Duran Duran and Cyndi Lauper.

When I was a teenager, N*Sync and Christina Aguilera were becoming popular.  I saw myself becoming more and more enthralled by the emotions that were encouraged by music - lust, loneliness, and love - as my adolescent hormones raged wildly out of control.  The fact that no boy I liked was interested in me probably helped pop music make its indelible stamp on my young psyche.  Come on...I wanted someone to want me the way guys wanted Brittany Spears when she sang "Baby One More Time".  Guys fell at her feet and she wasn't even trying!  I wanted a guy to feel about me the way the Backstreet Boys crooned about their dream girl.  I craved something I never quite understood, and I ached to know the captivation of real love as it was sung about in pop music - all-consuming, passionate, wild.

What I didn't understand at 19 was that much of what is sung about in pop music is no, in fact, love.  Though I admit my iPod is crammed with as many different kinds of music as you can imagine (yes, Enya is on there.  As are Sir Paul McCartney, Meat Loaf, and Green Day), I have found myself listening to the radio less and less these days.  I can't connect with singers like Ke$ha, who publicly stated that there is more to her personality than her glittery, drunken party image would imply.  With lyrics like those in "Take It Off" and "Booty Call", how am I supposed to think this woman wants anything more in life than to have sex and trash people's property?  I think Katy Perry has a great voice, a fun retro sense of style, and a creative mind.  However, songs like "Teenage Dream" just promote overt sensuality and premarital sex.  And, recently, Miley Cyrus has been under fire from all angles because of her sudden transition from perky tween pop-queen to ultra-dramatic sex kitten.

Forget the twelve year-olds in my church's youth group being influenced by this stuff; it's not something I want to influence me!  It's easy to believe the lie that being sexy is the way to win a man's affections.  We are fed that idea everywhere!  But the Bible advises women to be modest in dress (1 Timothy 2:9, which also talks about vanity being dangerous), and not to awaken love (or sensuality) until the proper time, which is after marriage (Song of Songs 2:7).  In fact, the Bible even warns men to avoid women who wish to gain attention and  manipulate them with sensuality (Proverbs 5).

And it's not just the pop princesses.  Male singers, too, bragging about how many women they have slept with, threatening to kill rivals, police officers, or anyone who opposes them, and boasting about the size of their bank accounts, are a discouraging image of masculinity as a whole. The Bible tells us that men are supposed to be respectful of women, treating older ones as mothers and younger ones as sisters (1 Timothy 5:2).  Lust got a lot of good men in trouble, including David, Solomon and Samson!  Scriptures also tell us to avoid giving in to wrath (Psalm 37:8), and to be wise with money, rather than storing it up uselessly (Proverbs 17:16, Ecclesiastes 5:10).  

Yet, lust, anger and greed are a large factor in much of popular music.  It's not just hip-hop and rap, which often get a bad rap (really, pun intended) for lyrics about violence and the objectification of women.  Big, bombastic orchestral numbers like Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" and 80's throwbacks like Neon Trees' "Animal" talk about sex as though it were as essential as food or water.  

Guess what?  It's not.

God did create sex to be thoroughly enjoyed.  He wanted us to want it!  It is a gift from his to gratify us physically, to intensify the bond between husband and wife, and to allow us to be blessed with children.

It was never intended to be a sloppy, drunken mess in a motel room between total strangers.

We made it that way.  Worse, we made that way desirable and acceptable.  We have been teaching our children, via television shows, movies and music, that married sex is boring and a chore, and that illicit affairs are thrilling, victimless crimes.  Children are having sex younger and younger, not realizing what kind of a commitment it is, and how dangerous it can be outside of a marital relationship.  

It doesn't have to be that way.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"The Rest Is Silence."

After I met and started dating Ross last year, something very strange happened. 

I stopped liking music.

Not all music. But a huge percentage of the music I used to love suddenly became dead to me. It wasn't a huge spiritual cleansing, a deep conviction, or anything along those lines, really. It was just that so much of the music on the radio - and so much in my own personal collection - no longer "applied" to me. I could no longer access the emotional strains of being lonely, hating an ex, being driven by lust, or unable to think straight because of romance.

My inability to connect with this kind of music was a gradual change. Even now, I still listen to it sometimes, but I am not moved by it anymore. Time was when that stuff would drive me to write, to draw, to connect to another part of myself, a deeper part that was aching for something more than what I had.

This isn't a case, exactly, of trying to fill the "God-shaped hole" we are all born with, but more a matter of trying to express feelings of frustration and loneliness by relating them to music. When those feelings - in relation to a romantic relationship - went away, so did my ability ro relate to that same music.

The irony of all this is how deeply I have always been connected to music. When he was younger, my father was the guitarist in a band (Yazoo Fraud, 1795; look it up). He sang me Beatles songs as lullabies (until I was 14, I believed that my dad was the one who wrote "Yellow Submarine"). My maternal grandfather was an phenomenal drummer who actually died of a heart attack while playing a concert. His ex-wife, my grandmother, played the accordian. My sister Gina and I grew up singing along with musical soundtracks: "Les Miserables", "Phantom of the Opera" and "Hello, Dolly!"   We must have sounded ridiculous to our parents; during the ensemble numbers, we would evenly divide all the parts and make sure we sang them all.  In character.  Loudly.  Sometimes with costumes.

Music has always helped with my writing and drawing. Even now, when I sit down to work on a play or skit, I find I need a soundtrack for it.  There are mixes I have for each kind of literary mood I'm in.  All of my characters have a theme song (the latest, a reluctant superhero named Five, has "Don't Call Me Baby" as hers.  You remember 1999, right?).  I envision scenes played out in front of me when I hear certain songs.  Maybe I am too connected to it.  I don't know.

