Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Short Story Hour: Pink Ponies of Doom - The Bake Off, Part Two

I gazed out into the audience of the high school gym and saw a cluster of black and pink shirts, towards the front. They seemed to be singing and dancing in the aisle; I couldn't quite tell. The original Pink Ponies of Doom had decided that the only way to support me in the 100th Annual Franklin Hills Bake Off was to make t-shirts featuring my of my favorite My Littel Ponies from childhood. The front of the shirt featured the sweet, friendly faces of the ponies but the back made them into modern day punk baking badasses. Some spiked pony hair, a few tattoos, and I believe Cotton Candy was even sporting a leather jacket and a nose ring. I'm not sure if it was their intention to scare the older women away from the contest or to just be funny. I'll take whatever I can get at this point. My bakery staff and a few other friends were also sporting the shirts and cheering loudly.

I stood behind my table waiting for the third round of judging to begin. It was down to me, Nora Williams, and Fern Allen. The other six contestants had been eliminated in the cookie and cookie bar rounds. Poor Marva hadn't even made it to round two. Nora was a two time bake off winner and Fern held the record for ten wins. I had already proved I was no slouch; I scored perfectly (150 points) in the first two rounds. The Pink Ponies of Doom cookies were a hit; the judges loved the texture and the combo of sweetness and tanginess of the strawberry cream cheese. I was ahead of Fern by ten points; she lost points for sloppy edges in the bar round. Her raspberry lemonade bars were amazing but sloppiness was a rookie mistake.

The third round was the pie round. Pies were judged on three categories: crust (50 points for texture and flakiness); filling (50 points for taste, overall flavor, and consistency), and creativity (50 point for theme, inventiveness, creative ingredient). Judges could dock points for presentation from any of the categories. 

My entry was a S'Mores pie with homemade graham cracker crust (I made the graham crackers too), homemade vanilla bean marshmallows, and a Nutella chocolate filling. Indulgent did not even begin to describe this pie. The richness of the marshmallow and Nutella was balanced by the graham crackers (not too sweet). It was the perfect pie. Nora made her award-winning peach pie with a crumble topping and Fern kept to her theme with a key lime pie (she was going for beverages of summer). Both looked delicious and super simple; no fancy lattice work or odd ingredients. 

The top two bakers would advance to the final round: original cakes. We would have two hours to assemble our cakes in the school kitchen with the help of one assistant. All bakers had to come prepared to advance through all rounds; I had spent the better part of last night creating sugared oranges and fondant creamsicles for my Orange Creamsicle cake. What as more summery than that?

The judges were finally finished with their pie tasting and were deliberating in hushed tones. The gym was noisy; the high school pep band played and people shouted for their favorite baker. It was hot on the little stage; the lights were fixed on each of us like we were on a televised baking competition. My fan club kept cheering for me and dancing in the aisles to the music of the band. Neither Nora nor Fern talked to me or to each other; they had their game faces on.

The band went silent. The judges had come to a decision. The head of the Bake Off committee, Kathleen, stepped on stage with the results."What a great competition so far! Are y'all having fun?" Kathleen's enthusiasm was infectious. The crowd cheered.

"This is one of the closest bake offs in recent history. Our two final bakers are only separated by two points. Our first finalist, advancing to the final round with 443 total points, Fern Allen!" Fern's family shouted and cheered for her.

Kathleen gave them a few seconds to quiet down. "And our second finalist, moving forward with 445 points and keeping her lead, Maeve Lucas!"

I was shocked. Not only was I advancing I had almost gotten a third perfect score. I'd find out later what I lost points for. Kathleen continued, "Fern holds the record for bake off wins with ten under her belt. This is Maeve's first bake off although most of us enjoy her desserts and pastries every day at The Rolling Pin."

"Our bakers and their assistants will have two hours to assemble their final creation: an original cake. The cake round will be judged on taste and texture for both the cake and the frosting, creativity, and adherence to the baker's selected theme. Bakers, your time begins now!" The crowd roared as Fern and I ran back to the kitchen where our assistants waited.

Jake, my assistant, was at our station and had started removing items from our boxes. Ovens were heating and we set to work preparing the cake batters. My plan was to create layers of vanilla cake with a light homemade orange curd as the filling. The orange vanilla frosting would have that something extra from the orange zest. I had three shades of orange selected for the frosting; my intention was to swirl the colors around the cake similar to the push-pop version of the creamsicle that I loved so much as a child. I'd finish it with sugared orange slices and the hand-rolled fondant creamsicles. Nothing super flashy; just fun and refreshing. Like a creamsicle.

Neither of us could see what was happening over at Fern's station. She didn't look happy with her assistant (her granddaughter) but her cake was coming along nicely. I could smell root beer so I assumed she was making a root beer float cake. It smelled delicious.

Time passed quickly and before I knew it we were down to the last thirty minutes. Jake and and I were applying the finishing touches to the decorative elements of the cake and checking for any errant frosting or anything else that could throw off the presentation. All but one layer cake had baked evenly; a little cut off the top had evened it out nicely. Kathleen popped in to give us our ten minute warning. Our cakes needed to be on stage before the ten minutes were up. I inspected the cake one last time, touched up the flourish on top, and decided it was done. I couldn't do anything else at this point. I glanced across the room at Fern; she had already started on her way out the door. Her granddaughter was far ahead of her holding the door and staying out of the way. Jake and I followed suit. My hands were shaking as I walked on stage. I made it to my table without dropping the cake or falling on my face. 

