Monday, September 28, 2009

I am a camera

TV shows will sometimes use the device of allowing the camera to be the eyes of a particular character. It seems this technique is commonly used on hospital shows, so it was fitting that today at work I had the feeling that I was a camera. My new colleagues bustled about, paying me no attention--not out of rudeness, but because they were doing their jobs--so I felt invisible which is a not unpleasant feeling, really. I was a tiny bit disconcerted by the two nurse's aides who look exactly alike. At first, I was like, "Oh, wait, I thought she was wearing a pink top, not a flowered one. Oh, there she is again in pink. What the...?" I even surreptitiously looked at their ID badges, which have different last names, but that doesn't mean much since they could be married. No two people who look that much alike could be unrelated. What am I supposed to do, say: "Oh, just to satisfy my own curiosity, could you tell me if you two are twins?" *

Then there's the bike riding. I did go out an buy myself a bike. They say you never forget to ride a bike, but I'm not so sure of that. I mean, I can ride a bike, if my demented careening can be called that, but my skills seem to have degenerated since the last time I sat in the saddle, which was, oh, about 1991. I did, however, successfully bike to work today, although not without mishap. I couldn't figure out how to unlock my U-lock (oh, off to a great start) and then I couldn't figure out how to attach it to the special holder the bike shop guys installed for me, and when I got the the hospital, windblown and breathless, the bike racks were gone! I found them eventually--they'd been moved across the street--and in my intense relief at locating them I blundered across the street in a clumsy manner and almost got hit by a bus. But I was right about biking to work being less tiring than walking, if somewhat more exciting. I have to exert myself a few times to get up the hills, but I do a lot of coasting as well.

*I found out later that they are identical twins, both working as nurses' aides on the unit.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Working, and a book review

I guess there really is such as thing as too much time on one's hands. With four kids in school and no job, I found myself jealously guarding my free time, falling into sloth mode, where accomplishing a few basic household tasks meant that it was time for a coffee "break." Then I was cranky about spending the evenings picking the kids up from their various activities. And for the first time since Mad Scientist was an infant, I actually looked forward to cooking dinner. Because I was so bored, bored, bored.

Now I've started working and, strange as it may seem, I feel content with less time for myself. This is just orientation week: sitting in a class room with a group of other new hires, hour-long lunches, and dismissal at 5:00pm, or earlier. I may be singing a different tune after next week. I get just one day off (Saturday) and begin 12-hour shifts on my unit on Sunday.

I think I am going to invest in a bicycle. I've been walking to and from work--it's about a 25 minute walk and up a fierce hill--but the parking situation is so bad, that if I drove, it would take even longer to get to work. My assigned parking lot is past the hospital--a fifteen-minute drive, then you wait for a shuttle bus--another six minutes if you've just missed one--and then the slow drive back to the hospital, which can take twenty minutes. But walking every day is somewhat tedious, and I know that after a 12-hour shift on my feet, I am not going to want to walk home. I used to ride my bike everywhere, when we lived in Buffalo, but Charlottesville is an intimidating city for bikers because of the hills, the narrow streets and accompanying dangerous traffic. I will have to bike a long way around if I want to avoid the fierce hill, but even so, I will probably be able to get there in fifteen minutes, and the bike racks are right near the front entrance.

One tiny book review: The Diaries of Jane Somers by Doris Lessing. Doris Lessing, who won the nobel prize for literature--there's a hilarious youtube of her reaction to it when reporters accost her on the steps of her house--wrote these books (Diaries is two novels bound together) under a pseudonym to illustrate the difficulties that new writers have in getting published. Her regular publisher rejected the novels. They tell the story of Jane Somers, who lives what must be many women's fantasy perfect life. She's an editor at a fashion magazine, has an elegant flat in London, and beautiful clothes. Jane Somers has probably never been a burden to anyone, but she hasn't been much use either, at least where there are serious emotional needs. It's not that she's uncaring, just clueless. Then she meets Maudie, a poor elderly woman living in a filthy basement flat. Jane gets ever more involved in Maudie's life, buying her groceries, cleaning her flat, emptying the commode, bathing her. Maudie survived a difficult life at a time when there were no social safety nets for the poor. She is distrustful of the modern British services now available to her so she lives in filth rather than allow "them" to "take" her to a "home." The Maudie/Jane relationship is beautifully written, and is the main subject of the first novel in this volume. In the second, Maudie has died, and Jane deals with an impossible neice who moves in, uninvited. She also falls in love. Doris Lessing's writing is just superb. You can read her as a writer and just be in awe of her gifts, and you can read this book for its story and be enthralled.

Monday, September 14, 2009


I was listening to "Science Friday" on NPR a couple of weeks ago and they were interviewing Richard Wrangham, author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human. The premise is that digesting raw foods requires more energy from the body, so the discovery of cooking led to greater caloric intake, and somehow bigger brains, humanity, yada yada.

