Saturday, October 18, 2008

Three Cups of Tea

Scratching your head about why many Middle Eastern peoples hate Americans? Many of us are. Ever wonder what it’s really like to be kidnapped by the Taliban or caught in the cross-fire of warring heroin dealers? Maybe not, but getting a true picture, not just how Hollywood might imagine it in a movie, could be educational. Would you like to be a fly on the wall of Islamabad’s Marriott when the world’s press corps arrives? Hmmm, could be interesting to see behind the scenes of TV news.

If you answered yes to any of these questions, or even if you just want to be inspired, read Greg Mortenson’s story told by David Oliver Relin: Three Cups of Tea, subtitled One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time. Since this 2006 book is a New York Times Bestseller, you may already know the story: Mortenson and his nonprofit association Central Asia Institute have built more than 55 schools in the poorest villages of rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. What stirred this passion in Mortenson’s soul?

After a failed 1993 attempt to scale the 28,251-foot mountain K2 in Pakistan, the kind families of a remote mountain village, Korphe, nursed Mortenson back to health. While he was in their village, totally dependent on their care, he was humbled by what they gave him out of their poverty. They wrapped him in the plush silk comforter that was their finest treasure, while they slept in the cold under thin, patched, wool blankets. While Korphe villagers’ daily diet was flatbread chapatti, to honor Mortenson’s presence with them and to nourish his weakness, Haji Ali, Korphe’s nurmadhar, or village chief, ordered one of the precious chogo rabak, or big rams, slaughtered. Mortenson saw how close to hunger these Balti people lived.

Mortenson loved the simplicity of life in Korphe and the custom of venerating elders, which gave him the wind beneath his wings, his mentor Haji Ali. But he also noticed the back-breaking labor it took to irrigate fields and orchards with glacial meltwater. And with little connection to the rest of civilization, children were plagued with lice; goiters and cataracts afflicted every family; and villagers suffered in silence with infected wounds and broken bones. Mortenson had gotten to know these families, and he took his medical kit and nursing skills around the village to help—to the point that he soon became known as Dr. Greg. A telling sign of the villagers’ trust in this foreigner, Dr. Greg, came when he was allowed to touch a woman dying in childbirth in order to save her life.

Mortenson also saw firsthand the corruption and neglect of the Pakistani government. What little money was meant for the Baltistan went to the army, and none came to provide schools for Balti children. In Korphe, the children sat on the ground in the open air, weather permitting, to scratch their lessons in the dirt with sticks dipped in mud and water. There was no teacher. When he was strong enough to go home to California, Mortenson promised Haji Ali that he would build a school for Korphe.

Fifty-five Pakistan and Afghanistan schools later, Mortenson hopes that his schools may well prevent Afghan and Pakistani children from joining the Taliban. With the aggressive oil-money-fueled expansion of madrassas, the success of Mortenson’s hope remains to be seen. At the very least, he has improved the people’s quality of life, connecting remote villages with “civilization” by replacing their yak hair bridge with a safer one, bringing clean water to remote villages, and teaching thousands of children to read, write, and do arithmetic.

Because of this book, the eyes of my heart have peeked inside some Middle Eastern cultures and seen true love conquer fear. Although I cannot reconcile the part of the Koran that calls for ridding the world of infidels, I can see that many Muslims believe that only a shetan, or devil, would carry it to that extreme. Many Muslims are also alarmed by the militant hatred taught in the madrassas. Although I don't condone hatred in either direction, I can’t say that I blame Pakistani or Afghan people for indignant feelings when Americans come to their countries and demand the best Americalike accommodations instead of accepting humbler offerings. If we examine our hearts, we often also think our materialistic ways would suit other cultures better than their own beloved, but primitive in our eyes, customs. We really can be very rude guests.

