Saturday, March 31, 2007


Please check out Saturday's Soup--the next post--
I wrote it last night around midnight, but Blogger put
Friday's date on it!

I am sure you have had this experience--you have your day all planned out (or at least think you do), then something happens that changes your whole schedule. That's me today. I turned on the TV this morning, listened to a smattering of news, and then the weather forecast. That's what I really wanted to hear.

RAIN TOMORROW! (Not what I wanted to hear!) Well, there go my plans to 1) vacuum; 2) grocery shop; 3) grade Eng 102 papers; 4) grade Eng 102. . .already said that. That is what I really MUST do this weekend--grade papers so I can return them to the students next class. But with rain coming tomorrow, scrap all those plans and work on getting the dead rotting blecchy leaves off the pool cover.

We have an in-ground pool. We have had it since the fall of 1980! And every year, we devote two complete Saturdays to opening the pool and then closing the pool. In between, we try to enjoy it. One of the events I love to arrange, spontaneously usually, is to go out, round up some neighborhood kids, and have them come swim early in the year. That's a great way to get the water stirred around!

Before we can open the pool, we need to get all the leaves off the winter cover. Did I say "we"? Well, truth is my husband is the pool opener and closer expert. Most of it he does alone, so my contribution is getting the leaves off the cover. Now, this task is about as bleccchhy as it gets. The leaves are all over the cover (having blown in from seemingly ALL the trees in the neighborhood). They lie there in the collecting snow, ice, and rain. And they rot. And they reek of all that vegetative decay.

I have been working over the last several weeks to get all the leaves to one side of the pool cover, and using the pool pump to get rid of the excess water. Rain tomorrow will undo all my work to this point. So, let's get cracking. . .

The source (at least one culprit): our lovely maple tree beginning to bloom.

The piles of leaves that I have raked AFTER I raked all the leaves last fall!

The tools of the trade.

The task ahead.

The finished task.

The inspection by local authority.

Task all done, I finally have time to walk around the yard and look at the continuing spring growth. The reward for finally finishing the task.

OK--work all done. . .must go shower NOW!

Friday, March 30, 2007

Saturday Soup 5

Two years ago, my husband, daughter and I visited Santa Fe, New Mexico. We also took a day trip to Taos. Even though our trip was in the late winter, the New Mexico scenery is lovely, reminding me of southern Africa.

As I was thinking about which soup to select for this week, I decided on a soup from New Mexico.

This recipe came to our church’s Bistro via our pastor’s wife. She had seen it in a Santa Fe newspaper. She suggests that you may make this dish up to 3 days ahead, cool, cover, and chill. It thickens, so thin with more broth or water when reheating.


Serves 12

3 cans hominy (Bush's is best), rinsed and drained
1-1/4 lbs. Boned, trimmed, pork shoulder (butt) or shoulder end of pork loin
4 cups chopped onions
8 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon dried oregano
1 large can (or 6 cups) reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 cup canned red enchilada sauce
1/3 cup chopped roasted green chilies or canned green chilies
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
Salt to taste

Cut meat into bite-size cubes. In a 5-6 quart pan, combine pork, onions, garlic, oregano, and 1/2 cup broth. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat; reduce heat to medium and boil 20 minutes. Uncover and cook over high heat, stirring often, until juices evaporate and meat is sizzling in browned drippings, 15 to20 minutes.

Add remaining broth, 4 cups water, and drained hominy; stir drippings free. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer until pork is almost tender to bite, about 1-1/2hours; stir occasionally.
Add 1/2 cup red enchilada sauce, 1/3 cup chilies and ground pepper. Simmer, covered, until pork and hominy are very tender to bite, 15 to 30 minutes longer. Add salt, remaining enchilada sauce and chilies to taste, if desired.


And for the photo feature, a few selections from our Santa Fe trip.
The inn where we stayed.
The oldest church in the U.S.

The Rio Grande in New Mexico!

Lend Me Your Ears

Oh, the vagaries and vicissitudes of blogging! Herewith a tale of the frustrations we bloggers encounter.

So, how do you all feel about comments on your blogs? And would you keep writing if no one read? Neither of these questions is meant as an in-your-face challenge. I really want to know.

See, here's what just happened. My prior blog was on a series of loosely connected ideas--partly a concern for over-use of one of earth's resources: oil. Partly an observation on our national need to increase the amount we walk.

I got wonderful thoughtful comments on what walking means to you. AND I got a quasi-spam comment. Since I have chosen to moderate comments on my blog, that means I get an email when a comment is made, and I have to choose "publish" comment or "reject" comment. Well, after all the comments from my friends in the blogosphere, I got one late last night that began thusly:

I find that going out for a walk clears my head when I've been typing for too long - there is fortunately a little park with a track near work so that I can go for a stroll and take phone calls and still be close by.

Great--I thought--a new reader who came upon my blog due to a shared appreciation for walking. Oh , I couldn't have been more wrong. For the comment went on to say--you might be interested in. . .and then proceeded to pitch something. Turns out this "reader" trolls blogs and looks for key words to which to link his websites. Here's what the description on the web says of this "reader": Mr. XX is Feedback Loop and Director of Social Media at XXXXXXXX, a Google Adwords Qualified Company and search engine marketing firm based in Ann Arbor, MI.

AHA! I have just been had. My initial excitement of discovering a new reader is replaced with the sinking realization that commerce strikes again. I begrudge no one his need to earn a living, but not through my blog, please.

And I was all in a good mood, waking up this morning, thinking about new subjects to tackle, etc. etc. etc. GONE--all gone. Now I am stewing (oops--must not do that) and wondering how to select label words most cagily so blog trollers can't hitch a free ride. Oh, heck with it! Never mind--let them try. I will keep on moderating comments. So Mr. XX, should you look for your comment, it was rejected.