I can tell you something, though...since I started listening primarily to K-Love (a national Christian music station), I have really lost interest in a lot of pop music.  It's not that I don't like the sound, or that I think the artists lack talent (well...some do).  I mean, I listen to classic rock, oldies, some pop.  But, overall, it's just that hearing Christian-raised Katy Perry singing about "going all the way" in a motel room with her "teenage dream" and listening to barely-old-enough-to-legally-drink Ke$ha talk about "brushing her teeth with a bottle of Jack" don't really inspire much of anything in me.  

Except disappointment.  

There is so much more to life than what pop icons sing about.  Maybe that's why I can't relate much anymore.  Because I have found Life, and His name is Jesus.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Like a Diamond

I have had to start thinking of this blog as sort of a diamond.

Not for its great value or rarity, but for its multi-faceted nature.  I've been struggling with the idea of it being purely a spiritual blog.  Or purely a cooking blog.  Or purely a blog about home and family.  For example,  I have such great respect for the Christian newsletters and messages that have emerged from great ministries; the writers somehow manage to see an opportunity for spiritual growth in every seemingly mundane experience.  I, however, simply write about how much centipedes scare me, and how much I like avocados.   But I love Jesus, too, and I try to live my life as a person who pleases my Lord.

Does that mean I can't write when I have been given bad customer service?  What about when I have made the foolish choice to give my husband the silent treatment because he did something that upset me?  Or when I have struggles at work and feel like I am failing?  What about when I feel like God is far away from me, and I am just a sinner stumbling in the dark?

I always wanted my words - this blog -  to be an encouragement to others.  If anything I have published has been an excuse for others to give up, get even or choose a negative attitude, then I have not done my job well.

I will continue to write about my studies of the mundane, because to find joy in it is akin to the man who sold his possessions to procure the pearl of great price.  To see diamonds of laughter and hope sparkling in the dust of our daily lives is a treasure indeed.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Five Underrated: Stores

I like to shop.  I really, really like to shop.  For myself, for others, for groceries.  I can't really prove it, but I think it's inherent in my nature.  My mom taught me to look for sales and my husband taught me how to clip coupons, so I'm pretty much a deal-finding machine in heels.  I'm sharing my secrets with you now!

1. Ross Dress for Less

No, I am not a fan simply because the name is the same as my husband's!  I "discovered" this place when I was taking a class for Dollar Bank all the way up in Fox Chapel.  It's across the street from the branch, and so one day I figured I'd stop in and try to find a new dress for Easter.  I got so excited inside that I almost threw up.  It's primarily a women's clothing store, and the selection and prices are unreal.  There are sheath dresses from Calvin Klein (I saw one for $19.99), retro-print sundresses by Nine West, Steve Madden shoes and XOXO sunglasses, plus a huge variety of lesser-known brands.  One of my favorites is London Times, which features a lot of throwback cuts and patterns, and there were dozens of their styles at Ross!  It was a dream come true.  Not to mention, the sales staff was pretty friendly.  I am only able to go there when I have class at Fox Chapel, so I haven't been there more than a half-dozen times.  Still, the sales associate who joked with me during my first trip there remembered me last week and eyed up at my purchase.  "Nothing for you today?  Just for him?" she remarked as I put the items on hold.  "His birthday is coming up," I explained.  "But I'll be back for myself again very soon!"

Good Stuff: Huge selection, friendly customer service, decent prices.
Downside: Very few locations.
Bonus: Senior citizens' discount!

2. Aldi

This place is hardly a trade secret.  It's pretty obvious: your choices of brands and products are severely limited, but that is exactly what allows you to save big on basic items.  Well, since I'm a girl who likes variety and choice, I resisted going to Aldi for a while.  Finally, during on of our bi-monthly jaunts to Robinson, Ross and I figured we'd stop in, sniff around, and see if we found anything that appealed to us.  We sure did!  After being used to spending an arm and a leg for produce at Giant Eagle, we were blown away to learn that we could get all our basics (peppers, spinach, bananas, mushrooms, an avocado and grapes) for about $16.00 a week.  Plus, the produce was in good shape.  The yellow peppers were big and shiny, and the mushrooms are every bit as plump and healthy-looking as the ones in bigger supermarkets.  We also found that the Fit & Active brand is a great choice for lunch snacks like cookies and granola bars.  They taste like the name brands, but they are a lot less expensive.  We've begun to regularly get our produce and snacks at Aldi.  Now, for meats and specialty items, including lower-fat and lower-sodium items, we do still go to Giant Eagle.  The selection is simply better.  And, well, I am picky. 

Good Stuff: Fantastic prices.
Downside: Limited selection, only accepts debit/cash.
Bonus: Bringing your own bags helps the environment!

3. TJMaxx and Marshalls

They're part of the same, massive, money-saving fashion chain, so I mention them together.  Like Ross Dress For Less, Maxx 'n' Marshalls are full of insane deals and brand-name products.  Lots of Calvin Klein dresses, Michal Kors sweaters, and Tahari suits.  Of course, I'm not always swayed by brand-names (since I don't find a lot of their petite styles in discount stores), so I'm always ready to scour the clearance racks and redline shoe shelves to find something worth crowing about.  The men's section is great, too, and considerably larger than the one at Ross Dress For Less.  (My) Ross is almost always able to find a nice Geoffrey Beene or Perry Ellis oxford shirt in his size for between $12.99 and $24.99 - which is well over 60% less than the prices at Macy's and other such department stores!  Also of note: these stores have super housewares departments full of really great gift ideas.  Exotic coffees, spices and teas, novelty mugs, cookbooks, all kinds of gourmet snack foods like jelly beans, crackers and candy (men, do you hear?  Salty, crunchy deliciousness for you, and sweet, sweet chocolate for her). Go now!

