Saturday, December 3, 2016

One Hundred Forty-Seven: Ginger Rogers

I took Aunt Ginger to a funeral today. A classmate with whom she had gone to school all twelve years had died and Aunt Ginger wanted to be there. At 87+ years old, Aunt Ginger is starting to be frail and wobbly on her feet. The day is long gone when she could put on her coat, quickly walk the almost four blocks to the funeral home, and walk home, especially on a cold, gray day. Her physical decline, coupled with her advancing dementia, made me call her and say "I will pick you up and take you."

I did not know this classmate, Phyllis, although I had heard about her over the years. I'll give credit to the minister leading the service; he painted such a picture of Phyllis that I felt I did know her by the time the short service was over. The funeral home was crowded and Aunt Ginger sat right in front of me. As the minister recalled this or that story about Phyllis, I could see her head nodding in agreement.

The minister then called for anyone who had a story to stand and share it. One nephew spoke up about Phyllis's kindness to his mother during a lengthy illness and decline. Another family member spoke about Phyllis's lasagna. I stood up and told a story I have heard many times.

I introduced my aunt, explaining that she and Phyllis had gone to school together starting in elementary school. Phyllis's maiden name was Rogers. My aunt, whose proper name is Virginia, had already adopted "Ginger" as her name at a young age. The two would often walk home together. One crossing guard, no doubt a lordly 6th grader, would stop them and demand to know their names.

"What is your first name?," he would say to my aunt.

"Ginger," she would reply.

"And what is your last name?," he would say to Phyllis.

"Rogers," she would say.

He would then make them say "Ginger" and "Rogers" over and over until it was a duet of "Ginger Rogers," before letting them across the street.

When I finished my story, Aunt Ginger turned to the man next to her, who was one of Phyllis's nephews, and said "and that's a true story."

The Ginger Rogers duo stayed friends their entire life, despite taking markedly different paths through life. And today I am grateful I got to bring the surviving member to say goodbye to her partner from long ago.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Inch One Hundred Forty-Six: Biscotti Weather


In the achingly beautiful short memoir, "A Christmas Memory," Truman Capote recalls "my friend," the distant cousin on whom the story centers along with his seven-year-old self, waking on a late November morning and exclaiming "Oh, my...it's fruitcake weather!"

Yesterday I stood at the window, looked outside at the gray November day, and exclaimed, "Oh my, it's biscotti weather!"

Six years ago I wrote about my biscotti baking. I still bake biscotti every year, the circle of recipients widening. Now I bake for the Andrews House Christmas Cupboard, an annual fundraising event by one of our local non-profits doing frontline work among those who are in need. Our Legal Clinic has been hosted by Andrews House for over 13 years, and this is a way for me to say back to the staff and board "thank you." I ship more biscotti out west than I used to: some to my children, some to my extended family of Alise's parents and of Eric and Brandee and their girls. Some will be shipping south; some will be delivered just a few blocks away.

When I blogged about the biscotti in 2010, I included a recipe. While I still follow the same recipe, some of my opinions have changed, so I am setting out below the recipe with April's 2016 editorial comments.

And biscotti even brings me to poetry, including this from last fall:

On Time

I have been baking biscotti
For days now
In a slow rhythm
And shutting down the computer tablet email facebook
Each evening
Trying fiercely to carve out sanctuaries of time.

In the morning
When I come downstairs to make oatmeal
I open the deck door and step outside
In the chill dark
Or the damp
And stand there to try to measure the day
Not to tell the weather
But to make myself more aware
Of the fragility of each day.
Sometimes a lone crow
High in the walnut tree caws.

While I type this
At my office
I think of the deck
And the silence of the morning
And the smell of cinnamon
Lacing the house each evening.

*********************

The Biscotti Recipe

As I noted six years ago, this is not a secret family recipe. No one in my family on either side of the family ever baked biscotti. I can pretty much guarantee that not one of my four grandparents ever even heard the word biscotti, let alone tasted it. Somewhere I stumbled on the recipe, and in a happy moment of serendipity, biscotti became my holiday baked item.

