Monday, December 13, 2010

Two Great December Weekends in Baltimore/DC

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We had planned to spend the first two weekends of December in Baltimore/DC. The first weekend fell during Chanukah. Saul had a luncheon meeting at CHC on that first Friday, so we were not able to leave on Thursday afternoon as we usually do. I wrote the previous blog post at Saul’s office desk while he attended the meeting, and we left directly from school. Saul’s meeting took hours, and, as it turned out, taking the fast route over I-95, we arrived in Baltimore at sunset, at the exact same time that Ari arrived after work on Friday. We lit the Chanukah candles together on the family’s new chanukiah, which they had all participated in crafting. Sami and Izzy made some teeny tiny dolls that were to be added later, which Saul photographed before candle-lighting. My favorite is the baby with pacifier and teddy bear. We lit the Shabbat candles, and together, we helped put dinner on the table. As usual, dinner was ample and delicious. Prepared by Alex ahead of time, we had great soup, salad, warm challah, good wine, chicken, potato latkes (which I had made earlier and frozen) veggies, rice, and my leftover desserts, including the pumpkin pie we had forgotten on Thanksgiving, which we put into the warm oven, and which was so good that Ari and Jess said they would never eat pumpkin pie any other way. We left Ari’s car in Baltimore and went back to DC together.

During the weekend, we revisited China Garden for dim sum, previously the scene of a frustrating early-afternoon meal with our cousins, this time, arriving at 11:30 a.m. as our waiter suggested. The food and selection were exceptional on this particular weekend. We then stopped at Ari’s office nearby to drop off some cookie packages for his co-workers, and then had a very inconvenient time as Ari accidentally left his keys on his desk when we left. The security guard would not let him back into his office to retrieve them even though she had seen us enter and leave the building. We even needed to go through a security check with her so that she could enable our car to leave the parking garage. Luckily, we had keys to Ari’s house, and he had an extra key to his car in his briefcase at home. The panoramic views in the photos above were taken from Ari’s office window as they will be moving to a building on the other side of the river shortly.

We also had breakfast at the classic Capital City Diner that, at the cost of two years of battling with DC’s licensing red tape, came to fruition as the result of two men with a passion refusing to give up their dream. The place was so tiny, and so crowded, that we decided to sit at the counter just about two feet from the griddle where two Asian ladies were furiously at work turning out classic Southern breakfasts. The Trinidad neighborhood around the lot where the diner had finally come to rest was a bit sketchy, but we were encouraged by the class of people going in to eat. We were not disappointed, as the food was good and reasonable, and all the people working there were extremely personable and pleasant, even funny, despite the very close quarters in which they work. Afterward, Ari said that he felt that he had partaken of an authentic experience from the past that is not widely available anymore, and we were glad we had chosen to sit at the counter. I highly recommend the malted waffles and pancakes.

From there, we returned Ari’s Comcast boxes as, in desperation, he finally contracted for the same satellite dish services as Jessica. The lines to return the boxes were, surprisingly, incredibly long there—a final insult added to the injury of countless service calls which did not fix his problems. He is sorry he did not change over sooner, as he is now thrilled with the number of channels available through DirecTV and the new reliability of his wifi service from Clear. On this occasion, he was delighted to be with his old dad because there was a much shorter line available to senior citizens. On the way back home, we decided to stop and meander around DC’s aged Florida Avenue Market, a huge complex of dilapidated buildings, outdoor flea markets, hole-in-the-wall novelty and electronics stores, and loading docks akin to a combination of Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal and 9th Street Italian market areas. We didn’t buy anything, but Ari now knows where he can obtain all sorts of unusual foodstuffs, such as double-yolked eggs by the dozen, super jumbo eggs, whole fresh-caught fish of every type, and ethnic specialties of many nations. The complex is eventually due, like our Reading Terminal, to be refurbished and polished as a tourist destination. The girls had playmates over on Sunday, so we did not spend a lot of time with them on this particular weekend. After traveling back to Baltimore with Ari to pick up his car, we took the leisurely trip home on Route 1.

This past week marks the last full week of Saul’s department chairmanship at CHC. It was very full, but we managed to get in a few extra experiences, also despite the fact that the weather has turned suddenly frigid. At the beginning of the week, all I wanted to do was sleep. I guess the unexpectedly cold weather put me in hibernation mode. Saul and I went to Metropolitan Diner on Monday night for a light dinner of soup and sandwiches and were delighted with the delicious choices and price. We had been planning to get haircuts afterward, but both of us were exhausted early and went home to bed. On Tuesday, again, we only wanted to be out of the cold and under the nice warm down comforter. Wednesday was the last night of Chanukah, and I had forwarded an email that I had received to Ken about a Texas Hold’em tournament at Gimaro that evening. Randi was game, and we all decided to have dinner there on a coupon and register for the complimentary poker game afterward. Beth joined us for dinner only as well. The deal is that a group called River Chasers gives you chips with which to play at no charge whatsoever. The winner of the tournament gets $100 in cash. The top five winners, based on points, have a chance to win a trip to the Borgata where they can win up to $10,000 in cash prizes. We could tell that there were a number of regulars at our table who follow the games around to various restaurants, but since it wasn’t costing us a cent to play, we were very relaxed about it. Randi lost all her chips fairly early. Saul, Ken and I played for about two hours before I lost everything on a pair of fives in the hole, and then Saul lost everything on a pair of aces in the hole. Ken played for an additional two hours after we left, with Randi nodding off by his side. Ken came in fifth, and the nice guy, Damian, who was sitting next to him at our table, came in second. About 50 to 60 players had started. When they registered their full names with the man from River Chasers who supervises and manages the tournaments (we had only exchanged first names at the table) the guy who was sitting next to him overheard his name and was flabbergasted. It turned out that Ken, who had never met him in person, had, through his employment agency, placed him in his engineering job alongside Andy, Ken’s son-in-law. He asked Ken if he could hug him, so grateful and happy was he with his job, and Ken obliged. Needless to say, it was a very pleasant evening which left all of us feeling good on various levels, although I can’t imagine having enough time or inclination to follow the games around to various restaurants. Saul and I lit the last Chanukah candles when we returned home, always a poignant time for us as we remember his father’s tear-stained face as we lit the last Chanukah candles he knew he would ever see. He died the next afternoon after having had two sets of bypass surgeries, over time, and eventually losing both legs to diabetes. He died after a long period of decline at home in bed. On Thursday evening, we went to TBI to say kaddish for him. I attended Faith’s class on Thursday morning, where we continued to study Maimonides and, this week, discuss his 13 attributes of faith.

On Friday morning, we had a date in small claims court where we are suing the company that improperly installed and serviced our very expensive, high efficiency, Lennox HVAC system back in 2006. It wasn’t until this past fall that our new guys discovered that the cause of many of our problems over the years was that a wrong part had been installed in the thermostat from the beginning. The hearing was frustrating and upsetting because the judge informed us that he only is willing to read the top page of the evidence that we were asked to submit and seemed to expect us to have every fact, figure, and date pertaining to the case available off the top of our heads. Our new heating guy, Josh, and his wife, Sheila, who had done us a favor by taking time away from their business to testify on the technical aspects, were as unprepared as we were, and were extremely upset at the implication by the owner of our previous HVAC company, that they were not nearly as competent as he. I hope the judge was able to read between the lines (at least) and understand the huge expense, aggravation, and inconvenience we have been put through over these last four years. If not, at least we were able to return some of the aggravation, inconvenience, and grief to the owner of the incompetent heating company. After the hearing, for which we were allotted one hour, we gave Josh and Sheila a cookie package, and headed out to Baltimore.

