Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Renewed Sense of Purpose

I think everyone is motivated by having a sense of purpose, especially by something for which that person is responsible.  I just inherited a job which may fill that role for me.
I had a real sense of purpose in my last job.  I had built it from the ground up and my role was essential to the successful operation of a multi-million household national survey.  But the political climate forced my decision to retire from that job, leaving it in someone else’s hands.
It’s not that I haven’t been busy in the last 6 years with music and literacy efforts, but nothing has felt like I owned it.  Until now, that is.
When I was in elementary school, I loved spending time in the library.  I loved checking out and reshelving books.  I loved searching for books that had been shelved incorrectly.  I loved reading everything I could get my hands on.  But that was about the extent of my library science training.
I was recently approached to take over the Temple Micah library, a job being vacated by a young mother of 2 with a master’s degree in library science who had gone back to work.  Despite her great credentials, it turns out she had had little time to devote to the synagogue library during her couple of years on the job.
Truthfully, in my 12 years at Temple Micah I have never checked out a book.  It’s not even immediately obvious how to check out a book in fact.  Instead I have viewed the books lining the library walls much as one might view boring wallpaper or still life paintings of a bygone era.  They just seemed frozen in time and space.
I find myself getting really fired up over revitalizing the library of 2500+ books.  I held meetings yesterday and today with members who have library credentials and Temple history in an effort to kick off this project.  I have a bunch of ideas for modernizing and jump-starting the library, including:
-- Creating congregant awareness publicity
-- Adding signage to the stacks and to the circulation process
-- Notifying people about overdue books, not done in recent history at least
-- Creating an electronic way to search the collection online and to check out and check in books, creating a history of transactions as a bi-product
-- Adding electronic books to our collection
-- Visiting other synagogues to find out how they run their libraries
-- Purchasing books by request and by recommendation
-- Featuring congregant book reviews on our website
-- Creating seasonal displays of books
I’m really excited to be in total control over this project and to have a budget to support my efforts.  I’m hoping to give the TM library a new start and to make it something that serves a real purpose in the community.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Tools of the Trade

The only thing missing is the oysters.  But they will be there later when a friend and I go to visit Betty, still recovering from a massive stroke.
One of my favorite treats growing up was to get a half bushel of Apalachicola oysters at 2 cents apiece and take them home to shuck them.  I got to be really good at it, learning just where to insert the oyster knife.  We made oyster stew and ate them raw and they were great.
Today oysters cost a whole lot more, but they are just as much a treat.  I don’t often have the opportunity to shuck them, but today I will.  A choir friend and I are taking oysters for a happy hour with Betty, who still struggles just to stand up, her left side having been paralyzed with a stroke last Spring.  I’m taking 2 oyster knives in case one of them wants the experience of popping open a bivalve.
I also made mignonette sauce, which Betty far prefers over the red cocktail sauce.  It seems so elegant to be dipping a slimy oyster in a sauce made from Champagne vinegar and shallots.  
It’s really not just about eating oysters, but rather a way to stay connected to someone whose world seems to have slipped away somewhat.  I’m sure she had high hopes of resuming her normally busy life after the stroke occurred.  But sometimes life has other plans for us.  I will periodically remind myself to stop by to see Betty, with or without oysters!

Monday, January 23, 2012


Temple Micah is in the midst of a “listening campaign”, geared up to getting more people to talk to one another and to effecting change based on what they say.
I went to a progress meeting yesterday which included those who had initiated some of the 68 conversations that had taken place, others like me who were the invited conversants, and still others like my husband who has yet to be invited to participate in any capacity.
As part of the meeting, we were asked to have a 15-minute conversation with someone we didn’t already know well and to tell each other stories about ourselves.  I found myself faced with sharing the more positive parts of my life -- love of music, literacy efforts, joy from cooking, wanderlust -- or quite to the contrary talking about the things that scare me -- fear of losing mobility, possibly reincorporating an adult child into our household, worries about an aging dog.
In 15 minutes it was hard to cover a lot of ground, especially since it was a conversation with both people talking.  I’m sure my “partner” came away with a rosy view of my life.  I steered completely clear of the troublesome topics that define me just as much as the upbeat ones do.
In reality most of us are a mix of positives and negatives.  I find myself reluctant to entrust my fears with someone I don’t know extremely well.  Yesterday I talked about my passion for languages and my recent quest to recapture Spanish.  It would probably have been a lot more beneficial to me to discuss the things that are most troubling to me.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Fish out of Season

