Sunday, October 31, 2010

Squirrel-Proof Screen



I live in the kind of neighborhood where break-ins are usually at gun-point, and the intruders / thieves force their way in through the front door.


A few weeks ago, I came home to my peaceful quiet living room, took off my shoes.  Then I entered my kitchen, which was a shambles. It looked as if there had been a minor earthquake. Dishes and boxes had been knocked off the counter and the fridge top and scattered on the floor. Then I noticed that a plum had been nibbled and bits of peel scattered about.  My first thought was a bird.  But could a bird really be strong enough to cause this much damage?  


A 3-inch long slit in the screen was the only trace of my intruder.  I’d left top half of my window open.  I supposed a bird could have flown in by accident and then escaped by the same route.  I closed the window, thinking about patching the screen over the upcoming weekend.


The next day there was a 1-foot diameter hole in my screen.  No plum-hungry bird could have done that!  It had to be a squirrel – a squirrel with a taste for plums.


I called several hardware stores.  Nobody had heard of squirrel-proof screens.  And if I found one online, they refused to install them – except for one store, where the screen installer said he’d do it on his own time – the store would have nothing to do with it.


I found squirrel proof screen on line.  I got it installed.  The hardware store was kind about the whole thing and let me bring my damaged screen with frame and my new squirrel proof screen material to the store and they let their repair person do the job on his break.


Now that the screen is in place, and I can open my window again. I’ve learned that the squirrels aren’t partial to plums.  Any aromatic fruit will do. My grapes have come into season and the squirrels are eating more than half the crop. The finks take them just as they start to turn purple. At least they don’t let the flies in when they steal my harvest. And there's no risk of bullets.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Spelling Out the Magic

This is Magic Week.  Members of The Society of American Magicians do free shows at hospitals around the country. Sometimes we all meet in a room and magicians take turns presenting to a group. At other hospitals, we go room to room.


At Children’s Hospital we had some wonderful skeptics in the audience.  I like to use optical illusions and science-based magic, so my part of the show has them flummoxed. One of the other magicians decided to try mentalism.  Mentalism is the branch of magic in which the magician attempts to read the mind of an audience member who is helping with the magic.


The children ranged in age from toddler through teenager.  The helper looked about 7 years old.  First the magician asked the helper to pick a card, any card.  She did. She showed it to the audience. It was a 2 of Clubs.  Then the magician asked the helper to look at some alphabet cards, supposedly to test her eye sight.  She read the cards aloud.


Tee, double-you, oh, oh, eff,


“What does that spell?” asked the magician.


“Tee, Woof,” responded the girl.


Gotta love it!


The next letters were see, el, you, bee, and ess.  She didn’t know that word at all.


The magician wound up trying to teach a reading lesson, and the helper didn’t understand what happened to the magic.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Conjoined Gingerbread Men



The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia is where medical science in the United States started. These early doctors were not fascinated with normal.  They concentrated their early studies on what made them curious. Conjoined twins, shrunken heads, deformities and severe injuries.  Many of their specimens are still preserved today.   They have a woman whose corpse turned to soap. And they have a gift shop where you can buy soap shaped like that corpse.  


The museum also has visiting exhibits.  They have had herbs collected by Lewis and Clark.  Right now they have bones preserved from the autopsies of Lincoln and Booth.  Of course the gift shop has items from this as well.  The gift shop has a t-shirt that says “Think Outside the Jar” featuring a drawing of a brain outside a specimen jar.  And they have cookie cutters for a conjoined gingerbread man.  That I could not resist. I made mine with whole wheat flour.


