A Rather Hectic Spring Done. Now, onto Summer …

DSC_0867I can’t believe how long it has been since I’ve sat down to write.  I missed one week, and then the weeks just started piling up.  Then I’m out of practice, and feel pressure to write something REALLY GOOD when I commence writing again.  Well, this promises to not be REALLY GOOD, but just a state of affairs to get everyone caught up. A step back into the world of writing if you will.

Well like everyone, sometimes life just gets a bit busy and over the top, and we have to peel back the onion in some logical fashion, and discard some of those layers if we’re going to survive, at least mentally.  As time passes, there seems to be less and less of it available.  This week marks the last week of school for all the kids, the conclusion to five sports teams, the start of REALLY launching into the college planning cycle for my rising senior and getting him ready for his first job, getting my daughter off to camp in Maine, the start of summer sports, and welcoming our new puppy to the family.

Did I say puppy?  Yikes!  Yes, I finally gave into the puppy pleas early in the year when our neighbor showed up with an adorable puppy similar to the type that I had been researching for the past few years.  While in the past wisdom and managing logistics had always won out and squashed the puppy discussion, this time I looked at my husband and he said – “it’s never going to be a good time.  We might as well just go for it.”  So that I did, and set the wheels in motion. Now I’m looking for homes for two life size “Doug and Melissa” dogs I bought the boys for Christmas, thinking they might just satisfy the puppy craving.  Well, it didn’t work.  If there’s any interest in a Golden Retriever or a Portuguese Water Dog that don’t require food, walking, cleaning up after, or vet visits just let me know.  Pick out which stuffed animal you would like in the above picture.

So this new addition to our family is really quite adorable, bouncy and happy.  I’m adjusting to rolling out of bed at 2AM to take a little walk in the backyard.  Other than that, he’s really been quite easy.  (Although 6 year old Sam commented:  ”Our lives are sure a lot more difficult now.” hmmmm, who’s wiser?)  We even went 2.5 days with no accidents in the house, and I felt truly blessed.  But the stellar record was broken yesterday.   I guess I just have a “normal” puppy!  I’m overwhelmed by the puppy gifts I’ve received.  It’s almost like having a baby.  One of my colleagues has fallen in love with our puppy so much that she has a framed picture of him on her desk!  She is definitely the puppy rep, and people at work are asking me for the breeder’s name.  I’ve also discovered that I can squelch the nasty grumbles of my eight year old when I wake him up if I put the puppy in bed with him to awaken him.  The day starts on a much higher note when a puppy wakes you up versus your mom.

Do I harbor any guilty feelings about not getting a pound puppy?  Oh, yes.  And one of my college friends loves to make me feel guilty about this.  But I decided if I was going to walk down the path of dog ownership, I needed to control the variables as much as possible.  So meet Ozzy, our Australian Labradoodle.  And while I initially wanted to add a girl puppy to the family (Eliza and I certainly feel out numbered in a family of four boys (including Dad), Ozzy’s a boy.  Sam had a different perspective.  “It’s a good thing we got a boy,” he said.  “Otherwise we would have way too many girls in this family – you know, including the eight chickens.”  “Ah yes, the chickens” I said.  I guess in his mind, the girls really do rule the roost.

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Portobello Mushroom Lasagna – Yum!

lasagna-ck-604775-lWW Stacy recommended this Ina Garten recipe to me this winter, and it is a winner.  The mushrooms make it hearty enough to stand up as a nice winter meal, on its own or perhaps as a side to a nice steak, with a glass of red wine, and of course enjoyed  in front of the fire. (Even though it is spring, it is snowing right now and I’m going skiing this weekend, so I’m still fully rooted in the winter frame of mind!)  BUT, as we are all anxious to get into spring, this recipe is also light enough, and would be perfect with a nice green salad and a glass of white wine.

Don’t let the lengthy looking directions discourage you – it’s very simple and easy to prepare.