The crowd counted down the last ten seconds with the type of enthusiasm normally associated with basketball games. The Pink Ponies of Doom were the loudest as far as I could tell. The buzzer sounded; it was over. We presented our cakes to the judges, explaining the ingredients, our special touches, and how the cake fit into our theme. Kathleen did the honors of serving the judges, measuring each slice to ensure they received equal amounts. Fern and I headed to our cheering sections while the judges deliberated. 

"You've got this," Lizzie greeted me with a hug and a bottle of water. "Fern has been making some variation of that cake for years. The judges have to be tired of it."

I smiled but was unsure. "Well, she's won ten times. She must be doing something right." Daisy had already planned the after party, win or lose. Before we knew it, the judges had made their final decision.

"Bakers to the stage please. It's time to announce this year's winner!" Kathleen's announcement got the crowd on its feet. Fern and I made our way back to the stage. We shook hands before heading to our tables.

"Alright Franklin Hills, I have the name of our top baker in this envelope. The winner will receive a trophy, a recipe feature in next week's Franklin Hills Gazette's weekend section, and a $500 gift certificate for the Baker's Square. Thanks to the Baker's Square supply store for sponsoring this year's bake off." 

The applause died down and Kathleen opened the envelope. "This year's Franklin Hills Bake Off champion wowed the judges in each round with inventive ingredients, attention to detail, and a whimsical theme that was carried through each creation. With a near perfect overall score, this year's winner is...Maeve Lucas!"

I had unseated ten time winner Fern Allen. I won. Tree house dreams and plastic ponies helped win baking contests. I collected my prizes and posed for photos with my friends and the mayor and Fern. With a soft smile and wink, she vowed revenge next year. 

My cheering section adjourned to The Rolling Pin to celebrate. I placed the trophy out front behind the counter for all to see. Lizzie, Daisy, and I posed for an updated photo enjoying a Pink Ponies of Doom cookies. All that was missing was the tree house.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Short Story Hour: Pink Ponies of Doom - The Bake Off, Part One

"I smell like peanut butter."

I'm saying this to no one. In fact, even if I was saying it to someone, they wouldn't care. I smell like some baked good pretty much every day. The staff at the bakery say it's comforting and delicious to go home smelling of chocolate and vanilla and spices. Normally I don't notice it but today the smell of peanut butter hangs around me and permeates every fiber of my clothes and it's even in my hair. Peanut butter is in my top five favorite foods from childhood and it's one of my favorite ingredients for baking. But right now it's becoming a bit overwhelming.

There are six batches of peanut butter and jelly bars in the oven, turning a golden brown and oozing with jelly goodness. I haven't made these bars in years but I woke up this morning from a dream about my old tree house and eating PB&J sandwiches with my friends and had to make them. I settled on classics, grape and strawberry, for half of the batch and peach and blackberry for the other half. With these bars, the peanut butter cookie base is the bread and the jelly settles into the dough like when a PB&J sandwich sits too long before you eat. The peanut butter and jelly fuse together and it is delicious. I could eat an entire pan of these bars myself; they're that good. I can never make enough.

Rob, one of my bakery assistants, convinced me to compete in the 100th Annual Franklin Hills Bake-Off. I'm going up against some of the most talented home bakers in this town. Women (mostly) who bake recipes handed down from generation to generation. Women who can smell store bought goods a mile away. It's not enough that I'm a success business owner and own the only bakery in town; these women are the real bakers of Franklin Hills and they know it. They may line up for my croissants and scones every morning but that means nothing. I have to win that trophy to really be accepted in this town. I moved here when I was six but I’m still no closer to being a local than the family that moved here last month. I’ve spent the last four weeks experimenting with several recipes trying to get them exactly perfect and never even considered the PB&J bars as a contender (category: bar cookies).

I've been having dreams about the tree house more and more lately. Sometimes it's just a simple image like today where I'm in the tree house with my friends and we're laughing and having fun as we always did when we were young. Other times it's just the tree house and the backyard. In those dreams, I'm in the tree house looking out and waiting. I don't know what I'm waiting for and I always wake up before I can figure it out. Every time I have a tree house dream, I get an idea for a new recipe or a way to make an old recipe sparkle. That's how I got the idea for my bake off theme: Childhood Memories. All of my entries are inspired by the tastes of my childhood.

The front of The Rolling Pin is dark and quiet. I woke up from my tree house dream and couldn't go back to sleep so I came in two hours earlier than usual. The rest of the staff will be in soon enough. Once they get here, I can leave the morning rush to them so I can focus on my next bake off entry: Pink Ponies of Doom.

