Monday, March 31, 2008

The Giving Continues

We learned about some novel new ideas for random acts of kindness at last night’s meeting. My neighborhood RAK group continues to find interesting ways to spend $200 to the betterment of society and the planet.

We heard from our first 20-something member who had made her money go a long way, actually doing 3 projects. The most intriguing was her purchase of 50 reusable bags at Whole Foods, which she and her 2-year-old son then distributed to shoppers on their way in or out. We’re all trying to forego the need to stockpile plastic bags, but sometimes we simply need the impetus of a free colorful bag to make it happen. She brought the remaining bags to our meeting where she continued to find people who needed one.

My husband had devoted hours and hours to making his RAK happen, as he searched for recipients and a provider. Having seen the stress that his mother was under while she cared for his father who had suffered a major stroke, he wanted to provide massage for a caregiver and the recipient of her care. Through his doctor’s office he identified a couple where the man has had MS for 30 years. He and his wife were both so grateful to received a therapeutic massage. He also arranged for the same massage therapist to give 15-minute chair massages to 8 persons in an adult day care center. Even 15 minutes of luxury can brighten one’s day.

We unanimously concluded that the pleasure that comes from giving surpasses that of receiving. I’m already wondering what RAK’s next month’s spenders will come up with. There is no shortage of possibilities.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Crossing Cultures

How could a woman bring herself to marry someone who spoke not one word of her language and then go to live with him in a country far distant from her birth country? I just read an article in the New York Times about Korean men who are marrying Vietnamese women a few days after “choosing” them.

It seems there is a glut of single men in Korea right now as that country has a preference for boy babies, sort of an odd way to describe female infanticide. So the eligible Koreans are traveling south to Viet Nam to find a bride.

The story chronicled the experience of two different couples who had both arrived back in Korea at the same time and given birth to their children at roughly the same time – both girls.

There are huge problems because of the lack of communication. He refuses to learn Vietnamese. She finds Korean extremely difficult to learn and impossible to understand. The mother-in-law with whom them live says that foreigners will destroy their society and won’t even look at her female grandchild.

I always felt sorry for both parties in arranged marriages. But at least in those cases, both persons usually could communicate in a common language.

It’s unclear how these beautiful young Vietnamese girls will fare in the long run – whether they will adapt to their new homeland and devote themselves to raising their children or whether they will be subjected to abuse from husbands who treat them more like purchased property.

And what about those little girls? Will they prove to be the translators for their parents, if they manage to stay together with the divorce rate for these marriages on the rise? Will there be a KSL program for them when they are school age since they will spend most of their early years with their Vietnamese mothers? Will the Korean society accept them as equals to fully Korean children?

Any differences I might have with my spouse seem trivial when compared to this story. And at least we can discuss them in a language we both understand.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Instant Gratification

I love food that just keeps on giving. I recently found a way to turn a 10-minute-prep lunch into a 5-minute-prep breakfast, both of which left a warm gingery spot in my stomach.

On a trip to Whole Foods, I bought one package of green-and-white-striped ravioli stuffed with basil and goat cheese and another package of orange-and-white-striped ravioli stuffed with asparagus and gruyere, not knowing exactly what I would do with either. Here is the recipe that suggested itself:

Basil-infused olive oil
Shitake mushrooms, sliced
Piece of ginger root, minced
Shallot, minced
Asparagus, cut on the diagonal in small pieces
Basil and goat cheese ravioli
Asparagus and gruyere ravioli
Chicken broth
Fresh basil leaves

Heat the olive oil in the bottom of a heavy saucepan on medium-high heat. Add mushrooms, ginger, shallots, and asparagus and saute for a couple of minutes. Add the chicken broth and ravioli and bring to a boil. Cook for another 5 minutes or until the ravioli are thoroughly heated through. Garnish with fresh basil leaves and serve immediately.

That was lunch, not filling but extremely satisfying. There was about a cup and a half left that went into the refrigerator.

This morning I woke up craving a poached egg – just one, and not with bread but with something that had a rich flavor.

So out came the leftover soup and a beautiful brown egg. When the broth with its one lone ravioli was bubbling, I slipped the egg in to let it poach in a bath of ginger-flavored chicken broth.

Just at the point when the egg began to set, I poured the whole thing into a bowl and voili! I had breakfast soup that was heavenly. I didn’t even miss the carbs of an English muffin. The threads of shitake mushroom and bits of ginger more than compensated.

Try it and you too can have a delicious lunch and breakfast with very little effort! I leave it to you to decide how much you want of any ingredient. This is one of those very forgiving recipes.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Road Rage Lives On

Little did I expect to encounter hostility at 7:45 a.m. as Jake and I went out to get the paper. And then later in the day another incident that demonstrated our ability to piss each other off in cars. What was most surprising was my quick descent to the level of the perpetrators!

We have been letting Jake out off leash in the mornings, but today proved he is not really well trained. He saw a black dog across the street and immediately bolted, not to start a fight but rather to have a literal pissing contest with the other dog as they took turns lifting their legs on everything sticking out of the ground in my neighbor’s yard. In my concern for his safety I stood in the middle of the street to slow down any cars that might drive by.

Now bear in mind we live on a dead end street with no more than 30 houses between us and the last cul-de-sac. So while I’m watching Jake and calling him non-stop, a big black Lexus speeds up the hill going at least 40 m.p.h. and starts honking his horn like crazy. As I point to the dog, he flips me the finger and speeds up! Without thinking I returned his gesture.

I couldn’t say who this rude person was, although it was definitely a white older male. Apparently another neighbor called our house at about the same time, probably having witnessed this out her front window. I’m wondering just how much she saw of our little battle of the fingers.

I finally got Jake home safely and will think twice about giving him such freedom, because he definitely does not know to be scared of cars.

It did cross my mind to take a walk this evening in search of the big black Lexus and let the air our of his tires. He wouldn’t be doing 45 m.p.h. up the street quite so early tomorrow.

