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Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Midas Touch?

Wow. Sometimes, seemingly against all odds, we can end up having several days in a row in which it seems that we have been blessed with a variation of the Midas Touch. If you don't remember the ancient story, King Midas, who possibly ruled in the area of Macedonia about 200 BC or thereabouts, wanted to have the ability to turn whatever he wished into gold. Sounds pretty cool, right? Not so great, actually. Although the Gods granted his request, he soon realized that this blessing was really a curse. You see, not only did his touch turn sand and stone to gold, it also happened with any and all food and drink that he tried to consume. What a punchline for a trick played by the Gods... a man starving to death, surrounded by riches galore. Obviously, Trent and I haven't had a true Midas Touch this week. It just seemed, for a few days there, that we had tapped into a little bit of magic. And the joy it gave us was truly immense. 

Christmas Eve Monday night, I managed to find the energy to make a batch of oatmeal chocolate-chip cookie bars to give to our friend Tony at our local supermarket, and to his coworkers who also had to work on Christmas Eve day. (I have to admit it was a bit of a challenge for me; I still haven't fully recovered my strength from my hospital stay earlier this month. I have come to the conclusion that being so ill may have irritated my lupus, making the fatigue and weakness last longer than I would have expected. But as our friend Julie would say, I'm upright and able to take nourishment, so I'm good.) To see the excited smiles on people's faces when we arrived bearing home-made treats made our day. And when we handed Tony his own tin stuffed with cookies, he immediately opened it and ate one right in front of us. "Oh," he said, "you really packed the chocolate in these!" He was thrilled, and hugged us before getting on to his next customer. Although I was tired, I was still walking on air, and I think Trent was, too.

Christmas Day I think all of us have friends or family that we have a hard time finding gifts for. Not that the people involved have ridiculously extravagant tastes or are the kinds of people who just hate everything. Our friends Marie and Thayne usually receive cookie bars and home-made Chex Mix from us for Christmas. What could we get for them that they hadn't already been able to get for themselves? And then something great happened. I saw a personal-sized water-infuser bottle online. My friend Marie has been experimenting with infusing water for a while now. But of course, you have to try and hold the fruits under the surface of the water with ice or something. And who has room in their fridge for a big pitcher of water? This bottle has a compartment at the bottom where you place the fruits or vegetables or whatever you want your water to be flavored with. You put the filtering screen on top, twist, and it all gets cut up. Pour in some water, and voila, natural, tasty water. This would be perfect for Marie, I thought, and Trent agreed.

We also found something online we thought would be perfect for Thayne. He works in the computer industry and does a good amount of traveling. We found something called a Cocoon that had all sorts of adjustable elastic straps to corral power cords or medicine bottles or small electronics, or whatever. As far as their kids, we got boxes of yummy candy for each single or couple. We were a bit worried about Scott, Thayne's son, because he's quite fit and we thought he might not want candy. Well, when Christmas Day arrived, we found that we had made three people very happy. Scott was thrilled with his box of chocolates. Thayne love his little tin of Tabasco chocolates, but when he saw his Cocoon, he remarked that one of his colleagues had showed him one and suggested he get himself one as well. He had put the idea on the back burner, and then received it for Christmas! And Marie! Oh, my goodness! Yes, she liked her Abba-Zabba bar and her 'Smores kit. As far as the bottle was concerned, she was like a kid with a new toy! She had to wash and use her new infuser bottle right away. She kept playing with it, and stirring the fruit around in the bottom. Our hearts were full seeing all three of them enjoy their gifts so much. That is what makes Christmas special for me.

December 26, Boxing Day There's a book I have wanted for two Christmases now. On this day, I wanted to go to the bookstore and buy it. As we were waiting in line, we chatted with a woman and a girl we presumed was her daughter, but was actually her granddaughter. They were looking at some candy on a display, and we talked about it being hand-made right here in Denver, Colorado. This candy, from the Hammond Candy Company, is now sold all over the world. It is still made by hand every day, and the ribbon candy is hand-cranked through a machine that dates back to the 1800s. When we left the bookstore, we walked over to World Market. Inside, we heard a woman's voice asking if we were following them. We all got a good laugh out of it. I told them I wanted to get some more Hi-Chews while I was in there, and we went along. We ran into the duo a couple of times before I made the girl's day. I saw the cookies she was going to buy, and told her that she should try a certain type of cookie that I had eaten when I was in Paris. Her face lit up. Apparently she decided hen she was very young that she wanted to travel, especially to Paris. I told the girl, Lexi, to keep dreaming big, and that I hoped that she would get to go everywhere she wants to travel. We talked about it a few minutes, and the lady, Suzi, gave me her business card. I promised to send her an email with photos of Paris within a week. The email went out yesterday. I know that even if I never see or hear from her again, Lexi will be pleased to receive these photos from a stranger. And that makes me happy.

I feel that Trent and I have been very fortunate this Christmas season. Doing things that make someone else truly happy is a gift in both directions. The people on the receiving end were happy, of course. But their excitement and pleasure was nothing compared to the joy we felt from being able to trigger those feelings. And that's what I call a great Christmas!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Feklar

After my triumphant return to the land of the healthy, and following a few days of rest, Trent and I went out for a brief Christmas shopping trip. After we slowly went about looking for a few things we wanted to pick up, Trent asked where we were headed next. I answered, "Well, we're really close to Bed, Bath, and Beyond. I'd love to see if they have any of my favorite popcorn popper left in stock." Within very short order, I had found what I consider the ultimate in low-tech popcorn poppers, a Whirley Pop. Go ahead, look it up online, I'll wait. A Whirley Pop is a hand-cranked stovetop popcorn popper. In the same time that it takes to make chemical-laden microwave popcorn, this popper produces a massive quantity of beautiful, fluffy kernels. It makes the popcorn in the same way as those gorgeous, gigantic machines at the movie theater, and I love it.

I got my first WP some twenty-five years ago. (If you haven't figured it out yet, popcorn is one of my favorite food groups.) It got a lot of use and was well-loved. Any time I learned that someone shared my near-obsessive love of popcorn, I would tell them about the beloved Whirley Pop. Getting a specialized cooking vessel makes no sense if you will rarely use it. That's why, for example, we don't own a waffle iron. Waffles are delicious, and I like them a great deal. But I don't eat them often enough to have the need for a waffle iron. It makes more sense for them to be a special treat, made by professionals, and eaten in restaurants. And, of course, the delicious topping of fruit and whipped cream makes it even more special. But if you could gladly eat a certain food, say popcorn, on a daily basis, why not treat yourself to a cooking vessel that will do it justice?

This is why I told my coworker and fellow popcorn lover, Mary, about the WP. I had told several people about them before, but she surprised me by telling me that she bought one within a day or two of hearing about it from me. It was a match made in heaven. She gushed on about how much she loved the popcorn made in this King of poppers. And then she said something that I simply did not understand. "I call it the Feklar," she said. "Huh?" I had no idea what she was talking about. She went on to explain that Feklar (and please forgive my Klingon, but my name is not Sheldon and this is not The Big Bang Theory!) was something like Cerberus, a guardian to the gates of the afterlife. It was something from an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It made more sense after her explanation, but I still didn't get it.

A couple of weeks later, I was channel surfing and happened upon the exact television episode Mary had been talking about. I watched as Worf told this character who was claiming to be something that she was not, "You are not Feklar!" And since she seemed to be a fairly powerful creature, but was still not Feklar, I figured that Feklar must be pretty impressive, indeed. Later, I turned on the stove and started to make a batch of popcorn. My Whirley Pop quickly produced a huge bowl of delicious, crunchy popcorn. It was powerful, indeed. I smiled and said, "You ARE Feklar!"

Since that time, I have lost two different Feklars in moves, and I can't eat popcorn as often as I would like to because I am diabetic and it doesn't do my blood sugar any favors. But I was still thrilled with our new popper. When we were on the way home from the store, I referred to the popper as my new Feklar. I spent part of the trip home explaining to Trent why it had such an unusual name. I don't know for sure what he thinks of the story, but I do know that he enjoyed the popcorn, and tried to make me laugh by acting like he was shoveling it into his mouth. Feklar will have a place of honor in the kitchen, and will create a lot of tasty bowls of popcorn. And from time to time, I will follow tradition and tell her, "You are Feklar!"

