Friday, February 29, 2008

Cute but Uninvited

They’re back! We haven’t had these uninvited nocturnal guests for a couple of years, but the indication is they have returned.

Every few years we are visited by mice. It might be a single mouse or a couple or a small family. I’m never too sure until they disappear and I forget about them once again.

I’ve always hated the idea of hurting any animal. So for many years I insisted on using a Have-a-Heart trap, which meant I had to check periodically to see if any mice needed to be taken to the woods and released. But I think there was some homing device that attracted them back to our house as quickly as I freed them.

I refuse to ever consider using the sticky sheets that trap them but don’t kill them. The idea of mice in my attic or kitchen screaming as they slowly die is just unacceptable.

But the last bout of mice convinced me to go to the conventional old-fashioned snap trap, the kind that with any luck breaks their neck in a quick snap, just after they have eaten the peanut butter treat. Of course it can always go wrong, snagging a leg instead of a neck, but in most cases it works well and hopefully quickly.

I had started to wonder recently as I noticed what I thought was small dirt specks in the silverware drawer. How could dirt be getting into a bunch of clean forks and spoons? I didn’t think much more about it until this morning when it became clear it was more than specks of dirt.

I guess I will need to make a trip to the hardware store for a bag of mousetraps, buy some peanut butter, and set out the baited traps. Then it will inevitably be my job to get rid of them. Some people just can’t bear the sight of even a dead mouse.

I continue to wonder what attracted them back now? And why our house? Were we listed on some Craig’s list for mice as suckers with food in our kitchen drawers?

There could be so many things worse than mice, an annoyance way down on the list beneath things like fleas and lice. A few broken necks and they’ll be gone for several more years I suppose.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Tels of Time

There is nothing like cleaning out a drawer of old files to send you on a trip down memory lane. My new project is to gradually clean out our bulging file drawers. Yesterday saw the completion of one half of one drawer. Two folders caught my interest.

“Labor Sources” has been the repository for all those business cards, fliers, articles of recommendation that might connect us to a plumber, a house cleaner, a source of mulch, or even a caterer. The little pink bi-fold above represented a business venture by my friend KC probably 20 years ago. I laughed as I said to my husband, “I think I’ll ask her if the prices are still current.” She continues to bake up a storm and has even mentioned catering in her retirement years, but I would guess the prices will be just a little higher with 20 years of inflation.

“Household Repairs” brought back a flood of memories – in some cases, a literal flood. We seem to have needed a lot of plumbing over the years. Every emergency requiring a professional came into clear view as I remembered wringing towels, renting a wet-vac, running fans afterwards. There was also the purchase of a new furnace, a new AC, carpet cleaning, refinishing the fireplace tools that I had bought at a yard sale for $25 in 1971, and on and on and on.

There is always the question of what to keep. So far I am throwing out about 75%, figuring it is just taking up drawer space.

The need for paper of any sort has greatly diminished over the past 3 decades. Just about anything we need, from equipment instructions to purchase history to labor sources, is online and much more current than anything filed away in a drawer. I will continue to pitch out all these pieces of our family history, knowing they are probably far more useful in the recycle bin!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Thoughts on Healing

Any sort of illness always makes me grateful for my body’s ability to be restored to good health. I’ve become increasingly aware that not everyone is so lucky.

I remember when as a child I first learned about hemophiliacs – persons whose blood doesn’t clot normally. It had never occurred to me that a skinned knee or a slip of a knife could be fatal for some people, whereas for me it just meant a Band-aid. Can you imagine going through life in terror of even a small accident that would result in breaking your skin?

We hear increasingly of people whose auto-immune systems are compromised. Maybe it’s the result of the chemicals we have introduced into our environment. Maybe it’s the bi-product of a viral infection that leaves the body compromised. But whatever the cause, the result has to be terrifying. A bout of the flu or a bacterial infection or the exposure to any of the thousands of viruses that are out there could bring on an illness with prolonged symptoms or even death if there were no possible intervention. In any event, treatment of successive illnesses often demands stronger and stronger antibiotics. There comes a point at which there is nothing stronger.

So I feel fortunate that the only reminder of my recent illness is feeling a little tired and welcoming an afternoon nap.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

One More Time

People who are mathematicians usually love music theory and just soak it up. However, my few feeble attempts to learn it over the years have left me with the knowledge of a few major scales and not a lot of desire to know more.

My new teacher believes knowing theory makes reading and understanding music easier and I’m sure she is right.

Part of my homework this week was to complete chapter 1 of a programmatic music theory book, where you fill in a lot of blanks and check your answers.

I now know what a diatonic semitone is, what a chromatic semitone is, and what a full tone is and how to recognize all three. I know how to devise any major scale, but I couldn’t just rattle off the notes in the F flat major scale without a pencil and paper. And even if I could, I’m still not sure what good it would do me.

Maybe some of this will start to become clearer with my music lesson tomorrow. It would be nice to finally be able to say, “So that’s what it’s all about!”

I think an understanding of music theory would give me about as much satisfaction as learning to drive a standard-shift car, but at least with the car, I knew where I was going. I’m still not sure with music theory.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Six Eyes, but Which Eyes?

When I took off my glasses tonight in yoga to do a belly pose, I suddenly understood why I had a headache. I had worn my new “piano” glasses, which are NOT for driving, and had spent quite a while fighting rush hour traffic to get there.

