Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A School with a Roof

You may remember earlier this month I sent a small contribution to the school project in far-away  Mozambique.  I just received this exciting message from Val, who is spear-heading the construction efforts:

Dear All --

Well we are back from Mozambique and a heavenly few days in that special place.  We duly delivered two more of Geli's wonderful boxes of school books, stationary and toys, to the Matsopane School.  We arrived at the school at 11am and there were lots of children there - it seemed as though there were many more than on previous visits and I wondered if more children are actually attending school these days. Which is what we want!  These were only the AM (morning) children too.  The school is divided into AM and PM classes due to shortage of teachers and facilities.  I noticed too that the 'fathers' of the children have started building some reed and thatch buildings in the traditional style, to create new classrooms and replace collapsing ones.

The teacher banged on a big metal triangle, and children came running screaming from all directions - each with a school bag slung across their shoulders. There was much excitement and waving, cheering at first - then under guidance from the teachers the children organised themselves into lines according to age groups.  It was sweltering hot, and the humidity was high as rain clouds started to build.  We opened the boxes and began to hand out books and pencils, crayons etc to each child. This took a bit of time and some happy confusion but eventually the boxes were empty.

I also gave them some paints and brushes, and explained to the teachers how to use them.  I have asked that the children make some paintings that we could possibly make into postcards/calendars which we could then sell to raise money for more equipment and books for the school. This idea originated with Tessa and i think is a wonderful concept. Lets see what they do with it!!

After the handout, the children gathered around the teacher and sang and thank you song, with beautiful harmony and rhythmic clapping!

On behalf of us all, I handed Lucas (who works for us) an envelope with R10,000 cash, to finance the construction of a school room with a proper tin roof, cement floor, and brick walls.  He will make a start on this straight away -- liaising with builders, and ordering materials, so hopefully by the time we go again (Sept or Nov) there will be some progress to report.

With much hand clapping and singing I thank you all for your great kindness in assisting this little school in an acre of sand, by a lake, in Mozambique.  The children really appreciate the gifts, and even more I think they appreciate the goodwill.

love Val

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Too much of a good thing

Salt is such a fickle ingredient.  Food without enough salt is bland but edible.  Food with too much salt is enough to make me gag.

The matzo ball soup was perfectly seasoned last night.  But tonight I decided to let the broth boil down a bit and added some fresh matzo balls to cook in it as it did.  I snipped some chives over the top and it looked picture perfect with big fluffy matzo balls, perhaps my best ever.

But one bite in, I realized the error of my ways.  By reducing the stock I increased the salinity to the point where the soup was simply inedible.   (And I have a  high tolerance for salt.)

I’m now glad we didn’t invite guests to share in the leftovers.   I don’t know how anyone could have politely gotten through a bowl of my picture-perfect matzo ball soup.

I wonder if that one bite was the equivalent of the salt in a Big Mac...

After the (Matzo) Ball is Over

This is all that remains of our 16-person seder.  It was indeed a wonderful evening with old friends, new friends, and friends of friends.  We were a diverse group and nobody was shy. 

I’m sorry I forgot to take a picture of the table when it was beautiful and awaiting all the guests.  But things here were a little hectic.  It all started last night when the power failed just as we were going to sleep.  We rarely know the cause or the duration when that happens. 

I had arranged to go share my neighbor’s kitchen this morning if it didn’t come back.  She even graciously offered to move the whole affair to her house.  But by 3:00 am the power had returned.

Today was not a heavy duty cooking day.  In fact by about 3:00 in the lull before the storm I took a nap.  It was a good thing, because I’m never so good as everyone starts arriving with coats to hang up and things to contribute to the meal. 

I was most happy to see my chef friend Brock, who walked in just as I had declared the soup broth tasteless.  He went to work to fix it up and then to help me make crucial decisions, like when to get the matzo balls out, when turn on the oven, how to serve each course.  He is so infinitely wise and calm at the same time.  I guess those qualities are simply in a chef’s job description.

At one point after inviting him, I had said to myself, “Are you crazy to be cooking for your cooking teacher?  What if something really flops?”  But he had high praise for the homemade matzo, the gefilte fish, and the Thai-style matzo ball soup.  He quietly helped me remember the garnishes and a few details while being the gracious guest.

I loved having a chance to meet 5 people I had never before met.  There is no better way to get to know someone than through an interactive seder.  My husband had created our haggadah once again (this year spiral bound) and even given us homework ahead of time.  It was an evening that focused on freedom.  We even ended the evening by singing freedom songs from greats like “rabbi” Pete Seeger and “rabbi” Bob Dylan.

