call to action, Commentary, food, Gluten-free, Holidays, justice, kindness, lifestyle, neighborhood, opinion, Society, steak, Uncategorized, writing

Strange rites of passage and no bullshit: Welcome, 2017!

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Running toward a no-bullshit 2017!

2016 is in the rear-view mirror. Last night, we attended a New Year’s Eve party at a house we’ve been lucky enough to be invited to for the past several Dec. 31sts.  The host (a guy about my age) remarked that, “We’re old enough that the people who influenced us are starting to die off.”

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William Christopher as “Father Mulcahy”

The observation was his response to my sharing that William Christopher, the actor who played Father Mulcahy on the sitcom “M.A.S.H.,” had joined David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Greg Lake, Keith Emerson, Pfife Dawg, Sharon Jones, Leon Russell and others in wherever it is we End Up after we’re Not Here. (I am not discounting that we simply become ash or worm fodder, but given that death remains a Great Mystery, remain open to any and all possibilities.)

Which is one reason (shoutout to Eddie Izzard), I baked and brought a cake to the party.

(“Cake or Death,” the video, starring Eddie Izzard. Embedding was an issue, so here’s a link.)

The others were:

  1. At last year’s party, I didn’t have a job. This year, I do. That alone is worth cake.
  2. My first run at this particular cake – four layers with lemon curd filling, covered in seven-minute icing – was a month ago for my book group. It turned out well, but I wanted to try it again with a few tweaks. (ie: Upping the tart factor to showcase the lemon and getting the icing to not be so runny. I succeeded with the former, not so much with the latter.)
  3. There’d be a guaranteed gluten-free dessert, which could be my little secret.
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I need to figure out how to make the icing less runny.

The party seemed less crowded this year. One difference was the absence of vote trollers. Last year, going into an election season, there were a lot of “bright young things” (quotes intentional) sparkling up the front room, willingly engaging with anyone they considered worthy (each other) and pretty much ignoring the rest of us. I’m not entirely sad that the only bright young things there this year were the regular wonderful ones, and not just because (huzzah!) it meant more grilled tenderloin for the rest of us.

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This  is from another party featuring tenderloin. I didn’t take any pictures last night.

Tenderloin and cake aside, it’s good to assess where we’ve been, where we’re going, and what’s happening around us at various points along the way.

Which, for those of us old enough to have children in their 20s, 30s and 40s (whether or not we actually do), might be causing a few … twinges.

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In keeping with the food theme, here’s some “where we’ve been,” featuring adult children and elders.

Those children are adults, with all the responsibilities and privileges that word carries. And, at the same time, as Kevin wisely observes, the generation-up people we saw as heroes and role models – and some similarly-situated age peers – are dying within the time frame of a normal life span. (Some are at the younger end of that spectrum, but still within the boundaries of “normal.”)

Getting old enough to die at the point where no one is shocked at how “too young” you were is a strange rite of passage. I don’t spend a ton of time brooding about what that means, but I would be lying if I said I never thought about it at all.

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Me (right), not brooding. And probably not acting my age, either. 

As what is shaping up to be a surreal and potentially interesting interval in the life the world as we know it, or to put it more succinctly, 2017, commences, I’m trying to keep an open mind about things.

One certainty that is becoming clearer is making the best use of the time I have in front of me. Part of that involves making more words, more cake, taking the best possible care I can of the people I love and of the world in which I live.

Regarding that last, loving the world in which I live means doing my bit to create the one I want to leave for everyone else. Seeing the world as it is and not as I want it to be isn’t easy. Talking honestly about it isn’t always politic. But unless you’re willing to look at – and call by name – what’s happening in front of you, you’ll never be able to change it.

So, 2017, here’s a toast. L’Chaim and no bullshit.

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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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Family history, Family story, food, Gluten-free, Holidays, Judaism, lifestyle, religion

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.

“What?”

“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.

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caregiving, Christmas, Family story, Holidays, lifestyle

‘I’m not big on long goodbyes’ or Death at Christmas

Like most working people in the US, where Christian culture is majority culture, I’d been looking forward to a couple of days off at Christmas.