You’d think one such incident would be enough for a day. But no, as I attempted to park at Costco at 2:00 p.m., a time when there are plenty of places available, I encountered yet another very impolite person. As I sat waiting for someone to pull out with my signal on, this person ahead of me proceeds to back up to the point where I thought she would hit me even as I sat on my horn. But she had decided that space was hers for some reason.

The problem now was that she was totally blocking the person who was trying to back out and she refused to budge. After at least 5 minutes she was actually blocking three cars that were trying to back out. Finally we all backed up so she could have the space she wanted, knowing two of us would get the other two spaces. The offender had DC plates, but that hardly excuses abusing parking lot etiquette.

I saw the person inside. She was wearing the most pointed purple stilettos you could ever imagine and she had a look on her scowling face that said, “Don’t mess with me!”

Part of me wanted to remind her of the fact that she had caused all of us, including herself, great delays in parking our cars. Another part of me wanted to take my key and run it down the side of her already beat-up car on my way out.

It’s scary to think how aggression breeds aggression. But it definitely does.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Jake's Next Sleepaway Camp

This afternoon’s trip to Columbia, MD, has taken a load off my mind. Jake will now be vacationing in the beautiful Maryland countryside with two lovely girls as his hostesses while we are away in Germany and (if he behaves himself) while we go to Italy in May.

Gewels made an offer I couldn’t refuse: to care for my dog so he doesn’t have to be home alone or stuck in a small cage at the vet’s while we’re away.

We did a trial run today just to make sure the chemistry of her Simone and Kayla and our Jake was compatible. I warned him to be on his best behavior and he complied about as well as I could have hoped for. He did lift his leg on a potted plant on her deck and he quickly pooped in the middle of her yard, but there was no peeing on a human leg and no barking whatsoever and no biting of clothing. He was the model dog as he explored the new space with S & K at his heels.

Her house is so well suited to dogs. It has a big fenced yard with free access to the inside when someone is home. He is way too fat to jump the fence, but then he’s never been a jumper. And he would have to work way too hard to dig under. So I think he cannot be a Houdini. Besides he has a long walk to the nearby lake and back every day to look forward to so why in the world would he want to leave?

This is one of the wonderful benefits of Blogging – connecting people who can provide needed support for one another.

Although Gewels has been steadfast about not wanting to be paid, the nearly $2,000 we will be saving (at $50 a day) warrants some nice presents from Europe, don’t you think?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Thoughts on The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell is a book that makes you think. Just as Blink looked at how we form our first impressions, this earlier book by Gladwell is equally provocative.

The subtitle “How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference” says it all. He shows how a few trendy kids buying vintage Hush Puppies propelled a dying shoe company into a national sensation. He shows how removing the graffiti from the subway cars in New York City completely turned around a trend in crime. He shows how an incidence of suicide in Micronesia seems to spawn copycats. He shows how the secret to breast cancer awareness in San Diego was using beauty shops as the information source. And on and on and on.

In each case, there was one idea or event that made a definite difference in an outcome. The person who chose this book has challenged each of us in our book club to come up with examples of tipping points.

A personal tipping point was my path from a once-a-week user of my home computer to an almost obsessive relationship with that machine. It all started around the time I started Blogging. Until then I had entirely enough keyboard exposure at my job, which was computer oriented. The last thing in the world I wanted to do at home was sit down and do anything at that machine. I often missed events and had to be called because I simply wasn’t a good e-mail correspondent. But in December 2004, my tipping point occurred when Looking2live was launched.

Which led me to wonder what the tipping point for Blogging was. In 2003, virtually no one had ever heard of a Blog or much less read one. Even at the point at which I started, the vast majority of Bloggers were under 35. But over the past 4 years I have seen that totally change.

I was surprised to find so few current statistics out there about the history of Blogging and the current number of Bloggers. The most comprehensive report I could find was put out by David Sifry of Technorati in April 2007. At that point the number of Blogs was doubling about every 6 months with 120,000 new Blogs each day. By the end of 2007, Technorati was tracking some 112 million Blogs. Wikipedia provides a fairly comprehensive history of Blogging.

I keep wondering what it was that launched so many new people down the Blogging path between 2003 and today (most of the 112+ million)? Was it the reports from Bloggers at the national political conventions? Or perhaps the “Rathergate” scandal whereby Bloggers showed documents conflicting with accepted accounts of President Bush’s military service record and reported by Dan Rather on CBS News to be forgeries? Was it a friend passing you a business card with her Blog name on the back?

I’m convinced that something happened around 2006 that caused those big spikes in David Sifry’s graph of new Bloggers.

And you – how and when did you come to Blogging? If you are simply reading without having your own Blog, what might be the tipping point that causes you to start one?

I love a book that is so revealing about human nature, a book that keeps you thinking after you read the last page!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Canine Weight Check

I’m always amazed at the bill when I take my dog Jake in for his yearly check-up. I know veterinarians are by no means the highest paid doctors, but my animal hospital is working hard to close the gap!

As we waited for our turn and Jake checked out every dog that walked by, my eye caught a colorful glossy brochure for “Pawsitively Fit!” This program, which is advertized as a “one-of-a-kind” canine weight management program, is the equivalent of doggy Weight-Watchers! For a mere $100 membership fee, you get:

– Five (5) weigh-ins with a licensed Technician (one each month)
– Access to technician/veterinarian advice on weight-loss
– Monthly goal assessment
– Monthly caloric calculations and
– Monthly Slentrol calculations, if your dog is placed on this medication.

I reaffirmed that I am living in a society with way too much expendable money when programs like this are taking off!

I love my vet. We talked about all the various tests and injections they were suggesting and settled on only those that were really necessary. We decided to put off cleaning his teeth for a while longer, since they are not really too full of tartar and he will need to be sedated (at a considerable expense). He found Jake to be slightly overweight (about 5 pounds) and fortunately did not mention Pawsitively Fit, but instead suggested decreasing the amount of food he gets each day. He did suggest that Jake come in every 6 months now since he is becoming an “older dog.” To me that seems a bit excessive if he shows no sign of being sick!

I paid the bill which was still staggering despite the things I had declined. I feel really fortunate that Jake is a relatively well dog. Except for his seasonal allergies which emerge the same week of August every year and for which he takes steroids for 3 weeks, he has no health problems.

