Monday, March 29, 2010

Gratitude Journal #38

Today, I am grateful for

*My Aunt Linda and Uncle Darius who helped me move my great grandparents' bedroom set and the grandfather clock built by my grandfather D.L. Willis into a moving van in Charlotte, and for their kind hospitality for my very quick visit.

*Our neighbor Greg, who helped carry the heaviest pieces of furniture upstairs to Nick's room.

*My husband's forgiving me for dropping a box spring on his toe.

*Today's story on The Story, titled A Special Reunion. Listen to Caroll Walsh's words, and you'll completely understand why my grandparent's generation really was the Greatest Generation.

What are you grateful for today?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Words, Words, Words from Kung Fu Panda

When we saw the trailer for Kung Fu Panda, I thought, "How can I skip that one?" I got dragged to it against my will...and after about 15 minutes decided it's my favorite animated film of all time. Then UP came out and edged it out by a dog nose. Kung Fu Panda, however, has many more quotable lines than UP. Here are some of my favorites.

"There are no accidents."

"Noodle. Don't noodle." (Watch the movie and this will make sense.)

"Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That's why they call it the present."

"Panda, we don't wash our pits in the Pool of Sacred Tears."

"The secret ingredient to my secret ingredient soup is...nothing. ...To make something special, you just have to believe it's special."

Bad Snow Leopard: You can't defeat me. You, you're just a big fat panda!
Po: I'm not a big fat panda. I'm THE big fat panda!

"Although the future is a little bit frightning, it's your life that you're writing."

What words are speaking to you today?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Eating and Drinking with the Stars

I’ve already written about my approach to wine selection. After poking fun at a wine connoisseur and having him retaliate so eloquently, you might think I had finished the subject, but alas, the latest issue of Food and Wine opened up a whole new bottle of wine-related entertainment. Care to join me for a glass or two?

Let’s take a look at a delightfully provocative chart titled “An Astrologer’s Cosmic Guide to Food and Wine.” Now, my apologies to any readers who might find more meaning than entertainment in the world of astrology. My views on the subject are heavily influenced by deep scientific skepticism paired with a Methodist upbringing. I simply cannot take astrology seriously, but as you know if you’ve read this blog for a while, there isn’t much I do take seriously, at least in the long run. Read the quotations on the sidebar.

Back to cosmic food and wine. The chart shows tasting style, favorite foods, and favorite wines by astrological sign. Sadly, for both me and George, the chart is pretty inaccurate. For George, in fact, it’s wildly inaccurate. He is a Taurus, and the article states that he is sensual and loves luxury. Hmm. Not exactly. He’s more of a thrill-seeking speed freak who would rather carbo-load and go mountain biking than sip champagne and nibble strawberries while sailing on a luxury yacht.

George's favorite foods should be, according to the chart, rich or sweet foods like almond croissants. If he were starving, he might touch a sweet croissant, but in real life, he’s a savory meat man for sure: steak, burgers, braised meats. Oh, and bacon. My, does he love bacon. His favorite wine, again according to the chart, should be a full-bodied Chardonnay when in fact he only drinks white wine if the food absolutely won’t go with red.

My zodiac sign is a bit more complicated, simply because I was born in the cusp between Sagittarius and Scorpio, which means that I could go either way. So to speak. My tasting style should be either “excitable, enjoys the unfamiliar” or “intense, loves routine.” Neither really fits well. I’m not unduly excitable, though enthusiastic might work, especially where food is concerned. When I asked George if he would describe me as “intense,” he responded, “Good God, no!”

As for “enjoys the unfamiliar” and “loves routine,” well, the answer is yes to both. So perhaps the Cosmos has that right because of the cusp thing. For instance, the first few times George and I visited Indian restaurants, I tried all sorts of different things and enjoyed them all, but after ordering the Chicken Korma at Amar India, I get it every time. Cashews and white raisins blended with butter and cream in a rich, spicy sauce poured over chicken makes me happy. But you just never know when something else completely different will call out to my palate instead.

Basically, good food appeals to me. Even almond croissants. And especially anything chocolate.

As for my cosmic favorite foods, the chart says I enjoy pungent foods like Roquefort cheese. Um, no. I prefer brie or havarti or parmesano reggiano when it comes to cheese. I’m also supposed to like fragrant, exotic foods like Moroccan tagines, but while I do enjoy fragrant, exotic foods on occasion (I particularly remember a delicious aromatic Thai dish with fresh flowers in it), give me a big bowl of chicken and dumplings or a simple medium-rare rib-eye or a big salad with grilled chicken breast or a slice of my grandmother's chocolate fudge cake, and I’m a very happy woman.

