Thursday, May 29, 2008

Ari to the Rescue

How can you not love this technology? I had forgotten that we posted Ari's You Tube videos from the Pope's visit directly into the blog. When I read the comments, I realized that although it only required a click on my words to view the videos in You Tube, a lot of people, including Ari and Jessica, either didn't bother, did not want the extra noise at work, were not able to go there because of privacy and software issues, or just weren't that interested. Ari, of course, remembered the sequence to do it, while I, having only done it once with him six weeks ago, needed a refresher. Again, thanks Ari! A picture is worth a thousand words, truly. How nice to be able to combine words and pictures in this way!

Tuesday, the temperature outside became steamy, so in the afternoon, after spending several hours on my computer work and realizing that I was sticking to my chair, we turned on the central air-conditioning for the first time this season. Bummer! After several hours of running, it was still 80 degrees in the house. The new $10,000 system is only two-years old with a warranty good for only one year. I hope the whole-house warranty that we bought last year when it expired turns out to be effective. We opened the windows to sleep, and by morning it cooled down outside. Yesterday and today have been beautiful, and the last two days of summer school are over this afternoon, so we have delayed taking care of this. This afternoon, we are on our way to Baltimore. Sami was chosen by her school, Wellwood International, to represent her second grade class to read her French poem in a competition at Barnes & Noble. We will be spending the next two days in Baltimore and Washington, coming home Sunday morning so that we can attend Eden Elmakis' first birthday party in the afternoon. I have a special connection with Eden, who is the daughter of Efrat and Isaac Elmakis. When Efrat had to go back to work after her maternity leave expired, I cared for Eden for a week until day care began. There is something about caring for and feeding a newborn every day that really connects you emotionally. My brother, Ken, was responsible for finding work for Isaac and Efrat, who are both engineers from Israel, which allowed them to begin their life here and hopefully, get citizenship soon.

I had called our friends, Susan Odyssey and Paul Coff about getting together for the Caribbean Festival in DC at the end of June. They had told us last year that they were interested in attending, but they will be away at that time. It turned out they were both home for the day, so I invited them over, along with Beth, to help us demolish all the leftovers from Friday. We only get to see them on rare occasions, but this spur-of-the-moment opportunity worked out great and we spent several hours schmoozing and catching up. Susan, like Larry, used to teach at Cooke Junior High School with Saul many years ago. She is an art teacher and an artist par excellence! Originally, Saul recruited her to moonlight with us when we had the catering business because she was a very adept waitress with years of experience from her teenage days. She became a very good friend over the years, even stepping in at the last minute and handling everything when we thought Saul might be having heart problems one weekend many years ago. Thank God it turned out to be nothing back then, but I will never forget the nightmare of it. We even became godparents to their youngest son and signed papers agreeing to become legal guardians of their three children should anything happen to them. I am very happy to say that Max, the youngest, is now in college, so we are finally off the hook!

We had gotten supplies at Home Depot to fix the collapsed coat closet Tuesday evening and Saul was able to repair it yesterday after we delivered some of my work to various places and met our friend, Laura, for lunch and to pick up some additional work. Laura, who is the P.R. person for the Springfield Township School District, and who was introduced to us by Sandy Schinfeld many years ago, is helping to plan some of the memorial charitable events for Sandy. She forwarded an email to me today which shows an amazing outpouring of support from many people. All who were close to Sandy are having a terrible time dealing with the suddenness of her death.

Saul should be home soon, and now our summer vacation begins! Teaching may not pay very well, but oh those summer vacations!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Want to Try a Durian?

I thought I would write my blog early today as my computer work has been slow to come in and could arrive at any moment in full force, or not. I called Roxy this morning as we hadn't spoken all week. We spent an hour and a half on the telephone catching up with each other, plus, we have 30 years worth of catching up to do in each other's lives. Roxy was one of my best friends in high school, but a few years after she married and moved far away, something happened in her life that caused us to lose contact with each other for a very long time. I didn't really understand why until we reunited a few years ago after her mother's death and she explained it to me. Now, we have this whole history together that resumed without seeming to skip a beat, except that we both raised our families into adulthood before resuming the friendship. It is very comfortable, and yet very strange.

While we were conversing, the subject of the durian came up. I was talking about surfing the net, or following links to other blogs. Roxy couldn't understand why anyone would want to read the blog of someone they didn't personally know. I used the example of the durian.

Being the foodie that I am, I had read about durians many years ago and was intrigued by how exotic they must be. I think the first time I read about them was in connection with how many harvesters are killed by falling fruit in orchards where they grow. In my younger days, I used to do temp work in the office of the Chief Justice of Pennsylvania. I remember one of the law clerks, Joe Viola, was going on a trip where there was an Asian market. Knowing that I had my own catering business, he asked me if there was some exotic thing I knew about for which he could search. The durian immediately came to mind. He returned sort of elated because at the time, it was so exotic that they didn't have it, but knew what it was and were surprised to find an American asking for one. It was a great quest for him.

A few years ago, Assi Market, a huge Asian chain, opened a supermarket within a mile of my home. I love going there because I find all kinds of exotic produce with which even I am not familiar. They do have durians. Saul and I stare at them every time we see them wondering if this will be the time we overcome our fear and actually buy one to try. So far, a few years have gone by and we have not mustered up the courage. Then, a few months ago, Ari sent me a link to a YouTube video because we had been discussing gospel music and a favorite scene of his from the movie "The Color Purple." I told him I remembered the scene, but not the song because it had been so many years since I had seen the movie. So Ari, expert finder of information that he is, sent me the scene. I just looked up his old email with the link, so if you want to view it, here it is. It is a classic.

Anyway, to get back to the original story, while I was on YouTube anyway, I started to browse through it and just happened upon a bunch of videos of people experiencing durians for the first time.

I spent a very amusing hour looking through some of them and sent links to some of my favorites back to Ari. When I verified these links, I realized that after playing my favorite, You Tube gives you the whole selection. My other favorite is the "Angry Bob" one.

The Swan's mentioned yesterday that they were considering going to Thailand. The subject of durians came up when Ralph said he had tried fermented tofu on one of his trips. Also, they were familiar with the Food Network program, Bizarre Foods. Two of the only foods that defeated Andrew Zimmern, the host of the program, were fermented tofu and durian (and this is a man who can eat live bugs!). I offered to send the links to Ann Marie and Ralph when I told them I could actually get a durian easily and they expressed an interest in tasting it.

So Roxy, if you found this blog amusing or informative, you will understand why I am becoming so enamored/addicted? to the time I spend carousing around the internet and dropping in on people's lives anywhere and everywhere I please. The durian is an example of a casual interest turning into an adventurous quest for more knowledge and information (and there is also a certain pleasure in being a voyeur, I admit). I never know where the path will lead me next.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Rest of Memorial Day Weekend

Yesterday, we were invited to Ralph and Ann Marie Swan's home around 2:00 p.m. Saul and Ralph both teach at Chestnut Hill College and have become good friends over the last few years. We were invited to their home several months ago for a birthday party dinner for Ann Marie's mother. They designed their own house, like we did, and it is absolutely beautiful and nestled into a wooded hill in a tranquil area of Downingtown. The floor to ceiling windows in the living and dining areas overlook a private, sloping thicket of aged trees with a meandering brook which you can hear from the outdoor screened terrace where Ralph was grilling steaks, chicken and burgers. The layout is open with inviting surfaces of polished wood, stone, granite and stainless steel. There are picturesque loft spaces and areas of light on the upper floor as well. On the last visit, when Ralph took us around, I was impressed to find that Ann Marie had chosen the exact bedroom set for which I had kept the catalog for many years. I had seen the set in Dane Decor when we bought our present house, but there were too many moving expenses for us to afford it. I think Ralph was shocked to find that I knew exactly from where the set had come. Ann Marie told me that she had lusted after that bedroom set. I knew exactly how she felt!

