Sunday, March 26, 2017

Feathers In The Broad Wing Of Time

Anna and I pose for a picture on her 70th birthday
Jean Paul Richter, a German art historian in the 1800s, said that "birthdays are feathers in the broad wing of time". I interpret that to mean that each annual commemoration adds strength to the metaphorical limbs which give value to our memories and meaning to the lives we have led. To have earned 70 feathers is to be rich in experience; indeed, to have lived a full life.

And so it is with my friend, Anna, whose 70th birthday I helped celebrate last week on the 23rd of March in her room at a nursing home in Baltimore, Maryland, where she has been a resident for several years. I last wrote about Anna in 2014, when it became clear to me that there was no one currently in Anna's life to care for her, to look in on her, to let her know someone cares. Anna has no family in the U.S. at all, so I took it upon myself to start visiting her.

Since that post in 2014 a lot has changed for Anna, primarily for the good. I got to know Anna years ago when we volunteered together at a nature preserve near my home in Baltimore County. After Anna's first bout with brain cancer in 2007, I visited her in the hospital and brought casseroles to her apartment when she was able to return home. Anna eventually resumed her career as a concrete chemist for the State Highway Department, although she didn't volunteer with me anymore. We kept in touch via email, but eventually she stopped communicating.

It turned out that in 2012 Anna was struck by a second bout of brain cancer. I found out when far flung friends, relatives and colleagues resurrected a long-dormant email chain on which I was copied to ask her whereabouts. In 2013, when no one could find her, I took it upon myself to track Anna down so I could relate her condition to those who were concerned. I found her in a rehabilitation center following her second brain surgery, this time with permanent paralysis on one side and not enough strength to ever return home.  But the next time I went to visit Anna at the rehab center, she wasn't there. I had lost her again. In early 2014 I found her at a nursing home in Baltimore City and promised myself I would start visiting more often so I wouldn't lose track of her again.
Anna's sister, Eva, right, and I met a mother koala and her
baby at Caversham Wildlife Park in Western Australia in 2016  

In 2015 I became pen pals with Anna's sister, Eva, in Australia. Eva filled me in on Anna's challenging life story and their childhood in Communist Hungary. Over the next year Eva and I became such good friends via email that in August of 2016 I flew to Western Australia to spend ten days getting to know my new friend. We did lots of sightseeing and cemented our friendship over our mutual affinity for animals, nature and science.

Frustrated by never being able to reach her sister when she called the nursing home from Australia,  Eva purchased a cell phone for Anna and loaded it with prepaid minutes. We developed a new routine. I would visit Anna every other Friday, early in the morning. Because Anna is too weak to hold a cell phone on her own, I would dial Eva's telephone number in Perth and hold the phone to Anna's ear so they could talk to one another.  It was the first time Anna and Eva had been able to speak to each other on a regular basis in decades. Anna loved it. She and her sister were now able to chat away in their native Hungarian every two weeks and, although Anna can't say much, I could tell that her demeanor was changing. She was happier.

Anna, left, and her sister, Eva,
stand behind their mother in
Budapest, Hungary
In the fall of 2016, things got even better. I lobbied to get Anna moved to a room where her bed would be by the window, so she could look out at the trees and sky and feel closer to the nature she loved so much. Now she would be able to watch the seasons change! And I was able to get contact information for Anna's three grown children in Nigeria and the U.K. A new routine developed. The day before I visited Anna in the nursing home, I would email the children to see who would be free to receive a phone call from their mum the next day. Now, when I arrived at the convalescent hospital first thing Friday morning, Anna and I would ring up Eva in Australia and then we'd call whichever children were available, one after another. Suddenly Anna was connected on a regular basis with everyone in her family. At Christmas she even got to speak with some of her grandchildren for the very first time.

Though she spends much time alone, Anna tells me she is not bored. She has a lot of time to think, she says, so she wiles away the hours in her hospital bed reliving memories of worldwide travels and long ago adventures, allowing her imagination to carry her to places to which she can no longer travel in her physical body.
Wilhelmina had 30 tulips delivered
for Anna's 70th birthday

I also managed to locate the sister-in-law of Anna's deceased husband in Tennessee. Wilhelmina's son owns a bookstore, so when she expressed a desire to do something nice for Anna, I asked if she might be able to obtain copies of The Little Prince and some of Anna's other favorite titles in CD format, which I had not been able to find locally or online. When Wilhelmina asked what she might do for Anna on an ongoing basis, I suggested that having a bouquet of flowers delivered to Anna's room once every three months might be a wonderful way to offer seasonal cheer to Anna all year long. Thus, I was as excited as Anna on Christmas Eve to help her unwrap her new CD books from Wilhelmina beside a beautiful arrangement of evergreens before we called Anna's sister in Australia and her children in Lagos and London.

So, here it is, March, 2017, and the occasion of Anna's 70th birthday. Anna is no longer able to chew solid food, so when I asked what I might make for her birthday, Anna was quick to tell me that she'd been craving Chinese Hot and Sour soup. That would be a perfect gift for me to make for my friend!

