Monday, April 30, 2007

Saying Goodbye to Road Rage

Just today I was reminded about how very angry some people are in the morning. On three different occasions as I was coming to work, I experienced honking and obscene gestures that spoke to the road rage that is always just below the surface.

I ended up behind a very slow-moving cab as I drove to meditation at 6:30 AM. I wasn’t in such a hurry, but apparently the guy behind me was. He honked his horn and sped by me on the right, turning into the Senate garage. Oh well, I guess I can understand why a Senate staffer might feel the stress.

Then as I made my way on to work, as I was traveling down Barracks Row, once again someone was in a bigger hurry than I was. He honked his horn, passed me (this time on the left), only to have to have to stop at a red light. Then he turned left onto the ramp to I-295 in the face of oncoming traffic. By the time I did the same thing, he was long gone.

As I was merging onto I-295, I looked to my right to see a prominent middle finger and a red-faced guy mouthing words I was glad I couldn’t hear. He was in the lane that was supposed to be merging into mine. I guess he didn’t read the sign. As I passed him a few seconds later, his finger was still waving at me. I just had to return the gesture. It felt good.

I realized that I will not miss dealing with angry drivers in the early morning. I may not even be up at 6:30 AM. But if I am, I would rather be reading the Post while drinking my morning coffee or taking Jake for a leisurely morning walk.

Road rage in the morning will soon be a thing of the past.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Dealing with Death

As I looked into the casket today at what remained of Cyril, I could hardly believe that in the course of just 10 years he had gone from the vibrant capable man that he was to the skeleton of a man that he became with cancer. As he leaves behind a wife and two adoring children, I remarked to myself how grossly unfair it was that he had to die.

From the moment I picked Cyril up at the Potomac Avenue Metro stop, I knew I had to convince him to come work for me. He was working as an actuary in New York, but had applied for a government job. He was shy and soft-spoken, but there was something about him that let me know he was a genius.

Cyril grew up in Sri Lanka, getting his advanced degree in Russia on a full scholarship. His was an arranged marriage that actually worked quite well. It was a very traditional household where the woman cared for the house and her husband and children and the man went off to work.

Cyril did accept my job offer. Within just a few months of his entry into the office, it was clear that he was doing the lion’s share of the work. He never said no to an assignment, turning out finished tested programs as quickly as I could write the specifications. And he was always studying something new along the way, getting certifications in SAS, JAVA, and Oracle on his own.

While he was working for me, Cyril took another deeply troubled employee under his wing. This man suffered from chronic back pain for which he had to take narcotics and had a wife that was bi-polar and eventually committed suicide just after 9/11. Cyril quietly made sure the man’s assignments were done and looked out for him and his wife.

He adored his children. From their earliest years he took them to Kumon classes to enrich their education. His son was doing advanced math at a very young age.

At some point it became clear that he had outgrown the office and the challenges it could offer him. But before he left, he had found me another Sri Lankan with a similar background to take his place. He launched off on his own as a contractor and was in great demand in other parts of our agency.

When I first heard that Cyril was sick about a year ago, I hoped that he could fight the dreaded cancer and win. He tried everything, but stage 4 kidney cancer is really not beatable.

He has languished in the hospital for the past month, refusing to let go. His friend and former colleague with the back pain came from Florida to visit him one last time. This week he was finally released from his pain and suffering.

I felt quite out of place a the viewing without a sari. The women and men seemed to sit separately as incense burned and people sat with only a faint Hindu melody audible. His children had made a huge poster of pictures from their father’s life to honor him as people gathered to bid him goodbye. Toward the end the women in his immediate family all began to cry aloud in a sound much like a wail. The room was filled with grief.

Friends, relatives, and colleagues will forever remember Cyril with his big smile and shy dark eyes as the one who would do all the work and never asked for any of the credit. His passing marked a loss for so many.

His body will become ashes, but his soul will find a new life in the Hindu tradition I am sure. This is when a belief in reincarnation provides the only possible comfort. I only hope our future lives will cross paths.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

A Doubly Good Piece of Music

I occasionally have these moments when I’m driving along and I hear a piece on the radio and I say to myself, “I just have to play that.” It used to happen with Chopin piano pieces. But most recently it was the Schumann Piano Quintet in E Flat Major, Opus 44.

Inevitably I have no way to write down the name of the piece while I’m driving, so I commit it to memory. After I got to work on Friday I called Foxes Music to find out if they had the score for the piece. The salesperson came back with two choices. I asked about the difficulty of the piano part and he said, “Schumann is hard to play.” Wouldn’t you know...

At the end of my work day I braved rush hour traffic to head out to Foxes in Falls Church. I chose the Peters Edition of the Quintet, paid for it, and then for some reason asked, “If I get home and find out I already have this, can I return it?” The woman looked at me as if I were a little crazy and said, “Yes, for store credit.”

What would the chances be that I had once before thought this was the most beautiful piece I had ever heard and gone and bought it? I could remember only one other purchase of a 5-part piece of music.

After I got home, I happened to pull out the piece that had been hiding down there at the bottom of a big stack of music. And sure enough, it was the identical piece of music.

All I can say is that my taste is consistent and I will soon have a store credit at Foxes. I hope it’s not the same woman who sold it to me.

If we are really to play the piece, Deborah reminded me that we need three more musicians that we don’t currently have – two violins and a viola. (She will play the cello part.) But then she quickly added, “Bring it along the next time we get together to play. We’ll read through it and see just how hard it is. If we can play it, we’ll find the others.” This is why I like playing music with Deborah. She knows how to make things happen.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Taking (Boss) Stock

My mind often forms lists when I think about things. There is a list of the loves of my life, the pets I have owned, and most lately the bosses I have had over the past 36 years. They were all different and it would be an understatement to say that some were better than others.

Ted was my first boss, when I worked in the FSU Computer Center for $2.35 an hour. He was young, slightly overweight, and slightly lecherous. I got a clue every time he tried to convince me to go shopping with him to buy clothes for his wife. His idea was that I would try them on and I always politely said NO. He was actually harmless and left me alone most of the time.

Coleman was my boss at the FBI. He was a soft-spoken little gray-haired man, who contributed $1 to CFC for me because I refused to go along with the mandatory contribution. He had the only telephone in the whole office of 30 people on his desk, the phone where I accepted my next job at the agency where I now work.

Bill was my first boss at my current agency. He was the son of a southern high school principal who referred to his wife as "Miss Libby". His ideal employee was a white male. But he hired me and begged me to stay when I decided to leave. If it weren't for Bill I never would have met my husband.