Portobello Mushroom Lasagna

kosher salt

good olive oil

3/4 pound dried lasagna noodles (Stacy recommends DeCecco brand)

4 cups whole milk (you can substitute something lighter; I used 2%)

12 tablespoons of unsalted butter, divided

1/2 cup all purpose flour

1 tsp freshly ground black pepper

1 tsp ground nutmeg (this flavor really comes through, so if you’re not a nutmeg fan, put in a sprinkle or eliminate – but also delivers a nice complimentary flavor to the mushrooms)

1.5 pounds  mushrooms (I followed Stacy’s recommendation, and used 1 pound of portobello and 1 pound of button (Paris) mushrooms – probably any combination would work – but I do like the idea of using 2 pounds vs. 1.5)

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (Stacy recommends fresh grated Locatelli Romano)

Preheat oven to 375.  Bring a large pot of water to a boil with 1 T salt and a splash of oil.  Add the lasagna noodles and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Drain and set aside.

For the white sauce, bring the milk to a simmer in a saucepan.  Set aside.  Melt 8 tablespoons (1 stick) of the butter in a large saucepan.  Add the flour and cook for 1 minute over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon.  Pour the hot milk into the butter flour mixture all at once.  Add 1 tablespoon salt, the pepper, and nutmeg, and cook over medium low heat, stirring first with the wooden spoon and then with a whisk, for 3 – 5 minutes, until thick.  Set aside off the heat.

Separate the mushroom stems from the caps and discard the stems.  Slice the caps 1/4 inch thick.  Heat 2 tablespoons of oil and 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large (12-inch) saute pan. When the butter melts, add half the mushrooms, sprinkle with salt, and cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes, until the mushrooms are tender and they release some of their juices. If they become too dry, add a little more oil.  Toss occasionally to make sure the mushrooms cook evenly.  Repeat with the remaining mushrooms and set all the mushrooms aside.

To assemble the lasagna, spread some of the sauce in the bottom of an 8x12x2 inch baking dish.  Arrange a layer of noodles on top, then more sauce, then one third of the mushrooms and 1/4 cups grated Parm or Romano.  Repeat two more t imes, layering noodles, sauce, mushrooms, and cheese.  Top with a final layer of noodles and sauce, and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.

Bake the lasagna for 45 minutes, or until the top is browned and the sauce is bubbly and hot. Allow to sit at room temperature for 15 minutes and serve hot.

If you like truffle flavor, I drizzled a little truffle oil on top as I was serving.  Really delicious!

Doodler and Schedulers Take Note

doodle-final-option4Ever try to schedule a get together with a group of friends and then embark on an endless stream of back and forth emails, each offering up a handful of dates, and then you’re left with creating a complex grid of names and dates to find where the commonalities are?

Well, life just got easier.  Check out Doodle.com.  It’s a very simple tool that gets sent out to a defined group of people with a list of dates, and each person checks their availability, and automatically it’s obvious which dates work for all.  It’s a very useful planning tool.

Give it a try next time you’re organizing an event!

The Etiquette of the Honk

angry-driverDriving home with my daughter the other evening, I found myself schooling her on the etiquette of the honk.  I’m a pretty even-keeled, balanced person, but I find “incidents” on the road can really irk me.  The other night I was sitting at a green traffic light, waiting for the oncoming traffic to clear so I could take a left hand turn.  Since I had pulled up, I could no longer see the light, and I was just looking at the traffic.  The oncoming traffic slowed, signaling it was time for me to make my move.  But just then, the car behind me let out a loud, obnoxious, sit on your horn honk (as in woooooonnnnnkkk), which made me really mad.  I then turned to my daughter to start educating her about “the honk.”  I think my tirade went something like this:

“Eliza, there are two kinds of honks – a ‘toot-toot’ friendly honk to remind someone to keep moving, and the loud sit on your horn ” wooooooooooonnnnnnk” quite obnoxious honk.  Now, back at that corner, that honk should have been a friendly “toot toot.”  The “wooooooooonnnnnnk” type horn style should only be used when you’re in impending danger of getting run into.  Then wooooonnnnnking honking is entirely appropriate.  Unfortunately we live in an area of the country, where people like to throw their weight around by “wooooonnnnnnking” too frequently and are misguided about the finesse and strength of mind over matter that it takes to appropriately apply your hand to the honking area of the steering wheel after assessing the honk situation that you’re in.