We also knew from the previous invitation that Ann Marie is a surpassingly good cook. Each time, she had prepared an assortment of delicious and imaginative appetizers. This time, the appetizers were a mushroom pate rolled in a thin, breadlike dough and tied with a chive; smoked chopped salmon on toast rounds topped with sour cream, dill, and caviar, potato and cheese puffs, a cheese board with St. Andre, and provolone; and long, flat cheese crisps with mustard seed and kosher salt. We all sipped a delicious Beringer Cabernet. The other couple, whom we were meeting for the first time, was a teacher, who had grown up in Scranton, and her husband, who was a retired engineer. We all have lived a long time and are really just getting to know each other's lives and backgrounds, so there were many interesting stories told during the evening. We had an absolutely wonderful time. The cheesecake I made turned out presentable and delicate. Ann Marie had made a wonderful lemon chess pie and we had delicious fresh berries on the side along with coffee. Before we knew it, the whole afternoon had evaporated into evening and it was time to depart. The Swan's and other friends of theirs had joined us for New Year's Eve. I hope we provided as interesting an evening for them.

Kenny and Randi had joined us yesterday morning after taking a walk in a nearby park and stopping at Costco for supplies for Haley's open house party today. They wound up joining us for a late breakfast and we called Beth, who has been prepping and painting her kitchen all weekend, and she joined us also. After we schmoozed for a while, they took Mom back to their house for dinner and it was time to get ready to make the hour-long drive to Ralph and Ann Marie's.

This morning, again, we had great weather and put in a few hours on the gardening stuff before showering and heading off to Haley and Eric's new home in Merchantville, NJ. Right before we were about to get in the shower, I decided to put the crocheted tablecloth back on the dining room table. I had stashed it on Friday night on the top shelf of our large coat closet, which is in our dining room. When i went to take it down, the whole long wire shelf, on which the coats also hang, collapsed. Luckily, nothing breakable broke. I guess it was a lucky break that it didn't collapse on Friday night, but what a pain to have to repair it! My mother's coats take up two thirds of the coat closet (Saul and I have the other third) and I have been begging her to give them to a yearly coat drive for years now. The ones she actually wears are in her bedroom closet. She was very annoyed that I made a comment about donating them yet another time and we had to send Beth into her room to get her to take her to the party. The house is really great--laid out conveniently, roomy, two-story ceilings, first floor bedroom suite, cozy fenced back yard, fresh paint in really good colors, lots of storage, two-car garage, a usable basement and nice open kitchen in a well-established neighborhood. The food was great and a lot of us wound up on a large, circular modular sofa watching "Meet the Robinsons" on a gigantic flat-screen t.v. over the fireplace.

On the way there, we passed "The Pub." I was shocked to find that it was still there, looking exactly the same after all these years. Yesterday was the 44th anniversary of our first date, which was a double-date, to Olney High School's Kix and Kapers, a variety show put on by the students. When Saul got his first car at the age of 17, a British Anglia as small as anything on the road (except perhaps a cockroach). The Pub was one of the only "nice" places to which we could afford to go on a date. For $3.95 you could sit in front of a large fireplace and be served on white cloth tablecloths and napkins. At that price, you got soup, a large wedge of iceberg lettuce with Russian or bleu cheese dressing (or both), a good-sized steak (or as Saul remembers, Salisbury Steak, which is really a hamburger), large baked potato with sour cream or butter and chopped chives, house vegetable, and dessert. We spent many an evening there when we were dating. The location is really obscure for us now, but we passed it on the way to Haley's. Looking at it brought back memories I had not thought about in forty years. The memories were great, but I don't think it is a place I would care to revisit.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Memorial Day Weekend

The problem with not writing the blog every day is that there is now so much to write about I don't know where to start. After a few years of dismal Memorial Day weekends, we have been blessed with absolutely beautiful weather. Thursday, while Saul wrapped up his summer session class for this week, I spent several hours getting the house clean and in order, working on the computer, and cooking. We had a late lunch together and then went shopping at Costco for a few more things for Shabbat dinner. We needed to get a color cartridge for one of our printers, but when we arrived at that department, the first thing we bought was a new camera for me, an Olympus Stylus 850SW--a belated Mother's Day present. When we were all in Hawaii last summer, we had borrowed the underwater camera that Beth had bought for Ed that she called "Ed-proof" meaning that it was almost indestructible. It was as billed. We took unbelievable underwater photos of the tropical fish as well as underwater movies. Back at the condo, we would drop the camera into a bucket of water to wash off the salt. It was small and really easy to use and so when I would take early morning walks I could shove it in my pocket and take rainbow photos as they appeared almost every day. This is the fourth upgrade of that camera. Hopefully, when I have time to play with it, there will be more photos on my blog.

We bought the rest of our supplies at Costco which no longer had the large bags of pita they used to sell and I also discovered that the frozen felafel I was planning to buy to supplement my so-so homemade ones had no hechsher. Then we went to Assi Market for parsley and coconut milk. I also found beautiful black radishes there, but forgot to prepare them for the party. I found whole grain mini pita with a hechsher from Thomas' (of all brands!) at Redner's Market in the same shopping center. I also found large bulghur at Redner's for which I had substituted wheat germ in the felafel recipe and which probably caused the texture problem. We spent the afternoon cooking. Then, we went out to dinner with Beth who is still without a kitchen.

I was very pleased with the results substituting coconut milk and margarine for the sour cream and butter in the carob cake from my cookbook, Bubbie's Kitchen. Friday was Lag B'Omer, a holiday for enjoying outdoor activities and barbecue-type food. I wanted a carob dessert because tradition has it that Rabbi Ben Yohai, the writer of the Zohar (the Book of Splendor that is the basis of Kabbalah), was sustained by a carob tree growing outside the cave in the Galilee where he hid with his son for thirteen years so that he could continue to study and teach Torah, a practice forbidden by the Roman rulers who had recently destroyed the Temple. Tradition also has it that Rabbi Ben Yohai's students visited him each year on Lag B'Omer. Since we were barbecueing chicken satay, Moroccan sausages, and carnatzlach, I needed a pareve dessert. It was yummy!

Unfortunately, Thursday afternoon, I began getting Saul's head cold. It started with a scratchy throat and then a runny nose. I have found that ginger in all forms is really great for curing the scratchy throat. I started drinking lots and lots of decaf tea with slices of fresh ginger and homemade ginger syrup. In between, I suck on really strong ginger hard candies called "Gin-Gins." I am already feeling almost normal this evening.

So, here is the complete menu for Friday night dinner. I debated as to whether to serve the smoked turkey pea soup I had made from the turkey carcass, but Mom loved it so much and I had so much other food, and there were going to be so many dishes from 14 people that I kept it.

For appetizers before dinner while Saul finished up the barbecued stuff: Homemade baba ganooj, hummus, tabouleh, homemade stuffed grape leaves, Mediterranean salad, olives and pickles from Beit Hashita (the kibbutz where Ari and Jessica each spent a year of high school and worked in the factory occasionally), pita, and multi-grain chips. The dinner: Israeli salad, the above-mentioned entrees, kugel Yerushalayim, potato salad, gezer chai (living carrots), and homemade challah. We had a bottle of Hagefen Merlot from our wine club, and a white wine that the Burrows brought chilled, along with both red and white grape juice, iced Constant Comment tea and fresh lemon-limeade that Beth squeezed while Saul grilled and I freshened up and changed before the guests arrived. Dessert was the mandelbrot pictured previously, the carob cake, jumbo oatmeal peanut-butter raisin cookies, fresh chunks of sweet, crisp watermelon, and chocolate-covered halvah.