Like the peanut butter bars, the Pink Ponies of Doom were the result of a tree house dream right after I entered the bake off. In this one, I was sitting in my tree house with my best friends, Lizzie and Daisy, and we're playing ponies. Between the three of us we had every My Little Pony made between 1983 and 1986. The pink ones were our favorite and my dad affectionately called us the Pink Ponies of Doom. The name stuck with us all through school. We even became heroes of sorts to the kids who got picked on by the popular set. We were famous for exacting schoolyard justice when needed; mean girls beware. After the dream, I dug around in the attic and found my old toys including an entire box of ponies. I needed inspiration to come up with a new dessert. I picked my favorite pink ones, Cotton Candy, Parasol, and Lickety Split, and brought them to the bakery. They watched over me, next to a picture of Lizzie, Daisy, and I in the tree house, as I baked and discarded idea after idea for how to make Pink Ponies of Doom.

How could I turn something so amazing as the Pink Ponies of Doom into a baked good? Cutout cookies, although delicious, are too obvious. Cupcakes are overdone, cake pops are a little too modern for this town, and brownies don't work at all. It has to be sweet and a little sour at the same time (my dad used to call us "sweet and sassy; a perfect combination"). Then it came to me: strawberry cream cheese cookies with glittery vanilla frosting. Cream cheese has that slight tang to it that makes it the perfect balance for sweet strawberries and vanilla frosting. I hadn't gotten the combination right though. The last two batches had been too sweet and the one before that too cream cheese-y. I think I figured it out and today would be the perfect batch. The secret: short bread cookie base. I don't know why I hadn't thought about it before. My grandma made the best short bread cookies and she used to make a box for the Pink Ponies of Doom every time she visited. The buttery cookie with the tangy strawberry cream cheese and the vanilla would be heaven. Those ladies would not know what hit them.

When I heard the back door of the bakery open I realized how long I'd been working on the cookies. Rob, Jamie, and Mona took one look at the kitchen and went about getting ready for the morning rush. They ignored my mutterings about pony designs on the frosting and got the croissants and scones baking away. Muffins, I call them breakfast cakes, were ready (sometimes I help out around here). Mona got the coffee going and by 5:30 we were ready to open. The first customer of the day, Marva Davis, was one of my competitors in the bake off. 

"Maeve," she called out over the counter. "What is that heavenly smell?"

I came out from the kitchen to talk with her. "Just something I'm working on for the bake off. I'm not going to tell you what it is; you'll steal my idea." 

Marva faked offense. "I would never! Of course, you can't trust some of the other ladies. They're gunning for you, you know. You're the youngest competitor and the only one from away. You know how they can be." Marva took a seat at one of the cafe tables. She had already eaten have of her breakfast cake.

"From away? I hate it when y'all use that term. I've lived her for over twenty years, not counting when I went away to college. That has to count for something." I slumped in the seat across from her.

"You know how it is, honey. Some people have been here since the town was founded and they think anyone who wasn't born here is from away. It's just how it is. Now if you win, they'll think of you more like one of us. Not a local, but at least not from away anymore. I don't make the rules; I just live here." She finished her breakfast cake (lemon blueberry) and made her way to the door. "Take care, Maeve. I look forward to seeing what you bring to the competition."

"Thanks Marva." I waved as she walked down Oak Street towards the town square. I made my way back behind the counter and into the kitchen. The Pink Ponies of Doom were ready and the PB&J bars had cooled enough to cut. Both were going out as specials this afternoon; a test run to see how people liked them. I was too close to judge anymore. If people liked them, I would finally get to shift my focus to the final category: an original cake recipe. 

I returned to the kitchen to help with the rest of the morning baking and a few special orders for later in the day. The Pink Ponies of Doom, the plastic and the little girl versions, watched from their ledge. I had two weeks until the bake off. That was plenty of time for me to create the greatest cake of all time inspired by my childhood. A cake so amazing it would the hearts and stomachs of an entire town. 

Easy. Not a problem at all.

Will Maeve win the bake off? What is the best cake of all time? Find out this week in Short Story Hour: Pink Ponies of Doom - The Bake Off, Part Two.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Winosaur Adventures

A couple of posts ago, I discussed my desire to reclaim summer after discovering that I've been doing summer wrong for years. This weekend was a step in the reclaiming process: bringing back the fun of summers past.

It begins with a visit to Dinosaur Land. If I want to reclaim summer it's best to start with dinosaurs.
I first visited Dinosaur Land in 2014 when I took an Instagram road trip and photographed roadside attractions in Maryland and Virginia. During the #misfittoysroadtrip2014, it sleeted and was rather unpleasant weather-wise but my visit was fun and worth the trip. As I drove to my final destination of that road trip (Richmond), I realized how close Dinosaur land is to one of my favorite wineries, Rappahannock Cellars. I vowed to return to Dinosaur Land and visit Rappahannock and this weekend I did just that. Joining me on this for this adventure are Megan and Matt, who are possibly the most photo ready people I know. Who better to take to a place like Dinosaur Land than them?

The trip idea came about like this: Megan and Matt were at my house for dinner one evening and I happened to serve some Rappahannock wine while telling them about Dinosaur Land. I shared my plan to go back and experience both in the same day and invited them along. We picked a date, decided on snacks (very important in winery visit planning), and even selected a hashtag for Instagram (because we're those people apparently).