Naturally, my thoughts turned to the raw food crowd, a group I have privately mocked even though what other people eat isn't really any of my business. Still, I sat there feeling smug and wondered if the raw foodies were gradually degenerating into neanderthals and wouldn't it be hilarious if the crowd that shops at Whole Foods developed sloping foreheads and knee-grazing knuckles. Of course, the very first caller asked Mr. Wrangham about the raw foods diet. I expected Wrangham to pooh-pooh raw food, but instead he explained that while eating raw isn't so great if you're a cave man and have to forage and hunt for everything you eat, in this day of abundance, it might be better since so many people are overweight. The caller said she'd lost weight since incorporating more raw foods into her diet, and I was all ears.

At the library, I selected two books: The Raw Food Gourmet: Going Raw for Total Well-Being by Gabrielle Chavez, and Celebrating our Raw Nature: Plant-Based Living Cuisine. (No author credited for that one, but it is described as being "with" Dorit.) I figured if I ate one entirely raw meal each day, I'd have the body of a model in about six weeks. The secrets of weight loss revealed to me at last! I could hardly wait to get started.

Unfortunately, it took about ten seconds of browsing these books to kill my enthusiasm. Did I really want to try a recipe that ends with the instruction, "Remove from the dehydrator and serve." Or one that speaks of creating a "slurry" or which has as its main ingredient the pulp left over from making your own nut milk. My urge to mock came roaring back to life like a hurricane traveling over open ocean.

And there is so much to mock. A raw food diet is the 21st century equivalent of wearing a hair shirt. You'd think it would be easy--just eat a bunch of fruits, vegetables and nuts, maybe some sushi and raw milk, and you're set, but no. You have to make your own milk out of your own raw almonds. Everything needs to be soaked, usually overnight, before it can be eaten. You need a dehydrator and a juicer and a food processor. Celebrating Our Raw Nature insists that you must use ceramic knives, but, irritatingly, doesn't tell you why they are superior to ordinary knives. You need to sprout things, such as your raw nuts. (When I told my friend that you're supposed to eat sprouted nuts, she screamed, "WHY?" aghast.) The books caution you that nuts labeled "raw" at the store are not really raw, so you need to buy them from a special provider. You need to buy preposterously hard-to-find foods like "Incan berries" and "kuzu root." You need to buy supplements, such as E3AFA, or "invisible flower of the water," which is "...the Refractance-Window dried crystal flake form of the AFA." I confess I am not up to speed on refractance-window technology.

My two raw food books each used a different approach to introducing this diet. Celebrating Our Raw Nature plays up the advantages: you won't feel the heat, you won't feel the cold, you appreciate what nature has in store for you. And yet, it hints at difficult times: "If there are times while practicing the art of raw that we find ourselves eating a slice of whole grain bread or cooked soup in the depths of a chilly winter frost, we refrain from condemning ourselves or others." (Gee, how magnanimous.) "Instead, we practice acceptance and gratitude, and eat the cooked food mindfully and with enjoyment, perhaps adding some raw sprouts, green leaves, or E3Live to the dish."

The Raw Food Gourmet tries to be realistic about the challenges of the raw diet, namely, you'll be starving all the time and you won't have any friends. The author suggests that the way to combat this last problem is to preach the raw lifestyle to all your friends and make them to convert. Good luck with that.

Then there are the recipes themselves, many of them tortuous manipulations of raw food masquerading as cooked food: Ume-Kuzu Digestive Drink, a "cake" made of dehydrated fruit and nuts, Avocado cake frosting, "living" fudge, a drink called the "morning mover" which is "known to assist in moving the bowels." I realized I couldn't last a day, an hour on this diet. And yet, I was tempted to try. I was dying to see what the Avocado Cake Frosting tasted like. So I made a couple of raw smoothies, not that you need a special raw cookbook to puree almond milk and fruit. They were OK, but nothing to write home about. The Avocado Frosting is supposed to be a mix of avocado, raw honey, and carob. I have three words to say about carob: No Effing Way, so I substituted cocoa. The finished frosting looks like chocolate pudding, but tastes like brown avocado. Drama Queen said it tasted like "sour cream meat sauce." I couldn't resist displaying it to Mr. McP and telling him it was chocolate pudding. He tasted it and was not amused. I do like to have my little prank, now and then.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Free time

Right now I have more free time than I ever have in my life, (except for summer vacations when I was a child) and yet I seem to have no time to write. Or perhaps just nothing to write about. I am no longer unemployed, but am not working either. I have been offered a job as a nurse on an acute care unit at a major teaching hospital--my dream job!--and I start in a couple of weeks. I guess you could say I am "pre-employed."

In the meantime I spend long hours reading novels and catching up on "The Tudors" on DVD. I clean my house and I cook. The kids have gone back to school. I had forgotten how easy it is to send your kids to school when you are not in school yourself. For the last three years I have inwardly raged at what I saw as the unreasonable demands of the school system: Forms to fill out! Supplies to buy! Meetings to attend! Homework to supervise! Science fair! Agenda books that must be signed! (Last year I tried to teach Mr. McP to forge my signature in his agenda book, just in case, but he would have none of it.)

