every girl needs a greek chorus

a blog about hope


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A Sweet Little Fishy Story

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Caramelized Salmon

When we adopted The Daughter, we were old.  I’m not kidding.  We were 47, which is pretty old to adopt your first child, an 8-year old.  As My Mother said, “At least she’s housebroken and has all her shots.”  We learned that there’s a perfectly good reason that young people have children; you need a lot of stamina and patience, which certainly diminishes over time.

We all had a lot of adjusting to do.  Some of it was easy.  The Veterinarian covered fixing breakfast for her every morning at the ungodly hour of 6 am, an hour when I’m not sure who I am, much less where the kitchen is located.  Our long-awaited princess would wake up to his special omelets or French toast or garnished oatmeal.  None of that oatmeal out of an envelope.  This stuff was cooked and sweetened and spiced and bathed in warm milk.  I don’t think he ever prepared himself for one of our “date nights” as well as he prepared breakfast for her.  My responsibilities included lunch, dinner, laundry, and chauffeur, the same things I’d been doing for him for 27 years.

In the beginning, the kid never grumbled about the food she was served, once we weaned her from chicken nuggets, which we did immediately.  She loved to try new foods.  A week after her arrival, we traveled with her to New Orleans on a business trip, where she told the waiter at Commander’s Palace that the Parmesan cheese being grated, tableside, onto her salad smelled like “throw up.”  Being N’Awlins, the waiter laughed and said, “It sure does, honey.”  She scarfed it down.  A month later, we knew we were in BIG trouble when we took her to the Cheesecake Factory, and she told the waiter, “I’ll have the grilled chicken Caesar with freshly grated Parmesan, please.”

We persevered in introducing her to new foods.

“Do you eat fish?”

“Uh-huh,” she shook her blond head up and down, blue eyes peering out of her little wire-rimmed glasses.  She bore an uncanny resemblance to Felicity, the American Girl doll, with her dimpled arms and cheeks.

“Do you like fresh salmon?  It’s not like that stuff in a can.  I’m going to coat it with sugar and sauté it in a hot skillet.  You’ll like it.”

Her head bobbed.

She was more than willing to eat caramelized salmon, asparagus in nutmeg butter, and herbed rice with toasted pine nuts.  I thought I was a genius.  Surely, there were few households with an 8-year old eating gourmet cuisine.

At Christmas that year, our family was invited to a “casual-chic” Christmas party at the swanky home of some benevolent friends.  She was introduced to the host’s little nephew, and the two trotted off into the big house, while we headed to greet the roast pig that was lounging on the dining room table.  About 20 minutes later, one of the guests came up to us.

“Are you with the little blond girl with the glasses?”

“Uh, yes,” The Veterinarian and I looked at each other in panic.

“I’ve never seen a child that young eat so many raw oysters.  How’d you get her to eat them?”

“She’s eating raw oysters?”

“She and a little boy are on the deck slurping them down as fast as they’re shucked.  It’s pretty funny, actually.”

We hurried outside to find her surrounded by a crowd of amused adults, poking at shellfish on a gas grill.  In 20 minutes without us, our host had taught her to eat raw oysters and steam mussels on the grill.

“These are really good,” she giggled.

“How many have you eaten?”  Pictures of partially digested shellfish reappearing on the backseat of our car swam before my eyes.  She shrugged.  “Ok, kiddo, let’s go have some potatoes or bread.  How about some bread?  Lots and lots of bread.”

As the months passed, she started to exhibit food preferences.  Food she was willing to eat when she came to live with us was suddenly unacceptable.  In the spring of her first year with us, her school’s PTA solicited favorite family recipes. Thinking I was the Best Mother Ever, I dutifully contributed our family’s favorite meal, caramelized salmon, asparagus with nutmeg butter, and herbed rice with toasted pine nuts.

“Ha!  No pasta salad recipe from this family,” I smugly typed up my contributions.  No boring cereal-based snack mix.  No crescent roll-wrapped wienie chunks.  No sirree.  We might be older than any of the other parents, but with age comes knowledge and sophistication, the kind of sophistication that can be useful to a child.  I’ll show you how to parent, you snarky people.  You won’t make room for my kid in your scout troop?  (“Your daughter should have started in first grade,” I was told, “because our troops don’t have any room for newcomers.  Maybe you should start your own troop.”)  Ha!  We don’t need your stupid scouts and your stupid cookies and dorky crafts.  Our kid plays the cello and eats fish that isn’t chopped up into “stix.”

In September, the family cookbooks were distributed and came home in The Daughter’s backpack.

“Oh, look,” I squealed like a — like a — well, like a little pig, “here’s our recipe!”  The Daughter looked over my shoulder and screwed up her face.

“Caramelized salmon?”  she asked.

“What?”

“I hate that stuff,” she shuddered.

“What do you mean you hate that stuff?  It’s our family’s favorite meal,” I protested.

“No, it isn’t.  Steak is my favorite meal.  Steak with Béarnaise and garlic mashed potatoes and broccoli.  Or spinach soufflé.”

“You don’t like asparagus with nutmeg butter?”

“Blech,” she spit out her tongue.

“What about the rice?” I asked timidly.

“I hate those nut things.”

“You mean the toasted pine nuts?”

“Whatever.  They’re like bugs.”

“You eat smoked salmon.”

“That’s different.  I love smoked salmon.”

“But — but — you always clean your plate.”

“Yeah, well, I know it means a lot to you, so I ate it, but I’m never eating it again.”

The honeymoon was over.  I had been hoodwinked by an 8-year old, but I took heart; one of her favorite foods was broccoli, and she knew the word Béarnaise.  I flipped through the cookbook.  Actually, I didn’t know if I could explain to the other mothers that my kid ate raw oysters and escargots and real sushi (not California roll) and all kinds of mushrooms, when I wasn’t sure it was acceptable in our community to have mothered an under-age foodie.

Now that The Daughter lives on her own, she has rediscovered cooked salmon (she’ll eat it pan-roasted with an aged balsamic garnish, but still not caramelized) and asparagus and rice (without nuts), so, who am I to complain?  Life is good (mostly).  Soli Deo Gloria!

CARAMELIZED SALMON

Sugar coat

Sugar coat

This may seem a little tricky, but it’s deceptively easy to make.  The sugar doesn’t really sweeten the fish but adds a glossy coating.  If you aren’t familiar with cooking sugar at high temperatures, here are some very simple points to remember.

When heated, sugar changes property significantly.  It melts, browns, and, as it cools, will harden on your utensils and in the pan and affix to anything it touches, like hot glue, and about as dangerous.  Excess sugar will burn in the pan, so turn on your exhaust fan before starting.  Because the caramel hardens to anything it touches, you will need to put each fillet on its individual serving plate.  Not to worry!  Because it’s completely soluble in water, clean up is a breeze.

Ingredients:

Two cups of white, granulated sugar, measured into a pie plate

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

2 four-ounce skinless salmon fillets, about ½ – ¾ “ thick (Note:  fillet means boneless)

2 Tablespoons olive oil

Directions:

Season salmon with salt and pepper to taste, and press one side into the sugar until it is lightly coated.  Carefully turn over and press into sugar.  Leave the fish in the sugar while you prepare the pan.

Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat for 30 seconds.  You don’t want the heat to be so high that the sugar caramelizes before the fish cooks.

Caramelizing salmon - don't worry, all that burnt sugar dissolves in water.

Caramelizing salmon – don’t worry, all that burnt sugar dissolves in water.

Carefully place each salmon fillet into the oil.  Cook 1½ minutes without moving, jiggling, swishing, etc.  Then lift one corner of the fillet to peek at the color of the coating.  It should have started to brown but not burn.  (If the fillet browns too quickly, remove the pan from the heat and reduce temperature to medium-low.)  Cook another minute, then carefully lift the fillet.  The sugar coating should have all caramelized; if not, cook another 30 seconds.  Again, you don’t want the sugar to blacken, but a little blackened edge is ok, if you need to get the fish cooked.

When lightly caramelized, turn the fillet over to the other side and cook another 1½ to 2 minutes.  Remove to each individual serving plate.


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The Myth of Red Velvet Cake

Red Velvet Cake with Buttercream Frosting

Red Velvet Cake with Buttercream Frosting

There are red velvet cakes, and then there are Red Velvet Cakes.  In the past five years, that staple of Southern cooks has been co-opted by trendy websites, blogs, magazines, chain restaurants, and cooking shows.  Somewhere along the way, the original recipe has permutated.  I, myself, have adapted the recipe that was passed on to me by My Mother, who got it in the 1950s from her sister who lives in Atlanta. Turns out, it may not have originated in the South at all.

As in religion, mythology explains the creation of something.  It doesn’t mean it isn’t true, it only posits a basis for everything that came after.  A search on Google shows as much speculation about Red Velvet’s origins as it does about its ingredients.  Some say it is based on so-called “velvet” cakes of the 19th century, which incorporated a little cocoa or almond flour to soften a cake’s texture.  Some say that the characteristic “red” color began with the redness of the cocoa or that of the brown sugar that was used.  Some say it originated at the Waldorf-Astoria.  Some say it originated at Eaton’s Department store in Toronto.  Some say its current incarnation was promoted by the Adams Extract company in Texas.

