Sunday, December 30, 2007

Fact or Fiction?

I just finished “The Plot Against America” by Philip Roth and am still sort of reeling from this strange mixture of fact and fiction. My mind naturally began to wander toward “what-if-ing” about our current political situation.

Roth’s novel is told from the standpoint of young Philip in his childhood who is confronted with the disastrous effects of a change in administration, the point at which the fiction comes in. The story begins with the landslide victory of Charles A. Lindbergh over FDR in the 1940 election. Lindbergh is an avowed friend of Hitler who has become America’s darling because of his aviation feats. He is strongly against joining the European war and strongly for dealing with the Jewish problem in America.

Young Philip’s very Jewish family living in a very Jewish neighborhood of Newark feels the impact of Lindy’s power again and again and it would seem that nothing good ever happens to them as they slowly succumb to external pressures and internal family conflict.

Only at the end when President Lindbergh and his Spirit of St. Louis mysteriously disappear and FDR finally resumes the reins of government do we begin to feel optimistic for America. But by then a lot of people have suffered irreparable injury and the country is in need of serious repair.

So I tell myself that America was never in the clutches of fascism, that we bravely went to war on the side of right, that Jews, although the sometime targets of anti-Semitism, never faced the degree of hatred portrayed in this work of fiction. But instead FDR strongly led our country to our place of glory in the world.

Then I think about our current situation. I remember when Clinton left office how we had a surplus in the treasury. And I wonder just how very different things would be today if Al Gore had been given what he legitimately won.

I look at how we now have a national debt that future generations may never get rid of. I look at the fact that not Jews but Muslims and Arabs have become the objects of national hatred. I look at two major wars we have started and botched terribly. I look at just how far we have fallen from that pinnacle in the eyes of the rest of the world.

I beg to roll back time just 7 years to have another go at those things that have brought us to this miserable place. Maybe instead of “The Plot Against America” it’s really “The Plot Against the World” as crafted by the current administration. I beg for the fact to turn out to be fiction, but every day’s newspaper reinforces the reality that we must live with.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Longing for a Good Night's Sleep

I now remember what it was like to have a new-born who was up every few hours wanting my attention, wanting to eat. At the point where the baby was obviously not hungry, there was that dilemma of whether to let him cry. In my house the baby always won this standoff.

Dylan’s untimely death a few months ago and Jake’s almost 3-week ordeal with the Elizabethan collar when he was injured seem to have rendered him totally in need of human presence at all times. My husband takes him out in the wee hours of the morning before he goes to bed, and then Jake is up again at 5:00 or 6:00 wanting us to come downstairs.

It’s not enough to take him out and even feed him. He wants to be WITH US upstairs. This morning my husband took him out at 5:00 and he continued to bark after being confined to the downstairs. I fed him and took him out again at 6:00 and he barked incessantly until 8:30 when I finally got up.

We need a new plan because we are always tired and the dog is not giving up at all. Tonight we have decided to let him come upstairs but make him stay off the bed. The problem with his being on the bed is we end up with a fine layer of dog hair everywhere that is not healthy for people with allergies.

Will it work? I hope to God it does because otherwise either my husband or Jake will be moving out. Whoever thought a 9-year-old dog could be such a big baby?

He’s asleep on the floor at my feet as I write this. He’s catching up on his lost sleep.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Receiving without Giving

One of my memories of the Christmas season when I was growing up in the Florida panhandle was my mother perpetually in a dither until the last of what seemed like hundreds of Christmas cards had been hand-written and posted.

Note these were not “happy holidays” or “seasons greetings” cards, but genuine Christmas cards. She was very particular about this, not looking favorably upon the rather gaudy card received each year from my father’s cousin Florence which never mentioned the C word or anything to do with God. She surmised that Florence and her husband Arnold were appealing to the many neighbors in their posh Minneapolis suburb who were Jews. I now surmise that my mother was rather anti-Semitic, mostly out of a total lack of knowledge.

The other thing she was fanatical about was that each card had to be hand-written with a personalized message. She had lovely hand-writing, having learned the Palmer method in her little Pennsylvania elementary school. My early years were before the advent of the Zerox machine, so there were no mass-produced letters. She was quick to condemn them when that became a possibility.

But the worst card of all was one that contained only a signature. “Why did they bother to send it?” she would say.

I inherited those card-writing genes and lived true to them for several years after leaving home. I occasionally even took a family picture to insert in each card. I never went as far as having a card printed as many do. But then as I distanced myself from Christmas and remembered my mother’s admonishment about “seasons greetings” cards, I stopped sending them altogether.

Each year as they would come in, I would pledge a hand-written letter in return after the New Year. I seldom made good on that pledge. Little by little they have quit coming. I almost feel guilty when I get one these days.

Here’s my inventory for this season (so far):

– 2 Hanukkah e-cards
– 1 Christmas e-card
– 2 e-mail mass-mailing letters
– Several Blog greetings
– 5 actual cards (picture above)

I sent/gave exactly 2 hand-made cards this year.

I am curious about the people who sent cards last year and didn’t this year. For several of them, my first thought is are they still alive? I shudder to think maybe not.

Have you seen a similar shift in your holiday greetings this year? Or is it that I am finally being punished for all those years of receiving without giving?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Art Trivia

As we went through the Turner exhibit at the National Gallery recently, my friend commented that she was most interested in the color of the walls. Since most of his paintings were landscapes, I couldn’t figure out what she was talking about until she explained.

Apparently before the installation of a major exhibit, all the gallery walls are painted in a color family that supports the colors in the art without overpowering them. The actual color varies from room to room, even from wall to wall withing a room. This had simply never occurred to me. But as I looked closer, I could see that she was quite correct.

Then I started to wonder just how many layers of paint were on those walls! Could they possibly remove the paint each time before repainting?

One of the guests at Deborah’s Christmas dinner happened to be an art historian who had done a stint at the National Gallery and who is currently at the Corcoran. She confirmed this wall painting concept and went further to explain what goes on behind the scenes.

She said there is often controversy between the person who designs the exhibit, the curator, and the installers. In the case of the Turner exhibit, apparently in the name of balance the installers chose to separate two large paintings that are on either side of the entrance into the first room of the exhibit. The curator would have wanted the paintings to be hung right next to each other because they belong together.