Stopping to get Izzy’s car seat from Jess, we continued on to pick up the girls from Waldorf at the end of their school day. They each, in turn, expressed great joy at seeing us there, very gratifying to both of us. This week, Jess made Shabbat dinner, as Alex in his professional capacity was asked, at the last minute, to be present for a dinner involving future bar and bat mitzvah parents at the synagogue. We had an early dinner, as Ari had to work late and could not make it to Baltimore. We had two of Alex’s pareve soups from the freezer, pumpkin black bean, and what Jess calls “bornisht,” cabbage borscht without meat. “Nisht” means “not” in Yiddish, and borsht is a type of Russian soup, so the name is a pun meaning “not the usual borscht with meat.” She baked pre-made, store-bought, challah dough that is a fund-raiser for the synagogue school, so we had warm challah and honey for our brachot. She made shell pasta with butter and parmesan, and kosher fake crab (surimi) salad with avocado which is one of Alex’s specialties. For dessert, we had warmed pumpkin pie that I had brought her a while ago from Costco, and which she had frozen. The pie did not seem to suffer from the freezing, as I had thought it would, and was delicious topped with ice cream and whipped cream. Again, as the timing worked out, we arrived at Ari’s house in DC at exactly the time as he did. Saul and I were up bright and early the next morning and back on our way to Baltimore to hear Sami read Torah in front of her class. Ari slept in. The class was delightful and her teacher, Abby, conducts a lively, informative, and interesting service. She asked Saul to do hagba at the end of the Torah service, and it is the only time in my life that I have ever seen him struggle to lift the Torah. It was one of the heaviest ones he has ever encountered, and unbalanced to boot, because most of the parchment is rolled around the left etz hayim (wooden roller around which the parchment is rolled) at this season of the year. In addition, the table on which it reposed was a regular table and about a foot lower than the usual platform on which it rests on the bimah. I touched the left etz hayim briefly when services were over and I don’t know how he was able to even budge it. After services, we had a light luncheon at the synagogue together in honor of their December birthday people. Saul and I then headed back to DC. After I took a nap on Saturday afternoon, Saul, Ari and I had a delicious and surprisingly reasonable Thai dinner at a restaurant that is new to us in Arlington, Sawatdee, and saw the movie, Red, at the nearby movie theater. Red, which has a lot of really big stars in it, like Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, Richard Dreyfuss, Morgan Freeman, and John Malkovich is a far-fetched story about retired C.I.A. agents that is reminiscent of The Over-the-Hill Gang, and enjoyable in exactly the same suspend-disbelief way.

On Sunday, Saul and I were up by 6:30 a.m. to pack up and head out on a gloomy, rainy day to Baltimore once again to chaperone for Izzy’s Hebrew school class chartered bus trip to the Baltimore Science Museum. The program is designed specifically to address the lunar nature of the Jewish calendar, about which they have been learning. During the planetarium show, the calendar pages that included the Hebrew months of Cheshvan, Kislev, and Tevet were projected onto the ceiling with the various phases of the moon included and the pertinent holidays noted. Afterward, the children were ushered to a room where they constructed movable paper sundials. The adults, in a separate room, had a discussion of Rosh Chodesh, led by Sami’s teacher, Abby. Each parent was given a beautiful color certificate with their child’s name in Hebrew and their individual birth date, both on the Gregorian and on the Hebrew calendar. Sami had an after-Hebrew-school program on Sunday, so Jess, Izzy, Saul and I had lunch together at Panera, while Alex took a napping Yona home so that he could watch a football game. Eventually, we were on the road again, racking up the miles in the murky, cold rain to return home. But both weekends were delightful and definitely worth the trip. Thanks to the Prius, the trips are much less expensive than in the Pilot. I just wish we lived closer, but at least both kids are within a few hours driving distance on the East Coast.

Friday, December 3, 2010

November Cookies and Thanksgiving

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The girls’ Waldorf school had a bunch of scheduled Friday closings in November. While I stayed at home and baked cookies… literally, Saul left from school and met Jessica halfway to Baltimore to transfer all three girls to his car so that we could enjoy them for the weekend before Thanksgiving. This weekend was going to be Yona’s first weekend away from both parents. The older girls had requested to spend time baking and decorating cookies and since Chanukah came very early this year, in fact, right after Thanksgiving, I was delighted to be able to honor their request. In addition to baking a hundred gingerbread teddy bears, I cut out and glazed with white royal icing about eight dozen Chanukah-shaped cookies the previous weekend. The icing took several days to dry and was just about ready when they came to draw on the cookies with food-color markers. I also made several dozen lemon logs which needed to be dipped at the ends in chocolate and sprinkles. They loved doing that.

Larry was ill with a stomach bug on Friday, and only Beth joined us for dinner. We went shopping on Friday at Costco and Trader Joe’s and I bought a big turkey breast and made it chicken paprikash-style on top of of the black and white rice that the girls love. On our way out of Costco, after lunching on pizza there and then shopping, we bumped into George and Roxy having lunch. On the way back from Trader Joe’s, while we were caught in a traffic jam caused by the extensive construction of the Route 202 Bypass, we waved to them going in the opposite direction home on Route 63. Trader Joe’s had Brussels sprouts on the stalk and I bought one and let the girls pluck them off to make maple-glazed sprouts with chestnuts. They liked the sprouts, but not the chestnuts. We had a salad of deep red and green baby lettuce with raspberry-walnut dressing, and homemade chicken soup and challah from the freezer. For dessert, we had fresh strawberries dipped in individual ramekins of melted chocolate. Yona absolutely adores strawberries and by the end of breakfast on Saturday morning, we had eaten a whole quart.

Yona was an angel the entire weekend. On Thursday evening, when it was time for bed, I sat with her in a big easy chair in front of Sprout’s Good Night Show. She settled in and drank water, rather than milk, without complaint, from a sippy cup because she was teething and had been somewhat congested. She yelled and complained, not really crying, when I put her finally in her crib, but this only lasted about 5 minutes. When I looked in on her 10 minutes later, she was sound asleep. We monitored her room all night, and she had two coughing jags, but each time, she went right back to sleep afterward. The girls all got up between six and seven a.m. during the weekend, but that is normal for them. On Friday evening after Shabbat dinner, I gave Yona a bath. I have never seen a child so ecstatic to be in a bathtub full of water. I had to empty the tub in order to be able to get her out without a full temper tantrum. Then Izzy took a bath and was equally as delighted. Beth had invited Sami to use her big Jacuzzi tub on Saturday.

Erica dropped off Brenna early in the morning to decorate cookies. After a few hours, Saul took Izzy with him to take roll at Team Children, while Brenna and Sami went next door to Beth to play in the Jacuzzi together and Yona took a nap. Izzy loved Team Children and Saul promised he would take her there again so that she can learn how to take apart a computer and learn about the various components inside.

The girls were so contented with their weekend that they didn’t even want to go out on Saturday night. They preferred to eat leftovers from the previous days and climb into bed to watch a movie. On Sunday, we arranged to meet Jessica to send the girls back home at Simon Pearce, a glass-blowing studio, restaurant, and gift shop. I waited with napping Yona in the car while Saul took the girls inside to watch the glassblowers. They were fascinated and had many questions as they watched. When Jess arrived she met us in the extensive gift shop upstairs, but even a glass icicle was $65.00. At the entrance, two vendors were giving out samples of local goat cheese aged in sycamore leaves and Irish Victory cake. Both were so delicious that we bought small quantities to take home.

Our work week was blessedly short—only Monday and Tuesday. On Monday, I made pareve apricot baklava to carry out the theme of Alex’s Turkish Thanksgiving dinner. Then I made a carob sheet cake for Neri’s 19th birthday on Thanksgiving day. When Ari had spent his junior high school year on Kibbutz Beit HaShita in Israel, Neri had been a three-year-old little brother to him. Each American student was assigned an Israeli family on the kibbutz and Ari has stayed in touch with his all these years, visiting every few years when he had the chance. Neri is in the United States this year for his senior year of high school on a basketball scholarship. Ari flew him in for the week to join us from North Carolina during his Thanksgiving break.

While Saul was teaching on Tuesday, I packed and then baked two pareve pistachio-praline pumpkin pies, one for us, and one for my friend Faith’s family’s Thanksgiving dinner. Believe it or not, with all the excitement, none of us remembered to serve our pumpkin pie the entire Thanksgiving holiday. When I checked my email on Monday morning, I saw one from Faith, and suddenly remembered that the pie was still in a second refrigerator at Jess and Alex’s house. :o( Saul arrived early from school and packed up the hot pies in stapled, brown paper bags. As Faith was leaving with her pie in our friend, Lyn’s car, Elaine, Alex’s mother arrived with her new Shih Tzu puppy, Shana, for the ride down to Baltimore for Thanksgiving. Shana rested nicely in her perched little basket in the back seat and we had a very pleasant trip down, introducing Elaine to the delicious fries at our favorite Royal Farms gas station on the long, but scenic Route 1. Both of them napped for a while as well. When we arrived in Baltimore, we packed up the family, except for Alex who had a great quantity of work to finish before the holiday, and went to have dinner at Sushi Ya in Owings Mills, the girls’ favorite restaurant at home. Saul and I continued on to DC after dinner. Ari had arranged special seats for himself and Neri at a basketball game in DC where, coincidentally, DC was playing Philadelphia. It turned out to be a very exciting, historic game which was settled in a second overtime by one point in the last few seconds, unfortunately in DC’s favor. But at least the hometown fans were wildly happy! Saul and I watched the last half hour of the game on television at Ari’s house and waited for them to return home.

