Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A Food Love Story

Our kitchens are filled with stories, but some stories lurk in one special dish. It’s the dish with a whole history behind it, a history you can’t separate from preparing, tasting, eating that dish. So let me tell you about noodle kugel.

Noodle kugel is a traditional Jewish side dish. When my mother first made it, Mott’s had come out with a variety of applesauces they called Fruit Treats. So we had Mott’s Chunky Apple and Raspberry Fruit Treats, Mott’s Chunky Apple and Apricot Fruit Treats – in jars, like applesauce. They were delicious; I don’t know why Mott’s discontinued them.

My mother’s recipe calls for “1 jar Mott’s Applesauce with apricots (Fruit Treats),” but that’s impossible now, so I’ve always had to buy a can of apricots, dice them, and add them.

My mother made hers in a 9x13" aluminum pan. It was so heavy with ingredients, it was hard to lift in and out of the oven. I have that pan now. I look at the pan, even when it has lasagna in it, and I think “noodle kugel.”

My mother called it noodle pudding. Maybe it was the name on the recipe when she received it; maybe it was her generation’s way of Americanizing their food. I call it kugel … because I entered it in the San Francisco Kugel Cook-off.

It was San Francisco’s inclusive way of trying to include everyone in their urban version of a state fair. There were maybe 50 entries: 25 older Jewish women, 24 gay guys, and me. The winner was the lone potato kugel. I guess after tasting 49 noodle kugels, the judges were relieved to encounter a potato one.

It was at that cook-off that I encountered my first traditional noodle kugel, which is very cheesy, with lots of dairy. My mother’s is full of fruit: apples, apricots, raisins. I had no idea her kugel was so revolutionary! Her kugel became her go-to side dish, the surest crowd-pleaser.

My sister lives near Amherst, Massachusetts, and we’ve visited the Yiddish Book Center there. I became a member and, in 2013, heard they were asking for recipes for a national contest. I submitted my mother’s noodle kugel recipe, and it was selected as a finalist. (They renamed it noodle kugl, which goes to show how languages are changed as they’re assimilated, so I guess that’s the “original” Yiddish version in English characters.)
I’ve written here about my mother’s and my prickly relationship, but over the course of our lives together, there are a handful of things I did for her outside my “shitty daughter” box. Entering her kugel recipe is one of those things. When I think back about all the things I didn’t do for her, I try to remember her kugel moment.

The way it worked, people had to go online and vote on the finalist recipe to win. I went into action: I contacted everyone I’d ever known for years, I enlisted my siblings, I was a “Vote Tibby” machine. Friends solicited votes from friends; my sister got the Berlin Women’s Philharmonic Orchestra to vote. The Daily News even printed my request. Facebook was a sharing frenzy. Votes for Tibby’s kugl poured in.

Winners were to be announced at the Yiddish Book Center on October 20, 2013. Tim and I were to be back East, so we drove my mother up to Massachusetts for all of us to be at the awards ceremony.

Alas, the kugl came in second to Esther’s Matzo Balls.

My mother received applause and a mug, and we took her photo. She was really happy. Look at that smile!

Every now and then, when I’d visit her, I’d remind her of her award-winning noodle pudding and dig the mug out of the cabinet. She didn’t remember winning it, but it made her happy. When she moved, I wanted the mug, but I couldn’t find it.

Yesterday, I made my mother’s noodle kugel for the first time since she’d died. I boiled the noodles, diced my apricots, beat my eggs. As usual, I cut the sugar in half, added only six tablespoons butter. I put it in the oven.

Then I looked over and saw the applesauce sitting on the counter.

I’m in my Third Third. Things like this happen. I knew what to do. I dumped the kugel back in the mixing bowl, added the applesauce, and put it back in the oven. My book club loved it.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Driver Ed: Third Third Style

Driver Ed in our First Third: harrowing films of terrible car accidents, screeching brakes, bodies burnt to crisps.

Driver Ed in our Third Third: harrowing statistics like, “Seniors aged 65 and over are more than twice as likely as younger drivers to be killed when involved in a crash;” that we need 20 times more light to see at night at age 40 than at age 20; that deaths in crashes start increasing around ages 60-64.

I decided to click on all those AARP emails about saving 30% for a limited time only – with a promo code! – on the Smart Driver™ online course so I’d get an insurance discount. It looked easy enough: there were six units, and it would take about four hours. I could do it on my own schedule.
The man and the woman instructors said this was all about change: we and our bodies are changing, our cars are changing, and road conditions are changing. It became clear that I wasn’t the only one in my Third Third: my 2001 Subaru was in its Third Third. It doesn’t have half the gizmos new cars have. Gizmos may make driving safer, but gizmos apparently also add to the confusion.

Right off, the novelty impressed me. The instructors switched from video to PowerPoint-looking things, to little interactive games. I had to click on the little clouds to see how many deaths per 1,000 crashes occur at each age.

Right away, we hit my personal fear factor: vision. Older drivers have trouble with glare, with switching from looking out the windshield to looking at the dashboard, to seeing contrast. I already know dusk is the roughest time for me driving. In a car, I’ve learned it’s hard to switch from the road to the cheat sheet with my directions written on it.