I made sure all the ingredients for
Anna's birthday soup were diced
very fine
A few weeks ago, Anna's children inquired as to what gifts their mum might like to receive. I suggested they put together small albums filled with photographs of their lives: pictures of the children, with captions, showing them at school and at sports, photographs showing their homes and spouses, and handwritten cards or letters describing their lives and hobbies. Wilhelmina arranged to have a brilliant bouquet of flowers delivered to Anna on her special day -- tulips, which had been a childhood favorite of Anna's because they always bloomed during March in Hungary.
My Chinese Hot and Sour soup for
Anna came together beautifully 

The day before Anna's birthday, I prepared hot and sour soup from scratch, using a recipe I found online and taking care to mince all the ingredients very fine: tofu and barbecued pork, wood ear mushrooms, fresh ginger and bamboo shoots, so that Anna would have no trouble swallowing. I gathered together the gifts her family had sent to me: Anna's favorite perfume, Gloria Vanderbilt, a jar of special Emu cream for her fragile skin and a musical birthday card, all from Eva in Australia, and photos, cards and letters from her children.

On the morning of the 23rd, I heated a container of soup and loaded the gifts into my car. Anna was sleeping when I arrived but awoke to the sight of wrapped presents piled high on her bedside tray. We opened the cards and gifts from Anna's family one by one. There were handwritten letters from each school-age grandchild in London, written in their very best penmanship, describing their hobbies, what they are studying in school and what they want to be when they grow up. There was an album filled with photos of the children engaged in school and at play. There was a framed collage of photographs from her son, filled with images of his toddlers posing with Santa and having fun in a park.
You can't tell but Anna is smiling broadly!

I read each letter and card to Anna, and then we made our phone calls to the far-flung corners of the world. It was the first time Anna had ever been able to speak to her sister and all three of her children on the same day. I fed Anna some of the Chinese soup I'd made, which she immediately proclaimed to be far better than the restaurant version I had brought to her a few weeks earlier. I dabbed a bit of perfume behind her ears and rubbed some Emu cream on her hands.

We left each other as we always do. I asked Anna what book she would like to hear, then plugged in the CD player, adjusted the volume on the headphones and positioned them gently over her ears. I waved goodbye as Anna settled in to listen to her favorite author, her gifts spread out on the table before her, a look of peace on her face. No doubt the feathers of her years were fanning out to convey Anna to lofty places in her memory, the broad wing of time transporting my friend to happy recollections of years well lived -- and of many birthdays gone before.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Three's A Charm

Holding a chocolate-mint
pudding "planted" with fresh
mint, I embraced the color
of the holiday by donning
an emerald fascinator 
It turns out that this is my third post about Saint Patrick's Day dinner parties I've hosted in celebration of leprechauns with pots of gold since I launched this blog after losing 70 pounds in 2011. My posts in 2012 and 2013 featured a common main course: a seven-pound beef brisket which I "corned" myself in the days leading up to the dinner, accompanied by carrots, beets and cabbage. What I varied among those previous dinners, besides the guest list, was the appetizer, the pre-dinner libation, the starch and the dessert. This year, my entrée once again featured my special "uncorned" corned beef, as I seem to have hit upon a real winner of a St. Patrick's Day recipe. 

For my part, I don't have a shred of Irish in me, save for the name given to me by my mother: Lynell, the root of which is a Gaelic term for the still, deep pool at the bottom of a waterfall. I didn't like the name for many years, but it eventually grew on me.

I was once an unenthusiastic fan of the color green outside of nature, although I believed my aversion to the hue was a (fairly) well kept secret. So I was surprised when, after selecting a bracelet of kukui nuts dyed a bright Kelly green while perusing fashions in a little shop in Charleston, South Carolina, with my best friend, Kari, and her mom in 2016, Kari exclaimed: "I thought you didn't like green!" Who knew she knew?

I have since come to embrace green to a certain extent, although you still won't see much of it adorning the rooms in my old farmhouse. An exception is made for my annual St. Patrick's Day dinner, however. The branches of budding blooms and bouquets of faux flowers which adorn mantel, chandelier and candle rings in almost every room this time of year boast the springy pigment in a big way, as does the tablescape I prepare for friends and family in honor of Irish luck.

But first, the invitation. I designed a cheerful summons featuring shamrocks and Celtic borders and printed it out on crisp white card stock. Fastening the envelope with a gold seal of melted wax embossed with my monogram, I whisked the greeting away via the post office to my cousin, Claudia, and her family, who only live about an hour south of me in the suburbs of Washington, DC.

I love sending formal invitations to my affairs for several reasons. For one, they're fun to get!  An invitation arriving in the mail sets a tone for a festive evening ahead, and I believe it lights a spark of anticipation for those who slide the salutation out of its envelope, curiosity piqued. Second, it gives an air of formality to the occasion, providing a definitive start time, a request for an RSVP, and other instructions helpful to both host and guest. Lastly, an invitation arriving in the mail honors a guest by displaying the esteem in which that guest is surely held by the host who went to the trouble to issue it.  I have found it far likelier that the recipient of a formal invitation will remember the date of my event. Besides, invitations are fun to make and send!
Anjou-champagne punch is scented
with cinnamon syrup and lined with
slices of blood orange, navel orange,
lemon and lime

Next, the menu. While I do keep the basic corned beef recipe and its attendant veggies the same from year to year, I like to mix up the rest of the meal. In past years, I've greeted my guests with peach-scented Bellinis as they walked in the door.  This year a gorgeous Anjou champagne punch made a convivial greeting and, because two children were also on my guest list, a non-alcoholic sparkling pear juice made its debut.

Claudia and her husband, Phil, brought lovely appetizers to supplement the simple dolmades and olive assortment I offered: a trio of bell peppers arranged on a platter to resemble a three-leaf clover, each hollowed out and filled with a different dip, along with crudités for scooping out the creamy goodness from each green vessel, and a plate on which thin wafers rested, each adorned with a tiny wedge of scrumptious imported Irish Kilaree cheddar and a dribble of red pepper jelly. Yum!