On Wednesday, Ari took Neri with him to work so that Neri could spend the morning working out in the gym available in Ari’s building. After getting some work done at Ari’s house and having a light bite to eat, we picked Neri up after lunch. On the way back, we passed the National Zoo, and discovered that Ari had not taken him there yet and that he was anxious to see it. The weather was perfect for a zoo visit and it was not particularly crowded the day before Thanksgiving. Neri had never seen a live tiger before, and both tiger and lion obliged us in their outdoor digs by roaring so loudly that the trees shook and the walls reverberated. We especially enjoyed an exhibit of underwater animals, including luminescent tanks of jellyfish and unusual lobsters and crabs that I had missed on my earlier trips with the girls. The panda was not sleeping for a change on this visit and was stripping and eating huge branches of bamboo while reclining on his back on some rocks indoors—fascinating to watch. On the usually short way back, we encountered so much traffic leaving DC for the holiday weekend that we grew hungry while waiting to inch forward and stopped en route for shawarma and baklava at a Middle Eastern restaurant we were passing in Adams Morgan.

That evening, when Ari came home from work, we took Neri for a tour of the DC monuments at night. We visited The White House, the Roosevelt Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, and the Lincoln Memorial. It was a beautiful, somewhat chilly, moonlit evening and a really memorable way to experience the monuments. In his college days at GW, Ari used to give tours to visiting groups of students on a program called Panim el Panim (Face to Face). We finished by treating Neri to a big, classic American New York strip steak at Ray’s The Steaks in Arlington. Ari and I, with a little help from Saul, polished off a bottle of a cabernet sauvignon called Layer Cake, which marked the first time, outside of Paris, that I had a large quantity of wine without suffering from a painful sulfite reaction. I will be sure to look for this wine again.

Early on Thanksgiving morning, Neri’s birthday, we drove to a wonderful classic diner called Metro 29, so that Neri could experience a big American breakfast. We had been trying to describe a diner to him, but there really is no Israeli equivalent. We not only had a wonderful breakfast, but the staff brought out a huge slice of really rich chocolate cake with a candle and sang happy birthday to him, pronouncing his name perfectly. They didn’t charge us for the cake which the three of us could not finish, so we took it home. We hung around the house for the afternoon, watching television until it was time to leave for Baltimore. I can’t spend too many hours at Jess and Alex’s because of my allergies to the dogs. Again this year, Alex outdid himself, producing so many great dishes that we ate ourselves sick trying to sample them all both Thursday and Friday evenings. To name a few, there were three different soups, tomato and red lentil, chicken soup with matzoh balls, and turkey noodle soup. He made turkey kibbee, and turkey-stuffed fillo pastries in addition to plain old sliced turkey. There were numerous salads and relishes—stuffed grape leaves, Israeli salad, lettuce and red cabbage with avocado and mango, baked beets and pickled beets, homemade skhug; for sides: mashed Yukon Gold potatoes, baked sweet potatoes, rice, roasted vegetables with dipping sauce, lavash, and home-cured olives of which Izzy was especially proud. The table decorations were made by the girls at school, including the hand-dipped candles by Izzy and the wood-carved candle holder by Sami. Our friend Larry, who joined us on Thursday, brought an assortment of bottles of upscale and flavored beer. On Thursday, Jess adorned the pareve carob cake that I had made with candies spelling out Neri’s name in Hebrew. Once again, we lit candles and sang “Yom Hooledet Same’ach” to Neri. I suppose it was no wonder that we forgot the pumpkin pie.

On Friday morning we ate breakfast at Ari’s and I made Hawaiian taro pancakes in addition to toasted bagels and cream cheese (unlike the fresh cheeses in Israel), which Neri loved. Then Saul, Ari, Neri, Larry and I visited the amazing Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum near Dulles airport. After that, we drove directly to the Egyptian Theater in Arundel Mills where Jessica met us with Sami and Izzy to finally see Megamind in 3D together. Neri was wowed by the 3D effect as a previous 3D movie he had seen in Israel had not provided the right kind of polarized glasses for proper viewing. The movie was predictable, but fun. For Shabbat dinner after that, we were joined by Alex’s sister Naomi and her husband Matt, and Alex’s brother Aaron and his wife, Stacy and their three children. There were four dogs present that evening—Zeek and Inky, Casey, Naomi’s dog, and little Shana. I couldn’t linger long after dinner.

Larry headed for home the next morning and we took Neri for his first experience with dim sum at Hollywood East Café. He is a pretty adventurous eater and was willing to try dumplings that I am pretty sure were completely alien to his experience. He really liked the custard-filled “carrots” the best, I think, because they reminded him of American donuts for which he has developed a weakness. Learning this, we stopped in Columbia Heights that evening for an assorted box of Dunkin’ Donuts. I had not had them for years and was gravely disappointed with them compared to how they tasted years ago, but Neri seemed happy. We spent a good deal of time shopping for the right basketball sneakers for Neri. We finally found them at Modell’s. Neri had bought a basketball jersey at Modell’s at Arundel Mills and had asked Ari about the unusual tags in the store. He didn’t believe Ari when Ari told him that they are exploding ink packs that ruin the shirt if they are shop-lifted. Unfortunately, even though he paid for the shirt and had the receipt, he found out first-hand about the ink packs because the salesperson had neglected to remove it when he purchased it and he discovered the damage when we arrived home that evening. He used the credit from the shirt towards the purchase of the sneakers. We took him for Vietnamese pho in Columbia Heights that night for dinner. Ari used Google maps on his iPhone to show Neri the location of Vietnam on the world map. He didn’t have pho, but really enjoyed the noodle dish he ordered and ate every bit of it.

Saul and I were on our way to Baltimore on Sunday bright and early so that we could all have brunch together and get on the road back early enough so that Elaine would not have to make the hour-long drive back to Cranberry from our house in the dark. After a half-hour wait at a crowded, but wonderful, restaurant called First Watch, near Jess and Alex’s home, we had our delicious brunch together and got on the road a short time later. Elaine had picked up a terrible sore throat, congestion and fever over the weekend and we felt really awful that she was going to have to make her hour-long drive feeling that way and, as it turned out, in the dark because the dark fell so early that night. Thankfully, she made it home okay with Shana and was on antibiotics the next day.

I spent most of the past week baking cookies for our family cookie extravaganza, which took place last night. On Tuesday, Adele and I met Roxy at Blue Sage for lunch and we celebrated Adele’s birthday, which actually was on Monday. I was so pleased to be able to find the chocolate oranges at Trader Joe’s just recently that I used to always buy for Roxy on her birthday, and I gave a milk chocolate one to Roxy as a belated birthday gift, and a dark chocolate one to Adele for her birthday. On Wednesday and Thursday, Adele joined me, and we made some of the fancier cookies together. We had an incredibly delicious lunch at the Metropolitan Diner on Thursday before the family arrived, and Saul joined us for lunch about halfway through on his way home from school. Ken brought pizzas later that evening and the cookie wrapping went very smoothly. We were also joined by Randi, Larry, our friend, Larry, and Beth.

Saul had a long executive board meeting at school this morning, so I am writing this blog entry from his desk as we wait to leave for another weekend in Baltimore/DC.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

November Weekend with Ari and the Girls

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This past week was especially busy for Saul and me. Saul has been overwhelmed with meetings as department chairman and as a student advisor, and spent long hours at school. On Tuesday evening, the anniversary of Kristallnacht, our friend Elsa had a showing with another artist of her works in connection with hidden children of the Holocaust. When Saul came home on Tuesday, we didn’t know if he would actually be able to “come home,” or if we would be able to go out to the art show. The police had closed off our street in both directions as someone had hit an electric pole with their car and compromised it to the point that nothing could be done until PECO arrived from another emergency to stabilize the pole so that they could work on the wires. Fortunately, the police let Saul sneak through, and by the time we were ready to leave for the show, the pole and wires had been fixed. The show was very interesting, especially since Saul’s aunt, his mother’s sister, had been a hidden child who had been saved by a convent. The show’s kickoff took place at Gratz College.

We had arranged for Ari to bring Sami and Izzy in to spend this weekend with us. Ari had Friday off for Veterans Day and the girls were off for teacher conferences. They were supposed to come down on Thursday evening when Ari finished work, but as luck would have it, he had a stomach-wrenching computer crash at work that afternoon as a result of upgrading some software. By evening, it had all been worked out with no loss of data, but they all decided that they would come the next day, which made me a happier mommy also. I worried about the long drive in the dark, late at night.

After my class with Faith on Thursday, where she introduced the background and life of Maimonides, she mentioned to me that she was doing Shabbat dinner with her son and two of her grandchildren, Alex and Hilary, as her daughter-in-law was away. I already knew that I would be preparing a vegetarian meal this week for Shabbat, and that Alex is a vegetarian. Also, Hilary and Sami were born only a week apart and I thought it would be a good time for some bonding between the girls. We had a wonderful evening together this past Shabbat. I made homemade challah, quick black bean soup, lettuce salad with assorted dressings, vegetarian meat balls, kasha with whole wheat noodles, soba with mushrooms, potato latkes (from the freezer), and a whole assortment of freshly-baked cookies along with some desserts from the freezer and pumpkin-flavored coffee.

