Monday, November 24, 2008

A Memorial to Sandy

Last April, my friend Sandy Schinfeld was killed by a drunk driver on her way home from a concert on a Saturday night. She was an absolute dynamo when it came to finding ways to raise money to support good causes. One of the ways she brainstormed to raise funds for her synagogue, Adath Jeshurun, was a series of beautiful tabloid-sized posters, designed by renowned artist, Mordechai Rosenstein, and changed weekly in a specially-created glass case. Members of the congregation were inspired to honor and memorialize their friends and loved ones by sponsoring various elements of the weekly portion of the Torah reading. All this began with a Torah-thon during which congregants were recruited to read the entire Torah in one 24-hour period from beginning to end.

This week, during the parashah Chayei Sarah (The Life of Sarah), which contains the story of Rebecca at the well, a special page was dedicated in her memory. During the sermon by Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, I learned something subtle about the story of Rebecca that I had never known before. There is a small difference between what Eliezer prays that Rebecca will do and what she actually does at the well. Eliezer prays that she will offer him water and also offer to draw water for his 10 camels—a big undertaking. What she actually does is offers him water, waits until he has drunk his fill, and then offers to draw water for his camels—a subtle, but very important distinction. Her kindness and sensitivity is such that she realizes that if she offers immediately to draw water for both him and his camels, he might hesitate to drink his fill so as to lessen the burden she has offered to take upon herself. This story was chosen for Sandy’s memorial because of her considerable kindness and sensitivity to the needs of others.

In addition to the meaningfulness of being at AJ to support Sandy’s husband, Jay, I also had the privilege of saying a misheberach for my mother, whose name has been announced there every week since she has been on hospice. Her sister, Ruth, saw to it that a misheberach would be said every week and I was joined in reciting the blessing for my mother’s health by Adele’s friend, Carol Shackmaster, who has known my mother most of her life and also belongs to AJ. When I told my friends at services that she had improved enough to be released from hospice, all were especially hopeful that our prayers had had some effect.

Our Friday evening Shabbat menu this past week, when we were joined by Beth and Larry, was homemade challah, smoked turkey split pea soup, spinach salad with avocado, tomato, cucumber, mushrooms, hard-boiled eggs and red onions with hot maple pomegranate dressing, Israeli salad, chicken paprikash, and potato latkes with applesauce. For dessert, I made pareve chocolate mousse crepes. Larry brought us the wonderful family calendar he custom-makes for us every year with all our family’s birthdays and anniversaries and our photos. This year’s theme featured his wonderful photos from the Galapagos. Last year’s was our Hawaiian trip. He also brought all of us gifts from his recent travels in the far East.

Like every woman (and some men) I know right now, little by little I am preparing favorite dishes to add to the family feast on Thanksgiving weekend, a pastime I highly enjoy. Check out my other blog (click on the top corner) for some of our family favorites. Agnes is coming to stay with Mom and they will be going first to Adele’s and then Ken’s during the holiday. I am really excited because while we are in Baltimore/DC we have just arranged to take our grandchildren to see the new Smithsonian American History Museum which just opened a week ago after being closed down for refurbishing a few years ago. We will have a family excursion on Friday with Alex’s parents joining us as well. I visited the American History Museum when I was a teenager on a class trip and the impressive size and display of the real “Star-Spangled Banner” is one of just a few fleeting memories I have of that trip. Because of what I have been reading in Smithsonian Magazine about the history and restoration of that flag, I can’t wait to see it again. I hope the weather will be good for travelling and for ducking in and out of museums, not to mention the outdoor carousel on the National Mall.

In case I don’t get in another blog post before the holiday, for my Thanksgiving wish to you, may you be united in joy and prosperity with those you love.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Got Intelligence?

I really hate having two question marked titles in a row, but lately, I feel as though I am in a constant state of wonderment, and not in a good way. When the movie, Forrest Gump premiered in 1994, I despaired of the message it sent out that seemed to be embraced by our country. A new word came into the lexicon—gumpism—meaning a condition in which stupid people could triumph as long as they were well-meaning and benign, and that smart people often outsmarted themselves and became disillusioned losers. As appealing as the movie was, this was no way to run a country, particularly ours, a superpower that is as complicated in every way as any country could be.