Mortenson is still climbing mountains, now different from K2, and Three Cups of Tea challenges each of us to take ice axes to the glaciers in our own lives and climb higher. Especially relevant now in light of heightened Middle East tensions, this book should be required reading for Americans. We need to better understand the people we are both dependent on for oil and trying to help be more independent of tyrants and terrorists. This book is a great start toward understanding our differences as well as our common ground as humans.

Let's not just talk about the mountains of cross-cultural adventure, selflessness, compassion for the poor, making education a priority, mutual respect, diversity training, keeping promises, or perseverance in the face of adversity. Read Three Cups of Tea, examine your own heart for the -ice of prejudice and cowardice, then go out with melted heart and steel will to reach out to someone different from yourself.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Questions for the Candidates

First, let me thank Blog University for hosting tonight’s debate between presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain.

My first question is for Senator McCain: Please tell me how your presidency will be like George Bush’s and how it will be different. You have five minutes for your answer.

Next, for Senator Obama: I do not understand why Hamas supports you. Please explain why you think they want you to be president of our country. What would they gain? You have two minutes.

Also for Senator Obama: I wonder if the terrorists’ next attack on domestic soil might be your presidency. Take as long as you like to explain your plan to protect America from nonbomb-related tactics of extremist Muslim jihad goals; your understanding of how close Israel is to the heart of God and the role of Israel in end-times prophecy; your reason for believing finding Osama bin Laden is key to stopping al Qaida’s terrorist plots against us; what you would do about the huge number of radical Muslims being trained in the madrassas; and how you would use your own education in Islam, Catholicism, and Christianity to promote understanding and peace.

Senator McCain: You see Israel as a United States military ally. Is that your only reason for wanting to protect it? If not, what are your other reasons? You have two minutes.

Again, for Senator McCain: Please give me the math. Of the 100 percent of income taxes paid in 2007, what percent was paid by people/families earning less than $10,000, people earning $10,000–$30,000, $30,000–$70,000, $70,000–$100,000, $100,000–$250,000, $250,000 or more? You have two minutes.

And finally, the same question for both of you: You acknowledge corporate greed as a culprit in the current economic meltdown; what about individual greed? What role has it played and how would you address it during your presidency?

Thank you!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Heaven on Earth

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries...
~an excerpt from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem "Aurora Leigh," published 1864

God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footstep in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill;
He treasures up his bright designs,
And works his sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence,
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow'r.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.

~"Light Shining Out of Darkness" by William Cowper (1731-1800)

Thou art every where present...
~an excerpt from Three Prayers by Jane Austen (1775-1817)

...Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven...
~what Jesus taught us to pray, Matthew 6:10

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Waiting Room

When body language experts deem people with crossed arms unwilling to open up, they may not be thinking of the mammography waiting room. In this eight-chair, eight-locker, women’s world, we may be unwilling to uncross our arms, but we strangers seem to be quite willing to open up our emotions to each other. A certain sisterhood forms as we slouch, firmly crossing arms across criss-cross-tied gowns in obligatory mauve—the universal hospital color scheme for women—waiting for our names to be perkily called by a radiology tech.

The newest woman timidly exits a dressing room, clutches her blouse and bra to her chest, and searches for an open locker.

“All these locker lights are blinking,” she says, bewildered.
“The lights on those lockers over there are dark,” I say, pointing to a locker on the other side of the table strewn with homemaking magazines; and another woman nods and turns back to our side of the room.
“What are you here for?” she asks the grimmest-faced woman with the tightest-crossed arms.
“I’m waiting for a biopsy,” she replies. She relaxes her pseudo-bra arms a teensy bit and tries to smile.
“I think so. I, uh, hope so.”
“Oh, I’ve had one of those; it’s not so bad.”
“It should be all right,” biopsy lady murmurs, not very convincingly.