I’ll bet the incidence of canine obesity is on the same curve as human obesity in this country. Next thing you know, they will be offering gym memberships for dogs!

For those of you who haven't met Jake, here he is -- he was too embarrassed to sit on the scales, so that's a stand-in!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Weighty Decisions

I’m about a third of the way through with cleaning out a file cabinet that contains the past 35 years of our life. I suddenly had the great revelation yesterday that we really don’t need most of this stuff any longer.

My husband is a confessed packrat and an ardent note-taker. As such he has always generated a lot of paper. Much of it has ended up in those files that had swelled to the point where it was virtually impossible to add another piece of paper.

As I go through one file at a time, my rule of thumb for keeping something is only if it has historical value or there is even a remote chance that it will be needed in the future. That eliminates about 50% and makes for much more manageable file drawers.

The Internet has been the single biggest factor in eliminating the need for paper. If you want to order replacement vacuum cleaner bags or a new filter for your air purifier, you have but to search for it on the Web and voila! you have a dozen sources. If you have lost the instructions for your camera, your watch, your iron, you name it, it’s all out there.

So far I haven’t come across even one item that has real historical significance. I take that back -- I did find the titles to all 4 of our cars. If we were to both leave this world tomorrow, just about all the paper in those files could safely be recycled.

So why don’t we go paperless and regain the space taken up by 24 lateral feet of files? Because we are children of an era when files were once important, when you wanted to be able to put your finger on your last electric bill or your last bank statement.

Maybe when I revisit these files in 10 years when they are once again clogged, I will be so persuasive that they can simply be discarded forever. But we’re not there yet, not just yet.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Fall from Nirvana

Was it just a week ago I said my life was so perfect? That I wasn’t worried about a thing?

How quickly that sense of nirvana passes. Since then I have gone through the soul-searching process of firing my piano teacher and I seem to currently be stuck in a funk.

I’m feeling a little frustrated by this tent-painting project and the fact that no one has materialized to help me, except for my long-time work friend who was an art major and who has given me advice on gesso. I just want to know this is going to turn out OK and our tent is going to be sufficiently well decorated to stand with all the others on the Mall before it gets shipped off to Darfur. I have sent out a flurry of messages trying to get advice on what supplies to buy and what design to follow, but within a couple of days I will just make some executive decisions and move ahead.

Otherwise, I have had no reason to leave the house in two days, except to take my bike in to get the clipless pedals installed and to go to Costco. Now that really sounds like loads of fun, yes? And the real kicker was the plums I got at Costco this morning are all rotten. I can see at least one of you out there shaking you head and saying, “And what did I tell you about buying your food at Costco?”

My Apple, which had been working fine, is now dead to the tune of $300. This problem all started when my husband attempted to install Leopard on it and it went to sleep and could not be awakened. I never asked for Leopard, but he is such a techy he can’t resist the urge to keep all our computers up to date. So it will be shipped off for repair.

I can’t even look forward to wearing a new Easter dress tomorrow or eating Easter dinner. It’s just not my holiday. For some reason, Passover is a month after Easter this year. Go figure!

I should be thinking about going to Germany in just two weeks. We’re going for just a week to visit our son in his newly adopted country. I should be thanking my lucky stars I’m relatively healthy after reading the following account from a good friend about his wife, who had gone to Berlin to take a class in hat-making and to visit old friends:

She took a bad fall down a number of steps in a subway station and fell over a railing another 10-15 feet. She has a badly broken leg, two broken arms, and a number of other breaks. It happened on Monday. I arrived on Weds. She had her first operation today, and she has at least two more to go. The biggest concern is the leg. She will be in the hospital at least 3 weeks and then in rehab for several weeks. I don't know yet when we can bring her home, but it will probably be at least 4 weeks. I wanted to let everyone know in one email. I can't promise that I'll send regular updates. Right now I'm just starting to deal with the insurance and the logistics of getting through this. I see her several times a day, she's quite sleepy from painkillers, and she drifts in and out of consciousness. She is also unreachable by phone right now and is allowed only occasional visits (except for me, thankfully). I'm hoping she'll make a complete recovery, but, right now, there are still a great many unknowns. Please keep her in your thoughts.

I just read this again and realized how lucky I was when I fell in Norway a few years ago that the only real damage was a broken tooth. This person who was in the best physical shape possible is now a mess of broken bones, facing a long questionable recovery.

As I give myself a swift kick in the rear, I realize how much worse life could be right now and I feel a little ashamed for being in a funk. Perhaps sending my broken friend healing energy will help me remember my good fortune.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Adding Colors of Hope

Once again I find myself in charge of something for which I have absolutely NO credentials. When my husband (in charge of the Darfur weekend at Temple Micah) asked me to be responsible for getting a tent painted as part of the Tents of Hope project, I said yes without thinking this job through. At this point I have more questions than answers on my assignment, which includes painting an 8' x 10' tent and 150 small squares that will be sewn together (by someone else fortunately) to make part of a tent.

Questions on the tent part like:
– What should our overall design be?
– Do you really have to apply (white) gesso to the tent surface first before painting it?
– What grade of acrylic paint should I buy, given the tent will eventually be used outdoors?
– What type of brushes do we need?
– Where can I find quality art supplies at an affordable price?
– How much of everything should I buy?
– Who is going to do this? (I had hoped for teenagers who are artistic and love to paint.)
– Can we find a mutually acceptable time to do it before the April 23 Darfur weekend?

Questions on the canvas squares part like:
– What brand of fabric markers will work well on canvas?
– Where can I find them at a good price?
– Can I find sufficient parental help to be able to oversee 150 kids coming in “waves” during religious school on Sunday, April 25, to paint squares?
– Are parents going to be incredibly pissed off if their children get permanent markers on their clothes?
– Should I just use a hot iron to set the color after the completion of these small squares?

I welcome any and all suggestions you might have! And if by chance you are from Temple Micah and are reading this, I will most definitely welcome your help in this project, which is stretching my abilities!

