Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Super Blue Blood Moon

Yes, I woke up early to see the "Super Blue Blood Moon" this morning, and it was worth it.

photo from

Here's the photo I took in my backyard--doesn't do it justice!

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Friends from Far Away

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to meet up with a long-distance friend in person for the first time.  She's someone I met in one of my online writer's groups, and while we've always gotten along well in our internet interactions, I wasn't sure how it would go: you can never be sure how things will go "in real life." 

Or perhaps you can--because she was every bit as lovely and genuine and down-to-earth as I knew her to be online. The conversation flowed easily, and the visit was over far too quickly.  I'm so glad that we got to connect with one another in person: as much as you can enjoy "speaking" with a person via social media or messenger, there is still no substitute for being in the other person's presence, breaking bread with them at the kitchen table, hearing their laughter, sharing emotional stories that make you both tear up, and connecting on a basic human level, without the buffer of a keyboard in the way. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

PRODUCT REVIEW: OXO Expandable Drawer Organizers

I've been spending the month of the January trying to "downsize" and clear out the clutter that I've accumulated over the years.  It's a daunting task, but one that is ultimately quite rewarding.  One of the tasks I've been tackling is getting rid of old clothes, handbags, shoes, and all of the rest of the rarely-used things taking up space in my closet and dresser drawers.

As always, when I come across a product that works particularly well (or, on the flip side, one that is such a colossal waste of money I can barely stand it), I like to share that feedback here on the blog.

Last year, I purchased a couple of "Dream Drawer" dividers, and they've worked out just fine, but recently, I picked up a different brand that is clearly superior: OXO Expandable Drawer Organizers.

Neither brand requires any tools to install them, but the mechanisms are slightly different: the Dream Drawer dividers are spring loaded, while the OXO brand use a button that you lift up to adjust the length of the divider.  After comparing the two, I can state definitively that the OXO dividers are much sturdier, and fit more snugly and securely than the Dream Drawer brand.  The OXO brand costs about $2 more, but the extra expense is well worth it.

The Dream Drawer dividers have a tendency to shift around, while the OXO dividers stay put. One trick to ensure a snug fit in the drawer: place the OXO divider into the drawer on a slight angle, and then with the button in the raised position, slowly turn it so that it comes up tight against the drawer sides, and once in place, push the button down--it won't budge after that.

The OXO dividers are available at Bed, Bath & Beyond for $19.99 for a set of 2. (That's not an affiliate link, by the way--I'm not being compensated in any way for this review.)  If you're buying them online, make sure you get the right ones--the ones for dresser drawers are 4 inches high, but I've also seen "deep drawer" versions that are 5 inches tall, so be sure to read the product description carefully.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Janine Mueller's Weight Loss Journey

I've heard of the TV show, "My 600 lb Life" but never watched a single episode--until tonight.  I was flipping channels and caught her episode just as it started, and the preview where she says that her mother and pediatrician put her on diet pills when she was only 4 years old got my attention.

Learn more about her story on TLC at this link.

My heart breaks for this woman. Janine is 678 pounds, and in so much pain.  At 54, her prognosis to live another 12 months is very poor.  The show follows her journey, and the obstacles she faces trying to get healthy. She lives alone, her parents are both deceased, and her siblings live too far away to help her.  The show refers her to a doctor in Houston, Dr. Nowzaradan, who specializes in patients who are in need of bariatric surgery, and weigh 600 lbs or more.

This episode does not shy away from the harsh realities that Janine faces. She needs to get on a plane to fly to Houston and see the doctor for a consult, but it's just not that simple. She can barely walk, and has a large lymphedema (extremely swollen lymph node) on her leg that has made mobility difficult unless she uses a motorized scooter, and even then, getting around is very painful.

She has to pay someone to help her pack her suitcase and get to the plane, but when the time comes to board, her weight makes it impossible.  Although several airline personnel try to help her, she cannot get onto the plane, injuries her knee to the point where there is blood evident on the floor of the plane. She has a panic attack and has to be removed on a stretcher.