This past weekend was to be our cookie-baking and decorating weekend. I suddenly realized, about two weeks ago, that Chanukah this year is extremely early, beginning only three days after Thanksgiving. Adele has been tied up with helping Irv clear out Fran’s house before he flies home to California this Friday. She hasn’t had time to make all the varieties that she usually has finished by now. On Friday, when Sami and Izzy arrived, however, Izzy was ill with a stomach virus that her mother had thought was already over. She threw up as soon as she got to the bathroom and spent most of the afternoon and evening sleeping. Sami was a tremendous help this weekend, helping to get dinner on the table, and making snickerdoodles and chocolate chip cookies before dinner. We had a wonderful evening with Larry and with Faith and her kids. Sami and Hilary appeared to get along famously. On Saturday, Izzy woke up her usual energetic self, ate a big breakfast with us, and together with Ari, we decorated over 100 gingerbread bears that I had baked earlier in the week and glazed dozens of sugar cookies that I also made earlier in the week. Saul was committed for the day to an open house for prospective new students. He was delighted to see about 180 students where usually there are a few dozen, but he came home hoarse from all the speaking he had done, unusual for someone who has taught for as many years as he.

Since everyone was good and the cookies were looking fine, later in the evening we decided to go out for dinner and a movie. Ari purchased tickets through Fandango to take the girls to see Megamind at the 3D IMax theater in King of Prussia. We headed out for Jim’s Buffet, which is only 5 to 10 minutes from our house. By the time we arrived, Izzy was extremely ill again and only had some miso broth and some white rice. By the time the rest of us finished eating she was so miserable that we decided against the movie. By the time we arrived home, she was doubled over in pain and I thought I might have to take her to the emergency room. Jess put in an emergency call to her doctor, who said that this was characteristic of a virus that is making the rounds right now. We gave Izzy a Tums, and I massaged her tummy for a while while she and Sami watched a children’s video on their t.v. Both girls, thankfully, fell asleep within a very short time. I settled into an easy chair to relax and complete the New York Times Sunday Crossword Puzzle from last week while Saul and Ari watched an episode of Dr. Who.

Erica was supposed to come early to pick up the girls and take them home with her for Brenna’s birthday party. She had rented a moon bounce for the day and was also going to be making and decorating gingerbread cookies with the kids. But on Sunday morning, Izzy was okay, but Sami threw up. She wasn’t as sick as Izzy the night before, so I left the girls home with Saul to goof around in their pajamas, and Ari and I went shopping for dining room chairs. Saul was happy to have the day at home with them as he had not really been able to see them much this weekend and he had computer work with which to catch up.

Ari and I began by heading out to King of Prussia to get credit for our unused movie tickets. We stopped into Nordstrum Rack which is right next door to the movie theater. Ari wound up purchasing a beautiful cashmere and wool formal overcoat at a terrific price. There was no price tag on the piece and the sales guy was having trouble locating the information, so he just made up and slapped a price tag on it to save himself and us further time and aggravation. The salesgirl who rang it up even commented about what a good price Ari was paying for such a great coat.

We headed over to The Dump, but were disappointed to find that most of their merchandise had not changed in several months. We also checked out a furniture place next door called Mahogany and More, especially since it was mahogany chairs for which we were searching. By late afternoon, we were hungry. When I called home to see how everyone was doing (the girls were only supposed to have clear liquids all day according to the doctor), Saul said everyone was okay and Ari and I should go ahead and have a late lunch. We decided on an Indian buffet we had spotted across the street from the mall called Desi Village. Ari had not had Indian food, a favorite of his, in many months. The buffet was very good, but did not compare to the one at Sultan near our house. The girls were packed and ready to leave as soon as we returned. Sami had produced some beautiful origami boats while she was hanging out. I don’t know if she followed a pattern from somewhere, or just designed them herself. Unfortunately, Ari encountered large traffic jams on the road back and both girls arrived home exhausted and a bit ill. By Monday morning, the worst appeared to be over, and both girls have been in school for the last two days. I cleaned up the house after this past weekend and have been preparing more cookies the last two days. This weekend, all three girls are coming and this will be Yona’s first time away from both mommy and daddy for the night. I hope all goes well!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Eat Dessert First

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You know the expression—“Life’s too short. Eat dessert first!” I wish I had taken this advice this past weekend as I feel a bit guilty having advised a few of us to be patient and “the best was yet to come.”

This past week was depressing in more ways than one. The election results were troubling as I am no fan of the tea party and one of my favorite placards at the Stewart/Colbert Rally was “Keep fear alive. Vote Republican!” Another source of depression was the influx of tiny ants through two tiny seams in my bathroom grout. I hate to kill ants. I really quite admire their sense of community and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the good of the group. I had let the bathroom go a bit since the lock box came off the front door, but when the flow of ants became too troublesome, I finally worked myself up to take some action and spent an entire morning spraying and scrubbing everything, including the shower, from top to bottom. The bathroom sparkled, but late that night there was still a trickle of explorer ants hunting for crumbs. The exterminator was due for his regular visit on Friday morning and I showed him where the ants were coming in. He put down invisible poison bait for them to take back to the nest to kill the others. He told me to wait a week before washing the floor again to give the bait a chance to do its work. About ten minutes after he left, I went to use the bathroom and was horrified to find big, crawly black mounds of ants covering and swarming around every invisible little mound of bait. I closed the door. Thank heavens I have more than one bathroom! When Saul came home, he didn’t even want to see what I described, and we quickly loaded the car and headed for another weekend in Baltimore/DC. To finish the story, when we returned from our weekend there were many dead ants on the floor and there were still live ants swarming around the bait. We stepped around this mess gingerly for a few days, not wanting to mess with the poison, but yesterday, I had waited long enough. After a few hours of procrastinating, I went in there with a vacuum hose and my spray bottle of Lime Away and cleaned everything up spotlessly again. So far, I haven’t seen a single ant. I hope those that may be left have gotten the message and found another home.

To balance things out, there were wonderful parts to my week as well. Last Thursday was Roxy’s birthday, and on Tuesday, Election Day, I treated her to lunch at Blue Sage. Our sandwiches (we ordered the same one) and salads were so delicious that I may never order anything else from the menu again. In the course of going through my box of memorabilia for Olney’s reunion, I pulled out a bunch of letters that I had saved that Roxy had written to me the first year she was in college and a letter I had written to Saul about an adventure she and I had shared on an evening that we had attended a Santana concert at the Philadelphia Spectrum. On this, her sixty-first birthday, we had a good laugh over the fact that she was lamenting that Saul was about to turn 21, and we were all so old!

Beth came home a bit early on Tuesday, and we went to vote together after she helped us move my big plants into the garage to protect them from the expected frost. Then, we went to Pho Thai Nam for dinner, where we left enough room to share their exceptional warm taro cake dessert, a great choice, especially in the crisp fall weather.

Wednesday evening, our friends Ruth and Giora, who moved to New Jersey a few years ago, called to say that they would be in our neighborhood Thursday afternoon to visit their former neighbors whose son had just perished in a motorcycle accident. We were glad for the opportunity to see them as we had canceled a date with them a few months ago and had not rescheduled. On Thursday, after Faith’s class where we reviewed poetry from Yehudah Ha-Levi and Hayim Nachman Bialik, among others, and viewed a short video about the travels of Benjamin of Tudela, I stopped at Giant to pick up some fruit and snack food for our friends. Then, I baked a chocolate rum cake which we shared with coffee. We caught up with each others’ lives for a couple of hours. When they left, we decided to meet Beth, a friend, Phillipe, whose wife just left for military duty in Afghanistan, and Ken and Randi. Ken had found Phillipe a job in the area through his employment service. We met at Gimaro and spent a couple of hours there eating, schmoozing and getting to know Phillipe.

Jess and Alex had programs for older students at the synagogue on Friday, and Izzy had a lantern-lighting program at Waldorf. Ari left work early and met us and we took Sami and Izzy for an early dinner at nearby Noodles and Company and then took them to Waldorf for the program. The festivities included a short skit outdoors by the fifth graders at the entrance to the school, a song by the first-graders, and a silent, homemade-lantern-lit walk through the woods while we were being serenaded by “fairies” (older students) who hid in the dark trees and played a haunting tune on their flutes. Red and green apples were distributed at the end of the program.
Ari said it was like a low-budget version of “It’s a Small World” at Disney World. We had a beautiful, moonlit evening to enjoy this and were very grateful for the perfect weather.

Ari, Saul and I hunted for furniture, having struck out the previous weekend, and visited one of the largest venues for furniture we have ever seen. Ari had seen some bedroom furniture online that he liked and that is how we found Belfort Furniture in Virginia. Not only was their warehouse the size of a two-story Costco, but they had purchased an entire shopping center directly across the street and had filled it with furniture, dividing it by categories, as well. We looked at dozens of bedroom suites, and, in the end, Ari wound up purchasing the one he had seen online. Another large purchase was a wall unit/bookcase with rounded, sliding doors to conceal a large-screen t.v. in his living room. He had also seen that online at another store, but had not wanted to make such a large purchase without having seen the actual furniture. As we were walking through, Saul spotted the wall unit on the floor and we all were delighted with the quality and construction. He also purchased a custom-made leather headboard, and two bedroom lamps that we were surprised to find that we both liked, despite the fact that our taste is very different. We rushed back to meet Comcast to try to get Ari’s internet working, but found that the service person had lied and filed a report that he had called and not gotten an answer and so had cancelled.

