Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Cooking in Vegas

The following is from the always interesting web site of Cathy Thomas Cooks. Cathy is a food columnist, speaker and author and she writes a wonderful newsletter with useful information about culinary happenings in Orange County, recipes and her own cooking school announcements. I attended one of Cathy's Orange County Vietnamese grocery tours in 2001. Her enthusiasm for the cuisine and the country was infectious and thanks to her, I have since visited Vietnam many times.


Today's issue of her newsletter exposed this odd cooking opportunity being offered in Las Vegas by two imaginative chefs: 

A room with a view ... of the kitchen.

The Signature at MGM Grand in Las Vegas is offering a new culinary TV program that allows guests to follow along and cook in their Signature suite.

Guests literally tune in to the “Signature Dish” TV program for a step-by-step guide to preparing one of Signature’s dishes. Guests can choose from: (1) Scallop Risotto, (2) Tandoori Chicken Curry or (3) Baked Ziti. 
Each of The Signature’s one/two-bedroom suites feature state-of-the-art kitchens, so any budding chef or seasoned gourmand can create a “home-cooked” meal while on the road. The 30-minute show is led by the on-screen guidance of Executive Chef Uday Huja and Executive Sous Chef Patrick Hoefler. And, the Signature provides all the ingredients to prepare the dish (in pre-assembled culinary baskets).

The Baked Ziti option, for example, includes a recipe card, pasta, marinara sauce, kosher salt, ricotta and mozzarella cheese; priced at $55.
After winning big at the tables, would gamblers decide to go back to the room and make Scallop Risotto? Or maybe, "I'll bet $100 that I can do the Baked Ziti Curry faster than you can!". I cannot imagine the bored little woman left in the room eschewing the usual "Vegas widow" activities like shopping, shopping and shopping and instead whipping up a little Tandoori Chicken Curry.

I don't get it. What am I missing?  

Sunday, June 27, 2010


Rockler wood working is a unique store full of gadgets and tools for wood workers. I drove to the one in San Diego to fetch some expensive hinges for the bi-fold doors we installed which don't close properly. We're hoping these will do the job.

Nordy-looking types, Nordy Rockler that is, were cruising the aisles looking for a screw....or a bolt or a jig
or whatever. They all seemed to be deaf too. Probably from working with saws and other noisy gadgets. Everyone was screaming at each other which was perfect for me. 

This is another good place to go hunting for an over-the-hill second or third hand deaf husband/boy friend. You might even find a specialty model with a finger or two missing. 

Saturday, June 26, 2010

List of Practical Wine Tasting tips

Ten practical tips (the bare minimum) for wine evaluations:

  1.  Make sure the wine is at the correct temperature.
  2.  Evaluate the wines "blind". Put them in numbered glasses without revealing brand.
  3.  Drink the wine out of the correct glass - you don't have to go to extremes with this, but a glass that capture volatiles and allows you to smell them is essential.
  4.  Use spit cups or some alternate form of spitting arrangement if the spit cup doesn't work with your group. If you're drinking the wine, your ability to discriminate goes down the tubes after a small amount of alcohol is ingested and hits the brain. 
  5.  Eat an unsalted cracker between samples and rinse with water.
  6.  Don't do more than 5 at a time, even if you're spitting out. You can do 5, take a break and go back at it after 1/2 hour rest. Take three small sniffs of the wine and get an impression. Then turn away and take a breath of fresh air to revitalize the sense of smell. 
  7. Evaluate one varietal at a time for maximum learning and enjoyment.
  8. Understand the basic principles of sensory evaluation: taste versus flavor, aspects of aroma - aroma by nose or retronasal aromas.
  9. Use a tasting guide: the wine wheel from Davis or any other sensible guide to flavor notes.
  10. Write down what you smell in the order you smell it; same for taste.
We all live in our own sensory worlds: we see differently (near sighted, far sighted, color blind), hear differently, feel differently (some can't stand certain textures on the body). And we differ dramatically in our ability to perceive tastes and aromas and our reactions to them once they've registered in the brain. You should feel free to like or dislike any wine - there are no right answers.

Wine tastings are a misnomer - there are only 5 basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami but there are thousands of aromas. "Wine evaluation" is a more descriptive term.

Should I keep my dictionaries?

As we're starting to move, I'm thinning down our stuff.

We have at least 20 dictionaries. Chinese to English, French, Italian, German, various English tomes, crossword puzzle dictionaries. They are never used since the internet is so much more convenient. I keep trying to box some of them up for the thrift shop but never quite make it. Too sentimental - full of memories of graduate school (Richard), article writing deadline angst (me); some are gifts, some are actually tear stained. And so I'll drag them along with us, dust them weekly (ha) and consider them memory books rather than actually useful.

I've figured out why clothes are so hard to throw out. My closet is a kind of social scrapbook. Looking at a dress and remembering where I wore it brings back a flood of memories. Some things, even if they're never worn again are worth keeping just for this memory trigger. I'm toying with the idea of photographing them before throwing them out. Browsing the pictures might be like browsing the closet?

Culling the kitchen stuff is fairly easy. Nobody needs 20 small stainless steel bowls and they don't trigger memories. Thank God for the thrift store. 

Friday, June 25, 2010

Costco Ideas

A lady in front of me in the line at Costco bought a bathing suit. It was on a plastic woman's body, sort of a half shell arrangement. The body looked like it was blow molded out of acrylic. The cashier picked the body off the belt, scanned the suit and tossed the body into the cart.