I guess, as with anything, the art world is not as straightforward as we might think as we saunter through an exhibit. I may never recognize the separation of paintings, but from here on out I will pay attention to the wall color.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Southern Comfort

With the rain falling it just seemed like a comfort food kind of day. After the morning’s ordeal of getting my yearly mammogram and a trip to Costco, I had this craving for chicken and dumplings.

I arrived at the ultrasound office to find a hand-written sign stating that their processing machine was out of commission so there would be a delay. I hadn’t planned to spend hours sitting around thinking about sensitive parts of my anatomy being compressed. But after about an hour it was business as usual and I was lucky not to need any re-dos on the 4 standard “pictures” they take.

I practically sailed through Costco, totally emptied of the look of Christmas and obviously gearing up for New Year’s with champagne and chafing dishes. I never go to Costco without buying one of their $4.99 roasted chickens. They are undoubtedly not free-range chickens, but they are cooked to perfection and the price is definitely right. Every other item in my cart was fruit!

It was on the way home that I remembered the rest of the ½ recipe I had made of “homemade” Bisquick for the waffles (which were delicious). The chicken and biscuit dough just seemed destined to be combined, so here’s the recipe (for 2) I dreamed up.

– Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
– Mix 1 cup of your version of Bisquick with 1/4 cup of milk. Set aside.
– Saute the following chopped ingredients in a small amount of olive oil: ½ onion, 2 stalks celery, 1 carrot.
– Add a heaping tablespoon of flour to the vegetables. Add chicken broth to cover.
– Add chopped parsley, French thyme, salt, and pepper.
– Add one chicken breast cut into bite-size pieces.
– Cook just until slightly thickened.
– Pour into a small souffle dish or other baking dish.
– Form the dough into biscuits/dumplings with your hands and place them on top just barely touching.
– Bake until the biscuits are tender and slightly brown (about 20-25 minutes.) Should be bubbling by then.

Just as it was ready to come out of the oven my husband walked in. I solved his perpetual dilemma of what to eat for lunch. He even went back for seconds.

Given the 15 minutes of prep time, this impromptu chicken and dumplings exceeded my expectations and made me forget about the dreary day outside.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Continuing a Tradition

The highlight of my Christmas Day was not the lousy Chinese food I ate or even the entertaining movie Charlie Wilson’s War, but rather a silly game that Deborah’s family has been playing since she was a child.

We were part of a group of 15 people invited to her house for dinner. It was not a traditional turkey, but rather a lamb roast with mint jelly. There were lots of miscellaneous side dishes and homemade Christmas cookies for dessert.

But then the tablecloths came off and we lined up as two teams on opposite sides of the table. One team passed a quarter from hand to hand under the table until the captain on the other team said, “Up Jenkins.” At this point each team member held fisted hands up with elbows on the table. On the “Down Jenkins” command, they slapped their hands onto the bare table with one person concealing the quarter under the palm of his hand. The other team then had to guess exactly which hand was hiding the quarter. This continued until the other team guessed correctly.

It was obvious that Up Jenkins had been played for many years because if you looked carefully you could see quarter-size indentations in the wooden table. I’m sure there were some new ones after tonight.

It was fun to be a team. It was fun to bluff. It was fun to keep a poker face. It was fun to guess. You learn a lot about a person playing this sort of game.

This was an entirely unorthodox Christmas dinner, where at least 4 of the guests were Jewish, there was never a mention of God, and there was no Christmas music. But the spirit of giving and friendship was alive and well. It was an evening I will remember for a long time to come!

Monday, December 24, 2007

O Christmas Tree

I just remarked to my husband that my last Christmas tree was probably in 1975, the year before I converted to Judaism. He suggested that we had saved a lot of money over the years. I calculate over $1200 at $40 a tree. I actually have no idea what Christmas trees cost these days.

I distinctly remember lying awake at night worrying not about changing my religion so radically, but about giving up Christmas and especially my Christmas tree. About the only home religious rituals I had were centered around Christmas.

It’s funny that never since that time have I actually missed the tree. I’ve always enjoyed looking at how my Christian friends decorate their trees, but there is no envy.

My daughter, on the other hand, begged for a tree for years. She still remembers the Christmas we spent with my parents, when she and her brother got to decorate the Christmas tree.

I am still occasionally asked if I miss Christmas when people find out that I was a Christian for the first 27 years of my life. I tell them in honesty the only thing I miss is the music. For many years I sang in the National Presbyterian Church choir. Our annual candlelight service was the highlight of the year. I remember with goosebumps when the octet I sang in opened the service with an a capella version of “O Come, O Come Emanuel.” I no longer sing in that choir, but I remember all the words and I sing along with the radio.

Just today I was thinking that I actually have the best of both worlds. I have the experience of celebrating Christmas, of believing in Santa Claus until I was 10 years old. But today I can leisurely shop for the handful of Christmas presents I give. I can make a few cards for special friends. I can be a guest at someone else’s Christmas dinner. But no one expects me to do a thing! It doesn’t get much better than this.

I did carefully wrap the ornaments from my childhood and store them in the basement. Statistics would say that one or both of our children is likely to end up with a non-Jewish partner. They may choose to carry on their grandparents’ tradition.

Tomorrow I will celebrate Christmas as Jews around the country do – go out for Chinese food and a movie.

Soon thereafter the trees of this year having served their purpose and lost many of their needles will take their place at the curbside waiting to be picked up and turned into sawdust.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

On Becoming a Trio

For the past 2 years Deborah and I have searched for music for piano and double bass. We have become so familiar with each other’s musical habits that we almost think as one. But today we invited Stuart to play with us and luxuriated in the high notes of his flute.

Stuart is a soft-spoken tenor in my synagogue choir. In his working life he manages stock portfolios. Who would have ever thought he could also play a half dozen instruments?

He had been after me to play the Claude Bolling Suite for some time now, but we just never seemed to get around to it. He was recently bemoaning the fact that he really wanted to play one movement from it in his son’s school talent show, but he hadn’t been able to find people to play the other parts.