Bob #1 was my first boss in the international area of my agency. He was a wheeler dealer, who eventually lost his job over a sexual harassment suit. He was grossly overweight and once threatened to plant himself in his boss's office if he didn't grant me a promotion. He convinced me that I could do anything I set out to do and I took on the processing problems of the third world under Bob. He spoke self-taught Spanish with a Portuguese accent, but never failed to make himself understood.

Bob #2 was my second boss in the international area. We came in at the same time and were supposed to have equal assignments, so at first I resented the fact that I was assigned to work for him. But he was fair and honest and always looked out for my welfare. I will forever remember that Bob actually delivered his second child in the back seat of his van on the way to the hospital. She will graduate from the U of Michigan Law School the day of my party.

Larry #1 was my third boss in the international area. He was a slippery one who had been married 3 times and knew how to delegate, to the point where he often ended up with little on his own plate. He taught me that if you didn't want someone to overhear your phone conversation, you should face a back corner of the room. He was good at deception. But in the end he was a good supporter.

Ed was my boss in the job that formed the doldrums of my career. He didn't have the slightest idea about what I was doing and that was just fine. He was an insomniac who loved to send me e-mail messages from work at 2 AM just to show he was in the office.

Bob #2 was again my boss when I was sent in to save a management information system that was floundering. He was slightly disorganized, but he was honest to a fault and I knew I could always trust him. He was ultimately my ticket out of that division.

Jay was the first wicked boss I had. I was put in charge of a large cost model when they couldn't figure out what else to do with me. When I tried to tell the truth, they decided to get rid of me. Jay told the big boss a bunch of lies about me and I will forever hate both of them.

Larry #2 was my boss in my current job until just about a year ago. He had a very different management style from mine. Most e-mail messages to Larry disappeared into a black hole as he much preferred personal communication. But Larry let all of us do our jobs without interfering. He required only the minimum of bureaucracy. He backed our decisions. He could talk about sports or yoga or meditation or politics, all equally well. I have missed him every day since he retired.

Lisa was the young boss that took over temporarily while they filled Larry's old job. She was in her mid-thirties, but had the wisdom of someone much older. I just received the sweetest note from Lisa in support of all the work I have done here. She was the one person in authority above me who never wavered in her support. I rue the day she was not selected for the job.

Susan is my current boss. She knows a lot about policy, but not a lot about technology or people. She has impressed those in authority, but is no longer fooling any of those of us under her. She is determined to micro-manage every aspect of our work and will cut anyone who disagrees with her off at the knees. But she has no regrets about any of our unfortunate dealings over the past few months. I asked and she said as much. She is a true bureaucrat through and through.

There you have it. These 11 individuals were my upper management during the past 36 years. I learned many lessons under their tutelage – lessons about what to do and what not to do.

It will be quite a change not to have a boss any longer. I suppose I will finally be my own boss. I hope I will treat myself with dignity and respect!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


It seems that many things I look at in my office these days bring back memories. In my decisions about what to take and what to leave, I keep running across keepsakes that tell many stories of the years I have spent in this place. I pulled a random selection of things to tell you about in today's post.

The wine glasses represent a sudden urge for fetuccine alfredo and white wine for lunch when I was in an office in Rosslyn. My friend Linda, who was perhaps the most emotional and demonstrative person I will ever know, and I trekked up to the Safeway, where we bought all the ingredients, including a bottle of wine and these glasses. We came back to the office and made lunch. I'm sure we shared the bottle of wine right in the office and didn't care who noticed. Our boss back then would have just joined us. Times have changed. The glasses have never held another drop of wine since that day in 1975.

The bird was a gift from Jeff, who was a collector of birds and music and porn featuring young girls and cucumbers. Jeff's foot was permanently stuck in his mouth. But he continued to amuse me, knowing he could always annoy me by calling me "Babs". I understand that Jeff, who was always way overweight, is now trim in his retirement in West Virginia. A former recently retired colleague and I plan to visit him soon.

The beach scene with real sand was one of my father's creations. He couldn't bear to throw anything away. So this is simply a recycled jelly container, replete with beach and sand. It is my beach where I grew up and fried my body in cocoa butter. There are many memories associated with that beach.

The little hinged walnut was also a product of my father signed by my son at probably about age 5. It contains a message on the inside "God loves you and so do I." "Daniel" is written in kid letters on the other side. What a treasured little nut.

The origami bird was the product of a quiet oriental girl who worked in the office for several years. Her legacy to the office was a flock of birds, each unique from the other. I wonder what became of her.

A "spin-pop candy" Harry Potter is the latest addition. I pulled this at the holiday gift exchange several years ago when Harry Potter was the hottest thing going. I will forever remember Jonah, the source of my little candy dispenser. Jonah has moved on to bigger and better things, run in the Marine marathon, and is expecting his first baby any day.

The abalone shell came from New Zealand. It was a gift from Julia with her very Aussie accent. She was doing a huge project on the use of administrative records. I painstakingly provided our data in exactly the form in which she needed it and got this beautiful shell in appreciation.

This is just the beginning of a stream of memories that come to the surface as I pack up the keepsakes of the past 35 years. There are many good ones that I will keep forever.

Up, Up and Away

Ever since I first saw the movie “To Fly” on the Smithsonian’s IMAX screen, I have wanted to go up in a hot-air balloon. I've wanted to see what it is like to just float above the earth among the clouds. Thanks to some generous coworkers I will now have the chance.

I have been working with many of these math geniuses for much of the last 12 years. Although we are in different divisions, we contribute equally to certain aspects of the survey we work on. We have developed a model for communication that works without a flaw. All of our work is programmed independently by our two respective staffs and then compared until every number matches to the 14th decimal place.

But beyond getting correct results, we have learned how to respect each other and talk to each other without involving our egos. This is something that many competing staffs never master.

Instead of our usual 11 AM meeting today which I was supposed to run, they surprised me with lunch. It was gourmet box lunch from Gerard’s of Oxon Hill. Who knew there was gourmet food in that part of PG County?

Then they pulled out a surprise wrapped in none other than a printout of pages from our website. Inside I found a certificate for myself and a companion to take a trip in a hot-air balloon while we sip champagne.

As I sat there in utter disbelief and amazement, the chief of the other branch, who is a macho Puerto Rican, gave a little speech that nearly brought tears to my eyes. He said all the things my superiors should be saying for me. It didn’t matter who said them. It felt so good to hear those words and to sense the good vibes from everyone in the room.

What a send-off! They couldn’t have chosen a more perfect present to launch my retirement. My heartfelt thanks to Alfredo (Freddie) and the gang! And especially to my friend Steve because I know he organized the whole thing.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

What Makes a Good Manager?

