Friday, November 30, 2012

Dance, dance, dance

"If they want me to believe in their god, they'll have to sing me better songs..... I could only believe in a god who dances.”—Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzche

Surely God dances. Why would he not dance? He’s God, the essence of joy, so I have to believe he dances.

I started college in September of 1965. I was at the University of Maryland, my hometown school. My family’s house was just blocks from the campus so there was no option for me to live on campus. I was just a townie and in the end I left school after my second year. I ran away from home and got married.

What do I remember most about those two years in college? I remember trudging across campus in the cold, I remember classes in huge lecture halls, and I remember going to Vietnam War protests. Nearly every day I wore desert boot and jeans and wool socks and my navy blue “poor boy” sweater. And I remember dancing.

During that time I was friends with two guys who were in the same disenfranchised caste as I was. We lived off-campus, we weren’t in the college "in" crowd, and we were scraping by financially. Fred Wilde had moved to Maryland from somewhere in Texas. John Hufnagel was from Connecticut and he had a beat-up old Karmann Ghia. (One day in December John and I decided to drive to New York for the day to see the Christmas decorations. The car broke down in Delaware. The car was towed away and we had to find a bus to take us back to College Park. We never saw Christmas in New York but it was a memorable adventure.)

Fred and John and I loved to dance. As often as we could we squeezed into John’s Karmann Ghia and went to Georgetown. We would go to places that are long since gone—places like the Crazy Horse, where they had recorded music and cheap beer. The three of us would occupy a table, nurse a couple of beers throughout the evening, and dance until we could barely walk. Because I was the designated girl, Fred and John took turns dancing with me. I never sat down. I danced.

When I got home at two o’clock in the morning I would fall into bed. And woe to me on the days when I had an early class. I flunked German I. I nearly flunked Diplomatic History of the United States. German? Useless and unnecessarily difficult language. Diplomatic History of the United States? Useless and boring. I sacrificed it all to dance. And, given the chance, I would do it again.

So this morning I’m walking outside. I’ve got my iPod cranking out my chosen work-out music. I turn right on Churchill, thinking move it, move it, pick up the pace. And right in middle of the street, where Ingleside crosses Churchill, I found my life’s calling. I was born to be a dancer. It all changed for me in an instant. I was no longer walking. It may have looked like I was walking, but I was dancing. Chuck Brown got me moving. Then zydeco music and Aretha and Junior Walker and Warren Zevon. The hell with getting a prescribed amount of daily aerobic activity to preserve my cardiovascular efficiency and my bone strength. I don’t need to focus on maintaining my body, I need to fill up my spirit with joy.

People might say it’s strange for a 65-year-old woman to suddenly decide that she’s a dancer. But I say it’s probably the most sane thing I’ve ever done.

Thursday, November 29, 2012


For days I’ve been processing it in my head and on my laptop. When I’m struggling with something I often write about it in order to clarify my thinking. Getting it down in black and white helps me to sort through and figure out what makes sense to me. I usually do a little online research or pull out a book that influenced either the question or a potential answer. But this time I’m still stuck.

A couple of weeks ago I had a very detailed dream about taking the SAT exam. Time was running out and I realized I had barely answered any of the questions. One of my daughter’s high school friends was there and she had finished well within the time limit. She was sitting there, self-satisfied, looking around the room while I stared at a blank sheet of paper. That’s how I feel now.

This past Sunday I was at worship service, singing Christmas carols with everyone else. I had missed church for two weeks and was feeling troubled and disconnected from God—admittedly through no one’s fault but my own. My prayer in the past couple of weeks has consisted of a rather begrudging plea to the Lord, “Fix it, Lord, please. Just fix it.”

What I want him to fix is the intractable grief I’ve been walking through. Maybe less walking through than standing still, standing up to my neck in a swamp of pain and doubt and confusion. I can’t understand the nature of God, I can’t understand why bad things happen to good people, and I can’t figure out how to change my attitude and what he wants me to do with my life from this point forward.

So I was singing Joy to the World, hoping that I wouldn’t start to cry. And suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere and certainly out of context with the Christmas song, one word came to me. Surrender. Why surrender? Surrender.

“Is that you, God?” I said to him inside my head. I wrote the word in my notebook. And now I’m trying to figure out what it means. It's something I've read about but I still don't really understand. What does it mean to surrender to God, what does it look like in practice?

I started at the most logical source for any Christian. Not the dictionary. I wouldn’t dare write “Merriam-Webster’s defines surrender as . . .”  Not Christianity for Dummies or The Idiot’s Guide to Christianity. Scripture. I needed to go straight to the source. But I found that the actual word surrender does not appear in the New Testament and it appears in the Old Testament only in terms of an army losing a battle. Although the word does not appear, the concept does.

Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. Matthew 10:39

I know, O Lord, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps. Jeremiah 10:23 [I love that phrase "man who walks." Perhaps I'll change my name to honor my distant Native American roots and be Woman Who Walks.]