On Saturday night, Jess met us at a Thai restaurant called Little Spice that is near the Arundel Mills Egyptian movie theater. We had a late, delicious, vegetarian dinner and, after schmoozing for a hour, headed over to the theater to see Red, but when we arrived, we found it sold out. Having had such a large meal, we decided to walk it off by circling the enormous figure-eight-shaped mall where we were relegated to window shopping because all the stores had closed for the evening.

The next morning disappeared with waiting for Comcast to arrive. Someone did show up and fixed the connection for at least the dozenth time, but by the following morning, the signal was gone again. Trying to salvage at least part of the day, we called my cousin, Julie, who was being visited by her brother, Bob, so that they could attend a Flyers game that evening in D.C. and asked if they would like to join us for dim sum at China Garden in Rosslyn. We drove over and Julie showed us through the cozy, three-story home that she has been renovating in the tree-lined neighborhood of Lanier Heights where she had been living for a number of years. By the time we arrived at China Garden, it was quite late for dim sum. One of the first carts to come by our table had coconut buns and I convinced Julie, who was very anxious to sample them, that we should wait a while before ordering dessert so that the buns and other desserts would be warm. I was very embarrassed to find that by the time we were ready for dessert, there was literally nothing left. Our pleas to the maitre d’ brought nothing but the admonition that we should arrive around 11:30 a.m. if we expected to have a nice selection of dishes. In the future, should we be stuck with arriving late, we will be sure to eat dessert first.

After dropping off Julie and Bob to get ready for the game, which the Flyers lost, unfortunately, we went back to Ari’s to pack our suitcases, and Ari drove us back to Jess and Alex’s house so that he could retrieve his car that we had left in Baltimore for the weekend. Saul and I took the leisurely trip home over U.S. 1.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Stewart/Colbert Rally in DC and Halloween in Baltimore

Saul decided to cancel his 11:00 a.m. class on Tuesday morning so that he could attend Fran’s funeral with me. We feared, because of her advanced age, and the fact that Irv’s life was in California, that there might not even be a minyan at the funeral. Larry and Adele had come to our house to pick up the shiva trays we had prepared and had gone to Fran’s house in Northeast Philadelphia to set up the food and prepare for the returning mourners. As it turned out, about 15 friends and relatives were in attendance. The day began sunny and crisp, but then turned unexpectedly gray and cold by the time the service began. A representative from the funeral home conducted the service and did a very competent job under the circumstances. The interment was at Har Jehuda Cemetery, which we had just visited last year with our friend, Larry, who wanted to check out some graves of relatives and some grave sites belonging to his family. Saul spent hours traveling by car to get to and from school, to pick me up so that we could travel to the cemetery together—an hour’s journey, then to the Northeast for the shiva, and then back home again. As usual this semester, his work was pressing, and he spent the rest of the day on his computer.

On Wednesday and Thursday, I prepared for our past lovely weekend in Baltimore and DC. Ari, Saul and I are big fans of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show. We also TiVo The Colbert Report which follows it on Comedy Central. From the time we first learned about the “Rally to Restore Sanity,” which later became “The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” as both Jon Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s two rallies became combined, we planned to attend it in DC. As we discussed our plans, our next-door niece, Beth, decided to join us at Ari’s for the weekend, and a few days ago, my cousin Anne, from New York, also decided to join us. At the last minute, Anne’s son, Ben, arranged to stay with friends in DC and join us for parts of the weekend. The day of the rally also happened to be Anne’s 54th birthday.

Not knowing what to expect as far as which meals we would be taking at home at Ari’s house, I decided to “kill two birds with one stone” and prepare some of my kids’ favorite foods which we could either eat, or could be stored away for future meals. On Wednesday and Thursday mornings I cleaned out and reorganized the kitchen cabinet on which Saul had replaced the broken hinge. I shopped, and then prepared dough and filling for more pumpkin-face cookies, made a huge pot of chicken soup that yielded 18 quarts, a large quantity of chicken salad from the four soup chickens, kasha and bow ties, macaroni and cheese, bread pudding, vanilla custard sauce, coconut/maple tapioca pudding, a brown sugar glazed sweet potato cake for Anne’s birthday, and a pareve carob sheet cake. Along with some other supplies, like milk, eggs, Hawaiian taro pancake mix, bread, avocados, tomatoes, etc., Saul and I packed everything up, including our suitcases for the long weekend and headed off to Baltimore on Thursday afternoon when school was over. We arrived in Baltimore at 6:00 p.m. just in time for a program for young families with toddlers that Alex had designed called PB & J—Pizza, Blessings and Jammies (pajamas). Jessica had been in South Carolina for several days at a conference on marketing retreat centers and was on her way home. We were able to take the responsibility of Yona and Izzy off Alex’s hands while he ran his engaging program. Sami was at a play date after school at her classmate Acadia’s house. Jess was supposed to pick her up at school and attend a PTA meeting for Izzy’s first grade class. Unfortunately, she got caught in rush hour traffic coming through DC and we never got to see her on Thursday night. She never got to attend the PTA meeting, either. She arrived exhausted and ill from six hours of driving, too many traffic jams, and several days of bad food.

Pizza not being one of my favorite foods, Saul and I stopped for a comforting late dinner of steaming soup, mu shu, and crispy sesame eggplant over steamed rice at Hollywood East Café in Wheaton on our way to Ari’s. Early Friday morning, as Ari prepared to leave for work, Saul was appalled to find that he could not get a Comcast Internet connection to answer the nearly 300 email messages that he had received following a controversial speaker who had presented at the college. A last-minute decision was made that he would accompany Ari to work so that he would have the connection to get his work done. I decided to go back to bed. Surprisingly, I slept until a little after 1:00 p.m. When I awoke, I had some late lunch, cleaned up the kitchen, looked at some magazines, played with my iPhone, watched some television, did all of Ari’s laundry, and made the beds. In short, it was a blissful day for me. The same was true for Saul, who managed to complete his work, socialize briefly with some of Ari’s co-workers, have a stimulating conversation at lunch where they were joined, in a rare instance, by one of the two founding partners, and leave in a reasonable amount of time to pick me up for our journey to Baltimore for Shabbat dinner.

Alex had chosen a Mexican theme this particular week. We were joined by his sister, Naomi, and her husband Matt. After we lit candles, dinner began with the blessings over grape juice and warm, freshly-baked challah dipped in honey, which has remained their tradition since their honeymoon. Alex made dishes almost too numerous to remember—spicy vegetable soup, guacamole, salsa verde, warm flatbreads and tortillas, black beans, baked and mashed butternut squash, chili con carne, fake crab and avocado salad and a few other side dishes that I am sure I have forgotten to mention. For dessert, we had the pareve carob cake. Sami presented me with a little gift she made for me out of cardboard, crayons, sticks, glue, nylon string and mini origami that represented a forest with owls and monkeys. Anne had driven into Philadelphia to hook up with Beth after work and they were supposed to meet up with us in Baltimore, but they had gotten off to a late start, had picked up Ben downtown, and had encountered heavy traffic on the way down. We decided to meet in DC instead and all of us arrived there at around 10:30 p.m. A few minutes later, having slept most of the day, I decided to accompany Ari while he dropped off Ben at his friends’ house a short distance away. Ordinarily, it would have been a five-to-ten-minute drive, but after encountering heavy traffic on the way there, we encountered stand-still traffic on the way home no matter which street we tried. Eventually, inching along, we discovered that the police had set up road blocks for a few blocks around the Columbia Heights Metro station which they had shut down. Ari and I did not get back until midnight. By then, everyone else was sound asleep.