The children, Riehen, 12, and his ten-year-old sister, Anya, played outside, hurling snowballs at each other in my yard, while I plated the last of the dishes I would be serving and lit candles on the table. I was gratified to hear oohs and aahs as we all took our seats in the dining room, made cozy by a fire crackling in my woodstove. To add to the festive atmosphere, I had adorned the table with a scattering of paper shamrocks, green and crystal "gems" and foil-wrapped gelt, all meant to evoke the prosperity associated with March's seasonal elf and the riches he is sure to bestow upon all who believe in his pot of gold.

Because Riehen and his sister have remarkably sophisticated palates for youngsters, I was delighted to intrigue them by offering a variety of mustards to accompany the beef, as well as four different vinegars in labeled cruets for the cabbage, so they could experiment with flavors.
The first snow of winter had dumped
six inches in my yard just
three days earlier 
Even two kinds of horseradish, plain and red beet, were served!  The children did not disappoint.  Each wanted to try all the vinegars, among them sherry, red wine, champagne and balsamic, as well as the mustards: whole grain, Dijon, and standard yellow. The adults at the table likewise dug into the meal with gusto, which was extremely gratifying to me as their host.

For dessert I served individual chocolate mint puddings in tiny glass pots, each "planted" with a sprig of fresh mint in brown cookie "dirt", as the adults enjoyed sips of Baileys Irish Cream with their after-dinner coffee.
My "un-corned" beef brisket was
rubbed with a heady mix of spices and
herbs before braising in a mixture
of orange juice and beer

There just isn't anything like playing to an enthusiastic audience and, as a work-at-home single gal who spends an awful lot of time in total solitude, an evening spent in the company of family members, who make no secret of the enjoyment they derive in spending their precious time with me, makes me feel rich, indeed. No pot of gold needed!

“There is a hidden message in every waterfall. It says, if you are flexible, falling will not hurt you!” 
Mehmet Murat ildan

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Life's a Mountain

The ski conditions at Deer Valley this year
were absolutely perfect
Over the last weekend in February I spent one of the most wonderful five days ever communing with my best friend, Kari, her husband, Stuart, and her mom, Joyce, in the mountains above Salt Lake City, Utah. We reunited, as we have almost every year for more than two decades, for our annual ski trip.

Many years years go, when Kari's father, Lyle, was alive, we would travel from our hotel in Salt Lake to a different ski resort every day, tearing up the slopes at Solitude, Alta, The Canyons, Snowbird, Park City, Snow Basin and other nearby ski areas. Different day? A route up another valley, all within a hour's drive from our "base camp" at the Hilton in downtown Salt Lake City. Some years we ventured to a different ski destination altogether: Sun Valley, Idaho. Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Red Mountain in Canada.

But for the past few years we've confined our ski holiday to the Deer Valley ski resort up the Empire Canyon along Interstate 80 in Utah. Now that Kari's mom, Joyce, is 80 years old, we appreciate a ski resort that prohibits snowboarders, who in the past have seemed to make Joyce their unwilling target for egregious injury, and other amenities that make our once-a-year ski ritual a much more pleasant experience: limiting the number of skiers on the mountain to 7,500 on any given day, providing free overnight storage of our skis, poles and boots, and offering fabulously fresh salads, soups and grilled fare in their base lodge and several mountain outposts.
Kari, left, her mom, Joyce, center
and me in front of the lodge at
Deer Valley ski resort

This year, as usual, the four of us convened at the Hilton Garden Inn near the Salt Lake City airport. It's a nice hotel with an onsite restaurant, comfy beds and a free shuttle to and from our flights. We always settle in for one night, departing for the mountain early enough the following morning to allow us a full day of skiing at Deer Valley Resort. Then for two nights we lodge in Park City at a hotel called the Park Plaza. After three days of skiing, we descend the mountain on Sunday evening to sleep once more at the Hilton Garden Inn, where we awake early but conveniently near the airport Monday morning and our respective flights home. This routine has served us very well for the past few years, so this year we did not change a thing.

I was lucky that Southwest Airlines chose to add a nonstop flight recently from Baltimore's airport to Salt Lake City, so for the first time I arrived earlier than everyone else, at about 4:00 p.m. on Thursday. I settled into my room at the Hilton Garden Inn, then made my way downstairs to the lounge just in time to greet Joyce, who arrived from Spokane an hour after I did. Kari walked into the hotel lobby at about 7:00 p.m. after completing her flight from Dallas, and her husband, Stuart, followed about an hour later, after his flight from Washington D.C. We enjoyed a wonderful reunion over dinner in the Hilton's small restaurant and went to bed early in order to be ready for our first big ski day the following morning.
Kari, left, me in the middle, and Joyce enjoy the front of
Bald Eagle Mountain on our first day of skiing

As luck would have it, the wintry conditions that had brought record amounts of snow to the peaks above Salt Lake City over the entire ski season showed no signs of letting up during our visit. In the morning, news reports warned of tire-chain requirements, numerous accidents and snarled traffic on the route we'd be taking up the canyon. No matter. Our driver, Will, arrived promptly at 8:30 a.m. to transport us to the mountain in his impossibly clean Lincoln Navigator. That was another lesson learned from years of experience: instead of renting an SUV at the airport big enough to hold all of us and all our gear for four days, which we then had to load and unload ourselves and find parking for up in Park City, we learned that if we pooled our money to pay for a car and driver to take us to Park City Friday morning and bring us back to Salt Lake Sunday evening, all the hassle of loading, unloading, driving in inclement weather, parking and returning a rented vehicle was removed from the equation. At an expense no greater than for a five-day car rental, our ski holidays became much less stressful once we started hiring a chauffeur. Now we wouldn't do it any other way.