I’ve wondered several times lately just what it is that makes for a good manager – a manager of people and a project manager. I never had much formal training in these things. I tend to have my own style. But I am very good at it.

In the past few years, there has been a big push to send supervisory staff to a series of 7 one-week courses that are supposed to equip them to manage. They all seem to come out of those classes with a boatload of new techy solutions to an age-old problem of balancing personnel resources, budgets, demands, and schedules.

I’ve seen people come to meetings with elaborate Microsoft Project schedules that make absolutely no sense when you apply a reality factor. The bottom line is there is no technical substitute for common sense.

I do have a shelf full of management books I’ve collected throughout the years. I’ve decided to leave them behind for my staff of aspiring managers. Among them:

– The Psychology of Computer Programming by Gerald Weinberg
– Managing the Software Process by Watts Humphrey
– Swimming with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive by Harvey Mackay (maybe I should have read that one again before my new boss showed up).

I seriously doubt I will have any use for these reference books in the next phase of my life. I wonder if anyone else will find them useful, or will they just take more classes to find new techy solutions of the world’s management problems?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Friends I Didn't Know I Had

This whole retirement process is full of lessons. One of those lessons is the fact that there are several people within just a few years of my age at work who may become better friends in retirement that we have ever been at work.

Two of my colleagues took me out to lunch today. This was not one of those make-a-salad-together lunches. Instead they gave me my choice of restaurants and I picked Sonoma on Capitol Hill. I’ve never been disappointed with anything I ordered there and it seemed like the perfect day to escape from Suitland into real civilization.

I had never realized just how much I had in common with the woman. She’s married to a computer-math type who does research for the Army. She has two kids who are still finding themselves. She loves to garden. She loves to shop. She loves to travel. We made a deal to keep the personal relationship we started today going after I leave. She may be soon to follow me out the office door as she turns 60 later this year.

The man in our lunch trio was someone I have known for years, having worked with him in the international area of my agency. He is also a musician, having introduced me to the chamber music group at GWU.

Lunch at Sonoma was fabulous. I had a rock shrimp risotto. She had the cavatelli that I have enjoyed my last two visits to Sonoma. And he had barbequed octopus – absolutely delicious. I suggested that I treat us to a bottle of wine, which they refused to let me pay for but were happy to enjoy with me.

The best part was that because of some mix-up in the kitchen which delayed our order, we were presented with three of the best desserts I have ever eaten on the house!

Our gourmet lunch took us away from the office for 3 hours. I cannot imagine a better way to spend much of my 9th to the last day of work.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Is There a Right Thing to Do?

It turns out that I unknowingly have invited guests that hate each other to my party. I’m not exactly sure what to do now. Here’s some background information.

For 15 years I worked in the international area of my agency, seeing places like Nairobi, New Delhi, Santiago, and Tegucigalpa along the way. The people in that division were truly public servants, many without families, who devoted themselves to helping 3rd world countries. I reluctantly left when the travel demands were too great for my growing family.

My young temporary boss, who turned out to be a great supporter, is married to the man who currently heads up my old division.

I invited several friends from the old division and I invited the young ex-boss and her husband. Let’s just call them XB and H so as not to make this any more confusing than it is.

Last night I was at a retirement party for two of those friends from the old division. I heard horror stories about how H has lied to them and treated them just as badly as my current boss has treated me. His behavior is responsible for the fact that they retired.

I happened to mention to XB the other day that I had heard several people were leaving my old division. She said that H was glad to see them go.

So now what? Do I

(1) Uninvite XB and H?
(2) Ask XB if H is really coming (he might be on travel on May 5)?
(3) Warn XB that she may hear things she doesn’t want to hear about H?
(4) Reveal the guest list to all parties and just let them deal with it?

I picture myself walking into a friend’s retirement party and seeing my current boss there. That would be enough to make me walk back out. If what my old colleagues have said is true (and I don’t doubt it is because so many people were saying the same thing), H is behaving like a first-class bureaucratic asshole and needs to be fired. Of course I could say that about my current boss, too. The same people seem to be impressed with both of them. That says a whole lot about the leadership of my agency.

Please give me your advice on how to deal with this mess I have created!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Dealing with the Plague

Many Jewish children born in April can look forward to the Torah portion that deals with leprosy. It defies creativity in terms of thinking of something meaningful to say about it.

The young woman who became a bat mitzvah today at Temple Micah actually taught me a lot about this portion. I hadn’t realized that the thought at the time the Torah was written was that leprosy was inflicted on a person in response to something that person did wrong. The commentary suggests that the real catalyst was GOSSIP!

The Torah portion goes into great detail describing the particular lesions and how they were to be judged pure or impure. Impurity brought with it exile for 7 days, during which the person was supposed to think about his or her sins, and then a recheck by the priests at the end of the isolation period. If a priest got it, his career was over because the priests could only serve as long as they were “without blemish”.

I found myself thinking that if this were true, there might be an epidemic of leprosy in the DC Blogging community right about now after this past week's accusations and counter-accusations. My heart went out to all the victims who have told their stories of hatred and persecution. I know some of these people and wish we could roll back time to when we all basically got along. But it’s not that easy.

Reya and I noted that we Blog using our real names and even include pictures and have never experienced incidents of stalking or negative comments. That probably has a lot to do with how old we are and the subject matter of our Blogs. Who really cares about an aging soon-to-be-retired Bureaucrat or a photographer who finds the wind and the puddles of DC interesting?

But maybe this is a timely reminder to think about what we say about others. Gossip has a nasty way of making and breaking alliances at the same time. Nothing good has ever come of it. But fortunately nothing as bad as leprosy has come of it either.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Boss at Her Best

I came as close to having the "exit conversation" with my boss as I will probably come before I leave. Out of the blue I received in invitation to come into her "inner sanctum" for a brief meeting.

She allegedly wanted to impress upon me her desire to look out for me in my retirement, thrusting under my nose a "separation clearance" form that must be signed showing I am not absconding with any official property when I leave on May 3.

She asked about my infamous Blackberry that as of a couple of months ago was still coming up duplicatively on someone's inventory sheet. I assured her the Blackberry had been turned in and that I had a piece of paper to prove it. She reminded me that I would not get one dollar of retirement pay until I was officially cleared. I will be so glad when this woman no longer has anything to hold over my head. She agreed to do the necessary "research" to clear my name.

I just couldn't pass up this rare opportunity of face-time to ask her if she had any regrets about anything that had happened over the past several months. Her answer – "Absolutely none."

Even though this left me in somewhat of a state of shock, I couldn't resist following it with another question – "Do you think you have treated me fairly?" Instead of giving me a direct answer, she simply reiterated her intolerance with employees that could not back their boss under any circumstance. This statement just reenforced my decision to leave.