So adamant am I about this, that the local driving school has invited me to be a guest lecturer.  I’ll make sure that the up and coming young drivers know just when to toot or woooooonnnnnnnk.

It’s Still Soup Season

cauliflower-soupI have been remiss in writing for the past couple of weeks. We spent a fun, relaxing week in Vermont skiing, with no access to the internet, which of course contributed greatly to my ability to relax!  And the week back after vacation has just been a crazy race to catch up and get things done.

I had mentioned that I had made a Roasted Cauliflower soup in a previous blog, and a few people requested the recipe.  So I thought I would throw it in here so we all have a permanent record.  It was very easy and delicious.

Roasted Cauliflower Soup

1 head cauliflower (about 2 pounds), trimmed, cored, and cut into 1/2 inch florets, about 6 cups

1 onion, halved and sliced 1/2 inchs thick

4 teaspoons canola oil

salt and pepper

3 garlic cloves, minced

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 bay leaf

3 1/2 cups low sodium chicken broth

1/2 cup half and half (I used light cream, and I think milk would work fine too, if you want to lighten it up, especially since cauliflower on its own delivers such a creamy texture once blended)

1 tablespoon of fresh chives

1.  Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 450 degrees.

2.  Toss the cauliflower, onion, 1 tablespoon of the oil, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1/4 tsp pepper together in a large bowl, then spread the mixture in an even layer on a rimmed baking sheet.  Roast until the cauliflower is softened and lightly browned, 30-40 minutes, stirring halfway though.

3. Combine the roasted vegetables and remaining 1 teaspoon oil in a large Dutch oven.  Cover and cook over medium low heat, stirring occasionally, until the cauliflower is very soft, 3 to 5 minutes.  Uncover, stir in the garlic, and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

4.  Stir in the wine and bay leaf and cook until the wine has reduced by half, about 1 minute.  Stir in the broth and bring to a simmer over medicum high heat.  Cover, reduce the heat to medium low, and simmer for 5 minutes.  Remove and discard the bay leaf.

5.  Working in two batches, process the cauliflower mixture in a blender until smooth, about 1 minute.  Transfer the cauliflower mixture to a clean Dutch oven, stir in the half and half and cook over low heat until hot.

6.  Season with salt and pepper to taste, ladle into bowls, and sprinkle each portion with some of the chives before serving.  (The soup can be cooled and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 1 month.

Variation:  Follow the same recipe, but add 1.5 teaspoons of curry powder to the pot with the roasted vegetables in step 3.  Substitute 2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro for the chives.

Source:  Cook’s Illustrated

A Winning Dessert – Strawberry Stack Cake

stack_cake200Last weekend I found myself practically alone – except for the company of my 16 year old.  My husband took the other three kids to Vermont for the weekend.  What a blessing to find yourself alone with the ability to do what you want to do.  Usually I dive into the tasks that always pile up in several places around the house.  But instead, I became a cooking maniac.  I made roasted cauliflower soup, vegetable soup, a jalapeno lime butter for salmon and a six layer Strawberry Stack Cake.  I must say I was inspired to find the salmon and Strawberry Stack Cake recipes to round out my Valentine’s Day menu (no I usually don’t go to such lengths, but given I had the time – I decided to take advanage).

The Strawberry Stack Cake was a hit – essentially 6 cookie like layers separated by a homemade strawberry jam.  It was quite easy to make as well and looked beautiful.  It’s almost a different take on strawberry short cake.  Here’s the recipe in case any of you are just dying to bake this weekend:

Strawberry Stack Cake

Filling

2.5 pounds fresh strawberries, hulled and halved (you can also use frozen)

1/2 cup granulated sugar

2 T fresh lemon juice

pinch of salt

Bring the strawberries, sugar, lemon juice, and salt to a simmer in a large saucepan over medium heat.  Mash the strawberries with a potato masher and cook until thick and jam-like, about 30 minutes (the mixture should measure 2 – 3/4 cups).  Transfer to a shallow dish and refrigerate until cool, about 30 minutes. (I left mine in the fridge for a few hours).