So I invited Stuart to join us this morning for our weekly time to play together. I had no idea how well he played. He introduced himself by saying he hadn’t picked up the flute in a year. But as we launched into the slow jazzy Irlandaise, I realized just how good he was. The flute soared at the end. We liked it so much we did it again.

Then we moved on to play some Telemann – sonatas, partitas, arias. Stuart never missed a beat. If there was a weak link, I was it as we sight-read page after page of music. I lamented the fact that I had to play with both hands, reading multiple notes at a time instead of just one as each of them did. They didn’t cut me any slack, letting me know their hands were all occupied as well!

We finally got played out and decided to quit for today. But not before we scheduled the next time to get together. Hopefully the next time will also include an oboe, making us a full-fledged quartet.

It’s a good thing I have all this time to practice because I have a whole lot going on musically right now!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Bisquick Alternative

Bisquick – a staple America depends on! But do you know what’s in it? Some bad things we’re warned against these days.

I grew up in a household where we didn’t use mixes. We made our biscuits, pancakes, and waffles from scratch or they didn’t happen. So, in my mother’s tradition, I had never purchased a box of Bisquick until yesterday.

And what prompted this big splurge of $1 at Harris Teeter? I’m making waffles with a friend on Sunday and her recipe calls for Bisquick.

The box was sitting there innocently on the kitchen counter when my husband happened to read the ingredients, which included saturated fat and trans fat. He declared he wouldn’t be eating those waffles.

So I Googled “Bisquick recipes” and found the following which couldn’t be easier:

Master Mix Substitute for Bisquick (from

½ c. baking powder
1/4 c. sugar
9 c. flour
1-1/4 c. canola oil

Sift flour, baking powder, and sugar into large mixing bowl. Sift one more time. Slowly add oil, cutting in with pastry blender, until mix is consistency of corn meal. Store in tightly covered container at room temperature or refrigerate.

Most of America probably isn’t aware of their consumption of the “bad fats” and it may not matter at all in the long run because we may well die from some natural disaster brought about by global warming. But my household will still be cooking from scratch and trying to stick to olive oil and other heart-friendly oils.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Story Unfolds

When I first read T.C. Boyle’s “The Tortilla Curtain,” I didn’t know anyone who had experienced the heart-rending problems he depicted. But now I do. Glenda has her own story of what it’s like to get into this country and then to try to survive.

Until our sewing lesson on Monday, her only exchanges with me had been “Yes, Miss” and “No, Miss” as I helped them with their activity book project. She didn’t smile a lot and seemed most in control when she was powering a sewing machine. Her large brown eyes totally masked her thoughts.

We had only a half hour on Monday to go over the basics of using the new machine. We learned together with me looking things up in the manual as necessary because it was a new machine for me, too. She quickly mastered threading the machine, winding a bobbin, sewing with a straight or zigzag stitch, changing the stitch length, and sewing in reverse. With those basics, you can do most anything on a sewing machine.

I came back at the end of the school day to take her and the sewing machine to the apartment in Rosslyn where she lives with her mother, her stepfather, and their two small children. This is when she started to tell me her story in a mixture of Spanish and English.

She is 19 years old, although she doesn’t look a day over 14 because she is so tiny. She spent most of her life in a small town near Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. Undoubtedly her name was not Glenda then. It is likely that her native language was actually an Indian language and not Spanish.

She has been in this country for just 2 years, leaving behind two siblings living with her grandmother. She described coming with a group of people, but finding her cousin and herself separated from the rest of the group as they crossed the desert on foot in Arizona. She said, “It was so hard and I was so scared.”

Her mother had already been here for 4 years when she came. Glenda remembers her first day of school, when she spoke no English. As her mother told her Adios, she felt the full impact of not knowing a word of English. She said no one spoke to her and no one tried to help her. She said, “I was so scared. I cried and cried.” Her mother told her, “Life is not easy.” I agreed with her mother and added that her baby’s life would probably be easier than hers.

Until this past week she worked making salad in an Italian restaurant in Georgetown. She would go directly there from school and stay until late at night, having to travel everywhere by bus or on foot. She said it was very hard to get up the next day to go to school. She will go back to work there in a couple of months.

I avoided the difficult questions like, Are you in this country legally? Did you want to get pregnant? Who is the father of your baby? How will you cope after she is born?

Instead I asked what hospital she would go to for the delivery next month. Arlington Hospital, but she had never been there. She mentioned that she has an appointment there at 7:00 a.m. on January 8. She was worried because she didn’t know how she was going to get there. I volunteered to give her a ride. I can make sure she understands what they tell her at the hospital.

We talked about the ages of women in her family. She is 19, her mother is 34, her grandmother is 50, making her 8 years younger than I am. No wonder she seemed very concerned about my ability to carry the sewing machine into the apartment!

I’m starting to understand that this sewing machine is probably the first thing a gringo has given her without demanding something in return. Until I took it into the apartment and said, “It’s yours. I hope you enjoy sewing with it,” she probably thought I too wanted something.

I came away that day with a renewed determination to make her life not so difficult. I want to organize a baby shower to give her at least a few things for her baby. I want to make sure she knows she can call on me for rides when she needs to. I want to find a way to really teach her to sew things like clothes for her little girl.

There are undoubtedly thousands of young girls like Glenda out there, but I will feel I’ve accomplished something if I can help just one of them.

This picture includes one of her classmates who asked, "Will you take my picture, too?"

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Cardmaking Bee

I now get the whole concept of the quilting bee. You know, the group of our great grandmothers who got together to work on their quilts while they bared their souls to each other.

Yesterday I experienced a modern-day quilting bee in the form of card-making with my friends KC and LR. We whiled away the afternoon while we sipped and snipped.

They both did variations on the poinsettia card I recently made. As with anything, the new ideas made it even better. The gold paper surrounding the flower became hunter green fabric, a much better contrast with the red.

We talked about everything under the sun. We talked a lot about my experience with Glenda, which I have yet to tell you after I get just a little more information. We started planning a neighborhood baby shower for her to help fill in the many things that she will need for the birth of her first child.

