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Archive for July, 2012

I am not a chef, and I don’t play one on TV. To be blunt, the kitchen and I don’t get along, so usually we spend as little time together as possible. This past week, however, has necessitated that the two of us share more quality time together. Grudgingly we have done so, and I have to say – and don’t you dare tell anyone this – that it hasn’t been so bad.

When it comes to eating, I’m pretty plain. I’m not big on complicated meals, exotic spices, fancy sauces and such. No butter for my bread, thanks. No gravy on the rice, please. Just a little salt on the French fries, that’s all. So in those rare times when I venture into the kitchen to make something, it’s usually a fairly simple recipe. If the cookbook says it will take ten minutes to prepare, I can plan on half an hour. That’s all right, though. As long as I can understand the instructions and not get stressed out over whatever it is I’m making, I don’t mind taking more time than a capable person should.

I try to follow the recipe to the letter, because disaster usually befalls me if I veer off on my own. Thus, I do not experiment when cooking. But this week, I did just that – experimented with a simple soup recipe. And I have to say that I feel most proud of myself – proud that I experimented, but even more proud that the result actually worked and tasted yummy.

The basic recipe is for carrot soup and goes like this:

1 small onion, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1/4 cup Italian salad dressing
1 pound carrots, peeled and chopped
2 cans (15 oz each) chicken broth
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 cup sour cream, divided

1. Cook and stir the onion in the Italian dressing on medium-high heat for 5 minutes or until onions are tender.

2. Add carrots, broth and cumin; mix well. Cook 10 minutes or until carrots are tender, stirring frequently. (I let the liquid boil for ten minutes.)

3. Ladle cooked mixture into a blender; cover and blend until pureed. Add 1/4 cup of the sour cream; cover and blend until smooth.

4. Ladle soup evenly into four bowls; top each with 1 tablespoon of remaining sour cream.

The soup is quite delicious. A testament to my plainness – I didn’t add the additional sour cream in step 4, and the soup was just fine.

Now, here is where I became bold with experimentation. We bought a head of cabbage at the farmer’s market last weekend, and I made the soup recipe using half of the cabbage (1 pound) in place of the carrots. (Actually, I added a couple of carrots, but the basic quantity of vegetable matter was one pound.) I was surprised that this worked so well, and it tasted good, too.

The next time, I made the soup again with the other half of the cabbage head, only this time after the mixture was blended, I mixed into it prepared cheddar cheese soup (the directions on the soup can say to add one can of milk; I added just half a can of milk when making the cheddar cheese soup) for a little more protein. This made the soup a little more savory. And it turned out tasty!

This evening, I tried yet another variation on the theme. To make the one pound of vegetables, I combined half a pound of carrots with half a pound of frozen broccoli (thawed). And I still mixed into it the prepared cheddar cheese soup. It looks good – I’m looking forward to trying it.

Carrot, Broccoli and Cheddar Cheese Soup

Bon Appetit!

Emeril* doesn’t have to worry about new competition from me, though. In spite of these, er, recent successes, I still have no desire to become a chef.

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* A little humourous aside: In 2001, my partner and I went to Las Vegas to visit a high school classmate. While there, we ventured into Emeril’s restaurant inside the MGM Grand Hotel. As a novelty, we decided to eat lunch there even though it was way pricier than either of us was comfortable with. It was also way fancier and high falutin’ than we were used to. There must have been three plates and two bowls and four glasses and three sets of silverware at each place setting. Well, being cheapskates, er, frugal with our lunch money, we each opted to order just a single entrée – no appetizer, salad, side drink. Holy cow did that insult the waiter. In a theatrically pompous display, he swooped in and removed all of the excess tableware, leaving us with one plate, one glass, and one knife, fork and spoon. Tact was not his strong suit. As I recall, the food was okay, but I wasn’t impressed by the whole experience and wouldn’t do it again.

