Wednesday, November 30, 2011

I Won!

I never win anything. At least, that's what I've always told myself, from the time when we were kids and, if it came to drawing straws to decide whether sister Deb or I had to do dishes, I knew I might as well start filling the sink.

But this week, after an already excellent bike commute and day with my students at school, I arrived home to find that Seattle Arts and Lectures has made me a winner. Before Thanksgiving, they asked on their Facebook page for answers to this question: What book are you thankful for this season?

My answer was Cathy Davidson's Now You See It. It's not as if that was the winning book -- though maybe it should be -- but they ended up drawing the names of people who responded, and I won! I won two tickets to the SAL lecture of my choice.

That got me thinking my losing streak is over. I do occasionally notice that somebody is raining down blessings on my head, in an effort perhaps to get me to believe in abundance.

So it was in that spirit I responded to the sign about the sale on champagne at Fred Meyer. I bought six bottles.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Visit of the Married People

Married people, nice ones, stayed at my house last night. Married more than 40 years. Though I didn't know them then, we were all sort of young marrieds together: my first ex and I were, with them, guests at the 1972 wedding of mutual friends. We got to be good friends, family almost, with my Husband Two, nearly 27 years later.

They'd come last night from Port Townsend, where we all once lived, for dinner and an overnight on their way to a morning flight.

We talked about children and how they turn out. Their kids are success stories, hard workers, like mine. We did good, and we're lucky. We have friends whose kids struggle with physical and mental conditions that are nobody's fault.

We talked economics, how their financial security and mine come partly from our inclination to thrift, while we know other thrifty people in trouble simply because they decided a month too late to sell the big house.

Politics, recipes, books. Much the same conversations we had when there were four of us.

But as I sat alone in my armchair last night, with the distance of seven years' singleness, looking across to them together on my sofa, I felt suddenly like an anthropologist. This, I thought, is what it looks like to be married.

See, I thought, how her elbow is touching his arm! How she adds a questioning or clarifying word as he describes the book he read. How he asserts that, without her, the church auction might never have come together at all.

This morning she said, as she poured orange juice for a quick breakfast, "We'll just share a glass."

"I have a dishwasher," I said. "Use all the glasses you like."

She used the one.

"Want a banana, Jim?" she said.

He: "I'll take half of yours."

It was a lovely dance, a pas de deux, equal time in starring roles. Nothing googly-eyed, just the rock-solid foundation of trust and cooperation grown up over four decades. What college kids had made of themselves and each other.

When I dropped them off at the tunnel this morning to catch the Link to Sea-Tac, his big pockets held an apple for each of them, for the journey.

Friday, November 18, 2011

About that Job

So, I got a job. I was talking with a woman at my church, who turns out to work with tutors at a private school and knew a lot about tutor opportunities in Seattle. She said, "You can get paid."

Hmm. I've been volunteering, but like many seniors, I've had some recent financial setbacks. Money could be good.

I guess I applied at exactly the right instant, because they trained me two days later -- paid training -- before anybody even met me, let alone said I was hired. I work 3.75 hours a day, four days a week. I make $11.25 an hour.

Which doesn't seem like much, in a way. On the other hand, if I were working a 40-hour week, it would be not too bad. I have unemployed relatives who'd be thrilled to earn $11.25 hour. When I think of families trying to get along on a minimum wage salary! how does anybody do it? And it takes a lot out of you, working.

I don't have to get on my bike to leave until 9:15, and I'm home by 2:30. I know this will get better, but at the moment, I'm tired when I finish. I want tea, shower, nap. So far, I haven't done much more than entertain myself after work.

Though I get a lot done before I leave home. I'm writing this on Friday morning. I had breakfast, and I just made a big batch of blue cheese Waldorf salad for my sack lunch. I read the New York Times. My house is tidy.

And best of all? I noticed this morning that I'm not having those awful dialogues with myself about whether my life is doing anybody any good at all.

I'll tell you about the kids next time.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Bike Commuter

I always wanted to be a bike commuter, but first I had to get a job.

And that turned out to be surprisingly easy. (I'll tell you more another time.)