Good stuff: Huge selection, decent prices.
Downside: $49.99 is still too much to pay for a Tommy Hilfiger dress.
Bonus: Gift cards available at Giant Eagle, so you can save on fuel, too!

4. Big Lots

My extremely thrifty grandfather used to bring gifts for my sister when he came to visit us.  Huge bags of toys from a place he kept talking about: Big Lots.  I remember being disappointed because I was still getting generic Barbie Dolls at age 16...but we never could deny the sheer volume of stuff that we got.   Games, dolls, toys, snacks and treats, name it, we got it.  Since a lot of the items seemed cheap or second-rate, I stayed away from Big Lots when they opened up down the road from me.  Finally, though, my curiosity overtook me and I ventured in.  I could not possibly have been more mistaken about Big Lots!  I don't know if the quality has improved in the past 15 years or I have simply learned to care less, but the truth is, the store is really, really great.  Like the stores already mentioned, Big Lots does carry plenty of brand-name items (Salon Selectives hair products, Lay's potato chips, Maybelline mascara, etc.) but they also carry a wealth of generic items, too.  I love going to Big Lots for snack food (Shearer's Pepperoni Pizza potato chips - nice!) and for gifts and prizes for children's church.  Big Lots doesn't specialize in clothing, but they have a nice furniture section with unique and beautiful pieces, like coffee-cup adorned bistro-style chairs.  They're also much more likely than the other stores to have large seasonal displays.  It's a great place to get all your holiday decorations, wrapping paper, greeting cards...and some gifts, too!

Good Stuff: amazing prices.
Downside: Items are often discontinued.
Bonus: In-store rewards program offers 20% off an entire order once $200 in purchases are made!

5. Wal*Mart

Yes, I know this industry giant has been under fire practically since its inception.  And I am not by any means condoning their business practices or even addressing ethical issues.  What I am saying is that it is not possible to buy a huge bag of salmon fillets anywhere in America for $4.99 - except at Wal*Mart.  For standard needs like health and beauty products and school supplies, it's hard to beat Wal*Mart's prices.  Big Lots is likely to have a lot of what you need, but since they supply overstock, there's never a guarantee that they will carry the brand of diapers or the hair color you're looking for.  Wal*Mart pretty much can guarantee all of that.  As for clothes, well, it's hit or miss, I think, for most people.  Personally, I have no shame in wearing Faded Glory flip-flops or Jordache jeans.  It's not always a matter of style, because their designers are still able to keep up with trends.  It's more an issue of fit and quality.  I am more likely to buy basics, like t-shirts, underwear and pantyhose, at Wal*Mart, while I find suits and jeans elsewhere.

Good Stuff: Incredibly low prices.
Downside: Poor customer service, negative media attention.
Bonus: Most locations are open 24 hours!

Honorable Mention

1. Fashion Bug (Women's Clothing and Accessories)
2. Dollar Tree (Discount Store)
3. Five Below (Discount Store)

Next up in the series: music!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Five Underrated: Foods

I will start the series with something dear to my heart: food!  I taught myself how to cook when I was in college, and I basically made the standards: chicken, burgers, pasta and cupcakes (for breakfast?  Don’t judge!)!  After I graduated, working on Oakland near ethnic restaurants and shops encouraged in me a sense of adventure.  As I was living on my own and buying all my own groceries, I was more willing to expand my tastes.  Slowly, I evolved from a pizza-snacking, fry-popping twenty-something to a bean-sprout tasting, homemade dip-making, avocado-nibbling experimentalist.  The list that follows includes some of the most underappreciated foods I have encountered in the past five years…and how I have come to respect them!

1. Plain, Nonfat Yogurt

Having begun to watch both my salt and fat intake lately (and, to his dismay, my husband’s as well), I was blown away by how much of the “bad stuff” is in even reduced-fat and light products, like ranch dressing, cheese, and flavored yogurt cups.  Fortunately, plain, nonfat yogurts is an incredibly healthy ingredient – and it’s also a master of disguise!  I use it as a base for homemade dressing.  Portion out about a half-cup of yogurt, add a sprinkle of garlic powder, onion powder, parsley, dill and a splash of skim milk.  Stir well, and you have a tasty, light alternative to ranch dip!  Add hot sauce, chili powder and red pepper flakes for a sauce to drizzle over burritos or tacos.  For breakfast, I combine 2/3 of a cup of yogurt with a sprinkle of sweetener and either 1/4 cup of raisins or cranberries or 1/2 cup of chopped pineapple.  Plenty of protein, some fiber, calcium…a good way to start the day!

2. Tofu

Yup.  For real.  The facts are plain; tofu, made from soybean curd, is one of the leanest, cheapest forms of protein you can buy, and unlike nuts, meat and eggs, tofu is cholesterol and saturated fat-free.  Just make sure you’re purchasing the correct consistency for what you plan to do with it.  Firmer tofu is great for grilling and sautéing, while softer tofu works great when blended in desserts.  Soft tofu also works well when blended with ground beef or turkey in meatloaf, burgers, and lasagna.  Tofu does pick up the flavors of whatever it’s cooked with, so it’s virtually indistinguishable in dishes with meat.  I think the texture tends to turn people off as well, so if you can get away from imaging tofu as a slimy white brick and start imagining it as a great addition to a meatball sub, you’ll be well on your way to appreciating soybeans a little more.