The 14 people were: The three of us, Beth, Larry (who both came early to help out), Faith Rubin, Rabbi Addison and his son Elie, (Bobbie was away), Jerry and Betty Weiss, Stan and Millie Brooks, and Ariana and Ben Burrows. We were so organized that we actually took a break from 3 to 4:30 p.m. The evening which began when all arrived by 6:30 p.m. was warm and friendly. After dinner, everyone told stories about their encounters in Israel. It turned out that everyone of us has been there at least once. As each story was told, it reminded someone of something that had happened to them. It turned into a very late evening for Shabbat. The last of the guests left at 11 p.m. Larry left a little bit early because he had a flight this morning to Chicago to visit his sister and was leaving at 5:30 a.m. Beth had packed up all the food and loaded the dishwaher.

We left the remaining mess this morning and I dragged my stuffy-nosed self out of bed to attend services. The parashah this week includes one of the nastiest parts of the Torah--Moses' reproach to the people. It is a list of all the horrible things that will befall them if they do not obey God's laws. During Rabbi's sermon, I began to see it in a different light. He likened the Torah to an ancient vassal contract. He explained that there were two different types at the time--one that awarded benefits without obligation on the vassal for having supported the emperor or ruler, and one that awarded benefits dependent on the vassal complying with stated obligations, such as collecting taxes, or providing alliances in battle, etc. He discussed all the parts of a contract comparing each element with the "brit" or covenant with God. The reproach is the penalty part of a contract. If you honor the terms and conditions laid out and sign on you agree to receive certain benefits in exchange for compliance. If you do not comply, most contracts have a list of penalties that will ensue. I had never heard of a vassal contract before.

Since there were no b'nai mitzvah this week, we had lunch and a study session following services that touched on Pirke Avot (Sayings of our Fathers). I love the part about the wise person learning from everyone. When I was younger, I used to think there were incredibly sophisticated, creative and intelligent people out there that I was frustrated that I wasn't meeting. I learned along the way that everyone you meet, if you are able to get to it, has some kernel of wisdom to offer, even if it is by bad example. Saul finished most of the cleaning up when we returned, while I napped. Beth came over and we had a dinner of scrumptious leftovers about 5:30 p.m. I climbed back into bed after dinner and finished the Sunday New York Times Crossword puzzle pretty quickly. The theme was pinball. Before I started writing this, I was perusing a blog that Saul ran across while he was looking for an authentic felafel-making tool on the web. The flow of information truly is amazing! I told my friend, Roxy, that I try not to read too much because I view it as consuming other people's creativity instead of creating myself. Tonight was a perfect example to me of how I could spend hours wandering around in other people's lives on the net and not produce anything creative on my own. It was very tempting to follow all those links, view all those photos, and read all those comments on subjects that are of great interest to me. Viewing the creative efforts of others does spur my creativity. Ari sent me a blog from a woman who makes a very nice living blogging--$40,000 a month. Perhaps if I could do that, I could spend more time wandering around looking at what everyone else is doing as well as have time to have adventures of my own.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

I Guess I Love to Cook

The first summer session of Chestnut Hill College began today. Our usual morning routine began about a half hour later this morning because class starts at 8:30 instead of 8:00 a.m.

I had left a lot of dishes undone yesterday. I bought a large kosher turkey while we were in the Northeast and we smoked it on the kettle grill putting some sliced garlic along with a few leaves from that one single pineapple sage plant I found under the skin. Along with the hardwood charcoal, Saul puts dried cuttings from last summer's herb plants to smoke. We also grilled 4 eggplants and 6 bulbs of garlic from a bag of garlic I bought at Produce Junction. I wish there was a Produce Junction closer to where I live. The prices are unbelievably cheap, but the gas to get there is making the trip economical only when we are on the way to somewhere else. I made a stock with the neck and after the bird's juices had cooled in the fridge for a while, I made gravy with them. This morning, the bird was waiting to be sliced and packed away for future meals. Both girls really like turkey!

I made baba ganooj with the eggplant. It wasn't quite as good as Alex's stellar variety, but definitely better than the best store-bought brand. Alex had given me an idea of how he makes his, but as usual, he never uses a recipe. I also had a large quantity of raw spinach left over from the huge Costco bags which I made into a non-bacon warm spinach salad which we had for both lunch and dinner. Beth joined us for dinner as her kitchen is being redone right now with new cabinets and granite countertops. I made a large Israeli salad which will be part of the menu on Friday. I have been buying 3 lb. blocks of Philadelphia Cream Cheese at Costco and what was left was getting a little old, so I made a beautiful cheesecake. I figure I will take that to the Swan's party on Sunday.

The glazed mandelbrot I made I arranged in a large apothecary jar that Larry gave me many years ago. I have not filled it with anything for a long time and so it had been relegated to the shelves in the garage. It used to belong to Larry's father's tiny luncheonette across the street from the Betsy Ross House. It looks so beautiful filled that we took a photograph (above) and are hesitant to reach in and eat any. That is probably a good thing!

Saul had a frustrating first day because the net was down for the whole college and is still not up this evening, but he spent a little pastoral time planting New Guinea impatiens outside my office door after dinner. The weather today went from beautifully clear, cool and sunny to intermittent thundershowers at various times. Each time I tried to get my work done on the computer, I had to shut down because of lightning. Ari, who is on the phone with Saul and me as I am writing this, had a very productive time in Seattle and is due to return home first thing tomorrow morning.

All my creative work today was in the kitchen and will eventually get eaten, but that is okay with me. I am beginning to question whether creating a painting that will hang on the wall is really a more valuable endeavor and use of my time than creating familial and communal harmony with food and ambience. There is just so much unnecessary stuff in the world.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


It seems I'm not having too much trouble with this title thing. There are so many words to choose from!

I skipped the writers' group yet again yesterday. Saul had Monday and today off between the end of spring semester and the beginning of the first summer session. We used the opportunity to make a foray to Northeast Philadelphia to visit Simon's, our kosher butcher, and the nearby Shop Rite at Haldeman and the Boulevard, which is the repository for the area of all things kosher and Israeli. We can't even remember the last time we went to the butcher. We live mostly on fish, chicken (which we can get kosher at the local supermarkets), and vegetables. The one thing we cannot live without, though, is the Moroccan sausage that is made by Simon's wife Alla. I was down to my last package in the freezer. When it looked as though Simon's was going to go out of business because of a sharp rise in the rent, we all had put in a large supply. Thank goodness, they worked out the rent problem.

This coming Friday, I am preparing dinner for 14 with an Israel theme. We volunteered to host a discussion about Israel in conjunction with a program by the local Federation and our synagogue that is going on city-wide. Since we always have a special Friday night Shabbat dinner, I figured I would have the discussion then and also get to better know some of the new people we have met joining this synagogue.

Nowadays, we plan our trips carefully so as not to waste gas. We stopped at the gas station where we spent $67.00 to fill up the SUV, went to the bank to deposit some checks, stopped at Produce Junction to see if any inexpensive plants had come in, then to the supermarket, then to Simon's, then to Rhoads Gardens on our way home to see if they had pineapple sage plants (they only had one) and strawberry plants (struck out). We wound up spending over $300 at Simon's. The one 11 lb. whole brisket I bought was $74.16. In addition to preparing the dinner, our granddaughters are coming to stay with us for the summer soon and the youngest is definitely a carnivore. Eating out, which we do frequently the rest of the year, is more of a problem with two children in tow. I guess what we spent on food and gas yesterday in preparation for our summer will be made up for in not eating out so much.

