The Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie

Photo via bettycrocker.com

Photo via bettycrocker.com

Every single time I make chocolate chip cookies, I am kinda disappointed. They taste pretty good, but the consistency is NEVER RIGHT. You know how mad I get when the cookie part spreads out really thin and crispy, and then you hit a burst of chocolate chip a couple times? I hate that. Or when they’re thick, but too hard? It’s so difficult to get it the way I like it!

So I’ve been experimenting for a while, combining different recipes and tips, and I’ve finally found it. The PERFECT (to me) chocolate chip cookie. The primary keys to this recipe are fiddling with the baking temperature, butter consistency, amount of chips, and size of the dough balls.

As I mentioned, I’m totally picky about my cookies. And Robbie doesn’t like sweets enough to eat something unless it’s awesome. But he gobbled these up. I really made them for us to munch on during our recent road trip up to North Carolina, and on the way back, Spencer (our little dog) was trying so hard to co-pilot from the middle console that he stood right on top of the cooler and crushed them into small pieces. Robbie’s response was, “Dammit, Spence! Is this the last bag?”

Unfortunately, it was, because I had left the rest at my parents’ house for them to enjoy. My mom is kind of a health food nut, so my dad is always pretty excited if anyone leaves him something to eat that is not a gluten-free rice cracker. So now we have one small ziplock bag of mostly broken cookies in the refrigerator that everyone is trying to avoid. So sad. Must make more immediately!

The Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie

2 1/4 cups flour
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar

1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 sticks melted butter
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1 whole package chocolate chips
I also threw in about 1/4 bag of Heath bits just because I found it in the pantry.

Mix everything together with a spoon (not electric mixer! *hand smack*). Place ping-pong-ball-sized balls of dough on ungreased cookie sheet about 1 inch apart. Or golf ball sized, or whatever your sport of choice for non-athletic people is. I don’t think the order of adding ingredients really matters, but I basically mixed all the dry stuff together and then added the wet ones, with the chips coming in last.

Here’s the important part: preheat the oven to 425, but as soon as you put in the pans, turn it down to 375. Bake 11-12 minutes. Let cool on the pan for 10 minutes before removing. If you have to bake in more than one batch like I do because I don’t have enough pans, turn the oven back up to 425 each time before inserting the pans, then turn it back down to 375 while baking.

I think this temperature tweaking is the secret to the crisp on the outside, chewy on the inside miracle! I didn’t invent it, though. Like I said, I have been reading and trying different things, and this temperature fiddling was suggested on another blog. And it totally worked magic!

Easy Guacamole (No Measuring!)

Photo via chow.com

Photo via chow.com

Robbie makes tacos for dinner about twice a month, because he is the master of anything involving ground beef, and I just don’t prefer cooking with it for some reason. It’s not that it’s difficult. And I don’t mind eating it usually. I just think it’s weird. I don’t know why. We all have our quirks. For example, Robbie hates the way microfiber towels feel, and he can’t stand to touch loose change because it smells weird and is dirty. So, I am the change jar roller! And he is the ground beef cooker. And I no longer buy any type of microfiber towel. But anyway.

Robbie takes real pride in his secret seasoning combinations for steaks, burgers, taco meat, sloppy joes, and the like. And I find it totally impossible to cook refried beans properly, and he is actually very good at that, too. So, this is why he is in charge of taco night. Plus, I get to watch TV on the couch with my beer while he does all the work! Yassssss.

My ONLY job on taco night is to make the guacamole, which we use for dipping tortilla chips in while everything is cooking, and also for putting on our tacos as an extra condiment. Before he met me, Robbie had never had guacamole or avocados in any form (I KNOW!), and he claimed to not like it. He was afraid to try it the first time I made it for him. But I forced it into his mouth! Muahaha!

And he loved it. Now he asks for it any time we eat anything remotely related to Mexican cuisine. Sometimes I let him taste-test to make him feel like his opinion matters. Ha!

Funny story: Once, I tried to grow an avocado tree using the pit from an avocado I used to make guacamole. There are instructions on Pinterest for this. It started out really easy. Just skewer the pit with toothpicks and set it over a glass of water so it’s about half-submerged. It grows roots, then a stalk, then leaves, and then hopefully about seven years later you have fruit. Mine grew roots, and a stalk about three feet tall, but it never, ever grew any leaves. Everyone who came to our house asked why I had a stick in a flower pot. It did not make the move with us to the new house.

I am all about recipes that don’t require exact measurements. I’ve played around with different ways to make guacamole over the years and finally have a pretty good process that, in my opinion, is just as tasty (if not better) than the tiny $5 bowls you get at Mexican restaurants. The best part is that you don’t have to measure anything at all! Unless you are just very Type A and want to make sure it is totally perfect. I can relate to that, too.

Easy, No Measure Guacamole

2 avocados
2 tbsp salsa
2 tbsp sour cream
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp salt
On rare occasion, I also add a couple tablespoons of minced onion for a little crunch.
(All measurements are approximate!)

Cut the avocados in half and remove the pit. Use a spoon to scoop the meat out into a bowl. Mash with a fork until you reach the consistency you like. Some people like their guac a little chunky; some people like it smooth and creamy. If it doesn’t mash easily with a fork because the avocados are not quite ripe enough, you can use a fork and a knife to cut it up into tinier, mashable pieces.

Stir in the salsa and sour cream. I don’t use the tablespoon from my measuring spoon set. I just use a spoon from my eating utensil drawer — not the small cereal spoon, but the larger one. Like the one you would use to mix ingredients. I have no idea if that is actually the same as the measuring tablespoon or not. It seems close.

For the other ingredients, I just cup my hand as if I was trying to collect a handful of water from a faucet. I fill up the little divot it makes in the center of my palm with each ingredient and dump it in, stirring to mix well. That’s it!

Obviously, you can taste it as you go and adjust the amounts according to what you like. I don’t let Robbie taste-test it anymore, because he always asks for more salt than I normally add. But when I just present it to him already finished, he never mentions it needing more salt. SO. THERE!

The lemon juice seems to help it from turning brown so quickly in the refrigerator, and I can keep it for about 2 days after it has been made to use for leftovers. Be sure to cover it with plastic wrap, though! Enjoy on your own Mexican dinner night at home! Because who can even afford to go out to eat anymore?

Chocolate Caramel Heath Bar Cake

Photo via Taste of Home

Photo via Taste of Home

When Robbie and I were in North Carolina this past week visiting my parents for a few days, my mom had made this cake for us to munch on during our stay. She knows we are both big Heath Bar fans — I made Robbie a Heath Bar cheesecake for his last birthday cake and may have eaten more of it than he did.

I’m not sure where she originally found the recipe. There are several versions of it online, but I’m posting this one because she (of course) tweaked it to suit her better, and when I make it for us now that we’re back home, I am not going to change even one single thing! Robbie told her it was THE BEST CAKE HE HAS EVER HAD. We both raided the refrigerator every night around midnight, like teenagers with the munchies, tiptoeing around so we didn’t wake any adults, whispering, and giggling. Robbie’s tip for sneaking around: always walk on the balls of your feet!

Here is Vicko’s version (in her own words) of this amazing, gooey, chocolatey, candyriffic, moist, fluffy deliciousness.

Chocolate Caramel Heath Bar Cake

1 box Devil’s Food cake mix
1 1/4 c. diet Coke
1 egg (calls for 1 egg white, but I used whole egg)
Mix with mixer on low for 1 min. Pour into sprayed 13×9 pan. Bake at 350 25-30 min. until done.

6 oz. fat free caramel ice cream topping
1/2 can fat free sweetened condensed milk (OOPS! I used a whole can!!! No wonder it was SO gooey! Do what you want)
Bag of Heath Bar Bits
8 oz. Cool Whip Fat Free

Heat (don’t boil) over med. low heat, stirring until smooth. Do this about 10 min. before cake is done. You want it to be very warm as you spoon over cake. Poke holes in cake when you get it out of oven and pour/spoon this over as evenly as you can. I use Kebab skewers to poke. Sprinkle 1 c. Heath Bar bits over top. Let cool completely. Cover with 8 oz cool whip and sprinkle 1/4 to 1/2 c. heath bits over top. Keep in refrigerator. Such a good cake!