As with religion, no one can agree, so I’ll stick with my own lore of what a Red Velvet Cake should be, how it should look, and how it should taste.  I simply NEVER buy one in a bakery or restaurant, because they never correspond with the mythological essence stored in my brain.  I am a Red Velvet connoisseur.  I’ve been eating them for over 50 years.  It is my birthday cake of choice, and a birthday cake should always be exactly what I expect it to be when the fork hits my mouth.

The red color has always been controversial.  Before anyone was talking about carcinogens in food, one of my fourth grade classmates objected to the Red Velvet cupcakes that my mother sent to my class in honor of my 10th birthday, in 1962.

“EWWW!!!”  Teddy Rollo (name changed to protect the innocent) shrieked, after biting into one.  “It’s OX BLOOD!!!”  He dropped it on the floor.

“No, it isn’t!”  I shouted at him, as kids all over the classroom spit out my favorite cake.

“Then, why is it red?”  He stuck his buck-toothed, freckled face in mine.

“It’s food coloring!”  I snapped.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” our teacher yelled over the clamor.  “It’s cake!  There’s no blood involved, Teddy.  Settle down, class!”

“It’s just too weird,” one girl said to me apologetically and shrugged.

I was horrified to see half-eaten and uneaten cupcakes dumped in the trash.  What was the matter with these kids?  My mother had slaved over three dozen cupcakes for nothing.  I felt bad for her.  I felt bad for myself, and then I saw several untouched cupcakes left in the box for me, me, me!

Ten years later, the Soviets released a study that concluded that Red Dye No. 2, whose common name is amaranth, was a carcinogen.  Responding to public outcry, the FDA began its own study, which concluded that, in high dosages fed to female rats, there was a significant increase in the number of malignant tumors in the rats.  It was banned in 1976.

Uh-oh.  Would this be the end of Red Velvet Cake?  Nope.  Even though Red Dye No. 4 was eventually also prohibited as a food dye, Red Dye No. 40 continues to be acceptable in the US, despite the fact that it is banned in Europe, which, along with Canada, approves of Red Dye No. 2.  Did you follow that?  I had to google them all several times to make any sense of it.  Long story short, I buy my Red Dye No. 40 in bulk, so you can’t take Red Velvet Cake away from me.  I use two full ounces of it in mine, so that I get that authentic oxblood color.  I see those wimpy pink imposters that only use one ounce.  Tsk-tsk.  smh

Perfection!

Perfection!

I prefer a good French buttercream or my faux French buttercream frosting made with hot milk and granulated sugar, because I’m not a cream cheese frosting fan.  I find that the tang of the cream cheese clashes with the almond flavoring in the cake, and, if the cake is made traditionally with buttermilk and the vinegar-baking soda mixture, it doesn’t need any more tangy-ness.  In my so-called research, I found Red Velvet cupcakes frosted with almond-flavored cream cheese that might be tolerable, but I’d still rather have the frosting that my brain and stomach tell me belongs on Red Velvet cake.  Why mess with perfection?

My Sister made me a Red Velvet Cake for my birthday yesterday because she is The Best Sister Ever.  The cake was soft and tender; the frosting did not have a single crunch of undissolved granulated sugar (my biggest challenge in making that frosting).  And I had a big giant slice of perfection for breakfast this morning, also a family tradition.  After all, there are no calories on your birthday or the morning after, so, who am I to complain?  Life is good (mostly).  Soli Deo Gloria!

 

RED VELVET CAKE

Ingredients:

2 oz red color

3 Tablespoons cocoa powder (do not used Dutch-processed)

½ cup vegetable shortening, softened (I use ¼ cup unsalted butter and ¼ cup shortening)

1½ cups sugar

2 eggs

2¼ cups all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon salt

1 cup buttermilk

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 teaspoons almond extract

1 Tablespoon vinegar

1 teaspoon baking soda

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350°.

Grease three 8” or two 9” cake pans with butter and line the bottoms with buttered parchment paper.  Set aside.

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour and salt.  Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, blend food coloring and cocoa to form a paste.  Add the shortening and sugar, and cream thoroughly.  With mixer running, add eggs one at a time until blended.

Mix in ¼ of the sifted flour mixture, alternating with ¼ cup buttermilk.  Stop mixer and scrape bowl and beaters.  Continue adding the remaining flour, alternating with the remaining buttermilk, beating thoroughly and scraping the bowl and beaters after each addition of buttermilk.  It’s important that the flour doesn’t clump into ugly white blobs in your pretty red batter.

Stir in the vanilla and almond extracts.

In a small bowl, stir together the vinegar and baking soda and then stir the mixture into the batter.

Pour batter equally into the prepared cake pans.  To decrease the number of large air bubbles trapped in the batter, run a sharp knife in an “s” shape through the batter in each pan.  Lift each pan about 1” off the counter and let drop onto the counter.  The larger bubbles will rise to the top and either break or can be broken with a toothpick.

Place pans in preheated oven and bake 30 minutes.  Insert a tester (toothpicks work just fine) into the center of each layer.  If it does not come out clean, bake another 5 minutes and retest with a clean tester.  In my oven, an 8” layer is usually done in 30 minutes.  The thicker 9” layers may take an extra 5-10 minutes.  But be careful that the edges of the cake don’t become brown.

When tester comes out clean, remove pans from the oven and place on a wire rack.  Let cake layers cool in the pans for 10 minutes.  You should see the cake’s edges pull away from the pan as it cools.  If not, gently run a plastic knife around the edge and wait 5 more minutes.

Place another cooling rack on top of the pans and flip.  Remove pans from the layers and the parchment from the cake and cool completely.  Frost with your favorite white frosting.

CAUTION:  I always lick the bowl and beaters, because I’ve been doing it for over 50 years, but it makes my mouth really red.  It also might give me salmonella, if the raw eggs in the batter are bad.  I don’t worry too much about it.  The red dye probably will kill me first.


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Pot Head

Blackened steakI was thinking about moving the other day.  As much as I love my house, which has taken 34 years to perfect, I’ve decided that it’s too much trouble for one little woman; the woodland pests (deer, ants, snakes), the icy gravel lane in the winter, the remote location.  The BFF and I really don’t need 11 rooms and three full baths.  I can’t get her to bathe enough, as it is, although she needs it, after chasing the aforementioned deer through the aforementioned woods all the muddy winter long.

I googled houses for sale in my neighborhood and found a solid brick rancher on a corner lot with a field across the road.  My imagination, as it usually does, went wild.  The price was great (sadly, it was a foreclosure).  A two-car garage and deck or terrace could be added.  The living room had refinished hardwood floors and a fireplace for my pellet stove.  There were no photos of the bedrooms or the two full and one half baths, but I imagined that they were serviceable, in a retro way.

Even the kitchen, with a recently installed stove and microwave and decent stainless sinks and faucet were usable.  The vinyl flooring was a mess.  No sweat to replace.  The refrig was missing.  No big deal.  I have a spare, if I have to use it.  The counter was a hideous red Formica.  Easily replaceable.  But I hesitated at the cabinets, which were plain, golden oak.  No trim.  No handles.  Probably strippable.  Probably paintable.  All things I have done a million times in my lifetime to other sketchy cabinets, but these cabinets were few…and far between.

I thought of my cooking equipment.  I thought of the number of cabinets in my own splendid kitchen and sighed.  Do I really want to return to the 1970s?  I have soooo much stuff, so many pans, so many gadgets, so much glassware and china and flatware and table linens.  Everything lovingly chosen for a specific purpose.  No “sets” with useless extras.

I could hang a pot rack again, but it wouldn’t hold everything.  I’d have to purge.  I gave a lot of things to The Daughter when she set up her own household, but there’s still so much stuff left in my conveniently-placed deep drawers and pull-out shelves.

I wouldn’t get rid of my two cast iron skillets.  One belonged to my grandmother and one was given to us as a wedding gift, holding a pineapple upside-down cake.  I use them both every week, and you can’t make a dark roux or blacken a steak or piece of fish in anything less substantial.  (Yes, I still blacken stuff, sometimes intentionally.)

Always blame the cook!

Always blame the cook!

I have two omelet pans, a Calphalon and a stainless-lined copper.  I already gave away a non-stick Calphalon omelet pan to The Daughter.  I blame The Veterinarian for those.  He was famous for his omelets and was always looking for the perfect pan.  I gave it to The Daughter because she makes omelets, and I don’t.

I have a non-stick 10” skillet and an enormous 12” Calphalon fryer with lid.  When I need that big pan, nothing else will do. I have a wok which I use more for deep-frying than as a wok.  I don’t deep-fry any more, but I wouldn’t part with it.  I have a cast-iron fajita grill and stove-top grill and a 12” griddle.  I might jettison the fajita grill.  It’s definitely superfluous.

That’s just the skillets.  Then, there’s the saucepans, stock pots, Dutch ovens, and gratin pans.  As outdated as they are, how could I part with my two remaining Club Aluminum saucepans, remnants of my earliest days of cooking?  You can really smash a potato masher into the larger of the two.  How could I part with the little Calphalon with the steamer insert, which, now that I’m cooking for one most of the time, is the perfect size?