Cake

5 cups of unbleached flour

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp of salt

1/4 tsp buttermilk

2 tsp vanilla

8 T unsalted butter, softened

4 ounces cream cheese, softened

2 large eggs

2 T confectioner’s sugar

1.  Adjust the oven racks to the upper middle and lower middle positions and heat the oven to 350.  Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a bowl.  Combine the buttermilk and vanilla in a measuring cup.  With the electric mixer on medium high speed, beat the butter, cream cheese, and granulated sugar until light and fluffy, about 2 mintues.  Beat in the eggs, one at a time, until combined, then the buttermilk mixture.  Reduce the speed to low and add the flour mixture gradually until combined.

2.  Divide the dough into 6 equal pieces.  Pat each piece into a 5 inch disk, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm about 30 minutes.  Meanwhile, cut six 9 inch parchment rounds.   (note:  I did cut out six rounds, but I think using just one is sufficient).  Line an 8 inch round cake pan with the parchment paper, and press a chilled dough disk into the bottom of the lined pan.  I just pounded the dough, and pushed is to the edges of the pan as best I could.  Transfer the round to a baking sheet (you can just grab the parchment paper and flip the dough onto the cookie sheet).  I could fit two dough rounds on each cookie sheet, and then into the oven they went, essentially looking like 4 big cookies.  Bake until just golden around the edges, 6 to 20 minutes, switching and rotating the sheets halfway through.  Cool for 10 minutes on the sheets, then transfer to the counter to cool completely.  Repeat with the remaining dough.

3.  To assemble:  Place 1 cooled cake round on a serving platter.  Spread 1/2 cup of the cooled berry mixture over the cake, leaving a 1/2 inch border uncovered, then top with another cake round.  Repeat with the remaining berry mixture and cake rounds, finishing with the cake.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until the cake has softened, at least 8 hours or up to 3 days.  Dust with  confectioners’ sugar and serve.  I also had extra strawberry jam, so I put it on the top of the cake in the shape of a heart.  Very delicious!

Source:  Cook’s Illustrated

Negotiation Skills – Raising the Bar

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SEE BELOW FOR DISCOUNT ON WORKSHOP!

Most of the time, we do not find time to do things for ourselves.  There are always so many competing priorities at hand – related to our own day time job, raising our children, and managing the logistics of running a household.

So when opportunities present themselves, try to take advantage of them – especially if it is an opportunity that’s going to get you to a different place, make you think a little differently and challenge the way you currently go about doing things. A very dear and extremely talented friend is teaching a course on Neogiation Skills – entitled “Bringing you to the Negotiating Table” at Barnard’s Athena Leadership Lab in New York.  The class is taking place on Saturday, March 5th from 9AM to 12pm.  For more details, go to http://athenacenter.barnard.edu/leadership-lab/course-catalog/negotiation/neg21.

Depending on where you are in life, you may think that you’re past the point where you need to hone your negotiating skills.  But if you truly think about it, there is probably not a day that goes by that you’re not employing some level of negotiation – whether it is with your boss or co-worker, your contractor or electrician, or even your children.

The Athena Leadership Lab at Barnard is dedicated to the theory and practice of women’s leadership.  And if you elect to sign up for this course with Cathy Bonzcek, the instructor, an in demand communications consultant, you will be in for a treat. Cathy’s personal style and keen observation of human communication dynamics – which to a certain extent is a lost art – will certainly benefit anyone who is able to participate in this workshop.  Currently, she is a communications coach to many Wall Street CEOs and executives, preparing them for speaking assignments and relationship selling.  She helped me with a couple of speeches I gave in the past couple years, and her ability to not only fine tune the message but also help with my delivery was invaluable.  Check out her website at www.ccb-communications.com.  And if you can pull off a trip to New York on March 5th, it will be worth your while.

DISCOUNT OPPORTUNITY:

To receive your discount, please enter the following information as you complete the online registration form:

At Step 2, Personal Information: when prompted, identify wisewomencoffeechat as the source from which you received a discount code.

At Step 3, as you choose your workshop(s), enter discount code Athena15 when prompted.

The Challenges of Parenting Teenagers

web.ae_.racetonowhere.picA_There’s probably not a day that goes by that I wonder if I’m doing the “right” things in raising my children. Am I too laid back? Am I too permissive? Do I not push hard enough?  Do I push too hard?  Do I not set the right expectations?