If you're not familiar with Dinosaur Land it's a Virginia institution (probably). Inspired by a trip to Orlando, FL, Joseph Geraci added the attraction to his corner store in 1963. What started with five dinosaurs has now grown to around 40 with three new displays added in the last two year. The Washington Post magazine did a feature on Dinosaur Land last weekend just in time for our adventure. I love places like Dinosaur Land; they remind me of road trips around Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana when I was younger. Brightly colored statues of animals and prehistoric creatures, amazing gift shops (more on this in a moment), and admission fees that are super friendly (seriously, best $6 you can spend).

We arrived at Dinosaur Land just after noon on a gorgeous summer Saturday. It was warm but not too hot (at least not yet) and there was a slight breeze. I drove and had a decent enough idea of where I was going. White Post, VA is about an hour drive from Fairfax (where Megan and Matt live). The drive down was uneventful but filled with fun road trip conversation and a return to discussing my choice of having CDs in my car. Matt also outlined his three (made up on the spot) goals for the day:
  1. Pronounce Rappahannock correctly. (Accomplished especially after seeing it spelled out on the sign.)
  2. Take a dino selfie. (Done and done.)
  3. Birthday meal for Erin. (Not accomplished because of bad weather on the return home - more on this later.)
Dinosaur Land appears on the road just as you think you might have passed it. There is no billboard announcing its location a mile down the road or even just reminding you it's there. All of the sudden you see the tentacle of an octopus and the fin of a shark and there it is. Geraci's original store is still there, now serving as a huge gift soap for the attraction. His daughters still run the place along with a dedicated staff. I spoke with one lady who told me a bit about the new dinosaurs and what it takes to maintain the older ones. I could tell she loves the attraction and enjoys the visitors questions.

We began our visit by getting distracted in the gift shop: lots of weird animals for sale; not sure if they're taxidermy items or not, moccasins, t-shirts, dinosaur figures and stuffed animals, and fake weapons. If I were 8 or 9 I could have found a dozen ways to spend my money (I settled on a more grown-up approach by buying a mug and t-shirt). We bought our tickets and entered into Dinosaur Land.

Our adventure began at the sign with a large shark, octopus, and other random prehistoric creatures. Matt doesn't like sharks but Megan and I jumped at the change to take photos inside the mouth of the shark (why not?) and we marveled at what the creatures were made out of. I'll let the following photos explain our journey around the park.

No trip to Dinosaur Land would be complete without a photo op with King Kong. Yes, there is a King Kong statue at the end. It's designed in such a way that you can go up a ramp and sit on Kong's hand. This was the one thing I didn't do when I visited the first time; I was alone and it was sleeting on that visit. I had visions of slipping and breaking a leg so I just stood below and snapped a picture or two. This time we made a point of all of us taking our Kong photos. Even T-Rex Manning, my desk dinosaur got in one.

If you haven't visited Dinosaur Land make it a destination this summer. It's fun, a little silly, family friendly, and probably the least expensive way to spend 30 minutes. I finally have my Dinosaur Land t-shirt and have a photo with King Kong. We made Chris Pratt jokes (you all know how much I love him) and had more fun (probably) than most of the small children roaming around the park with their parents.

We could have stopped there, had a late lunch, and headed back to NOVA but what fun would that be? Our next destination was Rappahannock Cellars, one of my favorite Virginia wineries (I'm also a member). I know a lot of people are super snobby when it comes to wine and don't want to hear about how good Virginia wine actually is. Those people are horrible and clearly have not spent an afternoon enjoying the wine, beautiful views, and cheese at Rappahannock. I joined Rappahannock's wine club in January (my dad has been a member over a decade) so not only did I need to pick up my wine but we got to enjoy the lovely members' only tasting room. Our server asked about my parents (which I thought was very nice) and Megan and Matt got to experience some of Rappahannock's best wines (the tasting menu right now is awesome). Check out the emoji rating system Megan employed:

T-Rex Manning even enjoyed a glass or two.


One thing that can be dangerous during a #winosauradventure is that you don't necessarily realize how much time has passed. All of the sudden it was 4 pm and we had to decide our next move. We settled on visiting one more winery, Narmada Winery, another favorite of mine. T-Rex Manning enjoyed a glass of Midnight (their best wine) as the skies got noticeably darker and more ominous.

Driving home was an adventure of its own. Massive thunderstorms started as we made our way out of Front Royal and onto 66 heading back to Fairfax. Visibility was awful; people were driving with their hazards on because we were driving so slowly. They were also still driving like morons because people in Virginia can't help themselves when it comes to driving poorly in any weather condition. By the time we got back to their apartment, we had driven through hurricane like rains and apparently, several areas that were under tornado warnings. I decided to head back to Arlington rather than stay for dinner. The rain tapered off as I drove home but the second I was less than a mile away from home, the skies opened again and I could barely see the turn for my apartment building. I sat in my car for 10 minutes hoping the rain would slow down (it did not). I abandoned my wine to the trunk of my car and ran inside. It wouldn't be summer without some kind of weather event; I'm hoping this one is it for me.

Despite the stressful drive home, the day was exactly as I hoped it would be: fun, silly, and summery. Megan and Matt are hilarious; if Megan asks me "Do I look like a velociraptor when I do this?" (imagine what she might do here) ever again I will probably not be able to speak because I will be laughing too hard. Driving just an hour away from NOVA makes all the difference in the world; a little nature, a little wine, and some dinosaurs. What more does summer need?