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your path. Proverbs 3:5-6
And what if I look to Jesus—wasn’t he the definitive example of surrender to the will of the Father?
And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Matthew 26:39
Don’t these verses give me a huge neon-sign hint about where I should place control of my life? Yes, of course. I should place control in God’s hands. But what does that mean in a practical sense? I acknowledge that I have spent most of my life trying to do it my way. That hasn’t always worked out so well. I need to turn it over to him. From the start it has all been his anyway, in his control, but I keep trying to grab the steering wheel. I can say, “Oh, Lord, I surrender my life to you—my heart, my soul, my body, everything I am and everything I have is yours.” But what does that really mean? So I've been reading and writing about this and deleting everything I write because I can't get a clear understanding of what it means. I get it theoretically but I don’t get it at a gut level.

Walking deeper into faith is such a never-ending process. The more I learn, the more I realize how ignorant I am. And this surrender thing—what is it and how do I truly surrender to God? I’m stumped.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Handle it!

My husband had just left me after 30-plus years of marriage when a falsely pious woman I used to know (I know I’m being bitchy—forgive me) handed me a laminated card that said, “God will never give you more than you can handle.” I tossed the card on the kitchen counter, muttered something profane, and said, “Well then God is wrong and he has grossly overestimated me because I can’t handle this.”

And how many people through the years, when they hear of some tragedy, physical or emotional turmoil have used the same trite aphorism, often prefacing it with, “The Bible says . . .”?

This is bumper-sticker theology. That refrigerator magnet won’t make it in my house. I don’t want to believe it’s true and it makes me furious. Imagine dear Maudie Simpkins who goes church every week, prays and reads scripture, and treats everyone she knows with loving kindness. Now picture God, sitting on his throne on high, looking down at Maudie, his faithful servant, and saying, “Her faith is strong so I think I’ll give her cancer, and kill everyone she loves, and while I’m at it I might set her house on fire.”

What kind of God would do that? Do you think God is sitting up there saying, “Wow, that series of hardships I just sent her nearly destroyed her, but she’s strong, I think she can take another blow. Let’s just see. Wham!”

Really—I think this saying was made up by some sappy Hallmark card writer. I did a little research to see if I could find it, even something paraphrasing it, in the Bible. The closest I found is this verse:
No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. 1 Corinthians 10:13
In this verse from Corinthians Paul is telling us that God will help us deal with temptation. God is not analyzing our ability to withstand hardship and meting it out accordingly. He’s not punishing the strong with more trouble. I would rather believe that bad things happen, and that sometimes they happen to good people, maybe even to good people who are incredibly strong. When trouble comes, those who believe in God find their strength in him and in a community of fellow believers. They weather the storms holding on to the strength they have found in faith.

So don’t ever say to me that God only gives me as much as I can handle or I’ll bite your head off.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The queen of the neighborhood

This is a piece I wrote a while back and submitted to the New York Times for their Modern Love feature. It didn't get accepted. But I did get it published online at Texas Monthly. A friend asked me to repost it on the blog, so here it is. It's totally a true story, bless George's sweet heart.

George and the Queen of the Neighborhood

I had lived in the neighborhood only a few weeks when I first began to notice him. My house was on a short street of just five houses and George lived at the far end. For exercise he would walk slowly to the end of the street, then back again, leaning heavily on a cane. One day while I was walking the dog I stopped to talk to him. He was short and stocky with tawny skin, wisps of thinning hair slicked down on his head. His speech was slurred and difficult to understand because he had a thick eastern European accent and, I soon learned, also had been affected by a stroke.

Over weeks, in the course of many conversations, he filled in the details of his life. When I met him, George was in his 70s, widowed, and a retired physics professor from Johns Hopkins University. He was born and raised in Hungary where his father had been a renowned psychoanalyst, a contemporary and a rival of Sigmund Freud. George still lived in the house where he and his wife had lived for many years, the house where they raised their daughters. The daughters had moved to distant cities and he still missed his wife. “My life is so lonely without her,” he once told me, his eyes filling with tears. She had cancer and died just a few years before, prior to his stroke.

Because he walked so slowly, if I saw him from my kitchen window, I knew how to time his walk so I could catch him on his way back. Often I would take out the dog or go to the mailbox, just to have a chance to talk to him. This pattern continued for a couple of years. We talked about the weather, the neighbors, our families, or his health. When the weather was bad or when he traveled, I sometimes went weeks without seeing him.

Two years after moving to the house, my husband left me. When I told George, he was shocked and said, “I can’t believe it. But why?”

“Another woman,” I replied.

“But how could he? How could he leave you? You’re the queen of the neighborhood.”

Salve for a broken heart. To know that this charming man thought I was worth having somehow helped to lessen the grief, the intense pain of the loss and betrayal.

When the divorce was final, my house had to be sold. George kept telling me how the neighborhood wasn’t going to be the same without me. The day before the movers were to arrive, George left a message on my answering machine, saying he needed to talk to me before I left. From the sound of his voice, I thought something was wrong, so I quickly called him back. He said, “I want to see you. Can you come to my house this evening at 7 o’clock?”

