Sunday, February 27, 2011

Still Further Musings

One thing I have noticed about being very old, is that people are always kind of anticipating  your demise.   Maybe you  don't answer the phone for awhile because you are sick and tired of wrong numbers and telemarketers, or maybe you are in the shower when the door bell rings.  The mixture of apprehension and relief when you finally do pick up the phone or answer the door can border on the comical.  This is perfectly understandable and don't think I am not grateful.   Old people do die and I am an old person.  But I do not feel quite ready yet.  Except for the sass I get from some of my joints, I am in good health and spirits.  Of course, I am no spring chicken and I certainly don't want to give the impression that I am functioning at the level of even a few years ago. A lot of things that I once took for granted are no longer easy or even possible.  And who knows what lies around the corner?  But for the moment, I am doing just fine. And I do thank you, all you dear people who love and care enough about me to be glad that I can still answer the door.

I  spent some time, back in the 90's, as an ESL teacher. This was a community volunteer program and to qualify we had several sessions of training at one of the local churches which was coordinating the service.  The slogan for the program was, "Each one teach one."   This was a one-on-one plan, where we worked individually with immigrants eager to learn the language. 

It was a rewarding and eye-opening experience.

One of my students was Norma, a lovely little person from Colombia.  She lived with her husband and two children, and another couple with one child, in a small apartment in Concord.  She was a gifted seamstress.  Her workroom was the tiny living-dining-kitchen area of the apartment.  Here she fed her family,  provided space for the children to do their homework, and  did the cutting, sewing,  and ironing required for her work as a seamstress. She was always cheerful and welcoming. Every Mother's Day she presented me with a small gift.  Eventually, she got a position in a local dry-cleaners and was not able to continue her lessons.

Then there was a Chinese family from Shanghai.  They were sponsored by a Catholic organization and were devout Catholics.  They were known, not by their euphonious Chinese names, but as Maria and Joseph.  Joseph was a cook at a local Chinese restaurant and Maria was a stay-at-home mom, with two small daughters.  The first time I visited their apartment,  as I made my way into the front room, I heard a voice calling urgently behind me, 'Teacher, teacher."  When I turned, Maria was waving the slippers that she kept by the front door which everyone was expected to wear after removing their shoes. I had not removed my shoes.  I was very embarrassed, but we had a good relationship, and I was invited to several family occasions at local Chinese restaurants and watched the girls grow into grammar school.

The family I remember most vividly were Muslims from Afghanistan.  They had lived in Pakistan before coming to the U.S. and came, as most  immigrants have, in the hopes of a better life for themselves and their children.  There were four children ranging from about three to thirteen years in age, two boys and two girls.  The mother, Mahooba, was my student.  On my first visit, the father was careful to lay out some basics,  explaining that they did not eat pork or drink alcohol and so on.  The children were bright and beautiful and doing well in school, especially the older boy, whose favorite subject was math.  They all lived in a small apartment with donated furniture and they owned a beat-up old sedan.  They were among the most generous and open-hearted people I had ever met.  Once, I admired a painting on the wall. The next week when I arrived for the lesson, they had carefully wrapped it and presented it to me.  I was often invited to share their lunch and one time they prepared an entire meal which the husband and sons delivered to our home.  Chicken and rice, a lamb dish, salad.  It was delicious, and I understood that in this way they were sharing some of their culture with me.

During Ramadan, Mahooba suffered from terrible migraines, brought on, she thought, from fasting all day.  She struggled with English.  "Is prob-lem!" she would say, shaking her head.   I think she longed for home and I wonder if she ever really adapted, although her children were rapidly assimilating into American life.  They eventually moved out of the area and I lost track of them.  After 9/11, when anti-Muslim sentiment was high, I tried to contact them, but without success.  I think of them sometimes and hope that they  have found their American dream. I hope Hakim found employment in his trade as an electrician.  I hope Ashraf realized his ambitions in math.  I hope Zarlasht became the beauty she promised to be at 13, and I hope that 3-year-old Faresthta's smile recovered from the loss of her front teeth, knocked out in a scuffle with her brother.  And I do hope Mahooba got help with her headaches and found a niche in our society.

One student from Mexico, the mother of several small children, once arrived at my door to bring me a present for Christmas.  I still have it.  She had moved to Oakland from Concord and this trip involved taking a bus from Oakland and a half-mile walk from the station, herding her kids, and with a fat baby whom she was tending for a friend, on her hip.  I was touched beyond words.  I found this gratefulness in almost every student that I had.

