Monday, December 14, 2009


Darkness comes at 4:30 in this latitude at this time of the year. Everything slows down. It is hard to want to go out in the evening and do anything. Hibernation beckons. Carbs whisper in the kitchen. There is only about a month of this. By mid-January the days will be noticeably longer. But for the next month we closed around with darkness. The sun retreats, leaving us a little uneasy. It is too dark for too long. In summer, euphoria rules, afterglow lasts until around 10 pm. And the opposite happens. We all want to be outside. We work into the deepening twilight, just a bit more weeding, watering, mowing. We'll go in in a minute. Mosquitoes usually drive me in at last, but the twilight lingers and beckons. I no longer have screened porch, but when I grew up here, we sat out at night until midnight or later. The neighbors came over. The grownups drank beer. We talked or watched the lightening bugs comfortable in the warm evening. Sometimes when it was really hot, we stayed out there to avoid the heat inside the house. Once and awhile, I slept out on the porch.
In winter, the porch was glassed in, but it is always too cold to sit out there. I think the glass acted as a big heat absorber. And we could keep food out there, or the Christmas tree until the house was ready for it. Wasted space in winter, essential in summer. So we ritually lugged the heavy storm windows up from the basement and installed them. In spring, in April maybe, we took them down, and put the screens up. I miss having a porch, a place to wait out the long summer evenings, to drink iced tea and chat with the neighbors, a place to read in the shade without bugs biting, a place to nap on hot days. A cliche, I know, but neighborhoods diminished when new houses with air conditioning came into fashion. The richness of life lessened and we all became poorer. I still want a porch, though I don't think it will reverse anything or change much. But it would be nice to sit there of an evening, even a dark evening in deep midwinter. A space heater, a blanket, a good book, and the old dog.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


The turkey broth got left out and now there will be no soup.
And it was golden and glorious broth from the best turkey we
have ever had.

Friday, November 27, 2009


Here is what the medical people say:

Here is what the mother-in-law witness has to say.
First of all, and rather calmly, let me say that convulsions are terrifying to witness.
The person convulsing has no memory of the 'incident,' which is merciful. No one would want to remember the utter helplessness of that. Elana started to convulsive and was instantly 'outside' herself in the sense that whatever makes her herself was overcome by the electrical storm in her brain and the resultant physical spasms.
She had gotten up with a headache and blurred vision. She had had an odd headache a couple of weeks before and not been herself for the past week. I knew immediately (see my earlier post)
what was happening, so I did what we all do these days; I went to the computer. Seth started yelling "Mom." When I ran up the stairs, Seth was holding her up, barely, trying to lower her onto the floor of the shoebox-sized bathroom they were in. This was hampered by the fact that both of them are tall and there is a giant stuffed bear in the corner because that room is usually only used by his younger sister.
Ron drove up, at that moment. I yelled out the kitchen window for him to come. He was walking, tired from a night shift, but instinct and training will override most anything. In an instant, he broke into a run, dashed up stairs in time to help Seth get her to the floor.
By this time, I was on the line with 911, a maddening experience for the caller. The operator asks all these questions without telling you she had all ready hit a panic button somewhere on her end and the EMTs are rolling out of their station, while she wants to know the color of the patients toenails or some such other stupid thing. I was yelling that we needed an ambulance, Ron is yelling from up stairs, Seth was silent. After she said the EMTs were on their way, I calmed down a bit and was able to give them information in a polite, businesslike way, which I had NOT been doing up to that point.
The EMTs rolled in, looked at Elana and said we don't have the drugs for this. They called another ambulance service and opened their cheat sheet for what to do with mothers in full blown eclampsia. By this time Ron and I were in their bedroom, trying to stay out of the way.
J was in her room, where I had also stuffed the dog. I think J just cowered under the covers. Elana breathing was so loud, J said later, that she could hear it through the closed door. It was awful: load, laboured, grating, as if it came past the coarsest sandpaper you can imagine. They started an IV and gave her Mg to control the seizures and start to reduce her blood pressure which was somewhere over 280(top number, I kid you not).
The EMTs are pros, but clearly they were freaked out too, consulting a guide book of some kind for dosages. The other service arrived fairly soon. By that time, time was, to use a bad metaphor, dilating and contracting. The EMTs stabliized Elana as best they could and then tried to move her down the stairs. Elana is tall and the bathroom is quite small. They couldn't turn her. They couldn't get the stretcher in the bathroom. They dragged her out, almost literally, turned her in the hall, while I waited for one of them and her to fall down the stairs. Finally they got her on the stretcher, and then couldn't get it down the stairs. They couldn't grip it or they were afraid she would fall. So they back up into the bathroom. A stair chair seemed to be what was wanted next. They get one and bring it upstairs and manoeuvre it into the very small bathroom behind her. This then requires them to lift her again, this time into a sitting postion, and this time they can carry her down the stairs. Outside they transfer her to the stretcher again. She lolls, her head and arm off the side for a moment. She looks dead.
At that point, I think we've lost her.
The ambulance takes off, Seth follows in another. While all this has gone on, I have called work to tell them I won't be in, called a neighbor to take J to work and to watch the dog. Ron and I dress and get in the car. I've talked to Amy, pediatrician daughter, who says they will deliver the baby and everything will be all right. Not so sure, we head for the hospital.
What I can't reproduce here is the terrible gurgling, rasping breathing, the seizing, and then the deathly stillness after. She was totally unresponsive, limp, just like a body, not a person. My response to terror is to go cold. I don't cry and I don't go hysterical. I drove. Ron and I talked, but we didn't know much to talk about. I had heard of eclampsia, Aunt Mattie had nearly died from it and her baby had. Among older women it was whispered about. Now it is so rare that pregnant women hear about it, out there in the distance. "Oh yeah, eclampsia" seeps in from the remote reaches of the pregnancy universe. But I know nothing. And Ron, though he has been an ICU nurse for 35 years, knows nothing.

Post Thanksgiving

More about Thanksgiving later. Right now there is snow on the ground and my neighbor's 140 pound mastiff is sequestered in J's room. She loves us, is less certain about my son. She is here because J locked herself out the dog's house. She was dog sitting, opened the door to take the dog out this morning. And the door closed behind her. The key, of course, was inside. We suspect the cats actually shut the door all the way. We don't know when the neighbors will be back, sometime today. In the meantime, there is this large dog in my house who is hostile to one of the house members.
On the up side, there is turkey left over. Lots of turkey for sandwiches and pot pie or some such.
And much cranberry salad. So much to be thankful for.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Comfort Food

Comfort food
The food you eat when you are sad, sick, lonely, in short, in need of comfort. It may be food your mother made when you were a kid. It may be some food you have come upon as an adult that you eat to feel better: cereal, toast and butter, mac’n’cheese, pasta. For me it can be oatmeal, poached eggs on toast, toasted cheese and tomato soup. That last most clearly demonstrates the distance I have come as an eater since growing up in my Central New York, working class family.
What is to change about toasted cheese and tomato soup? The name for one thing. It is most often called grilled cheese now, implying the sandwhich is made on a grill. Toasted cheese is actually another dish in which cheese is put under the broiler and toasted. My mother made toasted cheese sandwiches with American cheese on white bread, which may have been home made when Iwas a kid. And she made Campbell’s tomato soup with milk. The sandwich was cooked in butter. The basic ingredients.
Later, in the pressure of the food industry in America she switched to Roman meal whole grain bread. I can’t remember if I protested. If I did it wasn’t as vociferously as my children complained about whole grain breads. Sometime the cheese was Velveeta. Sometimes chedder.
We never cooked with margarine, a holdover from my mother’s Depression experiences. I switched to making the soup with water as a teen ager worried about my weight. I my twenties, with small kids of my own, the combination began to evolve from its middle class beginnings into a lunch or snack of a much different character.
With very little money to live on, I made a lot of my own bread. For awhile, when we got surplus food, we went back to Velveeta type cheese. Once we got on our feet, we could buy the real stuff: Munster, Swiss, Aged Chedder, Provolone. And those are just the sandwich cheeses. I continued to make and buy whole grain bread in a brazen disregard for my children’s preferences and in the firm belief that it was better not to eat any bread than to eat the Styrofoam stuff that came from the store. I still cooked in butter. I mean olio is some kind of goo that is derived from non-food material, right? So the sandwich changed, but not so much as the soup.
I still use Campbell’s tomato, still don’t use milk. But over the years I have added various things: garlic, a bit of olive oil, a dab of butter, dill. Mostly dill, because it tastes so good with the tomatoes. And there is always basil, another real tomato compliment. Basil, fresh from the garden, spicy-sweet, filling the kitchen with its sharp scent. Basil, dried. Basil and garlic with perhaps a bit of parmesan. The soup grows richer, “mouthier’ acquiring what flavorists call umame: Umami, popularly referred to as savoriness, has been proposed as one of the basic tastes sensed by specialized receptor cells present on the human and animal tongue. Umami (旨味?) is a loanword from Japanese meaning roughly "tasty", although "brothy", "meaty", or "savory" have been proposed as alternative translations.[1][2] In as much as it describes the flavor common to savory products such as meat, cheese, and mushrooms, umami is similar to Brillat-Savarin's concept of osmazome, an early attempt to describe the main flavoring component of meat as extracted in the process of making stock (
Thus what started out as simple comfort food has become a marker of education. My palate has changed and developed as I have eaten around the world and among friends with more food sophistication than I have. My vocabulary has changed; I know words like umami, that my parents would have though pretensious. My class has changed. I am not a blue collar person now, though I began there. Toasted cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, then and now, mark my progress through life.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A yard full of EMTs

