The Great Millennial Mashup Family Seder of 2012: A story of deliverance from slavery

Friday is the first night of Passover, one of the bigger holidays on the Jewish calendar. I’ve been hosting since before Mom moved to Milwaukee, but since she’s been here there’s no way I’d ever be able to think of not hosting.

This will be the first Seder in years I haven’t had at least one of my daughters here. But that doesn’t mean I won’t have a full table. There’ll be 11 of us, including three relatives (parent types) and friends who are part of a Seder community I’ve gathered over the years. There’ll be some new faces at the table, too.

I’ve got most of the menu planned, and will spend the next several nights cooking – chicken soup, pignolis and roasting a beet (to sub in for the shank bone on the Seder plate) and a hard-boiled egg. Thursday night I’ll do a bunch of heavy-duty other prep – the charoset (I make Ashkenazic, because I like it!) and whatever else I can get done.

I’ve also gathered up the Haggadadot (the books we need to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt) and my box of plagues, which I’ve been adding to from year to year. A big box of plastic spiders I found on a post-Halloween sale rack will be making their Seder debut this year.

Passover items
A few Passover things – matzah, matzah cover, a Haggadah and, of course, my Box o’ Plagues!

There have been a lot of memorable Seders in my life, but one stands out. I call it “The Ultimate Millennial Mashup Blended Family Seder.”

My children’s dad and I split when the girls were 2, 4 and 7. Not surprisingly, his family wasn’t overly thrilled with me after that. Two years later, Ex remarried Dee, a widow with three children. She was also not thrilled with me. We all had that in common, at least. I wasn’t thrilled with me either, though for very different reasons.

That was more or less how things stayed, until Ex died in October of 2006. Along with having to deal with being widowed a second time, Dee was dealing with her father’s final illness. So I took to calling my former father-in-law Sidney every week to let him know how his grandchildren were doing, and also to check on how he was doing. That detente led to a genuine friendship, but I wasn’t prepared for what happened in late winter of 2009.

“What are you doing for Seder?” he said.

“I don’t know,” I answered. “I guess I’m having one.”

“Invite me.”

I thought I’d misheard.


“Invite me.”

“Sidney, would you and Mrs. Sidney like to come to my house for Seder?” I said.

“We’d love to.”

I’d started the conversation in one universe and ended it in a parallel one, a universe in which my children’s grandfather and his wife of 30-plus years were driving 75 miles and making a hotel reservation to spend the holiday with the woman who’d divorced his son more than 20 years prior.

A few years later, the requests got even more surreal. By the time they stopped, my Seder table was 21 people strong and included my husband, my mother, my children, three of my cousins, Sidney and Mrs. Sidney, Ex’s sister and brother-in-law from Texas, my wife-in-law (if you have a better term for the woman who marries your ex-husband and makes him happier than you did, I’m all ears) and two of her three children, including one who flew in from Israel. There were also the three or four orphans my youngest brought home, along with a friend from synagogue who I was sure would never come back but has every year since.

The Passover Seder is a celebration of freedom. Once we were slaves in Egypt, and now we are free. The Mashup Seder celebrated deliverance from a different kind of slavery. At that seder, we moved from a past chained to feelings that had separated and diminished us into one where, together, we celebrated a shared present and a hopeful future.

Giant erasers, mean girls and shag carpet: A Dispatch from Misfit Hell

“And I never forgot how that year after Dad died and we lost our house, my best friend moved away and the youth group turned its collective back on me felt (picture one of those cartoons where Daffy Duck is standing on a cliff and the giant eraser comes and suddenly there’s only duck and no background).” E-mail, 2012

I sometimes joke that the worst parts of my life so far have been elementary school and the marriage part of my first marriage.

But there’s also the year I turned 15. Three months before my birthday, my favorite person in the world – my dad – died. Because he was the rabbi and the synagogue owned our house, we had to move. My best friend Nancy announced that her family was also moving – out of town. And I ran for an elected position in my synagogue’s youth group, but a girl two years older than I am got elected.