Friday, December 20, 2013

A Wonderful Life

As I sat here, flitting around on the computer, Trent turned on the television. And as it happens, the movie he found in progress, is one of my all-time favorites, It's a Wonderful Life. Many people will list it as one of their favorite Christmas movies, but I don't think of it in that way. To me, the fact that part of the movie happens at Christmastime is incidental. I am just as likely to be in the mood to watch it on a hot day in July as I am in December. Do you think that makes me weird? Oh, well.

Why don't I consider it a niche movie, a holidays-only story? I could go on for days about that, I suppose. In the effort to explain my feelings about the movie, all of my eloquence would probably jump right out the window. Luckily, since we live on the first floor, it wouldn't be a terrifically dangerous fall. No more damage than a few bruises to my ego. But I think I will give it a try anyway.

I think what really appeals to me about this story is that none of us really know the impact we have on other people's lives. We may have struggles in our lives and stumble along the way. Perhaps we had dreams of fame, or greater financial security than we have been able to achieve. We may find ourselves living a life that we think is okay, but nothing to get overly excited about. I don't know about you, but nobody's been knocking on my door and begging me to write my life story. Or, for that matter, for my secrets of wealth, fame, and beauty.

As a kid, I always felt like the ugly duckling who would never grow into a beautiful swan. I had a gap between my front teeth, and inherited my mother's double chin, which I even had when I was so skinny that, as my Gram would say, I needed to turn around twice to make a shadow. I had lovely skin, but I can tell you most assuredly that lupus and rosacea have taken their toll on that. Suffice it to say I am not the person who will jump in front of a camera when pictures are about to be taken. But then I remember a beautiful moment that happened during my high school Psychology class. Mr. Marcucci, the teacher I wrote about in a piece called Substitutes, had us pair randomly for an interesting exercise. I happened to be paired with a girl I had known in elementary school, who moved back into the area during high school. We were to sit face-to-face and share something positive with the other person. I was stunned when Kendra told me she had always been jealous of my teeth. "What? I said. "I hate my teeth! This gap is so ugly!" She went on to tell me that she always wished that she had my teeth because they were so straight and white and beautiful. Hers were crooked and she needed to have them straightened with braces. It made me cry to have someone compliment and envy what I thought was my worst feature.

I have had people drop random snippets on me, letting me know that I have inspired or helped them in some way. One of the most touching was when I thought that someone made a job change because I had failed him as a trainer. When I asked him if I had let him down and made him want to change his job, his face bloomed with a huge and happy smile. He said that it was actually quite the opposite, and that he wanted to thank me personally, as well as on behalf of his mother. He went on to tell me that before he went through my training, he had quit college because he thought that school was boring. It was my training, he said, that made him realize that learning could be interesting and fun. He had changed his position and work hours so that he could go back to school.

So, now that I have rambled and blathered, I guess it all comes down to a few simple things. We may not feel that we are important. We may not fit into society's picture of what makes a person a success. Heck, we may even feel like failures at times. But we never know what our presence may have meant in another person's life. Perhaps our lack of funds has made us more sensitive and charitable to others. Maybe our lack of beauty has made us more able to see the inner beauty of others, and helped them be able to love themselves and others. Our patience while others stumble and fall, as we have done, may have saved someone else from giving up on life entirely. But we'll never really know. But I love the idea, the small possibility, that perhaps I have lived a wonderful life. If I have touched or comforted or helped or taught anyone during my time here, then I most certainly have.

Postscript/trivia: I often wondered if the characters Bert and Ernie on Sesame Street were named after the cop and cab driver in the movie. I have since learned that they were, and that makes me happy. Also, there's a line in the movie that I adore and use all of the time, "Youth is wasted on the wrong people!"

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Vertigo - A Horror Story

You just never know when something odd or traumatic is going to happen in your life. Last Tuesday, December 10, was an evening just like any other. There was the usual cyber-surfing and television viewing. And my usual mental battle over whether or not to have a little snack before the evening was over. No, it's not because I have an excessive appetite. It's because I am now taking insulin as well as oral medication for diabetes, and I worry about my blood sugar getting too low overnight. I decided not to have a snack, and settled down for some good sleep.

I woke fairly early on Wednesday (the sun was still snoozing) to answer the call of the bladder. My body felt like my sugar might be getting a bit low, but I decided to just go back to sleep. I slept pretty deeply for a couple of hours and then popped wide awake. I was lying on my side with my back to Trent, and lifted my head about an inch and turned my eyes to see if he was still sleeping. And that was when the world began to spin out of my control. Everything was reeling. And my stomach was revolting. I then did something I have never done to Trent in our fourteen years of marriage. I started yelling for help. "I need you to help me, and fast. I'm going to throw up, and I can't get out of the bed." Trent quickly got me a receptacle as I was lying in bed, worried at what might be wrong with me. 

I somehow managed to use my test kit and discover that my blood sugar had not gotten too low. "Crap," I thought, "I've had a stroke." But within a second I told myself that I hadn't. After all, I could talk. A bit. And then barf. (Let me pause at this moment to say that I would rather deal with just about anything affecting my body as long as I don't have to vomit.) I asked Trent to help me by calling my doctor's office. I was so sick and dizzy that I literally could not lift my head. I couldn't lay on my back. Turning over in the bed brought on horrible vomiting. My doctor's diagnosis, through a conversation with a nurse assistant, was vertigo. He advised sips of sports drinks, along with over-the-counter tablets for motion sickness. Our dear friend Marie came to the rescue and picked these things up for us, but nothing helped. First off, there was no way I could swallow and retain anything. And the chewable pills went down and right back up. So after nearly twelve hours and a call to the after-hours doctor on duty, I asked our friends to take us to the hospital.

I am great in hospitals. I can visit anyone there. I offer cheer to the staff and patients. But I don't go there myself. The last time I was in the hospital was twenty-five years ago this month, when I was diagnosed with lupus. Incidentally, I felt way better when I was hospitalized at that time. And I was in the beginning stages of kidney failure. Another way to describe the intensity of my illness is that although I did make some occasional moans or groans, I was too sick to cry. Think about that a moment. Sometimes a person feels so lousy they break down and shed a tear or two. I was too sick to do that.

I had heard of vertigo before. Heck, I even saw the Hitchcock movie. Jimmy Stewart's character got dizzy when he was exposed to heights. If you look up vertigo online, it's usually described as mild to moderate dizziness. Serious vertigo, which is a result of a malfunction of the balancing mechanism of the inner ear, is debilitating. I ended up being in the hospital for four days. I was CAT scanned and MRI-ed to rule out stroke, both of which were negative. Vertigo is something that has to be worked out by forcing the balancing system to get back in order. And it can sometimes take a couple of weeks for that to happen, so I consider myself very fortunate in that regard.

But even in terrible illness, I could find some humor. First off, the receptacle that Trent got me to be sick in. It is a white plastic glass with a Christmas motif. And he unwittingly picked the best possible thing for me. It was the perfect size for someone who was too sick to lift her head to hurl. At the hospital, many people tried to get me to use a basin instead, but I was able to clutch my glass right next to me, whichever side I was curled up on at the time. Late one night, as I held it close to me, still feeling pukey, I said aloud, "I love you, glass. You are my second-best friend." After some thirty-six hours of vomiting, the intravenous medicine allowed me to actually ingest an occasional popsicle. By Friday night, I had graduated to graham crackers. Another late night moment, with me eating bits of graham crackers, still too dizzy for anything other than my curled up on my side position, and I heard myself saying, "I love you, graham crackers. You are my new second-best friend."

I was weak and exhausted when I got home at about three on Sunday afternoon. I declared that I was going to go straight to bed for the next twelve hours. Our friend Thayne reminded me that would mean a very early morning, so I amended it to fifteen hours of sleep. Unfortunately, I found myself weak, exhausted, and plagued with insomnia. Sunday night I was awake until midnight, and Monday night until four in the morning. It was not helping me to recover my strength and energy, and I found it frustrating and bizarre. And then it occurred to me. My brain and body were afraid to fall asleep. What if I woke up again feeling the same way I had when this mess started? My insomnia was worse on the night that my blood sugar felt a bit low, just like the morning when I was laid low. So I have had to resort to medicating myself to get some sleep. It's amazing what getting just six hours of sleep will do to improve your energy level and disposition!

I hope I haven't blathered on too much about this mess. But I would like to share a few more thoughts. If you know someone who has vertigo, know this: it is not just a little problem that you can just get over, or just ignore. And it is my firm belief that good nurses and nurse assistants are worth their weight in gold and precious jewels. They are the angels who patiently and lovingly help us survive the unpleasant little curve balls that occasionally get pitched at us by life. And thank you for all of the kind concern and comments you've gifted me with. They have soothed and comforted me, and lifted my spirits. And finally, the best wish I could give anyone. Be well.