I hope ALL of them have found their American dream.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Barney the Beagle

When Dave was a kid, like most 12-year-olds he decided he wanted a dog.  What he had in mind was a good-sized companionable creature,  the kind that races behind your bike, ears laid back by the wind, tongue lolling, that goes fishing and swimming with you, that lies by your feet at night while you watch TV.  What he got was the runt-of-the-litter beagle puppy supplied by a fellow who worked for his Dad.  The puppy was of a good line, registered parents and all that, but as far as I remember we never got any papers on him.  All we wanted was a household pet.  He was an adorable little guy, long, floppy ears, liquid brown eyes and a little tail that stood straight up with a white tip on the end.  He was friendly, eager to please and he had one all-consuming passion in his get his own way.  And his way was the highway.  As Lizza posted on her wall this week, "Cause I'm a ramblin' man, I ain't ever gonna change."  He was not very old before our backyard began to resemble a war zone.  It was enclosed with redwood fencing of the kind that was the style for California ranch houses in those days.  Barney ate through redwood fences like they were rye crackers.  We plugged the holes with concrete blocks.  He dug under the fence.  We made barricades of rebar stakes. He pushed them aside. We strung chickenwire.  He climbed over it.   We would often spend an afternoon repairing the holes in the fence, pounding in the stakes and stringing the wire,  then while enjoying a glass of water at the kitchen sink after our exertions, we would glance out the window and there he would be, trotting down the driveway.  I became accustomed to phone calls from the school which was in the next block:  "Mrs. Hagberg, will you please come and get Barney?   The children are trying to play field hockey and he keeps stealing the puck."  He was picked up now and then by Animal Control Officers and one or the other of us would have to go down and bail him out.  (He was not quite such a regular as my nephew's dog, Eagle, who was said to have his own quarters at the local pound.) Several times  he came home with warning notes tucked under his collar. 

His instincts were all beagle and I'm sure his Mama would have been proud.  Once when he was still very young, I saw him pointing, tail and nose in a straight line, one leg raised, still as a statue.  I am not sure what he had spotted.  A robin, maybe.  One time he brought home a half-grown chicken, held tenderly in his jaws while the thing screeched and squawked.

But mostly, he just wanted to roam free.

He loved treats.  A bit of left-over chicken from the dinner table or a Milk Bone would set those dark eyes dancing and the tail to wagging.  He sometimes bayed at the moon, and most summer evenings he held long conversations with the neighbor dogs, no doubt discussing the state of the human condition.  He seemed not to have an enemy in the world, so trusting and friendly was he.  As a watchdog, he was worse than useless.  He slept in a bed in the front hall and we figured the only threat he would ever present to a burglar is if the man should stumble over him in the dark.  He got along well with the resident cats. At the local kennel, where he sometimes stayed when we were traveling, he was kept in the kitchen with the family, instead of the boarding kennels outside.  He was lovable, irritating, irreplaceable.

I like dogs OK but I am not a "dog-lover".  But, of course, this dog worked his way into my heart.  One time we returned from a trip to Europe and picked him up from the kennel.  He was barely walking and his beautiful brown eyes were glazed with pain.  We called the kennel owner and the vet and were assured that there was nothing to be done but to end his suffering.  He was 12 years old.

Rest in peace, little pest.

A word of warning to new dog owners:  Do not get a beagle unless you live on the moors or the open prairies.  They are charming and loving and beautiful to look at, but they are not meant for suburban lots.  They need SPACE and lots of it,  to roam and run and chase things and to breathe free.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Lacuna

I like anything Barbara  Kingsolver  writes and this novel is no exception.   Her intellect and wit,  elegant style, innovative plots, and well-defined characters make her books a rewarding reading experience.

In this case, the plot is intricate.  It is the story of a young man, Harrison William Shepherd, born of a  Mexican mother and an American father, and spans the years between 1939 and 1951.  As a teenager in Mexico, the boy worked in the household of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and was present at the assassination of Leon Trotsky there.  On his return to the US, he settled down in a small Southern town and became the author of two run-away best selling historical novels set in ancient Mexico.  But this was during the McCarthy witch-hunting years and his background of association with the Riveras and Trotsky came to the attention of  J. Edgar Hoover's FBI  and the House of Representative's Committee on Un-American Activities.  Insinuations, intimidation, falsehoods and paranoia are just some of the tactics employed by this nefarious group to ruin the lives of many loyal Americans during this period.  Some of it is bone-chilling and this novel helps to remind us that we should never forget or underestimate the power of evil minds to do harm to our society.

