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Archive for August, 2012

Splitsville

Goodness, a whole week without having posted.  For awhile there, I felt as if I was shooting for a whole year.  Anyway, “back to our sheep,” as I’m told they say in Russia:

What is the best thing you ever had for dessert?”

Let’s see, I’m in my seventh decade of life, and the question is, what is the very best dessert I’ve ever had?!  Scanning…scanning…scanning (back over 60+ years)…  Got it.  Believe it or not.

A banana split.

Nobody in my mother’s family was very demonstrative, but her older sister was especially close to my mother and to all us kids.  Mind you, I’m sure my brothers would have been very happy to have her farther away:  She lived around the corner from us when I was growing up, and my mother babysat her kids while my aunt went out to work, so on the rare occasions when my mother needed a babysitter, Aunt Mary was It.  And when it came to concocting scenarios of disaster, Aunt Mary had an imagination that made the legendary Jewish Mother look like a rank amateur.  My brothers still talk about the day she tied them into chairs – I find that hard to believe, but it is just possible, considering that my aunt’s explanation was that she was afraid Something Would Happen to Them.

I myself never experienced this side of her personality.  On the other hand, I could be relied upon to disappear into my cousin’s bedroom and not come out till it was time to come home, due to the fact that my cousin, her older son, had the largest collection of comic books in our entire town.  I think he had a charter subscription to Mad Magazine.

Anyway, back to dessert.  When I was sixteen, I met my aunt on the main street of town for a reason long lost to the mists of Time, and she invited me into a local candy store for a banana split.  I had heard of these concoctions, but had never had one; they were expensive treats, and I had more important uses for my allowance, like books and classical-music records, which were also expensive.  So I said I’d love to, more out of curiosity than for any other reason.

WOW.  That’s all I can say about it, just – WOW.  All that whipped cream!  All that ice cream!!  Bananas, and a cherry atop each peak of whipped cream!!!  And I didn’t even have to share it; my aunt bought one for herself, and a whole ‘nother one just for me.  If I had been hit by a car on the way home, I’d have died a happy girl:  I’d finally had the famous, infamously caloric, legendary Banana Split.

I had one other banana split in my lifetime, interestingly also in my aunt’s company, and I was somewhere in my forties at the time.  My girlish figure was long gone, due not to an excess of banana splits but to early-onset menopause, and I probably should not have been indulging.  But my mother, my aunt, and I had gone out to lunch, my aunt had seen it on the menu and pounced – it turned out it was her favorite dessert – and as she did so, it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t enjoyed that treat since that long-ago winter day when I was 16, so I joined her.  And it was just as good the second time around.

I haven’t had one since.  At this point in my life, I doubt my elderly insides would be able to handle all that richness.  But the memory of that slushy winter day, all holed up in a candy store on the corner of Metropolitan Avenue and 78th Street, with my favorite relative, spooning up a banana split all to myself – that still stands out as the best dessert I ever had.

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Who in your world is made of sugar and spice and everything nice?”

Not very many people, that’s for sure.  Most people I know are made of lemonade:  tart enough to make your mouth pucker, but not too tart to keep around.  And very refreshing, as lemonade is supposed to be.  My own dearly beloved sister, who would have been a candidate for Sugar and Spice thirty years ago, has ripened into…let’s see…”gourmet lemonade,” and I love her all the more for it.

I don’t generally like overly sweet people, anyway, especially not the women with soft, little-girl voices and an attitude of, “I don’t need sugar in my coffee ’cause I’m sweet enough.”  Barf.  People like that are usually so sweet to your face because they’re busy sharpening their knives behind your back.

But a genuinely sweet person is like a refreshing breeze on a day in May, with just a hint of lily of the valley to make you wish this day would never end.  I only know one woman like that, and she’s a member of my church.  If I were just starting out as an Orthodox Christian, this is the woman I’d ask to be my godmother; her grasp on how to live a truly Orthodox life is that good.

