Bumper Stickers

They came in the mail this week and they’re still lying on the kitchen table. Bumper stickers supporting a gubernatorial candidate my husband and I both believe in and support. To be honest, I’ve been hesitant to put one on my car. I’m afraid of my tires being flattened, my doors being scratched or having an obscene gesture directed towards me while sitting in traffic. Four years ago, I had a bumper sticker supporting that same individual and I wasn’t afraid to display it. Now, I am, and that makes me sad.

I can remember in elementary school my classmates and I wearing those little tin buttons supporting our parents’ favorite candidate. (Yes, I’m old enough to remember wearing one for Barry Goldwater.) My parents would argue politics with our staunchly Democratic neighbors over beer and steamed clams on Friday nights, but it was all in good fun. Everyone stayed friends and agreed to disagree. There was no anger, no ugliness.

My high school best friend and I were wannabe journalists and often talked about what we read in the newspapers that arrived on our families’ doorsteps. In those days, the morning paper supported Democrats and the evening paper skewed Republican. We learned a lot from each other’s perspectives and never dreamed of politics as something hurtful or frightening.

Lancaster Newspaper bag (2)

When I was teaching, student-run mock elections were held during Presidential election years. The social studies teachers organized conventions and campaigns where the candidates made speeches, the hallways were plastered with posters (which were seldom defaced or graffitied) and we all got into the spirit of teaching kids how democracy works. I suspect that is no longer done because too many parents would complain.

I know, I know, politics has been a dirty business since the days of George Washington. I’m sure there was a smoke-filled back room filled with drunken men yelling and screaming at each other when they drafted the Declaration of Independence. Many of our leaders, even those who have been revered, we now know were flawed and morally corrupt. But they still managed to get the job done without driving a spike of bitterness and hatred into the heart of our country.

I am not a confrontational person. I tend to play my political and religious cards close to the vest. I don’t want to offend anyone, and yet that stance puts me in the position of the one being offended, especially when I am constantly bombarded with messages that make me cringe, that make me drop my jaw in utter disbelief that another person can truly support vile and repulsive behavior in the name of political gain.

I listened recently to a sermon online entitled “Remember to Fight,” in which the pastor reminded us that sometimes the ubiquitous “hanging in there” until things get better is not always the answer. That passivity only goes so far. That danger lurks in too much politeness, in always staying out of the fray and letting fear win out. That sometimes you need to go right smack into the pissing contest with a skunk even if you get sprayed, otherwise the skunk keeps you cowering in your house.

I need to speak up in support of people who I believe have integrity and decency and speak out against those who do not, even if that means occasionally offending someone. I need to put that bumper sticker on my car.

Breakfast with the Russians

I sat at my breakfast table today with two professional Russian singers and discussed the choral pronunciation of “across the wide Missouri” from “Shenandoah.” My husband and I explained what a schwa vowel was and how American singers approach diphthongs. Between bites of cinnamon muffins and sips of coffee, we introduced them to Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria” on You Tube, a piece they had never heard, and which seemed to interest them as possible repertoire for their superb quintet, “Lyra.” They listened to our chorale’s version of “Silent Night,” which is what prompted the discussion of diphthongs and schwa vowels. As our dogs begged for food at the table, one of the singers talked about his dogs, a dachshund and one he described as a philosophical Pomeranian, given more to contemplation than hyperactivity.

Lyra performed gorgeous sacred music from the Russian Orthodox tradition along with delightful folk tunes, as part of our church’s concert series this weekend. Sixteen of us went to out to dinner afterwards where we introduced the singers to the joys of crab cakes and fresh fish. We ate together and drank together and figured out how to understand each although they were quite fluent in English. They loved the restaurant meal and were so grateful not to be fed lasagna. Again. We learned about their families and how they handle being away from them for weeks at a time. Everyone circulated around the table, so we could all interact and learn and laugh. Even the waitstaff seemed to enjoy serving us.

Yes, this is another example of connecting through music, but the point is connecting. In our current atmosphere of spending so much energy on hating and fearing people who are different from us, it felt good to hear voices speaking with an accent, to listen to each other’s stories. To step away from the madness and share pictures of children and pets on our phones. To help someone figure out a restaurant menu and explain the difference between rockfish and grouper and what a crab cake is. No one mentioned politics. There was no need. We were too busy enjoying each other’s company.