She patted herself on the back for going along with my wishes for a departure with no fanfare. I can only imagine that when and if she ever leaves, she will order up a brass band and champagne.

I walked out of that office wondering once again just what makes this woman tick? What hold does she have over the world that they all sit at her feet shaking their heads yes to whatever she says?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Once a Programmer

I’m wondering if I’m going to miss writing computer programs. Since I was 17 years old, I’ve been fascinated with creating algorithms in code.

After my junior year of high school I attended a summer math camp at FSU, where I learned FORTRAN II. At that point in time we had to enter our programs on punch cards and wait for hours or even overnight for the results. I remember the excitement of completing a program successfully, especially if I got it right before my nerdy boyfriend Steve did.

My first real job was in the Computer Center of FSU where I was hired on at $2.35 an hour. What did I do? I gave tours of the Computer Center, maintained the library of magnetic tapes, and worked as an operator several shifts a week. And did I mention that I learned how to juggle? FSU had a circus and it turns out that everyone in the Computer Center could juggle. It was sort of a prerequisite for working there!

With an undergrad degree in math, computer programming was about the best job I could hope for. Along the way I wrote programs in FORTRAN, Autocoder, IBM Assembler, COBOL, and SAS. Each one was different, with SAS making me the most productive.

Often I have solved a programming problem in the middle of the night. That actually happened to me last night, landing me in the office at 6 AM this morning. The problem was solved by 9 AM as I drank my morning tea.

I have resolutely been telling people that I’ll never write another line of SAS code after I walk out of my office for the last time on May 3. As I was treated to lunch by a friend today, she asked “Will you miss programming?”

I began to wonder about what would take the place of this intriguing series of languages that have equipped me to solve the world’s data problems.

As I sat in a planning meeting for Temple Micah’s High Holy Days, I found myself volunteering my programming skills to help my husband with a change to the website.

I just may miss this thing that has tied my brain up in knots at times, but has also afforded me not only a good income but a feeling of great satisfaction over the years. I may well miss it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


I think I know what it feels like to be becalmed in a sailboat far offshore with no one to come to your rescue. I feel like yelling FUCK at the top of my lungs, but no one is listening or even close enough to hear.

I'm still keeping up a cheerful outer appearance at work as I go through my lunches with selected friends. I explain to all of them how I'm going to play music, sleep late, do some volunteer work, and basically do whatever I want. They all sound envious and offer me their encouragement.

Today's group was 5 guys I have known for a long time. We talked a little bit about the real reason for my leaving, but I didn't dwell on it. The steam is gone and the charred remains of my anger are all that is left. It's just not worth trotting it out any longer.

Work is becoming somewhat surreal. People are politely informing me that they are going to my staff for things that I would ordinarily handle, just as it should be. It's sort of like life support being withdrawn gradually, so that by May 3 they can pull the plug entirely on me and I can float away on my own.

I found out today that I am on my own for the big party I plan to throw on May 5. I was counting on help from a good friend who would tend bar and also bring along someone to serve. I suppose I can convince Angelina, the young woman who cleans my house, to handle the serving and cleaning up as she did at our oldies concert. Despite her limited English she has a knack for knowing what needs to be done and will leave my house with not a dirty dish to be washed. As for a bartender, my friend Kris offered up her daughter Laura, who is an adorable girl just my son's age. She could probably think of many things she would rather do than hang out with a bunch of old fogies, but hopefully she will give up a Saturday night for the cause. I'm still mulling over the menu and thinking about cooking.

But today's mood is one of feeling totally deflated, as I sit in my boat slowly going nowhere. I need to figure out how to get some air in my sails so I can continue the journey I set out on. Otherwise I will just sit here with my limp sails looking at a glassy sea.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Boy's Mother

As I process what happened yesterday at VPI, my first thoughts go to the victims and their families. I realize that one of the victims is the young Asian shooter himself.

I find myself dwelling on his mother. Not only must she grieve for her dead son, but she must also come to terms with the fact that he took 32 other lives before taking his own.

Her life will be changed forever because of those few minutes of violence. She will inevitably blame herself for whatever went wrong in her son’s life. She will feel the suspicion, accusation, and pity in the eyes of neighbors and friends.

She will relive the good times in the life of her son. She will remember when he went away to college. She will try to make sense of whatever happened that led up to this tragedy. She will forever ask why?

She will want to turn the clock back and see a different outcome. Instead she will live with the history written by her son for the rest of her life.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Clocking Out

For my entire adult life I have arranged appointments around my work schedule, lobbying for first thing in the morning or the last appointment in the afternoon or perhaps even a lunch-time appointment. But that's all about to change.

The government is actually quite generous when it comes to annual (holiday) leave. After 15 years a government worker earns 26 days of paid vacation time a year. That same worker earns 13 days of paid sick leave a year. But most of us have scrimped and saved to make the most of this time off.

When our children were young and were subject to the typical children's diseases, some of our worst arguments were over who had to stay home. It was not at all that we didn't want to be with our children, but it was the pressure of needing to be at work and not wanting to use too much leave of any sort.

I remember with a feeling of great guilt leaving 4-year-old Rachel covered with the chicken pox at home with an 85-year-old woman who could barely get out of the Lazy-boy lounger. Rachel ended up heating up her own lunch in the microwave and pretty much fending for herself. What bad parents we were.

There were those dreaded calls from the school: Your child is in the office with a fever of 100 degrees. Please come get him as soon as possible. Groan!

Home repairs rivaled sick children as we both struggled to go to work. There was always a 4-hour window during which you had to stay home because you never knew when and if they would ever show up to fix whatever was broken.

Routine doctors' appointments always had to be arranged around a schedule of meetings, training, and other work demands. If I scheduled an appointment around the middle of the day, I could sometimes get by with using just an hour of sick leave, racing into the city in 25 minutes and then back, having used my entire lunch hour as well.

This will all change in a mere 14 days. I can take the times that are still available on the doctor's calendar. I can practice my music while I wait for the appliance repair man to show up. There will be no leave taken because every day will be a vacation day.

I'm sure there will be a necessary transition to this new unscheduled life of mine. But it's one I am looking forward to embracing!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

A Life and Death Matter

Just what does the name Sir Walter Raleigh conjure up for you? A restaurant that used to exist in Bethesda? The name on my father’s tobacco can? Someone from a history lesson I once learned and promptly forgot? When I asked my husband that question, his first response – Was he a real person?

It turns out he was quite real, living from 1552 to 1618. His was a life of impossible choices as he fell in and out of royal favor. I’ve recently read again and again a piece shared with me by my friend Ulysses by Paul Auster called “The Death of Sir Walter Raleigh”. It is a study in determination and courage with the certainty of death ever present.