Saucepans

My oldest saucepan was purchased with Gold Bell gift stamps.

I’ve ended up with two 3-quart Calphalon saucepans, thanks to the aforementioned woodland pests and, I suspect, bacteria.  I once carelessly left one of them unattended while I was boiling down some stock.  (Probably distracted by something stupid like the laundry or the BFF eating something inedible.)  The residue burned into the bottom of the pan so badly that I couldn’t get it out with soaking or steel wool.  It had become lumpy and completely unusable.  Thoroughly disgusted with myself, I threw the pan outside into the woodsy underbrush, where it lay for over a year.  (One of the many advantages of living in the woods without neighbors; you can chuck stuff into the brush.)  I trotted over to Target and bought another, this time, non-stick (so when it burns it will provide toxic fumes).

When the reject reappeared, in an accusatory manner, in the dead of winter, I retrieved it and was surprised to find that the black residue was gone.  I don’t want to know where or why.  I filled it with water, boiled it for 10 minutes, carefully observing it this time, and voilà!  Now, I have two 3-quart saucepans, one with a clear glass lid and one with a lid that strains the contents.  Both are useful, so neither is redundant, right?

The Italian gratin pan is a work of art.

I have two stainless-lined copper saucepans with lids and one solid copper for making candy (again, I blame the Dearly Departed for the excess).  There’s the enameled double-boiler, which also is small enough to make the perfect stovetop-to-oven casserole for one little woman.  There’s the Le Creuset Dutch oven in which I always make my butternut squash soup and Julia’s Boeuf à la Bourguignonne and a domed Dutch oven for my pot roast.  Don’t ask me to choose!  Same with my two stock pots, both of which have strainer inserts and one has a steamer basket.  I always strain my stock from one pot into the other.  How else could I make a clear stock?

I have two beautiful copper gratin pans, both works of art, especially the Italian one with the acorns on the handles, a spectacular gift from old friends.  I never part with works of art.

I have two roasting pans, one of which holds a 25-pound turkey on a rack.  What else could I use, once a year, on Thanksgiving?  Not that I’m roasting 25-pound turkeys these days, but, it could happen, couldn’t it?

I must not be the only one with a pan fetish.  The vacation condo that I stay in on Grand Cayman came equipped with a basic set of pans, two sizes of saucepans, two sizes of skillets, and a Dutch oven.  For the past three years, I’ve noticed that the other co-owners have added two skillets, a stock pot, and a roasting pan, some of questionable quality, I must say.  None of us is there for longer than three weeks, so you’d think the basic assortment would be sufficient.  I didn’t contribute to the pan collection, but I bought better knives and wine glasses.  First things first, I always say.  Now, if I could get them to replace the glass-topped electric stove with gas burners…

Yeah, my knife (not to mention sharpener) and stemware collections are subjects for other days.  I blame the Veterinarian for those fetishes, too.  How convenient!

DATE UPDATE:

I have been mostly inactive on the dating site.  I did receive the following email,

“Enjoyed reading your profile. It made me laugh, multiple times. 1st and last paragraphs are exceptionally honest, the others somewhat challenging. Understand not playing games, but playing nice may prove beneficial. But what do I know.”

He’s “currently separated,” so, probably, not much.  I answered,

“Thanks for the commentary!  I don’t know how to be less than honest.  I was with one man for 42 years and have no clue what men are looking for.  I can only be me.”

Pointlessly, he replied, “Sorry for the unsolicited commentary. It seemed you were a little frustrated and the scammers seem to pick up on that. It just takes a little time to get the hang of online dating, at least that has been my experience.”

I am happy to say that my profile seems to have deterred the scammers, as I have heard from just one in the past two weeks.  His profile name contained the words “sugary” and “muffin.” Before I ever read it — because, why would you read anything written by a man describing himself as baked goods? — his profile became “unavailable,” meaning that some other exasperated woman beat me to reporting him.  Get a load of what he wrote:

“Hello,
I pray that this letter meets you in good health. I really enjoyed reading your profile & everything you have to say about yourself …. I am a gentleman as respectful and considerate as I am passionate and focused. The most virile men, I think, are the ones that combine a steel core of resilience in adversity with a loving devotion to wife and family, and who want their families to be truly happy. [Points for that.] The small things matter: warmth, good conversation, and fun, the capacity to give and receive and to experience…I would appreciate it, if you could contact me on my personal email, so that i will contact you at my convenient and tell you more about me, my family and work…I’m not into finding girls in bars or parties i believe people i find here are responsible and are searching for the same thing. I humbly urge you to find time and convey your reply back to me .
Warm regards,
Dave
PS.. I went through your profile and pictures and I was like wow ,YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL, Quite enchanting!!!!!”

“Enchanting.”  No one ever uses that word any more outside of Disney films.  I am quite taken with the idea that I could be “enchanting.”  I don’t think of myself as an “enchanter.”  I’m more the “annoyer” or the “defender.”  My enchantments would be more like the seductive Siren than the hapless Helen of Troy;  more luring ships to the rocks than launching them to my rescue.

Maybe I am challenging on the outside, but, honestly, on the inside, I’m really a cream puff, full of sweet crème anglaise, gently thickened in the perfect double-boiler.  Cooking is quite sensual, obviously, which is why I just can’t part with my pots and pans or my kitchen.  They’ve served me faithfully, so, who am I to complain?  Life is good (mostly).  Soli Deo Gloria!


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Notes from Out of the Blue

Sunrise Cayman

Don’t be shocked to see another post from me within 24 hours.  I’m trying something new.  Something extra.  Trying to fulfill that “hope” business.

Morning prayer is so much clearer when watching the sun rise out 0f the ocean.  Where could Lenten discipline possibly be in such a beautiful site?  By practicing discipline, of course.  By reflecting on what is before me.  By paying attention when I’d rather be sleeping in or zoning out.  An email from home reminds me that God is redeeming my headache in God’s way, on God’s time.  There’s always time for thankfulness and praise.

I am visiting with old friends, those dear people to whom I fed the splinter-laden cheesecake 42 years ago.  On our first night together, we shared a store-bought rotisserie-roasted chicken and fresh asparagus with a bottle of pinot noir.  Nary a splinter in sight, a lifetime away from an apartment over a garage.  I am thankful.

Last night, it was bittersweet to sit down at a table with just the three of us, the fourth chair empty, as if waiting for Elijah to pop in and join us at any moment.  Like Elijah, The Veterinarian’s spirit hovered in this place that he loved and in the stories that we told, but there were also new stories, as we have each moved on to new adventures and new bottles of wine.  I would say “Hallelujah,” but we don’t say “Hallelujah!” in Lent, so I’ll just whisper, “Woohoo, Lord!”

This morning, we’re making French toast from last night’s leftover bread and wondering what the day will reveal once we deal with a problem in earthly Paradise.    There’s a screw stuck in the rental Mini-Cooper’s tire, which must be resolved before we can take off.  I’m the tour guide.  Do we search for blue iguanas?  White sands?  The sun is shining; the breeze is warm; and the dive boats have gone out.  Something wonderful will be revealed today, as it is every day, if I just look.


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Those Hills are Still Alive

Gaga flips skirtDid you catch Lady Gaga honoring the 50th Anniversary of the film version of The Sound of Music on the Academy Awards
last week?  Were you shocked?  I was apprehensive when she started to sing, because  I didn’t want to see a travesty made of a film whose score was embedded in my 13-year old brain.  As I listened to her well-rehearsed singing, I saw her nervousness in the amateurish way she flipped her gown.  Stefani Germanotta, the girl behind the outrageous Mother Monster disguise, could have been performing in her living room for the neighbors.  I saw how important this was for her, and I started rooting for her.  For the first time ever, I identified with her as a performer.

Of course, singing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” for the neighbors in your living room is in no way akin to having your foibles aired to hundreds of millions of viewers around the world.  Still, your reputation as an in-your-face know-it-all is at stake, especially when you take on some of the most beloved music ever put on film.

When I was growing up in the not-yet psychedelic 60s, it was a treat to dress up in your Sunday best (i.e., pretty dress, coat, probably patent leather shoes, and gloves) and go into downtown Detroit to see a movie at one of the grand old movie houses.  The Sound of Music premiered in March, 1962 at the now-demolished Madison Theater, which was built in 1917.  I saw it on the huge, curved screen and wept for the brave family, as they escaped the Nazis. It was a triumphant, happily-ever-after kind of story with pretty scenery, pretty people, and pretty music.  Who did not want to be Maria?

I was raised as a Roman Catholic and taught by nuns who had no sense of humor beyond corporal punishment (so it seemed).  It never occurred to me that nuns smiled or sang or had fulfilling lives locked away in a convent.  I could well imagine that they would give “a problem like Maria” the heave-ho from their cloistered world.  I had not imagined that the heave-ho would send the problem into a beautiful home with a handsome father and adorable children, with evil Nazis threatening their idyll in the Alps.