I’ve written about my “Agony at the Eye Doctor,” but this course put eye doctor agony in my car. They described a vision test I’d never even had: contrast sensitivity. I’d better tell my eye doctor about that. I have a new thing to worry about.

But vision wasn’t enough: we had to move on to the big fear factor: brain health. As we age, we experience changes in “memory, processing speed, attention, and brain regulation skills – overall executive function” – Oh, no! She named the nightmares! If driving is a complex balancing act, “the idea that our mind isn’t working as well as it used to can be frightening.” You think?

Okay, a bit of First Third explanation: As a teenager, the week before my road test for a driver’s license, I was out practicing with my mother. At the top of a hill, an inattentive driver was on the wrong side of the road and rammed into me head-on. In a big old Buick, the engine sat in the front seat with us, and my face went into the steering wheel.

I decided I wasn’t going to drive. Ever. Cars were tons of weaponry on the road, and “other guys” were everywhere.

This continued for a couple years until my parents were tired of chauffeuring me everywhere. So I learned to drive. Unwillingly. Hence, a happy career in public transit and a love affair with buses and street cars.

Living in Anchorage, having a child, having to be places – driving is what I do now. It’s what my mother did, too, which worried her kids a lot. The course talks about that, about how to have The Conversation with a person who shouldn’t be driving.

Mostly, the course upped my attention, always a good thing. Meanwhile, I got to click on icons, click on highway signs, and click on talk bubbles. I got to move the car into the right garage. I wouldn’t call it a video game, but I did win dollars off on my car insurance.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Humor Self-Test

I really love teaching my Alaska Literacy Program class, but I had a special treat this last semester: the unit on Humor. First, we had to work on our vocabulary. Imagine being new to English and encountering these expressions. It makes you realize how many land mines a new language presents:
  • It went over like a lead balloon
  • I don’t get it.
  • That’s too much.
  • That went over my head.
Our book took us through a Humor Self-Test of funny pictures. Or not-funny, if you didn’t get it. Or not-funny if it was just stupid. We had to rate them on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being very funny.

Quiet Insook rated everything a 5. As we went through each picture, and as Insook rated it a 5 yet again, we all found that hilarious. We’d wait for Insook’s vote and then laugh all over again.

Which was not as raucous as our laughter club. We’re supposed to improve our health and wellbeing by laughing for no reason. So we chuckled, looked at each other, and laughed some more. Soon we were helpless with laughter, sweating from laughter, tears streaming down our faces. Lori, the Literacy Program’s program director, came in because, as she said, her walls were shaking. We laughed harder. (Supposedly, all that laughter lost us between 10 and 40 calories.)

Everyone had to tell a joke in English to the rest of the class. Just imagine trying to tell a joke in another language! How would I even tell a knock-knock joke??? (I stuck with bringing in the peanut brittle can that explodes with snakes when you open it.)

Anne from Germany told this one: ‘Two toothpicks fight their troublesome way through the forest, taking many hours. Suddenly, they are passed by a porcupine. So one toothpick tells the other, “If I had known there was a bus route on our way, I would have waited.”’

We had to take some time to process mentally. Anne said, “Originally, the joke was about a hedgehog, but I thought maybe everyone would know porcupine better.” But that was only the beginning of our cultural adjustments. Some of us were still working on toothpicks, on waiting for buses, on forest. There is a lot of cultural translation that has to happen when you hear a joke. Moments later, we got it!

Rosario from Mexico told hers: ‘I gave my mother-in-law a present for Christmas, a cemetery plot. The next Christmas, she said, “Why haven’t you given me a present for Christmas?” I said, “Well, you haven’t used the one I gave you last year!”’

Some of us laughed, but Insook of South Korea was horrified: if a joke like that were told of a Korean mother-in-law, it would be scandalous. It would be a terrible, terrible insult. Definitely not a 5.

Meanwhile, Insook’s co-worker told her a blonde joke. In a room full of Asians and Latinos, the blonde joke doesn’t even compute.

Our workbook and CD had a few examples of practical jokes. We had to learn vocabulary like:
  • be the butt of a joke
  • cross the line
  • take a joke
“You’re invited to a friend’s costume party. When you arrive, everyone else is nicely dressed in business clothes, and you’re dressed in a chicken costume.” How do you rate that joke? It’s a 0 if it’s you, but if it’s someone else, we admitted, we’d go home and tell our families about this hilarious practical joke. It’s all a matter of perspective.
The toughest vocabulary to explain was “politically correct.” In a workbook scenario, someone told an offensive joke about an ethnic group. When the object of the joke was insulted, the joke teller accused him of being too politically correct.

So how do you explain to immigrants the recent cultural phenomenon of “politically correct”? How someone’s experience of hurt and insult is turned around to being their problem? That rudeness gets a free pass in the guise of opposing “political correctness”?

It’s all a matter of perspective, and every day, I appreciate the opportunity to see the world from many different directions.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Acquisition Exception

The rule in this Third Third household – this household committed to decluttering – is No New Acquisition Unless Something Goes Out. Nothing In unless Something Out. This applies to the upcoming holidays, too.