Many dishes are seasonal.  Little did I think gefilte fish was one of them when I recently offered to make a batch.
Tomorrow a group of (mostly) women are getting together at Temple Micah to share stories and food based on the Holocaust Survivor Cookbook.  The book is a collection of recipes with information about the cooks, who all survived the Holocaust.  The afternoon sounded interesting, so I signed up to participate.  I had only titles to choose from, but the recipes spanned most anything a good Jewish cook might make.  For some reason I was drawn to Oma’s Gefilte Fish.
I’ve never attempted to make gefilte fish at any time other than Passover.  Then I call up my Korean fishmonger to place my order for a combination of ground whitefish, pike, and carp with an accompanying bag of bones, skin, and heads.  But this time when I called and finally explained to the woman what I wanted she laughed and said that type of fish was available only at Passover and furthermore I would need to grind my own.
So today I picked up rockfish and cod and hoped they would be suitable substitutes.  In reading over the recipe, some of the proportions didn’t make a lot of sense, so I just decided to make my own version of the recipe, one where I dump things in with no regard to measuring.  When it looks and feels right, I can begin to form the fish balls.
I’ll bet Oma never measured either.  That’s probably why the measurements are off -- because she tried to write down what she thought she used.  
The resulting fish balls look pretty much like my usual gefilte fish.  People probably won’t know the difference.
Horseradish roots are also a seasonal thing, being a part of the Passover story.  So I bought a jar of white horseradish at the Safeway and a small beet, which I grated into it to turn it red.  
I hope Oma (now deceased) will forgive the liberties I took with her recipe.  

Monday, January 16, 2012

Another MLK Problem

All of the hullaballoo over the inscription on the recently opened MLK Memorial reminded me of another mistake on MLK weekend over 20 years ago.
In 1990 our son, who was almost 9, was quickly becoming an exceptional swimmer.  We spent many weekends crowded onto bleachers around 8-lane pools smelling chlorinated air and watching for hours to see him swim just a few minutes in total.  This particular MLK meet was for 8&unders, but there were probably hundreds of them in the DC metropolitan swim league known as Potomac Valley Swimming.
That particular meet Dan did quite well in most every event he swam.  His second place ribbon was in the 100 M Individual Medley, where he got a 1:43:69 -- yes, recorded down to the hundredth of a second by averaging the times clocked by 3 timers on each lane.
When the ribbons were handed out, it quickly became apparent that someone in the D.C. Department of Recreation had fallen down on the proof-reading job.  The honoree for which the holiday was named had become Dr. M. L. Kink, Jr.  Ribbons in all eight colors had been printed incorrectly.
No one even suggested the idea of reprinting the ribbons or passing out stick-on G’s!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Call Me a Snob

On my daughter’s recent visit she labeled me a food snob because I tend to make everything from scratch these days.  I confess to being guilty as charged and have no regrets.
My tendency not to purchase processed foods -- not even things like chicken stock or bread or hummous or yogurt -- might explain why I end up with not a lot of spare time.  Convenience foods and ingredients are designed for just that -- to let you use your time in other ways.
I have recently gotten into making stock from things like chicken necks and feet that would otherwise end up in the garbage.  My house perpetually smells of onion and garlic, but I could think of much worse “fragrances”.  Today’s pot happens to feature chicken necks.
For lunch I made hummous from some chickpeas I had cooked a few days ago to go into soup.  I like the fact that I can completely control the amount of garlic, lemon, salt, and hot sauce that go in.  I added some ground cumin that turned it into a regal lunch.
We all decide how to use our time.  And this may be a passing fancy.  But I rather doubt it because I like this homemade-from-scratch food and I like the idea that it contains no artificial preservatives or other weird ingredients.
I could think of much worse things to be called than a “food snob”!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Light and Dark

Tonight’s read-aloud at the shelter was all about light and dark.  The children ranged in age from 5 to 11, which probably explains some of the behavior problems.
We started out as always by reading the “Promises” -- Listen, Respect, Cooperate, and Have fun.  Even though we talked about what these words mean, they seemed to conveniently forget about listen and respect.
We struggled through 4 books, with a lot of jostling for position and an undercurrent of noise.  A couple of kids who usually behave were acting out.  A 5-year-old who seems to have some learning disabilities was particularly disruptive.
But then things suddenly shifted as we moved on to the activity.  I had found some books intended for teaching drawing.  The children could choose from photocopied and enlarged pages of monsters, dinosaurs, creepy crawlies, and things with motors like cars, motorcycles, etc.  They suddenly began to focus as they colored and cut out their various images.  Even the troublemakers shared the crayons and tried hard to produce something worthy of being mounted on a popsicle stick.
By the time everyone had one or two puppets in hand, we turned out the lights and got out the big flashlight.  The show was supposed to be accompanied by music from my iPad, but instead the children provided the sound effects as their puppets danced across the walls.
Each child went home with a finger light that he or she could use to continue the puppet show on his or her bedroom wall.
Many thanks to Gary and Terry for their helpful ideas in planning this evening, to my friend Deborah for supplying the popsicle sticks, and to Kristin who helped pull it off.