Monday, December 9, 2013

How Can I Make Your Day?

I've been on both sides of customer service. Like everyone, I've been the recipient. But I spent many years being the one who gave the service. I've worked in banking on the front lines, as it were, both as a teller and in telephone customer service, and I also put in some years in retail. These years of experience have taught me a lot, and given me a different perspective on the whole idea of service than someone else might have. Service is more than just a transaction done with a smile.

If you look up the word service in the dictionary, you'll probably find that the descriptions usually boil down to something about work done for others. And those few words really say a lot, don't they? When you go to the bank or call a toll-free number or drive through a fast-food restaurant, at that moment, someone is working for you. Yes, they are being paid by the company that employs them (unless it is in the USA and they are waiting tables and rely totally on tips, of course), but at that moment they are working for you. 

The way we serve others can say a lot about us, whether it may be true or misleading. And I think that the relationships or interactions we have with those who serve us say a lot about us as well. In every service-related position that I have ever had, I always ended up becoming a trainer. When I was a teller, in my retail sales position, and in telephone banking, I always ended up in the position of teaching others how to do the job. I took this responsibility very seriously, and I took my role in service very seriously, too. And it wasn't because I was trying to be the employee of the month or anything. I just wanted to give others the level of service that I would like to receive. I tried very hard to know as much as I could about whatever I was selling or servicing so that my knowledge could do two things: make my service better, and make things easier or better for my customer. 

This desire I have to know what things are and how they work actually earned me one of the best compliments I have ever received. When I was working for a company called The Body Shop at Cherry Creek Shopping Center, one of the ritziest shopping centers in the Denver area, customers would ask me all sorts of questions about products and ingredients. One evening a gentleman asked me about the function of a specific ingredient in a product we were talking about. I told him, with an air of complete confidence, what the ingredient did and why it was in the product. He told me, also with complete confidence, that he disagreed with me and thought that the ingredient did something else. We had a large book that was always on display in the shop that listed various products, and all sorts of ingredients. It was a great resource for both customers and staff about what ingredients did and where they came from. So I suggested that the gentleman and I look up the ingredient together, and he agreed. It turned out that we were both correct, and we both learned from each other. "Katrina," he said, I have to tell you that you know more about your ingredients than a pharmacist does." At that moment, I thought the compliment was a bit extreme, but he continued, "And I should know, because I teach them." Unbeknownst to me, I was discussing ingredients with a Professor of Pharmacology from the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center! Don't worry, I didn't let it go to my head. But it did feel good for a few minutes!

Something else I learned from all of my years of service is that some people forget that the people who serve them are humans, too. Just like everyone else, they make mistakes. And they may be greeting you with a smile and all sorts of knowledge about products, but they have problems, too. They may have trouble with their health, or kids, or grandparents, or finances. And they are not less than anyone because they serve. That is what people who work in service sometimes see, that customers view them as servants, or as someone who is beneath them, in their worldview. This was something we often saw in the behavior of some of our customers at Cherry Creek. And it wasn't just that sometimes people thought that it was your responsibility to follow them through the shop and carry their purchases around for them. It was the dismissive attitudes. It was the woman who screamed at you when her baby barfed everywhere, and you were cleaning the floor so nobody would slip in it, and she figured you should be cleaning off her shoes. (By the way, I simply told her that my priority was the safety of the other customers, and smiled as I handed her some paper towels.)

Of course, we often got the same attitudes on the phones from our banking customers. And let's face it folks, if you think that the people who are serving you are complete idiots, why would you ever bother calling them? The people who take these calls for banks have to learn and know a lot of things, and sometimes need to check reference materials to make sure that they get it right. And most of the people I worked with were fairly well-educated, including me. One of my favorite, and most memorable calls, came from an attorney with an attitude. She just knew that as a Doctor of Jurisprudence (hey, I know the name of the degree, I have some of them in my family) that she was spending time on the phone speaking with someone far less intelligent than she was. Little did she know that she had hit the jackpot and called someone who had a fairly large vocabulary, but just didn't show it off.

As the call continued, and her tone obviously showed her disdain for me and anyone in my lowly position, it sort of got me riled up. Okay, I was really irritated. Don't ask me for help and assume I'm too stupid to do anything about it, is what I was really thinking. So I let her finish her sentence, paused, and said, "Well, ma'am, in a matter of this nature, XYZ Bank will assume no culpability whatsoever." Dead silence on the phone as I relished the moment. Then, in a completely changed tone, she answered, "You're not stupid, are you?" With complete and honest politeness, I replied, "No, actually, I'm not. Now what can I do to help you with your problem?" The call went great after that. I felt that I had struck a blow for service personnel everywhere, and I'm pretty sure the caller's attitude had taken a change for the better.

So what's this rambling all about? Whether we are giving or receiving service, life is much better all around if we are simply decent to one another. You may be the one person that rescues another person's day. When you drive though the fast-food restaurant and give the person that helps you a warm "Thank you, and have a great evening," you may be erasing the memory of someone who called them a foul name because their store carries Coke instead of Pepsi. And when you are the service person who inspired this post by saying, "What else can I do to make your day?" you may be the only ray of sunshine in someone's otherwise sad and cloudy day. And when you're able to be a bright moment in someone else's day, no matter what side of the transaction you're on, you've truly given them a very special gift.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Passion For Potatoes

This is a paean to potatoes. Trent and I both love them. As a matter of fact, when our little dog Paris was alive, she loved potatoes, too. I know that there are some people who are currently of the opinion that you should not eat any "white" foods, like sugar, rice, and potatoes. I don't plan on eliminating potatoes, or rice for that matter, from my diet. They are just too delightful and satisfying. So I didn't think it was at all odd to make a huge batch of potato salad a couple of days ago. I know that a lot of people think that potato salad is something that should only be eaten during warm weather. I think that makes absolutely no sense. Do we stop eating lettuce or other green salads just because it's cold outside? Of course not! And do ice cream and other frozen treats only get eaten during the summer? I should say not! In fact, I love eating ice cream during the winter. But then again, maybe I am just weird like that.

As I worked on making the potato salad the other day, my thoughts turned to my little Gram, as they often do. When I make potato salad, I am using her method and "recipe." Recipe is in quotation marks because very little of what Gram made, including baked goods, involved any specific measurements. It was a matter of using enough of all of the necessary ingredients to make things right. So as I mixed up the dressing, a mixture of mayonnaise and mustard (more on the mustardy side as far as flavor is concerned) I thought about when Gram would make a batch. She used very basic ingredients; potatoes, onions, and pickles. She never put hard-boiled eggs in her potato salad like some folks do, so I don't either. The only real difference between hers and mine is that I add some celery salt for a little extra bit of flavor. Yes, I'm a real wild child, right?

When I make this dish, which I am often asked to bring to dinners at friends' homes, I also think of a cousin by marriage. Janet (not her real name, naturally) is someone who could easily have been a chef in a fancy restaurant. She could easily whip up any number of complicated dishes and never break a sweat or even show a furrowed, worrying brow. It was the simple stuff that really boggled her. I remember her once having a tremendous problem with making a Jello dish. She could make an incredibly delicious pâte with her eyes closed and one arm tied behind her back, but she couldn't get any gel into her jello. 

She also got flummoxed by potato salad. Once when we were having a summer picnic at Alice and Bill's home, Janet was asked to bring a potato salad. Everyone thought it would be the world's best because she was such a good cook. Not so much. Her potato salad was merely lumps of cooked potatoes mixed with bottled Green Goddess salad dressing. Not so delicious. Janet told me quietly that it was awful, and she would rather have cooked just about anything instead of what she was asked to bring. Not only did she have absolutely no idea how to make potato salad, she said, but she couldn't really cook potatoes at all. For at least five minutes, I actually felt like I had better culinary skills that she did. When I told Gram about the conversation, she gave me one of the best compliments I have ever received. She told me, "Janet is a good cook. She can make all sorts of fancy stuff that nobody's ever heard of. But you are a great cook, honey, because you can make the things that people really want to eat." From her, this was praise indeed. And I am more than willing to be considered someone who cooks things that people would like to eat! 