True to form I forgot to serve something intended for the evening’s dinner.  I just found the fruit salad in the refrigerator with the Saran wrap still on top.  It works well as a (very) late night snack as I sit here waiting for one load of dishes to finish so I can reload and go to bed.

As good a time as I had tonight, I’m really glad I don’t have to cook anything tomorrow.  And we have leftovers to last quite a while, always a good thing.


Sunday, March 28, 2010

Cooking for a Crowd

It seemed like all I did today was cook from the minute I woke up.  I actually can’t think of anything I would rather do, but it did occupy much of my day.  The good news is there were no missing ingredients and no outright failures.

When you are cooking for 16, all the pots are big pots.  Stock for soup and stock for gefilte fish took up two burners for much of the morning.

It’s such a transformation to go from the fish skin and bones (above) and the three kinds of ground fish to little fish patties decorated with a slice of carrot, just waiting for bright red horseradish and a piece of matzo.

I’m departing from the traditional this year and making Leek and Ginger Matzo Balls in Lemongrass Consomme from Bon Appetit.  I used up the last remnants of my goose schmaltz in these matzo balls.  The house smelled very Thai today as the stock simmered on the stove.  I was pleased that the matzo balls didn’t fall apart as they often have in the past.

My husband was part of the cooking frenzy today too.  He made the Moroccan braised chicken dish that we recently learned in class.  The things he makes always turn out well because he believes in following the directions to the letter.

Tomorrow’s list includes making hard-boiled eggs and red horseradish and figuring out the logistics of seating and serving many more people than we have at a typical dinner party.

But tomorrow night’s seder is not only about food.  It will be a lengthy discussion of the Exodus of the Jews from slavery to freedom, as we attempt to relate that ancient story to the world of today. 

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Matzo from Scratch

Eighteen minutes is not a very long time at all.  If we timed from the minute the water hit the flour until they came out of the oven, we probably made 4 official matzohs.  But fortunately our seder guests won’t know the difference.

In reality our matzos aren’t kosher anyway because we don’t have a kosher kitchen.  However, it was fun to attempt to beat the clock.

We actually tried 2 recipes:  this one sent to me by my chef friend Brock and another one sent to us this week by our son Dan.  The biggest different in the two is the amount of fat.  I used goose schmaltz in the Brock recipe and my husband used olive oil in the other one. 

My husband approaches any task with great preparation.  True to form he had watched a video before starting his batch of matzos.  He dutifully followed the directions, cutting his dough into 12 little matzo chunks. 

And the end result was like the best flatbread you ever tasted.

Three batches later we ended up with enough matzos for each of our 16 guests to have a couple.  And just in case we run out, we have a box of institutional kosher-for-Passover matzos.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Creativity Part II

Tonight was like a continuation of last night’s discussion of creativity.  This one focused exclusively on music, and on jazz in particular.

“Are You Blue?” was billed as interactive compositions for piano solo by Jerzy Sapieyevski, a professor at AU.  He happens also to be a close friend of my piano teacher.

I was sitting among many of his students in the next to the last row of the Katzen Arts Center.  They all seemed to adore him, not so common among today’s students.  The fact that they would come to his concert on a Friday night says a lot.

As I was flipping through the program, this chart on the creative process jumped out at me.

Jerzy gave us a lot of very different examples of jazz, including variations on Beethoven and a piece dedicated to the people of a small town in his native Poland which was totally eradicated by the Soviets during WWII.

The second half of the concert was actually a panel discussion, including two of his colleagues from the Music Department at AU.  They talked about the origins of jazz, its universality, how it contrasts to classical music, why it is mostly written in the minor keys, and how it is so connected to various emotions.  

It was a fascinating evening that left me in awe of someone who can play jazz.  Even more in awe of someone who can play standing up at a piano!


We were the lucky recipients of two tickets to a Smithsonian lecture “Cultivating Creativity” by Dr. Barry Gordon, a doctor and neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins.  He covered a lot of ground in just 2 hours in terms of teaching us how the brain works and how sometimes creativity is the result.

As a warm-up exercise he entertained the audience with the famous picture from Saint-Exupery’s Le Petit Prince which at first glance looks like a common brown hat, but which turns out to be an elephant inside a boa constrictor.  

After exploring the rudiments in how the brain thinks, we moved on to focus on creativity.  He debunked a few commonly held myths, such as
-- Creative processes are somehow separate and unique from normal mental processes.
-- Creativity is mostly for the young.
-- The right brain is the creative one.

He said the real key to creativity is letting go of constraints.  That’s why some of our most powerful and creative thoughts are while we are sleeping. 