Free Again

I feel like a dark cloud was lifted from over my head after I followed the suggestions of Richard, Kelly, and a couple of my neighbors. I’m taking another break from piano lessons because they were making me more anxious than happy.

The big question I had yesterday when I decided to quit was what to say to my teacher (of one month). I could have very easily blamed it all on the 45-minute commute, which meant a whole morning each week was shot by the time I drove all the way to upper northwest DC, had my lesson, and drove home. My husband (the guy who in his youth had his mother call in sick for him every other lesson) offered to call up my teacher and tell her I was going to be sick for a long time. But I felt I really owed her the whole truth.

As I was cooking dinner last night, she returned my call. We had a very frank and open conversation, where she still used many of the metaphors that filled her lessons. She said she had been trying to do the equivalent of teaching me to drive on the other side of the road, which requires a complete rethinking of driving. I replied that perhaps I really didn’t really want to learn to drive on the other side of the road. I just wanted to get pleasure out of playing, even if I never held my hands completely properly or played every note correctly.

It’s always nice to leave a difficult situation on good terms and terms that don’t necessarily close the door to the future. We agreed to e-mail as I continue to follow up on piano glasses that have never been quite right. We will stay in touch.

But I was visibly relieved to be my own piano “boss” once again. I can branch out from Beethoven’s Pathetique sonata to some jazz and fun stuff that’s been on the shelf for the past month.

This experience makes me wonder what sort of teacher would be best for me. I don’t doubt the benefits from working with the right person. But whoever it is, it will have to be someone who builds my confidence and nurtures my lifelong love of music.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Upon Request

Here’s the recipe for the curried potatoes I brought to the recent DC Blogger potluck.

Curried Potatoes

2 pounds boiling potatoes
1/4 cup vegetable oil
½ teaspoon each fennel, cumin, and mustard seeds, or scant ½ teaspoon of each ground fine
10 fenugreek seeds
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste (I greatly reduce this!)
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1-1/2 cup peas, thawed or already cooked
Fresh coriander (cilantro)

For the coriander chutney:
1/3 cup lightly packed fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves
2 cloves garlic (I use just one garlic clove!)
½ teaspoon ground ginger
Pinch cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon lemon pulp
1 teaspoon brown sugar
Salt to taste
1 cup plain yogurt

Cook potatoes in boiling water until tender – about 20 minutes. Cut in 1/2-inch dice and set aside.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Combine all the seeds and add to the oil. As soon as the mustard seeds start to pop (about 20 seconds), remove pan from the heat and stir in remaining spices. Add potatoes and peas, stir to combine and cook over medium-low heat until the potatoes are well colored, about 8 minutes. Top with minced cilantro.

For the coriander chutney: Place the coriander, garlic, ginger, cayenne, lemon pulp, brown sugar, and salt inn a blender along with 2 to 3 tablespoons yogurt. Blend until smooth, adding more yogurt if necessary. Transfer to a bowl and stir in more yogurt (2/3 to 3/4 cup) to make the chutney the consistency of thick cream.

Serve with lavash (very thin, Middle Eastern bread) or flour tortillas and coriander chutney.

A wonderful meatless dinner. Scoop up some hot, spicy potatoes in a piece of Middle Eastern lavash or a flour tortilla, with a dollop of cool, garlicky coriander chutney. Heavenly!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Frustrations of an Old Dog

I decided to give myself a month before making any judgment on my new round of piano lessons. Unfortunately I am suffering the same sort of frustration I usually encounter when trying to learn a sport. You know that feeling of remembering eye on the ball, full swing without picking your head up, and good follow-through. Or racquet back, step into the ball, good follow-through.

In the case of piano, it’s things like move your hand and arm, not only your fingers, to strike every note; sit on the edge of the bench; involve your shoulders, your back, and even your sitz bones when playing; play louder by a quicker attack; etc.

I had expectations of going in and wowing my new teacher with my piano ability, but instead I am constantly unhappy with what I hear as I play for her, wondering why I could play a piece so beautifully at home and then so abysmally for her. Or was it just my imagination that it was better at home?

I have learned a ton of music theory in 4 weeks, but have not mastered two pages of the Beethoven Pathetique sonata in that time period. I consider that totally unacceptably sucky!

I have always been able with practice on my part to incorporate the suggestions of teachers in most everything non-athletic. And I do practice at least an hour every day. But it never seems to show when I go in to play for this new teacher.

I can’t figure out how to get beyond my current frustration – whether to ask her to suggest music I am more likely to succeed at playing, whether to just put my nose to the grindstone and get it right this time, or whether to revert back to my teacherless, oblivious-to-my-mistakes, status.

I always intended for music to be a source of pleasure and not one of frustration. I keep hoping that I can get beyond whatever barrier I seem to be up against and see just a little progress. That’s all it would take to encourage me to keep going!

Is there a time beyond which teaching an old dog new tricks is impossible?

Hung Up!

I wonder if I will sleep differently with peacocks overhead?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Looks May Be Deceiving

The Potomac River still offers scenes that could be called bucolic – lush green against flowing water. But then you read an article like the one in today’s Washington Post and realize just how sick that river is. It basically boils down to the increasing amount of crap we continue to dump into it.

For years no one has wanted to eat anything coming out of the Potomac, or heaven forbid fall in. But it was in 2003 when male fish with eggs growing in their sex hormones – termed “intersex” fish – started to show up in tributaries of the Potomac that we realized just how bad things were.

So what are the culprits? Scientists have found atrazine, an herbicide commonly used on farm fields and proven to cause sexual abnormalities in frogs and fish. Also found were the insecticides chlorpyrifos and endosulfan and the herbicide metolachlor, all probably in runoff from suburban lawns or farm fields.

Other chemicals can be traced to things we all use in our daily life – chemicals used to add fragrance to perfumes, soaps, and other products.

The recent revelation about the various pharmaceuticals found in our drinking water just adds more fuel to this toxic fire.

But, you say, our drinking water (for which the Potomac is the major source) is processed. Well guess what – the treatment process is not designed to remove these chemicals.