All photos by Megan, Matt and me
Washington Post Article
Dinosaurs and Wine

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Lazy Movie Weekend: Why are there madeleine pans?

Something I never thought would happen has happened. No, Pumpkin did not learn how to open a locked bathroom door and save the day. This would require her to focus on something for longer than two seconds. She only has that level of commitment to napping.

The impossibility that has become reality is this: I love summer movies again. I know, I didn't think it could happen either. I love going to the movies but the last few summers have left me feeling a little off. I would see a movie here and there but haven't been truly excited about summer movies in forever. I've only seen three movies in the theater since summer movie season officially started (although I did see one of the movies twice) but I have multiple weeks planned out from now until the end of August to bask in the glow of action and comedy movies, animated gems, and some random dramas and indie films thrown in for good measure. I also joined the Arlington Cinema Drafthouse movie club so I can see the couple I missed from early May. This is how I plan to see Furious 7. The pass was $30 and I can watch a movie per day for an entire year (and drink beer while doing so if I am so inclined). Glorious.

There are probably lots of reasons that this summer's movie schedule is resonating with me. Could it be the abundance of strong and interesting female characters across multiple genres? Maybe it's the fun of animated films and oddball comedies that I'm reacting to. Or maybe it's the summery feel I get from so many of the trailers. But it's not. Despite the fact that all of these statements are true none of them are what brought me back to summer movies. The real reason that I love summer movies again?

Melissa McCarthy and Jason Statham.

How perfect are they together in Spy? Every scene they share made me laugh more than I expected and in unexpected ways. I thought that Melissa McCarthy's Susan Cooper would be the plucky comic relief in this movie but no, she is the straight woman to Jason Statham's bumbling Rick Ford. I imagine when Paul Feig was writing the film he thought to himself, "How can I create a character that should be all the suave and sophisticated cool of James Bond but is in fact a moron with a gun? And wouldn't it be awesome if Jason Statham agreed to play him? I'm brilliant!!"

I've always been a Melissa McCarthy fan. Sookie St. James was one of my favorite characters on Gilmore Girls and she's had amazing roles in Bridesmaids, Tammy, and St. Vincent. As for Statham, I've seen all of The Transporter movies, and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Given what I know of Statham's more popular films, I figured he'd be the tough guy agent and not have any bit of a sense of humor but it turns out he's wicked funny and the dynamic between him and McCarthy is amazing. They throw zingers right and left and what's even better is that Susan Cooper does not let Rick Ford take over the mission. The world needs both of them to save the day.

One of my favorite exchanges:

Rick Ford: We have to stop the sale of a nuclear bomb. They send in someone who looks like Santa Claus' fucking wife!
Susan Cooper: Uh, did you forget? I am undercover because you are not supposed to be here!
Rick Ford: Well I make a habit out of doing things that people say I can't do: Walk through fire, water ski blindfolded, take up piano at a late age.

What Spy really made me realize is that I need more McCarthy and Statham, as a duo, in my life. Yes, I could just watch all seven seasons of Gilmore Girls again or count the times that Frank Martin uses his clothes as weapons in The Transporter movies but it won't ever be the same. I've heard that Spy is potentially going to be a franchise so we could see more of Susan and Rick (and Nancy and Aldo; I adore them too) but it's not definite. I need definite. I need to know when the next movie is going to come out and how many scenes they'll be in together and whether or not the end of the first film will be addressed (I won't ruin it for you). I need answers.

More importantly, I need more of them together. I don't think more Spy movies will be enough. What we really need is a McCarthy/Statham television show. Originally when I thought about this I settled on buddy cop dramedy (that's totally a thing; think of it like a mix of Law & Order and that Andy Samberg show on Fox) but then I realized we'd have to figure out how to make Statham American and I can't have any of that. The accent is a requirement. Or there would have to be some weird plot device/complication that explains why a British guy is an American cop or that there's some sort of country collaboration happening. The complication of those plot elements don't sit well with me. I don't want to serialize Spy because it's definitely better as a big screen movie (an event if you will) so the CIA, FBI, and any other spy organization is out. I wouldn't want to watch a show set in a hospital or school (too many of those already anyway).

And then it came to me: rival chefs.

I'm not saying that Sookie St. James needs to get her own show but I can see these two as rival chefs who duke it out for culinary superiority in a small Midwestern city (maybe Cincinnati or Detroit or Milwaukee). Maybe there's some sabotage or restaurant themed hijinks. Think of all the awesome supporting characters too; maybe a Kirk-like character who works at both restaurants and some busybody regulars who try to get them to fall in love (which they never do by the way). Maybe Jason should be a single dad with an ultra sassy daughter who hangs around the restaurant saying really sassy things (for a 10 year old). I don't have a title yet but I'm working on it. Clearly Amy Sherman-Palladino should be involved and we could get this on ABC Family (they took Bunheads away so they owe me).