I’m not feeling all that brave myself. Having just been through a mammography a few weeks ago, I am back for another looky-loo at what they call a “thickening.” Probably just the clavical bruise inflicted by one of the machine’s appropriately named “paddles” two weeks ago, I pep-talk myself. On the other hand, I do have a family history of breast cancer … but, I don’t want to go there, to that sudden life-change place. That place where one recent late-August Saturday all the picnickers’ faces were red and flushed from the heat, and the next day they wore sweaters to church. I don’t want my mouth-watering musings to go immediately from homegrown tomatoes to pea soup. That’s what autumn is for, to meander from iced tea to hot cocoa. But if a perky radiology tech is going to flip my life’s switch to the next season, then I guess I’ll have to do more than pretend I’m prepared to fight for my life.

I pick up a magazine with recipes for summer fruit cobblers. The article promises to tell me how a crumble, crisp, cobbler, betty, grunt, and buckle differ—something I’ve always been curious about. Really. Flipping through other recipes, I vow to also make a spinach quiche and stuffed peppers soon. Oh, and here’s another recipe for something I’ve been curious about—red beans and rice. One ingredient, a half-pound of light kielbasa cut into half-moons, strikes me as funny. Or, reminding me of Elizabeth Berg’s description of “living a half-a-banana life,” it could be ominously prophetic of a frightening future. Turning back from that precipice, I wander back to the summerier recipes.

The biopsy lady’s name is called. As she stands up, her feet head toward the perky tech, while her face turns back toward me. She doesn’t want to go, but she has to. Her eyes widen, fill with tears. I wish I’d told her I’d pray for her before she left, but boy I sure pray for her after she’s gone down the hall.

My turn. After fake-smiling through all the way-more-than-this-will-just-be-a-little-uncomfortable smashing, I follow the tech into a consultation room. When she shuts us into this room with heavy, dark wooden desks and big green leather chairs (and no magazines), I am barely breathing. This is a room designed for life-and-death talking. I expect the tech to flip the switch that will catapult me into pea soup. I wish I’d brought a note pad and a friend.

“Everything’s OK!” she crows. “The thickening was just tissue.”
Yeah, probably the clavical bruise, I want to say but bite my tongue.

My blinking locker beeps open. I can go home! As I dress, I am aware of stress draining from each limb. As I spring past the reception counter, I notice its lame little jar of orange, yellow, and green suckers. That really should be a two-gallon jug of dark chocolate Dove promises, you know is what I want to say to the receptionist, but instead I skip right out to the café in the hospital lobby to order a celebratory mocha before I go home. Home! WhooHoo! In the parking lot, I pass a chorus line of different-colored support ribbons dancing across the back of an SUV. I pray they’ll be dancing for biopsy lady when she goes home too.

Friday, August 29, 2008

What a Racket

In my last post, I predicted I would not be writing about the inside of the Harley showroom. Forget that. When all your salt-of-the-earth husband wants for his birthday is Harley stuff, you go. I went today.

When I pulled up to the Harley dealership in my quiet, conservative Honda, I drove past two large motorcycles—and here, you can tell I am not into this, because I can’t even tell you what they looked like, their colors, model numbers, or maybe motorcycle models have names like Accord or Civic (haha), I don’t know. Both cycles were being hovered over by my unanimous vote for Harley-Davidson poster-child and his biker babe. His tawny, craggy face was haloed in snow-white cotton-candy hair. His beer belly bulged under a black shirt with the silver-winged, orange-flamed, Harley-Davidson logo. His bulging bicep boasted the same design in tattoo form. Both he and his lady wore heavy-duty black nylon pants with wide day-glow orange stripes. For night riding? I'm not sure, as I'm clueless about this new world I'm just setting first foot in since Robert began riding a Harley a few months ago.

From my locked car in the spot furthest from any activity, I watched folks come and go for a while. Most were men. One scooted around in an electric wheelchair. I hoped this was not due to a motorcycle accident, a topic that now strikes dread in my heart. In contrast, the intimidating thought of entering a Harley showroom was not so bad. Okay, clutching Robert’s one-inch-thick glossy catalog of Harley-branded accessories to my chest, I plodded toward the wide glass doors. Dressed in my delicate Danskin exercise capris, I felt out of place as I traded places in the doorway with a rather burly woman in Harley T-shirt and black jeans. Whoa … I might as well have entered a museum on Mars.

