Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Snow Queen and Her Cold, Cold Heart

Even after fourteen years here in the Northeast Kingdom, the first snow that falls and sticks still comes as something of a shock. I feel as if I have to reinvent myself a bit, as a creature at home in a world of white.
     Once in that mindset, though, wrapping myself up in my long hooded coat to step outside, it’s a strangely welcoming place, as if the snow and ice aren’t so foreign after all, and the crystal covered trees along the roadways and the blanketed hills behind my house provide the backdrop to a world in some ways magical and entirely fitting.

     Perhaps if you’ve grown up in this area, the first significant snow isn’t quite as transporting. And surely we could revisit this mystical feeling in February, when, truth be told, the cold has seriously begun to wear out its welcome, even for someone as dreamy headed as myself.
     But the change in season and landscape can act as a prism through which to see your changed self as well.  I feel that way about this time of year.
     About the age of six or seven, my godmother gave me a beautifully illustrated edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen.  On the cover was a picture of the haughty Queen in her elegant sleigh; on top of that picture rested a refracting lens of plastic.  If you turned the book slightly in your hands, her image seemed to float along the snowy path.
     I read and reread the story of the beautiful Queen who had no feelings, whose heart was frozen. I don’t know if at the time I thought that was a good policy for a thing as breakable as a heart, or if I cried with her at the end when she finally found love and lost it, as we sometimes do, when her tears turned to stars and then to edelweiss high on the frigid mountaintops.
     Of that book, I remember most clearly the lush paintings, tangible as photographs; the gleaming palace of ice; those muscular horses pulling the sleigh; and the Queen herself in her sumptuous cloak, adorned with furs at the cuffs and surrounding the hood – not, strangely, unlike one I now own, though hers was gleaming storybook white.

     A few years before I’d been given the book, we’d celebrated Christmas in the snowy Connecticut town where we briefly lived.  I remember the high stone wall and the treacherous roadways, a mechanical horse I’d found under the tree, and the lacy candies my mother made that year.
     She’d taken sugar and water and boiled down to an amber syrup, and carefully spun snowflake designs by letting a thin stream fall from the end of a spoon.
     Once they hardened, I held them up to the light in the windows, pretending they were stained glass. I ate a few, of course, and we tied threads through the loops and hung the rest on the tree.
     My mother will have been gone seven years this Christmas, and that loss colors the holiday. But other memories rush in, too. When I asked my mother about making the candy snowflakes, she only vaguely recalled them; I’m sure they were just one of the two dozen things she did that year to make the season special.
     But I remember. They were for me a bit of magic made out of simple sugar, a sweet lens through which a child could see the world anew.
     I’m going to make these again this year, to put on the tree. My own children are grown and gone now, and are unlikely to find the wonder I found in them. But I want to see the world that way, and myself, one more time.

Candy Snowflakes, Hearts, and Icicles

This is not a recipe to be prepared by children or daydreamers.
The hot syrup requires your full attention. Please read the recipe through before beginning, and do be very careful at every step.

3 cups sugar
1 cup water
Food color and flavorings, optional
Aluminum foil or parchment paper

     Lay out the foil or parchment paper on a counter or large cookie sheets.  Set up a shallow baking pan full of ice and water, too. This is a bath in which to dunk the bottom of the saucepan to stop the cooking of the syrup, should you find that, after you’ve removed it from the heat and are working with it, the color starts to turn too dark.
     Stir the sugar and water together in a saucepan, preferably one with high sides and a heavy bottom. Place over medium heat, stirring until the sugar is completely dissolved. Then raise the heat to high. Without stirring, allow the mixture to boil until it reaches the ‘hard-ball’ stage, 300 to 310 degrees on a candy thermometer.  This will take 9 or 10 minutes. A drop of the mixture will harden quickly and break instead of bend when removed.
     Remove the pan from the heat but keep the burner turned on in order to reheat the mixture for a moment if it starts to cool too much while you’re making the candies.  You do need the syrup to stay hot and fluid.
     If desired, carefully stir in ½ teaspoon of a flavoring extract or a few drops of food coloring. This step is entirely unnecessary, though, as the candy is delicious and the light amber color lovely without amending.
     Creating a lacy pattern from the syrup takes some trial and error.  Solid shapes, such as hearts and icicles are not difficult to fashion, and I must confess I have on occasion been content with the simplest medallions.
    Use a tablespoon of syrup to create a free-form lacy design about 2 inches in diameter. Allow a string of the syrup to fall from the tip or bowl of the spoon and simply doodle around an imagined center. I have used the end of a skewer to work some of the too-thick edges into a lacier pattern.  It’s comforting to know you can eat the mistakes.
     You might try to form a well-defined loop through which to thread a hanger or piece of string if you wish to hang the snowflakes on the tree. For the solid shapes, once they are cooling but still malleable, lift them off the foil or parchment and pierce a hold hear the edge with a toothpick or skewer. You’ll have to work fairly quickly to do this.
     Allow the candies to harden for 20 minutes or so. If storing, place in an airtight container, separating layers with parchment.