While the show does not shy away from showing the physical limitations of Janine's size (going so far as to show her shower routine, blurring only some of her naked body as she talks about the importance of keeping her many "folds of skin" clean and free of infection, and also a scene of her using the toilet, where she unflinchingly holds up an extender grip loaded toilet paper and says, "Yes, this is how a fat person wipes their butt.") they do not delve nearly enough into the mental and psychological issues that are clearly a large part of Janine's weight problem. It's interesting to see that, when she's alone, she can somehow manage to muster the strength to the move from her bed to her scooter, down the elevator of her apartment complex, all the way to the drive through fast food restaurant in order to pick up a 20 piece nuggets, large fries, and large Dr. Pepper.  But, when needs to get in and out of a car, or on a plane, or even up on the scale at the hospital, she can barely do it even with half a dozen people on hand to assist, suffering crippling panic attacks that render her immobile.

After the first aborted attempt to fly to Houston, Dr. Nowzaradan sends her a diet to follow (1200 calories!) and convinces her that she must try the plane trip again, because if she does not, she will not live more than another year. She decides to make it a one-way trip, and move her entire life to Houston so that she can fully commit to getting the weight loss surgery.  It's a bold move, and--one would think--an indicator that she is willing to try and make positive changes.

But this is not a scripted fairy tale, and the challenges continue. Janine attempts to get on the plane again, and after a great deal of difficulty and almost giving up, she does succeed. The triumph is short-lived, however, and as the flight gets underway, she experiences painful swelling that becomes too much to bear. She lands in Dallas and has to be taken off the plane by ambulance, unable to make her connection to Houston.  Her sister-in-law, who had planned to meet her in Houston, flies to Denver instead to help her in the hospital.  She arranges for Janine to be transported by ambulance to Houston, so that she can finally see Dr. Nowzaradan.

The doctor is clearly concerned about Janine's overall health, but has serious doubts about her ability to stick to the diet, since she weighs even more than she had originally indicated. He is clearly frustrated with her, and despite her assertions to the contrary, he can tell that she has not been following the diet he provided to her, and has not been making an effort to get more mobile.  He then discovers that Janine has a serious skin infection, and decides that she must  be hospitalized right away.  This also gives him the opportunity to strictly control her diet--something she is not at all happy about.

After 2 months in the hospital under supervised care, Janine has lost 118 lbs!  She is desperate to get out and go home, finding the diet too restrictive. Dr. Nowzaradan tells her that she must start psychotherapy to deal with her eating issues, and to stay on a 1200 calorie diet in order to lose enough weight to get bariatric surgery. She assures him she will.

Janine's niece Rachel comes to visit her at home, and is so kind and patient with her. She reminds her aunt of all of the family occasions that she has missed because of her weight, and shows her some simple exercises she can do, even from her bed. Janine seems to respond well to the positive encouragement, but it all starts to sound a bit like lip service, especially when Janine reveals that she still has not seen the therapist yet.

Janine promises to follow the diet, promises to exercise,  and says she will attend therapy, but when she returns to see Dr. Nowzaradan a month later, she has gained back 63 lbs,and is once again over 600 lbs.  He asks her how she feels about the setback, and she defiantly says she feels "pretty good about it."  The doctor is clearly angry with her cavalier attitude, and really rips into her, but you can tell that his frustration is rooted in genuine concern for her well being.  He refuses to listen to her excuses. She hasn't seen the therapist yet, hasn't followed the diet, and he tells her that they must do something drastic or she WILL die in a few months.  He decides to put a gastric balloon in her stomach to keep her from eating too much, because if she keeps gaining weight she will die, and at this point, he is most concerned with saving her life.  Unfortunately, there is so much excess fat in her abdomen, she has to have the procedure in the hospital, where a more powerful x-ray machine will help the doctor guide the balloon into place.

Getting her to swallow the capsule with the deflated balloon is difficult--and hard to watch--but they succeed. A graphic pops up on the screen that says Janine has lost 42 lbs since the balloon was put in place, and is now 566 lbs, for a total of 112 pounds lost since the start of her weight loss journey.  (Given her height, she has over 400 lbs left to lose.)

Her niece Rachel comes to visit again, and once again, she is kind and compassionate, and gives her aunt a much-needed pep talk. She offers encouragement and support, and gives Janine many reasons to keep fighting. "I feel like you've missed out on my family's life. We need you there." Rachel begins to cry and Janine apologizes, and it feels like she has finally had a break through.   The show ends with Janine vowing to "make this next year count" and to not let down the people she cares about most.

I hope that TLC does periodic follow-ups with Janine, and I hope that she is seeing a therapist who can offer her the kind of positive support and encouragement she needs in order to get healthy. The photos included here were posted on her Facebook page, and she does look like she's lost more weight since the show was taped.  I'm rooting for Janine, and hope that she gets healthy so that she can start enjoying life again, and spending more time with her family.