Timidly I wandered through displays of gifts and toys. Biker Brew coffee. Birthstone heart bracelets. Inch-and-a-half-long dangling, silver, logo-wing earrings. Orange and black logo-flame decals. Neon logo-lamps. Be-logoed beer steins. Motorcycle-decorated photo frames. Stuffed animals wearing Harley-logo clothes. Wooden motorcycle rocking horses (okay, these were majorly cool). Vast logo-clothing section for men, women, and children.

Sidling up to a cash register at a sleek, circular counter, I laid Robert’s catalog next to the ad for applying for a Harley-Davidson Visa card. A grinning young woman leapt to my aid, but then directed me to the Parts Department for anything in the particular catalog I had. (You mean there are more catalogs? This one is an inch thick, for pete’s sake. How could there be more Harley stuff that’s not in this catalog? No wonder Robert won’t carry his hog key on anything but an official hog keychain. Please tell me they don’t make Harley underwear.)

On my way to the Parts Department, I passed sales cubicles reminiscent of an auto showroom. Beyond them, in the back, I could see a sea of chrome handlebars above waves of shiny bike bodies. Above the sales cubicles hung huge posters like the sepia-toned World War II photo of the GI and the beautiful brunette smiling above his shoulder. They were of course, zooming around on a motorcycle. The caption read: The Mighty Harley-Davidson. The mighty mystique makers, I would say.

At the Parts Department counter, I wondered if perhaps I should change my poster-child vote. If the white-cotton-candy-haloed man outside in the parking lot had embodied the everyman’s-midlife-crisis stereotype, the man who waited on me was my idea of the hell’s angel stereotype. His head, from the crown of his buzz-cut to his neck, if he had had one, was red. His most prominent tattoo, when I finally had the guts to look at the details, made me blush and swallow hard. If I’d encountered this man in a dive, I would have had to remind myself to breathe as I backed out of the bar. Then I would have run for my life. (I tried to imagine this guy as yet another Harley stereotype, a salt-of-the-earth, gentle giant nuzzling his precious child, or even riding the largest, loudest be-teddy-beared Harley in the Toys for Tots parade. Really I did. No luck. The beer-guzzling image stuck.) Few words were exchanged. He barely grunted as I pointed to the catalog items Robert had circled. He just wrote part numbers down on a slip of paper and lumbered away.

While waiting, I soaked up more Harley ambiance—screamin’ guitars piercing the air, a rack selling at least ten different magazines for bikers (my favorite title was In the Wind), I-Pass Glasses (those Harley folks think of everything). The backdrop of this area said it all: 15 different chrome tailpipes mounted on the wall. One type of tailpipe will not do the job? Poor Robert, to be married to a gal who just doesn’t get it.

I will say, however, that after exiting the Harley showroom, I was mighty thirsty for the cold beverage I’d brought with me in the car. So I sank into the safe seat of my meek mild Honda and twisted the jagged metal cap off my bottle of diet sparkling black-cherry (organic) green tea with my bare hands, without even wincing at the two puncture wounds in my palm.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

A Day of Firsts

Today marked the closest I’ve been to a Harley dealership. From my spot outside the service department, I heard enough motorcycles sounding as though they’d eaten way too many baked beans that I don’t know if you’ll ever read about my first time inside a Harley showroom or paraphernalia shop or backward-bandana-tying classrooms or whatever else they have there.