To this point, I’d say the Cosmic Guide has not scored well when it comes to predicting the Raihala family food and wine preferences. Then, I read the Scorpio wine preference. SCORE ONE FOR THE COSMOS! The Guide says I like powerful, spicy reds such as Malbec. Yummy! I definitely prefer a wide range of big-bodied, complex, spicy, fruity reds like Zinfandels, Cabernets, and, yes, Malbecs. The Sagittarius wine preference was for lighter reds, which are okay but not my favorites.

Like all systems, astrology tries to take a complex, highly individual process and make it all ordered and predictable. Sometimes, the system gets it right from sheer coincidence, but mostly, people just eat and drink what they want. The fun in applying astrology to food and wine is that you can create themed meals based on these (in my opinion) arbitrary criteria. Wouldn’t that be a fun idea for a whole year for a dinner club? In fact, the article preceding the chart in Food and Wine gives recipes for an Aries-themed dinner party, and it sure sounds good.

So, check out your astrological food and wine style and tell me if the Cosmic Guide works for you. Inquiring minds want to know!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Gratitude Journal #37

Today, I am grateful for this owl who got to fly free once again.

For this man who loves our children, takes amazing pictures, cooks amazing meals, and made it possible for the owl to fly free once again.

For this old dog who still retrieves sticks at the park.

What are you grateful for today?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Fly Free, Owl!

If you haven't already read the story of George's barred owl rescue last September and want the backstory, please read this and this.

Yesterday I got home from Jack’s IEP meeting and found a message on the answering machine from Betty Ross at the Glen Helen Raptor Center. Betty sounded so perky as she said, “We’re releasing the barred owl you brought us last fall and wondered if you wanted to come pick him up and release him where you found him. If not, we’ll release him here. Call me and let me know today.”

I went into spasms of joy. Spasms! Our little owl not only survived but he had recovered enough to fly free again!

Betty, George, and I played phone tag until 8:45 last night, when we finally arranged for George to pick up the owl at 11:00 this morning. Jack had a swim lesson, so George and Nick drove to the Raptor Center and took delivery of our handsome and healthy (though still blind in his left eye) barred owl.

Sadly, George didn’t have Nick take a picture of himself with Betty and the owl named Caesar by the Raptor Center staff. (I'll always think of him as the Bard Shakespeare, though.) Isn’t he the picture of health? Oh, my! What a handsome owl!

George and Nick brought Caesar to our house and picked up Jack and me. We all peeked through a hole in the box and saw Caesar staring back at us, alert and wide-eyed. Last time I’d seen him, one eye was shut, blood covered his beak, and he’d clearly had his brains addled.

Spasms of joy, I tell ya!

George drove us to a road outside Caesar Creek State Park, where he had first seen the unmoving bundle of feathers back in September. On the way, George reported what Betty told him. Caesar had weighed 460 grams in September, and now he weighs 800 grams. He’s fat enough to have some time to get back into hunting properly. He had been catching lots of mice in his enclosure, annoying his pen-mate Henry, who apparently wasn’t as good a hunter as Caesar. Betty also said that Caesar had been ready for release in February, but with all the snow, she’d decided to delay for better weather.

We arrived at the release location and carried the box out into a muddy field near a stand of leafless trees. When we opened the box, this beautiful creature stared back at us.

He clearly wanted to give us plenty of photo opportunity, which surprised us because Betty had said he would likely fly away immediately. After we’d taken our photos, I tipped his box slightly toward the trees, and he flew right out.

Jack, who had been an indifferent, even reluctant and possibly scared, owl rescuer, suddenly came to life and yelled, “Fly free, Owl!”

Caesar hung out in the trees, repositioning himself several times on different branches, and we could see him still perched as we drove away. We’re all walking around with big goofy grins on our faces and I feel an undignified need to giggle for no apparent reason.

Many thanks to the
Glen Helen Raptor Center for giving us this amazing opportunity to participate in a wild-animal rescue and release. They took a badly injured owl and brought him back to health. What an amazing organization, and we are grateful to live in an area served by these guardians of wildlife.

This whole adventure, however, would never have happened if George hadn’t gone back to check on the unmoving bundle of feathers by the side of the road, if he hadn’t decided to empty his triathlon bag and herd the owl into it, if he hadn’t agreed to drive the owl to the Raptor Center. We have no idea what Caesar’s chances are of surviving, but because of George, he has a second chance at a full owl life.

I love you, honey. And even if he doesn’t know it, so does Caesar.

Owl Be Seeing You....