That wasn’t surprising, as older kids frequently won these elections. With this girl, though, things were more complicated.

Like me, she played guitar, and like me, she was youth group co-songleader. We were equals on that front, but I was the more accomplished musician. My ear was better, my intonation was better and I could feed out chords and learn songs more quickly. The rest of my life was a mess. But this was the one place I could shine. I also took the “co” in my title seriously, doing everything possible to make sure my counterpart was equally able to share the sunlight.

Without guitars around our necks, it was a different story. CoSong was tall, confident, had fabulous hair, a figure that didn’t quit and a natural gift for being the center of attention. (Which meant we had divergent definitions of “equal.”)

This is the guitar I got in December of the year referenced in this story. It lived under a bed in Phoenix, Arizona, and I bought it for $300 with confirmation gift and saved babysitting money. This picture was taken just after I got it. You can see it was a pretty joyful moment.
This is the guitar I got in December of the year referenced in this story. It lived under a bed in Phoenix, Arizona, and I bought it for $300 with confirmation gift and saved babysitting money. This picture was taken just after I got it. You can see it was a pretty joyful moment.

She was also a Mean Girl straight out of Central Casting. When Dad was alive, I had minor protection, because who wanted the rabbi to think badly of them? As a widowed teacher’s daughter, I was an ordinary nobody. Or, as CoSong and her Minions saw things, fair game.

That summer, I got shipped off to Kutz, the Reform movement’s national camp for three weeks.

It was harvest time for a huge crop of new songs, and I spent several hours a day in songleading class learning them all. My 12-string guitar took a little bit longer to tune than everyone else’s sixers, but our teachers – Doug Mishkin and Ramie & Merri Arian – didn’t mind. We learned upwards of 100 new songs that summer. I was going to teach them to religious school students during the next school year, working off the scholarship the synagogue had given me to attend camp.

What I was really excited about, though, was teaching them to the youth group. All the other TYGs (Temple Youth Groups) would have to wait until conventions, when the regional songleaders would teach the TYG songleaders. We’d be able to sing them right away.

I came back to our new home – a townhouse on top of a hill. It provided several sensory experiences. In the winter, it shook when the wind whistled through it. In the upstairs bathroom, you could turn a timer switch next to the light, triggering a percussive ticking sound and a blood-red light that turned the white walls pink. The light was a heat lamp, so at least it had that going for it.

The townhouse also featured dreadful avocado green and brown shag carpet that covered the floors and stairs, my holding-cell-sized new bedroom (my former room had run the length of the house, from the front of the garage to the back of my father’s study) and an electric stove. We’d always had gas. I’d loved turning the knob to bring the flame to life, and missed the whooshing sound of the oven turning on.

In September, the youth group held songleading tryouts. There was no question about who was most qualified. Three of us were vying for two spots. One girl was a year older than me. She played and sang passably, but not as well as CoSong or me. My guess was that it would be me and Sweet Girl, because CoSong already had an officer position. Or, if Sweet Girl blew the audition, it would be me and CoSong.

I taught a song I’d learned at camp. I don’t remember what the others did.

The Executive Board, including CoSong and her best friend, Minion, went behind closed doors to deliberate.

I knew CoSong didn’t want me, for the same reasons some kids pull the wings off of flies and hold magnifying glasses over them.

Our TYG president was a lovely, self-possessed girl to whom I ascribed a highly-developed sense of fairness. So, given my qualifications and the fact that CoSong already had an elected position, I felt confident that she and the rest of the board (Minion excepted) would shut Mean Girl down and give Sweet Girl and I the job.

The board came back with its decision, along with the news that I’d mistaken the president’s highly-developed sense of fairness for a highly-developed sense of something else.

CoSong approached, with Sweet Girl trailing behind her.

“We need you to teach us all the songs you learned at camp,” CoSong said.

I was still taking it in. I looked at her. I looked at her co-songleader. Then, I uttered the words that sealed my status as youth group pariah until the next election cycle.

