Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Eyeing the Past

So the next day, Sunday June 20th, we decide to be tourists. Thrifty tourists, however, and so we choose the cheapest way to get around London: the hop-off-hop-on ferry on the Thames. L, our native tourguide, decides that we would make one delightfully large family which brings our fares down to mere pounds per head. So we hop on, the breeze refreshing in what is rather warm sun. We count the bridges as we pass underneath, until we come to the most splendid bridge of all.

"All disembark for Tower O'London!"

Of course, we must first get Starbucks to fortify ourselves for 5+ centuries of history. And buy tickets. And then navigate the drawbridge to the Tower complex itself. I know I have been here before--OK, it was nearly 40 years ago--none of it familiar but all of it is fascinating. The tiny triangular stairs in the Tower proper wind up and up into the summit of the tower, where Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey and many others waited out their sentences, knowing it would not end well. I can still sense their anxiety, hanging in the air like the ancient dust.

Now antique graffiti has been preserved in the walls and it captures my attention. Some of the work, carved into the plaster of the walls, is amazingly artistic and detailed: bas relief of angels, fantasies of the tombstone lid that the artist knows will one day grace his or her tomb. Some of the carvings are poems or letters and I can just imagine the dreadful boredom and endless patience that inspired these.

But there is more, dioramas of life in the fortress, a building devoted to the history of the Queen's Regiment. And the Crown Jewels. These I actually remember from 1971--no one who has seen amethysts the size of walnuts can forget them--but what is new is the display itself. It used to be that the jewels were kept in the dark (if I recall correctly) and only when a carefully guided group of tourists were assembled were the lights switched on, followed by oohs and aahs and soon the darkness again. But now technology has taken over--state treasures meets Disney--and now the collection of crowns and scepters is featured in a series of stationary double-paned display cases, and the tourists move...along a rather zippy motorized sidewalk similar to what you find in airports. No dawdling here! Either view the displays quickly or forget it. But fortunately there are few people today, so like children we run back to the start and go for a second ride, and then a third. There is also a balcony for those sensitive to motion sickness--the view isn't as good but the explanations are more detailed.

There are the state china, and a punchbowl which could double as a baptismal font, and a dress and robe laden with gold (did it say it weighed more than the queen? I believe so...) and other treasures so numerous that the silver becomes blinding. Time for fresh air.

Outdoor we witness one of the Queen's guard, goosestepping in the heat under his massive black fur hat. Even 40 years later it is still sport to attempt to make the guards react--smile or scowl or anything--but it's still unsuccessful. The Beefeaters are social, chatty, but the guards are emotionless.

It is here that I begin to develop my theory of funny hats--that the military forces in any country can have all sorts of sensible or odd uniforms but what makes each distinct from the others are the hats. Silly hats, actually (do tell what creature gives up its skin to form that massive furry mountain on the guard's head? It is no creature that ever dwelt in England, that's for certain). Not that the red jacket was any good for camouflage either, but at least in the Jolly Old there IS wool.

We walk along the Tower Wall, enjoying the views of both the compound and the city. But we want more. My poor daughter, J, has arrived in London with a list of "must-see" spots and we will not be able to see any of them--the city too sprawling to make the trips from one end to the other in a reasonable amount of time. But we can accommodate one of her wishes. Once out of the Tower complex we hop on again, travel down river to within sight of Parliament, St. James' Tower and its more famous bell (that's BIG Ben to you). Hop off, cross the bridge, and there it is, arcing high into the sky: the London Eye.

A bit of grumbling ensues as it can be hours of wait to get on board. It's nearly 6 pm and dinner is on our minds. But for some reason the tourists are elsewhere and there are tickets...and within 20 minutes we are slowly ascending in a white capsule we are sharing with a dozen other curious folks. I was feeling an initial anxiety having become more fearful of ferris wheels in my later years (they used to be my favorite ride) but this is nothing like a ferris wheel. The movement is slow and regular--it can hardly be felt--and the views are constantly changing. Now I see rooftops and now I can sense the Tower Bridge there, and the Gherkin, now the Tower itself, and is that St. Paul's in the distance? Just don't look directly down--it's unnerving--and amble from end to end of the capsule for the best scenery.

I am especially proud of my children, chatting with family, pointing out landmarks, trying to envision where Heathrow might be, and where L's apartment is, and oh, our hotel would be just to the right of that, look at the sun glinting off the roof of Parliament. This is in sharp contrast to the Illinois family we met as we boarded our capsule: mom, dad, two college-aged sons. First trip overseas, might be good for the boys to have history come alive. Dad is pointing out landmarks and reminiscing about the last time he was in London (as a 20-something himself). I soon realize the man is talking aloud to himself. That wasn't his intent, however, because at the same time he talks, I hear annoying, repetitive electronic beeps. Coming from his sons, who are playing tetris on their cell phones. Wow, glad we dragged you halfway across the world and spent down our retirement savings for you to PLAY GAMES while hovering over London in the world's most costly ferris wheel.
I glare, but of course it has no impact.

Once on the ground--cherishing our digital photos, of course!--we stroll the Quai, stop for sangria at a sidewalk cafe, and watch the buskers entertain passers-by. There are the typical second-rate musicians, but there is also a young Asian woman seated on a velvet blanket, rolling a crystal ball from hand to hand like magic. And there are folks dressed up as odd creatures--a tiny woman in a peasant outfit with hair to her ankles which hides her face, accompanied by some poor fool dressed as her burro. Yes, for a few pound you can have your picture taken with us! (Dare I ask why?).

We cross the Thames back towards the direction of our hotel, winding through streets until we find ourselves in Chinatown. I call out the names of the restaurants, wondering if the rule holds for the UK--back home the best restaurants have the most bizarre names (No.1 China House is a neighborhood favorite of mine).
Somehow we manage to get a table to seat all of us, around the world's largest lazy susan. Bring on the dishes and let's share. Yum!

We savor our dinner with mixed emotions--the excitement of starting the cruise tomorrow, the letdown of leaving London having seen only a very small portion of the city, and the absolute dread of packing up all our belongings and getting ourselves out the door in good time. But we will do it because we know: more adventures await.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

One Stop Shopping: Harrods & the NHS

19 June
My dad and I have breakfast in the Club Lounge before hailing a cab to Paddington and then boarding the Heathrow Express to the airport. Paddington...I love the name, regardless of the bear, which of course is being hawked in kiosks throughout the station.

Once at Heathrow, we wait. And wait. And wait. We arrive much too early for a flight that is delayed. At least I am able to get a cup of coffee at Costa's (it actually seems to be an Americano--the barista pulls a couple of shots of espresso that magically morphs into a cupful, and they add the milk for you; one way of controlling expenses and mess, I suppose). It dulls the ache in my head, the ache I know so well. Per my daughter J's request, I craft a sign with our last name in large dark block letters, much like a limo driver or tour guide. I brace it against the railing that separates the arrivals from the waiting masses, in imitation of the other livery services. Travelers trickle out of the sliding doors, some emerging from the right, others from the left.

Finally I spot a clean-shaven lad wearing a black "Wales" shirt (tricky choice, there) and towing an oversize black suitcase, followed by a blonde girl in a green plaid fedora. They are here!

We buy rail tickets and sandwiches and wait. And wait. The train finally arrives and once we emerge into the daylight J is all grins through the British countryside and into Paddington Station and into the taxi queue. Still smiling as we are ladled into a black cab and hurtled thought the streets, this way and that, on our way to High Holborn and Chancery Court. As we travel I notice a bicyclist trailing us. Our eyes meet and he gives me a smile. He is able to keep pace with our cab, catching up at the stoplights, until we overtake two double-decker buses and he is lost in traffic.

There are hugs all around as family converges at the hotel. We maneuver bed occupancy once again, in order to house all of us. I later learn from my cousin that we have totally befuddled hotel staff with our room--and bed--swapping. Adding to the hilarity is a lovely tray of chocolate-covered strawberries in honor of hubby and my 50th Anniversary, which, as the card notes, "is an amazing milestone" (made more amazing by the fact of my prenatal nuptials. Hubby wasn't even a gleam at the time.) My parents--who are the REAL Golden Anniversary celebrants--have already received a complementary bottle of champagne in honor of the event. Did the confused hotel staff conclude that they were hosting a group of swinging 70-year-olds whose secret of lasting marriage involved random group hookups?

After a chat, we decide the afternoon's expedition will be to Harrods' by way of Covent Garden, a former flower and produce market of the 19th century and now a walkway of shops. We thread our way though cobbled alleys and antique facades. And then we find ourselves before Harrods and it is SALE DAYS...and overcrowded. Synchronize watches, pick a meeting point, and off we go in pairs, like the animals in a 6-storey ark, to see what we can see.

J is my partner, and we decide to start at the top and work our way down. Some floors are definitely better than others--Sporting Goods is a yawn, Books/Music resembles what we have back home. But Toys is amusing (Reusable Artificial Snow, on special this week! Imagine.); Fossils and Minerals are fascinating, if just for the mystery of who would spend L 10K on a trilobite; Art Glass was lovely. Musical Instruments were diverting; I was taken with the staff performing a duo piano concert, while a young opera singer leaning over the stairwell balcony captured my uncle's attention.

But what really captivated us--for its beauty AND its ugly--was Couture. I don't know if J will ever design a chain-mail-and-leather-dress in imitation of the one we saw, but she did like Balenciaga, and RM's folded lapels and pleats were stunning. The hats were a hoot, truly wearable sculpture. When we reconvened, it was fun to compare how other duos spent their time.