Cheap Craft Projects! Bookshelf Makeover

bookshelf

I found this little white bookshelf on Craigslist for $8 (talked her down to $5)! it was the perfect size to fit into an empty space in the guest bedroom of our new house, but a little too plain on its own. So, I was off to Walmart to procure some supplies to spruce it up a little!

I’ve seen a lot of projects online where people use scrapbook paper or fabric to cover the inside of bookcases and have always wanted to try that. Usually it is decoupaged, but I don’t really have any experience with the Modge Podge, and I am always looking for an easier way to do any kind of project, as long as it doesn’t affect the results.

I was looking for fabric in a color that would coordinate with the Alabama football theme that Robbie wanted for the new guest room. Even though I’m an Auburn fan, and our house is completely divided, I consented to this because it’s the closest thing he has to a man-cave, and also because his mother is our primary overnight guest, and she is just as big of an Alabama fan as he is.

Trust me, I’m not exactly *thrilled* about having a football-themed room, but I figured if I could take control of the decorating, it will at least turn out tastefully. But I’m also trying to choose things Robbie will like, and things that are neither too masculine- or feminine-looking. It’s so hard trying to make everyone happy, especially when it comes to decorating!

For those of you who are not familiar with SEC football, The University of Alabama’s colors are crimson, white, black, and gray. I found this fabric at Walmart. It has varying shades of gray with a white background. The pattern is a little modern, and sort of trippy. I knew Robbie would approve of that, because for some reason he is drawn to psychedelic fabric patterns that look like an acid trip.

The bookshelf is only about 2′ x 3′, and two fat quarters were all the fabric I needed for the back. (A fat quarter is a pre-cut, pre-packaged 1/4 of a yard.) I considered using fabric glue or hot glue to attach it, but I dislike the messiness of both and was afraid it would be hard to get it straight and flat. So I bought some permanent fabric adhesive tape, which is sold in the sewing supplies section. It comes in a small roll, and there are different brands and sizes. Look for something like this:

tape

I laid out both pieces of fabric flat, with the right side down, and taped along each edge of the wrong side. This tape is used like any double-sided tape you might use for paper crafts, where the tape is covered by a waxy strip that you peel away after laying the tape where you want it. But this stuff is much heavier-duty and thicker. And stickier. It helps to press the tape down firmly on whatever it is being applied to, before peeling away the paper strip. If you don’t, sometimes the sticky part comes back up with the paper strip.

Once I had all my tape pieces applied to the first piece of fabric, I laid the bookshelf down flat on its back. I removed the paper strip from only one edge of the fabric, so I could make sure each edge was centered and the fabric was pulled tight without the rest of it sticking down in the wrong spot.

The fabric was about an inch too short in width to cover the entire back of the bookshelf, so I eyeballed it to make sure it was centered and flush with the top edge of the inside back. After pressing down the one taped edge I had removed the backing from, I repeated this process on the other three edges one at a time, carefully pulling the fabric tight and smoothing it while pressing down on the adhesive strip.

With the other piece of fabric, I did the same thing, only starting from the bottom edge. I really could have measured the empty spot and cut the second piece of fabric to exactly match that space. But that was too much trouble, so I just overlapped it in the middle. Since the fabric has a busy pattern, and there will be shelves (and things on the shelves) in front of it, I didn’t figure it would be that noticeable. I just had to make sure that the pattern matched up in the overlapped area, which wasn’t too hard because it wasn’t that complicated of a pattern.

That was it! Covering only the back and not the sides meant that I didn’t have to worry about where the shelf brackets were. I did that on purpose because I didn’t want to measure and cut holes for them in the side fabric. I think it looks just fine with only the back covered.