Since I quit memorizing the eye charts at age 17 and got my first pair of glasses, I have never had to look for my glasses because they have always been on my face. I have had prescription sunglasses for years which I seldom wear, preferring instead not to have to think about changing glasses.

The whole philosophy of the new glasses, as suggested by my piano teacher, is that they take they give you the mid- and short-range portions of the standard progressive lense, dropping off the distance portion and thereby greatly increasing your peripheral vision and not causing you to have to move your head so much to see clearly.

But after today’s experience I feel like I need a course in glasses management. I had jokingly said to the girl at the optician’s, “I guess I can tell them apart by the fact that the frame goes all the way around the lense in my old pair, right?” So that was the clue in my yoga class – no frame on the bottom..

Then my head really started to pound and I considered my options for driving home. I could wear my sunglasses in the pitch black or just wear the new glasses and hope for the best. I popped an Alleve and did the latter.

I now must come up with a plan, a routine, that will assure this doesn’t happen again. One approach would be to always have both pairs with me when I leave the house. Another would be to train myself to switch back after playing the piano, reading, or looking at my computer. This is starting to sound way too complicated.

Unfortunately the new glasses make such a positive difference for things like looking at a computer screen or playing the piano that it will be hard to ignore them.

So now I have joined the ranks of the many people I know who are constantly misplacing their glasses. That really makes me feel older than turning 59!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Happy Birthday to Who(m)?

I had tried to think of everything for his birthday – down to the numeral candles instead of setting the cake ablaze – but never did I consider that the guest of honor might have to leave his own party.

He woke up yesterday feeling a little dizzy, but managed to get through the day with no real incidents. However, when he was still napping at 5:30 and the guests were arriving at 6:30, I began to wonder. When I checked in, he said he felt a little achy and had a headache.

I immediately called my doctor friend Deborah (one of the guests) to see if she thought we should cancel the party. It would have been late notice for people coming from a distance. She advised that we go on with no birthday hugs.

We managed to get through the main course of osso buco and oyster mushroom risotto, but then my husband excused himself to go lie down. He ended up collapsing on the dining room floor and only after 10 minutes or so did a couple of the guests help get him upstairs.

We tried to sing happy birthday loudly enough for him to hear as he dozed upstairs under the covers. Deborah blew out his (two) candles. And then we enjoyed the chocolate royale cake, his favorite ordered from Bistro Bistro in Shirlington.

It was halfway through my piece of cake that my stomach started to hurt. It was just a very full feeling. Then I realized that I hadn’t really been hungry for food all day long.

After the guests had gone home and I was finishing up the dishes, the first wave of diarrhea hit me. After 6 more trips to the bathroom I made my way up to bed. Shortly thereafter I was overwhelmed with nausea and just barely made it to the bathroom. All night long I alternated between these two manifestations of my virus, which was not at all like his, but we both happened to get sick on the same day.

It was just last week that I had commented to Deborah that I couldn’t even recall the last time I was sick, rarely needing a doctor for a viral illness. She made me knock on wood, having just come from a day in the trenches treating case after case of the flu.

Today I feel marginally human. I’ve tempted my stomach with toast and tea and it hasn’t complained yet. But I feel like a wet washrag. There will obviously be no lecture at Temple Micah this morning and no tap-dancing this afternoon. I’m still hoping to get to the 5:00 Capitol Woodwinds concert. And there is a RAK meeting tonight, where my husband is supposed to let people know how he spent his allotment of the February money.

It just takes a virus to remind us that we are human and not necessarily in control of anything. But did this point really need to make the guest of honor miss his own birthday party?

Friday, February 22, 2008

First We Eat

Do you remember seeing Chocolat based on the book by Joanne Harris and salivating for the entire two hours (over chocolate and sometimes Johnny Depp)? This is another book by the same author that makes you equally hungry as you read it.

The story takes place in the Loire Valley of France, alternating between war-time (WWII) France and decades later. It is a mystery that unravels slowly and lets you down easily from all your misconceptions at the end.

The story touches on many aspects of the war, including the blackmarket and the resistance. But it’s really not about the war, but about personal interactions focused on a German soldier named Tomas. It even includes the pursuit of an elusive big fish who comes with a wealth of folklore. It’s about mothers and daughters and their inability to communicate. And it’s definitely about food.

A common thread of the story is the book left behind by Mirabelle Dartigen and bequeathed to her daughter Francoise. The book contains not only the award-winning recipes of the mother but snippets of her descent into madness.

Within the first 50 pages the reader is tempted by a terrine, rillettes, buckwheat pancakes, and raspberry liquor. Since it is my choice (recommended to me by my friend Kris), I decided we simply had to eat before talking about the book.

Yesterday afternoon I made a terrine of ground turkey, chicken livers, ham, and lots of mushrooms. Kris made smoked salmon rillettes. Today I will make warm potato-lentil salad and buckwheat pancakes and crepes for dessert. We will drink kirs, made from creme de cassis and white wine, as we eat this country French supper.

I hope everyone else loved the book as much as I did. I’m sure Mamie Framboise would have made something more elegant, but with luck my take on a French dinner will get us warmed up for a lively discussion of the book.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

New Home for Old Computer

Today my neighbor’s used computer which had been clunking around in the back of our car took up residence in a new house. Most interested in the new thing that now occupies the bedroom where she and her family sleep was Michelle, a curious almost-3-year-old who speaks not a word of English.

