Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Doodling and Noodling

Tonight I had some fried peppers with my dinner.  I love fried peppers!  Sauteed in a little olive oil with a sprinkle of salt, the onion rings tinged with gold and the peppers crisply tender.  Surely there is no culinary image more beautiful than a panful of bell peppers, the scarlet and emerald green of the peppers contrasting with the white of the onion slices.  Almost too pretty to eat.  Almost!

Of course, bell peppers come in other colors, as well, yellow, orange, even purple, but they do not vary significantly in taste and and are often very pricey, so I used to buy them only when I wanted to make a presentation.  No problem these days.  I no longer make "presentations".

I also love stuffed peppers.  One of my favorites is a recipe given to me many years ago by a Swedish friend in Stockholm.  It is essentially a creamed chicken filling and she used to throw in a can of crabmeat for good measure.  Very delicious. 

My Lakeport grandsons are big pepper eaters.  Raw.  They nibble  the peppers out of the salad, or steal bits before the salad is assembled, or slice them up for school lunches.  One of them won't eat squash in any form, the other one can find the tiniest sliver of mushroom in his casserole, which he picks out and discards, but they really like peppers.  Among many other things, of course.

(As you can tell, this discussion concerns bell peppers.  Hot peppers are another subject. )
"I like the way you walk!  Some of the old ladies are so SLOW!"   A take-out boy at the supermarket once said this to me while helping me carry out my groceries.  I was pushing 80 at the time and he looked to be about 16.   One of the best compliments I have ever received!


Pianos I Have Known......I have never lived far from a piano.  The first one was my mother's, a big bulky upright of the sort that graced American living rooms throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.  This was the piano on which I learned to play.  It had a beautiful shiny case, kept gleaming by my mother who loved the look and feel of the satiny wood.  Itinerant tuners who passed through the countryside from time to time kept it tuned and regulated.  When my grandfather, who suffered from dementia,  came to live with us we moved the piano into a spare bedroom so as to disturb him as little as possible with my hours of practice.  Of course it was not possible to shut it out completely and one day he said to my mother, "Does that girl read music?"  When assured that I did, he muttered darkly, "I thought so!"

 The first piano that I owned on my own, was a pretty little studio upright in a dark case with a lovely rich tone.  I can't remember the make, but it was far superior to the parlor "spinets" that came later after WWll and were often just additions to the decor.  These were the pianos that I  encountered in the bars, lounges and dancehalls where I played during those years.  They were mostly scarred-up veterans of the night-club scene, covered with rings from highball glasses and burns from neglected cigarettes.  Likely not tuned regularly.  I often had to transpose to another key to be in harmony with the sax or trumpet or the arrangements of the current guest singer.

 When Erik and I married, he owned a small spinet, Kohler and Campbell,  I think.  Not a good piano, but it accompanied us on our various journeys and served the purpose for several years.  All the kids practiced on this little piano.  After we settled down in Alamo,  I purchased two Mason and Hamlin pianos which I still have.  An excellent studio upright, which I used in my studio, and a beautiful smallish grand, just the right size for our living room.  These pianos have given me much pleasure and I hope will live long and useful lives after I am gone.  Electronic keyboards are versatile and produce some exciting music, but no other instrument can ever supplant the sonorous, pure and brilliant sound of a good piano.  Alexander Liebermann, my wonderful teacher, thought of his piano as an old and good friend.   I do, too.


It sometimes seems to me that the world is divided into two parts: There's the dog lovers.  And there's the rest of us.

 Now, don't get me wrong,  I am not a dog hater.  I am just not a "dog lover."  I have known several dogs in my life that I liked a lot and I admire many things about this wonderful creature.  I admire his liquid eyes, his beauty (or not), his wagging tail, his silly grin and his undying devotion and loyalty to the people he loves.  I do not admire his shedding coat, his poop, his personal hygiene habits, his snarl and bared teeth.  I do not appreciate his vocal sounds, ranging from the basso profundo "woof" to the falsetto "yip-yip- yip".