I wake up hopeful every morning now that a seemingly intelligent person (even his detractors seem to agree that he is intelligent) is about to take over the reins (reigns?) of our government. In addition, he seems to be appointing people to his cabinet who also are generally credited with intelligence. This morning on CNN, though, there seemed to be a lot of griping by Republicans that these appointments represent a step backward to the Clinton era rather than the sweeping change that was promised; as if we wouldn’t all wave a magic wand, if we could, and go back to the economic prosperity of the Clinton years; as if the stupidity with which our last eight years have proceeded had not caused the dire situation in which we find ourselves now. Are Americans really so naive as to believe that any average American, plucked from our midst, could run so complex an undertaking as getting the machine of our government chugging along smoothly without intelligence and experience? I wouldn’t want to fly in an airplane unless I thought the pilot had been well-prepared and experienced on the job. Why would anyone argue with having people in positions of authority who have proven themselves successful in the past?

I dearly hope that our national affinity for admiring beautiful, stupid people, will come to an end sometime in the near future. There are plenty of beautiful, intelligent people out there to admire. Perhaps it is not too much to hope that in the future, stupidity will be recognized for just what it is and we will discontinue building monuments to it. Perhaps people will again be embarrassed to admit immoral behavior instead of lauding it in books and on television because other intelligent people will recognize it as immoral no matter how beautiful or wealthy the perpetrator.

My list of ten top signs that there is still intelligent life in the universe:

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Not Dying?

How ludicrous that sounds. We are all dying; as if we all had a choice not to! In hospice-speak, I have known for a few months now that Mom is "not actively dying." In actuarial-speak, (for insurance purposes) that means that death is not expected at any moment, but that the patient is still expected to die within about six months.

We have now entered a new phase. Mom has recovered to a point where she is no longer likely to die within six months and therefore, she is no longer eligible for hospice services. She is no longer dying, technically-speaking. When hospice began at the beginning of September, I was told that Mom's condition would be evaluated every 90 days. I can tell that, given the state she was in when they first evaluated her, the hospice people consider her present recovery something of a miracle. All the more shocking is that this miracle was brought about by simply removing all her medication, allowing her to eat whenever and whatever she feels like eating, and allowing her to sleep as much as she likes. It all makes me wonder in what state of health she would be presently if she hadn't been taking all that medication all these years and limiting her diet to spartan proportions. Officially, the service will end on December 1, and we will lose the kind ladies who came three days a week to bathe Mom, help her change her clothes and change her sheets.

Mom was almost in a state of disbelief when Kathy, her hospice nurse, told her she is not dying and that the service will be discontinued shortly. Given what she has been through and the way she feels sometimes, I'm sure she thought there was something terribly wrong with her about which we weren't telling her. The problem now, is that she is beginning to give us a hard time again about having someone staying with her at all times. Her hands are functioning so poorly that she is not able to perform simple tasks like opening a lid, holding a utensil properly or closing a zipper. She drinks her tea with a straw because her hands shake too much to hold a mug properly, and her mind sometimes goes south for a little while, just long enough that she is probably a risk to herself. I can't imagine that this part of the situation will improve a whole lot in the future, but one can only hope. The hospice people tell me in her present state she should not be left alone. I am delighted to learn that her health should continue to improve, but it also will be a big responsibility to see that someone is with her all the time in the future, especially with her constant fighting for her independence. I understand. I, too, would be horrified if I thought that I should never be left alone again. It would be almost as horrible for me as never having companionship again. Everyone really needs both.

This past week was pretty upbeat for me even with all the bad news about the economy, the war zones, the China subway collapse, the earthquake in Indonesia, and the fires in southern California. I am enjoying my new recipe blog immensely, as I enjoy writing this blog. I love to cook, and the combination of preparing, photographing and reminiscing about food experiences over the years is as creative and informative an outlet for me as I ever could have imagined.