I love writing too much, and am deeply grateful for my thoughtful readers. Genuine comments are inspiring and motivating. And in turn, I enjoy visiting the commenters' blog sites and leaving the occasional thoughtful comment.

Now to get out of my bad mood, how about a few photos from last night's stroll?

I feel better already!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Happy Trails to You!

I have a file on my computer where I store blogs that I am writing, or have written. As I get ideas, I jot down the basics of what I might want to write about, or maybe even begin writing a few sentences. I am very serious about blogging--perhaps as serious as I would be if I were a writer earning my livelihood from writing. So, trying to hold on to ideas (which usually occur to me when I am nowhere near paper or a computer) is essential.

So, I was reading through this file tonight, and up came something I had written over a year ago. What prompted this tirade was a story in our local newspaper where they interviewed drivers standing by the gasoline pump complaining about the rising price of gas.

How is it that the "man on the street" is deemed an expert on anything? But there was the reporter, talking to Joe Average who was filling his truck at the gas station.

So, here's what I wrote:

How predictable. Another story about the high price of gasoline! And no mention of the one thing we Americans COULD do: learn to conserve. Most people exhibit a bumper sticker attitude: how did our oil get under their land?

Oil is a worldwide precious commodity, and yet, we continue to act as though it is OUR gas as we drive gas guzzling behemoth vehicles. For entertainment, we watch drivers race endlessly around race tracks, consuming who knows how much fuel. For shopping, we go to malls where we DRIVE from one store to another, instead of walking. Is it any wonder oil prices keep rising?

Beyond our wasteful use, there are many reasons why oil prices are rising. For example, there is the growing economy in China and the sudden rise in personal automobile ownership among China’s 1.3 billion people. Increasing competition from other countries will continue to play a role in long-term oil distribution. So, we must stop acting as though it is our oil.

Perhaps, next time you do a story on the rising cost of gas, you could identify what TYPE of vehicle the person on the street whom you quote is driving? One man you quoted (in the July 6 story) was interviewed while filling his truck. Really?

Until we switch to, no, demand that all vehicles be fuel efficient, and until we buy these vehicles and don’t buy the Hummer 2, we have no grounds on which to complain about the high price of gasoline.

I was fired up enough that I sent this off to the local newspaper and they published it as a letter to the editor. The next day, I saw a colleague at a meeting, and he asked if I wanted to go for a ride in his Hummer. I stood there with my mouth open--then realized he was twitting me!

Recently I read a study of the healthiest cities to live in--I wish I remembered who did the study, but I don't. One of the cities that ranked high was New York City, and part of the reason was the amount people walk there. When we have visited our daughter there, we walk a lot. Most New Yorkers do walk a lot, every day.

When we have visited Europe, we are struck with how conserving people are in using personal vehicles, how much they depend on mass transportation and how much they walk.

My husband's workplace has recently undertaken a simple effort--each division is engaged in friendly competition with all other divisions by simply counting the number of steps they walk every day. All employees taking part in this competition got basic pedometers so they can see how much they walk. The goal is to walk 10,000 steps a day, or the rough equivalent of three miles.

This last Christmas, I asked for a pedometer as one of my gifts. When my husband got me one (a nifty high tech model), I began wearing it each day. There are some days when I walk 10,000 steps, but most days I am down around 7,000. The pedometer helps to spur me on to more walking.

Sorry for this loose connection of thoughts--now I have to try to see what LABELS I can put on this post! While I think, why don't you slip on your walking shoes and hit the trails?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Tale of Three Mallards

Just as I was driving into my neighborhood this afternoon, I saw a mallard male hanging around by a tiny puddle. I was hoping to run back to the spot, and get a photo of him, but he was gone by the time I got back. I will have to learn how to slam on the brakes and jump out for the photo a la this!

We live in an area that has several small ponds, so our neighborhood seems to be a magnet for mallards. In fact, every spring, they go waddling back and forth across a main road, and every year, we see several very flat mallards that didn’t make it across.

Photo by Andreas Trepte, Marburg

So, that sighting reminded me of a mallard episode several springs back. We had a pair of mallards that would stroll through our yard. Since we have an in-ground pool, which at this time of the year is not open, and since the winter cover collects water, mallards think we have a pond. We don’t. So each year, we run out and shoo them away. Finally, we got a fake owl, and several spinner kites and that seems to dissuade the mallards from using our pool cover.

Anyway, this pair kept coming back. She had a distinctive bill, some kind of injury actually, because there was a piece out of it. He was a normal glossy green mallard. And every day, they would be trailed by two or three other males who were without mates.

One day, it finally happened. One of the other males won out over the male in the pair, and displaced him. Now, the new couple strolled by. The female was totally oblivious; seemingly one male mallard was as good as another to her. But the displaced male was disconsolate.

He kept coming back to our yard, looking around the pool. He would walk around slowly, seemingly searching for his lost mate. He would mournfully say—quack, quack. Now, that may seem funny, but honestly he seemed sad.

Then one day, the new couple came back—and the lost male arrived too. Show down. He kept feinting toward the winning male, trying to distract and possibly displace him. The new male was very aggressive and drove off the unlucky suitor. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I went running out and tried to help the losing male. I know! I know! Bad biology, bad science, bad wildlife management, bad everything. But I felt so sorry for him. Of course, my efforts went for naught, as the loser stayed the loser.