She is not a Church Lady in any sense of the word, not one of those Dana Carvey caricatures.  Her whole manner is gentle, and when she smiles, the smile lights up her eyes, too.  When she stands in church, you can see that her whole attention is focused on the service, but she doesn’t have one of those phony pious expressions on her face; she’s really absorbed in what’s going on around her.  Her voice is soft, but pleasantly low, and only from the fine lines around her eyes can you tell that she has seen some hard times in life – and risen above them, by the help of God.

In her “day job,” she’s a nurse at an assisted-living facility.  I once said something to her about the difficulty of her job, and her face crinkled in a genuine smile:  “Oh, it’s not nearly as bad as it would be in a nursing home.  People in assisted living are still able to help physically with their care, so it’s really just making sure they have the medicines they need, and the rest is just companionship.”  Unfortunately for me, she’s only about ten years younger than I am (though she looks much younger than that, she has a grown daughter); if she were as young as she looks, so help me Hannah, I’d wangle my way into assisted living just for the pleasure of this woman’s company.

And the best thing of all about her is that she doesn’t read my blog, so I can talk about her without embarrassing her.  I am so glad I know her.  She reminds me not to dismiss sweet people out of hand.

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Given the state of the federal budget, many are the cries for reductions and taxations.  But where to slash?  Push Granny off the cliff?  Where to raise?  Those lucre-loving denizens of Wall Street?  On only one target can both sides comfortably settle:  those blood-sucking federal employees, those lard-butts who sit around Washington all day doing crossword puzzles and pulling in twice what the average American wage-earner earns.  Let’s face it, nobody likes paying taxes; why not dun the tax-takers?

So I thought I’d introduce you to your Friendly Neighborhood Fed so you could get an idea of where at least some of your tax dollars really go.

Well, yes, some of them do go to Washington to support Congressional Representatives and Senators, not to mention whoever currently inhabits 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  (Yes, I know who currently inhabits it, but not even he can live there forever.  At least, not as things stand at the moment, though I wouldn’t put it past him to have himself declared President for Life or something.)  Some tax dollars do go for farm subsidies, transportation subsidies, medical research, defense, education, student loans, etc., etc., etc.  In fact, so much goes out on all of this that I’m wondering why people fixate on federal civil-service employees as the Source of All Our Ills.

Oh, wait, I forgot, they don’t do nuttin’.  Well…almost nuttin’.  They do the medical research.  They process Social-Security claims and income-tax returns, and those nightmarish FAFSA forms so well-known to college-loan applicants.  Not a few of them put their lives on the line for you and me (and earn peanuts doing it, incidentally) – we call them soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.  But there are also the people who guard the president, ensure that smugglers are caught, try their level best (with sometimes outright hostility from Congress and the administration) to keep our borders safe and minimize the effects of illegal drugs.  And there are the people who, since 1971, have been making sure that you get home in one piece at night (OSHA, to be specific).

They don’t all work in Washington.  Most of them, in fact, work ten or twenty miles from where you live.  They pay taxes the same as you do, not only state and local and property taxes, but federal income taxes – which means they pay a portion of their own salaries.  When they drive to work, they buy their gas at the same gas station you do; when they take mass transit, they pay the same fare you do.  The health insurance they get isn’t the same razzle-dazzle cover-everything plan that the Congress gets; it’s the same Blue Cross/Blue Shield plan as yours, with, possibly, one exception:  They pay a portion of their insurance coverage, something I never had to do when working in private industry.  They make co-payments on their medical care, too.

When they go out to eat, they eat at local restaurants.  Their kids go to school with your kids, unless they attend a parochial school – and maybe yours do, too.  The houses on which they pay property taxes look like yours, to a greater or lesser extent; some have larger homes, but some have smaller homes, too.  If they live in one state and work in another, they pay state income taxes to both states, same as you do.  They shop at the same supermarkets you do, and get their hair cut by the same barber or hair stylist that you use.