Saul picked Larry up from the airport and returned with him just in time for dinner on Friday evening and for a belated celebration of Larry's birthday. Dinner was homemade baba ganoush with pretzel chips; homemade challah; minestrone soup from Amy's; baby spinach, goat cheese and pomegranate salad with hot dressing; seared tuna steaks; mashed potatoes with sautéed onions, and a decorated Texas Sheet Cake that is Larry's favorite (made with Hershey's Special Dark Cocoa). This was the first time I made the cake with the dark cocoa, and even though Saul and Larry both love dark chocolate, Larry preferred the regular cocoa because of the cake's similarity to Tastykake's Chocolate Cupcakes--the way they used to taste years ago when we were children, before they changed the formula.

Poor Larry has been sick with a bad cold that was just beginning on Friday, all weekend. Ken also went home early from work this week with the same bronchitis that I am finally shaking off. Fortunately, Randi was able to come and stay with Mom on Saturday morning so that I could go to synagogue with Saul.

Rabbi Howard Addison's sermon was about Abraham's personal characteristics--what about the man's unique qualities caused him to be chosen by God to bring the message of monotheism to the world, and how, although a flawed human being, he was able to learn and grow from adversity to become a moral exemplar capable of confronting God. In reading the introduction to Chapter 18 in the Etz Hayim, I found the discussion of spirituality interesting. I think that many people are grappling with a viable definition of spirituality so as to give meaning to their lives without being sappy or airheaded. The description of this unique aspect of Abraham's personality provides as practical a definition of spirituality as I have seen: "One of the gifts with which spiritually sensitive people are blessed is the ability to see the presence of God in their daily experiences. Others, sharing the same experiences, are blind to the divine presence."

Today, I caught up with my computer work and sent out a first draft to the editor while Saul went outside to deal with a humongous quantity of fallen leaves. Between the heavy rain and the fact that practically everything came down at the same time, I have been picking the dead leaves that cling to everyone's shoes off the floors for a week. They are a driving hazard and are piled so high that the outside steps are treacherously hidden. I can't wait to be rid of them all, but there is such a huge amount I don't see a light at the end of the tunnel this year. Perhaps before they do too much damage to my plantings, I will find a few hours to pick the oak leaves out of my heather.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Title Should be Tuesday, Tuesday

Saul always tells me that Tuesdays are doubly blessed. We have always arranged for big events to take place on Tuesdays because of that fact when we have a choice. The reason that Tuesdays are doubly blessed is that in Genesis, God completes two acts of creation on this day and sees that each one is good. Really! Check it out.

Life is sort of that way for me as well. I am able to get through Mondays on the glow of delightful weekends. I feel energetic and dig into work on Monday mornings, but by Tuesday, when it is time to really get going, I find myself dragging around with the coming weekend just too far away. Not every Tuesday is that way, obviously, but the ones in November with days growing short as winter approaches are particularly demoralizing. I also have been fighting with a touch of bronchitis that has been coming and going for the last 10 days. I cleaned the house Monday morning and then I cheered myself up by baking a sweet potato bundt cake, a butternut apple casserole, and a sweet potato/apricot casserole to freeze until Thanksgiving, and caramel pecan filling for the carrot cakes I froze earlier. My so-so mood today probably has a lot to do with lack of sleep and with the fact that I watched a beautiful, sweet and melancholy movie this morning called "Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont," which speaks poignantly to the loneliness and aimlessness of growing old in a retirement home without the loving ties of old friends and family to sustain you, but with the hopeful note of new and unexpected friendships. Some days I am torn wondering if helping to provide Mom with a comfortable and familiar home with us has done her a disservice because she seemed to avoid developing her own new friendships after Dad died. On the other hand, assisted living and retirement homes can be pretty heartless and impersonal places for someone struggling with the infirmities of old age, not to mention the cost. There seem to be no really good options for the "golden," or as my sister says, "rusty" years when infirmity begins to impinge on an active lifestyle. Most of those I know living in over-55 retirement communities seem to be less than thrilled as the years go by with the restrictions such a lifestyle places on them. Growing old gracefully and trying to maintain independence while having a relationship with your family seems as elusive and intricate a skill as skiing a slalom course.