Photo by Alan D. Wilson,

Now you know why I don’t work directly with wildlife. You also know why I can’t watch certain kinds of Animal Kingdom stories—the kind that shows the victorious lion or leopard or hyena or whatever predator bring down the little antelope. I am rooting for the antelope. I don’t want the lions et al to starve. And I am not a vegetarian myself—I too am a predator, just a little more removed from my food source.

Thankfully, the triumphant mallard pair disappeared soon after that. Maybe they thought—we’re not sticking around where that crazy human lives. However, I did see the female the next spring—with her misshapen bill. And a male, but which one (or a new one altogether) I don’t know.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Ah, Spring!

I am not one of those people who is just itching for cold weather to scoot and for spring to arrive. I know spring leads to summer with its heat and, frankly, I am mostly a cold weather person. The winter this past year has been most peculiar in the northeast U.S. We had a warm December (in fact, my husband MOWED on December 1--no kidding!), a warm January, then WHAM! a really cold February and mostly a cold March.

Plus we had two crazy snow storms--a Valentine's Day snow which ruined many romantic dinners, not to mention restaurant business, where they count on those dinners. And then the St. Patrick's Day snow which ruined many parades. Commerce has been taking a beating from the weather--first not enough snow, so snow blowers sat unbought, anyone who depended on snow-plowing for income was stuck; then too much snow. Remember, I live in Pennsylvania of I-78 fame--trucks and cars stuck for DAYS because state agencies couldn't decide what to do in a snow/sleet/freezing rain storm.

But today swept away my lack of longing for spring. It was a lovely warm but sweetly breezy day.
It was the kind of day that you could hear the voices of children as they poured out of houses to play, and take new puppies on their first walks around the neighborhood.

It was the kind of day where you could hear the waves of geese long before they hove into view, with their long V formations, heading north.

It was the kind of day where you could hear a raucous chorus of birds chirping all over the neighborhood. I watched an aerial display of two robins--courting? fighting over territory? or just giddy with warm breezes.

It was the kind of day where if you listened very carefully you could hear crocuses (croci?) popping out of the ground and opening, along with grape hyacinths.

It was the kind of day where you could almost hear the earth sigh contentedly as the sun slipped behind the western houses in the neighborhood.

It was the kind of day where as evening approached, I slipped back in the house, having popped in and out in response to all the wondrous noises and sights outside.

There are probably thousands of poems about spring, but here is a lovely one by Katherine Mansfield called "Very Early Spring":

The fields are snowbound no longer;
There are little blue lakes and flags of tenderest green.
The snow has been caught up into the sky—
So many white clouds--and the blue of the sky is cold.
Now the sun walks in the forest,
He touches the bows and stems with his golden fingers;
They shiver, and wake from slumber.
Over the barren branches he shakes his yellow curls.
Yet is the forest full of the sound of tears....
A wind dances over the fields.
Shrill and clear the sound of her waking laughter,
Yet the little blue lakes tremble
And the flags of tenderest green bend and quiver.

Welcome, Happy Spring.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Saturday Soups

On the second week of Saturday Soups, I offered to find soup recipes featuring a specific type of soup or ingredient to meet requests. Well, Cathy asked for a chicken soup. Since I live in what is basically Pennsylvania Dutch land (or very close to it), chicken corn noodle soup is the most common chicken soup around here. It is also a soup I can almost make in my sleep, so I want to wait before posting a recipe for it—it just seems too ordinary (though always tasty) to me.

This is not chicken corn noodle soup, for which I will have a recipe sometime. Herewith, another chicken soup.
Serves 12

8 cups water
1 48 oz. can lowfat chickenbroth
1 tsp. salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 cup diced yellow onion
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
3 lbs. chicken pieces, skinned
1 bay leaf
1 cup diced carrots
1 cup diced celery
1 cup potato, peeled and diced
1/2 cup diced green bellpepper
1/2 cup diced yellow onion
1/2 cup uncooked pearl barley

Combine water, broth, salt, pepper, oregano, rosemary, chicken pieces and bay leaf in a large stock pot. Cover and bring to a boil. Adjust heat to medium and cook 20-30 minutes. Remove from heat and remove lid. Remove chicken and cool slightly. Remove chicken from bones, and shred with two forks. Reserve shredded chicken. Skim all visible fat from the top of broth.
Stir vegetables and barley into broth. Cover and bring to a boil; then simmer 10 minutes. Test the vegetables and barley for tenderness. Remove from heat. Add shredded chicken to pot. Discard bay leaf. If not serving immediately, cool and refrigerate or freeze until ready to use.

Thinking goods thought for Cathy this coming week, and the surgery on Monday.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

I don’t know about you. . .

. . .but I am not excited about the news that the first Airbus landed in the U.S. yesterday at JFK Airport. As someone who makes about three trips a year that require me to fly to my destination, I am not a seasoned traveler, but then I am also not a novice.

I am neither an enthusiastic flyer nor a terrified flyer. I guess I am somewhere in the middle—maybe an indifferent flyer. Several years ago, when I worked for a health insurance company, a colleague and I flew from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh. About 5 minutes into the flight, my colleague—who I would describe as a veteran flyer—responded to a sort of thunking sound we heard with “WHAT WAS THAT?’ Well, I figured, I don’t fly much, but Karen flies all the time. If she is non-plussed by the noise, I am petrified. I couldn’t wait for that plane to get to Pittsburgh (which is only a ½ hour flight from Harrisburg.) Of course, we got there safely, and because an ice-storm cancelled our return flight, we ended up driving back. At the time, I thought I would rather be on the Pennsylvania Turnpike driving through a sleet storm with slush building up on the road at a fast rate than ever fly again.

