Saturday, October 29, 2011

From biscuits to...

We got a welcome break yesterday from the routine when some friends at church took us for a long drive in the country to see the fall colors -- mostly in Ozark County, a rugged area, where she grew up.

As we passed one place, she pointed and said, “The man who lives there is a banker…”

Richard, sitting next to me in the back seat, thought she had said “…baker,” and piped up  

“I love bread. I could eat my way through a bakery.”

I am not sure what she thought about this non sequitur. She didn't say anything, but from what I could see of her face, she was little puzzled and was thinking about how she was going to respond. I quickly told Richard that she had said “banker” instead of “baker” and we had a bit of a laugh, and the conversation veered off into our respective abilities at "hearing" what we thought other people were saying.

But the fact is, he does love bread, and I make a lot of the bread we eat. I occasionally try to create some of the fancy-shaped artisan bread he likes but it seldom works.

I use the same basic recipe and try to put some variety into the shape of the bread – I have a French loaf pan, or I make flat bread in the cast iron skillet, or I use the pizza stone to make pita bread, or I make small round loaves.

Earlier in the week I decided to make Pilgrim’s Bread, which comes from my Mennonite cookbook (but which appears on a number of cooking Web sites) and is not something I ordinarily make for him because it has more oil (I leave the oil out of his bread) and sweetener (I use just enough to keep the yeast happy) which raises the calorie count.  It has an interesting texture and flavor, being made with rye flour, corn meal, and wheat flour. I alter the recipe by using sorghum for the sweetener and use all whole wheat flour instead of part white flour.

I had just emptied a large can of peaches into a container and it seemed like it might be a nice size for a small round bread loaf, so I cut out three small loaves, which I thought might turn out sort of like a like giant biscuit. The rest of the dough I made into small “long” loaves. 

Richard observed this with some amusement. Offering opinions.
The bread rose nicely but it did not turn out like giant biscuits. It did not hold it shape, but sort of slumped to the side.

Given that the dough was a little dark to begin with, and then I cooked it a little bit too long so it got just a little bit too brown…

When I pulled it out of the oven, well, he began to laugh and for good reason I think…

Not my best moment in the kitchen (although the bread tasted great).

Monday, October 24, 2011

Counting blessings, name them one-by-one

The aerobics class for geezers starts at 8:00, and as I headed out the door at 7:50 this morning, down the porch steps and around to the driver’s side of my car, I congratulated myself that I would actually arrive on time.

I saw immediately that the tire that looked sort of low yesterday when I got back from church was well and truly flat, so back into the house I went, and just as I asked hubby which of the other two cars I should take, the phone rings, and it is my father.

Happy birthday to you…” he begins to sing…

My dad has a baritone voice, and so naturally, he begins to sing the familiar melody in a funny, high falsetto. Which makes me laugh. I love this man so much.

We talk briefly, and I head down the stairs again, and manage to arrive at aerobics only a few minutes late. At the conclusion of the class, I see as wasp crawling groggily on the floor. The insect has managed not to be stepped on by any of us as we lurch around doing the grapevine and side-step kicks, and so I rescue it using a Styrofoam cup and a piece of paper towel and let it go out the back door.

When I arrive back at the house, I grab my wallet in my left hand, and the keys, the cup, and the paper towel in my right hand, and as I pass the trash can, I throw in everything in that hand. Then, just before I reach the steps up to the second story, I realize that I am no longer carrying the car keys, so I go back to the trash can and find them. It occurs to me that if I had not immediately remembered--remembered right then--that I had thrown them in the trash, how long would we have had to search for them before I would have remembered? I shudder to think about it.

I am now officially 62 years old. Yes indeed. Welcome to the new normal.

Richard tells me my brother called while I was gone, and he will call back later. We leave the house for about 20 minutes to get our flu shots and pick up the mail at the post office.

Not too long after we return home, the phone rings again. It is my sister. She has arrived at work, and once again I hear Happy Birthday, this time in a lovely alto voice. As we chat on the phone, I open the package from her that we have just picked up from the post office and the birthday cards that have arrived. We chat briefly and go about our respective jobs.

