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.