My friend Roxy phoned as I was writing this and we began discussing the tribulations of growing old gracefully. She signed up for a yoga course that begins this evening in an effort to reverse the weight gain that has insidiously begun to creep up on us over the years despite our best efforts to keep it off. I am reading a new blog called "It's the Baby Boomers' Fault" that is an exercise in reminding us all just how ungraceful we are. Today's blog post featured the stupid commercial for men's hair dye. We also lamented over the frustration that it took so long to "gain a heart of wisdom," now that it is quite late in the game to be able to make use of those hard-won lessons.

Roxy's birthday was last week. When we were in our teens and early twenties, I always bought her a Droste Chocolate Apple for her birthday. I found out last week that they stopped making them a few years back. Last year, after much searching, I found a chocolate orange made the same way, but the chocolate was not nearly as good. This year, even those have ceased to exist, so Roxy, if you read this before I see you, I tried and failed to get you the traditional gift. I hope I can come up with something as sweet and may we have as many birthdays left to start a new tradition.

Jamie had her baby shower this past Sunday at Georgine's Restaurant. I forgot to pack my camera so I hope she will write about it eventually and post some photos. Jess drove in with Izzy for the day and accompanied Mom and Beth and me while Saul had an absolute blast babysitting at home. It was a lovely day with tons of adorable gifts. Mom looked well compared to how she has been the last few months. During the week, Erica came and gave her hair a great haircut after Adele dyed it for her. Then we all had dinner together here. I set it in curlers for her on Sunday morning. During the shower, it became painfully obvious from the questions she asked me about many of the people that greeted her that her mind is beginning to slip. The ride was very uncomfortable for her and it seems that there will be no possibility of making the trip to Baltimore with her anymore. This afternoon I arranged for Agnes to come stay with her Thanksgiving weekend, and Adele will have her there for dinner.

Shabbat dinner this past week was a very subdued evening compared to our usual numbers. We were joined only by Beth. Larry should be joining us this coming Friday when he returns from his travels and we are looking forward to hearing about his adventures. Dinner was homemade challah, cream of mushroom soup, Israeli salad, homemade potato salad, kohlrabi coleslaw, and sautéed shallot-stuffed, baked wild flounder rolls dredged in chick pea flour with fresh lemon thyme (from the garage bounty). Since I wasn't feeling too well on Thursday and Friday and Saul had taken a class to the U.N. in New York, I had purchased a ready-made pumpkin pie from Costco. I am planning to put up a delicious and pareve praline-topped pumpkin pie recipe on the recipe blog that substitutes coconut milk for the cream with great results. I will have to put a photo of it up at a later date when I have actually made one or two for Thanksgiving this year. We decided last year that we actually like the coconut-milk version better than the cream one.

Tuesday, Tuesday, has really been good to me. I really have no serious reason to complain.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A New Lease on Life in the U.S.A.

Despite all the worries of an unstable economy that is causing job loss among friends and neighbors and their children, record bankruptcy proceedings, and failed businesses, the mood in my neck of the woods was absolutely jubilant last night and this morning as the country anticipates a new era of American integrity and tolerance with the election of Barak Obama. Saul went to Obama headquarters in nearby Lansdale on Monday evening to make phone calls to help get out the vote. His canvassing days on foot are over, I fear, because of the problems with his knees. He came across a few obnoxious Democrats, but most of the 150 he contacted were as enthusiastic as we for the possibility of victory.

He went to the polls at 7 a.m. yesterday, hoping to vote before his classes started at 8 a.m., but encountered 75-100 people in line ahead of him. Randi came over in the morning and we took Mom for an appointment to see her gynecologist, and that went well. Randi left to take her elderly father to his polling place and vote herself in her neighborhood. Beth had asked that we wait for her to vote. She came home from work early, and Saul, Mom, Beth and I were walking into our polling place by 3:45 p.m. Thankfully, there was no line. Saul helped Mom in the voting booth and we had exercised our civic duty by 4:10 p.m. Everyone was feeling so happy about the ease of it all that we decided to take Mom with us to a nearby Thai restaurant for an early dinner. Because we were so early, the restaurant was empty and so that part was easy also. This was Mom's first outing since August. We spent the rest of the evening viewing the election results intermittently with working on our computers. We went to sleep very elated! Philadelphia is really a happy place between Obama winning the election and the Phillies winning the World Series.