Monday, January 15, 2018

MLK Day 2018: Unarmed Truth & Unconditional Love

If I didn't believe this to be true, I'd never get of bed in the morning.  It's a philosophy that keeps you moving forward in the face of adversity, that strengthens your resolve even when things seem hopeless. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

REVIEW: Hot & Spicy Cinnamon Oreos and Chocolate Hazelnut Oreos

Yes, friends, it's that time again....time to take a bullet in the name of "research" and taste test the two newest "Limited Edition" flavors of Oreo cookies.

First up:  Hot & Spicy Cinnamon Oreos

I'll admit, I was not looking forward to trying these when I first heard about them. They're supposedly infused with the flavor of cinnamon red hot candies, something I have not eaten in many years. (And even then, it was as part of a "special recipe" handed down by my cousin's husband, "Pineapple Red Hots": a side dish meant to go with ham and/or turkey, and it's actually not bad--a sentimental favorite, because it came from Jimmy's mom, and she was an amazing lady. Genius Kitchen has a recipe HERE, if you're curious.)

First impressions on this one: disappointing.

The cookie itself is off-putting. There's a faint scent of fake cinnamon when you open the package, but not nearly as strong as I expected. (There's a huge difference between "fake cinnamon" flavor and real cinnamon.  This cookie doesn't even attempt to imitate real cinnamon--the filling is supposed to taste like the artificial "red hot" version of cinnamon, so that's the standard to which I'm holding these.)  The color is also an eerie, saturated shade of Devil Red. 

The cinnamon red hot flavoring is almost non-existent, and the chocolate sandwich cookie totally overwhelms it.  I tried eating just the filling, and still, you can barely taste the red hot flavoring. You can smell it--faintly--but there's zero tingle on your taste buds....absolutely nothing like having red hot candies. Bummer.

Next was the Chocolate Hazelnut Oreos, and my expectations were high from the moment I saw the packaging.

This cookie definitely comes closer to duplicating the flavoring of Nutella, the commonly-known chocolate hazelnut spread from Italy that this cookie clearly seeks to imitate.  What's interesting is that the filling in this cookie is thicker and more substantial than actual Nutella spread--it has the consistency of a hazelnut fudge or ganache, and I tell you what--I think I like it even better than Nutella (I know, that's treasonous, but I have to be honest here. The filling is A++) 

The only downside is that the vanilla sandwich cookie gets lost in the equation---totally overpowered by the Chocolate Hazelnut filling--but this is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly if you're a chocoholic. In fact, I would nominate this cookie "Most Likely to Eat Only the Filling and Put the Cookie Part Back in the Package."  Note to Nabisco: you might want to consider selling this filling on its own, or turning this into a candy bar version.

I would highly recommend Chocolate Hazelnut Oreos if you want a quick, on-the-go chocolate fix--compared to actual Nutella, two cookies have 140 calories and 11 grams of sugar, while 2 Tablespoons of Nutella has 200 calories and 21 grams of sugar. 

I found these at my local ShopRite, and would definitely purchase them again.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

RECIPE: Easy Gnocchi with Vodka Sauce

Gnocchi has long been one of my favorite types of pasta, but I was always too intimidated to try making it myself at home. After 3 attempts, I can say that it's actually one of the easier types of pastat to make from scratch, and I've finally managed to perfect it to the point where I'm willing to post about it.

First things first: the potatoes.  You need to make sure you use the right kind: light, thin-skinned butter potatoes.  Yes, it makes it a difference, especially if you want to get the texture just right.

The first time I made gnocchi, I was careful to use these type of potatoes, but they were still gummy and lacked flavor.  I realized afterwards that I had made several key mistakes:
     1) I didn't use a potato ricer, and mashing the potatoes just wasn't the same.
     2) I didn't add an egg (which the recipe said was "optional" me, it's not)
     3) I followed the recipe too closely, and used too much flour.

So, after being forced to eat the not-so-great first-attempt at gnocchi, my husband surprised me for Christmas by buying me a ricer.   He looked at the reviews on Amazon and ended up purchasing this one by Bellemain.  It had great ratings, and was only $18.95.  Well worth it!

I used the disc with the most holes in it, which produces the finest potato rice. It's important to make sure the potatoes are cooked fully, so that they're soft enough to go through the press easily. If you can get a knife through them without much resistance, they're done.