Back to the hotel for strategizing about dinner. But I have a problem. Earlier in the day I notice a dull ache in my left breast, like the onset of PMS or a strained muscle. But now it is a burning, and when I look at the skin it is scarlet. To my mind, it's a rapidly brewing infection and needs attention. I hail my cousin, who is well connected in the medical world, and she starts making phone calls. She connects with an MD from Milan who knows London, and he suggests an exam with a Gyn on Monday, but I push for an eval today, now. Memories of my knee infection flash in my mind and I picture PICC lines and Vanco and inpatient admissions...and by conclusion, trashed vacation plans. The doc admits that the A&E (Accident & Emergency) is not ideal, especially on a Saturday night, but University College Hospital is one of the best and it is nearby. I break the news to my parents nd kids, reassure them that although it IS an emergency, it's not life-threatening. Discussions ensue; my mom will accompany me, my cousin and her beau will take my place to collect hubby at the airport and hopefully reassure him. NHS, here I come.

We decide that we ought to take dinner with us, given the now international regulations governing A&E units (3 hour minimum wait time), but the only shop open is the bistro across the street. Not every meal works as a 'take-away' option, so we settle for Croque-Monsieur (seemingly the only sandwich on the menu). And wait. And wait.

In retrospect, the bistro wait is perhaps equal to the A&E wait. Maybe longer. Catch a cab and nervously inform the driver of our destination. I feel like a pregnant woman about to give birth on the back seat; it feels vaguely like the stuff of comedies. Too bad I feel so lousy.

Again serpentining through the streets. The driver wants to drop us at the corner but we beg for the entrance, unfamiliar with the area (he comes pretty close but he could have done better). The second door brings us to a dismal waiting area which looks a bit too much like a bus terminal. The registrar explains the process to me, emphasizing that "the nurse will decide if you need to see the doctor." Which makes me wonder what percentage of customers come to the A&E with false alarms, not unlike the US, really. The form I complete has squares for corralling block letters...and not nearly enough to house my name or my symptoms. The waiting room is nearly empty, the other patrons exotic-looking (Two well-dressed young women walk in, carrying Harrods' bags and an icepack. We speculate: did the patient injure her nose in a scuffle over a sale item?).

A petite nurse bellows my name and I am taken into what feels like an alcove in a hallway, although there IS a door that shuts behind me. The nurse asks me brief questions and to convince her of my diagnosis, I pull up my shirt. She responds by telling me it may be a 2 hour wait until I can be seen by the doctor...and that I can go ahead and eat.

It's maybe half an hour--I barely finish my sandwich and the accompanying wilted salad--when the doctor calls me in. She is young, slender, but thoughtful, carefully examining my breasts and axillae, and concluding that I have cellulitis. Why? How? She can't really say, but a penicillin knockoff should do the trick. Gosh, I hope so. I've heard of inflammatory breast CA and it scares me. How do I know for sure?

I walk out of the A&E with a free box of antibiotic capsules and a brochure I snagged from the waiting room. "Neighbor Strapping" sounded too bizarre to leave behind, like something out of "Bum Paddle Magazine"...you "Arrested Development" groupies will know what I mean. Not to mention that the back page was a paid advert from a malpractice attorney's office. How absolutely unreal.

Mom & I realize we are mere blocks from our hotel, and to forgo the swerving taxi ride--as well as get a bit of exercise--we walk back. It's breezy, a bit chilly, but we motivate ourselves with the thought of the hot cuppa waiting for us in the Club Lounge, as well as the hugs of reassurance from our growing circle. And I plot how to best tell L. that I have done my part to increase his tax burden by being another one of those non-residents utilizing the NHS.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

I know it's only been three weeks since school let out (please don't let me rant about the displays of school supplies now available in stores...it's been THREE FLIPPIN' WEEKS, PEOPLE...I won't know what the kids will need for another EIGHT weeks but by that time snowboots will be out. Argh!!).

OK, let's try that again: three weeks since school ended and I have already used up my vacation time. But it was fascinating and luxurious and fattening and wonderful. And it's also the content for the next several postings here.

Day 1 of vaca I was given a travel journal by my cousin (the official trip coordinator) and I jotted notes on some events, but there are gaps...and deep feelings of guilt. I want closure, I want completion. So we will try to make up the missing bits online, yes?

So let the story unwind, starting as it was written...

17 June into the 18th: The adventure begins. Middle son, B., and I are taken through Philly's rush-hour traffic on the Schuykill to the airport. Hugs and kisses on the curb of Terminal D and we enter the building to queue up to check our bags--a delightfully short queue (author's note: this vacation involves an extensive amount of queuing. Be prepared.)

Security flows rather smoothly too, despite the "Traveler Groups" the TSA tries to funnel us into: Experienced Travelers, Casual Travelers, Families. B handles himself adroitly, slipping out of his sneaks, assessing the required number of bins, stepping confidently through the metal detector.

We stroll Terminals D and E in search of dinner, deciding which evil we can stand to ingest, and manage to buy a tasty and moderately-priced meal at Chickie & Pete's; my turkey wrap was surprisingly generous. I will be thankful.

The flight to DC is, as expected, a matter of more time on the tarmac at either end than spent in the air. And I find the Embraer aircraft anxiety-provoking, the clunks and rumbles leading me to wonder if the plane leaves a trail of parts in its wake. I am also surprised to observe my son's head grazing the ceiling in the aisle; obviously not a craft for any passenger taller that 5'6".

We pull into the gate at IAD next to an Aeroflot (!), which stuns me; I thought they NEVER leave Russia. We notice they still have those unnerving trolleys coursing between the terminals. Ugh! (Why do they have those two flanges on the roof? What's with that?) We are able to take the new Aerotrain to the international terminal, though; a twin to the one in Zurich, minus the cowbells and the video kiss from Heidi. We speculate what the US equivalent might be; maybe Obama giving a high-five over the sound of traffic?

In the international terminal--after B points out the Asian general in olive drab accompanied by his four black-suited bodyguards with briefcases--we wander to our gate to find our flight has been seriously overbooked. I was grateful we had seats. Once aboard, I forgot how cozy Economy class is; like, DO NOT drop anything under your seat as you will be unable to retrieve it. I consider my oldest's proposed prank of toggling together all the tray tables to prevent the head of the passenger in front of me from landing in my lap.

Kindly enough, the young man sitting next to me offers to trade places with B so we can sit together--pleasant compensation for THE WORST AIRLINE MEAL in history. (They claim it was chicken.) When the salad and the shrink-wrapped brownie are the highlights of the dinner...I am grateful for the relatively tasty airport sandwiches of the evening before...because we are eating dinner at 11 pm. Of course. Yeesh.

Heathrow is clean and modern and rather empty for an airport undergoing major renovations. Terminal 1 seems miles and miles from Passport Control, as we walk in the stream of travelers from our 767. A couple of questions, some vigorous stamping of the passports, and we are free to get our bags and stroll through "Nothing to Declare" into the terminal and up to a husky gray-haired man named Harvey, our limo driver. A nice chap--perhaps the only Jewish limo driver in the UK?--who chats about the landmarks as he delivers us to our hotel. I realize that the major expense of visiting London will not be food or even accommodations; it will be transportation.

The hotel, Chancery Court, is an antique building with a central cobbled courtyard. Very British, very nostalgic. We score some keys to my parents' room only to learn they have just stepped out. Hungry and with limited funds we buy fresh sandwiches on crusty bread at my new fav eatery: Pret a Manger. For less than L5! We eat in the sun at a table in the courtyard of our hotel, hoping to spot grandparents and cousins if they arrive. No show.

Let's go around the block to at least see a bit of London while we wait, I suggest to B, who agrees. We head out the courtyard, turn left. Down the block, cross the street, just past the corner. Suddenly a small figure in pink squeals my name and clasps me firmly about the knees: my cousin's four-year-old daughter, A. Forming a circle around us are my mom and dad, my cousin, my uncle. And we didn't even have to try to find each other. We take this as a sign; this will be the vacation of perfect coincidences.

That afternoon we divide into groups and head for the Underground: B & granddad are sent to the Science Museum while "the girls" go to the V&A for a quilt show. Back at the hotel we will meet my cousin's beau, L, a native Londoner. I expect Hugh Grant--a dandy, willowy and anxious--but he is compact (built like the members of our family), casual, warmhearted, and witty. As we walk to a nearby Indian restaurant, our octet morphs into shifting pairs and trios, the conversation never lagging. Another good sign; we shall get on well. The fact that we down curry and korma with great enthusiasm bodes well too; everyone is open to adventures.

As we are arriving in London in staggered groups, the hotel rooms have been booked in stages. My cousin, uncle, and A had been housed with my parents, but now they vacate to a suite and B & I move in with my folks. We collect too many hotel keys and raid the Clubroom for tea and bottled water. The pillows are down, squidgy and insubstantial, but I don't care. My sleep will be deep, and I must be up by 6 AM to meet the flight of my other two children, C & J.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Hell is Relative

I am fond of proverbs. My absolute favorites are those I create myself. Heck, if Mao can have his Little Red Book, I can have "The Little Blue Book of Paula." (Blue is my favorite color, not to mention how well it reflects my political leanings. Note, too, that the title of this post is NOT "Hell is Relatives." That theme probably merits its very own post.)

Seven years ago, my son underwent 8 months of intense chemotherapy for a rare form of leukemia. As our family moves through that experience and the changed life that follows, I sometimes share our story with the people I meet. Extended family and close friends were told about the cancer early on; for acquaintances and new contacts, I had to feel ready, it had to feel right to tell them. Many people I know are still unaware, but that's because I perceive my role as "cancer mom" to be only one aspect of myself, just like many people don't know I bake sourdough bread.

I remember one conversation in particular, with a buddy of mine from a writer's group I attended. She read a short story I had written, a vignette about an interaction I had with my son while he was hospitalized. I had purposely worded the piece to suggest it was fictional, when in reality every scene, every action and word was memoir. After she offered her critique, I shared that it was a true story. "Wow," she responded. "I can see how such an experience would color your writing. How could it not?" She offered her sympathy, and like many people, expressed that she could not imagine how she would cope with such a devastating diagnosis, with the idea that her child could die.