It’s not my holiday. But I get to partake of its best parts because Sweetheart’s family is a mashup of Lutherans, atheists who grew up as Lutherans & Catholics-by-choice. Sweetheart was nine when his parents split. From that point on, it was Christmas Eve with Mom and Christmas Day with Dad. That’s carried into adulthood, except now Dad is at the Mom celebration and Mom comes to Dad’s brunch. They’re what it looks like when you decide to stop letting the past get in the way of the present and learn new ways to be kind.

It makes those big life transitions so much easier. When First Husband died, Better Wife than I’d Been called me right away. (Unexpected, as BW adored FH and loved my children, but not so much me. I was fine with that – she didn’t have to be nice to me as long as she was good to them.) Together, we got the six combined kids (three apiece, ranging from 19-29) through that terrible time. At that point, I hadn’t spoken with First Husband’s father Sidney for about five years. But BW’s father was dying, and she’d just been widowed for the second time. She had her hands full. So I started calling Sidney every week to check up on him and let him know how his granddaughters were faring.

I was particularly worried because of Mrs. Sidney – I’ll call her Barbara. He’d married Barbara within a year of FH’s mother’s death when FH was 15. She had never warmed to Sidney’s children, and didn’t share his level of anguish. She wasn’t crazy for me either, but time passed. Things changed.

We’ve had lots of breakfasts and dinners together, a couple of Passover Seders (one that included BW & her family) and those weekly calls.

Mrs. Sidney and Sidney. This photo was taken in April.

Mrs. Sidney and Sidney (z”l). This photo was taken in April. The (z”l) is a Hebrew abbreviation for a phrase that translates in English to “of blessed memory.”

I’ve seen Sidney go downhill steadily since First Husband’s death.

This past June, he pulled Barbara down as she was trying to help him up after another of his increasingly frequent falls. Doctors diagnosed a brain tumor. They gave him two to six months. Barbara, who doesn’t drive anymore, found a nursing home nearby. She visited a couple of times a week and wondered aloud more than once what, if anything, either of them was getting out of those visits. My mother is in a nursing home here, and I see lonely people with no or infrequent visitors. It’s not pretty. I had a hard time understanding the way she was dealing with things until the day she told me she’d never seen anyone die before.

She’d never seen anyone die before?

She’s in her mid-80s. I feel very lucky to have seen people die. It’s made me much less anxious about the whole process.

Now, Sidney has given two of his granddaughters that gift.

The youngest, Talia, is a 27-year-old undergrad who works as a nanny. She lives about two hours from the nursing home. Since June, she’s been there every week when she’s not in school and every other week when she is.

On Tuesday, the evening before my first day of Christmas break, she called me at 9 p.m.

“Has anyone told you what’s going on with Grandpa?”

“Ummm…..no. What’s going on with Grandpa?”

“I’m in his room. He’s dying. Barbara called to tell me they said she needs to have a CNA in his room 24/7, so I told her to tell them I was coming down,” she said. Then she said something I knew she hadn’t told Barbara.

“There’s no way I’m going to let Grandpa die alone with a stranger in his room.”

I live a scant hour and a half from Sidney’s nursing home.

“Do you want me to come down?”

She burst into tears.

“Oh, Mommy! Would you?”

I would.

When I got there, he was actively dying (unconscious and in a state of possible semi-awareness). He was also agitated. I rousted the nursing staff when I found out that his last dose of morphine had been about two hours before.

I had Talia call Former Sister-In-Law, who was in from Texas and had taken off from her job to be there. (All I could think was – Lord, please don’t let him die with me in the room and NOT her). SIL and her lifelong best friend arrived at about 11:30. By 5 a.m., when they left to nap and shower before returning later in the day, Talia’s sisters had flights. Alex was coming in at 1 p.m. and Liza, who’d just seen him a week before, would arrive the next night.

Barbara showed up at about 8:45. The Hospice Nurse was there and told her she might want to tell him that it was okay for him to go.

She sat by him. She took his hand and said, “You’ll be in a better place, and we will all be okay.”

Then we went out for breakfast. She offered to split the bill. I didn’t let her.

I dropped her back at her place for a hair appointment (she lives in one of those all-inclusive assisted living complexes), hit up the grocery store for some provisions (a box of clementines, some grapefruit soda, a green plant) and headed back with food. Talia ate the to-go breakfast I’d gotten her and took off to fetch Alex from the airport.

We were alone for a bit.