3. Mushrooms

I despised mushrooms when I was a child.  I went so far as to pick tiny cubes of them out of any dish my mother made with cream of mushroom soup.  I’d devour the chicken or rice, but on my plate would remain a small pile of gray blocks that eventually ended up on the dog’s bowl.  For whatever reason, my opinion has changed as I have matured.  Now, I love sautéing them in a bit of olive oil and eating them as a dish on their own.  I also love threading them on skewers, brushing them with oil and sea salt, and throwing them on the grill.  I recently tried them in an omelet with mozzarella cheese and was pleasantly surprised that a meatless meal could be so tasty.  Like tofu, they function as a great filler in recipes requiring meat, but I rarely replace meat entirely.  After all, you can’t get the iron and vitamins you need from mushrooms and tofu alone!  The next big challenge is getting my husband to appreciate them as well! 

4. Spices

Being conscious of my sodium intake has actually encouraged me to be more creative and daring with spices.  Recent studies have shown some spices, like oregano, and cinnamon, to provide genuine, heart-healthy benefits like reducing cholesterol.  Ross loves Mexican food, so I find myself loading our meals with flavors like lime, cilantro, and cumin.  There’s so much intensity to these spices that we rarely need to add salt.  Italian meals benefit hugely from plenty of oregano, basil and garlic, of course, and my chili always contains two secret ingredients: curry for kick and cinnamon for sass!  Below is a chart for flavors that pair well.  Try them on meats, mixed with side dishes, or sprinkled on top of fresh or cooked vegetables.

Lime and cilantro
Black pepper, oregano and basil
Lemon and rosemary
Pepper, lemon and garlic
Chili and lime
Basil, thyme and garlic
Cumin, black pepper and red pepper
Dill, lemon and cilantro

5. Alternative Side Dishes

Thanks to more and more stores expanding their ethnic food sections, I have been finding myself picking  up packages with foreign writing all over them, taken them home and been pleased to find new favorite dishes.  Don’t get me wrong; sometimes I crave me some Velveeta Shells and Cheese Dinner, but I also love the mealy, earthy bite of barley and the almost creamy texture of couscous.  I add barely to my Italian wedding soup instead of the pasta.  It’s healthier, creates a heartier texture, and makes it unique.  Couscous tastes great on its own, but it’s also fantastic when mixed with sautéed zucchini, finely chopped onion and parmesan cheese.  Another trick I like is heating plain, unflavored croutons, with spices and low-sodium broth to create “homemade” stuffing.  Much faster than cooking it in the bird!    

Maybe these ideas don’t get your heart racing or your mouth watering, but maybe they’re helping open the door to trying new things.  It’s not always an overnight process, but in the end, it’s probably healthier, and more fun, than living on chicken nuggets, fries and ketchup (all due respect to Heinz, of course)!

Next up in the series: Stores!

Rubber Duckie, You're the One!

Baby animals are cute. Even the least dog-friendly person has a hard time resisting the innocent, brown-eyed stare from a fluffy-faced golden retriever pup, right? And, although I myself am allergic to cats, I can't help but cuddle and tease my friends' six-week-old kitty Leo. Can't say no to that bitty face!

Baby insects, however, are not cute. Baby spiders, baby flies, and - you guessed it - baby centipedes are not at all cute. They still have the same buzzing wings or creepy legs that I despise in the adult versions, so they don't win any points in my book.

Why have I returned to my centi-rant, you wonder? Well, about a month or so ago, my Dad's best friend Lee began (much-needed!) work on our bathroom. Ross had been toying with the idea for years, but when parts of the wall began to, quite literally, fall into the tub as I showered, it was time to move to action. We picked out a new tub and tile, and Lee and Ross discussed how feasible parts of the project would be. It could be done in a few weeks! At least, phase one could be. The remainder of the project - painting, new shelves and a new vanity - would have to wait until probably next year. "That's fine," I exclaimed. Until I realized that, during the renovation, I would have to shower downstairs.

For those of you who have visited the house, you know that there are a lot of cool things here. There is beautiful woodwork, a spacious dining room, several decent-sized bedrooms...and a freaky, bug-filled cellar. Maybe my animosity goes all the way back to my childhood, when the house in which I grew up also had a scary, downstairs shower. In the case of that house, it was right near the basement door. Bugs flew in all the time. Wasps had created an evil, haunting nest right outside, on the deck, and they flew in the the house as though it was their right. I took showers down there when I had to, but never at night, and never for more time than was absolutely necessary.

However, Ross and I, I have to admit, made pretty light work of the temporary shower. He has, naturally, a Pittsburgh Potty in the basement, concealed only by a cheap blue shower curtain. We simply added a few more curtains to turn that corner of the room into a mini-bathroom, complete with a few hooks for hanging soap and bath sponges - and the garden hose that was to be the shower head. At least it offered several delightful settings: 'trickle', 'trickle left', 'trickle right', 'leak awkwardly', 'douse', and 'assault'.

In all honestly, once I got back into the college-born habit of wearing my flip-flops into the shower, things weren't so bad. Well, maybe not in the shower itself. Unfortunately, Lee's hard work must have upset the centipede population that had gone into summer dormancy in the pipes. Since the weather had grown very hot, we hadn't seen them for some time. Other bugs, sure (spiders in particular love the office on the second floor), but centipedes only thrive in most, temperate conditions. We must have rattled them. Because they were back, in full force.

With their babies.

The first one I saw was in the kitchen, and I was startled, but more frustrated than anything else. I knew he was a herald, sent by the evil Centipede Queen to let me know that more were coming. Ross killed him with a shoe, hoping to send a message back to their Underground Kingdom.

The next one I saw was in the upstairs bathroom. Lee's fussing with the pipes had made the bug bold. But, as he was only a juvenile bug, I had to show him a lesson in pride. I removed my flip-flip and smeared him against the wall. I chose not to remove his remains. Again - I had to send a message. Also, it was gross.