Gingerbread Roll-Out Cookies


1 cup butter ( 2 sticks)
2/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup powdered milk
1 egg
4 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp allspice
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground cloves
2 TBSP ginger
½ tsp baking soda
1 cup molasses
2 TBSP hot water


Mix together. Roll out to about 1/8 inch thick. Cut out cookies. Bake at 350oF for about 10 minutes.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

X-Ray the Thinking

Over the past year, I’ve been to 3 physical therapists and 3 chiropractors, one rehab doc and a massage therapist. I go to yoga and Pilates and Feldenkrais classes every week. I do Egoscue exercises every morning. I’m the most active person I know. I have a little more mobility than I had a year ago – no where near what I hoped for with all this work. And the pain level is about the same.


I decided to try one more chiropractor – the guy who helps the bicycle couriers who get hit in traffic.  He insisted on doing an x-ray. He said that my insurance would not pay for the x-ray, so I’d have to pay him $85.  Silly me – I believed him.  I paid him for the x-ray.  When I got home, I called my insurance company. They do pay for x-rays, but not at chiropractors’ offices.  The chiropractor must write a prescription for the x-ray to be done at a hospital.


I decided that if this is how the man takes care of my finances, I don’t trust him with my health. I called up and cancelled my follow-up appointment at which he was supposed to explain the x-ray to me, picked up my disk, and asked for a detailed receipt so I could try to get some sort of reimbursement from my insurance company.  The chiropractor refunded my $85, which still amazes me. And told me that I have “a lot of arthritis.” 


According to the x-ray taken about a year ago, right after the accident, I have “mild arthritis.”  I took the new x-ray to my regular chiropractor.  He said that the accident x-ray was taken while I was unconscious and lying down. The new one was taken while I was standing up. It looks different. It doesn’t mean that my arthritis has gotten worse during the year.  The fact that I have greater mobility now than right after the accident would indicate that it hasn’t gotten worse.  He also said that arthritis rarely gets better.


Basically, he thinks I should be happy that I have as much mobility as I do. And I should be happy that I don’t have lung cancer, like he does.  He’s taking 3 weeks off to go for treatment for his lung cancer.  He’s younger than I am, so I expect him to be around to help me keep my body working.  I hope his cancer treatment is a success.


The thing is though – when he thought the damage was just from the accident, he was optimistic about helping me have less pain and more mobility.  Now that he thinks my problems are from the accident plus arthritis, he’s no longer optimistic. Now he thinks I will have to live with pain and limited mobility for the rest of my life – all because of an x-ray. He even said if it gets any worse, I should consider hip replacement.  


An x-ray doesn’t change anything except how people think about things. It is a diagnostic tool, not a treatment. I’d rather x-ray my thinking and find the strength to keep on finding ways to get through my days and get my body to do what I want. In my view, the body heals itself. It has always done so before.  I just need to keep trying.


In Pilates this morning, the teacher had us do some exercises with our eyes closed and picture what our vertebrae were doing.  That made the exercise more comfortable and more effective.  Maybe if I picture my femur moving in my hip socket moving as I do hip movements, I’ll get progress there, too.  All I can do is keep trying!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Playing Games

I have not played board games for decades.  I never liked Monopoly.  I figured the name was because the game monopolized the players’ time. Checkers, Chinese Checkers, and Clue intrigued me. Especially Clue because in a sense, it was always my turn. Either I was hunting for clues or hiding clues. I kept great notes about which card I’d shown to whom and if they asked me for the same suspect or weapon twice, I showed them the same card. I hid room cards because those were the most trouble to learn. I enjoyed figuring out the strategies.


Then my life became interesting and games lost their appeal.

My older daughter recommended Settlers of Catan, so I bought it, hoping she might want to play it when she visits with her children.  It hasn’t happened. The game was still in its celophane wrapper when houseguests began arriving.


“You’ve got Settlers of Catan. Let’s play.”


“I don’t know how. The game is still in its wrapper. I haven’t even read the instructions.”


“Oh. It’s a complicated game with lots of strategy. It’s best to play it the first time with somebody who knows all the rules.”