After reattaching the shelves, I thought it needed just a little something else, so I decided to do a trim. I purchased a pack of 200 silver thumbtacks and used them to create this faux nail-head trim on the front edges of each shelf, and the top and bottom edges of the bookshelf’s frame.

tacks

I just eyeballed the spacing and used a hammer to tap them in securely. So they are not all perfectly spaced or lined up, and the perfectionist and symmetry-lover in me is somewhat bothered by that, but I am trying to accept that it looks pretty good despite not being completely perfect. I think it would also look cool without space in between the “nail heads,” so if you want to eliminate the space in yours and have a more solid-line effect, you will need more than 200 thumbtacks, so purchase the next size up. I didn’t have many left over.

So that was it! And now I have a cute little bookshelf for the guest room! I set those family photos on top just because I didn’t have another place for them, but they may not stay there. And I haven’t really decided if I’ll put books or knick-knacks on it yet. Maybe both. I want to keep it kinda sparsely filled so the fabric still shows.

Supplies:
Thrifted bookshelf from Craigslist: $5.00
2 fat quarters of fabric: $0.97 each
Permanent adhesive fabric tape: $3.97
200 silver thumbtacks: $1.88

Grand total: Approximately $15.00 for a new piece of custom furniture, with only about an hour’s worth of work.

Mimi is coming today for Thanksgiving, so I am super excited that she gets to try out the new guest room for the first time! I think it looks really cozy and cute, and I’ll do another post with more pictures of the other decorations soon.

Life is Weird

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It’s been so long since I’ve updated my blog, I don’t even know how to navigate the new and improved WordPress dashboard. I’ve literally been so consumed with living in each moment for the last three years or so that I have neglected my online diary and left a lot of things forgotten. After reading back through my blog from beginning to end over the last few days, I can say the best thing about having it is all the things I documented that I have by now forgotten about because I don’t retain things. I don’t know why this is. I first became aware of this tendency my junior year of college.

My friend Mandy, who was my best friend in high school that ended up at the same college as me eventually (after we both transferred in) got a crazy idea when I took a basic video production class that allowed me to have a very large, clunky video camera in my possession for the semester. We went back home and videotaped our old stomping grounds and common driving routes. We wandered around the dorm we both lived in, chatting with people on camera about nothing. A few years afterwards, I watched the video and literally had no memory of experiencing anything we captured.

We took the camera with us on spring break to Fort Lauderdale, FL and filmed our group of friends on vacation. Doing nothing special. Blow-drying our hair to get ready to go out to dinner at a cool restaurant on A1A Beachfront Avenue. Preparing for a day on the beach, to go para-sailing, singing along to Ricky Martin videos on MTV. Capturing the view from our penthouse suite overlooking the ocean, secured on the cheap due to Mandy’s work-study job on campus. The dining hall was run by Sodexho, which was owned by Marriott. As a dining hall employee, she was entitled to the corporate perks available to any Marriott employee. So a group of us went to Florida for a week and stayed in a luxury suite on the beach with roof-top pools, all for something like $50 per person. Probably the nicest hotel suite I’ve ever stayed in. And I was only 20. I tried my fake ID at a little beach-side bar down the road — the same one that worked like a charm back home. The server laughed.

I only remember these things because we recorded them, and I watched them multiple times later on. Going back and looking at my blog, I have no memory of so much of my life that I obviously felt important enough to document in some way. I’m so glad I did, because there is a lot of cool shit I forgot about.

Life has changed a lot for me since moving to Alabama. The “new economy” is a different animal, fraught with minimal opportunity and low wages. It took me a couple years, but after working in a restaurant for much longer than desired, I finally found another professional job that is semi-related to my past work experience. Even though I now make less money than I did starting out with no experience ten years ago. Apparently, that is the current state of the economy, and it’s not changing any time soon.