About a half-hour later, my brother calls. I hear Happy Birthday for the third time. I used to think my brother was tone deaf, but as I listen to him sing the song, I realize that he is not tone deaf after all. He has written a funny message in the birthday card he sent me, and we laugh together about it.

The day for me is now winding down, but it is two hours earlier in California and a few minutes ago, the phone rings and it is my other brother. He is taking a walk on his lunch break, and is climbing a rather steep hill. He does not sing to me, but I have a pleasant conversation with him and he hangs up.

And before the day draws to a close, I receive yet another phone call.. This one from my brother's wife. She too sings "Happy Birthday", but a different version. This time its the "Put another candle on my birthday cake" version that we both watched Sheriff John sing on TV when we were kids.. 

I appreciate so much the gifts I have been given. I am grateful of course, for the material things I have received – Victoria's Secret Amber Romance bath products; some clothes, some money. I remember with joy how much fun our mother had at birthdays, preparing a favorite food and making the day fun; I remember with joy the wonderful birthday present our son gave me a few years ago. The chief of the volunteer fire department he belonged to had his own plane, and Nathaniel bought me a 30-minute ride over the Ozarks countryside, and while this area is not exactly a tourist destination for viewing fall foliage, the patchwork of browns, bronze, gold, and an occasional blaze of red and orange, was quite lovely…

But I think what I am most grateful and thankful for are the intangible blessings that come from being part of a good family -- blessings that one can't put a price tag on. Blessings that are indeed priceless.

My family. I am truly blessed.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Up a tree...

When I was a child growing up Gardena, a suburb of Los Angeles, our neighborhood had fairly large lots, and although downtown Los Angeles was perhaps 10-minute drive on the Harbor Freeway, the atmosphere was still a very semi-rural. The woman who lived in the corner house across the street kept chickens, and so did the woman next to her. The family down the street had a couple of horses on their place.

Our house sat the very back of the lot facing “sideways”, and outside the front door grew a huge California pepper tree, very similar to the ones in this photograph

I do have a few pictures where a glimpse of the tree is visible.

This picture was taken in 1954, probably on my birthday, when I was 5 years old. In the other picture, which I am guessing was taken a year later, probably at Christmas...

I am holding a stuffed animal that I called “Cooney” (short for raccoon), but a closer look at it leads me to think it was actually a panda bear. No matter.

The California pepper tree, which is native of Peru, has lots of horizontal branches that are often very close to the ground (or would be if they haven’t been pruned so the homeowner can mow underneath them without bashing his or her head). Our tree did have big branches close to the ground, and I spent a lot of time climbing the tree. I also ventured up into the acacia tree that was next to the house. I loved its small yellow flowers. It was much more spindly, and one time I climbed too high and got stuck up in that tree. Well, not stuck, just afraid to come down. I remember my mother at the foot of the tree trying to coax me down, and eventually I worked my way down. I remember she suggested that it might be better not to try to climb that tree any more.

The neighborhood was already in transition in the early 1950s, many of the single-family homes had been torn down and replaced with small apartment buildings. When I was about 11 years old, my parents succumbed to the lure of making extra money by renting to tenants and had duplex apartments built on our land. The pepper tree and the acacia tree were bulldozed along with almost all of the other trees on the place, and the duplexes were built. The venture turned out to be a disaster; fortunately, they were able to find a buyer and we moved a few years later into the home where my father still lives.

Now fast forwarding a few (!) decades and 1500 miles away/ Our place seems to be a destination for every feral cat for miles around. The first cat we had was a big female--“Big Kitty” we called her -- who was as big as or bigger than the average tomcat and did not take crap from any of them. It was a common site to see her tear off down the driveway after an interloper, and they ran.

Our current, Squeaker, being a little pipsqueak, is constantly being bullied by the other cats that show up here, and although she puts up a good bluff, if we are not here to rescue her when the caterwauling starts, she ends up climbing a tree to escape.

Her favorite choices are... 