So we unwrapped the box, and unwrapped the cards and punch out the playing pieces.  This game has lots of parts. Even the board is made of parts so it can be different each time you play.
Like Clue, it is always my turn. Whether I throw the dice, or somebody else does, something can happen to my playing pieces. I might get a resource card or lose one, or get blocked by the robber. I have to build roads and cities and plot my defenses.


But the game didn’t matter. The point was that my husband and our houseguest and I sat around a table for about an hour and talked – about anything and everything, and the game was incidental.   


With that as a given, games take on a whole new level.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

She's Been Dead Over 20 Years, and I'm Still Afraid of Her

At first, I liked my mother-in-law.  That was before I married her son. She was on good behavior. She was civil to me, at first, after our marriage – until I refused to name our first daughter Laura.  She always wanted a daughter to name Laura.  I don’t like the name Laura.  I came up with a compromise middle name of Lorraine.  I was on her enemies list forever.


I try to practice compromise. I try to practice compassion. I try not to carry grudges. I wish I had known her better. But when I think of her, my chest tenses, my arms get ready to push, I take a deep breath, storing up energy so I can survive.


I’m not sure it will help to list the ways she frustrated my life, but I’m going to list some anyway.


She smoked. I do not allow anyone to smoke in my house – not nobody, no-how. My husband quit smoking. I do not demand that people quit. But they may NOT smoke in my house!  I explained that I particularly did not want her smoke near my children, her grandchildren.


She would invite my children onto the porch with her and then light up her cigarettes and blow smoke at them. She was following the letter of my rule, but not the intent. She loved telling me she was doing what I had asked even though it was unreasonable and unfair. My girls loved her. She could be fascinating when she wanted to be. I was the baddie when I told them to come in and get away from Grandma’s smoke.


She knew that I don’t let people read my rough drafts when I’m writing.  We talked about art. She liked to paint.  She also didn’t like to show people her unfinished works.  I would leave a story I was working on in my typewriter.  When she visited, a story disappeared. Not just the page in the platen, but all the typed pages stacked beside the typewriter, too.  I asked everyone in the house – had they seen it? Had they borrowed my typewriter? My mother-in-law lectured me about what a suspicious person I was and how I must have misplaced my manuscript.  I found the pages later in the sheets of her bed, when I stripped the bed to do the wash.  She denied having taken it, and insulted me for suspecting her. And the story wasn’t good, anyway.


She moved things around in my kitchen and claimed I had simply forgotten where I put them. I guess she was a fan of “Gaslight.” When she wasn’t visiting, she would call me up at odd hours and tell me she was going out with a motorcycle gang, or she was buying a wig for her pubic hair. She sent me a photo of herself excreting in public in a park.  


Once when I had no idea she was cooking anything, she put some dough in my oven in a plastic bowl. Since I was cooking, I turned the oven on to warm up.  The plastic bowl (my bowl, not hers) melted and her dough was ruined.  Years later she was still angry with me.  “Is that how your mother raised you? To ruin other people’s things?”


She told me lies about other people, hoping to start arguments.  At first, I would question people about what she’d told me, and some arguments did start.  Then I caught on.  She started telling friends and relatives lies about me.  When somebody would say, Lillian told me you... I’d just say, “I don’t want to hear it.”


So, why am I writing this now? She’s been dead over 20 years. As she requested, her ashes and those of her sister and brother-in-law, are scattered beneath my rose bush. A plaque in their honor hangs at the local funeral consumers alliance office. But mostly I don’t think about her.


I’m writing this because the last time I saw a friend who has recently gotten in touch was when I was cleaning out my mother-in-law’s house after her death, giving away her things to anybody who might enjoy them. My friend told me I really shouldn’t have been so mean to my mother-in-law.  And even more than 20 years later, I have to ask myself – was I mean to her? (Not the lies I’m sure she told, but in actual fact.)  In my thoughts, in my heart, yes I was mean. I did not like her. I did not welcome her into my home. I limited her visits to 3 days at a time. When I was in labor with my 2nd daughter, I didn’t want her in the room, so I sent her out to get a camera. (I figured that was better than asking her to boil water.)