Tonight, even though there is still some potato salad left, I decided to roast some potatoes. Although with the modern convenience of air-conditioning I can roast and bake all through the year, there is something psychologically comforting about having the oven going on the first really cold day of the year. So our side dish this evening was something I like to call Mahogany Potatoes.  I simply scrub the potatoes and cut them into chunks on top of a baking sheet lined with some parchment paper, and roast them in a hot oven. When they come out of the oven, they are beautifully brown, chewy but not crunchy. Each piece is like a small baked potato, and we devour them with gusto. Trent treats his like he would a regular baked potato, slathered with sour cream, while I savor the natural earthy flavor of the potato with a bit of seasoned salt. Happiness abounds in our tummies, and since we enjoy it so much, it feeds both body and soul. Not bad for a humble tuber, eh?

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Gilded In Sunlight

Trent and I had to go to the supermarket yesterday to pick up a few things. It was far more pleasant being in the fairly quiet grocery store than to even think of going to any department store or shopping center on the day after Thanksgiving. Actually, we had gone to our supermarket on Thanksgiving Day, but before you begin crying foul, let me explain. We have a wonderful group of people working in our supermarket. It seems as though whichever department of the store we go into, there is the friendly, familiar face of a staff member there. We seem to have a series of chats as we go through the store every time we stop in to get a few things.

When we stopped in before Thanksgiving to get a few last-minute things, we saw one of our favorite head clerk/managers, Tony. Tony is a really great young man who has always been genuinely friendly and kind with us. When Trent recently had hand surgery, Tony knew what would be happening with him, since his father had gone through the same surgery. Every time we've come to the store since then, he always takes the time to check on Trent's condition and progress. So, when Trent talked to him and found out that Tony had to work on Thanksgiving, we both felt really bad for him. Trent told him that I could bake him some cookie bars, and that we'd bring them in for him on Thanksgiving. I was totally cool with it, because it's hard working on holidays.

So on Wednesday evening, I whipped up a batch of chocolate chip and Andes Mint cookie bars. It felt really good to go to the store and not be adding to the staff's work load. Naturally, Tony was on break when we got there. I was rather surprised that the other two head clerks on duty both went out of their way to contact him so that we could meet him near the break room. Tony was visibly touched and pleased, and let us know that he was going to share the cookies with his coworkers, and hugged us repeatedly. After he went back to finish his break, we were pleased to learn that he had told the other managers that he might be getting some cookies that day. The managers were all on the lookout for cookie delivery, just in case.

After our post-Thanksgiving grocery run, we decided to go to our local Sonic to get a nice cold drink, and that's when we were the recipients of a most breathtakingly beautiful gift. We were headed toward the West and the sun was getting lower in the sky, making it a bit of a challenge to see. Suddenly, Trent said, "Oh, my gosh, look!" Flying toward us was the largest flock of Canada geese that we had ever seen migrating together. There must have been over a hundred. It was almost like seeing one of those huge clouds of small birds swooping around swarming insects. But these larger fowl were flying with a purpose. And because the sun was behind them, their sides, heads, and wings looked like they had been dipped in sunlight. No fleet of aircraft has ever been lit as effectively or beautifully as these magnificent creatures. They were positively glowing. I literally gasped at the beauty.

When we finished getting our drinks and started heading East, the last of the gigantic flock was coming in for a landing. As we drove past where they landed, a sizeable patch of grazing land for a former dairy, we saw that thousands of geese had landed to eat and rest before the next leg of their journey. We felt fortunate to have been able to turn our eyes to the sky at such an opportune moment and see such stunning natural beauty. And then to see such a massive collection of these beautiful Canada geese gliding down to a field for some rest on their journey. Then I remembered that when we had the television on earlier that day, we noticed that several Alfred Hitchcock movies were being broadcast that day. The geese must have heard that The Birds was on tv. Time to go home before they got any ideas!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

New York, Part Four - Feed Me!

One of the delights about vacationing in another city is exploring the different foods available. For example, when I went to New York for the first time, I knew that there was a place that was supposed to be really fun and cool. There was another like it in London, and the one in NYC was the second one in existence. It was called the Hard Rock Cafe, and Kris wasn't terribly excited to go there. But we both fell in love with it. It wasn't just the food, which was tasty enough, it was the atmosphere. (In fact, the atmosphere began before we walked in. We were taking photos of the front of the restaurant when a true New Yorker said, "Hey, I'm a New Yorker! If you wanna get a picture of New York, you got it right here!" He is still immortalized in my photo album.) It was something totally new to us, sort of a restaurant and Rock memorabilia museum all in one. And we brought more than a few t-shirts and other assorted fun things to bring home with us. I think part of the appeal of the place was the fact that even though we were far from home, the music felt like home. It was nostalgia, and it was served up with fun drinks and food.

If we weren't haunting the Hard Rock, we could easily be found noshing at the Carnegie Deli. I've mentioned it before, and here I go again! When I walked into the Carnegie Deli the first time, it was like being transported back to my childhood in Chicago. To one side of the door there was a case full of cheesecakes as big as manhole covers. Seriously! Hanging from the ceiling above them were numerous salamis and other cured deli meats, just like the ones in the small neighborhood stores and butcher shops when I lived in the melting pot of Chicago. You could actually smell the spices and cures used on the meats. It was heavenly! The Carnegie Deli was the first place I'd ever eaten that had a "charge for sharing" listed on the menu. And when we ordered what we thought were ridiculously expensive sandwiches, we realized why. These sandwiches were at least four or five inches tall, stuffed with the best corned beef, pastrami, cheeses, you name it. It was deliciousness on a plate, and a huge serving at that. 

Their cheesecakes were huge, and were made in the deli's own bakery. I must tell you that just thinking about their delicious cheesecakes cradled in a shortbread cookie crust makes my mouth water, and I'm not even hungry! We could have lived on those cheesecakes! One day, after having a nosh on yet another delicious monster of a sandwich, I wondered whether or not my friend Kris, a wee slip of a girl, would be able to handle dessert. So I broached the subject by asking if she wanted to share a piece of cheesecake. Simple and reasonable request, right? Not when it's Carnegie Deli cheesecake, apparently. Kris snapped, "No! I want my own piece!" I guess I learned a lesson that day. Try to take a little blonde girl's cheesecake, and you pull back a stump!

The most special dining experience we had in NYC, though, was at Tavern on the Green, which closed in 2009. Tavern on the Green was located in Central Park at the former location of the sheepfold which sheltered the animals that grazed in Sheep Meadow. When we arrived, we were swept up in the magical atmosphere. It is surrounded by beautiful old trees wrapped with twinkling lights, and looks like something out of a story. We were seated in the Crystal Room, three walls of which are full-length glass. There were several crystal chandeliers, and each one was different. As I recall, there were crystal and ruby, another was crystal and emerald, and there were other combinations including jet-black and sapphire blue. True to my adventurous nature, I tried something completely new to me, Long-Island duck breast. The thing I remember most about the evening is being surrounded by beauty indoors and out, and having wonderful food at the same time!

Katrina and Kris, ready for dinner, and a stock photo of the Crystal Room.

The Tavern on the Green has been featured on television and in various films. If you are a fan of Ghostbusters, you will remember a scene that takes place outside a restaurant. Louis is being chased by a creature and is pounding on a glass wall while people are dining inside. They stop for a second and look at him, and then go back to their conversations and their dinners. That scene is in Tavern on the Green, and we actually sat in the area shown in the movie. Just not when they were filming it, of course!

You may or may not end up in New York City on your travels. Wherever you do go, however, I encourage you to enjoy yourself with all of your senses. Try the hot dogs or the pizza, chicken paprikash, crepes, barbecue, whatever strikes your fancy. After all, you have to eat. You might as well enjoy it and make it a part of your treasured memories!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Defining Moments

Throughout generations of our history, there have been moments that define us. Events that are big enough to impact our history, as well as History with a capital "h," impress themselves on our minds very deeply and personally. I think that is why it isn't unusual to hear variations of a question that begins with the words, "Do you remember what you were doing when...?" For younger generations among us, the question is asked about the date of September 11, 2001, the date of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. People of all ages have very personal memories of how the day unfolded for them. I was very touched when I received the following message from my cousin Viki in Hungary in September of 2012. This is her message, with just a few minor corrections. 