So when they say “trace elements were found”, should we feel reassured or should the red flag remain up? Personally I think I may buy even more bottled water. The thought of ingesting sex disrupting chemicals or yesterday’s drugs just does not appeal to me!

How do you feel about our beautiful ailing river?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Food as the Common Denominator

I just experienced a new and delicious way to interact with DC Bloggers. I could hear. I could eat all night. And the topic in general was food. What could be better?

Troublewithtoast and Culinarycouture organized the most fabulous evening for those of us who love to cook and even more to eat. Most of us had never met before tonight, but we all had a love of food in common. No one seemed to notice or care that my husband and I were old enough to be their parents.

I was assigned to bring a side dish. I vacillated between ratatouille, curried Indian potatoes with cilantro chutney, and Israeli couscous. I decided on the latter two, figuring that if one of them didn’t turn out, I’d take the other.

I ended up bringing both. That’s my couscous in the sunflower dish above. Here’s a rough version of the recipe, which was an “invention”:

Israeli Couscous with Vegetables

1/4 cup olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 shallot, chopped
A big hunk of ginger finely, chopped
1 red pepper, 1 orange pepper, 1 yellow pepper, chopped
2 carrots, cut in thin rounds
4 oz. shitake mushrooms, sliced
½ cup raisins
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups of Israeli couscous
2-1/2 cup vegetable broth

Heat olive oil in a heavy large pan. Saute the onions, shallots, ginger, peppers, and carrots for about 5 minutes on medium high heat. Add the mushrooms, raisins, cinnamon, cloves, and salt and continue to saute for another 5 minutes. Stir in the couscous until well coated. Add 2 cups of the broth, cover, and turn down to medium low. Cook 10-15 minutes until couscous is done, adding broth if necessary. The liquid should be absorbed by the time it is done.

Here is a sample of our smorgasbord:

My fabulous pisco sour being "flamed" by a real bartender

Desserts to die for
Homemade bread hot out of the oven

Beef stew in honor of St. Patrick's Day

The remains of homemade dumplings and sauce that were the best I have ever eaten (and I'm a dumpling fanatic)

Pork belly with delicious sauce, "bubbly" citrus, and homemade buttermilk biscuits

The aftermath as we all scrambled for leftovers to take home

So what did we talk about? Cooking, of course. I learned about why people seem to prefer Shun and Misono knives. I learned how to hold a 3-layer cake together with a soda straw. I learned that even good cooks have bad days.

Hopefully this will be the first of many such Blogger dinners. This is such a better way for me to get to know the DC Blog community. Thanks to the organizers and to our gracious host and to everyone who participated. You are all welcome to come to our house in Virginia for another eating extravaganza!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Wii Are the Champions

I don’t ever buy lottery tickets, knowing the odds are always against winning. But tonight at the Temple Micah auction, when Teddy’s 12-year-old daughter asked us if we wanted to buy some raffle tickets at $5 a ticket, I said we would take one. I jokingly asked her if she had sold us a winning ticket and she smiled and said OF COURSE!

Throughout the course of the live auction, there were three interludes for giving away the raffle prizes. Everyone had their strings of tickets on the table as the numbers were called. Of course we had our single ticket on the table, too. Our rabbi Toby won the Cuisinart deluxe model – a good thing because she is reputedly a great cook. Someone else won the Ipod Touch. Then came the item everyone had been waiting for – the Wii. (I had to ask my husband what it was that everyone seemed to want.)

As the young girl read out 195-84-86, we realized we had won! Everyone was so envious, especially those with 12-year-olds.

So after an evening of fun, we probably just about broke even. We managed to buy

– A pint of Judith Capen’s superb chocolate sauce,
– A lesson in latke making from Miriam in Silver Spring,
– A chili dinner on Capitol Hill,
– Another dinner “Hot smoke, cool jazz” in Bethesda, and
– An adorable Vera Bradley black quilted backpack donated by Forecast.

But the big surprise of the evening was that we managed to win a Wii on a $5 raffle ticket! I hear there is now a new ailment called Wii-itis that people get from swinging their Wii rackets. I can’t wait!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Just a Little Brown Dot

This little brown dot about 1/8 inch across was the focus of my semi-annual visit to see Dr. Peck, one of my trusted skin doctors. It was the dark irregular portion that sent up a red flag.

The drill at these visits is I’m always seen by his student-du-jour at first and then Dr. Peck comes along afterwards to check on the student’s findings. Some of them are shy and almost apologetic about the fact that they have to look at every bit of your body. But today’s student Meredith was confident and reassuring at the same time. After a thorough exam, she had determined the little brown dot to be the only suspicious thing on my entire body.

I found myself already thinking that an excision on my right inner thigh would not be nearly as bad as the last one on the inside of my left knee.

Dr. Peck is quite cautious when it comes to even taking a biopsy. He agreed with Meredith, but after looking at the little brown dot through his dermatascope thought there was a good chance it simply represented an aging mole that was not all aging at the same rate. He asked me to come back in 3 months or if I noticed any change in it. Fortunately it’s in a place I can easily observe.

Even as late as several years ago, I would have blanched at the idea of having a melanoma and opted to have it removed even if there was the slightest chance it was malignant. But after so many such surgeries that did turn out to be benign and even after the 4 melanomas I had removed, I would rather not rush into what might be unnecessary surgery.

Dr. Peck knows EVERYTHING that is going on in the world of melanoma. He thinks big and thinks in the future. He would love to see a screen on the wall where he could project an image of what he was seeing as he looked through his little scope so the patient could understand what he was doing better.

He said the latest finding is that melanoma is always associated with a change in DNA. If there could be a topical gel that would mark such DNA change, the guesswork in diagnosis might be eliminated. I jokingly said, “Maybe that’s how you can make your mark before you retire.” He replied, “I’ve already made mine. Maybe Meredith can do it.” As the N.I.H. researcher who discovered Accutane, he has already made a significant contribution to the field of medicine.

He and Meredith were somewhat concerned about the many pre-cancerous spots on my face. Instead of continuing to freeze them, they prescribed Retin-A, which I will now have to use several times a week forever. The unexpected pleasant side-effect of this medication is that it removes wrinkles.