Our breakfast companions left us today with grateful hugs, a beautiful calendar of scenes from Russia and an invitation to visit their country  We thanked them for sharing their incredible talent and wished them well on their journey. As I went on with my tasks for the day, I was again reminded that there is powerful hope in music and in raising our heads out of the sand, even briefly, to hear the songs of others. As Anne Lamott says, “Grace bats last,” and we are all in this together.

The Anti-Cookbook

I am a cookbook junkie. I read them like novels and enjoy cracking open a brand-new cookbook almost as much as eating a great meal. I keep a wall full of my favorites right in the kitchen and have others stashed away that have sentimental value or contain a beloved recipe. I am fickle—binging on some for a few years, then shipping them out to the rummage sale and moving on to newer, trendier ones.

My cooking has evolved with the times—from those Pillsbury Classic magazines of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s  to Pampered Chef recipes to the community cookbooks produced by various organizations as fundraisers. Currently, I like Barefoot Contessa and Southern Living. I will use Pioneer Woman when I’m cooking for a crowd and don’t care about the calories. I love Ann Bryn’s “Cake Doctor,”  “Dinner Doctor,” and “What Shall I Bring?” cookbooks which contain creative and easy recipes with wide audience-appeal. Smitten Kitchen if I’m feeling adventurous. Of course, now I’m just as likely to google recipes on the phone as search through a cookbook.

I developed an adventurous palate growing up. I ate whatever was put in front of me because my mother would announce in no uncertain terms that she “was not running a diet kitchen.” Her cooking tended toward the regional cuisine of well-cooked meat and potatoes along with, for that era, a surprising amount of fresh fish and seafood. My dad didn’t cook but would bring things home like marinated herring and ruby-red borscht from a Jewish deli, and a syrupy Moravian cake from a tiny bakery in a nearby town. He always encouraged me to sample things from his plate and order from the adult menu in restaurants. I have been told that I once ordered my own crab cake when I was still in a booster seat. I thought nothing of eating shad roe wrapped in bacon, common on 1960’s restaurant menus, and slurping down steamed clams. I insisted that my beef be cooked rare and still do. I would happily eat dinner at my best friend’s house on Friday nights when there was a guarantee of fried fish or seafood. “Please eat my scallops for me,” she would beg. “They’re like eyeballs.”

However, I do have some iron-clad rules. I do not eat melons, oysters or any kind of organ meat. I have issues with eggs—they must be thoroughly cooked in either scrambled or hard-boiled form, nothing in between. Ever. I do not care for anything burned, even if it’s supposed to “to bring out the caramelization.” I have been known to remove even the slightest amount of darkened crust from a piece of toast. I am not a fan of seeds. Seeds are for birds, and they have a sort of back-taste that bothers me. (Not to mention that the dinner table stories told by my grandfather, a small-town physician, always led me to believe that an errant seed could lodge in your appendix causing it to become inflamed and rupture.)

Which brings me back to cookbooks. I recently bought two new ones while surfing Amazon for a craft  book on writing because, naturally, I wanted to qualify for free shipping. The first book is a work of art, entirely focused on vegetables prepared in their season and filled with enticing but accessible recipes that bring out the flavor of the vegetable itself. I already made a corn sauté that was wonderful and easy.

The second one was described in online reviews as “life-changing,” “the cookbook I will use forever,” with recipes requiring “minimal technique,” and “no pretense.” The writing is delightful, and like in many of the newer publications, the author teaches and shares personal anecdotes instead of just throwing a recipe down on a page.

But, alas, I knew I was in trouble when the earliest chapters instructed me to keep things like “crunchy chili oil,” “everything seed mixture,” “fresh za’atar,” and “yuzu kosho” (google them—not available at Giant) in my pantry to use in the recipes. Grapeseed oil. Aleppo pepper. And ground sumac. Since when did sumac evolve from that terrible stinking weed that causes a rash far worse than poison ivy into an herb to enhance chicken?

The author appears to be obsessed with anchovies, seeds, soaking things in vats of olive oil, and Lord, have mercy, eggs in some kind of semi-cooked form plopped onto just about every salad and entrée. Turn a page and there’s yet another photograph with the cyclops eye of a fried or poached egg glaring back at you from atop a pile of greens soaked in anchovy-infused olive oil, scattered with a buckshot of seeds.

