Friday, July 28, 2017

Summer Project -- My Hobby Room!

The HVAC crew removed the old
radiator from my soon-to-be hobby
 room as my handyman began
constructing base cabinets
I've learned over the years that when a contractor says: "this project will be completed in one week", the majority of the time such will not be the case. Indeed, the new hobby/guest room in my circa 1862 farmhouse in Baltimore County, Maryland, certainly was not completed in seven days. Instead, completion occurred on Monday of this week, 37 workdays after start of construction June 1.

Derek begins construction of the attic
recess into which my daybed will sit 
Now, I must admit that most of the delays were not the fault of the handyman I hired to do the job. Had he been able to work in utter peace without distraction from any other influence, he might, and it is a tentative "might", have been able to finish the job in two weeks. But like the novice general contractor that I am, I arranged for three major construction projects to take place at my home simultaneously this summer, all in the name of lessening the trauma of a lengthy disruption to our routine for me and my three kitties. "Get it all over in one fell swoop!" was my thinking.  After all, isn't that what major building contractors do?  They have electricians working alongside sheetrock hangers and finish carpenters all at the same time. Couldn't they all work together in harmony under (and on) my roof?  Uhm, no.

Derek's son, Jordan, 12, helped his dad
much of the time.
As my handyman, Derek Hahn of Hahn Home Improvements LLC, began construction pursuant to my carefully drawn sketches of how I imagined each wall in my new hobby room would look, the heating, air conditioning and ventilation (HVAC) company I had hired to replace all my old radiators with new, state-of-the-art ductless mini-split units throughout the ground floor, decided they would bore a hole (a big hole) in the ceiling of said hobby room, which would be their central access point for installation of my upstairs units.  At the same time, I hired an electrician to run wiring from a single outlet in the hobby room to the other three walls, and include a CAT-5 cable for hardwired internet access.

And then it was done! The "A-wall"
features shelving above with drawers
and cabinets below
"I'm very familiar with historic homes" the electrician said. "I will fish the wires through your antique joists so nothing will be damaged", he said.  So when I heard the sawsall buzzing away upstairs as I worked at my computer in my home office below, I naturally assumed it was Derek hard at work on my new hobby room. Or perhaps the HVAC crew enlarging the hole in the ceiling to make more room for the new heating and air conditioning system in the attic.  Uhm, no.

When I ventured upstairs to check on the progress, I was horrified to discover that the electrician had sawed and drilled his way through three walls' worth of 160-year-old lath and plaster, joists and framing in order to run the wiring from one side of the room to the other.  "Why didn't you fish the wires as you told me you would?" I practically screamed at him. "Oh, this was much easier" was his reply. Well, yes. Easier, to be sure, but not what had been promised (sigh). At the same time, the HVAC crew was busy heaving two several-hundred-pound units up into my attic, hoisting their 230-pound bodies up and down ladders at a furious pace, cracking delicate lath and plaster with practically every step. It's no wonder poor Derek the handyman didn't get a whole lot accomplished those first few weeks.
The "B-Wall" features a twin bed, the
length of which is recessed into the
attic of my front porch when not in use

Oh, and did I mention that I contracted with a roofing company to replace my entire roof during the same time period? I was hit in the head twice by pieces of nail-filled shingles flying though the air as the roofing crew dismantled the old roof, and so were a couple of the HVAC crew, who threatened, at one point, to pluck the roofers off the roof if they weren't more careful about where they threw their debris (sigh).

And so it went, for 37 days. Installation of the new heating and air conditioning units was completed first, but not without issues that still have not been resolved. The roof was finished second, and despite some unfortunate mishaps, such as the smashing of several of my landscaping plants just ahead of my annual summer potluck party for more than 100 friends and neighbors, and nails and debris strewn into practically every nook and cranny of my yard, the roof caused the least of my anguish over the course of these concomitant projects.
I fit my Singer Featherweight
sewing machine into a narrow
dormer and filled a rack with
spools of colorful thread that
had belonged to my
maternal grandmother

But now, at long last, the handyman has completed my new hobby room. He finished on Monday of this week. So I am here to present to you the fruits of my imagination and his labor. First of all, I wanted storage. So on the wall I designated as "Wall A", I requested a desk with drawers and cabinets below and shelves with pegboard above. "Wall B", which sported a low knee wall above which a frustrating sloped ceiling prevented any practical application, would feature a daybed and wide, deep drawers to hold tools, with my antique sewing machine fitting just so into a small dormer beside it.  "Wall C" would have another desk, more cabinets and drawers below and a cabinet and pegboard above, but this wall would also boast long horizontal dowels to hold rolls of wrapping paper and spools of ribbon.  And finally, "Wall D" would have a workbench-height counter with long flat drawers beneath to hold paper, tissue and wrapping remnants, while shallow cabinets above would store art supplies and paint.

