Thursday, July 31, 2008

Reminders of Life and Death

The tale of my two cyclamen plants continues and is a bit mysterious. I wrote about them earlier this year, telling how they were both gifts from women friends who later had cancer. One survived; the other didn’t.

Soon after I took the above picture in February, I decided the plants were root-bound and found bigger pots to put them in. They suddenly had lots of green, healthy leaves, but only an occasional bloom.

The white one, given to me by someone who survived breast cancer, continued to thrive even without blooms.

The pink one, given to me by my elderly friend Florence who had a malignant brain tumor and died last summer, started to shrivel up and died just a year after Florence’s death.

Not that I have a green thumb, but I did treat them equally well. I watered them and occasionally fertilized them. What would cause one plant to live while the other just wasted away?

I’m wondering if I found a shallower pot if the white one would put its energy into blooms once again instead of growing roots?

I’ll have to find other reminders of little Florence now that the pink cyclamen is no longer.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Girly-Girl Afternoon and Eating Mindfully

Instead of meeting at Starbucks, my friend and I met at Capitol Nails for a pedi-mani afternoon. What a non-Buddhist way to gear up for eating mindfully with my meditation group later this evening.

It turns out that a nail salon is the perfect way to socialize and gossip with a friend. While the nail technicians converse in Vietnamese, you can talk about anything and everything with each other and with the other clients.

At one point Mai and Lan (although I’m not really sure those were their names) were advising us on toe color. We joked that they were probably saying to each other “Give the old woman the darker color” as they smiled at us and worked on our feet and legs.

I’ve never had such a complete pedicure. My technician even used a razor to take the calluses off my feet. Tonight they are baby soft.

We both opted for just a hint of nail color, choosing Opi’s “No Pre-Nup” shown above. It’s polish but just barely noticeable.

To continue a totally girly-girl afternoon we made our way to Union Station with shiny toes and nails to slowly sip mango margaritas, the perfect hot-summer drink.

As my friend headed home to deal with dogs, the clothes dryer, and the reality of life, I headed off to Starbucks for a cup of coffee (I know I said I wouldn’t, but...) so I could stay awake at meditation.

Since we never get a chance to really socialize during our silent meditation, we decided to have a potluck dinner tonight. After a half-hour sit, we put out a variety of vegetarian dishes on a low Korean table placed in the middle of our meditation cushions. There was quinoa bean salad, homemade salsa with chips, cold Korean noodles, a green salad, corn bread, and 3 types of tea.

After loading up our plates, we decided to eat in silence for 5 minutes. It’s amazing how much more you can taste when you aren’t talking. But then we learned all about each other’s busy lives as we continued to eat and chat.

Dessert was fruit with homemade yogurt and yummy banana bread. What a feast!

My toes will be bright for the rest of the summer. I’m sure the nail polish won’t be on as long, but it’s fun while it lasts! For at least a day or two I will think about my food as I take that first bite.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Thoughts One Year into Retirement

For many working people the thought of retiring is an immediate cause for fear. This is especially true for those who have had jobs that simply defined their lives. Their jobs were often their entire reason for being.

I spoke to a woman about my age at a wedding reception on Sunday who is a top-notch physicist in California, dealing with space travel and other sophisticated topics. When I asked her if she had considered retiring, she immediately became defensive saying, “But I love my job... and I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have it.”

Even my husband, who has been retired for 5 years now, quickly tells people he has a second career doing websites for paying clients. It’s as though he really doesn’t want to admit to the fact that he is retired.

Some people look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them I’m completely retired and I enjoy playing music and reading to kids in a homeless shelter; that I haven’t yet turned to TV for entertainment, preferring to read books instead.

There are days like today when I have absolutely nothing scheduled and I must impose my own schedule if I am to accomplish anything at all. I often think I much prefer the days that have an appointment of some kind – lunch with a friend, a class, or even a doctor’s appointment.

We become so accustomed to our time being overscheduled that it is difficult to adjust to having free time, sometimes whole days of free time, with plenty of time for a nap. As we put out head on the pillow at night, we still want to be able to say that we accomplished something during the day.

Retirement is a luxury that not everyone can experience. Many people are in jobs that have no retirement plan, unless they themselves consciously set up 401-K plans. When my monthly annuity is automatically deposited at the beginning of each month, I am grateful I worked for the Federal Government under the old retirement system that allowed me to retire at 58 with enough money to live on for the rest of my life. I had a good job that I never dreaded going to, but I am quite content to no longer make that daily commute.

Monday, July 28, 2008

RAK Round #2

It’s been almost a year now that our neighborhood RAK group has been finding novel ways to spend $400 each month to the betterment of humanity. It’s been so much fun each month to guess what the spenders will do with the money and then to find out what they actually did.

The year has included massage for the elderly, reusable shopping bags given away, “free” gas, a sewing machine given to a young Guatemalan mother, an Arlington clinic waiting room makeover, the start of an education fund, warm gloves for homeless men, and so many other things that touched the lives of young and old in our world.

It’s time to find out who wants to go for a second year. I’m already starting to think about how to spend my money the next time it’s my turn.

Here’s my current idea. Remember this little girl from Glenda’s shower? M is the daughter of the woman who cleans our house, who now has another daughter just a month old. M often comes with her mother when she’s not in school. She quietly colors or reads or practices writing. But she is always drawn to my piano when I sit down to play. Her mother has said how much M would like to play the piano some day.

So I started looking on line and making inquiries and I think I may be able to get a used piano for my $200. It will not be a concert grand, but it may be fine for an 8-year-old girl who is just learning.