Just Rewards

Is it unethical to go to a 90-minute presentation which offers a reward for attending even if you know you are absolutely not going to shell out any money?  As we headed off to the Georgetown Holiday Inn to hear someone’s spiel today, I told my husband not to let me eat any of their junk food because I am gaining weight and for God’s sake not to let me convince him to buy whatever they were trying to sell.
The come-on was two round-trip tickets to anywhere in the US where Delta flies and a 3-day, 2-night hotel stay.  Sounded too good to be true, but definitely worth 90 minutes of any sort of hype.
On our first trip to Kauai, we went to a lot of these 90-minute presentations, giving us a luau and other excursions we would probably not have paid for otherwise.  But then we actually bought a time-share at one of them, which we owned for the next 4 hours until we realized just what we had done.  So we got out of it gracefully, but still with whatever reward they had offered.
On the entry form today when it asked if we had ever owned a time-share, I thought about putting the ‘X’ somewhere between YES and NO, but finally decided to just say YES.  I refused to give them our income and begrudgingly recorded what we spent on vacations last year.
It turned out not to be a time-share offer, but rather a company that offers reduced prices on hotels, condos, rental cars, you name it.  You have to put down a sizable amount of money up front and then pay a yearly fee.  They promise savings of up to 80%.
It might be fine if we liked to stay in luxury resort hotels with all inclusive packages or go on cruises, which seems to be the dream vacations for most Americans.  But that’s just not our style and probably won’t ever be.  
So despite all of their cajoling, at the end of the 90 minutes we emphatically said no thank you and they finally proceeded to give us our reward for coming.  We’re still trying to decipher the “rewards” brochure we came home with.  There are lots of lines to read between.
I didn’t have to worry about the junk food because there was nothing but water in plastic cups.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Not Quite Right

Yesterday I became acutely aware of a strange sensation that left me feeling slightly short of breath and like my heart was just about to race.  It came with no pain and from time to time seemed to go away, only to return.  It was like nothing I had ever experienced before.
With most things like this, I simply ignore them for a few days and they go away.  But suddenly at around 11:00 last night I started to worry that it might be something more serious.  
Feeling rather embarrassed about calling anyone, I decided to call my good friend who used to be my doctor (before she changed jobs) instead of my current internist.  She quickly assured me I was most likely not having a heart attack, but rather suggested I might be suffering from some form of anxiety.
I hadn’t even considered that, not having ever had a panic attack before.  But it made sense that I might be experiencing mild hyperventilation.  I even have an idea about what might be causing it.
Just knowing that I didn’t need to get myself to the emergency room and instead could simply go to bed helped a lot.  And I must say I have felt much better today.
My doctor friend checked back in with me this morning and despite the fact that I felt better urged me to make an appointment with my internist just to get checked out and to make her aware of what was going on.  She also suggested that I eliminate all forms of caffeine.  Probably all good advice, given I don’t want to find myself at 14,000 feet on the Chilean altiplano with a shortness of breath I could possibly avoid.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Ann, the Play

Some politicians just beg to be remembered, to claim a little place in our hearts.  They are indeed statesmen and stateswomen (is that a word?) and they often have charisma.  And so it was with Ann Richards, who is best remembered as the governor of Texas and as the person who gave the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1988.
This afternoon we learned the intricate details of the life of Ann Richards as we saw the one-person play Ann in the Eisenhower Theater of the Kennedy Center.  It is a play written and acted by Holland Taylor, who must feel like Ann reincarnated by now.
Several things struck me as I learned about the life of this outspoken, no-nonsense woman from the great state of Texas.  She was a people-person.  She found a way to get things done.  She had friends in high places.  She still made time for her family despite an incredibly busy work life.  She seldom failed to speak her mind, often displaying a real feistiness.  But most importantly she had an enduring sense of humor.
It is refreshing to encounter an honest politician who commands so much respect.  Maybe if there were a few more politicians like Ann today, our country could emerge from the mess it’s in.