The news reports proved accurate. Our normally 39-minute drive up the canyon to Park City took almost two hours as our congenial driver carefully made his way along the steep, winding interstate under steady snowfall, past accidents and spun-out passenger vehicles whose drivers had perilously ignored the requirement to don tire chains at the highway patrol checkpoint. When we finally arrived at the Park Plaza hotel a little after 10:00 a.m., we stowed our luggage and awaited the free hotel shuttle to transport us to the Deer Valley base.

Because we were so late getting there, by the time we had rented our ski equipment (another lesson learned -- renting skis, boots and poles at the ski resort is far easier than lugging our own on airplanes from points across the country), we had less than an hour to wait before half-day lift tickets went on sale. We opted to enjoy a leisurely lunch in the base lodge before venturing to the lift line.

It didn't take very many runs to get our ski legs under us, even as light snow fell and the temperature hovered around 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Joyce, at 80, proved she was still adept at her beloved hobby, having originally fallen in love with the sport as a young newlywed beside her late husband, Lyle. You can watch a short video of Joyce skiing in the above video clip.

Kari, whose fluid grace on a pair of skis is a thing of beauty to behold, thanks to parents who both spent time as ski instructors in their home state of Washington, was as elegant as ever as she effortlessly glided down the face of Bald Eagle Mountain, her mother and Stuart and I following along behind.

It wasn't long, however, before the 8,400 foot elevation got the better of us, and we decided to call it a day. An exciting evening awaited, after all, featuring another reunion with additional family members. Before we went in, however, Kari shot this video of me skiing.

Once back at the Park Plaza Hotel, we checked into our rooms -- or tried to. The hotel was overbooked and management found themselves in a bit of a pickle. Indeed, I thought back to waiting to check my bag at the Baltimore airport for the flight to Utah, the line at the ticket counter filled with young men all checking their skis for the same flight as mine. My plane had been absolutely full, and as we crossed the country en route to Salt Lake City, conversation filled the cabin with statistics on just how much more snow had fallen on Utah's peaks than ever before, and just how perfect the ski conditions were going to be on this late February weekend. It seemed that everybody on the planet was convening in Utah to ski!

So the hotel manager made us an offer. Kari and Stuart could have the room they originally booked, but if Joyce and I were willing to share lodging, we could have a two-bedroom suite with a full kitchen, living room, balcony and fireplace at less than half the price of the tiny studio rooms we'd each reserved separately. Joyce and I looked at each other and smiled... the manager had just made himself a deal!
Judy and Mike are an inspiration

We lugged our stuff to our rooms, unpacked for our stay and dressed for dinner. Soon there was a knock at the door. Kari's cousin Mike and his wife Judy had arrived! Married 17 years, Mike and Judy had always enjoyed an athletic life between them and with their grown children, skiing all winter and embarking on frequent cross country road trips in summer on "his and her" motorcycles. That all changed in 2015 when, in the middle of a Spokane-to-Minneapolis motorcycle trip, Judy suddenly found herself unable to control her bike. Reporting later that she could see the upcoming turn in the highway ahead but was powerless to make her body move the handlebars to steer or apply the brakes, Judy went sailing through the guardrail and over an embankment, injuring her spine in such a way that she has been paralyzed from the waist down ever since.
With a guide controlling her downhill
speed, Judy traverses the slope
on a para-ski sled

Not one to take any setback "sitting down", Judy and Mike have spent the better part of two years regaining as much of their prior life as possible. Judy, a former nurse, worked tirelessly to recover her strength and agility and to control excruciating phantom pains and other side effects of paralyzation. Mike, a master builder like everyone in his father's family, reconfigured their Minnesota home to accommodate Judy's wheelchair and other equipment, even constructing an elevator shaft on one side of their house so that Judy could get to her beloved hobby room on the upper level and continue to engage in the knitting, crocheting and other crafts she so adores.

Last year on our annual ski trip, Kari met Paralympic gold medalist Stephani Victor on the mountain. As they chatted about Judy's accident, Stephani encouraged Kari to put Mike and Judy in touch with the National Ability Center, a nonprofit organization founded in 1985 to enable participants with any level of mobility to engage in sports they once loved. 
Skis attached to Judy's
poles allow her to
steer the sled by
herself while she
leans side to side 

Kari did talk to Mike and Judy about the National Ability Center and its Alpine para-skiing program. Mike and Judy vowed to join us on our very next ski trip. Judy signed up for lessons, and the couple rolled into Utah from Minnesota a few days before we did. Unfortunately, the snowy weather interfered with Judy's ability to take her para-skiing lessons at Snowbird resort for two days in a row, so by the time we met them in our room on Friday evening, Judy had just had her first lesson -- at the nearby Park City Ski resort instead. 

She loved it! Judy described a fascinating process in which the instructors bundled her into a sled and outfitted her arms with ski-tipped poles for steering. With a guide controlling speed from behind and connected to the sled via long straps, Judy was in charge of steering back and forth as they traversed the ski runs, while Mike criss-crossed the slope on his own skis not far behind them.  