The sugar maple in the front yard...

the silver maple at the side of the house...

or the pine tree on the back side of the house. And on more than one occasion I have found myself at the foot of one of these trees trying to coax her down. 

I will soon be 62 years old, and so even though I am somewhat mathematically challenged, I can deduce that it has been at least 50 years since I have climbed a tree. I can hardly get my mind around that. Whew.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Rising to heaven...

Fourteen of us have trailed behind the hospice bereavement coordinator and the chaplain, each holding blue and white helium balloons on ribbons that are tied together in a knot. We gather around them in the parking lot of the senior citizens center. It is warm, the sky is bright blue, and a breeze suddenly springs up to tug at the balloons.

The manager of hospice medical services comes with scissors and cuts a balloon free from the knot and hands one to each one of us. Our son had lovely blue eyes. I ask for a blue balloon. I will later realize that this was a mistake. I should have gotten white.

The chaplain and the bereavement coordinator speak a few words. The symbolism of releasing the balloons in connection with the death of our loved ones is obvious. We let our balloons go. The woman next to me says “The souls of our loved ones rising to heaven.” 

They race up into sky climbing higher and higher. I am able to watch my balloon for quite a while, until the blue of the balloon blends with the blue sky and I can no longer see it. The white balloons remain visible.

The last time I cried was several weeks ago when I unexpectedly found the birthday card he gave me last year. The last birthday card I got from him. I will never get another birthday card from him.

I start to cry, again, as the balloon symbolizing our son fades into invisibility and I can no longer see it. I feel alone and isolated. And then the moment passes.

We return to the dining room. I visit a bit with the woman who was sitting next to me, whose son died of AIDS, and another woman whose son died of cancer, and another woman whose daughter died. I no longer feel so alone.

Eventually the balloons will pop and the shreds of rubber with the attached ribbon will fall back to earth as litter someplace. The bodies of our loved ones will eventually become dust or ashes, but least their souls will not end up as litter.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Serenity and cacophony

Yesterday we decided to take a break and celebrate the tax return being done and so we headed off to Springfield for some R and R (and then wondered if it wasn’t something of an oxymoron to link “Springfield” with R and R in the same breath).

At any rate, our first stop was at the Mizumoto Japanese Stroll Garden (there are lovely pictures of it here and here in the Spring).

This park is part of a huge park complex outside of Springfield. This is a lovely area, with winding paved paths through pine trees and Japanese arrangements of plants and rocks, and a huge koi pond with lots of interesting little bridges and stone pathways, and trickling waterfalls and a replica of a Japanese tea house, and one of those meditation gardens with the combed gravel. Just lovely.

We fed $1 into the machine and bought a few handfuls of food to feed the koi...

And then all of a sudden here comes a turtle – a much larger version of the sort of turtle little kids used to be given as pets.

 It came right up to me...

and I tried to give it some of the koi food, but the fish were too aggressive.

Now, to set the stage for what happened next, the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners is in Springfield, and as the name implies, it houses Federal prisoners who require medical treatment or who have mental health issues. Occasionally the prison makes the news -- John Gotti died there, the man who shot the Congresswoman in Arizona is being sent there.

The lovely Japanese stroll garden borders the back of the prison -- there is a large open area outside the main prison fence where there are various outbuildings and then a chain link fence separates this from the garden. We were enjoying our mosey on the path that meanders around this lovely pond and its artistic plant arrangements, we start hearing this funny-sounding amplified woman’s voice echoing. A tram tour of the parks is offered on certain days of the week and I thought perhaps was one of the trams with someone giving a guided tour.

Richard listened a bit longer and said, "No, that is a gun range." A gun range? Sure enough. As we continued to move forward the voice became clearer, and she was giving instructions to people who were about to shoot guns. Everything was quiet for a few seconds.

And then it sounded like we were in a war zone.  

Ka-bam, blam, blooey, bang bang bang.
We could smell the gunpowder wafting in the morning breeze.