Ari, who needed to vote early in DC in order to get to work in time for meetings, encountered a very long line. He snapped this photo with his iPhone as he was finally nearing the entrance after waiting for about 75 minutes to vote. He said that when he arrived, the line in front of him was as long as the line behind him that he photographed. Adele was the first one to vote in her neighborhood as Larry works at the polls and she arrived with him at 6 a.m.

All of us hope that this clean sweep in our government will usher in a new, more prosperous, and more peaceful era. We can only hope!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Halloween Weekend in Baltimore

By Wednesday afternoon, I was satisfied that my tender plants had weathered the snow and ice storm only a little worse for wear, but I wasn't taking any more chances. We called Beth at work and she told Saul she would help him move pots and trays into the house when she came home from work. After almost everything was moved in, Mom joined us and we had some of the spanakopita I had made and frozen last week for dinner along with leftover potato leek soup. I was feeling more relaxed and happy than I have in a long time. Work for my business was caught up and Mom was okay with Agnes coming to stay with her for a few days. According to Leslie at Fine Care, Agnes had really liked Mom and the situation here, and would be happy to come any time we wanted her. Ken and Randi were coming to stay on Friday evening to help her hand out Halloween candy to our neighbors, and Adele was coming to visit for a few hours on Sunday. I had time to get the house in order, catch up with laundry and clean on Wednesday.

Thursday morning, I had the time to pack not only my own stuff, but Saul's as well, so that we could leave for Washington, DC, as soon as he met Agnes at the train station after school at 1 p.m. and brought her home. At 11 a.m., I received a call from Fine Care that Agnes was already there and waiting at the train station whenever we could get over to pick her up. She had been so freaked out at missing her train and making us late the last time that she had arrived two hours ahead of schedule. I felt bad that she had to wait there for two hours, but I couldn't leave Mom alone, and Saul was in class until then. I was so organized on Thursday that I had time to sit down and write a suggested list of our food inventory and where to find everything. The ride down was extremely pleasant. Further south, the autumn colors of the foliage along I-95 were at peak because the weather had been warmer. From my experience, the fall foliage in Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland is just as beautiful as in New England.

We arrived in DC just in time to meet Ari after work. We found an open parking meter right in front of his office building just down the street from the White House. We walked about two blocks to a new restaurant that Ari recommended named Founding Farmers and had a delicious dinner together. Unlike the name would seem to imply, the decor was very high-style and sophisticated, the food all prepared on the premises from fresh local ingredients (including the ginger ale), and the service almost bend-over-backwards attentive. The restrooms were state-of-the-art and, if you are into "green" things, had a hand dryer that actually gets your hands dry! You lower your hands into the gadget and while slowly raising them, the water is blown off sort of the way it is blown off your car in an automated car wash. The prices were very reasonable and Ari treated us to dinner to celebrate a well-deserved bonus. On the walk back to the car, we took movies of the unique and interactive "fountain" at the building of the International Monetary Fund.

Friday morning, after dropping Ari off at the office, Saul caught up with marking papers while I began a task about which we had talked several months ago. Ari had decided he wanted to get rid of the L-shaped IKEA desk and large computer that sat on it, but was waiting for an opportunity when we would have the SUV in DC. Most of the time, we meet in Baltimore and go back to DC in his Prius. Everything, even his office chair, had a layer of dust from lack of use. Nowadays, he is either using his iPhone or his laptop actually on his lap. So I spent the morning removing everything from his desk and cleaning. There was some other furniture leaving as well--a baker's rack that someone had left behind in the garage in San José, and some plastic lounge chairs that have weathered for too many years to get clean.