Exhausted but quite satisfied with her significant accomplishment, Judy regaled us with the details as we sipped wine and enjoyed each other's company. Soon it was time to walk (and roll) across the street for dinner at the Grubsteak restaurant, another tradition we have enjoyed for many years. After choosing from an extensive salad bar, a prized selection of dry-aged meats and a variety of tasty sides, we spent the balance of our first evening on the mountain eating heartily, catching up with one another and listening to memorable tunes being belted out by the restaurant's longtime musician from his balcony high above the diners.
We gathered for dinner in Park City each night.
From left: Kari, Stuart, Joyce, me, Judy and Mike

On Saturday, Judy stayed at the hotel to rest and recuperate from her grand adventure, so Mike joined Kari and Stuart and Joyce and me for a day of skiing at Deer Valley. It was cold and snowy again, but ski conditions were so perfect we hardly noticed. Warmly ensconced in neck-gators, goggles and long underwear beneath our ski apparel, we enjoyed run after satisfying run, quitting only after we'd completed 18 runs for the day.

Sunday was an exact repeat, except this time the sun shown brilliantly! Unfortunately, it was also bitterly cold, only two degrees Fahrenheit as we reached the top of Bald Mountain that morning, an elevation of 9,400 feet. We'd gotten an early start, boarding the chair lift with the first skiers of the day, as we endeavored to pack as many runs as we could into our final day on the slopes.

By 10:30 a.m. we were tired, hungry and, despite ten aggressive runs down the mountain, were chilled to the bone. Joyce had (wisely) chosen to remain in the lodge that day, where she sat reading a good book while awaiting our return. By 11:00 a.m we joined Joyce in the lodge, chowed down on a hearty lunch, and then took to the slopes again for our final effort.

Stuart returned to the hotel for a teleconference after lunch, so Kari and Mike and I made our way over to the Flagstaff Mountain area of Deer Valley, which stands 9,100 feet above sea level. The temperature had reached 11 degrees. We weren't certain how much energy we had left. But after a few post-lunch runs, the three of us suddenly felt a collective resurgence of energy. We tore up the mountain for the remainder of the day, flying down one run after another, competing a healthy 22 runs before Kari and I were forced to return to the lodge at 2:00 p.m in order to turn in our rental equipment and get to the hotel in time to meet our driver for the trip back to Salt Lake City by 3:00. We were having so much fun we didn't want to leave!
Mike and Kari are cousins who grew
up skiing in Spokane, Washington

Kari snapped this image of
me as we rode the lift on
our last day skiing. Her
fingers were so cold she
couldn't snap another 
There was an air of celebration during our final evening at the Hilton Garden Inn near the Salt Lake City airport. Cousin Mike had texted Kari that he had accomplished 33 runs for the day -- another eleven runs after Kari and I bid him goodbye at the top of the mountain. We were stoked. The weekend saw near perfect ski conditions, no one had been injured, even slightly, and we had proved to ourselves that there was still a significant spark of athleticism in each of us, even as we approach (and for me and Stuart, exceed) our 60s. But most of all, our hearts were filled with pride for Joyce, who showed, at eighty years old, that age is truly only a number -- she skied with the grace and finesse of someone a fraction of her age. And for Judy, whose indomitable spirit and enthusiastic attitude left us in awe of her unflinching determination to live her life on her own terms despite the hand dealt to her by fate. I was truly inspired.

So now, as I cast around at the daffodils already blooming in my Maryland garden, at the hyacinths and tulips poking their unwitting heads through the soil on this unseasonably warm winter's day, I am humbled by the unwavering vitality of my "adopted" family, and I repeat: this had to be one of my favorite ski trips ever.

"Skiing: the art of catching cold and going broke while rapidly heading nowhere at great personal risk." ~Author Unknown

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A Tribute To Saint Valentine

Balloons marked
the entrance to my
driveway as the sun
set on February 11th
For me, it started in 2015, when Valentine's Day happened to fall on a Saturday for the first time in several years. I had been lamenting for some time how restaurants always seemed to jam extra tables into their dining rooms on Valentine's Day and, despite hiring extra help for this super busy evening, always seemed overwhelmed by the crowds, resulting in a less than satisfactory gustatory experience and certainly not a romantic one.

Squeezing one more time into a dining establishment where patrons were jammed so close together that I could hear the conversation at the table next to me better than I could hear my own date seemed untenable, especially with the big day arriving on a Saturday, already the busiest dining-out evening of the week. So as Valentine's Day 2015 approached, I decided to throw my own dinner party instead, inviting dear friends over for a hearty winter meal.
I collected a variety of Valentine
decor from IKEA in 2015

My inaugural event was a big success, so I began a new tradition. Each year since, on the Saturday closest to Valentine's Day, I have invited friends to share in a decadent, retro winter feast inspired by my own Swiss roots: a three-course, all-fondue dinner. In 2017, that was Saturday, February 11th.

In 2015 I didn't own a single Valentine decoration, never before having been moved to garnish the house for a holiday that seems anticlimactic to a single person. So that year, for the first time, I stocked up on heart-shaped candles and hanging paper ornaments and set about thinking about how I could create an atmosphere of warmth on an evening of typically frigid temperatures here in the mid
Faux floral swags came from

Flowers came to mind, lots of beautiful, spring-evoking blooms. I ordered faux floral swags and candle rings in luscious pastels from to supplement the forsythia and peach blossom branches I'd kept in labeled plastic bins in my basement for decades.
I designed the invitations, printed
them out and sealed the
envelopes with wax

That first year was magical. Snowflakes fluttered against the windows of my dining room as a crackling fire warmed my guests while we ate. This year, the weather was predicted to be several degrees warmer on the day of my party, but it didn't deter my festive mood as I opened my boxes of Spring and Valentine décor and set to work transforming the house into a flowering testament to the coming verdure.