In the morning, we rose early; breakfasted on bagels, cream cheese, juice and tea; and discussed what we wanted to say on our signs for the rally. We cut up an old beige bed sheet of Ari’s, and Beth and Saul provided permanent markers. Beth’s sign said, “I like pie.” Ari’s sign said, “I don’t like pie, but we can still get along.” Anne’s sign said “Whatever.” My sign said, “Why isn’t the media reporting on the media reporting on the media?” Saul didn’t make a sign. Then, we packed up a backpack with some chicken salad sandwiches and box drinks, Girl Scout cookies, sun screen, band-aids, our folded, bed-sheet signs, and a few other necessities and headed off, on foot, to the Petworth Metro station at about 10:30 a.m. The trains were quite crowded and became increasingly so as we traveled the few stops down to The National Mall where the rally was taking place. The station was so crowded that it took us almost 20 minutes in shoulder-to-shoulder crowds to exit. We stopped to take some photos holding our signs. Then, as we reached the mall itself, we found ourselves inching along in massive crowds to try to get close enough to the four large outdoor screens to see and hear something of what was happening. A few yards in from Seventh Street, which was about halfway between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, we had to stop as it was not really possible to squeeze in any closer in the mass of humanity, and I, being somewhat claustrophobic, didn’t want to try any further. All thoughts of pleasant, picnic-like seating on our blanket went out the window as we all struggled to stay together, listen to the speakers, or catch a glimpse of the projection screens above the vast sea of heads. It was standing room only for everyone, except those who were willing to climb nearby trees for a perch above it all, and there were quite a few of those. Although I could not see anything, Ari, Saul and Beth were tall enough to see the screens over all the heads, and Ari, who was standing next to me, filled me in periodically about what was happening. Eventually after about an hour, those who grew tired of standing, or needed a bathroom, or just gave up, filtered their way out of the crowd and I was able to find a spot a few feet further up where I could just see the screen if enough heads in front of me moved in the right direction as people shifted around in their spaces. The most poignant moments of the show were not really from the comedy, the music, or the satire, which were not stellar, but just from the experience of being present on that beautiful October day in that colossal, benign crowd (some estimates put it as high as 300,000). Singing, and hearing that huge throng singing the National Anthem on the National Mall, poised between the two iconic monuments of this country brought chills to my spine and tears to my eyes. I enjoyed the show, such as I could in such a situation, standing shoulder-to-shoulder for over three hours (five by the time I finally got to sit down on a concrete bench at the Metro stop). I thought the show was almost beside the point, a raison d’etre for bringing everyone together in such a way. No show could ever have met the expectations that accompanied this gathering.

At the end, we inched our way out of the crowd, struggling to stay together, and proceeded down Seventh Street, which becomes Georgia Avenue and is almost a beeline to Ari’s house about 4 miles away. Ari and Beth walked the entire distance home, but Saul, Anne and I gave up after a mile or two and headed down into the Mt. Vernon Square Station. There, we encountered green line trains so tightly packed with people that we could not hope to get on. The yellow line trains emptied out there as well, and those people just turned around and waited at the edge of the platform for a chance to push onto the green trains. After about 45 minutes of frustration, Saul hatched a plan for getting us home. We got on a train going in the opposite direction and took it well past the Archives station at the National Mall to the Waterfront Station. There, we crossed the platform and actually got seats on the train before it began to encounter the huge crowds from the rally. When we finally arrived at our Petworth stop, we had the idea, as we exited, to make reservations for Anne’s birthday dinner at Sala Thai Restaurant, which was right there. We made a reservation for seven people at 7:00 p.m. Ari was waiting for us in the car so that we did not have to walk the additional few blocks home.

Back at the house, we collapsed on the sofa with big glasses of water and watched the movie Shaun of the Dead, a precursor to Halloween, for about an hour before it was time to walk over to the restaurant for dinner. We were being joined by my other cousin, Julie, who has lived and worked in DC since she graduated from George Washington University many years ago. Anne left very specific instructions with an address for her son, Ben, who needed to get on the metro where he was staying and go two stops to meet us. Somehow, he wound up at a different Sala Thai in that neighborhood and had to take a cab to meet us. Anne was delighted that the restaurant had live jazz performers which she really enjoys. The singer, accompanied by an excellent pianist and bassist, had a terrific voice and sounded a bit like Ella Fitzgerald to me, reprising some of her classic songs. The food was wonderful, but the service was embarrassingly bad. We could not quite figure out why, except perhaps the waitress was new and had received no instruction at all. The restaurant was extremely small and did not seem to be understaffed. It began when she brought our hot appetizers and then disappeared without bringing any napkins or utensils to the table. Ari got up and found napkins, and a signal from the sushi chef spying our distress brought her running from somewhere eventually with utensils. When our entreés arrived, only half the table was served. We mistakenly assumed the others would receive theirs shortly. With no explanation from anyone, including our waitress, who again disappeared, we had almost finished eating before the other entreés arrived. I had asked about a chocolate mousse cake with a candle at the beginning of the meal, but the waitress seemed to have completely forgotten our discussion and we were all exhausted from our day and anxious to leave after so much time spent at the table. Ben left to join his friends even before the other entreés were served, so there didn’t seem to be much point in pursuing it. Julie drove Saul back to the house and joined us as we celebrated Anne’s birthday with tea and brown-sugar-glazed sweet potato cake with a tea-light candle in the center. We had a lively conversation until, one-by-one, we began to fall asleep. After Julie left, Ari cleaned up the whole downstairs before going off to bed. Next door, a wild Halloween party was raging and, as Ari was cleaning up, one of the drunken party-goers leaped from the deck next door onto his garage roof and passed out. Someone else leaped over and helped him get back eventually. In the morning, Ari swept or threw all the broken bottles and beer cans from his yard back in front of their door. Later in the day, while we were out, a hand-written note of apology was dropped into his mail slot.

We decided to go for dim sum on Sunday morning. Ari picked up Ben while Beth and Anne packed, and then we went in two cars to Hollywood East Café again so that they could get on the road home directly from there. We waited briefly for a table and enjoyed the assortment of steaming hot dumplings, taro cake, and lotus-leaf-wrapped sticky rice as always, but the big favorite of Beth, Anne and Ben were the assortment of warm desserts—egg custard-filled crispy mochi “carrots,” mini custard pies, toasted sesame balls with sweet yellow bean paste inside, green tea balls with sweetened black sesame filling, and fluffy pineapple buns. Beth, Anne and Ben headed for home after that, and Ari, Saul and I went shopping for odds and ends for Ari’s house at a nearby Tuesday Morning, Bloomingdale’s, Pottery Barn, and World Market. We began heading to Clarendon to check out the furniture-laden Crate and Barrel there, but realized, looking at the traffic on the other side of the road resulting from the Marine Corps Marathon that took place on Sunday, that we might get into a tremendous traffic jam on the way back and immediately turned around. We were disappointed with a lack of new merchandise everywhere we went. Stopping to pack up our things at Ari’s, Saul and I headed for Baltimore to go trick-or-treating with the girls, who were due back from a costume party at 6:00 p.m. As darkness fell, Jess, all three girls, and I pushing Yona in a stroller, went from house to house in the neighborhood for about an hour and a half. By the second house, Yona in her stroller realized that the other two girls were being given something and began to loudly protest in her own way that whatever they were getting, she wanted also. When she figured out that it was candy, we were assaulted by an endless stream of “open!, open!, open!” until Jess meted out some M & Ms.

We took the long relaxing way home over the Conowingo Dam and were unpacked and in bed by 11:00 p.m. It was a great long weekend!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Olney High School Reunion

On Thursday evening, Saul and I went out to Costco for just a few food items just as they were closing, and decided to have a late bite at the Metropolitan Diner and to pick up a gift certificate for Larry. This past Friday was our friend, Larry’s, 58th birthday. By coincidence, Saul’s Olney High School 45th Reunion took place the next evening. Larry’s sister, Susan, is a classmate of Saul’s, and month’s ago, while we were visiting her and her husband, Ted, in Chicago, we made arrangements to attend the reunion together which took place this past weekend at Lamb Tavern. Susan’s husband, Ted, has children and grandchildren in this area, so the reunion became an excuse to drive in from Chicago, help Larry celebrate his birthday, visit friends and family, and attend some other related events in New York and Massachusetts.

Our Shabbat dinner this week, which was attended only by Larry, Susan and Ted, was of Larry’s choosing, at my request. We had homemade guacamole and chips with herbs from my garden; smoked turkey, split pea soup; wilted spinach salad with hot sesame dressing; stuffed cabbage; kasha and bow ties; and for dessert, a pareve chocolate sheet cake and a pistachio/praline-topped pumpkin pie, both made with coconut milk. We used this occasion to break out a very rare and delicious bottle of wine that was given to us as a thank-you by the father of one of Saul’s students. Several months ago, Saul had arranged a job interview for her with Ari’s firm, and we had actually driven her into Washington for the interview. It was a win-win-win-win situation. She was thrilled when they offered her the job. Saul was delighted that she took it. The firm was very pleased to have found such a bright and talented employee, and Ari got a generous finder’s fee for introducing her. Her parents, growers in Sonoma, California, were also delighted. Their gratitude took the form of the vintage that we uncorked on Friday—Benziger Oonapais Sonoma Mountain Red, 2006. Susan chose it from among our bottles, and she is one of the few people we know who could appreciate it. It was delicious—smooth, mellow, darkly fruity with notes of cherry and blackberry. We all had a lovely evening together.