I would also be able to ask Jason Statham the question that needs to be answered and yet no one has ever asked: why does Frank Martin have a madeleine pan and the ingredients to make madeleines in his home but serves Lai instant noodles The Transporter? Why? I assume it's because writer Luc Besson figured I would be paying attention to the number of times Statham is shirtless or uses his clothes as weapons (this happens constantly in the entire franchise) rather than this weird baking scene. However, I find the madeleine scene distracting. Why is it there? I bake all the time and I don't own a madeleine pan so it seems weird that Frank Martin, a man that transports illicit goods, would have this in his kitchen. Is it because the movie takes place in France? I hope this isn't the answer because that would be lame and a bit of a generalization of the French people.

And maybe it's in this question that we've found our opening sequence. In one kitchen, Melissa makes a her famous lemon madeleines as a new dessert offering for her restaurant's summer menu. In the other kitchen, Jason, on a whim, decides to make lemon madeleines too (they happen to be his sassy daughter's favorite). Restaurant goers can't get enough and so our rivalry is born.

It needs some work but I think I've found our answer to what to do between now and the next Spy movie (if there is one; I hope there is one). Anyone want to help me think of a title?

Next up on the Island: Chris Pratt can have Jurassic World; I'm going on a Winosaur Adventure! What's a Winosaur Adventure? Check out next week's post to find out (hint: it may or may not involve wineries and roadside attractions).

Shaken, Not Stirred
Susan and Rick 
Quotes from IMDB

Saturday, June 6, 2015

You're Doing Everything Wrong: Summer Edition

First a musical interlude:

I suck at summer. I admit this openly and without hesitation. While I love summer (it's my second favorite season), I stopped being good at summer in high school. My favorite summer activities include:
  • Getting sunburned (despite using appropriate sunscreen)
  • Feeling sweaty all the time
  • Reading
  • Going to the movies
  • Drinking iced beverages
  • Happy hour (as long as it's not at a rooftop bar; see second bullet point)
  • Going to concerts, even outdoors, despite the second bullet point 
  • Eating junk food at baseball games
  • Avoiding pools
I feel like I was better at summer when I was younger. I spent more time outdoors (and even sort of tanned except that one time my ears got sunburned) and while we were not a traditional summer vacation kind of family, we did go on a lot of road trips. Most of these road trips were to Detroit or from one military posting to another but they were always an adventure. When we lived in Alabama and Louisiana, we did go to the beach pretty frequently. I also recall thrill-filled amusement park adventures with my cousins and brother. The summers of childhood are about freedom and fun and exploration and imagination. And staying up really, really late. That's what I remember.

I'm guessing that it was late high school and into college where my summers turned from summers of fun and frivolity to work and work and some fun on the side. I spent summers working in theatres; my high school theatre, Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane, and various little theatres and weird performance spaces around New Orleans. I never went anywhere or really did "summer" things but I had the best time. Some of my fondest memories from college (in particular) are from those summers working the box office at the Lyric (as our older patrons called it), trying to figure out where a patron left her tickets (answer: in the freezer next to her jewelry) and hanging out with my friends. Theatre parties are the best parties; don't let anyone tell you differently.

Joining the workforce has meant that my summers are just a continuation of the rest of the year. There's not a natural break anymore. I'm always doing some project or planning something at work and don't seem to have the time to really take off and enjoy myself. Even when I taught, I worked over the summer both at school and at a theatre so there was never the break that most people believe teachers have. Many of the summers of my early/mid-twenties involved friends' weddings so I tended to make the destination wedding my vacation by spending a day or two wherever it was rather than doing something separate. So really, summer just became a hotter, more humid version of the rest of the year.

I should be experiencing the type of summer that I sometimes dream about: concerts, vacation at the beach, trips to the winery, baseball games, and relaxing with a good book. This is the first summer in eight years that I don't have a large user conference in an uncomfortably hot location (think Phoenix in July) to plan and attend. I don't have to be concerned with seating arrangements at the awards breakfast (hint: it doesn't really matter where people sit at these things) nor do I have to prepare myself for product questions while I'm waiting in the restroom line. No work polos to pack (rust? gray? blue? some new weird teal shade?) and no lengthy discussion with other co-workers about what is and is not appropriate to wear at a professional event held in the summer. I have my summer back but I have absolutely no idea what to do with it.

A few months back I wrote about the difference between doing things by yourself and being lonely. They're not the same thing; doing things by yourself is fun but sometimes you don't want to be by yourself. Some things lend themselves to being done in groups or at least with a few other people. Summer, for me, is not a solitary season. It's about being outside and soaking up the warmth of the weather and of others. I think that's why I like going to outdoor concerts so much. A summer concert combines my love of good music, being outside for a very specific time period (in the pavilion of course; no lawn seats for this girl), and being around others who enjoy/love the band. It's a temporary community that I can get behind even when that temporary community stands at inappropriate times during the show or gets into fights in the parking lot (true story).

Not my photo but from another devotee.
What it comes down to is that I need to reclaim my summer. It's not that I'm doing everything wrong when it comes to summer; I'm just not really doing summer. I didn't prepare enough to take a big vacation but I can spend my weekends doing summer things. I can take Fridays or Mondays (or both) off to extend the fun if I want to. I need to rally the troops (my friends and family) to join me on adventures. I must go outside more despite the heat and potential for sunburn. I should probably invest in a hat. I can stay up late and not feel terrible about it in the morning although I may have to redefine what "late" actually is. I will find Superman ice cream in Northern Virginia if it takes all summer.