“Learn them yourself,” I said. “You’re the songleaders.”

Teenage dating bans and skewed ‘benchmark Jewish male’ standards: A Dispatch from Misfit Hell

I don’t remember the exact point when my father announced that dating non-Jewish boys was off the table for my sister and me. It was before I started high school.

Dad’s explanation was simple.

Refusing to officiate at weddings in which the bride or groom wasn’t Jewish (if the bride or groom converted before the wedding, it was fine, because then they were both Jewish) did not square with letting his daughters run wild with non-Jewish boys*. Nor would he have any credibility encouraging teens and college students in the congregation to confine themselves to dating within the faith. (*We were both stick-straight.)

“Great,” I thought.

It wasn’t as if anyone was lining up to date us anyway. But now there wasn’t even anyone in the hypothetical lineup of the Chosen that I would have chosen.

When you grow up Jewish in a small community, you know who all the Jewish kids are because they were your nursery school classmates. None of the Jewish boys I would have wanted to date would ever have considered dating me. That included Nursery School Crush, who I’d chase from one classroom to another because I thought he was cute. He did not appreciate the attention. (By the time we were teenagers, NSC had only gotten cuter. And even less accessible. A leggy brunette I met in my 30s who went on a single date with him told me he liked “leggy blondes,” which, I realize as I write this, is a pretty accurate description of his mother.)

There were a couple of other cute Jewish boys in town, but I had a more realistic chance of dating one of the Beatles. Or David Cassidy.

Two girls in front of a 1970 Plymouth Valiant
If we’d been anywhere near cool enough to think of it, we could have formed a band called The Undateable Sisters. But if we’d been cool enough to think of that, we wouldn’t have been undateable.

I wasn’t cool, or pretty, or confident. I played cello, piano and guitar. I read books, listened to records and kept a journal. I was socially awkward and had a highly developed sense of where I didn’t fit – which was pretty much anywhere people my own age congregated.

Girls who lived in the “wealthy” suburb and went to the high school where boys like Nursery School Crush ruled fit. Girls with fabulous figures and wealthy parents – those were the ones Nursery School Crush and his ilk went for.

So, there it was.

And then, a boy named Ralph asked me to a dance September of my freshman year. He was not Jewish. I asked Dad anyway. Ralph was nice. And cute. And I was thrilled to be asked out.

Dad, as it turned out, had not been kidding.

Not only was I not allowed to go to the dance with Ralph, I wasn’t allowed to go at all. The dance was on a Friday night. On Friday nights, the rabbi was at synagogue, conducting services. What sort of message would he be sending to his congregants if his daughters were out at school dances instead of synagogue?

By the time the year ended, our father was dead, and the dating ban lifted.

I dated some non-Jewish boys and some Jewish ones. The Jewish ones didn’t work out so well. Somewhere between the end of my first marriage (to a Jewish boy) and the beginning of my third (to a non-Jewish one who owned a pickup truck and has a motorcycle), I figured out why I wasn’t as fond of those Jewish boys as my father would have liked.

We spent a lot of time at the farm where my mother grew up, because my parents were very close with her brother and sister-in-law. My cousins, all boys, were older than we were. When they weren’t watching westerns on TV, they were grabbing a gun from the cabinet and heading down the railroad tracks to shoot things, or work on an old car, pickup truck or motorcycle. They hunted, fished and drank beer, rode motorcycles and had bar mitzvahs.

Two men in a kitchen
My personal gold standard for Jewish male perfection, the slightly-older (and still pretty perfect) cousins.

Blame my cousins, who spoiled me forever for Jewish men by setting a bar that included hunting, being able to fix things, riding motorcycles and owning pickup trucks.

Procrastination, beautiful music and a sneak preview of “The Real Beekeepers of Flyover Country”

I really need to be working on my newspaper story about Miriam-Khaye Seigel’s wonderful recording of Yiddish music, “Toyznt Tamen.”

I also want to write about Stephen Wade’s “The Beautiful Music All Around Us.” Sweetheart and I saw and heard him last week at our local Repertory Theater*. But I want to hold off until I have acquired and read his book.