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Today was trash pick-up day for Integrity-Dignity/Madison, also known as ID. Nine years ago, the group signed up with Dane County’s Adopt-A-Highway program and “adopted” a 1¾-mile stretch of County Highway ID west of Mount Horeb.
Dane County Highway ID
As an adopting organization, three times during the year, we make an effort to help keep the county clean and beautiful by collecting trash that has been discarded along the roadside.

Oliver Looks for Trash Along Highway ID

Oliver

It’s a sad commentary about our society that so much trash ends up alongside our roads and highways. By far most of what we find comprises food and beverage containers of one kind or another: soda bottles, water bottles, alcoholic beverage bottles, fast food packaging, snack food packaging. Miscellaneous paper, cardboard and plastic products are also common as are cigarette packages and butts. Styrofoam is the worst because when you try to pick it up, it often falls apart in little bits and scatters to the wind. Dane County Highway IDThere are also plenty of oddities that show up in the grass and ditches. Today’s haul included a four-foot plastic pole with a metal spiked end, a toy ball, carpet pieces, a large pink interlocking rubber matting tile, a windshield wiper blade, and the packaging from a pregnancy test kit. Past pick-ups have yielded a rubber rat, wallets, porn magazines, an R2-D2 toy, and plenty of other things that I can’t remember at the moment but ones that you’d never expect to find out in the country along the highway.

Al and Ken Looking for Trash

Al and Ken

We never find any $100 bills though. Why doesn’t anyone ever toss those out the car window along Highway ID?

Picking up trash along the highway makes you feel like you’re contributing something positive in a world that needs more of the positive. Sometimes people driving or bicycling by as we are picking up trash thank us for doing so.

Peter and Paul Collecting Trash

Peter and Paul

Dogs don’t always appreciate our presence, but the cows are sometimes curious as to what we’re doing.
Cows

What’s going on?

Mostly, though, they are indifferent.

Group Shot

Ken, Paul, Peter, Al, Jim, Oliver, Bill and today’s haul

Tags: trash, adopt-a-highway, highway id

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I consider myself something of a patient guy. By this I mean that I’m usually capable of waiting for something without getting worked up about it, or that I can wait out difficulties without getting overly stressed about them.

Most of the time. But this business of waiting for some improvement – any improvement – to how my mouth feels has been testing my patience. I had expected that by now, the soreness would have diminished even a little bit and that I’d be able to eat more things without the aid of a blender.

Blender

My current favorite kitchen appliance

Alas, I feel about the same as I did on Tuesday. What I’d really like to do is reach up and remove my mouth from my face and leave it on the table overnight so that I could sleep through the night. Something like a ventriloquist’s figure.

Ventriloquist's Dummy

So fortunate to be able to give it a rest

[image courtesy of http://www.puppetsandprops.com/]

So much for priding myself as a patient guy. But there’s humour in here somewhere, I just know it. In fact, I found some of it last night while reading The Far Side at 2:30 in the morning. See, some old guy is lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to an IV, and these doctors (or perhaps scientists; they’re wearing long coats) are pointing and laughing at him. The caption reads, “Testing whether laughter is the best medicine”. The guy in bed doesn’t seem to be buying it, though. Far Side Cartoon

Still, I think laughter is good medicine. It is particularly effective when it temporarily takes one’s mind off of all the grumbling one has been doing while patiently waiting for some sort of improvement. Ahem.

So . . . know any good jokes?

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Well, I survived the surgery. It wasn’t so bad, mainly because I hardly remember it. But I do hope that they catch the person who punched me in the mouth.

Some of those drugs you take are scary. I thought I was pretty darn alert Tuesday morning. And yet, when I was getting ready for bed that evening, I looked down and saw that I was wearing sandals. I never wear sandals.

“Have I worn these all day?” I asked Al.

“Yes.”

“When did I put them on?”

“This morning. I thought it was unusual that you wanted to wear them.”

I have no recollection whatsoever.

I don’t remember walking into the dentist’s office, but Al said an older gentleman held the door open for me. He looked concerned, according to Al. Again, no recollection.

I had prepared exact change to pay the bill and gave it to Al since I wasn’t sure if I would be cognizant. It’s a good thing, too, because I don’t remember him paying even though I was right there when he did.