Strikes me that an awful lot of your tax dollars are being plowed back into your community, via federal civil-service workers.  Naive idealism?  Not really – I’ve been married to one for over forty years.

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‘Tis the summer of a presidential election, and the Sound of the Candidates is heard in the land.  I don’t know what it is about our tiny state, which only has two electoral votes, but every four years, we get slammed with political ads and visits from campaigners, often beginning the year before.  I don’t know about other New Hampshirites, but by this time, I’m heartily sick of it all.  This isn’t why I became a monarchist, but I can’t help reflecting that in a constitutional monarchy, anyway, our choices would be limited to something much more relevant:  local elections.

Of necessity, much of our television programming comes from our neighbor to the south, Massachusetts, and the race for Senate there is on the national radar screen.  Two years ago, when the ubiquitous Teddy Kennedy finally went to his eternal reward, the Senate seat he had occupied for so many decades was up for grabs.  Now, owing largely to the Kennedys, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts passed some time ago from being a bastion of Republican probity to being a test tube for Democratic social change, so the Democratic candidate for this race, State Attorney General Martha Coakley, was considered a shoo-in for the Senate race; her competitor, Scott Brown, didn’t even receive financial support (and only lip service) from the Republican Party of Massachusetts.  No matter.  Scott Brown drove his blue truck from one end of the state to the other, literally door-to-door.  He’d stop at diners and coffee shops and local fairs, introducing himself, listening to what people wanted out of their Senate representation, explaining what could and would not be possible for him as a junior Senator; but he listened to people.  And in the political upset of a lifetime, he won the Senate seat.

A new six-year term for that seat begins next year, so he’s having to do it all over again.  This time around, his opponent is a Harvard professor by the name of Elizabeth Warren.  The ads for both candidates are thick, so the hubster and I have had plenty of “face time,” as it were, with Professor Warren.  She reminds us both of, big surprise, a teacher:  wire-frame glasses, short, bobbed hair, very earnest in her presentation, much shaking of her head as she makes her points in favor of her platform, which I won’t go into because it’s a standard Democratic platform.  At least once per day, we’ll note to each other that we expect her to start shaking her finger at the voters as she tries to impress upon them how bad they were in electing that nasty man two years ago.  Naughty, naughty.

I guess this campaign garners so much national attention because no one ever expected a Democratic candidate to lose any election in Massachusetts – despite the fact that two of its governors, within living memory, have been Republicans – certainly not a candidate for the “Kennedy Seat in the Senate” (or, as Scott Brown pointed out last time, “the people’s seat in the Senate”).  Also because of the gaffes this woman has made in her campaign, such as the one where it came to light that she had claimed minority status as being “part Cherokee,” and then it turned out she was something like 1/32 Cherokee.  She based her claim on members of her family having “high cheekbones.”  Hey, I have high cheekbones.  They came from my Russian ancestors.  Why doesn’t she claim to be part Russian?

The latest ad, though, is a doozy.  In her oh-so-earnest way, she starts out by describing the “trillions of dollars” college students owe on their student loans, then goes on to excoriate “Washington” for making this happen, and makes the point – somewhat – that if you elect her, she’ll Clean Up the Mess in Washington.  Huh???  It’s her own Party that’s in control of the federal government.  Sooooo…whose mess is in Washington??  What am I missing?

Closer to home – that is, back north of the border – we have yet to hold our State primaries for gubernatorial candidate (governors of New Hampshire serve two-year terms).  Last night there was a news article for one of the candidates running on the Democratic platform.  He’s a retired Marine, he runs a bed-and-breakfast somewhere north of where I live (together with his wife), and he made a point of stressing his respect for life:  “If I see a spider, I’ll pick it up and put it outside.”  Nice.  My husband does the same thing.  But my husband is not a member of the Party that has institutionalized, as a major plank in its platform, the destruction of unborn human life.  Does this candidate even realize the inconsistency?!  If he has so much respect for life, why is he a Democrat?!

