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I have a friend named Tiffany who is really fun and excellent at finding the good things of life. She’s the one who lets you know when teens go free to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry; she’s the one who, when invited to dinner, finds that Costco has real French cheese that actually tastes like something you’d buy in France, and brings you a huge wedge of it. She’s the one who invites you all to her kid’s birthday party and you all want to go, because either her husband is barbecuing salmon or they’re holding it at a really cool water park. And so, when she told me she’d bought me tickets to a chocolate class put on by her friend Pete, I didn’t hesitate an instant.

There were 4 of us, and we all crowded round his coffee table, which was stacked with books about chocolate. This guy is serious. I don’t know what else he does in life, but the man knows and loves his chocolate. He even has a cocoa tree in his upstairs bedroom. We started with drinking chocolate. Now I don’t really like hot chocolate. It’s too sweet or too rich or something. I’d brought coffee with me, just to cut it. But this chocolate was so good, so perfect in fact, that I drained my cup and asked for more.

We looked at a chocolate bean pod and dried beans, which are fermented. I won’t tell you all about it since I’m sure you could learn a lot more from Wikipedia, and my goal is mostly to make you envious, not informed.

Note the bean with its shell removed.

Then we all trooped into the kitchen, where we learned to make ganache. And then we made truffles that were just excellent, because he had all the right stuff. We made dark chocolate ones coated in cocoa powder, the classics, but we also dipped white chocolate truffles in chocolate and then rolled them in demerara sugar, for example, or dark chocolate dipped in chocolate and rolled in crushed smoked salted almonds.

fresh ganache. why yes, I agree, I should be a professional photographer.

I didn’t photograph this part, because my hands were covered in chocolate. And also because I was too busy sneaking samples.

Then we made something called mendicants, which are when you dribble a base of chocolate into a mold and then drop in assorted dried fruits and nuts, like macadamia nuts and dried cherries and blueberries and golden raisins. These are really good. Like really really good. Again, I sampled rather freely

Then we dipped dried fruit in chocolate. Figs, crystallized ginger (my absolute fav), dried apricots, etc. Then it was salted caramel, which was then topped with rock salt (pink, from the Himalayas) or a roasted salted almond.

Told you the man was serious. I mean, how many of you have a ChocoVision in your kitchen? It keeps the chocolate perfectly melted or something; to be honest, my mind was fogging at this point.

Then it was time to sample chocolate. I know what you’re thinking but you’re wrong–he meant we were supposed to taste and compare brands. I did this. I loved the chili chocolate from Moonstruck (started by Tiff’s 6th-grade teacher. I don’t think my 6th-grade teacher was ever that cool. Perhaps this was instrumental in making her the person she is today? Pay attention to your kids’ 6th-grade teachers, is the lesson I’m getting from this.) and the ginger chocolate with a poem printed on the inner label. Also the chocolate from Madagascar. I’m pretty much a dark chocolate girl, so I stuck to that, although Tiff likes the toffee/caramel combos so there was a good representation of that.

Then we packaged up the truffles, and the mendicants, and the dipped fruit, and the salted caramels. Because apparently, these were for US TO TAKE HOME. Sorry to shout, but that was amazing to me.

I drove home, already starting the chocolate hangover. I actually adore dark chocolate, but I usually eat one square. I’ve exaggerated a bit–I didn’t actually sample all that freely, except for maybe the crystallized ginger–but between tasting and smelling and drinking chocolate and all, I felt a little overwhelmed. It was totally worth it though. I came home and my family greeted me ecstatically and devoured much of it. There’s still some left though, especially because I hid it where they’ll never think of looking.

Just in case, I’m not telling you where.

Coming up with titles for these nightstand posts is hard. Any suggestions?

Well it’s that time again! Time to look at what I’ve been reading and what’s on my overwhelmingly-large stack for next month, time to wonder again at my greed in saying “yes” to so many books, time to ponder anew how much time I realistically think it’s going to take me to get to these. But seriously, there are so many great books out there! You’d say yes too, you really would. Don’t be a hater.

Also, just so you’ll be really impressed, I turned in 5 (FIVE) book reviews this weekend. My editor is in shock–she still hasn’t spoken to me. I like to store them up, you know, and then announce to the family that I’m busy and crank them out. You can take the girl out of undergraduate school, but some of us are destined to retain that college-student last-minute freshness all our days.

Ok then! This month, I read:

The Uninvited Guests. This one was fun! Delightfully creepy. Author Sadie Jones (no relation, but isn’t that a cute name? Maybe we could change Ilsa’s name) did an incredible job of writing a modern book that feels like it was written in Edwardian times, overall. It’s a ghost story too. It has quirky eccentric characters and fair young maidens and impossible younger sisters. Oh, the plot? It’s Emerald’s 20th birthday and a few select friends are invited for dinner. When they go to meet them at the train station, a guard tells them there’s been a terrible accident and could the victims be put up for a few hours till the Railway can come for them? These are, of course, the uninvited guests, and they set in motion an improbable chain of events that takes us through the evening, down into the depths of human depravity and cruelty, up to the heights of love and loyalty.

Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick. With a title like this one, you’d raid your daughter’s bookshelf too! Ilsa requested this one, but she’s worse than I am at getting her reviews written. So I read it in an hour Sunday afternoon and made her write a paragraph on it. It was okay, we agreed. Perry’s a typical senior in many ways, with an overbearing father who puts a lot of pressure on him to go to the right college, and a life filled with college application essays, when what he really wants to do is play in his band and rejoin the swim team. His mom makes him take their foreign-exchange student Gobi, a plain, dull, unexciting girl, to their prom. Of course Gobi turns out to be an international spy seeking revenge on 5 people who are all in New York city that night, and she drags Perry on a wild, fast-paced ride to find and kill them all. Each chapter starts with a question from an actual college application essay, which I thought added some fun.

Mean Moms Rule: Why Doing the Hard Stuff Now Creates Good Kids Later Packed full of balanced parenting advice, this excellent book would be a great present for any new moms in your life. Seriously. What I love about her is how balanced she is. Of course you love them to death and meet all their needs that you can, but you also keep in mind the goal, which is to get them to adulthood, to raise them.

More Like Her: This book ended up being really interesting. It starts off like it’s going to be light and fluffy chick-lit, with Fran dealing with a painful break-up and having to see the guy at work, and meeting the new headmistress who oozes perfection from every seamless pore. But then it swerves, first of all into the idea of how much you as a woman are willing to change in order to attract/keep a man, and then into how you deal with the aftermath of a trauma. The trauma is when the seemingly-perfect headmistress gets gunned down at her birthday dinner by her husband. Fran and her friends are all there. It’s an interesting treatise on marriage, and relationships, all wrapped up in what feels like a light read. Would be excellent for book groups.

Faith Bass Darling’s Last Garage Sale: I didn’t like this novel at first. It felt too quirky, like the author was trying too hard. I ended up liking it though, and if you like what are touted as “southern novels” you might love this. Faith has Alzheimer’s, and feels God has told her to sell off her household of priceless antiques for pennies, “whatever you can afford, dear.” Various people try to stop her, and as the day goes on, we learn about her family and several people are able to find peace. Meditations on the value of things vs. people.

Monkey’s Friends. This does too count. It is a book. I read it and I wrote a review. It’s very cute, and the illustrations are great, and although my 3 are long past picture book stage, I do get a lot of young visitors.


When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man Oooh the person in the basement–ok I’m not saying any more. But this book is incredibly well written and I don’t know what’s going to happen. Go read it and we’ll discuss.

An aside: last winter I got an enormous stack of books–like 6 of them!– from Harper Books and they’ve all (almost) been exceptionally good! The Invisible Ones, The Street Sweeper, The Forgotten Country, and now Capt. Flint–all exceptional! The other 2 in the stack were fine, but these were over the top good! Whoever is picking their books deserves a raise.

Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948: I am enjoying this account of Madeline Albright’s early life and family history, but I haven’t had the time to sit down and get through it. Also she’s telling the entire history of the Czech Republic, which is fascinating. Elliot’s reading it too, in between his IB Chemistry exam and beginning a 4000-word essay on the Battle of Stalingrad. The kid’s not normal.

The New Republic: I’ve only read the first page but the prologue sold me. Something about a foreign correspondent and a homegrown terrorist network and it’s supposed to be droll and tongue-in-cheek. I’ll let you know.

To Read:

Oh the stack, it’s toppling! Could I just take a picture? No? Ok. I am just going to list and link.

Listening to Africa: a collection of poems. The author traveled mostly in East Africa.

The Voluntourist: A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem: seeing a theme? It’s no secret that I’m attracted to writers who travel. This one travels to do volunteer work, so I’m expecting to like it. Author Ken Budd went to New Orleans (after Katrina), Costa Rica, China, Ecuador, Palestine, and Kenya. His goal is to find purpose by helping others. I’ll let you know if I think he succeeds.

A Bitter Truth: number 3 in the Bess Crawford series. Yaay! I’m just in the mood for it. (Once I finish what I’m in the middle of reading, that is)

Game of Secrets Jane Weld was 11 when her father was murdered in 1957. Now, 50 years later, she’s still searching for the truth. Rumour has it he was killed by the jealous husband of his mistress, a woman Jane meets weekly for a game of Scrabble…

Grace Among Thieves (A Manor House Mystery) I read the previous one in this series, Grace Interrupted, last year. It was light and enjoyable and I expect this will be a nice summer read.