I vaguely remember walking back to the operating room, and I vaguely remember the periodonist applying some sort of topical medicine to deaden the roof of my mouth and gums before giving me shots of Novocain. I also remember the periodonist telling me more than once to open wider. To my mind, my mouth was as wide as it could get. It seemed that the whole thing was over in 15 minutes, though Al said it took a little over an hour.

Once back home, I spent a lot of time sleeping. My lower mouth had no feeling, inside or out. That made it tricky to drink, because I couldn’t feel the cup touching my bottom lip.

The most difficult thing afterwards has been eating. It’s a slow and arduous process, even with simple liquids. I tried mixing some mashed potatoes in soup for dinner last night. You’d think mashed potatoes should be soft enough, but it was rough eating them. So I’m sticking to actual liquids for a day or two (or more) more.

The pain pills are a necessity, though by now I had expected the pain to ease off somewhat. It’s going slower than I expected. I’m not that into food, but I’ll be glad when I can eat “regular” foods!

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High Anxiety

High Anxiety is Mel Brooks’ parody of over ten Alfred Hitchcock classics, including Psycho, Vertigo, and The Birds (Brooks actually used the bird trainer from that classic suspense movie in making his film). Brooks plays Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke, a renowned Harvard psychiatrist with a concealed fear of heights, or “high anxiety.” Thorndyke takes over as the newest director of the PsychoNeurotic Institute for the Very, VERY Nervous after the last director dies under suspicious circumstances. He soon finds himself to be in the company of some very strange colleagues, including longtime Brooks collaborators Cloris Leachman and Harvey Korman, with Madeline Kahn as Victoria Brisbane, the eccentric daughter of a patient at the institute and Thorndyke’s love interest. Korman takes on the role of Dr. Charles Montague, a psychiatrist with a closeted habit of his own. Leachman plays Charlotte Diesel, a charge nurse with a dark sneer and tendency towards domination. As Thorndyke heads to a psychiatry conference, he is faced with saving the institute, his reputation, and his own sanity. Although the film was not well-received by critics, it picked up a 1978 Golden Globe nomination for best picture (musical or comedy) and landed Brooks a nomination for best actor. (Summary courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes)

According to the 2008 book It’s Good to Be the King: The Seriously Funny Life of Mel Brooks, after viewing the film, Hitchcock sent Brooks a case of expensive wine with a note that read, “A small token of my pleasure, have no anxiety about this.”

Lately I’m experiencing a high anxiety of my own. On Tuesday, I’m having gum surgery. Now, unlike a lot of people, I don’t generally fear going to the dentist. Sure, it’s not the most fun thing to do, but I can handle a cleaning every six months. I’m very fortunate to have good teeth, thanks to luck and those awful fluoride macaronis from the 1970s. You remember those, don’t you? The dentist used what looked like an oversized elbow macaroni sliced horizontally in half and filled both halves with goo that he called fluoride. First he placed one macaroni in your mouth so that your upper teeth were completely immersed in the fluoride. Then he crammed the second macaroni in your mouth upside down so that your lower teeth were completely immersed in the fluoride. Then you sat with your head over the spit bowl for what may as well have been two and a half weeks, tasting this goo and enduring the discomfort of these enormous macaronis that forced your mouth as wide open as it could get. It was an indignity suffered after hours, dare I say days, of scraping your teeth to get the tartar buildup off (because you never brushed your teeth). As awful as that experience was every time, looking back, I feel that I have to attribute my good teeth to those barbaric procedures.

So now here I am some forty years later, and I still go to the dentist regularly. Only now, I go because I want to keep my teeth. Not only do I want to keep my teeth, I want to keep them in good condition. This because I have seen what many other people have gone through à la cavities and crowns and root canals and the like. And I want none of it. I remember having a couple of teeth pulled when I was a kid (because they wouldn’t come out on their own), and those required shots of Novocain. But other than that, the most invasive dental procedure I’ve experienced is having two wisdom teeth removed, maybe five or seven years ago. So up to now, I’ve not had very much intense dental work.