There seems to be the occasional piano that just can’t accompany a family who is moving or splitting up or for whatever reason doesn’t need it any longer. I saw several possibilities in the classifieds. Then I called the guy who installed our piano humidifier, whose father just happens to be closing a prominent piano store in Old Town. According to the son, he still has 60-70 pianos to get rid of and he might be interested in seeing that one was earmarked for little M.

I’m in no rush. In fact I don’t even know when my turn will next fall, but probably not before January. So if you run into anyone wanting to get rid of a good used piano at the right price, please let me know. I’m sure one will turn up just when I need it!

My next request will be for beginning piano books. I will have to look for “Teaching Little Fingers to Play”, which may be somewhere in my attic.

I suppose I should also check to make sure M’s family has enough space in their apartment for a piano.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

So Little, So Young

Gymnastics is one of the few sports where being younger, smaller, and lighter weight is an advantage. I was somewhat appalled to read an article in the NYT that suggests that two of the girls on the Chinese Olympic women’s gymnastic team may be as much as two years younger than they claim to be.

Since 1997 the minimum age for Olympic eligibility in gymnastics has been 16. Both He Kexin and Jiang Yuyuan have passports that put their age at 16, whereas independent records show each of them to be only 14.

How much difference does two years actually make? Nellie Kim, a five-time Olympic gold medalist for the former Soviet Union, says they are lighter and often more fearless when they perform difficult maneuvers, making it easier to do tricks. She added that psychologically they worry less.

My friend, whose daughter competed in gymnastics at the national level, observed that the lower level of female hormones in the younger girls makes a huge difference, giving their bodies a different shape and center of gravity.

I was surprised at the official reaction to these allegations by an official of USA Gymnastics, who basically said, “If they have valid passports, bring ’em on.”

Then I thought about this issue from the standpoint of a legitimate entrant who had perhaps trained most of her life to compete. It would be infuriating to perhaps be defeated by someone who had been entered with falsified information.

And what about the two girls in question, who would obviously have an excellent chance at competing in four years when they are 18 years old. What sort of life lesson is this for them? It would seem a huge burden to bear the suspicion and accusations that will surround their participation in the Olympics.

The sad truth is that as long as their have been athletic competitions, people have been finding ways to enhance their performance through illegal substances and rule violations. Wouldn’t it be nice to start something as time-honored as the Olympics on a completely even playing field?

NSC Standings

Our Scrabble mentors are in the heat of the 2008 national championships. Check it out: Joe Edley at #24 and Jerry Lerman at #37. There are still 20 rounds to go, so a lot could change. Here's hoping for a day of good letters and a lot of bingos for Joe and Jerry!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Contrasting Campaigns

The two photos on page A4 of today’s Washington Post summarized so well the current state of the Presidential campaign. As Obama has become the darling of the world, McCain retreats to Aspen to be calmed down by the Dalai Lama.

I am simply amazed at the perception of the rest of the world that Obama IS our President, as they welcome him with open arms and start to heal the rift created by our current President, who seems to be slipping into obscurity as Dennis Kucinich and friends go about kinda sorta impeaching him.

If anyone had any doubts about Obama’s ability to deal with foreign leaders, they should be gone by now after his recent trip to Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Germany, France, and Britain (still to come). In every case, he has attracted huge crowds of supporters and received glowing endorsements from the leaders of those countries.

As McCain back home continues to behave like a spoiled angry child who keeps trying to find something of merit to pick a fight over. It was as though he had to take a break from his vitriol to walk peacefully in the present moment in Colorado. I almost feel sorry for him (but not enough to cast my vote in that direction.)

It’s obvious that not only the US, but the world, is ready for the CHANGE Obama has promised. January 20, 2009, is just around the corner. Thank God!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Living in Fear

Millions of people in this country are constantly worried every time they see someone in a uniform. Most have never committed a serious offense, other than being here... illegally. Being apprehended for jaywalking or a minor driving infringement or even suspected of a crime will likely result in deportation, a fate worse than death for so many of these people who came here hoping for a better life.

I was reminded of this as I read last Sunday’s NYT article about Juana Villegas DeLaPaz, a Mexican woman who was nine months pregnant when she was pulled over for a minor traffic violation in Nashville. After giving birth in a hospital with her leg secured to the bed, she was returned to jail and then her baby was taken away from her for two days. Meanwhile she was denied a breast pump and developed a serious infection. She was clearly treated like a criminal, when in fact she was just a scared woman who happened to cross paths with authority. It seems likely she will be deported. And then what becomes of the baby born after her arrest?

Last night we went to see The Visitor, a PG-13 movie about Walter, an older man who is burned out in his career, and his bizarre encounter with two illegal immigrants, Tarek from Syria and his girlfriend Zainab from Senegal. Tarek breathes new life into Walter’s rather depressed body when he begins to give him drumming lessons. Then Tarek is arrested in the NYC subway for a crime he didn’t even commit.

He is taken to a detention center in Queens, where he is kept with 300 other such people, none of whom are terrorists. His widowed mother arrives from Michigan when she hasn’t heard from her son for 5 days. Ultimately Tarek is deported to Syria and his mother follows, knowing neither of them will ever be able to legally enter this country again. Of course that leaves Zainab all alone to sell her jewelry on the street.

For a PG-13 movie it is a sad ending, but it is the only realistic ending for people who end up in this situation.

I’m not an advocate of opening our borders to anyone who wants to enter, but the cruelty we seem to inflict on those who get here one way or the other is sometimes beyond belief. Do we need to be reminded that the majority of people living in this country had their roots elsewhere?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Forever Young

The average life expectancy has been gradually creeping upward. In the time of the Roman Empire, people were lucky if they lived into their thirties. People in the US now live an average of 78 years. But what if we had the ability to extend life 30-40 years, thereby allowing people to live in reasonably good health well into their second century?