We made our way through the row of trees blocking the view of the back of the prison from the park,

and there was a line of people shooting at targets. Probably prison guards or perhaps Springfield policemen.

We had to laugh -- this is exactly the sort of thing that happens to us regularly -- nothing like a little gunfire to add to the ambience.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Dancin' the night away

When I was in high school, my mother enrolled me in a charm school sponsored by Sears at the local mall, and for good reason. I did not move with very much grace. The way my knees and hip joints are constructed has given me sort of an odd walk. My brothers teased me about it. They said I “plonked” and they would chant “Ling plop, long plop, lugga lugga blug blug.”

So, I have been somewhat uncomfortable in situations where graceful moment is required. Hence, my precious mother’s attempts to help me.

Last year I went shopping and found the perfect gown to wear to the cyber ball at Willow Manor,

but I did not actually have the nerve to put it on and attend the event. I was not planning to go this year either. 

The anniversary of my mother’s death 2 years ago is tomorrow and I was not exactly in the mood. 

However, when I read that Nigella Lawson is attending, I immediately decided that I would love to spend some time chatting with this wonderful witty woman, whose reports on NPR I have loved to listen to, and so I asked Danny (my lovely husband does not enjoy crowds) if he would escort me – he is a good dancer and he will make me laugh – and he agreed.

I suddenly find I have instant recall of all of the charm school lessons I learned on how to walk and hold myself gracefully and so I have refreshed the gown and am waiting for Danny to arrive.

After a dance or two, I am sure he will be lured away, and then I will go in search of Nigella (wherever Willow has stashed her).

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Laughin' and cryin'...

There is an advantage for self-employed people to get the extension to October 15 to file the tax return that is due in April. Self-employed people are required to make quarterly payments of estimated taxes based on earnings from the previous year, so this is not about paying the tax--unless not enough money has been paid in each quarter--we’re just talking about the tax return.

I take care of entering the income and expenses into an accounting program, which prints out all sorts of handy dandy reports, and we have a computer program that does the calculations and prints the return, but getting to that point is very, very stressful for him because operating a business out of your home complicates things and he still has to come up with the raw figures to plug into the computer.

The death of Steve Jobs last week certainly did give pause for thought. Our first computer was an Apple IIE...

and it took almost 8 hours to run the reports that I can do now in 3 minutes.

Every year I hope that Richard will set aside a certain time each week to work on the taxes so that when the deadline looms he will basically have it done. So far, this has not happened. He has been in panic mode for about a month now, and he finally finished it over the weekend.

We always celebrate filing the tax return. Yesterday morning after I came back from aerobics, he was in and out of my office several times over the course of an hour – right when I was in the middle of finishing two manuscripts for the hardest journal I have to work on – coming up with ideas for what we should do. We would tentatively decide something and then he would come back with another idea; or, to be fair, I would come up with an idea and go tell him. In any event, by about 10 a.m., I was ready to bop him in the head.

By 11 a.m., I had just about finished the last of the manuscripts (“it was all over but the shouting”) I had started working on hours earlier, and went into the kitchen to get my lunch. Richard was in there bustling around getting food on his plate, and I started talking to him about this journal and how hard it is, and then I sort of laughed and said, “It’s just a journal for cryin’ out loud” and then I really did start to cry at the same time that he started to laugh, and then I was in his arms and he was laughing and I was crying and laughing at the same time and yes, one really can laugh and cry at the same time. The crying helped, actually and the day improved dramatically.

Shortly after lunch Richard walks in and hands me a list of things he wants me to print from the check record for 2011. “I am not going to go through this again next year,” he says.

Then about 2 pm Richard says “I’ll be outside for a while…”

Can I come? I was in my "afternoon slump" and ready for a break. 


No? How come?

But he was out the door and I was stewing. I walked out on the porch but I didn't see him anywhere in the yard. In a little while he came in with vase of flowers, scooted things around next to my monitor, and set them down.

“Happy Fall,” he says.


Saturday, October 08, 2011

Beauty from bits and pieces

It has always fascinated me how one can sometimes take bits and pieces from plants, stick them in water or sand or some other medium, and get a brand new plant out of the deal.