For years at every cleaning, the dentist has always made a point of alerting me to my receding gums. “Stay away from the really hard scrubbing. Use a soft-bristled brush and make gentle circular motions in that area.” I have always tried to comply, never really knowing if I’m brushing properly or not. He was a broken record; at every visit, I knew he was going to tell me the same thing. So it was a shock at my last cleaning when he changed his mantra and recommended that I see a periodontist to consult about my receding gums.

With reluctance, I consulted. The periodontist explained. I consented. And now the day of reckoning is nigh.

The procedure itself, while rough – let’s not sugarcoat it here – is one that I think I can handle well enough. But what has made me increasingly anxious is the before and after.

I had to get a boatload of medications

Too Many Medicines

Holy cow!

to prepare. One I’m supposed to take the night before. It’s used to treat anxiety disorders. I wasn’t excessively anxious about preparing for the procedure until I learned that they prescribed all these medicines, and in particular the medicine to treat anxiety. Evidently they expect that I’ll be anxious, and now it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The morning of the procedure, I’m supposed to take a medicine that is used to treat insomnia. Evidently it makes you very sleepy, so between the anti-anxiety medicine and sleep medicine, you pretty much don’t care what they’re doing to you. (Now I’m a little worried, though. I once tried taking Nyquil when I had a bad cold because the ads always said how it would make you fall asleep. Boy was that wrong. I was wired half the night and could not get to sleep. Apparently Nyquil affects a small percentage of people that way. No more Nyquil or other cold medicines for me.) I sure hope this sleep medicine has the effect that they say it should.

After the procedure, I’m supposed to take an antibiotic to prevent infection in the mouth. So now my anxiety is ramped up another notch. And check out the size of these horse pills:

Large Pill

Horse Pill

Larger than a U.S. 1998-P Roosevelt dime! The pharmacist suggested cutting the pills in half when taking them. Ya think? Once when I was very young and learning my way through this world, I put a marble in my mouth that eventually became lodged in my throat. I couldn’t swallow or cough it out, nor could I breathe. Obviously it got out somehow because here I am some forty years later, but I have no recollection of how it happened. But that dime and that marble were about the same size, and the pill is even bigger. Ratchet up the anxiety a little bit more.

Then there are the pain pills. Boy did they give me a lot of those. Anxiety +1.

I’ll pretty much be on a liquid diet the first few days, and I won’t be able to brush my teeth for a while after the procedure – something like two weeks, as I recall from the consultation – so I also have a mouth rinse to use twice a day in lieu of brushing. That isn’t so bad, I guess, but my mouth is going to taste icky for a while.

I’m supposed to have someone drive me to the appointment and drive me home because I’ll be too drowsed out to do so myself. The person is also supposed to be able to listen to and comprehend the instructions they give me. Just how out of it am I going to be, anyway? A little more anxiety, please.

Now, High Anxiety was fiction, but my own high anxiety is real. So I’m trying to approach it with a little bit of humour. After all, laughter is the best medicine, right? I’ll soon find out whether that adage is more of an old wives’ tale, although as Linus once said, “Some of those old wives were pretty sharp.”

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This weekend is Madison’s 54th annual Art Fair on the Square. Al and I try to make a point of going every year, in part because it is fascinating to see the various artwork on display and in part to buy something to commemorate our anniversary. The art fair was one of the very first times we spent together, and over the years we have purchased from the fair a number of photographs and glasswork. It is interesting to see how the displays change from year to year. The art tends to be pricey, so mostly what we and nearly everyone else does is enjoy looking around. But I suppose enough people buy to make it viable for the artists.

Here is a sampling of some of the pieces that I found particularly intriguing today.