The technology is rapidly becoming available to do just that. We will have the ability to alter genes that affect the aging process. We will have the ability to regenerate aging organs or joints or even skin using stem cell research.

But should we be tampering with the natural evolution of the species? Can a planet that is already overpopulated and gobbling up the natural resources at an alarming rate sustain a burgeoning elderly population?

And if the ability to extend life were to become a reality, would it cost so much that only the richest in our society could afford it?

I ask myself: Would I want to live to 140? Unless I went back to work, that would mean more than half my life retired! Something just seems terribly out of balance in that picture.

Mankind has always searched for the fountain of youth, that magical elixir that would postpone our decline and death. Now that it is within the realm of possibility, we must look at the ethics of artificially extending life.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Designing our Children

Parents have a history of wanting for their children what they themselves have not had. Well most parents, that is.

A common thread of last week’s Chautauqua lectures was the idea of genetically engineering our children. It is conceivably possible to screen for sex and any number of other characteristics in a human embryo.

Arthur Caplan, the Director of Bioethics at U Penn, said he had recently been consulted by a physician with a question of ethics: A deaf couple had come in to see him concerning their desire to have a baby and make sure that it was congenitally DEAF. Caplan advised his colleague against supporting this request, stating that he recommends only intervention that has a positive outcome. The couple subsequently found someone else willing to help them.

This is certainly not a an open and closed case. I can understand how much easier it would be to raise a child that was just like his/her parents. Theirs would be just another happy family who communicated by signing.

But what about that child’s interaction with the hearing world? Is it really in any way fair to saddle the baby with a life-long disability? I know many deaf people balk at thinking of themselves as disabled, but it is clear to me that the ability to hear what’s going on in the world is important from the standpoint of safety and just plain quality of life.

This is no longer a question of technology. It is there today to offer up deaf children, children with genius IQ’s, children with superior athletic ability, and on and on and on. Where would you ethically draw the line? Or would you prefer to totally ignore the possibilities presented by this new technology?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Sniffing out the Enemy

Do you love the smell of a freshly brewed cup of coffee the way I do? I can almost taste it. But recently I’ve concluded that coffee is probably the culprit.

I realized that my headaches had actually started in Italy, when I was availing myself of espressos and cappuccinos at every opportunity and delighting in using our Italian coffee pot in Praiano. I had attributed those headaches to dehydration, but maybe not.

When I was talking to my friend Lora who had been troubled with migraines all her life, she mentioned that she had gone through a food elimination test and determined that coffee was definitely her trigger. She hasn’t had a migraine in two years since giving up coffee.

Note that I didn’t say caffeine, just coffee. She can still drink tea with no problem.

This was at about the point where I was going in for the MRI’s. I decided to go off the coffee wagon just to see if it made a difference.

Since then, no more headaches, not even one. My whole body rhythm seems to have been restored, leaving behind the highs and lows that had come to so characterize my day.

Does this mean I will never again drink a cup of coffee? Probably not. But it will be only occasionally.

I confess that I do miss my morning jolt, but I much prefer to have an untroubled head and not be on such a caffeine roller coaster.

I would love to better understand the chemistry of coffee and how it can have such far-reaching effects.

Anybody else out there with an opinion on coffee?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Gently Pushing Away Pain

It’s such a mystery to me as to how osteopathy works. I occasionally visit Dr. Greg Craddock when I have a persistent pain and he inevitably sets me on the road to recovery.

Contrary to chiropractory, which always seems rather jerky, violent, and sometimes even painful, osteopathy is slow and gentle with constant pressure but virtually no pain. It’s not like massage because there is no stroking and no oil/cream involved.

It’s almost as though Dr. Craddock can see inside my tissue to know the cause of the pain. Today’s visit was the second and final appointment to deal with the hand I injured when I fell off my bike several weeks ago.

I tend to close my eyes and almost fall asleep as he deals with the problematic area and always works on my neck and spine. But when I open my eyes, there is an immediate feeling of improvement which I never sense with any other doctor.

When I walk out the door of that office, for at least a while I feel a fluidity in walking that is often missing in my peculiar gait. For a time I am actually in balance.

For Dr. Craddock, osteopathy is a second career, following many years as a NYC fireman. I’m sure he saved many lives in his previous career, but his real calling is this gentle alternative approach to pain that continues to amaze everyone he treats.

As I get older, I find I am more and more open to treatments of all sorts. But for chronic pain, osteopathy is the best I’ve found.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Vacuum Day

Cleaning house is a good way to find out what works and what doesn’t. Today is vacuum day and I am rediscovering why I have a housecleaner (who is currently recovering from having a baby).

I started by locating the old Kenmore vacuum cleaner and all its pieces. I even changed the bag which was bulging with dirt and dog hair. I swept first to get rid of the large clumps of dog hair.

It was after about 20 minutes that the vacuum cleaner started this annoying habit of cutting off and then restarting itself if I wiggled it just right. It is in fairly sad shape. I wonder why Angelina has never mentioned it to me?

I’m taking a break before tackling the next section of my house, planning to haul out the lighter weight vacuum cleaner and see if it works any better.

It’s so easy to be critical of those who clean houses for not doing things like moving the furniture to vacuum under it. But guess what, I found myself going around the edges saying, “Who will ever know what’s underneath?”

I alerted my husband that if there was even one complaint about the quality of my cleaning job, I was going to turn it over to him. So far, he has offered nothing but compliments.