In another conversation, at another time, she had told me details of her own life; that her oldest child struggled with behavior problems at school, had difficulty making friends, threatened to hurt himself as a consequence of his frustration with his world. "One doctor said he has Asperger's, but another one thought he might have Bipolar, so they are trying him on some meds." My response was supportive; my thoughts were of gratitude. Cancer I can deal with; but mental illness? Something that can't be cured; a treatment approach based on intelligent guesses and the process of elimination? No thanks.

This interaction with my fellow writer came to mind this week when I talked individually with two of my customers, each struggling with a difficult situation, who happened to know each other (but didn't know that I knew the other party.) Each person expressed an identical sympathy and pity for the other: "Yah, this is tough, but I think about what X is going through and I can handle this. Just reminds me that, you know, somebody's got it worse."

I like my hell, the hell I was assigned by fate. I can understand and accept it, I can live with it. And I wouldn't want to trade it for your hell.

It should be axiomatic: Hell is Relative.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Amazing: A movie that I liked better than the book.

When was the last time you could legitimately say that?

After our Gogol Bordello adventure last weekend, my son mentioned, in an off-hand way, that Eugene Hutz had been in a movie: Everything is Illuminated. It might be entertaining to watch, my oldest mused, and promptly pulled up clips of the film on YouTube.

Everything is Illuminated a movie?? When did that happen? I slogged through the book months ago: was it late last year? The book was an odd, disjointed read that had somehow been recommended by the critics yet available for 50c at the local used book shop. It took me chapters and chapters--perhaps half the book--to finally get into the rhythm of the alternating story lines: Alex, the youthful Ukrainian translator and his absolute slaughter of English, relating his experience as a tour guide; and Jonathan conveying the fanciful history of Trachimbrod, the bizarre, ancient Jewish settlement of his ancestors. And then the intersection, where the reader understands that Alex is accompanying Jonathan on his journey to Trachimbrod, and more significantly, to search for the mysterious Augustine, a woman who saved Jonathan's grandfather's life (after a fashion)...a dreamlike, cryptic sequence that recalled Arthur Dent's visit to John Watson's inside-out house. Or maybe it was 1984? Things are, but they aren't?

Although Alex's voice is comical, a consequence of scrambled synonyms, the book just didn't grab me. I didn't see the point. And I could hardly envision it being concentrated into a movie. But I was willing to give the movie my time, if only to view Eugene Hutz clean-shaven and trotting around Odessa followed by an oom-pa band.

And now that I am following the typical process in reverse: view movie, read book (well, read book AGAIN)--in contrast to the usual sequence--I really like Liev Schreiber's take on Jonathan much more that Safran Foer's original.

In fact, I find the screenplay brilliant. All those chapters and chapters of Trachimbrod's psuedohistory have been stripped away, leaving the pure essence of a story: a road trip, a voyage of discovery, leading to deep insights into the nature of humans, trauma, and identity. The screenplay has layers and layers of meaning, accomplished in a clean, precise way.

In other words, the movie has no wasted moves, no filler. Everything is significant. Each scene, each word moves the story forward. The motivations of the characters are clear and yet very human. There is humor, there is surprise, there is transformation.

And at the end, everything IS illuminated. For each of the characters, and for the viewer too.

Skip the book. Watch the movie.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Gogogogogogol

I can't sleep, my mind still buzzing from last night....truthfully, early this morning; I'd expected my 2 AM bedtime would have me drowsy by now (10:30 PM). But I guess this is the cost of obtaining a musical education.

One aspect of parenting teenagers that I sincerely relish is having them teach me about popular culture; and what could be more significant to a teen than the bands they enjoy? A unique characteristic of this particular generation of kids is their deep respect for the classics. I am as delighted to observe my 70-year-old uncle share Pink Floyd with my 17-year-old son, as I am to talk about The Beatles with my 13-year-old daughter. I've used the philosophy of Dylan to resolve the teen angst about the work world ("Gotta Serve Sombody!"). My middle child has bridged the years between Rush and Ramstein; my youngest has introduced me to Julia Nunes and fun with ukuleles. When my oldest talks about Cake and Spoon, I counter with Bread and Cream. And although Blue Oyster Cult was the bane of my high school years, we all agree that you can never have too much cowbell.

Which makes last night, upon deeper reflection, a truly amazing experience.

I heard about the band when the lead singer was interviewed by Terri Gross on NPR and was immediately intrigued.

My oldest learned about the band from a friend...I think the same friend who introduced him to Vampire Weekend and Streetlight Manifesto. He was taken with the group's high energy and the unique sound.

So when Gogol Bordello was scheduled to play Philly, there was no question we were going. A more significant question might be which one of us was more enthused. I planned my attire for weeks: one must attend a gypsy punk event dressed like either a gypsy or a punk, no? Given that my ethnic roots tilt toward the former (and at age 49, the latter would just look silly on me) the choices were obvious. And I was hoping to wear my purple shoes--my attempt to start wearing purple--but the heat wave suggested sandals might be a more comfortable choice.

I am convinced that if I attended a Gogol concert three times a week, I wouldn't need to worry about any other form of aerobic exercise. One cannot help but dance, and honestly, I was deeply concerned by those attendees who stood stoically, arms folded across their chests. People, this is like a Ukranian wedding, minus the bride and the rustic foods! I ended up next to two 20-ish women, Aubrey and Sandi, who invited me to dance with them. (Aubrey was truly inspirational, starting her dancing during the set-up for Gogol, jiving in response to a Flogging Molly song, and not stopping until 90 minutes later, when a shirtless, perspiring Eugene Hutz bid us all good night.)

Eugene lost his shirt somewhere during the second song, and I suspect attendees would have followed his lead had it been permissible. I am amazed at the level of energy the entire band--and the audience--were able to sustain. Wow. They made The Who seem like the electric organist at the nursing home.

But what really has stayed with me (in addition to the pain in the soles of my feet) is how Gogol's music is the music of my Eastern European roots (and my husband's too, his ancestors from the pogroms of Russia). I love this stuff, could listen to it endlessly, its melding of the celebratory and the melancholy. (Is it merely coincidence that my people are Hungarian and Hutz's first band was named "Eugene Hutz and the Bela Bartoks"?)

Even more amazing is my son's love for this genre. Is it genetic? Is it something in the blood? Or is it the way of nature that we ultimately embrace that which reflects our heritage?

Tomorrow--it is fast approaching--I shall "Start Wearing Purple."

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

And then...

Last time I wrote, I was organizing my life around the schedule of the Vancouver Winter Olympics 2010 (I missed the curling? How did that happen?). I was struggling to accept a job layoff and thinking seriously about what I needed to experience satisfaction in my career. I was coping with the opinions, emotions, musical tastes, and dietary quirks of my three teens.

And I had settled into a lovely routine of writing, almost daily: regularly while commuting on the train, frequently on those days I worked at home. I was planning an Olympic hiatus--two weeks--and now it's been two months and my life is very different.

I did miss Curling; I wanted to see any part of the tourney, didn't have to be the finals, but when it's being broadcast at 2 AM...who decided that only insomniacs and 3rd-shift workers got to enjoy the more esoteric sports?

I contented myself with ice sports, forcing my children to watch every lingering moment of ice dancing and figure skating, prelims, finals, top contenders, just-made-the-team athletes.

I went on a number of job interviews, some uglier than others, and became totally unnerved when I learned I was a top candidate for a job that I thought was totally beyond my experience. (There were days when I was being romanced by the recruiter that I suspected I was NOT the top candidate...I was the ONLY candidate). And I was hired, by a rehab hospital, doing what I spent the better part of my career doing.

That interview was trippy as well: they needed to hire someone yesterday (I promised to eschew cliches, but you have to allow me that one, as it is the most accurate description of the situation); and my CV, listing more that ample experience in the very role, led to an interview in which I was being sold on the hospital (rather than me selling myself). That I could pass a mirror test seemed a plus...

But it's turned out to be what I need right now: clinical work with patients, support from colleagues, my own office, a pleasant atmosphere, welcoming staff from all departments, a reasonable paycheck, and the requirement that I develop flawless organizational skills.

On the other side, I'm up before the sun. Which means it is way past bedtime. But at least this snippet is a start. I need the writing in my life; I also need the discipline to make it happen.

I gave up my train rides, which were replaced by a highway commute, EZ-Pass, and books on tape. And the first cuppa coffee in the morning.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Handed to me from the past

Today was a bread-baking day: I fed my sourdough starter last night, measured out the flours, salt, and water (oh, and a pinch of yeast...in the winter, the starter tends to lag; we keep our thermostat in the high 50's overnight), set the mixer on the counter.

Feeding the starter, kneading the dough, shaping the loaves: the process brings my family history to life. I think about my grandmother, for whom I was named. She taught me the craft of baking: "Add enough water to make the dough; you'll know how much because it will feel 'right'"; "stretch the strudel dough with the back of your hands; that way your fingers won't poke a hole in the dough." I can sense her spirit looking over my shoulder as I work in my kitchen, blessing my work. It's comforting; with her there with me, I DO know when the dough feels right.

As my hands work the bread dough, I also think of my great-grandfather. He is a figure I only know from pictures: a slender man of slight build, with a VanDyke moustache, his eyes serious yet kind. Franz's roots were in eastern Austria, in the province of Burgenland. After marrying Louisa, he brought his young family to the New World, to Pittsburgh. I am not sure if that is where he learned the baking trade, but after a few years he returned to Europe, crossing what must have been only a theoretical national border--the lands were likely the Austro-Hungarian Empire at that time--to settle in a small village in Hungary. And there he opened his bakery.