I used to run the marketing department of one of the largest and most successful real estate companies in my city. Now, I work for a property management company in the leasing office of an apartment home community. My immediate supervisor is 12 years younger than I am. I am only a part-time employee, with no paid time off and benefits so crappy I opted for the Affordable Care Act’s offerings instead. But I also work on commission, without which I would not be able to afford all of my living expenses. Things are manageable. There is no room for emergencies or errors or savings.

Sadly, my many years of experience and knowledge and education do not mean anything and are hardly recognized. These days, it’s all about who will do the work of three people for the least amount of money. Skills are actually a drawback now. Skills and experience mean you think you deserve more money, but your company is perfectly willing to hire someone with no skills or experience as long as they will work for less pay/hours/benefits. So you take what you can get, and you just accept the years of setback and get up when your alarm goes off.

But I am doing okay. I am healthy and happy. I have good people in my life. I have someone I love and who loves me. These last two or three years have been some of the most difficult in my life. But I have learned a lot about myself and about other people. And I am very fortunate to have a house with a fenced back yard for the dogs, a boyfriend who tells and shows me every day that he loves me, friends I enjoy spending time with, a boss who is fair and enjoyable to work with, a supportive family.

This is a catching up post, but I promise the future ones will be more positive and hilarious! I’ve got so much to tell you guys.

Smilefest Reunion 2011

I made a trip up to North Carolina last month to see some friends and visit with my family. The primary purpose was to go to Smilefest. This year was my fifth or sixth going to that festival, I believe. I’ve been to it in three different locations now, and the latest one, while still not quite my favorite, is definitely great. My favorite was when it was in Union Grove on Van Hoy Farms. Least favorite was at Deerfields outside Asheville. Of course, I love that area, but that park is not conducive to festivals whatsoever. We bitched the entire time about having to hike our stuff in for miles (even though there were flatbeds to ease the walk if you could catch one). It was still ridiculous, and I’m not a fan of sleeping in a tent pitched on a nearly vertical mountainside. This year, for the second year in a row, it’s been held at Jomeokee Campground in Pinnacle, right at the foot of Pilot Mountain. It’s a beautiful site, and they’ve kept the ticket sales semi-private for people who have been before (hence the “reunion” moniker), so you end up with people who know how not to act a fool, and who are experienced festival-goers and are there to enjoy the music (okay, and also have a little fun).

As usual, we heard a lot of really awesome music and drank a lot of beer and camped and got real dirty for a few days. I live for those weekends. Good times with good friends. Met a lot of awesome new people too. Saw folks I only ever see at Smilefest (another reason why it’s like a reunion). Here are some pictures my good friend Jenny took, since I have none of my own to share because I didn’t take any. You can check out the Facebook page of her photography business (Dancing Lemur Design) here. She is really good, and you should “like” her.

Me and my flip flops on my patchwork quilt, enjoying the band, Doby.

Every year, every location, they always have these cool windows and bottles hung in the trees.

Our buddy Kelly with his friend Laura, enjoying some muscadine moonshine.

Me trying to figure out how I’m gonna get a queen-size air mattress into my 2-man tent. Travis totally did it, and it was like my own private bouncy castle. Awesomeness.

Always love the hula-hoopers and wish I still had mine. Unfortunately not everything can make the cut when you move. I would like to investigate the collapsible options, though.

We had a huge campsite set up, with about eight people camping together, complete with four or five easy-up tents. We basically created an open-air house. One tent was just the kitchen area. One was the sitting room. We dubbed it “Cabanapyland.” The Jerry tapestry provided a little shade and privacy. In this picture, I’m standing in the living room. LOL. We had not one, but two solar showers. And, because we are seasoned veterans and smartipantses, we totally camped right beside a pole with a power outlet and a water spigot. SCORE!

Here’s a nice shot of the main stage with Pilot Mountain in the background. So pretty. Great time. Can’t wait til next year!