I’m tempted to call Angelina to find out how life is going with a 3-week old baby and a stomach full of stitches. I can truly imagine she would like to stay off forever from this job, but it will buy the diapers and baby food.

Meanwhile, enough wasting time. There are floors and rugs and carpet just begging to be vacuumed. Maybe I’ll try whistling while I work...

Saturday, July 19, 2008

An Unfortunate Fork in the Road

Picture yourself walking down a path with a friend when you come to a fork in the road. You go one way and she goes the other. Not necessarily bad unless you are playing a duet. That’s exactly what happened in yesterday’s recital when we came to the end of the middle section of our piece. I somehow forgot and took the repeat as I listened to Deborah launch into the second ending.

We stopped and managed to regroup to play the rest of the piece, but by that time the smile of enjoyment on my face had turned to a mask of terror. And taking the wrong ending was just the worst of quite a few mistakes. It was not an experience that I want to remember, but one I will have a hard time forgetting.

I was happy that Deborah at least had pieces to play with another group, but I was frustrated at having put so much time into practicing this piece that had so many problems in performance. I wished I had taken fuller advantage of the lecture series that centered on medical ethics instead of hanging out so much in cabin #59.

I’ve always prided myself on coming through in the crunch, so what happened yesterday? It was probably a combination of things. Most of my practice time had been by myself since Deborah was playing with another group as well; it’s of much greater advantage to be rehearsing together once both people have learned the notes. Had I learned the notes? I can truthfully say I could play every part of the piece flawlessly; I just couldn’t count on doing it every time.

Probably the most unnerving thing was trying out the piano in the auditorium where the recital was held a few hours before the performance. It was unbelievably stiff and the pedal didn’t seem to do much at all. I really was counting on that pedal for a lot of big runs. I know that is just a convenient excuse since none of the other pianists had any great complaints about the piano.

So now what? I seem to have to keep revisiting the question of how to make sure music is an enjoyable and healthy part of my life. Maybe that means not playing such difficult pieces. Maybe it means getting a good teacher who can work with me on performance skills as well as how to play the piano.

Maybe it means experiencing the many other offerings at Chautauqua next year and just taking a year off from musical immersion. Being a Type-A person is such a burden sometimes!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Different Take

I just had a fascinating talk with one of those young piano students who was in yesterday’s masters class, although he was not on the schedule to play. Edo is from Israel and is currently studying at the University of Illinois.

His take on the severity of the coaching is that Rebecca Pennys is not all that tough on the students. He said they are all well aware of their mistakes and their shortcomings before she ever gives her critique. He seemed to think she was hardest on her students from Eastman who are here for the summer.

I asked whether the students naturally had sized each other up and determined a ranking of their colleagues. He tends to put people in two groups: those who strive for perfection and become somewhat robotic in their performance and those who play to make music. He obviously aspires to be in the latter group.

We talked about my week of amateur chamber music. He invited me to hear his group play chamber music this afternoon at 2 pm, which is when my next practice time is scheduled. There are way too many things to do in any hour of the day here.

I always find it so interesting to get the insight of a young person who is in this for the long haul. I expect to be seeing these students playing as guest artists with the NSO and other big symphony orchestras in years to come.

I learned to inside story on the sudden appearance of air-conditioners (and of course working windows) in the practice cabins this year. Apparently Steinway chose 3 sites to outfit with beautiful pianos at a minimal cost, Chautauqua being one of them. The stipulation was that the spaces where the pianos were housed would be air-conditioned and the rooms with the grand pianos would be locked.

Thank you, Steinway, for making cabin #59 so pleasant this year!

(Later) I went to the student concert and gave up some practice time. It was a good lesson in performance skills. My new friend Edo is on the left in this picture. He and the other young pianist from Brazil played a very modern piece: Celestial Mechanics by George Crumb, during which they spent a lot of time plucking and plonking the piano. The music is so far back so they can reach the strings more easily. These young artists put on quite a show!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Musical Immersion

This week at Chautauqua finds me immersed in music. It’s usually a good feeling, but at around 1:00 today I felt like I was about to drown. After an hour of personal practice time, an hour playing with Deborah, and 2 1-hour coaching sessions I was mentally and physically exhausted.

The best piece of advice today came from this morning’s coach Arie, a soft-spoken Israeli who is a professional cellist and who heads up the music program here. When I explained why I was playing one section of our Brahms sonata tentatively for fear of making a mistake, he said, “It’s a dance, a minuet, so you must smile and just play through the mistake. It will never matter.”

And later Bill talked about the difference between practice mentality and performance mentality. To stay focused and engaged, you must have the same discipline you have in meditation where you focus only on the present note, not the one you just played incorrectly or the one you are worried about in the next measure.

The best news of the day is that practice cabin #59 is now air-conditioned. I signed up to practice there because it had the best piano, recognizing that it was the only cabin that remained un-air-conditioned. You can see the beautiful new windows and the space in the wall reserved for the air-conditioner. As it warms up here, it will be nice to be able to stay cool.

My afternoon’s music consisted of attending a master class given by Rebecca Pennys, a renowned pianist. She tends to be somewhat brutal but entertaining in her comments to the young students, who all come in knowing what to expect. They played unbelievably difficult pieces, all from memory. After each performance she offered her critique, ranging from an admonishment not to bounce on the piano bench, a reminder to use posture that holds your body upright and not slouched over the keyboard, advice on using the pedal or not, and on and on and on.

At one point she was actually sitting on the floor and playing the piece on the second Steinway (and had the student doing the same) to demonstrate how much better he could hear with his head above the keyboard.

It was interesting to note that the class of about 20 students was over half Asian and predominantly female. They seems bonded to each other and receptive but somewhat impervious to the stinging comments. They graciously accepted the occasional words of praise.