In the days before VHS tapes, DVDs, and video on demand, the soundtrack album of a movie or stage show allowed you to experience it over and over again.  In 1965, The Sound of Music became my favorite, surpassing Mary Poppins.  I wanted to waltz with the sorely misguided Rolf in my family’s conservatory.  I wanted to ride through the streets of Salzburg singing about “bright copper kettles” (which I had never seen) and “warm woolen mittens” (which I owned).  I wanted to sing “Edelweiss” on a darkened stage with tears streaming down my face.  I wanted to laugh in the face of the Baroness.  And, yes, I imagined myself bravely walking down the aisle to marry the handsome Captain while nuns sang “How do solve a problem like Maria?”  With marriage, evidently.  Ah, Captain von Trapp…

I saw Christopher Plummer again onstage as Iago with James Earl Jones as the titular “Othello.”  What a performer!  Forget how good he was pretending onscreen that he didn’t hate playing Captain von Trapp in what he has described as potential “mawkishness.”  Here he was on a Sunday afternoon at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore in 1981, providing me with a lesson in stagecraft. At his entrance, the audience applauded enthusiastically.

However, the production capitalized on Mr. Jones’ notoriety as the voice of Darth Vader.  In my feeble memory, the stage direction had him boldly make his first entrance at upstage center.  Othello was wearing all black, including a black cape.   His first lines were delivered from beneath a helmet.  The audience went wild.

I turned to The Veterinarian and said, “Cheesy, cheesy, cheesy.  This production’s going south in a hurry.”  I was confused.  Were we to think that Othello and Darth are the same?  Or was it just a cheap ploy to entertain the audience?  Or, worst of all, were they going to upstage Mr. Plummer with their theatrics?

Othello 2 (2)There was more about the staging (especially the lighting, as I recall) that I didn’t like.  I recently noticed that Kelsey Grammer, pre-Cheers, played “Cassio” in that production, which, I am sorry to say, didn’t make an impression on me, either.  [I don’t recall who played Desdemona, and a google search was no help.] As the play progressed, though, its esteemed leads lived up to their reputations.  They told the story without gimmicks, although there were more theatrics, some unintended.

During a duel, one of the actors’ swords flew from his hand, off the stage, and into the lap of an elderly lady in the front row.  The theater went silent.  Ushers hesitantly moved forward.  Without breaking character, Mr. Plummer leapt from the stage and knelt on one knee in front of the startled lady.  He removed the sword and spoke quietly to her, then kissed her hand and ran up the stairs, back on the stage, and, still in character, haughtily tossed the sword to its actor.  The house went wild.  I swooned in my seat.   Mr. Plummer went on to Broadway and won a Tony award for his Iago.  I would have given it to him just for what I saw in that production.  Ah, Captain von Trapp…

Theatrics, used appropriately, can add excitement to a production.  Some, like the falling chandelier in Phantom of the Opera, are costly, yet “cheap tricks.”  Others make ordinary lives more interesting.  Apparently, the play and movie version of The Sound of Music were dramatized to make the story of the von Trapps more thrilling, as if defying the Nazis wasn’t compelling enough.  There was no dramatic escape across the Alps, just a train ride to Italy and a boat to London, then on to the U.S.  The Captain actually was quite genial, and Maria said in her autobiography Maria that she married the Captain for the sake of the children and learned to love him later, a different kind of romance.

I sang The Sound of Music around my house for three years, until I became captivated by Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, a much edgier story line for an adolescent girl who was “sixteen going on seventeen” in the more cynical, psychedelic late 60s.  I saw myself on that tugboat in New York Harbor singing my lungs out, chasing down my star-crossed lover, a bittersweet story, a different kind of romance.  Both movies were based on real people, but fleeting happiness is not as compelling in the long run, so I went back to Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s more hopeful story.

At the end of her Sound of Music medley, Stefani looked humbled at the appearance of the fabulous Julie Andrews onstage with her.  All the time she was singing the iconic songs (my only complaint is that she mimicked Ms. Andrews’ English accent, as I mimicked Ms. Streisand’s Brooklyn accent), she knew that the icon, herself, was standing in the wings.  How much braver is it to be yourself than to hide behind outlandish costumes and snarl at your audience, “cheap tricks,” all of them?  Brava, Ms. Germanotta, brava!

While I sing in choral groups (and once sang in a chorus on the stage at Carnegie Hall under the direction of the great John Rutter), I will never sing a solo in front of anyone except the BFF, not even in the shower, never again in someone’s living room or basement or garage.  And no one is asking me to, so who am I to complain?  Life is good (mostly).  Soli Deo Gloria!

DATE UPDATE:

It’s a boring week.  I’ve discovered that I can test my prospective dates by making them read this blog first.  I say, “Read my blog, and let me know if you’re still interested.”  The blog is a deal-breaker, which makes it the perfect test.  My profile photos are catchy, my text clever, but the “real me” is just too much, apparently.  “Real Suzanne” is not coming over to your house on a first date for a drink and does not want to have sex with you within the first several months that I know you, if ever.  “Real Suzanne” can tell if you’re a phony.  “Real Suzanne” is probably a lot smarter than you are, which is a real turn-off, for her.

I got lots of scammers this week.  Anthropologists have missed the best marker of all to attract a mate, good grammar.  One had a well-written profile in which he said he flies his own airplane, so, after he emailed me in broken English, I responded by asking what kind of airplane he flies?  Naturally, he did not respond.  They never do when they know you’re going to catch them in a lie.

I did not respond to an email from a guy with no profile photo that said, “I lie if I not tell you your sexy!! [sic]”

From a guy whose photo looks like a young Paul Newman, ” i hope the weather is getting better over there for you too. [sic]” He lives in NY and shows a photo of himself with a recently deceased celebrity whom he identifies as his father.

I reported another one who stole a woman’s photo and profile and claimed that she was his intermediary.

I had two emails from different men who claim to have post-graduate degrees with this explanation, “I have tried to upload more pictures but I really do not know how it works been my first time on a dating site. [sic]”

From the geographically-challenged, a guy named “Pedro” who lives about 40 miles south of me, “do you have a lot of snow back there? [sic]”

And this:

Scammer 2 (2)

Yep, go away Forever!

 

 


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All Creatures Great and Small and Online

As open and loving and nurturing as my parents were, we never had any pets, which is probably just as well, because we couldn’t keep goldfish alive.  My only childhood experiences with dogs were a neighbor’s biting boxer that was kept on a chain and a little mutt that one of the neighborhood boys used to sic on me when I walked past his house.  (You know, boys are soooo mean!)

In dating The Veterinarian, I hit the weird pet jackpot.  His indulgent parents not only had a sweet collie, but they allowed him to keep snakes, turtles, rats, mice (guess what they were for), a tegu lizard, and a spider monkey that had been known to swing from the dining room chandelier.  His interest in veterinary medicine began when he was unable to find a doctor who could/would treat them.  I was eager to keep them all at arm’s length.

When we’d only been married for a week, without checking with me, my bridegroom took in a stray dog, a 14-pound Shetland Sheepdog.  I was completely freaked out and convinced that she was waiting for me to fall asleep so she could rip out my throat. Instead, she would sit at my feet, looking at me with a perpetually dazed expression in her enormous brown eyes and ripped out the arms of the loveseat that my mother-in-law loaned us.

In 1973, my young husband and a friend were accepted into veterinary school.  Spouses of the new students were invited to the “New Student Spouses Tea” at the home of the dean and his wife by the wives of the other deans and faculty members, a quaint custom that surely doesn’t happen in this 21st liberated century.  Most veterinary students are now women, and I doubt if any of their spouses/significant others are comfortable, not to mention willing, to sit on little, straight-backed chairs balancing delicate china and hot tea on their laps.  Unless they’re Downton Abbey fans, of course.

Late one afternoon, our friend’s wife and I drove over to the dean’s house together.  I was barely 21, the youngest woman there.  Many of the new students were veterans of Viet Nam, and some even had multiple children.  My friend’s husband was a Navy vet vet student [great alliteration, eh?].  Knowing none of the other women, we sat together as the presentation portion of the program began.

“We are all so happy to welcome our newest families,” Mrs. Dean began in her soft, southern drawl, always a classy sound way, way north of the Mason-Dixon Line.  “We want to get to know you better, so we’re going to go around the room and introduce ourselves. Please give your name, what you do, and tell us something about you that no one will forget.”

“What should I say?”  My friend whispered.

“I don’t know,” I replied, “but I’m going to tell them that I don’t like animals.”

“What???”  My friend’s eyes widened.  “You wouldn’t, would you?”

“Well, it’s the most memorable thing about me.”  Had there been an empty chair, she would have steered clear of me.  Guilt by association is always a painful thing.

We listened as the wwivves each described their admirable jobs as teachers, nurses, researchers, librarians, and managers, citing their interests in “knitting,” “being from Ohio,” “reading,” or “camping.”  Then, it was my turn.

“My name is Suzanne, and I have been married for less than a year.  I’m a full-time English major and just finished my junior year here at the university.” I very briefly hesitated, as if I were racking my feeble brain for a thought, “And…um… the most interesting thing I can tell you about me is that I don’t really much care for animals.”  I shrugged and crinkled my face in apology.