Friday, January 06, 2012

About Time

When my best friend growing up turned 5, her father’s birthday gift to her was a ride to the park on the back of his bike.  She was one of 10 children and he was a very busy pediatrician, which made his gift of his time even more special.
We all have priorities in our lives which dictate how we use our time.  Some people even at my age stay extremely busy and can’t imagine ever not working.  Others learned long ago how to relax and enjoy free time.  
My birthday gift from one of the busiest people I know was an invitation to go to a museum of my choice and then out to lunch with the guarantee that it would be fun.  The same person gave me a couple of very unique little presents in a beautiful card, but her promised gift of time trumped everything else.
Most of us will easily write a check or pull out a charge card without hesitation, but the decision to give of one’s personal time is even more special in my mind.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

HB to Me

I can’t sing the Beatles song quite yet, but I’m just one year short.  My birthday arrived quietly and found me sleeping in until awakened by a phone call at 9:30.  Did I ever even think I could sleep so late?
I was amazed to check my email and find it full of messages from people who use Facebook far more often than I do.  They were interspersed with greetings from people who just happen to know it is my birthday.  And there was an e-book gift from my daughter:  The Paris Wife: A Novel by Paula McLain.  A good way to start the day for sure.
Since it was so late, I figured I might as well eat brunch.  So I made the most delicious frittata -- eggs with shitake mushrooms, sweet red pepper, green onions, parsley, sour cream, and parmesan cheese.  
Tonight we will have dinner out with good friends and on Saturday a few more people will come help me blow out some candles.  But as with the recent holidays, this one is more about taking it easy than about setting off fireworks!

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Soup, Glorious Soup

Cooking is such an evolutionary process.  Over the last few years, I seem to be finding more and more ways to recycle things that used to end up in the trash can.  Many of them contribute in one way or another to pots of soup.
I hate to even think about how many green leaves I lopped off the top of turnips, beets, carrots, broccoli, celery and then simply discarded them.  I’ve only recently discovered they make wonderful vegetarian stocks or add nutrients to many kinds of soup.
But my biggest discovery is bones.  A turkey carcass or a leftover osso buco bone simmered slowly with onion slices makes a rich stock that far exceeds the stuff you buy in boxes at Whole Foods.  With marrow bones, don’t forget to scoop out the marrow!
My latest approach to soup-making is to make one of the above stocks and then throw in all sorts of greens (kale, mustard greens, collards, spinach, turnip greens) that have been wilted in a saute pan in a little olive oil with garlic and onion and maybe ginger.  This then forms the basis for endless variations.
Here are some of the possible additions:
-- Oven roast potatoes (either white or sweet) that have been cut into small cubes, brushed with olive oil, and baked for an hour at 350 degrees F.
-- Carrot pieces.
-- Turnip pieces.
-- Israeli cous-cous.
-- Ravioli.
-- Various fresh herbs:  dill, cilantro, basil, thyme.
You can give the soup a curry flavor by sauteing the additions in some curry powder and ground cumin.  You may want to add salt and freshly ground black pepper to suit your taste.  At any point along the way , if you want a creamier soup, use an immersion blender to emulsify some of it.  It has the same effect as adding cream without the fat or calories!
Soup has long been the food of the poor.  But instead of a thin gruel, think of thick, delicious, nutritious comfort food that can be customized to suit whatever taste you are craving!

Monday, January 02, 2012


I have long suspected that I am allergic to a lot of the eye makeup on the market.  I think that’s one reason I seldom apply eye liner or mascara.  But occasionally I feel like really dressing up my face and then I do.
Lately I have paid a price for an evening of beautiful eyes.  The last two times I have donned eye makeup, within a day after I have had a nasty sty on one or the other eye.  Never both.  And not the same eye.  So I am thinking it’s the makeup and not just a random sty, which I never get otherwise.
I always wait for a few days before consulting a professional about things like this.  And sure enough within a couple of days the sty has always disappeared.  
I suppose the safest thing to do is to switch to a brand that emphasizes that it is hypoallergenic.  Or I could just give up eye makeup altogether, which wouldn’t break my heart.  It’s not that anyone ever says to me “Oh, what alluring eyes you have” as they hide behind my progressive bifocals.  So maybe that’s the easier course of action.
Ah!  The price of beauty…
(That’s not my eye in the above picture, but mine does look much like that.)