Got me wondering what you could do with something like that:
1. paint it so that it looked like a naked body, glue it to a shirt and wear it for a flasher costume
2. cold days at the beach you could bake under it in the sun
3. acquire a group of them, paint them naked and float them in your pool
4. use it on a buffet line to "lift and separate" certain items

I'm not a fanatic about over-packaging but this seemed excessive even to me.

Got a good tip from an avuncular guy standing at a table in the wine section with an array of Chilean wines. He was alone because they can't serve samples of wine. People push by quickly to get to the sausage samples on the next aisle. I tried to tiptoe by him to get a bottle off the rack, but he spotted me and we got into a discussion of malbec and bottling "under silver" as the Australians have named the screw cap. I complained about Richard and I only drinking a half bottle of wine and struggling with the re-corking. He suggested using an empty screw cap bottle for storage of a half-drunk bottle. Brilliant idea. 

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

We have permission to occupy

We passed the final inspection by the County building department and have permission to occupy. I was so excited I came straight home and got into my pajamas. Then I opened the wine.

For the past few days we've been preparing for this inspection making sure that every little thing was done. However, we knew our stair railing did not meet the 4" rule. You cannot have a space in the railing greater than 4" - we were told that some inspectors carry a 4" rubber ball that they use to check the spaces. We even changed out all the light bulbs to the new dim kind just in case they might spot this as a problem. 

When the inspector arrived, I dove into the grove, getting as lost as possible. Richard does a fine job with these people and as I burned out altogether during the permit stage, I don't have it in me to keep my trap shut . He has been successful with former inspections so I left it in his capable hands. Success!!

The inspector walked in, looked around and commented only on the GFI outlets in the kitchen. Other than that, he looked at little. We were prepared to fail the inspection on the basis for example, of the pool. The last time he visited he claimed we needed alarms on every door. Richard explained that the pool was built in 1988 and was merely an update, not a new pool therefore did not need to meet current code. The man was still insistent at last visit. Boy, was I happy that we didn't bother running around trying to get the alarms ahead of time. Apparently he changed his mind on the matter. 

We can start moving things now, although we'll take another week or so to do a final painting, get some small dry wall repairs finished and some floor moulding on, get mirrors in the bathrooms, the last closet done. Probably another couple of weeks realistically.

Finally the county is in our rear view mirror. After almost 4 years. Amen

Ikea is weapon free

Ikea is a weapon-free zone. I had to unstrap my revolver (ha ha) and put it in a locker before they'd let me in! Not a single gun-toting customer in the place and they are also famous for being the first retailer in the US to ban plastic bags. You cannot get one there. Bring your own reusable bag or buy one of theirs. You sure aren't getting a plastic bag to put your gun in!

Clever marketers - they serve a 99 cent breakfast on weekends to attract young families. I notice they also cater parties. Wouldn't that be tacky- having your wedding catered by IKEA? If you're Swedish I guess you'd love it. Personally I don't like mace in my meatballs.

Ikea wouldn't be a bad place to troll for second or third-hand husband if you were in the market. I saw a few disoriented older males walking around scratching their heads. They had the desperate, sweaty look of husbands or boy-friends recently ejected from the nest and forced to shop for household goods on their own. Because Ikea has a testosterony warehouse feel to it, I'm sure men feel more comfortable here than in estrogen-laden Bed, Bath and Beyond. 

Most of the Ikea furniture used to be fibreboard stuff with a veneer but I noticed that they do carry real wooden bookcases and other storage pieces now. They provide everything (pencils and graph paper) you need to plot out a storage arrangement and a handy guide to what's required for assembly. I went looking for paper towel holders, drawer liners and drawer dividers. But the real purpose of the trip was to purchase a piece of hardwood that can be used as a counter top in the garage. For about $100 they sell a 8 foot long piece of solid oak 1 and 1/2 inches thick that makes a perfect counter - can be sanded oiled etc. The counter on the island in the photo is an Ikea wood counter. Unfortunately, you have to lug the stuff out of the warehouse yourself. I couldn't manage the heavy carton, need Richard with me and we would have to take the truck to the store. It lost it's appeal.
If you've got a big unoccupied guy around with a truck and nothing to do, this is the best bargain I found during the whole remodel.

I came home with 2 rolls of drawer liner material, one plastic box for doo dads and 2- 99 cent chocolate bars. The chocolate bars were an impulse purchase. They were sitting by the check-out stand and the small treat eased the schmucky feeling I get from a wasted trip.  

Sunday, June 20, 2010


This is an aerial photo of terraced rice fields in Yunnan China. It was on the National Geographic site as picture of the day. I'm sure it must be enhanced as so little in nature is really that kind of lime green except algae. My husband loves Yunnan and has been there a few times and has suggested an itinerary in that part of the world. I have never had much interest but this photo caught got my attention. 

People frequently ask me, "Where next?" Maybe here....but India and South Africa are calling.

Another Bitter Encounter - a real toot

We were planning to meet at 2:00 in Elsinore and I wasn't going to make it. Shari agreed to drive to the rancho with her samples where we could review them. Two boxes of stuff - about 15 samples she had ready. Excellent presentation - we could see clearly what was happening and where to go. She did an great job of  making the bitter better but was frustrated tasting alone. It's very difficult as you begin to doubt yourself....adaptation sets in and you don't know what you're doing after a while. Working in a lab full of people has it's advantages for this kind of project.

We were sitting upstairs in our new office with a bunch of mason jars filled with clear liquid on the table between us. The granite installer came upstairs to tell me something and as he glanced at the mason jars, he said he hadn't had a drink in 18 years but that alcohol was starting to appeal to him again! I guess he thought Shari and I were going on a real toot. 