This article first appeared, in a slightly different form, in The Caledonian Record.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Follow Your Blizzident

      Perhaps you’ve heard about the Blizzident, the newly minted must-have for those who have it all: a nifty device that promises to clean your teeth more efficiently than brushing and flossing combined, and to do so in record time.
     For $299, you can acquire your own bespoke state-of-the-art apparatus, invented, according to the marketing website, by a “worldwide interdisciplinary team of dentists, engineers, computer scientists and dental prophylaxis experts.”  You insert your custom-made Blizzident like a mouth guard and grind the teeth against it for a mere six seconds.  A plethora of tiny bristles get quickly to work and – viola – your gums and pearly whites are good to go.
     While met with some skepticism, the product has received enormous media attention and interest, and apparently consumer demand as well; the website asks for patience from those requesting additional information on the newfangled contraption.  Crafted of high-grade plastic by a 3-D printer from an impression or scan patients obtain from their dentist, the Blizzident promises fresh breath and “perfectly clean teeth.” However, it’s the “massive time saving” that’s apparently the draw for many.  According to the website Extreme Tech, converts of the new device could cut 55 hours per year devoted to dental care. 
     Imagine that! Freedom from the drudgery of brushing your teeth.
    How is it that we are so time-challenged that we begrudge the few minutes per day necessary for low-tech care of our choppers? For apparently, in this free market, there are enough people willing to spend hundreds of dollars or Euros – it’s a global initiative here -- on such a convenient gizmo.
     And what are we likely to turn our attention toward, given those extra hours per year?
     Here’s a quick look at how we divide our time currently, courtesy of New Media Trend Watch: we Americans spend roughly 4.5 hours a day watching television; 2.5 hours on-line, and the better part of an hour with a mobile device at our ear or in front of our eyes. Nearly 8 hours a day, then, we’re plugged in.

     I’m as guilty as anyone. I wouldn’t miss a few favorite shows, and occasionally the television blares on from another room, just to break the stillness in the house. I post batty photos and observations to Facebook with regularity, check e-mail nearly on the hour while working at the computer, and grab my iPhone as soon as I hear that Pavlovian ding indicating someone close has sent a text. But I haven’t reached the point of taking the phone into the bathroom. I can still tolerate a few moments of silence while brushing and flossing.
     I’m wondering if that in itself isn’t part of the (unconscious) appeal of an expensive, time-saving absurdity; not that we could make shorter work of an innocuous and already short task, but that it lessens the moments spent looking into the mirror alone with our own thoughts.   We don’t on the whole highly value moments spent quietly idling, in solitude, devoted to introspection; certainly little in society encourages us to consider those lulls in productivity worthwhile. “Time is money,” Franklin said, and we unmindfully concur.
     And it can be scary, having too much time on your hands. “I just start thinking about myself,” says Carol the waitress in As Good as It Gets, “and what good does that ever get anybody?”
     Julia Cameron, author of the acclaimed The Artist’s Way, offers a useful tool that not only empowers creativity, but helps overcome the fear of facing that time alone thinking about yourself. The practice of writing “Morning Pages”  – three longhand pages of whatever crosses the mind – can help a person ‘become acquainted” with not only positive thoughts but also the darker side of consciousness – the fear, anger, and pettiness we all possess.  The not so attractive face we might not want to see staring back from the page, or from the mirror.  The face of the inner self we need to look upon closely, to live that examined life worth living.

        For many years, I’ve kept a journal, most recently more off than on. Morning Pages as Ms. Cameron describes them are quite different, though; I find them more challenging. They’re not a record of events, and not, as she says, meant to be artful, but an opportunity to meet your shadow self, to tap into your creative energies, and to – each day -- take one step closer to discovering your bliss, what really moves you in life. 
     The practice takes a good twenty or thirty minutes to do well.  There is no time-saving Blizzident equivalent for cleaning out the cobwebs of the psyche.

This column appears in the November 2013 issue of The North Star Monthly. Check out their site: