Thursday, February 24, 2005

Killer Brownies

Recipe from another chocolate-addicted, homeschooling writer, Deborah Markus:


Beat one to one and a quarter cup (depending on if you like your brownies deep and moody or sweeter and cheerier) of sugar with two eggs and a dash of salt for 15 minutes. Unless you're Amish, you're going to need some electric help with this.

Meanwhile, melt eight ounces of semisweet and unsweetened chocolate with one stick of butter in a pot. The proportion of semi to un depends, again, on your own preferences and what you have in the cupboard. 5 semi to 3 un is good, but you can do four and four -- lean toward that extra quarter cup of sugar in this case. 3 semi to 5 un is territory I have yet to tread, even at that time of the month. Proceed at your own risk and expect to lose a little skin off your tongue. (Hey, I'm not here to pass judgment on your idea of a good time.) As for the butter, some purists insist on unsalted. I think the salt in salted brings out the flavor of the chocolate, but again, I'm not the boss of you -- do as you see fit, and don't blame me if the party ends early and abruptly.

Most people insist on using a double boiler for melting chocolate. I happen to think they're scaredy-cats, but whatever. The fact that I have no dishwasher and my double boiler is way way in the back of my pot cupboard and undoubtedly harboring a thriving colony of silverfish may have something to do with my prejudice here. If you do melt it in a single pot, though, do use a heavy-bottomed one. (No heavy-bottom comments from the peanut gallery, please.) And use the tiniest lick of flame you can get. If you cook with electric, you're past my help. Heck, you're past *God's* help -- but then again, that's why you're here, isn't it? Stir a lot (gently -- melted chocolate spattering onto your eyeball is even less fun than it sounds like), and take the pot off the heat before the chocolate's completely melted. Stir it some more until it decides to finish the job on its own, lecturing on the virtues of self-responsibility to wear it into submission if necessary, and then stir it even more, since you're in the swing of it by now and to cool it off to lukewarm.

When it's completely cooled, stir it into the beaten egg mixture, using one of those rubber spatula dealies. Stir in a quarter of a cup of cake flour (you can use the regular kind, I guess, if you want), a teaspoon vanilla (if you use the "imitation" kind because it's cheaper, or if you have some untreatable brain tumor that makes you think "imitation" is just like the real thing, please do not ever ever ever darken my email again. some things are WORTH PAYING FULL PRICE FOR, dad gum it! did you ask for a discount on your KID? buy the store's brand if you want to save a few cents, but if it doesn't say real vanilla, IT AIN'T VANILLA! you wouldn't want to tool around town in an "imitation" CAR, would you? WOULD you?), and a cup of chocolate chips or, even better, hunks of chocolate you've hacked right off a bar of your favorite dark chocolate. (What do you mean, you don't *like* dark chocolate? It's always gotta be about you, doesn't it?)

You can use a square pan; I use a round cake pan, but that's a decision every adult has to make for herself. Go back in time and preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and then do some research to explain to me satisfactorily why my keyboard has no degree symbol, forcing me to waste precious seconds typing out the entire word "degrees" what is it, twice now. Bake the brownies for twenty-five minutes and then check them. Whoa, whoa, hang on there, Tex -- I didn't say take them out, just *check* them. You know -- poke them in the belly (use your finger -- toothpicks are for sissies), jiggle the pan a bit, ask them how they're feeling. If you like them "slumped," as the English say (soft in the middle, like so many of us), take them out when they still have a little give to them. Otherwise, leave them in five or ten minutes more. Let them cool for as long as you can stand to. As far as I'm concerned, life is way too short to spend waiting for the darned brownies to cool. I have been known to cut just one out of the pan, throw it (bitching and screaming about my burning fingers) onto a plate, and put it in the freezer for a few minutes to bring it down to a manageable temperature. I've read recipes that suggest letting brownies cool six hours, but that's just ridiculous. I mean, I didn't wait that long for my own baby to be born, and he didn't come out smelling half as good as a batch of brownies.

If you're some kind of sick pinko freak, you can eat these with something (frosting, heavy cream, whatever). Normal people recognize perfection when they see it and understand it needs no accompaniment, except perhaps a tall glass of milk.