By the time they left, KC and LR had beautiful poinsettia cards for their respective mothers for Christmas. I had a shimmery Christmas tree card for my friend Rosa. And we had staved off our growing hunger with fruit salad and green tea. I can’t remember spending a more productive afternoon in better company!

We made plans to have a Valentine card bee in early February. There is nothing more therapeutic than creating something beautiful with other like-minded people.

Last night after meditation I made just one more card – this time a birthday card for my little girl who will turn 24 on December 29.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Moment of Revelation

If you were already suspecting that I am crazy, this post may convince you. I offer it as a strange sort of background to the story of Glenda, the recipient of the RAK sewing machine.

When I went to church camp as a teenager, I was never the one to experience Jesus. I never felt saved in the least. I always envied those (mostly) girls who had life-changing events. But much later when I was in the midst of my twenties, I had a brief moment where I connected with God in a way that has happened only once in my lifetime.

I was working in Guatemala for several weeks on a survey of agriculture. My friend Sam, who had a lot more clout than I, convinced the US Embassy to provide us with a car and a driver for the weekend so we could go out and look at farms growing coffee and beans interspersed with corn first hand. We did see those farms, but we also got a good look at some of the most beautiful countryside on the face of the earth.

We had stayed overnight at Panahachel, a small town on Lake Atitlan, the volcanic lake in the picture above. There was something about the lake, especially when the mist hovered over it in the early morning, that seemed almost like a piece of heaven.

We started out the next day and stopped at a high point overlooking the lake. The young Mayan girl happened to be there.

That’s when it happened. I heard the voice of God tell me that I was destined to do something to help humanity some time in my life. Before I could ask important questions like WHAT and WHEN, it was gone and I was simply looking at the shimmering lake once again.

This was 32 years ago. I have carried that experience with me all this time. I came across this picture, which has been tucked away in a drawer.

And what you might ask does this have to do with Glenda?

I learned just yesterday as I took her home after our sewing lesson that she is from a little town that sits on the edge of Lake Atitlan. Her grandmother is younger than I am. I wondered for a moment if the young girl in the picture could have been her mother or someone else in her family.

I will follow this up with a post about Glenda and her newly acquired sewing machine, but for now I am still drinking in the possibilities suggested by this coincidence.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Who's next?

From the time children can first talk, we hear “your turn,” “my turn,” or “whose turn?” Today “who's next?” took on new meaning as I chatted with the girls in the Arlington teen parenting program.

The concept of turn determines who is the next line leader, who will take the next eye exam, who gets to play next in a piano recital, who is next to get on the waiting school bus.

But today’s ordering had to do with who would be next to give birth. The girls all know each other’s due dates. The girl who is due next week and is next admitted to being scared. Who wouldn’t be scared to be giving birth for the first time at 16 or 17?

I’m coming to love all these girls who call all of us adults “Miss”, never either remembering or daring to use our first names.

I have to constantly remind myself that they are about 8 years younger than my daughter, whom I cannot yet picture as a mother.

I worked with Rosa today on her activity book for her baby. It turns out her baby was born prematurely 9 months ago. She told me how her focus has shifted away from her needs to his, how she gets him up at 6:30 each day so they can start their long day, how he’s standing up and trying to walk, how she still allows herself the luxury of getting her nails redone every 2 weeks at a cost of $25. She became quite proficient at sewing Velcro on the clown face parts for that page of the activity book. She threaded the needle repeatedly as she forgot to leave a long enough piece of thread on top.

There is nothing but positive energy coming out of this program, as skilled professionals help these young girls before and after their baby’s birth serving as surrogate parents. For many who live in families where there is little English, I’m sure this lifeline is extremely important.

I can’t wait to hear how each and every one of them fares in the birthing process. Their babies’ lives will be enriched by the things they are making and by the life skills this program imparts.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Continuing My Love Affair with Lentils

I had been thinking about lentils all day as I turned my thoughts to economizing on food. I’ve always loved the nutty flavor of lentils simmered until they were soft.

My most favorite style of cooking is to assess the ingredients on hand and simply make up a recipe. That way there’s no need to run to the store. If you don’t have it on hand, it isn’t included.

I had in mind a savory lentil stew which included another vegetable and chicken over brown rice. So here is the recipe:

Pour one large glass of a good white wine that will inspire you as you forage through the refrigerator and the pantry and stir the various ingredients together. Make sure there is enough left for a refill if the glass empties before the stew is ready.

Put some brown rice on to cook in chicken broth, adding a small amount of salt.

Saute two pieces of lean bacon cut into small pieces in a heavy saucepan. While the bacon fries, mince 4 cloves of garlic, a large shallot or two, 4 scallions, and a piece of ginger. Throw them in to saute with the bacon.

Add 1/4 cup (more or less) of each of 3 kinds of lentils: yellow, French green, and red. Add several tablespoons of olive oil, some French thyme, basil, kosher salt, and freshly ground pepper. Add a small amount of red wine and a small amount of Balsamic vinegar. Stir all ingredients to mix the flavors. Cover with chicken broth and simmer for 15 minutes.

Carefully add 6-8 spears of asparagus cut on the diagonal in ½" pieces, letting them sit on top of the lentil mixture to steam. Cook for another 15 minutes.

Add 3/4 cup of chopped roasted chicken, not stirring the pot. Cook for 10 minutes.

Stir the lentil mixture to distribute the asparagus and the chicken. Serve over the cooked brown rice.

My husband, who had viewed this recipe with suspicion, gave it his seal of approval because he couldn’t taste the garlic and in fact no one ingredient predominated.

I think the whole thing probably cost about $3 (disregarding the cost of the white wine) and there are leftovers for a lunch. My belly is full and satisfied and my wine glass is empty again.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Putting the Grocery Budget on a Diet

I realized last night as we sat down to a delicious dinner of veal scallopine that we don’t even make an effort to save money on food. We basically buy whatever appeals to us, tending to buy organic products when possible.

As we finished dinner, I had this idea that we should attempt to eat on a very strict budget for a week to find out what it’s like and to see if we could actually do it. I proposed $25 per person, which maybe should be $35.