Invitations were mailed one month in advance, the envelopes fastened with sealing wax impressed with my monogram to denote a special air of festivity. I set about festooning the dining room in Valentine-themed adornments, many from IKEA, and began to take stock of all the china, flatware, stemware and fondue pots I would need for my event.
Each couple received a gift
bag with a copy of the
menu, a chocolate rose
and a can of gooseberries

In the weeks leading up to the big day, I created personalized place cards for each guest, affixing them to pierced tin containers which I filled with an assortment of Lindt chocolate truffles and a giant, foil-wrapped Hershey's kiss. I rolled up printed menus and sauce lists, securing them with a long-stemmed chocolate rose and a pretty floral hair clip. I created a game to entertain my guests between course changes, collecting Valentine-related trivia questions for the table to ponder, and wrapped small gifts for the winners: a can of Oregon state gooseberries with a recipe attached for a yummy gooseberry crunch, nestled into a gift bag filled with Tobler chocolates.

I selected a play list of melodic, woodland-themed acoustical music featuring harp, flute, didgeridoo and guitar. I picked out special bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Belgian pale ale, kirschvasser and chocolate zinfandel, and found a recipe for a special anjou-champagne punch, for which I simmered a potent cinnamon simple syrup. I froze a dozen half spheres of water, each hollowed in the center which, once released from their plastic bowl molds and overturned, would hold a small tea light to line my front walk.
Special fondue plates from
Switzerland have separate wells
for dipping sauces

There were 11 kinds of fruit for
dipping in chocolate
and chopped nuts
The day before the big dinner, I took off from work in order to enjoy putting everything together instead of having to cram all my preparations into the day of the party. I cut sourdough bread into fat chunks for dipping into a heady first-course fondue made with three Swiss cheeses: Emanthaler, Gruyere and Vacherin Fribourgeois, the latter imported for me by a Swiss bakery in Washington D.C. 

prepared five different dipping sauces for the main course, a succulent fondue bourguignonne consisting of bite-size chunks of specially aged filet mignon from Wegman's which, once dipped into hot peanut oil and sizzled to desired doneness, could then be slathered in horseradish sauce, chunky barbecue sauce, onion-mustard sauce, balsamic-bleu cheese sauce or garlic-paprika aioli, all homemade and surprisingly low-fat, as I employed nonfat Greek yogurt, sugar-free tomato sauce, 1% skim milk and light mayonnaise in their making. 

I cut up an array of fresh and candied fruit for the decadent dessert course, a rich chocolate fondue finished with Gran Marnier, into which my guests would dip slices of fresh honeydew and cantaloupe, banana, kumquats, pineapple, blackberries and strawberries, pickled watermelon, maraschino cherries, mandarin orange sections, and goldenberries, a sweet-tart Peruvian ground cherry of the tomato (nightshade) family. 

I blanched haricots vert and plunged them into individual shot glasses filled with Thai ginger-curry sauce for an appetizer, and prepared a crudité tray of dolmades (rice-filled grape leaves) , senfgurken (mustard pickles) and Greek olives stuffed with roquefort.
I greeted my guests with green bean
"shots" and glasses of
pear-champagne punch 
Each place setting held a tin of sweets

I may have appeared calm, but every
burner on my stovetop was working
hard in preparation for this dinner
I set my table carefully, relishing the moment my guests would feast their eyes for the first time upon all the candles, glass baubles and rose petals scattered among place settings adorned with my vintage gold china, flatware and crystal. I tied a faux sheepskin pelt to each chair, affixing it with a rose-colored elastic sash, to which I then fastened a spring floral swag. I washed and readied six of my favorite fondue pots, filling burners with fondue fuel for the meat course, preparing votive candles for the cheese and chocolate courses. I ironed and folded napkins, and personalized eight wooden skewers with the name of each guest for the meat course, as metal fondue forks must never be plunged into boiling cooking oil. And finally, I gathered real red roses and baby's breath into a low arrangement for the center of my table and arranged fresh spring bouquets for my other rooms. I was ready.

We enjoyed appetizers in the living
room before it was time to move
to the dining room for dinner
The day of my elaborate dinner was warmer than usual for the middle of February, almost 50 degrees Fahrenheit, when usually daytime temperatures are only a little above freezing this time of year. Still, as evening fell and the time approached for my guests' arrival, the night air cooled quickly and I was glad for the fire crackling in my fireplace.

The evening was a smashing success. My guests enjoyed one another's company immensely. Animated conversation filled my little farmhouse, ranging from national politics to the flora and fauna inhabiting a nearby nature preserve to which we are all connected in various ways. Everyone enjoyed pondering the trivia questions I had prepared, while I switched out chunks of bread and fondue pots of melted cheese for chunks of meat and pots of boiling oil and, finally, replaced the meat and oil for bowls of fruit and pots of melted chocolate with Gran Marnier. There was scintillating conversation and much laughter. 
My dining room was cozy and
romantic. Pictured from left to right:
Donna, Klaus, Jack, Liz and Joshua

Dessert was soon finished, yet the animated conversation continued. I showed everyone the master bathroom I remodeled last year, and when we returned to the living room, people took their seats and the conversation continued. I was immensely flattered that my guests were having such a grand time!