Dad memories on Father's Day

Once in a while, Dad stayed late at the legion, shooting the breeze and drinking beer. As dinner was long since over, everyone would be in bed but he'd be hungry. When I was just three or four, he'd tip-toe into the bedroom, wake me up and sit me down in the kitchen with him while he made one of his two specialties: chili (open the can and heat) or curds and whey (heat buttermilk until the curds coagulated and floated to the top). Talking all the time, he'd get his feast together with a box of crackers and tell me about the wars. I barely remember this (only that he'd put the telephone book on the chair for me to sit on) but many years later, my mother told me about these late night feasts when she would be remembering what she didn't like about my Dad.  I do remember the thrill of having Dad all to myself. And I still love curds and whey. 

Saturday mornings, he'd make his shopping rounds and I'd go along until I was old enough to prefer my friend's company to his. He had a friend who ran a meat market - we'd stop there for chickens and beef. A drink of whiskey was always involved. The bakery was next - no whiskey but a little flirting with the sales clerk.  In the summer, we'd drive out to Bob's garden - a friend of the family who always had extra vegetables for us and the shot for Dad. Once in a while, we'd go to the grocery store where he never bought staples, always the curiosities, the exotica - things like Kangaroo Tail soup,  kippered herring, limburger cheese; the food my mother would never volunteer to have in the house. The shopping trips were jolly affairs - he was well-liked probably because he did everyone's legal work for free - will writing, property searches, specialty letter writing, bills of sale, notes. If we did visit someone who didn't offer him a drink, no matter the time of day, when we'd get in the car to go home, he'd say, "I wonder who they're saving the whiskey for?".

Once a year, he would take my sister or me - it would be just Dad plus kid, to Child's restaurant downtown on a Saturday where we'd have a chocolate sundae. Mom would get us all dressed up for the occasion and Dad was clearly showing us off. The waitresses would all make a fuss over us and Dad made the excursion into a very special occasion. 

As we grew older, the "showing us off" scenario started to become a real drag.  The last time this "showcase of daughters" took place was one unfortunate Christmas Eve at a Legion party. Even at 9 and 15 years old, my sister and I knew it was a mistake for us to play "O Holy Night" - me on the violin and her on the piano at 8:00 in the evening. The drinking had started late in the afternoon and the audience consisted mostly of plastered WW1 veterans.  As my Dad sat beaming, I squeaked and sawed, Eilleen pounded the keys and cries of "Take if off honey" and other similar encouragements rang out.  Dad, shocked and surprised, realized the folly of the thing and bundled us off home. Mom barely spoke to him for a month.

I'm bored

It's beyond me why parents tolerate the "I'm bored" whine from their children. If a kid takes up this complaint I see young mothers scurrying around to find something to amuse the little darling as if the lack of entertainment is dangerous. Lock the kid up in a back yard with a box, a piece of string, some glue, maybe a handful of buttons and a pair of scissors - tell him to make something and don't let him back in for 4 or 5 hours! That would be the start of a cure.

I can't remember ever being bored nor do I remember any of my childhood friends complaining of this.  There was rarely nothing to do (we played with anything and everything). We always played outside (roller skating, skipping, hide and seek, ice skating, igloo building, hopscotch, playing house, playing doctor, playing tag, playing hockey, following the delivery men, knocking down icicles, building ice dams in the spring, collecting tad poles, climbing trees, playing baseball) and were kept in only when it was dangerously cold - like 20 below zero or lower. 

My parents cooked up a plan for our amusement should we get cabin fever during the cold snaps and annoy them with boisterousness or overdoing our musical instruments (the house was small and there was no escape). They decided we could make our own wall paper for the "rec" room downstairs in the basement; really just a corner of the basement partitioned off where we kept our television set. My father would bring home all his mail and we kids would steam off the stamps, and get them flat and dry. He had a motive, of course that the process would arouse curiosity about where the stamps came from. Little did he know that he was planting the seeds for my lifelong wanderlust. Dad never passed up the opportunity for a "teaching moment" and today, Father's day, I honor his memory and thank him for being such a loving and engaged parent. 

When those rare nothing-to-do moments came along, we glued the flattened stamps to rolls of cash register paper. Neat and straight (as a kid could manage) and with the colors varied. I remember sitting at the dining room table with Eilleen, thick snowfall whiting out the windows, the heater blasting us with warm air and the smell of mucilage hanging in the air. The "stamped" strips were applied to the walls as we completed them. When they were finally all done, mother lacquered the wall. The stamp wallpaper was a conversation piece;  a piece of entertainment in itself - guests would always take an interest. 

After my mother died and our family home was being sold, my sister and I each cut off a piece of the stamp wall. Mine is framed and hangs in my kitchen. 

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The quux of the matter

Our central vacuum system was installed yesterday. The accessories are much improved over the one in  he
old house - lighter weight, more efficient. Suction is better, hoses are more flexible. There's still  nfortunately a lot of stuff to store. The current vacuum hose is stuffed into a closet and every time we open the closet the thing unfurls like the dragon at a Chinese New Year's parade waiting to escape. 

Vacuum is such a weird word. How many other words have a double u? I had to look this up and found that other than continuum and possibly residuum ( I use this one all the time. "Dear.. there's still residuum on the wine glasses you washed.")  they are not words in frequent usage. A surprise to me - muumu is apparently spelled with the double u but not in common usage. 