And just how would be make this happen?
– Forget organic products.
– Check out the specials at local food stores.
– Clip coupons.
– Make a couple of main dishes that would last for multiple meals.
– Stick to inexpensive items, like chicken wings, ground beef, and beans and rice.

I currently eat at least 5 servings of fruit a day. I would probably have to stick to things like bananas and apples, forgetting the berries that I love on my cereal.

So what might a typical day’s menu look like?
Breakfast: Oatmeal with raisins and milk, OJ, hot tea
Snack: Banana, raw nuts
Lunch: Tuna in pita, carrots and celery sticks, plain yogurt with grapes
Snack: Apple, wedge of cheese, hot tea
Dinner: Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, green beans, applesauce

That really doesn’t sound so bad. It would serve the purpose of showing me that I could do this if it ever became necessary and making me appreciate the fact that it currently isn’t.

Friday, December 14, 2007

I'll Take the Second Opinion

Melanoma is not something I take chances with, knowing full well that an incorrect diagnosis would probably be a death sentence. On the other hand, I am reluctant to let anyone cut off even a tiny piece of my body unnecessarily.

I see two doctors who specialize in skin cancer a total of 4 times a year, alternating between Dr. Braun, who pioneered Mohs surgery for the removal of basal cells, and Dr. Peck, who heads up the National Melanoma Center here at the Washington Hospital Center.

This week it was my turn to visit Dr. Braun, whose politics are 180 degrees from mine but who has for many years helped me search out things gone wrong with my skin. He has removed a number of basal cells, 4 melanomas, and a slew of other things that turned out to be benign. On Tuesday he noticed a large mole near my left ankle that he found suspicious because of dark spots in the center. I told him that mole had been there unchanged for years and that he had repeatedly checked it in the past. He reminded me that anything can go bad at any time and recommended that I schedule an appointment for excision.

Then he asked if I was still seeing Dr. Peck and when I said yes suggested that I get his opinion before scheduling the surgery.

I went in today to get that second opinion, fully expecting at least a biopsy to be performed. I feel so strangely calm about these incidents now, as opposed to my first experiences with skin cancer, when I was so terrified that I was going to die.

At Dr. Peck’s office I am always seen first by his current student, who just happened to be a very pleasant young man, Dr. Singh, probably from India or Indonesia. The biggest difference today was that I could remain fully clothed instead of wearing one of those skimpy gowns that leave you cold, ugly, and uncomfortable. I had to remove only my sock for the exam.

Dr. Singh applied his dermatoscope to the dark mole on my ankle and pronounced it benign. He also said it was fortunate because it was in a difficult place for surgery.

Dr. Peck came in soon thereafter and concluded the same thing, describing it as having lacy edges and actually fading in color. I don’t really care about the edges or the color as long as it is not a time bomb waiting to go off.

So I felt relieved that 2 out of 3 doctors told me to put on my sock and go home, reminding me that they would continue to monitor it and the hundreds of other such places that adorn my skin.

Dr. Braun and Dr. Peck are an integral part of my health plan at this point, having so far helped me beat the odds of succumbing to skin cancer. As they both talk about possibly retiring, I am wondering who will take their places. Maybe it will be one of Dr. Braun’s three children, all of whom have become dermatologists and now practice with him. Maybe Dr. Singh, who Dr. Peck told me today would be the perfect replacement for him.

I feel fortunate today for getting a second opinion that says I am healthy and for having doctors who will continue to help me be vigilant.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The UN of NoVa

I live in an area of Northern Virginia that is truly a melting pot – where virtually everyone is from somewhere else. I remember hearing that there were some 35 languages represented at our local elementary school.

After working with the mostly Hispanic pregnant teenagers this morning, I went to the fabric store to return some felt squares. Rosamaria was at the cash register again, looking a little frazzled because she was the only cashier and the line was getting longer. After I showed her the felt I wanted to return, she smiled and said, “You buy from me?” “Yes,” I replied, remembering the painfully long wait as she insisted she had to scan each of the 36 pieces instead of scanning and hitting “quantity 12" 3 times. She was still not convinced there was any other way so the return was a repeat of the 36 scans as the line got even longer.

Near the end an Asian man appeared in front of her cash register saying “Where can I get a car?” I knew he meant a shopping cart, but I could see the wheels in Rosamaria’s head turning as she said, “What you mean?” He demonstrated pushing the cart and she pointed him in the right direction.

Upon completion of each transaction, she never failed to wish each customer “Happy Merry Christmas.” But it was so obvious that she would much rather be speaking Spanish.

Another country visited as I stopped at a local gas station to try to deal with the fact that my windshield wiper was not clearing the driver side of the windshield, an increasing problem as it started to rain harder. The attendant was probably from Pakistan or some other country in the Middle East.

He immediately replaced the blades and charged me $20, which would have been fine, but the problem was no better. When I asked him to take another look, he immediately started bending the hell out of my wiper arm, while I’m thinking, “This is a Volvo. Please don’t break it because every part is seriously overpriced.” He finally took it into a bay and did something that made it marginally better. I decided to leave well enough alone and escape before I needed to buy the Volvo part.

Back to my shrinking enclave of American born families. I’m afraid we are a dying breed as we are slowly being overtaken by representatives from the rest of the world. It’s so interesting to think how this area has changed in the past 30 years.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

From the Heart

I have now confirmed what I had long suspected: I much prefer pouring my heart into things for people I know and love to selling my handmade items to strangers. I don’t even feel comfortable taking money from friends. I suppose it’s a good thing I didn’t have a career in retail.

I had been thinking about what to do with the 8 poinsettia napkins that no one bought on that cold day at the market. I have decided to give them to my friend Deborah since she has invited us to Christmas dinner. That way I will be able to see them used and enjoyed.

This morning I made a matching card for the gift of napkins. I can’t imagine anything more fun that cutting and glueing and writing greeting cards. I love to make cards that have something that appears to be suspended as is the poinsettia on this one.

Yesterday’s project was a white dove doorknob cover for the yoga studio. I had given them similar ones in previous years that have simply worn out over time, so it will be fun to surprise them with this little dove who is a nondenominational ambassador for peace.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Vegetarian but Definitely Not Chili

Last Saturday night I had the best vegetarian chili I had ever tasted. It was so melt-in-your-mouth good that it made me wonder if I could be a vegetarian. (But maybe it was just that it was steamy hot and the semi-renovated house where the pot-luck took place was freezing.)

