10:30 am.

We haven't done three things in a long time, and I just happened to have three meetings this week. Coincidence? Entirely!

These development meetings can be a nice way to break up the day sometimes, but they're also incredibly draining. Basically, someone has an idea for a feature or some improvement to our product. So they call a meeting where we can get everyone together to hash out how the feature should work and look. This sounds simple enough, except that no one seems to agree on anything, and we end up getting in very heated discussions about very minor things. It's frustrating, because at some point, you just want to throw your hands in the air and shout, "BUT WHO WILL FEED THE CHILDREN?"

And no one will feed the children, because this meeting is about whether buttons should be on the left or the right, not hunger.

Meeting 1: Wednesday - Context Menus
Context menus are the ones that pop up when you right click. They are specific to their context, which is why they're called "context menus," not "super cool and helpful menus that a lot of people don't know about." The purpose of this meeting was to pare the menus in our application down a bit, because they were getting lengthy.

The reason we often have such different opinions is that we each use the product differently. So while one guy thinks that's it's a no-brainer to remove a menu item, half a dozen of us might raise our hands and say we use it every day, are you crazy, THAT MENU ITEM IS A SAINT! And then we start changing captions, trying to decide if the word "Insert" more accurately describes the action than "Generate." Voices are raised, feelings are hurt, all because you think the work "Generate" is vague. And then, just when you think you have it all settled, one of the guys from support, who deals with real, live users every day, tells us that no matter what we do, people are going to be confused and angry. I sometimes think that the real purpose of these meetings is to make the rest of us thankful that we don't work in support, where everyone is confused and angry all the time and it's always your own personal fault.

In any case, I usually have an opinion at first, but soon give it up, having lost the will to argue to-may-to/to-mah-to issues. I don't care anymore. Just tell me what to do and I will do it, but please stop arguing about it.

Meeting 2: Thursday - Linux update
Some user brought it to our attention that our application looks really clunky and dated on Linux. And while the precise shade of gray we use for the background has no bearing on how well our application works, it does seem to matter. If a user looks at a program and wonders if it's 1995 again, that's going to affect his perception of the overall product.

I tried to avoid this meeting, having no particular interest in it. That's allowed. But about thirty minutes after the meeting started, while I was getting actual work done instead of doodling in a meeting, my boss came up behind me and said to come to the meeting. I had my headphones on, so I couldn't tell exactly what he said, but I got the gist. I hustled to that meeting, knowing only that I had tried to skip out, but my boss came and got me. Had he known my middle name, he might have used it.

I arrived at the meeting to find the room empty. The projector hadn't been working before, so he had dismissed everyone until it was working. He came around to tell everyone to come to the meeting, not realizing that some people had tried to opt out. So I sat in the corner and listened while we noted that everything in our Linux version was too gray, too square, and too fat. Gray, square, and fat was apparently the 90s style, but it is now time to move on to a slightly lighter gray, rounded edges, and thin.

Meeting 3: Friday - New Project Dialog
In March, we released a new version, which featured a new dialog. The dialog was my assignment. I did it after two meetings, having been given very clear instructions on exactly what the dialog should look like and how it should behave. I even sent out screenshots of the dialog to make sure that everyone was happy.

Now, two months later, everyone has decided that the dialog is the stupidest thing ever conceived. We are scrapping it completely. Once we decided to do that, it became a free-for-all as people tried to decide what we DID want, as opposed to that other dialog, which no one ever can remember wanting at all. This frequently happens, as you have a good basic idea, but then pretty soon you are overcome with good ideas that no one will ever have time to implement. "What if it automatically detected your project type?" quickly turns into "What if it could bring pets back from the dead?"

And that was my week of meetings. Just think: I work at one of the good places.


low productivity friday.

I need to explain some stuff about my job for you to understand this post.

When you spend a lot of time working on a specific program on a computer, you start using the keyboard more than the mouse. The mouse, while convenient and often better-suited to many uses, is slower if you do a lot of typing. So if you are editing a bunch of text, for instance, code, you would rather keep your fingers on the keyboard as much as possible. If you have to take the time to get the mouse and move it around, you might lose your train of thought.