The remaining bugs must have heard our message clearly, because, after that, they stayed down in the basement. As they grew more cautious, I grew more evil. Instead of being startled, afraid or angry when I saw one - even a little one - I paused, stayed perfectly still, and silently considered every possible way of destroying it. Should I use the traditional but effective Shoe-Smack? Guts on the floor? Perhaps a can of hairspray to crisp up the legs before Ross's grill lighter takes over? Char-i-pedes. Maybe drowning in the laundry tubs? My friend, you may have 30 legs but I doubt you can swim.

I pretty much stuck with the shoe, though.

After long, hard days of battle, I do admit it was pretty nice to be able crawl, war-weary, into the bathtub, complete with its Rubber Duckie curtain and bath mat, dump in half a bottle of bubble bath, and soak until even my toes pruned up.

It was my first bath since I married Ross, and it was darn well time for it.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Five Underrated: Introduction

The older I get, the more I begin to appreciate things that I never noticed as a child.  For example, the sense of peace and accomplishment that bursts out of my heart when the laundry is ironed, folded, and slid neatly into the drawers.  Or, the keen taste of triumph in patiently waiting the exact amount of time before an already inexpensive pair of shoes goes on clearance, and snapping it up like a fish-spearing osprey before the other predators attack.  Even the simple comfort of cuddling on the couch with my husband is something I try to savor when we get the time (which, despite our fairly simplistic lives, happens only rarely).

In light of this "new leaf", if you will, I am beginning a blog series entitled  "Five Underrated".  From movies to foods to music, I'm trying to give the underdogs a leg up.  Of course, this series will be pretty darn opinionated, because I'm using only my own experience to guide me, but maybe I'll be able to open your eyes to some things you never tried, heard, or even imagined (tofu kebabs, anyone?).

Sunday, August 15, 2010

In Memory of Tia

Tia liked pretzels, cookies, and colorful socks.  She liked to be the center of attention.  She liked to dance and she loved to laugh.  She loved my family with a fierce loyalty and she liked to make new friends.

Tia was a fiery and funny 27-year-old with severe mental retardation.  She died earlier this month.

My stepmum's mum, Charlene ("Grammy Char"), had a passion for taking care of foster children.  My stepmum, Deana, smiles as she tells stories of helping to raise dozens of kids not even related to her.  She mentions that she never had her own bedroom.  Not once in her life!   Not as a child, not in college, not after being married.  Of course, she adds, she never really minded.  That's Deana for you!  She must have gained a great deal of patience and integrity from helping her mother and sisters all those years.

And, speaking of patience, that is precisely what helping Tia required.  Char took Tia in when she was about 14.  Tia was quite a big girl - nearly 200 pounds - and, like a young Rottweiler or a German Shepherd, she had absolutely no idea how strong she was.  She was loyal, loving - and unpredictable.  Somewhere along the line, Tia learned that certain words made people pay attention to you when you said them.  These words are commonly called "expletives".  Since Tia liked attention, she became a frequent employer of these words - particularly at inappropriate times.  
Like, in a candlelit service right before the choir sang "Silent Night" on Christmas Eve.

It was hard for me to get to know Tia because I never spent a lot of time with her.  Charlene wasn't always able to bring her to family dinners or gatherings because sometimes she was just too agitated or confused.  When she did come, she often fussed until she was fed, and then she simply wanted more food and attention.  My sister Julia and my cousin Zane, in particular, had a way with her.  She positively adored them.  Zane liked to get her riled up, while Julia had a gift to help calm her down.  Either way, you could clearly see love shining out of Tia's often blank eyes when those two were around.  

It was easy to buy gifts for Tia.  She didn't care for clothes, having an almost endless standard of sweatpants and embroidered sweatshirts, but that girl loved fancy socks.  Striped socks, glittery socks, Disney Princess socks, G.I. Joe socks.  Didn't matter.  She loved socks, and that is what she got, birthday after birthday, Christmas after Christmas.  Best part was, she never sulked, "I got this last year!"  She simply held them up like a glorious trophy and made that delighted crowing cry that always made us laugh.

Tia stopped coming to family events altogether some time ago.  Char had begun to worry; several months prior to her death, Tia had begun to become unreasonable, almost violent, sometimes accidentally putting herself in danger.  It was a hard choice for her, but Char had Tia put under the care of a local mental institution.  

Five weeks later, she was dead.

The autopsy revealed that the cause of death was heart failure, brought about by pneumonia (her lungs were not getting enough oxygen to the rest of her body), and the pneumonia had been brought on by some type of serious injury to her chest.  

The hospital never informed Char that Tia was sick.  When Char and her daughter Nikki went to visit Tia, they were shocked to see multiple bruises on her face.  The staff told Char that Tia fell and hurt herself. 
Tia's death is currently still under investigation.  
I unfortunately heard of Tia's passing via a text message from my father.  I was sad, but I didn't realize until the funeral how truly loved that she was.  Former aides, teachers, and friends - both with and without mental challenges - came to pay their respects.  Members of my church who love our family came to support us during a difficult time.   The funeral home was far from empty.  During the short service, Zane - suddenly shedding the skin and smirk of a mischievous little boy - stood bravely and, between tears, announced how much Tia had meant to him.  After all, he spent a great many hours playing and visiting with her when he was young.  He'd practically grown up with her.

And now he had to say good-bye.