BISCOTTI

1½ cups pecans or almonds*
4 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon**
5 eggs
2 cups sugar
½ cup melted unsalted butter***
1 ½ tablespoons grated orange rind****

Notes on ingredients

*This recipe originally called for almonds. I made it with pecans for years. Either works. I now prefer the almonds, as they make for a more flavorful cookie.

**At a minimum. If I am using what I call OTC cinnamon (the regular, widely available stuff as opposed to more pungent specialty cinnamons), I usually use a heaping tablespoon.

***Using salted butter will not kill this, but it really is better with unsalted. I have never made this with margarine or any other substitute, so I have no experience with using something else.

****Use it if you have it. I used to skip this ingredient entirely. A few years ago I realized it was worth the extra effort to buy some oranges and grate the rind.

Steps

Preheat over to 350°. Prepare 2 baking sheets: I use parchment paper, but you may coat lightly with vegetable spray or Crisco. With parchment paper, I am guaranteed the biscotti will not stick.

Chop (by hand or with food processor) ½ cup of nuts fine (like flour); set aside.

Coarse chop the remainder of the nuts and place in small bowl with flour, baking powder and cinnamon. I usually whisk these ingredients to blend them.

In large bowl, beat eggs on medium speed until fluffy. Add finely ground nuts (the ½ cup), sugar, butter, and orange peel. Beat until blended. Note: I use a mixer through this step.

Stir in flour mixture to form dough. The dough should be fairly stiff and heavy, but not dry. I will use a mixer to start the process, then finish with a spoon. (Note: I have a hand mixer, not a stand mixer. If you have a heavy-duty Kitchenaid or similar workhorse, you may be able to mix everything with your mixer.)

Divide dough into quarters. On well-floured work surface, roll and shape each quarter into a log approximately 12 inches long and 1-2 inches wide. It is like rolling fat "snakes" from clay; dust your hands with flour. Place 2 logs on each baking sheet and bake 25-30 minutes, until "firm in center" per the original recipe. There is no magic to this: 25 to 30 minutes in a stove at 350° will get the desired results. (Note: you can bake both sheets (all 4 logs) at the same time, rotating top/bottom, front/back at 15 minutes. I used to do this, but now bake one sheet of logs at a time. I was reminded why with my first batch, when I doubled up and the bottom sheet became too browned on the bottom. Tasty, yes, but not pretty!)

Let logs cool slightly: 10-15 minutes. While still warm, cut each log diagonally into ½ inch thick slices (or whatever other thickness you desire). Place slices face down on baking sheets (as opposed to on edge). Bake 7-8 minutes; turn slices and repeat on other side. Again, you can bake two sheets of biscotti at the same time; rotating top/bottom, front/back. Depending on your cutting and layout skills, you may get all biscotti baked at the same time. Or you can slow down and stretch out the experience. The individual biscotti can be set close, as they do not spread. Cool on wire rack.

Makes up to 80 cookies a batch, depending on how thick you cut the slices. I tend to get 20 cookies to a log.







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Saturday, November 19, 2016

Inch One Hundred Forty-Five: Madeleine and Me

I did not discover the writer Madeleine L'Engle until my older son Ben, who is now almost 31, brought her books home sometime in elementary school. Even though her earliest works, including her Newberry Award winner A Wrinkle In Time (1962) appeared during my childhood, somehow I managed to make it into adulthood before realizing what a rich literary universe she created with her "Chronos" and "Kairos" series.

Trust me, I made up for lost time.

Because I became a L'Engle fan, I tended to gravitate towards her titles when I came across cheap books or throwaway books. Which is why about 12 years ago, when my friend Linda and I came across some boxes of discarded books during a morning walk, my hands immediately went to a battered hardback of A Swiftly Tilting Planet, the third book in the Kairos series. It was a discard from Brookville High School, worn but still serviceable.