Last week I went to see the new documentary “Race to Nowhere.”  It is a documentary by a mom turned film maker about the heightened pressures on today’s youth (placed upon them by the school AND parents), and the resulting ill effects – stress disorders, depression, and ultimately suicide.  From the moment they enter high school (and for many kids this pressure has started years earlier), they are grooming themselves to be accepted by “the right” college.  They need to get straight As, they need to excel at a sport, which many times means year-round and multi-hour daily commitment.  They have to be involved in all the right extra-curricular activities, and hopefully have a leadership position.  They have to put in their community service hours every week, and at the same time figure out just what is unique about them that will capture an admissions officer’s attention.  A pretty tall order, even for the most motivated and accomplished kids.  Is there any downtime in these kids’ lives anymore?  Not much. Well, maybe their meals.

Everyone seems to be playing this game.  Unfortunately the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act several years ago has removed much of the creative oriented and problem solving curriculum from the schools.  Teachers have been forced to teach to the test, and in doing so need to forego styles and practices of teaching which would most likely be so much more beneficial.   A professor from a medical school was interviewed in Race to Nowhere.  She stated that the transition in the types of students coming in to school over the past 10 years is dramatic.  These students want to be told exactly what is going to be on the test.  They don’t know how to problem solve or apply critical thinking.  ”What’s going to happen with our future doctors when a patient walks in with obscure symptoms?”, she asks.  These students won’t know what to do.  That’s pretty scary stuff.

High Schools are in a race to offer more AP classes, and encourage kids to participate in more of these demanding courses. What once was an opportunity for seniors – (I remember taking 2 AP classes my senior year) – is now being pedaled to sophomores, and is dominating a good part of the Juniors and Seniors’ schedules. Now it’s a race to see how many AP classes you can have on your schedule or resume.  My children’s high school has a local business funded grant that pays for performance on AP exams.  Score a 4 or 5, and earn $100.  Is that a good thing or a bad thing?  My head and heart tell me it is a bad thing, but I know there are many that disagree.

Colleges too are playing the numbers game.  With the common application, annual applications are increasing by the double digits year after year, allowing the colleges to promote their lower yields.  This makes the importance of achieving high (near perfect) GPAs and SAT scores all the more critical, as these two measures serve as a sorting mechanism in the application process.

Another output of this “perfect storm” of pressure is that cheating is at an all time high.  In our school system, which is a completely integrated system, you see kids of all types.  There are children arriving at school who have horrific home lives – perhaps living in a shelter with one parent, while the other parent is in jail.  It’s hard to imagine how these kids can hold their lives together – and if anyone cheats, you would imagine it’s those that get no support outside of the school, and may lack any direction or motivation within the school.  But no, the cheating is happening at the other end of the spectrum.  And it’s rampant.  Kids passing along cheat sheets during an AP US History exam…. or someone pulling out their iPhone to google a question.  This drive to succeed, when there is little time to breathe, is backfiring.

Homework is another culprit.  I know parents who have pulled their children out of the public school system in elementary school because they weren’t receiving enough homework.  They would almost boast , on the sides of the Little League field, of the 3 to 4 hours of homework their 4th or 5th grader would get in the private school.  Homework, to some, serves as a marker for success.  However, research shows there is no correlation between homework and success.  In fact, studies show that homework can hinder success.   An AP Biology teacher  interviewed in the movie decided to reduce the amount of homework he was giving by 50%.  The result? More success on the AP exams.  As is true everywhere, homework dominates the nightly dynamic at home – kids sitting in their rooms, trying to get through pages upon pages of monotonous, dry text.  The time is being logged, but is anything sinking in to this exhausted mind and body at 10PM?  At least in college you don’t have to be up by 6, and put in a full day of class and athletics, which typically gets you home by 6 or 7, at which time you need to sit down for another 6 hours to slog through all the homework.