I know my way around an upscale restaurant menu and love to visit cutting-edge eateries on our occasional trips to New York, but most of these recipes stopped me dead in my tracks of culinary enthusiasm. Fried lentils and chickpeas, crispy squid, lamb and garlicky yogurt, (ok, maybe I’d taste that, but I have social issues with eating lamb) figs and persimmons paired with blue cheese. Everything highly spiced and seeded and egged. Tender carrots roasted to utter blackness, zucchini baked in heavy cream. Barley porridge followed by a kimchi omelet and cantaloupe with arugula and black olives for breakfast. I don’t think there is a single recipe in the book that a child or someone with a cautious palate would eat except for maybe a few of the desserts which look lovely, especially since they don’t include anchovies.

I am sure this is a cookbook that many will savor and enjoy, and I am in no way disparaging the author, a nationally-renowned chef whose recipes have become internet sensations. It’s beautifully written and photographed, and I might try a recipe or two that does not involve seeds or eggs, (anchovies may be negotiable.) Some of the desserts are definitely worth a shot.  But, for me, this is the anti-cookbook, the one I would cook from if I ever got serious about losing weight.

cookbook 2

Rental Nights

If you have a child who ever played a band or string instrument, you’ve probably been through a rental night. The school (if they have a decent program) offers an opportunity for children and their families to explore various instruments and register for lessons and instrument rentals. I’m sure my music educator colleagues would agree that rental nights make parent-teacher conferences seem like a day at the spa.

Even though I’m retired, I still go back to my old school district and help with sizing youngsters for string instruments. I measure arms, get little fingers plucking strings, adjust cello and bass endpins, and explain to parents what to expect when living with a beginning violinist. Same thing I’ve done for almost forty years, except now I  don’t have to get up the next morning and figure out how to work one hundred beginners into a two-day schedule, group them by instrument, and make sure they don’t miss math.

Rental nights are an exhausting mish-mash of hope and excitement and apprehension against a backdrop of buzzing mouthpieces, squealing clarinets, and scratching strings. Most kids are over the moon about starting an instrument but have no concept whatsoever of how much work is involved. The potential drummers all want to be rock stars and the violinists think they’ll be playing Devil Went Down to Georgia in two weeks. Some know exactly which instrument they want to play, some want to try them all and some have no clue why they’re even there. I can almost predict who’s going to make it and who’s going to be GBT. (Gone by Thanksgiving.)

For the most part, parents are as excited as the kids. Phones pop out to video little Emily holding a one-fourth size violin for the first time. I meet former students proudly bringing their own children, so they can have the same experience in band or orchestra that they had growing up. Every so often, though, you get a nasty parent. Someone is angry when you tell them their child cannot play grandpa’s full-sized violin (with no bridge and a hairless bow) and thinks you’re trying to spend their money by insisting they rent a half-size. This week a dad lit into me because the school only offers classical training instead of jazz. Classical music is nothing but a boring waste of time, and he should know because he played with Maynard Ferguson and arranged music for Spirogyra in the eighties. I had a mother several years ago whose daughter had no left forearm past her elbow. When I gently suggested that violin might not be the best option, mom silenced the room by shouting at the top of her lungs, “Are you saying my child can’t be in this program because of her disability?”

But grumpy parents are the exceptions. Rental nights are all about the maybes, the why nots, the who-would-have-thought-its. The chance for a lonely child to find a best friend in the back of the second violins. The child whose heart is set on playing the flute but who simply cannot make even a whisper of a sound on the head joint and then wails like Maynard on a trumpet mouthpiece.  A shy child bursting  into a smile the first time she bows the violin. The young man who at age nine, informed his family of athletes that he was going to be a musician and is currently principal violist of a major university orchestra. The wiry little guitar-player I met this week who played “Smoke on the Water” on each string of a one-eighth bass the first time he had it in his hands. In tune.  

Rental nights, warts and all, offer children and their parents a chance to step into the unknown, to crack open the door and peek into to a world shining with possibility. They give them a chance to say, yes, I think I could do this. I want to blow the horn, grab the bow, tap a rhythm on the practice pad, hug the cello. The sound of this instrument makes me happy and feels like something that’s been missing from my life, something I need.  I know I’ll have to practice, and I’ll whine and say I want to quit by January, but I won’t. I will march on the football field, go on the trip to Disney World and play in the orchestra at graduation wearing my cap and gown. My instrument, who I will name Tabitha or Leonard, will teach me that wonderful things happen when you practice and that you shouldn’t quit when it gets hard.