To the right of the sewing machine, my
"C-Wall" boasts another desk and
dowels to hold wrapping paper,
ribbon and cellophane
As I perused the internet for imaginative implementations of daybed ideas in rooms with sloped walls, I came across a wondrous concept. A website in Oregon showed images of a full-sized mattress recessed into attic space behind a knee-wall. I called immediately for the drawings. "Oh, we don't have any drawings" came the response . "We just designed furniture for the room." (sigh). I showed the picture to my handyman. Could we do this?  Derek was game to try, for which I give him immeasurable credit. But when we bored into the knee wall to survey the framing there, it became evident that recessing anything into the attic space would be difficult.  My framing was supporting 12-foot long attic rafters on 16" centers which, in turn supported 900 pounds of roof apiece. Taking out a single horizontal load-bearing board would necessitate the installation of a steel I-beam to support the span -- an I-beam that would have to be special-ordered, and a plan that would have to be certified by an actual architect before construction could begin (sigh).

Because there would only be 15 inches to
spare at the end of my run of desk space,
Derek sawed my door in half and hinged it,
cleverly turning it into a bi-fold.
I resigned myself to plan B, which was to haul my decrepit old twin hide-a-bed back up the stairs and let it serve as a guest bed and couch in my new hobby room. Maybe I would recover it in a jaunty new fabric, I consoled myself.

Then Derek approached me with a novel idea.  The length of a twin bed might be 75 inches, he said, which was way too far a distance to span without an I-beam. But the width of a twin mattress was only 37 inches, and I happened to have forty inches between two of my joists (thanks to the hand-hewn nature of 1862 construction). What if I recessed the twin bed lengthwise into the attic space, so just the end of it stuck out into the room by day, sort of more like a "chair" rather than a daybed? I practically hugged him. It was innovative and imaginative and solved my problem beautifully,  But the attic space into which the twin mattress would be recessed wasn't very deep. The end of the bed would hit the slope of the attic only a few inches into the space.  Not to worry, Derek said. He proceeded to design a platform on which the mattress would rest which was divided into three separate, hinged sections. As the platform containing the mattress recessed back into the attic space on rollers, it would literally bend down into the attic, following the slope of the roof line.  Sheer genius, I thought. And it was!  My uncomfortable old hide-a-bed would keep its position out in my small guest cottage.
Every wall sports undercabinet
LED light strips with outlets
along their length. This chest
of drawers on the "D-Wall"
is flat and wide to
accommodate wrapping paper
and tissue of all sizes

Over the next several weeks the new hobby room came together beautifully, albeit in fits and starts. But now it is finally finished, and I was able to start moving my wrapping paper and art supplies into it this week. An acquaintance crafted for me a beautiful mattress cover for the day bed, with a backrest, bolsters and valances to match from fabric I found on sale at JoAnn Crafts. I found the oversized pencil and ruler wall art at  And now that the room is complete, I can't wait to start crafting in there!
"A woman with organizing skills can run a construction company without ever picking up a hammer and nail." ~Warren Farrell

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Summer Potluck

My invitation doesn't
change much from year
to year
Oh, how I relish summer get-togethers with family and neighbors and friends all gathered in someone's yard for food, fellowship and, if I'm lucky, swimming and fireworks, too!  Except I found I wasn't being invited to any such gatherings on a regular basis. So in 2009 or so, I decided to start hosting my own summer party. Since my immediate family is clear across the country in California, I decided to invite friends and neighbors who I wanted to get to know better for a summer garden party, and I threw in for good measure a cousin or two from both sides of my family who live near me in Maryland and Virginia.

I soon discovered that holding my party on the July Fourth holiday does not produce a very big turnout, as everyone has already committed to spending time with their own families. The key, it turned out, is to host the gathering the first Saturday after the Fourth of July. Everyone who isn't traveling on vacation is far more likely to be available, the fireworks are all half price at the stores, and people are still in the mood for a patriotic outdoor gala.

I decided to make it a potluck, with the intention of taking some of the intense preparation off my shoulders. Much as I love to host fancy dinner parties during the winter, this would be an opportunity for my guests to showcase their own family favorites to a wider audience. Of course, I would make something, but it had to be easy and keep well. I chose my favorite Maahs family chili, a beloved recipe handed down to me by the family of my first husband, Mike Maahs, more than forty years ago. Some might think of chili as more of a cold-weather staple, but I love this chili any time of year. And made with lean ground turkey, it hits all the right flavor notes without being too heavy for sultry summer weather.  I had sixty guests that first year -- and I've never looked back.

This year I emailed my invitation on June 8, exactly one month ahead of the date of the party. Those neighbors for whom I did not have email addresses, such as Ricky and Bonita, the new couple who moved in across the street a few months ago, got snail-mailed invitations.

The new roof, by Dream Home
 Remodeling, looked great once it was
finally completed
As the date for the party approached, I began to get nervous, not about the party, which I've been doing for almost a decade now, but because I had foolishly engaged contractors in June to undertake three major construction projects at my house all at the same time. Suddenly I was not at all confident that the new roof, the new heating and air-conditioning system, and the new hobby-craft-guest room I was having built in a spare bedroom, would be finished in time.  On top of that, I had a houseguest coming from Australia for a seven-day visit just a a couple of weeks before the party. If you've ever stayed with me, you know that I like to wine (and cocktail) and cook for and pamper my guests, which understandably takes a bit of effort on my part.

The crew chief, Lapaya, added
this  imaginative "conehead"
decoration to my smokehouse
roof. I love it!
Installation of the roofs (not just one roof but the roof on my main house, on my guest house, on my pool shed and on an ancient smokehouse at the back of my property about the size of an outhouse) were initially held up because of a rainy forecast (which never materialized) and then, when roof construction finally did get underway, it rained a little bit every day they were here (Murphy's law).   Originally scheduled for the middle of May, my roofs were finally completed on July 3, after my houseguest departed. I love, love, love my new roof (and the new skylights in my laundry room and the scalloped siding on the upstairs dormers that the contractor threw in to sweeten the deal) but getting through from start to finish without a meltdown was a challenge. They actually gave me a hardhat to wear after I was hit in the head twice by nail-filled shingles being flung with abandon as the workers dismantled the old roof.

The new HVAC system was also a challenge. I'd researched various alternatives for my ancient fuel-oil boiler system and hot-water radiators. I loved the radiators and their silent, comfortable heat, but they took up an enormous amount of space in every room of my small farmhouse. The fuel oil that powered them was expensive, and I also had the expense of an inefficient forced-air propane furnace in my guesthouse. In addition to fuel oil and propane, I paid electric bills for both systems and, with only two small window air-conditioners (one in my home office and one in my bedroom upstairs), I'd never had truly comfortable cool, conditioned air in my home the entire seventeen years I'd lived in Maryland.  It was time for a change.

John Bain and John Weckessser of
Advanced Heating and Cooling
install a ducted unit in my small
attic space
I'd looked into radiant flooring, a geo-thermal system in the ground, and high-velocity hot and cold air that could be retro-fitted through the holes left in my floors and ceilings after the radiator piping was removed. Eventually, I decided on all-electric high-tech ductless mini-splits for the main house and a super-efficient propane-fueled heat-pump and air conditioner for the guest house.  That ten-day project began on June 7, and took every bit of ten days and a little more. My radiators were removed, leaving big, wonderful spaces in every room of my house, and my boiler and a rusty old fuel-oil tank were liberated from my basement, leaving me quite a bit more space down there, as well.