Before friends had shown up, Char spent several minutes carefully arranging a bow in Tia's tight curly hair, and slipping a bracelet onto her rigid hands.  It was strange to see Tia - and Char - so eerily quiet.  Then I realized in my head what my heart already knew.  Tia was now dancing with Jesus - whole, for the first time ever!  She was not struggling with the constraints of her clumsy physical body, nor were there strict limitations on her understanding and her mind.  She was free, completely clear-minded!  What joy she must have had when she looked into her Lord's eyes for the first time!  She may never have fully understood her need for a Savior, but she loved coming to church, singing for the Lord, and lunching with the beautiful elder ladies after their small group.  I believe she did accept Jesus into her heart.

As I reflected on Tia's life and legacy, I became strangely envious.  Unlike "normal" people, Tia never struggled through life with grudges or vengeance in her heart.  She was devoid of the capacity for worry.  Her joys were simple, and the things that upset her were forgotten in an instant.  She was, in many ways, and example to the Christian community on how to approach life.

And we think that, in being born with mental retardation, she was robbed of a "quality life"?

No, Tia may not have ever played with a PlayStation or an iPod.  She never picked out her own couture clothes or ate at trendy restaurants.  But Tia was happy.  She had friends who loved her, teachers who cared for her, and she was given every ounce of compassion that they had to share.  The simple, innocent delight in her laugh was enough to make you fall a little bit in love with her.

Good-bye for now, Tia.  Save a dance for me.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Middle-Class Cooking: The Return of the Crock Pot!

I can't recall dedicating a blog to anyone, other than the one I wrote for my stepmother on Mothers' Day, but this one is for Tina and Suz, two of my pals from Starbucks who made a request for recipes for their slow-cookers.

So: dear Tina and Suz: Dis one's fer yinz 'n'at.

The first thing I should review, I suppose, are the few, but crucial, rules of cooking in a crock pot.  I mentioned them in a previous blog* but they bear repeating.  

a.) Don't cook pasta in a crock pot (unless you're monitoring it, and have put it in near the end of the cooking cycle); otherwise, it will turn into a glob of starch.

b.) Dried spices end up being much stronger than fresh ones in a crock pot.  If the recipe calls for fresh and you have only dried ones, you'll need to cut back by roughly half, depending on the flavor or what the recipe offers as an alternative.

c.)  You musn't keep lifting the lid to check your meal every fifteen minutes!  This allows heat to escape, and the crock pot needs to "recapture" the steam - and momentum - due to that heat loss.

d.) Not every recipe can be adapted for the crock pot.  For those that can, ensure you adjust measurements, especially liquid, accordingly.  Cut liquid measurements to about half of what the recipe requires.  You generally need very little or no liquid at all, depending on what you're cooking.  For example, I recently cooked a whole chicken with no added liquid at all and ended up with almost 2 1/2 cups of chicken broth in the pot!

e.) Although it seems contradictory, it's true that browning your meat before placing it in the crock pot produces a better flavor.  It seals in the juices and prevents the meat from getting too mushy.  However, it's by no means a requirement.  It depends on the time you have available to well as how ambitious you feel!  The only exception is ground meats like beef or turkey, which end up producing a lot of grease in the crock pot unless browned and drained beforehand.

f.) About one hour on HIGH is equal to around 2 1/2 hours on LOW.  Plan accordingly.

Well, that's about all the rules I ever adhere to.  Now, here are some things that I like to make.

Classic Creamy Chicken

The most sturdy and time-tested of slow cooker recipes is among the simplest - even if it's not very glamorous!  Place four large boneless chicken breasts or six or seven breast halves in a medium-sized crock pot.  Combine one can of cream of mushroom soup with one can of cream of chicken soup.  Add a dash of pepper, some garlic powder, some onion powder.  Pour over chicken.  Cook on low for about 8 hours.  Serve over rice or noodles.   

Spicy Chili

This particular recipe is best in a smaller crock pot, which is the kind I generally use.  Brown a half-pound of ground beef and about a half-pound of "fondue-style" steak chunks (they're less tender than other cuts).  Drain, then place in the bottom of the crock pot.  Add one can of petite-cut diced tomatoes (I use the no-salt-added variety), one half-can of drained, rinsed black or kidney beans, one half-can of drained, rinsed sweet corn, one can of cream of tomato soup (again, I prefer the brands with less sodium).  Spices, of course, vary by individual preference, but I load my chili - stove-top as well as slow-cooked - with onion powder, black pepper, red pepper, cumin, garlic, and a sprinkle of both curry powder and cinnamon.  (You'll notice I omitted fresh onion from the menu.  Despite my European heritage, I've never been able to handle cooked onions.  I like the flavor and the scent but I can't stand the texture, and my husband feels the same, so we're an onion-free household!)  Cook on low for about 7 hours.  Great mixed with rice, topped with cheddar cheese!

 Pulled Pork

This one's easy.  Put into a small crock pot about a pound and a half of boneless pork loin.  Ribs are fine, but I prefer the loin because there's a lot more meat there.  In a separate bowl, combine a cup and a half of prepared barbecue sauce (I use Open Pit.  It's not the healthiest on the market, but it's cheap and it's what I remember from my childhood) with several splashes of hot sauce, black pepper, onion powder, garlic powder and about quarter cup of ginger ale or cola.  Pour over the meat and cook on low for about 7 hours.  When it's done, turn off the heat, remove the lid and let it sit for several minutes.  Then, take two forks and begin to pull apart the pork.  It will fall apart pretty easily.  If you prefer sauce that's not quite as runny, omit the ginger ale or cola.  Serve on toasted wheat buns or, for a twist, top with sauteed peppers, cheese and beans and serve atop tortilla chips or in a wrap (it's great with cole slaw).