I have the same reservations about cats. I like other people's cats and I admire their beauty (no "or not" here, you seldom see a cat who is not beautiful), their playfulness,  the inscrutable eyes, the comfortable  coziness of a sleeping cat, their aloofness, the mystery that seems to surround them.  I do not like them drooling in my lap, kneading their claws into my leg, twining around my ankles so walking is difficult.  I do not like them prowling the counters, licking the butter dish.  While I appreciate the thought, I do not enjoy having gifts of mice, frogs and moths (mostly still mostly alive) deposited on my doorstep when I step out to retrieve the morning paper.

I do not like personal contact with animals and where this aversion came from, I do not know. But I don't want to pet, rub, stroke, cuddle, or otherwise interact with them and I sure as heck don't want them licking my face or sharing my food.

While I do not understand the personal interaction between people and their pets,  I don't have any quarrel with it as long as I am not asked to participate.  You snuggle with Tiger and Fido and I will sit over here and enjoy them from a distance.  I realize this puts me in a distinct minority of the population, but as I have said before, we are what we are.  Somewhere along the road to my development I picked up this prejudice and it has remained with me.  I don't especially like it but it is too late to change now!

(My apologies to Barney, Juice, Hazel, Duffy, Nureyev, Chico, Rags, Old Dane, Winkie and the other pets who have shared my life.  I really was fond of you all even if I didn't want to rub your tummies.)

Monday, February 13, 2012

For My Valentines

I have lost so many people that I have loved.  Sometimes at night or on quiet afternoons, I think of them.  I no longer grieve for them.....believe it or not, grief does fade.....but memories do not.  I remember them all,  the good times and bad, the fun and sorrows.   I can remember mostly  how they looked and sounded, although those things also fade with time.  But the essence, the personality, the person that they were,  remains as clear as when last we met.  They are the dear ghosts peopling my past with love and laughs and songs and tears.

Today, they have been not replaced, but followed,  by other people whom I love.  Such a bounty!  My children,  each a joy from the day of their births, so different, so alike, so thoughtful and loving and precious in every way.  Children do not get old to their mother.....in her mind they are always the same. My beloved Valentines, David, Lisa, Erika.

My grandchildren!   The girls so beautiful, the boys so handsome.  All of them sweet and loving and kind.  My darling Valentines, Anna and Elizabeth and Erik, Tyler, Jack and Jamie.

Erin and Scott, special Valentines.  How is it possible to have a better son- and daughter-in-law?

These are the people  that I love with all my heart.  They have enriched my life and made living to 92 a pleasant journey.   I often wish that all the people I love and all the people I have loved, could meet and get to know each other.  (I mean in the here- and -now and not in an afterlife, in which I do not believe.)  There is so much of them in each other!

Now, let's see if I can figure out how to add all those little hearts to this Valentine........Nope.  All I get is a line of <<<<<33333333.   Oh, well.... Happy Valentine's Day everyone!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?

I have just about quit donating to the big national charities.  There is one that I contribute to and another couple that I sometimes support in a small way, but I have found that for every check I send to any of them, I get ten fancy mailings asking for more.  I are deluged with appeals for various causes, all worthy of my support. But every response, not matter how small, results in a avalanche of pleas for additional contributions.  So I figure that everything I donate goes to promotion and not to research, or alleviation of hunger, or veteran's care.   Of course, I understand that all the money goes into a large pot and that every little bit helps, and so on.  But I have  come to to a point where I want a  more direct line from me to the recipient of whatever help I can offer.   Like most of us, I would to like to feel that my contributions are being applied directly to the needs of real humans, touching someone's life in a personal way.

So I have begun upping the bonuses I give my housekeeper, my gardener, and others who  make my life easier and who do so by work that is mostly underpaid and burdensome.  Our County is one of the poorest in the State and the local paper often publishes stories of neighbors  in trouble through accident, illness, home fires, or other tribulations.  I send a check to to the  bank account listed in the paper.  I do not know these people and they do not know me, but I do know that my contribution goes directly to them and their needs and not into a giant fund to get lost among all the others.

