Thanksgivings in Space

I’ve always been terrified of cooking Thanksgiving dinner. There are too many expectations to live up to, especially because I married into a family of gourmet cooks. And while I know my husband, who is a wonderful cook himself, would be more than happy to help me prepare the feast, I worry that anything I make will be haunted by the ghosts of far superior roast turkeys, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and the other table-crushing assortment of dishes we both enjoyed in the carefree Thanksgivings of our youths. Plus it’s just a heck of a lot of work.

So mostly I try to get out of the Thanksgiving responsibilities. Over the years we’ve enjoyed many turkey dinners in restaurants. This is always nice because the food just magically appears at your table, and then just as magically disappears, along with all those dirty dishes, when you’re done.

But this year we decided to go to Disneyland. It was a crazy idea, at least for us. We’re both a little phobic of large crowds, and Thanksgiving in the Land of Mouse promised to be mayhem. Plus I had gone to Disney World when I was 10, and the only memory I had was of frantically chasing after my little cousin, trying to catch her before she vanished into the mass of people all around us. She was two years-old, the same age my daughter is now, and I dreaded the thought of reliving that experience. But of course, as soon as I spoke the idea aloud, my son was beside himself with excitement. So we went.

The first day (a Monday) I was worried that we had made a terrible mistake. There were crowds–big ones–and long lines for most of the rides. By the time we had ridden Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Peter Pan’s Flight, and the carousel, we were already tired. My son even asked to go back to the hotel.

But then we stumbled into the Enchanted Tiki Room, where at least there were benches and pineapple ice cream drinks while we waited outside for the show. And then we went inside. The mechanical birds began to sing. My daughter’s eyes grew round. She turned her head to look back at me. And then she smiled. And I relaxed.

The rest of the trip was wonderful. The crowds were much smaller the next day, and by Wednesday we hardly had to wait for more than fifteen minutes for most of the rides. And although my daughter refused to ride in her stroller, she did hold onto my hand in the crowds. She even did okay in the lines, although she insisted on climbing every square inch of railing, and then clinging to it like a kudzu vine whenever I tried to move her. (She also clung to the cart of the Go Coaster when we were supposed to get off, and screamed, “No! I try again! I try again!”)

Occasionally I thought about what it meant to be spending Thanksgiving at Disneyland. It wasn’t, after all, a traditional experience, although we did spring for the Thanksgiving Feast in the Disneyland Hotel, which had every manner of traditional Thanksgiving food and then some. The dessert table alone was a decadence bordering on obscenity. The children’s buffet had a carver waiting to personally slice your child’s pizza. If the goal of the Thanksgiving meal is to stuff yourself like a foie gras goose, Disneyland more than delivered.

But it still didn’t feel quite like a traditional Thanksgiving. And I wondered about tradition, and why it matters. Growing up, my family was never particularly bound by tradition. We once had Thanksgiving without the turkey when I was a vegetarian, and one year we had a bouquet of roses instead of a Christmas tree. But I do have a lot of nostalgia for the traditions we did keep when I was a child, especially making hard candy with my Mom, and playing and singing music around the piano as a family. Those memories are indelible: I think about them and suddenly I am five, or eight, or fifteen again. I am all of those ages at once.

I was worried that this was the one element that was missing from our Disneyland trip, unless we could somehow afford to repeat the experience every year (I was afraid of that expectation too, since the happiest place on earth is definitely not the cheapest). And then I found it, of all places, on the Space Mountain ride.

My husband does not like Space Mountain, so I agreed to ride it with my son. He was chattering nervously the whole way through the Fast Pass line, while I laughed to myself about the Space Mountain signs, which were written in that font that was supposed to look so futuristic and high tech to those of us who were born in the seventies. Now it just looked dated.

We got on the ride, and made that slow clicking ascent that always gives you time to wonder if strapping yourself into this thing was such a good idea (what if it’s not just the font that’s outdated?). And then we were zooming in a fast spiral in the dark through a galaxy of stars that appeared to emanate from something that looked very much like a disco ball. And suddenly I was fourteen years old, screaming in the dark next to a friend who had come with me on our eighth grade band trip to Disneyworld. The cool breeze from the ride felt wonderful after walking all day in the sweltering Orlando heat. I felt alive, and scared, and courageous all at once. It all came back, even though I knew I was two thousand miles and over two decades away from the time, place, and person I was in that memory.