Another piece of the puzzle is having more thoughts from which to choose and being able to choose wisely.  He noted that while you might have a lot of thoughts while under the influence of certain drugs, your ability to choose wisely is often impaired.

It was about that time that I began to think about my upcoming creativity challenge.  Rayna of Studio 78 Notes invited her readers to play with some squares from an old quilt top she recently found. 

All of a sudden as the speaker talked about creativity, I had a series of ideas about what to do with the blue and yellow print fabric.  Every time he would give an example, another possibility emerged in my head. 

I started off with a kindergarten-style picture of flowers growing on a green hill with a blue sky.  This gave way to things in the air  -- a kite, a butterfly, a bird, a red balloon.  The elephant inside the boa took a turn.  Random X’s and O’s with a single asterisk.  Hands reaching into the center from all directions.  The bridge symbols.  The Olympic links.  And more.

It was just when the speaker was giving his concluding remarks that I looked at him once again and came up with my idea.  It may not be what was intended, but I think it’s creative.  We will see.  He did say that part of creativity was accepting failure.

What an interesting way to spend the evening as I multi-tasked my way through the 2-hour lecture and tried it out at the same time.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Mental Blocks

I have a long list of things I have mental blocks against -- including water over my head, diving into a pool, skiing downhill, and even learning music theory.

It used to include some things that I successfully mastered only to wonder why they were ever so difficult.  Like driving a stick-shift car, for example.  For years I told myself I would never be able to understand the relationship between the clutch and the gas pedal to the point where I could drive smoothly without stalling the car.  But then all of a sudden we had two standard-shift cars and I learned.

The gym has all sorts of equipment that looks “challenging” to me.  Just yesterday when I was working with Emily, she had me try something new.  You mount this thing using your upper body strength and it holds your legs while you are suspended in the air at an angle from your hips up (sort of like a bird ready to take off) so that you can do forward bends and then come back up.  Initially I was sure I couldn’t even get my body in place and it also scared me that it seemed like diving.  But then I did it and it was not all that hard and I even liked it.

We moved on to a machine that helps you do pull-ups assisted by your own weight.  How cool is that?  I panicked when she set it on the highest setting, not realizing that made it the easiest.  Once again as I initially reached up to hold onto the bar, I was sure I couldn’t pull my whole body weight up, but then I realized that with help I could.  My shoulders are sore today, but it felt good.

Then I moved on to my my music theory discussion and once again sensed that for some reason I have thrown up a mental barrier.  I have a mathematical mind and approach things quite logically, so there is no reason for this.  I hope one day to add this to the driving success story collection. 

So much of the success of doing something new is having someone to encourage you and approaching it with an expectation of success. 

Do you have any mental barriers?  Things you would one day love to master?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Long-Distance Learning

Memorizing the Chopin waltz is going slowly.  I realized that I am attempting to do it by memorizing a series of notes and chords, with little understanding of the underlying theory.  I just had a remarkable experience that illuminated some things that may help me along in this process.

I have a good friend clear across the country who does music for a living.  She teaches, she plays, she listens.  It’s definitely a part of who she is.  This afternoon we had a lesson by phone using our respective cell phones, our respective pianos, and the identical piece of music. 

We walked through the Chopin Waltz in C# Minor and talked about all the underlying architecture and theory.  She had analogies using forests and trees and smaller groups of trees.  Everything started to make so much sense. 

But our discussion once again showed how little music theory I know.  At one point, I said, “How did you learn all that?  Did you read books?  Take classes?”  To which she replied that she had taught herself decades ago as her job demanded that she be able to play from chords and by ear. 

She asked what books I had.  So I sent her a list of the few materials I have on music theory.  I keep hoping there is some way to make sense of this thing that must be very mathematical and logical. 

I’m convinced that this additional knowledge will make playing the piano so much more enjoyable and will make learning easier.

I found the experience of taking a piano lesson by phone to be almost as satisfactory as having my teacher sitting next to me.  The wonders of modern technology!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Counting Down to Passover

Plans for next week’s Passover seder are underway.  I’ve started making lists and shopping.  My husband is working on putting together a Haggadah, pulling from things we’ve used in the past, adding some new ideas.  (For anyone who hasn’t experienced a seder, the Haggadah contains the Exodus story in stories, songs, and verse.)

First we’re trying to figure out how many people are coming.  The Temple Micah website allows anyone the chance to ask to share someone’s seder.  It also allows people with extra seats to host those who ask.  We have signed up for 5 of these people, only one of which is a Micah congregant.  One guy is from Albuquerque and will be here on business next week.  There is a gay couple who are BOTH converting to Judaism.  And another woman who is 59 and is a potential new member.  In addition we have invited 5 good friends, three of whom are Catholic, and our son.  For now, at least, that makes 13.