Please go back in time with me and read THIS ESSAY and then THIS ONE. An update on Shakespeare the Barred Owl (that's my name for him anyway because barred sounds just like Bard) will be posted here soon. With pictures and everything. It's a good day to be an owl!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Words, Words, Words about Work

The following is from Tea Time for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith, volume 10 in The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series.

"She had recently read that scientists could not work out exactly when everything would come to an end and the earth would be swallowed up by the sun...and there would be nothing left of any of us. That had made her think, and she had raised the issue with her friend, Bishop Trevor Mwamba, over tea outside the Anglican Cathedral, one Sunday morning after the seven thirty service in English and just before the the nine thirty service in Setswana. 'Is it true,' she asked, 'that the sun will swallow up the earth and that will be that?'

"Trevor had smiled. 'I do not think that is going to happen in the near future, Mma Ramotswe,' he replied. 'Certainly not by next Tuesday, when the Botswana Mothers' Union meets. And frankly, I don't think that we should worry too much about that. Our concern should be what is happening right now. There is plenty of work for love to do, you know.'

"There is plenty of work for love to do. That was a wonderful way of putting it, and she had told him that this could be the best possible motto for anybody to have."

What work for love do you have today?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Picture of Health

Back in October, I asked for prayers for my sister and her premature son, Grady. Many thanks to all who took up that request; my gratitude is immeasurable. Our prayers were answered, and little Grady is now the picture of health and happiness.

Here's Grady with his mommy, who is also very grateful for all your prayers.

And here's Grady with his proud aunt, who loves him very, very much.

My mother, Lisa, and her three children visited us this week. I got my baby fix with feeding and burping and swaying and changing Grady's clothes...but not his diaper. Being an aunt is way easier than being the mommy. Grady is such a happy little guy, unless, of course, he is hungry or tired or dirty. He is also very considerate, sleeping through the night and letting my sister (and the rest of us) get some sleep.

Their visit was filled with much laughter and giggling and silliness. My favorite moment came when my mother, who is the quintessential sweet mommy type, totally got us rolling on the floor with with an out-of-the-blue wisecrack about herpes. But, really, you had to be there to appreciate that one.

Upcoming on Questioning: I'm working on a new essay for the blog about wine snobs (MUST revisit that topic because it's so rich in comic potential!), as well as an update on Hoover. Many thanks to all of you who have expressed sympathy for his situation. He's still with us and doing pretty well.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Gratitude Journal #36

Today, I am grateful for a wonderful visit from my mother, sister, niece, and two nephews. Baby Grady is such a happy little guy! Pictures later....

What are you grateful for today?

Friday, March 12, 2010

The First Lesson of Parenting

We have such scintillating and instructive dinner conversations in our house.

George: Nick, use your fork to eat your pastrami.

Me: Were you born in a barn? Do you want some hay?

Nick: [silly button pushed, grabs fork in fist and shovels food in his mouth, leaving a long piece of pastrami hanging unattractively from his mouth]

George: DUDE! You know better than that! And hold your fork right. You look like Ug the Caveman.

Nick: [gets even sillier]

George: No girl will ever go out on a second date with you if you eat like that.

Me: Yeah, and one day you will care about what girls think. I guarantee no girl will ever kiss you if you have such bad table manners.

Nick: [more silliness]

George: Seriously, dude, good manners are really important.

Me: BURRRRRRP! [It just snuck out, I swear!]

Nick: [hysterical, table-slapping laughter]

George: [to me] Thanks. You just undid years of good parenting.

Me: Do as I say, not as I do.

George: Yeah.

And for your listening enjoyment, The Mom Song.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Knowledge of Good and Evil

Yesterday, I took Hoover to the vet because he has a swelling on his left shoulder blade. The x-ray showed a mass consistent with either osteosarcoma or chondrosarcoma.


He's the same dog he was two weeks ago when he wrote this essay, before I saw that x-ray and heard those big ugly Latin words. He is still happy, loves to go for walks in the spring sunshine, and clearly has a lot of life in him.

But every time I look at him now, I want to cry. And feed him bacon. And ice cream.

And scratch his butt until he collapses in ecstasy.

From all we know right now, we have two options. Option #1 We could have his left leg and shoulder blade amputated and treat him with chemo. This might give him another year. Option #2 We could give supportive care as the cancer metastasizes. The average life expectancy would be about four months in this case. Given that his cancer does not appear to have metastasized yet, he might have longer. The vet emphasized that there are lots of medicines and supportive care to keep him comfortable and happy.

Unless the orthopedic surgeon has another more hopeful option, we're leaning toward Option #2. Neither George nor I want to make Hoover's last months of life miserable, and while young dogs handle amputation very well, old dogs have a much tougher time.