We sat in his living room among the photos of his family. We chatted about my new place and how hard it was for me to leave the house I loved. All the while I was worried, wondering if there was something wrong with his health. Why did he need to talk to me? What was the urgency? I braced myself for bad news, but he said nothing. When it was time for me to go, he walked me to the door and hugged me. “I love you,” he said in that distinctive George voice that sounded like Henry Kissinger on sedatives.

“You’re so sweet, George,” I said, “I love you too.”

“No,” he said, “I mean it. I really love you.” I was already at the brink of intense emotion because of the move, but now this sweet old man was telling me he loved me. That was the urgent message he had for me, the thing he had to tell me before I moved away.

I searched for something to say to him, but couldn’t find the words. Now, several years later, I realize how much courage it took for him to say it and I wonder what he was thinking. If only the right words had come to me at the time. If only I had found the perfect thing to say to him. I would have told him that he was such a dear man, sadly the wrong one at the wrong time, that he warmed my broken heart, that he made me feel worthy of being loved, and that I would treasure this moment.

But I just said, “Thank you, George. I’ll miss you.”

The next day I, the queen of the neighborhood, moved away. I never saw him again and recently heard that he died. Rest in peace, George. I love you too.

Friday, November 23, 2012


“It’s not livin' that you’re doing if it feels like dyin'."
Ray LaMontagne in the song Old Before Your Time

No more shocking bad-news phone calls. No more dire diagnoses. No more slamming doors and empty bank accounts and husbands who don’t come home.

How many times have I pleaded with the universe (in general) and with God (in particular) that I’ve had enough heartbreak for one lifetime and please not to send me any more bad stuff? It doesn’t seem to matter, no matter how much I plead. The universe is just a jumble of chemistry and physics, organic and inorganic compounds that have no empathy. You can’t reason with a rock. And God is God—I’ve had an incalculable number of discussions with him and I must accept that his ways are not for me to understand. However, I still have trouble with the explanation that God’s will is something beyond my comprehension—not being given a plausible excuse just doesn’t fit in to my flawed construct of how life should work. I still want cause and effect, I still want the pieces of the puzzle to fit together neatly, and I still want some semblance of justice. Guess that’s just not gonna happen.

Add a soundtrack to this cosmic angst. I’m listening to Classical Gas on iTunes—not the usual Mason Williams version with all the orchestral background but a more simple acoustic version. Of course it reminds me of Mike—that one riff that he nailed every time. Damn, he was good. When I hear music he played it’s like pouring salt on the wound. It’s like he’s there in sound alone. The music brings back a sliver of him, a shadow. I want to hear it even though it makes me cry. And I tell myself, it’s gone, Donna, it’s just plain gone. That time of your life has slipped through your hands.

But my life’s soundtrack can be what I what I want it to be. I can rearrange it. I can imbue the songs with meaning. I can listen to Mike playing and celebrate who he was and how much he contributed to my music. It’s sad that he’s gone. I miss him like crazy. But I’m alive and the music, the soundtrack, belongs to me; it didn’t die with him. He would want it to be that way, and more importantly, I want it to be that way.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


"Tina was so tough, her poodle shirt had a bulldog on it." Someone sent me this card a while back. If only I still had a poodle skirt. Sometimes I wonder if I've got any tough left in me, if I can still withstand the dog fights. Sometimes I hate to think that life continually demands that we get tougher and tougher or we dissolve into puddles of useless melted blubber in the middle of the parking lot. But sometimes a card is simple genius and it's a great card.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Joe Boogie's skillet

I pulled out Joe Boogie’s cast iron skillet today. It’s a classic, vintage skillet that is virtually indestructible. Joe Boogie was my grandfather. He died over 50 years ago and he probably had the pan for 50 years before that. Now it’s mine.

My grandfather’s name was Joseph Stephen Harris. Apparently many years ago a neighbor child called him Joe Boogie and that name has stuck, even many years after his death. He was from Holyoke, Massachusetts, and as a young married man he moved to Washington during the Great Depression when he got a coveted job at the Library of Congress. He was a craftsman, a skilled bookbinder. There’s an entire set of Compton’s Picture Encyclopedias in my house that my grandfather meticulously hand bound. The set of books was printed prior to World War II, when there was only one war, called the Great World War. The maps of Africa show colonial countries that have long been gone, replaced by more modern independent nations. This set of encyclopedias has been given to my son and will be moved to his house whenever they can be hand delivered to Seattle. I don’t dare ship them and risk losing something so precious, so irreplaceable.

So all I own that belonged to my grandfather is his cast iron skillet. And I have a new cookbook—The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman. I’m just a few pages into the book and when I saw the recipe for Gingerbread Spice Dutch Baby (a large oven-baked pancake) in a black cast-iron skillet identical to Joe Boogie’s skillet, I had to try it. It was easy, it was warm, and it smelled great. Joe Boogie would have been pleased.