Saul had a rendezvous with his students at Team Children the next day. That evening, we picked up Susan and Ted at Larry’s house and drove to the reunion. Many coincidences were about to unfold. Although Susan and Saul were classmates, they only became friendly as Saul’s friendship with her brother, Larry, developed. Saul and Larry met when they were both teaching at Jay Cooke Junior High School and Larry needed help moving into his new house on Thanksgiving. Saul and I both attended Cooke and met there as students. Through Facebook, Susan had renewed a friendship with a classmate, Joan, who was a bridesmaid at her wedding. Joan was the neighbor and cousin of my next door neighbor and childhood playmate for many years. Joan had an absolutely “Eureka!” moment when she realized who I was. Over the summer, we visited a couple from our teen years in Virginia Beach, Wayne and Pearl, with whom we re-connected on Facebook. At our table, during the course of our conversation with David and Karen (also re-connections on Facebook who live near my daughter in Baltimore), we discovered that the same girl, Nadine, who was responsible for Saul and me going out together on our first date to Olney High School’s Kix & Kapers (1964), was also responsible for getting the two of them together for their first Fourth of July date. Karen and Nadine had become close friends in a later class at Olney when I was disconnected from Nadine as I went off to a different high school, Girls’ High. I never knew Karen at all in high school. All this came about when I mentioned that Wayne was the reason that Saul and I had gone out together. Nadine wanted to date Wayne, but her parents said that, because she was so young (14), it needed to be a double date. Saul and I agreed to go along so that Nadine could have her first date. It was my first date, also. Wayne eventually married Pearl, who was in my Girl Scout Troop #222. Now, back to Joan. Her first husband died when she was 38. She remarried five years ago and introduced us to her second husband. He mentioned in a conversation with Saul and me that his uncle had owned a fish store in our Logan neighborhood, Zagar’s. Now, we had a “Eureka” moment, and hastened to grab Susan from a conversation elsewhere. We knew that Susan’s father was a partner in Zagar’s for several years. Susan and Larry’s father had been the partner of Joan’s husband’s uncle.

The reunion turned out to be a very pleasant evening. About 100 attended from a huge graduating class of over a thousand. The food was acceptable, the banquet hall inviting, and obviously, an enormous amount of volunteer work had gone into the planning. All at our table bought raffle tickets for door prizes, $10 for 3 tickets. The grand prizes were a $100 restaurant gift certificate and a Netbook computer. Our number was called and we won the gift certificate. While Saul was on his way back to our table with the certificate, a number was chosen for the grand prize, the computer. It was also one our numbers. A palpable hum of surprise and disappointment filled the room. We were both mortified, and with just a few words and some meaningful looks between us as he approached our table, he turned around and decided to return the computer to be raffled off to someone else. He already has a Netbook from Chestnut Hill College, along with several other laptops and computers that we own. Personally, we would have had no use for it and would have had to sell it or give it away. In hindsight, perhaps we should have kept it and given it to our friends, but it just seemed so unfair to walk away with the two grand prizes.

As the mass of graduates posed for a group photo, the atmosphere was convivial. When the women posed separately, they spontaneously broke into their school song at the mention of their alma mater and someone humming a few bars.

The worst nightmare of anyone who does computer-based presentations to groups occurred at the end of the evening. One of the organizing classmates had prepared a PowerPoint show for the occasion, with old photographs, videos and memorabilia. He had borrowed a company computer and had set up a large screen for the presentation. What came up before us all on the huge screen immediately as he began was hard-core porno! The computer virus that caused the problem was so virulent that he literally had to pull the plug to shut it down. He was freaked because he had just signed papers when borrowing the computer pledging that he would not be visiting porno or game sites. He feared for his job and we never got to see the presentation.

During the evening, my sister, Adele and her husband, Larry, called us to let us know that the mother of our mutual friend, Irv, from California, had just died. Irv’s mother, Fran, was 93 years old and was fiercely independent, insisting on staying in her home despite various health problems over the last few years. Her visiting nurse found her in a bad state of health about 3 weeks ago and had called an ambulance to take her to the hospital. She spent about 2 weeks there recovering from double pneumonia and died on Saturday night in a convalescent home after about 10 days there. Fran and my mother had been friends and we had invited her to all our family get-togethers for many years. When Irv, who originally had been Larry’s childhood friend and neighbor, had come home from the military in Viet Nam, he tried to date me, but I was waiting for Saul, who was on a carrier, The U.S.S. Forrestal, in the Navy. While on leave, Saul arranged a blind date between Irv and an Israeli girl he knew from his classes at Gratz College, Jardena. The sparks flew immediately, and they were married within a year. We all have remained friends ever since. Irv flew in from California yesterday, and his wife today from a short vacation with a girlfriend in Florida. Fran’s funeral is graveside, tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. My sister and I spent today shopping separately to make up shiva trays to serve an anticipated 35 mourners tomorrow. Saul and I made two smoked fish trays this evening and Adele made up cold cut trays.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Things Fall Apart

This is the title of a very famous book written by Chinua Achebe that Jessica and I read while she was a student, many years ago, at Germantown Friends School. I highly recommend it. Suffice it to say that, as ingrained as our acceptance of tradition may be, nothing lasts unchanged, except perhaps in our memories. There, if we are lucky, reside untarnished, pleasant memories of days gone by, stylized, enhanced, and comforting. When things fall apart, we are challenged to make our way in life discomfited, without the misguided certainty that what existed yesterday will be there for us tomorrow. Being human, we seem to count on this no matter what the evidence to the contrary. Perhaps that is why people commit suicide, mistakenly thinking that tomorrow will be just as painful as (or more painful than) today. As far as I can tell, death is the only thing about life that is permanent and unchanging, and I can wait for that. In contrast to my intellectual understanding that I need to appreciate all the pleasures of today, I find that, humanly and viscerally, I cannot begin to appreciate every little thing that goes right in my day. And when dumb little things go wrong, they upset me beyond what I think should be a logical reaction to them. Such was my week.

It began with a rather large tree falling down in the strong winds that assaulted us for a few days. Seeing it lying there upset me beyond all logical reasoning. The tree, a birch, was one of the few that we were able to save when we built our house 18 years ago. When it grew large enough, after about 10 years, we were able to attach our hammock to it and spend many pleasant hours there. Intellectually, I know that we were very lucky because it could have come down when someone was in the hammock and it could have maimed or killed. It could have hit the house or deck and caused major property damage. It could have landed on my quince trees and damaged them. It could have damaged a large fir tree, or it could have blocked a neighbor’s driveway. If I could have picked the spot ahead of time, I could not have picked a better, more innocuous way for it to fall. Yet looking at the bare spot left in my landscape, I felt only sadness at the change in my view.

Another hassle was with our thermostat as temperatures began to drop in the crisp autumn weather. On the evening of the day that our hvac people came to service our heater, our electronic thermostat went blank and our heat went off. We huddled under our down comforter waiting for our trusty guys to come and replace it the next day. Feeling the chill and suffering the insecurity of this uncomfortable, albeit temporary, change, I struggled intellectually with appreciating that it could have been a much colder evening, the comforter thinner, and our service people could have been much slower to respond and fix the problem.

Having had the house up for sale, we have been discussing updating our large kitchen. I love my Wood-Mode laminated white cabinets with red oak trim, but I know that the look, while extremely practical, is very dated. This week, a hinge broke, causing a small, repairable crack in the outside edge of the laminate, and forcing Saul to remove the door. The gaping hole of the cabinet I can no longer close until we get the new hinge is also annoying me beyond all reason. I should probably take it as a sign that I really should replace the doors with something more up-to-date.

In between these petty annoyances are all the really great parts of my week—meeting Roxy and Adele for lunch at Wegman’s; and the following week meeting Roxy for lunch at Blue Sage; having dinner with Faith at Thai Orchid and attending her intellectually stimulating class on Thursday mornings; hearing Yona say “Shabbat Shalom” on the telephone as clear as a bell; listening to Izzy tell about losing her six baby teeth in the space of two weeks; speaking with Jessica every morning as she drives to work and Ari every evening as he drives home from work; and having a delicious and very inexpensive early bird dinner at the Fireside Bar and Grill with Larry, his sister, Susan, and her husband, Ted.

Only Larry and Beth joined us this week for Shabbat dinner. I baked fresh challah, made cold strawberry soup and a Capresé salad with fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and fresh basil from my garden. We had leftover Mediterranean vegetable lasagna from the freezer as our main course, and for dessert we had whipped-cream-topped, Costco-bought, pumpkin pie and a huge chocolate and caramel-covered Granny Smith apple with our pumpkin flavored French-press coffee. Saul spent long hours over the weekend on his responsibilities for Chestnut Hill College, which gave me a chance to spend long hours on my desktop publishing work. Finally, taking a break on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, we got away for a few hours and visited an art gallery in Lansdale called “Water,” where an associate of Saul and Larry, and a mentor of Larry’s brother-in-law’s granddaughter, has some works of glass on exhibit. When we arrived, a short distance down the block, a street fair was in progress outside of a new tavern called Molly MacGuire’s. There was a band, teenagers in costume performing Irish dances, children and adults carving pumpkins, and the usual assortment of vendors selling everything from Phillies sweatshirts to jewelry.