I imagine what daily life must have been like for Franz, a white apron wound around his middle, his soft, floured hands mixing multi-loaf batches of dough. Shaping ovals of rye bread, to be slashed and glazed with egg before baking. Rounds and rounds of rolls--semmeln--the tops creased into five parts like a crown, in honor of the Emperor Franz Josef. (Yes, that's where Kaiser rolls got their name.) They would be of white flour, precious and delicate, the crusts light brown and crisp. Best eaten fresh, lovely at breakfast, which would mean that Franz had likely set the sponge the night before, only to rise at 3 AM, perhaps earlier, to make the final dough, proof and shape and rise and bake by the time the housewives appeared at 6 AM for the morning meal. The oven would be wood-fired, and thus never permitted to go out completely; the bricks would glow with heat, probably close to 600 degrees. Sweltering in the summer, welcome in the winter. I wonder who built the oven for Franz and where it was...and if it might still be there, buried under the rubble of a Communist takeover.

I wield my peel to shunt the loaves into the oven and picture Franz deftly handling his peel, sliding bread onto the hot bricks,the bottoms crusting instantly; and in his skill, being able to reverse the process, scooping out the browned, crackling loaves to cool on a rack on the table.

I read baking books which talk about precise measurements of ingredients, water at exactly 76 degrees, cold proofing for flavor (the retard, it's called) at 54 or 45 degrees, depending on scheduling. The baking instructions that recommend a 40 minute bake at 460F with two minutes of steam at the start and two more bursts of steam over the next ten minutes. Bake until an internal temperature of 205F is achieved.

I think of Franz. He must have developed calibrated hands--able to form his palm into a cup which would hold a portion of yeast or firm starter. Knowing by feel that the water was warm enough to enliven the starter. Able to judge the temperature of the oven by inserting his hand into its mouth and counting the seconds he could tolerate the heat. To be capable of flicking or knocking on the bottom crust of a loaf and know it was done.

I'm not that adept yet. I think I have many, many more loaves to bake until I am. However, I'm glad that Franz's spirit is looking over my shoulder too.

Friday, February 12, 2010

An Olympian Effort

People are surprised to learn that I don't watch TV...that we don't even OWN a TV. I do realize this has left me with a huge social handicap (it's not the first time this has happened in my life) in that I can't participate in conversation about the ending of that made-for-TV docudrama that was too frightening to watch and too intriguing to forget...heck, I don't even know which stars are dancing...or even why.

There's a logical backstory, and it has nothing to do with trying to raise my children in a pristine environment or coerce them into choosing creative endeavors instead of mind rot. No, the reasons are totally financial.

We had been using a relative's TV anyway, a hulking CRT that could do serious damage should it even tip over--which was likely, since the dang thing was so top-heavy. The kids, early elementary age at that time, would plop on the sofa in from of the tube and watch the most mind-numbing programming (OK, it was Pokemon. But I still reserve the right to call it "mind-numbing"). And we lived in this unenlightened style until one Thanksgiving. The TV was working fine that Tuesday; Wednesday evening we headed north to the grandparents for a long weekend. We returned on Sunday only to discover that Zenith had reached its nadir; during the long weekend, it had passed quietly from this world to the dump next. It went peacefully; it had no pain at the end.

There was, as expected, deep grief on the part of the under-30 set. But their father offered them the opportunity to memorialize the TV by getting a replacement. Only there was a catch: each kid had to cough up a $50 contribution to the cause, with us parents offering a matching grant towards the purchase of another Tube. The kids all nodded their heads solemnly in agreement with the plan.

It is eight years later. We are still waiting for them to amass the funds.

This post opened with a lie. I actually do watch TV. Only I do it for two consecutive weeks in alternate years and I limit myself to sporting events (probably because I lack any semblance of motor coordination; walking on level surfaces in flat shoes is a challenge, so I delight in living vicariously)performed by a cadre of international athletes.

I gotta watch the Olympics!

So this is my dilemma: no TV and a severe viewing need rising to a crescendo.

I was in a thrift store this evening, eying a small set (only $15!) and my daughter stared me down, shaking her head. I left the set there. And then I realized: we have a small set in our cabin, about 15 miles away, and I will be in that area tomorrow. Saved! Until my middle son reminded me of the significant snowfall and the very high probability that the dirt road to the place has not been plowed. This could be a 1/4 mile hike in drifts up to my knees, and then lugging the set back to the car. This could be serious effort, a good piece of work.

I think I can get it done in under 30 minutes.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Right Words

I've read some fascinating material recently on communicating effectively...which is especially relevant to me at this time: the hospital where I work kicked off 2010 with an organization-wide training on patient safety and medical error reduction. My colleague is directly involved in the committee developing the training, and she has a role in the didactic sessions. "Safety" has become the word she mentions in every meeting, every communication.

By virtue of her involvement, she's become invested in this project. It's the way she now thinks. It's her culture.

Which was the goal of this project at the outset: the organization doesn't just want to discuss safety as a theoretical construct, or a set of routines. They want safety to be the "culture." This is the way we ALL think about our work. The hospital wants everyone, at every level, including patients and their families, to call "time out!" if they think an error may happen. Did you wash your hands? Is that the right pill? Why are you doing another x-ray?

Naturally, there's some push-back. Physicians, especially, have been schooled to be leaders, to take responsibility for the team and make the tough decisions. I know what I'm doing; why do I need to invite another person to give me feedback?

And to expect patients and families to point out errors is another challenge. Hey, these people are physicians and nurses, experts in their field, much more knowledgeable about my illness and treatment than I'll ever be. Plus I'm sitting in bed wearing nothing but a flimsy hospital gown that doesn't even cover me, and you want me to feel empowered?

Since I haven't yet gone through the training, I can't judge its effectiveness, but I wonder: have the trainers really look at what it would take to "change a culture"?

Malcolm Gladwell, in a chapter on airline safety in "Outliers," talks about hierarchy in cultures and how it impacts the ability of one person to give feedback to another. In Asian cultures, where status and experience (and age) are highly respected, it is nearly impossible for a subordinate to give direct constructive criticism to a superior. That would be considered extremely offensive. However, in Australia--remember, this is a former penal colony!--there is hardly any hierarchy. Everyone's a "mate" and it is culturally acceptable to give direct advice to another. So in the cockpit, the first officer in a low hierarchy culture will be more likely to speak up if he or she perceives the pilot is in error...thereby increasing the chance that a mistake can be avoided.

Now to take that to the bedside: hospitals are famous for their hierarchy. Just among physicians there are ranks (watch out for those people with the short white coats), and the MDs are at the top of the food chain relative to the other professional staff. And patients, by virtue of feeling ill and all the emotional vulnerability that accompanies a diagnosis (not to mention the embarrassing wardrobe)feel overwhelmingly inferior. And we want these folks to feel comfortable questioning a fully-dressed professional wielding an icy stethoscope?

Although I love the place that I work, it has its flaws, and among them is the communications it provides to its customers. It's a teaching hospital, it's an academic center, and it wears those robes proudly: why say something in 5 words when a paragraph of explanation is so much more scholarly?

I think my cohort is supposed to be trained in safety culture in the next few months. I'm curious to experience the training. I'll wonder if the messages are short and effective. And what tools we can give families--and staff--to perceive each other as equals, as partners. To be able to ask, "Are you sure you want to do that?" To say "stop" before an error occurs.

Maybe we need a wizard. Because for this to work best, we have to act as if we're in Oz.

G'night, mate!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Typical

"Remember, you're unique; just like everyone else."

I love bumper stickers (although the ones I have are utilitarian rather than clever: organ donation, childhood cancer, a local radio station). As I walk through a parking lot or drive down the street, I find my gaze naturally drifting to the back end of cars, looking for a bit of entertainment: the license plate of a Saab laden with all the extras ("SNAAB"); the car magnet on a dented hatchback ("Support Magnetic Ribbons"); the sticker on the bumper of a nurse's sedan ("Midwives: They help people out.").

The proverb that opened this post is one that I've seen at touristy gift shops and tee shirt websites, variously attributed to Carlin or Wright or that old wag, Anon. (Digression: did you know that in Budapest, Hungary, there is actually a statue in memory of the greatest philosopher that ever lived...Anonymous?)

It might be overused, but I like it. Clever enough to make one pause to think it through, true enough to remember. And it is just a twinge off from what I have told my children as they grew. Is it not one form of a mother's love--in addition to the hugs and the bedtime stories and the favorite meals and the inside jokes and the comfort for a broken arm or a broken heart--to tell her children that they are special? That their ideas and thoughts and imaginings are unique and valuable? That they should dream those really big dreams that no one has ever before experienced? I look at them around the dinner table, all teens, the same genes scrambled three ways coming out with three completely different combinations.

And yet, there are things they do that make me wonder if in the development of humans, there are certain stages that must be passed through. And thus it has been through all the ages.

Like "Rock Star." (mandatory for teenage boy; optional for girl. I wonder: did Jesus go through a stage like this?).

My oldest son thinks he's Keith Moon. Or Zack Starkey. Or Ringo himself.

Every object in the house is a drum head. Or a cymbal. Or high hat, snare, tambourine, kick drum. And who needs drumsticks? This is why God gave us hands. I hear music blaring from his room (not that I mind; he's got pretty good taste and the bands he prefers are melodic and write intriguing lyrics) accompanied by pounding, banging, thumping. His new desk has a nice resonance. The floor isn't bad either. I am just hoping he does not give himself whiplash from the accompanying head movements.

Stage 2: "Mysterious Recluse." (works for either male or female child).

My middle son appears to have intermittent hearing loss. Because I can call his name and get no response. Yelling helps; touch usually gets a positive response. Oh, right, let me take the iPod headphones out of your ears and let me repeat myself. There, that's better.