This twin bed recesses into the attic
of my front porch roof
Derek Hahn and his son, Jordan,
of Hahn Home Improvements,
are working together
to build my new hobby room
And then there was the hobby room build-out. I designed a room full of cabinets to maximize storage, leaving space for a large worktable in the middle of the room. I configured a twin guest bed to pose as a small couch by day, with the length of it recessed through a knee-wall down into the attic space over my front porch. If my guest house is ever full (or if I eventually rent it out for extra income), I can simply tug on the end of a platform and the entire length of a twin bed magically pulls out of its attic alcove on rails into the middle of the hobby room!  I found a handyman in nearby Pennsylvania to build the room for me. He and his 12-year-old son have been working on the room since June 1st. Unfortunately, like my bathroom renovation in 2015, not a single line in this 1862 dwelling is straight, level, plumb or true, causing even the most patient of carpenters to have to take extra care with every step. The hobby room was not finished in time for my houseguest or my party -- and it still isn't finished. I keep telling myself "Man, it's going to be great when it's done!" But I digress.

In the angst-filled construction days leading up to my party I watched in wonder as the "yes" RSVPs began to mount. When the guests coming to my party topped 100 in number, I realized that over the years I'd created a summer party that people seem naturally drawn to. I discovered that others want a family-friendly place to enjoy good food and drink with friends and neighbors as much as I do!  I began to get really excited.
Tables adorned with red cloths and
patriotic flower and flag bouquets
grace the yard in anticipation
of my party

After work each night I busied myself with preparations. I made three kinds of sangria, a Greek-pasta salad, a carrot-turmeric salad, a blueberry-cucumber salad and a baked cashew-artichoke dip. I made my pot of chili and ordered small deli-trays of raw veggies, lunch meats, and sandwich roll-ups. I prepared the custard for my grandmother's old-fashioned homemade ice cream. Blackberry-sage would be this year's flavor. One neighbor smoked two entire pork briskets. Another made her famous lemon cake. A third brought me dozens of her wonderful deviled eggs. Still another made Jamaican barbecued jerk chicken with rice and peas.

On the day of the party, 121 people came to enjoy a perfect summer evening on my lawn. I was ecstatic to have such a wonderful turnout. The tables I'd set up as a "food court" on my patio groaned under the weight of all the delicious appetizers, salads, main dishes and desserts everyone contributed. The culinary imaginations of my guests knew no bounds. There were avocado pudding "boats" (avocado-infused chocolate pudding in hollowed-out avocado shells), bacon-and-caramelized onion mini-quiches, couscous-shrimp salad, and blueberry-strawberry "crustless" pie to name but a few of the offerings.
On my patio, a festive "food court" was
filled with the contributions of more
than a hundred friends and neighbors

More than twenty children splashed in my pool and tried their hands at badminton, horseshoes, Frisbee and soccer across my two acres. The mood was festive and the weather ideal.

As dusk approached, I lighted candles inside the house and tiki torches outside, creating a magical glow across the expanse of my little slice of paradise. When my old ice-cream maker gave up the ghost at the last minute, a neighbor rushed to my rescue and brought me hers.

Once darkness fell, torches and candles
gave the yard a romantic glow
And, finally, when it grew dark, I invited my guests to grab their chairs and migrate to my northern meadow, where a pair of talented pyro-technicians proceeded to wow the crowd with a nonstop twenty-minute display of professional-strength fireworks bursting right over our heads.

My cousin, Ian, and his wife,
Sharon, are from my mom's
side of the family. A cousin
and her family from my
father's side were there, too 
As I cleaned up my yard the next day I couldn't help but reflect on the goodwill that is engendered when friends and strangers come together to celebrate nothing more than enjoying each other's company on a warm summer's eve. Neighbors got to meet neighbors. New friendships and acquaintances were formed. Children frolicked in a welcoming and sociable environment. Sure, there was a "political" table engaged in heated debate and, as a brief cold front blew through, a single gust of wind that simultaneously knocked over everybody's drink.  But lively discourse and a sudden, mother nature-inspired surprise served only to underscore how well the wonderful diversity of our human race can play nicely together amid fireflies and candlelight.  That I had a hand in creating such a magical ambiance truly made my heart sing.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Easter At Jan's

A massive driftwood horse sculpture
adorns the garden at Jan's lovely home
The first dinner party to be held at the home of my dear friend since her husband of thirty years died in 2014 was to be a festive affair. Jan was finally ready to host a gathering for friends and family, and she asked me to help pull it all together. I was only too happy to oblige. I love entertaining at Jan's beautifully appointed home, whose dramatic dining room looks out, through an entire wall of glass, onto a lush, walled garden in the Roland Park section of Baltimore City.