My first days were at the university in September 2001. We had an opening ceremony on 11th September. It’s an important day in the life of a student, because since this ceremony a student is received into the „university-society”. Before that youth is just a visitor. So we were very excited, because at the end of the cermony students can shake hand with the President (He was Mádl Ferenc in 2001.), but only with white gloves. Everything was very ceremonial, I loved it. After a while, a person went to the President, whispered something into his ear, and both went away. The Vice Chancellor of our University sad: Mr Mádl had to go to Budapest because of a foreign affair. So there wasn't any handshake with him. It was our biggest problem then. We went back to the college. The whole building was very quiet. We didn't know, what could happened. I can remember to this moments, all the 500 elder students were sitting before the TV, said nothing, just sat mutely. Then we already saw the news. The first videos of the tragedy of 9/11. Some of the students cried. Everybody has information about terrorism, but it seemed to be more… We hadn't to go to lessons that day. We sat before the TV whole day…
Katrina, I didn't know you then, but I think we felt commiseration with America. I saw more documentary films about 9/11 this week, and I decided to tell you, that we feared for American people.

I still find it touching and humbling to know that the rest of the world mourned along with us. It is a good reminder that we are all a part of the greater community, the human family.

As the calendar rolls around to the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, those of us who are a bit older are recalling our experiences related to that terrible event on November 22, 1963. Trent was eight years old, and remembers his mother talking seriously with him about what had happened as he was eating his after-school peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It's impressed on his mind forever. As for me, since I was only four, I don't have any memories of the assassination itself, but I have very clear memories of the Presidential funeral. I was playing on the living room floor, and my mother was sitting on the sofa watching the television. I remember that there was someone leading a horse with a saddle, and boots that were backwards in the stirrups. My mother was openly weeping, and I don't think I had ever seen her that way before. I was worried, and asked her why she was crying. She told me that a very good man had died, and that she was very sad. Again, a very intense experience, and imprinted on my brain forever.

Many years later, Gram told me that she was shopping at a supermarket with her daughter-in-law when an announcement was made over the public-address system in the store that the President had been assassinated. They were naturally upset, finished their business, and went home as quickly as possible. When Gram came in the house, she picked up the mail that had been delivered. She was distracted and barely gave it a glance before tossing it on the table. She noticed a large envelope that said The White House, and didn't give it much thought. She said she thought it was an advertisement from a new dry cleaning service or something. After her emotions had calmed down, she decided to go through her mail, and found that the envelope was from the actual White House. I'm a little bit fuzzy about the details, but it had something to do with her deceased husband. I think she said it was some sort of commendation for his Army service many years prior. That detail left less of an impression on my mind than the incredible coincidence of the delivery date. But it was part of Gram's very personal memories of the date.

I invite you to share any memories you have of this or any other important dates and events, and their impact on you, with your friends and family. We all learn from one another, and our history (and History!) is always growing and developing. Our stories add a dimension that history books alone can't provide. It's important to know and remember that history happens to and effects everyone. We may not see ourselves as important, but our combined experiences weave and interlock and enrich us all. They are our legacy and our History.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Memory Triggers

A friend of mine posted a picture on another social network showing the bottom part of a boot that she had briefly put on her foot. It was a good-looking piece of footwear; it appeared to be black suede, with a buckle strap around the ankle. Snazzy. She has had these boots for several years, but she can't bring herself to wear them. The sight of them takes her back to the time in her life when she bought them. You see, they were purchased just before she went into the hospital for surgery and ended up having a stroke. The time after the stroke was a terrifying one for her. In addition to the challenges normally associated with recovery from a stroke, the trauma to her brain unlocked some horrible repressed memories. So every time she thinks she wants to wear her beautiful boots, she is reminded of that very difficult time in her life.

I find this very easy to understand. The human brain is an incredible thing, full of mysteries. And I think that things that we experience with any and all of our senses can awaken memories or feelings instantly. For example, I have a well-worn pair of black leather gloves somewhere around the house, or accidentally placed in a storage box. The leather is soft and supple, they have a soft knit lining, and the cuffs come up over the wrists to make sure there is no gap between them and my coat sleeves. They have kept my hands warm on numerous occasions, and they are also excellent for things like driving. But the first time I see them every winter season, I am, like my friend, transported back to what was going on in my life when I purchased them.

It was just before Christmas, and I had just been released from the hospital. I had gone in because my entire chest cavity was in so much pain that I couldn't sleep. The doctors in the Emergency Department discovered that my lungs were full of fluid, and I was admitted for further tests and care. By the end of the week, I learned that I had systemic lupus, an autoimmune disorder in which the body's immune system goes haywire and attacks various organs or tissues. In my case, the kidneys were under attack, and my lungs were full of fluid because I was retaining more than twenty-five pounds of water. When I was released from the hospital, I was very weak. But there was that one day when I felt that I just had to go Christmas shopping. It was on this trip to the mall that I purchased the black gloves. It was a very difficult experience for me. Just driving to the mall had exhausted me, and I had to sit in the car and rest before going in to shop. And I had to keep stopping to rest quite frequently. If I hadn't been so stubborn, I think I might have just sat down in the mall and cried. But I kept plugging along.

Another thing that takes me back to that time is the movie Beaches. I saw it in the theater with my best friend, and by the time it was over we were an absolute sobbing mess. She was crying because the character in the movie who died reminded her of how I looked when I was so very sick. And I was crying because I felt such guilt at what I had put my friends and family through because of my illness. I have never seen it again.

There are other things that trigger memories for me, as I know they do for just about everyone. One of my favorites is when I open a new bottle of cider vinegar. One whiff, and I am remembering all of the nights before Easter, and dying the colorful eggs to go in the baskets. The dye tablets were dissolved in a mixture of vinegar and water, so I think I will always associate the smell of cider vinegar with memories of sitting at Gram's kitchen table while the two of us decorated eggs. And then ate them every day for at least a week!

Now my mind is whirling with things that trigger memories. The smell of a stew cooking can transport you to coming home from school on a wintry cold day in your childhood, and smelling the stew bubbling on the stove. Lemons can remind me of my grandmother's exquisitely delicious lemon meringue pie, the best I have eaten in my entire life. The angle of sunlight as it streams through a window can transport you to decorating a Christmas tree, because the quality and direction of the light are so different then than they are at other times of the year. A large full moon sitting just above the horizon might take you back to a young romance, or perhaps bring the scent of crisp autumn apples or fresh cider to your nose. And music! What memories it helps to create, and recreate! Try to deny it, but I won't believe you. And you won't believe yourself either! 

I am sitting here in front of my keyboard with a nostalgic smile on my face as my mind recalls these different things, and what triggers the memories. Yes, some things trigger memories that are unhappy or stressful, but there are so many that take us back to times and events that we never knew at the time would be so precious to us. Whatever your memory triggers are, I hope they lead you to a time or place that cheers your soul and warms your heart. A slice of lemon meringue pie sounds really good to me right now. What sounds good to you?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Dandelion Wine

The summer that I turned twelve, Liz and I were forced to go to Chicago to see our father. I say forced because neither of us wanted to go see him. Why would we have any desire to go and see the man who irreparably tore us and our family apart by killing our mother? Even at that young age, I felt the terrible injustice of my father having spent less than five years in prison, when my mother was gone forever. I'm sure that Liz also carried a great deal of anger, some of which was directed to me in the absence of a better target. So, although we felt angry and betrayed at being sent on this journey, we ended up getting on a plane to Chicago. While we were in Chicago, we stayed with our Aunt Rosemary, the sister of our guardian, Bill. She was kind enough to take us in for the several days that we were there and actually took us around to do some fun things. I remember going to Marshall Field's and being able to afford a few little things, but I also remember them having a bikini on sale for ninety-odd dollars! On sale! I was stunned. 

We also went to Brookfield Zoo and saw all sorts of animals, but the memory of one of them still sticks with me. There was a female gorilla who had just given birth. The area inside the building where the mother and baby could be viewed was a crush of people. Somehow, possibly because mother gorilla was sitting on a ledge, I managed to get a wonderful view of the mother and baby interacting. The mother was completely unaware of the crowd. All of her attention was on her tiny baby. Mama sat in a sort of cross-legged position on her ledge, cradling her little one in her arms. She rocked back and forth, just like a human mother, and touched her baby's face. She almost looked like she was smiling as she stroked the tiny face or brushed away the occasional fly. It was enough to bring tears to the eyes of the most hardhearted person, so of course I found it amazing and beautiful and touching. And of all of the creatures that we saw that day, the mother and baby left the most lasting impression.