Does anyone have the slightest idea what the white prickly thing is?  It’s called a roller docker.  It is used in making pizza dough and in making matzo.  It turns you can spend a lot of money on one of these, not exactly a standard tool in most kitchens, or you can spend $12 at Sur la Table for the plastic version (as I did today).  I’m hoping it will work just fine for the matzo that will be made on Saturday.

I’m trying not to make this an ambitious menu, but the Passover seder meal is by nature  complicated with all the various things you must serve and people must eat and the restrictions on what cannot be eaten.  My problem is I refuse to buy gefillte fish or horseradish or now even matzo and insist on making my own.  When will I ever learn?

Here’s a question:  Flour is one of the forbidden foods during Passover.  Why is it then that you can use flour to make matzo?  And then you can grind up matzo into meal and use that in place of flour in recipes?  Does that make any sense?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Braising Lessons and Symphonic Jazz

While everyone waited for the vote on health care, we spent the afternoon on Capitol Hill learning to braise and listening to a melding of symphony orchestra and jazz band.  I’m sure we were having more fun than those in Congress.

The braising class at Hill’s Kitchen was the first class my husband and I had taken together.  As it turned out, there were actually four couples in the class.  I seem to often go into these classes thinking I already know how to do whatever it is and coming out with a lot of new ideas and techniques.  And so it was today.

We learned how to make Beef Bourguignonne, Carmelized Onion Brisket, Moroccan Braised Chicken, and Braised Red Cabbage.  I thought I had the world’s best brisket recipe, but instead I will never again use Lipton Onion Soup flakes and instead will make this brisket that is covered with real onions and flavored with a touch of sherry vinegar.  My favorite recipe of all was the Moroccan Chicken, which I have decided to serve for Passover.   It seems very Middle Eastern, with dried apricots, cumin, cinnamon, and ginger.  It would go nicely on cous-cous, but that will have to wait until after Passover.

The Beef Bourguignonne and Purple Cabbage were right up there too, a tough call.  Because of the slow-cooking nature of braising, Brock had to make two batches of the beef dishes so he could play that magical trick of putting them into one oven and pulling them out of another one as if 3 hours had elapsed.

From cooking class, we rushed over to the Atlas Theater, only a few minutes late for a very unique concert.  The Capital Symphony had joined forces with Chaise Lounge, a local jazz band started by Charlie Barnett (which we heard at Blues Alley last year).  The first half of the concert was a piece written for orchestra by Charlie called Tarot.   It is about the imagery implicit in the Tarot deck, including The Fool, The Star, The Hanged Man, The Magician, and The Emperor.  It had some interesting solo sections as the tarot deck was musically depicted.

The second half paired the Symphony with Chaise Lounge, including their exceptional vocalist Marilyn Older.  They did songs like “Dude, She’s Waiting,” “Second Hand Smoke,” and “Lonely Is as Lonely Does.”  I think I could have listened to this mellow music all night long, but eventually the songs were over.

I came home to a dinner of a mango and a pear topped with homemade yogurt.  That was all I needed after the afternoon’s braising feast.  I find myself wanting to put “baba-daba-doo” to the tunes of Charlie Barnett.

I wonder what happened with health care...

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Lot of Sand

Instead of going to the gym today, I opted for another form of weight-lifting.  I decided to get rid of all the sand in the street, which was left over from the winter snows.  The county finally gave us the salt and sand, but it was not in their job description to get rid of it.

This is a shot in front of my neighbor’s house so you can see what it looked like when I started.  I swept the sand into 20 piles with the utility broom.  (At the top, you can see the end result. Not perfect, but definitely better.) A neighbor rolled by in his convertible on this picture-perfect day and commented, “That’s a lot of sand!”  Very astute, Don.

With my husband’s help, I managed to shovel the sand into trash receptacles and plastic garbage bags.  That was when we realized how many of our garbage cans had holes in the bottom.

We also realized just how heavy sand it.  It must have been hundreds of pounds of sand.  In the end, we resorted to a heavy-duty trash bag for each pile.  I couldn’t fill them full or the bottom would have broken.

My neighbor on the other side is out power-washing in front of his house.  I didn’t want to do that because I’m assuming there are chemicals in the sand that would not be so good for the grass.  I’m hoping his sand doesn’t wash down the street and end up in front of my house, because I have had enough fun playing in the sandbox for now!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Deaf + Rabbi

Those two words sound like something of an impossibility, don’t they?  Well, tonight we heard the first female deaf rabbi and she was totally inspiring.

Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe spoke about her personal journey to the rabbinate in a sermon entitled “I Heard God’s Call... A Sacred and Personal Story...”.  There was a sizable group of deaf people at our Shabbat service and there were two interpreters who took turns signing.  I’m still trying to figure out how they signed the Hebrew we were singing.

Rabbi Dubowe was profoundly deaf since birth.  She speaks remarkably well given that she has never heard any of the sounds she utters.  She was mainstreamed in school and learned to read lips.  It was around the time of her bat mitzvah that she felt called to become a rabbi.

Attending rabbinical school is challenging to anyone, but particularly for one who was paving the way as she was.  She said the best quality a deaf person can possess is a sense of humor.  She told of a professor who had her stay after class one day to suggest that she could bring a tape recorder and capture the lecture in that way or perhaps she could get the notes in Braille!  Obviously this guy didn’t have a clue as to how to deal with her deafness. 

But she prevailed and did graduate as a rabbi from Hebrew Union College in the early 1990’s.  Since then she has served in an associate rabbi in two congregations, performing all the duties that anyone in that capacity would be expected to perform.

When she finished sharing her inspiring story, the entire congregation waved their hands in the air instead of clapping.  It had the same effect but with an added visual impact.  I’m hoping we will incorporate this practice into our service in places where we might otherwise be tempted to clap and yet it would seem irreverent.

I was filling in in the Temple Micah office this week while a key person was on leave.  I took the above photo just before leaving this afternoon.  The light seemed so perfect and there was not a sound even for hearing ears.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Dancing with Chopin

I mentioned to my piano teacher today that one of the beauties of taking lessons as an adult is I feel I can put a piece aside and move on when I am tired of it.  And that’s just what I have done with the Beethoven sonata I have been laboring over for months now.

It was far from perfect, but I was getting frustrated with my incremental improvement from week to week.

Listening to a CD of Ingrid Fliter playing Chopin waltzes determined my new direction.  I immediately went out and bought the Henle edition of Chopin’s waltzes. 

And at least for now piano practice has become the equivalent of dessert.  I look forward to the hour or so when I can just sit and play.

These pieces have to be some of the most beautiful ever written.  They are lushly romantic and each is quite unique.  The melodies are such that you find yourself humming them hours later.  Even my husband is humming and he isn’t such a big fan of most classical music.

Today my teacher suggested that I start to memorize the two waltzes I’m working on.  Just the thought of playing anything from memory makes me nervous.  But she is so right that being freed up from the written music will allow the music to dance as Chopin intended it to.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Inventory Control

I almost cringe when someone hands me a book and says I should read it.  How can I possibly add another good book to the ever-growing pile?  But how can I not?  The same thing applies to the tea leaves in my kitchen cabinet.

I’m on a kick to read faster than the pile grows.  There are some excellent reads in this stack, so with a few minutes a day devoted to reading, it shouldn’t be hard to catch up.  That’s what I tell myself, but it doesn’t seem to happen.  A lot of these books deal with food and music, two of my favorite topics.  I’ve started many of them, to put them aside as I pick up something else.  Especially after I finish the monthly book club read, I’m determined to get this pile down to something more manageable.

The same goes with my stash of tea.  Instead of forays to Marshall’s to buy bargain gourmet tea, I’m resolved to drink up what I have.  There’s probably several months of quite drinkable tea on this shelf.  When it’s gone, then I can once again frequent the bargain aisle at Marshall’s.

Does anyone else have this problem of accumulation and a desire to whittle it down?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Rolling Toward Spring

Who would have ever thought you could do an entire workout on a Pro-Roller?  I spent the first 30 minutes of my hour with my trainer Emily learning how to work many parts of my body as I roll across the floor on this hard foam cylinder.  I was exhausted and quite ready to move on to free weights after that.

As I was out on the deck taking a picture of the pansies, I noticed Jake doing the same thing with his beloved kong.  He regularly works his shoulders and upper back by rolling around on his kong.  And he didn’t even need a trainer to demonstrate. 

Back inside he was only too happy to let me have the Pro-Roller while he rested up from the hard work of fetching his kong on a beautiful almost-spring day.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Fear of Falling

The theme in my yoga class tonight was “conquering fear.”  The instructor challenged each of us to attempt a partial handstand, something that indeed brought fear to my heart. 

Since breaking my hip last year, one of my biggest concerns when practicing yoga has been the possibility of falling.  I often position my mat near the wall or near the shelves for personal items in case I need something to hold onto.  I often wish for a safety net that unfortunately isn’t there.