Yesterday was Day One, and though it was cold, the sun was out. My commute is 40 minutes or so, each way, and somewhat hilly. I asked a friend who owns no car what to wear to be warm enough and, once I get cranked up, cool enough. He said you've got to plan on being uncomfortably cold to start if you want to avoid being sweaty at the end.

Luckily, my biggest hill is on my way home. I sweated. Yesterday I got home at 2:30. I put on the kettle, and while it heated, I stripped and set up my tea strainer. When the whistle blew, I poured the water over my tea, set the timer for 4 minutes, jumped in the shower, and came out with towel wrapped around my head a moment before the timer beeped. By 2:40, I was clean and relaxing.

I thought a side effect of a job would be better time management, but this is ridiculous: I cleaned my house! including bathroom, vacuuming, washing kitchen and bath floors, and laundry. I stirred up bread. I went out to hear Dennis Lehane -- don't bother, by the way -- and came home and baked cornbread. Slept like a log.

Friday, November 11, 2011

David Grossman at SAL/Town Hall

I had one of those odd feelings yesterday, like a cosmic prod. I felt I ought to go hear Israeli novelist David Grossman, speaking for Seattle Arts and Lectures at Town Hall. Not that there was any particular reason to resist, but I haven't read him, I don't know his work.

So I went. His latest novel in translation is To the End of the Land, about an Israeli mother who decides, when her son re-ups, she will not stay at home and await the authorities who come to tell a family their soldier son has died. Instead, she persuades a childhood friend to accompany her on a long hike. As they walk, she tells him about her son.

Grossman said he used to discuss this book as he wrote it, with his own soldier son. Before the writing was done, his son died in battle in Lebanon, on the last day of the conflict.

I think we were all riveted on the reading from the novel, then what felt like an extended, wide-ranging (albeit one-sided) conversation with a wonderful human being. So during the question time, a couple of the questioners were apologetically confrontational.

It struck me that Grossman never bristled.

Partly, it's because he has nothing to bristle about. "Have you, or even other Israeli novelists, tried to write about the Palestinian experience?" Actually, yes, Grossman spent time in a refugee camp, listening, and wrote The Yellow Wind.

"I notice you haven't mentioned anything about the big recent demonstrations, not only in Tahrir Square, but in Tel Aviv." Actually, Grossman marched in every one of them, and spoke of the new sense among the people that it is the job of the government to support them, not the other way round.

But I think also, behind the failure to bristle, is what he said about the experience of writing novels, writing characters: getting to be somebody else, to see their world from the inside out. I thought (as I rode home on the #5 bus, surrounded by characters), Grossman doesn't bristle because he looks to see himself through the eyes and issues and pain of others.

Bristling is protective. Grossman is openness.

I thought of what John Gardner said about writing, that only a person of great character can produce a great novel. Grossman makes me want to be a better human. I would like to respond to confrontation, as I think he does, with openness, a willingness to consider whether my confronter might have a good point I need to hear.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Sweetmeat Squash Post

I've got roasted winter squash coming out my ears, and that's the way I like it.

Last week I roasted up the gorgeous sweetmeat squash that was sitting on my table as centerpiece for weeks. It's a Martha Stewart pastel blue-green, and enormous. I cut it in half horizontally, and thank heaven I'm strong, because that was some job. I could only fit the two halves on a cookie sheet with parts hanging off the edges. It took two hours to roast, and when I got it out of the oven and put each half on a large plate, you couldn't see the plates at all.

Well, no problem. I made a big batch of my famous (to me) Butternut Squash Lasagne (I didn't want to change the name to Sweetmeat Squash Lasagna) and served it to five people. I made another mini one for my freezer. I've made pureed squash soup with a coconut milk-thai curry theme and I've made squash puree with mole sauce and guacamole.

I still had squash, and I was running out of ideas, until Mom told me her granddaughter Miranda, a senior at college, was homesick and had called to request a loaf of pumpkin bread. Silly child, she likes it plain: no nuts, no raisins. Mom made it and sent it off.

Pumpkin bread. The last time I remember eating Mom's pumpkin bread, I ate a whole loaf.

It was evening in the kitchen at our house in Struthers, OH, where the sunsets were brilliant with chemicals from the steel mills. I was working at the rescue mission by day, going to Youngstown University by night.