The gnocchi recipe itself is one from the legendary Italian chef and cookbook author Marcella Hazan.  In my last two attempts, the gnocchi came out perfectly, and here's the ratio that worked for me:

-- 1 1/2 pounds of potatoes (about 4 potatoes, but I weighed them on a digital scale just to be sure)
-- 1 beaten egg (this was said to be optional, but it isn't)
-- 1 cup of flour (her recipe says "up to 1 1/2 cups" but 1 cup was plenty. I used the extra half cup the first time, and didn't add the egg, and it was...not good)

Most pasta recipes tell you to mix everything right on your cutting board, but this one works best using a mixing bowl, and it helps to keep everything contained and keeps the mess to a minimum.  After cooking the potatoes until tender, I plunged them into cold water to loosen the skins, then peeled them with a paring knife while the potatoes were still warm.

The Bellemain ricer is fantastic. I really thought it would be a struggle--I didn't think I'd have enough leverage to squeeze the potatoes through--but the gadget is very well designed, and it worked like a charm.  After ricing the potatoes--which were still warm, but not hot--into a bowl, I dropped in a lightly beaten egg and blended it all with a fork.  Then I added in 1 cup of flour, and used my hands to mix it all together, like you would meatballs. Using your hands is definitely the way to go--it allows you to feel the texture of the gnocchi dough, getting everything smooth and well incorporated.  The dough will be soft and still a little warm, but not sticky. If it is sticky, add just a tiny bit more flour--you can always add more while you're rolling it on the cutting board.

I sprinkled a little bit of flour onto the cutting board, and took half the dough out of the bowl. Then I set half of that to one side, and started rolling 1/4 of the dough into a thin "snake" about an inch thick. Once it's rolled out, I used a knife to cut the roll into little pillows. NOTE: Most recipes call for you to roll the gnocchi across a fork to give them ridges, so that they cook more evenly.  I tried--it was not good.  So you know what? I skipped that step, and they cooked up just fine. Pillows it is!

After repeating the process with the rest of the dough, I put a big 6 quart pot of salted water on to boil, set the gnocchi aside, and start to work on the vodka sauce.

Honestly, this is one of the easiest sauces to make--it's a recipe that I followed exactly as written, from the Pioneer Woman, and it turns out perfectly every single time.  You can get the recipe HERE on her website (where she pairs it with penne).  Gnocchi also work well with a Bolognese Sauce or a Gorgonzola cream sauce.

Once the vodka sauce is done, and the salted water is boiling, everything comes together pretty quickly.  I cook the gnocchi in three batches, dropping them into the salted water using a metal skimmer ladle like the one pictured at right (available HERE on Amazon). You could also use a slotted spoon, but I found the skimmer the best and fastest way to get them out of the water quickly so that they don't overcook.

As soon as the gnocchi all start floating to the top, they're ready--for my third attempt, I dropped them into a strainer first to shake off the excess water, and then into a bowl with a little of the vodka sauce at the bottom, and that seemed to make the texture even better. Do this until all of gnocchi is cooked, then toss gently with some vodka sauce (you'll have plenty of sauce leftover, since the Pioneer Woman recipe makes quite a bit, but that's okay--it keeps and reheats well).  Sprinkle the top with some grated Parmesan cheese, and you're all set. A sprinkle of finely chopped parsley would have added a nice pop of color and freshness, but I was too lazy to do that tonight before I snapped this photo. It was, nevertheless, absolutely delicious, and well worth the effort of making everything from scratch.  Buon Appetito e Mangia Bene!

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Love Stories vs. Fairy Tales

Last night, I received some terrible news from an old friend: her husband passed away this week, at the age of 57.   They had 3 children together, and were married for over 26 years.  I remember so clearly the day that they met, their early days of dating and falling in love.  Right from the start, the attraction was instant, and they fell in love quickly--their relationship was passionate and fiery, but above all else, there was a deep, abiding love for one another that swept them both off their feet.  Their engagement coincided with my own, and together, we got to survive the giddy-yet-stressful experience of planning a wedding. They were married just a few weeks after I got back from my own honeymoon, and to this day, their reception remains one of the most lively and joyous parties I've even attended.  I served in their bridal party, watched their family grow, and then mourned the inevitable distance that grew between us when they moved hundreds of miles away for her husband's job.

