Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Jan's Snickerdoodle Service

Revised this for my writing portfolio tonight and wanted to share this special story. I hope this piece makes you proud, Jan. Every holiday season I smile with a sad heart knowing you are no longer with us. I am so sorry for not being a better friend. I miss you dearly. 

----

Whoever thought of a funeral for a friend in a kitchen?  I’m not doing anything silly like wearing all black or baking in silence.  I do nothing special, really, except bake.   
In my dated kitchen apartment, I lovingly gather each of the ingredients in the same order Jan listed them in her recipe, the one she typed up for my mom on a pale pink 3x5 card fifteen years ago:

1 CUP BUTTER FLAVOR CRISCO
1 ¾ CUPS SUGAR, DIVIDES
2 EGGS
1 TEASPOON VANILLA
1 TEASPOON NUTMEG
2 ¼ CUPS FLOUR
2 TEASPONS CREAM OF TARTER
1 TEASPOON BAKING SODA
¾ TEASPOON SALT
1 TEASPOON CINNAMON

I could correct the typos, but I don’t.  The haphazard type job embodies Jan, kind of like the time she cut herself one Thanksgiving morning.  Jan, the big sister I never had but always wanted, walked into my mom and dad’s house that afternoon with so much gauze wrapped around her hand it rivaled a baseball glove.  “Eh, it’s nothing,” she said.  

The many ingredients for Jan’s Snickerdoodles clutter my small kitchen counter as I read and re-read Jan’s recipe card. 
Rather than washing the dirty scissors, I decide to open the pack of Crisco sticks with a steak knife.  Come to think of it, maybe that’s how the gauze baseball glove came to be, or maybe not.  It happened too long ago to remember, which is precisely why I hold on so desperately to something as silly as typos in an ingredient list.  Mementos, like the souvenir t-shirt from Maui, the “Lil Sis” charm Jan gave me, and this recipe, will far outlast my already fading memory.   After all, I can’t even remember the sound of Jan’s voice anymore. 
            I preheat the oven to 400 F, and combine the first batch of ingredients—Crisco, 1 ½ cups sugar, two eggs, vanilla, and all of the nutmeg.  I set the mixer to medium speed just as Jan said, but, out of habit, switch to high soon after the sets of elegant swirls appear in my butter concoction.  Upon realizing my mistake, a tinge of guilt stabs my stomach.  I quickly turn the mixer speed back to medium before dumping in the rest of the dry ingredients—flour, cream of “tarter,” baking soda, and salt.  Someone once said, “The greatest gift you can give another is the purity of your attention,” and I can’t even do that.  I have already failed Jan twice today, once by accidentally setting the mixer speed to high and then by answering a text message. 
 As I clumsily trip over the mangled rubber bone at my feet, I look up at the ceiling and smile.  She forgives me.  Jan didn’t have a dog, but I bet money she tripped over one of her cats in her kitchen a time or two or twelve. 

Tripping, falling, crashing.  You name it, Jan did it.  One weekend my pseudo big sister went out into the forests of western Pennsylvania for yet another adventure with her mountain bike club.  The usual crew consisted of Jan, my dad, and their friends Craig, Joe, and Lance.  Their destination that day: Brockway.   
            Mountain laurel framed the debris-laden trail when Jan looked to clear a two-log jump.  Her front wheel, however, dropped into the gap between the logs, and she flew over her handlebars, hitting her head.
            Dropping his bike in the middle of the trail, my dad ran over to help.  “Jan, Jan, are you okay?” he asked.
            “What am I doing in the woods,” she replied.  “Wait, why am I in the woods?”
            “You hit your head,” Dad said.  “We’re mountain biking, remember?” 
A couple of minutes later, Jan, who most likely had a concussion, gathered her muddy bike and her senses and rode on.  No matter what, she always rode on. 
            Jan’s mountain bike club dubbed her “Shark Bite” because whenever she crashed, the teeth on her front sprocket would gash the meat of her leg.
After a long ride, the club would often ride their bicycles off of the pier into a local lake, and then they would proceed to dive six to eight feet to retrieve said bikes. 
And this same club also let me join the fun on their tamer days.  Needing a nickname like the rest of the crew, Jan called me “Little Shark Bite.”  I always thought it was because I shared her aversion for gracefulness.  I never knew the sprocket story until just recently.  I never knew that the Snickerdoodles my family enjoyed every Christmas were Jan’s recipe until just recently either. 