There was dead silence, a stunned “Did she really say that?” silence.  Then, there was polite laughter, and they moved on to the remaining women.  No one else launched a missile as explosive as “Gee, animal lovers, I don’t relate to animals,” but, as we stood to say our good-byes, women rushed over to ask me if I was serious.

“I didn’t grow up with pets and am very uncomfortable around them.  We have a dog, but I’m still not sure she’s not going to attack me at any moment.”

“Does she bite?”

“So far, just shoes.  And the sofa.  Her name is Fleurie.”

“What kind of dog, dear?” A faculty wife asked.

“A Sheltie,” I replied.

A Sheltie?”  There was more laughter.  “But Shelties don’t bite.  I thought you meant a Doberman.”

I shrugged.  My friend was standing off to one side looking mortified.  In fairness, my friend has put up with my nonsense for 42 years.  In fact, she, her Veterinarian, and I are going on vacation together next month.  But, I’ll tell you what.  No one ever forgot me, and, when the class graduated, I was awarded the “Outstanding Wife Award”, given by the Auxiliary to the American Veterinary Medical Association.  It’s a pretty little silver Revere bowl with my name engraved on it. They gave it to me because I wrote the class newsletter for three years, which is more than I get for writing this crappy blog.  I bet they don’t give the “Outstanding Wife Award” any more, either.

Veterinary medicine has been very, very, very good to me.  I’ve made hundreds of friends around the world, veterinarians, spouses, clients, and countless others in the veterinary industry.  I’ve also heard and seen the most disgusting things imaginable, usually during a fine meal in an expensive restaurant, with other diners staring, open-mouthed, in the background.  Veterinarians just can’t leave their work in the office.

Ever eaten lunch with a dead a cow?  I have.  Ever seen a dog whose owners, high on God-only-knows-what, tried to cut off its tail with a kitchen knife?  I have.  Ever seen an owl puke up a pellet?  I have.  Ever seen warbles wriggle under the skin of a rabbit?  I have.  Ever had a great blue heron try to spear your eyeball with its beak?  I have.  Ever seen an eight-foot long python relieve itself and fling it all over the exam room?  I have.  Ever had to throw a deranged woman out of your clinic because she wanted the doctor to collect semen from her vicious dog, who had just bitten the doctor before said activity could take place, so she could breed it to her even more vicious bitch?  I have, AND I tacked on a huge surcharge to her bill for bringing them in for such a stupid undertaking.  As the Veterinarian (who was not present during the visit) told her when she complained, “You have no business breeding these vicious dogs, and we’re not going to help you do it.”  Hard to know who the real bitch was.

The Daughter meets Hedwig in the clinic.

The Daughter meets Hedwig in the clinic. Hedwig recovered and was later released.

I’ve also held a bald eagle more than once (they’re surprisingly heavy), helped deliver puppies by C-section in the middle of the night (frequently), watched a dog’s heart beat in its open chest (more than once), seen many a joyous family reunited with a blocked cat they thought was a goner, and watched countless parrot chicks peck their way out a shell.  And how many brownie points can you earn by letting The Daughter hold one of your patients, a (sedated) real-life version of Harry Potter’s beloved snowy owl, Hedwig?  The poor thing had flown off course and ended up, malnourished, on a pier in Baltimore Harbor…the owl, that is.  The Daughter remains on course as of this writing.

DATE UPDATE: 

I’ve had some interesting conversations with a man I met online who teaches communication.  I actually invited him to read a good chunk of this blog, and he didn’t flinch!  As far as I can tell, he doesn’t think I’m insane.  I, on the other hand, am not so sure.  Read on.

Someone emailed me that he does “informal portrait photography as a hobby” and called my really tasteful profile photo “a terrific image.”  In his profile, he says that he enjoys “photographing freaks and hipsters at local festivals.”   Can’t he see that I’m “Outstanding Wife” material? Maybe he follows the blog.

The goofiest profile photo was of a garbage can with a duffle bag arranged over one side so that an American flag decal was displayed prominently.  In the lower right-hand corner, you can see what appears to be a man’s shoulder in a fluorescent green T-shirt and a human ear. That’s it.  No face. Maybe he should meet the portrait photographer.

Then, there’s a modest-looking man with a middle-aged woman wearing matching Hawaiian print shirts.  I don’t think it’s his mother.  Maybe she’s his daughter.  Maybe she’s his sister.  Maybe she’s his ex.  Who knows?  Who cares?  Sheesh.  If I have to ask…

The creepiest profile photo appears to be an 80-year old woman in an embroidered peasant blouse and the profile name “viciousprez.”  The written profile says he is 62 and a “widow/widower,” “athletic and toned,” last read “Holy Bible,” and “For Fun” he says, “I have two sides.”  Honey, that’s what bothers me.  In “Additional Photos,” he shows a couple shots of an attractive gray-haired man with his arms around the waist of a pretty blond and two more photos of the older lady.   I wrote, “All right, I have no sense and just have to ask.  What is going on in your profile?”  No one ever answers my emails, so I will probably never find out.  If I do, you’ll be the first to know.

But my absolute favorite was the photo of a 50-year old man who looked a lot like The Veterinarian did at 50.  I was stunned and took a closer look, not because in my wildest dreams do I think a 50-year old man would be interested in me, but because, in the selfie, taken behind the wheel of a car, my late husband’s doppelgänger is wearing a gold band on the third finger of his left hand.  I kid you not.  If I was braver, I would have saved the image and posted it here for all the world to see.  Maybe it is The Veterinarian’s doppelgänger, or more accurately, his zombie, because, certainly, a man who posts a selfie of himself wearing a wedding ring on a dating site is brainless.

A friend at church asked me if online dating is safe.  I told him much the same thing that I have written here and showed him a “like” that I had just received.  It showed a slight, obviously young (20-ish) man who described himself as a “54-year old former marine.”

“You can tell he’s a fake, right?”  I asked.  My friend was incredulous.

It’s time to update my own profile, I guess.  I’m going to polish up that tarnished Revere bowl and take a selfie of myself with it to prove that I’m certifiable.  So, who am I to complain?  Life is good (mostly).  Soli Deo Gloria!


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Will you be my Valentine?

Valentine Don 2Such a simple, yet loaded, question.  For anyone who has sent one, Valentines are as much about the giver as the recipient.  On Valentine’s Day, we express our love, gratitude, and loyalty to our loved ones, and, if appropriate, we extol their romantic appeal.  (Let’s skip lust, shall we?)

In elementary school, we made Valentine “mailboxes” out of construction paper to hang on our desk.  Every classmate received a Valentine, and we weren’t allowed to give a nasty Valentine to someone we didn’t like.  Valentines were a lesson about friendship and basic civility, at the very least.

“I’m not giving Bobby a Valentine this year,” I’d say.

“Why not?” My Mother would counter.

“Because he chases me with grasshoppers at recess.”

“Maybe he wouldn’t do that, if you were nicer to him.”

“Ewww.  And he chews on the points of pencils.”

“Don’t you eat paste?”

“Well, yeah, but paste tastes good, and that pencil lead turns his mouth gray.”

“Either everybody gets a Valentine, or nobody gets a Valentine.”

I would shuffle through my little box of assorted Valentines, pull out my least favorite, and write “B-O-B-B-Y” on it with a shudder.

Once into junior high school, Valentines disappeared.  They were replaced with the dreaded “Valentine’s Dance,” an evening function where you wore your best dress, and the boys wore a jacket and tie.  You danced with your girlfriends in large circles to the music of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Petula Clark, the Temptations, and whoever else was on the top-40 chart.  If you were really, really, really lucky, one of the boys in your class would ask you to slow dance.  It only happened to me once, when some other girls convinced the shortest boy in my 8th grade class to dance with me, one of the three shortest girls.  I don’t remember the song, but it was the longest  2 minutes 14 seconds of my life.  He was wearing a tweed jacket and wasn’t happy at all.  I was just relieved when it was over.

You see, there are no Valentines for mouthy girls.   For a smart girl, I should  have  learned to hold my tongue  (still should, for that matter),  but no boy was cute enough to sacrifice my lofty principles.   There were no dates  for the prom or homecoming dances, because, in those days, you couldn’t go to the formal dances without a date.  You stayed at home.

Unless you were me.

Valentine Mom

Vintage Valentine from My Mother

For the junior prom in 1969, I threw a sleepover for all of my girlfriends who weren’t invited to the big dance.  Eight of us were playing records and laughing (think a Taylor Swift fan party without money) in my family’s basement “rec room,” when, suddenly, there was a knock at my parents’ back door.

“Uh, there are some boys that want to talk to you,” my dad called down the stairs.  No young man had ever approached my home, so my dad was really confused.

“Huh?” I looked up to the door, where my Secret Crush stood in the freezing February night.  I heard sudden furtive giggling behind me and bolted up the stairs.

“Hello,” I said, somewhat defiantly.

“Uh, what are you doing?” Mr. Secret Crush, who had only spoken to me to get answers on tests in my English class, asked.  I knew that he and his friends had driven into Ontario to play ice hockey and drink near-beer all afternoon instead of going to the prom.