Anyway, I asked the woman who had made the chili what recipe she had used and she said she had just made it up. The ingredients? Lots of garlic, onion, a can of black beans, a can of corn, a can of tomatoes, and some spices. But what spices? Chili powder, salt, and pepper. It sounded too easy.

So today I decided to try to duplicate that chili. I realized I had no chili powder, never having made chili in my 58 years. I looked up a recipe for chili powder, swearing to my husband that it wouldn’t be hot. So I ground up the cumin, coriander, bay leaves, oregano, a dried ancho chile, and the tiniest bit of cayenne pepper. It was at least the color of chili powder.

It was easy enough to combine the handful of ingredients while I made a pot of brown rice. It looked pretty and smelled good.

But from the first bite I knew it was not chili. It was vegetables over rice that left me longing for a piece of rare beef. Even the addition of grated cheese would not have made a difference.

What went wrong? Was it the lack of authentic chili powder? Or perhaps not enough beans? Or maybe they should have been kidney beans? Did it need a carrot or something a little sweet? Or maybe, just maybe, there was a secret ingredient that the chili-cooking woman left out. Maybe she didn’t want everyone running around duplicating her chili.

I have quite a bit of this wanna-be-chili left. I just can decide how best to fix it or whether to quit trying to make it other than beans with corn and tomatoes. But I think tomorrow I will eat meat!

(The next day)

I'm happy to report that thanks to all your helpful suggestions I have turned the remains of the veggie dish into chili. I added:

-- A can of dark red kidney beans
-- Half and onion, chopped
-- 4 cloves of garlic, chopped
-- A yellow pepper, chopped
-- A carrot, chopped
-- Cilantro
-- A jalapeno pepper, chopped
-- Chili powder
-- Chili sauce (which I am convinced, thanks to Jamy's suggestion, was the secret ingredient)

I cooked the combined old and new for about 2 hours on a simmer and then had lunch. It was fantastic chili FINALLY. Yum! Might even be worth giving up meat for this...

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Practice for Life

I heard the calm voice of Leyla, my yoga instructor, say “Yoga means the union of mind and body.” She’s probably said that dozens of times as I have attended her level 1 class for at least 5 years. But I always stop to think about how that works.

As I was interviewed by a reporter for the Hill Rag today who was writing about “how yoga has changed your life,” I remembered that first class I attended at the suggestion of one of my employees. I remembered watching the clock tick away those 90 minutes and realizing how many poses I struggled with. And this was only level 1!

At that point I had constant pain in my hips and my work ID pic portrayed the face of a person who was missing out on a lot of life. It was just about the time of that first yoga class that things began slowly to change.

I had devoted the previous 20 or so years to raising children while trying to work and take care of a house and a yard and pets and aging parents. My own physical condition just never seemed to be a priority. Besides I hated exercise of all sorts.

I’m not sure why I went back to the second yoga class, but I did. And it became a weekly habit, sometimes even twice a week. I slowly weaned myself from using blocks to support me while doing down dog and lunges and learned to hold the poses as long as everyone else did (most of the time). I found stomach muscles and strength in my legs that I never knew I had. But I never had that drive to move on up to more complicated poses. Level 1 was just right for me.

That initial yoga class led me to a massage therapist, a meditation group, a personal trainer, an acupuncturist, an osteopath, a psychotherapist, a return to piano, this Blog, and countless new friends. I had a lot to say to that reporter about how yoga has changed my life.

My next challenge is to decide which yoga pose to be photographed in. I jokingly suggested shivasana, but maybe I should pick a pose that makes me look ALIVE, not "corpse pose"! Anyway, we’ll all be able to see what that reporter chooses to say about me and 5 other people in the January issue of the Hill Rag.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Eight Days of Hot Oil

The holiday that legitimizes fried food is fast drawing to a close. This is day #6 of Hanukkah. We had our traditional and non-traditional (curried sweet potato) latkes with roast chicken on Friday night (below). But today was a first – pancakes for 200!

Micah Cooks made pancakes for the entire religious school and their parents. I had never before made pancakes from a mix, preferring instead to combine the 6-8 essential ingredients myself. But after turning out 600 pancakes, I now see the worth of Bisquick.

I was happy to be in a position of being assigned to jobs and not having to be in charge. I would have predicted utter disaster as we debated 15 minutes before the hordes were to arrive whether to serve each table or do it buffet style. Someone decided we would serve at two stations and I was assigned to a large platter of banana pancakes.

I quickly realized that only some adults ate banana pancakes, with chocolate chip being by far the most popular followed by plain. Bowls of fruit salad languished on the tables as everyone ate seconds and thirds of pancakes floating in syrup.

After the sugar level was soaring Teddy cranked up the electronic keyboard and we sang all those Hanukkah favorites at the top of our lungs – Una Candelika, Light One Candle, Sivivon, Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah, etc. Parents were dancing with two-year-olds. I was scraping leftover fruit salad into big bowls.

Then it was over and the children were off to religious school. The disaster I had anticipated actually turned out to be quite an enjoyable morning. The 4 plain pancakes I ate were not quite up to my usual standard, but they were certainly good enough.

As we cleaned up, we noticed there were but a few pancakes left. I jokingly said, “Like the oil, the pancakes held out just as long as they needed to.”

Saturday, December 08, 2007

An Accidental Moment of Calm

I noticed just today how everyone’s energy level is ratcheted up in preparation for the holidays. Traffic is worse, the stores are more crowded, and tempers are short. It’s so easy to get caught up in everyone else’s frenzy.

I went to Costco to return something and buy blueberries and some other miscellaneous fruit. There was hardly a spot in the parking lot or a cart to be found. I waited in line with my 5 items among the carts piled high with merchandise.

When I got to the parking lot, I faced a standoff. I couldn’t get my car out because so many people were blocking the space behind it and no one wanted to move even one inch. Some well-meaning guys helped me pull forward and back a number of times so that I could finally extricate myself from that mess.