Painting of Apples
painting of apples

Box lid with dice
box lid with dice

Dragonfly Sculpture
metal dragonfly sculpture

Eagle Sculpture
eagle sculpture

Glass Mobile
glass mobile rotating in the breeze

Glass Sculpture
glass sculpture

Metalwork
colorful metalwork

Mugs
moustachioed mug

Palm Trees
metal palm trees

Glass Plate
glass plate

Squares
squares (not sure what the medium is)

Swing Chairs
colorful swing chairs

Swordfish
swordfish plated with bottlecaps!

Tiled Table
tiled tables

Wooden Train
wooden train

There is so much more at the fair than what I’ve shown here: textiles, jewelry, paintings, mixed media, photographs. The variety is wonderful. It’s always worth the time to stroll around the capitol square for a couple of hours, even on a hot day like today. And I’m toying with the idea of going back tomorrow to see if that moustachioed mug is still there. If it is, I might just buy it!

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Parents’ Visit, Part II

Arrival

Mom and dad’s train finally arrived just before 10:00 p.m., ArrivalMom and Dad some nine hours late.  It was a rough trip for them.  Mom didn’t feel good, quite possibly due to motion sickness from the train rocking back and forth.  She was doing much better by the time they arrived, though.  Still, she wanted to stay in a motel for the night, so we took them to a motel near our house.

To the Island

Saturday morning, we took dad to the barbershop to get a haircut.  Then we headed for the island.  It was a long day, but all in all the travel went okay.

Sunday, mom’s pain in her side was kind of bad, but the Percocet and laying outside in the hammock with a heating pad helped her feel somewhat better.  She even went to the play at the island’s performing arts center in the evening, though I think all of the movement was a little much for her.  She seems to do better with limited movement.

Dad is getting a little restless, I think.  It’s hard to be away from home where you’re free to go about your business on your own terms.  I was a little alarmed to learn that he had spent some time restacking the pile of firewood A Neat Woodpile that had fallen down since the last time we were on the island, but mom said he needed something to do.  It was probably true.

That evening, dad realized that he probably left his jacket – with their train tickets and house keys – at the motel.  I phoned the motel and explained what happened, and indeed they had found his jacket.  The keys and train tickets were there.  I said we would be back in Madison on Wednesday and would pick up everything then, and the folks at the motel said that would be fine.

Monday morning around 4:15 a.m., two bright planets were visible in the eastern sky, Jupiter above Venus.  The star Aldebran was visible to the southeast of Venus.Jupiter and Venus

On Tuesday, mom seemed to have a better day than the previous day.  She ate a little better and didn’t seem to have quite so much pain.  Perhaps her acquiescence to taking the pain pills is the reason.

Aside from a trip to the grocery store, we stayed around the house most of the day.  Hummingbirds visited our newly hung feeder. Hummingbird The weather has been ideal.  The sun is out most of the day, temperatures are mild, and there is an occasional light breeze.  It’s perfect for mom to lie in the hammock.  Some late afternoon rain showers have come through the last couple of days, but they haven’t lasted long, and blue sky returned soon afterward.

During the morning, Al and dad worked on the television cart that Al and I had started to make during our last trip to the island. Working on the Television Cart While they did that and mom laid in the hammock using her iPad,In the HammockI suddenly felt disconnected from everyone.  I’ve never had an out-of-body experience, yet that is the best way I can describe what I felt.  I felt invisible, like I wasn’t there, like no one was aware of my presence.  I don’t normally just get up and go for a walk in the north woods, but at that moment, I felt compelled to do just that.  No idea why.  But someone or something was calling me, and I followed the calling.  As far as I could tell, no one noticed that I had left.

As I walked in the shade of the woods, I noticed three things in particular: I was the only one there, or so it seemed; the silence, aside from the occasional birdsong; and the green canopy of leaves juxtaposed against the blue sky above. Leaves and Sky It was nourishing to my soul.

I ambled along the road, in no hurry.  Near the bend in the road, I saw how muddy it was and how there looked to be one or two bootprints in the mud.  Who had walked there, I wondered.  It must have been quite the rain to have created that much mud.