 I do not know if this is the best way to to go about it.   My contributions are (necessarily) modest and charity, even the word, is a touchy thing.  It must be very satisfying to be in control of large foundations that are able to make huge contributions for research,  education, provision of drugs and food,  and other worthy causes.  But $25 or $50 or $100 can make a difference to a family burned out of its home, whereas those amounts sent to a large charitable fund often only pay for the cost of sending requests for more.

Jon Carroll, the SF Chronicle columnist, writes a column every Christmas touting what he call the "Untied Way."  His system is  for you to go to your bank and draw out as many $20 bills as you can afford, plus maybe a few more, and then go down to the Skid Row in your town and hand them out to whoever looks needy, until they are gone.  No questions asked.  No conditions imposed.  Whether the twenty goes for drugs and cheap booze or food and a night's lodging, it has filled a need for a human being.  And what else is charity meant to do?

I do not go down to Skid Row at Christmas with my pockets filled with $20 bills.  But I do want to help as much as I can in my limited way.  Charity begins at home, as the old saying goes. And I do sometimes wish I was filthy rich, so I could help a lot!

I know that I am blessed that I  have this dilemma.  That I am not shivering on a street corner on Christmas Eve.  That I have a small cushion to spare for people who have nothing.  It is not much but it is something.

P.S.  Let me just say here that I have no shame at all about keeping the various notepads, calendars, and other "free gifts"  that accompany many of  these charity fund-raising pitches.  Things like pocket calculators, cheap jewelry and watches and other trinkets, I give to the local thrift shop.  They can do with them whatever conscience dictates.  It seems better than throwing it all in the trash.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Older Than Dirt

I have heard many people express the hope that they have inherited good genes and will live to an
advanced old age.  This is a very human and understandable desire and I hope they do, too.

But we must be very careful what we wish for.

Living a long life is rewarding and a cause for great gratitude.  But there are downsides.

When people visualize themselves living beyond the average age of most of their peers, they see themselves as relatively healthy, relatively free from financial worries and relatively happy. Sadly, this is not always the case.  I have never seen the advantage in outliving your resources or suffering through health problems and loneliness.  Quality is surely the thing, not just quantity.

One of the saddest things about old age is the loss of those we have loved.  In my case, I am the last surviving member of my generation on my father's side and on my mother's side, only four cousins remain, all well into their 80's.  Being the last man standing is not always much fun.  It means the loss of your parents, your siblings and other cherished relatives, and all your beloved friends.  This last summer, my two oldest and dearest friends left me.  One avidly followed Tiger Woods and the SF Giants through their triumphs and failures and kept a lively email correspondence going.  ( She never quite got the hang of Facebook.)  She went on a shopping spree for her summer wardrobe a few weeks before she died.  She was 98 years old.  The other, one of the most special people I ever knew, suffered from blindness, ill health and dementia for several years before her death at 96.  Both left holes in my heart that can never be repaired.

Given the premise....and without these conditions you do NOT want to live to an advanced old age....but given the premise that the health problems you have accumulated over the years are manageable and that your brain is in reasonably good shape....there are of course, wonderful pluses to getting old, as well.

I was quite well along before my grandchildren were born,  64 before the first one and 75 before the last one came along.  If I had moved on in my 80's, like many people, I would not have seen them evolve from adorable babies to the fine young men and women that they have become. Full of promise.  Bright.  Loving.  Good-looking?  Oh, my!   I have lived to see the first black president of the United States and if I hang on long enough, maybe I will see our first woman president!  (Or maybe not.  I don't want to live forever.)  I have seen many fabulous advances in medicine and science and technology.  I have learned to use a computer.  All exciting stuff and well worth living long for.

Of course, living into the 90's is not really much of an achievement anymore.  The age-span has gotten increasingly longer and if society holds together, it will get longer still.  I saw a picture of a lovely lady in our local paper last month whom I took to be in her 80's, maybe.  Reading the caption, it turned out she was celebrating her 102nd birthday!