I had arranged with Morena, the Hispanic woman who cleaned my old office, to bring the computer over to her house this morning, along with my husband who was kind enough to volunteer to hook it up and install some educational freeware.

She called this morning to ask that we take it to her daughter’s house (down the street) instead. Her daughter, who is 21, came from El Salvador 6 years ago, having spent her first 15 years living with her grandmother. She graduated from high school here and is gainfully employed cleaning government offices. She and Michelle and Michelle’s father and 3 other families live in a 4-bedroom house in suburban Maryland, which they OWN. With all of the adults in these families working, they are able to make the monthly mortgage payments and still have a relatively good life.

When we arrived, they had already cleared off a spot in their bedroom for the computer and Michelle was ready to help my husband with the installation. He loaded up software that will help Michelle learn the English alphabet and vocabulary, software that will some day show her where the 50 states are located and what their capitals are. She was already ready to push any and all buttons. They printed her name out on a piece of paper which she proudly carried around.

Meanwhile Morena was downstairs making typical El Salvadoran food for lunch. She has to be one of the best cooks I know. She served up chunks of savory pork cooked to perfection, rice, salad, and of course homemade tortillas.

As we got ready to leave, the daughter thanked us with tears in her eyes. She’s already thinking ahead to buying Internet service and has great plans for their new (old) computer.

I’m so glad I was able to see the computer in its new home as opposed to dumping it off at the Salvation Army.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A New Look at Making Music

Until today I thought playing the piano was all about your brain telling your fingers what to do. My new teacher Carol cast a whole new light on a lifetime of piano study.

For several years I have been studying with Bill, whose specialty is the double bass, although he plays the piano quite well. His job was to teach me how to play in an ensemble, not to nit-pick my piano technique. He had suggested several times that I needed a piano teacher to help with things like hand position.

So with some degree of effort I found Carol and today was that most difficult first lesson, where we were both sizing each other up. Sort of like a life-time of piano history rolled into an hour lesson. A challenge for both of us.

I had thought I would go in and wow her with the Chopin etude I have been learning for the past 3 months. Instead I played it abysmally, hitting one wrong note after the next. But instead of saying, “You made quite a few mistakes,” she said, “I can tell you really have a sense of the beat and where it is going and that’s good.” She proceeded to suggest I needed a different type of progressive glasses for playing the piano so I don’t have to torque my neck back to see.

But the biggest revelation was the idea of playing the piano from your core, much as you practice yoga or do pilates. The idea that it is so much more than using your fingers to play – it’s using your back and your shoulder and your whole arm.

We talked about hand position and rolling your hand as you play. We talked about my phobia about playing fast music with lots of notes and determined a lot of my problem comes from playing with stiff hands.

She taught me how to decide exactly where to place the piano bench to provide the most support and stability.

Why didn’t any of my previous teachers ever talk about these things? Things that are an investment in your good health and will hopefully ward off things like tendinitis or repetitive stress injury.

I have some homework to start learning music theory because Carol thinks it’s important to understand why music is written the way it is. Maybe it will finally make sense to me.

I’m confident I will eventually make some beautiful music under the Carol’s tutelage. But for now, it’s all about getting ready and learning how to play healthy.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Remembering Friends

The pink and white cyclamen that adorn the window seat in my family room are significant for a couple of reasons: They have survived for more than a year in my house and they remind me of dear friends.

The white one came as a hostess gift from someone who was in my Wednesday meditation group. She and her husband left town to travel and live on the west coast for a time after they both retired. I was shocked to hear that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer several months into their trip. I don’t hear from her on a regular basis, but try to keep up with her life through friends that do. I find it so unfair that one of the happiest, most care-free times of their life together could be marred by this awful disease.

The pink one was also a hostess gift from my elderly friend Florence, not long before she was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor. Until the day she died, this petite woman was one of the feistiest, most entertaining people I ever met. She was the inspiration for our “poetry by the light of the moon” night. I miss her smiling face in our Temple Micah congregation.

I think of these two strong women every time I look at my beautiful flowering plants. Keeping those plants alive helps me keep their memories alive.

However, I will start to worry about the next person who presents me with a cyclamen. Call it superstition, but I care a lot about my friends!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Discontinued Good Taste

I had never before considered buying shoes online. After all, I have enough trouble finding the right shoes even when I can see them and try them on. But then I reminded myself that Ecco’s are really true to size and I inevitably like most every pair I try on.

So I found the Ecco Ibiza Quarter Strap online and decided to get it in beige, on sale at a great price. Sounds easy enough, but then after a few false starts I began to realize these shoes have been discontinued. On Saturday I finally found a pair in camel at Zappos and ordered them. They sent me back an e-mail saying they had expedited my shipping and low and behold my camel Ibizas arrived today.

They are a perfect replacement for my 4-year-old sandals that are dirty and falling apart. So perfect that I decided to order a second pair in black. After countless inquiries, I almost concluded there are no more pairs of black Ibiza size 40's in this country. But I have tried yet one more place that may well send me back a message tomorrow declaring they too no longer have my size.

I wonder why I am so attracted to shoes that get discontinued. This was true of the dirty-falling apart sandals as well. In every set of reviews I read, the Ibiza got 5 stars. Now why would a company just quit making them after one season?

