books, caregiving, Commentary, Family history, Family story, justice, kindness, lifestyle, opinion, personal history, Social Justice, Society, Uncategorized

The ‘Gray Rhino’ moves into a nursing home; great experiences ensue

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Me and a friend, both wearing our rhino-chasing faces….and, me, of course, the T-shirt.

No matter you may have read on “CNN fake news,” a gray rhino is not shorthand for “Chinese banking crisis.”

It can be something as simple as not running a red light.

I know this, because the author of “The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers we Ignore” is my closest girlfriend.

I remember when Michele first started talking about the book, and I remember when she was writing it. I forget a lot of stuff, but I’m pretty sure would have remembered Chinese banking crises if they’d been in mix for inclusion.  Greek defaults and the Argentinian financial debacle were. China, not so much.

So what’s a gray rhino? In disaster avoidance parlance, to paraphrase the book’s subtitle, a gray rhino is an impending and avoidable threat to which you can respond.

I was dealing with one when Michele was working on her book.

‘Woman with with weird resume seeking soft landing’

Ten years ago, something happened at my grant-funded job that made it pretty clear its days were numbered. Ironically, a large component of my job involved helping other people address the fallout from their up-ended lives. I helped them figure out what their best next moves were, then did what I could to see them through those moves. Given that, it would have been pretty hypocritical to pretend I didn’t need to start casting about for my own best chance at a soft landing, which turned out to be enrolling in a library and information science graduate program.

I got laid off the year after I walked across a stage to pick up my master’s degree, spent the following 11 months of non-day-job work applying for day jobs, editing dissertations, writing freelance newspaper and web-based stories and indexing a book. Then, one of those applications panned out and, to my great delight, I landed a job as a public librarian.

Michele loves that story. She keeps asking me to blog about it. But I want to blog about a different gray rhino.

My mom.

Mom has been in a nursing home for almost four years. Before she actually ended up in one, ending up in one was her biggest fear.

Rhino avoided….for awhile

I have vivid memories of nursing home visits to elderly relatives with 50-something Mom. That woman was vibrant. She ran from morning ‘til night. She worked, volunteered, played bridge, was active in her synagogue, a regular at book group and still found time to travel the world with her sisters and host friends at her house on Cape Cod.

We’d walk into a facility and the smell – a melange of stale, damp and vague decay – would hit us. Then, there’d be the sights en route to our destination, usually someone’s room. Near-comatose old people with wispy hair and rheumy eyes sitting in wheelchairs in the halls, or arranged in rows in common rooms in front of a TV. Some would stare at nothing, some were aware of us. Some babbled weird things that were unintelligible or if intelligible, more closely resembled random word strings than coherent thoughts.

We’d find our person and have our visit. On our walk back to the car, Mom would utter a variation of the same declaration.

“If I’m ever like that, shoot me or give me pills.”

I’m pretty sure that 50-year-old Mom would shoot 89-year-old Mom.

Eighty-nine-year-old Mom, however, is not nearly as upset about her current situation.

There are, I think, several reasons for this, many of which involve a veritable herd of Michele-style Gray Rhinos. If Parkinson’s disease had not derailed her well-laid out plans, she’d be living quite contentedly on Cape Cod, using her yearly required withdrawal from her 401K to travel. She’d still be living off her pension and social security checks for daily expenses. Parkinson’s disease was the gray rhino that led us, ultimately, to what Mom – and the rest of us – didn’t think existed.

A good nursing home experience.

After nearly four years, it dawned on me recently that my family is having one. In a very real sense, we were damned lucky to bumble into it. But we also did – and have continued to do – things to maximize the “good” ness of our situation.

How to have a ‘good’ nursing home experience

I could write for days about this, but no one wants to read that much for that long. So I’ll do my best to keep it simple. Here are four tips, two of which I have never seen in any book about nursing homes.

  1. PR Rollout
  2. Show up!
  3. Their casa is your casa
  4. Plan ahead

Before I elaborate, though, a disclaimer.  A lot of what went down in the decade or so preceding Mom’s decision (and it was her decision) to move to a nursing home had reassured her that as far as my sister and I were concerned, she was still in charge. Losing mobility and stamina did not mean losing the right to have her wishes honored while she was still intact enough to make those decisions herself. That still stands now that I am in charge of making decisions on her behalf.

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Words to live by. And so benign-seeming when surrounded by painted gingerbread people.

So, without further ado, this, based on our experience, is how to have a great nursing home experience.

Create buzz

If possible, try to build some buzz around your person’s arrival. Think “PR rollout.”  We didn’t plan or intend that, but it turned out to be a lucky and very happy accident.