“We’re having a party,” I replied.

“Uh, can we come in?”

“No, I don’t think so,” I gave him my coyest look.

“Really?”

“No.”  My heart was pounding, and the shrew that lives in my head was screaming, “Are you crazy?  You’ve waited two years for this!”  Ever a woman of principle and stupidity I said,

“If you want to party, we should go to the prom.”

“What?”  There was more giggling behind me and snickering behind him.

“Sure,” I looked at my watch, “it’s just 7:30.  We could go over now.  We’ll even buy our own tickets.”

He looked at his letter jacket and corduroy pants.  The girls were wearing skirts, culottes (remember them?), or slacks.

“We’re not dressed for it,”  he said, but I was up for the dare.

“I didn’t hear there was a dress code.  Who says we can’t go?”

“Well, uh — um,” he stammered, “Ok.  Um.  I’ll drive.  We can go in two cars.”

“Let me get my coat.”  We piled into their cars and drove the short two miles to the high school.  I jumped out of the car and headed to the door.  In reality, I wasn’t sure school officials would let us in, but I was having more fun than I’d ever had in my life.

“Wait,” Mr. Secret Crush stopped.  “You aren’t serious, are you?”

And in that moment, he stopped being my secret crush.  He didn’t have the guts to be my boyfriend.

“Well, I was, but I can’t go in alone, without a date.”  He shrugged.  We piled back into the cars and drove home.

“Can we come in now?” he asked.

“No, I don’t think so.”  I knew that I was ruining my chances of ever dating anyone in high school, but I also was no pushover.

A year later, somehow, The Veterinarian came along, my first (and only) boyfriend.  I regularly pinched myself that I had landed someone so desirable.  Not only was he smart, well-respected, and sophisticated (he knew how to eat a lobster, which was almost unheard-of in 1960s middle class Midwestern families), he was an accomplished athlete, a diver on our school’s accomplished swim team.

As Valentine’s Day approached, I was delirious, dreaming of the cards and flowers and gifts that would be showered on me by my handsome, popular boyfriend.  I searched for the perfect card and wrote an appropriately loving note in it.   On February 14, 1970, I proudly sat in the stands for a statewide meet that would determine how large a college scholarship he might get.  In the morning prelims, he qualified first out of 50 divers.  In the afternoon finals, he was hanging onto a slim lead in the final round when something went wrong on the last dive.  He finished third. That night, he came over to my house, despondent.

There would be no full scholarship to the NCAA Division I school that he, the eldest of six children, hoped to attend, although he would be offered both full academic and athletic scholarships to a Division II school.  We sat quietly on the sofa in the rec room.  I suppressed my eagerness to get to the Valentine’s celebration and waited.  He talked about everything but the holiday.  He talked about everything but me.

I should have understood that this was what love is really about.  I should have realized that you can’t give a greater gift to your beloved than to help them put the pieces back together.  When he left, I took out the Valentine that I had not given him, tore it up, and threw it in the trash.  He simply hadn’t remembered it was Valentine’s Day, but I thought that I was crushed.

The next year, 1971, our freshman year in college, after considerable hinting from me, he remembered.  I wished he hadn’t.  The first Valentine that he ever gave me was a joke card whose cover read, “I couldn’t love you more…” and inside, “…unless you were Sophia Loren Ali MacGraw” (he had penciled in). I think I threw the card at him in my fury.  It’s a wonder we stayed together for 42 years, isn’t it?  That’s love, too, I guess.

The third year was the charm.

The third year was the charm.

DATE UPDATE:

I was awake at 2:45 one night this week and logged onto a dating site, because I thought I’d be less likely to be engaged in an “instant” conversation with a creepy stranger in the middle of the night.  (Yeah,  I get the irony, but I never IM anyone.) But I was wrong!  Like a scene from a horror movie, within 30 seconds, up popped a photo of what appeared to be a serial killer with the message “how u doin beautiful” [sic].  I couldn’t log out fast enough and was shaking like a leaf in the safety of my own little bed with the security alarm set and my BFF at the ready.

There used to be a joke that a man’s ideal woman was part Julia Child-part Playmate of the Month.  I’m more Martha Stewart-Roseanne Barr, an attractive woman who can cook up a storm with a mouth like a sailor (sorry, sailors).  Even Martha does online dating these days, and, if a woman with her money can’t find a man, I surely can’t, either.  But I’ll bet she makes a better Valentine out of papier mâché and gold leaf than I can.

Several of this week’s scammer messages contained the phrase “you appear so gentle, kind, and dear.”  [rotflmao] Before reporting one of them, I responded, “Come on.  No reputable American male would ever open an email to a woman with ‘Hello, my dear’.”

Every year, My Dad sent me a Valentine.

Every year, My Dad sent me a Valentine.

All of this points out why I will probably never have a successful relationship again.  I’m still mouthy.  I’ve never been described as “gentle.”  I am exhausted by the thought of breaking in another man.  I don’t want to do the Valentine’s dance because we are all stuck in the 1960s, moving awkwardly with one another.  I, of course, was no hippie, so I can’t do the dance under the spell of a lava lamp or controlled substances, either.

Today, I changed my profile to include “Friendships begin with civility, honesty, and humor.  Lasting relationships succeed with humility, respect, generosity, forgiveness, and compromise.”  Widowers will understand that love comes from the mundane, but I’m hoping it rings a bell with those from failed relationships.  I doubt that it will have any meaning to the newly divorced and certainly not to the “currently separated.”  They’re all resumés and hurt feelings.

I, however, will receive Valentines from my loved ones, some traditional, some electronic, and have a treasure box full of old Valentines and a heart full of memories, so who am I to complain?  Life is good (mostly).  Soli Deo Gloria!

 

 

 

 

 


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In the Bleak Mid-Winter

Let him sleep!

Let him sleep!

Yesterday, Punxsutawney Phil and his family of groundhogs saw their shadows, and at least one, in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, took a chunk out of the mayor’s ear.  On Wisconsin!  I don’t blame them.  I also have a tendency to snap at the ears of anyone who wakes me up in the middle of a deep sleep for no apparent reason.  You can understand that the groundhogs would be grouchy, because they don’t have much longer to hibernate before they awaken to chew on grass and start dodging cars and lawnmowers.  If it’s any consolation, by my calculations, there are six and a half more weeks until the spring equinox, so that’s four fewer days of winter. Not a boon, not a calamity.  On the brighter side (pun intended), the days are already longer, and daylight savings time starts again on March 8.

My maternal ancestors settled eastern Kentucky, so you would think my grandmother would have been a wealth of folklore about animals, but her expertise was more in folk medicine, along the lines of  “If you swallow gum, it will stick to your ribs.”  Here are my anecdotal observations about the true nature of winter:

If my forsythia bloom on a rare, warm day in December, they will also bloom in February and March.  Forsythia are like weeds, not deterred by anything, and those yellow flowers are really pretty when covered by layers of ice.

If my snowdrops bloom in February, there will be a snowstorm blanketing them, and I won’t see them until it thaws, and they have died.  Indeed, they have just broken their little heads above-ground, and while I fear for their safety, it means that spring is on its way.

Hope!

Hope!

If a snow event fails to materialize on a Friday or Monday, schools will close anyway, and every kid will be at the mall.

If I am away in the winter, the deer will take over my yard and eat everything green in sight.  I lost some azaleas last week, while their nemesis, My BFF, was boarding, and I, so irresponsible, was frolicking in the tropics.

If I top-off my windshield washer fluid on January 1, it will disappear by February, when I really need it.

If I keep a shovel and a bucket of sand and salt in my trunk, my steep lane won’t freeze all winter, but I will curse every time I try to load groceries.

If I wear my dress shoes to church, there will be unavoidable ice somewhere between my car and the door to the sanctuary.

If you put out a squirrel-proof bird feeder, you’re only providing entertainment for the squirrels. They already socked away a million acorns last fall and don’t need the seed. I stopped using a particular feeder, after I saw the squirrels learn to sit on top of it and smack the release lever with their paws to drop seed to their little squirrel friends on the ground.  After a few minutes, they would switch places.  The birds just sat nearby watching the circus.  At least, everyone was entertained.

DATE UPDATE:

Valentine’s Day is imminent, so there must be some serious pheromones being carried by all of these blizzards.  I have been inundated with “winks,” “interesteds,” and emails.  Where do I start with this week’s dating prospects?  The atheist?  The 33-year old from Connecticut?  The 83-year old from Ohio?

Let’s start with Mr. “Hey, Ms. Fallston, Read my profile.  I think you will get a good lush hot two. [signed] The Prince of. [local housing development].”

If “lush hot two” is something pornographic, I apologize, but that’s an expression that I’ve neither heard nor can decipher with my superb command of the English language.  This was his second email.  His first asked if I had ever been dancing at a local, somewhat disreputable, establishment.  I was a little taken aback, so I ignored it, per online dating custom.   The second email was so pathetic that I just clicked “Not interested” and blocked him, which I have only done twice before.  Shouting at me does not a good first impression make, and he’s the first guy I thought might feel compelled to continue the diatribe.