I need to rediscover the summers of my childhood and the joy of slowing down while still participating in adventures.

To a summer of small adventures!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Cornicabra, Abracadabra - It's Team Building Time!

I want you to join me. Look at all the things that people built. You might see a mess. What I see are people inspired by each other, and by you. People take things from what you have and are making something new out of it.

-Emmet, The Lego Movie

Team building. Just let the word sit there for a few minutes. Say it aloud if you'd like. Maybe it's too painful to say out loud because you've just remembered every team building event you've ever attended in your professional life. Did you have to make something out cardboard or maybe produce? How about making it through a ropes or obstacle course with co-workers you don't quite trust? I know, you had to go on a boat in the middle of a river for an entire day and there was no alcohol. Or snacks. I know how you feel; I've experienced my share of painful team buildings myself over the years. I always challenge myself to think of two things during team building activities:
  1. The intention is positive. My boss is not doing this to torture us.
  2. I will get something out of the experience. Now that thing might be something small like I didn't tell a co-worker they were lazy when not helping with the task at hand but that's still something.
Back in October, I moved into a new role at work. I've been with this company for almost nine years (which is a long time these days) and have had a variety of jobs and roles over that time. For the last three years, I've been managing learning and development programs for a specific division of the company. My focus was very product and client/industry driven with some soft skills training and other development opportunities thrown in when I had time. I admit that was coming to a point where burnout was inevitable and I was becoming more dissatisfied with my work. While I love the product I was helping support, I didn't love the mechanical feeling of my job. It felt rote, like reciting a multiplication table. I didn't feel like I was getting anywhere with anyone despite evidence that proved otherwise. I know those feelings are related to my personality; I want everyone to be happy and get what they need. That is almost impossible when your job is to train people. In general, people are very passive when it comes to learning. I've experienced the attitude from many people that training is done to people and that makes it challenging.

My new role is still in learning and development but now I'm less product training focused (in theory) and more focused on actual learning and development. I'm working on creating learning programs that I believe will help foster a culture of learning at my company...once they get rolled out to the workforce. I work with some wonderful people and like Corky in Waiting for Guffman, I have a vision. I feel more energized about work these days despite some of the frustrations and the slow movement I've been experiencing on some fronts. Our small team has accomplished a lot since October and I'm proud of that.

Which brings me back to team building. This week I participated in a full team offsite meeting complete with brainstorming, discussions of synergy, and you guessed it, team building! My actual team is rather small but we belong to a larger team in the grander picture of our organization and this is the group that I would be team building with. I don't know all of them well; we're spread out across two offices. Despite being part of the same group within the organization, not all of jobs intersect all that frequently. Getting to know what people actually do at work was very exciting. 

What I was most looking forward to was the team building activity. I knew what was going to happen because I was involved in the conversations around planning it. We were going on a scavenger hunt at Jungle Jim's. What could be more fun than a team building scavenger hunt at the most unique grocery store I've ever been to?

Our base camp before the scavenger hunt; sort of Medieval Times-y.
Hands down, this was one of the best team building activities I've ever participated in. It was fun, a little silly, and totally random. We got to walk around the entire store multiple times and find weird and wonderful things all around Jungle Jim's. I was part of Team Giraffe and spent the hunt with two co-workers I don't know very well strategizing on where to find Cornicabras (they're olives) and where we might locate penguins in the store (by the frozen food obviously). My sub-team (we broke up into smaller groups to cover the most ground) relied on me to navigate around Jungle Jim's because I had been there before (so I had purpose). I did surprisingly well for only having visited once and being incredibly directionally challenged. We finished in time and my team won the scavenger hunt (no prize just bragging rights). We ended day one with wine and beer tastings, a great dinner, and cake. It was fun, different, and included snacks. In my opinion, that is a perfect combination. It didn't feel forced like so many team buildings I've experienced in the past. To me, that forced bonding is the reason why so many of those events fail or at least are viewed negatively. Forcing people to bond isn't really bonding.

Jungle Jim's has an event center. You can get married there.
I recently wrote a blog post about workplace friendships and have a personal interest in relationships in the workplace. Most of us spend a lot of time at our jobs which means we spend a lot of our time with the people with whom we work. I don't believe that you have to like everyone (that sounds exhausting) but it's important to find connections with people when you can. As I wrote in my original post, these types of relationships help with productivity, connectedness, and ultimately create an environment where people feel pride in their work. Personally, I don't want to work at a place where I feel like no one cares about what we do or the people around them. That sounds horrifying and stressful. I want my work to have meaning and the relationships I have at work help drive that meaning. Taking time to build on those relationships in a fun way helps people bond while not forcing them to do so. It creates shared memories which help move relationships along.