Now it is all so easy. I attended "back to school night" at the various schools. I decided that Mr. McP's math teacher was my favorite because he's a lot of fun and he told us he spent years working in the corporate world and then became a teacher. I like it when teachers have a background in something other than education. At Miss G's school, her science teacher announced that he plans to make science fair optional, and he rocketed past the cool math teacher to take his place as my favorite teacher of the year. In other kid/school news, Mad Scientist is a semi-finalist in the National Merit Scholarship competition. They sent us a super-intimidating form to fill out. He has to write an essay and get a faculty recommendation. I have to procure signatures from an "appropriate" school official and we have to have his SAT scores sent. Out of 1.5 million kids who take the PSAT, 16,000 make it to semi-finalist and a much smaller number become finalists, and of them, a yet smaller number actually win a scholarship.

I baked an apple pie yesterday, following Jeffrey Steingarten's recipe. I am a big fan of Jeffrey Steingarten, who was (perhaps still is?) the food writer for Vogue. In writing about apple pie he presented a strong case for not adding cinnamon. He quite ranted about cinnamon, calling it a nasty, bitter spice that had no place in something as sacred as apple pie. I wasn't so sure. To me, omitting cinnamon from apple pie is the culinary equivalent of eliminating the Book of Luke from the gospels, but Jeffrey Steingarten has never steered me wrong before. This is a guy who tried to bake a pizza with his oven set to "self clean" in order to achieve pizza oven temperatures. It didn't work, but the essay he wrote about it is so funny that it made me laugh until I had an asthma attack, and I don't even have asthma. So I baked the pie without cinnamon. It was delicious. The apples somehow melted together--I hate nasty apple chunks in a pie--and were delicately redolent of vanilla. I am a convert to the cinnamon-free apple pie.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Cheese-free travel

A few weekends ago, I did something I have never done in the history of my marriage, or even in the history of my life: I took a road trip by myself. Not only was it my first solitary road trip, it was the first time I'd ever traveled away from Jon and the kids. (There was one trip, nine years ago, but it was to a funeral and I took Mr. McP with me because he was still nursing, so that hardly counts as a getaway.)

My brother in Buffalo called me to tell me about a party, given by people we used to hang around with before I started going out with Jon. It was going to be big deal and even my cousin who lives in Egypt would be there, as well as my sister who lives in Florida. "Why don't you come?" he said. Why not indeed. It took me about fifteen seconds to realize that Jon and the kids can manage without me just fine. So I rented a car and I went to Buffalo by myself.

The rental car was a Prius with Massachusetts plates. I felt like I was incognito as a Taxachussetts liberal. I always thought it would be fun to take a road trip by myself. I am the veteran of many road trips with children, and also experience quite a few myself when I was a child. In the area of road trips, I have pretty much seen it all and traveling with children makes the whole experience a lot messier and louder than it needs to be.

My father will sometimes drive down to see us, by himself, and I always marvel at the tidyness of solitary travel. There will be a single suitcase, rather than bags and coolers packed up high enough to block the rear window. He'll have a modest bag of trash--a lone coffee cup, perhaps, or the wrappings of a sandwich. His car will be spotless, his clothes unrumpled.

I am a thrifty traveler, and always eschew roadside restaurants in favor of packed lunches. I detest pre-packed, homemade sandwiches--because of the trauma of my childhood car trips in which I would have to eat bologna and ketchup sandwiches that my mom made, while my brother sat beside me being car sick. I used to crack my window and methodically tear those sandwiches into tiny pieces and toss them out of the car. It would take about fifty miles of travel to discretely dispose of one sandwich. Now that I'm in charge of the menu, I pack crackers, cheese and a knife (among other things) and it is Jon's job to slice the cheese and pair it with crackers and hand it back to the kids. I do most of the driving. Our families are always impressed with this: "WOW, you drove the WHOLE WAY?" and they think Jon is a big slacker, but the truth is I prefer to drive because then I don't have to deal with the kids and pass out those damn cheese and crackers.

One time, we drove to Buffalo for my sister's wedding. We had one of those ancient Volvo station wagons with the third seat installed in the back so that all four kids could fit in the car. (We didn't upgrade to a minivan until Mr. McP was six.) The rehearsal dinner was at a chi-chi restaurant in the city and when I was surrendering the car to the valet, I noticed a big block of cheddar on the floor of the back seat--it wasn't even wrapped, it was a big BARE block of cheese sitting smack on the filthy, crumb-strewn floor of my car--and when I lifted my eyes from that mortifying sight, I caught the eye of the valet and realized that he had been staring at it too. Elephant in the room? For us it's the block of cheese in the car.

Anyway, for my solo trip, I broke a hunk off a baguette, and put a bunch of grapes in a baggie. I stopped at a Starbucks along the way and bought myself a large frothy drink, the sort I could never get away with if my kids were with me because they'd all want one too.

The purpose of the trip was to see my family and attend this party, and all that was really fun. I especially liked the tiny, cozy guest room at my brother's house, where the trains lulled me to sleep every night. And it was fabulous to hang out with people I love, but this is one trip in which the journey was almost as much fun. I ate my tidy little lunch and drank my coffee. I listened to "Sugarlumps" by Flight of the Conchords thirty-seven times in a row and no one complained. I stopped for rest whenever I wanted, ended up with the same tiny bag of trash that my dad usually does, and not once did someone ask, "Are we there yet?"