And for a long time afterwards, I did everything I could to avoid flying. Then our family decided to go to Europe for our summer vacation. Well, you can’t there from here unless you fly. So, I started reasoning with myself. I guess I am mostly a fairly logical person, so I began to read about the physics of flying. By no means, would I consider myself an expert now, but I eventually came to understand that flying is akin to floating on water. The physics of aerodynamics make the way the plane is supported in the air much like the way a boat is supported in the water. And I began to relax. Now I am back to flying without the pervasive dread I had once experienced.

Back to the Airbus. Today’s New York Times has an article about this signature event. (I hope the link works without the reader’s having to sign in—as a subscriber to the Times, I can read the articles online without signing in.)

Here are some of the particulars about this behemoth of a plane. The
Airbus, or the A380-800 has a wingspan that is almost as long as a football field. It stands 8 stories tall. Because of the weight of the plane, runways need to be reinforced to handle the additional weight—at heaviest plane flying. Its take-off weight is 421 tons!

To accommodate the size of the plane, airports would need to add double decker gates so passengers can enter / exit on two levels. The passenger capacity of the plane is 555 if the plane were divided in the usual first class, business class, and economy class. If all were economy class it could handle 853 people.

Understandably waiting areas would need to be expanded, and new baggage carousels would need to be added to handle 1,000 bags expected.

Now, here’s where my flying tastes come in. I am usually a less than patient person. OK, OK (said to my family) I am IMPATIENT. Can you imagine how long it would take to load and unload this monster? If every passenger takes 15 seconds (and that is a way optimistic time frame) to get on the plane, that is 4 passengers every minute. Now, you do the rest of the math and figure out how long it would take to load. Now, when you reach your destination, the time to unload (or de-plane in plane-speak) now becomes 30 seconds. Oh my! We will be standing back in the economy section for hours before get off.

Well, the Times sub-headline got it right: Tour by Airbus A380 Generates Excitement; Sales are Another Matter. Thank goodness for that. U.S. airlines aren’t rushing to buy up these monster planes. My patience won’t be tried. . .well, I do have to drive to work.

Monday, March 19, 2007

“The Living Record of Your Memory”*

OK, I admit it. . .the inspiration for this blog came from my brother. He recently wrote about the mission station where my parents lived when my brother and I were young children.

I confess that my memories of Sikalongo Mission are very dim. Additionally, they are episodic. My brother has visited this mission far more recently than I was there, having seen it in 2003. And my father will be sure to correct any mis-remembrances that I have.

Photo of me and a much loved doll. I recall losing a doll on the train--by the time I remembered that I had left it there, the train was gone, and with it the doll.

So, here goes. This is what I remember about Sikalongo Mission. It is located near the town of Choma, Zambia, in the southern part of Zambia. Choma is sufficiently small to not be shown on all maps, but it is due east of Livingstone. When I lived there with my parents the Kariba Dam had not yet been built on the Zambesi River, but if you were to visit this location today, you would be very near the resulting lake, Lake Kariba.

My mind’s eye recollection is that as you approached the mission on the dirt road leading to the mission, you would be going up a long hill. At the bottom of that hill there was a dam. This place figures in one of my recollections. There were a couple of mission houses, and then the main mission house, on the left. If you walked away from the main mission house, toward the schools, you would come to a mission bell, up on a kind of scaffolding.

Other buildings that I remember are the milk house (I don’t know if that is what it was called, but there were milk cans in there), the out-houses (the source of another story) and the pig pens. I do not remember the church—which is most curious, since attending services there would have been a weekly feature in my childhood. I do remember sitting in church, somewhat drowsily, listening to services in
Chitonga. Mother would run her fingers up and down my arm, tickling me and lulling me.

My 2nd birthday. You can see a kerosene lamp on the bookshelf, and a pressure lamp hanging overhead. No electricity in those days.

Mainly, I remember stories. Stories from this time of my life frequently involve animals. During this time is when I first became attached to pigs. I don’t know why, other than that we had them on the mission, and I could watch them in all phases of their piggy lives. Many of the animal stories I remember involved the natural wildlife that we would have encountered—crocodiles, various antelope or giraffes, and baboons. I never saw a lion in the wild, nor an elephant. The memory I have involving the dam on the outskirts of the mission had to do with a crocodile getting caught in one of the pools by the dam, and since it couldn’t get out, and kept thrashing about threatening anyone who approached it, it had to be shot. And of course there were snakes to be reckoned with.

There was the time one evening that my father reached for his slippers. He had been reading in the living room, and with the lamps (with no electricity, the lamps were either kerosene or pressure lamps) turned down low, he thought he saw his belt inside the slippers. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a snake. As I recall the story, my father initially considered using a gun to shoot the snake, but decided not to put holes in the walls (maybe my mother influenced that choice). Someone brought a shambok, a whip made of animal hide, and I believe one of the African men used it to break the snake’s back. The general rule with snakes in Africa was “kill first, ask questions later.” Of course, many people associate snakes with Africa and expect you to have some kind of encounter. Snakes weren’t really everywhere, but since a fair number of snakes in Africa are poisonous, you learned to be respectful.

My 4th birthday. I assume this photo is in the main mission house at Sikalongo.

Another story involved me and the out-house. Since we did not have indoor plumbing then, the bathroom was an out-house. Generally, you were well-advised to check the seat before you sat. But I was a child set on the next play time, and forgot. Smack—I sat down right on top of some kind of wooly caterpillar that had as its defense mechanism to eject all its spiny prickles, right into my . . .(hey, you’re ahead of me and you already got the picture!). The cure was a painful amount of time spent with my lying stomach down on my bed, with my mother removing prickles with a tweezers. Thank goodness there were no digital cameras then for virtually instant photos!

Mother and me with my many dolls! In front of mission house at Sikalongo.