He didn’t have any at his show, which was Wade telling great stories about the American folk music gathered by people like John Lomax, and singing the songs Lomax and others gathered. As a young performer, Wade went looking for – and found – many of those people, and he stayed in their lives. So the stories he told were personal, but had long reach, because so many of the songs were old friends. Also, Wade is an astonishing performer. I am sure he and Steve Martin have seen each other’s living rooms more than once.

a chair with a program on it
A post-show shot of the stage and program. (No photography was allowed during the performance, a shame, because there were a lot of gorgeous banjos and a pretty guitar on stage.)

But enough with the dazzling artistry. On to flights of fancy. Specifically, imagining myself as one of the Real Beekeepers of Flyover Country, sought after by tabloid reporters craving Beekeeper drama.

Here’s what that might have looked like this past Sunday:

Real Beekeepers-crazed Tabloid Reporter: “You’ve got a vintage bee veil and a $10 ukulele! What are you going to do next?!”

Deluded middle aged aspiring Beekeeper with an overactive imagination: “I’m going to go outside and open up my beehive!”

At that point, the fantasy falls apart. No one gets drunk, no chairs are thrown, no one goes to jail and the closest thing to couture is my tumbling composter. There’s a backyard and a beehive.

The closest thing to drama is that my friend Jeff, who had one of his nine hives in our back yard for two years, moved to Colorado last fall, leaving me bereft. I loved watching the bees, and that actual honey came out of the hive was a surreal thrill. So, Jeff said he’d leave me enough to get started beekeeping.

He left a single deep brood box on a hive stand. I knew I needed another brood box, and some honey supers. But all the bee catalogs I’m looking at sell 10 and 8 frame boxes, and I wasn’t sure whether Jeff’s former hive was of the 8- or the 10-frame variety. (We talked last night, and he helped me put together an order for everything I need. I’m getting it from Mann Lake, because Jeff said they have free shipping.)

Evidently, frame quantity is an individual preference. Some beekeepers think the 8 frame hives are easier to work and generate more honey. My agenda is more about beewatching and less about honey yield. So my main interest in knowing which kind Jeff left me was so I’d know what to order when I get around to ordering. Which I need to do before my two pounds of bees and their queen show up, sometime in May.

I knew there were no bees in the hive when I went out to open it up this past weekend, because I’d opened it earlier in the week. I learned in my Beginning Beekeeping Workshop that you don’t want to open a hive unless it’s warmer than 45 degrees Fahrenheit (about 8 for you Celsius types). If I’d been thinking more about what Andy had told us in the workshop, I would have known without opening the hive.

One hive box in Flyover Country is a death sentence for wintering bees. In the south, one is enough. But in colder climates, you need two for the bees to even have a chance at survival. They keep warm by clustering in a huddle and beating their wings to generate heat. Which takes energy. Which requires eating. Adult bees eat honey, which is why beekeepers don’t harvest the honey from hive boxes.

Harvested honey comes from shallower boxes that go on top of the hive boxes. They’re called “supers.” The term seems to be related to their position on the hive.

You add the honey supers after there’s a good store of honey in the boxes, and you know that by checking the bees every week or so during the summer. (I think. I will know a lot more about this by summer.)

In order to work a hive, you also need a smoker. A smoker is a strange-looking contraption that looks like a very small prototype of a tin man torso wearing a hat, with a bellows attached to one side of it.

Bees communicate through pheromones, so you light the smoker and then use the bellows to blow a puff of smoke into the hive. It interrupts the pheromone flow (kind of like a bee version of unplugging your router) and the bees – from what I hear – stumble around in a kind of stoned daze, forgetting they’re supposed to attack. That’s when you can check the hive and make sure there are baby bees and no nasty invaders – hive beetles, varroa mites, tracheal mites or wax moths. Sometimes mice try to settle in. You do not want mice in your beehive.