It should have been a simply matter to take in the few things I had gotten at Costco and elsewhere. Part of me said to make several trips since the Costco items were all unbagged. But no, I attempted it all in one. I saw the accident happening as I closed the car door and one of the containers of blueberries slipped, just hovering for a few seconds before falling onto the driveway where I was amazed to see just how many blueberries are in a container. I wasn’t about to sweep $7.50 worth of blueberries into the trash, so I just sat down on the wet driveway and starting picking them up one by one by one.

It was such a calming moment, even as I told myself the accident could have easily been avoided. At one point my husband came out to take in the other purchases. He had the good sense to avoid saying, “What happened?” to which I was prepared to reply, “Isn’t it obvious?” Instead he just quietly took things inside and left me to my job of rescuing stray blueberries. They weren’t at all damaged, just loose on the driveway.

It probably took all of 10 minutes, but it put the entire morning in perspective. I’ll just have to remember to wash the blueberries before adding them to my Cheeios this week.

Have you too noticed the return of the holiday craziness?

Friday, December 07, 2007

Making Sense Out of Jewelry

How many times have you fished through your jewelry box to find the other missing earring? Or forgotten you actually owned a piece of jewelry? I can now see at a glance all the jewelry I possess.

The last Darfur rally was the source of my inspiration. I stood next to the Temple Micah Administrator, a very savvy lady, as I waved my “Honk for Darfur” sign. We started talking about household clutter and somehow got onto an idea of hers to use a pegboard with hooks to organize jewelry.

I had recently been thinking I needed to do something to organize what little jewelry I had, having depended on a small jewelry box I had gotten in Japan 25 years ago and the little boxes that jewelry often comes in.

After mulling over the pegboard idea for a week or so, I decided to try my approach to this, a piece of lined black velvet with multi-color ribbons I found remnants at G Street, making the cost minimal. I chose ribbon colors that I liked a lot. Horsehair braid seemed just the right thing to use for earrings.

As I put my worldly possessions out on the dining room table, I discovered a number of things I had entirely forgotten about.

I had to baste every seam because this was the slippery velvet that slides all over otherwise. At 2:00 a.m. this morning I finally had to quit sewing ribbons on and go to bed. This morning saw the finished product.

One of the nice things about this design is the fact that I can simply take it off the door and roll it up if I go out of town. As my husband pointed out, however, a burglar could easily do the same thing.

Oh well, there’s nothing really valuable in the whole lot. And I’d rather be reminded of my choices than to have to scrounge for them in the old jewelry box.

There are probably much better ways to do this, even things like this already custom-designed. But I’ll bet there’s not another that looks just like mine!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

RAK Update

I’m still in search of Glenda, the young woman who is 8 months pregnant and who is going to receive the RAK sewing machine. When I went to deliver the machine on Monday, she was absent from school. Today she had fallen on the ice just minutes before I arrived and had been taken to the hospital with contractions. Hopefully she and the baby are OK and we will connect sooner or later.

Instead on Monday I showed the sewing machine and a colorful sewing basket to Benny and Amanda, the two women who run the Teen Parenting Program that is a part of the Arlington County Evelyn Syphax Academic Center. It’s a program that gives these young mothers basic skills they need to raise their children.

They spoke highly of Glenda, saying the choice of who would receive the machine was difficult. They showed me a small pillow she had made and I could see why she was chosen.

Their next class project is to make activity books for the children. They invited me to come in as a volunteer to help with this and any other sewing projects they take on. It’s only twice a week for an hour and it sounds like a great cause.

I went home and found the activity book I had made for my children over 20 years ago. Here are a few pages.

I went in today and found a bunch of typical teenagers. They were polite, but as the instructor explained the project I could see those eyeballs rolling back into their heads. However, as the hour progressed they were all talking excitedly about the books they would take home for their children.

I’ll call again tomorrow to see how Glenda is doing and attempt to find a time to meet her. But until then, I will try to find a useful role as a volunteer.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Have Blow Dryer, Will Travel

As I sat in Axis in Dupont this afternoon getting my hair cut by my favorite hair guy Richard, he confessed that he had already had a long day. He had been at work since 6:00 a.m. But why?

Because Martina Navratilova needed a hair stylist in her room at the Four Seasons Hotel while she was interviewed in her new role with AARP. He said he seldom accepts jobs like this, but something told him this would be different from experiences where the celebrities had actually knocked the hair dryer out of his hand. And it was.

He showed up with all his products and “tools” at the crack of dawn to do her hair after her morning shower. Richard had studied a few photos of her from her publicist prior to the job so he knew exactly what to do. She told him candidly that on most occasions she feels she could do a better job with her hair, but not today.

After the initial styling, she sat in a chair in her hotel room giving the various interviews. He was amazed at her candor and natural demeanor. It was all unrehearsed but right on target with what babyboomers would like to hear. (She’s now one of us at 51.)

In between interviews Richard would touch up her hair as necessary. It was a job that paid several times what he would have made for the same amount of time in the salon.

Richard is a big Martina fan. He loves the fact that she campaigns for animal rights, that she sponsors a credit card which benefits gay and lesbian causes. He can’t wait to tell his large group of lesbian clients about his good fortune.

It’s experiences like Richard’s that remind us that even celebrities get older, and that even celebrities have bad hair days. This just happened to be a good hair day for Martina, thanks to Richard!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


I have often acknowledged what a boring place the world would be if we were all just cookie cutter copies of one another. But instead I have constantly expected roommates, family, friends to see the world as I do, when in fact each of us is totally as unique as our DNA.

This is not a new behavior. I can remember trying often to no avail to convert roommates to my standards of cleaning and cleanliness, simple things like not leaving dirty dishes in the sink, taking out the trash when it was full. For people who are under 25, the greater good is not always first and foremost on their minds. I often just cleaned up to make the evidence of the problem go away and I slowly came to the realization that even going so far as assigning “job” responsibilities didn’t always keep the house/apartment clean.

This came up just this morning as I met with my current therapist. It seems someone near and dear to me approaches life sequentially and probably always has. It is not surprising that my suggestion to “multi-task” infuriates him. My infinitely wise therapist suggested that I simply accept his approach as a given and stop trying to force him to use mine.