Ron Swanson’s Pyramid of Greatness

Ron Swanson, on Parks & Recreation, is truly one of my all-time favorite television characters. Do I agree with everything he says? Not even close. Do I admire his stalwart dedication to his own principles, and his general attitude of “I do what I want, and I get away with it, because I am Ron Effing Swanson?” Absolutely. He is also a decent person underneath it all. If I could get a beer with anyone on the planet, he would be at the top of my list. I loved the “Pyramid of Greatness” episode, and I decided there are probably some Swansonites out there who would appreciate seeing it all listed out, so here it is. Ron Swanson’s Pyramid of Greatness.

Honor
If you need it defined, you don’t have it.

America
The only country that matters. If you want to experience other “cultures,” use an atlas or a ham radio.

Buffets
Whenever available. Choose quantity over quality.

Weapons

Woodworking

Welfare Avoidance

Teamwork
Work together as if your life depended on it…IT DOES!

Selfishness
Take what’s yours.

Haircuts
3 acceptable styles: high and tight, crew cut, and buzz cut.

Greatness Itself
The best revenge.

Discipline
The ability to repeat a boring thing over and over again.

Attire
Shorts over 6″ are capri pants. Shorts under 6″ are European.

Self-reliance
Trust yourself.

Suspicion
Do not trust anyone else.

Skim Milk
That’s right, it’s on here twice. Avoid it.

Cow Protein

Pig Protein

Chicken Protein

Romantic Love

Deer Protein

Fish
SPORT ONLY!!!

Intensity
Give 100%. 110% is impossible. Only idiots recommend that.

Torso
Should be thick and impenetrable.

Old Wooden Sailing Ships
They’re beautiful.

B.O.
Cultivating a manly musk puts your opponents on notice.

Stillness
Don’t waste energy moving unless necessary.

Skim Milk
Avoid it.

Cursing
There’s only one bad word: Taxes. If any other word is good enough for sailors, it’s good enough for you.

Friends
One to three is sufficient.

Property Rights
They exist. Do not let them be taken away from you.

Masonry
Building walls makes you strong. Defending them makes you even stronger.

Cabins
A place to rest that is made of logs.

Perspiration
Only sweat during physical activity or love making. No emotional sweating.

You
You are your biggest ally.

Crying
Acceptable at funerals and the Grand Canyon.

Physical Fitness

Frankness
Cut the B.S.

Capitalism
God’s way of determining who is smart and who is poor.

Facial Hair
Full, thick, and square. Nothing sculpted. If you have to sculpt it, that probably means you can’t grow it.

Living in the Woods
Live off the land.

Rage
One rage every three months is permitted. Try not to hurt anyone who doesn’t deserve it.

Security
Secure the land.

Poise
Sting like a bee. Do not float like a butterfly. That’s ridiculous.

Handshakes
Firm, dry, solid. 3 seconds.

Body Grooming
Only women shave beneath the neck.

Movies: Secretariat, Cedar Rapids, and True Grit

I avoided watching Secretariat for a long time, even after it became available for free on my Netflix Watch Instantly. The previews made it look completely cheesy, and it is a Disney movie. I finally broke down and watched it last weekend, because I just needed a distraction from some current stress in my life, and sometimes Disney movies are useful for triggering a good cry. Okay, it is completely cheesy, but it was so enjoyable. I love horse movies — I’ve seen Seabiscuit countless times. I think this is because it reminds me of how excited my mom gets on Triple Crown race days. She used to show and ride horses when she was young, and she knows all the small details to point out before, during, and after the races that make watching it a lot of fun for people who don’t know that much about the sport.

Secretariat is a great underdog movie, like a lot of Disney movies tend to be. Overcoming obstacles, staying true to your convictions, strength in the face of adversity. As cliched as it might be, these are still things that inspire me, and things I need reminders about sometimes. I was a little perplexed at first by the casting of John Malkovich as the trainer, but he turned out to be great and more lovable than just about any other character he’s ever played. I would have appreciated it if Diane Lane’s character (the horse’s owner) had been a little less one-dimensional. She was portrayed like the greatest saint who ever lived, who could do no wrong. I would have sympathized with her character’s difficulties more if she had come off like more of an actual human. And this is what you would expect from a Disney movie, and one of the reasons I had avoided it. But I was actually really moved by the race segments of the movie, when Secretariat came from last place and won by distances so great that no other race horse has ever come close to touching his records. He is, to this day, THE GREATEST RACE HORSE THAT EVER LIVED. During the race scenes, I was yelling from the couch and freaking out my dog, and when he won, I cried. Even though I knew the story, and I knew he was going to win. I admit it; I still cried. And you know what? I would totally watch it again.