As of yesterday, I have a vintage smoker to go with my vintage bee veil. It came from e-bay. The price was right, and it looked like it was in good condition.

Most important, the cat approved.

Cat looks at bee smoker
Feline quality control inspector Betty checks out the bee smoker.

*A special thanks to my wonderful friend Jimmy for the tix.

How to be terrific at other people’s lives, featuring a vintage bee veil and a $10 ukulele

I sure wish I were as good at my own life as I am at other people’s.

I am not kidding. I am terrific at other people’s lives. Most of us are, at the very least, better at other people’s lives than we are at our own, and for the simplest of reasons. We are not those people and would never make the dumb-$*#t choices they do.

It’s another thing, though, to be genuinely terrific at other people’s lives. I am. Sometimes that means telling you what I think is your best course of action; sometimes it means referring you to someone better able to determine that. Part of being terrific at other peoples’ lives includes knowing when you don’t have anything helpful to offer.

It’s something I learned at the job I did – and loved – for 10 years. People at the lowest point in their adult lives would find their way to my office. My role was to help them figure out what to do next. Kind of like a low-income life coach.

Lately, I could use someone like me. Life is ticking along pretty steadily, but change is afoot.

My first instinct – go all “Chicken Little,” running in circles and screaming about the sky falling – is not helpful. My next – getting Prince Charming to present me with a winning Powerball ticket – isn’t realistic.

My more sensible side reassures me that all will be well, and that’s the one I’m going to listen to. I’m also choosing to start taking some of my own advice. To do both those things (stay sensible, seek wisdom), I need to make sure there are plenty of other people who are also terrific at other people’s lives.

For that reason, and because I know I’m not the only one who needs a dose of wisdom from time to time, I have decided to share my recipe.


  1. Have the person tell you their problem(s) and listen through to what he/she/ze is saying. Look past words when appropriate. Observe the ease or discomfort expressed as h/s/z shares whatever it is that’s on his/her/zis mind.
  1. Ask a bunch of questions about what you hear. Make sure you understand as precisely as possible what the issue(s) is (are). Also, you may need to ask questions that appear unrelated, because it’s really important to place the immediate situation into the larger context of the person’s life.
    1. Note: This process can look and feel random, weird and annoying. Get comfortable with that, because it’s okay in order to serve your higher purpose. There’s nothing wrong with erring on the side of precision, particularly in the service of dispensing wisdom.
  1. After getting as much information as you think you need, filter your answers through everything you know, based on real-time experiences and everything you’ve ever read or heard anywhere. Then, give your listener a range of options that he/she/ze is free to use or not as h/s/z sees fit.
    1. Here are two things I say (because I mean them), when dispensing wisdom:
      1. “Everything I say is just a suggestion, because I don’t have to live with the consequences of your decisions.”
      2. “I will never suggest that you do anything that I either haven’t done or wouldn’t be willing to do myself.”

I’m lucky. I know a lot of wise and decent people. I’m reaching out to some of them as I explore options. I’m also putting all the things I’ve learned prior to work on my behalf.

Yesterday, as I walked from a restaurant (sushi to take to Mom at the nursing home) to the hardware store (a light bulb for her bedside lamp), I followed my heart and stepped into a vintage store. The last thing I need is more stuff, so my plan was just to look around and enjoy. Which I did, peering at the spines of the old books and rifling through one featuring old photographs of Lexington and Concord.

Then, I glanced up at a high shelf and saw something I actually needed. And, tucked into the back of a two-tiered coffee table, something I could have resisted, but opted not to.

Vintage bee veil and ukulele. The cat is trying to pluck the strings, which she was doing last night. Her predecessor was a pianist.
Vintage bee veil and ukulele. The cat is trying to pluck the strings, which she was doing last night. (Her predecessor was a pianist. I guess we just attract musical cats.)

Which is why my current life changes now include a $20 vintage bee veil and a $10 ukulele.

A trip to the dentist, featuring “tooth-colored” filling material and a few good bands

You know life is getting stressful when the prospect of multiple injections in your mouth followed by the replacement of every filling on two quadrant’s worth of teeth sounds like a great way to spend an afternoon.