I grab a spoon from the drawer and take a bite of the sweet-smelling dough, wondering if Jan, too, thought that Snickerdoodles are the only cookie ever made that tastes better when cooked.  Maybe some more cinnamon sugar will help. 
I debate whether or not to grease the pan as Jan suggested in her recipe.  I trust her.  It’s just that I’m afraid the cookies will stick. So I spray some oil on my barely-used baking sheet but soon decide to wipe it off with a paper towel. 
            After rolling the first dough-ball in cinnamon-sugar, I try the dough again, but it still doesn’t taste as good as a Snickerdoodle fresh from the oven—a sugar cookie with punch, a treat both spicy and sweet that when cooked just right melts in your mouth.  
            I’m supposed to shape the dough into one inch balls before rolling them in cinnamon-sugar, but I don’t know how big one inch is.  I just eyeball it and get thirty-one cookies, forty-one short of the seventy-two the recipe should yield. 
Oven-mitts on, I place the cookie sheet in the oven to bake.  I then set the timer on my microwave for exactly seven minutes and decide whether golden brown or not, the cookies are coming out.  I’m surprised.  Seven minutes go by relatively quickly. 
Unlike Jan, I don’t have a wire rack, so I set some aluminum foil out on the counter and let the cookies cool there instead.  In the transfer process, a cookie breaks.  Rather than piece it back together, I peek over my shoulder and shuffle over to the kitchen sink.  With my hand cupped underneath the cookie, I take my first bite.  It tastes like Christmas. 

To an auditorium of excited children, my elementary school principal read The Polar Express.  After hearing the story, I, too, longed for a bell from Santa’s sleigh just like the story’s protagonist.  Christmas Eve that same year, friends and family gathered at my parent’s house for their annual Christmas Eve get-together.  Jan was there.  As always, she was the first to arrive and the last to leave. 
Late that night, I hung out with Mom and Jan as they cleaned up red-and-green cocktail napkins, empty glasses, and leftover appetizers.  Christmas Eve was the only night I ever had a bedtime, and my bedtime arrived much too soon. I wanted Jan to tuck me in.  “Please, Jan, please,” I begged. 
“Of course I will,” she replied. 
When Dad suggested that he tuck me in instead, I grudgingly obliged.  “Jan and your mom are busy,” he said. 
It was Christmas Eve.  And I wasn’t supposed to pout, but Santa said nothing about stalling.  So I quadruple-checked my Christmas list for any spelling mistakes and rearranged the Snickerdoodles on the plate at least twice.  You see, every year I set out Snickerdoodles for Santa because my dad once told me they were Santa’s favorite cookie, and I believed him.  It makes sense now.
The Snickerdoodles looked so good on that plate.  I had to have one.  “Can I please have a cookie?” I asked politely. 
Mom, Dad, and Jan exchanged smiles. 
“You sure can,” Jan replied.   
 “Mom, Dad, it’s okay, right?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Mom sighed.  “But only one cookie!” 
Before Jan sat down at the kitchen table, she poured me a glass of milk in my favorite Nutcracker cup.  I climbed up on her lap, and she wrapped her arms around me.  Taking my first bite, I admired the cinnamon-sugar glistening atop the golden brown treat before me.  It looked like brown glitter, and if you tilted your head just right it twinkled like Christmas lights.  I carefully took each bite of Snickerdoodle, not wanting to go to bed.  But, eventually, I finished.  Jan kissed the top of my head as I drank my last sip of milk.    
 “Thanks,” I whispered in Jan’s ear. 
“Now go to bed,” she said.
I gave hugs and turned the corner to the stairs.  With The Night before Christmas in hand, Dad followed me to my room.  Once I finally settled, he started to read. 
           
 Continuing the theme of eat, drink, and be merry, Mom and Jan downed some box wine as they finished cleaning up the kitchen.  Maybe they ate the rest of Santa’s cookies, too.  I don’t know.  I wasn’t there.  
            They weighed the pros and cons of attending Midnight Mass with a bit of a buzz and finally decided to head to church.  On the way out, Jan noticed a set of bells hanging from the front door.
            “Terri, watch this,” Jan said as she darted outside, bells in hand.  In heels and a skirt, Jan pranced through the waist-deep snow toward my bedroom window.   
            “Dad!  Stop reading,” I exclaimed.
            “But I’m not done yet.”
            “I don’t care.  Did you hear that?”
            “Hear what?”
“That,” I replied and impatiently waited for the bells to ring again.
“Don’t you want to hear the rest of the story?” he asked.
            “Not if Santa’s gonna skip our house because I’m not asleep.”
            “Okay, okay,” he said as he turned out the light. 
            I fell asleep within seconds. 
            That Christmas morning I woke up to a hand-written note from Santa, who that year was Jan, a pile of Snickerdoodle crumbs on the counter, and a silver bell from Santa’s sleigh under the tree.  It was magical, and it still kind of is.