Cedar Rapids…meh. I love Ed Helms, and I thought he was great in it, but it wasn’t quite as funny as I had hoped. Yes, it was quirky, but the characters were all a little silly. The plot was not that interesting when it came down to it. I liked the outcome/ending, and I was smiling when it was over, but it felt like a long time of waiting for that to happen in the last ten minutes. Also, Anne Heche? She’s still alive? Really? She should go back into hiding.

Oh, True Grit. I’m really not into Westerns, but I try to watch the Best Picture Oscar nominees every year. I love Jeff Bridges. But Matt Damon as a Texas Ranger…weird. The little girl was annoying as hell. I could not get into the plot at all. Again, the last fifteen minutes of the movie were good, but leading up to that it felt extremely slow. Maybe it would have helped if I had seen the original. Maybe not. It had pretty cinematography, and the costumes and sets were pretty amazing. And maybe it’s a testament to my adult ADD that I have trouble sitting through a movie anymore, but this one was just not for me. I was still holding out hope for liking it until they shot a horse. Can’t handle it!

 

Fourth of July 2011

Yes, even though I post misanthropic things about government and politics at times, I still celebrate the Fourth of July. Well, sort of. I mean, I go to celebrations, and I enjoy them. I don’t feel particularly patriotic about it, and never have, with the exception of July 4, 2002, when everyone was still feeling patriotic on a daily basis after the events of 9/11/01. I bought a Boston Pops CD then, and the music made me cry. It was a good release. I still have it on my iPod, and I listen to it every Fourth of July, but it hasn’t stirred the same emotion since then.

This year was my first Fourth of July in Alabama. One of my friends’ coworkers invited us out to her house at Lake Martin for a get-together involving grilled meats, tossed footballs in the driveway, and jubilant children passing out tiny flags for waving. As it turned out, the husband of said coworker has family and roots in North Carolina, although they came here via Michigan most recently. We had a great time talking about differences in barbecue and between the Deep South and the “regular” South. How people are mistaken when they call a cookout a “barbecue,” how we both get challenged on whether North Carolina is even “the South” on a regular basis. (Seriously, have you people never heard of the Mason-Dixon Line? Can you not hear the way I speak?) There were some other coworkers of theirs present with their families and some neighbors from the street passing in and out.

I am a big fan of being near any body of water, no matter how large or small. So, I was very excited when we decided to caravan from their house on a small peninsula down to the neighborhood docks. What a beautiful spot of Earth! We sat out over the water, drinking beers, watching the sunset, craning our necks up at amateur fireworks being set off all around us, and watching kids and dogs swim merrily in the lake nearby. It was breezy and balmy and felt amazing. I can totally see why people dig living out there in the heat of an Alabama summer.

Lake Martin is about 40 minutes from where we live in Auburn, mostly two-lane back roads with nary a house in sight. It always sort of amazes me at how rural everything is here as soon as we get out of the city limits, particularly going west. I don’t feel like I live in the middle of nowhere, but it only takes driving for fifteen minutes to discover that in fact, I do.

According to my research, Lake Martin is actually a lot bigger than I thought it was when I was there. It’s about 40,000 acres and is actually one of the largest artificial lakes in the United States. I’m guessing I thought it was smaller because of the way it’s shaped, dipping in and out of many small peninsulas. I kept thinking I was looking across to the other side of the lake, but I think I was just looking across to other peninsulas. In a way, it reminded me of Lake Lure, which I grew up near in North Carolina, but without the mountains. Only Lake Lure is about 800 acres. Okay, so really not at all the same except they’re both lakes with houses and boats and docks.