Most applications have keyboard shortcuts for mouse functions. I don't mean just ways to cut and paste or save a file, but ways to capitalize a word or jump around from file to file (and lots of ca-razy other things). You can bind different commands (Cut, Paste, etc) to difference keys. So if you didn't like using Control + X to cut, you could change it to Control + Q or Alt + 7 or Control + Alt + Shift + Tab, if you really wanted to. At my job, a set of those bindings is called an emulation. We have lots of emulations in our product, and we're supposed to test them all, even though most of us use the same one.

It's a pain to use a different emulation than what you're used to. Most of the time, when you use one of these commands, it's completely unconcious. I know that I want to cut, so I just Control + X without a thought. But if Control + X does something different, say, changes everything to uppercase, I have to go back and fix it. It's frustrating, particularly when you can't seem to remember what keys are bound to "undo." It's like if you are used to using a QWERTY keyboard, but then someone switched it on you. Sure, you would relearn it, but for the first bit, you'd be in a state of constant frustration.

Got all that?

A few weeks ago, in a development meeting, my boss suggested a way for us all to test our assigned emulations: Low Productivity Friday. This suggestion was met with silence, because our office, like probably most offices, already sees productivity decline on the week's last day. Was he suggesting that we slack off even more or just that our slacking was officially management sanctioned now?

He meant that we would do our work while using the assigned test emulation, rather than the one we were used to. We would be terribly unproductive, constantly hitting the wrong keystroke and then undoing, or at least pressing the key that used to mean "undo."

I don't think anyone has done this. I tried to have a "low productivity" day the way he meant on Tuesday, and I could have pulled my hair out with frustration. However, Low Productivity Friday lives on. Not in the form of unfamiliar emulations, but instead as a Mario Kart tournament in the conference room.


an understanding of thyme.

Part of my goal to become competant in the kitchen is to understand herbs and spices. I don't mean that I don't know what they are. They're plant parts that are ground up or dried or just cut up and added to food in tiny quantities for flavor or color. I know how to measure out a teaspoon or whatever and then dump it in.

No, I want to understand each one, and by that, I mean I want to know its flavor friends. We've talked about those before, with the particular pairing of watermelon and salt. Admittedly, salt is a popular fellow, with lots and lots of flavor friends. That's why it gets to sit on the table in a special shaker so that people can opt to make their food even more friendly with salt. Other spices and herbs (sperbs?) are not quite so universally complementary. So even if I've got a good feel for how a sperb looks and smells and tastes, I still don't feel like I have a firm grasp of their place in the world. And I won't, no matter how many times I stick my nose in a jar or add a teaspoonful to a recipe, until I find a flavor friend.

And then! It's like it all comes together for me in my mind. I no longer have a memory of the individual taste, I know what it tastes like up against its special food partner. Each time this has happened to me, it was a serious Eureka moment. A connection in my mind is made: no longer is that sperb just hanging out by itself. Now it's connected in my memory with other tastes and smells. Once that happens, I can even start improvising with that sperb. I look forward to these moments, the moment when I can finally stop grasping around in the dark for what to do with the stupid sperb and start using it with confidence.

The following dish gave me an understanding of thyme. It's not a fancy or complicated thing: really, it's just a tuna casserole invented by someone with a summer garden. But it's tasty, simple, and a little out of the box, and it taught me that thyme and tuna are flavor friends.

I'll just link to it here, because I don't change a thing when I make it, except maybe add extra zucchini. Also, I have substituted plain, nonfat yoghurt for the sour cream and mozzerella for the Monterey Jack with good results.

Hearty Tuna Casserole

Make it sometime and be sure to tell everyone that this is a casserole which gives one a greater understanding of thyme itself.


jabba the hop toad.

At the apartment building, I had a squat and warty neighbor who lived on the first floor. He was a toad that would come out at night and sit on the sidewalk. I think he lived in a drain pipe. He was such a common figure that I named him Jabba the Hop Toad, because he was so fat and gelatinous and, well, toadlike. I said hello to him all the time, and he contentedly ignored me. I never tried to pick him up, because I learned a long time ago that toads will pee on you if you do that. I'm not into toad pee.

Jabba the Hop Toad stopped appearing at some point last fall. I hoped that I was just missing him because he was hidden in the dark or that maybe he was just inside his drain pipe enjoying some juicy bugs with Mrs. Jabba the Hop Toad. But as each night passed without a sign of him, I began to suspect that he'd gone on to that great smelly bog in the sky.