I was brought up (mostly) and deeply loved by my Aunt Mattie who nearly died from eclampsia and who lost her only child in that process. The family told the story as families do, in whispers and allusions. I don't know the details. I do know the Protestant Irish side of the family blamed the Catholic hospital for her near death: "You know," they murmured, "they save the baby first, and then worry about the mother." I might try to find the death records later. I am just reporting now.
So eclampsia niggles around in the back of my mind every time someone I know is pregnant. And then Elana has headaches. I am mentally running in circles and shrieking. When she gets the blurred vision, I know what has happened. I am on the computer searching for eclampsia when Seth yells from upstairs in a tone that brooks no hesitation. I sprint for the stairs to see him struggling to hold her as she goes into grand mal seizures.
grand mal seizures.
The following are the immediate notes, from that day:
Eclampsia. An angel delivered Ron into the house from work
at exactly that moment.
EMT's arrived. They raced off to the hospital, had to
trach her, her airway and tongue were so swollen. C-section.

Immediate delivery is the only solution to eclampsia, the only way to save the mother.
When they put her in the rig, I was pretty sure we had lost her. Had no idea about the baby.
They got to the hospital and most of the ER, OB and Neonate workers were waiting in the ambulance bay. We learned later that student nurses were called down to watch. This is not voyeurism.
No one sees eclampsia any more. Better prenatal care catches the pre-eclampsia. They put the woman to bed and give her stuff to lower her blood pressure. Full blown eclampsia is such a rarity that the OB who delivered the baby had not seen it.

All this sounds calm. We are educated. We are a medical family. We handle panic through information.
Information is good. But it does not control the terror, not horror movie, fun terror, the real terror in the face of the death of a young woman and her baby. A daughter-in-law, a grandchild.
Terror possesses the body, inhabits your stomach, your head, you shoulders and toes which curl under. Really. And then it crawls off and lurks in the form of anxiety. It keeps you up or puts you to sleep. It makes you weepy or surly, snappish and stupid. Deep breathing helps, maybe. It did keep me from screaming and running around. Various things helped at various times: prayer, a friend showing up, mostly Amy's calm transmission of any information we needed and Ron's interpretations of all the ICU speak.
I never liked horror movies. I don't like being scared. I like it a lot less now. I need a Doris Day movie, I think. Or maybe just another long walk with the dog.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Illness as illness, not metaphor

So somewhere along the line we all got duped. The baby boomers that is. We were supposed to be invincible, eternally young, powerful.
At the moment five friends of mine have cancer, my husband has prostate cancer, another friend has Alzheimers'. How did that happen? We got suddenly old and we didn't expect it. My parents did, expect it. They knew from caring for their old parents, that after 50 or so, it was over. People got old, they dwindled, they died. They got eccentric or demented. Men had heart attacks. Women got "female trouble" and lingered for years, suffering. There was not much to do for them. Medicine up to about 60 years ago was palliative. Hence people's attitude was more realistic, grimmer. I have the sort of temperament that thinks grimmer is ok.
I exercise. I try to eat well but don't deny myself much, except perhaps in portion size. My friends do the same. My husband smoked for 40 years and finally quit. He eats whatever and how much of it he wants. My health conscious friends have cancer. My husband has cancer. My friend has Alzheimer's. Except for morbid obesity, which does clearly limit life, not much else seems to matter. Genes and dumb luck. But our grandparents knew that.
My point here that I am exhausted by health news. My well, so far, friends who go on about diet and water and vitamins and exercise have worn out my patience for such discussions. We are all going to get something. We are all going to die. Can we go back to talking about books now?

Sunday, September 13, 2009


Fall seems like such a season of changes, perhaps because we are moving into the dark of the year and we resist the changes. We have pulled all the vegetables and added compost and manure to the gardens. We will mulch and leave them over the winter. The tomato late blight really dampened the fun of gardening this summer, though the purple beans and peas did very well. The cucumbers didn't, but they never do. I need to test the soil for ph.
Days are visibly shorter. School has started. Changes. In my climate, where there is real winter, there is never enough summer. In the south, by September I was frantic for it to cool down, to be able to open windows again, for fall flowers. Here, there is a desperate last blooming. Asters, Queen Anne's lace, golden rod cover the roadsides. This year there has been so much rain that the flowers embody the word 'profuse." In the garden, golden and red mums begin to look like a reflection of the turning trees, a last glory before the snow comes. Here, where we could have snow in the a month or so.
Seth and Elana are coming in a month, snow would not be the welcome we'd hope to give them. Better the soft golden glow of a long warm autumn, the richness of Keat's sonnet laid out in welcome, apples, pumpkins, cornstalks and the mellow hazy air that marks a good October. The year disappearing softly into winter, a season most of us dislike. That is all right. We should dislike winter. It is hard and deadly. There will be a winter baby here this year, a new life coming around the solstice, to mark the turn of the light, the lengthening days, like the buds that lie furled on branches through the winter, promising.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Yoga Class

I hurt my back a couple of years ago and was out of aikido, my usual exercise. So I took a yoga class, as soon as I could sort of walk again. Believe me, there may be malingerers out there, but back pain is massively incapacitating. I got tired of crawling around my house and wanted more (or less) than a surgical solution. Steroids got me on my feet again. But clearly, my back was now damaged. Permanently. So I found a yoga class. And an instructor who is kindness itself. Or so I thought until we got to the end of the first class.
There we are, lying on our backs on the floor. Those of us with bad backs have our knees bent, others are flat down. Let me first explain that although I think of myself as non-competitive, I am. So all class I have been struggling to keep up and worried about not doing whatever as well as the woman next to me. So now I am reduced to competitively relaxing.
“Relax your toes,” David intones. I flex and then relax my toes. By the time I’ve finished, he’s up to the knees. Trying to stay relaxed, I race to catch up. This isn’t competition, I remind myself. It is, indeed, the very opposite. It is supposed to be the very opposite. By now he is telling us “walk your attention up our spine.” My mat is sticky. The room is hot. I don’t like the smell. I am not relaxing. The person next to me breathes elaborately slowly, noisily. My attention is not walking up my spine.

“Now let go your personality muscles,” the instructor goes on. I’ve missed the neck and shoulders, so I struggle to relax my face: mouth slackens. Years of smiling fall away. Words dribble out of the softened lips. My crow’s feet fly away, laugh crinkles melt back into the flesh of my face. Personality, character drain into the floor, leaving me plain. Mother lines, wife lines, grief, fear, intelligence all go. I sigh out a deep breath, imagining my face null, my life gone from it. Terror grips me, but I no longer have a face to register it. I lay there, blissfully outside myself. For a moment

David’s intrudes softly over the breathing of my neighbor as he tells us to wiggle our toes and feet. To imagine energy coming back into our bodies. “Listen to the sounds in the room.” My neighbor’s stenotic breathing. “And the sounds outside.” A dog barks somewhere. It is raining. “When you are ready, open your eyes.” Open them? That would mean using those muscles I’ve let go. It would bring back my crow’s feet. Deep breath. Open my eyes. Return from the oblivion of deep relaxation. I roll over, tuck my legs up under me and stand, relaxed. Not sure I want my personality back. Maybe I could get another one? What happens to them as we relax? For a moment I imagine David shuffling them among the people lying on their mats, oblivious. But he calls my name and says goodnight, so I am fairly sure I am still myself. I look in the mirror. Yep, my crow’s feet, my worry lines. But more relaxed. I walk out into the rain.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009


The neighbor's mastiff lies behind me, snoring. She spends part of almost everyday with us. My daughter adores her, and Sam loves her back. The daughter is working, but I have the dog because I am a sucker for big sad faces. And mastiffs have those. The snoring starts softly.
It has been raining here since mid-June. Really. I think we missed a couple of days but not more than one or two. Usually I take the Mastiff, aka Sam, and our dog to the park down the street. They can get off lease there and run around. We've been today. And now both dogs are asleep. I assume the rumbling is thunder. The floor vibrates softly. Not thunder. Sam is deep asleep and snoring. I am not making this up. The floor does vibrate slightly. One hundred and sixty pounds of dog rumbling vibrates through the floor.