I should content myself with my one pair of new shoes. After all, my packing list allows only one pair of dress sandals, so I’m good to go to Italy. But I’m still hopeful the black sandals will eventually find their way into my closet.

I may yet join the ranks of the confirmed Internet shoppers, like my husband who detests going to stores. I must say it’s a lot easier to shop at my computer in my pajamas!

Sunday, February 17, 2008


I’m always interested in the things people choose to collect. I found a couple of new items this week, things that would never have occurred to me.

I went for another remedial tap lesson to my patient instructor Roberta’s home. As I was Buffalo-ing across her family room floor, I happened to notice all the many different cufflinks under the glass of the coffee table. It turns out her husband Bob, an ex-Marine, has collected over 300 pairs, each one entirely unique. I wonder if he raids his coffee table if they are invited to a black-tie affair.

Just today we were invited to brunch at the home of a couple who lived all over the world with the Foreign Service. In addition to a house full of extremely interesting things, they collect limited edition books. I had never seen anything like these books. They are type-set in the old-fashioned way. Color is often applied to illustrations with a brush. These books are works of art, usually signed with an edition number. We looked at an exquisite copy of Candide. I can’t imagine the worth of over 100 such books. But if this is any indication, I hope they are well insured.

I’m sitting here wondering if I have a collection of any kind. I have a lot of books, but nothing of any particular value. I seriously doubt there is a set of cufflinks anywhere in our house. I once tried to buy all the Beatles albums, but gave up when I realized how many there were.

There is something sort of nice about having a collection. People would always know something they could buy for you as a gift. You could look for these “things” all over the world.

But right now I don’t really have any desire for more than one of anything but children, friends, and dogs!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Packing Light

I have a new approach to packing. Inspired by my friend and traveling companion KC, I purchased a Samsonite Aspire 26 inch Expandable Spinner Upright suitcase for our upcoming two-couple almost-4-week trip to Europe in May. My plan is the Spinner and a small backpack and that’s all.

I always take way more than I need, packing for any eventuality. There have been many times when I didn’t even wear all the clothes I packed. That will not be true this time.

At lunch the other day, we made up a packing list:

1 dress
1 skirt
3 pairs of pants
6-7 tops
1 jacket
3 pairs of shoes
etc. (but not much more)

The last time we traveled together and my husband and I were struggling with our luggage, KC showed up with a 23-inch suitcase and managed just fine with a little help from Woolite.

When I went to Europe after college, I traveled for 6 weeks with a backpack. As KC says, it makes deciding what to wear a lot easier when you have so few choices.

The really good news is we are becoming more or less the same size, so we may be able to share our meager wardrobes on the trip. This would mean that she has to quit losing weight and I need to shed a pound or two.

KC will be our official group spokesperson this time around because she is learning Italian with a vengeance. She has little yellow stickies all over her house to name everything from the table in the entry hall to the days of the week. Rosetta Stone is proving to be a good teacher. This will mean we will be spared the embarrassment of watching our husbands gesture in their attempt to be understood with hand-speak Italian.

I’m starting to get really psyched for our upcoming trip. The real question for me is whether I will take a computer or simply beg time on my husband’s new 3-pound Apple laptop and hope for an Internet connection. A bridge to be crossed sometime before we leave.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Bureaucracy of Giving

My neighbor had a spare computer – a nice one with a printer. The shelter where I read to children really needed a computer for the moms to do resumes and for the kids to play with educational software. Seemed like a perfect fit.

I thought I had worked out all the details. The computer was in the back of our car. My husband was coming to hook it up and install the kid free-ware he had found. But something told me to call to confirm before we set out.

The director of the shelter was sorry to inform me that their parent organization does not accept donations of anything but money. Not even a perfectly good computer for which there is a crying need. She gave me the number for the DC office so I could plead my case and ask for an exception.

I spoke to a very understanding woman who held fast to their policy. She said they had seriously considered introducing technology into their multiple shelters in the area, but had decided against it for several reasons:

– They want everything to be equally available to all residents.
– They don’t want the maintenance burden.
– They don’t have staff to monitor the use of something like even one computer.

Picturing paper jams and unfamiliarity with software, I totally understood what she was saying. I suggested they consider setting up a technology program similar to the reading program in which I participate. Volunteers with a computer background could come on a regular basis to work with kids and/or moms to take advantage of what a computer could offer.

But I still have my neighbor’s computer in my car and would really prefer to give it to a person or a family, as opposed to just dropping it off at the Salvation Army or Goodwill. Later this morning I hope to talk to my old friend Morena, the Hispanic woman who used to clean my office. She had an antiquated computer with no printer. Maybe she would like to upgrade to a better computer since she has 4 children who could take advantage of it.

I’m learning that it’s not always easy to give good things away.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Overcome by the Written Word

This bookshelf accurately represents the state of chaos our “library” is in. Every surface in every room seems to have piles of books, some read, some unread, and some with bookmarks.

I used to think our book inventory was under control, purging each year to send books to the Burgundy Fall Fair. But since we left Burgundy Farm Country Day School in 1998, the books have just been piling up.

You can see in the picture how we have cleverly piled them on top of the shelved books since they no longer fit on their shelf. Then there’s the entire Harry Potter series in its box forming a second row.

I even see a section of this very same bookshelf dedicated to books from courses we took in college (that would be about 40 years ago) – gems like “Elements of Abstract Algebra” and “Langue et Civilisation Francaises”. It would probably be quite safe to unload those shelves.