The biggest surprise of the trip was the fact that our next-door neighbor here is the son of my high-school principal. He is 70 years old and has a vineyard in Westminster, Maryland. His mother of 98 still looks forward each year to her trip to Chautauqua.

I remembered that his mother had been a very strict piano teacher. In fact my friend Kay used to get dropped off for her lesson and hide in the front shrubbery instead of going in to take her lesson. Of course she was the same person who was sneaking out her bedroom window just a few years later.

Anyway, we have been invited to a Labor Day wine-tasting at this guy’s farm, complete with the music of Bruckner in the background. What a small world.

Tonight’s entertainment is a troupe of Chinese acrobats who will be performing in the amphitheater. Then it’s home to bed so we can begin another day here at Chautauqua.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Synergy = Energy

This afternoon we were reminded that music can and should be fun. We were entertained by Synergy, a brass quintet of 20-30-somethings.

They started by throwing all of our musical etiquette assumptions out the window. We were told to clap, shout, or whistle whenever the music moved us to do so.

I quickly learned that synergy equated to energy. They played a variety of music -- from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Procession of the Nobles to Tommy Dorsey’s I’m Getting Sentimental Over You to selections from Porgy and Bess.

All 5 of these musicians were conservatory-trained. They use sophisticated techniques like breathing through their nose while they are playing. But their main objective today was to involve the audience in a variety of music.

It was a timely lesson for me, as I struggle with my yearly anxieties over making mistakes and realize it’s really all about having fun.

Playing with the Champs

With some expert coaching my husband and I played the Scrabble game of our lifetime. We had important Scrabble people for dinner tonight and after dessert, we got to see how the pros do it.

Joe Edley is the guy who writes the Scrabblegram that is syndicated in the Washington Post and in other major newspapers throughout the country. One of his best friends is Jerry Lerman, the guy we just happened to meet on the 4th of July. They are both here this week with their families, Joe as an instructor and Jerry as just another Chautauqua guest.

We made piles of BBQ chicken, lots of potato salad, steamed broccoli, and a recipe of lemon bars. It was a nice night to eat out on our large deck.

After dinner some people peeled off to go to the evening concert put on by the music school, that included excerpts from Carmen. The rest of us hunkered down to watch a Scrabble game between Joe and Jerry.

Joe’s first play was a Bingo, a play that used all 7 of his tiles. I had never even heard of more than half the words they played. In many cases, they knew the words were allowed, but could not define them. They used a clock to record how much time each person took. Joe was ready to play almost immediately each time it was his turn. He had the better letters and ended up winning 482 - 358. For someone who has seldom topped 200, these scores are phenomenal!

My husband and I offered ourselves up to be “coached” by Joe and Jerry. The idea was that we should come up with the words ourselves, but they could advise on strategy and weird 2-letter words. We both got just a little more help. I managed 3 Bingos and had the best letters I have ever drawn. I edged out my husband at 412 - 386. Here is the resulting board.

I can’t wait to see how Joe and Jerry do in the upcoming national championships. What a treat to see Scrabble in a new light.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Music Camp Begins Again

Being at Chautauqua once again reminds me there is still a place where you don’t have to lock your bike, where children can run free of their parents and not be in danger, and where beauty constantly stimulates all one’s senses.

We are staying in a different house this year. It is literally beside the stage door of the opera house, so we can follow the Little Vixens as the opera rehearsals and performances unfold.

It’s a strange house with things in odd places and dishes for an army but no shelves for food. The best bathroom is downstairs while all bedrooms are upstairs. We have a room intended for an 8-year-old girl with miniature chairs and a dresser mirror that would require you to sit on the floor.

The practice cabins seem to have multiplied and virtually all of them have been renovated. The windows no longer have to be held open with sticks. Some even have air conditioners. The only problem with #59 was the piano was either too high the bench was too low. Nothing a couple of phone books couldn’t fix.

The advertised Internet connection of our house did not materialize. So I’m sitting outside the lovely Smith Library soaking up their free Wi-Fi.

We’re soon off to hear a poetry reading, followed by a cookout at an old friend’s house on a lake.

Chautauqua in the sunshine is indeed an idyllic life.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Homes and Families

I knew it was a real gamble. How would children in a homeless shelter for victims of domestic violence deal with a read-aloud theme of “Darfur”? Even if we managed not to mention the rape, burned bodies, or other atrocities, focusing instead on the resulting homelessness and loss of parents, would these children who have experienced their own atrocities freak out or would they identify with the plight of children halfway around the world?

I must say the children in this shelter have a mixed track record for their participation and their attentiveness during the Thursday night read-alouds. Sometimes I feel good if I have engaged even one small mind for 10 minutes. They range from 3-year-olds who are mostly content to sit on your lap and play with your hair to a precocious 7-year-old girl who was recently suspended from school for beating another girl up to 8-year-old boys who are heavily into basketball and video games.

After we had done the usual introductions and read over the rules (raise your hand, don’t hit anyone else, have fun, and (my rule) treat the books lovingly), a 5-year-old boy gave me the perfect entree for the evening’s topic when he said, “In school we’re talking about houses around the world.” So I began, “Halfway around the world in Africa, in a country called Sudan, one group of people are being very mean to another group, including making them leave their homes.”

And then we began reading Mary Williams’ book “Brothers in Hope,” which is the story told by a Sudanese boy, whose village is burned and who loses his family. It begins,

I was far from home attending my animals when my village was attacked. I could hear bangs like thunder and see flashing lights in the distance. Suddenly an airplane was circling above. Clouds of dust rose from the ground and bullets began to rain down on my herd. Many of the animals were killed. Others ran away in fear. I ran back to my village to find my family, but everyone was gone. The houses were burning and everything was destroyed.