My dog glares at her. Sam takes up most of the free floor space. My dog, Padme (don't ask) feels excluded. She an aloof beast and Sam craves affection. So Sam will move right in and demand petting, while Padme looks resentfully on. They have had two spats and seem to have worked out their relationship. Like two-year olds, they vie for attention, take each other's toys and food and then complain to their humans. No wonder people think of them as their 'children'. I could rant on that, but I just wanted to write about Sam snoring and me thinking it was far off thunder. Dogs are dogs, not babies, not kids, just companions whose breathing comforts us in our loneliness.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Life Failures in all seriousness

The trim on my house needs to be painted. I can’t do it and get it done in one summer.
Which is why the trim on half the windows is yellow and half blue. And some of the white parts aren’t any more. They are flaky. Those parts are too hard for someone without lots of experience in high places. So I have to get bids and pick a painter. This is anxiety producing. Mainly because of money. The last time I checked this out the painters wanted $3000. That is THREE THOUSAND DOLLARS. Hence the half-finished look which reproaches me every time I drive up to the house.

It looks slovenly. The yellow windows imply laziness, poor financial planning, and a general unworthiness. IF I had only WORKED HARDER at my career, I’d have money. (Or I would have finished the damn painting.) OR I could have married money but I didn’t. So I don’t have pots of money to throw at painters. If I had done those things, one or the other of them, I’d be able to afford a painter without stressing about it. I could call, get bids, pick the one I think most suitable and they would arrive with brushes and ladders and my chosen color of paint. They would scrape and scaffold and paint, and in a few days, I’d have have new looking trim. Some, I”m sure, would need replacing. Go ahead, I’d say. Fix it. And not sneak in the house to fret over the cost.

Painters will arrive. The work will get done. I will fret over the cost, over where the money will come from, while the primary breadwinner in our family goes off to even more over-time shifts and I feel feckless. This is the deal we have made in our marriage, but I am no longer comfortable with it. At my age a serious career is not looming over me. So I am stuck feeling that I should paint. I should do the work I can’t pay for. In future this could and probably will get worse, as lawn mowing and snow shovellng become more challenging.

Solutions? I have none. Who knows when or if we will ever be able to retire. The economy has twice fallen out from under our retirement funds, leaving the future precarious and anxiety producing. Panic inducing actually. Anxiety doesn’t describe it.
A house is a money sink. I have lived in a condominium and hated it. What to do? An apartment makes having a dog and even a cat, a challenge. A condo has no resale. A tent perhaps, though in my climate that would certainly put the challenge of pets and apartments into perspective.

Today, it is raining. You can’t paint in the rain. I suppose I could make a few calls. The painter won’t get cheaper. And if we get it done now, we won’t have to think about it for years. Perhaps never again. And it will be one less thing to obsess about.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

More on wedding pie.


Wedding pie to be specific. Not cake. They decided to serve pie. Fruit pies, apple, strawberry/rhubarb, cherry, peach/blackberry, apricot. With gold dust and pastry cutouts on the top. Egg wash made them golden. Nine pies on a table, glorious in their
goldeness and sparkles.

Inside. No corn starch and not much sugar. Mostly fruit, so they were not the cloying, pasty things one finds in stores. The fruit was in big chunks so when it baked and shrank a bit, it remained recognizably fruit and IN NO WAY resembled the typical apple pie filling, for example, that is always waaaay too close to the Ritz Cracker fake apple version. Mush in the mouth.

For my taste the apricot and the strawberry/rhubarb were the best. Maybe a teaspoon short of sugar but a nice change in their tartness from the baked beans and mac and cheese of the wedding food. Salade Shirazi and the bean salad were sharp and crisp and offered palate cleansing. The pies, after a suitable procession from the house, offered rich flavor, sweetness and tartness at the end of the wedding feast.

The Tyranny of Green

The tyranny of green

This isn’t an environmental rant. Or maybe it is. After a week in Los Angeles, surrounded by flowers of eye-popping color, I am home again in upstate New York enveloped by trees, grass, bushes, weeds, all in brilliant green. Green everywhere. The tulips and daffodils are gone. The roses and peonies not yet out. Spirea drapes its whiteness across green lawns, an echo of winter when snow drapes itself across evergreens. Is white a color? I learned in school that it wasn’t. It is an accent, perhaps, to other colors, a background but not much in itself.

In California, color engages or assaults the eye. Blue sky, pale brilliant blue in day, darker and richer in the evening. The browns and grey-greens in the xeriscaped yards and surrounding hills provide an understated background to the flowers. Along the roads, in right-of-ways, wildflowers add yellow and orange. The jacaranda trees were in bloom, pale purple glory arching over the streets and giving canopy to the other flowers: roses in the usual reds, pinks, and white. Other roses in yellow, yellow and orange, corals in various intensities. Jasmine flows everywhere. It was blooming, its scent almost too much to bear on some streets. Lavender and speedwell spike up, giving texture to gardens. And then there are the hibiscus, again the usual colors but also a deep creamy yellow so lovely you could taste its yellowness.

Flowers enchant any landscape. And I love the colors, but the real beauty of the hills and landscape are the colors I have no name for. Greys and greens that are neither. Browns, tans, ochers both more and less than those words imply. They force the eye to work; it can see millions of colors. The brain registers them. Language unfortunately has not kept pace. The colors tease at the eye; the brain searches for the right words. Greynish doesn’t do it. Is that more grey than green? What about the greens that are also grey? I think there are numbers for them, but how romantic is that? They need dry names, in keeping with their desert home. Something spare and whispering. It’s the desert landscape, the mix of beauty and danger. The desert is beautiful, and much more lethal than where I live, despite the hard winters. Yet its beauty moves me almost to tears. Or beyond them. My soul wants clarity, spareness that untangles the messes of life and gives pure answers. Both arctic and desert landscapes call to that longing. Both are deadly as life. Softer climates, where there is water and perhaps easily available food, crowd the eye and soul, deceive perhaps, that there is no danger. There is, of course, but the landscape cheats the eye and heart. One thinks, I can live here, I can relax, perhaps Eden was like this. IF Adam and Eve had been created in the desert, or even in drylands, that serpent would never have got so far. We who live in green persuade ourselves that beauty is safe, is meant for us, is believable.

All those flowers in California are cultivated to defend against the desert. As with so much else in Los Angeles, they provide a set, a scene to inhabit. But here, where I live in the east, I am enfolded by green. My half-joking fear of being strangled by vines that creep in my windows is only that. Half a joke. Grass, vines, shrubs, trees will take me back in the end, quickly, never leaving a bone exposed.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Reactions to the wedding

Wedding Pies

Go for and be fruitful,
the Lord commanded

The garden provided rhubarb
southern California yielded
cherries, white and deep red,
strawberries, bulbous blackberries,
and sweet apricots
orangey-gold velvet.

Sliced strawberries fall heart-shaped
among cubes of baked rhubarb.
I dig stones from cherries,
quarter apricots. Lemon
juice goes in,
not too much sugar,
perhaps not enough,
but these are wedding pies
and should not be too sweet.

We sand them with gold and silver sugar,
from the pastry, we cut hearts, lay them
on the tops.

Juice bubbles up and runs out,
tart and spicy. Eat it warm or cold.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


A thing I need to speak to God about when I get to the place where one can do such things, spring. I love spring, especially in the abstract. Flowers come up. Snow goes away, a great boon where I live. First it smells muddy and new, then green and sweet. It is sunny. Sunny, after the grey of winter, of which we have a lot. The red-wing blackbirds arrive, right after the robins. Boy robins have black heads, their breeding plummage. They stake out territory and squabble, just like human boys. They are cute.
The daffodils are up and blooming, giving a serious lesson in microclimates. The daffys in the village, a mile away, bloom about a week before mine do. For the past few months, seed catalogs have weighed down the postman and my sagging mailbox. I have ordered the tomatoes. And joined a CSA. We plan other veggies, but this summer my heart has turned to flowers. Tulips, zinnias, dahlias, peonies. Things to scent the outside. Things to cut and bring in. I am hoping for wild pumpkins from the ones left out last fall. The snow came so early we never finished cleaning up the garden. My co-gardener looks askance at wild pumpkins, but I plan to move them up back next to the blackberry canes and what is left of the old lilac. I killed half of it and spared the rest.

So spring. Why do I want to talk to God about it?
Sex. Tree sex that is. Thousand of trees spewing pollen all over. The wind fills with it and carries to my nose, eyes and bronchial tubes. It makes my head ache. I cough and sneeze. This year I sneezed so much and so hard I burst a blood vessel in my right eye. People then had to go around saying "ewwww, what happened to your eye?" And I had to say, "No my husband doesn't beat me." Then there is the asthmatic phase, where I don't breathe well and have coughing fits. I lose my voice (not an altogether bad thing). Worse I get whiney and kvetch. In the south I hid in air conditioned buildings. But here? I've been in all winter. Who could stay in now? I can't. I take pills and use inhalers. I go outside. I garden. But I wish the Unmade had come up with some other means of tree reproduction. And I plan to complain when I get wherever.

