Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The French paradox

I'm making my annual New Year's Eve gourmet dinner for just me and Ron tomorrow night. Every year, I pick new and somewhat difficult recipes because a) I enjoy cooking, and b) it forces me to get out of my culinary comfort zone and try something interesting.

At the market today, I wandered around picking up all the ingredients - items that I seldom buy. I think I spent half of my time in the dairy aisle. Since I'm making French dishes, my grocery list had unsalted butter, eggs, whole milk, whipping cream, and a hunk of cheese on it. With Ron's cholesterol and my dieting, we rarely buy the real things. Everything is normally "lite" and "fat-free" and whatever else they call things that are injected with chemicals to make them taste like something.

Since I started watching Julia Child as a kid, I've always baked and cooked with butter. Never margerine. Because Julia said that there's a big difference in the results and, if you're gonna cook, you should use the best ingredients you can buy.

Julia lived into her 90s and her favorite foods that she ate regularly were NOT iceberg lettuce, diet Sprite, and we-know-it-looks-like-it-came-from-a-cow-but-it's-really-landfill dairy products.

I was shocked, yes, shocked, at how difficult it was for me to find whole Swiss cheese. I thought I finally found it but, when I got it home, the teeny tiny writing on the back said it was "part-skim".

Why can't we just have cheese like our grandparents bought (or made)? Because no one would buy it, that's why. We've got ourselves so marketed-up that we can't even find real food anymore.

So, I'll make my French dish with the part-skim cheese and hope that Julia isn't peaking out from between the pages of her cookbook. Consuming more liqueur than I put in the mousse should help with that. And Julia's spirit may just be appeased.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Holiday regroup

Every year it's the same thing. I start out sure of myself. I won't over-indulge. I'll stare those boxes of fudge in the eye and say "You can't tempt me!". But then I eat just one, and it's all over.

I'm not the only one who does this. So I find myself wondering why we throw away our resolve and our common sense this time of year. I've come to believe it's like mob mentality. Everyone else is doing it, so I have an excuse.

But every year, I spend the week after the holidays feeling like crap because I've had nothing healthy to eat. Yet, I still pick at the leftover cookies and breads. It's pathetic, really.

And that's where New Years resolutions are born. Wrangling control back from an out-of-control holiday season is empowering. But it also says that it's okay to be out of control as long as you regain control.

I actually like being out of control sometimes. Especially on the dance floor. Being uninhibited and in the moment is freeing.

I just wish I could corral my inhibitions to only partake in healthy over-indulgences. This is a lesson from the holidays: Find a way to feed my psychological need to be free from restaint and, at the same time, not over-feed my physical being.

It's back to Weight Watchers tonight to face the scale. One of these days I'll figure out that balance.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Lessons from quilting

I finished a full-size quilt today that I've been working on since March of 2008. I made it entirely by hand (both sewing the pieces together and quilting). It was my first large quilting project since I started quilting almost two years ago. I obviously don't quilt full-time or it would have been done sooner.

My friend Lynne taught me how to quilt on smaller projects and I learned my lessons well. They were used when making this quilt too. The stitches and techniques remained the same. But I learned other things while creating this larger quilt.
  • Be patient. When you've got a long road ahead of you, you can only look at the small task at hand before moving on.
  • Celebrate your milestones. When I completed sewing the quilt top, I jumped for joy and patted myself on the back. Don't listen to those Puritans; there's nothing wrong with celebrating yourself once in a while.
  • Suffering minor injuries to do something you are passionate about is okay. I've got my share of callouses and spilled my share of blood while wrestling with the pins and needles of success. They are my badges of honor.
  • When you dedicate yourself to do something for someone you love, it makes the road easier to travel. If I were making this quilt for myself, I just know it wouldn't have come out as close-to-perfect as it is.
  • Share your effort with a friend. Lynne and I often quilted together - she on her project, I on mine. And the time flew. We compared our successes and voiced our frustrations together. Besides creating quilts, we also strengthened our friendship.
  • There isn't much that can't be fixed. I made my share of mistakes as I sewed and quilted. If it meant I had to rip out seams and start again, I did. I fixed them and moved on.
  • Never forget the pure joy of doing what you love. I started quilting as a way to relax. And though I sometimes get a little impatient with my progress, I always remembered to cut myself some slack and enjoy the process.
The quilt that I will give away for Christmas feels like it's another appendage. As much as I will love to have Toby enjoy my quilt for years to come, I will miss it. Thankfully, I can visit and see it again.