Then there are the boxes of books in the attic. They are labeled, but very rarely frequented. Who can possibly remember what’s in the attic?

I’m sure there are loaners mixed up in all of this assortment of books. I know for a fact that a guy I met at the Library of Congress loaned me “Man’s Fate” by Andre Malraux in 1972 and I never returned it to him, nor did I ever read it. But it’s here somewhere.

I need a game plan for all this reading material. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Free-Time Flyer

The IIPAC was a highlight of my work year for the last almost decade. It was the time when we put away the seriousness of work and flew paper airplanes. It was amazing to see the ingenious side of people as they made their customized planes, every one hoping to go the farthest distance.

So when my friend Doug, the initiator and long-time organizer, sent me the announcement about this year’s contest, I determined that was enough of a good reason to make the trek out to the old office, a commute I had not missed over the past 9 months.

As I got ready last night, I realized I hadn’t the slightest idea where I had put my red retiree badge and the parking permit I was to put in my car’s window. After turning the house upside down, I found them squirreled away in a drawer along with my voter registration card and charge cards I had forgotten I even had.

Then the challenge of making my plane. I picked PL-1 Joe’s Favorite Paper Airplane off the Internet and set to work trying to copy Joe’s folds. Of course I had to use the “official IIPAC” paper provided by Doug, so that we all were on an even playing field, so to speak. There are a million rules about things like no tape, no weights, etc.

The first time I flew my Free-Time Flyer, I knew I had the best plane I had ever come up with. It flew straight with no sudden loops and didn’t crash land. How exciting!

The competition venue is a very long walkway in the new office space. Last year’s winner, a tiny plane thrown with 2 hands had made it almost to the far wall, over 60 feet. So the challenge was on. In this picture Aru looks to see how far his plane went as he battles for first place.

Here’s Ken, the guy who took my old job. He hasn’t yet taken on the wrinkles and strained face that come with the job. He seems to have everything under control and still has time to have fun.

Every year Doug makes a valiant effort to win the contest. But truthfully he is a much better MC than he is a paper-airplane-maker. He does have good form though.

So how did the Free-time Flyer perform? I’m pleased to say I came in 5th in a field of about 25, the “top girl” flyer with an average distance of 28 feet. Everyone was amazed since in the past I had been lucky to get into double digits.

This year’s winner was Bob, who managed an average distance in the high 30's. Nothing to compete with last year’s winner, but good enough to deserve a box of chocolates.

And for the category of “best design”, both serious entries came from the same person, who had enlisted the help of her young son. These beautiful planes were not required to fly in order to win. Another box of chocolates was her reward for great artwork.

After the contest, which also included a dart-throwing contest, we sat down to a pot-luck featuring all sorts of fattening food, like Popeye’s chicken and biscuits, which I would never buy but which I love to eat. There were all sorts of temptations for dessert.

I had fun catching up with these people who had been such an important part of my life for so long. I will continue to see them away from work from time to time and perhaps at other social events at the old office. But I have no intention of re-entering that work scene to do real work ever again. There are way too many other things I enjoy doing these days.

It felt good to be in the old office without the negative feelings I had when I left. They have just slipped out of my life forever.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Pin the Tail on Which Donkey?

Never have I gone into a major election feeling so conflicted. I know I want a change of administration, I want us out of Iraq ASAP, I want affordable healthcare, I want to see economic recovery. But I’m still unsure about who is the best person to deliver these things.

I went into this race strongly in support of Hillary, knowing that if she were elected we would also be able to draw heavily on her husband, who despite his penchant for young girls was one of the best Presidents this country has ever had. But with each passing day I am being attracted by the cool charisma of Obama.

My children are definitely in the Obama camp. Otherwise they would be voting for someone who could be their mother or grandfather!

Unfortunately this race has not really been about issues. There has been nothing remarkable or revolutionary said in any of the debates. There has been a lot of dirty mudslinging as the front-runners vie for their spot.

I know I’m not alone. Someone who is equally confused suggested we think about who we would rather see negotiating with Musharaf. We both said McCain. What about the candidate with whom I would rather sit down and have a conversation or a cup of coffee? I think it would be Obama.

My husband is a big Hillary supporter. He keeps pointing to the lack of experience of Obama and is not anxious to watch him learn how to govern the country. I too worry that he might not be able to assemble a cabinet and advisors sufficiently capable of taking on this big job. But part of me wants to break from the past and take a chance on this man.

It’s interesting that for me race and gender don’t even figure into my decision in the least. I think that may be true for much of the country. However I can’t imagine anyone where I come from in the Florida panhandle voting for a Black man or a woman of any race.

Part of me just wants to vote for whichever Democrat has the greatest chance of beating the Republican, who will be John McCain unless there are some big surprises between now and election day. But which one would that be?

Monday, February 11, 2008


I am utterly amazed that Colette, whom I just met recently through the Blogger poetry day, has included me in her Excellent Awards list. I feel as though I have known this person who lives in the wilds of Canada for a lifetime, and yet it has been only a couple of weeks.

Even better than the “nomination” was the list of other Bloggers she included: Lynne, Corrine, Michael, Loretta, and Kimy, each one of which is an exceptional artist of some sort. How in the world do I fit in with this group?