Monday, March 23, 2009


Movie notes

First Milk. Excellent film and a terrific performance by Penn. He does passion and nuance well and never chews the scenery. The film documents that period in the 70s, when the gay movement appeared in the national news like a slowly swelling wave. It asked the question “Do you know someone gay?” And Milk was correct. Gays need to come out so that the rest of us could see them as people Obviously, it took a while. But when the AIDS epidemic hit, despite all the ridiculous reaction to that as a gay disease, the idea that we all knew someone who was gay was easier to take in, to absorb as a culture. The cinematography is good, the set dressing spot on. Especially the geek glasses from the 70s.
A good score, lots of opera. So I turn to my husband and ask “What’s a straight guy to do?” I mean all that opera in this film and in Philadelphia. And the stereotype of gays and opera. How does a straight guy ‘come out’ and admit he likes opera?
This has been keeping me up.

Second Twilight. Egad what a dog of a movie. It stinks from the beginning to the end. The acting is dead. Maybe it is supposed to be that way? A joke I missed? “Vegetarian” vampires who only drink animal blood. Oh please. Bella is so unreactive to anyone or anything, despite her protests that she adores Edward, that she could be a stick with hair. Edward is funny looking and the Indian boy who would be a good match for her and is hot, is simply disregarded. Her mother is about as emotive as a teddy bear. And her father, who is supposed to be taciturn succeeds marvelously.
Oh did I mention the feud between the vampire people and the vampires? Some hint at myth there, but it goes nowhere, beyond glaring, that is. Lots of glaring between the Indians and the vamps. And why is the Indian dad in a wheelchair?
There are scenes of Edward carrying Bella on his back while he climbs trees and leaps about in treetops. After Crouching Tiger, no one should try that. They just look silly. The scenery is good, though it would be hard for it not to be out there in Washington along the coast.
I know, I know. It is aimed at 13 year old girls. That is the real evil of this film which is otherwise just stupid. It replays, albeit chastely, which I do applaud, the old love at first sight, girl in need of rescue, story, that no young woman needs to fixate on. I am not against love. Or crushes. Really they are fun. Vampires as the ultimate high school outsiders are a great metaphor. But how many 13 year old girls get metaphor? Bad boys, even good bad boys, don’t get better just because a girl loves them. The Vampire as good guy is fascinating metaphor in our time. Didn’t they used to be soulless and un-redeemable? Apparently this is changing, e.g. Spike and Angel. There appears to be a scholarly reaction:

Margaret L Carter , a scholar of vampire literature, has defined good guy vampires as vampires who act morally when dealing with mortals, and, as a whole, conform their moral perspective to a human ethical perspective. They obtain blood without killing or "raping" their victims, and generally acquire their blood from animals, blood banks, or willing human donors. A few use synthetic blood substitutes. Carter also maintains that the good guy vampires retain personality and freedom of choice, and are not so consumed with blood lust that ethical decisions become impossible. Good guy vampires tend to emerge in one of two situations: First, they are basically good people who discover themselves trapped in the evil condition-vampirism-and are forced to continually fight against it; second, vampirism is pictured as an ethically neutral state, in which vampires could make ethical decisions on how to find their needed sustenance ... blood.

The moral dimension is hinted at, but not really explored. Bella just accepts that her dream boy/man, love for all time, belongs to a mythical group of mostly nasty folk. And wants him to make her part of the group. Again I believe some 13 year old girls could be so love struck. Bella, however, is not 13. She is smart and independent. Until Edward spurns her in chem lab and she turns into a dishrag, overcome with love, and wants to become the undead? And what I seriously don’t like is that the movie emphasizes this transition, even if Edward doesn’t. Movies have few enough smart girl characters (don’t ask about Hermione, I am cranky about the way she is treated by Rowling throughout). Still this series was written by a Mormon woman, so perhaps I expect too much. Perhaps this old feminist should just stick to gardening and not watch movies made more recently than 1945. :-}

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Grinding my teeth flat.

Rage in the Classroom 4 March 2009

To quote Jane Austen, I am all astonishment.
Yesterday, fully half of my Global LIterature class, a 300 level class, confessed that they had yet to hand in one paper. Three of which were due by 5 March. Without them, one could not take the midterm.

Silly me for putting such draconian threats in the syllabus. What to do? I have two dilemmas. The midterm, obviously. And then there is the revision class I scheduled for the day we return from spring break.Students think revision means fixing the commas and handing the paper back in. And for this they should get an A. I will be gone to the south to visit family for the first time in three years. But, being a responsible person, I arranged to get the class covered. And in doing that to give students a chance to revise one of the papers they have already handed in.

Somehow, when I started out, it all seemed benign. Now. It is a nightmare. I asked who hadn’t handed in a paper and clearly there were so many I would have to shift somehow. Or not. And my rage is about that. More later. Add to the mix of slackers, two women who are in the midst of personal tragedy. Three actually but she wasn’t in class and I got that news later in an email. One’s partner was having some breast cancer complication. She starts off, loudly proclaiming that giving any accommodation to the slackers is unjust to those who did their work(despite enormous personal cost, in parens to me). I mean she is loud and says she is going on a rant, looking defiantly at me. And she is very red in the face. Did mention loud?

After years of aikido training, I finally manage to use it. I sidestep the attack.I look her straight in the eye. I hold up a hand “Five minutes,” I say. “You can have five minutes.” She stops completely and says very softly, “I’m done.” I breathe and say “That still leaves us without a solution.”

Says the woman next to her, who unbeknownst to me was crying throughout class, “Well how about if people get what they can to you tomorrow by 3. And those who don’t, don’t get to rewrite.” Everyone agrees that might work. Notice no one has mentioned the midterm. Nor have I. Hence the rage at my own cowardice. I should have brought it up. I should have said no last minute papers that I have to print and rush to grade while I am fasting, running my own kid around and trying to get ready to leave on my trip tomorrow. I should have just left every last one of them swinging in the wind.

So why didn’t I? Fear. Cowardice. Not wanting to face the hassle of a pack of angry students who think the world revolves around them or are so scattered about the work they are at that they can’t read the syllabus. At the moment I hate them. I hate myself.

Oh and then there is the student who wasn't in class but emailed me a paper. She was a wreck because her partner had recently become disabled and suddenly the burden of that, school, work all fell on her. She’ll be ok.

Me. The last term I ever teach, I swear I am going to say whatever pops into my head.
For now I have to go file points back on the teeth I ground down.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Food and Eating in Hinduism and the Baha'i Faith

A Brief Comparison

Eating customs are among the most deeply entrenched behaviors of any culture. At its most basic level eating keeps us alive. Beyond that level however, food and eating co-mingle with other emotional needs. As M.F. K. Fisher says, “There is communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine is drunk.” Combined with the sanction of religious taboo and long custom, dietary laws and traditions become among the strongest bonds put upon us. Indeed Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik in the introduction to their collection Food and Culture: A Reader, remind us that Eating is an endlessly evolving enactment of . . . community relationships” (1). And while it is open to dispute, Claude Levi-Strauss posits that cooking, like language, is a universal human activity. To this end, he suggested that people everywhere consume food that is raw, cooked or rotted: In any cuisine, nothing is simply cooked, but must be cooked in one fashion or another. Nor is there any condition of pure rawness: only certain foods can really be eaten raw, and then only if they have been selected, washed, pared or cut, or even seasoned. Rotting, too, is only allowed to take place in specific ways, either spontaneous or controlled” (Quoted in Food and Culture).
Levi-Strauss suggested universality of these categories, all people at all times have structured their food consumption around them, which leads to a consideration of how food preparation and consumption embed themselves into a culture. Most dietary laws come from religious or scientific sources. In America, today, we have perhaps replaced religion with science, but we still control, condemn or approve, and enjoy eating according to strict ‘rules,” albeit ones that seem to change with dizzying speed. For many people both in the U.S. or around the world, however, diet is also regulated by religious teaching. Not to go too far afield, but the dietary laws most of us in the west are familiar with are those of Judaism or Islam. The Bible hints at three dietary ages: the Edenic which is vegetarian; the Noaic in which everything is available to man for food including meat, but not blood: the Mosaic which sorts out the clean and the unclean beasts from which man may eat(Soler, in Food and Culture,56, 57). Hinduism also constrains its followers with strict laws regarding diet and commensality. In the Baha’i Faith, however, we have been released from dietary constraints with two exceptions: alcohol and animals found already dead, carrion.
These prohibitions make excellent sense. They reinforce the dignity of man by protecting him from drunkenness with its accompanying social and physical evils. Eating meat found dead, rather than humanely slaughtered, properly drained of blood and gutted leaves man open to disease. It also implies an innate cruelty that would underly a culture that sustained itself in such ways. Additionally, these dietary laws allow Baha’is to travel the world and eat among any people. And it leaves peoples who join the Faith free to continue cultural ways that are among the deepest and most meaningful to any group. We have only to consider the role of food at ethnic identifier for Italian Americans or African Americans. Thus the Baha’i traveler or teacher can truly be a world citizen, at home in any culture.
Dietary laws from ancient revelations, have of course on a very physical level been designed to protect adherents from illness. They reinforce larger concepts such as the agreement of science and religion. Dietary restrictions also allow identity within a group and without, providing clear boundaries between those who belong at the commensal table and those who cannot enter the community. Hindu dietary laws, I confess, present a bewildering array of rules about food and its preparation, the manner of eating, and those with whom one may consume food. Abdu’l-Baha helps to explain the variations in the laws that we find when we compare religious teachings:

Secondly: Laws and ordinances which are temporary and non-essential. These concern human transactions and relations. They are accidental and subject to change according to the exigencies of time and place. These ordinances are neither permanent nor fundamental. For instance during the time of Noah it was expedient that sea foods be considered as lawful; therefore God commanded Noah to partake of all marine animal life. During the time of Moses this was not in accordance with the exigencies of Israel's existence, therefore a second command was revealed partly abrogating the law concerning marine foods. During the time of Abraham -- Upon him be peace! -- camel's milk was considered a lawful and acceptable food; likewise the flesh of the camel; but during Jacob's time because of a certain vow he made, this became unlawful
(Abdu'l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, p. 93)

On one hand, we can consider these riches of guidance as an example of how religion and science reinforce each other. Ancient people were not ignorant. They understood spoilage and such. They also knew without having a scientific vocabulary for it that certain animals had very primitive digestive systems which might produce ‘unclean’ meat. Beyond that, they clearly understood the role of spices in preserving food and in making plain foods (lentils) palatable. Today we count five tastes that allow us to enjoy food, along with the sense of smell. And indeed, those tastes are described in Ayurvedic medicine.