It was 3:00 a.m. before I finished
cleaning up and went to bed after
my guests departed. What a
wonderful time we all had!
It was well after midnight when my friends departed and I began the epic task of cleaning up, reliving every wonderful moment as I rinsed dishes, put away leftover food and drink, and returned my dining room table to its more diminutive size. I can't say that I created a romantic evening in a passionate or erotic sense, for that was not my intent. What I wanted to do, and I dare say I succeeded, was to create a romantic ambiance in honor of Saint Valentine that fueled an intimacy of enduring friendship. Dear acquaintances, reunited for an evening of fun and food, found their affinity for one another deepened over fondue and conversation. What better way than that to celebrate the patron saint of love?
"Friendship is the only cement that will ever hold the world together" ~ Woodrow T. Wilson

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Staying On My Toes

Instructor Rico Samuel (top center in black T-shirt), with
the rest of our Freestyle Step classmates. I am kneeling

on the far left in the front row.
So how do I plan to stay fit in the new year? By continuing to do what I've been doing for the past five years: hiking on the weekends whenever possible in one of the many scenic wild spaces near my home in Baltimore County, Maryland, and by attending group fitness classes during the week at my local gym.

I'll be the first to admit that I haven't been particularly good about going to the gym to do my own, solitary workouts. I don't really enjoy working out by myself and, once I get there, I find it to be a lonely endeavor, even though I am surrounded by others. About the only conversation that occurs when I work out by myself happens when someone inquires how much longer I will be on a particular machine, and then there is frequently the waiting I must do for a machine I want to use.

Nope, my preference, clearly, is for group fitness classes. There are so many distinct advantages to attending a class, in my opinion. For a personal, solitary workout, I can assign myself a regular time to go, but if I get busy or distracted (or lazy) at home or at work, I can too easily choose not to go, knowing the opportunity will be there almost any time (24 hours a day, actually, since my gym is open all night). But a group fitness class must be attended. It has a finite start and stop time.  If I'm busy or distracted, I will miss the class altogether. I can't go later at my convenience. I don't know about you, but that compels me to make more of an effort.

The biggest reason I love group fitness?  The camaraderie.  I am not alone in a group fitness class. I am together with between five and fifteen other sweaty souls, both men and women, some much younger and some closer to my own 60 years. They come in all races, all sizes and all levels of ability, just like the rest of the people out in the gym slogging through their workouts solitarily. But in a group fitness class, there is a sense that we are working together to achieve a common goal, which is to conquer the maneuvers put before us, whether it is lifting weights, mastering a warrior pose, or increasing stamina. We talk. We get to know each other. There is a camaraderie of banded effort, accentuated by the instructor's determination to make us feel like a cohesive group.

Today I want to expound on the virtues of my Free Style Step group fitness class. Led by instructor Rico Samuel, my Tuesday night Free Style Step class is the highlight of my week. Rico makes sure he knows the names of every participant in each class, and halfway through the hour he calls out to each one of us over the music, acknowledging our participation, thanking us for coming, remarking on what a great time we're having as we sweat to stepping maneuvers he has personally choreographed and put to the rhythmic beat of accompanying tunes he has specifically chosen.
And here is a photo from March 21 when three of my
neighbors joined me at the gym!  I'm in the front row center,
in black. My neighbors, to my right (viewer's left) are Jackie
(next to  me), Maria and Michelle
. Our awesome instructor,
Rico, is up on the stage at far right.

This is an advanced Step class. It is not for wimps. Some of the stepping maneuvers are complex half-beat and one-and-a-half beat movements while twirling through the air or hopping on and off a low bench. Rico always offers easier combinations for newcomers or anyone who feels intimidated by the more advanced moves. And, if truth be told, I choose the simpler options for a few of the maneuvers that would have me hopping backwards off a step or spinning more than once around, as those moves tend to make me frightened of falling.

Still, I can say, with no small amount of pride, that for the most part I keep up with all the younger people in my Step class no matter how complicated the maneuvers are. By the time an hour is up, I have put in a solid, heartbeat-raising effort. Over the years I have come to know my classmates by name and we've exchanged contact information. Some have come to my home for impromptu get togethers; others have attended functions I've hosted in my volunteer work with a nature center nearby. And I've even shared FitBit data with two of them, so that my computer displays how many miles they've walked compared how many miles I've walked on any given day. It's all good. 

There is a feeling of companionship in attending a group fitness class. There is certainly a sense of satisfaction about having achieved a genuinely vigorous workout at the end of each session. There is without a doubt a difference in my ability to ski each winter from having legs that are so strong and fit. But my absolute favorite reason to love Free Style Step?  It is the knowledge that this hour of complicated choreography is exercising my brain as much as my body.

Rico takes time to teach us the individual maneuvers each week, which are then put together to form "combinations" set to music. He will teach us up to eight different combinations in each session, which we must then remember and perform in one long routine, sometimes in reverse order, as he calls out the names of the movements from the front of the room. As for those complex maneuvers for which I choose a less foot-twisting alternative?  When he calls out the name of that particular move, I must remember on my own which alternate maneuver I am doing instead, how many and what particular steps it takes and how to join the rest of the group at the end of that movement at precisely the right beat, on the proper foot, and in the correct position on (or off) the bench.  I tell you, by the end of the hour, I feel as though my brain has been as mentally stimulated as my body has been exercised.

If you haven't tried a group fitness class at your gym, you should.  From yoga to Pilates, from Body Pump to Zumba, there is a group fitness class to meet anyone's needs. I enjoy them all. But Free Style Step is, and will always remain, my very favorite.

"The important thing to remember about workouts is they only work if you do them."  ~

Friday, December 23, 2016

Reflections on Christmas Eve eve...