Ari was able to leave work by 2 p.m. and when we picked him up, we were able to avoid most of the horrible traffic jams we usually encounter on the way to Baltimore on Friday afternoons. We stopped for a quick and satisfying bento box sushi lunch in the new Columbia Heights shopping district near Ari's condo. The restaurant, Nori, resides in part of a refurbished, very old, movie theater called The Tivoli. We stopped at the olive bar at Whole Foods on the way over to pick up an assortment to top Alex's homemade pizzas. Ari, who dislikes dressing in costume, also purchased a knit cap there with floppy ears that looked like a puppy. Halloween fell on Shabbat eve this year, so the kids did not go out to "trick or treat," but we all had dinner in costume and gave out candy to families in the neighborhood during dinner. Alex had readied all the ingredients for sushi and we spent a few minutes when we arrived rolling our favorites, which he then sliced up and arranged on plates. He also made an outstanding roasted red pepper soup from leftovers. I hope someday he can codify this particular recipe on the blog so that it can be re-created. We had the pumpkin-face cookies for dessert with ice cream. Ari had found a rare bottle of Chinaco Tequila in a liquor store in his neighborhood and the middle generation had a good-humored round of shots with salt and lime.

I had brought with me a large plastic storage bin filled with all types and sizes of costumes that we have accumulated over the years. The kids had a great time going through the box and trying on various possibilities until they were satisfied. Each had on a least three different costumes until Alex insisted we needed to light candles and start dinner. Sami settled on a cowboy outfit that my brother and I had once worn as children, and Izzy chose a filmy ballerina costume. Saul wore a mask that Larry Shipper had brought us from Ecuador on his latest trip to the Galapagos. Alex's brother, Aaron, and his wife, Stacey joined us with their two little ones, Jacob and Lily in costume. Stacey came as Harry Potter. Jacob liked the pirate hat, and Lily was a brown pussycat. Abby and Isaac, who work with Alex, did not come in costume, but Abby tried on some costumes from the box and settled on a shiny gold 80's disco number. Jess was a black and white clown and I was a red and white polka dot clown.

After dinner, when Aaron and Stacey had gone home, the kids invited us up to Sami's room to view her art gallery. Izzy had set up a box at the door of her room to sell us tickets to the display in Sami's room down the hall. Although Sami advised us that there was to be "no flash photography," I persuaded her to let me take movies.

Our weekend "good karma" continued when, as Saul and Ari were about to load the desk into the SUV to take to Goodwill, a neighbor pulled up in a van behind them and asked what they wanted for it. He said that his niece had started college and was looking for furniture for her apartment. Instead of loading it into our SUV, they loaded it into his. Wanting to give something in return, he asked them if they were interested in tools that he had promised his girlfriend he would clear out of their space. As it turned out, he had been an IT person at Howard University and had an unbelievable assortment of tools that Saul can use with his computer classes at Chestnut Hill College. They moved plastic cases of tools from his van into ours. Then he was delighted to return after delivering the desk to take the other furniture we needed to move out as well that had been sitting on the lawn. In the midst of all these coincidences, M.J., as he signed the thank-you note he left, is Ari's next-door neighbor.

Jessica came with the two girls on Sunday morning because we thought we would catch a special arts & crafts program for children at the American Indian Museum at the Smithsonian, but as we walked out the door and were commenting on what a beautiful day we were experiencing, Sami asked if we could go to the zoo. On second thought, it was a perfect day to be outdoors at the zoo, which is very close to where Ari lives. We visited the giant pandas, and the bird house. We observed the enormous construction project that will become an elephant walk in the future. We had forgotten about daylight savings playing havoc with the girls' appetites, so after a while, we left to have mouth-watering shawarma at Max's Kosher Café in Wheaton, MD. We visited a few open houses on the way back to Ari's as he is tentatively looking for a larger place. Then, we all headed for home. Agnes and Mom had gotten along well, and Agnes asked if she could stay another night so that she would not have to wait for a train for long hours in the dark. Saul dropped her off further down the line on his way to work this morning, and I was delighted when she said she would be happy to come and stay during Thanksgiving weekend. As Saul often says, "Life is good!"