Mom, having made the decision that the nursing home was where she needed to be, opted to blow town and visit her sisters, leaving me to divest of what wouldn’t fit in her new room and choose what would and should. She flew off to California to spend three weeks with her older sisters.  (My daughter was headed out there for a conference, so she stopped and picked up Granny on the way; my sister flew from Canada to California, then brought Mom home to her new room.)

I spent the next three weeks cleaning out her apartment, the latter two of them moving things over to her new place, which was in an adjoining building. In the process I got to know the people on her unit. I found out that many of the CNAs had been there for years, a very good sign. They exclaimed over her artwork and listened to my stories about Mom. There was something exotic about her being in California, and the idea that she’d be arriving on a night in the future, like some movie star on tour.

I hadn’t intended the three weeks she was gone to be a buzz-building campaign, but that’s how it worked out. By the time she arrived, everyone was really excited to meet her. Note: I also decorated her room somewhat strategically, placing her United Way ‘Self Above Service’ award and other recognitions she’d received over the course of her life for teaching and synagogue involvement in view of the entrance to her room.

Be present!

I had the luxury of working a mile-and-a-half from Mom for the first two years she was at the Home. But if you can’t be the person who pops in between four and five times weekly (more often even), try to get someone else to do it for you. These don’t have to be extended visits. Sometimes the trip there and back took more time than the quick hello, hug and kiss for Mom and a ‘Hi!’ to other residents and staff people.

Now that I work on the other side of town at a much less flexible job, I’m only there a couple of times a week. But everyone knows why. My sister arranged for her to have a companion two nights a week, so even though I’m not there as often, Mom still gets outside attention.

One of my proudest moments some two years into Mom’s being there occurred when she, more lucid then, reported that on a bathroom run in the middle of the night, the attendants were talking past her (which happens, sadly). One said to the other, “We have to take care of her right away, otherwise she’ll call her daughter.” If you can’t win ‘em over with kindness, making them afraid of you is the next best thing.

By the way, about the staff people: Learn their names. And if you are that kind of person, learn their stories. My sister and I have both worked as reporters. Reporters are curious people who are genuinely interested in other people and their stories. If you’re not built that way, find other ways to be kind to the CNAs and caregivers. Figure out what’s in your comfort zone and show them you appreciate what they’re doing for your person.

Debby and I have ended up making some lovely friends. We also have gotten unofficial calls from staff who’ve let us know when Mom has needed something specific and/or something has happened of which they think we should be aware. To say that we’re grateful doesn’t begin to express our feelings of appreciation and respect for these amazing people.

Don’t treat it like an institution.

You may have to sign in and out and your house probably didn’t have elevators, CNAs and nurses (unless the latter two were your parents and/or siblings) but don’t be shy about treating the place like home. There was the time a new nurse-practitioner was looking for ice and asked a busy staffer. I knew where it was and got it for him.  My attitude? Yeah, it’s a nursing home. But my mother lives here. So it’s my mom’s house. That goes whether I’m rummaging in the kitchen for cups, straws and tops during an ice water run, fetching a towel or a wheelchair from the storage closets or helping out when dinner’s being served.

Look ahead.

Even though I thought I knew this, I didn’t. I do now because of something I said earlier: “Get to know the staff people.”

I have promised Mom a beautiful, easy death. Which is why, last month, I signed papers with hospice care. Mom gets to stay where she is, and a bunch of new people now come in to see her (social worker, nurse, personal care workers, music therapist).

She’s not at the point where anyone needs to swoop in as what my dear friend Julie (who spent a month in hospice before heading off to the Great Mysterious Beyond Place) referred to as “the pharmaceutical death factory.” But when it does, the hospice people are going to be right there to catch her.

What I didn’t know was that if those papers and that plan isn’t in place and your loved one in a nursing home takes a sudden turn for the worse, the lag time between contacting doctors and pharmacies might well mean that your loved one suffers and dies in pain.

That’s what happened recently to someone on Mom’s unit. The family hadn’t made any arrangements; their loved one did not have the easy death that would otherwise have happened. It tore at the hearts of the staff to watch someone they had come to love and care for suffer when that didn’t have to be the case.

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books, Commentary, education, entertainment, librarians, libraries, lifestyle, love, Media, music, opinion, personal history, Society, Uncategorized, writing

Great moments in librarying (yes, it’s a verb now), with illustrations

The best seven months of my work life so far are the ones I’ve spent as a public librarian. Here are a few of my favorite moments librarying and some pictures of the reason I now describe myself as my library’s “Display Queen.” (Yes, I did use “library” as a verb. Thank you for noticing.)