So tonight when it came time for the modified handstand pose, I did my best down dog instead, also an inversion but not one of which I was afraid.  I watched the others in the class put their feet up on the wall and even lift one leg at a time into the air.  Some of them probably did have a fear of this pose at the beginning, but they did it.

After class I approached the instructor and asked about a private lesson.  I would really like to experience the handstand pose with proper supervision and assistance and the assurance that I will not fall. 

The instructor said she would be delighted to work with me, so I gave her my e-mail address and hope to hear from her.

What I love about my yoga studio is the respect and support for each individual.  I long ago learned to come away from class feeling proud that I had done my very best, knowing full well that it didn’t necessarily match anyone else’s.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Reluctantly Springing Forward

When I woke up today, I was so wishing it was a “fall back” day instead of a “spring forward” day.  But the reality was I had once again lost an hour. 

I had gone to bed after midnight last night after cleaning up from a dinner party -- hence the spring flowers on the dining table.  Our initial invitees couldn’t come because of illness.  So at the last minute another couple stepped in to eat roast leg of lamb with us.  We ate and drank and talked until quite late.

I was supposed to play music with my bass friend Deborah at 10:30, which fortunately got moved to 11:00 because her alarm hadn’t gone off.

I managed to go to the gym in the middle of the day, which miraculously cured me of the lower back ache I get from too much cooking and chopping and dishwashing.

Then more music with a cellist this time.  He sprung an entirely new piece by Handel on me and gave the the supreme compliment after our initial run-through:  “You really read that quite well.”  I have always been hesitant to sight-read anything without personal practice time, so that made me feel especially good.

We had our “Works in Progress” music gathering at 5:00.  I played Misek’s First Sonata with Deborah.  I played the very new Handel piece with Chris the cellist.  And then I played a few more pages of the Beethoven Pathetique Sonata, which could be a work in progress for the rest of my life.  Nothing was flawless, but all were acceptable in the spirit of the group.

I’m not hungry yet because my stomach and head have not yet accepted the missing hour.  I’m sure after a few days its loss will no longer be apparent.  But for now, I feel robbed of 60 minutes I could have used today.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Passing Gas

One of those things we just don’t talk about after the age of about 12, when even a Whoopee Cushion is no longer a thing of amusement.  God forbid we should use the words farting or flatulence.  Unfortunately it is a condition that some people learn to live with.

Like my father, for example.  In his late years it was so frequent that he didn’t even acknowledge what was happening.

But then who does acknowledge it?  Especially if there are more than 2 people in the room and it’s not obvious where the noise came from.

I once worked with a guy who definitely suffered from flatulence.  He was the brunt of many office jokes.  I often wondered how he felt about his condition and whether he had tried to get medical help.

I worry that I might inherit that particular characteristic of my father’s.  Certain foods, like dairy products and chocolate, tend to have that effect sometimes even now.  In my rolfing session last week, as the rolfer was working on my lower back rather intensively, I heard that tell-tale noise.  I imagine he hears it a lot as extra pressure compresses the person’s colon.  I said nothing and of course neither did he.

I will know I am really old when I no longer feel embarrassed!

Friday, March 12, 2010

It's Coming

The best harbinger of spring (in my opinion) is the earthworm.  They are out in full force today, making it difficult to walk down the driveway without stepping on them.

This happens every year about this time when the snow melts and the earth thaws.  They must wake up from a long winter of hibernation, ready to let the light hit their translucent pink bodies.

There is not a lot of light today as it rains lightly.  But the earthworms seem to be as anxious for spring as the rest of us are.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Learning Trope

Have you ever tried to read something without the vowels?  If so, you probably noticed that it was somewhat intuitive to know what belonged between the various consonants.  Chanting torah is much like that, only it’s not so intuitive unless you know Hebrew well.

The choir at Temple Micah is going to do a “collective” torah reading on April 3.   The portion is Ki Tisa, which contains the story of the Ten Commandments. 

By sharing the reading, each person will chant only a couple of verses.  Some people are veterans at this.  For others it’s their first time.

The torah from which we will chant was laboriously created by a scribe, who was not allowed even one mistake.  It is made up of panels which are sewn together.  They contain the Hebrew letters that form the words of the first five books of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible.  But they lack the vowels which tell you how to pronounce the words and they lack the trope marks which tell you how to sing them.

I’ve devised a system that works for me as I try to learn my part.  I start with a printout of  my verses, which I was able to get from this site.  To the right are the verses with vowels and trope marks, the dots and squiggles surrounding the letters.  I have assigned a color to each unique trope mark, which then can be associated with actual music. 