I thought "quux" which appeared on one list, was a great scrabble word. It means "a bit of computer programming data currently under discussion". You could only use it with computer geeks of the first order. I'm guessing it's a corruption of "crux". I can see geeks gathered in a room, mouths full of bubble gum or tobacco mumbling about the crux of the matter and having it mistakenly transcribed as quux - probably by one of those voice transcriptions programs. A classic case of being hoist by your own petard. But in Silicone Valley when they get hoisted, they simply make the mistake into something new! We should all be so creative. Here's something about quux and apparently I guessed almost right: see 4.

quux - /kwuhks/ [Mythically, from the Latin semi-deponent verb quuxo, quuxare, quuxandum iri; noun form variously "quux" (plural "quuces", anglicised to "quuxes") and "quuxu" (genitive plural is "quuxuum", for four u-letters out of seven in all, using up all the "u" letters in Scrabble).] 1. Originally, a metasyntactic variable like fooand foobar. Invented by Guy Steele for precisely this purpose when he was young and naive and not yet interacting with the real computing community. Many people invent such words; this one seems simply to have been lucky enough to have spread a little. In an eloquent display of poetic justice, it has returned to the originator in the form of a nickname.

2. See foo; however, denotes very little disgust, and is uttered mostly for the sake of the sound of it.

3. Guy Steele in his persona as "The Great Quux", which is somewhat infamous for light verse and for the "Crunchly" cartoons.

4. In some circles, used as a punning opposite of "crux". "Ah, that's the quux of the matter!" implies that the point is *not* crucial (compare tip of the ice-cube).

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Appalachian Trail

We have a relative hiking the Appalachian Trail. She's just starting out and is keeping a blog on www.trailjournals.com. Her trail name is Snoopy. If you want a funny read, have a look at her entries. Most of what she's written is about the preparation which is considerable. The account of her first day out is hilarious; she got lost and hiked 17 miles ending up back where she started. You have to admire her guts as she admits to being directionally challenged. Why didn't she take a compass?

The hike is about 2100 miles long. Here's a photo of one of the gorgeous vistas she'll be seeing if she
ever makes it out of Harper's Ferry. 

I can't leave it to chance that one my thousands of readers might not click on the link and have the pleasure of reading about Mary's hike start. So I've copied that entry and put it here so it won't be missed: 

So, I get dropped off at the airport in Orlando (MCO) by my best friend Lee, backpack and Snoopy with me and it's not too heavy at all because I shipped a lot of the heavy stuff ahead to the Hostel, especially the items that would not make it past TSA. Sitting outside a coffee shop with two hours to spare and reading an abandoned Sunday newspaper (I get that from my ex husband, an airline pilot)when someone taps me on the shoulder and asks, "Excuse me, do you know where the bathrooms are?" And here are my wonderful daughters, Grace and Josie, here to see me off. How lucky am I !! I had just got thru texting them to say goodbye and they gave me all the excuses of why they couldn't make it out to the airport(each one is an hour and half away in opposite directions) and here they are. JOY JOY JOY !! It was a grand start to my trip. Us Airways flight at just under two hours and cheaper than the Amtrak ticket at 23 hours.Fast forward to Reagan National Airport. Have been there several times. Got my Metro card yellow line to Ft. Totten to switch over to the red line for Union Station...and failed to pay attention. Jumped off two exits too early and had to wait another ten minutes for the next train. But that's okay because > I < got to see some young man with his drawers at his knees and he has a SKIDMARK and you could SEE IT !!! Texted the info over to Grace and Jos and challenged them to top that. Grace won. She replied back that her Jack Russell, Skeeter would EAT those shorts. I bow down to the master ~~~
So, got to Union Station and realized that I had been there before years ago on a 5th Grade DC trip with Josie and her classmates. Got Asiago rolls and a drink and I noticed several other backpacks in the convergence area, all belonging to guys. The one I talked to was Sam from England who admitted that he had quite the heavy pack of at least 45 pounds and I applauded myself for shipping heavy stuff ahead. So, my first experience on an Amtrak train and I have to say, it was a very smooth ride. Three times the leg room as opposed to an airplane and very quiet on board. If I had lots of time to spare, Amtrak is pretty good. From DC to Harper's Ferry, $11.
Got to the train station and headed over one street to the outfitter to buy rope as mine that I ordered failed to come in (Thank you Amazon). Met up with Sam and another guy, Bill, and we are hiking along the C & O Canal looking for this Hostel. Well, when you see the giant overhead highway, turn to your left; there is a gravel trail that takes you over the railroad to a street. Go right and over the second hill, the Hostel is on the right. Lovely, lovely place. I highly recommend it.
Got my bunk and found four new friends ! Melissa, Susan, Joanne and Betsy were finishing up a section hike and just took me under their wing. So we're in the bunk room and I've got my mailed box open to regroup all my stuff and I'm pulling out stuff after stuff after stuff ~~~ jeez I mailed a LOT of stuff. And I had this all weighed out at the house in Ocala but I'm looking at it and thinking, OMG. The girls were just wonderful. Wanted to know all about me, about all my stuff, about my hike. They had pizza delivered for dinner and offered to share but I was strangely not hungry at all. I did scarf down two diet Cokes, though. This could very well be MY hike ~~~ drinking more than eating.
Slept fine in the bunk with my Snoopy, forced down two pancakes and coffee this morning and hiked back into Harper's Ferry; the girls were ending their hike and going tubing today while I decided to go ahead and find the ATC to officially register. Hugs and photos later, I made my way up High Street (again) and yes, the ATC building looks just like it does in all the pictures. Got extra water, left behind heavy snacks and a paperback book and weighed the pack in the bathroom scale ~ 33 pounds. I swear to God, it feels like 55 when I try top swing it up on my back. So, mosey on out of town (again) cross the
C & O (again) and turn right and hike on, going a good five miles past the turn off from the hostel. Sitting on a rock resting and this guy on a bike (lots of bikes on the Canal) talks to me about the hike but then informs me that I'm heading south. OMG (OMG) I have just hiked me heart out, thinking I'm doing good to get to the Ed Garvey Shelter; and I have to turn around ??!? Yeah, he says, look at the river; it's flowing south. Sure enough, it was flowing the way I was hiking.