Although it was stressful, seeing our father was not as awful as I had expected it to be. He seemed to have lost some of his stature, which makes lots of sense. I was a lot taller than I had been at the age of seven, so of course his head didn't seem to reach the sky any more. And his mannerisms and interactions with others didn't impress me. Seeing him kiss women's hands just seemed like a pathetic affectation to me. If I had been older, perhaps I would have seen it as a bit of Old-World charm, but I was so full of anger that I couldn't possibly have found charm in anything he said or did. I found him, instead, to be a bit desperate, phony, and pathetic. And I am not sure if feeling that way in those days is something I should be ashamed of, or something that I can chalk up to his previous actions and my inexperience in life. Maybe some day I will know.

Another part of the trip involved seeing my sister Margit again. Margit was a bit of a hippie-chick, and had recently gotten married to her first husband, Gary, who ended up being an entomologist and the father of my niece Johanna. We spent a night at Margit and Gary's, and the following day we went fishing (I caught and released a sizeable turtle). But the night that we spent at Margit's was full of laughter. Gary went to bed and we three sisters, and Margit's puppy, stayed up rather late and had lots of fun. Margit had a waterbed (no frame, just lying on the floor) covered with a comforter that had a huge peace sign on it, along with the word LOVE, a wedding gift from our brother, John. She and Gary had just filled it with water from the garden hose, and that was where we hung out that evening.

Margit pulled out a bottle of dandelion wine, something that I had never seen or even heard of before. I thought it was cool to see wine that was yellow instead of the usual variations of whites and reds. Let me pause now to say something that I feel is important to share. We were born into a family with the more traditional European attitudes toward alcohol and drinking. Heck, when I was just a little kidlet, my father would amuse himself by pouring a glass of beer in the kitchen and saying loudly, "Oh, no! I just poured myself a glass of beer, but now I have to go to the bathroom!" I would giggle, and as soon as I saw the bathroom door shut, I would drink some of the beer. He would come back with a smile on his face, faking that he was upset, and then drink his beer. Then when I went to my new family, I was often allowed to taste wine, or mixed drinks if we went out for a special occasion. Because of that, drinking held no special excitement for me. When I reached the drinking age, I didn't go wild like a lot of the kids I knew. Nor did I ever feel the need to try and get away with underage drinking. It held no mystery or excitement because I had already tasted it, and it had not been a big deal.

So Margit didn't hesitate at all to pour each of us a glass of dandelion wine. Or even another. We laughed and jumped up and down on the waterbed, the first time Liz and I had ever seen one. I don't think we were intoxicated, just relaxed and giggly. Then Liz and I were given the honor of spending the night in the new waterbed. We thought we were so cool! It turned out that we were not so cool, but just cold. The bed had been filled using the garden hose, after all. Even with the comforter wrapped tightly around us, we felt like we were freezing to death all night long. For once in our lives, Liz was glad to have me sharing the bed with her. We huddled together all night long, trying to survive the night by sharing our body heat. Somehow we managed to get some sleep, and were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, as the old saying goes, for the fishing trip the next day.

All in all, although the trip wasn't the happiest one, it had some fabulous moments. My father lost some of his power to make me frightened. I saw some amazing animals, and fell in love with the beauty of animal motherhood. And I really enjoyed the dandelion wine!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Bedtime In Budapest

When we were in Budapest, we stayed in a lovely little flat on the Váci utca, a street which is pedestrian-only. This long, beautiful street is full of shops, cafes, churches, apartment buildings, hotels - to me, it was a delightful encapsulation of all that the city had to offer. The streets were paved in a cobblestone fashion, and there was never a lack of things to see and explore. Facing the southernmost end of the street was the Central Market Hall, the oldest and largest indoor market in Budapest, which first opened in 1897. I can honestly say that I could gladly have gone there every day, and we did go there several times. There are stalls with all varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables, different varieties of meats including wonderful Hungarian salami, paprika, fresh breads, sweets, Hungarian embroidery and other crafts, as well as restaurants, and a full-sized grocery store in the bottom level. It was heavenly. Many locals do go there every day to buy fresh ingredients for their evening meal and perhaps the next day's breakfast. 

Going further north there are shops that carry everything you might possibly need. You could get a sit-down meal or a sandwich, buy sweets or wines and liquor, go to a post office, or buy a purse or t-shirt. One of the delights we experienced just off the Váci utca was Café Gerbeaud. They make and sell delicious foods and chocolates. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I will insert two photos here. One is a BLT that Julie ordered, and what a BLT it is, with thick slices of fresh mozzarella cheese. The other is a Dobosh torte, or Dobos-torta, a traditional Hungarian cake. Multiple layers of sponge cake are filled with chocolate cream, and topped with a layer of caramel. 

There was something very funny and odd that happened on our lovely street in Budapest. Marie and Julie shared one bed, and Liz and I shared another. Because of travel complications, Liz arrived a day after the rest of us, so the first night I had the queen-sized bed to myself. I fell asleep to the sounds of a lovely rainstorm, and slept very well. The next night, however, I was awakened by something pushing on me. Yes, it was my sister, being a world-class bed hog. I tried to be easygoing about the whole situation, but in very short order my face was nearly pushed into the radiator that was between the wall and the bed. 

Suddenly, I was transported back in time to when I was nine years old and Liz and I briefly shared a full-size bed when I was sent to live at Gram's house. I was a scrawny, bony little girl, and Liz was fifteen years old and stocky. Every night, she sprawled all over the bed until I was sleeping on my side, clinging to the very edge of the bed. I had perhaps nine inches of space on the mattress on most occasions. Early one morning, I was awakened as I flew out of the bed and crashed down to the floor. Yes, Liz had literally pushed me out of the bed! And of course when Gram came in to see what had happened, Liz tried to claim it was my fault because I was pushing against her. More like fighting for territory! Soon after that, I had my own room and my own bed, and didn't land on the floor any more.

Having my face up against the radiator as an adult was more than I was willing to handle. I braced myself and pushed back, which of course accomplished absolutely nothing. So I shook Liz until she woke up and said laughingly,  "Hey, we aren't kids any more! This is my bed too! Am I going to have to push you out like you did to me when we were kids? I'm too old to have to get up and run around to get back in on the other side! Quit being pushy!" We had a good chuckle over it, and Liz was more polite about staying on her side of the bed after that. Now, as far as her being "as quiet as possible" when she woke up before the crack of dawn every morning? That's an entirely different story!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Salt And Karma

Some years ago I had a friend named Jill and we did a lot of fun things together. Unfortunately, when I met and got engaged to Trent, she backed out of my life. I hope that she is happy, and enjoying life to the utmost. Jill and I met because we were in the same new-hire class for telephone customer service at the bank. I just happened to sit next to her in the back row (the easier to step out to use the restroom), and we ended up becoming friends during the weeks of training. 

Jill and I had some riotous times, sometimes due to her complete lack of a concept of time. She once told me that her mother said she was always late, and in fact had been born late. It was part of her persona even before her birth. If she had an hour before she had to be somewhere, she'd invariably find something to do in the interim that would take at least an hour and a half. Such was the case one day when she needed to have one of her acrylic fingernails repaired. We went to the salon and her nail tech, whom I will call Suzy, told her, "I'm busy right now, but you come back at 3:30." Since it was about 2:30 and neither one of us had eaten lunch, Jill decided it would be a good idea to go to a restaurant for a nice meal. In spite of my little nudging reminders of the time, we returned to the salon at 4:30. 

Suzy was a sweet and sassy Vietnamese woman. What she lacked in height, she more than made up for in attitude. When we returned to the salon, she was trying to help a group of her family members get their nails ready for a wedding that evening. She was visibly frustrated by Jill's arrival time. She looked up when we came in, and said, in the sternest tone she could muster, "Jill, I told you come back three thirty, not four thirty!" Jill charmed Suzy into going ahead and repairing her nail, but was told several more times that when Suzy said three thirty, she did not mean four thirty. This became one of our running gags, and I use it with Trent to this day if we are running behind schedule.

As is often the case with friends, a lot of our fun times revolved around going out to eat. One of our favorite things to do was to go to a chain pizza and Italian-ish restaurant that had trivia games. Jill was in charge of using the answering device and I was in charge of the answers themselves. We'd always sit at a table where both of us could look over each other's shoulders to read the tv screens with the questions. Not to brag, okay, to brag...we usually were the high scorers in the restaurant when we played. Nothing made us happier than overhearing people at the tables near us saying things like, "I don't think TD (our player name, the initials of her favorite Broncos player) is real. That's just a name they put up there to make it seem like everyone else is losing!" We'd sit there and chuckle, and kick their tails by using our system to play the next round. It was great fun.