The soup veggies were so beautiful and varied yesterday that I decided to make a large pot of chicken soup when we returned. At the supermarket, they were un-crating huge skids of fresh white corn on the cob from who-knows-where that was incredibly sweet and delicious. We had some for lunch when we returned and blanched and froze the rest. I have been trying to make felafel from scratch and have not been happy with the results. The first batch was too wet, and the second attempt too dry. I had made two different types of mandelbrot on Sunday--chocolate chip orange and lime/anise/pine nut. After a dinner of Alla's homemade cold cuts on fresh onion rye, for which Beth joined us, I glazed one half of each of the lime ones with a lime glaze, and one half of each of the chocolate chip ones with dark chocolate while Saul prepared his work for the summer session. Then, Saul and I made our first attempt at stuffing grape leaves. I think that went rather well. I was even able to use the surfeit of ginger mint that has been taking over the garden. Saul went out to pick some in the dark.

Ari flew to Seattle on business yesterday and landed safely around midnight, which is when we went to bed. I am feeling a little guilty that Saul didn't get to rest up from his cold yesterday, but I think he loves working with beautiful food and flowers almost as much as I do.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


This morning I was watching CBS Sunday Morning as I was tidyiing up the kitchen from the previous two evenings. There was a segment called "Small Wonders" where a professor from the University of Florida pours molten aluminum into the top of an anthill. After the metal cools, he and a friend spend about seven hours carefully digging out the resulting cast. It is a wonder of art, architecture and scientific study. They mention in the segment that the ants have been sacrificed in the process in the interest of science. The whole thing really struck a chord with me.

I had been having a terrible time with an invasion of tiny little ants into my home about six weeks ago. It was especially disturbing to find swarms in the shower. For a few days, I was having to grab the shower head, which is conveniently attached to a hose, and wash hoards of them down the drain before I could shower. They were moving along the baseboards in my bedroom and occasionally, I would find one crawling on me in bed which, needless to say, freaked me out. I pay monthly for an exterminating service and have been for many years. When I threatened to cancel the service, my friendly exterminator, Bill, began to visit almost every day in an effort to get rid of them. In the meantime, I was checking the net on various remedies, talking to friends and relatives, and looking things up in my organic gardening books.

Eventually, Bill was able to staunch the flow of ants into my house. In the process of tracking them down, he discovered, smack in the middle of my raised vegetable garden, what he said was the largest colony he had ever seen with the largest sized egg sacs, a few of which he took back to their trophy room. I had provided another trophy once before. I keep a box of pop-up tissue on the floor of my car. Once, after not driving it for a week, I got in and noticed some tiny shreds of tissue laying around. Then, I decided to follow what appeared to be a trail of them into the back of the station wagon. When I opened the deck, inside there was an incredibly-beautiful, delicately-constructed ball about 3 to 4 inches in diameter made completely of tiny pieces of shredded tissue. I slammed the deck back down and I did not dare get into the car again until the exterminator had completely checked it out. In the end, they decided that a mouse had constructed the ball, not a snake, as we had feared, and they gave my car a clean bill of health. I had it detailed after that so I could drive it again.

Bill came to check up again one day as I was out in the garden, shoveling gravel from the walkways, deconstructing, and I had not yet gotten to the middle, for obvious reasons. He suggested I wear a Haz-Mat suit before I tackle it. He had offered, in fact begged, me to let him spray in my garden. I would not allow it. I have worked my way around it, but I have not yet started disturbing the middle. I am now toying with the idea of pouring molten aluminum into the anthill, although they said, “don't try this at home." How tempting! You get rid of the ants ecologically, have a nifty new sculpture, and an object of scientific interest!

Killing ants by the tens of thousands is very disturbing to me. I often think of them in terms of man finding alien life on other planets. Suppose that alien life turns out to be very intelligent, creates incredible architecture for itself, and communicates over vast distances with other colonies, but its individuals turn out to be the size and shape of tiny ants? A friend, Ted Smith, once said that I should not be disturbed about killing them because really intelligent creatures like man create art and ants don't do that. My first reaction was, "What use would an ant have for the Mona Lisa?" Perhaps down in those beautiful architectural tunnels, there are tiny artworks that only an ant would appreciate. I wonder if ant colonies here know of the existence of ant colonies in France? Would that be akin to humans knowing of the existence of intelligent life on other planets? Are ants aware of the existence of a universe outside of ltheir anthills?

On another subject, only Beth joined us for Shabbat dinner this week. Larry had a graduation celebration to attend. As promised, I made her satay chicken. I had lunch with Roxy on Thursday. Afterwards, we went shopping at Costco and I picked up whatever odds and ends I thought I would need for dinner. On Friday, I realized I needed only fresh ginger to complete the meal. It was pouring all day and Saul has been struggling with a nasty cold. I hated to go out just to get a knob of ginger, but it was absolutely necessary for the chicken. Around 5 o'clock, after everything else was prepared, I got ready to make my foray over to Assi Market, less than a mile away, to get the ginger. Saul suggested I call Beth first to see if she had any. "Don't be ridiculous," I told him, "Beth barely ever has any food in the house. Besides, she wouldn't be home from work yet." We decided to call anyway, but she was not home yet. So, I prepared myself to go out in the cold, pouring rain. I got in the car, opened the garage door, drove to the end of the driveway, and there was Beth, turning into the street. I pulled up alongside her, rolled down the window and told her I was going out just to get fresh ginger. "How much do you need?" said Beth. "Just a small knob," I said. "I have that," said Beth, smugly, to my absolute amazement! "I'll bring it right over." So Beth, who evidently had a hankering for satay earlier in the week, by coincidence perfectly timed it so that she saved me a trip on a nasty day to the supermarket. With the extra time, I made a batch of Jumbo Oatmeal Peanut Butter Raisin Cookies to go with the extra quince apple pie I had taken out of the freezer from a dinner a few weeks ago. Timing is everything.

The Bar Mitzvah at Saturday services was really wonderful. Yoni Payne, the Bar Mitzvah, is known for his playful sense of humor. He is a day school student and so was very well prepared and poised, if quite tone-deaf. Part of his family flew in from England and his grandmother was obviously delighted to be present and read a lovely speech to him. The parents invited not only all the parents of the day school students that are his friends, but the entire congregation to lunch. It was a beautiful afternoon, but by the time we arrived home, Saul was feeling terrible from his cold and went right to sleep. We skipped the Israel Parade and celebration downtown today because he is still under the weather. Hopefully, now that he has a few days off before summer session begins, he will have tiime to rest and recover.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Little Shul With the Big Heart

Last night, we went to the yearly congregational meeting of Melrose B'nai Israel/Emanu-El. Saul was made a member of the board over our protestations that he would not have enough time to do the job justice. We have grown fond of many of the congregants we have met over the last two years. Like many small synagogues, it is struggling to survive in its present state and cannot afford to make any large capital improvements. One of the capital improvements that is sorely needed is to have a bathroom for handicapped people on the same floor as the sanctuary. Right now, using the bathroom requires a person who cannot negotiate the stairs to be placed in a stair glide, twice, once for each of the two sets of stairs, and to be raised and lowered slowly to the required level. It is a slow process, requiring assistance, and can only take one person at a time.

This is a really aged population of congregants, for the most part. Saul and I are considered young ones, and Saul is 61! Those with young families are extremely committed to raising their children with a Jewish family lifestyle, not merely dropping them off to be educated by others. Many of the older congregants are founding members of this congregation who have been there raising their families together for 50 years. Most have a genuine affection for each other that is rare to see in congregations today. Many can no longer attend services because climbing the stairs has become too difficult and the possibility of embarrassment while having to wait for a single-person stair glide too likely. Putting in a bathroom in place of a coat room would cost about $36,000. It is a solidly middle class congregation with no wealthy angels that could easily make this happen.

Yesterday, Ari, who went to Akiba Hebrew Academy for a few years, told me of an article in Ha'Aretz about the flap over the renaming of the school and the questionable practice of The Jewish Exponent in reporting it. The whole thing involved a donation of 5 million dollars. It struck me as very ironic that the Federation, which doles out money to support all kinds of extracurricular Jewish activities all over the area, never seems to come to the rescue when it comes to supporting middle-class older people who just want to stay in their homes, in their neighborhood, support their synagogue, and maintain the place where they have always prayed.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

I Never Caught the Brass Ring

For some strange reason last night, I began to think about the beautiful carousel I used to ride as a child. I suppose all this doom and gloom has triggered a defense mechanism in my brain.