Mom, attempting to bond with her child, "Hey, what are you listening to?"
Son, serious and sincere: "Music."
Mom, still trying to initiate conversation: "Which band?"
Son, oblivious: "Mrghsmphs."

OK, let's try this again. Son invested in mod activity with other online players.
Mom, trying to be interested in her kid, "Whatcha doing?"
Son, nodding, hypnotized by screen: "Garry's mod."
Mom, really trying hard now: "Who with?"
Son, oblivious: "Friends."

This from a kid who turns dinnertime into a re-creation of "The People's Court" or "So You Want to Be a Millionaire." Where were you on the night of January 28, 2007?

Stage 3: "Vegetarian," or Social Justice Meets Nutrition (mandatory for teen girl; optional for teen boy. As my oldest explained, teen boys have "blood lust" for meat. Real men eat meat.)

Daughter, picking up package of cheese: "Does this contain rennet? Rennet comes from animals, you know."

Daughter, stirring pot of vegetable soup (hey, I learn quickly) on stove: "Did you use vegetable broth in this? I can't eat it if it has meat broth."

Now let it be known to the court that I tend to prepare foods that are relatively close to the source. I can count on one hand the "processed" foods I buy: spaghetti sauce (and only because my crockpot burned the last batch. Which likely explains why the pot was such a good sale price at the store); cereal; crackers; canned tomatoes, beans, olives; pizzas; pepperoni. Ok, pierogies a couple times a year. Let it also be known that my hamburger has NEVER been helped, and that I have never prepared a meal using a "kit."

And let it also be said, for the record, that I cook a vegetarian meal at least twice a week, and sometimes more often.

I have one child that is ovo-lacto-fisho but no shrimp (which is Mom's lifesaver when I forgot to plan ahead; did you know shrimp thaw in running water in about 5 minutes?)

I have one that has a cheese phobia. And cheese paranoia. (This should be a new category in the DSM-V. BTW, there are ways to hide cheese in foods. Don't tell.).

I have one that cannot bring himself to eat seafood of any kind, unless it's Farmer John's fresh smoked trout (Farmer John being a friend of our family from Buffalo, who morphed into a snowbird. End of trout.).

I am ready to set up TPN for each of them. And headphones. They should listen to music while I set up the boluses. They're teenagers, after all.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Bracing

Having grown up in the suburbs of Buffalo, NY, I've lived through my share of storms. The Blizzard of '77 was certainly impressive--I will never forget that my dad was stuck at work (a bakery: at least it was a warm place with food)and my mom and I were nailing blankets to the doors to keep the wind out. The layout of the house and garage was such that gusts would swirl on the front steps, creating a snow pyramid in front of the door, of course; the one in '77 reached the rooftop.

I remember an early dismissal from High School one January, as a storm quickly moved in. The schoolbus wasn't even attempting to drive into our unplowed neighborhood, but dropped us at the corner right at the major road. A man from the next street gave a few of us a ride to our streets in his big boat of a Chevy, the car fishtailing in the six inches of fresh fall.

I wonder how the White Christmas of '02 managed to miss my parents' house in the snow belt but drop 7 feet of snow on the city of Buffalo. It was meant to be, I guess; that day I realized my oldest son was seriously ill--my intuition told me he had leukemia--and had the roads been passable, he would have been admitted to Children's of Buffalo...and maybe stuck there for the whole of his treatment.

I follow the weather daily: studying the front maps and watching the cloud cover scud across the USA, puzzle over mixed fronts, and wonder if and where hurricanes will make landfall. It's long interested me, but I also think it's a function of being married to a pilot, and a glider pilot at that; his head is always craned skyward to guess at the clouds and judge if the day is or will be flyable. We joked at one time about returning to school to become his-and-hers meteorologists.

So in the midst of this weather obsession (OK, it also helps me plan what to wear to work. Tomorrow I need to wear something black, because I'm going to head out in boots and my work shoes are black. Plus a sweater; it will be cold. There is deep logic at work here.) I of course tease apart the weather reports, especially the "Public Information Statement", which is typically a watch or a warning of something that will befall--literally!--us, and what the websites have taken to call "Local Storm Report"...which satisfies my curiosity about what my friends, acquaintances, and colleagues are facing in their driveways, or occasionally, their basements. But it seemed almost anticlimactic this week when we received a trace of snow. In all seriousness, you can call that a "storm"?? Any precip that requires a yardstick to measure, yes, we'll call a "storm", but when the grass to snow ratio is more green than white, call it something else. How about "weather" for pete's sake. (A few years ago my parents--the Buffalonians, remember!--were visiting in January when we received about 6 inches of snow. My parents were particularly tickled to hear newscasters refer to the event as "Snowstorm Ernie." No idea who Ernie is, and since when did snowfall get its own name?)

Since I became a weather junkie, though, I have learned the truth in the proverb. There truly is a lull before a storm; the world becomes unusually quiet, muted somehow. And then all that snow serves as wonderful sound insulation as well. The world becomes a more peaceful place in the snow.

In fact, I can sense the lull now. There is a storm forecast to hit tomorrow starting at 6 pm, leaving us with 8 to 12 inches of snow. For Philly, that's a generous amount. Part of me is apprehensive about coordinating the kids to clear the driveway come Saturday (You try making a teen do something he/she would rather avoid!). And part of me is thinking about making chocolate chip cookies, watching movies, drinking hot tea (or mulled wine; hey, there's an idea!), cooking stews, and just simply hibernating, watching the flakes swirl and accumulate. Battening down the hatches, staying warm.

Let's hope Mother Nature doesn't disappoint.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Making it Healthy

It's Saturday (well, it was two minutes ago), the day I spend in my kitchen.

I really spend several hours each day in there, the natural consequence of having three teenagers. But Saturday is the day to loll, to play, to do some prep for the week ahead. And today's play began with a serving of my healthy scones.

Since he started eating solid food a mere 14 years ago, my middle son has been a particular eater. As a toddler, it was a challenge; the list of acceptable foods was brief and frightening. He would not eat meat, cheese, peanut butter, or eggs; it was nearly impossible to get protein into his diet (Please don't tell him that for years I doctored his fruit smoothies with soy and whey protein powder! We considered it a breakthrough when he finally started liking chicken nuggets; a relative quipped that the only reason he liked them was that they had absolutely no resemblance to meat).

But what he would eat was carbs: potatoes, pasta, bread, cereal. And like any thoughtful parent, I decided to cram as much goodness as I could into what I prepared for him...and for his sibs.

I'd been baking bread off and on those years--timing risings between naps could be difficult--but what I could put together were quick breads: muffins, coffee cakes, biscuits, cornbread, scones. And of course, I could not leave well enough alone; I'd start with a basic recipe and then I'd have to tweak: increase the protein, up the fiber, add in omega-3s, reduce the fat, cut the sugar. The wonderful thing about playing with food is that you get to eat the mistakes.

(Now for an aside: I never realized how obvious my behaviors were; I always thought that, to my family, they'd see me clipping along following a recipe just as written, even if it was written in my own handwriting, and behold, out from the oven or lifted from the stovetop would be something tasty. The spell was broken this past Christmas. For my eldest's birthday, my mother made a Dobos Torte--a Hungarian seven-layer cake filled with chocolate buttercream. A cake worth aging for. The kids raved. "We wish Mom would make this." Oma: "Well, I could give her the recipe." Kids: "Don't bother. She won't follow it.")

I never quite understood the intent of the "healthy baking recipes" I've read in cooking and wellness magazines; the focus is on reducing fat and sugar, which are certainly worthwhile goals...but often the nutrition profile hasn't changed. I often wonder why no one considered substituting some whole wheat flour or nut meal for some of the all-purpose flour; brown sugar instead of white (and it doesn't need to be packed; trust me, it will be sweet enough; for many recipes, the sugar proportion can be reduced by 1/3 without affecting the final product...other than to make it much less cloying). These changes don't cut the calories, but they do add vitamins and minerals and flavor. I've discovered that a pie crust made with half whole wheat, half all purpose flours adds a wonderfully nutty dimension to apple pie, with no more calories than a totally white flour crust, but with considerably more fiber. Brown, rather than white sugar, in a pancake recipe adds a caramel-like note...maple syrup only gets in the way.

So this morning, for brunch, Healthy Scones made their appearance. And then a rapid disappearance. I am not even sure where the roots of this recipe came from, so I apologize for not giving the source of my inspiration. The recipe has morphed so much over the years that I think the originator wouldn't even recognize it. It also reflects my utter dislike for washing dishes--if you can reuse a tool and maintain good food safety, why not?

Healthy Scones (copyright Paula F, 2010)

1/2 c. old fashioned rolled oats
2 Tbs ground flaxseed with enough all purpose flour added to make 3/4 c.
1/2 c whole wheat flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
pinch salt
1 Tbs. brown sugar
2 tbs butter, cut into small pieces
1 Tbs plain or vanilla yogurt (if the dough seems dry)
1 egg
1/3 c milk
1/2 c of add-ins(chopped toasted nuts, chocolate chips, cinnamon chips, fresh or frozen berries, dried fruit, or whatever sounds good to you; I will have to try cheese and herbs sometime)

Preheat your oven to 425F. In a bowl, combine the dry ingredients with a fork until blended. Using the same fork, mash the butter and the yogurt into the flour mixture until very small lumps form (it will be the texture of meal). With the same fork now, combine the milk and the egg until well blended, then pour into the dry ingredients and stir to combine. It will be a soft and sticky dough; let it sit for a moment to let the flours absorb the liquids while you are deciding what add-ins you'll be using. Stir in the add-ins until evenly distributed.

Coat a baking sheet with cooking spray. Scoop the dough onto the sheet and pat into a rectangle about 1/4 inch thick. You can use the fork to do this (that fork is getting a workout), but I usually use a clean hand dipped in flour (to keep the dough from sticking). With a butter knife (the one I used to level off the cups of flour and to cut the butter; nothing like recycling!), cut the dough into squares or triangles; I tend to make small ones, to yield about 24 scones.