  1. Putting a John Coltrane CD into the hands of an 11-year-old saxophone student. I don’t remember how we struck up our conversation. I asked what was in the instrument case, and when he told me I asked if he’d heard of Coltrane. He hadn’t. I fixed it.
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This display included books and recordings by the musicians listed above. It’s getting swapped out for the incoming class of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees.

  1. Sending two aspiring rappers home with a visual dictionary and a copy of “Hamilton: The Revolution” in addition to the thesaurus they came in looking for. As I walked them over to where it was, I asked if they wanted it for something specific. That was when they told me they were rappers looking to increase their vocabularies. And that it was their first time in the library. It was my first time meeting two aspiring rappers, so we engaged in a beverage-free toast to firsts all around. (They were strikingly good looking – tall and slender with beautiful smiles and great hair.) I suggested the visual dictionary, which they thought was a good idea when they saw it. Then I remembered that we’d just gotten “Hamilton: The Revolution,” a book that includes the lyrics to the musical and also talks about how its evolution from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brain to the stage. THEY HAD NEVER HEARD OF HAMILTON! We don’t have the Broadway soundtrack recording in our collection, but I had my i-pod and a pair of headphones, so played them a few seconds of “Alexander Hamilton” and “Cabinet Battle 1.” Definitely a “Go, me!” moment.
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I asked for – and got! – a display case. This little exhibit is because I had the material. My end game is that patrons with interesting collections will share those.

  1. Something I did not know happens at libraries until I started working at one is that banning is a thing. A sad thing, but a necessary one. Upwards of 99 percent of the people who walk into a library bring their best (or at least second-best) selves. But the 1 percent who don’t? They really don’t. Some bans are short-lived; others can last a lifetime with the ability to appeal at annual intervals. My first experience with a banned patron was one who’d gotten the ban letter and wanted to know what was wrong with his card. When I told him, he left quietly. My second experience started the same way – the patron wanted to know why his card wasn’t working. But this time when the ban notice came up, the banning period was over. So I smiled, because his ban had ended and I was happy I got to welcome him back. He smiled, too.
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    This display was for Domestic Violence Awareness month. I wanted to include information for everyone who might be affected.

  2. In October, our main branch put together the most incredible Halloween extravaganza, including opening up a “haunted” and usually closed-to-the-public floor. It was my job to lead people coming off the elevator from the third floor up to the haunted fourth floor. But one little girl was terrified, and her family wanted to see the haunted floor. So we stayed on the third floor together and joined a group heading out to our green roof, where two telescopes had been set up, one for viewing Mars and the other Saturn. I’d never seen either as clearly and neither had she. We talked about school (hers) and planets (ours) and then I showed her some of the pictures I’d taken of the fourth floor earlier in the week before she rejoined her family.
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This picture was taken from the “haunted” fourth floor, but the window reflected the dome and the a view of the third floor, showcasing another non-public area.

  1. In December, Millie, our library educator (and an amazing librarian), hosted a gingerbread house construction project with a roomful of kids. One, the sweetest nine-ish year-old girl you can picture, wanted a couple of books. It took some doing, but we managed to track down and put them on hold for her. She turned to her mom and told her she wanted to give me her gingerbread house. Her mom said, “I thought you were going to give it to (name).” “But she was really helpful,” the little girl said. It turned out the named recipient was her little brother. So I told her I knew of a way she could give it to me and still take it home to her brother. I’m not posting the picture her mom took of the two of us holding the house because I didn’t ask permission to make it public. It makes me smile every time I look at (or even think about) it.
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This was one of my Christmas displays.

  1. Just before Christmas, a woman about my age came in to print out some papers related to a job for which she was in the process of interviewing. I called on some of my former “helping other people get jobs” skills from my past and gave her a few tips. Two days later, she came in with an acceptance letter!
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This is a close-up of the other one.

  1. One of the scary things about being a librarian is seeing how vulnerable people can be. A recently laid-off man building his profile in the state’s unemployment system (the only way to apply for benefits) turned out to not only not have computer skills, he also didn’t have an e-mail address. My 11 months in my own version of his shoes before getting this job became an instant asset as a result of a counselor named Jeff Armstrong, who’d been affirming and supportive when I’d gone to see him. In another stroke of great good fortune, Jeff answered his phone and the two of them had a conversation in which they arranged a face-to-face meeting.
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This is the rest of the other Christmas display. I was particularly happy about the Bukowski.