Mostly, the rule was created to apply to pottery. Pottery is so beautiful and so irresistible, but pottery impacts kitchen cabinet space. It demands limits.

Sometimes the rule is really easy, like with clothes. Mostly, clothes don’t enter my closet until something is hopelessly worn out or out of date, so that’s not really an issue. Art supplies was a tough one, but since I seem to have less and less time for art-play as opposed to art-production (which I guess is a whole story there), I don’t need to be surrounded by art supplies I’m not using. They haunt me.

And containers are tough, too. It’s hard for me to turn down a good box. Recently, I recycled a perfectly wonderful reams-of-paper box with a lid, and it nearly killed me. Then, at a meeting, someone randomly mentioned they were moving and needed boxes, and I was unable to help (which, of course, is one of the prime reasons for acquisition to begin with: the lure of eventual helpfulness).

So what’s the Acquisition Exception? Rocks.

Rocks like you walk along the beach and there’s a perfectly round, smooth, beach rock. Do you just leave it there? Or rocks like you’re at the Kennecott Mines historic site and the ground is littered with rocks of bright turquoise-green. Or you’re in the Badlands of South Dakota and the red earth is so astounding in color, how can you not bring home a sample?
I’m not talking about the big boulders from the backyard that I get to leave out at the curb with a big sign saying, “Free.” And I admit, my disposal-to-acquisition ratio gave me lots of leeway after our house was robbed and they took my decorative boxes filled with … rocks.

I am talking about the twelve rocks that came home with me from the beach in Homer last weekend.

It always starts with perfectly smooth rocks that just feel good in my hand.
But this time, I also found a rectangular rock. I noticed it because it was smooth but had sharp edges, rare in a beach rock. It looked like a rectangle of a flag, so I had an idea. I would paint it to look like the Alaska flag, and when I visited my parents’ grave in New York, I would leave it on the headstone. My bit of Alaska paying respect.

Once the rock-painting idea was planted in my brain, I was reminded of the latest art challenge of my Bricolage group: playing cards. Those challenges mean “do whatever you want having something to do with playing cards.” Amazingly, rocks turned up on the beach in the shape of playing cards! After the first one, I admit I was scouring the beach for playing-card-shaped rocks (which are very hard to come by and require great stretches of the imagination to resemble playing cards). I’m not sure how I’ll paint them. Will their kings and queens become Fred, Barney, Wilma, and Betty?
I’ve seen quilts with rocks embedded in them that were gorgeous, and when I discovered Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr, who makes whole art of differently-shaped rocks, I was enthralled. I can’t do justice to his works, but here’s a sample and there’s more about him here.

Nuts! I should have looked at his work again before we left for Homer. I’d have spent the whole time combing the beach for … More Rocks!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Cure for Indoor Torture

I hate sweating indoors. I hate the humid, steaming cloud that develops around my face as I sweat indoors. No, I detest sweating indoors. I ABHOR sweating indoors.

But I’m kind of stuck with it. Ever since the knee injury, I haven’t been able to run. I can’t run until I develop really good supporting muscles around my knee, and even then, on the advice of my doctor, the pounding of running is not really good for my joints.

So I swam. But since this is a Third Third story, soon my shoulder started hurting. I took to hiking (with trekking poles to reduce pressure on my knee), but I can only manage hiking one mountain a week (if that). There isn’t enough snow for cross-country skiing yet, so flab grew, pounds appeared, and pants and bras got tighter. And, as we all know, life expectancy diminished and odds of dementia increased. Meanwhile, worrying about all that increased my cortisol levels. Soon I’d be a goner. A depressed goner.

There was no way around it: I had to go sweat in the athletic club.

I could give the elliptical machine a try. It resembled running in an odd, loping, incongruous sort of way, and it wouldn’t pound my knees. Plus it would do my arms.

I picked a machine, checked the TV screens in front of it. My choices were football, NASCAR races, and more football. I put the little foamy covers on the earpieces of the headset and tried to turn on the channel and volume. It didn’t work. I peeled the foamy covers off and moved to another machine, where I put the little foamy covers on, and that didn’t work, either. Not to mention I had to stare at the guys around me to see how the headset is supposed to sit on my head. Upside down?

“You have to pedal to turn the sound on,” one guy said.

Okay. While I was trying to figure out my “options” (weight and age? What kind of options are those?), the machine told me to “Pedal faster.” So I pedaled while I fiddled with dials. I’d aim for 30 minutes of NASCAR.



I tried playing games with myself: Don’t look at the time remaining until the next commercial.

27:58 Does that count as “making it to 27” or is it really still mostly 28?

27:26 Oh, this is excruciating! My eyes wandered to every other television in the room. By the time I got back to my TV, the cars were still going round and round. There was a moment of excitement because a piece of lint got stuck in front of a brake air vent or something and somehow the pit crew cleared it while the car was still racing around.

26:01 Wow, that piece of lint was worth a minute and a half of distraction!

Eventually the steam started coming off my body. I was breathing sweaty air! I was breathing everyone else’s sweaty air! I had to think about something else – NASCAR had to get more interesting – or I was going to have a panic attack from insufficient fresh air.
Eventually – because time moves on, even on an elliptical, even when it’s torture – I got to 0 minutes remaining. And then, I actually went back another day. It happened to be a weekday at 3 pm.