Of course, this nomination process is intended to be something like a chain letter. I am now expected to nominate my 5, who will in turn nominate their 5, etc. But the last time I tried that, I erred by leaving off people I love, whose Blogs I read every day. So instead I will take a deep bow, say “Thank you,” and just keep Blogging, along with all those very EXCELLENT people who inhabit the Blog world. A round of applause for ALL of US!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Searching for a Better Brella

There have been more expletives uttered (screamed) over failed umbrellas than over most any other accessory we carry. They have this way of flipping inside out at the most inopportune moment, hopelessly bent out of shape and condemned to the next dumpster. You would think there would have been design improvements for something that had been around since 1000 B.C.

I read with amusement and curiosity the current New Yorker article about a new umbrella “invented” by Steve Hollinger, a Boston artist who sounds much like my deceased Father. I became enthused when I realized Hollinger’s Bella Brella, or whatever name he settles on, would deal with trapped wind, rain dripping on your feet, and the danger to passersby.

The article really did conjure up pictures of my Father, whose only patented inventions were “classified” because they dealt with minesweeping. But he was always dreaming of a better way to do everything. He even got into the health field when he wrote the National Cancer Institute and suggested that breast cancer could be caused by brassieres that are too tight. In his later years, his mind worked overtime on how to use things discarded by others. This included the styrofoam tray from his $.99 TV dinner, which he refused to throw away, and of course EVERY plastic wrapper that once contained a newspaper.

But back to Steve Hollinger’s umbrella. It would take the shape of a large bike helmet. It would have an escape valve for wind pressure, maybe in the form of a wind-sock. It would channel all of the run-off water to the tail where it would then be released. It would really look sleek, having a different color on the inside, maybe one to brighten up the day, like yellow.

This new umbrella has long since left the drawing board. It has already been “Made in China.” The patent is still pending, but I am ready to pay up front for one of the first Bella Brellas to roll off the production line. How about you?

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Do You Understand?

When I place a call for information and an obviously non-native-English speaker answers, I find myself dreading the ordeal. I know I should empathize with the person who probably hates having to speak on the phone, but instead I often seem to lose my patience as I try to describe what it is I need.

Today I called an organic market to find out if they carried Organic Valley non-fat powdered milk, an ingredient for my home-made yogurt which has been hard to find lately. The first person was definitely not born in this country. He actually repeated the syllables exactly as I had spoken them, but I could tell he was clueless as to what that was.

By the time I spoke to the fourth person, I had verified that they indeed now have this powdered milk once again, but it was a struggle to get to that point.

It would seem that answering the phone has now been relegated largely to people who speak English as a second language, many of whom don’t even live in this country but instead may be halfway around the world. I learned a lot about this phenomenon when I read The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman. He explained that part of the training these people receive in places like India and China is a crash course in American English.

But there are often times when it seems almost impossible to ask a question or describe a product or a problem. This language of ours is not easy by any means.

I can only imagine this problem is going to get worse as more and more outsourcing takes place. Maybe people like me need a course in patience, so we can suffer through these phone conversations without feeling like some sort of racist.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Long-Distance Caring

Why do you suppose it costs so much to send something overseas? I just mailed a package to my lawyer son who is teaching English in Hamburg, Germany, and realized the postage was not much less than the cost of the contents.

I figured it was about time he received something from home, having been gone since late September. I can imagine he is just a little lonely for things American at this point.

So what was in the package? A terry cloth bathrobe – handy when you are living with other people and sharing a bathroom. A watch he had left at home – handy when you are trying to get to the class you are teaching on time. And 10 miscellaneous candy bars, jelly beans, gum, etc. from Trader Joe’s.

The biggest surprise was a postal employee who came up to me in line to advise me how to send these things the cheapest way and then proceeded to help me assemble the box, cram everything inside, and put on layers of tape. He claimed to be an injured mail carrier who had nothing better to do, but what a nice service in a place that usually makes me scream in frustration!

So how much did it cost to send the care package? $37. I’ll bet the same package would have cost $12 to send to my daughter in California. What is it about leaving the US borders that triples the price for the same weight and distance?

It’s money well spent. He’ll now have a warm bathrobe and maybe even have candy for Valentine’s Day. The delivery time – 6-10 days. It’s even trackable with a 1-800 number.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

A Dish to Die For

You know I have a passion for lentils. I think it was the lentil recipes in the Washington Post yesterday and the article on how several of Washington’s famous chefs cook at home (today) that inspired my hurry-up dinner.

I loved reading about the chefs, especially Cristeta Comerford, who is the White House executive chef. She said that when she cooks at home, it’s always something really quick, like 15 minutes. “That’s what’s good about being a professional chef. You have to learn to be very versatile with what you have.”