To be fair, a part of that is my new-ish dentist, Dr. J and her hygienist, L.

Dr. J is young, beautiful and so fit that four months after having a baby, she looked like she’d never been pregnant. Her daughter is about six months old. The last time I was there, L had just gotten married and was getting ready to go on her honeymoon.

So we took care of the really important business first. I checked out the latest baby pictures, then got the skinny on L’s Dominican Republic honeymoon.

Four years ago, Dr. J bought the dental practice where Sweetheart has been going for decades. After listening to him talk about how good she was and wax poetic about all the high-tech equipment she used (a headlamp rather than an overhead light, and other tools that he said made his dental experiences much more interesting than they’d been when the previous dentist owned the practice), I thought about giving her a try.

But I wasn’t unhappy at the Big Dental Mill where I’d been going since finally having health benefits that included dental insurance. Then, Mom moved here and asked me to find her a dentist. So I took her to Dr. J.

She was deeply kind and welcoming, instantly putting Mom at ease. Dr. J shares what she’s seeing. She tells you what she knows about it and what she thinks should be done about it in a way leaves no doubt she understands you’ve got a bigger stake in this than she does. After all, those teeth are in your mouth, not hers!

She also appears to be a terrific boss, unless the camaraderie between she, her office manager L and L the Hygienist is just a really good act. (Doubtful.)

After my last cleaning, she said it would be a good idea to replace my fillings. She talked about how best to handle it (two appointments, one for the left side and one for the right) and had Office Manager L check to see what my insurance would approve.

The LED light is for curing the filling once it’s in. The tool on the right is what Dr. J used to put the filling material in the tooth, and the lipstick rack-looking thing is the adhesive she put on the inside of the tooth before inserting the filling.

“You have really good insurance,” OML said. “Your co-pay will be $27.”

“That’s great!” I replied. “Sign me up!” Which, because it was January and the appointment was months off, I was all chirpy about.

So, today I showed up. After we got the baby and honeymoon news out of the way, Dr. J. spread some coconut-flavored numbing gel on the inside of my left cheek and the party started. She told me to wiggle my toes while she did the injection, and I sang while I wiggled and she injected. It wasn’t fun, but it wasn’t so evil. That numbing gel is great stuff.

Before she came at me with the second injection, I dragged out my ipad and threw on some music so I wouldn’t be singing alone.

While the numb-up took effect, we talked about the music on my i-pad (bands with local ties – The Violent Femmes, Garbage) and some from other places (Each Other).

Then I went looking for music to get your fillings swapped out to, eventually settling on Manhattan Transfer and Southern Culture on the Skids, because, why not?

She started. I felt pain. She stopped. Turned out she’d needled me with a normal dose of numb-up.

It wasn’t enough. So she fetched more coconut numbing gel, even though I was numb enough that it wouldn’t make a difference (it didn’t, but it smelled good). Two injections and five minutes later, any remaining feeling on the left side of my face was gone. If someone had told me they’d seen it out shopping or hanging at a bar while I was getting worked on, I’d’ve asked if it was having fun.

After drilling out the top filling (there was only one up there, and four on the bottom), Dr. J undertook a multi-step process to replace it. First, there was adhesive. Then, a “tooth-colored” filler (which made me think about “skin-colored” band-aids and that inside our mouths, we’re a lot closer to the same color).

That’s the tooth-colored filling material. Dr. J used “A-2” for my teeth. A and B are for white teeth that are more orange or yellow cast. C and D are for white teeth with a more blue or gray cast. I thought the purple dental bib holder would make a great cat toy. I was sorely tempted to snatch it for our cat Betty. But I behaved myself.

She put the filler in and cured it using a tiny LED light. Then she took off the excess filler so I’d be able to bite normally. She repeated the process with the bottom teeth, and then it was over.

Several hours later, home with the numb-up all but worn off, it seems that at least one of my life plans is on-track – the one about dying with all my own teeth.