You could probably gussy these up a bit, once you've got them down pat. Try adding a little peppermint extract, or stir in some caramel with or instead of the chips. If you insist on adding walnuts (bleargh), fine. Just don't tell me about it.

Serves one.

--Deborah, off to devour all the chocolate her kitchen currently contains

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Kirkcentric Draws His Own Conclusion

Cartoonists, particularly the political variety, make a living by spoofing reality. After a few ingenious clicks of irony, Kirkcentric nails reality by spoofing the cartoonist.

More commentary here.

Unless otherwise cited, all original articles appearing on this blog are property of Natalie West Criss ( Business Ink, Inc. and Metro Business Chronicle). To submit requests for publication, contact

Monday, February 21, 2005

*Regarding the Cartoon in the Arizona Daily Star

Update: Over 850 Letters to the Editor received.

Dear Editor,

By ticking off an entire national demographic, David Fitzsimmons has realized a political cartoonist's dream. I hope you and he are not viewing the publicity generated by this cartoon (February 13, 2005) as an upside to this fiasco.

Having read the incidences of abuse that motivated Mr. Fitzsimmon's pen, I understand his emotional reaction and the subsequent call for increased regulation in the face of such tragedy. However, I think his premise is misguided and his proposed solution unreasonable. Furthermore, from his position of safety, I don't think he fully grasps the far-reaching implications of increased homeschool regulation or the stereotype he perpetuates.

I teach my two children in Mississippi, a state that doesn't require testing, specific instruction or yearly monitoring. I enjoy the freedom to teach physics and Latin to my twelve-year-old as well as geography and phonics to my three-year-old (subjects not available in MS public schools until much later, if at all) without having to abide by an arbitrary list of rules that make someone else feel good. Homeschoolers in states like Pennsylvania, California, and Rhode Island are not so lucky.

Targeting law-abiding families in an attempt to put us on the same "radar" as potential child abusers is intrusive and unfair. Continuing this thread of logic, I could conclude that all political cartoonists are potentially irresponsible and therefore should be strictly regulated and closely monitored as not to recklessly incite a riot. Would that be reasonable? Of course not.

Both federal and state laws currently exist to prevent or prosecute incidents of physical and emotional abuse/neglect. Can we agree that most states don't do a great job of enforcing those laws or funding those programs as it is? If not, recall this story of a Mesa, AZ three-year-old who died just this month (less than a week before the cartoon above appeared) at the hands of her abuser after five years of CPS mishandling.

In light of this case, in which the family sent their children to public school and received 28 visits from sheriff deputies as a result of numerous alerts from the school nurse, I think Mr. Fitzsimmons is either tragically optimistic or hopelessly delusional. Why else would he want to entrust the government with even wider jurisdiction and increased responsibility?

Homeschoolers are not potential threats to society or some mysterious force bent on covert acts of evil. Criminals are. Requiring us to jump through even more hoops will not prevent that. Please, don't demonize an entire population for the grievous actions of a few. I think the cartoonist's intentions were good, but as we in the homeschooling community say: the road to hell is paved with regulation.

Respectfully submitted,
Natalie West Criss
Brandon, MS
(601) XXX-XXXX

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Mississippi: Worst State for Women?

Women’s work: Life and labor in Mississippi
by Natalie West Criss
Assistant Editor
Metro Business Chronicle
January, 2005

I have some good news and some bad news…first, the bad. According to the biannual report recently published by the Institute of Women’s Policy Research, and much heralded by The Clarion- Ledger Mississippi has earned the dubious distinction of “Worse State for Women” for the fourth time in a row. The good news is that the findings of this report are nothing more than a skewed heap of statistical hooey aimed at pushing liberal policies and expanding government.

I know. I’m as surprised as many of you, especially since IWPR is a “scientific research organization” that “works with policy makers, scholars, and public interest groups…supported by foundation grants, government grants and contracts…” I suppose I could save us all time by ending this column here, but let’s take a closer look at the report instead.

If you are a stat wonk who wants to follow along (or simply an incurable insomniac), The Status of Women in the States is available for free online at

Essentially, “The Status of Women in the States” is divided into five categories: Political Participation, Employment and Earnings, Social and Economic Autonomy, Reproductive Rights, and Health and Well-Being. Each category is divided into a subset of criteria, each of which is then subdivided according to ethnicity and then compared against the similar subset for white males. The results, which are meticulously charted, graphed and bulleted, give way to conclusions and recommendations, followed by a bevy of resources and appendices. This is 80+ pages of statistical spin disguised as hard, cold facts.