One day Jill wanted to go to a restaurant that I hadn't tried before, but that she said she liked a lot, especially because they had something they called bottomless fries. I'm sure that you have now figured out the name of the restaurant; you've seen the commercials. Well, I did like the endless flow of steak fries, and I especially loved the house-branded seasoned salt that was on the table. I remarked that I liked it so much that I wondered if I could buy a jar to take home. I could, and did so. I've gone through more than one jar, and am currently roasting some chicken thighs that are seasoned with said salt. But when I told Jill I wanted to buy the salt, she just laughed at me. "Katrina, just put it in your purse!" I couldn't do it. I could sneak into a second movie at the theater to see a free double feature, but I could not take that salt. So when I bought it, she took the jar off of the table and put it in her purse.

After we got out to the car, Jill realized that she had left her purse in the booth in the restaurant. And that when the staff would have looked inside to find her ID to make sure that it went back to the rightful owner, they would see the stolen salt. But we went back in, her face cherry-red, and reclaimed her purse. Not a word was said by the staff about the half-jar of salt in her bag. In fact, they were very kind and cordial. And the salt was still there when we got out to the car. But Jill never could face the embarrassment she would have felt if she went back to that particular location. Which was how I would have felt if I took the salt, even if I didn't get caught. My conscience was clear. But Jill certainly learned about how much it can sting when you combine salt and Karma!

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Terror Tower

It's all because of a shirt. This morning, we had to go down to the hospital for the hand surgeons to have another look at Trent's post-operative progress. I didn't want to tote around a jacket, so I decided to look for a lightweight long-sleeved shirt to wear instead. And then I happened upon one of my all-time favorites. It is a black, waffle weave cotton knit shirt that is not too heavy for this warm-blooded Hungarian-American to wear on mild fall days. And it's also quite nice when the weather gets colder. I have had this shirt for years, long before I ever went to Disney World and experienced the Hollywood Tower of Terror ride. In fact, I had no inkling when I bought the shirt at a traveling Disney warehouse sale that I would ever go to Florida and actually ride the thing. I just saw this black shirt in a fabric that I knew would be comfortable, that had a really cool-looking design. I loved it at first sight.

I think it's rather funny that I never gave a moment's thought to putting it in my suitcase when we went to Orlando in late January this year. I wish that I had. I assumed that the weather would be mild and lovely, and it was exactly that on most of the days that we were there. But there were two days when the temperature didn't get over fifty degrees. Now, in the Denver area, when it's fifty degrees, you'll see people running around in shorts and sandals. We are a hardy bunch, I guess. But when you pair that temperature with humidity over eighty percent, it can feel downright cold. It reminded me of Mark Twain's comment about the coldest winter he ever experienced being a summer he spent in San Francisco. Mull it over for a minute and it will make sense.

When I put this shirt on today, it reminded me of the day I got my chance to ride the magical elevator in the Tower of Terror. If you have not experienced this treat, let me share some tidbits with you. After you have gone through parts of the haunted hotel, you are seated in an elevator. It will stop at various floors so that you can see the ghosts that haunt the hotel, and the elevator will even go into some of the hallways. The elevator rushes up and down the shaft so quickly that it lifts you off of the seat, and there is a delicious moment when it seems like it will fly right out of the front of the building. And every ride is different. The whole thing is run by a computer that randomly generates a unique experience every time the ride takes off.

Let me pause at this time to tell you that I am afraid of heights. I also hate roller coasters. Being in an open car and flying along at high speeds stops being fun for me when I see that the road (track) has disappeared, ensuring that I will momentarily be hurtling into nothingness and certain death. Nope, not fun. So it's kind of amazing that my first day at Disney World, I rode the Everest roller coaster. Not just that, but I sat in the very front of the ride. This thing goes forward and backward, and in the dark, and I laughed the whole way. Except, that is, for when I was shouting, "Must go faster!" Afterward, Trent asked me, "Who are you, and what have you done with my wife?" And I rode other coasters during our time there. But I was scared to get into the Tower and experience the flying up and the free fall. But I decided to do it anyway.

When we were in line, there was a sweet little boy in front of us with his mother, holding her hand very tightly in his. He was about five or six years old, and told us his name was Danny and that he was scared to get on the ride. As we waited for our turn to get on, he reached up with his free hand and held my hand too! He won my heart that day, that's for sure. I told him that I was afraid, too, but that we could help each other not be too scared. Hey, I couldn't exactly be a fraidy old lady and be put to shame by a little kid, could I? Actually, helping him cope with his fear made me feel braver, and be braver. When we were seated on the ride, he turned to me and said, "I hope I don't get scared!" I told him, "I tell you what. You hold my hand so that I don't get too scared, okay, Danny?"

Danny took hold of my hand, and then the ride started. He dropped my hand and buried his face in his mother's side. But he did pretty well on the ride after all. I don't think he screamed as much as a lot of the adults that rode with us. When we were getting off the ride and leaving, Marie and I told Danny that we were proud of what a brave, big boy he was, and I thanked him for helping me to not be too scared. His mother thought that he had been a bother to us, but we let her know that it was just the opposite. Having him there had made the ride much better for both of us. And seeing, and helping, this young boy face and conquer his fear was a priceless experience. When he headed over to the rest of his family, he walked like a conquering hero. And he had earned his bragging rights.

It's funny, isn't it? I started out just looking for something to wear that would fit in the "Goldilocks zone," not too warm, not too cold, but just right. Little did I know that I would choose a shirt that would give me such warm and fuzzy memories. And I hope that little Danny's memories are as great as mine!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Fighting For One's Place

Being the youngest of my siblings was not without challenges. After all, Margit was nine, John was seven, and Liz was just six days from her sixth birthday when I showed up and ruined it for everyone. Well, maybe that's a bit of an overstatement. I think John's feelings may have been neutral, although he did enjoy having a third sister to scare and torture. Margit thought it was fun having a living doll to play with and enjoy. But poor Liz really got the shaft.

I imagine that Mama was dealing with ongoing depression by the time her fourth, and probably unexpected, child arrived. So Liz was drafted to help with my care. From what she has told me, I was a very good baby. I had a reasonably good disposition, and slept when I was supposed to, ate well, and generally was fairly easy to live with. It was almost as if, at the age of six, she was my Little Mama. I sometimes lovingly and gratefully call her that. In order to have her take care of me, however, our parents held her back from starting first grade. For all of her years in school, she was older than everyone else in her grade level. It must have been difficult. 

We've never really discussed it as adults, but I know that my arrival caused a great deal of resentment on her part. She had been the baby of the family, and suddenly was displaced by me. What did she get for her sixth birthday? She got to go to church for my baptism. Gosh, sounds special and fun, doesn't it? She probably got gifts too, but a great deal of the focus was on me that day. A part of me can completely understand how much it must have hurt her to go from being the youngest, and the apple of her Papa's eye, to being just another one of the kids. And have to change my poopy diapers, to boot. I don't know if that resentment has ever fully resolved itself within her. It hurts me in many ways; nobody likes to be the rock that tipped over someone else's apple cart. But even though it was my fault, it wasn't my fault. Like her, I was an innocent pawn in that particular game of chess. But I believe it has affected, and will continue to affect, our relationship forever.

It took a long time for me to figure out why Liz always seemed to act out against me. If she wasn't being cruel in some way, she was more than willing to try and find a way to get me into trouble. In her experience, my arrival, and the love that I received, had taken away from the love that she was getting. I feel certain that those scars will never heal. There is almost a sense of competitiveness in her, an eagerness to make sure that she is the most liked or the most loved. She has a hunger for love that seems difficult to fill. Sadly, she has not learned, or realized, that love is one of the few things that doesn't diminish when it is given freely. It is not finite, but grows the more it spreads, just like seeds on rich, damp earth. There is a fear in her, I think, that love given to others lessens the amount that will be left for her. I find this heartbreaking, and am powerless to do anything to change her deep-seated feelings.

When I was growing up, I often wished that I could be more like my sister. She could be so charming, and always had lots of friends. She was pretty and vivacious and boys liked her. I was the ugly duckling that never became a swan. I was able to make some friends, and I could chatter away with other girls. I made good grades in school without much effort, and I enjoyed the two times that I was allowed to act in school plays. But the boys stayed away in droves. So I made sure to be bright, since I wasn't the pretty social butterfly. Although my sister drove me crazy, I envied her. When she tried to get me in trouble, or make Gram dislike me, it tore me apart. But not nearly as much as the things she said to me when she got older. 