Someone else I know well is always running late, not much, but just a little – enough not to allow for bad traffic or bad weather. As we struggled with early Friday rush hour traffic on our way to see the piano we ended up buying, I made just too many suggestions as to how to drive, which way to go, etc. to the point where my husband exploded. I do understand why my advice was so unwelcome, but it didn’t stop me from giving it.

And with friends, I seem to often come up with something I think would be fun to do to find it just doesn’t resonate with them. I suppose we all have different ideas about how to spend our time – with and without others.

Having contemplated recent problems, I am thinking I need to be working on acceptance of people EXACTLY AS THEY ARE, with no ideas of changing them. It would save me considerable angst and avoid the inevitable conflict that arises when one person tries to impose her will on another. The word of the day is ACCEPTANCE.

But can I really practice this new approach? Time will tell.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Poor Jake

Isn’t that the saddest looking dog you ever saw? Jake is recovering from some sort of accident that occurred last Friday night and must be restrained from himself.

On Saturday morning as I contemplated taking delivery of my new piano, I came down to find dog pee, poop, and blood all over my kitchen floor and Jake just lying there looking up at me. I was sure he was dying, probably of cancer, but the first scan didn’t show the blood coming out of any standard orifice. Then he rolled over and I noticed the 2" gash in his groin area.

I quickly called the vet and made an emergency appointment since there were no more regular slots left. I was grateful to have the old 1985 Volvo wagon with its black seats to haul him into the vet’s office in.

While he was being treated, my husband who had since gotten up called. He said when he had let him out at around midnight, Jake had barked for a while and then let out a yelp. He didn’t think anything of it, let him back in, and went to bed. This made me think the wound could have been from a bite. But what a strange place for a bite.

$275 later they had shaved him, stapled the wound, adorned him with his new collar, and sent him home with painkillers and antibiotics.

As for the source of his injury, the vet said it was too clean a cut to be a bite. But we have yet to find the sharp object that gave him such a big wound.

Although the painkillers make him drowsy, they don’t let him forget that he is wearing that collar that makes it impossible for him to chew out the staples and difficult for him to eat and drink. He is definitely not a happy camper. And this is only day 3 of 10.

I have condescended to take the collar off so he can eat and drink twice a day, making sure I watch him the entire time.

You will not see a picture of his ugly wound, because he won’t even let me look at it. I apply warm compresses a couple of times a day, but he is not about to roll over with that collar on.

As I write this upstairs, he is downstairs barking because I don’t think it’s wise for him to do stairs when his vision is so compromised. We will ALL be happy and rest much better once this 10-day healing period is over.

But for now, he is indeed pathetic!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Guilt-Free Chocolate Cake

When I decided to give a birthday luncheon for my friend Kris who is on Weight-Watchers, I Googled “low-cal cake” and came up with Guilt-Free Chocolate Cake.

The recipe simply said:

Combine any chocolate cake mix with a can of Diet Coke and bake as directed on the cake mix box. Frost with Zero Cool Whip. Serve with sliced strawberries. 3 Weight-Watcher points a slice.

It also added the option to use an angel food cake mix with a can of Diet 7-Up.

I can’t tell you the last time I even bought a box of cake mix, preferring instead to just combine the 8 or so ingredients it takes to make a standard cake. Nor do I drink Diet Coke, although I happened to have a couple of cans left from my last party. Furthermore, who can imagine what such a cake would taste like.

But the recipe had gotten rave reviews from everyone who tried it.

So this morning I baked the chocolate version using a Betty Crocker Dark Chocolate cake mix. To my surprise it came out looking like a cake. It didn’t exactly come out of the pan in one piece, but the Cool Whip covered a multitude of sins.

My husband placed the 24 candles on the cake in the shape of her initials – KC. We were just a few short of her true age.

We sang “Happy Birthday” to the sound of the new grand piano. KC blew out the candles in a couple of blows. We did some serious damage to the Guilt-Free Chocolate Cake. And we declared her officially another year older and not even an ounce heavier.

Try this cake. It’s worth the cost of the cake mix and the one can of diet soda. Whoever knew?!

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Welcoming the New Addition

Adoption date: 12/1/2007
Size: 5'8"
Weight: Around 650 pounds
Age: 24 years
Color: Walnut
Name: Baldwin Model R

After playing an abysmal piano – a Steinway Model M made in 1923 – on Thursday, I concluded that I wanted much more than a name. I called up my long-time piano tuner Walter Kim, who had worked for Gordon Keller until the store recently closed. Mr. Kim is a soft-spoken Korean man who knows everything there is to know about pianos. He assured me he could find me the perfect piano at a price I could afford. Yesterday he delivered on that promise.

I just had a feeling like I was going to be meeting a new family member as I got ready to go look at the piano. At 3:30 we walked into Christine’s Pianos in Great Falls. Christine is a shy Korean woman who has been in the business for 23 years. She showed me several models, but Walter told me the very best one for me was the Baldwin, the one I saw as I walked in the front door. He had already negotiated a price $10,000 lower than that sticker price.

Someone recently told me that you know the right piano immediately when you play it. I might have said that last weekend of the Steinway Model A for $42,000 that I played at Rick Jones Pianos. But it was already sold and I knew $42,000 was simply out of the question.

As I played the first chords on the Baldwin, I knew it was the one. It was new enough that it didn’t need the major repairs that the fine old Steinways need. It perfectly matched the furniture in our living room, much better in fact than the spinet that I had gotten at age 10. It could put out a powerful sound. And it was in perfect condition.

So the search was over. When could they deliver it? How about the next day? That would be today.

I watched incredulously as the 3 big burly moving guys brought in my unassembled grand piano and put it back together before my eyes. Then they took away my old blond friend as a trade-in. I fondly said goodbye.

There’s considerably less floor space in our living room, but it has graciously accommodated what will probably be my last piano, as my friend Deborah reminded me.

I teasingly told her I picked a piano that would look good with her double bass. She’s coming over later this afternoon to meet the new arrival and to see what kind of music we can now make together.

Isn’t it a beauty?