The skewed nature of the report is immediately obvious in the Overview Regarding Political Participation. Massachusetts, which tied for Best Overall in 2002, fell from 8th in political participation to 28th in 2004 “largely because it lost its woman governor,” IWPR explains. “While Massachusetts is in the top ten on the other four indices, its low rank for political participation excludes it from being one of the best states for women.” Likewise, New Hampshire’s decline in this category from 14th to 36th is attributed solely to the loss of its female governor.

Is it true that women fare better in states with women at the helm? Not necessarily. No mention is made of the fact that former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift, who was never elected in the first place and served less than two years, was Lt. Governor prior to Gov. Paul Cellucci’s resignation after which she then became the Governor. Did the status of women in Massachusetts improve dramatically during her short tenure? By default, did it decline proportionately because a man was elected in 2002? Of course not.

Statistics surrounding Employment and Earnings are equally off the mark. The report does not take into account Mississippi’s low cost of living, which is between 7-10% lower than the national average. Similarly, the value of employer-provided benefits enjoyed by thousands of Mississippi women, such as maternity insurance, maternity leave, on-site childcare and similar inclusions, are not factored into the equation.

Many extrapolations can and are accurately made within the IWPR’s report regarding the effects of education on earning and employability and, likewise, their effects on Social and Economic Autonomy, the consequences of exercising one’s Reproductive Rights and the results of those choices on one’s Health and Well-Being. Mississippi certainly can improve its standing in many areas. However, the concept of personal accountability and the role of the individual as a solution to the myriad of problems is not mentioned once in this report.

Granted, statistics are not nearly as consistent or powerful when free will enters the equation. However, since the heads we are counting belong to human beings, shouldn’t we take the inevitable existence of exceptions into account? Not if you accept the conclusions and recommendations issued by IWPR.

IWPR asserts that individuals, especially women and specifically women of color, need government expansion to help them realize their potential. Of course, the report does not say this outright, but it is apparent in its proposed “policies and programs designed to diminish both gender- and race-based inequities” and blatant in its assumption that only women can effectively enact policies beneficial to women, therefore, encouraging them to run for office and implement the necessary changes through government channels.

Governments should, according to IWPR, enact new, and enforce existing, legislation aimed at boosting the earning potential of women by increasing state and federal minimum wages, passing living-wage laws, and tying minimum wages to cost-of-living increases aimed at “setting a reasonable wage floor [that] disproportionately benefits women workers—particularly women of color” (italics mine). How exactly does this create or encourage an environment of equality?

Through federal and state policy mandates, IWPR believes employers should be required to provide paid parental and dependent care leave and expand benefits to include mandatory unemployment insurance funds and extended family care benefits. How would companies profit, produce, employ and otherwise survive under conditions in which the government determines its offerings to potential workers?

Additionally, larger companies would be subjected to broadened affirmative action programs and audited to ensure compliance with anti-discrimination law. Why should a company remain in the state of Mississippi, or the United States for that matter, when it is subject to governmental interference and its employees are legally entitled to the bulk of its revenues?

Furthermore, IWPR asserts, governments should increase funding to public health programs and include “sensitivity training” for doctors with the purpose of encouraging minority women to seek medical attention more often. Educational opportunities should be promoted through affirmative action programs and more funding for state and federal scholarships and financial aid. Welfare programs should be expanded to include higher education and training opportunities while continuing to provide for low wage earners and the chronically disabled. Additionally, IWPR calls for even more state and federal investment in Native American colleges and technological training for K-12 and vocational schools and substantially more funding for women-owned businesses.

Throughout “The Status of Women in the States”, three words are repeated like a mantra: encourage, invest and expand. Encourage how? Through force of regulation, how else? Invest what? Why, your taxes, of course. Expand where? Directly into the path of your freedom. If IWPR has its way, soon we will all be equally taxed, equally controlled and equally miserable.

Is Mississippi the worst state for women? Not yet.