Jeopardy was on! I watched and answered (or rather asked the questions), and when Alex Trebek took a break, I looked at my remaining time: 15 minutes! Time had flown! It was miraculous! I knew the words were from Australia’s national anthem, that Cervantes had written Don Quixote, and that antidote and anecdote were often mixed up.

I still sweated and breathed sweaty air, but I didn’t notice.

Now I even go a little earlier to make sure I get the foamy earpiece covers on in time. Tim asked if I go to the gym to watch Jeopardy. No, I go to the gym to exercise … but I’m only happy when Jeopardy is on. I once was stuck with a CSI or an NCIS or an SUV or whatever, but it didn’t make time fly as much as Jeopardy. Jeopardy exercises my brain, too!

My whole life, I always equated watching daytime TV with sickness or depression or degeneracy. With being a slug. Now, in my Third Third, daytime TV is making me fit. Ha!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Quest for New-ness #4

The quest for New Things is always a win – for variety, for newness – but the exact result of the quest sometimes yields a few duds. Recently, I’ve scored two clear wins, but the jury is still out on the dud.

They all came from classes at Anchorage Community House, my new go-to place of learning and doing New Things. The other things I’ve made there have been wood projects, but the class description for Indigo Dyeing said, “Create beautiful indigo creations using the shibori dyeing technique.”

In class, we took our fabric and folded it, tied it, clothes-pinned it. Basically, we made a tight little wad so that when it sat in the indigo dye bath, we’d leave the marks of where dye absorbed and where it didn’t. Yes – shades of tie-dying! – that’s shibori.

This was a clear success. I think I’ll cut my bluish indigo-ish fabric into squares and make a quilt, but that’s a project for another day … or year.
While we were busy dyeing indigo, Meg told us of another Community House offering: Bundle Dyed Scarves. What I got out of this one was that we’d roll flowers and vegetables up in cloth and make patterns. This sounded sufficiently goofy and fun and useful – right up my alley.

Yup, we rolled rose petals and leaves and eucalyptus and flowers and bugs in silk. (The bugs are from cochineal insects which produce the crimson color. I first met them when visiting weavers in Peru.) Then we wound the silk around tin cans or sticks and tied it on really, really tightly. Then we stuck the bundle in boiling cabbage water.

Finally, our dye bath was over, and this one, too, was a great success. An artistic, silk, loop scarf will challenge my usual schtunk attire, but it’s soft and pretty … and can always make a nice gift.
So now we get to my last New Thing class:

“Learn to make bags out of plastic grocery bags. These bags are EXTRA sturdy and hold lots of weight. It’s easy. Just bring a scissors, a crochet hook the size of your pinky, and patience.”

What really amazed me was that everyone in the class brought their own Bags of Bags. We all have Bags of Bags … along with Boxes of Boxes and Containers of Containers. Even using cloth shopping bags, plastic bags accumulate. We were supposed to slice our plastic bags into strips, loop them together, and make “plarn,” plastic yarn. This class was a decluttering/recycling opportunity!

My only experience with crocheting was a Brownie project when I was little. I would ride my bike to Mrs. Goodhartz’s house for help crocheting Pierre the Poodle. Every trip, Mrs. Goodhartz would say, “My, my, these stitches are so very tight.” They were SO TIGHT they were impenetrable. If Pierre had ever been finished, he would have been airtight.

But this time, I was armed with a crochet hook the size of my thumb!

A crochet hook the size of one’s thumb is no protection against tight stitches. My thumb nail hurts from trying to pull stitches off the crochet hook. When I come around a row, things are so tight and jam-packed that it’s hard to tell what exactly qualifies as a stitch. Peggy, who took the class with me, said I must be adding stitches: instead of going up, my shopping bag is going out. I am making a plastic rug.
Mimi, who also took the class, said this sort of project would drive her mother crazy. Her mother doesn’t get quilting (“Why cut fabric up only to sew it together?”) so the idea of slicing plastic bags in order to crochet them together to make another plastic bag would strike her as ludicrous. I’m starting to agree.

I had to take a break for my thumb nail, cuticle, and spirit to recover, but then I cut my thumb slicing an onion. After bleeding on my plastic bag, things have ground to a halt.

In my Third Third, I get to abandon projects that aggravate more than they please. Maybe I’ll recycle my crocheted plastic and call it a draw. Then I’ll sit and re-admire my indigo-dyed fabric and flower-dyed silk.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Can you spell it?

When it’s October, it’s BizBee time, so that means I get to pronounce the words in the Alaska Literacy Program’s annual adult spelling bee. Friday was an exciting night of tragic misspellings, surprise saves, and astounding turns in the action. Teams of spellers took over Anchorage’s social scene and made it a night to remember. What? You don’t believe this? Well, then you weren’t there.

It started off tame enough; all teams made it through the first round. But very, very quickly, things went very, very wrong. In Round 2, the ALP Board’s “ALPabets” forgot their innate abilities and lost their innate direction. Suffering from proximity, the very next team, Advance Supply Chain “Spellerifics” – Leaders in Literacy and a rookie team – debated mootable but lost their voice. (Unlike the Arctic Entries “Spellephants,” who continued to shriek like elephants throughout the night.)