We have frogs at the new house. There's a pond across the street from me, and I hear tiny amphibious Barry Whites out there at night. If it rains, the street itself is covered in tiny brown things that look like leaves until they hop. It's a good thing there haven't been any cops watching as I was trying to avoid hitting them with the car. "I'm not drunk, officer, I'm trying not to run over the froggies."

Last week, I discovered this guy. I thought he was a piece of bark at first.

Now, maybe I just like tiny frogs (and really, who doesn't?), but this little fellow fascinated me. He was very tolerant of me as I circled him, trying to get a good close-up. I haven't seen him since that day, though I check this tree every day. So either he's hanging out somewhere else, or his camouflage is just good.

What I love about this camouflage is that it's mottled just like the tree bark. That's smart thinking, Mr. Frog.

If I do happen to come across him again, I'm going to need a name. I was thinking Barkley, but I would be happy to take suggestions. It doesn't even have to be a pun.


the mets and chocolate.

I knew Josh for several years before we started dating. Once we did take that step further, I started learning a lot of surprising things about him. There was nothing inherently surprising about what I learned; the suprise was that I didn't know them before. How could I have gone five years without knowing he liked baseball? Baseball? Really? The Mets? But...baseball is boring. Huh.

The biggest surprise was that he loved chocolate. Everyone likes chocolate. My mother used to tell me that love was when you liked someone so much you had to call it something else. Josh is testing the bounds of the word "love" with his relationship with chocolate. I have never met anyone which such an affinity for chocolate, male or female. When I thought of someone who had a chocolate obsession, I thought of someone who looks like Cathy and has a coffee mug that say "Give me the chocolate and no one gets hurt." I did not picture this man.

I certainly don't mind his feelings for the sweet, and as long as he never has to choose between us, I think we'll be alright. Besides, it makes my life a little bit easier. All I have to do is make him something chocolatey, and he's happier than a pig in some other kind of dark brown stuff. A couple of weeks ago, I got it into my head to make a chocolate pie, and the result was so delicious he ate a full quarter of a pie in one evening. Now, I only like chocolate the regular amount, but holy crap, this is a good pie.

French Silk Chocolate Pie
Adapted from Allrecipes
  • 1 cup butter, room temperature

  • 1 1/2 cup white sugar

  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder

  • 2 t vanilla extract

  • 4 eggs

  • 1 prepared 8 inch pastry shell, baked and cooled

  1. Cream butter in a mixing bowl. Gradually beat in the sugar with an electric mixer until light colored and well blended. Stir in the cocoa powder and vanilla extract. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating for a full five minutes on medium to high speed using a whisk attachment after each egg. Spoon the chocolate filling into a cooled, baked pie shell.

  2. Refrigerate at least 2 hours before serving.

Do note that this recipe contains raw eggs. Some people won't want to eat your pie because of that. Feel free to laugh at them and help yourself to their slice. Or give the extra slice to Josh.



My third grade science fair project was called "Does the Nose Know?" The experiment was supposed to determine how much assistance one's sense of smell provided in taste recognition. The idea was good, the title was catchy, and my sister came up with both of those things. But I did do the experiment, and I did it about as well as you can imagine a ten year old doing any scientific work. I cut up pieces of apples and oranges and fed them to family members who were blindfolded and holding their noses pinched. Everyone was able to successfully tell an apple piece in their mouth from an orange piece. In my analysis, I mentioned it might be useful to try the experiment again with more people and using food items that didn't have such obviously different textures. My sister also recommended that last part, and that's how I learned what the word "texture" meant.

And then I cut out construction paper and decorated a hand me down science fair board - three huge and heavy pieces of plywood hinged together and spray-painted yellow. All the other kids bought foam and plastic things from the school for $6 apiece, but we already had this giant thing sitting in the basement from my siblings' forays into public school science fairs. Why spend six bucks when a can of spray paint costs only 88 cents? I glued my hypothesis, procedure, results, etc to the construction paper. Someone was nice enough to take pictures of me performing the experiment. They were not nice enough to suggest that I put on something other than a one-size-fits-all NC State t-shirt that I used as a nightgown.

Despite some real glaring problems with my project, I got an Honorable Mention ribbon at the school fair. And no, that's not the kind they give everyone. Honorable Mention ribbons were light blue, while Participation ribbons were purple. Maybe it's a statement of the level of science done in Lenoir, North Carolina where a little girl in her nightgown reporting that her mother can tell the difference between apples and oranges can win a blue ribbon.