Walter Raleigh established the first English colony in the New World on Roanoke Island (off the coast of present-day North Carolina) in 1584. By 1588 all the inhabitants had disappeared, giving it the name The Lost Colony. He found favor with Queen Elizabeth, being knighted in 1585. He secretly married one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, who was pregnant for the third time. Despite the fact that this marriage dismissed her from the Queen’s service and temporarily landed him in prison, he remained committed to her, fathering a son Walter.

In 1603 soon after the death of Queen Elizabeth, his fortunes changed significantly as he found himself languishing in the depths of the Tower of London on a life sentence trumped up over a single conversation he had with the Spanish.

In 1616 he was presented with the difficult choice of remaining in prison with certain eventual death or being released to head an expedition to the New World with the rather impossible goal of stealing gold from the Spanish. If he succeeds, he will be pardoned. If he fails, he will face certain and immediate death. In his heart of hearts, he probably understood that he would die with either choice, but the lure of the New World and the intrigue of the challenge made his choice for him.

For some odd reason he chose to take his son Walter, who was indeed a wild child, with him. The trip was plagued from the onset. The crew rebels, no gold can be found, the Spanish are predictably hostile, and worst of all, his son is murdered in the jungle.

But here is the kicker in this story. Knowing full well what awaits him back home, he chooses to return. Why not just live out his days on some tropical island or disappear into the wilderness in the vastness of the New World? Was it his anguish over his son’s murder? Thoughts of seeing his wife again? The remote possibility his death sentence would not be carried out? We’ll never know. With whatever rationale, he goes back, where as duly promised his head is cut off with an axe in 1618.

Paul Auster, the author of the article, finds that Sir Walter Raleigh had learned not only the art of living, but also the art of dying. He depicts death as a wall and offers the following observation:

Each man approaches the wall. One man turns his back, and in the end he is struck from behind. Another goes blind at the very thought of it and spends his whole life groping ahead in fear. And another sees it from the very beginning, and though his fear is no less, he will teach himself to face it, and go through life with open eyes. Every act will count, even to the last act, because nothing will matter to him anymore. He will live because he is able to die. And he will touch the very wall.

I love this story of courage with impossible choices that took this man to his death scene, where his last words were “Strike man, strike.” I would like to think I can embrace life’s and death’s choices with the same conviction.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

A Chance Encounter

When I parted ways with my therapist Kathryn last year, I knew there might be a time in the future when we would run into each other. After all, it’s not such a big city and we do have some common acquaintances.

But as I stood up to sing Ma Tovu at this morning’s Torah service and looked out at the congregation, I was totally unprepared to see none other than Kathryn front and center. I surmised that the balding guy with the funny reading glasses to her right was her husband Richard. She didn’t make eye contact, but I was fairly sure she had recognized me, too.

Kathryn had provided much-needed help over the course of 6 months or so last year. I had complained bitterly about her propensity to bury her head in a notebook thereby avoiding eye contact, to the point that she eventually did away with the notebook. I balked at her insistence on paying for a weekly appointment, even when you were on vacation. I hated her hugless policy which didn’t permit even a handshake at the end of the session. But despite her tendency to go by the book, she was of enormous help to me and we ended our therapy relationship on a positive note.

As I observed her in the congregation this morning, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why is she here? Does she know the Bar Mitzvah family? Will she shake my hand? Should I introduce her to my husband? Should our former relationship be a secret? She actually looked a little sad, a little older, and she seemed disconnected from the service, not being a Jew although she is married to one.

After the service concluded, I approached her to be greeted by a big smile and a sincere handshake. She seemed just like any other long-lost friend.

I did mention my strange encounter to our rabbi Toby who had a good laugh over it, commenting that you can never be too sure who you’re going to run into on a Saturday morning.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Continued Pondering

I’ve had thoughts and dreams recently about living and dying. As several of you suggested, “living” is probably just a metaphor for “retirement” for me. But my mind is also preoccupied by thoughts of my friend Florence who is dying. “Where worlds collide” was the theme this week, or so it seems.

It was appropriate I suppose that my last book purchase was Billy Collins’ collection “Questions about Angels”. This poem of his seems a good way to end this week of contemplation:

The Afterlife

While you are preparing for sleep, brushing your teeth,
or riffling through a magazine in bed,
the dead of the day are setting out on their journey.

They are moving off in all imaginable directions,
each according to his own private belief,
and this is the secret that silent Lazarus would not reveal:
that everyone is right, as it turns out.
You go to the place you always thought you would go,
the place you kept lit in an alcove in your head.

Some are being shot up a funnel of flashing colors
into a zone of light, white as a January sun.
Others are standing naked before a forbidding judge who sits
with a golden ladder on one side, a coal chute on the other.

Some have already joined the celestial choir
and are singing as if they have been doing this forever,
while the less inventive find themselves stuck
in a big air-conditioned room full of food and chorus girls.

Some are approaching the apartment of the female God,
a woman in her forties with short wiry hair
and glasses hanging from her neck by a string.
With one eye she regards the dead through a hole in her door.

There are those who are squeezing into the bodies
of animals – eagles and leopards – and one trying on
the skin of a monkey like a tight suit,
ready to begin another life in a more simple key,

while others float off into some benign vagueness,
little units of energy heading for the ultimate elsewhere.

There are even a few classicists being lead to an underworld
by a mythological creature with a beard and hooves.
He will bring them to the mouth of a furious cave
guarded over by Edith Hamilton and her three-headed dog.

The rest just lie on their backs in their coffins
wishing they could return so they could learn Italian
or see the pyramids, or play some golf in a light rain.
They wish they could wake in the morning like you
and stand at a window examining the winter trees,
every branch traced with the ghost writing of snow.


Which group will you find yourself in?

I'm still processing a piece given to me by a friend and entitled "The Death of Sir Walter Raleigh". I've read it 3 or 4 times, each time seeing new things. Maybe soon I will be prepared to write something about this as I work this living-dying thing out of my system and move on to something perhaps more upbeat...

Thursday, April 12, 2007

A Vision of the Other Side

Have you ever felt like you had visited that narrow place that separates the living from the dead? I had a vision yesterday afternoon as I listened to Golden Spa Tones and experienced a much-needed massage. Maybe it was the Tibetan bowls. Maybe it was the eyebag that provided that cool darkness. For whatever reason I was living out a Margaret Atwood type drama at the point of crossing over.

More and more often as I meditate I go into almost a trance state where I have the equivalent of dreams. This was just such an experience yesterday. But contrary to my sleep dreams, I could remember every last detail of this one when it was over.

