Tuesday, January 31, 2012


I flew to northern California Friday to spend the weekend helping my sister, Leslie, celebrate her 70th birthday. With a Ph.D. in Medical Technology and Immunology, Leslie has worked as a senior scientist in the Viral Reference Laboratory and Repository Core at the Blood Systems Research Institute (formerly Irwin Memorial Blood Bank) in San Francisco for well over twenty years now, in addition to teaching a course on hematology at San Francisco State University every spring semester. While Leslie plans to scale back her workload later this year, she continues to fill her life with rewarding pastimes, in addition to her full time work and teaching jobs, including longtime memberships in a women’s investing club, a book club, and her diabetes group. I have the utmost admiration for my sister, and for the past year or so have talked with her by phone almost every night. We just check in with each other to see how we’re doing. These nightly conversations, no matter how brief, have brought us even closer than we were before and have been a source of comfort and delight for both of us.

So it was my great pleasure to cook a fancy birthday dinner for ten members of my family on Saturday night at Leslie’s wonderful (and beautifully decorated) circa 1900 Arts and Crafts home in the Oakland Hills. Having had such resounding success with my fancy Beef Wellington recipe at Christmas, I decided to reproduce that menu for my family in California, and I am happy to say that the meal was as big a hit on the west coast as it was last month in the mid-Atlantic.

It had been my intention to get a few things accomplished in Leslie’s kitchen after my plane landed Friday evening. However, the first plane I boarded in Baltimore suffered a "broken nose", which was apparently an unusual enough malady that two different television stations came to the airport to record the event and interview the gate agents and mechanics. As with most commercial aircraft, Southwest Airlines’ Boeing 737s have all their radar equipment housed in the nose cone of the plane. In order for the instruments to be able to send and receive signals, this nose cone is not covered with a thin aluminum skin like the rest of the plane. Instead, the radome (as it’s known) is covered in a layer of fibreglas which minimally attenuates the electromagnetic signal. The relatively fragile fibreglas then must be protected with a coat of special neoprene or polyurthethane paint.

When the pilot made his external examination of the plane (as they do before every flight) he noticed that the radome was partially delaminated. When the pilot first announced that the nose cone would have to be replaced or repainted before we could take off, I thought to myself, what difference does a little peeled paint make? It’s not like we’re re-entering the atmosphere or anything. But, in fact, flying with a delaminated radome would be foolhardy, as any tiny breach in the special skin on the way up would create a much larger breach during the flight and soon we would have no instrumentation at all.

Needless to say, in the hours it took for the mechanics to remove the damaged nose cone and install a new one (which, fortunately, happened to be in stock), I was told that my connection would be missed and was put on another plane. That flight, too, was delayed, and that connection missed, and eventually I was transferred to still another flight. I didn’t land in Oakland until 10:30 p.m., which made for a very long day. Any prep work for my fancy dinner the following night would have to wait.
Fortunately, the rest of the weekend went off without a hitch. My beef Wellington was a smashing success. Everyone enjoyed my broccoli with toasted garlic and hazelnuts and swooned over my discs of sautéed sweet potatoes capped with festively toasted domes of mashed potatoes. My brother, Dave, and his wife, Jane, brought wine, my brother-in-law, John, and his wife, Sarah, brought a tasty appetizer dip and veggies, my nephew, Mike, brought homemade hummus that his pregnant wife, Tomo, had made just before boarding a flight to Tokyo that morning to visit her parents, and my niece, Diana, and her boyfriend, Joe, brought a gorgeous and delectable custard fruit tart for Leslie’s birthday "cake".  It was a wonderful birthday dinner, made all the more special when my sister, wearing a paper crown from a British popper she and I had "popped" before dinner, opened a scrap book lovingly assembled by our niece, Diana, featuring photographs of Leslie over the past 50 years or so.

The whole family together
On Sunday morning, Leslie and I attended a brunch in honor of Leslie’s birthday which was hosted by her diabetes group, and then we wiled away the rest of the day running errands and enjoying each other’s company, finishing the weekend with a quiet dinner for just the two of us at a tiny Japanese restaurant only a few blocks from Leslie’s house. Leslie and I felt fully enveloped in the love of family this weekend, and let me tell you, it’s a wonderful, wonderful feeling.

Happy birthday, Leslie. I love you.

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