I also was not curious about her. I wanted more than anything to avoid her, except when her requests were reasonable, which most of the time, they were not.  I was angry with her for risking my children’s health.  I did not show her compassion for being a tobacco addict. After she died, I got her FBI records.  She did some things interesting enough to get the attention of J. Edgar Hoover. 


She painted a picture of Nixon naked and glued on a jelly bean for a penis. She invented a tactile alphabet to teach kinesthetic learners how to read. She had a houseguest who sent lists of the books on her shelves to the FBI. She was a member of the Communist Party for 4 years.  If I hadn’t married her son, we might have liked each other.


I do wish I could have liked her, or at least gotten along with her better. I was afraid of her, rather than curious about her, even in my 40's. In fact, when my newly reacquainted friend mentioned her, all the fear responses kicked in again – the tight chest, the quick inhale as if I’m about to be pushed under water. Disliking her had become a habit that I didn’t question.  In retrospect, that was my biggest mistake. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Sharing my Grand Daughters

I’m a long-distance grandma – about 3000 miles distant. I get out to CA to see my grand twins once or twice a year.  I was about to give up on corrupting them.


My mother gets along great with my daughters – they agree that I’m a hopeless hippie.  I was hoping for something similar with my grand daughters.  Maybe we could agree that my older daughter is – no need to name it.  With 3000 miles between us, I’m just an eccentric visitor who does magic tricks and exercises in the living room and sends books and emails.


But a few days ago, my daughter received an email from a woman I hadn’t seen in over 30 years.  “I'm looking for your parents.  Please tell them I'd like to contact them. (I also knew you, well enough to change your diapers - and feed you, too)”   


I like to think that I’m more web savvy than my daughter, and easier to find – but I guess that’s not true.  This email was from a former neighbor from married student housing in Berkeley.  We belonged to a babysitting co-op.  When you joined the club, you got a stack of cards good for 10 hours of sitting. When you called another member to sit, you paid in cards.  When you sat, you were paid in cards.  That was over 40 years ago.  We did see each other by random happenstance about 10 years later – when we were both visiting Santa Cruz, and saw each other on the sidewalk.  


I think about her about once a year – at Passover – because she inspired me to write my own haggadah and to make my own matzos.  Her haggadah mentioned that matzos used to be round until the matzo making machine was invented and matzos became square.   I figured I could make round ones – and I’ve made them every year since then.


I remember the day she spent lying in bed having sex fantasies and how thrilled her husband was when he came home.  And I remember the day we were grocery shopping and my older daughter slipped in front of the dairy case.  My daughter looked at me for permission to cry.  I picked her up, hugged her, and told her she was alright.  Then I put her down.  She didn’t cry.  Instead she reached into the cheese bin and picked out the cheese she wanted for her sandwiches.  She always picked by smell.  When I was pregnant with her, I developed an acute sense of smell – particularly for cheese.  I would buy a flavor of cheese I’d never had before and eat the whole block on the way home and have to go back to the store for more.


My former neighbor congratulated me on having such a sensible daughter.


But I made no effort to find her and thought she’d forgotten about me.  She has a grandson about the same age as my grand twins. She wishes she had grand daughters.  She now lives in the same city as my daughter. (She did not know that when she sent her email.)  I asked my daughter if she’d like to have a volunteer surrogate grandma for her twins.  She said she would, and that it was nice of me to share.  I hope my former neighbor still shares my values.  I’m not going to pay her in babysitting cards.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Mom Wins Because Her Horse Wins

First the acknowledgment – I got free tickets from BlogHer to see the movie Secretariat. I’m sure they gave out the free tickets because they hoped people would blog about the movie before it is released.

Second, the caveat – I don’t see the point of watching horses, dogs, cars, or humans run around track.  I can see the people who love doing this sort of thing enjoying the fun of racing or moving quickly.  I can see that people enjoy competing.  But I do not enjoy gambling – okay I gamble on my own talents all the time, but risking money on which horse will win a race, or who will get the best dice throw is not my idea of fun.