It doesn’t surprise me that an adrenaline junkie like Jan would gravitate to a cookie that explodes in your mouth.  It doesn’t surprise me that she would gravitate to a cookie with such a silly name either.  Snickerdoodle.  Snickerdoodle.  Snickerdoodle.  The more you say it, the funnier it sounds.  Supposedly, there’s this big long history about the origin of the Snickerdoodle.  Maybe it’s the product of a silly cookie name movement in New England. Maybe it’s named after the 19th century tall tale hero Snickerdoodle, or maybe it’s German.  Who knows?  Whatever the origins, you really can’t say Snickerdoodle without a smile, and I’m sure Jan realized that, too.  But, then, again, maybe she didn’t. 
Jan Louise McCoy was born on December 29th, 1961, just one day and twenty-seven years before me.  She worked as a pharmaceutical sales rep for some drug company, and in her thirties, she married an alcoholic whom she eventually divorced.  Jan had brown eyes and light blonde hair, which she often wore in a stubby ponytail.  She died in Arizona on May 27th, 2010, by hanging, and is survived by her family in Pennsylvania.  She never had kids, but she did have a few cats. And me.
As I put the cooled cookies in a Tupperware container, I wonder if, like me, Jan didn’t regret a broken cookie or two.  I wonder if she wore flour handprints on her thighs, and if struggled with egg cracking as I often do.   
And I also wonder how she changed after she was diagnosed with lupus, and if she took her life because she felt too tired to fight or if she took it because she owed so much money on her house.  I wonder why no one told me this wasn’t her first suicide attempt and exactly how many times she had tried.  I visited Jan in the hospital once as a kid.  They told me it was kidney stones, but now I wonder.  I wonder if Jan knew how much I idolized her.  I wonder if she, too, kept her half of the sister charm, and I wonder where that charm is now. 
Sometimes I wish I had attended Jan’s viewing.  Sometimes I wish there was a grave to visit, but maybe it’s better this way.  To grieve Jan in any traditional way seems wrong.  I shall instead mourn my friend when I scrape my knee while hiking, when I hear Santa’s sleigh, or when I bake her famous Snickerdoodles.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Bad Midnight

When I opened my front door this morning, at 10:05AM, I planned to leave for a coffee date with my boss' mum. Yes, I said mum. She's from London. My morning, however, didn't go as planned.

First, I saw a big yellow recycle bin laying at the bottom of my neighbor's stairs. In the wind last night her recyclables blew from the top of her stairs to the bottom of her stairs. Soda cans, broken beer bottles, and milk cartons were scattered all across our stoop. You see, my friend was in Kentucky visiting family, and I figured the neighborly thing to do would be pick-up the mess and sweep-up the glass. I marched my happy butt upstairs for our stupid red broom (the handle always falls off, which is why it's stupid) with plenty of time to spare before I had to leave for my 10:30AM coffee date with Dan's mum, Janet.

As I started sweeping, a woman in her pajamas near the mailboxes yelled for me. She said, "Excuse, miss! This is going to sound really weird, but my dog just locked me out of my car." All I could think was better you than me, but I never voiced that relief out loud. The poor woman had stepped out to get her mail and her adorable black lab/shepherd? mix, Midnight, stepped on the lock. The woman didn't have a spare key and neither did anyone she knew. I asked. She didn't have OnStar. I asked that, too, and her phone was in her locked car.

"Would you like to borrow my phone?" I said, and the woman politely, and desperately said, yes. As I looked up various locksmiths on my phone, the woman tried her damndest to entice Midnight to put her paw on the lock just like she had before. No such luck, so we called a couple of locksmiths. No answer. We called the Chrysler dealership in town, they gave us an 800-number, and we were about to call the police when I got an idea.

"How about I go get some treats." I ran back upstairs with the stupid red broom and Emily's cleaned-up recyclables to grab some Milkbones. Rex was looking at me like, "What the heck is going on, Mom?" I stormed out the door and down the steps, and walked over to the woman's driver's side window where Midnight looked up at us, perplexed. I drew the pup-dog and her too-big-for-her-body paws up toward the top of the window with a treat, then slid the treat down towards where the window/lock was. We did it again and again and again until...