I sometimes wonder if these stories are embellished by my memory. I have become more suspicious of recall. I am older, so the distance between my present recollection and that long ago event only increases with each passing year. And, of course, it is impossible to cross-check everything. The very nature of memory is such that a stand-out event for me may have passed unnoticed by most everyone else.

*Source of title--Shakespeare's Sonnet 55 "Nor marble, nor gilded monuments"

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Saturday Soups III

I was planning to respond to specific requests for soup recipes (which I offered last week), but since today is St. Patrick’s Day, I have to feature potato soup. What is more Irish than potatoes? And this particular recipe is a "smash hit of a potato soup."

Melt-in-Your-Mouth Baked Potato Soup
Serves 12

5 pounds baking potatoes
48 oz. canned chicken stock
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground rosemary
3 cups half-and-half
12 slices bacon, cooked and chopped
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

1) Peel and chop potatoes into 1/2" cubes. Pour the broth into a heavy stock pot. Add the potatoes, salt and rosemary and boil until potatoes are soft — about 30 minutes.

2) Remove approximately one-half the volume of the softened potatoes and broth and puree in a food processor or blender.

3) Return the pureed potatoes to the broth mixture and add half-and-half. Simmer over medium heat, stirring frequently until the soup thickens (about 45 minutes).

4) Garnish with cheese, sour cream and bacon.

Since this is St. Patrick’s Day, here’s an Irish blessing.

May the blessing of light be on you—
light without and light within.
May the blessed sunlight shine on you
and warm your heart
till it glows like a great peat fire.

I am sure many of us have a favorite Irish blessing.
Ruth offered one on her Friday Flowers. What’s yours?

Next week: by request, a chicken soup for Cathy.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Death of Daniel

I did not know him; in fact, I had never met him at all. But I watched an autopsy be performed on him.

As you might guess, there is a back story here--and it is a cautionary tale pertinent to the celebration, perhaps I should say the over-celebration of St. Patrick's Day.

In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, I worked for the PA Department of Health. I was appointed as Deputy Secretary for Planning and Quality Assurance. One of my functions was to serve on various governing boards that the Secretary of Health had been named to. When laws are passed regulating various professions, such as medical doctors, the board composition frequently includes the following language: "and the Secretary of Health or his designee." Enter designee--that was me.

So, I served on the State Board of Medicine (and even got sued by an irate doctor that was not allowed to practice some questionable medicine) and I served on the newly formed State Coroners' Board.

Pennsylvania is one of those wondrous states (actually a Commonwealth) where anyone, and I mean ANYONE, can be a county coroner. All you have to do is get yourself elected. But, even a caveman (ha! I love those commercials) can figure out that you need to know something to be coroner. After all, you are dealing with dead bodies, and bodies that have frequently died under questionable, horrific or mysterious circumstances. So, rather than set standards for who can run for coroner, our state legislature decided that if you get elected as coroner and are not a medical doctor, you have to take a mandatory course and pass an exam. Enter the Coroners' Board. We set the educational standards, and wrote the exam.

OK--that is part of the back story. I attended parts of the first training where some of our state's famous coroners who were medical doctors were doing the teaching. I confess, I did leave the room when they began to throw up slides of victims who had succumbed to blunt force trauma. You see, blunt force trauma is caused by some object that tends to leave its imprint on the human skull. Understand why I left the room?

One thing I had not ever witnessed was an autopsy. So, I told one of my coroner buddies, who works in the neighboring county to where I live, that I wanted him to call me when he had an autopsy scheduled. He was a policeman before he became coroner, and a smart guy, so he had his autopsies done in a local hospital.

One Sunday I got a call from Mike, the coroner. Do you want to watch this autopsy? I asked of whom--since I really didn't want to see the autopsy of a small child. Well, it turns out it was a young man aged 25 who had collapsed in a friend's house and died. He had spent the day before drinking at the friend's house, in celebration of St. Patrick's Day.

So I drove to the local hospital where the pathologist conducted the autopsy. She was thrilled to have an audience and took more time than usual. She performed the typical Y incision on the chest of this young man, and proceeded to extract organs, weigh them, dissect them, and dictate into her microphone her findings. She took time to show me the vessels of the heart, as she dissected. She had to rule out causes of death--even though the young man had been somewhat overweight, his heart vessels were clear of fat.

For illustration, I picked an old painting of an autopsy, out of deference to the sensitivities of readers who probably don't want to see a photo of a real autopsy.

The pathologist dissected the kidneys, laying them open and marvelling at the wondrous tree-branching pattern that allows kidneys to do their cleansing work. Slowly she worked her way down the body.

While she was doing this work, her assistant had removed the small intestines and was flushing them with water in a stainless steel basin. Suddenly the room was filled with the odor of licorice. The cause of the young man's death was becoming clear. The story that the hospital personnel had been told was that Daniel, for that was his name, had drunk a 6-pack of beer at a friend's house on Saturday. (Remember--Saturday was St. Patrick's Day.) Then, to wash down the beer, he chugged an entire bottle of ouzo. Hence the licorice smell.

Even though the pathologist was fairly certain what caused Daniel's death--she was obligated to examine the brain. This is the only point at which I turned away--I did not watch the removal of a piece of skull. But, when the brain was exposed, I looked. It is amazingly white, seemingly devoid of blood.

So why did Daniel die? There was no sign of aspirate in his airways, so even though he had vomitted on his friend's laundry room floor, and even though his friend left him there unresponsive, he died not inhale any aspirate. So he didn't choke or suffocate. What caused his death was acute alcohol poisoning. At a certain point, the brain simply shuts down, unable to handle the overload of alcohol. For Daniel's friend, the tip should have been that he lost consciousness, but the friend probably thought he was doing Daniel a favor by letting him "sleep it off."