I didn’t tell my son about my trip back into the past, but I was happy that we had come. We all had a great week together, and although he was grief-stricken on our last day of the park, my son was already planning our next visit. I don’t know if we’ll be able to manage the trip every year, but we’ll definitely be back. I think it will be a wonderful tradition, and hopefully some day my kids will be able to ride Space Mountain, or some other ride, with their own kids, and remember a time when they sat there next to me, waiting for the excitement to begin.


This is as Martha Stewart as I get. Mai’s English Toffee.

This is my one time of the year to Martha Stewart it up and I always love making toffee to give out as Christmas gifts.  This is my second year doing it and it seems to be popular enough that I thought I would share the process.  Some of you who are kitchen connoisseurs and commandos may not need my insights and tips at all.  But, as I learned from trial and error, I thought I would share. 

The recipe was originally found here

It’s a very simple recipe, with just four ingredients, Butter (salted), sugar, Chocolate and pecans.  You can add a tablespoon or two of vanilla as I did.  That’s all there is to it!  But, it does require some pretty contsant vigilance to get it right.  Also, besides the ingredients, you need a couple of tools to make this process easier.  For one thing, you need a candy thermometer since the temperature has to get to the “hard crack” stage of between 300 and 305 degrees Fahrenheit.  For another, the

Oxo scraper

 made all the difference in the world, as far as getting the pieces to break into regular squares and making the result quite pretty!

So, below, here is the original recipe with my pictures and my hints in parenthesis.

Best Ever English Toffee Recipe

  • 2 Giant 8 oz. Hershey bars, or 16 oz. (450 g) milk chocolate divided in half  (Trader Joe’s offers delicious 17 oz. bars of Belgian chocolate called Pound  Plus that are excellent for this recipe and that is what I used.  Cost wise, it ends up about the same)
  • 2 cups (300 g) finely chopped walnuts or pecans (I am a Georgia girl.  I used Pecans)
  • 3 cups (600 g) granulated sugar
  • 1+1/2 lb. (681 g) SALTED real butter Do not use unsalted butter or  margarine, or the recipe won’t turn out.

Recipe Directions:

  1. Break 8 ounces of the chocolate and set aside.
  2. Boil sugar and butter while stirring constantly (they mean CONSTANTLY.  This is the hard part.  This stuff will burn in a nanosecond.  Be vigilant) on medium heat to hard crack  level (300-305*F or 149*C) on candy thermometer. IT MUST REACH THIS LEVEL, NO  MATTER HOW IT LOOKS.
  3. Tip: Start off at medium high and then lower the temp as it gets closer to  300*F (149*C). Watch it like a hawk.
  4. Pour mixture onto large ungreased cookie sheet with sides (jelly roll size)  and immediately spread on the grated chocolate. Smooth over top.

I did the above step totally differently.  First, I lined the Cookie sheet with parchment paper.  This makes turning it over later on MUCH, MUCH easier.  Also, instead of immediately spreading the grated or pieced chocolate onto the hot toffee and letting it melt, I waited until the toffee had cooled enough to still be gooey, but thicker.  Then, I used the Oxo scraper to make score marks in the toffee.  Doin this makes the toffee eaier to break along regular lines later on.  See the pictures below for my way….

5. I melted the 8 oz. chocolate in my makeshift double boiler and poured it on the chocolate. See below.

6. Sprinkle half of the nuts on top. Cool till hard.   (When it is fully hardened and cooled, you need to spread some tin foil on the counter and tip the whole pan upside down.  This is where the parchment paper comes in handy.  It helps the whole pan of toffee come out with no trouble at all!  And it leaves the pan in one big piece which makes step 8 easier)  See below for before and after the chocolate pouring.

7. Melt the other 8 oz. (225 g) or other bar of chocolate in double boiler or  in small saucepan on very low heat, stirring constantly.