Unless otherwise cited, all original articles appearing on this blog are property of Natalie West Criss ( Business Ink, Inc. and Metro Business Chronicle). To submit requests for publication, contact

Martha's Legacy

Martha Stewart’s Legacy—What it Should be
By Natalie West Criss
Assistant Editor
Metro Business Chronicle
December 2004

On a recent trip to the grocery store, my preteen daughter scanned the prominently displayed tabloid covers and asked, “Why exactly is Martha Stewart in prison?” I immediately donned my homeschooling-mother hat and answered, “Remember the talk we had about stocks…” then, realizing the futility and flatness of my explanation, I seized instead on a greater opportunity: a lesson on entrepreneurial drive, successful leadership, strength of character, and injustice.

Long before ImClone became a household name, Martha Stewart was much maligned in the media. As the cliché punch line and well-worn punching bag for columnists and comedians, the one-liners and caricatures were expected. However, the reaction from women, particularly those in business, came as a surprise to me.

Stewart’s unremarkable background, not unlike many of our own, provides the true context for her inspiring rise to success, for which she should be admired, as well as the tragic contrast of her current imprisonment, during which she deserves our support.

During World War II, Stewart was born to working class parents in the small community of Nutley, NJ. One of six children, she learned the basics of cooking, sewing, and canning from her mother, a homemaker and schoolteacher. At age three, she began a lifelong passion for gardening under the guidance of her father, a pharmaceutical salesman.

As a young woman, Stewart, like many young people today, worked while attending college to pay for tuition. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in history and architectural history, she became a successful stockbroker, a career decidedly dominated by men in the 1960s.

In 1972, when less than 5% of all businesses were owned by women, Stewart opened a thriving catering business which resulted in the publishing of her first cookbook, Entertaining, in 1982. Ten years later, Time Inc. published the first issue of Martha Stewart Living magazine and the syndicated television show “Martha Stewart Living” began airing. Riding the wave of “Martha Mania,” Stewart purchased the company from Time Inc. in 1997. Two years later, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia made its initial public offering.

In a career spanning more than three decades, Stewart has built an empire around the uniquely feminine phenomenon of nesting by elevating even the most mundane of daily tasks (formerly known as “women’s work”) to a level of functional style and simple elegance. Aside from her equally important contributions as an innovator, marketer and employer, her vast lines of products, from flowers to furniture, instill pride in consumers and an appreciation for the finer things in life. Her perfectionism and drive motivated millions of viewers and readers to break free of the mediocrity of their surroundings and raised the standard of household excellence. This is a good thing.

Rather than resent what some see as frivolous pursuits or oppressive duty, her fans have voted with their wallets and remote controls. Yet these are the very things for which she is vilified: the pursuit of excellence, unrelenting drive and determination, impeccable style and taste, matchless success, wholesome values, and respect from colleagues and consumers. Aren’t these the very things we strive for in our own personal and professional lives?

Who could have ever predicted that this woman who came from a small New Jersey town, who paid her way through college, earned the respect of colleagues in what was truly a man’s world, and successfully established a multi-billion-dollar corporation --all without the slightest hint of impropriety-- would be hauled to a women’s prison for simply asserting her innocence against a charge so flimsy that the prosecution dropped it for lack of evidence? Or, worse, that so many would revel in, what one (dim) wit called, her “Just Desserts”?

This unfair persecution of success is not uncommon. Neither is the reaction. Michael Milken and Bill Gates were forced to run the prosecutorial gamut amid public scorn and paid heavily for their revolutionary innovations. However, the precedent set by Stewart’s conviction, based solely on her statement of innocence, is unique and frightening.

How would many of us react in the face of an attack against our character and reputation? How would we answer the accusation of “Liar”? Recall that Stewart went directly to the investigators without the force of a subpoena and to candidly answer the charges against her. With the dismissal of the allegation of insider trading (a non-crime that deserves its own dissertation) this simple utterance was the basis of her conviction. Recall that she voluntarily reported to prison to “end this nightmare” so that she may “reclaim her good name.” Even so, one pundit remarked that he didn’t think Stewart seemed apologetic enough. Where is the outrage?

Rather than tearing Stewart apart, we businesswomen should acknowledge her as an admirable role model for our daughters and ourselves. She is entitled to her success and worthy of our respect.