Gingerbread Spice Dutch Baby

2 large eggs
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon unsulfured molasses
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
Pinch ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of salt
1/3 cup whole milk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Confectioners’ sugar, maple syrup, or heavy cream, to serve
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Place the eggs in a blender and blend until smooth and pale in color. Add the brown sugar, molasses, flour, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, salt, and milk and blend until smooth.
Melt the butter in a 9-inch ovenproof skillet over high heat, swirling it up the sides to evenly coat the pan. Pour the batter into the skillet and transfer to the oven. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the pancake is puffed up. Remove from the oven and dust with sugar. Serve with maple syrup or heavy cream, if desired.
Source: The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman, p. 11

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Beef and Guinness Stew

I tried a new beef stew recipe tonight, adapted only slightly from a recipe in The Washington Post. It was in an article about making meals ahead to put in the freezer. It says this can be kept in the freezer for up to 3 months. It’s everything they promised it would be—incredibly tender meat and rich, fragrant gravy. There seems to be a lot of taking the lid on/off and changing the cooking temperature but it worked so I wouldn’t change the directions. I made it exactly as listed below but with one slight change. I wanted the gravy to be somewhat thicker so I mixed cold water and corn starch (about 2 tablespoons) and added it in the final 10 – 20 minutes.

And the bonus—I had one large bottle of Guinness Stout, more than I needed in the recipe. I didn’t want to waste it. What a dilemma!

Beef and Guinness Stew

¼ cup flour
1 teaspoon salt, plus more as needed
2 ½ pounds cubed boneless chuck
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped (2 cups)
2 tablespoons chili sauce
4 cups beef broth
12 ounces Guinness Stout
1 tablespoon raisins
1 teaspoon caraway seed
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed
2 or 3 medium carrots, peeled and roll-cut (see NOTE)
About 3 parsnips, peeled and roll-cut into ½ -inch thick pieces
1 (8-ounce) turnip, peeled and cut into ½ -inch cubes
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

Combine the flour, salt, and meat in a large resealable plastic food storage bag. Seal and shake to coat evenly.

Heat a Dutch oven or large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add half the oil and swirl to coat the bottom. Add half the meat, shaking off any excess flour back into the bag. Cook for several minutes, until the meat is browned on all sides but not cooked through, turning it as needed. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the meat to a bowl; repeat with the remaining oil and meat. Discard any excess flour.

Use a wooden spoon to dislodge any browned bits on the bottom of the pot, then add the onions and stir to coat. Cook for about 5 minutes or until just softened, then clear a spot at the center of the pot and add the chili sauce. Cook for a few minutes then stir in the broth and beer.

Return all the meat to the pot, along with the raisins, caraway seed, and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.

Uncover and increase the heat to medium-high; once the mixture comes to a boil, cook for 50 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the carrots, parsnips, and turnip; reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Uncover and increase the heat to medium-high; once the stew comes to a boil, cook for 10 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed.

Sprinkle with parsley just before serving.

NOTE: To produce roll-cut pieces on linear vegetables such as carrots and parsnips, make a cut on the diagonal, then rotate a quarter-turn before you make the next cut.

Source: Adapted from “The New Way to Cook Light” via The Washington Post.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Bad girl

He was nondescript, a bland-looking man, far from young, but not old enough to be charming. He played guitar and sang, but he only was memorable in the way he played silly, borderline offensive songs. He was so bland that I didn’t even remember seeing him before that afternoon in August at the music jam in the park. What is frightening is that he remembered me. He said he had seen me before at other music events and thought maybe we could get together sometime.

Perhaps, I thought, why not? It’s fun to get together with new people and play music. Why, oh Lord, didn’t you set off an alarm? My brain was on cruise control. Too much banjo can kill those precious neurotransmitters. “Sure, that might work,” I said with nonchalance and too much naiveté for a woman my age.
I caught sight of one of my favorite fiddle players and wandered off to play for a while with a group of old-time musicians. Later, when I was gathering my things to leave, bland man caught up with me again. He said he had been playing with a group of beautiful women on the other side of the park. Duh. No self-respecting male musician I know would have even noticed if a woman was beautiful or not. He might covet her guitar, but beautiful is not an issue.

Still clueless, I said, “Well, how nice for you.”
“You’re a beautiful woman, too.” I was beginning to feel quite uncomfortable, but squeaked out a feeble response, “Um, um, well, um, thanks.”

"And you’re really quite sexy.” What in heaven's name was he thinking? I am a banjo player. Banjo players are not sexy. I was too stunned to respond. “And I really want to get together with you,” he added.

Okay, I admit it. Anyone else probably would have seen it coming. Not me. Finally, I got it. He didn’t want to get together to play music. What else could there be? Oh, no, not that.

I looked at his left hand and couldn’t help but notice that he was wearing a wedding band the size of Utah and I said, “You’re married, aren’t you?”
"Yes, I am,” he replied with not a hint of shame, “is that a problem?”

“Yes," I said, "it’s a big problem. I was married to someone who had no respect for marriage vows and I don’t want to mess with some other woman’s marriage.”

Want more proof that this is a guy who could be out-finessed by a 12-year-old boy? His next comment: “Don’t you want to be a bad girl?”