Bonus Post: Book Group at the Landfill and gluten-free baking, the maiden voyage

So, last night was Book Group and my turn to host. Ever since my Facebook pal Chase recommended “The Orphan Master’s Son” and I read it, I had wanted to talk about it with other people.

I thought I’d have to wait until August, but then Gail went AWOL (she does tax prep and is probably buried until after April) and a slot opened up. I grabbed it because it was a great opportunity on two fronts. The first was no longer having to wait months and months to talk about the book. The second was getting Sweetheart to join Team Clean the Landfill We Call Home.

I adore Sweetheart and never want him to be upset. He works hard every day at a job that’s physically and mentally demanding. I haven’t yet figured out how to get him to see cleaning as a reward in itself and to take joy in the doing of the thing. I also haven’t been able to convince him of the extra joy in doing it together. But somehow, the prospect of having people over seems to work as a trigger for getting things done.

So, by the time Sally, Regina, Betsy, Karen, Ann, Krys, Tria & Pam showed up last night, the downstairs looked better than it has in ages. I spent the day in the kitchen, deep-cleaning the floor, the dog feeding/watering area, the corner where the recycling had piled up (sub-zero temperatures are not conducive to taking that stuff out), and a place near the basement stairs where store-able things had collected.

Then, I gave myself a big reward. I got out the brand-spanking new gluten-free cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen that Sara had told me about. I followed the directions to mix up a batch of all-purpose flour, and then I made a lemon pound cake.

lemon cake and "The Orphan Master's Son"
The lemon cake baked in the small loaf pan, and my copy of “The Orphan Master’s Son. I loaned it to Ann, and Krys brought it back. Book group books frequently visit multiple households before Book Group Night.

I made one small loaf pan. For the rest, I used individual flower-shaped cups,  except for three. Those were in the shapes of a scary skull and a grim ghost.  Edible flowers play a role in “The Orphan Master’s Son,” and I couldn’t find any in the store, so making flower-shaped cake was my compromise position. Also, it’s kind of grim, so the skull and ghost made sense. (There was a bat-shaped lemon cake too, which I made because Ann and I have a shared history involving bats, but that one was just to send home with her, not to serve.)

Canned peaches also play a prominent role in the book, as does ice cream. So I served cake with peaches and ice cream after the discussion. During the discussion, I served cheese and crackers. And it’s not Book Group unless we demolish at least a couple of bottles of wine. Some of us drink white and some of us drink red. Some of us (not me) stick to water.

Before we get into the book, there’s always talk about what’s going on in various lives. Regina was just back from Chile, and Karen had had surgery. So we talked about that, and about spring finally coming, and discussed some of what Regina had told us in detail about her travels via our book group’s listserv.

We were particularly interested in hearing more about the different levels of coffee shops, where scantily-clad women (depending on the level of coffee shop you are visiting) either simply serve you coffee, or serve you coffee dressed in even scantier attire, or are willing to expose various body parts.

After our “other things” yack, we got into talking about the book. Everyone agreed it was a tough read, but worthwhile. Karen made it through 50 pages before stopping, because she said it wasn’t a recovery book. No disagreement there. Betsy said it was a little too violent for her, so she stopped. But that’s fine – we’re like that. You don’t have to read the book to come to book group. You just have to be ready to either talk about it or listen to other people talk about it. Sally read it in three days. Krys and Regina both said their Sweethearts expressed versions of “You’re not really enjoying this book, are you?” watching the way they’d read for an hour and then walk away.

That was kind of the way I had to read it, too. We talked about various aspects  – the brutality of life in North Korea, the role of the individual, whether the main character had a sense of right and wrong and how, if at all, it affected his decisions. We also discussed the disconnect between and possible reasons for the unremitting descriptions of harsh reality in the beginning and the near-magical-realism toward the end.

Sally brought along her copy of the March issue of Vanity Fair, which has a big feature on Kim Jung Un. I raised my hand first, so it stayed at my house. When I’m done reading it, I’ll pass it on to Ann.