This sounds grim, but the story is full of lighter moments and wonderful scenes and conversations (imagined by the author) between Shepherd and Frida Kahlo and others.  Rich details of Mexico, the people, food, scenery.  All in all, if you like big, hearty novels filled with interesting people, you should enjoy this book. 

The Lacuna      Barbara Kingsolver      Harper

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Oh, no!

Tonight we are having one of my "everything-but-the-kitchen-sink" soups for dinner and I thought I would make one of my favorite "soup"  breads to go with it.  It is a hearty, chewy loaf called Tay's Texas Bread.  It has four ingredients:  water, yeast, flour and salt.  Pretty simple, right?  Well, I mixed it up and put it to rise in it's warm place (free from drafts) and had  turned back to clear up the work space when my eyes lit on the salt box.  I had forgotten the salt!  Now bread does not require a lot of salt but a certain amount is required to make it palatable.  What to do? What to do?  What to do? Oh, good gosh, what to do?  In desperation, I took it out of it's warm place (free from drafts), and sprinkled the salt over it and kneaded it in.  I hope I kneaded it in.  I am praying to the God of Knuckle-Headed Cooks there are not just streaks of salt running through the loaf!  Bread is among the most forgiving of all things to make.  It may not turn out exactly as you had planned and maybe not the same every time, but it is almost always edible.  Delicious, even.  Let's hold the good thought for this batch.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

What did you have to eat?

When any of the Hagbergs return from travels anywhere, whether to a foreign land, a weekend in the Wine Country or just to visit friends, the first question out of the collective family mouth is not, "How was the weather?", "How are the Jones-Johnsons?"or "Did you get to see the pyramids?" and the like,  but "What did you have to eat?"  Now, we are not a family of overweight foodies.  In fact, weight has never been  a problem among us and sports and exercise are routine.  But we love food.  We love to cook it and eat it and talk about it.  We exchange recipes like other people swap the latest gossip. We listen wide-eyed to descriptions of  meals in famous or obscure restaurants, we fondly remember landmark feasts: a REAL clambake with lobsters, clams, corn on the cob, at the home of friends in Maine, a hot turkey sandwich at a San Francisco restaurant, Ulla's strömming, stuffed with dill, a catfish fry at a cousin's home in Montana, a roasted..........but I digress.  We discuss what was served at each other's homes.  Even the Head of the Household was addicted to the cooking shows on TV:  Jacques Pepin, The Frugal Cook( what was his name?), Yan Can Cook, Julia Childs.  All my kids are good cooks.  Lisa is the most focused and innovative.  She follows the latest trends  (kale: who knew?) and adapts and experiments.   Dave is the BBQ king, fearless with the use of spices in his formidable collection.  Erika is a seat-of-the-pants, hmm, let's-see-what's-in-the-pantry cook, and it is always delicious.  In waiting rooms, when I have forgotten to bring my knitting or the book I am reading, I grab the "women's" magazines and head  straight for the back where the recipes are.  No People's Magazine for me!

Most everybody I know enjoys good food, of course, but the only other person I can think of who really  might share our family obsession with it  is a lovely little friend whose initials are D.S.W.  A true kindred spirit.  And a fabulous cook, as well.

Bon appètit!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Further Musings

When I was a little girl I thought my grandmother had the ugliest ears I had ever seen.  They were about five inches long (what large ears you have, Grandmother!) and she wore her hair pulled up to a little bun on top of her head, so they were totally exposed. Well, one day a few years ago, I was sitting in a chair at my hairdresser's shop with my hair in rollers and I happened to glance in the mirror and I was hit by a revelation.... "Oh, my GAWD! I have my grandmother's ears!"   It is probably my own fault.  If I had not been such a thoughtless little prig, I might have inherited her sweetness and patience instead of her ears.

Several of the childhood friends of my girls have mentioned that they feel strange addressing me as Jeannie, which I requested them to do, instead of Mrs. Hagberg.   I did not like this trend when it first started back in the 70's and I resisted it for a long time.  But when I realized that the nurse in the doctor's office, and the butcher at Walnut Creek Meats, and the handyman, and the six-year-old across the street were all calling me Jeannie, I gave up.  It was hopeless, anyway.  Everybody is on a first-name basis now.  We refer to our Presidents by their first names. We call our doctors by their first names.  My kids called their high school teachers by their first names, which just about did in their father.  He was raised in a culture where small girls curtsied and small boys bowed on being introduced to adults, and where the class (including college students) stood up when a teacher entered the room.  I must say that as I grow older, I really feel more comfortable with Jeannie than with Mrs. Hagberg.  (Second childhood, maybe?) That is who I am after all.  I remember when Lisa's Jack was small, he started calling her Lisa instead of Mommy.  When she asked him why, he said, "Well, Lisa is your name!"  We need some formality and respect for position and, yes, age in our society.  Common courtesy and recognition of accomplishments and status are important in a civilized world.  But for me, I am happy to be called, by young and old, the name handed down to me from my little Aunt Jeannie.