Lord, could we please replay this moment in time? Could you please just give me the chance to deliver some fabulous retort? In my stupor I lost the chance of a lifetime. The only thing I could think to say was, “Nooooooooooo.” What I meant was, “Yes, I really would love to be a bad girl with the right guy at the right time, but it will never be with you. In the meantime, while you’re waiting for hell to freeze over, why don’t I just call your WIFE and ask her if she’s a bad girl. Maybe we bad girls could get together and beat the shit out of you.”
So, for all the guys out there who are looking for a bad girl . . . maybe you just need to be a good boy to get a bad girl.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Shaking my feeble fist at God

God and I are in the middle of a big fight. At least I’m in the middle of a big fight with him; he may not even notice. “Oh, that gnat,” I hear him say in his voice like thunder. “She’s just getting pissy again. She’ll get over it. She needs me much more than I need her.”

Yesterday evening I talked to my sister. She asked me if I went to church. “NO, I didn’t go to church,” I replied in my huffy voice. “I didn’t want to spend time in his presence. I’m so damned mad at him I could just spit.”

I have a legitimate beef with God. I think he’s being really cruel, what C.S. Lewis calls the “Cosmic Sadist and Eternal Vivisector.”* Yes, that C.S. Lewis, the one who wrote Mere Christianity.

Here’s the deal. In April 2011 my brother Mark was murdered in his own front yard, shot in the back at point-blank range by his next-door neighbor who was annoyed that my brother’s dog wandered into his yard. It was beyond horrible. And a couple of months ago my brother’s son Jasen was in a car wreck that almost killed him. Jasen had broken bones and traumatic brain injury. In the past few weeks he has regained consciousness and he is now talking. For that I am so grateful. But Jasen is asking for his father. “Where’s Pop?” he asks his mother. “Have you seen my father?” he says to the nurse. He remembers his mother, he remembers how to read, he recognizes me, and he knows where he works. He even asks if he can go outside and smoke. But he doesn’t remember that his father was murdered last year.

It’s bad enough that my brother got murdered. It’s awful that we have had the additional heartache of seeing my nephew badly injured. But Lord, have a heart—is this poor young man going to have to go through the agony of being told—again—that his father is dead? Is my sister-in-law eventually going to have to break the news to him?

Jasen is like a clone of his father Mark. He looks like him and acts like him. He and his father even worked together in a car detailing business that Mark started. They were really close and I can’t begin to imagine what Jasen went through last year when Mark died. And the thought of him going through that intense grief again is beyond comprehension.

Maybe it would be easier right now if I weren’t a believer. Now I’m a believer with an attitude. Once again I’m pushed into a corner, forced to accept that we mere mortals can’t understand God’s ways. I know that I have to give up my idea of what is fair and just. I didn't create the universe and I'm not in charge. I know that I will never understand God’s purpose. But I can’t help shaking my fist at him, shouting, “What were you thinking? Is this really what you wanted? Maybe this has some inscrutable purpose in your eyes, but where’s your sense of mercy?”

And what’s worse is that I know God will forgive me. He’ll take the high road and be all benign and flawless like he always is. He’ll understand that I may question his wisdom, I may think he is cruel, but he will forgive me for being a weak woman. I know he’s going to win, but for now I’m just so doggone mad at him.

* C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, p. 38

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Becoming my grandmother

A few days ago I was sitting in the waiting area at a medical facility with several other women. All of us were clinging to the flimsy hospital gowns that we had wrapped around our upper bodies as we waited to be called in for mammograms or bone density scans.

A woman with knee-high shiny black boots and jet black hair cut in an asymmetrical bob was fussing with her iPhone. Another woman wearing Birkenstocks and with long wild grey hair was knitting. I just sat there, observing and trying to maintain some dignity in an awkward situation. The knitting woman looked up at me and chuckled. “Isn’t it crazy what we women have to put up with?” she asked. “As we get older we just keep suffering one indignity after the other. The other day my granddaughter asked me what it felt like to be so old and I told her . . . “

Just then the mammogram technician called the knitting woman’s name. She smiled at me, grabbed her bag, and left without finishing her story. I wanted to know what she told her granddaughter.

I got no insights into aging from my grandmothers. Both of my grandmothers died before I knew enough to ask them what it felt like to be old. My maternal grandmother died of breast cancer when she was only 49. As the first-born of her grandchildren I was fortunate to have known her. None of my siblings or cousins remembers her. At the age of 49 she seemed ancient to me. She was round and matronly and she wore house dresses and sensible shoes. She bought me a child-size pie pan and taught me how to bake apple pie. She was exactly what a grandmother should be and I loved her. But from my current vantage point, the age of 49 seems so young. It shocks me that I am now 65, so much older than my grandmother was when she died.