I was happy. My best friend, Barry Patrick McNally, picked me up for school every day in his new white Chevy Impala with red upholstery. I'd light a cigarette, then pass it over for him to smoke. That was as much as we touched, unless our hands accidentally met, then recoiled, at the volume dial when we both wanted to turn it up. One day we both said, when I got in the car, "You've got to hear this new song." Same song: If You're Going to San Francisco.

I guess I was tubby. I've struggled at times with an extra 15 pounds. I got diet pills at the drugstore, which means they were cheap -- I was poor -- and over-the-counter. I guess they were amphetamines. A drug habit!

I say habit, but I don't remember trouble stopping. What I do remember is how great I felt every day. Filled with energy, too busy and elated to eat.

Until I got home from school, at nine pm. By then, my pill had worn off and there was nothing inside me. One night, I opened the bread drawer and saw pumpkin bread. I cut a slice, spread it with cream cheese, sat down at the kitchen table, and ate it. Then I did it again.

And again.

The loaf I made this week, with sweetmeat squash for pumpkin, I eat a slice a day. And it's probably not as good as Mom's either, since I cut the sugar in half and substituted whole wheat flour for white and oil for Crisco. But it's still really good, and it reminds me of Barry. In my only photo of him, he's sitting at that kitchen table. We might be eating pumpkin bread.

We lost track of each other after I moved to Minnesota, then California, though he visited me in each of those places. I used to look for his curly red hair and freckle face, thinking one day we'd run into each other. I tried seriously, two decades ago, to track him down. I called information and tried a couple different McNallys in the Youngstown area. At John McNally's, a woman answered. "I'm trying to locate my old friend Barry," I said. "Is this the right number?" The phone went silent, then a man got on. "What's this about?" he asked. It was Barry's brother. He told me Barry had been dead for years. He was on his way to Sears to buy his mom a mother's day present, and his motorcycle hit a pothole. It was his mother who had answered the phone. She'd never got over it.

I cried for three days.

But it's good to remember Barry. One night we skipped class, and he told the prof we had to go to a Cana Conference, I think he called it, something Catholics do before they marry, which of course we never would. I still have poems he used to write during class, and slide over to me to read. One page still has the fold lines from the paper airplane he made of it. I have a letter he sent when I was cooking at Camp Burton that summer. I think I'll cut myself a slice of pumpkin bread and re-read them.

Mom's Pumpkin Bread

Cream together 1/3 c shortening and 1 1/3 c sugar. Add two eggs, 1 c pumpkin, 1/3 c water. Combine separately and add to first mixture: 1 2/3 c flour, 3/4 t salt, 1 t soda, 1/4 t baking powder, 1/2 t each cinnamon and cloves. Stir in 1/2 c each chopped nuts and raisins (except for Miranda). Bake in a loaf pan at 350 degrees for 60 to 75 minutes. Awfully good with cream cheese.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

My Health Care Reform

I'm not on Medicare -- though I regard that happy day like a light at the end of a tunnel -- but I have one of those health plans where I not only pay $300 a month for insurance, but most of my own medical costs too. The catastrophic coverage plan, you know.

I've got this foot thing, as you may recall, and my orthopedic PA wrote me a prescription for custom orthotics. Of course, my plan doesn't pay for any part of them. They cost $350 a pair. I went to the orthoticist, since I'd really love to be able again to walk in my old way, and she said she honestly didn't think orthotics alone would do much.

But, she said, I could get orthotics with an attached ankle brace. They cost a lot more -- $910 -- but would cost me less, since Group Health pays all but $170.

Nevertheless -- and this is my health care reform -- I decided not to get them. Instead, we agreed I could get an over-the-counter ankle brace for $15 at the pharmacy and try it out before we invested any more money.

As I was getting ready to leave, she tucked an arch support in my shoe, atop the over-the-counter orthotic that's in there. It's actually helped a lot.

Which makes me wonder what kind of a scientific deal those custom orthotics must be, after all.

But I digress. My point is this: Wouldn't it be interesting if we could recruit ourselves to reform health care, by being as careful with our insurers' money as with our own? Oh, I know, we feel we're already paying a ton, so why not go ahead and get, say, the unproven, expensive, ankle-braced orthotics? But those costs all land on us in the end. Who are we hurting?

All material copyright © 2009 by Mary Davies