To the left you see the same verses with no vowels or trope marks, much as they will appear in the torah.

For my husband, who is doing this for the first time since his bar mitzvah almost 50 years ago, I actually put the words with the music to help him learn his part.

Tomorrow another choir member is coming over so I can help her get started.

For some odd reason, I am actually much more fluent in Hebrew when I am singing it, as opposed to reading it, where I sound like the equivalent of a first grader sounding out one word at a time.

I’ll practice about 5 minutes each day and in a week or so my three verses will be easy.  Getting a tape of the verses is always an option, but then you tend to simply memorize your part instead of reading it. 

Somewhere along the way I will want to translate word by word so I know what I am chanting.

Once you know this system, it’s then possible to chant from any part of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, or Deuteronomy. 

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Turning Cardboard into Something Tasty

The holiday of tasteless cardboard bread is fast approaching.  Jews are commanded to eat matzo for the 8 days of Passover.  In case you haven’t had this ethnic delicacy, it is made of flour and water, baked quickly to commemorate the speedy exodus of the Jews from Egypt.  There is nothing much to recommend institutional matzo other than the fact that it is “Kosher for Passover”.

I had the idea to make my own matzo and to make it taste good, even if it can’t be leavened.  We don’t keep a kosher kitchen, so that’s not a particular concern to me (although it is possible to kosher an oven if it were necessary).

I did some reading about making matzo and learned the one important requirement if you want to be even remotely “kosher” is to do the whole process in 18 minutes, start to finish.  Why 18?  It turns out 18 is the numerical equivalent of “chai” or life in Judaism.

I shot off an e-mail to my friend and favorite chef Brock and was not at all surprised to hear that he has successfully made matzo.  He sent me this link with what looks to be a great recipe.

Since this recipe calls for a little oil (already it’s starting to sound more tasty), I somewhat jokingly sent back a message to Brock, asking if I could use my leftover goose schmaltz instead of oil, to which he replied, “MMMMMMMMMMMMmmmmmm goose schmaltz sounds awesome!”

Stay tuned for the 18-minute matzo results in a couple of weeks!

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Belly Fat

It’s a stranger’s photo, but it pretty well describes the situation around my middle that seems to occur most every year around this time.  Those few extra pounds make a difference and serve as a reminder to clean up my (eating) act.

I can’t tell you how many people have recently mentioned putting on unwanted pounds.  In my case, not necessarily enough to add a size, but enough to make a nice roll above the top of my NYDJ jeans, that continue to tuck my tummy.  That extra fat has to have somewhere to go.

I’m sure we are less active during the winter months.  I’m wondering if there is a tendency to eat extra fat and sugar as we struggle to combat the cold.  For me it’s always less than 5 pounds, but those pounds make all the difference in the world.

I’ve never had much trouble shedding the winter bulge, but it takes a conscious effort.  For a while I will limit myself to a single square of dark chocolate every day and I will indeed savor it.  I will say no to the temptation to buy a brownie or dark chocolate biscotti at Starbucks.  I will grab a piece of fruit when I’m hungry instead of getting out the cheese and crackers.  I will do those daily crunches with more commitment.  I will be a little more careful about what I order when eating out. 

The eating out part is the hardest, especially when really good bread is served and dessert is optional.  I have lunch plans for Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday this week, so I really do have to think about what I eat.

Does anyone else have this problem of winter’s gift of a few extra pounds?

Monday, March 08, 2010

Mental Exercise for an Aging Mind

For some reason, my mother-in-law has been on my mind the past few days.  I’m afraid she is losing touch with time and family as she approaches 96.  I worry about what it will be like when I get to that point in my life.

Part of her frustration is her poor hearing.  Even with hearing aids, she is incapable of understanding us on the phone.  Her vision is somewhat compromised, but she still can see large images.

I floated some ideas past my husband, the consummate techie, hoping he would figure out how to make them happen.

The first is actually simple.  It would require getting a photo from each family member, enlarging them to 8 x 10, and then creating a photo album with each person in a plastic sleeve.  Included also would be that person’s name in a very large font.  I could handle this piece.

It would also be great if she could hear the voice of each of those people in the photo album, even better if those messages could be periodically updated.  Each person would provide an introduction including name, relationship, location, etc., just as a reminder. 

This is where the technology comes in.  My husband suggested the new Apple iPad (available in early April for $499) might be the way to do this.  He could capture the messages through Skype and store them on an Internet site, which could then be linked to the iPad.  She could choose from a list of very large names or perhaps the same photos that are in her album to hear the various messages from her family members.