  1. The Syrian refugee who came in looking for ESL classes for his wife. A couple of months after she arrived, they came in together and got library cards.
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This isn’t a display. I found it while weeding and thought, “I have the greatest collection in the world!” It wasn’t on the weed list.

  1. The patron who came in to pick up a book that had been on hold for his mother, only to find that somehow the book had gone wandering. After we re-ordered it, she called. She told me about a couple of other books she was planning to read and I found and put them on hold for her. When her son came in to retrieve the found book, he was able to bring her the others, too.
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This was my shortest-lived display. It stayed up a day and a half, at which point a woman came into the library asking for it. She got the book and what was inside of it, which was the New York Times story about Mr. Whitehead winning the National Book Award. I didn’t think Oprah would mind me using her 2004 photo from the car giveaway, given that she was probably at least that happy for the success of her book club pick.

  1. On New Year’s Eve, the library was closed. At the grocery store, three medium-sized kids were gawking in front of the lobster tank. I asked the guy behind the counter if he was okay with me doing something unconventional, and with his approval I was able to resurrect my long-unused lobster-wrangling skills. Three round-eyed kids stared  as I reached into the tank and pulled out a lobster. I did the two-minute version of “Lobster 101” for them (sea cockroach, underside of tail how they swim, if not banded in the tank there’d be fights to the death, claws grow back, can only live in salt water, can grow to be upwards of 20 pounds, encouraged them as they gently touched it).

“Do you work here?” asked one.

“No, I said. “I’m a librarian. Come see me at my library!”

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books, Family story

Our childhood, the ‘do-over version:’ Brought to you by my sister and starring my niece & nephew

It wasn’t until my niece and nephew were 10 and 8 that my life was in a logistical and financial place to take a week off and fly from Milwaukee to Edmonton to visit them.

That's Sweetheart sitting between Elizabeth and Noah. Elizabeth is listening to her cousin Alex, and the guy with his back to the camera is my brother-in-law, Dave. We're in his parents' living room.

That’s Sweetheart sitting between Elizabeth and Noah. Elizabeth is listening to her cousin Alex, and the guy with his back to the camera is my brother-in-law, Dave. We’re in his parents’ living room.

My brother-in-law, who travels a lot, was going to be gone even more often that month and my mother had mentioned that Debby was not looking forward to a longer-than-usual stint of being the only adult at home. Mom was still living on Cape Cod then, her life a whirlwind of book groups, synagogue activities, shopping, entertaining and traveling to exotic locales with her sisters and nieces.

“I have some time off coming,” I told Mom. “I’ll go up and help her.”

I called Debby as soon as I hung up.

“But Dave is gone that week and it’s their last week of school!” wailed my sister. “We won’t be able to do anything!”

“That’s why I’m coming,” I said. “I don’t want to do anything. I want to see your life and theirs and hang out and be helpful.”

Which didn’t happen exactly, since I got sick as soon as I arrived there.

Even so, it remains one of my very favorite trips. Elizabeth and Noah were exactly the right ages for what I really wanted. Which was to visit their house and spend some real time with them while they were:
a) young enough for a visit to become part of their childhood memories
and
b) old enough to remember it clearly.

The kids went to a primary school down the street that only went up to sixth grade. They took music lessons. Elizabeth played in a quasi-elite soccer club. Debby wrote while they were at school, and took them wherever they needed to go after. Even when Dave was in town, he was at work a lot and not around much.

As kids, Debby and I went to an elementary school up the street that went up to sixth grade. We took music lessons. We took swimming lessons. Our mother worked, but her teaching schedule meant that we weren’t home by ourselves for very long before she got there. Dad worked nights and weekends, and wasn’t around as much.

It was about the third day, walking to – or maybe from – school with Debby and Noah, when it occurred to me that my sister had recreated an idealized version of our childhood for her own offspring. My next thought was that recreating any version of my childhood was the last thing I would want to do to someone I loved.

To this minute, my flesh crawls just thinking about it. But it was fascinating to see it in action. I had no idea Debby had been so pleased with Management.

Perhaps if I’d had a different relationship with my mother – one more like Debby’s – I might have felt differently. For me, life at home meant existing in a state of constant low-level terror. Mom had a volatile temper. It took nothing to set her off. I hated being screamed at even more than I hated being hit.  When she wasn’t angry, she was dismissive.

At school, the terror was delivered through a different mechanism – my classmates. Having undiagnosed, untreated AD/HD was no picnic in a small school. I sometimes joke that everything in my life has been easier than elementary school and the marriage part of my first marriage. But I’m not entirely joking. It’s no fun spending the formative years of your K-12 education as a social pariah and teacher’s nightmare.