At an age when most people begin to discard their childhood jealousies, hers were still in full flower. When she was nearly twenty years old, she told me that she had always hated me. Who expects to hear that from an adult sibling? She added that she had always hoped that someone would drop me on my head when I was a baby, so that I would die. I was devastated, but it made a lot of other things fall into place. From then on, I had a different perspective when she said hateful things to me or tried her best to destroy Gram's love for me. She was still trying to fight for her place in the sun of everyone's love. She was afraid that my presence was placing her in the shade. Would she have felt differently if she had known the fear that I lived with? If she knew how afraid I was of people's disapproval and anger, would it have changed things? 

Probably not. There will always be a fierce love between us, along with an inability to live together. It would cause us both too much anger and pain. I would be a constant reminder of the love she thought she lost, and the love she might still somehow lose. And she would be a reminder to me of the pain that my very existence caused and created for her. And we would be constantly engaged in the endless and pointless dance of fighting for our place in the world, in our family, and in the distribution of love.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Dining With Dinosaurs

About a year ago, we were in the planning stages of a trip to Disney World with our friends, Marie, Thayne, and Julie. I had never been to Disney World, or anywhere in Florida, so I didn't have a lot of things set in my mind that I knew I wanted to do or see. About all I knew for certain was that I wanted to dip my toes in the Atlantic Ocean, and that there was a part of Disney World called the Animal Kingdom. Since I have such a love for animals, I knew I really wanted to go there. Other than that, I was open to just about anything. All of my traveling companions had already been to Disney World, so they had things in mind that they wanted to see or do. But for me, it was all going to be a new experience. Not only was that fun for me, but it also made it more fun for the others. The newness of the experience for me allowed them to see everything with a different perspective. 

One night, Trent and I had just settled down to go to sleep when Trent asked me what Disney restaurants I was interested in trying. We had already arranged for one or two dinners, but he was curious about whether there were any other restaurants I had in mind. Well, of course I couldn't answer the question. I didn't know what was there, so how would I know where I wanted to eat? So I turned on my lamp and grabbed my tablet to see what I could find. Even with just using my tablet, I was able to find a list of restaurants pretty quickly. They were conveniently grouped according to the parks in which they were located, which meant absolutely nothing to me at that time. But I found lots of different restaurants and food types to make my decision more difficult.

A lot of the restaurants also had sample menus, which were helpful in making choices. They included details on just about everything except prices. There were "ball park" figures, but we decided that if we went by the more expensive end of the price range, we'd get a good idea of how much eating at a particular restaurant might cost. And I was amazed at how many restaurants there were! Seafood restaurants, regional American, various international restaurants covering countries from Ireland to Germany, Morocco, Japan, France, and everything in between. (Except Hungarian, but maybe some day...) 

So, there we were, sitting swathed in our bed covers late on a chilly night, looking at different restaurants and sample menus. By the time I got to the listings of eateries in Downtown Disney, my eyes and brain were getting a bit tired, even though I was still enthusiastic about finding a new restaurant to explore. The choices were vast - restaurants by Wolfgang Puck, Irish food, Latin, various themed dining was almost overwhelming. Then a place called T-Rex caught my eye. That might be fun, I thought. I started to look at the sample menu, and just reading about the salads made my mouth water. I told Trent that he had to listen to the description of a particular salad. Like several others, this one had a couple of options. You could order it as it was listed on the menu, or you could have grilled chicken added. As my tired brain read the description, I heard myself reading aloud the various greens, vegetables, and cheeses that were on this luscious dish. "And you can add grilled children," I heard myself say. 

We both started laughing hysterically. Yes, I was so tired that I said grilled children instead of grilled chicken. We laughed ourselves to the point of tears over it, and realized that it was probably time to lay down the tablet, and the task, and get some sleep. The restaurant listings would still be there the next day. As we tried to shut down our brains and get some sleep, we took turns bursting out laughing over the salad and the unusual add-on. I told Trent that it made a lot of sense. After all, when you're dining with dinosaurs, humans could end up on the menu. That started us laughing again. After all of that silliness, I knew I couldn't possibly be quiet and act like an adult in that restaurant, so I ended up choosing The House of Blues instead, and we really enjoyed it. But every time we passed by T-Rex, we sure had a good laugh. And whispered to each other, "No, kids! don't go in there!"

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

My Answer To Oprah

I'd like to begin this post by saying that I have nothing against Oprah Winfrey. I think that she is a smart and talented woman who has worked her way to the top. I also think she is a good person. And I think that she rightfully enjoys the fruits of her labors. But since she travels in a far different economic sphere than most of the people who watch her shows or read her magazines, the things that she enjoys, and tells her viewers and readers are so fabulous, are often far out of their reach. I will also admit that I don't necessarily understand the celebrity mania that makes people view celebrities as if they were the Second Coming, only with better clothes and shoes. And I am not singling out Oprah here, folks. Have you heard about Gwyneth Paltrow's suggestions about how people should eat, shop, dress, and so forth? The truth is that most of us whose movie ticket, DVD/Blu-ray, and magazine purchases help pay these stars simply cannot even dream of affording the things these people take for granted.

This morning, as I was looking at news stories to read on the internet, I saw something about Oprah's annual List of Favorite Things. And we aren't talking about the simple sorts of things that are mentioned in the song from The Sound of Music. As I looked at the photographs of various items, I saw almost nothing I would ever be able to afford. There was a tin of tea, two ounces, for eleven dollars. And enough pre-made cookie dough for six cookies being sold for twelve dollars. Let me tell you - if you want some killer cookies, I can make you a 13 by 9 inch pan full of delicious cookie bars, available in many different flavors, for the small sum of thirty dollars, shipping extra, of course. Ha-ha! Of course, the concept of expensive is relative, isn't it, just like the concept of what broke means? One of my first blog posts, It's All Relative, addressed this issue. In the spirit of all things being relative, I'd like to share some of my Favorite Things. 

In completely random order, here are some of my favorites, things that I would love to get for myself, but which are mostly on the back burner for now. There will be no sets of four t-shits for $136, no $300 Ugg boots, no $95 truffle-flavored popcorn sets. Or $395 throw pillows, $222 cotton pajamas, $75 shower gel and $95 body lotion, $300 headphones, $75 cakes, $300 notes with envelopes and mailing labels, $225 candles, or even $29 bottles of honey. And forget about the $220 earrings and the $2900 wristwatch.

Garli Garni seasoning mix from Gilroy, California, $5.50. Delicious on all sorts of foods, including buttered popcorn, vegetables, meats, pastas...did I mention it's great on popcorn?

Real Theater Popcorn Popping Kits, five packets for $7.99. Yummy. Enough said. Seriously, though, this popcorn is fantastic.

Giants Sunflower Seeds, sixteen 3.25 oz. bags for $20.00. I love sunflower seeds, and these are the best I have ever eaten.

Hungarian Acacia Honey, $7.39. I first tasted this in my family's little village in western Hungary. It is light and wonderfully delicious. When we were in Paris, our hotel had individual-sized jars of Hungarian Acacia honey from the Bonne Maman line on their breakfast buffet. This honey is delightful on home-baked bread, toast, Greek yogurt...even just on a spoon!

Vinolia Soaps, two large bars for $16, and worth every penny. I haven't had any for a long time, but I will say this is the very best bar soap I have used in my entire life. Incidentally, it was so well-regarded that it was the only soap considered good enough to be in the first-class cabins of the White Star Cruise Line. Yes, it sailed on the Titanic.

Smith's Rosebud Salve and Minted Rose Lip Balm, both under $6.00 each at I have used Rosebud Salve on everything from insect bites to a dog's sore foot pads. I know I am supposed to hate it since it contains petrolatum, but I love it for all of the soothing things it does for skin. I am currently using it when I massage the incisions from Trent's thumb-joint surgery.

This list is by no means a comprehensive one, but I think you get the idea. There are other things I could put on my wish list of favorite things, like earbuds that cost less than $10. A Chromecast for $35. And in the arena of the more expensive, a new Samsung Galaxy Tablet, about $200, depending on merchants and sales. The book 11/22/63 by Stephen King, available now for under $20, and some other books as well. A couple of rolls of parchment paper for my kitchen. I love baking bread on it, and also use it for roasting chicken or bacon or potatoes. All in all, it's a pretty simple set of likes and joys. I can be made happy with very simple things. If I had the means, I could be happy with more extravagant ones too, I guess, like a trip to Hungary to see my family again, and seeing Ireland, the land of Trent's forebears. But for right now, I think I might be happy to just have those sunflower seeds. Dream big, but don't forget life's little pleasures.