The Six Tastes
How much of each Dosha your body produces depends primarily on which Tastes you consume. The tastes influence the balance of the Doshas in the body. Like the Doshas they are derived from the Five Great Elements. They have profound effect on all parts of the organism and not merely the tongue.

Sweet. Composed mainly of Earth and Water. Sweet increases Kapha, decreases Pitta and Vata, and is cooling, heavy and unctuous. It nourishes and exhilarates the body and mind, and relieves hunger and thirst. It increases all tissues.Sweet produces satisfaction or satiation. Overindulgence in Sweet Taste leads to its negative aspects, complacency and greed. Intense complacent effect increases the naturally inert, complacent Kapha, cools the anger of Pitta and comforts the fear of Vata.

Sour. Composed mainly of Earth and Fire. Sour increases Kapha and Pitta, decreases Vata, and is heating, heavy, and unctuous. Sour refreshes the being, encourage elimination of wastes, lessens spasms and tremors, and improves appetite and digestion. Produces the searching outside oneself for things to possess. Sour causes evaluation of a thing in order to determine its desirability which selectively enhances certain appetites. Overindulgence in evaluation leads to envy and jealousy, which may manifest as deprecation of the thing desired, as in the "sour grapes" syndrome. Envious effect increases Kapha if envy of another's success incites you to obtain further success for yourself. Otherwise Pitta will increase as jealousy mutates into anger over the raw deal you feel you are getting from life. Envy does help reduce Vata, by focusing and heating up your consciousness.

Salty. Composed mainly of Water and Fire. Salty increases Kapha and Pitta, decreases Vata, and is heavy, heating and unctuous. Salty eliminates wastes and cleanses the body , and increases the digestive capacity and appetite. It softens and loosens the tissues. Salty Taste increases zest for life, which enhances all appetites. Overindulgence in zest leads to hedonism, the craving for indulgence in all sensory pleasures physically available to the body.

Pungent. Composed mainly of Fire and Air. pungent (which is hot and spicy like chilli peppers) increases Pitta and Vata, decreases Kapha, and is heating, light and dry. Pungent flushes all types of secretion from the body, and reduces all Kapha-like tissues such as semen, milk and fat. It improves the appetite. Pungent Taste is productive of extroversion, the tendency to excitement and stimulation, and particularly the craving for intensity. Overexcitement and over-stimulation leads to irritability, impatience and anger (pungent language or a sharp retort). Pungent Taste increases Pitta by actively increasing the flow of hormones and digestive juices, making it easier both to digest and to manifest anger. It relieves Kapha by decreasing self-satisfaction, and temporarily relieves Vata by permitting expression of bottled-up resentment. In the long run, however, Pungent increases Vata by exhausting the organs and glands, which, "dries you out", limiting your ability to project aggression or unhappiness outwards.

Bitter. Composed mainly of Air and Space. Bitter increases Vata, decreases Pitta and Kapha, and is cooling, light and dry. Bitter purifies and dries all secretions, is anti-aphrodisiac, and tones the organism by returning all Tastes to normal balance. It increases appetite, and controls skin diseases and fevers.Bitter Taste produces dissatisfaction , which produces a desire to change. When you have to swallow a "bitter pill"' its bitterness dispels your self-delusion and forces you to face reality. Too much disappointment leads to frustration, which confirms your system in bitterness. Grief is also bitter.Bitter is best of all Six Tastes. As Dr. Vasant Lad says, "Bitter is better." in small amounts Bitter helps balance all other tastes in the body. Just as mild dissatisfaction with yourself or your situation impels you to change, Bitter dilates channels which are too constricted, thus reducing Kapha and its complacency , and constricts those which are overdilated, thus reducing Pitta and its anger. Overuse of Bitter increases Vata as dissatisfaction and continuous change induces insecurity and fear.

Astringent. Composed mainly of Air and Earth. Astringent (which makes your mouth pucker) increases Vata, decreases Pitta and Kapha, and is cooling, light and dry. Astringent heals, purifies and constricts all parts of the body. It reduces all secretions, and is anti-aphrodisiac. Astringent Taste produces introversion, the tendency away from excitement and stimulation. Excessive introversion leads to insecurity, anxiety and fear. Astringency causes contraction, which makes you "shrivel like a prune." and clamps the "cold, bony hand of fear" around your throat. Astringent taste constricts, drawing one away from the self-satisfaction of Kapha, and the self-aggrandisement of Pitta. Its constriction increases fear of insufficient sensory "nutrition" and leads to increased Vata.

All these tastes are essential for proper functioning of the organism, and reach us primarily through our food.

Modern science tells us that we can detect the four tastes we all learned in school: sweet, salt, sour, and bitter. Additionally, Umami (旨味?) is one of the five basic tastes sensed by specialized receptor cells present on the human tongue. Umami is a loanword from Japanese meaning roughly "delicious flavor", although "brothy", "meaty", or "savory" have been proposed as alternate translations.[1][2] The same taste is also known as xiānwèi (traditional Chinese: 鮮味; simplified Chinese: 鲜味 literally "Fresh Flavor") in Chinese cooking. In as much as it describes the flavor common to savory products such as meat, cheese, and mushrooms, umami is similar to Brillat-Savarin's concept of osmazome, an early attempt to describe the main flavoring component of meat as extracted in the process of making stock (Wikipedia)

When humans eat, they use all of their senses (sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste) to form general judgments about their food, but it is taste that is the most influential in determining how delicious a food is. Conventionally, it has been thought that our sense of taste is comprised of four basic, or ‘primary’, tastes, which cannot be replicated by mixing together any of the other primaries: sweet, sour, salt and bitter. However, it is now known that there is actually a fifth primary taste: umami.
The Hindu list adds astringent and pungent to our familiar list of four. The include spicy and astringent under the list of ‘tastes’ that we can detect in the mouth.
While man was not ready for the concept of ribonucleotides (in umami) when the Vedas were revealed, the Hindu pantheon of flavors seems to echo our modern understanding of taste and its function in food. The dictionary lists pungent as an adjective with the following synonyms. 1. strong, hot, spicy, seasoned, sharp, acid, bitter, stinging, sour, tart, aromatic, tangy, acrid, peppery, piquant, highly flavoured, acerb << OPPOSITE mild.

On a larger scale, Hindu dietary law serves to support the caste structure of HIndu culture.To give just two examples: Food must be prepared according to defined practice and the preparer’s status or state of mind can affect the ‘quality’ of the food, making it unfit for consumption.

From The Mahabharata Anusasana Parva, Section CXLII
Translated by Sri Kisari Mohan Ganguli

Mahadeva said: Those that are righteous and desirous of acquiring merit always pursue with firmness the culture of the soul. The food that comes from cruel or fierce persons is censurable. So also the food that has been cooked for serving a large number of persons. The same is said of the food that is cooked in view of the first Sraddha of a deceased person. So also is the food that is stained in consequence of the usual faults and the food that is supplied by a Sudra. These should never be taken by a Brahmana (priest)at any time. The food of a Sudra is always disapproved of by the high-souled deities.

If a Brahmana, who has set up the sacred fire and who performs sacrifices, were to die with any portion of a Sudra's food remaining undigested in his stomach, he is sure to take birth in his next life as a Sudra. In consequence of those remains of a Sudra's food in his stomach, he falls away from the status of a Brahmana. Such a Brahmana becomes invested with the status of a Sudra. There is no doubt in this. This Brahmana in his next life becomes invested with the status of that order upon whose food he subsists through life or with the undigested portion of whose food in his stomach he breathes his last. That man who, having attained to the auspicious status of a Brahmana which is so difficult to acquire, disregards it and eats interdicted food, falls away from his high status.
Additionally many foods are forbidden for reasons that now seems arbitrary and obscure.