I told Sidney that we’d all be okay and I’d keep up the weekly calls to Barbara. I played my guitalele and sang a bit for him, and then Vicky the Hospice Nurse, who turned out to have a great voice, showed up. We harmonized on songs we couldn’t remember the words to and told Sidney we were worth every penny he was paying us.

I also told him that for a man whose stock lines included “I’m not big on long goodbyes,” he sure seemed to be stretching this one out.

Then, I remembered that I had Mandy Patinkin singing Yiddish songs on my iPad (Sidney was a big fan of Yiddish songs). So I put that on for him. Alex & Talia arrived, then Cathy. When my daughter-in-law Abbi showed up a little after 3, it was okay – better in fact – for me to head out. The room wasn’t that big and at that point I was just extra baggage.

I sat beside him. I gave him a kiss.

“I’m not big on long goodbyes,” I told him.

Then, I made my way back to Milwaukee, exhausted but just in time for Christmas Eve with the in-laws.

Talia called at 8 to tell me Sidney had died, with Alex and Talia each holding one of his hands, Cathy with her hands on his head and Abbi sitting nearby.

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Christmas, Hanukkah, Holidays

The rabbi’s kids and Christmas trees: A tale of forbidden lust

When we were little, my sister and I really wanted a Christmas tree.

We did not want Christmas.

We had no problem with Christmas, but we were perfectly happy with Hanukkah. We liked being Jewish. We loved potato latkes and we got eight night’s worth of presents. So we never felt as if we were missing out on that score. Plus, as a religious minority, we got to partake in a fair share of Majority Culture’s fun. We sang Christmas carols in the school concert and participated in classroom gift exchanges.

Outside of school, Mom let us stand in line so we could sit on Santa’s lap (we always told him we were Jewish and he always wished us a Happy Hanukkah). And our parents took us on an annual nighttime ride around the city during which we oohed and ahhed at houses and houses dressed for the season. They’d pull over, leaving the car running and the heat on, giving us time to take it all in – block after block of lights stretched across houses and dripping from gutters, lit crèches and nativity scenes, rootop Santas and pine wreaths on front doors. If the curtains were open, we might get a glimpse of the family’s tree, festooned with ornaments, boxes piled below.

Then we’d go home to our darkened house. Debby and I never talked about how desperately we wanted a tree. Not to each other, and certainly not to our parents.

We never spoke of it.

It seemed too – blasphemous. Which was not a word either of us knew at that point in our lives. But Debby and I understood that a Christmas tree had no business in the rabbi’s living room, no matter how much the rabbi’s daughters wanted it. And boy, did we want it. A big ol’ fir tree strung with lights and popcorn chains, dripping with silvery strands of tinsel and delicate glass ornaments and maybe even candles you could really light.

We were about seven and eight when we solved our Christmas Tree Lust problem to my satisfaction. (I had a genuine “shock and awe” moment when I learned much later that Debby had, for years, also been decorating a triangular tree-like object she kept hidden on a shelf in her bedroom closet).

Mom & Dad regularly threw us out of the house on weekends.

“Go out and play!” they’d say. It was cold and inside was nicer. But they were in charge.

So we’d put on coats, hats, snow pants, mittens, scarves, grab sleds or whatever and head off looking for what to do and other kids with whom to do it.

One of those days there was just us. We’d walked the neighborhood looking for other kids, but everyone was busy or not home. I’m not sure who got the idea first, but it was just past Christmas. Discarded trees were everywhere.

The perfect tree for my family!

Christian families’ holiday discards were the answer to our childish Jewish prayers!

I looked at her. She looked at me. We looked around, and chose. For the next two or three post-Christmas seasons, we would set out, hunting for the perfect discarded tree. We knew nothing of shape, or symmetry. We looked for tinsel, and types of needles, and whether we could get our hands around the trunk to drag it home. Then, we could imagine it had been in our living room, decorated with popcorn garlands, strung with lights, hung with tinsel and dripping ornaments.

Even though I only imagined one tree inside the house, there was usually more than one laying in the road outside our living room window. We’d see one that was just too perfect to resist (particularly if it still had tinsel slung over the branches) and add it to our collection.

My sister and I never talked about it. My mother and father never brought it up.

Decades later, after my father was long dead, I finally asked my mother what they’d thought about it all.

“We’d laugh,” Mom said. “And then, the night before the garbage truck came, your father would go outside after you were in bed and drag the trees next door to Dr. Cantor’s house.”

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