Bake for 10 minutes, or until just set; they do not rise very high because of the weight of the oats and flax. The bottoms will be light brown but the tops will still be pale. Trust me, they are done; any longer and the scones dry out.

Let cool 5 minutes, then transfer to a serving plate. These are best eaten the day they are made. But that never seems to be a problem at our house.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Memory of Persistence

So if I stay up blogging past midnight, does my post count for the day I started or the day I ended?

I spent some time today shuttling my oldest son to a doctor's appointment, then running errands, then to and from a friend's house. He seems content to sit there in the passenger seat during these rides, staring forward and hovering between deep and no thought.

The silence is unbearable for me; I have to ask a question, any question. Most often it's asking him to find a radio station that will play decent music by bands he appreciates. That evolves into a tutorial for me on bands, musical genres, touring schedules, new releases, and op-ed about who has stayed true to their passion and who has sold out. Hours later the fun continues for me when we have follow-up dinner-table conversation and his poor dad asks what a Vampire Weekend is, or puzzles about why The Mountain Goats were at the Electric Factory and not in the Rockies. (We need to get this man up to speed on popular culture.)

Tonight, though, was a little different. We started by listening to a radio interview of a former teenage hacker turned cyber-security expert. And somehow this evolved into talking about books, me suggesting he read Dave Eggers, about the quality of good versus "soap-opera" memoir, and then about him wanting to write his own story. And then the question: how does memory work? If only memory worked like a computer array instead of a concept cloud. And him lamenting, if only I could remember what happened when I was in the hospital, if I could just go back to see the room [the unit has been renovated and is quite different], if my brain worked in chronological order so that the story would make sense...only what I recall is not organized or orderly or coherent. How can I make that a story?

I tried to explain that chronology can sometimes squeeze the life out of a story--it becomes a calendar and not an unfolding process. I reminded him that memories are multisensory: there are not only words and pictures, but their are sensations, smells, noises...and emotions. He didn't seem to hear me.

"Mom...there was a journal, wasn't there? That whomever was staying with me in the hospital would write. I don't know where it is. Do we still have it? I'd like to see it."

I reassured him that, yes, the journal was in my possession, on my bookshelf. And that there is also a collection of emails I wrote, to about 200 people at a pop, updating them on the events of our lives and the progress of his treatment. (This was at the birth of the blog movement, just as sites like CaringBridge and others were starting, and since he, as my tech support, was in no condition to teach me, I passed up the opportunity to archive our experience on such a site.) And that I would be glad to share the emails with him as well.

I smiled inwardly, surprised, delighted. I had promised myself that I would tell his story, our family's story of childhood cancer, since I so desperately wanted a survival story when we entered the ped-onc world. But then everyday life took over and the written story never jelled from the bits and pieces we have saved.

Maybe now is the time. And wouldn't this be the most remarkable story of them all: a cancer survivor's story through the eyes of a child.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Zen again

It's getting late, and I remind myself I don't need to be profound; I just need to write. But what about and where do I go with it?

I've been in what seems to me to be a low energy phase; I'm usually the human whirlwind who starts most days with a to-do list and then congratulate myself that night for crossing off as many items as I can. However, I suspect that anyone observing me lately would think I'm about average in getting things done--dinner's on the table, the dishes get washed, junk mail tossed, milk purchased. Kids get transported to wherever they need to go, reasonably close to being on time.

And yet I perceive myself as stuck in the blues. Oh, I definitely know or people who are naturally hypercaffeinated...putting in 12-hour shifts at work, volunteering regularly in their community, shunting their collection of kids to multiple activities each week, establishing charitable foundations, and keeping their homes spotless. I am not one of those people. Never have been. (I really believe the secret to their accomplishments is having staff.)

I still haven't gone through my three boxes of journals and memos from my previous job; I just don't want to face it. And yet, if I go back to full-time work...well, to paraphrase Shrek, "it'll never happen." (say aloud with thick Scots burr for best effect). I need to toss the stuff, move on, let go. Admit that I will not look at research that is 4 years old--I have no cause to, and if I'm writing an article, I'll go through an electronic database anyway (or weasel my way into Penn's library).

I spent today--after going to an interview--running about, shopping. Okay, it is better than taking an antidepressant, maybe even cheaper. I purchased items I will truly use (we are not mentioning the spending of the $$ while underemployed, of course), I got some exercise trotting from store to store and building to parking lot; and let me include the six-block round trip hike to the interview. Although I'm pleased with my purchases, it still feels like a do-nothing day. Running about ticking items off a shopping list (Dang, I forgot the power adapter for my son. Ugh, well, I'll be near a hardware store tomorrow)feels unsatisfying. Somehow, even grocery shopping is more gratifying, seems more purposeful. Which may be because I've become coupon happy, and the whole event is now turning into hunting/gathering rather than nomadic wandering to see if 70% off is legitimately worthwhile.

I don't watch TV; really haven't, in years, the only times being when I am staying in a hotel and I can watch all the food shows I want without interruption. But I have become a 'net junkie, stumbling for new websites and realizing that you really can find one of anything out there in cyberspace. And that has become a time-eater as well. Fun but not very satisfying. I have reading I'd like to do--all 4 books that I ordered from the library appeared in the last two days, waiting lists notwithstanding. So that would be a little more nutritious for my brain and my spirit. I'm working on a needlepoint picture for my mom, a tiny thing, really, but also fun as I hadn't picked up needlework in years. There is satisfaction in doing that, watching the picture emerge, glorying in the colors, and feeling a sense of accomplishment as it comes together.

I struggle with letting myself veg, knowing on the one hand that the vast majority of people do at some point during their day and that it is okay; and on the other hand realizing that vegging is the default. It happens without my deliberate choosing...but do I really want to live out my life floating around, being done to rather than doing?

When I started writing this post tonight, I didn't know what to title it. But as the thoughts started flowing, I knew what this post should be called. What I am asking myself to do, what I know is the place where I am happiest, is when I am aware of what I am doing in the moment. It becomes choice, it becomes meaning, it becomes satisfying and substantial--the difference between eating a dinner of a hearty bowl of soup versus a glazed donut. Zen again.

My eyes are tired, tomorrow is a full day (first thing on the agenda, after turning on the coffee maker and downing a cup, is to make a to-do list) and sometimes not-doing can be the most important doing of them all. Good night.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Gotta do it

I did ride the train today, but I did not write. Tsk-tsk. I was too busy reading a book, "Making It Stick" by the brothers Heath (I keep on mistakenly writing their name as "Health"...I think I've worked in hospitals too long.) A very readable, interesting book on effective communication, especially in organizations trying to brand themselves or initiate a culture change. They cite Gladwell--whose books I also ordered from the library--about decision making and thought processes. It's all fun stuff and I wonder how I can put it to good professional use.

I have an interview tomorrow. My heart's not fully in it: it's a place that I interviewed at earlier in the year (three times, in fact, over the course of the summer) only to be told that I didn't make the cut. I tried to handle it graciously but events that unfolded afterward led me to feel bitter; sour grapes, I guess (I promised myself to strictly avoid, avoid, avoid cliches, but there is no other way to illustrate my reaction than to cite Aesop).

There are some aspects of the place that really appeal to me, and some that make me a bit edgy...I'm not sure if it is the best career move for me. I am feeling my age and no longer wanting to waste time doing something or being somewhere that isn't a good fit for my personality, skills, and interests. I want to interact with people that I can work with. I want to make a difference. I don't want to be stuck somewhere without options.

I have two, now three other resumes floating around out there. I need to call one fellow and confirm that the fax of my info arrived in his hands. I am waiting to get a phone call from a headhunter about 'next steps' for another position for which they are recruiting (this one would be my ideal, a great opportunity to grow professionally... but there may be some conflicts of interest affecting my chances, and I may not quite have the credentials they are seeking). I just--moments ago--submitted an online app to another hospital, but I have submitted to them before and had the feeling my resume was sent off into the ether and never reached the desk of HR (all my efforts to email the HR contact at that time were ignored. Wonder if she was fired). I think a wise decision would be to fax them a paper copy. Tomorrow.

OK, let me draft a cover letter pronto. It's a job I know I can do. I have what it takes. It would get me close to where I want to be.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Changing Jobs

So I just have a few minutes to keep my promise to myself of daily--well, nearly daily--blogging while I'm waiting for the dishwasher to finish so I can shut it off and let it air dry.

So...what do I say?

I can say that I just applied for a job online, with a local hospital. And my contact was correct: the online app has to be the klugiest system ever. It extracted data from my resume and turned it into...well, let's just say that this system is NOT an example of intelligent design. (Given that it turned everything I did into a job, I just deleted anything older than 20 yrs ago. If they need to see if I'm legit, they can certainly reference the CV I attached).

I can pat myself on the back because I made tomorrow night's dinner: two-bean chili, all vegetarian. (I also managed to hide half the seitan in it.) My daughter, doin' the teen thing, has decided to be a vegetarian. Tonight at dinner--a stir-fry done in pieces so that carnivores could add their own meat--I growled at my family assembled around the table and said they were the most difficult group to cook for. Daughter wants totally meatless, not even chicken broth; fish OK but not shrimp because "they crunch--ewww!". Son #1 dislikes all sea creatures, unless it's Uncle John's (a family friend) smoked trout. Son #2 is mortally afraid of cheese. Husband, who claims he eats everything, refused my Scotch Broth (altho he darn well ate the lamb--what's with that?), explaining his resistance is due to a childhood trauma. And I am ready to delegate the whole enterprise to someone, anyone, who wants to have the delightful fun of doing the marketing, trying to buy as close to the source as possible, consider all nutritional factors (salt, fat, sugar, carb, fiber, trans fat, cholesterol, antioxidants, vitamin profile, preservatives, artificial anything), try to get the best value cost-wise, and then transform it into something edible.