I am crushed. Turn around, hike back past the Hostel turnoff, climb the stairs again to go back into town (again) and I get a $3 soda. Worth every penny. ($3 because it cost $2.18 and I was NOT going to carry the change; it went in the tips jar). So I see Bill, the other guy staying at the Hostel and I ask him when he was leaving town. "Oh. I'm here for a few days." So I asked just how do I get out of town...puhleeeeeeeze. He says, arn't you hiking north? Yeppers. "Well, just go past the Hostel turnoff and keep hiking."   WWWAAAHHHHHHHT ??????? "Here, look at this map." And sure enough, he shows me that the AT comes UNDER Harper's Ferry and leaves over the C & O Canal.....and then to make my stupidity more profoundly complete, he reminds me that the lovely hostel we stayed in is located ~~~~ in Maryland. A state north of W Va.
Duh ~~~

As Snoopy would say,   Bleahhhhhhh >>>>>
Guess where I'm typing this journel? You betcha. Another night at the Hostel. And as I staggered up (after dumping all of my water except one bottle to save weight), I am retching, probably due to lack of electrolytes and a serious urge to kill myself. My legs, both of them, are cramping up badly that I could only hobble to the door; the cramp was causing my left foot to turn inward. Yes, there is room at the Inn and I am thankful to have the common sense to know when to regroup. I am here for another lovely evening

After a bottle of Gatorade, a shower, and washing my clothes (again), I emptied out my pack and removed the peanut butter, crackers and bags of cashews (darn heavy) because I can tell that my hiker appetite is actually diminishing and there is no need to carry the extra weight. I would rather have tons of water and a little food because I tend to drink more than I eat anyway.

So, today I hiked 2 miles into town, 2 miles to the turnoff to the Hostel, 5 miles North, 7 miles South back to Harper's Ferry and 2 miles back to the Hostel for a grand total of 16 miles ~ of NOTHING !!! Okay, I can count the two miles from town. And for the record, this is EXACTLY how my family expected me to hike as I have the directional sense of a gnat. I have been completely befuddled in Buenos Aires, London, Dublin, Jerusalem, every major city I have had the pleasure to visit.
Just sitting here in the chair, I can feel the pack on my back. I have GOT to get the weight down or I will not enjoy this hike. Period. So I fully expect tomorrow that I will wake up feeling like the Amtrak just blew me into the woods and when I go back, I will be turning left ~ North. And I will have ALL DAY to get to a shelter that is just 7 miles up the road and I will be hiking sooooo slow because I boogied it today all over the darn place and it got me nowhere.
And girls, my sweet Betsy, Joann, Melissa and Susan, I miss you, I miss you in the room ~~~ and I ate your left over pizza in the fridge. Even cold, it was deelish ~ with another diet Coke.   Cheers !


Online relationships

I've found a new bunch of relatives online. It started with a cousin I found through a painting on Etsy of Letellier Manitoba where my grandparents lived.

Larane, the artist, it turned out, is a second cousin. She has now put me in touch with another second cousin who has tons of information about the family. I learned this morning that both sides on my paternal grandmother's side came to Canada in the 1600's. We thought they were much newer arrivals. Also on this side are descendants from an aristocratic French family the Douaire de Bondy. What a surprise! I was proud of my 100% peasant stock. On old maps of Ireland, almost every family has some kind of title. Not mine.....worker bees for centuries. No status, no wealth. Now I find there could be an aristocratic gene lurking? Is there a cure? Some kind of purge?

My grandmother Pulcherie Lemire Fortier is on the right. The cousin I found online is the grand daughter of the woman in the front, right, Alexas Lemire Jutras. I have a feeling I may be able to connect with the offspring of the rest of the great aunts.

My grandmother lived to 101. Here are two pictures of her, one as a girl and one on her 100th birthday.

Yesterday I heard that 20% of relationships now begin online. I wonder if there are any stats for people over 50 because I know there is at least a strong trend in this direction just based on my personal experience.  In my cul-de-sac, three out of four of us (all over 50) met our new partners online. All independently - nobody ran around the neighborhood shouting that they were having success on Match.com. We found out accidentally while comparing notes at a party. Now, we have been encouraging the last remaining single person to give it a whirl.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Book Club Meeting

Last night's book club meeting was joyful and delicious. The book discussed was a carry over from the prior week, "Cutting for Stone" by AbrahamVerghese. Several readers didn't quite make it through last month as it was 700 pages and so it was carried over to allow for more leisurely reading. A summary follows:

Marion and Shiva Stone are twin brothers born of a secret union between a beautiful Indian nun and a brash British surgeon. Orphaned by their mother’s death and their father’s disappearance, bound together by a preternatural connection and a shared fascination with medicine, the twins come of age as Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution.

Moving from Addis Ababa to New York City and back again, Cutting for Stone is an unforgettable story of love and betrayal, medicine and ordinary miracles—and two brothers whose fates are forever intertwined.

Most enjoyed the book. Some had trouble getting into it but once into it they loved the writing and the characters. Nancy sobbed when the principal character died. Barbara almost cried.  There was quite a bit of discussion about the bad guy sort of triumphing. 