Unless otherwise cited, all original articles appearing on this blog are property of Natalie West Criss ( Business Ink, Inc. and Metro Business Chronicle). To submit requests for publication, contact

The "Woes" of the Modern Woman

You’ve come a long way, maybe?
by Natalie West Criss
Assistant Editor
Metro Business Chronicle
October 2004

At no other time in history have women enjoyed more freedom than in present-day America. We not only have the right to vote and own property, we work in executive positions with corner offices alongside men for equitable pay and control our personal lives in unprecedented ways.

Now, before you brace yourselves for yet another feminist diatribe or a red-white-and-blue display of blind patriotism, consider the treatment of women throughout history and ask yourself: Why does the modern American working woman seem so unhappy?

For an answer to that question, we need look no further than the 1970s...the decade that brought forth not only me, but the pervasive myth that women can “have it all.” Following on the heels of the Indulgent 80s, the teenage women of the Me Generation were raised on the expectation of career success and bought the idea of sexual equality with men sold by the media. Having it all morphed into entitlement as we were groomed to expect challenges based solely on gender. Our boldness and bright cast on the future was eclipsed only by our Day-Glo wardrobes and big hair.

Upon graduating from college, beginning our careers and perhaps juggling a few suitors, we had it all planned out: work for ten years to establish our careers, then maybe get married and have children. Now in our 30s, reality has come home to roost. This is not the life we signed up for, many complain. What went wrong? The answer you get depends on where you look.

According to a study published in April 2002 by Harvard Business Review (“Executive Women and the Myth of Having it All” by Sylvia Ann Hewlett), working women are unhappy due to career-absorption: establishing ourselves professionally takes precedent over all else, lulling us into a state of denial until we wake up one day with no husband, no children and an unfulfilling career that we’re not even sure we ever liked.

Danielle Crittenden, author of What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman, says being equal to man doesn’t make us men, therefore we should stop emulating them. Embracing our differences and reclaiming our feminine dignity, says Crittenden, is an empowering experience denied modern woman by the very foundations that supposedly liberated us.

In Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America, Myrna Blyth details how magazines and news media sell unsubstantiated hype convincing women that, although unfairly victimized by society and understandably overwhelmed by stress, true happiness is just one zen manicure away.

These are insightful (and incite-ful) pieces of the puzzle, but the underlying issue of managing the overwhelming array of choices we’ve been afforded remains to be addressed. What is “all” and why do we have to have it? Can we take it in pieces or is it only available in two sizes: all and nothing?

The women’s movement attempted to give us choices meant to empower, not entrap, us. When we fail, we (or women we know personally) react by claiming victim status, dramatically swooning over the mounting stress, or beating ourselves up for not being good enough. We’ve set up an impossible situation with no winners.

Speaking of winners (and whiners), I recently watched an episode of “The Apprentice” in which the predominantly female team exhibited classic victim behavior. When confronted with a budget busting expense, one woman reacted to the male vendor by saying, in the presence of other men, “You’re raping me, here.” I could go into a full-length analysis of the non-literal professional, social, and political applications of that word and how its use sabotages productivity via distraction.

The charge that put the team $5000 over budget had not been clearly agreed upon or confirmed in writing; but rather than negotiate like a professional equal or learn from this valuable experience, an Apprentice candidate chosen from thousands for her education, skills, and presence automatically invoked the ultimate crime against women perpetuated by violent brutes. In the infamous boardroom, it got worse. The female project manager claimed she was unable to focus on the budget because of the stress caused by an allegedly unstable team member. Another stammered excuses in the presence of four Proctor & Gamble executives (three were women). It was sickening.

From cut-throat New York to savvy, southern Mississippi, women must realize that the battle has already been fought and decisively won. When surveying the future before us, we can lay aside the unrealistic expectations, the shiny badges of persecution, ad hominen attacks and the use of “woman” as a weapon so we can truly–once and for all–live freely for ourselves by making choices and accepting consequences; not like a man, but as rational, productive humans.

Unless otherwise cited, all original articles appearing on this blog are property of Natalie West Criss ( Business Ink, Inc. and Metro Business Chronicle). To submit requests for publication, contact