This other kid in my class had a great science fair project. His problem was whether people could tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi in a blind taste test. Although the Coke vs. Pepsi debate was dear to our little rural Southern hearts back then, it is admittedly a much less sciencey problem. But his use of the scientific method was quite fantastic. And the point of these assigned projects was not to make new discoveries but to show kids how actual science gets done.

His mom came into our class with a library cart laden with a pair of numbered Dixie cups for each student, each one containing an inch or so of Cola. They passed out two cups to everyone, asked us to identify the Coke and the Pepsi, and recorded our results. Then they drove their little cart back out into the hallway, where they proceeded down the hall to the other third grade classrooms. I don't know if that kid got a ribbon at all, but he should have. If an experiment done in a nightgown with a sample size of four can get an Honorable Mention, surely another experiment done with pants on with a sample size of 75 deserves something more than Participation.

I was thinking about that kid the other night as I poured an inch of regular Mountain Dew into one glass and then an inch of Mountain Dew Throwback into an identical one. Pepsi has released versions of Pepsi and Mountain Dew sweetened with natural sugars (cane and beet!) rather than high fructose corn syrup (for more info and less stories about cola-based science fair projects, go here). We thought we should see what the fuss was about and decided to stage a blind taste test. Each glass of acidic yellow sugar water was sitting on a torn piece of paper towel with a number scrawled on it: 1 or 2.

I thought carefully about which to put in which numbered glass, trying not to give away the answer with the number. See, Josh had already gone through the same process with Pepsi and Pepsi Throwback. He'd put the Throwback drink into glass #1. So do I switch the glasses, putting the Throwback in glass #2, or do I assume he's going to assume I did that and leave them the same? Or do I distract him at the last minute by pointing over his shoulder and switching the glasses? AAAAAHHHHH!!!!!

In the end, I did the same thing he did by putting the Throwback in #1, and he did the exact thing I did, which was confidently declare that glass #1 contained the regular drink. Our hypothesis, which was that we would totally be able to tell the difference between the regular and Throwback drinks, was wrong. It would be wise to repeat the experiment with a larger sample size than two before making any generalizations, but it should be noted that both participants were wearing pants rather than nightwear.


that's BOOKENDS!

I don't want to knock small town Southern public schools, but the last good history teacher that I had was in the seventh grade. I have learned not to participate in conversations when any amount of history knowledge is required, because I can't keep up. I regularly had great teachers in all the other areas, so I suppose I can't complain too much if that one particular subject was a little lacking. And maybe it wasn't the teachers at all, but the student. Either way, not much was retained.

But let's talk about that one good history teacher, Mrs. Mackey, my seventh grade teacher that everyone said was the worst, meanest seventh grade teacher you could get. You know what? She was mean, because she did not take any crap. I can't blame her, because if I remember correctly, thirteen year olds are chock full of crap. It's practically bursting out of them. Mrs. Mackey expected thirteen year olds to take responsibility for themselves and to pretend, at least during her class, that they were actual human beings who could behave as such. Her tests were hard, but the material was clearly pointed out beforehand, so anyone had the opportunity to learn it. She wasn't unfriendly or without humor. We watched a couple of movies in that class, too. But we watched Gandhi, a movie with actual historical relevance.

If you can't tell, I have a great deal of respect for Mrs. Mackey. If I had to be a seventh grade teacher, I like to think that I would follow in her model. That is, if I didn't claw my own eyes out first.

From my description thus far, you're picturing a tough woman, stern with a no-nonsense haircut. You'd be right. But let me tell you something else about Mrs. Mackey that I bet you didn't guess.

Mrs. Mackey liked Paul Simon. She also really liked Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a South African choral group who appeared on the Graceland album. Liking Ladysmith Black Mambazo seemed much more legitimate and allowed for a middle-aged history teacher; it was cultural and stuff. So I had no problem that she liked a musical group that had something to do with the subject she taught. That made sense to me. And so I convinced myself that she liked Paul Simon because he exposed more people to this other music that she liked. We watched part of The African Concert in class, but we only watched the parts with African performers. It seemed a little out of place in the curriculum, but it still seemed educational enough to be allowed in the class of such a strict woman. At thirteen, I didn't know very much about Paul Simon, other than that he was a pop singer, and at one point, he had been popular among hippies. Had Mrs. Mackey been a hippie? I mean, I guess she had been about the right age, but...nope, sorry, does not compute.