My skin will no doubt continue to be a challenge, but it’s doctors like Gary Peck who give me the confidence that I’m really doing just fine.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

My Way

As I sit here inventing what to do next to finish this quilt, it strikes me that I have taken on many projects over the course of my lifetime having no credentials or even track record. I can’t say they have all turned out perfectly, but I have managed to invent a way to get them from start to finish.

When my son was in Anna’s 2/3 class at Burgundy Farm, Anna asked me to lead a workshop on basket-making when the kids went to the mountain campus at Cooper’s Cove. I pleaded that I had never made a basket before and didn’t know where to begin. Anna just smiled and said, “I’ll bet you can figure it out.” And so I did. I bought a book on basket-making and bought reeds in multiple sizes and dye in my favorite colors. After spending hours dying the reeds in hot water in my back yard, we packed them all up and headed off to the Cove.

The children and I experimented and quickly learned how to make baskets. Since no one ever did anything the same way at Burgundy, their baskets were all unique. The real fun was after the children were (supposedly) asleep when the adults gathered around the fire in the lodge and we all made baskets together. This is the sort of activity that lets you discover a lot about people. You learn who the real perfectionists are and who the creative ones are, all the while gossiping about things that had happened at the Cove in years past. The baskets in the picture are what remain from that and subsequent trips to Cooper’s Cove, where I was forever known as the basket expert, for whatever reason.

Some other teacher asked me to work with the children to make a quilt for the annual auction, because handmade class projects often set off bidding wars. So each child decorated a square using fabric markers and I managed to put them together into a quilt appropriate for a child’s bed. Of course I had never before made a quilt, but I naively thought, how hard can it be? It sold for something like $400 as people with money went up against each other.

A more sophisticated version a few years later included embroidered squares from the 6th graders. The mothers got together with me to crudely quilt the resulting product of their children’s efforts. Once again, not perfection, but once again an even higher price for a memory of Burgundy.

Two more quilts – one for the GDS kindergarten class as an auction contribution, the other for a colleague of mine as she became terminally ill with melanoma.

But not until I started the current quilt did I have the least idea about how it was supposed to be done. I followed the directions explicitly until I got to the end of the second Xeroxed page. Then I started ad-libbing as my friend still had the book describing how to make the quilt. So I bought batting and a backing fabric, put them together with the quilt face, and then put on the binding, not once but twice as I didn’t like the first attempt.

It was when I went back to G Street to buy quilting thread that I realized what a mess I was in. Martha, the senior quilting guru on the staff there, had nothing but wonderful things to say about the way I had pieced the quilt face. But then she told me the binding is supposed to go on last after you have already done the hand quilting, so the quilt face would be taut and smooth. She advised me to take it all apart and start over with the batting and backing, leaving a margin of both around the exterior.

But when I got home, I realized that what she had recommended would not work because of the design of my quilt, which had the equivalent of a picture-frame border, which would not allow fabric to be moved outward.

So at that point, I decided how I would finish it off, attempting to hide all manifestations of a sagging quilt face. I put basting threads through at 4-inch intervals in both directions.

Then I did a decorative wavy stitch on the 3-inch blue border (the picture frame), following the design my friend had sketched out for me at Teaism the other day.

I am now in the process of quilting in all the “ditches”, as Martha had called them – that is, the intersections of the various pieces on the quilt face. I am also stitching around the big designs, like the peacocks and flowers. This had turned them into proud peacocks, as my birds now have inflated chests.

I have since gotten the book back, but have been reluctant to open it to find out what I am supposed to be doing. My way will just have to suffice.

It’s a long process, not one I will do in a day or two. But some day soon, my peacock quilt will be done and ready to hang on our bedroom wall. I guess I will have to invent a way to hang it, maybe using a dowel to keep it taut on top? But that’s for another day.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Matter of Taste

Have you ever considered having your buds done? According to an article in today's Washington Post, Tim Hanni, a California wine consultant (and a recovering alcoholic), suggests that the type of wine we prefer can be determined from an analysis of our taste buds.

He classifies the population of wine drinkers into four groups: tolerant (those with fewer taste buds who prefer ripe, concentrated wines), sensitive (those who like more balanced wines without strong tannin), hypersensitive (those who tend toward delicate, slightly sweeter wines such as Rieslings), and sweet (those with confidence in their taste and little desire to like drier wines).

If Hanni’s system is adopted, words like “grassy”, “hint of peach”, etc. will be passe. Instead a score influenced by our physiology, sex, and personal experience will define us just like our shoe size does.

His goal with this approach is to democratize wine – to get rid of the expectation that you must drink white with fish, red with beef, or anything with anything else. He asserts it is purely a matter of personal taste and the public must be urged to trust their palates... and the taste buds on the tip of their tongues.

Can you place yourself in one of those four groups? Personally, I am probably in the hypersensitive group.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

And I'm Reading...

I’m off the hook for being creative today since Pauline, who happens to be one of the best writers I know, handed me a meme a few days ago to which I have never responded:

1. Grab the nearest book of 123 pages or more.
2. Open it to page 123.
3. Find the first 5 sentences and write them down.
4. Then invite 5 friends to do the same.

From “The City of Falling Angels” by John Berendt, which I am reading in preparation for going to Venice in a few months:

“If your poison is as effective as you say it is, why are there any rats left in Venice at all?” “Very simple,” he said. “Venice doesn’t use my poison. The city council always awards contracts to the lowest bidder, so I don’t even bother submitting a bid. I’m prepared to make my contribution to humanity, but” – Donaldson winked – “humanity must be willing to make a contribution to me.”

Signor Donaldson, the rat man of Treviso, is just one of the many colorful characters the protagonist meets as he gets to know Venice in the period just after the fire that destroyed the historic Fenice opera house, where five of Verdi’s operas premiered. I’m not too much further along than page 123, so I don’t exactly know where this story is going, but so far it’s making me anxious to see firsthand this city which forever hovers between endurance and decay.