But the contagion of Round 2 did not stop there. Providence Health & Services – the “Health Literacy Heroes” – must have eaten some bad quiche; no super powers could save them. Not even being a Distinguished Leader in Literacy.

Disaster continued into Round 3 as the “Dewey Decimators” of Anchorage Public Library hung themselves with lariat. The UAA Center for Human Development – the “Incred-Abilities” decked out in hero disguise – just couldn’t dance their way out of odori.; and First National Bank Alaska, a Distinguished Leader in Literacy, suffered from an extravaganza of syllables and “A’s.”

Round 3 and already six teams down! Would this be a 45-minute BizBee?

Things started to get interesting in Round 4 as the Unitarian Universalists “In Fred’s Name” (honoring long-time ALP volunteer Fred Hillman) passed the snowstorm of purga to the ALP Volunteers. (BizBee rules: you can do that with a $100 donation to literacy.) The Volunteers in turn passed it on to the ACLU’s “Ye Olde Autocorreck.”

The ACLU team, sensing defeat, appealed to their supporters in the audience for $100 to help them buy a Word Pass … to no avail. Resigned to their fate, they accepted purga and faced the storm in Round 5. Wait, was there time for a last-minute reprieve? With donations of $200 now in hand, could they still pass the word? Our three judges, the Killer Bees of Walt Featherly, Sharon Richards, and Gretchen Bersch, ruled that out, and “Ye Olde Autocorreck” was lost in the snowstorm.

Things hummed along until Round 7, when the Werd Nerd pronouncer decided to spice things up by jumping ahead to word #267. “Oh, no! Not 267!” wailed the Mensa team of supporters in the audience (a joke the Werd Nerd continues to love). As it turned out, the Russians were responsible for word #267; they sent in the commissar to silence the “Spellephants” of Arctic Entries. (And by the end of the night, the Mensa crew would win the Team Spirit Award.)
The rookie team from Holistic Hands, the “We Can Spell It” Rosie the Riveters, were served schnecke, and the audience held their breath as they spelled it … correctly. As spellers and officials marveled, a Rosie told us – in German! – that her family eats schnecke for Thanksgiving! It was a magnificent BizBee moment.
Unfortunately, the wild hartebeest gored the ALP Volunteers – sponsored by ConocoPhillips as Distinguished Leaders in Literacy – and they fell down in Round 7.

Heroes were still dropping. In Round 8, the sheriff arrested last year’s champions, the Mensa “ComMENSAlists, with shrieval.

In Round 9, the “SpellMASTERs” of ServiceMASTER diverted the mudflow of lahar to the Rosies, but the dogs got them with Weimaraner in Round 10.

It was now a spell-off between “Fred’s” Unitarian Universalists and the Rosies. The Rosies had the knowledge of jnana, but the Fred’s had the uitlander’s help. It was neck and neck near the finish. But finally – in Round 14, the orichalcum pipe fell on the head of the Unitarians.

Wait, wait, wait! They’re still alive! They produced the TeamSaver – the secret, one-of-a-kind, Get-out-of-Jail-free card for having sold the most raffle tickets. The Unitarians were back in the game!

…only to be blinded in the very next round with periphacitis. The “We Can Spell It” Rosies had one chance to spell the championship word before mushroom poisoning might claim them: mycetismus … and the 2017 champions were decided! Rookies to champions in one night!

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Boobs in Boob Land

It takes a lot to leave me speechless and startled, sort of stumbling through the Looking Glass. It started with the hospital gown hanging outside on the front door, but it was ALL THE PINK that proved overwhelming. I had entered Boob Land. No, I had entered Boob Land!

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and many of us are very, very aware of breasts because we’re very, very aware of cancer. In our Third Thirds, the numbers in “the club” just seem to be growing every month, October or not. This time, cancer visited my friend, Barb. Hopefully, it was just a visit and the unwelcome guest won’t be returning.

More than a month ago, Barb sent out “save the date” invitations for her end-of-radiation party. I put it on my calendar. I thought all the women would come, we’d eat, drink wine, talk.

I never expected to be throwing orange ping pong balls into bras.
It’s like Barb had completely redone her home in Breast Décor. There were pink boob-type decorations everywhere, pink boas, posters. Pink socks as party favors. Pumpkins with breasts and nipples.

I didn’t expect Barb to be greeting us in her hospital gown with boas either.
And now the pièce de résistance: the reminder to get your mammogram – squeeze those marzipan breasts between graham cracker plates. Use your imagination, that plateful was a real eye-popper.

It’s a relief to celebrate someone who discovered her cancer so early that her prognosis is good. It’s a joy to celebrate the strength, the resilience, and the courage this cancer requires of women. And it’s a total treat to spend an evening laughing with women who are funny, talented, and happy to be alive. So happy to be alive.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Who ARE you???

There’s a woman who knows Tim and me really well. Whenever we encounter her, she hugs us and asks about our daughter.

We have no idea who this woman is. She looks really familiar – almost in a tip-of-the-tongue kind of way – but now we don’t know if she looks familiar because we keep focusing on “who on earth is she?” whenever we run into her.