It is a first edition, published in 1978. And, wonder of wonders, it is signed by the author.
For all at Brookville High School—
Ananda—
Madeleine L'Engle
Well, there's glory for you.

I have held onto my signed first edition for all this time, enjoying seeing Madeleine's flourish across the page. I figured finding a signed book randomly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

It turns out I was wrong.

Delaware has started to see a proliferation of Little Free Libraries. Little Free Libraries are a wonderful community project at a grassroots level. They operate on the "take a book, leave a book" principle and Delaware now has a handful of them.

The libraries are mounted in front yards, near a sidewalk, so passersby may stop and explore the offerings. There is four within easy walking distance of here. (I have not yet talked Warren into building and installing one.)

One is very close to the county building in which I work. A few weeks ago, I stopped to scan the titles. There was a paperback version of L'Engle's Troubling a Star, and I took it. It is not my favorite work by her, but I figured I could read it at chemo and recirculate it at another LFL.

The book sat on a coffee table for a week or so before I picked it up to pack it for the day. And that was when I opened the book and found this:



Really?

Madeleine L'Engle died in 2007, but her books live on. In 2011, when I read all the Newbery Award books to date (something I have continued to do since 2011), I named When You Reach Me by Patricia Stead the best Newbery ever, not in small part because it was a beautiful tribute to L'Engle and A Wrinkle In Time.

And I have her beautiful signature flowing across two books, both acquired randomly, both part of my library.

Madeleine and me. Best book friends forever.





Saturday, November 12, 2016

Inch One Hundred Forty-Four: Walking



It's been a hard several days. A week ago Thursday, my friend Kim, chemistry professor, father, husband to my good friend Judy, died of a heart attack at age 56. To say that Kim was well-respected and beloved in this community is the least of it. His memorial service, held yesterday, was SRO.

When a friend dies so suddenly, one's sense of the immediacy and fragility of life is sharpened acutely.

I have been walking a lot lately, walking to clear my thoughts, walking to mute the questions in my mind about my own mortality. We are having a spectacular fall, and I try to get out into it every single day. This morning I walked for an hour, first downtown to deposit a check, then home via several streets in the neighborhood. The morning sky was brilliant blue. Many trees are still holding onto their leaves, and when the sun lights the yellow-gold and red ones up against that sky, it is enough to make me catch my breath in wonder.

As I finish this post, I have just come in from another, far shorter walk. Aunt Ginger lives a block away, and I walked down to check on and visit with her, then walked home. It is late afternoon now and the sun hangs heavy in the west, far to the south. My steps were slower than this morning; I am tired.

My "good enough" garden is in its late fall stage. The border marigolds, mostly between three and four feet tall (yes, feet, not inches) have managed to survive the frosts so far. So have the blanket flowers, planted closer to the back of the garage. The frosts, however, are getting deeper and coming almost nightly now. The day is not far off when there will be one hard killing frost and the garden will be done.

Up until these last few days, as the sun warmed the air, bees of various shapes and sizes could be found in the marigolds, often headfirst in the heart of the bloom, mining whatever remaining bits they could for the long winter ahead. This time of year, the bees are slower and I am able to get close to photograph them without fear of being stung. I wandered outside late morning today; the air, despite the sun, was still chill at noon and there were no bees plying their trade. They may be gone for the year. 

Our Poetry Nights continue. We've added Margo to the group, and may be bringing in one more person. Our evenings are full of poems and laughter and thoughtful discussions. At our second October gathering, reflecting on the bees, I shared this one:

It Is Late October

It is late October
The marigolds are still standing
Despite the frost
The bees are burrowing
Headfirst
Into the marigolds
The bees are slower
Sluggish
Yet labor on against the encroaching winter
Storing up treasures
Not knowing when spring will come again.

It is late October
I too am still standing
Despite the frost
I too am burrowing
Into life
Headfirst
I am slower
Sluggish
Yet labor on against the encroaching winter
Storing up treasures
Not knowing if spring will come again.