Still, there’s something about race horses that attracts interesting people – people who are in financial straits – people who have complex lives.  The movie SeaBiscuit was about a small overlooked horse managed by 3 troubled men.

This movie, Secretariat, is about a big well-bred horse owned by a woman whose father died leaving her his horses, and a $6 million debt in federal taxes.  This horse is trained by a man who wants to retire, and ridden by a jockey who perhaps works horses to death.  I knew in advance that Secretariat was a horse that won races.  That’s not enough of a reason to make a movie, let alone a Disney movie.

For me, the fascinating part of this movie is the way Disney handles the feminism of the mid 70's.  The highpoints of the movie are the relationship between the optimistic, persistent horse owner and her daughters.

And there’s a great scene in which the woman, Penny Tweedy, takes one of her sons to watch the birth of Secretariat (really known as Big Red). Penny explains that the mother horse has done this 13 times before.  The son says, “You’ve done it four times.”

No spoilers.  I just wonder how the relationship would have gone if Secretariat had lost the races.

The acting is believable. And the movie has cameos by the real Penny Tweedy.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Why Does a Boy Want a Woman's Bicycle?

Philadelphia has distinct neighborhoods.  I live in a primarily Polish, Italian, Lithuanian neighborhood with an influx of educated out-of-towners. Yesterday I rode my bike through a middle class African American to a less-well-off neighborhood with a well-stocked hardware store.  To get to the hardware store, it is necessary to go through several blocks of poverty.  My own house is two blocks from poverty, as well.


I locked my bike to a parking hours sign pole.  The hardware store had the upholstery twist pins I was seeking for a client who wanted my help putting a slipcover on her couch. I was the only white person in the store.  The staff, who were mostly less than half my age called me “Miss.” The salesman who helped me remembered twist pins from his youth, “They have little pig tails.” I paid for my purchase, and returned to my bike just as a school bus stopped at the light.  A voice from the bus called out, “Give me that bike!”


I looked up.  The shouting child was a boy.  Prepuberty voices of both genders tend to sound about the same to me, so I had to check.  I bent down to unlock my bike.  The boy kept shouting, “Give me that bike!”  All I could think was “why would a boy want a woman’s bike?”  My bike clearly has a step through, which was invented for women’s skirts and I find it useful because of the arthritis in my hips.  I thought aggressive boys wanted very much to be like men. Riding a woman’s bike would not fit that image. He shouted again, “Give me that bike!”


I had a momentary flash of fear – was he going to get off that bus and attack me to get the bike? If he did, I’d have to walk home through unfriendly neighborhoods. I am no match for a healthy 9-year-old boy. I don’t know how to fight. But the boy stayed at the window on the bus, continuing to shout.  Even if I wanted to give him my bike, it would not fit through the bus window.  What was he thinking?  Does he have classmates who can be impressed that he has a loud voice? That he demands weird things?


What would have happened if I shouted back, “Why would a boy want a woman’s bike?”

Friday, October 1, 2010

Don't Take My Word, If You Can Do an Experiment



Don’t take my word for anything, if you can do an experiment.  


That was my rule when I taught chemistry.  And that’s the rule in my kitchen.


I was showing my niece how to make RoRo’s Schnecken, a treasured family treat that RoRo said is unrecognizable from my kitchen, but every body else loves. These cinnamon laced rolls have something magical in them.  My friend the yogi says they require so much attention that they can’t help bring out the love in the baker. 