Midnight stepped on the driver's window button! The window was open about an inch now, and I forced the window down yet another inch with my brute strength. Suddenly, the woman I'm helping disappeared and came back with a stick. She slid the stick down into the window in hopes of putting down the window even further, but that didn't happen. The stick was too fragile and almost broke inside her car. I run back into the woods to find another, studier stick, and this time it worked. The woman's passenger window slid right down, and, after several "Thank yous" I proceeded to leave for my coffee date. It was 10:35AM.

But Bad Midnight wasn't done causing trouble just yet.  From what I could tell (I wasn't there), she hopped out of the window and ran towards the main road adjacent to the parking lot.  Frantically, I heard the woman call for her dog, so I ran back down the stairs to see if I could help. In my best, oh-my-god-I'm-so-excited voice I yelled, "Midnight!! Come see me," while holding my arms wide open. Midnight trotted over to me, I picked her up in my arms, she wiggled out, and I sat on her until her human mom came to my rescue.

Meanwhile, my pants were halfway down my butt because I thought it would be a good idea to not wear a belt this morning. Sometimes adventure is just outside your front door, literally.

At 10:49AM, I finally left for my coffee date. Thanks, Janet, for being so understanding!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Lucky Dog Bark and Brew

Whoever thought of combining a dog park with a bar is brilliant. Straight-up brilliant.

Here we are, on our way:


Sadly, Rex plays as well with other dogs as Brad plays with other people. I guess socially awkward runs in the family? But the whole dog bar thing really is an excellent concept that caters to *most* people. Those people being people like my friends: Christy, Shawn, and Rachel.

In Cornelious, NC (near Christy's house) there is the Lucky Dog Bark and Brew. Because North Carolina doesn't have a 51/49 rule, bars in NC don't have to serve food, which means, they can expand their clientele to the four-legged canine kind. AWESOME, right?? I think so.

I mean, I love dogs. And I love beer. Plus, what kind of cranky customer is going to bring their dog to play with other dogs? NONE, so you get a bar full of happy, laid-back dog people and their equally fun dogs. I met a Great Dane, a Boxer, and a Chihuahua-mix I was particularly fond of.

I am a firm believer that dogs are people on the inside...

Rex is the weird one that doesn't get invited anywhere.


My friend Rachel, has a dog named Avery. Avery is the independent female leader of a doggy gang, the confident, happening bitch that other lady dogs want to be. Think Dalia in Suburgatory but with a much better personality.


Avery's sister, Charlie, is the pretty blonde that always gets hit on.


And their friend, Ron--Christy's dog--is the tiny badass with little-man-syndrome that talks a lot and rode into town with his Harley Davidson chain collar.


That exercise may have been a little over the top, but that's okay.

Last thing...if you don't believe that dogs have personalities, just read Marley and Me or The Art of Racing in the Rain. You'll definitely believe me after that. Yes, I may have gotten a little off topic with those book plugs, but back to the point.

Beer is good.


Intellectual, stimulating conversation after drinking a few beers is great.


And my dog is crazy...

video

All in all...The Lucky Dog Bark and Brew is a cool place with a great business concept. At a place like that, all things are PAWS-ible. ;) Corny, right? But I bet you smiled!

South 21 Diner

After The Color Run, we dined at the South 21 Drive-in--a happening place in Charlotte, NC with old school flavor and transient digs. Get it? Cars are transient? But the parking lot is not, I suppose. Maybe that's a bad joke. Anyways,



It's another restaurant featured on Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives!


Our pork BBQ sandwiches and onion rings were de-licious. Just look at those onion rings...


And just look at our faces...


There is no greater feeling than eating all the calories you just burned. 

Seriously, there are lots of better feelings (getting an A on a paper, graduating college, getting an unexpected excellent tip, spending time with an old friend, finishing a run or hike, watching your team win a ball game, etc.), but this food was damn good and didn't go straight to my hips because I had just burned a bunch of calories running through color around the Charlotte Motor Speedway property. 

If you live near Charlotte or are just passing through,  you must go to South-21 drive-in. Get a glass of sweet tea, a pork BBQ sandwich, and the onion rings. You won't be sorry.

The fun, fun Color Run!

On Saturday, November 17th I ran 3.10686 miles. I had hiked 30 miles in recent weeks, but I hadn't run in months. And I never have run more than 2 miles...ever. Shh, don't tell anyone, especially Rachel.   Hi Rachel. :)

Needless to say, I had a bit of anxiety about the November 17th run. I would dream (even have nightmares) about running. Honestly, I could have trained, but I didn't. Papers, Vito's shifts, scrubbing toilets, pooping the dog, rinsing dishes pre putting them in the dishwasher, hiking, plucking my eyebrows, and a long list of other things were the priority. Anything, anything at all, but running.