I grew up in a totally secular Jewish extended family in a neighborhood called Logan in North Philadelphia. I lived in a row house at Eighth and Rockland Streets. A short walk from our home was Hunting Park (which my younger brother and I mistakenly called Honey Park for most of our childhood). We spent many Saturday afternoons picnicing there and feeding the birds with stale crumbs of bread from the White Palace Bakery where my grandfather worked. The park was large and beautiful back in the 1950's before the Schuylkill Expressway Extension cut a large swath through.

A very large gazebo of stone and concrete stood beside a small lake at the heart of it. I was told that once John Philip Sousa's band played his marches in the gazebo, but that was before I was born in 1950. I don't ever remember listening to a performance of musicians in the gazebo. I do remember my father swimming in the lake. It was my first encounter with anyone swimming in water altogether and I remember being amazed that it was even possible and that my father had this skill. On my mother's side, I am convinced that there is an inborn genetic fear of water. Those genes, I inherited from my mother. On the fourth of July, every year, we would carry folding chairs and blankets down to the park and watch amazing fireworks displays that seemed to go on for hours.

The park had the most beautiful carousel imaginable housed in a special pavilion. In the winter, large window openings would be covered with boards to protect it. The horses and other animals were intricately carved wood with glass eyes. I especially remember the silvery armored horse and an ostrich. The elaborate trim was painted gold and flowery scenes from the bygone Victorian era were hand-painted and reflected in large mirrors. The booming music was like a calliope. The ride cost a nickel, and if I was lucky and persistent, my mother and father would sometimes allow us to go on twice. I really liked the horses that went up and down. The armored horse was on the outside and was stationery. When it was crowded, my sister, Adele, who is seven years older than I, would stand at the pole next to it to try to catch the brass ring.

The brass ring is probably a true thing of the past, most likely because owners were sued over broken fingers, wrists, or falling-off accidents. “Catching the brass ring” used to be a common idiom for getting a lucky break. As the ride began, an employee of the carousel would load a stack of silvery metal, approximately 1-inch diameter rings into a slanted metal holder. The one brass ring would be randomly inserted among the others. After the carousel had made a few rotations the holder would be swung out within reach of the riders. If you were a tall teenager, which Adele was, and a little bit skilled at it, you would be able to sit on a horse and reach with a finger to grab a ring out of the holder each time you went around. If you were lucky and caught the brass ring, you received a free ride when you returned it. I remember at least one occasion when Adele caught the brass ring. Needless to say, I could not wait to be old enough and tall enough to reach for the rings.

I never had the chance. One summer, the boards did not come down from the windows and we were told that the carousel was under repair. It never reopened and to my dismay several years later, I found that it had been sold and transported elsewhere. At the time, I had no idea where. After that, every carousel or merry-go-round (one goes counter-clockwise and the other clockwise) would be compared to the treasured one of my childhood. I think I remember learning that it was the third oldest carousel in the country.

A couple of years ago, I saw a story in a local newspaper about the carousel and learned that it had been transported to an amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio. Since then, I have harbored a desire to travel there to see it again. I have also harbored a secret thought that if I ever won the lottery, I would buy it back, restore it to its full glory, and make it available to children in a park where I could visit it regularly. This morning, I resolved to Google it to see if there are any photographs on the net or videos of it in action. The first armored horse for which I found a photo was definitely not the one I remembered. The second one seems to be the one I remember but painted in bright colors instead of the silver armor I remember. From what I have been reading today, my carousel seems to have been dismantled and the pieces scattered among various no-so-grand carousels and museums all over Sandusky.

I did get to catch the rings a few times, though, before they disappeared. When I was in my late twenties and early thirties and took my young children to vacation in Ocean City, NJ, Gillian's arcade on the Boardwalk had a carousel with rings and I rode it as much as I could without seeming like a complete lunatic. The memories of all that are so sweet! If I ever do win the lottery, I might try anyway to reconstruct the whole thing for my grandchildren and their friends, park included.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


The weather was so bad yesterday--strong winds, cold rain, and lots of it. A huge limb split off a tree at the Johnston's next door and crashed through their roof. Saul mentioned it in his comments yesterday and Ari asked to see photos. No one was hurt. It was just a nuisance. Today the tree experts came and chipped the whole thing away and put a piece of plywood on the roof to cover the hole until it can be repaired—minor damage compared to the tornado damage some other states suffered this week.

Within the last week, a cyclone and its aftermath has killed and will continue to kill tens of thousands in Myanmar. And now, a huge earthquake has killed probably tens of thousands in China. I often think that life had to have been a lot more upbeat in the distant past when news of such occurrences took months to travel across continents and if one heard about them, they must have seemed tremendously remote. I watched one analysis that explained that if an earthquake like the one in China occurred here, it would be felt from Maine to Arizona.

When I was in China in January, in Beijing, I was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people. I was also impressed that they apparently have begun to really prosper after a very rough period in their history when millions died of starvation. Huge modern apartment buildings and hotels are constructed so quickly that the cab drivers who drive there every day are hard-pressed to find their way around in new sections of the city with new roads. To stem the tide of the population explosion, the government created penalties for couples who had more than one child. Watching television and seeing people grieving over the draped bodies of their dead children in front of their collapsed school building, I wonder how many of them were only children, the repositories of all their parents hopes and dreams for the future. How can you go on with your life after something like that?

My only real exposure to Myanmar was through a fictional book by Amy Tan called Saving Fish From Drowning. I read it on the airplane at Jessica's recommendation on the trip to China. The title seems rather ironic now. Larry is supposed to go to Myanmar as part of his trip in October. We are wondering if his trip will be cancelled. Will there be anything worth seeing there after this?

I feel a bit like I did after 9/11. I was watching television on that beautiful September morning and watched that second airplane sail through cloudless blue skies and slam into that building full of innocent people. I watched some scenes in that first hour that I have been trying to forget since I witnessed them. I wondered every day for a month if I would ever feel happy again. Having all these horrors available to witness every time I turn on the television is starting to wear me down and I will have to resort to staying away from the news for a while. I hate that, but I don't seem to be able to say, "thank God that's not happening to me" and continue to eat my breakfast like normal people do. I find it disconcerting when the Today Show goes from a disaster clip to one about the best lipstick to buy.

How should I deal with what is, for me, sensory overload? I went outside and enjoyed the beautiful weather, smelled the flowers, literally, and contemplated the beautiful chive flowers which are just opening and provide a once-yearly culinary treat for only about a week. I feel very, very lucky right now, but I also feel very sad.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Too Many Hours

I got into the desktop publishing business in a very backhanded way. Over twenty-two years ago, Saul got into a program at Temple University that was designed to retrain math teachers to teach computers. He was only two courses away from receiving his math certification when this came up. When he was accepted into the program (and how that came about is a lesson for all of us which I will probably tell sometime in the future), he took to it like a duck to water. My degree in college was in business education with a major in typing and shorthand. Despite my high school art teacher's arranging for an art scholarship for me, my parents had managed to convince me that I was not talented enough to make a living as an artist and that teaching business would be the perfect backup plan. I plowed my way through a lot of boring courses and graduated in three years, mostly so I could get it over with. I took every available elective in art. I had a nightmare of a student teaching experience at Abington High School's South Campus, the upper two grades. I was only 19 when I did my student teaching and was only a year older than some of my students. That also is another story. I was turned off to teaching and took a bunch of low-paying secretarial jobs when I graduated. By then, I hated every moment of my life that I had spent in front of a keyboard, although with all that practice, I was typing 100 words per minute.