Very interestingly, both Lake Lure and Lake Martin feature a rock formation called “Chimney Rock.” Here’s where I get to brag about mine. Alabama’s Chimney Rock is about 60 feet tall, and people jump off it into the water. Which sounds really frickin’ fun. But our Chimney Rock, in North Carolina, is 315 feet, and sits at a mountain-top elevation of 2,280 feet. You do not jump off that. You stand at the top and survey your 75-mile panoramic view. And yes, while a couple people have died jumping off Alabama’s Chimney Rock over the years, and it’s always possible because shit happens, I guarantee you if you jump off our Chimney Rock in North Carolina, you will absolutely die. No two ways about it.

Here’s a pic of Chimney Rock in Alabama:

Here’s the Chimney Rock I grew up with in North Carolina:

Incidentally, I think the North Carolina one looks a lot more like a chimney than Alabama’s. Although for years I’ve thought it looked more like a penis than anything else. Juuuuuuust sayin’!

The Question of Independence

In the first verse of the national anthem, which is the only one we ever sing, these are the last two lines:

“Oh, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

It never occurred to me until this year that we usually stop there, with a question mark. The music at the end of the verses sounds very final and triumphant, and not at all questioning. Maybe that’s because Francis Scott Key wrote a patriotic hymn about a battle and set it to the tune of a popular British drinking song. Fun fact: “The Star-Spangled Banner” was only made the national anthem by congressional resolution in 1931. Before that we used “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” which I can remember having to learn in elementary school, and “Hail, Columbia,” which sounds way more anthem-like and is now used as the Vice President’s official entrance, like “Hail to the Chief” for the President.

But back to that question mark. The question in the song is regarding the outcome of the Battle of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812 — have we won? Does our flag still wave? Today, it seems the question mark has taken on a whole new meaning, when thinking about our country’s place in the world and who we want to be as her citizens. Now, the question seems to (or maybe ought to) be, “Are we really all that brave or all that free?”

In the “home of the brave,” we collectively put actual brave men and women in harm’s way because we’re greedy. Most people are too lazy to recycle. The majority of Americans do not own hybrid vehicles or residential solar panels, myself included because I can’t afford to, because I haven’t had a job in nine months, but that’s another rant altogether. Alternative energy sources are not exactly highly touted by corporate honchos who stand to lose money when their technology is replaced. I don’t care what you say about major petroleum companies’ spun magazine ads of wildflower meadows and ethereally-narrated dream-scape television commercials, where they showcase the best (the one? lol) engineer they’ve put on the job of eco-do-gooding. Show me a year without an oil spill and I might start to give half a crap. As my Maw Maw would say, these are people with “more money than sense.”

So, we’re okay with sending people off to be killed in the name of some vague Medusa-headed terror cabal whose snake tendrils grow back as quickly as they are lopped, when we all know deep down that if it weren’t for the oil, we would not still be occupying the region. To me, this is not brave. This is greed, laziness, ignorant acceptance. Money and convenience before lives.

What about the “land of the free?” “We” have some freedoms. But “we” are not entirely free. Not until all the laws apply to all people equally. Not until the Patriot Act is repealed. Not until the Supreme Court stops making unconstitutional rulings like May’s Kentucky vs. King. Not until our Presidents stop signing executive orders giving themselves powers that our system of checks and balances expressly forbids. Not until you can lobby congress or run for office (realistically, people) without a cent to your name and still be taken seriously. As Georgiana Cavendish, former Duchess of Devonshire once remarked, “One is either free, or one is not. The concept of freedom is an absolute. After all, one cannot be moderately dead, or moderately loved, or moderately free. It must always remain a matter of either-or.”

I wish every year that people would use Independence Day as a time to reflect on where we are, where we are going, where we want to be, as a people. Instead I think it ends up being rote enthusiasm for a system we hate, because it’s tradition, and because we *think* we’ll always be on top, as if it’s our rightful place. I wonder what the first 4th of July will be like after the economy completely collapses (if that happens). Thoughts?

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