So here’s the scene. I’m lying on a massage table receiving massage while listening to the Tibetan bells. But there are others lying on similar tables in the same room and they are not receiving massage. Instead they are in the process of being embalmed. I see the tubes of embalming fluid being pumped into their veins. I realize they are quite dead.

And then I wonder if massage is the precursor to this next step. I want some assurance that I am alive. I realize that as long as I can feel the smooth strong strokes of the massage that I am indeed alive. I tune in to each and every one of them.

At the point at which I remove the eyebag to turn over, I glance through the adjacent plate glass window to see my parents – they always come together – waving to me. Yikes! They think I’m here to cross over. Am I?

I’m not frightened. The sounds are pleasant sounds. The hands massaging my body are warm and the oil is fragrant. It’s actually a very reassuring environment.

But this was not supposed to happen today. In fact, I was just getting ready to ratchet up my interest in living as I embark on retirement. I need just a little more time to do all those things I’ve been saving up.

Then the massage is over and I almost cry with joy to open my eyes and realize how very much alive I still am. Perhaps we have to go to the brink sometimes to renew our appreciation of life as it is in this world. But what a trip down there with the dead and what a vision across to the other side.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Let's Do Lunch #1

"Let’s do lunch" began in earnest yesterday as I started counting down to May 3, my retirement date. It was a small group of 4 people I’ve come to love and respect over the past couple of years as we tackled big problems together and were successful.

We actually got off to a rocky start initially in our working relationship because they knew so little and demanded so much of my time and support. But they came with an attitude of wanting to learn and respect for me, the only ingredients I demanded. They have a boss who is seldom around and gives them about as much support as my boss gives me. Perhaps that’s what we really have in common.

As for lunch – Originally I had thought we would be outside at a picnic table, so I brought in the blue striped tablecloth. But yesterday we were still in the spring deep-freeze, so a room inside seemed a better idea.

At 11:45 I filled the faux-silver bowl with mixed salad greens, sweet grape tomatoes, chopped walnuts, croutons, and lots of grilled marinated chicken strips. We headed upstairs to a secluded room where we could gossip to our hearts’ content.

The others brought great additions to the group salad: sliced hard-boiled eggs, crab sticks, and feta cheese. I dressed it with Annie’s Raspberry Vinaigrette. Then we tossed it all together and served it up. One of them provided a cheese ball and crackers, always good comfort foods.

The salad filled our growling stomachs as we launched into discussions ranging from office gossip to who might take my job to issues of joint custody. This is not a shy bunch. They are actually about as fed up as I am with the current state of things and every one of them has thoughts of bailing out.

No lunch would be complete without something sweet. The guy in the bunch contributed homemade chocolate chip cookies and there was a choice of Hershey’s chocolate.

By 1:00 we headed back downstairs with a mostly empty salad bowl and a feeling of closeness and closure.

This was exactly the sort of experience I intended when I came up with the idea of saying goodbye over salad.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Mystery Man Update

I've exchanged more information in the past few days with RW, who was in my high school graduating class, than I did in 3 years of high school. In fact, I have absolutely no memory of this guy at all.

Was I such an incredible snob in high school that I chose to totally overlook RW? Instead I generally picked a cute guy to sit behind in classes where I could get by with whispering or passing notes.

There was the football player on whom I had had a crush since the 8th grade. I'll never forget the day as I sat there in French class in my virginal state and he told me his sophomore girlfriend was preggers. Those were the days when girls in this way were shipped off to stay with a relative until the baby was born, as she soon was. He would also give me blow-by-blow descriptions of how much pain he had inflicted on black players on opposing football teams, being encouraged in this by his father. Yikes! (Remember this was the Florida panhandle, which did not easily embrace integration.) I actually dated this guy for a while when I was at FSU and he was a the U of F playing football. After all those years of secret love, I realized I valued him as a friend, but there was no longer a romantic spark.

Then there was my other guy friend who entertained me through many a math class taught by a fairly deaf older teacher with stories of his sexual exploits. I still remember how impressed he was with how wide his girlfriend could spread her legs.

So where was RW, while I was palling around with these guys, who were obviously on a much faster track than I was?

I've learned that RW was indeed camera shy, choosing not to have a senior picture made or to even participate in the graduation ceremony. Perhaps this was because he was much younger than the rest of us, having skipped 2 grades. However, we probably didn't realize this because he was a big burly guy by age 14.

RW was from the proverbial other side of the tracks, coming from a fairly remote little community and attending "the other" junior high school. I realize now that my friends and I were incredibly clic-ish often treating such persons as outsiders. But this was not usually to the point of making them invisible.

What is surprising to me is that I thought I had identified the "intellectuals" in our class – those people who were in the top 10 grade-wise, those who got into good colleges. Wouldn't that be right? Apparently no one knew that RW had learned algebra and geometry in the second grade, that he was a voracious reader, that he could probably match or better the IQ of anyone in our class.

My exchanges with RW, that have included discussions of many of our classmates, make me realize that I totally missed our on an opportunity to know this guy who probably had a lot to offer even back then.

I am not in the least interested in seeing most of my classmates at the upcoming 40th reunion. But I am totally looking forward to seeing my small group of friends and meeting RW, as if for the first time.

(I hear Velvet off in the distance reminding me how gullible I was in the whole BP saga...)

Monday, April 09, 2007

Letting Yourself Listen

Would you be smart enough to recognize the genius of Joshua Bell playing his 3.5 million dollar Stradivarius on the street? Probably not according to a recent "test", where he played outside the L’Enfant Plaza metro stop for 43 minutes and collected exactly $32.17.
The Washington Post Magazine feature article this past weekend was somewhat alarming. It described a carefully planned surprise concert by Joshua Bell on January 12, just a few months ago. I think it’s great that he went along with the idea, to the point of donning scruffy clothes and a baseball cap, so as to look like just any other street musician out to make a buck or two. It was not possible to disguise his one-of-a-kind violin, but most people didn’t even spend a lot of time looking at his instrument.
When asked to predict the success of this experiment, Leonard Slatkin, the conductor of the NSO, thought the young violinist would pull in around $150 in 45 minutes – 5 times what he actually made. This is in contrast to Joshua Bell’s actual income of $1,000 per minute when in concert.
"What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?" from Leisure by W.H. Davies.
During the entire time, only one person stopped to listen. She recognized Bell from a recent Library of Congress concert and had front row, center in the L’Enfant Plaza concert. She threw in $20, more than half his take. She was appalled that people were throwing quarters and even pennies!
A young child wanted to get a look at the source of the music, but the mother carefully positioned herself between the child and the musician so they wouldn’t need to stop their journey to daycare.
Those who found out after the fact were frustrated and embarrassed, kicking themselves for their misplaced priorities and for having given up such an opportunity.
I kept asking myself if I would have been able to tell the difference, if I would have stopped to listen, if I would have thrown in a contribution befitting such a performer. I really don’t know. But I do know the next time I see a street musician, I will give him or her more than just a fleeting glance.
A video clip of Joshua Bell's concert at L'Enfant Plaza can be seen here.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Thoughts about an Exit Letter

I find myself mentally writing and polishing the following letter to my boss, which I will probably never send. But some days the temptation is great.