More firsts: breakfast at Lambs’ Farm and long, fun visit to their pet shop, including my introduction to a wide variety of cross-breed dogs like Morkies and several names ending in –Poo. (There’s got to be some symbolism there.) Today was the first time I’ve worn my new aqua shirt without accidentally squirting a mocha frappé on it. First time I’ve shown up at the café for the French meetup and no one else came. Today I harvested my very first homegrown garlic—five whole bulbs—and remembered to plant a fall crop of lettuce.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

For the love of South Haven

I’d wanted a book signing in South Haven, because after all, my novel is partly set there. I figured folks there might like the connection. What I didn’t anticipate was the intensity of the connection.

When did I first go there—1988? The first time, I went because a friend invited me and some other girls to her aunt’s cottage. Why did I go back the following year? And the next? And some years twice? I don't know. Now, 20 years later, I still eagerly anticipate my South Haven pilgrimage and all its simple rituals, from walking (savoring hometown ice cream) down to the lighthouse to watch the sunset, to picking blueberries and peaches, and everything in between.

Each year I like to visit, at least mentally, places I have memories of. The road leading to the cottage I rented the summer a niece and nephew came up for the first half of the week and 11 friends came up for the second half? Hey, it’s still a dirt road. I love glancing at the blue stained glass window of our honeymoon room in a lovely B&B as I drive by. Oh, and here’s where we sat to watch the drawbridge go up. And there’s where the Tall Ships were the year we camped with friends at the KOA. Oh, and that picnic on the bluff above the beach was such a beautiful day. Certainly there have been changes to the town and some of its traditional sights. But the feeling of the town remains.

I have no words to describe that feeling. But I know I’m not alone in feeling it. At the book signing, people approached my table on the sidewalk outside the bookstore, sat down, leaned forward with an elbow on the table, and poured out their falling-in-love-with-South-Haven stories. One couple drove up once from Indianapolis and have spent 3 weeks a summer here ever since. One woman came once on a fluke, came back every year for 15 years, and finally bought a house here, where she commutes on weekends from Toledo.

The day of my book signing was a grand day. The rain was relentless. Streets and sidewalks were slick and shoppers soaked. Car tires sizzled by and flip-flops slapped against the sidewalk. Umbrellas of every color and design and shiny yellow ponchos bobbed along as people moseyed from shop to shop. Rain dripped from awnings, benches, and branches. Crystal droplets hung from Italian lights, which themselves looked like crystal droplets. The South Haven scene I saw from my little dry spot in front of the bookstore was wet, wet, wet—not exactly an ideal day in a beach and boating town. Yet people’s faces were all smiles, smiles, smiles. I guess any day is a good day to be in South Haven. Although I can’t explain this, I’m very glad to have heard the stories of others who share the feeling.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


... phphpht go the dictionary pages during another quick lookup. As I phphphlip past page headings, "hidey-hole" always makes me smile. Hidey-hole. This thick, thumping authority, this noxious know-it-all, supercilious Scrabble settler, this lister of words like repecharge also lists hidey-hole. I can almost see this cosmopolitan, tuxedoed, bow-tied tome, its beady black eyes squinting down its pince-nez at me; I can almost hear its stentorian "Do you mean to tell me you don't know what a cherimoya is?" I feel stupid for only a second. Because then I spy its belly button exposed below its cummerbund: hidey-hole. There goes the intellectual edge. We can be friends again.

(Higgledy-piggledy is further down the hidey-hole page. Mr. Webster must have dipped his quill into the bubbly instead of the inkwell when he penned that page.)

Monday, May 5, 2008

Signs of Spring

A month or so ago, I treated myself to new gardening gloves. I go through about a pair a year, especially if they’re cheap. I seldom get around to washing them, because it’s a nuisance to soak and scrub enough mud off before tossing them in the washer. I have washed gardening gloves, but then they come apart at the seams, especially if they’re cheap. In just a month’s time, my new, cheap, gloves have had a workout—planting two rounds of seeds in the basement and mega-weeding outside. They also kept my hands warm during chilly days of garden cleanup. Well, warm is a relative term, especially in early spring in Chicago. Because I was wearing gardening gloves, my fingers felt as though they’d been handling ice cubes, rather than dry ice. They were only painful enough to be run under warm water for five minutes, as opposed to needing to be treated for frostbite in the ER. Springtime in Chicago is a real test of patience. But gardening gloves help.