And my mother. My mother is nearly 87 now. I am watching her transition from being an active senior to being an old, old woman. She is getting shorter and shorter. She is hunched and she has trouble walking. She can hardly hear, even with hearing aids, and she is becoming increasingly confused. My father, her husband for nearly 65 years, died two years ago and her friends are dying. I talk to my mother nearly every day and often spend the day with her, taking her to doctors’ appointments or out to run errands. Occasionally she will say something about aging, but the words never seem to come out as a grain of wisdom. She just shakes her head and says she never thought she would live so long.

So I have no advice, no wisdom to pass down from the generations before me. What words will I find to answer if one of my granddaughters asks me how it feels to be old? Do I frighten her, make her afraid to grow old? Should I lie, sugar coat it by reciting some pious platitudes about aging that are a bunch of poppycock? (I’m 65 now so I’m entitled to use the word poppycock.) “You’re only as old as you feel.” “Come grow old with me, the best is yet to come.” Oh, gag me.

The knitting woman has a point—yes, we do give up things as we age. It’s hard to lose strength and stamina. It’s hard to witness your own sagging skin, diminishing vision and hearing, thinning hair, and thickening body. It’s hard to consider the fact that I’m well over halfway through my life and that I may one day be dependent on someone else for my care. And how can the dear friends from my youth be old women now?

I might tell my granddaughter that growing old is rather funny. I look at myself now and I’m shocked. And I have to laugh. It’s some sort of trick Mother Nature has played on me. Mother Nature is slowly replacing me with a version of my grandmother. Inside I have an image of myself that’s a young woman. I see myself as I looked the day I got married—just 20 years old, full of spunk, full of life and promise, rapturously happy because I was marrying the love of my life. The love of my life is gone and my body doesn’t look the same, but that 20-year-old bride is still who I am. Inside I’m a girl, a young woman. I hold all of that girl’s memories, fears, likes, and dislikes in my heart. The secret is that I look old, but I’m not. That's just plain funny.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

An adventure with paint and grout

I figure I'm either a genius or a complete fool.

My kitchen was remodeled a few years ago. I loved everything about it with the exception of the grout in the backsplash--it was much too dark and created a busy look. Now I know that's a small nitpicking thing in the grand scheme of life, but it annoyed me. Because there's the Internet and basically anything you need to know is there (as well as a huge amount of disinformation and a huge amount of things no one needs to know) I did a search on changing grout color. Advice ranged from redoing the grout with grout colorant to getting a power tool that removes all the grout then regrouting the whole thing. I was not going to use a toxic oil-based material in my house and I was not going to scrape it all out and do it again.

One little thing I saw on eHow mentioned using flat water-based paint. I'm addicted to flat water-based paint--I've painted so much furniture with Annie Sloan Chalk Paint that I've lost count. So I tried it. I mixed some Old White with water then started applying the paint wash to the grout with a brush. The grout sucked in the lighter color and the paint easily washed off of the glazed tile with a wet rag.

It now looks the way it should have looked in the beginning and I love it. And it took less than an hour to do. The lighter grout shows off the beautiful texture of the hand-made tiles so much more than the dark grout. Of course, maybe I'll end up being a fool in the long run if I find the grout gets discolored or mildewed or falls out because I had the nerve to paint it.

The photo of the corner is a little hint of before and after. The other photos show some of it finished.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Money, money, money

This quote from an article in today’s Washington Post says volumes about why the Romney team lost this week’s presidential election:

“Wealthy donors were so central to Romney’s campaign that a swarm of private luxury jets caused a traffic jam at Boston’s airport Tuesday just before the nominee’s election-night party.”
(Page A27, article entitled “Spending a lot, with little effect” that begins on page A1.)

They were all dressed up with nowhere to go. The fat cats’ big gamble didn’t pay off. They didn’t get the outcome that they thought they paid for. It was possibly their worst investment ever.

Just after the primary season, when Romney won the nomination of the Republican Party I started paying attention. I really wanted to keep an open mind, to consider that he could have a plan that would move this country in the right direction. His plan was like Jell-O. He couldn’t explain it well enough to give me any sense of what he was going to do to improve my country, to make my life better.

At the same time I was looking for substance, I began seeing Romney signs all over the place. Big, obnoxious signs that dwarfed the few Obama signs out there. They posted painted elephant signs high on telephone poles. Down the street I watched as a Romney campaign worker surrounded a lonely Obama sign with a ring of bigger Romney signs so that the Obama sign was no longer visible. That was the moment that did it for me. The Romney signs became like mosquito bites and they were beginning to itch. One, two, three . . . soon too many to count.

Gradually Mitt Romney and his wife Ann started to seem like Ken and Barbie dolls. They had the place in Malibu and the cars and all those Ken clone sons. They didn’t seem like regular people. How could they understand what it’s like to lose a job or to wonder how to afford health insurance? Romney has more money than most of us can imagine and his campaign was spending much more money than we could imagine to get him elected president. The itch was getting worse.

The wealthy donors funded all sorts of anti-Obama campaigns, either directly through the Republican Party or through other more slippery funding schemes. They began to look greedy and self-serving. They thought money was the answer. They just didn’t get it.

