Archive for November, 2010

Sometimes I worry about myself.  I fear that I may be turning into some version of “Mrs. Crankypants” with what I am about to say.  Nevertheless, here goes:  it’s now officially the holiday shopping season and there is not very much that I want to buy.

I know, I know…we’re supposed to.  And it does stimulate the economy. And right at this very minute, my younger daughter is Out There Somewhere, doing her part at the Black Friday sales.  And yeah, it’s true that right now, money is pretty darned tight for us.  And I suppose that does influence my thinking, to some extent.  But even when I think about what would be on my ‘wish list’ if money wasn’t an issue, there’s not a whole lot that I can come up with!

Sure, I would like to go on a nice vacation somewhere warm in the winter.  And I always like a little bling.  But really, what do I need or want?  I don’t need another cashmere sweater.  I love Chico’s (God knows I look like an ad for the company, most of the time) but I don’t really need more clothes. I don’t want a Keurig single-cup coffee thingie…I brew mine by the pot and like it that way.  And I don’t really want a George Foreman grill, even though my friends love them…my gas grill and my broiler pan work just fine.

I’ve got an iPod Touch and don’t really need an iPhone.  An iPad would be a fun toy, but one more gadget isn’t necessary.  And mostly, my husband and I seem to keep cleaning out stuff that we don’t need, rather than adding more to the pile. And all those gimmics advertised for “just $19.95”??  Nope, don’t need those either.  The Obama Chia Head, however…now that might make me think twice!  No, this year, as for the last couple, my husband and I will have a pretty short list of what we want, and we will be making a lot of our holiday gifts.

Ben is a fine artist, and he loves making our holiday greeting cards. This year’s design is finished, a text selected and — in a departure from the last ten or so years — we actually may get it done and hand-painted and in the mail before Christmas, rather than waiting till February (procrastination being a fine art to be honed).  I’ll be making some of the twelve-plus types of Christmas cookies that have been a part of my family tradition since I was a little girl…and then sharing them with friends and family.  Ben will be making part of the gift we give to our family and friends…as a fine woodworker, Ben makes beautiful items that we are glad to share with our loved ones.  And I’ll be adding some consumables, from my catering business, to go with the items Ben makes…homemade preserves and pickles, savory and sweet items, all made in my kitchen.  We feel like these are the most meaningful gifts, the ones made with our hands…and we look forward to sharing them.

Yes, we know our children will have their wish lists, and Ben and I will do our best to fulfill some of their wishes.  But for us – not a long list.  It is the season of giving, and we will be reaching out to family and friends, focusing on the gifts that we give to one another by just being, rather than by buying more things and stuff.  But that Chia head?  Might have to have that!

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For years I have had this cookbook idea which revolves around Thanksgiving.  In my mind, I always called it “Up From the Melting Pot,” and it would focus on the mix of cultural influences that converge around the one holiday which (it seems to me) almost everyone who lives in the United States celebrates in some way, no matter their culture or religion or country of origin.

But my friend, Sofia, convinced me that the ‘melting pot’ analogy isn’t quite right…this is not a process of assimilation, where you throw everything in the pot, boil it down and get some new unified (and perhaps, bland) soup or stew.  The idea here is not to lose one’s cultural heritage in favor of another, but rather to celebrate it, layered on top of this American holiday involving gratitude to native people for help with the harvest, of setting food in store for the coming winter.

So perhaps a “horn of plenty” analogy is better…where all those interesting flavors get put into a container and then celebrated, one by one and all together.  Whatever the best reference is, I find Thanksgiving to be an interesting holiday.  It really is a food-focused occasion…mostly, people come together, sometimes traveling over long distances, to reunite, share experiences, hopefully not argue, and…eat!

I started to realize that this might be interesting when I talked to friends who, low and behold, had entirely different Thanksgiving traditions from mine.  If we were spending the holiday with my mother’s family, we would drive to the family farm in Cuddebackville, NY and Gram, along with my Aunt Edith and my mother, would set a table with most of the foods you’d think of as Norman Rockwell ‘traditional’:  turkey with herb/white bread stuffing and gravy, corn (probably frozen from the summer harvest), mashed potatoes, yeast rolls, cranberry sauce, and maybe a green bean and mushroom soup casserole.  For a while, I went on a turkey strike, and my aunt got a Muscovy Duck which was roasted and stuffed and which I found delicious.  This meal would be followed by pies, including pumpkin, apple, and mincemeat (sometimes including deer meat in the mince, prepared by great-Aunt Addie!)  My father and grandfather and uncle would sit in the living room smoking pipes and cigars and cigarettes while watching football, my cousins and I would play with dolls in another room, and I suspect the women were left to mop up the feast.

Later we started celebrating Thanksgiving with my father’s side of the family.  We’d go to Newburgh, NY, or fly to Rochester where my cousin, Ellen, lived.  I’d be given champagne or wine with dinner (even when 13 or 14), and the appetizers, consumed as the women sat in the living room and the men sat in the den watching football, included my Aunt Estelle’s chopped liver, herring in cream sauce, meatballs, and clam dip.  The turkey was sometimes stuffed with a matzoh dressing, and there were always candied sweet potatoes as well.  Afterward we’d exchange presents — “Jewish Christmas,” my cousin dubbed it — and I remember it as a great, festive time.