Books were my refuge. I learned to parent from the way the mothers and fathers in my favorite books treated their children – by conveniently dying (“The Boxcar Children”), staying the hell out of their children’s way (“Harriet the Spy”), or listening to them and treating them with respect (“Honey Bunch,” “The Bobbsey Twins,” “Nancy Drew,” “Trixie Belden,””Stuart Little”).

I don’t know what Debby’s influences were. I do know that she and my brother-in-law have raised a pair of lovely human beings. It’s lucky to end up with relatives you like and enjoy spending time with. It’s even better when they’re people you met before you knew whether that would happen.

So, here’s to my sister for finally giving me someone to enjoy clothes shopping with. Elizabeth was worth the wait. The same goes for Noah, who is kind, practical, reassuring and treats me like a person, not an auntly obligation.

I’m so grateful they survived my childhood.

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books, Boswell Books, Central Wisconisn, Family history, Family story, lifestyle, opinion

Just me, at a writer’s retreat weekend, or “Three seismic paragraphs and a sandhill crane”

Last summer, I gave myself a gift. My friend Judy was offering a four-week writing workshop. I went on-line and registered. She’s one of the Writer’s lunch writers, owner of Redbird Writing Studio and the author of “Shut Up & Write.”

It was everything I hoped for and then some. You can draw a straight line between those four weeks and this blog – my way of establishing a regular writing routine that isn’t dependent on anyone else’s editorial agenda or timeline.

Then, in January, Judy sent me an e-mail. Here’s a condensed version:

“A small group of my students are getting together for a weekend in Waupaca, April 18-20. There will be 7 or 8 of us. All have made friends with one or more of the others in class. The point isn’t writing prowess or number of publications, it’s that they want to write and are good company.

Think you’d like to join us? You get to hang out with the group when you want to, or hide in your room to write when you want to. We’ll probably have one feedback session. No classes.

Let me know if you like the idea.”

Let’s see….a chance to spend a weekend at a bed & breakfast where all I have to do is write and hang out – or not hang out – with like-minded people?

I’d never done a writing retreat before, but it’s something that anyone with any sort of creative aspirations dreams about, I think. The chance to shed nagging day-to-day responsibilities and find out whether the void that creates opens you up to producing work you’ve sworn you would, if only you had the time and space, is true. If it turns out to be just a lie you’ve been feeding yourself for decades, it’s probably best to find out in a low-stakes setting. Judy’s invitation seemed like the perfect chance for a test run.

So, despite almost forgetting that this was the weekend – and remembering in the nick of time, on Thursday night as Sweetheart and I were walking Tuki and Judy’s name came up – I left work early on Friday,  packed the car, took the dog for a short walk, hit up the Public Market for some food, dropped by the nursing home to hug Mom, then headed up to the Crystal River Inn, the Bed & Breakfast where seven of the eight writers were gathered. (Barbara lives in Waupaca already, so she didn’t need a place to stay.)

Friday night we went in to town, where Judy was formally introduced, along with several other writers. She’d presented a workshop as part of the Waupaca Book Festival, and we hung about at the coffee shop and bookstore for awhile. I am proud to report that I only bought one book for myself. (I got two others, both holiday gifts.)

Saturday and Sunday both started with a walk and breakfast. On Saturday I went to the cemetery. Then, later, I went back with my camera to take a few pictures of some interesting tombstones.

Bette's tombstone. I think she's still around, because of the space below the date. So, Bette - if you read this, I like you and would love to buy you a coffee sometime.

Bette’s tombstone. I think she’s still around, because of the space below the date. So, Bette – if you read this, I like you and would love to buy you a coffee sometime.

I would love to have known more about Dr. Biberman, who clearly went to medical school at a time when she probably didn't have very many female classmates.

I would love to have known more about Dr. Biberman, who clearly went to medical school at a time when she probably didn’t have very many female classmates.

I've never seen a tombstone like this before, I really like it.

I’ve never seen a tombstone like this before, I really like it.

This morning, I saw a Sandhill crane. It was strolling in the grass along Highway 22, elegant as you please, occasionally bending down for something to eat. I watched from a respectful distance until it safely crossed the highway and headed into a back yard, then continued on my way. (I’d opted to leave the camera behind and just take mental pictures, so no photo.)