We reconnected periodically via Facebook, but like so many (smart) people, she kept her most personal business off of social media, so his death came as a shock to me.

I've spent the last 24 hours thinking about them, and the way their story first began. Theirs was not a picture-perfect, fairy tale relationship: they had their share of ups and downs, difficulties and obstacles that had to be overcome--it was not an easy road at times.  Yet theirs was a true love story; they stayed together and toughed it out, building a life together and doing their best to fight back the health issues and personal demons that ultimately proved too much for him.

I am so sad for my friend, and for what she's going through.  Her heart is broken at the loss of her love, and mine breaks for her.  But I am grateful for the love that they shared, and the privilege of witnessing that love grow, deepen, and endure.

All of this brings to mind a quote by my favorite author, Richard Bach: "True love stories never have endings."   Their journey together was not a fairy tale, but it most certainly was a true love story.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Luck of the draw?

I know, it's a privilege to live in a country where Democracy is the law of the land, and each of us is innocent until proven guilty, and has the right to a fair trial, judged by a jury of our peers.

But I still cringed when this came in today's mail.  #pleasedontpickme

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Nothing is Impossible...except predicting the weather

Let me get this straight: we live in a world where people say they can interpret the planetary positions from your date of birth to tell you what kind of month you're going to have, there are computer algorithms that will match you up with your ideal soulmate based on a simple questionnaire, and those who claim they can actually communicate with dead people...and yet, no one can seem to agree on how much snow we're getting tomorrow?

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Buyer Beware: Eye Injury Caused By Biore Facial Scrub

Consider this a PSA: steer clear of Biore Baking Soda Acne Scrub.  Within days of buying it, I ended up with a terrible scratch on my cornea--one that I'm still being treated for, two full weeks later.

It was such a random thing: I was washing my face before bedtime, and used the scrub on my T-zone, keeping it away from my eye area, as is customary with most facial cleansing products. However, when I rinsed off the cleanser, some of it splashed into my left eye.

The pain was immediate and intense.  I tried flushing my eye with copious amounts of water, but the pain and feeling that there was something stuck in my eye persisted--I couldn't even keep my eye open for more than a second or two.  It was late at night, but my husband ended up taking me to the hospital emergency room. 

When we finally saw a doctor, they had to numb my eye to get a good look, and the procedure to ensure that there was no abrasive product left in my eye (there wasn't) was AWFUL.  They ended up giving me a prescription painkiller because of how severe the injury was, gave me some antibiotic eye ointment, and told me to see an eye doctor first thing in the morning for a thorough follow up.

I've been back to the eye doctor four times since the injury, and I'm still not fully in the clear yet. The abrasion was deep and started to get infected, so I was switched to a stronger antibiotic drop that has to be applied every two hours.  To say that this has been disruptive is an understatement: I had to celebrate the holidays--I host both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day--with residual pain and constantly having to medicate my eye.  I also had to rest my eyes for the first couple of days following the initial injury, and couldn't bear to be in front of a computer screen -- not good for someone who makes their living as a writer and social media manager, and needs to use a computer on a daily basis.

All this because of a facial scrub?  Yup.

I go back to the eye doctor tomorrow, hopefully for the last time.  My eye finally looks and feels better, but only after a week of applying eye drops every 2 hours.  At the suggestion of several friends, I did reach out to the company via their Customer Service number, and they asked me for the codes and dates on the tube I had purchased.  Then they took my address and said they'd send me a questionnaire to find out more details, and that if I send it back right away, they will send me a "replacement product."

The questionnaire arrived a couple of days ago, but I haven't filled it out yet--it's several pages long, and I need to get caught up on my editorial work first.  One thing I know for sure is that I won't be taking a replacement product--after what happened to me, I don't trust this company or their level of safety and quality control.  I also plan to send them copies of my medical bills, which are going to be significant.  I'll post an update if the company does the right thing and covers them.

Monday, January 1, 2018

New year, new goals

January 1, 2018--the start of a new year.  I'm not a believer in resolutions, but I do have some goals that I would like to achieve in year ahead. One of those goals is to do more of the type of writing that I enjoy: personal essays, reported pieces, and commentary.  Another is to be more focused on taking care of myself, something I've been pushing aside for awhile. No, you won't see me signing up for a gym membership anytime soon--I would never go. My plan is simply to be kinder to myself, and to others, and to face obstacles that arise this year with greater resiliency and less stress/worry/frustration.