The other piece that I think would be useful would be an application that would remind her about the day, the local weather, and other related information.  She would be greeted by a very large calendar with an “X” on the current day.  By pushing that “X”, she would then hear something like:

Today is Monday, March 8, 2010.
It’s the birthday of (insert famous person’s name).
It’s also the birthday of (name of relative).
The weather in Detroit today is sunny with a high of 56 degrees.

 My mother-in-law lives in an assisted living home and has an aide during the day who could help her get this mental exercise.  It would be a lot better for her than watching the endless stream of daytime TV shows.

My former programming mind is already thinking about how I would approach making the necessary data base to feed these applications.  But I am lacking in how to apply the current technology to implement these ideas.

Even though we can’t be there to visit more than a couple of times a year, I hope we can do something to help her remember who we are and most importantly who she is and how we all make up her family.

I urged my husband to figure out how to make this happen, suggesting there are many people who feel guilty every day that they can’t be near aging relatives.  There might indeed be a market for these things.

What do you think?  Suggestions?  Reality check?

Sunday, March 07, 2010

From Memory

I almost missed today’s choir fest.  It was just one more thing in a very busy weekend.  I had been to exactly one rehearsal.  After all is said and done, it was such a learning experience (in a good way).

At our rehearsal on Thursday night, our choir director said several of the choirs had already pulled out, saying the snow had interfered with their practice schedule.  He pleaded with people to say yes to showing up today so we could actually sing our piece.  My husband and I reluctantly agreed to spend the afternoon in Rockville, singing Jewish music with 4 other choirs.

The idea was to sing several pieces with the other choirs and then let each choir do a piece on its own.  Our piece happened to be L’Dor Va Dor (From Generation to Generation) by Charles Osborne, a piece I knew fairly well. 

But then our director informed us we would be singing our piece from memory.  I’ve always known that choirs sing 100% better when they can watch their director and not have their heads buried in the music.  Yikes!  All I could think of was what would happen if I came in at the wrong time, or sang the wrong words, or just forgot altogether.

We sang the piece at yesterday’s bat mitzvah service and did a reasonably good job.  There was only one entrance that we totally blew.  But instead of a choir of 20 people, we had only 11 today, not even 3 on every part.

We had a brief but productive rehearsal.  As we got up to sing when it was our turn, we reluctantly left our notebooks behind.  We sang with all our hearts (in Hebrew) “From generation to generation, we will make known Your greatness.”  Standing in a horseshoe shape, we could hear each other, we could see our director.  The piece came alive as it never had before.  It was so much better than any other piece, because everyone else still had their heads buried in the music.

After we sat down, I whispered to our director, “Please don’t ever let me try to wimp out again.  That was so much fun!”

We all agreed how different it felt to sing without music, how it made us feel like we were singing as one voice.

Our director was so excited that he actually called us at home as we were stirring our dinner risotto.  He wanted to thank us for coming and to talk about how we could keep up this momentum.

This was just one more reminder that we should never underestimate our ability to do things that seem so daunting.  It’s a real rush to succeed!

Two Exceptional People

I love crossing paths with people who are really good at what they do, especially when you can see how much they enjoy it.  In the past two days I have encountered two such individuals.

This is Temple Micah’s annual Scholar in Residence weekend.  This year’s scholar is Dr. Lawrence Hoffman, a rabbi and teacher at Hebrew Union College in New York City.  He is the type of speaker who lectures without notes and manages to hold his audience’s attention from the first word to the last. 

Yesterday’s topic was “How to Have the Seder You Always Wanted”, in which he totally debunked the typical seder, where the goal is mainly to get through the Passover haggadah and get on with dinner.  His suggestions were practical and radical and things that everyone could easily do.

Today’s talk entitled “A Day of Wine and Moses” explored the history of the Passover seder.  What I found fascinating was the parallel and shared history between Jewish and Christian traditions.

Tonight we went to hear the NSO perform with guest artist Ingrid Fliger.  She is a young vivacious pianist from Argentina.  She played a Mozart piano concerto with unbelievable style and energy.  It seemed like her fingers were just flying across the keys.

Ingrid is a personal friend of my piano teacher, who invited us to a reception at her house following the concert.  There we got to meet this fine young artist and learn just a little about her life that keeps her on the road much of the time.  If it hadn’t been so late and Ingrid hadn’t been leaving for New York at 6 AM, I would love to have asked her so many questions about her career as a concert pianist.

It is so obvious that both of these people are passionate about their work.  It shows in all they have been able to accomplish and how they are able to captivate their respective audiences.