Dear _____,

As I go out the door for the last time, I can say with certainty that in just 6 months you have earned the distinction of being my worst boss in 36 years. I had only one other that even came close, and fortunately most of my bosses valued me as an employee.

I hope you have learned something from our brief encounter. I hope you have learned to lend your ear to those who work for you, as opposed to people in other divisions with whom your loyalty seems to lie for some odd reason.

If you haven’t learned this lesson, the program we have all worked so hard to create will certainly fail and you will be largely responsible for its failure.

I hope that some day I will remember you only as the person who helped me retire two years earlier than I had planned. I hope my bitter thoughts about our time together will eventually be replaced by more pleasant memories of my life after work.


Saturday, April 07, 2007

Mystery Man

Yesterday I got a comment from an Anon who had found my Blog while searching for “Bay County High School Class of 1967". Yes, that would be me. And yes, I had written a couple of posts about our upcoming 40th reunion.

I asked the Anon to e-mail me, which he did giving me a name of RW (I’ll just use initials since he chose not to use his name on my Blog). There were only 300 people in my class and I knew most of them at least by name, but this name just didn’t ring a bell. But then it has been 40 years.

So I wrote him back to get more info, giving the names of some of my friends. He said he thought he remembered me and had had classes with some of them, one of which would have put him in my Math Analysis class, which had only about 20 people in it. For the life of me RW did not seem like one of them.

I decided to look him up in my high school yearbook. Now where in the world might that be? I got out a flashlight and looked at all the boxes in the basement (all labeled in my Type A fashion). No yearbook. Then I tried the attic. BINGO! “High school and college yearbooks” at the bottom of a big stack of boxes.

But when I looked at my class, there was no one by the name he had given me. So the mystery deepens. Either this guy is not giving me his real name, he changed his name, or he can’t remember what year he actually graduated.

I just sent him the info on the reunion he had requested. It will be interesting to see how this one plays out! May be worth going to the reunion to finally meet RW.

You never can tell what your Blog is going to turn up!

Friday, April 06, 2007

Thinking About Down-sizing

A king-size bed is both a blessing and a curse. It means that you have all the room in the world to flop around without disturbing the other person sharing your bed. But it also means that running into each other must be intentional.
My husband and I were both in somewhat of a funk last night. He is quite worried about his elderly mother whose degenerating spine is causing her great pain and the only solution seems to be heavy-duty pain medication. I'm still caught up with aggravations at work that at least have an end date attached to them, but for now the gang of four is still driving me crazy.
I went to bed last night feeling lonely and cold. Our bed never had seemed so big and empty.
When my husband came to bed at his usual 2 AM, I was aroused from a deep sleep to find myself being hugged from behind. From the time I was a little child, I always found this hug to be the most comforting, the most reassuring.
I'm pretty sure that hug led to other sensual things. Although when you are at your period of deepest sleep, it's hard to sort out what was real and what was a dream.
In any event, it was so nice to find each other last night at a time when we must really rely on each other for strength to deal with our particular set of problems.
Sometimes I wonder if we should down-size our bed to say a queen. There's something rather nice about bumping into someone you love when you turn over, don't you think?

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Take 5... or maybe 30

Taking a nap is such a civilized thing to do. Unfortunately we feel we can justify a break during the day only if we are sick or dead tired.
My good friend Deborah, who is a workaholic, had her gallbladder out two weeks ago and suffered a horrific infection afterwards. She is just now starting to feel better and is marveling that she can sleep for 3 hours each afternoon with no problem. She’s projecting to next week when she’s back to 12-hour days and imagining she will miss that afternoon nap.
I can remember as a young child being coerced into taking a nap only if my mother would lie down with me. Little did I know that she really looked forward to this excuse to take a break in the afternoon. I fought the idea of giving up playtime to sleep, but sleep always came easily.
Spanish-speaking countries have long observed a siesta in the afternoon, when work and school were put on hold for several hours and everyone just had a nice rest. I wonder why the Spanish were so smart and the rest of the world never learned the concept of siesta?
Now that I’m being freed from my mandatory schedule on May 3, I can contemplate taking a nap if I feel like it. I often find that just 20 minutes of downtime can recharge me as not even a double-shot latte can.
A nap doesn’t even need to be in your very own bed. I can foresee taking a long bike ride, finding a nice grassy field, and just dozing outside for a half hour before pedaling back to wherever I came from. A nap outdoors (if it isn’t buggy) is just about as good as it gets.
So as Deborah weans herself from naps, I will be getting ready to start enjoying them whenever and wherever they fit into my unplanned days.
What a delicious luxury to contemplate!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A Poem for Spring

Here's a very cool poem read by 77-year-old Nancy at last Saturday's poetry reading at Florence's house. Read it out loud to a friend.

Everyone Was in Love by Galway Kinnell

One day, when they were little, Maud and Fergus
appeared in the doorway naked and mirthful,
with a dozen long garter snakes draped over
each of them like brand-new clothes.
Snake tails dangled down their backs,
and snake foreparts in various lengths
fell over their fronts with heads raised and swaying,
alert as cobras. They were writhing their dry skins
upon each other, as snakes like doing
in lovemaking, with the added novelty
of caressing soft, smooth, moist human skin.
Maud and Fergus were deliciously pleased with themselves.
The snakes seemed to be tickled, too.
We were enchanted. Everyone was in love.
Then Maud drew down off Fergus’s shoulder,
as off a tie rack, a peculiarly
lumpy snake and told me to look inside.
Inside the double-hinged jaw, a frog’s green
webbed hind feet were being drawn,
like a diver’s, very slowly as if into deepest waters.
Perhaps thinking I might be considering rescue,
Maud said, "Don’t. Frog is already elsewhere."

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Two Legendary Greats

Last night during our seder, just as we were pouring the cup of wine that’s supposed to welcome Elijah, someone knocked on the door and we all started. Tell yourself it’s make-believe, but that knock was quite real.

It turned out to be a neighbor wanting information on our lawncare person. He quickly went away upon learning what was going on inside, probably thinking we were doing some sort of weird religious ritual.