Not to mention the Democratic Party’s fallback portrayal of Republicans as the Party of the Rich, robber barons sending jobs overseas (inaccurately described, incidentally, as “outsourcing” – it’s actually “off-shoring”) while accumulating billions in Swiss bank accounts – oh, unless they’re Bible-totin’ Rednecks with gun racks on the back of the pickup truck.  Bible-totin’ “rednecks” aren’t notoriously wealthy, so people, which is it?

I used to work for a man who would regularly exhort us to be “consistent in our inconsistencies.”  Musta been a Democrat.

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The Candy Man

“What was the last piece of candy that you gave someone else?”

Candy isn’t something I give to other people.  I rarely buy it for myself, so it would never occur to me to give it to other people.  Not even Easter candy – we never actually did the Easter-Bunny thing in our house.  When you have the sumptuousness of a Russian Orthodox paschal meal – the kielbasa! the kulich! the pascha! – who needs candy?!  (For the uninitiated, “kulich” is a sweet bread baked in a high cylindrical form, and “pascha” is a very rich cheese concoction made of farmer cheese, heavy cream, butter, and almonds, among other things.)

But I did once work with a man who would distribute mini-candy bars at break time, and he was a character.

When I started out with this company, they had just expanded from twelve workers to thirty-six.  We all sat around long tables, ten or twelve of us to a table, and we read compositions written by fourth-, eighth- and eleventh-graders.  Or we reviewed their efforts in Math, Reading, and Arts and Humanities.  Yes, I worked for one of those firms that does standardized educational testing for a variety of states, and I can tell you, that work is both entertaining and phenomenally boring at the same time.

There was the Best Friend of the Year Award prompt:  “Nominate your best friend for the Best Friend of the Year Award.  Be specific.”  The goal was to make sure they could put together a coherent composition in standard English.  After awhile, “She brings me up when I’m feeling down” and “He’s always there for me” become so routine that you find yourself dreaming about them, and well-written but unimaginative compositions begin to look like they were written by William Faulkner.

We had three breaks:  two 15-minute breaks, and half an hour for lunch.  Half an hour for lunch isn’t much, but you would not have wanted to combine all the breaks into a one-hour lunch break; your mind really needed to relax from so much mediocrity.  Coffee worked for the 10:00 a.m. break, but by 2:00, you were at the climbing-walls stage.  This is when George would bring out his bags of candy, and distribute miniature Snickers or Three Musketeers bars to each of the scorers.

George was a short, very thin man; over time I learned that he had picked up celiac sprue in his travels around the globe for an Unspecified Government Agency, and was unable to eat anything with wheat.  He spoke a number of foreign languages, including Arabic and Farsi, and was very well read in all the languages he spoke.  It’s tempting to ask what on earth such a man was doing at a job like ours, but the thing about this job was that it wasn’t steady work, and if you were unable to show up for a project, you had the freedom to turn it down – or to leave in the middle of it, as George did during the Gulf War of 1991.  Hmmmm.

He had Sources for any number of things; many of us bought stamps from him in rolls of 100, for example.  Hey, it saved us a trip to the post office.  If we’d been working in Russia, I’d have suspected him of being a black marketeer.  But his specialty was candy.  I don’t know where he got those bags of candy from; it can’t have been the supermarket, or he’d have gone bankrupt.  I mean, every afternoon there was a candy bar at each place, and you’d see him wandering around, distributing it.  We’d make pro-forma protests, for the sake of our Girlish Figures (!); but we knew, and he knew, how desperately a sugar burst was needed to get us through that last ninety minutes till the end of the work day.

George passed on some time ago; I guess all his adventures caught up with him, and he is now beyond needing to read empty-headed compositions written by children who would rather be doing anything else.  I picture him standing at the pearly gates, bag of candy in hand, scanning entrants for small, bewildered children and handing them a treat instantly recognizable as the one guaranteed consoler of small, bewildered children:  candy.