“Forbidden foods
From The Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva Section CIV
One should eat only such food as is not forbidden in the scriptures, abstaining from food of every kind on days of the new moon and the full moon. One should never eat the flesh of animals not slain in sacrifice. One should never eat the flesh of the back of an animal. The flesh of goats, of kine (cows), and the peacock, should never be eaten. One should also abstain from dried flesh and all flesh that is stale. One should not slay a bird (for eating it), especially after having fed it.
All food that is forbidden in ritual acts should never be taken even on other occasions. The fruits of the Ficus Religiosa (sacred fig or Peepul tree) and the Ficus Bengalensis (in English:Banyan tree; as also the leaves of the Crotolaria Juncea (Sunn Hemp), and the fruits of Ficus Glomerata(cluster fig or Gular fig or country fig tree), should never be eaten by one who is desirous of his own good. The remnants of food and drink, as also the flowers with which one has worshipped the deities, should never be used.
The man of intelligence should never eat any salt, taking it up with his hand.
Nor should he eat curds and flour of fried barley at night. One desirous of food should never drink curds at the conclusion of a meal.
One should never eat off the same plate with another even if that other happens to be of one's own or equal rank. One should never even touch the remnants of other people's dishes and plates. Nor should one ever eat any food that has been prepared by a woman in her functional period.
One should never eat any food or drink any liquid whose essence has been taken off. Nor should one eat anything without giving a portion thereof to persons that wishfully gaze at the food that one happens to take.
One should, with concentrated attention, eat once in the morning and once in the evening, abstaining entirely from all food during the interval. One should never eat any food in which one may detect a hair. Nor should one eat at the Sraddha of an enemy. One should eat silently; one should never eat without covering one's person with an upper garment. One should never eat any food placing it on the bare ground. One should never eat except in a sitting posture. One should never eat while walking. One should never make any noise while eating. One who sits to one's meals after having washed one's feet, lives for a hundred years. One should first wash one's mouth thrice with water before any food. Having finished one's meals, one should wash one's mouth thrice with water and twice again.
One should eat one's food with face turned eastwards, restraining speech the while and without censuring the food that is eaten. If one eats with face turned eastwards, one becomes endued with longevity. By eating with face turned southwards, one acquires great fame. By eating with face turned westwards, one acquires great wealth. By eating with face turned northwards, one becomes truthful in speech. One should always leave a remnant of the food that is placed before one for eating. One should never take a meal without eating some sesame.
Inviting a guest at night, one should never, with excessive courtesy , force him to eat to the point of gratification. Nor should one eat oneself to the point of gratification. After the meal is finished, one should wash one's mouth and face with the right hand only. After washing, one should touch the crown of one's head with the right hand. Having finished one's meals, one should mentally touch fire.”

After hundreds if not thousands of years, much of the advice seems unclear and without practical basis. Compare this with Baha’u’llah’s advice on eating, “ A little food in the morning is like a light to the body. Leave all harmful habits, they cause unhappiness in the world. Search for the cause of disease. This saying is the end of this speech” (Law-i-Tibb). Here we see the wisdom of updating the social teachings, as new manifestation does. In this day, with refrigeration and better animal husbandry and farming, such elaborate laws are not necessary to protect our health. In addition, the new teachings of the Baha’i Faith eliminate the striations and stigma of caste thus opening the way for believers of all backgrounds to eat together of whatever food they wish. This sense of commensality will allow Baha’i communities of the future to embody the oneness of mankind that is the central tenet of our faith.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Inauguration notes

Inauguration notes.

The Weekend and The Week have come.
I find myself feeling very odd, feeling like I belong. For so long I have felt outside the mainstream of my country. Now with Obama and Biden rolling across the country,
headed toward Washington, I am holding my breath elatedly, happily, scared.
So much could go wrong.

Cool, sophisticated, detached would be the safe way to be. Raised on political cynicism, I want to say with the pundits, those who supposedly know--It can’t last. Nothing changes. He’ll turn out to be like all the rest.

Call me a cock-eyed optimist. I believe things will get better, in many ways. Maybe not the economy right away. That seems to be a problem outside any one man's control.
Instead I look forward to a slow change in attitudes: maybe being one
of the good guys will become all right, maybe being a really smart, attractive
woman who gets along with her mum will be all right, maybe consensus works.
I hope, I don’t have hope, I actively hope that my country will find itself. A disillusioned liberal from the 60s has suddenly decided to take another chance with her heart. I love these guys. Along with millions, I hope and think they will do as well as anyone can in our clumsy system. They might even do better than all right.

A story that lives in our family resonates today especially. Ron's great grandmother was
taken to see Lincoln's funeral cortege as it rolled through Indiana.

A story that probably connects millions of us, sets itself a little deeper in my heart. Part of my family stood beside the tracks and waited through days and nights, to pay respect to the man who held the Union together for us. All these years later, a man who benefitted from Lincoln's courage, and his children, the descendants of slaves, roll across the country, through the night toward Washington,toward the future.

I am cynical. It is hard not to be in this time and place. After the nadir of Watergate, and all that resulted from that, the despair and loss of focus for my generation, the sense that my fellow Americans were more than willing to sell the Constitution for a mess
of pot(tage), after the sleeping years of Reagan, after the malfeasance of the past eight years, today is a time to breathe, to step back a moment, to allow ourselves a little national political happiness. I am happy just to be with the in-group for a few minutes. It is a new place for me. I like it. I fear a lot, loss of political will, failure of the economy, assassination(the punctuation of my adult life), but for a few days I am going to revel in good rhetoric, in a handsome young couple with some beautiful kids and
a dream for tomorrow. I am going to face forward.

Inauguration notes

Inauguration notes.

The Weekend and The Week have come.
I find myself feeling very odd, feeling like I belong. For so long I have felt outside the mainstream of my country. Now with Obama and Biden rolling across the country,
headed toward Washington, I am holding my breath elatedly, happily, scared.
So much could go wrong.

Cool, sophisticated, detached would be the safe way to be. Raised on political cynicism, I want to say with the pundits, those who supposedly know--It can’t last. Nothing changes. He’ll turn out to be like all the rest.

Call me a cock-eyed optimist. I believe things will get better, in many ways. Maybe not the economy right away. That seems to be a problem outside any one man's control.
Instead I look forward to a slow change in attitudes: maybe being one
of the good guys will become all right, maybe being a really smart, attractive
woman who gets along with her mum will be all right, maybe consensus works.

I hope, I don’t have hope, I actively hope that my country will find itself. A disillusioned liberal from the 60s has suddenly decided to take another chance with her heart. I love these guys. Along with millions, I hope and think they will do as well as anyone can in our clumsy system. They might even do better than all right.

A story that lives in our family resonates today especially. Ron's great grandmother was taken to see Lincoln's funeral cortege as it rolled through Indiana.A story that probably connects millions of us, sets itself a little deeper in my heart. Part of my family stood beside the tracks and waited through days and nights, to pay respect to the man who held the Union together for us. All these years later, a man who benefitted from Lincoln's courage, and his children, the descendants of slaves, roll across the country, through the night toward Washington,toward the future.

I am cynical. It is hard not to be in this time and place. After the nadir of Watergate, and all that resulted from that, the despair and loss of focus for my generation, the sense that my fellow Americans were more than willing to sell the Constitution for a mess of pot(tage), after the sleeping years of Reagan, after the malfeasance of the past eight years, today is a time to breathe, to step back a moment, to allow ourselves a little national political happiness. I am happy just to be with the in-group for a few minutes. It is a new place for me. I like it. I fear a lot, loss of political will, failure of the economy, assassination(the punctuation of my adult life), but for a few days I am going to revel in good rhetoric, in a handsome young couple with some beautiful kids and a dream for tomorrow. I am going to face forward.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Blue Star