Now, what's my next project????

Monday, December 21, 2009

It's all how you look at it

Today is Winter Solstice. It is the shortest amount of daylight we'll have for a year. People mistakenly call it "the shortest day of the year". Days are still 24 hours, last time I checked.

Being more of a night person, this is not a depressing day for me. First of all, tonight we're going to a Winter Solstice party at a friend's house. A perfect excuse to celebrate pre-Christmas spirit without all the hassles of packing up gifts and visiting umpteen relatives in one 24-hour timeframe.

It's also not depressing because of what this day signals. It starts the slow but steady progress of turning winter into spring. This is a day and night for looking forward to longer and warmer days. Sure we've got plenty of cold spells and snowstorms in our immediate future. I'm not kidding myself.

But then, my dad doesn't call me Suzy Sassafras for nothin'.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Waiting for the call

We got some sad, but not unexpected, news about our dog Alex this week. He's been suffering from what our vet thought was vestibular disease. But the episodes increased and we decided to take him to Tufts Animal Hospital for a neurology exam. The good doctors spent a lot of time working with Alex to determine what the cause could be. The potentials are not pretty.

Alex is almost 15 years old. Ancient in Springer Spaniel years. Though an MRI and other tests might prove which of the un-pretty potentials it actually is, we have decided to not put him through that. He had a hard enough time with the rather strenuous neurological exam.

I'm sitting in front of the computer now waiting for our vet to call so we can discuss Alex's care going forward. I wish the phone would just ring so I can get this knot out of my stomach. I've been sick since 3am when I awoke to what I thought was Alex crying out. I checked and he was sound asleep.

I've been having dreams about saying goodbye to him for the last month. I know it's coming. But as I watched his chest rise and fall as he lay in his usual spot on the bed between my feet and Ron's, I just couldn't imagine our home without him.

We will make the hard decision when we have to and do it completely unselfishly. I just dread the final ear rub and pat on the bum.

Monday, December 14, 2009

What it's all about

I joined a chorale at my church a few months ago and we had our first gig this weekend. Our chorale was formed with the mission of being a community outreach group first, and a musical group second. We are singing at nursing homes and assisted living facilities, but I'd like to expand it to include other groups.

Needless to say, our first time singing out together was a big deal. We had practiced for many months and our leader came up with a great mix of songs. We'll change out our holiday songs as we approach different holidays.

The first place we sang, ended up being quite emotional for me. Unexpectedly emotional. I took my eyes off my music and started looking at the faces of the elderly for whom this was a big part of their day. I was heading out to a holiday party that night and this gig was just one more thing I had to do in an already busy day.

When I looked in the eyes of the nursing home residents (and in those of the residents' visitors) I found myself unable to sing. My throat closed up and my eyes started to tear. Here, in front of me, was my grandmother who languished in a nursing home for so many years. Slowly being taken away from us by strokes. I hadn't realized till then that I had not been in a nursing home since she died.

It was then that it hit me. All this running around we do for the holidays: shopping, wrapping, baking, card-writing, decorating, etc. is so unimportant. What matters is sharing our personal gifts with others, not material ones. We happened to have the gift of song that day. That experience yanked the sugarplums out of my head along with my holiday to-do list.

I wondered if it was possible to convince everyone I know that we should declare a holiday from Christmas insanity. And let Christmas be what it was always meant to be before the marketing execs took over. It's hard to talk people out of tradition and even harder to talk them into a new way of thinking.

I'll still work on my to-do list, but something's changed. If the house isn't immaculate for the entertaining I'm doing, so what. If I forget to send a card to someone, oh well. If I can't find the perfect gift for that hard-to-buy-for relative, c'est la vie.

If there are any complaints, I will take them to the nursing homes with me for our next gig and introduce them to the ghost of Christmas yet to come.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

We are but caretakers

With three senior dogs in our home, there are many moments of worry and anxiety about health issues. It isn't constant. We still have lots of cuddle time and they still are well enough to do their nightly walks with dad.

Our oldest, Alex (affectionately known as Alex Bean), is almost 15. An amazing age for a springer spaniel. Alex has been our biggest challenge with emotional and physical problems that have taken us to the vet almost weekly. There are also lots of Tufts Animal Hospital visits interspersed for specialist appointments, and, oh yeah, trips to the local doggie ER.

We love him to pieces because he is a sweet, gentle old soul.

But it is becoming increasingly clear to us that the time is coming that we will have to say goodbye to our little guy. Probably sooner than later. If the decision is made, it will be agonizing and heartbreaking but done completely unselfishly.