I feel a closeness to the bees and the marigolds. I too am in the autumn of my life, with winter coming on. I too am burrowing headfirst into what matters most to me, hoping to store up one more treasure, one more moment, one more sunlit leaf. 

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Inch One Hundred Forty-Three: Words of Wisdom

My "little" brother Mark, with whom I am close, often posts quotes on his Facebook page. Some are observations. Some are inspirational. Sometime he will tag someone—his wife Jackie, one of his adult children, me—in his post.

In October, I suggested to him that we post a quote a day throughout November. Mark accepted and we are off and running.

My advantage is that I have almost three decades of quotes written down in commonplace books I have been keeping since the late 1980s. I am currently filling out volume 4. I sat down two nights ago and went through the volumes, bookmarking quotes I thought would be good. I went through again last night and winnowed out some of the bookmarks, as I reflected further on what I wanted to share. Even with the second read, I still have more than 30 marked, so I should cruise through the month.

Mark's advantage is that he beats me to the computer. I thought he was just an extra early riser, but I discovered this morning that he posts his quote the night before. Either way, that means he gets his quote for the day up way before I do. If we both have chosen the same quote, Mark has first dibs, which is why I will not be posting an Albert Schweitzer quote later this month since Mark used it yesterday. Mark generously suggested that I post my quote the night before too, but I shut off my computer in the early evening and cannot access the internet through my old flip phone. So I will continue to trail Mark, and trust our respective interests range far enough that I won't be foreclosed too much.

My quote today was going to be by E. B. White. But when I woke up and saw that the long-suffering Chicago Cubs had indeed won the World Series, I posted one by Andrea Hairston instead: "Hope is always a guest at our table."

I will no doubt post several quotes about hope this month, as I have captured many on that theme throughout the decades. It was fascinating to see hope recur continuously in different variations, including the White quote that I will use later this month.

Robert Frost wrote "Pretty things that are well said—it's nice to have them in your head." I have them in my notebooks, but I know what Frost meant.

And so does Mark.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Inch One Hundred Forty-Two: One Last Look at the Cost of Eating

I recently posted our September food expenditures, commenting on our eating and shopping habits. The very best response I received came not on the blog itself, but from my close friend Katrina, who wrote in a recent letter: My mother would love your blogs about your food budget—and then she'd try to beat them so I'm glad I didn't have to see that. I turned to Warren and said "June Lofgren was a formidable cook." And she was. Katrina's words brought back a lot of warm memories about her mother and long ago times spent in their home, enjoying June's hospitality.

The same post also brought a pert rejoinder from reader Ellen Goldstein, who commented exuberantly on her own lifestyle choices ranging from parking to food. It was a great glimpse at how she approaches money and budgets, and I grinned when I read it.

All the same, I felt I was being scolded a bit, or at least challenged (as in "oh come on, now") when she wrote "Perhaps having such control over your finances gives [you] satisfaction." 

Ouch! Do I detect a hint that I am a bit obsessed and should lighten up?  

My first comment is that neither my husband nor I go to great lengths to be deliberately frugal. Neither of us hunch Scrooge-like over the ledger, counting the pennies and begrudging the lump of coal for the fire gone cold. Nor are we adopting frugality as a chic lifestyle. It is, as Warren said in response to reading the comments, "just the way we are."

My second observation is that, like Ellen, I do not hesitate to enjoy now what I own rather than setting it aside for some future day that may never come. My case in point is the complete set of gold-rimmed china that my uncle sent his younger sisters from Occupied Japan. My aunt and my mother kept their respective halves of the set boxed and untouched for decades. When I received the entire set, I proceeded to use it, sometimes daily. I was famous in my young mother days for serving toddlers on the china (they never broke a piece); I was famous in later days for hauling it out for pizza.

My third response is that there is an unspoken assumption in the gentle chiding. The unspoken assumption is that I have the means to not have to be concerned about money.

Well.