The Sewing Box

I sewed a button on a pair of shorts today, which was a momentous event. Simple mending at our house  can linger for months, perhaps years, just like clothing that needs to be ironed. I have found myself ironing a sleeveless blouse on a snowy day in February, simply because the OCD part of me can no longer stand to see it hanging wrinkled and abandoned, in the back of my closet.

I despise sewing and have no skills whatsoever with a needle and thread, despite the best efforts of my mother and grandmother to teach me. I can remember the hideous maroon jumper that I hemmed with scotch tape for a high school Home Economics project (that’s what it was called back in the day) which caused me to receive the only failing grade of my school career.

When I must sew on the occasional button, I grit my teeth and stitch through those little holes with a vengeance, anchoring it with an ugly glob of thread on the inside of the material. You better stay on this time, damnit! Anything beyond a button goes to the magical hands of the lovely seamstress at the dry cleaner.

I still use my mother’s little sewing box—a battered green tin once containing “Bowers Old Fashioned Creamy Mints, manufactured by Earle S. Bowers in Philadelphia” a company that according to Google, was in its heyday in the 1940’s. Nestled inside are two spools of cotton thread from McCrory’s, one of those great discount emporiums of the past and a cardboard packet of needles that came from Food Fair. There is the standard tomato of a pin cushion and a spool containing a yellowed strip of ribbon printed with my childhood last name, which I suspect was sewn into coats and sweaters to avoid confusion in the kindergarten cloakroom.  There is a tiny scissors and a thimble or two and an embroidered “R,” one of my mother’s initials from a mink jacket she owned. During the last year of her life, she removed her initials from the jacket, replacing them with mine.

My mother died in 1980 and I am still using her mending supplies, partly because I do so little sewing, there’s never been a need to purchase anything new. Fifty-year old needles and thread still work. I guess you can buy sewing supplies on Amazon now, but the five and ten was more fun.

I wonder how many junk drawers that little candy tin sewing box has been stowed in over the years. I wonder how many bell bottom jeans, polyester dresses and leisure suits were hemmed or repaired from its contents.  I can still see it on the table beside my mother’s chair, where she sat in the evening, doing a little mending while she sipped her Carling Black Label and watched Bonanza or Perry Mason.

It’s ironic that something as ordinary and mundane as an old candy tin filled with supplies for an activity I detest, connects me to the parent who has been gone from my life for so long. That once or twice a year, when I grudgingly open that sewing box and rummage around for a needle and thread, my mother comes back to me.

Naked Ladies

They magically appear in mid-August. Rogue flowers that look like some kind of miniature lily. Delicate pink faces on a smooth, crisp leafless stem, which I suppose explains why they’re called “naked ladies.” I never planted them and even when I thought I dug out all the bulbs in our front bed, there they are–incorrigible little beauties. They pop up in clumps of two or three in random places, bloom for about a week and along with the increasingly frenzied sound of the cicadas, remind me that summer’s almost over. That for those of us who are governed by the school year, the dreaded Sunday night of August is officially here .

For only the second time since I was five years old, I will not be going back to school this year. Our stint as part-time teachers is over, and that’s ok. We accomplished what we set out to do. But we still feel that sense of coming down the home stretch to Labor Day, of anticipating foggy early mornings walking into spider webs on the porch, driving home in oppressive late afternoon heat and watching the darkness arrive a little sooner each evening. The pool has grown bathwater-warm, my hanging baskets that were so lush in May are now straggly and tired, and my husband’s beloved Orioles should probably just forfeit the season and start over again next spring.

It had been a typical summer until last week when something happened that caused a seismic shift in our perspectives. In what we take for granted. In what we assume will never happen. When the phone rings because a close friend doesn’t show up for work and we are an emergency contact. When several of us arrive at her home to find her desperately ill and have to make decisions and do things we never thought we’d have to do. Things that probably crossed the line of getting into someone else’s business, but the circumstances offered no choice. A situation where you just take a deep breath, plunge in, and worry about the fall-out later.

Thanks be to God, our friend will recover. We will go to restaurants and concerts and spend time at the beach just as we always have. But last week’s events rattled us right out of our late-summer malaise. Reminded us that just like those chalkboard signs you see in the gift shops, friends do become our chosen family and sometimes that means you’re there when the ambulance comes.