Death is inevitable for all of us. We don't want to think about it until we have to because the illusion that we are immortal is precious. We can't imagine what comes next, in that last undiscovered country. We sweep it under the rug, deny the possibility, work hard to ignore it, try to cheat it however we can.

I don't think this is smart. Our last dog, Shemya, didn't give us a chance to fight her death because her heart gave out suddenly, in the span of hours. She died at home, with me by her side. She made it easier for us because we didn't have to watch her suffer and we didn't have any decisions to make or long-term care to provide. But the shock was so very hard.

George and I are working on a Bucket List for Hoover. What are the things that he loves, and how can we make them happen for him in the time he has left? We know and accept that he can't be with us forever, so we're determined that when his time comes he has as much dignity and love as we can give him.

Having knowledge of the evil mass on Hoover's scapula sucks. It changes how we look at him, and I hate that. How can we turn that to good? How can we make the right decisions for him? It's tough, but we'll do our best.

Because he's a very good dog. Our furry golden sunshine.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Gratitude Journal #36

Today, I am grateful for...

*Three days in a row of sunshine

*Walks around the neighborhood with my family in the sunshine

What are you grateful for today?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Words, Words, Words from a Four-Year-Old Boy

"To touch the moon, you have to have a very big mountain. And when you touch it, you can bring it in your house and it will glow in the bathroom. The moon glows in the bathroom. Isn't that cool?!?" Nick Raihala, 2003

Where would you put the moon if you could touch it? Would it be the comforting nightlight in your bathroom or the soft glow out your window on a dark and stormy night? Would it shine over your dining room table on friends and family gathered there, or out of your fireplace in the den, or in your stove as bread baked?

I would put mine in our Library, where the soft white glow would make every book enchanted and light the scenes of our imagination as I read to my boys.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Choosing Books

“When I get a little money, I buy books. If there is any left, I buy food and clothes.” Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1535)

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I spend a substantial portion of my life at Barnes and Noble Booksellers breathing in the heady smell of paper and ink and glue. (And drinking mochas. With whip cream and caramel drizzle. But that’s a totally different essay.) I also volunteer a few hours a week at our sons' elementary school library. But I don’t have to go to Barnes and Noble or a library to be surrounded by books. Plenty of books live in almost every room of my house.

This is our Library. It’s supposed to be a sitting room/parlor/living room, but in our house, it’s the Library. The two book shelves on the left are mine, and the ones on the right belong to George. I’d love it if this room were decorated with real wood furniture rather than laminated particle board, but we spend too much money on books to afford nice bookshelves.

Wow, looking at this picture gives me so many ideas for other essays. I hadn’t noticed how many cool knick-knacks with interesting stories there are on these shelves. In more ways than one, these books are the backdrop of our lives.

These are the shelves to the right of the television in our family room. Most of these are George’s books, and the “grown-up” DVDs are shelved here, too.

These are to the left of the television. Obviously, the kids’ DVDs and some games are here, but the bottom three shelves are mostly my books.

Here’s the bookshelf beside my bed. It’s mostly novels and essays and a few devotionals. The stack of hard covers beside the bookshelf consists mostly of Anne Perry mysteries (a few signed by Perry herself), with some random stuff on top. The set of red books is a 1920s children’s series called Book Trails I read as a child. I love them.

George has a matching bookshelf full of military stuff, spy novels, and triathlon magazines as well as four shelves in the family room (not pictured) of cooking magazines and cook books. I don’t use those except under dire circumstances. We have more bookshelves in the basement, and of course the boys have their own bookshelves in their rooms.

Books make me happy. Their physical presence is a comfort I can carry with me anywhere…to the pool, into the tub, on a plane, to a waiting room. They keep me company, don't fuss when dog-eared, and wait patiently for me to pick them up when the spirit moves me.

So why the heck would I want a Kindle?

At the YMCA pool recently, a woman sat on a folding chair six feet from splashing children reading (if you can call it that) something on a Kindle. She kept putting the Kindle down, like she was embarrassed, or maybe bored. Then, a few minutes later she picked it up and read a bit more. Then, she put it down again. I started wondering what sort of book would cause a person to keep putting it down. Was she reading something boring, or uncomfortable, or naughty? I was hoping for naughty.

And then I realized the most important question in this situation was “What sort of person takes a $300 electronic gadget to read by a pool? Full of splashing children?” She’s a mom (her kids went to the same preschool as mine), so presumably she knows that children, water, and electronic gadgets should never, ever be within a quarter mile of each other.