But there were a couple of times when we were watching Channel One, the daily homeroom newscast for public school kids, when Mrs. Mackey would jump up, point at the TV, and almost yell, "That's BOOKENDS!" None of us had any idea what she was talking about. We did not see any bookends. It was several years later, when I heard Bookends, that I understood: Mrs. Mackey really liked Paul Simon. Not because he worked with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, but because she liked his music.

In fact, Mrs. Mackey may have well been a hippie. She might have burned a bra in her day or even smoked pot. Then again, she might just have liked Paul Simon, for which I cannot blame her; Paul Simon is probably my favorite songwriter of all time. I suppose it was the first time it occurred to me that teachers were not just the subjects they taught. They didn't disappear into the mists every day after the bell rang only to appear again in a different denim jumper the next day. They hadn't always been middle-aged. They had all been young once and some of them had liked folk rock singers. The mind boggles.

Here are a couple of clips for you. First, one of my favorite music videos of all time. That Chevy Chase, he cracks me up.

And now, Ladysmith Black Mambazo performing with another great entertainer. That's them singing. But they're not blue and made of foam.

Here's to you, Mrs. Mackey.


interesting sentences.

A recent post on Language Log reproduced an exercise in a children's writing workbook.

Here's the text of exercise 125, "Interesting Sentences":

A good sentence should be interesting.

"I have a dog" is not a good sentence with which to begin a story. [Note the very formal fronted preposition; no stranded prepositions! Possibly the writer of this sentence genuinely believes that "preposition at end" is ungrammatical, or maybe the writer is just trying to model "the best grammar" for the kids.] If you are writing a story about your dog that was lost, it would be better to begin the story, "Last week my dog Shep ran away from home."

Can you change the following sentences into interesting sentences? [Note that this is an instruction to change the sentences, not an actual question.]

The sentences are:

1. I have a bicycle.
2. Charlie has a goat.
3. I have a dress.
4. Brother gave me a wagon.
5. I have a pony.
6. My shoes are new.

(and there's a line at the end labeled: My score……………….)

The blogger's complaint was that the textbook doesn't really explain why the sentence is not interesting, it just asserts that it's not. He also argues that sentences that are plain and short are not necessarily uninteresting, and that good writers make use of many different styles.

I agree with those points. My initial thought was that the exercise itself was sort of vague. How can I make the sentence more interesting when I am not given more information about the story? Sure, I can say that my dog Shep ran away last week, but only if I know that the dog was named Shep and he ran away last week. I don't know that. I only know that I have a dog.

I guess you're supposed to make the rest of the information up, which is fine, but I can imagine my grade school self being disatisfied with these instructions. I bet I would have asked where this other information was supposed to come from, had this assignment been given to me. I would also be annoyed that sentences 1, 3, and 5 are essentially the same sentence.

As an amusing exercise, I decided to complete this worksheet. The instructions don't say, but I asked my teacher, and she said I should just make up the rest of the information. I leave it to you to decide whether my new sentences are "interesting" and to give me my score. You could play along too, if you like.

1. Original: I have a bicycle.
New: My bicycle lay battered and filthy in the ditch after a drunken night out on the town.

2. Original: Charlie has a goat.
New: Charlie bought a goat from my father for the purpose of barbecuing it for a family reunion.

3. Original: I have a dress.
New: My dress lay battered and filthy in the ditch after a drunken night out on the town.

4. Original: Brother gave me a wagon.
New: Before giving me a new Radio Flyer wagon, my brother used it to hide all of my other presents in the basement on Christmas morning.

5. Original: I have a pony.
New: My pony lay battered and filthy in the ditch after a drunken night out on the town.

6. Original: My shoes are new.
New: I bought new shoes with the money that Mr. Anderson paid me to keep quiet about what really happened to Shep.

My score ____________ .


cup a noodle.

He held up his digital camera to show me the picture just taken of us: him, me, and Josh. I didn't need to see the evidence to know what sort of expression had just been saved for posterity: I looked a bit terrified. Smiling, but there was definitely a touch of terror in the eyes.