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Are there any candies that you just can’t stomach?”

Pretty much all of them, actually.  Nobody realizes this when they’re young, but when older people talk about not being able to eat certain foods, there’s a reason for that:  Those foods cause, shall we say, “digestive unpleasantness.”  There are so many varieties of Digestive Unpleasantness that it doesn’t pay to go into details, and in any case, who on earth wants to hear about that?!  I don’t, and I live with it.

I have to be careful with candy.  One ounce of dark chocolate a day – the current recommendation of the chocolate lobby health community – is playing with fire for me.  I can have things with chocolate chips in them, as long as it isn’t an Eastern Orthodox fasting period like the seven weeks before Pascha/Easter, or the six weeks before Nativity/Christmas, since most chocolate chips are made from milk chocolate.  White chocolate, about which I rhapsodized a couple of posts ago, is a thing of the past.   😦

Hence the title of today’s post.  Friends who read my blog will remember the medical horrors  I went through about six years ago.  It has since been brought to my attention that I had what is known as a “close call” – I guess I really did come that close to dying – and since that unforgettable time, the expression “Eat dessert first” has come to my attention.

It’s meant to be a witty way of getting people to realize that there’s more to life than obsessing over one’s Perfectly Fit Condition, and any Orthodox priest worth his salt will tell you that it doesn’t matter how careful you are with your health – eventually you die, so you should devote considerably more attention to your spiritual health than to your physical health.  Whatever form that takes for you is a matter of personal circumstance, but to obsess over health is pointless; I was in pretty good shape when I went for a routine hysterectomy that turned out to be anything but routine.

And, as happens with most people who have had a close call, I changed some of my priorities.  I spend more time keeping in touch with family and friends, especially family.  (As I once told an investigator when I was applying for a job in federal law enforcement, “Polaks don’t have friends.  We have Relatives.”  He was Polish himself, so he burst out laughing.)  I spend much more time on my hobbies (reading and cross-stitching), and if my housework isn’t done by 10:00 a.m. – oh well.  It’ll still be there tomorrow.  I have a structure for spending an hour or so a day with God, and I make that a priority – it doesn’t always work out, but having that structure nags me to remember what’s really important here.

And while I don’t actually eat dessert first, I do eat dessert (carefully), something that, like too many American women, I used to avoid assiduously:  Gotta keep my Girlish Figure, y’know.  Let me tell you something:  Girlish Figures are vastly overrated.  Once you have children, you deserve a womanly figure.  You don’t have to get fat, but if your shape takes on a few more curves, you should wear them proudly; you came by them honestly.

And while you shouldn’t go overboard with sweets, I am deadly serious about this:  Do not avoid the sweet things in life.  If you’re invited to coffee, or afternoon tea, have the sweet things that go along with it.  Have Strawberries and Peaches and Cream for breakfast (if you combine it with rice and cottage cheese, you actually have a well-balanced meal.  If you use nonfat cottage cheese, you’ve mitigated the effects of the heavy cream.  It’s a great breakfast).  Eat dessert.

Because the day is coming when you wake up one day in your sixties and realize:  You can’t eat dessert anymore.  Sweet things don’t agree with you anymore.  But if you enjoyed them regularly in the past, you won’t feel regret; you’ll be grateful that you realized in time the importance of Eating Dessert First.

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Talk about a memory tied to a certain candy, especially if it involves another person or a place.”

Oops, looks like I pre-empted today’s prompt yesterday.  I guess that’s what happens when you take things day to day, as I tend to do now that I’m retired.

But, especially now that I’m halfway through my seventh decade of life (did I just write that?!), I do enjoy sharing memories of a time increasingly distant, and since part of this prompt mentions memories tied to another person or a place, I’d like to run with that.  It does mean getting off the Sweet topic, but sweets really never were a big part of my life.