As I looked over this form of a human body, I had many thoughts. Who was Daniel? I only knew the barebones of his life: he had been an orphan, was in and out of foster homes, and had few friends. He held a steady job and seemed to be making it in spite of his less than solid beginning. I also wondered--what were his dreams? his hopes? And I wondered who would mourn him?

Sorry for this downer of a story linked to St. Patrick's Day. You all know the caution--if drinking alcohol is part of any celebration, drink (as the Greeks, the inventors of ouzo, would say) in moderation.

Post Script: Autopsies are one of the greatest ways that medical doctors advance their knowledge. Sadly, too many families decline the request for an autopsy. In fact, an autopsy can determine the cause of death, and overturn the first diagnosis as to cause of death.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Vanity, Vanity

One of the most vivid memories I have of my maternal grandmother is of her sitting in a rocking chair, looking askance at her teenage grand-daughters and saying “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” She was, of course, quoting from Ecclesiastes 1:2 (KJV). She was watching me and some of my cousins as we fixed our hair, smoothed our skirts, or did whatever other silly things teenage girls do. Grandmother thought us all vain and silly. The irony is that the King James Version translation (Grandma’s only version of the Bible), while it uses the word “vanity,” did not mean it in the way my grandmother did—a better translation would be “Futility of futilities, all is futile.” Or “Meaningless; meaningless, all is meaningless.”

I often think of that mental image of Grandmother. I and my cousins just giggled at her, ignored her and flounced off to do whatever teenage girls did. At that time, I could have cared less about vanity.

Some of the cousins, all grandchildren of my maternal grandmother

Now, I think about vanity. Recently, I had an eye appointment with a specialist. I had a small red spot on an eyelid, and

saw an oculo-plastic surgeon about it. When he was finishing up his appointment with me, he said—well, now I am off to give a patient Botox. With a smart mouth (and not being too thoughtful) I said—well, at least seeing me you were dealing with someone who had a medical problem, not someone who is vain. Well, the doctor, who is most kindly, said—oh no, this isn’t Botox for cosmetic reasons, this is someone has a tic (the eye would go into spasms). I felt most contrite, and shut up.

Then I began to think—despite my protestations to the contrary that I am not vain, of course I am. I think most humans are. It is the degree of vanity that matters. I have thought this through and decided that under no circumstance would I ever seek plastic surgery for the sole sake of vanity. I know there are times and reasons to have plastic surgery done: to remedy horrific birth defects, or to treat someone who has suffered a tragic injury, such as burns. But, too much of plastic surgery is geared towards tightening the faces of movie stars until their faces barely move. Some, in their quest for eternal youth, end up looking quite bizarre. Carly Simon, in her hit song
You’re So Vain, enshrines this type of extreme vanity. While she has not revealed who the subject of her song was, people still speculate.

Back to my grandmother. Perhaps part of her concern that her granddaughters not be vain stemmed from her own austerity. Of all my grandparents, she was the most severe. She was a woman who took her religion most seriously. As a convert to a small Protestant denomination, she adopted the plain dress that was typical of her church in the early 1900s. All her life, she eschewed any personal adornment, never wearing makeup or jewelry other than a wrist watch.

Hers was not necessarily the family example that I and my cousins knew about and perhaps even secretly thought about emulating. There was another example that we had heard about. My maternal grandfather had a sister who was “famous” within family circles for her unlined face. The family rumor was that every night she spent time smoothing beauty cream on her face, and massaging her neck so she would not get any wrinkles.

So, no Botox treatments for me. I will do the sensible things that I can—such as staying out of harsh sun, or using sunscreen faithfully, and not smoking. And, if I inherit the good genes of the “famous” great aunt, I will age gracefully without too many lines. Vanity? No, just common sense.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Thanks for the Memories

Last evening, as I was sitting in the glassed-in sun porch we have, I watched a squirrel run by three separate times. The last time, the squirrel had a mouthful of leaves, and I watched as it climbed a tall Douglas fir all the way to the top. Thinking I might be able to get a photo of the nest in progress, I headed out with camera in hand to take a shot up the tree. After a vertiginous head tilt to see the nest, I took a photo. What I got was not a view of the nest, but an instant flood of memory of how my husband and I met. It involved climbing just such a tree. Perhaps more on that memory in a future post.

One of the signature aspects that separates humans from other mammals, or for that matter other animals, is our ability to recall, to remember. And with that remembrance to anticipate future events.

My dog has a memory. For one certain thing, she knows she doesn’t like the camera, when I get it out and aim it at her, her ears go down. We live in a relatively small neighborhood with less than 50 houses. There are three blocks total to our neighborhood, and the walking routes we take with our dog vary between the “lower” block or the “longer” block. She knows which routes we tend to walk at certain times of day, including which direction to head out away from our house. On the lower block there is a house where a family lived with a black and white shih-tzu named Oreo.

Tipper took an interest in Oreo, who took an instant dislike to Tipper. Every time we walked past, Oreo went ballistic, hurling himself at the window, barking furiously. Tipper responded by prancing rocking horse fashion by the house. But the family moved away and Oreo along with them. Tipper does not know that—she only knows that that house is where Oreo lives/lived. And every day she prances by. Of course, no dog hurls itself against the glass, as the current owners have two cats, no dogs. So my dog’s memory has imprinted in a particular fashion that doesn’t include the flexibility to alter the memory based on new information.