And then I realized that I was spending way too much time paying attention to what this woman was doing. It really was none of my business.

Given my Luddite tendencies, I think Kindles and Nooks and other strangely-named electronic books are signs of the coming apocalypse. They, along with television screens in grocery store checkouts and medical waiting rooms and minivans, are reinforcing our screen culture. My son is buying into this and it scares me. He daily attempts to negotiate (or sneak) extra time on the Wii and wants a portable DS so he can look at a screen all the time no matter where he goes.

When I was his age, I looked at books all the time. I would eagerly open them, read, turn the page, read some more, and always regret the need for putting them down. My imagination sparked, my brain engaged, my heart soared and plummeted with the hero’s fortunes. I couldn’t wait to turn the page to see what happened next, but I wanted to make each page last as long as possible because it was so fun. That tension created a frisson of pleasure at the turn of each page that held me captive just as it has held curious and literate people captive since the first story was captured in ink.

More hip and tech-savvy people might ask how my walking around with my nose in a book was any different from Nick wanting to walk around with his nose buried in a DS. Clearly, these people need to read more books.

I already know all the arguments for electronic books and even admit that for certain situations (traveling, heavy college textbooks, people who don’t have space for large libraries like ours) they make sense.

I do, however, wonder how this will change people’s relationship with books. In particular, how will people choose books to read? In my experience, friends recommend books, favorite authors publish new books, reviewers on NPR praise books, and I stumble across books in books stores. These things prompt me to buy. I’ve never gone trolling online for books. I always looked at brick-and-mortar stores first, and then went online.

To illustrate this point, I pulled three random books off my bedside table and thought about what made me buy each. One thing all three purchases had in common is that I stumbled across them on shelves while browsing at Barnes and Noble with a mocha in my hand.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. This one grabbed me because I liked Kingsolver’s novel Pigs in Heaven and also her essay about the Rock Bottom Remainders (a charity band that included Kingsolver, Dave Barry, Stephen King, Amy Tan, and others). I’d also read around in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (a book about where our food comes from), so the subject matter seemed interesting.

Why We Make Mistakes by Joseph T. Hallinan. There’s a deliberate typographical error on the happy orange cover that immediately grabbed my attention. (Well, I was a professional proofreader.) Then there’s the subtitle: “How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average.” Could you resist exploring that one? But never, ever judge a book by its interesting cover. I’ve done that before and been wrong about the writing. (For instance, The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester. It takes dull prose to a whole new level.) I’d never heard of Hallinan before, so I picked up the book and read the introduction. Not only was the quality of the writing good, but his ideas were fascinating.

Never Have Your Dog Stuffed by Alan Alda. I grew up watching M*A*S*H, and after checking to make sure Alda could, indeed, write readable prose, I bought this one for a laugh and got much more. I reread it recently (the reason it was on my bedside table). This second reading was sparked by seeing the spine of the book on the bookshelf near my bed: a bit of serendipity that gives me joy.

Perhaps the process of downloading books to Kindles and Nooks and such will be as pleasurable as roaming shelves of a bookstore or library, but I doubt it. I do hope that people read more with the electronic book’s combination of screen appeal, compactness, and ease of book purchase. If people like looking at screens so much, perhaps it would be better to read a book than to play a mindless game. But will people make that choice? The lady at the YMCA pool sure seemed to be having a hard time getting into her book.

Certainly iPods have made it easier for people to listen to music, buy music, and carry music around with them. But I worry that too many books will languish unread in the memory chips of Kindles, which will break, get dropped, get wet, get stolen, and eventually grow obsolete.

I think I’d have a depressive breakdown if I lost all of Jane Austin in a freak pool accident. As it is now, if Pride and Prejudice gets soaked in my bubble bath, I’ll just run to Barnes and Noble, get a mocha, and search for another copy.

Who says you can’t buy happiness?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Weekly Giggle #14, Part 2

Okay, Dooce is funny, but so is my son. The following sentence was uttered with complete sincerity by Nick, my 10-year-old, at the dinner table:

"I want a work-free job."

George nearly spewed beer on me.

Weekly Giggle #14

Dooce is a bit of an edgy mommy blogger (especially compared to me, the Queen of Let the Sun Shine), but I love her. Dooce makes being a klutz funny, even when she's broken her tail bone snowboarding. This post, in which breaking her toe is only incidental, had me rolling!

Exhibit A

Monday, March 1, 2010

Gratitude Journal #35

Today, I am grateful for

*my family's health

*George's orange-ginger chicken

*the peace of yesterday's church service

*this coat, given to me by my sister, because its spring color lifts my mood on these gray winter days

What are you grateful for today?