In my Scottish family, the names were limited.  This necessitated qualifiers:  There was Aunt Jeannie and Little Jeannie and when I came along I was Wee Jeannie.  There was Uncle Bob and Young Bob and Bobs.  My grandfather, the patriarch, was Walter.  Then there was his son, Uncle Walter, and his son, Walter, Jr. and his son Walter lll.  There were a couple of Cousin Walters, as well. This could get confusing and once I had an extended phone conversation with  Cousin Walter and found out near the end that I was talking to a different Cousin Walter.  My father was John and my brother was John.  One of my uncles was David and his son was David.  (My son is David, too, but since all those older Davids have passed away, it is no longer a problem.)  And so on. There was a Tom or two and a Gavin, and among the females, Marys and Graces and Isabelles, but that  was pretty much it.  The younger generations have branched out from these sturdy old names and a good thing, I think.  But there is something to be said for the continuity and tradition encompassed in  four or five generations of Walters.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

More Musings

There are some things that I do not do.   I do not iron, for one.  Granted, there are a few things in my wardrobe that could use a good pressing, but tough beans!  Anything that comes out of the dryer that is not ready-to-wear goes to one of the local thrift shops.  Number two,  I do not gas up my car.  That is what grandsons are for, bless their hearts.  And  I do not do dishes at night.

Of course, I put away the food and rinse everything off and stack it neatly in the sink, but the actual dish-washing takes place in the morning.  I guess I picked this up from my mother, who, unlike me, was a bundle of energy who woke with the dawn and worked until dark and then called it a day.  She preferred to face a sink full of dirty dishes in the morning when she was fresh,  than at the end of the day when she was pooped.  Me, too.

Back then, children,  there were no dishwashers, no garbage disposals (no garbage collection for that matter, all the left-over scraps went to the pigs or chickens.)  Fill up the dishpan with hot soapy water (heated on the stove, no hot running water) and plunge in.  My father sometimes did the drying, which was kind of unusual for a man in those days.  He was quite cavalier about it, often wiping off little traces of food that the person washing the dishes had missed.  "'Tis a puir dishdryer wha' canna get a wee bit o' dirt off on the towel",  he would say in his soft Scottish burr.  None us ever suffered any ill effects from these casual hygienic practices.

As for the ironing, I would be willing, although it has never been my favorite thing and I was always behind with it.  I remember once sighing with relief that I had reached the bottom of the ironing basket and Erika popping up to say the she didn't know that basket even had a bottom.  Not long ago, I  put up the ironing board and got out the expensive new steam iron that I bought last year (what was I thinking?!?) and thought I would iron some pants.  You should have heard the commotion!  NO!  NO!   WE WON'T!  WE WON'T! YOU CAN'T MAKE US!! yelled my hip, my back and my knee.  I think some of the other joints joined in, too, just to show solidarity.  So I put it all away, and it's wash and wear from now on.

Not long ago, I was introduced to a YouTube segment called  the "Sarah Palin Battle Hymn."  It is a paean to Sarah set to the music of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic", long a favorite of mine.  It extols Sarah's  folksy, downhome approach to the problems of our society.   Given my political views I found it kind of halfway between pathetic and hilarious, but the singers weren't bad and everybody has a right to their own opinions.   But at the end, the singer said this, "I dedicate this to the Tea Party and all the patriots."  This got my dander up.  Plainly, given my slant on things, I would not be included in his group of "patriots".  But what makes that man think he is a better patriot than me?  The definition of patriot in my dictionary is, "A person who loves, defends and supports his country."  Well, I love, defend and support my country.  This is America, the  beloved homeland.  The purple mountain majesties, the fruited plain!  My home.  My grandmother could trace her lineage back to Governor Bradford of the Plymouth Colony.  (No doubt many of our population with English forbears can do the same, but still......) Nobody is going to claim that they love and support this beautiful, troubled, wonderful, befuddled, exciting beacon of hope for the world more than me.  The nerve!

And next time make up your own tune.