Didn’t everyone have chopped liver for appetizers?  No?  My friend, Connie, a vegetarian of over 30 years, often enjoys baked stuffed Acorn Squash or sometimes, cheese fondue for Thanksgiving.  My friends Zoe and Lisa, who are raising three foster children, are making a Mexican stuffing for their turkey, one that the children were accustomed to having when they lived in Los Angeles.  Most versions include pork, tomatoes, chiles, pecans, and cornbread.  My friends Janice and Mike, who are African American, always serve ham in addition to turkey, along with macaroni and cheese, collards, and corn bread. Canadian friends include gougeres (a cheese puff) and an apple-carrot casserole.  And Latin American influences suggest a Mofongo stuffing (with fried plantains) goes well with the traditional turkey.

The common denominator, it seems to me, is gathering around the table, whether large or small, to celebrate.  My family’s dinner this year — which brings together members of my husband’s and my family — will include both ham and turkey, cornbread stuffing, mashed potatoes, twice-baked sweet potatoes, broccoli, creamed onions, cranberry conserve, yeast rolls, raisin-squash bread, and a green salad.  For dessert, my niece will bring her fudge pie and perhaps a caramel pie (a southern favorite); there will also be an apple pie and my own favorite, a whole sugar pumpkin baked with bread pudding inside. And oh yes, there may be some of my other seasonal favorite on the dinner table:  Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish, which is NPR reporter Susan Stamberg’s legendary cranberry-with-horseradish mix that does indeed look like Pepto Bismol, but carries a wicked kick along with sweet and tart flavors.  There will definitely be leftovers for all (since eating a turkey sandwich before bed is practically mandatory behavior) and we’ll be playing board games and probably enjoying a first fire of the fall in our fireplace.

Any way you slice it, the holiday’s one for coming together.  And in case you’re looking for a new, fun cranberry recipe, try melding 16 oz. of cranberries, 1/2 c. white sugar, 1/2 c. brown sugar, 1/2 c. of currants, 1 small diced granny smith apple, 1/2 a sectioned grapefruit, 1/2 c. port wine, 1/2 c. orange juice, 1 tsp. orange zest, 1 tsp. cinnamon plus 2 sticks cinnamon, 1/2 tsp. ground cloves, a shake of nutmeg, and 1/2 tsp. ground ginger.  Simmer for 30-45 minutes, remove cinnamon sticks, and enjoy one of the most delicious cranberry conserves ever.  And to all – good wishes for a holiday filled with not too much excess, but boundless amounts of family and togetherness!

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This weekend I spent time in Rhode Island with a group of people who have all been chairs (well, four of them are about to assume that role over the next two years) of the Star Island conference we attend.  About sixty people show up, and this group — diverse, smart, interesting and holding divergent opinions — come together to share stories and conduct the business of our conference.

My parents were members of this group, as were the parents of several others now present among us.  We are a self-perpetuating alliance, and we follow a sometimes-bumpy but always well-intentioned path designed to ensure the longevity of our conference, a legacy we seek to hand on to those who will follow us.

Some of our closest friends are part of this clan…people we love as brothers and sisters or kindred souls.  People who are like surrogate parents, people with whom we have shared the birth of our children, the death of our parents, the loss of jobs, the estrangement of family members, serious illness.  In other words, the stuff of life.

We eat lunch and meet on Saturday…a (too) long meeting, with a break for dinner.  In the evening, there’s poker playing to raise money for our conference financial aid fund, partying, dancing, more catching up.  And then on Sunday, after breakfast, there’s a fund raising silent auction (again, to help our financial aid program), and we worship together with a lay-led service of music, reading, reflection. After that, we all fly away, only to (with heaven’s grace) gather again on Star Island in the summer.

Today, as one of the worship leaders, I started to sing the Appalachian folk song “Bright Morning Stars” as a way of drawing us together in a not-very-worshipful space.  I had the song worked out in my head, and I stood up, and started the first verse:
“Bright morning stars are rising,
Bright morning stars are rising,
Bright morning stars are risng,
Day is a’breakin’ in my soul.”

As I began the second verse  (“Oh where are our dear fathers, Oh where are our dear mothers, Oh where are our dear fathers, Day is a breakin’ in my soul”) I looked out at the faces.  There, I saw the Vermont psychotherapist who tells Vermont folk tales and whom my father, a social worker, adored.  I saw the ‘elder statesman’ couple of our group, the sometimes-cranky-but-loveable retired radiologist and his wife, an artist, therapist, and ultimate sensible and upbeat surrogate mother.  And then, the retired lawyer and his wife, former conference treasurers, who had been my parents’ closest friends for decades.