7 August 2008

I took the blue star out of the front window. It had been there since April 2007. It was faded; the red gone to a faint red, not pink, the blue dimmed to blue-grey. The star is the same pattern that Betsy Ross used. I was going to join the Blue Star Mothers online and get a flag from them, thinking this would be a good thing. Thinking I might need to talk to them sometime during Seth’s deployment. But then there was the issue of the loyalty oath they wanted me to sign. A loyalty oath, to get into a group I had not desire to belong to anyhow? No. So I looked for a five-pointed star pattern online and found the one Betsy Ross used in first flag. I liked that, liked the continuity of it because while I didn’t believe for a moment my son was defending his country, I love my country and connecting back to our better selves felt good.
When I hung it, I didn’t think of the sun and the way it damages fabric. I thought a lot of the damage the sun in a place like Iraq can do and sent sunblock. Even though the Base Exchange carried it, he probably wouldn’t buy it. He said he didn’t need armor despite all the news stories. ‘We don’t wear most of it anyhow,” he said. So I sent sunblock, the only armor I could provide, unless you count love and prayers, a constant shield around him from roughly 6,000 miles. His friends and ours were praying, too. I fantasized that a mother’s prayers were special. But that was a fantasy. That was clear from the daily news.
He called from Ft. Lewis, back at last. He was safe. At last I turned off the cell phone, which had been on in class, in doctor’s offices, in places with clear signs ordering me to turn it off. The only place I lost that battle was in the Federal building in Syracuse. The security guards cared not a whit for my pleas. They took the phone and gave me a chit for it. The whole time we were in the Social Security office, I fidgeted, wanting to run downstairs and check. What if he had got hurt? No that would go to the home phone, but he might have just called. If I missed the call I couldn’t call back. For the entire deployment, I saved all the phone messages we had from before he left, in case I never heard his voice again. I especially loved the one about the free llama. He was driving back from a retreat in Canada and saw a sign. It was a typical message, laughing and light hearted, the way we would have wanted to remember him.
When his sister deployed to Qatar, I didn’t have a recording of her voice to save. But she sounds like me. In phrasing and vocabulary, in wry humor we all sound alike. And her daughter sounds so much like her I can no longer tell them apart on the phone. Amy and I couldn’t be more different in nature and temperament, but she is the self I might have been, a better me, who calls rarely, loves me from afar, and goes her own way. When she was two she walked off and left me in a mall and was non-plussed when I found her. Not even scared. A thing I envied, even as I scolded her for terrifying me.
We sent snack packages to both. I included lotion for her. The desert is dry. She laughs at me, in email; “As if we don’t have everything here.” True. The US works hard to make deployment like playing: AC, movies, a complete Base Exchange, phones, email. Over and over I wonder how those other women did it, during other wars when a letter might come occasionally or not at all. When a letter was an act of faith so great my heart quails to think of it. You wrote, “My dearest son,” walked to the post office, purchased the stamps, yielded the content of your heart, the prayers encoded in the minutiae of daily life that he wanted to hear, believing it would get to him, mostly to him, since women came late to the field of war. And then you waited, went on with life, ran the farm or business, tended the other children. During their deployments I often pictured myself perched on the mailbox, waiting. I had to wait there, to keep the mailman from pulling his black car into the driveway.
They come in a black car. Two soldiers. To bring the news of a loved one’s death. No impersonal telegrams with black borders, the ones my mother’s generation so feared. And further back there were lists from the newspaper or no news at all. One waited. We planned, as if it would help. I told his little sister what to do if they came and his father and I weren’t home. Let them in. Call us. make coffee for them. Wait. I planned in my head what I might do: lock the door, faint, wail and howl, serve them coffee in silence, run upstairs and hide in the room he sleeps in when he is here. But you never know and you can’t plan. His father never talked about it. He didn’t read the will his son left, a graceful, thoughtful document. We never even joked about the money we’d get, though I planned what to do with that: pay off the debts, set up funds (tiny ones-the ‘death benefit’ isn’t that much) for his sister’s kids or invest for our old age, maybe take one trip, mostly give it all to the Baha’i Faith in his name. When I explained to the mailman, he was more than happy to park on the street and lug things up the hundred-foot drive.
No letters came. He used email. But I wrote to him, long letters full of babblings about the garden, my classes, Da and the other sister still at home, what I was watching on TV. It was a grand gesture really, a way to feel kinship with women of other wars. And it was for the feel of writing, the fountain pen on paper. I wished for elegant stationery, but mostly wrote in the graph paper notebooks I favor. I tore out the pages and sent them with Star Wars stamps. Star Wars was a childhood obsession. He said he liked the stamps and the letters. Who knows? I imagine him reading them, grinning at my voice, so like his own, and perhaps keeping them. I hope he kept them.
Amy sent effusive emails of thanks for the snacks or as we call them snackies. Apparently we made quite a hit with the fighter pilots with whom she shared. Seth put his out in the day room or invited friends over for parties. Now that they are back, I cruise past the snack aisle in stores. I am not possessed by the urge to make cookies, nor do I search the King Arthur Cookie cookbook for recipes that will withstand the long journey to Iraq or Qatar,that will endure the heat. No chocolate they said between April and November. Savories were always welcome. For the Baha’i holidays in February we sent books and toys and goodies. Amy sent embroideries from Qatar and saffron. Seth sent things via the Internet, flowers for the little sister, books and music for us.
The rear battalion called to invite us to the welcome home celebration at Ft. Lewis. Nice. Also the first contact I had had from them in the entire fifteen months. Still, no news is good news. Seth had already called from the airport and then emailed. His sister emailed, but never called. So they were back. At first I walked around in an elated daze, grinning to myself and laughing and crying at odd moments. I prayed and thanked God repeatedly. No bargaining, no promising to be good forever because my children had returned safely, just praise and thanksgiving. And a remembrance of those who did not return safely and a prayer for their mothers who waited in vain. And then I took down the blue star and turned off the cell phone. And exhaled.
It's cold out. Near zero F cold, which even for central New York is cold. I haven't ventured out, having been house bound for a month with my new hip, I am not innured to winter this year. So I hang inside, vaugly resentful of the confinement, but not so much that I am willing to rouse myself, put on longjohns, heavy pants, socks, high boots. And that is just the nether half of me. The top gets a long-sleeved Cuddle-Duds undershirt, a turtle neck, a sweater, down jacket, scarf, hat, mittens. Fortunately I am old enough to go to the bathroom before I start this dressing ritual.
On slightly less cold days, in other winters, I get dressed, get the dog and her lead. J gets dressed. We get in the car, go to the neighbors to get their English Mastiff out for a romp. If the sun is out, as it is today, it is comfortable in the sunshine. We drive to the park, leave the car at the closed gate and head toward the lake.
As a kid, I'd have been sledding on the hill behind my house, spending hours careening down the hill, dragging the sled back up and doing it over. The goal was to go fast enough to slide past the flat space at the bottom of the hill and start up the next hill. I always wanted to get in among the small cedars that were retaking my family's garden area. We cut them occasionally for Christmas trees, but mostly we ignored them, letting that part of the property go back to forest. It is houses now, sold when my mother moved to Florida. Only the oldest, Mattie, who left it to her and one other sister had any feel for the land. The others viewed it as something to get away from. They grew up on the farm and wanted nothing to do with farming, farms, or farmers.
The place lives only in memory, mine. And perhaps in the one set of neighbors, still living there who would remember the place as it was.
Does it really make us unhappy, I was going to say crazy, to be disconnected from the land? Wendell Barry argues that it does, or rather he argues that the industrialization of our lives makes us crazy:"What is utterly alien to both is corporate industrialism-a dislocated economic life that is without affection for the places where it is lived and without respect for the materials it uses." ( We could live in cities with gardens, pets and the city wildlife and not feel so alienated if the valuation of those things were equal to the worth of machines and a life constrained by them. I am not arguing that we give up machines and go back to some non-existant Neolithic paradise. But the love of gadgets and machines, the eroticism of that physical and mental landscape distorts our understanding of our place in the world. We do belong to nature, even if only in part. We need nature. How many of us have plants on our desk or pets in a small apartment? What does that indicate about our psyches? If you don't grow rare violets, why do you have a plant? Is it only decoration? What are you decorating? Is it a statement? My boss likes plants so I will have one? Or is that violet or airplant a response to an unacknowledged need to touch wildness, to connect to the living world denied by the air-conditioned office, the artificial light, the computer and phone on your desk?
In winter, when nothing blooms where I live, the seed catalogues arrive in January. Nice timing, since by that time the outside whiteness makes flowers and vegetables REALLY attractive. Read the catalog, resist the urge to sniff the pictures, hoping for scent, admire the colors. The vendor hopes you will be overwhelmed by sense-longing and order a lot of seeds and plants. It is easy to do. I have lots of seeds left from other years!
But it IS winter. So I bundle up, get the dog, go to the lake to look at the geese, to find tight-furled buds on the trees, to look for the first returning ducks or later in the season, the bluebirds.
Winter is part of the life-cycle too. Go out and walk, even if it is cold and snowy.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Marxist Rant

It’s funny how limitations become malleable. In order to get out of the house yesterday, I went to Wegman’s with Ron while he shopped for groceries. It is like hunting for him. He makes a list divided by categories, checks the sales, organizes his coupons, girds up his loins and plunges into the store. He loves it. I am indifferent to hostile about it, a result of reaching a space in my life where eating and cooking are a matter of necessity for me, not fun, unless there are friends coming over, but as a daily routine--snore. So while he was slipping up and down the aisles hunting the best deal on cannelloni or some such, I was walking the perimeter, as fast as I could go in a crowed store, with my big boots, cane, and winter jacket. I can’t walk outside. Too icy, and a fall would not be good. The carbon steel hip won’t break, but it can come out of the socket until all the muscles and such heal. So I am exercising in this huge, fancy grocery store, glancing at stuff as I go by.
Stuff. Four thousand kinds of cereal, all but three not fit for human consumption. What is wrong with us? How is it even legal to sell that shit? And who would eat it,much less put it in their children? These are not rhetorical questions? The few kinds of cereal I ate as a kid were not so bad, my family having an abiding passion for oatmeal. I confess to an abiding fondness for Mapo and regret its loss, but never as a grown up have I eaten Frosted Flakes, despite a passion for tigers. Now, if I eat cereal, I just eat steal cut oats with maple syrup. Food, as Michael Pollen would say. Things my grandmother would recognize. But what is in Cocoa Puffs, or Lucky Charms? Here is General Mills’ description:
Lucky Charms

Magically delicious Lucky Charms cereal features frosted oats and colored marshmallows.