So at 6:15 tonight, knowing that I had to be walking out the door to choir rehearsal at 7:00, I decided to make a variation of the Warm Lentil-Potato Salad with Roasted Garlic Vinaigrette that I had read about yesterday. Here is the resulting recipe, showing the ingredients with only approximations of quantity where I have an idea:

1 strip of lower-fat bacon, cut into small pieces
1/2 cup of red lentils
Broccoli cut into small florets
Chicken broth
3 small Yukon gold potatoes, cut into eighths
2 cloves of garlic, minced
Borsari salt
Szechuan pepper, freshly ground (the peppercorns resemble cloves!)
Chives (dried)
Basil (dried)
French thyme (dried)
Bite-size pieces of rotisserie chicken
Dijon mustard
Lemon juice
White wine vinegar
Extra virgin olive oil

Cover the potatoes with salted water and bring to a boil; then reduce to a simmer. In the bottom of an anodized pan that has a lid, saute the bacon until the fat is released. Add the lentils and stir to coat them. Cover with chicken broth and bring to a boil. Add the broccoli on top of the lentil mixture. Cover and reduce to a simmer. Saute the garlic in a small amount of olive oil until golden brown. (There was not enough time to roast the garlic.) Add to the lentil mixture along with the herbs and chicken. Add chicken broth as necessary to keep the lentils from getting completely dry. In a mixing bowl, combine the mustard, lemon juice, vinegar, and olive oil with a wire whisk. Drain the potatoes and add them to the vinaigrette, mixing to coat the potatoes. Add the lentil mixture and serve.

This was one of those taste experiences when I sincerely wished I had measured and kept track because it was perfect – at least perfectly delicious. And with a glass of wine, it was a complete meal, ready to eat in just 30 minutes. There might even be enough left for lunch tomorrow. I’ve got dibs on those leftovers!

In Support of Nature

OK, I’m hard up for something to write about today. But never did I think I would be writing about breast pumps. Those days are decades behind me.

Since my push to get the basics for Glenda, I seem to still be on the MOTH website as a potential way to get rid of baby things not needed any longer. At this point I’m simply taking most of them to the Arlington Teen Parenting program and they are delighted. Every baby needs a stroller and a carseat and blankets, etc.

It’s a win-win proposition The young parents can get rid of their stuff with just a phone call because I come to them to pick it up.

Yesterday netted two bags of toys, a stroller, and a breast pump which was in bad need of cleaning. Thinking that Glenda might want to pump when she goes back to work in a few weeks, I took it all apart and made it look like new. I ordered replacement tubing from Evenflo, which will arrive sometime next week.

Yesterday’s young mother said she had purchased the breast pump when she was on a work trip and realized she had left her pump at home. So it was never even used that much. She went on and on about the benefits of breast-feeding to both mother and child. I agreed with her, but felt like saying she was preaching to the choir.

It appears that similar pumps are about $40 new, so this is a nice find. Hopefully it will help mother and baby in just those ways the giver described. It really wasn’t doing anyone any good collecting dust in the closet. I’ll bet there are a lot of things like this just sitting around begging for a new home.

The young mother thanked me profusely, saying it made her feel good to know at least generally who would be benefitting from the things she no longer needed for her boys. I once again agreed with her, telling her the reason I like doing what I’m doing is because I can meet the recipients and know the things are being put to good use.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Another Card Bee

There is something universally lovable about Valentine’s Day. I was ecstatic when a neighbor invited me and another neighbor to spend the afternoon making valentines today.

As we looked at our collective supplies of paper, fabric, ribbon, sequins, and so many other things, we realized we could spend the next month making cards and never run out of supplies.

The card-making process is interesting as you picture the person who will receive the card and search for colors and patterns and decorations and a design appropriate to that person.

While I thought about making real valentines, I made one of the woven heart baskets I had made for so many years when my children were growing up.

There were false starts and a few discards, but mostly things were salvageable and actually turned out quite well. All the hand-made cards of the afternoon were as unique as the intended recipients of them.

I had made cards for family and close friends by the time we started to clean up our mess. Our hostess treated us to Jasmine Lotus tea and fresh fruit before we packed up to go home.

I have such a comfortable relationship with these two women who are about my age and now retired, as we figure out how to shape the next chapter of our lives. Today was a day to think about hearts!

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

A Baby Step Toward Green

Today as I walked through Costco and repeatedly convinced myself I shouldn’t buy large quantities of yet another thing I really didn’t need, my eye caught the display of colorful Waffle Weave Kitchen Towels. It suddenly occurred to me that I could put the 20 rolls of paper towels back if I bought these cloth towels and possibly move just a little closer to green.

I have become increasingly aware of environmental issues as we as a society continue to trash the planet. MediaConcepts recently wrote a convincing post about the explosive use of plastic water bottles in this country and his efforts to go in a different direction. My daughter who lives in San Francisco and was visiting last week took this a step further and suggested we each buy a metal water bottle because bad stuff can leach out of plastic bottles that are reused.

So I bought the microfiber towels and came home to give my sales pitch to the king of paper towel users, not that I don’t use any. I proposed that we each have a towel hung on different sides of the kitchen and that we use that towel as we would a paper towel for drying our hands. Every few days as a load of wash goes in, we can throw in the two towels (literally). After all there are 10 in total. He reluctantly agreed to the new towel deal and chose his side of the kitchen. Meanwhile I sewed a little bias tape loop to each towel so it can easily be hung in the kitchen.

The brand “Eurow” makes it sound like these are some Swedish product. But alas, they are made in China (probably by underage children), as are most textile products today.

I think it’s interesting that there is no mention of the ecological benefits to using these towels on the colorful wrapper they came in. Instead it says

– Makes life easier
– The ultimate towel for commercial drying
– Super-absorbent waffle weave towel
– A lint and streak-free shine every time
– Perfect towel for polishing silver, crystal, and more

I hope our use of these towels will save paper as well! We’ll see how this green venture actually plays out.

