Relationship Rx: Just Start Somewhere

Published in The Ferndale Record, August 25, 2010

I suppose there are families in the world with no awkward relationships, no unspoken hurts, no skeletons or weirdness of any kind. But I don’t know any of them.

Most of us belong to tribes that carry baggage—sometimes a lot of it. We slog through years of muck with no resolution, hoping that somehow it will just all go away, or miraculously get better. That way we won’t be expected to do the hard work of mending relationships.

But we all want that peaceful, pleasant, easy give-and-take between family members, and to feel on a primal level that we belong to someone and they belong to us. That’s why when familial relations go south, we seek counseling or retreats.

When people don’t or won’t bend, come clean, or put the past squarely behind them, the worse case scenario is self-imposed exile or estrangement. No one wins.

We like to imagine gatherings where family members could be at least cordial. Showing kindness would be better; checked egos and unconditional acceptance is best. But often, that’s not the case. There’s dirty laundry, not to mention feelings to deal with.

Recently, a friend of mine who’d distanced herself from family decided that she’d like to meet with some of them after years of uneasy separation. Old issues wouldn’t be addressed and no stinging memories were welcome, just a new beginning from that day forward. I think she was brave to put it out there.

The relatives she invited readily jumped at the chance to see her again and plans were made. What resulted were people coming together who had all morphed into different phases of life. But the history was there, happy familiarity evident, everyone was kind, and the event pronounced a success.

This was a victory. When one or a few people display effort to reconcile, no matter how large or small the attempt, it’s a triumph for every generation in the family.

I wonder how much harmony is sacrificed at the altar of pride and entitlement? How many lives are forever branded in the name of favorites and black sheep?

Who’s right?  Who’s wrong?  My response: Who cares?

A few years ago my oldest son, who has two children of his own, came up with what I thought was an inspired way of looking at family relationships.

He said when children are little they think their parents know everything. When children turn twelve or thirteen, up until twenty or so, they believe parents don’t know anything. Then, when children begin their adult lives and have offspring of their own, they realize everybody is really just on the same plane, going through the same cycles, doing the best they can.

In a perfect world everyone would get this, and in turn, accept one another without limit. Generations would join hands and there could be a harmonic convergence in which we’d all live happily ever after.

But in our ragged, messy lives, we fall short. We don’t see the big picture because there are mouths to feed, bills to pay, emails to open, and an environment to save.

Somewhere in this mix of what’s pressing, what’s most important—relationship—gets lost.

Kudos to my friend, her family, and anyone, who reaches out to another, no matter how tiny the gesture. It all counts.

Let the healing begin.


In Search Of The Perfect Brownie

Published in the Ferndale-Record, August 11, 2010

I’m narrowing in.

Brownies and I have a rich past. I loved them early on and never stopped.

My mother made them only at Christmas. Never just an occasional pan for an after school nosh. There were, however, always lots of other scandalously enticing goodies at our table. Mom’s pies, cakes and cookies were utter perfection.

But I secretly longed for the dark side. Her brownies were tiny (too tiny) squares of superb, earthy goo, made in an 8 X 8 inch pan, topped with homemade, chocolate frosting. They were excellent, but there were never enough of them.

Over the years I’ve formed my own brownie philosophies, baked and purchased all versions of them repeatedly, postulated on form, style, and substance, and have discovered that while my specific preferences change with mood, whim, weather, and the earth’s rotation, a few basic rules always apply.

First, brownies may or may not be frosted. Usually I prefer frosting, but sometimes, if the density and moisture is just right, it makes no difference. Brownies that are robust enough to stand on their own without frothy coverings are rare, but can be unrivaled in taste.

Also, if frosting is applied to a homemade or bakery brownie, it can’t just be glaze, drizzle, or waxy paste. It has to be unblushing, full-bodied ooze. And plenty of it, please.

Store bakery brownies are pretty good and will do in a case of dire need. But for me, they’re too light, not dense enough, and try too hard. And the frosting, well, let’s just say, I’m the one scanning all the boxes to see which one has the most, and they usually all fall short. If I’m going to ingest the calories, I want them to be the most decadent ones I can find.

My own experimentation has produced some fine results. Rocky Road Brownies (homemade, topped with melted marshmallows, then chocolate frosting), box brownies off the shelf (these can be remarkably wonderful if doubled, and not cooked too long), Texas Brownies (batter covered with chocolate chips, baked in a sheet pan, then topped with cooked, chocolate frosting), and what my daughter calls “Headache Brownies” (homemade deep chocolate brownies with dark chocolate frosting).

The only brownie I’ve ever eaten in a restaurant that met my standards was thirty years ago at a place in Seattle called “The Great American Food and Beverage Company.” This dessert had it all. I always left there a happy woman, and mourned the closing of that establishment like the death of a close friend.

Years later, at a truck stop somewhere, I discovered delightful, packaged “Plantation Brownies.” Topped with a light coat of chocolate, these did not meet my general frosting guidelines. But they made up for it with a muddy density that led me into my fudge brownie phase. And that’s where I am now.

A fudge brownie (key word “fudge”), offered by a famous snack cake maker has become my new favorite. My local convenience store makes a point of trying to stock them for me. But when they’re out, I have other sources.

They’re solid, dark, brown velvet on the inside with just a slip of toothsome frosting. Nothing airy or bare here, just a bite of bawdy bliss. Plus, they only cost around one dollar a piece.

Sometimes, when people visit, or if requested, I’ll make a big pan of the dark gooey stuff. But for now, these little fudgy gems are brownie paradise.

I eat other, healthier things, too. But my loyalty and longing always bring me back to that tangible dark matter.

Once, I found a sign that expressed my sentiment perfectly: “Brownies. They’re not just for breakfast anymore.”