The kids’ brand with adult appeal for more than four decades. Made with whole grain, Lucky Charms is fortified with 12 vitamins and minerals, and is a good source of calcium
And here are the ingredients for, God help us, the chocolate version:

Whole Grain Oats, Sugar, Marshmallows (Sugar, Modified Corn Starch, Corn Syrup, Dextrose, Gelatin, Calcium Carbonate, Yellow 5 & 6, Blue 1, Red 40, Artificial Flavor), Corn Meal, Cocoa Processed with Alkali, Caramel and Beet Juice Concentrate Color, Corn Starch, Salt, Canola Oil, Calcium Carbonate, Artificial Flavor, Trisodium Phosphate, Zinc and Iron (Mineral Nutrients), Vitamin C (Sodium Ascorbate), A B Vitamin (Niacinamide), Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine Hydrochloride), Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin), Vitamin B1 (Thiamin Mononitrate), Vitamin A (Palmitate), A B Vitamin (Folic Acid), Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, Wheat Starch, Vitamin E (Mixed Tocopherols) Added to Preserve Freshness

Magically delicious frosted oats? And colored marshmallows? Without getting into the obesity debate, the awful thing is that this stuff tastes bad and degrades the budding taste buds of the children who eat it. Aside from that, which is evil enough, we are bombarded with several score kinds of this junk. All probably roughly the same shining examples of capitalism gone amok. Sell stuff at all costs. Caveat Emptor. No matter if the product is worth the money or worthy of consumption by any one.
The bread section, which i never go in , but was on my route, since we get our bread at the bakery section(bread snobs), is the same. It is a bit smaller than the hangar size cereal section.. In this part of New York, a place of massive Italian immigration, good bread is appreciated and sold even in regular grocery stores, which Wegman’s is not, and in various bakeries. Still there is a sizable section of enriched styrofoam, sliced. And I am stuck, food snob that I am , asking myself, who buys this stuff. It isn’t slicing that makes it attractive. You can get any loaf sliced. Maybe, I tell myself, it is the soft crusts. I know of adults who won’t eat crusts if they can avoid it. What baffles me is what are those consumers looking for? Certainly not an assertive bread. Something that gives one an excuse to eat bolonga or flutternutter sandwiches? Just eat the stuff out of the jar, for Pete's sake. . Isn’t bread part of the sandwich experience? White? Sure. We have a friend who makes a white bread to die for (Julia Child’s recipe), a white bread that is redolent of wheat and a hint of yeast, a bread that complements anything put on it, that turns into toast to make you swoon. White bread, plain, sustaining, tasteful. So how in the world did we get from there to Wonder bread in what, three generations? Ease. Feminism. Laziness? Did our mothers and grandmothers really find ready made bread superior or were they so exhausted that taste no longer mattered?

I wander back to Ron who is standing in the soup aisle. We buy Campbell’s tomato soup, cream of chicken, and cream of mushroom. We use the latter two for sauces and cooking. We eat the tomato but doctor it with garlic and dill weed. It is the only canned soup that doesn’t taste of the can. I don’t know why. I tell him I am converting to 1905 Marxism. He nods, preoccupied with his ‘hunting.’ I rave softly about a waste of resources, over choice, abuse of the people by massive corporations. He puts the soup in the cart and laughs at me. He agrees, mostly, but he is caught up in the hunt for bargains and the good stuff amid the dreck. There is nothing I can do to prevent the corporate breach of the walls. I limp off to the produce aisle, looking for food.
Down some snowy candlelit lane, snaking like ribbon candy, lies Christmas. Not one I ever had, nor anyone I know. We have not celebrated Christmas in our home for over thirty years. We are Baha’is and I guess that makes other people nervous. They rarely invite us to anything Christmasy. In essence, we have been Christmas free all this time. No shopping, no pressure to get gifts for people about whom one feels at best ambivalent. And most of them are relatives. The last gift I gave my mother was a miniature orange tree. She said, “This is the only thing you’ve ever given me that I’ve liked.” That was how gift-giving went in our family. There were years and years of wrong gifts: a pink and green sweater with a clown ruff, the wrong books, dolls I never wanted. Gifts so bad they had to have been intentionally picked for their badness. I guessed at that meanness as a young child. Though there were things I liked: Lincoln Logs, plastic horses, coloring books and paper dolls.
With my children, gift giving was simpler. I knew them in a way my adoptive mother never knew me. I could assume that what I liked would please them too. And mostly it did. They liked books and toys, music. Easy things to buy. Especially in February when the Baha’i holidays are and there are no sales, no Santa, no Must-Have Toy of the season. I wander empty malls, looking, spending time thinking, unhasselled by bored sales people. Valentine’s Day is out there, but it is still a lover’s holiday. And candy covers all contingencies. In February, I have time to shop and plan, to hunt for just the right thing. Without hype. Without pressure to conform to that icon of Christmas lying at the end of that lane. An icon against which it is almost impossible to stand. Have a natural tree? Make your own gifts? Don’t get family together. My god, you might as well advocate cannibalism. Everyone wants you to do what they are doing, to conform to the hive mind of the holiday. Dickens is to blame of course, but he’s dead a long while now, and we are grown up. No one in Florida has to have artificial snow or Santa in a heavy red suit trimmed in frackin’ fur. The hegemony of the Northern Christmas so pervades the holiday that despite regional differences, there is only one Christmas in America.
A hideous. bloated Christmas which proffers redemption, but rarely delivers and certainly not in the Scroogian mannner. I’ve seen fights over the turkey, sisters insulting and hurting each other, parents and children, spouses, all go at it. And despite Hollywood, I know of no one redeemed by trying to live up to “God bless us everyone.” Why? Well who goes to church for Christmas now? If I did Christmas, here’s what we’d do.
Chrstmas Eve, put up the tree.
LIght the luminiere
Go to midnight Mass.
Come home and open a small gift.
Sleep relatively late the next morning.
Open gifts, most of which would be handmade or donations of time.
Go serve somewhere.
Come home and eat with friends.
Listen to a lot of music. Over the next 12 days try to visit friends and do things together. On 12th night get together with friends and welcome the lengthening days of the coming new year
I like to think that is what I would do, that I would resist the Santa lie. Ok I am an old poop. But what is Santa but blackmail? Be good you little beast or you will get no toys! And really, who connects Santa to the gift of the Christ Child except in the most superficial way? What is the connection? God gives us a child,whom he will cause to be crucified later, so Santa is God, the gifts are what? No wonder people bail and just go with the shopping and Santa. Theology is too hard, and screwy theology is really hard.
Who needs theology when the aunts arrive in two hours and the turkey is all ready done?
Is there a way to sort out the holy day and the holiday? A holy day is a church day, services day, an observation of some kind. A holiday--public fun, general celebrations. Examples Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. There are others, mainly shopping days. But as a culture we do celebrate Thanksgiving (ok maybe the Indians don’t) and the Fourth. Everyone can do them, all the multiple diversity of this country can eat turkey and wave a flag. Even the vegetarians can celebrate with tou-furky and tofu hot dogs. And while the Fourth lends itself to drunkenness, it doesn’t carry the emotional baggage of Christmas. Thanksgiving can, if you don’t go home, but the burden of presents is missing from both holidays.
So there we are as a culture, saddled with a holiday that originates in Europe-yeah yeah, we do too-that was almost created by Dickens, whose other realities, I submit, we would not so eagerly adopt. And that is because of redemption. No story about the Fourth or Thanksgiving suggests that observing these holidays will make us better. Perhaps we do ask of the Fourth that it reaffirm who we think we are as a people, but it will never redeem us because it is too laden with death and violence. Thanksgiving should be a day of Atonement; it is a day of gluttony connected to football, not even Lacrosse for pete’s sake. Thanks to Dickens, we burden Christmas (shouldn’t it be Easter) with the weight of saving us. Whatever bad thing we have done can be expunged if we only promise to love Christmas and keep it all the year. Presents as bribes? The turkey makes up for the years of penury that Scrooge has foisted off on the Cratchitts. Playing games with one’s family? Oh what a metaphor. Scrooge and his nephew doing charades, as if they hadn’t been for years. And there we are every year charading our way back to the family, laden with turkeys, hoping for blessing, wondering why it doesn’t work.
So bah humbug on the Dickens Christmas. Bah humbug on all of it. Let’s go back to keeping the solstice. Let’s renew ourselves by reconnecting to the natural world every year. Go decorate an outdoor tree for the birds if you live some place where it snows. Go pickup the beach, then have a cookout. Screw presents. We all have too much stuff anyhow. Rejoice, if you live in the norther=n hemisphere, in the lengthening days. If you live in the Southern hemisphere, welcome the cool season.
Just leave Claus out of it.