8. Tip the cooled toffee out onto wax paper (see my notes on step #6) and spread other side with the  melted chocolate ; sprinkle rest of nuts on and cool till hard.

9. Then crack into small pieces with knife. (This is where the scoring with the Oxo scraper pays off.  See below.  My pieces came out in almost perfect squares.  It wastes a lot less of the toffee because you get a lot fewer crumbs.  Of course, the crumbs aren’t really a waste.  You can top your ice cream with them or make your own Heath crunch Blizzards!)

I packed it all up into Christmas tins and they are ready to go!

Read more at Suite101: Best Ever English Toffee Recipe: How to Make English Toffee Candy |

I am a Music Therapist

This is a bit of a follow up to last week’s post about where I work. I thought I’d write a little about what I do and why I do it.

Music has always been a part of my life. I remember my mom sang to me all the time and even taught music at my preschool. In elementary I began my music lessons on piano, then joined the band in fifth grade and played the clarinet. When it was time to pick colleges, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I started going on scholarship auditions at the schools I had been accepted to. Our guidance counselor had recommended that we choose a “safe” school that we knew we could get into and that we could afford. Georgia College (the amper sand had not been added yet) was that school for me. Forty-five minutes from home was not necessarily my first choice! I went on the audition and over lunch heard about this Music Therapy thing. It sounded like what I was looking for. A chance to continue playing music that I loved and help others.

Fast forward a few years and I became a practicing Music Therapist. Working in a large state run psychiatric hospital. There was a long time that I really didn’t think I knew what I was doing! I just played music, had a good time and along the way found that I did make a difference to people.

The American Music Therapy Association defines Music Therapy as “the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.” But here’s what it is. I use music to teach you something or improve the quality of your life. We’ve all used Music Thearpy. Try saying your ABCs without singing them. When you’ve had a really trying day do you put some kind of music on your car stereo to cheer you up? What was the song playing at your first high school dance, at your wedding? Music evokes emotion and enhances memory.

For years I have joked that the one question I can answer without even thinking is “what is Music Therapy?” Every Music Therapist gets used to answering that question because we’re asked it over and over again. But times are changing! Watch this clip from Diane Sawyer’s piece on Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford’s rehab and try not to cry. “The Music Never Stopped” is a recent movie based on an essay by Dr. Oliver Sacks. There is evidence supporting what we do. This works.

This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending my third National Music Therapy conference. I saw people I haven’t seen in years. Heard all kinds of great things about what Music Therapists are doing in their settings, but it was the last thing I saw as I was leaving the conference that really reminded me of why I do what I do. As I was walking out the front door, I saw a fellow conference attendee standing outside leaning against a planeter and taking her guitar out of it’s case. I thought this was a strange site outside the entrance, but heck, we’re Music Therapists, some of us are a little odd. As I walked by, I turned around and saw her approach a young mother with three kids. She had one in her arms and was trying to keep up with the other two. The Music Therapist knealt down to the child’s level and started talking to her about the guitar and the little girl reached out and strummed it. This person used her talent to help someone else. That’s what we do. We use the talents we were given, the talents we cultivated and use them to make someone else’s life better. Is there anything more beautiful than that?

Wordless Wednesday

Ash’s morning walk

“Saved by the Bell” always took on the tougher subjects.

Some of the best people I’ve met were in institutions


Every day I arrive at the building where I work. I enter the lobby and hand my keys over to someone behind a desk and place my items on a table to be searched. Generally this consists of my iPad, pager and name badge. Maybe a lunch, never a purse. I then kick off my shoes and attempt to pass the metal detector without setting it off. I then gather my things and head to a door which is opened by someone behind a panel of plexiglass. When that door closes behind me, the next door opens. I gather my key ring and swipe card and make my way down the hall. I pass a large room enclosed by plexiglass and maybe see people waiting for a doctor’s appointment or having shackles put on to prepare for transport to an appointment outside of the building, the next two doors are again opened by the person behind that plexiglass and I swipe my card to enter the staircase. At the top of the stirs I swipe my card again to be let out of
the staircase and walk to my office.