As we moved into day two, we had already started down a path of thinking differently about the ways in which we interact individually, by teams, and across our department. I was responsible for some of the content during the second day. This made me both excited and a little tense as it would be my first presentation to my brand new team. It went well and several people have mentioned how it gave them something to think about related to how they do their jobs. I am not naive enough to believe that everyone enjoyed the event and the meetings as much as I did, but I do know that there were people who participated as active learners and came with an open mind and got something out of the event. Like Emmet tells President Business, people can be inspired by each other to do exciting and new things or to think differently about what we do now. Inspiration and possibility - wonderful ideas to move us forward.

Everything isn't always awesome but when you're part of team and know that others are there to help you it certainly makes everything feel awesome. (And now that song is in your head - my work here is done.)

Not my team but we could all use more Legos in our lives.

Coming soon to the Island: I'm doing everything wrong when it comes to summer and fun, we'll take a trip back to Dinosaur Land, and I discuss summer movies. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Dioramas from my parents' basement

My parents have lived in their current house for twelve years. This is the longest either of them have lived in a house since they got married. We moved a lot when my dad was in the Army; there is no childhood bedroom awaiting my visits. Twelve years is a long time to live in one place and 43 years is a long time to be married. A person can amass a lot of stuff in that span of time. Two people can amass even more. And four people? It's scary to consider and then to witness the sheer amount of stuff that four people have. From the graveyard of televisions and old computer equipment to the wall of Christmas, our basement is the kind of place where time ceases to exist and you become overwhelmed by memories of the same wood salad bowl at dinner every night and a time when owning a set of encyclopedias was a big deal. If you wanted to remember what entertainment looked like in the 1980s or 1990s (or even the late 1970s), we've got you covered. I have ventured into my parents' basement and it is a box filled place of mystery and memory.

The basement has been a topic of discussion for years. We talk about cleaning out the basement like some families plan vacations. I'm sure that if it was a logical and safe option, one of my parents would take a torch to the basement and be done with it (I'll let you guess which one). Of course, this is neither logical nor safe so we're back to figuring out how to tackle the basement. Earlier this week my mom emailed me about my weekend plans and suggested that we spend some time working on the basement. I got unnecessarily excited about this and was all ready to start organizing and discarding years worth of I don't even know what. I was grossly under-prepared for the task at hand. This type of organization demands a plan and all I came with was a plucky can-do attitude. My attitude was no match for the sheer force of the basement.

I got distracted by all of things.

Do you remember the Care Bear Cousins? The Care Bear Cousins were introduced as the other animals (and a penguin) that were friends to the Care Bears. They appeared in the original Care Bear movie and the 1980s cartoon series (and I believe they've been brought back in more recent cartoons). I forgot all about the Care Bear Cousins until I stumbled upon Cozy Heart Penguin just hanging out over by some bed linens and old pillows. Not to be outdone, my yellow and white blanket (crocheted by my grandma) was just lying there waiting for me to wrap myself in it like I used to when I was younger. I may have wrapped it around my shoulders like a cape (no photo, no proof). Did I mention the hat my dad brought me from Puerto Rico? All of this occurred in the first five minutes of exploration. If I continued at this rate of discovery, I would probably have to spend every day in the basement from now until the end of the summer just to make a small dent.

And I hadn't even made it to a galaxy far, far away.

To say that my brother likes Star Wars would be understatement. He has toys, comic books, books, games, clothing, and multiple copies of the movies. He's also a really big John Williams fan. He was young enough when the original films came out that he has many toys from when they were first released. He also has a box full of the re-released figures from the mid-1990s (none of these are open). You can tell my brother really loved his Star Wars toys; they're worn down by love and adventures. One box included the Millennium Falcon, an Ewok village playset, the Cantina (this is the saddest looking of all the toys), and a land speeder. This was just what I could see without moving too much. It was like being back in our paneled basement in Wisconsin. I had Barbie and She-Ra; he had Star Wars and He-Man. We played in equal yet divided universes. One day we'd discover Legos and occasionally join forces. Such is childhood.

My experience proved two things to me:
  1. This basement project needs a project manager.
  2. I am way more sentimental and sappy than I thought I was.
I can address the first point. After discovering my Woodstock tackle box wedged between two ancient lawn chairs, I announced to my parents that we would need a plan to tame the basement. Everyone will have a role to play and responsibilities in this project plan. Now that I know that a can-do attitude will be broken by memories in the first five minutes, I can figure out how to best attack each section of the basement. We'll have to rent a truck to haul the electronics and other larger items to the dump. We'll have to make hard choices about furniture that we've had since forever. That wooden salad bowl has got to go. My brother will have to make some decisions about the Rebel Alliance and the Empire (and the box of comics I didn't even bother to open). There will be spreadsheets and calendar events and a need to invest in better allergy medication. If my family thinks I'm bossy now, they will know the full range of my bossiness by the end of this project. But they will have a clean and organized basement to enjoy. The two balance each other out if you ask me.

I don't think that I can really prepare for the second point. No matter how organized or prepared I am, memories are memories and they come with emotions and stuff and things (that is a technical term). No amount of spreadsheets and calendars and task assignments can erase sentimentality. I will balance my organizing with cleaning my Woodstock tackle box (it's going to make a storage container - probably for some of my sewing stuff) and wrapping myself in my yellow and white blanket. That should help in the short term.

Somewhere in the basement is a box of Cabbage Patch Kids wearing my baby clothes. I will be ready for them.