It has been a long time since I have written about our finances, but here is the short version. We have enough by any standard. We pay our bills monthly; we have no credit debt, not even a mortgage. (The lack of mortgage is because my husband purchased his house out of his parents' estates with a portion of his share, not because we were frugal and paid off a joint mortgage early.) The lights are on, we have heat in the winter, we eat well (if inexpensively), and we have suitable wardrobes.

That being said, we are not flush with extra money. Extra money? We are not flush, period. Both of us have modest incomes. Money is not so tight that spending an extra $100.00 a month on food would sink us, but we would still feel it.

As I type these words, I juggle in my head the financial landscape of the next few months. I am still in the process of replacing my car, presently relying on using Warren's when available or my dad's truck when not. Dad's truck is not a monster gas guzzler, but it still drinks heartily at the pump and my out of pocket gas expenses are higher right now. As soon as we get past the next few weeks, Warren and I can buckle down and search more seriously, but we had to get the season launched (last weekend) and have to get an out of town concert (tonight) over first. Because of jobs and treatment schedules, not to mention how I feel on any given day, our search windows are fairly narrow. I am looking at cars 10-12 years old, preferably under $2500 or, even better, under $2000. That amount will empty my emergency account and I may still end up borrowing from Warren.

Buying the car, a necessity for my job, will push a return trip to Oregon farther into the future.

But wait, there's more. December brings new insurance premium deductions from my paycheck. January resets my out of pocket and annual medical deductibles back to zero. This coming year, both the premiums and the deductibles are higher; the former modestly, the latter by quite a bit. With a trip to Mayo potentially looming in early 2017, I'll be paying some hefty amounts right out of the gate in 2017.

So our money landscape is layered and challenging.

But you know what? I don't care. We have enough. Enough is plenty. Enough means I do not feel deprived. Nor miserly. Nor miserable.

Maybe it is my Depression-era mentality. The stories my beloved Grandma Skatzes told me of raising her family through those years made a huge impression on me as a child. As my Aunt Ginger ages and tells me her memories, she has added even more details and depth to those tales. By the standards of that era, we are flush.

Maybe it is my work at court and with the Legal Clinic. In both environments, I take as a reality that many have to scrape, and scrape hard, to keep a roof over their heads and many more manage to keep food on the table only with the help of our local food pantries. That makes my "enough" look like a fortune.

And maybe it is because I have a lot bigger challenges facing me in the next few months than worrying about money.

In Matchless, a retelling of the Hans Christian Anderson tale, "The Little Match Girl," Gregory Maguire captures what I am trying to say so clumsily: The family was still hard pressed for money, and dreamed of savory treats to eat, but they had the warmth of each other, and enough on which to live, and in most parts of the world that is called plenty.

We have plenty. We always have plenty. And sometimes I serve it up on gold-rimmed china.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Inch One Hundred Forty-One: What's In A Name?

The co-chair of the working group kept addressing the other co-chair by the wrong name throughout the entire teleconference. The former was white, the latter was African-American. (I know this because I have met both of them.) The white woman has a Ph.D. and was addressed as "Dr. Susan" by the moderator. The African-American woman, Shelisa, is from a small Ohio county and is court staff, as are several of us in the working group.

Dr. Susan called Shelisa "Shelist" and "Shelista" and "Shelizza." Not once in the call, which lasted 50 minutes, did she pronounce Shelisa's name correctly.

I doubt that Dr. Susan intentionally mispronounced Shelisa's name. But she certainly did it carelessly. Shelisa did not correct her, but did make a point to say "This is Shelisa..."whenever she spoke during the call.

I wondered after the call whether I should have spoken up and said "Look, can you call Shelisa by her  right name?" But I was too polite and the moment and the call passed. Shelisa, without confronting the issue directly, made sure she introduced herself clearly each time she spoke. She handled the situation in her own style.

I have a saying on my refrigerator: "Speaking up is a choice. And yes, standing on the sidelines is a choice."

During the teleconference, I stayed on the sidelines. Next time I need to choose better.