It's the eve of the merriest holiday of the year, and I'm in a good spot.  I have the day off from work, which I took believing that I would have a slew of last minute wrapping, flower-arranging, baking and vinaigrette-making to do.  But the last of the gifts I ordered online arrived and was wrapped and put under the tree yesterday, my late mother's traditional persimmon cookies have all been baked and shipped with other gifts to family in northern California, and the hearty, garlicky mustard vinaigrette that I make every year to share with my neighbors is all bottled and gift-bagged and ready for door-to-door distribution on Christmas Eve. This year I added tiny Tobler chocolates and a satchel of pumpkin seeds to every gift bag, the seeds roasted with hickory smoked salt, Worcestershire sauce and butter, yet another recipe of my beloved mom's. And all the evergreens I've been collecting from my two-acre property, supplemented with magnolia and other seasonal branches and berries from a local topiary garden, have been set into vases as gifts for my manicurist, my hair stylist and my friend, Anna, who I visited on my lunch hour yesterday at the nursing home where she has lived since 2009.

So here I am, feeling very good about the holiday. I managed to design, produce, address and mail my Christmas cards (390 of them) to beloved friends and family in 30 states and seven foreign countries a full four days earlier than last year. I made cookies for the mailman, wrapped a case of beer for the garbage men, and took a beautiful bûche de noël and a vase of greens to my manicurist on Wednesday. My house is all decorated and so is the yard. 

This year I used fresh greens to make my own arrangements for 22 window boxes and hanging baskets around the perimeter of my home, and I must say that I am very pleased with how it all looks. My plan is to remove the Christmas lights after the holiday and leave the evergreens and berries in the flower boxes to cheer me all through the winter.

So here I am, with the day off from work and a rare gift of time to reflect upon and appreciate my happy circumstance. Mind you, I am not without anything to do. My dentist has arranged for a professional photographer to take some glamour shots of me (my teeth, specifically) this afternoon for her updated website. Once the photographer saw a photograph of my old farmhouse, he asked to do the shoot at my home, so he will be here at 4:00.  I have an appointment with my hairdresser at 2:00 and then will do my makeup and get dressed for the shoot. But these are all happy, fun things to look forward to!

I didn't expect to have a full morning to relax so close to Christmas.  I expected to be downright  frantic as I rushed around finishing a million little things.  So I've taken a few minutes this morning to write a post for my blog, something I have not had a spare moment to do in almost two years.  And now I think I'm going to take this happy accident of extra time and indulge in a luxurious bubble bath in my newly revamped master bathroom, last year's major (time consuming) home improvement project. What a special gift of relaxation that will be!

Merry Christmas to each and every one of you. I wish for you all a new year filled with peace and happiness and, most of all... time to appreciate what a good life this really is.


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Blue Ice And Wind

The end of February was bitterly cold, so I searched my closet for outfits that long underwear could be worn beneath without adding much bulk, since my work commute from northwest Baltimore County, Maryland, to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. requires walking outside at both ends of the trip as well as standing on an elevated outdoor platform to await a subway train.  I found the perfect foil in a pair of super-wide belled jeans that were custom made for me from a pair I loved that disintegrated shortly after I bought them (see Hanging By A Thread).  

Besides, I was eager to have another excuse to wear this adorable sweater by My Collection, with its icy blue stripes and unusual muff-style front pocket.  The super-wide, three-quarter length Dolman sleeves complemented my wide bellbottoms and make the piece even more atypical, connected the way they are to the side seams of the sweater clear down to the hem.  This could have made the top a bit awkward to wear, since raising one’s arms means the entire sweater rises up.  However, the fabulous color variegation in the yarn, from gray to light blue to navy, makes it easy to layer the unique pullover with a variety of long-sleeve Tees.  On this day I chose a gray, ribbed knit Tee by Faded Glory, which allowed me to raise and lower my arms at will without worry about exposing myself to the harsh winter elements.

This fabulous sweater was a recent gift from Joyce, the mother of my best friend, Kari.  Joyce sent me the top in a box of gently-used clothing she no longer wore.  I was thrilled to get everything in the box, but this sweater really called out to me because of its extraordinary design.
Robinson's department store in Pasadena, California,
was a frequent destination of my mother and
grandmother when I was growing up

I pulled comfortable booties by Pink & Pepper over thick ski socks and played up the gray in the sweater by covering my head with an heirloom mink pillbox hat by Miss Alice that my grandmother bought at J.W. Robinson’s Department store in Pasadena, California, in the 1950s (I still have the hat box it came in!), and added my grandmother’s dangly earrings -- gray pearls that I long ago converted to pierced from old-fashioned screw-backs.

After one of my black walnut trees
snapped clear in half during a
powerful wind and ice storm in
mid-February, workers from
JamesPickett's Tree Service cut it down
The severe winter ice and wind storm that swept across the eastern half of the country in mid-February wreaked mercifully little havoc on my two acres.  I lost power several times through the course of the storm’s worst 60 mile-per-hour winds and had many large limbs from broken trees to drag cross my property into piles that eventually reached far over my head.  One walnut tree, however, broke literally in half. I didn’t feel comfortable about climbing so far up into the tree by myself with a Sawzall, so I called the owner of my trusty tree service, James Pickett.  It took almost two weeks for the company to clear out their post-storm emergency tree removal work before they could get to me.  But on this frigid day at the end of the month, as I was embarking on my chilly commute to the District of Columbia, the owner’s son and a couple of helpers arrived to make short work of the shattered tree and carry away all the broken branches in my two gigantic piles. 

Let the winds howl.  I was warm and comfy in my ice-blue sweater and giant bellbottoms all the way to work and back!