Saul had set up a folding table in our bedroom where he could stay up into the wee hours of the night learning computer languages, programming, etc. on our TI-99C. If he succeeded in passing the course, he would qualify for one of the new Apple IIGS machines that were just becoming available. I was constantly being awakened by either the R2D2-like sounds coming from the computer, or by Saul himself, who kept waking me to show me all the "exciting things" he was learning to do. Frequently, on Saturday afternoons I would accompany him to a computer users group at LaSalle College. I kept trying to catch his excitement, but all I kept seeing were the hours and hours of sitting in front of a keyboard.

One day, he came to me all excited about an article he had read in a publication called Home Office Computing. I had idly leafed through some of his computer magazines, and most of the time, they were like reading Greek. He told me that he had read about a new field called desktop publishing that would be right up my alley. I was having no parts of it--more hours in front of a keyboard. He finally got me to read the article by promising me that if I just read this one article, he would no longer bug me about the computer—no more waking me up in the middle of the night or dragging me to meetings. How could I resist? But, he was right. It was up my alley. I was hooked when I read that clients would be willing to pay more per hour for artwork on the computer than for keyboarding. Within a week of reading that article, we used our credit cards to buy everything I needed to become a desktop publisher, about $10,000 worth.

I was really excited when I went to my first MacWorld Convention in Boston and saw a video presentation of Adobe Illustrator 88. I was there when Pixar came out with its first computer-animated shorts. I drooled all over a software called Renderman which I could never afford. I could not wait to get my first scanner and my first graphics pad. Just like Saul, I was like a kid in a candy store.

I have really enjoyed my creative projects on the computer over the last 22 years, but I wish there had been more of them. I did spend a sizable portion of my life doing boring work in front of a keyboard and I would probably have almost another lifetime if I could have all those hours back. That being said, working on the computer has evolved in so many ways that I rarely need to actually type anymore, and the boring part of dealing with moving words around takes less and less time these days. My problem now is that it has become so interesting when I am not working, that I am spending more hours than ever in front of this keyboard. I had a blood clot six years ago, and sitting here for long hours is not physically doing me any good. I know I should get up and walk around every 15 minutes, but come on, how can anyone really get anything done that way?

So here I sit, after a whole day of trying to make a deadline for my job, writing my blog and enjoying every minute of that, and wondering physically and mentally if I am just spending too many hours in front of the keyboard for my own good.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

One of the Best Mother's Days Ever!

When we awoke early on Friday morning we decided to get a few things done around the house, like clean up and organize to get ready for our upcoming brunch on Sunday. We had enough time to do that and get to Costco when it opened at 10 a.m. to pick up everything we needed. I also had a few minutes to download my email and catch up with anything new for my publication. Then, just as we were about to leave, Adele called to say that Larry was at Doylestown hospital. I had heard from Mom when she went there the day before that Larry had a horrible rash on his face. He had seen a doctor who had given him an antibiotic, but when it seemed to be worse, they decided to go to the hospital. They put him through some tests to make sure it was not something more serious and deep-seated than they thought and injected antibiotics. He was not contagious, so he came to the brunch on Sunday looking a feeling much better since all the tests had good results. The conversations with Adele from the hospital gave us a late start, though.

We spent the afternoon preparing Shabbat dinner, running out to a regular supermarket in the afternoon to pick up potatoes in a five-pound rather than a 20-pound bag to make home fries for Sunday. Friday's menu turned out to be leek, potato and Cope's Dried Corn soup; hydroponic lettuce salad with mangoes, craisins and cashews; coleslaw, buttered noodles with parmesan and cream; and pan-seared tuna with caramelized red onion and honey mustard pan sauce. I ran out of time to make dessert so I put together a cup custard dessert from my junior high school cookbook in about five minutes and put them in the oven when the challah was done baking. I forgot how good such a simple dessert can be. I like it better than creme brulee which tends to get overly rich and gooey sometimes and leaves a film in your mouth. We had the custards with gorgeous giant strawberries that came from Costco. Only Larry joined us for dinner. Kenny had arranged a Russian night club evening for that night and Beth joined him there. We had great leftovers for lunch after services on Saturday.

There was a Bat Mitzvah again this week, but this time, a different middle school was involved so we did not know the kids. The New York Times Sunday Crossword Puzzle was a little difficult this week and I had to resort to looking up one of the title's of Dolly Parton's songs on the internet to finish it. I thought the words were " Here we go again" and they were actually "Here you come again." Ari arrived from Washington around dinner time. Jess and Alex decided to come Sunday morning and go back after the party so they would not need a dog sitter. We had a really late dinner out with Ari on Saturday night at The Drafting Room. Then we came back and made the home fries and herring in sour cream for the brunch. I fell asleep before watching the end of a new SNL but it is recorded on TIVO.

It had been threatening to rain on Sunday, but the morning dawned sunny and bright and just the right temperature with a light breeze. Jess and Alex arrived with the girls about 9:30 and helped get everything ready for the party which was called for 11:30. Right before they arrived we decided to call Sylvia in Israel on Ari's new portable Mac with Skype. It turned out that Bobby Senders was there visiting for Yom Ha'Atzma'ut. We had a wonderful long conversation. We took the computer and put it on the kitchen counter so that we could fry our french toast and they could see us preparing breakfast and we could see them. I had not seen Bobby in a few years and was amazed at how much he looked like his father now. We tried to reach them again when Jess and Alex arrived about 20 minutes later, but there was no answer. Beth also came over early to help get everything ready.

It was all around an almost perfect day—gorgeous weather, my wonderful, affectionate little granddaughters playing with their cousin, Brenna, everyone in the family in relatively good health. My cousin, Ann Wieder, came in from Westfield and brought her mother, Aunt Ruth, from Elkins Park. The house and garden looked great. The food turned out terrific. The buffet brunch was lox and bagels with cream cheese, salad plate, whitefish salad, pickled herring in sour cream, french toast, poi pancakes with maple syrup, omelets to order, home fries, cheese plate, assorted muffins and croissants, juices, fresh strawberries and mango, coffee and tea. Dessert was a decorated chocolate cake from Costco, ice cream, and Erica made a butter cake that was incredibly rich. Everyone always comments that I should be waited upon on Mother's Day, but I can think of nothing more satisfying for a mother than to have the strength and resources to provide a great home and a great feast for loved ones. How could a restaurant experience compare with this? I enjoyed myself immensely having my family around me, helping me, and watching them have a good time catching up with each other's lives. I am really happy that Ari has come back to the East Coast and can participate in events like these without a long and expensive airplane flight. It was an incredibly beautiful day and everyone is home, safe and sound, and ready to start a new week.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Weatherman was Wrong

It was raining when Saul left for work this morning. Our routine is that on the four days a week that he has 8 o'clock classes, I get up with him and make him oatmeal and tea and we have breakfast together. Then, he goes off to work by 7 and I get to decide if I need to get on the computer right away, or do housework, or get back in bed for an hour or two. This is the real joy of running your own business from home. I have had the pleasure for 22 years, now.

In the interest of healthier breakfasts for whoever happens to be reading this, here is the formula for the best oatmeal ever (and it doesn't matter what brand so long as they are not the quick ones):
Buy a cheap collapsible stainless steel steamer basket that will fit inside one of your small pots that has a lid.
For one person, put enough water in the pot with the steamer insert to cover a 1/2 cup of oats. Bring the water to a boil and drop in the oats. Add a sprinkling of raisins, craisins, dried blueberries, or whatever else you like in your oatmeal. Boil, uncovered for 2 minutes. Turn off heat. Lift out steamer and rest oats in your cereal bowl until you empty all but a few tablespoonfuls of water from the pot. Put pot back on turned off burner, set steamer with oats back inside, and cover. Let stand for about 10 minutes while you finish getting dressed. Spoon oats into your cereal bowl and add milk, cream, sugar, honey, or whatever you like. This recipe was tested by Cook's Magazine and it makes fluffy, nutty oatmeal that even a person like me can eat. I was turned off of oatmeal forever by being forced as a child to stay at the table until I gagged down a bowl of slimy, lumpy oatmeal.