We ate well. There was a salad, a lovely stew concoction by Laurie which incorporated the spices mentioned in the book served with rice, lime juice and a bowl of chunky guacamole. Chicken piccata with pasta and braised artichokes. For dessert we had a brownie with juicy fresh blackberries from Rox's garden. Plenty of wine flowed. 

We wondered about the title and found that it was from the Hippocratic Oath, but here's a further explanation about specifically what it means - cutting for bladder stones.

" In the book’s epilogue, Verghese, a surgeon and professor at Stanford Medical School, closes with the following explanation, “Medicine is a demanding mistress, yet she is faithful, generous, and true […] every year, at commencement, I renew my vows with her: I swear by Apollo and Hygieia and Panaceia to be true to her, for she is the source of all…I shall not cut for stone.”  

In an interview he clarifies, there is a line in the Hippocratic Oath that says: ‘I will not cut for stone, even for  patients in whom the disease is manifest.’ It stems from the days when bladder stones were epidemic, a cause of  great suffering, probably from bad water and who knows what else. […] There were itinerant stonecutters— lithologists—who could cut either into the bladder or the perineum and get the stone out, but because they cleaned the knife by wiping it on their blood-stiffened surgical aprons, patients usually died of infection the next day. Hence the proscription ‘Thou shall not cut for stone."

Oddball characters in the book led to a discussion of oddball characters in our small town: we may be getting a dominatrix on Main street. A discussion of our encounters with various kooks both in and out of Fallbrook ensued. For instance, Nancy was the only one of us who actually sat next to a couple who had sex in the seats next to her on the plane on a Braniff Airlines flight. The woman, she said, repaired to the bathroom and put her hair in curlers in advance (of the sex) so that she would look good on arrival. The sex partner was apparently a stranger as she said they exchanged phone numbers on the way off the plane. Kathy told of people who would come into her shop and tell her all kinds of personal things which she attributed to the "ships that pass in the night" phenomenon. I too have had people on red-eye flights share embarrassingly intimate confessions. 

We found we had a virgin in our midst.   Susan had never eaten an artichoke so it was a first for her. I learned from Laurie that capers actually do come from a caper bush. My experience with processing them had been with nasturtium buds which I guess are "poor man's capers". 

Laurie disappeared into the kitchen doing some clean-up until we begged her to come back to the table. She said she was enjoying herself listening from the other room to the laughter and banter of women she loved. 

Next month's book is Birdology by Sy Montgomery. We discussed our interest in various birds briefly and Barbara noted that Sy owns the parrot who dances on You Tube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bt9xBuGWgw

Laurie had read research indicating that parrots are the only birds that can actually pick up a beat. Nancy had seen a PETA ad that depicted a family eating at a table with a child saying grace and asking for thanks for the turkey which had been raised in a "turkey factory". That led to a discussion of other PETA ads and a funny flexible glue ad. 



Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Crusader Castle

Hooked on the crusades after visiting a chain of crusader castles in Syria I dusted off Zoe Oldenbourg's tome on the subject. The last time I was seduced by this time period was probably 30 years ago and the book is satisfyingly yellowed along the edges (published in 1966). The notes I made in the margins are not too different than I would make today so my opinion of these terrible wars hasn't changed much.

During the first crusade, approximately 10,000 soldiers swooped down on Jerusalem and wiped out 40,000 people many of whom were women and children. It was a massacre and in two bloody days, the "soldiers of Christ slaughtered everyone in their path." Jews were shut up in synagogues and set on fire. There's ton of background information offered as to why this Christian army was worked into such a bloody frenzy for those two days,  July 15 and July 16th, 1099, but it was as bad or worse as any religious war has ever been.  When there were few left to kill and the streets of Jerusalem were literally running with blood the barons got together at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and celebrated a mass. 200 yards outside, the last souls still standing were being savagely killed by the soldiers, "wading in blood and trampling on corpses. Knight and barons were praying and weeping for joy as they received the blessing of priests, among the candles and smell of incense. At the gates of paradise.  Jerusalem was delivered. The faithful everywhere in the West were overflowing with joy."

And for the next 200 years it was one crusade after another. Abdul and I are in the pictures because Richard was the photographer that day. 

Krac de Chevaliers is one of the most renown crusader castles, extolled by Paul Theroux as the epitome of the dream castle of childhood fantasies of jousts and armor and pennants. It was the outpost of the Knights Hospitaller for a while but later they were displaced by a blood thirsty bunch who held the countryside in hostage for decades. It was impenetrable in its day and it's claimed that 2000 people could live inside for years when it was under siege. The crusaders finally lost it through trickery...brains win over brawn once again. 

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Bloggers Block

At last my bloggers block appears to be lifting. After a month of daily hyper stimulation, moving around, viewing different sights and virtually giving ZERO thought to home and hearth, my brain was stuck on the "looking outward" setting and getting all the stimulation it could handle from the environment. I think you  have to be "looking inward" for blogging.

Slowly, I'm getting the itch to write things down - hopefully most of my thoughts on our travels haven't evaporated, the old memory being hardly a steel trap anymore. A stainless steel colander would be a more apt description.

Traveling around at a fairly good clip also fosters ADD. We think we bit off more than we could chew with this last schedule. You need some time to sit and think between bursts of frenzied activity or else it all gets to be a high speed blur. 

Years ago, I traveled in Europe for almost six months never staying longer than two nights in one spot. At that age, I was able to handle the stress. And I was actually working at the same time, doing new product searches for my ex-employer which required that I find a post office and navigate foreign postal systems once a week. This was before the days of Federal Express. 