About two weeks ago, during fickly warm teaser temps, I optimistically washed my winter parka and put it away. A few days later, my brrrrrrrrrrrrr’s while walking into church elicited a practical question from my husband: “Why didn’t you wear a coat instead of that sweater?” I stubbornly announced that it was spring and I would not be wearing my parka any more until fall. All that April wintry week I caught flak for not wearing the parka. As I left the house to walk the dog, my husband commented, “I thought you said you weren’t going to wear a coat.” My response? “A turtleneck sweater, sweatshirt, hooded sweatshirt, and windbreaker do NOT count as a coat!” As I said, in early spring in Chicago, we measure warm against what we’ve just been through. The winter of 2007-08 was brutal and tenacious, as evidenced by snow on April 28 and the two late-April days of steady, icy 38 mph winds with gusts even higher.

Yesterday was a perfect spring day, warm by anyone’s standards, sunny, and with just a light breeze. My five glorious gardening hours were marred only by those teeny bugs with no radar. But if spring is finally here, gnats are just a nit. Notice I said if.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Play’s the Thing

Three plays in three weeks. Oh joy!

Seasons tickets this year to Chicago Shakespeare at Navy Pier and Writers Theatre in Glencoe have brought many enjoyable evenings, two in recent weeks. Last week we also sandwiched in one play at Northlight Theatre in Skokie.

Had Writers Theatre’s As You Like It been a film production, I would have snapped up the DVD in the lobby on my way out of the theater. If the run hadn’t been ending, I would have gone to see it again. The actresses played with flirtatious glee the roles of Rosalind and Celia—Ganymede and Aliena—and then again Rosalind and Celia. At play’s end, we saw four weddings and restoration of the exiled duke, (a refreshing change from the main characters lying dead on the stage at play’s end, a frequent Shakespeare ending). My enjoyment of this play extended far beyond its happy ending though. The Forest of Arden, the setting for most of this pastoral comedy, appealed to my aging-hippie sensibilities. What’s not to like about the simple lives of this ragtag bunch of flower children singing and strumming guitars around campfires and sharing their food with strangers? Shakespeare’s lines were consistently funny. And last but certainly not least, brilliant actor Larry Yando’s punk-haired, trench-coated, beat-poet portrayal of Jaques invented a new oxymoron: melancholic glee. In a word, this production of As You Like It was delightful.