RoRo insisted that the dough only rises properly if it is beaten by hand.  I let my electric mixer do the job.  She insists it is only delicious if made with white flour.  I use whole wheat flour.  RoRo measured everything after sifting and she leveled each cup with a knife.  I approximate.  I do use measuring cups, but I don’t sift and I don’t level. I just scoop and pour.  RoRo insisted on raisins.  I didn’t have raisins, so I used dried cranberries.  RoRo always used pecans. I’ve been known to use walnuts. I don’t scald the milk – I figure that requirement is leftover from the days prior to pasteurized milk.  I just warm the milk in the microwave oven – 15 seconds is plenty.  I always use about 2/3 of the sugar called for in any recipe. Nobody ever complains that my schnecken aren’t sweet enough.


But one thing I do that RoRo insisted on – I freeze the schnecken before I eat them.  I tried eating them fresh and hot out of the oven.  They are good – but not great! There’s something subtle that’s just not right.  Her schnecken only taste fully delicious after they have been frozen and reheated.  


She insisted they had to be frozen in aluminum wrap.  They’re just fine if they get frozen in plastic freezer boxes, or freezer baggies.


But when I told my niece we had to freeze the schnecken, she insisted on eating one fresh and hot out of the oven.  I loved watching her do the experiment – never take my word for anything if you can do an experiment instead.   I have yet to tell her that schnecken is German for snail.


RoRo’s Schnecken  – makes 2 dozen


1 Tbsp active dry yeast
1/4 tsp salt
½ tsp honey
1 cup warm milk (or go ahead and scald and cool it you want to follow the original recipe exactly)
– let the yeast grow until the milk is bubbly


Your choice – in a separate bowl, or in the same bowl (If you’re my kind of cook) combine:
1/4 lb room temperature butter (1 stick) or ½ cup oil plus ½ tsp salt
½ cup honey
2 eggs
3 ½ cups flour (your choice white or whole wheat)
½ tsp salt


Beat together until the dough leaves the sides of the bowl. You can do this with a wooden spoon (which takes about 15 minutes and very strong arms) or with your electric mixer (if it is strong enough.)


If you are tired now, you can put the dough in the refrigerator over night.  Be sure to let it warm up to room temperature before you work with it again.  


Or you can let it rise right now, until it is doubled in bulk.


Note: I like to use silicone muffin tins – I used to use cast iron muffin tins, but they take a long time to clean up afterwards.


Prepare the muffin tins.
Melt ½ lb (2 sticks) butter and put about 1 TBSP into each muffin cup
(note: this is not all of the butter – you’ll the rest of it later)
24 pecan halves  – put one in each muffin cup
1 ½ cups brown sugar plus 2 TBSP water (soften the sugar with the water – warm over low heat in a pan if necessary) – put 1 TBSP in each muffin cup




Roll out 1/3 of the dough (to about 1/4" thick) on a floured rolling cloth or silicone sheet.  You are aiming for a rectangle here - about 18" x 8"


Brush the dough with melted butter
Sprinkle with cinnamon
Sprinkle with brown sugar
Shake ground pecans over the dough
Sprinkle with raisins or dried cranberries or currants


Roll the dough from the long side, like a newspaper.  
Cut the dough into 8 pieces (approx 1 ½ inches each)


Repeat with the rest of the dough.


Place one rolled piece of dough into each muffin cup


Allow to rise until doubled in bulk.  If you have trouble getting dough to rise, do NOT preheat your oven.  Place them into the oven and then turn it on.  Set the desired temperature to 375 F.
If you preheat the oven, the schnecken will take about 15 minutes to cook. If you don’t preheat, they take at least 20 minutes.  The dough will bounce back when you touch it. It will appear slightly browned, but that’s hard to tell because of the cinnamon.


As soon as you remove the schnecken from the oven, invert the pans.  This will allow the butter and brown sugar to drizzle over the outsides.  My grandmother always inverted her schnecken pans over waxed paper to minimize the clean-up.  You can invert them over any surface you are willing to clean.


Go ahead – eat one fresh out of the oven.  Freeze the rest.  Remember what the fresh hot schnecken tasted like.  Reheat the frozen schnecken.  Compare the taste.  Decide which you prefer.