I have had some success in collecting new plants in this way from bits and pieces of other peoples’ plants, but plenty of failures as well.

Two years ago when I visited my family home in Gardena and saw my mother for the last time, I carried way pieces of some of the plants growing in their backyard, including pieces of the “orchid cactus” that she loved so much and which was continuing to thrive in the backyard under the apricot tree, and blooming so beautifully when we were there in June for my niece's wedding...

 and which had bloomed some 50 years ago in my grandfather’s yard when he lived in the same neighborhood. All these went into moist sand... and they lived.

Some day I hope that it will bloom. The tangled waxy-leafed hoyas vine next to it, which on occasion has produced clusters of pink flowers, also came from a piece from my parents’ yard, years ago.

Earlier in the Spring, my friend Judy gave me starts of an impatiens plant that were starts from the starts from the starts from the starts (and perhaps a few more starts of starts) of a impatiens that grew in her mother’s yard years ago.

And so I found a big pot that had been used to grow tomatoes in last year and dutifully planted them.

I do not actually have a green thumb—nor a black thumb either, for that matter. Sometimes I can figure out what a plant needs—and provide it—and the plant does well; sometimes I make an effort and the plant decides it would prefer to have a new home in Heaven.

In this case, I guess I did the right thing, because the impatiens grew and grew – very much taller than the nursery-grown impatiens I have planted in the past in shady spots in our yard, and finally, just as the last day of summer turned into the first day of fall, they began to bloom...

There is still some time left before the first hard frost is likely to occur, maybe a couple of weeks, so they will continue to live on the porch for a while longer.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Mental fruit loops

One of the writers/photographers  whose blog I will read regularly (when she posts), and who is a Facebook friend, writes humorously and lovingly about her Jack Russel terriers,

 (a photo of one of her crazy little dogs from her Web site)

indicating in a most recent FB comment that… “physically they are great specimens.... but mentally.... well.... mentally they are fruit loops.”

Not just dogs are afflicted with mental fruit loops, we are finding out.

Richard learned on Friday that the macular part of his eye has “bump” in it rather than a “dip.” Today we went to back to Town to see the ophthalmologist about the problem, and he is very confident that this will resolve on its own and has prescribed some eyedrops. If it does not resolve by the end of the month then some sort of procedure will be necessary.

Richard is very relieved that he will not have to undergo a procedure on his eye – at least not immediately. And the ophthalmologist assures us that should the “worst” happen and they cannot fix it, he may have some trouble with up-close reading but he will not go blind in the eye.

We will turn around and make another trip to Town tomorrow to see the grief counselor. And eating out will figure prominently in the days' events.

One of Nathaniel’s coworkers at the sawmill gave him a gift card for a steakhouse that has several locations scattered around this part of the state. He and Richard had gone out to dinner once, and when it became obvious that he would not be leaving the nursing home again, he gave us the card to use.

I took two friends out to lunch, and there was still some money left on the card – enough for at least one more lunch.

So, Plan A was for us to go to the steakhouse tomorrow and use up the rest of the money on the card. When we got back from Town this afternoon, I looked in my wallet for the gift card and it was not there. I looked everywhere I could think of that I might have stuck the card to keep it safe until we used it again.

I cannot find the gift card.

But in the throes of tearing “high and low” through all of this stuff, I did find an anniversary card from my sister from June 2010 with money in it that we were supposed to have used to take ourselves out to dinner.

As each month passes, I find more and more evidence of bizarre behavior from 2010 and in the 10 months since January 2011. It seemed to me we coped beautifully with the "macro events" involved with our son's illness -- making appointments and keeping track of appointments and getting him to the appointments, negotiating the crooked and obstacle-filled paths of Medicaid and Social Security Disability and SSI, and all of that, but when it comes down to the "micro events" we did all sorts of weird stuff.

Richard does not particularly like the steakhouse, so now we are discussing… and discussing…. and discussing… plan B.

And wondering if our own mental fruit loops will resolve…