Not for a second do I think I’m the only one who had a negative reaction to all the spending. Surely those same campaign signs and all those hours of advertising seemed excessive to other undecided voters. We did the only thing we could do—we voted for the other guy so we could send the greedy people a message that we aren’t impressed by their campaign coffers.

Romney missed one big chance to redeem himself. When megastorm Sandy hit the East Coast so hard, he could have taken the high road. He could have suspended his campaign and donated the rest of the money to be spent on storm relief efforts. To be fair, Obama’s campaign could have done it too.

The money wasted on both sides in this presidential election process makes me ill. Think about how it could have been better spent. Worried about terrorism? We could have built hospitals and schools in Afghanistan, trained teachers and doctors to lessen some of their hate for us ugly Americans. Worried about reliance on foreign oil? We could have funded research and development of alternatives to fossil fuels while creating jobs in this country. Worried about skyrocketing health care costs? We could have worked to cure cancer or diabetes or heart disease.

The people who flew to Boston in their private jets on Tuesday found out the party wasn’t going to be much fun. I wonder if the outcome of their big investment will change how they will fund the campaign four years from now.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Reflections on Election Day

We're electing a president today in this country. It's a daunting task, one for which we must trust that the Lord is sovereign and He will work for our good. So my mind is occupied with these worldly events. I'm an old woman and no one really cares about my opinions on politics and social happenings. But I’m writing this to try to boil down my thoughts so that I can explain myself to people who ask me to explain. I need to develop a 15-second “elevator speech” but I’m afraid it may defy condensation.

Our founding fathers set up this country with a firm conviction of separation of church and state. People who live in this country and call themselves Americans have to accept that as a given. It’s at the intersection of faith and politics that things get dicey. Look at nations that mandate Islam as the official religion of the state. These nations often have a horrible history of denying basic freedoms and imposing harsh punishment on those who don’t espouse their view of theology. We don’t want a nation like that and we can’t accept a nation like that, even if the nation uses law to enforce our understanding of God.

I’m really not “political” in the way I understand the term. I would actually prefer not to label myself either a Democrat or a Republican, but if pushed I would admit that I usually fall on the Democratic side. I’m definitely not a conservative and I consider myself more of a progressive than a liberal, but in a black-and-white, either/or situation I’d have to squeeze in with the liberals, even when “liberal” can be considered a dirty word. Okay, push came to shove and I’m calling myself a liberal Democrat. I’m walking into dangerous territory.

Now let me make a statement that may seem contradictory: I am a liberal because I am a Christian. I know that statement flies in the face of the image that Christians, especially “evangelical” Christians, hold in our popular culture. I suppose I’ve long been steeped in the tradition of Catholic social justice—all those crazy nuns working with the poor, even when they get in trouble with their pope. If we take the teachings of Jesus to heart, we see that Jesus loved and cared about those were poor and sick, those who couldn’t take care of themselves. Just read the beatitudes . . . blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst. Jesus was into radical poverty. He had no possessions other than the clothes on his back. He didn’t aspire to wealth or political power. He didn’t advocate overthrowing the government. He taught us that we show our love for God through our love for one another

And why is it presumed that faith requires Christians to hold very conservative views on some socio-political issues? Now I’m really walking into the lion’s den. Take same-sex marriage. After a lot of reflection, I now view same-sex marriage as a civil right. We’re not talking morality, no definition of sin in the eyes of God, no questions about whether God designed some people to be homosexual. They are human beings who live in our country and who are subject to the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. If, by law, I am permitted to marry anyone I want, regardless of age or race or political preference or butt-ugliness, then homosexuals should be able to legally marry. Yet no church should ever be forced to accept or perform a homosexual marriage if it is against the church’s beliefs. For the record, it is against the beliefs in my church. It’s simply the fair thing to do in a free secular society. We’re not God, we’re not called to decide what is sinful—let God be the judge, thankfully not me.

Okay—now the totally incendiary topic—abortion. I absolutely, positively believe that abortion is wrong, an incredibly horrible sin. I wish I could live in a country where abortion never took place. That said, I don’t think we’ll ever realistically be able to change public policy to make it illegal again. We need to work on the hearts of the women who have abortions. We need to teach them about God's love while we help them find alternatives. And we need to work to support those babies—from conception, through childhood and into old age. We need to respect life from beginning to end.

In my little world I believe that the people of a nation should support a government that helps the neediest of its people—the unborn, the sick, the mentally disabled, and the elderly. I think that’s what Jesus taught us to do.

Luke 6: 31 and 36.   And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. . . . Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Billy and the Hawaiian woman

I just logged on to the blog to check my stats. The photo of the meatloaf is still making me sick and I have to do something quick to knock it from the top position.

This is an old photo of my Uncle Billy and the Hawaiian woman. A couple of years ago my sister and I put together a family photo album on one of those photo-sharing sites. We had one page with photos of all the couples in the family. Uncle Billy never married but we happened to have this photo of him on vacation in Hawaii, so we found a way to include him in the couples page. The photo makes us laugh every time we see it. Love the look on his face, the mustache and glasses that look fake (they're not), the gaudy outfit, and the nameless Hawaiian woman.