The ham in my recent Shakespeare sandwich was the world premier of Better Late at Northlight. This aptly named play told of delayed acts of love that turned out to be—not too late—but better late than never. The story, with just four characters, was fairly simple but contained by my count, six better-late acts of love. Veteran actors John Mahoney and Mike Nussbaum played the former and current husbands of one woman, who arranges for them all to live in the same household while the ex-husband recovers from a stroke. Meanwhile, her son agonizes over his marriage, and her two husbands offer wisdom gained from their failures in life and love. This play, despite its many redeeming qualities, suffers from a pacing problem. The first third was hysterically funny—I mean a laugh-a-minute hysterical—the middle third was flat, boring story development, and the final third was a bittersweet, though satisfying, ending. Better Late is neither tragicomedy nor comitragedy—it’s more like a midlife mood swing. The other disappointment was that as meaty and intelligent as 95% of the writing was, the writers couldn’t have found nonobscene words for the actors to express anger and disappointment. Having said that, however, I would encourage people to see Better Late for its wit and wisdom. Don’t be too late—its run at Northlight ends May 11.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s The Comedy of Errors was simply brilliant. Again, seeing a Shakespeare comedy was refreshing. What a comedy of errors it was! Not one, but two, sets of twins, separated at birth find themselves at Ephesus at the same time. Imagine Antipholus of Ephesus’s and Dromio of Ephesus’s chagrin when Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse show up in Ephesus. Slapsticky confusion reigns until the mystery unravels and the separated twins reunite. Elevating the funny factor is the fact that the Shakespeare play is being filmed in a British movie studio next door to a munitions factory during World War II. That screenplay was written by Ron West. The lucky audience gets to doubly laugh as the actors and director iron out their personal and professional difficulties with melodramatic élan, replete with flouncing capes and arched-eyebrow exaggerations. All performances were spectacular, but I must say Ross Lehman’s portrayal of the film director Dudley Marsh and Dromio of Syracuse was nothing short of transcendent. From Dudley Marsh’s visionary directing and witty, clever handling of his prima donna film stars, through his own profound grief as his actress wife finds passion with a fellow actor, to his silly Harpo Marxish Dromio, Ross Lehman carried me through a wide range of emotions, as only Pachelbel's Canon in D can do~well, okay, Yanni can too. Somewhat like a constant fresh breeze with gusts up to 30 mph, this zany play within a play kept up the steady laughs with occasional laughs so hard we were holding our stomachs and slumping our heads on our friends’ shoulders. And doubling the fun—the actors seemed to be enjoying themselves just as much as we were.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Easy to tell why gigantic red California strawberries are dirt-cheap at our Illinois chain grocer this week. They feel like cardboard on my tongue and taste like—well, if I have to guess something besides cardboard, I’d say zucchini. I tossed these strawberry slices with orange juice in our fruit salad tonight, just so they might pick up some fruitlike taste by osmosis. My ruse did not work.

Hard to wait for the little, just-greening, trefoil, notch-leafed strawberry plants outside our back door to fill out, flower, and produce their sweet, succulent, ruby-colored, heart-shaped fruit whose strawberry sensation spreads through your entire mouth—almost melting the moment it touches your lips.

Today I thawed a jar of strawberry jam I made two summers ago when I was picking more strawberries than we could eat then. I hope the jam will tide us over for another month or so until we again have our own strawberries to savor. My husband won’t even eat store-bought tomatoes because their taste is not worth the cost or the bother to even open his mouth and stuff one in. We’re out of the rich, lively tomato sauce he made several summers ago when we were harvesting more tomatoes than we could eat then. It will be a really long wait until we can even begin this year’s tomato vigil in the garden—April to August seems like an eternity.

The Oxford University Press recently named locavore word of the year. Now that I know what a locavore is, I can see I’m gradually becoming one—perhaps not for all the right reasons, but at least for some of them. Every year another vegetable gets added to my list of foods I want to either grow, buy at a farmer’s market, or I prefer not to eat them. Last year, garlic made the list. The garlic I bought at farmer’s markets was robust with a heady fragrance and fresh flavor that called to mind images of rolling Tuscan countryside—and I’ve never even been to Tuscany. The garlic from the store smells spent and tastes “off” by comparison, calling to mind the dank hold of a slow boat from China.

Reasons to be a locavore? Taste is the biggie for me. Broccoli that’s tender and bright and blossoms in my mouth is motivation for my aching bones to get out there and nurture my soil. By the way, you wouldn’t want to put butter on my homegrown broccoli, whereas you need butter or orange sauce or something just to choke down tough store-bought broccoli. When my aching bones have aged to the point when I can no longer grow my own broccoli, I’ll be plenty motivated to join a CSA to continue enjoying homegrown produce.

Eating organically grown fruits and vegetables is my next most important reason. Contributing to a healthy environment by removing myself from the demand for products that take slow boats from China or long truck rides from Mexico to get here is moving up my list of reasons too. Although this next reason is not last on my list, I’m not sure I can explain it very well: The simplicity of digging in dirt, relying on the land, feeling close to nature is quite winsome, and the satisfaction of eating what you’ve grown or people you know have grown is fulfilling in an elemental way.