It’s interesting that this movie is hitting us at the same time we’re learning about the practices of the “Tiger Mom” – the lawyer from New Haven, Connecticut who didn’t allow her two daughters to have play dates or sleep overs, who demanded straight As, who would force a child to sit at a piano for hours until a piece was perfected (even foregoing dinner to do so).  What is the result?  Well, she has two very accomplished daughters, who have earned straight As all through school and are extremely talented musicians.  Yes, they most likely will be admitted to “the college” their parents have in mind for them.  But are they happy?  Were the sacrifices of having a normal, balanced childhood worth it?  It’s ripe for debate.

Contrast the Tiger Mom ‘s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother to another book that was just recommended – The Blessing of the B- by Wendy Mogul.  More interesting to me is the fact that this recommended book was offered up in a quick by chance exchange and not preceded by any of the foregoing discussion.  This whole dilemma is obviously front and center in so many of our minds.

It’s a baffling volleyball of emotions with no clear way to navigate.  So… do we push for the A, or settle for the B-?  Do we ask for their personal best, and be satisfied with the result, no matter what it is?  I don’t know what the answer is – and it’s a topic that takes up some share of mind on a daily basis.  I do know that it is worthwhile to keep a pulse on our children’s well being, help them keep all the craziness in perspective and find some downtime.

Another Slow Cooker Friday

chicken-jambalayaWW Stacy passed along this recipe a few weeks ago.  As it was 2 degrees this morning as I sat at the bus stop, the only recipes that will suffice are those that can provide the warmth we all crave. (I’m definitely ready to write about the fresh fish on the grill with green salad with summer peaches!)  And if you have the opportunity to actually experience Jambalaya LIVE in New Orleans, go for it and get the heck out of this Arctic weather!

So if you’re in the mood for a little cajun, give this a try (with a full bodied beer I must add).  I’m still on a mission to build my slow cooker repertoire, so if you have any recipes, pass them along!

Slow Cooker Jambalaya

1 pound boneless chicken breast halves, cut into 1 inch cubes

1 pound andouille sausage, sliced

1 28 ounce can diced tomatoes with juice

1 large onion, chopped

1 large green bell pepper, chopped

1 cup chopped celery

1 cup chicken broth

2 teaspoons dried oregano

2 teaspoons dried parsley

2 teaspoons Cajun seasoning (or a blend of S & P, nutmeg, garlic powder)

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1 pound frozen cooked shrimp without tails (Stacy recommended fresh uncooked shrimp, steamed separately for 2 minutes; I used frozen raw shrimp, which I quickly steamed separately and dropped in to the slow cooker towards the end of cooking).

Directions:

1.  In a slow cooker, mix the chicken, sausage, tomatoes with juice, onion, green bell pepper, celery, and broth.  Season with oregano, parsley, Cajun seasoning, cayenne pepper, and thyme.

2.  Cover and cook 7 to 8 hours on Low, or 3 to 4 hours on High.  Stir in the shrimp during the last 30 minutes of cook time.

If you want to add some spice, sprinkle on Frank’s Red Hot Sauce.

Source:  allrecipes.com

Step it Up for the Texas Super Bowl

imagesLooking for a step up from chili for your Super Bowl festivities?  How about Texas Pulled Pork BBQ.  WW Sonja passed this along with a high recommendation.  It not only is delicious and makes your house smell wonderful, but it’s another slow cooker recipe.  Can’t get better or easier than that.

Pulled Pork BBQ

7 lbs of pork butt (extra fat trimmed off)

Mix in a bowl:  3 T chili powder, 1.5 tsp of salt, 1 tsp fresh ground pepper.  Rub mixture all over pork roast.

Place 1 sliced large onion and 4 minced garlic cloves in the bottom of the slow cooker.  Add roast and 1 cup BBQ sauce (Sonja uses KC Masterpiece).  Pour water over roast until covered (about 4 cups).

Cover and cook on high until tender and meat falls off the bone (about 6 hours).  Remove pork from cooker, reserve on platter.  Strain cooking liquid into sink reserving the onions.  Return pork to slow cooker and shred with a fork.  Add 2 more cups of BBQ sauce, cook until heated.

Serve with portugese rolls and coleslaw.

Enjoy the Super Bowl … and all those commercials of course.

... some of us just go along ... until that marvelous day people stop intimidating us - or should I say we refuse to let them intimidate us?
Peggy Lee

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