Because it was supposed to rain all day today and also tomorrow, I decided as it was beginning to let up a little to drag all the plants that are not frost hardy out of the garage so that they would be washed down and cleaned up before being left outside to play in the sunshine for the summer. There were 7 large pots. Ordinarily, Saul would perform this chore. Last year, after the stroke, Danny and Beth did it. This year, I figured I could slide them outside into the rain until everyone arrived for Mother's Day. As it turned out, the weatherman was wrong. As soon as I had them lined up on the driveway, the rain stopped and the sun came out. By the time Saul came home from school, the sun had been out for a few hours and together, we moved most of them onto the deck. There is a 25-year-old carob tree that we grew from seeds of carob pods that we ate at a Tu B'Shevat seder. Saul was usually chosen to act out the role of Honi HaMe’Agel in the story about the carob tree at the seder. The kaffir lime tree took me years to find in a catalogue so that I could use the leaves in Thai recipes. There is a bay leaf tree that I bought as a little stick in a pot many years ago for my father-in-law that has the most delicious tasting and smelling leaves ever. The tree came back to me when he died. There were two very large pots filled with pineapple sage that may not have survived this winter. If no green shoots appear on the stems in a week or two, I will have to start over. Besides being a delicious herb, pineapple sage gets these beautiful red flowers at the end of the summer. There was a large pot with a lemon verbena plant that is definitely alive and with which we love to make tea in the summer. I think that the strawberries in the strawberry jar might come back also. Because the weather turned out so nice, we also potted up a bunch of the new herbs in the planters that go around the gazebo. Things are really coming together just in time for spring. It usually takes us until the middle of June to get this far. We may actually have time to hang out in the hammock and enjoy the view at this rate.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

I Fall for the Carpenter Bees

I felt a little regretful about yesterday's blog when I woke up this morning. I knew this was bound to happen because when I sit down to write, I may be having a bit of a mood sometimes. I also have discovered that I never really know what is going to come out until I begin. I think that, being human, sometimes I will be up and sometimes down, so what I write may even be affected by the weather, but that is okay. I can live with a little regret. So maybe I did go a bit overboard yesterday.

I resolved that whatever happened today, I would try to be a little more lighthearted about my subject matter. I went out to the garden early today to shovel gravel and pull weeds as, again, it promised to be an absolutely glorious spring day followed by a gray and rainy one. I knew that I had several hours of tedious computer work after that, so I was completely enjoying the experience of being out there and doing resistance training of a sort, especially because I am starting to really see progress. Yesterday, Saul and I filled our planters that winter over in the garage with additional flowers. I designed, and Saul and I built, a private arbor outside Mom's room with a rack at the top of the walls to hold these planters. The slats at the top of the arbor are where the carpenter bees like to build their nests by boring holes into them.

Yesterday, after Saul finished placing each carefully arranged planter into place, he noticed a single carpenter bee hovering. He grabbed the net to try to kill it, but it seemed to be very clever. It kept flying around and hovering just above the slats where he could not swing the net to bag it. It played this game with the two of us for about a half of an hour until we gave up and went inside for dinner. During the time that it was hovering, I had a chance to really observe it closely. As insects go, it was really kind of cute--fuzzy, and fat--and it seemed to have our number. It really bothers me to kill bees even when they are destroying all our hard work and monetary investment. And this one, in particular, just seemed so intelligent.

Today, when I finished my gardening, I went inside to the kitchen to drink a mug of water and I was looking out the window at the planters. A carpenter bee was checking out the arbor and gazebo for the best place to begin drilling. I decided not to do anything about it. What was the big deal? We had so many holes to be plugged up already and maybe it would decide to move on to more promising territory. There are wood fences and firewood piles all around the neighborhood. Then, as I watched, another bee showed up, and finally a third. I couldn't stand it anymore. I put my Crocs back on, went out onto the deck and grabbed the net that Saul had left at the ready the night before. These bees were not the smart ones, I thought, because they were hovering right where I could bag them. But as I began to swing the net, I suddenly realized that there were now about five of them dive-bombing me. I have lots of allergies and I have never been stung, so I don't know what effect that would have. I just recently learned that the female carpenter bees who have yellow faces are capable of stinging. I panicked, ducked my head and tried to run back to the kitchen sliding door just a few feet away. I tripped over the pole and fell hard onto the deck on my right side. It was such a shock! I haven't fallen in many years. I thought I had broken something because I could not get up on the first try. On the second try I made it because I was desperate to get back in the house. As it turned out, I just had the wind knocked out of me. There don't appear to be any broken or cracked ribs. The big lump on the outside of my forearm went down a lot when I applied ice. I have one bloody scape at my wrist, and my knees under my jeans have only lost the first couple layers of skin. The side of my face hit the deck very lightly, so no damage there. I was very lucky.

I am going to be a coward from now on and let Saul do the killing. He doesn't care whether they have intelligence or not. If they are destroying his hard work, they must die. We both agree, however, that it would be wonderful if there was some substance that could be painted or sprayed on that would not be poisonous to us and that would make our cedar deck a less attractive place for carpenter bees to nest.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Sword of Damocles

In discussing Sandy's death with friends and the effect its suddenness and finality has on how we view our own lives, I was reminded of the story of The Sword of Damocles, which I read in elementary school. I met my friend Roxy today for my belated, but delicious birthday lunch at Blue Sage. She never knew Sandy personally, but we were discussing the fact that a random, shocking tragedy such as this wakes people up to their vulnerability to sudden death and also, to the possibility of the sudden death of loved ones. She literally used the phrase, "our lives hang by a thread." I asked her if she was familiar with the classic story, and she was not. Although the story really deals with the fact that you can never really judge another person's life without experiencing all the pitfalls along with the pleasures, it also highlights the fact that only a thread can stand between you and sudden death.

One of the things we have in common, and a major reason why we were able to resume our friendship after 30 years, is that we both try to live every day with the full knowledge that that sword hangs over us. What that does for us is to help us keep our values straight. It gives us a sense of appreciation for every little joyful moment or occasion that occurs each day. It helps keep us from getting petty about the annoyances that would mean nothing if we knew that the next few moments would be our last. It means that we can never take the continuing presence of our loved ones for granted. It means that we suffer terribly when someone leaves us after harsh words and we don't have the opportunity to rectify the situation. When I left Ari's home at the end of Passover and I kissed and hugged him, I told him I didn't know when I would see him again because we had no plans for the immediate future. He said, "of course we'll see each other soon." My parting words were, "You never really know." It was about five minutes later that I received the call about Sandy.

I think it is an art to accept the thread and the sword and still be able to enjoy life. I think that most people would just prefer to forget it hangs over them. Saul and the kids never think about death unless the idea is thrust upon them. They have told me many times that I am morbid for trying to live my life this way, but they accept that this is the way I am and they remind me when I am going overboard. I try not to go overboard.

I learned that I would die one day when I was six years old. I overheard a conversation between two of my uncles discussing my grandmother, who was in the hospital dying of cancer. Uncle Jack was accusing Uncle Sy of being callous about his mother's imminent death. Uncle Sy said simply, "we all have to go sometime." That played around in my head and exploded about 3 o'clock in the morning. I went to my parent's bedroom, woke up my mother, and demanded to know if that meant me, too. To her credit, she told me the truth and tried to comfort me as best she could when I fell apart. No one else I know has ever told me that they had this kind of dramatic moment when the realization of their own mortality suddenly hit home. Since that first morning after, life has never been quite the same.