Two authors who have expressed this simplicity and satisfaction beautifully and better than I could ever hope to are Barbara Kingsolver in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Wendell Berry in Jayber Crow. Also, the French, with their potagers (kitchen-gardens), really do this locavore thing right.

I’m not ready to join Barbara Kingsolver’s family and commit to eating only locally grown food, but I’m happy to be a locavore to the degree that I am and will cheer on this trend in my home and in the food culture of our country.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

A New Trick

I have to laugh. We live in a very friendly neighborhood where everybody waves to everybody. If someone doesn’t wave at you, he probably doesn’t live here. My dog Charlie and I walk at least once every day it isn’t raining—that’s a lot of walks and a lot of waving. Today the warm spring sun seemed to suck people out of their houses. The ’hood was swarming with folks, so today when Charlie and I were trotting along, I did a whole lot of waving. What made me laugh was remembering something embarrassing about our walks and waving.

Charlie turned 5 in January, and it took me until this winter to figure out a new way to do this. Here’s what I always did. I’d click Charlie’s leash on him, wrap the loop around my right wrist and grab the leash tightly in my right hand. In case he gallops into runaway locomotive mode toward another dog, I want my stronger arm attached to him. Okay, so when he pooped, I’d tie his little treasure in a bag and continue walking with the bag in my left hand. Then a neighbor would drive or walk by and, of course, wave at us, and I’d wave back with, of course, my left hand, since my right arm was taut trying to rein in my charging rhino. In essence, my standard sidewalk greeting for 5 years has been holding up my dog’s excrement to my neighbors.

What’s worse, it was so second-nature to wave that I didn’t think about it until it was too late, and I had once again dangled a stinking sack in a neighbor’s direction. It usually dawned on me just as I was giving my wrist that little howdy flick, because that would cause the pendulous pouch to swing. (I can just picture Mr. Bean doing this with his hapless, endearing, smeary, mime smile—only he would probably stuff the sack in his pocket or smash it into his forehead when he realized what he’d waved with.)

My logic was: I have two hands and two things to hold, so one goes in each hand, right? It only makes sense. Finally, this winter, I had one too many oops moments and determined to find a different way. During one of our winter wonderland walks, it dawned on me that I could hold two things in one hand (what a brainstorm, eh?), and I began lacing the clean end of the bag through the fingers holding the leash. This leaves my left hand free to wave without insult. At the time, I thought my solution was brilliant; now it seems so obvious. Anyway, I have to laugh. There’s probably a joke in this story somewhere—you know, maybe about teaching an old dog mom new tricks. :-)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Renoir Quote

The pain passes but the beauty remains.

Pierre Auguste Renoir said this. Toward the end of his life, Renoir's aged, arthritic fingers curled stiffly inward. Emaciation caused such tenderness of skin that a paintbrush handle would bruise him. To pursue his passion, however, he found a way to paint. After his helpers carried him to where he would be painting each day, they placed a linen cloth in the hollow of his hand so that his twisted fingers could grip the brush. This was the context for "The pain passes but the beauty remains."

This quote tends to remind me of legacies. Because Renoir persevered through his pain to create paintings, we can enjoy that beauty today. On a less famous but no less important level, Renoir's quote applies to the grandma who grieved the loss of all her friends, her only son, and her mobility and eyesight toward her own end, but who all the while bestowed upon her grandchildren countless gifts of time and attention that will forever whisper to them: "You are much loved." Or to every sacrifice made by every mom and every dad to build their children's character and provide them learning opportunities.

Renoir's observation also encourages me in daily difficulties (which can be thought of as legacies in the making), such as a tough confrontation that risks my being disliked in order to communicate love or truth. I can trust that a sacrifice made with a right motive will bring good in the long run, even if expressing an unpopular perspective hurts in the short run.

There are lots of kinds of beauty. Creating it often involves pain. One fair and insightful question that can be asked of everyone is: What do you do with your pain? May the answer often be: Create beauty.