The fact that everyone celebrating a seder last night was also welcoming Elijah conjured up in my mind a very real parallel to Santa Claus. Elijah has the same mandate to hit every Jewish house where a seder is in progress that Santa Claus has to visit every Christian house with expectant children on Christmas Eve.

I suppose there is a distinction. Elijah does not come bearing gifts, but instead he is supposed to be ushering in the Messiah when he comes. So perhaps the idea is that he just enters through the door left cracked to drink a sip of wine until the Messianic Age is a reality. Probably not nearly the appeal to Jewish children as a Santa Claus figure who leaves toys behind. Interesting too that Elijah drinks Manishevitz and Santa Claus prefers hot chocolate. At least Elijah got his priorities right on that one.

So with the conclusion of the second seder, Elijah is practically done for this season and can perhaps join Santa Claus for a vacation at the South Pole, which should be nice this time of the year.

Somebody Else's Problem

It’s amazing how differently I look at problems these days. When I hear that a new complicated test is to be fielded in September 2007, I immediately wonder what I am going to be doing in that time frame. The responsibility for the test will be someone else’s. So while others around the table are getting those inevitable tense strained looks on their faces, I am slipping into fantasy land.

Let’s see... by September I hope to have a major trip in the making. Maybe Patagonia around the end of the year when it’s warm in the Southern Hemisphere. Maybe I’ll renew some of my old contacts in Chile and stop through Santiago on the way down, introducing David to one of my favorite countries in the whole world. That might mean the need for brushing up on my Spanish. Why not?

We are getting structured to death in my office. I’m a firm believer in minimal bureaucracy, just the infrastructure that is absolutely necessary to get the work done. But instead they are inventing new titles for things we’ve been doing all along. So when the urgent need to identify a "Data Custodian" came up, I said to my colleague, "I guess it’s you since I’m out of here." There will probably be a weekly meeting of data custodians added to the already overburdened schedule of meetings. I see the whole organization getting tied up in bureaucratic knots. But I am figuring out how to disentangle myself from the bureaucracy – to cut myself free. What a good feeling.

My biggest order of business is scheduling lunch these days. I put out the call to "do lunch" with those I care about. It has been so heartening to hear back from all these people. My "lunch card" is quickly getting filled up between here and May 3.

I love being a short-timer. I love counting down the days!

Monday, April 02, 2007

Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights?

It’s different because I am NEVER up at midnight on a work night, for one thing! We actually had one of the best seders ever. We got the Jews out of Egypt and back to the promised land, this year via Darfur. David had planned a very thoughtful seder that included looking at the issue of genocide in Darfur and talking about how the world might make a difference.

We all did our usual complaining about when we would be able to eat that seems to be the mainstay of any seder. It’s really hard to plan a meal that must be fully cooked and then put on hold for 2 hours. But slow simmer and aluminum foil kept things reasonably edible and everyone said it was good, whether it was or not.

This year’s leftovers have a special destination. Florence, our 91-year-old friend with a brain tumor, could not join us at our seder. So we are taking a seder to her tomorrow. There was plenty of food left over and that way her family can have a final seder with her. She’s getting everything from the roasted lamb shank bone to the homemade macaroons.

Getting everything ready for this meal is a real challenge. But perhaps the most daunting challenge is cleaning up afterwards. Contrary to my younger years, I now recognize that any mess will still be there the next day and I insist only on getting the leftovers into the refrigerator.

And me? I’m just about sedered out for this year. I’m sure there will be more fish in my future, but this year is history.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Rite of Passover

Gefillte fish is one of those foods you either love or hate. You don’t acquire a taste for it. You just know the first time you try it.

I happen to love it. Probably because it is so like fiskeballer that come from my Norwegian heritage. At any rate, my love for this peculiar Passover food was one of the first things to make my mother-in-law give me a chance, despite the fact that it was not a food of my childhood. When I learned to make it, we were solid. To this day she introduces me to her friends as the daughter-in-law who can make “the fish”.

Today was the day to make this year’s fish. We’ve come a long way since my first batch which required an old-fashioned meat grinder. I carefully ground three kinds of fish: white fish, pike, and carp. Today I actually get the same three kinds of fish from a Korean fish market near Chevy Chase Circle, already ground, with the bones and heads in a separate bag. (If you have never eaten gefillte fish, you are probably already starting to roll your eyes.)

You slowly simmer a fish stock using the bones and heads and onions and carrots while you prepare the fish mixture. This is not one of the more pleasant kitchen smells, so it is better to make it the day before your Passover seder so the house can air out a bit.

The ground fish is combined with pureed onions, carrots, and parsnips, eggs, salt, pepper, and a little sugar. I actually use my hands to mix it all together, being literally up to my elbows in fish. Then you carefully form patties which you drop into the boiling stock to cook for a while.

This is one of those food that defies measurement or timing. You experiment with seasoning until it just seems right. You cook it until it looks done. So much for precision.

While it’s cooking, you make red horseradish that will knock your socks off. It’s simply horseradish root, a large beet, white vinegar, and sugar all blended together. You don’t dare stand over the food processor when you open the lid because the fumes are overpowering.

When the fish is done it is removed to a storage container, a carrot slice placed on the top of each patty, and some of the stock added to keep it from getting too dry. One of the great bi-products of gefillte fish is the richest fish stock you will ever find. It makes a great bouillabaise. But that is not for this holiday.

The cook’s reward is a plate of fish and horseradish, served with none other than the first matzah of the season. This is the rite that announces the coming of Passover.

The Only Thing Missing Was the Marshmallows

Last night was like going to a Jewish campfire sing-along. Singer, songwriter Debbie Friedman did a concert at Temple Micah to a sell-out crowd of people from all over the DC metropolitan area.

It was interesting to see the bimah reconfigured as a stage, even though the torahs were there in the background in their little wooden houses, as if guardians of the bimah. The eternal flame burned on overhead.

There was a big industrial-strength sound system, the likes of which that sanctuary has never before seen. For once everyone could hear, no matter where he was sitting.

We sang all the old standards – like Mi Sheberach (the healing prayer) and Miriam’s Dance. She has this unique quality of intermingling the Hebrew and English words that is so helpful to those of us who are not fluent in Hebrew. Then there were new songs which she taught to the audience in the old “I’ll sing it and then you sing it” style. She played her guitar with an incredible level of energy and her back-up band was right there with her.

Toward the end she was joined by some local Jewish great voices and the effect was resounding and uplifting. Debbie Friedman has taken modern Jewish music to a new level, although her appeal is probably limited to Reform Jews, who comprise about 40% of the Jews in the US.

It was an evening to remember!

You can hear a clip of her music on David's Blog about this concert.