It’s not like she asks us about our family in a vague, generic way. She asks with details. She knows us.

So Tim decided she was a contractor at a former job he held. He told me her name. Let’s call her Hilda. (All names have been changed to protect ourselves from exposure and humiliation.) He told me what job she had. He was pretty sure, so we relaxed when we encountered her. Although not relaxed enough to call her by name.

A couple weeks ago, Tim and I were at a fund raising dinner. A woman approached us and said, “Hi, Tim. Remember me? I’m Hilda from when we worked together at X.” She was even wearing a name tag.

This was a completely different woman!
So now we’re back at square one. I spotted the mystery woman again and decided that I must know her from a former job I held. I asked another friend to secretly look over her way and whisper who she was.

“That’s Margaret.” My informant even gave me some context for Margaret – context is so helpful! – but unfortunately, the context wasn’t specific enough. I need context like “You and Margaret know each other from Sophie’s fourth grade when she took swimming lessons at East Pool.” The context provided was “She does a lot of craft things around town,” not enough to turn on my memory light bulbs.

As I secretly examined Margaret more and more, I decided she’s only a lookalike for the other woman, the mystery woman. They both have gray hair, but Margaret’s is styled more fashionably than the other woman’s. I think. Every time I see one of them, I’m never sure which one I’m actually seeing. Come to think of it, Margaret isn’t as huggy as the other woman. Margaret can’t be the huggy one.

Tim and I went to another big event, and she was there! Hugging us! The not-Margaret, not-Hilda, not-fashionably-styled-gray-haired woman. We are becoming traumatized by this. I can’t even make fake conversation because I can’t place her at all. It’s close; I just need a little hint. I need a magical friend who’ll ask her, “How do you know Barbara and Tim?”

If only we encountered her at a name tag event! Or a sign-in sheet event. Then I would move into espionage mode and track down her identity. Or even if we ran into her at a more specific location, like something you had to be a member of. Then I would memorize distinguishing features and grill other members.
Maybe Tim can secretly take a photo. Maybe I can try sketching her. Then I can secretly show it around to my friends and ask if they know her.

Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking: just ask her! Normally, I would do that. I’d just go into my prosopagnosia/facial blindness story, pretend brazenness, and ask right out. But this woman hugs us! And we’ve faked familiarity enough times that it would look very, very goofy to suddenly have developed amnesia.

If you are a reader of this blog and you have gray hair and you hug me when we see each other and ask about my daughter, please add a comment.
Uh, oh! That might be too many of you! You’re short. I think you’re quite short. Petite. (I think I hug in a downward direction.) You’d better provide a little context; I obviously need help. (And sorry about how I’ve described your hair.)

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Curmudgeon or Sweetie-Pie? That is the question.

As we age, we face choices. Actually, we face choices every single day, every single moment. But the big one I’m focusing on right now is whether I’m going to age as a curmudgeon or as a sweetie-pie.

I’m not sure whether sweetie-pie is the right antonym for curmudgeon, but it’s all I have. Even doesn’t provide one, but there are lots of synonyms for curmudgeon: grouch, crank, sourpuss, grump, crab.

I’ve always thought I was tipping towards the curmudgeon side, mostly because I have Rules. Rules, as in:
  • Do not litter.

  • Your dog is supposed to be on a leash if he is not calmly at your side.

  • Do not contaminate the plastics recycling bins by throwing in unrecyclable, miscellaneous trash.

  • Cell phones should be off during public performances.
I have been known to enforce these Rules in public. Yes, we all discovered the heart of gold in A Man Called Ove, but I’m not sure the recipients of my Rule Awareness Lessons would speak to my heart of gold.

I fear it’s even worse than that. Recently, we had two couples over for dinner. As they were removing their shoes at the front door, some kind of issue arose. When Danny came up the stairs, he was griping about the rules in his house. “We even have a rule about synchronizing the light switches.”

What does that mean to synchronize the light switches? “It means that when one at the top of the stairs is up, you can’t turn off the light at the bottom of the stairs because then the light switch at the top is in the wrong position.”

“Oh,” I said. “That’s right. They have to match. Light on means switch up.”

The husbands looked at me. “When the light is off, the light is off. What difference does it make what position the switch is in?”

Oh, yes, this is one of those little glitches in the universe. I am married to a man who doesn’t care what position the switches are in. I run around to the back of the garage to make sure the switch there matches the switch in the front of the garage. Apparently, I am not alone. Women like me are married to men like them. The men call these things “rules.” Personally, I don’t make Tim synchronize the switches … but I do readjust them when I’m in the garage.

I was at a party. A person nearing retirement asked a retired person about the transition.

“I love it,” the retiree said. “I enjoy every day.”

“Well,” I offered, “there are a lot of ups and downs in the transition.”

“Not me,” said the first. “I love every day.”
I draw a lot of conclusions from this, many of them revolving around Barbara-as-grouch and my inevitable fate as a curmudgeon. If I were particularly generous, I might try some self-description of Barbara-as-careful-observer-of-reality, but “I love every day” will never pop out of my mouth.