Deep down, I want to be that person running down the sidewalk in twenty degree weather. I want to have that level of devotion. But hell, I'm still the kid that replaces meals with Dairy Queen blizzards. I'm skinnier than I've been in years and healthy by default.

I am now more motivated than ever to start running. JK, I just said that because it's cliche. I hate running with passion. But I love the post-running feel and the status of being a runner.

Me: "Oh, yeah. I just went for a run."
Someone else: "But, Aimee! It's the snowpocalypse outside. It's thunder-snowing!!"
Me: "And?"
Someone else: "Wow, you're really cool."
Me, in a nonchalant voice: "Eh, just another day in the life of a runner."

I want to be able to have that conversation. Maybe I'll start running. Sure, I'll start running? Running would serve Rex a wealth of good, so I should probably stop being selfish and throw on those running shoes. And some spandex...definitely some spandex. And maybe a cute headband, too. After all, running at or around JMU is a fashion statement and so is The Color Run. I wish I was the one wearing a tu-tu and funky aqua glasses, but I'm not. I did sport a beanie with a sweatband over top, though.


But, honestly, no run around the Friendly City (including one which occurs during the fictional snowpocalypse accompied by thunder-snow) will ever be more fun than The Color Run. At every K interval, I had 6-8 people throwing colored corn starch at me.

It looked something like this:


At one point, I even laid on my back and made a color angel.

Attractive, right?


And at the finish line, everyone threw up packets of color.

Yay color!



The run was fun, especially because of the company...old friends, new friends, some guy in zebra-print high heels, and 19,994 others.


I also raised some money for a great cause--Habitat for Humanity--and so did the people in the picture above, so no complaints there!!

I learned this lesson, though: Running through colored corn starch after recovering from a virus produced very violent coughing fits and very colorful snot (ewwwwwww). Lucky, for you I have no videos or pictures documenting that.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Music with Mosby

On Sunday, October 28th, I attended the Music with Mosby event at Barren Ridge Vineyards in Fishersville, VA.


The wine was delicious, but the cause was better: creating better lives for our four-legged canine friends.

The event, complete with great music, great food, great wine, and great costumes (for dogs), was a fundraiser for The Mosby Foundation

Though I loved the wine, the costume contest was my favorite. If you look real hard, you can see a witch, a pumpkin, a banana, and a Milkbone. There was also a prisoner, a cowboy, a gargoyle, and more. 


Warning, these photos aren't my best because SURPRISE! dogs tend to move a lot when you try to take their picture. 


Check out that cute little devil!


And this good witch!


I mean, it's all fun and games until somebody puts a pug in a bikini top and a tu-tu...

All jokes aside, The Mosby Foundation arose from a most awful tragedy--the senseless shooting of a family pet: Mosby. In honor of Mosby, Mosby's human mom started an organization that raises funds to help in the care of sick, abused, and neglected dogs.




I worked with Mosby's human dad at the JMU Math Department when I was an undergrad, and hearing his family's story broke my heart. As a bleeding heart animal-loving tree-hugger, I can't imagine why anyone would senselessly murder such a sweet animal. But those type of people do exist. 

That same type of person bound a malnourished four-week old puppy to a hotel balcony in the middle of the winter--Rex. Brad and I are so lucky to have been able to bring Rex into our little family. But there are many Rex's in this world that we cannot help, which is why The Mosby Foundation is such a great organization. 

Thank you, Mosby Foundation, for all that you do! Readers, if you're interested in donating, check out their website

Research?

When research is a trip to West Virginia, I'm not going to complain.

Last Saturday, I went to Kayford Mountain in West Virginia to see the effects of Mountaintop Removal Mining. But Mother Nature had something different in store for me. Because of a dense layer of fog, I could only imagine the devastation. I couldn't see it.

So, I am writing this paper about Mountaintop Removal Mining for my Legal Writing class. I'm not sure what angle I'm going to take on the paper yet. I'm talking about how storytelling motivates policy change, but because of the timing, and the mood of the weather, I might take a spooky/Halloween-esque approach.

Like mountaintop removal mining as the environment's Horror Story. Dun, dun, dun. I don't know. It's a thought...

What I know is this: I did a looooooot of trespassing on private property (e.g. coal mines) last weekend. And I'm very, very, VERY lucky, I didn't get arrested. :) I'd like to think Mother Nature had my back, 'cause she did.

Here are some pics. I'm sorry I'm not going into too much detail. Think of it as a cliffhanger. It's like when the audience knows the killer is behind the door, but the main character doesn't. Okay, maybe I'm stretching. But still.