Of course, other animals have memory too, but it is humans that can consciously and knowingly recall
memories. Memory plays such an important role in our lives. Recently, when I was visiting my father, he remarked that the older he gets, the more he is inclined to ruminate on memory. I completely understand that. I am not as old as he, obviously, but I too find myself replaying memories.

I have mentioned previously that after my mother died, one of the activities that really seemed to help my father through the process of grieving was that he began to write his memoirs. His life has been unusually full. He titled his memoirs FROM MODEL Ts TO MODEMS: Keep Lying to a Minimum.

Thankfully, he has given each of his children copies of these memoirs, so that we have a source for exploring some of the stories of our lives. One of the first things he acknowledges in his memoirs is that the memories he taps into will be HIS memories. Psychologists are aware that two or more children growing up in exactly the same circumstances and environment can have different memories of those events. So, my father’s recall may not be shared by all who experienced his life events with him.

I am astounded at the level of recall my father has. He recalls names from many of the contacts he has had all through his life. I sometimes find myself hard-pressed to remember my students’ names from one semester to the next! And some of the stories that my father tells are simply wonderful. Herewith an example from when he was 18 years old:

We were on a two lane highway and had been going downhill and uphill, like the highways are in western Pennsylvania. We crested the top of one hill and I saw we had a long straight stretch down that hill and up the next. And I thought I would let the car and trailer roll. I had been coasting like that quite a bit in western Pennsylvania, holding the clutch down, then letting it out again.
But for some dumb and inexplicable reason this time I foolishly slipped the car out of gear. We started rolling, faster and faster. By the time I realized my foolishness we were going too fast for me to force the transmission and get the car back in gear. So I just hung on to the steering wheel, freewheeling down the hill at an ever faster and faster speed. Part way down the hill a car was coming toward me up the hill. And he started nosing out into my lane to pass a slow moving truck. I lay on the horn and the car pulled back in, and we went whizzing by. I was afraid by then to try to brake because we were pulling this trailer, and I was afraid the trailer would start to whip or saw back and forth, or jack knife. As it was the trailer followed as true as a die with no whipping or
sawing. By the time we got to the bottom of the hill we were traveling 80 miles per hour, a 1930 Chevrolet with five sleeping passengers and one just turned eighteen year old boy, a very apprehensive driver, trailing a two wheeled trailer. The hill up the other side was quite long and we had slowed down to about forty miles per hour when we crested that hill, enough that I was able to "rev" the engine and slip clutch the car back into third gear and regain full control. And the whole family slept through it all.
As people age, one of the greatest fears many of us have is losing our memories. Or just our memory—our ability to store information from day to day and to recall it at will. That, of course, is one of the worst symptoms that characterize various types of dementia. I remember visiting a great-uncle of mine in a nursing home. He had always been a wonderful scholarly courtly man, but as he aged, he suffered from some kind of dementia. When I would step into his room, he had no idea who I was.

Our conversation went like this:
Uncle: And you are. . .?
Me: Donna.
Uncle: Donna?
Me: Yes, your brother John’s granddaughter.
Uncle: John? PAUSE. Oh, John.
After a minute, he would say again: And you are?

Most sad.

The long running Broadway musical Cats had a fantastically decorated theater, humans in costumes mimicking every possible type of cat, and little plot. But one stand-out song emerged from the musical: the song Memory. While the song is sung by an old once glamorous cat named Grizabella, the lyrics of the song resonated with every person who has ever had that twinge of recognizing that, as time passes, we lose much but if we are fortunate we can retain memory.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Saturday Soup II

After I initiated the Saturday Soup post last week, my brother noted that he is the soup maker in his family, but tends to make soups that feature tomatoes. So I will pick a soup that uses tomatoes (to some extent). Feel free to let me know if you have a hankering (isn't that a great old word) for a particular kind of soup. I will see if I can find a recipe.

A word about the soups. First, you will note that all the soups SERVE 12. The reason for that is to accommodate projecting the amount for our church’s soup Bistro. You can of course half the recipe if you like, or double it for that matter.

Second, all the soup recipes come from somewhere—if the original place is known, I will include that information. Our church did assemble a soup cookbook for the 15th anniversary of Bistro several years ago. In fact, copies are still available at the church!

Third, each recipe has been reviewed by a member of our church who is a graduate of the New York Restaurant School
. Alice Anne is a highly qualified chef, and she has vetted all the quantities, instructions, etc. She has also modified the original recipes to make the soups more easy to prepare.

Finally, I will rotate the soup choices. I started last week with an orange soup—a pumpkin, squash or sweet potato choice. I will try to rotate thusly: orange; vegetable; meat based—beef or chicken; fish. There will be an occasional miscellaneous soup that doesn’t fit into these categories.

So, herewith this week’s soup:

Serves 12

This soup was first served at Market Square Church following the noontime World AIDS Day Memorial service in 1998.

Vegetable oil cooking spray (such as PAM)
3 cups chopped onions
2-1/2 cups sliced carrot
6 cups water
1 Tablespoon sugar
2 (16 oz.) packages frozen shoepeg white corn
2 (15 oz.) cans red beans or kidney beans, drained and rinsed
2 (15 oz.) cans black beans, drained and rinsed
2 (14.5 oz.) cans Mexican-style stewed tomatoes with jalapeño peppers and spices, undrained
2 (14.5 oz.) cans no-salt-added diced tomatoes, undrained
2 (4.5 oz) cans chopped green chilies

Place a large pot coated with cooking spray over medium-high heat until hot.
Add onion and carrot and sauté 5 minutes. Stir in water and all remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil. Cover; reduce heat, and simmer 1/2 hour.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Time and Tide

NOTE: if the photos look blurry, that is quite intentional.
No need to inspect every pixel to see what time can do!