Meanwhile, summer continues to drag herself toward fall. The hummingbirds are starting to tank up more often at the feeder in preparation for their long journey south. I always rejoice at the sight of the first one in the spring and reluctantly take the feeders down when they go untouched for several weeks in the fall. The naked ladies have run their course and are wilted and brown.

I simply take for granted that I’m going to see those little pink flowers every year, poking their heads out of the forest of hydrangeas. Just like I take for granted that things are always going to be the same. But, like the naked ladies, our fragile beauty only appears for a brief time and we bloom best when grown in clumps of two or three.

pink lily 2


Beach Memories

 I’ve been a beach person since the days when my family would go to Stone Harbor, New Jersey, stay in a seedy motel painted green with a  lobster on the outside and where the bathroom sink was in the same room as the beds. From there, we moved up the coast to Ocean City to stay with my mother’s best friend who  lived  there year-round. Adulthood brought annual treks to the Outer Banks with a group of friends and now I happily set up my beach chair on the Maryland shore where we have a vacation home.

Our Outer Banks trips always included a dear friend who we lost at way too young an age. When several of us were sitting on the beach in Ocean City recently, (during the week with beautiful weather, not the monsoons) I couldn’t help but think about her, especially since last week marked twelve years since she’s gone to heaven.

She was one of a kind. Her soprano voice could make the angels weep, she constantly won radio trivia call-ins, and had amassed a vocabulary of truly spectacular profanity. One minute a prim and proper elementary teacher, the next a potty-mouth who would make us all burst into laughter with one of her creatively obscene expressions. She loved the Outer Banks and when she was there, her appetite knew no bounds. One of us would be foraging around the kitchen for a snack and she’d give us a guilty look—“Umm, the salt air makes me so hungry, I sort of ate the whole box of Wheat Thins.” Her first question in the morning was where we were going for dinner that night.
Deb eating 2

We spent our Outer Banks evenings watching movies (she knew almost every line from “Finding Nemo”) or sitting in the hot tub under the stars, sipping cocktails, eating Twizzlers, and solving the problems of the world. How were we to know that those movie and hot tub moments were so fleeting and precious, that in a few short years, we would look back and desperately wish for one more movie, one more night in the hot tub?

She did things that made us cringe and roll our eyes—powdering her sweaty underarms in the lobby of a restaurant, singing  an impromptu “Lonely Goatherd” from the open sunroof of my car while waiting for the Ocracoke ferry, (she was obsessed with “The Sound of Music”), vividly describing an erotic dream in the dining room of a bed and breakfast. She was unabashed, uninhibited, and completely her own person. She was also deeply spiritual, devoted to her God,  her family, and to her students at the school where she taught fifth grade.

She fought her illness valiantly. She lived Dory’s line from “Finding Nemo”—“When life gets you down, you know what you gotta’ do? JUST KEEP SWIMMING!” I can still see her getting in our faces and yelling that when we were whining about something. She showed us how it’s done.

Dory and Nemo

Twelve years later my friends and I are older, crankier, more set in our ways. After she died, it was like a tire flew off the vehicle of our friendship. Part of what we had together became like those truck treads you occasionally see along the road—ripped from the wheel and left shriveled and abandoned. We were torn away from her joy in life, her wonderful irreverence. The loss of someone we could indulge with an almost parental love, left us off-balance and we’ve never fully regained our equilibrium. Now we occasionally find ourselves driving along with clenched teeth, gripping the wheel too tightly, earnestly insisting that we’re still having fun while the car skitters from one side of the road to the other.

The sand and surf bring the memories tumbling back. Three of us who shared those Outer Banks trips with her stayed late on the beach one day last week, enjoying the quiet after the crowds left, watching the evening ritual of life guards pulling in their chairs and whistling everyone out of the water. We sat reading our books, sipping our drinks, and passing around the bag of slightly sandy Twizzlers. The ocean was calm, and it was one of those rare, perfect summer days you don’t want to end. I closed my eyes and I could see our beloved friend coming back from her usual late afternoon walk. She flops down in the vacant chair beside me, reaches for the bag of Twizzlers and says, “I’m starving. Where’re we going to eat tonight?”

obx Kay, Carol, Me (2)