A few weeks ago Jan came to dinner at my house so we could collaborate on an Easter menu, much like her late husband, Robert, and I used to do over more than a decade of holiday dinner-party planning. As Jan and I supped on beef brisket and spring asparagus in my dining room, we chose as our Easter entrées a leg of lamb, which I would prepare, and a spiral-cut ham, on which Jan would put the finishing touches. An herbed bleu-cheese terrine with spiced walnuts from my repertoire sounded like an enticing hors d'oeuvre, accompanied by classic deviled eggs, which Jan would make. Fancy mashed potatoes would add a luscious starch, and we'd round out the main course with a colorful carrot salad dressed in lemon-turmeric vinaigrette.

I got busy composing a pretty menu for Jan, printing several copies out on stiff card stock, which I rolled and tied with curling ribbon and adorned with fabric blossom hair-clips as party favors for her guests. Meanwhile, Jan ordered adorable marzipan bunny faces with which we would make place cards for each table setting.

Tiny marzipan bunnies added a fun
note to placecards
The day before Easter I got busy in my kitchen, first marinating a six-and-a-half pound leg of lamb by cutting slits all over the sirloin and tucking in slivers of fresh garlic, poking sprigs of rosemary from my garden deep into the meat, and then rubbing the whole leg with olive oil, salt and pepper. I sprinkled rosemary leaves over the roast and stuck it in the fridge to chill.

Next I whirled bleu cheese, cream cheese and goat cheese in a food processor with melted butter until the smooth mixture had taken on a pale blue-green tint from the Roquefort. I patted some of the cheese into the bottom of a vintage jello mold lined with plastic wrap and topped it with a layer of fresh herbs (minced parsley and chives) from my garden, followed by a coating of toasted, chopped walnuts spiced with cumin, cardamon and sugar. I kept layering cheese, herbs and nuts until the miniature bundt pan was full, then folded plastic wrap over the top and put it in the fridge to set.
The carrot salad was so colorful!

Next I set to work assembling a hearty salad of thinly-sliced, rainbow-hued carrots, shredded red cabbage, bulgar wheat, chickpeas, chopped parsley, crumbled feta and sliced scallions, which I tossed with a fragrant vinaigrette of lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, toasted cumin seeds, salt and ground turmeric. The deep purple of the raw cabbage, combined with the red, orange, white and yellow carrots, the pale garbanzo beans and bulgar, the white feta and the brilliant yellow dressing (from the turmeric) made for a gloriously colorful presentation -- confetti in a bowl!

I snapped this photo early in the day --
before Murphy's Law began to wreak
 havoc at Jan's party
On Sunday morning, I boiled Yukon gold potatoes, put them through a ricer and then whipped heavy cream into stiff peaks. Folded into the minced tubers with milk, butter, white pepper and salt, the whipped cream gave the potatoes a luxurious, silken consistency. I patted the potatoes into an oven-proof casserole, drizzled on some more butter and sprinkled shredded Parmesan over top. Baked for 25 minutes and then crisped and browned beneath my broiler, the dish looked like Heaven in a bowl.
I filled the depression in the middle of
the ring with daisies and mums

I turned out the terrine from its copper mold onto a platter lined with mustard greens and sprinkled herbs all around the cheese. In the middle of the ring I tucked spring-hued daisies and chrysanthemums provided by my favorite florist, Marty Giles. It made quite a beautiful display.

This fun jumpsuit kept me cool
and comfy all day
Jan wanted the occasion to be chic but very casual, so I opted for springy and oh-so-comfortable blue cotton overalls with a pretty patchwork placket from the Pyramid Collection, which I paired with a vintage white Tee I've owned since the 1970s and white gladiator sandals from Nine West.

I cut branches from flowering plum, cherry, dogwood and redbud trees, arranging them in a giant vase for Jan, and then loaded up the car for the 20-minute drive to her home. Jan's dear friend, Irit, visiting from New York City, was busy pulling weeds and planting flowers when I arrived just before 2:00 p.m. Jan's brother, Robbie, would arrive at 4:00 with his wife, Ging and their children, Jimmy, 12, and Lookpat, 20. Jan's longtime friend and my former husband, Jesse, proceeded to uncork and decant rare, vintage wines chosen from Jan's wine cellar earlier in the week.