Next vacation we'll be going at a more leisurely pace. Three days "on" and three days "off". Maybe my brain won't get so fried.   

Bitter Central

We're working with Reb A, the major sweetening component in Stevia. It leaves a horrible bitter taste which we are trying to mask with an assortment of additives which "fool" the tongue. Fortunately Shari is doing most of the work and she's answering the phone "Bitter Central".

Bitter taste protects us from ingesting poisons - that's the best guess of those who study our taste perceptions from a genetic standpoint. Most poisons are heavy alkaloids which taste bitter. Bitter receptors are primarily located at the back of the throat, the "last stand" until food or whatevers in your mouth starts down the hatch and it's the most sensitive of the five basic tastes. We can detect it a very low levels. It's a protective mechanism. Great design.

Some foods with acceptable bitter properties are coffee, tea, some greens, citrus peel, tonic water, angostura bitters, endive, radicchio.  We expect bitterness in the flavor profile and so we don't react as we would to the presence of a "foreign" bitterness. Those who are super-sensitive to bitterness experience the taste in beet greens, chards, bok choy, most cabbages and Brussels sprouts. 

While there is a big market in no calorie or low calorie or no sugar added food products, the largest application for bitter blockers is likely in the pharmaceutical area. Making medicine taste better and therefore more palatable is what most of the research is striving for. 

I loved this tongue twister as a kid. 

Betty Botter bought some butter,
"But," she said, "this butter's bitter.
If I bake this bitter butter,
It will make my batter bitter.
But a bit of better butter -
That would make my batter better."
So she bought a bit of butter,
Better than her bitter butter,
And she baked it in her batter,
And the batter was not bitter.
So 'twas better Betty Botter

Bought a bit of better butter.

Happily butter is rarely if ever bitter - at least in my experience. We're getting it all these days from the Reb A. We're having to take the bitter with the sweet. 



Eating in Damascus

The light was shining through my glass at Narinj restaurant in Damascus old town. I emptied it quickly of the mediocre Lebanese wine filling it. It's hard to find wine in predominantly Muslim countries so you "takes what you gets". I would describe myself as "wine starved" after a couple of weeks.
Not that I'm an alcoholic but I do enjoy wine with my dinners. Years ago traveling with my brother-in-law in the former Yugoslavia, he turned to me at dinner where we were choking down yet another mediocre glass of swill and announced he was never traveling again to a destination where the wine was no good! He had hit bottom as far as the level of travel hardship he was willing to endure:)

We ordered a table full of small plates - all delicious. The restaurant is beautifully appointed and the service was lovely. At the end of the meal, they present you with the above complimentary platter of sweets. It would easily feed ten people.

As we were still a bit road dusty, we felt a bit out of place when a large Russian delegation - all suited and tied - showed up to enjoy a meal. All around us, people were smoking "Hubbly Bubbly" or Hookah pipes. All the rage in the middle east, young and old seem to really enjoy it. You can order the water pipe in different flavors and we even saw Europeans, who had brought along their own pipes, enjoying a smoke. All over the place, "no smoking" signs are posted - even in the restaurants who offer Hubbly Bubbly, which is just about all of them.

"No Smoking" has a different meaning in Syria, as does "We do not accept dollars" as does "no" anything. This might mean that something is discouraged but then again, maybe it means that if you offer the right person a little something, everything changes. The greased palm is King here. Our driver  managed to park in the most outrageous places by "tipping" the police in charge. Instead of remembering to feed the parking meter, in Damascus, you "feed" the policeman. On one occasion, we over-stayed our bribed policemans' shift and when we returned to our ticketed car, we had to hunt down the new guy on duty and grease him with his share. Even traffic lights seem to be subject to personal interpretation.

We simply could not have navigated our way around without our driver/guide. The culture is so different that most Americans are simply stymied by the jelly-like rules, bending every which way. Eventually, of course, you'd catch on, but don't try it on a short vacation!!


I'm picking the book for the book club this month. The members will each have to dedicate many hours to the selection and so careful thought must be given to the choice. 

Because I love Malcolm Gladwell, I'm tempted to nominate "The Outliers" as this months' selection. With Malcolm, the proposition is the thing. The writing is workman-like magazine writing but hardly literature. The appealing hook of his books is the provocative idea(s) he offers - he takes a decidedly different approach to many of the ordinary things in life, making you look at them in a new light.  

The book I'd really like to read personally is "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel, an historical novel about Cromwell and his role in assisting with Henry VIII's beheading of his wives and establishing the Anglican church. It was a Man Booker prize winner for 2009 and a friend of mine, a retired English professor with discerning literary taste highly recommended it - as did another friend who is actually writing an historical novel. But it's long - over 500 pages and for most of us, it's really too much to read and digest in a month. Following are some of the reviews.