Lately, however, I have been encountering individuals who take my perception of sweetie-pie to new heights. In my new job with OLÉ (Opportunities for Lifelong Education), I receive phone calls from mostly older individuals wanting to enroll, to register for classes, to sign up friends, etc. I return their calls.

“Thank you, thank you for returning my call. I really appreciate your calling me back.”

And that’s only the beginning. I am thanked for providing information, I am thanked for remembering their names, I am thanked for talking them through the computer process. I am encountering more overt kindness and gratitude than I would have imagined was possible in routine human interaction. Yes, this says even more about Barbara-the-grouch, but my eyes have been opened! I have encountered appreciation to such an overwhelming degree, it’s changing my personality.

Sweetie-pie-ness begets more sweetie-pie-ness. The glow of sweetness just reflects and magnifies. I find myself going the extra mile just because it’s so appreciated. I’m a newbie at this: I still have Rules. I’m still not good at initiating sweetie-pie-ness but only remember it when I encounter it. I have to remind myself that being a sweetie-pie is not the same as being a vacuous optimist. It means appreciating the human effort around us.

Is there such a thing as a sweet curmudgeon?

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Ready for the Big One?

In the wake of all the Nature-made disasters that have befallen the world lately – Puerto Rico, Mexico, Florida – the subject of “being ready” has come up. At one dinner, one friend went through all the supplies his neighbors have gathered: one has a year’s supply of food, another has 10,000 rounds of ammunition. His wife said, “I have craft supplies.”

I have craft supplies, too. All the women at the table had craft supplies.

Our neighbor says he’s ready because he has a Prius. My husband said that might buy him two days over the rest of us, but I’m not sure how far he’ll get … or what he’s actually ready for. His back stairs fell down so he doesn’t even have a second exit.

Are you ready?

Well, I was once. When Sophie was a baby, Tim fixed our bookcases to the wall so they couldn’t fall on her (never mind the books), and I stocked the pantry, identified the flashlights, filled water jugs. But after a while, I gave up changing the water, the batteries in the flashlights corroded, and maybe we ate some of the supplies. Then I figured we could just raid the closet with the camping gear – at least we have camping gear.

But now, as I look around me, I realize that with the new-carpet-relocation, bookshelves were moved, and they’re not anchored to the wall anymore. In fact, come the earthquake, if I’m at my computer, I’m squashed. Squashed by craft supplies.

So why am I bothering you (and me) with this issue that gives rise to a massive avoidance response? Avoiding the horrendous “to do” lists of identifying hazards, organizing emergency supplies, even gathering important papers? Just give me some sand to stick my head in.

But Thursday, October 19 is the Great Alaska ShakeOut. At 10:19 a.m., all over the U.S., millions of people will be dropping, covering, and holding on in the world’s largest earthquake drill. I do it every year. It’s a fun way to remind us – wherever we are on that date and that time – however inconvenient it is – that earthquakes are inconvenient, too.

Even if I manage to avoid the pre-drill recommendations (those readiness checklists), I still look around my 10:19 environment: What’s going to come crashing down? What protection is immediately accessible? How do I get away from windows? Call it my exercise in mindfulness….

And then, of course, there’s the theater of it. The website provides sound effects you can put over a P.A. system, but I’m kind of partial to the air horn shock to the system. Then picture everyone scurrying and climbing under tables. At the Literacy Program, there are people who have been in scarier earthquakes than I have – earthquakes in places without building codes – so our preparation will probably include some good stories, too.

So even if you haven’t stored your gallon of water per person per day for three days; met your self-sufficiency requirements for up to two weeks; or even own a crank radio – even if all you have are craft supplies – you can remember what NOT to do:
  • Do NOT get in a doorway (old myth)
  • Do NOT run outside
  • Do NOT believe the so-called “triangle of life” (new myth)
Just Drop, Cover, and Hold On with 100,000 other Alaskans. Sign up today and I’ll meet you under the table.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Invasion of the Vegetables 2

I’ve written about my farmers’ market love affair before, but now I am positively racked with vegetable gluttony. I try to resist the farmers’ market – I can’t possibly fit any more giant celery or giant leeks or giant chard in the refrigerator – but it calls to me. Maybe if I just walk around and admire the vegetables I won’t bring any more home.

But who can resist?

I used to easily pass certain vegetables by; I don’t like radishes and who knew which part of a fennel you ate? But I went one day with my friend Rob, and he said, “If you roast radishes, they get mild. If you roast those salad turnips, they get soft and juicy. Just try it.” I have bunches and bunches of radishes now, and I get more each week. I roast and roast and roast … when I’m not making gallons of soup.
I invite friends over to reduce my inventory. I used to think of it as “making dinner,” now it’s “making room in the fridge” and the dinner is incidental.

It’s not just my weakness either. My friend Judith was traveling so she showed up at my house, abandoning her Brussels sprouts and turnips as she left town. (Yes, it reminded me of those old jokes about secretly delivering excess zucchini in the middle of the night to your unsuspecting friends.) Judith even had a kohlrabi thing, which looks like some terrible mutation but that’s what a kohlrabi is.
I positively scour cookbooks, magazines, and the Internet for recipes. Oh, yikes: I’ve turned into a Foodie! A vegetable-only Foodie. I make things with names like Fennel Leek Soup, Curried Brussels Sprouts with Currants, and Asian Sesame Zucchini Noodles (out came the spiralizer). All the extra leaves go into Minestra di Riso e Fagioli alla Genovese (soup).