A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living I hope I read this. I feel it would be worthwhile, but since non-fiction takes so much longer to read than fiction, and since I actually have some July stuff already that I’m not even telling you about, well… A French philosopher, Luc Ferry, sums up the history of philosophy basically. If I go on vacation, I am going to take this one and get it read! Wish me luck. It really does look good. Or, you could get it and read it and tell me all about it in about 600 words.

I’m going to have to read it now, aren’t I? Ok, hold me to it! Also you can hope I finish some other unfinished stuff in my stack that I’m not going to remind you of. And yes, you can now finish sentences with prepositions.

Also, my plans to take an Iraqi couple for the day got cancelled. Also my car broke–to be specific, the knob came off the gear shift, leaving me in the fast lane of a busy road puttering along in 2nd gear. Sigh. Managed to get it going, but I guess I’m stuck home for the day. And if you think I’m going to waste a perfectly good day with laundry or cleaning, think again–I’m off to finish some books! 🙂

What are you doing today? What are you reading?

I got sent a copy of Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, a book that combines a tutorial on writing with a sort of memoir, and as such is enjoyable reading, last week. I was supposed to use a writing prompt and write an essay on mothering (the one I picked was “sensory details”) over at 5 Minutes for Mom. I decided to write about Elliot, about what it’s like to parent a 16 year old who’s basically this stinky hairy man while at the same time being, in my memory at least, this sweet little curly-headed boy with chocolate-brown eyes and a lot of deep thoughts. So I wrote it, but I wasn’t happy with it. It felt clunky; it wasn’t flowing. Then, suddenly, I opened a new file and wrote about a girl I cared for as a daughter for month, after the murder of her mother. It wasn’t where I’d intended to go, but here it is if you want to read it. If you leave a comment over there, you can enter to win a copy of the book.

As for my Mother’s Day, it was nice and uneventful. I am getting a red (dark pink) dogwood tree for the front yard, and I’m very excited about this as I have been wanting one for years. It’s strange to plant trees when you live a transient life. We bought this house but I have no idea how long we’ll be here; maybe till the twins finish high school in 3 more years, maybe longer. My lifetime average is 2-3 years per house and the longest I have ever lived at the same address is 6 years. I’ve planted tulips and daffodils in the yard, and enjoyed them during this second spring here, but I also imagine them being enjoyed by whoever lives here when we move on.  I read that only people who plan to stay put plant trees. I disagree. It’s true that planting a tree is symbolic of putting down roots, but I put down roots differently than most people; I plunge them into the soil like everyone else, but I don’t hold on tightly. I’ve learned that the best way to live in a house is to live as if you’ll always be there, all the while knowing that it’s highly unlikely. This gives the best memories.

An advantage to moving often is the aid to memory that it is. I can figure out pretty accurately when something happened by relating it to where we lived at the time. I lose specific dates, but I can narrow it down to a year or two.

What about you? Do you plant trees in places you suspect might be temporary? What does temporary mean to you?

In speaking with someone who is learning English, it is not necessary to speak their native tongue–but sometimes, it’s helpful. In a related note, did you know that in Arabic, they use the same word for “want” and “need?” We did know this, but we’d forgotten. So last night. Donn said to his friend, “I’ll be home Tuesday afternoon if you want to stop by” and the friend said, “Do you need me?” and Donn said, “No.” He saw an unmistakeable hurt flash across his friend’s face. And then, fortunately, he remembered his Arabic. “I don’t need you, but I want you to come,” he explained, going on about “need” vs. “want.” His friend smiled in relief.

Can you imagine? “Do you want me to come?” “No.” It’s funny and sad at the same time.

Refugees, struggling to build a new life in America and start again from scratch in middle age, have two or three especially pressing needs–learning English, getting a job, and getting a driver’s license. Yes, life in America is difficult without a car. Public transportation is sporadic in the suburbs, and getting anywhere takes hours. Taxis are horrifically expensive (oh I do miss the days when I could pay a taxi driver 80 cents to take me clear across town, and watch the road going by below through a hole in the floorboards…) (That was Nouakchott, in case you’re wondering).

In general, the men already know how to drive. But old habits die hard. I think driving is about the same throughout the Arab world, and I’ve written plenty about the driving in Morocco and Mauritania; I’m pretty sure it’s the same in Baghdad. Donn went with one guy last year, for his third attempt at getting his license. They had to leave early to get the guy’s kids from school, and Donn watched, aghast, as he sped through neighbourhoods at 50 mph. “You know they’ll fail you if you speed like this,” he commented. “No problem!” said the guy. “Today is the last day–I promise! Tomorrow no more speeding.”