It’s August now, hot and humid, and every year around this time the memory of my grandmother’s yard surfaces.  As I’ve mentioned, my stepfather was Polish, and his mother was a farm girl from the Old Country; she never did learn to read or write, but there wasn’t much she didn’t know about growing things.  The part of her yard that fronted the street was a riot of flowers, a plot at least 10 x 20, and things grew there all summer long.  I don’t know what they were; I doubt she knew their names in English, and since she was the only gardener I knew, there wasn’t a hope of my knowing what they were, either.  Nor was her garden laid out in tidy beds, so that you could point to a flower and ask, “What’s that?”  Grandma’s flower garden looked like she had taken packets of seeds and broadcast them into fresh-dug earth, and then she tended whatever came up.  It certainly flourished.

In the back of the yard (which was really the size of a house plot) was where she kept her vegetable garden.  Those beds were tidier, and it was easier to recognize what she was growing there.  She had peppers, onions, beets, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, peas, green beans, and she must have grown her own horseradish, too, because she certainly made her own horseradish every Easter.  I don’t know how she did it.  It was the best stuff to eat, but grating it must have cleared out her throat and lungs for the rest of the year.

Early in my childhood, she also kept chickens, but two of her sons lived in the same house as she did, and as their families grew, I guess she felt that the chickens weren’t safe among so many little savages, because they disappeared by the time I was ten.  One of my uncles had six kids, the other had nine, and then there were the grandchildren who didn’t live there but visited regularly; we probably terrified the chickens by our sheer numbers.  The rest of the yard, and this is why I refer to it as a “yard” and not a “garden,” was given over to play equipment for the hordes of savages:  swing sets, slides, eventually a huge above-ground pool where my cousins disported themselves all summer long.

I guess I was 20 or 21 when I paid my grandmother a visit one hot August afternoon.  I’m not sure where the cousins were, but I do remember that it was uncharacteristically quiet that day.  My grandmother was watching soap operas, but she turned the TV off so we could visit, and we spent a bit of time chatting in the cool of her basement apartment.

“Come out into the backyard,” she said suddenly, and rose, shuffling the length of the house from front to back; she had terrible arthritis.  She made her way up the steps from the cellar into the yard with a pot in her hand; I assumed she was planning to dig up some vegetables for her supper.  Instead, she began pulling up grass by the handful, long stalks that grew next to the fence that bordered her vegetable garden.  I offered to help, but she was content with her grass-pulling, so I just sat and watched her.

When she had filled the pot in her hand, she hobbled back into the kitchen of her apartment, rinsed off the grass, chopped it, filled the pot with water, and began to cook it.  To say I was floored is an understatement.  It would never have occurred to me that my grandmother might be senile, especially since we had just been conversing lucidly, but – cooking grass?!  Where was she going with that one?!  After half an hour or so, she turned the flame off and ladled the grass soup into two bowls, and set one before me.  Yikes.  But what could I do?  She was the only grandmother I had, and I loved her and didn’t want to offend her.  So I picked up my spoon and ate.

It was delicious.  I’ve never tasted anything like it, before or since.  I couldn’t wait to get home and tell Dad about this wonderful stuff his mother had made.  “Oh, yeah, schav,” he said, when I told him.  “Do you make it from just any grass?” I asked.  “No, you need sorrel grass,” he said.

I’ve never eaten it since that summer.  Never found sorrel grass to grow, and frankly, I’m not sure it would grow for me; I have the blackest thumb in the neighborhood, if not in the entire Northeast.  Once I looked it up online and found that a couple of Jewish food companies actually sell it prepared, as they do borscht; but it doesn’t appear to be for sale anywhere but in the New York City area, and even though I’m from there, I haven’t been back home in over twenty years.  I’ve long since lost my taste for city living.

My grandmother has been on my mind a lot lately, probably because lately I find myself hobbling more and more the way she did, as her arthritis progressed.  It’s a little strange to think of myself as being as old as my grandmother, especially since she had so many skills I’ll never acquire.  Like making schav from scratch.

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