Then, there was this email, “How Can I Become your ‘Undercover’ Cuddle Buddy and More!!” [sic] from a 46-year old man in northern Virginia with a zany photo reminiscent of a 1950s Vegas comedian.  He was commenting on the photo of me in a straw hat and sunglasses that was taken on my vacation (see last week’s blog post).  I hope he means “undercover,” as in a disguise.  The Daughter assured me that it was a tasteful, ladylike photo, but maybe there’s too much cleavage.  Uh-oh.  Maybe that’s responsible for the uptick in contacts.  False advertising.  Not the cleavage, by the way.  What the cleavage may imply.

I received an “Interested” from a man who just moved to the area and has an interesting job.  I returned to him an “Interested.”  He’s divorced with “no baggage, never argue, criticize or condemn.  Am totally supportive and never sarcastic.”  Oh, come on.  Everyone has some sort of baggage.  Mine tends to be lightweight and expensive.  I certainly never condemn and was always very supportive of most every inane thing that The Veterinarian ever did.  “Argue and criticize?”  Only when I’m 100% absolutely, certainly, clearly, definitely, and undoubtedly right.  OK, we probably don’t have chemistry, but I’m fascinated by his job and may just email him about it.

I emailed a self-described “Christ-centered” guy, aged 60, looking for women 38-54, who said he worked for the government in “health” and “nature” with a “graduate degree.”  He posted a photo of himself expertly holding a raptor, so I asked if interacting with Great Horned Owls was part of his job (seeing as how I know a boatload of stuff about raptors and medicine, thanks to The Veterinarian).  I realize that I am two years older than he is, and eight years older than his ideal, but, still, I thought we might have something in common.  My profile shows my serious commitment to Christian Formation, but perhaps I missed Christ’s admonition on dating outside of your ideal age range.  (Sorry for the sarcasm.)

My stated “ideal age” is 55-68, but I’ve corresponded with 72 year olds, because, after all, Paul McCartney and Harrison Ford are 72.  If they’re much older, they’re too close to my parents’ generation.  If they’re younger than 55, well, that’s flattering, but I’m no cougar, and George Clooney went off the market last fall.  I would consider a younger man with bad eyesight, because my dilemma is that I can no longer dress or undress in the dark and probably wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny in the harsh light of day or those new compact fluorescent bulbs.  I know that my neck won’t.

My bigger fear is that I am “geographically undesirable.”  I’m not close enough to a major city.  The really interesting guys all seem to live in the DC area, about 40 miles away, which is probably not a deterrent, if you live in the vastness of Texas or own a car and know how to drive.  (In one of my profile incarnations, I said that I own a car and know how to use it and am not navigationally impaired.)  I’m regularly contacted by men from 33-83 from Maryland to California.  Beyond 100 miles, I wouldn’t even respond to them, because they are, most likely, either fakes or psycho killers.

Of course, My Mother fears that they’re all psycho killers because she watches all the real-life crime dramas on Friday and Saturday nights.  I watch Dr. Phil and have learned to spot the fakes a mile away.  I always have hope.  After all, despite what cranky groundhogs say, spring is on its way!  So, who am I to complain?  Life is good (mostly).  Soli Deo Gloria!


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First World Problems

First World Problem:  The sand is too rough on your feet.

First World Problem: The sand is too rough on your feet.

Would you buy a 72” flat-screen television just to watch the Super Bowl and return it for a refund the next day?  I didn’t think so, because we’re not that crazy, but, apparently, some people are.  What kind of people think that their television screen isn’t big enough on which to watch a football game once a year?  First World People, that’s who.  Who are these sorry folks?  I hate to tell you this, but we are.

If you grew up in the US in the 1950s, you undoubtedly were scolded by a parent, who survived the Great Depression, for not eating your peas/liver and onions/prunes with “There are children starving in Europe/Africa/China who would love to have it.”  If you were smart, you gritted your teeth to restrain the words, “Then, send it over to them” from leaving your lips.  Duly admonished, however, the guilt probably sank in a little, because there wasn’t much that a 9-year old in Eisenhower’s America could do about world famine other than to fret, briefly, on the possibility that there was a world beyond what was shown to us on television.

My father also used to remind us that “Everything is relative” and “This, too, shall pass.” Throughout my life, I’ve tried to temper my frustrations and sorrows by putting them in perspective.  Is this surmountable?  How do I make this better?  Is this really as bad as I think it is?  Sometimes, it is, so I have also learned to deal with it humorously.

For example, when my father died after a devastating two years of ALS (remember last summer’s ice bucket challenge?), My Mother and I, accompanied by my uncle, stood with the funeral director looking at caskets and vaults.

“In this end, we place a time capsule with the deceased’s name, place and date of birth, and place and date of death.”

“Oh,” My Mother the history buff quipped, “is that so when they dig us all up in a thousand years, there won’t be any mystery about who we were?  Maybe they’ll confuse us with someone important.”  We snickered together.

The funeral director smiled uncertainly and moved on to the vaults, describing how they were made out of the same material as football helmets.

“Well, that’s perfect for Daddy,” I chimed in.  “He played football in high school and will feel right at home.”  My Mother and I laughed, while the funeral director and my uncle exchanged sympathetic looks of the “Poor-little-women-in-their-grief” variety.

People were equally disconcerted when The Veterinarian died unexpectedly, yet I didn’t go to pieces. (Yes, I saw the looks on the faces of people who don’t know me very well.)  First of all, my faith swooped in and picked me up.  The first thing I did was pray and ask God to take over.  As always, God did.  The second thing I could hear was my beloved husband’s voice say, “Don’t panic.  When you panic, you’ve lost.” In my head, I heard My Mother’s voice say, “Keep going.”  In every way, my life had prepared me for that moment.  And when, within days, I was beset with confounding legal issues and was diagnosed with hypertension, I was able to keep moving forward, when some around me could only react with fear.  I truly felt joy at the outpouring of love from the hundreds of people who offered condolences in person or by mail.  (And that, ladies and gentleman, is how to celebrate a life lived generously.)  The stories that were shared lifted my spirits in ways that no pharmaceutical ever could.

In the first weeks, I found that I couldn’t concentrate enough to read.  I discovered humorous crime novels.  In a matter of weeks, I read every book Janet Evanovich ever wrote.  I read funny “chick lit” from Mary Kay Andrews, Sophie Kinsella, and the wacky vampires of MaryJanice Davidson, stuff I had never read before.  I tuned my satellite radio to the comedy channels.  The sound of laughter, even if it was only my own, was the sound of life.  It balanced the sorrow and stress and misery, while the prayers of so many kept me afloat.  I put my life back in perspective.

In the "Lingerie Tankini" with The Daughter

In the “Lingerie Tankini” with The Daughter

This week, The Daughter and I are on vacation in a delightfully sunny haven.  Mostly sunny, I should say.  Yesterday, we had some clouds and scattered rain as we sat by the pool, reading and contemplating what to have for lunch.  We were aware that, while we were complaining of  only having 3-6 hours of sunshine, back home, 3-6” of snow were forecast.  There wasn’t much that we could do about it other than to fret, briefly, on the possibility that our family and friends were frantically searching grocery stores for MBTp.  Still, the clouds cut into our pool time, so we sighed and compiled some First World Problems.  If any of these are make-or-break problems for you, you need to lighten up!  If we’ve forgotten any, feel free to add them using “Reply.”

First World Problems

You’re the only second grader who doesn’t have a smartphone.

Your Hawaiian vacation rental is garden-view, not oceanfront.

Your dishwasher doesn’t have a stainless steel interior.

Your refrigerator doesn’t have ice in the door.

Your kitchen countertops are Formica.

Your twins share a bedroom.

Your cable plan doesn’t include HBO.

Your new diet doesn’t allow McDonald’s.

Your pre-packaged salad isn’t “organic.”

Your “Parmesan” cheese was made in Wisconsin.

Your Caribbean vacation is 80° and partly cloudy.

You’re forced to stream iTunes, because Pandora doesn’t work outside the US.

Your server gives you an extra cocktail for free.

You have to drive to three different stores to find chipotle-and-lime tortilla chips.

You’re on vacation, and you still have to empty the dishwasher.

 

DATE UPDATE:

Today, The Daughter and I decided that Jane Austen, as broadminded as she was for the early 19th century, would be dumbfounded by the modern world of courtship.  Austen’s heroines find themselves looking for love in all the right places, in their social milieu.  They encounter posers, narcissists, damaged heroes, philanderers, the aristocracy, and ne’er-do-wells.  Luckily for them, they encounter them at church, parties, and dances, in shops or at tea, face-to-face, to size up the character of their romantic prospects through their friends, families, manners, speech, and dress.

Alas, dear Reader, today we encounter them hiding behind fake photos, fake profiles, and false modesty traveling at the speed of light through the Great Unknown to my computer.  I receive at least four to five introductory emails each day that just say, “Textme1235555555,” as if I have been lobotomized and am sitting with cellphone in hand.  Men actually say they are looking for “a lady with benefits,” which is an oxymoron, if I’ve ever heard one.  Their photographic introductions show them bare-chested, in wifebeaters, squinting into their cellphone camera lenses, and one just posted a photo of only his legs and feet.  I don’t want to know why.