Hearing this you may assume that I work in a prison or jail. However, I don’t. I work in a maximum security forensic facility for the mentally ill. All the people I work with are mentally ill and have also committed some kind of crime. This ranges from particularly heinous and grisly crimes to things as benign as forging checks or stealing a ginger ale from a convenience store. All the individuals are here to either be evaluated for competency to stand trial, have been found incompetent to stand trial, or are not guilty be reason of insanity. I work with people who you would typically not want to sit next to on the bus, or who may be hanging out on the sidewalks of your community. Many have been failed by the mental health system. They were not perceived as a risk or may have circumvented the procedures in place to maintain them on their medications or supervise them. Many of them also have a history of drug or alcohol use.

There are two misconceptions I want to address about the people I work with. The first is that they are “getting off easy.” While some times this may be true because they may do less time in a hospital than they would have in prison, but most of the time it’s not true. Many of them actually spend more time in the hospital. I’ve had individuals tell me that they wish they had just plead guilty and done the time because they would be out already. There is no release date for our people. They don’t have a date that they can look forward to getting out of the hospital like someone in the prison system would. Many times if the crime is particularly violent the judge gives the “over my dead body” ruling that as long as they are on the bench that person will not be released. It is also more difficult than you think to fake an insanity defense. We have pretty accurate testing to ensure that those folks are weeded out.

Another inaccurate thought is that these people are guilty and should be punished. This is not necessarily so. I like to give this example when someone asks me about my job. Let’s pretend you know for a fact that your next door neighbor is kidnapping and torturing women in his house. You’ve heard them screaming and calling for help. You’ve called the police and told all your family and friends and they say there’s nothing they can do and that there’s nothing going on, yet you still hear them calling for you to save them. Most of us would feel compelled to do something. This is what it’s like. What is going on in their head is so real to them that they have to get involved. They can’t determine that this is not true. They act based on their own skewed sense of reality. They act because of their illness.

In general, society does not recognize mental illness as being an illness like diabetes or heart disease. Approximately 25% of people in the US have a mental illness. Compare that with 41% of Americans who will have some type of cancer in their lifetime, 8% of people who will have diabetes and 12% of Americans who will have heart disease. Many times the only time we hear about mental illness in the news is when a mentally ill person does something to get into trouble. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear about treatment and support? Only about 25% of people with mental illness feel like they have good supports from family and friends. It’s time we took care of those around us who are sick before they end up hanging out with me every day!

Wordless Wednesday

Really Scary Jack O’ Lantern

My Happy Place

Know what they call this in the ‘Couv? Barbeque weather!

I have been bagging on How I met Your Mother pretty hard lately, but tonight’s episode finally brought back the Good Stuff!  Let me be clear, I bashed HIMYM about their rehashing of various plot lines, episodes and devices.  But, tonight’s Disaster Averted managed to rehash in all the right ways, without feeling overdone.  It brought back old favorites in a  good way and left very little to feel irritated by.


1. Ted and his poor choices in boot-wear.  Ted used to insist he could pull off those awful red cowboy boots.  By comparison his pink rain boots were pretty funny, as was his reasoning.  Pink boots are easier to see from rescue helicopters.  Umm, ok.  I will let it slide because it was a good sight gag.

2. The Ducky Tie Resolution!  I KNEW there would come a time when Barney tried to weasel his way out of the Ducky Tie bet.  I loved the superhero story he wove regarding why he had to get rid of the tie (saving a child from falling off a building, naturally) even if I did see the tie gag coming from a mile away.  The best part of the gag, though, was….

3. Return of the Slap Bet!  I know that we all felt as Marshall did, a little anxious about the fact that we were down to but one slap.  Even though I was less than pleased by the last Slap Bet episode where he gives away a slap to either Robin or Ted on Thanksgiving, this Slap Bet storyline had lots going for it, including watching Marshall’s increasing desire to slap the crap out of Barney and Barney’s attempts to needle him  into doing it so that he would be out of slaps and have to renegotiate for more slaps.  The resolution was good, too, with the return of Lily acting as Slap Bet Commissioner.  Additionally, the Slap Bet story brought us…


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