The ham and the lamb were perfect,
thankfully unaffected by the
"poltergeists" of the day
I set to work plating the carrot salad, roasting the lamb in Jan's oven and setting out the bleu cheese terrine with crackers for noshing. Jan had not yet assembled the deviled eggs, so I got busy mashing cooked yolks into stoneground and Dijon mustards, mayonnaise, horseradish, salt, cayenne pepper, curry powder, dill weed and minced celery, chives and garlic, spooning the filling into each boiled egg half and topping it with a chive garnish, while Jan lit candles all over the house. We toasted our good fortune and close friendship with bellinis: slender flutes of chilled champagne topped with a splash of peach schnapps.
Deviled eggs, stuffed olives and tiny
pickled onions rounded out the
appetizer selection

At 4:00 o'clock the lamb came out of the oven to rest for 45 minutes, while the potatoes and ham went into the warming drawer to heat up. That's when things began to go south. We couldn't understand why Jan's gigantic standard poodle, Toby, was licking his lips and looking for all the world like he'd found Nirvana. Now I saw the reason why: a third of the potatoes were missing from the ceramic dish we'd left sitting on the kitchen counter. We carefully cleaned out the contaminated portion and vowed to keep quiet about the canine incursion.

We proceeded to taste the decanted wine, now that it had been given a chance to breathe.  It was a rare and valuable 1995 Chateau Monbousquet Saint-Emilion Grand Cru -- two bottles. Both had spoiled. They were undrinkable.

And Robby and Ging and the children were now late. Very late. We tried to reach Jan's brother by cellphone but he had not turned his phone on. We called his wife's cell phone but none of us speak Thai and, although she's been in the U.S. for twelve years, Ging's English is not good enough to understand over the phone. We had established that they were okay, but could not determine when they would arrive or even if they were still coming. Half of our dinner party was missing in action.

Jan (in green) and Irit poured water
for the dinner table
Jan and Jesse headed back down to the wine cellar. This time they went deeper, bringing back a 1995 Chateauneuf du Pape and an 1988 Chateau Simard Saint-Emilion Grand Cru. I didn't notice the bottles were two different kinds and inadvertently decanted them into the same pitcher -- an epic and embarrassing mistake which thankfully resulted in a surprisingly tasty blend. Still, I was mortified at my gaffe and could not be consoled.

Finally, at 6:00 p.m., we grew tired of waiting for the others, so the four of us sat down to eat. We served up the ham and the lamb, passed the salad and the (carefully trimmed) mashed potatoes, gave a cheery toast and had just taken our first bites when Robby and his entourage arrived.  Up once again from the table, we exchanged greetings and introductions (Irit had never met Jan's brother and his family) and then started to serve dinner to our newly seated guests.

Jan proved she was
every bit as good a host
as Robert had been 
By the time dessert was served, we were all having a jolly good time. Jan presented a beautiful confection from La Patisserie Poupon, a classic French bakery in Baltimore from which she had ordered a decadent coconut cake with lemon mousse and mango filling in the shape of an Easter egg. When the cake was sliced, the mango filling looked like a golden yolk. Paired with a fabulous dessert wine from Jan's cellar, the final serving of the meal was as sublime as the previous courses.
Every guest got to take a copy
of the menu home with them,
tied and secured with a
blossom hairclip

Murphy's Law dictates that "everything that can go wrong, will go wrong". That wasn't our experience, fortunately, for not everything went wrong, and the things that did go wrong were easily (and luckily) fixed. Perhaps Robert had been testing his widow's mettle from the great beyond. Maybe he was just having a little fun at our expense. Who's to say?

All I know is that Jan's first foray into entertaining since her husband's passing was a sweet success. We all had a merry time. And as we gently explained the history of Christianity and the meaning of Easter to the Buddhists at the table, I reflected upon what a wonderful world of inclusivity and acceptance I live in -- where even the most glaring oenophilic faux pas can be forgiven -- after another glass of wine.

“The chance of the bread falling with the buttered side down is directly proportional to the cost of the carpet.”  ~ Murphy's Law

Sunday, March 26, 2017

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 value to our imaginary limbs of flight; it gives sustenance to our memories and deeper 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