Nearly around the bend, I looked up where the road exited the woods and the sun shone on the graveled path.  Coming out of the shadows of the trees into the straight section of the road out in the sun, I could see as far as the point where the road rounded another bend and disappeared into the field. Road At that very moment, I stopped and knew why I had been called there.  I held my gaze as I listened: “You do not know exactly what is in store down the road for your mother.  There will be grief and profound sadness.  But you will make it through.  You will make it out of the shadows and back into the sunlight to continue on your own journey through life.  You will witness firsthand, but not be mired in, death.  In time, the road will become straight; light and warmth will return; and you will follow your own road to the next bend.”  Now I understood why I had felt the strange urge to take this walk.  And I felt great relief to think that somehow, I’m going to survive mom’s dying.

Mom

It was eye-opening, if not alarming, on Saturday evening when mom stooped down to pick up something that she had tried to toss in the trash can but missed, and she had difficulty standing back up.  While attempting to stand, she fell over.  She didn’t hurt herself, but I had to help her get up.  I had previously noticed that she is very careful when standing up and moving around, and now I understood why she was so deliberate in her movements.

It’s concerning how little food she eats.  She doesn’t have much of an appetite, and I can understand that.  Still, she commented on Tuesday how sometimes she feels weak and shaky, and she realizes it is likely due to her limited food intake.  Her eating is not life-sustainable.  That is, she simply does not eat enough to live.  It really hit me hard to realize that ultimately her lack of food is what will probably be the cause of her death.

When we said our goodbyes at the train station today, I was fully aware that this is likely the last time I’ll see her.  She said to Al and me, “I’m so glad you two have found each other.”

Dad

My dad related a story that demonstrates the daredevil in me.  My family moved to Oregon when I was three years old.  The house wasn’t ready to move in, so we stayed in a local motel for a short time while the house was being finished.  Our room at the motel was on the second floor, and the doors to the rooms opened to the outside.  A balcony with a metal railing ran the length of the second floor.  Seems one day I squeezed myself between the metal bars of the railing so that I was standing on the edge of the balcony outside of the railing.  My dad didn’t go into the details of what ensued, but the upshot is that he was down on the ground ready to catch me if I should fall while my mom reached over the railing and lifted me back to the safe side.

Dad is a pragmatic person.  He can feel emotional, but he doesn’t act on emotion.  Distraught is too strong a word to describe his feelings about what is going on with mom, but it is obvious that he is affected deeply.

Practical Joke?

We left the island this morning with plenty of time to spare, or so we thought, to make it back to Madison to retrieve dad’s jacket and train tickets.  The drive home was going well until about fifty miles outside of Madison.  I was driving, and I suddenly felt the car “pull.”  What I mean is that I felt a sensation as though the brakes had been applied.  I looked at the dashboard and saw that the “Check Engine” light was on and that the “Brakes” light was flashing.  You have got to be kidding, I thought.  I said to Al as I slowed and pulled over to the shoulder, “What should I do?  The ‘check engine’ light came on and the ‘brakes’ light is flashing.”  I was impressed with how he kept cool and calm.  He immediately got on the phone to the car dealership and explained what had happened.  They said the cause was most likely a loose gas cap and that it should be safe to continue driving the car.  Al got out of the car and tightened the gas cap, and we resumed our trip home.  We stopped at the dealership on the way into town, and they ran some quick tests to try to determine what the problem was.  A small leak of some kind was the most likely culprit, but they decided there was probably nothing to worry about.  They reset the lights and we went on our way.  I couldn’t help but think of the scene from the movie Airplane! where the plane is just about to land when the landing strip lights go dark.  Ted Striker and Elaine Dickinson were flying they plane, and they looked at each other in disbelief.  Then the scene goes to the control tower where air traffic controller Johnny Henshaw-Jacobson has unplugged the landing strip lights as a joke.  “Just kidding!” he says as he plugs the lights back in.

Homeward Bound

Mom sent an e-mail from the train saying that they were on their way and that although the train was a little rocky, it wasn’t like the trip out here.  This time she has Dramamine with her.  She said she’ll sleep well tonight.  I sure hope so. Departure

Butterfly

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