I previously wrote about faces, and our ability—even our need— as humans to recognize and respond to them. I began reflecting on this subject soon after my most recent college class reunion.

Here, I take a deep breath. Since you know when I was born, it should come as no shock that the college reunion just passed was my 40th ! Well, you may not be shocked, but I sure am. 40 years since graduation from college is a L-O-N-G time!

The reunion made me think of the expression time and tide wait for no man (or woman for that matter). If you follow the link you will see that “tide” does not refer to the ebb and flow of oceans, but to seasons. So, we know that time marches on, irrespective of any desire we may have for it to stand still, if even just for a moment.

The most obvious feature about attending a class reunion is seeing how we all have changed. Sometimes we recognize these college friends, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we are recognized, sometimes not. In addition to the friend who marched up to me and asked if I knew who he was, there were some other “shocks” at the reunion.

One of the girls (as we called ourselves) in our class was “as cute as a button.” What on earth does that expression mean? I know what it means, but WHY? And Googling didn’t help. Anyway, she was cute. When I next saw her at the 40th reunion, she was a most mature (that’s a polite way of saying aged) woman. Her face was care-worn. And the sparkle that had always been in her eyes was dimmed. The lively laughing girl of my college days was gone.

Two other brief stories from this reunion. I have recounted how during these college years, I was pretty much on my own, with my parents in Africa while I finished high school and began college in Pennsylvania. One of my girlfriends was an absolute life-saver. She was always solicitous making sure that I had somewhere to go over vacations. I recall going to her home in Ohio for Thanksgiving and for Easter. I always admired and even envied her. She seemingly had many things I did not have—she came from a fairly well-to-do family, she had a car (a real rarity in those days) and she had an endless stream of boyfriends. Even though I have seen her from time to time since we graduated, we had not really caught up on mutual news for some time. It was with shock mixed with sadness that I listened to her, as we all sat around a circle exchanging life stories, as she described her discovery that she had colon cancer. She has been successfully treated and is doing well. But I was so struck by my good fortune in being healthy.

Another guy from our class, who had in fact been class president, and was one of the best looking guys (who dated all the girls in the class except me) had a similar story. He had gone through a marriage, a divorce, a second marriage, and then last year had a sudden intra-cranial bleed which almost killed him.

So much changes in 40 years. The carefree days of college linger in our memories. And then we go to reunions, trying to regain or relive some of those times. But, of course, we are confronted by the indisputable visual evidence that time and tide wait for no man.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Let’s Face It

I have been thinking about writing a blog about the degree to which humans are drawn to faces. Wanderin’ Weeta’s recent blog nudged me to get going on my writing. She identified this tendency as pareidolia, the tendency to see in something vague a recognizable object. This tendency is about seeing something random, and making sense of it by thinking it something familiar. It is not limited to faces, but faces are what people frequently see when they try to make sense of randomness.

We humans are fascinated with faces. We see them everywhere, even where they aren’t. Recall, for example, the
grilled cheese Virgin Mary. Or the images of the Virgin Mary on water-stains on the sides of buildings. Or the scores of potatoes that look like. . .well, you name it, there’s a potato for it!

This propensity is not surprising. Humans are hard-wired to recognize faces. This phenomenon has been tested in infants who are shown body images in random patterns. When the pattern is made to resemble the arrangement of facial features, the infants respond enthusiastically.

The importance of an individual’s face was at the center of medical news about a year ago when the woman in France became
the first recipient of a face transplant. Significant portions of her face were mauled by her dog resulting in catastrophic injury that left her barely function much less be seen in public. When doctors decided to give her a face transplant, news agencies around the world lit up with non-stop communications. One of the obvious concerns was who would she look like: herself? Or the donor? Of course, the answer that she would have a hybrid face, combining elements of the donor and of herself as face appearance is dictated, in part, by underlying bone structure. The ethical debate goes on today, not because the medical advance is controversial, but because our faces are a kind of signature that people expect not to change much.

But of course, our faces do change. I remember attending my 25th college class reunion. A man came up to me, all enthusiastic, and said—“Do you remember me?” Of course, he expected that I did. I had to say—“n-o-o-o-o, I don’t.” So, he said—“Jim, I’m Jim.” My reaction was (silent, of course)—“oh, no, you’re not Jim. I remember what Jim looked like, and you are not him.” Naturally, I didn’t say that out loud. But I kept thinking, that isn’t Jim. But it was. He just didn’t look like Jim. Truthfully, all through the rest of our class meeting at that reunion, I kept sneaking glances at him to see if I could see Jim somewhere in his face!

All of us carry a mental image of dear ones we have not seen for a long time. My mother died more than 15 years ago, but even without looking at a photo, I can summon her face to my mind’s eye instantly. Some faces stay with us forever.

And sometimes they leave us utterly. One of the most fascinating books I ever read was
Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. Sacks is a neurologist who treats severe brain maladies, and this book is a compilation of essays about some of his difficult cases. In this instance, the title essay talks about a man whose brain injury affected that part of the brain where face recognition occurs. The man had lost his ability to recognize a face as a face. So, when he went to leave the doctor’s office, he reached for his wife’s face, thinking it his hat on the coat tree in the waiting room. What a stunning malady. Sacks explains why we see faces and can’t summon the names to go with them. Where the brain “stores” faces is separate from where it stores the names. I think of it as a double filing system that tries quickly to correlate a name and a face. Some of us have slower filing systems than others.

So, let’s face it, we are drawn to, fascinated by, mesmerized by faces—of our loved ones, of long lost classmates, or total strangers with astounding medical conditions, of. . .what’s-his-name, and of ourselves. Think of the mystery of the human face the next time you look in the mirror.