I think the thing that we all wish for is not so much a long, long life as one filled with joy, achievement  and satisfaction.  If the added years come with it, all the better.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "It is not the length of life but the depth of life."

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Bah, humbug!

Christmas used to be one of my favorite times of the year.  I still remember Christmases at home when I was small.  We  had a tree loaded with time-honored ornaments, many of them home-made.   When I was about six, my sister, Thelma, brought a small blue and white owl to hang on the tree.  I still have it with a note added by my mother after  Thelma's death,  noting the date and place.  It hung on our family Christmas tree for almost seventy-five years until  I moved to Lakeport and and quit putting up Christmas trees. We always had the same candy and nuts, which mother divided into separate bags, so we each had our own stash for the holidays.  There were mint pillows and hard candies and nougat cremes and Brazil nuts, filberts and walnuts.  I don't remember baking frenzies or big dinners, although I think Mother made Scotch shortbread for my father and we always had big batches of homemade fudge.  I was also about  six when I learned the truth about Santa Claus. He arrived with a doll that I had my heart set on that cried "Mama!" when you tipped her over and in the excitement I forgot everything else.  Later, I went into the kitchen to get a drink of water and saw Thelma and realized that she had missed seeing Santa Claus!  I was so overcome by remorse that I had forgotten to call her that they had to tell me the real truth.....Thelma was Santa Claus.

When my own kids were small, Christmas was a BIG DEAL.  I loved the warmth and coziness of it.  Lights everywhere, candles and glitters and sparkles.  Fires in the fireplaces, huge trees loaded with ornaments and lights, the smell of cookies baking and roasts browning and glögg warming on the stove.  The avalanche of Christmas cards from old friends and family members not often in contact.  The beautiful Christmas wrapping papers and exciting packages piled under the tree.  The runs to Mac's drugstore for last-minute items. The sumptuous holiday meals.  When we were a young family just starting out and money was scarce, I used to collect grocery-store coupons. (Still do!) This money I saved all year in a special envelope and at Christmas-time we had Maine lobsters for dinner.

Now-a-days the sparkle of Christmas has faded for me.  I am not a religious person, so that aspect was never a factor in this holiday.  Rather it was the feeling of fellowship and peace and goodwill that  surrounded the season.  Joy.  The beautiful music.  The ancient traditions and customs and superstitions that gave it such a special aura.  Today it seems to have resolved into one giant shopping spree where people spend money they don't have on merchandise nobody really needs.  Our newspapers have  morphed into Macy ads with snippets of news tucked along the borders.  I think if Macy suddenly pulled all its ads, the front section of the SF Chronicle would be reduced to three pages. The stock market rises and falls on the forecasts of how much the public is going to blow on Christmas this year.  Catalogs for Christmas cards begin arriving in August.  Christmas decorations are now in place  before the Halloween merchandise hits the shelves.  Buy! Buy! Consume! Consume!  Where is the humble Christmas story in all this?

Whatever the cause, the magic has gone out of Christmas for me.  Maybe it's because the children are gone, grown into men and women no longer wide-eyed with wonder and excitement at the holiday preparations. Maybe it's the endless, soulless commercialism, maybe it's the cynicism  that pervades so much of our society.  Maybe it's because I am growing old and grouchy.  Annie Rooney rides again!  Please don't let this sour diatribe put a pall on your celebrations.  As I have so often said, this blog is how I let off steam and I write it strictly for me.  No one else need read it.

May your Christmas be merry and bright and may the bills that arrive in January be within your budget!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cutting for Stone

I really liked this book.  I resisted reading it for quite awhile after I read the reviews.....didn't sound like my kind of book.  But once I started it I never looked back.  I often complain about the length of novels where the story just plods on  as though the author can't figure out how to end it, but although this book is well over 600 pages long it held my interest to the very end. 

The author is a doctor in real life and there is a lot of emphasis on  hospitals and medical matters, but it is not (very) technical and the physicians and surgeons in the story come across as real people with compassion and concern for the human beings who are their patients.