Holding an animal's life in your hands is a huge responsibility. I'm trying to let the process just happen and trust that we will do the right thing by Alex. I was thinking this morning how we don't truly own our pets. We are only their caretakers. Their lives are their own. We are here to help them live those lives as happily and healthy as possible.

When the time comes that they can no longer live the lives they deserve, then we take great care in helping them cross the bridge. But again, it's all about caring, not about owning. Too many times, I see pet "owners" who forget that their pet is its own being, not an extension of themselves.

I hope that we have many more happy times with Alex Bean. But, if his body can no longer sustain the life that is his, we will be there to help him let it go.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Vote while you can

I'm heading out shortly to work the polls for my town. Being an election officer doesn't pay much and, considering the usual low-turnout rate, can be pretty boring. But I still love it.

Voting is a huge deal in my family. Still is. I remember when I turned 18. I had a bad cold and had stayed home from college. My mom kicked me out of bed, dragged me to town hall, and had me register to vote.

My folks always told me that voting is a privilege that could easily be taken away. If no one votes, and a corrupt regime takes over the country, they could lobby to take our voting rights away. Since few people vote, citizens would have a hard time lobbying to keep the right.

Sounds far-fetched but it speaks to how important it is to exercise this right. So many citizens in other countries die for this right. We should never take it for granted.

So, off I go to work with the other folks who feel the same pride in and sense of commitment to the democratic process.

Not everyone can work the polls, but everyone can and should vote. Remember, it's YOUR country.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Oh, brother

A wise man once said that we should be our brother's keeper. Most people I know agree that charity and kindness to those we know and love is a sign of good character. But who exactly is this "brother"?

Although that verse related to Cain and Abel, does it really just apply to brothers or family members? I know people, good people, who feel that their responsibility to others does not extend beyond their family tree. I can't judge these folks.

Yesterday I volunteered at the Lowell Wish Project with the high schoolers from my church. Donna Hunnewell, who started the non-profit and has dedicated her life to it, is a prime example of someone who feels her brother is everyone on the planet. 

But talking with her also made me wonder about those who feel that the brother responsible for taking care of others is Big Brother. The government. Yes, we pay taxes and a piece of those taxes are put towards social programs. However, does that mean we can then say we've done our part and feel no further responsibility to do more?

If Big Brother is solely responsible for taking care of all of our brothers, then we are in big trouble. Not only does that make us self-involved creatures, it also short-changes those who need help.

I believe it is the government's responsibility to provide a livable condition for its citizens. It is the citizens responsibility to help those who the government cannot. What would the world look like if we never reached out? What would that say about us if we watered only our own family trees?

That kind of world is a scary picture for me. We might complain that the government doesn't do enough. I agree that when funds are slashed it's the weakest that suffer and that's absolutely unconscionable.

The reality is that government will never be able to take care of everyone. It is a sad truth. But the fire that exists in true altruistic souls is sparked by such inequities. And they, in turn, spark others. We ARE taking care of our brothers and that's the way it should be.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Till death do us part

I've been thinking about vows lately, what with all the Tiger Woods news swirling around. And I wonder if we need to hold only marriage vows up to this level of expectation.

When Ron and I said our vows on our wedding day, we used the traditional vows: "To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part." When we renewed our vows 20 years later, we chose something more poetic, yet I still like the original.

Marriage is only one relationship in your life, though. And, although we don't normally speak vows to others in our lives, I think we hold important relationships to this same standard.

Think about your dearest friends. Some of them drive you crazy but you love them anyway. And how about family members? I know, same thing, right? Don't the "marriage" vows carry over to those relationships as well?

The same spoken vows I have with my husband are just as sacred, though unspoken, as those I have with my friends and family.

I know I'd feel just as crushed if a close family member or friend let me down or acted in a way that I felt disrespected my unspoken vow to be there for them always. There is no line for me when I pledge my heart.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

True to his word

I'm finding all the hullabaloo about Obama's Afghan war speech a little silly. He repeatedly said when he was campaigning that he thought we should finish what we started in Afghanistan and get out of Iraq.

He is doing exactly what he said he would do, yet all the Dems (pols AND voters) who broke down in tears of joy when he was elected, are now up in arms. Why? They can't be surprised.

Were his followers only hearing the get-out-of-Iraq part and turning a blind eye to his words on Afghanistan? Or are the outraged just stunned to find a politician who does what he says he's going to?