At this point the 9 little faces in my audience were mesmerized in a way I had never before seen. They stayed totally engaged through the next 20 minutes as we learned how the young boy had banded with other such boys and they had walked first to Ethiopia and then to Kenya in search of safety and shelter and food. It talks of what the boy learns along the way and how he always carries the words of his father with him on his journey, “Garang, be brave. Your heart and mind are strong. There is nothing you cannot do.” And Garang is very brave as he becomes a surrogate parent to 5-year-old Chuti. There is no fairy-tale ending with families reunited and safely back in their homes, but it does reflect the love and dedication of those trying to help boys like Garang and Chuti and the small successes they learn to treasure.
The next book focused on the problem of drought experienced by much of Africa. “Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain” by Verna Aardema is a lilting folktale which begins,

But one year when rains
were so very belated,
That all of the big wild
creatures migrated.
Then Ki-pat helped to end
that horrible drought –
And this story tells
how it all came about!

This is Ki-pat,
who watched his herd
As he stood on one leg,
like the big stork bird;

The children couldn’t wait to find out how Ki-pat had made it rain on the Kapiti Plain.

Their activity for the night took them back to the lost boys of Sudan. Each child was given a canvas square and fabric markers. I asked them to draw something that might make a child in a refugee camp feel happy. Their canvas squares will be sent to a camp in neighboring Chad where children from Darfur will decorate the other side. Then the squares will be joined together to help make a tent to give shelter to people who have lost their homes.

It turns out homes and families are just as important here as they are in far-away Africa. It was a sobering read-aloud, but one that caused each of us to think about homes and families, here and there.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Retiring a Wardrobe

I recently came to realize that I wasn’t the only one who retired. My wardrobe retired a year ago as well.

Those cute little skirts and those suits I used to wear to work are just languishing on their hangers. Even much of my jewelry is way too fancy to wear biking or meeting friends for lunch.

My normal attire is shorts and a tee shirt. Or maybe if I’m getting a little more dressed up, capris and a nicer shirt. I’ve worn the same pair of sandals for the past 3 weeks.

So the real question is what to do with the 90% of my wardrobe that is no longer being worn. Do I save those little skirts for the opportunity that just might present itself? Do I hold onto the nice suit for the occasional wedding?

It seems unfair to horde all these unworn clothes while there are people out there who can’t afford to buy something to wear to work.

I just need to turn this revelation into action and start cleaning out. It will be interesting to see what I choose to keep.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Dog Days

This week’s medical drama involves Jake, our mixed retriever dog, who never lets life become dull. He’s actually a very healthy dog, but occasionally...

On Sunday when I reached down to rub his ears, the right one felt oddly wet. On closer inspection, it was inflamed and full of brownish red gunk and smelled awful. He would occasionally scratch it with his back paw, but otherwise seemed unperturbed.

On Monday my husband took him in to see the vet, thinking it would be a simple matter of drops and maybe an antibiotic as it always has been in the past. Instead this is the itemized bill:

Office exam $60.00
Cytology ear (in-house) $37.50
Cytology lump on upper leg $130.50
Fine needle aspirate $23.50
K9 Advantix (6 mo.) $87.00
Tresaderm $31.20
Prednisone $13.00
Cephalexin $25.20

Total $407.90

All because a dog had a red ear! And there was no pre-procedure authorization from an insurance company. It simply went on our Visa card.

I admit I could have cut that amount in half by reminding the vet they had already biopsied the lump on his leg and we had a 6-month supply of K9 Advantix at home which we had never used. But it’s still a lot of money. In fact, almost 3 times what we paid for this mixed-breed dog 10 years ago.

Hopefully he will be down to just the Tresaderm drops and the Cephalexin by Saturday, when he goes to stay with my neighbor for a week while we are in Chautauqua.

Meanwhile the trick is to get him not to roll over when we are washing out his ear and treating it with all these meds. It’s always a challenge!

(The picture above is not Jake, but the ear looks just like his did. Actually Jake's ear was a lot worse.)

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

No Longer a Clean Freak

The guilt is creeping up. I can feel it. I’m supposed to be cleaning our house while our Guatemalan cleaning person is on maternity leave. When she offered up her friend in her absence, I said, “I’ll just do it myself while you are gone. Take as long as you want to recuperate.”

That was over 2 weeks ago and it is past time to start cleaning. I had this idea I would do the bathrooms one day, the kitchen the next, vacuum the downstairs next, etc. until it was all clean, and then of course start over again because it never stays clean.

But so far my only progress has been to buy some rubber gloves and all-purpose cleaner from CVS.

Granted I have had a few other things on my mind over the past week, but now it is all about making excuses. I think if I just did one thing it would at least seem like a start.

I’m embarrassed to say how long it has been since I cleaned a toilet, but I seriously doubt I have forgotten how to do it.

What I most hate about cleaning is no one ever really remarks about a spotless house. Instead they just tell your friends if your house is full of dog hair and the counters are dirty.

I’m hoping by the end of the week to report some progress...

Monday, July 07, 2008

A Strong Reaction

Here’s something to think about: Can you actually like a book while despising all of the characters in it? We had an interesting discussion of The Emperor’s Children at last night’s book club meeting as we struggled to see redeeming qualities of the book.

Most people in our book club go a long way to give a book a fair chance. I can only remember one time in the club’s history when someone said, “I can’t find even one good word in that book” (referring to Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles, which most of us loved). He and his wife dropped out of the book club soon thereafter.