The plot revolves around twin sons born to a beautiful Indian nun and a British surgeon.  It is a tale of love, betrayal and forgiveness, set in the exotic background of Ethiopia during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie.  There are many colorful characters brought together by life's vagaries and I was mindful of that"endless river of Chance and Change" on which we all float and which carries us to destinations which we could not have  imagined when we set sail. 

I have heard several reactions to this book from different people....one liked it a lot, one could not get into at all, one put it aside while reading something else but intends to go back to it, and so on.  So you will have to sample it  yourself to see what you think.  But for me, it was one of those books that makes reading so much fun.  I would give it 4 1/2 stars. maybe 5.

Cutting for Stone       Abraham Verghese         Vintage Books   

Friday, November 11, 2011

Alone in the Kitchen With an Eggplant

I have just read a book about eating alone.  It is a collection of essays from food writers and well-known people about what they eat when they are home alone or dining solo in restaurants.  As might be expected, their choices are sometimes weird in the extreme.  They indulge in secret food fetishes and gorge on childhood favorites, they invent fantastic stews and experiment with exotic spices.  Or, they open a can of refried beans and eat them cold out of the can.  Just the sort of thing you (oh, come on, admit it!) or I do when we are alone.

I have lived alone for almost ten years.  Although I share meals several times a week with my family, most of my meals are just me, myself and I.  To make things clear, eating alone (or being alone) is not my problem.  What I hate is cooking alone.

I still love to cook, and spend a lot of time poring over recipes on the wonderful cooking blogs on the Web, or in magazines and Sunday supplements.  I  keep up with the latest trends and techniques (sous vide, foams),  exotic ingredients (hoja santa, malanga), adventurous and daring combinations of foods ( guacamole with Dungeness crab, apples and coconut vinegar ) and various foreign cuisines which catch on with the public for a while and are then replaced by the next hot trend.  I like to try new recipes, but I do not go far afield, sticking mostly to tried and true ingredients and techniques.  Can't get most of  that new, trendy stuff here in Lakeport, anyway.

But when I do cook, it is for my family.  I have little interest in sweating over a hot stove to produce something just for me.  In the first place, after I finish eating, I do not want a lot of pots and pans and dishes sitting around my kitchen.  As I wrote in an earlier blog, I do not do dishes at night, and when I finish eating, I want to rinse off a plate and a glass and be done.

So I often do what some of the essayists in the book do:   I open a can of something and eat it, as is. I love corn, and while it is in season I have an ear of corn-on-the-cob almost every day.  But the rest of the year, I will sometimes open a can of Green Giant kernels and eat them cold (but not out of the can) with a slice of buttered bread.  I like baked beans the same way.  Hot or cold.  Tomato soup is good with saltines and butter,  and there is just one pot to wash.  Cream-of- Anything Campbell's soup heated up with a can of chopped clams.  I love canned red salmon, plain,  with maybe some left-over  salad or a sliced cucumber.  Once in awhile, I will get ambitious and cook a full recipe of Swedish meatballs, say, and store them in the freezer.  Pull out two or three, heat up some McCormick's brown gravy and boil a potato and I'm good to go.  You understand that this is a confessional, nothing held back.  I was comforted by some of the stories in the book:  I am not the only one!

I have some standards.  I do not eat things straight out of cans.  I do not eat standing up by the kitchen sink.  I do not eat TV dinners (except when I had the shingles),  and I always use a place setting.   Etiquette gets bent a little, of course.  I usually cut everything up into bite-size bits before I begin, because I read or do acrostics or watch the News Hour while I am eating, and I do not want to be distracted.  This is the antithesis of what food means in the social sense...the gathering around a communal board to share and enjoy the loving preparation of nature's bounty and so on.  This is just to stuff in some nutrients to keep the engine running.

Confession:  I have not been entirely candid about eating out of  containers.  I eat Ben and Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk right out of the tub.  Nobody around to see and it saves washing a bowl.

The book is "Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant", edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler,  and published by Riverhead Books.