Actually, on chemistry*com, probably 85% of the profiles don’t even have a photo, which is really a pig in a poke, if you ask me.  “Ask him for a photo” it says.  Some, like a guy calling himself “mensadoc,” are “Still thinking of something to write,” according to the site.  Really?  You’re a member of Mensa, have a doctoral degree, and can’t put together a photo and 200 words about yourself?  Slacker.

In my new profile on chemistry, I say, “I’m that cute, ladylike-but-sassy girl in your high school English class.”  Someone emailed, “Hey, cute sassy girl!  We can swing through the trees like Tarzan and Jane.”  Excuse me?!   Another man wrote to me and said that in my photos I appear, “cute, patient, and gentle.”  Oh, dear.  I suppose I’ve oversold myself and will have to make it clear that I am only one of the three.  Looks are deceiving on this end of the internet, too.  I read on a website called “online dating tips” that it’s trite to describe yourself as “funny.”  Well, I am funny.  That’s one of my great strengths, n’est-ce pas?  But this, too, shall pass, so, who am I to complain?  Life is good (mostly).  Soli Deo Gloria!

 

 


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Overachieving Parents

Parents, get off the crazy train now, while you still have a chance. When did children become little adults?  Did I miss that?  I think it must have been in the 90s. It certainly wasn’t in the 50s and 60s, when I learned that I was not the center of the universe. Now, children are trained from birth to read before they can walk.  They perform math calculations in kindergarten in this new-fangled math that you can’t even begin to decipher.  They have cellphones and iPads, get mani-pedis, and dictate their parents’ daily schedules.  Vacations are scheduled around their activities.  A birthday party is no longer a cake-and-ice-cream affair; it must have an elaborate Theme and the budget of an emerging nation to compete with other families.  Give me a break.

The Veterinarian and I were 47 in 1999, when we adopted The Daughter from Colorado and moved her to Maryland.  She was eight and starting the third grade at our local public school with 250 other third graders (you read that correctly — 250 students per grade).  We knew she could multiply, but the school insisted on putting her in a math class that wasn’t even adding and subtracting on paper.  After a month of complaining, we were able to have her moved into the mainstream math class, where she excelled. We were more concerned because she couldn’t read, and, despite expressing our concerns, the school downplayed the problem.  However, on the last day of the third grade, we were informed, by letter, that she was reading in the 28th percentile, which was acceptable to the school system.  It was not acceptable to us.  Over the summer, we hired the reading tutor that the school wouldn’t provide.

“This girl is above-average in intelligence,” the independent reading specialist informed us.  “She just doesn’t know how to sound out words.”  She began a weekly program of instruction in phonics.  Within six weeks, The Daughter moved up to a fourth grade reading level and was reading at mid-fourth grade level when she started fourth grade.

Still, the school told us that she shouldn’t bother to participate in instrumental education (she wanted to play cello) or an extra-credit “patriot” program.  Tired of fighting for our child to just be “average,” we started looking at the day school at our Episcopal church, where she completed a battery of tests.

“She is definitely above-average,” the admissions director told us.  “She’s a year behind us in math, but all of the public school students are.  However, she is smart enough to catch up in no time.”

With our fingers crossed, The Daughter started the fifth grade at private school and never looked back.  Overnight, we had joined the “Overachieving Parents Club.”  Notice that I didn’t say “Overachieving Students Club.”  Oh, no. Every child was training for the Ivy League, which started with getting into the “right” high school.  They read before starting kindergarten, studied piano, spoke French, painted landscapes and sculpted, swam, rode horses, and played “club” soccer and lacrosse (a sport we had never seen, being from the Midwest) in hopes of getting a college scholarship.  They were scheduled to the nano-second.  All we wanted was a child who could read and function in the real world, who would grow up to be a happy, well-adjusted, functioning, paycheck-earning, mortgage-paying adult — someday, but not today.  It was the yin and yang of education; either slide the kid along or cram in more than the kid could take.

At 10, The Daughter played the cello and sketched cartoons of cats and dogs and loved “Harry Potter.”  She swam on a “club” team, six days a week. We were advised that she didn’t have much of a chance to get into her “first choice” of high schools, but she applied anyway.  They were the only ones that had both a swim team and an orchestra.  She was accepted at all three.  The day after acceptance letters were mailed, she was accosted in the hallway at school by a classmate.

“I can’t believe you got into [top co-ed high school], and I didn’t,” the girl complained.  “I’m such a great lacrosse player, and you don’t even play.”

“Well,” The Daughter replied, “there are a lot of girls who play lacrosse but not many who swim, I guess.”  That’s my girl!

Parental overachieving got really crazy in high school, where the crazy train started in earnest.  The Veterinarian and I graduated from a large Midwestern state university with its own impressive share of Rhodes Scholars (Go Green!).  Neither of us learned to play an instrument, and I never played a sport.  It never occurred to us that we would send our child to a private school, much less a private or out-of-state college.

The school sent mixed messages.  At a meeting in the spring of her freshman year, school counselors told us that they didn’t believe in the “Advanced Placement” (aka “AP”) courses but claimed that the parents clamored for it.  They told us that students successfully applied and were accepted at wonderful schools.  On the other hand, to obtain a scholarship, they said, the schools wanted to see whether or not a student had tried and succeeded at the highest level possible.  The old Catch-22.  The irony, of course, is that the cost of attending one of these prestigious high schools approximated two years of tuition at an in-state public university.

Deciding to give it a try, The Daughter was enrolled in AP World History, but, within a month, we knew it was a mistake.  She also took honors math and honors French.  After nightly swim and cello practice, she was up until 1 am, studying.  None of us could stand it.  We talked to the AP teacher, who assured us that The Daughter was doing well.  We took her out of honors math, where she was struggling to get a C, but, in regular math, she was getting easy As.  She spent the remainder of the year struggling with the AP class, which turned out to be a nightmare in many ways.  She started SAT-prep classes.  In the spring, we all sat down.

“This makes no sense,” the Veterinarian said.  “You’re a teenager.  You’re supposed to have fun in high school.  All you do is run around from school to swimming to cello lessons and then stay up half the night studying.  You have no free time.”

“No one does, Dad.  Everyone stays up all night.”

“Well, that’s just crazy,” I replied, “You’re miserable.  We have no Ivy League pretensions.  We’re not sending you to an out-of-state college.  Dad and I are well-educated, successful adults.  We didn’t do all this stuff in high school, and you don’t have to go through this wringer to be successful in life.  In fact, if you don’t take time to relax and reflect, you aren’t going to be a successful adult.”

And that’s when we got off the crazy train.  No honors or AP classes, but she did pick up two years of Spanish to go along with her three years of French, pre-Calc, Calc, biology, genetics, an amazing year of Art History, and a semester studying Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.”  She started writing a humorous column on health for the school paper.  Senior year, she applied to in-state schools, with the intention of studying nursing.  Double the horror!  An adult actually said to me,

“What a shame that you sent her to that prestigious high school and all she can do is study nursing at an in-state school.”  (And the woman was a nurse!!!)

Fortunately, she got college credit for World History, but the only other class that would have helped would have been AP Statistics.  As a nursing student, none of the others, not AP English, Chem, Bio, or Calc would have eliminated all of the required credits she needed.

By March of her senior year in college, she had already been offered her dream job in the critical care unit of a major hospital.  Two years later, she lives independently, with a job she loves, a new car, an apartment of her own, and picks up her half of the check when we go out.

What more could an overachieving mother want?

DATE UPDATE:

As my Match subscription winds down, I’ve been checking other sites.  What will I write about, if I don’t stay in the online dating loop?  I would write it off as a business expense, if I was making any money off this blog.

Since eHarmony originally rejected me, I “tricked” it into accepting me under a different email address.  Basically, I described myself as a kind, gentle, well-adjusted woman.  Boring, I know.  I thought I had been successful, but I’m only getting men from out-of-state, so kind, gentle, well-adjusted men must be further flung than I anticipated.  Because I haven’t actually subscribed to its service (eHarmony is the most expensive of the dating sites), I don’t get to see the photos of the prospective dates, but, that’s ok.  I won’t be dating anyone in Albuquerque or Dubuque any time soon.  Really.  There are no boring men within 50 miles of me.

Match has several subsidiaries.  As you may have read, I tried Our Time in November, which was an unmitigated disaster.  Now, I’m trying Chemistry, which is Match’s version of eHarmony’s relationship questionnaire.  As always, I seem to be the — how shall I say it? — unique woman.

According to the questionnaire, my “primary type” is “Explorer,” which means that I

…seek adventures of the mind and senses. You are very curious and creative, and you are willing to take some risks to pursue your interests. Adaptable and optimistic, you can be easily bored when you’re not doing something interesting. You have a lot of energy, and you tend to be spontaneous or even impulsive.

You are more creative than other personality types and usually have a wide variety of interests. You find it easy to focus intently on what interests you, and your enthusiasm promotes motivation and a drive to achieve…

But never, ever, ever overachieve!