My work has been very frustrating this week as the people with whom I am working on this new publication do not have a full understanding of what it is that I do, and I am having trouble explaining the technical aspects of my work to people who have no technical expertise. They are very nice people, so I guess we will work it out to everyone’s satisfaction eventually.

In spite of the fact that we can be sure, in this universe, that things fall apart, I will continue to strive for the day-to-day appreciation of the myriad of wonderful blessings in my life which I so take for granted, and try not to let depression, pessimism, and pettiness get the better of me.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The End of the Holidays and The Beginning of 5771

As we had planned, we spent Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah in Baltimore/DC with Ari and Jessica. Heavy rains in the area with thunderstorms caused unbelievable flooding such as DC had not known in many years. I wandered around the synagogue following my beautiful toddler, Yona, who loves to play with water fountains and is familiar with every nook and cranny in the gigantic building. On Simchat Torah, Alex had unraveled a Torah on long tables all the way across a large reception hall, laying paper markers on pertinent sections so that many of the children, working in teams for the contest, could have clues to answer questions about it with stickers on a three-page questionnaire—a sort of Torah scavenger hunt. We had lunch at the synagogue. Ari joined us at Jess and Alex’s for Shabbat dinner, wonderful as usual with Alex’s fantastic soups, chicken, and imaginative salads with ingredients from the Pearlstone CSA. During our weekend in DC, we spent an evening with Ralph, a fellow professor at Chestnut Hill College, and his wife, Ann Marie, meeting them at sunset on the Eastern Shore to dine by the waterside at Harris’s again. Saul and Ari picked up a few more shirts and sweaters at the Queenstown Outlet Mall. Saul, Ari and I also spent a few hours weeding a huge amount of crabgrass out of his new garden and replacing a few of his plants that had expired in the unusually hot month of September with new ones. We added a few new perennials on the theory that the more plants, the less weeds. After just a couple of hours, his front garden looked spectacular! I think that he is actually beginning to enjoy gardening a bit, taking pride in the fact that it is his garden, and enjoying the compliments of his neighbors. All too soon, it was time to head home again to begin our first full week of the school year.

Monday afternoon, my friend Laura, whom I hadn’t seen for several months, met me at the Metropolitan Diner for lunch and we caught up as much as we could with each others’ lives. During the week, I noticed, among my email, a cupcake contest for Scharffen-Berger chocolate. They provide a list of “adventure” ingredients from which to choose along with their chocolate. I began to think about it. The next day, there was a notification in my email of an event taking place, connected with that contest, that evening in two locations around the country. One of them was in a vegan bakery in Columbia Heights, Sticky Fingers, just a few blocks from Ari’s house. I took this as a sign and incentive and spent an afternoon inventing a delicious new filled cupcake using a few of the adventure ingredients. I was very happy with the results.

On Wednesday evening, along with Beth, we went to meet Ken and Randi at Luigi’s in Warrington for a late dinner to belatedly celebrate Beth’s August birthday. My dinner was an absolutely picture-perfect sashimi-quality tuna steak, perfectly seared rare, with grill marks so geometric and perfect that Saul joked that they must have been applied with Magic Marker and a ruler. It was glazed with a cumin-scented balsamic reduction. This was accompanied by perfectly-cooked homemade pappardelle in garlic and oil, perfectly dressed. Yum! None of us had room for dessert. Perfectly guilt-free, too!

Thursday morning was this year’s launch of Faith’s weekly study group which, over the last 20 years, has moved from a Bible-study group to a discussion of Jewish history, particularly the Talmudic period. I stopped on the way home at Trader Joe’s to pick up cans of organic pumpkin so that Laura and I could bake pumpkin-face cookies together on Friday morning as we had discussed previously. Saul was able to finish up at school and join me for lunch at a reasonable hour. I had been craving a visit to our nearby Indian buffet, Sultan, but although the food was delicious and satisfying, we both suffered afterward for having overindulged, especially in their rich and ample desserts, such as gulab jamun, currant-studded rice pudding, barfi, sweet carrots, fried honeyed pastries, etc. etc. When we returned home, we took down the Sukkah. Thursday evening, I made four batches of cookie dough and six batches of pumpkin butter filling for them.

Friday morning, while Saul caught up with endless amounts of paperwork from this semester as department chairman, and worked on our very overdue income taxes, Laura and I had a blast turning out about seven dozen gorgeous cookies. She called this morning to say that they had come in very handy this weekend as her youngest daughter had just become engaged, and on the spur-of-the-moment, she had entertained the whole family with a dinner to celebrate. Saul and I ducked out after she left to take care of her dog on Friday to deliver a few cookies to our friend Dori, who manages Lee’s Hoagies in Montgomeryville, (a long-standing tradition that began many years ago) and share a sandwich before heading home to prepare Shabbat dinner. We stopped at Assi Market and Redner’s to pick up some produce and Glad silicon trays to pack away my cookies in the freezer. Most of the dinner came from the freezer this week, including smoked turkey split pea soup and stuffed cabbage. I did make fresh challah, kasha and bow ties, and iceberg lettuce wedges with Russian dressing. Faith, who came with Larry, brought her pareve blond brownies and chocolate and marshmallow-topped brownies from her freezer supply for dessert. Saul cut up the pineapple from our Sukkah fruit basket. It was a wonderful and relaxing evening, and not too much work.

Saturday morning, we attended services at MBI-EE, where two of our congregants were honored for their many hours of volunteer work, one for the Yiddish club, and the other for organizing and teaching the children’s services. After a celebratory luncheon there, we headed for Lion’s Gate to visit Saul’s mom, who had been moved into a more supervisory wing by Saul’s sister as her condition has been deteriorating. We were pleased to find her in good spirits, although it is obvious that her mind is mostly gone. The facilities were clean, neat, and attractive, and her semi-private room is divided by a wall of closets and drawers into two distinct spaces to provide a more private feeling. She knew that we were friends and was happy to have the attention from us. When we arrived, she was at a table with a therapist and a group of others doing a hand-eye coordination task of putting small objects into a cup. She had a small, soft blanket over her shoulders and spent most of the time that we were there conversing with her folding and unfolding it, smoothing it out, and telling us that she was planning to buy it. She asked us about her father. When I asked what she remembered about her father, she only said that she remembered that he was a “good man.” She did not remember anyone we asked about, including her husband, sister, children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren. Physically, she looked okay, and her ankles were not swollen as they had been. I asked about the food and she said it was very good and she was very happy with it. In her pocket, along with some packets of crackers that she was hoarding, was a printed list with ounce-by-ounce quantities of everything she had eaten for lunch. It was a better lunch than we had eaten earlier. We spoke with the rabbi at Lion’s Gate, whom she sees regularly, as we ran into each other in the hallway, and privately, he lamented the dramatic loss of her ability to express herself and to read the Hebrew text as she had when she first came. But, he also spoke about the joyfulness with which she approaches the service and rituals, and about the blessing that she is in no pain and seems very happy with her situation.

Saul and I napped briefly after completing the hour-long drive home. Then, Faith came over and we went to the new Whole Foods in Plymouth Meeting Mall for a snack before seeing the movie, Eat Pray Love at the AMC theater there. The prepared food selection at Whole Foods was mind-boggling and we just walked around in that wing of the store gaping at the exquisite displays for about half and hour before choosing our late dinners. In addition to the usual prepared food case, there was a fresh pasta bar where you could choose from about a dozen fresh pastas and then choose from a half-dozen sauces to accompany them. There was a pizza bar, a salad bar, a bakery, a gelateria, cheese cases, olive bars, a meat station, and, I am sure, many other selections about which I have forgotten because it was all so overwhelming. Housed within the store, as sort of a store-within-a-store, is a really cool-looking wine and beer-tasting bar. The attractive wooden tables and chairs and pub-like atmosphere would provide a great place to lounge with those who are into wine before a movie or shopping trip and it appears to be largely undiscovered on a Saturday night. Upstairs, there is a large, tree-lined roof-deck for hanging out in nice weather. The movie, starring Julia Roberts, had a mere taste of the richness of the book, but we all enjoyed it for its escapism potential and spectacular and quirky scenery.

On Sunday, Saul needed to complete and deliver the income taxes to our accountant, so just Faith and I met and went to see The Social Network at the restored Ambler Theater after a brief walk up and down Butler Pike to window shop the cute little stores. A bride and groom were being professionally photographed in the lobby when we entered. We both enjoyed the movie which was, thankfully, much more about friendship and betrayal than software. Saul and I had dinner at home on Sunday night to clean up leftovers from Friday. For better or worse, home is still the best restaurant in town.