But the women need someone to teach them. They need someone to sit beside them and teach them new vocabulary, like “STOPPLEASESTOPAUUUGGGHHHHH.” I had no desire to be this person. I have a 16 year old son who has his permit, and sometimes I let him drive my car (which is a manual), and I have fun using the imaginary brake on the passenger side, and occasionally squeaking. That, frankly, is enough excitement for me.

But one day Maude asked me to teach her. I tried to put her off, but she was right–she needs a car, needs to be able to drive, to not be dependent on me to get her places all the time. Teach a woman to fish, I thought philosophically.

I knew she’d driven in parking lots several times and even taken a class which taught her rules of the road. So for the next several weeks, until they got a car, I pointed things out on our way to class. “This is a school zone. You HAVE  to drive 20 mph.” I pointed out the police car hiding oh-so-subtly behind a hedge in a driveway at the end of the school zone. I found myself pointing out all sorts of helpful things as I drove safely, logically, practically, and beautifully. Really, you would be very impressed at how I’ve been driving.

Last Friday I had a free hour before conversation class, so we strapped Maude’s 4-year-old in the backseat of their car, a ten-year-old gold Daewoo (or something like that) with the engine light perpetually on and a habit of lurching worryingly when idling. We drove round the parking lot for a while. “Now it’s time for a road!” I said, but Maude was unconvinced. In fact, she was downright resistant to the idea. “Look,” I pointed out. “There are two entrances to the parking lot. We’ll leave by one, drive less than half a block, and turn into the second. You will only be on the road for the tiniest bit.”

She managed to successfully turn out of the parking lot, but then she hit the gas, overshot the second driveway, and stopped in the middle of the road. I managed to get her going again, and we drove uneventfully round some neighbourhoods for about 45 minutes. No cars were injured, no squirrels were scared.

Buoyed by this success, the following week I took her out again. I told her she could drive from her apartment to class. This necessitated going on “big” roads, two-lane roads with light traffic and speed limits of up to 40. Although the trip in was a bit hair-raising, she made it okay. We swerved alarmingly on the bends and the left turns were a little frightening, but overall she did really well.

Part of me knew that should be enough for one day. She did great, on bigger roads for the first time, we should be done. But then, no one else came to conversation class that day. “Let’s go driving!” I said. I planned to keep to small residential streets. But then I thought we could go visit someone else, and I could sort of kill two birds with one stone, as it were. Another friend had called with the guilt-inducing “I’m just calling to say hi because it’s so long since you’ve come to see me” and I saw a chance to settle that score.

When I was 8, my Welsh grandma had a stroke and Mum and I spent a couple of months in Wales nursing her back to health. (This is not a rabbit trail; bear with me). I clearly remember seeing the big square “L” plates on the back of cars and asking about them. “L means learner; it means the person driving is just learning,” my uncle explained. I have always thought this was a brilliant idea. Think how you respond to cars that say “Driving School” on them. (Total aside but connected: once in Morocco, Donn saw an “auto ecole” (driving school) car in the far left lane of a road with about 6 lanes of traffic (2 or 3 intended) with its right turn signal on. He watched in amazement as the light changed and the car shot across all 6 lanes!) I cannot tell you how badly I want a big L plate for when I’m driving with Maude and when I’m driving with Elliot. Seriously, why don’t we have them? It’s so logical. Perhaps some enterprising person could make some?

Back to driving with Maude, on our way to a mutual friend’s house. We did all right for a while, but then we settled onto a fairly long, fairly straight stretch of road. There was one lane going each direction, and a centre lane for turning. Speed limit was 35, but Maude was having a hard time with consistency; she kept slowing then speeding then slowing. At one point, she slowed down quite dramatically and the car behind us, obviously fed up although possibly thinking she was going to turn, shot into the centre lane and passed us. I tried making the “L” sign (for Learner, naturally) with my finger and thumb but, judging from the driver’s reaction, I think he may have misunderstood me. But seriously–he had no business passing us. And, worst of all, when that car appeared where no car had been before, I screamed. This just made Maude more terrified.

Then I saw another car, waiting to turn left onto our street. My brain said he would wait till we’d passed, since he really didn’t have room. My brain was wrong. Out he shot, again into the center lane, then swerved in front of us. I screamed again, because I really thought Maude was going to hit him. She had sped up again by this point. And, unfortunately, I must admit that I’m  the type of passenger who mostly reads or looks at scenery but every so often decides that she’s about to die and shrieks, which usually makes the driver rather cross.

Maude wanted to pull the car over after that. Her hands were shaking. But we were nearly to our destination so I talked her down, and we followed Mr. Impatient onto the biggest street of all and safely to our friend’s house.

I don’t need to go to the gym these days. I’m getting quite a cardio workout just sitting in the passenger’s seat.

May 2012

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