You want this job? It's yours.

OK, the dishwasher is done. Time for bed.

Random Thoughts

Tonight I learned that Classical Music (the real stuff, like Mozart)has improv. They hide it under a fancy Italian name--cadenza--but it is as free-flowing and alive as jazz, and was long before jazz ever came on the scene. Not to diss jazz, of course. (Think of Wolfgang as a guy just jammin' with his friends.)

I think the difference between political conservatives and liberals is this: conservatives see the role of government as a means to interface with other countries (an external focus). Liberals see the role of government as taking care of its own people (an internal focus). I still think I am more liberal-minded; I believe charity should begin at home.

How can there be a job posting for a "non-tenure track clinical educator position" seeking someone with a "history of productive research" and "demonstrated ability to obtain grant funding". If they are looking for a researcher, just say so. And if the person has grant funding, why are they looking for a job?

I am not entirely sure what the little screw is for on my digital thermometer. Because when I dropped it, it popped apart...and could only be reassembled by snapping everything together...with the little screw strategically placed before snapping. (Yup, it didn't screw in. Odd.)

And the goal of the survey by the toilet paper company ("pull from the top" vs. "pull from the bottom") would be...?

I complained to my husband that the paint we were using in our son's room would remove itself when I painted over wet paint areas (you know, when making sure I had a good coat on; how can paint stick to itself more than the surface it's covering??). He told me it did this because it's ceiling paint. So I want to know, how does the paint know if it's on the ceiling or on the walls?

Why does all mascara--even waterproof--always come off when I wear it? I can be sitting on my hands, never touching my face, and it doesn't matter.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Identity Crisis

I was laid off about three months ago. (Gosh, has it really been that long?)

It wasn't the most wonderful job. There were parts of it I loved (the students, the people in my department, the beautiful landscaping, my office--well, except for that bizarre picture of the St. Bernard carrying an umbrella). And parts that absolutely irked me, times when I didn't think I could stand another day, when I'd race home to surf the web for job openings. So it's surprising to me to realize that I'm still angry about the layoff.

I've described to friends that the ex-job was like one's first high-school relationship: you want to be with someone, but you know that the person you are with is really wrong for you. You know it's not going to last. So you plot and plan, hoping to dump the person before he or she can dump you. You want to be the dumper and not the dumpee.

Unfortunately, I didn't move fast enough. I got dumped.

It's a funny thing, working in mental health. I had done it during my training and had sworn never to go back to it. And then, three years ago, I had gone and signed up with the ex (some of us will do anything for money). All those stereotypes, about people going into the mental health field because they need to "figure themselves out"...they're true. From the positive perspective, many people are drawn to the field because of a personal experience--a family member or a loved one struggling with a mental illness. And this is admirable, a noble thing: to have a passion to make the world a better place for those who suffer, to give meaning and purpose to one's own pain. The problem becomes, however, that many staff members haven't worked through their issues. In order to be a healing person, you have to be healthier(mentally and physically) than the person you are trying to help...if for no other reason than to have credibility (how seriously can I take the advice of an obese cardiologist who smokes?).

I am fortunate enough to have a second half-time job, at a wonderful hospital. It is everything the other place was not. Clear communication is a priority. Administration is approachable. Professional development is expected and opportunities are offered. Yes, there are individuals who demonstrate their issues for their coworkers, but for the most part it's a healthy place to be. (When co-workers gripe, I remind them they are working in the healthcare equivalent of Disney.)

And yet, I feel something missing. I've been unsatisfied. And I know the "something missing" is in me.

Today it clicked. Today I finally understood that the missing piece is my sense of professional identity. I've long felt so fortunate that I chose a profession that seems like the most natural thing to me. My work is who I am, it is what I was meant to do.

But in Hospital House-of-Mouse, I'm a consumer consultant. Based on my experiences as a user of healthcare, I give presentations, write newsletters, review training materials, sit in committee meetings and express my opinion. But what I am absolutely forbidden to reveal (by decree from administration) is my profession.

Lately I've caught myself--in meetings with staff who have the same professional credentials as I--using technical terminology, seeing if they'll realize I know more that the average person. And ask why. And then maybe I can reveal the dark secret.

It makes me sad, this realization...because it means that for me to be truly whole, and happy professionally, I cannot stay at HHoM. I love it there. But I need more. I am not offering the world everything I have.

One possible reality--fantasy?--is for me to work in my field at HHoM. But I have a fear that I will be perceived as a traitor to the job and department I'm in. Everyone else in it has moved away from their education and training and seem to be perfectly content (e.g., the physician who becomes an administrator). Some people will understand and be supportive; others will not.

Most of the professional opportunities that have appealed to me are full-time. The few half-time gigs--which would enable me to have both a place at HHoM and a professional side--have just not felt right. And I decided when I was first laid off, that I would not compromise. Too many times in the past, for multiple reasons, what gave way was what I wanted for myself. This time, I am holding out for the type of work I want.

I'm grieving in advance, for whatever change is comiing. And hoping that wherever I land, it will be what I need for me.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A New Style of Community Service

I don't know how coherent I can be at this hour, but as mentioned earlier this month, I am a driven woman. Driven by guilt, yes, but driven nonetheless. I promised myself I would blog or write daily...and it's only Monday and I already had my day off this week. (Tomorrow you will have to trudge on without me; it's a commuting day and I am allowed to be focused on my writer's journal).

It was a full day today (what happened? It was supposed to be a day OFF!). In the past we have spent our MLK Day participating in community service. For several years it was spent painting a school in an impoverished neighborhood in Philadelphia. The first year, I found entering the school a truly startling experience...the school was in better condition than the 90-year old elementary behemoth in the suburbs, which my own children were attending. (About 3 years later the district finally agreed to improve the infrastructure and my kids moved to a glossy new building that looked like a merger between the Titanic and Danish Modern furniture. But it was a vast improvement.)

Today, once again, we painted; and we served our own family community, the five people who live within this house...I helped my oldest son move into his own room. Oh, it's not finished--the window frames and baseboards need repair and a coat of paint, and there are no curtains on the four large windows--but it's January and we can't quite open the windows, and he deserves this, having worked long shoveling out the clutter, spackling, painting, and cleaning. And he was ready for his own room. When his sister arrived, 12+ years ago, by default he ended up sharing a room with his younger brother. I think it has made them close; I would hear them sparring of an afternoon, like an old married couple, and then sharing secrets in the dark of bedtime. Being an only child, it's an experience I will never know and cannot even imagine. And I wonder what their relationship will be like when they are adults.

It was fun for me to see him arrange the furniture we have available, imagining what his new desk will look like when he can afford it, placing his Abbey Road poster where it will greet him when he wakes. (It was not fun for me to vacuum, the fallout being a tremendous flareup of my allergies; I've already double-dosed on the antihistamine, showered to settle the dust, and hydrated myself with a vat of hot tea, and my nose still won't quit. A blatant reminder of why I should not do housework.)

His brother is now dreaming about the transformation to take place in his own--the formerly shared--room. So I guess I will be looking at more spackling, sanding, rearranging, and painting--oh, forgot priming. I'm struggling with where to put the extra, unwanted bunk bed. I'm trying to figure out how "ceiling paint" knows where it is, and what might befall if I put it on the walls. I'm thinking a respiratory mask might be a good idea when we get to the cleanup stage. I'm wondering if I can risk taking a third antihistamine.

And I'm realizing that if we ever decide to sell the house, I'm hiring professionals.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Not so crazy...?

When I was a teen, one of the first cakes I learned to make was clipped from the newspaper. "Real Crazy Cake" was so appealing to me based on its name alone, but I also loved it for the reaction it evoked from my mom (horror at the implied junk food nature of the recipe; I think she suspected it was in league with Ho-Hos, Ding-Dongs, Twinkies--who names these things?--and worse) and the absolute ease of preparation. Grease a square baking pan, dump in all the dry ingredients, top with the wet ingredients, and stir till moistened. Bake. Eat.

The "craziness" of the cake is based in some simple chemistry; any kid who's made the infamous "science fair volcano" knows the secret. Baking soda and vinegar provide the leavening, resulting in a light texture. And the worrisome funny smells evaporate in the heat of the oven--if you didn't know the craziness, you would never guess.

Now I am the parent of three teens, all who have some food quirks (that's probably genetic; I developed my love of biology from dissecting the meat on my plate because I was too squeamish to eat it). Over the years, we have grown into the tradition of lazing around Saturday mornings--it's a big sigh of relief for everyone after a full week--and brunching on a quickly-assembled, freshly-baked something or other. Pancakes, waffles, scones (both stovetop and oven varieties), muffins, cinnamon swirl (which deserves its own post!). And now Crazy Cake has made a reappearance in my baking repertoire.

About a year ago, I came across a gently-loved copy of the "King Arthur Flour 200th Anniversary Cookbook" at our library's used bookstore. And there was the recipe, under a new "adult" name, but with the same crazy ingredients and preparation. I couldn't resist. As I re-read the ingredient list, I realized that Crazy Cake has a lot of good things going for it. It can be successfully made without cholesterol, eggs, or dairy--a good choice for people with health concerns or food allergies. It responds well to improvisation: add in extra healthy stuff, use whatever liquid you have, tweak the sugar content.

The very basic recipe is this:
1 1/2 c. flour
3/4 c. sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 Tbs. vinegar
1/3 c. oil
1 c. liquid

And the version that arrived on our table this morning is this--heavily modified from the crazy original, because I just can't leave well enough alone...which, I suppose, is craziness as well...