I would still argue that we are meant to take the fragility of life to heart, that the knowledge of our own mortality is what sets us apart as human beings. In fact, I see the story of Adam and Eve as a metaphor for our knowledge of mortality. Eating the forbidden fruit imparted knowledge of our own mortality. The loss of the garden represents our loss of the blissfully innocent state of childhood when we thought we were immortal. Leaving the garden allowed us to reach a higher, more adult plane of consciousness giving us a better appreciation of the reality and beauty of our universe. During Yom Kippur, the community recites a litany that probably includes every means of dying known to ancient man. It is a particularly painful prayer if you really take to heart the fact that any of these ends could be yours and may come sooner rather than later. If God really does decide if I will be sealed in the Book of Life for yet another year, I hope that when my name doesn't appear, there exists a really good reason why not.

Monday, May 5, 2008

An Interesting Yom HaShoah Tale

The truth is stranger than fiction. Every time I read a book with an implausible plot line I am reminded how implausible life can be by some story in the news. Today, Alex sent this link to Saul about the recovery of a Holocaust Torah. As I read it, I was incredulous at all the coincidences that brought this sacred scroll to light, literally. The image of this rabbi walking around a Polish Jewish cemetery with a metal detector is imprinted in my imagination. We have gone so far afield from our traditions that this would never be possible now.

When Ari became a bar mitzvah, he was the first to read from a recovered Holocaust Torah that we, among many others at our synagogue, helped to restore. By coincidence, the Torah was from the area of Czechoslovakia where Saul's parents grew up. I felt it was very meaningful for him to read from a Torah that possibly his ancestors read from as much as four hundred years ago, but I was unprepared for the shivers that ran down my spine and the goosebumps as I drew close to it that day.

In the Orthodox tradition, a woman may not approach the Torah to read from the scroll, but in our Conservative tradition, women may even become rabbis. I had been close to a Torah before that moment and have been there many times since, but no experience of Aliyah has ever given me that type of physical sensation. That Torah now resides in a glass case especially built to display it and it is only used on rare and special occasions.

Alex sent this e-mail along with the story:
"Rabbi Menachem Youlis (who is in the picture and the focus of the article) is a close friend of mine—he does extraordinary work with rescuing sifre torah…he has an organization that is called

He is truly one of the good guys of the world…

I have known about this project for a little while—what Menachem had to do to get the torah and then get it out of the country is just more examples of the anti-Semitism that still runs rampant in Poland…"

His email only hints at the difficulties encountered in recovering this Torah from a country that still remains extremely anti-Semitic. Perhaps as time passes, the people will become more educated and tolerant. I hope it doesn't take another 70 years.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

A Beautiful Early May Weekend

Saul and I really enjoyed sleeping late in our own bed on Friday morning. The last few weeks we had been running back and forth from Washington to Baltimore. We had no plans for the day other than to prepare Shabbat dinner. I had no idea what I would prepare. After we dawdled and had some breakfast, he suddenly had a big gulp and checked the calendar. It turned out that one of his students was presenting a senior project and had begged him to attend even though Friday is his day off. He left me to finish up some garden work and prepare dinner. I really didn't know what I would make for dinner until Faith called to say she would join us and asked if dinner was meat or dairy. I decided at that moment it would be meat and went scrounging in the freezer. I had some chicken soup frozen and some chicken dumplings frozen that Saul had perfectly filled and folded after I made the filling. I had some chicken cutlets and a package of Moroccan sausage from Simon's. I had a bunch of Granny Smith apples in the refrigerator. After a few hours, Saul returned and joined in the labor of preparing dinner. Ari had commented last week that I hadn't made Uncle Jack's chicken in a long time.

Uncle Jack lived with us for a few months when he was recovering from open heart surgery. He was diabetic and until he was strong enough to inject himself, Saul gave him his shots every morning. His diet did not allow salt or sugar. I invented this chicken in desperation for something with flavor. I used to saute loads of onions in some toasted sesame oil, toss in thinly sliced chicken breast meat, and then add Ken's Lite Honey Mustard dressing. We would enjoy it in a long roll which had been scooped out. A few years back, it became dairy and I could no longer use it on chicken. Friday, I invented something similar adding Dijon mustard, fresh ground black pepper, dried tarragon, orange blossom honey, a splash of orange juice and some yuzu. It was delicious over wild and brown basmati rice. I think I will be doing it again, except today, Beth pointed out that I have not made her favorite satay sauced chicken in a long time either, so I guess that will be next. I'd better stock up on chicken cutlets!

I made a crumb-topped apple-quince pie for dessert with the apples and the last jar of preserved quinces from my trees. The quince trees are in flower right now and are absolutely beautiful. Hopefully, the coddling moths that ruin them will leave me enough to preserve in the fall.

I think that the last month or so is the longest I have gone in twenty-five years without baking challah on Friday. We were using up all the extra ones in the freezer before Passover, and then Passover fell on a Saturday, so there was no challah for two weeks in a row. We all really savored the fresh-baked ones.

At synagogue on Saturday there was a bat mitzvah, Brianna Spector. She was very poised and well-versed in her parasha. Sitting in front of us was a whole contingent of kids whom we had taught at Temple Sinai. It was a very warm and pleasant experience, even though the kids were a bit antsy (who isn't at that age?). I learned from Janice Eisenberg at services that Sandy had actually died from a ruptured aorta. I think that that was more information than I actually had wanted to know, just like seeing the crushed car in which she died.

After a lunch of leftovers, I did the previous Sunday's New York Times Crossword Puzzle, my great weekly pleasure (even though I am not supposed to write on Shabbat) and we took a long afternoon nap. Saturday evening, Faith Rubin joined us. We ordered in a fried eggplant pizza from Franconi's and sat and schmoozed for a few hours. SNL had a rerun.

Today, Ken and Randi picked up Mom, took her for a walk in a nearby park and went to Pumpernick's for breakfast. Saul and I begged off so we could continue getting our landscaping in order. We really enjoyed being outside in the great weather. When we became too tired to work any more, we got in the car and visited one of my favorite nurseries, Brick's, where they usually have a great selection of herb plants. I did get an incredible assortment of basils--lemon, lime, cinnamon, Italian, mini, etc., but not my favorite--Thai. I will have to keep hunting through more nurseries. How sad ;-).

Beth came over and we had dinner in the gazebo. How wonderful that there are no mosquitoes this time of year! If only we could have summers without mosquitoes and Japanese beetles. That would be the Garden of Eden for me--perfect weather with no pesky, stinging, destructive, disease-carrying bugs to spoil the enjoyment. I guess I would have to eliminate deer, groundhogs, voles, raccoons and rabbits, too. I guess my idea of heaven is getting a bit exclusive.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Mother's Day Coming Up

My sister called this morning to find out what we are doing about Mother's Day this year. I didn't even see it coming and it is only ten days away! We have divided up holidays in this family and Mother's Day has always been mine. I told her I would talk to Saul and to assume I would be making the usual brunch unless she heard from me otherwise. I pointed out that this year was going to be a bit of a shock for Saul. His mother has always joined us for Mother's Day. Since we took her from our house to his sister's house (where she wanted to be) in October, she has not called him even once, not to wish him a happy birthday, not to ask how he is feeling since his stroke, not to ask about her great-grandchildren… nothing. She is happy to talk to him if he calls her through his sister, but otherwise, she seems unconcerned about any of us. It is very hard on him. He used to call his mother almost every day beginning when his father died. He bought and still pays monthly for a cell phone so she could reach him in an emergency. Since she went to live with his sister, the cell phone has been turned off and he can only reach her when his sister filters the calls. She and her husband have completely taken over their mother's financial affairs, and yesterday, they put her house up for rent on Craig's List.

We discussed Mother's Day arrangements when he came home from work today. We will be doing the usual brunch. He will call his sister to talk to his mother to wish her well. We will send flowers. I am sad to say that I hope she has lost her mind. Having a mother who doesn't care is much too painful.