But as people started to read the current book, it seemed that the overriding sentiment was a hatred of the principal characters, three rather spoiled brat kids who had all attended Brown together and were now trying to find their way in the world. The other characters didn’t have a lot of redeeming qualities either.

Although I must say that Booty, a boy with no social skills whatever, elicited the most discussion as we debated whether the end of the book had him committing suicide or not. My husband actually liked Booty a lot, comparing him to Ignatius P. Reilly, the famed hotdog salesman of The Confederacy of Dunces.

We also talked about entitlement as it pertains to many of today’s young people who feel society owes them something. There’s Marina, who has been writing a book about children’s clothing for 8 years since graduation while being supported by her parents. There’s Danielle, the most established of the three, who proceeds to have an affair with Marina’s father. Then there’s Julius, their gay guy friend, who has not managed to get beyond a temp agency in between his many failed relationships and snorts of white powder.

One person’s question of “Why did she write the book?” remained largely unanswered. Someone else commented that it could have benefitted from a better editor.

What we have realized over the book club’s 12-year existence is that there is nothing more boring than everyone coming in and saying, “I loved the book.” Ho-hum. Instead when there is a mixed review, we have a spirited discussion, constantly reminding ourselves that the goal is never to get a 100% approval rating.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

In case you were wondering...

I’m sitting on cloud 9 as I continue to process my clean bill of health after last week’s ordeal to find out. It seemed rather like judgment day and I had prepared myself for either outcome or even for an indefinite outcome.

Thanks to the fact that my doctor knows how to go online and find test results, I knew within 24 hours that all the tests had been negative.

Yesterday she went into a little more detail, but the bottom line was the same. She commented that for someone 59 years old, my head and neck were remarkably free of the lumps, bumps, and “cobwebs” that often show up.

I had actually been thinking very positive thoughts since I had experienced no more headaches or blurred vision after Monday's episode, but it was nice to substantiate my thoughts.

The whole thing was still somewhat like sitting in judgment with my fate hanging in the balance. What a load off my mind to know how the scales tilted.

What are the chances?

Last night only by chance we met Jerry Lerman, who had just arrived from the West Coast with his wife. Ever heard of him? Jerry happens to be one of the top-ranked national Scrabble champions.

But the remarkable thing is the number of overlaps between his life and the lives of my family members, almost uncanny connections.

Jerry is the brother-in-law of someone with whom we were having a pre-fireworks dinner. He and his wife were driving in from Dulles as we finished dessert.

Here’s what we proceeded to learn over the course of the next hour or so:

– Jerry lived just blocks from my husband in Detroit until he was 9 years old.
– When he moved back to Detroit at age 15, one of his best friends was our friend Bernie, whose children and ours went to school together.
– He went to the U of Michigan, overlapping with my husband.
– He then moved to San Francisco, where he lived just one block from where our daughter currently lives near Alamo Square.
– His long-time best friend is Joe Edley, the guy who taught the two Scrabble courses my husband took at Chautauqua. At one point Joe was the national Scrabble champion.
– His cousin is Dr. Gary Peck, my melanoma specialist.
– Jerry and his wife will be in Chautauqua this year the same week as we are there. It is likely that he and Joe will be preparing for the 2008 Scrabble championship which takes place at the end of July.

I’m sure if we had talked to Jerry for another couple of hours we would have learned that we are distantly related.

That’s a lot of coincidence for a chance meeting! This sort of encounter makes me wonder how it happened that we chanced to make such a connection, all while we watched the fireworks through the light rain on the roof-top of Hill’s Kitchen.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Music from the Past

Just today I happened to remember a song that kept coming back to me yesterday. It was interesting that with every recurrence I remembered another line of the lyrics.

In the summer of 1967 I borrowed the Sergeant Pepper album from a dear friend and memorized every song on it. The music suited my place in life so well as I left home forever and broadened my universe in a college town.

So what song was it that served as my refrain for every round of noise yesterday? Here it is:

Fixing a Hole

I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in
And stops my mind from wandering
Where it will go

I'm filling the cracks that ran through the door
And kept my mind from wandering
Where it will go

And it really doesn't matter if
I'm wrong I'm right
Where I belong I'm right
Where I belong
See the people standing there
Who disagree and never win
And wonder why they don't get in my door

I'm painting my room in the colourful way
And when my mind is wandering
There I will go
Ooh ooh ooh ah ah
Hey, hey, hey, hey

And it really doesn't matter if
I'm wrong I'm right
Where I belong I'm right
Where I belong
Silly people run around
They worry me and never ask me
Why they don't get past my door

I'm taking the time for a number of things
That weren't important yesterday
And I still go
Ooh ooh ooh ah ah

I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in
Stops my mind from wandering
Where it will go oh
Where it will go oh

I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in
And stops my mind from wandering
Where it will go

I hadn’t thought about this song in years, probably not since the last time I played my vinyl copy of it. But that’s the music that my mind offered up to accompany all that noise. Go figure!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Medical Marathon

I received enough X-rays, sound waves, and magnetic resonations for a lifetime this afternoon at the Washington Hospital Center Day Spa. It’s probably a good thing they happened in that order, or otherwise I might have bailed early. In fact, it was like having multiple root canals and crowns done back to back, probably not a good thing.

Getting my hands X-rayed (recent fall off my bike and another fall several years ago) was truly a piece of cake. There was no getting undressed, holding my breath, or re-do’s that inevitably happen when I get a mammogram. The only bummer was I exceeded the 59-minute free parking offer by 1 minute and had to pay $5.

But then I got free parking for the rest of the afternoon at the MRI place. It’s one of the few bene’s they have to offer.