I invited some coworkers to Josh's show on a whim, because I felt bad for never bringing people to the shows. I'd never asked people from work before because I still don't know them all that well and didn't expect any of them to come out. Clearly, I had been wrong. Judging by the enthusiasm that met me, you'd think they'd been waiting for me to finally ask them to hang out. Maybe socializing isn't as hard as I make it out to be.

He showed up drunk, so much so that it only took me a few seconds to figure it out. That's fine, he had a designated driver along and it was Friday night, after all. I introduced him to Josh. I was relieved to remove myself from the conversation a bit. Josh is so much better at talking to people, no matter their state of intoxication. I try to avoid those situations, always feeling at a loss trying to make sense where there is none. I feel obligated to follow the general tenets of conversation, even when the other person suffers from no such requirement. They're happy to repeat the same point over and over, and sometimes it's not so much a point as a random catchphrase, in this case "CUP A NOODLE!" Josh, and well, anybody else, really, seems to handle this better. They manage to laugh it off or else they have the patience to pretend that actual things are being said.

To be honest, I was embarrassed. I had invited this guy here, and I knew from working with him that he was generally a very coherent person. He read books, he had opinions, he could communicate effectively. I wanted to reassure everyone of that, as if they couldn't tell that he was just really drunk. For all they knew, he was always really drunk or even incredibly dim even when sober. Then again, I only know that he's sober for 40 hours a week.

I should not have been embarrassed. Most people I know tie one on now and again. I've been a conversational burden before. I hated it, because I could tell that I was not making sense, but I couldn't seem to start making sense. I've been to that place a couple times. And a lot of the people at the bar that night go to that place a lot. They don't hate it. In fact, they seem to like it a lot. No one cared that I invited this wasted guy to the bar where he got more wasted. It was just me, being a stick in the mud or something.

I worried that it would be awkward for me on Monday morning when I had to face my sober coworker. But it was only awkward for me, because he's like everyone else. He figures that we're on the same page about drunkeness, since most people do seem to be on that page. He doesn't know that I'm on a different page, one with a picture of a bunch of mud and a stick. But it's still okay, because he doesn't remember most of the evening, including the part where he yelled "CUP A NOODLE" over and over. I didn't remind him.


a truck full of Amaretto.

I discovered creme brulee in college, when the restaurant where I worked starting offering it as a dessert menu item. People loved it, because it looked kinda weird and had a French name, but it was a pain to serve. They were pre-made in shallow ceramic bowls, so you could just pull one out of the fridge. But then you had to open a pack of Sugar in the Raw and dump it on top. Finally, you took a blow-torch and caramelized the sugar, creating a nice burnt sugar shell on top. To do it properly, you had to have a gentle hand with the torch, because most people didn't like too much of a burnt taste. Then again, you didn't want raw sugar crystals sitting on top of the delicious custard. But who has time to do things properly when you got to plate a couple desserts, drop a check, take out a round of drinks, and deliver some food that is already getting cold?

One night, my boyfriend at the time and I went to the restaurant at night to enjoy a creme brulee with some adult coffees. We shared one dessert, drawing a line in the custard right down the center and occasionally using our spoons to duel when we thought the other one was trespassing in our eggy territory. Whoever was using the blow-torch had rushed the job and so our smooth dessert was occasionally crunchy.

When that restaurant closed down and I got a job at another restaurant, the creme brulee routine was much the same. Except when we served it, we would top it with a splash of rum and then set it on fire as we served it. Some people looked delighted, many of them looked terrified. Almost all of them looked at the flaming dessert and then looked back up at me for direction as to what to do now. I would smile and tell them it would go out on its own as the alcohol burned up. They looked back down, not quite sure if they believed me. But the fire did go out on its own, and with this method, there was never any crunchy sugar left.

We made creme brulee at home once using a recipe off the internet and a set of oven-safe ceramic bowls I bought at the dollar store, specifically for the purpose. I had not yet developed the comfort and confidence that I now enjoy in the kitchen. I was terrified, accident-prone, and ready to burst into tears at the slightest mishap. I clung to the recipe like a life-preserver, because I considered myself to be lost a wilderness of sugar, eggs, and spatulas, with only that sheet of paper as my guide to safety. I checked every measurement once, twice, three times. I was just stressed, as if I had to serve this creme brulee to the Queen of Hearts, who was sure to order my decapitation if everything was Perfect.

This was how it used to be for me in the kitchen. It's a wonder I ever went back to the stove, but I suppose I got hungry.