A couple of the other authors were staying at the B&B, and yesterday, I decided that one of them – Mike Mullin – needs to come and read at Boswell Books, and do presententations at my friend Marqurite’s high school and at Large Midwestern Technical College. Also, he needs to go to my friend Mollie’s library. She’s a children’s and YA librarian who doesn’t live far from him, so I’ll be doing my Yenta the Matchmaker thing sometime this week.

After Saturday breakfast, our writing pack arranged a time and parameters for a roundtable session (three pages at 3:30). Then Judy and most of the other writers went in to town, with plans for a short hike around a nearby lake between town and roundtable. I stayed back to write.

I decided to tear apart something that had started as a blog post and ended up as something else. I’d gotten feedback on its problems from two people I trust. This seemed a good opportunity to take a stab at addressing some of them.

Several hours and three paragraphs later, I realized a couple of things:

  1. I was really hungry.
  2. No one was back from town.
  3. There were tasty leftovers in my room thanks to my Public Market run.

So, I had myself a picnic on the front steps of the B&B. Then, I took another walk, snapped a few pictures of the wedding party that had shown up to take some post-ceremony pictures and went up to my room to play guitar for a bit.

Wedding

When the others came back, four of us headed off to Hartman Creek State Park, where we hiked around the lake and I got to indulge my inner 11-year-old. After our round-table session, we went Culver’s for dinner, then home to bed.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit blooming in Hartman Creek State Park

Jack-in-the-Pulpit blooming in Hartman Creek State Park

My inner 11-year-old had a great time at the Hartman State Park playground. (Thanks, Rooney!)

My inner 11-year-old had a great time at the Hartman State Park playground. (Thanks, Rooney!)

This morning, I shared, via e-mail, the group picture we’d drafted a Culver’s staffer to shoot, along with a helping of gratitude.

Judy and the curated writers

Judy and the curated writers (a great band name, if anyone is in the market….)

I’ll end with a condensed version of the e-mail that accompanied our photo.

“Dear Everyone:

Thank you all – and especially Judy – for an incredible weekend. Even though I probably only wrote three original paragraphs, they were seismic in terms of what I’m striving to achieve with my word-pile.

I’ve grown pretty accustomed over the years I’ve been mulling the story I wanted to tell and have achieved a comfort level with many of the details of my father’s story and its fallout.

Realizing how important Debbie is as a character in this story is a recent and unsettling development, in no small part because she is (was) a public figure. I feel like the owner of a very small house and now I have to build on an extra room for the elephant. (Sigh.)”

Anyway, extreme gratitude to all of you and I look forward to Judy getting us all together again.”

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beekeeping, bees, Book review, book reviews, books, lifestyle

For a minute, they were the world’s tiniest motorcycle gang: Now, our new backyard crew is in the hive

It’s official. As of last night, I am a beekeeper.

A woman and a package of bees.

Me and my 8,000 new backyard buddies.

It feels very strange to write those words. My mental image of a beekeeper used to be some sort of slightly feral sage, an interesting sort of semi-holy person standing quietly in the midst of a raging storm of flying, buzzing, stinging creatures.

In other words, someone who is not me. Feral is a good description of me as a housekeeper, or a writer. But the closest I get to sage is Thanksgiving dinner, when I’m making the stuffing.

But that’s irrelevant now.

When I got home from work yesterday, Sweetheart had the bike out and ready. I was just walking toward him when Tammy, Dan and her son Larry showed up. I met Tammy at Large Midwestern Technical College not long ago, and we quickly discovered that Larry goes to the school down the block from me and one of his teachers is a friend. So, we invited them to hang out with us for a bit while I carried the newly-painted hive box, bottom board and top out to the back yard and placed them on the stand.

I replaced two of the wax-only frames with honey frames, so my bees would have something to eat until there is enough flowering plant life to sustain them. Kind of like a bee SNAP program (that would be food assistance, for all you non-US readers) that works the way it’s intended to work – a handup, not a handout. If all goes well, they’ll be making their food soon enough.

Tammy told me a beekeeper is coming to one of her classes to present soon, and I kind of want to hear that presentation. (Note to self: Find out when.) I also showed her some pictures from a terrific book I’m reading. It’s called “Plan Bee: Everything you ever wanted to know about the hardest-working creatures on the planet” by Susan Brackney.

I love this woman’s outlook on bees and beekeeping. Also her nose for research and her companionable writing style.