He was such a sweetheart and would love knowing that he still makes me smile, even though he's been gone for years.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Don't eat the meatloaf

You know I love Ina Garten, right? I think she can do no wrong. No, scratch that—I used to think she can do no wrong. Just thinking about this recipe is making me slightly nauseous. Just look at the photo and you’ll understand. It’s not my photo. It’s the photo that the Food Network used online. A professional food photographer took that photo. That’s the photo that is supposed to make you want to cook and eat this recipe? Yuck.

Last week the Barefoot Contessa (Ina Garten) came out with her latest cookbook, entitled Foolproof. But several weeks ago the Food Network’s print magazine tried to tantalize us by pre-releasing a recipe from the book. It is a recipe called 1770 House Meatloaf. This is not actually Ina Garten’s own recipe, but a recipe from a restaurant in East Hampton, a meatloaf that she loves so much she has eaten it there 2,000 times. (I might be exaggerating but she claims she orders it all the time.)

I felt like I was in with the in crowd because I was among the privileged few (insert “tens of thousands”) who had the recipe early so I could impress my friends and family. I bought the ingredients and didn’t skimp on quality. I got everything called for and followed the directions exactly. No ketchup, no version of anything tomato, no green bell pepper or croutons or Worcestershire sauce? It has celery in it and it calls for chicken broth and lots of garlic—that’s simply wrong. And it tastes gamey, like you really took part of a cow, a pig, and a veal animal and ground them up with some eggs and bread and made a huge 3-pound hunk of meat. This is your worst cafeteria food nightmare—bad food and a lot of it.

I suppose I’m in the camp that thinks meat should be disguised as something else. If it has enough lemon or barbeque sauce or mushroom Marbella covering it we can forget it was formerly a living animal with fur or feathers. The reason why I spent over a year as a vegetarian is beginning to come back to me. (Reminder to self—it may be vegetarian but it’s not considered good nutrition to eat just popcorn, pasta, and beer.)

Other people say they love this meatloaf. I read some of the reviews online. I’ve got 3 pounds of meatloaf I’ll be happy to send them. Euwww.

Saturday, November 3, 2012


Oh, the lure of something new (at least new to me) at the farmers market. Our local farmers market is held every Saturday morning all through the year. Of course it's great through the summer months but being able to shop there when it's cold outside--like it was today--is a special treat.

Today there were the usual bakers and chocolatiers and meat vendors. Of course, the orchards were in full swing with a wide variety of apples and cider. There were multi-colored cauliflowers and lots of greens, like kale and collards, and even a few late-comer tomatoes. (I also bought the poblano peppers that you see in the background to make chiles rellenos--maybe tomorrow.) The vegetable that was new to me is a variety of sweet potato called O'Henry. It's a creamy yellow potato without the characteristic stringy texture of a traditional sweet potato. At the market, near the bin of sweet potatoes, there was a basket of homegrown ginger root. A big surprise to me because I thought ginger only grew in Asia. Who knew? It was beautiful, fresh ginger, not sinewy like the ginger I usually buy at the grocery store.

Over the potatoes and ginger there was a sign that suggested roasting the O'Henry potatoes with shredded ginger and coconut oil. That's exactly what I did and they are incredibly delicious. The ginger adds a bit of a zippy dimension to the sweet potatoes. I'm so doggone spoiled. Here's the general idea:

Oven-Roasted O'Henry Sweet Potatoes with Ginger

4 medium O'Henry sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
2 tablespoons coconut oil
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon coarse-grated black pepper

Toss all ingredients, place in a shallow roasting pan, and bake for 30 - 35 minutes at 375 degrees. Toss several times while baking to roast evenly.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Cooking Moroccan

Yesterday, in the food section of the Washington Post, they featured recipes that used store-bought rotisserie chicken. There are several recipes I might try eventually (including one that uses Peruvian chicken--any excuse to use Pollo Rico!) but I decided to try an interesting Moroccan recipe called Chicken Bistilla. It's a mix of shredded chicken with both savory and sweet spices (saffron, ginger, cinnamon, etc.) with almonds and raisins. The chicken mixture is wrapped in phyllo dough, baked, and sprinkled with confectioners' sugar. I was intrigued. I've cooked Moroccan food before and have a great go-to chicken couscous recipe but decided to be a bit more adventurous today and wander outside my comfort zone.

Okay, the verdict? It was fascinating, unlike anything I've made before. It's a bit like mincemeat, but in a good way. I'd say it was a success and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend you try it yourself. However, it's probably not something I would make again. Life's short and there are so many great recipes out there. There's nothing wrong with trying something once and never making it again, even if it's good.

Besides, I got a package from Amazon earlier this week--both the new Barefoot Contessa cookbook and Smitten Kitchen's new cookbook. Enough to keep me busy for the next year.

That's a photo of the Chicken Bistilla that I made. (The photo the Washington Post printed actually didn't look that delish.) I won't bother to copy the recipe because I followed the Post's version exactly and you can find it online at