At some point, my boyfriend suggested we add some Amaretto to the recipe. We had some in the freezer (it's excellent mixed with Mountain Dew), and he wanted to just throw a splash in the mix to add a little almond flavor. Really, it was a great idea. Creme brulee was already delicious, but a hint of almond was sure to be divine. I'm sure he expected me to rejoice that I had such an intelligent person at my side to come up with this wondrous suggestion.

Imagine that you are lost in a thick wilderness of sugar, eggs, and spatulas. You are very scared and nervous. You do have a map and a buddy, so you think if you just read the map very carefully and follow it faithfully, you will live to see the other side of this episode. I mean, most likely, you're going to die in there, but there's still a chance you can make it if you are very, very, very careful. Then your buddy takes the map and notices that there is a really nice glade over there, let's go check it out! No, it's not exactly on the quickest route out of this hell, but it's pretty close and we can just find our way out from there!


No, no, no, no, no, no, I said, and no again. We can modify the recipe the next time we make it, but for the first time, we should just follow the instructions exactly. Now is not the time for improvisation. Now is the time for strict adherence to the rules, because we will surely DIE if we do not follow the rules. I was already shaking with anxiety from just turning on the oven; I could not handle any detours.

He thought I was being stupid, but he could see that there was no point in arguing because I was clearly insane. So we finished the recipe, baked them little ceramic bowls in a water bath, and tried to burn some sugar on top using the toaster oven. That didn't really work, so we had to settle for crunchy creme brulees, because neither of us knew what a broiler was for. It looked like I was going to live to cook again. The real test would be the taste, of course, but I could feel my heartbeat finally slowing to normal. I had survived.

We dug in to our individual bowls (no need to draw a line down the center of only one), agreed the experiment had been a complete success, and then he made a confession: when I had not been looking, he had thrown in a spoonful of Amaretto. But see? It had turned out great anyway! I had been so silly to worry.

My spirits deflated, and the delicate touch of almond tasted bitter in my mouth. If he expected me to laugh and say how right he had been, he was disappointed. Instead, I insisted on looking sad and being pouty. He did not get it.

I felt betrayed. Whether or not the Amaretto would have worked was not the point at all. Even at the time, I knew it was a pretty minor addition to the recipe and unlikely to ruin anything. But I felt so lost in the kitchen that sticking to the recipe was the only form of control that I felt that I had. Cooking was such a mysterious thing to me, and I felt like there were all kinds of factors and unknowns playing into it that I didn't and couldn't understand. I understood the recipe. I could control how much sugar I put in and how many eggs I separated and how many times I stirred it up with the spatula. I only hoped that if I did my part in sticking to the instructions exactly, then whatever Fates were assigned to creme brulee would do their part and make it turn out right.

I suppose that's why I hated cooking for so long - I never felt like I was in control. If you're like me, you'll understand that the feeling of control is crucial to, well, sanity in daily life. If you're like him, you think I was being uptight, and seriously, the creme brulee had turned out great, why are we even still talking about this? I knew that I was being crazy, but all I wanted was for him to understand that this seemingly innocuous situation was wigging me out, accept my anxiety even though it made no sense to him, and NOT PUT AMARETTO IN THE CREME BRULEE. Just, please? Don't make this harder on me.

Now, I understand that control is pretty much an illusion. At any time, even potentially while you are cooking creme brulee, you can get hit by a truck full of Amaretto. Now there's a truck in your kitchen, your leg is broken, and there's not even anything for dessert. But I feel much more able to meet the unexpected if I've got everything else in order. It's an illusion that I need to have to be able to function. I need to be able to say, "Alright, world, I've done what I can to get these here ducks in a row. Throw me a truck if you must, but I did my part." I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing, because it makes me pay my bills on time. But I could seriously live without the meltdowns that happen when people suggest putting Amaretto in creme brulee. Most things aren't worth the stress. There's got to be a middle ground between strict adherence to recipes and having your power cut off. That's a pretty weird scale.

Cooking no longer puts me in a state of trembling anxiety. I've managed to cook many things successfully. I've goofed some things up and no one died. I've improvised on occasion, and last week, I made some stuffed peppers mostly by winging it. I'm sure part of that is kitchen confidence. But I hope, too, that I've loosened up a bit. Not much. But some. Like a teaspoon. It's a start.