The next series of tests was heart-related. They all involved clipping sensors to my skin, smearing on blue goo, and using a hand-scanner. The only thing I hated was having to periodically hold my breath until I thought I would expire. An hour and a quarter later I was out the door in search of MRI.

I had come prepared with a CD of music that goes with Belleruth Naparstek’s Successful Surgery CD because they had told me I could listen to music. As it turned out, the only room equipped with a CD player was not available for another hour, so I opted to go ahead and have my MRI’s in A TRAILER??? I was just about to complain about the venue when I realized I would have my eyes closed inside a narrow cylinder and it didn’t really matter where it was.

The first question I asked my Indian technician was HOW LONG will I be in there? He explained 20 minutes for the first test, 35 for the second, and another 20 for the third IF I DIDN’T MOVE. I told myself just to think of them as 3 sits and maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. But could I really lie there and not move so much as an eyebrow for all that time? I was determined to try so as not to start over.

Following Marian’s advice I made sure to close my eyes before being transported into the machine. I knew this was excellent advice as I moved into the small cylinder and everything became dark. It smelled funny. Was that the residue of fear from the last occupant?

Despite my earplugs, when the noise started I was shocked at how loud it seemed. I quickly learned the sequence that began every round of sound. The sounds were not always the same, but were always sharp and offensive.

I began to count breaths and really concentrate on my breathing, figuring I completed about 10 breaths a minute. Then the thoughts started flying at me, just as they do in meditation:

– What if I have to swallow? Will that be cause to start over again?
– How many minutes have elapsed? I’m pretty good at estimating after meditating for several years.
– Why am I clenching my teeth?
– This feels like a coffin.
– I wonder if I would scream if I opened my eyes. DON’T.
– What if he forgets me in here and doesn’t end the noise?
– I hate the silence in between the noise more than the noise itself. It’s such a tease.

Then those friendly words, “OK, Ms. Diskin, the first test is done. You didn’t move.”

It was toward the end of the second round of 35 minutes that I started to have these thoughts:

– What if I have to pee? Is there a bathroom in this trailer? No, I’ll hold it.
– I definitely can’t hold it for another 20 minutes.

After another successful ending, I presented the Indian guy with the fact that my bladder was bursting and asked about a bathroom in the trailer. He said we would have to go back outside and into the main MRI building to the bathroom.

Picture this: I was wearing not one, but two hospital gowns, one with the opening in the front and another over it with the opening in the back and hospital socks. He proceeded to wrap me sari-style with sheets until I looked like a fucking mummy! Off came the socks and on came my sandals for the trek to the bathroom. You can imagine the look on the faces of those in the waiting room.

For the last test I had to be injected with something which the Indian guy swore would not make me feel weird. I asked him how many sets of noise there would be in this final 20-minute segment. He said FIVE.

I counted the five sets and was relaxing for the trip out of the tube when a SIXTH started. I wanted to scream YOU LIED TO ME, but realized I would move my head in doing so and have to start over again.

“OK, Ms. Diskin. You are all done. You were very still.” You bet I was still. I couldn’t have done this without practice at meditation. It was the only way I got through it. I wanted to tell him this, but realized he really didn’t care. I was just another face in the daily stream of those who had come through that trailer.

My worst nightmare would be a phone call telling me of a malfunction in the trailer’s MRI system. But I will instead think positive thoughts.

Did I have any company through this afternoon of challenging ordeals? Well, yes, come to think of it. There was a large all-white horse munching grass over in the corner. There was an arctic hare with long ears who bounded back and forth between me and the horse. And there was a small brown owl with white circles around his eyes named Snowy, who sat on one shoulder and then the other making sure I didn’t move my head even one millimeter. They explained they were just taking a break from another project to come keep me company.

I won’t get the results of any of these tests until some time next week, but the good news for me is IT’S OVER at least for now. You’d think if I had a serious medical problem I would indeed have a headache or blurry vision after today’s medical barrage. So far the only thing I feel is relief!

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Thirty Years Later

Imagine my surprise when I opened today’s Post to the Food Section and saw a name from the past. I had heard that Molly Marino had established herself as a successful private chef, but my memory of her was from long ago.

One of the first things we did when moving to our current house in 1977 was to join the neighborhood pool. It was a wonderful escape from the DC summer heat and it was still a time when I loved to lie out in the sun.

That first summer we often parked ourselves on the grassy area up near the deep end. We watched as a very determined toddler with “dogears” went off the diving board over and over and over again until she had perfected her jump. Each time she would dog paddle over to the side, jump out, and do it again. That was young Molly Marino, age 2-1/2.

As she grew older she would embrace swimming with a vengeance, with the often loud encouragement of her father who virtually ran the neighborhood swim team. From her earliest years, Molly and her older brothers excelled at swimming. She still holds records at the Arlington Aquatic Club and at Swarthmore College. I was not surprised to see that in 2007 she ranked 9th in the country in the 1000-meter freestyle for women age 30-34.

But somewhere along the way she went to culinary school and has obviously done extremely well with her education. Her interest seems to be in making healthy food that suits people’s likes and lifestyles, even catering to special surprises in the children’s lunchboxes.

I can imagine a typical day finds her at the market early selecting fresh food for the day’s menu, going to the pool for a few thousand meters of workout, and then heading back to a fabulous kitchen to make dinner for an adoring family.

Kudos to Molly for her ability to find a path that combines things she loves to do!

Meanwhile I’m dying to try her black-eyed pea hummus (even though I vowed never to eat another such pea after I left the South), sweet potato salad, toasted tortillas, and sparkling limeade! Recipes on page F8 of today’s Post.