Monday, February 04, 2008

When Ends Refuse to Meet

Today’s rent intervention didn’t have exactly the ending I had hoped for. The good news was that by the time I arrived this afternoon, the family had managed to scrape together enough money from friends to make their rent payment. The bad news that no one saw coming was that the apartment management declared that the young mother and her 3-week-old baby had to move out because of over-crowding.

She was devastated by the news, on top of feeling strapped financially. I read the little hand-written note in Spanish and noticed that it did not indicate by when this had to happen. So I suggested that the grandmother and I go over to the rental office to find out.

Apparently there is a county regulation that mandates a certain number of square feet per person and limits occupancy to two persons per bedroom. This family well exceeds that limit right now, although I must say the baby doesn’t take up a lot of space. The management office gave them until April 1 to address this problem.

They have the option of looking for a 3-bedroom apartment and all moving, but that would probably double their current rent (that they are having difficulty paying).

I called a lawyer friend who put me in touch with a housing office in Arlington County. It turns out that a certain number of apartments come available each month under Section 8, under which the occupant pays just one-third of his/her salary in rent. There are no guarantees of what will be available and there may be a waiting list for such housing.

I will continue to make phone calls, but I may be powerless to solve this housing problem.

Meanwhile the baby is thriving. She is already up to 9 pounds and is absolutely beautiful. She wakes up just once at night and never cries. She seems totally unaffected by all the worrying going on all around her. Here she is just after getting a bath. She is wearing a sweater made by a Blogger friend.

Making Ends Meet

I got a call yesterday morning that left me with a knot in my stomach. It was a plea for money to help cover a rent payment in a household where only one person out of the 3 adults is currently working for a variety of reasons. Not my immediate family, but someone I care about. She said her mother could pay me back, but I knew there would never be a surplus of money for that purpose.

I’ve always had a policy of not giving people cash. I’ve given out many grocery store gift cards. I did give $100 once to help send the body of an innocent teenager killed in gang violence home to El Salvador for burial. I gave $50 to pay someone’s phone bill. All of this giving was part of a larger program of assistance I managed for people in the area where I worked. It was the collective money of many who wanted to help out.

I initially said I could not give any money. Then I asked what would happen if the family with a young baby could not pay their rent and the caller said in Spanish, “I don’t know.”

All day I was haunted by the specter of this family of 7 out on the street with their few possessions in a big pile by the curb. I was pretty sure this was the first time they had gotten behind in the rent, so maybe they would not be evicted. But what if they were?

I talked it over with my husband and we agreed we could give a small amount of money, but nowhere near what they needed.

Then in the late afternoon I remembered the fund I had co-administered in my old office and imagined that no one was spending the money now that I was no longer there to find needy recipients. I called my friend and confirmed that to be the case. After hearing my story of the day, he suggested paying the rent AND also giving me the remaining money to use in our DT RAK project. After all, that’s exactly why the money had been collected.

He very wisely also suggested that I accompany the person to the office where they pay the rent and get a receipt for my part of the payment. This way I could be assured of how the money was being spent and have proof of how the money was used if any of the original contributors ever asked.

I called to let them know I could help this time. But I made it clear that this is a one-time offer of assistance. We worked out a plan to meet this afternoon and go to the apartment office to pay the rent.

I already feel greatly relieved knowing this family has shelter over their heads for another month. Whether they have food is another story. Friends who were over to dinner suggested locating a possible food bank near where they live and seeing if the Catholic Church they attend might have an emergency fund for future such problems. Hopefully this is an isolated problem as everyone gets back to work.

My husband correctly pointed out that this is just one of thousands of local families struggling to make their rent payments. But they are people with names and faces. And I’m still in the group of people who have more than we need. It seems only right to share.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Poetry Day, 2008

In honor of Groundhog Day, here is a poem from “Questions About Angels” by Billy Collins. It could be read in the context of my Blog!


My life is an open book. It lies here
on a glass tabletop, its pages shamelessly exposed,
outspread like a bird with hundreds of thin paper wings.

It is a biography, needless to say,
and I am reading and writing it simultaneously
in a language troublesome and private.
Every reader must be a translator with a thick lexicon.

No one has read the whole thing but me.
Most dip into the middle for a few paragraphs,
then move on to other shelves, other libraries.
Some have time only for the illustrations.

I love to feel the daily turning of the pages,
the sentences unwinding like string,
and when something really important happens,
I walk out to the edge of the page
and, always the student,
make an asterisk, a little star, in the margin.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Evolving the Truth

I’ve certainly done plenty of things in my lifetime that I regret – things that hurt people I love. These indiscretions took the form of words, deeds, silence, or even intentional absence.

As I look back now, especially on one troubling such incident, I realize that I’m no longer sure of the facts, that perhaps I have reinvented the whole thing to vilify the other person or at least to reduce it to no-fault status, somewhere along the way completely letting the truth slide away.

Is this just human nature, to continuously try to improve our own image, even long after something happened? Since none of the things I am talking about will ever be written down in anyone’s book, does it really matter, you might ask. But unfortunately many of them are permanently recorded in people’s minds and hearts.

This same phenomenon of reinventing history undoubtedly takes place on a larger scale as countries try to justify their aggression toward other countries or even toward individuals. It will be interesting to see how the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq appear in the US-written history books in several decades. Will we have forgotten about the hunt for those elusive WMD’s that spawned untold destruction and loss of lives?

The real question is whether time actually does heal all wounds or whether it just distorts the reality of their origin.