Well, I think that's all the inspiration I can muster regarding cooking this afternoon.  The hubby is getting healthy veggie burgers tonight, whether he likes it or not, since we enjoyed a humongous, rich and delicious dinner at Mallorca Restaurant in the South Side last night.  I was still so full even this morning that all I've eaten today was a bowl of cereal and an egg white wrap.  Hope I'm hungry when the man gets home!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Middle-Class Cooking Strikes Back!

While writing my last post, "Middle-Class Cooking", I was torn between wallowing in self-pity (because my cooking style is not "chic") and writhing in indignation (because my cooking style doesn't HAVE to be "chic", dangit!).  Eventually, I screwed up my courage and returned to the offending magazine with a greater sense of caution to read a little bit more.  To give it another chance.  Let bygones be bygones and whatnot.

This time I decided that even the picture of the editor is too upscale for me.

So, instead of lamenting over not knowing which roasting pan is appropriate for a pheasant, I decided this: if I ever do need to roast a pheasant, I will know exactly which magazine will have the appropriate, if slightly haughty, answer for me.

Until that day, I will, in my middle-class kitchen with my middle-class ingredients and tools, come up with fun, easy, reasonable recipes like the ones I will share with you below.  I do not specify amounts for spices because I always adjust them depending on what I'm serving the meal with; besides, to each his own when it comes to flavor.  Ross is heavy-handed with red pepper, cayenne and freshly ground black pepper, while I prefer dill, mint and lemony flavors.  I tweak each meal accordingly, and you probably do to.  So, I include the spices for a flavor profile, but it's wisest to season to taste.

Mushroom Couscous

Heat about a tablespoon or so of olive oil in a medium skillet.  Add a generous sprinkle of sesame seeds and flaxseed.  Toast lightly.  To the pan, add about 2/3 of a cube minced firm tofu and 1 cup of roughly chopped mushrooms (I prefer the mighty portobello myself, but any type is fine).    Saute for several minutes, until tofu begins to brown slightly and mushrooms become tender.  Add a healthy splash of lemon juice.  Sprinkle with reduced-fat feta and allow it to warm slightly.  (Don't bother trying to melt it; it doesn't get gooey like mozzarella.)  Remove from heat.  In the meantime, prepare 1 cup of couscous and stir in black pepper, salt, garlic and lemon juice to taste.  Stir the mushroom mixture into the couscous and top with more cheese, if desired.  Serve with mint iced tea for a light lunch, or serve as a side dish with chicken or lamb.

Wonder-Bird Burgers

Combine about a pound of ground turkey with chili powder, onion powder, black pepper, sea salt, red pepper, oregano and a little cumin.  Form into 4-6 patties and cook in a grill pan over medium heat (turn only once).  At the same time, fry up several strips of turkey bacon and drain on paper towels.  While the meat cooks, peel and halve one ripe avocado.  Slice for sandwiches and lightly sprinkle with lemon juice; set aside.  Thinly slice a ripe beefsteak tomato for the sandwiches as well.  (I'm not a fan of onions, but red onion would be great on the burger, too.)  Lightly toast whole wheat or hearty whole grain buns and spread with light olive-oil based mayonnaise and/or spicy brown mustard.  Top the turkey patties with reduced-fat cheddar cheese, bacon, tomato, avocado, and a few leaves of spinach.  Serve with a salad of dark leafy greens, mushrooms and olives topped with a warm balsamic vinegar dressing.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Middle-Class Cooking

Recently, my awesome mother-in-law loaned me a big pile of cooking magazines.  Although I rarely follow recipes, preferring to invent my own, I enjoy reading cookbooks and magazines for ideas, flavor combinations, and helpful hints.  I looked over the thin pamphlet-style magazines this morning while I ate a bowl of humidity-stale Reese's Puffs and day-old iced coffee, and man, did I ever feel inadequate!

Many women may claim to feel "judged" by beauty magazines.  They'll never look like the airbrushed girls on the front of Elle and Cosmo, so they get down on themselves.  They don't have perfect wavy honey locks or slim, sleek shoulders and upper arms, so they feel worthless.  It's a common problem with society as a whole and, specifically, the media, but I'm not getting into that now.  Maybe another blog.  And, although I've felt that way, too, when poring over articles titled "Get a Perfect Butt NOW" and "The Best Mascara for YOUR Eye Shape", I was shocked to feel the same sense of inadequacy when I read one called "Orange Chicken: Can This Third-Rate Chinese Restaurant Offering Be Turned Into A First-Rate Dish?"

I know it's not glamorous, but really?  Batter-fried chicken in a sticky, sweet sauce is third-rate?  And, if I like it, does that mean I have poor taste?

A slight digression, if you will: people who know me well know that I love to cook.  I really do.  I taught myself while in college and, although I still get cravings for Hot Pockets, Big Macs and Little Caesar's Hot 'n' Ready pizzas, I usually bring my lunch to work and cook dinner at home every night. To me, cooking is a gift I can share with others, plus, it keeps me from spending loads of money on takeout all the time. 

What's my style of cooking?  I'm not like "Semi-Homemade" Sandra Lee, who cuts massive corners but still produces pretty plates, nor am I Martha Stewart, whose reputation for "easy" crafts belies the serious effort I'd have to put into them.  I'm not the foodie scientist Alton Brown, who can produce an off-the-cuff lecture on the gases produced by a specific strain of grape to create the distinct flavor in a bottle of fine Chianti.  And, although I love her style and sass, I'm no Paula Deen.  I prefer olive oil to a slab of butter most of the time, and under 85% of what I cook is not, in fact, "southern-fried".  