And I lost it.  I had gotten caught by a flood of emotions and memories, all tied up in that room, which I had not been expecting and which my head could not manage.  My life is inextricably bound up with these people, and my heart controls these emotions, no matter how hard I might wish for it to be otherwise.  I tried taking a deep breath to stop the sobs.  Nope.  I motioned for my husband, who (saint that he is) dove under the table to join me in the center of the room, holding on to me.  Together, we got out that second verse, and then the third (“They have gone to heaven shouting…”).  I was a mess, for I had forgotten what the people — even away from the place — mean in my life.

I resonate with what my friend, Rev. Nancy Wood, wrote about her experience last summer on Star Island: “I spent time with friends I really love … here they were again, rocking beside me, through grace alone. I watched my children fly kites and play on rocks, make new friends and eat too much ice cream, sing their hearts out in the talent show and sail out into the harbor on a homemade raft. I shared meals with really interesting people and there, breaking bread together, they told me the stories of their lives. Through it all, I could be present for what was, not needing to make the moment or the people or the place into anything other than what was right there.”

That place, these people, those feelings…all these things, our hearts control.  Not our heads, the place where we make tough decisions, manage large businesses, decide what investments to make.  These people own my heart, and probably I, theirs, at least a little.  It is surprising to come to the realization that it is so.  So often I want to be smart, on topic, incisive, a player. Here, I am at once the little girl on the swing in the breeze on the island lawn, the teenager with the flowing hair heading out to East Rock to watch the sun rise, the woman in love going off with her beloved to share a quiet moment in the tall grass, the reluctant adult, mourning her parents passing in the old stone chapel with the community of souls she has known for so long.

“All life is one,” the hymn says, “a single branching tree.”  With these friends, these symbolic parents, and the memory of those gone to heaven shouting, I continue to be blessed.  They speak to my heart.

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The elections are finally over.  I am joined by millions of people who are grateful to now be bombarded with incessant holiday advertising, replacing incessant political advertising that got nastier and more poisonous as the elections approached.  The spin doctors have been out on both sides trumpeting victory, and, near as I can tell, “all are punish’d”, as Shakespeare wrote.

It was the French politican/philosopher Alexis deToqueville who proclaimed that we get the government we deserve.  The observation suggests to me that our biggest disconnect with deToqueville’s thesis comes in the puffed-up statements, made by politicians and other chest-thumpers, that America is the greatest country on earth.  Really?  Is that why we run attack advertising, to sling mud on the opposition while proclaiming ourselves to be great and noble?  And is that why we — great nation that we say we are — choose to get our news from the what’s passed along on the web, without scrutiny for the source, and from pundits like (ABC, shame on you) Andrew Breitbart?  For that matter, is it a problem for our government that even congressional candidates don’t know what the Bill of Rights is about?  That, according to a poll conducted a couple of years ago, twenty percent of elected officials thought that the electoral college was established to supervise the first televised presidential debate?

This is downright embarrassing.  A candidate in New Hampshire for the just-concluded election ran ads suggesting that the President of the United States is a mass murderer.  Another candidate running for Congress in Massachusetts, a former policeman whose actions were decried by his former captain, gave the opposition a good run for the money, with people declaring that they didn’t really care what the man had done, they just wanted change.  Sarah Palin and her crew of “Mama Grizzlies” took some victories, and now she’s got us quaking in our boots by declaring that she “can see 2012” from her house.

Well, I’d like some change, too.  I would like an end to the economic downturn that made me one of those highly educated professionals who has been looking for her next rewarding full time position for way too long.  I’d like to know that my family, and those of other kids who are now in high school, might actually be able to support their children’s higher education without having the child, or the parents, face financial ruin.  And I’d like to know that broadcasters and reporters can be relied on to report the news, rather than to stir up or terrify the electorate, as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert tried to emphasize last weekend.  Simple things, really.

If we do not expect better of ourselves we have no right, it seems to me, to try and hold others up to a higher standard.  It starts at home.  Screwing your neighbor so that you can make out a little better won’t cut it.

I recall professor William Jones, in a lecture on how to combat racism, holding up his favorite prop, a rubber chicken.  He pointed out that the chicken had no rights – it got killed and cooked for others to eat.  And that if we want greater equity, ultimately we have to be willing to stop eating chicken so that it has some rights, too.  I remember laughing as Dr. Jones made his point, but I also got it.  And more and more, I feel like we’ve been living in the middle of a giant food fight where there are too many unruly children at the table and not enough grub to go around.  Everyone’s got their forks in the air and if your hand happens to get in the way at the wrong time — too bad.

Scarcity, not generosity, is in every breath we take, and it’s not a pretty smell.  As long as we resort to blame and shame and the mean tactics we’ve had a good helping of in the just-concluded election, I continue to fear for a country that is proving itself not great, but small and mean-spirited.

The small silver lining of this election may be that now the House is controlled by one party and the Senate by another.  It will be much harder for either party to sling mud, blaming the other group, because the truth is, they both have to step up and do their part for the country to get anywhere.

I remain skeptical.  We get what we deserve.  Can our elected leaders stop to think, for a moment, about what that really means in terms of their behavior –one to another, in terms of morals and ethics — so that the net effect is that of running the country into the ground?  Or are we so caught up in the frenzied fight that we’ll continue to stick a fork in the hand — or a knife in the back — of anyone who gets in our collective way?

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