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best of the Month, October 2009: No character in the canon has been writ larger than Henry VIII, but that didn't stop Hilary Mantel. She strides through centuries, past acres of novels, histories, biographies, and plays--even past Henry himself--confident in the knowledge that to recast history's most mercurial sovereign, it's not the King she needs to see, but one of the King's most mysterious agents. Enter Thomas Cromwell, a self-made man and remarkable polymath who ascends to the King's right hand. Rigorously pragmatic and forward-thinking, Cromwell has little interest in what motivates his Majesty, and although he makes way for Henry's marriage to the infamous Anne Boleyn, it's the future of a free England that he honors above all else and hopes to secure. Mantel plots with a sleight of hand, making full use of her masterful grasp on the facts without weighing down her prose. The opening cast of characters and family trees may give initial pause to some readers, but persevere: the witty, whip-smart lines volleying the action forward may convince you a short stay in the Tower of London might not be so bad... provided you could bring a copy of Wolf Hall along. --Anne Bartholomew

From Publishers Weekly

Henry VIII's challenge to the church's power with his desire to divorce his queen and marry Anne Boleyn set off a tidal wave of religious, political and societal turmoil that reverberated throughout 16th-century Europe. Mantel boldly attempts to capture the sweeping internecine machinations of the times from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, the lowborn man who became one of Henry's closest advisers. Cromwell's actual beginnings are historically ambiguous, and Mantel admirably fills in the blanks, portraying Cromwell as an oft-beaten son who fled his father's home, fought for the French, studied law and was fluent in French, Latin and Italian. Mixing fiction with fact, Mantel captures the atmosphere of the times and brings to life the important players: Henry VIII; his wife, Katherine of Aragon; the bewitching Boleyn sisters; and the difficult Thomas More, who opposes the king. Unfortunately, Mantel also includes a distracting abundance of dizzying detail and Henry's all too voluminous political defeats and triumphs, which overshadows the more winning story of Cromwell and his influence on the events that led to the creation of the Church of England.(Oct.) 

And so I've settled on "Birdology" which gets good reviews from all six people who read it on Amazon:) While not widely read and not great literature, it's packed with interesting tidbits, fascinating for those of us who like trivia and particularly suitable for Fallbrook (lots of birds) and for summer. Each section can be read as a stand alone piece, so you can pick it up, read just one section and put it down. In summer, we spend so much more time outdoors and are likely to enjoy expanding our knowledge of crows and particularly the hummingbirds.

So that's it - a short easy fun book for summer time reading.

Reviews of the book follow:

rFrom Booklist

Montgomery gives herself over so wholeheartedly to animals, and other humans who share her passion for creatures both rare and ubiquitous, that her nature chronicles are uniquely radiant. Mammals, from tigers to dolphins, bears, and one very special pig, have been her specialty, but birds have always fascinated her, hence this gathering of stirring avian encounters. Montgomery assists a hummingbird rehabilitator in the delicate raising of two tiny orphans, and meets the “most dangerous bird on earth,” the enormous, razor-clawed cassowary in Australia, one bird whose dinosaur ancestry is blazingly apparent. She also writes from unexpected perspectives about falcons, crows, pigeons, chickens, and parrots, each intriguing tale illustrating one of the “seven essential truths about birds,” and all revealing fresh insights about birds, interspecies communications, and environmental concerns. Inspired equally by all that we share with birds—similarities in intelligence, emotion, language, and music—and all that is mysterious (birds “remain fundamentally wild”), Montgomery expresses profound appreciation for the living web of life in a book that both bird lovers and readers new to bird lore will find evocative, enlightening, and uplifting. --Donna Seaman


"Sy Montgomery does for birds what Jane Goodall did for apes. With an infectious sense of adventure, and a sense of awe and mystery, her stories change the way we look at even the most 'common' birds and instill in us a deep sense of gratitude that we are privileged to share this planet with such delightful creatures. Birdology is bound to become a classic."-- Stacey O'Brien, author of Wesley the Owl

"Spell-binding, absolutely compelling, and so beautifully expressed, Birdology tells stories that everyone should know. Nobody has ever gone so far into the minds of birds as Montgomery has. She completely conveys the life, the obsession, the fascination with birds in an intimate, personal, and engaging style. A magnificent achievement." -- Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, author of When Elephants Weep and Dogs Never Lie about Love

Friday, June 04, 2010

The final straw

Abdul, our wonderful driver for 20 days in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan has had some very bad luck in his life. Despite hard work and determination he was dealt an almost lethal series of blows - lost his businesses, his houses and his marriage when he was denied a green card in the U.S. After years of wrangling with paperwork and a positive end in sight (he was assured by his lawyer that the green card was weeks away), his visa was cancelled and he was suddenly and unexpectedly asked to leave the country. As his daughter is American, once she is old enough to return to the U.S. to live and go to school, he will possibly be able to come back and start life again.

He sold one of his U.S. businesses to a colleague who has stopped paying him. Another so-called friend who offered to assist him with his houses etc.,  basically stole his identity. Abdul is helpless and has no recourse in the U.S.  He was forced to trust people who just screwed him. No other way to put it.

He tried many different approaches to survival in Syria and he was offered many jobs. Nothing seemed to fit. Bureaucratic road blocks prevented him from setting up any number of businesses. Entering a monastery even crossed his mind. However, he had to make money to support his family and try to survive his exile or as he calls it his "permanent sabbatical".  For the sake of his sanity he chose to live in a tourist bubble which means that most of his interactions are with people from outside the country. He bought a new car and decided that driving tourists around would make the necessary money and keep him happy.

Throughout all his travails he more or less kept the faith.

One day last year, he was on his way into a hotel when he heard a cat crying in distress from an alley. He went to investigate and found that a small cat was on his back fending off a large aggressive cat that was attacking him. Abdul shooed away the aggressor and saved the small cat which  he said looked him straight and unblinkingly in the eyes for a moment and then ran quickly away. Abdul heard a screeching of brakes and saw that the little cat had been hit and killed by a car.

He said that was the moment that he lost whatever faith he might have had left. Gone.

When he told this story I couldn't help bursting into tears. Talk about hard luck and disappointment.
In his very kind and gentle way, Abdul apologized to me for telling the story.