Pear Spice Cake (because I had overripe pears :-)
3/4 c. whole wheat flour
3/4 c. all purpose flour (sometimes I sub in 2 Tbs. ground flaxseed)
pinch salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cardamom (this adds a wonderful lemony flavor; I often add more)
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
3/4 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. canola oil (I goofed and misread the recipe...and it was fine)
1 c. vanilla yogurt, whisked to liquify it (buttermilk, plain yogurt, or OJ also works)
1 tsp white vinegar
2 ripe pears, cored and diced into bite-sized pieces

Coat a 9x9 inch baking pan with cooking spray. Preheat the oven to 350F.
In a bowl, combine all the dry ingredients and whisk to blend. (I find it less messy to mix everything in a bowl and then pour it into the baking pan; I've gotten sloppier in my old age). Whisk together all the wet ingredients, including the brown sugar. Pour the wet into the dry and blend until the flour is incorporated. Stir in the pears; feel free to add 1/3c. or so of chopped nuts. Pour into the baking pan and bake for about 40 minutes, or until it tests done.

With the large amount of fruit and the juiciness of the pears, this cake was moist and dense. Use apples instead and you get a drier cake. Leave out the fruit and spices, add in 1/4 c. cocoa powder, use coffee as your liquid, and you get mocha cake. Use an acidic liquid--such as OJ--and you can omit the vinegar.

I tell ya, this recipe begs to be toyed with.

Have to see if there is any left for me to have a taste.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Fainting Buffaloes

I've had a former patient on my mind lately...actually, I've been thinking about a phrase he often said. "That wife of mine," he would beam, his face smiling with loving pride. "She knows how to squeeze a nickel until the buffalo faints."

(Yes, boys and girls, there was a time when a buffalo--and not a dead white guy--was depicted on the front of a 5c piece).

Although I knew this man years and years ago, I thought that this year, 2010, I would try to emulate his wife's thrift. Several factors drove, ahem, inspired this quest. First, I was laid off in mid-October...in a horrible and totally unanticipated 15 minutes during a Thursday lunch hour, three-fourths of my income vanished. Poof.

And then, at the start of December, I attended a presentation by Jodi, a perky, 30-something working mom of 3 from Florida who blogs on living the good life on a small budget .

Initially I was frustrated by what I heard--I do all the recommended penny pinching stuff already. I pack leftovers for my lunch every day, I bring my own tea bags to work, I use coupons, I buy on sale, I repurpose. I buy "close to the source" and almost never buy processed foods (soup and pizza are my family's two concessions, but those are also our emergency fall-back foods). On an average grocery shopping expedition, I save about 25% by focusing on specials and coupons and the bonus card. I shop at stores with the lowest prices in the area (which isn't saying much--Philly has some of the highest cost of living in the country for a place that's not NYC. Did you know the state sets minimum allowable prices for milk? Yeesh!).

After stewing about the issue, insisting to myself that I was doing all I can, I finally concluded that "I can do better." And so it's become a quest. Can I make the same magic as Jodi and her peers and cut my overall spending on groceries/household goods to $75 per week? And what would it take to do that?

Well, part of achieving this goal is planning: what do I need, what can I stockpile, and can I buy every single item using a coupon? How do I capitalize on the BOGOs that occasionally appear in the store flyer? It's taken detective work; fortunately, I love a good mystery.

I've been scoping out coupon websites and matching offers to our needs, and my list (I am a committed lister...otherwise I end up in aisle 4 muttering to myself about something that I know I need but what was it again?). I haven't quite figured out the best list method yet--that's my next thrift goal.

The past few weeks, a consistent 33% remained in my pocket. Paul was impressed, noting the low margin on grocery items and predicting that if all shoppers did what I was doing, we'd drive the store under. But I doubt if many others have the tenacity to scope out thrift (my cousin postulates that it's genetic...we come from a long line of trash pickers and do-it-yourselfers).

33%? Not bad. I can do better.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Oh where, Oh where

did that recipe go?

About a month ago, during a long Saturday of baking Christmas cookies, the thought occurred to me that I needed to also make dinner. Having three teenagers, I am no longer able to placate them with cheerios or cheese and crackers. As my kids have grown, they have also become more difficult to shoo from the kitchen...my oldest, a stereotypical 17 year old boy, will stand in from of the open fridge door, open random storage containers, pinch out a taste from each, and push them back onto the shelves. Which would be fine except for the chill wafting into the kitchen from the open fridge door (not even considering the extra exercise the compressor gets during this activity).

Our middle son will dramatically drag himself into the kitchen, emitting a long, low moan, "I'm soooooooooooooooo hungry. What is for dinner?" This is followed by one of two activities: he will either glide over to wherever I am standing, drop his head painfully onto my shoulder, and roll his head back and forth while emitting a Bela Lugosi horror movie moan (much easier for him now that he has grown taller than me); or if I tell him the menu, he will offer a critique based on the last time I served that dish, with reminders to use the same brand of red sauce or to be sure to omit the bay leaf this time.

As I think about our daughter's response to hunger now, I wonder if she's anticipating a career as a CEO. She will be lounging in front of the computer or with a book, fail to notice me up to my elbows in dish suds (on this specific Saturday, it was lebkuchen dough) and with a wave of her hand proclaim, "Mom, can you get me a snack?"

On this particular day, my fallback meals were unavailable: the Trader Joe's pizzas had all been consumed, we had eaten soup for lunch, pasta had been yesterday's supper. I also considered the following variables: the oven was already hot; a chuck roast was thawing in the fridge; and I had a half-bottle of red wine, a package of mushrooms on the verge, a handful of grape tomatoes, and a half-pound of carrots.

And then the recipe appeared--it was truly karma. It was a recipe for an oven-baked beef bourguignon...a recipe to feed an extended family or a hockey team, with it's 7 lbs of beef and two bottles of burgundy. Yeesh, I had the four of us (hubby was on the road) and the above-mentioned provisions. So I followed a fine family tradition and (drum roll, please) improvised--the proportions, at least. I had to do some dissection on the chuck roast, but what resulted were bite-sized pieces of meat that seared quickly in olive oil. Omitted the onions--yes, I know some think this is sacrilege, but my digestion doesn't tolerate alliums--briefly sauteed the other veggies, tossed in a bay leaf, some rosemary, paprika, thyme. Lid on and my stockpot went into the oven while I washed baking sheets and sorted the cookies into tins. Cooked some egg noodles and micro'd some peas, and it was dinner.

What came out of the oven initially seemed dark and crusty, but as I stirred the stew it smelled wonderful, naturally thickened by the softened veggies (I had completely neglected to toss the meat in seasoned flour--I guess having played with flour all day I didn't see the use for more). The beef was tender and flavorful, and I love a good excuse to use egg noodles (can't get the troops to eat them otherwise, which is totally incomprehensible to me--People, we're talking pasta here!)

So now for my dilemma: it's now wintery in our part of the world, and tomorrow is forcast to be cold and windy. In culinary terms, perfect stew weather. The beef is thawing; mushooms, carrots, and red wine are at hand. There are noodles in the pantry. The only problem is, I've misplaced the recipe! I cannot recall where I found it, have checked cooking websites and reviewed my cookbooks, and so far, nothing.

I may be forced to follow that fine family tradition. I may have to improvise.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

a New Year's Revolution

Guilt, I am fond of saying, is a powerful motivator. Well, in my current situation, it's shame, not guilt, that is providing the motive force. But as they say, whatever works. Thanks, cousin!

I realize I have not posted in nearly a year...and what a year it's been, full of rich wanna-make-you-pull-your-hair-out experiences. My fantasy last January was that I would resolve to rejuvenate my writing skills by blogging, and doing it regularly, giving myself a forum in which to express thoughts and ideas and maybe actually be confident enough to beat into shape my private writing and actually DO something with it. And like every other resolution, that lasted a whole month (I think I actually hung on to "eat my veggies" longer than that). When I belonged to a writer's group, I had the external discipline of the group and the regular meetings to encourage me; when the group dissolved, so did my confidence in thinking I actually had something to say that someone would want to read. I tried joining other groups, but the vibe wasn't there, the format didn't work for me, life with three kids and activities got crazy and the first thing to drop off the schedule was my writing. That was five years ago, at least.

So what's happened that makes me think I can actually do this now?

Well, for one, I wangled a neat piece of guilt on myself (yeesh, scary what a Catholic education can make one do). Now that I take the train to work three days a week, I pulled out a writer's journal and sternly told myself, "Thou shalt write, at least once each commuting day, for the duration of the trip to thine destination." Which comes to about 35 minutes, depending on the cooperativeness of the trains. And I give myself the Anne Lamott out: I am permitted to write absolute crap. Some days I respond to the prompt in the journal. Some days I parody my fellow passengers. During the transit strike, I ranted about the ridiculousness and greed of the workers (I had just been laid off from one job and the $52K annually to punch tickets and make change sounded pretty good to me). And with time, I demonstrated behaviors having a shadowy resemblance to discipline.

It did help that my sister-in-law, my fellow wanna-be writer, book-lover, word junkie, and kindred spirit waved her writing journal in my face and I observed the cross-outs and microscopic script crawling up the margin of the page once she had filled all the lines. Heck, I was supposed to be HER conscience--we had AGREED!

So I reasoned: if I have been able to train myself (oof! unintended pun) to write on the train when commuting...I could certainly post on my blog on the other days. Here it helped that my cousin and fellow blogger apply a dose of guilt--if I wanted to be followed on her site, I had better produce something to follow.

So here it is. Actually, I should more correctly say, Here It Begins. And I will remind myself that I DON'T need to solve the world's economic crisis, come up with the ideal healthcare plan for all, share my recipe for Foie Gras Sauteed in Extra-Virgin Hazelnut Oil with White Truffle Emulsion, verbally knock the heads of conservatives and liberals together in the hope that some intelligence will be jarred free from where it's stuck, or ANY thing like that.

I just have to write.