I'm much more of a Rachael Ray, myself, although, I think my shoes are generally a little cuter.  Of course she's more famous and has more money so I think it evens out okay.  And when I say I'm a Rachael Ray, I mean that I enjoy cooking but I enjoy the creativity of it - rather than the "correct-ness" of it.  Plus, I'm short and Italian.

Back to the magazine on my kitchen table that was silently judging me.

It's a beautiful piece of literature.  There are artist's renditions of peppers or cucumbers or cilantro on the back of every issue, plus gorgeous hand-drawn step-by-step guides for many of the meals.  There are delicious-looking desserts and incredibly mouth-watering roasts photographed in charming settings.  There are reader tips on how to make life a little easier, or how to substitute everyday tools for hard-to-find specialty items.  There are also recommendations by the panel of writers regarding what type of pot you should buy for making pasta...what type of peanut butter makes the best satay sauce, and for what types of dish a saucier is really useful. 

And they made me feel stupid.  

One article in particular bragged about how the magazine's test kitchen baked nearly 3,000 cookies in order to recommend to its dear readers the perfect brand of cookie sheet.  Dear Lord!  Really?  I hope they gave those cookies to people who had no food to eat!  Or at least sent them home with the bakers to sugar up their children.  The articles rank products from "highly Recommend" to "Recommend" to "Recommend with Reservations" to "Not Recommended".  Well...I have eaten - and enjoyed - a veggie burger from the "Not Recommended" category.  Should I be ashamed?  Perhaps I should throw in my towel (and my apron) and give up on cooking and eating altogether, as I must be an abject failure at both.  

A rebellious part of my soul wants to intentionally purchase and force myself to like the items on the "Not recommended" list purely because of how haughty and judgmental the language is.  "This product's texture hardly provides the velvety-smooth mouthfeel its advertising implies."  I wanna root for the underdog. "Go, generic shredded cheddar!  I believe in you!  You melt just fine and you're cheap!  I LOVE YOU, GENERIC CHEDDAR!"

I'm willing to try exotic ingredients if I can afford them.  I like cooking with tofu and organic fruits and veggies.  I make my own spaghetti sauce.  But, I do not possess a brisket-slicing knife.  Nowhere in my kitchen does there exist a Dutch oven.  I don't keep almond paste or macadamia nut oil in my pantry.  I think bottled barbecue sauce is acceptable (provided the sodium content is not obscene).  I am okay with using frozen chicken breasts, rather than carving up my own roaster every time I want a casserole.  And it would seem that makes me fall far short of this magazine's intended audience.

Pass the middle-class green bean casserole, would you, please?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Life Lessons: The "Starbucks" Edition

It's been nearly eighteen months since my split with "The Buck".  My emotions have ranged from anxiety to apathy to resentment, but they always return to deep gratitude.  Gratitude for what I learned from amazing people, less than amazing people, and gratitude that I was released from a situation that was not, ultimately what God wanted for my life.

These are the gems I want to share with you:

1. I don't care what kind of day you are having.  The server, or cashier, or barista is a human being who, in most cases, is not responsible for your bad day.  Treat this individual with respect or at least civility.  Make eye contact.  Do not throw your credit card or cash at her.  Do answer any questions he has with courtesy.  Learn how to say "please" and "thank you".  I truly believe that you can tell a lot about a person by how he or she treats a waitress.  It speaks volumes.

2. I don't care what kind of day you are having.  The customer at your window, table, or in line is a human being who, in most cases, is not responsible for your bad day.  You are being paid to perform a service.  Do it to the best of your ability.  These people do not dictate who you are, nor can they dictate your reactions to what they do or say.  You are wholly responsible for how you act.  Be mature. 

3. Be very, very careful about cultivating deep friendships with married members of the opposite sex outside of work.  Even if nothing happens, you can be certain that someone will think it has, and, as my Starbucks mentor/BFF Shawn B. Speir always told me, "perception is reality".  Reputations are extremely difficult to repair - especially at work.

4. If you are going to make a dramatic change within your company, do not do so with a sloppy, disrespectful, hastily-typed note that leaves hundreds - possibly thousands - of your brightest, hardest workers jobless.  It's bad for publicity, and you cut off your own nose to spite your face.

5. Quality is important to customers, but value is more important.  The masses suffering from cutbacks and unemployment are not going to spend ten dollars for three packets of instant coffee.  That's stupid.

6. Next to stealing from the company, gossip is the worst possible thing you can do - to yourself, your co-workers, and your corporation.  Stop it right now.  If you do not, you will deeply regret it.  Besides, it's really just mean.

7. Friendships are, thank God, thicker than two-day-old mocha sauce.  The co-workers who truly care about you won't care why you left the company.  They just want to see you again.  (I am fortunate that there is a whole mess of those awesome people who love me at the Greentree Drive-Thru.)

8. Complaining does not bring about positive results.  Insubordination does not bring about positive results.  Laziness does not bring about positive results.  Positive results come from teamwork, sharing one goal, open lines of communication, and mutual respect.  It's not easy, but there you have it.

9. The way the head goes, the body will follow.  If you are a leader, act like one.  No double-talk, no false promises and no pretending you are infallible.  If you make a mistake, own up to it.  If you don't know an answer, don't make one up.  Excuse yourself to find the correct answer.  And, most importantly, don't promise unless you can deliver.  Countries have gone into civil war for lesser evils!  Be the kind of leader you'd want to follow!

10.  Forgive.  Move on.  Grow up.  I have made my peace and still go to Starbucks, although my salary doesn't allow me to be a two-cup-a-day-guest.  More like twice a month.  But, in spite of the disappointments I've faced through Starbucks, I am still a sucker for a cup of Breakfast Blend and a Reduced-Fat Berry Muffin.

(They aren't getting rid of those muffins, too, are they?!)