Here’s an example, from a passage she wrote about having to buy a new queen for a hive that had not (as is customary when a queen dies) replaced their queen:

“They seemed so lost. At least, they sounded that way. Rather than offering the unified, major-chord buzz I was used to hearing, individual bees were humming quietly to themselves, out of phase, the result of a weird discombobulation. Without their queen, the workers didn’t know quite what to do with themselves, and obviously, they wouldn’t survive without new bees being made. To fix the problem, I rush ordered a new mated, Italian queen from a honeybee supplier in the South. Just days later, she arrived, caged along with several of her attendants, in a large, puffy envelope.”

Brackney goes on to describe the hazards of introducing a new queen into an existing hive, and does what Sweetheart and I did last night with our queen (who I have named Latifah, in case you were wondering).

The queen cage is a small wood block, about 1.5 inches long and hollowed out in the middle. There’s a layer of mesh stapled around the hollowed out side with a hole on one end. The hole is plugged up with a small bit of cork. After making sure you’ve got your finger close to the cork, you pry it off with a small knife and plug the hole with your hand so she doesn’t fly away. Then, you jam a miniature marshmallow into the hole. Take your marshmallow-cage queen, and turn the block so the mesh side is facing down into the hive. Place the block between two honey frames. The time it takes for the queen to eat through the marshmallow on one side, with bees on the other side helping her, gives everyone a chance to get used to each other.

The queen drops down into the hive, starts laying eggs, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Anyway, Brackney decided to throw caution to the winds and skip the slow introduction process.

“I carefully pried out the cork and summarily dumped the queen and her attendants onto the frames in the top of the hive.What happened next astonished me, but I guess it shouldn’t have. I’d read that queens sometimes ‘toot’ or ‘pipe’ loudly to their subjects, but I never expected to have a chance to hear it firsthand. It was a startlingly loud and clear ‘Whooooo-Whoooo-Who-Who-Who-Who!’ As she piped, the queen pressed her midsection against the wooden tops of the honeycomb frame, serving to amplify her high-pitched, staccato calls. It sounded a bit like a kazoo being played by a teakettle.”

Any writer who can come up with a phrase like “a kazoo being played like a teakettle” is my kind of writer. She’s actually anyone’s kind of writer if you’re interested in bees and like your facts wrapped up in engaging prose.

Enlisting Susan Brackney as a beekeeping resource was as easy as plucking her book off a sale rack. But my real beekeeping knight in shining armor (okay, so his shining armor is a flannel shirt, but who’s counting?) is Andy Hemken.

Andy taught the Beginning Beekeeping workshop I took on Valentine’s Day. When I saw him at the beekeeping meeting, he looked over the Mann Lake order my friend Jeff helped me put together. There were a couple of things he said not to bother with because he had them and I could come out and pick them up.

Then, when the Mann Lake order wasn’t here but the bees were going to be, Andy told me not to worry. We drove out to his place over the weekend with every bee thing we had, and he looked it all over. He suggested we paint the box, and gave me a new bottom board and a top (Jeff was using a slab of something that wasn’t a beehive top). When we asked how much we owed him, he said $10. It seemed like way too little, especially given how reassuring it was to have someone treat as pretty much routine that we’d be fine making a go at this beekeeping thing.

Then, yesterday, we picked up our bees. Andy had said anyone who wanted to could put some of the package bees into one of his hives (“I have 500 packages to install. Every one someone else does is one I have to put in.”). It was one of those rare “something in it for everybody” situations – Andy wins because he has a few less packages to install, and we baby beekeepers really win because we get to practice installing bees into a hive under the guidance and tutelage of an expert.

Bee packages

Some of Andy Hemken’s 500 bee packages, and more for people like me, who only have one or five or 15 hives. (One is plenty for me!)

I had my vintage bee veil and a pair of spa gloves. Andy’s wife Cheryl handed Sweetheart a bee veil, and the three of us headed out to the bee yard with a five packages. I was pretty nervous trying to remember the proper sequence for what I was supposed to do when, but by the third package, I pretty much had it down. Here’s a 12-step program for Bee Package Installations:

  1. Take top off hive, put it on the side of the hive.
  2. Take out three middle frames, put them in front of the hive.
  3. Using hive tool, pry can up from inside bee package. Quickly cover hole from can with square of wood so bees do not fly out.
  4. Take hold of small metal piece protruding from top of bee package. Lift piece and slide it toward the covered hole. Uncover hole with hand not holding metal piece, shake it as you remove the tiny wooden block to which it is attached, because it will be crawling with bees who need to stay in the can.
  5. Turn wooden block over and peer in at the queen. Make sure she’s alive. She’ll be pacing back and forth in her mesh-covered cage.
  6. Pick up a mini marshmallow and a small knife.
  7. When the queen is pacing away from the tiny wooden stopper at one end, use the knife to remove the stopper. Quickly plug the hole with your finger. Put down the knife and plug the hole with the marshmallow.
  8. Now, if you don’t have stray bees clinging to the queen cage, you can put her in your pocket to keep her warm. I had stray bees every time. So I just put her nearby where she was safe.
  9. Pick up the can, quickly remove the wooden top and turn it upside down. Tip the box from side to side, tapping on the side that’s angled down so that the bees fall into the hive. When most of them are out, set it down.
  10. Gently replace the frames, making sure you’re not crushing your new colleagues.
  11. Now, using a hive tool (if you have one, which we did not), make a space between two of the newly-replaced frames. Place the queen cage there, mesh side down. Hook the metal perpendicular to the cage, so it doesn’t fall in.
  12. Close up the hive, and make sure the opening in the box with the remaining bees is facing the hive so the stragglers can find their way to their new home.

We came in from the bee yard. I picked out a package from the hundreds there – the sound of all that buzzing was something to hear. Sweetheart wrapped the package up in my jacket and put it in the top case of the motorcycle. We got home as the sun was setting.

Bees and motorcycle

Sweetheart gets the bees ready for the final leg of their journey from California.

We had just enough light to install our package. I had my bee veil on, but couldn’t shake the feeling that I had a bee down the back of my pants. (I didn’t.)

The near-final moments of our installation. The queen cage, with our queen (Latifah) inside is the small bar on the left.

The near-final moments of our installation. The queen cage, with our queen (Latifah) inside, is the small bar on the left.

It turned out when we got inside, though, that Sweetheart had picked up a hitchhiker. He was standing in front of the open refrigerator when it happened. He slammed the door shut and shook like a dog that had just been sprung from a bathtub.

We couldn’t find the bee. Then, a few minutes later, Sweetheart opened the fridge again. She was sitting there, shivering. He picked her up and took her outside so she could find her way to her 8,000 sisters, a few brothers and Latifah, her queen.

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books, food, Gluten-free, Holidays, Judaism, lifestyle, religion

Heading out of Egypt from Flyover Country: A pre-seder post

I’m a little late on this week’s blog post because I’ve been too busy doing things and not busy enough writing about them.

Tonight, 12 people are going to sit down at my dinner table and take a trip from Flyover Country to Egypt. Then we will flee from slavery there.

I’ve been listening to music all day and cooking, and it has been paradise. Cooking is one of the most relaxing things in the world, and little makes me happier than the prospect of cooking for people I like. I will only cook for you if I like you. You can pay me to write for you, but you cannot pay me to cook for you.

Some things are not for sale.

In the “things for sale” department, however, my most recent Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle story is out in the world. It’s about Amanda Miryam-Khaye Seigel, who grew up in Madison and now lives in New York. She’s this delightful singer/songwriter in her 30s, and she sings in Yiddish. She has this pure soprano voice and the expressive range of a whole theater company. So even if you don’t know a single word of Yiddish, you still have a pretty good idea about what she’s singing. Hard-core Metallica or Nas fans might want to skip it, but if you like show tunes, this will be right up your musical alley.

Anyway, back in the “things not for sale” department, here is what my Seder crew will be tucking into so far: halved and roasted Brussels sprouts with some olive oil and Brady Street Sprinkle from The Spice House, carmelized beets tossed in some espresso vinaigrette from Oro, chicken soup with matzah balls, veggie soup with matzah balls (for the vegetarians) gefilte fish, prime rib (which, when I saw how much it cost, thought, “We are eating my children’s inheritance for Seder dinner!”), eggplant parmesan (for the vegetarians), potato kugel, green beans and a salad (made by my wonderful Milwaukee Mom and cousin Carol).

Dessert is pignolis, chocolates made by the culinary arts students at Large Midwestern Technical College – those students make the best-tasting homework ever – and fresh fruit.

Passover, pignoli & plagues

Pignoli, and a couple of plagues. The plagues will be around next year. The pignoli, not so much.

I’d like to stick around and tell you about Wednesday night, when my friend Rick, Sweetheart and I went to see Judith Claire Mitchell read from her amazing new book “A Reunion of Ghosts.” She read from the book, but she also gave us a look behind the curtain at the life of Fritz Haber, who synthesized chlorine gas, and his wife Clara, the first woman to get a Ph.D. in science in Germany. Her dreams of doing cutting-edge (or any) research got washed away when she married Fritz.

Anyway, it’s time to head back into the kitchen. Those apples and nuts are not going to turn into charoset on their own.

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books, entertainment, food, Gluten-free

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.

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