Just about everyone I know has already participated in this meme, so I will skip the fourth instruction and simply invite anyone who so desires to participate!

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Lightness of Being

We spend most of our lives either going uphill or downhill, both of which can be a struggle. But there are moments when we are poised in between, almost floating. I’m floating right now and by all rights it should equate to perfection.

That floating feeling is the one you have when the Ferris wheel stops on top and you rock gently back and forth at the highest height. It’s like the sensation you have on a roller coaster when you have just snaked up one side and are poised to go flying down the other. It’s even like the dead calm in the eye of a hurricane when nothing moves at all.

I realized just today there is hardly a thing about which I am anxious. I went through my check-list of things that might have caused past anxiety:
– I have no boss to disagree with any longer.
– My children BOTH seem to be gainfully employed, happy, and rather self-sufficient.
– My relationship with my husband has never been better. We thoroughly enjoy each other’s company but have plenty to do on our own. We disagree about almost nothing. Although not as frequent, sex is still very much on our agenda and as with everything else it is evolving while still maintaining excitement, satisfaction, and gentleness.
– I have no shortage of good friends whose company I enjoy on a regular basis.
– I am extremely healthy. I haven’t had a skin cancer scare in a couple of years. I haven’t taken antibiotics in more years than I can count. I have reliable, caring doctors who are there when I need them.
– Walking and balance are possibly a little better. I haven't fallen in almost a year. I think tap dancing helps my balance.
– I have music in many forms and a beautiful piano to play. I now have a quartet in addition to my double-bass partner of many years Deborah. I have excellent teachers.
– I have an affectionate dog who loves to play fetch, take a nap with me, and pretend to be ferocious when anyone comes to our house.
– I have plenty of volunteer opportunities that allow me to stay in touch with those I help.
– I am busy enough never to be bored, but not too busy to do things spontaneously.
– I’m not responsible for anything which is happening any time soon.
– I have no upcoming piano or dance recitals of any kind.
– I’m not rich, but I don’t have to worry about money.

So there you have it – my currently rather perfect life. In truth, my only sadness right now is over the seeming loss of a friend from many years ago who has severed our communication. I am gradually letting the memories of good times we shared wash away my current sadness.

But I made an interesting discovery today. As my anxiety slows down, so do my creative juices. I don’t have much of anything of substance to write in this Blog.

I remember that the oyster can produce its pearl only when it ingests a grain of sand which becomes an irritant. Must I too have something which is eating away at my heart and mind to arouse my passion for life and fire up my creativity?

I’m sure this nirvana is only temporary. I must say I am rather enjoying it while it lasts even if I have nothing of interest to say to anyone!

Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Sound of Tap Shoes

I was in the second dance recital of my life this afternoon and it was actually FUN! I’m pleased to say that I manage to sometimes surpass my abilities in a crunch.

I couldn’t help but think of my first recital at age 4 when I did a little ballet number. I spent the better part of the afternoon searching for the photo that showed my young class in our recital number. We had white satin tu-tu’s with silver sequins on the bodice and very full tuille skirts. My hair was in long golden curls that looked like the result of a curling iron. I was the tallest one in the class, so I was in the front in the middle. I’m holding up my hands as if to blow a horn. I loved my one and only recital as a child and forced my bigger body into that little tu-tu for years afterwards. That was the end of my childhood dancing career because my parents gave me a choice of more dance lessons or kindergarten (each of which cost $25 a month) and I chose kindergarten.

I went into a panic about today’s recital last Sunday when I realized that the other two non-blind women had been practicing hard at home and knew the dance much better than I did. But this week in my typical Type A mode, I practiced every day and would find myself waking up to “Off we go into the wild blue yonder” in my head. I never had a copy of the music, but by today’s performance I could sing it and dance at the same time and even look out at my pretend audience instead of watching my feet.

Picture a large rec center room cut in half by a homemade black curtain held up with Velcro. That was our “performance hall.” The four classes of students ranged in age from about 7 to 70. My class (known as “the Air Force”) consisted of my dental hygienist, another woman, and the blind woman (all probably in their mid-40's). We wore long navy pants, a blue tee shirt, and an Air Force cap.

Prior to the show, our teacher Roberta had us all join hands in a circle. I was somewhat afraid we might be headed for a pre-dance prayer. But no, it was just a “break a leg” hand squeeze that went around the circle of young and old dancers. We warmed up as a group by pointing our toes and circling our ankles. At this point, the youngest dancers were more than ready to get started.

I watched the first 4 dances while waiting for the Air Force number. The advanced adult group had obviously been dancing for a number of years. Everyone including the children danced well, but not perfectly. No one made unforgivable mistakes. Every number got the same rousing applause from the audience.

My motto today was “make your mistakes with confidence and a smile on your face.” After we grape-vined onto the stage, I actually looked at my husband who was in the center of the audience. The look of incredulousness on his face as he snapped pictures made it all worthwhile. I managed to get through our 2-1/2 minute dance without forgetting any of it and with no Lucy moments of doing something totally different from everyone else. I let my arms move with my feet and was simply propelled by the music. It was FUN.

Our dance ended in a salute. We took our bows and then grape-vined back through the curtain slits moving our arms like we were planes. Hokey but the audience loved it and clapped harder.

I was planning to move on to other things from tap dancing, but I may just sign up for the next round, which begins on March 30. It warms you up and simply makes you feel good all over.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

A Musical Interlude

Every time I mark the end of Shabbat by a Havdalah service with friends, I realize what a special time it is and tell myself we should do it every week. Today’s celebration was bittersweet as those of us in the Temple Micah choir sang for a member “emeritus” who suffers from Parkinson’s disease.

Many of us remembered the last time we had gathered at someone’s house for a similar service. It was another bass who had ALS and is no longer with us.

Today we sang a number of our very best songs, leaving out the Debbie Friedman ones by request of the family. But there were plenty of songs Richard knew and loved. His eyes filled with tears as he listened and sang along.

We ate wonderful homemade sweets as Richard reminisced about his many years in the choir. He named off the old faithfuls, many of whom are no longer in the choir. You could tell the music held a special place in his heart.