Kohlrabi nearly stumped me: my $30 America’s Test Kitchen Vegetarian cookbook doesn’t even have kohlrabi in the index. Martha Stewart, however, has “8 Delicious Ideas” for kohlrabi. That’ll be tomorrow’s experiment, tomorrow’s New Thing.

I found a recipe for turnips and other root vegetables, and the photo in the magazine looked great. The recipe called for parsnips and celery root (which hadn’t made it into my kitchen yet) so I had to visit the farmers’ markets again. I had to. I found the parsnips, and one woman showed me what a celery root looked like, but she didn’t have any for sale. She told me that we could even eat the funny little rooty-looking things that stick out of the bulb.
So off I went to New Sagaya and their odd vegetable collection. (Yes, I’m prowling for vegetables. I’m a veritable vegetable Lewis and Clark.) While the man went to check for celery root in the back, I looked at all the other vegetables. Oh, no! The thing I thought was a turnip – and built the whole recipe around – is really a rutabaga! Hmmm, they look sort of similar.
I Googled “Can I substitute a rutabaga for a turnip?” and am always astonished to discover when lots of other people have had the exact same question before me.  Turns out that rutabagas were invented by crossing cabbage and turnips and supposedly, they turn a brilliant orange when they’re cooked and mashed.

When I moved from New York to California, I discovered brand new vegetables: artichokes, asparagus, things I’d never heard of. I’d grown up on French Style Green Beans from a can; gray, slimy-ish, soft and mushy green beans. I left New York believing that vegetables had to be canned to be safe to eat, like pasteurizing milk. When I discovered FRESH vegetables, my whole diet changed. In San Francisco, I lived near the produce market and bought my food daily.

Then I moved to Alaska. In the grocery store back then, I’d see vegetables for sale that would have been spoiled rejects in California: wrinkled, limp peppers; spotted green beans; soft, squishy zucchini. In California, they were compost. In Alaska, they were food.

That all changed with Costco, but the farmers’ markets offer new bounty with Alaska’s own giant, spectacular vegetables. The farmers’ markets are glorious temples of vegetables, and I worship at them. There are just two Saturdays left, and then they’re closed for the season.


Monday, September 25, 2017

Book Club vs a Bad Book

My book club is happy for a lot of reasons, but what distinguishes us is we talk about the books. Yes, we learn what’s going on with our lives. Yes, we do things together. Yes, we eat food, drink wine, and share recipes. BUT we talk about the books, and we’ve been doing that for more than 20 years.

As soon as the book for the following month is decided upon, we used to race each other to reserve the book at the library. Over the years, that’s proven a problem: if we read the book too far in advance, we forget a lot of it by the time book club meets. (We’ve spent many book club evenings talking about “what’s-her-name” or “was-that-before-that-happened-or-after.”) Billy Collins, in his poem “Forgetfulness,” writes:
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of
So we have to time finishing the book so we’re still fresh with it when we meet. But that has its own problems: what if the book is long or tedious and we run out of time? What if everyone else has the library book and it’s not available? So we play this little dance of balancing memory against opportunity. The dance just gets trickier with time.

Over the years, there have been many books we’ve all loved: Bel Canto, Seabiscuit, A Gentleman in Moscow. There are books someone didn’t like while someone else loved it. Book club is the perfect place where discussion actually changes our opinions. There are books no one liked, but there were no books everyone hated.

Until The Echo Maker.
The Echo Maker was unanimously and universally hated. It was long, repetitive, and tedious. The characters were unreal, unsympathetic, and boring. Characters repeated themselves endlessly, so that finishing the book was torture. What may have been an interesting exploration of self and the perception of self was positively excruciating. Only the sand hill cranes came off well.
Am I not being clear enough about this?

Astonishingly, the discussion was terrific. It’s amazing how hating something really enhances the memory! We remembered every hated detail. We knew names, we knew characters, we knew every ludicrous, plodding plot iteration.

One of our more recent experiments was to come to book club with a sentence from the book that impressed us. Mary offered her sentence: Karin, the sister in the book, is thinking back to a time with a former lover:
“Two years ago that month, she’d lain with this man in the pouring rain, naked in the sloppy riverbanks, licking his armpits like a kitten.” (page 329)

Do you see what I mean? Who, who, who would ever find that plausible? What kind of woman licks muddy armpits during sex in the rain? Could you finish an entire book like this?

During the course of our energetic discussion lampooning of the book, I related another hairy armpit story. A friend of mine had worked summers at A&W Root Beer. There were big vats of root beer with some sort of stirring contraption at the bottom. When it became jammed, they had to use a special tool to realign it. The manager got fed up with jimmying it, rolled up his sleeve, and stuck his arm to the bottom of the vat. It was a hot summer day, and his armpits were sweaty. When he pulled his arm out, root beer dripped from his armpit hairs.

I told you, we talk about the book.

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