We then turned our attention to bidding the Sabbath goodbye with the familiar Havdalah songs, the lighting of a braided candle, and the smelling of a container of spices. After the burning candle was plunged into a cup of wine, we sang Shavua Tov as we wished each other a good coming week.

Since we measure our lives in weeks, it seems so fitting to mark the end of one and the beginning of the next in a celebration that finds arms linked and bodies swaying as the candle burns.

I’m happy the choir could lift the spirits of Richard and his wife as they struggle with his debilitating disease. It made me hope when it’s my turn I don’t have to watch my body deteriorate while my mind stays alert and active. It’s a hard way to go.

Friday, March 07, 2008

What's for Lunch?

Most days it would be a salad. Boring you say? Oh no, making a salad can be as therapeutic as making Japanese green tea. And every day it is slightly different.

I grew up with salads that consisted of a chunk of iceberg lettuce, a few slices of tomato, and maybe a cucumber. The dressing would have been Wishbone French (that very orange one) or if we were lucky Good Seasons Italian in a bottle that always needed to be shaken before pouring. Needless to say, I preferred most other vegetables.

My mother’s salad forte was more into the Jello family: seafoam green and cranberry. Those molds just never failed to please in their sugary goodness.

My lunchtime salads bear little resemblance to the salads of my youth. They start with a vinaigrette in the bottom of the bowl:

– Snipped fresh dill (or dried if I don’t have any)
– Some dried thyme
– A small dollop of Dijon mustard
– A little white wine vinegar
– A little Balsamic vinegar
– Borsari seasoned salt
– Freshly ground Szechuan pepper
– Lemon flavored olive oil

Blend the above ingredients with a fork and start adding whatever you have on hand and whatever appeals to you. Today my salad contained:

– Chopped red sweet pepper
– Chopped carrots
– Chopped cucumber
– A sliced baby tomato
– Half an avocado
– Capers
– 4 olives
– Raw sunflower seeds
– Shaved Pecorino cheese (shaved with a vegetable peeler)
– Mache blend of greens

Only after the last ingredients have been added is it tossed to distribute the dressing which has been waiting patiently on the bottom of the bowl.

Some days I might add one of the following:

– Chopped hard-boiled egg
– Pieces of chicken
– Leftover salmon or tuna

After savoring every mouthful of this somewhat tart mixture, I feel like a piece of sweet fruit: an orange or a mango.

The perfect end to this meal is a bite of dark chocolate. Just a bite is sufficient.

When my husband asks if I’m sick of eating salad for lunch, I can say with certainty NEVER!

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Accountable to No One

Time and accomplishments take on a different meaning when you are retired. I found myself comparing notes with a recently retired choir member tonight as he faces his first full week of retirement from a busy job at Fannie Mae.

He commented that his day started out as always with everyone getting up around the same time. But then they all go off and I have the day to myself and that’s just a little scary, he said.

He said he took a picture to be framed today, something he had been meaning to do for a long time. I countered with the fact that I had repotted two plants this week, measuring my accomplishment in DIRT! I had also repaired a wind chime and cleaned out half of one file drawer.

I woke up today with an empty slate and so many expectations of how I would fill it. But nothing turned out as I had planned. I spent the entire morning re-doing the binding on my quilt, mostly because I don’t really know what I am doing and I care way to much about mistakes. The newly done binding is an improvement, but there are still glaring imperfections. And it remains to be quilted before it can be hung.

Just as I was about to settle into some of those things I had intended to do today, I decided to check on how my young Guatemalan friend’s baby was doing, knowing the baby had been sick for the past two weeks. The school said I could reach her at home, not a good sign.

She sounded tired and discouraged when I called. The baby now had a cough in addition to diarrhea. Her appointment at the clinic was at 3:45. I volunteered to pick them up at 3:15. I finally got home at 6:15 after waiting at the clinic and then taking her to get prescriptions filled. I had managed to pick up the book Kimy recommended on the way there.

Where had the day gone? What about practicing piano, exercising, and practicing my tap dance? They would just have to wait until tomorrow because I was off to choir practice tonight.

Tomorrow once again is a day free from appointments. Everything I want to do should fit nicely in the morning, leaving the afternoon to read, go to the library to pick up the book Pauline recommended, and play with Jake outside.

But something tells me it will not go quite like that. I suppose the beauty of retirement is that I don’t have to apologize to anyone or even offer up any excuses for things that just don’t get done. I have to learn that a day is no longer wasted. Instead it is just re-programmed.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

About Women

Next week’s read-aloud at the shelter in Anacostia is supposed to use Women’s History Month as its theme. I’m having a hard time coming up with an activity for this one.

Our kids range in age from 3 to 9 and don’t have long attention spans. We have generally used simple themes, like snow and valentines. Three-year-olds don’t even know what history is, for goodness sake!

With the help of Arlington Country Library, I do have 7 books which talk about prominent women in fairly simple language.

But then we are supposed to do something related to the theme as an activity. For example, when we talked about snow, we made snowflakes. On Valentines Day we made valentines and decorated cookies.

An Internet search for ideas turned up an interesting story about a courageous young woman named Bessie Coleman, who was the first African American woman to obtain a pilot’s license. She was born in 1892 in a small town in Texas. She actually learned French and went to France to study aviation after she was turned down repeatedly in this country. After only 7 months, she obtained her license and returned to the US where she became a barnstormer and an early advocate for women’s rights. She died in a tragic accident when she was but 34 years old.

Maybe the kids can draw Bessie’s plane or make a paper airplane to commemorate this young woman who made history.

If you have other ideas, please pass them along!

Tutti Fruiti

As I get older, I have finally come to understand my mother’s love of fruit. I would probably give you my chocolate bar and even my cheese before relinquishing the fruit in my diet.

Yesterday I had blueberries, a grapefruit, a mango, three oranges, and some dried cranberries. I declared the mango (from Peru) to be the best I had ever tasted. It was sweet and juicy and perfectly ripe.

Are you a fruit-o-holic? Is there such as thing as too much fruit in one’s diet? I certainly hope not.